The Harvester by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter VII. The Quest of the Dream Girl
The Harvester breakfasted, fed the stock, hitched Betsy to the spring wagon, and went into the dripping, steamy woods. If anyone had asked him that morning concerning his idea of Heaven, he never would have dreamed of describing a place of gold- paved streets, crystal pillars, jewelled gates, and thrones of ivory. These things were beyond the man's comprehension and he would not have admired or felt at home in such magnificence if it had been materialized for him. He would have told you that a floor of last year's brown leaves, studded with myriad flower faces, big, bark- encased pillars of a thousand years, jewels on every bush, shrub, and tree, and tilting thrones on which gaudy birds almost burst themselves to voice the joy of life, while their bright-eyed little mates peered questioningly at him over nest rims----he would have told you that Medicine Woods on a damp, sunny May morning was Heaven. And he would have added that only one angel, tall and slender, with the pink of health on her cheeks and the dew of happiness in her dark eyes, was necessary to enter and establish glory. Everything spoke to him that morning, but the Harvester was silent. It had been his habit to talk constantly to Belshazzar, Ajax, his work, even the winds and perfumes; it had been his method of dissipating solitude, but to-day he had no words, even for these dear friends. He only opened his soul to beauty, and steadily climbed the hill to the crest, and then down the other side to the rich, half-shaded, half-open spaces, where big, rough mushrooms sprang in a night similar to the one just passed.
He could see them awaiting him from afar. He began work with rapid fingers, being careful to break off the heads, but not to pull up the roots. When four heaping baskets were filled he cut heavily leaved branches to spread over them, and started to Onabasha. As usual, Belshazzar rode beside him and questioned the Harvester when he politely suggested to Betsy that she make a little haste.
"Have you forgotten that mushrooms are perishable?" he asked. "If we don't get these to the city all woodsy and fresh we can't sell them. Wonder where we can do the best? The hotels pay well. Really, the biggest prices could be had by----"
Then the Harvester threw back his head and began to laugh, and he laughed, and he laughed. A crow on the fence Joined him, and a kingfisher, heading for Loon Lake, and then Belshazzar caught the infection.
"Begorry! The very idea!" cried the Harvester. " `Heaven helps them that help themselves.' Now you just watch us manoeuvre for assistance, Belshazzar, old boy! Here we go!"
Then the laugh began again. It continued all the way to Onabasha and even into the city. The Harvester drove through the most prosperous street until he reached the residence district. At the first home he stopped, gave the lines to Belshazzar, and, taking a basket of mushrooms, went up the walk and rang the bell.
"All groceries should be delivered at the back door," snapped a pert maid, before he had time to say a word.
The Harvester lifted his hat.
"Will you kindly tell the lady of the house that I wish to speak with her?"
"What name, please?"
"I want to show her some fine mushrooms, freshly gathered," he answered.
How she did it the Harvester never knew. The first thing he realized was that the door had closed before his face, and the basket had been picked deftly from his fingers and was on the other side. After a short time the maid returned.
"What do you want for them, please?"
The last thing on earth the Harvester wanted to do was to part with those mushrooms, so he took one long, speculative look down the hall and named a price he thought would be prohibitive.
"One dollar a dozen."
"How many are there?"
"I count them as I sell them. I do not know."
The door closed again. Presently it opened and the maid knelt on the floor before him and counted the mushrooms one by one into a dish pan and in a few minutes brought back seven dollars and fifty cents. The chagrined Harvester, feeling like a thief, put the money in his pocket, and turned away.
"I was to tell you," said she, "that you are to bring all you have to sell here, and the next time please go to the kitchen door."
"Must be fond of mushrooms," said the disgruntled Harvester.
"They are a great delicacy, and there are visitors." The Harvester ached to set the girl to one side and walk through the house, but he did not dare; so he returned to the street, whistled to Betsy to come, and went to the next gate. Here he hesitated. Should he risk further snubbing at the front door or go back at once. If he did, he only would see a maid. As he stood an instant debating, the door of the house he just had left opened and the girl ran after him. "If you have more, we will take them," she called.
