It was early in August when Mrs. Wealthy Brooks announced her speedy return from Boston to Edgewood.
"It's jest as well Rose is comin' back," said Mr. Wiley to his wife. "I never favored her goin' to Boston, where that rosyposy Claude feller is. When he was down here he was kep' kind o' tied up in a boxstall, but there he's caperin' loose round the pastur'."
"I should think Rose would be ashamed to come back, after the way she's carried on," remarked Mrs. Wiley, "but if she needed punishment I guess she's got it bein' comp'ny-keeper to Wealthy Ann Brooks. Bein' a church member in good an' reg'lar standin', I s'pose Wealthy Ann'll go to heaven, but I can only say that it would be a sight pleasanter place for a good many if she didn't."
"Rose has be'n foolish an' flirty an' wrong-headed," allowed her grandfather; "but it won't do no good to treat her like a hardened criminile, same's you did afore she went away. She ain't hardly got her wisdom teeth cut, in love affairs! She ain't broke the laws of the State o' Maine, nor any o' the ten commandments; she ain't disgraced the family, an' there's a chance for her to reform, seein' as how she ain't twenty year old yet. I was turrible wild an' hot-headed myself afore you ketched me an' tamed me down."
"You ain't so tame now as I wish you was," Mrs. Wiley replied testily.
"If you could smoke a clay pipe 'twould calm your nerves, mother, an' help you to git some philosophy inter you; you need a little philosophy turrible bad."
"I need patience consid'able more," was Mrs. Wiley's withering retort.
"That's the way with folks," said Old Kennebec reflectively, as he went on peacefully puffing. "If you try to indoose 'em to take an int'rest in a bran'-new virtue, they won't look at it; but they'll run down a side street an' buy half a yard more o' some turrible old shopworn trait o' character that they've kep' in stock all their lives, an' that everybody's sick to death of. There was a man in Gard'ner"--
But alas! the experiences of the Gardiner man, though told in the same delightful fashion that had won Mrs. Wiley's heart many years before, now fell upon the empty air. In these years of Old Kennebec's "anecdotage," his pipe was his best listener and his truest confidant.
Mr. Wiley's constant intercessions with his wife made Rose's home-coming somewhat easier, and the sight of her own room and belongings soothed her troubled spirit, but the days went on, and nothing happened to change the situation. She had lost a lover, that was all, and there were plenty more to choose from, or there always had been; but the only one she wanted was the one who made no sign. She used to think that she could twist Stephen around her little finger; that she had only to beckon to him and he would follow her to the ends of the earth. Now fear had entered her heart. She no longer felt sure, because she no longer felt worthy, of him, and feeling both uncertainty and unworthiness, her lips were sealed and she was rendered incapable of making any bid for forgiveness.
So the little world of Pleasant River went on, to all outward seeming, as it had ever gone. On one side of the stream a girl's heart was longing, and pining, and sickening, with hope deferred, and growing, too, with such astonishing rapidity that the very angels marveled! And on the other, a man's whole vision of life and duty was widening and deepening under the fructifying influence of his sorrow.
The corn waved high and green in front of the vacant riverside cottage, but Stephen sent no word or message to Rose. He had seen her once, but only from a distance. She seemed paler and thinner, he thought,--the result; probably, of her metropolitan gayeties. He heard no rumor of any engagement, and he wondered if it were possible that her love for Claude Merrill had not, after all, been returned in kind. This seemed a wild impossibility. His mind refused to entertain the supposition that any man on earth could resist falling in love with Rose, or, having fallen in, that he could ever contrive to climb out. So he worked on at his farm harder than ever, and grew soberer and more careworn daily. Rufus had never seemed so near and dear to him as in these weeks when he had lived under the shadow of threatened blindness. The burning of the barn and the strain upon their slender property brought the brothers together shoulder to shoulder.
"If you lose your girl, Steve," said the boy, "and I lose my eyesight, and we both lose the barn, why, t'll be us two against the world, for a spell!"
The "To Let" sign on the little house was an arrant piece of hypocrisy. Nothing but the direst extremity could have caused him to allow an alien step on that sacred threshold. The plowing up of the flowerbeds and planting of the corn had served a double purpose. It showed the too curious public the finality of his break with Rose and her absolute freedom; it also prevented them from suspecting that he still entered the place. His visits were not many, but he could not bear to let the dust settle on the furniture that he and Rose had chosen together; and whenever he locked the door and went back to the River Farm, he thought of a verse in the Bible: "Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken."
It was now Friday of the last week in August. The river was full of logs, thousands upon thousands of them covering the surface of the water from the bridge almost up to the Brier Neighborhood.
The Edgewood drive was late, owing to a long drought and low water; but it was to begin on the following Monday, and Lije Dennett and his under boss were looking over the situation and planning the campaign. As they leaned over the bridge-rail they saw Mr. Wiley driving down the river road. When he caught sight of them he hitched the old white horse at the corner and walked toward them, filling his pipe the while in his usual leisurely manner.
"We're not busy this forenoon," said Lije Dennett. "S'pose we stand right here and let Old Kennebec have his say out for once. We've never heard the end of one of his stories, an' he's be'n talkin' for twenty years."
"All right," rejoined his companion, with a broad grin at the idea. "I'm willin', if you are; but who's goin' to tell our fam'lies the reason we've deserted 'em! I bate yer we sha'n't budge till the crack o' doom. The road commissioner'll come along once a year and mend the bridge under our feet, but Old Kennebec'll talk straight on till the day o' jedgment."
Mr. Wiley had one of the most enjoyable mornings of his life, and felt that after half a century of neglect his powers were at last appreciated by his fellow-citizens.
