The Harvester by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter XVIII. The Better Man
In the middle of the afternoon the Harvester arose and went into the lake, ate a hearty dinner, and then took up his watch again. For two days and nights he kept his place, until he had the Girl out of danger, and where careful nursing was all that was required to insure life and health. As he sat beside her the last day, his physical endurance strained to the breaking point, she laid her hand over his, and looked long and steadily into his eyes.
"There are so many things I want to know," she said.
The Harvester's firm fingers closed over hers. "Ruth, have you ever been sorry that you trusted me?"
"Never!" said the Girl instantly.
"Then suppose you keep it up," said he. "Whatever it is that you want to know, don't use an iota of strength to talk or to think about it now. Just say to yourself, he loves me well enough to do what is right, and I know that he will. All you have to do is to be patient until you grow stronger than you ever have been in your life, and then you shall have exactly what you want, Ruth. Sleep like a baby for a week or two. Then, slowly and gradually, we will build up such a constitution for you that you shall ride, drive, row, swim, dance, play, and have all that your girlhood has missed in fun and frolic, and all that your womanhood craves in love and companionship. Happiness has come at last, Ruth. Take it from me. Everything you crave is yours. The love you want, the home, and the life. As soon as you are strong enough, you shall know all about it. Your business is to drink stimulants and sleep now, dear."
"So tired of this bed!"
"It won't be long until you can lie on the couch and the veranda swing again."
"Glory!" said the Girl. "David, I must have been full of fever for a long time. I can't remember everything."
"Don't try, I tell you. Life is coming out right for you; that's all you need know now."
"And for you, David?"
"Whenever things are right for you, they are for me, Ruth."
"Don't you ever think of yourself?"
"Not when I am close you."
"Ah! Then I shall have to grow strong very soon and think of you."
The Harvester's smile was pathetic. He was unspeakably tired again.
"Never mind me!" he said. "Only get well."
"David, was there a little horse?"
"There certainly was and is," said the Harvester.
"You had not named him yet, but in a few days I can lead him to the window."
"Was there something said about a boat?"
"Two of them."
"Yes. A row boat for you, and a launch that will take you all over the lake with only the exertion of steering on your part."
"David, I want my pendant and ring. I am so tired of lying here, I want to play with them."
"Where do you keep them, Ruth?"
"In the willow teapot. I thought no one would look there."
The Harvester laughed and brought the little boxes. He had to open them, but the Girl put on the ring and asked him if he would not help her with the pendant. He slipped the thread around her neck and clasped it. With a sigh of satisfaction she took the ornament in one hand and closed her eyes. He thought she was falling asleep, but presently she looked at him.
"You won't allow them to take it from me?"
"Indeed no! There is no reason on earth why you should not have that thread around your neck if you want it."
"I am going to sleep now. I want two things. May I have them?"
"You may," said the Harvester promptly, "provided they are not to eat."
"No," said the Girl. "I've suffered and made others trouble. I won't bother you by asking for anything more than is brought me. This is different. You are completely worn out. Your face frightens me, David, and white hairs that were not there a few days ago have come along your temples. I can see them."
"You gave me a mighty serious scare, Ruth."
"I know," said the Girl. "Forgive me. I didn't mean to. I want you to leave me to Doctor Harmon and the nurse and go sleep a week. Then I will be ready for the swing, and to hear some more about the trees and birds."
"I can keep it up if you really need me, but if you don't I am sleepy. So, if you feel safe, I think I will go."
"Oh I am safe enough," said the Girl. "It isn't that. I'm so lonely. I've made up my mind not to grieve for mother, but I miss her so now. I feel so friendless."
"But, honey," said the Harvester, "you mustn't do that! Don't you see how all of us love you? Here is Granny shutting up her house and living here, just to be with you. The nurse will do anything you say. Here is the man you know best, and think so much of, staying in the cabin, and so happy to give you all his time, and anything else you will have, dear. And the Careys come every day, and will do their best to comfort you, and always I am here for you to fall back on."
"Yes, I'm falling right now," said the Girl. "I almost wish I had the fever again. No one has touched me for days. I feel as if every one was afraid of me."
The Harvester was puzzled.
"Well, Ruth, I'm doing the best I know," he said. "What is it you want?"
"Nothing!" answered the Girl with slightly dejected inflection. "Say good-bye to me, and go sleep your week. I'll be very good, and then you shall take me a drive up the hill when you awaken. Won't that be fine?"
"Say good-bye to me!" She felt a "little lonely!" They all acted as if they were "afraid" of her. The Harvester indulged in a flashing mental review and arrived at a decision. He knelt beside the bed, took both slender, cool hands and covered them with kisses. Then he slid a hand under the pillow and raised the tired head.
"If I am to say good-bye, I have to do it in my own way, Ruth," he said.
Thereupon he began at the tumbled mass of hair and kissed from her forehead to her lips, kisses warm and tender.
