By SOPHIE KERR
ILLUSTRATED BY W. H. D. KOERNER
TTHE big department store so terrified Wesley Dean that he got no farther than five steps beyond the entrance. Crowds of well-dressed ladies milling round like cattle, the noise of many feminine voices, the excessive warmth and the heady odor of powder and perfume—the toilet goods were grouped very near the door—all combined to bewilder and frighten him. He got out before the floorwalker of the center aisle could so much as ask him what he wanted.
Once outside he stood in the spring wind and meditated. There must be other stores in Baltimore, little ones, where a man could buy things in quiet and decency. Until the four o'clock motor stage started for Frederick he had nothing to do.
He stuck his hands in his pockets and started down the crowded crookedness of Lexington Street. He reached the market and strolled through it leisurely, feeling very much at home with the meats and vegetables and the good country look of many of the stall keepers. Its size amazed him; but then he'd always heard that Baltimore was a big city, and so many people must take a lot to eat. He went on, all the way through, and after a little hesitation struck down a quiet street to the right. But he saw no shops of the sort he was looking for, and he had thoughts of going back and braving the big store again. He turned again and again, pleased by the orderly rows of red-brick-with-white-trim houses, homy-looking places in spite of their smallness and close setting. At last, right in the middle of a row of these, he saw a large window set in place of the two usual smaller ones, a window filled with unmistakable feminine stuff, and the sign, small, neatly gilt lettered: Miss Tolman's Ladies' Shop. Hemstitching Done.
There wasn't a soul going in or out, so he braved it, and was happier still when he found himself the sole customer. The opening of the door made a bell tinkle in a back room.
A girl came through parted green wool curtains, a girl so flaxen-haired, with such blue eyes—like a friendly kitten—that Wesley Dean almost forgot the errand that had brought him so far.
As for the girl, she was surprised to see a man, and particularly a young country man, among the gloves and stockings, cheap pink under things and embroideries of Miss Tolman's shop.
"You got any—any aprons?" he stammered.
"White aprons or gingham?" The girl's smile helped Wesley a great deal. A very nice girl, he decided; but she made him feel queer, light-headed.
"I'm not sure, ma'am. When I come away from home this morning I asked Aunt Dolcey did she need anything, and she said yes, a couple of aprons, but she didn't say what kind."
The girl thought it over. "I reckon maybe if she's your auntie she'd want white aprons."
Her mistake gave him a chance for the conversation which he felt a most surprising wish to make.
"No'm, she's not my auntie. She's the old colored woman keeps house for me."
Oh, she was a very nice girl; something about the way she held her head made Wesley think of his spunky little riding mare, Teeny.
"H'm. Then I think you'd be safe to get a gingham; anyway a gingham apron comes in handy to anybody working round a kitchen. We got some nice big ones."
"Aunt Dolcey's not so awful big; not any bigger'n you, but heavier set, like."
There is a distinct advance in friendly intimacy when one has one's size considered in relation to a customer's needs, particularly when the consideration shows how little a man knows about women's garments. The girl reached beneath the counter and brought up an armful of blue-and-white-checked aprons. She unfolded them deftly, and Wesley saw that she had small strong hands and round wrists.
"These got bibs and nice long strings, cover you all up while you're cooking. They're a dollar."
His gaze, intent on her rather than the aprons, brought her eyes to his.
"Good-looking, but country," was her swift appraisal, adding to it, "And what a funny mark he's got on his forehead."
It was true. His young hawklike face, tanned brown by sun and wind, was made strangely grim by a dark vein on his brow, which lent a frowning shadow to his whole visage. Yet the eyes she had looked into were shy and gentle and reassuringly full of open admiration.
"If you think she'll like 'em I'll take two," he said after an instant's pause.
"I'm sure she'll like 'em. They're good gingham and real well made. We don't keep shoddy stuff. You could go into one of the big stores and get aprons for fifty, sixty cents, but they wouldn't be good value."
The soft cadence of her voice gave Wesley a strange and stifled feeling around the heart. He must—he must stay and talk to her. Hardly knowing what he said, he burst into loquacity.
"I did go into one of the big stores, and it sort of scared me—everything so stuffy and heaped up, and such a lot of people. I don't get down to Baltimore very often, you see. I do most of my buying right in Frederick, but I'd broke my disker, and if you send it's maybe weeks before the implement house will 'tend to you. So I just come down and got the piece, so there won't be but one day lost."
The girl looked up at him again, and he could feel his heart pound against his ribs. This time she was a little wistful.
"They say it's real pretty country out round Frederick. I've never been out of Baltimore, 'cept to go down the bay on excursions—Betterton and Love Point, and places like that. It makes a grand sail in hot weather."
She handed him the package and picked up the two bills he had laid down on the counter. There was plainly no reason for his further lingering. But he had an artful idea.
"Look here—maybe I ought to get Aunt Dolcey a white apron too. Maybe she won't want the gingham ones at all."
The girl looked surprised at such extravagance.
"But if she doesn't you can bring 'em back when you come to Baltimore again, and we'd exchange 'em," she argued mildly.
"No, I better get a white one now. She puts on a white apron evenings," he added craftily.
A box of white aprons was lifted from the shelf and a choice made, but even that transaction could not last forever, as Wesley Dean was desperately aware.
"Look here, are you Miss Tolman?" he burst out. "I saw the name outside on the window."
"Mercy, no! Miss Tolman's a kind of cousin of mine. She's fifty-two, and she can't hardly get through that door there."
He disregarded the description, for the second bundle was being tied up fast. He had never seen anyone tie so fast, he thought.
"My name's Wesley Dean, and I got a farm in the mountains back of Frederick. Say—I don't want you to think I'm fresh, but—but—say, would you go to the movies with me to-night?"
It had come to him in a flash that he could disregard the seat in the four o'clock bus and go back to-morrow morning. Sweat stood out on his forehead and on his curving, clean-shaven upper lip. His boy's eyes hung on hers, pleading. All the happiness of his life, he felt, waited for this girl's answer, this little yellow-haired girl whom he had never seen until a quarter of an hour before.
"We-ell," she hesitated, "I—I don't like to have you think I'd pick up like this with any fellow that come along——"
"I don't think so!" he broke in fiercely. "If I thought so I'd never 've asked you."
There was a strange, breathless moment in the tiny, cluttered shop, a moment such as some men and women are lucky enough to feel once in a lifetime. It is the moment when the heart's wireless sends its clear message, "This is my woman" and 'This is my man." The flaxen-haired girl and the dark boy were caught in the golden magic of it and, half scared, half ecstatic, were thrown into confusion.
"I'll go," she whispered breathlessly. "There's a little park a block down the street. I'll be there at seven o'clock, by the statue."
"I'll be there, waiting for you," he replied, and because he could not bear the strange sweet pain that filled him he plunged out of the shop, jerking the door so that the little bell squealed with surprise. He had forgotten his packages. Also, as he remembered presently, he did not know her name.
He was at the feet of the statue in the park by half past six, and spent a restless half hour there in the cool spring twilight. Perhaps she would not come! Perhaps he had frightened her, even as he had frightened himself, by this inexplicable boldness. Other girls passed by, and some of them glanced with a coquettish challenge at the handsome tall youth with his frowning brow. But he did not see them. Presently—and it was just on the stroke of seven—he saw her coming, hesitantly, and with an air of complete and proper primness. She had on a plain little shabby suit and hat, but round her throat was a string of beads of a blue to match her eyes, an enticing, naïve harmony.
She carried the forgotten aprons, and handed them to him gravely.
"You left these," she said; and then, to regularize the situation, "My name's Anita Smithers. I ought've told you this afternoon, but—I guess I was kind of forgetful too."
That made them both smile, and the smile left them less shy. He stuffed the forgotten aprons into his overcoat pocket.
"I was so afraid you wouldn't come. Where can we go? I don't know anything much about the city. I'd like to take you to a nice picture show, the best there is."
She flushed with the glory of it.
"There's a real nice picture house only a little ways from here. They got a Pauline Frederick film on. I'm just crazy about Pauline Frederick."
By this time they were walking sedately out of the park, not daring to look at each other. She watched him while he bought the tickets and then a box of caramels from the candy stand inside.
