A slight rain was falling, the first in two months, two of the most important months in the year; but it was only a drizzle and not enough to benefit the corn, which—even the last planting—was ruined. The heat and drought had forced a premature ripening, and the stubby ears, fully formed, were empty of developing grains, except near the butts. It was discouraging to lose the corn, and John, to take the place of the shortened crop, had had a field plowed and sewed to millet. A promise of rain meant a probable crop of that substitute for the heavier grain, but it must be rain, not a mere shower. Disappointed at the stingy display of water, John wandered about the house, disturbed by Jack's noise, and irritably uncomfortable.
"Come on in and sit down," he urged when he saw that Elizabeth intended to help Hepsie with the dishes.
"All right. Let the work go, Hepsie, and I'll do it later," Elizabeth said quietly. She dreaded an hour with John when he was in that mood, but there seemed to be no help for it.
The two women cleared the dinner table and righted the dining room before they stopped, then Elizabeth closed the kitchen door and left the dishwashing till she could get away from the conference requested. Hepsie had hurried to get started early for her home and Elizabeth had entered into her plans and offered assistance.
"Why don't you let Hepsie finish them alone?" John said petulantly.
Elizabeth made no reply, but took Jack on her lap and rocked him to keep herself occupied. There was less opportunity for disagreement if the child were still while his father talked.
"If this rain'd only get busy we'd have a crop of millet yet," John began. "Corn's going to be mighty high and scarce this fall."
Elizabeth did not reply; something in the air warned her to let John do the talking. She had ceased to enter into conversation with him unless something vital made it necessary to speak. The vital thing was not long in forthcoming. The whimsical weather made him depressed and kept his mind on the gloomy crop outlook.
"Confound this beastly drizzle! If it'd only get down to business and rain we'd pull out yet. There'll be corn to buy for the cattle and the very devil to pay everywhere. I've got to lengthen out the sheds over those feeders—it hurried the cattle to get around them last winter—and here's all these extra expenses lately. There's no way out of it—we've got to put a mortgage on that west eighty. I'll take up the horse note in that case, and Johnson's offering that quarter section so cheap that I think I'll just make the loan big enough to cover the first payment and take it in. We'll never get it as cheap again."
Elizabeth's eyes were wide open now, but she considered a moment before she began to speak.
"We can't do that," she said slowly at last. "We're out of debt, except your personal note for the five hundred and the one for the team. It won't do to mortgage again."
"But we'll have to mortgage, with the crop short, and all those cattle!" he exclaimed.
"Sell a part of them as grass cattle, and use the money to buy corn for the rest," she advised.
"Grass cattle are soft and don't weigh down like corn-fed steers. It would be sheer waste," John insisted.
Elizabeth understood that right now they were to test their strength. She thought it over carefully, not speaking till she had decided what to say. The old path of mortgages and interest meant the old agony of dread of pay-day and the heart eaten out of every day of their existence, and yet she was careful not to rush into discussion. Her voice became more quiet as she felt her way in the debate.
"You are right as far as you go, grass cattle do not sell for as much, but, on the other hand, a loan means interest, and there is always a chance of the loss of a steer or two and then the profit is gone and you have your mortgage left. Luther said yesterday that they had black-leg over north of home, and you know how contagious it is."
"Oh, Luther! Of course Luther knows all there is to know about anything," sneered her husband, to whom Luther was a sore point just now.
Elizabeth realized her mistake in mentioning Luther's name to John almost before it was out of her mouth. John's instincts made him bluster and get off the subject of business and on to that of personalities at once. She did not reply to the taunt, but went quietly back to the point of business.
"The price of corn," she said with perfect control, "will go way up after this dry weather, but the price of beef doesn't always rise in proportion. Besides that, this is a bad year to get tied up in the money market."
"We're going to have to do it all the same," John replied, spurred on by the mention of Luther's name to compel her consent.
"But, we can't do it. Hugh especially directed in his letter that we must not go into debt."
"I have not had the honour of seeing Hugh's letter to you, and therefore I do not know," John returned. That was another sore point.
"So you didn't! Doctor Morgan read it to all the rest."
Elizabeth had forgotten that John had not heard the letter read, and rose promptly and went for it. She laid it on the table at his elbow when she returned saying:
"I had forgotten—you didn't hear it when the doctor read it that day."
John Hunter brushed it aside with his arm.
"I don't wish to see it, thank you."
The letter fell on the floor. Elizabeth stooped quickly and picked it up.
"You may do as you wish about that; I shall not consent to the mortgage just the same," she said, her temper getting the better of her at last. She turned to the bedroom to put the letter away.
"Now look here, Elizabeth!" John called after her.
Seeing the ineffectiveness of carrying on the conversation when they were not face to face, John waited till she returned. When she was seated again and had begun to rock the restless child once more, he began:
"We may as well understand each other right now as any time. If you're going to run this place, I want to know it, and I'll step down and out."
John looked belligerent and waited for her to do her womanly duty and give in. Elizabeth made no reply. John waited. He continued to wait for some seconds.
"I shall not consent to a mortgage," was the quiet answer.
John Hunter flung himself out of the house.
It was a bad afternoon for John. The drizzle had hardly been enough to lay the dust, but had made it impossible to walk through the grass or over the fields; his pride made it impossible for him to go back to the house, and so there was no place open to him except the hayloft, where he turned his own gloomy thoughts over and reasoned out this new development. A day's pouting, he was certain, would win his point; it would probably be all right when he went back at supper time, but he saw difficulties ahead with Elizabeth feeling that she had a right to an opinion regarding the property.
"I shall let her see that I mean business all the same. I'm not going to have her interfering in my work. Let her attend to her own, as a woman ought to do," he concluded.
He did wish, however, that he had read the letter. Doctor Morgan had referred to the letter also as being authority. He had an uncomfortable feeling that if he ever saw that letter that he would have to ask again; Elizabeth was a little less easy of late to manage than she had been that first year; she could put a thing aside and not discuss it almost as well as he could.
At that point John's mind flamed up against Luther Hansen. Elizabeth was always quoting Luther. He was glad he had let her see just now that she need not quote that common Swede to him any more. He didn't know a necktie from a shoelace! Hugh might have asked him to witness the will, but Hugh had seen fit to leave the money to them, all the same. Whatever else hurt, the money was his, and he'd turn everything into cattle, and get rich, and get out of this damned hole.
Elizabeth, in the house, was doing her own thinking. The conversation just finished had indications. She saw that her husband had a definite policy in regard to the management of the property, that he did not mean to let her have any more to do with it than when it was all his own. A creeping suspicion came to her that if she refused to consent to further mortgages her husband might leave her. There had been a violence in his tones as well as in his manner beyond any he had ever assumed toward her. Elizabeth shrank in a heartsick way from the contest. If he would mortgage the one eighty and then stop she would far rather have given away that much land than to have the quarrel, but that she knew he would not do. She could not for a moment think of giving up if she expected to have a roof over her head that was unencumbered when she was old. Though half the property was now hers by actual right, she would not interfere with anything he wished to do with it except to place a loan against it. If he insisted upon mortgages, though their disagreement became a scandal, she resolved that she would not consent.
* * * * *
John ate his supper without speaking to any one, and waited from then till bedtime for his answer, but Elizabeth gave no sign. The next day he waited, and the next, with increasing uneasiness and alarm. He decided at last to force her consent.
The third day he put one of the new horses in the single buggy and left the place without saying where he was going, and not even when he returned in the evening did he mention what his errand had been.
The following morning a team was driven into the side lane and Elizabeth saw John meet the driver and help him tie his horses. There was the air of a prearranged thing between them, and as they came toward the house it flashed through her mind what had been done. Her whole form straightened instinctively and she grasped her broom rigidly as she left the dining room and went to her own bedroom to get control of herself before she should have to meet the stranger. She realized that the man was the Johnson John had spoken of as having the quarter section of land for sale. She was to be called upon to act. The thing she must do she knew was right; could she make the manner of the doing of it right also? She would not humiliate him if she could help it; she stayed in her room, hoping that he would come to call her himself and then she could warn him when he was alone, but John would not meet her except in the presence of the stranger, and sent Hepsie to call her. There was no help for it, and Elizabeth went as she was bidden—went quietly, and was introduced to the neighbour whom she had never seen.
"Mr. Johnson has accepted my proposition, Elizabeth, to give him twenty-five dollars an acre for the quarter next to ours," John said after all were seated.
The girl waited quietly. She noticed that John did not mention the terms of payment, and waited for him to commit himself on that point.
