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Title: The Able McLaughlins
Author: Margaret Wilson, - To be updated
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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THE ABLE McLAUGHLINS


[Illustration]


THE ABLE McLAUGHLINS

by

MARGARET WILSON


[Illustration]



Harper & Brothers Publishers
New York and London

THE ABLE McLAUGHLINS

Copyright, 1923
By Harper & Brothers
Printed in the U. S. A.



THE ABLE McLAUGHLINS



The ABLE McLAUGHLINS



CHAPTER I


The prairie lay that afternoon as it had lain for centuries of
September afternoons, vast as an ocean; motionless as an ocean coaxed
into very little ripples by languid breezes; silent as an ocean where
only very little waves slip back into their element. One might have
walked for hours without hearing anything louder than high white
clouds casting shadows over the distances, or the tall slough grass
bending lazily into waves. One might have gone on startled only by
the falling of scarlet swamp-lily seeds, by sudden goldfinches, or
the scratching of young prairie chickens in the shorter grasses.
For years now not even a baby buffalo had called to its mother in
those stretches, or an old squaw broken ripening wild grapes from
the creek thicket. Fifteen years ago one might have gone west for
months without hearing a human voice. Even that day a traveler might
easily have missed the house where little David and the fatter little
Sarah sat playing, for it was less in the vastnesses about it than
one short bubble in a wave’s crest. Ten years ago the children’s
father had halted his ox team there, finishing his journey from
Ayrshire, and his eight boys and girls alighting upon the summer’s
crop of wild strawberries, had harvested it with shrieks of delight
which broke forever the immediate part of the centuries’ silence. A
solitary man would have left the last source of human noise sixty
miles behind him, where the railroad ended. But this farsighted
pioneer had brought with him a strong defense against the hush that
maddens. He had a real house now. The log cabin in which he and his
nine, his brother and his ten, his two sisters and their sixteen had
all lived that first summer, was now but a mere woodshed adjoining
the kitchen. The house was a fine affair, built from lumber hauled
but forty miles--so steadily the railroad crept westward--and
finished, the one half in wild cherry cut from the creek, and the
other half in walnut from the same one source of wood. Since the day
of the first McLaughlin alighting there had arrived, altogether, to
settle more or less near him, on land bought from the government,
his three brothers and four sisters, his wife’s two brothers and one
sister, bringing with them the promising sum of sixty-nine children,
all valiant enemies of quietness and the fleeing rattlesnakes. Some
of the little homes they had built for themselves could be seen that
afternoon, like distant specks on the ocean. But Sarah and David had
no eyes just then for distant specks.

They had grown tired of watching the red calf sleep, and Davie was
trying to make it get up. Finally in self-defense, it rose, and
having found itself refreshed, began gamboling about, trying its
length of rope, its tail satisfactorily erect. The two had to retreat
suddenly to the doorstep where Hughie sat, so impetuous it grew.
Hughie was not, like the others, at home because he was too small to
go to school. Indeed, no! Hughie was ten, and at home to-day because
he had been chilling, the day before, with the fever that rose from
the newly-broken prairie. The three of them sat quiet only a moment.

“Why does he frisk his tail so?” Davie asked.

“He’s praising the Lord,” replied Hughie, wise and wan.

“Is he now!” exclaimed Davie, impressed. “Does God like it?”

“Fine,” said Hughie. That was an easy one. “It’s in the Psalm.
Creeping things and all ye cattle.”

Davie sat for some time sharing his Maker’s pleasure in the antics
of happy calves. Then bored--perhaps like his Maker--he turned to
other things. He rose, and went down the path towards the road, and
stood looking down it, in the direction from which the older children
must come, surely soon now, from school. Only here and there along
that path where they would appear was the grass not higher than
the children’s heads; in some places it was higher than a man on
horseback. There seemed no children in sight.

But wasn’t that someone coming down there on the other road?

“I see somebody coming on the road, Hughie!” he called.

“You _do_ not!” answered Hughie. It wasn’t at all likely anybody was
coming. Yet in case anything so unusual was happening, he would just
have a look. Sarah waddled after him.

Ship ahoy!

Was that really something moving down there in the further slough?
The three stood still, peering across the prairie, hands sheltering
eyes, barefooted, the boys in the most primitive of homemade
overalls, Sarah in an apron unadorned, the golden autumn sunshine
blowing around them. They stood looking....

Then the home-coming children emerged from the tall grass into which
the younger ones were strongly forbidden to go, because children
sometimes got fatally lost in it, and at this signal the three ran
to meet them, crying out the news. Gaining the little rise of ground
again, upon which the house stood, they all paused together to look
at whatever it was that drew near, Mary, the oldest of them, the
teacher, Jessie and Flora, James and Peter.

Yes! There was no doubt about it now!

“’Tis a team!” cried Peter.

“’Tis a pair of grays!” he added in a moment. They were all perfectly
motionless from curiosity now. Who had grays in that neighborhood?

“There’s two men in it,” Mary affirms.

Then Peter yells,

“One is wearing blue!” They can scarcely breathe now.

Blue! Can it be blue! This is too much for Mary.

“Run, Peter!” she cries. “Tell mother! Get father! It has the looks
of a soldier!” It is three weeks now since the last battle, since
word has come from Wully. The little girls are jumping about in
excitement.

The children’s shouts had not at all disturbed the mother in
the kitchen, where she sat sewing, until--could she believe her
ears?--they were shouting, “’Tis Wully, mother! ’Tis Wully!” She ran
out of the house, down the path.

“It never is!” she says, unsteadily. But she can see someone in blue,
someone standing up, waving a cap now. She can see his white face.
The children bolt down the road. She can see him, her black-bearded
first-born. The driver is whipping up the horses. Home from battles,
pale to the lips, he is in her arms. But she is paler.

“Run for your father!” she cries, to whoever will heed her. The
children are pulling at him boisterously. The strange driver is
patting his horses, his back to the family reunited. Hugged, and
kissed, and patted and loved, the bearded Wully turns to the stranger.

“This is Mr. Knight, of Tyler, mother. He brought me all the way.”

“’Tis a kind thing you have done!” she exclaims, shaking his hand
devoutly.

“Oh, he was a soldier. And he didn’t look able to walk so far.”

“You’re not sick!” she cries to Wully, scanning his face. Certainly
he was not sick, now. He could have walked it, but he was glad he
didn’t have to, he adds, smiling engagingly at the stranger. They
stand together awkwardly, joy-smitten, looking at one another,
excited beyond words. Then the mother leads the way to the unpainted
house, the children hanging to Wully, dancing about.

The fifteen-year-old Andrew was working in the farther part of the
field just below the house that afternoon, when he saw, from a
distance, his father, called by Peter, suddenly leave his plow, and
run towards the house surely faster than an old man ever runs. His
own team was fly-bitten and restless, and he left it just long enough
to see that in front of the house there was a team and a light wagon.
He unhitched his half-broken young steers, urged them impatiently to
the nearest tying place, and hurried to the house.

What he saw there made so great an impression on him, that
fifty-seven years later, when that stranger’s grandson was one of the
disheartened veterans of the World War who came to his office looking
for work, the whole scene rose before him in such poignancy that he
had to turn his head away abruptly, remembering....

There in the kitchen, in his mother’s chair sat the stranger in the
fine clothes, with a drink of whisky in his hand which his father
had just poured out. There on the bed sat his great gaunt brother
in blue, one trouser leg rolled up to his hairy knee. There on a
strip of carpet in front of the bed knelt his mother with a strange
white face, soaking bloody rags away from evil-looking sores on that
precious foot. There by the cupboard stood Mary, tearing something
white into bandages, with the children huddled around her, awed by
the sight of their mother.

Andy saw all that the moment that Wully, taking up one of the
children’s old jokes, cried out to him, in a voice that belied his
foot, a greeting that the young ones had loved deriding.

“Lang may your lum reek, Andy!” There wasn’t really anything wrong
with Wully, it seemed. That wasn’t a wound, he affirmed. It was only
a scratch. He really couldn’t say just how it had happened. It wasn’t
anything! It might not be anything to a soldier, but to his mother
it was the mark of imminent death for her dearest son. She began
rubbing it gently with lambs’ fat. Wully, bethinking himself, pulled
from a pocket a paper-wrapped bundle of sweeties for the children,
who saw such things but seldom. They were intent upon the contents
of that, and the stranger was talking to his father, when Andy,
still standing awkwardly in the door, saw a thing happen which was a
landmark in his understanding. He saw his mother, who had made fast
the last bandage, and was carefully pulling down the trouser leg,
suddenly bend over and _kiss_ that leg! Such passion he saw in that
gesture that he realized vaguely then some great fierce hidden thing
in life, escaping secrecy only at times, a terrible thing called love
... which breaks forth upon occasions ... even in old women like
his mother. He turned his face away suddenly as from some forbidden
nakedness, and fixed his eyes upon Wully.

That hero, quite unabashed, was pulling his mother, who had risen,
down to a seat beside him on the bed. She sat there, unconscious of
the roomful, just looking at him, looking ... as if she could never
see his face enough. She watched him devouringly when presently, with
the attention of them all, he began light-heartedly telling about his
escape. Half of his regiment had been made prisoners, including his
major. They had been marched away towards a train, to be sent south,
and he had marched among them until he dropped. He told his captors
that they could shoot him if they would, but he couldn’t go a step
further. They had left him lying helpless there by the roadside, a
guard standing over him. And before the wagon came along, which was
to pick them up, the guard had slept, and Wully, stronger to run to
freedom than to march to prison, had made his escape. Starved and
hiding, he had crept night by night towards the Mississippi, and
there he had seen a boat which was bringing Northern wounded men
home, tie up at the river bank to bury its dead. Its captain had
taken pity on him, chilling and nauseated, and had brought him to
Davenport. Then when he had got by train to the nearest Iowa town,
this stranger had shown him this kindness.... Oh, his mother needn’t
worry about his being shot for a deserter. They knew him too well
in his company, if there was any of them left. And hadn’t his chum,
Harvey Stow, been home four times to visit, without permission
from anyone, and had he ever been punished for it? As soon as he
had something to eat, and he could find where to report, he would
be going back--yes, certainly--going back, however much his mother
caught her breath at the mention of it.

It was so interesting to hear him talk that the men could scarcely
leave for their duties. But there were the horses to feed, and
the cows to milk, and the kind strange team to reward. Mr. Knight
followed the boys to the barn and watched with amusement how
reverently they rubbed down and bedded and fed the guests of the
stable. And when they came in again, there sat the scrubbed soldier,
in a fresh hickory shirt and clean jeans, in his mother’s chair, his
swathed foot on a stool--the stool was Hughie’s thought--and the New
York _Tribune_ in his hand--the paper was Flora’s contribution. He
was talking grinningly to his mother. A white cloth was spread on
the table, and the mother, shining, uplifted with joy, was wiping
pink-banded cups which Wully remembered to have seen taken from the
sacred shelf only when her Scot cousin, who had come to this country
to enlighten the darkness of the Yankees by taking the presidency of
one of their colleges, had come west to visit this family. Not since
then had the Scottish sheets been out of the chest, and now they
were airing on the line. ’Twas an occasion magnificent to consider!
When they sat down at the table for supper--and they had not long
to wait, for the mother was that woman of whom tradition says she
could make a pair of jean pants in twenty minutes--they had fried
prairie chicken, and potatoes and scons and egg-butter, and stewed
wild plums, sweetened with sugar at forty cents a pound. The father
instituted the feast by a long prayer. “Of course!” thought the
stranger. “They’re Scotch!” He counted the children. There were ten.

“You’ve a fine family,” he commented.

“Not so bad when they’re all here,” returned the mother complacently.
“There’s a boy and a girl away at school.” She paused abruptly.

“Our boy younger than Wully was killed at Fort Donaldson,” explained
the father.

“Ah! My son was wounded there. Lost a hand.” There was a moment’s
silence. Then Wully said, wanting the subject changed,

“It’s over now, mother. Grant’ll get them now.”

They proceeded to talk of the coming election. Five families of
Covenanting Scotch in the neighborhood were deserting the principles
of their forefathers and taking out naturalization papers, hoping to
vote for Lincoln. The visitor wondered vaguely what kind of Scotch
that might be. He had no chance to ask. The mother seemed to have
read every word of the last _Tribune_. He had hardly time for that
himself. She seemed a woman of wide information. Apparently she knew
the position of every unit of the army.

Supper was over. Flora handed her father The Book, and moved the
candle near him. He found the place, and said,

“The twenty-third Psalm.”

To the man’s surprise, the mother began the song in a clear, sure
voice, and the children all joined, without hesitation, as if this
was a part of a familiar routine. The boys and girls were obviously
thinking of the guests of honor. The mother’s face was turned to
her son. But the father was looking away in a dream to something
he seemed to see through the wall before him. When the singing was
over, he began reading from The Book words that clearly had some
exalted meaning to him, though what it might be the stranger could
not imagine. “Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lift up,
ye everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in. Who is
this King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty
in battle.” It sounded impressive, read with a subdued ring in
the voice. Then he shut the book, in a high silence, and they all
moved their chairs back, and knelt down. The stranger knelt, too,
somewhat tardily. Not that he objected to prayers, of course. He
was a religious man himself in a way. His wife often went to church.
He could see the rapt face of the father praying in great, sonorous
phrases which sounded vaguely familiar. Of all the children he could
see, not one had an eye open. They were thanking the Lord for the
boy’s return. “Bless the Lord, oh my soul, and all that is within
me, bless His holy name.” They proceeded to pray for everyone in
the United States, the President and his cabinet, the generals and
the colonels and the captains, all the privates, all the sick and
homesick, for those destroyed by war, for the mourning and all small
children, for slaves in their freedom, and masters in their poverty,
and then for the stranger, that he might hear the Judge say unto
him, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared
for you from the beginning of the world. For I was sick, and ye
ministered unto me”; “that the beauty of the Lord, as now, might be
upon him forever.” The stranger had scarcely got over that when they
all began saying the Lord’s Prayer together. “Nothing lacking but
the collection,” he thought, somewhat resentfully. Not having heard
a sermon for some time, he had forgotten that. When they rose from
their knees, Sarah and David were found asleep. Andy picked them up
and carried them away to bed. And even while Mr. Knight was wondering
how many of the children he would have to sleep with, the mother took
the sheets from beside the stove, and as she started for the fine
parlor, whose bed was to be got ready for the guest, she said,

“Wully is to have the kitchen bed by himself. You all just go
upstairs and leave him alone.”

The stranger had the decency to go soon to his bed. It wasn’t a
half-bad bed, either. And he was tired. It had been a sudden impulse,
this driving the soldier home, with a new team, over no road at all.
But he was glad he had come. He had wanted to see this country. The
new horses had jogged along very well. Moreover, he had made friends
among the Scotch, and he was a politician. He thought of his son with
Sherman’s army. He thought of the soldier’s impressive mother. He
smiled over the number of children. He slept.

But long after the house was quiet, Wully lay talking to his father
and mother, who sat on his kitchen bed. He told them of marches and
battles and fevers and skirmishes, none of which had endangered him
at all, of course, of the comradeship among the boys from the Yankee
settlement down the creek, and of the hope everywhere, now, that
the end was near. Then gradually there fell a silence over them,
an understanding silence, wherein each knew the other’s thoughts.
They were all thinking of that first terrible home-coming of his, of
the things that led up to it. He remembered how “the boys” had been
eating breakfast in camp, when the orders came that meant their first
battle. He had been in an agony of fear lest he might be afraid. The
one good thing about it was that Allen, his brother, had been sent
away on a detail not an hour before. He would go into battle without
having his brother to worry about. That trembling, as he advanced,
had not been fear, but only ague so severe he might have stayed
behind if he had chosen. But he had advanced with the rest of them,
and in the darkness when he tried to sleep after it was over, he knew
he need not fear cowardice again. They had won the day, and they
exulted as fiercely as they had fought. Had not their regiment been
one of three which, not getting their orders to retreat, had stood
firmly till fresh troops came to save the day! But the next morning’s
task had mocked terrifyingly their victory. He could have pleaded
fever to escape from that.... Some on the snow-covered hillside were
digging great trenches, some were throwing body after body into
them, some were shoveling earth in upon them. He had bent down to
tug at a stiff thing half hidden by snow, he had turned it over, a
head grotesquely twisted backward, a neck mud-plastered, horrible,
bloody. Then he had cried out, and fallen down. That thing, with the
lower face shot away, was Allen! His comrades, hunting about, found
the bodies of the others of the little squad that had been hurriedly
recalled.

That night Wully had planned to desert. He had announced his
intention to his lieutenant who came to sit beside him. They might
drum him out of camp as a deserter if they would. He was telling
them plainly what he intended doing. He would never fight again. But
before he was able to walk, his comrades had got him a furlough.
They understood only too well his fever and his delirium, and
they remembered how he had gone through the battle, vomiting and
ague-shaken, firing with a hand too weak to aim, and vomiting again,
and shaking and firing. All the way home he had planned how to break
the news to his mother. But when he had seen her, his grief which
before had had no outlet, suddenly burst forth, so that even as she
asked him, he was sobbing it all out to her. He had never told her,
of course, how Allen’s sweet singing mouth had been destroyed. For
Allen had been a gay lad, playing the fiddle, and singing many songs,
sometimes little lovable ones he made as he sang, about pumpkins,
or the old red rooster, or anything that might please the little
children.

For Wully, no home-coming could ever again be so terrible as that
one. But his father and mother who sat beside him there were trying
not to know that just such news might come at any time of this one,
who must go back to death’s place. Wully lay telling them little
things he could recall of those last days. Had he told them of the
time that the captain had stood, unbeknown to Allen, behind a bush,
listening to him imitate all the company’s officers? There had never
been a day that Allen had not been called upon to make fun for his
comrades. Laughter had bubbled up within him and gushed out even
in stark times. There was no detail of his nonsense not precious to
the two who listened. It was late before they left him, and he soon
slept. Towards morning, his mother slept.

Soon after daylight the stranger came into the kitchen. The mother
was standing half hidden by the steam that rose from the milk pails
that she was scalding out. The oldest sister at a table where
candlelight and dawn struggled together, was packing a school lunch
into a basket. A small girl was buttoning fat Sarah into her dress.
Two small boys were struggling with their shoes on the floor. Wully
presently hobbled in from out of doors, declaring himself recovered,
a giant refreshed. The stranger noticed that when they found their
places at the table, there was a larger child beside each smaller
one, to look after him. There was one little fellow who looked like
the soldier, and a half-grown sister with beautiful regular features
like his. But the others were all alike, with deeply set dark blue
eyes, long upper lips, and lower faces heavy, keen, determined. He
could have appreciated what the mother said sometimes simply, to
the neighbors, when they remarked how good her children were: “Yes,
they’re never any care when they’re well. If we had one or two, we
might let them have tantrums. But who could live in a house with
thirteen ill bairns?” Since by that she meant, of course, naughty
children, her question seemed indeed unanswerable.

Now they sat eating lustily their cornmeal, and she talked with
leisure and understanding. When the meal was finished, Flora handed
her father The Book again.

“By Golly!” said the stranger to himself, “they’re going to do it
again!” And they did. The mother lifted the Psalm from memory, and
then they repeated some part of the Bible. The stranger was the more
ill at ease because young Hughie’s eyes were fixed accusingly upon
him. Again the father prayed for all the inhabitants of the world, by
name or class.

When the boys brought the guest’s wonderful team to the door, all the
family gathered to bid him good-by.

“I wish you well, sir, for your kindness,” the father said, and the
mother, at a loss to know how to thank him sufficiently, added,

“We’ll never forget this, neither us nor our children!” It was that
trembling choked back in her voice that gave the stranger’s grandson
his work with the firm of Andrew McLaughlin, in the fall of 1920.

The beautiful grays started impatiently away, the men went to their
work, and the children to their school. In the kitchen his mother
bandaged Wully’s feet, and put the wee’uns out of door to play while
he had a sleep. At half past eleven he woke. His mother was sitting
in the doorway, shelling beans. How was he to guess that she was late
with her dinner preparations because again and again she had to stop,
and look at this child of hers grown a strange man in the midst of
horrors unimaginable? He lay very still looking at her. The kettle
was singing on the stove. Through the door, he saw the red calf
sleeping in the sunshine. A wave of joy, of ecstasy complete passed
over him. Oh, the heaven of home, the peace of it, of a good bed, of
a mother calmly getting dinner!

“I’m starved, mother!” he sang out suddenly to her. She hurried to
the cellar, and brought him cool milk and two cookies. The children,
hearing him, came in to watch him. He sat down in the doorway, and
began throwing beans up, and catching them skillfully, to win the
friendship of the doubtful little Sarah. David watched him eagerly.
Presently Hughie said:

“Mother, why did yon strange man not say the Psalm?”

“You mus’na stare so at visitors, Hughie!”

“But why, mother? Why did he not say it?”

“Maybe he did’na ken it.”

“Did’na ken what?”

“The Psalm.”

“Did’na ken the fifteenth Psalm, and him a man grown!” Hughie had
never seen anyone before who couldn’t say the fifteenth Psalm.

“Aw, mother!” he exclaimed remonstratingly. “Even Davie knows that!”

Wully chuckled. He knew the world. He had seen cities. He had marched
across states. He had eaten ice cream.



CHAPTER II


Wully slept the whole afternoon, and that evening the aunts and
uncles and cousins began coming to see him. He and Allen, being among
the oldest of the clan’s young fry, had been the first to enlist,
though since then two of the McNairs, a Stevenson, and a McElhiney
had grown old enough to fight. Allen’s death and Wully’s spectacular
career had endeared him to the neighbors. They had suffered with
him, they thought. Two years before, when they had gathered to offer
their consolation to the family because he was reported dead, they
had found his mother rejecting sympathy with as much decision as was
civil. The United States government might be a powerful organization,
but it could never make her believe that Wully had been shot in the
back, running away from duty. The Stowes doubtless did well to array
themselves in mourning for Harvey, but she knew her son was alive.
And sure enough, after three weeks a letter came, no larger than the
palm of her hand. She knew it had come when she saw a nephew running
towards the house to give it to her. On one side, the little paper
had said that Wully was alive and well in a prison in Texas, and on
the other, crowded together, were ten names of comrades imprisoned
with him, and Harvey Stowe’s name was written first and largest.
That minute she had buttoned the bit of paper into Andy’s shirt
pocket, and sent him fifteen miles down the creek to tell the Stowes
to take off their mourning, and the clan, hearing the news from the
mad-riding Andy had gathered to rejoice with her. And now that the
exciting Wully was home again, they brought him wild turkeys, and
the choice of the wild plums, an apple or two, first fruit of their
new orchards, and whatever else their poverty afforded. Mrs. Stowe
came to see him, bringing a package of sugar. But the Stowes were
well-to-do. The others were exclusively what Allen had dubbed “the
ragged lairds of the Waupsipinnikon.”

Not that their creek was really the Waupsipinnikon. Allen had only
crossed that chuckling stream on his first journey with his father,
but he had delighted in a name so whimsical, so rollicking, and
had used it largely. Pigs and chickens of his christening bore it
unharmed. And he put it into the song he used to sing sometimes, when
the prairie’s youth and beauty were tired of dancing to his fiddle.
All the neighbors were mentioned in it:

  The McWhees, the McNabs, the McNorkels,
  The Gillicuddies, the McElhineys, the McDowells,
  The Whannels, the McTaggerts, the Strutheres,
  The Stevensons, the McLaughlins, and the Sprouls.

In his pronunciation the meter was perfect, and Sprouls and McDowells
rhymed perfectly, both of them, with “holes.” For an encore he would
show his appreciative audience how the head of each family mentioned
“asked the blessing,” always politely and stubbornly refusing to
imitate the master of the house in which the fun was going on--at
least until the master had retired.

Between the visits of the ragged lairds and their offspring, Wully
got so much sleep that on the fourth day he announced himself able
to help with the fall plowing. His mother refused to have such a
suggestion considered, and they compromised on his digging carrots in
the garden. At that task she found him doggedly working away after
an hour, white and trembling. For a week he recovered from the fever
that came on, sleeping by day and by night. The twelfth day he was
so well that he rode to look over the “eighty” his father had bought
for him with the two hundred dollars that had accrued to him during
the fourteen months he lay in prison, trying to carve enough wooden
combs to earn what would keep him from starving. His father explained
that he might have brought land further on at a dollar and a half an
acre. But this was the choice bit of land, and, moreover, it joined
the home farm. And this bit of ground, rising just here was obviously
the place for the house to be built. Wully smiled indulgently at the
idea of his building a house. But he wasn’t to smile about it, his
father protested. Indeed, they would some way get an acre broken this
fall yet in time to plant maple seed, and poplar, for the first
windbreak, so that the little trees would be ready for their duty.

The elder McLaughlin sighed with satisfaction as he talked. Even yet
he had scarcely recovered from that shock of incredulous delight
at his first glimpse of the incredible prairies; acres from which
no frontiersman need ever cut a tree; acres in which a man might
plow a furrow of rich black earth a mile long without striking a
stump or a stone; a state how much larger than all of Scotland in
which there was no record of a battle ever having been fought--what
a home for a man who in his childhood had walked to school down a
path between the graves of his martyred ancestors--whose fathers
had farmed a rented sandpile enriched by the blood of battle among
the rock of the Bay of Luce. Even yet he could scarcely believe
that there existed such an expanse of eager virgin soil waiting for
whoever would husband it. Ten years of storm-bound winters, and
fever-shaken, marketless summers before the war, had not chilled
his passion for it--nor poverty so great that sometimes it took the
combined efforts of the clan to buy a twenty-five cent stamp to write
to Scotland of the measureless wealth upon which they had fallen.
From the time he was ten years old, he had dreamed of America. He
had had to wait to realize his dream till his landlord had sold
him out for rent overdue. What Wully remembered gallingly about
that sale was that his grandmother had been present at it, and her
neighbors, thinking she bought the poor household stuff to give
back to her son, refused to bid for it against her. Then, having got
it all cheap, she sold it at considerable profit, and pocketed the
money. That was why, taught by his father, he despised everything
that suggested Scottish stinginess. Nor had he wept a tear when the
old woman died, soon after, and his father, taking his share of her
hoardings, had departed for his Utopia. Some of the immigrants had
long since lost their illusions. But not John McLaughlin. He loved
his land like a blind and passionate lover. Really there was nothing
glorious that one was not justified in imagining about a nation to
be born to such an inheritance. And he told Wully that he might at
least console himself with the thought that those months in prison
had made him possessor of such land, that with the possible exception
of the fabled Nile valley, there was probably in the world no
richer. And the McLaughlins prided themselves on the fact that they
were no American “soil-scratchers,” exhausting debauchers of virgin
possibilities. Their rich soil, they promised themselves, was to be
richer by far for every crop it yielded.

The next day Wully felt so well that he must have something to do.
On the morrow the bi-weekly mail would be in, and if it brought
orders for him, he would be returning to his regiment. He stood in
the doorway looking toward his father’s very young orchard, and
considering the possibilities of the afternoon. Of course, he might
ride over and see Stowe’s sweetheart, who had come to see him the
other time he was home ill. But he dreaded talking to a strange
woman. She was pretty, certainly. That was why he was afraid of her.
If he had been Allen, now, with an excuse for going to see a pretty
girl, his horse would have been in a lather before he arrived. Wully
had envied Stowe, sometimes, his eagerness for just a certain letter.
It must, he thought in certain moods, after all be rather pleasant to
have someone so dear that a man like Stowe would endanger his honor,
and life itself by stealing away to see her. Stowe was to be married
as soon as he got home. He was so close a friend that he talked to
Wully about that. If Stowe had had a site for a house waiting him, as
Wully had, he would have talked his friend deaf. But just the same,
Wully wasn’t going to see his sweetheart. He would do anything for
Stowe but that. Easing his conscience by that assurance, he heard his
mother speaking to him.

If he wanted something to do, would he ride over to Jeannie McNair’s
for her? She wanted to know if Jeannie had any news yet from Alex.
When would that man be back, she wondered indignantly. Who ever heard
of a man harvesting a wheat crop, and starting back to Scotland,
leaving his family alone with the snakes--she always added the snakes
because the McNair cabin was on low land which those reptiles rather
affected--and all to prevent his half brothers from getting a bit
more of a poor inheritance than they were entitled to! If Wully went
on her errand, he was to take poor Jeannie a few prairie chickens,
and those three young ducks she had raised for her, alone there with
her bairns!

And if he was going, he must put on his uniform. He demurred. She
insisted. Why, Jeannie had never seen him in his uniform! He smiled
to hear her imply that not to have seen him so arrayed was the
greatest of her deplorable privations. Yet he went and put it on,
nevertheless, for it was the most handsome suit he had ever had,
always before having been clothed in the handiwork of his mother and
sisters. When he was ready to go, the ducks caught and tied, a bit of
jelly safely wrapped, as he stood by the horse, in his mother’s sight
the most beautiful soldier in the American armies, she said:

“Jeannie’s Jimmie was just your age, you mind, Wully.”

She watched him riding away, the fondness of her face ministering to
the joyous sense of well-being that swept over him. How unspeakably
lovely the country was! How magnificent its richness! He had never
felt it so keenly before. He must be getting like his father. Or
perhaps it looked so much more impressive because he had seen so
much swampy desolation in the South. The grass he rode through
seemed to bend under the sparkling of the golden sunshine. He came
to the creek, and as he crossed it he remembered with a pang the
time his companions had staggered thankfully and hastily to drink
out of a pool covered with green slime. He turned with disgust from
the memory. He wouldn’t even think of those things to spoil his few
days at home. He gave himself up to the persuasive peace around him.
He rode along, completely, unreasonably happy. He began to sing.
Singing, he remembered Allen. How was it that he was here singing,
and Allen, the singer, was dead! But the afternoon’s glow took away
soon even the bitterness of that question.

He came presently in sight of the McNairs’ cabin. Though every other
man of the neighborhood had been able, thanks to the wartime price of
wheat, to build for his family a more decent shelter than the first
one, that Alex McNair, fairly crazy with land-hunger, added acre to
acre, regardless of his family’s needs. Such a man Wully scorned with
all the arrogance of youth. He had, moreover, understood and shared
something of his mother’s pity for her beloved friend, McNair’s wife.
He remembered distinctly that when his parents had been leaving the
Ayrshire home for America, Jeannie had put into his hand a poke of
sweeties to be divided by him among the other children during the
journey. That had been a happy farewell, because Jeannie and her five
were soon to follow. But when the ten flourishing McLaughlins again
saw Jeannie on this side of the water, of her five there remained
only her little Chirstie, and a baby boy. The bodies of the other
three she had seen thrown out of the smallpox-smitten ship which the
feasting sharks were following. Since then she had been a silent
woman, though Wully’s mother spoke of her sometimes, sighing, as a
girl of high spirits and wit. Now, however much other Ayrshire women
might rejoice in a dawning nation, the memory of those bloody mouths
stood always between her and hope. She endured the new solitude
without comment or complaint. Homesick for a hint of old-country
decency, she hung the walls of her cabin with the linen sheets of her
dowry, sheets that must have come out of the poisonous ship. Wully’s
mother admired that immaculate room without one sigh of envy. White
sheets would keep clean a long time in that cabin, with only the two
bairns. But she thanked God that in her crowded cabin there was not
room for one sheet on the wall. Moreover, in the new land, Jeannie
had lost two babies, so that now for her labor and travail, she had
only the Scottish two, and a baby girl. With another baby imminent,
her husband had “trapassed” away to Scotland! He was too “close” to
have taken her with him. But not for the wealth of Iowa would she
have exposed her children again to sea. She would stay and save them
on dry land. She wouldn’t be left altogether alone. Her brother’s
family lived but two miles away.

Wully rode up to the house unperceived, though not one tree, not one
kindly bush protected it against the immensity of the solitude around
it. He tied his horse, and was at the door before Jeannie saw him.
Then she exclaimed:

“If it is’na Isobel’s Wully!” She shook his hand, and patted him on
his shoulder, and reached up and kissed him. He didn’t mind that. She
was practically an aunt, so intimate were the families. In her silent
excitement she brought him into her wretched little cabin.

And there stood another woman. By the window--a young woman--turning
towards him with sunshine on her white arms--and on the dough she was
kneading--sunshine on her white throat--and on the little waves of
brown hair about her face--sunshine making her fingertips transparent
pink--a woman like a strong angel--beautiful in light!

Wully just stared.

“It’s only Chirstie.” Jeannie was surprised at his surprise.

Only Chirstie!

“She was just a wee’un when I saw her,” he stammered. “I did’na ken
she was so bonny!” Fool that he was! Idiot! Yammering away in bits of
a forsaken dialect! What would the girl think of him!

“It’s more than four years you’ve been away,” Jeannie reminded
him kindly. She began plying him with questions. He answered them
realizing that the girl was covering her bread with a white cloth
freshly shaken from its folds--that she was washing her hands, and
pulling down her sleeves--and seating herself near him composedly
enough. His mother was well, he said. They were all well. It was
twelve days now since he had come home. Yes, he was tired of the
war. The more he saw of the girl, the tireder he got. The other boys
from the neighborhood were all alive and well as far as he knew. He
looked at that girl as much as he dared. He could think of nothing to
say--that is, of nothing he dared yet to say. He was most stupidly
embarrassed, trying not to appear foolish. He stammered out that his
mother had sent over some things, some squashes--he would go and
bring them in. He went out to get them. Oh, it wasn’t squashes! It
was ducks! The girl giggled deliciously. Her mother smiled. Wully was
more at his ease. Now where should they put the ducks? They were all
standing together now in the dooryard, the three ducks, the three
humans. There was no place ready for the gifts. Well, Wully would
make a coop for them. Just give him a few sticks. But there were no
sticks. Then Chirstie thought of some bits of wood behind the barn.
They went and got them. She stood, shy because of the ardor of his
eyes, by her mother, watching his skill in making duck shelters. He
could have gone on making them forever. But the work was done. He
grew embarrassed again.

He must be going. Not before he had had tea! He didn’t really care
for tea. He would have--just a drink of water. No sooner had he said
that word than he regretted it painfully. There was no fresh water.
But Chirstie would go get some. He knew that one of the things that
annoyed his mother most about the McNair place was that Alex had
never even dug a second well. The water was all still carried a
quarter of a mile from the old well in the slough. Chirstie was ready
to start for his drink at once. Was he not a soldier, and a fine
looking one, her eyes inquired demurely, whom she would be honored to
serve? No, he would get it himself.

“Go along, the two of you!” said Jeannie. And as they started, she
stood in the door looking after them, and on her face there grew a
sore and tender smile.

He took the pail. She reached for the big stick. That was to kill
rattlesnakes. He took that, too, shocked by the thought of death near
her feet. They walked silently together, in a path just wide enough
for one. Their hands touched at times. He grew bold to turn and study
her beauty. Their eyes met, but she said never a word. On they went,
silently. He could hear his heart beating presently. He forgot that
his feet had ever been sore. He could have walked on that way with
her to Ayrshire. They came to the well. His hand trembled as he let
the pail down into it. That may have been the ague. He filled the
cup, and gave it to her to drink, looking straight at her. She put it
to her lovely lips and drank, looking across the prairie. She handed
it back to him, and he took it, and her hand. The grass about the
well was very high. Some way--he put out his arms, and she was in
them.

“Chirstie!” he whispered. “I didn’t know that you were here!
I didn’t know that you were the lassie for me!” He kissed her
fearfully. He kissed her without fear, many times. She said only
“Oh!” He held her close.

After a time--how long a time it must have been to have worked so
mightily!--she sighed and said:

“We must go back.”

Hand in hand they went back, until they came to the edge of the tall
grass. They couldn’t miss the last of that opportunity. Out in the
short grass she pulled her hand away. No one must see yet, she said.
Of course not. Not yet.

No, he said to Jeannie, he couldn’t stay for tea. He had had his
drink. He had indeed drunk deep.

He rode out into the loveliness of the distances, unconscious of
everything but that girl in the sunlight. He was shaken through
with the excitement of her lips. Her name sang itself riotously
through his brain. Perhaps in a thousand miles there was not a man
so surprised as that one. But he was not thinking of his emotions.
He was thinking of what he had found. He was looking through vistas
opened suddenly into the meaning of life. He was seeing glimpses of
its space and graciousness. He laughed aloud abruptly remembering
the site his father had chosen for his house. And yesterday a house
had meant nothing to him! He was getting too near home. He had come
to the creek. He stopped his horse, and sat still, going over again
and again that supreme moment. He had never kissed a girl before
in his life. Allen had kissed them whenever he had gotten a good
chance--or any chance at all. Now, to-day, with Chirstie, it had been
just simply the only thing to do. She was already by the significance
of that caress a part of him. Oh, no wonder Stowe had come home four
times! And now his holiday was all but over. He vowed rashly he would
not go back! Never! If only he had come and found her the first of
his twelve days! He wondered why he had left her. He might have
stayed for supper. But no, not with her mother there! He was glad
he had come away. To think of him, who had marched through states
and territories, finding a girl like that, the very queen of beauty,
right there on the prairie! He could scarcely remember how she had
looked when he had seen her last. Just some kind of a little girl--no
stunning queen like this. The song of her name rose and fell in his
mind rhythmically. The sun grew low while he sat exulting. A chill
came into the air. He couldn’t endure to take his excitement home to
the light. He would wait till they would all be at supper. How glad
his mother would be when sometime she heard of his love! He knew it
was the very thing she would have chosen for him.

