Strawberry Acres by Grace S. Richmond
Part II. The Lanes and the Acres.
Chapter XX. Green Leaves
"So the great day has come at last! My word, but you've had the courage of your convictions! What a stretch of 'em!"
"Of convictions? Well, they're certainly embodied in those seven acres, whether there are any strawberries there or not. Don't you want to get over the fence and stroll up one of the rows? You may find a specimen or two of fruit worth setting your teeth into."
Neil Chase, correctly clad in light flannels, eyed the fence critically before he clambered over it. "I can be trusted to tear myself if there's a twopenny splinter anywhere," said he. "Must admit it looks rather worth while over here, though. Hello--Dorothy's over already. Who's that assisting her? The Reverend Donald--in blue overalls! It's lucky Old Dutch can't see him now! I say, you've got a lot of pickers. Are they all members of the firm?"
Jarvis laughed as he followed Chase's glance up the rows. "You've struck us on our first day," he admitted. "We agreed to make it a special celebration among ourselves, since only a small part of the berries are ripe."
"The pink sun-bonnet covers an acquaintance, then," inferred Neil, watching it approach from a distance. "Hello--it's Sally!" and he pulled off his hat to wave it in response to a salutation from the pink sun-bonnet, whose removal had disclosed a fair head whose locks the June sunshine was turning into gold. "I suppose the blue one conceals Jo Burnside, the white one Miss Ferry, and so forth. I always said you people were no farmers--to dress for the part like stage strawberry-pickers," he added, as Sally came within hearing.
"Why not? Could any stage be set to equal this one?" inquired Sally Lane. "No, no--you can't shake hands with me--" She held up ten carmine-tipped fingers. "What could be more appropriate for picking strawberries than a pink gingham?"
"It's mighty becoming, anyhow," Neil offered tribute. "Jove, Sally, but farming certainly does agree with you. Talk of roses--Dorothy!" he called, "come here and look at these cheeks! Full in the sunlight, too. I'll wager yours couldn't stand such a test."
Sally promptly put on her sun-bonnet. "A strawberry patch is no place for flattery, Mr. Neil Chase," said she. "Come with me, Dorothy. I'll show you the biggest berry you ever saw in your life--and you may eat it, too."
Mrs. Chase gathered her white skirts about her, planted her white-shod feet recklessly in the wake of Sally's, and arrived in due time at the point where Sally had been picking. From nearby rows Josephine Burnside, Janet Ferry, and Constance Carew lifted heads to greet her.
"How awfully busy you all are!" cried Dorothy, consuming a fat berry with which Sally presented her. "Too busy to greet your friends!"
"This isn't a reception, it's a working affair," Janet replied gayly. "Guests may help themselves to refreshments, but mustn't expect the hostesses to stop picking."
"You have no trouble about getting the men at your entertainments, Sally," observed Dorothy, scanning the field. "They're all here, I see--even Max. Has he left the bank?"
"Yes, the first of May. This is our third season, you know--but the first one of bearing. Max is as enthusiastic as anybody, now. When you see him nearer you'll discover a great change in him. No more banks for him, if we can make anything like a success with the strawberries."
"How do you know that you will? You're such amateurs at it."
"We're not, if study of the subject amounts to anything," Sally asserted, with a little air of pride. "Between books and experiment stations, and Alec's course at an agricultural school last winter, and Jarvis's visits to practical strawberry-growers, it would be strange if our methods went all astray. But they're not going astray. Look at these berries you're eating!"
Down the rows Jarvis was pursuing much the same line of argument with Neil Chase. "It's not in reason, you know," the visitor objected, critically selecting choice specimens of fruit along the rows and eating them with evident relish, "it's not in reason for a lot of fellows like you, fresh from books and banks, to jump into this sort of thing and make it go without a hitch."
"Well, you have the evidence of your eyes before you," Jarvis returned with great good humour, from his knees among the vines where he was now picking busily again. "To be sure it hasn't gone without a hitch. Last season we had a long spring drought to fight--and fought it, too, with irrigation. This spring the shot-hole fungus attacked us, but we overcame it with spraying. Of course next year a killing frost may come along and finish the crop for the year--we can't fight that. Such a frost is to be reckoned with on an average of about once in five years. But on the other years we expect to make up. Don't you think we can get our prices for such berries as these? And will you tell me why brains, even amateur ones, can't solve such problems as we have to face? You lawyers tackle hard cases and win them, even while you're green--if you possess certain qualities to begin with. We may be conceited, but we have an idea we possess the qualities necessary to successful strawberry culture. As a game, it's certainly a mighty interesting one."