"Now you go to sleep, and grow strong enough by the time I come back to tell me whom you love," he said, and went from the room without waiting for any reply.
With short intervals for food and dips in the lake the Harvester very nearly slept the week. When he finally felt himself again, he bathed, shaved, dressed freshly, and went to see the Girl. He had to touch her to be sure she was real. She was extremely weak and tremulous, but her face and hands were fuller, her colour was good, she was ravenously hungry. Doctor Harmon said she was a little tryant, and the nurse that she was plain cross. The first thing the Harvester noticed was that the dull blue look in the depth of the dark eyes was gone. They were clear, dusky wells, with shining lights at the bottom.
"Well I never would have believed it!" he cried. "Doctor Harmon, you are a great physician! You have made her all over new, and in a few more days she will be on the veranda. This is great!"
"Do I appear so much better to you, Harvester?" asked the Girl.
"Has no one thought to show you," cried the Harvester. "Here, let me!'
He stepped to her dressing table, picked up a mirror, and held it before her so that she could see herself.
"Seems to me I am dreadfully white and thin yet!"
"If you had seen what I saw ten days ago, my Girl, you would think you appear like a pink, rosy angel now, or a wonderful dream."
"Truly, do I in the least resemble a dream, David?"
"You are a dream. The loveliest one a man ever had. With three months of right care and exercise you'll be the beautiful woman nature intended. I'm so proud of you. You are being so brave! Just lie there in patience a few more days, and out you come again to life; and life that will thrill your being with joy."
"All right," said the Girl, "I will. David are you attending to your herbs?"
"Not for a few weeks."
"You are very much behind?"
"No. Nothing important. I don't make enough to count on what is ready now. I can soon gather jimson leaves and seed to fill orders, the hemlock is about right to take the fruit, the mustard is yet in pod, and the saffron and wormseed can be attended later. I can catch up in two days."
"What about----about the big bed on the hill?"
The Harvester experienced an inward thrill of delight. She was so impressed with the value of the ginseng she would not mention it, even before the man she loved---- no more than that----"adored"----"worshipped!" He smiled at her in understanding.
"I'll have to take a peep at that and report," he said.
"Are you rested now?"
"You are dreadfully thin."
"I always am. I'll pick up a little when I get back to work."
"David, I want you to go to work now."
"Can you spare me?"
"Haven't we done well these last few days?"
"I can't tell you how well."
"Then please go gather everything you need to fill orders except the big bed, and by that time maybe you could take another week off, and I could go to the hill top and on the lake. I'm so anxious to put my feet on the earth. They feel so dead."
"Are your feet well rubbed to draw down the circulation?"
"They are rubbed shiny and almost skinned, David. No one ever had better care, of that I am sure. Go gather what you should have."
"All right," said the Harvester.
He arose and as he started to leave the room he took one last look at the Girl to see if he could detect anything he could suggest for her comfort, and read a message in her eyes. Instantly there was an answering flash in his.
"I'll be back in a minute," he said. "I just noticed discorea villosa has the finest rattle boxes formed. I've been waiting to show you. And the hop tree has its castanets all green and gold. In a few more weeks it will begin to play for you. I'll bring you some."
Soon he returned with the queer seed formations, and as he bent above her, with his back to Doctor Harmon, he whispered, "What is it?"
Her lips barely formed the one word, "Hurry!"
The Harvester straightened.
"All comfortable, Ruth?" he asked casually.
"You understand, of course, that there is not the slightest necessity for my going to work if you really want me for anything, even if it's nothing more than to have me within calling distance, in case you should want something. The whole lot I can gather now won't amount to twenty dollars. It's merely a matter of pride with me to have what is called for. I'd much rather remain, if you can use me in any way at all."
"Twenty dollars is considerable, when expenses are as heavy as now. And it's worth more than any money to you not to fail when orders come. I have learned that, and David, I don't want you to either. You must fill all demands as usual. I wouldn't forgive myself this winter if you should be forced to send orders only partly filled because I fell ill and hindered you. Please go and gather all you possibly will need of everything you take at this season, only remember!"
"There is no danger of my forgetting. If you are going to send me away to work, you will allow me to kiss your hand before I go, fair lady?"
He did it fervently.
"One word with you, Harmon," he said as he left the room.
Doctor Harmon arose and followed him to the gold garden, and together they stood beside the molten hedge of sunflowers, coneflowers, elecampane, and jewel flower.
"I merely want to mention that this is your inning," said the Harvester. "Find out if you are essential to the Girl's happiness as soon as you can, and the day she tells me so, I will file her petition and take a trip to the city to study some little chemical quirks that bother me. That's all."
The Harvester went to the dry-house for bags and clipping shears, and the doctor returned to the sunshine room.
"Ruth," he said, "do you know that the Harvester is the squarest man I ever met?"
