The Harvester arose and went to the sunshine room.
"What does he want, Molly?" asked the doctor.
"Wants to turn over his job," chuckled the nurse. "He held it about seven minutes in peace, and then she began to fret and call for the Harvester. He just sweat blood to pacify her, but he couldn't make it. He tried to hold her, to make love to her, and goodness knows what, but she struggled and cried, 'David,' until he had to give it up and send me."
"Molly," said Doctor Carey, "we've known the Harvester a long time, and he is our friend, isn't he?"
"Of course!" said the nurse.
"We know this is the first woman he ever loved, probably ever will, as he is made. Now we don't like this stranger butting in here; we resent it, Molly. We are on the side of our friend, and we want him to win. I'll grant that this fellow is fine, and that he has done well, but what's the use in tearing up arrangements already made? And so suitable! Now Molly, you are my best nurse, and a good reliable aid in times like this. I gave you instructions an hour ago. I'll add this to them. YOU ARE ON THE HARVESTER'S SIDE. Do you understand? In this, and the days to come, you'll have a thousand chances to put in a lick with a sick woman. Put them in as I tell you."
"Yes, Doctor Carey."
"And Molly! You are something besides my best nurse. You're a smashing pretty girl, and your occupation should make you especially attractive to a young doctor. I'm sure this fellow is all right, so while you are doing your best with your patient for the Harvester, why not have a try for yourself with the doctor? It couldn't do any harm, and it might straighten out matters. Anyway, you think it over."
The nurse studied his face silently for a time, and then she began to laugh softly.
"He is up there doing his best with her," she said.
The doctor threw out his hands in a gesture of disdain, and the nurse laughed again; but her cheeks were pink and her eyes flashing as she returned to duty.
"Random shot, but it might hit something, you never can tell," commented the doctor.
The Harvester entered the Girl's room and stood still. She was fretting and raising her temperature rapidly. Before he reached the door his heart gave one great leap at the sound of her voice calling his name. He knew what to do, but he hesitated.
"She seems to have become accustomed to you, and at times does not remember me," said Doctor Harmon. "I think you had better take her again until she grows quiet."
The Harvester stepped to the bed and looked the doctor in the eye.
"I am afraid I left out one important feature in our little talk on the bridge," he said. "I neglected to tell you that in your fight for this woman's life and love you have a rival. I am he. She is my wife, and with the last fibre of my being I adore her. If you win, and she wants you to take her away, I will help you; but my heart goes with her forever. If by any chance it should occur that I have been mistaken or misinterpreted her delirium or that she has been deceived and finds she prefers me and Medicine Woods, to you and Chicago, when she has had opportunity to measure us man against man, you must understand that I claim her. So I say to you frankly, take her if you can, but don't imagine that I am passive. I'll help you if I know she wants you, but I fight you every inch of the way. Only it has got to be square and open. Do you understand?"
"You are certainly sufficiently clear."
"No man who is half a man sees the last chance of happiness go out of his life without putting up the stiffest battle he knows," said the Harvester grimly. "Ruth-girl, you are raising the fever again. You must be quiet."
With infinite tenderness he possessed himself of her hands and began stroking her hair, and in a low and soothing voice the story of the birds, flowers, lake, and woods went on. To keep it from growing monotonous the Harvester branched out and put in everything he knew. In the days that followed he held a position none could take from him. While the doctors fought the fever, he worked for rest and quiet, and soothed the tortured body as best he could, that the medicines might act.
But the fever was stubborn, and the remedies were slow; and long before the dreaded coming day the doctors and nurse were quietly saying to each other that when the crisis came the heart would fail. There was no vitality to sustain life. But they did not dare tell the Harvester. Day and night he sat beside the maple bed or stretched sleeping a few minutes on the couch while the Girl slept; and with faith never faltering and courage unequalled, he warned them to have their remedies and appliances ready.
"I don't say it's going to be easy," he said. "I just merely state that it must be done. And I'll also mention that, when the hour comes, the man who discovers that he could do something if he had digitalis, or a remedy he should have had ready and has forgotten, that man had better keep out of my sight. Make your preparations now. Talk the case over. Fill your hypodermics. Clean your air pumps. Get your hot-water bottles ready. Have system. Label your stuff large and set it conveniently. You see what is coming, be prepared!"
One day, while the Girl lay in a half-drugged, feverish sleep, the Harvester went for a swim. He dressed a little sooner than was expected and in crossing the living-room he heard Doctor Harmon say to Doctor Carey on the veranda, "What are we going to do with him when the end comes?"
The Harvester stepped to the door. "That won't be the question," he said grimly. "It will be what will HE do with us?"
Then, with an almost imperceptible movement, he caught Doctor Harmon at the waist line, and lifted and dangled him as a baby, and then stood him on the floor. "Didn't hardly expect that much muscle, did you?" he inquired lightly. "And I'm not in what you could call condition, either. Instead of wasting any time on fool questions like that, you two go over your stuff and ask each other, have we got every last appliance known to physics and surgery? Have we got duplicates on hand in case we break delicate instruments like hypodermic syringes and that sort of thing? Engage yourselves with questions pertaining to life; that is your business. Instead of planning what you'll do in failure, bolster your souls against it. Granny Moreland beats you two put together in grip and courage."
The Harvester returned to his task, and the fight went on. At last the hour came when the temperature fell lower and lower. The feeble pulses flickered and grew indiscernible; a gray pallor hovered over the Girl, and a cold sweat stood on her temples.
"Now!" said the Harvester. "Exercise your calling! Fight like men or devils, but win you must."
They did work. They administered stimulants; applied heat to the chilled body; fans swept the room with vitalized air; hypodermics were used; and every last resort known to science was given a full test, and the weak heart throbbed slower and slower, and life ran out with each breath. The Harvester stood waiting with set jaws. He could detect no change for the better. At last he picked up a chilled hand and could discover no pulse, and the gray nails and the dark tips told a story of arrested circulation. He laid down the hand and faced the men.
"This is what you'd call the crisis, Doc?" he asked gently.
"Are you stemming it? Are you stemming it? Are you sure she is holding her own?"
Doctor Carey looked at him silently.
"Have you done all you can do?" asked the Harvester.
"You believe her going out?"
The Harvester turned to Doctor Harmon. "Do you concur in that?"
Then to the nurse, "And you?"
"Then," said the Harvester, "all of you are useless. Get out of here. I don't want your atmosphere. If you can believe only in death, leave us! She is my wife, and if this is the end she belongs to me, and I will do as I choose with her. All of you go!"
The Harvester stepped to the bathroom door and called Granny Moreland. "Granny," he said, "science has turned tail, and left me in extremity. Fill your hot-water bottles and come in here with your heart big with hope and help me save my Dream Girl. She is breathing Granny; we've got to make her keep it up, that's all——just keep her breathing."
He returned to the sunshine room, placed a small table beside the bed, and on it a glass of water, spoon, and a hypodermic syringe. When Granny Moreland came he said: "Now you begin on her feet and rub with long, sweeping, upward strokes to drive the blood to her heart."
Around the Girl he piled hot-water bottles and breathlessly hung over her, rubbing her hands. He wiped the perspiration from her forehead, and then dropped by her bed and for a second laid his face on her cold palm.
"If I am wrong, Heaven forgive me," he prayed. "And you, oh, my darling Dream Girl, forgive me, but I am forced to try——God helping me! Amen."
He arose, took a small bottle from his pocket, filled the spoon with water, and measured into it three drops of liquid as yellow as gold. Then he held the spoon to the blue lips, and with his fingers worked apart the set teeth, and poured the medicine down her throat. Then they rubbed and muttered snatches of prayer for fifteen minutes when the Harvester administered another three drops. It might have been fancy, but it seemed to him her jaws were not so stiff. Faster flew his hands and he sent Granny Moreland to refill the hot bottles. When he gave the Girl the third dose he injected some of the liquid over her heart and of the glycerine the doctors had left, in the extremities. He released more air and began rubbing again.
The second hour started in the same way, and ended with slowly relaxing muscles and faint tinges of colour in the white cheeks. The feet were not so cold, and when the Harvester held the spoon he knew that the Girl made an effort to swallow, and he could see her eyelids tremble. Thereupon he pointed these signs to Granny, and implored her to rub and pray, and pray and rub, while he worked until the perspiration rolled down his gray face. At the end of the second hour he began decreasing the doses and shortening the time, and again he commenced in a low rumble his song of life and health, to encourage the Girl as consciousness returned.
