THE SMOKING FLAX
ROBERT J. C. STEAD
A TREMENDOUS thought had gripped him, and
his ribs seemed tightening about his heart. He had not been too weak for sympathy, for forgiveness, to “the bruised reed”; could he deny the same sympathy and forgiveness to “the smoking flax”? The one had been slender, touching, appealing; the other vile, nauseous, disgusting; but they were linked together in this verse of tenderness which he and Reed had made peculiarly their own. After all, was this the way out? Was it?
The voice of Reed, playing with Jimmie Ernton, chimed over the lilac hedge that screened them from the farm buildings. Annie, more sweet, more companionable than he had ever known her, draped in the vague artistry of the gathering twilight, swung gently in her hammock, her toe stirring and re-stirring the scattered leaves at the lowest segment of her arc. The air was as still as though it had been glass cast in a mighty mould; overhead the sunset was splashing va-
grant whiffs of cloud with crimson and copper; already the colors of the east were fading into the drab death of another day. It was a time to be at peace with the world.
Cal looked at his watch; a quarter to nine. By leaving at once he could barely make the beach by the appointed hour. And he had no desire to leave at once. What of Jackson Stake? Smoking flax! Offensive, but surely not a factor in life. Let him go. There was another way out. A self-renouncement, a price to pay, but a way out. He would pay it. Even as he made the resolve he suddenly knew that he was sane again.
“Must you go?” she was asking. “I suppose it is nearly nine o’clock. Couldn’t you cancel it, Cal, for to-night?”
“I have cancelled it,” he said, with sudden decision . . . “How about Reed?”
“I think the boys are planning a camp fire to celebrate the closing of school. That is how they love me. Tell him you’re here; they’ll be glad to wait up until you go.”
“But your friends?”
“They may be late, I said . . .”
The light had gone out of the sky save for a faint curtain of lemon that still flushed the horizon north and west, and it was black darkness amid the maples when Cal at length sought Reed at the fire. Approaching quietly from the rear he paused to hear a version of one of his own stories—the story of the cloud and the shadow— as Reed regaled it into the appreciative ear of Jimmie Ernton. Time had ceased to be a factor in their young lives; they were well embarked on the shadowy sea of Romance, and even in the exultance of his new grip upon fundamentals Cal hesitated to interrupt.
“ . . . And then the strangest thing happened. When the cloud was gone the shadow was gone too; both of ’em gone together. Daddy X says that’s the way of it in life. It’s about jealousy, I think, whatever that is.”
“It’s very strange,” said Master Jim, stretching his sun-browned legs toward the fire . . .
/^VN THE way home Cal uncovered to Reed somewhat of his new resolve. “Things have happened,” he
said, “which make it necessary for us to leave Mr. Stake’s farm, and the Plainville district, at once. Are you game?”
“Sure—with you, and Antelope. Where are we going?” “I don’t know. Just going. And we’re to start right away; to-night.”
“But they’ll be in bed. Ain’t you—aren’t you—going to say good-bye?”
“No; we’re going out silently, like an army breaking camp and not letting the enemy know.”
“Are we in retreat, Daddy X?”
“No—advance. The greatest advance we have yet made.”
“All right. But I thought you’d want to say good-bye to Minnie . . .I’d like to say good-bye to Grandma.” “In war time we can’t always do those things, Reed.” “Yep. I know. But the knight always says good-bye to his lady, doesn’t he, Daddy X? And she gives him a token—”
“Not always, Reed. Well, here we are. Quietly, Antelope; mustn’t wajce the guard.”
“That means Trixie, I guess,” Reed suggested.
They were swinging up Beach Boulevard; the signboard, “Beech Bullevard speed limit 10 miles,” caught their headlights for a moment. In front of the granary they stopped and quickly loaded their few effects into the back of the car. Then, by the light of a lamp Mrs. Stake had supplied for his room, Cal made a hurried calculation, arriving at the amount of his wages which had been overpaid. He put the sum in bank notes in an envelope, addressed it to Jackson Stake, senior, and secured it under the lamp. •
“All ready, Reed,” he said, quietly. “Climb in.”
With all lights out, the buildings and familiar objects of the farmyard bulked vague and shadowy in the general gloom. The sighing of the cows in the corral; the shifting of a horse in the stables; these were the only sounds that stirred under the tranquil stars. In his mind, rather than by sight, Cal defined the regular order of the farmyard, so changed since his arrival there less than two months before, it had been his whim, his hobby. Well, he had left his mark. They had been exhibits—A,B,C. He had used them, mixed them, noted their reactions, until almost he had exploded the lot. They were exhibits—■ let it go at that.
He tried to tell himself that Minnie Stake had been an exhibit, but the lie would not down. It stuck in his throat,
swelling, choking him. Minnie . . . Minnie . . . That was the price. That the smoking flax might still smoke on, filling the air with its stench and its pollution. That was the price. Well he had resolved . . .
He started Antelope as quietly as her clattering motor would permit, and without lights, felt his way gently out of the yard and into the life that lies beyond renunciation.
THE week for Minnie Stake had been both long and short; long in its absence from Cal, short in the rare intoxication which sped the feet of every hour. Mr. Bradshaw had been apologetic for requiring her to work on Sunday. “Very sorry, Miss Stake,” he had said. “Quite unusual circumstances—”
“I wish you wouldn’t call me Miss Stake,” she protested. “Sounds too —too appropriate.”
“I’m sorry, Miss— Stake. But, really, it’s not my fault. If you don’t like your name—” He raised his shoulders expressively.
“I’ve been thinking of that,” she blurted out. She was happy enough to have told Old Brad the whole story. Or at least the essential parts. But she pulled herselftogether.
“Subsection D of Section Four of the same Chapter provides—” The keys of her typewriter clattered on under the ripple and dance of her wonderful fingers. Mr. Bradshaw himself declared, in romantic moments, that Minnie’s typewriter did not clatter; it sang, it hummed, it poured like tinkling water, it splashed like Niagara, it crashed like broadsides of rifle fire in answer to the moods of Minnie as she tripped her fantasies or banged upon it in double forte diapason.
To-day Mr. Bradshaw was too much engrossed with the business in hand to indulge any lengthy play of banter. He walked about his little office, dictating fragments of memoranda, and insistently lighting and relighting his pipe, which as insistently went out between matches. As Minnie’s fingers rippled over the keys and the white sheets flowed through her typewriter he blessed his stars for the one jewel above price in any office —a competent stenographer. At noon he had lunch sent up from No Sing’s; at mid-afternoon he had tea; at seven he had supper. The long Sunday was at an end and the light in the law office glowed brazenly and alone amid the dark windows of the block before the brief was completed and all the documents neatly filed in Mr. Bradshaw’s despatch bag.
“Thank you, Miss Stake,” he said, as he buckled the straps. “Don’t know what I should have done without you. You can have two days off or two days’ extra pay, whichever you prefer. There won’t be much doing until I’m back, anyway.”
AS MINNIE walked to her boarding house, too tired almost to sense the romance in the gathering dusk, she wondered whether she would take the two days’ leave or the extra pay. The leave would give her an opportunity to go back to the farm; evenings with Cal, and escape from the intolerable Mr. Tonnerfeldt, junior partner in the firm of Bradshaw & Tonnerfeldt, insufferable on account of his “freshness” toward her, and doubly insufferable in contrast with the genial and bantering Mr. Bradshaw. On the other hand was two days’ pay, and she found herself in the grip of a sudden and growing appreciation of the value of dollars. The
-economic side of the business of marrying was already beginning to intrude itself. Not that Cal had actually asked her, but their love was acknowledged; marriage must follow as a matter of course. They would need all their dollars, she and Cal . . .
In the shadow of Mrs. Goode’s boarding house she almost collided with Archie Hale turning from the door.
“Oh, it’s you, Minnie,” he said, when they recognized each other. “They told me you hadn’t come back from the farm.”
"I was at the office all day, Archie. Some special work for Mr. Bradshaw.”
“All day Sunday! The slave driver! I’ve a mind to have him up for breach of the Lord’s Day Act. Then he’d have a slippery client, wouldn’t he?”
“It couldn’t be helped, Archie,” she said, wearily. She was feeling out a line of defence. “But I’m about all in. I don’t think I can see you to-night.”
“A run in the car is just what you need; fresh air after being shut up all day in that dingy hole. Wonder old Bradshaw wouldn’t rent a decent office. But it will soon be over, Minnie. I’ve great news; just spoiling to tell it. Won’t you come?”
“I’d like to, Archie, but— Don’t you see, it isn’t quite fair?”
“How ‘quite fair?’ No, I don’t see it at all. Come along.”
He took her arm and they swung around in the deep twilight thrown by the screened veranda. “Come along!”
“No, I can’t,” she protested. “Archie, I don’t want to make it any harder than I must, but I can't go with you— any more.”
He dropped her arm. Even in the darkness she could see his face harden and whiten.
“Not any more? Why?”
“We’ve been good friends, Archie, and I’d like to keep on being good friends, but —I know what you want, and I can’t give it to you, ever . . . Please don’t misjudge me. I’ve told you as soon as I knew.”
He was silent, and she murmured again, “Please don’t misjudge me, Archie. I like you, awfully, really, but not that way. I didn’t know— the difference—myself, until just lately.”
His hand had sought the railing of the veranda, and when he spoke it was not with the voice of Archie Hale, but„of some one strange and far away.
“Is it Cal Beach?” he asked.
“Yes,” she whispered . . . “Oh, Archie, I’m so sorry.”
“I congratulate him,” she heard the strange voice say. Then it continued, “I just called to mention that I have been appointed manager of one of the Saskatchewan branches of our bank. I—I used to think you would be interested.”
