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       Wheat and Huckleberries; Or, Dr. Northmore's Daughters, p.1

          
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Wheat and Huckleberries; Or, Dr. Northmores Daughters


  "MORTON FOUND TIME TO ANSWER ALL HER QUESTIONS."]

  WHEAT AND HUCKLEBERRIES

  Or

  Dr. Northmore's Daughters

  by

  CHARLOTTE M. VAILE

  Illustrated by Alice Barber Stevens

  BOSTON AND CHICAGOW. A. WILDE COMPANY

  Copyright, 1899,By W. A. Wilde Company.

  _All rights reserved._

  WHEAT AND HUCKLEBERRIES.

  To J. F. V.

  This Story

  TOO SLIGHT TO BE AN OFFERING TO HIM, BUT WRITTENIN DEAR REMEMBRANCE OF HIS EARLY HOMEAND OF MINE

  Is Lovingly Dedicated

  C. M. V.

  CONTENTS CHAPTER I--HARVEST AT THE FARM CHAPTER II--TALKING IT OVER CHAPTER III--BETWEEN TIMES CHAPTER IV--AT THE OLD PLACE CHAPTER V--AUNT KATHARINE SAXON CHAPTER VI--AUNT KATHARINE--CONTINUED CHAPTER VII--HUCKLEBERRYING CHAPTER VIII--A PAIR OF CALLS CHAPTER IX--A GLIMPSE FROM THE INSIDE CHAPTER X--SOME BITS OF POETRY CHAPTER XI--AN OUTING AND AN INVITATION CHAPTER XII--WHEN GREEK MEETS GREEK CHAPTER XIII--INTO THE WEST AGAIN CHAPTER XIV--THE NABOB MAKES AN IMPRESSION CHAPTER XV--ESTHER GOES TO PRAYER-MEETING CHAPTER XVI--IN WHICH SEVERAL PEOPLE GET HOME

  ILLUSTRATIONS. "Morton found time to answer all her questions" "He leaned on the gate when he had opened it for the girls" "She opened the door in person" "Tom and Kate watched them go" "'It has been delightful to see you in this lovely old home'"

  CHAPTER I

  HARVEST AT THE FARM

  Just how Dr. Philip Northmore came to be the owner of a farm had neverbeen quite clear to his fellow-townsmen. That he had bought it--thatpretty stretch of upland five miles from Rushmore--in some settlementwith a friend, who owed him more money than he could ever pay, was theopen fact, but how the doctor had believed it to be a good investmentfor himself was the question. The opportunity to pay interest on amortgage and make improvements on those charming acres at the expense ofhis modest professional income was the main part of what he got out ofit. The doctor, as everybody knew, had no genius for making money.

  However, he had never lamented his purchase. On the principle perhapswhich makes the child who draws most heavily on parental care the objectof dearest affection, this particular possession seemed to be the one onwhich the good doctor prided himself most. Its fine location and naturalbeauty were points on which he grew eloquent, and he sometimes referredto its peaceful cultivation as the employment in which he hoped to spendhis own declining years, an expectation which it is safe to say none ofhis acquaintances shared with him.

  So much for Dr. Northmore's interest in the farm. It had a peculiarinterest for the feminine part of his household in the early days ofJuly, when wheat harvest had come and the threshing machine was abroadin the land. It was too much to expect of Jake Erlock, the tenant at thefarm, who, since his wife's death had lived there alone, that he wouldprovide meals for the score of threshers who would bring the harvestingappetite to the work of the great day. Clearly this fell to theNorthmores, and the doctor's wife had risen to the part with her owncharacteristic energy. But for once, on the very eve of the threshing,she found herself facing a sudden embarrassment. Relatives from adistance had made their unexpected appearance as guests at her house,and to leave them behind, or take them into the crowded doings at thefarm, seemed alike impossible. The prompt proposal of her daughters,that they, with the combined wisdom of their seventeen and nineteenyears, should manage the harvest dinner, hardly seemed a plan to beadopted, and would have found scant attention but for the unlooked-forsupport it received from one of the neighbors.

