Unresponsive as all nature to human emotions, the tumbled grass lay about him, a picture of confusion and ruin. The futility of human effort was borne in upon him as he scanned the waste. A pile larger than the surrounding piles separated itself from the scattered heaps at last. He regarded it eagerly. Yes! there was a flutter of wet calico.
Half rejoicing, half terrified at the prospect of what he might find, Luther Hansen ran and flung himself down on his knees beside it, dragging at the half-buried form of the girl in frantic haste. She was doubled together and mixed with the hay as if, after being picked up with it, she had been whirled with it many times and then contemptuously flung aside.
Drawing her out, Luther gathered her into his arms and listened to her heart beat to make certain that she still lived.
Though limp and unconscious, Elizabeth Farnshaw was alive, and Luther drew her up and leaned her loosely rolling head on his shoulder while he considered what to do.
A sharp, peppering fall of hail struck them. Luther looked about quickly for shelter. The Kansas prairie stretched level and bare before him. Not even a bush presented itself. The size of the hailstones increased.
Elizabeth began to show signs of returning consciousness and to move feebly.
The hailstones came down like a very avalanche of ice. It became necessary to interpose his body between her and the storm. He thought of the coat they had come to obtain, but that had probably gone with the hat and the hay and all other things in the route of the hurricane. He stooped close over her quivering form and let the frozen pellets fall on his unprotected head. The deluge was mercifully short, but at the end Luther Hansen was almost beaten into insensibility.
When the hailstorm was over the rain burst upon them with renewed fury, and the wind blew as cold as a winter's gale. The chill stung them into activity. Luther got slowly, to his feet, bracing himself against the blast as he did so, and also pulled up the now conscious girl. Elizabeth's strength had not returned and she fell back, dragging him to his knees at her side. The rain ran off her hair and clothes in streams, and against the storm her thin cotton dress was of no protection whatever. Luther urged her to control her shaking limbs and try to walk. It could only be accomplished by much effort. When at last she staggered to her feet, he put his arm about her and with bent head turned to face the rain, which cut like switches at their faces and cold shoulders, to which the wet cotton garments clung like part of the very skin itself.
The wind blew a gale. It was almost impossible to make headway against it. Had it not been for Elizabeth's chilled state Luther would have slipped down in a wagon rut and waited for the squall to subside, but it was essential that the girl be got under shelter of some sort At length, after struggling and buffeting with the storm for what seemed an age, alternately resting and then battling up the road toward home, they turned the corner of the section from which the Hornby house could be seen.
Suddenly, Elizabeth gave a frightened scream. Luther, whose head had been bowed against the wind, looked up with a start.
"Good God!" broke from his lips.
Only a twisted pile of debris was to be seen where that house had stood.
With the impulse to reach it instantly, they started on a run, hand in hand, but the fierceness of the gale prevented them. Out of breath before they had gone a dozen yards, there was nothing to do but stop and recover breath and start again at a pace more in keeping with their powers. Impatient and horrified, they struggled ahead, running at times, stumbling, falling, but not giving up. Terrified by the thought of they knew not what possible disaster ahead of them, they at last turned into the little path leading to the ruined house.
Picking their way over scattered bits of household belongings, broken boards and shingles, for some distance, they at last reached the main pile of timbers. The girl's heart sank at the thought of what they might find there, and she made a gesture of distress.
"This is no place for you, Lizzie," Luther said, quick to comprehend, and sick with pity for her.
As he spoke, his foot sank between some timbers into a pile of wet cloth, and thinking that it was a human form, he shuddered and fell forward to avoid giving an injury the nature of which he could only guess.
They dug frantically at the pile, and were relieved to find that it was only a ragged knot of rainsoaked carpet. It indicated, however, the possibilities of the moment, and Luther ceased to urge the now frenzied girl to leave him, and together they stumbled about in their search. Darkness was falling rapidly, and they called first the name of Nathan, and then of his wife, beside themselves because they could not find even a trace of either to indicate their fate. Had the storm picked them up as it had done Elizabeth and carried them out of the wreckage?
Luther stopped and shouted the thought into Elizabeth's ear. The wind dropped for an instant, and they stood looking about the place as well as the gloom would permit. The rain fell less noisily also. All at once they heard their names called from somewhere toward the north. Turning, they saw, what they had not noticed before, that the straw sheds and the granary were untouched by the tornado.
"Here, Luther! Here, Lizzie!" came another call from the granary door.
Nathan Hornby, faintly seen, was shouting to them at the top of his voice. A new dash of rain came, and the wind redoubled its fury as if vexed with itself for having carelessly let the wayfarers get a glimpse of the harbour where it would be unable to do them further harm. With a glad cry, they ran toward the beckoning figure, and a second later Elizabeth was lifted by Nathan and Luther into the open door of the bin-room, and literally fell across the shifting grain into Aunt Susan's open arms, sobbing and clinging to her as if fearing that the fierce winds would snatch her away. The relief was almost too much for the girl.
"Aunt Susan! Aunt Susan! How could I live without you?" she sobbed.
Susan Hornby drew the horse blanket with which she was covered over the shuddering child in her arms, and patted and soothed her, crying softly for joy as she did so, for the fears of the last hour had been mutual. The thought of her darling out in the storm, suffering she knew not what, had unnerved Susan Hornby, and brought home to her as nothing else had ever done a realization of the precious relation between them.
"My daughter! My daughter! My Katy's own self!" she repeated over and over.
The reaction of fright and cold and wet brought on a chill which set Elizabeth's teeth to chattering audibly. Aunt Susan was beside herself with worry. Do what she would, the girl could not control herself. They rubbed and worked with her for some minutes. Luther was alarmed and blamed himself for having taken her out in threatening weather. Elizabeth insisted that no harm had come to her except a wetting, but could not convince the others till Nathan had a bright idea.
"Here! we'll scoop these warm oats over you. They're as warm as toast—havin' th' blazin' sun on th' roof of this place all day."
The two men were alert for any signs of the old building toppling over under the terrific pressure of the wind, and had kept pretty close to the door; but they moved over in the direction of the two women, and using their hands as shovels soon had them well covered with oats.
"There you are," Nathan shouted, when Susan had begged them to desist because of the dust they were raising. "We'll set you folks a sproutin' if heat an' moisture's got anything t' do with it," he continued.
He pulled some grain sacks out of the empty wheat bin and advised Luther to wrap them around himself. "I'm some wet, myself," he announced, "but I've got warm ragin' round here like a gopher. Now tell us how you folks come t' get here in all this storm. What'd you do with th' horses?"
All this had been shouted at the top of his voice, for the wind rattled and tore at the old building with the noise of a cannonade, as if determined to wreck even this shelter. It was not possible to see one's hand in the darkness, for when the door had been pulled shut after the young couple, the last ray of light was shut out. Besides, night had fallen now, and the darkness outside was no less dense.
Luther told in as few words as possible of the catastrophe which had befallen them on the road.
"Why, Susan," Nathan exclaimed, "th' same twister struck them as struck us! Now don't that beat you? Funny th' stables didn't go, too. That's th' way with them things—they go along an' mow a patch a rod 'r two wide as clean as a whistle, an' not touch a thing ten feet away. Lord man!" he cried, turning toward Luther in the dark with a reminiscent giggle, "you should 'a' seen us. Sue saw th' storm a-comin', an' she run out t' git th' chickens in, an' nothin' 'd do 'er when she see th' way them clouds was a actin' but I must come in, too. We didn't even milk! I never see anything come on like it; we didn't hardly have time t' git th' winders shut till we could hear it roarin'! Lord, you should 'a' heard it come! All at onct it got dark, an' th' house begun t' rock; an' then it slid along on th' ground, an' then it lifted clear up at th' northeast corner, an' we slid down in a heap on th' other side along o' th' cupboards an' th' kitchen table an' crocks we'd set out for th' milk we didn't get into 'em, an' then th' house lit over on th' other corner an' went t' pieces like a dry-goods box. That kitchen table was th' savin' of us! I don't know how it got over us, but there it was with th' safe an' water-bench a holdin' th' timbers off'n us." Nathan wound up his story in a lowered tone, and there was silence for a moment as each went over his personal experience in thought.
"Gittin' warm there, Elizabeth?" he asked after a time.
"A little," the girl answered, still shivering, but with less audible chattering of her teeth.
"You'll be all right in half an hour," Nathan said with a relieved sigh. "I think we'll put a little more of these oats over you for good luck," he added.
They heaped the warm grain thick about her, and then, because it was hard to converse with the noise of the roaring wind outside, gave up the effort. The old granary had a good roof and did not leak; they grew less frightened, and Elizabeth grew warm in Aunt Susan's arms and slept at last. The rest lay long, listening to the angry blast, counting up their losses and planning to reconstruct so as to fit the new circumstances. For Luther another horse would be needed, while Nathan would have to build a house and furnish it anew.
After the wind subsided the two men discussed in low tones the best way of beginning on the morrow, and it was finally decided that Luther should go out and appeal to the neighbours to gather together and assist in sorting and saving such things as were worth it, and construct out of the broken timbers a habitation which would shelter them till a better could be erected. Fortunately, Luther had used none of the lumber of his last load, and but little of the one he had bought before.