He paused a moment, then turned quickly away, and before she realized what had happened he had passed through the gate and disappeared down the street. Sobered and on the verge of tears, she sought her room. She was genuinely sorry for Archie' and her sorrow was not eased by a sense that she had been rather less than fair to him. She had known that it was Cal Beach—that it must be Cal Beach—for ever so long, but she had used Archie to soothe her pride against the pangs of Cal’s suspected flirtations with Annie Frawdic. That hadn’t been quite fair, and she took herself sharply to task for it, but after y half an hour’s introspection she concluded that it couldn’t be helped, and it might have been much worse. Archie would presently forget her altogether, or think of her only as a pleasant incident, and marry some other girl better suited to be his wife. The idea was not so comforting as she had hoped to find it.
“At any rate I’ve got Cal—my Cal,” she breathed, and in rhe joy of her possession she fell asleep.
SHE was awakened by the June sun pouring through the eastern window of her little room. Her alarm clock still allowed her fifteen comfortable minutes, minutes which she nursed and clung to in blissful lazy, idealizing contemplation. With her bare, round arms outstretched, she linked her fingers until the light shone faintly pink in their delicate intersections; then she drew them down upon her eyes and lay dreaming in an ecstasy of tenderness. Cal—they were Cal’s hands that closed her eyes . .
. . . The pulse of young life beat strong within her, and the world was so good—so good! She forgave it all its buffetings; she forgave it Mrs. Goode’s boarding house; she forgave it the drudgery of the farm; with a smile she forgave it Annie Frawdic; she even almost forgave it the insufferable Mr. Tonnerfeldt.
As she dressed she studied herself in the one uncertain mirror her furniture afforded. She caught the round of her face, the curve of her arm, the gentle contours of her neck, the warm glint of her new-bronze hair, the grace of her firm, strong, supple body.
During the absence of Mr. IJradshaw she made the best
of the situation in the office, establishing a strictly business attitude toward Mr. Tonnerfeldt, and maintaining it in the face of his elaborate attentions. She wished she might have gone out to the farm for an evening, but there was no opportunity. A wild thought that she should ask Archie Hale to drive her darted into her mind, and, finding the changed conditions there, darted out again as suddenly.
WEDNESDAY evening Archie called again. He said he felt he had acted rudely the other night and he didn’t want her to think of him that way. She said she didn’t think of him that way—never had. It was she who had been rude; she had not congratulated him on his promotion, nor asked him anything about it. She was really very interested, she told him. Archie said of course he was glad, but it didn’t amount to much after all, now that the bottom had fallen out of everything. She assured him that it hadn’t really; he just felt that way, but he’d soon get over it and marry some much nicer girl— “Would you soon get over it,” he demanded, “if Cal Beach were to pass you up?”
She whitened at the thought, and felt ner ribs gripping about her heart.
“But Cal wouldn’t—he wouldn’t do that,” she whispered. “Oh, Archie, I’m sorry.” . . . Wnen he left she would have paid him the tribute of a final kiss, but he exacted no such honor.
It was Saturday when Gander, dusty and flurried, burst into the office. Minnie was taking dictation from Mr. Bradshaw when, raising her eyes, she saw Gander in the door.
“Why, Gander, what’s wrong?” she cried, disregarding the voice engaged in threatening suit unless this long over-due account, in connection with which our client— “Maybe nothin’,” said Gander, with a sheepish laugh to cover his agitation. “Maybe a good deal. Can I talk to you a minute, Minn?”
“Take your brother into my private office, Miss Stake,” Mr. Bradshaw suggested. “This can wait.”
She led Gander into the little box which Mr. Bradshaw designated his private office. Closing the door she turned to her brother, a sudden, undefined fear trembling
through her limbs. “What is it, Gander? What’s wrong?” “Where’s Cal?”
“I don’t know. Where is he? Has anything happened?” Her hand was on the knob of the door. She was trembling, so she steadied herself against it.
“Somethin’s happened, sure enough, but not jus’ what I figgered. You ain’t seen Cal?”
“Not since Saturday—Sunday morning, when I left the farm. Gander, tell me!”
“Well, he’s gone. Him an’ Reed an’ their old boat of a car. Las’ night, sometime. Didn’t know, none of us, till
the morning. When he didn’ turn out to tend his horses I thought maybe he was sick, so I went over to the granary. It was skinned out—everythin’ gone. Old car gone; hadn’t missed it ’till then.”
With contracting heart the girl listened to her brother’s words. At first the sense of them numbed her, as the shock of a wound momentarily paralyzes the feeling of pain, but as Gander’s recital continued a consciousness of what it meant began to burn home upon her. She waited a moment to speak, gripping herself.
“Oh, Gander, it can’t be! Surely—he must have gone only on some little trip; he’ll be back by night; perhaps he’s back now. He wouldn’t go—he couldn’t go altogether—without leaving a word!”
“I reckon he’s gone,” said Gander, doggedly. “He’d made a bit of a table— You was never in his room, Minnie?”
“Well, he’d built a little table, nailed to the wall, an’ o’ course it was still there, an’ a lamp on it Mother had lent him. Well, under the lamp was an envelope. It was sealed an’ addressed to Dad, an’ I figgered here was news.”
“Yes—what did it say?’
“Nothin’—not a word. Jus’ some money in it. Seems Dad had overpaid him on wages, an’ he left the diff’rence. Straight, so far as that goes. But it shows he don’ figger on cornin’ back.'
SHE let herself down into a chair and sat staring at the rows of books across the room. There was a vacancy in one of the rows; a book which Mr. Bradshaw had taken to Winnipeg. She wondered if he had forgotten to bring it back—
“I reckon this hits you pretty hard,” said Gander, with a clumsy attempt at being sympathetic, and she was back among realities.
“Pretty hard, Gander,” she murmured. “Pretty hard . . . There’s a reason—I know that. I’ll never believe anything else until I know the reason.”
“I always liked Cal,” Gander conceded. “He was a queer guy, but decent, an’ I reckoned how the land was beginnin’ to lie between you an’ him. That was why I didn’ phone you. Might be all jus’ a mistake, an’ the less said the better.”
“Oh, I’m sure it is—it must be—a mistake.”
“Besides, I didn’ know—I was a bit afraid, Minn, that you an’ him had run off together. I’m sorry, Minn, but that’s what I thought—”
“An’ I didn’ want nothin’ ¿aid about it if it could be helped. We’ve always been decent, Minn, an’ I didn’t want nothin’—”
“I understand, Gander.” Her voice was suddenly calm. “We’re decent still. The family honor has not been compromised.”
Came a tap on the door. “Miss Stake wanted on the telephone,” said Mr. Bradshaw.
“That will be news,” she whispered to Gander as she hurried to her desk
It was Jackson. Was Gander there? Yes. Any news? Not yet. Well, here was news. Annie Frolic had disappeared, too.
“What! I don’t believe—”
“Yes. Last night, through the night. Went away in an auto—”
“I don’t believe—”
“Told Ernton’s she was staying up for friends who were to call with an auto. An’ Cal was there last night, sitting with her in a hammock, after dark—”
“I don’t believe—”
She could hear the lifting of receivers on the party line; she could almost hear the salacious lip-licking of the delighted eaves-droppers. The world spun; the telephone swam away into distance, then smashed against her head. “I don’t believe—”
“Water!” shouted Mr. Bradshaw. “Water! Damn it, Tonnerfeldt, can’t you see the girl’s fainted?”
CAL and Reed, feeling their way in the darkness, wound through the poplar bluffs that sheltered the Stake homestead from the winter nor’westers. Once out of possible sight from the house Cal switched on his lights, and they quickened their speed. On to the main road, down the valley hills and across the bridge, they took their course along the route over which they had come that bright May morning so many eons ago.
“Are we going back to the city, Daddy X?” said Reed. He had drawn a blanket up about him, as though the summer night were cold, and his teeth chattered with an uncanny nervousness. Something about Daddy X was so strange; so—so terrible.
“No, we’re not going back to the city; not at present. Farther west.”
Sure enough, at the forks at the foot of the nill Cal took the turn to the west. There was a bad culvert, and the car lurched dangerously over it.
All right, Antelope, old girl. All right—all right. Don’t fail us now; we need you now, more than we ever did. Steady! That’s better. Now for the hill.”
Muffled in his blanket, the sound of Cal’s voice came to Reed in a reassuring drone. He watched the green grass flowing by the car; the occasional stone, white for a moment in the wavering headlight, then suddenly gulped into blackness; the big, steady, friendly stars overhead. He heard the rumbling of the motor, the patter of the exhaust, the soft sluff of the wheels in the black earth of the road. Presently all sounds seemed to join in a sort of lullaby; farther west . . . farther west . . . farther west
When he awoke they were stopped by a stream, and Cal was bending over a fragment of fire, tending something with a very appetizing smell. The boy stretched his cramped limbs and came down, investigating.
“Wild duck for breakfast, Reed, old scout,” said Cal, in a voice that resolutely strove for cheerfulness. “We’ll have to take it straight—not even salt. That’s what comes of hitting the trail in such a hurry.”
Cal had shot a drake in the early morning—no difficult feat, as the feathered folk were tame in the fancied security of the law. Splitting the little body in two he had broiled it over a fire. One half of it he now tendered to Reed. The boy ate it eagerly, leaving nothing but the bones.
“Are we staying here, Daddy X?” he asked.
“No. We have still a long way to go.”
They pushed on at once and traveled all that day. Several times the cupolas of grain elevators in the prairie towns loomed on the horizon, and Reed expected they would take the main road in that direction, but always Cal swung off, following some side trail, and avoiding the principal arteries of travel. He was able to obtain gasoline and food from a farmer, and so he pressed on until darkness was again upon them. Then they found a stream and camped beside it.
“Better go to bed, Reed,” said Cal. “You must be tired. I want to smoke—and to think.”
But Reed hesitated.
“Anything wrong, old man?” Cal enquired “No, Daddy X. But—couldn’t we have a bed-time story, to-night?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know a bed-time story to-night. I want to think.”
“You’ve been thinking all day. You’ve hardly spoken
TPHE little voice went lumpy with loneliness, and the A brave little lips had a strange tremble to them. Cal extended his arms and the boy nestled to his breast . . .
