The Harvester by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter VI. To Labour and to Wait
We have reached the `beginning of the end,' Ajax!" said the Harvester, as the peacock ceased screaming and came to seek food from his hand. "We have seen the Girl. Now we must locate her and convince her that Medicine Woods is her happy home. I feel quite equal to the latter proposition, Ajax, but how the nation to find her sticks me. I can't make a search so open that she will know and resent it. She must have all the consideration ever paid the most refined woman, but she also has got to be found, and that speedily. When I remember that look on her face, as if horrors were snatching at her skirts, it takes all the grit out of me. I feel weak as a sapling. And she needs all my strength. I've simply got to brace up. I'll work a while and then perhaps I can think."
So the Harvester began the evening routine. He thought he did not want anything to eat, but when he opened the cupboard and smelled the food he learned that he was a hungry man and he cooked and ate a good supper. He put away everything carefully, for even the kitchen was dainty and fresh and he wanted to keep it so for her. When he finished he went into the living-room, stood before the fireplace, and studied the collection of half-finished candlesticks grouped upon it. He picked up several and examined them closely, but realized that he could not bind himself to the exactions of carving that evening. He took a key from his pocket and unlocked her door. Every day he had been going there to improve upon his work for her, and he loved the room, the outlook from its windows; he was very proud of the furniture he had made. There was no paper- thin covering on her chairs, bed, and dressing table. The tops, seats, and posts were solid wood, worth hundreds of dollars for veneer.
To-night he folded his arms and stood on the sill hesitating. While she was a dream, he had loved to linger in her room. Now that she was reality, he paused. In one golden May day the place had become sacred. Since he had seen the Girl that room was so hers that he was hesitating about entering because of this fact. It was as if the tall, slender form stood before the chest of drawers or sat at the dressing table and he did not dare enter unless he were welcome. Softly he closed the door and went away. He wandered to the dry- house and turned the bark and roots on the trays, but the air stifled him and he hurried out. He tried to work in the packing room, but walls smothered him and again he sought the open.
He espied a bundle of osier-bound, moss-covered ferns that he had found in the woods, and brought the shovel to transplant them; but the work worried him, and he hurried through with it. Then he looked for something else to do and saw an ax. He caught it up and with lusty strokes began swinging it. When he had chopped wood until he was very tired he went to bed. Sleep came to the strong, young frame and he awoke in the morning refreshed and hopeful.
He wondered why he had bothered Doctor Carey. The Harvester felt able that morning to find his Dream Girl without assistance before the day was over. It was merely a matter of going to the city and locating a woman. Yesterday, it had been a question of whether she really existed. To-day, he knew. Yesterday, it had meant a search possibly as wide as earth to find her. To-day, it was narrowed to only one location so small, compared with Chicago, that the Harvester felt he could sift its population with his fingers, and pick her from others at his first attempt. If she were visiting there probably she would rest during the night, and be on the streets to-day.
When he remembered her face he doubted it. He decided to spend part of the time on the business streets and the remainder in the residence portions of the city. Because it was uncertain when he would return, everything was fed a double portion, and Betsy was left at a livery stable with instructions to care for her until he came. He did not know where the search would lead him. For several hours he slowly walked the business district and then ranged farther, but not a sight of her. He never had known that Onabasha was so large. On its crowded streets he did not feel that he could sift the population through his fingers, nor could he open doors and search houses without an excuse.
Some small boys passed him eating bananas, and the Harvester looked at his watch and was amazed to find that the day had advanced until two o'clock in the afternoon. He was tired and hungry. He went into a restaurant and ordered lunch; as he waited a girl serving tables smiled at him. Any other time the Harvester would have returned at least a pleasant look, and gone his way. To-day he scowled at her, and ate in hurried discomfort. On the streets again, he had no idea where to go and so he went to the hospital.
"I expected you early this morning," was the greeting of Doctor Carey. "Where have you been and what have you done?"
"Nothing," said the Harvester. "I was so sure she would be on the streets I just watched, but I didn't see her."