  "Now why don't you let 'em do it?" said Mrs. Elwell, who had happened inat the doctor's an hour after the arrival of the guests. "You've goteverything planned out, of course, and there'll be lots of the neighborwomen in to help. There always is."

  She caught the look of entreaty in the eyes of the girls and the doubtin the eyes of their mother, and added, "Now I think of it, I could goout there myself just as well as not. There isn't anything so very muchgoing on at our house to-morrow, and I'd be right glad to take a hand init. I'll risk it but what the girls and I can manage."

  Manage! There was no question on that score. Mrs. Northmore's eyes grewmoist and she opened her lips to speak, but her good friend was beforeher, her pleasant face at that moment the express image of neighborlykindness. "Now, with all you've done for us, you and the doctor, to makea fuss over a little thing like this!" she said. And Mrs. Northmore,with the grace which can receive as well as render a favor, accepted theoffer without a protest.

  That was how it happened that Esther and Kate Northmore went to theharvesting at the farm, in their mother's stead, the next morning. Kate,at least, carried no anxiety, but Esther, as the older, could not layaside some uneasiness, not so much lest things should go wrong as lesttheir generous friend might be too much burdened, and the thought of allthere was to do lent an unusual gravity to her sensitive face.

  It was a perfect July day, with the sky an unbroken blue except for theclouds which floated like golden chaff high in the zenith. The greatmachine, flaming in crimson against a background of gold, stood amongthe ripened sheaves, and a score of sunburned men urged the labor whichhad begun betimes.

  Ah, there is no harvest like this of the wheat. It comes when the yearis at its flood, and the sun, rejoicing as a strong man to run a race,holds long on his course against the slow-creeping night. Whatingathering of the later months, when the days have grown short andchilly, can match it in joy? The one is like the victory that comes inyouth, when the success of to-day seems the promise for to-morrow; theother is the reward that comes to the worn and enfeebled man, whowhispers in the midst of his gladness: "How slight at best are the gainsof life!"

  Esther was too young to moralize and too busy with the very practicalwork of helping with the dinner to grow poetical over the harvest scene,but the beauty of it did hold her for a minute with a long admiring gazeas she stood by the well, where she had gone for a pitcher of freshwater.

  A man in gray jeans had hurried from the edge of the field at sight ofher, to lower the buckets hanging from the old-fashioned windlass. Shedetained him a moment when he had handed her the dripping pitcher.

  "We couldn't have had a better day than this, could we?" she said. "Andwhat a good thing it is that you and father decided to put in the wheat!He was speaking of that at breakfast this morning, and he says it wasall your doing. There was such a poor crop last year that for his parthe was almost afraid to try it again."

  The man's face shone with gratified pride. "Well, I reckon the doctorain't fretting over it much now that I had my way," he said. And then headded modestly: "But I might have missed it. You never can tell how acrop'll come out till you see the grain in the measure."

  "Well, we're seeing that to-day," said the girl. "How much will therebe?"

  "We can't rightly tell till it's all threshed out," said the man; "butTom Balcom 'lows it'll average as well's anything they've threshed, andthey've had thirty-five bushels to the acre."

  Figures did not mean much to Esther, but her "Oh!" had a note ofappreciation. Then, as he was turning away, she said earnestly: "I hopewe shall have a good dinner for you, Mr. Erlock. Mother was ever sosorry she couldn't come out to-day herself; I believe she was afraid youwouldn't fare as well as you ought without her. But Mrs. Elwell came,and between us all we won't let you suffer."

  "I hain't a bit o' doubt about the victuals being good," said the man,gallantly. "I hope you found things all right in the house. I tried tored up a little for you."

  "Oh, everything was in beautiful order, and the women are all praisingyour good housekeeping," said Esther, smiling.

  He looked at once pleased and embarrassed. "I did the best I could," hesaid, then turned with an awkward nod and hurried again to his work.

