Henry Kitchell Webster.

Mary Wollaston online

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since I went out?" he asked.

She shook her head. "Except that there's been none. Every hour now that
we aren't sent for counts. What made you think there might have been?"

He said he didn't know. She looked a little more cheerful somehow,
less - tragic. Evidently her visit to the Corbetts had done her good.

His eye fell once more on the manuscript. "Did he go off and forget
that?" he asked. "Or did he mean to leave it for Paula? And what shall we
do with it, - hand it over to her or send it back?"

Thoughtfully Mary straightened the sheets and closed the cover. "I'll
take care of it for him," she said.



Pneumonia, for all it is characterized by what is called a crisis, has no
single stride to recovery, no critical moment when one who has been in
peril passes to safety. Steinmetz and Darby were determined that Mary and
all the household should understand this fully. She had waylaid them in
the hall as they were leaving the house together - this was seventy-two
hours or so after Anthony March's call - and demanded the good news she
was sure they had for her. There was a look about them and a tone in
their voices that were perfectly new.

They would not be persuaded to say that her father was out of danger.
There was very little left of him. His heart had been over-strained and
this abnormal effect was now, in due course, transferred to the kidneys.
All sorts of deadly sequellae were lying in ambush.

But the more discouraging they were, the more she beamed upon them. She
walked along with them to the door, slipping her arm inside Doctor
Darby's as she did so. "If you only knew," she said, "what a wonderful
thing it is to have the doctors stop being encouraging and try to
frighten you, instead. Because that means you really do think he's
getting well."

"The balance of probability has swung to that side," Steinmetz admitted
in his rather affected staccato. "At all events he's out of my beat." His
beat was the respiratory tract and his treatment the last word in
vaccines and serums.

She held Darby back a little. "Must we go on feeling," she asked,
"that anything could happen any minute? Or - well, could Rush go back
to the farm? Graham Stannard has gone to New York, I think, they're
partners, you know, so he must be rather badly wanted. And this
waiting is hard for him."

Rush could go, of course, Darby assured her. "For that matter," he went
on with a quick glance at her, "why don't you go with him? Take your aunt
along, too. For a few days, at least. You couldn't do better."

She demurred to this on the ground that it didn't seem fair to Paula. If
there was a period of Arcadian retirement down on the books for anybody,
it was Paula who was entitled to it.

But Paula, as Darby pointed out, wouldn't take it in the first place,
and, surprisingly, didn't need it in the second. "She told me just now
that she'd slept eighteen hours out of the last twenty-four and was ready
for anything. She looked it, too."

He understood very well her irrepressible shrug of exasperation at that
and interrupted her attempt to explain it. "It's another breed of animal
altogether," he said. "And at that, I'd rather have had her job than
yours. You're looking first rate, anyhow. But your aunt, if she isn't to
break up badly, had better be carried off somewhere." He glanced around
toward Steinmetz who had withdrawn out of ear-shot. "There are some
toxins, you know," he added, "that are even beyond him and his

Mary had meant to broach this project at dinner but changed her mind and
waited until Aunt Lucile had withdrawn and she and Rush were left alone
over their coffee cups for a smoke.

"Poor Aunt Lucile! She has aged years in the last three weeks. And it
shows more, now the nightmare is over, than it did before."

"Is it over? Really?" he asked.

"Well, we don't need miracles any more for him. Just ordinary good care
and good luck. Yes, I'd say the nightmare was over."

"Leaving us free," he commented, "to go back to our own."

"You can go back to the farm, anyhow," she said. "I asked Doctor Darby,
especially, and he said so. He wants me to go along with you and take
Aunt Lucile. Just for a week or so. Is there any sort of place with a
roof over it where we could stay?"

He said, "I guess that could be managed." But his tone was so absent and
somber that she looked at him in sharp concern.

"You didn't mean that the farm was your nightmare, did you?" she asked.
"Has something gone terribly wrong out there?"

"Things have gone just the way I suppose anybody but a fool would have
known they would. Not worse than that, I guess."

He got up then and went over to the sideboard, coming back with a
decanter of old brandy and a pair of big English glasses. She declined
hers as unobtrusively as possible, just with a word and a faint shake of
the head. But it was enough to make him look at her.

