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Plowing and planting time had come and under happier auspices, apparently, than he had ever imagined possible again. With the lines about his neck, he began with a sidehill plow at the bottom of a large, sloping fielfilecoin precommit 1d which had been in corn the previous year, and the long, straight furrows increased from a narrow strip to a wide, oblong area. "Ah," said he in tones of strong satisfaction, "the ground crumbles freely; it's just in the right condition. I'll quit plowing this afternoon in time to harrow and sow all the ground that's ready. Then, so much'll be all done and well done. It's curious how seed, if it goes into the ground at the right time and in the right way, comes right along and never gets discouraged. I aint much on scientific farming, but I've always observed that when I sow or plant as soon as the ground is ready, I have better luck."The horses seemed infected by his own brisk spirit, stepping along without urging, and the farmer was swept speedily into the full, strong current of his habitual interests.
One might have supposed the recent events would have the uppermost place in his thoughts, but this was not true. He rather dwelt upon them as the unexpectedly fortunate means to the end now attained. This was his life, and he was happy in the thought that his marriage promised to make this life not merely possible, but prosperous and full of quiet content.The calling of the born agriculturist, like that of the fisherman, has in it the element of chance and is therefore full of moderate yet lasting excitement. Holcroft knew that, although he did his best, much would depend on the weather and other causes. He had met with disappointments in his crops, and had also achieved what he regarded as fine successes, although they would have seemed meager on a Western prairie. Every spring kindled anew his hopefulness and anticipation. He watched the weather with the interested and careful scrutiny of a sailor, and it must be admitted that his labor and its results depended more on natural causes than upon his skill and the careful use of the fertilizers. He was a farmer of the old school, the traditions received from his father controlled him in the main. Still, his good common sense and long experience stood him fairly well in the place of science and knowledge of improved methods, and he was better equipped than the man who has in his brain all that the books can teach, yet is without experience. Best of all, he had inherited and acquired an abiding love of the soil; he never could have been content except in its cultivation; he was therefore in the right condition to assimilate fuller knowledge and make the most of it.He knew well enough when it was about noon. From long habit he would have known had the sky been overcast, but now his glance at the sun was like looking at a watch. Dusty and begrimed he followed his team to the barn, slipped from them their headstalls and left them to amuse themselves with a little hay while they cooled sufficiently for heartier food. "Well now," he mused, "I wonder what that little woman has for dinner? Another new dish, like enough. Hanged if I'm fit to go in the house, and she looking so trim and neat. I think I'll first take a souse in the brook," and he went up behind the house where an unfailing stream gurgled swiftly down from the hills. At the nearest point a small basin had been hollowed out, and as he approached he saw two or three speckled trout darting away through the limpid water."Aha!" he muttered, "glad you reminded me. When SHE'S stronger, she may enjoy catching our supper some afternoon. I must think of all the little things I can to liven her up so she won't get dull. It's curious how interested I am to know how she's got along and what she has for dinner. And to think that, less than a week ago, I used to hate to go near the house!"As he entered the hall on his way to his room, that he might make himself more presentable, an appetizing odor greeted him and Alida smiled from the kitchen door as she said, "Dinner's ready."
Apparently she had taken him at his word, as she had prepared little else than an Irish stew, yet when he had partaken of it, he thought he would prefer Irish stews from that time onward indefinitely. "Where did you learn to cook, Alida?" he asked."Mother wasn't very strong and her appetite often failed her. Then, too, we hadn't much to spend on our table so we tried to make simple things taste nice. Do you like my way of preparing that old-fashioned dish?""If you went among them more they wouldn't dislike you."
"I don't want to go among them.""They know it, and that's the reason they dislike you.""Would you like to go out to tea-drinkings, and all that?""No, indeed; and I don't suppose I'd be received," she added sadly.
"So much the worse for them, then, blast 'em!" said Holcroft wrathfully."Oh no! I don't feel that way and you shouldn't. When they can, people ought to be sociable and kind."
