The Harvester by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter XX. The Man in the Background
Then the Harvester returned to Medicine Woods to fight his battle alone. At first the pain seemed unendurable, but work always had been his panacea, it was his salvation now. He went through the cabin, folding bedding and storing it in closets, rolling rugs sprinkled with powdered alum, packing cushions, and taking window seats from the light.
"Our sleeping room and the kitchen will serve for us, Bel," he said. "We will put all these other things away carefully, so they will be as good as new when the Girl comes home."
The evening of the second day he was called to the telephone.
"There is a telegram for you," said a voice. "A message from Philadelphia. It reads: `Arrived safely. Thank you for making me come. Dear old people. Will write soon. With love, Ruth.'
"Have you got it?"
"No," lied the Harvester, grinning rapturously. "Repeat it again slowly, and give me time after each sentence to write it. Now! Go on!"
He carried the message to the back steps and sat reading it again and again.
"I supposed I'd have to wait at least four days," he said to Ajax as the bird circled before him. "This is from the Girl, old man, and she is not forgetting us to begin with, anyway. She is there all safe, she sees that they need her, they are lovable old people, she is going to write us all about it soon, and she loves us all she knows how to love any one. That should be enough to keep us sane and sensible until her letter comes. There is no use to borrow trouble, so we will say everything in the world is right with us, and be as happy as we can on that until we find something we cannot avoid worrying over. In the meantime, we will have faith to believe that we have suffered our share, and the end will be happy for all of us. I am mighty glad the Girl has a home, and the right kind of people to care for her. Now, when she comes back to me, I needn't feel that she was forced, whether she wanted to or not, because she had nowhere to go. This will let me out with a clean conscience, and that is the only thing on earth that allows a man to live in peace with himself. Now I'll go finish everything else, and then I'll begin the ginseng harvest."
So the Harvester hitched Betsy and with Belshazzar at his feet he drove through the woods to the sarsaparilla beds. He noticed the beautiful lobed leaves, at which the rabbits had been nibbling, and the heads of lustrous purple-black berries as he began digging the roots that he sold for stimulants.
"I might have needed a dose of you now myself," the Harvester addressed a heap of uprooted plants, "if the electric wires hadn't brought me a better. Great invention that! Never before realized it fully! I thought to-day would be black as night, but that message changes the complexion of affairs mightily. So I'll dig you for people who really are in need of something to brace them up."
After the sarsaparilla was on the trays, he attacked the beds of Indian hemp, with its long graceful pods, and took his usual supply. Then he worked diligently on the warm hillside over the dandelion. When these were finished he brought half a dozen young men from the city and drilled them on handling ginseng. He was warm, dirty, and tired when he came from the beds the evening of the fourth day. He finished his work at the barn, prepared and ate his supper, slipped into clean clothing, and walked to the country road where it crossed the lane. There he opened his mail box. The letter he expected with the Philadelphia postmark was inside. He carried it to the bridge, and sitting in her favourite place, with the lake breeze threading his hair, opened his first letter from the Girl.
"My dear Friend, Lover, Husband," it began.
The Harvester turned the sheets face down across his knee, laid his hand on them, and stared meditatively at the lake. " `Friend,' " he commented. "Well, that's all right! I am her friend, as well as I know how to be. `Lover.' I come in there, full force. I did my level best on that score, though I can't boast myself a howling success; a man can't do more than he knows, and if I had been familiar with all the wiles of expert, professional love-makers, they wouldn't have availed me in the Girl's condition. I had a mighty peculiar case to handle in her, and not a particle of training. But if she says `Lover,' I must have made some kind of a showing on the job. `Husband.' " A slow flush crept up the brawny neck and tinged the bronzed face. "That's a good word," said the Harvester, "and it must mean a wonderful thing----to some men. `Who bides his time.' Well, I'm `biding,' and if my time ever comes to be my Dream Girl's husband, I'll wager all I'm worth on one thing. I'll study the job from every point of the compass, and I'll see what showing I can make on being the kind of a husband that a woman clings to and loves at eighty."
Taking a deep breath the Harvester lifted the letter, and laying one hand on Belshazzar's head, he proceeded ----"I might as well admit in the beginning that I cried most of the way here. Some of it was because I was nervous and dreaded the people I would meet, and more on account of what I felt toward them, but most of it was because I did not want to leave you. I have been spoiled dreadfully! You have taught me so to depend on you----and for once I feel that I really can claim to have been an apt pupil----that it was like having the heart torn out of me to come. I want you to know this, because it will teach you that I have a little bit of appreciation of how good you are to me, and to all the world as well. I am glad that I almost cried myself sick over leaving you. I wish now I just had stood up in the car, and roared like a burned baby.
"But all the tears I shed in fear of grandfather and grandmother were wasted. They are a couple of dear old people, and it would have been a crime to allow them to suffer more than they must of necessity. It all seems so different when they talk; and when I see the home, luxuries, and friends my mother had, it appears utterly incomprehensible that she dared leave them for a stranger. Probably the reason she did was because she was grandfather's daughter. He is gentle and tender some of the time, but when anything irritates him, and something does every few minutes, he breaks loose, and such another explosion you never heard. It does not mean a thing, and it seems to lower his tension enough to keep him from bursting with palpitation of the heart or something, but it is a strain for others. At first it frightened me dreadfully. Grandmother is so tiny and frail, so white in her big bed, and when he is the very worst, and she only smiles at him, why I know he does not mean it at all. But, David, I hope you never will get an idea that this would be a pleasant way for you to act, because it would not, and I never would have the courage to offer you the love I have come to find if you slammed a cane and yelled, `demnation,' at me. Grandmother says she does not mind at all, but I wonder if she did not acquire the habit of lying in bed because it is easier to endure in a prostrate position.
