THE SMOKING FLAX
ROBERT J. C. STEAD
IT WAS not until they were out of town in the rickety Ford that Cal began to feel reasonably at home. In the town he had trotted about after Minnie with a vague sense of being a sort of faithful collie, but now, with the wheel in his hands and the grey belt of road winding up beneath them, he was again master of his destinies. The sun had just set, and the western sky was a sea of gold; overhead, tattered shreds of cloud caught the evening color and glowed gently in mauve and purple. There was no wind; the croaking of frogs came up on the gentle air above the rumble of the Ford; the fields were very pastoral and still. Sharply marked currents of warm air—strange atmospheric Gulf streams, as they seemed—swept Cal’s face as he crested the knolls and ridges, but a chill tang was abroad on the levels, and the presence of Minnie, close beside him on the front seat, was peculiarly grateful. He had long ago learned to drive his car proficiently with one. hand, and it happened that the other one dropped from the wheel . . .
He talked of the plans he had for remodelling the farm; of what had been done already; of the enthusiasm of her father, which he hoped would presently express itself in the form of paint for the granaries and the house. Then there was the great project which as yet was only taking form in his mind: the new building, a sort of annex to the house, to be equipped with gasoline power arranged to drive the cream separator and the washing machine; to pump water; eventually, perhaps, to supply electric light.
“And you should see the yard,” he told her. “ ‘Beach Boulevard,’
Gander has named it, more, I think, in sorrow than in anger, because I’ve hauled the buildings into line, and dragged the pig pen into the fields, and propped up the water trough so it doesn’t leak over the corner. You won’t know it.”
He awaited her enthusiasm, but for a minute she did not answer him at all. When she did : ■
“You might as well save yourself the trouble,” she told him.
“It’s no use. I’ve been through it all, and I know. Not that I ever moved the pig pen, or the granaries; not that. But I’ve been through the same fight. They beat me, and they’ll beat you.”
“But you should see your father. He’s all set up—”
“It’s a bubble, and one of these minutes it’s going to burst. Gander and Grit laugh, but they’re wiser than you. They know.”
Her mood of finality nettled him. “Know—what do they
know?” he demanded. “They haven’t a glimpse of what it should be—of what it could be made.”
' “That’s just it,” she. interrupted. “They haven’t a glimpse, and so they’re content. I had a glimpse, and it drove me from the farm. You have a glimpse, and it’s making you do wonderful things—wonderful things, if only they’d last!”
LT ER note was one of protesting resignation, of unwilling but complete acceptance of the inevitable.
He was subdued. “Why will they not last?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I think it is because everyone on the farm has too much to do. Always tired, or just getting over being tired, or just going to do something that’ll make ’em tired. It becomes chronic. When you’re like that you let everything slide that will slide. You fall into the way of it.
You leave the granary where it is; you leave the pig pen where it is;
you let the water trough spill over if it likes. You don’t care. You get that way, because you’re always tired, or have just been tired, or are just going to be tired. You do what must be done; you let everything else slide.”
“But I don’t find that to be so,” he protested. “I’m not always tired. Of course, I hád some stiff muscles at first, but the work is really rather easy; much easier than plugging for a university exam., for example.”
She was thoughtful over his argument. “Maybe,” she commented, at length. “I’ve been through something like that. It’s not really the work, perhaps; perhaps it is the monotony, the changelessness of the environment. Always the same people, the same fields, the same horses, the same cows. Particularly the cows ... At any rate I was tired, and I let ’er slide.”
“But you didn’t,” he corrected. “You couldn’t. You couldn’t let everything slide—”
“That’s right. There was something in me that wouldn’t stand it, and I left. They don’t understand me, either, any more than they do you. I’m afraid we’re regarded as a couple of freaks.”
Cal warmed to the idea of being considered a freak if it classified him with Minnie Stake. They were silent again as the car rumbled on into the gathering darkness.
“Well, it’s an experiment, anyway,” he said at length, “and I’m going through with it. We’ll see.”
She laughed gently, inducingly. “I think we’re all experiments,” she said. “I guess life is pretty much an experiment, don’t you think? An experiment, and an adventure. At any rate, that’s what it is for me, and I ramble in joyously where angels fear to tread, or something to that effect. I got fed up on the farm, so I quit. If I get fed up on the office I’ll quit that, too.”
“And go back to the farm?”
“No. Anything but that.”
AFTER awhile she took up the thread again at that - point. “I know it’s rather rough on Mother and Dad—I know it is,” she admitted. “We’ve never had any quarrel or anything of that kind, you know, but just—our paths seemed to separate. I guess there’s a good deal of that in life, and it’s hard on the old folks. But one has to live his life, doesn’t he? I suppose Mother wouldn’t have taken it so much to heart if I’d been the first, but you see Jackson did the same thing, and it makes it hard on her.” “Jackson? Your father?”
“No—my oldest brother. Perhaps you haven’t heard of him. We don’t shout his name from the housetops, for a fact, but as you’re sure to hear it sooner or later you might as well have it straight. It’s a wonder Annie Frolic hasn’t found a way to let you know before this. You must have been sticking close to your job.”
Cal was aware of her eyes, half frank, half bantering, upon him, but he did not answer. Evidently she was interested in his acquaintance with Annie Frawdic, and he had no objection to that interest. It was important for what it indicated.
“We don’t say much about him,” she repeated. “Partly because we don’t know. He was quite a bit older than the rest of us; he’ll be—let me see—about thirty now, if he’s living. And he was a bit harum-scarum—always was—but a fellow a girl could like for all that. I don’t know that that makes much difference, when it comes to liking, do you think? Well, he got up and left. That was about ten years ago. Worked in Winnipeg for a while; then at Fort William; then on the lake boats; then on the lower lakes. Used to write once in a while, just a line or two, but you should have seen Mother when a letter would come! She never lost faith. You know, Ham and I are Stakes, after our father, but Jackson and Gander took after Mother. In appearances, I mean. Dark, you know—Well, his last letter was from Kingston. After that we lost track of him altogether. Mother has persuaded herself he went to the war, but I dunno.” She had fallen into the vernacular. “It wouldn’t be so bad if one could believe that. It would mean that his life had counted.”
She had a friendly way of appealing to him with that intimate little “Don’t you think?” that pleased him very much.
“Yes, I think so,” he said, simply. “If it hadn’t been for Reed, I’d have been there, too.” “Bless the boy! He’s a wonder, don’t you think? But of course Mother has never given up. She insists that Jackie—that was his pet name—will come home some day, but I dunno—Why, here we are! It isn’t far, is it?”
“Not half far enough,” he said, as he gave her some unnecessary assistance out of the car, which she accepted with unnecessary dependence.
It was still the twilight of a prairie evening, but the farmyard was asleep, with no sound save the contented blowing of cows drowsing in a heaven of smoke from the mosquito smudge. He helped her carry the parcels to the house, and after they had set them on the table they stood for a moment in the door.
“Well—good night,” she said, suddenly, and went in. With a strange confusion of emotions he turned to the granary, and to the boy Reed.
THE twenty-fourth of May was famous for being a national holiday, observed in memory of the birthday of Queen Victoria; and for being by established practice, the date of the first ball game of the season at Plainville. As the birthday of the Queen receded further and further into the past and as the Plainville baseball team developed in prowess the holiday became less and less a commemorative event and more and more a demonstrative one.
Cal had gleaned something of its importance from the columns of the Plainville Progress and from desultory remarks of Gander and Grit. It seemed to be an established thing that every one went to Plainville on “The Twenty-fourth,” and it was Cal’s purpose not to disregard so proper a custom. It was time Reed had a visit to the town; the boy was too isolated on the farm. Besides, a holiday, and a ball game, and Minnie Stake—
But Fate ruled otherwise. The barley field in which Cal was seeding would easily have been finished on the twenty-third had it not rained on the twenty-second. But it did, and this threw Cal just one day behind his schedule.