"Of course I'd do any of my neighbors, except Lemuel Weeks, a good turn if it came in my way, but the less I have to do with them the better I'm satisfied.""I'm rested enough to go on now," said Alida quietly.They were not long in reaching the edge of the woodland, from which there was an extended prospect. For some little time they looked at the wide landscape in silence. Alida gave to it only partial attention for her mind was very busy with thoughts suggested by her husband's alienation from his neighbors. It would make it easier for her, but the troubled query would arise, "Is it right or best for him? His marrying me will separate him still more."Holcroft's face grew sad rather than troubled as he looked at the old meeting house and not at the landscape. He was sitting near the spot where he spent that long forenoon a few Sundays before, and the train of thought came back again. In his deep abstraction, he almost forgot the woman near him in memories of the past.
His old love and lost faith were inseparable from that little white spire in the distance.Alida stole a glance at him and thought, "He's thinking of her," and she quietly strolled away to look for wild flowers."Yes," muttered Holcroft, at last. "I hope Bessie knows. She'd be the first one to say it was right and best for me, and she'd be glad to know that in securing my own home and comfort I had given a home to the homeless and sorrowful--a quiet, good woman, who worships God as she did."He rose and joined his wife, who held toward him a handful of trailing arbutus, rue anemones, bloodroot, and dicentras. "I didn't know they were so pretty before," he said with a smile.
His smile reassured her for it seemed kinder than any she had yet received, and his tone was very gentle. "His dead wife will never be my enemy," she murmured. "He has made it right with her in his own thoughts."Chapter 24 Given Her Own Way
On Monday the absorbing work of the farm was renewed, and every day brought to Holcroft long and exhausting hours of labor. While he was often taciturn, he evidently progressed in cheerfulness and hope. Alida confirmed his good impressions. His meals were prompt and inviting; the house was taking on an aspect of neatness and order long absent, and his wardrobe was put in as good condition as its rather meager character permitted. He had positively refused to permit his wife to do any washing and ironing. "We will see about it next fall," he said. "If then you are perfectly well and strong, perhaps, but not in the warm weather now coming on." Then he added, with a little nod, "I'm finding out how valuable you are, and I'd rather save you than the small sum I have to pay old Mrs. Johnson."In this and in other ways he showed kindly consideration, but his mind continually reverted to his work and outdoor plans with the preoccupation of one who finds that he can again give his thoughts to something from which they had been most reluctantly withdrawn. Thus Alida was left alone most of the time. When the dusk of evening came he was too tired to say much, and he retired early that he might be fresh for work again when the sun appeared. She had no regrets, for although she kept busy she was resting and her wounds were healing through the long, quiet days.
It was the essential calm after the storm. Caring for the dairy and working the butter into firm, sweet, tempting yellow rolls were the only tasks that troubled her a little, but Holcroft assured her that she was learning these important duties faster than he had expected her to. She had several hours a day in which to ply her needle, and thus was soon enabled to replenish her scanty wardrobe.One morning at breakfast she appeared in another gown, and although its material was calico, she had the appearance to Holcroft of being unusually well dressed. He looked pleased, but made no comment. When the cherry blossoms were fully out, an old cracked flower vase--the only one in the house--was filled with them, and they were placed in the center of the dinner table. He looked at them and her, then smilingly remarked, "I shouldn't wonder if you enjoyed those cherry blows more than anything else we have for dinner.""I want something else, though. My appetite almost frightens me.""That's famous! I needn't be ashamed of mine, then."One evening, before the week was over, he saw her busy with a rake about the door. Last year's leaves were still scattered about, with twigs and even small boughs wrested by the winds from the trees. He was provoked with himself that he had neglected the usual spring clearing away of litter, and a little irritated that she should have tried to do the work herself. He left the horses at the barn and came forward directly. "Alida," he said gravely, "there's no need of your doing such work; I don't like to see you do it.""Why," she replied, "I've heard that women in the country often milk and take care of the chickens."
"Yes, but that's very different from this work. I wouldn't like people to think I expected such things of you.""It's very easy work," she said smilingly, "easier than sweeping a room, though something like it. I used to do it at home when I was a girl. I think it does me good to do something in the open air."
