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Otherwise Phyllis
by Meredith Nicholson
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"Well, Phil, I guess we all do the best we can. I guess we can't see very far ahead in this world." And then he smiled grimly. "I guess we never know when we're going to get a puncture. There's got to be patches on the tire before we get home."

She gave a little shrug that she had learned from her mother and walked over to him. She clasped his chin in her fingers and tilted his head so that she looked straight through his spectacles into his eyes.

"Let's stay on the bank; the swimming's dangerous!"

"What are you talking about?" he blurted, fearing that a mussing was imminent.

"Getting married! But you—"

She turned his head the better to search his face for telltale signs.

"You beautifulest of old sinners, how about Rose?"

He jerked himself free and pushed away from her with a screeching of the new chair's casters.

"Thunder!" he gasped. "Don't you ever think that!"

"Sure you're not fooling!" she demanded, amused at the look of horror in his face.

He drew out his handkerchief and mopped his face. His manner was that of a man who, having heard bad news, has just been assured of its falsity.

"I guess," he said, "if I was fool enough—at my age—Rose wouldn't be. I've got along so far, and I guess I can pull through."

"Then," said Phil cheerfully, "we'll pull through together! This marriage business doesn't look good to me!"

"Thunder!" He looked at her narrowly. "I wish to the Lord I could keep you."

"Watch me! You know we're going abroad next summer to see mamma; that's a date. I guess you'll keep me all right enough until you get tired of me, or I break the bank! But why chat we here? Let's set the gasoline alight and ho for the well-hoed fields of corn!"

* * * * *

Phil carried a bundle of mail to her father to which he addressed himself after the supper they cooked for themselves in the camp in their old fashion. Amzi scorned their invitation to join them, as he frankly confessed his inability to find joy in sitting on a boulder and drinking coffee out of a tin cup. He preferred the comforts of his own farmhouse and Fred's society.

Phil had promised to visit him later, and finding that her father became engrossed immediately in an engineer's report on the Illinois traction property, she stole away.

She took the familiar ascent slowly, pausing now and then to listen to the murmur and rush of the waters beneath. From the top of the cliff she called down to assure her father of her safety. The dry stubble of the newly cut wheat was rough underfoot as she set off for Amzi's. There was much sowing and reaping in the world, she philosophized, and far too much chaff in the garnered grain! Life, that might be so simple if every one would only be a little bit reasonable, unfolded itself before her in dim, bewildering vistas.

Fred had started to meet her, and she saw his stalwart figure against the fading west.

"Mr. Montgomery is getting nervous about you; he said for you to hurry! The fact is that I bored him and he needs you to cheer him up."

"Which is fishing," Phil replied. "I had the dishes to wash. There's a lot to do in a camp."

"You'd better not mention the dishwashing; that's what made him cross."

"Cross! Dear old Amy cross!" laughed Phil. "Why, Fred, he doesn't know how to spell the word!"

They followed a lane beside a cornfield, talking spiritedly. Fred paused, lifted his head and filled his lungs with the fresh cool air. It was with a sense of elation that he traversed these fields of his own tilling and sowing and reaping. There was something in his bronzed face that had not been there when Phil first knew him. He carried his shoulders straighter and was less timid; he expressed himself with more confidence and was beyond question on very good terms with the world. At every meeting they had somehow seemed to make progress; they really got on famously together now that he was no longer shy in her company and had caught the spirit of her humor.

She had wondered frequently whether she was in love with him. Her speculations had been purely subjective; she had not been concerned in the least with his attitude toward her. It had occurred to her in other moods that he would be an interesting character in a book and she had even jotted down notes which would have astonished him greatly if he had been vouchsafed a glance at those amazing memoranda. Viewed objectively he was an attractive protagonist for a story dealing with the return to the soil of a young man, who, trying city life without success, sought refuge in the fields of his ancestors. The heroine must be a haughty city girl whose scorn should yield slowly to admiration and love. The last chapter of the tale should be called "The Harvest." She thought well of the idea, and meant to sketch an outline of it as soon as she finished a short story about the young gentleman who presided over the soda-fountain at Struby's, the simple chronicle of whose love affair with the cashier at Bernstein's she was just now transcribing for "Journey's End."

A new incident for that delectable yarn now popped into her head. Fred was talking about the corn which had nothing whatever to do with Struby's or the cashier at Bernstein's. She stopped and whistled as the revelation of new possibilities in her story flashed upon her.

