XIX. "As a Man Soweth"
 

At the earliest possible moment in the spring, the building of the mill began. It was scarcely well under way when the work was stopped by a week of heavy rains. The water filled the ravine to dangerous height and the roaring of the dam could be heard all over town. George talked of it incessantly. He said it was the sweetest music his ears had ever heard. Kate had to confess that she like the sound herself, but she was fearful over saying much on the subject because she was so very anxious about the stability of the dam. There was a day or two of fine weather; then the rains began again. Kate said she had all the music she desired; she proposed to be safe; so she went and opened the sluiceway to reduce the pressure on the dam. The result was almost immediate. The water gushed through, lowering the current and lessening the fall. George grumbled all day, threatening half a dozen times to shut the sluice; but Kate and the carpenter were against him, so he waited until he came slipping home after midnight, his brain in a muddle from drink, smoke, and cards. As he neared the dam, he decided that the reason he felt so badly was because he had missed hearing it all day, but he would have it to go to sleep by. So he crossed the bridge and shut the sluice gate. Even as he was doing it the thunder pealed; lightning flashed, and high Heaven gave him warning that he was doing a dangerous thing; but all his life he had done what he pleased; there was no probability that he would change then. He needed the roar of the dam to quiet his nerves.

The same roar that put him to sleep, awakened Kate. She lay wondering at it and fearing. She raised her window to listen. The rain was falling in torrents, while the roar was awful, so much worse than it had been when she fell asleep, that she had a suspicion of what might have caused it. She went to George's room and shook him awake.

"Listen to the dam!" she cried. "It will go, as sure as fate. George, did you, Oh, did you, close the sluice-gate when you came home?"

He was half asleep, and too defiant from drink to take his usual course.

"Sure!" he said. "Sweesish mushich ever hearsh. Push me shleep."

He fell back on the pillow and went on sleeping. Kate tried again to waken him, but he struck at her savagely. She ran to her room, hurried into a few clothes, and getting the lantern, started toward the bridge. At the gate she stepped into water. As far as she could see above the dam the street was covered. She waded to the bridge, which was under at each end but still bare in the middle, where it was slightly higher. Kate crossed it and started down the yard toward the dam. The earth was softer there, and she mired in places almost to her knees. At the dam, the water was tearing around each end in a mad race, carrying earth and everything before it. The mill side was lower than the street. The current was so broad and deep she could not see where the sluice was. She hesitated a second to try to locate it from the mill behind her; and in that instant there was a crack and a roar, a mighty rush that swept her from her feet and washed away the lantern. Nothing saved her but the trees on the bank. She struck one, clung to it, pulled herself higher, and in the blackness gripped the tree, while she heard the dam going gradually after the first break.

There was no use to scream, no one could have heard her. The storm raved on; Kate clung to her tree, with each flash of lightning trying to see the dam. At last she saw that it was not all gone. She was not much concerned about herself. She knew the tree would hold. Eagerly she strained her eyes toward the dam. She could feel the water dropping lower, while the roar subsided to a wild rush, and with flashes of lightning she could see what she thought was at least half of the dam holding firm. By that time Kate began to chill. She wrapped her arms around the tree, and pressing her cheek against the rough bark, she cried as hard as she could and did not care. God would not hear; the neighbours could not. She shook and cried until she was worn out. By that time the water was only a muddy flow around her ankles; if she had a light she could wade back to the bridge and reach home. But if she missed the bridge and went into the ravine, the current would be too strong for her. She held with one arm and tried to wipe her face with the other hand. "What a fool to cry!" she said. "As if there were any more water needed here!"

Then she saw a light in the house, and the figures of the children, carrying it from room to room, so she knew that one of them had awakened for a drink, or with the storm, and they had missed her. Then she could see them at the front door, Adam's sturdy feet planted widely apart, bracing him, as he held up the lamp which flickered in the wind. Then she could hear his voice shouting: "Mother!" Instantly Kate answered. Then she was sorry she had, for both of them began to scream wildly. There was a second of that, then even the children realized its futility.

