A BRANCH ROAD
"Keep the main-travelled road till you come to a branch leading off--keep to the right."
IN the windless September dawn a voice went singing, a man's voice, singing a cheap and common air. Yet something in the elan of it all told he was young, jubilant, and a happy lover.
Above the level belt of timber to the east a vast dome of pale undazzling gold was rising, silently and swiftly. Jays called in the thickets where the maples flamed amid the green oaks, with irregular splashes of red and orange. The grass was crisp with frost under the feet, the road smooth and gray-white in color, the air was indescribably sweet, resonant, and stimulating. No wonder the man sang.
He came into view around the curve in the lane. He had a fork on his shoulder, a graceful and polished tool. His straw hat was tilted on the back of his head, his rough, faded coat was buttoned close to the chin, and he wore thin buckskin gloves on his hands. He looked muscular and intelligent, and was evidently about twenty-two or -three years of age.
As he walked on, and the sunrise came nearer to him, he stopped his song. The broadening heavens had a majesty and sweetness that made him forget the physical joy of happy youth. He grew almost sad with the great vague thoughts and emotions which rolled in his brain as the wonder of the morning grew.
He walked more slowly, mechanically following the road, his eyes on the ever-shifting streaming banners of rose and pale green, which made the east too glorious for any words to tell. The air was so still it seemed to await expectantly the coming of the sun.
Then his mind flew back to Agnes. Would she see it? She was at work, getting breakfast, but he hoped she had time to see it. He was in that mood so common to him now, when he could not fully enjoy any sight or sound unless he could share it with her. Far down the road he heard the sharp clatter of a wagon. The roosters were calling near and far, in many keys and tunes. The dogs were barking, cattle bells jangling in the wooded pastures, and as the youth passed farmhouses, lights in the kitchen windows showed that the women were astir about breakfast, and the sound of voices and curry-combs at the barn told that the men were at their daily chores.
And the east bloomed broader. The dome of gold grew brighter, the faint clouds here and there flamed with a flush of red. The frost began to glisten with a reflected color. The youth dreamed as he walked; his broad face and deep earnest eyes caught and reflected some of the beauty and majesty of the sky.
But as he passed a farm gate and a young man of about his own age joined him, his brow darkened. The other man was equipped for work like himself.
"Going down to help Dingman thrash?"
"Yes," replied Will shortly. It was easy to see he didn't welcome company.
"So'm I. Who's goin' to do your thrashin--Dave McTurg?"
"Yes., I guess so. Haven't spoken to anybody yet."
They walked on side by side. Will didn't feel like being rudely broken in on in this way. The two men were rivals, but Will, being the victor, would have been magnanimous, only he wanted to be alone with his lover's dream.
"When do you go back to the sem'?" Ed asked after a little.
"Term begins next week. I'll make a break about second week."
"Le's see: you graduate next year, don't yeh?"
"I expect to, if I don't slip up on it."
They walked on side by side, both handsome fellows; Ed a little more showy in his face, which had a certain clean-cut precision of line and a peculiar clear pallor that never browned under the sun. He chewed vigorously on a quid of tobacco, one of his most noticeable bad habits.
Teams could be heard clattering along on several roads now, and jovial voices singing. One team coming along behind the two men, the driver sung out in good-natured warning, "Get out o' the way, there." And with a laugh and a chirp spurred his horses to pass them.
Ed, with a swift understanding of the driver's trick, flung out his left hand and caught the end-gate, threw his fork in, and leaped after it. Will walked on, disdaining attempt to catch the wagon. On all sides now the wagons of the plowmen or threshers were getting out into the fields, with a pounding, rumbling sound.
The pale red sun was shooting light through the leaves, and warming the boles of the great oaks that stood in the yard, and melting the frost off the great gaudy threshing machine that stood between the stacks. The interest, picturesqueness of it all got hold of Will Hannan, accustomed to it as he was. The homes stood about in a circle, hitched to the ends of the six sweeps, all shining with frost.
The driver was oiling the great tarry cogwheels underneath. Laughing fellows were wrestling about the yard. Ed Kinney had scaled the highest stack, and stood ready to throw the first sheaf. The sun, lighting him where he stood, made his fork handle gleam like dull gold. Cheery words, jests, and snatches of song everywhere. Dingman bustled about giving his orders and placing his men, and the voice of big Dave McTurg was heard calling to the men as they raised the long stacker into place:
"Heave-ho, there! Up she rises!"
And, best of all, Will caught a glirnpse of a smiling girl face at the kitchen window that made the blood beat m his throat.
"Hello, Will!" was the general greeting, given with some constraint by most of the young fellows, for Will had been going to Rock River to school for some years, and there was a little feeling of jealousy on the part of those who pretended to sneer at the " seminary chaps like Will Hannan and Milton Jennings."
Dingrnan came up. "Will, I guess you'd better go on the stack with Ed."
"All ready. Hurrah, there!" said David in his soft but resonant bass voice that always had a laugh in it. "Come, come, every sucker of yeh git hold o' something. All ready!" He waved his hand at the driver, who climbed upon his platform. Everybody scrambled into place.
"Chk, chk! All ready, boys! Stiddy there, Dan! Chk, chkl All ready, boys! Stiddy there, boys! All ready now!" The horses began to strain at the sweeps. The cylinder began to hum.
"Grab a root there! Where's my band cutter? Here, you, climb on here!" And David reached down and pulled Shep Watson up by the shoulder with his gigantic hand.
Boo-oo-oom, Boo-woo-woo-oom-oom-ow-owm, yarryarr! The whirling cylinder boomed, roared, and snarled as it rose in speed. At last, when its tone became a rattling yell, David nodded to the pitchers, rasped his hands together, the sheaves began to fall from the stack, the band cutter, knife in hand, slashed the bands in twain, and the feeder with easy majestic motion gathered them under his arm, rolled them out into an even belt of entering wheat, on which the cylinder tore with its frightful, ferocious snarl.
Will was very happy in Its quiet way. He enjoyed the smooth roll of his great muscles, the sense of power he felt in his hands as he lifted, turned, and swung the heavy sheaves two by two down upon the table, where the band cutter madly slashed away. His frame, sturdy rather than tall, was nevertheless lithe, and he made a fine figure to look at, so Agnes thought, as she came out a moment and bowed and smiled to both the young men.
This scene, one of the jolliest and most sociable of the western farm, had a charm quite aside from human companionship. The beautiful yellow straw entering the cylinder; the clear yellow-brown wheat pulsing out at the side; the broken straw, chaff, and dust puffing out on the great stacker; the cheery whistling and calling of the driver; the keen, crisp air, and the bright sun somehow weirdly suggestive of the passage of time.
Will and Agnes had arrived at a tacit understanding of mutual love only the night before, and Will was powerfully moved to glance often toward the house, but feared somehow the jokes of his companions. He worked on, therefore, methodically, eagerly; but his thoughts were on the future--the rustle of the oak tree nearby, the noise of whose sere leaves he could distinguish beneath the booming snarl of the machine; on the sky, where great fleets of clouds were sailing on the rising wind, like merchantmen bound to some land of love and plenty.
When the Dingmans first came in, only a couple of years before, Agnes had been at once surrounded by a swarm of suitors. Her pleasant face and her abounding good nature made her an instant favorite with all. Will, however, had disdained to become one of the crowd, and held himself aloof, as he could easily do, being away at school most of the time.
The second winter, however, Agnes also attended the seminary, and Will saw her daily and grew to love her. He had been just a bit jealous of Ed Kinney all the time, for Ed had a certain rakish grace in dancing and a dashing skill in handling a team which made him a dangerous rival.
But, as Will worked beside him all this Monday, he felt so secure in his knowledge of the caress Agnes had given him at parting the night before that he was perfectly happy--so happy that he didn't care to talk, only to work on and dream as he worked.
Shrewd David McTurg had his joke when the machine stopped for a few minutes. "Well, you fellers do better'n I expected yeh to, after bein' out so late last night. The first feller I find gappin' has got to treat to the apples."
"Keep your eye on me," said Shep.
"You?" laughed one of the others. "Anybody knows if a girl so much as looked crossways at you, you'd fall in a fit."
"Another thing," said David. "I can't have you fellers carryin' grain, going to the house too often for fried cakes or cookies."
"Now you git out," said Bill Young from the straw pile. "You ain't goin' to have all the fun to yerself."