When he came into the kitchen she said, with relief:

“You’re a long time away, Wully!”

He replied without a waver:

“I stopped for a swim in the creek.”

She sat looking at him, wondering why he was pale again, and silent.
He was far from well, she was thinking. And before the meal was
over, he was wondering why the children’s chatter was so strangely
tiresome. Wouldn’t they ever get away to bed, and leave him to his
memories? Even with that babbling about, he could feel her face
against his....

His Uncle Peter’s Davie came in with the mail after supper, bringing
a paper with a notice for the scattered men of his regiment,
and paroled prisoners. They were to have reported yesterday to
headquarters. He tried to appear eager to go. His mother lifted the
Psalm, when the visitors were gone, and left the children to quaver
through it. And when he was lying in his bed, vowing desperately he
would not go back, she came to him.

“I canna’ thole your going, Wully!” she cried to him, and her cry
braced him. He remembered with shame how she had made him go back
after Allen’s death, how she had signaled fiercely to him to keep the
mention of anything else from the children. As if he, her son, could
not do whatever he must do, and do it well! She had been ashamed of
him before the children, then. He remembered that, and grew brave
now. He hated to remember what a baby he had been. As if, however
terrible the war might be, it hadn’t to be fought out, some way, by
men! As if he must escape from the hell other men must endure! He was
glad now he had occasion to strengthen the strengthener.

“It’s almost over now, mother!” he kept saying. Almost over, indeed,
and a bullet the death of a second! What was the use of saying that
when an hour could kill thousands? She sat stroking his hair, her
face turned away from him, so that he suspected tears. She felt like
an old broken woman, worn out not by years and childbearing, but by
this war. All that night she lay sleepless, praying for her son. He
lay sleepless in the room next to her, never giving her a thought. He
gave all his thoughts, he gave all he had, to the girl of the slough
well.

The dream of the night wore away, and the nightmare of the morning
was upon him. His father was calling him long before daybreak. He
was starting away, in the darkness, in the cold, away from Chirstie,
towards his duty. His feet ached. His back ached. His head ached. His
heart ached. He was one new great pain. It didn’t seem possible that
life could be so hard. But on his father drove, through the first
shivering glimpses of dawn, towards the train.



CHAPTER III


After more than three months spent in hospitals, Wully came home the
next March, honorably discharged from the army. His father met him
at the end of the railroad, and before dawn they started westward
over the all but impassable paths called roads. Rain began falling
when the sun should have begun shining. Hour after slow hour of the
morning their horses strained and plunged and splashed through deep,
black mud. At every slough the men alighted to pull and tug at the
sunken wagon, and returned bemired to their wet blankets. From noon
till dusk they rode on, pulling grain sacks helmetwise down over
their caps to protect the back of their necks from trickles of water,
rearranging their soaked garments, hearing, when their voices fell
silent, only the splashing of the horses’ feet down into the thawed
mud, and the sucking of the water around hoofs reluctantly lifted to
take the next step. Darkness set in early, but they made the ford
while there was still a soggy twilight. More soaked, more dripping,
they went on, peering into the wall of blackness which settled down
in front of them. They were hungry. They were tired. They were
chilled to the bone. Wully’s teeth chattered in spite of all he could
do to prevent them. And they were both immeasurably happy. On they
went, caressing the fine joy in their hearts. The father had his son
home safe from battles. The son, each shivering step, was nearing the
queen of the afternoon light.

At half-past eight they drew near the welcoming lighted window
towards which they had strained their eyes so eagerly. If the boy
had had a lesser mother, if he had been well, he would have gone on
through the four miles of pouring darkness to Chirstie. But here was
shelter and rest for his feebleness, a fire, food, light, a mother,
and the children, caresses sprung from the warmest places in human
hearts--all things, in short, that a man needs, except one. It seemed
that the very kitchen breathed in great, deep sighs of thankfulness
and content, this great night of its life, the night Wully got home
from the army. The younger children sat watching him till they sank
down from their chairs asleep, for no one thought to send them away
to bed.

He had so many things to tell them that he forgot how weary he
was. Now that his danger was over, he had no need of minimizing
for his mother’s sake the discomforts he had been suffering. He
said feelingly what he thought of a government that couldn’t get
letters from a soldier’s home in Iowa to a military hospital in New
Orleans. He shouldn’t have minded the fever so much if he could have
heard from home, and if he had been stronger he would likely have
been more sensible about not getting letters. It seemed to him he
had been confined in a madhouse devised for his torture. He would
have preferred a battle months long to those endless, helpless,
sick-minded days. And now he never wanted to speak of that time or
hear of it again as long as he lived.

Young Peter had torn his coat half off his back at play that day, and
it must be mended before school time next morning. It was a piece
of patching not long or difficult, but his mother laid it down to
look at her Wully--she laid it down and took it again a dozen times
before it was done. She couldn’t deny her eyes the sight of his
white, thin, beautiful face. He ought to go to bed. She could see
that. She urged him to again and again, as they sat around the stove.
But he had always one more thing to tell as he started to go. He had
never written in full about getting back to his regiment after his
last visit home, had he? Well, when he got back, there was not an
officer left whom he had known. And the one to whom he had to tell
his tale of escaping from his guard--oh, he was a new man, most hated
by the boys--he had put Wully and two others in prison in the loft
of a barn, on bread and water. And every night the guard, who knew
them, used to hand up on the end of bayonets all the food they could
desire. And the officer heard of it, and was more angry. He was a
man who raged. And he changed the guard, and yet the men who hated
his being there, in place of the colonel they had liked, Wully’s
friends, managed some way to feed the prisoners, so that really in
the loft they had nothing to do but to sleep well-fed, and rest. And
presently the new colonel waxed more raging and swearing, and sent
the three away to another place to be disciplined, sent them--guess
where, of all places--to Colonel Ingersoll for punishment!

“What? Not that infidel!”

Yes, exactly, and that was just how Wully had felt about it! The
prisoners made Wully their spokesman in the first hearing. Colonel
Ingersoll listened to them kindly till he had finished speaking. He
had a boil on the back of his neck and was not able to turn his head,
and he sat there, just looking at Wully, a long time, too long, Wully
began to fear. And then he said:

“I wouldn’t punish you if you were my man, McLaughlin. And I don’t
see why I should because you aren’t.” And he called an orderly and
told him to take the men to a mess.

“Ingersoll did that? That infidel?”

“Yes.”

His mother was leaning forward, Peter’s coat forgotten.

“Yon’s a grand man,” she cried with conviction.

“He’s an infidel,” her husband reminded her.

“He’s a grand man for a’ that!” she asserted.

“But he’s an _infidel_!”

“He’s a grand man, I’m telling you, for a’ that!” After that, every
time she sang the antichrist’s praise to her neighbors she had the
last word of characterization. (After all, _her_ family had not been
Covenanters.) Presently she laid the coat down again--the children
were in bed now, and Wully, too, with only his father and mother
beside him in the kitchen.

“Your father told you about Jeannie’s death, Wully?” His father
_had_ told him briefly about it on the way home. He didn’t say to
his mother that the news had thrilled him with the certainty that
now his plans could have no opposition, since Chirstie was left
quite unprotected, and must be needing him. He was ashamed of the
hope he had had from it, when he saw his mother’s face harden with
grief and resentment as she went on to relate the details of her
friend’s death, a death grim enough to be in keeping with Jeannie’s
life. For her part, she hoped to live till Alex McNair got home,
till she could get one good chance to tell him what she thought of
him! Oh, it had been altogether a terrible winter, almost as bad as
that worst early one, just one fierce-driven blizzard after another.
Jeannie had known in that darkening afternoon that it was no common
illness coming over her. Chirstie, terrified by her isolation, had
begged to be allowed at once to go for her aunt. But even then so
thick was the storm raging that from the window she could not see the
barn, and to venture out into the storm could mean only death. As the
night had hurled itself upon the poor little shelter, almost hidden
under drifts, and the maniac wind unchecked by a tree, unhindered
by a considerable hill for a thousand miles, tore on in its deadly
course, inside the cabin where the candle flickered gustily out,
Jeannie had whispered to her children that she was dying. One thing
they must promise her so that she might die in peace. They must not
venture out for help, even in the morning, unless the storm was over.
She lay then moaning inarticulately, which was frightful for the
children, but not so frightful as the silence that followed, when
they could in no way make her answer their cries of agony. All that
night Chirstie sat watching beside her, relighting the candle, while
the other children slept. In the quieted morning she had helped her
brother dig an entrance to the stable, and together they had got the
horse out. She had wrapped him as securely as possible, and sent him
across the blinding snow to his uncle’s, John Keith’s. And when Aunt
Libby finally got there, she found the baby playing on the floor,
the dinner cooking on the stove, and Chirstie on her mother’s bed
unconscious.

Tears were running down Isobel McLaughlin’s face as she finished.
Though she never doubted that God was infinitely kind, she wondered
at times why that something else, called life, or nature, should be
so cruel. She wondered why it was that while with her all things
prospered, with the good Jeannie nothing ever refrained from turning
itself into tragedy. And besides all that, now that the spring seemed
coming, that stubborn girl Chirstie, refusing longer to stay with her
Aunt Libby, had suddenly taken her small brother and sister, and gone
back to her empty house, and there she was, living alone, with no
company but occasionally a neighboring girl, or her distressed Aunt
Libby. Wully’s mother had gone to her, and begged her to come and
stay with her. Other faithful friends had invited her to their home,
but they had begged and pleaded in vain. Chirstie would listen to no
one. It was a most unfitting and dangerous thing, a young girl like
that alone there. She kept saying her father would be home any day
now, but Isobel McLaughlin would prophesy that he would not be back
till he had a new wife to bring with him. They would all see whether
she was right about that or not!

Wully, the ardent, jumped instantly to the hope that Chirstie had
known he was coming, and had gone back to the cabin to be there alone
to receive him. That was the explanation of her “stubbornness” and
indeed it was a brave thing for a girl to do for her lover. Alone
there she would be this rainy night, grieving for her mother and
waiting for him! Of course she would marry him at once! He would put
in a crop there for her father. Tomorrow, not later than the next
day, at most, they would be married! He slept but excitedly that
night....

In the morning it was still raining. Breakfast and worship over, he
went to the barn, where the men were setting about those rainy-day
tasks which all well-regulated farms have in waiting. In the old
thatched barn, three sides of which were stacked slough grass, his
father was greasing the wagon’s axles; Andy was repairing the rope
ox harness; Peter and Hughie were struggling to lift wee Sarah into
their playhouse cave in a haystack side of the barn, and having at
length all but upset the wagon on themselves, propped up as it was by
only three wheels, they had to be shooed away to play on the cleaner
floor of the new barn. Wully took up a hoe that needed sharpening for
the weeding of the corn that was to be planted. They talked of the
new machine that was being made for the corn planting. Wully answered
absent-mindedly that he had seen one in Davenport once. He spoke with
one eye on the hoe, and one on the heavens. After an hour’s waiting,
the sky still forbade a journey. But his father, presently, looking
up from his work, saw him climbing on a horse, wrapping himself
in bedraggled blankets as best he might, against the downpour. He
naturally asked in surprise:

“Wherever are you going, Wully?”

Wully replied:

“Just down the road!”

Fancy that, now! A McLaughlin answering his father in a tone that
implied that what he asked was none of his business! But it was Wully
who was answering, just home after four years of absence. His father
was amused. The thought came gradually into his slow mind that there
would be a lassie in this. A feverish man wasn’t riding out through a
rain like that one without some very good reason. What lassie would
it be? He must ask his wife about it.

The path which Wully took required caution, but the cause demanded
speed. The way seemed to have stretched out incredibly since he
had last gone over it. After riding a hundred miles or so, he got
to the little shanty of a barn on the McNair place. Chirstie’s
twelve-year-old brother Dod was there, and Wully gave his horse to
his care. That horse had to be watched carefully, Wully vowed. He had
never seen such tricks as it had been doing on the way over. Dod must
not take his eyes from it. Wully hurried to the house.

The door of the house opened, and-- Oh, damn, and all other
oaths!--Scotch and army! Chirstie’s _aunt_ stood there in it, Libby
Keith. She was Wully’s aunt, too, that sister of his father’s who had
married Jeannie McNair’s brother, John Keith! This was the first time
that Wully had wanted really to curse an aunt, though he liked this
one but dutifully. She saw him, and her voice fell in dismay.

“Lawsie me!” she bewailed. “I thought it was my Peter!”

Bad enough to be taken for her Peter at any time! And she had to
stand there stupidly a moment, to recover from the disappointment, as
it were, and then looking straight at him, it was like her to ask:

“Is it you, Wully?” As if she couldn’t see that it was! Standing
there filling the door, hiding the room from him! “Whatever is the
matter?”

Where was the girl? Was his aunt a permanent blockade? He came
vigorously towards her, hurrying her slow cordiality. There she was!
There was Chirstie! She had seen him. He went towards her----

And she shrank away from him!

Not only had she not an impulse of welcome, she shrank away from him!
She gave him her hand because she couldn’t help herself.

“Chirstie!” he faltered.

“Are you back?” she asked. She pulled her hand away in a panic. “It’s
a fine day,” he heard her murmur.

It was the bitterest day of his life! He sat down weakly. Men stagger
down helplessly that way when bullets go through them. The damnable
aunt began now welcoming him fondly. He didn’t know what he was
answering her. It couldn’t be possible, could it, that Chirstie
didn’t want to see him? She had taken a seat just as far away from
him as the room permitted. She sat about her knitting industriously.
Sometimes she raised her eyes to look into the fire, but never once
did she raise them to satisfy Wully’s hunger. His eagerness, her
refusal, became apparent at length to even the stupid aunt. She
understood that Wully had got home only the night before, and in the
morning, rain and all, had ridden over to see the girl who didn’t
want to see him. He really was looking very ill. Well, well! Isobel
McLaughlin would have been mightily “set up” by such a match. If
Chirstie had not been Peter’s own cousin, Libby Keith would have
liked nothing better than the girl for her son. She had fancied at
times her son had thought of it, too. Her sympathy was with the
soldier. She rose heavily after really only a few minutes, and said:

“I doubt the setting hens have left the nests, Chirstie.”

She put a shawl over her head, and went to the door, and closed it
after her. Wully jumped to his feet, and went to bend down over his
sweetheart.

“What’s the matter, Chirstie? What’s the matter? What have I done?”

She shrank back into her chair.

“You haven’t forgotten! You remember that afternoon! I thought now
that you are alone here, we needn’t wait!”

“Sit down in your chair!” she commanded. “Don’t!”

He didn’t. He couldn’t.

“You’re in my light!”

He drew back only a little way.

“I didn’t say it all, but you know! Didn’t you get my letters either?”

She moved farther away from him. “Now that I think of it, I guess I
did. I got one or two.” She looked as if she was trying to recall
something trivial!

He stood absolutely dazed, looking at her hard face. Then she said:

“It’s near dinner time. You’ll be going back.”

“I _will_ not!” he cried, outraged. “I came for you, Chirstie! I
thought we could be married right away. That’s what I meant. You knew
that!” He bent over her again, and she struggled away angrily. She
went to the door, and called:

“Auntie! Wully’s going! Do you want to see him?”

Aunt Libby came heavily in. She urged him to stay for dinner. At
least she would make him something hot. Why, he was all wet from the
ride!

“Don’t bother about me!” he said angrily, hardly knowing his own
voice. “I just rode over to see a calf of Stevenson’s. I’ll be on my
way!” Out of the house he rushed, leaving his aunt to meditate upon
her theories.

Turning back, he saw, through tears, that the girl was looking after
him. He wouldn’t ride towards the Stevensons. He would ride straight
home, and she would know why he had come. He was chilling severely
now, from the shock of her denial, from rage and humiliation and
sorrow. He hardly knew whether it was tears or rain in his face.
“Fool!” he kept saying to himself. _Fool_ that he had been! Why had
he ever taken so much for granted? He had had only a little letter
from her, a shy letter. But he had never doubted she wrote often
to him, letters which, like his mother’s, had never reached him.
Of course she had never really said that she would wait for him.
She had never promised. But that was what that afternoon meant to
him. It must be that some other man had won her. They must all be
wanting her. While he had been lying in that hospital, living only
on the dreams of their lovemaking, some other man had taken his place
against her face. Or could it be that the tragic death of her mother
had made her cold? It was no use trying to imagine that, for what
ordinary, unkissed girl of the neighborhood would not have given him
a decent welcome home? A mere acquaintance would have been more glad
to see him back than she had been. Glad! She had not only not been
glad. She had shrunk away in fear, and dread, even disgust. If it had
been but mourning for her mother, she would have come to him. If he
had been disconsolate, he would have known where to go for comfort!
He had simply been a fool to suppose he had won her. Still, there
was that afternoon to justify his hope. Could it be possible that
that had meant nothing to her? Could he believe that that had been
to her an accustomed experience? If only her face had blossomed just
a little for him, that was all he would have asked. He could have
waited, respecting her bereavement. But that shrinking away, that
fear--what could he make of that? And he had supposed, fool that he
was, that she felt toward him somewhat as he had felt toward her! She
wanted nothing of him but his absence. All the family would hear now
of his visit from Aunt Libby. Not that he would mind that, if only
she had welcomed it! The wound was sickening him.



CHAPTER IV


His mother’s curiosity about the lassie disappeared at the first
glimpse she got of his face. She put him to bed, with hot drinks and
heated stones, with quilt after quilt wrapped about him. But still
he chilled and shivered. He was so wretched that she had no heart to
reprove him for that rash outing through the rain.

For a long time he remained fever-shaken and low-spirited, the last
one certainly she would venture to ask about a girl. Day after
day he lay contrasting in his mind those two hours with Chirstie,
contrasting his dreams with the reality, while the rain continued
to sweep across the prairies in gray and windy majesty. One day
Andy returned dripping from the post office with the news of Lee’s
surrender. Wully celebrated the event with an unusually hard chill.
The tidings of Lincoln’s death sickened him desperately. He got to
thinking he was never again to be a strong man. And he could see no
reason for wanting to be.

After a few weeks the rains ceased, and the spring flooded her
sunshine over the fields with high engendering ecstasy. The
McLaughlins, man and boy, from dawn to darkness went over their
ground, getting the prodigal soil into the best possible tilth,
scattering the chosen seed by hand. Even on the holy Sabbath of the
Lord, Wully’s father walked contentedly through his possessions,
dreaming of the coming harvest, and of the eventual great harvest
of a nation. It was lambing time, and calving time, and time for
little pigs and chickens. The very cocks went about crowing out their
conquering energy all over the yard, till it seemed to Wully, sitting
wearily on the doorstep, that he was the only thing in the world sick
and useless and alone.

May passed, and June. Thoughtful men sighed when they spoke of the
soldier, and hated war the more. Five years ago he had gone away a
strong, high-spirited lad, and now he dragged himself brokenly around
the dooryard, the wreck of a man. His mother, trying to tempt his
appetite, was at her wits’ end. She sometimes thought if he had been
a younger boy she would have given him a thoroughly good spanking.
She didn’t know what to make of him. Had he not always been the
happiest, most even-tempered of her flock? Had there not been times
when he and Allen had made bets about which one would begin chilling
first, when malaria, like everything else, had been a joke with them?
She had never seen a child as unhappy, as irritable as her Wully was
now. There was no way of pleasing him. All he wanted was to be left
alone, to lie with his face in his arms on the bed, scarcely speaking
civilly when she tried to get him to eat something. But whenever
she said to herself that he ought to be spanked, at once her heart
reproved her. How could she imagine all that he had been through, all
the strain of those years? The poor laddie, so wretched, and his own
mother having no patience with him!

In all these weeks Wully had seen the girl only a few times, and none
of them an occasion much less painful than the first. Once he had
been well enough to go to church. He had waited till she came out of
the door, and then, before them all, he had gone over to the wagon
where she was seating herself with her brother. She had drawn away
from him as if he had been a rattler, he said to himself bitterly.
What did she suppose he had done, anyway, that she didn’t want even
to look in his direction? He had gone again to her desperately one
evening, determined to find out what it all meant. She had indeed
been alone when he came within sight, but, seeing him, she had called
sharply to Dod to come and sit beside her. As if she were afraid of
him! As if he would hurt her! She was even more distant now than she
had been when he was in New Orleans, when he could at least think of
her with hope. Once he had driven over with his mother to see her,
had ridden along in forbidding silence, wondering how much his mother
knew of that first visit, dreading lest she might mention Chirstie’s
name significantly to him. He had not condescended to go into the
house that time, but finding Dod’s hoe, he had weeded their little
patch of corn, weeded it fiercely and well, to let her see how he
would have worked for her if only she had been willing. His mother
had not said a word about the girl as they rode home together, but
she sighed deeply, from time to time, so that he guessed Chirstie had
not even been cordial to her.

He tried hard enough, as he grew stronger, to shake off his
depression. There were plenty of girls in the world whom he might
marry, weren’t there? The trouble was, he hated other girls. Still,
he couldn’t let merely one woman make him unhappy, could he? Not
much! He used to be happy all the time, before he got to thinking
about her so much. He would brace up, he vowed, and forget her. But
Harvey Stowe came home in July, and came at once to see him, a strong
and hilarious Harvey, who wouldn’t take any excuses. Wully must come
over to his wedding. Wully would not. Likely he would go to another
man’s wedding! He would have fever that day if he hadn’t had it for a
week! But he went.

The day after, thinking of his friend’s happiness as he walked
through his father’s wheat, he sat down to rest in a path which
it shaded, and stretched himself out in it. There suddenly and
poignantly, for the first time in his life, he envied Allen and
wanted to die. He wanted to die with so keen a despair that never
afterwards could he hear the cocksure rail against suicide. He
hated living vehemently, and wanted to escape from it. There was no
use saying one girl couldn’t make him unhappy. He was meant for
Chirstie, and without her life had no meaning. Some way, it had just
that combination of demure eyes and white arms to stimulate his
desire till it was without mercy. He could not go on without her. He
wished there had been a battle that day, which he could have gone
into. He would have shot himself dead with his first bullet. That was
the climax of his despair, though he was far from knowing it.

The next Sunday he walked with his brothers to the church where the
lairds of the Waupsipinnikon, ragged but clean, worshiped the God
of their fathers. The little church they had built out of their
wartime prosperity stands on a green knoll on Gib McWhee’s farm.
Entering it, one saw then, as one sees nowadays, a large unadorned
square room, with only one beauty, and that so great that any church
in the world might well envy it. Eight high, narrow windows it has,
pointedly arched, of clear glass, and whatever one thinks of a style
of ecclesiastical architecture which draws one’s attention from
the sermon to the prairies, those eight windows frame pictures of
billowing, cloud-shadowed, green distances in which surely sensible
eyes can never sufficiently luxuriate.

Up the scrubbed aisle, into pews varnished into yellow wave patterns,
family after family filed decorously that morning, mothers and
infants in arms and strong men--there were as yet no old men in that
world. Wully went to the family pew. Before the war he had usually
sought out a place where the overflow of big boys sat as far as
possible away from the source of blessings. The McLaughlin pew held
only twelve, and that uncomfortably. But there had never been more
than twelve children at church together, since small Sarah had been
born after her brothers had gone to war.

The congregation sang their Psalms out of books now. No more
lining-out of numbers in a congregation so well-established and
prosperous. The man of God read the Scriptures, and then at last came
that welcomed long prayer, good for fifteen minutes at least. Wully,
sitting determinedly in a certain well-considered place in the pew,
bowing his head devoutly and bending just a bit to one side, could
watch Chirstie through his fingers, where she sat on the other side
of the church in the pew just behind the McLaughlins. Her eyes were
closed, but his did a week’s duty. There was no doubt about it. She
was getting thinner and thinner. It wasn’t just his imagination. She
was paler. She was unhappy. He had noticed that week by week. Surely
she was not happy!

The minister was an indecent man, cutting that prayer short in so
unceremonious a fashion. Wully wondered the elders didn’t notice his
carelessness. But after the sermon there would be another prayer,
just a glimpse long. He had that to look forward to. He made a mental
note of the text, which the children would be expected to repeat at
the dinner table, and then settled down, to be disturbed no more
by sermons. He had long ago acquired a certain immunity to them.
A breeze cooled the warm worshiping faces, and from outside came
the soothing hum of bees, and the impatient stamping of fly-bitten
horses. The minister’s voice was rich and low. The younger children
slept first, unashamedly, against the older ones next them, and then,
gradually, one God-fearing farmer and another, exhausted by the
week’s haying, nodded, struggled, surrendered, and slept.

Wully was wide awake, waiting for the last prayer. There was no time
to be lost, when the petitions were so short. He turned his head, and
there--oh, Chirstie was looking at him! With head bowed, but eyes
wide open, she was _looking_ at him! Hungrily, tenderly, pitifully,
just as he wanted her to look! Their eyes met, and her face blossomed
red. She turned her head hastily away. Let her turn away! Let her
pray! He _knew_, now! That was enough! For some reason she didn’t
mean him to understand. But he had found out! It was all right. He
could wait. He could wait any length of time, if only she would look
at him again in that way! The congregation had risen, and had begun
the Psalm. He would tell her, then and there, how glad he was, how he
understood! He lifted up his voice and sang, sang louder than anyone
else. That was what Allen used to do, when the service particularly
bored him. He would sing the last Psalm louder and clearer than the
whole congregation, with the face of an earnest, humble angel, while
his elders admired, and his contemporaries hid their amusement as
best they might. Chirstie would know Wully was sending her a joyous,
patient answer. What did it matter that in going out she never once
would turn towards him? Perhaps that was the way of women. They don’t
just tell you all that is in their hearts. It was all very well. He
knew what she was thinking.

After dinner, he said he was going down to the swimming hole, where
the assembly of cousins proved week by week that the heat had
prevailed over the shorter catechism. But instead he rushed eagerly
and cautiously over to Chirstie. He knew there might be someone with
her on Sunday, and he left his horse some distance away, intending,
if he saw others there, to come back and wait. There was not a
sound to be heard as he crept up, though he stopped, listening. He
hesitated, and drew nearer. Then he saw her. She was sitting in
the little plot of shade the cabin made, on the doorstep, and her
head was bowed on her arms. On a bit of rag carpet on the ground,
her little sister was sleeping. Chirstie didn’t hear him. He went
cautiously nearer, not wanting to startle her. He stood still,
scarcely knowing how to be the least unwelcome. What was this he
saw? What was this? She was crying! He stood still, watching her
carefully. She was shaken with sobbing.



CHAPTER V


His impulse was to run and take her in his arms, but he knew now that
he must be careful. You can’t be impetuous, it seems, with women,
at least not with that one. He had tried that once, and learned his
lesson. He slipped behind the barn, and stood wondering what to do.
After a few seconds he peered around cautiously. There she sat,
crying shakenly. He tried vainly to imagine a reason. Perhaps her
uncle was complaining of having the responsibility of her and the
children alone there. Perhaps she was actually in want, perhaps in
want of food. Perhaps the other girls had been talking about going
away to school, and she was heartbroken because her mother’s plans
for her education were not to be carried out. Maybe she had just seen
a snake. He remembered his mother saying that after Jeannie McNair
had had to kill a snake, she used to sit down and cry. Some women
did things like that, he knew, not his mother and sisters, but some.
He peered around at her again, most uncomfortable. Her sobbing was
terrible to see. He felt like a spy. He refrained from going to her,
because something warned him that if she had not welcomed him before,
she was less likely to do so now, when her face would be distorted
with tears. But he remembered that prayer look with hot longing.

He stood hesitating. Presently he looked again. She was just lifting
her head to wipe her nose, and she saw him. She gave a little cry
and, jumping up, ran into the cabin, and slammed the door behind her.
As if he were a robber! Then she came out, even more insultingly,
more afraid, and caught up the sleeping baby, and carried her away to
safety. She needn’t barricade the house against him, need she? Wully
thought, angrily. Then he remembered her face in church. He would sit
down and wait a while. He would wait till Dod came home, and see what
he could learn from the lad. But when he looked again towards the
house, there she was, sitting inside the door, and in her hands she
had her father’s old gun!

How preposterous! How outrageous! If she didn’t want him as a lover,
she might at least remember he was Wully McLaughlin, a decent,
harmless man! Waiting for him with a gun! Could it be that the girl
was losing her mind? Her mother had never recovered from that shock
of hers. Could Chirstie have been unbalanced by her mother’s death!
He wouldn’t think it! That would be disloyalty. But somebody, his
mother, their aunt, somebody ought to go to her by force, and get her
away from this lonely place. Who could tell what a girl might do with
a gun! One thing he knew, he wasn’t going away and leave her there
alone, so madly armed, and weeping.

After a while Dod came home, a red-faced, sweating little lad, and
sat down contentedly with the soldier in the shade of the barn. He
was, of course, barefooted and clothed in jeans, and his fitful
haircut did no great honor to Chirstie’s skill as a barber. Surely
he must know what she was crying about. And he would know that Wully
would not be one to make light of her grief.

“What’s happened, Dod?” he began at once. “When I came up, Chirstie
was sitting on the doorstep crying. What’s the matter? Don’t you mind
her?”

Dod was instantly resentful.

“It’s nothing I done.” He was decided and scornful. “She won’t even
let me go swimming a minute. She wants me to stay here all the time.
She cries all the time, no matter what I do!”

This was worse than Wully had expected.

“Was she crying before now?” he asked.

“She cries _all_ the time, I tell you.” He spoke carelessly. Girls’
tears were nothing to him. “She cries when she’s eating. She gets up
in the morning crying. She’s daft!”

“You mustn’t say that, Dod!” said Wully sharply. “Can’t a girl grieve
for her mother without being called daft? That’s no way for a man to
speak!”

Dod was abashed, but unconvinced.

“She’s not grieving for mother,” he answered, defending himself.
“She’s grieving for herself.”

This sounded good to Wully. He hoped she was unhappy for the same
reason he was.

“How do you know?” he demanded.

“She says so. I says for her not to cry about mother, and she says
she wasn’t. ‘I’m crying for myself,’ she says.”

Wully had no longer any scruples about finding out everything he
could from the boy.

“What’s she sitting with that gun in her hands for, Dod? Does she
shoot many chickens?”

“Her? She couldn’t hit a barn. She’s afraid. That’s what’s the matter
with her.”

“What’s she afraid of?”

“Nothing. What’s there to be afraid of here? I don’t know what’s got
into her!”

“Tell me now, Dod!” begged Wully. “My mother would want to know. Does
Uncle John see that you have everything you need?”

“That’s not it!” exclaimed the boy, proudly. “We have enough. Some of
them would come here and stay all the time, but she don’t want them.
She won’t have anybody here. And we’re not going to church again.”
This last he undoubtedly considered a decision worthy of the most
tearless girl. Wully, who seized upon trifling straws, saw promise
in this. She wasn’t going to church again, and she had wanted a
good look at him! But what was it--why should she be so silly? Why
wouldn’t she let him make her happy? She wouldn’t need to be afraid
if he was with her. He saw that Dod knew not much more than he did
about the explanation of his difficulties. But Dod at any time might
find something enlightening. Wully coveted his help.

“It really beats all the way you run this farm with your father
gone,” he affirmed. “When he gets back, I’d like to hire you myself.”
He saw the boy relishing his praise. “You must treat Chirstie like a
man, Dod. You mustn’t blame her for crying. It’s the way women do,
sometimes. You say to her when you go in that my mother is always
waiting to do for her. She’s the one that can help her. She don’t
need to cry any more. We can fix things right. You say that to her,
Dod, and to-morrow I’ll ride over and see what it is. You tell her
we’ll fix everything for her.”

He went away in uncertainty and distress. He ought to tell his mother
how things were. The idea of that girl sitting there with a gun, as
if she didn’t recognize him! Or maybe it would be better to go to his
Aunt Libby Keith. She ought to know. He didn’t like going to anybody.
It was his affair. He couldn’t think of insinuating to anyone that
the girl was--well, not quite right in her mind. He must be very
careful.

And then her face came before him, loving him. After all, it was just
his affair and hers. There was some reason why she must wait. But she
loved him! His mind dwelt on that, rather than on his inexplicable
rejecting. He decided that in the morning he would ride over to
the Keiths’ and ask in a roundabout way, what the trouble was with
Chirstie.

But in the morning he felt so certain that she loved him, in spite of
everything, that he announced to his father that he was going over
to cut slough grass on his eighty, to use in thatching his new barn,
having decided to go to Keiths’, less conspicuously, in the evening.
This was the first time he had as much as mentioned his own farm all
summer. His father was pleased, but his mother protested. Why should
he begin such work on the hottest morning of the summer, when he
hadn’t really been able to help in the haying at all? He might easily
be overcome with the heat, in his condition. But Wully, it seemed,
was at last feeling as well as he had ever felt. He had been loafing
too long. He must begin to get something done on his own place.

So down in his slough he worked away with all his might, and now that
his heart was light, and his fever broken, it was no contemptible
strength he could exert. About the time he was so hot, so soaked
through with sweat that he must sit down for a rest, he saw a
horseman coming towards him. And upon that meeting there depended the
destiny of generations.

He smiled when he saw who it was. Peter Keith was a cousin of both
Chirstie’s and his, the only remaining child of their Aunt Libby’s
and Uncle John Keith’s, the smallest adult of Wully’s seventy-one
cousins, being not more than five feet seven. And he was by far the
most worthless of them. Of course Peter would be riding leisurely
over after the mail in the middle of the morning, while the haying
was to be finished, and the wheat was white and heavy for harvest.
His excuse this summer for not working was that he had a disabled
foot. He said that he had accidentally discharged his gun into it.
Peter Keith was such a man that when he told that story, his hearers’
faces grew shrewd and thoughtful, trying to decide whether or not he
really was lazy enough to hurt his own foot in order to get out of
work. There was no place for laziness in a world where men existed
only by toil. It was like chronic cowardice in the face of the enemy.
Peter’s mother, to be sure, said he wasn’t strong. Libby Keith’s way
of hanging over him, of listening to his rather ordinary cough, her
constant babying of him, was what was spoiling Peter, many said.
Wully had always been more tolerant of him than some of the cousins
were, because he could never imagine a man feigning so shameful a
thing as physical weakness. If Peter didn’t want to farm, why insist,
he argued. If he wanted to go west, to get into something else, let
him go. He _might_ be good for something somewhere. But his doting
mother would never listen to such hard-heartedness.

The two of them made themselves a shade in the grass, and talked away
intimately. Wully was more affable than usual, having resolved upon
first sight of Peter to learn something from him. Peter was always
full of neighborhood news. Tam McWhee had bought ten acres more of
timber, and the Sprouls were beginning to break their further forty,
and so on, and so on. Wully was screwing up his courage to introduce
the subject that was interesting him, in some casual way. Peter was
the last man with whom he cared to discuss Chirstie. But he was
exactly the one who might know something valuable. He delayed, the
question at the tip of his tongue, till even the lazy Peter thought
it was time to be riding on, and rose to go. His foot wasn’t really
much hurt, but he hadn’t renounced his limp. It was then or never
with Wully, so he said, trying to appear uninterested:

“I was riding by McNairs’ yesterday, and I saw Chirstie sitting there
crying. What do you suppose she would be crying about, Peter?”

Peter gave him a sharp look, and grew red in one moment.

“How the devil should _I_ know what girls cry about?” he asked
angrily. “It’s none of my business! Nor yours, either!”

A cry of frightened anger like that sent an excitement through Wully.

“You know very well what it is!” he cried. “You’ve got to tell me!
It’s some of your doings!”

Peter was jumping into his saddle.

“I’ll tell you like hell!” he shouted.

“You’ll tell me before you go!”

“Let go my bridle! Let go, I tell you! It’s none of your business!”

His face told terrible secrets that Wully had never till that moment
imagined suspecting. Now he was pulling him down from his horse.

“Let me alone! It’s not my fault! Take your hands off me! I never
meant to hurt her!” Peter was fighting desperately for his freedom.
Wully was trying to control his insane rage.

“Stand still and tell me what it is! I’m not going to hurt you!” he
cried scornfully. “What are you afraid of? Don’t be a baby!” But his
grasp never relaxed. The boy was afraid he would be shaken to death.