“I reckon you won’t partic’lar mind workin’ on the Twenty-fourth,” Jackson Stake observed. “ ’Tain’t like as if you had friends in Plainville, or hereabout, that you could visit with, an’ it’s time that field was finished.”
Cal swallowed his annoyance, remembering that Jackson Stake was in most respects an ideal employer. “All right, I’ll finish it,” he said.
“Now you’re shoutin’,” said the farmer, approvingly. “She played us a dirty trick, rainin’ yesterday, but you’ll finish to-morrow, easy. If you’re done early take a run down to the lake; it’ll be good for you an’ the boy, an’ you may get some fishin’. There’s a troll an’ line somewhere in the kitchen. The wife’ll get it for you; she can’t go, account o’ the cows at night.”
On the Twenty-fourth Gander and Grit worked a short forenoon and stabled their horses early. Cal came in soon afterward. He was in time to witness their hasty shaving before the tin mirror at the corner of the house.
“Suppose Youth and Beauty will be out in force today,” he remarked as genially as he could, as he observed Grit carefully excavating the elliptic wrinkles that furrowed his brown cheeks.
“Sure,” said Grit. “Sorry you can’t come. Guess Minnie’ll have to fall back on her bank clerk to-day.” There was nothing malicious in the thrust, but it struck home nevertheless. Cal pretended to laugh, and went in to dinner with a stone in his stomach.
In the afternoon, tramping up and down behind his four-horse team in the black field, still heavy and dank with the rain of two days before, Cal argued it out with himself. “Of course,” he admitted, “it is perfectly natural that Minnie should have a friend in town—a bank clerk, or whoever he is. A girl of Minnie’s qualities—You have to expect that. Besides, my interest in her is purely experimental.”
He did not like the word experimental, so he substituted scientific, but with no better results. “After all, it is experimental, and we’ll let it go at that,” he concluded, as he sent a w arning shout to Big Jim, who had a genius for scenting his master’s moods and imposing on them.
/"AAL was on his last round when Reed, brown and busy ^ from a day's gopher snaring on the prairie, came up with him. At the end of the field they unhitched,' and Cal flung the boy on to the broad back of Big Jim, who had become accustomed to this familiarity, and who bore him homeward with mingled pride and condescension.
In the house they found Annie Frawdic. “Pleased to see you again, Mr. Beach,” she said, extending her hand. “I thought you would have been in Plainville.”
“Why I thought the same of you,” said Cal.
“No; at the last moment I decided not to go,” she explained. “Thought I would slip over and have a quiet afternoon with Mrs. Stake. We old ladies don’t often have a chance to visit, do we, Mrs. Stake?”
“Old ladies! Tosh! Don’t be sayin’ that before Cal. You’re a young girl, Annie.”
Annie Frawdic shook a lean finger in the face of the farmer’s wife. “May the Lord forgive you for trifling with the truth,” she threatened . . But what Annie did not say was her decision to visit Mrs. Stake wms made after she had seen Cal’s team return to the field for the afternoon.
A thought came to Cal and he acted upon it.
“We’re going down to the lake, Reed and I, for a little picnic and a word or two with Nature. Will you join us? You, too, Mrs. Stake? You can come, can’t you?”
But Mrs. Stake protested. She simply couldn’t There were the cows, you know. “But you go, Annie; go along, that’s the girl. I’ll make you up a bit o’ lunch.”
Annie Frawdic argued that she had come to visit Mrs. Stake, not to go picnicking, but she was careful not to strain her invitation to the breaking point. Half an hour later Cal, Annie, and Reed were bumping in the old Ford along the little used road which led to a secluded beach on the lake.
The trail continued along the beach, but they found a pleasant sandy spot with tall trees nearby and drew the' car to one side. Reed was out with a whoop and the next minute, bare legged, was wading in the shallow water. His two elders looked on with diminishing reserve.
“Who wouldn’t be a child?” she said.
“All right. Suppose we do?”
She colored a little, but her eyes met his. Then she seated herself on a stone at a modest distance, and presently she was tripping along gingerly in six inches of water. Cal brought out the troll and line, and, with trousers rolled to his knees, waded as far into the water as he could. Then he swung the hook about his head and threw it still farther in. It needed no small faith to suppose that any fish would respond to such obvious advances, but Cal’s faith was functioning almost one hundred per cent. It occurred to him that some fish were only waiting for advances.
/\ND his faith was rewarded. Not immediately, but soon. Came a splash and a widening circle where a fish jumped for a fly, and a moment later Cal dexterously landed his hook at the same spot. He had only a second to wait; first a slight tug; then a jerk; then the line ran off in a huge elliptic. Cal’s shout brought Annie and Reed as far into the water as prudence would permit, but when suddenly the fish changed his tactics and steamed full speed for shore Annie made a wild dash for safety. A pike of three pounds.
“Just the measurements for supper,” Cal said, when he had blustered Annie into hefting the lithe, cold, slippery body in her two hands. “Now for a fire.”
They gathered some bits of wood and built a little fire on the sand, and no one seemed to remember that they were still in their bare feet. The sand was warm and caressing, and who cared?
When supper was over Reed went wading again, but Annie and Cal sat by the fire and talked. The girl interested and amused him. She was a fruitful field for experiment. She was another exhibit for his collection to be gathered in the interests of Truth and Science. She had ideas, too, and their talk was not wholly banal. Yet she lacked something—something that was not lacking in Minnie Stake. Cal tried to analyze it, to define the deficiency, but could not. Only—she did not draw him; she did not appeal—As if appeal has anything to do with investigations in the interests of Truth and Science! He laughed a little at his own inconsistency, and Annie thought he was laughing at her wit, and was very happy.
The sun hung low at the end of a ruddy path along the water and the shadow of their seated figures fell like crumpled giants on the sand when suddenly they heard the sound of an approaching car. A moment later a new Ford came plunging along the overgrown trail and through the willows almost beside them. Embarrassed, they sprang to their feet^àndAnnie, slipping in the sand, clutched Cal’s arm tö, save herself from falling.
The Ford had stojpped, and Cal’s first glance discovered Minnie'Stake and a young man. For a moment the two couples faced each other; Cal actually could trace the line of Minnie’s vision down to his bare feet, and Annie’s, and he wished the sand might swallow him, at least to the knees. So long they stood in silence, or it seemed so long, that he began to wonder if Minnie was not going to speak at all. But presently she spoke, quietly and with that quality of poise which he had found in her before, but which he had not analyzed, and which he now knew distinguished her from Annie Frawdic—
“Good evening, Annie. You know Mr. Hale? Cal, this is my friend Mr. Hale— Mr. Beach.”
They shook hands, and Cal asked if they would stay and share some fragments. “We have some crusts and the ribs of a fish,” he said, “and of course I could catch another fish in a minute or two.” What mattered it if he and Annie were in their bare feet? She could see the couples at any bathing beach! But that was different. No it wasn’t. Yes it was—
Reed came up from the water, and Cal noticed that Minnie’s eyes took in his presence with interest, and, he thought, with something of relief.
“Thanks. I’m afraid we can’t stay,” she said. “Mr. Hale is just trying out his new car. We came down by the east end of the lake, and are going home by the farm. We’ll have supper there, on the way.”
“How’s the road up the hill?” Mr. Hale inquired.
“Not good, but you can make it.”
Mr. Hale got out of the car, patted the radiator with boyish affection, removed the cap, and looked judiciously into the aperture. Then he retrieved a tomato can from under the back seat and went down to the lake for water. Cal noted that Annie, whose policy it was never to miss a chance, lent her services in dipping the can.
“This is an unexpected pleasure,” said Minnie, in a low voice, when the others were out of earshot.
“Yes—for both of us,” Cal agreed.
THEY left immediately, and.Cal and Annie, without a word, put on their shoes. Then, as they sat by the fire, Reed swooped upon Cal with the demand that he make good his promise of a story. Cal made a couple of unsuccessful attempts but could not bring his mind to romancing. He gave it up with, “Sorry, old man. I’m afraid I can’t get my mind off that big fish. He was a dandy, wasn’t he?”
