High Prairie swains failed to find Selina alluring. She was too small, too pale and fragile for their robust taste. Naturally, her coming had been an event in this isolated community. She would have been surprised to know with what eagerness and curiosity High Prairie gathered crumbs of news about her; her appearance, her manner, her dress. Was she stuck up? Was she new fangled? She failed to notice the agitation of the parlour curtains behind the glittering windows of the farmhouses she passed on her way to school. With no visible means of communication news of her leaped from farm to farm as flame leaps the gaps in a forest fire. She would have been aghast to learn that High Prairie, inexplicably enough, knew all about her from the colour of the ribbon that threaded her neat little white corset covers to the number of books on her shelf. She thought cabbage fields beautiful; she read books to that dumb-acting Roelf Pool; she was making over a dress for Maartje after the pattern of the stylish brown lady's-cloth she wore (foolishly) to school. Now and then she encountered a team on the road. She would call a good-day. Sometimes the driver answered, tardily, as though surprised. Sometimes he only stared. She almost never saw the High Prairie farm women, busy in their kitchens.
On her fifth Sunday in the district she accompanied the Pools to the morning service at the Dutch Reformed Church. Maartje seldom had the time for such frivolity. But on this morning Klaas hitched up the big farm wagon with the double seat and took the family complete--Maartje, Selina, Roelf, and the pigtails. Maartje, out of her kitchen calico and dressed in her best black, with a funereal bonnet made sadder by a sparse and drooping feather whose listless fronds emerged surprisingly from a faded red cotton rose, wore a new strange aspect to Selina's eyes, as did Klaas in his clumsy sabbaticals. Roelf had rebelled against going, had been cuffed for it, and had sat very still all through the service, gazing at the red and yellow glass church window. Later he confided to Selina that the sunlight filtering through the crude yellow panes had imparted a bilious look to the unfortunates seated within its range, affording him much secret satisfaction.
Selina's appearance had made quite a stir, of which she was entirely unaware. As the congregation entered by twos and threes she thought they resembled startlingly a woodcut in an old illustrated book she once had seen. The men's Sunday trousers and coats had a square stiff angularity, as though chopped out of a block. The women, in shawls and bonnets of rusty black, were incredibly cut in the same pattern. The unmarried girls, though, were plump, red-cheeked, and not uncomely, with high round cheek-bones on which sat a spot of brick-red which imparted no glow to the face. Their foreheads were prominent and meaningless.
In the midst of this drab assemblage there entered late and rustlingly a tall, slow-moving woman in a city-bought cloak and a bonnet quite unlike the vintage millinery of High Prairie. As she came down the aisle Selina thought she was like a full-sailed frigate. An ample woman, with a fine fair skin and a ripe red mouth; a high firm bosom and great thighs that moved rhythmically, slowly. She had thick, insolent eyelids. Her hands, as she turned the leaves of her hymn book, were smooth and white. As she entered there was a little rustle throughout the congregation; a craning of necks. Though she was bustled and flounced and panniered, you thought, curiously enough, of those lolling white-fleshed and unconventional ladies whom the sixteenth century painters were always portraying as having their toe nails cut with nothing on.
"Who's that?" whispered Selina to Maartje.
"Widow Paarlenberg. She is rich like anything."
"Yes?" Selina was fascinated.
"Look once how she makes eyes at him."
"At him? Who? Who?"
"Pervus DeJong. By Gerrit Pon he is sitting with the blue shirt and sad looking so."
Selina craned, peered. "The--oh--he's very good looking, isn't he?"
"Sure. Widow Paarlenberg is stuck on him. See how she--Sh-sh-sh!--Reverend Dekker looks at us. I tell you after."
Selina decided she'd come to church oftener. The service went on, dull, heavy. It was in English and Dutch. She heard scarcely a word of it. The Widow Paarlenberg and this Pervus DeJong occupied her thoughts. She decided, without malice, that the widow resembled one of the sleekest of the pink porkers rooting in Klaas Pool's barnyard, waiting to be cut into Christmas meat.
The Widow Paarlenberg turned and smiled. Her eyes were slippery (Selina's term). Her mouth became loose and wide with one corner sliding down a trifle into something very like a leer.
With one surge the Dutch Reformed congregation leaned forward to see how Pervus DeJong would respond to this public mark of favour. His gaze was stern, unsmiling. His eyes were fixed on that extremely dull gentleman, the Reverend Dekker.