By the third day of their travel Cal judged that they were far enough from Plainville to escape comment. Of pursuit he had no fear, but he wanted to bury himself in a new community. They were now well across the border into Saskatchewan, still avoiding the towns and the principal roads, and making their way along the back trails that linked the various settlements together.
“Have to go to work again pretty soon,” he confessed. “The treasury is getting low.”
“So is the tank,” said Reed, as the motor gave a warning sputter. “Let us make for that shack.”
They were on the brow of a hill, and in the valley below lay a settler’s shack, with fields of wheat and oats stretching down to a stream that glistened white in the distance. By dint of gravity and much persuasion Cal was able to coax Antelope almost to the shanty door.
The door stood open, but there was no sign of anyone about.
“Well, let’s explore,” said Cal, and, going inside, they found a single room, about twelve by fourteen feet in size, framed with bare two-by-four studding and covered by a low shingled roof. A rusty stove, a table, a chair, a packing-box cupboard nailed against the wall, a trunk, a gramophone, a homemade bed dishevelled in one corner— these were the items of furniture. As it was nearing noon they made themselves at home, digging early potatoes jn the little garden behind the shack, discovering bacon and butter in the pail hanging down the well, starting a fire in the rusty stove. In a few minutes a pleasant sizzle was coming from the frying pan and an appetizing odor filled the room.
“Won’t he mind?” Reed asked with some misgivings as Cal explored the cupboard for dishes and further resources in food.
“Not likely. Hospitality with a Westerner is not a social function; it has to do with the'heart; he really means it. So you see you’re as welcome to a meal in his house in his absence as in his presence. You may not understand all that—”
“Of course, he does,” said a hearty voice, and a man of about Cal’s age stood framed in the door. “Welcome? I should say so! And the meal cooked to the bargain! How’s the foraging?”
“Not so bad for a new cook,” Cal answered. “Potatoes, bacon, bread and butter, and a pail of jam. I was figuring on setting for three.”
“Three is right,” said the farmer, including Reed in his glance. “If you can find enough dishes. If not, we can
eat in relays. I’ll be in as soon as 1 unhitch. Saw the smoke and wondered what was doing.”
HE DISAPPEARED as suddenly as he had come, but a few minutes later they heard him splashing in the basin at the front of the shack. Cal had supplemented the farmer’s dishes from the camp equipment carried in the old Ford, and had set for three. He had moved the table over beside the trunk, that Reed might use it for a chair, and had found a box on which he himself could sit, and when the settler came in from his ablutions the meal was ready.
“This is something like it,” said the farmer, surveying the arrangements with approval. “Beastly business getting one’s own meals. My name’s Mason—Fred Mason—and I’m the owner of this here country estate except for certain prior claims by the original vendors and the holders of the second mortgage. Yours?”
Cal introduced Reed and himself.
“I see an Ontario license plate on that old dust-hound of yours,” Mr. Mason resumed. “Going far?”
“Not much farther,” said Cal. “We’re short of two essentials—cash and gasoline.”
“That makes the going a bit heavy,” the farmer reflected over a well-heaped fork of potatoes and bacon. “What do you do when you’re at home?”
“Been farming all summer.”
Suddenly a thought struck Mr. Mason so hard the fork dropped from his upraised hand.
“Say, maybe you’re just the fellow I’m looking for!” he exclaimed. “I’ve word to go home. Old folks not so young as they used to be and a bit under the weather, but I’m tied up here with the stock. I’d be back by harvest, and if you could just stick around and maybe finish the ploughing an’d put up a bit of hay—”
They were not long in striking a bargain, and it was typical of Mr. Mason that remuneration was the last thing he discussed. Indeed, he seemed to have overlooked that detail altogether.
Cal brought it up. “What are you paying?” he inquired.
“Oh, I dunno. What’s she worth?”
“I was getting forty at my last place.”
“Pretty good. But I dunno. Tell you what, I’m not very flush with cash, especially if I go East, but I can fix you up a credit at the store for anything you need, and if you stay on until the crop is threshed I’ll make it right with you.”
They shook hands on that, and Mason, elated with the sudden prospect of a visit back home, promptly rolled all the responsibilities of the farm into Cal’s lap, as it were. He enumerated the horses, the “horned stock,” the pigs and the hens; explained about the ploughing and the hay; cautioned Cal about fire, and to boil the water, as the well was fed by surface drainage and there had been fever going around. After despatching Cal on horseback to the nearest neighbor, Peterson, a Swede, to borrow a gallon of gasoline, and detailing Reed to wash the dishes, now the centre of a busy colony of flies, Mason engaged in an earnest but unsuccessful search for a clean shirt in which to travel.
“Never mind, we’ll buy a new shirt in town,” he announced to the boy, cheerily, when the forlorn hope in the bottom of his trunk revealed a body with both arms missing. “I remember now. I cut those off last fall to line the sleeves of my smock when the weather got cold. But there’s more at the store, which is only twelve miles away, and I’ll bet that old go-humper of yours can make it in about a week.”
“Humph!” Reed exploded. “You should see Antelope go when she gets her wind up. I bet we travelled a million miles coming here.”
“Well, it was worth it,” Mr. Mason remarked, with a quizzical grin. “To me, anyway. Haven’t had a boy on this place since it was born. We’ll sample the ice cream cones in Wheatview to-night, eh, old scout?”
Reed was beginning to like this acquaintance. “That is what Daddy X sometimes calls me,” he said.
“Daddy X? That’s a funny one. Who is he? Your dad?” “No; just my Daddy X. My real father was killed in the war.”
The big, wind-tanned face of the farmer softened, and his voice dropped to a still friendlier note. “Sorry, old chap,” he said, combing his fingers through Reed’s hair. “I lost a brother over there, too, so we can be sort of pals,
That night they drove to Wheatview together. Wheatview turned out to be as like Plainville as one pea to another, except newer and barer. In an ice cream “emporium” Mason filled Reed to the danger point with all sorts of concoctions, bought cigars for himself and Cal, and gave final instructions concerning the management of the farm.
They saw their new employer off on the night train, discovered Antelope among a swarm of her younger relatives, and retraced their way to the Mason farm. The course lay south-easterly; behind them glowed the lingering luminosity of the midsummer night; overhead were clear, friendly stars. In the air was the scent of prairie roses mingled with the first faint perfumes of the early
wheat. Now and again the headlights of an approaching automobile blazed along their paths; now and again the shadow of a farm steading, wrapped in slumber, loomed up sudden and vague through the gathering darkness. Presently Reed, from much feasting, fell asleep, and Cal was left alone with his thoughts.
“I did the only thing I could,” he confided to Antelope. “I know now that for days I was sheer, stark mad. 1 know now—I have occasion to know—how easily one can get on the wrong track. If it hadn’t been for Annie Frawdic—I suppose our jails are full of people not much worse—not any worse—than I. I must write an article on that when I get settled down—when I get settled down.”
TTE ENDED in a bitter laugh. For an instant a vision of a simple cabin by the shore of a lake, with a typewriter under the trees and Minnie Stake singing from somewhere in the house, framed itself like a picture in the eye of his imagination; the next, it was gone, and the black road rolled up incessantly under the rumbling wheels. This was the price; the dethroning of that vision, casting it down and out even from the inmost chambers of his dreams; this was the price he had bargained with himself to pay that the sleeping boy at his side might grow up unashamed. Yet to Minnie his thoughts would turn as steel to an irresistible magnet. He wondered how she had received the news of his flight, and what interpretation she had put upon it. He wondered how long it would be until she would find solace in the attentions of Archie Hale. He loved Minnie Stake, but he had, or thought he had, no illusions about her. Minnie was a practical girl. She would take her blow standing, smother her grief and her furious wonder within herself, and make the best of the situation. Just as he was doing.
LIFE on the Mason farm moved along pleasantly ' enough. It was very different from Jackson Stake’s: here Cal and Reed seemed alone in the world. From their shack in the valley no other habitation could be seen; even the rambling buildings of Peterson, their nearest neighbor, were cut from view by a shoulder of the hills. Now and again a settler’s wagon creaked its slow course along the trail that led to Wheatview; occasionally an automobile sped by, trailing a cloud of dust; but neither settler nor motorist gave more than a glance to the Mason shack, nor so much as a thought to its occupants. The nearest telephone was miles away, and the nearest school still farther. %
It was twelve miles to Wheatview, but the railway passed not far from the Mason farm, and Reed soon discovered that by climbing the bank of the valley he could command a view of the frieght trains, crawling like gigantic serpents, until they faded out of view in the heathaze of the plains. Many of the freight trains stopped at a siding and a water tank about four miles away, and from his point of observation, the boy began to pick up an acquaintance with them. He soon learned, too, the hours at which passenger trains might be expected, and as he watched them rushing by, trailing behind their pennant of steam and smoke, he felt that his was a very interesting world indeed. Some day he would be an engineer, and one of those monsters would answer to his hand!
The absence of all other companionship threw Cal and Reed more closely together than ever. Cal put the boy to useful work, trapping gophers in the fields; washing dishes, sweeping, and cleaning in the house; helping with the feeding of horses and the care of live stock and poultry. Reed contributed with his own fork in the hay field, hoisting little tufts of the new-mown grass on to the waiting wagon, and even drove a dubious sorrel on the hay rake for short periods under Cal’s attentive eye. They had found a pond where the water was suitable for swimming, and in the evenings of the hot summer days they would splash together in its liquid freshness. Already Cal was beginning to put into effect his orderly practices, tidying the yard and buildings, ranging the machinery in regimental array, mowing the long weeds that grew behind the barn. Had there been any one to note, he might have seen a soul had moved into the body of the Mason farm.
With all these occupations Cal sought to keep his mind engaged, tried to maintain the high spirit of his selfabnegation. But there were times when his philosophies deserted him, and in their desertion stripped away the veil of his artificial composure, revealing to him how utterly dejected and miserable he was. It was when alone in the fields, away from the presence of the boy, that he felt his load most unbearable. With Reed at hand the stake seemed worth the price, but with Reed away his mind would revert to that dream of a bungalow down by the lake. Then would come a tremendous desire to write to Minnie Stake—to re-open the wound which was so sorely healing. For these reasons he encouraged Reed to believe that his help in the fields was essential, called him his hired man, and clung to his company as the one thing left in life.