Will's blood began to grow hot in his face. If Bill had said much more, or mentioned her name, he would have silenced him. To have this rough joking come so close upon the holiest and most exquisite evening of his life was horrible. It was not the words they said, but the tones they used, that vulgarized it all. He breathed a sigh of relief when the sound of the machine began again.
This jesting made him more wary, and when the call for dinner sounded and he knew he was going in to see her, he shrank from it. He took no part in the race of the dust-blackened, half-famished men to get at the washing place first. He took no part in the scurry to get seats at the first table.
Threshing time was always a season of great trial to the housewife. To have a dozen men with the appetites of dragons to cook for was no small task for a couple of women, in addition to their other everyday duties. Preparations usually began the night before with a raid on a hen roost, for "biled chickun" formed the piece de resistance of the dinner. The table, enlarged by boards, filled the sitting room. Extra seats were made out of planks placed on chairs, and dishes were borrowed of neighbors who came for such aid, in their turn.
Sometimes the neighboring women came in to help; but Agnes and her mother were determined to manage the job alone this year, and so the girl, with a neat dark dress, her eyes shining, her cheeks flushed with the work, received the men as they came in dusty, coatless, with grime behind their ears, but a jolly good smile on every face.
Most of them were farmers of the neighborhood and schoolmates. The only one she shrank from was Young, with his hard, glittering eyes and red, sordid face. She received their jokes, their noise, with a silent smile which showed her even teeth and dimpled her round cheek. "She was good for sore eyes," as one of the fellows said to Shep. She seemed deliciously sweet and dainty to these roughly dressed fellows.
They ranged along the table with a great deal of noise, boots thumping, squeaking, knives and forks rattling, voices bellowing out.
"Now hold on, Steve! Can't have yeh so near that chickun!"
"Move along, Shep! I want to be next to the kitchen door! I won't get nothin' with you on that side o' me."
"Oh, that's too thin! I see what you're--"
"No, I won't need any sugar, if you just smile into it." This from gallant David, greeted with roars of laughter.
"Now, Dave, s'pose your wife 'ud hear o' that?"
"She'd snatch 'im bald-headed, that's what she'd do."
"Say, somebody drive that ceow down this way," said Bill.
"Don't get off that drive! It's too old," criticised Shep, passing the milk jug.
Potatoes were seized, cut in halves, sopped in gravy, and taken one, two! Corn cakes went into great jaws like coal into a steam engine. Knives in the right hand cut and scooped gravy up. Great, muscular, grimy, but wholesome fellows they were, feeding like ancient Norse, and capable of working like demons. They were deep in the process; half-hidden by steam from the potatoes and stew, in less than sixty seconds from their entrance.
With a shrinking from the comments of the others upon his regard for Agnes, Will assumed a reserved and almost haughty air toward his fellow workmen, and a curious coldness toward her. As he went in, she came forward smiling brightly.
"There's one more place, Will." A tender, involuntary droop in her voice betrayed her, and Will felt a wave of hot blood surge over him as the rest roared.
"Ha, ha! Oh, there'd be a place for him!"
"Don't worry, Will! Always room for you here!"
Will took his seat with a sudden angry flame. "Why can't she keep it from these fools?" was his thought. He didn't even thank her for showing him the chair.
She flushed vividly, but smiled back. She was so proud and happy, she didn't care very much if they did know it. But as Will looked at her with that quick angry glance, and took his seat with scowling brow, she was hurt and puzzled. She redoubled her exertions to please him, and by so doing added to the amusement of the crowd that gnawed chicken bones, rattled cups, knives and forks, and joked as they ate with small grace and no material loss of time.
Will remained silent through it all, eating in marked contrast to the others, using his fork instead of his knife in eating his potato,'and drinking his tea from his cup rather than from his saucer-- " finickies" which did not escape the notice of the girl nor the sharp eyes of the other workmen.
"See that? That's the way we do down to the sem! See? Fork for pie in yer right hand! Hey? I can't do it. Watch me."
When Agnes leaned over to say, "Won't you have some more tea, Will?" they nudged each other and grinned. "Aha! What did I tell you?"
Agnes saw at last that for some reason Will didn't want her to show her regard for him, that be was ashamed of it in some way, and she was wounded. To cover it up, she resorted to the feminine device of smiling and chatting with the others. She asked Ed if he wouldn't have another piece of pie.
"I will--with a fork, please."
"This is 'bout the only place you can use a fork," said Bill Young, anticipating a laugh by his own broad grin.
"Oh, that's too old," said Shep Watson. "Don't drag that out agin. A man that'll eat seven taters--"
"Shows who docs the work."
"Yes, with his jaws," put in Jim Wheelock, the driver. "If you'd put in a little more work with soap 'n' water before comin' in to dinner, it 'ud be a religious idee," said David.
"It ain't healthy to wash."
"Well, you'll live forever, then."
"He ain't washed his face sence I knew 'im."
"Oh, that's a little too tought! He washes once a week," said Ed Kinney.
"Back of his ears?" inquired David, who was munching a doughnut, his black eyes twinkling with fun.
"What's the cause of it?"
"Dade says she won't kiss 'im if he don't." Everybody roared.
"Good fer Dade! I wouldn't if I was in her place."
Wheelock gripped a chicken leg imperturbably, and left it bare as a toothpick with one or two bites at it. His face shone in two clean sections around his nose and mouth. Behind his ears the dirt lay undisturbed. The grease on his hands could not be washed off.
Will began to suffer now because Agnes treated the other fellows too well. With a lover's exacting jealousy, he wanted her in some way to hide their tenderness from the rest, but to show her indifference to men like Young and Kinney. He didn't stop to inquire of himself the justice of such a demand, nor just how it was to be done. He only insisted she ought to do it.
He rose and left the table at the end of his dinner, without having spoken to her, without even a tender, significant glance, and he knew, too, that she was troubled and hurt. But he was suffering. It seemed as if he had lost something sweet, lost it irrecoverably.
He noticed Ed Kinney and Bill Young were the last to come out, just before the machine started up again after dinner, and he saw them pause outside the threshold and laugh back at Agnes standing in the doorway. Why couldn't she keep those fellows at a distance, not go out of her way to bandy jokes with them?
Some way the elation of the morning was gone. He worked on doggedly now, without looking up, without listening to the leaves, without seeing the sunlighted clouds. Of course he didn't think that she meant anything by it, but it irritated him and made him unhappy. She gave herself too freely.
Toward the middle of the afternoon the machine stopped for a time for some repairing; and while Will lay on his stack in the bright yellow sunshine, shelling wheat in his hands and listening to the wind in the oaks, he heard his name and her name mentioned on the other side of the machine, where the measuring box stood. He listened.
"She's pretty sweet on him, ain't she? Did yeh notus how she stood around over him?"
"Yes; an' did yeh see him when she passed the cup o' tea down over his shoulder?"
Will got up, white with wrath as they laughed.
"Some way he didn't seem to enjoy it as I would. I wish she'd reach her arm over my neck that way."
Will walked around the machine, and came on the group lying on the chaff near the straw pile.
"Say, I want you fellers to understand that I won't have any more of this talk. I won't have it."
There was a dead silence. Then Bill Young rose up.
"What yeh goen' to do about Ut?" be sneered.
"I'm going to stop it."
The wolf rose in Young. He moved forward, his ferocious soul flaming from his eyes.
"W'y, you damned seminary dude, I can break you in two!"
An answering glare came into Will's eyes. He grasped and slightly shook his fork, which he had brought with him unconsciously.
"If you make one motion at me, I'll smash your head like an eggshell!" His voice was low but terrific. There was a tone m it that made his own blood stop in his veins. "If you think I'm going to roll around on this ground with a hyena like you, you've mistaken your man. I'll kill you, but I won't fight with such men as you are."
Bill quailed and slunk away, muttering some epithet like "coward."
"I don't care what you call me, but just remember what I say: you keep your tongue off that girl's affairs."
"That's the talk!" said David. "Stand up for your girl always, but don't use a fork. You can handle him without that:'
"I don't propose to try," said Will, as he turned away. As be did so, he caught a glimpse of Ed Kinney at the well, pumping a pail of water for Agnes, who stood beside him, the sun on her beautiful yellow hair. She was laughing at something Ed was saying as he slowly moved the handle up and down.