"He's annoyed," thought Selina, and was pleased at the thought. "Well, I may not be a widow, but I'm sure that's not the way." And then: "Now I wonder what it's like when he smiles."
According to fiction as Selina had found it in the Fireside Companion and elsewhere, he should have turned at this moment, irresistibly drawn by the magnetism of her gaze, and smiled a rare sweet smile that lighted up his stern young face. But he did not. He yawned suddenly and capaciously. The Reformed Dutch congregation leaned back feeling cheated. Handsome, certainly, Selina reflected. But then, probably Klaas Pool, too, had been handsome a few years ago.
The service ended, there was much talk of the weather, seedlings, stock, the approaching holiday season. Maartje, her Sunday dinner heavy on her mind, was elbowing her way up the aisle. Here and there she introduced Selina briefly to a woman friend. "Mrs. Vander Sijde, meet school teacher."
"Aggie's mother?" Selina would begin, primly, only to be swept along by Maartje on her way to the door. "Mrs. Von Mijnen, meet school teacher. Is Mrs. Von Mijnen." They regarded her with a grim gaze. Selina would smile and nod rather nervously, feeling young, frivolous, and somehow guilty.
When, with Maartje, she reached the church porch Pervus DeJong was unhitching the dejected horse that was harnessed to his battered and lopsided cart. The animal stood with four feet bunched together in a drooping and pathetic attitude and seemed inevitably meant for mating with this decrepit vehicle. DeJong untied the reins quickly, and was about to step into the sagging conveyance when the Widow Paarlenberg sailed down the church steps with admirable speed for one so amply proportioned. She made straight for him, skirts billowing, flounces flying, plumes waving. Maartje clutched Selina's arm. "Look how she makes! She asks him to eat Sunday dinner I bet you! See once how he makes with his head no."
Selina--and the whole congregation unashamedly watching--could indeed see how he made with his head no. His whole body seemed set in negation--the fine head, the broad patient shoulders, the muscular powerful legs in their ill-fitting Sunday blacks. He shook his head, gathered up the reins, and drove away, leaving the Widow Paarlenberg to carry off with such bravado as she could muster this public flouting in full sight of the Dutch Reformed congregation of High Prairie. It must be said that she actually achieved this feat with a rather magnificent composure. Her round pink face, as she turned away, was placid; her great cowlike eyes mild. Selina abandoned the pink porker simile for that of a great Persian cat, full-fed and treacherous, its claws all sheathed in velvet. The widow stepped agilely into her own neat phaeton with its sleek horse and was off down the hard snowless road, her head high.
"Well!" exclaimed Selina, feeling as though she had witnessed the first act of an exciting play. And breathed deeply. So, too, did the watching congregation, so that the widow could be said to have driven off in quite a gust.
As they jogged home in the Pool farm wagon Maartje told her tale with a good deal of savour.
Pervus DeJong had been left a widower two years before. Within a month of that time Leendert Paarlenberg had died, leaving to his widow the richest and most profitable farm in the whole community. Pervus DeJong, on the contrary, through inheritance from his father, old Johannes, possessed a scant twenty-five acres of the worst lowland--practically the only lowland--in all High Prairie. The acreage was notoriously barren. In spring, the critical time for seedlings and early vegetable crops, sixteen of the twenty-five were likely to be under water. Pervus DeJong patiently planted, sowed, gathered crops, hauled them to market; seemed still never to get on in this thrifty Dutch community where getting on was so common a trait as to be no longer thought a virtue. Luck and nature seemed to work against him. His seedlings proved unfertile; his stock was always ailing; his cabbages were worm-infested; snout-beetle bored his rhubarb. When he planted largely of spinach, hoping for a wet spring, the season was dry. Did he turn the following year to sweet potatoes, all auguries pointing to a dry spring and summer, the summer proved the wettest in a decade. Insects and fungi seemed drawn to his fields as by a malevolent force. Had he been small, puny, and insignificant his bad luck would have called forth contemptuous pity. But there was about him the lovableness and splendour of the stricken giant. To complete his discomfort, his household was inadequately ministered by an elderly and rheumatic female connection whose pies and bread were the scandal of the neighbouring housewives.
