The Second Chance by Nellie L. McClung
Chapter XXXV. The Lure of Love and the West
If you've heard the wild goose honking, if you've seen the sunlit plain, If you've breathed the smell of ripe grain, dewy, wet, You may go away and leave it, say you will not come again, But it's in your blood, you never can forget.
There is a belief, to which many sentimental people still hold, in spite of all contradictory evidence, that marriages are arranged in heaven, and that no amount of earthly wire-pulling can alter the decrees of the Supreme Court. Many beautiful sentiments have been expressed, bearing on this alluring theme, but none more comprehensive than Aunt Kate Shenstone's brief summary: "You'll get whoever is for ye, and that's all there is to it."
Theoretically, Mrs. Burrell was a believer in this doctrine of non-resistance, modified, however, by the fact that she also believed in the existence of earthly representatives of the heavenly matrimonial bureau, to whom is entrusted the pleasing duty of selecting and pairing. Of this glorious company, Mrs. Burrell believed herself a member in good standing, and one who stood high upon the honour roll. Therefore, having decided that Arthur should marry Martha Perkins she proceeded to arrange the match with a boldness that must have made the angels tremble.
She planned an evening party, and wrote to Arthur asking him to bring Martha, but forgot to send Martha an invitation, which rather upset her plans, for Martha declined to go. Mrs. Burrell, however, not to be outdone, took Arthur aside and talked to him very seriously about his matrimonial prospects; but Arthur brought the conversation to an abrupt close by telling her he had not the slightest intention of marrying, and had quite made up his mind to go back to England as soon as the harvest was over.
When Mrs. Burrell was telling her husband about it she was almost in tears.
"If he goes to England, John, we'll never see him again; he'll marry an English girl--I know it. They're so thick over there he can't help it, when he sees so many dangling after him! He'll just have to marry one of them."
"To thin them out, I suppose you mean," her husband said, smiling. "Don't worry, anyway, and above all things, don't interfere. Leave something for Providence to do."
After Mrs. Cavers and Libby Anne had gone, life in the Perkins's home settled down to its old pleasing monotony. The schoolmaster found Martha a willing and apt pupil, and came to look forward with pleasure to the evenings he spent helping her to understand the world in which she was living. Dr. Emory paid his regular visits, seeking with the magic arts of music to draw Arthur's thoughts down the pleasant lanes of love. Pearl Watson, like a true general, kept a strict oversight of everything, but apparently took no active part herself; only on Saturday afternoons, which she usually spent with Martha, she had Martha tell her the stories she had read during the week. At first the telling was haltingly done, for Martha was not gifted with fluent speech, but under the spell of Pearl's sympathetic listening, her story-telling powers developed amazingly.
When the summer days came, with their wealth of flowers and singing birds, to Martha the whole face of Nature seemed changed; she heard new music in the meadowlark's ringing note, and the plaintive piping of the whippoorwill. The wild roses' fragrant beauty, the gorgeous colouring of the tiger-lilies and moccasin flowers, the changing hues of the grainfields at noon-day as the drifting clouds threw racing shadows over them, were all possessed of a new charm, a new power to thrill her heart, for the old miracle of love and hope had come to Martha, the old witchery that has made "blue skies bluer and green things greener," for us all. There was the early rising in the dewy mornings when the river-valley was filled with silvery mist, through which the trees loomed gray and ghostly; there was the quivering heat of noonday, that played strange tricks on the southern horizon, when even the staid old Tiger Hills seemed to pulsate with the joy of summer; and, then the evenings, when the day's work was done, and the western sky was all aglow with crimson and gold.
One quiet Sunday evening in harvest time, Martha and Arthur stood beside the lilac hedge and watched the sun going down behind the Brandon Hills. Before them stretched the long field of ripening grain. There was hardly a leaf stirring on the trees over their heads, but the tall grain rustled and whispered of the abundance of harvest.
