The Harvester by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter XVI. Granny Moreland's Visit
The following morning the Girl was awakened by wheels on the gravel outside her window, and lifted her head to see Betsy passing with a load of lumber. Shortly afterward the sound of hammer and saw came to her, and she knew that Singing Water bridge was being roofed to provide shade for her. She dressed and went to the kitchen to find a dainty breakfast waiting, so she ate what she could, and then washed the dishes and swept. By that time she was so tired she dropped on a dining-room window seat, and lay looking toward the bridge. She could catch glimpses of the Harvester as he worked. She watched his deft ease in handling heavy timbers, and the assurance with which he builded. Sometimes he stood and with tilted head studied his work a minute, then swiftly proceeded. He placed three tree trunks on each side for pillars, laid joists across, formed his angle, and nailed boards as a foundation for shingling. Occasionally he glanced toward the cabin, and finally came swinging up the drive. He entered the kitchen softly, but when he saw the Girl in the window he sat at her feet.
"Oh but this is a morning, Ruth!" he said.
She looked at him closely. He radiated health and good cheer. His tanned cheeks were flushed red with exercise, and the hair on his temples was damp.
"You have been breaking the rules," he said. "It is the law that I am to do the work until you are well and strong again. Why did you tire yourself?"
"I am so perfectly useless! I see so many things that I would enjoy doing. Oh you can do everything else, make me well! Make me strong!"
"How can I, when you won't do as I tell you?"
"I will! Indeed I will!"
"Then no more attempts to stand over dishes and clean big floors. You mustn't overwork yourself at anything. The instant you feel in the least tired you must lie down and rest."
"But Man! I'm tired every minute, with a dead, dull ache, and I don't feel as if I ever would be rested again in all the world."
The Harvester took one of her hands, felt its fevered palm, fluttering wrist pulse, and noticed that the brilliant red of her lips had extended to spots on her cheeks. He formed his resolution.
"Can't work on that bridge any more until I drive in for some big nails," he said. "Do you mind being left alone for an hour?"
"Not at all, if Bel will stay with me. I'll lie in the swing."
"All right!" answered the Harvester. "I'll help you out and to get settled. Is there anything you want from town?"
"No, not a thing!"
"Oh but you are modest!" cried the Harvester. "I can sit here and name fifty things I want for you."
"Oh but you are extravagant!" imitated the Girl. "Please, please, Man, don't! Can't you see I have so much now I don't know what to do with it? Sometimes I almost forget the ache, just lying and looking at all the wonderful riches that have come to me so suddenly. I can't believe they won't vanish as they came. By the hour in the night I look at my lovely room, and I just fight my eyes to keep them from closing for fear they'll open in that stifling garret to the heat of day and work I have not strength to do. I know yet all this will prove to be a dream and a wilder one than yours."
The face of the Harvester was very anxious.
"Please to remember my dream came true," he said, "and much sooner than I had the least hope that it would. I'm wide awake or I couldn't be building bridges; and you are real, if I know flesh and blood when I touch it."
"If I were well, strong, and attractive, I could understand," she said. "Then I could work in the house, at the drawings, help with the herbs, and I'd feel as if I had some right to be here."
"All that is coming," said the Harvester. "Take a little more time. You can't expect to sin steadily against the laws of health for years, and recover in a day. You will be all right much sooner than you think possible."
"Oh I hope so!" said the Girl. "But sometimes I doubt it. How I could come here and put such a burden on a stranger, I can't see. I scarcely can remember what awful stress drove me. I had no courage. I should have finished in my garret as my mother did. I must have some of my father's coward blood in me. She never would have come. I never should!"
"If it didn't make any real difference to you, and meant all the world to me, I don't see why you shouldn't humour me. I can't begin to tell you how happy I am to have you here. I could shout and sing all day."
"It requires very little to make some people happy."
"You are not much, but you are going to be more soon," laughed the Harvester, as he gently picked up the Girl and carried her to the swing, where he covered her, kissed her hot hand, and whistled for Belshazzar. He pulled the table close and set a pitcher of iced fruit juice on it. Then he left her and she could hear the rattle of wheels as he crossed the bridge and drove away.
"Betsy, this is mighty serious business," said the Harvester. "The Girl is scorching or I don't know fever. I wonder----well, one thing is sure----she is bound to be better off in pure, cool air and with everything I can do to be kind, than in Henry Jameson's attic with everything he could do to be mean. Pleasant men those Jamesons! Wonder if the Girl's father was much like her Uncle Henry? I think not or her refined and lovely
mother never would have married him. Come to think of it, that's no law, Betsy. I've seen beautiful and delicate women fall under some mysterious spell, and yoke their lives with rank degenerates. Whatever he was, they have paid the price. Maybe the wife deserved it, and bore it in silence because she knew she did, but it's bitter hard on Ruth. Girls should be taught to think at least one generation ahead when they marry. I wonder what Doc will say, Betsy? He will have to come and see for himself. I don't know how she will feel about that. I had hoped I could pull her through with care, food, and tonics, but I don't dare go any farther alone. Betsy, that's a thin, hot, little hand to hold a man's only chance for happiness."
"Well, bridegroom! I've been counting the days!" said Doctor Carey. "The Missus and I made it up this morning that we had waited as long as we would. We are coming to-night. David"
"It's all right, Doc," said the Harvester. "Don't you dare think anything is wrong or that I am not the proudest, happiest man in this world, because I appear anxious. I am not trying to conceal it from you. You know we both agreed at first that Ruth should be in the hospital, Doc. Well, she should! She is what would be a lovely woman if she were not full of the poison of wrong food and air, overwork, and social conditions that have warped her. She is all I dreamed of and more, but I've come for you. She is too sick for me. I hoped she would begin to gain strength at once on changed conditions. As yet I can't see any difference. She needs a doctor, but I hate for her to know it. Could you come out this afternoon, and pretend as if it were a visit? Bring Mrs. Carey and watch the Girl. If you need an examination, I think she will obey me. If you can avoid it, fix what she should have and send it back to me by a messenger. I don't like to leave her when she is so ill."
"I'll come at once, David."
"Then she will know that I came for you, and that will frighten her. You can do more good to wait until afternoon, and pretend you are making a social call. I must go now. I'd have brought her in, but I have no proper conveyance yet. I'm promised something soon, perhaps it is ready now. Good-bye! Be sure to come!"
The Harvester drove to a livery barn and examined a little horse, a shining black creature that seemed gentle and spirited. He thought favourably of it. A few days before he had selected a smart carriage, and with this outfit tied behind the wagon he returned to Medicine Woods. He left the horse at the bridge, stabled Betsy, and then returned for the new conveyance, driving it to the hitching post. At the sound of unexpected wheels the Girl lifted her head and stared at the turnout.
"Come on!" cried the Harvester opening the screen. "We are going to the woods to initiate your carriage."
She went with little cries of surprised wonder.
"This is how you travel to Onabasha to do your shopping, to call on Mrs. Carey and the friends you will make, and visit the library. When I've tried out Mr. Horse enough to prove him reliable as guaranteed, he is yours, for your purposes only, and when you grow wonderfully well and strong, we'll sell him and buy you a real live horse and a stanhope, such as city ladies have; and there must be a saddle so that you can ride."
"Oh I'd love that!" cried the Girl. "I always wanted to ride! Where are we going?"