"Is he?" asked the Girl.
"He is! He certainly is!"
"You must remember that I have little acquaintance with men," said she. "You are the first one I ever knew, and the only one except him."
"Well I try to be square," said Doctor Harmon, "but that is where Langston has me beaten a mile. I have to try. He doesn't. He was born that way."
The Girl began to laugh.
"His environment is so different," she said. "Perhaps if he were in a big city, he would have to try also."
"Won't do!" said the doctor. "He chose his location. So did I. He is a stronger physical man than I ever was or ever will be. The struggle that bound him to the woods and to research, that made him the master of forces that give back life, when a man like Carey says it is the end, proves him a master. The tumult in his soul must have been like a cyclone in his forest, when he turned his back on the world and stuck to the woods. Carey told me about it. Some day you must hear. It's a story a woman ought to know in order to arrive at proper values. You never will understand the man until you know that he is clean where most of us are blackened with ugly sins we have no right on God's footstool to commit and not so much reason as he. Every man should be as he is, but very few are. Carey says Langston's mother was a wonderful element in the formation of his character; but all mothers are anxious, and none of them can build with no foundation and no soul timber. She had material for a man to her hand, or she couldn't have made one."
"I see what you mean."
"So far as any inexperienced girl ever sees," said the doctor. "Some day if you live to fifty you will know, but you can't comprehend it now."
"If you think I lived all my life in Chicago's poverty spots and don't know unbridled human nature!"
"I found you and your mother unusually innocent women. You may understand some things. I hope you do. It will help you to decide who is the real man among the men who come into your life. There are some men, Ruth, who are fit to mate with a woman, and to perpetuate themselves and their mental and moral forces in children, who will be like them, and there are others who are not. It is these `others' who are responsible for the sin of the world, the sickness and suffering. Any time you are sure you have a chance at a moral man, square and honest, in control of his brain and body, if you are a wise woman, Ruth, stick to him as the limpet to the rock."
"You mean stick to the Harvester?"
"If you are a wise woman!"
"When was a woman ever wise?"
"A few have been. They are the only care-free, really happy ones of the world, the only wives without a big, poison, blue-bottle fly in their ointment."
"I detest flies!" said the Girl.
"So do I," said the doctor. "For this reason I say to you choose the ointment that never had one in it. Take the man who is `master of his fate, captain of his soul.' Stick to the Harvester! He is infinitely the better man!"
"Well have you seen anything to indicate that I wasn't sticking?" asked the Girl.
"No. And for your sake I hope I never will."
She laughed softly.
"You do love him, Ruth?"
"As I did my mother, yes. There is not a trace in my heart of the thing he calls love."
"You have been stunted, warped, and the fountains of life never have opened. It will come with right conditions of living."
"Do you think so?"
"I know so. At least there is no one else you love, Ruth?"
"No one except you."
"And do you feel about me just as you do him?"
"No! It is different. What I owe him is for myself. What I owe you is for my mother. You saw! You know! You understand what you did for her, and what it meant to me. The Harvester must be the finest man on earth, but when I try to think of either God or Heaven, your face intervenes."
"That's all right, Ruth, I'm so glad you told me," said Doctor Harmon. "I can make it all perfectly clear to you. You just go on and worship me all you please. It's bound to make a cleaner, better man of me. What you feel for me will hold me to a higher moral level all my life than I ever have known before; but never forget that you are not going to live in Heaven. You will be here at least sixty years yet, so when you come to think of selecting a partner for the relations of the world, you stick to the finest man on earth; see?"
"I do!" said the Girl. "I saw you kiss Molly a week ago. She is lovely, and I hope you will be perfectly happy. It won't interfere with my worshipping you; not the least in the world. Go ahead and be joyful!"
The doctor sprang to his feet in crimson confusion. The Girl lay and laughed at him.
"Don't!" she cried. "It's all right! It takes a weight off my soul as heavy as a mountain. I do adore you, as I said. But every hour since I left Chicago a big, black cloud has hung over me. I didn't feel free. I didn't feel absolved. I felt that my obligations to you were so heavy that when I had settled the last of the money debt I was in honour bound----"
"Don't, Ruth! Forget those dreadful times, as I told you then! Think only of a happy future!"
"Let me finish," said the Girl. "Let me get this out of my system with the other poison. From the day I came here, I've whispered in my heart, `I am not free!' But if you love another woman! If you are going to take her to your heart and to your lips, why that is my release. Oh Man, speak the words! Tell me I am free indeed!"
"Ruth, be quiet, for mercy sake! You'll raise a temperature, and the Harvester will pitch me into the lake. You are free, child, of course! You always have been. I understood the awful pressure that was on you with the very first glimpse I had of your mother. Who was she, Ruth?"
"She never would tell me."
"She thought you would appeal to her people?"
"She knew I would! I couldn't have helped it."
"Would you like to know?"