"What's the matter, Phil?"

"Nothing," she answered. "I just thought of something!"

Phil rested her arms on the top rail of the fence and lifted her eyes dreamily to the glowing planet that for the moment reigned alone in the heavens. But her thoughts were in Main Street, not in Jupiter. The inspector on the trolley line—the one with the red mustache, the one who had punched the head of a conductor for disputing the justice of a reprimand for which the inspector had been responsible—he must certainly be brought into the story. She was disgusted with herself that it had never occurred to her before. The adored cashier should enter the drug-store to refresh herself with a chocolate sundae, and the inspector should follow—"

"Phil," said Fred.

Phil, intent upon her characters, did not respond. She did not know that her face lifted to the bright planet had quickened his pulses, roused a thousand longings in his heart.

His hand stole along the rail until it touched hers. In her deep absorption she did not notice it, or pretended that she did not; but when he took a step nearer she drew her hand away gently. The star held her gaze as though it possessed some mesmeric power. A smile was upon her face as the situation at the soda-water counter took form, became a veritable drama in her imagination.

She struck her hands together and chirruped. Fred stared at her, abashed. His hand lay where it had been, but her warm slim fingers had slipped away! When Phil was "thinking" she wholly bewildered him. Just as a girl, the loveliest in the world, Phil was far enough removed from him; but as a girl who "wrote," who improvised verses, who was caught away as by invisible hands in her fitful dreaming, she deepened his humility. He had often wondered whether he would ever gain courage to touch her hand in just that way; and now that he had dared it had profited him nothing. She had apparently been wholly unmindful of an act that had left him trembling. She hadn't even resented it!

"Phil, I've been looking forward to seeing you all day. I've been thinking about you—particularly."

"That's not so surprising," replied Phil, returning to earth a little reluctantly, "when I've been seeing you every evening and it was pretty sure to happen so to-day. Let's hurry along or Amy will say bitter things to us that he will always regret."

"I want to tell you something before we go on," he said, with a gravity that caused her to look at him sharply.

"Fred Holton, you and I are old friends now, and good pals. I hope you're not going to spoil it all."

"I love you, Phil; I can't help telling you: I have to tell you now."

She reached down, picked up a pebble and flung it at the star.

Assured, by the sound of its fall afar off in the corn, that it had missed Jupiter, she gave him her attention. He broke in before she could speak.

"I know there are reasons why I shouldn't tell you. I want you to know I have thought about them; I know that there are family reasons why—"

She laid her hand gently on his arm.

"Dear old Fred," she began, as a boy might have spoken to a comrade in trouble, "there's nothing about you that isn't altogether fine. The thing you were about to say you don't need to say—ever! If Amy didn't know you were one of the best fellows in the world, he wouldn't have got behind you when things were going wrong. He knew all those things that are in your mind and he didn't care, and you may be sure I don't. So that's all right, Fred."

His hope mounted as she spoke. The hand on his arm thrilled him. The fact that he was a Holton did not, then, make any difference, and he had been troubled about that ever since he realized how dear she had grown to him.

"You've all been mighty good to me. If it hadn't been for your father and Mr. Montgomery, I should have lost the farm. I'm better off than I ever expected to be and I owe it all to them. It's a big thing when a fellow's clear down and out to have helping hands like theirs. I don't know how to say these things, but I love you, Phil. You don't know what it has meant to know you—how thinking about you makes the day's work easier as I tramp these fields. I know I oughtn't to ask a girl like you to share a farmer's life, but I'll be so good to you, Phil! And I mean to go on and win. You've made the world a different place for me, Phil. I know what a poor clod I am, but I mean to study and to try and measure up to you."

"Cut out that last proposition, Fred! I'm the harum-scarumest girl on earth and I know it. I'd be a real handicap to you, or any other man. Gracious! Why didn't you tell me you were going to make love to me and I'd have put on my other suit. I'll never forgive you for this, Fred Holton; it's taking an unkind advantage!"

"I don't believe you think I mean it!" he cried despairingly, as her gaze wandered across the fields to the far horizon.

"If I thought you didn't, I should never speak to you again," she declared severely, meeting his eyes.

"The corn was glad When he had told his love. The evening star Chortled in joy. The cattle on the hills—

"Oh, come on, Fred, and let's stop foolishing!"

