When he returned next time, he was less reticent. It was not because he was proud of being a traveler but more, I think, that he saw we really wanted to hear about the distant places he had been. When his ship was coming into the harbor of Singapore, he said you could see the junks waiting with their crinkled sails. And when the ship came near, they sailed right in front of the bow as close as they could. Sometimes they didn’t make it and they all smashed up and drowned. He said they did it to cut off the devils following behind. The day after he told us that Gordon asked Tom Sing, who runs the chop suey joint, if he believed in devils but Tom only grinned. Gordon said it was the oriental inscrutability. Gordon is quite serious.
During the next ten years John did all the things we said we’d do that time in the apple orchard. He joined the Army to fly and left the Army after a time and went to Italy. I went to his house from the office the day he got home. He was dressed in white, lunging at himself in a long mirror with a foil in his hand. The French held their foils this way with the thumb so, but the Italians that way. After that he was a sailor again on one of the crack clippers that still bring the wheat up from Australia, and from Liverpool I had a postcard with a picture of Aintree racecourse on the back. It said, “Give Gordon my congratulations.” Gordon had been elected mayor and we were very proud of him. How John heard of it we couldn’t figure out.
One time there was a card from Aden and another from Helsinki. You can see he traveled. No one in the town had ever gone so far and people used to stop his mother on the street to ask where he was then, not that they really cared but because the thread that tied them to him as a local boy tied them also to the strange name his mother answered when they asked.
When he was a sailor in the Pacific, spinal meningitis broke out on board. Eighteen people died and they put the bodies down in the hold. The ship’s doctor examined all the crew and said John was the healthiest and the captain ordered him to go below and sew up the bodies in shrouds and heave them overboard.
John got a roll of canvas, a reel of packthread, a leather palm-guard and a needle and went down into the hold. He rigged up an electric light in a wire cage and swung it from a hook over his head. The eighteen lay there in a row. They were quite stiff and, when the ship rolled, sometimes an arm would come up and pause until the ship rolled back. But they were in the shadow and he did not watch them much because the sewing was hard work, about an hour to each one. He jabbed his finger with the needle three or four times and that made it harder. When he got one ready, he would put it over his shoulder and stagger up the companionway to the deck.
High above him beside the funnel, to escape the risk of infection, stood an Anglican parson, one of the passengers. He had an open prayer book and said the service very quickly, the leaves fluttering in the wind. Then John would pick up the corpse again and heave it over the side. Sometimes a shark would rip the shroud almost as it hit the water; others he could see jerked from the ring of foam of their impact and carried quickly below. There were at least a dozen sharks and John said he knew his work was useless and he took bigger and bigger stitches in the canvas. There was quite a wind and John could never hear the whole service because the wind blew the words away but a few snatches would come down to him. He and the parson were all alone, the other people having hidden from fear; and they did not speak to each other. When John brought up the last corpse, it had been a Portuguese merchant from Manila on his way to Goa to see his daughter, the wind stopped suddenly and there was a moment of calm. “… to the deep to be turned into corruption,” the parson said. John picked up the merchant, balanced him on the rail, shoved him over, and the sharks came.
“And Eloise said it was when she was getting the coffee after dinner. Mr. and Mrs. Booth were setting in the parlor and Mr. Booth was drinking like he always does and the both of them quiet as mutes at a funeral when all at once the doorbell rang and Eloise answered it and there stood John Baldwin. My, I think he’s handsome. Oh, he’s much better-looking than him. And he asked could he see Mr. Booth and Eloise said he could; he was right in the parlor. So Mr. Baldwin come in but he wouldn’t give Eloise his hat. He kep’ it and said he was only staying a minute. Well, Eloise said she went to the kitchen to get another cup naturally expecting Mr. Baldwin would have some coffee and when she come back through the dining room she was so surprised she nearly dropped it.