"The house is so big I get lost, and I do not know yet which are servants and which friends; and there is a steady stream of seamstresses and milliners making things for me. Grandmother and father both think I will be quite passable in appearance when I am what they call `modishly dressed.' I think grandmother will forget herself some day and leave her bed before she knows it, in her eagerness to see how something appears. I could not begin to tell you about all the lovely things to wear, for every occasion under the sun, and they say these are only temporary, until some can be made especially for me.
"They divide the time in sections, and there is an hour to drive, I am to have a horse and ride later, and a time to shop, so long to visit grandmother, and set hours to sleep, dress, to be fitted, taken to see things, music lessons, and a dancing teacher. I think a longer day will have to be provided.
"I do not care anything about dancing. I know what would make me dance nicely enough for anything, but I am going to try the music, and see if I can learn just a few little songs and some old melodies for evening, when the work is done, the fire burns low, and you are resting on the rug. There is enough room for a piano between your door and the south wall and that corner seems vacant anyway. You would like it, David, I know, if I could play and sing just enough to put you to sleep nicely. It is in the back of my head that I will try to do every single thing, just as they want me to, and that will make them happy, but never forget that the instant I feel in my soul that your kiss is right on my lips, I am coming to you by lightning express; and I told them so the first thing, and that I only came because you made me.
"They did not raise an objection, but I am not so dull that I cannot see they are trying to bind me to them from the very first with chains too strong to break. We had just one little clash. Grandfather was mightily pleased over what you told Mr. Kennedy about my never having been your wife, and that I was really free. There seems to be a man, the son of his partner, whom grandfather dearly loves, and he wants me to be friends with his friend. One can see at once what he is planning, because he said he was going to introduce me as Miss Jameson. I told him that would be creating a false impression, because I was a married woman; but he only laughed at me and went straight to doing it.
"Of course, I know why, but he is so terribly set I cannot stop him, so I shall have to tell people myself that I am a staid, old married lady. After all, I suppose I might as well let him go, if it pleases him. I shall know how to protect myself and any one else, from any mistakes concerning me; and in my heart I know what I know, and what I cannot make you believe, but I will some day.
"I suspect you're harvesting the ginseng now. The roar and rush of the city seem strange, as if I never had heard it before, and I feel so crowded. I scarcely can sleep at night for the clamour of the cars, cabs, and throbbing life. Grandfather will not hear a word, and he just sputters and says `demnation' when I try to tell him about you; but grandmother will listen, and I talk to her of you and Medicine Woods by the hour. She says she thinks you must be a wonderfully nice person. I haven't dared tell her yet the thing that will win her. She is so little and frail, and she has heart trouble so badly; but some day I shall tell her all about Chicago that I can, and then of Uncle Henry, and then about you and the oak, and that will make her love you as I do. There are so many things to do; they have sent for me three times. I shall tell them they must put you on the schedule, and give me so much time to write or I will upset the whole programme.
"I think you will like to know that Mr. Kennedy told grandfather all you said to him about my illness, for almost as soon as I came he brought a very wonderful man to my room, and he asked many questions and I told him all about it, and what I had been doing. He made out a list of things to eat and exercises. I am being taken care of just as you did, so I will go on growing well and strong. The trouble is they are too good to me. I would just love to shuffle my feet in dead leaves, and lie on the grass this morning. I never got my swim in the lake. I will have to save that until next summer. He also told grandfather what you said about Uncle Henry, and I think he was pleased that you tried to find him as soon as you knew. He let me see the letter Uncle Henry wrote, and it was a vile thing----just such as he would write. It asked how much he would be willing to pay for information concerning his heir. I told grandfather all about it, and I saw the answer he wrote. I told him some things to say, and one of them was that the honesty of a man without a price prevented the necessity of anything being paid to find me. The other was that you located my people yourself, and at once sent me to them against my wishes. I was determined he should know that. So Uncle Henry missed his revenge on you. He evidently thought he not only would hurt you by breaking up your home and separating us, but also he would get a reward for his work. He wrote some untrue things about you, and I wish he hadn't, for grandfather can think of enough himself. But I will soon change that. Please, please take good care of all my things, my flowers and vines, and most of all tell Belshazzar to protect you with his life. And you be very good to my dear, dear lover. I will write again soon, Ruth."
When the Harvester had studied the letter until he could repeat it backward, he went to the cabin and answered it. Then he sent subscriptions for two of Philadelphia's big dailies, and harvested ginseng from dawn until black darkness. Never was such a crop grown in America. The beds had been made in the original home of the plant, so that it throve under perfectly natural conditions in the forest, but here and there branches had been thinned above, and nature helped by science below. This resulted in thick, pulpy roots of astonishing size and weight. As the Harvester lifted them he bent the tops and buried part of the seed for another crop. For weeks he worked over the bed. Then the last load went down the hill to the dry-house and the helpers were paid. Next the fall work was finished. Fuel and food were stored for winter, while the cold crept from the lake, swept down the hill and surrounded the cabin.