"I never want to. It is too late. I infinitely prefer to remain in ignorance. Talk of something else."
"Let me read a wonderful book I found on the Harvester's shelves."
"Anything there will contain wonders, because he only buys what appeals to him, and it takes a great book to do that. I am going to learn. He will teach me, and when I come within comprehending distance of him, then we are going on together."
"What an attractive place this is!"
"Isn't it? I only have seen enough to understand the plan. I scarcely can wait to set my feet on earth and go into detail. Granny Moreland says that when spring comes over the hill, and brings up the flowers in the big woods, she'd rather walk through them than to read Revelation. She says it gives her an idea of Heaven she can come closer realizing and it seems more stable. You know she worries about the foundations. She can't understand what supports Heaven. But up there in Medicine Woods the old dear gets so close her God that some day she is going to realize that her idea of Heaven there is quite as near right as marble streets and gold pillars and vastly more probable. The day I reach that hill top again, Heaven begins for me. Do you know the wonderful thing the Harvester did up there?"
"Under the oak?"
"Carey told me. It was marvellous."
"Not such a marvel as another the doctor couldn't have known. The Harvester made passing out so natural, so easy, so a part of elemental forces, that I almost have forgotten her tortured body. When I think of her now, it is to wonder if next summer I can distinguish her whisper among the leaves. Before you go, I'll take you up there and tell you what he says, and show you what he means, and you will feel it also."
"What if I shouldn't go?"
"What do you mean?"
"Doctor Carey has offered me a splendid position in his hospital. There would be work all day, instead of waiting all day in the hope of working an hour. There would be a living in it for two from the word go. There would be better air, longer life, more to be got out of it, and if I can make good, Carey's work to take up as he grows old."
"Take it! Take it quickly!" cried the Girl. "Don't wait a minute! You might wear out your heart in Chicago for twenty years or forever, and not have an opportunity to do one half so much good. Take it at once!"
"I was waiting to learn what you and Langston would say."
"He will say take it."
"Then I will be too happy for words. Ruth, you have not only paid the debt, but you have brought me the greatest joy a man ever had. And there is no need to wait the ages I thought I must. He can tell in a year if I can do the work, and I know I can now; so it's all settled, if Langston agrees."
"He will," said the Girl. "Let me tell him!"
"I wish you would," said the doctor. "I don't know just how to go at it."
Then for two days the Harvester and Belshazzar gathered herbs and spread them on the drying trays. On the afternoon of the third, close three, the doctor came to the door.
"Langston," he said, "we have a call for you. We can't keep Ruth quiet much longer. She is tired. We want to change her bed completely. She won't allow either of us to lift her. She says we hurt her. Will you come and try it?"
"You'll have to give me time to dip and rub off and get into clean clothing," he said. "I've been keeping away, because I was working on time, and I smell to strangulation of stramonium and saffron."
"Can't give you ten seconds," said the doctor. "Our temper is getting brittle. We are cross as the proverbial fever patient. If you don't come at once we will imagine you don't want to, and refuse to be moved at all."
"Coming!" cried the Harvester, as he plunged his hands in the wash bowl and soused his face. A second later he appeared on the porch.
"Ruth," he said, "I am steeped in the odours of the dry-house. Can't you wait until I bathe and dress?"
"No, I can't," said a fretful voice. "I can't endure this bed another minute."
"Then let Doctor Harmon lift you. He is so fresh and clean."
The Harvester glanced enviously at the shaven face and white trousers and shirt of the doctor.
"I just hate fresh, clean men. I want to smell herbs. I want to put my feet in the dirt and my hands in the water."
The Harvester came at a rush. He brought a big easy chair from the living-room, straightened the cover, and bent above the Girl. He picked her up lightly, gently, and easing her to his body settled in the chair. She laid her face on his shoulder, and heaved a deep sigh of content.
"Be careful with my back, Man," she said. "I think my spine is almost worn through."
"Poor girl," said the Harvester. "That bed should be softer."
"It should not!"contradicted the Girl. "It should be much harder. I'm tired of soft beds. I want to lie on the earth, with my head on a root; and I wish it would rain dirt on me. I am bathed threadbare. I want to be all streaky."
"I understand," said the Harvester. "Harmon, bring me a pad and pencil a minute, I must write an order for some things I want. Will you call up town and have them sent out immediately?"
On the pad he wrote: "Telephone Carey to get the highest grade curled-hair mattress, a new pad, and pillow, and bring them flying in the car. Call Granny and the girl and empty the room. Clean, air, and fumigate it thoroughly. Arrange the furniture differently, and help me into the living-room with Ruth." He handed the pad to the doctor.
"Please attend to that," he said, and to the Girl: "Now we go on a journey. Doc, you and Molly take the corners of the rug we are on and slide us into the other room until you get this aired and freshened."