She was persisting, but not in a way that chafed him. Indeed, as he looked into her appealing eyes and face flushed with exercise, he felt that it would be churlish to say another word."Well," he said, laughing, "it makes you look so young and rosy I guess it does you good. I suppose you'll have to have your own way."
"You know I wouldn't do this or anything else if you really didn't want me to.""You are keen," he replied, with his good nature entirely restored. "You can see that you get me right under your thumb when you talk that way. But we must both be on our guard against your fault, you know, or pretty soon you'll be taking the whole work of the farm off my hands."
"To be serious," she resumed, accompanying him to the barn for the first time, "I think YOU are working too hard. I'm not. Our meals are so simple that it doesn't take me long to get them. I'm through with the hurry in my sewing, the old dog does the churning, and you give me so much help in the dairy that I shall soon have time on my hands. Now it seems to me that I might soon learn to take entire care of the chickens, big and little, and that would be so much less for you to look after. I'm sure I would enjoy it very much, especially the looking after the little chickens.""So you really think you'd like to do that?" he asked, as he turned to her from unharnessing the horses."Yes, indeed, if you think I'm competent.""You are more so than I am. Somehow, little chickens don't thrive under a busy man's care. The mother hens mean well, but they are so confoundedly silly. I declare to you that last year I lost half the little chicks that were hatched out."
"Well, then," she replied, laughing, "I won't be afraid to try, for I think I can beat you in raising chickens. Now, show me how much you feed them at night and how much I'm to give them in the morning, and let me take the whole care of them for a month, get the eggs, and all. If they don't do so well, then I'll resign. I can't break you in a month.""It looks more as if you'd make me. You have a good big bump of order, and I haven't any at all in little things. Tom Watterly was right. If I had tried to live here alone, things would have got into an awful mess. I feel ashamed of myself that I didn't clear up the yard before, but my whole mind's been on the main crops."
"As it should be. Don't you worry about the little things. They belong to me. Now show me about the chickens, or they'll go to roost while we're talking.""But I, as well as the chickens, shall want some supper."
"I won't let either of you starve. You'll see.""Well, you see this little measure? You fill it from this bin with this mixture of corn and wheat screenings. That's the allowance, morning and evening. Then you go out to the barnyard there, and call 'kip, kip, kip.' That's the way my wife used--" He stopped in a little embarrassment.
"I'd be glad if I could do everything as she did," said Alida gently. "It has grown clearer every day how hard her loss was to you. If you'll tell me what she did and how she did things--" and she hesitated."That's good of you, Alida," he replied gratefully. Then, with his directness of speech, he added, "I believe some women are inclined to be jealous even of the dead.""You need never fear to speak of your wife to me. I respect and honor your feelings--the way you remember her. There's no reason why it should be otherwise. I did not agree to one thing and expect another," and she looked him straight in the eyes.He dropped them, as he stood leaning against the bin in the shadowy old barn, and said, "I didn't think you or anyone would be so sensible. Of course, one can't forget quickly--"
"You oughtn't to forget," was the firm reply. "Why should you? I should be sorry to think you could forget.""I fear I'm not like to make you sorry," he replied, sighing. "To tell you the truth--" he added, looking at her almost commiseratingly, and then he hesitated.
"Well, the truth is usually best," she said quietly."Well, I'll tell you my thought. We married in haste, we were almost strangers, and your mind was so distracted at the time that I couldn't blame you if you forgot what--what I said. I feared--well, you are carrying out our agreement so sensibly that I want to thank you. It's a relief to find that you're not opposed, even in your heart, that I should remember one that I knew as a little child and married when I was young."
"I remember all you said and what I said," she replied, with the same direct, honest gaze. "Don't let such thoughts trouble you any more. You've been kinder and more considerate than I ever expected. You have only to tell me how she did--""No, Alida," he said quietly, obeying a subtle impulse. "I'd rather you would do everything your own way--as it's natural for you. There, we've talked so long that it's too late to feed the chickens tonight. You can begin in the morning."