"You didn't drink anything at dinner, either, did you?" he asked.

She flushed as she said, "I don't think I'm drinking, at all, just now."

"Being an example to anybody?" he asked suspiciously.

She smiled at that and patted his hand. "Oh, no, my dear. I've enough to
do to be an example to myself. I liked the way it was out at the
Corbetts'. They've gone bone-dry. And, - oh, please don't think that I'm a
prig - I am a little better without it - just now, anyway. Tell me what's
gone wrong at the farm."

"This is wonderful stuff," he said, cupping the fragile glass in his two
hands and inhaling the bouquet from the precious liquor in the bottom of
it. "It's good for nightmares, at any rate." After a sip or two, he
attempted to answer her question.

"Oh, I suppose we'll come out all right, eventually. Of course, we've got
to. But I wish Martin Whitney had done one thing or the other; either
shown a little real confidence and enthusiasm in the thing or else
stepped on it and refused to lend father the money."

"Lend?" Mary asked. "Did he have to borrow it?"

He dealt rather impatiently with that question. "You don't keep sixty or
eighty thousand dollars lying around loose in a checking account," he
said. "Of course, he had to borrow it. But he borrowed it of Whitney,
worse luck - and Whitney being an old friend, pulls a long face over it
whenever we find we need a little more than the original figures showed.
That's enough to give any one cold feet right there.

"Graham's father is rich, of course, but he's tighter than the bark on a
tree. He's gone his limit and he won't stand for anything more. He can't
see that a farm like that is nothing but a factory and that you can't run
it for any profit that's worth while without the very best possible
equipment. He wanted us to pike along with scrub stock and the old tools
and buildings that were on the place and pay for improvements out of our
profits. Of course, the answer to that was that there wouldn't be any
profits. A grade cow these days simply can't earn her keep with the price
of feed and labor what it is. We didn't figure the cost of tools and
modern buildings high enough - there _was_ such a devil of a lot of
necessary things that we didn't figure on at all - and the consequence
was that we didn't put a big enough mortgage on the place. Nowhere near
what it would stand. And now that we want to put a second one on, Mr.
Stannard howls like a wolf."

The mere sound of the word mortgage made Mary's heart sink. She looked so
woebegone that Rush went on hastily.

"Oh, that'll come out in the wash. It's nothing to worry about really,
because even on the basis of a bigger investment than we had any idea of
making when we went in, it figures a peach of a profit. There's no
getting away from that. That's not the thing about it that's driving
Graham and me to drink."

He stopped on that phrase, not liking the sound of it, and in doubt about
asking her not to take it literally. She saw all that as plainly as if
she had been looking through an open window into his mind. He took
another deliberate sip of the brandy, instead, and then went on.

"Why, it's the way things don't happen; the way we can't get
anything done."

He did not see the sympathetic hand she stretched out to him; went back
to the big brandy glass instead, for another long luxurious inhalation
and a small sip or two. "It's partly our own fault, of course," he went
on, presently. "We've made some fool mistakes. But it isn't our mistakes
that are going to beat us, it's the damned bull-headed incompetence of
the so-called labor we've got to deal with."

He ruminated over that in silence for a minute or two. "They talk about
the inefficiency of the army," he exclaimed, "but I've been four years in
two armies and I'll say that if what we've found out at Hickory Hill is a
fair sample of civilian efficiency, I'll take the army way every time.
There are days when I feel as if I'd like to quit; - go out West and get
a job roping steers for Bob Corbett, even if he is bone-dry."

She thought if he played any longer with that brandy glass she must cry
out, but he drained it this time and pushed it away. With an effort of
will she relaxed her tight muscles.

"I suppose I must have looked to you like a hopeless slacker," he said,
"or you wouldn't have asked Darby to send me back to work. No, - I didn't
mean to put it that way. I look like one to myself, that's all, when I
stop to think. Only you don't know how it has felt, this last six weeks,
to go on getting tighter and tighter in your head until you feel as if
you were going to burst. I went out and got drunk, once, - just plain,
deliberately boiled - in order to let off steam. It did me good, too, for
the time being."