“Let me alone! Take your hands off me! Let me go, and I’ll tell you!
It’s none of your business, anyway!” He was free now, and trembling.
“I didn’t mean to get her into trouble. I wish I’d never seen her! I
offered to marry her once----”

He dodged Wully’s blinded blow.

“_You_ marry her!” he cried murderously. “_You_ marry her!” The first
realization of his meaning had filled Wully with a lust to kill.
Peter had sprung away. He gained his horse. Wully ran after him. All
the oaths he had ever heard came back to him in his need. He ran
furiously after the fleeing seducer. He called after him ragingly.

He threw himself down, too shocked to think plainly. So that was
Chirstie’s sickening secret! That was why she was afraid of him! That
was why she was defending herself with that poor old gun! This was
why she had left her uncle’s house, and avoided others! Chirstie,
betrayed and desolate. Oh, it was well he was trained in killing!
He would go after Peter Keith, and make short work of him. He would
break every bone in his body. There was no death long enough, large
enough, bitter enough, for Peter Keith. Wully lay there weak with
rage, crying out curses. Anger, what little he knew of it, had always
been to him an exhausting disease. He gave himself up to it.

He was so dazed by this revelation that he never thought how time was
passing till he heard the voice of a little brother calling him. It
was long after dinner time. Why didn’t he come home? His mother was
anxious about him. Was he ill? He rose, and stumbled along home.

The sight of that kitchen was a blow to him, so innocent, so habitual
it looked, so remote from violence and revenge. The dishes had been
gathered from the table. The girls were beginning to wash them. His
mother came forward solicitously. What was the matter, she wanted to
know. Wully stood blinking. Murder? Had he thought of murder in a
place of peace? Instantly he had come far back on that road to his
habitual self, when with a shock he came against the criminal fact of
Peter. He was ill, he cried. He wanted to rest. He couldn’t eat.

He shut the door of his room and sat down bewildered on the edge of
his bed. Thoughts of the old security and of the new violence clashed
in his mind. His gun stood in the corner. He reached out and took
it, and sat fingering it, like a man in a baffling dream.

At length from the kitchen there came a burst of happy laughter. That
was his sister laughing. His sister Mary. Laughing. Yes, Mary was
laughing, and Chirstie sat there sobbing, sobbing and shaking!

In that unbetrayed kitchen one of the children had said something
absurd, that had delighted Mary. He knew that outburst. Mary was
a girl safe, and Chirstie was undone. A girl people would scoff
at! Not while he was alive! He threw himself down on the bed. He
began thinking only of the girl. If he killed that snake, who would
Chirstie turn to--who, if she no longer had him? She was alone.
Defending herself, fighting for herself. That was what she thought of
men! She didn’t know any better! He would kill Peter, certainly. But
what was to become of her then?

After a while, lying there, he began to see a way out. He saw it
dimly at first--it grew persuasive. Peter had been always talking
about running away west, had he? Well, he would run away that very
night. Either that, or Wully would destroy him. Wully would have
that girl, as she was, if he had to fight the whole country for her.
His terrible anger still shook him. But there was Chirstie to save,
for himself--and for herself. If he killed Peter, what good would
that do her? It would make her notorious. The way he saw was better
than that. It was an ugly way. But it was safe for her. A situation
hideous forced upon them, a thing which had to be faced out, like
the war, from which there was no escape but victory. If he got rid
of Peter, why should he not have her? Possession of her was worth
letting the betrayer go scot free for, wasn’t it? She had no one but
himself now. And yesterday, in her straits, in her despair, she had
turned her face towards him!

By supper time his mind was perfectly clear about the course he would
take. He rose, and ate something, excitedly, reassuring his mother
that the sun had not prostrated him. He felt all right. He had only
to settle with Peter, and then----!

Peter was sitting securely between his father and mother in front
of the house when Wully rode up, that evening, and demanded a word
with him in private. Peter hesitated. He did not dare to fear his
cousin before them. He went cautiously out through the dusk towards
him. Daylight was almost gone, but Wully turned his back deliberately
towards those who sat casually watching. He didn’t want them to see
the hate he felt mounting over his face. He didn’t want anyone ever
to suspect what he was going to do. He spoke to his cousin only a few
sentences. Then he turned, and rode swiftly away.

He came to Chirstie’s. She was sitting there in the dusk, her head
bowed in that despairing way. He gave his horse to Dod with a
command, and strode over to where she sat. She needn’t try to resist
him now. It was useless.

“I know the whole thing!” he whispered. “I’ve got it all settled.” He
took her in his arms. She needn’t struggle. “It’s all right. He’ll
never frighten you again. You can’t get away. I’ve come for you!”

Dawn found them sitting there together. Indeed, Wully had to urge his
horse along to get home in time for breakfast.

The McLaughlins were assembled for their unexciting morning cornmeal,
all at the table together, when Wully announced, in a fine loud
voice, among them:

“I’m going to be married to-day, mother!”

Her spoon was halfway to her mouth. It was some time before it
reached its destination.

“Wully!” she gasped.

“Well, you needn’t be so surprised. I am.”

“Is it Chirstie?”

Could they ask that!

“I’m _that_ pleased!” she cried. Oh, she wouldn’t have liked anything
else as well! She looked at him narrowly, with delight. “But you
canna just be married to-day, and the harvesting coming on!”

“You bet I can!” replied her American.

Indeed, he never could! Not to Chirstie! They must do something for
Jeannie’s Chirstie, make her some clothes. Wully scoffed at the idea.
She had plenty of clothes, of course. They were going to drive to
town and be married, and he would buy her whatever she needed. He
refused to listen to them. Chirstie might decide not to have him, if
he gave her time.

“Havers!” exclaimed his mother. As if Chirstie didn’t know her own
mind! That was no way to talk! Isobel couldn’t imagine, of course,
that Wully had any real reason for such misgivings. Was it likely
a girl would not have her Wully! If he would just listen to her a
moment, and wait even till the morrow, they would call the friends
in and have a wedding worthy of Chirstie’s mother. It occurred to
him that under the circumstances a plan so respectable might have
advantages for Chirstie, if only she would consent. And his father
began planning how soon he could spare men and horses to begin
hauling lumber for the house.



CHAPTER VI


The McLaughlin house shone ready for the guests the next evening.
The light that glimmered out through the dusk came from as many
new kerosene lamps as could be borrowed from the neighbors. Inside
the house beds had been removed to make room for dancing, though
Isobel McLaughlin sighed to remember that there would be at best
an indifferent fiddler, not one with a rhythmic dancing soul--like
her Allen. Indoors mosquitoes hummed through the light and odor
of the lamps, and out of doors they attacked whoever turned away
from the series of smudges the boys had built, and were carefully
guarding from flame, between the house and the barn. Wagonloads
of well-wishers came driving up as it grew dark, and with each
arrival the pile of pieced quilts on the chairs in the bedroom grew
higher, and the collection of wedding presents in the dooryard grew
noisier, and broke loose, and ran, and was pursued with shouts by the
assembled half-grown boys. Some guests brought ducks, and some hens
with small chickens. Some gave maudlin geese, and some bewildered and
protesting young pigs. The Squire gave a heifer calf. The Keiths,
poor distracted Aunt Libby and Uncle John Keith, brought two heavy
chairs he had made the winter before from walnut.

The bride was not visible. Wully had guarded her carefully, even
from a minute alone with his mother, ever since he had arranged her
wedding. He told his mother now that Chirstie had consented, she
was worried about what her father would say when he heard about
it. And because it was so soon after her mother’s death. Isobel
McLaughlin reassured her. The wedding was the best possible solution
of the situation. Let them just leave Chirstie’s father to her! She
comforted the girl earnestly, being distressed by her face. She
hoped in her heart that the marriage would put an end to the girl’s
newly developed and stubborn depression. She couldn’t understand why
now that the guests were arriving, the bride should still seem just
terrified. No less word described her condition. Isobel McLaughlin
could do nothing but leave her with Wully. In his room, where he sat
holding her close against him, every time she said, “I can’t do this,
Wully! I won’t!” he kissed her again, powerfully. She must go through
with it now, he whispered to her. Even the minister was waiting for
them now.

He led her forth, at last, into the parlor. She was wearing the
white dress her mother had made for her the summer before, which
Mrs. McLaughlin had ironed that day, and freshened with her daughter
Mary’s cherry-colored ribbons. Wully, harassed by the trivial
necessity for respectable garments, was wearing the suit his mother
had made for his brother John to wear to college in the fall. It
didn’t fit Wully altogether, but then, it scarcely fitted John at
all. In a space in the midst of their unsuspecting kinsmen they
stood, the bride as pale as death, the groom nervously hiding his
fear that at the critical minute his bride might altogether reject
him.

He kept watching her covertly as the minister tried the patience
of man and God by the length of his prayer. He tried to stand near
enough her to support her. When the invocations ceased, everyone in
the room lifted his head--except the bride. The minister explained
interminably the nature of holy matrimony. He exhorted the pair to
mutual faithfulness. Wully felt her tremble.

“Will you have this man to be your husband?” he asked at length.

She kept silent. She couldn’t raise her head. Wully felt his heart
beginning to beat furiously. She was going to refuse him, in spite of
all he had done.

There was an awful moment. The room seemed to be hushed and waiting.
It was terrible, the length of that moment of silence. At last he
spoke forth simply.

“You wouldn’t think she would. But she will. Won’t you, Chirstie?”

Those standing near heard his words, and as the outraged divine
whispered sternly, “Answer!” he bent down and kissed her.

She looked around like one in a nightmare. Her lips moved. The
minister accepted the sign. He proceeded with the ceremony. The smile
which Wully’s words had occasioned spread from those standing nearest
even to those who were looking in at the windows--those who pretended
to be leaving room for the rest, but were really thinking of their
unsuitable bare feet.

The minister had made them man and wife.

The crowd gathered around them. The squire gave Chirstie a resounding
smack on her cheek. Girls were pressing around her, the roomful was
gathering near her. But she swayed, and fell against her husband, and
fainted quite away.

Of course that fainting was altogether the smartest feature of the
hurried wedding. Not many hard-working prairie women had bodies
which permitted such gentility. It was a distinguished thing to do.
The women who saw it forgot for a while to comment on the strange
appearance of the bride, which they understood more fully later.
At the time it seemed no more than a proper honor to pay Jeannie
McNair’s memory. When she was herself again, Wully found a place for
her out of doors. Planks laid on boxes and chairs made seats for
supper out there where the smoke defended them, and since there was
no back for her to lean against, she having just fainted and all,
it was only proper that Wully’s arm do its duty around her. And it
was necessary that it give her little strengthening messages, while
inside the more zealous young things danced to the fiddle that was
not Allen’s. Out in the warm starlight and the smoke, the older
guests talked to the bride and groom.

Aunt Libby joined them again, when by chance they were for a moment
alone.

“Tell me again what it was Peter said, Wully!” she begged.

He felt Chirstie shrinking against him.

“He told me in the morning that he had decided to go this time for
sure. I told him he was foolish. And I rode over again to give him
some advice in the evening.”

Chirstie’s hand stirred nervously within his, and he held it more
firmly.

“And did he not say where he was going?”

“He only said west.”

“That’s all he said in his note!” She sighed broken-heartedly. “It’s
a strange thing he wouldn’t heed you, Wully!”

Wully gritted his teeth. “He certainly heeded me that time!” he
thought grimly to himself. He had already told his aunt those nicely
dovetailing lies half a dozen times, and each time he had felt them
crushing his wife. He wished his aunt would go away and leave them
in peace. After all, her cursed Peter hadn’t got a taste of what he
deserved!

Finally the wedding was over. Time, however it drags, must eventually
pass. They had driven away together, after he had changed John’s
good clothes for a fresh hickory shirt and jeans, leaving Dod at
the McLaughlins’. They had had twenty-four hours of the unfathomable
luxury of unhindered intimacy. The baby sister was asleep. It was
bedtime again.

The new family sat down for prayers. Not that Wully was a man deeply
religious. But, as far as he knew, daily family prayers was one of
the things a decent man does for his family. They had read that
morning, according to custom, the first chapter of Genesis, and that
had been most satisfactory, even quite personally interesting now,
all about male and female created He them. It had come over Wully
with a chuckle that divine commands have seldom been as satisfactory
to humans as that first one was. And now, in the evening, he had
read the first chapter of the New Testament. He resented that. He
wouldn’t have read it if he had remembered what was in it. That story
of Mary’s humiliation might seem ever so slightly to reflect upon his
wife. And that right he denied even to the Word of God.

They were sitting together on the doorstep, and his lips were not far
from her ear.

“Yon was a strange man, now, Chirstie!” he began.

“What man?”

“That Joseph in Matthew. I fear he hadn’t very good sense.”

“Why, Wully! And him a man in the Bible!”

“I don’t care! He didn’t know much! He didn’t know enough to take his
own lassie till an angel told him! A man like that! He was daft. Or
else----”

“I wonder at you, Wully! Or else what?”

“I doubt the lassie wasn’t really bonnie. Not like mine!”

A deeper embrace. More kisses.

“Oh, _Wully_!”



CHAPTER VII


It was growingly inevitable that the news, the determined news,
must be broken. Wully, with his whole heart shrinking from the
task, made light of it to Chirstie. Wasn’t having her better than
anything he had ever imagined! He hadn’t really known at all at the
time how greatly he was enriching himself. If he had been ready
then to shoulder whatever blame there might be, he was ready now to
do it a dozen times over. He didn’t mind in the least telling his
parents about it. Accidents of the sort happen among even the most
respectable people from time to time. It was in vain that he tried to
reassure her. It might be all very well for him to talk so, but when
everyone knew about her-- Oh, what should she do then! Was it that
she doubted him, then? Wasn’t he going to be with her? If by chance
there should be one neighbor rash enough to see anything not perfect
about his marriage, he would tell her for sure there would never
be another! It was his mother she thought most about! What would
his mother ever do when she heard it? That was nothing! Wully would
go and explain it all to her, after his fashion--falsely, his wife
insisted on saying wretchedly. His mother would be angry, of course,
at first, and give him the scolding of his life. But she’d soon
get over it, and come over bringing Chirstie a lot of baby clothes.
Chirstie would see if she wouldn’t! Why hadn’t he explained it to her
then, the last time he went over for that purpose, if it was so light
a matter? The children happened to be all at home that day because
the teacher was ill, and he had got no word alone with her. He didn’t
add that he had been highly relieved to find them all there. He would
go over at once, so that the burden would be off Chirstie’s mind.

Having arrived at the scene of his humiliation the next morning,
he saw his father coming from the cornfield with his hands and
pockets full of chosen ears of seed corn. Wully met him in the path
just behind the barn, and they greeted each other without a sign
of affection. What did Wully think of these ears? Wully felt them
critically, one after another, with his thumb, and found them good.
His father started on towards the barn.

“I want to tell you something, father.”

He stopped without a word, and stood listening.

“We’re going to have a baby.”

“’Tis likely.”

“I mean--in December.”

“December? In December!”

“Yes. That’s what I mean.”

John McLaughlin’s long keen face, which changed expression only under
great provocation, now surrendered to surprise. He stood still,
looking at his son penetratingly a long time. Wully kicked an
imaginary clod back and forth in the path. Presently the father said,
with more bitterness than Wully had ever heard in his voice,

“It seems we have brought the old country to the new!”

Wully pondered this unexpected deliverance without looking up.

After a little the older man added, sighing,

“I prayed my sons might be men who could wait.”

“A lot he knows about waiting!” thought Wully, half angrily.
“Thirteen of us!”

“You tell mother about it, father,” he pleaded, knowing his entreaty
useless.

“I _will_ not!”

“I wish you would. I can’t--very well!”

“You’d best!”

Wully stood watching him tie the yellow ears into clusters on the
sheltered side of the barn. He was trying with all his might to
gather courage to face his mother. He hadn’t felt such a nervous
hesitancy since the first time he went into action. He remembered
only too well the last time he had really stirred her displeasure.
Allen and he had quarreled, and had nursed their anger, in spite of
her remonstrances, for two days. He had growled out something to his
brother across the supper table, and after that, she had put the
little children to bed, and had set her two sons down before the
fireplace--it was in the first house they were living then. She had
drawn her chair near them, and had proceeded quietly and grimly to
flay them with her tongue. She had continued with deliberateness till
they were glad to escape half crying to bed. He remembered still
how she had begun. It might be natural, she said, for brothers to
quarrel. But she believed that it would never again be natural for
her sons to quarrel in her presence. And she had been perfectly right
about that. What she would say now, upon an occasion like this with
her dismaying self-control, he couldn’t even imagine. It would be
nothing common, he felt sure.

On the bed which she had just finished spreading with a “drunkard’s
path” quilt, they sat down together in a low room of the second
story, where three beds full of boys were accustomed to sleep. She
kissed him fondly when he came to her, saying it was a lonely house
with him away so much. She wondered why they had not been at church.
Was Chirstie not well again?

“I have something to tell you, mother,” he stammered.

“I’m listening,” she said encouragingly, her eyes studying him
tenderly. How beautiful a head he had! How beautiful a man he was!

“We’re going to have a baby! In December, mother!”

Over her face there spread swiftly a smile of soft amusement. She
had always looked that way when one of her children said something
especially innocent and lovable.

“You don’t mean December, Wully! Dinna ye ken that? The wee’uns
can’na just hurry so!”

He couldn’t look at her.

“I know what I mean!” he said, doggedly. “I mean December. I
understand.” The silence became so ominous that at length he had to
steal a look at her. Her incredulous face was flushed red with shame
and anger. He rose to defend his love from her.

“You aren’t to say a word against her. It wasn’t _her_ fault!”

Then the storm broke.

“Do you think I’m likely to say a word against the poor, greetin’
bairn!” she cried. “Her sitting there alone among the wolves and
snakes, and a son of mine to bring her to shame! I’ll never lift my
head again!” Her rush of emotion quite choked her.

“My fine, brave soldier of a son!” she burst out, recovering herself.
“You did well, now, to choose a lassie alone, with neither father nor
mother to defend her from you!”

“Mother!” he cried.

“Jeannie’s wee Chirstie!” she went on. “No one else could please you,
I suppose! Oh, she did well to die when her son was but a laddie!”

Wretchedly ashamed of his deceit as he was, he was not able to take
more of her reproof without trying to defend himself.

“I didn’t mean any harm!” he mumbled. “I didn’t think.” That was what
Peter had said.

“And _why_ did you not think!” she demanded, furiously. “Have you no
mind of your own! You didn’t know what you were doing, I suppose! Oh,
that I should have a son who is a fool!”

How terrible mothers are! Fool was a word she hated so greatly that
she never allowed her children to pronounce it. It was her ultimate
condemnation. He had never heard her use it before. And now she used
it for him!

“This is why you have been ailing all summer! You’d reason to be! Did
you think you could do evil and prosper?”

He wasn’t going to stand any more of that tone. He got up.

“I’ll be going,” he exclaimed. “There’s no place for me here!” No
sooner had he used those words than he regretted them. They might
seem to appeal to her pity. That was what he had said once when he
was a little lad, upon seeing a new baby in her arms, and afterwards,
whenever she had shown him a new child, she had reminded him of it
gayly.

“Don’t go!” she answered, unrelenting. “There is always a place for
you, whatever you elect to do. This is a sore stroke, Wully!” Then
she added, wearily and passionately,

“When I was a girl, I wanted to be some great person. And when you
all were born, I wanted only to have you great men. And when you grew
up, I prayed you might be at least honest. And I’m not to have even
that, it seems.”

He had heard her say that before. He was so sorry for her pain that
he hardly knew what to do. If only there had been any other way out!
Maybe Chirstie had been right in demanding he tell at least his
mother the truth. But he would not! He would share his wife’s blame.

“I’m sorry about it, mother,” he pleaded. “I’m _sick_ about it. I’ve
done what I could to make it right!”

“To make it right! Do you think you can ever make wrong right! You
have spoiled your own marriage. You’ll never be happy in it!”

“Don’t worry about that!”

“And you the oldest!” she added, suddenly. “I suppose the other six
will be doing the same, now!”

“If a brother of mine did a thing like that, I’d kill him!” cried
Wully fiercely.

It soothed her to have something not tragic to reprove him for.

“Wully,” she said severely, “don’t you speak words like them here!
’Tis something you learned in the army! A fine one you’d be to say
who should live and who should die! We dinna say the like here!”

“I can’t please you any way!” he cried, stung by her upbraidings.

“Strange ways you have of trying!” she retorted. He said nothing. She
cried again, presently,

“If only it had been some other girl, Wully! Not Jeannie’s!”

What could he answer?

“Mother, you come and see her! She needs someone!”

“Thanks to _you_! To my son! I won’t can speak to her, that shamed
I’ll be of you!” She thought a bitter moment. “Alex McNair’ll be home
before December. You’d best come here to me! Wully, if any other
mouth in the world had told me this, I wouldn’t have believed it! You
were always a good boy. Always! Before the war!”

“I’ve got to go!” he cried in answer. He rushed away, damning Peter
Keith into the nethermost hell. The open air was some relief. If only
women wouldn’t take these things so hard! Well, that was over. The
worst part. Any taunt that he might ever have to defend himself from
would be easy, after that.

After her unkissed son had gone, Isobel McLaughlin, reeling from
the blow he had dealt her, sat with her hands covering her face.
Nothing but Wully’s own recital could ever have made her believe
such a story! It was even thus incredible. If only it had been any
other girl but Jeannie’s! And her dead! Scarcely dead, either, till
her son, betraying years of trust, had shamed her daughter! If
Jeannie had been alive, she would have gone to her, in humiliation,
though it killed her! Now there was not even that comfort! There was
only Chirstie left, and her in such a state! It was not possible
to believe her good, beautiful son had done such a base thing! If
it had been any boy but Wully! Had he ever given her a moment of
anxiety before? Did not the whole clan like him, knowing him for
a quiet, honorable, sweet-tempered boy, eminently trustworthy! And
now a thing like this to fall upon her! She refused to remember that
Allen’s irresponsibility, his extravagant pleasure in the society of
women, of any size or kind of woman, had made her anxious many an
hour. That son, from the time he was twelve, had fairly glowed when
there was a woman about to admire him. But Wully had only chuckled
over his brother’s kaleidoscopic love affairs, things so foreign to
his nature. His mother, remembering Allen’s escapades, exempted the
dead loyally from blame. If Wully had been like that, she might have
understood this tale. But he was not like that. He had never been at
all like that. It must be the army that had wrought such evil changes
in him. That was what had undone her years of teaching. That was
what had made all this frontier sacrifice barren. Was it not for the
children’s sake they had endured this vast wilderness, and endured
it in vain if the children were to be of this low and common sort?
In their Utopia it was not to have been as it had been in the old
country, with each family having a scholar or two in it, and the rest
toilers. Here they were all to have been scholars and great men. And
now the war had taken away Wully’s schooling and Allen’s life--and
not only Wully’s schooling, which was after all, not essential to
life, but that ultimate gift, his very sense of being a McLaughlin.

Some Americans might have smiled to know that this immigrant family
never for a moment considered Americans in general their equal, or
themselves anything common. They were far too British for that.
Until lately it had never occurred to them that anyone else might
manage some way to be equal to a Scot. Until the war, when some young
McLaughlin had shown signs of intolerable depravity, his father had
entirely extinguished the last glimmer of it by saying, as he took
his pipe out of his economical mouth, “Dinna ye act like a Yankee!”
So withering was that reproach that no iniquity ever survived it.
Now that that Yankee of the Yankees, Harvey Stowe, had been a very
brother to Wully through campaigns and prisons, that denunciation
was to be heard no more. But surely, Isobel McLaughlin moaned, her
husband and herself had not let the children think that they were
anything common. Had she not hated all that democracy that justified
meanness of life, and pointed out faithfully to her children its
fallacy? She remembered the first time she had taken them all to
a Fourth of July celebration in the Yankee settlement, where a
barefooted, tobacco-spitting, red-haired orator of the day, after
an hour of boastings and of braggings, had shouted out his climax,
saying that in this free land we are all kings and queens. “A fine
old king, yon!” she had chuckled again and again, explaining his
folly to her flock. A man like that had no idea what a king was! He
most likely had never even seen a gentleman!

She recalled that Wully, once when he was quite a small boy, had
alone and unaided found and identified a gentleman whose team was
struggling in a swamp. He was a poor old gentleman, trying manfully
to get an orphan grandson to a son’s home farther west, and Wully had
brought him proudly home, and his mother had “done” for him till he
was able to travel on. Having him in the house had been like having
a pitiable angel with them. When he was better, they had called all
the neighbors in, and the old New Englander had preached them a
sermon. He had preached to the children about the Lamb of God, using
as his text the lamb tied near the door, and they had never forgotten
how gentleness, he said, had made God great. And when he had been
starting on, John McLaughlin had taken a bill from his pocket--and
bills were things not often seen by the children--and given it to
him humbly, for the benefits his presence had bestowed upon the
family. Afterwards when his mother had asked Wully how he had known
the stranger would be welcome, he had said he knew he was some great
man by the way he spoke to his floundering horses. Oh, surely in
that wilderness Wully had known the better ways of living. And he
had chosen despicable ways! She was only an old, tired, disappointed
woman.

If her first-born, that lad Wully, had done a thing like this, what
might not the rest of them choose to do! Pride did not let her
remember that if the family had been in no generation without a man
of more or less eminence, neither had it been without a precedent
for Wully’s conduct. She was a woman who had sympathy with the
mother of Zebedee’s sons. If she had been there with Christ, she
would have asked unashamed for four places on his right, and for
four on his left, the nearest eight seats for her eight sons. What
dreams she had dreamed for them! Once she had beheld the President
of the United States consulting his cabinet, and behold, her Wully
was the President, and Allen the Vice-President, and the Cabinet
consisted of her younger lads, even young Hughie sitting there,
still only nine, with a freckled little nose, and a wisp of a
curling lock straying down from his cowlick towards eyes shining
with contemplated mischief. She had felt at the time that such a
dream might be somewhat, perhaps, foolish, and profiting by Joseph’s
distant but well-known experience, she had told it only to her
husband. He diagnosed her case in one instant. “You dreamed that
wide awake, woman!” She had thought at times that Allen was to be
another Burns, a maker of songs for a new country. In her dreams,
to be great was to be one of three things, a Burns, a Lincoln, or a
Florence Nightingale. And now one dream, her first and longest, was
permanently over. Wully was a man now, and a man who brought women
to ruin. Sometimes it seemed to her as she lay there moaning that
surely the girl must have enticed him into this evil. Then she came
swiftly to blaming the whole thing on Alex McNair. If he had come
home when he should have, if he had not left the girl unprotected
there, this would never have happened. Blaming Alex violated no fond
loyalty. In time it came to seem to her that the whole fault was his.

But that afternoon, the small McLaughlins coming home from school
found a state of affairs new in their experience. There was
absolutely no sign of a baby in the house, and yet their mother was
in bed! Once she said when they asked her anxiously, that her head
ached. And once she said that her heart was troubling her.



CHAPTER VIII


The autumn seemed to set itself against the house that Wully had
determined to have ready for occupancy before winter. Week after week
the roads continued so deep in mud that six oxen could not manage to
haul a load of lumber the mere twenty-six miles. Chirstie was not as
much disappointed by the delay as her husband; she rather liked being
hidden away, just then, on the outskirts of the settlement, in her
father’s lonely cabin. She had seen no one but Wully’s mother, and
her aunts into whose chagrined ears the humbled Isobel McLaughlin
had poured a story as sympathetic as possible, blaming Alex McNair
for this fruit of his unfatherly desertion. Mrs. McLaughlin had come
at once to see Chirstie after Wully’s revelation, apparently utterly
pleased over the prospect of a grandchild, never intimating by a
syllable that she saw anything deplorable in the unchristian haste
of his advent. Her kindness had naturally humbled the girl more than
any reproof could have done, and after a long cry the two had been
friends, both relieved that estrangement was a thing of the past.

One afternoon late in November Mrs. McLaughlin came as far as
Chirstie’s with her husband, who was going on to the Keiths’ on an
errand. It seemed to Chirstie then, and often afterwards, that one
who had not seen loving-kindness incarnate in her mother-in-law, had
never seen it at all. Her own mother had been a sad, repressed woman,
well-loved, indeed, by her children, but as far different as possible
from this great, cordial, brimming woman, who seemed so capable of
anything that might ever be required of her. One couldn’t imagine her
hesitating, complaining, broken in spirit.

Chirstie sat beside her sewing, an awe-filled pupil in the things
of maternity. It was comforting, when one was feeling daily more
wretched, to be assured by the mother of thirteen huskies that a baby
is just nothing whatever but a joy, no trouble worth speaking of.
Did Chirstie remember that her brother Jimmie had been just Wully’s
age? Many was the time Jeannie McNair and Isobel McLaughlin had sat
together waiting for those two, and sewing, and Jeannie had said so
and so, and Isobel had answered thus and thus. Once she had said to
Chirstie’s grandmother that she wouldn’t like to have just a common
bairn, and the old woman had replied that there was not the least
chance of it, for no woman yet had mothered just a common child.
In Scotland, too, when a baby was born, one had to lose the flavor
of joy wondering where its food was to come from. But in this land
crying aloud to the heavens for inhabitants, there was no anxiety of
that sort to dull one’s happiness. What had it been to them but an
omen of the new home’s abundance, that the John McLaughlins had had
twins born the year of their arrival, that the Squires had had twins
within six months, and that before the year was gone, the Weirs, from
the same Ayrshire village, were also blessed in the same way. To be
sure, Squire McLaughlin had uttered a word which might not have been
taken to signify altogether pure satisfaction with these godsends,
the morning after the double increase in his family. He had gone to
his barn, and finding that his dearly-bought cow, which was to have
furnished him milkers, had given birth to twins, he had sighed a sigh
which became a tradition, and murmured, “Bull calves, and lassie
wee’uns!” The men had laughed at that, but the women considered it a
rather cheap thing of the old wag, even as a joke.

And so they talked on, until the clouds covered the sun again,
and they heard the wind rising noisily as they drew near the fire
to consider their knitting in the light of it. The elder Mrs.
McLaughlin, who was, as usual, doing most of the talking, looked
enviously around the kitchen from time to time. She knew she
was considered a capable woman. And she had a fine family--yes,
certainly, a fine family--in spite of this--affair of Wully’s. But
she could never keep house as Jeannie did, or even Chirstie. She
could, of course, polish her kitchen to some such a degree of luster
for special occasions, but to maintain such a brightness was out of
the question for her. There had been no white sheets on the wall
here for some time now. But each little pane in the window glowed
from its daily polishing. The bits of rag carpet seemed always
scarcely yet to have lost the marks of their folding, so recently had
they been spread down after washing. Even the fireplace was more kept
than any other fireplace. The back of it had always just been scraped
and scrubbed and whitewashed. Isobel wondered if her son realized the
degree of this beautiful neatness.

After a while they heard a wagon drive in, and Mrs. McLaughlin,
thinking it was her husband, rose and began leisurely wrapping her
knitting. There was no hurry about going. Her man had best come in
and warm himself. She stood buttoning her old gray faded coat about
her. It had been made, mantle-fashion, in Scotland, before she had
grown so large, and she had increased its capacity by the simple
device of putting broad black strips of cloth down either side of
the front, where it fastened. Afterwards it had needed new sleeves,
and hadn’t apparently sulked about having new ones of a brownish
gray homespun woolen. It had nothing to sulk about, in fact. It was
still given plenty of honor as a good serviceable garment. Mistress
McLaughlin was wrapping round and round her throat a knitted scarf,
pulling it carefully up around her ears, when the door opened....

And in walked--not John McLaughlin, but that tall, gaunt, thin-faced
Alex McNair! With those little round, black, piercing eyes shining
out from under straight black brows!...

And after him, a woman!

A woman in olive green silk, with black fringe around a puffy
overskirt, and such fur and gloves as Isobel McLaughlin had seen only
in her travels, and Chirstie never remembered seeing in all her life!
The two of them! Coming right into the room!

McNair, seeing Isobel standing there, cried, blinking,

“Weel, weel! You here, Isobel! Weel, weel! This is Barbara, Isobel!”

Chirstie had shrunk in fear and confusion, back into her seat. But
the elder woman showed no signs of confusion. She looked the grand
wee body over majestically and replied:

“Is’t, indeed! I hope she fares better than Jeannie, Alex, dying here
alone.”

Alex had bent down to kiss his daughter, and seemed to be not so much
impressed by this greeting as the little woman was. She continued:

“I have just been sitting a while with my son’s wife. You may
not remember Chirstie was married, you having so grand a time in
Scotland!”

“Warm yourself!” he said to his wife, indicating a chair. “I’ll
be bringing in the kist.” He went out of the door, which had
not yet been shut, so suddenly and quickly had it all happened.
Mrs. McLaughlin’s manner changed at once, and she began helping
the amazing stranger out of her wraps. How could those two who
watched, so impressed by the richness of them, and so unbetraying
of their impressions, how could they have imagined, seeing her, the
deceitfulness of those little innocent hesitating airs! The garments
were scarcely laid gingerly on the bed until Alex returned, carrying,
with Bob McNorkel’s help, a great box, which they seemed to plan to
leave in the middle of the floor. Chirstie remonstrated and gave them
directions. It seemed from Alex’s grunting and hard-breathing words
as the box was put in the only possible place for it, that he and his
bride had ridden out with Bob, who had to be hurrying on. Alex went
out of the door with him, and after Alex, Isobel the avenger.

“I’ll just have a word with you!” she said to him, stepping inside
the barn to be out of the wind. It was a powerful word. Had she not
planned it many a night as she lay sleepless thinking of Jeannie and
her daughter! “I mind the day you brought Jeannie home a bride,” she
began. “’Twas no day like this.” None of them would ever forget the
day she died deserted. Never had Isobel McLaughlin had an occasion
worthier of her tongue, and never a stronger motive for making the
best of the occasion. McNair was a slow-moving, slow-thinking man,
not without tenderness. Isobel’s recital of grim detail after grim
detail as he stood there amazed, remorseful, humiliated, angry, tired
of his journey, and chilled to the bone, overwhelmed him. He could
scarcely follow her. It seemed that the whole clan was bitter against
him, not only because of his wife’s death, but because, some way, his
absence had brought disgrace beyond disgrace upon the McLaughlins. He
could scarcely understand. Wully and Chirstie had waited and waited
for him to come home, and he _would_ not, and fine results these were
of his delay! They were married now, but not soon enough.... The girl
feared to marry without his permission.... If he had only come when
they wrote for him to.... He wasn’t to blame the Keiths or any of the
neighbors for this. They had done what they could. He was to be very
careful what he said to Wully, none too pleased with him, and always
hot-headed ... and to Chirstie.... It was all his own fault, he was
to remember....

The man was staggered. He liked this news all the less because all
the day the little new wife’s spirits had been sinking as they
traveled over the prairies away from the world. Now to bring her into
a disgrace of this sort! He was shivering. He wanted to get in to the
fire.

“I have nothing against Wully!” he murmured to the woman who bearded
him. “He’s a fine man for the lassie!”

Nevertheless, when they were inside again, Isobel watching saw his
face darken with anger as he realized Chirstie’s condition. She saw
too that the girl had seen it, and she determined not to leave the
house till Wully would come. She busied herself to make tea for the
strange woman, sparing her daughter-in-law with the consideration
which so beautiful and so fruitful a woman deserved. She sat herself
to make the wee body feel at home. Dod came in from school, and she
noticed without relenting the warmth of his father’s greeting. Even
the little lassie was persuaded to go to his lap. Alex was probably
wishing Isobel would go home and leave his family in peace. But she
would wait.

McNair was telling something about the passage across when Wully
opened the door. He paused a moment, seeing the room full. He looked
at them in surprise, and they looked at him with various degrees of
admiration. He came from cutting and hauling home wood for the winter
and the wind had made his cheeks as red as the fringe of the scarf
around his neck, and his eyes as blue as the knit wool of it. In the
old coat wrapped about him, he filled the door, a huge young man one
would not like for an enemy. His mother had just begun to tell the
strange woman that this was her son, when Alex rose and stretched out
his hand.

“Come away, man! Come away!” he cried cordially. It was not the kind
of meeting Wully had anticipated. But what could he do, with his
mother and the women right there, but acknowledge the little woman’s
salutation, and give his hand to Chirstie’s father? And taking his
cue from his mother, he smiled so warmly down upon the wee body,
that then and there she began liking her stepson-in-law. His mother
began at once giving him instructions. He and Chirstie had best begin
packing their things. His father would be along any minute now, and
they would all go home together. Wully would no longer be needed at
McNair’s, and with all that work to be done on his own house----

McNair interrupted her decidedly,

“Huts, Isobel! Ye canna take Chirstie away the night!” One would
almost think she was the McLaughlins’ daughter to hear Isobel! That
manipulator of events smothered the retort that came to her, upon
this. She simply enlarged innocently upon the inconvenience of
Wully’s having to ride every day from this place to his own, such a
distance. McNair could understand that, but nevertheless they weren’t
going one step to-night. Wully winked slyly at his wife. He didn’t
know exactly how his mother had worked it all, but it did him good to
hear his father-in-law begging for the privilege of his company for
a while--that man he had expected to have such a time with! Isobel
yielded gracefully at length. They might stay the night with Alex,
but they mustn’t stay longer. With her big girls both away at school,
she was that lonely for Chirstie!