The Harvester finished long days in the dry-house and store-room, and after supper he sat by the fire reading over the Girl's letters, carving on her candlesticks, or in the work room, bending above the boards he was shaving and polishing for a gift he had planned for her Christmas. The Careys had him in their home for Thanksgiving. He told them all about sending the Girl away himself, read them some of her letters, and they talked with perfect confidence of how soon she would come home. The Harvester tried to think confidently, but as the days went by the letters became fewer, always with the excuse that there was no time to write, but with loving assurance that she was thinking of him and would do better soon.
However they came often enough that he had something new to tell his friends so that they did not suspect that waiting was a trial to him. A few days after Thanksgiving the gift that he had planned was finished. It was a big, burl-maple box, designed after the hope chests that he saw advertised in magazines. The wood was rare, cut in heavy slabs, polished inside and out, dove- tailed corners with ornate brass bindings, hinges and lock, and hand-carved feet. On the inside of the lid cut on a brass plate was the inscription, "Ruth Langston, Christmas of Nineteen Hundred and Ten. David."
Then he began packing the chest. He put in the finished candlesticks and a box of candleberry dips he had made of delightfully spiced wax, coloured pale green. He ordered the doll weeks before from the largest store in Onabasha, and the dealer brought on several that he might make a selection. He chose a large baby doll almost life size, and sent it to the dress-making department to be completely and exquisitely clothed. Long before the day he was picking kernels to glaze from nuts, drying corn to pop, and planning candies to be made of maple sugar. When he figured it was time to start the, box, he worked carefully, filling spaces with chestnut and hazel burs, and finishing the tops of boxes with gaudy red and yellow leaves he had kept in their original brightness by packing them in sand. He put in scarlet berries of mountain ash and long twining sprays of yellow and red bitter-sweet berries, for her room. Then he carefully covered the chest with cloth, packed it in an outside box, and sent it to the Girl by express. As he came from the train shed, where he had helped with loading, he met Henry Jameson. Instantly the long arm of the Harvester shot out, and in a grip that could not be broken he caught the man by the back of the neck and proceeded to dangle him. As he did so he roared with laughter.
"Dear Uncle Henry!" he cried. "How did you feel when you got your letter from Philadelphia? Wasn't it a crime that an honest man, which same refers to me, beat you? Didn't you gnash your teeth when you learned that instead of separating me from my wife I had found her people and sent her to them myself? Didn't it rend your soul to miss your little revenge and fail to get the good, fat reward you confidently expected? Ho! Ho! Thus are lofty souls downcast. I pity you, Henry Jameson, but not so much that I won't break your back if you meddle in my affairs again, and I am taking this opportunity to tell you so. Here you go out of my life, for if you appear in it once more I will finish you like a copperhead. Understand?"
With a last shake the Harvester dropped him, and went into the express office, where several men had watched the proceedings.
"Been dipping in your affairs, has he?" asked the expressman.
"Trying it," laughed the Harvester.
"Well he is just moving to Idaho, and you probably won't be bothered with him any more."
"Good news!" said the Harvester. He felt much relieved as he went back to Betsy and drove to Medicine Woods.
The Careys had invited him, but he chose to spend Christmas alone. He had finished breakfast when the telephone bell rang, and the expressman told him there was a package for him from Philadelphia. The Harvester mounted Betsy and rode to the city at once. The package was so very small he slipped it into his pocket, and went to the doctor's to say Merry Christmas! To Mrs. Carey he gave a pretty lavender silk dress, and to the doctor a new watch chain. Then he went to the hospital, where he left with Molly a set of china dishes from the Girl, and a fur-lined great coat, his gift to Doctor Harmon. He rode home and stabled Betsy, giving her an extra quart of oats, and going into the house he sat by the kitchen fire and opened the package.
In a nest of cotton lay a tissue-wrapped velvet box, and inside that, in a leather pocket case, an ivory miniature of the Girl by an artist who knew how to reproduce life. It was an exquisite picture, and a face of wonderful beauty. He looked at it for a long time, and then called Belshazzar and carried it out to show Ajax. Then he put it into his breast pocket squarely over his heart, but he wore the case shiny the first day taking it out. Before noon he went to the mail box and found a long letter from the Girl, full of life, health, happiness, and with steady assurances of love for him, but there was no mention made of coming home.
She seemed engrossed in the music lessons, riding, dancing, pretty clothing, splendid balls, receptions, and parties of all kinds. The Harvester answered it with his heart full of love for her, and then waited. It was a long week before the reply came, and then it was short on account of so many things that must be done, but she insisted that she was well, happy, and having a fine time. After that the letters became less frequent and shorter. At times there would be stretches of almost two weeks with not a line, and then only short notes to explain that she was too busy to write.