It was almost morning before they fell asleep, and the sun was shining brightly before they awoke. As they emerged from the musty oats bin into the fresh air, which had been purified by the wind and rain of the night before, a curious sight met their eyes.
The house was indeed a wreck! Roof, side-walls, plaster, floor, and furniture were mixed in one indistinguishable mass. The kitchen table Nathan had mentioned stood as a centre-pole under a leaning pile of boards and splintered scantlings, and had evidently done much to save the lives of its owners when the roof fell. One end of the house lay, almost uninjured, on the grass, the window panes unbroken and still in their frames. Other windows had been hurled from the walls to which they belonged and ground to powder. Half the roof had been deposited between the road and the rest of the debris as carefully as if it had been lifted by some gigantic machinery, and was unhurt, while the other side, splintered and riddled, was jumbled together with joists, siding, and kitchen chairs.
They spent but little time over the ruin of treasures, but after a hurried breakfast, consisting of such eggs as they could find about the haystacks, and coffee—rainsoaked, but still coffee, which was dug out of a stone jar where it had fallen—the men went at once for help.
In spite of bridges washed out, and many hindrances, sympathetic farmers began to gather within two hours after Luther had started out. The lumber he had offered was brought and many willing hands began the erection of the simple four-room house on the old foundation. The place was cleared, furniture carried to one side, while broken timbers were carried to the other and sorted, nails drawn, and every available stick laid in neat piles ready for those who had brought saws and hammers for building.
Susan and Elizabeth sorted the soaked and muddy clothing, carpets, and bedclothes, and Mrs. Chamberlain and other neighbour women, around a great out-of-door fire near the well, washed and spread the clothes on the grass to dry.
As if by magic, a house arose before night and, minus doors and windows, but otherwise ready for occupancy, offered its shelter to the tired but grateful family. Broken bedsteads had been mended and put in place, feather-beds had been dried in the hot sun, straw ticks had been filled with clean hay; broken chairs nailed or wired together occupied their old places; the kitchen safe, with its doors replaced but shutting grudgingly, was in its old corner, and the unplastered house had a look of homey comfort in spite of the lack of some of its usual features.
Luther, who was a sort of carpenter, donated his services for several days, and except for patches of new weather-boarding or shingles mixed with the old there was little to indicate the path of a cyclone in the country. Yes, there was a pile of splintered boards tossed roughly together not far from the back door, and the usual fuel of corncobs was below par.
"AGAINST HER INSTINCTS, AGAINST HER BETTER JUDGMENT, AGAINST HER WILL"
Mrs. Hunter did not come to help, nor to call upon Elizabeth and Susan Hornby, after the disaster, and Elizabeth was finally obliged to go to see John's mother without any encouragement other than Luther's urging.
The day came at last when the call had to be made, and for the first time Elizabeth came in contact with polite society which smiles and bows in polite form without any especial regard for sincerity. There was not a ripple of discontent on the surface at her future home. Mrs. Hunter might never have heard of the girl's family difficulties. The girl might have called the day before, so courteous and charming was the dignified hospitality with which she was accepted. Elizabeth felt as if the most painful possibility of her life had been safely put behind her. She had been nervous and uncomfortable about this visit, and was correspondingly sensitive to the perfect manner of her hostess, and carried away with her a new problem to work upon: if John Hunter's mother, by her poise and presence, made of his home a social unit of appearance and value, John Hunter's wife must not fall below the grade of that home when she became its mistress. She pondered long upon that subtle air of good breeding which ignored real issues and smoothed communication by seeming not to know disagreeable facts. Elizabeth decided that it was much more desirable than the rugged honesty with which the primitive folk about them would have humiliated themselves by explanation and apology. She would copy that suavity of manner. Also, she resolved not to discuss grievances. They were a bore and it was horribly countrified.
"I will not let myself think any more about it. I will be myself, and not be affected by what the rest of the folks do, and I'll not let myself sit and fumble with my buttons because some one else is going to think about them. Mrs. Hunter's manners are beautiful. I'd just love her if I didn't know I was going to have to live with her," she thought. Mrs. Hunter was a fixture in Elizabeth's mental world, and her estimates were the standards Elizabeth considered when she sewed alone or when Aunt Susan was silent. The girl was both fascinated and repelled by them. Mrs. Hunter's bearing was the subject of constant and delighted meditation, while the cold carefulness of it was a terrorizing nightmare. The girl kept up a conversation with Aunt Susan on the sewing, or a fire of mirth and jollity with Nathan or Luther, with this undercurrent of thought always going on. How was she to emulate that polish with so little experience in social affairs she would ask herself one moment, and the next would be harassed by the certainty that equal perfection in housekeeping and entertainment would be expected of her. There was no escaping her fate. If she was to learn these things, she must learn them of John's mother. There was no way of acquiring them beforehand. Elizabeth faced her position squarely: she decided to accept her teacher. At least Mrs. Hunter seemed willing to make it easy for her.
When Elizabeth went home that night she spoke in glowing terms of Mrs. Hunter's friendly reception, and praised the real merit of her housekeeping, letting Luther see that she hoped to acquire it, and left the little group around the supper table in great good humour because the visit had been a success. She took Luther after the meal was over and went to look for the eggs about the haystacks, talking all the while of John Hunter's mother in the happiest manner she could assume. The visit to John's home had made her a bit homesick for John himself. Luther's presence had so completely filled the days since John's departure that she had not been lonesome for him, but the house with which he was associated had brought John back to the foreground of her consciousness with a rush, and Luther saw that she was aglow with longing for the man she was to marry. They did not walk as usual after the eggs were hunted, but went back to the house, where Elizabeth excused herself and soon went to bed. John was expected now at any time.
When John did arrive two days later he found a welcome awaiting him that was all that the most exacting of men could have desired, a thing which astonished him somewhat, for rumour had reached him as soon as he had come into the home neighbourhood that the new Swede had cut him out. John came to see Elizabeth with curiosity predominating in his mind, though there was a distinct feeling of determination to master the situation if rumour had been right.
Luther was not at the house when John Hunter arrived. Elizabeth's delight over her lover's return was not a thing to be deceived about, but one thing left its impress upon his mind: Elizabeth called this new man by his given name and spoke of him as one speaks of an intimate. This was soon dismissed from John's mind, however, for Elizabeth was all agog to learn about the Mitchell County land which he said he had bought, and John Hunter stretched his legs out comfortably in the mended rocker of Nathan Hornby's little front room and talked enthusiastically of the pasture he would have for surplus cattle when he had got the farm in running order. No reference was made to Elizabeth's affairs with her family. John was keenly appreciative of her joy in his presence, and the old relations were renewed; in fact, the relations were on a better basis than they had been for several days before John's absence. By a curious stroke of fate, Luther was away from the house every time John Hunter called for over a week. It whetted John's interest in the other man not to be able to see him, and it added an element to the courtship which had threatened to disappear. This other man on the scene made him apprehensive; he wanted the centre of the stage for himself, and he became more ardent. Elizabeth was courted with sweet manner, and all her wishes considered.
The summer was a happy one. Aside from a simple white dress to be married in, and two calico dresses for house wear, Elizabeth put her own sewing away and helped Aunt Susan repair her quilts and carpets which had suffered badly in the cyclone. Two weeks had to be given up to the plastering of the remodelled house, and all the furniture was revarnished by their own hands. By the time all this was finished the girl felt a personal possession in every article the house contained, and it had indeed become a home to her. The home she had left was scarcely more than a shadow in Elizabeth's mind. The work of remodelling and brightening up Nathan's house was hastened because of the wedding, which they planned to have take place there. Susan Hornby and Elizabeth had grown closer than ever since the storm, when each had feared the loss of the other. They worked and sewed together, skimping Nathan and Luther on the cooking till the former threatened to turn cook in self-defence.
Mrs. Farnshaw had not come to help when the neighbours put up the demolished house. The bridges had been out and no one had gone to warn her that help was needed. When the news had arrived the omission had been taken as an offence and no effort had been made to go at all. The last week in September, however, Elizabeth's mother came to see her. The girl was helping Susan Hornby put fresh straw under the rag carpet in the front room. The straw was carefully spread and the carpet tacked along one side of the room, and Elizabeth, hammer in hand, turned over from her knees to a sitting position and surveyed her mother with a dull fear at her heart; she knew what her mother's presence meant. Mrs. Farnshaw resented the new carpet, she resented Susan Hornby, she resented the comradeship she felt existed between her daughter and this alien woman who was no relation to her by the ties of blood. Ignoring Aunt Susan's courteous attempts to make her feel welcome, she drove straight to the object of her visit and demanded that Elizabeth come home to be married.
"I'm going to be married right here, ma," Elizabeth replied, twisting the hammer around in the other hand and filled with apprehension. She knew her mother's tendency to hold fast to foolish demands.
Mrs. Farnshaw's ready handkerchief went up to her eyes at once.
"Now look a' here, Lizzie, I ain't got no other girl, an' it's a pretty how-de-do if I can't have my only daughter married from my own house."