Occasionally Doctor Carey opened the door slightly and peeped in to see if he were wanted, but he received no invitation to enter. The last time he left with the impression that the Harvester was raving, while he worked over a lifeless body. He had the Girl warmly covered and bent over her face and hands. At her feet crouched Granny Moreland, rubbing, still rubbing, beneath the covers, while in a steady stream the Harvester was pouring out his song. If he had listened an instant longer he would have recognized that the tone and the words had changed. Now it was, "Gently, breathe gently, Girl! Slowly, steadily, easily! Deeper, a little deeper, Ruth! Brave Girl, never another so wonderful! That's my Dream Girl coming from the shadows, coming to life's sunshine, coming to hope, coming to love! Deeper, just a little deeper! Smoothly and evenly! You are making it, Girl! You are making it! By all that is holy and glorious! Stick to it, Ruth, hold tight to me! I'll help you, dear! You are coming, coming back to life and love. Don't worry yourself trying too hard, if only you can send every breath as deeply as the last one, you can make it. You brave girl! You wonderful Dream Girl! Ah, Ruth, the name of this is victory!"
An hour before Doctor Carey had said to Doctor Harmon and the nurse, as he softly closed the door: "It is over and the Harvester is raving. We'll give him a little more time and see if he won't realize it himself. That will be easier for him than for us to try to tell him."
Now he opened the door, stared a second, and coming to the opposite side of the bed, he leaned over the Girl. Then he felt her feet. They were warm and slightly damp. A surprised look crept over his face. He gently reached for a hand that the Harvester yielded to him. It was warm, the blue tips becoming rosy, the wrist pulse discernible. Then he bent closer, touched her face, and saw the tremulous eyelids. He turned back the cover, and held his ear over her heart. When he straightened, "As God lives, she's got a chance, David!" he exulted in an awed whisper.
The Harvester lifted a graven face, down which the sweat of agony rolled, and his lips parted in a twitching smile. "Then this is where love beats the doctors, Carey!" he said.
"It is where love has ventured what science dares not. Love didn't do all of this. In the name of the Almighty, what did you give her, David?"
"Life!" cried the Harvester. "Life! Come on, Ruth, come on! Out of the valley come to me! You are well now, Girl! It's all over! The last trace of fever is gone, the last of the dull ache. Can you swallow just two more drops of bottled sunshine, Ruth?"
The flickering lids slowly opened, and the big black eyes looked straight into the Harvester's. He met them steadily, smiling encouragement.
"Hang on to each breath, dear heart!" he urged. "The fever is gone. The pain is over! Long life and the love you crave are for you. You've only to keep breathing a few more hours and the battle is yours. Glorious Girl! Noble! You are doing finely! Ruth, do you know me?"
Her lips moved.
"Don't try to speak," said the Harvester. "Don't waste breath on a word. Save the good oxygen to strengthen your tired body. But if you do know me, maybe you could smile, Ruth!"
She could just smile, and that was all. Feeble, flickering, transient, but as it crossed the living face the Harvester lifted her hands and kissed them over and over, back, palm, and finger tips.
"Now just one more drop, honey, and then a long rest. Will you try it again for me?"
She assented, and the Harvester took the bottle from his pocket, poured the drop, and held the spoon to willing lips. The big eyes were on him with a question. Then they fell to the spoon. The Harvester understood.
"Yes, it's mine! It's got sixty years of wonderful life in it, every one of them full of love and happiness for my dear Dream Girl. Can you take it, Ruth?"
Her lips parted, the wine of life passed between. She smiled faintly, and her eyelids dropped shut, but presently they opened again.
"My Dream Girl!"
"Don't, Ruth! Save every breath to help your heart."
"Life it is, Girl!" exulted the Harvester. "Long life! Love! Home! The man you love! Every happiness that ever came to a girl! Nothing shall be denied you! Nothing shall be lacking! It's all in your hands now, Ruth. We've all done everything we can; you must do the remainder. It's your work to send every breath as deeply as you can. Doc, release another tank of air. Are her feet warm, Granny? Let the nurse take your place now. And, honey, go to sleep! I'll keep watch for you. I'll measure each breath you draw. If they shorten or weaken, I'll wake you for more medicine. You can trust me! Always you can trust me, Ruth."
The Girl smiled and fell into a light, even slumber. Granny Moreland stumbled to the couch and rolled on it sobbing with nervous exhaustion. Doctor Carey called the nurse to take her place. Then he came to the Harvester's side and whispered, "Let me, David!"
The Harvester looked up with his queer grin, but he made no motion to arise.
"Won't you trust me, David? I'll watch as if it were my own wife."
"I wouldn't trust any man on earth, for the coming three hours," replied the Harvester. "If I keep this up that long, she is safe. Go and rest until I call you."
He again bent over the Girl, one hand on her left wrist, the other over her heart, his eyes on her lips, watching the depth and strength of her every breath. Regularly he administered the medicine he was giving her. Sometimes she took it half asleep; again she gave him a smile that to the Harvester was the supreme thing of earth or Heaven. Toward the end of the long vigil, in exhaustion he slipped to the floor, and laid his head on the side of the bed, and for a second his hand relaxed and he fell asleep. The Girl awakened as his touch loosened and looking down she saw his huddled body. A second later the Harvester awoke with a guilty start to find her fingers twisted in the shock of hair on the top of his head.
"Poor stranded Girl," he muttered. "She's clinging to me for life, and you can stake all you are worth she's going to get it!"
Then he gently relaxed her grip, gave her the last dose he felt necessary, yielded his place to Doctor Carey and staggered up the hill. As the sun peeped over Medicine Woods he stretched himself between the two mounds under the oak, and for a few minutes his body was rent with the awful, torn sobbing of a strong man. Belshazzar nosed the twisting figure and whined pitifully. A chattering little marsh wren tilted on a bush and scolded. A blue jay perched above and tried to decide whether there was cause for an alarm signal. A snake coming from the water to hunt birds ran close to him, and changing its course, went weaving away among the mosses. Gradually the pent forces spent themselves, and for hours the Harvester lay in the deep sleep of exhaustion, and stretched beside him, Belshazzar guarded with anxious dog eyes.
CHAPTER XVIII. THE BETTER MAN
In the middle of the afternoon the Harvester arose and went into the lake, ate a hearty dinner, and then took up his watch again. For two days and nights he kept his place, until he had the Girl out of danger, and where careful nursing was all that was required to insure life and health. As he sat beside her the last day, his physical endurance strained to the breaking point, she laid her hand over his, and looked long and steadily into his eyes.
"There are so many things I want to know," she said.
The Harvester's firm fingers closed over hers. "Ruth, have you ever been sorry that you trusted me?"
"Never!" said the Girl instantly.
"Then suppose you keep it up," said he. "Whatever it is that you want to know, don't use an iota of strength to talk or to think about it now. Just say to yourself, he loves me well enough to do what is right, and I know that he will. All you have to do is to be patient until you grow stronger than you ever have been in your life, and then you shall have exactly what you want, Ruth. Sleep like a baby for a week or two. Then, slowly and gradually, we will build up such a constitution for you that you shall ride, drive, row, swim, dance, play, and have all that your girlhood has missed in fun and frolic, and all that your womanhood craves in love and companionship. Happiness has come at last, Ruth. Take it from me. Everything you crave is yours. The love you want, the home, and the life. As soon as you are strong enough, you shall know all about it. Your business is to drink stimulants and sleep now, dear."
"So tired of this bed!"
"It won't be long until you can lie on the couch and the veranda swing again."
"Glory!" said the Girl. "David, I must have been full of fever for a long time. I can't remember everything."
"Don't try, I tell you. Life is coming out right for you; that's all you need know now."
"And for you, David?"
"Whenever things are right for you, they are for me, Ruth."
"Don't you ever think of yourself?"
"Not when I am close you."
"Ah! Then I shall have to grow strong very soon and think of you."
The Harvester's smile was pathetic. He was unspeakably tired again.
"Never mind me!" he said. "Only get well."
"David, was there a little horse?"
"There certainly was and is," said the Harvester.
"You had not named him yet, but in a few days I can lead him to the window."
"Was there something said about a boat?"
"Two of them."
"Yes. A row boat for you, and a launch that will take you all over the lake with only the exertion of steering on your part."
"David, I want my pendant and ring. I am so tired of lying here, I want to play with them."
"Where do you keep them, Ruth?"
"In the willow teapot. I thought no one would look there."
The Harvester laughed and brought the little boxes. He had to open them, but the Girl put on the ring and asked him if he would not help her with the pendant. He slipped the thread around her neck and clasped it. With a sigh of satisfaction she took the ornament in one hand and closed her eyes. He thought she was falling asleep, but presently she looked at him.
"You won't allow them to take it from me?"
"Indeed no! There is no reason on earth why you should not have that thread around your neck if you want it."
"I am going to sleep now. I want two things. May I have them?"