Through the dreary, cold days of January and February the Harvester invented work in the store-room, in the workshop, at the candlesticks, sat long over great books, and spent hours in the little laboratory preparing and compounding drugs. In the evenings he carved and read. First of all he scanned the society columns of the papers he was taking, and almost every day he found the name of Miss Ruth Jameson, often a paragraph describing her dress and her beauty of face and charm of manner; and constantly the name of Mr. Herbert Kennedy appeared as her escort. At first the Harvester ignored this, and said to himself that he was glad she could have enjoyable times and congenial friends, and he was. But as the letters became fewer, paper paragraphs more frequent, and approaching spring worked its old insanity in the blood, gradually an ache crept into his heart again, and there were days when he could not work it out.
Every letter she wrote he answered just as warmly as he felt that he dared, but when they were so long coming and his heart was overflowing, he picked up a pen one night and wrote what he felt. He told her all about the ice-bound lake, the lonely crows in the big woods, the sap suckers' cry, and the gay cardinals' whistle. He told her about the cocoons dangling on bushes or rocking on twigs that he was cutting for her. He warned her that spring was coming, and soon she would begin to miss wonders for her pencil. Then he told her about the silent cabin, the empty rooms, and a lonely man. He begged her not to forget the kiss she had gone to find for him. He poured out his heart unrestrainedly, and then folded the letter, sealed and addressed it to her, in care of the fire fairies, and pitched it into the ashes of the living-room fire place. But expression made him feel better.
There was another longer wait for the next letter, but he had written her so many in the meantime that a little heap of them had accumulated as he passed through the living-room on his way to bed. He had supposed she would be gone until after Christmas when she left, but he never had thought of harvesting sassafras and opening the sugar camp alone. In those days his face appeared weary, and white hairs came again on his temples. Carey met him on the street and told him that he was going to the National Convention of Surgeons at New York in March, and wanted him to go along and present his new medicine for consideration.
"All right," said the Harvester instantly, "I will go."
He went and interviewed Mrs. Carey, and then visited the doctor's tailor, and a shoe store, and bought everything required to put him in condition for travelling in good style, and for the banquet he would be asked to attend. Then he got Mrs. Carey to coach him on spoons and forks, and declared he was ready. When the doctor saw that the Harvester really would go, he sat down and wrote the president of the association, telling him in brief outline of Medicine Woods and the man who had achieved a wonderful work there, and of the compounding of the new remedy.
As he expected, return mail brought an invitation for the Harvester to address the association and describe his work and methods and present his medicine. The doctor went out in the car over sloppy roads with that letter, and located the Harvester in the sugar camp. He explained the situation and to his surprise found his man intensely interested. He asked many questions as to the length of time, and amount of detail required in a proper paper, and the doctor told him.
"But if you want to make a clean sweep, David," he said, "write your paper simply, and practise until it comes easy before you speak."
That night the Harvester left work long enough to get a notebook, and by the light of the camp fire, and in company with the owls and coons, he wrote his outline. One division described his geographical location, another traced his ancestry and education in wood lore. One was a tribute to the mother who moulded his character and ground into him stability for his work. The remainder described his methods in growing drugs, drying and packing them, and the end was a presentation for their examination of the remedy that had given life where a great surgeon had conceded death. Then he began amplification.
When the sugar making was over the Harvester commenced his regular spring work, but his mind was so busy over his paper that he did not have much time to realize just how badly his heart was beginning to ache. Neither did he consign so many letters to the fire fairies, for now he was writing of the best way to dry hydrastis and preserve ginseng seed. The day before time to start he drove to Onabasha to try on his clothing and have Mrs. Carey see if he had been right in his selections.
While he was gone, Granny Moreland, wearing a clean calico dress and carrying a juicy apple pie, came to the stretch of flooded marsh land, and finding the path under water, followed the road and crossing a field reached the levee and came to the bridge of Singing Water where it entered the lake. She rested a few minutes there, and then went to the cabin shining between bare branches. She opened the front door, entered, and stood staring around her.
"Why things is all tore up here," she said. "Now ain't that sensible of David to put everything away and save it nice and careful until his woman gets back. Seems as if she's good and plenty long coming; seems as if her folks needs her mighty bad, or she's having a better time than the boy is or something."
She set the pie on the table, went through the cabin and up the hill a little distance, calling the Harvester. When she passed the barn she missed Betsy and the wagon, and then she knew he was in town. She returned to the living-room and sat looking at the pie as she rested.
"I'd best put you on the kitchen table," she mused. "Likely he will see you there first and eat you while you are fresh. I'd hate mortal bad for him to overlook you, and let you get stale, after all the care I've took with your crust, and all the sugar, cinnamon, and butter that's under your lid. You're a mighty nice pie, and you ort to be et hot. Now why under the sun is all them clean letters pitched in the fireplace?"
Granny knelt and selecting one, she blew off the ashes, wiped it with her apron and read: "To Ruth, in care of the fire fairies."
"What the Sam Hill is the idiot writin' his woman like that for?" cried Granny, bristling instantly. "And why is he puttin' pages and pages of good reading like this must have in it in care of the fire fairies? Too much alone, I guess! He's going wrong in his head. Nobody at themselves would do sech a fool trick as this. I believe I had better do something. Of course I had! These is writ to Ruth; she ort to have them. Wish't I knowed how she gets her mail, I'd send her some. Mebby three! I'd send a fat and a lean, and a middlin' so's that she'd have a sample of all the kinds they is. It's no way to write letters and pitch them in the ashes. It means the poor boy is honin' to say things he dassent and so he's writin' them out and never sendin' them at all. What's the little huzzy gone so long for, anyway? I'll fix her!"