"She is out there in the water, we got to get her," said Adam. "We got to do it!"

He started with the light held high. The wind blew it out. They had to go back to relight it. Kate knew they would burn their fingers, and she prayed they would not set the house on fire. When the light showed again, at the top of her lungs she screamed: "Adam, set the broom on fire and carry it to the end of the bridge; the water isn't deep enough to hurt you." She tried twice, then she saw him give Polly the lamp, and run down the hall. He came back in an instant with the broom. Polly held the lamp high, Adam went down the walk to the gate and started up the sidewalk. "He's using his head," said Kate to the tree. "He's going to wait until he reaches the bridge to start his light, so it will last longer. That is Bates, anyway. Thank God!"

Adam scratched several matches before he got the broom well ignited, then he held it high, and by its light found the end of the bridge. Kate called to him to stop and plunging and splashing through mud and water, she reached the bridge before the broom burned out. There she clung to the railing she had insisted upon, and felt her way across to the boy. His thin cotton night shirt was plastered to his sturdy little body. As she touched him Kate lifted him in her arms, and almost hugged the life from him.

"You big man!" she said. "You could help Mother! Good for you!"

"Is the dam gone?" he asked.

"Part of it," said Kate, sliding her feet before her, as she waded toward Polly in the doorway.

"Did Father shut the sluice-gate, to hear the roar?"

Kate hesitated. The shivering body in her arms felt so small to her.

"I 'spect he did," said Adam. "All day he was fussing after you stopped the roar." Then he added casually: "The old fool ought-a known better. I 'spect he was drunk again!"

"Oh, Adam!" cried Kate, setting him on the porch. "Oh, Adam! What makes you say that?"

"Oh, all of them at school say that," scoffed Adam. "Everybody knows it but you, don't they, Polly?"

"Sure!" said Polly. "Most every night; but don't you mind, Mother, Adam and I will take care of you."

Kate fell on her knees and gathered both of them in a crushing hug for an instant; then she helped them into to dry nightgowns and to bed. As she covered them she stooped and kissed each of them before she went to warm and put on dry clothes, and dry her hair. It was almost dawn when she walked to George Holt's door and looked in at him lying stretched in deep sleep.

"You may thank your God for your children," she said. "If it hadn't been for them, I know what I would have done to you."

Then she went to her room and lay down to rest until dawn. She was up at the usual time and had breakfast ready for the children. As they were starting to school George came into the room.

"Mother," said Polly, "there is a lot of folks over around the dam. What shall we tell them?"

Kate's heart stopped. She had heard that question before.

"Tell them the truth," said Adam scornfully, before Kate could answer. "Tell them that Mother opened the sluiceway to save the dam and Father shut it to hear it roar, and it busted!"

"Shall I, Mother?" asked Polly.

A slow whiteness spread over George's face; he stared down the hall to look.

"Tell them exactly what you please," said Kate, "only you watch yourself like a hawk. If you tell one word not the way it was, or in any way different from what happened, I'll punish you severely."

"May I tell them I held the lamp while Adam got you out of the water?" asked Polly. "That would be true, you know."

George turned to listen, his face still whiter.

"Yes, that would be true," said Kate, "but if you tell them that, the first thing they will ask will be 'where was your father?' What will you say then?"

"Why, we'll say that he was so drunk we couldn't wake him up," said Polly conclusively. "We pulled him, an' we shook him, an' we yelled at him. Didn't we, Adam?"

"I was not drunk!" shouted George.

"Oh, yes, you were," said Adam. "You smelled all sour, like it does at the saloon door!"

George made a rush at Adam. The boy spread his feet and put up his hands, but never flinched or moved. Kate looking on felt something in her heart that never had been there before. She caught George's arm, as he reached the child.

"You go on to school, little folks," she said. "And for Mother's sake try not to talk at all. If people question you, tell them to ask Mother. I'd be so proud of you, if you would do that."

"I will, if you'll hold me and kiss me again like you did last night when you got out of the water," said Polly.

"It is a bargain," said Kate. "How about you, Adam?"

