Strawberry Acres by Grace S. Richmond
Part I.--Five Miles Out
Chapter IV. Arguments and Answers
"I'm sure that's as good a report as we could hope for," urged Josephine Burnside. But the anxiety in her eyes somewhat qualified her cheerfulness.
Maxwell Lane shook his head doubtfully.
"'Holding her own'--that's all they've said the last three days," he said.
"Yes, but that's a good deal at this stage. It's the end of the second week."
"She's out of her head."
"They usually are, I think."
The pair emerged from the door of the hospital.
"Well, I'm glad I met you here," said Max. "It's kind of you to come so often."
"It's not kind at all. I couldn't stay away. And if I could, Jarvis wouldn't let me. No telephone messages will satisfy him."
"Good old fellow. How are his eyes?"
"Worse than ever. Mother and I take turns reading to him, while he tramps the floor. We should try to get him off somewhere into the country, but he won't leave until Sally is out of the hospital. And I've no idea he will leave then, he'll be so anxious to do things for her."
"Good old chap," murmured Max again, absently. He was looking at Josephine as if an idea had struck him. "Are you going to do anything in particular the rest of the afternoon?"
"I don't know that I am. Why?"
"Don't you want to invite me to drive out into the country in your trap? The roads are pretty good now, and I ought to go out and take a look at the farm. Besides, I'm too restless to keep still. Saturday afternoons and Sundays are tough to get through with, just now."
"I shall be delighted. Come home with me, and we'll start right away. I should like to see the place again, too."
Fifteen minutes by trolley-car, and ten to allow for the ordering of the trap, and the two young people were driving away. Josephine held the reins over the back of a fine gray mare that seemed glad to get out of the stable on this sunny May afternoon. The roads were even better than Max had predicted, and the seven-mile drive was soon over.
"There are the pines." Josephine pointed with her whip. "How far away they show, against the lighter foliage. I'm fond of pines--they make me think of the mountains. You're lucky to have that grove. If you ever live here, it will be a lovely spot for hot summer afternoons."
"We'll never live here, if I can help it," answered Max. "As for the pine grove, the best thing to do with that is to cut it down and get the money out of it."
"Max!" exclaimed Josephine. "Don't do that without the permission of every member of your family and most of your friends. What's the money?"
"The money's a good deal to me. This illness of Sally's--"
"Sell the books, if you must, but not the trees. Of course you ought to keep both, but don't--don't cut down those trees!"
"You're as bad as Sally about this old place. Hello, there's some one in the grove now! What's he doing? Standing on his head?"
For a leg could be descried waving in the air, while its owner apparently lay partly on his back, his shoulders against a tree trunk. As the trap came nearer, the man could be seen distinctly; he was reading, with one leg balancing across the knee of the other.
"Seems to have taken possession of my grounds. I suppose he also would object if I offered to cut down the grove. Is he going to see us? No--too absorbed in his yellow novel."
"He sees us. But we're nothing to him. He's turned back to his page. Shall we drive in? Are you going to get out?"
"Yes, of course, if only to show that chap I'm the owner of his lounging place."
Josephine turned in, and the trap swung through the gateway and on past the pine grove. Max saw the reader get to his feet.
"Coming to apologize," murmured Max. "Well, if he asks permission, he can stay--till I cut down the grove."
Before the horse had been tied, the stranger was at hand. "Since I'm caught in the act, I'll come and ask if I may," he said, genially. "This is Mr. Lane, I believe. I'm Donald Ferry, a neighbour of yours. Your fine grove is a sort of 'call of the wild' to me."
Max shook hands, attracted at once by both voice and face. Donald Ferry was a sturdy young man, with broad shoulders and a thick thatch of reddish-brown hair; he possessed a pair of searching but friendly hazel eyes. He was dressed in a rough suit of blue serge, and a gray flannel shirt with a rolling collar and flowing blue tie gave him an out-door air confirmed by the tan and freckles on his face and the sinewy grip of his brown hand. He had closed his book and tucked it under his arm, so that its title could not be observed, but it had not exactly the look of a "yellow novel."
"You're entirely welcome to make use of the grove as much as you like," Max answered, with the cordiality he could not help feeling toward the possessor of so frank and genial a look as that with which the strange young man continued to regard him.
"I live with my mother in the little house on the other side of the grove," explained Mr. Ferry. "We've been living there for a fortnight, but this is the first time I've caught sight of anybody about the place. It seemed so completely deserted I've been proposing to my mother that we appropriate the house. But she seems a trifle appalled by the size of it. On the whole, for us, ours is rather the better fit."
"This house is too big to fit anything but an orphan asylum," said Max, with a wave toward the brick walls now heavily vine-clad with the tender green leafage of May. "It's in bad shape, from chimneys to cellar. Just the same, I've a sister who is wild to live here."