“You bet!” said the boy.
“Well, take the line and try your luck,” Cal told him, and sent him off delighted.
Annie Frawdic broke a silence that was becoming embarrassing. “I’m sorry, Cal, if I made you—if we, among us—spilled the beans,” she said. In some ways Annie was no fool.
“Oh, it wasn’t that,” said Cal, and wondered why he should lie to Annie Frawdic.
Early twilight was beginning to settle in the trees, and the sound of croaking frogs, loud against the evening silences, came from reedy inlets up the lake. “I guess we’d better be going,” Cal suggested. “We need daylight for the hill.”
He did not go back the way he had come, but by way of Ernton’s, where he left Annie Frawdic at her gate. He tried to return the lingering pressure of her hand as she thanked him for the “just wonderful time” he had given her, but her fingers stirred no emotion within him. To his heart he confessed he was “fed up” on Annie Frawdic.
When he reached the Jackson Stake homestead the holiday makers had not yet returned from Plainville, and Minnie and Mr. Hale had gone. Deliberately he had taken Annie home first in order that he might not meet Minnie again that night, but now that she was gone the stone in his stomach doubled in weight. They had just gone; they would not be in Plainville yet; they would be on the road, that same road where, just a few evenings ago, Minnie and he—
What was the use of lingering over it? Throw it out of your mind. Be done with it!
He arranged the cushions and the blankets for Reed, and the lad, tired with his great day of pleasure^ lisped his verse and fell asleep. But Cal sat at the door, thinking. And when he had thought for an hour or more he had thought himself around to this:
There was only one person in the world for whom he really cared, and who really cared for him. That person was the boy Reed, his sister Celesta’s son. In these days he had been tempted to forget that Reed was mare to him than anybody else—than everybody else. Reed was his own flesh and blood. A great surging of the heart swept through him. All the others were experiments; exhibits in the one great experiment of life. Very well— He went to bed and gathered the little, sleeping form in his arms. The warm heat of his young life—^the warm blood of Gelesta—thrilled through his limbs and into his body , . . He was caught in the gust of a great loneliness, and before he slept his pillow was wet.
MINNIE SHAKE’S holiday with Archie Hall had not beerçône of undivided pleasure. For some days she had beenHdbking forward to “The Twenty-fourth” with a degree'pf misgiving. She rather liked Archie; indeed, until quite recently, a day spent in rambling the prairies wrcfcj him in his new car would have been something to anticipate.
“Wait unt^l Ï get my car,” he had told her twenty times that winlMr, as they skated hand in hand at the rink, as they two-stepped at the weekly dances in the town hall, as they sat under the big lamp in the corner of Mrs. Goöde’s living room. And the prospect had seemed a wholly pleasing one—until quite recently.
A few evenings ago he had come to the boarding house with light in his eyes. “I am to have my new car on the Twenty-fourth, sure,” he told her, before they were off the steps. “Positive promise—delivery on the twentythird. They’re teaching me to drive an old one—you should see me give ’er the gas—so I can take you out on the Twenty-fourth.”
She had no heart to discourage him, and no heart to accept. Archie was a nice boy, a kind boy, and he was obviously—much too obviously^-in love with her. More than once he had spoken of the time,when he would have his promotion to a branch managership, and she knew what was in his mind. She had looked forward to the day when he would ask her to be his wife; she had wondered when, and how, and where. And she had wondered what she would say. Curiosity, , adventure, vanity, had tingled in her veins. But no happy anticipa-
tions stirred her now. Archie was still a nice boy, to be sure, and she liked him very much indeed. But shedreaded the question she knew was ripening in his heart, and she dreaded having to answer it. .* ■
“Yes,” she said, with attempted gaiety, “won’t it be fine?” Then, as though the thought had just come to her, “But isn’t the Twenty-fourth the day of the ball game in Plainville?”
“Of course, if you’d rather go to the ball game—” he wavered, but his disappointment was so apparent that she could not hurt him—not yet. “We’ll see,” she temporized, and with that he had to be content until the very noon of the Twenty-fourth. It was just before twelve that she got her mother on the telephone, and, by dexterous inquiry about others, learned that Cal was not coming to town.
“Yes,” she told Archie. “I’ll be glad to ballast your new boat. I’ll be ready at two.” But she did not tell him that the chief attraction of the trip would be supper at the farm and the chance of a word with Cal.
In her little box of a room she dressed with unusual care. Sempter & Burton’s store had been ransacked for a gown of sheathy, diaphanous texture, a little more daring in depth and height, a trifle more diaphanous, than the censors of Plainville would be likely to accept without remark. There would be lifted eyebrows when she blazed forth in it upon the street. Its folds clung lovingly to her dainty limbs as she approved of her reflection in the glass. She admitted she was pretty. There were selfappreciation and a buoyant, girlish happiness in the admission. She loved her own beauty as she loved the beauty of flowers, of the lake, of the prairie dawns and sunsets. As she tucked her boisterous hair under the snug bonnet which she had bought in anticipation of much motoring, her lips drew to a pucker and erratic dribbles of tune came whistling forth. It was at that moment she realized she had been dressing, not for Archie Hale, but for Calvin Beach, and a sudden sense of something akin to shame swept over her, as though she had been guilty of a kind of disloyalty.
All afternoon an unhappy accusation of insincerity enveloped her. Archie was in the seventh heaven of his happiness, the two
immediate ambitions ■ __
of his life—possession of a Ford car and the companionship of Minnie Stake—having been achieved.
She tried to react to his high spirits, but she had no gift of dissembling, and she knew she played her part clumsily. Her hand was dead, almost, to the touch of Archie’s when, as though by accident, it fell from the wheel.
Fortunately he was so enthused over his car that he failed to sense the artificiality of her responses.
Then there had been that revelation on the beach. A hundred times she demanded of Fate why the world was not wide enough to prevent such a meeting. A hundred times she stormed upon Annie Frawdic for the duplicity by which she had gained Cal’s company. She had heard a plausible story at her mother’s, but she knew better.
She knew why Annie Frawdic had preferred a visit at Mrs. Stake’s to the ball game at Plainville. She never had liked Annie Frawdic, and she liked her now less than before.
If there was one thing she despised it was duplicity. . . .
As for Cal, she held him not too strictly to account. If he had kept his boots on she could have forgiven him, quite.
Gradually out of the mists of her resentment her own behaviour began to stand out unlovely and reprehensible. No, not that; merely silly; she would not have it worse than silly. The silliness of the whole situation seized upon her and she laughed outright, and assured herself that her laughter was genuine and spontaneous. It all
had been very silly, but she was sane again and could see things clearly. Calvin Beach was nothing to her; nothing at all. An interesting person, of course; her father’s “hired man,” she would see him from time to time, and maybe discuss his air-castle plans for the remodelling of the homestead. He was interesting, and they might be friends, casual friends; they never could be more than that.
The facts were as clear as daylight. Cal Beach, quite an estimable fellow, was working on her father’s farm. He had stopped to work there because he was out of money; when he had earned enough he would move on again. He was a bit of a Gypsy. He had ability, perhaps; dreams, yes; money, none. He had nothing to offer but a share in his rumbling Ford and the foster motherhood of his adopted boy. Something about the thought of Reed made her heart beat faster again, but she quieted it; that, too, was silly. And she knew him scarcely at all, whereas Archie Hale—Archie was steady, and likeable, and he was saving some money. One of these days he would have his promotion; go farther west to some town in Saskatchewan or Alberta, just tent-pegging on the edge of civilization, and have charge of a bank himself. Then . . . Again she temporized. “We’ll see,” she said.
FRIDAY evening Archie Hale asked if he might drive her home on Saturday. She wondered whether Archie was trying to intercept further activities on the part of Cal Beach’s Ford, and she was most inconsistently annoyed. But there was none of that in her words or manner. She would teach Mr. Beach a lesson. That Annie Frolic—
“No,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll go home this week-end. But you can drive me to Ferndale Sunday, if you like,” and sent Archie to his boarding house in tumultous high spirits.
