"Where on earth are you going?" John asked in profound astonishment.
"I told Mr. Noland to hitch up and take me to Uncle Nathan's, but now that you are here, you can go if you wish," Elizabeth replied quietly. "I should have gone a long time ago. Will you go along mother, or will you stay at home after climbing these drifts all day? I think now that you're at home we'll take the sled instead of the wagon. You won't mind making the change, will you?"
She ended by addressing the new man, and it was all so naturally done that John Hunter swallowed whatever was uncomfortable in it. He would not go himself, and Elizabeth set off with the stranger, glad of the chance to do so.
"I'll drive right home and help with things there. What time shall I come back for you?" Noland asked as he set her on the ground as near Nathan's doorstep as he could get the team to go.
"Not till after five. Mother's there and I'll let her get your suppers, and I'll get mine here with Uncle Nate."
It was such a perfectly normal arrangement that Hugh Noland did not guess that there was anything new in it. He drove away with a feeling of disappointment because he had been unable to draw her into conversation on the way over. She had proven herself a good conversationalist at meals and he looked forward to a time when he would be a permanent part of that household. Luther and Silas had been right. Here was the partner he was looking for if he could only make himself appreciated.
He had laid out every faculty and put it to the best use for that purpose and had been a bit disconcerted to have her suddenly become uncommunicative.
Nathan was at the barn; he saw them stop and recognized his visitor.
"Humph!" he snorted in disgust. However, a man could not leave a woman with a baby in her arms standing on his doorstep on a raw February day.
"How do you do, Uncle Nate?" the girl said timidly as soon as he was near enough to accost.
Nathan's greeting was short and inhospitable. He did not offer to shake hands, nor pretend to see the hand she extended to him. Instead, he opened the door and invited her gruffly to enter. Closing the door behind them, he went to the stove and began to stir the fire industriously.
Elizabeth saw that she must have the difficulty over at once or her courage would wilt. Setting Jack on the floor, she went to Nathan and put her hand on his arm detainingly.
"You have fire enough, Uncle Nate. Let me talk to you."
"Well?" he said briefly.
The girl was staggered by the nature of her reception. It was worse than she had expected. Luther Hansen's estimate of the real situation had been only too right. She stood before Nathan Hornby trembling and disconcerted by the wall of his silence. The old kitchen clock ticked loudly, she could hear her own pulses, and the freshly stirred fire roared—roared in a rusty and unpolished stove. Dust lay thick on the unswept floor. Nathan needed her. She would win her way back to his heart.
"Uncle Nate, I don't blame you one bit if you aren't nice to me. I haven't deserved it, but——"
"I guess you needn't 'Uncle Nate' me any more," he said when she paused.
His speech was bitter and full of animosity, but it was better than his compelling silence.
"I don't blame you one bit for being mad at me——I should think you would be. I don't know what I'm going to say to you either, but I've come to beg your forgiveness," she stammered.
Nathan Hornby did not speak, but waited coldly for her to continue. There was plainly no help offered her.
"I—I can't explain, Uncle Nate—I am going to call you so—you—you shall not put me away. I have come for your forgiveness and—and I'm going to stay till I get it. I—I can't explain—there—there are things in life that we can't explain, but I'm innocent of this stuck-up business you think I've had. I—I've loved you and Aunt Susan. Oh, Uncle Nate, I've loved her better than I ever did my own mother," she ended with a sob.
There was the voice of honesty in what she said, but Nathan remembered his wrongs.
"If that's so, why didn't you come t' see 'er?" he said. "If you loved 'er, why'd you let 'er go down to 'er grave a pinin' for you? She looked for you till she was crazy 'most, an' she never got a decent word out of you, nor a decent visit neither. If you loved 'er, what'd you act that way for?"
The memory of that last day, when his wife had yearned so pitifully for this girl, arose before him as he stood there, and shook his faith in the honesty of Elizabeth's purposes in spite of the earnestness of her manner.
"That is the one thing I cannot explain, Uncle Nate," Elizabeth answered. "I—I was all ready to come that day and—and—then I couldn't."
She buried her face in her hands at the memory of it and burst into tears.
"Is it true that Hunter won't take you anywhere?" he asked pointedly.
"You have been listening to the Cranes," she answered.
"I've been listenin' t' more'n them," he said with the fixed purpose of drawing her out on the subject. "I've been listenin' t' some as says you're too high and mighty t' associate with th' likes of us—an' I've heard it said that your husband won't take you nowhere. Now I just naturally know that a man can't shut a woman up in this American country, so's she can't go anywhere she wants t', if she wants t' bad enough; an' I remember how Hunter was 'fore 'e married you; 'e was always on th' go—an' there's a nigger in th' woodpile somewheres."
Elizabeth was for the moment staggered. What he said was so true. And yet, how untrue! It was hard to think with the eye of suspicion on her. Appearances were against her, but she was determined not to discuss the privacies of her married life. She paused and looked Nathan squarely in the face till she could control her reasoning faculties.
"That is neither here nor there," she said quite firmly at last. "I shall not defend myself to you, Uncle Nate, nor explain away bad reports. It would not help me and it would not help you. What I am here for is to offer you my love now. What I want you to believe is that I mean it, that I've wanted to come, that I'm here because I want to be here, and that I never mean to neglect you again. I—I couldn't come to see her—but, oh, Uncle Nate, mayn't I come to see you? I can't tell you all the little ins and outs of why I haven't come before, but you must believe me."
Elizabeth ended imploringly.
The man was softened by her evident sincerity in spite of himself, and yet his wound was of long standing, his belief in her honesty shaken, his beloved wife in her grave, assisted to her final stroke by this girl's neglect, and he could not lay his bitterness aside easily. He did not speak.
The silence which followed was broken only by the ticking of the old-fashioned Seth Thomas clock and the roar of the fire.
Elizabeth looked around the familiar room in her dilemma, entangled in the mesh of her loyalty to her husband's dubious and misleading actions. Nearly every article in that room was associated with some tender recollection in the girl's mind. Not even the perplexity of the moment could entirely shut out the reminiscent side of the occasion. The bread-board, dusty and unused, leaned against the flour barrel, the little line above it where the dishtowels should hang sagged under the weight of a bridle hung there to warm the frosty bit, the rocking chair, mended with broom wire after the cyclone, and on its back Aunt Susan's chambray sunbonnet where it had fallen from its nail: all familiar. With a little cry Elizabeth fell on her knees by Nathan Hornby's side.
"Oh, Uncle Nate! you can't tell what others have to contend with, and—and you must not even ask, but——" She could not proceed for sobs.
Nathan Hornby's own face twitched and trembled with emotion. The girl had unconsciously used Susan's own last words. His heart was touched. Susan's great love for Elizabeth pleaded for her.
"Can't I come, Uncle Nate? Won't you be friends with me?"
And Nathan Hornby, who wanted her friendship, answered reluctantly:
"Yes-s-s—come along if you want t'. You won't find it a very cheerful place t' come to, but she'd be glad t' know you're here, I guess."
Jack, sitting in his shawls and wraps on the floor, began to cry. He had been neglected long enough. His mother got suddenly to her feet. Both stooped to take the baby. Elizabeth resigned him to Nathan, instinctively realizing that Jack was a good advocate in her favour if Nathan still retained fragments of his grievances. She let the old man retain him on his lap while she busied herself about him unpinning his shawls.
It was home-like and companionable to have a woman and baby in the house, and Nathan Hornby had been lonesome a long time. He clucked to the baby and began to trot him up and down on his knee. With a relieved sigh Elizabeth dropped into a chair and watched them.
Jack, unaccustomed to whiskers, put his hand out to investigate. Nathan waggled his chin to shake its pendant brush, and Jack started nervously. Nathan looked across at Elizabeth and laughed. That little laugh did a world of good in aiding Elizabeth's plans. It was not possible for Nathan to catch her eye in good-natured raillery and remain cool of manner; that laugh and the glance that went with it did much to wash away his hurt. In his secret soul Nathan had craved Elizabeth's love and Elizabeth's baby. She had been like a daughter in the house. He had missed her almost as much as his wife had done, but he had resented her long absence. He had come to the house determined not to forget his wrongs, and here he was, in less than fifteen minutes, smiling at her over the head of the baby in friendly amusement. He was puzzled now at the readiness with which he had given in, but Nathan found his love stronger than his grievances.
"Take off your things, Lizzie; th' house's yours if you—if you really want it to be."
Elizabeth took off her wraps and prepared to begin work on the disorderly kitchen. Aunt Susan's limp apron hung on the nail from which the bonnet had fallen, and she put it on, looking about her, undecided where it was best to commence.
"I've come to help—where shall I begin?" she said.
"If I could tell you what t' do I could 'a' done it myself," Nathan said ruefully.
Elizabeth thought of the orderly wife who was gone and a sob arose in her throat.
"Oh, Uncle Nate! You don't know how I miss her sometimes."
And Nathan Hornby replied sadly:
"I kind a think maybe I do."
* * * * *
The night was cloudy and the long diagonal drifts made it hard to drive after dark. The chores had kept Noland later than he had thought and it was dusk when he arrived at Nathan's for Elizabeth.
