The Harvester arose and entered the cabin, stepping softly, for it was dark in the Girl's room, and he could not hear a sound there. He turned up the lights in the living-room. As he did so the first thing he saw was the little trunk. He looked at it intently, then picked up a book. Every page he turned he glanced again at the trunk. At last he laid down the book and sat staring, his brain working rapidly. He ended by carrying the trunk to his room. He darkened the living-room, lighted his own, drew the rain screens, and piece by piece carefully examined the contents. There were the pictures, but the name of the photographer had been removed. There was not a word that would help in identification. He emptied it to the bottom, and as he picked up the last piece his fingers struck in a peculiar way that did not give the impression of touching a solid surface. He felt over it carefully, and when he examined with a candle he plainly could see where the cloth lining had been cut and lifted.
For a long time he knelt staring at it, then he deliberately inserted his knife blade and raised it. The cloth had been glued to a heavy sheet of pasteboard the exact size of the trunk bottom. Beneath it lay half a dozen yellow letters, and face down two tissue-wrapped photographs. The Harvester examined them first. They were of a man close forty, having a strong, aggressive face, on which pride and dominant will power were prominently indicated. The other was a reproduction of a dainty and delicate woman, with exquisitely tender and gentle features. Long the Harvester studied them. The names of the photographer and the city were missing. There was nothing except the faces. He could detect traces of the man in the poise of the Girl and the carriage of her head, and suggestions of the woman in the refined sweetness of her expression. Each picture represented wealth in dress and taste in pose. Finally he laid them together on the table, picked up one of the letters, and read it. Then he read all of them.
Before he finished, tears were running down his cheeks, and his resolution was formed. These were the appeals of an adoring mother, crazed with fear for the safety of an only child, who unfortunately had fallen under the influence of a man the mother dreaded and feared, because of her knowledge of life and men of his character. They were one long, impassioned plea for the daughter not to trust a stranger, not to believe that vows of passion could be true when all else in life was false, not to trust her untried judgment of men and the world against the experience of her parents. But whether the tears that stained those sheets had fallen from the eyes of the suffering mother or the starved and deserted daughter, there was no way for the Harvester to know. One thing was clear: It was not possible for him to rest until he knew if that woman yet lived and bore such suffering. But every trace of address had been torn away, and there was nothing to indicate where or in what circumstances these letters had been written.
A long time the Harvester sat in deep thought. Then he returned all the letters save one. This with the pictures he made into a packet that he locked in his desk. The trunk he replaced and then went to bed. Early the next morning he drove to Onabasha and posted the parcel. The address it bore was that of the largest detective agency in the country. Then he bought an interesting book, a box of fruit, and hurried back to the Girl. He found her on the veranda, Belshazzar stretched close with one eye shut and the other on his charge, whose cheeks were flushed with lovely colour as she bent over her drawing material. The Harvester went to her with a rush, and slipping his fingers under her chin, tilted back her head against him.
"Got a kiss for me, honey?" he inquired.
"No sir," answered the Girl emphatically. "I gave you a perfectly lovely one yesterday, and you said it was not right. I am going to try just once more, and if you say again that it won't do, I'm going back to Chicago or to my dear Uncle Henry, I haven't decided which."
Her lips were smiling, but her eyes were full of tears.
"Why thank you, Ruth! I think that is wonderful," said the Harvester. "I'll risk the next one. In the meantime, excuse me if I give you a demonstration of the real thing, just to furnish you an idea of how it should be."
The Harvester delivered the sample, and went striding to the marsh. The dazed Girl sat staring at her work, trying to realize what had happened; for that was the first time the Harvester had kissed her on the lips, and it was the material expression a strong man gives the woman he loves when his heart is surging at high tide. The Girl sat motionless, gazing at her study.
In the marsh she knew the Harvester was reaping queen-of-the-meadow, and around the high borders, elecampane and burdock. She could hear his voice in snatches of song or cheery whistle; notes that she divined were intended to keep her from worrying. Intermingled with them came the dog's bark of defiance as he digged for an escaping chipmunk, his note of pleading when he wanted a root cut with the mattock, his cry of discovery when he thought he had found something the Harvester would like, or his yelp of warning when he scented danger. The Girl looked down the drive to the lake and across at the hedge. Everywhere she saw glowing colour, with intermittent blue sky and green leaves, all of it a complete picture, from which nothing could be spared. She turned slowly and looked toward the marsh, trying to hear the words of the song above the ripple of Singing Water, and to see the form of the man. Slowly she lifted her handkerchief and pressed it against her lips, as she whispered in an awed voice,
"My gracious Heaven, is THAT the kind of a kiss he is expecting me to give HIM? Why, I couldn't——not to save my life."
She placed her brushes in water, set the colour box on the paper, and went to the kitchen to prepare the noon lunch. As she worked the soft colour deepened in her cheeks, a new light glowed in her eyes, and she hummed over the tune that floated across the marsh. She was very busy when the Harvester came, but he spoke casually of his morning's work, ate heartily, and ordered her to take a nap while he washed roots and filled the trays, and then they went to the woods together for the afternoon.
In the evening they came home to the cabin and finished the day's work. As the night was chilly, the Harvester heaped some bark in the living-room fireplace, and lay on the rug before it, while the Girl sat in an easy chair and watched him as he talked. He was telling her about some wonderful combinations he was going to compound for different ailments and he laughingly asked her if she wanted to be a millionaire's wife and live in a palace.
"Of course I could if I wanted to!" she suggested.
"You could!" cried the Harvester. "All that is necessary is to combine a few proper drugs in one great remedy and float it. That is easy! The people will do the remainder."
"You talk as if you believe that," marvelled the Girl.
"Want it proven?" challenged the Harvester.
"No!" she cried in swift alarm. "What do we want with more than we have? What is there necessary to happiness that is not ours now? Maybe it is true that the 'love of money is the root of all evil.' Don't you ever get a lot just to find out. You said the night I came here that you didn't want more than you had and now I don't. I won't have it! It might bring restlessness and discontent. I've seen it make other people unhappy and separate them. I don't want money, I want work. You make your remedies and offer them to suffering humanity for just a living profit, and I'll keep house and draw designs. I am perfectly happy, free, and unspeakably content. I never dreamed that it was possible for me to be so glad, and so filled with the joy of life. There is only one thing on earth I want. If I only could——"
"Could what, Ruth?"
"Could get that kiss right——"
The Harvester laughed.
"Forget it, I tell you!" he commanded. "Just so long as you worry and fret, so long I've got to wait. If you quit thinking about it, all 'unbeknownst' to yourself you'll awake some morning with it on your lips. I can see traces of it growing stronger every day. Very soon now it's going to materialize, and then get out of my way, for I'll be a whirling, irresponsible lunatic, with the wild joy of it. Oh I've got faith in that kiss of yours, Ruth! It's on the way. The fates have booked it. There isn't a reason on earth why I should be served so scurvy a trick as to miss it, and I never will believe that I shall——"
"David," interrupted the Girl, "go on talking and don't move a muscle, just reach over presently and fix the fire or something, and then turn naturally and look at the window beside your door."
"Shall miss it," said the Harvester steadily. "That would be too unmerciful. What do you see, Ruth?"
"A face. If I am not greatly mistaken, it is my Uncle Henry and he appears like a perfect fiend. Oh David, I am afraid!"
"Be quiet and don't look," said the Harvester.
He turned and tossed a piece of bark on the fire. Then he reached for the poker, pushed it down and stirred the coals. He arose as he worked.
"Rise slowly and quietly and go to your room. Stay there until I call you."
With the Girl out of the way, the Harvester pottered over the fire, and when the flame leaped he lifted a stick of wood, hesitated as if it were too small, and laying it down, started to bring a larger one. In the dining-room he caught a small stick from the wood box, softly stepped from the door, and ran around the house. But he awakened Belshazzar on the kitchen floor, and the dog barked and ran after him. By the time the Harvester reached the corner of his room the man leaped upon a horse and went racing down the drive. The Harvester flung the stick of wood, but missed the man and hit the horse. The dog sprang past the Harvester and vanished. There was the sound and flash of a revolver, and the rattle of the bridge as the horse crossed it. The dog came back unharmed. The Harvester ran to the telephone, called the Onabasha police, and asked them to send a mounted man to meet the intruder before he could reach a cross road; but they were too slow and missed him. However, the Girl was certain she had recognized her uncle, and was extremely nervous; but the Harvester only laughed and told her it was a trip made out of curiosity. Her uncle wanted to see if he could learn if she were well and happy, and he finally convinced her that this was the case, although he was not very sanguine himself.