"To show you Medicine Woods," said the Harvester. "I've been waiting for this. You see there are several hundred acres of trees, thickets, shrubs, and herb beds up there, and if the wagon road that winds between them were stretched straight it would be many miles in length, so we have a cool, shaded, perfumed driveway all our own. Let me get you a drink before you start and the little shawl. It's chilly there compared with here. Now are you comfortable and ready?"
"Yes," said the Girl. "Hurry! I've just longed to go, but I didn't like to ask."
"I am sorry," said the Harvester. "Living here for years alone and never having had a sister, how am I going to know what a girl would like if you don't tell me? I knew it would be too tiresome for you to walk, and I was waiting to find a reliable horse and a suitable carriage."
"You won't scratch or spoil it up there?"
"I'll lower the top. It is not as wide as the wagon, so nothing will touch it."
"This is just so lovely, and such a wonderful treat, do you observe that I'm not saying a word about extravagance?" asked the Girl, as she leaned back in the carriage and inhaled the invigorating wood air.
The horse climbed the hill, and the Harvester guided him down long, dim roads through deep forest, while he explained what large thickets of bushes were, why he grew them, how he collected the roots or bark, for what each was used and its value. On and on they went, the way ahead always appearing as if it were too narrow to pass, yet proving amply wide when reached. Excited redbirds darted among the bushes, and the Harvester answered their cry. Blackbirds protested against the unusual intrusion of strange objects, and a brown thrush slipped from a late nest close the road wailing in anxiety.
One after another the Harvester introduced the Girl to the best trees, speculated on their age, previous history, and pointed out which brought large prices for lumber and which had medicinal bark and roots. On and on they slowly drove through the woods, past the big beds of cranesbill, violets, and lilies. He showed her where the mushrooms were most numerous, and for the first time told the story of how he had sold them and the violets from door to door in Onabasha in his search for her, and the amazed Girl sat staring at him. He told of Doctor Carey having seen her once, and inquired as they passed the bed if the yellow violets had revived. He stopped to search and found a few late ones, deep among the leaves.
"Oh if I only had known that!" cried the Girl, "I would have kept them forever."
"No need," said the Harvester. "Here and now I present you with the sole ownership of the entire white and yellow violet beds. Next spring you shall fill your room. Won't that be a treat?"
"One money never could buy!" cried the Girl.
"Seems to be my strong point," commented the Harvester. "The most I have to offer worth while is something you can't buy. There is a fine fairy platform. They can spare you one. I'll get it."
The Harvester broke from a tree a large fan-shaped fungus, the surface satin fine, the base mossy, and explained to the Girl that these were the ballrooms of the woods, the floors on which the little people dance in the moonlight at their great celebrations. Then he added a piece of woolly dog moss, and showed her how each separate spine was like a perfect little evergreen tree.
"That is where the fairies get their Christmas pines," he explained.
"Do you honestly believe in fairies?"
"Surely!" exclaimed the Harvester. "Who would tell me when the maples are dripping sap, and the mushrooms springing up, if the fairies didn't whisper in the night? Who paints the flower faces, colours the leaves, enamels the ripening fruit with bloom, and frosts the window pane to let me know that it is time to prepare for winter? Of course! They are my friends and everyday helpers. And the winds are good to me. They carry down news when tree bloom is out, when the pollen sifts gold from the bushes, and it's time to collect spring roots. The first bluebird always brings me a message. Sometimes he comes by the middle of February, again not until late March. Always on his day, Belshazzar decides my fate for a year. Six years we've played that game; now it is ended in blessed reality. In the woods and at my work I remain until I die, with a few outside tries at medicine making. I am putting up some compounds in which I really have faith. Of course they have got to await their time to be tested, but I believe in them. I have grown stuff so carefully, gathered it according to rules, washed it decently, and dried and mixed it with such scrupulous care. Night after night I've sat over the books until midnight and later, studying combinations; and day after day I've stood in the laboratory testing and trying, and two or three will prove effective, or I've a disappointment coming."
"You haven't wasted time! I'd much rather take medicines you make than any at the pharmacies. Several times I've thought I'd ask you if you wouldn't give me some of yours. The prescription Doctor Carey sent does no good. I've almost drunk it, and I am constantly tired, just the same. You make me something from these tonics and stimulants you've been telling me about. Surely you can help me!"
"I've got one combination that's going to save life, in my expectations. But Ruth, it never has been tried, and I couldn't experiment on the very light of my eyes with it. If I should give you something and you'd grow worse as a result--I am a strong man, my girl, but I couldn't endure that. I'd never dare. But dear, I am expecting Carey and his wife out any time; probably they will come to-day, it's so beautiful; and when they do, for my sake, won't you talk with him, tell him exactly what made you ill, and take what he gives you? He's a great man. He was recently President of the National Association of Surgeons. Long ago he abandoned general practice, but he will prescribe for you; all his art is at your command. It's quite an honour, Ruth. He performs all kinds of miracles, and saves life every day. He had not seen you, and what he gave me was only by guess. He may not think it is the right thing at all after he meets you."
"Then I am really ill?"
"No. You only have the germs of illness in your blood, and if you will help me that much we can eliminate them; and then it is you for housekeeper, with first assistant in me, the drawing tools, paint box, and all the woods for subjects. So, as I was going to tell you, Belshazzar and I have played our game for the last time. That decision was ultimate. Here I will work, live, and die. Here, please God, strong and happy, you shall live with me. Ruth, you have got to recover quickly. You will consult the doctor?"
"Yes, and I wish he would hurry," said the Girl. "He can't make me new too soon to suit me. If I had a strong body, oh Man, I just feel as if you could find a soul somewhere in it that would respond to all these wonders you have brought me among. Oh! make me well, and I'll try as woman never did before to bring you happiness to pay for it."
"Careful now," warned the Harvester. "There is to be no talk of obligations between you and me. Your presence here and your growing trust in me are all I ask at the hands of fate at present. Long ago I learned to `labour and to wait.' By the way----here's my most difficult labour and my longest wait. This is the precious gingseng bed."
"How pretty!" exclaimed the Girl.
Covering acres of wood floor, among the big trees, stretched the lacy green carpet. On slender, upright stalks waved three large leaves, each made up of five stemmed, ovate little leaves, round at the base, sharply pointed at the tip. A cluster of from ten to twenty small green berries, that would turn red later, arose above. The Harvester lifted a plant to show the Girl that the Chinese name, Jin-chen, meaning man-like, originated because the divided root resembled legs. Away through the woods stretched the big bed, the growth waving lightly in the wind, the peculiar odour filling the air.
"I am going to wait to gather the crop until the seeds are ripe," said the Harvester, "then bury some as I dig a root. My father said that was the way of the Indians. It's a mighty good plan. The seeds are delicate, and difficult to gather and preserve properly. Instead of collecting and selling all of them to start rivals in the business, I shall replant my beds. I must find a half dozen assistants to harvest this crop in that way, and it will be difficult, because it will come when my neighbours are busy with corn."
"Maybe I can help you."
"Not with ginseng digging," laughed the Harvester. "That is not woman's work. You may sit in an especially attractive place and boss the job."
"Oh dear!" cried the Girl. "Oh dear! I want to get out and walk."
Gradually they had climbed the summit of the hill, descended on the other side, and followed the road through the woods until they reached the brier patches, fruit trees; and the garden of vegetables, with big beds of sage, rue, wormwood, hoarhound, and boneset. From there to the lake sloped the sunny fields of mullein and catnip, and the earth was molten gold with dandelion creeping everywhere.