THERE were times, however, when the boy seemed listless and dull; there were days when even the prospect of driving the sorrel mare on the hay rake failed to stir his enthusiasm.
“What’s the matter, old man?” Cal would ask, with a concern he tried to hide, on such occasions. “Are you lonely for some one to play with?”
“I don’t know. I guess so.”
“Well, we must find you some one. I wish we had a dog.”
“I wish we had Trixie and Big Jim.”
“So do I.”
“And Grandma and Jimmie Ernton and Minnie.”
“So do I . . .”
So things went on until a particularly hot afternoon in mid-July. Reed was more moodish than usual, and at length Cal sent him to the house, directing him to stay quietly in the shade until it was time to prepare supper. “You might make supper a little early,” he added, with a sudden happy thought, “and we’ll drive to town to-night and see a picture show.”
Reed’s eyes lighted momentarily, and he trudged off toward the shack. But when Cal followed at five he found no preparations for supper. Reed was lying on the bed in the corner of the little room.
“Why, what’s the matter, old scout? No supper tonight?”
“I don’t feel very well,” the boy answered, beginning to cry. “I’ve got a headache, and I’m dizzy, and I don’t feel very well.”
Cal felt his heart suddenly gripped in a strange and stifling clutch. Reed had always been so well . . . Sick, under these conditions . . . If he should lose everything now!
He moved anxiously to the side of the bed and placed his hand on the child’s forehead. It was hot and dry. The pulse was rapid, the breathing quick and catchy. He raised him slightly in his arms.
“Any pains anywhere?”
“No, but I have a headache, and—
I—don’t feel—very well.”
The voice trailed off listlessly while Cal’s mind went plunging through strange crannies of memory for all he knew about treatment of fever.
The first thing was to call a doctor.
It was four miles to a telephone. He could be back in half an hour.
“Can you stick it out alone for half an hour, Reed, while I go to call a doctor? We’ll get a doctor and have you fixed up in no time.”
The boy’s eyes, unnaturally bright, were fixed on the bare rafters of the roof, and he seemed to be swallowing at something in his throat. It was a minute before he answered. “All right, Daddy X,” he breathed. “But don’t—be—long.”
Cal rushed to his car, chased by something nearer panic than he had known since childhood. If only there were a woman; Minnie, Mrs. Stake,
Annie Frawdic—any woman! He cranked viciously but got no answering chuck. He straightened up, wiped his forehead—to discover that he was perspiring profusely—and cranked again. No response. Horseback, then, and he rushed toward the stable. On his way a thought overtook him and he rushed back to the car. Sure enough, he had forgotten to put on the switch. He set it. cranked again, and Ante, well primed, started off with a roar.
THE incident steadied him. “No use losing your head, Cal, boy,” he soothed himself. “You need it now more than ever. Reed will be all right. But if he shouldn’t—”
The thought added another notch to his throttle, although he was already tearing wildly through the valley. If he should throw a tire; if he should break a steering arm—
A tremendous bump in a fresh badger hole cautioned him, and he reduced his speed. It was only four miles to Dempman’s, and the difference between a break-neck pace and a reasonable gait could not be vital. Dempman, too, was a bachelor—worse luck. There was no woman to whom he could turn.
He found Dempman’s shack empty, and no one in sight, but the door was not locked. He hurried in, located the telephone, lifted the receiver, thrust it to his ear.
Dr. Thompson’s wife answered, as the doctor himself was out of town. She couldn’t say when he’d be back.
Yes, he would come out a' soon as he returned. Yes, he knew the place . . . Probably typhoid. No solid food, and if he becomes delirious keep down the temperature by bathing, but be careful not tc íet him take a chill. Yes, Dr. Thompson will come at once as soon as he returns. No, there is no other doctor in Wheatview. No, I’m afraid it’s not possible to get a nurse; there are so many demands—
With this Cal had to be satisfied, and he turned the situation over in his mind as he hurried back to Reed. It might be hours—many hours— before the doctor could come. It might be morning His helplessness pressed home upon him; he wanted tremendousely someone upon whom he could lean in this moment of trial. This was the unexpected, the bolt out of the blue sky—
He found Reed apparently asleep, and he stoD qently to the bed. But a consciousness of his presence seemed to seize the lad; he stirred, and muttered something which Cal’s ear did not catch.
“It’s I, Reed, old boy; it’s Daddy X.”
“Daddy X? Where’s Trixie?”
Cal was about to explain when he remembered having read somewhere that the wandering delusions of a patient in fever delirium should be humored rather than explained or contradicted.
“Trixie’s outside, playing somewhere. With Big Jim, I guess.”
The low sun poured through the western window and its yellow rays lit up the bed. They fell across the flushed face of the child; they limmed the faint smile on his lips as he heard the assurance that Trixie was playing with Big Jim. They stirred to life the atoms of dust in their amber wedge and blazed upon the water pail in the corner of the room.
Cal brought him water, and he drank greedily, sinking back from the upraised dipper as though into a stupor of sleep.
“Where’s Grandma?” he suddenly demanded. “I want Grandma.”
“I think Grandma is washing the dishes, Reed. You know she had such a large family.”
“I want Grandma.”
“Perhaps she’ll come pretty soon.”
The boy began to sob. “I want Grandma—now.”
“All right; I’ll see if I can get her.”
Cal turned toward the stove, and, remembering suddenly the advice from the doctor’s wife, started a fire to heat water for a bath. Reed had again fallen into quietness, as though awaiting the arrival of Mrs. Stake. Cal dipped a towel in cold water, and, bringing it with him, laid it across the child’s forehead. As it happened, it covered his eyes.
“Is that you, Grandma?”
In that moment came an idea to Cal, and, with simulated voice, he answered, “Yes, dear. Are you feeling better?”
“Grandma!” he cried. “Hold me in your arms!”
A vision from somewhere in memory burst upon Cal— the scene which he had once witnessed through the window of the “room” in Jackson Stake’s house. There, under the cheap crayon portraits of her ancestors, the old woman sat with this boy in her arms, her eyes closed, her hungry soul rambling with its unknown offspring through the Elysian fields. There, surely, by the light that never was on land or sea, these two had seen, and had known . . .
Cal wrapped a blanket about the boy, and, still keeping his eyes covered, raised him from the bed. The little head fell back against his shoulder, content.
“Sing to me, Grandma,” he murmured. Then, suddenly jerking himself into an upright position, “You’re not Grandma! You’re Daddy X!”
“Yes, I’m Daddy X. Grandma, I’m afraid, is too far away to come at present.”
“She can’t be far away,” Reed answered, slowly, as though groping about in his mind for some illusive fact. “I saw her a minute ago.”
The words sent a strange shiver up and down Cal’s back. Was this—?
The kettle began to sing on the stove, and he sought refuge in action. Returning Reed to the bed he drew his fingers about the little body and realized how irritating the coarse blankets must be to the dry, burning skin. But he had no linen or cotton sheets; not even a tablecloth. Thoughts of a table-cloth suggested another substitute, and he went plundering in the battered suitcase which housed his personal effects. Presently he emerged with an unsoiled shirt of his own which he spread on the bed as a miniature sheet. Then, with hot water and a cloth—he tore a shirt sleeve loose for the purpose—he gently bathed the boy, being careful to expose only a small portion of the body at a time. The operation appeared to bring relief, for Reed lay more quietly, and for short periods seemed to fall into a sort of stupor of sleep.
So he bathed and caressed, with hot water on the body and cold water on the head, until the heat of the fever seemed somewhat abated and the skin grew moist to the touch. So he sat and tended his patient as the sunlight died in his western window; as the glow of the evening sky faded from yellow to mauve to purple; as the golden band on the horizon dimmed to steel gray under the enveloping curtains of the night. So he sat as the lingering breezes of the gloaming stole along the silent valley and whispered about the eaves and gables of the roof. So he sat. paying once more the over-paid but never satisfied price of parenthood, as the night settled down upon the endless plains and the cold stars one by one, lighted their beacons overhead.
It was thus that Doctor Thompson found him, just as the hands of the little clock on the wall were pointed to twelve.
QUICKLY but systematically the doctor made his examinations, while Cal, seized once more with a sense of his own impotence, stood helplessly by. A yellow pallor from the single smudgy lamp hung about the bed, and against its feeble rays the doctor’s robust form flung its huge silhouette on the wall. Cal stood in silence, in the hope and fear of one held on the edge of abysmal things.
“He’s running quite a temperature,” said Doctor Thompson at length. “Almost a hundred and four. Too
bad we couldn’t have him in a hospital, but he can’t be moved at present. He’s been miserable for awhile?”
“Well, he hasn’t seemed quite himself,” said Cal, glad for the relief which he found in even the most casual words. “Didn’t seem to have any spirit—” “Exactly. I’m afraid we have a case of typhoid on our hands, and it’s rather awkward dealing with it out here. Always been a healthy boy?”
“Oh, quite . . . Doctor, is he very sick?” The words came at last with a rush, and the doctor, for the first time since he entered the room, looked keenly into the anxious face in the semi-gloom beside him.
“Your boy?” he asked, evading an immediate answer.
“Well, yes. My sister’s. I have had him since he was a baby.”
“Ah! His mother is not living, then? That is unfortunate. When a child is sick he needs his mother.”
“Is he very sick, Doctor?”
“Yes, I would say he is. A typhoid patient is always sick—very sick. Still, the percentage of mortality is not so very high, where proper care is given. To be quite frank with you, that is what worries me most. If we could have a nurse— Unfortunately, the supply just now is much less than the demand. Typhoid is a disease for the nurse rather than for the doctor.”
“Couldn’t we get one from Winnipeg?” “It’s doubtful. You understand,” and the doctor hesitated as though to choose words that would not give offence, “this is hardly a Grade A position. A nurse wouldn’t thank me for bringing her out here when there are so many other calls.” Cal’s eyes followed the doctor’s unconscious glance around the small and sordid room, and he understood all that had been left unsaid.
