THE RUBBER APRON

"I have written this out of a full heart," writes Mrs. Strange. And every reader will agree that she had good reason to feel that way.

KATHLEEN REDMAN STRANGE August 15 1925

THE RUBBER APRON

"I have written this out of a full heart," writes Mrs. Strange. And every reader will agree that she had good reason to feel that way.

KATHLEEN REDMAN STRANGE August 15 1925

THE RUBBER APRON

"I have written this out of a full heart," writes Mrs. Strange. And every reader will agree that she had good reason to feel that way.

KATHLEEN REDMAN STRANGE

THIS is one of the most remarkable short stories MACLEAN'S has ever published; re markable, n o t primarily because of cleverness of plot or brilliance of style, but because it is far more than a story—it is a woman's battle flag of courage—her defiance to catastrophe. Mrs. Strqnge is the wife and working partner of Major H. G. L. Strange, winner of the world's -wheat prize in 1923. Years of struggle had brought to them a certain meed of success. Blue sky was in sight, and the broad Strange acres waved a bumper crop to the summer breeze. Then, out of the heavens, devastation. The work of -years was swept away as a petulant child might rub a chalk mark from a slate—with a loss of $25,000. In Mrs. Strange's possession ivas a ticket to Montreal, from whence she expected to pay a long-deferred visit to England, where she had not been since she left there five years ago, a girl of 22. In the midst of disaster, the fighting spirit of Mrs. Strange triumphed and immediately, heartsick as she was, she sat down and wrote this story. ■Of such stuff are our present-day pioneers.—Editor.

HER the work rubber all apron through on at its last, peg in Mary the kitchen Roberts closet hung and sank into the rocker with a sigh of content. “Now you stay there,” she said, addressing her remarks to the bedraggled, forlorn looking thing, hanging behind the door. “You’ve been the bane of my existence for the past twenty years— you and what you stand for. Work, work, nothing but work. That’s been my life. And now at last for a spell of rest.” She sank back luxuriously.

Her thoughts drifted away, upstairs, to the brand new steamer trunk that stood in her tiny, immaculate little bedroom, all packed and ready for the voyage she was about to make. In a few hours now she would be leaving the farm; the train would carry her over hundreds of miles of prairie and forest, through fascinatingly strange towns and cities, to the boatside; then she would skim across the ocean in one of those wonderful liners that were like gigantic floating hotels; until finally she stepped off at the quayside at Liverpool and into the welcoming arms of her only sister and those dear friends from whom she had been parted these many years.

Five years ago she had made up her mind that it was time she took a trip home. She was close upon forty then, and Myra, her only remaining kinswoman, was getting ever older and more feeble. And now for five long years she had been scrimping and saving, doing without this and that, working harder than ever, if possible, with that long dreamed-of goal in view.

Yes, it was high time that she made the trip.

Esther, her only daughter, was married and settled down, blissfully immersed in the cares of a new and wonderful boy baby; her three grown sons would be working out all summer. Dan, her husband, could very well look after himself during the three months that she would be away; he wasn’t used to batching, of course, but he was a pretty handy man about the house, she conceded.

He’d miss her all right, for they hadn’t been parted but once in the twenty years they had spent together as man and wife.That was the way with country folks, Mary reflected. They just got into a rut, living on from day to day, year in and year out, with never a thought of a' holiday or a change.

“My, but it’ll be fine, with nothing to do for three whole months!” Mary told herself. She glanced down at her work-worn hands. Perhaps they'd get fine and white again in a little while, like they used to be twenty years ago when she was first married.

And, oh! the bliss of sitting down and ordering one’s meals from a menu card. Meals one didn’t have to think about and plan and cook beforehand oneself. That part would be a glorious rest, both physical and mental.

"I don’t suppose I’ll remember anybody, nor anybody remember me,” Mary murmured, and she jumped up and walked across the little kitchen to the small, square mirror that hung above the wash basin.

The glass reflected a slight little woman, with brown, wind-toughened skin, black hair turning a little gray at the temples, bright blue eyes, and a.firm, sympathetic mouth. They used to call her pretty when she was young, Mary reflected, but wind and sun and years of rough, hard work had given her a homely middle-age. She could not appreciate for herself, however, the beauty of soul that gave her a charm that was more enduring and vital than any mere perfection of feature.