Instantly, like a foaming, turbid flood, his rage swept out toward her. "It's all her fault," he thought, grinding his teeth. "She's a fool. If she'd hold herself in like other girls! But no; she must smile and smile at everybody." It was a beautiful picture, but it sent a shiver through him.
He worked on with teeth set, white with rage. He had an impulse that would ?have made him assault her with words as with a knife. He was possessed with a terrible passion which was hitherto latent in him, and which he now felt to be his worst self. But he was powerless to exorcise it. His set teeth ached with the stress of his muscular tension, and his eyes smarted with the strain.
He had always prided himself on being cool, calm, above these absurd quarrels that his companions had so often indulged in. He didn't suppose he could be so moved. As he worked on, his rage settled down into a sort of stubborn bitterness--stubborn bitterness of conflict between this evil nature and his usual self. It was the instinct of possession, the organic feeling of proprietorship of a woman, which rose to the surface and mastered him. He was not a self-analyst, of course, being young, though he was more introspective than the ordinary farmer.
He had a great deal of time to think it over as he worked on there, pitching the heavy bundles, but still he did not get rid of the miserable desire to punish Agnes; and when she came out, looking very pretty in her straw hat, and came around near his stack, he knew she came to see him, to have an explanation, a smile; and yet he worked away with his hat pulled over his eyes, hardly noticing her.
Ed went over to the edge of the stack and chatted with her; and she--poor girl!--feeling Will's neglect, could only put a good face on the matter, and show that she didn't mind it, by laughing back at Ed.
All this Will saw, though he didn't appear to be looking. And when Jim Wheelock--Dirty Jim--with his whip in his hand, came up and playfully pretended to pour oil on her hair, and she laughingly struck at him with a handful of straw, Will wouldn't have looked at her if she had called him by name.
She looked so bright and charming in her snowy apron and her boy's straw hat tipped jauntily over one pink ear that David and Steve and Bill, and even Shep, found a way to get a word with her, and the poor fellows in the high straw pile looked their disappoimment and shook their forks in mock rage at the lucky dogs on the ground. But Will worked on like a fiend, while the dapples of light and shade fell on the bright face of the merry girl.
To save his soul from hell flames he couldn't have gone over there and smiled at her. It was impossible. A wall of bronze seemed to have arisen between them. Yesterday, last night, seemed a dream. The clasp of her hands at his neck, the touch of her lips, were like the caresses of an ideal in some dim reverie.
As night drew on, the men worked with a steadier, more mechanical action. No one spoke now. Each man was intent on his work. No one had any strength or breath to waste. The driver on his power changed his weight on weary feet, and whistled and sang at the tired horses. The feeder, his face gray with dust, rolled the grain into the cylinder so even, so steady, so swift that it ran on with a sullen, booming roar. Far up on the straw pile the stackers worked with the steady, rhythmic action of men rowing a boat, their figures looming vague and dim in the flying dust and chaff, outlined against the glorious yellow and orange-tinted clouds.
"Phe-e-eew-ee," whistled the driver with the sweet, cheery, rising notes of a bird. "Chk, chk, chk! Phe-e-eewee. Go on there, boys! Chk, chk, chk! Step up, there Dan, step up! (Snap!) Phe-e-eew-ee! G'-wan-g'-wan, g'-wan! Chk, clik, chk! Wheest, wheest, wheest! Clik, chk!"
In the house the women were setting the table for supper. The sun had gone down behind the oaks, flinging glorious rose color and orange shadows along the edges of the slate-blue clouds. Agnes stopped her work at the kitchen window to look up at the sky and cry silently. "What was the matter with Will?" She felt a sort of distrust of him now. She thought she knew him so well, but now he was so strange.
"Come, Aggie," said Mrs. Dingman, "they're gettin' most down to the bottom of the stack. They'll be pilin' in here soon."
"Phe-e-eew-ee! G'-wan, Doll! G'-wan, boys! Chk, chk, chk! Phe-e-eew-ee!" called the driver out in the dusk, cheerily swinging the whip over the horses' backs. Boomoo-oo-oom! roared the machine, with a muffled, monotonous, solemn tone. "G'-wan, boys! G'-wan, g'-wan!"
Will had worked unceasingly all day. His muscles ached with fatigue. His hands trembled. He clenched his teeth, however, and worked on, determined not to yield. He wanted them to understand that he could do as much pitching as any of them and read Caesar's Commentaries besides. It seemed as if each bundle were the last he could raise. The sinews of his wrist pained him so, they seemed swollen to twice their natural size. But still he worked on grimly, while the dusk fell and the air grew chill.
At last the bottom bundle was pitched up, and he got down on his knees to help scrape the loose wheat into baskets. What a sweet relief it was to kneel down, to release the fork and let the worn and cramping muscles settle into rest! A new note came into the driver's voice, a soothing tone, full of kindness and admiration for the work his team had done.
"Wo-o-o, lads! Stiddy-y-y, boys! Wo-o-o, there, Dan. Stiddy, stiddy, old man! Ho, there!" The cylinder took on a lower key, with short rising yells, as it ran empty for a moment. The horses had been going so long that they came to a stop reluctantly. At last David called, "Turn out!" The men seized the ends of the sweep, David uncoupled the tumbling rods, and Shep threw a sheaf of grain into the cylinder, choking it into silence.
The stillness and the dusk were very impressive. So long had the bell-metal cogwheel sung its deafening song into Will's ear that, as he walked away into the dusk, he had a weird feeling of being suddenly deaf, and his legs were so numb that he could hardly feel the earth. He stumbled away like a man paralyzed.
He took out his handkerchief, wiped the dust from his face as best he could, shook his coat, dusted his shoulders with a grain sack, and was starting away, when Mr. Dingman, a rather feeble elderly man, came up.
"Come, Will, supper's all ready. Go in and eat."
"I guess I'll go home to supper."
"Oh, no, that won't do. The women'll be expecting yeh to stay."
The men were laughing at the well, the warm yellow light shone from the kitchen, the chill air making it seem very inviting, and she was there, waiting! But the demon rose in him. He knew Agnes would expect him, that she would cry that night with disappointment, but his face hardened. "I guess I'll go home," he said, and his tone was relentless. He turned and walked away, hungry, tired --so tired he stumbled, and so unhappy he could have wept.
ON Thursday the county fair was to be held. The fair is one of the gala days of the year in the country districts of the West, and one of the times when the country lover rises above expense to the extravagance of hiring a top buggy in which to take his sweetheart to the neighboring town.
It was customary to prepare for this long beforehand, for the demand for top buggies was so great the livery-men grew dictatorial and took no chances. Slowly but surely the country beaux began to compete with the clerks, and in many cases actually outbid them, as they furnished their own horses and could bid higher, in consequence, on the carriages.
Will had secured his brother's "rig," and early on Thursday morning he was at work, busily washing the mud from the carriage, dusting the cushions, and polishing up the buckles and rosettes on his horses' harnesses. It was a beautiful, crisp, clear dawn--the ideal day for a ride; and Will was singing as he worked. He had regained his real sell, and, having passed through a bitter period of shame, was now joyous with anticipation of forgiveness. He looked forward to the day with its chances of doing a thousand little things to show his regret and his love.
He had not seen Agnes since Monday, because Tuesday he did not go back to help thresh, and Wednesday he had been obliged to go to town to see about board for the coming term; but he felt sure of her. It had all been arranged the Sunday before; she'd expect him, and he was to call at eight o'clock.
He polished up the colts with merry tick-tack of the brush and comb, and after the last stroke on their shining limbs, threw his tools in the box and went to the house.
"Pretty sharp last night," said his brother John, who was scrubbing his face at the cistern.
"Should say so by that rim of ice," Will replied, dipping his hands into the icy water.
"I ought'o stay home today an' dig tates," continued the older man thoughtfully as they went into the wood-shed and wiped consecutively on the long roller towel. "Some o' them Early Rose lay right on top o' the ground. They'll get nipped sure."
"Oh, I guess not. You'd better go, Jack; you don't get away very often. And then it would disappoint Nettie and the children so. Their little hearts are overflowing," he ended as the door opened and two sturdy little boys rushed out.
"B'ekfuss, Poppa; all yeady!"
The kitchen table was set near the stove; the room was full of sun, and the smell of sizzling sausages and the aroma of coffee filled the room. The kettle was doing its duty cheerily, and the wife with flushed face and smiling eyes was hurrying to and fro, her heart full of anticipation of the day's outing.
