THE SMOKING FLAX
ROBERT J. C. STEAD
SUNDAY morning was a time for rest, and Cal slept late. It was seven when he awoke from a sleep strangely but pleasantly haunted by visions of a beautiful maiden who had a disconcerting habit of thrusting her stockinged feet in the fire. At the cost of shattering some proprieties Cal gently but firmly averted the danger. It was a particularly engaging kind of heroism, this rescu ing of silk-stocking ed feet with a beauti ful maiden attached, and he had some thing of a grievance at the sunlight when pouring in through the window, it inter rupted his gallant occupation. Cal drew on his clothes and stretch ed himself at the granary door. The sunshine filled the yard like a flood, and
the air filled his lungs like a bellows. The world was singing a morning psalm of peace, and a lilt in his heart beat accompaniment. Matronly hens were taking their dust bath by the side of the stables while their younger sisters cackled over belated layings in the hay shed, and as Cal crossed the yard the family sow turned from sunning herself by the water trough to greet him with an amiable grunt. But at the stable Old Jim cast him a look of reproach. For an
hour he had been snuffing and nibbling in his empty manger, and he felt righteously aggrieved. It was not until he had been fed and curried, and left unharnessed, that the big bay seemed to remember what day it was, and took to a friendly nodding of a mouth broadly whiskered with hay. Plainly Jim was a believer in Sunday observance. When he had finished with his horses, Cal turned toward the water barrel at the house for his morning ablutions, but in the yard he was arrested by a sound of singing, accompanied by a drone faintly suggestive of distant bagpipes. It seemed to come from one of the smaller stables to which his duties had not yet taken him. After a moment of irresolution he turned toward it, and found an even more humble building than that which housed the horses; the chinks had fallen out in many places and the door hung only by one tenacious hinge. Inside were cows, four of them, with necks bracketed to their mangers, and a girl seated at one, streaming industrious white ribbons of milk into a tin pail which rang its reverberations riowr partly smothered in creamy froth. She was singing, and for a moment he did not disturb her. He was watching therounded, rising muscles of her arms, the; quick action of her slender wrists, the warm curve of her ear “Music hath charms!” he quoted, inanely, when he felt that he must announce himself. She stopped and regarded him for a moment. “Yes, hasn’t it?” she agreed, and resumed her milking. It was true, then, that her hair was bronze; certain audacious threads, peeking out from beneath her milking cap, confirmed it. He was wishing he could help her milk. After all, what avails it to write the prizethesis on The Reaction of industrialism upon the Rural Social Atmosphere if one ha; not learned to milk? H;said so, but not in such
A swiftly-moving instalment, which shows how Reed steals his way into Mrs. Stake's affections, while Daddy X fails to make much headway with daughter Minnie.
language. “I am afraid my education has been neglected,” he explained. “Don’t pity yourself,” she advised him. “A first-class farm hand never milks.” SO HE was a farm hand. All right. He was above being hurt by being called a farm hand. Besides, he was a farm hand. “But why?” he asked. “You ask why,” she said. “I’ll tell you. You’ve seen the film, ‘Why Girls Leave Home’?” “Don’t know that I have.” “Why, I thought you city men— It’s been at the Plainville Electric Theatre. Some theatre, let me say. A sort of tunnel with a sheet at one end and a ticket box at the other. Well, I could write a scenario for a film, ‘Why Country Girls Leave Home,’ and I’d use only one actor.” “Who?” “A cow. A herd of cows. That’s why.” Her remark opened up a new avenue of speculation. By no stretch of the imagination had cows, common domestic cows, female Bovina, appeared within the scope of the university curriculum touching sociology. And now-He had much to say, but before any of it had been said the girl had finished her milking, and they were at the house. “What do you do with it now?” he asked, helplessly. “Run it through the separator. You can turn it for me, if you like.” He liked, and a minute later the whine of the cream separator rose above the volcanic bubbling of the porridge on the range and the clatter of Mrs. Stake’s table-setting. With something akin to fascination Cal watched the little rivulet of cream trickling out of its long slender spout into the receptacle placed for it, while presently his arms