"Too hot to-day," cautioned the Harvester. "Too rough walking. Wait until fall, and I have a treat there for you. Another flower I want you to love because I do."
"I will," said the Girl promptly. "I feel it in my heart."
"Well I am glad you feel something besides the ache of fever," said the Harvester. Then noticing her tired face he added: "Now this little horse had quite a trip from town, and the wheels cut deeply into this woods soil and make difficult pulling, so I wonder if I had not better put him in the stable and let him become acquainted with Betsy. I don't know what she will think. She has had sole possession for years. Maybe she will be jealous, perhaps she will be as delighted for company as her master. Ruth, if you could have heard what I said to Belshazzar when he decided I was to go courting this year, and seen what I did to him, and then take a look at me now----merciful powers, I hope the dog doesn't remember! If he does, no wonder he forms a new allegiance so easily. Have you observed that lately when I whistle, he starts, and then turns back to see if you want him? He thinks as much of you as he does of me right now."
"Oh no!" cried the Girl. "That couldn't be possible. You told me I must make friends with him, so I have given him food, and tried to win him."
"You sit in the carriage until I put away the horse, and then I'll help you to the cabin, and save you being alone while I work. Would you like that?"
She leaned her head against the carriage top the Harvester had raised to screen her, and watched him stable the horse. Evidently he was very fond of animals for he talked as if it were a child he was undressing and kept giving it extra strokes and pats as he led it away. Ajax disliked the newcomer instantly, noticed the carriage and the woman's dress, and screamed his ugliest. The Girl smiled. As the Harvester appeared she inquired, "Is Ajax now sending a wireless to Ceylon asking for a mate?"
The Harvester looked at her quizzically and saw a gleam of mischief in the usually dull dark eyes that delighted him.
"That is the customary supposition when he finds voice," he said. "But since this has become your home, you are bound to learn some of my secrets. One of them I try to guard is the fact that Ajax has a temper. No my dear, he is not always sending a wireless, I am sorry to say. I wish he was! As a matter of fact he is venting his displeasure at any difference in our conditions. He hates change. He learned that from me. I will enjoy seeing him come for favour a year from now, as I learned to come for it, even when I didn't get much, and the road lay west of Onabasha. Ajax, stop that! There's no use to object. You know you think that horse is nice company for you, and that two can feed you more than one. Don't be a hypocrite! Cease crying things you don't mean, and learn to love the people I do. Come on, old boy!"
The peacock came, but with feathers closely pressed and stepping daintily. As the bird advanced, the Harvester retreated, until he stood beside the Girl, and then he slipped some grain to her hand and she offered it. But Ajax would not be coaxed. He was too fat and well fed. He haughtily turned and marched away, screaming at intervals.
"Nasty temper!" commented the Harvester. "Never mind! He soon will become accustomed to you, and then he will love you as Belshazzar does. Feed the doves instead. They are friendly enough in all conscience. Do you notice that there is not a coloured feather among them? The squab that is hatched with one you may have for breakfast. Now let's go find something to eat, and I will finish the bridge so you can rest there to-night and watch the sun set on Singing Water."
So they went into the cabin and prepared food, and then the Harvester told the Girl to make herself so pretty that she would be a picture and come and talk to him while he finished the roof. She went to her room, found a pale lavender linen dress and put it on, dusted the pink powder thickly, and went where a wide bench made an inviting place in the shade. There she sat and watched her lightly expressed whim take shape.
"Soon as this is finished," said the Harvester, "I am going to begin on that tea table. I can make it in a little while, if you want it to match the other furniture."
"I do," said the Girl.
"Wonder if you could draw a plan showing how it should appear. I am a little shy on tea tables."
"I think I can."
The Harvester brought paper, pencil, and a shingle for a drawing pad.
"Now remember one thing," he said. "If you are in earnest about using those old blue dishes, this has got to be a big, healthy table. A little one will appear top heavy with them. It would be a good idea to set out what you want to use, arranged as you would like them, and let me take the top measurement that way."
"All right! I'll only indicate how its legs should be and we will find the size later. I could almost weep because that wonderful set is broken. If I had all of it I'd be so proud!"
The Girl bent over the drawing. The Harvester worked with his attention divided between her, the bridge, and the road. At last he saw the big red car creeping up the valley.
"Seems to be some one coming, Ruth! Guess it must be Doc. I'll go open the gate?"
"Yes," said the Girl. "I'm so glad. You won't forget to ask him to help me if he can?"
The Harvester wheeled hastily. "I won't forget!" he said, as he hurried to the gate. The car ran slowly, and the Girl could see him swing to the step and stand talking as they advanced. When they reached her they stopped and all of them came forward. She went to meet them. She shook hands with Mrs. Carey and then with the doctor.
"I am so glad you have come," she said.
"I hope you are not lonesome already," laughed the doctor.
"I don't think any one with brains to appreciate half of this ever could become lonely here," answered the Girl. "No, it isn't that."
"A-ha!" cried the doctor, turning to his wife. "You see that the beautiful young lady remembers me, and has been wishing I would come. I always said you didn't half appreciate me. What a place you are making, David! I'll run the car to the shade and join you."
For a long time they talked under the trees, then they went to see the new home and all its furnishings.
"Now this is what I call comfort," said the doctor. "David, build us a house exactly similar to this over there on the hill, and let us live out here also. I'd love it. Would you, Clara?"
"I don't know. I never lived in the country. One thing is sure: If I tried it, I'd prefer this to any other place I ever saw. David, won't you take me far enough up the hill that I can look from the top to the lake?"
"Certainly," said the Harvester. "Excuse us a little while, Ruth!"
As soon as they were gone the Girl turned to the doctor.
"Doctor Carey, David says you are great. Won't you exercise your art on me. I am not at all well, and oh! I'd so love to be strong and sound."
"Will you tell me," asked the doctor, "just enough to show me what caused the trouble?"
"Bad air and water, poor light and food at irregular times, overwork and deep sorrow; every wrong condition of life you could imagine, with not a ray of hope in the distance, until now. For the sake of the Harvester, I would be well again. Please, please try to cure me!"
So they talked until the doctor thought he knew all he desired, and then they went to see the gold flower garden.
"I call this simply superb," said he, taking a seat beneath the tree roof of her porch. "Young woman, I don't know what I'll do to you if you don't speedily grow strong here. This is the prettiest place I ever saw, and listen to the music of that bubbling, gurgling little creek!"
"Isn't he wonderful?" asked the Girl, looking up the hill, where the tall form of the Harvester could be seen moving around. "Just to see him, you would think him the essence of manly strength and force. And he is! So strong! Into the lake at all hours, at the dry-house, on the hill, grubbing roots, lifting big pillars to support a bridge roof, and with it all a fancy as delicate as any dreaming girl. Doctor, the fairies paint the flowers, colour the fruit, and frost the windows for him; and the winds carry pollen to tell him when his growing things are ready for the dry-house. I don't suppose I can tell you anything new about him; but isn't he a perpetual surprise? Never like any one else! And no matter how he startles me in the beginning, he always ends by convincing me, at least, that he is right."
"I never loved any other man as I do him," said the doctor. "I ushered him into the world when I was a young man just beginning to practise, and I've known him ever since. I know few men so scrupulously clean. Try to get well and make him happy, Mrs. Langston. He so deserves it."