But as Minnie went to bed an iron band seemed tightening about her chest. In a passion of resolution she clenched her hands beneath the sheets, but the words would come.
“I wanted to go home,” she whispered, tearfully. “I want Cal, dear Cal, my Cal!”
She lisped the words again and again, tenderly, like a mother crooning to her child. Out of a maze of strange emotions she began to know how tremendous was her confession, but she was glad; she felt the color mounting in her cheek, but she was not ashamed. She had come to’ an understanding with herself. It brought her peace, and presently she fell asleep.
IT WAS the second Saturday in June when Jackson Stake, junior, came home. Cal, quite unaware of the meshes which Fate was stringing for him, rode his plough up and down the long field of the summerfallow, his broad straw hat drawn back to shade his neck from a blistering sun, his dust-dry voice occasionally raised in hoarse admonition to Big Jim and his fellow conspirators, who had learned to know his moods and to impose upon them; his sub-conscious self busy with his furrows and the collapsing wave of pig weed and mustard that heaved and somersaulted below him as the mouldboards buried it under ridges of rich, friable, black earth; his imaginative mind engaged with a number of academic problems, chief among which was an insistent wondering whether Minnie Stake would come home for Sunday.
He had not seen her since the unhappy episode of the bare feet and Annie Frawdic. Two Sundays had gone by; long, immeasurable prairie Sundays, broken only by a gap of church-going in the afternoon—and a walk home with Annie after the service. Very well. No doubt Minnie was helping young Hale consume his income in gasoline—
At any rate the experiments must continue. They had been making some progress. ' Jackson Stake had consented to order enough paint from the Square Deal Hardware to cover the bare boards of the two granaries. When the paint arrived it proved to be of a glaring and unabashed red, artistic considerations having been brushed aside by the more practical matter of price. But Cal saw in this paint, in spite of its war-like hue, an evidence of the peaceful penetration of his doctrine into the large, thick heart of Jackson Stake, and he plied his brush with a will, working in the long, sunny evenings while Gander and Grit lounged in the back seat of Antelope and speculated on what the world was coming to. They had co-operated only by lettering a large and luminous sign, “Beech Bullevard speed limit 10 miles,” which they surreptitiously nailed during the night to the corner of Cal’s granary.
A more important development, from the community point of view, was the painting of Double F’s house, which began three days after the granaries were finished, and was popularly attributed to the boastings of one Hamburg Stake over the innovations being introduced on the paternal homestead by their university hired man.
“If Jackson Stake can paint his graineries I can paint my whole outside,” Double F had deciar d, “and if there’s ,.ny color you car see farther than red, lead me to it.” With a message of such import Hamilton hurried to Cal, and sundry telephonings with the Square Deal Hardware, supported by repeated visits to the Fyfe farm on the part of Hamilton, resulted in the color scheme being revised to a base of white with trimmings of green. But even after the house stood resplendent in its white and green old Double F would look dubiously across the fields to the glare of Jackson Stake’s granaries. He had the manner of one who has been restrained from his impulses by a sense of virtue and rather regrets it.
Then there had been the auction sale at Fryber’s last Saturday—just a week ago to-day.
“Fryber is offering a gasoline engine for sale,” Cal had suggested, diplomatically. “It could be rigged to run the cream separator and the washing machine, and to pump water when the wind is on strike.”
“The wife’s got ’er-,knife into auction sales,” the farmer commented. “She’s always after me—” Jackson
Stake spread his great palms with a gesture of helpIGSSTI ess.
“You could make yourself solid by buying that gasoline engine,” Cal insisted. “Just drag it home from Fryber’s and hitch it to the household implements, and you’ve heard the last from Mrs. Stake about auction
The farmer raised a brimless hat and scuffled his hair.
“How old are you, Cal?” he demanded.
“You’re old enough to be married. Any fellow that figgers as far ahead as you do is old enough to be married.”
CAL experienced a sudden bounce of lightheartedness—the first for days.
Toward the good-natured, irresponsible, slightly hen-pecked old farmer he felt a glow of real friendship; a sense of man-tomanness sent him to his fields whistling.
Mrs. Stake received the engine with conflicting emotions. "Haven t I told you not to go buyin’ those fool contraptions? she wanted to know. “I bet it won t go, anyway.”
“Oh, yes it will, Mother,” said Jackson Stake,' with amiable disregard of her querulousness. “Start it up for her, Cal.
Cal started the engine and in a moment it was pit-a-pat-ing its staccato rhythm with the regularity of clockwork. Mrs. Stake watched it stolidly for some minutes, but slowly her face began to twist and pucker in unwonted lines and ridges. The stern old lips softened, the firm chin went quivering, there was a glisten of moisture about her deep, black eyes.
“Jackson Stake, you’re an old fool,” she said, but her voice had gone soft and gaspy. ...
Cal ruminated on all these things, and more, as he furrowed up and down the fallow field that hot morning in June.
Minnie had not been home for two Sundays. . . .
At a little before twelve Reed came romping over the ploughed field, his bare feet sinking pleasantly in the soft, warm earth. ' The boy was tanned and healthy; his little frame stood up sturdily under his loose blouse and knickers. Cal took him up on the plough, and at the end of the furrow, when he had unhitched for dinner, tossed him aboard Big Jim’s ample back.
This procedure always instigated great noddings and champings on the part of Big Jim, and he marched homeward with the pride of vast responsibility and an ostentatious jingling of his trace-chains.
It was not until, a little later than the others, he was seated at the dinner table that Cal became aware of an additional presence. At Jackson Stake’s right sat a tall, dark man; a man of thirty, or thereabouts; stouter than Gander, and without the peripatetic Adam’s apple, but otherwise bearing a resemblance that could hardly be accidental.
Jackson Stake was in no hurry with an introduction. He had cleared his plate of salt pork and boiled potatoes and was deep in his helping of rice-and-raisin pudding when he halted a spoonful in mid-air with a sudden realization of his social duties.
“This is our boy Jackson, Cal,” he explained. “He has returned to the parental roof after a perlonged absence, as the Plainville Progress would say.”
“Glad to meet you,” said Cal, cordially. The stranger nodded, and a quick glance from his dark eyes intercepted CaPs as for a fraction of a second they measured each other.
“We’ll be killin’ the fatted calf this afternoon," said Gander. “Grit an’ me’ll get the hide an’ you can have the hoofs, Cal—if you’re fond o’ hoofs.”
There was no mistaking the open hostility of Gander to the new arrival, and, absurd as it assuredly was, Cal felt a sudden warming of the heart at being included with his two fellow laborers. It was the first time he had felt himself one of the community.
“You don’t seem much pleased that your brother’s come home, an’ him away ten years an’ more,” said Mrs. Stake, with a dry voice. The unhappy old woman was on the horns of a divided family.
“Oh, yes I am,” said Gander. “I’m tickled to death. Can’t hardly keep from kissin’ him, right here before the comp’ny. An’ so wise he’s grown, too! Didn’t come ’till the work o’ the seedin’s over, an’ he’ll be leavin’ before the harvest begins.”
The stranger turned his dark eyes on Gander. They
were quiet, strong eyes, hintful of power and, perhaps, of hardness. When he spoke his voice was poised, easy, unruffled.
“Honk for us, Gander,” he suggested.
The taunt drew the color up through Gander’s suntanned cheeks; his muscles bulged, quivering; he half rose from his chair. For a moment Cal expected instant hostilities.
“Come, cut it out!” said Jackson Stake, who could assert a blunt authority on occasion. “Bygones is bygones, an’ if Jackie wants to stay with us now he can stay, an’ welcome. But there’ll be no dead calf about it, an’ he’ll take his share o’ the work or find a new boardin’ house. Does that go, Jackie?”