It was on this Pervus DeJong, then, that the Widow Paarlenberg of the rich acres, the comfortable farmhouse, the gold neck chain, the silk gowns, the soft white hands and the cooking talents, had set her affections. She wooed him openly, notoriously, and with a Dutch vehemence that would have swept another man off his feet. It was known that she sent him a weekly baking of cakes, pies, and bread. She urged upon him choice seeds from her thriving fields; seedlings from her hotbeds; plants, all of which he steadfastly refused. She tricked, cajoled, or nagged him into eating her ample meals. She even asked his advice--that subtlest form of flattery. She asked him about sub-soiling, humus, rotation--she whose rich land yielded, under her shrewd management, more profitably to the single acre than to any ten of Pervus's. One Jan Bras managed her farm admirably under her supervision.
DeJong's was a simple mind. In the beginning, when she said to him, in her deep, caressing voice, "Mr. DeJong, could I ask you a little advice about something? I'm a woman alone since I haven't got Leendert any more, and strangers what do they care how they run the land! It's about my radishes, lettuce, spinach, and turnips. Last year, instead of tender, they were stringy and full of fibre on account that Jan Bras. He's for slow growing. Those vegetables you've got to grow quick. Bras says my fertilizer is the fault, but I know different. What you think?"
Jan Bras, getting wind of this, told it abroad with grim humour. Masculine High Prairie, meeting Pervus DeJong on the road, greeted him with: "Well, DeJong, you been giving the Widow Paarlenberg any good advice here lately about growing?"
It had been a particularly bad season for his fields. As High Prairie poked a sly thumb into his ribs thus he realized that he had been duped by the wily widow. A slow Dutch wrath rose in him against her; a male resentment at being manipulated by a woman. When next she approached him, cajolery in her voice, seeking guidance about tillage, drainage, or crops, he said, bluntly: "Better you ask Harm Tien his advice." Harm Tien was the district idiot, a poor witless creature of thirty with the mind of a child.
Knowing well that the entire community was urging him toward this profitable match with the plump, rich, red-lipped widow, Pervus set his will like a stubborn steer and would have none of her. He was uncomfortable in his untidy house; he was lonely, he was unhappy. But he would have none of her. Vanity, pride, resentment were all mixed up in it.
The very first time that Pervus DeJong met Selina he had a chance to protect her. With such a start, the end was inevitable. Then, too, Selina had on the wine-coloured cashmere and was trying hard to keep the tears back in full view of the whole of High Prairie. Urged by Maartje (and rather fancying the idea) Selina had attended the great meeting and dance at Adam Ooms's hall above the general store near the High Prairie station. Farmer families for miles around were there. The new church organ--that time-hallowed pretext for sociability--was the excuse for this gathering. There was a small admission charge. Adam Ooms had given them the hall. The three musicians were playing without fee. The women were to bring supper packed in boxes or baskets, these to be raffled off to the highest bidder whose privilege it then was to sup with the fair whose basket he had bought. Hot coffee could be had at so much the cup. All the proceeds were to be devoted to the organ. It was understood, of course, that there was to be no lively bidding against husbands. Each farm woman knew her own basket as she knew the countenance of her children, and each farmer, as that basket came up at auction, named a cautious sum which automatically made him the basket's possessor. The larger freedom had not come to High Prairie in 1890. The baskets and boxes of the unwed women were to be the fought-for prizes. Maartje had packed her own basket at noon and had driven off at four with Klaas and the children. She was to serve on one of those bustling committees whose duties ranged from coffee making to dish washing. Klaas and Roelf were to be pressed into service. The pigtails would slide up and down the waxed floor of Ooms's hall with other shrieking pigtails of the neighbourhood until the crowd began to arrive for the auction and supper. Jakob Hoogendunk would convey Selina to the festivities when his chores were done. Selina's lunch basket was to be a separate and distinct affair, offered at auction with those of the Katrinas and Linas and Sophias of High Prairie. Not a little apprehensive, she was to pack this basket herself. Maartje, departing, had left copious but disjointed instructions.
"Ham... them big cookies in the crock... pickles... watch how you don't spill... plum preserves..."
Maartje's own basket was of gigantic proportions and staggering content. Her sandwiches were cubic blocks; her pickles clubs of cucumber; her pies vast plateaus.
The basket provided for Selina, while not quite so large, still was of appalling size as Selina contemplated it. She decided, suddenly, that she would have none of it. In her trunk she had a cardboard box such as shoes come in. Certainly this should hold enough lunch for two, she thought. She and Julie Hempel had used such boxes for picnic lunches on their Saturday holidays. She was a little nervous about the whole thing; rather dreaded the prospect of eating her supper with a High Prairie swain unknown to her. Suppose no one should bid for her box! She resolved to fill it after her own pattern, disregarding Maartje's heavy provender.