"You may," said the Harvester promptly, "provided they are not to eat."
"No," said the Girl. "I've suffered and made others trouble. I won't bother you by asking for anything more than is brought me. This is different. You are completely worn out. Your face frightens me, David, and white hairs that were not there a few days ago have come along your temples. I can see them."
"You gave me a mighty serious scare, Ruth."
"I know," said the Girl. "Forgive me. I didn't mean to. I want you to leave me to Doctor Harmon and the nurse and go sleep a week. Then I will be ready for the swing, and to hear some more about the trees and birds."
"I can keep it up if you really need me, but if you don't I am sleepy. So, if you feel safe, I think I will go."
"Oh I am safe enough," said the Girl. "It isn't that. I'm so lonely. I've made up my mind not to grieve for mother, but I miss her so now. I feel so friendless."
"But, honey," said the Harvester, "you mustn't do that! Don't you see how all of us love you? Here is Granny shutting up her house and living here, just to be with you. The nurse will do anything you say. Here is the man you know best, and think so much of, staying in the cabin, and so happy to give you all his time, and anything else you will have, dear. And the Careys come every day, and will do their best to comfort you, and always I am here for you to fall back on."
"Yes, I'm falling right now," said the Girl. "I almost wish I had the fever again. No one has touched me for days. I feel as if every one was afraid of me."
The Harvester was puzzled.
"Well, Ruth, I'm doing the best I know," he said. "What is it you want?"
"Nothing!" answered the Girl with slightly dejected inflection. "Say good-bye to me, and go sleep your week. I'll be very good, and then you shall take me a drive up the hill when you awaken. Won't that be fine?"
"Say good-bye to me!" She felt a "little lonely!" They all acted as if they were "afraid" of her. The Harvester indulged in a flashing mental review and arrived at a decision. He knelt beside the bed, took both slender, cool hands and covered them with kisses. Then he slid a hand under the pillow and raised the tired head.
"If I am to say good-bye, I have to do it in my own way, Ruth," he said.
Thereupon he began at the tumbled mass of hair and kissed from her forehead to her lips, kisses warm and tender.
"Now you go to sleep, and grow strong enough by the time I come back to tell me whom you love," he said, and went from the room without waiting for any reply.
With short intervals for food and dips in the lake the Harvester very nearly slept the week. When he finally felt himself again, he bathed, shaved, dressed freshly, and went to see the Girl. He had to touch her to be sure she was real. She was extremely weak and tremulous, but her face and hands were fuller, her colour was good, she was ravenously hungry. Doctor Harmon said she was a little tryant, and the nurse that she was plain cross. The first thing the Harvester noticed was that the dull blue look in the depth of the dark eyes was gone. They were clear, dusky wells, with shining lights at the bottom.
"Well I never would have believed it!" he cried. "Doctor Harmon, you are a great physician! You have made her all over new, and in a few more days she will be on the veranda. This is great!"
"Do I appear so much better to you, Harvester?" asked the Girl.
"Has no one thought to show you," cried the Harvester. "Here, let me!"
He stepped to her dressing table, picked up a mirror, and held it before her so that she could see herself.
"Seems to me I am dreadfully white and thin yet!"
"If you had seen what I saw ten days ago, my Girl, you would think you appear like a pink, rosy angel now, or a wonderful dream."
"Truly, do I in the least resemble a dream, David?"
"You are a dream. The loveliest one a man ever had. With three months of right care and exercise you'll be the beautiful woman nature intended. I'm so proud of you. You are being so brave! Just lie there in patience a few more days, and out you come again to life; and life that will thrill your being with joy."
"All right," said the Girl, "I will. David are you attending to your herbs?"
"Not for a few weeks."
"You are very much behind?"
"No. Nothing important. I don't make enough to count on what is ready now. I can soon gather jimson leaves and seed to fill orders, the hemlock is about right to take the fruit, the mustard is yet in pod, and the saffron and wormseed can be attended later. I can catch up in two days."
"What about——about the big bed on the hill?"
The Harvester experienced an inward thrill of delight. She was so impressed with the value of the ginseng she would not mention it, even before the man she loved——no more than that——"adored"—— "worshipped!" He smiled at her in understanding.
"I'll have to take a peep at that and report," he said.
"Are you rested now?"
"You are dreadfully thin."
"I always am. I'll pick up a little when I get back to work."
"David, I want you to go to work now."
"Can you spare me?"
"Haven't we done well these last few days?"
"I can't tell you how well."
"Then please go gather everything you need to fill orders except the big bed, and by that time maybe you could take another week off, and I could go to the hill top and on the lake. I'm so anxious to put my feet on the earth. They feel so dead."
"Are your feet well rubbed to draw down the circulation?"
"They are rubbed shiny and almost skinned, David. No one ever had better care, of that I am sure. Go gather what you should have."
"All right," said the Harvester.
He arose and as he started to leave the room he took one last look at the Girl to see if he could detect anything he could suggest for her comfort, and read a message in her eyes. Instantly there was an answering flash in his.
"I'll be back in a minute," he said. "I just noticed discorea villosa has the finest rattle boxes formed. I've been waiting to show you. And the hop tree has its castanets all green and gold. In a few more weeks it will begin to play for you. I'll bring you some."
Soon he returned with the queer seed formations, and as he bent above her, with his back to Doctor Harmon, he whispered, "What is it?"
Her lips barely formed the one word, "Hurry!"
The Harvester straightened.
"All comfortable, Ruth?" he asked casually.
"You understand, of course, that there is not the slightest necessity for my going to work if you really want me for anything, even if it's nothing more than to have me within calling distance, in case you SHOULD want something. The whole lot I can gather now won't amount to twenty dollars. It's merely a matter of pride with me to have what is called for. I'd much rather remain, if you can use me in any way at all."
"Twenty dollars is considerable, when expenses are as heavy as now. And it's worth more than any money to you not to fail when orders come. I have learned that, and David, I don't want you to either. You must fill all demands as usual. I wouldn't forgive myself this winter if you should be forced to send orders only partly filled because I fell ill and hindered you. Please go and gather all you possibly will need of everything you take at this season, only remember!"
"There is no danger of my forgetting. If you are going to send me away to work, you will allow me to kiss your hand before I go, fair lady?"
He did it fervently.
"One word with you, Harmon," he said as he left the room.
Doctor Harmon arose and followed him to the gold garden, and together they stood beside the molten hedge of sunflowers, coneflowers, elecampane, and jewel flower.
"I merely want to mention that this is your inning," said the Harvester. "Find out if you are essential to the Girl's happiness as soon as you can, and the day she tells me so, I will file her petition and take a trip to the city to study some little chemical quirks that bother me. That's all."
The Harvester went to the dry-house for bags and clipping shears, and the doctor returned to the sunshine room.
"Ruth," he said, "do you know that the Harvester is the squarest man I ever met?"
"Is he?" asked the Girl.
"He is! He certainly is!"
"You must remember that I have little acquaintance with men," said she. "You are the first one I ever knew, and the only one except him."
"Well I try to be square," said Doctor Harmon, "but that is where Langston has me beaten a mile. I have to try. He doesn't. He was born that way."
The Girl began to laugh.
"His environment is so different," she said. "Perhaps if he were in a big city, he would have to try also."
"Won't do!" said the doctor. "He chose his location. So did I. He is a stronger physical man than I ever was or ever will be. The struggle that bound him to the woods and to research, that made him the master of forces that give back life, when a man like Carey says it is the end, proves him a master. The tumult in his soul must have been like a cyclone in his forest, when he turned his back on the world and stuck to the woods. Carey told me about it. Some day you must hear. It's a story a woman ought to know in order to arrive at proper values. You never will understand the man until you know that he is clean where most of us are blackened with ugly sins we have no right on God's footstool to commit and not so much reason as he. Every man should be as he is, but very few are. Carey says Langston's mother was a wonderful element in the formation of his character; but all mothers are anxious, and none of them can build with no foundation and no soul timber. She had material for a man to her hand, or she couldn't have made one."
"I see what you mean."
"So far as any inexperienced girl ever sees," said the doctor. "Some day if you live to fifty you will know, but you can't comprehend it now."
"If you think I lived all my life in Chicago's poverty spots and don't know unbridled human nature!"
"I found you and your mother unusually innocent women. You may understand some things. I hope you do. It will help you to decide who is the real man among the men who come into your life. There are some men, Ruth, who are fit to mate with a woman, and to perpetuate themselves and their mental and moral forces in children, who will be like them, and there are others who are not. It is these 'others' who are responsible for the sin of the world, the sickness and suffering. Any time you are sure you have a chance at a moral man, square and honest, in control of his brain and body, if you are a wise woman, Ruth, stick to him as the limpet to the rock."