cramped to the ache of a strange exercise and the sweat began to gather on his face. “My land, you might let the man have his Sunday rest,” Mrs. Stake protested. Cal wondered who supplied the horse power for this machine on week days. Certainly not Gander, nor Grit, nor Hamilton. It boiled itself down to Jackson Stake or his wife. Perhaps, in days gone by, Minnie; the girl was strong of bicep, he could see that— “Thank you,” she said simply, in a voice to reach him alone, and he went to his seat at the breakfast table more than repaid. What cared he for the mocking eyes of Grit Wilson? What, indeed! No more than for the peripatetic functioning of Gander’s Adam’s apple, more obvious than usual against the
background of recent shave and a clean collar! AFTER breakfast they turned the horses free for exercise, and the drove, with Big Jim at their head and Reed and Trixie bringing up the rear, set out on a sedate trot around the pasture field. The trot steadily gathered momentum, and when Grit’s big grey thought to slip ahead of Jim on a corner it broke into a gallop, and ended with a
flourish of tails and stamping at the pasture gate. There were many rollings on the warm grass, and heavings of great hoofs and fetlocks in the air, and prodigious scratchings of vertebral ridge-poles on the sandy earth. The forenoon was spent in congenial laziness. Cal, drawing upon the warm water reservoir at the back of the kitchen range, and requisitioning an iron wash-tub that lay upturned in the yard before the house, sought the privacy of his granary for a bath, and marvelled at the evidences of honest toil which the residue in the tub afforded. He shaved with more care than usual, selected clean shirt, underwear, and socks from his somewhat limited'wardrobe, parted his hair with military exactitude and superintended similar operations, sans the shaving, on the part of Reed. Then he sallied forth, conquering and to conquer. There was no sign of Minnie, so he rambled about the stables. On the sunny side of one of the buildings he came upon Grit and Gander lounging in the warm sand. “We was jus’ sayin’,” said Grit, through the clenched teeth that held his pipe; “we was jus’ sayin’ you ought to rig up the old Ford to run that milk buzzer. That shouldn’t be hard for a man with a eddication.” “For a D.D.,” Gander expanded the description. Cal sat down with them, hunched his back against the sunny wall, and got out his pipe. Not until it was drawing well and the peace of tobacco was upon his soul did he take up the theme. “I’m afraid my education, along practical lines, has been neglected,” he said. “Minnie’ll make up for that,” said Gander. “She was givin’ you a good start this morning. But take a tip from father. Don’ get mixed up in this chore business. There’s nothin’ to it.” “That’s what she said—or words to that effect.” “She did, eh? Well, she’s wise. She knows. An’when a
man drives a team all day, an’ feeds up at night, I’ll say he’s done a day’s work, an’ he’s through.”
“Same here,” Mr. Wilson volunteered.
“Sounds reasonable,” Cal admitted. “And when a woman feeds a herd of hungry men three times and rids up after them I suppose she’s done a day’s work, and she’s through too. Is that right?”
Gander took his pipe from his mouth and held it at a non-committal angle. “What are you drivin’ at?” he demanded.
“Well, I’ve only been here a few days, and perhaps it is too soon to reach conclusions, but my specialty in college was sociology—”
“Wha’s that? Got to do with socials, an’ free eats? Sounds like a good subject.” It was Grit who was commenting. “You’ll be ace high when the box social season comes ’round.”
“No, it’s not exactly that,” Cal continued, husbanding his good humor. “I don’t know quite how I’d explain it to this audience.” He paused, but his irony was too delicate: it was lost upon them. “But the purpose of all education is to teach a man to observe, to think—”
“Poor bus’ness,” Grit interrupted. “The biggest trouble I ever got into came from observin’—an’ thinkin’.” He was for launching into a salacious story, but Cal would not be deflected.
“And my habit of observing and thinking,” he continued, “has caused me to take notice that the hardest worked beast of burden on the farm is the farmer’s wife. Now that’s a tremendous fact. I suppose it has more to do with the movement from the farm to the city than everything else.”
Gander contributed a flicker of interest. “What you goin’ to do about it?” he inquired.
“I’m going to think about it.”
Gander relapsed. Cal, recalling his mental picture, saw the bear get down from the top of his post and resume the plodding of his well-worn circle. The flicker of interest had died in its birth.
But it had not. Suddenly Cal was aware of the germ of an idea burrowing into his consciousness. Leaping from Gander’s unreceptive brain it was igniting the combustible material in his own. He knew it for a great moment, and he slipped away, eager for a solitude in which he might compress the nebula into a solid thought.