For the next three days the Harvester worked in the woods and he kept the Girl with him every minute. By the end of that time he really had persuaded himself that it was merely curiosity. So through the cooling fall days they worked together. They were very happy. Before her wondering eyes the Harvester hung queer branches, burs, nuts, berries, and trailing vines with curious seed pods. There were masses of brilliant flowers, most of them strange to the Girl, many to the great average of humanity. While she sat bending over them, beside her the Harvester delved in the black earth of the woods, or the clay and sand of the open hillside, or the muck of the lake shore, and lifted large bagfuls of roots that he later drenched on the floating raft on the lake, and when they had drained he dried them. Some of them he did not wet, but scraped and wiped clean and dry. Often after she was sleeping, and long before she awoke in the morning, he was at work carry-ing heaped trays from the evaporator to the store-room, and tying the roots, leaves, bark, and seeds into packages.
While he gathered trillium roots the Girl made drawings of the plant and learned its commercial value. She drew lady's slipper and Solomon's seal, and learned their uses and prices; and carefully traced wild ginger leaves while nibbling the aromatic root. It was difficult to keep from protesting when the work carried them around the lake shore and to the pokeberry beds, for the colour of these she loved. It required careful explanation as to the value of the roots and seeds as blood purifier, and the argument that in a few more days the frost would level the bed, to induce her to consent to its harvesting. But when the case was properly presented, she put aside her drawing and stained her slender fingers gathering the seeds, and loved the work.
The sun was golden on the lake, the birds of the upland were clustering over reeds and rushes, for the sake of plentiful seed and convenient water. Many of them sang fitfully, the notes of almost all of them were melodious, and the day was a long, happy dream. There was but little left to gather until ginseng time. For that the Harvester had engaged several boys to help him, for the task of digging the roots, washing and drying them, burying part of the seeds and preparing the remainder for market seemed endless for one man to attempt. After a full day the Harvester lay before the fire, and his head was so close the Girl's knee that her fingers were in reach of his hair. Every time he mended the fire he moved a little, until he could feel the touch of her garments against him. Then he began to plan for the winter; how they would store food for the long, cold days, how much fuel would be required, when they would go to the city for their winter clothing, what they would read, and how they would work together at the drawings.
"I am almost too anxious to wait longer to get back to my carving," he said. "Whoever would have thought this spring that fall would come and find the birds talking of going, the caterpillars spinning winter quarters, the animals holing up, me getting ready for the cold, and your candlesticks not finished. Winter is when you really need them. Then there is solid cheer in numbers of candles and a roaring wood fire. The furnace is going to be a good thing to keep the floors and the bathroom warm, but an open fire of dry, crackling wood is the only rational source of heat in a home. You must watch for the fairy dances on the backwall, Ruth, and learn to trace goblin faces in the coals. Sometimes there is a panorama of temples and trees, and you will find exquisite colour in the smoke. Dry maple makes a lovely lavender, soft and fine as a floating veil, and damp elm makes a blue, and hickory red and yellow. I almost can tell which wood is burning after the bark is gone, by the smoke and flame colour. When the little red fire fairies come out and dance on the backwall it is fun to figure what they are celebrating. By the way, Ruth, I have been a lamb for days. I hope you have observed! But I would sleep a little sounder to-night if you only could give me a hint whether that kiss is coming on at all."
He tipped back his head to see her face, and it was glorious in the red firelight; the big eyes never appeared so deep and dark. The tilted head struck her hand, and her fingers ran through his hair.
"You said to forget it," she reminded him, "and then it would come sooner."
"Which same translated means that it is not here yet. Well, I didn't expect it, so I am not disappointed; but begorry, I do wish it would materialize by Christmas. I think I will work for that. Wouldn't it make a day worth while, though? By the way, what do you want for Christmas, Ruth?"
"A doll," she answered.
The Harvester laughed. He tipped his head again to see her face and suddenly grew quiet, for it was very serious.
"I am quite in earnest," she said. "I think the big dolls in the stores are beautiful, and I never owned only a teeny little one. All my life I've wanted a big doll as badly as I ever longed for anything that was not absolutely necessary to keep me alive. In fact, a doll is essential to a happy childhood. The mother instinct is so ingrained in a girl that if she doesn't have dolls to love, even as a baby, she is deprived of a part of her natural rights. It's a pitiful thing to have been the little girl in the picture who stands outside the window and gazes with longing soul at the doll she is anxious to own and can't ever have. Harvester, I was always that little girl. I am quite in earnest. I want a big, beautiful doll more than anything else."
As she talked the Girl's fingers were idly threading the Harvester's hair. His head lightly touched her knee, and she shifted her position to afford him a comfortable resting place. With a thrill of delight that shook him, the man laid his head in her lap and looked into the fire, his face glowing as a happy boy's.
"You shall have the loveliest doll that money can buy, Ruth," he promised. "What else do you want?"
"A roasted goose, plum pudding, and all those horrid indigestible things that Christmas stories always tell about; and popcorn balls, and candy, and everything I've always wanted and never had, and a long beautiful day with you. That's all!"
"Ruth, I'm so happy I almost wish I could go to Heaven right now before anything occurs to spoil this," said the Harvester.
The wheels of a car rattled across the bridge. He whirled to his knees, and put his arms around the Girl.
"Ruth," he said huskily. "I'll wager a thousand dollars I know what is coming. Hug me tight, quick! and give me the best kiss you can——any old kind of a one, so you touch my lips with yours before I've got to open that door and let in trouble."
The Girl threw her arms around his neck and with the imprint of her lips warm on his the Harvester crossed the room, and his heart dropped from the heights with a thud. He stepped out, closing the door behind him, and crossing the veranda, passed down the walk. He recognized the car as belonging to a garage in Onabasha, and in it sat two men, one of whom spoke.
"Are you David Langston?"
"Yes," said the Harvester.
"Did you send a couple of photographs to a New York detective agency a few days ago with inquiries concerning some parties you wanted located?"
"I did," said the Harvester. "But I was not expecting any such immediate returns."
"Your questions touched on a case that long has been in the hands of the agency, and they telegraphed the parties. The following day the people had a letter, giving them the information they required, from another source."
"That is where Uncle Henry showed his fine Spencerian hand," commented the Harvester. "It always will be a great satisfaction that I got my fist in first."
"Is Miss Jameson here?"
"No," said the Harvester. "My wife is at home. Her surname was Ruth Jameson, but we have been married since June. Did you wish to speak with Mrs. Langston?"
"I came for that purpose. My name is Kennedy. I am the law partner and the closest friend of the young lady's grandfather. News of her location has prostrated her grandmother so that he could not leave her, and I was sent to bring the young woman."
"Oh!" said the Harvester. "Well you will have to interview her about that. One word first. She does not know that I sent those pictures and made that inquiry. One other word. She is just recovering from a case of fever, induced by wrong conditions of life before I met her. She is not so strong as she appears. Understand you are not to be abrupt. Go very gently! Her feelings and health must be guarded with extreme care."
The Harvester opened the door, and as she saw the stranger, the Girl's eyes widened, and she arose and stood waiting.
"Ruth," said the Harvester, "this is a man who has been making quite a search for you, and at last he has you located."
The Harvester went to the Girl's side, and put a reinforcing arm around her.
"Perhaps he brings you some news that will make life most interesting and very lovely for you. Will you shake hands with Mr. Kennedy?"
The Girl suddenly straightened to unusual height.
"I will hear why he has been making 'quite a search for me,' and on whose authority he has me 'located,' first," she said.
A diabolical grin crossed the face of the Harvester, and he took heart.
"Then please be seated, Mr. Kennedy," he said, "and we will talk over the matter. As I understand, you are a representative of my wife's people."
The Girl stared at the Harvester.
"Take your chair, Ruth, and meet this as a matter of course," he advised casually. "You always have known that some day it must come. You couldn't look in the face of those photographs of your mother in her youth and not realize that somewhere hearts were aching and breaking, and brains were busy in a search for her."
The Girl stood rigid.
"I want it distinctly understood," she said, "that I have no use on earth for my mother's people. They come too late. I absolutely refuse to see or to hold any communication with them."
"But young lady, that is very arbitrary!" cried Mr. Kennedy. "You don't understand! They are a couple of old people, and they are slowly dying of broken hearts!"
