Chapter XX. Wherein Freckles returns to the Limberlost, and Lord O'More Sails for Ireland Without Him
 

Freckles' voice ceased, his eyes closed, and his head rolled back from exhaustion. Later in the day he insisted on seeing Lord and Lady O'More, but he fainted before the resemblance of another man to him, and gave all of his friends a terrible fright.

The next morning, the Man of Affairs, with a heart filled with misgivings, undertook the interview on which Freckles insisted. His fears were without cause. Freckles was the soul of honor and simplicity.

"Have they been telling you what's come to me?" he asked without even waiting for a greeting.

"Yes," said the Angel's father.

"Do you think you have the very worst of it clear to your understanding?"

Under Freckles' earnest eyes the Man of Affairs answered soberly: "I think I have, Mr. O'More."

That was the first time Freckles heard his name from the lips of another. One second he lay overcome; the next, tears filled his eyes, and he reached out his hand. Then the Angel's father understood, and he clasped that hand and held it in a strong, firm grasp.

"Terence, my boy," he said, "let me do the talking. I came here with the understanding that you wanted to ask me for my only child. I should like, at the proper time, to regard her marriage, if she has found the man she desires to marry, not as losing all I have, but as gaining a man on whom I can depend to love as a son and to take charge of my affairs for her when I retire from business. Bend all of your energies toward rapid recovery, and from this hour understand that my daughter and my home are yours."

"You're not forgetting this?"

Freckles lifted his right arm.

"Terence, I'm sorrier than I have words to express about that," said the Man of Affairs. "It's a damnable pity! But if it's for me to choose whether I give all I have left in this world to a man lacking a hand, or to one of these gambling, tippling, immoral spendthrifts of today, with both hands and feet off their souls, and a rotten spot in the core, I choose you; and it seems that my daughter does the same. Put what is left you of that right arm to the best uses you can in this world, and never again mention or feel that it is defective so long as you live. Good day, sir!"

"One minute more," said Freckles. "Yesterday the Angel was telling me that there was money coming to me from two sources. She said that me grandmother had left me father all of her fortune and her house, because she knew that his father would be cutting him off, and also that me uncle had set aside for me what would be me father's interest in his father's estate.

"Whatever the sum is that me grandmother left me father, because she loved him and wanted him to be having it, that I'll be taking. 'Twas hers from her father, and she had the right to be giving it as she chose. Anything from the man that knowingly left me father and me mother to go cold and hungry, and into the fire in misery, when just a little would have made life so beautiful to them, and saved me this crippled body--money that he willed from me when he knew I was living, of his blood and on charity among strangers, I don't touch, not if I freeze, starve, and burn too! If there ain't enough besides that, and I can't be earning enough to fix things for the Angel----"

"We are not discussing money!" burst in the Man of Affairs. "We don't want any blood-money! We have all we need without it. If you don't feel right and easy over it, don't you touch a cent of any of it."

"It's right I should have what me grandmother intinded for me father, and I want it," said Freckles, "but I'd die before I'd touch a cent of me grandfather's money!"

"Now," said the Angel, "we are all going home. We have done all we can for Freckles. His people are here. He should know them. They are very anxious to become acquainted with him. We'll resign him to them. When he is well, why, then he will be perfectly free to go to Ireland or come to the Limberlost, just as he chooses. We will go at once."

McLean held out for a week, and then he could endure it no longer. He was heart hungry for Freckles. Communing with himself in the long, soundful nights of the swamp, he had learned to his astonishment that for the past year his heart had been circling the Limberlost with Freckles. He began to wish that he had not left him. Perhaps the boy--his boy by first right, after all--was being neglected. If the Boss had been a nervous old woman, he scarcely could have imagined more things that might be going wrong.

He started for Chicago, loaded with a big box of goldenrod, asters, fringed gentians, and crimson leaves, that the Angel carefully had gathered from Freckles' room, and a little, long slender package. He traveled with biting, stinging jealousy in his heart. He would not admit it even to himself, but he was unable to remain longer away from Freckles and leave him to the care of Lord O'More.