Elizabeth fidgeted about, laying her hammer down and picking up a straw that had pushed its way through the loose rags of the carpet on which she sat. After a time she turned her eyes to Aunt Susan with a mute call for help. Susan Hornby was decidedly uncomfortable.
"I thought of course you'd come home to be married," Mrs. Farnshaw continued.
"You know pa 'd raise a fuss as soon as I appeared," her daughter replied.
Mrs. Farnshaw brightened. She was strong on argument. Elizabeth's silence had disconcerted her, but if she would talk—well, Mrs. Farnshaw began to have hopes.
"You've been away all summer," she sobbed, returning to her handkerchief.
Elizabeth kept her eyes on Aunt Susan's face and did not reply again. There was another silence.
Mrs. Farnshaw began to be desperate.
"Folks has talked an' talked," she said, "an' I let 'em, because I thought when you come home for th' weddin' it'd put a stop t' their tongues. You've been down here, an' you don't know how hard it's been."
Elizabeth had listened in a distressed silence and studied Susan Hornby's face for signs of assistance.
"I guess they haven't talked——" she began at length, and then stopped short at something in Aunt Susan's eye which confirmed her mother's words.
"Oh, yes, they have," her mother hastened to say. "They say you ain't got no proper pride, an' they say you've got too stuck up t' live to home any longer, now that you're goin' t' marry rich, an' they say I can't make your things good enough for you t' be married in, an'——"
Mrs. Farnshaw had voiced her greatest grievance—her neighbours criticised her. She broke into such real weeping that it was impossible not to be moved by it.
Forgetting her policy of silence, Elizabeth argued and explained. Talking to her mother, but keeping her eyes glued on Aunt Susan's, she went into details about the difficulty at home.
"You know pa 'll find some excuse to strike me as soon as I get there," she concluded. She had a painful sense of weakness and inadequacy in the presence of her mother's determination. Her own worries seemed so trivial in the presence of her mother's sorrow.
"E won't, I tell you," Mrs. Farnshaw repeated for the twentieth time. "E'll let you alone if you do th' right thing. We love our children—if th' neighbours don't think so," she wailed.
As she talked, however, she kept a shrewd eye on her daughter and soon saw that Elizabeth's eyes turned to those of Aunt Susan. It was not enough for this Hornby woman to be neutral; Mrs. Farnshaw decided to enlist her.
"If you had a girl you'd want 'er t' be married in your own house, I know," she said, leaning forward eagerly. "Suppose you only had th' one——" She saw the quick tears gathering. "Did you ever have a little girl?" she asked.
Susan Hornby's emotions mastered her. She made no attempt to reply.
"Then tell 'er t' come home for just two more days," she said quickly. "I don't ask for no more than that. Just long enough to put an end t' this talk. I don't never 'spect t' have 'er after that, but——"
She sprang to her feet and, crossing the room, dragged Elizabeth to her feet also.
"I've got t' have you, Lizzie, an' that's all th' is about it!" They looked at each other a long time. Elizabeth weakened.
What could the girl do? Against her instincts, against her better judgment, against her will, she consented.
"See to it, then, that no new thing comes up to disgrace us," she said, stepping back to avoid the compelling touch of the hand that clutched at her sleeve, still looking across despairingly at Aunt Susan.
All help had been taken from that quarter. Bewildered, torn between her comprehension of mother love and a real knowledge of this particular case, Susan Hornby fumbled with the hem of her apron and did not look up.
Elizabeth, alone and without support, was easily victimized.
"I'll go," she said briefly.
* * * * *
So the peaceful summer ended for Elizabeth Farnshaw with her promise to go home. She hated to go, but the phrasing of her mother's plea, "just two more days," helped to sustain her. It had been a happy summer, two days would not be long, and then would come John and the new home.
There had been many reasons for the happiness of Elizabeth's last weeks of girlhood. The days had been full of pleasant work, and John had taken regular and masterful possession of her evenings. He came always such a picture of natty cleanliness and taste that it was a joy to be the object of his wooing. When John had found that Elizabeth was not in love with Luther, as she had been reported to be, but accorded the old grounds of affection to him, he had spread himself comfortably in Luther's presence and drawn him into conversation whenever it could be done. In addition to a desire to set his well-polished boots in strong contrast against those of busy, unobserving Luther, the only dressing of which was an occasional soaking in oil to keep them from cracking, John Hunter had been half forced to like honest, kindly Luther Hansen. Luther was not a man to arouse antagonisms. He assumed his natural role with Elizabeth even before her fiance and let the ground of their cordiality and friendship rest on such sensible basis that they were accepted as a matter of course.
John Hunter had been restless and half angry when he had first come home from Mitchell County—a thing he had not let Elizabeth see—but his feelings had been soothed and delighted by the display of her preference for him on his return. A new buggy had been purchased, and it was John Hunter's pride.
Elizabeth was unconscious of any rivalry. The new buggy was a great acquisition. It was the first to appear in that part of the country. She felt favoured to have it at her service, but the crown of all her felicity had been John Hunter's adoration, which had been poured at her feet without stint. If she wished to go anywhere, she had but to mention it. The relations of the early summer had been reestablished. He talked of the new land, and of the cattle to be placed on it in two or three years, when the calves he was buying would be grown. The lots in which he had held an equity since his father's death had been sold before his mother's departure from the old home, and twenty-five calves had been picked up from the surrounding farmers with the money thus secured. Every evening John drove to some farm to look for young cattle, and Elizabeth accompanied him. Cash had been paid for the Western land, and at the end of the summer most of the money that had been received from the estate had been invested.
As they drove from farm to farm, discussing prices; sheds, feed, and the wintering of stock, the girl's heart swelled with gratitude that her lines had fallen in such well-provided places. The pinch of poverty was to be lifted from her life.
More than the plenty, Elizabeth prized the peace which seemed to be drifting in her direction.
Every day since John Hunter's return had been a happy day. John consulted her judgment and her wishes, and it was done with that air of comradeship which was the most sought-for thing in Elizabeth Farnshaw's life. All her lonely days she had longed for it, and in all her girlish dreams it had been the prime factor. She had obtained glimpses of it in Susan Hornby's home, and now, she told herself joyfully, it was to be a permanent feature of her future life.
With Mrs. Farnshaw's advent a series of unpleasant things began to manifest. John was glad that the marriage was to take place in Elizabeth's own home. Because of their engagement, he had heard little of the gossip about her, but it had been enough to make him suspect more and wish her well out of it. If now she would go home it would make the whole thing look right and stop the reports.
John Hunter was distinctly a man of moods and reflected the conditions in which he happened for the moment to find himself. When he came to see Elizabeth the night after her mother had been to see her, he was pleased that she was to go home the next day, but he instantly partook of the discontent she showed. He took her to his mother's house for a short stay, but both were heavy of spirits and John was actually depressed. Elizabeth was almost abnormally sensitive to the attitude assumed toward her, and had she been shrewd she would never have carried any doubts of her own efficiency or judgment to her lover, but she was as open as a little child. John left her at the little gate and drove away so promptly that the girl's lip quivered as she turned in the dark to go to the house.
Elizabeth found Luther seated on the low doorstep. The shadow of the house prevented her from seeing him till she was almost upon him.
"Of all things! I never thought of you being here," she exclaimed, thinking of the kiss she had just received not three rods distant.
Luther laughed sheepishly.
"I hadn't intended t' see your good-nights," he said honestly, "but I'd 'a' made a worse mess of it by runnin' than I did by settin' still. Anyhow, you're goin' t' be married in three days, an' it needn't make no difference. I've been a thinkin' about you an' I waited up t' talk." He made room on the step for her to sit beside him.
"Thinking about me?"
"Yes. Mrs. Hornby says your mother was here to-day. She's kind of worried about it—you goin' home, I mean. I don't know about that—I hope It'll be all right. Try an' make it right, Lizzie. Th' Hunters go a good deal on looks."
Elizabeth was silent.
Luther felt it and interpreted her silence rightly.
"Is that something I'm not to talk about, Lizzie?" he asked.
The question hurt worse than the statement.
"I—I—don't know why you ask me such a thing, Luther," she faltered.
Luther arose. He was not to be offended, nor would he put away what he had waited to say.
"I only wanted to say that—well, do what th' folks ask of you, Lizzie. You're only home for a couple of days an'—an'"—after a long pause—"an' it won't hurt nobody."
Elizabeth got up slowly.
"Good-night, Luther," she said.
She wanted to offer him her hand; she was sure she was hurting him, but she could not talk to him on this point; the very truth of his suspicious that the Hunter estimate of her might be affected by scandal made of it a sore point. Elizabeth Farnshaw would be loyal to mutual relations, even where Luther's feelings were concerned.
They met in the morning on perfectly friendly ground, but there was an attitude of reserve which brooked no remark on her part. Luther departed early for his own house, and John Hunter came before noon to take her to her father's home. After all her simple possessions were in the wagon, Elizabeth went back and threw herself into the arms of Aunt Susan, who was crying miserably.
"Oh, Aunt Susan! I feel as if I had taken leave of you forever. I've—I've been so happy in this house—till yesterday. Can I ever repay what you've done for me?"