"You mean stick to the Harvester?"
"If you are a wise woman!"
"When was a woman ever wise?"
"A few have been. They are the only care-free, really happy ones of the world, the only wives without a big, poison, blue-bottle fly in their ointment."
"I detest flies!" said the Girl.
"So do I," said the doctor. "For this reason I say to you choose the ointment that never had one in it. Take the man who is 'master of his fate, captain of his soul.' Stick to the Harvester! He is infinitely the better man!"
"Well have you seen anything to indicate that I wasn't sticking?" asked the Girl.
"No. And for your sake I hope I never will."
She laughed softly.
"You do love him, Ruth?"
"As I did my mother, yes. There is not a trace in my heart of the thing he calls love."
"You have been stunted, warped, and the fountains of life never have opened. It will come with right conditions of living."
"Do you think so?"
"I know so. At least there is no one else you love, Ruth?"
"No one except you."
"And do you feel about me just as you do him?"
"No! It is different. What I owe him is for myself. What I owe you is for my mother. You saw! You know! You understand what you did for her, and what it meant to me. The Harvester must be the finest man on earth, but when I try to think of either God or Heaven, your face intervenes."
"That's all right, Ruth, I'm so glad you told me," said Doctor Harmon. "I can make it all perfectly clear to you. You just go on and worship me all you please. It's bound to make a cleaner, better man of me. What you feel for me will hold me to a higher moral level all my life than I ever have known before; but never forget that you are not going to live in Heaven. You will be here at least sixty years yet, so when you come to think of selecting a partner for the relations of the world, you stick to the finest man on earth; see?"
"I do!" said the Girl. "I saw you kiss Molly a week ago. She is lovely, and I hope you will be perfectly happy. It won't interfere with my worshipping you; not the least in the world. Go ahead and be joyful!"
The doctor sprang to his feet in crimson confusion. The Girl lay and laughed at him.
"Don't!" she cried. "It's all right! It takes a weight off my soul as heavy as a mountain. I do adore you, as I said. But every hour since I left Chicago a big, black cloud has hung over me. I didn't feel free. I didn't feel absolved. I felt that my obligations to you were so heavy that when I had settled the last of the money debt I was in honour bound——"
"Don't, Ruth! Forget those dreadful times, as I told you then! Think only of a happy future!"
"Let me finish," said the Girl. "Let me get this out of my system with the other poison. From the day I came here, I've whispered in my heart, 'I am not free!' But if you love another woman! If you are going to take her to your heart and to your lips, why that is my release. Oh Man, speak the words! Tell me I am free indeed!"
"Ruth, be quiet, for mercy sake! You'll raise a temperature, and the Harvester will pitch me into the lake. You are free, child, of course! You always have been. I understood the awful pressure that was on you with the very first glimpse I had of your mother. Who was she, Ruth?"
"She never would tell me."
"She thought you would appeal to her people?"
"She knew I would! I couldn't have helped it."
"Would you like to know?"
"I never want to. It is too late. I infinitely prefer to remain in ignorance. Talk of something else."
"Let me read a wonderful book I found on the Harvester's shelves."
"Anything there will contain wonders, because he only buys what appeals to him, and it takes a great book to do that. I am going to learn. He will teach me, and when I come within comprehending distance of him, then we are going on together."
"What an attractive place this is!"
"Isn't it? I only have seen enough to understand the plan. I scarcely can wait to set my feet on earth and go into detail. Granny Moreland says that when spring comes over the hill, and brings up the flowers in the big woods, she'd rather walk through them than to read Revelation. She says it gives her an idea of Heaven she can come closer realizing and it seems more stable. You know she worries about the foundations. She can't understand what supports Heaven. But up there in Medicine Woods the old dear gets so close her God that some day she is going to realize that her idea of Heaven there is quite as near right as marble streets and gold pillars and vastly more probable. The day I reach that hill top again, Heaven begins for me. Do you know the wonderful thing the Harvester did up there?"
"Under the oak?"
"Carey told me. It was marvellous."
"Not such a marvel as another the doctor couldn't have known. The Harvester made passing out so natural, so easy, so a part of elemental forces, that I almost have forgotten her tortured body. When I think of her now, it is to wonder if next summer I can distinguish her whisper among the leaves. Before you go, I'll take you up there and tell you what he says, and show you what he means, and you will feel it also."
"What if I shouldn't go?"
"What do you mean?"
"Doctor Carey has offered me a splendid position in his hospital. There would be work all day, instead of waiting all day in the hope of working an hour. There would be a living in it for two from the word go. There would be better air, longer life, more to be got out of it, and if I can make good, Carey's work to take up as he grows old."
"Take it! Take it quickly!" cried the Girl. "Don't wait a minute! You might wear out your heart in Chicago for twenty years or forever, and not have an opportunity to do one half so much good. Take it at once!"
"I was waiting to learn what you and Langston would say."
"He will say take it."
"Then I will be too happy for words. Ruth, you have not only paid the debt, but you have brought me the greatest joy a man ever had. And there is no need to wait the ages I thought I must. He can tell in a year if I can do the work, and I know I can now; so it's all settled, if Langston agrees."
"He will," said the Girl. "Let me tell him!"
"I wish you would," said the doctor. "I don't know just how to go at it."
Then for two days the Harvester and Belshazzar gathered herbs and spread them on the drying trays. On the afternoon of the third, close three, the doctor came to the door.
"Langston," he said, "we have a call for you. We can't keep Ruth quiet much longer. She is tired. We want to change her bed completely. She won't allow either of us to lift her. She says we hurt her. Will you come and try it?"
"You'll have to give me time to dip and rub off and get into clean clothing," he said. "I've been keeping away, because I was working on time, and I smell to strangulation of stramonium and saffron."
"Can't give you ten seconds," said the doctor. "Our temper is getting brittle. We are cross as the proverbial fever patient. If you don't come at once we will imagine you don't want to, and refuse to be moved at all."
"Coming!" cried the Harvester, as he plunged his hands in the wash bowl and soused his face. A second later he appeared on the porch.
"Ruth," he said, "I am steeped in the odours of the dry-house. Can't you wait until I bathe and dress?"
"No, I can't," said a fretful voice. "I can't endure this bed another minute."
"Then let Doctor Harmon lift you. He is so fresh and clean."
The Harvester glanced enviously at the shaven face and white trousers and shirt of the doctor.
"I just hate fresh, clean men. I want to smell herbs. I want to put my feet in the dirt and my hands in the water."
The Harvester came at a rush. He brought a big easy chair from the living-room, straightened the cover, and bent above the Girl. He picked her up lightly, gently, and easing her to his body settled in the chair. She laid her face on his shoulder, and heaved a deep sigh of content.
"Be careful with my back, Man," she said. "I think my spine is almost worn through."
"Poor girl," said the Harvester. "That bed should be softer."
"It should not!" contradicted the Girl. "It should be much harder. I'm tired of soft beds. I want to lie on the earth, with my head on a root; and I wish it would rain dirt on me. I am bathed threadbare. I want to be all streaky."
"I understand," said the Harvester. "Harmon, bring me a pad and pencil a minute, I must write an order for some things I want. Will you call up town and have them sent out immediately?"
On the pad he wrote: "Telephone Carey to get the highest grade curled-hair mattress, a new pad, and pillow, and bring them flying in the car. Call Granny and the girl and empty the room. Clean, air, and fumigate it thoroughly. Arrange the furniture differently, and help me into the living-room with Ruth." He handed the pad to the doctor.
"Please attend to that," he said, and to the Girl: "Now we go on a journey. Doc, you and Molly take the corners of the rug we are on and slide us into the other room until you get this aired and freshened."
In the living-room the Girl took one long look at the surroundings and suddenly relaxed. She cuddled against the Harvester and lifting a tremulous white hand, drew it across his unshaven cheek.
"Feels so good," she said. "I'm sick and tired of immaculate men."
The Harvester laughed, tucked her feet in the cover and held her tenderly. The Girl lay with her cheek against the rough khaki, palpitant with the excitement of being moved.
"Isn't it great?" she panted.
He caught the hand that had touched his cheek in a tender grip, and laughed a deep rumble of exultation that came from the depths of his heart.
"There's no name for it, honey," he said. "But don't try to talk until you have a long rest. Changing positions after you have lain so long may be making unusual work for your heart. Am I hurting your back?"
"No," said the Girl. "This is the first time I have been comfortable in ages. Am I tiring you?"
"Yes," laughed the Harvester. "You are almost as heavy as a large sack of leaves, but not quite equal to a bridge pillar or a log. Be sure to think of that, and worry considerably. You are in danger of straining my muscles to the last degree, my heart included."