  She remembered hers too, and hastened with her pitcher back to thehouse. It was a one-story frame, with gray shingled sides and a deepdrooping roof whose forward projection formed a porch across the entirefront. Ordinarily it wore an expression of shy reserve, but to-day, withdoors and windows open, and the hum of voices sounding through and roundit, it seemed to have taken a new interest in life and looked a willingpart of the cheerful scene.

  The kitchen which the girl entered was full of country women, so fullindeed that it seemed a wonder they could accomplish any work, but everyone was busy except a young woman with a baby in her arms, who satcomplacently watching the labors of the others.

  It is the neighborly fashion in the middle West for the women ofadjoining farms to help each other in the labors of this busiest time inthe year, and the custom had not been omitted to-day because there wasno one to return the service. It was rendered willingly as ever, partlyfrom regard for Dr. Northmore, and partly from sympathy with the lonelyhouseholder who managed his farm.

  "I had to stop and talk a minute with Jake Erlock," said Esther,apologetic for her slight loitering now that she felt the hurry of thework again. "He came up to draw the water for me, and you ought to haveseen him blush when I told him you all thought he was a goodhousekeeper."

  "Well, if he has any doubt what we think on that point, he'd better comein here and we'll tell him," said a woman who was grinding coffee at amill fixed to the wall. "I don't believe there's another man in thistownship that would manage as well as he does. I wouldn't answer for theway things would look at our house if 'twas _my_ man that had therunning of 'em."

  Groans and headshakings followed this remark. Apparently none of thewomen present felt any confidence in the ability of their respective mento run the domestic machinery.

  "Well, Mis' Erlock was a mighty good housekeeper herself," observed oneof them. "And I reckon Jake thinks it wouldn't be showing proper respectto her memory to let everything go at loose ends now she's gone. I tellyou, Jake's an uncommon good man in more ways than one. 'Tain'teverybody that would stay single as long as he has, but that's just whatI expected from the feelings he showed at the funeral, and it coming solong afterward too."

  A murmur of assent showed that the speaker was not the only one whoremembered the emotion of the bereaved man on that mournful occasion,which, as had been suggested, occurred some time after his wife's death,the delay of the sermon devoted to her memory being occasioned, as oftenhappens in country districts of the West and South, by the absence ofthe preacher proper, whose extended circuit gives him but a portion ofthe year in one place.

  "Well, 'twas to his credit, of course," observed an elderly woman whowas shelling peas; "but I must say I don't like this way of putting offthe funeral so long. I think burying people and preaching about 'emought to go together, and if you can't have your own preacher, you'dbetter put up with somebody else, or go without."

  "I don't know about that," said the young woman with the baby. "It looksto me as if folks were in a mighty hurry to get the last word said whenthey can't wait for the right one to say it. I shouldn't want my husbandto be so keen to get through with it all, if 'twas me that was taken."

  "Maybe you'd want him to do like the man that took his second wife tohear his first wife's funeral," retorted the other.

  The defender of local custom admitted, in the midst of a general laugh,that this was carrying it too far, and then the conversation turned onthe probability of Jake Erlock's marrying again, the various suitablepersons to be found should he feel so inclined, and the importance ingeneral of men having some one to take care of them, and of women havingmen and their houses to take care of.

  The subject which, with its ramifications, seemed fairly inexhaustiblewas making Kate Northmore yawn and had fairly driven Esther from theroom, when a young man with a bright, sunburned face and a pair ofstraight, broad shoulders looked in at the window.

  "My, how good it smells in here!" he exclaimed in a voice that went wellwith the face. "What all are we going to have for dinner, Aunt Jenny?"

  Mrs. Elwell, who was testing the heat of the oven on a plump bare arm,turned a flushed face and motherly smile on the speaker.

  "Everything nice," she said. "You never saw a better dinner than thegirls have brought out for you. What do you say to fried chicken, andnew potatoes, and green peas, with pie and doughnuts to top off, andlots of other good things thrown in extra?"

  The young man smacked his lips and sent a devouring glance around theroom. "Say!" he repeated. "Why, I say it's enough to make a fellow feellike John Ridd and thank the Lord for the room there is in him. When areyou going to give us a chance at all that?"

