Chapter IX. The Harvester Goes Courting
 

"She is on Henry Jameson's farm, four miles west of Onabasha," said the Harvester, as he opened his eyes next morning, and laid a caressing hand on Belshazzar's head. "At two o'clock we are going to see her, and we are going to prolong the visit to the ultimate limit, so we should make things count here before we start."

He worked in a manner that accomplished much. There seemed no end to his energy that morning. Despatching the usual routine, he gathered the herbs that were ready, spread them on the shelves of the dry-house, found time to do several things in the cabin, and polish a piece of furniture before he ate his lunch and hitched Betsy to the wagon. He also had recovered his voice, and talked almost incessantly as he worked. When it neared time to start he dressed carefully. He stood before his bookcase and selected several pamphlets published by the Department of Agriculture. He went to his beds and gathered a large arm load of plants. Then he was ready to make his first trip to see the Dream Girl, but it never occurred to him that he was going courting.

He had decided fully that there would be no use to try to make love to a girl manifestly so ill and in trouble. The first thing, it appeared to him, was to dispel the depression, improve the health, and then do the love making. So, in the most business-like manner possible and without a shade of embarrassment, the Harvester took his herbs and books and started for the Jameson woods. At times as he drove along he espied something that he used growing beside the road and stopped to secure a specimen.

He came down the river bank and reached the ginseng bed at half-past one. He was purposely early. He laid down his books and plants, and rolled the log on which she sat the day before to a more shaded location, where a big tree would serve for a back rest. He pulled away brush and windfalls, heaped dry brown leaves, and tramped them down for her feet. Then he laid the books on the log, the arm load of plants beside them, and went to the river to wash his soiled hands.

Belshazzar's short bark told him the Girl was coming, and between the trees he saw the dog race to meet her and she bent to stroke his head. She wore the same dress and appeared even paler and thinner. The Harvester hurried up the bank, wiping his hands on his handkerchief.

"Glad to see you!" he greeted her casually. "I've fixed you a seat with a back rest to-day. Don't be frightened at the stack of herbs. You needn't gather all of those. They are only suggestions. They are just common roadside plants that have some medicinal value and are worth collecting. Please try my davenport."

"Thank you!" she said as she dropped on the log and leaned her head against the tree. It appeared as if her eyes closed a few seconds in spite of her, and while they were shut the Harvester looked steadily and intently on a face of exquisite beauty, but so marred by pallor and lines of care that search was required to recognize just how handsome she was, and if he had not seen her in perfection in the dream the Harvester might have missed glorious possibilities. To bring back that vision would be a task worth while was his thought. With the first faint quiver of an eyelash the Harvester took a few steps and bent over a plant, and as he did so the Girl's eyes followed him.

He appeared so tall and strong, so bronzed by summer sun and wind, his face so keen and intense, that swift fear caught her heart. Why was he there? Why should he take so much trouble for her? With difficulty she restrained herself from springing up and running away. Turning with the plant in his hand the Harvester saw the panic in her eyes, and it troubled his heart. For an instant he was bewildered, then he understood.

"I don't want you to work when you are not able," he said in his most matter-of-fact voice, "but if you still think that you are, I'll be very glad. I need help just now, more than I can tell you, and there seem to be so few people who can be trusted. Gathering stuff for drugs is really very serious business. You see, I've a reputation to sustain with some of the biggest laboratories in the country, not to mention the fact that I sometimes try compounding a new remedy for some common complaint myself. I rather take pride in the fact that my stuff goes in so fresh and clean that I always get anywhere from three to ten cents a pound above the listed prices for it. I want that money, but I want an unbroken record for doing a job right and being square and careful, much more."

He thought the appearance of fright was fading, and a tinge of interest taking its place. She was looking straight at him, and as he talked he could see her summoning her tired forces to understand and follow him, so he continued:

"One would think that as medicines are required in cases of life and death, collectors would use extreme caution, but some of them are criminally careless. It's a common thing to gather almost any fern for male fern; to throw in anything that will increase weight, to wash imperfectly, and commit many other sins that lie with the collector; beyond that I don't like to think. I suppose there are men who deliberately adulterate pure stuff to make it go farther, but when it comes to drugs, I scarcely can speak of it calmly. I like to do a thing right. I raise most of my plants, bushes, and herbs. I gather exactly in season, wash carefully if water dare be used, clean them otherwise if not, and dry them by a hot air system in an evaporator I built purposely. Each package I put up is pure stuff, clean, properly dried, and fresh. If I caught any man in the act of adulterating any of it I'm afraid he would get hurt badly--and usually I am a peaceable man. I am explaining this to show how very careful you must be to keep things separate and collect the right plants if you are going to sell stuff to me. I am extremely particular."

