The Harvester by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter IV. A Commission for the South Wind
The next morning the larks trailed ecstasy all over the valley, the following day cuckoos were calling in the thickets, a warm wind swept from the south and set swollen buds bursting, while the sun shone, causing the Harvester to rejoice. Betsy's white coat was splashed with the mud of the valley road; the feet of Belshazzar left tracks over lumber piles; and the Harvester removed his muck-covered shoes at the door and wore slippers inside. The skunk cabbage appeared around the edge of the forest, rank mullein and thistles lay over the fields in big circles of green, and even plants of delicate growth were thrusting their heads through mellowing earth and dead leaves, to reach light and air.
Then the Harvester took his mattock and began to dig. His level best fell so far short of what he felt capable of doing and desired to accomplish that the following day he put two more men on the job. Then the earth did fly, and so soon as the required space was excavated the walls were lined with stone and a smooth basement floor was made of cement. The night the new home stood, a skeleton of joists and rafters, gleaming whitely on the banks of Loon Lake, the Harvester went to the bridge crossing Singing Water and slowly came up the driveway to see how the work appeared. He caught his breath as he advanced. He had intended to stake out generous rooms, but this, compared with the cabin, seemed like a big hotel.
"I hope I haven't made it so large it will be a burden," he soliloquized. "It's huge! But while I am at it I want to build big enough, and I think I have."
He stood on the driveway, his arms folded, and looked at the structure as he occasionally voiced his thoughts.
"The next thing is to lay up the side walls and get the roof over. Got to have plenty of help, for those logs are hewed to fourteen inches square and some of them are forty feet long. That's timber! Grew with me, too. Personally acquainted with almost every tree of it. We will bed them in cement, use care with the roof, and if that doesn't make a cool house in the summer, and a warm one in winter, I'll be disappointed. It sets among the trees, and on the hillside just right. We must have a wide porch, plenty of flowers, vines, ferns, and mosses, and when I get everything finished and she sees it----perhaps it will please her."
A great horned owl swept down the hill, crossed the lake, and hooted from the forest of the opposite bank. The Harvester thought of his dream and turned.
"Any women walking the water to-night? Come if you like," he bantered, "I don't mind in the least. In fact, I'd rather enjoy it. I'd be so happy if you would come now and tell me how this appears to you, for it's all yours. I'd have enlarged the store-room, dry-houses and laboratory for myself, but this cabin, never! The old one suited me as it was; but for you----I should have a better home."
The Harvester glanced from the shining skeleton to the bridge of gold and back again.
"Where are you to-night?" he questioned. "What are you doing? Can't you give me a hint of where to search for you when this is ready? I don't know but I am beginning wrong. My little brothers of the wood do differently. They announce their intentions the first thing, flaunt their attractions, and display their strength. They say aloud, for all the listening world to hear, what is in their hearts. They chip, chirp, and sing, warble, whistle, thrill, scream, and hoot it. They are strong on self-expression, and appreciative of their appearance. They meet, court, mate, and then build their home together after a mutual plan. It's a good way, too! Lots surer of getting things satisfactory."
The Harvester sat on a lumber pile and gazed questioningly at the framework.
"I wish I knew if I am going at things right," he said. "There are two sides to consider. If she is in a good home, and lovingly cared for, it would be proper to court her and get her promise, if I could----no I'm blest if I'll be so modest----get her promise, as I said, and let her wait while I build the cabin. But if she should be poor, tired, and neglected, then I ought to have this ready when I find her, so I could pick her up and bring her to it, with no more ceremony than the birds."
The Harvester's clear skin flushed crimson.
"Of course, I don't mean no wedding ceremony," he amended. "I was thinking of a long time wasted in preliminaries when in my soul I know I am going to marry my Dream Girl before I ever have seen her in reality. What would be the use in spending much time in courting? She is my wife now, by every law of God. Let me get a glimpse of her, and I'll prove it. But I've got to make tracks, for if she were here, where would I put her? I must hurry!"