"Do you know where those blank deeds are? We can make one out while we conclude the details, and then go in to Colebyville to-morrow and have a notary take our signatures," John concluded easily.
Elizabeth hesitated visibly, and John had a startled moment, but she went for the blanks at last, as he directed. The two men sat with their heads together, and wrote carefully in the numbers and legal description of the land.
"And the party of the first part further agrees that the sum of——" John was reading as he wrote it in. His voice ran on to the close. When the writing was finished the man Johnson rose, and, picking up his straw hat, said:
"I guess I'll be hurrying on toward home now. I'll stop in on the way to-morrow morning. You'd just as well ride with me."
"Oh, I'll have to take Mrs. Hunter in with me," John replied, "and I can just as well hitch up to my own rig."
"What are you taking me in with you for, John?" Elizabeth asked, perfectly quiet on the outside, but aquiver with humiliation and dread because of the thing she was being compelled to do.
"To fix up the papers on the west eighty; you know It'll be necessary for you to sign them too." Addressing Mr. Johnson, he added easily: "My wife objects to going into debt, Mr. Johnson, but I felt this too good an opportunity to let pass, and since we can arrange it so that I won't have to raise but a thousand dollars just now, I'm sure She'll see the advisability of the move."
Elizabeth considered a second before she began to speak, and then said slowly:
"Mr. Hunter does not understand the nature of my objection, I see. Of course if he can arrange it with you so that all the indebtedness falls on the land he is buying, I should have no objections whatever, but we cannot mortgage our home. The provisions of the will forbid it, and I shall live up to those provisions absolutely."
The silence which followed was vocal with astonishment. The man looked from husband to wife for signs of quarrelling, but Elizabeth returned his gaze quietly, and without signs of anger, and John also gave no indication of anything but surprise. After a gasping instant, during which his instincts warned him to keep on the side of decency, John accepted the situation with seeming calm.
"Well, Mr. Johnson, if Mrs. Hunter feels that way about it, there's nothing to do. I'm sorry to have brought you over on a fool's errand," he said suavely, "but it can't be helped now. We'll take the land later, however," and ushered his guest out of the house and helped him untie his team without any sign of the tempest within.
John went back to the house with no concealment and no cajolery.
"We may as well know where we are and what we mean to do right here and now, Elizabeth," he began. "If you're going to do this kind of thing, I want to know it."
Elizabeth was ready for the storm, and met it without flurry. She looked at her husband quietly, steadily, sorrowfully.
"I shall sign no mortgages, if that is what you are in doubt about," she said. "I had not intended to ask for a legal division of the property, but since you demand the right to make loans, I shall not cripple your plans with what is your own. I will have my part set aside; you can farm it in any way you choose, but you can only mortgage what is yours. I would have told you so if you had played fair and discussed this thing with me instead of leaving the house or blustering. You can tell me what you mean to do where I am concerned—you would if I were a man—or you can take just what you did to-day. You try to put me where I can't help myself before strangers when you want me to do a thing you know I don't think I ought to do; and you can't handle me that way any longer."
John Hunter had been working himself into a passion as he listened and burst out:
"And You'll work for the best interests of this farm, that's what You'll do! Every time I ask you to sign a paper you make a little more fuss. Because I got in pretty deep before is no sign I'm going to do it again, and when I tell you to sign anything You'll do it."
His feet were very wide apart, and he thrust his face forward at her, his eyes glaring into hers with every trick which instinct prompted him to use in compelling her obedience.
Elizabeth barely glanced at him, and then looked down at the floor, quietly considering in what way she should reply to such an attack.
John was disconcerted; his little stage play had fallen flat.
After a moment's pause, Elizabeth began very quietly:
"I will not interfere with anything you do about the land which has been left to me, except that I will not have one cent of mortgage on it. If you will keep out of debt, you can manage it any way you choose, but I will have every step of the business explained to me which involves the safety of my home, and it will be explained to me beforehand—or the same thing will happen that has just happened. I will not be deceived, even in little things."
The girl looked him squarely and kindly in the face, but her look was as firm as if he had not blustered.
"I have not deceived you. I brought this man here and explained the whole thing before your face, besides telling you the other day that I intended to have that land."
"You are shuffling with the truth, and you know it," she said sternly. "You did not tell me you had made any arrangements with him, nor that you intended to do so, only in a general way. You thought you'd catch me before him when it came to signing the papers, and then you thought I couldn't help myself."
"I have not tried to deceive you! I brought him here and explained every detail," he said with such a righteous appearance of innocence that Elizabeth was tempted to laugh. "We've fallen to a pretty state of affairs when my own wife hints at my having lied to her," John insisted.
Elizabeth spoke slowly, measuring her words, realizing that the crisis of their lives was upon them.
"I will not accuse you any more, but I will explain the plan on which I will do business with you."
"You needn't bother," John interrupted sarcastically. "I will let you run it."
"I will not go into debt," Elizabeth continued as calmly as if he had not interrupted. "That is the absolute decision I have come to. You will not explain to me after you have decided to do a thing and in the presence of other people, where my property and my freedom are concerned. On the other hand, if you are determined to go into debt and branch out into a larger business, I feel that I cannot deny you the right to do as you wish with what is your own, and if you choose to do so will divide the property and leave you as free to mortgage and sell as if you were not married to me. I will leave you as free as I ask to be myself."
"Free! Free to be made a fool of. No, ma'am; you don't run any such gag as that on me. The people in this community are only too anxious to talk about me; they'd roll it under their tongues like a sweet morsel, that as soon as you got hold of the money you put the screws on me. You gave Johnson just such a handle this afternoon as that. You'll behave yourself, and look after your house and child as a woman ought to do, and I'll take charge of the work out of doors as a man ought to do."
Elizabeth interrupted him eagerly:
"Now right there, John, you have struck the very heart of the thing which first made me feel that I must take care of myself in my own way. You have never allowed me to bake a pie or a loaf of bread, nor churn, nor anything without you told me how to do it; and then you feel that you have the right to mortgage the home right over my head and think I have no rights in the matter."
It was John's turn to interrupt eagerly.
"Who put that home over your head?" he asked, for the first time addressing himself to the real issue of the home.
Elizabeth looked at him steadily. She was surprised to find herself talking thus quietly, she who had been so prone to emotional hindrances.
"Since I have been in your house I have had my food and clothes. I don't have to tell you that my mere work is worth far more than that. I have borne you a child. Motherhood entitles me to a share in the estate, since I have the child on my hands; besides, I could have been teaching school these years and not only earned my living but have been free to go and come as I have never been free here."
"That has nothing to do with it. You are married and your duty lies here as well as your work. It's a wife I want. If you're going to be a wife, be one; if you're going to be a boss, I want to know it, and I'll get out."
"Two things I will have my say about: I will not mortgage the half of the land which is mine, and I will not be interfered with when I have to correct Jack," Elizabeth said slowly. "Also when I see fit to go anywhere I shall go hereafter. I was never allowed to go to see Aunt Susan, and she went down to her death thinking I didn't want to come. Of course that's different now: I do go when I want to these days, but I got my first warning right there that I must take care of myself. You don't intend to tell me anything about what you mean to do with me, ever, if you can help it."
"You'll go into Colebyville and sign the papers on that land all the same," John said doggedly.
"I will sign no papers till there is a legal division of the property, John. I mean what I say. I'll let people talk if you crowd me before them," the girl said decisively.
John glared at her in desperation.
"Damn it! no wonder folks talked the week we were married! I've been humiliated ever since I brought you into this house," the man cried, breaking into a passion again. "A pretty figure You'll cut, with this last thing added to your reputation. Everybody knows you couldn't get along with your father. I let you down easy with Johnson just now, in spite of the humiliating place you put me in, but if you think I'm going to be driven at your beck and call you're mistaken."
John stopped to give effect to his words. He was just beginning to realize that Elizabeth was not giving up, and that it was a fight to the finish. The feature John disliked was that it was a fight in the open. Well, let her fight in the open, she should see that he would not be beaten.
Elizabeth, to be less conscious of the eyes glaring at her, picked up her sewing, which had been tossed on the lounge an hour ago, and began to ply her needle.
John broke out anew, really losing control of himself this time.
"It's the most outrageous thing I ever heard of—a woman humiliating her husband by refusing to sign papers when he has brought the man right into the house to fix them up! A pretty reputation I'll get out of it! It's sickening, disgusting. What do you expect me to do? Tell me that. If I want to buy a load of hay or a boar pig, am I to say to a man, 'Wait till I ask my wife if I can?'"