"Where is your heart?" whispered the Girl.
"Right under your cheek," answered the Harvester. "But for Heaven's sake, don't intimate that you are taking any interest in it, or it will go to pounding until your head will bounce. It's one member of my body that I can't control where you are concerned."
"I thought you didn't like me any more."
"Careful!" warned the Harvester. "You are yet too close Heaven to fib like that, Ruth. What have I done to indicate that I don't love you more than ever?"
"Stayed away nearly every minute for three awful days, and wouldn't come without being dragged; and now you're wishing they would hurry and fix that bed, so you can put me down and go back to your rank old herbs again."
"Well of all the black prevarications! I went when you sent me, and came when you called. I'd willingly give up my hope of what Granny calls 'salvation' to hold you as I am for an hour, and you know it."
"It's going to be much longer than that," said the Girl nestling to him. "I asked for you because you never hurt me, and they always do. I knew you were so strong that my weight now wouldn't be a load for one of your hands, and I am not going back to that bed until I am so tired that I will be glad to lie down."
For a long time she was so silent the Harvester thought her going to sleep; and having learned that for him joy was probably transient, he deliberately got all he could. He closely held the hand she had not withdrawn, and often lifted it to his lips. Sometimes he stroked the heavy braid, gently ran his hands across the tired shoulders, or eased her into a different position. There was not a doubt in his mind of one thing. He was having a royal, good time, and he was thankful for the work he had set his assistants that kept them out of the room. They seemed in no hurry, and from scuffling, laughing, and a steady stream of talk, they were entertained at least. At last the Girl roused.
"There is something I want to ask you," she said. "I promised Doctor Harmon I would."
Instantly the heart of the Harvester gave a leap that jarred the head resting on it.
"You don't like him?" questioned the Girl.
"I do!" declared the Harvester. "I like him immensely. There is not a fine, manly good-looking feature about him that I have missed. I don't fail to do him justice on every point."
"I'm so glad! Then you will want him to remain."
"Here?" asked the Harvester with a light, hot breath.
"In Onabasha! Doctor Carey has offered him the place of chief assistant at the hospital. There is a good salary and the chance of taking up the doctor's work as he grows older. It means plenty to do at once, healthful atmosphere, congenial society——everything to a young man. He only had a call once in a while in Chicago, often among people who received more than they paid, like me, and he was very lonely. I think it would be great for him."
"And for you, Ruth?"
"It doesn't make the least difference to me; but for his sake, because I think so much of him, I would like to see him have the place."
"You still think so much of him, Ruth?"
"More, if possible," said the Girl. "Added to all I owed him before, he has come here and worked for days to save me, and it wasn't his fault that it took a bigger man. Nothing alters the fact that he did all he could, most graciously and gladly."
"What do you mean, Ruth?" stammered the Harvester.
"Oh they have worn themselves out!" cried the Girl impatiently. "First, Granny Moreland told me every least little detail of how I went out, and you resurrected me. I knew what she said was true, because she worked with you. Then Doctor Carey told me, and Mrs. Carey, and Doctor Harmon, and Molly, and even Granny's little assistant has left the kitchen to tell me that I owe my life to you, and all of them might as well have saved breath. I knew all the time that if ever I came out of this, and had a chance to be like other women, it would be your work, and I'm glad it is. I'd hate to be under obligations to some people I know; but I feel honoured to be indebted to you."
"I'm mighty sorry they worried you. I had no idea——"
"They didn't 'worry,' me! I am just telling you that I knew it all the time; that's all!"
"Forget that!" said the Harvester. "Come back to our subject. What was it you wanted, dear?"
"To know if you have any objections to Doctor Harmon remaining in Onabasha?"
"Certainly not! It will be a fine thing for him."
"Will it make any difference to you in any way?"
"Ruth, that's probing too deep," said the Harvester.
"I don't see why!"
"I'm glad of it!"
"I'd least rather show my littleness to you than to any one else on earth."
"Then you have some feeling about it?"
"Perhaps a trifle. I'll get over it. Give me a little time to adjust myself. Doctor Harmon shall have the place, of course. Don't worry about that!"
"He will be so happy!"
"And you, Ruth?"
"I'll be happy too!"
"Then it's all right," said the Harvester.
He laid down her hand, drew the cover over it, and slightly shifted her position to rest her. The door opened, and Doctor Harmon announced that the room was ready. It was shining and fresh. The bed was now turned with its head to the north, so that from it one could see the big trees in Medicine Woods, the sweep of the hillside, the sparkle of mallow-bordered Singing Water, the driveway and the gold flower garden. Everything was so changed that the room had quite a different appearance. The instant he laid her on it the Girl said, "This bed is not mine."
"Yes it is," said the Harvester. "You see, we were a little excited sometimes, and we spilled a few quarts of perfectly good medicine on your mattress. It was hopelessly smelly and ruined; so I am going to cremate it and this is your splinter new one and a fresh pad and pillow. Now you try them and see if they are not much harder and more comfortable."
"This is just perfect!" she sighed, as she sank into the bed.
The Harvester bent over her to straighten the cover, when suddenly she reached both arms around his neck, and gripped him with all her strength.
"Thank you!" she said.
"May I hold you to-morrow?" whispered the Harvester, emboldened by this.
"Please do," said the Girl.
The Harvester, with dog to heel, went to the oak to think.
"Belshazzar, kommen Sie!" said the man, dropping on the seat and holding out his hand. The dog laid his muzzle in the firm grip.
"Bel," said the Harvester, "I am all at sea. One day I think maybe I have a little chance, the next——none at all. I had an hour of solid comfort to-day, now I'm in the sweat box again. It's a little selfish streak in me, Bel, that hates to see Harmon go into the hospital and take my place with the Careys. They are my best and only friends. He is young, social, handsome, and will be ever present. In three months he will become so popular that I might as well be off the earth. I wish I didn't think it, but I'm so small that I do. And then there is my Dream Girl, Bel. The girl you found for me, old fellow. There never was another like her, and she has my heart for all time. And he has hers. That hospital plan is the best thing in the world for her. It will keep her where Carey can have an eye on her, where the air is better, where she can have company without the city crush, where she is close the country, and a good living is assured. Bel, it's the nicest arrangement you ever saw for every one we know, except us."
The Harvester laughed shortly. "Bel," he said, "tell me! If a man lived a hundred years, could he have the heartache all the way? Seems like I've had it almost that long now. In fact, I've had it such ages I'd be lonesome without it. This is some more of my very own medicine, so I shouldn't make a wry face over taking it. I knew what would happen when I sent for him, and I didn't hesitate. I must not now.
"Only I got to stop one thing, Bel. I told him I would play square, and I have. But here it ends. After this, I must step back and be big brother. Lots of fun in this brother business, Bel. But maybe I am cut out for it. Anyway it's written! But if it is, how did she come to allow me such privileges as I took to-day? That wasn't professional by any means. It was just the stiffest love-making I knew how to do, Bel, and she didn't object by the quiver of an eyelash. God knows I was watching closely enough for any sign that I was distasteful. And I might have been well enough. Rough, herb-stained old clothes, unshaven, everything to offend a dainty girl. She said I might hold her again to-morrow. And, Bel, what the nation did she hug me like that for, if she's going to marry him? Boy, I see my way clear to an hour more. While I'm at it, just to surprise myself, I believe I'll take it like other men. I think I'll go on a little bender, and make what probably will be the last day a plumb good one. Something worth remembering is better than nothing at all, Bel! He hasn't told me that he has won. She didn't SAY she was going to marry him, and she did say he hurt her, and she wanted me. Bel, how about the grimness of it, if she should marry him and then discover that he hurts her, and she wants me. Lord God Almighty, if you have any mercy at all, never put me up against that," prayed the Harvester, "for my heart is water where she is concerned."
The Harvester arose, and going to the lake, he cut an arm load of big, pink mallows, covered each mound with fresh flowers, whistled to the dog, and went to his work. Many things had accumulated, and he cleaned the barn, carried herbs from the dry-house to the store-room, and put everything into shape. Close noon the next day he went to Onabasha, and was gone three hours. He came back barbered in the latest style, and carrying a big bundle. When the hour for arranging the bed came, he was yet in his room, but he sent word he would be there in a second.
As he crossed the living-room he pulled a chair to the veranda and placed a footstool before it. Then he stepped into the sunshine room. A quizzical expression crossed the face of Doctor Harmon as he closed the book he was reading aloud to the Girl and arose. Wholly unembarrassed the Harvester smiled.
"Have I got this rigging anywhere near right?" he inquired.
"David, what have you done?" gasped the amazed Girl.