He proposed numerous strategic movements to be made upon the logs, whereby they would move more swiftly than usual. He described several successful drives on the Kennebec, when the logs had melted down the river almost by magic, owing to his generalship; and he paid a tribute, in passing, to the docility of the boss, who on that occasion had never moved a single log without asking his advice.
From this topic he proceeded genially to narrate the life-histories of the boss, the under boss, and several Indians belonging to the crew,--histories in which he himself played a gallant and conspicuous part. The conversation then drifted naturally to the exploits of river-drivers in general, and Mr. Wiley narrated the sorts of feats in log-riding, pickpole-throwing, and the shooting of rapids that he had done in his youth. These stories were such as had seldom been heard by the ear of man; and, as they passed into circulation instantaneously, we are probably enjoying some of them to this day.
They were still being told when a Crambry child appeared on the bridge, bearing a note for the old man.
Upon reading it he moved off rapidly in the direction of the store, ejaculating:
"Bless my soul! I clean forgot that saleratus, and mother's settin' at the kitchen table with the bowl in her lap, waitin' for it! Got so int'rested in your list'nin' I never thought o' the time."
The connubial discussion that followed this breach of discipline began on the arrival of the saleratus, and lasted through supper; and Rose went to bed almost immediately afterward for very dullness and apathy. Her life stretched out before her in the most aimless and monotonous fashion. She saw nothing but heartache in the future; and that she richly deserved it made it none the easier to bear.
Feeling feverish and sleepless, she slipped on her gray Shaker cloak and stole quietly downstairs for a breath of air. Her grandfather and grandmother were talking on the piazza, and good humor seemed to have been restored.
"I was over to the tavern to-night," she heard him say, as she sat down at a little distance. "I was over to the tavern to-night, an' a feller from Gorham got to talkin' an' braggin' 'bout what a stock o' goods they kep' in the store over there. 'An','says I, 'I bate ye dollars to doughnuts that there hain't a darn thing ye can ask for at Bill Pike's store at Pleasant River that he can't go down cellar, or up attic, or out in the barn chamber an' git for ye.' Well, sir, he took me up, an' I borrered the money of Joe Dennett, who held the stakes, an' we went right over to Bill Pike's with all the boys follerin' on behind. An' the Gorham man never let on what he was goin' to ask for till the hull crowd of us got inside the store. Then says he, as p'lite as a basket o' chips, 'Mr. Pike, I'd like to buy a pulpit if you can oblige me with one.'
"Bill scratched his head an' I held my breath. Then says he, 'Pears to me I'd ought to hev a pulpit or two, if I can jest remember where I keep 'em. I don't never cal'late to be out o' pulpits, but I'm so plagued for room I can't keep 'em in here with the groc'ries. Jim (that's his new store boy), you jest take a lantern an' run out in the far corner o' the shed, at the end o' the hickory woodpile, an' see how many pulpits we've got in stock!' Well, Jim run out, an' when he come back he says, 'We've got two, Mr. Pike. Shall I bring one of 'em in?'
"At that the boys all bust out laughin' an' hollerin' an' tauntin' the Gorham man, an' he paid up with a good will, I tell ye!"
"I don't approve of bettin'," said Mrs. Wiley grimly, "but I'll try to sanctify the money by usin' it for a new wash-boiler."
"The fact is," explained old Kennebec, somewhat confused, "that the boys made me spend every cent of it then an' there."
Rose heard her grandmother's caustic reply, and then paid no further attention until her keen ear caught the sound of Stephen's name. It was a part of her unhappiness that since her broken engagement no one would ever allude to him, and she longed to hear him mentioned, so that perchance she could get some inkling of his movements.
"I met Stephen to-night for the first time in a week," said Mr. Wiley. "He kind o' keeps out o' my way lately. He's goin' to drive his span into Portland tomorrow mornin' and bring Rufus home from the hospital Sunday afternoon. The doctors think they've made a success of their job, but Rufus has got to be bandaged up a spell longer. Stephen is goin' to join the drive Monday mornin' at the bridge here, so I'll get the latest news o' the boy. Land! I'll be turrible glad if he gets out with his eyesight, if it's only for Steve's sake. He's a turrible good fellow, Steve is! He said something to-night that made me set more store by him than ever. I told you I hedn't heard an unkind word ag'in' Rose sence she come home from Boston, an' no more I hev till this evenin: There was two or three fellers talkin' in the post-office, an' they didn't suspicion I was settin' on the steps outside the screen door. That Jim Jenkins, that Rose so everlastin'ly snubbed at the tavern dance, spoke up, an' says he: 'This time last year Rose Wiley could 'a' hed the choice of any man on the river, an' now I bet ye she can't get nary one.'
"Steve was there, jest goin' out the door, with some bags o' coffee an' sugar under his arm.
"'I guess you're mistaken about that,' he says, speakin' up jest like lightnin'; 'so long as Stephen Waterman's alive, Rose Wiley can have him, for one; and that everybody's welcome to know.'
"He spoke right out, loud an' plain, jest as if he was readin' the Declaration of Independence. I expected the boys would everlastin'ly poke fun at him, but they never said a word. I guess his eyes flashed, for he come out the screen door, slammin' it after him, and stalked by me as if he was too worked up to notice anything or anybody. I didn't foiler him, for his long legs git over the ground too fast for me, but thinks I, 'Mebbe I'll hev some use for my lemonade-set after all.'"
"I hope to the land you will," responded Mrs. Wiley, "for I'm about sick o' movin' it round when I sweep under my bed. And I shall be glad if Rose an' Stephen do make it up, for Wealthy Ann Brooks's gossip is too much for a Christian woman to stand."