He stood leering at her, hot with passion, determined to make her speak. The vulgarity of his discussion nauseated her, but since she must discuss, she was resolved to do it quietly and on decent ground as far as she was concerned. Without fear she replied slowly:
"You know perfectly well what I have asked of you, John. You won't gain anything by blustering. I mean to be consulted on all important matters like loans, deeds, and mortgages, exactly as you'd consult with a man, and I intend to be consulted before the thing is done, and not have you take advantage of me in the presence of strangers. You needn't shuffle matters. You understand what I mean, and you can't fool me. Be sensible and do the right thing by me, and give me the chance to do the right thing by you."
"I've done the right thing by you already, and I'll go about my own affairs as a man should, and You'll attend to your own affairs as a woman should if you live with me, and leave me free to act like a man. Do you understand that?" he demanded.
"I'm sorry, John," she said, falling back to the needle, which she had let rest again for a moment. There was a little choke in her voice, but she was firm.
"What do you mean by that?" he asked, suspicious that she was not giving up as he intended that she should do.
"I mean just what I said a minute ago: I will let you mortgage your half of this farm after it is divided, but I will not sign any such papers on the other half. I will not be taken advantage of before strangers; I will let them talk first, and I will take care of my house as I see fit. Also, I will not speak when you manage Jack, and you will not interfere when I have to do it—that is, we will not interfere with each other before the child."
John Hunter's face turned scarlet, his cheeks stung as if he had been slapped; she was not giving in at all! He stood before her incensed beyond words for a moment, breathing hard and almost bursting with what he considered the insult of it; then the blood which had mounted to his head receded and left him deadly white.
"I don't exactly understand you," he said in level tones, "but you shall understand me. I will never be made a fool of by you again; if you're going to run things, say it out, and I'll let you have it and run it alone."
It was hopeless; she did not reply, but stitched in and out on Jack's little frock, sick at heart with the shame of such a quarrel, since it was to accomplish nothing.
"Answer me!" he thundered.
Elizabeth laid her sewing on the lounge beside her, and rose to her feet. She looked him squarely in the face and answered as he demanded.
"I will sign no papers of which I do not approve, and certainly none which I have been deceived about in any way. Aside from that you are free to run the farm as you wish."
"Then take the whole damned thing, and I'll go back to mother and make a home for her. She was never allowed to have a home in this house after you came into it," he flung out. "I'll take the Mitchell County land, and you can have what's here. That's what you and Hornby and Hansen planned from the first, I should judge. That's why you got Noland to do it."
Thrusting his hat down to his very ears, he strode from the house, swinging the screen door behind him so hard that it broke and the split corner fell out and hung dangling by the net, which kept the splintered frame from falling to the ground.
Elizabeth closed the panelled door to keep out the flies, and turned quietly to the bedroom for her bonnet. She spoke to Hepsie, who had heard the entire argument, as she passed through the kitchen, asking her to keep Jack for her, and walked through the barnyard, through the wet pasture, and on to her haunt in the willows, where she could think undisturbed.
John was still standing in the harness room of the barn when he heard the door close behind Elizabeth, and saw her coming that way.
Elizabeth was coming to the barn! He gave a start of surprise. Even while he had not given up all thought of her coming to his terms, he wondered at her giving in so promptly. John drew back so that she should not see that he was watching her. When she did not immediately appear he thought with a smile of satisfaction that she had stopped, not finding it easy to approach after the haughty manner in which she had just dismissed his demands. He waited a moment, considering terms of capitulation, and then walked unconcernedly out.
The truth broke upon him. She had passed the barn, she was on her way to the willows, not to him. Something in John Hunter sickened.
Up to the moment when John had seen his wife coming toward him he had been fully prepared to stand by the terms of dissolution which he had made. But in that moment when he watched her recede from him in the direction of the willows, the tide of his feelings turned; he wished he had not issued his ultimatum; he wished he had not put it to the test.
The triumph of receiving her submission had been his first thought when he had seen her come from the house, and it had been a sweet morsel while it had lasted, but when he had seen her going from him toward the willows, he suddenly realized that triumph had slipped from his grasp. Suddenly he desired to possess her. Not since the first six weeks of their acquaintance had Elizabeth looked so fair to him. He had put her away! A great sob rose up in him. He had said that he would go back to his mother, and his fate was sealed. He had gone to the barn to saddle his horse and start on the instant for Mitchell County and the cattle he had chosen as his portion, but all at once the glamour of his going died away and he saw the choice he had made. To crown his cheerless flight, Jack was at Nathan Hornby's, and pride would not let him follow the child up even when he was going away forever. Nate Hornby had had something to do with this business of Elizabeth getting the money, and he had also had something to do with her determination to take the money out of his, her husband's, hands, and he, John Hunter, would not humble himself before him. Long before Elizabeth's return from the willows her husband was away.
Great was Elizabeth Hunter's surprise when John did not appear at supper. She had not taken him seriously; he had always blustered, and while she had realized that he was angry enough to make his word good, she had supposed that he would make a division of the property if he intended to leave her, and make arrangements for the child. She did not believe that he was gone, and answered the observations and questions of the hired men by saying that he had probably gone for the baby. In fact, having once said it, it sounded plausible to her, and she waited till far into the night for the sound of his horse's footsteps.
The suspicion which at midnight was yet a suspicion was by morning a certainty, but Elizabeth kept her own counsel, and when Nathan brought Jack at noon she did not speak of her husband's absence. The second day the hired men began to make mention of it, and the evening of the third day Luther Hansen appeared at the sitting-room door.
"Lizzie, what's this I hear about Hunter?" he asked, looking searchingly into her face.
Elizabeth told him all that she knew, except the unjust thing he had said about Luther.
"I don't know anything about his plans," she concluded, "except that he said he meant to go to his mother after he had marketed the cattle. You'll hear from the neighbours that Hugh's money has set me up and made a fool of me, and various other things," she added; and she saw in his face that it had already been said.
The girl sat and looked into the night through the open door for a moment and then went on:
"I shall go to Colebyville to-morrow, and see Doctor Morgan and look after business matters. I'll tell you what we decide upon when I get home. There'll have to be a real division of the property now. I don't know what to do about living here alone. I suppose there'll be every kind of gossip?"
The last part of the sentence was a question, and one Luther was not the man to evade.
"You'll have a lot of talk that hain't got no truth in it to meet," he said reluctantly. "You'll have t' have some one with you here. You couldn't git Hornby, could you?" Luther knew the nature of the gossip the neighbours would wreak upon her.
A light fell upon Elizabeth.
"The very idea!" she exclaimed. "Just what I need to do and at the same time just what I would love to do."
Luther was delighted that that important feature of the matter could be so easily arranged. He could not bear to have her mixed up with any sort of scandal, when her neighbours so little understood the real situation, and would be so ready to strike her wherever they could.
"Then you go an' see Hornby to-night, Lizzie. Have Jake hitch up for you, an' take Hepsie along." Luther paused a moment and then proceeded on another phase of her troubles.
"Lizzie, how do you feel about it? Do you—would you like t' have 'im back? 'Cause if you would, I'll go to Mitchell County for you. You ain't goin' t' have no easy time of it here. Folks—specially th' women's—goin' t' have it in for you quite a bit."
"No," Elizabeth answered promptly. "I'll take whatever comes from my neighbours. I can shut my doors and keep them outside, but, Luther, I can't go on as things have been on the inside of my own house. I don't want to talk about it at all, even to you, but I shall let him go. It's better than some other things. We'd simply come to the place where we had to understand each other. I'd a great deal rather have him back than to have him gone, but he wouldn't understand at all if I sent for him."
Luther looked at her approvingly and yet something in him held back. He longed to spare her all the low tittle-tattle of her neighbours, the coarse jests of the hired men among themselves, and the eternal suspicions of the women.
"I know all you would say, Luther," she said, understanding his reluctance to give up. "I know what these women who think I haven't wanted to visit them will say, and I don't blame them, but I will not send for him now or ever. I have wronged him in ways he has known nothing of—maybe the scandal I haven't deserved at his hands will square that deal a little—but that is not the present difficulty. We'll have to have an agreement about our plan of life together. If he ever comes back I shall never deceive him again, but I will never be deceived by him again, either."
"Well, you know best, Lizzie. I'll talk to Jake for you. You'd best try t' keep him an' Hepsie. They're good friends an' you're goin' t' need friends."