"He knows what to do," she thought proudly. "He's not a bit of a hick."
"D'you go to the pictures a lot?" he asked when they were seated.
"'Most every night. I'm just crazy about 'em."
"I expect you've got steady company, then?" The question fairly jerked out of him.
She shook her head. "No, I almost always go by myself. My girl friend, she goes with me sometimes."
He sighed with relief. "They got good picture shows in Frederick. I go most every Saturday night."
"But you don't live right in Frederick, you said."
He seized the chance to tell her about himself.
"Oh my, no. I live back in the mountains. Say, I just wish you could see my place. It's up high, and you can look out, ever so far—everything kind of drops away below, and you can see the river and the woods, and it takes different colors, 'cording to the season and the weather. Some days when I'm plowing or disking and I get up on the ridge, it's so high up and far away seems like I'm on top the whole world. It's lonesome—it's off the pike, you see—but I like it. Here in the city everything crowds on you so close."
She had listened with the keenest interest.
"That's so. It must be grand to get off by yourself and have plenty room. I get so tired of that squinched-in, narrow, stuffy shop; and the place where I board is worse. I don't make enough to have a room by myself. There's two other girls in with me, and seems like we're always underfoot to each other. And there isn't any parlor, and we got only one bureau for the three of us, and you can guess what a mess that is. And the closet's about as big as a pocket handkerchief."
"Ain't you got any folks?"
The blue eyes held a sudden mist.
"Nobody but Miss Tolman, and she's only a distant cousin. Ma died two years ago. She used to sew, but she wasn't strong, and we never could get ahead."
"My folks are all gone too."
How little and alone she was, but how much nearer to him her aloneness brought her. He wanted to put his hand over hers and tell her that he would take care of her, that she need never be alone again. But the beginning of the film choked back the words. He poked the box of caramels at her, and she took it, opened it with a murmured "Oh, my, thank you!" Presently they both had sweetly bulging cheeks. Where their elbows touched on the narrow chair arm made tingling thrills run all over him. Once she gave him an unconscious nudge of excitement.
Out of the corner of his eye he studied her delicate side face as she sat, with her lips parted, intent on the film.
"She's pretty—and she's good," thought Wesley Dean. "I expect she's too good for me."
But that unwontedly humble thought did not alter it a hair's breadth that she must be his. The Deans had their way always. The veins in his wrists and the vein in his forehead beat with his hot purpose. He shifted so that his arm did not touch hers, for he found the nearness of her disturbing; he could not plan or think clearly while she was so close. And he must think clearly.
When the last flicker of the feature was over and the comic and the news feature had wrung their last laugh and gasp of interest from the crowd, they joined the slow exit of the audience in silence. On the sidewalk, however, she found her voice.
"It was an awful nice picture," she said softly. "'Most the nicest I ever saw."
"Look here, let's go somewhere and have a hot choc'late, or some soda, or ice cream," he broke in hurriedly. He could not let her go with so much yet unsaid. "Or would you like an oyster stew in a reg'lar restaurant? Yes, that'd be better. Come on; it isn't late."
"Well, after all those caramels, I shouldn't think an oyster stew——"
"You can have something else, then." The main thing was to get her at a table opposite him, where they wouldn't have to hurry away. "Let's go in there."
He pointed toward a small restaurant across the street where red candlelights glimmered warmly through paneled lace.
"But that looks like such a stylish place," she protested even as she let him guide her toward it.
But it was not so stylish when they got inside, and the appearance of the stout woman, evidently both proprietor and cashier, who presided over the scene at a table on a low platform near the door reassured them both. And the red candle shades were only crinkled paper; the lace curtains showed many careful darns. A rebellious boy of fourteen, in a white jacket and apron, evidently the proprietor's son, came to take their order. After a good bit of urging Anita said that she would take a ham sandwich and a cup of coffee.
Wesley ordered an oyster stew for himself, and coffee, and then grandly added that they would both have vanilla and chocolate ice cream.
"He looks as if he just hated being a waiter," said Anita, indicating the departing boy servitor.
"Sh'd think he would," said Wesley. He put his arms on the table and leaned toward her. "I was going home this afternoon till I saw you. I stayed over, just to see you again. I've got to go back in the morning, for I've not got my spring work done; but—you're going with me."
The vein on his forehead heightened his look of desperate determination. He was not so much a suitor as a commander.
"You haven't got any folks and neither have I, so that makes it easy. I'll come for you in the morning, about eight o'clock, and we'll go get a license and get married, and then we can get the ten o'clock bus out to Frederick. Oh, girl, I never saw anyone like you! I—I'll be good to you—I'll take care of you. It don't matter if I didn't ever see you till this afternoon, I'd never find anybody else that I want so much in a hundred thousand years. I've not got a lot of money, but the farm's mine, all free and clear, and if my wheat turns out all right I'll have a thousand dollars cash outright come the end of the year, even after the taxes are paid and everything. Won't you look at me, Anita—won't you tell me something? Don't you like me?"
The girl had listened with her eyes cast down, her hands nervously picking at the edge of the tablecloth. But he was not mistaken in her. She had wherewith to meet him, and her gaze was honest, without coquetry or evasion.
"Oh, I do like you!" she cried with. quick color. "I do! I do! I always thought somebody like you'd come along some day, just like this, and then—it just seemed foolish to expect it. But look here. I told you a story, right off. My name's not Anita—it's Annie. I took to pretending it's Anita because—it does seem sort of silly, but I got to tell you—because I saw it in the movies, and it seemed sort of cute and different, and Annie's such a plain, common name. But I couldn't let you go on talking like that and calling me by it, now could I?"
The mutinous young waiter brought their food and thumped it truculently down before them.
"Look out!" said Dean with sudden violent harshness, the vein in his forehead darkening ominously. "What do you think you're doing, feeding cattle? "
The boy drew back in confusion, and Annie exclaimed: "Oh, he didn't mean it anything against us—he's just mad because he has to be a waiter."
"Well, he'd better be careful; kids can be too smart Aleck."
The little gust had deflected them away from their own affairs. But Annie brought them back. She leaned toward him.
"You make me kind of afraid of you. If you ever spoke to me like that it'd just about kill me."
He was contrite. "Why, I couldn't ever speak to you like that, honey; it just made me mad the way he banged things down in front of you. I don't want people to treat you like that."
"And you look so fierce, too—scowling so all the time."
He put up a brown finger and touched his savage vein.
"Now, now—you mustn't mind my look. All the Dean men are marked like that; it's in the blood. It don't mean a thing." He smiled winningly. "I reckon if you're beginning to scold me you're going to marry me, huh?"
Something very sweet and womanly leaped in Annie's blue eyes.
"I—I reckon I am," she said, and then confessed herself a brave adventurer and philosopher in one. "Wes, I'd be a fool to sit round and make excuses and pretend it wouldn't do to be so out of the ordinary when here you are and here I am, and it means—our whole lives. I don't care, either, if I didn't ever set eyes on you till to-day—I know you're all right and that what you say's true. And I feel as if I'd known you for years and years."
"That's the way I felt about you the minute I looked at you. Oh"—he gave a vast and shaking sigh—"I can't hardly believe my luck. Eat up your supper and let's get out of here. Maybe there's some stores open yet and I could buy you a ring."
"And I have to be in my boarding house by half past ten," offered Annie, "or I'll be locked out. What the girls are going to say when I come in and tell 'em——" She looked at him with intense and piteous question—the question that every woman at the moment of surrender asks, sometimes with her lips, but always with her heart: "It is going to be all right, isn't it? And you'll be good to me?"
"So help me God," said young Wesley Dean.
The farm lay high, as Wesley had said. Indeed, all the way from Baltimore they had seemed to be going into the hills, those placidly rounding friendly Maryland hills that rise so softly, so gradually that the traveler is not conscious of ascent. The long straight road dips across them gallantly, a silver band of travel to tie them to the city, with little cities or towns pendant from it at wide intervals. Trees edge it with a fringe of green; poor trees, maimed by the trimmers' saws and shears into twisted caricatures of what a tree should be, because the telegraph wires and telephone wires must pass, and oaks and locusts, pines and maples must be butchered of their spreading branches to give them room.