There was a hilarity almost like some strange intoxication on the part of the two children. They danced, and chattered, and clapped their chubby brown hands, and ran to the windows ceaselessly.
"Is yuncle Will goin' yide flour buggy?"
"Yus; the buggy and the colts."
"Is he goin' to take his girl?"
Will blushed a little, and John roared.
"Yes, I'm goin'--"
"Is Aggie your girl?"
"H'yer! h'yer! young man," called John, "you're gettin' personal."
"Well, set up," said Nettie, and with a good deal of clatter they drew around the cheerful table.
Will had already begun to see the pathos, the pitiful significance of this great joy over a day's outing, and he took himself a little to task at his own selfish freedom. He resolved to stay at home some time and let Nettie go in his place. A few hours in the middle of the day on Sunday, three or four holidays in summer; the rest for this cheerful little wife and her patient husband was work--work that some way accomplished so little and left no trace on their souls that was beautiful.
While they were eating breakfast, teams began to clatter by, huge lumber wagons with three seats across, and a boy or two jouncing up and down with the dinner baskets near the end-gate. The children rushed to the window each time to announce who it was, and how many there were in.
But as Johnny said "firteen" each time, and Ned wavered between " seven" and "sixteen," it was doubtful if they could be relied upon. They had very little appetite, so keen was their anticipation of the ride and the wonderful sights before them. Their little hearts shuddered with joy at every fresh token of preparation--a joy that made Will say, "Poor little men!"
They vibrated between the house and the barn while the chores were being finished, and their happy cries started the young roosters into a renewed season of crowing. And when at last the wagon was brought out and the horses hitched to it, they danced like mad sprites.
After they had driven away, Will brought out the colts, hitched them in, and drove them to the hitching post. Then he leisurely dressed himself in his best suit, blacked his boots with considerable exertion, and at about 7:30 o'clock climbed into his carriage and gathered up the reins.
He was quite happy again. The crisp, bracing air, the strong pull of the spirited young team put all thought of sorrow behind him. He had planned it all out. He would first put his arm around her and kiss her--there would not need to be any words to tell her how sorry and ashamed he was. She would know!
Now, when he was alone and going toward her on a beautiful morning, the anger and bitterness of Monday fled away, became unreal, and the sweet dream of the Sunday parting grew the reality. She was waiting for him now. She had on her pretty blue dress and the wide hat that always made her look so arch. He had said about eight o'clock.
The swift team was carrying him along the crossroad, which was little travelled, and he was alone with his thoughts. He fell again upon his plans. Another year at school for them both, and then he'd go into a law office. Judge Brown had told him he'd give him--"Whoa! Ho!"
There was a swift lurch that sent him flying over the dasher. A confused vision of a roadside ditch full of weeds and bushes, and then he felt the reins in his hands and heard the snorting horses trample on the hard road.
He rose dizzy, bruised, and covered with dust. The team he held securely and soon quieted. He saw the cause of it all: the right forewheel had come off, letting the front of the buggy drop. He unhitched the excited team from the carriage, drove them to the fence and tied them securely, then went back to find the wheel and the "nut" whose failure to hold its place had done all the mischief. He soon had the wheel on, but to find the burr was a harder task. Back and forth he ranged, looking, scraping in the dust, searching the weeds.
He knew that sometimes a wheel will run without the burr for many rods before corning off, and so each time he extended his search. He traversed the entire half-mile several times, each time his rage and disappointment getting more bitter. He ground his teeth in a fever of vexation and dismay.
He had a vision of Agnes waiting, wondering why he did not come. It was this vision that kept him from seeing the burr in the wheel-track, partly covered by a clod.
Once he passed it looking wildly at his watch, which was showing nine o'clock. Another time he passed it with eyes dimmed with a mist that was almost tears of anger.
There is no contrivance that will replace an axle burr, and farmyards have no unused axle burrs, and so Will searched. Each moment he said: "I'll give it up, get onto one of the horses, and go down and tell her." But searching for a lost axle burr is like fishing: the searcher expects each moment to find it. And so he groped, and ran breathlessly, furiously, back and forth, and at last kicked away the clod that covered it, and hurried, hot and dusty, cursing his stupidity, back to the team.
It was ten o'clock as he climbed again into the buggy and started his team on a swift trot down the road. What would she think? He saw her now with tearful eyes and pouting lips. She was sitting at the window, with hat and gloves on; the rest had gone, and she was waiting for him.
But she'd know something had happened, because he had promised to be there at eight. He had told her what team he'd have. (He had forgotten at this moment the doubt and distrust he had given her on Monday.) She'd know he'd surely come.
But there was no smiling or tearful face watching at the window as he came down the lane at a tearing pace and turned into the yard. The house was silent and the curtains down. The silence sent a chill to his heart. Something rose up in his throat to choke him.
"Agnes!" he called. "Hello! I'm here at last!"
There was no reply. As he sat there, the part he had played on Monday came back to him. She may be sick! he thought with a cold thrill of fear.
An old man came around the corner of the house with a potato fork in his hands, his teeth displayed in a grin.
"She ain't here. She's gone."
"Yes--more'n an hour ago."
"Who'd she go with?"
"Ed Kinney," said the old fellow with a malicious grin. "I guess your goose is cooked."
Will lashed the horses into a run and swung round the yard and out of the gate. His face was white as a dead man's, and his teeth were set like a vise. He glared straight ahead. The team ran wildly, steadily homeward, while their driver guided them unconsciously. He did not see them. His mind was filled with a tempest of rages, despairs, and shames.
That ride he will never forget. In it he threw away all his plans. He gave up his year's schooling. He gave up his law aspirations. He deserted his brother and his friends. In the dizzying whirl of passions he had only one clear idea--to get away, to go West, to get away from the sneers and laughter of his neighbors, and to make her suffer by it all.
He drove into the yard, did not stop to unharness the team, but rushed into the house and began packing his trunk. His plan was formed, which was to drive to Cedarville and hire someone to bring the team back. He had no thought of anything but the shame, the insult she had put upon him. Her action on Monday took on the same levity it wore then, and excited him in the same way. He saw her laughing with Ed over his dismay. He sat down and wrote a letter to her at last--a letter that came from the ferocity of the medieval savage in him:
"It you want to go to hell with Ed Kinney, you can. I won't say a word. That's where he'll take you. You won't see me again."
This he signed and sealed, and then he bowed his head and wept like a girl. But his tears did not soften the effect of the letter. It went as straight to its mark as he meant it should. It tore a seared and ragged path to an innocent, happy heart, and be took a savage pleasure in the thought of it as he rode away on the cars toward the South.
The seven years lying between 1880 and 1887 made a great change in Rock River and in The adjacent farming land. Signs changed and firms went out of business with characteristic Western ease of shift. The trees grew rapidly, dwarfing The houses beneath them, and contrasts of newness and decay thickened.
Will found The country changed, as he walked along The dusty road from Rock River toward "The Comers." The landscape was at its fairest and liberalest, with its seas of corn deep green and moving with a mournful rustle, in sharp contrast to its flashing blades; its gleaming fields of barley, and its wheat already mottled with soft gold in The midst of its pea-green.
The changes were in The hedges, grown higher, In The greater predominance of cornfields and cattle pastures, but especially in The destruction of homes. As he passed on Will saw The grass growing and cattle feeding on a dozen places where homes had once stood. They had given place to The large farm and The stock raiser. Still The whole scene was bountiful and very beautiful to The eye.
It was especially grateful to Will, for he had spent nearly all his years of absence among The rocks, treeless swells, and bleak cliffs of The Southwest. The crickets rising before his dusty feet appeared to him something sweet and suggestive and the cattle feeding in The clover moved him to deep thought--they were so peaceful and slow-motioned.
As he reached a little popple tree by the roadside, he stopped, removed his broad-brimmed hat, put his elbows on the fence, and looked hungrily upon The scene. The sky was deeply blue, with only here and there a huge, heavy, slow-moving, massive, sharply outlined cloud sailing like a berg of ice in a shoreless sea of azure.
In the fields the men were harvesting the ripened oats and barley, and The sound of their machines clattering, now low, now loud, came to his ears. Flies buzzed near him, and a king bird clattered overhead. He noticed again, as he had many a time when a boy, that The softened sound of the far-off reaper was at times exactly like The hum of a bluebottle fly buzzing heedlessly about his ears.
