Strawberry Acres by Grace S. Richmond
Part II. The Lanes and the Acres.
Chapter XVIII. From April North
During a winter which seemed, in spite of all the beauties of the far South, the longest she had ever known, Sally was kept well in touch with affairs at home by the letters. If it had not been for these she thought she could hardly have waited for the spring to come. Mr. Rudd had gained slowly but positively throughout the winter, yet it was not thought best for him to come home until the spring should be well advanced. The first of May was the date set, and proved a judicious choice, for April was a cold and rainy month. There was just one odd fact about this month of April--during its course Sally received at least one letter from every member of her own family and from each one of those other two families most closely connected with her history. In an idle hour one day, just before she went home, she carefully selected one letter from each of these correspondents, in the order received, and tied them in a bunch, labelling them "April North to April South." Whatever may have happened to other letters, this packet remained in her possession for many years.
The first of them arrived on April fourth, and was in the round, school-boy hand of young Robert Lane.
"This is April Fool's Day, and I've had a great old time fooling everybody. Sewed down the knives and forks to the breakfast-table, tied the chairs to the legs, salted the coffee, and did quite a few little every-day stunts like that. Max got maddest when he ran onto a big lump of cayenne in his oatmeal, but Joanna gave him another dish right away and another cup of coffee. She's awfully soft over old Max. The best lining I did was the way I fooled Jarve on a letter from you. I knew he had had one from you sometime in March, so I looked in his coat-pocket while he was up in the timber lot with a sweater on. I found it--pretty much used up with being carried around--suppose he forgot to take it out. Got a fresh thin envelope, put the old one inside, traced the address through, pasted on a postmark from your last one to me, and put three heavy sheets inside to make it fat--a lot fatter than the one I got out of his pocket. Stuck on old stamps--two of 'em--overweight, you know.
"When he came in to luncheon he found the letter with his other mail. I had my eye on him--I was pretending to read the morning paper. He read all his other letters, but he put that one in his pocket. He got terribly jolly after that--cracking jokes and everything. The minute luncheon was over he went off to his room, and I cut for out-of-doors. Didn't let him get a sight of me for hours. When I did come in I thought maybe he'd have got over being fussed, but--pitchforks and hammer handles!--if the minute I hove in sight he didn't get after me! He must have put on a lot of muscle chopping wood and hoeing, for I thought a cyclone had struck me. I'm resting up now, but I feel pretty sore yet--in spots. That's why I'm writing to you. I think you'd better write him once in a while, so that getting what he thinks is a letter won't go to his head like that.
"It'll be the first of May in one month more, and you'll be home! Jolly!--that seems good to think of.
"Heaps of love from BOB."
On the following day came a letter from Janet Ferry. It was a letter of several sheets, and the last two pages ran thus:
"The boys think you ought not to know about it, and intend it for a surprise, but I am so sure that it will do you even more good to hear while you are waiting to come home, I'm going to tell you. Alec and Bob have been rolling the lawn with a roller they were at great pains to get from the Burnside place in the city! You should have seen them at it, encouraging each other to do the thing thoroughly. Afterward they scattered wood ashes in all the thin places; Bob said they had been saving them all winter from the fireplace. I didn't know Alec could be so interested in out-door labour, but this winter seems to have given him an impetus toward following Mr. Burnside's example--and Don's--for I think Don has had a hand in waking him up.
"Speaking of Don--I found him out in your garden yesterday, pruning your old rose-bushes--the ones that you inherited with the garden. He says you are particularly fond of the many-leaved pink ones that smell so much sweeter than any hot-house rose that ever grew.
"Mr. Burnside has been busy all through March, and already has garden peas in. It seems absurdly early, but he prophesies that there'll be no more frosts that they can't stand, and promises us peas on the table three weeks earlier than our neighbours. He is nothing if not daring. He reads and reads in those books and magazines and papers of his, and then starts out, armed for action. He and Jake spend much time arguing over details, but I believe he usually carries his point.
"Don says that while he was finishing his work in your garden your brother Max came home and strolled out to see what he was doing. Don mentioned the fact that it would soon be time for the whole garden to be dug and raked and put in spring order, and Mr. Lane answered that he would see that it was done--in fact he thought he should do it himself. I don't exactly understand why this should seem to give Don so much satisfaction, but it does. He told me to be sure to tell you."
Clearly it gave Sally satisfaction also, for she read this particular paragraph a second time, smiling to herself, before she put the letter aside.