* * * * *
Luther saw that the buggy was got ready for Elizabeth and Hepsie, and after they had gone talked to the men, telling them that Elizabeth had asked him to do so. He told them her offer was for them to stay on at the usual wage, or go now so that she could fill their places. After they had signified their willingness to remain in her employment, he took Jake aside and had a long talk with him.
Jake Ransom filled with anger when the two were alone.
"I didn't say anything when you was a talkin' t' them men," he said confidentially, "but I ain't lived in this house for close on three year now without learnin' somethin'. Damned fool! never done nothin' she's wanted 'im to since I've been here. She got 'er eye-teeth cut when Mis Hornby died, but it most killed 'er. I've watched 'er a gittin' hold of 'erself gradual-like, an' I knew there'd be an end of his bossin' some day. Gosh! I'm glad she got th' money! Noland was some fond of her."
Jake stole a sidelong glance at Luther as he said it and waited to see if he would elicit an answer. When Luther did not reply, he added:
"I'm dog'on glad I've been here. Lots of folks 'll ask me questions, an' won't I be innocent? You kin help at your end of this thing too. I guess we kin do it 'tween us."
The understanding was perfect, but Jake took warning by Luther's refusal to discuss private affairs. Without saying just what was intended, each knew what course of action the other meant to take, and so Elizabeth was granted friends at the critical moment of her life and spared much that was hard in a community where personalities were the only topics of conversation.
* * * * *
Nathan Hornby was only too glad to live in the house with Jack Hunter. As he remarked, it would take no more time to drive over to his work than to cook his own breakfast in the morning.
Hepsie was at this time Elizabeth's principal defender. While listening to the reading of the will on the day of the funeral, Hepsie, old in the ways of her little world, had known that some explanation would have to be made of so unusual a matter as a man leaving his money to another man's wife, instead of to the man himself, and had begun by giving out the report which she intended the world to accept, by talking to Sadie Hansen before she got out of the dooryard. Hepsie knew that first reports went farthest with country folk, and Luther, who understood better than any one else why the money had been left to Elizabeth, was inwardly amused at Sadie's explanations afterward.
"You know, Luther," Sadie had said on the way home that day, "Mr. Noland told Hepsie he was agoin' t' leave his share of th' land to Lizzie, 'cause Doc Morgan says She'll never be strong again after overworkin' for all them men, an' things. An' she says he felt awful bad 'cause he was a layin' there sick so long an' her a havin' t' do for 'im when she wasn't able—an' do you know, she thinks that's why he killed hisself? I always did like 'im. I think it was mighty nice for him t' leave 'er th' stuff. My! think of a woman havin' a farm all 'er own!"
And Luther Hansen listened to Sadie telling her mother the same thing the next day, and smiled again, for Mrs. Crane could talk much, and was to talk to better purpose than she knew.
Also, when Elizabeth went to the little schoolhouse to meeting the first Sunday of her widowhood, being determined to be a part of the community in which she lived, Hepsie was on the outskirts of the little crowd after services were over, to explain in a whisper that Lizzie was "goin' t' go t' meetin' now like she'd always wanted to do, only Mr. Hunter never 'd take 'er anywhere 'cause 'e felt hisself too good."
Hepsie was to fight Elizabeth's battles on many occasions and stayed on, watchful as a hawk of Elizabeth's reputation. A sly joke among the hired men while discussing their position in the house of "the grass-widder" drove Hepsie beside herself and made her even more ready than she had been at first to serve the interests of one who was to have no easy time among her jealous neighbours. Elizabeth knew that in that hour she could have had most of these people for her friends had it not been that she was supposed to be "stuck-up." This also was a price she was to pay for having let her husband dominate her.
When Doctor Morgan was told of Elizabeth's plan to farm the place herself he was delighted and approved of it heartily.
"You're a little brick, Mrs. Hunter," he said. "I'll back you in anything you decide to do. It was devilish mean to run off without settling affairs up. If any of these yahoos around here say anything about it they'll get a setting up from me that they won't want again. But I'm mighty glad you've got Hornby. That'll keep actual slander off of you. How much did you say you owed now?"
"Five hundred—and some expenses for Mr. Noland—besides the note you hold for the team. I've got about a hundred in the bank, but I shall need a pony to ride about the farm, and that will take about half of what I have ready.
"The pony's a good idea. There's no telling what would be made out of you wandering around the fields on foot to look after the hired men, but on horseback you'd be all right. Now don't you worry about that note of mine—I'm in no hurry," the doctor said encouragingly. Elizabeth saw the advantage of having Doctor Morgan as an enthusiastic advocate of her plans.
"What about the land, Doctor?" the girl asked next. "I want a legal division as soon as possible. Will it have to be appraised and sold?"
Doctor Morgan noted joyfully that Elizabeth Hunter had her business well in mind, and assured her that it would be only a formality to have the appraising done, as she could buy it in herself, and further assured her that he would himself confer with John after all was settled.
"THE WEIGHT OF A DOLLAREE AND OUT OF DEBT DON'T FORGET THAT"
Nathan Hornby moved promptly over to the Hunter farm, and established himself in Hugh's old room upstairs.
The farm work prospered under Elizabeth's management. She was fortunate enough to trade a young heifer with a calf at her side for Silas's pony, and because feed was scarce she sold most of the stock, keeping only such as she desired to open farming with the next spring. The hogs were marketed early, and the few steers left when the cattle had been taken to Mitchell County were sold to the first buyer who offered a reasonable figure for them; the cows which gave evidence of increase were kept and the rest sold. Altogether money enough was raised to pay the note for the team and all the outstanding indebtedness except the note for five hundred dollars. The latter did not mature till May and could stand. The expense of feeding discouraged the farmers and prices dropped steadily all winter.
When April came the Johnson land was sold to a stranger, who came and offered to buy the west eighty of Elizabeth's land. The five hundred would be due the next month. The new neighbour coveted that eighty, and Elizabeth decided that if she could get a price warranting its sale she would sell, pay off the five hundred, and put the rest into calves while they were cheap. She offered the land for thirty-five dollars an acre. It was unheard of! No one had ever asked so much for land in that country, but the man wanted to add that land to his farm, and after some bargaining paid the price.
Frugal and cautious, Elizabeth paid the five hundred with the first check she drew against the price of the land. That left two thousand for calves and three hundred for running expenses. John had taken one horse out of the new team when he went away, and Elizabeth decided not to buy another, but to hire a horse in harvesting time. There were three full teams for the plows, besides the horse which had been hurt in the runaway. It had recovered and, though scarred and stiffened, could be used for ordinary work. She took good care to have it hitched beside a solid, trusty mate and treated gently to soothe its wild nature.
No word had come from John except when Doctor Morgan wrote him of the appraisement of the land. Then a curt letter had been received saying that whatever they did would be satisfactory to him and that when the deeds came he would sign them. Not to be outdone, Elizabeth bought the portion of land which did not have the house and buildings, agreeing to rent the home eighty until such time as he should choose to sell it, and expressing a desire, since Jack had been born there, to buy the home if John should ever wish to part with it. To his suggestion that she use the home without rent—in fact, an offer of it as his share of support of the child—Elizabeth refused to listen.
"I'll rent it of him as I would of anybody, Doctor," she had replied, and made out a note on the spot.
John had written that he was in the commission business in Chicago, and did not say whether his mother was with him nor not. To Elizabeth he did not write, but to Jack he sent loads of toys and a sled at Christmas time.
Elizabeth had not attempted to communicate with John direct, but had rented his share of the land from him through Doctor Morgan. The sale of the west eighty gave her enough money to stock the place with every animal it would hold. When the girl began to look about her for calves, she found that because of the price of corn many farmers were selling their hogs at a sacrifice. Hogs were quick money. She invested in such as were ready for increase, and by harvest time there was a fine lot of pigs on the Hunter farm. Every cow had been milked, and the calves raised by hand so as to have the milk for the young pigs till the early corn could be gathered. Milking was hard work, but Elizabeth Hunter's pride was up.