“Suits me,” said Jackson junior, shoving his chair back and rising from the table. “It wasn’t me that suggested veal, if you remember.”
Cal made a quick appraisal of him. “He has too much head for Gander,” he noted, “and Gander may try to make up the difference with a heavy fist. Nothing makes a man so quick with his hands as being a little slow with his head.”
Minnie came home that evening. “That” Hale brought her in his Ford, which he drew up, perhaps by accident, by the side of Antelope. The contrast between Archie’s bright new machine, shining in the evening sunlight, and Antelope’s battered body with her drooping fenders hanging in dqg-eared apology over carbuncular tirqs struck Cal’s imagination as being also the contrast between Archie’s spick-and-span store suit and his own flapping overalls and scuffed boots.
And a tiny, strange speck of color burned in Cal’s cheeks as he realized that all the liberalism of his sociological training had not raised him above a pang of jealousy.
Archie’s Ford had arrived and Minnie had gone into the house while Cal was busy with his horses. It fell to Reed to break the big news. “Oh, Daddy X,” he cried, bursting in from the outer sunshine, “Minnie’s here, and that man that was with her when we were down at the lake, when you were wading with Miss Frolic—Miss Frawdic, I mean. Don’t you remember?”
Cal remembered, and said so. “You seem quite excited about it,” he added, shortly.«
Reed looked at him for a moment, puzzled and crest-fallen, then slipped quietly out of the stable. He had barely disappeared when a stab went skewering through Cal’s heart. For the first time in his life he had fallen short of Reed’s estimate of him; had failed to answer enthusiasm with enthusiasm.
“Fool’s business,” said Cal to himself. “In my irritation over Minnie I snub Reed. I must make it up to him—”
He was at no pains to meet cither Minnie or Archie Hale, but a few minutes later he found Reed sitting beside the granary with Trixie in his arms. The boy had turned from one source of affection to another.
“Come on, Old Indian,” said Cal, taking him gently by the shoulder. “It’s early yet. What do you say to a swim in the lake?”
A MOMENT later they had Antelope sputtering and were off on their way down the old trail to the lake. Through the kitchen window, where she had furtively been keeping watch, Minnie saw them go....
The long twilight of the Manitoba evening had faded into a segment of steel dipped in champagne by the time Cal and Reed were back at the farm buildings. Archie Hale’s new Ford was gone—somewhat to Cal’s surprise—and the homestead lay hushed in silence save for the contented sighing of the cows drowsing in a wedge of blue smoke from the smudge at the corral. From beside the horse stable came the red glow of Gander’s pipe, and the yellow light from the kitchen window disclosed Jackson Stake, senior, busy with his bed-time repast of young onions and buttermilk.
While Reed brought an armful of small sticks from the wood-pile Cal arranged his cushions at the granary door. In a few minutes a finger of fire was toying through wraiths of orangeyellow smoke curling slowly through the still air.
“Did I ever tell you about the trouble between the cloud and the shadow?” Cal asked, when they were seated comfortably and the crackle of fire played pleasantly in their ears. “No? Oh, that was a great trouble. So silly, too, as most of our troubles are when you go to the bottom of them.
“You see, it was like this: The cloud
used to be born every afternoon, somewhere in the south-west, and used to come steering her ship softly through the blue lake that we call the sky. She was very proud of her great white plumes that rose like majestic feathers from the back of a mighty swan, and of the glisten of sunshine where it fell on her shining shoulders.
“But the cloud, like many beautiful persons, was very vain. Do you know what it is to be vain, Reed?” “She was stuck on herself,” the boy answered promptly. Cal paused, taken rather aback by the glib rejoinder. “Ah, I see your education is progressing,” he continued. “Yes, she was rather vain, and she wanted very much to be admired. And so it annoyed her very much that wherever she went a shadow passed over the face of the earth, darkening its cheerful smile. And at last she said to the shadow, ‘Shadow, why do you annoy me by going wherever I go, and by pushing yourself in always between Earth and me? Why don’t you go away by yourself, so that Earth may admire me? Surely the world is big enough for us both!’
“But the shadow said, ‘Earth loves me more than she does you, and I will not leave her. See how the parched flowers open at my caress! Hear how the wheat whispers under the touch of my fingers! Earth loves me, and I will not give her up.’
“Then the cloud gathered all her friends together, until a great squadron of them came sailing through the sky. And as they came they touched elbows, closed ranks, and began to sh ot their little bullets of rain
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The S in o k i n g Flax
Continued from page 26
a: ihe shadow below. But the shadow took the onslaught in silence; did not answer, did not strike back.”
('ai paused, aware of a presence. From the gloom by the side of the granary young Jackson Stake emerged; passed through a segment of the circle of light, his dark face strangely sinister in the red glow; disappeared again in the darkness.
"Then the cloud grew more angry than ever because the shadowwould not light back, and she called up her artillery under General Lightning and Colonel Thunder, and my, but didn’t they raise a clatter! They blazed and bellowed and poured until it seemed the poor shadow must be driven to surrender. But the shadow never answered a word, and all the time she grewdeeper and blacker, and so she grew and grew until she seemed to cover all the w-orld, until at length, look where she would, the cloud could not see a ray of sunshine in all the earth. And the cloud wept as she had never wept before, to think that all the earth had become so dark and foreboding.
"But the cloud would not give up, and so she carried on her fight until she could fight no longer; all her beautiful plumes were gone; all her loveliness had disappeared; she had exhausted herself; she vanished into thin air. And then a wonderful thing happened. Just as the cloud vanished the shadow also vanished, and all the earth lay steeped in sunshine.”
"What does it mean, Daddy X?” said Reed, when Cal had been silent for some minutes.
"I don’t know. Just a story. But I suppose it means that jealousy makes its own shadows—its own troubles. And when jealousy disappears the shadows disappear, too. I reckon that’s what it means. Now say your verse and slip away to bed.”
He held the child a moment in his arms; then turned to his fire and his pipe. But Reed had barely gone when there was a soft rustle in the darkness and Minnie Stake stood beside him. He sprang to his feet, remembering in the moment how absolutely their first meeting was being duplicated.
“I’ve been eavesdropping again,” she said. “May I sit down?”
Reed had taken one of the cushions, as an instalment of his bed. Cal eagerly brushed the end of the remaining cushion with his hand and they sat down together. He pushed the glowing sticks in to a little pile and a finger of flame thrust up again to toy with the smoke-wraiths in the silent air. The light glowed on the girl’s face; danced entangled in her rippling hair; touched with its soft caress the shadows of her throat; lirnmed the alluring lines of her young body and glistened on the sheen of her stockings as she stretched her toes toward the fire. Of a sudden Cal felt his pulses racing and knew that the barriers which their stubbornness had built between them had collapsed and restrained them less to-night than if they had never been. This girl—what of the world, of his station, of his ambitions, of his poverty, of the cloud which had sent, him to the open spaces? His sociological experiment, beginning as the half-humorous pastime of a season, had grown to be a matter of life and death, of all things desirable. Her presence flooded him w-itb a witchery of wild imaginings.
For a moment he would not trust himself with words.
I HAVE been eavesdropping again,” she repeated, when he did not speak. “Are you angry?”
“Angry? How could I be angry? But it. Is a dangerous practice; you never can t ell ’
“What, I may hear? I have to take that, chance. Do you remember what you were saving what 1 heard?”
II" groped in his mind, but, It had gone urging. There was nothing solid on whiel be could lav his hand.
"You were saying that jealousy makes '.vi trouble;, arid that when jealousy ;.oi. i : e troubles go, tori. Arid 1 knew you must, have been thinking what, I've been thinking or you wouldn’t have said that.”
She turned to him her face, warm and
inviting with a radiance not entirely of the fire, and it was with an effort he refrained from reaching out and touching it, from drawing her lips to his. It would be folly, he knew, but a folly more entrancing than all the wisdom of the world.
“So that’s what you’ve been thinking,” he managed to say.
“For three weeks. Cal, I’ve been so unhappy. I— Was there anything in that—that incident, you know, down at the lake?”