On the seventh of April came a screed from Alec of quite surprising length--for Alec, and it interested his sister more than any letter she had had from him during the winter.
"DEAR SALLY LUNN:
"Haven't time to write much. Have hired out J.B. as a farm hand, and he keeps a fellow some busy. For two weeks, now, we've been clearing up the old wood in the timber lot and getting out new stuff for fence posts, etc. Evenings he gets me at books. Am reading up on soil now, surprised to find it quite interesting. J.B. and I talk plans a lot more than Max does, though I think the old boy is going to get into it in time all right. Maybe you'd like to know what our plans are. Well, here goes:
"Cut off the suckers in the orchard, plough, and later spray--before the leaves come. That means hustle--but we're nearly through with the pruning. Bob and Mr. Ferry are at that.
"Then we'll plough five acres of what we let go to hay last year, and plant it to corn, with half an acre of potatoes. The other five acres we'll let grow to hay. Next year we'll have alfalfa where we have corn this year. J.B. is daft on alfalfa, and I'm beginning to see why. The five acres of hay, with the corn, will be enough for the two cows, and we'll keep the pasture over beyond the orchard for them. Miss Janet says as long as she lives there she wants to see those cows--or other ones--come down the lane by the orchard at milking time--only she wishes there were more of them and a collie to drive them. Think I'll have to get a collie, to satisfy her, though Cowslip and Whitenose are at the bars regular as a clock, all by themselves.
"The seven acres where we had the buckwheat and afterward the potatoes last year are to be set with strawberries this May. I tell you, here's where the real serious business comes in. J.B. hasn't done a thing this winter but study the soil in that seven acres and figure out what kind of berries to plant. He's given a lot of thought to what sort of fertilizers to use, and I tell you if there's any such thing as improving soil, the soil in that strawberry land is going to be improved. Tons of stuff are going into it and it's going to be well mixed in, too. Then if cultivating and irrigating and all the rest of it can bring us big fruit, we'll get it. J.B.'s idea is the more we put in the more we'll get out, and the better quality. Of course it's lucky for us we have him to pay out the money for getting things going, but I believe Strawberry Acres will support itself some day and bring us in good returns.
"Anyhow, I must say I'm beginning to like the whole thing, though it's hard work and plenty of it. Never was so hungry in my life. Joanna sets it up to us in good shape, but we'll be glad to see you back. House seems sort of empty, in spite of four fellows tumbling over each other in it.
"With love, your brother, ALEC.
"P. S. The old asparagus bed is trying so hard to show signs of life we've given it a good salting. The Ferrys' crocuses are up, grass all full of them--look mighty pretty."
This was certainly very satisfactory, when one considered that Alec had been in the beginning only second to Max in scoffing at the idea of living on a farm, not to mention working on one. More than any of the boys Alec had preferred life in the city, had been the one who cared most about his personal appearance, and had prided himself upon doing things in the urban way. For him to be willing to put on old clothes and rough boots, and soil his hands with manual labour, indicated a change of thought and ideals hardly to have been expected so soon. Sally put away the letter, rejoicing at these indications of growth, for growth it surely was, in his case. His work in the office where he had been employed had been work likely to lead no further, nor to promise any promotion to a position of greater honour. But on Strawberry Acres it seemed to Sally that, with Jarvis Burnside for a leader, Alec might develop qualities as yet only to be guessed at.
The most interesting part of Josephine's long letter, which reached Sally on the ninth, was, as is usually the case in feminine letters, toward its close. After every other subject had been touched upon, Sally's correspondent remarked:
"You may care to know that I have been much surprised of late to receive two calls, here at home, from Mr. Ferry. One was in March, but I didn't mention it, for I thought probably it was the first, last, and only one he would ever make, and I wouldn't crow about it. It was on one of mother's Thursdays, and of course a lot of other people were here. I was busy with the tea things, so couldn't give him much attention. He was very nice, and everybody seemed much interested to see him here. When he went away he came over and said to me that he should like to come again when we were not "At Home," only at home! Of course I said he might, and mother asked him specially, too. So just yesterday evening--it was Tuesday--he came again. Mother was out until just before he went. We had a delightful time in the library over a box of new books Jarvis had just had sent up--not farm books, this time. Mr. Ferry found something which specially pleased him, and read several pages to me--sitting on the edge of the library table--I mean that he was sitting on the edge of it--not I! I was most properly disposed in a chair--and congratulating myself that I had on a little new home frock of dull green with bands of blue and gold embroidery that had just come home--the most becoming thing Celeste has ever made me. I think he had a good time--anyhow, he stayed much longer than he need have done if he didn't--I meant that if he wasn't having a good time!--I don't seem to be able to write lucidly. We talked much of you, and of how good it would seem to have you back, and of the garden, and the coming summer. He wanted to know if mother and I were coming out to spend the season again, and I said yes. He asked if I didn't think we ought to be there by the latter part of April, so as to welcome you when you come the first of May. It seemed rather a good idea to me--what do you think of it? Mother has set the fifteenth, but I really do want to see the first spring things coming up. Jarvis brought home a great bunch of daffodils yesterday. I wanted to send them on to you, but he thought they wouldn't last out the journey."