“She said Mr. Baldwin was standing right in front of Mr. Booth and he says, ‘Dennis, I’ve come for your wife.’ Just like that. And Mr. Booth says, ‘What do you mean—you’ve come for my wife?’ Eloise says she got behind the window drapes so they wouldn’t see her and Mr. Baldwin says, ‘Frances loves me. I want you to divorce her.’ Mr. Booth was drunk on all that brandy and he jumped up and began to shout that it was damned cool and a lot of things about throwing Mr. Baldwin out of the house only Eloise don’t think for a minute he could have even if he was sober. Why, John Baldwin’s way over six feet and a sailor and always fighting with them little swords and all, but Mr. Booth got white he was so mad, and Mrs. Booth didn’t say anything. She just sat there and looked at them and Eloise said it was like Mr. Baldwin didn’t hear a word Mr. Booth said because he was looking at Mrs. Booth all the time and when Mr. Booth stopped talking Mr. Baldwin looked up at him quick like you do when a clock stops. Then he just says, ‘Well, Dennis,’ and Mr. Booth began to swear something terrible but he didn’t try to throw him out, he didn’t even come close to him. Then, Mr. Baldwin looked at Mrs. Booth and smiled and says, ‘Come along, Frances,’ and Mrs. Booth smiled back and they walked right out of the house without her even packing any clothes. And that’s all there was to it. Eloise says Mrs. Booth walked right out of her house into a new life, never to return. And they say Mrs. Booth has gone to Paris, France, to get a divorce from Mr. Booth. Well, all I got to say is, it serves him right—he was always running around after them dirty little factory girls. Certainly he was. Everybody knows it. Why you know that little Muller girl, the one with the fox fur. Why Eloise says that …”
I stopped listening then. I always liked to look at the Italian flags on the bottles of olive oil when I was a kid. I had the same feeling then: no one does things like that here, walking into a man’s house and taking his wife. If you want a man’s wife, you meet her by chance in Chicago and she goes on being his wife afterward. Or maybe it was like the boat. We hadn’t lived with him. He was only the things he had done and those at a distance. Now that he had begun his marriage this way I did not think he would change the pattern, but that was before I knew he intended to settle here.
He was, I thought then, rootless and invincible. He didn’t seem to want what we had, what we had remained here and worked for. Which comes down to this, I suppose, and little more: the same trees every day when you go to work, in summer hanging over the lawns beside the walks, and bare with snow at the forks of the limbs and the sound of snow shovels scraping the walks; and when you look up, the line of the roof of the house next door against the sky. You could call it peace. It is just peace with no brilliance. I remembered how bright the gold piece was in his hand.
But he didn’t go away again. He settled here very quietly and took a nice little house. He and Frances were very happy, and we all used to say how glad we were that they were so happy. We used to say it very loudly to ourselves and sometimes to him, and we put ourselves out to help him meet people. He had been away so long he had forgot or never had known them. We got him into the golf club the first week he was in the bank. Everything we could show him about the town we did gladly.
After he had been married a year, we all came to Gordon’s one night to drink beer. Most of the evening we taught John poker, and after that we just sat around and talked. John said, “You know Roy Curtis from out Fruit Ridge way? He came in today and he wanted to borrow the money to buy another hundred acres. That piece by the bridge there. Belongs to Dick Sheppard.”
“He’ll raise wheat. No money in wheat now.”
“That’s what I told him but he wants to have a shot at it just the same. Offered to mortgage his place. I don’t know, though. What do you think?”
Without saying that we didn’t ordinarily do a banker’s thinking for him publicly, we told him Roy Curtis was a fool if he thought he could make money in wheat at fifty-six cents a bushel.
“He’s got a combine, you know. He says he’ll have two hundred acres in wheat and he and his boy can work it all by themselves.”
We remembered when he had bought the combine. Two hundred acres is too small for one of those big combines. This isn’t Dakota.
“You wouldn’t lend him the money, then? He’s coming in Thursday. It’s good security, a mortgage on his place.”
We told him we wouldn’t lend the money, but John had drunk a lot of beer. He kept on talking about it.
“He’s a smart farmer, Roy. Look at that house he’s go there. It’s a fine place, as good as any of these here in town. Got a Packard and a big radio. Why, he said he got Rome on that radio the other night. He didn’t make his money doing foolish things. I don’t know about the loan.”
Roy’s aunt had left him the money, but that was while John was away. We didn’t tell him.
I said, “Do you fence any now, John?”
He got up laughing and went out into the hall and got a mashie out of Gordon’s golf bag and came in with it. He began, standing with a bent leg and one hand flung up behind him. He went through the lunges and parries laughing.
“Getting fat,” he said. “I can’t do ’em anymore.”
I had to leave then because I had to be at the office early the next day. John was still talking about the loan when I left. It had been raining and the wind had blown down leaves from the maples. The evening had been unsatisfactory and I thought about it as I walked along. I was in sight of my house before I thought why, and I stopped to pick off the red leaves stuck to my shoes.
I remembered him in white with his face grave. “You see, the French hold a foil this way. It’s not like the Italians. I learned in Marseille.” That was the way he used to talk. We know all about loans; we knew all about him now. Of course I could never do more than just remind him of these things because he was so happy. But I did not think he would ever go away again to return and tell us these things, because of his happiness. Suddenly I felt old. It was as if we had trusted him to keep our youth for us and he had let it go. But our youth only.