“What can I do?” he exclaimed, desperately. “I will do anything—anything. Surely someone will help. Surely there is someone with heart enough—”
“It’s not lack of heart,” said the doctor, gently. “It’s lack of experience—lack of experienced help. Look at me,” and he suddenly stood up before him. He was a big man in the prime of life, but there were marks of pain and weariness about his eyes. “I haven’t had my clothes off for four nights. Yet I would take him to town to my own house, if I dared move him. I can’t send my wife; she’s indispensable there, and I’ve no one else to send.” Suddenly he was again looking keenly at Cal. “You’re not Mason, are you?” “Oh, no. Mr. Mason is in the East. I’m carrying on for him for a few weeks. My name is Beach—Calvin Beach. And I’m sorry for what I said—about there being no heart, you understand?”
The doctor laid a hand on his arm. “That’s all right, Beach, old man,” he said. “I’ve a couple of kiddies of my own, and I know what this means to you. But I begin to see hope. You’re a man of education, or I’m mistaken?”
“I’m a university man.”
“Good! You’ll have to take hold. You will have learned the value of exactness, and will be able to follow my Instructions. You can carry on for a day or two. I’ll send out bedding; sheets, you know, and everything of that kind, and you will have to be nurse, until we can get help. We must have a woman—not necessarily a nurse, but a woman of sense and intelligence as soon as possible. Is there no relative—no friend of the family to whom you can appeal? In the meantime you can carry on.”
The last words fell on Cal’s ears unheard. His mind was away, away on a wild mission of hope. It was wild, he knew, but there was a hope in it, a gleam of hope.
“Paper!” he demanded. “Your prescription pad! Let me write a telegram!” The doctor extended a pad and Cal scrawled on it:
“Mrs. Jackson Stake, Plainville, Man. Reed is very sick and I cannot get a nurse. We are alone on a homestead, twelve miles from Wheatview. Will you come? Typhoid fever. I can explain everything. Do it for Reed—if not for me. Will you come? His life is at stake.
“Send that for me as soon as you get to town. It is my only hope.”
BUT the doctor returned the slip to his hand. “Suppose you take it to town yourself. I’ll stay with the boy until you
return. Besides, I may be able to steal an hour’s sleep. I saw your car in the yard, or you can take mine if it’s out of order.”
Cal seized the doctor’s hand in a quick grasp of gratitude, and a minute later he was cranking Antelope.
Minnie Stake was taking dictation from Mr. Tonnerfeldt on the absorbing topic of a chattel mortgage on four cows described as follows, that is to say: Betsy, aged seven years, brown, white patch on ribs; Rosey, five year—-when the ring of the telephone bell interrupted the machinery of the law.
“Damn a telephone,” said Mr. Tonnerfeldt, who was enjoying his usual bad humor. “The most impertinent of all inventions. Butts right in and ditches your train of thought. Who is it, Miss Stake?”
“It seems to be for me,” she answered. “Yes, this is Miss Stake. A telegram? Yes, I’ll take it. Go ahead.”
The girl began making characters in shorthand, when suddenly even Mr. Tonnerfeldt, absorbed though he was in the damage which had been done to the process of the law in the case of the four cows aforesaid, took note of her agitation. Her face had gone suddenly colorless; her hands trembled; the receiver threatened to fall from her grasp.
“What’s the matter, Miss Stake? Nothing wrong at home, I hope?” was the concerned inquiry of Mr. Tonnerfeldt, who, contrary to Minnie’s fixed belief, had a heart tucked away somewhere in the recesses of his much detested person. But Minnie could not answer. She was gazing through infinities of time and space at certain twisted little characters on the paper before her and realizing with a woman’s intuition that she had come to the great moment of her life. For, among a sea of minor confusions, one great thought had swept over her like a tidal wave. The message was for her mother, that was clear enough, but—why not substitute? The telegraph operator, for the sake of convenience, and perhaps because of a certain romantic flavor about the sudden disappearance of Cal Beach and the salacious village gossip that had coupled it alternately with the names of Annie Frawdic and Minnie Stake, had telephoned the message to her. He would not telephone it to the farm, he would probably not even trouble to mail it; she could avoid any risk on that score by calling for it at the office. Then it would in in her hands. And if she were to substitute for her mother, who was to know? And who had a right to care?
Here was the opportunity to clear up the mystery. She did not propose to run after Cal Beach; indeed, it was a question whether she ever could forgive the outrageous treatment she had received at his hands; but she proposed to get at the facts. In any action that was the first step; get the facts. That he had gone with Annie Frawdic she had never really believed.
Slowly, out from the mist, came one clean, triumphant fact. It was not for himself he was appealing. It was for Reed. As she read the notes again she knew that Cal Beach—the Cal Beach she had known, could never write that telegram on his own behalf. Not though he stood at the gates of death. There was humiliation for you. Suddenly she saw it clear as daylight. What was her humiliation to this? Nothing but love— his love for Reed—could have wrung that appeal from his heart.
“I’m going home!” she said, springing from her seat. “I’ll have to be away for— for some time. I hope you’ll manage. It’s very important. Will you call a car for me, please, Mr. Tonnerfeldt? I want a car to go'home.”
On the road, as they tore through long lanes of summering wheat, she turned the situation over and over in her mind.
She had settled her course and regained her composure by the time the car drew up at the weather-beaten house which she still called home. Her mother unbended from the mixing-board, her hands heavy with dough, as Minnie’s shadow fell in at the door.
“Well, for the soul or sake o’ me, Minnie, are you sick? What a start you give me. You look plumb— You ain’t lost your job, Minnie?”
“No—nothing as bad as that. Where’s Dad? I’m going away for awhile, and I might as well tell you both at once.”
“Coin’ away? My land! He’s out—oh, here he comes, him an’ Jackie. What’s it all about?”
“I want to tell you all at once,” said Minnie, addressing her father and brother, “and so save words—and time. I have a telegram from Cal; he’s at Wheatview, Saskatchewan, and Reed is dangerously sick. He can’t get a nurse, and he wants me to go out—and I’m going.”
For a moment the old farmer stood stock still under the impact of this news and declaration. Then, with one great hand he scuffled his thin hair as though to promote cerebral activity.
“Well, I’ll be —■. Cal Beach, did you say? Wheatview, did you say? Well, I’ll —.”
MRS. STAKE had dropped into a chair, heedless of the dough that settled in her lap. “Reed—Reed sick— Reed sick,” she repeated to herself, as one who would placate a thought too terrible to be accepted. “It’s me he needs. If only the work wasn’t so everlastin’. Reed sick! The little boy—the poor little boy.” She rocked back and forth in a paroxysm of anxiety and sympathy.
“I think we’ve all had enough of this Beach fellow,” said young Jackson. “You know what everybody’s saying about Minnie. You know—
“What are they saying about me?” demanded the girl, hotly. “What are they saying, and what do I care what they say? Out with it!”
“Well, if you must know, they’re saying that Stake’s hired man got out when the gettin’ was good. Nice stuff, that, to hear whenever a fellow goes to Plainville.”
“Oh—you—you—you—■” Under the insult Minnie’s face, which had been flushed, went white; her eyes no longer flashed, but contracted into a cold, murderous glow. No longer was she a docile Stake, but a furious daughter of her mother’s dark blood. On the table lay a knife; long, thin, well-ground for the kitchen services. Her hand found it; closed on it; slowly, with the stalking step of a tigress, she moved toward her brother. But her father, suddenly the masterful man that he sometimes was, threw himself upon her.
“You’re crazy, Minnie; you’re crazy! There, girl, be still. Shut up, Jackson! You ought to be whipped like a dog! There now, girl, be still. Be still, Minnie. That’s it, Minnie, be still. You’re goin’ to Cal if you want to, an’ if anybody wants to talk he can settle with me,” and he turned defiantly to his son. “You understand, if anybody wants to talk about Minnie he can settle with me. I don’ believe anything wrong about neither Minnie nor Cal, an’ if anybody else believes it they can settle with me.”
“Of course, I don’t believe it either,” said Jackson, adroitly shifting ground. “And Minnie needn’t try to take it out on me. I just said what people are sayin’, which ain’t very nice, you’ll admit.”
He was thinking fast, realizing that he had made a serious blunder. The success with which Cal had given him the slip, and the completeness with which he had disappeared had left him baffled and beaten. It was not entirely that he had expected to blackmail his victim out of money; it was the cleverness with which he had been outwitted that rankled within him. It had been a duel between them; a duel with no seconds, no referee, no witnesses, and first blood had gone to his adversary. Now, through a whim of fate, the weapons were in his hands again, and he had been fool enough to jeopardize them by his gratuitous offence to Minnie.
“It wasn’t my saying,” he continued, “and I’m not hinting that I believe it, or anything like that. I’m sorry, Minn, for offending you. Where’s the telegram? What does he say?”
But Minnie had disposed of the telegram by tearing it up on the road. “I haven’t got it,” she said; “the agent phoned it to me and I haven’t got it. Here are my notes,” and she read them off. “You see it’s serious, and there’s no time to lose, as I must catch the next train.” They stood in silence for a moment, contemplating this sudden upheaval in their affairs. It was young Jackson who was first to offer a suggestion.
“The train connection to Wheatview is bad, and it will take you a couple of days, Minn, if you have to go ’round by Winnipeg. If Dad would lend his car I would go with you, and we could drive it in less time. We could spell off at the
wheel and drive day and night. Besides, he says they’re alone on a homestead and —don’t fly off again—it wouldn’t be quite the thing for you to go by yourself. What do you say, Dad?”
