Editor George Horace Lorimer accepted Sinclair Lewis’s short story “Nature, Inc.” from The Saturday Evening Post’s “slush pile” of manuscripts in 1915 and began a prolific relationship between the satirical author and the magazine. Lewis’s novel Babbitt (1922) brought this kinship to a screeching halt due to its critique of business and the middle class. Lorimer wrote an unkind review of the book, and Lewis was left out of the Post for years to come.
Like “Nature, Inc.,” his 1919 story “The Enchanted Hour” features one of the author’s favorite settings for satire: a new-age commune of artists and farmers.
Content warning: This story contains language that might be unacceptable today but was commonly used at the time.
Published on August 9, 1919
Leyland had devoted his imagination to science, in college. To him the winter stars were not flowers in the black field of heaven. They were vaster suns, each with its planets of more splendid human races. As he looked up, his mind flying through ether from sun to eternal roaring sun, he expanded with worshiping awe. And a chunk of quartz was something more than a pretty arrangement of dead angles. It was the battleground of shooting, charging electrons; it had all the mystery and illimitable force of the stars themselves.
He regarded this daydreaming as a vice and a waste of the time that ought to be devoted to learning chemical formulas. But it led him to go adventuring after graduation.
He became assistant to Doctor Ballinger, who was experimenting on the Pacific Coast with iodine, soda and other products of kelp. That sounded sane and scientific. But Leyland guiltily knew that his real interest was not in analyzing the ashes of burned seaweeds, but in seeing mountains and Chinamen and in going upon the ocean in boats. He was reared in the Middle West; he had never seen a mountain nor any Chinaman save the one who ironed professors’ shirts till 1 a.m. So at nothing in particular a week he went to the place where — if your eyes are but good enough — you can glance across to junk sails and the palms of South Sea isles.
The experiments were conducted at Pasqual, a California fishing port. It was a dingy place, but there was a back street of old adobe; Portuguese fishermen with earrings babbled about the wharves; and Doctor Ballinger was a curly-headed, placid, pipe-smoking big brother. Leyland crept out of the awe of college blackboards and became human.
It was the perfect time, the rare sweet hour when youth is invincible and friends are kings. All morning he was out in the kelp-harvesting boat under a gallant and open sky. Ashore the foothills led the eye up cherry-red escarpments and gray-green slants to the mountains beyond. All afternoon he worked in the laboratory. And all evening he talked with the geniuses — with the members of the New Light Colony.
They were at least geniuses, those colonists. They intended within five or ten years — this was twenty years ago — to reform the distribution of wealth, the education of children, the interpretation of Ibsen and the iniquitous prices at the Pasqual grocery. They were mad and delightful.
Leyland was fascinated. They were so obviously impractical that it didn’t matter whether they were practical or not.
There were twenty-five or thirty of the colonists — half, young idealists; half, disillusioned dreamers who, after failure or weary success with schools or newspapers or reform leagues, had fled to the colony as to a white cloister for deliverance from having to make decisions. Each family had ten acres of land and grew figs or chickens or super-potatoes. They joined in a community eucalyptus grove which was to produce incredibly profitable semi-hardwood in an incredibly short time; in a community dining room and kitchen where they took turns at working; in a building that was reading room and theater and temple of whatever arts were fashionable at the moment; and in a nursery — whenever they happened to have a nurse, which never happened to be the present.
Their houses were brown bungalows with fireplaces, rows of latticed windows and low roofs; all very pleasant and gentle, inconspicuous among drowsy hillside pines. Beneath the slope, a wide bay was outflung toward a fantastic headland up which the waves climbed all day long, and for background there were low mountains, eternal and never the same, sliding into new shapes and colors in the play of light, in the eagerness of morning, noon serenity, contemplative dusk. The scent of the place was warm and good; not the gritty smell of cities, but the odor of pine needles, of poppies and the sea.
Most of the colonists were not only agricultural but vaguely literary. They said of one another, “Oh, he writes,” though they did not say just what it was that he wrote or where it might be read. But in their talk they were tremendous and — let this be understood — perhaps a dozen times as merry and interesting as the chemists and businessmen Leyland had met. He had not known there were so many things to talk about: Duse’s technic, the value of alfalfa, single tax and the hypocrisy of rising when ladies came into the room. They talked before breakfast; they talked while they worked in the fields all day — some days; they talked before driftwood fires all night — every night. The question of how they got sleep was as puzzling as the question of how they made a living.
Leyland revered the unelected dean of the colony — Fischer, a gaunt, speculative, sonorous, somehow heroic man; a master with few and shabby disciples; a judge of culture whose verdicts the criminals never heard; a failure in all but faith; a novelist who was too busy studying music to write novels, too interested in photography to make music and too fascinated by spiritualism to develop his pictures. Not quite so well as Fischer, Leyland liked Miss Barge, who did not talk but who really did garden; Mr. and Mrs. Tiddenham, the artists and teachers of folk dancing and weaving; Soulier, the unfrocked clergyman, a jolly, friendly man, very grim in his attacks on churches; Miss Garver, who had been secretary of leagues for all the different kinds of reforms that have been invented since Plato; and young Max Toinans, once a newspaperman, now an unpublished author of novels in which the villains were usually moral parents and the heroines ladies of reputations only too certain.
The colonists spent much of their conversational vigor in denouncing public personages as mediocre and commercial. They stirred Leyland to understand how unceasingly he would have to fight against his every weakness. And when he was bothered by Fischer’s complaining, when it seemed to him that some of the colonists took doctrines — any doctrines — as frowzy men take drugs, he still admired their willingness to play.