“You’ll always be pretty enough for me,” Dan would assure her, when she sometimes showed an inclination to take a back seat in favor of the winsome young daughter who lived on the neighboring farm with her young husband. Mary was quite content to surrender the honors to Esther. In the girl she lived over again her own youth, and now with the precious baby to bless them . . .

“All the delights of motherhood again,” she had told Dan, “without any of its responsibilities!”

Yes, she had changed quite a bit, in more ways than one, from that eager, vivacious young girl who had ventured forth from dear old England, so full of gallant dreams and high brave hopes for the new and promising

country in the far West. And now, to think of it, they had been in Alberta almost twenty years! How the time had flown.

Dan came in then.

“The horses are all harnessed up, mother,” he announced. “Just have to hitch ’em up when you’re ready to leave. I think I see our daughter coming.” He turned in the doorway. “Yes, there’s the buggy coming up the hill.

“I’ve just been thinking,” Mary said, as she bustled around the room, straightening and putting a finishing touch here and there, flicking away an imaginary speck of dust from the immaculate shelves, peering into cupboards and drawers to see that everything was in apple-pie order, “how changed I’ll find everyone, and how changed they’ll find me, too. Twenty years is a long time, Dan, almost a life time. And it’s hard to realize that the folks I left behind, girls and boys they were then, have all grown up, too. Most of them with families now! And me with a grandson, too.”

“You haven’t changed a bit so far as I can see,” Dan assured her. He came over and put an arm about her slim waist. “We’ve been mighty happy, Mary, and I’m sure going to miss you, even for this little while. But I want you should have a real good time. A real change and a real rest. You deserve it all. Worked hard you have, for many a year. I’m ashamed, sometimes, when I realize how much you’ve done. For it’s been uphill work all the way-, We sure had a tough time at the beginning, didn’t

Mary’s thoughts went back to those first days— pioneering days they were—with neighbors few and far between and sometimes very little to eat and drink and always plenty of hard, hard work. But they had been steadily climbing, upwards and onwards, in a country that promised a bountiful reward in happiness and contentment to those who strove hard and long enough.

“Come and take a last look at the fields,” Dan said. “We’ve a couple of hours before we need to be starting, and Esther won’t be here for several minutes yet.”

HpOGETHER they climbed the little hill on the west A side of the house. All around them were fields, green as Mary had never seen them for many a long yearfields of wheat and oats, gleaming emerald green in the bright noon-day sunshine; the rich black loam of newly plowed and summer fallowed land; here and there a clump of brush, rich with foliage; the sky above them a blue dome flecked with fleecy clouds.

“It’s beautiful,” Mary breathed. Despite her anticipations of the forthcoming trip, her longing to see her own picturesque countryside, she felt loth to leave this gorgeously beautiful country of her adoption. Never did

she regard these fertile fields without the same outpouring of gladness and appreciation for the sheer beauty and grandeur of it all.

Dan pointed to the wheat field, a waving mass of rich dark green, stretching away to the eastern horizon for almost half a mile.

“Did you ever see the like?” he asked proudly. He stood there, a thin, bent figure, his rugged sunburned face alight with the glory cf pride in this child of his own creation. This wheat field was the fruit of his own careful planning and patient careful seed selection. The very finest seed he could procure had gone into it; he had given of his best in time and endeavor.

Mary knew that no thought of mercenary reward entered Dan’s thoughts as he stood there, his arm linked in hers, sharing with her the joy of a knowledge of work done, and well done.

When t ’ ey returned to the house, Esther's baggy was drawn up before the door.

Lift the baby out,” she instructed her father. “He’s asleep in the clothes basket at the back.” Dan ran forward. He lifted the basket containing the sleeping grandchild out of the bottom of the rig and set it gently on the ground. Esther threw him the lines and

jumped lightly to the little cement walk leading up to the house.

“Dad’ll look after the team,” she told her mother. “We’ll carry baby inside and have a good chat before he comes back from the barn.”

They carried the basket, with its precious bundle, between them into the house.

Mary stood looking down at the chubby face of the baby.

“My, but I’ll miss him,” she sighed. Then, a little anxiously. “You’ll be sure and look after Dad while I’m away, Esther. Pm a little worried at leaving him. He’s getting to be kind of dependent these days. Perhaps I shouldn’t be leaving him at all.”