"We will go to the depot," said the doctor. "The first thing is to keep her from leaving town."
They arranged with the ticket agents, expressmen, telegraphers, and, as they left, the Harvester stopped and tipped the train caller, offering further reward worth while if he would find the Girl.
"Now we will go to the police station," said the doctor.
"I'll see the chief and have him issue a general order to his men to watch for her, but if I were you I'd select a half dozen in the down town district, and give them a little tip with a big promise!"
"Good Lord! How I hate this," groaned the Harvester.
"Want to find her by yourself?" questioned his friend.
"Yes," said the Harvester, "I do! And I would, if it hadn't been for her ghastly face. That drives me to resort to any measures. The probabilities are that she is lying sick somewhere, and if her comfort depends on the purse that dressed her, she will suffer. Doc, do you know how awful this is?"
"I know that you've got a great imagination. If the woods make all men as sensitive as you are, those who have business to transact should stay out of them. Take a common-sense view. Look at this as I do. If she was strong enough to travel in a day coach from Chicago; she can't be so very ill to-day. Leaving life by the inch isn't that easy. She will be alive this time next year, whether you find her or not. The chances are that her stress was mental anyway, and trouble almost never overcomes any one."
"You, a doctor and say that!"
"Oh, I mean instantaneously----in a day! Of course if it grinds away for years! But youth doesn't allow it to do that. It throws it off, and grows hopeful and happy again. She won't die; put that out of your mind. If I were you I would go home now and go straight on with my work, trusting to. the machinery you have set in motion. I know most of the men with whom we have talked. They will locate her in a week or less. It's their business. It isn't yours. It's your job to be ready for her, and have enough ahead to support her when they find her. Try to realize that there are now a dozen men on hunt for her, and trust them. Go back to your work, and I will come full speed in the motor when the first man sights her. That ought to satisfy you. I've told all of them to call me at the hospital, and I will tell my assistant what to do in case a call comes while I am away. Straighten your face! Go back to Medicine Woods and harvest your crops, and before you know it she will be located. Then you can put on your Sunday clothes and show yourself, and see if you can make her take notice."
"Idiot!" exclaimed the Harvester, but he started home. When he arrived he attended to his work and then sat down to think.
"Doc is right," was his ultimate conclusion. "She can't leave the city, she can't move around in it, she can't go anywhere, without being seen. There's one more point: I must tell Carey to post all the doctors to report if they have such a call. That's all I can think of. I'll go to-night, and then I'll look over the ginseng for parasites, and to-morrow I'll dive into the late spring growth and work until I haven't time to think. I've let cranesbill get a week past me now, and it can't be dispensed with."
So the following morning, when the Harvester had completed his work at the cabin and barn and breakfasted, he took a mattock and a big hempen bag, and followed the path to the top of the hill. As it ran along the lake bank he descended on the other side to several acres of cleared land, where he raised corn for his stock, potatoes, and coarser garden truck, for which there was not space in the smaller enclosure close the cabin. Around the edges of these fields, and where one of them sloped toward the lake, he began grubbing a variety of grass having tall stems already over a foot in height at half growth. From each stem waved four or five leaves of six or eight inches length and the top showed forming clusters of tiny spikelets.
"I am none too early for you," he muttered to himself as he ran the mattock through the rich earth, lifting the long, tough, jointed root stalks of pale yellow, from every section of which broke sprays of fine rootlets. "None too early for you, and as you are worth only seven cents a pound, you couldn't be considered a `get- rich-quick' expedient, so I'll only stop long enough with you to gather what I think my customers will order, and amass a fortune a little later picking mullein flowers at seventy-five cents a pound. What a crop I've got coming!"
The Harvester glanced ahead, where in the cleared soil of the bank grew large plants with leaves like yellow-green felt and tall bloom stems rising. Close them flourished other species requiring dry sandy soil, that gradually changed as it approached the water until it became covered with rank abundance of short, wiry grass, half the blades of which appeared red. Numerous everywhere he could see the grayish-white leaves of Parnassus grass. As the season advanced it would lift heart- shaped velvet higher, and before fall the stretch of emerald would be starred with white-faced, green-striped flowers.