The Harvester gasped for breath.
"They have to be used at once," he suggested.
"She knows that. She wants to treat her friends."
"Well she has got enough for a banquet," he said. "I--I don't usually sell more than a dozen or two in one place."
"I don't see why you can't let her have them if you have more."
"Perhaps I have orders to fill for regular customers," suggested the Harvester.
"And perhaps you haven't," said the maid. "You ought to be ashamed not to let people who are willing to pay your outrageous prices have them. It's regular highway robbery."
"Possibly that's the reason I decline to hold up one party twice," said the Harvester as he entered the gate and went up the walk to the front door.
"You should be taught your place," called the maid after him.
The Harvester again rang the bell. Another maid opened the door, and once more he asked to speak with the lady of the house. As the girl turned, a handsome old woman in cap and morning gown came down the stairs.
"What have you there?" she asked.
The Harvester lifted the leaves and exposed the musky, crimpled, big mushrooms.
"Oh!" she cried in delight. "Indeed, yes! We are very fond of them. I will take the basket, and divide with my sons. You are sure you have no poisonous ones among them?"
"Quite sure," said the Harvester faintly.
"How much do you want for the basket?"
"They are a dollar a dozen; I haven't counted them."
"Dear me! Isn't that rather expensive?"
"It is. Very!" said the Harvester. "So expensive that most people don't think of taking over a dozen. They are large and very rich, so they go a long way."
"I suppose you have to spend a great deal of time hunting them? It does seem expensive, but they are fresh, and the boys are so fond of them. I'm not often extravagant, I'll just take the lot. Sarah, bring a pan."
Again the Harvester stood and watched an entire basket counted over and carried away, and he felt the robber he had been called as he took the money.
At the next house he had learned a lesson. He carpeted a basket with leaves and counted out a dozen and a half into it, leaving the remainder in the wagon. Three blocks on one side of the street exhausted his store and he was showered with orders. He had not seen any one that even resembled a dark-eyed girl. As he came from the last house a big, red motor shot past and then suddenly slowed and backed beside his wagon.
"What in the name of sense are you doing?" demanded Doctor Carey.
"Invading the residence district of Onabasha," said the Harvester. "Madam, would you like some nice, fresh, country mushrooms? I guarantee that there are no poisonous ones among them, and they were gathered this morning. Considering their rarity and the difficult work of collecting, they are exceedingly low at my price. I am offering these for five dollars a dozen, madam, and for mercy sake don't take them or I'll have no excuse to go to the next house."
The doctor stared, then understood, and began to laugh. When at last he could speak he said, "David, I'll bet you started with three bushels and began at the head of this street, and they are all gone."
"Put up a good one!" said the Harvester. "You win. The first house I tried they ordered me to the back door, took a market basket full away from me by force, tried to buy the load, and I didn't see any one save a maid."
The doctor lay on the steering gear and faintly groaned.
The Harvester regarded him sympathetically. "Isn't it a crime?" he questioned. "Mushrooms are no go. I can see that!----or rather they are entirely too much of a go. I never saw anything in such demand. I must seek a less popular article for my purpose. To- morrow look out for me. I shall begin where I left off to-day, but I will have changed my product."
"David, for pity sake," peeped the doctor.
"What do I care how I do it, so I locate her?" superbly inquired the Harvester.
"But you won't find her!" gasped the doctor.
"I've come as close it as you so far, anyway," said the Harvester. "Your mushrooms are on the desk in your office."
He drove slowly up and down the streets until Betsy wabbled on her legs. Then he left her to rest and walked until he wabbled; and by that time it was dark, so he went home.
At the first hint of dawn he was at work the following morning. With loaded baskets closely covered, he
started to Onabasha, and began where he had quit the day before. This time he carried a small, crudely fashioned bark basket, leaf-covered, and he rang at the front door with confidence.