He went to the work room and began polishing a table top. He had bought a chest of tools and was spending every spare minute on tables, chair seats, and legs. He had decided to make these first and carve candlesticks later when he had more time. Two hours he worked at the furniture, and then went to bed. The following morning he put eggs under several hens that wanted to set, trimmed his grape-vines, examined the precious ginseng beds, attended his stock, got breakfast for Belshazzar and himself, and was ready for work when the first carpenter arrived. Laying hewed logs went speedily, and before the Harvester believed it possible the big shingles he had ordered were being nailed on the roof. Then came the plumber and arranged for the bathroom, and the furnace man placed the heating pipes. The Harvester had intended the cabin to be mostly the work of his own hands, but when he saw how rapidly skilled carpenters worked, he changed his mind and had them finish the living-room, his room, and the upstairs, and make over the dining-room and kitchen.
Her room he worked on alone, with a little help if he did not know how to join the different parts. Every thing was plain and simple, after plans of his own, but the Harvester laid floors and made window casings, seats, and doors of wood that the big factories of Grand Rapids used in veneering their finest furniture. When one of his carpenters pointed out this to him, and suggested that he sell his lumber to McLean and use pine flooring from the mills the Harvester laughed at him.
"I don't say that I could afford to buy burl maple, walnut, and cherry for wood-work," said the Harvester. "I could not, but since I have it, you can stake your life I won't sell it and build my home of cheap, rapidly decaying wood. The best I have goes into this cabin and what remains will do to sell. I have an idea that when this is done it is going to appear first rate. Anyway, it will be solid enough to last a thousand years, and with every day of use natural wood grows more beautiful. When we get some tables, couches, and chairs made from the same timber as the casings and the floors, I think it will be fine. I want money, but I don't want it bad enough to part with the best of anything I have for it. Go carefully and neatly there; it will have to be changed if you don't."
So the work progressed rapidly. When the carpenters had finished the last stroke on the big veranda they remained a day more and made flower boxes, and a swinging couch, and then the greedy Harvester kept the best man with him a week longer to help on the furniture.
"Ain't you going to say a word about her, Langston?" asked this man as they put a mirror-like surface on a curly maple dressing table top.
"Her!" ejaculated the Harvester. "What do you mean?"
"I haven't seen you bathe anywhere except in the lake since I have been here," said the carpenter. "Do you want me to think that a porcelain tub, this big closet, and chest of drawers are for you?"
A wave of crimson swept over the Harvester.
"No, they are not for me," he said simply. "I don't want to be any more different from other men than I can help, although I know that life in the woods, the rigid training of my mother, and the reading of only the books that would aid in my work have made me individual in many of my thoughts and ways. I suppose most men, just now, would tell you anything you want to know. There is only one thing I can say: The best of my soul and brain, the best of my woods and store-house, the best I can buy with money is not good enough for her. That's all. For myself, I am getting ready to marry, of course. I think all normal men do and that it is a matter of plain common-sense that they should. Life with the right woman must be infinitely broader and better than alone. Are you married?"
"Yes. Got a wife and four children."
"Are you sorry?"
"Sorry!" the carpenter shrilled the word. "Sorry! Well that's the best I ever heard! Am I sorry I married Nell and got the kids? Do I look sorry?"
"I am not expecting to be, either," said the Harvester calmly. "I think I have done fairly well to stick to my work and live alone until I am twenty-six. I have thought the thing all over and made up my mind. As soon as I get this house far enough along that I feel I can proceed alone I am going to rush the marrying business just as fast as I can, and let her finish the remainder to her liking."
"Well this ought to please her."
"That's because you find your own work good," laughed the Harvester.
"Not altogether!" The carpenter polished the board and stood it on end to examine the surface as he talked. "Not altogether! Nothing but good work would suit you. I was thinking of the little creek splashing down the hill to the lake; and that old log hewer said that in a few more days things here would be a blaze of colour until fall."
"Almost all the drug plants and bushes leaf beautifully and flower brilliantly," explained the Harvester. "I studied the location suitable to each variety before I set the beds and planned how to grow plants for continuity of bloom, and as much harmony of colour as possible. Of course a landscape gardener would tear up some of it, but seen as a whole it isn't so bad. Did you ever notice that in the open, with God's blue overhead and His green for a background, He can place purple and yellow, pink, magenta, red, and blue in masses or any combination you can mention and the brighter the colour the more you like it? You don't seem to see or feel that any grouping clashes; you revel in each wonderful growth, and luxuriate in the brilliancy of the whole. Anyway, this suits me."