"You may be sure I will," answered the Girl.
After the visitors had gone, the Harvester told her to place the old blue dishes as she would like to arrange them on her table, so he could get a correct idea of the size, and he left to put a few finishing strokes on the bridge cover. She went into the dining-room and opened the china closet. She knew from her peep in the work- room that there would be more pieces than she had seen before; but she did not think or hope that a full half dozen tea set and plates, bowl, platter, and pitcher would be waiting for her.
"Why Ruth, what made you tire yourself to come down? I intended to return in a few minutes."
"Oh Man!" cried the laughing Girl, as she clung pantingly to a bridge pillar for support, "I just had to come to tell you. There are fairies! Really truly ones! They have found the remainder of the willow dishes for me, and now there are so many it isn't going to be a table at all. It must be a little cupboard especially for them, in that space between the mantel and the bookcase. There should be a shining brass tea canister, and a wafer box like the arts people make, and I'll pour tea and tend the chafing dish and you can toast the bread with a long fork over the coals, and we will have suppers on the living-room table, and it will be such fun."
"Be seated!" cried the Harvester. "Ruth, that's the longest speech I ever heard you make, and it sounded, praise the Lord, like a girl. Did Doc say he would fix something for you?"
"Yes, such a lot of things! I am going to shut my eyes and open my mouth and swallow all of them. I'm going to be born again and forget all I ever knew before I came here, and soon I will be tagging you everywhere, begging you to suggest designs for my pencil, and I'll simply force life to come right for you."
The Harvester smiled.
"Sounds good!" he said. "But, Ruth, I'm a little dubious about force work. Life won't come right for me unless you learn to love me, and love is a stubborn, contrary bulldog element of our nature that won't be driven an inch. It wanders as the wind, and strikes us as it will. You'll arrive at what I hope for much sooner if you forget it and amuse yourself and be as happy as you can. Then, perhaps all unknown to you, a little spark of tenderness for me will light in your breast; and if it ever does we will buy a fanning mill and put it in operation, and we'll raise a flame or know why."
"And there won't be any force in that?"
"What you can't compel is the start. It's all right to push any growth after you have something to work on."
"That reminds me," said the Girl, "there is a question I want to ask you."
"Go ahead!" said the Harvester, glancing at her as he hewed a joist.
She turned away her face and sat looking across the lake for a long time.
"Is it a difficult question, Ruth?" inquired the Harvester to help her.
"Yes," said the Girl. "I don't know how to make you see."
"Take any kind of a plunge. I'm not usually dense."
"It is really quite simple after all. It's about a girl----a girl I knew very well in Chicago. She had a problem----and it worried her dreadfully, and I just wondered what you would think of it."
The Harvester shifted his position so that he could watch the side of the averted face.
"You'll have to tell me, before I can tell you," he suggested.
"She was a girl who never had anything from life but work and worry. Of course, that's the only kind I'd know! One day when the work was most difficult, and worry cut deepest, and she really thought she was losing her mind, a man came by and helped her. He lifted her out, and rescued all that was possible for a man to save to her in honour, and went his way. There wasn't anything more. Probably there never would be. His heart was great, and he stooped and pitied her gently and passed on. After a time another man came by, a good and noble man, and he offered her love so wonderful she hadn't brains to comprehend how or why it was."
The Girl's voice trailed off as if she were too weary to speak further, while she leaned her head against a pillar and gazed with dull eyes across the lake.
"And your question," suggested the Harvester at last.
She roused herself. "Oh, the question! Why this---- if in time, and after she had tried and tried, love to equal his simply would not come would----would----she be wrong to pretend she cared, and do the very best she could, and hope for real love some day? Oh David, would she?"
The Harvester's face was whiter than the Girl's. He pounded the chisel into the joist savagely.
"Would she, David?"
"Let me understand you clearly," said the man in a dry, breathless voice. "Did she love this first man to whom she came under obligations?"
The Girl sat gazing across the lake and the tortured Harvester stared at her.
"I don't know," she said at last. "I don't know whether she knew what love was or ever could. She never before had known a man; her heart was as undeveloped and starved as her body. I don't think she realized love, but there was a something. Every time she would feel most grateful and long for the love that was offered her, that `something' would awake and hurt her almost beyond endurance. Yet she knew he never would come. She knew he did not care for her. I don't know that she felt she wanted him, but she was under such obligations to him that it seemed as if she must wait to see if he might not possibly come, and if he did she should be free."
"If he came, she preferred him?"
"There was a debt she had to pay----if he asked it. I don't know whether she preferred him. I do know she had no idea that he would come, but the possibility was always before her. If he didn't come in time, would she be wrong in giving all she had to the man who loved her?"
The Harvester's laugh was short and sharp.
"She had nothing to give, Ruth! Talk about worm- wood, colocynth apples, and hemlock! What sort of husks would that be to offer a man who gave honest love? Lie to him! Pretend feeling she didn't experience. Endure him for the sake of what he offered her? Well I don't know how calmly any other man would take that proceeding, Ruth, but tell your friend for me, that if I offered a woman the deep, lasting, and only loving passion of my heart, and she gave back a lie and indifferent lips, I'd drop her into the deepest hole of my lake and take my punishment cheerfully."
"But if it would make him happy? He deserves every happiness, and he need never know!"
The Harvester's laugh raised to an angry roar.
"You simpleton!" he cried roughly. "Do you know so little of human passion in the heart that you think love can be a successful assumption? Good Lord, Ruth! Do you think a man is made of wood or stone, that a woman's lips in her first kiss wouldn't tell him the truth? Why Girl, you might as well try to spread your tired arms and fly across the lake as to attempt to pretend a love you do not feel. You never could!"
"I said a girl I knew!"
" `A Girl you knew,' then! Any woman! The idea is monstrous. Tell her so and forget it. You almost scared the life out of me for a minute, Ruth. I thought it was going to be you. But I remember your debt is to be paid with the first money you earn, and you can not have the slightest idea what love is, if you honestly ask if it can be simulated. No ma'am! It can't! Not possibly! Not ever! And when the day comes that its fires light your heart, you will come to me, and tell of a flood of delight that is tingling from the soles of your feet through every nerve and fibre of your body, and you will laugh with me at the time when you asked if it could be imitated successfully. No, ma'am! Now let me help you to the cabin, serve a good supper, and see you eat like a farmer."
All evening the Harvester was so gay he kept the Girl laughing and at last she asked him the cause.
"Relief, honey! Relief!" cried the man. "You had me paralyzed for a minute, Ruth. I thought you were trying to tell me that there was some one so possessing your heart that it failed every time you tried to think about caring for me. If you hadn't convinced me before you finished that love never has touched you, I'd be the saddest man in the world to-night, Ruth."
The Girl stared at him with wide eyes and silently turned away.
Then for a week they worked out life together in the woods. The Harvester was the housekeeper and the cook. He added to his store many delicious broths and stimulants he brought from the city. They drove every day through the cool woods, often rowed on the lake in the evenings, walked up the hill to the oak and scattered fresh flowers on the two mounds there, and sat beside them talking for a time. The Harvester kept up his work with the herbs, and the little closet for the blue dishes was finished. They celebrated installing them by having supper on the living-room table, with the teapot on one end, and the pitcher full of bellflowers on the other.