Every one seemed to have a maid in that part of the city, for a freshly capped and aproned girl opened the door.
"Are there any young women living here?" blandly inquired the Harvester.
"What's that of your business?" demanded the maid.
The Harvester flushed, but continued, "I am offering something especially intended for young women. If there are none, I will not trouble you."
"There are several."
"Will you please ask them if they would care for bouquets of violets, fresh from the woods?"
"How much are they, and how large are the bunches?"
"Prices differ, and they are the right size to appear well. They had better see for themselves."
The maid reached for the basket, but the Harvester drew back.
"I keep them in my possession," he said. "You may take a sample."
He lifted the leaves and drew forth a medium-sized bunch of long-stemmed blue violets with their leaves. The flowers were fresh, crisp, and strong odours of the woods arose from them.
"Oh!" cried the maid. "Oh, how lovely!"
She hurried away with them and returned carrying a purse.
"I want two more bunches," she said. "How much are they?"
"Are the girls who want them dark or fair?"
"What difference does that make?"
"I have blue violets for blondes, yellow for brunettes, and white for the others."
"Well I never! One is fair, and two have brown hair and blue eyes."
"One blue and two whites," said the Harvester calmly, as if matching women's hair and eyes with flowers were an inherited vocation. "They are twenty cents a bunch."
"Aha!" he chortled to himself as he whistled to Betsy. "At last we have it. There are no dark-eyed girls here. Now we are making headway."
Down the street he went, with varying fortune, but with patience and persistence at every house he at last managed to learn whether there was a dark-eyed girl. There did not seem to be many. Long before his store of yellow violets was gone the last blue and white had disappeared. But he calmly went on asking for dark- eyed girls, and explaining that all the blue and white were taken, because fair women were most numerous.
At one house the owner, who reminded the Harvester of his mother, came to the door. He uncovered and in his suavest tones inquired if a brunette young woman lived there and if she would like a nosegay of yellow violets.
"Well bless my soul!" cried she. "What is this world coming to? Do you mean to tell me that there are now able-bodied men offering at our doors, flowers to match our girls' complexions?"
"Yes madam?" said the Harvester gravely, "and also selling them as fast as he can show them, at prices that make a profit very well worth while. I had an equal number of blue and white, but I see the dark girls are very much in the minority. The others were gone long ago, and I now have flowers to offer brunettes only."
"Well forever more! And you don't call that fiddlin' business for a big, healthy, young man?"
The Harvester's gay laugh was infectious.
"I do not," he said. "I have to start as soon as I can see, tramp long distances in wet woods and gather the violets on my knees, make them into bunches, and bring them here in water to keep them fresh. I have another occupation. I only kill time on these, but I would be ashamed to tell you what I have gotten for them this morning."
"Humph! I'm glad to hear it!" said the woman. "Shame in some form is a sign of grace. I have no use for a human being without a generous supply of it. There is a very beautiful dark-eyed girl in the house, and I will take two bunches for her. How much are they?"
"I have only three remaining," said the Harvester. "Would you like to allow her to make her own selection?"
"When I'm giving things I usually take my choice. I want that, and that one."
"As my stock is so nearly out, I'll make the two for twenty," said the Harvester. "Won't you accept the last one from me, because you remind me just a little of my mother?"
"I will indeed," said she. "Thank you very much! I shall love to have them as dearly as any of the girls. I used to gather them when I was a child, but I almost never see the blue ones any more, and I don't know as I ever expected to see a yellow violet again as long as I live. Where did you get them?"
"In my woods," said the Harvester. "You see I grow several members of the viola pedata family, bird's foot, snake, and wood violet, and three of the odorata, English, marsh, and sweet, for our big drug houses. They use the flowers in making delicate tests for acids and alkalies. The entire plant, flower, seed, leaf, and root, goes into different remedies. The beds seed themselves and spread, so I have more than I need for the chemists, and I sell a few. I don't use the white and yellow in my business; I just grow them for their beauty. I also sell my surplus lilies of the valley. Would you like to order some of them for your house or more violets for to-morrow?"