It was along this highway that the motor bus, filled with passengers and baggage and driven with considerably more haste than discretion, carried the newly married pair. Annie's eyes grew wide at the wonder and beauty of it. She was not at all afraid. She snuggled her hand into Wes', and loved it—and loved him, too, with his look of pride and joy in her. She was content to be silent and let him talk. Now and then she looked at the little turquoise ring on her finger above the shiny new wedding ring, and loved that, too, for he had chosen it at once from the trayful offered them, blurting out that she must have it because it matched her eyes.
"All this country out here's rich," he bragged, "but Fred'rick County's got the richest land of all. Richest in the state. Maybe richest in the whole United States, I dunno. And all the farms are big. Great big farms—and great big teams to till 'em. People don't use mules here s'much as they do over on the Eastern Shore. And there's not any sand, like there is over there—in spots, that is."
"What's that man doing?" asked Annie alertly.
"Plowin'. Say, didn't you ever see a man plowing before?"
"Only in the movies," said Annie unabashed. "Do you ever plow?"
He laughed outright.
"Say, you're going to be some little farmer's wife. I can see that. Yes'm, I plow a little now and then. It's like fancywork—awful fascinating—and once you get started you don't want to stop till you get a whole field done."
"Say, Annie, do you know a chicken when you see it walking round? Or a turkey? Or a guinea keet? We got 'em all. Aunt Dolcey, she takes care of 'em."
"I'd like to take care of 'em. I'll feed 'em, if she'll show me how."
"Aunt Dolcey'll show you. She'll be tickled to death to have somebody feed 'em when she's got the mis'ry."
At Frederick they left the big motor bus and got into Wes' own rackety flivver, the possession of which delighted Annie's heart.
"My land, I never thought I'd get married to a man that owned an automobile," she confessed with flattering frankness in her voice.
"This ain't an automobile," said Wes. "It's a coffeepot, and an awful mean one. Sometimes she won't boil, no matter what I do."
The coffeepot on this particular day chose to boil. They rattled merrily out of Frederick and off into the higher hills beyond. It was a little after noon when they reached the farm.
They had had to turn off the pike and take a winding wood road, rough and muddy from the spring rains. All through the budding green of the trees dogwood had hung out white bridal garlands for them, and there were violets in all the little mossy hollows. At last they came through to the clearing, where lay the farm, right on the ridge, its fields smiling in the sun, a truce of Nature with man's energy and persistence. Yet not a final truce. For all around, the woods crept up to the open and thrust in tentative fingers—tiny pine trees, sprouts and seedlings of hardwood, scraps of underbrush—all trying to gain a foothold and even when cut and overturned by the sharp plow still clinging tenaciously to their feeble rooting.
"It looks somehow," said Annie, vaguely understanding this, "as if the trees and things were just waiting to climb over the walls."
"And that's what they are," said Wesley Dean. "The time I put in grubbing! Well— let's go in and see Aunt Dolcey."
He had told her, coming out, that he was afraid she would find the house sort of plain, but just the space of it delighted her. The rooms were bare and square, whitewashed exquisitely, the furniture dark old cherry and walnut of a style three generations past.
There were no blinds or curtains, and in the streaming sunlight Annie could see that everything was clean and polished to the last flicker of high light. Here and there were bits of color—crimson and blue in the rag carpet, golden brass candlesticks on the mantel, a red beaded mat on the table under the lamp, the lamp itself clear glass and filled with red kerosene that happily repeated the tint of the mat. It all pleased Annie, touching some hitherto untwanged chord of beauty in her nature. And there was about it the unmistakable atmosphere of home.
"Old-fashioned, but sort of swell too," she decided. "Looks kind of like some of the parlors of those old houses on Charles Street that I used to rubber into in the evenings when the lights were lit and they'd forgot to put the blinds down."
She liked the impassive, almost Egyptian face of Aunt Dolcey too. The old colored woman had received her with a serious regard, but friendly.
"Mist' Wes, he stahtle me mighty frequen', but he nevah stahtle me with no marryin' befo'," she said. "Honey, it'll be mighty nice to have a pret' young gal in de house. I'll serve you de bes' I kin, faithful an' stiddy, like I always serve him. Ef I'd 'a' known you was a-comin' I'd sho had somethin' fo' dinneh to-day besides greens an' po'k, cracklin' pone an' apple dumplin's. That's nuffin' fo' a weddin' dinneh."
But when they came to eat it, it was delicious—the greens delicately seasoned, not greasy, the salt pork home-cured and sweet, the cracklin' pone crumbling with richness and the apple dumpling a delight of spicy flavor.
They sat opposite each other, in as matter-of-fact fashion as if they had been married for years. They were young and exceedingly hungry, and hunger destroys self-consciousness.
The china was very old—white plates with a curving pattern of blue leaves and yellow berries. The knives and forks were polished steel with horn handles. The spoons were silver; old handmade rat-tail spoons they were, with the mark of the smith's mallet still upon them and the initials W. D. cut in uneven letters.
"Those were my great-granddad's," said Wesley. "Same name as mine. He had 'em made out of silver money by a man down in Frederick. They must be nearly a hundred years old. My great-granddad, he was the man that bought this land and began to clear it. He wanted to be away off from everybody."
"Why?" asked Annie, interested in the story.
The vein on Wesley's forehead seemed to grow larger and darker as he answered:
"Oh, he got into trouble—knocked a man down, and the fellow struck his head on a stone and died. It didn't come to trial—it really was an accident—but it didn't make granddad popular. Not that he cared. He was a hard-headed, hard-fisted old son of a gun, if there ever was one, according to the stories they tell about him."
"What were they fighting about?"
"Oh, I dunno—granddad was high-tempered, and this fellow was sort of smart Aleck; give him some lip about something and dared him to touch him. And quick's a wink granddad punched him. At least that's the way I always heard it. Prob'ly they'd both been taking too much hard cider. Bring me another dumplin', Aunt Dolcey, please."
As the old woman entered, bringing the dumpling, Annie fancied there were both warning and sympathy in her eyes. Why, she couldn't imagine. In a moment she forgot it, for Wesley was looking at her hard.
"It's funny," he said, "to think I only saw you yesterday and that we got married this morning. Seems as if you'd been here for years and years. Does it seem awful strange to you, honey?"
"No," said Annie. "No, it doesn't. It is queer, but all the way here, and when I come into the house, I had a sense of having been here before sometime; kind of as if it was my home all along and I hadn't known about it."
"So it was—and if I hadn't ever met you I'd've been an old bach all my life."
"Yes, you would."
"Yes, I wouldn't."
They were both laughing now. He got up and stretched himself.
"Well, Mrs. Dean," he said, "I gotta go out and fix my disker, and you gotta come along. I don't want to let you out of my sight. You might fly off somewhere, and I'd never find you again."
"Don't you worry about that. You couldn't lose me if you tried."
They went through the kitchen, and there a tall gaunt old colored man rose and bowed respectfully. He and Aunt Dolcey were having their own dinner at the kitchen table.
"This here's Unc' Zenas," said Wesley. "He's Aunt Dolcey's husband, and helps me on the place."
And again Annie saw, this time in the old man's eyes, the flicker of sympathy and apprehension that she had marked in Aunt Dolcey's.
"And right glad to welcome y', Missy," said Unc' Zenas. "We didn' spect Marse Wes to bring home a wife whenas he lef, but that ain' no sign that it ain' a mighty fine thing."
They went out into the mellow spring day. Wesley Dean, now in his blue overalls and working shirt, became a king in his own domain, a part of the fair primitiveness about them. It was as if he had sprung from this dark and fertile soil, was made of its elements, at one with it. Here he belonged, and the very spring of the earth beneath his feet was repeated in the measured beating of his blood. The land could not warp or break him, as it does so many, for he belonged to it as essentially and as completely as it belonged to him. Dimly the little townsgirl beside him felt this, and dimly she hoped that she, too, might prove to be of the same mold.
"Look at the barn, and the stables, and the corncrib," he was saying. "See how they're all built? Hand-hewn logs, chinked with plaster. Great-granddad built them all, helped by his two slaves. That's all the slaves he had, just two, and one of 'em was Unc' Zenas' grandfather. Everything's strong and sound as the day he finished it."