IN THE shade of the granary he evolved it. It *was very simple when reduced to terms; it simply meant that here, on the farm of Jackson Stake, he was to take his post-graduate course in sociology. He had put his science away, as a thing to be kept under safe cover while his health was mending, little dreaming that right here was the environment in which he could best develop it, and the raw material, for his experiments. This prairie homestead, prosperous, no doubt, in a gross kind of way, in the kind of way that is measured by acres and bushels and droves of stock, with its rough buildings, its simple customs, its labors, its drudgeries, its flickers of humor, its pathetic shadows, its unconscious tragedy—this was to be the school of his post-graduation. What characters, what material to his hand! Jackson Stake, himself a broadgirthed boy of sixty; Susie Stake, a domestic treadmill, but a treadmill with a heart, and a heart which, in some unaccounted way, had been set pounding again by the presence of the boy Reed; Gander and Grit, all-wise and self-sufficient; Hamilton, deep in the happy embarrassment of his love for Elsie Fyfe; even Reed, a strange light from out of the darkness— what subject matter for his study!
And Minnie. A gust of reaction swept him at the thought of including Minnie in his investigations; of impaling her as a rare specimen and subjecting her to the microscopic scrutiny of the eye of science. Yet not the least of the material to his hand was she, and science must not be impeded by the clamor of the heart.
As Cal turned these new thoughts in his mind he smiled at the complacent ignorance in which he had written his prize thesis on The Reaction of Industrialism upon the Rural Social Atmosphere. Here, now, was no musty text-book; here was life, throbbing, pulsating, grinding, to which the text-book bore no closer relationship than does the photograph to the living soul.
It was too tremendous to be taken standing, and Cal sought
poise in the prairie fields. Fancy injecting idealism into this clay; substituting art for materialism; living for being alive; implanting an intellectual consciousness; attuning minds to the infinite reactions of Truth; broadening horizons until they included the world, the universe itself! Cal walked the fields by himself, his soul afire with dreams; forgot his midday meal, and came out of his trance only when he discovered that the family were preparing to attend church in the district school-house, that the Dodge was drawn up at the door, and that Minnie was dressed apparently for walking rather than riding.
“Dad will drive, of course,” she explained, “and Mother will ride with him. Hamilton is over at Double F’s, and you three men will fill the back seat. I don’t mind walking; indeed, I don’t, I rather like it—”
So Cal said something about liking to walk, too, and with Reed in the back seat it would be crowded anyway, and it was only a mile and a half, wasn’t it? and perhaps they had better start at once. And presently he and Minnie were tracking together the winding trail through the poplar groves to the highroad.
It may have been quite by accident, but Annie Frawdick was at the school door. “Hello, Minnie,” she,greeted them; “who’s your friend?”
“Oh, this is Mr. Beach, Cal Beach, Miss Frolic.”
“Glad to meet you, Mr. Beach,” said Annie, as she ex-
tended her hand. Then, while Minnie’s head was turned aside for a moment to take note of those who were in the building, she added, sotto voce, “For the second time. Remember my predictions, and take them as a warning.”
CAL found a strange new zest in his labors all that week. The thought that he could combine practical research in sociology—a sort of post-graduate course in his specialty—with the equally practical business of making a livelihood and re-establishing his health was a particularly encouraging and inspiring one. In an instant it drained the drudgery from his toil, revealing those rich social deposits which drudgery so often conceals; it gave purpose to his life; it invested the meanest surroundings with mystery and romance.
He had talked with loosened tongue to Minnie that night, until Gander, with inopportune impatience, had raced his engines to a roar as he awaited her in the car. She had sprung to her feet from the Ford cushion where they had sat at the front of his granary, with a deft hand whipping the dust from the fringe of her skirt as she arose.
“I must go,” she had said. “Brothers get in a beastly hurry just when—”
But she stood before him, and did not go. ‘Then :
“Can you drive a Dodge?”
“I can easily learn. It’s a little different—”
“You ought to learn . Goodnight.” And she was gone.
That was an idea. That was something to think about. It gave him a pleasurable little thrill of intoxication, like a very light wine. It may have been unscientific, but it was very enjoyable, and he nursed it until he fell asleep.
He must have slept lightly, for he was awakened by the first patter of rain on the §hingled roof. It was very dark; so dark he could not see his hand when he raised it before his face. The few drops of rain which had awakened him lulled and died down, then gathered again for a more vigorous assault. Pat a-pat,pat-a-pat, pat-a-pat, like some myriad-footed creature of the night they sprang upon his cedar shingles; he could smell the damp gdor of the cedar filtering through the roof and filling his little room. Presently there was a splash of water as it gathered in little pools under his eaves; and always the myriad-footed pat-a-patting on the roof.
