The Lotus Eater
By Mabel S. Harmer
Helen was tremendously relieved to have Monday morning arrive so that she could begin her work. It had rained all day Saturday and Sunday and the valley had looked grey, sodden and desolate. Helen found herself desperately fighting a threatened case of homesickness and wondering if spring would ever really come and take her back to the luxurious golden sunshine of California. The Rileys had been very cordial to her, but there was no one in the family anywhere near her own age with whom she might be congenial and after all, it was their business to make her comfortable and not to supply her with mental diversions.
She had spent part of Sunday reading the few magazines she had brought with her and had written a letter to Wayne Kent whom she facetiously called “the boy I left behind me,” but when she had attempted to write a letter to the folks at home, the state of her feelings began to show in the letter so she stopped for the time being. She was not going to let them know that she was homesick if she could help it.
She dressed carefully for school, brushing her fair hair until it shone and putting on a soft blue blouse that matched her eyes. She wanted very much to make a good impression on her students and remembered that when she had been little she had always liked the pretty teachers the best.
There were two other teachers at the school, one for the primary grades and a man who acted as principal and taught the upper grades. Helen found herself assigned to the third, fourth and fifth grades with nearly thirty students. She felt bewildered and almost helpless and wished that her training had consisted less of theory and more of practice. She finally struggled through the day, however, and said goodnight to her young charges as pleasantly as if the day had been altogether a happy one.
Florence Call, a local girl who taught the younger children, came in to find Helen seated at her desk trying to rub some of the weariness out of her forehead.
“How did it go?” she asked pleasantly, perching herself on one of the students’ desks.
“Perfectly terrible,” said Helen with a doleful look. “Does it ever get any easier and does one ever get used to this job?”
“Of course it gets easier. The first day is always confusing, but you’ll soon get the swing of things. There are always problems, like the Morris boy who seems to live only to plague the teacher, and Jeanie Welch whose nose always needs attention, and Ben Roberts who insists upon bringing various live pets to school, and – ”
“Oh, don’t tell me any more,” interrupted Helen, throwing up her hands. “I won’t sleep tonight if you do.”
Florence laughed. “It isn’t all disagreeable,” she said. “There are lots of pleasant things about the work, too.”
“I hope so,” sighed Helen. “I’ll need a few.”
“Do you think you are going to like it out here?” continued Florence sociably.
“I’ve got to like it,” answered Helen a bit grimly. “I’d die if I had to live nearly a year in a town that I didn’t like. I’ll be all right, though, as long as I can keep busy. I found out long ago that it’s usually the people with nothing to do who are unhappy.”
“Oh, we always manage to keep busy out here, even if we do live in the country,” said Florence. “There are dances on Saturday nights. Later on there’ll be sleighing parties and we can see the best movies made by driving five miles over to Riverton. Would you like to go to the dance with us this week?”
“I’d love to,” answered Helen, “but will it be all right for me to go without an escort?”
“Perfectly all right. We don’t stand upon ceremony out here. Anyway – you’ll soon have an escort.”
“Really! And to whom will the honor go?” Helen asked, highly amused.
“Jo Bevers. He always takes out the school teacher.”
“I think it’s funny,” chuckled Helen, “the way everything is pre-arranged for me. Billy Prentiss took me straight to Riley’s because that is where the teacher always stays and he assumed that eventually I would marry and settle down here because the teacher always does, and now you tell me that I already have a beau. Do all the teachers conform to the pattern?”
“Not quite all,” admitted Florence with a smile, “but most of them do.”
“Well, I shan’t,” said Helen with finality, “but anyway I’ll be most happy to go to the dance with you.”
For a week Helen left the schoolroom each night to go home and spend the evening reading or writing letters in her tiny room. The Rileys seemed to spend most of their time in the large kitchen and although they urged her to “make herself at home,” she always felt like she was intruding when she ventured back there. By the time Saturday evening arrived, she was thoroughly tired of her own room and looked forward to going to the dance more so than she could remember having done in years.
She felt the eyes of almost everyone in the hall upon her when she walked in with Florence and her friends and knew that they were being more or less critical of her, so she made a special effort to appear friendly and unassuming. She was most anxious that she be liked by the people of the little community during her stay there.
The hall was crudely finished and the music without any doubt the worst that Helen had ever danced to, but everyone seemed to be having an especially good time, and she was certainly in the mood for one herself.
Her dancing partners were plentiful and of all descriptions. The first one announced himself as a cowboy “just turned loose off the range,” and most of the rest of them fell into the same category. Usually they danced well, however, and as soon as they found out that “the girl from the city” wasn’t going to be “high hat” with them they were cordial and friendly.
She was keenly interested early in the evening to notice the young man who had helped her over the fence the week before eyeing her rather solemnly from a distance. He was tall and well built with very dark eyes and hair and a much more sensitive looking face than Helen had expected in a cowboy, which she supposed he was. She rather imagined that she would like to dance with him, but he made no effort to seek an introduction nor even to speak to her.
The dance was half over when Florence said with proper emphasis, “Miss Burt, may I present Mr. Bevers?”
Jo Bevers had been away to school and now worked with his father who owned the general store. He lacked the bronzed complexion of the other boys who spent most of their time out of doors. He was better dressed and carried such an air of superiority that Helen felt an almost uncontrollable desire to slap him. She danced with him instead, however, and made herself fairly agreeable.