She had the kitchen to herself. Jakob was in the fields or out-houses. The house was deliciously quiet. Selina rummaged for the shoe box, lined it with a sheet of tissue paper, rolled up her sleeves, got out mixing bowl, flour, pans. Cup cakes were her ambition. She baked six of them. They came out a beautiful brown but somewhat leaden. Still, anything was better than a wedge of soggy pie, she told herself. She boiled eggs very hard, halved them, devilled their yolks, filled the whites neatly with this mixture and clapped the halves together again, skewering them with a toothpick. Then she rolled each egg separately in tissue paper twisted at the ends. Daintiness, she had decided, should be the keynote of her supper box. She cut bread paper-thin and made jelly sandwiches, scorning the ubiquitous pork. Bananas, she knew, belonged in a lunch box, but these were unobtainable. She substituted two juicy pippins, polished until their cheeks glittered. The food neatly packed she wrapped the box in paper and tied it with a gay red ribbon yielded by her trunk. At the last moment she whipped into the yard, twisted a brush of evergreen from the tree at the side of the house, and tucked this into the knot of ribbon atop the box. She stepped back and thought the effect enchanting.
She was waiting in her red cashmere and her cloak and hood when Hoogendunk called for her. They were late arrivals, for outside Ooms's hall were hitched all manner of vehicles. There had been a heavy snowfall two days before. This had brought out bob-sleds, cutters, sleighs. The horse sheds were not large enough to shelter all. Late comers had to hitch where they could. There was a great jangling of bells as the horses stamped in the snow.
Selina, balancing her box carefully, opened the door that led to the wooden stairway. The hall was on the second floor. The clamour that struck her ears had the effect of a physical blow. She hesitated a moment, and if there had been any means of returning to the Pool farm, short of walking five miles in the snow, she would have taken it. Up the stairs and into the din. Evidently the auctioning of supper baskets was even now in progress. The roar of voices had broken out after the sale of a basket and now was subsiding under the ear-splitting cracks of the auctioneer's hammer. Through the crowded doorway Selina could catch a glimpse of him as he stood on a chair, the baskets piled before him. He used a barrel elevated on a box as his pulpit. The auctioneer was Adam Ooms who himself had once been the High Prairie school teacher. A fox-faced little man, bald, falsetto, the village clown with a solid foundation of shrewdness under his clowning and a tart layer of malice over it.
High and shrill came his voice. "What am I bid! What am I bid! Thirty cents! Thirty-five! Shame on you, gentlemen. What am I bid! Who'll make it forty!"
Selina felt a little thrill of excitement. She looked about for a place on which to lay her wraps. Every table, chair, hook, and rack in the hallway was piled with clothing. She espied a box that appeared empty, rolled her cloak, muffler, and hood into a neat bundle and, about to cast it into the box, saw, upturned to her from its depths, the round pink faces of the sleeping Kuyper twins, aged six months. From the big hall now came a great shouting, clapping of hands, stamping, cat-calls. Another basket had been disposed of. Oh, dear! In desperation Selina placed her bundle on the floor in a corner, smoothed down the red cashmere, snatched up her lunch box and made for the doorway with the childish eagerness of one out of the crowd to be in it. She wondered where Maartje and Klaas Pool were in this close-packed roomful; and Roelf. In the doorway she found that broad black-coated backs shut off sight and ingress. She had written her name neatly on her lunch box. Now she was at a loss to find a way to reach Adam Ooms. She eyed the great-shouldered expanse just ahead of her. In desperation she decided to dig into it with a corner of her box. She dug, viciously. The back winced. Its owner turned. "Here! What----!"
Selina looked up into the wrathful face of Pervus DeJong. Pervus DeJong looked down into the startled eyes of Selina Peake. Large enough eyes at any time; enormous now in her fright at what she had done.
"I'm sorry! I'm--sorry. I thought if I could--there's no way of getting my lunch box up there--such a crowd----"
A slim, appealing, lovely little figure in the wine-red cashmere, amidst all those buxom bosoms, and overheated bodies, and flushed faces. His gaze left her reluctantly, settled on the lunch box, became, if possible, more bewildered. "That? Lunch box?"
"Yes. For the raffle. I'm the school teacher. Selina Peake."
He nodded. "I saw you in church Sunday."
"You did! I didn't think you.... Did you?"
"Wait here. I'll come back. Wait here."