The thought of the daffodils made Sally long intensely for her garden. There was a long row of them at the farther end, and another clump at the edge of the lawn, with stray ones here and there through the grass which she had not been willing to have removed. She thought about them many times until the arrival of the next letter, on the eleventh, which was from Joanna, and which turned her thoughts into housewifely channels.
"Dear Miss," it began, in a cramped hand upon a large sheet of ruled paper. "I suppose you would like to know what has been done about the house cleaning. You wrote me to wate till you come, but I never like to wate later than March, and so I did what was nesessary myself, peice by peice, as I could find time. Mr. Max and Mr. Alec and Mr. Bob seemed to think the house didn't need cleaning, but Mr. Jarvis being used to my ways and his mothers said you would want it right. He spared me Jake Kelly to clean the rugs and peices of carpet, and I did the rest. I think there is no dirt in the house now. Fireplaces makes lots of dust but I should say the way they are enjoyed makes up for it. I have tryed to do as you wanted about the pillows and apples and good food and I don't think the young gentlemen are any liter in wate than when you went away.
"Hoping you will come home soon,
Nobody but a housekeeper, and a young one at that, could appreciate what a load of anxiety this letter lifted from Sally's mind. She wanted to have the house immaculately clean, but--the garden was waiting for her. Now she could give her undivided thought to plans for the box-bordered beds, blessing Joanna for a maid-servant of priceless value.
Mrs. Ferry's letter, arriving on the thirteenth, made Sally smile with the lilt of its lines:
"Come, Sally dear, the spring is here, the air is mild and warm; showers happen by, but cause no sigh, they're needed on the farm. The garden waits, and stirs, and shakes the sleep from out its eyes, and gently sets the violets to blooming in surprise. The grass grows green, a lark is seen, a robin calls "It's Spring!" And everywhere, in earth and air, rejoices everything. We want you near, we need you here to share each day's delights; so hasten home, come soon, dear, come, we miss you so o' nights!"
"Sweet little lady," the girl, thought affectionately, "to take the trouble to think it out in rhyme for me."
On the sixteenth of the month a rather interesting coincidence occurred; letters from Donald Ferry and from Jarvis Burnside arrived on that day. Sally studied the superscriptions with interest, wondering what the handwriting might have indicated to her of the character of the writers, had she known nothing of either. Opening the envelopes, she laid the sheets side by side.
Jarvis wrote a rather small but very black and regular hand, the result being serried rows marching like a regiment down the page, the hand of the man who is accustomed to do everything in an orderly and masterful way, and who can no more allow his words to straggle over a sheet of paper than he can permit his books to stand upside down upon the shelf, or the affairs of his every-day life to fall into confusion. Ferry wrote a more dashing hand, the penmanship of the man whose ideas flow faster than his pen can put the words upon paper, and who cares less about the appearance of his page than for what can be fixed there before it shall escape him. This letter, therefore, appeared less easy to read than the other, and this may have been why Sally attacked it first:
"Dear Lady Of The Garden (it began whimsically):
"I am sure that no one has told you--and that no one will tell you unless I do--that the chickweed is looking exceedingly fresh and spring-like between the box-borders. Further--a patch of small white violets is to be discovered in the sunny spots beyond the sweet pea trellis. I have a bunch of them pinned on my coat at this moment, purloined by my own hand, and smelling like spring itself. The daffodils are gorgeous, and a small blue flower which gives forth a modest and unobtrusive odour all its own is to be found in clumps in several places.