"Not so badly broken or they wouldn't die slowly," commented the Girl grimly. "The heart that was really broken was my mother's. The torture of a starved, overworked body and hopeless brain was hers. There was nothing slow about her death, for she went out with only half a life spent, and much of that in acute agony, because of their negligence. David, you often have said that this is my home. I choose to take you at your word. Will you kindly tell this man that he is not welcome in this house, and I wish him to leave it at once?"
The Harvester stepped back, and his face grew very white.
"I can't, Ruth," he said gently.
"Because I brought him here."
"You brought him here! You! David, are you crazy? You!"
"It is through me that he came."
The Girl caught the mantel for support.
"Then I stand alone again," she said. "Harvester, I had thought you were on my side."
"I am at your feet," said the man in a broken voice. "Ruth dear, will you let me explain?"
"There is only one explanation, and with what you have done for me fresh in my mind, I can't put it into words."
"Ruth, hear me!"
"I must! You force me! But before you speak understand this: Not now, or through all eternity, do I forgive the inexcusable neglect that drove my mother to what I witnessed and was helpless to avert."
"My dear! My dear!" said the Harvester, "I had hoped the woods had done a more perfect work in your heart. Your mother is lying in state now, Girl, safe from further suffering of any kind; and if I read aright, her tired face and shrivelled frame were eloquent of forgiveness. Ruth dear, if she so loved them that her heart was broken and she died for them, think what they are suffering! Have some mercy on them."
"Get this very clear, David," said the Girl. "She died of hunger for food. Her heart was not so broken that she couldn't have lived a lifetime, and got much comfort out of it, if her body had not lacked sustenance. Oh I was so happy a minute ago. David, why did you do this thing?"
The Harvester picked up the Girl, placed her in a chair, and knelt beside her with his arms around her.
"Because of the PAIN IN THE WORLD, Ruth," he said simply. "Your mother is sleeping sweetly in the long sleep that knows neither anger nor resentment; and so I was forced to think of a gentle-faced, little old mother whose heart is daily one long ache, whose eyes are dim with tears, and a proud, broken old man who spends his time trying to comfort her, when his life is as desolate as hers."
"How do you know so wonderfully much about their aches and broken hearts?"
"Because I have seen their faces when they were happy, Ruth, and so I know what suffering would do to them. There were pictures of them and letters in the bottom of that old trunk. I searched it the other night and found them; and by what life has done to your mother and to you, I can judge what it is now bringing them. Never can you be truly happy, Ruth, until you have forgiven them, and done what you can to comfort the remainder of their lives. I did it because of the pain in the world, my girl."
"What about my pain?"
"The only way on earth to cure it is through forgiveness. That, and that only, will ease it all away, and leave you happy and free for life and love. So long as you let this rancour eat in your heart, Ruth, you are not, and never can be, normal. You must forgive them, dear, hear what they have to say, and give them the comfort of seeing what they can discover of her in you. Then your heart will be at rest at last, your soul free, you can take your rightful place in life, and the love you crave will awaken in your heart. Ruth, dear you are the acme of gentleness and justice. Be just and gentle now! Give them their chance! My heart aches, and always will ache for the pain you have known, but nursing and brooding over it will not cure it. It is going to take a heroic operation to cut it out, and I chose to be the surgeon. You have said that I once saved your body from pain Ruth, trust me now to free your soul."
"What do you want?"
"I want you to speak kindly to this man, who through my act has come here, and allow him to tell you why he came. Then I want you to do the kind and womanly thing your duty suggests that you should."
"David, I don t understand you!"
"That is no difference," said the Harvester. "The point is, do you TRUST me?"
The Girl hesitated. "Of course I do," she said at last.
"Then hear what your grandfather's friend has come to say for him, and forget yourself in doing to others as you would have them——really, Ruth, that is all of religion or of life worth while. Go on, Mr. Kennedy."
The Harvester drew up a chair, seated himself beside the Girl, and taking one of her hands, he held it closely and waited.
"I was sent here by my law partner and my closest friend, Mr. Alexander Herron, of Philadelphia," said the stranger. "Both he and Mrs. Herron were bitterly opposed to your mother's marriage, because they knew life and human nature, and there never is but one end to men such as she married."
"You may omit that," said the Girl coldly. "Simply state why you are here."
"In response to an inquiry from your husband concerning the originals of some photographs he sent to a detective agency in New York. They have had the case for years, and recognizing the pictures as a clue, they telegraphed Mr. Herron. The prospect of news after years of fruitless searching so prostrated Mrs. Herron that he dared not leave her, and he sent me."
"Kindly tell me this," said the Girl. "Where were my mother's father and mother for the four years immediately following her marriage?"
"They went to Europe to avoid the humiliation of meeting their friends. There, in Italy, Mrs. Herron developed a fever, and it was several years before she could be brought home. She retired from society, and has been confined to her room ever since. When they could return, a search was instituted at once for their daughter, but they never have been able to find a trace. They have hunted through every eastern city they thought might contain her."
"And overlooked a little insignificant place like Chicago, of course."
"I myself conducted a personal search there, and visited the home of every Jameson in the directory or who had mail at the office or of whom I could get a clue of any sort."
"I don't suppose two women in a little garret room would be in the directory, and there never was any mail."
"Did your mother ever appeal to her parents?"
"She did," said the Girl. "She admitted that she had been wrong, asked their forgiveness, and begged to go home. That was in the second year of her marriage, and she was in Cleveland. Afterward she went to Chicago, from there she wrote again."
"Her father and mother were in Italy fighting for the mother's life, two years after that. It is very easy to become lost in a large city. Criminals do it every day and are never found, even with the best detectives on their trail. I am very sorry about this. My friends will be broken-hearted. At any time they would have been more than delighted to have had their daughter return. A letter on the day following the message from the agency brought news that she was dead, and now their only hope for any small happiness at the close of years of suffering lies with you. I was sent to plead with you to return with me at once and make them a visit. Of course, their home is yours. You are their only heir, and they would be very happy if you were free, and would remain permanently with them."
"How do they know I will not be like the father they so detested?"
"They had sufficient cause to dislike him. They have every reason to love and welcome you. They are consumed with anxiety. Will you come?"
"No. This is for me to decide. I do not care for them or their property. Always they have failed me when my distress was unspeakable. Now there is only one thing I ask of life, more than my husband has given me, and if that lay in his power I would have it. You may go back and tell them that I am perfectly happy. I have everything I need. They can give me nothing I want, not even their love. Perhaps, sometime, I will go to see them for a few days, if David will go with me."
"Young woman, do you realize that you are issuing a death sentence?" asked the lawyer gently.
"It is a just one."
"I do not believe your husband agrees with you. I know I do not. Mrs. Herron is a tiny old lady, with a feeble spark of vitality left; and with all her strength she is clinging to life, and pleading with it to give her word of her only child before she goes out unsatisfied. She knows that her daughter is gone, and now her hopes are fastened on you. If for only a few days, you certainly must go with me."
"I will not!"
The lawyer turned to the Harvester.
"She will be ready to start with you to-morrow morning, on the first train north," said the Harvester. "We will meet you at the station at eight."
"I——I am afraid I forgot to tell my driver to wait."
"You mean your instructions were not to let the Girl out of your sight," said the Harvester. "Very well! We have comfortable rooms. I will show you to one. Please come this way."
The Harvester led the guest to the lake room and arranged for the night. Then he went to the telephone and sent a message to an address he had been furnished, asking for an immediate reply. It went to Philadelphia and contained a description of the lawyer, and asked if he had been sent by Mr. Herron to escort his grand-daughter to his home. When the Harvester returned to the living-room the Girl, white and defiant, waited before the fire. He knelt beside her and put his arms around her, but she repulsed him; so he sat on the rug and looked at her.
"No wonder you felt sure you knew what that was!" she cried bitterly.
"Ruth, if you will allow me to lift the bottom of that old trunk, and if you will read any one of the half dozen letters I read, you will forgive me, and begin making preparations to go."
"It's a wonder you don't hold them before me and force me to read them," she said.
"Don't say anything you will be sorry for after you are gone, dear."
"I'm not going!"
"Oh yes you are!"
"Because it is right that you should, and right is inexorable. Also, because I very much wish you to; you will do it for me."
"Why do you want me to go?"