As they listened to the rustling of the wheat Martha said: "I have been trying to think what it sounds like, but can think of nothing better than the bursting of soap-bubbles on a tub of water, and that's a very unpoetical comparison."
"I think it's a very good one, though," Arthur said, absently.
"And it seems to whisper: 'Plenty, plenty, plenty,' as if it would tell us we need not rush and worry so," she went on. "I love to listen to it. It has such a contented sound."
Arthur sighed wearily, and looking up, Martha saw his face was sad with bitter memories.
"What is it, Arthur?" she said, drawing nearer in quick sympathy.
"I'm all right," he answered quickly, but, with an effort; "just a little bit blue, perhaps."
"How can anyone be blue to-night with everything so beautiful and full of promise?" Martha cried.
"There are other things--beside these," he said gloomily.
Martha shrank back at his words, for she knew of whom he was thinking. Then a sudden rage seized her, and she turned and faced him with a new light burning in her eyes.
"You must forget her!" she cried. "You must! She cares nothing for you. She, never loved you, or she would not have treated you so badly. She soon let you go when she got what she thought, was a better chance. Why do you go on loving her?" She seized his arm and shook him. "It's foolish, it's weak--why do you do it? I wouldn't waste a thought on any one who cares nothing for me--it isn't--it isn't----" she stopped abruptly, and the colour surged into her pale face.
"Oh, Arthur, forgive me for speaking so." All the anger had gone from her voice. "I cannot bear to see you so unhappy. Try to forget her. The world is wide and beautiful."
In the western sky a band of crimson circled the horizon.
"Martha," Arthur said gently, "you are one of the truest friends a fellow ever had, and I know you think I am foolish and sentimental, but I am just a little bit upset to-day. I saw her last night--she and--her husband were on the train going to Winnipeg, and I saw them at the station. She's lovelier than ever. This sounds foolish to you, I know, Martha, but that's because you don't know. I hope you will never know."
Martha turned away hastily.
"All this," he continued, waving his hand toward the evening sky and the quiet landscape, "all this reminds me of her. You know, Martha, when you look at the sun for a while you can see suns everywhere you look; that's the way it is with me."
The colour was fading from the sky; only the faintest trace of rose-pink tinged the gray clouds.
"I think I shall go home to England," Arthur said, after a long silence. "I shall go home for a while, and then, perhaps--pshaw! I don't know what I shall do." In the failing light he could not see the pallor of Martha's face, neither did he notice that she shivered as if with cold.
The sunset glory had all gone from the clouds; there was nothing left now but the ashes.
"I am sorry you are going," Martha said steadily. "We will miss you."
The schoolmaster, who was sitting by the kitchen window, noticed Martha's white face when she came into the house and guessed the cause. Looking after Arthur as he walked rapidly down the road to his own house, Mr. Donald shook his head sadly, murmuring to himself: "Lord, who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"
When Martha went up to her own room she sat before the mirror as she had done that at other night two years before, and looked sadly at her face reflected there. She recalled his words: "She is lovelier than ever"--this was what had won and held his love. Oh, this cruel, unjust world, where the woman without beauty has to go lonely, hungry, unmated--it was not fair; she stretched out her arms in an agony of longing.
"Thursa cares nothing for him, and I would gladly die to save him pain!" she whispered hoarsely.
She tore off her collar roughly and threw it from her; she took down her hair and brushed it almost savagely; then she went to the open window, and, leaning on the casement, listened to the rustling of the wheat. It no longer sang to her of peace and plenty, but inexorable, merciless as the grave itself, it spoke to her of heart-break and hopes that never come true.
* * *
In September Arthur went to England. After he had gone, Martha went about her work with the same quiet cheerfulness. She had always been a kind-hearted neighbour, but now she seemed to delight in deeds of mercy. She still studied with the school-master, who daily admired the bravery with which she hid her heartache. Martha was making a fight, a brave fight, with an unjust world. She would study--she would fit herself yet for some position in life when her parents no longer needed her. Surely, there was some place where a woman would not be disqualified because she was not beautiful.