She didn't look shocked at that as he had expected her to - gave him only
a rather wry smile and a comprehending nod. "We're all alike; that's the
trouble with us," she said. "But you will take us out to Hickory Hill,
won't you? Aunt Lucile and I. I'll promise we won't be in the way nor
make you any more work."

She saw he was hesitating and added, "At that, perhaps, I may be some
good. I could cook anyhow and I suppose I could be taught to milk a cow
and run a Ford."

He laughed at that, then said a little uncomfortably that this wasn't
what he had been thinking about. "I suppose you're counting on Graham's
being in New York. He isn't. At least, he telegraphed me that he'd be
back at Hickory Hill to-morrow morning. I knew you'd been rather keeping
away from him and I thought perhaps..."

"No, that's all right." She said it casually enough, but it drew a keen
look of inquiry from him, nevertheless. "Oh, nothing," she went on. "I
mean I haven't made up with him. Of course, I never quarreled with him
as far as that went. Only it's what I meant when I said just now that we
were all alike, father and you and I. We all get so ridiculously - tight
about things. Well, I've managed to let off steam myself."

He patted her hand approvingly. "That trip to Wyoming did you a lot of
good," he observed. - "Or something did."

"They're wonderfully easy people to live with, Olive and Bob," she said.
"They're immensely in love with each other I suppose, but without somehow
being offensive about it. And they have such a lot of fun. Olive has a
piebald cayuse, that she's taught all the _haute ecole_ tricks. He does
the statuesque poses and all the high action things just as seriously as
a thoroughbred and he's so short and homely and in such deadly earnest
about it that you can hardly bear it. You laugh yourself into stitches
but you want to cry too. And Bob says he's going to train a mule the same
way. If he ever does that pair will be worth a million dollars to any
circus. - Well, we'll be doing things like that out at Hickory Hill some
day. Because there is such a thing as fun left in the world."

"We'll have some of it this week," he agreed, and in this rather
light-headed spirit they arranged details.

The only building at Hickory Hill that had been designed for human
habitation was the farm-house and it was at present fully occupied and
rather more by a camp cook and his assistant, the farm manager and half
a dozen hands. The partners themselves slept in a tent. There was also a
cook tent near the house where three meals a day were prepared for
everybody, including the carpenters, masons, concrete men and well
diggers who were working on the new buildings. They drove out in Fords
from two or three near-by towns in time for breakfast and didn't go home
till after supper. The wagon shed of the old horse barn served as a
mess hall.

There were some beds, though, two or three spare ones, Rush was sure,
that had never been used. Given a day's start on his guests, he would
promise some sort of building which, if they would refrain from inquiring
too closely into its past, should serve to house them.

"A wood-shed," she suggested helpfully, "or a nicely swept-out hennery.
Even a former cow stable, at a pinch. Only not a pig-pen."

"If our new hog-house were only finished, you could be absolutely
palatial in it. But I think I can do better than any of those. You leave
that to me. - Only, how about Aunt Lucile? She's - essential to the scheme,
I suppose. Can you deliver her?"

"She'll come if it's put to her right, - as a sporting proposition.
She really is a good sport you know, the dear old thing. You leave
her to me."

"Lord, I feel a lot better than I did when I sat down to dinner," he told
her when they parted for the night, and left her reflecting on the folly
of making mountains out of mole-hills.



He broke his promise to be waiting for them Friday morning at the farm.
It was Graham who caught sight of their car, as it stopped in front of
the farm-house, and came plunging down the bank to greet them and explain
how unavoidable it had been that Rush should go to Elgin.

He was somewhat flushed and a little out of breath but he seemed, after
the first uncomfortable minute, collected enough. He mounted the
running-board and directed the chauffeur to drive on across the bridge
and fork to the right with the main road up to a small nondescript
building on the far side of it.

It was a part of the farm, he explained, indicating the wilderness off to
the left, - a part of what must once have been a big apple orchard.
Indeed, exploring it yesterday for the first time, he had found a
surprising number of old trees, which, choked as they were with
undergrowth, looked as if they were still bearing fruit. The building,
which they had never even entered until yesterday, had served as a
sorting and packing house for the crop, though the old part of
it - paradoxically the upper part - appeared to have been built as a
dwelling by some pioneer settler. A second story had been added
underneath by digging out the bank.