"I have three strong reasons: First, as I told you, it is the only thing that will cleanse your heart of bitterness and leave it free for the tenanting of a great and holy love. Next, I think they honestly made every effort to find your mother, and are now growing old in despair you can lighten, and you owe it to them and yourself to do it. Lastly, for my sake. I've tried everything I know, Ruth, and I can't make you love me, or bring you to a realizing sense of it if you do. So before I saw that chest I had planned to harvest my big crop, and try with all my heart while I did it, and if love hadn't come then, I meant to get some one to stay with you, and I was going away to give you a free perspective for a time. I meant to plead that I needed a few weeks with a famous chemist I know to prepare me better for my work. My real motive was to leave you, and let you see if absence could do anything for me in your heart. You've been very nearly the creature of my hands for months, my girl; whatever any one else may do, you're bound to miss me mightily, and I figured that with me away, perhaps you could solve the problem alone I seem to fail in helping you with. This is only a slight change of plans. You are going in my stead. I will harvest the ginseng and cure it, and then, if you are not at home, and the loneliness grows unbearable, I will take the chemistry course, until you decide when you will come, if ever."
"Yes," said the Harvester. "I am growing accustomed to facing big propositions——I will not dodge this. The faces of the three of your people I have seen prove refinement. Their clothing indicates wealth. These long, lonely years mean that they will shower you with every outpouring of loving, hungry hearts. They will keep you if they can, my dear. I do not blame them. The life I propose for you is one of work, mostly for others, and the reward, in great part, consists of the joy in the soul of the creator of things that help in the world. I realize that you will find wealth, luxury, and lavish love. I know that I may lose you forever, and if it is right and best for you, I hope I will. I know exactly what I am risking, but I yet say, go."
"I don't see how you can, and love me as you prove you do."
"That is a little streak of the inevitableness of nature that the forest has ground into my soul. I'd rather cut off my right hand than take yours with it, in the parting that will come in the morning; but you are going, and I am sending you. So long as I am shaped like a human being, it is in me to dignify the possession of a vertical spine by acting as nearly like a man as I know how. I insist that you are my wife, because it crucifies me to think otherwise. I tell you to-night, Ruth, you are not and never have been. You are free as air. You married me without any love for me in your heart, and you pretended none. It was all my doing. If I find that I was wrong, I will free you without a thought of results to me. I am a secondary proposition. I thought then that you were alone and helpless, and before the Almighty, I did the best I could. But I know now that you are entitled to the love of relatives, wealth, and high social position, no doubt. If I allowed the passion in my heart to triumph over the reason of my brain, and worked on your feelings and tied you to the woods, without knowing but that you might greatly prefer that other life you do not know, but to which you are entitled, I would go out and sink myself in Loon Lake."
"David, I love you. I do not want to go. Please, please let me remain with you."
"Not if you could say that realizing what it means, and give me the kiss right now I would stake my soul to win! Not by any bribe you can think of or any allurement you can offer. It is right that you go to those suffering old people. It is right you know what you are refusing for me, before you renounce it. It is right you take the position to which you are entitled, until you understand thoroughly whether this suits you better. When you know that life as well as this, the people you will meet as intimately as me, then you can decide for all time, and I can look you in the face with honest, unwavering eye; and if by any chance your heart is in the woods, and you prefer me and the cabin to what they have to offer——to all eternity your place here is vacant, Ruth. My love is waiting for you; and if you come under those conditions, I never can have any regret. A clear conscience is worth restraining passion a few months to gain, and besides, I always have got the fact to face that when you say 'I love,' and when I say 'I love,' it means two entirely different things. When you realize that the love of man for woman, and woman for man, is a thing that floods the heart, brain, soul, and body with a wonderful and all-pervading ecstasy, and if I happen to be the man who makes you realize it, then come tell me, and we will show God and His holy angels what earth means by the Heaven inspired word, 'radiance.'"
"David, there never will be any other man like you."
"The exigencies of life must develop many a finer and better."
"You still refuse me? You yet believe I do not love you?"
"Not with the love I ask, my girl. But if I did not believe it was germinating in your heart, and that it would come pouring over me in a torrent some glad day, I doubt if I could allow you to go, Ruth! I am like any other man in selfishness and in the passions of the body."
"Selfishness! You haven't an idea what it means," said the Girl. "And what you call love——there I haven't. But I know how to appreciate you, and you may be positively sure that it will be only a few days until I will come back to you."
"But I don't want you until you can bring the love I crave. I am sending you to remain until that time, Ruth."
"But it may be months, Man!"
"Then stay months."
"But it may be——"
"It may be never! Then remain forever. That will be proof positive that your happiness does not lie in my hands."
"Why should I not consider you as you do me?"
"Because I love you, and you do not love me."
"You are cruel to yourself and to me. You talk about the pain in the world. What about the pain in my heart right now? And if I know you in the least, one degree more would make you cry aloud for mercy. Oh David, are we of no consideration at all?"
The muscles of the Harvester's face twisted an instant.
"This is where we lop off the small branches to grow perfect fruit later. This is where we do evil that good may result. This is where we suffer to-night in order we may appreciate fully the joy of love's dawning. If I am causing you pain, forgive me, dear heart. I would give my life to prevent it, but I am powerless. It is right! We cannot avoid doing it, if we ever would be happy."
He picked up the Girl, and held her crushed in his arms a long time. Then he set her inside her door and said, "Lay out what you want to take and I will help you pack, so that you can get some sleep. We must be ready early in the morning."
When the clothing to be worn was selected, the new trunk packed, and all arrangements made, the Girl sat in his arms before the fire as he had held her when she was ill, and then he sent her to bed and went to the lake shore to fight it out alone. Only God and the stars and the faithful Belshazzar saw the agony of a strong man in his extremity.
Near dawn he heard the tinkle of the bell and went to receive his message and order a car for morning. Then he returned to the merciful darkness of night, and paced the driveway until light came peeping over the tree tops. He prepared breakfast and an hour later put the Girl on the train, and stood watching it until the last rift of smoke curled above the spires of the city.
CHAPTER XX. THE MAN IN THE BACKGROUND
Then the Harvester returned to Medicine Woods to fight his battle alone. At first the pain seemed unendurable, but work always had been his panacea, it was his salvation now. He went through the cabin, folding bedding and storing it in closets, rolling rugs sprinkled with powdered alum, packing cushions, and taking window seats from the light.
"Our sleeping room and the kitchen will serve for us, Bel," he said. "We will put all these other things away carefully, so they will be as good as new when the Girl comes home."
The evening of the second day he was called to the telephone.
"There is a telegram for you," said a voice. "A message from Philadelphia. It reads: 'Arrived safely. Thank you for making me come. Dear old people. Will write soon. With love, Ruth.'
"Have you got it?"
"No," lied the Harvester, grinning rapturously. "Repeat it again slowly, and give me time after each sentence to write it. Now! Go on!"
He carried the message to the back steps and sat reading it again and again.
"I supposed I'd have to wait at least four days," he said to Ajax as the bird circled before him. "This is from the Girl, old man, and she is not forgetting us to begin with, anyway. She is there all safe, she sees that they need her, they are lovable old people, she is going to write us all about it soon, and she loves us all she knows how to love any one. That should be enough to keep us sane and sensible until her letter comes. There is no use to borrow trouble, so we will say everything in the world is right with us, and be as happy as we can on that until we find something we cannot avoid worrying over. In the meantime, we will have faith to believe that we have suffered our share, and the end will be happy for all of us. I am mighty glad the Girl has a home, and the right kind of people to care for her. Now, when she comes back to me, I needn't feel that she was forced, whether she wanted to or not, because she had nowhere to go. This will let me out with a clean conscience, and that is the only thing on earth that allows a man to live in peace with himself. Now I'll go finish everything else, and then I'll begin the ginseng harvest."
So the Harvester hitched Betsy and with Belshazzar at his feet he drove through the woods to the sarsaparilla beds. He noticed the beautiful lobed leaves, at which the rabbits had been nibbling, and the heads of lustrous purple-black berries as he began digging the roots that he sold for stimulants.
"I might have needed a dose of you now myself," the Harvester addressed a heap of uprooted plants, "if the electric wires hadn't brought me a better. Great invention that! Never before realized it fully! I thought to-day would be black as night, but that message changes the complexion of affairs mightily. So I'll dig you for people who really are in need of something to brace them up."
After the sarsaparilla was on the trays, he attacked the beds of Indian hemp, with its long graceful pods, and took his usual supply. Then he worked diligently on the warm hillside over the dandelion. When these were finished he brought half a dozen young men from the city and drilled them on handling ginseng. He was warm, dirty, and tired when he came from the beds the evening of the fourth day. He finished his work at the barn, prepared and ate his supper, slipped into clean clothing, and walked to the country road where it crossed the lane. There he opened his mail box. The letter he expected with the Philadelphia postmark was inside. He carried it to the bridge, and sitting in her favourite place, with the lake breeze threading his hair, opened his first letter from the Girl.