Hugh Noland had been spending the afternoon with John Hunter about the barn, measuring him and talking of farm prospects. Here was the place for him to settle down, if he could arrange for a partnership. He was so much convinced of this that he was endeavouring to make the alliances of friendship before he led up to the more serious one. It had baffled him to have Elizabeth answer in monosyllables both going to Mr. Hornby's and again during their return; he wanted to talk. Her home was the first farmhouse he had ever entered that he felt could be home to him; its evidences of culture and refinement had made as lasting an impression upon Hugh Noland as that same home had done upon Elizabeth when John Hunter had taken her to see his mother in it. It was an oasis in the rural desert. He meant to exert every effort to establish himself in it. When Elizabeth did not respond to his attempts at conversation, he fell back upon the analysis of herself and her husband which had been going on in his mind all day. They were evidently not people who felt above their neighbours on account of their superior education, for she had gone to spend a whole afternoon with that plain old farmer and she had shown the liveliest interest, even friendship, for the Swede on the other side of the farm. He liked them the better for that. If a man or woman lived in a community he or she should be a part of that community. Hugh Noland never doubted that the friendly interest he had witnessed was the regularly established course of action and that it was mutual in the household. Coming into the household at this transition point, he was to make many such mistakes in his estimates.
John Hunter was at the side gate to assist his wife and baby out of the sled. He left Elizabeth to carry Jack to the house and went to the barn to help Noland put the team away. This man, who took milking as a lark, and all farm work as a thing to be desired, and yet was a gentleman, was to John Hunter, who scorned these things as beneath himself, an anomaly. It had never occurred to John that labour of that sort could have dignity, nor that a man could choose it as a livelihood unless driven to it. It had never occurred to him that if driven to it one should enter into it as a real participant. To him it was a thing to endure for a time and never refer to after it could be put behind him. The beauty of the dawn, the pleasant odours of new-mown hay, the freshness of the crisp air, the association with the living creatures about him, the joys of a clean life, all escaped him. Hugh Noland had enumerated these things, and many more, while they had worked together that afternoon, and John Hunter accepted the enumeration, not because it was fundamentally true, but because it was the estimate of a cultured and well-educated man.
John Hunter had been vexed at Elizabeth for the sangfroid with which she had walked away from established custom in ordering the team prepared for her to be taken to Nathan's, but with Noland present he had accepted it without remark. Here was a man before whom John would always, but instinctively rather than premeditatively, endeavour to show his best side.
Hugh Noland went to the house with John, talking farm work and prices of produce as if they were matters of pleasant as well as necessary importance, and he set John to talking in his best vein and without superciliousness; he had the faculty of bringing out the best in the people he met. He brought some of his books—he had stopped at the Chamberlain homestead for his trunk on their return that evening—and added them to those already on the Hunter shelves. While arranging them, he sat on the floor before the bookcase and glancing over the titles of those belonging to the family, opened an occasional one and read aloud a verse or a paragraph or two. He read with zest and enthusiasm. He was fresh from the world of lectures and theatres, and the social life of the city, and became a rejuvenating leaven for this entire household.
* * * * *
Luther was on Elizabeth's mind when she awakened the next morning, and as soon as the breakfast work was finished and she had time to get the house in order, she decided to move from her new standpoint and go to see him. To this end she asked Mrs. Hunter to keep Jack while she was gone, and to the older woman's objections that she should let the men hitch up the sled and drive her over she answered firmly:
"I don't want a word said about it. I will go whenever I please without arguing it with anybody."
In her secret soul she was glad to get past the barn without John seeing her. She would not have permitted him to stop her, or delay her visit, but a discussion with her husband was apt to hold surprises and she to become confused and angry, and worsted in the manner of her insistence. To get away without having to explain put her in good spirits.
The sun shone brightly and the air, though snappy and cold, was brisk and fresh. It was the first free walk of a mile Elizabeth had ever taken since her marriage. Elizabeth was herself again. She skirted around the long drifts as she crossed the field humming a snatch of tune with all her blood atingle with the delight of being alone in the vast silent fields. The mere passing of time since Aunt Susan's death had gradually worked a change in her condition, which Luther's presence and the stimulating quality of his words, John's absence, the intoxication of the wild and unfettered storm, the visit to Nathan Hornby's, and the invigorating personality of Hugh Noland had combined to rejuvenate in the crushed and beaten girl. Life held meanings to which she had long been blind. Elizabeth set about the reorganizing of her life with no bitterness toward John, only glad to have found herself, with duty to herself as well as others still possible.
Sadie Hansen met Elizabeth at the door with such evident uneasiness that Elizabeth was moved to ask:
"Luther's all right, Sadie?"
"Yes-s-s!" Sadie replied slowly, and with such reluctance that Elizabeth was puzzled.
Sadie took her to the bedroom and shut the door behind her as tight as if she hoped to shut out some evil spirit in the action. Her manner filled Elizabeth with curiosity, but she crossed to Luther and held out her hand.
"Before you 'uns begin," Sadie said with the air of burning her bridges behind her, and before any one had had a chance to speak, "I want t' tell you something. I could 'a' told it in th' kitchen," she stammered, "but I made up my mind last night that I'd have it out with both of you. I've done you th' meanest trick, Lizzie. Luther said you was goin' t' Hornby's yesterday. Did you go?"
Elizabeth, standing at the head of Luther's bed, nodded in her surprise, feeling that her visit with Nathan was not a subject to which she could lend words.
"Now look here, Lizzie, if what I said t' th' Hornbys has made any difference, I'll go t' him an' take it back right before your face."
Elizabeth's eyes opened in astonishment.
"Uncle Nate did not mention it to me," Elizabeth replied.
"Well, I've made up my mind I want t' tell it, an' have it off my mind."
Sadie considered a moment and then plunged into her tale hurriedly, for fear that her courage would cease to support her.
"Well, when I was to your house last summer, an' you told me about th' effect it had on a baby t' have a mother that never got mad, I come home an' tried t' do everything I thought you meant an'—seems t' me I never was s' mean in my life. Mean feelin' I mean. I got along pretty well at first—I guess it was somethin' new—? but th' nearer I got t' th' time, th' worse I got. I scolded Luther Hansen till I know he wished he'd never been born. Th' worst of it was that I'd told 'im how—what a difference it made, and he was that anxious——?"
Luther raised his hand to protest, but Sadie waved him aside and continued:
"Oh, you needn't defend me, Luther!" she exclaimed. "I've been meaner 'n you know of." Turning to Elizabeth again, "I used t' look over t' your house an' feel—an' feel 's if I could only see you an' talk a while, I'd git over wantin' t' be s' mean, but you wouldn't never come t' see us—an'—an' I didn't feel's if—I didn't feel free t' go any more, 'cause ma said you didn't want t' be sociable with our kind of folks."
Sadie paused a moment to crease the hem of her apron and get the twitching out of the corners of her distressed mouth.
"Well, at last, when you didn't come, an' I couldn't git no help from no one, I just said every mean thing I could. I told Hornby a week 'fore his wife died that you said you didn't want t' change visits with us country jakes, 'cause you wanted your boy t' be different from th' likes of us. Ma'd heard that somewhere, but I told it t' 'im 's if you'd said it t' me. Sue Hornby put 'er hand on my arm an' said, so kind like, 'Sadie, ain't you 'fraid t' talk that way an' you in that fix?' An' I just cried an' cried, an' couldn't even tell 'er I'd tried t' do different."
Luther Hansen had been trying to interrupt the flow of his wife's confession, and broke in at this point by saying:
"Sadie's nervous an' upset over——"
"No, I ain't," Sadie replied hastily. "I've been as mean as mud, an' here she's took care of you, an' I've gone an' got Hornby mad at 'er. He believed what I told, if 'is wife didn't. They say, Lizzie, that 'e lives there all by 'iself an'——" Sadie choked, and waited for Elizabeth to speak.
"I guess you've worried about nothing," Elizabeth said brightly. "I've been to see him, and we're good friends—the best kind in fact, and no one could ever make us anything else hereafter." She looked down at Luther and smiled.
"Will it make any difference with my baby?" Sadie asked anxiously, her mind working like a treadmill in its own little round.
"No, Sadie—that is, I guess not. I've been thinking, as I listened to you, that the way you tried would have to count—it's bigger than anything else you've done."
Sadie Hansen dropped into a chair sobbing hysterically.
Elizabeth's hand went to the girl's shoulder comfortingly.
"God does not ask that we succeed, Sadie; he asks that we try."
* * * * *
Elizabeth was back in her own kitchen in time to get dinner. John had seen her as she came home, but made no remark.
At the end of three weeks there was a consultation between Hugh Noland and John regarding a possible partnership. Not only did Noland like John Hunter, but he was delighted with the atmosphere with which he found him surrounded.
"This is a home," had been Hugh's secret analysis of the household. In fact the home was the main feature of the Hunter farm, the main reason for wishing to stay.
To John the offer of partnership was a blessing from heaven itself. The matter of interest was pressing on him far more than he had acknowledged to Elizabeth. It galled him to discuss things with her since she had ceased to ask about them or even to show any concern. He did not realize that she had been compelled to consider the matter hopeless.
It was agreed that Hugh should lift the indebtedness and have one half interest in the concern, land and stock. There would be about five hundred dollars left over after all the debts were paid, and John gleefully decided to buy some more calves with the residue.
"But we shall need every cent of that for running expenses this summer," Noland objected.