A slender and very handsome young man was shocking grain near The fence, working so desperately he did not see Will until greeted by him. He looked up, replied to The greeting, but kept on till he had finished his last stook, then he came to the shade of the tree and took off his hat
"Nice day to sit under a tree and fish."
Will smiled. "I ought to know you, I suppose; I used to live here years ago."
"Guess not; we came in three years ago."
The young man was quick-spoken and very pleasant to look at. Will felt freer with him.
"Are The Kinneys still living over there?" He nodded at a group of large buildings.
"Tom lives there. Old man lives with Ed. Tom ousted The old man some way, nobody seems to know how, and so he lives with Ed."
Will wanted to ask after Agnes, but hardly felt able. "I s'pose John Hannan is on his old farm?"
"Yes. Got a good crop this year."
Will looked again at The fields of rustling wheat over which The clouds rippled, and said with an air of conviction: "This lays over Arizona, dead sure."
"You're from Arizona, then?"
"Yes--a good ways from it"' Will replied in a way that stopped further question. "Good luck!" he added as he walked on down The road toward The creek, musing. "And the spring--I wonder if that's there yet. I'd like a drink." The sun seemed hotter than at noon, and he walked slowly. At the bridge that spanned the meadow brook, just where it widened over a sandy ford, he paused again. He hung over the rail and looked at the minnows swimming there.
"I wonder if they're The same identical chaps that used to boil and glitter there when I was a boy--looks so. Men change from one generation to another, but The fish remain The same. The same eternal procession of types. I suppose Darwin 'ud say their environment remains The same."
He hung for a long time over The railing, thinking of a vast number of things, mostly vague, flitting things, looking into the clear depths of the brook, and listening to the delicious liquid note of a blackbird swinging on the willow. Red lilies starred the grass with fire, and goldenrod and chicory grew everywhere; purple and orange and yellow-green the prevailing tints.
Suddenly a water snake wriggled across the dark pool above the ford, and the minnows disappeared under the shadow of the bridge. Then Will sighed, lifted his head, and walked on. There seemed to be something prophetic in it, and he drew a long breath. That's the way his plans broke and faded away.
Human life does not move with the regularity of a clock. In living there are gaps and silences when the soul stands still in its flight through abysses--and then there come times of trial and times of struggle when we grow old without knowing it. Body and soul change appallingly.
Seven years of hard, busy life had made changes in Will.
His face had grown bold, resolute, and rugged, some of its delicacy and all of its boyish quality gone. His figure was stouter, erect as of old, but less graceful. He bore himself like a man accustomed to look out for himself in all kinds of places. It was only at times that there came into his deep eyes a preoccupied, almost sad look that showed kinship with his old self.
This look was on his face as he walked toward the clump of trees on the right of the road.
He reached the grove of popple trees and made his way at once to the spring. When he saw it, it gave him a shock. They had let it fill up with leaves and dirt.
Overcome by the memories of the past, he flung himself down on the cool and shadowy bank, and gave himself up to the bittersweet reveries of a man returning to his boyhood's home. He was filled somehow with a strange and powerful feeling of the passage of time; with a vague feeling of the mystery and elusiveness of human life. The leaves whispered it overhead, the birds sang it in chorus with the insects, and far above, in the measureless spaces of sky, the hawk told it in the silence and majesty of his flight from cloud to cloud.
It was a feeling hardly to be expressed in words, one of those emotions whose springs lie far back in the brain. He lay so still, the chipmunks came curiously up to his very feet, only to scurry away when he stirred like a sleeper in pain.
He had cut himself off entirely from the life at The Corners. He had sent money home to John, but had concealed his own address carefully. The enormity of this folly now came back to him, racking him till he groaned.
He heard the patter of feet and the half-mumbled monologue of a running child. He roused up and faced a small boy, who started back in terror like a wild fawn. He was deeply surprised to find a man there where only boys and squirrels now came. He stuck his fist in his eye, and was backing away when Will spoke.
"Hold on, sonny! Nobody's hit you. Come, I ain't goin' to eat yeh." He took a bit of money from his pocket. "Come here and tell me your name. I want to talk with you."
The boy crept upon the dime.
Will smiled. "You ought to be a Kinney. What is your name?"
"Tomath Dickinthon Kinney. I'm thix and a half. I've got a colt," lisped the youngster breathlessly as he crept toward the money.
"Oh, you are, eh? Well, now, are you Tom's boy or Ed's?"
"Tomth's boy. Uncle Ed hith gal--"
"Ed got a boy?"
"Yeth, thir-- li'l baby. Aunt Agg letth me hold 'im"
"Agg! Is that her name?"
"That's what Uncle Ed callth her."
The man's head fell, and it was a long time before he asked his next question.
"How is she, anyhow?"
"Purty well," piped the boy with a prolongation of the last words into a kind of chirp. "She'th been thick, though," he added.
"Been sick? How long?"
"Oh, a long time. But she ain't thick abed; she'th awuul poor, though. Gran'pa thayth she'th poor ath a rake."
"Oh, he does, eh?"
"Yeth, thir. Uncle Ed he jawth her, then she crieth."
Will's anger and remorse broke out in a groaning curse. "O my God! I see it all. That great lunkin' houn' has made life a hell fer her." Then that letter came back to his mind; he had never been able to put it out of his mind--he never would till he saw her and asked her pardon.
"Here, my boy, I want you to tell me some more. Where does your Aunt Agnes live?"
"At gran'pa'th. You know where my gran'pa livth?"
"Well, you do. Now I want you to take this letter to her. Give it to her." He wrote a little note and folded it. "Now dust out o' here."
The boy slipped away through the trees like a rabbit; his little brown feet hardly rustled. He was like some little wood animal. Left alone, the man went back into a reverie that lasted till the shadows fell on the thick little grove around the spring. He rose at last and, taking his stick in hand, walked out to the wood again and stood there, gazing at the sky. He seemed loath to go farther. The sky was full of flame-colored clouds floating in a yellow-green sea, where bars of faint pink streamed broadly away.
As he stood there, feeling the wind lift his hair, listening to the crickets' ever-present crying, and facing the majesty of space, a strange sadness and despair came into his eyes.
Drawing a quick breath, he leaped the fence and was about going on up the road, when he heard, at a little distance, the sound of a drove of cattle approaching, and he stood aside to allow them to pass. They snuffed and shied at the silent figure by the fence, and hurried by with snapping heels--a peculiar sound that made the man smile with pleasure.
An old man was driving the cows, crying out:
"St, boy, there! Go on, there. Whay, boss!"
Will knew that hard-featured, wiry old man, now entering his second childhood and beginning to limp painfully. He had his hands full of hard clods which he threw impatiently at the lumbering animals.
"Good evening, uncle!"
"I ain't y'r uncle, young man."
His dim eyes did not recognize the boy he had chased out of his plum patch years before.
"I don't know yeh, neither."
"Oh, you will, later on. I'm from the East. I'm a sort of a relative to John Hannan."
"I wanto know if y' be!" the old man exclaimed, peering closer.
"Yes. I'm just up from Rock River. John's harvesting, I s'pose?"
"Where's the youngest one--Will?"
"William? Oh! he's a bad aig--he lit out fr the West somewhere. He was a hard boy. He stole a hatful o' my plums once. He left home kind o' sudden. He! he! I s'pose he was purty well cut up jest about them days."
The old man chuckled.
"Well, y' see, they was both courtin' Agnes then, an' my son cut William out. Then William he lit out f'r the West, Arizony 'r California 'r somewhere out West. Never been back sence."
"No. But they say he's makin' a terrible lot o' money," the old man said in a hushed voice. "But the way he makes it is awful scaly. I tell my wife if I had a son like that an' he'd send me home a bushel basket o' money, earnt like that, I wouldn't touch finger to it--no, sir!"
"You wouldn't? Why?"
"'Cause it ain't right. It ain't made right no way, you--"
"But how is it made? What's the feller's trade?"
"He's a gambler--that's his trade! He plays cards, and every cent is bloody. I wouldn't touch such money no how you could fix it--"
"Wouldn't, hay?" The young man straightened up. "Well, look-a-here, old man: did you ever hear of a man foreclosing a mortgage on a widow and two boys, getting a farm f'r one quarter what it was really worth? You damned old hypocrite! I know all about you and your whole tribe--you old bloodsucker!"
The old man's jaw fell; he began to back away.
"Your neighbors tell some good stories about you. Now skip along after those cows or I'll tickle your old legs for you!"