The Girl took everything prescribed for her, bathed, slept all she could, and worked for health with all the force of her frail being, and as the days went by it seemed to the Harvester her weight grew lighter, her hands hotter, and she drove herself to a gayety almost delirious. He thought he would have preferred a dull, stupid sleep of malaria. There was colour in plenty on her cheeks now, and sometimes he found her wrapped in the white shawl at noon on the warmest days Medicine Woods knew in early August; and on cool nights she wore the thinnest clothing and begged to be taken on the lake. The Careys came out every other evening and the doctor watched and worked, but he did not get the results he desired. His medicines were not effective.
"David," he said one evening, "I don't like the looks of this. Your wife has fever I can't break. It is eating the little store of vitality she has right out of her, and some of these days she is coming down with a crash. She should yield to the remedies I am giving her. She acts to me like a woman driven wild by trouble she is concealing. Do you know anything that worries her?"
"No," said the Harvester, "but I'll try to find out if it will help you in your work."
After they were gone he left the Girl lying in the swing guarded by the dog, and went across the marsh on the excuse that he was going to a bed of thorn apple at the foot of the hill. There he sat on a log and tried to think. With the mists of night rising around him, ghosts arose he fain would have escaped. "What will you give me in cold cash to tell you who she is, and who her people are?" Times untold in the past two weeks he had smothered, swallowed, and choked it down. That question she had wanted to ask----was it for a girl she had known, or was it for herself? Days of thought had deepened the first slight impression he so bravely had put aside, not into certainty, but a great fear that she had meant herself. If she did, what was he to do? Who was the man? There was a debt she had to pay if he asked it? What debt could a woman pay a man that did not involve money? Crouched on a log he suffered and twisted in agonizing thought. At last he arose and returned to the cabin. He carried a few frosty, blue-green leaves of velvet softness and unusual cutting, prickly thorn apples full of seeds, and some of the smoother, more yellowish-green leaves of the jimson weed, to give excuse for his absence.
"Don't touch them," he warned as he came to her. "They are poison and have disagreeable odour. But we are importing them for medicinal purposes. On the far side of the marsh, where the ground rises, there is a waste place just suited to them, and so long as they will seed and flourish with no care at all, I might as well have the price as the foreign people who raise them. They don't bring enough to make them worth cultivating, but when they grow alone and with no care, I can make money on the time required to clip the leaves and dry the seeds. I must go wash before I come close to you."
The next day he had business in the city, and again she lay in the swing and talked to the dog while the Harvester was gone. She was startled as Belshazzar arose with a gruff bark. She looked down the driveway, but no one was coming. Then she followed the dog's eyes and saw a queer, little old woman coming up the bank of Singing Water from the north. She remembered what the Harvester had said, and rising she opened the screen and went down the path. As the Girl advanced she noticed the scrupulous cleanliness of the calico dress and gingham apron, and the snowy hair framing a bronzed face with dancing dark eyes.
"Are you David's new wife?" asked Granny Moreland with laughing inflection.
"Yes," said the Girl. "Come in. He told me to expect you. I am so sorry he is away, but we can get acquainted without him. Let me help you."
"I don't know but that ought to be the other way about. You don't look very strong, child."
"I am not well," said the Girl, "but it's lovely here, and the air is so fine I am going to be better soon. Take this chair until you rest a little, and then you shall see our pretty home, and all the furniture and my dresses."
"Yes, I want to see things. My, but David has tried himself! I heard he was just tearin' up Jack over here, and I could get the sound of the hammerin', and one day he asked me to come and see about his beddin'. He had that Lizy Crofter to wash for him, but if I hadn't jest stood over her his blankets would have been ruined. She's no more respect for fine goods than a pig would have for cream pie. I hate to see woollens abused, as if they were human. My, but things is fancy here since what David planted is growin'! Did you ever live in the country before?"
"Where do you hail from?"
"Well not from the direction of hail," laughed the Girl. "I lived in Chicago, but we were----were not rich, and so I didn't know the luxury of the city; just the lonely, difficult part."
"Do you call Chicago lonely?"
"A thousand times more so than Medicine Woods. Here I know the trees will whisper to me, and the water laughs and sings all day, and the birds almost split their throats making music for me; but I can imagine no loneliness on earth that will begin to compare with being among the crowds and crowds of a large city and no one has a word or look for you. I miss the sea of faces and the roar of life; at first I was almost wild with the silence, but now I don't find it still any more; the Harvester is teaching me what each sound means and they seem to be countless."
"You think, then, you'll like it here?"
"I do, indeed! Any one would. Even more than the beautiful location, I love the interesting part of the Harvester's occupation. I really think that gathering material to make medicines that will allay pain is the very greatest of all the great work a man can do."
"Good!" cried Granny Moreland, her dark eyes snapping. "I've always said it! I've tried to encourage David in it. And he's just capital at puttin' some of his stuff in shape, and combinin' it in as good medicine as you ever took. This spring I was all crippled up with the rheumatiz until I wanted to holler every time I had to move, and sometimes it got so aggravatin' I'm not right sure but I done it. 'Long comes David and says, `I can fix you somethin',' and bless you, if the boy didn't take the tucks out of me, until here I am, and tickled to pieces that I can get here. This time last year I didn't care if I lived or not. Now seems as if I'm caperish as a three weeks' lamb. I don't see how a man could do a bigger thing than to stir up life in you like that."
"I think this place makes an especial appeal to me, because, shortly before I came, I had to give up my mother. She was very ill and suffered horribly. Every time I see David going to his little laboratory on the hill to work a while I slip away and ask God to help him to fix something that will ease the pain of humanity as I should like to have seen her relieved."
"Why you poor child! No wonder you are lookin' so thin and peaked!"
"Oh I'll soon be over that," said the Girl. "I am much better than when I came. I'll be coming over to trade pie with you before long. David says you are my nearest neighbour, so we must be close friends."
"Well bless your big heart! Now who ever heard of a pretty young thing like you wantin' to be friends with a plain old country woman?"
"Why I think you are lovely!" cried the Girl. "And all of us are on the way to age, so we must remember that we will want kindness then more than at any other time. David says you knew his mother. Sometime won't you tell me all about her? You must very soon. The Harvester adored her, and Doctor Carey says she was the noblest woman he ever knew. It's a big contract to take her place. Maybe if you would tell me all you can remember I could profit by much of it."
Granny Moreland watched the Girl keenly.
"She wa'ant no ordinary woman, that's sure," she commented. "And she didn't make no common man out of her son, either. I've always contended she took the job too serious, and wore herself out at it, but she certainly done the work up prime. If she's above cloud leanin' over the ramparts lookin' down----though it gets me as to what foundation they use or where they get the stuff to build the ramparts----but if they is ramparts, and she's peekin' over them, she must take a lot of solid satisfaction in seeing that David is not only the man she fought and died to make him, but he's give her quite a margin to spread herself on. She 'lowed to make him a big man, but you got to know him close and plenty 'fore it strikes you jest what his size is. I've watched him pretty sharp, and tried to help what I could since Marthy went, and I'm frank to say I druther see David happy than to be happy myself. I've had my fling. The rest of the way I'm willin' to take what comes, with the best grace I can muster, and wear a smilin' face to betoken the joy I have had; but it cuts me sore to see the young sufferin'."
"Do you think David is unhappy?" asked the Girl eagerly.