"Oh, well, if we do, we can always get money on sixty or ninety day loans," John replied easily.
"I'd rather not go into debt, with my health," the new partner said decidedly.
He happened to look across at Elizabeth and caught the alert sign of approval in her face. He had heard Silas and some others discuss the Hunter mortgages, but here was a still more significant evidence. Elizabeth had not signalled him, but the look told the story; in fact, it told more than the girl had intended.
"I should consider it a necessary condition of any business I went into," he added steadily. "I am an uncertain quantity, as I have told you, with this heart, and I could not be worried with debts."
Elizabeth did not look at him this time, but he saw the look of satisfaction and heard her indrawn breath. And now the really lovable side of Hugh Noland began to show out. Feeling now that he was a real member of the family, he began to give himself to its pleasing features. The evening's reading became a thing to which the whole group looked forward. The flow of companionship exceeded anything any member of the family had ever anticipated. Jake arrived in time for the spring work, as he had agreed, and was astonished by every feature of the family life which he saw about him. Elizabeth was cheerful, even happy, while John Hunter was another man. Jake figured out the changes about him wistfully, craving a part in the good-fellowship. Here was contentment such as Jake had never witnessed. Not a trace of the old tragic conditions seemed to remain. Jake had missed the key to the situation by his absence at the time of the blizzard, but he was keenly aware that some change had been wrought. He studied Hugh Noland and was even more enthusiastic about his personality and powers than the family. All called the new man by his given name, a sure sign of their affection.
Elizabeth had worked a radical change in her life. Jake watched her come and go without remark from her husband, give her orders to Hugh to hitch up for her if she chose to drive, or if she walked, going without permission, and was almost as pleased as she. He saw that she had learned to keep her own counsel and not to speak of her plans till the time for action had arrived. He felt a something new in her.
Elizabeth had, in fact, learned that while openness was a point of character, nevertheless, if she dealt openly with her husband it led to quarrelsome discussions. She saw that John did not know why he opposed her, that it was instinctive. As she studied him, however, she found how widely separated they were in spirit. The calm which Jake saw, was all there, but there were other things fully as vital which had not been there before. The self-questioning of those months previous to Aunt Susan's death had been productive of results. While a certain openness of attitude had disappeared, there was the strength which has all the difference between deceit and reserve in Elizabeth Hunter's face.
THE CHILD OF HER BODY
In the spring Elizabeth's affairs, which had promised to straighten out, were complicated from a new quarter. She was now to test her strength against the greatest of all problems for women and to find out if she could put her precepts into practice. The probability of a second child had become a certainty; the necessity of adjusting her good-will to accidental child-bearing was upon her. Often and often her words to Sadie—"I always wanted my baby"—rose up to accuse her. Only of late had suspicion become a certainty. Elizabeth did not greet that certainty with joy. Life was hard; she had more work to do already than she was able to perform; try as she would she could not get her mental consent. Why must she have this undesired child? When the thought first wormed its way into her head, Elizabeth passed from disappointment to self-accusation. By every law of God and man a mother should want her child; if she did not, then she stood accused at Nature's bar.
"For its sake I've got to want it; I'll make myself," she decided. But she did not want it, and found to her growing dismay that she could not make herself satisfied about it. Instead of becoming reconciled, the question enlarged and grew and gained in point and force. The girl decided that she would be glad in spite of every opposing thing, but her resolution was formed with tears in her heart, if not in her eyes, and the weary ache in her back never ceased. "It must not be so. My child must be welcome!" Elizabeth told herself each morning, but she was too tired; it was not welcome, and all her efforts failed to make it so.
John was vexed when he found her in tears.
"The idea!" he exclaimed. "Now if we were too poor to feed and clothe it there'd be some excuse, but——" He made his pause as expressive as he could.
"It isn't that. I—I'm so tired and—I ought to be glad—and—and I'm not," she began.
"Well, I suppose with mother gone"—Mrs. Hunter had returned to her old home on a visit—"you have got a good deal to look after, but I've got to get to the field now. You're always raking something up that looks wrong to you. If you'd stick to your work and not run around looking for trouble you'd be able to want it, maybe."
The force of her husband's suggestion struck the girl. Perhaps it was true that she had missed the very highest for herself in loving ease and comfort enough to seek them. To put discontent away from her and to keep her thoughts occupied she began the spring housecleaning. There was so much regular cooking and milk work that only one room could be attacked at a time, but she kept busy, and the plan worked admirably during the day. She was not sleeping well, however, and found that nights have a power all their own. When the lights went out, thought held the girl in its relentless grip. It was of no use to lengthen her working hours in the hope that sleep would come more promptly, for the more exhausted Elizabeth became the less able was she to sleep, and thought stared at her out of the darkness with eyes like living coals.
Wherever Elizabeth turned this monster confronted her, this monster whose tail was a question mark, whose body obscured everything on the horizon of the immediate future except its own repulsive presence, and threw her back upon the suffering present and the much to be deplored past. Was it right to permit a child to come when joy had gone out of relations between its parents? This question grew and ripened and spread, and whenever she summoned up enough will-power to weed it out for an hour it would spring up anew, refreshed and more tenacious than ever.
"Whether it's right or not for John and me to have a child after we've quit loving each other, if I can only be glad it's coming, or even be willing to have it, I won't mind, now," she told herself. But she was not glad, and she was not even willing. She dragged herself about, keeping busy day after day as her husband had advised; it was her only refuge, and one which could not avail very long, for already she was worn out. On the last day of the cleaning, Hugh Noland came to the door of her room and speaking from the outside said:
"I came in to see if I couldn't help you a little in getting ready for those shellers, Mrs. Hunter." Hugh had noticed her weary look of late, and, as all the men about the house did, tried to help whenever there was time to be spared from the fields or when extra work was required of her.
Elizabeth backed out of the closet she was cleaning, and came around to the door.
"Shellers? Are we going to have shellers?"
"To-morrow," he said in surprise.
In spite of her exclamation of astonishment Elizabeth noted a familiar look on Hugh Noland's face which had something in it that always caught her attention. Always when an unexpected thing came upon Hugh, Elizabeth had a sense of having had past relations with him.
"You don't tell me you didn't know?"
"I surely didn't. When did John go to see the men about it? Why, I haven't even bread baked!" she exclaimed.
"That's funny! Well—I suppose he forgot to tell you. The men passed here before dinner and he went out to the road and engaged them. We've got a little corn left over, and prices seem to be up this week."
"Well, it's only one of many things," she said, trying to smile.
Her eyes wandered over the disordered bedroom as she considered. Clothing, boots, shoes, and other articles of apparel lay scattered over the bed. Her orderly soul could not leave them without finishing.
"I'll tell you what you do—I'll straighten up here. You go over to Uncle Nate's and get me some yeast. I'll have to bake. I made him some yeast the last time I made for myself, and he'll have some left. It's been too damp and cloudy to make any of late. Then I'll see what you can do," she said wearily. "I surely will need help if I've got to have a dozen extra men without notice. I suppose John forgot. He's usually thoughtful about the cooking for strange men."
Something in the hurt, weary look of her went to Hugh Noland's heart.
"I'll run over to Hornby's and back in half an hour unless he's at the far side of the field. Anyhow, I'll get back the very first minute I can. I have to start to Mitchell County to-morrow, early in the morning, so I won't have any time to do anything except to-night. I can kill the chickens for you, and bring things up out of the cellar. What on earth made anybody put a cave as far from the kitchen door as that for is more than I can see," he said, taking vengeance on the first unpleasant feature of her circumstances that presented itself.
Hugh did not at all understand why she was sick and unequal to the demands made upon her strength, but he did see that she was so, and that her tired young face wore a discouraged expression.
"I'll take Jack with me; that'll help some," he said as an afterthought.
"If you would——" The relief in her voice told the strain it was upon her to work and watch the toddling child. "I'll tell you—hurry back and tack this carpet down for me. I'll have the room and closet straightened up so that you can do it by then."
She wiped Jack's dirty face with the end of a towel she thrust into the water pitcher on the washstand and sent him off with a kiss to the welcome ride. As she worked after they were gone, she ran over in her mind the supplies on hand for the feeding of fifteen men on such short notice. Threshing and corn-shelling meant hard work to the men who followed the business, but it meant feasting and festivity as well, and it was with the prospect of much cooking on the morrow that Elizabeth furrowed her forehead, and hurried with the replacing of the contents of the closet. There was a sponge to be set to-night and bread to bake to-morrow; there was a cake to be baked, beans picked over and set to soak, and dried fruit to stew; also, and what was more annoying, she had let the churning run over for twenty-four hours in order to finish her cleaning.
"If I can't get around to that churning, I'll just let it go if it does sour," she decided at last.
When Hugh came back she set him to work at the carpet and went to the kitchen to look after things there. Nathan had offered to keep Jack when he heard of the unexpected work his mother was going to have thrust upon her, and Hugh, remembering Elizabeth's relieved expression when he had offered to bring the child, was only too glad to leave him in such good hands.
"How long is that child going to stay at Hornby's?" John demanded the next morning. He set the heavy cream jar on the table and faced Elizabeth, who was kneading the bread on the big bread-board which rested on the top of the flour barrel.
"I don't know—till Uncle Nate gets time to bring him home to-day, I suppose."