Susan Hornby gathered Elizabeth into her arms and sobbed more vehemently. The silence was unbroken except by those sobs, and at last the girl, moved out of herself, tried to comfort her, and said coaxingly:
"I'll live right near you. I'll see you every few days and—and I'll never forget how good you've been to me. It's—it's too bad these last two days had to be so—so different. I—I don't know what went wrong, but—but"—she laughed desperately—"where have our good times gone to? I'm going to be married to the man I love—and I'm going to live right near you—and—what is the matter with us, anyway?"
Susan Hornby clung to the girl and could not cease crying, till at last Elizabeth lifted her chin on one finger and with a corner of Aunt Susan's own apron, wiped the tears from the contorted face.
"Now then, don't cry," she said, kissing her again and again.
"Keep the folks in a good humour, dear. The Hunters 'll feel awful if anything more happens," Susan Hornby faltered, and then, to keep the girl from, replying, and to avoid the surprise and pain in the young face, pushed her gently but firmly toward the door and John Hunter, who was waiting impatiently.
PHILOSOPHY OF ELIZABETH'S LIFE VOICED
"To-morrow," Elizabeth said, significantly, as John turned back to get into the wagon after they had deposited the trunk in the house.
"To-morrow," John smiled back at her. It was a reluctant smile he gave her, but the bid for affection in her young eyes was irresistible.
"He had to be nice," she thought as she walked back to the house; "it was a good way."
A sudden thought came to her.
"Did you ask Luther to the wedding?" she asked of her mother as she entered.
"No, I didn't. What do you want of that Swede?" Mrs. Farnshaw asked petulantly. "I should think——"
What she thought was never recorded in words, for Elizabeth was out of the house like a flash, calling to John Hunter as she ran down the road after him. It was a surprised John who took her message.
"Yes, I'll tell him, but I don't see what you want of that Swede—he always seems to cut such a figure in everything you do," John said discontentedly.
"Well, just tell him that ma sends the invitation, will you?" was all Elizabeth could say.
It was John's first contemptuous remark about Luther, and it disturbed her. They were to live closer to Luther Hansen than any other neighbour and it was essential that they be on friendly terms. She had hoped it might be that John would appreciate the good things in Luther which even his nationality could not spoil. Dear old Luther! In spite of the observation she had seemed to resent the night before, Elizabeth loved him—loved him all the more because she had been obliged to hurt him. It suddenly occurred to her that John might not deliver her message. She put the thought away from her instantly, saying aloud:
"He'd do anything he knew I wanted him to do," and then was struck with the doubtful tone in which it was said.
"What did you say?" her mother asked, for Elizabeth had just entered the door.
"Nothing. I hate this wedding!"
"Well, now, I like that, after all I've done to give you a good time," the mother said angrily.
"No, ma; you mean to give yourself a good time. You make me come home when I don't want to, and you ask people I hate to have, and then you leave out the people I want most. It isn't my wedding. I'm going to stand up and be married so as to get rid of it all, but John won't have the minister I want, you won't have the people I want, I'm most sure pa 'll kick up some kind of a row about it—and—and I was so happy till you came and made me consent to it. What did you do it for?"
"Do it for? You ungrateful child! What did I do it for? I'll tell you," Mrs. Farnshaw's eyes hardened into momentary coals of fire. "I did it because I don't like your whole goings on. Minister? Why don't you say preacher, like the rest of your folks? It's that Hornby woman. She made you talk of divorces——" At thought of all her supposed wrongs at the hand of Susan Hornby Mrs. Farnshaw broke into a half scream and ended by throwing herself into a chair by her daughter's side and clinging to her hand with her upturned face streaming over with tears, her mouth convulsed with pain till speech was impossible.
Moved to repentance at the sight of the pang she had caused, Elizabeth fell on her knees by her mother's side, and with her arms encircling her, cried contritely:
"I didn't mean it, ma, really—that is, I didn't mean it that way. Don't mind what I said. I do love you."
Mrs. Farnshaw clung to her, so shaken by sobs that she still could not speak, and the penitent daughter soothed and comforted her with her own heart breaking at the thoughtlessness of her speech.
"Put it away and don't remember it; I didn't mean it. I'm tired to death—and—and——" She pondered a moment and then made the experiment. "And I want to speak of Aunt Susan to you. I can't bear to have you feel so bad about me liking her. She hasn't put a single notion into my head. Be good and get acquainted with her. She'd like to have you. If you knew her you'd know how different she is from what you think. I'll take you to see her the very first time you come to see me. Say you will."
Elizabeth stroked the thin hair back from the passion-worn face, and waited for her reply.
Mrs. Farnshaw shook her head, but could not meet the offer squarely.
"The two of you'd be a wishin' you could get rid of me so's you could talk your own kind of talk," she said with conviction. "'Taint any use, Lizzie; I ain't your kind. Your pa 'd be madder at me 'n ever, too."
"Well, he's mad all the time, anyhow," Elizabeth said.
"No 'e wasn't till you said that awful thing—that is, 'e was mad often enough, but not like 'e's been since. You don't know what you done t' your mother then. Be good, an' go t' 'im, an' settle 'is mind 'fore you're married. It don't matter if I know Miss Hornby 'r not; but what a difference it'd make t' me if he only knowed I never put you up t' that partin' business! Please do it fur me, Lizzie."
This was an unexpected turn. Elizabeth had hoped to avoid the recurrence of this issue. Knowing that she was keeping her mother in cruel suspense, Elizabeth hesitated and by every sign showed her disinclination to discuss the subject. What should she do? What could she do? The tortured eyes of her mother studied her with an intensity which she could not avoid. To consent was to fail with her father, to refuse was to make matters much worse with the mother she had just hurt. Luther had warned her to avoid collisions with her family which were liable to cause gossip; Aunt Susan had implored her to keep the folks in a good humour; her own instincts were against the movement, but her feelings were pleading for the mother who begged her to try once again to obtain reconciliation before she was married. Ah! if this time would end it!
"Say you will," the mother begged with pathetic brevity.
"I'd do it in a minute if there were the least opportunity to succeed, ma," Elizabeth said reluctantly, and not looking toward her. "If I do it and fail, You'll be wanting me to go right on with it after I'm married, and that I won't do for anybody." The sentence ended savagely.
Mrs. Farnshaw studied her daughter eagerly. She began to have hopes. Now, if only she could get the right touch on her appeal.
"If You'll do it, an' be careful-like, Lizzie," she said compellingly, "if You'll be careful-like this time, I'll never ask you again. I can't live this way any longer. I won't never ask you again. Please," she insisted. "Speak real soft an' nice-like. Please."
"But, ma, are you crazy? You told me—you told me that—oh dear, what's the use to tell you what you said?" the girl cried, her judgment giving its last caution a hearing.
What was the use indeed!
In the end Elizabeth consented—consented with kindliness of manner. Since she was going to do it at all she would do it lovingly. She argued herself into that mood before she agreed to the move. Her mother had a hard life; on one who knew her doubted that fact. Neither would any one have doubted that Mr. Farnshaw led a hard life also. Some devil of unrest demanded excitement and disagreement.
"Keep the folks in a good humour," Luther had said.
Elizabeth had no support from any quarter. She could only consent.
"I'll do it, ma," she agreed. "I am going away to be happy. John and his mother never have a word together that isn't pleasant."
"I hope so," Mrs. Farnshaw said with relief, "but men don't always treat their wives like they do their mothers. It's something they get t' feel about their wives that's th' trouble. Women think th' only way t' be good wives's t' give up—an' men think so too. Women's most always afraid of what th' men 'll think, an' th' men know it."
"Well, ma, come on! There's lots to do; let's get at it."
Elizabeth was in no mood to philosophize. She hated the coming conference with her father to the utter exclusion of every other thought at that moment, and had hardly heard what her mother had said.
"You'll never regret bein' good t' your old mother," Mrs. Farnshaw said, rubbing her hand over the girl's glossy braids as Elizabeth turned away to begin the work she had suggested. "My! it don't seem like six weeks since I was your age—young an' startin' out—an' life looked good t' me, I kin tell you. Now I ain't got nothin' t' be good t' me but you."
"I think I'll wash my hair before the sun gets low," Elizabeth said. "Then I'll help you in here." She was disturbed about the promise she had given and wanted to get away from her mother before she should say some unlucky thing that would show it. She let her hair down and loosened it with a toss of her head. It was a glittering garment which covered her from head to knees in wavy strands which flew about her in lines of beauty as she moved about getting her hot water and towels. Mrs. Farnshaw watched her with an expression near real affection. She came over and ran her hands through the rippling mass as the girl turned to go out of doors where she could splash comfortably, and after she had gone passed her hands over her own faded locks slowly.
"Lizzie's always had th' best of everything," she said, shaking her head sadly. "I wisht she wasn't s' set against 'er pa. I'm goin' t' make 'er do it all th' same."
The girl in the backyard pondered upon the same thing as she dried her hair in the hot sun.
"I hate it," she thought, "but I'm going to do it just the best I know how. Ma didn't say it, nor agree with it, and I'm going to make it as easy as I can for her before I go. Will we ever be like they are?" she asked herself half seriously, and felt sure it could not be. "Ma has always insisted on things and never lets pa nor the rest of us forget anything or lay it down. I believe a woman can manage those things. Aunt Susan does."