The Girl was leaning toward him, watching his face, and hers was slowly changing. She was deeply interested, much impressed, and more at ease. When the Harvester saw he had talked her into confidence he crossed the leaves, and sitting on the log beside her, picked up the books and opened one.

"Oh I will be careful," said the Girl. "If you will trust me to collect for you, I will undertake only what I am sure I know, and I'll do exactly as you tell me."

"There are a dozen things that bring a price ranging from three to fifteen cents a pound, that are in season just now. I suppose you would like to begin on some common, easy things, that will bring the most money."

Without a breath of hesitation she answered, "I will commence on whatever you are short of and need most to have."

The heart of the Harvester gave a leap that almost choked him, for he was vividly conscious of a broken shoe she was hiding beneath her skirts. He wanted to say "thank you," but he was afraid to, so he turned the leaves of the book.

"I am working just now on mullein," he said.

"Oh I know mullein," she cried, with almost a hint of animation in her voice. "The tall, yellow flower stem rising from a circle of green felt leaves!"

"Good!" said the Harvester. "What a pretty way to describe it! Do you know any more plants?"

"Only a few! I had a high-school course in botany, but it was all about flower and leaf formation, nothing at all of what anything was good for. I also learned a few, drawing them for leather and embroidery designs."

"Look here!" cried the Harvester. "I came with an arm load of herbs and expected to tell you all about foxglove, mullein, yarrow, jimson, purple thorn apple, blessed thistle, hemlock, hoarhound, lobelia, and everything in season now; but if you already have a profession, why do you attempt a new one? Why don't you go on drawing? I never saw anything so stupid as most of the designs from nature for book covers and decorations, leather work and pottery. They are the same old subjects worked over and over. If you can draw enough to make original copies, I can furnish you with flowers, vines, birds, and insects, new, unused, and of exquisite beauty, for every month in the year. I've looked into the matter a little, because I am rather handy with a knife, and I carve candlesticks from suitable pieces of wood. I always have trouble getting my designs copied; securing something new and unusual, never! If you can draw just well enough to reproduce what you see, gathering drugs is too slow and tiresome. What you want to do is to reproduce the subjects I will bring, and I'll buy what I want in my work, and sell the remainder at the arts and crafts stores for you. Or I can find out what they pay for such designs at potteries and ceramic factories. You have no time to spend on herbs, when you are in the woods, if you can draw."

"I am surely in the woods," said the Girl, "and I know I can copy correctly. I often made designs for embroidery and leather for the shop mother and I worked for in Chicago."

"Won't they buy them of you now?"

"Undoubtedly."

"Do they pay anything worth while?"

"I don't know how their prices compare with others. One place was all I worked for. I think they pay what is fair."

"We will find out," said the Harvester promptly.

"I----I don't think you need waste the time," faltered the Girl. "I had better gather the plants for a while at least."

"Collecting crude drug material is not easy," said the Harvester. "Drawing may not be either, but at least you could sit while you work, and it should bring you more money. Besides, I very much want a moth copied for a candlestick I am carving. Won't you draw that for me? I have some pupae cases and the moths will be out any day now. If I'd bring you one, wouldn't you just make a copy?"

The Girl gripped her hands together and stared straight ahead of her for a second, then she turned to him.

"I'd like to," she said, "but I have nothing to work with. In Chicago they furnished my material at the shop and I drew the design and was paid for the pattern. I didn't know there would be a chance for anything like that here. I haven't even proper pencils."

"Then the way for you to do this is to strip the first mullein plants you see of the petals. I will pay you seventy-five cents a pound for them. By the time you get a few pounds I can have material you need for drawing here and you can go to work on whatever flowers, vines, and things you can find in the woods, with no thanks to any one."

"I can't see that," said the Girl. "It would appear to me that I would be under more obligations than I could repay, and to a stranger."

"I figure it this way," said the Harvester, watching from the corner of his eye. "I can sell at good prices all the mullein flowers I can secure. You collect for me, I buy them. You can use drawing tools; I get them for you, and you pay me with the mullein or out of the ginseng money I owe you. You already have that coming, and it's just as much yours as it will be ten days from now. You needn't hesitate a second about drawing on it, because I am in a hurry for the moth pattern. I find time to carve only at night, you see. As for being under obligations to a stranger, in the first place all the debt would be on my side. I'd get the drugs and the pattern I want; and, in the second place, I positively and emphatically refuse to be a stranger. It would be so much better to be mutual helpers and friends of the kind worth having; and the sooner we begin, the sooner we can work together to good advantage. Get that stranger idea out of your head right now, and replace it with thoughts of a new friend, who is willing"--the Harvester detected panic in her eyes and ended casually--"to enter a partnership that will be of benefit to both of us. Partners can't be strangers, you know," he finished.