Elizabeth did not look up.
"Well, I don't want this thing to happen again. A child that age has no business away from home. What was your idea, anyhow?"
"Ask Hugh. I didn't have anything to do with it. I didn't even know it till he got back. He knew you had engaged the shellers without giving me any notice, and he knew I had too much for any woman to do. Uncle Nate knew it too. Go on, and don't bother me this morning; I'm so tired I can't talk about it, anyhow."
John Hunter was instantly apologetic.
"Oh, well, if Hugh did it I suppose he meant well. He got off all right. I look for some results with that Mitchell County land if he goes into it right. I'll send the cattle down as soon as he has time to get the fences in line and a man to look after them. I brought this cream up; it won't keep any longer."
John lifted the lid of the cream jar and sniffed with disapproval. "I'll just put it into the churn for you."
"Oh, dear! what did you bring it up for to-day? I can't churn with all I've got to do. Take it back."
"It won't keep!"
"Well—I can't churn, and I won't, so there! I've got all I can do to-day. I should not have let it go, but the cleaning dragged so; besides, I didn't know I was going to have all these men to-day and I thought I could get it done. Take it back. I can't have the churn around in the way to-day. I've never let a churning go to waste in my life, but if this gets too sour it won't cost any more than to have hired a girl to help with the work this week. Go on, and take it to the cellar and let me alone."
Elizabeth turned her back to show him that the argument was over, and did not see that he went out without it, leaving it on the back of the one small kitchen table she had. The pies she had just finished baking were ready to be taken from the oven, and when she turned to put them on the table she was confronted by the cream jar. The table was not large and she must have room for the food to be cooked that day, so Elizabeth lifted the heavy jar from the table and, after the pies were out, brought the churn. She could not carry it to the cellar again and there was no other way.
The sour cream refused to yield, and the girl churned on and on while she watched the dinner cook. The dinner boiled and bubbled, and the stove was working as actively in the kitchen as the corn-sheller was doing in the barnyard, when Nathan set Jack in the doorway and followed him in. Nathan sniffed appreciatively.
"Smells pretty good in here," he said, and then surveying the room in surprise added, "What on earth be you churnin' for? Ain't you got enough t' do, child?"
Elizabeth stooped to gather Jack into her arms and made no reply.
"It's as hot as th' devil in here," Nathan said, taking his coat off. "Here let me have a turn at that churn. You ought t' be in bed. That's where Sue'd put you if she was here."
He took the dasher into his own hand and began a brave onslaught on the over-sour cream. The butter gave signs of coming, but would not gather. He churned, and the sweat of his brow had to be wiped frequently to keep it from where he would literally have it to eat; it ran down inside his prickly blue flannel shirt, it stood out on his hair, hands and arms like dew on the morning grass, and the old man looked out to the wheezing corn-sheller and envied the men working in the cool breeze where life and courage could be sustained while one laboured.
"I wouldn't be a woman for fifty dollars a day," he announced with grim conviction. "It'd make a devil out of anybody t' work in this hell-hole. No wonder you're s' peeked, child."
* * * * *
John came back to the house almost immediately after leaving it to go to work in the afternoon.
"You'll have to bake more pies, Elizabeth. The men have been put back by a breakdown. They won't be able to get through before five or half-past," he said, coming into the kitchen to investigate the larder.
"They can't?" Elizabeth exclaimed, longing for the rest she had planned to get after the dinner work was finished.
"No. It's too bad, but it can't be helped. Now you get the oven going and I'll come in and help you about beating the eggs. You'll have to make custard pie, I guess, for there ain't enough fruit to make any more. Hurry, and I'll be in in a few minutes."
"I'm not going to make any more pies to-day," Elizabeth replied.
"You'll have to. Men like pies better than anything you could put on the table. How are you off for meat? Have you chicken enough left or shall I bring up a ham?"
Elizabeth faced this second meal with a dread she could not have expressed; she was so tired that she could scarcely stand; her back ached, and there was a strange pain pulling at her vitals.
"I'll attend to the supper. Go right on out of here. I am not going to bake any more pies. You crowded that churning on me this morning and you'd make my work double what it ought to be if I let you help. Go on!"
John brushed past her and lifted the bread-box.
The fierce heat of the cook stove, the pain in her back, the certain knowledge of suggestions to come, broke down the poise the girl was trying to maintain.
"I don't want any remarks about that bread-box! I've got sense enough to get supper. Go on out to your own work and let me attend to mine."
John Hunter stepped back in astonishment. He had been sympathetic, and had really wanted to be helpful. He was insulted and struck an attitude intended to convey the fact, but his wife closed the oven door with a bang and left the room without looking at him.
John punished his wife that night by letting her wash the supper dishes alone.
The next morning John continued to be aloof of manner and went to his work without attempting to empty the skimmed milk as usual, or to strain the new milk which stood at the top of the long cellar stairs. Elizabeth skimmed and strained and put the shelves in order. Her head ached, and her back never ceased hurting. When the last crock had been carried from the cave, the half-sick girl dragged herself to the bedroom and threw herself down on the unmade bed.
"I don't care—I won't do another stroke till I feel better, if it's never done. It wasn't nice for me to scold yesterday when he really wanted to help, but he makes so much extra work that I can't get it all done. It don't hurt him any more to be scolded than it does me to be kept on my feet after everything in my body is pulling out. He won't run off again and leave me to carry that heavy milk. I don't know why I didn't just leave it."
Elizabeth did not realize that she had done more than waste useful strength on useless tasks. She had yet to find out that it would have been cheaper to have left the entire contents of the cellar to sour or mould than to have worked on after she could do no more in comfort. It took Doctor Morgan to point out to her that farmers and their wives place undue value on a dollar's worth of milk, and that they support those of his profession at a far greater price than their butter would cost if they fed the milk to the pigs; also that they fill the asylums with victims and give younger women the chance to spend what they have worked to save after they are transplanted to other regions. They had been obliged to send for the doctor at noon.
The name of peritonitis did not impress the young wife with any importance when the old doctor warned her to lie still and rest. The fierce pain was eased by getting off her feet and she was so glad to rest that she took his advice, but she had had no illness and little experience with chronic ailments. He hoped to pull her through without the threatened disaster, but warned her solemnly.
"I'm glad we have you where you can't carry anything more out of that confounded hole in the ground," he said savagely. "You'd never quit till you were down, anyhow. Now don't you lift that child, no matter whether he cries or not."
He took John aside and talked to him seriously about his wife, and demanded that there be a hired girl procured. John listened as seriously and went to the kitchen and got the supper and prepared for breakfast. He worked diligently and took Elizabeth a dainty bite to eat, but when the question of a girl came up, he had his own say about that.
"I'll do the work in this house till you can get around yourself, but I never intend to look for a girl in this country again. You'll be stronger after a bit and then you can look for one."
He put Jack's nightgown over his little head and buttoned it in the back while he talked.
"This 'll pass over, and You'll be better in a week's time. I don't care if you have two girls, so I don't have to hunt them. Here, Jack, let me slip that shoe off."
"I can't seem to get well, though, with the drag of the housework on my mind," the girl said drearily.
Elizabeth wanted a woman in the kitchen. She lay without speaking for a moment, thinking that as usual she was unable to get the thing that her own judgment demanded. John would wash his dishes clean and keep the cooking and sweeping done as well as she, but she knew that the first day she would be out of bed she would be dragged to the kitchen to consult and oversee continually.
"Doctor Morgan said I might not be able to get around much all summer," she ventured, exaggerating the words of the old doctor somewhat in her determination to get help at all costs that would leave her free to get well.
"At least you can wait and see," John replied indifferently, already concerned with his own problems. He pushed Jack from his lap and sat lost in thought.
Elizabeth made it a rule never to argue unless there was hope of righting things. To say one word more was to lose her temper and that she tried not to do. The girl was really very ill; her head ached, and her body was sore and tender. She had not had a whole night's sleep for weeks and every nerve in her body cried out for rest; she wanted the light put out, she wanted to get quiet and to forget the house, and to be freed from the confusion; she was so nervous that she started at every noise. The night was cool and Jack, who shivered in his thin gown, crawled into his father's lap. John wanted to think at that moment, and to get rid of him put him firmly down on the foot of the bed, moving over to give him room at his side as he did so.
"Oh, don't shake the bed!" Elizabeth exclaimed, with such concentrated irritation that John set the child on the floor hastily.
"I only thought you could watch him a minute. I can't keep him on my lap all the time," John replied.
"Well, put him in the bed then, or tie him up or do something. I don't want to watch him, and his climbing around on the bed sets me crazy!" she exclaimed, pushing the child away from her pillow.
"We don't tie children up in the Hunter family," John replied, as usual falling upon the unimportant phase of the discussion and, instead of putting the child in bed, carried him off to the sitting room, where he fell into another brown study and let the baby slip from his lap again.
Jack, as soon as released, ran back to the bedroom and threw himself up against the side of the bed, stretching his arms up to be taken.
"Don't, dear; go to papa," Elizabeth said, trying to reach him.
Jack sidled away toward the foot of the bed, where he regarded his mother with stolid eyes, and beat a tattoo on the bed-rail with his hard little head.
"Jack! Don't do that!" she commanded sharply.
It was torture for her to have the bed jarred.