"I guess it will please her, too," said the carpenter. "After all the pains you've taken, she is a good one if it doesn't."
"I'll always have the consolation of having done my best," replied the Harvester. "One can't do more! Whether she likes it or not depends greatly on the way she has been reared."
"You talk as if you didn't know," commented the carpenter.
"You go on with this now," said the Harvester hastily. "I've got to uncover some beds and dig my year's supply of skunk cabbage, else folk with asthma and dropsy who depend on me will be short on relief. I ought to take my sweet flag, too, but I'm so hurried now I think I'll leave it until fall; I do when I can, because the bloom is so pretty around the lake and the bees simply go wild over the pollen. Sometimes I almost think I can detect it in their honey. Do you know I've wondered often if the honey my bees make has medicinal properties and should be kept separate in different seasons. In early spring when the plants and bushes that furnish the roots and barks of most of the tonics are in bloom, and the bees gather the pollen, that honey should partake in a degree of the same properties and be good medicine. In the summer it should aid digestion, and in the fall cure rheumatism and blood disorders."
"Say you try it!" urged the carpenter. "I want a lot of the fall kind. I'm always full of rheumatism by October. Exposure, no doubt."
"Over eating of too much rich food, you mean," laughed the Harvester. "I'd like to see any man expose his body to more differing extremes of weather than I do, and I'm never sick. It's because I am my own cook and so I live mostly on fruits, vegetables, bread, milk, and eggs, a few fish from the lake, a little game once in a great while or a chicken, and no hot drinks; plenty of fresh water, air, and continuous work out of doors. That's the prescription! I'd be ashamed to have rheumatism at your age. There's food in the cupboard if you grow hungry. I am going past one of the neighbours on my way to see about some work I want her to do."
The Harvester stopped for lunch, carried food to Belshazzar, and started straight across country, his mattock, with a bag rolled around the handle, on his shoulder. His feet sank in the damp earth at the foot of the hill, and he laughed as he leaped across Singing Water.
"You noisy chatterbox!" cried the man. "The impetus of coming down the curves of the hill keeps you talking all the way across this muck bed to the lake. With small work I can make you a thing of beauty. A few bushes grubbed, a little deepening where you spread too much, and some more mallows along the banks will do the trick. I must attend to you soon."
"Now what does the boy want?" laughed a white- haired old woman, as the Harvester entered the door. "Mebby you think I don't know what you're up to! I even can hear the hammering and the voices of the men when the wind is in the south. I've been wondering how soon you'd need me. Out with it!"
"I want you to get a woman and come over and spend a day with me. I'll come after you and bring you back. I want you to go over mother's bedding and have what needs it washed. All I want you to do is to superintend, and tell me now what I will want from town for your work."
"I put away all your mother's bedding that you were not using, clean as a ribbon."
"But it has been packed in moth preventives ever since and out only four times a year to air, as you told me. It must smell musty and be yellow. I want it fresh and clean."
"So what I been hearing is true, David?"
"Quite true!" said the Harvester.
"Whose girl is she, and when are you going to jine hands?"
The Harvester lifted his clear eyes and hesitated.
"Doc Carey laid you in my arms when you was born, David. I tended you 'fore ever your ma did. All your life you've been my boy, and I love you same as my own blood; it won't go no farther if you say so. I'll never tell a living soul. But I'm old and 'til better weather comes, house bound; and I get mighty lonely. I'd like to think about you and her, and plan for you, and love her as I always did you folks. Who is she, David? Do I know the family?"
"No. She is a stranger to these parts," said the unhappy Harvester.
"David, is she a nice girl 'at your ma would have liked?"
"She's the only girl in the world that I'd marry," said the Harvester promptly, glad of a question he could answer heartily. "Yes. She is gentle, very tender and----and affectionate," he went on so rapidly that Granny Moreland could not say a word, "and as soon as I bring her home you shall come to spend a day and get acquainted. I know you will love her! I'll come in the morning, then. I must hurry now. I am working double this spring and I'm off for the skunk cabbage bed to-day."