"I don't know what to think," said the Girl.

"Never bother your head with thinking," advised the Harvester with an air of large wisdom. "It is unprofitable and very tiring. Any one can see that you are too weary now. Don't dream of such a foolish thing as thinking. Don't worry over motives and obligations. Say to yourself, `I'll enter this partnership and if it brings me anything good, I'm that much ahead. If it fails, I have lost nothing.' That's the way to look at it."

Then before she could answer he continued: "Now I want all the mullein bloom I can get. You'll see the yellow heads everywhere. Strip the petals and bring them here, and I'll come for them every day. They must go on the trays as fresh as possible. On your part, we will make out the order now."

He took a pencil and notebook from his pocket.

"You want drawing pencils and brushes; how many, what make and size?"

The Girl hesitated for a moment as if struggling to decide what to do; then she named the articles.

"And paper?"

He wrote that down, and asked if there was more.

"I think," he said, "that I can get this order filled in Onabasha. The art stores should keep these things. And shouldn't you have water-colour paper and some paint?"

Then there was a flash across the white face.

"Oh if I only could!" she cried. "All my life I have been crazy for a box of colour, but I never could afford it, and of course, I can't now. But if this splendid plan works, and I can earn what I owe, then maybe I can."

"Well this `splendid plan' is going to `work,' don't you bother about that," said the Harvester. "It has begun working right now. Don't worry a minute. After things have gone wrong for a certain length of time, they always veer and go right a while as compensation. Don't think of anything save that you are at the turning. Since it is all settled that we are to be partners, would you name me the figures of the debt that is worrying you? Don't, if you mind. I just thought perhaps we could get along better if I knew. Is it----say five hundred dollars?"

"Oh dear no!" cried the Girl in a panic. "I never could face that! It is not quite one hundred, and that seems big as a mountain to me."

"Forget it!" he cried. "The ginseng will pay more than half; that I know. I can bring you the cash in a little over a week."

She started to speak, hesitated, and at last turned to him.

"Would you mind," she said, "if I asked you to keep it until I can find a way to go to town? It's too far to walk and I don't know how to send it. Would I dare put it in a letter?"

"Never!" said the Harvester. "You want a draft. That money will be too precious to run any risks. I'll bring it to you and you can write a note and explain to whom you want it paid, and I'll take it to the bank for you and get your draft. Then you can write a letter, and half your worry will be over safely."

"It must be done in a sure way," said the Girl. "If I knew I had the money to pay that much on what I owe, and then lost it, I simply could not endure it. I would lie down and give up as Aunt Molly has."

"Forget that too!" said the Harvester. "Wipe out all the past that has pain in it. The future is going to be beautifully bright. That little bird on the bush there just told me so, and you are always safe when you trust the feathered folk. If you are going to live in the country any length of time, you must know them, and they will become a great comfort. Are you planning to be here long?"

"I have no plans. After what I saw Chicago do to my mother I would rather finish life in the open than return to the city. It is horrible here, but at least I'm not hungry, and not afraid----all the time."

"Gracious Heaven!" cried the Harvester. "Do you mean to say that you are afraid any part of the time? Would you kindly tell me of whom, and why?"

"You should know without being told that when a woman born and reared in a city, and all her life confined there, steps into the woods for the first time, she's bound to be afraid. The last few weeks constitute my entire experience with the country, and I'm in mortal fear that snakes will drop from trees and bushes or spring from the ground. Some places I think I'm sinking, and whenever a bush catches my skirts it seems as if something dreadful is reaching up for me; there is a possibility of horror lurking behind every tree and----"

"Stop!" cried the Harvester. "I can't endure it! Do you mean to tell me that you are afraid here and now?"

She met his eyes squarely.

"Yes," she said. "It almost makes me ill to sit on this log without taking a stick and poking all around it first. Every minute I think something is going to strike me in the back or drop on my head."

The Harvester grew very white beneath the tan, and that developed a nice, sickly green complexion for him.

"Am I part of your tortures?" he asked tersely.

"Why shouldn't you be?" she answered. "What do I know of you or your motives or why you are here?"

"I have had no experience with the atmosphere that breeds such an attitude in a girl."