Jack, baby fashion, raised his head and gave the bed-rail another whack.
Elizabeth sat up suddenly and gave the child such a resounding slap that he sat down, shaking the whole house with the impact, his screams quite in keeping with the occasion. John carried the crying child out of the room, shutting the door with such a bang that the house and bed shook anew, and the girl had to bite her lip to keep from screaming.
It was the first time Elizabeth had ever struck her child in anger. Usually gentle and patient with his baby wilfulness, her heart recoiled at the deed. She knew that the possibilities of that action had been growing upon her of late. Nothing could excuse it to the accusing judge of Elizabeth's own soul. It was as if she were fenced around with a thousand devils; turn where she would there was no help and but little hope. She had come to understand herself enough to know that with sufficient provocation she would almost certainly do it again. The girl thought of her father. The deed was so like things that she had seen him do that she almost tore her hair as she prayed to be spared such a soul-destroying fate.
It was Jack's future estimates of her that caused her so much distress. The things emphasized by the mother in a home, she knew, were the things emphasized in the lives of her children. She had only to look at Jack's father to see the evidences of that truth. Mrs. Hunter's cleanliness and order, her tendency to over-emphasize details, were her son's strongest watchwords. It was absolutely imperative that she do the right thing by Jack. As she pondered she decided that she would rise up and make one more effort for the child. Then, like a creeping serpent, the thought of her attitude toward the child of her body suddenly presented its forked tongue and demanded that its future be reckoned with. From what principle was she dealing with it? Elizabeth knelt before the shrine of that child, not in joy and adoration, but with a fear which had almost become a hatred.
Elizabeth did not realize that it was the work and worry which she had gone through in these last weeks which made her irritable. She did not recognize the difference between nerves and temper, but she had come to understand that the unborn child was draining her strength. The prayer in her heart as she lay there thinking it out was for help to adjust her life to the conditions which she must meet, for strength to control herself, and for the power to so order her mental attitude toward this new child that she might be able to love it as it certainly deserved to be loved. But even as she prayed a horrible thought took possession of her:
"If only it would die and be prematurely released, as Doctor Morgan had said there was danger of it doing!"
It was then that Elizabeth Hunter realized the possibilities in herself. That was murder! If John complicated her work throughout eternity it would not warrant such an attitude. But this second child! It was the absorbing topic of her thoughts as she vainly tried to rest. She was so worn out that she could face no more work than she already had to do, and ever as she thought this serpent of temptation thrust its head out at her and said: "If the child would only die!"
Elizabeth had only to get out of bed and go to work to rid herself of the hateful burden in the present state of her health, but under no circumstances would she have done it. She would have parted with her right hand before she would have helped to destroy a life she had permitted to spring into being, and yet—— The thought occurred, and recurred, in spite of every effort, "If only——" And she knew that if it happened without her assistance she would be glad.
Elizabeth's distress increased, and when John brought her dinner on a tray covered with a fresh napkin and beside the plate a violet he and Jack had found in the pasture she brightened with pleasure at the dainty arrangement, but did not touch the food.
"Now be good to the baby; he's been asking for you all morning," he said, kissing Elizabeth with an effort at kindliness and understanding.
Elizabeth's head was aching wildly, and she was so nervous that she could scarcely endure being spoken to at all.
"Then don't leave him here, John, for I can't bear to have him fussing around," she said, trying to be appreciative.
"Oh, well, if you don't want him at all, I'll take him out again," he said crossly, setting the tray on a chair beside the bed.
He was able, however, to see that the girl was not altogether herself, and shut the door behind him carefully. The door shut so softly that the latch did not catch. When Jack finished his dinner he came running to his mother's room at once. The door gave way under his hand and he stood looking into the room curiously. After a glance around, he advanced confidently toward the bed with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.
Elizabeth set her teeth hard. She was unable to reach out and lift him to a chair where he would not jar the bed, so it was her intention to be patient.
Jack's eyes fell upon the tray as he passed it, and he wheeled around and took stock of the contents of this new form of table. Frantic with irritability and knowing that she would be at fault in the manner of correcting the child, his mother let him eat out of the plate she had left untouched, rather than have a scene with him. Presently, however, Jack laid down the spoon with which he had been eating and attacked a dish of berries with his hands, letting the drops from the ends of his fingers trickle down the front of his clean gingham dress. Elizabeth happened to look up and saw what he was doing. There was no telling when she could get another washing done and her impulse was to spring at him and snatch him from harm's way, but she was trying to be more gentle and, drawing in a deep breath, she spoke as quietly as she could command herself to do.
"Don't do that, Jack," she said, reaching out her hand to take him by the arm.
Jack clutched the dish in sudden haste and raised it to his mouth, letting a stream of the purple juice dribble from it to his own bulging front before his mother could get her hand on him. Then, fearing a repetition of the blow of the night before, the baby threw himself on the floor, screaming loudly.
John came excitedly from the kitchen.
"What have you done to him now?" he asked, and without waiting to hear her reply went out, flinging the door back with a crash.
It was nearly dark when Doctor Morgan came, but although he was anxious to get back to his office he saw at once that he must stay with the suffering girl.
In the morning he called John out to the buggy and had a little talk with him.
"I feel, Hunter, as if I'd been a little to blame for this thing," he said as he picked up his lines to start for home. "I thought you'd be able to see that noise and worry were bad for her. I ought to have impressed the gravity of her condition on you and warned you that she must not be worried by that baby. You can see every muscle in her set hard when the bed is jarred. That child's got to be kept out of there. Those things hurt a woman in that condition like a knife."
"She's been awfully cross and cried about everything this week, but she hasn't complained much—that is, of anything but a little backache," John replied, fingering the whipstock of the doctor's buggy and not able to connect the present serious illness with any real reason.
"Little backache!" Doctor Morgan exclaimed with exasperation. "I never seem to be able to get you men to understand that noise hurts a woman sometimes worse than if you'd hit her with a ball-bat. Hurts, mind! It ain't imagination; it hurts, and will send a fever up in no time. Have I made it clear to you?" he asked doubtfully.
"I guess you have," John said, relinquishing the whipstock. "She's been awfully fretful, but I never thought of her being sick enough for this."
"Well," the old doctor said emphatically. "You've lost the child, and You'll lose your wife if you don't look out. You get a girl in that kitchen, and see to it that she tends things without Mrs. Hunter having to look after her. She won't do another day's work for a good long time—and mind, I say, You'll lose her yet if you don't keep that child off her till she has a chance to get well."
As Doctor Morgan drove away he said meditatively:
"Think I got him that time. Blamed fool!"
"HER WAGES, FOOD AND CLOTHING SHE MUST ACCEPT"
Luther Hansen was at the door when John returned, and they entered the sitting room together. Jack was leaning against the bedroom door, and John, who remembered Doctor Morgan's parting advice, went to close it. The baby ran to his mother, escaping the outstretched hands of the father, who was after him, but the child had miscalculated the opposition this time and was taken firmly into John's arms and lifted free from the bed.
"Tell Luther to come to me," Elizabeth whispered.
"Doctor Morgan said——" John began.
"Tell Luther to come to me," Elizabeth repeated, putting every particle of strength she had into her voice so that by having Luther hear her John would be obliged to comply.
Luther came without having to be told.
"Luther, could you get Hepsie back for me, if you told her Mother Hunter was gone and would not come back?" she asked, falling back into a whisper from sheer weakness.
Luther bent to catch her words. Elizabeth's illness showed plainly in her pinched face this morning; he would have done anything she asked of him.
"Of course," he answered cheerfully.
Luther really did not know whether Hepsie could be had, but he meant to have her if she was not already at work somewhere else. He listened to the directions and promised without equivocation that Hepsie would come. He understood that for some reason the thing Elizabeth asked of him she could ask of him alone, but was careful to couch his replies so that that fact was not indicated even to her.
When it was arranged, Elizabeth closed her weary eyes as a sign that she wished to be alone, and the men retired from the room, leaving her in the first real peace she had known since her illness began. With Hepsie in the house, she could look forward to the days to come with less dismay. She resolved that if she did get the girl back that she would keep her as long as there were hired men to cook for. With the assurance that Hugh would keep John from falling into debt again there would be funds to pay her and there was as much need of a girl in the kitchen as of men in the field.
Hepsie came gladly. She had always liked Elizabeth, and the well-furnished Hunter house, with the equally well-furnished pantry, was desirable.
Elizabeth's life was in grave danger and when John at last grasped the fact he looked after her needs rigorously. He tiptoed about the house, looking to it personally that no discomfort assailed the wan patient. Jack learned the note of authority in his father's voice, and incidentally the weight of his hand also, and quiet prevailed. John reflected the mood of the sick room in every step he took. Much of the time Elizabeth was too ill to observe John's changed attitude, but the second week she began to awake to things about her. She went over the situation again and again. Something had to be done. Things had promised to straighten out since Hugh's coming, but the very day of his first absence the old coercion was renewed. John would not have brought the cream jar up without asking if Hugh had been there, or if he had done so she could have mentioned the inconvenience of its presence before Hugh and got it carried back to the cellar. The importance of Hugh's presence loomed up before Elizabeth as she lay considering her situation; Hugh was her only hope for better conditions. She had accepted Hugh as a happy feature of the family life and of the business, but she had not thought of him as a factor in her personal affairs.