He took the shoe box. She waited. He ploughed his way through the crowd like a Juggernaut, reached Adam Ooms's platform and placed the box inconspicuously next a colossal hamper that was one of a dozen grouped awaiting Adam's attention. When he had made his way back to Selina he again said, "Wait," and plunged down the wooden stairway. Selina waited. She had ceased to feel distressed at her inability to find the Pools in the crowd, a-tiptoe though she was. When presently he came back he had in his hand an empty wooden soap-box. This he up-ended in the doorway just behind the crowd stationed there. Selina mounted it; found her head a little above the level of his. She could survey the room from end to end. There were the Pools. She waved to Maartje; smiled at Roelf. He made as though to come toward her; did come part way, and was restrained by Maartje catching at his coat tail.
Selina wished she could think of something to say. She looked down at Pervus DeJong. The back of his neck was pink, as though with effort. She thought, instinctively, "My goodness, he's trying to think of something to say, too." That, somehow, put her at her ease. She would wait until he spoke. His neck was now a deep red. The crowd surged back at some disturbance around Adam Ooms's elevation. Selina teetered perilously on her box, put out a hand blindly, felt his great hard hand on her arm, steadying her.
"Quite a crowd, ain't it?" The effort had reached its apex. The red of his neck began to recede.
"They ain't all High Prairie. Some of 'em's from Low Prairie way. New Haarlem, even."
A pause. Another effort.
"How goes it school teaching?"
"Oh--it goes pretty well."
"You are little to be school teacher, anyway, ain't you?"
"Little!" She drew herself up from her vantage point of the soap-box. "I'm bigger than you are."
They laughed at that as at an exquisite piece of repartee.
Adam Oom's gavel (a wooden potato masher) crashed for silence. "Ladies!" [Crash!] "And gents!" [Crash!] "Gents! Look what basket we've got here!"
Look indeed. A great hamper, grown so plethoric that it could no longer wear its cover. Its contents bellied into a mound smoothly covered with a fine white cloth whose glistening surface proclaimed it damask. A Himalaya among hampers. You knew that under that snowy crust lay gold that was fowl done crisply, succulently; emeralds in the form of gherkins; rubies that melted into strawberry preserves; cakes frosted like diamonds; to say nothing of such semi-precious jewels as potato salad; cheeses; sour cream to be spread on rye bread and butter; coffee cakes; crullers.
Crash! "The Widow Paarlenberg's basket, ladies--and gents! The Widow Paarlenberg! I don't know what's in it. You don't know what's in it. We don't have to know what's in it. Who has eaten Widow Paarlenberg's chicken once don't have to know. Who has eaten Widow Paarlenberg's cake once don't have to know. What am I bid on Widow Paarlenberg's basket! What am I bid! WhatmIbidwhatmIbidwhatmIbid!" [Crash!]
The widow herself, very handsome in black silk, her gold neck chain rising and falling richly with the little flurry that now agitated her broad bosom, was seated in a chair against the wall not five feet from the auctioneer's stand. She bridled now, blushed, cast down her eyes, cast up her eyes, succeeded in looking as unconscious as a complaisant Turkish slave girl on the block.
Adam Ooms's glance swept the hall. He leaned forward, his fox-like face fixed in a smile. From the widow herself, seated so prominently at his right, his gaze marked the young blades of the village; the old bucks; youths and widowers and bachelors. Here was the prize of the evening. Around, in a semi-circle, went his keen glance until it reached the tall figure towering in the doorway--reached it, and rested there. His gimlet eyes seemed to bore their way into Pervus DeJong's steady stare. He raised his right arm aloft, brandishing the potato masher. The whole room fixed its gaze on the blond head in the doorway. "Speak up! Young men of High Prairie! Heh, you, Pervus DeJong! WhatmIbidwhatmIbidwhatmIbid!"
"Fifty cents!" The bid came from Gerrit Pon at the other end of the hall. A dashing offer, as a start, in this district where one dollar often represented the profits on a whole load of market truck brought to the city.
Crash! went the potato masher. "Fifty cents I'm bid. Who'll make it seventy-five? Who'll make it seventy-five?"
"Sixty!" Johannes Ambuul, a widower, his age more than the sum of his bid.
"Seventy!" Gerrit Pon.
Adam Ooms whispered it--hissed it. "S-s-s-seventy. Ladies and gents, I wouldn't repeat out loud sucha figger. I would be ashamed. Look at this basket, gents, and then you can say... s-s-seventy!"
"Seventy-five!" the cautious Ambuul.