"The average farmer," Neil argued, "isn't a rich experimenter like you. He can't afford to put good gold into fertilizers and irrigating pumps. I should think these fellows all around you would hate you for having the advantage of them."
"On the contrary, as a matter of fact all but one or two are our very good friends, and much interested in our schemes. They've given us a lot of valuable advice--not on strawberry culture, because that's not in their line, but in other ways. They enjoy our mistakes hugely--that's only human--but they don't do it in an ill-natured way. Last spring when we sowed clover-seed for millet and didn't recognize it till the crop appeared, it was worth it to see them laugh at the joke, particularly as we didn't mind laughing with them. But I can tell you where we're scoring the biggest success after all, and the one that would pay if half our crops turned out failures. You haven't been out here for a year, at least. Take a look at Max, Alec, and Bob, when you get close to them, and tell me if they look like the same chaps you used to know in town."
"You don't, yourself," admitted Chase, somewhat grudgingly. He, himself, was decidedly slender of limb much to his regret. Also, in spite of incessant motoring, his face was not that of unexceptionable health. "You look as rugged as a rock. Never thought you were cut out for an athlete, either, when you were in college."
"I rather think that siege with my eyes was the best thing that ever happened to me--though it didn't seem much like it at the time. Look at that berry." He held out a fine specimen. "That goes in Class A--specials, all right."
"How many classes do you have?" Neil inquired, making way with the specimen from Class A in one huge mouthful, and finding it so juicy he was forced to make prompt use of his handkerchief.
"Two, but we're going to draw a strict line. The big ones are to be big to the bottom of the basket--and no false bottoms. A reputation is what we're after--then the prices will take care of themselves."
Neil strolled down the row. He had information enough. He wanted to inspect the strawberry-pickers, one at a time. It was not every day that one could meet distinguished young clergymen, accomplished pianists, and singers of unusual promise, between rows of strawberry vines.
The Chases had not been invited to be present at this special celebration of the first day of the strawberry picking, but they unhesitatingly accepted the invitation to stay to luncheon offered them as the hour for that meal drew near. When the party left the field for the house it was discovered that Joanna, assisted by Mrs. Burnside and Mrs. Ferry, had moved the luncheon-table from the dining-room to the big porch.
"Well, of all the romantic, impractical farmers!" ejaculated Neil Chase, as he beheld this arrangement at close range, the table set with old blue-and-white china, a great bowl of Sally's old-fashioned pink roses in the centre. "Don't you know that fried salt-pork and potatoes, in the kitchen, in your shirt-sleeves, is your only consistent meal, in the work season?"
"If you will insist on our living up to your notion of the real thing, we can set a special table for you in the kitchen. I've no doubt we can borrow some pork somewhere. You can take off your coat and eat your noon meal there, if you like, sustained by your sense of what is fitting," offered Alec. "As for me, I'm going in to wash up, put on my coat, and eat about twelve square inches of the strawberry-shortcake Joanna's building for this table. There won't be any of that served in the kitchen, I warn you, Mr. Chase."
"Thank you, I'm not pointing out my course of action, but criticizing yours," retorted Neil, surveying with favour a vine-wreathed platter of broiled chicken, and eyeing hungrily a large salad-bowl filled with a compound which he knew by experience to be one of Joanna's choicest. "I say, to be consistent--"
But he found himself delivering his views to Mrs. Burnside alone, for the rest had trooped in to make themselves presentable.
"You people certainly do manage to get a lot of fun out of your farming," observed Dorothy Chase, as she watched Sally splashing her round arms in a vain effort to remove the tan. "We live just as far out from town as you do, but nothing could be more different than our way of living from yours."
"Well, if we depended on tennis, golf, and bridge for our fun we'd be just like you. As we like hayfields, strawberry-patches, and pine groves better--with tobogganing in winter--we continue to be different."
"I should say golf and tennis were just as healthy exercise as haying and picking strawberries."
"No doubt they are--but the company isn't so select," declared Sally audaciously, towelling her wet face so briskly that it emerged looking more than ever like the roses to which Neil had that morning compared it.
"You impertinent girl! What do you mean by that?"