“Sure! Take the car if it will save time. Minnie an’ you can get your things together an ’ I’ll fill her up with oil an’ gasoline. Wisht I could go myself. I might be able—”
HALF an hour later they were on the road. Jackson was at the wheel and Minnie sat in silence beside him. He drove so furiously that conversation was impossible, even had she been disposed to speak, so she clung to her seat and wrestled with her thoughts. After two hours he came to a stop and motioned to her to take the wheel. She had learned to drive her father’s car only for pastime, and had always had a healthy respect for speed limits, but she proved to-day as furious a driver as her brother. And so they sped along the general route which Cal and Reed had taken a few weeks before. They were under no necessity of avoiding the towns and the principal roads, as Cal had been, and by nightfall a third of the distance to Wheatview had been covered. They halted for supper and to stretch their limbs, and then pressed on again, one dozing while the other drove. So on through the night. The first grey of dawn found the girl at the wheel, her eyes straining into the darkness of a road which continually heaved up before her like a narrow causeway between infinite gulfs of night. Slowly the blackness faded into a receding curtain of grey; suddenly the dawn blazed forth overhead, and a new day was born.
At four in the afternoon they were nosing along the main street of Wheatview, watching for the sign on a doctor’s office. Dr. Thompson, as usual, was not at home, and his wife, a busy woman, was engaged at the telephone when they entered. When she had hung up the receiver she turned to them.
“Cal Beach? Oh, yes, the doctor spoke of him. Has a little boy down with typhoid. Yefe, the doctor was out to see him again this morning. He seems to be holding his own. The doctor says Mr. Beach is a wonderful man; never saw the like, without a woman in the house. You’ll be friends of his?”
“Well, yes,” Minnie explained. “That is, we—we’re acquaintances, and we’re— very fond—of the boy, too, and we came to see if we could help.”
From Mrs. Thompson they learned the road to the Mason homestead, and the girl gained a few suggestions concerning the care of the patient. Ten minutes later they were again on their way.
Cal Beach had set up a tub on the shady side of the shack and was busy with his hospital washing when an automobile turned from the main road and bore quickly down upon him. Engaged in his operations he did not hear its approach until it drew up alongside. Then, for a moment, he distrusted his eyes, _ but slowly and surely the dust-begrimed figures in the car resolved themselves into Jackson and Minnie Stake!
MINNIE was first out of the car. She came toward him with outstretched
“You see, Cal, I have come. I came immediately I received your telegram. We thought we could make better time by car, so Jackson drove me. How is Reed?”
With a grain sack tied about his waist for an apron, his sleeves tucked above his elbows, and a wet sheet still clasped in his hands, Cal had a sense that his appearance did him rather less than justice. Even in the embarrassment of this unexpected meeting he was conscious of that. He was conscious, too, of Minnie’s eyes on his face searchingly ; of a tremor in her voice which she had been unable to quite conceal. Her untamed loveliness held and thrilled him even through the chill of the sinister presence of Jackson Stake, and a pang of poignant sympathy clutched his heart. Why had she come? Not that he would have sent her back for worlds, but—it was going to be increasingly difficult for them. And Jackson— The words, “But I didn’t wire for you—it was your mother!” sprang to his lips, but he had presence of mind
enough to swallow them unsaid. Indeed, he swallowed a second time before he
“This is good of you, Minnie; better than I deserve,” he said, as he took her hand. “You, too, Jackson. Better than I deserve. Yes, I think Reed is holding his own.”
Cal led her into the house. On the bed in the corner, no longer a rumple of grey blankets, but white in new cotton sheets, lay Reed. His eyes were closed; he seemed in a sort of stupor as she approached and stood for a long minute looking down upon him in silence. Then, seeming to sense her presence, he slovly turned his face toward her.
“Grandma?” he breathed, in a hardly audible whisper.
She sank on her knees beside him; reached out, caressed his hair with her fingers.
“No, dear, this is not Grandma. Tnis is Minnie. Do you remember me— Minnie?”
Slowly his eyes opened, and he held her in his big wondering gaze. “I wanted Grandma,” he said.
“He has talked so much of your mother —he calls ner Grandma,” Cal explained. “I have comforted him bv saying that Grandma was coming.”
“I shall be Grandma to you,” Minnie whispered. “I have come to help make you well.”
“I—wanted—Grandma,” he said.
Presently he dropped back into his stupor of sleep, and the girl rose from his side. When she stood she was close to Cal, and again she felt his presence overpowering her. Inwardly she chided herself. “Have sense, Minnie; have sense. Must he humiliate you again?”
OUTWARDLY, “I suppose I am to be nurse. I don’t know much about it. You’ll have to tell me, Cal.”
She had not intended to use his name but it slipped out unawares. . . . Besides, it was good to note how he seemed to clutch at the familiar address.
“You’ll be all right, Minnie; I know you’ll be all right. You don’t know what a load—I feel as though Reed were on the mend already. Just take charge, and I will be your willing slave.”
“I’m following a good housekeeper,” she said, with a swift glance about the little room, in which Cal had established an order and cleanliness unimaginable in the regime of Mr. Mason. “I suppose you’ve been doing here—what you did at Plainville. You know—the water trough, and the pig pen, and all that sort of thing?”
“And Beach Boulevard?” he added, almost gaily. In spite of Reed’s sickness, in spite of the sudden cloud of Jackson Stake’s presence, his heart insisted upon singing from very joy in her nearness.
“Yes, and Beach Boulevard,” she repeated, disregarding the little danger signals which, from somewhere in her consciousness, were flaring warnings that this was not the course to which she had set herself. For the first time her lips had parted in a smile.
“It’s good to see you again, dear,” Cal whispered. “It was splendid of you to come. 1 was afraid, after what had happened—after what I had done—”
“Let’s not talk about that,” she interrupted, firmly. “I came because Reed was very sick. I wouldn’t have come, otherwise.”
When the words were out she wondered if they were quite true, but it was then too late to recall them. Cal was suddenly sobered. “I understand,” he said, but the fire was gone from his voice. “It was tremendously good of you to come, and I shall not presume upon your kindness. I* shall treat you just as professionally as— as you make me.”
Jackson, who had been examining the car after its long run, appeared in the doorway. His eyes took in the contents of the room; Cal and Minnie standing in the spot of clear space in the centre of the floor; the bed, with its little occupant, silent in a corner. Without speaking he crossed over to the bed, running, as if by some impulsive instinct, his fingers through his hair as he went. It was his father’s gesture.
For a minute or two he stood looking down in silence.
“Is he pretty sick, Cal?” he asked. “Pretty sick.”
To smother thoughts that were running wild within her Minnie pounced into activity. “Bring my things, Jackson,” she commanded. “Can I change here?”
“It’s the only place we have,” said Cal. “One room, and all outside.” He went with Jackson, and when they had handed Minnie her suit-case the two men strolled toward the car. For a moment they regarded each other without speaking.
Cal was the one to break the silence. “You have me at a loss, Jackson,” he said. “It was certainly very good of you to drive from Plainville, but I’m puzzled about your motives. I can’t forget the circumstances under which I left there. All this has come out of your—of what you threatened—and I think I can fairly blame you for it.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” said Jackson, with a laugh in which there was no joyousness. “I thrive on blame. Pile it on as thick as you like. When the world gets down on a man a little more doesn’t matter.”
“I don’t want to ‘pile it on’,” retorted Cal. “I want to be fair. But I must know why you are here. I was ready to kill you a few weeks ago; kill you, you understand? It seemed the only way out. That was why I ran away from Plainville; I didn’t run away from you—don’t imagine it—I ran away from myself.”
He was astonished that he should so uncover his heart to this man whom he despised, but the words flowed forth, and as they flowed they brought relief. Whatever the cause or the process, it was plain that he had gone through some kind of transformation. His attitude toward Jackson had changed. Even his contempt began to have a measure of compassion in it. Perhaps it was Reed’s sickness; he could find no other explanation than that Reed’s sickness must have established some subtle bond—some psychological bond, perhaps—between them.
“I didn’t run away from you, Jackson,” he repeated, as though it were of particular importance that he should establish that fact. “Don’t get any wrong idea about that. I ran away from myself.” Jackson answered with his mirthless laugh. “It can’t be done,” he said. “I’ve been trying it for ten years, and I know.” There was another gap of silence which Cal bridged at length, impatiently. “Well, what’s the answer, Jackson? Why are you here, and is it to be peace or war?”
“A number of reasons. Does it occur to you that I may be concerned about the boy’s illness?”
“No, I confess it doesn’t. Your concern about his welfare so far does not lend itself to any such suggestion. Try again.” “Then, Minnie wanted to come, on Reed’s account. Of course, she couldn’t stay with you here alone. You had thought of that?”
“I can’t say I had. Your sister is here in the capacity of a nurse, professionally. Nothing wrong about that.”
“Minnie’s not a nurse, and she’s not here professionally. Do you think she came for what you’ll pay her?” Jackson laughed sardonically. “For what you'll pay her—you who couldn’t spare the price of a railway ticket to keep out of this mess? No, Minnie didn’t come here for a fee. She left a better job than you can offer her. She tried to tell me she was coming on Reed’s account. I know better. That’s the reason—one of the reasons—I’m here.”
CAL’S anger was rising again under Jackson’s cool effrontery, but mixed with the anger was a curious happiness over this testimony concerning Minnie’s motives. It was good to have her come as Reed’s nurse, but it was better— Still, the hypocrisy of this man nauseated him.
“So you have become a champion of women’s virtue,” he said, bitterly. “I can only regret that you were less gallant when it was my sister that was concerned.” Jackson rolled a cigarette with much deliberation. “That’s a common fault among men,” he observed. “You may have noticed it. You may even have experienced it.”
The thrust in the dark struck Cal deeper than he would have cared to admit, but at that moment their discussion was cut short by Minnie’s appearing at the door. She had changed to a neat house dress of some inexpensive stuff which, although not a nurse’s uniform, gave her a kind of professional note. The smart simplicity of her costume struck Cal as tremendously domestic and homey. For the moment Jackson was out of his mind as he turned to introduce her to his scanty housekeeping equipment.
“I think I’m the only one that can make these dishes go ’round, Minnie,” he
explained. “It takes a bit of education—” “A D.D.,” she interrupted, and immediately stiffened again. Why must something within her be so absurdly facetious while she was trying to impress this man with a sense of her disfavor?