In a few minutes' talk, while McLean awaited admission to Freckles' room, his lordship had chatted genially of Freckles' rapid recovery, of his delight that he was unspotted by his early surroundings, and his desire to visit the Limberlost with Freckles before they sailed; he expressed the hope that he could prevail upon the Angel's father to place her in his wife's care and have her education finished in Paris. He said they were anxious to do all they could to help bind Freckles' arrangements with the Angel, as both he and Lady O'More regarded her as the most promising girl they knew, and one who could be fitted to fill the high position in which Freckles would place her.

Every word he uttered was pungent with bitterness to McLean. The swamp had lost its flavor without Freckles; and yet, as Lord O'More talked, McLean fervently wished himself in the heart of it. As he entered Freckles' room he almost lost his breath. Everything was changed.

Freckles lay beside a window where he could follow Lake Michigan's blue until the horizon dipped into it. He could see big soft clouds, white-capped waves, shimmering sails, and puffing steamers trailing billowing banners of lavender and gray across the sky. Gulls and curlews wheeled over the water and dipped their wings in the foam. The room was filled with every luxury that taste and money could introduce.

All the tan and sunburn had been washed from Freckles' face in sweats of agony. It was a smooth, even white, its brown rift scarcely showing. What the nurses and Lady O'More had done to Freckles' hair McLean could not guess, but it was the most beautiful that he ever had seen. Fine as floss, bright in color, waving and crisp, it fell around the white face.

They had gotten his arms into and his chest covered with a finely embroidered, pale-blue silk shirt, with soft, white tie at the throat. Among the many changes that had taken place during his absence, the fact that Freckles was most attractive and barely escaped being handsome remained almost unnoticed by the Boss, so great was his astonishment at seeing both cuffs turned back and the right arm in view. Freckles was using the maimed arm that previously he always had hidden.

"Oh Lord, sir, but I'm glad to see you!" cried Freckles, almost rolling from the bed as he reached toward McLean. "Tell me quick, is the Angel well and happy? Can me Little Chicken spread six feet of wing and sail to his mother? How's me new father, the Bird Woman, Duncans, and Nellie--darling little high-stepping Nelie? Me Aunt Alice is going to choose the hat just as soon as I'm mended enough to be going with her. How are all the gang? Have they found any more good trees? I've been thinking a lot, sir. I believe I can find others near that last one. Me Aunt Alice thinks maybe I can, and Uncle Terence says it's likely. Golly, but they're nice, ilegant people. I tell you I'm proud to be same blood with them! Come closer, quick! I was going to do this yesterday, and somehow I just felt that you'd surely be coming today and I waited. I'm selecting the Angel's ring stone. The ring she ordered for me is finished and they sent it to keep me company. See? It's an emerald--just me color, Lord O'More says."

Freckles flourished his hand.

"Ain't that fine? Never took so much comfort with anything in me life. Every color of the old swamp is in it. I asked the Angel to have a little shamrock leaf cut on it, so every time I saw it I'd be thinking of the `love, truth, and valor' of that song she was teaching me. Ain't that a beautiful song? Some of these days I'm going to make it echo. I'm a little afraid to be doing it with me voice yet, but me heart's tuning away on it every blessed hour. Will you be looking at these now?"

Freckles tilted a tray of unset stones from Peacock's that would have ransomed several valuable kings. He held them toward McLean, stirring them with his right arm.

"I tell you I'm glad to see you, sir" he said. "I tried to tell me uncle what I wanted, but this ain't for him to be mixed up in, anyway, and I don't think I made it clear to him. I couldn't seem to say the words I wanted. I can be telling you, sir."

McLean's heart began to thump as a lover's.

"Go on, Freckles," he said assuringly.

"It's this," said Freckles. "I told him that I would pay only three hundred dollars for the Angel's stone. I'm thinking that with what he has laid up for me, and the bigness of things that the Angel did for me, it seems like a stingy little sum to him. I know he thinks I should be giving much more, but I feel as if I just had to be buying that stone with money I earned meself; and that is all I have saved of me wages. I don't mind paying for the muff, or the drexing table, or Mrs. Duncan's things, from that other money, and later the Angel can have every last cent of me grandmother's, if she'll take it; but just now--oh, sir, can't you see that I have to be buying this stone with what I have in the bank? I'm feeling that I couldn't do any other way, and don't you think the Angel would rather have the best stone I can buy with the money I earned meself than a finer one paid for with other money?"