"Well bless my soul! Do you mean to tell me that lilies of the valley are medicine?"
The Harvester laughed.
"I grow immense beds of them in the woods on the banks of Loon Lake," he said. "They are the convallaris majallis of the drug houses and I scarcely know what the weak-hearted people would do without them. I use large quantities in trade, and this season I am selling a few because people so love them."
"Lilies in medicine; well dear me! Are roses good for our innards too?"
Then the Harvester did laugh.
"I imagine the roses you know go into perfumes mostly," he answered. "They do make medicine of Canadian rock rose and rose bay, laurel, and willow. I grow the bushes, but they are not what you would consider roses."
"I wonder now," said the woman studying the Harvester closely, "if you are not that queer genius I've heard of, who spends his time hunting and growing stuff in the woods and people call him the Medicine Man."
"I strongly suspect madam, I am that man," said the Harvester.
"Well bless me!" cried she. "I've always wanted to see you and here when I do, you look just like anybody else. I thought you'd have long hair, and be wild- eyed and ferocious. And your talk sounds like out of a book. Well that beats me!"
"Me too!" said the Harvester, lifting his hat. "You don't want any lilies to-morrow, then?"
"Yes I do. Medicine or no medicine, I've always liked 'em, and I'm going to keep on liking them. If you can bring me a good-sized bunch after the weak- kneed----"
"Weak-hearted," corrected the Harvester.
"Well `weak-hearted,' then; it's all the same thing. If you've got any left, as I was saying, you can fetch them to me for the smell."
The Harvester laughed all the way down town. There he went to Doctor Carey's office, examined a directory, and got the names of all the numbers where be had sold yellow violets. A few questions when the doctor came in settled all of them, but the flower scheme was better. Because the yellow were not so plentiful as the white and blue, next day he added buttercups and cowslips to his store for the dark girls. When he had rifled his beds for the last time, after three weeks of almost daily trips to town, and had paid high prices to small boys he set searching the adjoining woods until no more flowers could be found, he drove from the outskirts of the city one day toward the hospital, and as he stopped, down the street came Doctor Carey frantically waving to him. As the big car slackened, "Come on David, quick! I've seen her!" cried the doctor.
The Harvester jumped from the wagon, threw the lines to Belshazzar, and landed in the panting car.
"For Heaven's sake where? Are you sure?"
The car went speeding down the street. A policeman beckoned and cried after it.
"It won't do any good to get arrested, Doc," cautioned the Harvester.
"Now right along here," panted Doctor Carey. "Watch both sides sharply. If I stop you jump out, and tell the blame policemen to get at their job. The party they are hired to find is right under their noses."
The Harvester began to perspire. "Doc, don't you think you should tell me? Maybe she is in some store. Maybe I could do better on foot."
"Shut up!" growled the doctor. "I am doing the best I know."
He hurried up the street for blocks and back again, and at last stopped before a large store and went in. When he returned he drove to the hospital and together they entered the office. There he turned to the Harvester.
"It isn't so hard to understand you now, my boy," he said. "Shades of Diana, but she'll be a beauty when she gets a little more flesh and colour. She came out of Whitlaw's and walked right to the crossing. I almost could have touched her, but I didn't notice. Two girls passed before me, and in hurrying, a tall, dark one knocked off one of your bunches of yellow violets. She glanced at it and laughed, but let it lay. Then your girl hesitated stooped and picked it up. The crazy policeman yelled at me to clear the crossing and it didn't hit me for a half block how tall and white she was and how dark her eyes were. I was just thinking about her picking up the flowers, and that it was queer for her to do it, when like a brick it hit me, that's David's girl! I tried to turn around, but you know what Main Street is in the middle of the day. And those idiots of policemen! They ordered me on, and I couldn't turn for a street car coming, so I called to one of them that the girl we wanted was down the street, and he looked at me like an addle- pate and said, `What girl? Move on or you'll get in a jam here.' You can use me for a football if I don't go back and smash him. Paid him five dollars myself less than two weeks ago to keep his eyes open. `To keep his eyes open!' " panted the doctor, shaking his fist at David. "Yes sir! `To keep his eyes open!' And he motioned for things to come along, and so I lost her too."