"I didn't feel anywhere near up to the 'mark of my high calling' yesterday," quoted the Harvester. "I don't know how I appear, but I'm clean as shaving, soap and hot water will make me, and my clothing will not smell offensively. Now come out of that bed for a happy hour. Where is that big coverlet? You are going on the veranda to-day."
"You look just like every one else," complained Doctor Harmon.
"You look perfectly lovely," declared the Girl.
"The swale sends you this invitation to come and see star-shine at the foot of mullein hill," said the Harvester, offering a bouquet. It was a loose bunch of long-stemmed, delicate flowers, each an inch across, and having five pearl-white petals lightly striped with pale green. Five long gold anthers arose, and at their base gold stamens and a green pistil. The leaves were heart-shaped and frosty, whitish-green, resembling felt. The Harvester bent to offer them.
"Have some Grass of Parnassus, my dear," he said.
The Girl waved them away. "Go stand over there by the door and slowly turn around. I want to see you."
The Harvester obeyed. He was freshly and carefully shaven. His hair was closely cropped at the base of the head, long, heavy, and slightly waving on top. He wore a white silk shirt, with a rolling collar and tie, white trousers, belt, hose, and shoes, and his hands were manicured with care.
"Have I made a mess of it, or do I appear anything like other men?" he asked, eagerly.
The Girl lifted her eyes to Doctor Harmon and smiled.
"Do you observe anything messy?" she inquired.
"You needn't fish for compliments quite so obviously," he answered. "I'll pay them without being asked. I do not. He is quite correct, and infinitely better looking than the average. Distinguished is a proper word for the gentleman in my opinion. But why, in Heaven's name, have we never had the pleasure of seeing you thus before?"
"Look here, Doc," said the Harvester, "do you mean that you enjoy looking at me merely because I am dressed this way?"
"I do indeed," said the doctor. "It is good to see you with the garb of work laid aside, and the stamp of cleanliness and ease upon you."
"By gum, that is rubbing it in a little too rough!" cried the Harvester. "I bathe oftener than you do. My clothing is always clean when I start out. Of course, in my work I come hourly in contact with muck, water, and herb juices."
"It's understood that is unavoidable," said Doctor Harmon.
"And if cleanliness is made an issue, I'd rather roll in any of it than put my finger tips into the daily work of a surgeon," added the Harvester, and the Girl giggled.
"That's enough Medicine Man!" she said. "You did not make a 'mess' of it, or anything else you ever attempted. As for appearing like other men, thank Heaven, you do not. You look just a whole world bigger and better and finer. Come, carry me out quickly. I am wild to go. Please put my lovely flowers in water, Molly, only give me a few to hold."
The Harvester arranged the pink coverlet, picked up the Girl, and carried her to the living-room.
"We will rest here a little," he said, "and then, if you feel equal to it, we will try the veranda. Are you easy now?"
She nestled her face against the soft shirt and smiled at him. She lifted her hand, laid it on his smooth cheek and then the crisp hair.
"Oh Man!" she cried. "Thank God you didn't give me up, too! I want life! I want LIFE!"
The Harvester tightened his grip just a trifle. "Then I thank God, too," he said. "Can you tell me how you are, dear? Is there any difference?"
"Yes," she answered. "I grow tired lying so long, but there isn't the ghost of an ache in my bones. I can just feel pure, delicious blood running in my veins. My hands and feet are always warm, and my head cool."
The Harvester's face drew very close. "How about your heart, honey?" he whispered. "Anything new there?"
"Yes, I am all over new inside and out. I want to shout, run, sing, and swim. Oh I'd give anything to have you carry me down and dip me in the lake right now."
"Soon, Girl! That will come soon," prophesied the Harvester.
"I scarcely can wait. And you did say a saddle, didn't you? Won't it be great to come galloping up the levee, when the leaves are red and the frost is in the air. Oh am I going fast enough?"
"Much faster than I expected," said the Harvester. "You are surprising all of us, me most of any. Ruth, you almost make me hope that you regard this as home. Honey, you are thinking a little of me these days?"
The hand that had fallen from his hair lay on his shoulder. Now it slid around his neck, and gripped him with all its strength.
"Heaps and heaps!" she said. "All I get a chance to, for being bothered and fussed over, and everlastingly read mushy stuff that's intended for some one else. Please take me to the veranda now; I want to tell you something."
His head swam, but the Harvester set his feet firmly, arose, and carried his Dream Girl back to outdoor life. When he reached the chair, she begged him to go a few steps farther to the bench on the lake shore.
"I am afraid," said the man.
"It's so warm. There can't be any difference in the air. Just a minute."
The Harvester pushed open the screen, went to the bench, and seating himself, drew the cover closely around her.
"Don't speak a word for a long time," he said. "Just rest. If I tire you too much and spoil everything, I will be desperate."
He clasped her to him, laid his cheek against her hair, and his lips on her forehead. He held her hand and kissed it over and over, and again he watched and could find no resentment. The cool, pungent breeze swept from the lake, and the voices of wild life chattered at their feet. Sometimes the water folks splashed, while a big black and gold butterfly mistook the Girl's dark hair for a perching place and settled on it, slowly opening its wonderful wings.
"Lie quietly, Girl," whispered the Harvester. "You are wearing a living jewel, an ornament above price, on your hair. Maybe you can see it when it goes. There!"
"Oh I did!" she cried. "How I love it here! Before long may I lie in the dining-room window a while so I can see the water. I like the hill, but I love the lake more."
"Now if you just would love me," said the Harvester, "you would have all Medicine Woods in your heart."
"Don't hurry me so!" said the Girl. "You gave me a year; and it's only a few weeks, and I've not been myself, and I'm not now. I mustn't make any mistake, and all I know for sure is that I want you most, and I can rest best with you, and I miss you every minute you are gone. I think that should satisfy you."
"That would be enough for any reasonable man," said the Harvester angrily. "Forgive me, Ruth, I have been cruel. I forgot how frail and weak you are. It is having Harmon here that makes me unnatural. It almost drives me to frenzy to know that he may take you from me."
"Then send him away!"
"SEND HIM AWAY?"
"Yes, send him away! I am tired to death of his poetry, and seeing him spoon around. Send both of them away quickly!"
The Harvester gulped, blinked, and surreptitiously felt for her pulse.
"Oh, I've not developed fever again," she said. "I'm all right. But it must be a fearful expense to have both of them here by the week, and I'm so tired of them, Granny says she can take care of me just as well, and the girl who helps her can cook. No one but you shall lift me, if I don't get my nose Out until I can walk alone Both of them are perfectly useless, and I'd much rather you'd send them away."
"There, there! Of course!" said the Harvester soothingly. "I'll do it as soon as I possibly dare. You don't understand, honey. You are yet delicate beyond measure, internally. The fever burned so long. Every morsel you eat is measured and cooked in sterilized vessels, and I'd be scared of my life to have the girl undertake it."
"Why she is doing it straight along now! She and Granny! Molly isn't out of Doctor Harmon's sight long enough to cook anything. Granny says there is 'a lot of buncombe about what they do, and she is going to tell them so right to their teeth some of these days, if they badger her much more,' and I wish she would, and you, too."
The Harvester gathered the Girl to him in one crushing bear hug.
"For the love of Heaven, Ruth, you drive me crazy! Answer me just one question. When you told me that you 'adored and worshipped' Doctor Harmon, did you mean it, or was that the delirium of fever?"
"I don't know WHAT I told you! If I said I 'adored' him, it was the truth. I did! I do! I always will! So do I adore the Almighty, but that's no sign I want him to read poetry to me, and be around all the time when I am wild for a minute with you. I can worship Doctor Harmon in Chicago or Onabasha quite as well. Fire him! If you don't, I will!"
"Good Lord!" cried the Harvester, helpless until the Girl had to cling to him to prevent rolling from his nerveless arms. "Ruth, Ruth, will you feel my pulse?"
"No, I won't! But you are going to drop me. Take me straight back to my beautiful new bed, and send them away."
"A minute! Give me a minute!" gasped the Harvester. "I couldn't lift a baby just now. Ruth, dear, I thought you LOVED the man."
"What made you think so?"
"I didn't either! I never said I loved him. I said I was under obligations to him; but they are as well repaid as they ever can be. I said I adored him, and I tell you I do! Give him what we owe him, both of us, in money, and send them away. If you'd seen as much of them as I have, you'd be tired of them, too. Please, please, David!"
"Yes," said the Harvester, arising in a sudden tide of effulgent joy. "Yes, Girl, just as quickly as I can with decency. I——I'll send them on the lake, and I'll take care of you."
"You won't read poetry to me?"
"I will not."
"You won't moon at me?"
"Then hurry! But have them take your boat. I am going to have the first ride in mine."