Elizabeth's pride had had some sore pricks. In spite of every effort to avoid hearing the small talk regarding herself, Elizabeth had been obliged to listen to such portions as dribbled through from her mother, and an occasional remark from Sadie Hansen. Sadie Hansen's life was a reorganized one, but there were small lapses, and from force of habit she repeated things, though she was in the main about the kindest neighbour Elizabeth had. With Mrs. Farnshaw the case was different. She was Elizabeth's mother, and certain privileges must be accorded her because of the relationship. When she chose to disapprove of the separation of her daughter from her husband, the daughter was compelled to recognize her right to protest, and often inadvertently to listen to the gossip which her mother urged as reasons for her objections. Mrs. Farnshaw came often and talked volubly. Elizabeth shielded herself as best she could from her mother's prattlings, but had to endure many tearful complaints, for her mother was suffering much loneliness and discomfort since her daughter's marriage. Josiah Farnshaw did not forget, nor let his wife forget, the disaffection of Elizabeth.
Once when Mrs. Farnshaw had gone beyond the mark where her daughter could receive it in silence, urging that Elizabeth call her husband home and submit herself to the matrimonial yoke, the girl turned upon her in annoyance:
"You'd have me just where you are yourself, ma. You say pa mistreats you—that's just what was coming to me. If I didn't have money enough that was all my own to live on, my husband would be sneering at me and keeping me in hot water all the time, exactly as pa sneers at you."
"But you're separated!" Mrs. Farnshaw cried.
"Yes," the girl said slowly, "and because we are separated I can go to town if I like, I can go to church, I can go to see a neighbour, or my mother, without hating to ask for a horse to drive or being told when to come home, and when Jack is naughty I can talk to him without having anybody set his little will against mine and make it harder to deal with him. Oh, mother mine! Can't you see that I'm happier than you are?"
"But, you're livin' apart and—and folks is a talkin'!" the mother exclaimed hopelessly.
"Let them talk. Their talk don't hurt me, and it shouldn't hurt you. They don't talk before me."
"But they talk behind your back, Lizzie," Mrs. Farnshaw said with a wise nod of the head.
"They talked about us when John was here, ma, and they always talk about us; it doesn't matter much what they talk about; they wouldn't pay off the mortgage, nor the interest, nor raise Jack right, nor give me a chance to rest on washday. Some will say I was in the wrong, some that John was, and they all said that I was stuck-up and wouldn't visit with them when it wasn't so at all. They are looking to see who was wrong; I have reasoned out what was wrong. It's principles, not personalities, that get people into troubles that don't seem to have any way out. Oh! can't you see, ma, that I'm free, and the women that talk about me are just where they've always been. Free! and don't forget that I'm out of debt. That's more than you've got by staying with your husband, and you haven't been able to keep people from talking after all. Free, and out of debt! Don't forget it."
"Well, you wouldn't 'a' been free, either, if Mr. Noland hadn't 'a' left you th' money," Mrs. Farnshaw replied.
Elizabeth dropped into a retrospective mood for a moment before she answered, and then said slowly:
"I know that. God in Heaven, how well I know it! And do you know I think about it every day—what could be done for the poor women on these hot Kansas prairies if there were some way to see that every girl that loves a man enough to marry him could have money enough to keep her if she couldn't live under the work and children he crowds on her. I'm free, because I have money enough all my own to live on. That's the weight of a dollar. Don't forget that, you poor ma, who have never had a dollar except what has been doled out to you by the man you married. The weight of a dollar," Elizabeth added meditatively, "that's what it is!"
Mrs. Farnshaw, who had bought the groceries for her little family with the butter and eggs, and whose sugar had sometimes been short because there was a supply of Horse Shoe Plug to provide also, had no answer ready.
"WAS—WAS MY PAPA HERE THEN?"
Two years of favourable weather and good fortune with her livestock saw the money Elizabeth had invested in hogs doubled and trebled, and later, when the Johnson land was again offered for sale, she was able to buy it for cash and have the place well stocked after it was done. Silas Chamberlain, who watched Elizabeth with the same fatherly interest he had felt when her child was born, and who glowed with secret pride at the way in which she had won her way back into the country society about them, came in often and offered his measure of good-natured praise. He had prophesied the first time she had cooked for harvest hands that she would become a famous cook, but he had not expected to find her a famous farmer. What was still more astonishing to the old man was that she had become noted in quite other ways. The move she had made in going to meeting the first Sunday after John's departure, and Hepsie's explanation of it, had worked to her advantage in reestablishing her in the community as one of its factors, and opened to her the opportunity to wield the influence which Luther had pointed out to her the best educated woman in a community should wield. She took a class in the little Sunday school at the schoolhouse, not so much because she was an enthusiastic churchwoman as because it was the place where contact could be had. Elizabeth belonged to no church, but Elizabeth could turn the conversation of the church members, among whom she mingled, from gossip to better things, and there was not a quilting bee nor an aid society meeting in the country around to which she was not invited, and which she did not raise to a higher standard by her presence.
The snubs which the neighbour women were at first anxious to deliver fell flat in the quiet unconsciousness with which they were met. Elizabeth felt that much of the treatment she received was given in righteous indignation, and pursued the policy when possible to do so of not seeing it, and when it must be met to meet it with perfect good humour. She kept her credit good among the men with whom she bartered for young stock, and there began to creep in a better feeling for her within the first six months after she assumed the care of the farm and the problematical position of a "grass widow" in the neighborhood. Doctor Morgan, Hepsie, Jake, and Luther were splendid assets in the race with public feeling, and Silas saw his young neighbour's affairs straighten out with chuckles of delight. He watched her manoeuvre with her business deals and saw the cool-headedness of them with growing enthusiasm. He passed Nathan on his way to the field one spring morning and noticed that Nathan was using a seeder from the Hunter farm. It was bright with a coat of freshly dried paint.
"That's what she borrowed my brushes for last week," he exclaimed to Nathan. "Ever see anything like 'er?" he asked admiringly. "Takes care of everything. Did you ever see th' likes of them hogs? She's made more money sellin' that land an' buyin' of it back 'n most of us old heads 'll make in five year. Everything she touches seems t' have a wad stuck under it somewheres."
Elizabeth was more than merely successful in money matters; she was a reorganized woman from the standpoint of health also. She was no more the weary, harassed woman who had churned, baked, and cooked for shellers, and had so nearly found an early grave. The satisfaction of working unrestrained, of resting when nature and woman's constitution demanded, and the whole matter of living without fear, had given her a sound and healthy body and a mind broader and less liable to emotional bias. The principle which she had demanded from her husband in their last conversation she put into practice. Hepsie ruled the house very much as if it were her own. Elizabeth knew from experience the dreariness of housework where all individuality is denied the worker. Hepsie came and went as the exigencies of the work permitted, and there was always a horse provided for her journeys away from the place; in fact, Hepsie was much more free than her mistress had been in her first three years in the same house. Elizabeth demanded good service, but she gave good service also, and from being a good joke to work for the grass widow, it came to be recognized that the Hunter farm was a good place to live, and when the spring came around the men who had worked there the season before always presented themselves for fresh hiring.
Two years more passed, and Master Jack Hunter was seven years old. On his seventh birthday his mother dressed him and herself carefully and rode over to the lonely graveyard. She did not go flower-laden. Rather, she went as was her custom, to spend an hour with the quiet dead in silent thought. Hugh Noland's sacrifice had not been in vain. The life he had laid down had, whatever its mistakes and weaknesses, been a happy one to himself, and had carried a ray of cheer to all with whom it had come in contact, while his death had pointed toward an ideal of purity, in spite of failures. That brief period during which Elizabeth had been compelled to live a double life for his sake had held many lessons, and had forever weaned her from duplicity of any sort. Those special hours—the hours spent beside Hugh Noland's grave—were spent in searching self-inquiry, in casting up accounts, in measuring herself against the principles with which she struggled. People had gone out of her wrestlings; principles remained. Here Elizabeth meditated upon the fact that because the neighbourhood sentiment and discussion centred around their home, she and John Hunter had missed a golden opportunity in not having become a force for good during those first years of their marriage.
The hour spent beside Hugh's grave was her sacrament. There she went to renew her faith in her own powers, which Hugh's interest and estimates had first taught her to recognize; there she went to renew her vows of higher living, and there to contemplate the freedom which Hugh Noland had given her. But for the land and stock which gave her an independent income she would have been as tearful, worn, and despondent as many of the women about her. Her heart was very tender toward Hugh as she sat beside his grave to-day. She held his letter—the only one he had ever written, her—in her hands. As she read it over, part of its last sentence, "and will, I hope, help toward emancipating you from care," struck her attention, and her eyes filled with tears.
"What is it, mamma? What hurts?" Jack asked, always quick to respond to his mother's moods.
"Nothing, dear, but Uncle Hugh's letter. He wrote it just before he died. He was very kind to me," she said, patting the face thrust up for a kiss.