“You mean in the fact that I was there with Annie Frawdic?”
“No more than in the fact that you were there with Archie Fíale.”
She was silem for a moment, the heel of her shoe digging meanwhile in the hard earth before the fire.
“Yes, I know you see it that way,” she conceded. “Bur it’s a little different. Archie and I are old friends—”
“And good friends.”
“And good friends. But not so good as that—”
“How ‘So good as that?’ ”
“Well, don’t you see, he’s gone home •—early?”
She was talking in enigmas. “I can’t follow you,” he confessed.
“Then I’ll be blunt. I sent him home early, don’t you see, so that I could— that we could—” She was floundering.
“You saw me go to the lake?” he asked.
“Yes, and wished I might have gone, too,” she said.
Her amazing frankness threatened his undoing. With an effort he held his poise. When he spoke it was with forced calmness.
“Why do you say these things to me?” he asked.
It was as though in some way he had thrust out and repulsed her. She did not move, yet he experienced a sense of her drawing away from him.
“I thought you would be interested,” she said, very quietly.
“I am interested; tremendously interested. Minnie, if things were different—• if I were in a position—I would tell you how much I am interested.”
“But as things are—?”
Fie spread his open palms before him. “You know,” he said.
They fell silent then, and the fire again died down before them.
“My brother has come home,” she said at length, as though seeking a change of topic. “He was asking me about you—and Reed.”
“You can’t have seen much of him yet. I am flattered by his interest.” He did not mean his words to be so hard as they sounded.
“Just a few minutes. You see, I hadn’t seen him for ten years—more than ten years. I was a little girl then, going to school.” She paused as though to call up the picture. “But we always have looked on him as a sort of black sheep; I don’t know why, except that he went away and stayed—seemed to drop us out of his life. He always was different from the rest of us; is yet. Didn’t you see it?”
“Yes, I could see that he was different,” said CaJ. “And he was interested in me?” “Oh, he was asking about everybody, you know. He seems to be at war with everybody, because the first thing he said to me was, T suppose you’ll have your little knife into me, too.’ There was something tragic about it. ‘Not ’till I know you better,’ says I, which was a funny answer, don’t you think?”
“Rather,” Cal agreed. “It’s bad enough to be alone in the world, without being at war with it, too.”
SHE shot a quick glance at him, and for an instant their eyes met.
“But you are not alone,” she said, with her keen intuition of his meaning. “You have Reed, and ” She paused. “Father and mother think a great deal of you, arid so does Gander, for all his banter about your boulevard and your education, and you’re a hero in Ham’s eyes. Ham doesn’t say very much, but he thinks a great deal, and / know.” “That leaves just one member of the family unclassified.”
“Then there’s Annie F’rolic,” she added. He ignored the thrust; an exploratory thrust, he did not doubt. “You were
telling me about your brother,” he reminded her.
“So I was. He asked me who you were, and I said ‘Calvin Beach.’ ‘Who?’ he said. ‘Calvin Beach—Cal, we call him,’ I said. ‘Where’s he from?’ ‘Don’t know, particularly; he never told me,’ I said. ‘Rambled in with his Ford a few weeks ago and held father up for a job.’ And all the time I was telling him this he was watching me in the strangest kind of way with those strange black eyes of his.”
She turned suddenly on the cushion, and her hand fell lightly on Cal’s arm. The feather’s weight of her fingers set him a-thrill. “Tell me, Cal,” she said, with sudden intensity. “Do you know him? Did you ever see him before?”
“Never in the world.”
She breathed more easily. “Something about the way he looked made me think he knew you,” she said. “Of course I didn’t know, and it may just have been my fancy, but I thought, perhaps, I should tell you.”
He was following her move by move. She had thought that possibly he was in danger; she had come to tell him.
“He was interested, too, in Reed,” she went on. “Asked me who the boy was. I told him he was your sister’s child. That was right, wasn’t it? Then he asked his name, and I told him ‘Reed Beach,’ and he said how could that be if he was your sister’s child, and I couldn’t tell him.”
“Listen, Minnie,” he said. “There is one thing I never have done—never have felt called upon to do. That is, explain Reed. My friends must accept him, as they accept me, without question.”
She turned her face to him again. “You need not explain him—-to me,” she said.
He stirred the fire slowly to give him time to collect this thoughts. Then—
“Reed is my sister’s son,” he said. “A short time before he was born his father disappeared, and was never seen again. We suspected an accident; drowning, perhaps, but never learned anything definite. No doubt the extra strain of this mystery wore Celesta down; at any rate she never recovered after Reed was born. At the last she gave the boy to me, and charged me to take care of him. I have done so, and will do so to the end. I adopted him and gave him my name. That is all there is to it.”
HER hand found his; rested on it gently for a moment, then closed with a sudden intensity of passion in her strong, supple fingers. “You need not have told me,” she whispered. “I did no want—I did not need to know.” “He is about all I have in life,” Cal went on. “Celesta and I were the only children. I have to think of him, always. You understand?”
“I understand,” she breathed. But in her heart she was crying, “Oh, don’t you see? That is no obstacle. I 'love him too!” Outwardly, “He is a wonderful boy. I wonder if I—would you let me see him, as he sleeps?”
They arose together and he led her through the door of the little granary that served as his home, and Reed’s. His heart was thumping absurdly, but above its uproar Cal could hear the rhythm of the boy’s steady breathing as it came from the corner of the room where he slept. He found a match and struck a light. Its flame lit up the bare board walls until Cal directed it toward the sleeping figure on the floor. Reed was entangled, boy like, among his covers; an arm and his face lay bare and a foot protruded from under a twisted blanket. They leaned over and watched the sweet lips, the calm, placid face, but Cal watched also the eyes of the girl beside him; saw them moisten and fill and drop their jewelled tribute on the rough bed that was Reed’s, and his. Then the match burned out.
They turned to go, and as they turned her hair brushed his cheek. It was tantalizing, maddening. It was black darkness in the little room; he could not see her face, but the sense of her presence was all about him. He stretched out his hand and it touched her hair; it fell upon her shoulder; he turned her toward him.
“Minnie I know it’s madness, and you will say so, and forget, but for the moment you must hear me—-Minnie, I love you! 1 cannot ask you to be my wife; I have nothing to offer that you would have, but I can be silent no
longer. I love you, Minnie—love you— do you hear?”
For a moment she did not answer, but he felt her frame tremble beneath his hand. Then—her voice was low but
clear and firm: “It is not madness, CaJ. And you can offer me everything— everything that I would ever care to have.”
“You mean that, sweet? Remember, I am penniless, in uncertain health—” “You will be rich some day. You have brains; you have education. But it is not for that, but because I—I love you. Cal—”
SHE stirred toward him and his hands found her arms, traced their rounded grace to the shoulders, linked about her as he drew her to him in a sudden abandon of passion. His lips met hers, crushing forth that wine which is poured but once in life, a new wine that went reeling through his brain, to his limbs, to the tips of the fingers that held her in their clasp. The revelation of her love swept over him, held him speechless while she trembled responsive in his arms. He feared to break the spell; feared that the sound of his voice would arouse him as from a dream, and the ecstasy of that moment would be fled forever. When at length he dared to speak they were word-caresses that he poured into her ear; words of endearment, strange to his tongue, which now sprang to his lips as from some secret and unsuspected reservoir of feeling. She was his! She was his! And he spoke as though his own soul communed with itself. There was no stranger here; no one even -so strange as Reed; only two halves of a single spirit, made for each other from the beginning of the world, mingling now and forever. That was the strangest part of it, that there was no sense of strangeness; this girl, this Minnie—see, her cheek was warm, her lips were soft, her eyes were moist with the fresh dew of her confession, and she was his—his—
On Sunday it was his privilege to sleep comparatively late, and Cal found himself assorting and piecing together the events of the previous day. He lay in a glow of happiness from his knowledge of Minnie’s love; his lips were yet warm with her eager kisses. It was a great thing to think about, this confession that had been his and hers, and which must shape his life henceforward from that hour.