"You are working fit to kill, the neighbours say. Slavin' like a horse all day, and half the night I see your lights burning."
"Do I appear killed?" laughingly inquired the Harvester.
"You look peart as a struttin' turkey gobbler," said the old woman. "Go on with your work! Work don't hurt a-body. Eat a-plenty, sleep all you ort, and you can't work enough to hurt you."
"So the neighbours say I'm working now? New story, isn't it? Usually I'm too lazy to make a living, if I remember."
"Only to those who don't sense your purceedings, David. I always knowed how you grubbed and slaved an' set over them fearful books o' yours."
"More interesting than the wildest fiction," said the man. "I'm making some medicine for your rheumatism, Granny. It is not fully tested yet, but you get ready for it by cutting out all the salt you can. I haven't time to explain this morning, but you remember what I say, leave out the salt, and when Doc thinks it's safe I'll bring you something that will make a new woman of you."
He went swinging down the road, and Granny Moreland looked after him.
"While he was talkin'," she muttered, "I felt full of information as a flock o' almanacs, but now since he's gone, 'pears to me I don't know a thing more 'an I did to start on."
"Close call," the Harvester was thinking. "Why the nation did I admit anything to her? People may talk as they please, so long as I don't sanction it, but I have two or three times. That's a fool trick. Suppose I can't find her? Maybe she won't look at me if I can. Then I'd have started something I couldn't finish. And if anybody thinks I'll end this by taking any girl I can get, if I can't find Her, why they think wrongly. Just the girl of my golden dream or no woman at all for me. I've lived alone long enough to know how to do it in comfort. If I can't find and win her I have no intention of starting a boarding house."
The Harvester began to laugh. " `I'd rather keep bachelor's hall in Hell than go to board in Heaven!' " he quoted gaily. "That's my sentiment too. If you can't have what you want, don't have anything. But there is no use to become discouraged before I start. I haven't begun to hunt her yet. Until I do, I might as well believe that she will walk across the bridge and take possession just as soon as I get the last chair leg polished. She might! She came in the dream, and to come actually couldn't be any more real. I'll make a stiff hunt of it before I give up, if I ever do. I never yet have made a complete failure of anything. But just now I am hunting skunk cabbage. It's precisely the time to take it."
Across the lake, in the swampy woods, close where the screech owl sang and the girl of the golden dream walked in the moonlight the Harvester began operations. He unrolled the sack, went to one end of the bed and systematically started a swath across it, lifting every other plant by the roots. Flowering time was almost past, but the bees knew where pollen ripened, and hummed incessantly over and inside the queer cone-shaped growths with their hooked beaks. It almost appeared as if the sound made inside might be to give outsiders warning not to poach on occupied territory, for the Harvester noticed that no bee entered a pre-empted plant.
With skilful hand each stroke brought up a root and he tossed it to one side. The plants were vastly peculiar things. First they seemed to be a curled leaf with no flower. In colour they shaded from yellow to almost black mahogany, and appeared as if they were a flower with no leaf. Closer examination proved there was a stout leaf with a heavy outside mid-rib, the tip of which curled over in a beak effect, that wrapped around a peculiar flower of very disagreeable odour. The handling of these plants by the hundred so intensified this smell the Harvester shook his head.
"I presume you are mostly mine," he said to the busy little workers around him. "If there is anything in my theory of honey having varying medicinal properties at different seasons, right now mine should be good for Granny's rheumatism and for nervous and dropsical people. I shouldn't think honey flavoured with skunk cabbage would be fit to eat. But, of course, it isn't all this. There is catkin pollen on the wind, hazel and sassafras are both in bloom now, and so are several of the earliest little flowers of the woods. You can gather enough of them combined to temper the disagreeable odour into a racy sweetness, and all the shrub blooms are good tonics, too, and some of the earthy ones. I'm going to try giving some of you empty cases next spring and analyzing the honey to learn if it isn't good medicine."