Arthur had written regularly to her. Looking ahead, she dreaded the time when he would cease to write, though she tried to prepare for it by telling herself over and over again that it must surely come.
Arthur's last letter came in November, and now with Christmas coming nearer, Martha was lonelier than ever for a word from him. The week before Christmas she looked for his letter every day. Christmas eve came, a beautiful moonlight, sparkling night, with the merry jingle of sleighbells, in the air, but no letter had yet come.
Mr. and Mrs. Perkins and Bud had driven in to Millford to attend the concert given by the Sunday-school, but Martha stayed at home. When they were gone, and she sat alone in the quiet house, a great restlessness seized her. She tried to read and then to sew, but her mind, in spite of her, would go back to happier days. It was not often that Martha allowed herself to indulge in self-pity; but to-night, as she looked squarely into the future and saw it stretching away before her, barren and gray, it seemed hard to keep back the tears. It was not like Martha to give way to her emotions; perhaps it was the Christmas feel in the air that gripped her heart with new tenderness.
She finished making the pudding for the Christmas dinner, and put the last coat of icing on the Christmas cake, and then forced herself to dress another doll for one of the neighbour's children. Sometimes the tears dimmed her eyes, but she wiped them away bravely.
Suddenly a loud knock sounded on the door. Martha sprang up in some confusion, and hastily tried to hide the traces of her tears, but before she was ready to open the door it opened from without and Arthur stood smiling before her.
"Oh, Arthur!" she cried, her face glowing with the love she could not hide. "I was just thinking that you had stopped writing to me."
"Well, I have, too," he laughed; "letters are not much good anyway. I knew you were here, for I met the others on the road," he continued, as he hung his overcoat on its old nail behind the door, "and so I hurried along, for I have a great many things to tell you. No," in answer to her question, "I have not had supper--I couldn't wait. I wanted to see you. I've made, a big discovery."
Martha had put the tea-kettle on and was stirring the fire.
"Don't bother getting any supper for me until I tell you what I found out."
She turned around and faced him, her heart beating faster at the eagerness in his voice.
"Martha, dear," he said, "I cannot do without you--that's the discovery I made. I have been lonely--lonely for this broad prairie and you. The Old Country seemed to stifle me; everything is so little and crowded and bunched up, and so dark and foggy--it seemed to smother me. I longed to hear the whirr of prairie chickens and see the wild ducks dipping in the river; I longed to hear the sleighs creaking over the frosty roads; and so I've come home to all this--and you, Martha," He came nearer and held out his arms. "You're the girl for me."
Martha drew away from him. "Arthur, are you sure?" she cried. "Perhaps it's just the country you're in love with. Are you sure it isn't just the joy of getting back to it all. It can't be me--I am only a plain country girl, not pretty, not educated, not clever, not----"
He interrupted her in a way that made further speech not only impossible but quite unnecessary.
"Martha, I tell you it is you that makes me love this country. When I thought of the sunlit prairie it was your dear eyes that made it glorious. Your voice is sweeter than the meadowlark's song at sunrise. You are the soul of this country for me--you stand for it all. You are the sunshine, the birdsong, the bracing air, the broad outlook, the miles of golden wheat. Now, tell me, dear, for you haven't told me yet, are you glad to see me back?"
"But what would your mother say?" Martha asked, evading his question. "Arthur, think of the people at home."
He opened his pocket-book and took out a leather case. Springing the lid, he handed it to her, saying: "My mother knows all about you, and she sends you this."
Martha took out the beautiful necklace of pearls and read the tender little note, inside the case. Her eyes filled with happy tears, and looking up into Arthur's smiling face, her last doubt vanished.
A few hours later, when the old clock on the wall, slowly struck the midnight hour, telling them that another Christmas morning had come, they listened to it, hand in hand without a spoken word, but in their hearts was the echo of all the Christmas bells that were ringing around the world.