For these modern conventuals remained children. They picnicked on the shore. They came early in a chattering parade, carrying baskets and wicker-covered demijohns of honey-colored native wine, trailing through the poppies — talking, laughing, talking. They ran barefoot out into the surf, chased one another with whips of seaweed, tiptoed about the little lovely gardens in pools at low tide to peep at sea anemones and the gravely absurd tiny crabs. At twilight they built a fire in a sand-paved corridor among the swart rocks, cooked clams and Hamburg steak, warmed tamales, made reeking delicious coffee. They washed the dishes in sand and curled by the fire, luxuriously talking, laughing, talking while the firelight beat on their exhilarated faces, slipped across the wet rocks, reached toward the breakers and made mysterious the void beyond.
In the afternoon — Leyland with them on holidays — they hunted quail in the still close manzanita thickets. They rode ancient and quite bad horses up climbing trails to canon heads. They gave plays; outdoor pageants or tricky flashes of flippancy in which they more cleverly made fun of themselves than could any outsider. Even the most querulous of them were excited over painting scenery or rehearsing tableaux of graceful, other-worldly figures against a background of silhouetted pines. They danced in costume, in loose peplums or Egyptian priestly robes. Shrieking, they hacked at tennis on a court like a washboard.
But their play merely pointed their eagerness to make a new world. They believed that each of them was a genius. And within a month, as soon as he had ceased to be uncomfortable at their habit of collecting statistics by guessing at them, Leyland was admitted as one of the geniuses.
They insisted that he must — he flutteringly promised that he would — devote his chemistry to revolution in daily life. He was immediately to create new fuels, new building materials, road surfacing that would be cheap, easily laid, smooth as a razor blade. Especially — this was rather stressed in a colony which had not been so successful in abolishing dishwashing as in abolishing religion — he was to emancipate housework by the invention of synthesized foods. He was to produce opalescent tablets that would be of more unctuous taste than mushrooms fried in butter — in much butter — and more satisfying than planked steak, yet enable the housekeeper to do her cooking by taking the tablets from a box and her dishwashing by chucking the box into a stove; or preferably into a fireplace — a fireplace with a beaten-copper motto.
He planned it as a young poet discovers songs. Behind the colonists’ volubility he found joy of life. Behind the joy he found ideals. And behind the ideals and in them and a tremulous light over them — he found Ilka.
For it was not Fischer nor the uncompromising Max Toinans who brought Leyland to the colony every evening, every afternoon off, but a girl of seventeen with bobbed hair flickering and little ankles bright as she raced up the long hill slopes. Ilka was the breathlessly disobedient ward of the Tiddenhams. She was the amateur of every art, precociously rebellious against proprieties, equally enthusiastic about sprawling on the soft brown earth and the ceremony of lighting a cigarette. She was a nuisance and a bomb — the wonder child Ilka; who drooped her young lips toward a man’s till he was mad to kiss her, then fled, and when the foolish sage lumbered after her was discovered primly sitting upon a rock and indignantly explaining that she had just meant to ask about the tariff.
The solemn young Leyland was five years her senior and when she set her scatterbrains earnestly to the task she could make him weep in five minutes.
But between bedevilments she was a comrade — a dear and adventurous and sunny chum. Her chestnut eyes steady and her lunatic feet calmed to plucky trudging, she panted with Leyland up dripping canyons; or they lay on their stomachs in the rough, waving, salt-scented grass on a cliff above the sea, gazing at the slaty line where the mystery of deep-blue ocean met the wonder of gold-blue sky; and talked of all they were gloriously going to do. He was to be lord of science — a Huxley, an Edison, a Pasteur. She was to dance in royal theaters, with exquisite gestures to create a spell in which adoring thousands would find anew the ache of beauty, and in painted barges with Cleopatra and slave girls of gilded limbs go floating to the tinkle of little music beneath the columns of grotesque temples, or with yogis in the silence of gray Himalayan uplands find all power and secrets.
As evening fog drove in and they were encircled by its walls, as the breakers pounded more menacingly below, they were caught by the fear of night and Nature, which is ancient as the sea. They ceased to jabber about their knowledge of electricity; they clasped hands as here upon this cliff, when it was a mountain spur leagues from the tide, barbaric youths and maidens of tribes that are gone without one trace clung to each other for protection from the god of loneliness. Without knowing it, they remembered the terrors of ancestors dead a thousand thousand years ago; and they became too solemn even for delightfully shuddering fear. Unspeaking, they moved closer; unsmiling, they crept over rocks and along the milky-misted beach to the ruddy lights and gossip of home.
And that same evening she would refuse to dance; ignore him while she tormented him by making butterfly love to the cynical Max Toinans.
Leyland could think of no phrases save “elfish” and “fascinatingly irregular” with which to describe Ilka’s face — the jolly, vulgar little nose, the precise chin, the impudent mouth, the childish brown cheeks, the clear golden brown of her loyal eyes. But he needed no incantations to summon her. He was singing to himself “I love her!” even while he was judiciously remarking to Captain Catty, the boisterous skipper of the kelp boat: “Yep, good idea; better swing to north’ard.”
Suddenly, ineloquently, between dances at Social Hall, he tried to express to Ilka his impressions regarding her lips and eyes and her value as inspiration to rising young men.
“Don’t be silly! You can’t support me. Besides, I’m never going to marry. I’m going to Russia to study dancing. Besides, I’m already engaged to a couple of boys in Oakland. Besides, Max Toinans is waiting for this dance, the sweet thing,” was her not altogether romantic answer.
Nor would she be more definite during any of his later proposals — at least during most of them. She did decide to marry him now and then, and once she kissed him distractingly and ran away. But always immediately after accepting him she sat up late to write him little notes on pink paper in which, with lofty and aged resignation, she unaccepted him.
Then the kelp experiments were over.
He had no salary; he needed a salary; and he took an offered teaching fellowship at Johns Hopkins.