In the living-room the Girl took one long look at the surroundings and suddenly relaxed. She cuddled against the Harvester and lifting a tremulous white hand, drew it across his unshaven cheek.
"Feels so good," she said. "I'm sick and tired of immaculate men."
The Harvester laughed, tucked her feet in the cover and held her tenderly. The Girl lay with her cheek against the rough khaki, palpitant with the excitement of being moved.
"Isn't it great?" she panted.
He caught the hand that had touched his cheek in a tender grip, and laughed a deep rumble of exultation that came from the depths of his heart.
"There's no name for it, honey," he said. "But don't try to talk until you have a long rest. Changing positions after you have lain so long may be making unusual work for your heart. Am I hurting your back?"
"No," said the Girl. "This is the first time I have been comfortable in ages. Am I tiring you?"
"Yes," laughed the Harvester. "You are almost as heavy as a large sack of leaves, but not quite equal to a bridge pillar or a log. Be sure to think of that, and worry considerably. You are in danger of straining my muscles to the last degree, my heart included."
"Where is your heart?" whispered the Girl.
"Right under your cheek," answered the Harvester. "But for Heaven's sake, don't intimate that you are taking any interest in it, or it will go to pounding until your head will bounce. It's one member of my body that I can't control where you are concerned."
"I thought you didn't like me any more."
"Careful!" warned the Harvester. "You are yet too close Heaven to fib like that, Ruth. What have I done to indicate that I don't love you more than ever?"
"Stayed away nearly every minute for three awful days, and wouldn't come without being dragged; and now you're wishing they would hurry and fix that bed, so you can put me down and go back to your rank old herbs again."
"Well of all the black prevarications! I went when you sent me, and came when you called. I'd willingly give up my hope of what Granny calls `salvation' to hold you as I am for an hour, and you know it."
"It's going to be much longer than that," said the Girl nestling to him. "I asked for you because you never hurt me, and they always do. I knew you were so strong that my weight now wouldn't be a load for one of your hands, and I am not going back to that bed until I am so tired that I will be glad to lie down."
For a long time she was so silent the Harvester thought her going to sleep; and having learned that for him joy was probably transient, he deliberately got all he could. He closely held the hand she had not withdrawn, and often lifted it to his lips. Sometimes he stroked the heavy braid, gently ran his hands across the tired shoulders, or eased her into a different position. There was not a doubt in his mind of one thing. He was having a royal, good time, and he was thankful for the work he had set his assistants that kept them out of the room. They seemed in no hurry, and from scuffling, laughing, and a steady stream of talk, they were entertained at least. At last the Girl roused.
"There is something I want to ask you," she said. "I promised Doctor Harmon I would."
Instantly the heart of the Harvester gave a leap that jarred the head resting on it.
"You don't like him?" questioned the Girl.
"I do!" declared the Harvester. "I like him immensely. There is not a fine, manly good-looking feature about him that I have missed. I don't fail to do him justice on every point."
"I'm so glad! Then you will want him to remain."
"Here?" asked the Harvester with a light, hot breath.
"In Onabasha! Doctor Carey has offered him the place of chief assistant at the hospital. There is a good salary and the chance of taking up the doctor's work as he grows older. It means plenty to do at once, healthful atmosphere, congenial society----everything to a young man. He only had a call once in a while in Chicago, often among people who received more than they paid, like me, and he was very lonely. I think it would be great for him."
"And for you, Ruth?"
"It doesn't make the least difference to me; but for his sake, because I think so much of him, I would like to see him have the place."
"You still think so much of him, Ruth?"
"More, if possible," said the Girl. "Added to all I owed him before, he has come here and worked for days to save me, and it wasn't his fault that it took a bigger man. Nothing alters the fact that he did all he could, most graciously and gladly."
"What do you mean, Ruth?" stammered the Harvester.
"Oh they have worn themselves out!" cried the Girl impatiently. "First, Granny Moreland told me every least little detail of how I went out, and you resurrected me. I knew what she said was true, because she worked with you. Then Doctor Carey told me, and Mrs. Carey, and Doctor Harmon, and Molly, and even Granny's little assistant has left the kitchen to tell me that I owe my life to you, and all of them might as well have saved breath. I knew all the time that if ever I came out of this, and had a chance to be like other women, it would be your work, and I'm glad it is. I'd hate to be under obligations to some people I know; but I feel honoured to be indebted to you."
"I'm mighty sorry they worried you. I had no idea----"
"They didn't `worry,' me! I am just telling you that I knew it all the time; that's all!"
"Forget that!" said the Harvester. "Come back to our subject. What was it you wanted, dear?"
"To know if you have any objections to Doctor Harmon remaining in Onabasha?"
"Certainly not! It will be a fine thing for him."
"Will it make any difference to you in any way?"
"Ruth, that's probing too deep," said the Harvester.
"I don't see why!"
"I'm glad of it!"
"I'd least rather show my littleness to you than to any one else on earth."