Scarlet, flooding her face, belied the widow's outward air of composure. Pervus DeJong, standing beside Selina, viewed the proceedings with an air of detachment. High Prairie was looking at him expectantly, openly. The widow bit her red lip, tossed her head. Pervus DeJong returned the auctioneer's meaning smirk with the mild gaze of a disinterested outsider. High Prairie, Low Prairie, and New Haarlem sat tense, like an audience at a play. Here, indeed, was drama being enacted in a community whose thrills were all too rare.
"Gents!" Adam Ooms's voice took on a tearful note--the tone of one who is more hurt than angry. "Gents!" Slowly, with infinite reverence, he lifted one corner of the damask cloth that concealed the hamper's contents--lifted it and peered within as at a treasure. At what he saw there he started back dramatically, at once rapturous, despairing, amazed. He rolled his eyes. He smacked his lips. He rubbed his stomach. The sort of dumb show that, since the days of the Greek drama, has been used to denote gastronomic delight.
"Eighty!" was wrenched suddenly from Goris Von Vuuren, the nineteen-year-old fat and gluttonous son of a prosperous New Haarlem farmer.
Adam Ooms rubbed brisk palms together. "Now then! A dollar! A dollar! It's an insult to this basket to make it less than a dollar." He lifted the cover again, sniffed, appeared overcome. "Gents, if it wasn't for Mrs. Ooms sitting there I'd make it a dollar myself and a bargain. A dollar! Am I bid a dollar!" He leaned far forward over his improvised pulpit. "Did I hear you say a dollar, Pervus DeJong?" DeJong stared, immovable, unabashed. His very indifference was contagious. The widow's bountiful basket seemed to shrink before one's eyes. "Eighty-eighty-eighty-eighty--gents! I'm going to tell you something. I'm going to whisper a secret." His lean face was veined with craftiness. "Gents. Listen. It isn't chicken in this beautiful basket. It isn't chicken. It's"--a dramatic pause--"it's roast duck!" He swayed back, mopped his brow with his red handkerchief, held one hand high in the air. His last card.
"Eighty-five!" groaned the fat Goris Von Vuuren.
"Eighty-five! Eighty-five! Eightyfiveeightyfiveeightyfive eighty-five! Gents! Gen-tle-men! Eighty-five once! Eighty-five--twice!" [Crash!] "Gone to Goris Von Vuuren for eighty-five."
A sigh went up from the assemblage; a sigh that was the wind before the storm. There followed a tornado of talk. It crackled and thundered. The rich Widow Paarlenberg would have to eat her supper with Von Vuuren's boy, the great thick Goris. And there in the doorway, talking to teacher as if they had known each other for years, was Pervus DeJong with his money in his pocket. It was as good as a play.
Adam Ooms was angry. His lean, fox-like face became pinched with spite. He prided himself on his antics as auctioneer; and his chef d'oeuvre had brought a meagre eighty-five cents, besides doubtless winning him the enmity of that profitable store customer, the Widow Paarlenberg. Goris Von Vuuren came forward to claim his prize amidst shouting, clapping, laughter. The great hamper was handed down to him; an ample, rich-looking burden, its handle folded comfortably over its round stomach, its white cover so glistening with starch and ironing that it gave back the light from the big lamp above the auctioneer's stand. As Goris Von Vuuren lifted it his great shoulders actually sagged. Its contents promised satiety even to such a feeder as he. A grin, half sheepish, half triumphant, creased his plump pink face.
Adam Ooms scuffled about among the many baskets at his feet. His nostrils looked pinched and his skinny hands shook a little as he searched for one small object.
When he stood upright once more he was smiling. His little eyes gleamed. His wooden sceptre pounded for silence. High in one hand, balanced daintily on his finger tips, he held Selina's little white shoe box, with its red ribbon binding it, and the plume of evergreen stuck in the ribbon. Affecting great solicitude he brought it down then to read the name written on it; held it aloft again, smirking.
He said nothing. Grinning, he held it high. He turned his body at the waist from side to side, so that all might see. The eyes of those before him still held a mental picture of the huge hamper, food-packed, that had just been handed down. The contrast was too absurd, too cruel. A ripple of laughter swept the room; rose; swelled to a roar. Adam Ooms drew his mouth down solemnly. His little finger elegantly crooked, he pendulumed the box to right and left. He swerved his beady eyes from side to side. He waited with a nice sense of the dramatic until the laughter had reached its height, then held up a hand for silence. A great scraping "Ahem!" as he cleared his throat threatened to send the crowd off again.