  "When the bell rings, of course," said Kate Northmore, looking up at himwith a saucy glance from the meal she was sifting. "You didn't expect toget anything to eat now, I hope."

  "Oh, not anything much," said the young man, helping himself to adoughnut from a plate which stood within easy reach. "I just looked into tell you that while you're getting, you'd better get us a plenty.We're a fearful hungry crowd, and there won't be much left over; but ifthere should be, it might come in handy to-morrow."

  "_To-morrow!_" repeated Kate, letting the meal which was whirling underher hand fall level in the pan. "You don't mean that there's any dangerof your being here to-morrow, do you?"

  The young man brushed the chaff from the shoulders of his blue flannelshirt, and set his straw hat a little further on the back of his headbefore he answered. Kate's "_To-morrow_" had put a complete pause on thetalk of the room, and every woman there was looking at him anxiously.

  "Well, I wouldn't really say that there's any need of worrying about it_yet_" he said, lowering his voice to a confidential tone; "but you seethe men have heard that you and Esther are such stunning good cooksthat--well, of course, I don't want to give 'em away, but I don't know asyou can blame 'em any for wanting to make the work hold out so as to getin an extra meal or two here, if they can. That's all."

  There was a shout at this, and Mrs. Elwell said reproachfully, "Now,Morton, quit your fooling. Aren't you ashamed of yourself to comescaring the girls with your talk about to-morrow? Why, we thought themachine had broken down, or something of that sort."

  He did look a little conscience-smitten just then, as Esther, who hadcaught some hint of excitement in the dining room, where she was settingthe table, appeared in the doorway, looking really troubled. Kate wasfacing him with a different expression.

  "Well, since you're so anxious about to-morrow, Mort Elwell, you needn'teat any more of those doughnuts," she said, snatching up the platetoward which his hand was moving a second time, and setting it out ofhis reach. "We may want them, you know."

  He drew down his face to an injured expression. "That's the way youtreat a body, is it, when he comes to give you a friendly warning? Allright, I'll go now. I see I'm not wanted."

  He shifted his position as he spoke, and the next moment the pitchfork,on which he had been leaning, was thrust through the window, and asquickly withdrawn, with a doughnut sticking on every point. "Good-by,Kate," he shouted, as he disappeared. "If the doughnuts don't hold out,you can make some cookies for to-morrow."

  He had the best of it, and after a moment, apparently, even Kate forgavehim, "the rascal," as she called him, with a toss of her pretty head.And then the talk of the kitchen took a new turn, suggested by thethought of all the ills which would have followed if an accident hadreally happened to the machine. There had been such accidents in theexperience of most of those present, and they were recounted now withmuch fulness of detail and some rivalry as to the amount of agonyendured in the several cases by the workers in the culinary department.

  "It's the worst thing there is about threshing," said the woman who hadrelated the most harrowing tale of all. "I don't care how many men thereare, and I don't mind cooking for 'em, and setting out the best I'vegot,--seems as if a body warn't thankful for the crop if they don't,--butwhen the machine gets out of order, and the work hangs on, and you havethe men on your hands for three or four days running, just eating youout of house and home, and keeping you on the jump from morning tonight, getting things on the table and off again, I tell you it'ssomething awful."

  There was no demur to this sentiment, but there was still another phaseof distress to be mentioned.

  "No," said one of the others, "there ain't anything quite as bad asthat, but it's the next thing to it to have the threshers come down onyou without your having fair warning that they're coming. I never _will_forget what a time we had last year. Abe had been telling me all alongthat they were going to stack the wheat and thresh in the fall, when oneday, 'most sundown, up comes the threshing machine right into our barnlot. I told the men there must be some mistake, but they said, no,they'd just made a bargain with Abe, and were going to begin on ourwheat in the morning. I tell you I was that mad I couldn't see straight.Abe he tried to smooth it over, said he found the men had been thrownout at one place, and he thought he'd better close right in on 'em, andI needn't to worry about the victuals--just give 'em what I had."