"That one looks newer," said Annie, pointing.
Wesley looked a little shamefaced, as does every typical Anglo-Saxon discovered in sentiment.
"I built that," he confessed. "It's a chicken house. Somehow I didn't want to go down to the sawmill and get planks and build with 'em 'mongst all these old log things. So I got the logs out in the woods and built same as great-granddad. Maybe it was foolish, but I couldn't help it."
"It wasn't foolish; it was nice," she affirmed.
She perched on the tongue of a wagon while he mended the disker, dividing her attention between him and the live things of the barnyard. A string of decorative white ducks marched in single file about the edge of the cow pound. Beyond them a proud red-wattled cock paraded and purred among his harem of trim hens, now and then disturbed in his dignity by the darting nervousness of a pair of malicious guineas, acknowledged brigands of the feathered tribes. Trim iridescent pigeons toddled about on their coral feet, looking for left-overs from the chickens' table.
"Say, Wes, I should think you'd have a dog," she said suddenly. "A nice big dog lazying round here would sort of complete it."
He bent suddenly over his disker and gave the nut he was working on a mighty twist, but he had tossed aside his hat, and she could see the sudden jump and darkening of his menacing vein.
"I had a dog," he said in a low voice, "but he died."
A curious restraint fell on them, and for the first time Annie felt herself an alien, a stranger, far adrift from familiar shores. She shivered in the light wind.
"You cold? You better go in the house and get something round you," Wes said to her.
"I guess I'd better." And she left him hammering.
In the house she found Aunt Dolcey in the big bedroom over the living room. She had just finished remaking the bed—an old maple four-poster, the wood a soft and mellowed orange, fine and colorful against the white quilt, the lace-edged pillow slips.
"I put on clean sheets," said Aunt Dolcey as Annie hesitated on the threshold. "Yes'm, I put on everything clean, an' the bes'. I know what's fitten. My chile, dishyer de third bridal bed I made up for wives of de Dean men."
Something caught in Annie's throat, terrified her. This old black woman, with her remoteness, her pitying wise eyes, what did she mean? Annie wanted terribly to ask her. But how begin? How get through this wall of inscrutability which the black and yellow races have raised for their protection?
She fluttered nearer to the old woman.
"Look," she began tremulously—"look—it's all right, isn't it, my marrying him so quick? I haven't got any folks, and—and I suppose I haven't got much sense; but there was something about him that just made me trust him and—and want him. But it was all so quick, and—now I'm here it seems like maybe—there was—something—oh, you'd tell me, wouldn't you? It is all right, isn't it?"
The old woman considered. "It's all right ef you're all right," she pronounced at length.
"But—but what do you mean? And—and look here—Aunt Dolcey—tell me—what'd he do to that dog he had?"
"What you know 'bout any dog?"
"I don't know—anything; but when I asked him why he didn't have a dog—he was queer. It scared me."
"Doan be skeered. They ain' nuffin' to be skeered of 'bout Marse Wes. Eve'ything all right ef you got patience, an' ef you got sense, an' ef you got haht enough. Sperrit an' sense go far, but the haht gwine carry you froo. Now I said my say"—her tone mellowed into unctuous kindness—"what you want, Missy? Som'n Aun' Dolcey c'n fotch you? Temme what it is, f'r I got to be up an' erbout my wuk. I got er weddin' cake to mek yit this ebenin'. Yes, ma'am—I gwi' mek you weddin' cake fill de bigges' pan in de kitchen."
She helped Annie rummage in her trunk and get out the sweater she had come in for, and it was not until the girl was running back to the barns that she realized Aunt Dolcey had not answered her question. But the old woman's words had steadied her, reassured her.
And Wes received her gayly. His repairs were done, his team in harness, ready to start.
"It's a shame," he said. "We ought to go off down to town and play round and have a big time, but I'm so behind with my disking, Annie honey. You see I had to stay over a day in Baltimore. Fact. Important business." He winked at her jocosely. "So I've got to work rest of the day. That's what comes of marrying a farmer. Farm work don't even wait on a bride, not even the prettiest bride in the world."
He stooped to kiss her, and she held tight to his arm.
"I don't mind. You go on about your business and I'll get all unpacked and settled. But don't be late to supper—Aunt Dolcey's making us a wedding cake."
She watched him as he drove down the lane and turned into the field and steadied the first straining rush of his team. Again she felt her abandonment, her utter forlornity, her distance from everything she had known and been accustomed to. But once more she proved herself an adventurer and a philosopher.
Shrugging her shoulders, she turned back to the house.
"It may be a funny way to get married; but everything's all right until it stops being all right, and—and I like it here."
She had been married a week now, and the week had been the fairest of fair weather, indoors as well as out. Now she sat at the clumsy old secretary desk to write a letter to Miss Tolman.
"... For all you said, and thought I was crazy, I am just as happy as I can be. Wes is kind and full of fun, and he works very hard. This farm is a pretty place, and the house is ten times as big as your shop. I am learning to cook and churn butter, and Aunt Dolcey, the old colored woman, teaches me and doesn't laugh when I am dumb. She says, and Wes does, too, that I am a born farmer's wife, and I think maybe I am, for I like it in the country more than I ever thought I'd like any place, and I don't get a bit lonely. You ought to see our wheat—it's like green satin, only prettier.
"I hope the rheumatism in your hands is better, and that you have got somebody good in my place. Cousin Lorena, I am a very lucky girl to fall in love with such a nice man, with a piece of property and a flivver, even if it is an old one; but better than all that he has is Wes himself, for you never saw a better, kinder man. He is not rough and does not chew tobacco as you thought maybe he did, only smokes a pipe once in a while. I made a sweet-potato custard yesterday, and he said it was the best he ever tasted. He says I must not do anything that is too hard for me, but I am going to drop seed corn. We have been down to town once, and went to the movies and bought some candy, and he wanted to buy me a new hat, but I wouldn't let him. He is so kind...."
She had written in a glow of happiness, trying to tell everything and finding it hard to get it into words that would allay Cousin Lorena's forebodings and impress her properly. Annie frowned at the paper. How inform a bilious middle-aged prophet of evil that she had not only wedded prosperity and industry but also a glorious young demigod whose tenderness and goodness passed belief.
Suddenly she heard a voice, loud, angry, incoherent. She dropped the pen and ran out to the kitchen door.
Wes stood there, confronting Uncle Zenas—a Wes she had never dreamed could exist. The vein on his forehead was black and swollen; indeed his whole face was distorted with rage.
"You damned old liar—don't you tell me again you put that pitchfork away when I found it myself in the stable behind the mare's stall. Pretty business if she'd knocked it down and run one of the tines into her."
"Marse Wes, you had dat pitchfo'k dere yo'se'f dis mawnin'. I ain't nevah touch dat pitchfo'k." Unc' Zenas' voice was low and even.
Behind Wes' back Aunt Dolcey made signs to her husband for silence.
"I tell you you're a liar, and by rights I ought to cut your lying tongue out of your head! I haven't even seen that pitchfork for three days, and when I went to look for it just now I found it in the stable where you'd had it cleaning out the stalls. Now shut up and get out about your work! Don't let me hear another word out of you!"
Unc' Zenas turned away, and Wes, without a word or look at the two women, strode after him. Annie, shaken, caught Aunt Dolcey's arm.
"Oh, Aunt Dolcey," she breathed, "what on earth was the matter?"
Aunt Dolcey drew her into the kitchen.
"Nuffin' but Marse Wes flyin' int' one his bad Dean temper fits, honey," said the old woman. "No use to min' him. No use payin' any 'tention. Dat why I waggle my head at Zenas to say nuffin' back. Talk back to Marse Wes when he's high-flyin' on'y meks things worse."
Annie beheld an abyss yawning beneath her feet.
"Yes, but Aunt Dolcey— what's the sense in talking that way? It wasn't anything, just a pitchfork out of place. And he went on so. And he looked so dreadful."
Aunt Dolcey rattled her pans.