"Please, Phil? If only you cared a little!" he pleaded forlornly.

"A little! I care a whole lot about you! I respect you and admire you; and I suppose, to be real frank about it, I love you a little tiny bit. But as for marrying you or anybody else—that's different, oh, very different! You see, Fred," she continued, abruptly abandoning her half-chaffing tone, "the ice is too thin; it makes me shudder to think of it! Instead of people being settled when they get married, it seems to make them nervous. I'm going to study and work and work and work! I want to see what kind of a life I can build up for myself—and then I want to stand off and look at it—a good long look before I allow anybody else to have a share in it. That's all of that, Fred."

"But, Phil."

As she started toward the house he stepped quickly in front of her. The shadows deepened round them, and the wind whispered in the corn. The rattle of a wagon descending Listening Hill reached them faintly and Phil lifted her head at the vague, blurred sound. After her brave speech a mood of loneliness swept her heart, and the cheer with which she had lately fortified herself against depression failed to respond to her summons. She had no control over the lives of her mother and father. The one beyond the sea was not more hopelessly remote than the other in his camp by the creek. They and all the others who were near and dear—Amzi, even, and Nan and Rose—seemed strangely beyond her reach. The fields, the woodlands etched darkly against the sky, suddenly became Fred's allies. He was of kin to them; he had confessed in their later talks to a simple spiritual faith born of contact with the earth, the study of its secrets, the pondering of its mysteries. With him there would be peace and security. Her heart ached with tenderness and longing. The qualities her nature lacked he supplied, and love and faith like his were not lightly to be put aside. Fred in the dusk before her took form in her mind as a refuge and hope. He was big and strong and kind; he loved her and it was sweet to be loved by him. He took her hands, that fluttered and became still like two forlorn birds; and then her arms stole round his neck in a tight clasp.

"Dear Fred!" she cried, half-sobbing; "don't you ever leave me!"

* * * * *

A little later, as they walked hand in hand toward the house, he pointed toward the creek.

"You see, Phil, about your work, I've thought all that out. I want you to go on with it. I've planned a kind of studio for you over there, in that clump of trees on the edge of the Run. I'm going to build a little bungalow, all glass on the creek side, where you can study and write, while I'm off making the corn grow. And in the evenings we'll go out there and sit and talk. I've thought a lot about that."

"But, you goose, that won't be helping you any, the way a farmer's wife has to help her husband. I won't be of any use to you, writing pieces for editors to fire back at me."

"They won't send them back; and if they do, I'll punch their heads."

"And daddy can live with us, can't he—always, Fred? Where we are will be home for him!"

"Yes; of course, Phil. I've thought about that, too. I've thought about almost everything. And I'm not afraid of life, Phil,—not with you. Out here in the fields it's different from anywhere else, and easier. Those old stars are closer, some way, here in the country. You've got more room to think in, and it isn't a narrow life, but a broad one when you consider it. You've taught me to understand all that, Phil! I believe you feel a good deal about it as I do, and the work you want to do ought to be better for being done out here where the corn grows tall. We won't stay here always. We'll go off in the winters and look at the big world, and come back home to study it over. And we'll try to do a little good as we go along."

"Yes; we mustn't forget that, Fred."

His simple way of speaking of things that meant much to him had always touched her. Her pressure tightened on his hand and he bent and kissed her.

"But, Fred!" she exclaimed suddenly, as they loitered on, "Amy will be awfully cross. We'd planned to go abroad next summer, and he won't forgive me if I get married so I can't."

"Oh, don't you worry about him!"

"Of course I'll worry about him; why shouldn't I?" she demanded.

"Because I told him I was going to ask you," Fred laughed, "and he said 'Thunder' and blew his nose and wished me good luck!"

"When did all that happen, if you please, sir?"

"Last Sunday. We talked about you all afternoon."

"And he said—oh, the hypocrite!" she cried; and then declared resolutely, "I'm going to muss him! Come on, Fred; I'll race you to the house!"



THE END



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- Transcriber's Note: Inconsistent hyphenation and spelling in the original document have been preserved. Typographical errors corrected in the text: Page 54 though changed to thought Page 237 sweatmeat changed to sweetmeat Page 329 our changed to out Page 360 fradulent changed to fraudulent -

THE END

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