The rest of the colony were affectionate at parting — Fischer, the Tiddenhams, Miss Barge, Miss Garver, Soulier, even Max Toinans. They begged him to come back as soon as he could. But Ilka was tenderly illusive. She said she didn’t know her own mind. Besides, she had an engagement at the dressmaker’s.
He wrote four postcards and a letter to her the first day on the eastward train; five postcards and two letters the second day; one postcard the third — when he gave her up forever; and three long letters the fourth — when he couldn’t live without her.
All of these and perhaps twenty later letters she answered in one post card which informed him that she had a cold and a chow pup.
For twenty years he never wrote to Ilka, never saw the Pasqual colony and never felt like a genius.
At forty-three he was the chief chemist of the great Galway Paint Corporation. He was a sound workman; his papers were heard with respect at association meetings; and during the war his experiments with American dyes won him a good many short inexact paragraphs in the newspapers.
His salary was sixteen thousand, his favorite car a Vance eight and — more or less incidentally — he had a round, comfortable, pretty, nice-voiced, pigeon-sleek, expensive wife named Adeline, two children, two rich brothers-in-law, a stucco suburban house and a reserve fund of friends who played auction and were faithful and prosperous and consistently dull.
His neighbors said of him: “Good practical man; no wild theories like some of these scientific sharks. Nice little wife and family too. Let’s have them for Sunday supper.”
Thus the successful Leyland at forty-three.
Sometimes it is the face of a woman known long ago; sometimes a high adventure, war or perilous voyaging undertaken in the day when youth was not made irritable by discomfort or anxious by danger; but always to every man there is one vision that is a nucleus for dreams. It abides in the holy place of his mind as the one pure and eternal thing; and ever at unexpected glimpses of beauty the symbol of perfect happiness returns and the man surprised into dreaming is lonely with the loss of his enchanted hour.
To Leyland it was the Pasqual colonists who represented that lost happiness and who rebuked him for not having worked miracles.
They were to him like shrouded gods standing aloof on cloudy peaks, watching his success and judging it failure. He had desired to create ambrosia — and he had produced a new kind of red barn paint.
He had never at any one moment given up his intention of being a magician, but — well, the factories had offered him good pay; and in a big house money did slip away, nobody quite knew how. He justified himself — and continued to feel guilty. He planned to do something startling — and remained a part of hard-walled laboratories in gray plants; a part of his wife’s social advancement.
Adeline was a good wife and rather amusing. She thought about her clothes; she shone like a Charleston doorplate at dances, at concerts; she liked Leyland and let him talk about his work without very often interrupting him to give orders to the cook. But the only chemical symbol she knew was that for water, and she knew it because all humorous persons use it when ordering highballs. And she would have been shocked to rudeness by the sight of the colonists in flannel shirts and bulbous spectacles talking about the individuality of Stirner while they hoed potatoes.
Leyland had come to see that the colonists weren’t really divine. But whenever his friends sneered at what they called short-haired women and long-haired men, Leyland was irritable. They were, he declared, the children of light, the makers of dreams; and their visionary ideas often came true. While his mind stood up like the Pharisee and thanked God that he was not eccentric, his heart mourned for the days of flying feet and time enough to sit looking at clouds over mountain peaks.
Perhaps once a week he thought of the colony. The scent of damp wood made him smell and see the ground covered with pine needles in the California rainy season. The curious taste of wood smoke in a cigarette smoked by a fireplace gave a quick illusion of being at the evening picnics, and he saw the shadows on Fischer’s face, heard the laughter, and the sound of ocean hung like a curtain behind the babble.
Sometimes it was the face of a girl in a street car, a face dismayingly young and innocent and credulous of romance. Always she was Ilka and for half a second he desperately had to flee to her.
Once he was addressing the state chemical association. He had with courteous viciousness proved that the head of the chemical department of the state university was an ass. He was pounding it home: “As a commercial proposition the manufacturers of gas engines, in neglecting the boosting of grain alcohol — ”
He realized that he was staring at a lean man, a man like Fischer, and while his own voice went on he heard the dean drawling: “My boy, it’s in your hands; you can be a faithful hired man or you can be an Oliver Lodge.”
And once at a painstakingly dull dinner party, when Leyland was staring at a pink celluloid bird in a green wicker cage and wondering whether it really was worthwhile to work all one’s life to support pink celluloid birds, his host put a sentimental record on the phonograph; and instantly Leyland was running through purple lupine with a girl and stopping on a hill crest to worship the Pacific and the red sun.
He knew that the colony was disappointed by — was it by his having failed to revolutionize the home or by his having succeeded in paying the rent? Once in a hotel lobby he had encountered Miss Garver, who was out lecturing on women in industry. It was a moment when Leyland felt important. He was rushing in to read the law to the board of directors. But he stopped, vaguely uneasy.
She looked him over gravely and: “Oh, how do you do? I hear you are a person of consequence now. You made some dyes, didn’t you? I don’t suppose you waste time dreaming — now.” He was not amused but pleading: “But the dyes do help. They’ve freed us from German domination of our markets.”
“Yes? I thought you were going to free us from having any markets!”
He tried to be friendly. He puffed: “Is, uh — Often get back to the colony?”
“What is Ilka doing?”
“Her dancing of course. She teaches, oh, so helpfully!”
“Is she married?”
“No. Well, it’s been pleasant to see you. I must hurry on.” It was Miss Garver who dismissed Leyland, not he who politely escaped. And she said nothing about seeing him again. He felt that it was the whole colony that had dismissed him. He wrote to Fischer next day.
To his rivals in the profession Leyland would have written with amused ease, but to this man Fischer, who did not know chemistry from morphology, he was humble, trying to defend himself from unspoken charges. The dean did not answer for three months; then briefly, his letter ending:
“I wonder that a busy practical man like you wastes time corresponding with a ne’er-do-well. We’re putting on a Dunsany play and starting a class in Freud — but you won’t be interested. If you care to write again, tell me about your new car — yr. newest one. Suppose you have two at least. Oh, well, I too am luxurious! I have a new oilcloth on my writing table.”