"I been dreadin' dis moment, whenas you firs' see Marse Wes in his anger. Zenas an' me, we's use to it. Marse Wes dataway; som'n go wrong he fly off de handle. Zenas ain't mislay no pitchfo'k—I seed Marse Wes mahse'f wid dat pitchfo'k dis mawnin'. But eve'y once in a while he git a temper fit an' blow off he mouf like dat. Sometimes he strike somebuddy—but he doan often strike Zenas. Sometimes he git mad at oner de hosses an' frail it proper. Dat high temper run in de Dean fambly, chile. Dey gits mad, an' dey flies off, an' you just got to stan' it."
"But does he—does he get over it quick?"
The old negro shook her head.
"He'll be mighty quiet come suppeh-time, not talkin' much, lookin' dahk. Walk light, an' don't say nuffin' rile him up, eve'ything all right. T'-morrow mawnin' come, he's outer it." Her voice rose into a minor cadence, almost a chant. "Chile, it's a dahk shadder on all de Deans—dey all mahked wid dat frown on deir foreheads, an' dey all got dahk hours come to um. Marse Wes' maw she fade out an' die caze she cain' stan' no such. His grammaw, she leave his grampaw. An' so on back. Ontell some ooman marry a Dean who kin chase dat debbil outer him, jes so long de Dean men lib in de shadder. I tole you, ain' I, de day you come, sperrit an' sense carry you fur, but it's de haht gwine carry you froo. Now you un'stan'."
Yes, Annie understood, imperfectly. So might Red Riding Hood have understood when the wolf suddenly appeared beside her peaceful pathway. She asked one more question, "Does he get mad often?" and waited, trembling, for the answer.
Aunt Dolcey stuck out her underlip. "Sometime he do, en den again, sometime he doan. Mos' giner'ly he do."
Annie walked back to her letter, and looked at its last phrase. She picked up the pen, but did not write.
Then with a quick intake of breath she took her first conscious step in the path of loyal wifehood.
She added, writing fast: "He is the best man that ever lived, I do believe," and signed her name, folded the letter and sealed it in its envelope as quickly as she could.
At supper she watched Wes. He was, as Aunt Dolcey had predicted, very silent; the vein in his forehead still twitched menacingly and the pupils of his eyes were distended until the color about them disappeared in blackness. After he had eaten he went outside and smoked, while Annie sat fiddling with a bit of sewing and dreading she knew not what.
But nothing happened. Presently he came in, announced that he was tired and had a hard day before him to-morrow and thought he'd go to bed.
Long after he had fallen into immobile slumber Annie lay beside him, awake, marveling how suddenly he had become a stranger, almost an ogre. Yet she loved him and yearned to him. The impulse that had made her finish the letter to Cousin Lorena in the same spirit in which she had begun it called her to pity and help him. She must conceal his weakness from their world. She listened to his deep regular breathing, she put her hand against his hard palm.
"I'm his wife," thought Annie Dean with inarticulate tenderness. "I'm going to try to be everything a wife ought to be."
The next morning he was his old self again, laughing, joking, teasing her as usual. The scene of yesterday seemed to have gone utterly from his memory, though he must have known that she had seen and heard it. But he made no allusion to it, nor did she. The farm work was pressing; the warm spring days foretold an early season.
As he went whistling out toward the barn Annie heard him salute Unc' Zenas with familiar friendliness:
"How's tricks this morning? Think the Jersey'll be fresh next week?"
Aunt Dolcey heard him, too, and she and Annie exchanged long glances. The old woman's said, "You see—what I told you was true"; and the young woman's answered, "Yes, I see, and I understand. I'm going to see it through."
But something in her youth had definitely vanished, as it always does when responsibility lays its heavy hand on us. She went about her new life questioningly eager for understanding. There was so much for her to see and learn—the erratic ways of setting hens, the care of foolish little baby chicks; the spring house, cool and damp and gray-walled, with its trickle of cold water forever eddying about the crocks of cream-topped milk; the garden making, left to her and Aunt Dolcey after the first spading; the various messes and mashes to be prepared for cows with calf; the use of the stored vegetables and fruits and meat, dried and salted in such generous quantity that she marveled at it. All the farm woman's primer she learned, bit by bit, seeing how it supplemented and harmonized with that life of the fields that so engrossed and commanded Wes.
But through it all, beneath it all, she found herself waiting, with dread, for another outburst. Against whom would it be this time—Unc' Zenas again—Aunt Dolcey—one of the animals—or perhaps herself? She wondered if she could bear it if he turned on her.
She was working in the spring house mixing cream with curd for cottage cheese, very busy and anxious over it, for this was her first essay alone, when she heard Wes again in anger. She dropped her spoon, but did not go to look, only concentrated herself to listen.
This time he was cursing one of his horses, and she could hear the stinging whish of a whip, a wicked and sinister emphasis to the beast's snorting, and frenzied thumping of hoofs. Her blue eyes dilated with fear; she knew in what pain and fright the horse must be lunging under those blows. And Wes, raucous, violent, his mouth foul with unclean words—only this morning he had told her that when Sunday came they'd go into the woods and find a wild clematis to plant beside the front door. Wild clematis! She could have laughed at the irony of it.
At last she could bear it no longer; she put her hands to her ears to shut out the hideousness of it. After an interminable wait she took them down. He had stopped—there was silence—but she heard footsteps outside, and she literally cowered into the darkest corner of the spring house. But it was only Aunt Dolcey, her lips set in a line of endurance.
"I was lookin' erbout foh you, honey," she said reassuringly. "I di'n' know where you was, en den I remembah you come off down heah. Let Aunt Dolcey finish up dat cheese."
"What—what started him?" asked Annie piteously.
"I doan jes know—sound' like one de big team di'n' go inter his right stall, er som'n like dat. It's always som'n triflin', en no 'count. But land, he'll be ovah it come night. Doan look so white en skeer, chile."
"But—but I been thinking—what if he might turn on me—what if he'd strike me? Aunt Dolcey—did he ever strike you?"
"Oh, Aunt Dolcey, what did you do?"
Something flared in Aunt Dolcey's eyes that was as old as her race. She looked past Annie as if she saw something she rather relished; just so her ancestors must have looked when they were dancing before a bloodstained Congo fetish.
"You see dat big white scar on Marse Wes' lef' wris'? When he struck me I mahk him dere wid my hot flatiron. Am' no man eveh gwine lif his hand to Dolcey, no matter who."
A shrewd question came to Annie:
"Aunt Dolcey, did he ever strike you again?"
"No, ma'am, no 'ndeedy, he didn'. Wil' Marse Wes may be, but he ain' no crazy man. It's dat ole debbil in his nature, Miss Annie, honey. En ef ever once som'n tremenjus happen to Marse Wes, dat debbil'll be cas' out. But hit's got to be stronger en mo' pow'ful dan he is. Not 'ligion, fer 'ligion goes f'm de outside in. Som'n got to come from inside Marse Wes out befo' dat ole debbil is laid."
This was meager comfort, and Annie did not follow the primitive psychology of it. She only knew that into her happiness there had come again the darkening of a fear, fear that was to be her devil, no less terrible because his presence was for the most part veiled.
But again she steeled her courage. "I won't let him spoil everything; I won't let him make me afraid of him," she vowed, seeing Wes in his silent mood that night. "I won't be afraid of him. I wish I could cut that old vein out of his forehead. I hate it—it's just as if it was the thing that starts him. Never seems as if it was part of the real Wes, my Wes."
In the depths of the woods, on Sunday, she stood by while he dug up the wild clematis—stood so he could not see her lips quiver—and she put her clenched hands behind her for fear they, too, would betray her.
"Wes," she asked, "what made you get so mad last Thursday and beat old Pomp so?"
He turned toward her in genuine surprise.
"I wasn't mad; not much, that is. And all I laid on Pomp's tough old hide couldn't hurt him. He's as mean as a mule, that old scoundrel. Gets me riled every once in a while."
"I wish you wouldn't ever do it again. It scared me almost to death."
"Scared you!" he laughed. "Oh, Annie, you little silly—you aren't scared of me. Now don't let on you are. What you doing—trying to kid me? There, ain't that a splendid plant? I believe I'll take back a couple shovelfuls this rich wood earth to put in under it. It'll never know it's not at home."