Granny selected three letters, blew away the ashes, and tucked the envelopes inside her dress.
"If I only knowed how to get at her," she muttered. She stared at the pie. "I guess you got to go back," she said, "and be et by me. Like as not I'll stall myself, for I got one a-ready. But if David has got these fool things counted and misses any, and then finds that pie here, he'll s'picion me. Yes, I got to take you back, and hurry my stumps at that."
Granny arose with the pie, cast a lingering and covetous glance at the fireplace, stooped and took another letter, and then started down the drive. Just as she reached the bridge she looked ahead and saw the Harvester coming up the levee. Instantly she shot the pie over the railing and with a groan watched it strike the water and disappear.
"Lord of love!" she gasped, sinking to the seat, "that was one of grandmother's willer plates that I promised Ruth. 'Tain't likely I'll ever see hide ner hair of it again. But they wa'ant no place to put it, and I dassent let him know I'd been up to the cabin. Mebby I can fetch a boy some day and hire him to dive for it. How long can a plate be in water and not get spiled anyway? Now what'll I do? My head's all in a whirl! I'll bet my bosom is a sticking out with his letters 'til he'll notice and take them from me."
She gripped her hands across her chest and sat staring at the Harvester as he stopped on the bridge, and seeing her attitude and distressed face, he sprang from the wagon.
"Why Granny, are you sick?" he cried anxiously.
"Yes!" gasped Granny Moreland. "Yes, David, I am! I'm a miserable woman. I never was in sech a shape in all my days."
"Let me help you to the cabin, and I'll see what I can do for you," offered the Harvester.
"No. This is jest out of your reach," said the old lady. "I want----I want to see Doctor Carey bad."
"Are you strong enough to ride in or shall I bring him?"
"I can go! I can go as well as not, David, if you'll take me."
"Let me run Betsy to the barn and get the Girl's phaeton. The wagon is too rough for you. Are the pains in your chest dreadful?"
"I don't know how to describe them," said Granny with perfect truth.
The Harvester leaped into the wagon and caught up the lines. As he disappeared around the curve of the driveway Granny snatched the letters from her dress front and thrust them deep into one of her stockings.
"Now, drat you!" she cried. "Stick out all you please. Nobody will see you there."
In a few minutes the Harvester helped her into the carriage and drove rapidly toward the city.
"You needn't strain your critter," said Granny. "It's not so bad as that, David."
"Is your chest any better?"
"A sight better," said Granny. "Shakin' up a little 'pears to do me good."
"You never should have tried to walk. Suppose I hadn't been here. And you came the long way, too! I'll have a telephone run to your house so you can call me after this."
Granny sat very straight suddenly.
"My! wouldn't that get away with some of my foxy neighbours," she said. "Me to have a 'phone like they do, an' be conversin' at all hours of the day with my son's folks and everybody. I'd be tickled to pieces, David."
"Then I'll never dare do it," said the Harvester, "because I can't keep house without you."
"Where's your own woman?" promptly inquired Granny.
"She can't leave her people. Her grandmother is sick."
"Grandmother your foot!" cried the old woman. "I've been hearing that song and dance from the neighbours, but you got to fool younger people than me on it, David. When did any grandmother ever part a pair of youngsters jest married, for months at a clip? I'd like to cast my eyes on that grandmother. She's a new breed! I was as good a mother as 'twas in my skin to be, and I'd like to see a child of mine do it for me; and as for my grandchildren, it hustles some of them to re-cog-nize me passing on the big road, 'specially if it's Peter's girl with a town beau."
The Harvester laughed. The old lady leaned toward him with a mist in her eyes and a quaver in her voice, and asked softly, "Got ary friend that could help you, David?"
The man looked straight ahead in silence.
"Bamfoozle all the rest of them as much as you please, lad, but I stand to you in the place of your ma, and so I ast you plainly----got ary friend that could help?"
"I can think of no way in which any one possibly could help me, dear," said the Harvester gently. "It is a matter I can't explain, but I know of nothing that any one could do."
"You mean you're tight-mouthed! You could tell me just like you would your ma, if she was up and comin'; but you can't quite put me in her place, and spit it out plain. Now mebby I can help you! Is it her fault or yourn?"
"Mine! Mine entirely!"
"Hum! What a fool question! I might a knowed it! I never saw a lovinger, sweeter girl in these parts. I jest worship the ground she treads on; and you, lad you hain't had a heart in your body sence first you saw her face. If I had the stren'th, I'd haul you out of this keeridge and I'd hammer you meller, David Langston. What in the name of sense have you gone and done to the purty, lovin' child?"
The Harvester's face flushed, but a line around his mouth whitened.
"Loosen up!" commanded Granny. "I got some rights in this case that mebby you don't remember. You asked me to help you get ready for her, and I done what you wanted. You invited me to visit her, and I jest loved her sweet, purty ways. You wanted me to shet up my house and come over for weeks to help take keer of her, and I done it gladly, for her pain and your sufferin' cut me as if 'twas my livin' flesh and blood; so you can't shet me out now. I'm in with you and her to the end. What a blame fool thing have you gone and done to drive away for months a girl that fair worshipped you?"