  She paused with an accent of inexpressible contempt, and covered herhusband's remarks on that point with the words, "You know how men talk!Why, even our side meat was most gone, and I hadn't a single chickenfrying size. Well, I tell you I didn't let the grass grow under my feetnor under Abe's neither. I made him hitch up and put himself into townthe liveliest ever he did, and what with me sitting up most all night tobrown coffee, and churn, and make pies, we somehow managed to put thingsthrough. I was plumb wore out when 'twas all over, but they do say themen bragged all the rest of the season on the dinner I gave 'em."

  Great applause followed this story, and an elderly woman remarked:"That's one good thing about having the threshers. You're sure to getyour name up for a good cook if your victuals suit the men. I'll warrantyou'll get a recommend after to-day, girls," she said, with a nod atKate and Esther. "And it ain't a bad thing to have at your age," sheadded, with a knowing wink.

  Esther flushed, with a look of annoyance, but Kate responded gayly: "Allright. Don't any of you tell that they made the pies and doughnuts athome, and don't you ever let it out that you fried the chickens, Mrs.Elwell."

  There was a sisterly resemblance between the two girls. Each was fair,with dark hair and eyes, but Esther was generally counted the prettier.She had a delicate, oval face, with soft, responsive eyes, and a colorthat came and went as easily as ripples in a wheat-field; the sort offace which, without the slightest coquetry of expression, was almostsure to hold and draw again the interested glance of those who met her.Kate's was of the commoner type, and yet there was nothing too common inits strong, pleasant lines, or the straightforward frankness of herready smile.

  With so many to help, the preparations for dinner could not but movebriskly. At sharp twelve o'clock the farm bell, mounted on a hickorypost at the corner of the house, rang out its invitation, and almostinstantly the engine stopped puffing, the whir of labor in the fieldsslackened, and the men had turned their faces toward the house. Theywere not a company of common laborers. Many of them were well-to-dofarmers, who gave their services here in repayment or anticipation ofsimilar aid in their own time of need. Most of them knew the Northmoregirls, and had a friendly greeting for Kate as they passed her, standingby the swinging bell.

  "Well, Miss Kate," said one of them, a tall, angular man, who, in spiteof his office in the district as the New Light preacher, was one of themost active workers, "I'll wager you never rang a bell before for such ahard-looking crowd. We're 'knaves that smell of sweat.' But there'sfolks that look better in worse business, and I reckon you don't mindthe looks of us as long as we behave ourselves. How many do you want atonce? I s'pose we can't all sit down at the first table."

  "Well, then," broke in a hearty young farmer, with a twinkle in hiseyes, "I move that the preacher goes in with the last crowd. We don'tany of us want to run our chances after he gets through."

  "Oh," said the preacher, good-naturedly, "I was calculating to wait,anyhow. Shan't have any scruples then against taking the last piece."

  "Well, I'll engage that the last piece shall lie as good as the first,"said Kate; "but we can't give more than ten of you elbow-room at once. Imight count 'Eeny, meny, miny, mo,' to see which of you shall come innow, but there's a pan of corn-bread in the oven that I'm watching, andI think you'd better settle it yourselves."

  Apparently there was no difficulty, for in an extraordinarily shortspace of time the toilets made at the well were finished, and the dinnerwas furnished with guests. Loaded as the table was with good things, itmight have seemed part of a Thanksgiving scene but that the holiday airwas quite wanting to the men who sat around it. There was not muchconversation. Some observations on crops and the price of wheat, or anoccasional bit of good-natured raillery, filled the infrequent pauses inthe business of eating, but the latter was carried on with a heartinesswhich spoke well for those who had spread the feast.

  Outside, however, in the shadow of the great beech by the kitchen door,there was a waiting group who found time for talking, and the preacher,whose long, lank figure was stretched in the midst, was easily takingthe leading part. Some remark had evidently started him on a train ofreminiscences, and his mellow, half-drawling tones floated through thekitchen door, and mingled with the clatter of the dishes.