"I will for that, too," said Adam, "but I'd like awful well to tell how fast the water went, and how it poured and roared, while I held the light, and you got across. Gee, if was awful, Mother! So black, and so crashy, and so deep. I'd like to tell!"

"But you won't if I ask you not to?" queried Kate.

"I will not," said Adam.

Kate went down on her knees again, she held out her arms and both youngsters rushed to her. After they were gone, she and George Holt looked at each other an instant, then Kate turned to her work. He followed: "Kate -- " he began.

"No use!" said Kate. "If you go out and look at the highest water mark, you can easily imagine what I had to face last night when I had to cross the bridge to open the sluice-gate, or the bridge would have gone, too. If the children had not wakened with the storm, and hunted me, I'd have had to stay over there until morning, if I could have clung to the tree that long. First they rescued me; and then they rescued you, if you only but knew it. By using part the money I had saved for the house, I can rebuild the dam; but I am done with you. We're partners no longer. Not with business, money, or in any other way, will I ever trust you again. Sit down there and eat your breakfast, and then leave my sight."

Instead George put on his old clothing, crossed the bridge, and worked all day with all his might trying to gather building material out of the water, save debris from the dam, to clear the village street. At noon he came over and got a drink, and a piece of bread. At night he worked until he could see no longer, and then ate some food from the cupboard and went to bed. He was up and at work before daybreak in the morning, and for two weeks he kept this up, until he had done much to repair the work of the storm. The dam he almost rebuilt himself, as soon as the water lowered to normal again. Kate knew what he was trying to do, and knew also that in a month he had the village pitying him, and blaming her because he was working himself to death, and she was allowing it.

She doggedly went on with her work; the contracts were made; she was forced to. As the work neared completion, her faith in the enterprise grew. She studied by the hour everything she could find pertaining to the business. When the machinery began to arrive, George frequently spoke about having timber ready to begin work on, but he never really believed the thing which did happen, would happen, until the first load of logs slowly crossed the bridge and began unloading in the yards. A few questions elicited from the driver the reply that he had sold the timber to young Adam Bates of Bates Corners, who was out buying right and left and paying cash on condition the seller did his own delivering. George saw the scheme, and that it was good. Also the logs were good, while the price was less than he hoped to pay for such timber. His soul was filled with bitterness. The mill was his scheme. He had planned it all. Those thieving Bates had stolen his plan, and his location, and his home, and practically separated him from his wife and children. It was his mill, and all he was getting from it was to work with all his might, and not a decent word from morning until night. That day instead of working as before, he sat in the shade most of the time, and that night instead of going to bed he went down town.

When the mill was almost finished Kate employed two men who lived in Walden, but had been working in the Hartley mills for years. They were honest men of much experience. Kate made the better of them foreman, and consulted with him in every step of completing the mill, and setting up the machinery. She watched everything with sharp eyes, often making suggestions that were useful about the placing of different parts as a woman would arrange them. Some of these the men laughed at, some they were more than glad to accept. When the engine was set up, the big saw in place, George went to Kate.

"See here!" he said roughly. "I know I was wrong about the sluice-gate. I was a fool to shut it with the water that high, but I've learned my lesson; I'll never touch it again; I've worked like a dog for weeks to pay for it; now where do I come in? What's my job, how much is my share of the money, and when do I get it?"

"The trouble with you, George, is that you have to learn a new lesson about every thing you attempt. You can't carry a lesson about one thing in your mind, and apply it to the next thing that comes up. I know you have worked, and I know why. It is fair that you should have something, but I can't say what, just now. Having to rebuild the dam, and with a number of incidentals that have come up, in spite of the best figuring I could do, I have been forced to use my money saved for rebuilding the house; and even with that, I am coming out a hundred or two short. I'm strapped; and until money begins to come in I have none myself. The first must go toward paying the men's wages, the next for timber. If Jim Milton can find work for you, go to work at the mill, and when we get started I'll pay you what is fair and just, you may depend on that. If he hasn't work for you, you'll have to find a job at something else."

"Do you mean that?" he asked wonderingly.

"I mean it," said Kate.