The sun was pouring in at the eastern window and already warning to pungency the old tire with the blow-out where it caught the morning rays. Reed slept deeply on his back, his mouth wide open—against all instructions; his feet exposed beyond a corner of their crumpled blankets. Cal rose on his elbow and found his watch. Six o’clock. He yawned, stretched, kicked himself clear of the blankets, stood up on the floor.
Half an hour later, while he was currying Big Jim to the accompaniment of much business with hay and oats, a shadow fell amid the million yellow atoms dancing in the wedge of sunlight at the stable door, and Minnie entered.. She waved a hand at Cal, paused a moment as though to make sure there was no one else about, then came up fearlessly between the horses.
“I have to go to town, Cal,” she said. “Mr. Bradshaw has telephoned. An important case is coming up suddenly in the Winnipeg courts and there is still a great amount of work to do on it. Gander has volunteered to drive me in.” “Gander is unnecessarily obliging,” Cal observed.
“Yes, isn’t he? Who knows but some one would have asked me to spend the day at the lake, and might, perhaps, have let me wade a little? Thp water must be warmer now than on the Twentyfourth.”
He smothered her banter in a quick embrace, while Big Jim, like the gentleman he was, buried his attention in his oat box. And neither guessed what strange links in their chain of eyents would be forged or broken before'thev met again.
IT WAS Tuesday evening when the blow fell.
Cal had been-•busyithat chuwith his summer-fallow, and with fnoiíghlís of
Continued on page 30
Continued, from, page 28
Minnie Stake, and of Reed. Practical thoughts they were; plans for his magazine articles; speculations as to the most likely editors; a slowly evolving idea of a series of articles knit together in a book. A picture of the book on the market; of its inviting cover in the shop windows; of fat royalty cheques to be laid, metaphorically, at the feet of Minnie Beach. He breathed deeply in the fresh breeze that stirred the dust from his plough wheels and was glad of the health in his young veins. The cloud had passed over; there was now no threat for the future in his expanding lungs.
His plans were beginning to take form, and to enthuse him greatly. The same divine urge which bade him bring order into the chaos of Jackson Stake’s farmyard now stirred him to carry the battle into a much-wider field. If he could bring order into the chaos of farm labor, if he could touch with one glimpse of beauty the sordidness which was expressed by “forty dollars a month and found”; if he could awaken to spiritual consciousness the physical life of which the Stake farmstead was typical, and at the same time gain a livelihood for Minnie and for Reed; that, surely, would be something worth while! His thought turned to a bungalow down by the lake; he could build it cheaply, mainly of logs that could be cut nearby, and the land would cost him little or nothing. Down by the lake it was rough and unsuitable for farming; its only recommendation was its beauty, its solitude, its vast, slumbrous, brooding silence, and on these its owners placed no value. A few acres, with a patch that could be cleared for a garden and a cow; a brood of chickens; a log bungalow looking over the lake; a fireplace built by his own hands of boulders gathered along some rocky point of the shore, and fuel cut lavishly from the dead and fallen timbers near by; such was the patchwork out of which he was piecing a design for the home that should be his—and Minnie’s.
“I must talk this over with Minnie,” he said. “Might run into town to-night and talk it over with her. Haven’t seen her since Sunday morning.”
CAL met his employer in the yard.
“I’ve been pounding the horses through pretty steady,” he said, “so I thought I’d knock of! a bit early to-night and perhaps run into town for an hour or two, if you don’t mind.”
“Sure, that’s all right,” said the old farmer, genially. “Take an evenin’ whenever you want it.” A furrow of smile ploughed up through his big red face. “Take an evenin’ off whenever you like an’ run into town. Maybe you’ll be takin’ an interest in the practice o’ the law?”
Cal measured him for a moment, then made his plunge. “Can’t say I’m interested in the practice of the law,” he said, “but I’ll admit there’s something mighty attractive about the law office of Bradshaw & Tonnerfeldt.”
“Don’ tell me, Cal,” Jackson Stake laughed. “I wasn’ born yesterday, an’ I ain’t blind, neither. This is more’n was in the bargain, Cal, but I ain’t kickin’.”
Cal took this to be the parental blessing, and mumbled something unintelligible. He wondered how much Minnie had told her father. But his hand in some way became enclosed in Jackson Stale’s great palm, and the two men held each other for a moment with their eyes silent.
“I reckon you haven’ got very much money to come an’ go on, Cal,” said the farmer, when he spoke, “but I reckon too you’ve got about a bushel o’ brains under that ol’ hat o’ yours, an’ you’ll cash in on ’em sooner or later. I’ll admit I never set much on eddication until you come here, as I sort o’ figgered it spoiled a man for work. But I see now that don’ always go. I ain’t particular kickin’ on you not havin’ any money, Cal, if you know what I’m drivin’ at.' That’ll come in time. I’ve made a few bones myself, an’ I’d trade ’em right now for some things you got that you can’t sell. By the way, I might as well give you somethin’ on account. You’ll be wantin’ to go to the Electric Theatre, or buy some peanuts, or somethin’. Come up to the house. I think there’s a bit o’ money, an’ you might as well have it.”
The farmer insisted on paying Cal until the end of June. “Take it now while you can get it,” he advised. “There might be a
hail storm to-morrow night an’ then you’d have to talk wages to me from behind a shotgun. When I’m close, Cal, I’m so close I’d bust a rib if I swallowed a flax seed, so take it when the takin’s good.” Cal was busy pumping his tires when Jackson junior came by and observed him in silence for some minutes.
“Going to town?” he asked at length. “Thinking of it. Like to come?”
“No. These jerk-water joints don’t weigh much with me. Don’t with you, either, I g^iess. You weren’t brought up in Plainville.”
“Not exactly. Still, I can enjoy an evening there now and again.”
“So could I if I’d somebody ; else’s sister to jazz around with. Where’d you come from, Cal?”
Cal felt the color beginning to creep up around his neck. He resented this questioning and the veiled but flippant reference to Minnie. Still, there was nothing to quarrel about.
“Oh, I’m a bird of passage,” he said. “Just blew in.”
“So did I. And I’m ready to blow out again. It don’t take much of this to do me.”
“I haven’t found it that way. I rather like it here.”
“Yes, you seem to have made a hit. You’re ace-high with Dad and the old woman and some other members of the family. With me it’s different. I’m a twospot—spades at that.”
THERE was something in his voice that recalled Minnie’s remark about everybody having their knives into him. He was at war with the world.
“Oh, I wouldn’t go so far as that,” Cal suggested. “Your mother is still pretty fond of you, if I can read her aright.”
“Is she? Well, it don’t get me anywhere. Cal, I’m broke, and I’m fed up on this Rube-stuff, and I’m due to beat it. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
He seated himself on the running-board and the dog-eared fenders flapped him a precarious welcome. As Jackson rolled a cigarette Cal recalled Gander’s prophecy to the effect that his erring brother would be no great factor in solving the farm labor problem. Evidently Gander’s conclusions were to be justified sooner even than he expected.
“Have one?” he said, extending his pouch and papers.
“No, thanks. I usually take a pipe before turning in, but that’s about all.” Jackson returned his pouch to a pocket of good worsted stuff, now frayed and broken about the edge. “Well, let’s get down to business,” he said, as one who has an Unpleasant task and wants to get it over with. “How about lending me a hundred dollars? That ’u’d put me back under the cluster lights and out of everybody’s way.”
Cal did a moment’s quick thinking. What lay behind this complacent, even confident suggestion that he should lend this stranger a hundred dollars? There was a deliberateness about the manner of young Jackson which suggested that this approach was part of a definite plan. Why had he not gone to his father for money? But he must speak—
“A hundred dollars? I haven’t that much in the world.”
“You could get it from the old man if you went after it. He paid you something to-night, didn’t he?”
“Yes. die paid me up to date, and something over. I couldn’t ask him for more at present.”