As Elizabeth started to the house, she noticed her father and the boys coming from the cornfield with a wagon-load of snapped corn. Joe drove the team and his father sat in the back with his feet dangling over the end-gate. They were turning into the barnyard when she discovered them.
With her hair floating about her like a veil, she started at once for the barn. She could not talk this out with her mother listening, and if she did not do it now it would be forced upon her at supper, when her father was certain to be in his worst mood. Mr. Farnshaw always came to the table tired.
Seeing Elizabeth coming toward him, Mr. Farnshaw dropped from the wagon and went to fill the swill pails. The hogs knew they were to be fed and set up their usual noisy clamour. It was his purpose to divert their attention till the boys could drive the wagon into the corral, hoping also to leave his daughter where she could not approach him. Mr. Farnshaw delighted in making people wait. With a pail in either hand he advanced to the fence. The hogs left the gate and ran to meet him, upsetting the trough as they came. Setting the pails down, he snatched up a peeled osage stick, kept outside of the pen for that purpose, and belaboured angrily the snouts sticking over the fence. The pigs were hungry and persistent. By the time they were beaten into a respectable awe and had backed away squealing, Mr. Farnshaw discovered his daughter at his elbow. He had intended to ignore her; he turned red with rage. With a look of infinite contempt, he stooped and picked up a pail.
"What a racket they do make," she remarked, smiling at him without offence.
In spite of her smiling manner, Elizabeth was half sick with apprehension. It was not a propitious time to approach him, but Mr. Farnshaw watched to see that a propitious moment should not arrive when he was in one of his sulking fits. Elizabeth had played that game with him before. With her courage oozing away, and a feeling that there was no benefit in seeming not to know what he was thinking about, she put her hand on his sleeve saying:
"Don't be cross with me, pa. Really I do want to be friends."
Mr. Farnshaw jerked his arm aside to avoid her touch and spilled half the pail of swill on the ground. He lurched over to the other side to right the pail; the bucket at his feet upset, pouring dishwater, milk, and potato peelings over his heavy plow-shoes as it went. To avoid the onrush of the greasy tide he sprang back, slipped in its oily overflow, and fell, the pail he held pouring its contents over him as he went. His gray whiskers, the bottom of his jersey, his very ears dripped swill as he arose. It was disconcertingly funny, and the girl helped him to his feet, laughing in spite of every effort to restrain herself.
To lose his temper was bad enough, but to be made ridiculous and be laughed at at the same time was more than the man could endure. He was insane with fury. There was such a look of malignity on his face as he jerked away and turned to face her that the girl, suddenly sobered, dodged and started to run. Her long hair trailed across his arm, and lost to every consideration but that of satisfying his temper, he caught it as she passed and swinging the osage stick to which he still clung, shouted:
"Damn you! This is th' kind of friends I'll be."
He struck with all his force, jerking her hair at the same time. Thrown from her feet, the full weight of the girl's body came on her hair. It hurt cruelly. She veered around on her knees and caught the now tangled hair with both hands to ease the strain. He grabbed her by one arm and rained blows on her thinly clad shoulders which hissed in tune with the man's temper as they fell.
"I'll be friends with you!" he shrieked. "I'll send you t' that young smartie with some marks on you that'll show 'im what kind of a wife he's gettin'. You told your ma t' leave me! Maybe You'll be leavin' him next. Tell 'im I said so, will you?"
Cut by the flexible withe, which left welts like ribbons on her young shoulders, the girl was unable to endure more passively, and struggled to free herself. The partially successful opposition infuriated the man. He was not accustomed to defence. His fury knew no restraint. He rained the blows harder than ever and the girl finally caught the whip itself. Catching the limber end desperately, she jerked it sidewise; unconsciously, she had deflected her father's hand so that it struck her head just below the ear. It stretched her senseless at his feet.
Josiah Farnshaw was aghast. With a gulping cry of alarm and pity, he stooped to lift his unconscious daughter. He had not intended to do so brutal a thing.
"Now look what you've gone an' done!"
Mrs. Farnshaw had watched Elizabeth go to him with something of prayer in her heart. She knew the girl's intention was to be square about the apology and she had strained every nerve to watch the encounter. At the first blow she had started to the scene of action.
"I think you might have——"
The man's relenting mood vanished. He dropped the limp body and rose to his full height.
"You damned fool," he exclaimed, "if you hadn't set this a goin' an' kept it a goin' this wouldn't 'a' happened. Of all th' blasted, impossible things it's t' have a snivelling she-devil always at your elbow. Keep your hands off of me!" he cried, shaking himself loose from the detaining hand she had laid on his arm. "I'm goin' t' git."
The boys had arrived by that time. They carried the girl to the well and bathed her face and hands with fresh water, while the head of the house strode down the road toward the north. Elizabeth was not seriously injured and recovered consciousness as soon as the water touched her. Mrs. Farnshaw left the task of resuscitation to her sons and looked after her rapidly disappearing husband with eyes that longed for reconciliation. Reconciliation for one thing or another had been the most driving inspiration her twenty years of married life had known; it was her most potent incentive. Cowed and broken, fear bound her fast to his footsteps. Not even the daughter struggling to her feet at her side could detract her attention from his receding form.
Elizabeth stood balancing herself dizzily for a moment before she began really to see or grasp what was going on around her; then the full value of the mishap broke upon her. All that Luther and Aunt Susan had hinted at had befallen her in spite of every effort to avoid it.
But not even the calamity which had befallen them could stop their busy fingers. The preparations for the wedding feast were a merciful feature of the rest of the evening. The guests had been invited and must be prepared for. The hair that had been washed was braided, the mother's tears dried, and every member of the family pressed into the service. The entire house was cleaned and rearranged. Not till after midnight did the members of the little group seek their beds. Mr. Farnshaw had not returned. They had even forgotten him a large part of the time in the hurry. Elizabeth regarded the half dozen bruises which her sleeves would not cover with alarm when she was at last ready to climb her ladder. Joe covered them with a liniment which he brought from the barn. As he set the dusty bottle on the kitchen table after the anointing had been done, he remarked dryly:
"Wonder if you an' me 'll ever do that kind of thing t' our young ones? Everybody's always said we was like the old man."
"Take that nasty smellin' bottle out of here, an' don't begin any talk about your pa. Everybody get t' bed," Mrs. Farnshaw commanded.
Even the absence of her husband could not dim the interest of Mrs. Farnshaw in the coming spectacle of her daughter's marriage. With the capacity of a little child to suffer from unkindness or neglect, she combined the same child-like capability to enjoy pageantry of any sort. Benches for curious neighbours surrounded Mrs. Farnshaw's bed when she retired, and unaccustomed things filled every nook of the usually unattractive room. Evergreen boughs stared at her from the corner opposite her bed; the bed was to be removed in the morning. It had been her own romantic idea to have a bower for the bride and groom. She had been so busy making that bower that she had forgotten her own troubles for an hour and more, but she remembered them now and her interest died out. With a quivering indrawn breath she turned out the light and dived into the huge feather-bed, smothering her sobs by crushing her pillow against her face.
Elizabeth, upstairs, had her own disappointments to go over, and her mother's sobbing coloured her ruminations. Her vision had been cleared. In spite of youth, and of humiliation, she saw that the blow that had undone her had been accidental. She saw what the encouragement of temper would lead to. She saw the gradual growth and stimulation of that temper in the daily contentions of her father and mother.
She rubbed her bruises and thought long on the troubles about her. Accusations and defence, she decided, were at the root of them. They were the universal topics of the conversations at home and among all the people she had ever known except the Hornbys and the Chamberlains.
"Defence!" she said in a scornful whisper. "What does it matter who is wrong in anything? The only thing that matters is what is wrong and to find a way to make it come out better next time," and at last went to sleep quite unaware that she had evolved a philosophy which rightly applied would reorganize the world.
"WIVES, SUBMIT YOURSELVES UNTO YOUR HUSBANDS, AS UNTO THE LORD"
The day after the wedding was Friday, or "sweep day," as Mrs. Hunter called it. Anxious to begin as she expected to hold out, and to form regular habits in John's wife, Mrs. Hunter superintended the housecleaning processes.
Elizabeth had had no idea that any one could put in so many hours with broom and dust rag, but when it was done, looked about her with housekeeperly delight in the orderly, well-kept rooms. As they had worked that day the girl had been keenly observant of John's mother. She could not tell whether John had told her of the trouble in her home or not. Mrs. Hunter did not refer to it directly or indirectly, and this fact was the subject of much thought. This faultless manner of dismissing unpleasant things stood out in strong contrast to the endless and tiresome discussions to which the girl was accustomed. Elizabeth wished she could find time to run over to Uncle Nate's for a chat with Aunt Susan, but the busy day absorbed her and there was no time to go anywhere; in fact, it was time for John to come home from Colebyville, where he had gone to hunt for a hired man before the cleaning was really finished. Glancing up at the clock on the lambrequined shelf in the sitting room, the girl was surprised to see that it was already four o'clock. The cleaning was finished and she ran to the kitchen to put up the rag in her hand, and then went hurriedly into her bedroom to comb her hair and get her dress changed before John should come.