  "Yes, there's been a heap o' change in this country since I came heretwenty years ago. 'Twas pretty much all timber through here then, andthere warn't a foot o' tile in this end o' the county. I hired out toold Jim Rader. He was just clearing up his farm. Lord, he used to haveme up by four o'clock in the morning, grubbing stumps, with the fog sothick you couldn't tell stump from fog before you."

  "I reckon you made the acquaintance of the ager 'bout that time,"observed one of the group as the preacher paused.

  "Ague!" repeated the other, raising himself on his elbow and eying thespeaker. "Wall, I reckon! If there's any kind I didn't get on speakingterms with, I'd like to know the name of it. I've had the third-dayague, and the seventh-day ague, the shaking ague, and the dumbague--though why 'twas ever called 'dumb' beats me. If there's anythingcalculated to make a man open his mouth and express his mind freely onthe way things go in this neck o' wilderness, it's that particular kind.Lord! My bones have ached so, I'd have given any man a black eye thatsaid there was only two hundred of 'em. However, I got shet of it atlast, taking quinine. Reckon this country couldn't have been settled upwithout quinine, and I stayed with Rader two years and helped him breakin the land. Didn't like the business much, but I had a notion in myhead that I wanted to make a preacher of myself, and I didn't quit tillI had the means to do it. Didn't get over-much schooling, but I wouldn'ttake a heap for what I did get. Mort!" he exclaimed, turning abruptly tothe young man at his side, "how have you been getting on at college?They say you're going to stick right to it."

  "I haven't had to give up yet," said the young man, quietly; "and Idon't think it's likely any part of the course will be harder than thefirst two years."

  "Reckon your uncle don't come down very heavy with the stamps yet," saidthe preacher, grimly.

  The young man flushed. "'Tisn't my uncle's business to send me tocollege," he said; "I never asked him to."

  "That's right, that's right," said the preacher, heartily. "I like yourgrit. For that matter, you might as well spend your breath trying toblow up a rain as trying to persuade him to spend any money on schoolingthat he didn't haf to. But how did you make it? You must have found ithard pulling at first."

  "Oh, at first I sawed wood," said the other, lightly, "and I'll own thatwas hard pulling. Half a cord before breakfast is a pretty fair stint,but I managed to make it. After that 'twas different things. I never hadany trouble getting work. It was one man's horse and another man's lawn,and in the spring I had a great run helping the women at house-cleaning.Got quite a reputation for laying carpets. This year there hasn't beenquite as much variety in my jobs, for I taught school in the winter."

  The preacher's sallow face was tense and the shrewd gray eyes gleamed ashe listened. "You'll do, Mort Elwell!" he said. "If I was a betting man,I'd bet on you and take all the chances going."

  At that moment, Mrs. Elwell, who was standing in the kitchen doorway fora moment's rest and coolness, was saying to Esther Northmore, with alittle sigh, "I don't wonder he had all he could do at house-cleaning.If he knew how I missed him last spring! There's nobody 'round here thatcan put down carpets equal to him." And then she sighed again, this timemore heavily. Every one knew that if she had her way, her husband'snephew, who had grown up as one of their own family, would not beworking his way through college in this stern fashion.

  As for Morton himself, perhaps, being a young fellow not much given totalking of his private affairs in public, he was glad to see a stream ofmen issuing just then from the house, and it was but a few minutes laterwhen a second call summoned him and his fellows to their places.

  It was hardly an hour that the wheels of the great machine stood still.At the end of that time the workers were all at their places again. Andnow that the masculine appetites were satisfied, the women sat down toeat, an occupation which they prolonged far beyond the time of theirpredecessors. To the Northmore girls, indeed, it seemed as if it wouldnever be over, but there came an end to it at last, and even to thewashing of the dishes.