"I don't see how he could be!" cried the old lady. "Of course he ain't! 'Pears as if he's got everythin' to make him the proudest, best satisfied of men. I'll own I was mighty anxious to see you. I know the kind o' woman it would take to make David miserable, and it seems sometimes as if men----that is good men----are plumb, stone blind when it comes to pickin' a woman. They jest hitch up with everlastin' misery easy as dew rolling off a cabbage leaf. It's sech a blessed sight to see you, and hear your voice and know you're the woman anybody can see you be. Why I'm so happy when I set here and con-tem'-plate you, I want to cackle like a pullet announcin' her first egg. Ain't this porch the purtiest place?"
"Come see everything," invited the Girl, rising.
Granny Moreland followed with alacrity.
"Bare floors!" she cried. "Wouldn't that best you? I saw they was finished capital when I was over, but I 'lowed they'd be covered afore you come. Don't you like nice, flowery Brissels carpets, honey?"
"No I don't," said the Girl. "You see, when rugs are dusty they can be rolled, carried outside, and cleaned. The walls can be wiped, the floors polished and that way a house is always fresh. I can keep this shining, germ proof, and truly clean with half the work and none of the danger of heavy carpets and curtains."
"I don't doubt but them is true words," said Granny Moreland earnestly. "Work must be easier and sooner done than it was in my day, or people jest couldn't have houses the size of this or the time to gad that women have now. From the looks of tile streets of Onabasha, you wouldn't think a woman 'ud had a baby to tend, a dinner pot a-bilin', or a bakin' of bread sence the flood. And the country is jest as bad as the city. We're a apin' them to beat the monkeys at a show. I hardly got a neighbour that ain't got figgered Brissels carpet, a furnace, a windmill, a pianny, and her own horse and buggy. Several's got autermobiles, and the young folks are visitin' around a-ridin' the trolleys, goin' to college, and copyin' city ways. Amos Peters, next to us; goes bareheaded in the hay field, and wears gloves to pitch and plow in. I tell him he reminds me of these city women that only wears the lower half of a waist and no sleeves, and a yard of fine goods moppin' the floors. Well if that don't 'beat the nation! Ain't them Marthy's old blue dishes?"
"Let me show you!" The Girl opened the little cupboard and exhibited the willow ware. The eyes of the old woman began to sparkle.
"Foundation or no foundation, I do hope them ramparts is a go!" she cried. "If Marthy Langston is squintin' over them and she sees her old chany put in a fine cupboard, and her little shawl round as purty a girl as ever stepped, and knows her boy is gittin' what he deserves, good Lord, she'll be like to oust the Almighty, and set on the throne herself! 'Bout everythin' in life was a disappointment to her, 'cept David. Now if she could see this! Won't I rub it into the neighbours? And my boys' wives!"
"I don't understand," said the bewildered Girl.
" 'Course you don't, honey," explained the visitor. "It's like this: I don't know anybody, man or woman, in these parts, that ain't rampagin' for change. They ain't one of them that would live in a log cabin, though they's not a house in twenty miles of here that fits its surroundin's and looks so homelike as this. They run up big, fancy brick and frame things, all turns and gables and gay as frosted picnic pie, and work and slave to git these very carpets you say ain't healthy, and the chairs you say you wouldn't give house room, an' they use their grandmother's chany for bakin', scraps, and grease dishes, and hide it if they's visitors. All of them strainin' after something they can't afford, and that ain't healthy when they git it, because somebody else is doin' the same thing. Mary Peters says she is afeared of her life in their new steam wagon, and she says Andy gits so narvous runnin' it, he jest keeps on a-jerkin' and drivin' all night, and she thinks he'll soon go to smash himself, if the machine doesn't beat him. But they are keepin' it up, because Graceston's is, and so it goes all over the country. Now I call it a slap right in the face to have a Chicagy woman come to the country to live and enjoy a log cabin, bare floors, and her man's grandmother's dishes. If there ain't Marthy's old blue coverlid also carefully spread on a splinter new sofy. Landy, I can't wait to get to my son John's! He's got a woman that would take two coppers off the collection plate while she was purtendin' to put on one, if she could, and then spend them for a brass pin or a string of glass beads. Won't her eyes bung when I tell her about this? She wanted my Peter Hartman kiver for her ironin' board. Show me the rest!"
"This is the dining-room," said the Girl, leading the way.
Granny Moreland stepped in and sent her keen eyes ranging over the floor, walls, and furnishings. She sank on a chair and said with a chuckle, "Now you go on and tell me all about it, honey. Jest what things are and why you fixed them, and how they are used."
The Girl did her best, and the old woman nodded in delighted approval.
"It's the purtiest thing I ever saw," she announced. "A minute ago, I'd 'a' said them blue walls back there, jest like October skies in Indian summer, and the brown rugs, like leaves in the woods, couldn't be beat; but this green and yaller is purtier yet. That blue room will keep the best lookin' part of fall on all winter, and with a roarin' wood fire, it'll be capital, and no mistake; but this here is spring, jest spring eternal, an' that's best of all. Looks like it was about time the leaves was bustin' and things pushin' up. It wouldn't surprise me a mite to see a flock of swallers come sailin' right through these winders. And here's a place big enough to lay down and rest a spell right handy to the kitchen, where a-body gits tiredest, without runnin' a half mile to find a bed, and in the mornin' you can look down to the `still waters'; and in the afternoon, when the sun gits around here, you can pull that blind and `lift your eyes to the hills,' like David of the Bible says. My, didn't he say the purtiest things! I never read nothin' could touch him!"
"Have you seen the Psalms arranged in verse as we would write it now?"
"You don't mean to tell me David's been put into real poetry?"
"Yes. Some Bibles have all the poetical books in our forms of verse."
"Well! Sometimes I git kind o' knocked out! As a rule I hold to old ways. I think they're the healthiest and the most faver'ble to the soul. But they's some changes come along, that's got sech hard common-sense to riccomend them, that I wonder the past generations didn't see sooner. Now take this! An hour ago I'd told you I'd read my father's Bible to the end of my days. But if they's a new one that's got David, Solomon, and Job in nateral form, I'll have one, and I'll git a joy I never expected out of life. I ain't got so much poetry in me, but it always riled me to read, `7. The law of the Lord is perfect, covertin' the soul. 8. The statutes of the Lord are right. 9. The fear of the Lord is clean.' And so it goes on, 'bout as much figgers as they is poetry. Always did worry me. So if they make Bibles 'cordin' to common sense, I'll have one to-morrow if I have to walk to Onabasha to get it. Lawsy me! if you ain't gathered up Marthy's old pink tea set, and give it a show, too! Did you do that to please David, or do you honestly think them is nice dishes?"
"I think they are beautiful," laughed the Girl, sinking to a chair. "I don't know that it did please him. He had been studying the subject, but something saved him from buying anything until I came. I'd have felt dreadfully if he had gotten what he wanted."
"What did he want, honey?" asked the old lady in an awestruck whisper.
"Egg-shell china and cut glass."
"And you wouldn't let him! Woman! What do you want?"
"A set of tulip-yellow dishes, with Dutch little figures on them. They are so quaint and they would harmonize perfectly with this room."
The old lady laughed gleefully.