"Ladies--and gents! Here's a dainty little tidbit. Here's something not only for the inner man, but a feast for the eye. Well, boys, if the last lot was too much for you this lot ought to be just about right. If the food ain't quite enough for you, you can tie the ribbon in the lady's hair and put the posy in your buttonhole and there you are. There you are! What's more, the lady herself goes with it. You don't get a country girl with this here box, gents. A city girl, you can tell by looking at it, just. And who is she? Who did up this dainty little box just big enough for two?" He inspected it again, solemnly, and added, as an after-thought, "If you ain't feeling specially hungry. Who?----" He looked about, apishly.
Selina's cheeks matched her gown. Her eyes were wide and dark with the effort she was making to force back the hot haze threatening them. Why had she mounted this wretched soap-box! Why had she come to this hideous party! Why had she come to High Prairie! Why!...
"Miss Selina Peake, that's who. Miss Se-li-na Peake!"
A hundred balloon faces pulled by a single cord turned toward her as she stood there on the box for all to see. They swam toward her. She put up a hand to push them back.
"What'm I bid! What'm I bid! What'm I bid for this here lovely little toothful, gents! Start her up!"
"Five cents!" piped up old Johannes Ambuul, with a snicker. The tittering crowd broke into a guffaw. Selina was conscious of a little sick feeling at the pit of her stomach. Through the haze she saw the widow's face, no longer sulky, but smiling now. She saw Roelf's dear dark head. His face was set, like a man's. He was coming toward her, or trying to, but the crowd wedged him in, small as he was among those great bodies. She lost sight of him. How hot it was! how hot... An arm at her waist. Some one had mounted the little box and stood teetering there beside her, pressed against her slightly, reassuringly. Pervus DeJong. Her head was on a level with his great shoulder now. They stood together in the doorway, on the soap-box, for all High Prairie to see.
"Five cents I'm bid for this lovely little mouthful put up by the school teacher's own fair hands. Five cents! Five----"
"One dollar!" Pervus DeJong.
The balloon faces were suddenly punctured with holes. High Prairie's jaw dropped with astonishment. Its mouth stood open.
There was nothing plain about Selina now. Her dark head was held high, and his fair one beside it made a vivid foil. The purchase of the wine-coloured cashmere was at last justified.
"And ten!" cackled old Johannes Ambuul, his rheumy eyes on Selina.
Art and human spitefulness struggled visibly for mastery in Adam Ooms's face--and art won. The auctioneer triumphed over the man. The term "crowd psychology" was unknown to him, but he was artist enough to sense that some curious magic process, working through this roomful of people, had transformed the little white box, from a thing despised and ridiculed, into an object of beauty, of value, of infinite desirability. He now eyed it in a catalepsy of admiration.
"One-ten I'm bid for this box all tied with a ribbon to match the gown of the girl who brought it. Gents, you get the ribbon, the lunch, and the girl. And only one-ten bid for all that. Gents! Gents! Remember, it ain't only a lunch--it's a picture. It pleases the eye. Do I hear one----"
"Five bits!" Barend DeRoo, of Low Prairie, in the lists. A strapping young Dutchman, the Brom Bones of the district. Aaltje Huff, in a fit of pique at his indifference, had married to spite him. Cornelia Vinke, belle of New Haarlem, was said to be languishing for love of him. He drove to the Haymarket with his load of produce and played cards all night on the wagon under the gas torches while the street girls of the neighbourhood assailed him in vain. Six feet three, his red face shone now like a harvest moon above the crowd. A merry, mischievous eye that laughed at Pervus DeJong and his dollar bid.
"Dollar and a half!" A high clear voice--a boy's voice. Roelf.
"Oh, no!" said Selina aloud. But she was unheard in the gabble. Roelf had once confided to her that he had saved three dollars and fifty cents in the last three years. Five dollars would purchase a set of tools that his mind had been fixed on for months past. Selina saw Klaas Pool's look of astonishment changing to anger. Saw Maartje Pool's quick hand on his arm, restraining him.
"Two dollars!" Pervus DeJong.
"Twotwotwotwotwotwo!" Adam Ooms in a frenzy of salesmanship.
"And ten." Johannes Ambuul's cautious bid.
"Two and a quarter." Barend DeRoo.
"Two-fifty!" Pervus DeJong.