"I think we had better go back to the street," said the Harvester.
"Oh, I'd been back and forth along that street for nearly an hour before I gave up and came here to see if I could find you, and we've hunted it an hour more! What's the use? She's gone for this time, but by gum, I saw her! And she was worth seeing!"
"Did she appear ill to you?"
The doctor dropped on a chair and threw out his hands hopelessly.
"This was awful sudden, David," he said. "I was going along as I told you, and I noticed her stop and thought she had a good head to wait a second instead of running in before me, and there came those two girls right under the car from the other side. I only had a glimpse of her as she stooped for the flowers. I saw a big braid of hair, but I was half a block away before I got it all connected, and then came the crush in the street, and I was blocked."
The doctor broke down and wiped his face and expressed his feelings unrestrainedly.
"Don't!" said the Harvester patiently. "It's no use to feel so badly, Doc. I know what you would give to have found her for me. I know you did all you could. I let her escape me. We will find her yet. It's glorious news that she's in the city. It gives me heart to hear that. Can't you just remember if she seemed ill?"
The doctor meditated.
"She wasn't the tallest girl I ever saw," he said slowly, "but she was the tallest girl to be pretty. She had on a white waist and a gray skirt and black hat. Her eyes and hair were like you said, and she was plain, white faced, with a hue that might possibly be natural, and it might be confinement in bad light and air and poor food. She didn't seem sick, but she isn't well. There is something the matter with her, but it's not immediate or dangerous. She appeared like a flower that had got a little moisture and sprouted in a cellar."
"You saw her all right!" said the Harvester, "and I think your diagnosis is correct too. That's the way she seemed to me. I've thought she needed sun and air. I told the South Wind so the other day."
"Why you blame fool!" cried the doctor. "Is this thing going to your head? Say, I forgot! There is something else. I traced her in the store. She was at the embroidery counter and she bought some silk. If she ever comes again the clerk is going to hold her and telephone me or get her address if she has to steal it. Oh, we are getting there! We will have her pretty soon now. You ought to feel better just to know that she is in town and that I've seen her."
"I do!" said the Harvester. "Indeed I do!"
"It can't be much longer," said the doctor. "She's got to be located soon. But those policemen! I wouldn't give a nickel for the lot! I'll bet she's walked over them for two weeks. If I were you I'd discharge the bunch. They'd be peacefully asleep if she passed them. If they'd let me alone, I'd have had her. I could have turned around easily. I've been in dozens of closer places."
"Don't worry! This can't last much longer. She's of and in the city or she wouldn't have picked up the flowers. Doc, are you sure they were mine?"
"Yes. Half the girls have been tricked out in yours the past two weeks. I can spot them as far as I can see."
"Dear Lord, that's getting close!" said the Harvester intensely. "Seems as if the violets would tell her."
"Now cut out flowers talking and the South Wind!" ordered the doctor. "This is business. The violets prove something all right, though. If she was in the country, she could gather plenty herself. She is working at sewing in some room in town, either over a store or in a house. If she hadn't been starved for flowers she never would have stopped for them on the street. I could see just a flash of hesitation, but she wanted them too much. David, one bouquet will go in water and be cared for a week. Man, it's getting close! This does seem like a link."
"Since you say it, possibly I dare agree with you," said the Harvester.
"How near are you through with that canvass of yours?"
"About three fourths."
"Well I'd go on with it. After all we have got to find her ourselves. Those senile policemen!"