"That's exactly the trouble, Granny," said the Harvester. "She didn't! She merely respected and was grateful to me, and she loved me as a friend; but I never was any nearer her husband than I am yours."
"I've always knowed they was a screw loose somewhere," commented Granny. "And so you've sent her off to her worldly folks in a big, wicked city to get weaned away from you complete?"
"I sent her to let her see if absence would teach her anything. I had months with her here, and I lay awake at nights thinking up new plans to win her. I worked for her love as I never worked for bread, but I couldn't make it. So I let her go to see if separation would teach her anything."
"Mercy me! Why you crazy critter! The child did love you! She loved you 'nough an' plenty! She loved you faithful and true! You was jest the light of her eyes. I don't see how a girl could think more of a man. What in the name of sense are you expecting months of separation to teach her, but to forget you, and mebby turn her to some one else?"
"I hoped it would teach her what I call love, means," explained the Harvester.
"Why you dratted popinjay! If ever in all my born days I wanted to take a man and jest lit'rally mop up the airth with him, it's right here and now. `Absence teach her what you call love.' Idiot! That's your job!"
"But, Granny, I couldn't!"
"Wouldn't, you mean, no doubt! I hain't no manner of a notion in my head but that child, depending on you, and grateful as she was, and tender and loving, and all sech as that I hain't a doubt but she come to you plain and told you she loved you with all her heart. What more could you ast?"
"That she understand what love means before I can accept what she offers."
"You puddin' head! You blunderbuss!" cried Granny. "Understand what you mean by love. If you're going to bar a woman from being a wife 'til she knows what you mean by love, you'll stop about nine tenths of the weddings in the world, and t'other tenth will be women that no decent-minded man would jine with."
"Granny, are you sure?"
"Well livin' through it, and up'ard of seventy years with other women, ort to teach me something. The Girl offered you all any man needs to ast or git. Her foundations was laid in faith and trust. Her affections was caught by every loving, tender, thoughtful thing you did for her; and everybody knows you did a-plenty, David. I never see sech a master hand at courtin' as you be. You had her lovin' you all any good woman knows how to love a man. All you needed to a-done was to take her in your arms, and make her your wife, and she'd 'a' waked up to what you meant by love."
"But suppose she never awakened?"
"Aw, bosh! S'pose water won't wet! S'pose fire won't burn! S'pose the sun won't shine! That's the law of nature, man! If you think I hain't got no sense at all I jest dare you to ask Doctor Carey. 'Twouldn't take him long to comb the kinks out of you."
"I don't think you have left any, Granny," said the Harvester. "I see what you mean, and in all probability you are right, but I can't send for the Girl."
"Name o' goodness why?"
"Because I sent her away against her will, and now she is remaining so long that there is every probability she prefers the life she is living and the friends she has made there, to Medicine Woods and to me. The only thing I can do now is to await her decision."
"Oh, good Lord!" groaned Granny. "You make me sick enough to kill. Touch up your nag and hustle me to Doc. You can't get me there quick enough to suit me."
At the hospital she faced Doctor Carey. "I think likely some of my innards has got to be cut out and mended," she said. "I'll jest take a few minutes of your time to examination me, and see what you can do."
In the private office she held the letters toward the doctor. "They hain't no manner of sickness ailin' me, Doc. The boy out there is in deep water, and I knowed how much you thought of him, and I hoped you'd give me a lift. I went over to his place this mornin' to take him a pie, and I found his settin' room fireplace heapin' with letters he'd writ to Ruth about things his heart was jest so bustin' full of it eased him to write them down, and then he hadn't the horse sense and trust in her jedgment to send them on to her. I picked two fats, a lean, and a middlin' for samples, and I thought I'd send them some way, and I struck for home with them an' he ketched me plumb on the bridge. I had to throw my pie overboard, willer plate and all, and as God is my witness, I was so flustered the boy had good reason to think I was sick a-plenty; and soon as he noticed it, I thought of you spang off, and I knowed you'd know her whereabouts, and I made him fetch me to you. On the way I jest dragged it from him that he'd sent her away his fool self, because she didn't sense what he meant by love, and she wa'ant beholden to him same degree and manner he was to her. Great day, Doc! Did you ever hear a piece of foolishness to come up with that? I told him to ast you! I told him you'd tell him that no clean, sweet-minded girl ever had known nor ever would know what love means to a man 'til he marries her and teaches her. Ain't it so, Doc?"
"It certainly is."
"Then will you grind it into him, clean to the marrer, and will you send these letters on to Ruthie?"
"Most certainly I will," said the doctor emphatically. Granny opened the door and walked out
"I'm so relieved, David," she said. "He thinks they won't be no manner o' need to knife me. Likely he can fix up a few pills and send them out by mail so's that I'll be as good as new again. Now we must get right out of here and not take valuable time. What do I owe you, Doc?"
"Not a cent," said Doctor Carey. "Thank you very much for coming to me. You'll soon be all right again."
"I was some worried. Much obliged I am sure. Come on!"
"One minute," said the doctor. "David, I am making up a list of friends to whom I am going to send programmes of the medical meeting, and I thought your wife might like to see you among the speakers, and your subject. What is her address?"
A slow red flushed the Harvester's cheeks. He opened his lips and hesitated. At last he said, "I think perhaps her people prefer that she receive mail under her maiden name while with them. Miss Ruth Jameson, care of Alexander Herron, 5770 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, will reach her."