"Was—was my papa here then?" the child asked, curious about the life he could not remember, and trying to relate things as he heard of them in their true relation to the father who was a mysterious personage and therefore interesting.
When his mother did not answer, he crept closer and, laying his head against her arm, said wistfully:
"Mamma, will my papa ever come back to us?"
"I don't know, Jack," she answered quietly. "Perhaps. If he don't, you shall go and see him when you are a big boy. Now run away, and leave mamma a chance to think for a whole ten minutes."
The child ran off to the horses, and Elizabeth faced the life she led. A curious thing was made plain to her in that hour—namely, that Hugh, whom she remembered tenderly, was but a memory, while John Hunter, the father of her child, whom she had no other cause to love, was a living force in her life, and that at the child's simple question a longing flamed up, and a feeling that she wished he were there. She remembered him as he would ride with his hat in his hand, his fair, soft hair wind-blown about his temples, and she would have been glad to go forth to meet him and try anew to build a life together which would be livable to both.
A long time she pondered, and the impulse to write to him came over her, but that impulse was followed by retrospection, and as one thing after another arose out of the past in solemn procession, closing with the unloved and unwished-for child which she had lost five years ago, she knew that she would not open a correspondence. At that point, and with the memory of the sweltering day and the unnecessary churning, her tender memory of Hugh, who had made her free and economically independent, welled up in her in one glad tide of thanksgiving, and she thought of her mother and the thousands of other women on these Kansas prairies who had not been saved from such a fate by being made independent landowners, and she pondered on their fate till she longed for a way out for all women who were mothers.
"This income could have set John free too, if he would only have thought it over," she said to herself. "He need not have been burdened with us while he was getting his depths in the business world," she concluded.
Wherever Elizabeth's thoughts turned to-day, John was the centre of them. Elizabeth had never been resentful toward her husband, and the never-ceasing cause of speculation and comment in the neighbourhood had been upon the fact that though she lived apart from him, she never seemed to think of divorce. Elizabeth's attitude toward John was that of a mother who waits for a child to find the real light on a situation. She rarely heard from him, and never directly. She knew of some of his affairs through Doctor Morgan, with whom John corresponded when business required, but she wrote regularly to Mrs. Hunter, who had gone to her son the second year he had been away, and who had written to her at that time. Elizabeth had been glad of so simple a means of keeping the link unbroken between him and his child. It had been no part of her plan to separate Jack from his father. She would not ask John to return, but she wished him to have such knowledge of his son as his temper would permit. She wrote such details of the home and the child as would interest them, knowing that John would read the letters. Somehow, to-day she wished that she could write to him direct, but as she thought she shook her head.
"It cannot be," she said aloud.
"Mamma, if you don't come we won't have time to go for the mail," Jack called.
The pleasant afternoon had waned; Elizabeth Hunter gazed about her in astonishment; it was indeed late.
She stooped and passed her hand over the name cut in the marble slab. "Hugh Noland, aged twenty-nine."
"Hugh Noland, dear," she said aloud, "you have set me financially free, but there is another kind of freedom I have got to win for myself. I've got to tell John the things that we wanted to tell and were too cowardly to do. If we ever come together again I shall tell it out, if all this country gets to hear it. Jack can better afford to take the disgrace of it than to have a mother who carries it about with her as a secret. Without honesty no other virtue is a virtue at all."
Elizabeth's eyes were full of tears as she voiced her vow, but there was a sense of relief welling up within her that she had not known in all the five years Hugh had lain here. She stood very quiet till her emotions were under control and her sunny self in command again, then she blew a kiss at Aunt Susan's grave and went to the waiting child and with him rode a merry race toward Colebyville.
TO DO OVER, AND TO DO BETTER, WAS THE OPPORTUNITY OFFERED
Elizabeth Hunter and her son were still breathing hard from rapid riding when they drew up in front of the post-office. Elizabeth dropped from the saddle, tossing her rein to Jack to hold till her return, and went inside. She was to remember this day and the dingy little window through which mail was passed. The postmaster was a new man and tossed the letters out carelessly; therefore he did not see the sudden start the girl gave as she began to gather them up.
John Hunter's familiar handwriting stared at her from the top envelope.
Elizabeth thought of many things while she waited for the man to run through the newspapers and magazines. Half an hour ago she had registered a vow beside Hugh Noland's grave. She was to be tested promptly. When all was handed out to her, she took the pile—Elizabeth's magazines supplied the entire community with reading material, and were handed from house to house till as ragged as the tumble weeds of her native Kansas—and put them all in the canvas bag at Jack's saddle horn. The letter was unopened. Something made her wait. Something said that John was asking to return—to do over, and to do better, was the opportunity offered to her. Her vow rose up before her; without the fulfillment of that vow there could be no better, that she recognized—and yet——
All through the long ride home she pondered upon the past and upon the possibilities of the future. Not till after Jack was safely tucked away in his bed, not till Hepsie had her supper work done and had gone upstairs and all the various members of her household had retired for the night, and she was certain of hours for uninterrupted thinking, did Elizabeth Hunter bring out the unopened letter and lay it on the table before her. Even then she renewed her vow before she broke the seal. Was he the old John, who would fly out impulsively and cover them all with disgrace if she told him? she asked herself many times. In a cold sweat of terror, she asked herself also if it were possible to build right in this new endeavour without telling John of the love which she had shown to Hugh; the temptation was terrible, but she was compelled to shake her head. The habit of openness and fair dealing would not hold her excused; there was no other way, she must tell it out. Carefully she went over all the things that would be lost if this story should be bruited abroad. Jack would be disgraced, she would be stripped of her influence in the neighbourhood, slain in the sight of her friends who had fought her battles for her because they believed in her, stripped of everything which had gone to make life worth the living, and she would place herself in the power of a man whose only attitude toward the story might be one of self-righteous justification. Was it worth the price? Her own words rose up before her, "Without honesty no other virtue is a virtue at all." Elizabeth pondered a long time, and again her own words rose up to confront her, "It does not matter who is wrong, the thing that matters is what is wrong," and for Elizabeth there was no escape. This had been the philosophy of her life; she was called upon to stand or fall on that ground. With her head bowed in acknowledgment, she drew the missive out of its envelope and began to read:
Dear Elizabeth: This letter will no doubt surprise you, but I couldn't wait any longer. I might begin by saying that I was homesick for Jack—which is true—but I'm going to confess that I'm homesick for you too. Is there still hope? I would have written you long ago, but I went into things too heavy and lost the money I got for the cattle—and then I couldn't. It would have looked like asking to come back to the land. As you know, I mortgaged the home eighty—it hurt some to do that, knowing you'd have to sign it—and began slower. I got along very well, but it was terribly tedious, and at last, after three years of steady work, and no debts, I couldn't wait any longer, and put half of what I had on the Board of Trade proceedings. I won! Last Saturday I sold all I had, and now while I can come to you right, I want to ask if you will take me? Take me quick, if you are going to, before I do some reckless thing and lose it again. I hear you have prospered; that was why I had to wait so long. I often think of dear old Hugh, and his interest in some of the things about the neighbourhood, and I have been given to see while living in this rotten hole of a city how much I underestimated the people about us in Kansas. I would be glad to come back and live among them. Will you let me? A telegram will bring me to you on the next train.
With love to both you and Jack, who will be seven years old this week,
The tension was broken. Elizabeth laid the letter back with a smile. How like John to suggest a telegram! John never could wait. How well she knew his little weaknesses; the written characters of the missive had the flowing curves of haste in their running letters. He had written on the impulse of the moment, no matter how long the desire had been in his heart. The very spontaneity of the confession was unpremeditated and worked in John Hunter's favour. He had remembered Jack's birthday too! That day seven years ago rose up in Elizabeth's memory to plead for Jack's father. She earnestly desired John's presence, and yet—could it be done?