"Indeed you are, and soon, too!" said the Harvester, marching up the hill as if he were leading hosts to battle.
He laid the Girl on the bed and covered her, and called Granny Moreland to sit beside her a few minutes. He went into the gold garden and proposed that the doctor and the nurse go rowing until supper time, and they went with alacrity. When they started he returned to the Girl and, sitting beside her, he told Granny to take a nap. Then he began to talk softly all about wild music, and how it was made, and what the different odours sweeping down the hill were, and when the red leaves would come, and the nuts rattle down, and the frost fairies enamel the windows, and soon she was sound asleep. Granny came back, and the Harvester walked around the lake shore to be alone a while and think quietly, for he was almost too dazed and bewildered for full realization.
As he softly followed the foot path he heard voices, and looking down, he saw the boat lying in the shade and beneath a big tree on the bank sat the doctor and the nurse. His arm was around her, and her head was on his shoulder; and she said very distinctly, "How long will it be until we can go without offending him?"
CHAPTER XIX. A VERTICAL SPINE
By middle September the last trace of illness had been removed from the premises, and it was rapidly disappearing from the face and form of the Girl. She was showing a beautiful roundness, there was lovely colour on her cheeks and lips, and in her dark eyes sparkled a touch of mischief. Rigidly she followed the rules laid down for diet and exercise, and as strength flowed through her body, and no trace of pain tormented her, she began revelling in new and delightful sensations. She loved to pull her boat as she willed, drive over the wood road, study the books, cook the new dishes, rearrange furniture, and go with the Harvester everywhere.
But that was greatly the management of the man. He was so afraid that something might happen to undo all the wonders accomplished in the Girl, and again whiten her face with pain, that he scarcely allowed her out of his sight. He remained in the cabin, helping when she worked, and then drove with her and a big blanket to the woods, arranged her chair and table, found some attractive subject, and while the wind ravelled her hair and flushed her cheeks, her fingers drew designs. At noon they went to the cabin to lunch, and the Girl took a nap, while the Harvester spread his morning's reaping on the shelves to dry. They returned to the woods until five o'clock; then home again and the Girl dressed and prepared supper, while the Harvester spread his stores and fed the stock. Then he put on white clothing for the evening. The Girl rested while he washed the dishes, and they explored the lake in the little motor boat, or drove to the city for supplies, or to see their friends.
"Are you even with your usual work at this time of the year?" she asked as they sat at breakfast.
"I am," said the Harvester. "The only things that have been crowded out are the candlesticks. They will have to remain on the shelf until the herbs and roots are all in, and the long winter evenings come. Then I'll use the luna pattern and finish yours first of all."
"What are you going to do to-day?"
"Start on a regular fall campaign. Some of it for the sake of having it, and some because there is good money in it. Will you come?"
"Indeed yes. May I help, or shall I take my drawing along?"
"Bring your drawing. Next fall you may help, but as yet you are too close suffering for me to see you do anything that might be even a slight risk. I can't endure it."
"Baby!" she jeered.
"Christen me anything you please," laughed the Harvester. "I'm short on names anyway."
He went to harness Betsy, and the Girl washed the dishes, straightened the rooms, and collected her drawing material. Then she walked up the hill, wearing a shirt and short skirt of khaki, stout shoes, and a straw hat that shaded her face. She climbed into the wagon, laid the drawing box on the seat, and caught the lines as the Harvester flung them to her. He went swinging ahead, Belshazzar to heel, the Girl driving after. The white pigeons circled above, and every day Ajax allowed his curiosity to overcome his temper, and followed a little farther.
"Whoa, Betsy!" The Girl tugged at the lines; but Betsy took the bit between her teeth, and plodded after the Harvester. She pulled with all her might, but her strength was not nearly sufficient to stop the stubborn animal.
"Whoa, David!" cried the Girl.
"What is it?" the Harvester turned.
"Won't you please wait until I can take off my hat? I love to ride bareheaded through the woods, and Betsy won't stop until you do, no matter how hard I pull."
"Betsy, you're no lady!" said the Harvester. "Why don't you stop when you're told?"
"I shan't waste any more strength on her," said the Girl. "Hereafter I shall say, 'Gee, David,' 'Haw, David,' 'Whoa, David,' and then she will do exactly as you."
The Harvester stopped half way up the hill, and beside a large, shaded bed spread the rug, and set up the little table and chair for the Girl.
"Want a plant to draw?" he asked. "This is very important to us. It has a string of names as long as a princess, but I call it goldenseal, because the roots are yellow. The chemists ask for hydrastis. That sounds formidable, but it's a cousin of buttercups. The woods of Ohio and Indiana produce the finest that ever grew, but it is so nearly extinct now that the trade can be supplied by cultivation only. I suspect I'm responsible for its disappearance around here. I used to get a dollar fifty a pound, and most of my clothes and books when a boy I owe to it. Now I get two for my finest grade; that accounts for the size of these beds."
"It's pretty!" said the Girl, studying a plant averaging a foot in height. On a slender, round, purplish stem arose one big, rough leaf, heavily veined, and having from five to nine lobes. Opposite was a similar leaf, but very small, and a head of scarlet berries resembling a big raspberry in shape. The Harvester shook the black woods soil from the yellow roots, and held up the plant.
"You won't enjoy the odour," he said.
"Well I like the leaves. I know I can use them some way. They are so unusual. What wonderful colour in the roots!"
"One of its names is Indian paint," explained the Harvester. "Probably it furnished the squaws of these woods with colouring matter. Now let's see what we can get out of it. You draw the plant and I'll dig the roots."
For a time the Girl bent over her work and the Harvester was busy. Belshazzar ranged the woods chasing chipmunks. The birds came asking questions. When the drawing was completed, other subjects were found at every turn, and the Girl talked almost constantly, her face alive with interest. The May-apple beds lay close, and she drew from them. She learned the uses and prices of the plant, and also made drawings of cohosh, moonseed and bloodroot. That was so wonderful in its root colour, the Harvester filled the little cup with water and she began to paint. Intensely absorbed she bent above the big, notched, silvery leaves and the blood-red roots, testing and trying to match them exactly. Every few minutes the Harvester leaned over her shoulder to see how she was progressing and to offer suggestions. When she finished she picked up a trailing vine of moonseed.
"You have this on the porch," she said. "I think it is lovely. There is no end to the beautiful combinations of leaves, and these are such pretty little grape-like clusters; but if you touch them the slightest you soil the wonderful surface."
"And that makes the fairies very sad," said the Harvester. "They love that vine best of any, because they paint its fruit with the most care. 'Bloom' the scientists call it. You see it on cultivated plums, grapes, and apples, but never in any such perfection as on moonseed and black haws in the woods. You should be able to design a number of pretty things from the cohosh leaves and berries, too. You scarcely can get a start this fall, but early in the spring you can begin, and follow the season. If your work comes out well this winter, I'll send some of it to the big publishing houses, and you can make book and magazine covers and decorations, if you would like."
"'If I would like!' How modest! You know perfectly well that if I could make a design that would be accepted, and used on a book or magazine, I would almost fly. Oh do you suppose I could?"
"I don't 'suppose' anything about it, I know," said the Harvester. "It is not possible that the public can be any more tired of wild roses, golden-rod, and swallows than the poor art editors who accept them because they can't help themselves. Dangle something fresh and new under their noses and see them snap. The next time I go to Onabasha I'll get you some popular magazines, and you can compare what is being used with what you see here, and judge for yourself how glad they would be for a change. And potteries, arts and crafts shops, and wall paper factories, they'd be crazy for the designs I could furnish them. As for money, there's more in it than the herbs, if I only could draw."
"I can do that," said the Girl. "Trail the vine and give me an idea how to scale it. I'll just make studies now, and this winter I'll conventionalize them and work them into patterns. Won't that be fun?"
"That's more than fun, Ruth," said the Harvester solemnly. "That is creation. That touches the provinces of the Almighty. That is taking His unknown wonders and making them into pleasure and benefit for thousands, not to mention filling your face with awe divine, and lighting your eyes with interest and ambition. That is life, Ruth. You are beginning to live right now."
"I see," said the Girl. "I understand! I am!"
"You get your subjects now. When the harvest is over I'll show you what I have in my head, and before Christmas the fun will begin."
"Sketch a sarsaparilla plant and this yam vine. It grows on your veranda too——the rattle box, you remember. The leaves and seeding arrangements are wonderful. You can do any number of things with them, and all will be new."
He called her attention to and brought her samples of ginger leaves, Indian hemp, queen-of-the-meadow, cone-flower, burdock, baneberry, and Indian turnip, as he harvested them in turn. When they came to the large beds of orange pleurisy root the Girl cried out with pleasure.