IN THE morning the skies cleared and the rain stopped, and the seeding and plowing were resumed where they had been left off Saturday night. But as Cal followed his machine.up and down the length of the oat-field the vague schemes which had been pleasantly tormenting his mind began to take more definite form. Jackson Stake was an amiable and easy-going farmer, addicted, as Cal had learned, to only two vices: occasional over-indulgence in “formalin,” and a mania for attending auction sales and buying wholly unnecessary and usually obsolete equipment which he dragged home behind a wagon, or in it, in exchange for a lien note so drawn as to complicate his title to all things here and hereafter. It was Mrs. Stake who had told Cal about it.
“They’ve perhibited liquor,” she said, “an’ that’s all right as far as it goes. Jackson don’ get goin’ as often as he use’ to, though I mus’ say when he does start he goes further, an’ now if they’d jus’ perhibit auction sales p’rhaps we might get our feet under us. He fair loses his head at a auction sale. Go out to the boneyard some day; I call it the boneyard, jus’ beyong the cow stables, an’ see the old machin’ry he’s got piled up there. Enough to mor’gage a township. An’ me churnin’ butter—”
That was the thought which came baek to Cal. Jackson was amiable and well disposed, and here lay the opportunity to remodel the farm as it should be remodelled. Of what use was his higher education if it could
not grapple with a situation of this kind; if he must leave this farm as crude and ugly as he had found it? Of course he would have to meet the opposition of Grit and Gander. The two geegees, he called them, in revenge for the ■sobriquet of D.D. That opposition would take the form of ridicule, of ponderous mock-respect and weighty speculations which he would be permitted to overhear as though by accident. But what of that? Minnie would understand—
“Why Minnie?” he chided himself. "This is a social experiment, not a love affair.”
He took the first opportunity to investigate the “boneyard.” It lay, as Mrs. Stake had said, behind the cow stable. It consisted of a considerable area of land strewn with remnants of all kinds of farm machinery and overgrown with a rank crop of last \ ear's weeds, still standing stiff and wooden after a winter's snow. Two self-binders, with reels in a state of partial collapse, and the hollow hull of an old grain separator, pirated by all the community in search of mtta! pullet s or fittings for more modern machines, first attracted his attention, and he gazed on them as one might gaze on the ribs of a wrecked ship protruding through the sand. As he strode about among the weeds he became aware that he was walking on a veritable pavement of discarded machinery. With a stick he prodded up a set of mower knives, the rim of an old wheel, some fragments of hay rake. Then a thought struck him.
Grit had said something about running the cream separator with the old Ford. It had been said in jest, but he would turn it to account. Among all this mechanical flotsam he surely would find the means to carry out the idea. He went to Jackson Stake.
“If I can rig up a machine to run the separator by using some of that old machinery and the Ford, will it be all right?” he asked.
The farmer regarded him with some curiosity, dropping his lower jaw the better to promote contemplation.
“Now what in hay-time put that into your head?” he finally inquired. »
“You've a great farm here, Mr. Stake,” he began. “You’ve made the prairie blossom as the rose, as the poet says. Suppose you had had to cultivate all these fields with a spade?”
“It couldn’t be done.”
“Of course not. You do your farm work with power, not because it’s easier, but because it’s cheaper, and quicker, and it pays better. Now my idea is to carry that same principle into housework. I want to see this the most modern farm in Plainville district. I want the women to be talking after church, ‘You should see the way Jackson Stake has fixed things up for his wife. Running the cream separator with power, if you please, and the washing machine, too.’ And I’d like you to let me help you do that. That’s all.”
“Sounds the least bit like Minnie,” said the farmer, “only you put it better. You don’ threaten nothin’, an’ Minnie was strong on what she’d do an’ what she wouldn’t. Well, she left the farm over it, an’ I ain’t askin’ her back. Not but what she’s welcome, an’ she comes out most ev’ry Sunday, an’ she can have a home here when she wants it, but I ain’t askin’ her back. That’s the kind of a badger I am.” The farmer paused to let the weight of his pronouncement take effect. “Jus’ the same, I ain’t savin’ but there’s somethin’ in your idea, so go to it, only don’t waste nothin’, an’ don’ use up all my smithy coal.”
