Stephen had brought a change of clothes, as he had a habit of being ducked once at least during the day; and since there was a halt in the proceedings and no need of his services for an hour or two, he found Rose and walked with her to a secluded spot where they could watch the logs and not be seen by the people.
"You frightened everybody almost to death, jumping into the river," chided Rose.
Stephen laughed. "They thought I was a fool to save a fool, I suppose."
"Perhaps not as bad as that, but it did seem reckless."
"I know; and the boy, no doubt, would be better off dead; but so should I be, if I could have let him die."
Rose regarded this strange point of view for a moment, and then silently acquiesced in it. She was constantly doing this, and she often felt that her mental horizon broadened in the act; but she could not be sure that Stephen grew any dearer to her because of his moral altitudes.
"Besides," Stephen argued, "I happened to be nearest to the river, and it was my job."
"How do you always happen to be nearest to the people in trouble, and why is it always your 'job'!"
"If there are any rewards for good conduct being distributed, I'm right in line with my hand stretched out," Stephen replied, with meaning in his voice.
Rose blushed under her flowery hat as he led the way to a bench under a sycamore tree that overhung the water.
She had almost convinced herself that she was as much in love with Stephen Waterman as it was in her nature to be with anybody. He was handsome in his big way, kind, generous, temperate, well educated, and well-to-do. No fault could be found with his family, for his mother had been a teacher, and his father, though a farmer, a college graduate. Stephen himself had had one year at Bowdoin, but had been recalled, as the head of the house, when his father died. That was a severe blow; but his mother's death, three years after, was a grief never to be quite forgotten. Rose, too, was the child of a gently bred mother, and all her instincts were refined. Yes; Stephen in himself satisfied her in all the larger wants of her nature, but she had an unsatisfied hunger for the world,--the world of Portland, where her cousins lived; or, better still, the world of Boston, of which she heard through Mrs. Wealthy Brooks, whose nephew Claude often came to visit her in Edgewood. Life on a farm a mile and a half distant from post-office and stores; life in the house with Rufus, who was rumored to be somewhat wild and unsteady,--this prospect seemed a trifle dull and uneventful to the trivial part of her, though to the better part it was enough. The better part of her loved Stephen Waterman, dimly feeling the richness of his nature, the tenderness of his affection, the strength of his character. Rose was not destitute either of imagination or sentiment. She did not relish this constant weighing of Stephen in the balance: he was too good to be weighed and considered. She longed to be carried out of herself on a wave of rapturous assent, but something seemed to hold her back,--some seed of discontent with the man's environment and circumstances, some germ of longing for a gayer, brighter, more varied life. No amount of self-searching or argument could change the situation. She always loved Stephen more or less: more when he was away from her, because she never approved his collars nor the set of his shirt bosom; and as he naturally wore these despised articles of apparel whenever he proposed to her, she was always lukewarm about marrying him and settling down on the River Farm. Still, to-day she discovered in herself, with positive gratitude, a warmer feeling for him than she had experienced before. He wore a new and becoming gray flannel shirt, with the soft turnover collar that belonged to it, and a blue tie, the color of his kind eyes. She knew that he had shaved his beard at her request not long ago, and that when she did not like the effect as much as she had hoped, he had meekly grown a mustache for her sake; it did seem as if a man could hardly do more to please an exacting lady-love.
And she had admired him unreservedly when he pulled off his boots and jumped into the river to save Alcestis Crambry's life, without giving a single thought to his own. And was there ever, after all, such a noble, devoted, unselfish fellow, or a better brother? And would she not despise herself for rejecting him simply because he was countrified, and because she longed to see the world of the fashion-plates in the magazines?
"The logs are so like people!" she exclaimed, as they sat down. "I could name nearly every one of them for somebody in the village. Look at Mite Shapley, that dancing little one, slipping over the falls and skimming along the top of the water, keeping out of all the deep places, and never once touching the rocks."
Stephen fell into her mood. "There's Squire Anderson coming down crosswise and bumping everything in reach. You know he's always buying lumber and logs without knowing what he is going to do with them. They just lie and rot by the roadside. The boys always say that a toad-stool is the old Squire's 'mark' on a log."
"And that stout, clumsy one is Short Dennett.--What are you doing, Stephen!"
"Only building a fence round this clump of harebells," Stephen replied. "They've just got well rooted, and if the boys come skidding down the bank with their spiked shoes, the poor things will never hold up their heads again. Now they're safe.--Oh, look, Rose! There come the minister and his wife!"
A portly couple of peeled logs, exactly matched in size, came ponderously over the falls together, rose within a second of each other, joined again, and swept under the bridge side by side.