"Alec tells me he has written you all about the progress of the early spring work, but you may possibly be still more interested in the human culture going on upon Strawberry Acres, in which he is bearing an important part. To-day he and Burnside, protected by blue jeans and looking highly disreputable, have been spraying the apple orchard. A disagreeable job it looks to be, from the standpoint of cleanliness, although a necessary one. But whenever I appeared, as an interested spectator on the scene, Alec was toiling away with the greatest good humour, which did not fail him when the apparatus suddenly stopped working properly, and had to be nursed and tended through at least the final third of the operation.
"I believe your brother Max is beginning to long to leave the bank and to begin his life upon the farm. In spite of his somewhat satirical comments upon the probable folly of Alec's having taken this step, I am confident he himself would like to try it. Another spring will see him burning his bridges, or I am no prophet.
"No one, Miss Sally, could be thrown, as your brothers are with such a fellow as Jarvis Burnside, without being stimulated to action. He is the most thoroughly alive recent college graduate I know of in any line of work. It's a refreshing sight to me, to see a man with all the instincts for a literary life, but handicapped by the necessity for taking care of his eyesight, throw himself with such ardour into labour which would have seemed the very last he would have been likely to care for. On my word, I don't know when I admire him most--when, in his careful dress he sits down to his books and journals in the evening, getting Alec to read aloud to him when he has reached the limit of safety for his own eyes, talking to the lad in a way to wake the boy up--as he is most certainly doing--or when I see him at such a job as he tackled to-day, putting into it the care and precision of your true scientist and experimenter with intent to get the full result of the best directed effort possible. Wherever you put him, he's a man worth knowing--and I'm glad I know him and have him for a friend."
"I like to hear one man praise another like that," commented Sally to herself, as having finished the letter, which recounted briefly what Mrs. Ferry and Janet were doing and conveyed messages from both, she turned back to re-read the whole. Then she took up Jarvis's letter, wondering if he might chance to refer to Donald Ferry in as high terms as those in which he had himself been mentioned.
Jarvis had a crisp, clear style of composition all his own. The letter was not a long one, but it brought the writer vividly before his reader:
"One of the apple-wood fires you like so well is blazing on the hearth. Across the table, in the lamplight, sits Alec absorbed in a column of experiences in strawberry culture contributed by experts from all parts of the country. You may not readily believe me, but in a quite upright position on the end of the couch, where the firelight illumines the page, Max is deep in a concise and practical treatise on the same subject. Bob stands on the hearth rug, drying out, after a run home from the Ferry cottage through a brisk shower. So you have us. Is it a satisfactory picture?
"According to Alec you have been told all our plans for the season, and Ferry said to-day that he meant soon to write you precisely what is happening in your garden. If he does you will have a masterpiece of a description, for he's a writer of distinction. He's everything else that's worth while as well, by the way--the finest ever. I never liked a man so well with so good reason. Other men say the same sort of thing of him, but I fancy I am getting to know and appreciate him better then most.
"Before I forget it--Joanna wishes me to state that she has spoken for a kitchen garden which shall contain parsley, summer-savoury, lettuces, radishes, and mint. With Bob's help she has even concocted a small hot-bed in which she will begin operations at once. These subjects having been disposed of, you may forgive me for becoming slightly personal.
"Do you know that you haven't answered my last letter? I had one sheet from you in January, one in early March, and a post-card a week ago. The post-card was very attractive, but it hardly took the place of a letter. Was it intended to do so?
"But you are coming home soon, and you must expect to answer these questions for me then. I assure you there are long arrears for you to make up with us all, in one way and another. Bob is counting the days till your return. Max has reached the limit of his patience. Alec declares this thing must never happen again. Joanna--but it would be a breach of confidence to reveal Joanna's feelings. "There's na luck aboot the hoose," she is confident, with its mistress away.
"As for me--do you care to know how I feel about your coming home? But I would rather tell you that than write it. You have kept me at arm's length all winter. Won't you just bend your rigid little elbow a trifle at the joint when you shake hands with me the first of May?
"As ever I am
It remained for Max to put the crowning touch to Sally's rather complicated thoughts about going home, with the following characteristic communication:
"DEAR SISTER: This thing is played out. I want you to understand that the first of May is the first of May, and you are to get here on it, not leave there that day--nor the day after. Bachelors' Hall is well enough in its way, but not for a lifetime. You'd better be on hand mighty soon and sudden if you want to keep J.B. to yourself. J.F's running you a close second, and she's liable to pass you in sight of the wire. Take a brother's advice. I don't suppose either of them has written you a word about the other--but if they haven't that's just as bad a sign as if they'd kept you in full knowledge of the way they get on--like a basket of chips. Come home--come home!
"Your affec. brother,