That hurt — the picture of the old man in his one-room hill shack.
He began to brood. Every evening he came home unhappy, to be comforted by his wife. Adeline listened to his latest tragedy and suggested lively things to do that evening, and assured him that he was the king of scientists, the pontiff of idealists and superior to Samuel Higsby Mink, chief chemist of the Calhoun Paint Works.
He was grateful to Adeline for enduring his worry. Yet sometimes, lying awake in the morning, he resented her very comforting. Didn’t she thus keep him content with petty tasks? Oh, he was little, he sighed! He who should have been a competitor with the great ones, with Remsen and Curie, was of the common people. The more he devoted himself to satisfying Adeline’s friends by choosing correct ties and smart adjectives, the more he betrayed himself as being at heart what the back country called “just folks.” And never, while the gods of the colony watched him, could he relax into happiness in his work, his wife, his children; never could he be satisfied with being common.
It would have been better, he felt, had he totally failed. He wouldn’t have been bound to his world of well-fed stupidity. He wouldn’t have been ridden by a suspicion that — without knowing it, without doing anything so picturesque as signing documents in blood — he had sold his soul to the devil of mediocrity.
Thus the fretting Leyland at forty-three.
All winter his task had been to find a more permanent varnish for motor cars and he sagged with the discouragement of not having found it. His ingenuity was worn out. He could think of no more methods, no more formulas. He watched himself grow nervous. The first sign that he noticed was his failure to react to the tumultuous coming of April. His step did not spring nor his chest expand to the good air. The sunshine was merely a bother to tired eyes as it glared on the papers on his desk.
Then he saw how much too much he was smoking. He took a cigarette without knowing that he was doing it; was astonished to find that he was smoking; furiously threw the thing away; resolved not to smoke again till after dinner — and ten minutes later found that another cigarette had sneaked out of his case, got itself lighted and insinuated itself into his fingers.
He realized that he was worrying about nothing in particular and everything in general; about going to the dentist, about the number of Victory Bonds to buy, about the duty of having a neglected acquaintance out to the house for dinner. Ten minutes after he had caught a train he discovered that he was worrying about not having time to catch it. He worried about not having mailed a letter that he knew he had mailed; and when he had laboriously satisfied himself he worried about not having addressed, stamped and signed it.
One-third of the time he was fleeing to Adeline for solace; one-third he was wondering whether her solace wasn’t a stupefying poison; and the rest of the time he gave to admitting that this was hard on her — which gave him a chance to worry about worrying her.
Desire for the colony was bothering him. He could be serene there — even in poverty. And was it too late for him to begin the vague big work? He smelled the ocean wind and hot hollows among the manzanita bushes. Silver-fretted mountains seemed to laugh at him for speculations about having mailed letters. He saw himself running to Fischer, Soulier, the Tiddenhams, Max Toinans. Through the spring rains, when his stodgy backyard was by an early morning mist turned from smugness to mystery, he looked down from the sleeping porch and fancied that garage and lawn and clothes posts were gone; that he was tramping the rough, waving, salt-scented grass above the ocean with a girl beside him.
Adeline knew that he was discontented; she babied him and gave him lamb chops with fresh peas. But she was not one of those exasperating superior people who are too stupid ever to lose their tempers. When on successive days he complained because they never went out in the evening and because they were going out this evening, she snapped: “You’re perfectly impossible! If you don’t wish to go — don’t. I’m going.”
She marched to the door and stood on the porch drawing on her gloves so that he would have a chance to catch her. Which of course he innocently did.
They talked it over when they returned, but as “it” was nothing more definite than his desire to be twenty-three at the age of forty-three they didn’t make any large decisions; and the next evening, feeling that this was an entirely new and interesting question, he complained because they never went out in the evening.
All the while he knew how absurd he was. It was because his wife was nearer to him than anyone else; because she was a part of him and he of her that he plagued his own self in her. Only, he whisperingly asked himself, if she had been Ilka, would he have had to plague her?
A small ludicrous thing made the break. Neighbors came in one evening. He was glad enough to see them, but he hadn’t finished the paper; he was in the midst of a delightful account of political graft; and while the talk labored through the first polite queries about the children, he picked up the paper — just to peep at the end of the story. Through the paper he could feel Adeline rustling with displeasure.
When the neighbors had gone she said: “You weren’t very polite.”
“What do you mean?” — knowing perfectly what she meant.
“Reading when they came in.”
“Well, they knew I was glad to see ’em without my shouting about it! And I didn’t want to see ’em anyway! Walshman is a bore and his wife is worse.”
“They are very good friends of mine and I won’t have you criticize them!”
“You criticize my friends enough! If I didn’t absolutely demand it you’d never be polite to poor old Bolton — heart of gold — ”
“Crude, jocular old — ”
“He isn’t a bit worse than Mrs. Walshman with her confounded coy — ”
After ten minutes of diplomatic incivilities regarding the Walshmans, the rector and the sales manager of the paint corporation, Leyland banged the ash receiver on the table and roared: “Then the way you called me down for wearing a cap last Sunday! I have something more important to think about than pleasing the Opendykes with my clothes!”
“You might tell me what it is!”
“I’m glad to have you admit that! You think my chemistry is about as important as bricklaying. You haven’t the faintest — ”
“Oh, I know, dear! I didn’t mean that. But really you irritate me so. What is it you want, anyway?”
She put it so directly that he was startled out of observance of the technic of domestic squabbling and actually said what he meant: “I want to get off by myself and think!”
Instantly he was frightened. She had always accompanied him on journeys. To suggest a vacation was like demanding a divorce.
“You want — You mean you want to go away without me?”
“Why — yes, I do!”