"After stealing my plan, and getting my land for nothing, you'd throw me out entirely?" he demanded.

"You entreated me to put all I had into your plan, you told me repeatedly the ravine was worth nothing, you were not even keeping up the taxes on it until I came and urged you to, the dam is used merely for water, the engine furnishes the real power, and if you are thrown out, you have thrown yourself out. You have had every chance."

"You are going to keep your nephew on the buying job?" he asked

"I am," said Kate. "You can have no job that will give you a chance to involve me financially."

"Then give me Milton's place. It's so easy a baby could do it, and the wages you have promised him are scandalous," said George.

Kate laughed. "Oh, George," she said, "you can't mean that! Of all your hare-brained ideas, that you could operate that saw, is the wildest. Oh course you could start the engine, and set the saw running -- I could myself; but to regulate its speed, to control it with judgment, you could no more do it than Polly. As for wages, Milton is working for less than he got in Hartley, because he can be at home, and save his hack fare, as you know."

George went over to Jim Milton, and after doing all he could see to do and ordering Milton to do several things he thought might be done, he said casually: "Of course I am boss around this shack, but this is new to me. You fellows will have to tell me what to do until I get my bearings. As soon as we get to running, I'll be yard-master, and manage the selling and shipping. I'm good at figures, and that would be the best place for me."

"You'll have to settle with Mrs. Holt about that," said Jim Milton.

"Of course," said George. "Isn't she a wonder? With my help, we'll soon wipe the Hartley mills off the map, and be selling till Grand Rapids will get her eye peeled. With you to run the machinery, me to manage the sales, and her to keep the books, we got a combination to beat the world."

"In the meantime," said Jim Milton dryly, "you might take that scoop shovel and clean the shavings and blocks off this floor. Leave me some before the engine to start the first fire, and shovel the rest into that bin there where it's handy. It isn't safe to start with so much loose, dry stuff lying around."

George went to work with the scoop shovel, but he watched every movement Jim Milton made about the engine and machinery. Often he dropped the shovel and stood studying things out for himself, and asking questions. Not being sure of his position, Jim Milton answered him patiently, and showed him all he wanted to know; but he constantly cautioned him not to touch anything, or try to start the machinery himself, as he might lose control of the gauge and break the saw, or let the power run away with him. George scoffed at the idea of danger and laughed at the simplicity of the engine and machinery. There was little for him to do. He hated to be seen cleaning up the debris; men who stopped in passing kept telling what a fine fellow young Bates was, what good timber he was sending in. Several of them told George frankly they thought that was to be his job. He was so ashamed of that, he began instant improvisation.

"That was the way we first planned things," he said boastfully, "but when it came to working out our plans, we found I would be needed here till I learned the business, and then I'm going on the road. I am going to be the salesman. To travel, dress well, eat well, flirt with the pretty girls, and take big lumber orders will just about suit little old Georgie."

"Wonder you remembered to put the orders in at all," said Jim Milton dryly.

George glared at him. "Well, just remember whom you take orders from," he said, pompously.

"I take them from Mrs. Holt, and nobody else," said Milton, with equal assurance. "And I've yet to hear her say the first word about this wonderful travelling proposition. She thinks she will do well to fill home orders and ship to a couple of factories she already has contracts with. Sure you didn't dream that travelling proposition, George?"

At that instant George wished he could slay Jim Milton. All day he brooded and grew sullen and ugly. By noon he quit working and went down town. By suppertime he went home to prove to his wife that he was all right. She happened to be coming across from the mill, where she had helped Milton lay the first fire under the boiler ready to touch off, and had seen the first log on the set carriage. It had been agreed that she was to come over at opening time in the morning and start the machinery. She was a proud and eager woman when she crossed the bridge and started down the street toward the gate. From the opposite direction came George, so unsteady that he was running into tree boxes, then lifting his hat and apologizing to them for his awkwardness. Kate saw at a glance that he might fall any instant. Her only thought was to help him from the street, to where children would not see him.