"My dear Friend, Lover, Husband," it began.
The Harvester turned the sheets face down across his knee, laid his hand on them, and stared meditatively at the lake. "'Friend,'" he commented. "Well, that's all right! I am her friend, as well as I know how to be. 'Lover.' I come in there, full force. I did my level best on that score, though I can't boast myself a howling success; a man can't do more than he knows, and if I had been familiar with all the wiles of expert, professional love-makers, they wouldn't have availed me in the Girl's condition. I had a mighty peculiar case to handle in her, and not a particle of training. But if she says 'Lover,' I must have made some kind of a showing on the job. 'Husband.'" A slow flush crept up the brawny neck and tinged the bronzed face. "That's a good word," said the Harvester, "and it must mean a wonderful thing——to some men. 'Who bides his time.' Well, I'm 'biding,' and if my time ever comes to be my Dream Girl's husband, I'll wager all I'm worth on one thing. I'll study the job from every point of the compass, and I'll see what showing I can make on being the kind of a husband that a woman clings to and loves at eighty."
Taking a deep breath the Harvester lifted the letter, and laying one hand on Belshazzar's head, he proceeded——"I might as well admit in the beginning that I cried most of the way here. Some of it was because I was nervous and dreaded the people I would meet, and more on account of what I felt toward them, but most of it was because I did not want to leave you. I have been spoiled dreadfully! You have taught me so to depend on you——and for once I feel that I really can claim to have been an apt pupil——that it was like having the heart torn out of me to come. I want you to know this, because it will teach you that I have a little bit of appreciation of how good you are to me, and to all the world as well. I am glad that I almost cried myself sick over leaving you. I wish now I just had stood up in the car, and roared like a burned baby.
"But all the tears I shed in fear of grandfather and grandmother were wasted. They are a couple of dear old people, and it would have been a crime to allow them to suffer more than they must of necessity. It all seems so different when they talk; and when I see the home, luxuries, and friends my mother had, it appears utterly incomprehensible that she dared leave them for a stranger. Probably the reason she did was because she was grandfather's daughter. He is gentle and tender some of the time, but when anything irritates him, and something does every few minutes, he breaks loose, and such another explosion you never heard. It does not mean a thing, and it seems to lower his tension enough to keep him from bursting with palpitation of the heart or something, but it is a strain for others. At first it frightened me dreadfully. Grandmother is so tiny and frail, so white in her big bed, and when he is the very worst, and she only smiles at him, why I know he does not mean it at all. But, David, I hope you never will get an idea that this would be a pleasant way for you to act, because it would not, and I never would have the courage to offer you the love I have come to find if you slammed a cane and yelled, 'demnation,' at me. Grandmother says she does not mind at all, but I wonder if she did not acquire the habit of lying in bed because it is easier to endure in a prostrate position.
"The house is so big I get lost, and I do not know yet which are servants and which friends; and there is a steady stream of seamstresses and milliners making things for me. Grandmother and father both think I will be quite passable in appearance when I am what they call 'modishly dressed.' I think grandmother will forget herself some day and leave her bed before she knows it, in her eagerness to see how something appears. I could not begin to tell you about all the lovely things to wear, for every occasion under the sun, and they say these are only temporary, until some can be made especially for me.
"They divide the time in sections, and there is an hour to drive, I am to have a horse and ride later, and a time to shop, so long to visit grandmother, and set hours to sleep, dress, to be fitted, taken to see things, music lessons, and a dancing teacher. I think a longer day will have to be provided.
"I do not care anything about dancing. I know what would make me dance nicely enough for anything, but I am going to try the music, and see if I can learn just a few little songs and some old melodies for evening, when the work is done, the fire burns low, and you are resting on the rug. There is enough room for a piano between your door and the south wall and that corner seems vacant anyway. You would like it, David, I know, if I could play and sing just enough to put you to sleep nicely. It is in the back of my head that I will try to do every single thing, just as they want me to, and that will make them happy, but never forget that the instant I feel in my soul that your kiss is right on my lips, I am coming to you by lightning express; and I told them so the first thing, and that I only came because you made me.
"They did not raise an objection, but I am not so dull that I cannot see they are trying to bind me to them from the very first with chains too strong to break. We had just one little clash. Grandfather was mightily pleased over what you told Mr. Kennedy about my never having been your wife, and that I was really free. There seems to be a man, the son of his partner, whom grandfather dearly loves, and he wants me to be friends with his friend. One can see at once what he is planning, because he said he was going to introduce me as Miss Jameson. I told him that would be creating a false impression, because I was a married woman; but he only laughed at me and went straight to doing it.
"Of course, I know why, but he is so terribly set I cannot stop him, so I shall have to tell people myself that I am a staid, old married lady. After all, I suppose I might as well let him go, if it pleases him. I shall know how to protect myself and any one else, from any mistakes concerning me; and in my heart I know what I know, and what I cannot make you believe, but I will some day.
"I suspect you're harvesting the ginseng now. The roar and rush of the city seem strange, as if I never had heard it before, and I feel so crowded. I scarcely can sleep at night for the clamour of the cars, cabs, and throbbing life. Grandfather will not hear a word, and he just sputters and says 'demnation' when I try to tell him about you; but grandmother will listen, and I talk to her of you and Medicine Woods by the hour. She says she thinks you must be a wonderfully nice person. I haven't dared tell her yet the thing that will win her. She is so little and frail, and she has heart trouble so badly; but some day I shall tell her all about Chicago that I can, and then of Uncle Henry, and then about you and the oak, and that will make her love you as I do. There are so many things to do; they have sent for me three times. I shall tell them they must put you on the schedule, and give me so much time to write or I will upset the whole programme.
"I think you will like to know that Mr. Kennedy told grandfather all you said to him about my illness, for almost as soon as I came he brought a very wonderful man to my room, and he asked many questions and I told him all about it, and what I had been doing. He made out a list of things to eat and exercises. I am being taken care of just as you did, so I will go on growing well and strong. The trouble is they are too good to me. I would just love to shuffle my feet in dead leaves, and lie on the grass this morning. I never got my swim in the lake. I will have to save that until next summer. He also told grandfather what you said about Uncle Henry, and I think he was pleased that you tried to find him as soon as you knew. He let me see the letter Uncle Henry wrote, and it was a vile thing——just such as he would write. It asked how much he would be willing to pay for information concerning his heir. I told grandfather all about it, and I saw the answer he wrote. I told him some things to say, and one of them was that the honesty of a man without a price prevented the necessity of anything being paid to find me. The other was that you located my people yourself, and at once sent me to them against my wishes. I was determined he should know that. So Uncle Henry missed his revenge on you. He evidently thought he not only would hurt you by breaking up your home and separating us, but also he would get a reward for his work. He wrote some untrue things about you, and I wish he hadn't, for grandfather can think of enough himself. But I will soon change that. Please, please take good care of all my things, my flowers and vines, and most of all tell Belshazzar to protect you with his life. And you be very good to my dear, dear lover. I will write again soon, Ruth."
When the Harvester had studied the letter until he could repeat it backward, he went to the cabin and answered it. Then he sent subscriptions for two of Philadelphia's big dailies, and harvested ginseng from dawn until black darkness. Never was such a crop grown in America. The beds had been made in the original home of the plant, so that it throve under perfectly natural conditions in the forest, but here and there branches had been thinned above, and nature helped by science below. This resulted in thick, pulpy roots of astonishing size and weight. As the Harvester lifted them he bent the tops and buried part of the seed for another crop. For weeks he worked over the bed. Then the last load went down the hill to the dry-house and the helpers were paid. Next the fall work was finished. Fuel and food were stored for winter, while the cold crept from the lake, swept down the hill and surrounded the cabin.
The Harvester finished long days in the dry-house and store-room, and after supper he sat by the fire reading over the Girl's letters, carving on her candlesticks, or in the work room, bending above the boards he was shaving and polishing for a gift he had planned for her Christmas. The Careys had him in their home for Thanksgiving. He told them all about sending the Girl away himself, read them some of her letters, and they talked with perfect confidence of how soon she would come home. The Harvester tried to think confidently, but as the days went by the letters became fewer, always with the excuse that there was no time to write, but with loving assurance that she was thinking of him and would do better soon.