"Then you have some feeling about it?"
"Perhaps a trifle. I'll get over it. Give me a little time to adjust myself. Doctor Harmon shall have the place, of course. Don't worry about that!"
"He will be so happy!"
"And you, Ruth?"
"I'll be happy too!"
"Then it's all right," said the Harvester.
He laid down her hand, drew the cover over it, and slightly shifted her position to rest her. The door opened, and Doctor Harmon announced that the room was ready. It was shining and fresh. The bed was now turned with its head to the north, so that from it one could see the big trees in Medicine Woods, the sweep of the hillside, the sparkle of mallow-bordered Singing Water, the driveway and the gold flower garden. Everything was so changed that the room had quite a different appearance. The instant he laid her on it the Girl said, "This bed is not mine."
"Yes it is," said the Harvester. "You see, we were a little excited sometimes, and we spilled a few quarts of perfectly good medicine on your mattress. It was hopelessly smelly and ruined; so I am going to cremate it and this is your splinter new one and a fresh pad and pillow. Now you try them and see if they are not much harder and more comfortable."
"This is just perfect!" she sighed, as she sank into the bed.
The Harvester bent over her to straighten the cover, when suddenly she reached both arms around his neck, and gripped him with all her strength.
"Thank you!" she said.
"May I hold you to-morrow?" whispered the Harvester, emboldened by this.
"Please do," said the Girl.
The Harvester, with dog to heel, went to the oak to think.
"Belshazzar, kommen Sie!" said the man, dropping on the seat and holding out his hand. The dog laid his muzzle in the firm grip.
"Bel," said the Harvester, "I am all at sea. One day I think maybe I have a little chance, the next----none at all. I had an hour of solid comfort to-day, now I'm in the sweat box again. It's a little selfish streak in me, Bel, that hates to see Harmon go into the hospital and take my place with the Careys. They are my best and only friends. He is young, social, handsome, and will be ever present. In three months he will become so popular that I might as well be off the earth. I wish I didn't think it, but I'm so small that I do. And then there is my Dream Girl, Bel. The girl you found for me, old fellow. There never was another like her, and she has my heart for all time. And he has hers. That hospital plan is the best thing in the world for her. It will keep her where Carey can have an eye on her, where the air is better, where she can have company without the city crush, where she is close the country, and a good living is assured. Bel, it's the nicest arrangement you ever saw for every one we know, except us."
The Harvester laughed shortly. "Bel," he said, "tell me! If a man lived a hundred years, could he have the heartache all the way? Seems like I've had it almost that long now. In fact, I've had it such ages I'd be lonesome without it. This is some more of my very own medicine, so I shouldn't make a wry face over taking it. I knew what would happen when I sent for him, and I didn't hesitate. I must not now.
"Only I got to stop one thing, Bel. I told him I would play square, and I have. But here it ends. After this, I must step back and be big brother. Lots of fun in this brother business, Bel. But maybe I am cut out for it. Anyway it's written! But if it is, how did she come to allow me such privileges as I took to- day? That wasn't professional by any means. It was just the stiffest love-making I knew how to do, Bel, and she didn't object by the quiver of an eyelash. God knows I was watching closely enough for any sign that I was distasteful. And I might have been well enough. Rough, herb-stained old clothes, unshaven, everything to offend a dainty girl. She said I might hold her again to-morrow. And, Bel, what the nation did she hug me like that for, if she's going to marry him? Boy, I see my way clear to an hour more. While I'm at it, just to surprise myself, I believe I'll take it like other men. I think I'll go on a little bender, and make what probably will be the last day a plumb good one. Something worth remembering is better than nothing at all, Bel! He hasn't told me that he has won. She didn't say she was going to marry him, and she did say he hurt her, and she wanted me. Bel, how about the grimness of it, if she should marry him and then discover that he hurts her, and she wants me. Lord God Almighty, if you have any mercy at all, never put me up against that," prayed the Harvester, "for my heart is water where she is concerned."
The Harvester arose, and going to the lake, he cut an arm load of big, pink mallows, covered each mound with fresh flowers, whistled to the dog, and went to his work. Many things had accumulated, and he cleaned the barn, carried herbs from the dry-house to the store-room, and put everything into shape. Close noon the next day he went to Onabasha, and was gone three hours. He came back barbered in the latest style, and carrying a big bundle. When the hour for arranging the bed came, he was yet in his room, but he sent word he would be there in a second.
As he crossed the living-room he pulled a chair to the veranda and placed a footstool before it. Then he stepped into the sunshine room. A quizzical expression crossed the face of Doctor Harmon as he closed the book he was reading aloud to the Girl and arose. Wholly unembarrassed the Harvester smiled.
"Have I got this rigging anywhere near right?" he inquired.
"David, what have you done?" gasped the amazed Girl.