“Well, I think it would be a very good thing. We’re fond of each other, but we do need a rest. If you wouldn’t be lonely — ”
The steady businessman who sat in the smoking compartment of the California Pullman and talked about the paint market seemed guiltless of desire for the luxury of martyrdom. But he was asking himself whether he was not going to give up his position and risk poverty for his family in order to work for an obscure and certainly ungrateful millennium. And he was excited with the adventure of it.
He had not told the Pasqual colony he was coming. He would surprise them.
He stayed for a day in San Francisco. The papers must have known something about his experiments in dyes, for a Banner reporter recognized his name on the register and came up to tell him what to say about America’s independence of German industries. The reporter was cordial. Leyland asked him if he knew any of the boys who had done newspaper work on the coast twenty years before.
Oh, yes! There was Max Toinans. He was back on the Advertiser as city editor. No, Max didn’t seem to have done much with writing fiction. And Mr. Leyland knew him? Well, well! He was going to have luncheon with Max and he’d tell him Leyland was in town. Probably Max would send a reporter round to see him.
Leyland always laughed at publicity, but it is a fact that he waited at his hotel till two o’clock to be interviewed by one of Max’s young men. That would be amusing — the supercilious Max, who had never taken him seriously at the colony, recognizing him as a personage, sending someone to ask his high opinions.
But Max didn’t send anyone to ask his high opinions.
At two Leyland strolled out, found the Advertiser office. He did not care to be interviewed. The thrill of that was gone. He wanted to see Max Toinans for himself. Good old Max, with his contempt of slatternly writing! He remembered how Mrs. Tiddenham, during the one week when she pursued palmistry as a life work, had previsioned Max in a London study with high ceilings and a bust of Beethoven, writing essays about art and George Moore.
He climbed paper-littered stairs to an airless room filled with typewriters, newspaper files and cigarette smoke. In a coop beyond he saw Max — gray now, with wrinkles like parentheses beside his mouth, yet somehow unchanged. Max was busy; did not look up. Leyland waited, sit- ting on the edge of a table, wriggling with the glad, boyish thought: “Won’t Max be excited when he sees me here!”
Max trotted out, glanced at Leyland, said in a manner neither angry nor interested: “Oh, hello, Leyland! Heard you were in town. Still teaching chemistry?”
“Yes, I’m still in chemistry. But not teaching. How goes the work?”
“You can see that I’m on it.”
“Well, I did want to have a glimpse of you, old man.”
“Yell! Glad you came in. Come in see us again.”
Leyland wanted to demand: “My dear sir, what has there been in your flaming welcome that’d make me ever want to see you again?” But he smiled idiotically, mumbled, shook hands with the ecstasy of insincerity and fled downstairs — down to the street of strangers.
The train reached Pasqual, the station for the colony, in early evening. Leyland had rarely recalled Pasqual itself and he looked indifferently at the familiar buildings — the dumpy restaurant where he had always breakfasted, the drug store where he had bought magazines, the pier from which the kelp boat had set out.
He started for the colony on foot. He passed adobe houses with sagging upper balconies and a dwarf Chinatown where black and vermilion posters were strange against the shuttered walls of prim wooden houses. Beside a garden wall topped with old Spanish tiles was a new cement and fire-brick garage. He left the roaring of the garage and swung into valley. In the twilight he climbed a dusty road between a grove of dark and priestly pines, guardian figures from an island of the dead, and an open field where the bronze-green foliage of scrub oaks was lost in downy shadows. From the summit he looked back across the reaching bay. Out of the wide dimness of it clean white lines flashed from the homeward rolling waves. The pounding of the breakers was lulled and even the hilltop breeze was gentle. Along the horizon slipped a flush of rose that deepened to carmine and vanished.
Peace descended on him from the colored dusk. He was smiling. He plunged into a remembered footpath that skirted groves and secret tiny pastures, in a dark fragrant world, silent save for the patter of rabbits, the fall of a pine cone. He walked quickly, proud of recalling the twists of this old shortcut.
He felt a wholesome weariness, an interested appetite. He came out of the gloom of gnarly cypresses and saw the lights of the colony — of home.
They would be so surprised, so glad!
He clattered up the steps of the community dining room, stopped, quieted himself, stepped into the room — after twenty years. He was safe. He had begun his life anew.
He saw the artistic Tiddenhams; Soulier, the agnostic; the gardening Miss Barge. Their faces were so wistfully and oft remembered that he found no changes in them, no grayness or sagging flesh, but only their unaltered selves.
But he realized that he knew no one else here; that the dean, good old Fischer, was absent; that most of these fervent gossipers were strangers to him. And he realized that Mr. Tiddenham was looking at him, nodding indifferently; that only Miss Barge, the unpoetic, was waving to him in greeting.
He started for her table. A minute ago he had thought less of her than of any other in the colony; now she was dearest to him.
He stopped to greet the Tiddenhams.
“Oh! Why, it’s Ross Leyland! This is so nice,” yawned Mrs. Tiddenham, while her husband grunted: “Oh, didn’t know you at first! Going to be here for some time?”
“I hadn’t planned — Say! Can’t we have a regular old-time picnic while I’m here?”
The Tiddenhams looked at each other as though nice people didn’t talk about picnics, and the husband said doubtfully: “Why, uh, why, we might think about having one!”
“Well, I’ll see you later.”
He came to Soulier, who stopped a gesticulatory discussion long enough to stare at Leyland and mutter: “Why, hello! Back in God’s country, eh? Drop into my cottage sometime.”
Neither the Tiddenhams nor Soulier had suggested his dining with them.
Abashed as an intruding freshman, Leyland stumbled to Miss Barge and in her found a lean comfort: “Welcome back, Ross! Glad to see you. Sit down and have supper. Where you bound for?”