Then the elder McLaughlin came in and the greetings were all gone
over again, with this difference, that John McLaughlin, being less
quick at taking hints from his wife than his son had been, showed
just enough coldness to McNair to let him see that Isobel’s account
of the clan’s opinion of him was not exaggerated. Naturally after the
worthy McLaughlins had departed with so little of the old cordiality,
Alex was more eager than ever to placate Wully, who, divining that
Chirstie dreaded her father’s outburst against her, stood very much
upon his dignity, a rather forbidding son-in-law.

When the young two were alone in the kitchen that night, Chirstie
said, weary with the day’s excitement, and her first taste of shame
before strangers;

“Whatever’ll she say in the morning, when you’re not here, Wully?”

He answered;

“What do you care what she says? Anyway, she don’t look like she’d
say anything. Just you hold your head high, and she won’t dare!”

“It’s well enough for you to talk of holding your head high! But how
can I?”

“I’ll stay about in the morning, and in the afternoon we’ll go home.
I’ll say we must go.”

So they planned, little knowing how useless it was to fear the wee
body. In the next room, she was saying to her husband;

“Ye never telt me you lived in a sty!”

“Huts, woman! ’Tis no sty!”

“And I thinking you like a laird, with so many fine acres!”

“It’s a new country!”

“It’s an old sty!” Had she not from the train seen many a little
snug place among comforting hills, livable little places! But that
had been, to be sure, far from this, in the east. The further west
they came, the more they traveled into desolation. Lonely enough
places she had seen, but none so unpromising as this sty. Could it
be expected that a man with so disconsolate a bride would add to her
woe by rehearsing the fresh scandal of the family into which she
had come? She remarked at length that it was a terrible thing for a
lassie with the baby coming. Why had he not told her of that before?
He hadn’t remembered to. It was a fine place for bairns. Just let her
wait till the spring came. She remarked that it was many months till
spring. He snored, more or less successfully.

The next morning the new mother unpacked the great kist to get out
the presents she had brought for her stepchildren. She unpacked
till the poor room lay heaped high and hidden under richness. Wee
Jeannie had a fine doll. Dod had fur-lined mittens. Chirstie had a
collar of lace more soft and fine than she had ever seen. And the
wee body presented these things with that timid, conciliatory air
that made her career later so hard to understand. She apologized for
having nothing for the baby. If she had known about that, she would
have brought it something good. When was it to be born, she asked,
point-blank.

Chirstie, blushing to the unruly little curls about her forehead,
said in December. This seemed to relieve her stepmother greatly.
By that time, she declared, she could make a fine little dress for
it, out of stuff she had in another box. Another box! Were there
then other boxes? Of course brides bring dowries to their husbands,
the girl remembered with a pang. But she had brought hers only
disgrace! But the wee body talked on, in a kindly way. Chirstie
watched her making friends with little Jeannie. She liked her, very
much. That woman could never be anything but kind to the little
sister who was to be left in her charge. Oh, Chirstie could have
coveted that woman’s love for herself. But, of course, when the
truth about herself became known--and when she thought of going to
the McLaughlins, to live in that house, full always of children and
cousins and visitors, the center, as it were, and rallying place of
the neighborhood, her spirits sank lower and lower.

Wully had learned before now to conquer her depression, and he talked
the cold hours cunningly away as they rode towards his father’s.
His reward, that evening, was to see his wife sitting there at the
table, long after the meal was over, forgetful of herself, telling
his ejaculating mother of the dresses, the capes, the mantles, the
ribbons and feathers, reds and browns and greens and blues, puffs
and ruffles and tucks, all of these out of one box, and besides the
one there were three others left at the station to be brought out,
full of--whatever did they suppose? They couldn’t imagine! Isobel
was trying to fancy how Alex had enticed a woman so obviously rich to
the wilderness. She was disappointed in this marriage. She had hoped
when Alex married again, he would get a woman who would show him how
to treat a wife. But that timid, wee body! Meek like! With faded red
hair, and mild light blue eyes! There would be no hope of her ever
separating him from the price of a milk-crock! Anyone could see that.
The poor wee thing, married to Alex McNair!



CHAPTER IX


Chirstie used to say afterwards, when Wully’s younger orphaned
brothers and sisters would try to thank her for making her home their
own, that she had never spent a happier winter in her life than
the one during which she lived with her mother-in-law. That partly
explained to them her detestation of all mother-in-law jokes. She
would never try to conceal her contempt for any low person--proved
low by the very act--who repeated one in her hearing. She had never
realized until that winter what a shadow her mother’s tragedy had
cast over her childhood--until she came to live among the hilarious
young McLaughlins. It was as if, set free from the fear and shame
of the summer, her life expanded in all directions to make room for
the three great loves that came to her--the first and greatest, her
redeeming husband, the second, her little son, and the third her
mother-in-law, who overcame her by the most insidious kindness,
by such a simplicity that the charitableness of her deeds became
apparent only upon later reflection. There were even hours when she
sang with the children and laughed in such self-forgetfulness that
her eyes grew demure and saucy again.

But at other times, if by chance the house was quiet by day, or at
night when she was unable to sleep, the shamefulness of her position
came back upon her like an attacking pain. The more she grew to
appreciate Wully’s mother, the more intolerable his deception of
her seemed to her. Every time a visitor came into the kitchen, and
Isobel McLaughlin stood like a high wall between Chirstie and the
possibility of even a slighting insinuation, Chirstie hated more
the part Wully had forced upon her. It was the only thing about
which she dreamed then of disagreeing with him. She begged him, she
entreated him, she really prayed him to let her tell the truth. But
he would not. The only way to keep a secret was to tell not even his
mother! Some way always he overpowered her with foolish arguments.
She wouldn’t do just the only one thing he had ever asked her not to,
would she? The only one thing that could make him hate her, would be
to betray him, now, after it was all over. It wasn’t over, not for
his mother, she argued. She pointed out that some day it would be all
known, some way. It was sin. And were they not to be sure their sin
would find them out? How could he grin, and make such an unbelieving
face about such a thing! She was helpless before him. He wouldn’t
even let her talk about telling anyone. Her only comfort was that
some time it would all come out. And then he would have to say to his
mother that every day she had begged him to tell her the truth! He
would have to take all the blame of this unkindness, this cruelty....

It was only a few days before her confinement that one afternoon she
sat knitting; in that house of destructive boys not even pregnant
hands might lie idle. She had been talking with her mother-in-law
about Aunt Libby, whom they were expecting almost any moment. All the
neighbors were talking about Libby Keith. She had been away again
searching for Peter--in Chicago, this time, on a clue so slender, so
foolish, that even the most malicious tongues wagged with a sigh.
Her husband, to satisfy her, had gone searching for the son, to Iowa
City, and there he had met a man who said that one day in Chicago he
had seen a lad in a livery stable, who afterwards he thought might
be Peter. He hadn’t recognized the boy at the time, only knowing him
slightly. And he didn’t remember exactly where the stable was. He had
been passing an odoriferous door, from which men were pitching out
steaming manure.

Thereupon Libby Keith had gone to Chicago. And now she was futilely
home again. And she was coming to Isobel McLaughlin to pour out
her restlessness. Even winter weather could not keep her at home.
She went from house to house seeking reassurance from those who
could have none to give. She had had no letter from her boy, and
that proved to her that he was lying in some place ill, unable
to write. The neighbors scarcely dared suggest to her that Peter
might be--well, the least bit careless. Boys were, at times, and
thoughtless about writing. But she would never believe that _her_
boy was like that. It was not like him. He would write her, that
she knew, if he was able, because he had always been such a good
laddie--such an exceeding good laddie that in decency they seemed to
have to agree with her. Whoever went to town, went laden with her
instructions for inquiry. They must ask everywhere if anyone had
heard about a sick laddie trying to get back to his home.

Not a quiet woman, the neighbors reflected. Not one of dignity. One
who never would scruple to disturb a world for her son. Some of them
recalled Isobel McLaughlin when the news of Wully’s death had come
to her. They had gone to her carrying their consolation, and she had
rejected it with a gesture, going softly about her work with a face
that none of them forgot. But Libby Keith took thankfully the crumbs
of comfort they saved for her, and begged for more. She humbled
herself to ask their incredulous aid. She had no pride left. She had
nothing left but her anxiety for her worthless Peter.

She had had three children there in Scotland when her brother
John’s letters from the new world began stirring her kinsmen. She
lay bed-ridden reading them. She had not moved from her bed for two
months even when John had taken his departure. Nor would she ever
again, the doctors said. She lay there suffering when her second
brother, Squire McLaughlin, came to say his last words to her before
leaving for America. Then her sisters said farewell to her there,
one after another, and her cousins and her friends. And when she
would say she would soon be joining them over there, they were kind,
and saw no harm in saying that they hoped so. For two years she lay
fighting, crying for pain, making her absurd plans. Her neighbors
tried to turn her mind away from such wild ideas by ridicule. They
hooted at her in disgust. How was she to go to a new place--where
there were no houses--nor any doctors--nor any beds! Her brothers
wrote her, sternly forbidding her to think of such a thing. But were
the children of others to lord it over Utopian acres in a new world,
while hers, because she had married somewhat poorly, slaved along
in an old one--apprentices of some half-fed mechanic? Her husband
resisted with all his might. He was no farmer. He felt no drawings
toward pioneer hardships. But his lack of them was in vain. She rose
and took him and her three, and journeyed stoutly to her brother’s
house in Iowa, where she was received with an awe that would have
been greater if he could have known she was to die at the fairly
mature age of ninety-two.

She had come thus for her children’s sake to the new world. Her
oldest son, her Davie, a lad well liked by all, was the first of
those who fell before the plague of typhoid. That bowed her down.
She was nothing but a mother, a woman who nowadays would be called
rotten with tenderness. Maternity was her whole life. Then her one
daughter married, her Flora, and shortly died in childbirth. These
things ought not to be.... Then Peter, who was all she had left to
spend her love on, disappeared, leaving in his place a scribbled
paper. No wonder, after all, that she sought him through cold cities.

When she came into the McLaughlin kitchen, she bent over and patted
Chirstie on the shoulder commiseratingly, sighing a sigh that
recalled to the girl all the agony of Flora’s death in labor. She
was a large woman, heavily built, without grace, and with the long
upper lip and heavy face that John McLaughlin and his children had,
and keen, deep-set, very dark blue eyes, like theirs. Since that long
illness of hers, her heavy cheeks hung pale and flabby.

“So you’re back, Libby!” Isobel was constrained to speak to her
softly, as one speaks to a mourner. She deserted her spinning wheel,
and took her knitting, for a visit.

“I’m back.”

“You’ve no word of him?”

“No word.” Each of her answers was accompanied by a sigh most long
and deep.

“I suppose you looked everywhere?”

“I went about the whole city asking for him.”

“How could you know how to go, Libby?”

“That was no trouble. Men in barns is that kind to a body. I asked
them in every one where the next one was, and they told me. Sometimes
they drove me in some carriage. And there was the cars. I just said
I was looking for my Peter who was sick in some stable. James McWhee
went to the police and to the hospitals. There’s none better than the
McWhees, Isobel. They have a fine painted house with trees about it.
They would have me stay longer. James said he would be always looking
for him.” She gave another great sigh.

“Ah, weel, Libby, some day he’ll find him. Some day you’ll get word
from him, no doubt. It’s a fine place, Chicago. The sick’ll be well
cared for there. It wouldn’t be like New Orleans, now. Wully says the
lake is just like the ocean. Did you see the lake, Libby?”

“I did’na see the lake. I was aye seeking Peter.”

Isobel was determined to have a change of subject.

“They say it beats all the great buildings they have now in Chicago.
It’ll be changed since we saw it.”

“I saw no buildings but the barns. It passes me why they have
so many. There was a real old gentleman standing by the door in
one, waiting for something done to his carriage. His son went to
California in ’49, and he still seeks him. He said he would be
looking for my Peter. Yon was a fine old man.”

Isobel tried to talk about the train, which was nothing common
yet. Libby told her in reply what each man and woman in her car had
answered when she asked if any had seen her poor sick laddie. Isobel
was constrained to tell what one and another of the neighbors hoped
about the lost. The Squire had said that he would be coming back in
the spring. The boy could never stay in the city when the spring
came, he prophesied. Whereupon his mother replied that he wouldn’t
stay away now if he could by any means get back to his home. And then
she wailed, through a moment of silence;

“If I but knew he was dead, Isobel! Not wanting, some place! Not
grieving!”

“That’s true, Libby. I know that well. I felt that way when I knew
Allen was dead. There was--rest, then. No fear, then.”

They sat silent. Chirstie bestirred herself guiltily to offer her bit
of hope. She felt always in a way responsible for Peter’s departure,
however much Wully scouted the idea. Wully hadn’t told him not to
write to his silly mother, had he? Hadn’t Peter always been whining
about going west? He would have gone, Chirstie or no Chirstie. Wully
told her she naturally blamed herself for everything that happened.
And she acknowledged that in some moods it did seem to her that she
was the cause of most of the pain she saw about her. She began now
about the uncertainty of the mails. Didn’t her auntie know that Wully
never got but a few of the letters that had been sent him during the
war? It was Chirstie’s opinion that Peter had written home, maybe
many times, and the letters had miscarried. Maybe he had written what
a good place he had to work, and how much wages he was getting. They
considered this probability from all sides.

And Libby’s attention was diverted to the girl. Isobel McLaughlin was
not one of those, by any means, who saw in Libby’s search something
half ridiculous. Her boys had been away too many months for that. She
had deep sympathy for her, and for that reason Libby came to her more
often than to others nearer of kin. But now she did wish Libby would
stop asking Chirstie those pointed, foreboding questions about her
condition; stop sighing terribly upon each answer. She was making the
girl nervous, and in that house there was no place for nervousness.
Libby dwelt pathetically upon the details of her daughter’s death,
upon the symptoms of her abnormal pregnancy. She kept at it, in spite
of all Isobel’s attempts to divert her until she was about to go.
She rose then, and gave a sigh that surpassed all her other sighs,
adequate to one oppressed by the whole scheme of life. She said;

“It oughtn’t to be. There should be some other way of them being
born, without such suffering and pain. With the danger divided
between the two. I think----”

But what she thought was too much for Isobel, who had no patience
with those who fussed about the natural things of life.

“Havers, Libby!” she exclaimed. “How can you say such things!”
And, thinking only of herself and the woman before her, she cried
passionately,

“How can you say that it’s the _bearing_ of them that hurts! It’s the
evil they do when they’re grown that’s the great pain! We want them
to be something great, and they won’t even be decent! Can you share
that with anyone?”

Her words, so poorly aimed, missed their mark, and struck Chirstie.
She bowed her head on the back of the chair in front of her. Isobel,
returning from seeing Libby away, found her sitting that way, sobbing.

She began comforting her. Chirstie wasn’t to listen to what that poor
daft body said! Why, Auntie Libby scarcely knew what she was saying.
No fear of Chirstie dying. She was doing fine! And well as a woman
ever was. But Chirstie couldn’t stop crying. She sobbed a long time.

Isobel was putting cobs into the fire when at last Chirstie lifted
her red face from her arms, and sat erect, trying to speak.

“I don’t care! I _might_ die! I’m going to tell you something!” And
she fell to crying again.

Isobel came and stood over her. A fierce hope gleamed uncertainly for
a moment in her mind, and went out again.

“What you going to tell me, Chirstie?” she asked kindly.

“If ever you tell I told you, I suppose you’ll break up everything
between us!” she sobbed. “I don’t know what Wully’ll do if he finds
it out. Maybe he won’t have me! Maybe he’ll turn me out!”

Her excitement excited Isobel. Chirstie wasn’t just hysterical, she
saw.

“You needn’t fear I’ll tell!” she exclaimed loftily. “I don’t go
about telling secrets!”

“Oh, it would never be the same between us again if he finds out I
told you!”

“He’ll never find out from me!”

Then Chirstie sat up, sobbing heroically.

“You needn’t _say_ Wully’s doing evil! He isn’t! He _couldn’t_! This
isn’t any fault of _his_! It isn’t _his_ disgrace!”

“I never supposed it _was_ his fault!” said his mother.

Chirstie never heeded the insinuation.

“I mean--it isn’t _his_! It isn’t _his_ baby!”

Years might have been seen falling away from Isobel McLaughlin. She
sat down slowly on the chair against which Chirstie was leaning. She
could scarcely find her voice.

“Are you telling me it’s not Wully’s wee’un?” she asked at length.

“It’s not Wully’s!”

Bewildered she asked;

“Whose is it?”

“I can’t tell you that. It’s not _his_.”

“And you let us think it was!”

“Oh, mother, I couldn’t help it! Oh, I didn’t know what to do! And
he just did whatever he wanted to. He has everything his own way!
He wouldn’t let me tell you! Every day I’ve told him he ought to
tell you. But he _wouldn’t_, mother. And if he finds out I have told
you, he might even-- Oh, I don’t know what he’ll do!” She sobbed
passionately.

Isobel put out her hand and began stroking her hair.

“He’ll never find it out from me! Oh, I canna sense it!” she cried.
“What ever made him do it?”

“He did it to help me, mother! To help me out! Oh, I wanted him to
tell you before we were married. It just seemed as if I couldn’t
marry him without telling you. But he didn’t want anyone to know he
wasn’t--like me! He says----”

“What does he say, Chirstie?”

“He says he doesn’t want anyone to know it isn’t _his_! He doesn’t
want them to know about--the other one! Mother, I’ll make this right
some time! You trust me! Some day I’m going to tell how good he is!”

Isobel began kissing her.

“Oh, Chirstie! Oh, you did well to tell me. You needn’t fear I’ll
ever let him know! His own mother! This is the best day of my life,
Chirstie!” She rose, and began walking about the house in her
excitement, unable to contain her delight. “He never was an ill
child, Chirstie! He wanted to help you out, I see. There never was
one of the boys as good as Wully, and so gentle-like.” She began
poking the fire, not realizing what she did. “He’ll never know you
told me. Don’t you cry! I knew he was good. I never believed that
story of his! It wasn’t like him to do such a thing! It was like
him to help you!” She went to the door presently, and called in the
children who were playing outside, and when they came in, she took
little Sarah passionately up in her arms. “Your mother’s _young_
again!” she cried to the surprised child. “Young again!” She gave
them both cookies. She comforted Chirstie, stopping in her turns
about the room to stroke her hair. She sang snatches of Psalms. “He
was never an ill child!” she kept repeating. She began making tea for
the girl’s refreshment. She looked out of the window. She clasped and
unclasped her hands excitedly. She shone.

An hour later John McLaughlin drove into the yard with a load of
wood, and Wully was with him. Isobel threw a shawl over her head, and
went out through the winter nightfall to meet them.

“Aunt Libby’s been here, Wully, talking to Chirstie about Flora till
she’s having a great cry. You needn’t be frightened. She’s lying on
the bed, but there’s nothing wrong with her.”

Then, as Wully started hastily for the house, she drew close to her
husband. He had begun to unhitch his horses. She said;

“_John!_”

At the sound of her voice he turned startled towards her. “What ails
you?” he had begun to ask, but she was saying;

“Yon’s no child of Wully’s!”

His hands fell from the horse’s side.

“I kent it all the time!” she cried triumphantly.

“No child of Wully’s?” he repeated.

“He never done it. I said so all the time! Now she’s told me herself!”

He peered at her through the blue half-darkness that rose from the
snow.

“Not his! God be thankit! Whosever is it?”

“It’s Peter Keith’s. Whose would it be, and her in Libby’s house half
the winter? And Peter running away the very day they were married!
Libby’s that slack, thinking him such an angel!”

“Did she tell you that?”

“She _did_ not. But I kent it! Did I not say Wully never did so ill a
thing?”

“You _did_ not!”

“It was a grand thing for him to do. But I can’t think what possessed
him ever to take all that blame on us!”

“Can you not?” meditated her husband.

“She says he doesn’t want folks to know it isn’t his.”

“He wouldn’t.”

“Why wouldn’t he, indeed? Would he be wanting to disgrace us all?”

“He wouldn’t want folks to know Peter had her. That’s but natural.”

“It’s but natural I shouldn’t want folks to think he’d shamed
Jeannie’s Chirstie.”

“So it is,” he agreed. “The thing looked well to the Lord, I’m
thinking,” he added.

“I wish it looked better to the neighbors,” she retorted. “This is a
strange thing, John.” She gave a sore sigh. “Libby grieving herself
daft about that gomeril a’ready, so that we won’t can say a word to
anybody till he’s found. Any more sorrow’d kill her. But when he
comes back, I’ll have her tell the whole thing. She says she’s been
wanting to clear Wully! She’s a good girl, John. But we’ll have just
to bide our time. I’m glad I’ve no son like that lad Peter!”

She had had to forget how he had sacrificed her pride for that girl.
She had to idealize her son again. She could see that he had done a
generous thing. And she would see that the world saw that. She could
run to meet Jeannie, now, across the floor of heaven, unashamed. Her
husband stood enjoying her face. He said;

“It’s early for boasting, woman. You’d best wait twenty years!”

“Little I fear twenty years!” she retorted. A light shone down the
path from the house. Wully had opened the door, and shut it, and was
coming towards them. She wished she could take him up in her arms
and cuddle him against her neck, kissing him as she had done in her
youth. She said quietly to him;

“You needn’t worry. It’s only Auntie Libby that’s upset her. There’s
nothing ails her.”

He said anxiously;

“Honestly, mother?”

Wonder welled up within her as she looked at him. There he stood
before her, demanding honesty of her, while for months he had been
lying great fundamental lies about her very life, which was his
honor. “Honestly?” indeed! But there he was before her, beautiful and
unrealized, risen to new life in her great expectations for him. She
said only;

“Honestly! There’s nothing wrang!”



CHAPTER X


Barbara McNair had watched Wully and Chirstie driving away towards
Wully’s home that afternoon after her arrival at the sty in the
slough. It was raining then, and it rained for nearly six weeks. She
stood looking after them till they were out of sight. Then she went
to the other little window. There she shut her lips tightly--regarded
what her eyes discovered, two bony cows, shivering, it seemed to her,
in the blown rain, trying to find shelter from the wind by huddling
against the haystack that was one side of the barn. The rain was gray
and sullen, the prairies sodden and brown; the cows had trampled the
ground between the house and the barn into mud, into which they sank
knee deep. She stood contemplating. The rain continued blowing about
in imprisoning drab veils. Finally she turned away, and sat down
weakly. From where she sat, she saw the dripping cows shivering. She
sat huddled down. She seemed trying to cuddle up against herself. Her
hands, folded in her lap, seemed the only sight not terrifying that
her eyes might consider.

Presently the silence of the room was broken with a little sob. She
looked up. Chirstie’s little sister, standing near the window, was
just turning away from it. She had been trying to see something of
Chirstie. She felt deserted. Big tears were running slowly down her
face. She looked like a neglected, ragged, little heartbroken waif.

Barbara started from her chair. That moment her face showed she had
forgotten the surrounding desolations. She ran and gathered the
child into her arms. She sat down with her in her lap. The little
Jeannie, finding herself caressed, began crying lustily. The new
mother kissed her. She caressed her. She soothed her, coaxing her
into quietness. She told her little stories. She sang little songs,
examining thoughtfully the poor little garments she wore. Dusk came
upon them as they sat consoling one another. Barbara demanded help
then of the child. Jeannie must show her where all the things were
kept which were needed for the supper. They would make some little
cakes together. Jeannie grew important and happy.

Dod’s eyes fairly bulged with amazement when he saw that supper
table. Nothing of the sort had been set before him in that kitchen.
His new mother made no apologies. She had been thinking to herself
that it had been food of the most primitive sort that had been set
before her by Chirstie on the three occasions upon which they had
sat down to eat since she had arrived; doubtless Chirstie wasn’t
feeling very well, and she was at best but a young housekeeper,
whose omissions one could easily overlook. Barbara was pleased with
what she had managed to prepare on the strange stove and in the
newfangled oven. She saw her husband scowling at the table.

“I dinna like so many cakes!” he remarked severely. One must begin
with these women at once, he seemed to be thinking. He had forgotten
apparently that his bride came from the very land of cakes, though he
wasn’t to be allowed to forget it often in the future.

She said apologetically;

“They’re not so good, I doubt. I couldn’t find any currants in the
house. When we get currants you’ll like them fine.”

“There’s too much in them now!” he declared bravely. “We don’t have
cake every day.”

“I do,” she said placidly. “I like a wee cake with my tea.”

Alex McNair was not entirely a stingy man--not the most stingy
man in the neighborhood. He wasn’t like Andy McFee, for example,
who was so careful of expenditure that when his corn got a little
high in the summer he always took off his shirt and hoed the weeds
in his skin, to save the wear of the cloth; and who persisted in
habits of frugality so that, in his old age, when he rode about
in his grandson’s Pierce-Arrow, he removed his shoes upon seating
himself, to save them from harm, and persisted in this till an able
grand-daughter-in-law urged him not to misuse shoe-strings with such
extravagance. Nor was he like the elder John McKnight, who when he
went to mill always took with him a hen tied in a little basket,
to eat the oats that fell from his horse’s midday feeding. McNair
thought such extremes foolish. He even laughed at McKnight’s device.
How much easier it was simply to gather the oats up by hand, as he
did, dust and all, and to take them home for the hens in his pocket.
By this plan the oats were saved, and the hen had a whole day at
home to convert useless angleworms into salable eggs. He was not,
this proves, an entirely stingy man, yet--the idea of cakes like
those for just a common supper! He would have to show that woman his
disapproval, his disgust, his sharp pain at such extravagance.

He did his best then, and in the days that followed, to impress her.
But she was difficult. She never lifted her voice in perturbation,
and she never heeded a word he said. When the howling of the wind
woke him up at night, he would hear her sighing, “It’s still
raining!” When she looked shrinkingly out of the window in the
morning, she murmured, “It’s still at it!” When he came in for
dinner, she would ask, “Does it never stop?” At supper she sighed,
like a weary child, “’Tis a fine land, this!”--for all the world as
if he was to blame for the weather. She had been housekeeping for him
but two days, when he pointed out the woodpile to her. “Bring the
wood into the house,” she said, as if that was a man’s task. “I don’t
like going out in the rain.” “The rain’ll not hurt you,” he assured
her, going about his work. When he came in at noon, the fire was
out, the room was cold, and she and the little girl were asleep and
comfortable in bed. “I don’t like going out in the wet,” she repeated
simply, as if she had done nothing outrageous in defying him. He
had to wait for dinner till the wood was brought in, and dried,
and the fire made. The next day she refused, in the same passive,
happy way, to bring water from the slough well. She simply remarked
she wouldn’t think of going so far in the mud, and waited till he
brought the water. He never knew that she had hidden enough water for
thirsty hours in a jug under the bed, and was prepared to stand a
long siege. And then his boots were to be tallowed and dried near the
fire. His wife Jeannie had always tallowed his boots. The new wife
looked mildly surprised that he should have expected such a duty from
her, and left the boots standing, muddy and soaked, just where they
were, till he was driven to caring for them himself. And she kept
asking him hour by hour, mildly, when he was going to town for her
other boxes. She asked him so often, so kindly, that he was forced
in despair to attempt the journey through the rain, thinking that
maybe if she had something to sew, she would cease making cakes by
the hour. And when he started, she gave him a great list of groceries
to bring back, and ordered more sugar than his family ate in years.
He growled at this--just growled. There had been enough sugar in the
house when she came to last till spring. They could not use sugar
as if it were water! Why not? she asked, simply. Wasn’t he a great
lord, with acres? She liked sugar.

He brought back with him only a little sugar, and most of it the
coarse brown kind, and a jug of sorghum which was to last till
spring. She fell upon her boxes eagerly, and adorned the sty
amazingly with rich looking things which never really seemed at home
there. She made a new dress for her little stepdaughter at once, and
set about making Chirstie’s baby a robe. She seemed almost to have
resigned herself to the deluge. She spoke with gayety about her ark
to the children, and told them to keep their eyes open for the dove.
And then, just when she seemed to be getting settled, the winter set
in.

Rains she had seen, and could understand, and snows, too, in moderate
fashion. But snow like this, continuing; winds like these, whirling
darkening wild clouds of whiteness to burst against windows and
doors, rocking the little sty as if it were an insecure cradle--winds
with horror howling in them, howling all night through the shaken
darkness, triumphant, unconquerable winds against which no life could
stand--she had never imagined anything like them. She had never
before risen in the morning to find doors drifted tight shut, windows
banked with white. She had never seen men burrow out of windows to
dig open their doors, and tunnel a way to their barns. The well was
as distant as if it had been in Patagonia. The newborn calf froze in
the barn with its first breath. The men’s ears froze, their hands
froze, their feet froze. Everything in the house froze solid. The
bread had to be thawed out in a steamer over a kettle before they
could get a bite to eat in the morning. The milk had to be pounded
into little bits and melted. The cold--its intensity, its cruelty,
staggered her.

Her work would be done early in the morning, while the men were
yet melting snow at the stove to water their beasts--that is, all
the work she chose to do. To conquer those long, dark hours she
worked away on the baby dress. When it was all finished--alas, too
soon for one having endless time to beguile--she looked at it with
satisfaction. She had made every stitch of it by hand. It was a yard
and a half long, with seven clusters of seven tiny tucks around the
skirt, with hand embroidery between some of the rows, and darned
net between others. It was ruffled and shirred, and smocked and
featherstitched and hemstitched, eyeleted and piped and gathered. And
a tiny darned net bonnet, which went with it, was worthy of it. It
had taken many weeks to complete it. And always when her eyes were
worn by the fine stitching in the flickering candle light, she made
cakes, for a change, sparing white sugar with noble economy, using
only brown sugar, whatever eggs were unfrozen, fresh butter, and
thick cream, and raisins and currants while they lasted.

From the day that Wully took Chirstie home, until the first week of
January, Barbara McNair had but one visitor in her prison, and that
one was her sister-in-law, Libby Keith. She had to turn to Dod to
companionship, which no boy could have grudged to so unfailing a
source of cakes as his new mother. His Spartan scorn of the cold
brought her, many a time, near to tears. He was anointing his frozen
ears one morning, and when she cried out in pity of him, he remarked
indifferently that this was nothing. She ought to have seen last
year, the time his mother died. With what keen sympathy could she
appreciate that story now. She asked without hesitation;

“It was no colder than this, was it?” She couldn’t imagine anything
worse. Oh, said Dod, they were alone last winter, and his mother
and Chirstie had sometimes to help shovel out. But they had had
Chirstie’s husband, hadn’t they, to do that hard work for them?
Indeed they hadn’t! Dod himself had been the man of the farm. Wully
had come but lately. Not lately, surely, she exclaimed. Yes, only in
harvest. They had been married right in harvest. He was sure of it.
What month would harvest be in this land? she had asked hurriedly.
He informed her, and took up his story. He had had to go alone that
morning after his mother’s death to his uncle’s, to get help, and
hadn’t it taken them three hours to get the sled over the two miles
of drifted snow. He told all the tale, even how the little sister was
playing alone, and Chirstie had fainted.

All that afternoon there came little words of pity to Barbara McNair
as she fondled her little Jeannie; sometimes, when she was making
that great, most magnificent cake which appeared unashamed on the
supper table, she had to stop and wipe her eyes. Alex McNair had but
begun to disapprove of that delicacy when she ordered him so sharply
to hold his tongue that he all but obeyed. And after supper, she made
him lift down her kists, which because of the narrowness of the sty
had to sit one above another in her bedroom. She opened the third one
from the top, and took out a dress, wine-colored and soft, and looked
at it carefully a long time, examining the seams. Then she sat down,
and by candle light began to rip it apart, basque and polonaise and
all, to make a dress for the erring Chirstie.

It was the next afternoon that she saw a bobsled drive in. She could
see the bundled driver when he was yet some distance from the house,
but as he drew near, and stopped, she saw another great beshawled
bundle rise from behind the sideboards of the sled. This bundle came
at once towards the house, wiped its feet carefully on the doorstep,
and, unwrapping layer after layer of covering, revealed itself Isobel
McLaughlin. Mrs. McNair could hardly have been more surprised if she
had seen an angel descending from heaven. That any woman would be
riding around the country in weather like this had not entered her
mind. Her concern seemed mildly amusing to her guest, who quickly
disclaimed any conduct especially praiseworthy.

It wasn’t really cold now, she explained. It was thawing. This
was what is called the January thaw. A body can’t just stay cooped
up in the house all the winter, and besides--and this was the
great affair--Mistress McNair would be glad to know that she had
a fine strong grandson, born a week ago, the mother doing well!
Mrs. McLaughlin had wanted to bring the news herself, she was that
pleased! She had stopped, too, at a neighbor’s, Maggie Stewart’s,
who had a baby exactly the same age, a woman whom always before Mrs.
McLaughlin had helped through her confinement. She didn’t add she had
made that visit with the hope of lessening the fierceness of Maggie’s
slander-loving tongue, though if a good opportunity came she intended
explaining to this newcomer the unusual circumstances of the child’s
birth, which sooner or later she would be sure to hear some way. But
no opportunity came. The new Mrs. McNair was so unfeignedly glad
to see her, she brought out that wonderful little robe so timidly,
that Mrs. McLaughlin had to admire it even more than it deserved.
Chirstie hadn’t many new things for her baby, because there were so
many little things of the young McLaughlins saved for future need.
Not that any of them had had so fine a garment as this Mrs. McNair
had made. Speed, rather than elaborateness, had always been Mrs.
McLaughlin’s motto, necessarily. But Chirstie would be that proud of
such a little dress! Mrs. McLaughlin could just see her delighted
with it. This seemed to comfort Mrs. McNair, who then ventured
to show the red dress, all pressed and ready to be put together
again, by a method which she hoped would make it large enough for
Chirstie--that is, if Chirstie would not be offended by having a
made-over dress offered to her. Mrs. McLaughlin again thanked her,
and assured her that she need not worry about that. Then Mrs. McNair
wondered if Mrs. McLaughlin would take home to the girl her part of
her mother’s housekeeping things, which the new mother had wrapped
and made ready for her. She had divided the few sheets and spoons and
cups into two parts, one for each of the sisters--that is, she hoped
Mrs. McLaughlin and Chirstie would be satisfied with such a division.
Mrs. McLaughlin, feeling sure that Alex had no knowledge of a plan
so bountiful, protested that Chirstie didn’t really need the things,
that Wully could get her what she needed in the town. But Mrs. McNair
wouldn’t hear of such a plan for a minute. The lassie must have her
share of what had been her mother’s. She forebore to mention that
she had brought a great deal of household stuff, of a quality much
superior to any she found awaiting her. Mrs. McLaughlin, impressed
by this spontaneous liberality, began to wonder if, after all, the
avenging hand of God might not be seen in this second marriage of
Alex McNair.

The hostess was overflowing with questions, the burden of them all
being just the one unanswerable one that constantly confronted
her--namely, how did civilized persons live through winters of this
sort? Why did they endure life in small prisons buried under snow?
Had there ever before been a winter equal to this one? And did Mrs.
McLaughlin look forward with composure to living through such another
one?

Mrs. McLaughlin recalled with amusement and sympathy her own horror
of her first winter, enlarging upon her experience. Had not she and
her husband and their ten, and the Squire and his ten lived through
one winter all together in an unfinished cabin, with a row of beds
three deep built right around the walls, and a curtain across the
middle of it! Often in those terrible nights she had risen from her
bed to go about and feel the legs of her wee sleepers, to be sure
they were not all freezing solid. Of course there had not really been
as much danger as she imagined, but one of the McKnights had frozen
to death that winter, being overtaken on his drunken way homeward
by a great storm. That had shocked her until she was really foolish
about her children. Her twins had been born that year, too, before
the cabin was sealed, and the first snow had drifted in upon the bed
where she lay. Fine strong bairns they were, too. The cold didn’t
really hurt anyone.

Moreover, it drove the fever away, so that they welcomed its coming
in the fall, when the whole family would be shaking at one time.
Fever wasn’t as bad now, either, as it had been at first, though she
still fed her family quinine regularly every Saturday during the
spring and summer. When the land had all been plowed once or twice,
there would be no more of it, ’twas said. And there had been much
typhoid at first, before they had realized how much more defilable
the new wells were than those in the old places had been. Five of the
McLaughlin children had escaped typhoid altogether, which was very
lucky indeed, and none of them had died of it, although many of the
young ones of the settlement had. These things had all made a good
deal of nursing necessary, for thirteen, but undoubtedly the worst
days were over. And it was these winters which made the children
strong as little lions. Every tree that was planted, moreover, every
year’s growth of their cherished windbreaks, took away something of
the winter’s severity. And when spring came, besides, in the glory of
that season one forgot the cold, and all one’s troubles.