Absorbed in her dressing, Elizabeth did not hear her husband enter the house until she heard him talking to his mother in the dining room. With freshly combed hair and clean calico dress she ran with a glad little bound to meet him.
John Hunter and his mother stopped short with their conversation when they saw her and were plainly embarrassed.
The young wife became conscious that something was wrong and stopped in the middle of the room, looking from one to the other in mute inquiry.
Mrs. Hunter turned and went back to the kitchen. John came toward his wife.
"What is it, John? What has happened?" she asked in a whisper. There was a sick look on John Hunter's face.
Elizabeth did not put her hand on him as was her usual way. The girl-wife had an indistinct feeling that her husband and his mother were a combination for the moment of which she was not a part.
"Enough has happened," the man said, passing her and going toward their bedroom. "Come in here!"
He held the door open for her to enter, and she passed in and stood waiting while he shut it behind them.
"What is it, John?" she queried, unable to wait longer.
"Your father has gone to Colebyville and got into a drunken row," was the bald statement. "Everybody in the country knows about his fuss with you."
He did not offer to touch her, but walked over to the window and began to drum on the window-pane with nervous fingers.
"Drunk! Row! My father was never drunk in his life!" was the astonished exclamation with which Elizabeth Hunter met this unbelievable accusation.
"Well, he's been drunk enough to last the rest of his life this time, and we're the laughing stock of this whole country."
John Hunter had gone to Colebyville that morning in the new buggy, rather pleased to be the centre of observation and remark. He quite liked to swagger before these country people whom he chose otherwise to ignore. He was well dressed, his buggy was the admired of all admirers, and he was newly married. Country gossip had some pleasing qualifications. When he had arrived at Colebyville, however, John Hunter had found that country people had little ways of their own for the edification of the vainglorious, and that trim young men in buggies became infinitely more interesting to the scorned when they could be associated with scandal. He soon found that he was the object of much amused discussion and shortly it became evident that they were quite willing that he should know that he was the object of ridicule. Pretending friendship, one of them enlightened him as to the exact circumstances which were amusing them, and then sneaked back to his companions with a verbatim report of his surprised exclamations. John Hunter did not enjoy being the victim of a trap laid by those he had patronized. It had been a humiliating day, and John Hunter always handed his misfortunes along. He poured his disgust over his wife as if she alone were responsible for all he had suffered that day.
"What was the row with you about, anyway?" he inquired with evident aversion to her presence.
Elizabeth had withered into a quivering semblance of the confident woman who had run to meet him five minutes ago. Her knees shook under her with collapse. She sat down on the edge of the bed and stammered her explanations as if she had been a naughty child caught red-handed in some act of which she was ashamed.
"It—oh, John! I only went to him to make up about—about other things. We—we didn't have any fuss exactly. It—it was just the same old thing. I—I begged ma not to make me go home. I told her what he would—I knew he'd whip me, but she would have me go."
"Well, he couldn't whip you for nothing," John said, with brutal inquiry. "What'd you fall out with him for? I never heard of such a thing as a girl who was a woman grown that fell out with her father till he whipped her."
Exasperated and miserable, John bestowed blame in the only convenient place he found.
The young wife buried her face in the counterpane and did not attempt to reply, and after looking dully at her for a moment John Hunter went out and left her to carry her burden of shame alone. The sound of the closing door assured her that at least she could be alone in her tears, and the humbled girl gave herself up to sobbing. Luther and Aunt Susan would never be quite convinced that she had done her best to avoid trouble; she even wondered herself if there might not have been some fault in the way she had approached her father. As usual, Elizabeth was concerned with the trouble of others. The whole dreadful thing passed before her with the vividness of actual reproduction. John's mother knew this at any rate. That was a sore point. They were in the kitchen talking it over now! With the conviction of absolute certainty, Elizabeth buried her face in the counterpane of her bridal couch and sobbed in desolate abandon.
After a time John came back again and looked into the room. Seeing her distress, he went over slowly and lifted her to her feet with a stir of pity.
"Don't cry," he said gloomily. "It can't be helped. Come on out to the kitchen and help mother with the supper."
Elizabeth knew that at that moment he did not want to caress her, but her hungry soul craved comfort beyond her power to control and she dug her face into his breast and sobbed there unasked.
John's arms closed about her in a relaxed sort of way, and patting her head half-heartedly, he said again:
"Come on, dear. Mother's out there getting supper alone." He took his own pocket handkerchief and wiped her tear-stained face and, after kissing her, pushed her gently but firmly toward the kitchen.
Supper was not a cheerful meal. Elizabeth's voice was thick from crying and she did not talk at all, while John and his mother could not discuss the topic uppermost in their minds in her presence. The feeling that there was a combination of which she was not a part grew upon the young wife, and a longing for Aunt Susan grew with it.
"I'd like to go over to Uncle Nate's immediately after supper," she said. "I'll do the dishes while you hitch up."
"Good Lord! I don't want to go over there to-night," was the reply. "I wish you'd quit calling those people 'Aunt' and 'Uncle'."
Elizabeth's face blazed with colour as he got up and went into the sitting room. The brutality of the answer was so evident to John's mother that she followed him.
"You had better take Elizabeth to Mr. Hornby's, John. I don't think you should speak to her in that way, either," she said in a low tone of voice.
Elizabeth could not hear Mrs. Hunter's remarks, but John's reply was audible enough.
"I'm not going over there to-night. I don't feel as if I ever wanted to go anywhere again."
She also heard Mrs. Hunter's low "Sh!" and felt more than ever an alien.
When the dishes were finished Mrs. Hunter went upstairs. John followed her.
"I will not be hurt, because I will not see hurt," Elizabeth told herself as she slipped through the house to her own room. Because her lips quivered as she said it, she busied herself in taking down her hair to brush for the night. Her sleeves were tight and hindered, and she took off her dress and folded it across the back of a chair carefully, and finished braiding her hair in her petticoat.
John found her with her white arms uplifted as she combed the long strands. Moved by her girlish beauty and freshness, he went over and put his arms about her. The girl's mouth was full of hairpins, and she mumbled something he did not understand. He kept his arms about her insistently, and rubbed his chin on her smooth shoulder with a little laugh. She struggled to free herself, but he held her teasingly, and finally accepting the playful tussle as an apology, though she knew it was not an adequate one, she gave up. She was resolved not to split hairs with her husband over small matters; she would not nurse grievances.
As for John Hunter, he had not thought of apology,—or of the necessity of one; he had been moved by the sight of the tempting figure of the woman he possessed.
Elizabeth loved her husband and wished to believe that he loved her; she was unwilling to begin her married life with any sort of whining or suspicion, so she ended the matter by resting unresisting in his arms and turning her young face up to be kissed.
The next morning Elizabeth washed the dishes alone, and Mrs. Hunter followed John to the barn and later to the pasture, where he went to catch a horse.
"Where are you going with a horse?" his mother asked as they passed through the pasture gate.
"I have to go over to Chamberlain's to help with a small stack of hay he put up in the field and wants to move, now that he's got the time. I told him he'd better let me help him before the new hired man comes to begin the husking; I'm going to need the team every day after that," John replied.
"So you got a man, did you?" Mrs. Hunter said, catching hold of his arm to keep him from outwalking her. "If you're going as far as Chamberlain's you'd better take Elizabeth over to Mr. Hornby's while you're hitched up. I'll get dinner. You hurt her feelings last night, and that'll be a good way to make it right with her."
"Now look here, mother," John Hunter answered decidedly, "I'll do nothing of the kind. With this story going around we'll stay at home where we belong. Anyhow, the sooner she's cut away from these country jakes the better for her, and I'll begin right here and now. I don't intend—never have intended—to have these people tacked to my coat-tails every move I make. If she's hurt, She'll simply have to get over it; besides, she didn't stay mad long—you saw that for yourself. She's all right if she's managed right."
It was true, Mrs. Hunter reflected. Elizabeth had not seemed to take much offence, and was perfectly good-natured this morning. She did not intend to interfere with the affairs of her son and his wife. Elizabeth seemed submissive, and promised well. She hoped that this horrid gossip would die down. That was a nasty thing to be mixed up with. Mr. Hunter had never had anything like that happen to him before, and she was devoutly glad they were away out here in Kansas where no one who had ever known them would hear it. Elizabeth would be all the better as a wife if she did not start out by running around too much. It did not occur to Mrs. Hunter, nor to her son, that if the old acquaintances were to be taken away from Elizabeth that in all justice she must be provided with new ones. In fact, it did not occur to them at all that her opinions were of any value whatever. Why should John explain his plans to her? Why, indeed?
As she went about her Saturday morning's work Elizabeth watched John and his mother stroll down the path in the pasture, certain that she herself was the subject of their conversation, and her eyes burned with unshed tears. The intimacy between John and his mother seemed so much more firmly established than the intimacy between John and herself that she was filled with lonesomeness and a longing for Aunt Susan.