"Not a prettier sight on earth," commented the Harvester, "than just swale wire grass in September making a fine, thick background to set off those delicate starry flowers on their slender stems. I must remember to bring her to see that."
His eyes followed the growth to the water. As the grass drew closer moisture it changed to the rank, sweet, swamp variety, then came bulrushes, cat-tails, water smartweed, docks, and in the water blue flag lifted folded buds; at its feet arose yellow lily leaves and farther out spread the white. As the light struck the surface the Harvester imagined he could see the little green buds several inches below. Above all arose wild rice he had planted for the birds. The red wings swayed on the willows and tilted on every stem that would bear their weight, singing their melodious half-chanted notes, "O-ka-lee!"
Beneath them the ducks gobbled, splashed, and chattered; grebe and coot voices could be distinguished; king rails at times flashed into sight and out again; marsh wrens scolded and chattered; occasionally a kingfisher darted around the lake shore, rolling his rattling cry and flashing his azure coat and gleaming white collar. On a hollow tree in the woods a yellow hammer proved why he was named, because he carpentered industriously to enlarge the entrance to the home he was excavating in a dead tree; and sailing over the lake and above the woods in grace scarcely surpassed by any, a lonesome turkey buzzard awaited his mate's decision as to which hollow log was most suitable for their home.
The Harvester stuffed the grass roots in the bag until it would hold no more and stood erect to wipe his face, for the sun was growing warm. As he drew his handkerchief across his brow, the south wind struck him with enough intensity to attract attention. Instantly the Harvester removed his hat, rolled it up, and put it into his pocket. He stood an instant delighting in the wind and then spoke.
"Allow me to express my most fervent thanks for your kindness," he said. "I thought probably you would take that message, since it couldn't mean much to you, and it meant all the world to me. I thought you would carry it, but, I confess, I scarcely expected the answer so soon. The only thing that could make me more grateful to you would be to know exactly where she is: but you must understand that it's like a peep into Heaven to have her existence narrowed to one place. I'm bound to be able to say inside a few days, she lives at number----I don't know yet, on street---- I'll find out soon, in the closest city, Onabasha. And I know why you brought her, South Wind. If ever a girl's cheeks need fanning with your breezes, and painting with sun kisses, I wouldn't mind, since this is strictly private, adding a few of mine; if ever any one needed flowers, birds, fresh air, water, and rest! Good Lord, South Wind, did you ever reach her before you carried that message? I think not! But Onabasha isn't so large. You and the sun should get your innings there. I do hope she is not trying to work! I can attend to that; and so there will be more time when she is found, I'd better hustle now."
He picked up the bag and returned to the dry-house, where he carefully washed the roots and spread them on the trays. Then he took the same bag and mattock and going through the woods in the opposite direction he came to a heavy growth in a cleared space of high ground. The bloom heads were forming and the plant was half matured. The Harvester dug a cylindrical, tapering root, wrinkling lengthwise, wiped it clean, broke and tasted it. He made a wry face. He stood examining the white wood with its brown-red bark and, deciding that it was in prime condition, be began digging the plants. It was common wayside "Bouncing Bet," but the Harvester called it "soapwort." He took every other plant in his way across the bed, and when he digged a heavy load he carried it home, stripped the leaves, and spread them on trays, while the roots he topped, washed, and put to dry also. Then he whistled for Belshazzar and went to lunch.
As he passed down the road to the cabin his face was a study of conflicting emotions, and his eyes had a far away appearance of deep thought. Every tree of his stretch of forest was rustling fresh leaves to shelter him; dogwood, wild crab, and hawthorn offered their flowers; earth held up her tribute in painted trillium faces, spring beauties, and violets, blue, white, and yellow. Mosses, ferns, and lichen decorated the path; all the birds greeted him in friendship, and sang their purest melodies. The sky was blue, the sun bright, the air perfumed for him; Belshazzar, always true to his name, protected every footstep; Ajax, the shimmering green and gold wonder, came up the hill to meet him; the white doves circled above his head. Stumbling half blindly, the Harvester passed unheeding among them, and went into the cabin. When he came out he stood a long time in deep study, but at last he returned to the woods.