When would spring be coming? asked the longing stranger. Would it
be in February, now that January was said to be thawing? No, not
February. Nor in March. Sometimes it was a bit springlike by the
first of April. But the spring really opened in May. Everyone got
out then. Oh, sometimes if the roads were good, the women got out
to church in April. Once even there had been a large congregation
in March. Mrs. McNair sighed. It was a shame, now, commented her
visitor, that she should have had to be alone so much of her first
season. If there had been an older daughter, now ... if Chirstie had
been at home with her....

Mrs. McNair wondered timidly if Chirstie couldn’t come home for a
visit, when it got a little less freezing. Mrs. McLaughlin, thinking
quickly that Chirstie would surely be happy with this simple
gift-giving woman, thought it possible that Wully might bring her
over for a few days in March. At least in April. And when she saw the
poor, wee body seize upon this hope of companionship, she felt more
sure than ever that Chirstie would enjoy the visit.

If only she would come, that dress should be made for her, Mrs.
McNair ventured to promise. And she went on to get more information.
What sort of a little house would it be, now, that Wully was building
for his wife? What could houses be like in these parts? How many
rooms would it have? Isobel explained that there were to be three
rooms on the first floor, a parlor, a kitchen and a bedroom, and two
bedrooms above. Certainly it would be plastered, all white and clean.
Doubtless it would be painted in time, not just at first, of course,
but as soon as Wully could manage it. Of course it would have a
fence around it, like those Mrs. McNair had seen from the train, and
trees, most certainly. They had been planted last fall. Trees were
one thing essential on the prairies. Well, likely flowers, too, in
time, although women as yet had so much to do that there weren’t many
flowers about. Mrs. McLaughlin had herself often sighed for a few wee
rosebushes. And she had a fine young orchard set out and flourishing.
Had not Alex McNair been in these parts as long as the McLaughlins,
the new wife asked. And Mrs. McLaughlin, hiding her malice sweetly,
didn’t doubt but what he would be setting out an orchard soon. “The
poor wee body!” she said to herself. “Her wanting flowers, and a man
like Alex!”

The pitied one set out such a tea, she sent her guest home with such
an abundance of sweeties for her bairns, that Mrs. McLaughlin talked
hopefully about her all the way home to her husband. She solemnly
affirmed that that new wife would give away Alex McNair’s last sock,
if she could find anyone to take it; and for her part, she hoped
fervently that she could.

That evening as Alex sat smoking his pipe, with his stocking feet
well into the oven, his wife asked him artlessly:

“Will Chirstie’s man have much, now?”

“What would he have but his land?”

“But he’s building a fine house!”

“He would. The McLaughlins were ever spenders and poor. Not that the
house would cost much,” he added.

“Now what would such a house as his be costing?” It seemed a natural
question.

“Four hundred dollars. Or maybe five.”

She was surprised, for once, almost excited.

“You could build a castle with your money from Scotland!”

“Likely!” he commented, knocking his pipe’s ashes into the stove.

“But a little house like the new one would do me fine!”

“Don’t say new house to me, woman!” he roared.

A great deal of good his roaring did him! It was as if she never
heard him protesting. “I canna live in a sty,” she explained, for
the thousandth time, and she said new house to him without ceasing,
without haste or rest, by night and by day, apropos of everything he
mentioned, till he began to wonder if he were indeed a God-fearing
Presbyterian, with such murder in his heart. He couldn’t quite beat
a woman--a small woman--no matter how utterly she might deserve
punishment. He could scarcely do that. But he sometimes wondered if
there was any other measure of relief for him. He thought longingly
of the silences of Chirstie’s mother. He remembered story after story
of men who had beat their wives. He experienced a sharp sympathy
for them. Doubtless when men do such desperate things, they have
adequate reason, he reflected often. He was at his wits’ end. He was
in despair. That he might have made himself comfortable by granting
her request never occurred to him. He was already deliberating upon
certain pieces of land he intended buying.

And that woman didn’t seem able to believe that he would really buy
more land. She simply looked out of the window when he mentioned it,
looked out of the window at the winter, and then turned puzzled to
look at him, as if trying to fathom why anyone should desire more of
such a country.

So February passed, tantalized by new houses, and March got away,
maddened by little white fences. Chirstie came over for her visit at
home, the first of April, and that first week was frenzied by plans
his wife insisted on drawing of her grounds and garden. Alex was no
special lover of babies, but he was driven to feigning a prodigious
interest in his grandson to escape even temporarily from the meek,
eternal din of her ambitions.

Chirstie had come with misgivings, somewhat doubtful of her welcome.
But she perceived the first hour in the house that her stepmother was
lonely enough to have welcomed the most disgraceful, the most evil of
women. She wondered sometimes if she was not dreaming. After all that
had passed, how strange it was to be sitting honored in her father’s
house, coddled, waited on, made much of, by this harmless stranger,
who cooked surprising rich things for her delectation, and was making
her the most beautiful dress she had ever seen.

She was so happy that she almost regretted that Wully came for her
so soon. Mrs. McNair was determined that she must try on the new
dress to show it to him. She had forbidden him at first to look in
their direction, so he sat with his back to them, holding his little
sister-in-law in his lap by the fire. After pinnings and bastings
and warnings and ejaculations they had bidden him to turn and look.
Chirstie was standing by that window, in the sunshine, where he
had first seen her. And now, turning towards her, he gave a little
involuntary gasp of delight, more flattering than anything he could
have said. He had never seen her before in a soft, rich thing like
that. She had worn, of necessity, gray or brown calico garments. And
the glowing crimson fabric brought out the whiteness of her neck,
the darkness of her hair, the softness of her coloring cheeks, as he
cried sincerely;

“Why, Chirstie! You _queen_! Turn around!”

She turned around for his inspection.

“Goodness!” he exclaimed. “I wouldn’t have known you! What’ll I do
now? I won’t can walk beside you in my old rags! I’ll have to get
some store clothes!”

They laughed for delight.

“What’ll I get to match it?” he went on, looking at his
mother-in-law. “I ought to have--a purple coat--or something
magnifical! Chirstie, do you remember that window! She was standing
there the first time I ever saw her!” he explained to Mrs. McNair.

And then at length, in their high, young spirits, they went away, and
left her alone there. She was a puzzled woman. A man like that, and a
scandal like that! It was incomprehensible. A man building so happily
a new house for his wife, with a little fence around it!

That evening Alex McNair gave vent to a great, wicked, blood-curdling
oath, most surprising, most improper--all for no reason at
all--apropos of nothing. His innocent wife had simply remarked that
she couldn’t live in a sty.



CHAPTER XI


The infamy of Chirstie’s condition, becoming known, had been scarcely
less interesting than the scandal of Isobel McLaughlin’s attitude
toward it. She herself had told her sister and her sisters-in-law
what was soon to be expected from the girl, and all her cousins and
friends. She had informed them of it casually, without the flutter
of an eyelid, as if, to be sure, a little less haste might have been
from some points of view desirable, but, after all, Wully’s marriage
was the one she would have chosen for him if she had had her choice,
and the young pair would be happier with a baby. The neighbors had
certainly never expected Isobel McLaughlin to “take on” in such a
fashion. Some of them had been annoyed at times by her self-reliance,
her full trust in her own powers, and were not exactly sorry to hear
of this affair which must “set her down a notch.” But not a notch
down would she go! Her pride, it appeared, was too strong for even
this blow. The way she talked about her expectations scandalized the
righteous. Maggie Stewart said one would have supposed Wully had
waited ten years for that baby.

It had been bad enough in the beginning, but after the child was born
it grew out of all bounds. Her husband’s younger sister, Janet, a
woman still of childbearing age, came to remonstrate with her. For
the sake of the other young people in the community, to say nothing
of her own family of half-grown boys and girls, she really ought to
moderate her raptures somewhat. She was just encouraging them in
wrongdoing! But Isobel replied simply that since she had always had
to be painfully modest in praising her own children, she was going to
say exactly what she thought about this grandchild. She philosophized
shamelessly about the privileges of grandmothers. And, after all, if
she was his own grandmother who was saying it, Janet would have to
acknowledge that the baby was an unusually fine child.

Janet did have to grant that. She was the first one, too, to notice
the remarkable resemblance the child bore to his father. Isobel was
grateful to her for that hint, and after that day no visitor departed
without agreeing that wee Johnnie was a living picture of great
Wully. Isobel would recall her son’s infant features. Wully’s nose
had been just like that. And his eyes. She minded it well, now. This
child brought it all back to her. She had occasion to repeat these
reminiscences, for baby-judging, giving a decision about his family
traits, was nothing less than a ritual among these Scots. A woman
could hardly acquit herself with distinction in it with less than six
or eight of her own. And men, even fathers of thirteen, knowing how
far short of the occasion they would come, generally avoided it as
best they might.

Squire McLaughlin, of course, was just brazen enough to enjoy
such a ceremony. He may have had some secret sympathy for Wully’s
predicament, for he came over to inspect the child only a few days
after it was born. The Squire was the playboy of the community.
None of them ever took him seriously, and none failed to welcome
him heartily in for a “crack.” It appears that even his absurd
pretensions endeared him to his friends. He fancied himself a great
lord, before an acre of his “estate” was subdued, and sang a silly
song about gravel walks and peacocks. He never hauled a load of
gravel to fill the mudhole before his cabin door. But he did the
easier thing. He managed to have some gullible soul send him a pair
of peacocks. They died promptly upon arrival. He said, laughing with
the neighbors at himself, that it was the shock of seeing their
laird barefooted that killed them. He was a farmer who rode forth
to preside at theorizing agricultural meetings, while the forests
of weeds on his land grew unchecked up to the heavens. (Even two
years ago, the wild sunflowers near a culvert on that farm reached
the telephone wires.) He was later on one of the first men west of
the Mississippi to have pure-bred bulls, and east or west, no man
confused pedigrees more convivially. From the first he considered
it his duty to see that no Scottish folly was forgotten in the new
world, or even hogmanay allowed to pass unobserved. He was the man
who all but popularized curling in the west. Three times he had
been left an undaunted widower with a family of small, half-clothed
children, his esteemed heirs and heiresses of only his gay fancies.
Just now he was looking for a fourth helper to relieve him of the
responsibilities of his family, and such a man he was that, in spite
of his follies, all wished him success in the venture. He consulted
Isobel about various possibilities and she gave him her opinion,
with the frank statement that she pitied any woman who married him.
However, he still liked her. He had always liked her since that time
in Ayrshire, soon after she had married his older brother, when
she had saved him from a long and well-earned term in prison for
poaching. His successful pursuers were almost upon him when they
turned suddenly in the wrong direction, from which they had just
heard firing. She had seen his plight, and fired cunningly into the
air, and when the men had rushed into her cottage they found only a
young woman demurely sewing on baby clothes. Now since, of course, it
was impossible to poach in a land where not even God preserved game,
he was a reformed man, and an eminent huntsman. But sometimes he
still said jovially that he might as well have gone to prison as to
have to listen to all she said to him on that occasion. Even yet he
was not averse to giving her occasions of finding fault with him.

So when she lifted the baby up for his inspection, he rose, and
squinted down thoughtfully upon the little bundle. He turned his head
appraisingly from one side to the other. Then, knowing very well
what she thought, he said recklessly;

“He’s a perfect little McNair, Isobel. He’s like Alex. That nose of
his----”

She enlightened him stoutly. He persisted in his error, and only
asked:

“What’s he called?”

Now what to name the child was a question not altogether easy for
Wully, who had been standing near his mother, looking with proper
paternal pride upon the child. Each McLaughlin named his first-born
son, not boastingly, for himself, but gratefully, for his father;
so that Johns and Williams came alternatingly down through the
generations. That was the rub. Perhaps John McLaughlin might not
relish having this irregular child bear his name. So Wully was too
proud to seem to desire it.

“He’s such a husky little fighter for what he wants, we thought we’d
call him Grant. There’s no better name than that, is there?”

His father was sitting by the stove, smoking, seeming as usual
absorbed in a dream and only half-conscious of what was going on
about him. At this he took his pipe from his mouth and said, without
a sign of emotion;

“I wonder at you, Wully. The laddie’s name is John.”

Wully was greatly relieved.

“Oh, well,” he said lightly. “Maybe that would be better. There
won’t be more than fourteen or fifteen John McLaughlins about in
twenty years. Grant’ll keep. We’ll save it for the next one.”

Wully had rejoiced beyond measure at the child’s birth, not for the
reason some supposed, but solely because Chirstie was safely through
her ordeal. So gay he had become, so light-hearted, after that burden
of anxiety for her had been taken from him, that he seemed quite
like a rejoicing young father. It had been terrible for him to see
her time unescapably approaching. Those days seemed to him now like
a nightmare. He had planned what he would say to his wife when he
adopted her baby for his own. He would go blithely in, and cry to her
gayly, “Where’s my son, Chirstie?” And the child would be his. He had
planned that. But it had been different. That one irrepressible moan
he had heard from her before his mother had sent him for the doctor
had driven him through the night cursing. Cursing that man, whose
very name he hated to recall, cursing any man who lightly forced such
hours upon any woman--to say nothing of a dear woman like Chirstie.
He wanted to kill such men, to pound them to bits. And yet, lightly
or not lightly, what would his love of her bring her to, eventually,
if not to such hours as these! It was a hellish night. Afterwards he
had gone in to see her, not blithely, but otherwise. He had found her
lying there, hollow-eyed, exhausted, all her strength taken from her,
and her roundness, leaving her reduced, it seemed, to her essential
womanhood. And then suddenly he had not been able to see her for the
tears that burned his eyes. He had knelt down beside her, to put his
face near hers, so unseeing that she had cried sharply, “Don’t! Be
careful!” He had hurt her! But her hand was seeking for his. When she
had shown him the child--well he remembered that she had never asked
him for pity for herself. But now her eyes were praying, “My baby!
Love my baby, Wully!” With her lying there, even her familiar hands
looking frail, her hair lying wearily against her pillow, if she had
asked him to love a puppy, would he not have bent down to kiss it!
Later he had marveled to see her with the child. A farmer, a man
judging his very female animals by the sureness of their instincts
for their young, he wouldn’t have wanted a wife not greatly maternal,
he told himself. It came to be soon that in loving the child he was
playing no rôle; he liked all his wife’s adornments.

So the terrible days passed away. His wife became altogether his.
And wee Johnnie slept and thrived, his tiny hands doubled against
his little red face, in the cradle that had served the five younger
McLaughlins. When he opened his bonnie blue eyes, he saw only
adoration bending over him. He felt only delighted and reverent
hands lifting him. His grandmother, who “just couldn’t abide a house
without a baby in it,” would sometimes allow one of her children,
sitting carefully in just a certain chair, to hold him a little while
as a mark of her favor. If Johnnie was a shame to the household,
he was certainly an entertaining and a well-fed shame; if he was a
disgrace, he was surely an amusing and a hungry one.

It was wonderful how completely Chirstie was sheltered from reproach.
Though her humiliation was gossiped about by the hour, after all,
the gossipers had to remember her mother, and, sighing, grant the
daughter some little toleration. And then, however proud that Isobel
McLaughlin might be, there was hardly a family in the community
which had not, upon arriving from the old country, made “Uncle John
McLaughlin’s” their convenient home till another could be built.
Moreover, Wully had always been particularly indulgent to those
who were his aunts and uncles. Greatest of all, he was a soldier.
Not so far down the creek, a Quaker soldier had come home from war
without a leg, and his congregation had said if only he would say,
even privately, that he was sorry he had fought, he would again be
received into their communion. But he refused to say he was sorry.
And they refused to take him again to their approval. That didn’t
seem to trouble the soldier very much. But it had troubled the
Scotch, where he had come to work, extremely. They loved to belittle
the Quakers for what they considered a meanness to a man who had
fought. So it behooved them to treat their own veterans with more
consideration. On the whole, there might have been much more gloating
than there was. There might have been battles. Great, quiet, simple
men like Wully, however, people seem instinctively to avoid exciting
to fury.

So Chirstie had scarcely had occasion to feel the awkwardness of her
position till the afternoon early in April when her stepmother came
over with the finished dress to try on her. Chirstie had donned the
beautiful, rich, wine-colored thing, to be sure it hung right, and
set right, and standing forth so that Isobel McLaughlin might view
the effect, she turned round and round while Barbara McNair smoothed
out even imaginary wrinkles. It was pronounced perfect. Mrs. McNair
admired it as if it were not her skill but the girl’s beauty that
made the gown remarkable. Then, beaming, as much as her little pale
weak face could beam, she unwrapped a hat--a hat all wine-colored
and black, and set it jauntily on Chirstie’s head, so that the long
feather swept down over the brown coil of hair low on her neck.
Chirstie was radiant. She had never seen so lovely a hat in her life,
she said. And she stood looking at herself in the little glass, in
surprise, a very happy surprise, to see how she looked in such soft,
rich things. Then, with a command, Barbara McNair took all the joy
out of her face.

She simply demanded that Chirstie wear that conspicuously beautiful
outfit the second Sabbath to come, when the winter’s crop of babies
was to be formally dedicated to the Lord. Chirstie went suddenly
crimson, standing there, blankly, fingering the feather on her neck.

Mrs. McNair insisted on an answer.

“Oh!” cried Chirstie meekly, her eyes appealing to her mother-in-law.
“Our baby--” she began to say it wasn’t to be baptized, but she had
to turn away. She started for her room, to take the dress off.

The girl was so sensitive, Isobel started to say--But Barbara called
after her to come back, breaking forth into the broadest Glasgow
accent. They weren’t to suppose she didn’t understand! She had known
it all the time. That innocent laddie had told her, unconsciously.
(More innocent then than now, she might have added, if she had
known.) And she thought, indeed, that Chirstie had great reason for
shame, and not of her bonnie wee Johnnie, either, but of her own
heathen ingratitude. Chirstie lifted her face upon hearing that, from
the towel upon which she was wiping it, and Mrs. McNair demanded
that moment if she expected the Lord to sit studying the almanac all
the year for her convenience. She was sure that if she had been in
Chirstie’s place, and the Lord had given her a son, she wouldn’t have
gone sulking, no matter what the month might have been. Was it not
better to have one any time than none at all? she demanded, with such
a passion of regret for her own childlessness that Chirstie was left
speechless. She had never imagined anyone speaking in such a strain.
She looked at her mother-in-law, who seemed mildly amused. The idea
that she had been deriding the Lord’s chronological calculations was
in itself sobering to one of so tender a conscience. The giver of
all her good clothes went scolding away at her, till she promised at
least to wear the new things the week after the baptisms.

Chirstie kept thinking of the scolding as she drove in the wagon
of that harassed man, Alex McNair, with her stepmother and her
mother-in-law, to see the new house that was getting about ready
for her occupancy. Wully had to lay a plank for a walk hurriedly
from the wagon to the house, for the new Mrs. McNair still wore such
boots that one step in the thawing black mire would have ruined
them. It was always that way. That little insignificant-looking
person refused to adjust herself to the new country. She just sat
tight, and let the great significant country adjust itself to her
as best it might. The house towards which she neatly walked was not
perhaps, to disinterested eyes, a very inviting place. But to Wully
and Chirstie it was their very palace of love. It stood a story and
a half high on a slight rise of ground, a decent way back from the
path that has since become one of the nation’s highways, built of
shining new lumber, the tall grass around it trampled into the black
ground littered with bits of boards and yellow curling shavings.
From the front door, just hung that day, the women looked down over
fifteen miles of prairie, an occasional plowed square humanizing the
distances, which sloped with so gentle an incline that one standing
on any one of the acres could scarcely have told it was not level.
From the windows of the parlor the women saw the plot that Wully’s
father had insisted on breaking the year before, along one side of
which the maple seeds he had planted were presently to appear as
slight as spears of sprouting grass. From the kitchen window they saw
a row of elms as thick as broomsticks, which Wully had brought the
fall before from the creek. In a long furrow there, the walnut trees
that were to make gunstalks for the World War were still waiting in
their shells for a warmer sun to bring them forth, and to the north
the trench was ready for the red and white pines that are nowadays a
pride to the family. Chirstie pointed to the piece of ground that was
to be fenced for a garden. Whereupon Mrs. McNair asked anxiously if
the fence was to be painted white.

Wully heard his father-in-law move impatiently behind him, and,
though he hadn’t before thought of such a thing, he answered that it
would be painted white as soon as he had the money for the paint.
The stepmother-in-law sighed with relief, and began inspecting the
kitchen closet. Wully pointed out with malicious glee the finish
of the cupboards, making light of the expense and difficulty of
building, while his father-in-law poked about glooming, refusing
to admire the conveniences which the little woman coveted with so
gentle a simplicity. He still had a grudge against that man, and
aired it whenever he could without Chirstie seeing him. He knew
McNair disapproved of the size of the windows. But what business of
that man’s was it what his windows cost?

The Sabbath of the Communion Wully unabashed, and shame-filled
Chirstie wearing the appealing old coat of her mother, and the
bedecked wee Johnnie went to church for the first time since the
baby’s birth. But let no one suppose that they attracted much
attention. What chance for consideration could even the most unholy
child have had that morning, sitting in front of the Glasgow fashions
in the person, or on the person, of his stepgrandmother? Wasn’t she
wearing a most stunning little hat with a dark green feather curling
down over a chignon of red hair, sitting there in the pew just behind
Mrs. McLaughlin, who wore with grace and satisfaction the bonnet a
lamenting friend in Ayrshire had made for her in fifty-four, and
just in front of Mrs. Whannel, whose headpiece was conceived in the
spring of fifty-eight, and across from Mrs. McTaggert, who had bought
somewhat more expensively than was necessary in sixty-one, but who,
considering the well-preserved condition of her purchase, had really
nothing to regret. One skilled in millinery might have reckoned
from the mother’s bonnets more or less accurately, the year of each
family’s immigration, although the array of such young girls as were
not away at school would have slightly vitiated his calculations. And
now, this Sabbath morning, there sits down in this world, so remote
from others, a Metternich jacket, a cape-like affair trimmed with
fur, and a skirt spreading gracefully, but without hoops, a floating
veil, and gloves embroidered in faint gray! If wee Johnnie had been
baseborn twins, he could never have attracted more than a stray
thought to himselves on that occasion.



CHAPTER XII


Soon after the garments of Barbara McNair dawned upon the
congregation, her husband bought three hundred acres of land at three
dollars an acre. There are those who say a man owning eight hundred
and forty acres of land should be happy. Alex McNair was not. There
was in his flesh one great thorn--that Glasgow wife.

She had lived through the autumn and the terrible winter, waiting for
spring. And now that spring was here, what was it? Only an oozy wet
waste, with patches of green in the lower places, and winds shrieking
always across flat desolations. Near the sty, a sagging haystack of
a barn, and a couple of bony cows trampling dead grasses deeper into
the mire of the dooryard. If only there had been even a little white
house, and a fence, and a few flowers sending up their endearing
shoots! But this! And her from Glasgow!

Words failed her.

Had she not set forth day by day and hour by hour conscientiously,
the necessity of a new house? Yet in the face of her demands, her man
had gone to town to buy more wilderness. If she had known that spring
that Dod was to sell part of that land for six hundred dollars an
acre, her contempt for her husband’s folly would scarcely have been
less hot. There he was, driving into the yard now! She went to the
door and greeted him.

“You didn’t buy it?” she asked.

“Did I not say I would buy it?” he answered doggedly.

Not a change of expression passed over her face. She stood watching
him unhitch his team. She had never before been so much interested in
that process, having always avoided the barn.

The next day, when he was in the field, and Dod was hitching up,
she went out and watched him. Would he show her how he did that?
she asked. She thought she ought to know, she said. Which were the
gentlest horses? And which harness did they take? She learned where
it all hung in the barn. Dod liked teaching an old person. It wasn’t
any trick to hitch a horse to the wagon, he said. You put this under
the belly, so. And the lines through here, taking them from here,
thus. She practiced. She grew proficient. She waited.

One day in early May her husband rode away horseback to the Keiths’,
to pay back one of the many days of labor he owed that family. He
left home at daylight, and Dod went to school. Then Barbara began.

When McNair came home that evening, Dod asked, lonesomely,

“Where’s mother?”

“Is she not here?”

“She is not.”

“She’ll be gone to Chirstie’s. Or McCreaths’. Who came for her?”

“She took the team and went herself.”

“You’re daft! Her take a team!”

But the team was gone. The barn was as empty as the house. Dod made a
fire in the fireplace, and put the kettle on. Then the father made a
discovery that the son had made some time ago. The cupboard was bare.
Not a bite in it. Not a crumb of cake.

McNair didn’t like that. She might have told them where she was
going. She ought to have come back in time to have the supper ready.
He hated a cold house. He went to his tobacco box. At least that was
always ready for a hungry man. He opened it, and found a strange
white paper in it. A note from his wife. A fine note! “I can’t live
in a sty,” it said. “I have gone back to Scotland. Jeannie is with
Chirstie. Barbara Ferguson.”

Back to Scotland!

A woman alone!

Starting away with his team! She was daft! He rushed into the
bedroom, as soon as he began to realize her meaning. Were her hat
and cloak there? They were not! What was this? The kists not one on
top of the other, as usual! Spreading all over the room! And empty!
Nothing left in them! He rushed to the kitchen. The kist that set
there was empty, too, more empty if possible than the others! He sat
down.

He was outraged. He was speechless. That woman hadn’t been able to
lift those boxes alone into the wagon, so she had taken all their
contents and left them. Such cunning! Such deceit! And had he not
paid all her passage from Scotland! She had left him! Left _him_,
Alex McNair! Without saying a word! Her so quiet, and all! The whole
clan would know all about it! They would all have seen her passing! A
woman alone! Had anyone ever before heard of such a thing? Certainly
not in those parts! Everybody wondering where his wife was off to!
Oh, Jeannie would never have played him so base a trick!

Dod came into the room. McNair stuffed the note hastily into the box.

“Your mother has gone to town,” he murmured, meekly.

Dod heard that with surprise. Presently he volunteered that he saw
now why she had wanted to learn how to hitch up the horses. Had she
indeed learned all that from him? his father gasped. Oh, the depth
of deceit in her! And he had paid her way from Glasgow! Dod made
disconsolate cornmeal for their supper, forgetting to put salt in
it. To think of that woman ridding the cupboard of its last crumb!
McNair went to the barn and pretended to work, after the meal, being
too excited to sit still. Back to Scotland! Had ever anyone heard the
like! Everyone would be laughing at him. A rich wife, indeed! Oh, he
understood now why the canny widowers of Scotland had meekly let him
take this jewel of a woman away to America. They must have known her!

There was but one thing to be done. He would rise early, long before
dawn, and pursue her, getting out of the neighborhood before anyone
would be awake to see him pass. Her with his good horses in the town,
not knowing enough, maybe, to give them a drink at the end of the
journey! If she ever imagined he would give her a cent to get back
with, how greatly mistaken she was. He would surely show her who was
master here.

He found her the next afternoon, in the hall of one of those long,
shanty-like hotels which comprised the town, found her in the very
act of making a bargain with a man to make her new boxes to take the
place of those she had so extravagantly abandoned. They faced each
other in her room, he, tall, gaunt, black-eyed, ragged, she, small,
dainty, red-haired, bedecked. Her placidness, as usual, disarmed him.
He began;

“You can’t go back to Scotland! Are you daft?”

“I canna’ live in a sty.”

They were off, then. He urged decency, morality, economy, honesty,
pride, race, the waning reputation of Glasgow. After each argument
she simply said, like one born foolish;

“I canna’ live in a sty.”

It was a deadlock, till he demanded angrily where she expected to get
money for the journey. At her answer he surrendered. It fairly took
the life out of him. She certainly had not expected to get it from
him, thank you! She knew him too well. She had money enough with her
to take her comfortably to her home in Glasgow. Did he suppose that
she was one to come to the wilds without knowing how she might get
back? She had kept it all--all that _gold_, mind you!--in the lining
of her muff.

That woman had come thinking she might not stay! He, Alex McNair, had
been, as it were, married on probation. And him a Presbyterian!

He asked hopelessly what kind of a house she wanted.

She replied promptly that she wanted three good big rooms downstairs,
and two upstairs, a wee porch, all painted white, except the green
shutters, with closets and windows like Chirstie’s and besides a wee
white house for the fowls. All this was to be bought to-day, at once.

The Lord preserve us! Why, there wasn’t a painted fowl house in the
state!

The train left for Glasgow at seven the night.

He couldn’t buy all that in a day, could he? He had no money!

He could sell the last great plot he had bought.

Was she daft? Did she suppose he could sell it in a day?

Why could he not sell it in one day? Hadn’t he bought it in one? She
would call to the man to bring in those boxes.

He would buy the lumber as soon as he got around to it. Couldn’t she
trust him to do it?

He hadn’t told her in the first place that he lived in a sty, had he?
She felt the inside of her muff carefully.

The next day in the dusk they drove into Wully’s together, having a
wagon whose strange shape would have excited the curiosity of the
most philosophical, with that same long, uneven thing all covered
with blankets and tucked in, such a load as no man ever hauled, and
plainly the same thing that she had taken with her the day before.
McNair was apparently in a bad humor. How could the two who came out
to welcome them in, know that the nearer he had got to his home,
the more he dreaded the explanation he would have to give of his
wife’s desertion. But he had not yet learned all the depth of that
lintie! Was she embarrassed? Not she! She began immediately telling
the news, in that hesitating, ingratiating way of hers. They were to
have a new house! The lumber was to be hauled at once. She was that
glad she hadn’t been able to wait for Alex, but had gone in ahead,
to see about it. It was all settled. Just about like Wully’s, it was
to be. But a little larger. With a white fence. And a wee white fowl
house. They had bought even the paint. And, having had some time on
her hands, she had found this wee pair of shoes for the baby. No,
they couldn’t come in. Let Wully just hold wee Johnnie up till she
would see if they were the right size. Out of that confounded muff
came the shoes. They fitted. Well, the McNairs would just take their
wee Jeannie and be going on. She had so wanted them to hear her good
news. She hoped Jeannie hadn’t troubled Chirstie much. And wasn’t
Johnnie just growing bonnier day by day!

What could a man do in the face of that? Where in the name of the
shorter catechism had the woman got those shoes, and when--after all
the money she had wasted that day on houses? McNair simply gave up.
Like the Queen of Sheba before Solomon, he had no spirit left in him.
But he had acquired an uncomfortable amount of fear of women.

Chirstie and Wully took it for granted that the rich wife had paid
for the house, until the next Sabbath. Therefore, when Wully heard
as he came out of church that his revered father-in-law had sold
part of his newly bought land to Geordie Sproul, in a panic so to
speak, in a hurry, without much bargaining, to get the required
funds for the lumber, he grinned to himself, and waited to hear his
mother’s comment on the tale. He took his family as usual home to
his mother’s, after the service, and when dinner was over, he had a
chance to speak with her alone. She heard his pleasant suspicions.
Doubtless the new wife had made him sell that land. And she chuckled
with deep, deep mirth.

“Yon’s a fine woman, Wully!” she exclaimed, relishing her thoughts.
“She’s a grand wee captain!” She heaved sighs of contentment from
time to time all the afternoon, whose import was not lost on her son.
Surely, late as it was, Jeannie was being avenged.

Quite unconscious of the envious comment and the snickers of
admiration which her house was causing among her neighbors, Barbara
McNair went again with her husband to town, a month later, after the
bluebells had faded in the creek woods, just when the wild roses
were beginning to bloom, when the prairie was blue with spider
lilies. She rode along arrayed like the lilies--not to say like the
twenty-eight colors of wild phlox which a Dartsmouth botanist records
he found there that year. When at length she came within sight of
the town which stirred Isobel McLaughlin so greatly to speculation,
she speculated upon it not at all. There was nothing significant to
her in a town of eleven real estate offices and nineteen hotels,
wherein every other inhabitant was a land speculator. She left
the main street without paying it the compliment of a thought,
and turned toward the first street of dwellings, a muddy lane not
worthy to be called a street. The further down it she went, the
more homesick she grew, so bare and naked it was, shack after shack
uncared-for--wherever she turned, no gardens, no flowers, no trees,
even in the year’s height of leaf and blossom. On she went, down one
path after another. Then, away at the end of one-- Oh, there she
found a little, unpainted vine-covered shanty, with color, with
fragrance, iris blooming, borders of clove pinks, pansies, a yellow
rosebush, a red one, grapevines in blossom, a honeysuckle, budding
peonies!

It came over her with such delight that it never occurred to her to
hesitate. She pushed open the gate, and followed the path of clove
pinks around the house. There in the shade a woman was bending over
her washtub, a large, fat uncorseted woman, who raised a red face
from her steaming work.

Barbara said to her positively and politely, moved to her broadest
accent,

“I have come to see your flowers!”

The woman wiped her well-soaked hands on a limp apron, and replied in
perfect Pennsylvania Dutch;

“I don’t understand you.” But she smiled a smile of extraordinary
width.

They faced each other, Scotland and Germany, curiously for one
moment. Then Barbara pointed dramatically at the pansies. There was
that look on her face that was understood by frontiers-women of many
tongues. The German began babbling sympathetically about her display,
pointing out one beauty after another, breaking off little sprays to
hold near her visitor’s longing nose. So much there was that Barbara
wanted to ask, and her hostess wanted to explain, and they understood
each other after so many repetitions and efforts! Barbara examined
each plant, and felt the soil it grew in. She bowed her face down
to them again and again, hungrily. Not one did she omit to sigh over
enviously. Presently the German led her into the shanty, and set
before her in a red-carpeted, closely-guarded parlor, coffee and
coffee-cake, which Barbara esteemed but lightly, surprised out of
politeness by the fact that on the kitchen table a pair of pigeons
sat cooing. Then, the refreshments being finished, the woman took her
by the hand, and led her out of the house, down a barren street, just
as she was, in her wet dress, unhatted, red-faced. Barbara surmised
she was being taken to a place where plants were sold.

They came to a large square house, built on a high foundation, in a
yard planted with trees which were not just small sticks, approached
by a walk which had wide blossoming borders which Barbara would fain
have examined. But her guide waddled up determinedly and knocked on
the door. A lady opened it, a lady perhaps fifty, whose gray calico
was fastened at the throat most primly by an oval brooch. She was
sad-faced, and gray-haired, and as the German woman babbled to her,
she turned and smiled upon Barbara gravely and kindly, and asked
them to come in. But the German was not for sitting in a house on
such a morning. The lady put on a wide hat, and gloves, and came
out to the border. In her foreign language, which was merely New
England English, she discussed her loves, pointing out one blossom
and another. Her pansies never equaled the German’s. But look at
the number of buds on her peonies! She could hardly wait till they
opened. And Mrs. McNair followed her about with the great question on
her tongue, namely, where does one get these things in this country?

She was standing by a yellow rosebush when she asked that, first, and
its owner, bending down, said;

“Here’s a good little new one now. You may have that. Have you a
place for it? Where do you live?”

“Twenty-five miles west.”

The lady sighed.

“We have come for wood to build our house to-day,” Barbara informed
her.

“Have you been here long?”

“Long enough,” said Barbara, simply. “I came in November.”

The lady sighed again, and went to get her spade. She asked again
if Barbara had a place for the rose. Barbara was offended at the
suggestion she might not cherish that plant until death. Where can
you buy them here? she asked again.

That rose, the lady explained, she had brought with her from
Davenport, in a little box with grape cuttings and the peony, which
she had carried in her lap in a covered wagon long before there were
railroads to the town. She had brought it to Davenport coming down
the Ohio and up the Mississippi soon after she was married. A woman
had given it to her when she left Ohio for the West. The peony her
mother had brought from eastern to western Ohio many years ago, and
when she had died, her daughter had chosen the peony for her share of
the estate. Her mother had got it from her mother, who came a bride
to Ohio from western New York, clasping it against her noisy heart,
out of the way of the high waters her husband had led her horse
through, across unbridged streams, cherishing it more resolutely than
the household stuffs which had to be abandoned in pathless woods. Her
great-grandfather had brought it west in New York in his saddle bag,
soon after Washington’s inauguration as he returned from New York
City. She supposed before that the Dutch had maybe brought it from
Holland to Long Island. There had been tulips, too, but the pigs had
eaten them in Ohio. She had wondered sometimes if it was the fate
of the peony to be carried clear to the Pacific by lonely women. At
least, if she gave a bit of it to Mrs. McNair, it would be that much
farther west on its way to its destination, which she, for one, hoped
it might soon reach, so that there would be some rest for women.
Let Mrs. McNair remember to come for a root of it in the fall, when
her fence would be finished. Without fences it is useless to try to
protect flowers. Her mother in Ohio had had a sort of high stockade
made of thorny brush around a little garden, so that one had to come
near, and look down over the top to get a glimpse of the blossoms.
But the pigs had been very hungry in those days. Their destruction of
that garden and the rescue of the peony she had heard her mother tell
about with tears in her eyes twenty years afterwards. It was one of
the sorrows of her life.