"Yes, but Wes—I wish you'd promise something."
"Promise you anything."
"Then—promise me not to get mad and beat the horses any more or holler at Unc' Zenas. I don't like it."
"Annie, you little simp—what's the matter with you? A fellow's got to let off steam once in a while, and if you'd been pestered like I have with Unc' Zenas' ornery trifling spells and old Pomp's general cussedness, you'd wonder that I don't get mad and stay mad every minute. Don't let's talk any more about it. Say, look there—there's a scarlet tanager! Ain't it pretty? Shyest bird there is, but up here in the woods there's a couple pairs most every year. Pull that old newspaper up round the earth a little, so's I can get a better holt of it. That's the girl. Gee, I never knew what fun it'd be to have a wife who'd be so darn chummy as you are. How d'you like your husband, Mrs. Dean? Ain't it about time you said something nice to the poor feller instead of scolding his lights and liver out of place on a nice peaceful Sabbath day? You ought to be ashamed of yourself."
She pushed back the fear devil and answered his smile.
"No, sir, I'm not going to say anything nice to my husband. I'll tell you a secret about him—he's awful stuck on himself now."
"Why shouldn't he be? Look who he picked out to marry."
Who could stand against such beguiling? Annie looked up at him and saw his Dean mark give a little mocking twitch, as if it rejoiced in her thwarting.
But she said no more; and they planted the wild clematis with its black woods earth beneath at the side of the front door, and Annie twisted its pliable green stems round one of the posts of the little benched entrance.
Her hands moved deftly, and Wes, who had finished firming the earth about the plant, watched them.
"Your little paws are gettin' awful brown," he said. "I remember that first day, in the shop, how white they were—and how quick they moved. You wrapped up them aprons like somethin' was after you, and I was trying to get my nerve up to speak to you."
"Tryin' to get up your nerve! I reckon it wasn't much effort. There, don't that vine look's if it grew there of itself?"
"Yeh—it looks fine." He sat down on the bench and pulled her down beside him, his arm about her. "Annie, baby, are y' happy?"
She put her cheek against his shoulder and shut her eyes.
"I'm so happy I wouldn't darst be any happier."
"You're not sorry you picked up with me so quick? You don't wish't you'd stayed down in Balt'mer and got you a city beau?"
"I'd rather be with you—here—than any place in the world. And Wes—I think you're the best and kindest man that ever lived. I wouldn't have you changed, any way, one little bit."
She defied her fears and that mocking, twitching vein with the words.
"Same here. Made to order for me, you were. First minute I looked in those round blue eyes of yours I knew it."
"It isn't possible," she thought. "It isn't possible that he can get so mad and be so dreadful. Maybe if I can make him think he's awful good and kind"—oh, simple subtlety—"he'll believe he is, too, and he'll stop getting such spells. Oh, if he would always be just like this!"
But it was only two days later when she called him to help her; there was a hen that was possessed to brood, and Aunt Dolcey had declared that it was too late, that summer chickens never thrived.
"I can't get her out, Wes," said Annie. "She's way in under the stable, and she pecks at me so mean. You got longer arms'n me—you reach in and grab her."
He came, smiling. He reached in and grabbed, and the incensed biddy pecked viciously.
In a flash his anger was on him. He snatched again, and this time brought out the creature and dropped her with wrung neck, a mass of quivering feathers and horribly jerking feet, before Annie.
"I reckon that'll learn the old crow!" he snarled, and strode away.
"We might's well have soup for supper," remarked Aunt Dolcey, coming on the scene a moment later. "Dere, chile, what's a chicken anyway?"
"It's not that," said Annie briefly; "but he makes me afraid of him. If I get too afraid of him I'll stop caring anything about him. I don't want to do that."
"Den," answered Aunt Dolcey with equal brevity, "you got think up some manner er means to dribe his debbil out. Like I done tol' you."
Aunt Dolcey paused, holding the carcass of the chicken in her hands, and faced her.
"Dishyer ain' nuthin'. Wait tell he gits one his still spells, whenas he doan speak ter nobody an' doan do no work. Why ain' we got no seed potaters? Marse Wes he took a contrairy spell an' he wouldn' dig 'em, an' he wouldn' let Zenas tech 'em needer. Me, I went out moonlight nights an' dug some to eat an' hid 'em in de cellar. Miss Annie, you doan know nuffin' erbout de Dean temper yit."
They went silently to the house. Aunt Dolcey stopped in the kitchen and Annie went on into the living room. There on the walls hung the pictures of Wes' father and mother, cabinet photographs, framed square in light wood. Annie looked at those pictured faces in accusing inquiry. Why had they bequeathed Wes such a legacy? In his father's face, despite the beard that was the fashion of those days, there was the same unmistakable pride and passion of Wes to-day. And his mother was a meek woman who could not live and endure the Dean temper. Well, Annie was not going to be meek. She thought with satisfaction of Aunt Dolcey and the hot flatiron. The fact that he had never lifted finger to Aunt Dolcey again proved that if one person could thus conquer him, so might another. Was she, his wife, to be less resourceful, less self-respecting than that old negro woman? Was she to endure what Aunt Dolcey would not?
Suddenly she snatched out the little old family album from its place in the top of the desk secretary, an old-fashioned affair bound in shabby brown leather with two gilt clasps. Here were more pictures of the Dean line—his grandfather, more bearded than his father, his Dean vein even more prominent; his grandmother, another meek woman.
"Probably the old wretch beat her," thought Annie angrily.
Another page and here was great-grandfather himself, in middle age, his picture—a faded daguerreotype—showing him in his Sunday best, but plainly in no Sunday mood. "Looks like a pirate," was Annie's comment. There was no picture of great-grandmother. "Probably he killed her off too young, before she had time to get her picture taken." And Annie's eyes darted blue fire at the supposed culprit. She shook her brown little fist at him. "You started all this," she said aloud. "You began it. If you'd had a wife who'd 've stood up to you you'd never got drunk and killed a man, and you wouldn't have left your family a nasty old mad vein in the middle of their foreheads, looking perfectly un-Christian. I just wish I had you here, you old scoundrel! I'll bet I'd tell you something that'd make your ears smart."
She banged to the album and put it in its place.
"Well, not me!" said Annie. "Not me! I'm not going to be bullied and scared to death by any man with a bad temper, and the very next time Mister Wes flies off the handle and raises Cain I'm going to raise Cain, two to his one. I won't be scared! I won't be a little gump and take such actions off any man. We'll see!"
It is easy enough to be bold and resolute and threaten a picture. It is easy enough to plot action either before or after the need for it arises. But when it comes to raising Cain, two to your husband's one, and that husband has been a long and successful cultivator of that particular crop—why, that is quite a different thing.
Besides, as it happened, Annie did not wholly lack sympathy for his next outburst, which was directed toward a tramp, a bold dirty creature who appeared one morning at the kitchen door and asked for food.
"You two Janes all by your lonesome here?" he asked, stepping in.
Wes had come into the house for another shirt—he had split the one he was wearing in a mighty bout with the grubbing hoe—and he entered the kitchen from the inner door just in time to catch the words.
He leaped and struck in one movement, and it carried the tramp and himself outside on the grass of the drying yard. The tramp was a burly man, and after the surprise of the attack he attempted to fight. He might as well have battled with a locomotive going full speed.
"What you doin' way up here, you lousy loafer?" demanded Wes between blows. "Get to hell out of here before I kill you, like you deserve, comin' into my house and scarin' women. I've a great mind to get my gun and blow you full of holes."
In two minutes the tramp was running full speed toward the road, followed by Wes, who assisted his flight with kicks whenever he could reach him. After twenty minutes or so the victor came back. His eyes were red with the rage that possessed him. He did not stop to speak, but hurried out his rackety little car and was gone. Later they found out he had overtaken the tramp, fought him again, knocked him out, and then, roping him, had taken him to the nearest constable and seen him committed to jail.
But the encounter left him strange and silent for a week, and his Dean mark twitched and leaped in triumph. During that time the only notice he took of Annie was to teach her to use his rifle.
"Another tramp comes round, shoot him," he commanded.