Her friendliness was genuine, but she was not — like the others — a licensed dealer in optimism. She talked of mammoth onions and asked questions about dyes as though she regarded factories as respectable. Fischer — it was his inspiration Leyland needed! And Ilka!
“Where’s Fischer?” he asked.
“Probably home. He usually cooks for himself now.”
“I — don’t suppose Ilka is here?” He told himself not to be disappointed — and he was duly disappointed when Miss Barge chirped:
“No, she’s up in Oakland. Almost never comes down here anymore.”
And that was all they had to say. Miss Barge and he did trade words about coal-tar products and phosphates, but he was waiting for her to show that she was waiting for him to go; and when she tactfully tried to glance at her watch he leaped up, said nice things about being glad to see her, and fled.
He floundered up the path to Fischer’s bungalow. He stopped, breathed deep. Through the window he saw the dean’s worn head as he stooped over a book on the table, his fine long hand up at his temple. As the novice bursts into the abbot’s high-groined cell crying “Father, I have sinned,” so Leyland pushed open the door, his soul at his lips.
Fischer studied him.
“Well, this is a surprise, Ross.”
“Yes, it’s — Lord, I’m glad to see you again!”
“Out here for a trip? I suppose you’re doing all the millionaire stunts — golf at Del Monte and riding at Santa Barbara?”
“No, I am not! I’m not a millionaire and I’m not a tourist.” Leyland was trying to say “I have come here to save my soul!” He tried desperately, resentfully. He failed. He ended weakly: “Came out largely to have a glimpse of the good old bunch.”
“Um! Well, that’s very gratifying.”
“See here, dean!” Uninvited, Leyland dragged a chair from the wall. “I want you to stop making fun of me. I’m not a rich man, but — well, fact is, saved up a little money and thought I might plan to take sort of a little vacation from the grind and try to do some of the things we used to talk over. Food.”
“Yes. Don’t you remember? You used to say I ought to invent foods that would get rid of housework.”
“Did I? I’d forgotten.”
“Why, I’ve always thought of you as waiting — ”
“Tell you what you chemists should have done though. A chance for really inspired science, and all you fellows neglecting it! You ought to assist some art-theater director by finding dyes for costumes.”
“Why,” much disappointed, “dyes are my specialty!”
“Oh!” Fischer was equally disappointed. Then, brightening as he thought of a new criticism, he said that he was afraid — it sounded as though he meant that he hoped — that Leyland’s dyes were too commercial for use in the new theater arts. And that was all the attention he gave to the soul or the dyes of Leyland. The thought of commerce was the starting point for an attack on a remarkably catholic assortment of dramatists, new-thought healers and grand dukes. Leyland tried to defend the prosperous — and by implication himself. He mentioned famous inventors. But as the supreme judge exposed each of these criminals and left them trembling with shame before the entire world and the suburban spaces of the universe, Leyland stopped listening to him and looked about the room.
He saw that it was not picturesque as he had remembered, but plain dirty. On the pine table were stacks of food-gummed dishes and an exact circle of grease marked the place for plates. A frying pan was on the floor beside the rusty cannonball stove. The bedclothes in the bunk were writhing and gray and unwholesome. And as for the man himself — his hair was not quite so much leonine as in need of cutting.
Leyland snarled at himself for his sneers.
“That’s the result of Adeline’s eternal superiority to people in flannel shirts,” he explained, with the human male’s desire to blame all errors of Nature upon his wife. He tried to get back to harmony by turning Fischer to the subject of the colony.
“I hear Miss Barge is doing wonders with her farm,” he Piped.
Without a break Fischer started in on his associate geniuses. He said that Miss Barge was a materialist and not such a confoundedly good farmer either; that Mrs. Tiddenham was a censorious scandalmonger; that Tiddenham was erroneous in his evaluation of Veblen; and that Soulier lied — simply lied, that was all — when he claimed to have shot thirty rabbits in Deep Water Canyon. The new members of the colony were either immoral or too finicky about morals, and all of them were ridiculously wrong about the choice of the next play for the community theater. He did not rave — the shaggy old man; in the pleasure of whispering scandals about his only friends in the world he beamed on Leyland like a father.
It was then that Leyland escaped — a little sick, altogether confused. Only four facts emerged clearly: They had not, these years, awaited his creation of magic food; they had not asked him to stay overnight; he’d have to walk back to Pasqual; and his feet were as tired as his soul and much more noticeable.
As he crawled along the path recently so eagerly followed, as sneaking fog blurred the forest, a vision beset him and he saw that the shrouded and waiting gods were a myth and that their temples, across whose pillars slanted ever the smoke from attentive altars, were empty save for rags and echoes and the odor of death.
He stayed late abed; he had breakfast fast at the musty hotel in Pasqual; he was clammy in addressing the waitress and half desirous of taking the next train out of town. But toward noon he crept back to the colony. Miss Barge gave him luncheon with the Tiddenhams, Soulier, Fischer and one outsider, young Dr. Solon Ebert, a university instructor, invited because he was a fellow scientist. In his nod the doctor did not show much fellowship. He was excited about the colony and, though Leyland tried to make Ebert understand that he himself had known these people for twenty years, the convert kept explaining what was a New Light colony — and where and why and how.
Fischer continued his complaint that Leyland had made money, and when they saw how meekly Leyland took it the Tiddenhams and Soulier awoke to interest in him. They demanded of him what sort of “People he knew; in what sort of a house he lived.”
They told him that he was respectable. He apologized.
They told him that he ought to have started a little theater in his home city. He admitted it. He didn’t believe it, but he admitted it.
They told him that he ought never to have left the colony. He agreed.
The loud voice of Dr. Solon Ebert took charge of the conversation. Doctor Ebert was a swollen-eyed, greasy-faced, self-satisfied young man, with the accent of an old-clothes dealer, the manner of a pig in a hurry, and no great cleanliness. Doctor Ebert did not think much of Mr. Leyland, who had received a doctor-of-philosophy degree eighteen years before but had forgotten it.