"That is a thing for which to thank Heaven. Undoubtedly it is gracious to you. My life has been different."

"Yet in mortal terror of the woods, and probably equal fear of me, you are here and asking for work that will keep you here."

"I would go through fire and flood for the money I owe. After that debt is paid----"

She threw out her hands in a hopeless gesture. The Harvester drew forth a roll of bills and tossed them into her lap.

"For the love of mercy take what you need and pay it," he said. "Then get a floor under your feet, and try, I beg of you, try to force yourself to have confidence in me, until I do something that gives you the least reason for distrusting me."

She picked up the money and gave it a contemptuous whirl that landed it at his feet.

"What greater cause of distrust could I have by any possibility than just that?" she asked.

The Harvester arose hastily, and taking several steps, he stood with folded arms, his back turned. The Girl sat watching him with wide eyes, the dull blue plain in their dusky depths. When he did not speak, she grew restless. At last she slowly arose and circling him looked into his face. It was convulsed with a struggle in which love and patience fought for supremacy over honest anger. As he saw her so close, his lips drew apart, and his breath came deeply, but he did not speak. He merely stood and looked at her, and looked; and she gazed at him as if fascinated, but uncomprehending.

"Ruth!"

The call came roaring up the hill. The Girl shivered and became paler.

"Is that your uncle?" asked the Harvester.

She nodded.

"Will you come to-morrow for your drawing materials?"

"Yes."

"Will you try to believe that there is absolutely nothing, either underfoot or overhead, that will harm you?"

"Yes."

"Will you try to think that I am not a menace to public safety, and that I would do much to help you, merely because I would be glad to be of service?"

"Yes."

"Will you try to cultivate the idea that there is nothing in all this world that would hurt you purposely?"

"Ruth!" came a splitting scream in gruff man-tones, keyed in deep anger.

"That sounds like it!" said the Girl, and catching up her skirts she ran through the woods, taking a different route toward the house.

The Harvester sat on the log and tried to think; but there are times when the numbed brain refuses to work, so he really sat and suffered. Belshazzar whimpered and licked his hands, and at last the man arose and went with the dog to the wagon. As they came through Onabasha, Betsy turned at the hospital corner, but the Harvester pulled her around and drove toward the country. Not until they crossed the railroad did he lift his head and then he drew a deep breath as if starved for pure air and spoke. "Not to-day Betsy! I can't face my friends just now. Someway I am making an awful fist of things. Everything I do is wrong. She no more trusts me than you would a rattlesnake, Belshazzar; and from all appearance she takes me to be almost as deadly. What must have been her experiences in life to ingrain fear and distrust in her soul at that rate? I always knew I was not handsome, but I never before regarded my appearance as alarming. And I `fixed up,' too!"

The Harvester grinned a queer little twist of a grin that pulled and distorted his strained face. "Might as well have gone with a week's beard, a soiled shirt, and a leer! And I've always been as decent as I knew! What's the reward for clean living anyway, if the girl you love strikes you like that?"

Belshazzar reached across and kissed him. The Harvester put his arm around the dog. In the man's disappointment and heart hunger he leaned his head against the beast and said, "I've always got you to love and protect me, anyway, Belshazzar. Maybe the man who said a dog was a man's best friend was right. You always trusted me, didn't you Bel? And you never regretted it but once, and that wasn't my fault. I never did it! If I did, I'm getting good and well paid for it. I'd rather be kicked until all the ribs of one side are broken, Bel, than to swallow the dose she just handed me. I tell you it was bitter, lad! What am I going to do? Can't you help me, Bel?"

Belshazzar quivered in anxiety to offer the comfort he could not speak.

"Of course you are right! You always are, Bel!" said the Harvester. "I know what you are trying to tell me. Sure enough, she didn't have any dream. I am afraid she had the bitterest reality. She hasn't been loving a vision of me, working and searching for me, and I don't mean to her what she does to me. Of course I see that I must be patient and bide my time. If there is anything in `like begetting like' she is bound to care for me some day, for I love her past all expression, and for all she feels I might as well save my breath. But she has got to awake some day, Bel. She can make up her mind to that. She can't see `why.' Over and over! I wonder what she would think if I'd up and tell her `why' with no frills. She will drive me to it some day, then probably the shock will finish her. I wonder if Doc was only fooling or if he really would do what he said. It might wake her up, anyway, but I'm dubious as to the result. How Uncle Henry can roar! He sounded like a fog horn. I'd love to try my muscle on a man like that. No wonder she is afraid of him, if she is of me. Afraid! Well of all things I ever did expect, Belshazzar, that is the limit."