VVTTTH this authority Cal “went to it.” He had a ’ ' mechanical turn of mind, as well as a philosophic one, and his progress was easier than he expected. By milking time that evening he had the Ford backed up against the house, a tire off and the wheel blocked up, and a rope belt running from it through the window and on to a grooved pulley bolted to the separator. He found he would have to run the car in low gear to get the speed slew enough, and he had arranged a block of wood to hold the foot perlai in place. He was so enthused he hardly could wait until .Jackson Stake and his wife brought up the cans of frothy milk from the cow stable. When all was ready he started the engine, and, watch in hand, set the throtthfor the correct number of revolutions per minute. The separator set up its shrill whine" as an accompaniment to the rattle of the old motor, and there was a moment of tense nxict.cment, but the belt ran true on the pulleys, t hrskimmed milk and the cream began trickling out of their re pr-ctive tubes, and the success of his machine waestablished. It was great business.
Gander and Grit, strolling up from t hrhorse stable, took in the situation with amused interest. The elliptic wrinkles in Grit’s face lengthened uni;! t| « v effected almost a complete circle, save for the interruption of his nose, arid Gander’s Adam’s apple war, spasmodically gulping his emotion.
“I often heard it said that some day they'd breed a Ford that ’ud give milk,” said Grit, “but 1 never reckoned I'd live to see it.”
Gander weighed his response. “Wonderful what you
'■;>, with a Ford an’ an eddication. If I was a D.D. I
net i eould make the Dodge give cream cheese.”
“Or lay ar, egg," Grit suggested.
“A fried egg,” Gander exclaimed, but this flight of imagination proved too much for the two cronies. They caught arms, clinched, and in a moment were swaying and straining in a catch-as catch-can wrestling bout.
Mrs. Stake looked on incredulously, as though unable to accept the testimony of her eyes, and a little doubtful about the morality of skimming milk by such a method. But her husband was openly enthusiastic. His big red face was contorted with approval.
“That was a hum-dingin’ good idea of ours, Cal,” he said. “Nousebreakin’yourbackif Henry’ll do it for you.”
“Ain’t the first back he’s broke,” Gander put in irrelevantly, but the farmer ignored the interruption. Plainly this was the moment to propose further innovations, and Cal struck at once. “Of course,” he suggested, aligning himself with Jackson Stake’s intimation of partnership in the good work, “what we really need is a small gasoline engine. It would run the washing machine too—
“What did I tell you?” said Grit. “And feed the canary—”
But the old farmer’s imagination had been ignited. For a moment he glimpsed a world beyond the bear-tracks and the family post.
“I must watch out for one at an auction sale,” he said, now bulging with constructive generosity. “Wish I’d bought an engine instead o’ that manure spreader—”
“You had a good manure spreader already,” Mrs. Stake reminded him, “but of course if it was somethin’ o’ use you wouldn’ buy it, not for the soul or sake o’ you. You’d trek home that ol’ manure spreader, an’ you with more lien notes than’ll be paid this fall or next, but if it was somethin’ useful—”
Her voice trailed off plaintively, but it occurred to Cal that the moment was singularly inopportune one for nagging. Now was the time to get Jackson Stake committed to a program of local uplift. He wheedled the farmer to one side, and before the bowl of the separator stopped growling he had been constituted a committee of one with carte blanche to carry out improvements—provided they didn’t cost anything.
T T E BEGAN with an effort to revise the farmyard on some sort of geometrical basis. With the help of Big Jim and his associates he straightened the granaries about and lined them up, and hauled the frame blacksmith shop, which had been occupying a position twentyseven point five degrees from north of the horse stable, into alignment with the granaries. The three frame buildings, now in a straight row with the house, presented quite an avenue. “Beach Boulevard,” Gander christened it, and “reckoned” there should be a policeman on traffic duty at the corner as he had seen upon his only vist to Winnipeg. But Cal smiled and went on. Wait until Minnie came out from town Saturday night! See what Minnie would have to say about his—his social experiments. She was a bright girl, Minnie, and she would understand.
It was on Friday that the happiness of the great week dropped into a gulf, as one walking with his head in the clouds may step over a precipice. Cal was working about the yard when Reed returned from the school swinging his lunch bag at the end of a strap. The boy was tanned and brown and happy; as Cal looked fondly down at him he seemed to have grown years since their camp at the head of the lake, less than two weeks ago. And to-day his face was more radiant than ever, for his was the joy of the child who has great news to tell.
“Oh, Daddy X, do you know? There’s a boy in school and he’s a bad boy, and his mother’s bad, too!”
“Why, Reed! That is a very serious thing to say. You mustn’t say such things about boys, and especially about their mothers.”
“But it’s true, Daddy X! All the boys say so, and his mother’s bad too, and worse than he is.”