"Perhaps they will have found her before night," he said. "I'll harvest the cranesbill yet, because it's growing late for it, and then I'll see how they are coming on. Maybe they'd know her if they met her, and maybe they wouldn't. She may wear different clothing, and freshen up after her trip. She might have been car sick, as Doc suggested, and appear very different when she feels better."
He skirted the woods around the northeast end and stopped at a big bed of exquisite growth. Tall, wiry stems sprang upward almost two feet in height; leaves six inches across were cut in ragged lobes almost to the base, and here and there, enough to colour the entire bed a delicate rose or sometimes a violet purple, the first flowers were unfolding. The Harvester lifted a root and tasted it.
"No doubt about you being astringent," he muttered. "You have enough tannin in you to pucker a mushroom. By the way, those big, corn-cobby fellows should spring up with the next warm rain, and the hotels and restaurants always pay high prices. I must gather a few bushels."
He looked over the bed of beautiful wild alum and hesitated.
"I vow I hate to touch you," he said. "You are a picture right now, and in a week you will be a miracle. It seems a shame to tear up a plant for its roots, just at flowering time, and I can't avoid breaking down half I don't take, getting the ones I do. I wish you were not so pretty! You are one of the colours I love most. You remind me of red-bud, blazing star, and all those exquisite magenta shades that poets, painters, and the Almighty who made them love so much they hesitate about using them lavishly. You are so delicate and graceful and so modest. I wish she could see you! I got to stop this or I won't be able to lift a root. I never would if the ten cents a pound I'll get out of it were the only consideration."
The Harvester gripped the mattock and advanced to the bed. "What I must be thinking is that you are indispensable to the sick folks. The steady demand for you proves your value, and of course, humanity comes first, after all. If I remain in the woods alone much longer I'll get to the place where I'm not so sure that it does. Seems as if animals, birds, flowers, trees, and insects as well, have their right to life also. But it's for me to remember the sick folks! If I thought the Girl would get some of it now, I could overturn the bed with a stout heart. If any one ever needed a tonic, I think she does. Maybe some of this will reach her. If it does, I hope it will make her cheeks just the lovely pink of the bloom. Oh Lord! If only she hadn't appeared so sick and frightened! What is there in all this world of sunshine to make a girl glance around her like that? I wish I knew! Maybe they will have found her by night."
The Harvester began work on the bed, but he knelt and among the damp leaves from the spongy black earth he lifted the roots with his fingers and carefully straightened and pressed down the plants he did not take. This required more time than usual, but his heart was so sore he could not be rough with anything, most of all a flower. So he harvested the wild alum by hand, and heaped large stacks of roots around the edges of the bed. Often he paused as he worked and on his knees stared through the forest as if he hoped perhaps she would realize his longing for her, and come to him in the wood as she had across the water. Over and over he repeated, "Perhaps they will find her by night!" and that so intensified the meaning that once he said it aloud. His face clouded and grew dark.
"Dealish nice business!" he said. "I am here in the woods digging flower roots, and a gang of men in the city are searching for the girl I love. If ever a job seemed peculiarly a man's own, it appears this would be. What business has any other man spying after my woman? Why am I not down there doing my own work, as I always have done it? Who's more likely to find her than I am? It seems as if there would be an instinct that would lead me straight to her, if I'd go. And you can wager I'll go fast enough."
The Harvester appeared as if he would start that instant, but with lips closely shut he finally forced himself to go on with his work. When he had rifled the bed, and uprooted all he cared to take during one season, he carried the roots to the lake shore below the curing house, and spread them on a platform he had built. He stepped into his boat and began dashing pails of water over them and using a brush. As he worked he washed away the woody scars of last year's growth, and the tiny buds appearing for the coming season.