The old man, appalled and dazed at this sudden change of manner, backed away, and at last turned and racked off up the road, looking back with a wild face at which the young man laughed remorselessly.
"The doggoned old skeesucks!" Will soliloquized as he walked up the road. "So that's the kind of a character he's been givin' me!"
"Hullo! A whippoorwrn. Takes a man back into childhood--No, don't 'whip poor Will'; he's got all he can bear now."
He came at last to the little farm Dingman had owned, and he stopped in sorrowful surprise. The barn had been moved away, the garden plowed up, and the house, turned into a granary, stood with boards nailed across its dusty cobwebbed windows. The tears started into the man's eyes; he stood staring at it silently.
In the face of this house the seven years that he had last lived stretched away into a wild waste of time. It stood as a symbol of his wasted, ruined life. It was personal, intimately personal, this decay of her home.
All that last scene came back to him: the booming roar of the threshing machine, the cheery whistle of the driver, the loud, merry shouts of the men. He remembered how warmly the lamplight streamed out of that door as he turned away tired, hungry, sullen with rage and jealousy. Oh, if he had only had the courage of a man!
Then he thought of the boy's words. She was sick. Ed abused her. She had met her punishment. A hundred times he had been over the whole scene. A thousand times he had seen her at the pump smiling at Ed Kinney, the sun lighting her bare head; and he never thought of it without hardening.
At this very gate he had driven up that last forenoon, to find that she had gone with Ed. He had lived that sickening, depressing moment over many times, but not times enough to keep down the bitter passion he had felt then, and felt now as he went over it in detail.
He was so happy and confident that morning, so perfectly certain that all would be made right by a kiss and a cheery jest. And now! Here he stood sick with despair and doubt of all the world. He turned away from the desolate homestead and walked on.
"But I'll see her--just once more. And then--" And again the mighty significance, responsibility of life fell upon him. He felt as young people seldom do the irrevocableness of living, the determinate, unalterable character of living. He determined to begin to live in some new way--just how he could not say.
OLD man Kinney and his wife were getting their Sunday school lessons with much bickering, when Will drove up the next day to the dilapidated gate and hitched his team to a leaning post under the oaks. Will saw the old man's head at the open window, but no one else, though he looked eagerly for Agnes as he walked up the familiar path. There stood the great oak under whose shade he had grown to be a man. How close the great tree seemed to stand to his heart, some way! As the wind stirred in the leaves, it was like a rustle of greeting.
In that low old house they had all lived, and his mother had toiled for thirty years. A sort of prison after all. There they were all born, and there his father and his little sister had died. And then it had passed into old Kinney's hands.
Walking along up the path he felt a serious weakness in his limbs, and he made a pretense of stopping to look at a flowerbed containing nothing but weeds. After seven years of separation he was about to face once more the woman whose life came so near being a part of his--Agnes, now a wife and a mother.
How would she look? Would her face have that oldtime peachy bloom, her mouth that peculiar beautiful curve? She was large and fair, he recalled, hair yellow and shining, eyes blue--He roused himself. This was nonsense! He was trembling. He composed himself by looking around again.
"The old scoundrel has let the weeds choke out the flowers and surround the beehives. Old man Kinney neverbelieved in anything but a petty utility."
Will set his teeth, and marched up to the door and struck it like a man delivering a challenge. Kinney opened the door, and started back in fear when he saw who it was.
"How de do? How de do?" said Will, walking in' his eyes fixed on a woman seated beyond, a child in her lap.
Agnes rose, without a word; a fawnlike, startled widening of the eyes, her breath coming quick, and her face flushing. They couldn't speak; they only looked at each other an instant, then Will shivered, passed his hand over his eyes, and sat down.
There was no one there but the old people, who were looking at him in bewilderment. They did not notice any confusion in Agnes's face. She recovered first.
"I'm glad to see you back, Will," she said, rising and putting the sleeping child down in a neighboring room. As she gave him her hand, he said:
"I'm glad to get back, Agnes. I hadn't ought to have gone." Then he turned to the old people: "I'm Will Hannan. You needn't be scared, daddy; I was jokin' last night."
"Dew tell! I wanto know!" exclaimed granny. "Wal I never! An, you're my little Willy boy who ust 'o he in my class. Well! well! W'y, Pa, ain't he growed tall! Growed handsome tew. I ust 'o think he was a dredful humly boy; but my sakes, that mustache--"
"Wal, he give me a tumble scare last night. My land! scared me out of a year's growth," cackled the old man.
This gave them all a chance to laugh and the air was cleared. It gave Agnes time to recover herself and to be able to meet Will's eyes. Will himself was powerfully moved; his throat swelled and tears came to his eyes everytime he looked at her.
$he was worn and wasted incredibly. The blue of her eyes seemed dimmed and faded by weeping, and the oldtime scariet of her lips had been washed away. The sinews of her neck showed painfully when she turned her head, and her trembling hands were worn, discolored, and lumpy at the joints.
Poor girl! She felt that she was under scrutiny, and her eyes felt hot and restless. She wished to run away and cry, but she dared not. She stayed, while Will began to tell her of his life and to ask questions about old friends.
The old people took it up and relieved her of any share in it; and Will, seeing that she was suffering, told some funny stories which made the old people cackle in spite of themselves.
But it was forced merriment on Will's part. Once in a while Agnes smiled with just a little flash of the old-time sunny temper. But there was no dimple in the cheek now, and the smile had more suggestion of an invalid--or even a skeleton. He was almost ready to take her in his arms and weep, her face appealed so pitifully to him.
"It's most time f'r Ed to be gittin' back, ain't it' Pa?"
"Sh'd say 'twas! He jist went over to Hobkirk's to trade horses. It's dretful tryin' to me to have him go off tradin' horses on Sunday. Seems if he might wait till a rainy day, 'r do it evenin's. I never did believe in horse tradin' anyhow."
"Have y' come back to stay, Willie?" asked the old lady.
"Well--it's hard-tellin'," answered Will, looking at Agnes.
"Well, Agnes, ain't you goin' to get no dinner? I'm 'bout ready fr dinner. We must git to church eariy today. Elder Wheat is goin' to preach an' they'll be a crowd. He's goin' to hold communion."
"You'll stay to dinner, Will?" asked Agnes.
"Yes--if you wish it."
"I do wish it."
"Thank you; I want to have a good visit with you. I don't know when I'll see you again."
As she moved about, getting dinner on the table, Will sat with gloomy face, listening to the "clack" of the old man. The room was a poor little sitting room, with furniture worn and shapeless; hardly a touch of pleasant color, save here and there a little bit of Agnes's handiwork. The lounge, covered with calico, was rickety; the rocking chair matched it, and the carpet of rags was patched and darned with twine in twenty places. Everywhere was the influence of the Kinneys. The furniture looked like them, in fact.
Agnes was outwardly calm, but her real distraction did not escape Mrs. Kinney's hawklike eyes.
"Well, I declare if you hain't put the butter on in one o' my blue chainy saucers! Now you know I don't allow that saucer to be took down by nobody. I don't see what's got into yeh. Anybody'd s'pose you never see any comp'ny b'fore--wouldn't they, Pa?"
"Sh'd say th' would," said Pa, stopping short in a long story about Ed. "Seems if we couldn't keep anything in this' house sep'rit from the rest. Ed he uses my currycomb--"
He launched out a long list of grievances, which Will shut his ears to as completely as possible, and was thinking how to stop him, when there was a sudden crash. Agnes had dropped a plate.
"Good land o' Goshen!" screamed Granny. "If you ain't the worst I ever see. I'll bet that's my grapevine plate. If it is--well, of all the mercies, it ain't! But it naight 'a' ben. I never see your beat--never! That's the third plate since I came to live here."
"Oh, look-a-here, Granny," said Will desperately. "Don't make so much fuss about the plate. What's it worth, anyway? Here's a dollar."
Agnes cried quickly:
"Oh, don't do that, Will! It ain't her pate. It's my plate, and I can break every plate in the house if I want'o," she cried defiantly.
"'Course you can," Will agreed.
"Well, she can't! Not while I'm around," put in Daddy. "I've helped to pay f'r them plates, if she does call 'em hern--"
"What the devul is all this row about? Agg, can't you get along without stirring up the old folks everytime I'm out o' the house?"