"I didn't feel anywhere near up to the `mark of my high calling' yesterday," quoted the Harvester. "I don't know how I appear, but I'm clean as shaving, soap and hot water will make me, and my clothing will not smell offensively. Now come out of that bed for a happy hour. Where is that big coverlet? You are going on the veranda to-day."
"You look just like every one else," complained Doctor Harmon.
"You look perfectly lovely," declared the Girl.
"The swale sends you this invitation to come and see star-shine at the foot of mullein hill," said the Harvester, offering a bouquet. It was a loose bunch of long- stemmed, delicate flowers, each an inch across, and having five pearl-white petals lightly striped with pale green. Five long gold anthers arose, and at their base gold stamens and a green pistil. The leaves were heart- shaped and frosty, whitish-green, resembling felt. The Harvester bent to offer them.
"Have some Grass of Parnassus, my dear," he said.
The Girl waved them away. "Go stand over there by the door and slowly turn around. I want to see you."
The Harvester obeyed. He was freshly and carefully shaven. His hair was closely cropped at the base of the head, long, heavy, and slightly waving on top. He wore a white silk shirt, with a rolling collar and tie, white trousers, belt, hose, and shoes, and his hands were manicured with care.
"Have I made a mess of it, or do I appear anything like other men?" he asked, eagerly.
The Girl lifted her eyes to Doctor Harmon and smiled.
"Do you observe anything messy?" she inquired.
"You needn't fish for compliments quite so obviously," he answered. "I'll pay them without being asked. I do not. He is quite correct, and infinitely better looking than the average. Distinguished is a proper word for the gentleman in my opinion. But why, in Heaven's name, have we never had the pleasure of seeing you thus before?"
"Look here, Doc," said the Harvester, "do you mean that you enjoy looking at me merely because I am dressed this way?"
"I do indeed," said the doctor. "It is good to see you with the garb of work laid aside, and the stamp of cleanliness and ease upon you."
"By gum, that is rubbing it in a little too rough!" cried the Harvester. "I bathe oftener than you do. My clothing is always clean when I start out. Of course, in my work I come hourly in contact with muck, water, and herb juices."
"It's understood that is unavoidable," said Doctor Harmon.
"And if cleanliness is made an issue, I'd rather roll in any of it than put my finger tips into the daily work of a surgeon," added the Harvester, and the Girl giggled.
"That's enough Medicine Man!" she said. "You did not make a `mess' of it, or anything else you ever attempted. As for appearing like other men, thank Heaven, you do not. You look just a whole world bigger and better and finer. Come, carry me out quickly. I am wild to go. Please put my lovely flowers in water, Molly, only give me a few to hold."
The Harvester arranged the pink coverlet, picked up the Girl, and carried her to the living-room.
"We will rest here a little," he said, "and then, if you feel equal to it, we will try the veranda. Are you easy now?"
She nestled her face against the soft shirt and smiled at him. She lifted her hand, laid it on his smooth cheek and then the crisp hair.
"Oh Man!" she cried. "Thank God you didn't give me up, too! I want life! I want life!"
The Harvester tightened his grip just a trifle. "Then I thank God, too," he said. "Can you tell me how you are, dear? Is there any difference?"
"Yes," she answered. "I grow tired lying so long, but there isn't the ghost of an ache in my bones. I can just feel pure, delicious blood running in my veins. My hands and feet are always warm, and my head cool."
The Harvester's face drew very close. "How about your heart, honey?" he whispered. "Anything new there?"
"Yes, I am all over new inside and out. I want to shout, run, sing, and swim. Oh I'd give anything to have you carry me down and dip me in the lake right now."
"Soon, Girl! That will come soon," prophesied the Harvester.
"I scarcely can wait. And you did say a saddle, didn't you? Won't it be great to come galloping up the levee, when the leaves are red and the frost is in the air. Oh am I going fast enough?"
"Much faster than I expected," said the Harvester. "You are surprising all of us, me most of any. Ruth, you almost make me hope that you regard this as home. Honey, you are thinking a little of me these days?"
The hand that had fallen from his hair lay on his shoulder. Now it slid around his neck, and gripped him with all its strength.
"Heaps and heaps!" she said. "All I get a chance to, for being bothered and fussed over, and everlastingly read mushy stuff that's intended for some one else. Please take me to the veranda now; I want to tell you something."
His head swam, but the Harvester set his feet firmly, arose, and carried his Dream Girl back to outdoor life. When he reached the chair, she begged him to go a few steps farther to the bench on the lake shore.
"I am afraid," said the man.
"It's so warm. There can't be any difference in the air. Just a minute."
The Harvester pushed open the screen, went to the bench, and seating himself, drew the cover closely around her.
"Don't speak a word for a long time," he said. "Just rest. If I tire you too much and spoil everything, I will be desperate."