“You’re too modest, Cal. Always do your gating while the getting is good. But perhaps what he gave you would see me through. I could be in Minneapolis in twenty-four hours, and comfortably out of your way.”
“But you’re not in my way. Not at all. This country’s big enough—”
“It won’t be—if I stay here. Besides, i’ll send the monev back as soon as I hit a bit of luck. 1 got nothing against you, Cal; nothing at all, and I’ve made you a straight proposition. Come through with the green and I’ll get out and stay out, and nobody’ll know any more than when I came.”
Cal straightened up and faced him, a latent flame of belligerency fanning up hotly in his breast.
“I have no money to lend you,” he said, “and there is no reason why I should do so, if I had. As for what you call ‘a straight proposition.’ I don’t understand you at all.”
Jackson did not move from his seat on
the running-board. His face was calm, his voice deliberate, but there was a deep glow in his eyes that was hard to fathom.
“If you won’t do it on my account, Cal, perhaps you will do it on Reed’s?”
IRON jaws suddenly went clutching about Cal’s heart. “How’s Reed’s?” he demanded. “What have you to do with Reed?”
Jackson flicked the ash from his cigarette and inhaled deeply. “It’s not a pleasant story, Cal; not pleasant for any of us, and I’d just as soon not go into it. Suppose you lend me fifty dollars and I’ll be off on the next train to Minneapolis.” Cal measured him for a moment. “I don’t know what you’re driving at,” he said. “But I’m not going to lend you fifty dollars. If you think you can get it from me any other Way, here and now is a good chance to try.”
“I didn’t want to tell you the story, Cal, but if I must I must. The boy is not what you pretend he is.”
“Not what I pretend—? You lie!
What do you know about Reed?”
If Cal expected the passing of the lie would bring Jackson Stake to his feet he was disappointed. The man remained seated.
“I don’t generally take that, Cal, but the circumstances are unusual. You may want to take it back in a moment. You ask me what I know about Reed. Suppose I tell you. You had a sister. Celesta?”
A tremor of something akin to fear ran along Cal’s spine. It was plain that Jackson was not merely stabbing in the dark. He knew—how much? Cal decided it would be well worth while to find that out and changed his tactics accordingly.
“That’s so—yes,” he agreed.
“And Reed is her son?”
“I have made no secret of the fact that Reed is my sister’s son.”
“Quite so. But—who is his father?” Cal’s feeling was that of a miser whose hoard has been robbed; of a now virtuous woman whose youthful error is about to be blazoned abroad. He had a terrific impulse to fall upon this black scoundrel, to take his neck in his strong hands and twist it into eternal silence. The man knew about Reed! The secret he had guarded so well, which he had hoped to lose forever, was in this man’s power. Why not seal it now—now, for the sake of the boy—
The secret must be kept! That was the onethng above all others. Nothing else mattered. Reed must grow up free of the horrible handicap that society would place upon him if it knew. For that he was willing to pay any price. It was plain that this man knew, and his mouth must be closed. With money? The loan idea was blackmail—blackmail, pure and simple. If he gave him fifty dollars to-day he would demand a hundred dollars to-morrow. In the promise to go away and keep silence Cal had no faith whatever. The creature would keep silence only so long as he found it profitable so to do.
ON THE other hand, if Cal attacked this man, if he thrashed him as he should, explanations would be demanded and the secret would be out. With a blow that seemed to stop his heart it came to Cal that there would be no safety while this man lived . . . Still, he must feel his way; he must temporize.
“I can’t guess what you may know about Reed,” he said, “or why you should ask me a question like that. It is of course, none of your business. That is the obvious answer. But apparently you think you have information which you can sell to me and that I will pay you for keeping it quiet. Before I can decide on that I must know what the information is. What do you know about Reed, and why should I pay you for silence?”
Jackson laughed uneasily. “You carry it well, Cal,” he said. “If I had your poker face I wouldn’t be holding you up for a measly fifty dollars. I’d go after bigger game. However, when the big fish ain’t biting, one has to play for the small ones. I thought I’d told you enough, and you wouldn’t be curious about the details.”
“I want to know the whole thing. If I’m to pay you money I want to know what I am paying it for.”
“Sit down, Cal,” said Jackson, after a moment, making room for him on the running-board. “I ain’t proud of my part in this story, as perhaps you can guess, but I ain’t as sorry, either, as you’ll
think I ought to be. That’s human nature and there’s no use arguing about it. I met your sister when she was about eighteen or nineteen—”
“ YOM met her?”
“Yep. Mighty catchy looking girl and I fell for her right away. I wasn’t much more than a kid myself, you understand. She spoke of you often—that’s how I knew it was you when I heard your name here; Cal Beach isn’t so common but that it ’u’d make one pick up the connection— but she never let me come ’round to her place and never let me see you. Not that I had any hankering to see you, you understand. Guess she knew I was a sort of black sheep from the first and wanted to keep the family name as clean as the circumstances would permit.”
Cal listened to this amazing recital too stunned to feel its force. Afterward he wondered that at that moment he had not twisted Jackson Stake’s head from his shoulders. But at the time the suddenness, the brazenness, of the revelation held him dumfounded. It was not until the sneer in Jackson’s confession—if he could call it a confession—it was not until the sneer upon Celesta began to emerge from the tangled debris of his life’s wreckage that Cal felt the sting of the blow. The blood rushed to his head and brought him, reeling, to his feet.
“You dog!” he cried. “You cur! I’ve a mind to choke your insults down your throat, here and now. You—you murderer! Yes, murderer; that’s the word. Murderer and worse than murderer, of my sister! I could take your life, but it wouldn’t settle the score; it isn’t worth a hair of her head. You—you—”
“Hot words, Cal. Calm yourself. I told you I wasn’t proud of my part, but you insisted on the facts. You got ’em. But there’s one fact which doesn’t seem to be quite clear to you ; the fact that it is I who hold the whip hand in this little controversy. Just lay so much as a finger on me and no price you can offer will keep me from telling Minnie, at any rate. I haven’t been a model brother, but I owe her that much, and I’ll pay it. So sit down and keep quiet.”
CAL obeyed. There was nothing else to do. The hypocrisy of Jackson’s pretence of protecting Minnie nauseated him, but there was nothing to do but keep silence. And keep his head. He was playing with too shrewd a gamester to lose his head.
“And I wasn’t insinuating against Celesta—not at all. Celesta was a good girl. But she seemed to recognize the black sheep in me and there’s a kink in human nature that makes the good girl and the black sheep an awful bad combination. She’d have given her soul for me, I reckon, and I admit I thought more of her than of most of them. I was might} sorry over it all, but it couldn’t be helped then, and there was no use standing around weeping about it.”
Cal’s sarcasm burst his restraint. “That is the one thing you allowed Celesta’s other friends to do for her,” he commented. “And now you expect for this little service to the family I’ll make a good fellow of you and present you with my summer’s wages?”
“Well—I wouldn’t put it just that way. I thought this country would be a little small for us, and the simplest thing would be for you to stake me to a railway ticket and I’d put a lot of land between us. Of course, there are other ways—”
“You’re right—there are other ways. Listen to me, Stake. When I sat by my sister in those last hours—when I followed her alone to the cemetery, I swore before God that if ever I met the man responsible for it I’d have his life for hers. And I haven’t entirely changed my mind. You might chew on that a little, too.”
“I know. You could lay for me and knock me out sometime when I’m off my guard; I don’t admit you can do it in a fair fight. But that would call for explanations, Cal, and it seems to me explanations are the thing that would be particularly hard—for you. So you can chew on that.”
All that Cal saw clearly was that he must temporize; he must get time to think; he must keep his head. “Well, I’ll see what I can do,” he said at length. “Perhaps I can get some money from my friends in Winnipeg. I can’t give you all my wages, you know.”
“I’ll give you ’till Saturday—no longer,” said Jackson Stake, with the air of a creditor closing an account.
To be continued