"En in de meantime," counseled Aunt Dolcey, "it'll come in mighty handy fer you to kill off some deseyer chicken hawks what makin' so free wid our nex' crap br'ilers."
But beyond the learning how to use the gun Annie had learned something more; she added it to her knowledge that Aunt Dolcey had once outfaced her tyrant. It was this—that Wes' rage was the same, whether the cause of it was real or imaginary.
The advancing summer, with its sultriness, its sudden evening storms shot through with flaming lightning and reverberant with the drums of thunder, brought to Annie a cessation of her purpose. She was languid, subject to whimsical desires and appetites, at times a prey to sudden nervous tears. The household work slipped back into Aunt Dolcey's faithful hands, save now and then when Annie felt more buoyant and instinct with life and energy than she had ever felt before. Then she would weed her garden or churn and print a dozen rolls of butter with a keen and vivid delight in her activity.
In the evening she and Wes walked down the long lane and looked at the wheat, wide level green plains already turning yellow; or at the corn, regiments of tall soldiers, each shako tipped with a feathery tassel. Beyond lay the woods—dark, mysterious. Little dim plants of the soil bloomed and shed faint scent along the pathway in the dewy twilight. Sometimes they sat under the wild clematis, flowering now, and that, too, was perfumed, a wild and tangy scent that did not cloy. They did not talk very much, but he was tender with her, and his fits of anger seemed forgotten.
When they did talk it was usually about the crops—the wheat. It was wonderful, heavy wheat. It was the best wheat in all the neighborhood. Occasionally they took out the little coffeepot and drove through the country and looked at other wheat, but there was none so fine as theirs.
And with the money it would bring—the golden wheat turned into gold—they would—— And now came endless dreams.
"I thought we'd sell the old coffeepot to the junkman and get a brand-new car, a good one, but now " This was Wes.
"I think we ought to save too. A boy'll need so many things."
"Girls "don't need anything much, I suppose—oh, no!" He touched her cheek with gentle fingers. "It's not going to be a girl."
"How d'you know?"
So went their talk, over and over, an endless garland of happy conjectures, plans, air castles. Cousin Lorena sent little patterns and thin scraps of material, tiny laces, blue ribbons.
"I told her blue—blue's for boys," said Annie. And Wes laughed at her. It was all a blessed interlude of peace and expectancy.
The wheat was ready for harvest. From her place under the clematis vine, where she sat with her sewing, Annie could see the fields of pale gold, ready for the reaper. Wes had taken the coffeepot and gone down to the valley to see when the threshers would be able to come. In the morning he would begin to cut. Annie cocked a questioning eye at the sky, for she had already learned to watch the farmer's greatest ally and enemy—weather.
"If this good spell of weather only holds until he gets it all cut!" She remembered stories he had told her of sudden storms that flattened the ripe grain to the ground, beyond saving; of long-continued rains that mildewed it as it stood in the shocks. But if the good weather held! And there was not a cloud in the sky, nor any of those faint signs by which changing winds or clouds are forecast.
She heard the rattle and clack of the returning coffeepot, boiling up the hill at an unwonted speed. And she waved her hand to Wes as he came past; but he was bent over the wheel and did not even look round for her, only banged the little car round to the back furiously. Something in his attitude warned her, and she felt the old almost-forgotten devil of her fear leap to clutch her heart.
Presently he came round the house, and she hardly dared to look at him; she could not ask. But there was no need. He flung his hat on the ground before her with a gesture of frantic violence. When he spoke the words came in a ferment of fury:
"That skunk of a Harrison says he won't bring the thresher up here this year; claims the road's too rough and bridges are too weak for the engine."
"Oh, Wes—what'll you do?"
"Do! I'm not going to do anything! I'm not going to haul my wheat down to him—I'll see him in hell and back again before I will."
"But our wheat!"
"The wheat can rot in the fields! I won't be bossed and blackguarded by any dirty little runt that thinks because he owns the only threshing outfit in the neighborhood that he can run my affairs."
He raged up and down, adding invective, vituperation.
"But you can't, Wes—you can't let the wheat go to waste." For Annie had absorbed the sound creed of the country, that to waste foodstuff is a crime as heinous as murder.
"Can't I? Well, we'll see about that!"
She recognized from his tone that she had been wrong to protest; she had confirmed him in his purpose. She picked up her sewing and tried with unsteady fingers to go on with it, but she could not see the stitches for her tears. He couldn't mean it—and yet, what if he should? She looked up and out toward those still fields of precious ore, dimming under the purple shadows of twilight, and saw them a black tangle of wanton desolation. The story Aunt Dolcey had told her about the potatoes of last year was ominous in her mind.
He was sitting opposite her now, his head in his hands, brooding, sullen, the implacable vein in his forehead swollen with triumph, something brutish and hard dimming his clean and gallant youth.
"That's the way he's going to look as he gets older," thought Annie with a touch of prescience. "He's going to change into somebody else—little by little. This is the worst spell he's ever had. And all this mean blood's going to live again in my child. It goes on and on and on."
She leaned against the porch seat and struggled against the sickness of it.
"I might stand it for myself," she thought. "I might stand it for myself; but I'm not going to stand it for my baby. I'll do something—I'll take him away."
Her thoughts ran on hysterically, round and round in a coil that had no end and no beginning.
The silent fit was on Wes now. Presently, she knew, he would get up and stalk away to bed without a word. And in the morning——
It was as she expected. Without a word to her he got up and went inside, and she heard him going up the stairs. She sat then a little longer, for the night was still and warm and beautiful, the stars very near, and the soft hush-h of the country solitude comforting to her distress.
Then she heard Unc' Zenas and Dolcey talking at the kitchen door, their voices a faint cadenced murmur; and this reminded her that she was not quite alone. She slipped round to them.
"Unc' Zenas, Wes says he's not going to cut the wheat; he'll let it rot in the fields. Seems Harrison won't send his thresher up this far; wants us to haul to him instead."
"Marse Wes say he ain' gwine cut dat good wheat? Oh, no, Miss Annie, he cain' mean dat, sholy, sholy!"
"He said it. He's got an awful spell this time. Unc' Zenas—look—couldn't you ride the reaper if he wouldn't? Couldn't you? Once the wheat gets cut there's some chance."
"Befo' my God, Miss Annie, wid deseyer wuffless ole han's I cain' ha'dly hol' one hawss, let alone three. Oh, if I had back my stren'th lak I useter!"
The three fell into hopeless silence.
"Are the bridges so bad? Is it too hard to get the thresher up here?" asked Annie at last. "Or was that just Harrison's excuse?"
"No, ma'am; he's got de rights. Dem ole bridges might go down mos' any time. An' dishyer road up yere, it mighty hard to navigate foh er grea' big hebby contraption lak er threshin' machine en er engine. Mos' eve'y year he gits stuck. Las' year tuk er day en er ha'f to git him out. No'm; he's got de rights."
"Yes, but, Unc' Zenas, that wheat mustn't be left go to waste."
Aunt Dolcey spoke up. "Miss Annie, honey, go git your res'—mawnin' brings light. Maybe Marse Wes'll come to his solid senses een de mawnin'. You cain' do nuffin' ter-night noway."
"No, that's so." She sighed hopelessly. "Unc' Zenas, maybe we could hire somebody else to cut the wheat if he won't."
"Miss Annie, honey, eve'ybody busy wid his own wheat—an', moreover, Marse Wes ain' gwi' let any stranger come on dis place an' cut his wheat—you know he ain'."
There seemed nothing more to say. In the darkness tears were slowly trickling down Annie's cheeks, and she could not stop them.
"Good night, my lamb, good night. I gwi' name you en your tribulations in my prayers dis night."
She had never felt so abandoned, so alone. She could not even make the effort to force herself to believe that Wes would not commit this crime against all Nature; instead, she had a vivid and complete certainty that he would. She went over it and over it, lying in stubborn troubled wakefulness. She put it in clear if simple terms. If Wes persisted in his petty, childish angei and wasted this wheat, it meant that they could not save the money that they had intended for the child that was coming. They would have, in fact, hardly more than their bare living left them. The ridiculous futility of it swept her from one mood to another, from courage to utter hopelessness. She remembered the first time that she had seen Wes angry, and how she had lain awake then and wondered, and dreaded. She remembered how, later, she had planned to manage him, to control him. And she had done nothing. Now it had come to this, that her child would be born in needless impoverishment; and, worse, born with the Dean curse full upon him. She clenched and unclenched her hands. The poverty she might bear, but the other was beyond her power to endure. Sleep came to her at last as a blessed anodyne.