He clasped her to him, laid his cheek against her hair, and his lips on her forehead. He held her hand and kissed it over and over, and again he watched and could find no resentment. The cool, pungent breeze swept from the lake, and the voices of wild life chattered at their feet. Sometimes the water folks splashed, while a big black and gold butterfly mistook the Girl's dark hair for a perching place and settled on it, slowly opening its wonderful wings.
"Lie quietly, Girl," whispered the Harvester. "You are wearing a living jewel, an ornament above price, on your hair. Maybe you can see it when it goes. There!"
"Oh I did!" she cried. "How I love it here! Before long may I lie in the dining-room window a while so I can see the water. I like the hill, but I love the lake more."
"Now if you just would love me," said the Harvester, "you would have all Medicine Woods in your heart."
"Don't hurry me so!" said the Girl. "You gave me a year; and it's only a few weeks, and I've not been myself, and I'm not now. I mustn't make any mistake, and all I know for sure is that I want you most, and I can rest best with you, and I miss you every minute you are gone. I think that should satisfy you."
"That would be enough for any reasonable man," said the Harvester angrily. "Forgive me, Ruth, I have been cruel. I forgot how frail and weak you are. It is having Harmon here that makes me unnatural. It almost drives me to frenzy to know that he may take you from me."
"Then send him away!"
"Send him away?"
"Yes, send him away! I am tired to death of his poetry, and seeing him spoon around. Send both of them away quickly!"
The Harvester gulped, blinked, and surreptitiously felt for her pulse.
"Oh, I've not developed fever again," she said. "I'm all right. But it must be a fearful expense to have both of them here by the week, and I'm so tired of them, Granny says she can take care of me just as well, and the girl who helps her can cook. No one but you shall lift me, if I don't get my nose Out until I can walk alone Both of them are perfectly useless, and I'd much rather you'd send them away."
"There, there! Of course!" said the Harvester soothingly. "I'll do it as soon as I possibly dare. You don't understand, honey. You are yet delicate beyond measure, internally. The fever burned so long. Every morsel you eat is measured and cooked in sterilized vessels, and I'd be scared of my life to have the girl undertake it."
"Why she is doing it straight along now! She and Granny! Molly isn't out of Doctor Harmon's sight long enough to cook anything. Granny says there is `a lot of buncombe about what they do, and she is going to tell them so right to their teeth some of these days, if they badger her much more,' and I wish she would, and you, too."
The Harvester gathered the Girl to him in one crushing bear hug.
"For the love of Heaven, Ruth, you drive me crazy! Answer me just one question. When you told me that you `adored and worshipped' Doctor Harmon, did you mean it, or was that the delirium of fever?"
"I don't know what I told you! If I said I `adored' him, it was the truth. I did! I do! I always will! So do I adore the Almighty, but that's no sign I want him to read poetry to me, and be around all the time when I am wild for a minute with you. I can worship Doctor Harmon in Chicago or Onabasha quite as well. Fire him! If you don't, I will!"
"Good Lord!" cried the Harvester, helpless until the Girl had to cling to him to prevent rolling from his nerveless arms. "Ruth, Ruth, will you feel my pulse?"
"No, I won't! But you are going to drop me. Take me straight back to my beautiful new bed, and send them away."
"A minute! Give me a minute!" gasped the Harvester. "I couldn't lift a baby just now. Ruth, dear, I thought you loved the man."
"What made you think so?"
"I didn't either! I never said I loved him. I said I was under obligations to him; but they are as well repaid as they ever can be. I said I adored him, and I tell you I do! Give him what we owe him, both of us, in money, and send them away. If you'd seen as much of them as I have, you'd be tired of them, too. Please, please, David!"
"Yes," said the Harvester, arising in a sudden tide of effulgent joy. "Yes, Girl, just as quickly as I can with decency. I----I'll send them on the lake, and I'll take care of you."
"You won't read poetry to me?"
"I will not."
"You won't moon at me?"
"Then hurry! But have them take your boat. I am going to have the first ride in mine."
"Indeed you are, and soon, too!" said the Harvester, marching up the hill as if he were leading hosts to battle.
He laid the Girl on the bed and covered her, and called Granny Moreland to sit beside her a few minutes. He went into the gold garden and proposed that the doctor and the nurse go rowing until supper time, and they went with alacrity. When they started he returned to the Girl and, sitting beside her, he told Granny to take a nap. Then he began to talk softly all about wild music, and how it was made, and what the different odours sweeping down the hill were, and when the red leaves would come, and the nuts rattle down, and the frost fairies enamel the windows, and soon she was sound asleep. Granny came back, and the Harvester walked around the lake shore to be alone a while and think quietly, for he was almost too dazed and bewildered for full realization.
As he softly followed the foot path he heard voices, and looking down, he saw the boat lying in the shade and beneath a big tree on the bank sat the doctor and the nurse. His arm was around her, and her head was on his shoulder; and she said very distinctly, "How long will it be until we can go without offending him?"