"I mean that Tom Westlake isn't to be spoken of in the same breath with Donald Ferry. Billy North is an idiot compared with Jarvis Burnside. There aren't two girls among all your society friends who can equal Janet and Constance, and--"
"And Sally Lane, as a hostess, is infinitely superior to Dorothy Chase!"
"Don't put words into my mouth." Sally came close and laid a warm pink palm on either of Dorothy's cheeks. "Sally Lane is such a bad hostess she says insulting things to her guests. Don't mind her. She's so excited and happy to-day over her strawberry acres she's not responsible for what she says. Come, let's hurry down."
"You people look more like a set of golfers at a summer hotel than you do like farmers," began Neil Chase, still harping on the theme which seemed to cause him so much unrest, as the party sat down.
Max opened his mouth for a retort. But, with one look at Donald Ferry, who sat across the table, he closed it again. He met an amused glance of comprehension. Then Ferry also opened his lips to speak. But before the words found breath Mr. Timothy Rudd rose to the occasion.
"Mr. Chase," said he, "since a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, let me suggest that you call us strawberry gardeners. Not that we object in the least to being called farmers, for we consider the title one of honour. But I am confident that you will then be able to reconcile our having luncheon on the front porch, our coming to the table with our coats and collars on, and our having strawberries to eat in spite of the fact that we raise them ourselves, with the indisputable truth that we make--or are attempting to make--our living off the soil. We profoundly respect the desire of a member of the legal profession for exactness, not only in the use of terms, but in the conformity of facts to those terms. I trust, however, that the compromise I suggest--"
But he got no further. A burst of appreciative laughter, in which Chase himself was forced to join, bore witness to the effectiveness with which the cynical critic had been politely answered. However it might be on after occasions, for to-day Chase became content to enjoy his broiled chicken and strawberry-shortcake without further comment on the inconsistency of their appearance upon the table at Strawberry Acres.
* * * * *
It was late in the afternoon. The Chases had reluctantly taken their departure, bearing with them gifts of strawberries and roses. In the strawberry-patch sunshine and silence reigned undisturbed, except by the light June breeze which rustled the leaves enough to show beneath them the fruit which by day-after-to-morrow would be ripe enough to pick. The first picking had been a small one, and had gone wholly to neighbours and friends and to consumption upon the home table. In two days more the gathering of the harvest would begin in earnest. It may not have been strictly business-like, this opening of the season by feasting and bestowal, but it had pleased the "Lady of the Garden" so to elect, and there had been no dissenting voice--not even that of her brother Max.
Everybody else, it may be presumed, had retired to rest and dress for the evening, which was always spent, when the weather was fair, upon the porch, when Sally, alone, slipped quietly out of the door at the back of the hall and betook herself over the grass, through the garden, to the path which led up the slope to the woods. The path wound past the orchard, past the strawberry field, and by the side of the pasture where Cowslip and Whiteface were already turning their faces toward the bars. Its appearance was an example of the fashion in which utility and sentiment were likely to find themselves mixed upon the farm called Strawberry Acres.
Along its borders ran a riot of vines, wild bushes, even of weeds, only such of the latter having been cut as were pests of the sort which scatter their seeds to the winds. Trim and workmanlike as was the clearing up of the ground just beyond the lane, on either side the lane itself was very nearly in a state of nature. It was, therefore, a picturesque roadway enough, and Sally walking along it bareheaded, clad still in the pink gingham of the morning, found it so to an unusual degree. Yet it must be admitted that it would have been an object ugly indeed which would have seemed devoid of all beauty to Sally Lane, on this, the sixteenth of June.
She kept on, straight up the winding lane, to the border of the woods. When she had reached the first trees, a fine group of oak and chestnut, lifting stately limbs, long uncut, far into the summer air, she turned and paused to look back. From this point she could see far, and the whole of her family's possessions lay before her, outspread in all the beauty of June at its bonniest. Impulsively she stretched out her arms.
"Sally Lane," she said softly to herself, with her eyes scanning it all, "if there's a happier girl than you in the world to-day, she must be entirely out of her senses with joy."