She also danced a second time with him, but when he came up the third time she thought it was about time she nipped the apparently incipient courtship in the bud, so glancing around she said, “I believe I am dancing this with someone else.” The tall, dark man had moved a trifle closer and walking a few steps over to him she said, “Isn’t this our dance?”
“Er – sure,” he answered after a moment’s hesitation. They danced around the hall in silence once and then he said, “I suppose I had better introduce myself. My name is Dan Marshall.”
“I know,” said Helen frankly. “I asked.”
He looked at her with a puzzled air for a minute and then asked, “Why did you want to dance with me?”
“I didn’t, especially,” was Helen’s surprising answer, “although I’m very glad to have a chance to thank you for helping me out the other evening. I just didn’t want to dance with someone else.”
“Oh, I see,” he said, and then added with just a tinge of sarcasm, “I’m glad to be of service at any time when you need help in escaping from wild animals or undesirable dancing partners.”
“Are you disagreeable to everyone?” Helen asked, looking up at him and wishing that he would guide rather than push her around the hall.
“No,” he answered shortly.
“Oh – just to me, then.” It was more a statement than a question.
The floor leader saved him from replying by suddenly calling “grand right and left” and they separated to go around the hall in different directions. Helen was a bit chagrined that they had parted so unsatisfactorily.
In the week that followed she met Dan Marshall often at parties and dances and always he treated her with an aloofness that she found most provoking. All of the young people of the community were most friendly and invariably included her in their merry makings with this one exception. Dan seemed to have a positive determination to treat her coolly.
She was not sure whether it was this that formed the basis of his attraction for her or whether she was really interested in him for himself, but she had to admit that he held decidedly more attraction for her than did any of the other young people of the town. For that matter, she could never remember ever before having had the same feeling for anyone that she had for Dan. Her friendship with Wayne Kent at home had been only a high school boy and girl affair, at least that was the way she had always regarded it, and there had been only a few other casual friendships with boys. Now, however, she frequently found herself daydreaming of Dan Marshall and thinking that it might be very thrilling to fall in love with someone like him.
He looked so strong and capable that she could fancy him doing his work in the great out of doors with a minimum of effort. He had a slow smile that seemed to come as much from his dark eyes as from his lips and Helen found herself wishing that he would direct it at her more often.
Contrary to Florence’s prediction she did not accept the attentions of Jo Bevers and hoped that eventually Dan would show more interest in her, but as the winter wore on he continued to treat her in the same distant manner.
Helen was at once amazed and delighted with the snow that came early in November and eventually grew so deep that it covered the fence tops. She loved nothing better than to get into a large bobsleigh with plenty of warm quilts and go singing down the country roads on crisp frosty evenings. Her struggle to keep warm with the little black heater in her room was another matter, and there were mornings when she thought that she would undoubtedly freeze before she was able to get a fire going. There were times when she found it best not to think of California with its sunny skies and roses blooming in midwinter.
On the whole, however, she accepted it all in the spirit of adventure and thrilled to each new experience. Next to bobsleighing she loved the times when the crowd went coasting up on the hillside. There was something about skimming down the long white expanse that almost took her very breath away, and the ravenous appetite that such an excursion produced was sure to be delightfully appeased with oyster stew in someone’s hospitable kitchen later on.
One moonlit night when she had joined the young people for a coasting party, Helen had trudged up the hill a dozen times for the joy of whisking down again over its icy whiteness. Dan was in the crowd as usual, and as usual had kept a safe distance away from her. They had decided to go down only once more before going home, and when Helen reached the top she saw Dan sitting on his sled about to start out alone. In an impulsive moment she ran and flung herself down in front of him and the sleigh started off.
Dan swung away from the course they ordinarily followed and took a path down the side of the hill that was much longer. The force of the swiftly moving sled threw her back against Dan and she felt a surge of emotion go through her that was both exquisite and painful as his arms tightened in her support.
As they sped on Helen had a feeling that she was traveling through space. She wished that it might never end, and then suddenly saw that it was about to end quickly and perhaps disastrously. A fence loomed in front of them that had been so nearly hidden by the snow that they had failed to see it until it was too late to stop. Dan attempted to slip off the sleigh and pull Helen with him but before he could do so they struck a post and Helen was thrown several feet onto the snow.
She was stunned for a few moments and lay quite still. Then she felt Dan lifting her up and crying frantically, “Helen, oh Helen, are you hurt?”
She kept her eyes closed for a moment longer fearing to break the spell, and when she finally looked up there was such a look of anxiety and love in Dan’s eyes that her heart pounded up into her very throat. She smiled faintly at him as she asked, “Would it matter?”
“Matter?” he echoed. “Oh, my dear!” He held her hungrily for a moment and then released her.
“What is it, Dan?” asked Helen, touching his arm ever so lightly.
“He looked back at her with tightened lips. “I don’t dare to love you,” he said. “You should know that.”
“And why don’t you dare?” she asked breathlessly.
“Our lives have been too different. You are refined and educated. All I could offer you would be a home out here in this wild country. It wouldn’t be enough for you.”
“It would be – with you,” she said softly, smiling up at him.
“Helen, are you sure? Do you realize what you would be giving up?” Dan’s voice was tense as if he were trying to burn the words into her consciousness.
“I realize that I love you, that nothing else matters,” she answered.