“Reed, you musin' it But why do they say it?”
“Well, he’s got no father, and that’s why, although I don’t just see— At any rate it’s very bad, and to-day we chased him nearly all the way home, and some of the boys called him a bad name, at least I thought it was bad, but they say it’s not bad when it’s true, and he fought with one of them and got knocked down and it made his nose bleed and served him right, didn’t it? And then he ran off home crying. You bet he was scared.”
“And you took part in that?” It was the sternness of Cal’s voice, rather than his words, that brought Reed up with a start. The child’s face whitened a little; it was not often that Daddy X spoke to him like that.
“Yes—why?” he faltered.
“Because, in the first place, it’s cowardly. A bunch of children can be as cruel as a pack of wolves. Young savages, every one of them! And you were cruel as well as cowardly.”
“But, Daddy X” the boy’s lip was trembling—“it was true; they all said it was true; he’s a bad boy, and his mother is bad, and lie has no father. It is bad to have no father, isn’t it, Daddy X?”
Cal discovered that his sympathies were in sharp collision with the moral law, but he took firm ground. “No, Reed, it is not bad, at least as far as the boy is concerned.
The boy is as good—as good as you are. And perhaps his mother, too, is good—as good as your mother was.”
IT WAS their custom, when they talked of Reed’s -*• mother, always to speak with subdued voices and exalted mind, as of something hallowed and holy. Reed’s voice and mind now instantly adapted themselves to their custom; the tremble died out of his lips, and in his eyes came a seraphic light which set Cal’s heart thumping down the dark avenues of the past, down to the tragedy of Celesta Beach, and the night on which she had laid her soul bare before him.
“But my mother is with the angels, Daddy X,” the child reminded him. “The angels came for her, and she said that verse of mine—where you got my name—and went home with them.”
Suddenly Cal knew himself to be of a lower order than the child, and he could only nod in silent assent. That which to him remained a flicker of hope, not quite extinguished by the gusts of his practical learning, was to Reed a beacon of light, undimmed and unbounded.
There was a minute of close heart-concord between
“Daddy X, who was my father? You often tell me about my mother, but you never tell me about my father. Was he good, like my mother? Of course I know you’re my Daddy X, but you’re not really my father, are you? Just my Daddy X?”
So it had come to this, and so soon. The pledge that he had given, that Reed should never know—how could he carry it, concealed, unguessed, through all his life? This at eight; Reed was only eight, and already he was ferreting into his heart with this bitterest of all questions.
At all costs he must save the child. He must find an explanation that would not outrage the righteousness of Plainville; if it reflected glory or sympathy upon Reed, so much the better. He had it:
“You had a father, all right,” he said. “He went to the war—and he did not come back. It is very sad, and that is why I have not liked to talk to you about it.” Lying did not come easily to Cal Beach. The words seemed to lacerate his throat and he pressed his fingers about his neck. “He was a good man,” he added; “you must always be proud of him.”
The child received this intelligence with a gravity beyond his years. “I am proud of him,” he said. “But”— and again there was the leap of light in his eyes—“you don’t know that he has been killed? Some day he may come back—then he will find me, though he has to search all the world over for me, like the good knights searching for the Holy Grail! Oh, Daddy X!”
For a moment the boy pondered great possibilities;
then, satisfied, he ran off for his after-school sandwich of bread and jam, and Cal was left dazed, humiliated, caught in a hatred that swept down upon him, engulfing him.
The incident filled him with an overwhelming unhappiness, and he was silent and morose at the supper table. But later in the evening he heard the unwonted sound of singing coming from the house. Before the open window he stopped, held by the picture which it disclosed. Mrs. Stake was sitting in the “room,” the sacred precinct with the ancestral crayon enlargements, into which Cal had not yet been admitted; her old form settled into a low rocker, her head back, her glasses thrust up on her brow, her thinning grey hair drawn sharply into a dwindling nob that once had been her glory. And on her lap was the boy Reed, his legs dangling over the sharp ridge of her own ; his body snuggled against hers, his right arm thrown upward andabout her neck. But it was her eyes that held his attention ; there was in them something of that same light that filled Reed’s when they spoke of his mother. And as she rocked and held the boy she sang:
“Twilight is stealing over the sea,
Shadows are falling dark on the lee,
Borne on the night wind voices of yore Come from that far-off shore.”