There was another feature of the weariness which came from being pushed beyond the amount of work she was momentarily able to do: she became irritable with Jack when tired, and then John interfered. Here again, her only hope lay in Hugh. With Hugh present John was suave, polite, and apt to treat her as a man is supposed to treat his wife. Considering all these things, Elizabeth began to look forward to Hugh's return eagerly.
As if to favour Elizabeth's plans, Hugh Noland found Mitchell County a lonely place to stay and as soon as the fencing was finished put a man in charge and returned with all possible speed.
"Oh, John, you brother!" he exclaimed when he met John Hunter at the kitchen door the day he arrived. He held out both his hands. "I haven't had such a sense of coming home since my mother's death."
They greeted, and looked at each other long and earnestly, and John Hunter allowed himself to enter into closer relations of friendship and love than he had ever done in the twenty-seven years of his life.
"I'm glad you're here," John said when he had recovered from his surprise over this unusual demonstration of affection. "We're going to lift Elizabeth out into a chair for the first time to-day. She'll be glad you've come too."
"How is she? You didn't say much about her in your last letter."
"Wasn't much to say," John replied. "She's better—that's the main thing. Come on into the sitting-room till I can get her ready and get a quilt in the rocking chair."
"Got a girl, I see!" Hugh remarked in a whisper as they closed the door behind them.
"Yes, and a good one fortunately. Too much milk and butter. I found that out when I got at it. No more buttermaking in mine. I had the whole thing on my hands for over a week. I turned half those cows out to grass," John said, bringing forward the chair for the invalid.
"I was afraid the morning I left that she had too much to do with all those shellers on such short notice."
Hugh stooped to pick up the baby.
"How are you, partner?" he cried, swinging the delighted child up to the ceiling. Jack was wild with joy. Hugh stood with legs wide apart and cuddled the baby to him for a squeeze. This was part of the homecoming too. He was still hugging Jack tenderly when John beckoned from the bedroom door.
Hugh drew the rocking chair into the bedroom and then stopped to stare at the wasted figure wrapped in a quilt who had to be supported while he adjusted it.
"John! You didn't tell me she was like this!"
He took the thin hands in his, both of them, just as he had done John's a moment before, and was moved almost to tears by the pallid face. Elizabeth's brown eyes had fallen back into her bony, sharp-lined head, and her nose was thin and drawn.
"Words fail me, Mrs. Hunter," he said feelingly.
But though words failed to express Hugh Noland's sympathy his eyes did not, and the girl, who had not had an hour's sympathetic companionship since he had been gone, caught the fact and was cheered by it.
Hugh Noland was vital and invigorating. Elizabeth listened to his account of the adventures in Mitchell County. He was a good story-teller and his incidents were well selected. She was too weak to sit up a whole hour and was carried tenderly back to her bed, where the family life centred now that she was becoming able to stand the noise and confusion of it.
During the days which followed, Hugh, at John's suggestion, brought his books and read aloud to them in that little bedroom in the warm spring evenings, and life in the Hunter house took on a brighter complexion than it had ever before assumed.
John, who had been sleeping in Hugh's room since Elizabeth's serious illness, returned to his own bed. He looked about him for Jack the first night and asked where he was.
"I sent him up to Hepsie's room," Elizabeth said quietly.
"The children in the Hunter family are not put into the servants' beds," John Hunter replied. The unexplained statement was offensive to a man accustomed to being consulted.
To punish her John went to sleep without giving her the usual good-night kiss.
"He'd have been cross, anyhow," was all the thought she gave that part of the circumstance. Could John Hunter have known that the absence of that kiss was a relief, and that he made of his presence sometimes an intolerable nightmare, he might have saved for himself a corner in her tired heart against the days to come. John's zeal and passion had gone into the pursuit of their courtship days. Now they were married, possession was a fact: Elizabeth was his wife.
Elizabeth understood that John was whimsical and tyrannical, but not intentionally evil, but in spite of the fact that she had John's character summed up and understood that much that he did was not deliberately intended to do her injury, that little of it was in fact, she felt a growing disinclination for his presence. The unloved, undesired child which she had lost was a warning guidepost pointing its finger away from a continuance of marital relations. No conditions could make it right for her to have another child till love again existed between them. She saw that nothing could excuse or make decent the child of wornout conditions; nothing but affection made marriage worthy, and when that affection had departed from a man and woman, to thrust life upon a child was a crime against that child, a crime against nature and a crime against themselves and society; yet, what could she do? Her health was broken, and she without means of support. After Aunt Susan's death the girl had seriously considered separation; she still considered it, but not seriously. Though she cried "Fool! fool!" many times, she had given her youth, her health, her strength to John Hunter, and her wages—food and clothing—she must accept.
THE CREAM-JARS OF HER LIFE
While Elizabeth progressed toward health the work on the Hunter farm progressed also. Because of taking the cattle to Mitchell County it was possible to get in a greater acreage of small grain and corn. Patsie had a small colt at her side, as did her mate also, and there was an extra man needed in the field most of the time, but after repeated consultations it was decided that by using care the teams they had would be able to plow the corn, and that they could hire help for the harvesting cheaper than they could buy another pair of horses.
However, in spite of the discussions which were supposed to have settled the matter, John came home from Colebyville one Saturday with a new team.
"What do you think of them?" he asked Hugh, who opened the gate to let him into the barnyard. "I just made up my mind that it wasn't economy to push the horses we had so hard. I got them at a bargain."
"You've bought them, you say?"
"Yes," was the brief answer.
"I'd take them back," Hugh said slowly but decidedly. "Horses and dogs talk with their tails, and I don't like the way this one acts."
"I can't take them back. I got them from a mover. I got them for a song, and we're going to need them for the binder. I know what we said," he went on, interrupting Hugh, who was trying to speak, "but there was a bargain in them and we do need them."
"But we haven't the money! How did you buy them? You couldn't pay for them outright."
Hugh Noland had been feeling his way down the foreleg of the horse nearest him. The animal was nervous and had crowded over against its mate in an endeavour to get away. Both its ears were laid back, and there was a half-threatening air about its movements. As Hugh straightened up to continue the discussion of finances, it jumped aside, quivering with fright.
"I gave a check on the bank," John replied uneasily. Hugh had never criticised him before.
Hugh was taken up with soothing the nervous animal for a moment.
"You'll run out of money before the summer's over," he said warningly.
"Oh, I've had to borrow a little already. With Elizabeth's illness and all, I saw we weren't going to get through, so I just took out a loan of five hundred and paid Doc Morgan while I was at it. I meant to have told you. I've got some calves coming from over west to-morrow too." John poured it all out while he was at it, with a relief in having it over.
There was a pause. When Hugh Noland again spoke it was with a distinct note of firmness and almost of authority.
"The plain understanding in our partnership—the one I laid the most stress upon to start with—was that there should be no debts. I'm willing that you should be free to select a team; it isn't that. Did you borrow this money in the firm's name?"
"Yes-s-s. I didn't think you'd care about a little sum like that," John said slowly. He was very uncomfortable. "I turned my personal note in on the account book for the doctor's bill. You can see it on the book."
"I don't doubt at all but that you did, John. You're not called into question, old boy, on any other matter than the one of debts, but You'll never put this firm five cents in debt without coming to an instant understanding. I came to this country to get well. I won't get well, but I won't allow myself to get into anything that will run me down quicker with worry. You knew it before you went in with me—and you agreed."
That was the final word John Hunter felt as he tied the skittish brute he had just purchased in the stall beside the door, and turned to put the hay down from the loft above. The sound of plunging feet and snorts of wild terror when the hay fell into the manger turned his mind to the probable truth of Hugh's opinion of the lately purchased horses.
"I wonder if the blamed brutes are going to be too maggoty for our use after all," he thought. "It'd be just my luck. He was fair about it though," John admitted reluctantly. "Oh, well, after all, he's worth having around, and I'm going to do a deal better than I would if he hadn't come along. Elizabeth was right—I did get in too deep." And with this astonishing admission, John Hunter finished haying the horses and walked slowly to the house, thinking about the new horses, and half prepared to admit that he had made a mistake in buying them outright from a man who was able to get away before they could be proven, but Elizabeth and Hugh were already sitting by the table in the living room and he knew he was wanted. He went to the bedroom to wash his hands—John could not form the habit of washing in the kitchen as other farmers did—and as he washed, meditated, and as he meditated he found himself ready to accept this reproof from Hugh Noland, ready to live up to agreements if Hugh imposed them, ready to listen to Hugh and love him. Something in Hugh Noland was so fundamentally square that the principle of squareness took on a new meaning to John Hunter.
"Here you are! You're the one that's insisted on these readings most, and you're always late," Hugh cried as John came from the bedroom, fresh and well groomed as if he had not done barn chores a few minutes before.
The reading was part of John Hunter's play world. John was not a man of scholarly tastes, but reading, like the use of the hairbrush he had just laid down, was good form: they were both part of the world to which John wished to belong. A book might or might not relate to that world, but it was a book and seemed to do so, and while John Hunter might or might not get much intellectual advancement out of a book, he got advancement out of sitting in Hugh Noland's presence and opening his heart to the love and respect Hugh commanded from him. John did not close himself off from Hugh's influence as he did from Elizabeth's, and the things he refused to take from her he adopted and readily set into action at Hugh's suggestion.