"In other words, Freckles," said the Boss in a husky voice, "you don't want to buy the Angel's ring with money. You want to give for it your first awful fear of the swamp. You want to pay for it with the loneliness and heart hunger you have suffered there, with last winter's freezing on the line and this summer's burning in the sun. You want it to stand to her for every hour in which you risked your life to fulfill your contract honorably. You want the price of that stone to be the fears that have chilled your heart--the sweat and blood of your body."

Freckles' eyes were filled with tears and his face quivering with feeling.

"Dear Mr. McLean," he said, reaching with a caress over the Boss's black hair and his cheek. "Dear Boss, that's why I've wanted you so. I knew you would know. Now you will be looking at these? I don't want emeralds, because that's what she gave me."

He pushed the green stones into a little heap of rejected ones. Then he singled out all the pearls.

"Ain't they pretty things?" he said. "I'll be getting her some of those later. They are like lily faces, turtle-head flowers, dewdrops in the shade or moonlight; but they haven't the life in them that I want in the stone I give to the Angel right now."

Freckles heaped the pearls with the emeralds. He studied the diamonds a long time.

"These things are so fascinating like they almost tempt one, though they ain't quite the proper thing," he said. "I've always dearly loved to be watching yours, sir. I must get her some of these big ones, too, some day. They're like the Limberlost in January, when it's all ice-coated, and the sun is in the west and shines through and makes all you can see of the whole world look like fire and ice; but fire and ice ain't like the Angel."

The diamonds joined the emeralds and pearls. There was left a little red heap, and Freckles' fingers touched it with a new tenderness. His eyes were flashing.

"I'm thinking here's me Angel's stone," he exulted. "The Limberlost, and me with it, grew in mine; but it's going to bloom, and her with it, in this! There's the red of the wild poppies, the cardinal-flowers, and the little bunch of crushed foxfire that we found where she put it to save me. There's the light of the campfire, and the sun setting over Sleepy Snake Creek. There's the red of the blood we were willing to give for each other. It's like her lips, and like the drops that dried on her beautiful arm that first day, and I'm thinking it must be like the brave, tender, clean, red heart of her."

Freckles lifted the ruby to his lips and handed it to McLean.

"I'll be signing me cheque and you have it set," he said. "I want you to draw me money and pay for it with those very same dollars, sir."

Again the heart of McLean took hope.

"Freckles, may I ask you something?" he said.

"Why, sure," said Freckles. "There's nothing you would be asking that it wouldn't be giving me joy to be telling you."

McLean's eyes traveled to Freckles' right arm with which he was moving the jewels.

"Oh, that!" cried Freckles with a laugh. "You're wanting to know where all the bitterness is gone? Well sir, 'twas carried from me soul, heart, and body on the lips of an Angel. Seems that hurt was necessary in the beginning to make today come true. The wound had always been raw, but the Angel was healing it. If she doesn't care, I don't. Me dear new father doesn't, nor me aunt and uncle, and you never did. Why should I be fretting all me life about what can't be helped. The real truth is, that since what happened to it last week, I'm so everlastingly proud of it I catch meself sticking it out on display a bit."

Freckles looked the Boss in the eyes and began to laugh.

"Well thank heaven!" said McLean.

"Now it's me turn," said Freckles. "I don't know as I ought to be asking you, and yet I can't see a reason good enough to keep me from it. It's a thing I've had on me mind every hour since I've had time to straighten things out a little. May I be asking you a question?"

McLean reached over and took Freckles' hand. His voice was shaken with feeling as he replied: "Freckles, you almost hurt me. Will you never learn how much you are to me--how happy you make me in coming to me with anything, no matter what?"

"Then it's this," said Freckles, gripping the hand of McLean strongly. "If this accident, and all that's come to me since, had never happened, where was it you had planned to send me to school? What was it you meant for me to do?"

"Why, Freckles," answered McLean, "I'm scarcely prepared to state definitely. My ideas were rather hazy. I thought we would make a beginning and see which way things went. I figured on taking you to Grand Rapids first, and putting you in the care of my mother. I had an idea it would be best to secure a private tutor to coach you for a year or two, until you were ready to enter Ann Arbor or the Chicago University in good shape. Then I thought we'd finish in this country at Yale or Harvard, and end with Oxford, to get a good, all-round flavor."

