Chapter XXVI

In Southwestern Missouri, in the White Oak district, there are many beautiful glens and sheltered valleys, where a sturdy people have tamed the wildness of nature and made it obedient to their will. The fields lie fertile and fruitful on either bank of murmuring streams, clear to the foot of the hills where the timber grows. Always a road winds down the valley, generally skirting the forest, and the farmhouses are nearly all built of logs, though more modern and finished dwellings are fast taking the place of the primitive mansions. Every few miles, one may see little school-houses, most often made of good lumber and painted white, with heavy shutters and a high platform in front. For the Ozark settler takes great pride in his school-house, which is also a church and a political rallying point, and meeting-place for the backwoods "Literary;" and though he may live in a rude log hovel himself, his hall of education must be made of boards and carefully painted.

To this romantic region Dick Falkner went to spend his vacation, during the latter part of October, the loveliest season of the year in that section of the country. Mr. Cushman, who was a successful farmer living in the White Oak district, and an old friend of Uncle Bobbie's, gladly welcomed the young man, of whom his old partner, Wicks, had written so highly. When Dick left the train at Armourdale, a little village in the lead and zinc field, he was greeted at once by his host, a bluff, pleasant-faced, elderly gentleman, whom he liked at first sight, and who was completely captivated by his guest before they had been together half an hour.

Oak Springs Farm, which was to be Dick's home for the next month, took in the whole of a beautiful little glen, and many acres of timber-land on either side. Crane Creek had its source, or rather one of its sources, within a hundred feet of the house, where a big spring bubbled from beneath the roots of a giant oak, and the water went chattering and laughing away to the south and east.

Three-quarters of a mile from Oak Springs, just over the ridge in another hollow, another stream gushed bright and clear, from beneath another ancient oak and went rushing away to join its fellow brook a mile distant, where the little glens broadened into a large valley, through which the creek hurried onward to the great river, miles away in the heart of the wilderness.

It was all very beautiful and restful to the young man, wearied and worn by the rush and whirl of the city, and stifled with the dust and smoke from factory and furnace. The low hills, clothed with foliage, richly stained by October's brush; the little valley lying warm in the sunlight, was a welcome change to the dead monotony of the prairie, where the sky shut down close to the dull brown earth, with no support of leafy pillars. And the mother quail, with her full-grown family scurrying to cover in the corner of the fence; the squirrel scolding to his mate in the tree-tops, or leaping over the rustling leaves, and all the rest of the forest life, was full of interest when compared to the life of busy men or chattering sparrows in the bustling mining town.

Though Mr. Cushman and his wife had raised a large family of boys and girls, only one, a daughter, remained with them on the farm. The others had, one by one, taken their flight from the home nest, to build home nests of their own in different parts of the great world wilderness.

Kate was a hearty, robust, rosy-cheeked country lass of eighteen, the youngest of the flock; her father's chum, with all his frank, open ways; and her mother's companion, with all her loving thoughtfulness. And, best of all, she possessed the charming freshness, innocence and purity of one who had never come in touch with those who, taught by the world she had never known, were content to sham her virtues as they tried to imitate the color of her cheek.

Dick sank to rest that night with a long sigh of relief, after meeting the mother and daughter and enjoying such a supper as one only finds on a prosperous farm. And strangely enough, the last picture on his mind before he fell asleep, was of a little school-house which he had seen just at sunset, scarcely a quarter of a mile up the valley; and he drowsily wondered who taught the children there; while a great owl, perched in an old apple-tree back of the chicken house, echoed his sleepy thoughts with its "Whoo! Whoo!"

With a whoop and hallo and whistle, the noisy troop of boys and girls came tumbling out of the doorway of the White Oak School, their dinner pails and baskets on their arms, homeward bound from the irksome duties of the day. The young teacher, after standing a few moments in the doorway, watching her charges down the road and out of sight in the timber across the valley, turned wearily back, and seating herself at a rude desk in the rear of the room, began her task of looking over the copybooks left by the rollicking youngsters. Had she remained a moment longer in the door-way she would have seen a tall, well-dressed gentleman coming leisurely up the hill. It was Dick. He had been roaming all the afternoon over the fields and through the brown woods.

He came slowly up the road, and crossing the yard, stood hesitating at the threshold of the building. The teacher, bending low, did not see him for a moment; but when she raised her head, she looked straight into his eyes.