It was destined to be the last night in which John was to be permitted the comfort of this new feature of home life, however. As they were gathered about the breakfast table a man rode into the lane and called John Hunter to the door without getting off his horse.
"Doc Morgan was goin' past my house this mornin' an' asked me if I'd bring this over t' you. 'E said it came after you left town, an' th' agent didn't know how t' git over t' you 'thout he was comin' this way this mornin'. Hope it ain't no bad news."
He waited to see John tear open the envelope and read the telegram.
"My mother's sick," was John's hurried statement as he turned toward the house.
Hugh drove John Hunter to the station. The sun was hot and he had read till nearly midnight the night before, and, busy season though it was, he thought it best not to start home till toward night. Doctor Morgan had returned home and Hugh, as was his custom, went to the office for a chat. It was one of the chief delights of both to have an hour together.
"Do they get along well together—Hunter and his wife?" Doctor Morgan asked after he had taken Hugh's health into account.
"You'd think so if you'd heard the directions I received for her care just now," Hugh answered with a laugh.
"Well, I don't care—I couldn't make him understand about her when she was sick. He let that squalling brat crawl over her, and let her do baking and things she wasn't fit to do till she was worn out," the old doctor said resentfully. Then added as an afterthought, "Say! You're not letting him run you into debt, are you?"
"No debts in mine. There's one note and It'll be cleared up as soon as the small grain can be disposed of. I put the clamps on that as soon as I heard of it. It won't happen again. I think his wife was about as glad of the end of the credit business as any of us," Hugh said, and then added with a laugh: "I think you're mistaken about his treatment of her, though. You should have heard the directions he gave me about her as the train was about to pull out; you'd have thought she was his favourite child and that I was going to neglect her."
Doctor Morgan snorted contemptuously.
"Oh, yes, I know him. Hunter loves to give directions to anything from a puppy dog to a preacher. That's what's the matter with her. He directs her all the time as if she didn't have sense enough to cook hot water or wash the baby. He ain't any worse than a lot of men I know of, but you expect more of a man that's half-educated. I tell you, Noland, the trouble 's in this business of men owning women. I've practised in these parts ever since this country's been opened, and I see a good deal of husbands—and they're a bad lot."
Hugh Noland watched the old doctor with a twinkle in his eye.
"You aren't going to give us men all a knock, are you?" he said amusedly.
"I'm not saying anybody's bad," Doctor Morgan said, following out his own reasonings. "The trouble 's in men owning everything. Theoretically, a woman shares in the property, and of course she does if she gets a divorce, but as long as she lives with him he's the one that has the money and she has to ask for it if she has ever so little. You take Mrs. Hunter: she don't spend a cent he don't oversee and comment on; she's dependent on that man for every bite she eats and for every stitch she wears and he interferes with every blessed thing she does. Give that woman some money of her own, Noland, and where'd she be? John Hunter 'd treat her as an equal in a minute; he'd know she could quit, and he'd come to terms."
Doctor Morgan swung the stethoscope with which he had been listening to Hugh's heart, and proceeded without waiting for Hugh to speak.
"Oh, we doctors see a side of women's lives you other men don't know anything about. We see them suffer, and we know that the medicine we give them is all knocked out by the doings of the men they live with, and we can't raise our hands to stop the thing at the bottom of it all. Why, that woman's just lost a child I know she was glad to lose, and—oh, don't misunderstand me! She never told me she was glad she lost it, but how in God's name could she be otherwise? She couldn't do all he required of her without it. She had butter to make, and shellers to cook for, and then the damned fool 'd shove that heavy baby on her—and he actually talked to me about her being cross!"
Hugh Noland was beginning to feel that living in a man's house did not constitute a knowledge of him, and yet there were the things he himself had seen and heard.
"But, he's looking after her now as if she were a baby herself," he protested. "He urged me to look after her, and see that she didn't have to lift Jack yet for a while, and to humour the hired girl for fear they'd lose her, and he even insisted that I keep up the reading aloud that I've been doing for them."
"I don't doubt that," the old doctor said, a bit nettled. "He's not all bad. He's a right good fellow—that's the very point I'm trying to make. It's because he owns her and thinks he has a right to run her affairs—that's the trouble at the bottom of the whole thing. Now that she's sick he'll see that she don't have to lift the baby. If she owned herself she could stop lifting the baby before she got sick; a man can't tell when a woman feels like working and when she don't. What I want to say is, that a man browbeats a woman because she hasn't any money and can't help herself. Give a woman a home of her own that he couldn't touch, and then give her an income fit to raise her children, and he'd come into that house and behave, or he'd be sent out again, and she wouldn't age ten years in three, nor be dragged down to the hell of nagging to protect herself against him. I tell you, Noland, Kansas would be a stronger state right now, and a damned sight stronger state twenty years from now, if the women owned and run half of its affairs at least." Doctor Morgan ended quite out of breath.
"I guess you're right, doctor, but I've got to get some barb wire loaded to take home, and you've preached the regulation hour and a half," Hugh said. He was living in the Hunter home, and he really loved both John Hunter and his wife, and honour demanded that he should not gossip about them.
"Right you are, my boy. And I see your point too; I've no business to talk professional secrets even to you." He laid his arm affectionately across the younger man's shoulder and squared him around so that he could look into his face. "This is only a side of life I battle with in almost every home I go into. I'm almost glad you can't marry; It'll leave you where I can respect you. Think of a woman having a child she don't want! and think of a man respecting himself afterward! It destroys a woman's body, but the men—well, it's the most damnable, soul-destroying thing in a man's life; he's lost and don't even know it. Run along," he said after a pause, "or I'll hold forth for another hour in an unprofessional way. It makes me swear to see a pretty girl made old before she's twenty-five."
But Elizabeth Hunter was not to be an old woman before she was twenty-five, for Elizabeth had Hepsie in the kitchen, she had learned to protect herself by refusing to be oppressed about the work she did do, and the weeks of rest that followed John's going were filled with the things which rested and restored her. It was not long till she was as attractive as she had ever been in all the years of her girlhood. Elizabeth was barely twenty-three, and there was a good constitution back of her which rest could set right; she was one of nature's favourites to whom colour and spirits return quickly. Every charm of person she had was enhanced by her present surroundings, for the brightness and freedom which came from John's absence were the crowning things needed to complete her recovery.
Hugh Noland read to Elizabeth nightly, and in the daytime her comfort was his first thought. The work of cooking for those shellers had been his work as much as John's, but it had all fallen on her, fallen, according to Doctor Morgan, at a time when a man shielded even the mare in his harness from overwork. As he watched the colour come back to the girl's face day by day he recognized that the miracle was brought about by rest. In the return of Elizabeth's beauty there was a new element which Hugh Noland saw but did not recognize as new: to the roundness of girlhood was added the strength and experience of womanhood, to the mere physical charm of youth the maturity and poise of the woman who has fought, if not conquered, self.
John had set the example of late hours, and the two read throughout the long, early summer evenings quite as much from habit as from inclination. It had been the established custom of the house for so long that Hepsie and the hired man accepted it as a matter of course. The men saw little of it because one of the first things Hugh had done when he had returned from Mitchell County had been to partition off a room in the well-built barn for the accommodation of the men. Jake, who loved Elizabeth with a dog-like fidelity, came and went about the house more freely than the rest, and saw the two seated about the sitting-room lamp, and was as glad as if he had had a place among them.
"It's hers, God bless 'er!" he had said the night after John's departure, "an' I'm mighty glad she's got it. She ain't had much t' make 'er glad since I've been around these diggin's."
Those were evenings never to be forgotten. As Hugh read, Elizabeth listened with the open-mouthed joy of girlhood, but the substance of what they read was viewed from the standpoint of a woman. Hugh found the girl's mind keen and alert. They began to turn to the classics, and Hugh Noland, whose profession it had been to teach, was surprised and delighted with the aptitude and viewpoints of his pupil. Elizabeth pursued literature with her usual thoroughgoing absorption; the dictionary was brought out and laid upon the table, and with it she spent long hours when Hugh was in the field.
The second week in June, Hugh Noland was brought to a sudden stop in the delicious holiday experience by a remark of Elizabeth's. The book had been finished earlier than was usual for them to stop reading, and it had been decided that it was too late to begin another that night. Hugh was not ready to go to bed, and sat watching her as she straightened up the littered table. A book of poems they had once read fell open and the girl picked it up and began to read to herself. In a moment she was literally engulfed in it, and he watched her deep abstraction in full sympathy with the mood it represented. Presently she began to read aloud.
Elizabeth read on and on, and Hugh dropped back into his chair and listened, studying her as she stood before him reading so intently that she forgot that she stood. When the end was reached she dropped the book on the table with a rapturous indrawn breath.
"I never knew what real happiness was before," she said. "I wonder if they read in heaven?"
"They'd have to let us read in our heaven or it wouldn't be heaven," Hugh Noland replied.
With the words still in his mouth he realized what he had said. The serpent had invaded their paradise: henceforth they would wander outside of its confines. With a self-conscious flush, he shifted the eyes into which she was looking, and arose to say good-night.