However they came often enough that he had something new to tell his friends so that they did not suspect that waiting was a trial to him. A few days after Thanksgiving the gift that he had planned was finished. It was a big, burl-maple box, designed after the hope chests that he saw advertised in magazines. The wood was rare, cut in heavy slabs, polished inside and out, dove-tailed corners with ornate brass bindings, hinges and lock, and hand-carved feet. On the inside of the lid cut on a brass plate was the inscription, "Ruth Langston, Christmas of Nineteen Hundred and Ten. David."
Then he began packing the chest. He put in the finished candlesticks and a box of candleberry dips he had made of delightfully spiced wax, coloured pale green. He ordered the doll weeks before from the largest store in Onabasha, and the dealer brought on several that he might make a selection. He chose a large baby doll almost life size, and sent it to the dress-making department to be completely and exquisitely clothed. Long before the day he was picking kernels to glaze from nuts, drying corn to pop, and planning candies to be made of maple sugar. When he figured it was time to start the box, he worked carefully, filling spaces with chestnut and hazel burs, and finishing the tops of boxes with gaudy red and yellow leaves he had kept in their original brightness by packing them in sand. He put in scarlet berries of mountain ash and long twining sprays of yellow and red bitter-sweet berries, for her room. Then he carefully covered the chest with cloth, packed it in an outside box, and sent it to the Girl by express. As he came from the train shed, where he had helped with loading, he met Henry Jameson. Instantly the long arm of the Harvester shot out, and in a grip that could not be broken he caught the man by the back of the neck and proceeded to dangle him. As he did so he roared with laughter.
"Dear Uncle Henry!" he cried. "How did you feel when you got your letter from Philadelphia? Wasn't it a crime that an honest man, which same refers to me, beat you? Didn't you gnash your teeth when you learned that instead of separating me from my wife I had found her people and sent her to them myself? Didn't it rend your soul to miss your little revenge and fail to get the good, fat reward you confidently expected? Ho! Ho! Thus are lofty souls downcast. I pity you, Henry Jameson, but not so much that I won't break your back if you meddle in my affairs again, and I am taking this opportunity to tell you so. Here you go out of my life, for if you appear in it once more I will finish you like a copperhead. Understand?"
With a last shake the Harvester dropped him, and went into the express office, where several men had watched the proceedings.
"Been dipping in your affairs, has he?" asked the expressman.
"Trying it," laughed the Harvester.
"Well he is just moving to Idaho, and you probably won't be bothered with him any more."
"Good news!" said the Harvester. He felt much relieved as he went back to Betsy and drove to Medicine Woods.
The Careys had invited him, but he chose to spend Christmas alone. He had finished breakfast when the telephone bell rang, and the expressman told him there was a package for him from Philadelphia. The Harvester mounted Betsy and rode to the city at once. The package was so very small he slipped it into his pocket, and went to the doctor's to say Merry Christmas! To Mrs. Carey he gave a pretty lavender silk dress, and to the doctor a new watch chain. Then he went to the hospital, where he left with Molly a set of china dishes from the Girl, and a fur-lined great coat, his gift to Doctor Harmon. He rode home and stabled Betsy, giving her an extra quart of oats, and going into the house he sat by the kitchen fire and opened the package.
In a nest of cotton lay a tissue-wrapped velvet box, and inside that, in a leather pocket case, an ivory miniature of the Girl by an artist who knew how to reproduce life. It was an exquisite picture, and a face of wonderful beauty. He looked at it for a long time, and then called Belshazzar and carried it out to show Ajax. Then he put it into his breast pocket squarely over his heart, but he wore the case shiny the first day taking it out. Before noon he went to the mail box and found a long letter from the Girl, full of life, health, happiness, and with steady assurances of love for him, but there was no mention made of coming home.
She seemed engrossed in the music lessons, riding, dancing, pretty clothing, splendid balls, receptions, and parties of all kinds. The Harvester answered it with his heart full of love for her, and then waited. It was a long week before the reply came, and then it was short on account of so many things that must be done, but she insisted that she was well, happy, and having a fine time. After that the letters became less frequent and shorter. At times there would be stretches of almost two weeks with not a line, and then only short notes to explain that she was too busy to write.
Through the dreary, cold days of January and February the Harvester invented work in the store-room, in the workshop, at the candlesticks, sat long over great books, and spent hours in the little laboratory preparing and compounding drugs. In the evenings he carved and read. First of all he scanned the society columns of the papers he was taking, and almost every day he found the name of Miss Ruth Jameson, often a paragraph describing her dress and her beauty of face and charm of manner; and constantly the name of Mr. Herbert Kennedy appeared as her escort. At first the Harvester ignored this, and said to himself that he was glad she could have enjoyable times and congenial friends, and he was. But as the letters became fewer, paper paragraphs more frequent, and approaching spring worked its old insanity in the blood, gradually an ache crept into his heart again, and there were days when he could not work it out.
Every letter she wrote he answered just as warmly as he felt that he dared, but when they were so long coming and his heart was overflowing, he picked up a pen one night and wrote what he felt. He told her all about the ice-bound lake, the lonely crows in the big woods, the sap suckers' cry, and the gay cardinals' whistle. He told her about the cocoons dangling on bushes or rocking on twigs that he was cutting for her. He warned her that spring was coming, and soon she would begin to miss wonders for her pencil. Then he told her about the silent cabin, the empty rooms, and a lonely man. He begged her not to forget the kiss she had gone to find for him. He poured out his heart unrestrainedly, and then folded the letter, sealed and addressed it to her, in care of the fire fairies, and pitched it into the ashes of the living-room fire place. But expression made him feel better.
There was another longer wait for the next letter, but he had written her so many in the meantime that a little heap of them had accumulated as he passed through the living-room on his way to bed. He had supposed she would be gone until after Christmas when she left, but he never had thought of harvesting sassafras and opening the sugar camp alone. In those days his face appeared weary, and white hairs came again on his temples. Carey met him on the street and told him that he was going to the National Convention of Surgeons at New York in March, and wanted him to go along and present his new medicine for consideration.
"All right," said the Harvester instantly, "I will go."
He went and interviewed Mrs. Carey, and then visited the doctor's tailor, and a shoe store, and bought everything required to put him in condition for travelling in good style, and for the banquet he would be asked to attend. Then he got Mrs. Carey to coach him on spoons and forks, and declared he was ready. When the doctor saw that the Harvester really would go, he sat down and wrote the president of the association, telling him in brief outline of Medicine Woods and the man who had achieved a wonderful work there, and of the compounding of the new remedy.
As he expected, return mail brought an invitation for the Harvester to address the association and describe his work and methods and present his medicine. The doctor went out in the car over sloppy roads with that letter, and located the Harvester in the sugar camp. He explained the situation and to his surprise found his man intensely interested. He asked many questions as to the length of time, and amount of detail required in a proper paper, and the doctor told him.
"But if you want to make a clean sweep, David," he said, "write your paper simply, and practise until it comes easy before you speak."
That night the Harvester left work long enough to get a notebook, and by the light of the camp fire, and in company with the owls and coons, he wrote his outline. One division described his geographical location, another traced his ancestry and education in wood lore. One was a tribute to the mother who moulded his character and ground into him stability for his work. The remainder described his methods in growing drugs, drying and packing them, and the end was a presentation for their examination of the remedy that had given life where a great surgeon had conceded death. Then he began amplification.
When the sugar making was over the Harvester commenced his regular spring work, but his mind was so busy over his paper that he did not have much time to realize just how badly his heart was beginning to ache. Neither did he consign so many letters to the fire fairies, for now he was writing of the best way to dry hydrastis and preserve ginseng seed. The day before time to start he drove to Onabasha to try on his clothing and have Mrs. Carey see if he had been right in his selections.
While he was gone, Granny Moreland, wearing a clean calico dress and carrying a juicy apple pie, came to the stretch of flooded marsh land, and finding the path under water, followed the road and crossing a field reached the levee and came to the bridge of Singing Water where it entered the lake. She rested a few minutes there, and then went to the cabin shining between bare branches. She opened the front door, entered, and stood staring around her.
"Why things is all tore up here," she said. "Now ain't that sensible of David to put everything away and save it nice and careful until his woman gets back. Seems as if she's good and plenty long coming; seems as if her folks needs her mighty bad, or she's having a better time than the boy is or something."
She set the pie on the table, went through the cabin and up the hill a little distance, calling the Harvester. When she passed the barn she missed Betsy and the wagon, and then she knew he was in town. She returned to the living-room and sat looking at the pie as she rested.