AS CÁL watched the singer and listened to her song he ■GA was held by a wonder of what voices from memory’s far-off shores had touched again to love and romance the stern old heart of Mrs. Stake. He watched as her hands caressed the boy’s legs; as they closed about his little body. He was stirred by this revelation, but stirred more poignantly still by something that defied analysis, that groped down into his being and held him with the clutch of a primal passion. For all his fine love for Reed his essential parental instinct had not yet been kindled, and it was that which now caught him, groping, smothering, somewhere in the uncharted mystery of existence, He drew quietly away as one who has chanced unwittingly upon a sacred privacy, but once more his heart was swept clean of the gust of hatred that had seized upon it.
A little later Reed joined him at their granary and they went to bed together, the boy saying his simple verse and ■ then rolling his little frame into his protector’s arms, for a chill night wind was creeping over the plains. But before he fell asleep he had a matter to settle.
“Mrs. Stake sang to me to-night, Daddy X,” he said, “and she talked to me about .her boy that is gone; her little Jackson, she called him. She says I make her think
of him. Why should I make her think of him, Daddy X?” “I don’t know, Reed.”
“And she asked me if I would call her Grandma. May I, Daddy X?”
“If it pleases her, and you, you may.”
And, this weighty matter settled, they fell asleep.
ABOUT four o’clock next afternoon, Jackson Stake found his hired man busy repairing the fence that, in its better days, had enclosed the family garden. He looked on while Cal drove a staple, and shook the top of the post with his big fist, reassuringly.
“Gander’s off bummin’ with the car, ain’t he?” he remarked, presently. “Nosayin’ when he’ll be back, and somun’s got to go to Plainville for Minnie. The missus ’s ’phoned for some things she’s to bring out for to-morrow. —Say, wha’s to prevent you goin’ for Minnie with that ol’ skim-milker o’ yours?”
Cal’s heart gave a most unscientific bump. What, indeed!
“Nothing that I know of,” he said, as casually as he could. “That is, if you let me draw on your gasoline barrel. And you’ll have to crank the separator to-night by hand.”
“Strike me! When I take holt o’ that ol’ sep’rator I jus’ naturally scare the cream out o’ it. But I ain’t the twister I useta be. The old days—when Mother useta set the milk in the milk house an’ skim it with her front finger—those were the days! But once you get a new idee—. Well, someun’s got to go for Minnie, an’ it looks like you. Shouldn’t wonder but you’re a bit lonesome for the while lights, yourself, and Plainville’ll do you good.” He spoke with friendly sarcasm of his country town. “Don’ spend all your money on the op’ra.”
It was an hour, at his best pace, before Cal could be ready. Not only must he shave and change, but he must oil and grease Antelope, replace the tire which had been taken off for the cream separator operations, and generally tighten up the clattering joints. So intent was he upon these matters that not until the last moment did he think of Reed. But Reed had gone gopher hunting with Trixie early in the afternoon and was probably miles away over the prairie.
It was plain the boy could not go, and in spite of his loyalty Cal felt his heart thump again. Not quite so tre-
mendously, but still it certainly did thump. At any rate, he reasoned to himself, they might be late getting home; Minnie had some purchases to make, had she not?—and Reed would be better in bed. And again there came a little bump—bump.
Cal set off joyously, out through the poplar groves; down the main road by the school; glancing up half expecting to see Annie Frawdic, until he recalled that it was Saturday; then, still following the principal road, across country in a south-westerly direction to Plainville. The little car ate up the distance greedily and in less than half an hour Cal was dusting down the main thoroughfare of the town. Two rows of automobiles, representing all grades of value and condition, were lined against the cement curbs. Cal found an opening among them and brought his dog-eared Ford boldly along side of the pretentious car of some wealthy farmer.
“Big car, big mortgage,” Cal quoted from the philosophy of Jackson S’-ake, as his eye took in the beautiful lines of Antelope’s neighbor. “No flirtations, now, Ante, with that polished dandy! Remember, virtue becomes the poor.”
He paused with one foot on the running-bo'ard and patted her tattered upholstery sentimentally,'encouraging high resolves with a quotation,
“Know then this truth (enough for man to know) ‘Virtue alone is happiness below.’ ”
Groping in his pocket he found a key, and whimsically turned it in the lock with which a previous owner had equipped the Ford. “Not as a precaution against theft, but as a compliment to the car,” he exclaimed.
He had intended going straight to Mrs. Goode’s boarding house, but a glance at his watch showed six o’clock. Minnie would be at supper; she would insist that he join her, and that would be leaving the check at the wrong plate. He decided to look over the town and find a place where he could buy a meal.