"To-morrow's Sunday and there'll be nothing to do. He'll have to take me then. He was tired and upset by that horrid talk last night. Oh, why do I have to be mixed up with things I can't help—and—and have him cross, and everything?" She ended with a little shuddering cry, and buried her head in the kitchen towel and gave up to the tears which, now that she was alone, she could candidly shed. How she longed for Aunt Susan, and yet she could not have talked to her of these things; but in spite of that she wanted her.
* * * * *
"Will you go over to—to Mrs. Hornby's with us to-day?" she asked Mrs. Hunter at the breakfast table the next morning.
"Why—yes—if you're going," Mrs. Hunter answered with a hesitant glance at John.
The tone and the hesitancy struck Elizabeth. She looked at John as she had seen the older woman do.
"Mother spoke yesterday of your going," John said quickly, "and I said—well, I want to get some more cleaning done about that barn before the man comes. There's plenty of time about that. Let them come here if they want to see us."
"But I want to go," Elizabeth persisted. She had been accustomed to dictating where John Hunter should take her. John himself had taught her to do so.
"Well, there's plenty of time. I'm busy to-day, if it is Sunday," was all that her husband thought it necessary to reply.
The hope that Aunt Susan would come to see her if she found that they were not coming over helped Elizabeth to accept the brusque refusal better than she otherwise would have done. John was cheerful and pleasant, and the hurt that she had felt at first died away. He asked her to go to the barn with him and was merry and full of small talk and chatter, such as lovers appreciate, and the girl finally concluded that that must be his naturally decided manner when suddenly approached on a subject to which he could not consent. Elizabeth was aware that there was little consideration shown her at such times, but was resolved not to find fault unless the question were a vital one. Altogether it was a happy day. Gratitude was a large feature of Elizabeth's make-up, and there was something about being in the atmosphere of refinement and beauty which made her accept many little evidences of inattentiveness on the part of her husband. As she helped with the cooking, she was conscious of the difference between the kitchen utensils of this and her own home; as she swept she contrasted the red-and-green ingrain carpet of the sitting room with the worn and ugly rag carpet of her mother's house; as she set the table she reflected that no other house of that community boasted a dining room, and certainly no other young wife could say she had napkins and a white tablecloth every day in the week; and there was yet a larger item than these for which the girl was thankful: no girl she had ever known had married so cultured a man. Elizabeth looked across the table as she served the pie at dinner and in spite of every snub was humbly thankful to be a part of that family. Nor was she a mere snob and deserving of what she got in the way of ill treatment because she submitted to it; Elizabeth was a young girl of artistic temperament, craving beauty, and longing for the companionship of those who talked in terms comprehensible to her at the same time that they advanced her aesthetic education and possibilities. In proportion as she valued this thing was she to pay her price.
The price Elizabeth was to pay came at strange and unexpected moments. The hired man, when he appeared, proved to be Jake Ransom, now a man, and ready to do a man's work in his simple station. Jake of course knew for whom he was to work and came into the kitchen to his first meal with his face wreathed in a sheepish grin.
"I'd better 'a' taken your advice an' gone t' th' high school," he said, extending his calloused hand to shake. "Only I wouldn't 'a' been workin' fur you."
He laughed his great hearty guffaw, partly in embarrassment and partly because he really enjoyed the joke of the possibility of him being an educated man. It was a cheap country pleasantry, and said with genuine good-fellowship, but Mrs. Hunter, who heard it as she turned to the dining room with the coffee pot in her hand, disapproved of the familiarity of it. Mrs. Hunter had disapproved of the plate laid for Jake at the family table and was out of sorts with the country life into which she had been plunged.
After Jake had gone to bed upstairs—and that was another grievance of Mrs. Hunter's, this having the hired man in the room next to her own—she took up the matter of his position in her son's house seriously.
"All the hired help in the country eat at the table and are accorded the privileges of any member of the family, mother," John replied to her objections.
"You don't mean that You'll have to have them at your table day after day—always?" his mother exclaimed. "You'll never have any home life at all."
"As long as we farm, mother, we'll be in exactly that position," John said, stirring the fire in the sitting-room stove, about which they were gathered for the evening.
"But they eat so awfully much," Mrs. Hunter continued, "and they drink out of their saucers, and suck their teeth till it makes one sick!" Then happening to look across at Elizabeth she caught the flush on her young face and stopped so short that all were embarrassed.
John got up suddenly and left the room and the house. The two women sat in an uncomfortable silence for some minutes, and then the elder of them went upstairs to bed, leaving the younger to her mortifying thoughts. Elizabeth remembered the scorn of the young teacher in her own childhood for the same offence and reflected that she had been unable to break her family of similar habits. As far as she was concerned, however, the presence of the hired man at her table was far less disturbing than that of her husband's mother. Part of the time she was happy to learn from Mrs. Hunter, but more of the time she was restless under her supervision.
The week had been an uncomfortable one in both tangible and intangible ways. Elizabeth had often found John and his mother talking and have them drop the conversation when she appeared. She had had many humiliating hours over the disgrace she knew they were discussing. The fact had come out that Mr. Farnshaw had returned to his home, but nothing beyond that.
Another week passed, and again John refused to take Elizabeth to see Aunt Susan. This time he said that the team had worked all week, and that he felt that the horses needed rest. A new team was added to the farm assets and the next Sunday John said he was too tired himself to go away from home. Never once did he say that he had any motive which extended beyond the time at hand. Each Sunday the excuse fitted the circumstances of that particular day, and he talked of going in a general way as if it were a matter of course that they would go soon. It was clearly the duty of the young couple to make the first visit, and as clearly Nathan Hornby and his wife were waiting for them to do so. Elizabeth was puzzled by her husband's refusal. At the end of a month she became alarmed for fear their neglect would give offence to the dear couple who had sheltered her when she was in need. It had not occurred to her to discredit John's reasons, though she began to suspect that she had married the sort of man she had heard much about—the husband who never wanted to go anywhere.
Early in December Mrs. Hunter was called East by the serious illness of a sister in Illinois. The day she left a heavy snow fell. Elizabeth went out into the still yard and let the white flakes fall on her uncovered head with such a sense of freedom as she had never felt since her marriage.
"The house is mine," she whispered ecstatically; "the house is all mine, and now I can go out of doors if I want to and not be criticised."
Elizabeth had been far more accustomed to barn life than the life of the house. This was a thing that Mrs. Hunter could not understand. It was not the correct thing for a woman to go about the barn where a hired man was employed, even if her husband worked at his side, and Elizabeth's trips to the cow stable and granaries had been discouraged. Jake Ransom had been shrewd enough to see that his first joke in the Hunter house had been unpleasant to the mother of his employer and had never trespassed upon the grounds of familiarity again, but Elizabeth had been criticised until willing to give up her trips to the scene of her husband's work. John might be impatient, but Elizabeth loved him; his mother was patient but critical, and Elizabeth did not love her; therefore the first feeling of relief when the older woman had gone away included the delight of being free to go where she wished—at his side. The barns were a source of great interest to Elizabeth. The pride of the girl, accustomed to straw stables and slatternly yards and unhoused machinery, in the well-kept barnyard of her husband was natural and commendatory. John had order well developed in his scheme of things. John's cribs did not stand open to the weather. Now that Mrs. Hunter was away, Elizabeth spent most of the day going about the place, looking into every bin, and making the acquaintance of each new animal they possessed. Jake was helping Silas and it left the girl plenty of time to explore. The amount of new stock struck her as surprising. Here too she was glad. John was evidently going to be a man of large affairs. Elizabeth had a sudden desire to run over and talk it over with Luther as she had done when she drove out with her affianced husband to buy the calves. She was surprised to see how the little bunch of calves had grown, not only in size but in numbers. The thought of Luther carried her back, as she stood looking over the calf yard, to the matter of visiting Aunt Susan. Of late the feeling had grown strong upon her that Mrs. Hunter had had something to do with John's reluctance to making this visit. The calves ceased to interest her and she wandered slowly back to the house thinking about it. There were so many phases of her domestic affairs to consider: Aunt Susan's right to the evidences of her love and her inability to show that love because of her husband's reluctance to take her; Luther's evident offence, and the possibility that the wedding invitation had not been extended to him by John, since he had never paid them a neighbourly visit; the close alliance between John and his mother and the brusqueness with which John disposed of any request of hers if he did not choose of himself to do the thing she wanted—all called for examination. Elizabeth shook the snow from her hair and cloak and built up the fire, intending to sit down by it and think over her situation, but John arrived in the middle of her preparations and supper had to be hastily prepared, for the afternoon had gone and much of the regular morning's work still remained to be done. With flying feet, Elizabeth attacked the task of getting things in order, and it was a relief when John, who had left the last chores to Jake, came in and helped her. They had hardly ever been left alone in the house in all the three months they had been married, and to Elizabeth it was working in fairyland to have John make one side of a bed's clothes lie smooth while she pulled and straightened at the other.