"My! I wouldn't 'a' missed this for a dollar," she cried. "It jest does my soul good. More'n that, if you really like Marthy's dishes and are going to take care of them and use them right, I'll give you mine, too. I ain't never had a girl. I've always hoped she'd 'a' had some jedgment of her own, and not been eternally apin', if I had, but the Lord may 'a' saved me many a disappointment by sendin' all mine boys. Not that I'm layin' the babies on to the Lord at all----I jest got into the habit of sayin' that, 'cos everybody else does, but all mine, I had a purty good idy how I got them. If a girl of mine wouldn't 'a' had more sense, raised right with me, I'd' a' been purty bad cut up over it. Of course, I can't be held responsible for the girls my boys married, but t'other day Emmeline ----that's John's wife----John is the youngest, and I sort o' cling to him----Emmeline she says to me, `Mother, can't I have this old pink and green teapot?' My heart warmed right up to the child, and I says, `What do you want it for, Emmeline?' And she says, `To draw the tea in.' Cracky Dinah! That fool woman meant to set my grandmother's weddin' present from her pa and ma, dishes same as Marthy Washington used, on the stove to bile the tea in. I jest snorted! `No, says I, `you can't! 'Fore I die,' says I, `I'll meet up with some woman that 'll love dishes and know how to treat them.' I think jest about as much of David as I do my own boys, and I don't make no bones of the fact that he's a heap more of a man. I'd jest as soon my dishes went to his children as to John's. I'll give you every piece I got, if you'll take keer of them."
"Would it be right?" wavered the girl.
"Right! Why, I'm jest tellin' you the fool wimmen would bile tea in them, make grease sassers of them, and use them to dish up the bakin' on! Wouldn't you a heap rather see them go into a cupboard like David's ma's is in, where they'd be taken keer of, if they was yours? I guess you would!"
"Well if you feel that way, and really want us to have them, I know David will build another little cupboard on the other side of the fireplace to put yours in, and I can't tell you how I'd love and care for them."
"I'll jest do it!" said Granny Moreland. "I got about as many blue ones as Marthy had an' mine are purtier than hers. And my lustre is brighter, for I didn't use it so much. Is this the kitchen? Well if I ever saw sech a cool, white place to cook in before! Ain't David the beatenest hand to think up things? He got the start of that takin' keer of his ma all his life. He sort of learned what a woman uses, and how it's handiest. Not that other men don't know; it's jest that they are too mortal selfish and keerless to fix things. Well this is great! Now when you bile cabbage and the wash, always open your winders wide and let tho steam out, so it won't spile your walls."
"I'll be very careful," promised the Girl. "Now come see my bathroom, closet and bedroom."
"Well as I live! Ain't this fine. I'll bet a purty that if I'd 'a' had a room and a trough like this to soak in when I was wore to a frazzle, I wouldn't 'a' got all twisted up with rheumatiz like I am. It jest looks restful to see. I never washed in a place like this in all my days. Must feel grand to be wet all over at once! Now everybody ought to have sech a room and use it at all hours, like David does the lake. Did you ever see his beat to go swimmin'? He's always in splashin'! Been at it all his life. I used to be skeered when he was a little tyke. He soaked so much 'peared like he'd wash all the substance out of him, but it only made him strong."
"Has he ever been ill?"
"Not that I know of, and I reckon I'd knowed it if he had. Well what a clothespress! I never saw so many dresses at once. Ain't they purty? Oh I wish I was young, and could have one like that yaller. And I'd like to have one like your lavender right now. My! You are lucky to have so many nice clothes. It's a good thing most girls haven't got them, or they'd stand primpin' all day tryin' to decide which one to put on. I don't see how you tell yourself."
"I wear the one that best hides how pale I am," answered the Girl. "I use the colours now. When I grow plump and rosy, I'll wear the white."
Granny Moreland dropped on the couch and assured herself that it was Martha's pink Peter Hartman. Then she examined the sunshine room.
"Well I got to go back to the start," she said at last. "This beats the dinin'-room. This is the purtiest thing I ever saw. Oh I do hope they ain't so run to white in Heaven as some folks seem to think! Used to be scandalized if a-body took anythin' but a white flower to a funeral. Now they tell me that when Jedge Stilton's youngest girl come from New York to her pa's buryin' she fetched about a wash tub of blood-red roses. Put them all over him, too! Said he loved red roses livin' and so he was goin' to have them when he passed over. Now if they are lettin' up a little on white on earth, mebby some of the stylish ones will carry the fashion over yander. If Heaven is like this, I won't spend none of my time frettin' about the foundations. I'll jest forget there is any, even if we do always have to be so perticler to get them solid on earth. Talk of gold harps! Can't you almost hear them? And listen to the birds and that water! Say, you won't get lonesome here, will you?"
"Indeed no!" answered the Girl. "Wouldn't you like to lie on my beautiful couch that the Harvester made with his own hands, and I'll spread Mother Langston's coverlet over you and let you look at all my pretty things while I slip away a few minutes to something I'd like to do?"
"I'd love to!" said the old woman. "I never had a chance at such fine things. David told me he was makin' your room all himself, and that he was goin' to fill it chuck full of everythin' a girl ever used, and I see he done it right an' proper. Away last March he told me he was buildin' for you, an' I hankered so to have a woman here again, even though I never s'posed she'd be sochiable like you, that I egged him on jest all I could. I never would 'a' s'posed the boy could marry like this---- all by himself."
The Girl went to the ice chest to bring some of the fruit juice, chilled berries, and to the pantry for bread and wafers to make a dainty little lunch that she placed on the veranda table; and then she and Granny Moreland talked, until the visitor said that she must go. The Girl went with her to the little bridge crossing Singing Water on the north. There the old lady took her hand.
"Honey," she said, "I'm goin' to tell you somethin'. I am so happy I can purt near fly. Last night I was comin' down the pike over there chasin' home a contrary old gander of mine, and I looked over on your land and I see David settin' on a log with his head between his hands a lookin' like grim death, if I ever see it. My heart plum stopped. Says I, `she's a failure! She's a bustin' the boy's heart! I'll go straight over and tell her so.' I didn't dare bespeak him, but I was on nettles all night. I jest laid a-studyin' and a-studyin', and I says, `Come mornin' I'll go straight and give her a curry- combin' that'll do her good.' And I started a-feelin' pretty grim, and here you came to meet me, and wiped it all out of my heart in a flash. It did look like the boy was grievin'; but I know now he was jest thinkin' up what to put together to take the ache out of some poor old carcass like mine. It never could have been about you. Like a half blind old fool I thought the boy was sufferin', and here he was only studyin'! Like as not he was thinkin' what to do next to show you how he loves you. What an old silly I was! I'll sleep like a log to-night to pay up for it. Good-bye, honey! You better go back and lay down a spell. You do look mortal tired."
The Girl said good-bye and staggering a few steps sank on a log and sat staring at the sky.
"Oh he was suffering, and about me!" she gasped. A chill began to shake her and feverish blood to race through her veins. "He does and gives everything; I do and give nothing! Oh why didn't I stay at Uncle Henry's until it ended? It wouldn't have been so bad as this. What will I do? Oh what will I do? Oh mother, mother! if I'd only had the courage you did."
She arose and staggered up the hill, passed the cabin and went to the oak. There she sank shivering to earth, and laid her face among the mosses. The frightened Harvester found her at almost dusk when he came from the city with the Dutch dishes, and helped a man launch a gay little motor boat for her on the lake.
"Why Ruth! Ruth-girl!" he exclaimed, kneeling beside her.
She lifted a strained, distorted face.
"Don't touch me! Don't come near me!" she cried. "It is not true that I am better. I am not! I am worse! I never will be better. And before I go I've got to tell you of the debt I owe; then you will hate me, and then I will be glad! Glad, I tell you! Glad! When you despise me? then I can go, and know that some day you will love a girl worthy of you. Oh I want you to hate me I am fit for nothing else."