The doctor wrote the address, as if it were the most usual thing in the world, and asked the Harvester if he was ready to make the trip east.
"I think we had best start to-night," he said. "We want a day to grow accustomed to our clothes and new surroundings before we run up squarely against serious business."
"I will be ready," promised the Harvester.
He took Granny home, set his house in order, installed the man he was leaving in charge, touched a match to the heap in the fireplace, and donning the new travelling suit, he went to Doctor Carey's.
Mrs. Carey added a few touches, warned him to remember about the forks and spoons, and not to forget to shave often, and saw them off. At the station Carey said to him, "You know, David, we can change at Wayne and go through Buffalo, or we can take the Pittsburg and go and come through Philadelphia."
"I am contemplating a trip to Philadelphia," said the Harvester, "but I believe I will not be ready for, say a month yet. I have a theory and it dies hard. If it does not work out the coming month, I will go, perhaps, but not now. Let us see how many kinds of a fool I make of myself in New York before I attempt the Quakers."
Almost to the city, the doctor smiled at the Harvester.
"David, where did you get your infernal assurance?" he asked.
"In the woods," answered the Harvester placidly. "In doing clean work. With my fingers in the muck, and life literally teeming and boiling in sound and action, around, above, and beneath me, a right estimate of my place and province in life comes naturally in daily handling stores on which humanity depends, I go even deeper than you surgeons and physicians. You are powerless unless I reinforce your work with drugs on which you can rely. I do clean, honest work. I know its proper place and value to the world. That is why I called what I have to say, `The Man in the Background.' There is no reason why I should shiver and shrink at meeting and explaining my work to my fellows. Every man has his vocation, and some of you in the limelight would cut a sorry figure if the man in the background should fail you at the critical moment. Don't worry about me, Doc. I am all serene. You won't find I possess either nerves or fear. `Be sure you are right, and then go ahead,' is my law."
"Well I'll be confounded!" said the doctor.
In a large hall, peopled with thousands of medical men, the name of the Harvester was called the following day and his subject was announced. He arose in his place and began to talk.
"Take the platform," came in a roar from a hundred throats.
The Harvester hesitated.
"You must, David," whispered Carey.
The Harvester made his way forward and was guided through a side door, and a second later calmly walked down the big stage to the front, and stood at ease looking over his audience, as if to gauge its size and the pitch to which he should raise his voice. His lean frame loomed every inch of his six feet, his broad shoulders were square, his clean shaven face alert and afire. He wore a spring suit of light gray of good quality and cut, and he was perfect as to details.
"This scarcely seems compatible with my subject," he remarked casually. "I certainly appear very much in the foreground just at present, but perhaps that is quite as well. It may be time that I assert myself. I doubt if there is a man among you who has not handled my products more or less; you may enjoy learning where and how they are prepared, and understanding the manner in which my work merges with yours. I think perhaps the first thing is to paint you as good a word picture as I can of my geographical location."
Then the Harvester named latitude and longitude and degrees of temperature. He described the lake, the marsh, the wooded hill, the swale, and open sunny fields. He spoke of water, soil, shade, and geographical conditions. "Here I was born," he said, "on land owned by my father and grandfather before me, and previous to them, by the Indians. My male ancestors, so far as I can trace them, were men of the woods, hunters, trappers, herb gatherers. My mother was from the country, educated for a teacher. She had the most inexorable will power of any woman I ever have known. From my father I inherited my love for muck on my boots, resin in my nostrils, the long trail, the camp fire, forest sounds and silences in my soul. From my mother I learned to read good books, to study subjects that puzzled me, to tell the truth, to keep my soul and body clean, and to pursue with courage the thing to which I set my hand.
"There was not money enough to educate me as she would; together we learned to find it in the forest. In early days we sold ferns and wild flowers to city people, harvested the sap of the maples in spring, and the nut crop of the fall. Later, as we wanted more, we trapped for skins, and collected herbs for the drug stores. This opened to me a field I was peculiarly fitted to enter. I knew woodcraft instinctively, I had the location of every herb, root, bark, and seed that will endure my climate; I had the determination to stick to my job, the right books to assist me, and my mother's invincible will power to uphold me where I wavered.
"As I look into your faces, men, I am struck with the astounding thought that some woman bore the cold sweat and pain of labour to give life to each of you. I hope few of you prolonged that agony as I did. It was in the heart of my mother to make me physically clean, and to that end she sent me daily into the lake, so long as it was not ice covered, and put me at exercises intended to bring full strength to every sinew and fibre of my body. It was in her heart to make me morally clean, so she took me to nature and drilled me in its forces and its methods of reproducing life according to the law. Her work was good to a point that all men will recognize. From there on, for a few years, she held me, not because I was man enough to stand, but because she was woman enough to support me. Without her no doubt I would have broken the oath I took; with her I won the victory and reached years of manhood and self-control as she would have had me. The struggle wore her out at half a lifetime, but as a tribute to her memory I cannot face a body of men having your opportunities without telling you that what was possible to her and to me is possible to all mothers and men. If she is above and hears me perhaps it will recompense some of her shortened years if she knows I am pleading with you, as men having the greatest influence of any living, to tell and to teach the young that a clean life is possible to them. The next time any of you are called upon to address a body of men tell them to learn for themselves and to teach their sons, and to hold them at the critical hour, even by sweat and blood, to a clean life; for in this way only can feeble-minded homes, almshouses, and the scarlet woman be abolished. In this way only can men arise to full physical and mental force, and become the fathers of a race to whom the struggle for clean manhood will not be the battle it is with us.