She went to him and taking his arm started down the walk with him. He took off his hat to her also, and walked with wavering dignity, setting his steps as if his legs were not long enough to reach the walk, so that each step ended with a decided thump. Kate could see the neighbours watching at their windows, and her own children playing on the roof of the woodshed. When the children saw their parents, they both stopped playing to stare at them. Then suddenly, shrill and high, arose Adam's childish voice:

"Father came home the other night, Tried to blow out the 'lectric light, Blew and blew with all his might, And the blow almost killed Mother."

Polly joined him, and they sang and shrilled, and shrieked it; they jumped up and down and laughed and repeated it again and again. Kate guided George to his room and gave him a shove that landed him on his bed. Then to hush the children she called them to supper. They stopped suddenly, as soon as they entered the kitchen door, and sat, sorry and ashamed while she went around, her face white, her lips closed, preparing their food. George was asleep. The children ate alone, as she could take no food. Later she cleaned the kitchen, put the children to bed, and sat on the front porch looking at the mill, wondering, hoping, planning, praying unconsciously. When she went to bed at ten o'clock George was still asleep.

He awakened shortly after, burning with heat and thirst. He arose and slipped to the back porch for a drink. Water was such an aggravation, he crossed the yard, went out the back gate, and down the alley. When he came back up the street, he was pompously, maliciously, dangerously drunk. Either less or more would have been better. When he came in sight of the mill, standing new and shining in the moonlight, he was a lord of creation, ready to work creation to his will. He would go over and see if things were all right. But he did not cross the bridge, he went down the side street, and entered the yard at the back. The doors were closed and locked, but there was as yet no latch on the sliding windows above the work bench. He could push them open from the ground. He leaned a board against the side of the mill, set his foot on it, and pulled himself up, so that he could climb on the bench.

That much achieved, he looked around him. After a time his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, so that he could see his way plainly. Muddled half-thoughts began to filter through his brain. He remembered he was abused. He was out of it. He remembered that he was not the buyer for the mill. He remembered how the men had laughed when he had said that he was to be the salesman. He remembered that Milton had said that he was not to touch the machinery. He at once slid from the bench and went to the boiler. He opened the door of the fire-box and saw the kindling laid ready to light, to get up steam. He looked at the big log on the set carriage. They had planned to start with a splurge in the morning. Kate was to open the throttle that started the machinery. He decided to show them that they were not so smart. He would give them a good surprise by sawing the log. That would be a joke on them to brag about the remainder of his life. He took matches from his pocket and started the fire. It seemed to his fevered imagination that it burned far too slowly. He shoved in more kindling, shavings, ends left from siding. This smothered his fire, so he made trip after trip to the tinder box, piling in armloads of dry, inflammable stuff.

Then suddenly the flames leaped up. He slammed shut the door and started toward the saw. He could not make it work. He jammed and pulled everything he could reach. Soon he realized the heat was becoming intense, and turned to the boiler to see that the fire- box was red hot almost all over, white hot in places.

"My God!" he muttered. "Too hot! Got to cool that down."

Then he saw the tank and the dangling hose, and remembered that he had not filled the boiler. Taking down the hose, he opened the watercock, stuck in the nozzle, and turned on the water full force. Windows were broken across the street. Parts of the fire- box, boiler, and fire flew everywhere. The walls blew out, the roof lifted and came down, the fire raged among the new, dry timbers of the mill.

When her windows blew in, Kate was thrown from her bed to the floor. She lay stunned a second, then dragged herself up to look across the street. There was nothing where the low white expanse of roof had spread an hour before, while a red glare was creeping everywhere over the ground. She ran to George's room and found it empty. She ran to the kitchen, calling him, and found the back door standing open. She rushed back to her room and began trying to put on her dress over her nightrobe. She could not control her shaking fingers, while at each step she cut her feet on broken glass. She reached the front door as the children came screaming with fright. In turning to warn them about the glass, she stumbled on the top step, pitched forward headlong, then lay still. The neighbours carried her back to her bed, called the doctor, and then saved all the logs in the yard they could. The following day, when the fire had burned itself out, the undertaker hunted assiduously, but nothing could be found to justify a funeral.