"I am going on with it; you needn't worry about that. But I've got to change to other flowers. I've stripped the violet beds. There's quite a crop of berries coming, but they are not ripe yet, and a tragedy to pick. The pond lilies are just beginning to open by the thousand. The lake border is blue with sweet-flag that is lovely and the marsh pale gold with cowslips. The ferns are prime and the woods solid sheets of every colour of bloom. I believe I'll go ahead with the wild flowers."
" I would too! David, you do feel better, don't you?"
"I certainly do, Doctor. Surely it won't be long now!"
The Harvester was so hopeful that he whistled and sang on the return to Medicine Woods, and that night for the first time in many days he sat long over a candlestick, and took a farewell peep into her room before he went to bed.
The next day he worked with all his might harvesting the last remnants of early spring herbs, in the dry-room and store-house, and on furniture and candlesticks.
Then he went back to flower gathering and every day offered bunches of exquisite wood and field flowers and white and gold water lilies from door to door.
Three weeks later the Harvester, perceptibly thin, pale, and worried entered the office. He sank into a chair and groaned wearily.
"Isn't this the bitterest luck!" he cried. "I've finished the town. I've almost walked off my legs. I've sold flowers by the million, but I've not had a sight of her."
"It's been almost a tragedy with me," said the doctor gloomily. "I've killed two dogs and grazed a baby, because I was watching the sidewalks instead of the street. What are you going to do now?"
"I am going home and bring up the work to the July mark. I am going to take it easy and rest a few days so I can think more clearly. I don't know what I'll try next. I've punched up the depot and the policemen again. When I get something new thought out I'll let you know."
Then he began emptying his pockets of money and heaping it on the table, small coins, bills, big and little.
"What on earth is that?"
"That," said the Harvester, giving the heap a shove of contempt, "that is the price of my pride and humiliation. That is what it cost people who allowed me to cheek my way into their homes and rob them, as one maid said, for my own purposes. Doc, where on earth does all the money come from? In almost every house I entered, women had it to waste, in many cases to throw away. I never saw so much paid for nothing in all my life. That whole heap is from mushrooms and flowers."
"What are you piling it there for?"
"For your free ward. I don't want a penny of it. I wouldn't keep it, not if I was starving."
"Why David! You couldn't compel any one to buy. You offered something they wanted, and they paid you what you asked."
"Yes, and to keep them from buying, and to make the stuff go farther, I named prices to shame a shark. When I think of that mushroom deal I can feel my face burn. I've made the search I wanted to, and I am satisfied that I can't find her that way. I have kept up my work at home between times. I am not out anything but my time, and it isn't fair to plunder the city to pay that. Take that cussed money and put it where I'll never see or hear of it. Do anything you please, except to ask me ever to profit by a cent. When I wash my hands after touching it for the last time maybe I'll feel better."
"You are a fanatic!"
"If getting rid of that is being a fanatic, I am proud of the title. You can't imagine what I've been through!"
"Can't I though?" laughed the doctor. "In work of that kind you get into every variety of place; and some of it is new to you. Never mind! No one can contaminate you. It is the law that only a man can degrade himself. Knowing things will not harm you. Doing them is a different matter. What you know will be a protection. What you do ruins----if it is wrong. You are not harmed, you are only disgusted. Think it over, and in a few days come back and get your money. It is strictly honest. You earned every cent of it."
"If you ever speak of it again or force it on me I'll take it home and throw it into the lake."
He went after Betsy and slowly drove to Medicine Woods. Belshazzar, on the seat beside him, recognized a silent, disappointed master and whimpered as he rubbed the Harvester's shoulder to attract his attention.
"This is tough luck, old boy," said the Harvester. "I had such hopes and I worked so hard. I suffered in the flesh for every hour of it, and I failed. Oh but I hate the word! If I knew where she is right now, Bel, I'd give anything I've got. But there's no use to wail and get sorry for myself. That's against the law of common decency. I'll take a swim, sleep it off, straighten up the herbs a little, and go at it again, old fellow; that's a man's way. She's somewhere, and she's got to be found, no matter what it costs."