"I'd best put you on the kitchen table," she mused. "Likely he will see you there first and eat you while you are fresh. I'd hate mortal bad for him to overlook you, and let you get stale, after all the care I've took with your crust, and all the sugar, cinnamon, and butter that's under your lid. You're a mighty nice pie, and you ort to be et hot. Now why under the sun is all them clean letters pitched in the fireplace?"
Granny knelt and selecting one, she blew off the ashes, wiped it with her apron and read: "To Ruth, in care of the fire fairies."
"What the Sam Hill is the idiot writin' his woman like that for?" cried Granny, bristling instantly. "And why is he puttin' pages and pages of good reading like this must have in it in care of the fire fairies? Too much alone, I guess! He's going wrong in his head. Nobody at themselves would do sech a fool trick as this. I believe I had better do something. Of course I had! These is writ to Ruth; she ort to have them. Wish't I knowed how she gets her mail, I'd send her some. Mebby three! I'd send a fat and a lean, and a middlin' so's that she'd have a sample of all the kinds they is. It's no way to write letters and pitch them in the ashes. It means the poor boy is honin' to say things he dassent and so he's writin' them out and never sendin' them at all. What's the little huzzy gone so long for, anyway? I'll fix her!"
Granny selected three letters, blew away the ashes, and tucked the envelopes inside her dress.
"If I only knowed how to get at her," she muttered. She stared at the pie. "I guess you got to go back," she said, "and be et by me. Like as not I'll stall myself, for I got one a-ready. But if David has got these fool things counted and misses any, and then finds that pie here, he'll s'picion me. Yes, I got to take you back, and hurry my stumps at that."
Granny arose with the pie, cast a lingering and covetous glance at the fireplace, stooped and took another letter, and then started down the drive. Just as she reached the bridge she looked ahead and saw the Harvester coming up the levee. Instantly she shot the pie over the railing and with a groan watched it strike the water and disappear.
"Lord of love!" she gasped, sinking to the seat, "that was one of grandmother's willer plates that I promised Ruth. 'Tain't likely I'll ever see hide ner hair of it again. But they wa'ant no place to put it, and I dassent let him know I'd been up to the cabin. Mebby I can fetch a boy some day and hire him to dive for it. How long can a plate be in water and not get spiled anyway? Now what'll I do? My head's all in a whirl! I'll bet my bosom is a sticking out with his letters 'til he'll notice and take them from me."
She gripped her hands across her chest and sat staring at the Harvester as he stopped on the bridge, and seeing her attitude and distressed face, he sprang from the wagon.
"Why Granny, are you sick?" he cried anxiously.
"Yes!" gasped Granny Moreland. "Yes, David, I am! I'm a miserable woman. I never was in sech a shape in all my days."
"Let me help you to the cabin, and I'll see what I can do for you," offered the Harvester.
"No. This is jest out of your reach," said the old lady. "I want——I want to see Doctor Carey bad."
"Are you strong enough to ride in or shall I bring him?"
"I can go! I can go as well as not, David, if you'll take me."
"Let me run Betsy to the barn and get the Girl's phaeton. The wagon is too rough for you. Are the pains in your chest dreadful?"
"I don't know how to describe them," said Granny with perfect truth.
The Harvester leaped into the wagon and caught up the lines. As he disappeared around the curve of the driveway Granny snatched the letters from her dress front and thrust them deep into one of her stockings.
"Now, drat you!" she cried. "Stick out all you please. Nobody will see you there."
In a few minutes the Harvester helped her into the carriage and drove rapidly toward the city.
"You needn't strain your critter," said Granny. "It's not so bad as that, David."
"Is your chest any better?"
"A sight better," said Granny. "Shakin' up a little 'pears to do me good."
"You never should have tried to walk. Suppose I hadn't been here. And you came the long way, too! I'll have a telephone run to your house so you can call me after this."
Granny sat very straight suddenly.
"My! wouldn't that get away with some of my foxy neighbours," she said. "Me to have a 'phone like they do, an' be conversin' at all hours of the day with my son's folks and everybody. I'd be tickled to pieces, David."
"Then I'll never dare do it," said the Harvester, "because I can't keep house without you."
"Where's your own woman?" promptly inquired Granny.
"She can't leave her people. Her grandmother is sick."
"Grandmother your foot!" cried the old woman. "I've been hearing that song and dance from the neighbours, but you got to fool younger people than me on it, David. When did any grandmother ever part a pair of youngsters jest married, for months at a clip? I'd like to cast my eyes on that grandmother. She's a new breed! I was as good a mother as 'twas in my skin to be, and I'd like to see a child of mine do it for me; and as for my grandchildren, it hustles some of them to re-cog-nize me passing on the big road, 'specially if it's Peter's girl with a town beau."
The Harvester laughed. The old lady leaned toward him with a mist in her eyes and a quaver in her voice, and asked softly, "Got ary friend that could help you, David?"
The man looked straight ahead in silence.
"Bamfoozle all the rest of them as much as you please, lad, but I stand to you in the place of your ma, and so I ast you plainly——got ary friend that could help?"
"I can think of no way in which any one possibly could help me, dear," said the Harvester gently. "It is a matter I can't explain, but I know of nothing that any one could do."
"You mean you're tight-mouthed! You COULD tell me just like you would your ma, if she was up and comin'; but you can't quite put me in her place, and spit it out plain. Now mebby I can help you! Is it her fault or yourn?"
"Mine! Mine entirely!"
"Hum! What a fool question! I might a knowed it! I never saw a lovinger, sweeter girl in these parts. I jest worship the ground she treads on; and you, lad you hain't had a heart in your body sence first you saw her face. If I had the stren'th, I'd haul you out of this keeridge and I'd hammer you meller, David Langston. What in the name of sense have you gone and done to the purty, lovin' child?"
The Harvester's face flushed, but a line around his mouth whitened.
"Loosen up!" commanded Granny. "I got some rights in this case that mebby you don't remember. You asked me to help you get ready for her, and I done what you wanted. You invited me to visit her, and I jest loved her sweet, purty ways. You wanted me to shet up my house and come over for weeks to help take keer of her, and I done it gladly, for her pain and your sufferin' cut me as if 'twas my livin' flesh and blood; so you can't shet me out now. I'm in with you and her to the end. What a blame fool thing have you gone and done to drive away for months a girl that fair worshipped you?"
"That's exactly the trouble, Granny," said the Harvester. "She didn't! She merely respected and was grateful to me, and she loved me as a friend; but I never was any nearer her husband than I am yours."
"I've always knowed they was a screw loose somewhere," commented Granny. "And so you've sent her off to her worldly folks in a big, wicked city to get weaned away from you complete?"
"I sent her to let her see if absence would teach her anything. I had months with her here, and I lay awake at nights thinking up new plans to win her. I worked for her love as I never worked for bread, but I couldn't make it. So I let her go to see if separation would teach her anything."
"Mercy me! Why you crazy critter! The child did love you! She loved you 'nough an' plenty! She loved you faithful and true! You was jest the light of her eyes. I don't see how a girl could think more of a man. What in the name of sense are you expecting months of separation to teach her, but to forget you, and mebby turn her to some one else?"
"I hoped it would teach her what I call love, means," explained the Harvester.
"Why you dratted popinjay! If ever in all my born days I wanted to take a man and jest lit'rally mop up the airth with him, it's right here and now. 'Absence teach her what you call love.' Idiot! That's your job!"
"But, Granny, I couldn't!"
"Wouldn't, you mean, no doubt! I hain't no manner of a notion in my head but that child, depending on you, and grateful as she was, and tender and loving, and all sech as that I hain't a doubt but she come to you plain and told you she loved you with all her heart. What more could you ast?"
"That she understand what love means before I can accept what she offers."
"You puddin' head! You blunderbuss!" cried Granny. "Understand what you mean by love. If you're going to bar a woman from being a wife 'til she knows what you mean by love, you'll stop about nine tenths of the weddings in the world, and t'other tenth will be women that no decent-minded man would jine with."
"Granny, are you sure?"
"Well livin' through it, and up'ard of seventy years with other women, ort to teach me something. The Girl offered you all any man needs to ast or git. Her foundations was laid in faith and trust. Her affections was caught by every loving, tender, thoughtful thing you did for her; and everybody knows you did a-plenty, David. I never see sech a master hand at courtin' as you be. You had her lovin' you all any good woman knows how to love a man. All you needed to a-done was to take her in your arms, and make her your wife, and she'd 'a' waked up to what you meant by love."
"But suppose she never awakened?"
"Aw, bosh! S'pose water won't wet! S'pose fire won't burn! S'pose the sun won't shine! That's the law of nature, man! If you think I hain't got no sense at all I jest dare you to ask Doctor Carey. 'Twouldn't take him long to comb the kinks out of you."