The Harvester straightened and leaned on the mattock to fill his lungs with fresh air and as he delightedly sniffed it he commented, "Nothing else has much of a chance since I've stirred up the cabbage bed. I can scent the catkins plainly, being so close, and as I came here I could detect the hazel and sassafras all right."
Above him a peculiar, raucous chattering for an instant hushed other wood voices. The Harvester looked up, laughing gaily.
"So you've decided to announce it to your tribe at last, have you?" he inquired. "You are waking the sleepers in their dens to-day? Well, there's nothing like waiting until you have a sure thing. The bluebirds broke the trail for the feathered folk the twenty-fourth of February. The sap oozed from the maples about the same time for the trees. The very first skunk cabbage was up quite a month ago to signal other plants to come on, and now you are rousing the furred folk. I'll write this down in my records----`When the earliest bluebird sings, when the sap wets the maples, when the skunk cabbage flowers, and the first striped squirrel barks, why then, it is spring!' "
He bent to his task and as he worked closer the water he noticed sweet-flag leaves waving two inches tall beneath the surface.
"Great day!" he cried. "There you are making signs, too! And right! Of course! Nature is always right. Just two inches high and it's harvest for you. I can use a rake, and dried in the evaporator you bring me ten cents a pound; to the folks needing a tonic you are worth a small fortune. No doubt you cost that by the time you reach them; but I fear I can't gather you just now. My head is a little preoccupied these days. What with the cabbage, and now you, and many of the bushes and trees making signs, with a new cabin to build and furnish, with a girl to find and win, I'm what you might call busy. I've covered my book shelf. I positively don't dare look Emerson or Maeterlinck in the face. One consolation! I've got the best of Thoreau in my head, and if I read Stickeen a few times more I'll be able to recite that. There's a man for you, not to mention the dog! Bel, where are you? Would you stick to me like that? I think you would. But you are a big, strong fellow. Stickeen was only such a mite of a dog. But what a man he followed! I feel as if I should put on high-heeled slippers and carry a fan and a lace handkerchief when I think of him. And yet, most men wouldn't consider my job so easy!"
The Harvester rapidly pitched the evil-smelling plants into big heaps and as he worked he imitated the sounds around him as closely as he could. The song sparrow laughed at him and flew away in disgust when he tried its notes. The jay took time to consider, but was not fooled. The nut-hatch ran head first down trees, larvae hunting, and was never a mite deceived. But the killdeer on invisible legs, circling the lake shore, replied instantly; so did the lark soaring above, and the dove of the elm thicket close beside. The glittering black birds flashing over every tree top answered the "T'check, t'chee!" of the Harvester quite as readily as their mates.
The last time he paused to rest he had studied scents. When he straightened again he was occupied with every voice of earth and air around and above him, and the notes of singing hens, exultant cocks, the scream of geese, the quack of ducks, the rasping crescendo of guineas running wild in the woods, the imperial note of Ajax sunning on the ridge pole and echoes from all of them on adjoining and distant farms.
" `Now I see the full meaning and beauty of that word sound!' " quoted the Harvester. " `I thank God for sound. It always mounts and makes me mount!' "
He breathed deeply and stood listening, a superb figure of a man, his lean face glowing with emotion.
"If she could see and hear this, she would come," he said softly. "She would come and she would love it as I do. Any one who understands, and knows how to translate, cares for this above all else earth has to offer. They who do not, fail to read as they run!"
He shifted feet mired in swamp muck, and stood as if loath to bend again to his task. He lifted a weighted mattock and scraped the earth from it, sniffing it delightedly the while. A soft south wind freighted with aromatic odours swept his warm face. The Harvester removed his hat and shook his head that the breeze might thread his thick hair.
"I've a commission for you, South Wind," he said whimsically. "Go find my Dream Girl. Go carry her this message from me. Freight your breath with spicy pollen, sun warmth, and flower nectar. Fill all her senses with delight, and then, close to her ear, whisper it softly, `Your lover is coming!' Tell her that, O South Wind! Carry Araby to her nostrils, Heaven to her ears, and then whisper and whisper it over and over until you arouse the passion of earth in her blood. Tell her what is rioting in my heart, and brain, and soul this morning. Repeat it until she must awake to its meaning, `Your lover is coming.' "