“So you admit you are not satisfied with your career, eh?” Ebert shied at him. “The trouble with you, my friend, is that you have commercialized your work. You ought to have stayed in a university laboratory.”
“I seem to have heard that word ‘commercialized’ before,” sighed Leyland.
“We’re getting somewhere with pure theory in the colleges, while you factory fellows expect the maiden science to scrub floors!”
Leyland stated distinctly: “No; when I look you over I fancy that the best thing the maiden science could do would be to scrub you!”
Miss Barge chuckled; Mrs. Tiddenham clamored “How vulgar!” while Solon Ebert wheezed, tried to look fierce and panted:
“You’ll apologize for that!”
Compact, erect, easy, Leyland reflected aloud: “I’m so glad I said that. It was vulgar, wasn’t it! Cheap! And how often we’ve all wanted to say things like that. I’ve tolerated the rest of you because I once loved you. But not from this — Oh, look at him! He does need scrubbing!”
Ebert made sounds of fattily degenerated belligerency, but Leyland blithely ignored him: “I’ve insulted him, but think how much worse it might have been! I wanted to insult all of you except Nan Barge. You can’t paint, you can’t write and you can’t grow very good cabbages. You’re failures. That’s why you stay on here in this hole —
“But you try to hide it by being contemptuous. I came to you with respect — wonderful chance for you! For the first time a grown-up person was willing to listen to you. All right. I was punished for going to professional idealists for ideals. But it’s cruel and unusual punishment to have to hear the kindergarten lessons of Solly Ebert!”
He was enjoying himself. He felt that he was a motion-picture hero facing bandits.
Miss Barge murmured: “You’re right, Ross. This Ebert boy is rather trying. But do you know, you were a lot like him when you were here as a boy. You were sweet and eager, but dreadfully condescending — especially to me.”
Gravely: “Then I was a fool indeed! I — Oh, what’s the use! What’s the use!”
All the cheap delight of easy defiance was gone. He was sick of the unpleasant scene. He rushed out of the room — toward Pasqual, toward the train, toward home and the tenderness of Adeline. He was rimmed round by a cup of jade and gold and living blue, of ancient hills and waves reborn each sparkling minute; but to him it was a painting of which he was weary.
He thought brokenly: “I want to see Ilka before I go East. I’d like to touch her hands. I’ll go up to Oakland and surprise her. No! She’d be like the others. I’ll leave that one illusion.”
“Was I like Ebert when I was a youngster? And all these years I’ve been remembering myself as a bloomin’ star-browed acolyte and wanting to go back and be — that noisy nuisance! Solving the complications and compromises of real life by ignoring them! I’m glad I’m Our Mr. Leyland of the Galway Paint Corporation! I’ll get the kids some curios in Chinatown and go back and — I’ll take Adeline a mandarin coat. Goodbye, Ilka! I’m glad I’m not going to see you. Because I want to go on remembering you!”
He was proud of himself for doing so well with renouncing all dreams forever and ever — till he looked back for the last sight of the mountains. Then it tediously started all over again and he was as anxious to go and be inspired by Fischer as if he had never thought of it before. And he was hungry. He had bolted in the middle of luncheon. He wished that without losing any of the pleasure of being vulgar and rude he might have postponed it till after luncheon. And the food at the Pasqual hotel was bad — very bad.
He sulkily turned in at the restaurant where he had boarded as a cub.
The spherical figure of Madame Luquin, the restaurant keeper, was familiar but uninteresting. He lounged to the lunch counter, drawled: “Coffee and small steak, please.”
Madame Luquin dropped her head as she stared at him; then shrieked: “Well, well, well! So you didn’t think I’d know who it was! You thought you could fool the old lady! Why, we was just talking of you the other day — saying there’d never been a livelier boy in town. And my! You knew so much! Pa! Come see who’s here! Pa!”
Her tuft-bearded little French husband popped out of the kitchen, peered, yelped: “Rows Leylant!” He shook Leyland’s hand while he yammered at an invisible assistant: “Pete! Run by the drug store! Bring Mr. Dohengy and Cap’n Catty. Tell them there’s an old friend here.”
The word “friend” seemed to Leyland the thing for which he had crossed half the continent. And he hadn’t even remembered their names! Along with the Luquins he had forgotten Mr. Dohengy, the druggist, and Cap’n Catty, skipper of the kelp boat. They had not forgotten him. They pounded his shoulder. They were sure that he had a bank account and a “fine wife and children who talked just like their daddy.” They hung about him, eager to smile at his jokes, triumphant in his success — which had suddenly become real success.
- Luquin snorted: “Mamma and I, we always say you make good. You are not like those silly chumps at the colony.”
Somehow Leyland did not defend his friends then — nor when Captain Catty added: “Those highbrows! Wouldn’t have one of ’em on any boat of mine. You were a pretty good seaman, Ross — for a farmer!”
Madame Luquin wailed: “Don’t let this boy run away from us again! Cap’n, ain’t you going to take him out for some abalones tomorrow?”
“I am so!” roared the captain. And he did.
Leyland stayed at Pasqual for three days without once returning to the colony. He told himself that these people loved him because he was of the common people; and that it was good to be common and to cease blaming himself for not being an archangel. He wasn’t going to Oakland to see Ilka. No! And on the third day, as he strode up from the wharves whistling, he came on Ilka in the dusty Pasqual street and stopped — shaken.
She was the same impulsive fairy child. A half block away he was conscious of her lips and eyes. He tried to be defiant; to look at her casually. He — would — not be — condescended — to!
She came swiftly. She raised a clear voice in: “Why! My dear! They said you’d gone!”