"Yet you are the one who comes out to look over the place? Perhaps you have a sort of sneaking fondness for it, after all!"
"My sister would come if she could. She's in the hospital with typhoid," explained Max, wondering, as he did so, how he came to be giving details like these in his first conversation with a stranger. He really liked the look of the fellow extraordinarily well.
"This will be a great place for her to grow strong in, by and by," suggested the other, his tone indicating his sympathy with the situation. "The pine grove, in June, will be better than a sanatorium."
Max shook his head. "It's not practical for us to think of living here. Of course we can bring her out for a day at a time."
"You might put up a tent in the grove. Nothing like out-doors for convalescents--and for well people. Well, Mr. Lane, thank you immensely for letting me feel free of the grove--until you come to live. I am fairly sure you will come to live here some day. It's an irresistible old place."
He took his leave with a pleasant grace of manner which, in spite of the rough old suit and flannel shirt, spoke of training in other places than pine groves.
When he had gone off among the pines toward the hedge, which lay between the grove and the little white cottage on the side toward Wybury, Max rejoined Josephine. "He looked a pretty good sort, didn't he? If anybody did live here, he'd be an interesting neighbour. I hardly knew there was a house there, did you?"
"Oh, yes, I saw it as we came by. It had been freshly painted white, and I noticed how pleasant it looked. It's a tiny house. Unless his mother is smaller than he is, it certainly must be a tight fit."
"She's probably about the size of a pint pot. Mothers of strapping fellows like that usually are."
"He wasn't any taller than you."
"Wasn't he? I thought he was a giant. He'd outweigh me by fifty pounds."
Josephine glanced at him. It struck her that Max, never of stalwart build, looked paler and thinner than usual. There was a slight stoop in his shoulders. She recalled the straight set of those belonging to the strange young man.
"Max," she asked, quite suddenly, "how much light do you have in your office?"
"Floods of it," replied Max, promptly. "I have to wear a shade sometimes."
"Bless your soul, no! What do you think a ground-floor banking house gets, between a lot of ten-story buildings? Electrics, of course, are the only things possible."
"Then you don't have the daylight at all?"
"I have plenty of light to work by."
"I think it's dreadful!" cried Josephine. She had never thought of it before, or considered Max's pale skin as the direct result of spending his days under such conditions. "If you could see the difference between your face and Mr. Ferry's--"
Max stared at her. "That red-headed, freckle-faced chap seems to have made a great impression on you," he complained. "He probably has an out-door job of some sort--his clothes showed it. Engineering, more than likely. That was undoubtedly a book on dynamics or hydraulics, or something of that sort. You can't expect a bank clerk to have a skin like an Indian's--under electric light. Come on, shall we walk back to the timber tract? That's what I want to look at. I suppose you won't object to my cutting there? There must be a lot of stuff fit to sell, and, as I told you, I need the money. When Sally gets out of the hospital, it will be a long time before she's fit to work. Uncle Tim says typhoid convalescents are pretty slow at getting back to the working stage. We'll have to keep on hiring that Mary Ann Flinders. She polishes the stove with the napkins, I think--they look it."
"Goodness! How poor Sally would feel if she knew!"
"She does know. I told her the last time I saw her--before she got these funny notions in her head. To-day she thought I was an Episcopal bishop come to marry her to the doctor--they got me out right away."
"Max! You must not tell Sally disturbing things about home. She will be anxious enough when she's herself, without hearing about napkins and things from you."
"I suppose so. But I've been so blue ever since she went I couldn't keep in."
"Then keep out."
Max looked at her. Josephine's dark cheeks were pink, partly with indignation, partly with the brisk progress over the slightly rising grade of the cartpath through the fields toward the timber tract.
"Well, you are sort of down on your friends to-day, aren't you? I'm an idiot to think of cutting down the pine grove. I'm a milksop compared with a red-headed Indian you never saw before. Now I'm a blunderbuss for answering a simple question asked me by my sister. What do you think I am, anyhow? Fit to cumber the earth?"
Josephine returned his gaze. She seemed not in the least awed by this burst of wrath. She replied with spirit, not unmixed with good humour:
"I think you're peppery--as usual. Hasn't an old friend like me a right to try to keep things straight? You ought to know better than to say one word to Sally that will give her a minute's anxiety. Goodness knows she's had enough of it, keeping house for you four people for three whole years."
"Haven't we been taking care of her all that time?" demanded Max, with rising colour of his own. "Haven't we all been working our heads off to pay expenses, and giving her every cent we could get to run things with?"
"Of course you have. It's what you ought to do, but I certainly give you credit for doing it. Only I don't think you've fully appreciated Sally's part. She's worked harder than any of you."
"Has she told you so?" Max was looking straight in front of him, and his eyes were angry.