  Esther would not consent to the proposal of the women that they shoulddo the work without her, but Kate--with better wisdom perhaps--accepted itwith the frankest pleasure. She was a girl who had a healthy curiosityabout everything that went on around her, and no one was surprised tosee her presently standing in the field, beside the engine that made thewheels of the threshing machine go round, getting points from the man incharge as to how they did it. After that an invitation from MortonElwell, who was on the feed board, to come up and watch the work fromthat point was instantly accepted, amid the laughing approval of thecrowd. For her sake the speed of the work was slackened a little, thebundles were thrown from the loaded wagon more slowly, and Morton foundtime, while cutting their bands and thrusting them in at their place, toanswer all her questions.

  It was a pretty picture she made, standing in her blue gingham dress onthis crimson throne, her sunbonnet fallen on her shoulders and her darkhair blowing about her face, but she knew nothing of this. She wasthinking only of that wonderful machine, and she knew before she lefther place how it whirled the loosened sheaves from sight, rubbed out thegrain in its rough iron palms, sent the free clean wheat in a rushingstream down to the waiting measure, and flung out the broken straw to becaught on the pitchforks of the laborers behind and pressed to its placeon the growing stack.

  There was an exhilaration in it not to be dreamed of by her sister, whoglanced at her occasionally from the kitchen windows and wondered howshe could bear to be in the midst of all that heat and noise. For herpart, she was quite content to let the machine stand merely as part ofthe picture. And perhaps for her it wore the greater dignity from hervague idea of its internal workings.

  The afternoon wore away swiftly. There was a five o'clock supper to beserved to the men, but this was not the elaborate affair the dinner hadbeen, and by sunset of the long bright day the work indoors and out hadbeen brought to a successful finish. The shining stubble of the fieldlay bare except for the fresh clean straw stack. The machine wasrumbling on its way to another farm, and Jake Erlock's kitchen had beenrestored to a state of order equal to that in which his kindly neighborshad found it.

  It had been expected that Dr. Northmore would come for his daughters,but, as he had not appeared when the work was finished, they acceptedthe offer of a ride home with a farmer who was going their way. Thesight of them sitting in the big Studebaker wagon must have acted as aprompter to Morton Elwell's memory, for he suddenly recalled that he hadan important errand in town, and proposed to go along too, a proposal towhich the owner of the wagon agreed with the greatest good will. Therewas not a chair for him,--the girls had been established in the onlytwo,--and the farmer and his hired man occupied the seat, but the youngman settled him on a bundle of straw in the bottom of the wagon, with anair of supreme content.

  They were old comrades, he and the Northmore girls; the girls could notremember the time when he had not been their escort and champion, theirFidus Achates, all the more free to devote himself to their servicebecause he had no sisters or even girl cousins of his own. He was twoyears older than either of them, and his years at college seemed to makehim older still, but if his absence had made any difference in theperfect freedom of their relations, he, at least, had not guessed it.

  "Well, you girls must be glad to be through with this," he said, as theteam started at a rattling pace down the road. "I know you're awfullytired."

  He included them both in his glance, but it rested longest on Esther'sface, which certainly looked a little weary under the shadow of her widestraw hat.

  "You must be tired yourself, Mort," she said, looking down at him."You've been working ever since daylight, haven't you?"

  "Oh, but I'm used to that," he said gayly, "and this is new business foryou. I must say, though, I never saw things go better. There won't beanybody round here to beat you at housekeeping if you keep on likethis."

  She frowned slightly. "It was your aunt who managed everything," shesaid; "all we did was to help a little."

  "That isn't what she'll say about it," said the young man, and then headded warmly: "but my Aunt Jenny's a host wherever you put her. There'sno doubt about that. My, what a good place this world would be ifeverybody in it was made like her!" And there was an assent to thiswhich ought to have made the good woman's ears burn, if there is anytruth in the old saying.

  For a while the talk ran lightly on the incidents of the day; then itgrew more personal, and plans for the summer fell under discussion.Morton's were all for work. He was of age, master of his own time, andhe meant to make a good sum toward the expenses of the coming year atcollege. He talked of his hopes with the utmost frankness, and thenquestioned of theirs as one who had the fullest rights of friendship.