The main thoroughfare of Plainville was wider than the principal street of many a metropolis; it was a broad, unpaved traffic canal shored by banks of cement sidewalk. He regarded it with interest. This was, no doubt, the “Main Street” he had read about, that mercenary and visionless monster, conceived of social inertia, born of an existence drab, ignorant, commonplace. But to Cal Main Street seemed broad, cheerful, innocuous.
A bench in front of the Palace Hotel was congenially
occupied with Saturday evening loungers, who regarded Cal silently but with mild interest. Strangers came and went in Plainville but not so numerously as to escape attention. A dingy waiting room, papered with announcements of Plainville’s “Big Day” on the TwentyFourth, and of the seed grain fair which had occurred the previous March, opened off the main entrance. It was deserted except for a man in shirt sleeves behind the counter which barricaded one corner, displaying an assortment of chewing gum and cheap cigars. He was engaged in performing an autopsy upon a speedometer with a screw driver, and showed no sign of being diverted from his purpose.
“Can I get a meal here?’ Cal asked at length.
“Nope,” said the proprietor of the Palace Hotel, without looking up. “Don’ serve meals since pro’bition.” With the screw driver he pursued something in the vitals of the mechanical corpse before him.
“Yet I suppose people continue to eat?” Cal ventured to suggest
No answer, but hot pursuit.of the elusive something.
CUDDENLY a screw flew out and across the counter. ^ Both men grabbed for it, but Cal got it first, and with great deliberation tucked it into his waistcoat pocket.
For the first time the hotel keeper raised his eyes, exposing a broad, bovine face. “Well, what the hell?” he inquired.
“Now, old Oxo, just pay attention to me for a minute. Where do I eat?”
A latent sense of humor, not less than a quick appraisal of Cal’s biceps, came to the support of the Boniface in a situation charged with possibilities.
“Try the Chink at the end o’ the block,” he grinned. Cal surrendered the screw and they parted friends.
Cal found the Chinese restaurant occupying a building of plain, unpainted boards. For a moment he studied in amusement the sign which proclaimed “No Sing—Wun Lung.” Evidently it had been perpetrated by a painter with a zest for a practical joke, but the subtle humor was lost on the proprietor, whose adventures in English rarely escaped the borders of his bill of fare. Through the uncurtained windows Cal could see a dozen men eating at plain wooden tables, after the manner of the farm staff at Jackson Stake’s. He turned in and joined them. His check was forty cents.
Continued on page 38
Continued from page 25
After supper he strolled about the little town, making a mental inventory of it. The business section crowded about a single street; back of that were churches, a number of modest residences, with two or three making some claim to pretention; a couple of lumber yards; a large oval roofed skating and curling rink, now deserted and dank with its lingering ice, and a big red brick school house standing in spacious grounds surrounded by a double row of Manitoba maples, many of them obviously dead.
At Mrs. Goode’s gate he met Minnie coming down the short walk that led to the boarding house door. She had been watching for him from the screened veranda and had timed her progress to a nicety. She wore a smart dress of some navy blue stuff, relieved with a dash of red about the neck and cuffs, and around that V-shaped aperture, not too modest and not too daring, through which she conceded a glimpse of a white and well formed throat and bosom. Her hat was of blue, in keeping with her dress, and carried only a perky red feather to hint that its sombreness by no means suggested the mood of the active little head it covered.
“I was afraid you had had trouble,” she remarked, as though they had parted an hour before; “I turned down a chair
beside me at supper, expecting to have the honor—”
“That was good of you. The honor was shared by two other farm hands—unappreciative, I am afraid—at the table of our celestial friend, No Sing. The cause of his musical imitations is indicated, with refreshing frankness, on his sign—
“You mean you went to the Chink’s for supper,” the practical Minnie interrupted him, short-cutting through his verbiage. “And I with a chair turned down, in defiance of the glances and quips of the other boarders! Well—”
She shot at him a look, half of protest and half of raillery. Her skin was pink and clear, and her eyes had a dance in them like sunlight on a ripply stream.
“I’m sorry,” he pleaded, dropping his voice. “How could I know?”
“You might have known. I would have known,. . . Well, I hâve some shopping to do. Will you come?”
He saw that the red effect around her throat was obtained by lacing a ribbon through eyelets in her waist; all her dress suggested simplicity with dignity, and he contrasted her with one or two frippishly clad young women he had seen on Main Street. Minnie had learned the first principle of art.
To be Continued