In the first moment of the sunlit morning she forgot her trouble, but instantly she remembered, and she dressed in an agony of apprehension and wonder. Wes was gone, as was usual, for he got up before she did, to feed his cattle. She hurried into her clothes and came down, to find him stamping in to breakfast, and with the first glance at him her hope fell like a plummet.
He did mean it—he did! He did not mean to cut that wheat. She watched him as he ate, and that fine-spun desperation that comes when courage alone is not enough, that purpose that does the impossible, took hold of her.
When he had finished his silent meal he went leisurely out to the little front porch and sat down. She followed him.
"Wes Dean, you going to cut that wheat?" she demanded; and she did not know the sound of her own voice, so high and shrill it was.
The vein in his forehead leered at her. What was she, to pit her strength against a mood like this? He did not answer, did not even look at her.
"Do you mean to say you'd be so wicked—such a fool?" she went on.
Now he looked up at her with furious, threatening eyes.
"Shut your mouth and go in!" he said. She did not move. "If you ain't going to cut it—then I am!"
She turned and started through the house, and he leaped up and followed her. In the kitchen he overtook her.
"You stay where you are! You don't go out of this house this day!" He laid a rough, restraining hand on her shoulder. At that touch—the first harshness she had ever felt from him—something hot and flaming leaped through her. She whirled away from him and caught up Aunt Dolcey's big sharp butcher knife lying on the table; lifted it.
"You put your hands on me like that again and I'll kill you!" Her voice was not high and shrill now; she did not even raise it. "You and your getting mad! You and your rotten, filthy temper! You'd waste that wheat because you haven't got enough sense to see what a big fool you are."
She dropped the knife and walked past him, out of the kitchen, to the barn.
"Unc' Zenas," she called, "you hitch up the horses to the reaper. I'm going to cut that near field to-day myself."
"But, Miss Annie——" began the old man.
"You hitch up that team," she said. "If there ain't any men round this place, I don't know's it makes so much difference."
She waited while the three big horses were brought out and hitched to the reaper, and then she mounted grimly to the seat. She did not even look around to see if Wes might be watching. She did not answer when Unc' Zenas offered a word of direction.
"Let dat nigh horse swing round de cornahs by hisse'f, Miss Annie. He knows. An' look—here's how you drop de knife. I'll let down de bars an' foller you."
Behind her back he made frantic gestures to Dolcey to come to him, and she ran, shuffling, shaken. Together they followed the little figure in the blue calico dress, perched high on the rattling, clacking reaper. Her hair shone in the sun like the wheat.
The near horse knew the game, knew how to lead the others. That was Annie's salvation. As she swung into the field she had a struggle with the knife, but it dropped into place, and the first of the golden harvest fell before it squarely, cleanly; the stubble was even behind it. She watched the broad backs of her team, a woman in a dream. She did not know how she drove them; the lines were heavy in her hands, dragged at her arms. It was hot, and sweat rolled down her forehead. She wished vaguely that she had remembered to put on her sunbonnet.
Behind her came Unc' Zenas and Aunt Dolcey, setting the sheaves into compact, well-capped stooks, little rough golden castles to dot this field of amazing conflict.
And now the reaper had come to the corner. Unc' Zenas straightened himself and watched anxiously. But his faith in the near horse was justified—the team turned smoothly, Annie lifted the blade and dropped it, and they started again, only half visible now across the tall grain.
Annie's wrists and back ached unbearably, the sweat got in her eyes, but she drove on. She thought a little of Wes, and how he had looked when she picked up that butcher knife. She thought of his heavy hand on her shoulder, and her flesh burned where he had grasped it.
"I'm going to cut this wheat if it kills me!" she said over and over to herself in a queer refrain. "I'm going to cut this wheat if it kills me!" She thought probably it would. But she drove on.
She made her second corner successfully, and now the sun was at her back, and that gave her a little ease. This wheat was going to be cut, and hauled to the thresher, and sold in the market, if she did every bit of the work herself. She would show Wes Dean! Let him try to stop her—if he dared!
And there would be money enough for everything the baby might want or might need. Her child should not be born to poverty and skimping. If only the sun didn't beat so hard on the back of her neck! If only her arms didn't ache so!
After countless hours of time she overtook Dolcey and Zenas, and the old woman divined her chief discomfort. She snatched the sunbonnet off her own head and handed it up to her.
"Marster in hebben, ef I only had my stren'th!" muttered Zenas as she went on.
"Angels b'arin' dat chile up wid deir wings," chanted Aunt Dolcey. Then, descending to more mundane matters, she added a delighted chuckle: "I knowed she'd rise en shine one dese days. Holler at Marse Wes she did, name him names, plenty. Yessuh—laid him out!"
"What you s'pose he up to now?" asked Zenas, looking over his shoulder.
"I dunno—but I bet you he plumb da'nted. Zenas, lak I tol' you—man may hab plenty debbilment, rip en t'ar, but he'll stan' back whenas a ooman meks up her min' she stood enough." And Aunt Dolcey had never heard of Rudyard Kipling's famous line.
"Dat chile might kill he'se'f."
"When yo' mad yo' kin 'complish de onpossible, en it doan hurt yo'," replied Dolcey, thus going Kipling one better.
But she watched Annie anxiously.
The girl held out, though the jolting and shaking racked her excruciatingly and the pull of the reins seemed to drag the very flesh from her bones. Now and then the golden field swam dark before her eyes, the backs of the horses swelled to giant size and blotted out the sun. But she kept on, long after her physical strength was gone; her endurance held her. Slowly, carefully, the machine went round and round the field, and the two bent old figures followed.
And so they came to mid-morning. They had long since ceased to look or care for any sign of the young master of the land. None of them noticed him, coming slowly, slowly from the stables, coming slowly, slowly to the field's edge and standing there, watching with unbelieving, sullen eyes the progress of the reaper, the wavering arms that guided the horses, the little shaken blue figure that sat high in the driver's seat. But he was there.
It is said of criminals that a confession can often be extracted by the endless repetition of one question alone; they cannot bear the pressure of its monotony. Perhaps it was the monotony of the measured rattle and clack of the machine, going on so steadily, that finally impelled Wes Dean, after his long frowning survey of the scene, to vault the low stone wall and approach it.
Annie did not check the horses when she saw him; she did not even look at him. But he looked at her, and in her white face, with the dreary circles of utter fatigue shadowing her eyes, his defeat was completed. He put his hand on the bit of the nearest horse and stopped the team.
Then she looked at him, as one looks at a loathsome stranger.
"What you want?" she asked coldly.
He swallowed hard. "Annie—I'll—I'll cut the wheat. Le'me lift you down off there." He held out his arms.
She did not budge. "You going to cut it all—and haul it down to the thresher?"
"Yes—yes, I will. Gee, you look near dead—get down, honey. You go in the house and lay down—I'm afraid you'll kill yourself. I'm afraid you'll hurt—him, some way."
Still she did not move. "I'd ruther be dead than live with a man that acts like you do," she said. "Grown up, and can't handle his temper."
Something in her quiet cold scorn struck through to him and cut away forever his childish satisfaction with himself. A new manhood came into his face; his twitching, sinister vein was still. Surrender choked him, but he managed to get it out:
"I know I acted like a fool. But I can't let you do this. I'll—I'll try to——"
The words died on his lips and he leaped forward in time to catch her as she swayed and fell, fainting.
An hour later Annie lay on the lounge in the sitting room, still aching with terrible weariness, but divinely content. Far away she could hear the steady susurrus of the reaper, driven against the golden wheat, and the sound was a promise and a song to her ears. She looked up now and then at the pictured face of Wes' father, frowning and passionate, and the faint smile of a conqueror curved her tired mouth. For she had found and proved the strongest thing in the world, and she would never again know fear.