After a little she sat down, her back against a tree-trunk, her face toward the distant view.... Presently a big green oak leaf fluttered down past her eyes, and fell into her lap. "That's odd," she thought, and looked up. Nothing could be seen but the great limbs, rugged with years, of the oak beneath which she sat. She looked off again at the view. Another leaf came swirling down past her, lighting on the ground. "It's probably a squirrel," she explained to herself, concerning this phenomenon of falling leaves in June, and tried again to descry its source, without success. When, however, a shower of the green missiles came down together, she got to her feet, and walked around the tree.
"They had to come, thick as leaves in Vallombrosa," remarked a familiar voice from far above her, "before you would pay attention. I fired for at least ten minutes before you would so much as look up. Will you come up, or shall I come down?"
"I'd like to come up," Sally replied, smiling up into Jarvis's brown face, as she espied him, sitting astride a limb well up in the branching foliage. "But I don't think it's practical."
"Why be practical? Nobody is practical on Strawberry Acres, according to a certain brilliant but skeptical attorney from town. Your greatest aim has been to remain a girl as long as possible. Girls climb trees. Ergo--"
He began to descend. "Wait!" cried Sally, as he set foot on the lowest limb, a matter of ten feet above her head, and paused to look down at her. "Stay there, please--Do you really want me to come up?"
"Very much. It's entirely possible. Set your foot on that knob, reach up your arm, I'll let myself down far enough to get hold of your hand, and the next thing you know you'll be sitting beside me here."
"Then what will happen?"
"Then--we'll have a little talk I've been waiting for all day. I began to think I couldn't get it till evening fell, when the garden might help me out."
"I think the garden is a very nice place for conversation." Sally put both hands behind her back, looking up at him.
"Better than the limb of an oak tree? I admit it--for some sorts of conversation. Up here I should be forced to hold on with one arm. But there would be compensation in that, for with the other arm I should be forced to hold you on!"
His laughing eyes looked down at her. She shook her head. "If I came up the tree I should prove that I am still a girl. If I am still a girl--"
"Are you still a girl? Is that still your greatest desire?" He leaned forward, and the smile suddenly left his lips. His eyes searched hers.
The face she bravely lifted to him was a girl's for youthful beauty, but into it had come something very sweet and womanly, which at last gave him the leave he had waited so long for. "No--I think I've grown up." she said, quite clearly.
With an exclamation, the sinewy figure in the tree made short work of the ten feet to the ground, swinging itself off from the limb by both hands and dropping lightly down.
"I don't think I could have waited a day longer," said Jarvis Burnside. Then, with the sheltering trunk of the great oak shutting off all possible vision from the far distant house, he drew Sally Lane into his eager arms.
* * * * *
"Why so late?" Maxwell Lane looked up to ask, as his sister Sally came somewhat hurriedly in to dinner, when the rest of the household were half through.
"Please excuse my pink gingham," apologized Sally, as she dropped into her chair. She glanced from Mrs. Burnside in cool white to Josephine in crisp blue.
"Nothing could be more becoming," Josephine asserted, always ready to defend her friend.
"There's a strawberry stain on her right sleeve," Bob pointed out.
"Where's Jarve?" asked Alec.
"I saw him as I came in. He was on his way," replied Sally, lifting a glass of water to hide a pair of lips which wanted to laugh.
Jarvis appeared. He also was in the garb be had worn all day. The pair seemed oddly similar in the nonchalance they could not quite successfully carry through.
"Look here!" Alec scanned both faces. "You two have been up to something."
"I've been up a tree," Jarvis replied.
"Have you been up a tree too?" Alec questioned his sister.
"Not at all."
"Did you get him up one?"
Sally attempted to answer, but the merriment upon her lips would not be controlled. She gave way to it. Her eyes, in spite of themselves, met Jarvis's. He was laughing too. His face, red showing beneath the tan, was too radiant with his happiness for him to be able to help Sally with any further effort at concealment.
"Don't you think we may as well own up?" he questioned her.
"Own up!" cried Alec. "Do you people flatter yourselves there's anything for you to own up to, that we don't already know?"
"Good for you!" And Max rose up to shake Jarvis's hand.
"It's nothing new, but it's great!" roared Bob, and patted his sister's shoulder.
"My dear!" said Mrs. Burnside. She rose, and Sally ran to her. Josephine followed eagerly, pausing to embrace her brother on the way.
"I don't see," said Uncle Timothy, "but that I am the one to say the only fitting thing. Therefore I say it--from my heart." He seized Jarvis's hand. Sally turned from Josephine to put her arm about his neck.
"God bless you, my children," said Uncle Timothy.