She fell forward sobbing wildly and the Harvester tried in vain to quiet her. At last he said, "Well then tell me, Ruth. Remember I don't want to hear what you have to say. I will believe nothing against you, not even from your own lips, when you are feverish and excited as now, but if it will quiet you, tell me and have it over. See, I will sit here and listen, and when you have finished I'll pick you up and carry you to your room, and I am not sure but I will kiss you over and over. What is it you want to tell me, Ruth?"
She sat up panting and pushed back the heavy coils of hair.
"I've got to begin away at the beginning to make you see," she said. "The first thing I can remember is a small, such a small room, and mother sewing and sometimes a man I called father. He was like Henry Jameson made over tall and smooth, and more, oh, much more heartless! He was gone long at a time, and always we had most to eat, and went oftener to the parks, and were happiest with him away. When I was big enough to understand, mother told me that she had met him and cared for him when she was an inexperienced girl. She must have been very, very young, for she was only a girl as I first remember her, and oh! so lovely, but with the saddest face I ever saw. She said she had a good home and every luxury, and her parents adored her; but they knew life and men, and they would not allow him in their home, and so she left it with him, and he married her and tried to force them to accept him, and they would not. At first she bore it. Later she found him out, and appealed to them, but they were away or would not forgive, and she was a proud thing, and would not beg more after she had said she was wrong, and would they take her back.
"I grew up and we were girls together. We embroidered, and I drew, and sometimes we had little treats and good times, and my father did not come often, and we got along the best we could. Always it was worse on her, because she was not so strong as I, and her heart was secretly breaking for her mother, and she was afraid he would come back any hour. She was tortured that she could not educate me more than to put me through the high school. She wore herself out doing that, but she was wild for me to be reared and trained right. So every day she crouched over delicate laces and embroidery, and before and after school I carried it and got more, and in vacation we worked together. But living grew higher, and she became ill, and could not work, and I hadn't her skill, and the drawings didn't bring much, and I'd no tools----"
"Ruth, for mercy sake let me take you in my arms. If you've got to tell this to find peace, let me hold you while you do it."
"Never again," said the Girl. "You won't want to in a minute. You must hear this, because I can't bear it any longer, and it isn't fair to let you grieve and think me worth loving. Anyway, I couldn't earn what she did, and I was afraid, for a great city is heartless to the poor. One morning she fainted and couldn't get up. I can see the awful look in her eyes now. She knew what was coming. I didn't. I tried to be brave and to work. Oh it's no use to go on with that! It was just worse and worse. She was lovely and delicate, she was my mother, and I adored her. Oh Man! You won't judge harshly?"
"No!" cried the Harvester, "I won't judge at all, Ruth. I see now. Get it over if you must tell me."
"One day she had been dreadfully ill for a long time and there was no food or work or money, and the last scrap was pawned, and she simply would not let me notify the charities or tell me who or where her people were. She said she had sinned against them and broken their hearts, and probably they were dead, and I was desperate. I walked all day from house to house where I had delivered work, but it was no use; no one wanted anything I could do, and I went back frantic, and found her gnawing her fingers and gibbering in delirium. She did not know me, and for the first time she implored me for food.
"Then I locked the door and went on the street and I asked a woman. She laughed and said she'd report me and I'd be locked up for begging. Then I saw a man I passed sometimes. I thought he lived close. I went straight to him, and told him my mother was very ill, and asked him to help her. He told me to go to the proper authorities. I told him I didn't know who they were or where, and I had no money and she was a woman of refinement, and never would forgive me. I offered, if he would come to see her, get her some beef tea, and take care of her while she lived, that afterward----"
The Girl's frail form shook in a storm of sobs. At last she lifted her eyes to the Harvester's. "There must be a God, and somewhere at the last extremity He must come in. The man went with me, and he was a young doctor who had an office a few blocks away, and he knew what to do. He hadn't much himself, but for several weeks he divided and she was more comfortable and not hungry when she went. When it was over I dressed her the best I could in my graduation dress, and folded her hands, and kissed her good-bye, and told him I was ready to fulfill my offer; and oh Man!----He said he had forgotten!"
"God!" panted the Harvester.
"We couldn't bury her there. But I remembered my father had said he had a brother in the country, and once he had been to see us when I was very little, and the doctor telegraphed him, and he answered that his wife was sick, and if I was able to work I could come, and he would bury her, and give me a home. The doctor borrowed the money and bought the coffin you found her in. He couldn't do better or he would, for he learned to love her. He paid our fares and took us to the train. Before I started I went on my knees to him and worshipped him as the Almighty, and I am sure I told him that I always would be indebted to him, and any time he required I would pay. The rest you know."
"Have you heard from him, Ruth?"
"It was yourself the other day on the bridge?"
"Did he love you?"
"Not that I know of. No! Nobody but you would love a girl who appeared as I did then."
The Harvester strove to keep a set face, but his lips drew back from his teeth.
"Ruth, do you love him?"
"Love!" cried the Girl. "A pale, expressionless word! Adore would come closer! I tell you she was delirious with hunger, and he fed her. She was suffering horrors and he eased the pain. She was lifeless, and he kept her poor tired body from the dissecting table. I would have fulfilled my offer, and gone straight into the lake, but he spared me, Man! He spared me! Worship is a good word. I think I worship him. I tried to tell you. Before you got that license, I wanted you to know."
"I remember," said the Harvester. "But no man could have guessed that a girl with your face had agony like that in her heart, not even when he read deep trouble there."
"I should have told you then! I should have forced you to hear! I was wild with fear of Uncle Henry, and I had nowhere to go. Now you know! Go away, and the end will come soon."
The Harvester arose and walked a few steps toward the lake, where he paused stricken, but fighting for control. For him the light had gone out. There was nothing beyond. The one passion of his life must live on, satisfied with a touch from lips that loved another man. Broken sobbing came to him. He did not even have time to suffer. Stumblingly he turned and going to the Girl he picked her up, and sat on the bench holding her closely.
"Stop it, Ruth!" he said unsteadily. "Stop this! Why should you suffer so? I simply will not have it. I will save you against yourself and the world. You shall have all happiness yet; I swear it, my girl! You are all right. He was a noble man, and he spared you because he loved you, of course. I will make you well and rosy again, and then I will go and find him, and arrange everything for you. I have spared you, too, and if he doesn't want you to remain here with me, Mrs. Carey would be glad to have you until I can free you. Judges are human. It will be a simple matter. Hush, Ruth, listen to me! You shall be free! At once, if you say so! You shall have him! I will go and bring him here, and I will go away. Ruth, darling, stop crying and hear me. You will grow better, now that you have told me. It is this secret that has made you feverish and kept you ill. Ruth, you shall have happiness yet, if I have got to circle the globe and scale the walls of Heaven to find it for you."
She struggled from his arms and ran toward the lake. When the Harvester caught her, she screamed wildly, and struck him with her thin white hands. He lifted and carried her to the laboratory, where he gave her a few drops from a bottle and soon she became quiet. Then he took her to the sunshine room, laid her on the bed, locked the screens and her door, called Belshazzar to watch, and ran to the stable. A few minutes later with distended nostrils and indignant heart Betsy, under the flail of an unsparing lash, pounded down the hill toward Onabasha.