Dick would have been dull indeed had he failed to interpret that look; and Amy would have been more than dull had she failed to see the love that shone in his glance of astonishment and pleasure.

For an instant, neither spoke; then, "I have found you again," said Dick, simply. "I hope you will forgive me, Miss Goodrich; I assure you the meeting is entirely by accident. I stopped for a drink of water."

"Please help yourself, Mr. Falkner," said the girl, with a little choke in her voice. "There it is." And she pointed to a wooden pail and tin dipper near the door.

"I am spending my vacation in the Ozarks; or rather, I came here to rest." He paused awkwardly. "I--I did not dream of your being here, or of course I should not have come, after your letter. Forgive me and I will go away again."

He turned to leave the room, but with his foot on the threshold, paused, and then walked back to the desk where the girl sat, leaning forward with her face buried in her arms.

"There's just one thing though, that I must say before I go. Are you in need of any help? If so, let me be of use to you; I am still your friend."

The brown head was raised and two glistening eyes proudly pleading looked at Dick.

Through a mist in his own eyes he saw two hands outstretched and heard a voice say, "I do need your help. Don't go. That is--I mean--leave me here now and to-morrow call, and I will tell you all. Only trust me this once."

Dick took the outstretched hands in his and stood for a moment with bowed head; then whispered softly, "Of course I will stay. Shall I come at this hour to-morrow?" Amy nodded, and he passed out of the building.

Had Dick looked back as he strode swiftly toward the timber, he would have seen a girlish form in the door holding out her hands; and had he listened as he climbed the fence, he might have heard a sweet voice falter, "Oh Dick, I love you. I love you." And just as he vanished at the edge of the woods, the girl who was more than all the world to him, fell for the second time in her life, fainting on the floor.

All the forenoon of the next day, Dick wandered aimlessly about the farm, but somehow he never got beyond sight of the little white school-house. He spent an hour watching the colts that frolicked in the upper pasture, beyond which lay the children's playground; then going through the field, he climbed the little hill beyond and saw the white building through the screen of leaves and branches. Once Amy came to the door, but only for a moment, when she called the shouting youngsters from their short recess. Then recrossing the valley half a mile above, he walked slowly home to dinner along the road leading past the building. How he envied the boys and girls whose droning voices reached his ears through the open windows.

While Dick was chatting with his kind host after dinner, as they sat on the porch facing the great oak, the latter talked about the spring and the history of the place; how it used to be a favorite camping ground for the Indians in winter; and pointed out the field below the barn, where they had found arrowheads by the hundreds. Then he told of the other spring just over the ridge, and how the two streams came together and flowed on, larger and larger, to the river. And then with a farmer's fondness for a harmless jest, he suggested that Dick might find it worth his while to visit the other spring; "for," said he "the school-marm lives there; and she's a right pretty girl. Sensible too, I reckon, though she aint been here only since the first of September."

When the farmer had gone to his work, Dick walked down to the spring-house, and sitting on the twisted roots of the old oak, looked into the crystal water.

"And so Amy lives by a spring just like this," he thought, "and often sits beneath that other oak, perhaps, looking into the water as I am looking now."

A blue-jay, perched on a bough above, screamed in mocking laughter at the dreamer beneath; an old drake, leading his family in a waddling row to the open stream below the little house, solemnly quacked his protest against such a willful waste of time; and a spotted calf thrust its head through the barn-yard fence to gaze at him in mild reproach.

In his revery, Dick compared the little stream of water to his life, running fretted and troubled, from the very edge of its birthplace; and he followed it with his eye down through the pasture lot, until it was lost in the distance; then looking into the blue vista of the hills, he followed on, in his mind, where the stream grew deeper and broader. Suddenly, he sprang to his feet and walked hastily away along the bank of the creek. In a little while, he stood at the point of land where the two valleys became one, and the two streams were united, and with a long breath of relief, found that the course of the larger stream, as far as he could see, was smooth and untroubled, while the valley through which it flowed was broad and beautiful.

At the appointed time, Dick went to the school-house, and with Amy, walked through the woods toward the farm where she lived, while she told him of her life since last they met; of her father's visit and his threats, and of her fear that he would force her to go home. The farm had been sold the day after Adam was there, and how through her friends, she had obtained her present position in the school. She told of her pride and desire to wipe out alone, the disgrace, as alone she had fallen. She longed to be of use in the world.