“Yes, a D.D.,” he agreed, shamelessly unimpressed. “It helps. So I shall continue the kitchen duties. You will need all your time for Reed.”
Was he seeking an excuse to be with her in the house? “Oh, I think I can manage both,” she said. “I’m sure I can. Besides, how about the farm? There must be work—haying or something—to do, isn’t there?”
“There’s a bit more haying,” he admitted. “I had forgotten about it. I think these last days I have forgotten everything, except Reed—and you.”
“Of course you’ve been worried about Reed,” she parried. “Now, do you know what I’ve been wondering? How we’re to manage at nights.”
It was a problem in house planning, and they settled it together. Reed, of course, must be undisturbed. They would make down a bed on the floor for Minnie, and Cal would sleep in the old Ford drawn up near the window, where he would be available quickly in case of emergency. Jackson must be intrusted to the hospitality of the stables.
AS THE evening wore on it occurred , to Cal that Minnie must be tired after her long journey. He himself, although he had not slept since Reed had taken sick, felt little weariness. He was drawing on his reserves, but that was what reserves were for.
“Better go to bed, Minnie,” he suggested. “You need a good sleep, and I’ll sit up with Reed to-night. If he’s troublesome I’ll wake you.”
The girl protested, but, fearing that refusal might be misconstrued, she let him have his way. While she made her preparations Cal explained the arrangements to Jackson. “You can sleep in the Ford to-night if you like,” he said, “but afterwards I can’t offer you anything better than a stall in the stable. It will be warm and there’s plenty of clean hay, but it’s not a good point from which—from which to chaperone us.”
Jackson’s dark face twisted in its enigmatical smile. “I’ll take a chance,” he said.
When Minnie had gone to bed Cal entered and took his post. Reed still lay in a partial stupor and gave little trouble save by his occasional demands for water. Cal had set a lamp burning low, in case it should be needed for sudden service, and presently Minnie’s steady breathing proclaimed that she had fallen asleep. For the comfort of his eyes Cal took a seat by Reed’s bedside, with his back to the lamp, and turned over in his mind the strange happenings of the day. The panic which had seized him upon Reed’s illness had swept by and had left him strangely calm and assured. For Reed the worst was over; in some way he felt assured of that. Dr. Thompson had said the fever would have to run its course, and it was mainly a matter of proper care. Minnie, although not a nurse, was a girl of sense, and she could be trusted. What a topsy-turvy world it was! And who more topsy-turvy in it than Cal himself? As he ran back in his mind over the experiences of the recent weeks he found it impossible to realize that he was the same man who had deliberately planned the death of Jackson Stake; who had even regarded those plans as a virtuous thing, and the only solution of his difficulty. It had all seemed so sane and reasonable. To-night he knew he had been stark mad. Yet no one had suspected him; not even Jackson. . . .
As the night wore on a strange peace took possession of his soul. He was surprised when he became conscious of it. It stole in upon him so unobtrusively that he scarce noticed its coming, until suddenly he realized how strangely it enveloped him. There was a sense of possession, a sense of well being, a sense of destiny fulfilled. Slowly it dawned upon him that this was the vision he had carried in his heart; these two, here, almost within reach of his hand—these were all in the world that really mattered. With a sudden leap of intuition he knew what it was. They were his family! His family! That without which no life is complete; that about which all life centres and revolves. One’s wife; one’s
family And they were here—here within touch of his hand!
To steady his thought he slipped quietly imo the cool air outside. The nighu was dark; no stars blinked overhead, but a breeze soughed up through the valley and lisped eerily across the fields of wheat. He filled his lungs with great satisfying breaths and clutched again at the thougnt which had brought him happiness. It was of Minnie as his wife, and Reed as their boy.
Then, upon his great happiness, darkness came down again. The serenity which he had so briefly tasted was suddenly roiled, and under the quiet skies he sought to vin it back. But it had flown him. Like the tip of some enchanted wing it had rested on his shoulder for a moment before its flight into the void from which it had come left him more deserted than before. For a great fear had suddenly seized him Could he marry this girl without telling her? And if he told her, what?
TT WAS not that Cal feared that 1 knowledge on Minnie’s part would lower him, or Reed, in her estimation; he was sure he knew the girl too well for that. His danger was a much deeper and more difficult one. If Minnie knew the truth would not she be so crushed by humiliation as to think herself forever his inferior? Would she be willing to marry one who had been shamelessly wronged by a member of her family? Could there be equality or self-respect on such a basis? And without self-respect what hope could there be for love?
This was the problem which so suddenly seized him, and to which the soughing winds, the lisping wheat-leaves, gave no answer. Through the gloom the farm stables bulked vaguely in a darker greyness. Under their roofs somewhere lay Jackson Stake, now more completely in Cal’s power than ever he had dreamed. Some slumbering fang of that hate which he had thought dead cut suddenly into his heart. Hate the man—how could he other than hate him? ... A careless match dropped in the hay by the stables, with the lock set on the door. ... It would be simple enough. The horses were in the pasture. Jackson, lighting a cigarette, had fired the hay about him and had been cremated in his own holocaust. That would be the explanation. Horribly simple. . . .
Presently Cal fancied he heard a sound distinct from the vague night noises that filled the air. He was standing in the shadow, a little way from the wedge of light that fell through the open door, when he heard it, and in an instant his senses were strung taut. . . . He was sure he heard a stealthy footfall in the grass. Noiselessly he drew into the deeper gloom, finding the wall of the shanty with his hand, then moving slowly, silently, along it to the corner. As he neared the corner he could distinguish the faint light which fell through the window in the northern end of the house, the end in which Reed’s bed was set. But the square of light was not quite square; a roundish shadow, such as might be caused by a man’s head, cut off a corner of it.
For a moment he hesitated. It was plain that some one was looking through the window, obviously with no good purpose, or why did he not come to the door? The advantage of a surprise attack would be all with Cal, and he tensed himself for the emergency. Then, stealthily, he extended his head until he could see along the nortnern wall.
Jackson Stake knelt by the window, crouched so that only the upper part of his head and face was in the light. He was gazing intently, absorbedly, apparently at the little form on the bed. . . . It would have been so easy to overpower him in that position. Perhaps it was the very ease of it that deterred Cal from rushing upon him.
“Well. Jackson, what do you want?” he demanded sharply, stepping up beside him. “Eaves-dropping—or just chaperoning?”
Jackson turned a strangely drawn face to his, then slowly rose to his feet.
“You had the drop on me, Cal,” he' said. “I thought you were sitting back in the corner, where I couldn’t see you. I was watching Reed.”
“You seem very interested in Reed. Why didn't you come inside, if you
wanted to, instead of sneaking up to the window?”
Jackson was silent for a moment, then suddenly broke out: “Oh, hell, you wouldn’t believe if I told you,” and disappeared toward the stables.
When Dr. Armstrong called next day he took in the situation appraisingly. It was apparent that, short of a trained nurse, Minnie very nearly came up to his requirements.
As the boy’s fever continued to run its course normally and Cal’s anxiety in that connection subsided he felt himself more and more disposed to re-open negotiations with Minnie.
One day, when Jackson had volunteered to drive to Wheatview for supplies, Cal left the field at four o’clock and a little later met Minnie at the door. Even as he beheld her Cal found himself comparing her waves of bronze-brown hair with the ripening fields. She was bewitching to look upon. “More than the fields is ripening,” said he to himself.
“You’re certainly looking charming, Minnie,” he vouchsafed.
“No compliments, please, Cal.”
“Don’t you like my compliments?”
“If you must know—no,” she said. “Oh, Cal, can’t you see how absurd this is?”
“Is it absurd, dear? When did it , become absurd? Do you want to take I back all—take everything back?”
The color mantled quickly in her pale cheeks, but she ignored the latter part of his question. “It became absurd when you ran away,” she said.
“When I—ran away! But I didn’t run away; not really. Oh, Minnie, I can’t explain. You must believe that I didn’t run away; not really, from you, do you understand?”
“No, I’m afraid I don’t. More than that, I’m afraid I can’t. We parted as” —she trembled, hesitated—“as we parted. The next I know you had disappeared. There were some strange stories about it. I can’t repeat them, Cal; I can’t. But they hurt me awfully.”
“But you knew they weren’t true,” he protested. “You knew that.”
“I knew—some of them—weren’t true,” she faltered.
“And then you stayed away, and sent no word, no word at all,” she went on. “How I watched the morning mails! Every day I would say to myself, ‘To-day I will hear from Cal. To-day he will explain.’ But no explanation came. People would look at me on the streets— I could see it in their eyes, I could hear them saying, ‘That’s her; you know, the one the hired man had to skip out about—’ ”
“That’s what they were saying—and worse. And you let me stand it, alone, and not a word of explanation came from you; not a word.”
Cal felt a great hollowness filling him. She was going to demand an explanation, the explanation he never could give. If he did he would crush her forever; if he didn’t--
“Then came your telegram,” she went on. “The agent ’phoned it, and I didn’t let them know at home that it wasn’t for me. I wanted to come so that I might find out the truth. I told you I came on Reed’s account. That wasn’t true, Cal. I came on yours.”
“I know it, Minnie,” he whispered. “But why—”
“There was one clause in that telegram,” she interrupted. “It said, T can explain everything.’ I’ve been waiting for that explanation—I’m waiting now!” He would have taken her hands in his but ‘she withdrew them again, shaking her head slowly, solemnly. “I love you, Cal, now, just as I did—then. But I can’t be played with. You must explain.”
HIS face had grown pale under the onslaught of her passion and with the horror of the unfathomable abyss on which he tottered. To tell her all would be so simple, so easy. For a moment the temptation seemed irresistible. What of the promise he had given Celesta? She had given her pledge that the confession would be buried in her heart. What of Minnie herself? . . . But even_ as he weighed these questions in his mind she took his silence for refusal. Her lovely body straightened before him; her head went back, her chin went up. She made a slight gesture of her hand as though dismissing him.
“Very well,” she said, steadily. “I shall not humiliate myself again. I suppose it is hardly necessary to ask you to forget anything that_ may have occurred between us. I think I hear Reed,” and, walking like a queen, she went into the house.