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The Rubber Apron

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“Nonsense, mother,” the girl replied. “After all this time that you’ve been saving up and looking forward, don’t go spoiling all your enjoyment by worrying about imaginary troubles. Dad’ll get along fine. Look at the wonderful crop he’s going to get. Art says we’re all going to swell our bank balances this year! Perhaps Dad’ll buy you a car so you can get around a bit more. They cost so little these days.”

Mary nodded, a trifle uncertainly.

“And you’ll come over frequently and see that the chicks are getting their milk regular and see that Dad keeps the garden weeded, won’t you, Esther? Dad’s so intent on his grainfields that I’m afraid he’s a bit absent-minded about the chores sometimes.”

“I’ll do everything, mother,” Esther assured her. “Just you go ahead and enjoy yourself and forget about everything back home.”

Mary watched her daughter bustle around fixing a lunch. She was glad to relax for a while. She had spent the past week scouring the house and baking up a supply of food to last Dan for a good long while. The pantry was stocked with a plentitude of good things to eat; the cellar shelves boasted a brave array of jars of succulent fruit and vegetables from last year; there was a season’s supply of beef and pork packed down after her own favored recipes.

Esther opened the door of the closet and Mary caught sight, for a moment, of the rubber apron hanging on its peg. A little chill ran through the happy turmoil of excited thoughts that surged in her mind. Thank heaven, she’d not be needing that for a time, at any rate. Rest, that was what she needed all right.

“I’m too excited to eat.” Mary admitted. She felt as if she was walking on air. “Just think. Esther, how good Dad's been about it all. Never begrudged me a cent. Every week for the past five years he's put the cream cheques by for this trip, bless his dear heart.”

“You deserve it all, mother,” Esther voiced her father’s own words of a few minutes before. “And just think. You’ll be able to see that wonderful exhibition at Wembley that we’ve read so much about. I wish I had your chance.”

“I wish BO too, dear,” Mary replied gently. “Seems like I shouldn’t be spending all that money on myself and my own pleasure.”

“Well, we’re all going to make our fortunes this year,” Esther laughed. She glanced out of the window. “Why, how black it’s getting,” she exclaimed. “Looks to me like a storm coming up, mother.” “Oh, dear me, I hope not,” Mary said anxiously. “I’ll spoil my new dust coat, driving to the station in a rain storm.”

The room was growing darker every minute. A great bank of clouds, riding steadily up from the north-east, began to spread across the sunlit blue of the sky.

THE two women went to the door and peered out. Dan was not in sight. Probably busy cleaning up around the barn, Mary thought. Overhead the storm j clouds were gathering, thick and fast, riding across the heavens like ill-omened j birds.

“There’s rain,” Esther exclaimed. She lifted up her face. Heavy drops were | beginning to fall.

“For land’s sake, it looks like hail,” her mother cried, and even as the words left her lips, down came the stones, driven with a sudden mighty wind, that sent the two women scurrying into the shelter of the little darkened kitchen. Flashes of lightning, followed closely by rumbling peals of thunder, mingled with the roar of the wind and the drumming of the hail stones on the roof.

“What a storm!” Mary exclaimed. They stood close together, gazing out of the window. They could see nothing but a white mist of roaring storm.

Rattle, rattle; swish, swish, came the hail. Stones as big as peas beat upon the window panes. The little house rocked in the fury of the wind.

For five minutes the force of the storm continued unabated. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the hail ceased; turned into a heavy rain; ceased altogether. A glory of sunshine burst out from behind a fast retreating bank of clouds.

WHEN the women opened the dripping door, the storm had completely passed. Away to the south a bank of heavy black clouds was rapidly disappearing. The sky above them was miraculously blue, flecked with fleecy summer clouds.

“Oh, I wonder what damage it has done?” Mary cried. She had not lived in the West for twenty years without sharing in the farmer’s dread of hail. They lived | in an area that had seen hail but once in all those years, and then it had not ; touched them, but Mary remembered with a shudder of apprehension the sheer devastation it had left in its wake.

And now hail had come to them!

“If only it hasn’t hurt the crop,” Mary prayed soundlessly. She strained her eyes for a glimpse of her husband.

There was no sign of Dan around the farm yard, but presently her searching gaze espied him, a solitary figure, hurrying j towards the distant wheat field that had been his pride and joy. Would he find that the wheat had been hit? Mary | asked herself.

A little later they saw him returning, and the dejection in his walk sent a chill I to the hearts of mother and daughter.

