Chapter VI
 

The change in Ramsey was invisible, and yet something must have been seen, for everyone appeared to take it for granted that he was to sit next to Milla at the pastoral meal. She herself understood it, evidently, for she drew in her puckered skirts and without any words make a place for him beside her as he driftingly approached her, affecting to whistle and keeping his eyes on the foliage overhead. He still looked upward, even in the act of sitting down.

"Squirrel or something," he said, feebly, as if in explanation.

"Where?" Milla asked.

"Up there on a branch." He accepted a plate from her (she had provided herself with an extra one), but he did not look at it or her. "I'm not just exactly sure it's a squirrel," he said. "Kind of hard to make out exactly what it is." He continued to keep his eyes aloft, because he imagined that all of the class were looking at him and Milla, and he felt unable to meet such publicity. It was to him as if the whole United States had been scandalized to attention by this act of his in going to sit beside Milla; he gazed upward so long that his eyeballs became sensitive under the strain. He began to blink. "I can't make out whether it's a squirrel or just some leaves that kind o' got fixed like one," he said. "I can't make out yet which it is, but I guess when there's a breeze, if it's a squirrel he'll prob'ly hop around some then, if he's alive or anything."

It had begun to seem that his eyes must remain fixed in that upward stare forever; he wanted to bring them down, but could not face the glare of the world. So the fugitive ostrich is said to bury his head in the sand; he does it, not believing himself thereby hidden but trying to banish from his own cognizance terrible facts which his unsheltered eyes have seemed to reveal. So, too, do nervous children seek to bury their eyes under pillows, and nervous statesmen theirs under oratory. Ramsey's ostrichings can happen to anybody. But finally the brightness of the sky between the leaves settled matters for him; he sneezed, wept, and for a little moment again faced his fellowmen. No one was looking at him; everybody except Milla had other things to do.

Having sneezed involuntarily, he added a spell of coughing for which there was no necessity. "I guess I must be wrong," he muttered thickly.

"What about, Ramsey?"

"About it bein' a squirrel." With infinite timidity he turned his head and encountered a gaze so soft, so hallowed, that it disconcerted him, and he dropped a "drumstick" of fried chicken, well dotted with ants, from his plate. Scarlet he picked it up, but did not eat it. For the first time in his life he felt that eating fried chicken held in the fingers was not to be thought of. He replaced the "drumstick" upon his plate and allowed it to remain there untouched, in spite of a great hunger for it.

Having looked down, he now found difficulty in looking up, but gazed steadily at his plate, and into this limited circle of vision came Milla's delicate and rosy fingers, bearing a gift. "There," she said in a motherly little voice. "It's a tomato mayonnaise sandwich and I made it myself. I want you to eat it, Ramsey."

His own fingers approached tremulousness as he accepted the thick sandwich from her and conveyed it to his mouth. A moment later his soul filled with horror, for a spurt of mayonnaise dressing had caused a catastrophe the scene of which occupied no inconsiderable area of his right cheek; which was the cheek toward Milla. He groped wretchedly for his handkerchief but could not find it; he had lost it. Sudden death would have been relief; he was sure that after such grotesquerie Milla could never bear to have anything more to do with him; he was ruined.

In his anguish he felt a paper napkin pressed gently into his hand; a soft voice said in his ear, "Wipe it off with this, Ramsey. Nobody's noticing."

So this incredibly charitable creature was still able to be his friend, even after seeing him mayonnaised! Humbly marvelling, he did as she told him, but avoided all further risks. He ate nothing more.

He sighed his first sigh of inexpressibleness, had a chill or so along the spine, and at intervals his brow was bedewed.

Within his averted eyes there dwelt not the Milla Rust who sat beside him, but an iridescent, fragile creature who had beome angelic.

He spent the rest of the day dawdling helplessly about her; wherever she went he was near, as near as possible, but of no deliberate volition of his own. Something seemed to tie him to her, and Milla was nothing loth. He seldom looked at her directly, or for longer than an instant, and more rarely still did he speak to her except as a reply. What few remarks he ventured upon his own initiative nearly all concerned the landscape, which he commended repeatedly in a weak voice, as "kind of pretty," though once he said he guessed there might be bugs in the bark of a log on which they sat; and he became so immoderately personal as to declare that if the bugs had to get on anybody he'd rather they got on him than on Milla. She said that was "just perfectly lovely" of him, asked where he got his sweet nature, and in other ways encouraged him to continue the revelation, but Ramsey was unable to get forward with it, though he opened and closed his mouth a great many times in the effort to do so.

At five o'clock everybody was summoned again to the rendezvous for a ceremony preliminary to departure: the class found itself in a large circle, standing, and sang "The Star Spangled Banner." Ordinarily, on such an open-air and out-of-school occasion, Ramsey would have joined the chorus uproariously with the utmost blatancy of which his vocal apparatus was capable; and most of the other boys expressed their humour by drowning out the serious efforts of the girls; but he sang feebly, not much more than humming through his teeth. Standing beside Milla, he was incapable of his former inelegancies and his voice was in a semi-paralyzed condition, like the rest of him.

Opposite him, across the circle, Dora Yocum stood a little in advance of those near her, for of course she led the singing. Her clear and earnest voice was distinguishable from all others, and though she did not glance toward Ramsey he had a queer feeling that she was assuming more superiority than ever, and that she was icily scornful of him and Milla. The old resentment rose--he'd "show" that girl yet, some day!

When the song was over, cheers were given for the class, "the good ole class of Nineteen Fourteen," the school, the teachers, and for the picnic, thus officially concluded; and then the picnickers, carrying their baskets and faded wild flowers and other souvenirs and burdens, moved toward the big "express wagons" which were to take them back into the town. Ramsey got his guitar case, and turned to Milla.

"Well--" he said.

"Well what, Ramsey?"

"Well--g'bye."

"Why, no," said Milla. "Anyways not yet. You can go back in the same wagon with me. It's going to stop at the school and let us out there, and then you could walk home with me if you felt like it. You could come all the way to our gate with me, I expect, unless you'd be late home for your supper."

"Well--well, I'd be perfectly willing," Ramsey said. "Only I heard we all had to go back in whatever wagon we came out in, and I didn't come in the same wagon with you, so--"

Milla laughed and leaned toward him a little. "I already 'tended to that," she said confidentially. "I asked Johnnie Fiske, that came out in my wagon, to go back in yours, so that makes room for you."

"Well--then I guess I could do it." He moved toward the wagon with her. "I expect it don't make much difference one way or the other."

"And you can carry my basket if you want to," she said, adding solicitously, "Unless it's too heavy when you already got your guitar case to carry, Ramsey."

This thoughtfulness of hers almost overcame him; she seemed divine. He gulped, and emotion made him even pinker than he had been under the mayonnaise.

"I--I'll be glad to carry the basket, too," he faltered. "It-it don't weigh anything much."

"Well, let's hurry, so's we can get places together."

Then, as she manoeuvred him through the little crowd about the wagon, with a soft push this way and a gentle pull that, and hurried him up the improvised steps and found a place where there was room for them to sit, Ramsey had another breathless sensation heretofore unknown to him. He found himself taken under a dovelike protectorship; a wonderful, inexpressible Being seemed to have become his proprietor.

"Isn't this just perfectly lovely?" she said cozily, close to his ear.

He swallowed, but found no words, for he had no thoughts; he was only an incoherent tumult. This was his first love.

"Isn't it, Ramsey?" she urged. The cozy voice had just the hint of a reproach. "Don't you think it's just perfectly lovely, Ramsey?"

"Yes'm."