He was her slave! Twenty years vanished. She was the little tender moon of evening; she was all that was delicately bright and most precious and inalienably his. Adeline was an intruder and factory laboratories were absurd. Still he tried to save himself. He asserted that Ilka’s round face was pudgy and heavy now; that her brown cheeks had turned sallow and her firm neck became stringy. And it didn’t matter! She was Ilka! He was slipping his arm about her shoulder, which fitted contentedly into the curve of his elbow.
“You dear thing!” she whispered.
“Have you remembered me?”
“So often! But you’ve never thought of me!”
“Only about once a day!” he sighed.
“And you with a wife and children, they tell me.”
“Yes, but — And she’s a particularly nice wife. But you — you’re you, Ilka!”
“Am I? That’s consistent of me.”
“And you’ve never married?”
“No, but I think perhaps I’m going to be.”
“Why don’t you accuse me of being faithless, Ross?”
“Stop mocking me, dear! Do you know that we two should have been married?”
A voice — perhaps not of conscience but of common sense, of the habit of being a member of working society — was shouting at him: “Stop it! You’ll be sorry! You love Adeline, and Ilka will be like the rest of the colony.”
But while he noted the voice he was demanding: “Isn’t it true? Don’t you get tired of dancing?”
“Dance? I? Heavens, I don’t dance! I just try to teach dancing. And I don’t even invent steps. I steal them from others. Yes, I’m a failure, like all of us at the colony — except you.”
They had, without planning it, wavered down the street to the long blank beach. They linked arms; they talked without embarrassment; when they glanced examiningly at each other it was with no peeping curiosity but with the quick smiles of reunited friends.
At her mention of the colony he edged into the story of his misadventures there and ended: “Was I a fool? Or were they beastly?”
She curled on the sand; he was at her feet rocking, his hands about his knees, while she mused:
“Neither! They demand perfection, so naturally they’re critical; and naturally they can’t live up to their own demand. You have no right to sneer at them because they can’t see much beauty in washing frying pans; but they have no right to sneer at you because you can stand washing ’em. They’re the voice of conscience and you’re the clever hands. You’re a real person and they’re fairy folk. And I — oh, I guess I belong with them!”
It was what he had found out for himself. He was common people, like Captain Catty and Madame Luquin — and Adeline! Very well, then. He’d better escape. Ilka would merely make him unhappy. She was the brown-breasted nymph in the brake and he the puffing mortal lover, following a path where lurked scummy pools and death. He’d say a nice brotherly farewell now and pack and catch the next train and –
“Let’s get some lunch and tramp off down the coast!” he cried.
Which was the end of sensible reflections. They raced to Luquin’s; bought sandwiches and a bottle of milk; tramped side by side down the beach, strained up a cliff, brushed through poppy stems thick among the heather; and — not quite so quickly as once — climbed the first of the gray dry foothills to the shade of a scrub oak solitary in a tilted field. They looked down to the purple-streaked ocean and the roofs of the colony bungalows like glistening plates of metal among the shaggy pines. They bustled about spreading the sandwiches on a sheet of newspaper. They laughed a good deal and he kissed her fingers and their puppylike dashes kept them from thinking. But when luncheon was done they sat staring, too conscious of each other for laughter.
“Why didn’t you answer my letters?” he quavered.
“Why didn’t you go on writing?”
“Why should I have?”
“Dear, it’s dangerous for two people like us to start the whys. Either we’ll quarrel or — ”
“I’ll kiss you.”
“Perhaps! And that Oh, it’s not that I’m puritanical! It’s just that we’ve learned to be quiet and to work. I’ve done some decent things with my pupils, even if I haven’t proved to be a creator. In that I’m like you; not like our frenzied friends. We may have sold our dreams, but it was a good and a sweet thing we bought — the chance to be quiet and work. And so — ”
“Ilka, not to interrupt you, but do you know that I love you?”
Suddenly, terribly, she mourned: “Don’t! I’ve wanted you so much! Wanted you back! Hoped you’d write! All this — Is it twenty years? It can’t be! I didn’t know what train you were going to take that day and I ran away; and when I came back you were gone. Ross! Don’t go back! Not right away! Stay with me a week or two! We’ll ride down the coast road and explore the back country. It won’t hurt — them. Your wife — I’m sure she’s very nice indeed; and my man, the one I’m engaged to up in the city, he’s comfy and he adores me. He’s one of the people you can always reach when you suddenly want to phone ’em. But they’re not we. They’re outsiders. Stay with Ilka!”
Then all the complications, the musings, the retreats of conscience were gone and it was fear that held Leyland. In fear they stared; their eyes confessed the shared and communicated fear.
He did not discuss it. He sprang up. He said hastily: “Yes, I’d like to. But I won’t! Quiet and work — that’s what we’ve bought. If we throw that away we still won’t have the dreams back: we’ll just have nothing. I’ll race you to the bottom of the hill. I know now what’s been weakening me all these years of half working — that’s kept me from contentment with being the decent common folks that I really am. I’ve been in love with you! And I thought it was ideals, the memory of Fischer and the colony and these hills! They! It was you! Now I’m safe, because I know what to fight.”
She reached up her hands, still small and childish and plump and soft; she kissed him and said: “Yes! I’m sorry! Come!”
They returned sedately, talking about how badly Tiddenham painted — for a good painter; they were commonplace and slightly dull. They parted with a handshake too firm to mean anything. In one hour he was on the train.
All through his packing he had been afraid that, once he was gone from Ilka, he would want to leave the train at the first stop and run back to her. But he found himself unable to picture her clearly. He was — without trying to — recalling Adeline and the children. And suddenly he was thinking of the formula for motor-car varnish. He was busily scratching down letters and figures. He was humming. He felt a new power. Youth was that day gone from him; youth and its enchantment of unreality. But in exchange for it he had the resoluteness and contented acceptance of fate that marked his first hour of maturity.
Featured image: illustrated by James H. Crank / SEPS.