Belshazzar sat on the opposite bank and watched the operation; and Ajax came down and, flying to a dead stump, erected and slowly waved his train to attract the sober-faced man who paid no heed. He left the roots to drain while he prepared supper, then placed them on the trays, now filled to overflowing, and was glad he had finished. He could not cure anything else at present if he wanted to. He was as far advanced as he had been at the same time the previous year. Then he dressed neatly and locking the Girl's room, and leaving Belshazzar to protect it, he went to Onabasha.
"Bravo!" cried Doctor Carey as the Harvester entered his office. "You are heroic to wait all day for news. How much stuff have you gathered?"
"Three crops. How many missing women have you located?"
The doctor laughed. There was no sign of a smile on the face of the Harvester.
"You didn't really expect her to come to light the first day? That would be too easy! We can't find her in a minute."
"It will be no surprise to me if you can't find her at all. I am not expecting another man to do what I don't myself."
"You are not hunting her. You are harvesting the woods. The men you employ are to find her."
"Maybe I am, and maybe I am not," said the Harvester slowly. "To me it appears to be a poor stick of a man who coolly proceeds with money making, and trusts to men who haven't even seen her to search for the girl he loves. I think a few hours of this is about all my patience will endure."
"What are you going to do?"
"I don't know," said the Harvester. "But you can bank on one thing sure----I'm going to do something! I've had my fill of this. Thank you for all you've done, and all you are going to do. My head is not clear enough yet to decide anything with any sense, but maybe I'll hit on something soon. I'm for the streets for a while."
"Better go home and go to bed. You seem very tired."
"I am," said the Harvester. "The only way to endure this is to work myself down. I'm all right, and I'll be careful, but I rather think I'll find her myself."
"Better go on with your work as we planned."
"I'll think about it," said the Harvester as he went out.
Until he was too tired to walk farther he slowly paced the streets of the city, and then followed the home road through the valley and up the hill to Medicine Woods. When he came to Singing Water, Belshazzar heard his steps on the bridge, and came bounding to meet him. The Harvester stretched himself on a seat and turned his face to the sky. It was a deep, dark-blue bowl, closely set with stars, and a bright moon shed a soft May radiance on the young earth. The lake was flooded with light, and the big trees of the forest crowning the hill were silver coroneted. The unfolding leaves had hidden the new cabin from the bridge, but the driveway shone white, and already the upspringing bushes hedged it in. Insects were humming lazily in the perfumed night air, and across the lake a courting whip-poor-will was explaining to his sweetheart just how much and why he loved her. A few bats were wavering in air hunting insects, and occasionally an owl or a nighthawk crossed the lake. Killdeer were glorying in the moonlight and night flight, and cried in pure, clear notes as they sailed over the water. The Harvester was tired and filled with unrest as he stretched on the bridge, but the longer he lay the more the enfolding voices comforted him. All of them were waiting and working out their lives to the legitimate end; there was nothing else for him to do. He need not follow instinct or profit by chance. He was a man; he could plan and reason.
The air grew balmy and some big, soft clouds swept across the moon. The Harvester felt the dampness of rising dew, and went to the cabin. He looked at it long in the moonlight and told himself that he could see how much the plants, vines, and ferns had grown since the previous night. Without making a light, he threw himself on the bed in the outdoor room, and lay looking through the screening at the lake and sky. He was working his brain to think of some manner in which to start a search for the Dream Girl that would have some probability of success to recommend it, but he could settle on no feasible plan. At last he fell asleep, and in the night soft rain wet his face. He pulled an oilcloth sheet over the bed, and lay breathing deeply of the damp, perfumed air as he again slept. In the morning brilliant sunshine awoke him and he arose to find the earth steaming.
"If ever there was a perfect mushroom day!" he said to Belshazzar. "We must hurry and feed the stock and ourselves and gather some. They mean real money."