When Mrs. McNair went home that day, she had with her the roots of
all transplantable things, lilacs, white and purple, roses pink
and red and yellow, pinks and young hollyhocks, grape cuttings and
snowballs. She had a pile of old “Horticultural Advisers” from the
lady’s library, full of advice about planting windbreaks, and letters
from frontier gardeners who had morning-glories growing over their
young pines, and walls of hollyhocks twelve feet high. She had been
urged to stay at the lady’s for dinner, and the German had made
her promise always to come back to her for coffee when she came to
town. The road was full of ruts and swamps, and her bones ached
long before the springless wagon got home. But her plants had felt
no joltings, for she had held them carefully in her lap. That was
the first day she sang in the United States of America. It was her
“Americanization.” Her husband never even noticed her song, however.
He was suffering acutely from the price of glass windows.



CHAPTER XIII


Wully and Chirstie and their bonny wee Johnnie moved into their new
house towards the first of May, and at the end of that month, Wully’s
brother John, having finished his second year in the snug little New
England college, came to work for him. That institution was only
fifty miles away, a distance that a lame McLaughlin, unfit for the
army, walked to vote for Lincoln in sixty-four, not being able to
give one great big valuable dollar for the hire of a horse. John
himself walked when his sister Mary’s company didn’t necessitate a
wagon. Having John at Wully’s suited the whole family. His mother
liked it because Wully was such an excellent example of patience
and goodness for John, who needed just that. Chirstie liked it not
only because she was spared the unpleasantness of having a strange
hired man at the table, but because she saw in John the first of a
succession of younger brothers, to whom, as they worked for Wully,
she might in some degree repay their mother’s kindness to her. Wully
heartily admired John, and never neglected to point out the signs of
his brilliancy to those who were interested, especially his mother.
There was no one like John in the family, and therefore, of course,
in the community, in Wully’s estimation. The books which the other
children in the little school studied ragged, John glanced at, and
mastered. He never had anything to read, because the few books
that Wully went slowly through, he read in an hour or two, getting
more out of them in that fashion than Wully could in his. He had
read every printed thing in the neighborhood: the books Wully had
sent home from St. Louis, most of Scott, and some of Dickens, and
Macaulay’s histories. (“You understand that no stolen book comes
into my house, Wully!” his mother had written him, enraged by the
boys’ stories of war plunder.) He had read those three hundred pious
volumes that the governor of an eastern state had sent to the library
of a Sunday school near by, in which he had become, in so romantic
a manner, interested. He had read the college library from start to
finish, and the more precious books his interested teachers would
lend him. His teachers thought sometimes that John was to have a
great career. But they were all amateurs in expectations, compared to
his mother.

John had two very good reasons for wanting to work for Wully. The
first was that at Wully’s he could study all the Sabbath day in
peace, which he was not allowed to do at his father’s. To be sure,
he was still expected to appear at church, which he did but seldom,
and then only with great groans and complainings. Wully told him it
wouldn’t hurt him to rest his mind an hour or two once a week, and he
retorted that after a week in the field, rest was the thing his mind
needed least. He scolded about his father’s intolerance. Wully only
grinned at him, and remarked that he couldn’t see that the father was
much more intolerant than the son. However, if John was seized with a
pain on the morning of the Sabbath, Wully wouldn’t minimize his agony
when his father inquired about it.

The other reason that John liked being with his brother was that
there he could be sure of being paid. The summer before he had hired
out to a Yankee at Fisher’s Grove, for twelve dollars a month,
payable in gold. He had endured food inexcusably bad, even for those
circumstances, and when he had asked for his wages the man had given
him, shamefacedly enough to be sure, instead of gold, one hundred and
twenty acres of land! John had been barely seventeen at the time and
it was years before he acknowledged that in his disappointment he had
gone to the woods and cried bitterly. He could afford to tell that
story with amusement when there was a town of forty thousand on that
land, and he still owned most of it. That year his father had with
much difficulty got a deed to the land, and mortgaged it for a little
to help with the boy’s schooling. He and his sister, living together
on cornmeal carried from home, and working for their room rent for
the kindly New Englanders with whom they lived, needed, fortunately,
only a little cash. But this next year John was going to Chicago to
study law. That was what the teachers advised and that would take
real money.

It was one of those interested teachers who unknowingly changed the
order of worship at Wully’s that season. One morning, when breakfast
was over at dawn, John’s first week there, as Wully reached for The
Book, he said in a voice which seemed, as usual, a little impatient,
somewhat too eager;

“Let me do the reading, Wully, and you do the praying!”

Wully was rather surprised by such devotion on John’s part.

“All right,” he said, handing him the book.

John began abruptly at the first of Isaiah, which was not the place
according to the custom of their fathers, and he read stumblingly,
with pauses, so that his brother, turning toward him, saw that he was
looking at the text only for occasional phrases, trying to read from
memory. And when they sat around the table again, in the evening,
almost stupid from weariness, John went over the same chapter, but
with scarcely any hesitation. Wully asked him, after prayers, why he
had repeated it. John had just picked up the lamp to go up to bed--he
had the one lamp, because he studied--and he turned at the bottom of
the stairs to answer, the light flickering across his neck, where
his hickory shirt collar was open. He was six feet, even then, and
he had huge broad shoulders strangely awkward. His head was long and
narrow, and though he was blistered red just then from the sun, his
untanned forehead was a clear yellow, unlike any other complexion
in the family. He had the long upper lip that spoiled the symmetry
of so many McLaughlin faces, and a long determined chin, and from
his deep-set blue eyes he stood gazing at his brother with that
speculating keenness with which he examined even the most familiar
things.

“Professor Jamison advised me to learn Isaiah this summer. He said it
would be a good thing to get the swing of the sentences. We might as
well get _some_ good out of worship, I suppose.”

“Commit Isaiah to memory!” gasped Wully.

“Well, why not? We know most of it now, don’t we? We’ve heard it all
our lives. I told him we knew the Psalms. We’ll read a chapter twice
a day, and we’ll know it.”

“I won’t,” said Wully.

“You’ll know enough of it,” said John, starting up to his reading.

Wully gave Chirstie a significant look.

“Did ever you hear the equal of that?” he asked her. “I wouldn’t
know that chapter if I read it every day for a month.” He considered
John. It would not have been his father’s way to use the few minutes
of the day set apart for the worship of the Most High God, to learn
the swing of sentences, whatever that might be. It certainly would
not have been Wully’s own way. But it was John’s way, and doubtless a
good way, and since John was living with them, he might as well have
his way. Chirstie didn’t mind. She only wanted John to be happy.

They _were_ happy as the summer wore on, the three of them working
from the first streak of dawn to the frog-croaking darkness. The
stars in their courses and the clouds in their flights seemed to be
working with them that season. Week after week, just as the ground
grew ready for it, they watched the desired clouds roll up in great
hills against the sky, and pour down long, slow, soaking rains. They
watched the sun grow more and more stimulatingly warm, and then,
just when their corn needed it, grow fiercely hot in its coaxing.
They worked like slaves, of course. But then, they had always worked
like slaves. Wully was at the height of his strength that year,
apparently, and he tried to save John, who was, after all, still a
growing boy. But John sharply refused to be considered less than any
man. Chirstie was cruelly tired every night, with far too much fever.
She had her new house to keep as clean as her mother’s linen-hung
cabin had been. She had more than a hundred little chickens to
feed and water, and to guard from the slow-rising storms, and the
low-hovering hawks. She had an orphan lamb to feed. She had washing
to do, and ironing, and scrubbing and sewing and cooking, bread
making and butter making, with pans and pails and churns to be
scalded and kept sweet; she had yarn making, and knitting, vegetable
drying and wild fruit canning. She had wee Johnnie to care for, and
whenever she sat down to nurse him, she fell asleep worn out. More
than one pie got itself scorched that way that summer.

And with it all, they were so happy that sometimes she had to say
to Wully, although he didn’t want her to mention it, “Oh, think of
last summer, and of this!” And he would answer, “_I_ certainly had a
time without you, Chirstie!” Everything seemed to swell the sum of
their well-being. Every noon, if the dinner was not entirely ready
when Wully was washed for it, he seized his spade and transplanted
two or three little trees from their seed-bed to their place in
the windbreak. Every evening, tired to death, with the baby in his
arms, he went with his wife to see if by chance any seedlings had
halted, and needed water. Every leaf on the little trees called for
comment. There they would stand, looking over their domain, brushing
mosquitoes from their faces. Wheat and corn had surely never grown
better than theirs did that year. To John, now, a field of wheat
was a field of wheat, capable of being sold for so many dollars. To
Wully, as to his father, there was first always, to be sure, the
promise of money in growing grain, and he needed money. But besides
that, there was more in it than perhaps anyone can say--certainly
more than he ever said--all that keeps farm-minded men farming. It
was the perfect symbol of rewarded, lavished labor, of requited love
and care, of creating power, of wifely faithfulness, of the flower
and fruit of life, its beauty, its ecstasy. Wully was too essentially
a farmer ever to try to express his deep satisfaction in words. But
when he saw his own wheat strong and green, swaying in the breezes,
flushed with just the first signs of ripening, the sight made him
begin whistling. And when, working to exhaustion, he saw row after
row of corn, hoed by his own hands, standing forth unchoked by weeds,
free to eat and grow like happy children, even though he was too
tired to walk erectly, something within him--maybe his heart--danced
with joy. Therefore he was then, as almost always, to be reckoned
among the fortunate of the earth, one of those who know ungrudged
contented exhaustion.



CHAPTER XIV


John came out for a three months’ vacation the next year and worked
again for Wully. They had acres of sod corn that summer, and
wheat to make a miser chuckle. Both men, and whatever neighborly
passer-by they might be able to hire, worked day after day till they
staggered. To have stopped while yet there was sufficient daylight
to distinguish another hill of corn would have been shirking; to go
to supper while yet one could straighten up without a sharp pain in
his back would have been laziness. Yet John was never too tired to
choose an idiom as far removed as possible from the one he heard
about him. Now that he had been in Chicago he had a growing contempt,
which never failed to amuse Wully, for the speech of his own people.
What was it they spoke, he demanded scornfully, swinging a violent
hoe among the weeds. It was Scotch no longer. It wasn’t English.
It wasn’t American, certainly. It was just a kind of--he tried all
summer to describe it satisfactorily in a word. Once he called it
“the gruntings of the inarticulate forthright.” Mrs. Alex McNair
was the only one that spoke pure anything, he declared. John seemed
to like that woman, strange to say. Wully suspected he listened
to her because her pronunciation fascinated him, but at Wully’s he
was intolerant of any tendency towards Scotticisms. Wully’s and
Chirstie’s articulation he supervised continually, their grammar
and their diction. They were not allowed to say before John, “She
won’t can some,” or “I used to could.” A less happy man than Wully
might have resented correction from a younger brother. Wully took
it gratefully, feeling he was getting not a poor substitute for the
schooling he had been forced to miss. And when he saw his mother,
he would repeat John’s innovations to her with gusto. “Indeed!” she
exclaimed upon one such occasion. “The gruntings of the inar--what,
Wully? Lawsie me! You did well to remember that!” “Yes,” cried Wully.
“But John didn’t _remember_ them, mother. He makes them up!” Chirstie
would have been annoyed sometimes by John’s attitude, if her son
had not been so devoted to his uncle. Wee Johnnie refused to go to
sleep in the evening till he had had his daily romp with John on the
doorstep. And even if he did treat her like an unimportant younger
sister, she had to like her baby’s playmate.

The child was by this time the joyous little husky heart of the
family. John had noticed him dutifully at first because he was
Wully’s, but he came speedily to love him for his own diverting
charms. There had been an evening nearly two years ago, when he came
into the little room where he and his sister cooked their meals, and
had found her stretched out on the bed crying. He read the letter she
gave him in explanation. His mother had written about the impending
disgraceful baby. John hadn’t forgotten his sensation of amazement,
or the sharp wound that his disdainful sense of superiority
sustained, but now he seldom recalled either. It outraged his sense
of the fitness of things that he so well understood that scrape; that
he had to wonder at times that passion was ever less rampant, less
controlled, than in the case he had to consider. The information
encouraged a budding cynicism within him. If it had been anyone but
Wully--even Allen--he would have understood it better. He had read
the letter, and stood looking at it. Then without a word he went out,
and walked about the streets through the dusk. And never a mention of
it passed between the brother and sister. And then when he came home,
and saw Wully--when that brotherly, honest geniality shone out simply
towards him--he couldn’t think of that story. Wully’s presence denied
it, obliterated it. That was all. And wee Johnnie justified himself.

John was, of course, keen about having his nephew speak English
undefiled, and between their little games he begged him patiently to
say “Uncle John.” But, after hours of slipping gleefully away from
effort, the baby came no nearer the desired sounds than “Diddle!” He
had lovely, twinkling ways of making light of instruction. He would
duck his curly head, and hold it reflectingly to one side, and purse
up his little lips enough to have spoken volumes. Yet when he saw
his uncle coming towards the house, he would sing out that absurd
“Diddle,” delightedly, waiting an award for such perfect enunciation.
When his grandmother got him into her arms, she would beg him to
say “Grannie.” And he would say it, in a way that satisfied him
entirely. Only he called the word “Pooh!” And in that absurdity, too,
he persisted. “Mama” he said, and “Papa” and “chickie” and “Diddle”
and “Pooh.” And that was all. No coaxing could elicit more from him.
Chirstie grew vexed at times hearing other women tell how early and
plainly their children had talked. She longed to have Johnnie shine
vocally. Sometimes she almost wondered if he wasn’t “simple.” But her
mother-in-law consoled her by telling about her John. He had spoken
hardly a word till he was three, and she was really getting alarmed
about it, when suddenly he seemed to join the family conversation, so
rapidly he learned words and sentences.

So with that foolish “Ayn?” which was his question, and with the
“Ayn” which was his consent, Bonnie Wee Johnnie went on ruling his
domain. The men never started to the fields with a team without
letting the baby ride a few steps on the back of the old mare. No one
plowed into a bird’s nest without saving an egg to show the baby. No
one ran across a long gaudy pheasant’s feather without saving it for
Johnnie’s soft fingers to feel. At noon John carried him out to pat
the colt’s nose, or to see the little pigs nosing their way among one
another to their mother’s milk. The baby had just naturally become
Wully’s child. Wully could never bear the thought of Peter Keith. He
kept it resolutely out of his mind. He had to. He shrank from it as
he had never shrunk from the face of an enemy. Making the baby his
own helped the forgetting. Barbara McNair said to Isobel McLaughlin
that she had never seen a man with such a way with a baby as Wully
had with that child. And Isobel McLaughlin answered that it was
small wonder Wully had a way with babies, since he had carried one
in his arms ever since he was three years old. Month by month Wully
became in the eyes of that prairie-bound world a more exemplary and
unsuspected father to Chirstie’s son.

June came and went. The corn began hiding the black soil at its
roots entirely from sight. It was “knee-high by the Fourth of July”
according to the Scriptures. There was to be a great celebration that
year in Woolsey’s woods, and Wully had, of course, planned to take
his family to the picnic. All his army comrades would be there, and
neighbors for thirty miles round, talking crops and prices, and the
president’s troubles in Washington. It was to have been a grateful
change from hoeing.

However, when the day came, it was out of the question to take
Chirstie, who had been having fever, and the baby, who was unhappily
teething, for a twenty-five mile ride through the heat, even with the
new spring seat which Wully had bought for the wagon--extravagantly,
according to Alex McNair. John, therefore, rode away on horseback
before dawn. Not that John would have condescended to care to go if
it had been only what he would have called in our day a gathering
of “neighborhood fatheads.” But there was to be a speaker there who
helped to make laws and thwart the president in Washington, and John
wanted to hear what he had to say, and how he managed to say it.

Wully and Chirstie accordingly began their holiday by a most
unusually long sleep in the morning, the baby for some reason
allowing it. They had a late and lazy breakfast. If Chirstie
cared to, they would drive down to the creek and look for some
blackberries, Wully said. He dallied about, playing with the baby,
who was better than they had expected him to be. They sauntered out
to their garden of little trees, after Wully had wiped the breakfast
dishes, and spent some time there, weeding it, and cultivating it,
playing together. Were not the two of them quite content to spend
their holiday at home together now? It was not as if they were young,
unmated things, running about experimentally, investigatingly. When
it grew warm, and they sought the shade of the house to rest in, a
Sabbath peace brooded over them. Wully stretched out on the grass,
and the baby sat contentedly on his chest.

Chirstie looked at the morning-glories blooming on the fence of the
little vegetable garden. There were but few of them. The hens had got
into the garden earlier and scratched them almost all out. She hated
to kill the hens she had had the trouble of raising, just because
they spoiled her morning-glories. Her stepmother, she reflected,
had no such hesitations. If a rash hen flew into Barbara McNair’s
garden, she caught it and cut its wing feathers. If it repeated the
offense, into the boiling kettle it went. She had scarcely a hen
left. That famous wee white fowl-house was really little more than
an ornament. Yet when Chirstie sighed over her morning-glories,
Wully said at once that he would get a better fence around a bigger
garden by the next spring. He, too, was thinking of the McNair place.
Everyone thought of that place that summer, and planned to make his
own less desolate-looking. That McNairs’ was now the very show place
of the country. One driving up to it, unless he had heard reports,
could scarcely believe his eyes. No sty now! No bony cows trampling
knee-deep in mud! One saw a trim white house, inside a smart white
fence, upon a jaunty rise of ground, with a gay white fowl-house
in the rear, and in the front yard--what sights for pioneer eyes!
Crimson hollyhocks, just beginning to open, almost as high as the
lean-to, screening the porch. A grapevine halfway across the main
part of the building. Morning-glories on cunning arrangements of
hidden wires. Scarlet poppies and magenta petunias romping all along
the front walk, laughing to the confederate heavens, flaunting
their uselessness flippantly before the eyes of those who lived
slavishly, blossoms with the Scriptures behind them to justify their
toiling not, their spinning not, their being arrayed beyond kings’
glory--not economically. The garden scouted the very principles of
the hard-working, of those who would “get ahead.” It hooted aloud
at frugality. Barbara McNair kept a lamb, to be sure, but for no
utilitarian purpose. She kept it to mow her lawn. And when its hunger
had shaved its environments, she moved the stake which held it,
to another spot. She kept hens languidly, perhaps only to justify
artistically that supernumerary luxury, the white fowl-house. But let
those chickens beware how they turned their eyes towards her garden
spaces, lest they discover fatally her feelings towards them and
their like. No useless and ungardening orphan calf would she mother.
No bereaved young pigs owed their life to her. She did only what she
elected to do. Though there was at that time scarcely a servant girl
west of the Mississippi, Barbara McNair was almost never without some
neighbor girl to do her work for her, while in return she taught her
sewing, or made some pretty garment for her. Just now Wully’s sister
Mary, who was to marry a Yankee minister that fall, was working
at the McNairs’, while Barbara, in spite of Isobel McLaughlin’s
protests, was making her a famous blue silk dress, equaled in
grandeur only by that red wool one of Chirstie’s. Always some girl or
other eating that helpless McNair’s good bread, while his wife knit
tidies, and watered her trifling wee flowers--from a pump all painted
and handy just outside the kitchen door--and lived like a lady,
envied by all the women in the neighborhood, and distrusted by nearly
all the men.

Wully lay playing with the baby, who liked tickling his face with
a long spear of grass, and thinking just how he would make that
fence, and grinning, at times, to himself. The Sabbath before he
had taken Chirstie home for dinner, and when she had seen how the
flowers were blooming there, she had explained in vexation about her
morning-glories. Wully had been walking with his father-in-law and
the women among the trifling flowers, when Chirstie had spoken of
the accident, in answer to Barbara McNair’s question. And Alex had
turned to Wully, and remonstrated with him for not having a better
fence for Chirstie! A man ought to see that the women had such
things, McNair had assured him solemnly. That was one of the best
things he had had to tell his mother for a long time! Alex McNair
telling him, Wully McLaughlin, how to treat a wife! McNair strutted
about, taking all the credit for that garden, extremely proud of
having the best-looking place for miles around. As if he had been
able to help himself! Wully had said nothing about the incident to
Chirstie. He couldn’t seem always to be laughing at her father. Just
then she went on to tell him about the new dress Barbara had made
for little Jeannie. Whatever the neighbors might say enviously about
Barbara McNair, they must in justice agree that she was an excellent
stepmother to her husband’s children. The way she loved Jeannie and
Dod, and was loved in return, was a source of deep satisfaction to
Chirstie. And so she gossiped contentedly and harmlessly on about
the neighbors, and the baby kicked the protesting Wully gleefully in
the ribs. They felt cosily shut in to themselves by the sense of the
countryside emptied of its patriotic and picnicking dwellers. Wully
lounged about till almost eleven. There was a little hay cut which he
wanted to turn. He would be back by dinner time, he said.

He started down the path to the hayfield, taking the scythe with him.
It was a hot day, but there was a lively breeze blowing the grass
into waves and billows, and momentary disappearing swift maelstroms.
Safe white clouds were sailing on high, but along the horizon hints
of much rain were gathering slowly. It wouldn’t be safe to cut much
hay in face of them. He really need not have brought the scythe. He
began turning what was cut, forkful by forkful. Then he cut a few
swathes. Working, he lay bare a marsh hawk’s nest. He stopped for
breath, and stood watching the catlike birdlings turn on their backs
and offer fight with their pawing, scrawny claws, while the mother
circled angrily about him. He must tell Chirstie about those warlike
babies. He went on, to leave them in peace. He kept getting farther
and farther away from the house, towards the far edge of the plot of
prairie they had chosen for hay. He worked away, scarcely lifting his
head from his task, wondering occasionally if the rain, undoubtedly
gathering, would come by night.

Suddenly he heard a cry. He looked up. He threw down his scythe. He
started running. Chirstie was running towards him. She was crying out
to him, too far away to be heard. He gave a look towards the house.
There seemed to be no sign of fire. He tore on towards her. It must
be the baby. He saved his breath till he got near her. She stumbled
against him, gasping, fainting. What she managed to say brought the
contentment of his life crashing down to ruin.

“It’s Peter! Peter Keith! He’s back!”

She would have fallen. He caught her. He held her against him. She
couldn’t speak. He couldn’t believe his ears.

“You said he wouldn’t come back!” she began, again. “Wully, he took
hold of me! He--” She Was weeping with rage and terror. “Look here!”
Her sleeve was torn half off. “You said he wouldn’t come back!” she
cried, shaking.

“You’re dreaming!” he cried. He couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t
possible.

“He came to the door,” she sobbed. “I didn’t see him till then. I’m
not dreaming! Look at my dress! Where you going? Don’t leave me
alone!”

He had started for his gun. Rage came over him like a fever mounting.
The sight of that torn sleeve made him suddenly blind with anger. He
couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t possible that man had dared to come
back and lay violent hands on his wife. It simply couldn’t be. She
was calling to him to wait for her. She wouldn’t be left alone.

He helped her along blindly. He had never known such murderous anger.
He wanted her to hurry. He lusted for that gun. He felt her trembling
against him. By God, his wife wouldn’t have to tremble much longer!

It seemed to him long before they came to their house--very long.
“Don’t you let him hurt you!” she moaned as they came up to it. He
strode into the kitchen. There the baby slept in his cradle, and
flies walked leisurely over the piecrust scattered over the floor. He
seized his gun. He went to the east door, and looked out. He went to
the west door. He stood looking. Before his eyes hens scratched for
their broods in peace. He searched the house. He turned to go to the
barn. She cried after him, “Oh, don’t let him _hurt_ you!” He went
without caution, madly. But in the barn there was no enemy. No sign
of a man behind the barn, where the grass billows chased one another.
No one hiding about the haystack. He strode about seeking. There
was no enemy in any place. But beyond the little tree bed, and the
garden, beyond the wheat fields--what might be there, to the east to
the west, to the north and the south, in those wild man-high grasses!
There a thousand men might hide and laugh at pursuers. Looking at
those baffling stretches, Wully choked. He was helpless.

He went back to his wife. She was trying vainly to compose herself.
“I never _thought_ he would come! I never imagined it! You said he
_wouldn’t_, Wully!” Didn’t she see how that reproach must madden him!
“I was just standing there, making the pie. He came to that door. I
thought it was you. And when I looked up, he was _looking_ at me,
Wully!” She wailed out that last. “He was _looking_ at me. I didn’t
know what to do. He just grabbed me!” She buried her face in her
arms, and sobbed.

God! If only he could get hold of that snake who hid in the grasses!
He turned abruptly again to the search.

“Stay with me!” she cried. “Where you going?”

“There’s no one here,” he answered, beside himself, wanting to
comfort her. “Come and see for yourself!” Trembling and crying she
came out with him to the barn. That morning there was no great
cement-floored barn to search through, in whose loft a hundred men
might lie, nor long feeding sheds for steers, nor any tower-like
silos. There were no scattered groups of lighted hog-houses, nor
garages nor heated drinking tanks. There were no machine sheds, nor
ventilated corn-cribs, nor power plants nor icehouses, as now there
are. Only that one little unconcealing barn, those small slight
plantings, that innocent wheat, that shaved patch of the prairie
which was the hayfield.

“He’s run out there!” Chirstie moaned, pointing to the distances.
Somewhere out there he had lain in wait, perhaps, seeing Wully
depart, maybe watching their just caresses. Somewhere out there he
must be pausing now, watching them hunt for him. Wully was shaking
with incredulous fury. It simply wasn’t possible that Peter Keith
should so have underestimated him! But no wonder, after he had been
such a fool as to let him go unpunished once! Oh, all Wully needed
was one more chance at him....

They ate no dinner. Chirstie lay down wearily. Wully with his gun in
hand, stood watching, promising her he wouldn’t go far, or leave her
alone more than a minute. She moaned as he came to her during the
afternoon, to give her the baby;

“Oh, what’ll we ever do now, Wully!”

“Leave that to me!” he said, in such a voice that she could say no
more just then.

“You won’t _hurt_ him, Wully!” she begged again, thinking only of her
husband’s safety.

“Will I not!” he answered grimly. She wept.

“There’s Aunt Libby!” she moaned.

“_Is_ there!” he cried. There was no auntie in his intentions. He was
thinking only of his wife--who trembled and wept, temporarily.

“Wully, you’ll get into trouble! If he won’t bother us, let him come
back!”

“He _does_ bother me!” She dared not answer that tone. Wully choked,
and turned away, to look out over the prairies again. A rattlesnake,
that man was, hiding in the grass, a damned poison snake, and like
a snake he should be treated. If it had been a windless day, one
might have traced him through the grasses. But now one second of the
wind swept away any trace of him. A good dog might have trailed him.
But there was no dog at hand. In many places before Wully’s very
eyes, a man--a snake--might walk upright and unperceived. Inside,
Chirstie lay moaning in fever. Outside, Wully patrolled his premises,
frustrated, raging.

In his excitement details came rushing back to his mind to which he
had long and obstinately refused entrance. He remembered all the bits
of confession that Chirstie had made to him the first night that,
knowing her trouble, he had gone to claim her. Peter had loved her,
he had wanted her for his, she had told him. But she wouldn’t listen
to him, because she thought of Wully. She thought of herself as
his. That was when she was living at her aunt’s, after her mother
had died. Then once Aunt Libby had gone to stay with her sister who
was having a baby. Wully could curse that woman’s name for having so
blindly, so fondly, trusted her knavish son. Why couldn’t she have
at least left Dod with his sister! But Chirstie hadn’t been afraid.
Wasn’t Peter her cousin? She hadn’t been at all afraid. And that
night, when there was no help within a mile, she had run out of the
house, undressed, barefooted, across the snow--till Peter caught her,
and brought her back. Wully hadn’t often thought of that, because he
couldn’t think of it and live. But it had no mercy on him now. That
story cried aloud to him, shrieking through his mind. He would kill
that man, and go to the sheriff and give himself up. He would stand
up and tell any twelve men in the county that story, and come home
acquitted. If only he could find the man! He went beating through the
grasses nearer him, maddened by the feeling that it was in vain. To
the west the treacherous grasses jeered at him wavingly, and to the
east. North and south they mocked him.

The afternoon passed. Neither of them could eat at supper time.
Chirstie wouldn’t stay alone in the house while he went to milk.
She insisted on crawling out to the barn, to be near him. She could
scarcely sit up, so worn and weak she was. The baby howled bitterly,
being neglected. Wully put him to sleep, laying him on the bed
beside his mother. He shut the door to the east. It had no lock. It
had never needed one. He put a chair against it, and sat down on the
step of the other door, fingering his gun as the stars came out,
watching, thinking sorely.

There was no jury that would not set him free when he told the story.
What sort of men would those be who would say he had not done right
to kill a poison snake? He would just tell them--ah, but to tell that
story, now, when it was being so well forgotten! To bring it all back
to sneering ears, as it had been brought back to him so painfully
fresh to-day! If only he could find the man, and kill him quietly,
and bury him somewhere in the tall grasses, without anyone knowing!
If only he might find him crouching there somewhere! So desirable
did that consummation seem that he turned abruptly and went to the
barn, to see if his spade, which his father had borrowed, had been
returned to its place. Yes, there it was. He could laugh as he dug
that grave in the farthest, most remote slough! By God, only two
years ago the government of the United States had been paying him for
digging graves, graves for honest men, who made no women tremble. Oh,
if he might find that man, and get it over quietly! That wish became
a drunken cursing prayer in his mind. If only in the morning he might
only say to her, “You needn’t be afraid he will ever come back
again!”

Terrible things rushed through his mind. Once when the baby had been
a few days old, he had asked her a question curiously, casually. She
had seemed so surprised in those days that she hadn’t had twins. He
had asked her why she had supposed she would, and when she had not
answered, he had asked her again. She said simply that after all that
had happened that night, she thought she couldn’t have less. He had
really so successfully pretended to make light of her situation that
she didn’t know how that must rankle in his mind. He had turned and
gone abruptly out into the darkness, when she had answered him so,
and she never realized what she had done. He had wondered then why he
had ever let that man go. He had wondered often at the time of the
child’s birth. Well, once he got a chance now, he would be done with
that regret forever....

He remained on guard, not realizing how the hours were passing, till
he heard John riding hurriedly in home. He went to look at the clock
then. It was midnight. The storm was almost upon them. The thunder
was growling about its coming.

John sat down on the step, and Wully sat down near him, intending
not to let John know what had happened. The speaker, John began, had
been traveling through the South, and strange things he had seen. He
said Johnson ought to be impeached. Wully had a vague idea what his
brother was saying. He didn’t want to excite his suspicion in the
least. He rallied, and asked if Stowe had been there. John had seen
Stowe, and Stowe had asked why Wully wasn’t there. Lots of friends
had asked about Wully. John talked on. The thunder grew louder. Rain
began falling, in big drops. They both rose to go in. Rising, John
said;

“Yes! And as I was coming home, guess whom I met, Wully! Our esteemed
kinsman, Peter Keith! I stopped in at O’Brien’s, and there he was,
drinking away as usual. Wasn’t that interesting, now, for us? And
Aunt Libby was going about all day as usual, asking if anyone had
seen her poor, sick blessed laddie. I brought him as far home as
the McTaggerts’ corner. Maybe auntie will lapse into sanity now,
comparative sanity, at least!”

Wully had risen with John, to follow him into the house, but at the
sound of that name he had paused outside the door, to hide his face
from his brother. John’s story made him heartsick. There seemed no
chance now of getting it over secretly. Peter had gone home! It
didn’t seem possible. He intended to defy Wully! He intended to hide
behind his mother. Well, he would speedily find that no woman’s
skirts could save him now from his deserts. He feigned a natural
interest, and tarried outside till he heard John going up the stairs.
Then he came in from the rain, and sat down. That room, that home of
theirs, all spoiled, all defiled. Their table, their chairs, their
clock, all the things that they had bought and enjoyed together,
seemed alien and sinister. He gave a look around all the little room
wonderingly, and then it all faded from his thought. He laid his arms
on the table, and buried his face in them, as if he was weeping. But
he was not weeping. Until almost morning he sat that way, scarcely
moving, not heeding the sharp breaking of the thunder. He was
planning ghastly things. Chirstie called to him sometimes, and he
answered. She called to him at length wearily to come to bed.

To take his place beside her! Oh, God!

She was his wife, and he hadn’t been able to defend her! But morning
was coming. The new day’s light would make things right.



CHAPTER XV


“You go on with the corn,” Wully said to John at breakfast. “I’m
taking Chirstie over to mother’s.” John made no comment. Chirstie
looked as if she had had fever unusually severe the day before, and
naturally she would be better cared for at the McLaughlins’. John
suspected nothing. He wasn’t especially observant. Talking still of
the celebration, he didn’t see Wully watching his wife, covertly
watching the way her eyes turned hauntedly toward any slight sound
out of doors. Wully went through with the prayers as usual. “Prosper
us in our duties this day!” he implored, with unaccustomed fervency.
John went away to his work. Chirstie and the baby got into the wagon,
where Wully had slyly hidden his gun--he had to conceal his sterner
purpose from her. He said to her simply that he had made Peter get
out once, and he could do it again. He saw no use in saying how much
more thoroughly he intended doing it this time.

They scarcely spoke, riding away together, man and wife. Sitting
there, so close to him, she seemed so dear ... so dear ... and life
so precious.... Why should he have to endanger it now just when he
was beginning to appreciate it, for the sake of that man’s villainy!
The poignant silence struggled and surged about them, his rage, her
fear, their love fighting together with no relief in expression, her
beseeching, warning eyes searching the face he tried to keep averted.

No one at his mother’s had heard of Peter’s return. That was proved
by the fact that no one began talking about it. Chirstie had had
fever the day before, Wully announced to them shortly. He was worried
about her. He had to go over to the store, and he thought she had
better be left where she could have some care. He said he and John
could “bach it” a few days. She spoke up sharply and demanded that
he come for her by evening at least. He had to promise that much, to
keep her from exciting suspicion. It was plain she meant to take no
denial. Her eyes implored him to be careful.

Lightened of his encumbrances, he drove away. He was praying that
circumstances might be made to serve him, so that he could get his
task over secretly. If not, then Peter would find that no woman could
help him now! He drove straight along towards his aunt’s, grimly, not
having to nurse his wrath, having only to restrain it. He wasn’t made
for anger, as he knew. It had even as a little boy always made him
ill. It had exhausted him now. He felt limp. And he must be strong
and calm for what was coming. He let his horses take their own gait.
The heat of the sun, after the rain of the night, was making the
country one great steam bath. He wiped the sweat from his forehead.

He came to the McTaggerts’ corner. John had seen that man so far
home the night before. If John had known then all that story, what a
chance he would have had. Thank God he hadn’t known! But when he did
know, to-day, now, in a few hours, he would stand by Wully with what
a sincere strength! Of course John couldn’t be expected to stay and
look after the farm while Wully was taken--where? Maybe Andy would do
that. And Chirstie would have to stay at his mother’s until--what?
His happiness was scarcely more now than a sickening faint memory. He
could do what he had to do. The McLaughlins could always do that. And
do it well!

He could see the little Keith house now. He drove on towards it.
There was no one working in the hayfield. There was no one hoeing
corn. No sign of life but a tethered colt in the path. He drove up,
and got out of the wagon. He tied his steaming horses to the barn. He
hadn’t taken his gun into his hands yet, when the door opened, and
his aunt came out.

She was ready for some work in the garden apparently. She wore a kind
of sunbonnet made by sewing a ruffle of old calico part way round a
man’s old cap, to protect her neck from the sun. She saw Wully, and
her face lightened with a greeting.

“Is it you, Wully!” she exclaimed. “And how’s Chirstie the day? We
missed you yesterday. She had too much fever, I doubt----”

“She’s better. She’s at mother’s. Where’s everybody?”

“Your uncle’s at the McNairs’.”

Trying to hide that skunk, was she!

“I want to see Peter!”

“What Peter?” she asked with a start.

“Your Peter!”

“My Peter!”

“Yes!” She needn’t think she could work that!

“Did you think he was here, Wully?” she asked, hurt.

“John saw him last night,” he cried accusingly.

“What John?”

“Our John! He saw him last night!”

“Saw who?”

“Saw your Peter!” Could it be----

“Saw my Peter!”

“He came home with him last night as far as the McTaggerts’!”

“Last night!”

“Yes!”

“With my Peter!”

“Yes!” stammered Wully.

Peter had never got home. There was no doubt about that.

Libby Keith was standing transfixed there. Her gray face began
working.

Suddenly she put her hand up to her head, and gave a moan.