Far into the night Elizabeth Hunter sat with the letter before her, reading and rereading it, pondering upon the possibilities of the future, seeing them in the light of the past she had spent with him, wondering what sort of man her husband had become in the five years since she had seen him. The letter sounded as if those years might have been profitable ones. There was both the openness of real honesty and the reserve of real strength in the confession about his financial affairs. The most hopeful thing she found in the letter was the sentence about Hugh's estimate of the neighbours among whom they had lived and the implied comparison regarding the city in which he now did business. Dear old John! Had Chicago business men tried the methods on him that he had thought it fair to apply to his dealings with her? In the midst of that question rose the one—would John Hunter feel the same toward Hugh Noland's estimates when he was told the truth about his wife's affection for Hugh, and of the weakness of both in the demonstrations of that affection? Well, it had to be told. Scandal would be hard to face with no denial possible. Doctor Morgan had known it all and still trusted her; likewise Luther; but Hepsie, and Jake, and Sadie? Besides, Jack would have to know, and would suffer for things of which he was innocent! The girl wrestled with the subject till midnight, and long after. At last, to put it where she could not deceive herself, she wrote a simple statement of the whole thing and sealed it up with John's address upon the envelope, and then raising her hand solemnly promised herself that this letter which contained the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth should be mailed as she had written it without being opened to change a word. She would answer John's letter in one apart from this and send it by the same mail, but this letter she would send as it stood.
As she got up to go to bed, she picked up the bag in which they brought the mail and felt in it to see if anything were left. A small narrow book that opened endwise and had the name of the Bank of Colebyville on it was all. It was a fitting end to her considerations. She had never owned a checkbook till recent years. Because of its presence, she might yet be able to answer John Hunter as he wished. She thought long on her situation. There was no sleep in her. The larger, the universal, aspects of the question began to crowd in upon her mind.
"There is no other way," she said. "A woman, to be free, must have money of her own. She must not be supported by a man."
She stepped out on the porch and stood looking toward the east. The refreshing breeze which had sprung up cooled and invigorated her.
"The wind before the dawn! The beginning of a new day!" she said aloud.
Turning toward the kitchen, she began to pack a box which stood waiting on the end of the kitchen table. Doughnuts, cookies and pies had been left there to cool the evening before. Mrs. Farnshaw was to have threshers to cook for to-day, and Elizabeth had grown thoughtful of the mother, who was aging visibly. In such ways as she could, she spared her mother's strength and gave her the comfort of frequent visits and companionship. In order to get the long eight-mile drive over before it became hot, it was necessary to get an early start, and Elizabeth, with Jack at her side, was on the road before the sun was fairly above the horizon.
About eight o'clock Mrs. Farnshaw turned at the sound of their feet on her doorstep. She set her cob basket on the floor, put the stove lid over the roaring fire, and turned to Jack with grandmotherly delight.
"You're a real comfort, Lizzie," she said, straightening up with Jack in her arms. "I never used t' think you would be, but you are. I'm that tired that I'm ready t' drop."
"Anything more than usual?" Elizabeth asked, noting the fagged and heavy face, and the gathering tears.
"Oh, nothin' more 'n 'as happened many a time; only 'e grows crosser, seems to me, as 'e grows older. He was particular bad last night, and I didn't sleep none. It's awful hot weather t' lay awake."
When Elizabeth did not reply, the mother said testily:
"Now I s'pose You'll be thinkin' that you don't have t' care for what a man says."
Elizabeth laughed, but not in her usual merry way.
"Perhaps," she said slowly. "I was thinking farther than that—I was wondering——" She paused to think and then broke out suddenly. "John's written to ask if he can come back, and I was just wondering——"
Mrs. Farnshaw was all animation at once, her own troubles forgotten.
"You don't say?" she exclaimed. "Now look here, Lizzie, you're goin' t' let him come?"
Elizabeth had told her mother on the impulse of the moment after withholding the news from Nathan and even from Jack. The child had been wriggling out of his grandmother's arms and had not heard what his mother said. Elizabeth waited till he was out of hearing. She half regretted having mentioned it. She was going to have to argue out her decision with her mother, and she had made no decision.
The mother's accidental remark had produced the impulse to tell. Well, it was all right. It might be that she could decide better after discussing it with some one. Elizabeth looked at her mother doubtfully.
"I don't know, ma. I may. It's all owing to whether we can agree on the terms of starting over."
"You ain't goin' t' lay down rules t' him?" the mother cried in amazement.
"Now's my time to find out what rules he's going to lay down to me at least," Elizabeth said dryly.
"But I never heard of such a thing! Say, don't you love 'im any more, Lizzie?"
"I—I think I do, ma," Elizabeth said slowly. "But there's the very trouble with women. They think they ought to love a man enough to take him without a definite understanding, and then they find that a woman's love means mostly obedience to a man. Yes, I think I love him. But I'm going to know what he expects, and I'm going to tell him what I expect, and make no mistakes this time. We'll know before we begin."
"But he may not take you," Mrs. Farnshaw said in a frightened whisper.
"I rather think I'm taking him," Elizabeth said, beginning to unload the box of provisions she had brought. "You forget that I'm making my own living."
"That does make a difference," Mrs. Farnshaw admitted.
"That makes all the difference," Elizabeth replied positively. "The longer I look at it the more convinced I am that the whole thing hinges right on that point. If we live together again I'll know that it isn't because he feels that having married me he must keep me in food and clothes, and he'll know that it's because I want to and not because I've got a child to be supported. I believe I love him; but if I didn't know I could leave him in a minute if he made me do things that I wasn't able to do I wouldn't dare to say yes. Knowing that I don't have to live with him if he begins to order me around, I think I'll try it."
"You're a queer girl, Lizzie," the mother said, puzzled and uncertain what to think of the philosophy she propounded. "You don't seem to be afraid of men at all."
"I don't have to be, ma, because no man will ever again pay for my food and clothes. You are not to tell anybody, even the boys. I may not do it yet. I didn't intend to tell you for a while, but you insisted on telling me what I was thinking about, and it popped right out at you."
Elizabeth gave her mother a tender look and added: "I told you first when he asked me before," which was a thing her mother could understand and appreciate. Elizabeth was considerate of the little mother whose life was hard, and who was afraid of a man.
At that point Elizabeth fell into a brown study. She argued for her own rights, knowing that only on that path could peace come to either herself or John, but she did not feel herself wholly worthy, and John wholly unworthy; she knew her weaknesses, and she knew she had wronged John Hunter as well as he had wronged her; she was willing to take him if he would be as willing to correct his faults and confess them as she was willing to do. She did not ask of John Hunter that he be always right in his actions toward her, but that he discuss their grievances and let them look together for better ways of settling what was right for each. She was so deep in her own thoughts that she did not hear Jack, who called to her from the door:
"Mamma, let's go! Come on! They're going right now, mamma!"
Elizabeth did not hear the child till he tugged at her skirts and exclaimed:
"Come on, mamma! Grandma won't care. Come on!"
His mother looked down at the boy with a smile. How well she remembered the delights of threshing-day herself. She looked about the kitchen to see what had yet to be done.
"Wait a little, Jack. I've got to help get the table set and the dinner on to cook. You wouldn't have me leave grandma to do all the work alone, would you?" she asked suggestively.
As Jack hesitated between his great desire to see the marvel of the stackyard and his desire to show as much manliness as his mother evidently expected of him, there was a noise on the doorstep and Hepsie came smilingly in.
"I followed you all on th' pony," she said. "I fixed it up with th' boys yesterday t' take a cold dinner to-day an' let me come an' help here. We're lookin' out that you don't hurt yourself to-day, Mis Farnshaw," she added, addressing the older woman.
"Now you can go to the threshing machine too, grandma!" Jack cried with delight. "Come on, let's go right now!"
"Not now, Jack," Elizabeth said. "Hepsie didn't come to get the dinner alone."
"Oh, yes, she did! She likes to," Jack replied so confidently that they all laughed, and Hepsie fell on the child and hugged him.
"Of course I did, Jack. Grandma will show me what to do, and then she and mamma can take you out to see the machine go round and round like a big coffee mill, and maybe Jack can ride one of the horses."
"Oh, Hepsie! Don't put that into the child's head," Elizabeth interposed hastily. "I wouldn't have him on one of those horses for anything."
"Mamma says I spoil you, Jack. Run along now, and let me look after this dinner."
As soon as the tables were set and the dinner on to cook, Elizabeth and her mother took the excited child and started to the barnyard. Mrs. Farnshaw was pulled along by the impatient grandson, and Elizabeth came at some distance behind, having stopped to glance in the chicken house as she went. The marvellous ant-hill called a stackyard would not permit Jack to wait for his mother.
Mr. Farnshaw saw them coming. He would gladly have avoided his wife and daughter, but Jack took things for granted and always insisted upon dragging his mother into his grandfather's presence and mixing them up in the conversation. Elizabeth had dropped behind purposely, knowing her father's feelings toward her, and did not hear Jack say persuasively:
"Grandpa, let Jack drive and make the horses go round."
"No, no, Jack," Mrs. Farnshaw said quickly. "Mamma said you could not go on the horsepower."