"I don't think you have left any, Granny," said the Harvester. "I see what you mean, and in all probability you are right, but I can't send for the Girl."
"Name o' goodness why?"
"Because I sent her away against her will, and now she is remaining so long that there is every probability she prefers the life she is living and the friends she has made there, to Medicine Woods and to me. The only thing I can do now is to await her decision."
"Oh, good Lord!" groaned Granny. "You make me sick enough to kill. Touch up your nag and hustle me to Doc. You can't get me there quick enough to suit me."
At the hospital she faced Doctor Carey. "I think likely some of my innards has got to be cut out and mended," she said. "I'll jest take a few minutes of your time to examination me, and see what you can do."
In the private office she held the letters toward the doctor. "They hain't no manner of sickness ailin' me, Doc. The boy out there is in deep water, and I knowed how much you thought of him, and I hoped you'd give me a lift. I went over to his place this mornin' to take him a pie, and I found his settin' room fireplace heapin' with letters he'd writ to Ruth about things his heart was jest so bustin' full of it eased him to write them down, and then he hadn't the horse sense and trust in her jedgment to send them on to her. I picked two fats, a lean, and a middlin' for samples, and I thought I'd send them some way, and I struck for home with them an' he ketched me plumb on the bridge. I had to throw my pie overboard, willer plate and all, and as God is my witness, I was so flustered the boy had good reason to think I was sick a-plenty; and soon as he noticed it, I thought of you spang off, and I knowed you'd know her whereabouts, and I made him fetch me to you. On the way I jest dragged it from him that he'd sent her away his fool self, because she didn't sense what he meant by love, and she wa'ant beholden to him same degree and manner he was to her. Great day, Doc! Did you ever hear a piece of foolishness to come up with that? I told him to ast you! I told him you'd tell him that no clean, sweet-minded girl ever had known nor ever would know what love means to a man 'til he marries her and teaches her. Ain't it so, Doc?"
"It certainly is."
"Then will you grind it into him, clean to the marrer, and will you send these letters on to Ruthie?"
"Most certainly I will," said the doctor emphatically. Granny opened the door and walked out.
"I'm so relieved, David," she said. "He thinks they won't be no manner o' need to knife me. Likely he can fix up a few pills and send them out by mail so's that I'll be as good as new again. Now we must get right out of here and not take valuable time. What do I owe you, Doc?"
"Not a cent," said Doctor Carey. "Thank you very much for coming to me. You'll soon be all right again."
"I was some worried. Much obliged I am sure. Come on!"
"One minute," said the doctor. "David, I am making up a list of friends to whom I am going to send programmes of the medical meeting, and I thought your wife might like to see you among the speakers, and your subject. What is her address?"
A slow red flushed the Harvester's cheeks. He opened his lips and hesitated. At last he said, "I think perhaps her people prefer that she receive mail under her maiden name while with them. Miss Ruth Jameson, care of Alexander Herron, 5770 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, will reach her."
The doctor wrote the address, as if it were the most usual thing in the world, and asked the Harvester if he was ready to make the trip east.
"I think we had best start to-night," he said. "We want a day to grow accustomed to our clothes and new surroundings before we run up squarely against serious business."
"I will be ready," promised the Harvester.
He took Granny home, set his house in order, installed the man he was leaving in charge, touched a match to the heap in the fireplace, and donning the new travelling suit, he went to Doctor Carey's.
Mrs. Carey added a few touches, warned him to remember about the forks and spoons, and not to forget to shave often, and saw them off. At the station Carey said to him, "You know, David, we can change at Wayne and go through Buffalo, or we can take the Pittsburg and go and come through Philadelphia."
"I am contemplating a trip to Philadelphia," said the Harvester, "but I believe I will not be ready for, say a month yet. I have a theory and it dies hard. If it does not work out the coming month, I will go, perhaps, but not now. Let us see how many kinds of a fool I make of myself in New York before I attempt the Quakers."
Almost to the city, the doctor smiled at the Harvester.
"David, where did you get your infernal assurance?" he asked.
"In the woods," answered the Harvester placidly. "In doing clean work. With my fingers in the muck, and life literally teeming and boiling in sound and action, around, above, and beneath me, a right estimate of my place and province in life comes naturally in daily handling stores on which humanity depends, I go even deeper than you surgeons and physicians. You are powerless unless I reinforce your work with drugs on which you can rely. I do clean, honest work. I know its proper place and value to the world. That is why I called what I have to say, 'The Man in the Background.' There is no reason why I should shiver and shrink at meeting and explaining my work to my fellows. Every man has his vocation, and some of you in the limelight would cut a sorry figure if the man in the background should fail you at the critical moment. Don't worry about me, Doc. I am all serene. You won't find I possess either nerves or fear. 'Be sure you are right, and then go ahead,' is my law."
"Well I'll be confounded!" said the doctor.
In a large hall, peopled with thousands of medical men, the name of the Harvester was called the following day and his subject was announced. He arose in his place and began to talk.
"Take the platform," came in a roar from a hundred throats.
The Harvester hesitated.
"You must, David," whispered Carey.
The Harvester made his way forward and was guided through a side door, and a second later calmly walked down the big stage to the front, and stood at ease looking over his audience, as if to gauge its size and the pitch to which he should raise his voice. His lean frame loomed every inch of his six feet, his broad shoulders were square, his clean shaven face alert and afire. He wore a spring suit of light gray of good quality and cut, and he was perfect as to details.
"This scarcely seems compatible with my subject," he remarked casually. "I certainly appear very much in the foreground just at present, but perhaps that is quite as well. It may be time that I assert myself. I doubt if there is a man among you who has not handled my products more or less; you may enjoy learning where and how they are prepared, and understanding the manner in which my work merges with yours. I think perhaps the first thing is to paint you as good a word picture as I can of my geographical location."
Then the Harvester named latitude and longitude and degrees of temperature. He described the lake, the marsh, the wooded hill, the swale, and open sunny fields. He spoke of water, soil, shade, and geographical conditions. "Here I was born," he said, "on land owned by my father and grandfather before me, and previous to them, by the Indians. My male ancestors, so far as I can trace them, were men of the woods, hunters, trappers, herb gatherers. My mother was from the country, educated for a teacher. She had the most inexorable will power of any woman I ever have known. From my father I inherited my love for muck on my boots, resin in my nostrils, the long trail, the camp fire, forest sounds and silences in my soul. From my mother I learned to read good books, to study subjects that puzzled me, to tell the truth, to keep my soul and body clean, and to pursue with courage the thing to which I set my hand.
"There was not money enough to educate me as she would; together we learned to find it in the forest. In early days we sold ferns and wild flowers to city people, harvested the sap of the maples in spring, and the nut crop of the fall. Later, as we wanted more, we trapped for skins, and collected herbs for the drug stores. This opened to me a field I was peculiarly fitted to enter. I knew woodcraft instinctively, I had the location of every herb, root, bark, and seed that will endure my climate; I had the determination to stick to my job, the right books to assist me, and my mother's invincible will power to uphold me where I wavered.
"As I look into your faces, men, I am struck with the astounding thought that some woman bore the cold sweat and pain of labour to give life to each of you. I hope few of you prolonged that agony as I did. It was in the heart of my mother to make me physically clean, and to that end she sent me daily into the lake, so long as it was not ice covered, and put me at exercises intended to bring full strength to every sinew and fibre of my body. It was in her heart to make me morally clean, so she took me to nature and drilled me in its forces and its methods of reproducing life according to the law. Her work was good to a point that all men will recognize. From there on, for a few years, she held me, not because I was man enough to stand, but because she was woman enough to support me. Without her no doubt I would have broken the oath I took; with her I won the victory and reached years of manhood and self-control as she would have had me. The struggle wore her out at half a lifetime, but as a tribute to her memory I cannot face a body of men having your opportunities without telling you that what was possible to her and to me is possible to all mothers and men. If she is above and hears me perhaps it will recompense some of her shortened years if she knows I am pleading with you, as men having the greatest influence of any living, to tell and to teach the young that a clean life is possible to them. The next time any of you are called upon to address a body of men tell them to learn for themselves and to teach their sons, and to hold them at the critical hour, even by sweat and blood, to a clean life; for in this way only can feeble-minded homes, almshouses, and the scarlet woman be abolished. In this way only can men arise to full physical and mental force, and become the fathers of a race to whom the struggle for clean manhood will not be the battle it is with us.