“He’s destroyed! He never got to me!”

She started and ran past Wully in the path, and had climbed into his
wagon before he could stop her. She gave his hitched horses such a
slap with the lines that they plunged strongly. He sprang to get them
before they broke away. He jumped to his place and seized the lines.

“You can’t go with me!” he shouted at her. He couldn’t throw her out
of the wagon, and the horses were all he could manage, thanks to her
excitement. As if in obedience to the thoughts of the humans behind
them, they were racing down the path towards the McCreaths’, over
which Wully had just come.

“You can’t come with me!” he cried again.

She never heeded him.

“He’ll have stopped at the McCreaths’!” she said, moaning. Moaning
... and making little sounds of speed to his team, which couldn’t
possibly have been tearing ahead more madly. She sat rocking back and
forth, and making sounds which unmanned him, overwrought as he was
by his own excitement and hatred. Through the steaming slough they
plunged and splashed. He didn’t care now how quickly they came to
their destination. He gave up trying to control the horses. Anything
to get away from that noise she was making, that anguished crooning.
Never was a man with murder in his heart so undone by the grief he
intended augmenting.

The sandy-haired bewhiskered McCreath had stopped still in his
dooryard to watch the runaway team coming up. When he saw who it was,
he dropped the hoe in his hand, and came on out down the path to meet
the evident crisis. Wully pulled up the panting horses, and before
they had stopped, Libby Keith cried to the man approaching,

“Where is he? Where’s my Peter?”

At first he could not understand so impossible a question. She
scrambled perilously down, and started on a run for the house, with
him following.

“Where is he?” she cried again, turning on him. Then McCreath
understood. She was mad, the poor body. He said gently;

“He isn’t _here_, you know, Libby. Peter isn’t _here_.”

“He _is_!” she cried. “He’s come! They seen him!”

Wully had followed them. McCreath turned to him, and got a nod in
confirmation. They were at the door, now, and Mrs. McCreath had come
that far to see what the disturbance was. McCreath cried heartily to
his wife;

“Peter’s home, Aggie!”

Tears sprang quickly to Aggie’s eyes.

“Where _is_ he!” Libby cried at the same moment.

“He’s not _here_, you know,” McCreath repeated kindly.

“Not here!” Libby repeated.

“John saw him last night,” Wully cried angrily.

“Where?” they all demanded.

John had seen him at O’Brien’s, and as far on the way home as the
McTaggerts’ corner. And they had supposed he must have turned in at
the McCreaths’ when the storm came up.

“He’s at the McTaggerts’, then!” McCreath seemed sure of it. But
Libby Keith couldn’t wait till the words were out of his mouth. She
was down the path again, and climbing up into the wagon, and the
McCreaths were following her, breathing out their congratulations.
They didn’t know when any news had pleased them as much as that. They
were that glad for her. They were shouting after the galloping team
in vain.

And again he had to sit by her, as she went on again, crooning and
whimpering, making noises like a shot rabbit. He would drive his
horses till they fell in their tracks to get away from that torture.

On the corner, where the little path from the Keiths’ joined the
wider road, the McTaggerts were building a house. Three men were
working on the roof of it, and from the vantage of the height they
watched the team flying towards them. They speculated about it. They
came down.

“Where’s my Peter?” she shouted to them before they could hear her.
She kept shouting it as she climbed down.

They stared at her.

_They_ hadn’t seen anything of her Peter.

They had to go all over _that_ again. John McLaughlin had seen him
at this corner last night. Where was he now?

Wully wouldn’t be balked. Libby Keith wouldn’t be cheated. The
McTaggerts stood looking at the two blankly.

Where was Jimmy McTaggert, who had been drinking with Peter last
night? He ought to know.

Jimmy McTaggert was wakened from the sleep that followed his holiday
spree, and dragged to the light of the morning, half clothed.

He remembered nothing. Wully turned from him wrathfully. Where
was his older brother? Let Gib be brought. Gib wouldn’t have been
too drunk to remember. Gib was in a far field. A boy went for him
horseback. They made Libby sit down. They stood around dazed. Wully
went on explaining what he knew again and again. It seemed hours
before Gib appeared.

There stood Gib before them, telling the truth, and making it
believed. They had come with John from O’Brien’s to be sure, and at
the corner John had ridden on home, and Peter had turned and gone
walking down the path towards home. That was all that Gib knew about
it. Peter had walked right along, not staggering, or seeming drunk.

The men stood looking blankly at one another, fumbling among
possibilities, in quietness--for one second.

Then Libby cried out.

“He’s fallen! He’s destroyed!” She started down the path, towards the
road calling him, making a more terrible sound than ever--a stronger
sound.

“Lammie!” she cried. “Where are you? Mother’s coming!” Some place
between that corner and her home she thought him lying helpless,
dying maybe. Lying drunk, the men thought, and nodded significantly
to each other. It flashed through Wully’s bewildered mind that he had
probably started back towards Chirstie. Or maybe back to O’Brien’s,
someone suggested. Mrs. McTaggert was running after Libby Keith. The
men started to help her search. In decency they could do no less.
They tried to soothe her. He would be sleeping somewhere. Had she
looked in her own barn? Could it be, they wondered vaguely, thinking
of her other children, that had happened ... anything tragic?

Wully had to join them. After all, she was mad, stark mad and
shrieking over the prairies, and she wasn’t a McTaggert that they
should have to care for her. She was his father’s sister, and he must
see what became of her. Down the road she ran, calling out to her
son, and commanding them. They were to go for her husband. They were
to get her brothers, her neighbors, to send men on horses to look for
him. Some of them turned back to obey her. Wully ran along with her.

Beating along both sides of the road they went, tramping down the
grasses, calling him--calling till Wully felt tears running down
his face. Not that he pitied her. He cursed her. He was saying to
himself, “God damn you, stop that noise!” And to her, habit-bound
as he was, and shrinking from the pain of her voice, “Let _me_ do
the shouting, Auntie! Let me call for you!” He didn’t know his voice
when he lifted it. So how could Peter know who was begging him for
an answer! Oh, if only he might come across him there, fallen, and
make an end of this horror! Sometimes he stayed a distance from her
in this wild hope. Sometimes he had to support her to keep her from
falling. Down through the slough they went, splashing and bedraggled.
Mrs. McTaggert, with a baby in her arms, followed as best she might.
The slough was shallow where the path crossed it, but how deep the
waters might be on either side, no one knew. Libby Keith stretched
out her arms dramatically towards them.

“Lammie! Mother’s coming!” she implored.

Mrs. McTaggert sobbed. But she sobbed only like a woman. Not like a
....



CHAPTER XVI


The neighborhood gathered at the alarm. By noon Wully’s father and
mother were at the Keiths’, and the heads of families for miles
around. Up and down the road the boys and younger men were halloing
and beating about, and in the kitchen the wise old heads were holding
a consultation. Young John McLaughlin had been sent for--that is,
Wully’s brother John, not the Squire’s John--and all the men who
according to Gib McTaggert’s story must have seen Peter the night
before. As the elders waited their coming, they debated solemnly.
What could have happened to a man between the McTaggerts’ corner and
his home? A drunken man. A man said always to be weak. A man known to
be lazy. With a storm coming on. And sharp lightning. A dark road,
with deep waters not far from it. Blinded by the lightning could he
have turned from the path and been drowned? Could he have fallen and
broken a leg? Men have broken bones as they walked. Was he now lying
helpless somewhere about? If he was as weak as his mother always
insisted, might he not have fallen down drunk, and lying in the way
throughout the night, now be overcome by fever? Could he have been
bitten by a rattler, and, asleep, died of the poison? Could the
lightning have struck him? Men wondered, rather than dared to ask
aloud, could there have been a drunken quarrel, and blows perhaps
fatal. Wully suggested that he might be in hiding, but this was
considered a simple suggestion to come from him, and no one gave it
any attention. They all seemed to think that it was his mother Peter
was trying to get to.... Wully dared not explain what reason he might
have for hiding. He wished he had not suggested such a thing.

The young men came, and submitted to questionings. None of them knew
exactly when Peter had arrived at O’Brien’s. There had been a fight
at the saloon. Young Sproul had still a black eye from it, and after
Bob McWhee had knocked him down, there had been a few bad minutes
when the onlookers wondered if he was ever to rise again. It had been
exciting, to say the least. And men had been busy pacifying the two.
After that, Peter was there ... though no one remembered to have seen
him coming in. He hadn’t asked for anything to eat. He had drunken
quietly, and been silent. Wully, who had been swallowing his wrath
as best he might all the morning, as man after man came out of pity
for Libby Keith, each man’s kindness to her making Wully’s purpose
seem the greater sin against the mother--Wully couldn’t understand
this story about Peter’s quietness. Peter gabbled, naturally. He went
noisily on and on. And now, not a man who had seen his surprising
return, could report definitely a thing he had said. He hadn’t really
said anything. Wully’s brother John testified that when he first saw
him, he asked him if he had come back to see his mother. Libby Keith,
listening with her harrowed soul, saw no sarcasm in such a greeting.
Peter had just mumbled something in reply. It had never occurred
to John that Peter hadn’t been home. He thought of course he had
had supper there. It seemed strange to no one that John had desired
no further intercourse with his cousin. His story agreed with that
of all the others. He had tarried but a few minutes at the saloon,
naturally, and besides, there was the storm coming on. He had cared
enough for the family name to get Peter started on his way home with
the McTaggerts. The young Jimmy McTaggert had sung Psalms obscenely
all the way along, and Peter had sat on the side of the wagon. He
hadn’t been too drunk to hold on there over all the joltings. John
had left him getting down at the corner. Then the great honest young
McTaggert took up the story, and lucky indeed it was for his wildly
drinking young brother that no one doubted what he had to say. Even
O’Brien, the whisky-selling man whose name was anathema to mothers
of rollicking sons and erring husbands, came volunteering his futile
help.

They organized the search. They divided into parties. Some were to
venture out into the deep waters of the more probable sloughs. Some
were to hunt the woods towards O’Brien’s, because Peter was always
wanting another drink, and might have turned, befuddled, in that
direction. Some were to hunt through the creek underbrush. Wully
chose to go with one of the parties towards the creek, partly because
that would take him past his father’s, and he was anxious to warn
Chirstie under no provocation to tell yet what she knew, and partly
because in that way he would get farthest away from his aunt. He
felt as if all the solid faithful earth under his feet had given
way, and he was attempting to cling to--just nothing. That woman,
his aunt, had harvested before him all the sympathy that should have
been his. When now he had killed Peter, the community would think
only of her sorrow. There would be no thought of the justification of
the man constrained to his murder. There was an intense unfairness
about it all, some way. Wully was consoled dumbly by the Squire’s
half-heartedness in the search. He grumbled as he went along about
having to go. And Wully’s heart warmed to him, not knowing that the
Squire’s sensualism, like all men’s, had always to be at war with
maternity, which was Libby Keith. Wully had time to question John
privately, but he got no further information. Even Chirstie could
explain nothing. “Did he look sick?” Wully demanded of her anxiously.
“He was drunk, wasn’t he?” She drew back from the question. “Oh,
don’t ask me!” she murmured. “He just looked--at me!”

The men spent all day in the more unfathomable menaces. The women
searched back and forth about the Keiths’ house. The two miles
between that house and the corner, back and forth, up and down that
road, they beat persistently and prayerfully, until the little path
of the day before was a great river-bed of trodden muddy grass hiding
nothing. They searched all impossible places; through the Keiths’
and McCreaths’ and McTaggerts’ barns they went again and again.
Peter hadn’t disappeared out of existence. He was somewhere. Likely
somewhere between the house and the corner. They went over that path
continually till their children began to cry for supper.

The men stopped not even to eat. Let the women and the children do
the chores. Let them go undone. Steaming and weary and excited, they
went on with their hunt till the sun set, till the last glimmer of
twilight was gone. Now none was as persevering as the Squire. The
hunt had become for him the greatest game of his maturity. One by one
in the darkness the men had at length to ride home to their waiting
families, with no news. Strange things they had to think on, places
in the swamps where they had not been able to touch bottom, places
where the rushes grew rank and thick with scarcely space enough for
nest of the crying waterbirds--stretches with no sign of a lost man,
and no hope for one losing himself....

At the Keiths’ Isobel McLaughlin in Peter’s bed in the kitchen was
lying praying. Except his mother, no one prayed as fervently for
Peter’s safe return as Isobel. All that she asked of the Almighty
was that Peter might be found alive and well enough to take the
shame away from her good innocent Wully. If Peter was brought home
dead--how then ever, in the face of Libby’s grief, could she say that
the beloved was a scoundrel! How could she ever endure not saying it?
That would be too bitter a dose for her. Let God not give her that
cup to drink! If fervency could have brought an answer to prayer, how
quickly would Peter have appeared!

Her passionate hope had been some consolation to Libby, who so little
understood the reason for it. Libby was lying down in her room, not
because Isobel had besought her to, but because she was no longer
able to stand up. Isobel wanted to get some rest, but she couldn’t
leave off her praying to God, the good Father. She hoped Libby might
sleep till morning.

But the moon rose after midnight, and with the first flicker of its
light, Libby came out of the bedroom, tying a skirt about her. Isobel
sat up in bed.

“There’s moonlight now,” said Libby. Even from the doorway, where she
stood in the darkness, Isobel could hear her breathing.

“Lie down, Libby!” she implored.

“I mind wee Jennie Price,” said Libby.

“Ah, Libby!” protested Isobel, shrinking from the mention of such
poignancy. Jennie Price was the six-year-old who had been lost in
the grasses, wandering from her home some twenty miles down the
creek, a year or two ago. What but that had all the women been
thinking of all the day and shrinking from mentioning.

Libby was groping about for her shoes which she had left in the
kitchen.

“Just near home, Isobel! Forty yards from her mother’s door.”

“You can’t go out by night, Libby. You can’t stand up!”

“Crawling towards home, it may be.”

“Libby! Libby!” cried Isobel, getting up. Forty yards from home they
had found the girlish skeleton the next spring, in a place a hundred
men would swear in court they had sought through dozens of times. The
mother herself had come upon it. Had the child been stolen away for
some evil purpose, and flung back later to die? No one would ever
know.

“The wee bones were all white, Isobel!”

“Spare us, Libby! Peter’s a man grown!”

The women went out calling down the road together. At dawn, when John
McCreath came out to milk, while yet the stars were shining, he heard
Libby calling hoarsely, “Lammie! Lammie! Your mother’s coming!”



CHAPTER XVII


By that time men were beginning to gather again--middle-aged men
on horseback, stiff from years of toil, bearded great young men
with dogs at their heels, large-boned, ruddy, gaunt, rugged of face
like Lincoln, overgrown boys, and boys of the very smallest size
which fearful mothers could be persuaded to let go into possible
danger--they came walking or riding towards the Keiths’ for thirty
miles away. The younger ones were sent on horseback to spread the
news along all the roads towards town, even along obscure untraveled
paths that led to the cross-state coach road to the north. In the
morning council Wully had again ventured to suggest that Peter
had of his own accord gone back to the place from which he had so
mysteriously come. Again they all refused to consider his suggestion.
Was it likely a man should return without a glimpse of those he had
come so far to see? The whole thing was baffling. It seemed beyond
belief that no one had seen him come. That could have happened only
on such a day as the Fourth, when all the settlers were away from
home. Wully wondered to himself, grimly, however, why, if Peter had
managed to come once, unperceived, he would not be able to come
again as slyly. He didn’t see that to tell what he knew would ease
the situation. And he had no intention of telling it if he had proof
that it would have ended the search. He would tell that tale only to
justify his making Chirstie safe from violence. He felt strangely
distant from those whose eagerness to help increased with each
glimpse they got of Libby Keith. At his father’s bidding he went
again with a party to search the creek underbrush.

From morning till noon they went on fighting their way through the
impenetrable briary wall of green, stopping only for breath at the
water’s edge, scratched, mosquito-bitten, baffled, exhausted. Once
John and Wully happened to get to the bank at the same moment, and
John, stooping down to wash his face, said to his brother, carefully
lowering his voice;

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you are right, Wully. It would be
just like Peter to have to leave some place suddenly, in some scrape.
I think it probable, after all, that he had started on short notice
for the west, and passing O’Brien’s, was unable to resist the smell.
He wouldn’t even have had the decency to go to see his mother if he
had been within half a mile of the house!”

Wully said nothing to this, but it comforted him to know how low
John’s opinion of Peter was. He could work with new energy after
that. At noon the ten of them stopped at the nearest house for
dinner.

There was not a woman in the neighborhood who would not have been
glad to set dinner before a party of searchers. Not a woman who had
not been frightening her little ones more carefully about wandering
into the tall grass, such helpless slight persons, with that tall
menace always waiting at hand for them. Marget McDowell had all the
morning been looking from time to time down the road, hoping to see a
horseman coming with good news. But no news came. She served the men.
They ate in silence, hungrily. Having finished, they went out and lay
down in the shade of the house. Most of them slept. Davie McDowell
sat next to Wully, smoking vile home-grown tobacco in a stern old
pipe. Beyond him Geordie Sproul went on theorizing in a lullabying
voice. Wully was half asleep himself when he heard him saying;

“If we knew the girl to ask, we might learn something.” “Girl” when
he pronounced it, rhymed with peril. He was a canny man, Geordie, and
Wully was instantly awake.

“Hoots!” replied Davie. “He was never one to run after girils!”

“Was he not!” answered Geordie. His voice was so suggestive, so
leering, that Wully sat up.

“It’s one o’clock!” he hastened to announce. “We ought to be going
on!” He woke all the lads up. They started by twos and threes back
towards the creek.

Wully might easily have asked Geordie privately what he meant
by that comment of his. But he didn’t dare. Was it possible that
Geordie, that unconsidered man, knew anything about Chirstie?
Or about Wully McLaughlin’s private affairs? He must have meant
something, and Wully wanted intensely to know what it was. Doubtless
Davie McDowell would presently be inquiring, for gossip’s sake. But
Wully assured himself that if Geordie really knew anything about
the truth of the matter, he would never dare to tell it. Nor would
he have dared to hint before Wully that he knew it! Only--would
he not dare? Men dared strange things, nowadays, it seemed! Even
cowards like Peter Keith! They seemed to think Wully McLaughlin a
soft, easy-going man. They would speedily find out their mistake!
They would get rid of the idea that he was a man with whom one might
safely take unspeakable liberties. If only he might have the fortune,
the one chance in a thousand, or ten thousand, to come upon that
damned snake, lying somewhere hidden.... Exhausted, sore in muscles
and mind, he went on through the breathless thicket.

At four he came again to the water’s edge, and saw Chirstie’s brother
Dod just coming out from a swim. He threw himself down under a great
linden tree for a rest, and under his hand he saw Dod’s hat full of
choice blackberries. Dod was undoubtedly preparing to make himself as
comfortable as possible. He was weary enough to defy the world, and
relinquish his pretenses of being a man. He made his decision known
flatly.

“I’m not going back into that!” he announced. “I’m through!” It was
plain that his swim hadn’t cooled his temper much.

Wully repressed a smile. Dod was extremely thin. The ridges of his
ribs showed under his skin, which gleamed white and wet in places, in
vivid contrast to his tanned arms and neck, and he was stepping along
gingerly to avoid thorns, lifting his bony legs high. One of his
eyelids had been scratched so that his eye was swollen shut.

“You’ve done enough,” said Wully. “You’ve got a bad eye there!”

The boy struggled wet into his shirt and overalls and stretching out
near Wully, began dividing the berries. Wully had to notice, how
men’s zeal to help Libby Keith vanished as she grew distant. In her
presence, in the presence of Motherhood itself, so to speak, they
were shame-faced and eager, deploring their helplessness, as men are
while their wives labor in childbirth. But away from her agony, they
forgot ... as men do after labor is over ... and turned again to
their own comfort. Dod broke the silence surprisingly.

“Chirstie’d be glad if he _was_ dead!” he said, resentfully.

“Why, Dod!” exclaimed Wully.

“She would that! She hates him!”

“He’s your cousin, lad!”

“He’s as much your cousin as he is mine! She can’t endure the sight
of him!”

Wully sat up. He looked at Dod. He had thought of him always as a
child. He was a big, tall boy now. Fourteen years old he was, and
doubtless able to put two and two together. How much did he know? He
must have heard people talking. Wully suddenly wondered why he had
not always been afraid of Dod. To be sure, he had always been careful
to keep on the good side of his little brother-in-law.

“He never done us any good!” Dod spoke vindictively.

Now what could he mean by that? Wully was getting excited. Why had
the boy so great a resentment against Peter, instead of against him,
Wully, under the circumstances? Dod’s sudden and apparent preference
for Wully at once grew odious to him. Dod had chosen that morning to
work with Wully. He was always choosing to work with him. Why? It
seemed unaccountable to him that he had never been suspicious of the
lad before. Wully dared not say to him;

“Well, he never did you any special harm, did he?” Suppose Dod would
blurt out what he knew! He said, confusedly;

“Look here, Dod. You oughtn’t to talk that way! Not at this time, I
mean--you can’t speak ill of the dead, you know.”

“I ain’t said half the truth!”

“You know how Aunt Libby feels!” Wully urged stupidly. “And Chirstie
wouldn’t like you to say that--not now, you know----”

“Old fool!” commented Dod. Undoubtedly he was meaning his aunt. Wully
couldn’t approve of such sentiments in one so young.

“You ought to go home and get something put on your eye!” he began,
hastily. “And if you feel like working in the morning, you come back
with me again!”

Dod went away, unsolved and uncomforting. Hour by hour the seekers,
conquered by fatigue and the growing assurance of futility, stopped
more often for breath. They had time to gather more and more berries,
from bushes which obviously hid no dying man. They refreshed
themselves more and more frequently in waters wherein no drowned man
was floating. Most of them went home in time for their neglected
chores that night, discouraged, hopeless.

Isobel McLaughlin was still at the Keiths’, detained by Libby’s
need of her. Libby, though she used men easily for her purpose,
was not a woman to depend on them. Her mild old husband could give
her no sufficient support in her affliction. He had never been a
mother. He was just a man whom life and marriage had left blinking,
swallowing as best he might his realization of his own unimportance
in the universe. Libby would have Isobel with her. So Chirstie in
her mother-in-law’s house put the younger McLaughlins and Bonnie Wee
Johnnie to bed, and came out to sit on the doorstep with her weary
and outraged husband. Presently she asked him wistfully;

“Do you really think he’s dead, Wully?”

“It’s getting to look like it.”

She gave a great sigh. If only she could be _sure_ he was dead!

“You don’t think he’s just gone away now?” she continued.

“Nobody thinks that now.”

“Why don’t they?”

“It don’t look reasonable to them.”

“It looks reasonable enough to me.”

He longed to reassure her.

“If he had gone back to town, he would have had to stop in some place
to get something to eat. He didn’t stop anywhere.”

She slapped away a mosquito.

“But if he didn’t stop as he came, why should he stop going back?”

“He may have stopped at a dozen places coming, and found no one at
home. He may have gone to his mother’s when she was at the picnic.
That’s what she keeps wailing about--because she wasn’t there when he
came!”

In the silence of the starlight, she gave a great sigh.

“It’s all my fault!” she declared.

He was too tired to listen to that.

“Our fault, indeed!” he answered sharply. “We never told him to come
sneaking back and get lost, did we! We didn’t tell him never to write
to his mother.”

“I didn’t say it was your fault. I said mine! Really, all auntie’s
trouble seems to come from me. Sometimes I just seem to make
everybody miserable.” She had been wondering what she was to do if
Peter’s death made Wully’s lie permanent.

“Havers, Chirstie!” he remonstrated, “her trouble comes through her
own foolishness. She was never less than a fool about that--that----”

“She was always good to me, Wully, whatever you say. I mind how she
stayed with me after mother’s death. If she’s been foolish about
Peter, she’s paid well for it.”

“So’ve you!” said Wully. “He’s _dead_, I tell you!” And there was
another thing to be said. Wully might be bewildered, uncomfortable,
frustrated, cheated of any assurance of safety for Chirstie. But
there was one triumph, and not a small one. “He’s dead. And we never
speak ill of the dead, Chirstie!”

She understood his triumph. She would have been glad to have him
dead, and not putting Wully into danger. She would be relieved, too,
of that sense of terror, if she saw him dead. Then she thought of
that great sinful lie, and of Isobel McLaughlin.

“I can’t tell what to wish!” she sighed miserably. “It can’t end
well. I wish they’d find him dead. But if he’s dead, how can I
ever....” Her voice gave way to despair.

“Yes,” repeated Wully. “How can you ever....” They sat silent.

“You never can!” he said securely, at length.



CHAPTER XVIII


The night after the second day’s search Libby Keith had gone to bed
for a while, because she was unable longer to stand up. Again she had
risen when the moon rose, and Isobel McLaughlin, hearing her in the
kitchen, had risen to find her washing out a shallow tin milk pan.
Libby had managed to make her purpose known. Her voice was altogether
gone now, after so much calling to her Lammie, and she was starting
out with the pan and the poker, so that when her Peter heard the
noise she was making, he would know that help was near. With Isobel
following her as best she might, she beat back and forth up and
down the roads again till morning, when she fell exhausted near the
McCreaths’ at dawn, so that they had to hitch up and take her home.
And lying in the wagon, she muttered and moaned. Isobel understood
that sometimes she was simply saying her son’s name. Sometimes she
was trying to tell what a good lad he had always been. And sometimes
she said, “Only forty yards from home”; sometimes, “A wee’an’s
bones!” But some of the neighbors gathering had heard her pan’s din
and praying, and the hunt was on again, before the sun was well up.

Later that morning Isobel McLaughlin sat telling Wully about that
night, in the Keiths’ kitchen, whispering, looking carefully towards
the door of the room where Libby was supposed to be resting. She
was sitting by the breakfast table. On the red cloth three cold
half-drunk cups of tea told how negligible a thing food was in that
household. Suddenly she said passionately:

“Wully, you’ve got to bring him home alive to-day!” and with that, to
her son’s consternation, she burst into great weeping.

Wully, fearing the sight of his aunt’s grief, hadn’t wanted to come
that morning to the accursed house. But his father had asked him
to, looking at him, Wully thought, with an unusual sharpness, so
that hurriedly, to avoid suspicion, he had said he would come. He
had dreaded the errand. But he had never foreseen this. He never
remembered seeing his mother cry before, not even at the time of
his brother’s death, though she must have wept then. And now--well,
it was no wonder she was undone, after forty-eight hours of such
nightmare. But he was beside himself at the sight. He got up and
strode around the room, at his wits’ end. Life was upside down.
Chirstie at his mother’s broken and nervous from her shock; his aunt
raving mad; his mother crying noisily....

“You think he’s alive, don’t you, Wully?” she was asking him, between
sobs and sniffles. “You don’t think he’s dead, do you?” He marveled
to see how utterly she shared his aunt’s grief. She could scarcely
have wanted more Peter’s return, if he had been her own son. He
answered staunchly;

“No! Of course he’s not _dead_, mother! A man don’t die from sleeping
outdoors a couple of nights in July!”

“You don’t think--he’s fallen into some slough--and drowned, do you?”

“No, mother! Of course not! He’s around some place, drunk, likely!
Don’t cry, mother!”

“How could he be alive--some place--and let us all go on hunting him?”

Suddenly she added, with a greater sob, lifting her head;

“Wully, if Peter’s alive, and just letting his mother think he’s
lost, we ought to whip him when he’s found! Every man that’s spent a
day hunting him ought to give him a--beating! Wully, he’d never do
that! I think he’s--he’s dead!”

“Mother, mother! Don’t you cry so! It’ll be all right. They’ll find
him soon!”

“If you don’t find him soon, Auntie will go mad!”

Wully could have cried aloud the conviction that came flooding over
him that minute: “If we do find him alive, and I get my hands on him,
you will go mad!” He began, like a child begging;

“Mother, don’t you stay here! You come home with me! It’s enough to
kill you, staying here with Auntie! Let someone else stay a while.
Why can’t Aunt Flora stay with her to-day? You come on home with me!”

“I can stay. She wants me. I can stand anything, if only he’s found.
Wully!” she cried, raising a face toward him distorted with tears,
“don’t you know where he is?”

If Chirstie had been there to see that face, she would have thought
that now, at last, Isobel McLaughlin was betraying her secret, so
visibly did forbidden questions tremble on her tongue. Wully only
said, soothingly, indulgently;

“If I knew where he was, don’t you think I would go there and find
him? Mother, you need a rest. You haven’t had enough sleep!”

His mother sat bending towards him, beseeching him with all her
soul to tell her the truth. But not one of her passionate unspoken
entreaties reached him. It never occurred to him that she might
know. He sat looking at her sympathetically, troubled that she spoke
words of such unusual foolishness, being overwrought by all that had
befallen her.

“Won’t you come home with me?” he said again.

“No, I won’t!” she said, with some asperity, and put her head down on
her arms on the table, and went on crying.

He rode away to his place in the hunt, and underneath all his
greetings, his short and dry comments on the day’s possibilities,
there stayed with him a troubled sense of pity for his mother. She
was getting old. And he had treated her badly. Sometimes he even
thought that he had treated her very badly in that affair, even
though it was over now. All those hours, those murderous hours of the
last days, he had never given her a thought. He hadn’t stopped in his
hating long enough to imagine how deeply, how terribly, he was about
to wound her. If he came upon Peter, and killed him--as he must--what
would his mother do? How brokenly even now she grieved for Aunt
Libby! What would her grief be like then? The thought sickened him.
He said to himself bitterly that he was so tired, so confused, that
if he came upon that damned snake alone, he’d likely shake hands with
him and let him go! He scarcely knew what he was doing.

All the parties had changed places that day. It seemed impossible for
men to hunt repeatedly through the same place with any heart. It was
a fifteen-hour nightmare. Added to the growing sense of futility,
of frustration, of physical exhaustion, and the burden of the heat,
Wully had that uneasiness about his mother to harrow him. He had gone
with the men who were searching through his own lands, that day,
through the low land where he had so prayerfully hoped to bury his
enemy. And he seldom was allowed even to hunt about alone. Someone
or other was always near him, so that if he came upon that--that--he
would have no chance to work his quick will upon him safely.

The fourth day they gathered again, going over routes that seemed
hopeless. Peter, alive or dead, was simply in no place within miles.
Not a little pebble, even, remained unturned now. The older men
were sustaining themselves on strong drink more or less soberly,
and the younger ones considerably less soberly. The first day of
the alarm had been something of a picnic to thoughtless youngsters
used to solitary hoeing, something of a diversion to men accustomed
to plowing alone from dawn to darkness. But the excitement was
dying away. Paths were beaten roads, and roads great wide highways.
Miles of untrodden sloughs had become familiar ground, and acres of
cryptic underbrush had become overworked monotony. What the slough
had swallowed up, it would keep. If the tall grasses had treasures
hidden, only the winter could bring low the tall grasses. The crowd
dwindled.

First those from the farther and less concerned settlements went
back to their work, protesting they would all be watching, that they
would keep a wide and long lookout always, for any signs of news.
They regretted that their harvests were urgent. They departed. Then
day by day members of the clan returned to neglected fields. John
McLaughlin kept his children hunting, and as for the Squire he vowed
he would never stop. His sporting blood was up. For nine days more
Wully and his father went again and again from impossible clue to
foolish conjecture. Wully’s belief grew constantly stronger that
Peter had simply gone back to wherever he had come from. But how he
had done it on a road where one passer-by made a day memorable, he
couldn’t imagine. It suggested a devilish cunning, a subtility not
to be lightly reckoned with, a persistence that made an honest man’s
blood boil. To his praying mother he affirmed that Peter was alive.
To his dreading wife, he proclaimed that certainly he was dead. The
whole desire of his life was to know which statement was true.

Their wheat called them, at length. It was almost their year’s
income, and to its whitening invitation they must listen. They took
down their cradles, and fell upon it. Then they together went and
harvested poor old Uncle Keith’s crop for him. He was no farmer at
any time, and now too weakened by sorrow to save his wheat. Libby
kept her bed for days together, and for many days Isobel McLaughlin
hung over her, trying to save her sanity.

However much Chirstie shrank from it, she had to leave her
mother-in-law’s well-filled house and go back to the loneliness of
her own. Her harvesters must have food cooked and ready for them.
Sometimes one of Wully’s little sisters stayed a few days with her,
sometimes a little brother. Wully had told his mother simply that
since the day Chirstie had fainted there alone on the Fourth of July,
he wouldn’t have her left without company. His mother had listened
simply, searchingly, wondering unhappily about many suggestive
circumstances.

And all the time Chirstie kept insisting she wasn’t afraid. Not she!
No indeed! But she never got Wully to believe her. He knew why she
brought lunches so often to the field, and why she loitered about
with him, forgetting her housework. He saw why she had suddenly
become so keen about shooting, why day by day she potted away at
worthless small birds, which formerly her pity would never have let
her shoot. Let her say what she would, she was so much afraid that
her very eyes had changed. Never before had they had that way of
shifting instantly under her long lashes. Never before since she had
been his wife had they had that haunted expression. She was bitterly
afraid, and he was unable to reassure her. He could do nothing. It
was as if some invisible unconquerable rattler crawled about in that
little house where his wife and baby had been so happy. It seemed
that all his safety lay in crushing down a great, uplifted club upon
an intangible enemy.

The green months passed at length, and the golden ones were all
but gone. John went back to Chicago, and the young children
started back to school through goldenrod and wild sunflowers, down
paths with fuchsia-colored wild asters, amethyst, blue, and pink.
Chirstie was alone, perforce. Occasionally she had a visitor. Aunt
Libby came oftener than anyone else. She was better again, able
to spend day after day on horseback, going about from neighbor to
neighbor, and calling, as she went, to ease her heart in the lonely
places, “Lammie, Lammie!” She came often to Wully’s to see Bonnie
Wee Johnnie. She had taken a notion that he was like her Peter.
He ran about now, and it seemed not strange to his mother that
a woman should ride miles for the pleasure of watching him. She
taught him carefully to tolerate Aunt Libby’s extravagant caresses.
Wully’s sisters were entirely indignant when they heard that Aunt
Libby thought the baby looked like her son. But as they afterwards
remarked, it was just like Aunt Libby to say that the prettiest child
in the neighborhood resembled her blessed Peter.



CHAPTER XIX


The year’s calendar of color was almost at an end; only white was
left for it now. The fields had been black. They had grown green,
shyly, softly. They had given themselves up to bold greenness. They
had achieved their golden maturity. They had reveled in gold, and
dazzled by it. They had faded into dullness and browns. They died and
lay withered. Snows would come soon for their burial. The morning’s
white frosts were the promise of it.

Chirstie must keep the doors shut now, for the baby’s sake. With
doors shut the house seemed a trap, a trap from whose windows she had
often to be looking to reassure herself. Out of doors she felt safer,
freer. So she said that the baby must have more air, and she took him
day after day to the field where Wully was husking corn. Since the
mosquitoes were no longer hungry, the baby’s face was free for the
first time in months from red blotches. He grew rosier and rosier in
the cornfield. He looked so blooming that Chirstie said she just had
to take him visiting, to show him to the neighbors. That was another
excuse for not staying at home alone, another which Wully pretended
to be deceived by.

It happened that one morning Squire McLaughlin, riding past, saw a
flock of wild turkeys alight in her dooryard, and leaving his horse,
he crept toward the house, to borrow Wully’s gun, and bring down a
bird for dinner. He had all but gained the house, when out of the
door shot Chirstie, crying out a cry unintelligible. Out of the
door and down towards the corn she flew. It gave him a startle, as
he said afterwards. He didn’t know what terrible thing might have
happened. He started after her. He called to her questioningly. She
never lessened her pace. He said later that he had never seen a woman
run as fast as she did. He could scarcely keep within sight of her
among the dead cornstalks. He happened to see Wully hear her cry of
anguish, and his swift, leaping answer. The Squire called to him, and
Wully heard him, and stopped, confusedly, and began calling to his
wife.

“It’s Uncle Wully, Chirstie! It’s only Uncle Wully!” he called to
her, as if he had some great news to give her. She stumbled against
him, panting and white, and the Squire hurried on to them, in
consternation. There the three of them stood, breathless, excited,
looking blankly from one to the other.

“Whatever’s the trouble?” the Squire gasped, recovering first.

Chirstie had grown red with relief and humiliation.

“Oh!” she stammered, confusedly. “Oh! I just thought--I thought you
were--a tramp!”

“You were never running from me, Chirstie!” he exclaimed.

“Yes, I was! I just thought--you came up so quietly--I didn’t know--”
She paused, and looked at her husband beseechingly. “I got a fright,”
she murmured.