"Is that all?" asked Freckles.

"No; that's leaving the music out," said McLean. "I intended to have your voice tested by some master, and if you really were endowed for a career as a great musician, and had inclinations that way, I wished to have you drop some of the college work and make music your chief study. Finally, I wanted us to take a trip through Europe and clear around the circle together"

"And then what?" queried Freckles breathlessly.

"Why, then," said McLean, "you know that my heart is hopelessly in the woods. I never will quit the timber business while there is timber to handle and breath in my body. I thought if you didn't make a profession of music, and had any inclination my way, we would stretch the partnership one more and take you into the firm, placing your work with me. Those plans may sound jumbled in the telling, but they have grown steadily on me, Freckles, as you have grown dear to me."

Freckles lifted anxious and eager eyes to McLean.

"You told me once on the trail, and again when we thought that I was dying, that you loved me. Do these things that have come to me make any difference in any way with your feeing toward me?"

"None," said McLean. "How could they, Freckles? Nothing could make me love you more, and you never will do anything that will make me love you less."

"Glory be to God!" cried Freckles. "Glory to the Almighty! Hurry and be telling your mother I'm coming! Just as soon as I can get on me feet I'll be taking that ring to me Angel, and then I'll go to Grand Rapids and be making me start just as you planned, only that I can be paying me own way. When I'm educated enough, we'll all--the Angel and her father, the Bird Woman, you, and me--all of us will go together and see me house and me relations and be taking that trip. When we get back, we'll add O'More to the Lumber Company, and golly, sir, but we'll make things hum! Good land, sir! Don't do that! Why, Mr. McLean, dear Boss, dear father, don't be doing that! What is it?"

"Nothing, nothing!" boomed McLean's deep bass; "nothing at all!"

He abruptly turned, and hurried to the window.

"This is a mighty fine view," he said. "Lake's beautiful this morning. No wonder Chicago people are so proud of their city's location on its shore. But, Freckles, what is Lord O'More going to say to this?"

"I don't know," said Freckles. "I am going to be cut deep if he cares, for he's been more than good to me, and Lady Alice is next to me Angel. He's made me feel me blood and race me own possession. She's talked to me by the hour of me father and mother and me grandmother. She's made them all that real I can lay claim to them and feel that they are mine. I'm very sorry to be hurting them, if it will, but it can't be changed. Nobody ever puts the width of the ocean between me and the Angel. From here to the Limberlost is all I can be bearing peaceable. I want the education, and then I want to work and live here in the country where I was born, and where the ashes of me father and mother rest.

"I'll be glad to see Ireland, and glad especial to see those little people who are my kin, but I ain't ever staying long. All me heart is the Angel's, and the Limberlost is calling every minute. You're thinking, sir, that when I look from that window I see the beautiful water, ain't you? I'm not.

"I see soft, slow clouds oozing across the blue, me big black chickens hanging up there, and a great feather softly sliding down. I see mighty trees, swinging vines, bright flowers, and always masses of the wild roses, with the wild rose face of me Ladybird looking through. I see the swale rocking, smell the sweetness of the blooming things, and the damp, mucky odor of the swamp; and I hear me birds sing, me squirrels bark, the rattlers hiss, and the step of Wessner or Black Jack coming; and whether it's the things that I loved or the things that I feared, it's all a part of the day.

"Me heart's all me Swamp Angel's, and me love is all hers, and I have her and the swamp so confused in me mind I never can be separating them. When I look at her, I see blue sky, the sun rifting through the leaves and pink and red flowers; and when I look at the Limberlost I see a pink face with blue eyes, gold hair, and red lips, and, it's the truth, sir, they're mixed till they're one to me!

"I'm afraid it will be hurting some, but I have the feeing that I can be making my dear people understand, so that they will be willing to let me come back home. Send Lady O'More to put these flowers God made in the place of these glass-house ilegancies, and please be cutting the string of this little package the Angel's sent me."

As Freckles held up the package, the lights of the Limberlost flashed from the emerald on his finger. On the cover was printed: "To the Limberlost Guard!" Under it was a big, crisp, iridescent black feather.