"By the distorted faces, by the misshapen bodies, by marks of degeneracy, recognizable to your practised eyes everywhere on the streets, by the agony of the mother who bore you, and later wept over you, I conjure you men to live up to your high and holy privilege, and tell all men that they can be clean, if they will. This in memory of the mother who shortened her days to make me a moral man. And if any among you is the craven to plead immorality as a safeguard to health, I ask, what about the health of the women you sacrifice to shield your precious bodies, and I offer my own as the best possible refutation of that cowardly lie. I never have been ill a moment in all my life, and strength never has failed me for work to which I set my hand.
"The rapidly decreasing supply of drugs and the adulterated importations early taught me that the day was coming when it would be an absolute necessity to raise our home supplies. So, while yet in my teens, I began collecting from the fields and woods for miles around such medicinal stuff as grew in my father's fields, marsh, and woods, and planting more wherever I found anything growing naturally in its prime. I merely enlarged nature's beds and preserved their natural condition. As the plants spread and the harvest increased, I built a dry-house on scientific principles, a large store- room, and later a laboratory in which I have been learning to prepare some of my crude material for the market, combining ideas of my own in remedies, and at last producing one your president just has indicated that I come to submit to you as a final resort in certain conditions.
"My operations now have spread to close six hundred acres of almost solid medicinal growth, including a little lake, around the shores of which flourish a quadruple setting of water-loving herbs."
Occasionally he shifted his position or easily walked across the platform and faced his audience from a different direction. His voice was strong, deep, and rang clearly and earnestly. His audience sat on the front edge of their chairs, and listened to something new, with mouths half agape. A few times Carey turned from the speaker to face the audience. He agonized in his heart that it was a closed session, and that his wife was not there to hear, and that the Girl was missing it.
By the bent backs and flying fingers of the reporters at their table in front he could see that to-morrow the world would read the Harvester's speech; and if it were true that the little mother had shortened her days to produce him, she had done earth a service for which many generations would call her blessed. For the doctor could look ahead, and he knew that this man would not escape. The call for him and his unimpeachable truth would come from everywhere, and his utterances would carry as far as newspapers and magazines were circulated. The good he would do would be past estimation.
The Harvester continued. He was describing the most delicate and difficult of herbs to secure. He was telling how they could be raised, prepared, kept, and compounded. He was discussing diseases that did not readily yield to treatment, pointing out what drugs were customarily employed and offering, if any of them had such cases, and would send to him, to forward samples of unadulterated stuff sufficient for a test comparison with what they were using. He was walking serenely and surely into the heart of every man before him.
Just at the point where it was the psychological time to close, he stopped and stood a long instant facing them, and then he asked softly, "Did any man among you ever see the woman to whom he had given a strong man's first passion of love, slowly dying before him?"
One breathless instant he waited and then continued, "Gentlemen, I recently saw this in my own case. For days it was coming, so at night I shut myself in my laboratory, and from the very essence of the purest of my self-compounded drugs I distilled a stimulant into which I put a touch of heart remedy, a brace for weakening nerves, a vitalization of sluggish blood. As I worked, I thought in that thought which embodied the essence of prayer, and when my day and my hour came, and a man who has been the president of your honourable body, and is known to all of you, said it was death, I took this combination that I now present to you, and with the help of the Almighty and a woman above the price of rubies, I kept breath in the girl I love, and to-day she is at full tide of womanhood. As a thank offering, the formula is yours. Test it as you will. Use it if you find it good. Gentlemen, I thank you!"
Carey sank in his chair and watched the Harvester cross the stage. As he disappeared the tumult began, and it lasted until the president arose and brought him back to make another bow, and then they rioted until they wore themselves out. In an immaculate dress suit the Harvester sat that night on the right of the gray- haired president and responded to the toast, "The Harvester of the Woods." Then the reporters carried him away to be photographed, and to show him the gay sights of New York.
In the train the next day, steadily speeding west, he said to Doctor Carey: "I feel as the old woman of Mother Goose who said, `Lawk-a-mercy on us, can this be really I?' "
"You just bet it is!" cried the doctor. "And you have cut out work for yourself in good shape."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that this is a beginning. You will be called upon to speak again and again."
"The point is, do you honestly think I helped any?"
"You did inestimable good. It only can help men to hear plain truth that is personal experience. As for that dope of yours, it will come closer raising the dead than anything I ever saw. Next case I see slipping, after I've done my best, I'm going to try it out for myself."
"All right! 'Phone me and I'll bring some fresh and help you."
At Buffalo the doctor left the car and bought a paper. As he had expected the portrait and speech of the Harvester were featured. The reporters had been gracious. They had done all that was just to a great event, and allowed themselves some latitude. He immediately mailed the paper to the Girl, and at Cleveland bought another for himself. When he showed it to the Harvester, as he glanced at it he observed, "Do I appear like that?" Then he went on talking with a man he had met who interested him.