"And--oh! oh! Dr. and Mrs. Cram just after them! Isn't that funny?" laughed Rose, as a very long, slender pair of pines swam down, as close to each other as if they had been glued in that position. Rose thought, as she watched them, who but Stephen would have cared what became of the clump of delicate harebells. How gentle such a man would be to a woman! How tender his touch would be if she were ill or in trouble!
Several single logs followed,--crooked ones, stolid ones, adventurous ones, feeble swimmers, deep divers. Some of them tried to start a small jam on their own account; others stranded themselves for good and all, as Rose and Stephen sat there side by side, with little Dan Cupid for an invisible third on the bench.
"There never was anything so like people," Rose repeated, leaning forward excitedly. "And, upon my word, the minister and doctor couples are still together. I wonder if they'll get as far as the falls at Union? That would be an odd place to part, wouldn't it--Union?" Stephen saw his opportunity, and seized it.
"There's a reason, Rose, why two logs go down stream better than one, and get into less trouble. They make a wider path, create more force and a better current. It's the same way with men and women. Oh, Rose, there isn't a man in the world that's loved you as long, or knows how to love you any better than I do. You're just like a white birch sapling, and I'm a great, clumsy fir tree; but if you'll only trust yourself to me, Rose, I'll take you safely down river."
Stephen's big hand closed on Rose's little one she returned its pressure softly and gave him the kiss that with her, as with him, meant a promise for all the years to come. The truth and passion in the man had broken the girl's bonds for the moment. Her vision was clearer, and, realizing the treasures of love and fidelity that were being offered her, she accepted them, half unconscious that she was not returning them in kind. How is the belle of two villages to learn that she should "thank Heaven, fasting, for a good man's love"? And Stephen? He went home in the dusk, not knowing whether his feet were touching the solid earth or whether he was treading upon rainbows.
Rose's pink calico seemed to brush him as he walked in the path that was wide enough only for one. His solitude was peopled again when he fed the cattle, for Rose's face smiled at him from the haymow; and when he strained the milk, Rose held the pans.
His nightly tasks over, he went out and took his favorite seat under the apple tree. All was still, save for the crickets' ceaseless chirp, the soft thud of an August sweeting dropping in the grass, and the swish-swash of the water against his boat, tethered in the Willow Cove.
He remembered when he first saw Rose, for that must have been when he began to love her, though he was only fourteen and quite unconscious that the first seed had been dropped in the rich soil of his boyish heart.
He was seated on the kerosene barrel in the Edgewood post-office, which was also the general country store, where newspapers, letters, molasses, nails, salt codfish, hairpins, sugar, liver pills, canned goods, beans, and ginghams dwelt in genial proximity. When she entered, just a little pink-and-white slip of a thing with a tin pail in her hand and a sunbonnet falling off her wavy hair, Stephen suddenly stopped swinging his feet. She gravely announced her wants, reading them from a bit of paper,--1 quart molasses, 1 package ginger, 1 lb. cheese, 2 pairs shoe laces, 1 card shirt buttons.
While the storekeeper drew off the molasses she exchanged shy looks with Stephen, who, clean, well-dressed, and carefully mothered as he was, felt all at once uncouth and awkward, rather as if he were some clumsy lout pitchforked into the presence of a fairy queen. He offered her the little bunch of bachelor's buttons he held in his hand, augury of the future, had he known it,--and she accepted them with a smile. She dropped her memorandum; he picked it up, and she smiled again, doing still more fatal damage than in the first instance. No words were spoken, but Rose, even at ten, had less need of them than most of her sex, for her dimples, aided by dancing eyes, length of lashes, and curve of lips, quite took the place of conversation. The dimples tempted, assented, denied, corroborated, deplored, protested, sympathized, while the intoxicated beholder cudgeled his brain for words or deeds which should provoke and evoke more and more dimples.
The storekeeper hung the molasses pail over Rose's right arm and tucked the packages under her left, and as he opened the mosquito netting door to let her pass out she looked back at Stephen, perched on the kerosene barrel. Just a little girl, a little glance, a little dimple, and Stephen was never quite the same again. The years went on, and the boy became man, yet no other image had ever troubled the deep, placid waters of his heart. Now, after many denials, the hopes and longings of his nature had been answered, and Rose had promised to marry him. He would sacrifice his passion for logging and driving in the future, and become a staid farmer and man of affairs, only giving himself a river holiday now and then. How still and peaceful it was under the trees, and how glad his mother would be to think that the old farm would wake from its sleep, and a woman's light foot be heard in the sunny kitchen!
Heaven was full of silent stars, and there was a moonglade on the water that stretched almost from him to Rose. His heart embarked on that golden pathway and sailed on it to the farther shore. The river was free of logs, and under the light of the moon it shone like a silver mirror. The soft wind among the fir branches breathed Rose's name; the river, rippling against the shore, sang, "Rose;" and as Stephen sat there dreaming of the future, his dreams, too, could have been voiced in one word, and that word " Rose."