THE next day Cal drove the Ford to Wheatview for supplies. A sharp rainstorm in the afternoon delayed his return, with the result that it was dark by the time he arrived at the Mason farm.
Laden with parcels Cal came to the door, wondering a little that Minnie had not opened it when she heard his car. He was about to call some cheery greeting when his eyes caught Minnie’s form huddled by the little table, her face buried in her hands.
He hurried to her, arms outstretched. “What’s the matter, Minnie? What has happened? What is wrong?”
He waited for her answer, but it was a long while in coming. At last, in a voice from which every vestige of her spirit seemed to have been drained, she murmured, “How you must hate me! How you must hate me!”
“But I don’t hate you, Minnie. I don’t hate—I’ve never hated you—I couldn’t hate you. Why do you say such a thing?” She was silent now so long he thought she had decided not to speak to him
again at all. But at length--
“Believe me, Cal, I would not be here except for Reed. I would have gone this afternoon. Anywhere—anywhere! I should never again have faced your eyes.
“But I don’t understand! What are you talking about? Why shouldn’t you face my eyes?” He hesitated, wondering.
“I wish you would tell me, Minnie,” he ventured again. “I don’t understand at all. You have been working too hard —the strain has been too much for you. To-morrow you must go for a drive. Jackson can take you—■—”
AT THE mention of Jackson’s name - it seemed another shiver ran through her frame, and she murmured something which he could not catch. He bent his head beside hers, while with his fingers he caressed her hair, her temples, her eyes.
“I wish I might help you, Minnie,” he whispered, his lips close to her ear. “I want to help you, because I love you, Minnie; love you, Minnie, do you understand?”
Suddenly she spoke. “Why do you say such untruths?” she demanded. “You don’t love me! You can’t love me! After what I—what we—what my family—” She paused, and the tremor which ran through her frame seemed to communicate itself to Cal’s. A paralyzing thought sent the hair of his neck creeping uncannily. What did she know? Could it be possible--?
“What do you mean, Minnie?” he demanded, with unintentional sternness. “What do you mean about you and your family?”
By a great effort she’ drew herself together, summoning all her fortitude for the task before her. She found herself able to speak more steadily. “Jackson has told me everything,” she said. . . . “Now leave me, please.”
“Where’s Jackson?” he demanded. “Where’s Jackson?”
“Gone,” she answered, “I know what you’re thinking, Cal, but I think you should know what he said. Before he left he held Reed in his arms and he said, ‘Little boy, this is the hardest thing I ever did. I’m giving you to Cal and—and—”
“And what? . . . Minnie! Do you think he loved Reed?”
“At the last, yes. You know how he used to sit beside Reed, watching him, and wondering, and wondering. . . . ‘Minnie,’ he said, ‘It got me. I began to realize things I’d never realized before. That he was my boy—’ Cal, he couldn’t say any more.”
“And then he said he left him to me* and something else—you didn’t finish it,’ Cal reminded her. “What else?”
She shook her head. “I can’t tell you, Cal.”
He hesitated, prying about for a means of attack. Presently—
“Don’t you think you should tell me, Minnie? Don’t you think it’s fair to deliver his whole message?”
“I suppose I should,” she agreed. “But I am telling you for him, not for myself. He said, ‘I’m giving you to Cal and—and—’ ” Her voice dropped to an almost inaudible sound. “ ‘And Minnie.’ ”
“And so it shall be,” said Cal, raising her face again to his. “So it shall be. No one shall prevent it now; not even you. I shall win you back, you shall see. No matter at what cost.” She shook her head gently, but she did not draw it away, and he held it still closer to his. “You shall see. I have known this all along, and it was no barrier to me. When your mind has become accustomed—has accepted it, it will be no barrier to you. Time may not heal all sores, but it surely brings us to understand. And when you see this sanely then you will —you will accept Jackson’s gift.”
So he plied her with caresses and assuring words until at last with joy he knew the touch of her reviving love. . . .
“Where did Jackson go?” he asked finally. “Did he take the car?”
“No. He didn’t take anything. Said they travelled light the way he was going. Said he was going over to The Siding to jump the next freight. He said he was used to that kind of travel— he’d be all right—and I could tell you he wouldn’t trouble you any more.”
“I must follow him,” said Cal. “We can’t have him go like that.”
Item from the Wheatview Gazette: Section men working on the track east of The Siding Wednesday morning came upon the badly mangled remains of a man who had evidently been killed by a train during the night. There was nothing in the clothing that would lead to identification, and only a few cents of money, so it is supposed the remains are those of a tramp who had fallen from a train while stealing a ride. Coroner Armstrong held that an inauest was unnecessary, as it was plainly a case of accident.
As Cal read the cold type the words swam in his mind in a flood of possibilities. An accident? He recalled Jackson’s remark, now strangely ominous and significant. “They travel light the way I’m going,” and his head sank between his hands.
Then he destroyed the paper, that Minnie might never know.
AGAIN it is June in Manitoba. Mantles of green are deepening on black fields now pregnant with another harvest, and from the summer-fallows slender spirals of dust twist heavenward like incense burned in worship of the god of husbandry. Upon the prairies, upon the groves, upon the gaudily painted buildings of Double F. and Jackson Stake, the summer rests, calm and dazzling in its brilliancy. The world is at peace, and, it might be, asleep, save for the slow shuttling of the ploughs back and forth across the summer-fallows, and a voice which from time to time floats out of the distance —the voice of Gander Stake raised in admonition of a four-horse team long since indifferent to either his threats or blandishments.
On the surface of the lake, as calm and white as quicksilver, the blazing afternoon dips slowly into the mauve and purple and crimson of evening. High overhead tatters of cloud entrap their fringes of ruby light and fling them into the mirrored depths, where they reverse the blue bowl of infinity and set up a heaven of their own not less magnificent than that which gave them birth . . . The lengthening shadows of the reeds creep out along the silent water; a fish leaps suddenly upon an incautious fly; a mother duck cajoles her brood like a phalanx of yellow tufted feathers in the soft ripples of her wake.
As the heat abates and the cool of evenning enwraps the valley a little boy comes down to the shore to skip stones on the water. With each skip of a stone the spaniel that gambols at his side plunges into the lake, to return, open, and emptymouthed after a fruitless search for the occasion of the disturbance, but as eager as ever for another plunge the moment after. Above the noise of their play, from somewhere under the trees comes the incessant clatter of a typewriter, and up a
leafy path, if we are now tempted to look, we may glimpse the outline, so hidden by foliage as to be almost undiscerned, of "a bungalow of cottonwood logs.
“Thanks, Minn; that’s a great help,” said Cal, as the girl drew the last sheet from her machine. “If an author must marry, let him marry a stenographer. To-morrow we’ll hitch up Antelope and haul a load of manuscripts to town, and if we’re lucky enough to find a cheque at the post office we’ll visit the Roseland Emporium—”
“Orthe Electric theatre,”shesuggested.
“Or the Electric theatre,” he agreed. “Take along your broad hat, anyway. Now I have just time to catch a fish for supper—”
“Just the same, I shall fry sausages. 1 am beginning to know something of your fisherman’s luck.”
“Can’t be lucky in everything,” he smiled back, “and I’ve had my share. Here’s your pay.”
He paid her, and Big Jim, who was cropping grass near by, like the gentleman he was, turned modestly away.
After supper they fished until sundown, that they might have a string to present to Mrs. Goode and Mr. Bradshaw, when they met them in Plainville on the morrow. Then they built a fire on the beach, and Reed demanded his bed-time story.
“Once upon a time,” said Cal, when all three had snuggled into the sand beside the fire, “a beautiful rose grew in a field of wheat. She was very young and verysweet, and she loved the wheat, and the wheat loved her. In the darkness of the night, when the wind stirred above them, their leaves would rustle together. When the storms came, and the rain beat down upon them, the stalwart wheat protected her. He could not bear to see harm come to a petal of her wonderful face, but he loved to see the dew-drops hanging there when the sun burst over the clouds in the morning. On other nights,when all was still and calm, they stood together and watching the friendly twinkle of the myriad of stars which God had set over them, and knew that in some way life was more than just being a rose and a stalk of wheat.
“And then, one night, a dreadful thing happened. A horrible weed grew up between them. He grew so fast that bymorning he had quite shut them off from each other’s view; the wheat could still scent the sweet perfume of the rose, and the rose could hear the sorrowful rustle of the wheat, but they were so far apart as though worlds had come between them.
“Then the wheat began to say to himself, T am stronger than this weed. Tomorrow night, when all is dark, I will uproot him and cast him out of the way; then he will shrivel up and die, and come no more between the rose and me.’ But as he nursed this plan in his heart he looked down and saw that if he destroyed the weed he would surely uproot the rose. So the wheat was very sad, and for many days he made no cheerful sound at all. But at length he said, T love the rose even more than I love myself, and I will not uproot the weed, but will let it grow up between us undisturbed, in order that not so much as a leaf of the beautful rose may fall to the ground.’ And after that he began to be happy again.”
“All right. Go on, Daddy X,” said Reed.
“And then another strange thing happened. A tiny flower sprang up from the very root of the weed. It was not a rose, and" it was not wheat, but it was verytender, and delicate, and trustful. At first the weed paid no attention to this new flower, but after a while he began to love the little „endrils wrapped about him, so that he soothed and fondled it and grew very much attached to it. And one night he said suddenly. T am shutting the sunlight from this little flower which I love.’ And in the morning he was gone, and was never seen again.
“After that the wheat and the rose and the little flower grew up very happily together. But the wheat and the rose often thought, with a strange sort of sadness, of the weed that had once grown up between them, and had gone away, because he loved the little flower.”
The voice died out, and the speaker's eyes, and the girl’s, gazed mistily across the dull phosphorescent distances of the lake.
“Is that all?” said Reed. “It’s a nice story, buu I don’t understand it.”
“ƒ do,” the girl whispered, as she kissed her husband’s lips.