Wully knew what she thought. Pitiful, she was. Just pitiful. Standing
there trembling, ashamed, trying to cover her folly. Let the Squire
laugh as loud as he would. Let him fill the prairies with his relief
and amusement. He said he had never seen anything so amazing. Him
to be chasing her, frightening her more and more! He didn’t know he
looked so much like a tramp! The birds must have been as frightened
as she had been. She had spoiled a fine shot for him. He had supposed
the house was on fire, at least.

“I hope they were scared! I don’t want them shot! I’m taming them.
They come every morning,” she retorted. She wanted to make him forget
what she had done. He stood laughing at her indulgently, amused
because she was a pretty thing. “Come back to the house and I’ll give
you a slice of cold turkey that father shot yesterday. Wasn’t it a
good bird, Wully!”

She started back towards the house. Wully went with them. After
all, it was nearly noon. She begged the Squire not to tell what had
happened. She had been having fever, and it would only worry Isobel
McLaughlin to know she was so flighty. He promised, but she saw from
his face he was already making a fine yarn about how he terrified
women. She knew he wouldn’t be able to keep it to himself.

That hour Wully came to a great decision. He had been considering for
some time a proposition a cousin of his had made to him, a son of the
Squire’s. Next spring the railroad would have completed its track to
its next western terminal, and the new station which would become a
town, was to be but three miles from Wully’s farm. From that town,
all the supplies that settlers must have would be hauled a hundred
miles west. What they would need first and always would be lumber.
The Squire’s John wanted Wully to leave his farm, and start with him
selling lumber. Wully would have a little money, and the cousin had
some, and for a great wonder, they knew where they could borrow more.

The money they could borrow was a thing which even in those days
startled men’s minds. Wully’s cousin John had an aunt who had come
with her husband, a miller, from Scotland, and had settled some
hundred miles away, where Houghton could get work in a mill. His
employer was an old Yankee of some wealth. In the winter of sixty,
the old man had decided suddenly and irrevocably, to sell the mill,
and the Houghtons had wondered where they would be able to find work
anew. The miller had ordered Houghton to find a purchaser. His orders
were always imperious and startling. Houghton had set about the
task, and had persuaded two men to buy the plant, which he promised
to manage. They had come and looked the place over carefully. But
just as the papers were to be signed, they had changed their minds,
so that when the miller was already rejoicing erratically because of
his freedom from responsibility he found himself still encumbered
with a business.

He was beside himself with anger. He was determined to sell that
mill at once, without delay. He wouldn’t wait. So it came about that
almost before he knew what he was doing, Houghton himself had bought
that mill, with fifty thousand bushels of wheat for fifty cents a
bushel, paying down for it all the money he could raise, which was
eighty-five dollars. The miller had simply bullied him into the
bargain. Houghton was overwhelmed with the burden of so great a debt.
He felt that he had been basely taken advantage of. Then in a few
weeks came the war. The first thing he knew he sold his wheat for
three times what he paid for it. Wealth has perhaps seldom fallen so
suddenly upon a man so little dreaming of it. Houghton bought at once
ten thousand acres of Iowa land, and nowadays, his sons who go round
and round this stuffy little stupid globe in their yachts, berate
his memory yawningly because he didn’t buy a hundred thousand acres.
He was the man who would lend two soldiers of his kin a few hundred
dollars to begin business.

Wully had thought before the bomb of Peter’s return that farming
was no life for Chirstie. She was no tireless woman like his mother.
Malaria was a hard thing for young wives and nursing mothers. Wully
had often wished that in some way he might make her necessary work
lighter. And now that this intolerable menace of violence hung over
their home, it seemed best altogether to leave it. He knew what his
father would say to the idea that a man getting a dollar and seventy
cents for wheat, should leave his land. His father thought a man who
left off tilling his land to dig gold out of it a poor shiftless
creature. None of those who would advise him so vigorously against
his contemplated course could foresee that wheat, that brought so
great a price that fall, would the next year be selling for thirty
cents. But after Chirstie’s flight from her uncle, Wully didn’t care
what they advised. He wouldn’t have his wife trembling. He would give
his answer to his cousin at once. They would move to town.

A Sabbath some weeks later Wully and Chirstie and Bonnie Wee Johnnie
were at Isobel McLaughlin’s for dinner, and the Squire was there,
with several of his smaller children, and the McNairs. The women and
the girls were clearing away the dinner things in the big kitchen,
and the men had withdrawn to the Sabbath parlor, where the best rag
carpet was, and the basket quilt spread on the bed. In the stiff
propriety of that room they had been talking with less cordiality
than usual. McNair had only scorn for Wully’s folly in leaving his
farm, and Wully had no great patience with his father-in-law’s
disapproval. He had been saying that he would get a renter, and
McNair had commented scoffingly that that was a likely thing. Who
would rent land that could be had almost for the asking? The place
would go back to weeds, he averred. Wully protested that he never
would allow that. Somebody would come along glad to get a bit of
broken ground for a crop. If not, he would drive back and forth
from town every day, and care for it himself. That would be great
farming, McNair had remarked, significantly. Farming was just now
beginning to amount to something. Look at the years they had spent
miles from markets. Consider the money they had lost before the war
when they had got for their produce greenbacks which depreciated in
value before they could get them spent. And now when the iron horse
was here to serve them, when their millennium was at hand, Wully was
going to quit farming! (They never called the railroad anything but
the iron horse at that time and place.) Hadn’t they prayed for its
coming? Hadn’t they waited and paid in their hard-earned dollars for
its advent? John McLaughlin himself had contributed three hundred
dollars when the subscription paper went round for funds to help out
the prospective builders of the road, and McNair himself had been
moved to give a hundred and fifty. Well, that money had been wasted.
That company had failed. But now-- Ah, now, the day was at hand. They
had the land. The nation needed food. The railroad solved their last
problem. How rich they were to be! They sat exulting in hope of years
that were to be born starved and dying. And now the young men talked
of selling lumber!

The Keiths came driving in, and the men joined the women in the
kitchen to welcome them. Even the children playing at the door
followed them in. Libby Keith took off her hat and wrap and gave them
to a niece. She was more gray, more flabby than ever now, and her
eyes were dull and brooding. But just as she went to sit down, Bonnie
Wee Johnnie came in, and she saw him, and instantly her face grew
soft and warm with tenderness, and her eyes grew bright. She ran and
knelt down on the floor, and folded her arms about him.

“Oh, the bonnie wee laddie!” she murmured, kissing him. “Oh, the gay
lit’lin’!” And then, kneeling as she was, she turned her face up
towards her old husband and exclaimed,

“Look, John! Is he not like him?”

The unimportant John, peering intently out of his kindly old face,
smiled down on them, sighing.

“As like as two peas!” he said gently.

Then Libby, fumbling with one hand while her other held the little
boy, pulled from a pocket in her voluminous cotton skirt a picture in
a little case. No other woman of her class had dreamed in Scotland
of aping the gentry to such an extent as having a picture of her
children made. But Libby Keith had, of course, gone without food to
save the necessary money. She could starve more easily than lose the
remembrance of those tender child faces of hers. She opened the case,
and looked at it intently for only a moment. Then she handed it to
Isobel McLaughlin.

“Look at _this_, Isobel! You said he was more like Wully!”

Isobel took the picture, and looked at it. Tears came unexpectedly
into her eyes. There before her was Libby’s Davie, a little,
innocent, broad-faced laddie, with his arm protestingly around his
sister Flora, who, with her head shyly on one side, looked out at
the world with wondering round eyes. And seated before them, on a
stool with fringe, one leg crossed under him, sat little Peter,
with a plaid cap lying proudly in his lap. Isobel blinked away her
tears. “Ah, Davie was like that!” she murmured. And then she turned
and looked at her grandson still in Libby’s arms. He had on his best
Sunday dress that his stepgrandmother had made for him, of scarlet
wool nunsveiling, a little frock that Chirstie keeps to this day
folded immaculately away. It was low in the neck, and had no sleeves
to hide the soft dimpled arms. Around the neck and the flaring skirt
were three rows of very narrow black velvet ribbon. Chirstie had
curled his hair that morning around her finger. The curls at the back
of his head were still in shape, and the long one that came down the
top of his head to his forehead, disarranged as it was, still showed
what a soft, sweet thing it must have been before his romp with the
children. And there in the frame Isobel looked at what might have
been the picture of the child before her, the very forehead, the same
childish nose. Only little Johnnie had a winsome way of screwing his
mouth into smiles which he must have got from his secret grandfather
Keith who, quite unadmired, stood watching him indulgently.

Isobel McLaughlin said gently;

“You’re right, Libby. He’s like it. Peter is a McLaughlin if ever
there was one.” And having taken away any cause for apprehension that
Chirstie might have had, and having given her husband’s family a
little knock from which under the circumstances, the two McLaughlin
men were not able to defend themselves, she handed the picture calmly
to Chirstie, saying again;

“It might have been our baby’s picture.” She never again had any
doubt about the paternity of the child. And so simply had she
justified the resemblance, that Chirstie studied the picture
unabashed, with a natural interest. The picture was handed from one
to another, and Wully, when he got it, studied it intently.

No one noticed him doing it. Libby Keith had sighed again, and said,
just about that time;

“‘To them that hath, it shall be given.’ Them that has sons, has
grandsons.”

Wully looked up from the picture to her, and wondered if it would
have comforted her to know that the child so brutally begotten was
indeed her grandson. Not that it made any difference, of course. He
wouldn’t tell her in any case. He hated that little picture. It had
possibilities against which he couldn’t fight. And the women were
saying to the baby;

“Say ‘Aunt Libby,’ Johnnie. Come on, now! Say ‘Aunt Libby.’ Say it,
baby! Look, he’s going to say it!”

They had reason to think so. Johnnie prepared for action. He pursed
up his red lips. He looked around upon his admirers, complacently,
happily. All eyes were upon him. He let them wait a moment. Then he
manipulated his lips more earnestly. The great moment was at hand.

“Pr-r-r-r-r!” he articulated proudly. “Pr-r-r!”

Various aunties dived for him, rewarding him with laughter and
huggings, enthusiastically. Was there ever so silly a baby, ever a
bairn so lovable, they asked. It occurred to Wully casually that
perhaps the secure son of Wully McLaughlin was a more fortunate being
than the unfathered offspring of Peter Keith would have been.



CHAPTER XX


The corn was husked. The year’s work in the fields was over. Wully
had sold from sixty of the acres for which his father had paid two
hundred and ten dollars in sixty-four, wheat worth three thousand
and sixty dollars. He had his house all paid for now. He owned three
hundred acres of land, some of it a bit farther west, where a bushel
of wheat still bought an acre of the faithful soil. His little pines
had grown steadily, and his orchard, now that the grasses and weeds
were frosted, was visible to the naked eye from the house, a lot of
little switches ready to stand bravely against the gales. Everything
prospered with him. Everything, except for that shadow of evil that
clouded their lives hatefully. Every day Wully’s mind dwelt futilely
upon the problem of Peter Keith’s fate. And Chirstie’s eyes, he
observed, still shifted apprehensively under their tender lids.

And what was he to do now, when he must go to the timber for his
winter’s supply of wood? When he must leave early in the morning, and
return at nightfall? He couldn’t leave her alone. He had remarked
to one neighbor and another that he wanted some man to bring his
wood home for hire. But he found no man willing to do his work.
Chirstie would have to take the baby and go to her father’s or his
mother’s. She didn’t want to do that. Either Wully would have to take
her back and forth daily--and that was a difficult thing under the
circumstances--or else she would have to stay away for days together,
and then Wully would come home to a cold house and no food ready.
They dreaded those days.

He finished the corn on a Wednesday, and on Thursday they were to
have a great lark. They were to go to town together for the first
time. He had a wagonload of prairie chickens to sell, which ought to
bring at least ten dollars--silly birds he had caught almost without
effort as he husked his corn. Everything was ready. For one day they
would put aside all their misgivings, and be happy together. They
were enjoying what seemed to be a second Indian summer, bland days
for riding across the country. And there was that spring-seat ready
for Chirstie’s comfort. Moreover, she was to have a new coat. Wully
had wanted to get her one the fall before, but she had said that
there were so many things that they had to buy for their house that
they really couldn’t afford the coat. She still protested that she
really didn’t need it. But Wully was the more determined because he
suspected she wore her mother’s old wrap for the principle of the
thing. As if she needed to act humble! He wouldn’t have it!

The store in which they found the right coat finally was narrow and
dark and full of dull necessities, mittens and milk-crocks, grim
boots, and grimmer tobacco. Wully hated the clerk the moment he saw
him fix upon Chirstie eyes that narrowed expressively. Nevertheless,
the odious man brought out from some dark recess behind the main room
the very garment they were searching for.

“Put this on,” he urged familiarly. She put it on. It was a green
thing, so dark a green it was almost black, and rich-looking, short
in front, and falling, mantle-wise, well down over her skirts behind.
It had rich fringe on it, and intricate frogs for fastenings. Wully
would have forestalled the clerk, and buttoned it for her, but his
fingers were awkward and helpless in such a task. So the man did it,
standing as near her as he dared. But when she stood forth arrayed,
Wully’s annoyance was forgotten. He heaved a sigh of satisfaction.

He saw again with surprise how garments change women. She was
scarcely the same being who had walked in, in that faded old dingy
wrap. This coat was made for her, beyond a doubt She asked the price.

“Sixteen dollars.”

She sighed and began undoing it. She would look at some others, she
said. The man left them.

“Don’t you like it?” demanded Wully.

“It’s too fine for me. Sixteen dollars!” she commented.

“It’s _not_ too fine. It’s becoming, Chirstie!”

“But _sixteen dollars_!” she exclaimed, as if that settled the matter.

“Ah, sixteen dollars isn’t going to break us up!” Wully urged,
determinedly. “It’s a grand coat. It’s nobby.” He was at a loss to
express his admiration for the garment. He only felt vaguely that it
looked like Glasgow.

“But sixteen dollars, Wully! The _idea_!”

“You’ll have it, anyway.”

“I will _not_!” She was indignant “Why, Wully, your coat, your
overcoat was only ten last winter!”

“But I hadn’t any red dress to match. Nor any feather!”

The man had come back.

“If you want something cheap now, for your wife----”

“I don’t want anything cheap!” said Wully, “We’ll take this.”

Chirstie stood examining it inside and out. She was wondering what
her father would say to such a coat.

She wore the nobby coat away. Wully carried the old garment. He had
been gay, almost hilarious all the morning, ever since selling the
prairie chickens so well. And now as he looked at his stunning wife,
walking demurely along in such grandeur, his spirits rose higher. He
watched people look at her. He chuckled to see them.

They walked down the busy little street. He left the old coat at the
hotel. She saw a shawl she admired, and he wanted to buy it for her.
But she was thinking how nice it would be for his mother, a little
soft fine shawl like that. He wondered that he hadn’t thought of that
himself. They bought the shawl, and went on down the street. They
came to a place where tintypes were taken. It came over him like a
flash.

“We’ll go in and have our pictures taken!” he exclaimed.

“Oh,” she said hesitating. “How much will it cost?”

“Oh, nothing much!” he exclaimed. He made her go in with him. There
was a picture, was there, he was thinking, that made Wee Johnnie look
like the son of that snake? Well, there should soon be another that
made him look like another man’s son. Chirstie had never had her
likeness taken. But Wully had had his made in St. Louis, to be sent
to his mother. He knew how to walk in and have the thing done grandly.

He sat down in a chair, and put the baby on one knee, paternally. On
the other knee he spread out a great hand. Chirstie took her place
behind him, her hand on his shoulder, her feather curling down over
her hat, her new sixteen-dollar coat, her wine-colored skirts showing
bravely. And when that was done, he made her sit down with the baby
on her knee, for a picture of just the mother and son. And then a
further happy thought came to him. He sat down and took the baby,
and cuddled his face right up against his own, and demanded a picture.

“It ain’t usual,” the photographer protested. “I can’t take a picture
like that! It ain’t usual!”

“This ain’t no usual baby!” Wully replied chuckling. Who could have
made a statement more paternal than that? “I want his face against
mine!” And he got the picture taken that way, in the end.

They sought the street again. Chirstie was rather overcome by her
husband’s grandness. He had such a worldly air--commanding people
about. He kept getting more imperious, more happy all the time though
he was entirely sober. After a while, when it was growing dusk, he
spied a friend on the street, just going into his office.

“That’s Mr. Knight, Chirstie! You remember! The man that drove me
home that time! I’ll take you to see him!” He wanted to show her to
everybody.

They went into an office having not only a kerosene lamp, but a lamp
with a rich green shade, most luxurious, most metropolitan-looking.
Chirstie was shy, and Mr. Knight puzzled for a moment.

“I’m McLaughlin,” Wully explained. “The soldier you drove out to
Harmony, two years ago. I was sick, you remember!”

Mr. Knight’s face lighted up with recognition.

“Come in, McLaughlin!” he said heartily. “I didn’t recognize you!
Sit down!” Around a table at one end of the room, men were playing
cards, well dressed men, who paused and looked up, and continued
looking at the newcomers. A tall wide bookcase screened off one
corner into something like a private office and to this Mr. Knight
led them.

“My wife!” Wully said proudly, as he seated them.

“Your wife? Your baby? Why, it doesn’t seem possible! How the time
gets away! And where did you find her?” he asked, so frankly pleased
with her appearance that she blushed more deeply than she had at his
first remark.

“She’s from out there! From Harmony.”

“She _is_,” he exclaimed. He continued looking at her. “Well,
I always said that that was a remarkable country. A remarkable
country,” he drawled.

Wully was delighted. Knight was a man whose opinion was valuable, a
prosperous man, a man dressed as men dress in cities, whose interest
he felt was not merely assumed for political ends. “How’s your
mother?” he went on. He asked about the children, and the crops, and
the new town which was to be near them. Finally he said:

“Well you certainly don’t look much like you did that morning. You
were sick. Skin and bones. Do you remember?”

“Do I remember!” exclaimed Wully. “Will I ever forget!” He turned to
his wife. “Chirstie, I was sitting right down there by the elevator,
where the sidewalk is built up high, you know. I wasn’t sitting,
either, I was lying stretched out, to try to keep from throwing up! I
thought I’d seen Jimmy Sproul out there, and I’d ride home with him,
and when I hurried up to him, it wasn’t Jimmy at all! It just made
me sick! And I was lying there when Mr. Knight came along, and began
asking me what was the matter of me. He said he would take me home.
‘How far is it?’ you asked, and when I said twenty-six miles, you
said, ‘Oh! Twenty-six miles!’ Naturally. That made some difference.
My heart sank, as they say. Or maybe it was my breakfast trying to
get out. Anyway, I had a pang of some kind. And you said, ‘You wait
here!’ And pretty soon along you came with those grays! I tell you
I felt better even then. I got better all the way home. Every step.
It seemed that morning as if I couldn’t wait another minute to start
home!”

“Naturally!” remarked Mr. Knight, looking again with a smile, at
Chirstie.

“Oh, I didn’t know her then! If I had known her I’d have started
home crawling! Have you got those grays yet?” asked Wully, suddenly
curious.

“No, I haven’t.” The man smiled reminiscently. “I wish I had,
sometimes. A Chicago man came along and wanted them. He was
determined to have them. I let them go for a half section of land in
Lyons County. I wouldn’t have done it,” he added confidently, “only
my son had a baby born a day or two before that. I thought the land
would be a good thing to keep for the child. How old is this little
fellow?” He snapped his fingers invitingly towards the child.

“Oh, he’s--a year or two. Something like that, isn’t he?” he asked
his wife.

“Tut, tut, McLaughlin! You need experience! When they’re young like
that the women count them in months. Don’t they, Mrs. McLaughlin?” he
appealed.

“How old is your grandchild?” Wully parried boldly.

“Oh, mine’s several months. Mine’s--well, he’s got two teeth
already!” And they laughed. Wully hastened to safer ground. If he
wasn’t careful, someone might ask him when he was married.

“I’ll tell you another thing I remember!” he began. “I got in on
that night train, that time, you know, and I went to the hotel where
we had always stayed. Sick, I was, you know! I told the man--he’d
seen me a dozen times before--that I hadn’t the price of a room.
He’d had too much. He never even looked to see who I was. Just saw
my uniform and began swearing! Wasn’t going to be eaten out of house
and home by a lot of begging soldiers, he said. It nearly knocked me
over. I went out to the street. And I couldn’t get up face enough to
go some place else and ask for a bed, at first. I just sat around.
Then finally I went into the Great West--that’s where we all stay
now when we come in. And Pierson there almost began swearing at me
because I said I’d pay him later. He didn’t take soldiers’ last cents
away from them, he said. He saw how I felt, and he went and got some
milk toast made for me. And soft boiled eggs. And then, do you know
what he did? He went to a room with me, and when he saw the pillows
on the bed, he went and got me a pair of good pillows from some
place. I hadn’t slept on a pillow for I don’t know how long! A man
notices those things when he’s most dead, I tell you! Milk toast, and
pillows, by _Jiminy_! And in the morning he sat and fed me such a lot
of breakfast--no wonder I had trouble! I felt as if I’d never get
enough to eat.”

Mr. Knight made him go on talking. They sat there till the street
was dark. And then Wully led his wife away, right up to the hotel.
And then into the dining room. It seemed lordly to her that dining
room--an amazing day--and Wully most lordly and amazing of all. It
was like a fine wedding trip, almost, that day.



CHAPTER XXI


They had breakfasted together before daylight, and he had gone to
load the lumber he was taking home for his father, so that they might
have a very early start. In the noisy, untidy hotel office she sat
watching in surprise the confusion and the stir. There were crowds
of women waiting near her, women like herself waiting for wagons
to take them on towards the west, women with bundles and babies,
and quarreling, crying young children. Chirstie’s face showed how
exciting the scene was to her. She looked from group to group. She
considered a foreign woman with a handkerchief tied on her head,
whose tiny baby coughed and wheezed distressingly. She longed to
say something sympathetic to the stolid mother. But she was too
shy. Between caring for her own vigorous son, and watching other
women’s children, the hour hurried by. Presently she saw her husband
drive up, and get out to tie his horses. But before he had started
for the hotel door, a stranger accosted him, and with the stranger
Wully turned and went down the street. So she waited on. Two sets of
youngsters quarreling drew their mothers into the fray, and Chirstie
shrank away from their roughness, thoroughly shocked.

Then, before she had expected him, Wully was standing over her,
reaching down for the baby. She scarcely knew him. His face was
white. His eyes were shining strangely.

“What ails you?” she cried. “You’re sick, Wully! What’s the matter?”

“I’m all right!” he said sharply. His voice quivered with feeling. He
couldn’t trust himself to speak. His mouth was set in a hard line.

She rose and followed him, frightened. She got into the wagon, and
he handed her the baby. He climbed up beside her, and they were off.
She saw he couldn’t tell her what had happened just there. She could
wait--a little.

They were almost out of town now.

“Wully, what’s the matter? Are you sick?”

“I’m all right!”

She was more anxious than ever. She waited till the baby was asleep
in her arms, and then she laid him carefully down in the little
box in which Isobel McLaughlin had taken her babies back and forth
to town. Then she turned towards her husband with determination.
And hesitated. He looked too stern--too fierce. She sat undecided,
wretched, glancing quickly at him and then away. After a few
perplexed moments, her face darkened with terror.

“Oh, I know! You’re--you’ve seen _him_! You were like that on the
Fourth!”

He turned toward her, trying to speak.

“Yes!” he broke forth. “I saw him _dying_.”

“Oh, dying!” She tried to realize it. “Oh, if he’s _dying_, then
we’ll be happy again!”

He said nothing. His lips worked.

“I won’t have to be afraid now!” She spoke like one overcome by a
great fortune. He had never imagined she had been as unhappy as that
cry of hers indicated by its relief.

“Dying!” she repeated, tasting the sweetness of the word. Then,
suddenly:

“How do you know? Where did you see him?”

She saw his face harden with hatred.

“Wully, are you sure he’s dying? He isn’t dead yet?”

“He’s dying all right!”

After a moment she exclaimed:

“But how did you find him?”

“Somebody told me just as I was ready to start home.”

“Oh, that man! I saw that man speaking to you. How did he know to
tell you?”

“They were looking for someone to take him out home.”

“Oh, they _were_!” That seemed to have changed the situation for her.

“You mean they asked you to bring him out?”

He didn’t relish her questions.

“Yes.”

“And you wouldn’t do it, would you!” She approved. She clasped his
arm with both hands. She rejoiced in her assurance.

His anger flamed again.

“Likely I’d bring him out with you!”

“Oh, we’ll be _happy_ now, Wully!”

But after a minute she stirred uncomfortably. He felt her face grow
grave.

“Where was it you saw him, Wully?”

“In a livery stable.”

“In a livery stable!” she repeated. “Dying in such a place!” Dying
seemed not so sweet a word now.

“But why didn’t he send word home before? Think of Aunt Libby, Wully!”

“He came in on the train last night.”

“Oh!” she exclaimed, enlightened. “He wanted to get home alive!”

“What’s the matter of him?” she asked again.

“Hemorrhage,” said Wully, as shortly as it was possible to speak. He
wouldn’t tell her how he had seen that snake lying bloody, dirty,
sunken helpless on a bed of straw. He urged his horses on.

She looked at him. He turned away from her troubled eyes.

After a while;

“Look here, Wully!” she faltered.

He gave her no encouragement.

“After _all_, he was Aunt Libby’s baby!” she sighed.

“After all!” he sneered. He meant to silence her. She spoke again.

“Aunt Libby was always kind to me, Wully!”

He wouldn’t answer her. He knew what was coming.

She said timidly;

“I doubt we ought to go back and get him. If he’s dying, Wully! And
Auntie waiting there for him!”

He said never a word.

“He may be dead before she sees him, if we don’t.”

“We won’t!” he almost shouted. That should have settled matters.

“But what’ll you tell her? She’ll ask. She’ll find out you wouldn’t.
You won’t can say you saw him dying, and didn’t bring him home!”

That was true. He had begun to think of that. Libby Keith would leave
no detail of that death undiscovered.

“Will you say you went away and left him there to die?”

What else could he say? He certainly wouldn’t tell that for one
long rejoicing moment he had stood looking into the eyes that so
terribly besought him--those eyes that were dying prayers, ultimate
beseechings--and had turned victoriously away. He wouldn’t say that
he had told the men who were seeking a ride home for that snake, that
he had too heavy a load for so essential a favor. He wouldn’t tell
how shortly he had answered them, and how hatefully turned on his
heel and departed.

“Wully!” she said, after a little, with conviction, “we ought to go
back and get him! We can’t treat Auntie this way!”

“Can’t we!” he exclaimed bitterly. “Giddup!” he cried to his horses.

He felt her wretchedness. He hardened his heart against her
sentimentality. Presently she said imploringly;

“We can’t do this, Wully. We must go back!”

“I will not!” He spoke passionately.

When she spoke again, it was to warn him.

“If you don’t go back, I will!”

“No you won’t!” he cried.

She was silent for several minutes then. He felt her bending down to
see if the baby was covered. Then she sat still. She was hesitating.
Then after a minute, before he could realize what was going on,
she had climbed over the side of the wagon, her foot was on the
hub, then, skirts and cloak and all, she had alighted, backwards,
stumblingly, from the wagon. By the time he had pulled up the horses,
she was the length of the wagon from him. Ignoring him, defying him,
she was calling to him over her shoulder;

“He made me do evil once. You made me do evil once. But nobody can
make me do it again!” Down the road she ran. “I’m going back to him!”
she cried.

He had never been really angry with her before. Sometimes at first,
before the baby had been born, he had grown very weary of her
importunity, her determination to make him tell his mother the truth.
But of late she had not done that. She had been so satisfactory--so
lovely. Now his rage burst forth against her.

“Go back to him, then, if you like him so well!” He hurled the words
after her, and drove on.

Even before he heard her cry of protest, he regretted his bitter
taunt. Furious with himself, with her, he hurried west. Already
he had begun to see the mistake of his sweet refusal. It would
inevitably become known that he had seen Peter’s straits, and had
refused him so slight a kindness. The whole neighborhood would be
asking the reason. He vowed to himself that he would not take that
carcass into the wagon with his wife if all the world had to know the
reason of his hatred. Such things were expected of no man. He was
only human. He couldn’t do a thing like that! And his wife had defied
him! She had left him! Ah, and he had taunted her so unjustly, so
brutally! But he had never imagined himself saying so cruel a thing
to her. He had never imagined her defying him in such a fashion.
That was what she thought of him, then. He made her do wrong once!
Classing him with that damned-- That was all the gratitude she felt
for his saving of her! But then, of course, it was an awful thing
he had just done. He thought of himself lying sick on the sidewalk,
waiting for a chance to get home. He hardened his heart. But he had
been a decent man. No violator of women! He would never do it.

He turned and looked after his deserting wife. He could see her
hurrying away from him. He had an idea of shouting to her to come
back--of commanding her to come back. But he knew she wouldn’t heed
him. He ought never to have said so hateful a thing to her. As if she
could want to go back to that-- He remembered how she had sat sobbing
on the doorstep when he first went to her. He was glad to think of
Peter Keith dying there, lonely, shrunken, filthy. He looked again
after his wife. She went steadily eastward, running towards the town.
But he had the baby. She would be coming back after a while!

He drove on, raging against her, trying to justify himself. He went
so far that he could scarcely see her now. He might have gone on
home, if there had not appeared on the horizon a team, coming towards
him. Its approach was intolerable. Somebody who might know them was
coming nearer. Somebody would see Wully McLaughlin riding westward,
and presently overtake his wife running east! He turned around
abruptly.

Facing east, he could just see her. He would quickly overtake her,
and order her to get in and come home with him at once. He would
never let her go to that livery stable full of drunks alone. He was
getting near her.

Then a strange thing happened. He saw her stop and suddenly turn
around, and come half running towards him as fast as she had run
away. He kept his face hard, unrelenting. He saw when she came near
that she was crying softly. She climbed quickly up when he stopped.

“I doubt he’s not dying,” she wept. “I can’t do it! He’s too strong,
Wully! He’s tricky!”

She cuddled against him.

“Don’t cry!” he had to say.

“I won’t look at him!” she sobbed. “You know I don’t want to go back
to him! You oughtn’t to have said that! You know I don’t like him! If
you want to know how much I hate him, I’ll tell you! It was me that
shot him that time. It wasn’t his foot I was aiming at, either!” She
wept unrestrainedly.

“You shot him!” Wully gasped.

“He would come back! What could I do! There was no place to hide. I
_shot_ at him!”

She had shot him! She had been as desperate as that. He was horrified
anew. She bent down to feel the baby’s hands, to cover him more
securely. She wanted to say something else, but she couldn’t speak
plainly because of her sobs. Yet she managed to urge the horses
eastward.

“I’ll never look at him!” she cried passionately. “You needn’t think
I like him! You oughtn’t to have said that!”

“I know it, Chirstie! I oughtn’t to have said such a thing. But you
oughtn’t to have jumped out and run away that way.”

“Yes, I ought!” she retorted, swallowing, choking. “I couldn’t help
it. It wasn’t my place to do it. But my husband wouldn’t do his part!
Wully, if you hurry now, _hurry_ enough, they’ll just think you’ve
been unloading. You won’t need to explain! I won’t have you doing
such a mean thing. I’ve got enough bad things to tell without that!
Hurry!”



CHAPTER XXII


They had passed the bridge on their burdened way home. They had come
to the place at which Chirstie had so astonishingly defied him. They
had ridden together in a silence broken only by the refreshed wee
Johnnie’s cooing, as he bounced back and forth in his mother’s lap.
Wully looked covertly at his wife from time to time, in awe. She
wasn’t thinking now what a nice baby Peter Keith had been. Never
once had she turned her face towards what was in the wagon-box, to
see if it was indeed dying. Returning to town, she had instructed
him, woman-like, to be sure that Peter had no weapons concealed,
no way of hurting a benefactor. And Wully had unloaded his lumber
raging. Caught, he was, trapped. Having to do this unspeakable thing
to satisfy the sentimentality of a woman, and to save his secret
from desecration. Grimly he had made sure from the doctor that there
was no chance of Peter living to reveal what Wully had so well kept
hidden. Coldly he had ordered the men at the stable to wash the blood
from that face, from that matted beard, as if Peter was their cousin,
and not his. Grudgingly he had helped them deposit the bony thing in
the wagon. Covered to his head, still as a bag of meal, Peter lay
there when Wully McLaughlin drove to the hotel to get his wife. And
she had never once turned her head towards him.

And now, when Wully looked at her from the corner of his eyes, his
own anger, his bitter hatred seemed a small thing before hers. Her
face was as white as marble, and as hard, one might have thought.
Her mouth was screwed tight in loathing. She sat perfectly still,
looking straight ahead, tragically. She wasn’t thinking of Aunt Libby
now. Wully was almost afraid of her ... afraid certainly to offer her
comfort.

They rode west. The sun was high now, and shone dazzlingly over the
brown stretches. The horses felt the stimulus of the frosty morning.
Wee Johnnie jumped about, chuckling out his absurd little meaningless
words. Three miles they went; four miles. From time to time Wully
turned to assure himself that his enemy lay still. He would let him
die there, without lifting a finger to lengthen his life by a second.
The sight of that shape under the old brown blanket inflamed his
hatred. He looked, and turned quickly away, remembering always that
second time Peter had dared to lay violent hands on his wife. It was
that second time he could never forgive, that second time.

The baby grew restless. He complained fretfully of his mother’s lack
of attention. Wully gave him, almost mechanically, the ends of the
lines to play with. They pleased him, for a while. Then he turned
again to his mother, unable to fathom her sternness. Never before
had her hands touched him so coldly. Looking right ahead of her, she
would pull that little shawl tightly around him again, after he had
succeeded in working his bare arms out of it, tucking him in without
a kiss or any coaxing. His eyes studied her face, and found there no
thought for him. He stood up in her lap. He put his arms around her
neck, and stroked the forbidden feather. She failed even to reprove
him. He seized the chance--he put the curling thing into his mouth,
and chewed the end of it experimentally. He spit it out in disgust.
He sat down again in her lap, and began playing with the frogs on her
new coat. He fingered the interesting fringe. He squirmed about more
vigorously than ever. He called to her. He put his hands up to her
face. She bent down and kissed him, but not as she usually gathered
him against herself with warmth. The caress was hard and preoccupied,
and he whispered a little. He tried pat-a-caking, to get her to smile
upon him. That, too, failed. Wully handed him the whip, and he shook
it so fiercely that they had both hastily to rescue their faces from
the blows he might have inflicted. Still his mother looked straight
ahead.

They came then to a low place. The horses could go only very slowly.
The baby adjusted himself to the new motion of the wagon. There
was a splashing of mud that made him giggle delightedly. It would
have been a choice morning for any baby whose mother wasn’t sitting
frozen. Wee Johnnie made the best of it. He kicked, and giggled, and
squirmed about.

The horses failed of their own accord to take their proper pace
again. Wully had to speak to them. He slapped them lightly with the
lines.

“Get up, Nellie!” he exclaimed. “What’s the matter of you?”

Wee Johnnie moved his arms exactly as Wully had done.

“Get up, Nellie!” he said. “What’s the matter of you?”

He said all that, plainly, if not perfectly, and before he knew what
was happening, his mother had seized him, and was hugging him up
against her, in the good old way, kissing him.

“Get up, Nellie!” he cooed. “What’s the matter of you!”

She had been so surprised, so delighted with her son’s first sentence
that she had turned, even kissing him, to Wully, no joy complete
unless he shared it.

“Did you hear _that_!” she cried triumphantly, her face blossoming
towards him. “Say it _again_, Lammie!”

And almost before Wully could smile in return, he stopped. He turned
around. He thought he heard a groan from his load. He couldn’t even
smile at her with that man possibly spying upon them. He looked--and
from the end of the wagon that man had lifted his head a little,
like a snake, and had seen the smile that Chirstie had turned upon
her husband. And Wully--when he saw that face--it was the last
thing in the world that he intended doing--but some way, in spite
of himself, he achieved generosity--the spoil, it may have been, of
ancestral struggle. At the terrible sight of that face, he pitied his
enemy. That coward, in his damned way, had loved Chirstie. And in
his tormented sunken dying he had seen all the sweet intimacy from
which he had been shut out and had sunk back, felled by the blow of
that revelation. Wully had foregone revenge. He had forborne running
a sword less sharp through his fallen enemy than Chirstie’s wifely
smile had been. In a flash Wully saw himself sitting there by the
woman, loved, living, not dying, full of strength and generations,
while that man, loathed and rejected, was already burning in hell.

The poor devil!

He pulled the horses up suddenly, and gave his wife the lines. He
climbed back to lift his cousin into a position less painful. Through
holes in the old blanket, straws from beneath were scratching the
ghastly face. There was a farmhouse not so far down the road.

“I’ll stop there and buy him a pillow,” Wully resolved.



      *      *      *      *      *      *



Transcriber’s note:

  Obvious typographical errors have been corrected.

  Inconsistencies in hyphenation have been standardized.





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