Mr. Farnshaw gave his wife a look of disdain and, stooping, picked the child up. Mrs. Farnshaw gave a little cry. When his own team came around, Mr. Farnshaw walked in front of it and started toward the platform on which Albert stood swinging a long whip.
The "near horse" of the Farnshaw team was a stolid and reliable mare, mother of many colts. She was so placed because it had been decided to put a young stallion of uncertain temper beside her.
The restive, irritable beast sustained his reputation by nipping angrily at Mr. Farnshaw as he dodged under the straps with which the horses were tied to the reach ahead. To have passed in front of this team unencumbered and alone when the power was in motion would have been foolhardy; but with Jack in his arms it was an act of mock-heroics typical of the whole bull-headed character of Josiah Farnshaw. He stumbled slightly in springing out of the horse's way, and with Jack, who was a load, in his arms, was barely able to keep his feet.
A shout went up from every man who saw the occurrence, and Albert shut off the power in the endeavour to stop the machine.
Mr. Farnshaw sprang toward the inner corner of the triangular space occupied by the team, and as the machine slowly came to a full stop set Jack on the boards at Albert's feet and turned toward the horses. The stallion threw a challenge at the man who had escaped its teeth, reared angrily, shook its black mane, and, with teeth exposed and ears laid back, prepared for another lunge. Not only Mrs. Farnshaw but every man on the ground called to Josiah Farnshaw to get out of the way of the infuriated beast. Instead of heeding the frantic warnings, Mr. Farnshaw, determined to let his onlooking neighbours see that he was not afraid, sprang forward and struck the squealing animal a stinging blow on the nose with his fist. Taken by surprise, the horse set back so suddenly that he broke the straps with which he and his mate were fastened to the reach, falling against the mare, who was thoroughly frightened by her master's menacing blow. The team behind them reared and snorted as the stallion sprang to its feet again.
Then a strange and terrible thing happened. The horse stopped and made ready for the plunge he had in mind. There were warning cries from every man in the stackyard, but there was no chance to escape. With a scream which struck terror to the hearts of the onlookers the brute sprang upon the man and sunk its teeth through flesh and bone alike as it grabbed the arm which was aiming a puny blow, and shook him as if he were a rag, flinging him against the ground under its feet, and shaking him as a dog shakes a rat it has captured. The men could not rush in, because the other horse was on the outside of the team and was kicking and struggling to free itself from the shrieking stallion. Every team attached to the machine was tearing at its moorings, and horrified as the men were they were obliged to attempt to control the other horses. The team immediately in front of the stallion broke away altogether, carrying away with it the reach to which it was fastened. Seeing his opportunity, Joe Farnshaw rushed into the space left open by the disappearance of the other team, and with a well-directed blow from an iron bar he had snatched up, he staggered the horse so that it dropped the nerveless thing it had been shaking, and stood stunned and trembling, sight, sound, and all other matters of sense gone. The body was snatched away from in front of the tottering horse in time to save it from the heavy weight of the falling animal, which began to tremble, and then, losing control of its legs altogether, fell heavily toward the platform, dragging its mate to her knees as it went.
Elizabeth quieted her shrieking mother as best she could while she hugged her rescued child to her bosom, and the sons of Josiah Farnshaw helped the men to lay the broken body of their father upon an improvised stretcher to be removed to the house. Kind hands performed the little duties necessary on such occasions, and then the horrified men stayed on, gathered in little groups about the dead stallion in the stackyard.
When all was done and the family were reduced to that terrorizing state of idleness which comes to those who stand about their dead, Elizabeth took Jack and wandered out of the house to where she could see Joe standing near the well. Together they glanced across to the men standing around the torn and dismantled horsepower.
"Pa was like that horse, Joe," Elizabeth said with a sudden gleam of insight. "They were both ruled by unbridled passions. Everything they did they mixed up with hate. You couldn't touch either of them without having them lay back their ears."
"TILL DEATH DO YOU PART" CONSIDERED
The day after Josiah Farnshaw was buried, Elizabeth sat down to answer John's letter. It was not easy to do, and she sat for a long time with her chin in her hand before she began to write. The death of her father related to the things of which she must speak. She began by telling him the circumstances of her father's death and showed him that the tragedy had been the result of pride and the habit of domination, of an unwillingness to listen to advice, or to discuss necessary matters. Her brothers had urged that the stallion be left in the barn and that another horse be substituted, since by its outcries and prancings it would keep the strange horses nervous and irritable, but Mr. Farnshaw, having said in the beginning that the animal should be used, would not listen to anything that the family wished him to do in the matter. Mrs. Farnshaw had objected to Jack being placed upon the horsepower, but once having started to place him there, her husband would listen to no caution. Last but not least of those refusals to advise with those who knew as well as he what should be done had been the one of not heeding the cries of the men who had warned him not to approach the vicious brute. To dominate had been the keynote of her father's character; his death had been a fitting symbol of his overweening desire to pursue that phantom.
After enlarging upon the causes of the tragedy, she took up the matter of the refusal to listen to necessary explanations which had had so much to do with her separation from her husband.
Hugh Noland's life was sacrificed because he could not go to you and talk to you of necessary things, and I am determined that if you and I ever come together again that neither of us shall be afraid to talk out anything in this whole world that is of interest to us both. Hugh and I would have been so glad to go to you and ask you to let him be taken away, or to have asked you to help us to higher living till he was well enough to go. I need hardly tell you that we both recognized that it was wronging you for him to stay on in the house after we discovered that we loved each other. Hugh planned to go, and then came the accident, and we were helpless. At last, in order not to defeat me when he saw that I was trying to overcome the fault in myself, he thought it necessary to die so that I should be free. You know, John dear, I should never try to live with you again unless I could tell you anything and know that you'd listen and be fair, even to my love for another man. There you have me as I am. If you don't want me, don't take me; but at least you are not deceived about the kind of woman you are going to live with this time.
Then Elizabeth pointed out to him how he had refused to read Hugh's innocent letter, and then went on to consider affairs between herself and John.
You will probably remember also that when we were talking over the coming of our second child five years ago you said that I was foolish to be disturbed about it—that if I had not had the wherewithal to feed and clothe it I might have had good cause for complaint, but otherwise not. That is another matter we must settle before we reopen life together. Mere food and clothes are but a part of a child's natural and proper rights of inheritance. My future children—and I hope I shall have more than the one I have now—must be prepared for earnestly and rightly. We are better prepared to have children now than when we were younger, but if we wish the best from our children, we must give the best to their beginnings as well as to their upbringings, and you and I would, I am sure, come much closer to each other and begin to understand each other much better after adopting such a policy. When we were married our love would not permit us to exact conditions, but I have learned to love you and myself enough to wish to consider all the conditions of which I have been speaking before we begin to live together again.
Years ago I was glibly willing to advise my mother to get a divorce—for her I am not sure yet but that it was the only way to freedom—but I have lived and learned, and you see that for myself I have not wanted it. I have come to understand that you and I are bound together—not by the fact of Jack's presence, I mean not by the mere knowledge that we have him, but by some other law of which he is but the outward evidence. No magistrate could separate us. I belong to you and you belong to me by some primal law of life, not because some minister said over us, "Till death do you part," but because we have permitted ourselves to become one flesh. Having set up these relations, let us struggle with the conditions they entail.
There must be freedom in our home if it is to be reorganized. I want you to be just as free as I am. I told you before you left that you should run the farm; I still prefer it. I don't care what you do on it, so long as you do not mortgage it. I think I have a right to keep a certain part of it free from debt if I choose to do so, so as to be sure of a home in my old age, since I have to suffer if we lose it; otherwise you are free to do as you wish with any part of it.
I think I have a better sort of love to offer you than I had before, just because it includes a knowledge of our weaknesses. I have had to tell you all this in order that we begin square, but I liked your letter, and I believe we can come to an understanding. My love for Hugh Noland is but a memory, but when your letter came I found that my love for you was a living thing, that I wanted you very much, and even as I write you these words I want you.
When her writing was finished Elizabeth went to the barn to saddle the horses, thinking that she would take Jack with her and ride into town to mail both letters in the cool of the evening. She saddled Jack's pony and started around the corner of the barn to tie it in the lane, when she saw, turning into that lane, John Hunter, with a valise in his hand. He had come in on the noon train and had caught a ride out home with a stranger passing that way. John saw her and waved his hand, calling to her. To Elizabeth he was still fair to look upon. She walked toward him holding out the letters she had written.
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