It stood well back from the road, a grass grown lane with a turning
circle leading to it. It had what had once been a loading platform, wagon
high, instead of a veranda. The lower story, a single room which they
peered into through a crack in a warped unhinged door, seemed unpromising
enough, a dark cobwebby place, cumbered with wooden chutes from the floor
above by which, Graham explained, they rolled the apples down into
barrels after they had been sorted up-stairs. A carpenter had been busy
most of the morning, he added, flooring over the traps from which these
chutes led down.

Mary, though, fairly cried out with delight, and even Miss Wollaston
beamed appreciation when, Graham, having led them up the bank and around
to the back of the building, ushered them in, at the ground level up
here, to the upper story of the building. There was a fireplace in the
north end of it with twin brick erections on either side which they
thought must have been used for drying apples. The opposite end,
partitioned off, still housed a cider mill and press, but they had
contrived, he said, a makeshift bedroom out of it.

Along the east side of the room were three pairs of casement windows
which commanded a view of the greater part of the farm; across the road,
across Hickory Creek, across the long reach of the lower pasture and the
seemingly limitless stretches of new plowed fields. The clump of farm
buildings, old and new, was in the middle of the picture. Over to the
left not quite a mile away, behind what looked like nothing more than a
fold in the earth (the creek again, Graham explained. It swung an arc of
two hundred degrees or so, about the main body of their tillable land)
rose the heavily wooded slopes of Hickory Hill.

"We were surprised at this place," he said, "when we opened it up
yesterday. It's the best view on the farm. It will be a fine place
to build a real country house, some day, if we ever make money
enough to do that."

"It is a real country house already," Mary told him briskly. "You two,
living in a tent with a lovely old place like this just waiting for you!
Wait until Aunt Lucile and I have had a day at it and you'll see."

He looked as if he believed her. Indeed, he looked unutterable things,
contemplating her, there in that mellow old room, - wrinkling her nose a
little and declaring that she could still smell apples. But all he said
was that he supposed the roof leaked, but it couldn't be very bad because
everything seemed quite decently dry and not at all musty. He added that
he must be getting back to work, but that an odd-job man, capable more or
less of anything, was at her disposal for as long as she wanted him.

She went with him to the door when he made his rather precipitate
departure and stood, after she had waved him a temporary farewell, gazing
up at the soft sun-bathed slope with its aisles of gnarled trees. She
smiled at the sight of a decrepit long-handled wooden pump. She took a
long breath of the smell of the month of May. Then she turned, with Aunt
Lucile, to such practical matters as bedding, brooms and tea-kettles.

There was more to do than a first look had led them to suppose, and
their schemes grew ambitious, besides, as they advanced with them, so
that, for all the Briarean prodigies of Bill, the odd-job man, they went
to bed dog tired at nine o'clock that night with their labors not more
than half complete. They slept - Mary did, anyhow, the deepest sleep she
had known in years.

She waked at an unearthly - a heavenly hour. The thin ether-cool air was
quivering with the dissonance of bird calls; the low sun had laid great
slow-moving oblongs of reddish gilt upon the brown walls of the big room.
(She had left her aunt in undivided possession of the extemporized
bed-chamber.) She rose and opened the door and looked out into the
orchard. But what her eye came to rest upon was the old wooden pump.

It was a triumph of faith over skepticism, that pump. Graham had
contemned it utterly, hardly allowing, even, that it was picturesque, but
Bill, the odd-job man had, with her encouragement, spent a patient hour
over it and in the teeth of scientific probability, lo, it had given
forth streams of water as clear as any that had ever miraculously been
smitten out of a rock. The partners had forbidden her to drink any of it
except boiled, until it had been analyzed.

She looked about. She had the world to herself. So she carried her rubber
tub, her sponge and a bath-towel out to the warped wooden platform and
bathed _en plein air_, water and sun together. She came in, deliciously
shuddering, lighted a fire, already laid, of shavings and sticks, put the
kettle on to boil and dressed. She felt - new born that morning.