"Never! You know she hasn't. She's not that kind of girl. But I'm another girl, and I can see for myself. Sally's worked hard to make that apartment seem like home. No matter how blue she felt herself, she's never acted blue before you--now has she?"
"I can't say that she has. She's a light-hearted girl--always was, and--"
"Don't you think it. Sally's been putting on a brave face and letting everybody suppose she's cheerful. She's kept you all up when she was bluer than you are now."
Max stopped short, stood still in the cart-path and looked Josephine in the eye. She stopped also, and faced him coolly.
"Will you tell me how you know all this?" he inquired, fiercely.
"I've put two and two together, and found they make four," replied Josephine. "See here, Max "--she spoke more gently, but quite as decidedly as before--"you mustn't think I'm trying to be disagreeable, now, of all times. Of course I know you boys all love Sally as devotedly as brothers can, and do a great deal to show it. But when it comes to sparing her anxiety and letting her have her way about things she has set her heart on, I don't think you're always quite as considerate as you might be. I didn't dream of saying all this to-day. But when you began to talk about cutting down that pine grove, though you knew what a fancy Sally took to it, it came over me that you would be just as likely as anything to do it right now, while Sally is sick--and I just couldn't help speaking out."
The two walked on in silence for some distance. Then Max spoke, gloomily:
"It's all right enough to consider sentiment, and I know you well enough to understand what you mean by pitching into me this way. But the craze Sally's been in over this old place seems to me a thing out of all reason. What are we, a family of bank clerks and office boys, to shoulder a proposition like this? We can't think of moving out here and living in that barracks, and trying to make a living off the soil. Neither can we put a tenant on here, and fit him out with farm tools, and take the responsibility and the risk of his running the place. He'd undoubtedly run us into the ground the first year. I've thought it over and thought it over, and the only course seems to me to be to find a buyer for the place. Money isn't easy just now, and I've no doubt we'd have a hard time to get a decent price. Meanwhile it seems to me only common sense to get what income we can out of it. If I could sell that big pine grove, and cut off what timber is ready for the axe up here, it would bring us something quite substantial."
Now this certainly was a presentation of the case which called for a considerate listening. But, quite as if she had not heard a word of his argument, Josephine cried out:
"Max, why not do what Mr. Ferry proposed, if you think the house can't be lived in? Put up a tent in the grove and bring Sally there as soon as she's fit for it. She'd get strong twice as fast as in that stuffy flat!"
Max gazed at her. "That's just what you get," he ejaculated, "when you try to talk business with a girl. Show her a good and sufficient reason why you can't do a thing, and she instantly asks why you can't do something ten times harder. Will you tell me how, with Sally out here in a tent, we fellows are going to get along in the flat? And what would she do out here, all by herself?"
It was now Josephine's turn to gaze with scorn at her companion. "Do you think I'm proposing for Sally to camp by herself out here, while Mary Ann Flinders keeps house for you in town? No; bring Mary Ann out here to cook for Sally, and you boys come out for the nights. If you had a bit of camp spirit, you'd jump at the chance to get a real outing right along with your work."
"Camp," exclaimed Max, "in your own front yard!"
"The pine grove isn't your front yard, and the farther end of it is so far away from the road, nobody could tell who was who, back there. Besides, what difference, if Sally gets strong again as fast as out-door life can make her?"
"It's not practical," Max continued to object, and Josephine realized afresh that the Lane temperament was not one easily swayed by argument or appeal. There was a stubborn streak in Max which was as hard to deal with now as it had been in the days when Josephine had fought it out with him in playground affairs. Yet she did not lose hope. She had known Max to come round, if left to himself, convinced in the end by logic derived from his own consideration of the case. If he could once see a course as fair and right he would accept it. Clearly, he did not yet see this thing in any such light, and it was of no use to persist in heated argument which would only result in prejudicing him yet further against the plan which seemed to Josephine so wise a one.
The two walked through the timber tract, Max pointing out trees which he thought could be sacrificed with a real gain to the timber to be left standing. Josephine listened and agreed, finding genuine interest in the long vistas of oak and chestnut pillars stretching away to what seemed an infinite distance, for dense undergrowth at the back of the wood prevented the appearance of an outlet anywhere.
As they drove away, they noted with new interest the small white cottage on the farther side of the dividing hedge.
"There's your friend Ferry," observed Max, as they flew by at the gray mare's smartest pace, "working away in a strawberry patch as if his life depended on it. That's where he gets his beautiful Indian complexion you admire so much, when he isn't doing engineering stunts. Probably he's home just now between jobs, fixing up his mother in her new place. Well, we can't all grow strawberries and lie round on our backs reading hydraulics. Some of us have to do the in-door jobs. Of course those are useless--mere folly. All the really sensible chaps are looking after the colour of their skins!"