  "Will you go away anywhere?" he asked; "or are you going to stay at homeall summer?"

  "That depends," said Kate, answering for both. "We may go up toMaxinkuckee for a little while; but what we'd like to do, what we'd likebest--" she paused upon the words with a lifting of her hands and thedrawing of a long ecstatic breath, "would be to make a visit atgrandfather's. You can't think how he's urging us to come."

  "Do you mean go to New England?" he exclaimed, sitting up straight onhis bundle of straw.

  "Yes, to mother's old home," said Kate. "Just think, we haven't beenthere since we were little girls. Mother's been trying to persuadegrandfather to come out here, but he says he's too old to make thejourney, and that we must come there. He has fairly set his heart onit."

  "And so have the others too," said Esther. "Stella's letters have beenfull of it for the last six months."

  "Stella's that cousin of yours who's such an artist, isn't she?" saidMorton. He was looking extremely interested.

  "Oh, she's an artist and everything else that's lovely," said Esther. "Idon't suppose you ever saw the kind of girl that she is. She has astudio in Boston in the winters. She sent me a picture of it once, andit's perfectly charming. And only think, she's been in Europe twice--onceshe was studying over there. And she's seen those wonderful old placesand the famous pictures, and been a part of everything that'sbeautiful."

  "That's the sort of thing you'd like to do yourself, I suppose," saidthe young man, drawing a wisp of straw slowly through his fingers.

  "Like it!" she cried. "To travel, to study, to see beautiful things, tohear beautiful music, and to be in touch every day with charming,cultivated people! Oh, if I had half a chance, wouldn't I take it!"

  There was something very wistful in her voice as she said it, but notmore wistful than the look that came into Morton Elwell's eyes at thatmoment. He turned them away from her face, and the rattle of the bigwagon filled the silence.

  "You ought to show Mort that picture of Stella you got the other day,"said Kate, suddenly.

  Esther took a letter from her pocket. "I brought it out to the farmto-day on purpose to show your aunt," she said, and she handed him aphotograph which he regarded for a moment with a bewildered expression.

  "Why, it looks like a picture of Greek statuary," he said; "one of theold goddesses, or something of that sort."

  "That's just the way she meant to have it look," said Esther,triumphantly. "You see how artistic she is."

  The young man still looked mystified. "But is her hair really white,like that?" he asked.

  "Why, of course not," said Esther, in a rather disgusted tone. "Shepowdered it and did it in a low coil for the sake of the picture. Thenshe put the white folds over her shoulders to make it look like a bustagainst the dark background, and she had the lights and shadows arrangedto give just the right effect. Isn't it exquisite?"

  "I can't say I admire it," said the young man, grimly; "I'd rather seepeople look as if they were made of flesh and blood."

  Kate laughed. She had privately expressed the same opinion herself, butshe did not choose to encourage him in criticising her relatives.

  "You're an insensible Philistine, Mort Elwell," she said, with a slyglance at her sister. "That's what Stella'd call you, and she knows."

  The point of the taunt was lost on the young man, but he had animpression, derived from early lessons in the Sabbath School, that thePhilistines were a race of heathen idolaters, and he resented the chargewith spirit.

  "You'd better call your cousin the Philistine," he retorted; "I'm sure Ihave no liking for graven images."

  This was too much for Esther. She snatched the picture from his hand andbent a look of admiration upon the shapely white head, with its classicprofile and downcast eyes, which made ample amends for the cold scrutinyto which it had just been subjected.

  "It is perfectly beautiful," she said, with slow emphasis; "I don't seehow you can be unappreciative."

  Morton did not press his obnoxious opinion. He grew rather silent, andexcept for an occasional sally from Kate, conversation was at a low ebbfor the rest of the way.

  Meanwhile the sunset flamed and faded in the west. The evening breezesprang up, and cool, restful shadows fell on the wide, rich landscape.

  "Home at last!" cried Kate, as a bend in the road brought them suddenlyupon a house of the colonial style, shaded by fine old trees, at theedge of town. "And there's mother in the doorway looking for us."

 
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