The speaker was Ed, now a tail and slouchily dressed man of thirty-two or -three; his face still handsome in a certain dark, cleanly cut style, but he wore a surly loo'k and lounged along in a sort of hangdog style, in greasy overalls and vest unbuttoned.
"Hello, Will! I heard you'd got home. John told me as I came along."
They shook bands, and Ed slouched down on the lounge. Will could have kicked him for laying the blame of the dispute upon Agnes; it showed him in a flash just how he treated her. He disdained to quarrel; he simply silenced and dominated her.
Will asked a few questions about crops, with such grace as he could show, and Ed, with keen eyes in his face, talked easily and stridently.
"Dinner ready?" he asked of Agnes. "Where's Pete?"
"All right. Let 'im sleep. Well, let's go out an' set 'up. Come, Dad, sling away that Bible and come to grub. Mother, what the devul are you sniffling at? Say, now, look here. If I hear any more about this row, I'll simply let you walk down to meeting. Come, Will, set up."
He led the way out into the little kitchen where the dinner was set.
"What was the row about? Hain't been breakin' some dish, Agg?"
"Yes, she has."
"One o' the blue ones?" winked Ed.
"No, thank goodness, it was a white one."
"Well, now, I'll git into that dod-gasted cubberd some day an' break the whole eternal outfit. I ain't goin' to have this damned jawin' goin' on," he ended, brutally unconscious of his own "jawin'."
After this the dinner proceeded in comparative silence, Agnes sobbing under breath. The room was small and very hot; the table was warped so badly that the dishes had a tendency to slide to the center; the walls were bare plaster grayed with time; the food was poor and scant, and the flies absolutely swarmed upon everything, like bees. Otherwise the room was clean and orderly.
"They say you've made a pile o' money out West, Bill. I'm glad of it. We fellers back here don't make anything. It's a dam tight squeeze. Agg, it seems to me the flies are devilish thick today. Can't you drive 'em out?" Agnes felt that she must vindicate herself a little. "I do drive 'em out, but they come right in again. The screen door is broken, and they come right in."
"I told Dad to fix that door."
"But he won't do it for me."
Ed rested his elbows on the table and fixed his bright black eyes on his father.
"Say, what d'you mean by actin' like a mule? I swear I'll trade you off f'r a yaller dog. What do I keep you round here for anyway--to look purty?"
"I guess I've as good a right here as you have, Ed Kinney."
"Oh, go soak y'r head, old man. If you don't tend out here a little better, down goes your meat house! I won't drive you down to meetin' till you promise to fix that door. Hear me!"
Daddy began to snivel. Agnes could not look up for shame. Will felt sick. Ed laughed.
"I kin bring the old man to terms that way; he can't walk very well late years, an' he can't drive my colt. You know what a cuss I used to be about fast nags? Well, I'm just the same. Hobkirk's got a colt I want. Say, that reminds me: your team's out there by the fence. I forgot. I'll go and put 'em up."
"No, never mind; I can't stay but a few minutes."
"Goin' to be round the country long?"
Agnes looked up a moment and then let her eyes fall.
"Goin' back West, I s'pose?"
"No. May go East, to Europe mebbe."
"The devul y' say! You must 'a' made a ten-strike out West."
"They say it didn't come lawful," piped Daddy over his blackberries and milk.
"Oh, you shet up. Who wants your put-in? Don't work in any o' your Bible on us."
Daddy rose to go into the other room.
"Hold on, old man. You goin' to fix that door?"
"'Course I be," quavered he.
"Well see't y' do, that's all. Now git on y'r duds, an'
I'll go an' hitch up." He rose from the table. "Don't keep me waiting."
He went out unceremoniously, and Agnes was alone with Will.
"Do you go to church? "he asked. She shook her head. "No, I don't go anywhere now. I have too much to do; I haven't strength left. And I'm not fit anyway."
"Agnes, I want to say something to you; not now--after they're gone." He went into the other room, leaving her to wash the dinner things. She worked on in a curious, almost dazed way, a dream of something sweet and irrevocable in her eyes. He represented so much to her. His voice brought up times and places that thrilled her like song. He was associated with all that was sweetest and most carefree and most girlish in her life.
Ever since the boy had handed her that note she had been reliving those days. In the midst of her drudgery she stopped to dream--to let some picture come back into her mind. She was a student again at the seminary, and stood in the recitation room with suffocating beat of the heart. Will was waiting outside--waiting in a tremor like her own, to walk home with her under the maples.
Then she remembered the painfully sweet mixture of pride and fear with which she walked up the aisle of the little church behind him. Her pretty new gown rustled, the dim light of the church had something like romance in it, and he was so strong and handsome. Her heart went out in a great silent cry to God--"Oh, let me be a girl again!"
She did not look forward to happiness. She hadn't power to look forward at all.
As she worked, she heard the high, shrill voices of the old people as they bustled about and nagged at each other.
"Ma, where's my specticles?"
"I ain't seen y'r specticles."
"You have, too."
"I ain't neither."
"You had 'em this forenoon."
"Didn't no such thing. Them was my own brass-bowed ones. You had yourn jest 'fore goin' to dinner. If you'd put 'em into a proper place you'd find 'em again."
"I want'o know if I would," the old man snorted'.
"Wal, you'd orter know."
"Oh, you're awful smart, ain't yeh? You never have no trouble, and use mine--do yeh?--an' lose 'em so't I can't
"And if this is the thing that goes on when I'm here, it must be hell when visitors are gone," thought Will.
"Willy, ain't you goin' to meetin'?"
"No, not today. I want to visit a little with Agnes, then I've got to drive back to John's."
"Wal, we must be goin'. Don't you leave them dishes f't me to wash," she screamed at Agnes as she went out the door. "An' if we don't get home by five, them caaves orter be fed."
As Agnes stood at the door to watch them drive away, Will studied her, a smothering ache in his heart as he saw how thin and bent and weary she was. In his soul he felt that she was a dying woman unless she had rest and tender care.
As she turned, she saw something in his face--a pity and an agony of self-accusation--that made her weak and white. She sank into a chair, putting her hand on her chest, as if she felt a failing of breath. Then the blood came back to her face, and her eyes filled with tears.
"Don't--don't look at me like that," she said in a whisper. His pity hurt her.
At sight of her sitting there pathetic, abashed, bewildered, like some gentle animal, Will's throat contracted so that he could not speak. His voice came at last in one terrible cry--"Oh, Agnes! for God's sake forgive me!" He knelt by her side and put his arm about her shoulders and kissed her bowed head. A curious numbness involved his whole body; his voice was husky, the tears burned in his eyes. His whole soul and body ached with his pity and remorseful, self-accusing wrath.
"It was all my fault. Lay it all to me. .. I am the one to bear it. . . . Oh, I've dreamed a thousand times of sayin' this to you, Aggie! I thought if I could only see you again and ask your forgiveness, I'd--" He ground his teeth together in his assault upon himself. "I threw my life away an' killed you--that's what I did!"
He rose and raged up and down the room till he had mastered himself.
"What did you think I meant that day of the thrashing?" he said, turning suddenly. He spoke of it as if it were but a month or two past.
She lifted her head and looked at him in a slow way. She seemed to be remembering. The tears lay on her hollow cheeks.
"I thought you was ashamed of me. I didn't know--why--"
He uttered a snarl of sell-disgust.
"You couldn't know. Nobody could tell what I meant. But why didn't you write? I was ready to come back. I only wanted an excuse--only a line."
"How could I, Will--after your letter?"
He groaned and turned away.
"And Will, I--I got mad too. I couldn't write."
"Oh, that letter--I can see every line of it! F'r God's sake, don't think of it again! But I didn't think, even when I wrote that letter, that I'd find you where you are. I didn't think, I hoped anyhow, Ed Kinney wouldn't--"
She stopped him with a startled look in her great eyes. "Don't talk about him--it ain't right. I mean it don't do any good. What could I do, after Father died? Mother and I. Besides, I waited three years to hear from you, Will."
He gave a strange, choking cry. It burst from his throat --that terrible thing, a man's sob of agony. She went on, curiously calm now.
"Ed was good to me; and he offered a home, anyway, for Mother--"
"And all the time I was waiting for some line to break down my cussed pride, so I could write to you and explain. But you did go with Ed to the fair," he ended suddenly, seeking a morsel of justification for himself.
"Yes. But I waited an' waited; and I thought you was mad at me, and so when they came I--no, I didn't really go with Ed. There was a wagonload of them."