"Three dollars!" The high voice of the boy. It cracked a little on the last syllable, and the crowd laughed.
"Three-three-three-three-threethreethree. Three once----"
"And a half." Pervus DeJong.
The boy's voice was heard no more.
"I wish they'd stop," whispered Selina.
"Five!" Pervus DeJong.
"Six!" DeRoo, his face very red.
"It's only jelly sandwiches," said Selina to DeJong, in a panic.
"Eight!" Johannes Ambuul, gone mad.
"Nine! Nine I'm bid! Nine-nine-nine! Who'll make it----"
"Let him have it. The cup cakes fell a little. Don't----"
"Ten!" said Pervus DeJong.
Barend DeRoo shrugged his great shoulders.
"Ten-ten-ten. Do I hear eleven? Do I hear ten-fifty! Ten-ten-ten tententententententen! Gents! Ten once. Ten twice! Gone!--for ten dollars to Pervus DeJong. And a bargain." Adam Ooms mopped his bald head and his cheeks and the damp spot under his chin.
Ten dollars. Adam Ooms knew, as did all the countryside, this was not the sum of ten dollars merely. No basket of food, though it contained nightingales' tongues, the golden apple of Atalanta, wines of rare vintage, could have been adequate recompense for these ten dollars. They represented sweat and blood; toil and hardship; hours under the burning prairie sun at mid-day; work doggedly carried on through the drenching showers of spring; nights of restless sleep snatched an hour at a time under the sky in the Chicago market place; miles of weary travel down the rude corduroy road between High Prairie and Chicago, now up to the hubs in mud, now blinded by dust and blowing sand.
A sale at Christie's, with a miniature going for a million, could not have met with a deeper hush, a more dramatic babble following the hush.
They ate their lunch together in one corner of Adam Ooms's hall. Selina opened the box and took out the devilled eggs, and the cup cakes that had fallen a little, and the apples, and the sandwiches sliced very, very thin. The coldly appraising eye of all High Prairie, Low Prairie, and New Haarlem watched this sparse provender emerge from the ribbon-tied shoe box. She offered him a sandwich. It looked infinitesimal in his great paw. Suddenly all Selina's agony of embarrassment was swept away, and she was laughing, not wildly or hysterically, but joyously and girlishly. She sank her little white teeth into one of the absurd sandwiches and looked at him, expecting to find him laughing, too. But he wasn't laughing. He looked very earnest, and his blue eyes were fixed hard on the bit of bread in his hand, and his face was very red and clean-shaven. He bit into the sandwich and chewed it solemnly. And Selina thought: "Why, the dear thing! The great big dear thing! And he might have been eating breast of duck... Ten dollars!" Aloud she said, "What made you do it?"
"I don't know. I don't know." Then, "You looked so little. And they were making fun. Laughing." He looked very earnest, and his blue eyes were fixed hard on the sandwich, and his face was very red.
"That's a very foolish reason for throwing away ten dollars," Selina said, severely.
He seemed not to hear her; bit ruminantly into one of the cup cakes. Suddenly: "I can't hardly write at all, only to sign my name and like that."
"Only to spell out the words. Anyways I don't get time for reading. But figuring I wish I knew. 'Rithmetic. I can figger some, but those fellows in Haymarket they are too sharp for me. They do numbers in their head--like that, so quick."
Selina leaned toward him. "I'll teach you. I'll teach you."
"How do you mean, teach me?"
He looked down at his great calloused palms, then up at her. "What would you take for pay?"
"Pay! I don't want any pay." She was genuinely shocked.
His face lighted up with a sudden thought. "Tell you what. My place is just this side the school, next to Bouts's place. I could start for you the fire, mornings, in the school. And thaw the pump and bring in a pail of water. This month, and January and February and part of March, even, now I don't go to market on account it's winter, I could start you the fire. Till spring. And I could come maybe three times a week, evenings, to Pool's place, for lessons." He looked so helpless, so humble, so huge; and the more pathetic for his hugeness.
She felt a little rush of warmth toward him that was at once impersonal and maternal. She thought again, "Why, the dear thing! The great helpless big thing! How serious he is! And funny." He was indeed both serious and funny, with the ridiculous cup cake in his great hand, his eyes wide and ruminant, his face ruddier than ever, his forehead knotted with earnestness. She laughed, suddenly, a gay little laugh, and he, after a puzzled pause, joined her companionably.
"Three evenings a week," repeated Selina, then, from the depths of her ignorance. "Why, I'd love to. I'd--love to."