With Mrs. Hunter gone, John took up the task of drilling his young wife in the Hunter ways. To Elizabeth he was a model husband. She contrasted her father's stupid inability and unwillingness inside of his home with the orderly and systematic way in which John Hunter helped her. John took part in whatever household function was taking place in his presence. He wiped the dishes if she washed them; if a carpet was to be swept he handled the broom if he were there to do it, and he never went to the field without filling the reservoir and water pail as well as the coal scuttle and cob basket. He assumed the management of cooking and housework so subtly that the unsophisticated girl saw only his helpfulness; in fact, he had only helpfulness in mind. John had ideas of neatness and order which made of housekeeping a never-ending process, but John himself laboured steadily toward their accomplishment, and he was so successful in inspiring her with those same ideals that her pride helped her over many a weary day's cleaning. She entered into them week after week and became expert at ironing, baking, and all the little offices of the domestic altar. All her strength was given to her work each day, and for a time she succeeded comfortably, but as the days shortened and the routine became more exacting she longed for the out-of-door freedom in which she had been raised.
Christmas passed, and still Elizabeth had entered no house except her own since her marriage in October. This would not have disturbed her, for she was not a girl who cared for visiting, if it had not been that Aunt Susan was being neglected.
Mrs. Farnshaw came and did not fail to let Elizabeth know that the country gossips were concerned with tales supposed to account for her secluded way of living. Some said that she was too "stuck-up" to associate with her old friends, while others said that John Hunter had married her to keep his house, but that he was not proud of her and preferred to leave her at home. Luther had completed his "shanty," and Elizabeth knew by the smoke she could see rising from his chimney that he no longer lived with Aunt Susan; also Elizabeth heard bits of gossip about him from Jake, who had taken a great liking to Luther and often spent his evenings with him. Luther Hansen had come to borrow a scoop shovel when he had shelled his corn, but John had managed to accept it as a barnyard call and had not invited him to the house, and after the scoop was returned Luther did not come again. Elizabeth had days when she wanted his cheery presence and sensible ways of looking at life, but she was almost glad he did not come; she could not have explained her seclusion to him nor could she have refused to explain. The girl's pride was cut to the quick.
January passed, and February. One afternoon in early March Elizabeth sat at the dining-room window sewing and meditating sadly upon John's growing irritability whenever she mentioned Aunt Susan. She was unable as yet to force him to take her as she requested; neither had she been able to get her own consent to going the first time to the house of this old friend alone and have Aunt Susan's questioning eyes looking her over for explanations. She was puzzled still, for John usually spoke of her friends with respect, and there was nothing to indicate his reasons for opposition except that he was simply averse to visiting on general principles, and even then why should he so resolutely refuse to accommodate her when he was so reasonable on all other subjects?
"I don't care, I'm going this week if he's ever so cross," she muttered.
Almost at the same instant she looked up and saw a bobsled coming into the side lane.
"Aunt Susan's very self!" she cried, pushing away the little garment on which she was sewing, and running to the door.
She met the muffled figure halfway down the path, called to Nathan to take his team to the barn, where they would be out of the cutting wind, and bundled Susan Hornby into the house with little shrieks of delight and welcome.
Susan Hornby knew that she was wanted at the end of that five minutes.
"However could you know that I was wanting you so bad to-day?" Elizabeth said finally, as she thrust her guest down into a rocking chair and then went down on her knees to unfasten her overshoes.
"Land sakes! What are you trying to do—and you——" The sentence stopped and the speaker looked embarrassed.
Elizabeth, still on her knees, looked up. A soft blush covered her face as she gave a happy little laugh.
"Yes—it's true," she whispered. "Oh, Aunt Susan, I'm so happy!"
Outside, Nathan Hornby seized the opportunity to look around the barns.
"Good cattle sheds," he remarked to himself. "Good bunch of pigs, too. I hope 'e ain't goin' into debt, as they say, but I swan, it looks like it."
Nathan's survey of the barns had given the two women inside the house time to talk over the affair so close to their hearts, and the little sitting room had been turned into a temple by the presence of a young mother that was to be and that older but childless mother who loved her as her own. Elizabeth, still on her knees, laid her head in Aunt Susan's lap as of old, and Susan Hornby, with every hurt buried, listened to her confessions, with her free hand feeling its way over the thick braids as she prayed earnestly in her heart that her beloved child would go through the travail awaiting her without harm and not be left childless in her old age.
When Nathan's heavy boot crunched on the snow-covered doorstep, Elizabeth ran to meet him with the broom and a whole world's wealth of welcome in voice and manner.
"I'm so glad you came to-day. I've been wanting Aunt Susan so of late. Isn't it a heavy snow for this late in the season?"
She rattled busily along to carry the impress of welcome, for the old man had not responded to her as his wife had done.
"Well, now," said candid Nathan, "you don't exactly give one th' impression of pinin' t' see folks when you never come over at all."
Elizabeth knew that though he regarded the broom with which he brushed at his boots with extra attention, he was listening closely for her answer.
"There's John!" she cried, seeing her husband as he drove a bunch of calves into the lane. She hastened to tell her guest that her husband had been some miles to the west to attend a sale, and pretended to have forgotten Nathan's awkward remark.
She was glad to see that John left Jake to turn the calves into the yards and came to the house at once, with cordiality shining out of every line of his face. He made Nathan Hornby so welcome that every sign of displeasure faded from Nathan's countenance. He gave a hasty brush at his boots and came in to shake hands with Susan Hornby. He stirred the fire briskly, and remarked to Nathan:
"Ain't that a dandy bunch of calves? I had a chance to get them at that Irishman's sale—I forget his name—oh, yes, Tim—Tim—you know? I ought to know myself since I just signed a note to him. Averaged eighteen dollars a head—forty-three of 'em. With corn at thirty cents, they'll turn quick money."
The fire roared under his vigorous poking, and he applied himself to putting more coal in the stove without looking up.
Elizabeth Hunter's face lost the happy expression with which she had been regarding him as he welcomed the old couple and stirred the fire, presumably for their benefit. He had been glad to see them: they had helped him over an awkward announcement. He had not told her he meant to get these cattle, and he had let her think that he meant to take her advice and not go into debt any more than he had already done.
John Hunter heard his wife's low exclamation of surprise. He was glad it was over.
Susan Hornby heard it too and caught the sick look on her face, but though she wondered about it she asked no questions, for Elizabeth Hunter was a woman of reserve. Elizabeth Hunter had developed a power unknown to Elizabeth Farnshaw.
"Got a good many sheds built a'ready, I see," was the next remark the girl heard.
"Yes," John replied, still devoting himself to the fire. "I expected to get the stock sooner—haven't used it all this year—but it's there for next season. I've got about all the cattle I'll get now. I told Carter I'd take seventeen head of his. He was going to put them up at his sale next week, but I persuaded him to let me have them in a bunch. I'll get them home to-morrow. Got 'em on 6 per cent. They'll grow into money every day this summer—mostly two-year-olds. Don't you think so?"
"That's all owin'," Nathan replied slowly. "Cattle take a lot of cover, an' you ain't usin' straw sheds."
"Oh, my sheds ain't cost so very much," John replied easily. "They're substantial too. I don't think much of the straw-shed business. It'll do for Hansen, now, that ain't got anything to put under cover, but when a man's got anything——" John filled out the sentence with an expressive gesture, and then before any one could speak said casually: "By the way, I hear the Swede's going to be married to-morrow."
"Married?" Elizabeth Hunter exclaimed. Every word of the conversation had been a stab, but to have Luther called a Swede was too much.
"Yes, dear," Aunt Susan said, laying a hand on her arm. "I meant to have told you and I hadn't got to it yet. Nate and I are invited to the wedding. It's Sadie Crane, you know."
Elizabeth fell into the nearest chair utterly limp. "Sadie Crane?" she said over and over.
"I knew you'd hate to have it Sadie, but any woman could be glad to get a man as good as Luther, and she's crazy over him. He'll make her a good husband whether she makes a good wife or not. She'll have her own way a good deal further than most wives."
John Hunter suspected that the latter was said for his benefit.
Nathan and Susan Hornby disagreed, as much as it was possible for them to do, on the way home.
"You may say what you please, if she don't come it's because she don't want to. You couldn't ask for a more rousin' welcome 'n he give us," Nathan said as he watched the forefoot on the off horse to see whether it was a cake of snow that made it limp or a more serious trouble.
"It wasn't any more rousing than hers was when I went in and—and look how he spoke of Luther," Susan replied hesitatingly. She hardly dare point out the weakness of John, however angry she was at him, for she had had trouble enough to get Nathan to bring her at all.
"That's so," Nathan admitted. "They're a pair of snobs, anyhow. You think she treats you all right, but you saw how she shied round th' subject when I put it straight to 'er. I went because you wanted me to—but I ain't sure——" Nathan Hornby ceased to speak before his sentence was finished. Elizabeth's neglect had been another nail in the coffin of his friendly trust. Susan had had hard work to persuade him to bring her to-day and had hoped that some lucky circumstance would help to dispel his suspicions. This had looked possible at first, but she saw that he still nursed his grievances.
Susan had her suspicions also, but they were of John, not of Elizabeth. Elizabeth had been as glad to see her as she had always been, whatever there might have been that was unexplainable on the surface. Susan Hornby knew with a knowledge that was unassailable that Elizabeth Hunter loved her as much as Elizabeth Farnshaw had done.