"But I started," he explained, "but the wheel came off. I didn't send word because I thought you'd feel sure I'd come. If you'd only trusted me a little more-- No! it was all my fault. I acted like a crazy fool. I didn't stop to reason about anything."
They sat in silence alter these explanations. The sound of the snapping wings of the grasshoppers came through the windows, and a locust high in a poplar sent down his ringing whir.
"It can't be helped now, Will," Agnes said at last, her voice full of the woman's resignation. "We've got to bear it."
Will straightened up. "Bear it?" He paused. "Yes, I s'pose so. If you hadn't married Ed Kinney! Anybody but him. How did you do it?"
"Oh' I don't know," she answered, wearily brushing her hair back from her eyes. "It seemed best when I did it--and it can't be helped now." There was infinite, dull despair and resignation in her voice.
Will went over to the window. He thought how bright and handsome Ed used to be, and he felt after all that it was no wonder that she married him. Life pushes us into such things. Suddenly he turned, something resolute and imperious in his eyes and voice.
"It can be helped, Aggie," he said. "Now just listen to me. We've made an awful mistake. We've lost seven years o' life, but that's no reason why we should waste the rest of it. Now hold on; don't interrupt me just yet. I come back thinking just as much of you as ever. I ain't going to say a word more about Ed; let the past stay past. I'm going to talk about the future."
She looked at him in a daze of wonder as he went on. "Now I've got some money, I've got a third interest in a ranch, and I've got a standing offer to go back on the Sante Fee road as conductor. There is a team standing out there. I'd like to make another trip to Cedarville--with you--"
"Oh, Will, don't!" she cried; "for pity's sake don't talk--"
"Wait!" he said imperiously. "Now look at it Here you are in hell! Caged up with two old crows picking the life out of you. They'll kill you--I can see it; you're being killed by inches. You can't go anywhere, you can't have anything. Life is just torture for you--"
She gave a little moan of anguish and despair and turned her face to her chairback. Her shoulders shook with weeping, but she listened. He went to her and stood with his hand on the chairback.
His voice trembled and broke. "There's just one way to get out of this, Agnes. Come with me. He don't care for you; his whole idea of women is that they are created for his pleasure and to keep house. Your whole life is agony. Come! Don't cry. There's a chance for life yet."
She didn't speak, but her sobs were less violent; his voice growing stronger reassured her.
"I'm going East, maybe to Europe; and the woman who goes with me will have nothing to do but get strong and well again. I've made you suffer so, I ought to spend the rest of my life making you happy. Come! My wife will sit with me on the deck of the steamer and see the moon rise, and walk with me by the sea, till she gets strong and happy again--till the dimples get back into her cheeks. I never will rest till I see her eyes laugh again.
She rose flushed, wide-eyed, breathing hard with the emotion his vibrant voice called up, but she could not speak. He put his hand gently upon her shoulder, and she sank down again. And he went on with his appeal. There was something hypnotic, dominating in his voice and eyes.
On his part there was no passion of an ignoble sort, only a passion of pity and remorse, and a sweet, tender, reminiscent love. He did not love the woman before him so much as the girl whose ghost she was--the woman whose promise she was. He held himself responsible for it all, and he throbbed with desire to repair the ravage he had indirectly caused. There was nothing equivocal in his position--nothing to disown. How others might look at it he did not consider and did not care. His impetuous soul was carried to a point where nothing came in to mar or divert.
"And then after you're well, after our trip, we'll come back to Houston, and I'll build my wife a house that'Il make her eyes shine. My cattle and my salary will give us a good living, and she can have a piano and books, and go to the theater and concerts. Come, what do you think of that?"
Then she heard his words beneath his voice Somehow, and they produced pictures that dazzled her. Luminous shadows moved before her eyes, drifting across the gray background of her poor, starved, work-weary life.
As his voice ceased the rosy clouds faded, and she realized again the faded, musty little room, the calico-covered furniture, and looking down at her own cheap and ill-fitting dress, she saw her ugly hands lying there. Then she cried out with a gush of tears:
"Oh, Will, I'm so old and homely now, I ain't fit to go with you now! Oh, why couldn't we have married then?"
She was seeing herself as she was then, and so was he; but it deepened his resolution. How beautiful she used to be! He seemed to see her there as if she stood in perpetual sunlight, with a warm sheen in her hair and dimples in her cheeks.
She saw her thin red wrists, her gaunt and knotted hands. There was a pitiful droop in the thin pale lips, and the tears fell slowly from her drooping lashes. He went on:
"Well, it's no use to cry over what was. We must think of what we're going to do. Don't worry about your looks; you'll be the prettiest woman in the country when we get back. Don't wait, Aggie; make up your mind."
She hesitated, and was lost.
"What will people say?"
"I don't care what they say," he flamed out. "They'd say, stay here and be killed by inches. I say you've had your share of suffering. They'd say--the liberal ones--stay and get a divorce; but how do we know we can get one after you've been dragged through the mud of a trial? We can get one just as well in some other state. Why should you be worn out at thirty? What right or justice is there in making you bear all your life the consequences of our--my schoolboy folly?"
As he went on, his argument rose to the level of Browning's philosophy.
"We can make this experience count for us yet. But we mustn't let a mistake ruin us--it should teach us. What right has anyone to keep you in a hole? God don't expect a toad to stay in a stump and starve if it can get out. He don't ask the snakes to suffer as you do."
She had lost the threads of right and wrong out of her hands. She was lost in a maze. She was not moved by passion. Flesh had ceased to stir her; but there was vast power in the new and thrilling words her deliverer spoke. He seemed to open a door for her, and through it turrets shone and great ships crossed on dim blue seas.
"You can't live here, Aggie. You'll die in less than five years. It would kill me to see you die here. Come! It's suicide."
She did not move, save the convulsive motion of her breath and the nervous action of her fingers. She stared down at a spot in the carpet; she couldn't face him.
He grew insistent, a sterner note creeping into his voice.
"If I leave this time, of course you know I never come back."
Her hoarse breathing, growing quicker each moment, was her only reply.
"I'm done," he said with a note of angry disappointment. He did not give her up, however. "I've told you what I'd do for you. Now if you think--"
"Oh, give me time to think, Will!" she cried out, lifting her face.
He shook his head. "No. You might as well decide now. It won't be any easier tomorrow. Come, one minute more and I go out o' that door--unless--" He crossed the room slowly, doubtful himself of his desperate last measure. "My hand is on the knob. Shall I open it?"
She stopped breathing; her fingers closed convulsively on the chair. As he opened the door she sprang up.
"Don't go, Will! Don't go, please don't! I need you here--I--"
"That ain't the question. Are you going with me, Agnes?"
"Yes, yes! I tried to speak before. I trust you, Will; you're--"
He flung the door open wide. "See the sunlight out there shining on that field o' wheat? That's where I'll take you--out into the sunshine. You shall see it shining on the Bay of Naples. Come, get on your hat; don't take anything more'n you actually need. Leave the past behind you."
The woman turned wildly and darted into the little bedroom. The man listened. He whistled in surprise almost comical. He had forgotten the baby. He could hear the mother talking, cooing.
"Mommie's 'ittle pet. She wasn't goin' to leave her 'ittle man--no, she wasn't! There, there, don't 'e cry. Mommie ain't goin' away and leave him--wicked Mommie ain't--'ittle treasure!"
She was confused again; and when she reappeared at the door, with the child in her arms, there was a wandering look on her face pititul to see. She tried to speak, tried to say, ''Please go, Will,"
He designedly failed to understand her whisper. He stepped forward. "The baby! Sure enough. Why, certainly! to the mother belongs the child. Blue eyes, thank heaven!"
He put his arm about them both. She obeyed silently. There was something irresistible in his frank, clear eyes, his sunny smile, his strong brown hand. He slammed the door behind them.
"That closes the door on your sufferings," he said' smiling down at her. "Goodbye to it all."
The baby laughed and stretched out its hands toward the light.
"Boo, boo!" he cried.
"What's he talking about?"
She smiled in perfect trust and fearlessness, seeing her child's face beside his own. "He says it's beautiful."
"Oh, he does? I can't follow his French accent."
She smiled again, in spite of herself. Will shuddered with a thrill of fear, she was so weak and worn. But the sun shone on the dazzling, rustling wheat, the fathomless sky blue, as a sea, bent above them--and the world lay before them.