As she talked, Dick's face grew bright. "This is good news indeed," he said. "I'm so glad for your sake." Then, with a smile, "I see you do not need my help now that you can be of so much help to others."

"But won't you help me plan for the future?" said Amy, trying to hide the slight tremble in her voice. "Won't you tell me what is best to do? I have thought and thought, but can get no farther than I am now."

"Let us say nothing about that for a time," replied Dick. "We will talk that over later."

And so it came about that the farmer's advice, spoken in jest, was received in earnest; and for four happy weeks the two lived, unrestrained by false pride or foolish prejudice; walking home together through the woods, or wandering beside the little brooks, talking of the beauties they saw on every hand, or silently listening to the voices of nature, But at last the time came when they must part, and Dick gave his answer to her question.

"You must go home," he said.

"But you know what that means," answered Amy. "I will be forced to give up my church work and be a useless butterfly again; and besides, the conditions father insists upon--." She blushed and hesitated.

"Yes," said Dick, "I know what it means for me, your going home. But you need not again be a useless butterfly as you say. Write your father and tell him of your desire; that you cannot be content as a useless woman of society. He will ask you to come home, I am sure. And when your present term of school is finished, you can take your old place in the world again. You will find many ways to be of use to others, and I know that your father will learn to give you more liberty."

"And the past?" asked Amy, with a blush of shame.

"Is past," said Dick, emphatically. "No one in Boyd City knows your story, nor need they ever know."

"One man there can tell them," answered the girl, with averted face.

"You are mistaken," said Dick, quietly. And then, as gently as he could, he told her of Whitley's death. But of his connection with him and the real cause of the fight in the cabin, he said nothing.

It was hard for Dick to advise Amy to go home, for as she was then, they were equals. If she went back to Boyd City, all would be changed. But he had fought over the question in his own mind and the right had conquered.

Amy agreed with him that it was best, and added, "I have felt all along that I ought to do this after a while, but I wished to see you again first, and had you not happened to find me, I should have written to you later."

And so it was settled. No word of love was spoken between them. Dick would not permit himself to speak then, because he felt that she ought not to be influenced by her present surroundings; and even had he spoken, Amy would not have listened, because she felt her work could only be complete when she had returned to her old position and had proved herself by her life there.

And so they parted, with only a silent clasping of hands, as they stood beside the brook that chattered on its way to join the other; though there was a world of love in both the gray eyes and the brown; a love none the less strong because unspoken.

Upon Dick's return to the city, he took up his work again with so light a heart that his many friends declared that he had entirely recovered his health, and their congratulations were numerous and hearty.

During the holidays, there was some gossip among the citizens when it was announced in the Daily Whistler, that Miss Goodrich would soon return to her home. The article stated that she had been living with some friends in the east, finishing her education, and the public accepted the polite lie with a nod and a wink.

Mrs. Goodrich, though her mother heart was glad at the return of her child, received the girl with many tearful reproaches; and while Amy was hungering for a parent's loving sympathy and encouragement, she could not open her heart to the woman who mourned only the blow dealt her family pride and social ambition.

Adam was formal, cold and uncompromising, while Frank paid no more attention to his sister than if she were a hired servant in the house. Only the girl's firm determination, awakened womanhood, patience and Christian fortitude enabled her to accept her lot. But in spite of the daily reproaches, stern coldness and studied contempt, she went steadily forward in her purpose to regain the place she had lost; and somehow, as the weeks went by, all noticed a change in Amy. Her father dared not check her in her work, for something in the clear eyes, that looked at him so sadly, but withal so fearlessly, made him hesitate. It was as though she had spoken, "I have been through the fire and have come out pure gold. It is not for you to question me." And though she attended to her social duties, her influence was always for the good, and no one dared to speak slightingly of religious things in her presence; while the poor people at the Mission learned to love the beautiful young woman who visited their homes and talked to them of a better life, and never failed to greet them with a kindly word when they met her on the street.

Of course Dick could not call at her home. He knew well that it would only provoke a storm; nor did Amy ask him to. They met only at church or at the Mission; and nothing but the common greetings passed between them. No one ever dreamed that they were more than mere acquaintances. But they each felt that the other understood, and so were happy; content to wait until God, in his own way, should unite the streams of their lives.