“Took all the wheat, mother,” he muttered brokenly as he came up to the j door, a limp, bent figure, all the fine j enthusiasm and pride wiped out of his I rugged face.

“Everything beaten down, broken, finished. All the little tender heads stripped, those fine strong stalks bruised and battered to the ground. We’ve lost it all!”

He came into the house and sank into a chair, burying his face in his hands.

Mary went over to him. She knelt be| side him, laying her soft cheek against his own.

“Never mind, dear,” she told him bravely. “Maybe the oats will be all right. Seems to me the storm missed ‘the flat’ altogether.”

“But the wheat meant everything to me,” Dan cried, and Mary felt the hot tears stinging her eyes at the sheer desolation in his voice. Poor old Dan! She knew that it wasn’t the financial loss that was worrying him, crushing him; it was iht' loss of his work, the wiping out, in less than fifteen minutes, of all his careful planning and endeavor of years.

They sat down, dazed and looked into each other’s faces. As she thought of this catastrophe to this man of hers, Mary forgot that, she was due to leave in less than an hour. Even now she should be gathering together her things . . .

Esther recalled her to the fact.

"Well, mother, dear, it’s no use crying over spilt milk.” She went over and put a gentle arm around her father’s shoulders. ''Ell stay and cheer Dad up while you get ready.”

"Get ready?” Mary echoed bewilderedly. Why, of course, she was going away. But, oh, she couldn’t leave Dan now, just at this moment when he sat, crushed and broken beneath the overwhelming blow of the loss of his prized crop. And yet, in the midst of her sympathetic anguish for him, how she longed to go! She had been looking forward to it for years. It had buoyed her up, spurred her on, encouraged her when she had felt depressed, the thought of that wonderful rest that was to come this summer.

She rose dazedly. Yes, it was time to be going.

"All right, Esther. I guess I’ll be getting ready.”

Mary crossed the room, and just then the phone bell rang with an insistent shrillness that startled them all.

“That’s our ring. Answer for me, Esther.”

Mary waited, her hand on the newel post at the foot of the stairs.

“Hello,” said the girl. And then eagerly, “Oh, is that you, Art? Did the hail touch our place?”

Her father and mother, watching her, saw her bright face cloud over, saw the tears misting her blue eyes.

“Oh, Art!" she cried. “Everything?”

She hung the receiver on its hook a moment later and came over to her mother, burying her face in the sheltering arms.

“Art says it took everything, mother, dear. He’s just been out to look at the fields and everything is gone. Oh, mother. It’ll put us right back to the beginning, and just when we were getting along so fine and everything looked so promising. Oh, what will we do?”

She burst into tears, and Mary attempted to soothe her, smoothing back the dark hair with gentle, understanding fingers.

“Never mind, dear. Be brave. You’re both young. Remember, there’s always next year, and many years ahead. The Good Book says, ‘While the earth remaineth, seed time and harvest . . . shall not cease.’ And it’s always so true, as you’ll find out when you’ve lived long enough. You’ve all the future, with all its promise, before you. Don’t be discouraged. Everything will come all right.”

MARY stood in the middle of the little kitchen. A tumult of thoughts surged through her mind as she glanced from one to the other of these people, her own folks, her own flesh and blood. There was Dan, her husband, sitting crushed and broken in his chair, stricken beneath the burden of an overwhelming disappointment; there was Esther, tears staining the brightness of her young cheek, fearful now of a future bereft of income for a whole year’s work; there was the still sleeping babe, the little grandson whose future was theirs to guard and cherish “Time to go, mother,” Dan said listlessly, lifting his face from his hands. “The storm’s all past and we’ve no time to lose now to make the train with the roads so wet and muddy. Come, dear.” “Go?” Mary echoed incredulously. “Why, of course I’m not going, Dan. How could I enjoy myself knowing that you and the children are worried and unhappy. Dan, I’m going to stay. We can get the money back on my ticket and the passage money too. WTe’ll need it all now. Art and Esther will need something to carry them through till they get on their feet again. Yes, my dears, my place is right here.”

She turned from them and walked across to the closet. She took the worn rubber apron from its accustomed hook with hands that did not falter. She slipped it over her head, adjusted the bands at the waist, smoothed its folds with tender fingers. Symbol to her of a lifetime of hard work, yes. But symbol, too, of her destiny, the source of her happiness . . .