"We will take its prosaic features first," said the Harvester. "It is good medicine and worth handling. Forget that! The Bird Woman calls it butterfly flower. That's better. Now try to analyze a single bloom of this gaudy mass, and you will see why there's poetry coming."
He knelt beside the Girl, separating the blooms and pointing out their marvellous colour and construction. She leaned against his shoulder, and watched with breathless interest. As his bare head brought its mop of damp wind-rumpled hair close, she ran her fingers through it, and with her handkerchief wiped his forehead.
"Sometimes I almost wish you'd get sick," she said irrelevantly.
"In the name of common sense, why?" demanded the Harvester.
"Oh it must be born in the heart of a woman to want to mother something," answered the Girl. "I feel sometimes as if I would like to take care of you, as if you were a little fellow. David, I know why your mother fought to make you the man she desired. You must have been charming when small. I can shut my eyes and just see the boy you were, and I should have loved you as she did."
"How about the man I am?" inquired the Harvester promptly. "Any leanings toward him yet, Ruth?"
"It's getting worser and worser every day and hour," said the Girl. "I don't understand it at all. I wouldn't try to live without you. I don't want you to leave my sight. Everything you do is the way I would have it. Nothing you ever say shocks or offends me. I'd love to render you any personal service. I want to take you in my arms and hug you tight half a dozen times a day as a reward for the kind and lovely things you do for me."
A dull red flamed up the neck and over the face of the Harvester. One arm lifted to the chair back, the other dropped across the table so that the Girl was almost encircled.
"For the love of mercy, Ruth, why haven't I had a hint of this before?" he cried.
"You said you'd hate me. You said you'd drop me into the deepest part of the lake if I deceived you; and if I have to tell the truth, why, that is all of it. I think it is nonsense about some wonderful feeling that is going to take possession of your heart when you love any one. I love you so much I'd gladly suffer to save you pain or sorrow. But there are no thrills; it's just steady, sober, common sense that I should love you, and I do. Why can't you be satisfied with what I can give, David?"
"Because it's husks and ashes," said the Harvester grimly. "You drive me to desperation, Ruth. I am almost wild for your love, but what you offer me is plain, straight affection, nothing more. There isn't a trace of the feeling that should exist between man and wife in it. Some men might be satisfied to be your husband, and be regarded as a father or brother. I am not. The red bird didn't want a sister, Ruth, he was asking for a mate. So am I. That's as plain as I know how to put it. There is some way to awaken you into a living, loving woman, and, please God, I'll find it yet, but I'm slow about it; there's no question of that. Never you mind! Don't worry! Some of these days I have faith to believe it will sweep you as a tide sweeps the shore, and then I hope God will be good enough to let me be where you will land in my arms."
The Girl sat looking at him between narrowed lids. Suddenly she took his head between her hands, drew his face to hers and deliberately kissed him. Then she drew away and searched his eyes.
"There!" she challenged. "What is the matter with that?"
The Harvester's colour slowly faded to a sickly white.
"Ruth, you try me almost beyond human endurance," he said. "'What's the matter with that?'" He arose, stepped back, folded his arms, and stared at her. "'What's the matter with that?'" he repeated. "Never was I so sorely tempted in all my life as I am now to lie to you, and say there is nothing, and take you in my arms and try to awaken you to what I mean by love. But suppose I do——and fail! Then comes the agony of slow endurance for me, and the possibility that any day you may meet the man who can arouse in you the feelings I cannot. That would mean my oath broken, and my heart as well; while soon you would dislike me beyond tolerance, even. I dare not risk it! The matter is, that was the loving caress of a ten-year-old girl to a big brother she admired. That's all! Not much, but a mighty big defect when it is offered a strong man as fuel on which to feed consuming passion."
"Consuming passion," repeated the Girl. "David you never lie, and you never exaggerate. Do you honestly mean that there is something——oh, there is! I can see it! You are really suffering, and if I come to you, and try my best to comfort you, you'll only call it baby affection that you don't want. David, what am I going to do?"
"You are going to the cabin," said the Harvester, "and cook us a big supper. I am dreadfully hungry. I'll be along presently. Don't worry, Ruth, you are all right! That kiss was lovely. Tell me that you are not angry with me."
Her eyes were wet as she smiled at him.
"If there is a bigger brute than a man anywhere on the footstool, I should like to meet it," said the Harvester, "and see what it appears like. Go along, honey; I'll be there as soon as I load."
He drove to the dry-house, washed and spread his reaping on the big trays, fed the stock, dressed in the white clothing and entered the kitchen. That the Girl had been crying was obvious, but he overlooked it, helped with the work, and then they took a boat ride. When they returned he proposed that she should select her favourite likeness of her mother, and the next time he went to the city he would take it with his, and order the enlargements he had planned. To save carrying a lighted lamp into the closet he brought her little trunk to the living-room, where she opened it and hunted the pictures. There were several, and all of them were of a young, elegantly dressed woman of great beauty. The Harvester studied them long.
"Who was she, Ruth?" he asked at last.
"I don't know, and I have no desire to learn."
"Can you explain how the girl here represented came to marry a brother of Henry Jameson?"
"Yes. I was past twelve when my father came the last time, and I remember him distinctly. If Uncle Henry were properly clothed, he is not a bad man in appearance, unless he is very angry. He can use proper language, if he chooses. My father was the best in him, refined and intensified. He was much taller, very good looking, and he dressed and spoke well. They were born and grew to manhood in the East, and came out here at the same time. Where Uncle Henry is a trickster and a trader in stock, my father went a step higher, and tricked and traded in men——and women! Mother told me this much once. He saw her somewhere and admired her. He learned who she was, went to her father's law office and pretended he was representing some great business in the West, until he was welcomed as a promising client. He hung around and when she came in one day her father was forced to introduce them. The remainder is the same world-old story——a good looking, glib-tongued man, plying every art known to an expert, on an innocent girl."
"Is he dead, Ruth?"
"We thought so. We hoped so."
"Your mother did not feel that her people might be suffering for her as she was for them?"
"Not after she appealed to them twice and received no reply."
"Perhaps they tried to find her. Maybe she has a father or mother who is longing for word from her now. Are you very sure you are right in not wanting to know?"
"She never gave me a hint from which I could tell who or where they were. In so gentle a woman as my mother that only could mean she did not want them to know of her. Neither do I. This is the photograph I prefer; please use it."
"I'll put back the trunk in the morning, when I can see better," said the Harvester.
The Girl closed it, and soon went to bed. But there was no sleep for the man. He went into the night, and for hours he paced the driveway in racking thought. Then he sat on the step and looked at Belshazzar before him.
"Life's growing easier every minute, Bel," said the Harvester. "Here's my Dream Girl, lovely as the most golden instant of that wonderful dream, offering me——offering me, Bel——in my present pass, the lips and the love of my little sister who never was born. And I've hurt Ruth's feelings, and sent her to bed with a heartache, trying to make her see that it won't do. It won't, Bel! If I can't have genuine love, I don't want anything. I told her so as plainly as I could find words, and set her crying, and made her unhappy to end a wonderful day. But in some way she has got to learn that propinquity, tolerance, approval, affection, even——is not love. I can't take the risk, after all these years of waiting for the real thing. If I did, and love never came, I would end——well, I know how I would end——and that would spoil her life. I simply have got to brace up, Bel, and keep on trying. She thinks it is nonsense about thrills, and some wonderful feeling that takes possession of you. Lord, Bel! There isn't much nonsense about the thing that rages in my brain, heart, soul, and body. It strikes me as the gravest reality that ever overtook a man.
"She is growing wonderfully attached to me. 'Couldn't live without me,' Bel, that is what she said. Maybe it would be a scheme to bring Granny here to stay with her, and take a few months in some city this winter on those chemical points that trouble me. There is an old saying about 'absence making the heart grow fonder.' Maybe separation is the thing to work the trick. I've tried about everything else I know.
"But I'm in too much of a hurry! What a fool a man is! A few weeks ago, Bel, I said to myself that if Harmon were away and had no part in her life I'd be the happiest man alive. Happiest man alive! Bel, take a look at me now! Happy! Well, why shouldn't I be happy? She is here. She is growing in strength and beauty every hour. She cares more for me day by day. From an outside viewpoint it seems as if I had almost all a man could ask in reason. But when was a strong man in the grip of love ever reasonable? I think the Almighty took a pretty grave responsibility when He made men as He did. If I had been He, and understood the forces I was handling, I would have been too big a coward to do it. There is nothing for me, Bel, but to move on doing my level best; and if she doesn't awaken soon, I will try the absent treatment. As sure as you are the most faithful dog a man ever owned, Bel, I'll try the absent treatment."