This sensation made the undercurrent of a long fully filled day. She
almost never had time to look at it but she knew it was there. It
enabled her to take with equanimity the unlooked-for arrival (so far as
she and her aunt were concerned) of Graham's young torn-boy sister,
Sylvia. It made it possible for her to say, "Why, yes, of course! I'd
love to," when Graham, along in the afternoon asked her if she wouldn't
go for a walk over the farm with him. They spent more than an hour at
it, sitting, a part of the time, side by side atop the gate into the
upper pasture, yet not even then had the comfortable sense of pleasant
companionship with him taken fright. It was a security that resided, she
knew, wholly in herself.

He was holding himself, obviously, on a very tight rein, and it was quite
conceivable that before her visit ended, he would bolt. There was a
moment, indeed - when he came with Rush to supper at the apple house and
got his first look at the transformation she had wrought in it - when that
possibility must have been in the minds of every one who saw his face.

She had dramatized the result of her two days' labor innocent of any
intention to produce an effect like that. The partners when they came
dropping in from time to time had, learned nothing of her plans, seen
none of their accomplishments, so to-night the old-fashioned settle
which Bill had knocked together from lumber in the packing room and she
had stained, two of the sorting tables, fitted into the corners beside
the fireplace to make a dais, the conversion of another into a capital
dining table by the simple expedient of lengthening its legs, the rag
rug, discovered in the village, during a flying trip with Sylvia this
morning in her car and ravished from the church fair it had been
intended for, the sacks of sheeting Aunt Lucile had been sewing
industriously all day, covered with burlaps and stuffed with hay to
serve as cushions, the cheese-cloth tacked up in gathers over the
windows and hemmed with pins, - all this, revealed at once, had the
surprise of a conjurer's trick, or, if one were predisposed that way,
the entrancement of a miracle.

She was a little entranced, herself, partly with fatigue for she had put
in, one after the other, two unusually laborious days, but partly no
doubt with her own magic, with this almost convincing simulation of a
home which she and her assistants had produced. It didn't matter that she
had gone slack and silent, because Sylvia, who just before supper had
shown a disposition to dreamy elegiac melancholy, rebounded, as soon as
she was filled with food, to the other end of the scale altogether and
swept Rush after her into a boisterous romp, which none of Aunt Lucile's
remonstrant asides to her nephew was effectual to quell.

She was an amazing creature, this product of the latest generation to
begin arriving at the fringes of maturity, a reedy young thing, as tall
as Graham, inches taller than Rush. She had the profile of a young Greek
goddess and the grin of a gamin. She was equally at home in a
ballgown - though she was not yet out - or in a pair of khaki riding
breeches and an olive drab shirt. She was capable of assuming a manner
that was a genuine gratification to her great aunt or one that startled
her father's stable men. She read French novels more or less at random,
(unknown to her mother. She had a rather mischievous uncle who was
responsible for this development) and she was still deadly accurate with
a snowball. A bewildering compound of sophistications and innocence, a
modern young sphinx with a riddle of her own.

Mary watched her tussling and tumbling about with Rush, pondering the
riddle but making no great effort to find an answer to it. Was she child
or woman? To herself what was she? And what did Rush think about her?
They were evidently well established on some sort of terms. Rush, no
doubt, would tell you - disgustedly if you sought explanation - that Sylvia
was just a kid. That he was fond of her as one would be of any nice kid
and that her rough young embraces, her challenges and her pursuits, meant
precisely what those of an uproarious young - well, nephew, say, - would
mean. Only his eagerness to go on playing the game cast a doubt upon that

They went out abruptly after a while, just as it was getting dark, to
settle a bet as to which of them could walk the farthest along the top
rail of a certain old fence. Miss Wollaston saw them go with unconcealed
dismay, but it was hard to see how even a conscientious chaperon could
have prevented it so long as the child's elder brother would do nothing
to back her up. To Mary, half-way in her trance, it didn't seem much to
matter what the relation was or what came of it. It was a fine spring
night and they were a pair of beautifully untroubled young animals. Let
them play as they would.

Their departure, did, however, arouse Graham to the assumption of his
duties as host and he launched himself into a conversation with Miss
Wollaston; a fine example, Mary thought, of what really good breeding

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Online LibraryHenry Kitchell WebsterMary Wollaston → online text (page 12 of 27)