Although she did not understand it, Elizabeth also turned hastily away; Hugh Noland's embarrassment communicated itself to her. Her confusion puzzled her. Glancing at the clock, she saw that it was near midnight; she had read longer than she had thought. In her surprised consideration of what Hepsie would think if she should hear Hugh pass her door at that hour, she got the first burst of light on the subject. Until now she had gone along night after night reading with Hugh Noland, absorbed in the books, and without any sort of attitude toward the man except that of good-fellowship, but now she stood revealed to herself and was covered with shame. That Hugh might be in love with her did not occur to her, but that he knew that she had feelings out of keeping with her vows of marriage she felt certain, and with her usual intensity Elizabeth went over the mark in her shame and contrition.
"What must he have thought I meant? What must he think of me as a woman? Worse yet, what must he think of me as a wife?" she asked herself, and each question left her more bitterly humiliated, more self-distrusting, more unhappy.
They were to learn, however, that three months of continual association over the books had formed a habit not easily laid aside. To the habit of intellectual companionship had been added the joy of close and reciprocated affection, and the sudden breaking off of this daily communication left both of them, especially Hugh, in a condition of almost tragic loneliness, but honest of heart and true of purpose, both avoided further readings.
The nights were hot now; "good corn weather," Jake called it, and the time had come to "lay by" the early planting. John's absence had retarded the plowing, for try as he would the chores kept Hugh late in the morning and had compelled him to quit early at night. It had not been his intention to take the place of an active field worker, but the season had come on so rapidly that the weeds threatened to get the better of the hired men, and though it was all to learn over again, Hugh had gone out with the intention of doing good work and had succeeded, to Jake's astonishment and great admiration. It served Hugh's plans at this point to put in the long hours away from the house, knowing that otherwise he would fall back into the old life of the book at once. At first the heavy cultivator handles absorbed his time and thought, for it was fifteen years since Hugh Noland had cultivated corn, but when the work became more mechanical his mind wandered back to forbidden ground and the days were harder than any he had ever known.
One frightfully hot day, near the end of the plowing of the first field, which lay near the house, Hugh found it necessary to rest the horses frequently. With each period of rest his thoughts returned to Elizabeth with new force and longing; his mind worked continually on the reading matter they had gone over, and constantly he wanted to elaborate or discuss some subject left unfinished. It was the devil with which he had to wrestle. Also, she showed the strain of disappointment when he met her at meals, and he found himself struggling with Doctor Morgan's observations on her health, her husband, and her happiness. As far as John was concerned, he thought the old doctor was mistaken, and be it remembered, Hugh Noland had a genuine liking for John Hunter. That liking added to the seriousness of his situation in John Hunter's home.
He mopped his perspiring brow, while little wet lines showed in the creases of his sleeves and across the back of his thin summer shirt. The fierce heat parched his mouth and his whole burning body called for a drink. Tying his team to a post an hour after noon he vaulted over the fence and walked to the creek, picking his way down to the narrow stream. The heat of summer was drying the brook up rapidly; already there was but a tiny rivulet, but such as was left curled and trickled between grassy banks in a manner to attract the eye of a thirsty man. Hugh knelt on a hummock with his hand on the opposite bank and drank as only the man who plows corn on a hot June day can. As he stood up he paused with his handkerchief halfway to his face and listened, while the water dripped from nose and chin unheeded. The continuous tones of a voice reading aloud reached him. It was such a curious place to encounter such a phenomenon that he listened intently for a moment.
"Elizabeth!" he whispered.
Every pulse in Hugh Noland's body pounded suddenly. On the first impulse he was away in her direction, walking rapidly and without effort at concealment. Without taking time to think, without knowing or caring whether it were wise, he walked as straight toward the spot as the laden bee to the hive.
Hugh's coming fell upon Elizabeth suddenly, but the perfect naturalness of her joy put him at his ease.
"I heard you reading," he said simply. "What are you working on now?"
He threw himself down on the grass beside the willow trunk on which she was seated and held out his hand for the book. After running his eye over the page he handed it back to her with the request that she read on. The heat of the summer day shimmered along the horizon outside, but here in the cool shade of the willows the delicious afternoon air lulled his senses and made of the spot a paradise of comfort and contentment. The girl was the embodiment of everything sweet and womanly to him, and the joy of the moment, bringing added colour to her cheeks, made the utmost contrast imaginable to the dust and drudgery of the afternoon in the corn rows.
Hugh's coming had been so obviously voluntary and joyous that the fear she had entertained, that he would think ill of her as John Hunter's wife, was set at rest. The old confidence, sympathy, and companionship were retendered, and the girl met it with her habitual openness. She accepted the book from his hand and read as asked. Hugh Noland watched her earnestly, and recalled the things he had been told about her and her affairs. On more than one occasion he had been told that she had been neglected, and at the time had put the tale away as foolish farm gossip, but Doctor Morgan was no fool, and his gossip was usually not only true but had on this particular occasion fallen out with vehemence and conviction. As he looked at her he asked himself how any man could neglect a woman of Elizabeth's sincere qualities. She was so true that the only indication that he had ever received of even a slight difference of opinion with her husband had been the accidental one regarding debts. He remembered a remark of Sadie Hansen's to the effect that John Hunter never took his wife anywhere, and he remembered that in the four months he had been in the house he had never heard him offer to do so, and then Hugh Noland remembered that he had no right to think about it at all. However, his mind recurred to it in spite of all he could do, and presently he was immersed in the old consideration. Loyalty must be one of her qualities: four months he had been in her house and she had never been taken anywhere except to Nathan's, where he himself had taken her, and she had never remarked upon it, and she was but twenty-three!
"Twenty-three!" he said under his breath.
"What was it you said?" Elizabeth asked, looking up.
"Nothing," he replied guiltily.
Elizabeth became conscious and embarrassed.
"I've kept you all afternoon!" she exclaimed, getting suddenly to her feet.
"I wanted to be kept," Hugh admitted slowly, rising also. "It's frightfully hot in the middle of the afternoon. I'll work late, and milk after dark."
"I'll bring up the cows and do the milking," she volunteered.
"Let me see you!" he protested, and went to his work again.
Hugh Noland had never even guessed that he would walk deliberately over and spend a whole afternoon with a woman he had no right to love after becoming aware that he was already in love with her. For the first time he stood in the limelight of strong emotions and knew himself for what he was, not only that he was a mere man, but that he was a man who was not showing the proper control over feelings and emotions which thousands of men and women alike controlled every day. He worked his problem over as he worked the mellow soil about the corn roots and made himself late, but with contradictory impulses hurried the milking when he did get at it so as to get down to the book again.
Elizabeth had taken time to think out her side of their position, and told herself that she hoped that Hugh would not offer to read to-night, but as the time approached she trimmed the lamp and arranged the books on the sitting-room table with a slight sense of worry for fear he would not come, and conscious that the evening was going fast. It was late when they began, and correspondingly late when they finished the reading that night.
The next night Hugh sat on the upturned manure cart talking to the men till he saw Elizabeth put out the light in the sitting room, and then, in spite of the fact that he had been strong enough to stay away, was sorry that he had not had one more night's reading with her before John came home. John was coming in the morning, and Hugh was to meet him, and Hugh Noland did not like himself, nor the position he would be in when he thought of greeting John Hunter as a friend.
The better to think things out and decide what he would do, Hugh sat down on the doorstep and did not go in. The night was perfect. There was a full moon and the soft breeze was a delicious reminder of the coolness of the leafy bower among the willows where he had spent the afternoon with Elizabeth. There was to be no more of Elizabeth for him, God bless her! Elizabeth was a wife and honour demanded that not even a glance of affection pass between them. This Hugh Noland believed, and yet when they were together their little embarrassments cried their love aloud, and neither could mentally avoid the issue. Each had known that the other had resolved and suffered and fallen into the temptation of the reading. The book was becoming a delicious torment. He could not stay in that house. Plainly, it was going to be necessary for him to go away. The business demanded his attention, and he decided to go to Mitchell County. At that point Hugh stopped in his calculations to consider how things would run at this end of the line if he did so.
In summing the business up, Hugh summed up his impression of John Hunter along with it, and found himself reluctant to go away and leave everything in his hands. John was industrious and tidy about his work. Dear old John! He had come very near Hugh's heart in the short time they had been together. The daily consideration of possible death had mellowed Hugh Noland's naturally fine nature, and given him the tenderness of attitude and thought that the sublime and inevitable impose upon those who live in its shadow. Actions considered as final are warmer and less likely to be inconsiderate than those where there is a feeling of indefinite time to correct mistakes. Hugh sat now and let his heart run out to John with all the love of a more than usually affectionate nature. In his heart he wanted John back home, and yet it made him uneasy. There was a peculiar sense of being a traitor as he considered the meeting with this man who had trusted his home in his hands. In regard to the business, he, Hugh, would have to let things take their own course. All he had on earth was in this farm now, but he would get away as soon as he could possibly do so; he would sacrifice that much to the man whose home he had entered. Hugh knew to a nicety how necessary it would be for his interests in a business way to be here on the ground and keep John Hunter from going into debt. Hugh had his own judgment, neighbourhood gossip, and Doctor Morgan's plain instructions on that point, but was resolved to go if he lost all that he had in so doing. "Well, at any rate, he can't mortgage anything without consulting me, and I'll get as much of the stock out there as I can after next year—that is, if there is any next year for me," he said, as he got up to go to bed long after midnight.