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"Another basket of eggs, Mr. Cameron, and such delicious cream! I am deeply grieved to see you so nearly well."
"For you will be leaving us of course."
"Thanks, that is kind of you."
"And there will be an end to eggs and cream. Ah! You are a lucky man." And the trim, neat, bright-faced nurse shook her finger at him.
"So I have often remarked to myself these six weeks."
"A friend is a great discovery and by these same tokens you have found one."
"Truly, they have been more than kind."
"This makes the twelfth visit in six weeks," said the nurse. "In busy harvest and threshing time, too. Do you know what that means?"
"To a certain extent. It is awfully good of them."
"But she is shy, shy--and I think she is afraid of you. Her chief interest appears to be in the kitchen, which she has never failed to visit."
The blood slowly rose in Cameron's face, from which the summer tan had all been bleached by his six weeks' fight with fever, but he made no reply to the brisk, sharp-eyed, sharp-minded little nurse.
"And I know she is dying to see you, and, indeed," she chuckled, "it might do you good. She is truly wonderful." And again the nurse laughed. "Don't you think you could bear a visit?" The smile broadened upon her face.
But unaware she had touched a sensitive spot in her patient, his Highland pride.
"I shall be more than pleased to have an opportunity to thank Miss Haley for her great kindness," he replied with dignity.
"All right," replied the nurse. "I shall bring her in. Now don't excite yourself. That fever is not so far away. And only a few minutes. When we farmers go calling--I am a farmer, remember, and know them well--when we go calling we take our knitting and spend the afternoon."
In a few moments she returned with Mandy. The difference between the stout, red-faced, coarse-featured, obtrusively healthy country girl, heavy of foot and hand, slow of speech and awkward of manner, and the neat, quick, deft-fingered, bright-faced nurse was so marked that Cameron could hardly control the wave of pity that swept through his heart, for he could see that even Mandy herself was vividly aware of the contrast. In vain Cameron tried to put her at her ease. She simply sat and stared, now at the walls, now at the floor, refusing for a time to utter more than monosyllables, punctuated with giggles.
"I want to thank you for the eggs and cream. They are fine," said Cameron heartily.
"Oh, pshaw, that's nothin'! Lots more where they come from," replied Mandy with a giggle.
"But it's a long way for you to drive; and in the busy time too."
"Oh, we had to come in anyway for things," replied Mandy, making light of her service.
"You are all well?"
"Oh, pretty middlin'. Ma ain't right smart. She's too much to do, and that's the truth."
"And the boys?" Cameron hesitated to be more specific.
"Oh, there's nothin' eatin' them. I don't bother with them much." Mandy was desperately twisting her white cotton gloves.
At this point the nurse, with a final warning to the patient not to talk too much and not to excite himself, left the room. In a moment Mandy's whole manner changed.
"Say!" she cried in a hurried voice; "Perkins is left."
"I couldn't jist stand him after--after--that night. Dad wanted him to stay, but I couldn't jist stand him, and so he quit."
"I jist hate him since--since--that night. When I think of what he done I could kill him. My, I was glad to see him lyin' there in the dust!" Mandy's words came hot and fast. "They might 'a killed you." For the first time in the interview she looked fairly into Cameron's eyes. "My, you do look awful!" she said, with difficulty commanding her voice.
"Nonsense, Mandy! You see, it wasn't my leg that hurt me. It was the fever that pulled me down."
"Oh, I'll never forget that night!" cried Mandy, struggling to keep her lips from quivering.
"Nor will I ever forget what you did for me that night, Mandy. Sam told me all about it. I shall always be your friend."
For a moment longer she held him with her eyes. Then her face grew suddenly pale and, with voice and hands trembling, she said:
"I must go. Good-by."
He took her great red hand in his long thin fingers.
"Good-by, Mandy, and thank you."
"My!" she said, looking down at the fingers she held in her hand. "Your hands is awful thin. Are you sure goin' to git better?"
"Of course I am, and I am coming out to see you before I go."
She sat down quickly, still holding his hand, as if he had struck her a heavy blow.
"Before you go? Where?" Her voice was hardly above a whisper; her face was white, her lips beyond her control.
"Out West to seek my fortune." His voice was jaunty and he feigned not to see her distress. "I shall be walking in a couple of weeks or so, eh, nurse?"
"A couple of weeks?" replied the nurse, who had just entered. "Yes, if you are good."
Mandy hastily rose.
"But if you are not," continued the nurse severely, "it may be months. Stay, Miss Haley, I am going to bring Mr. Cameron his afternoon tea and you can have some with him. Indeed, you look quite done up. I am sure all that work you have been telling me about is too much for you."
Her kindly tones broke the last shred of Mandy's self-control. She sank into her chair, covered her face with her great red hands and burst into tempestuous weeping. Cameron sat up quickly.
"What in the name of goodness is wrong, Mandy?"
"Lie down at once, Mr. Cameron!" said the nurse sternly. "Hush, hush, Miss Haley! You ought to be ashamed of yourself! Don't you know that you are hurting him?"
She could have chosen no better word. In an instant Mandy was on her feet, mopping off her face and choking down her sobs.
"Ain't I a fool?" she cried angrily. "A blamed fool. Well, I won't bother you any longer. Guess I'll go now. Good-by all." Without another look at Cameron she was gone.
Cameron lay back upon his pillows, white and nerveless.
"Now can you tell me," he panted, "what's up?"
"Search me!" said the nurse gaily, "but I forbid you to speak a single word for half an hour. Here, drink this right off! Now, not a word! What will Dr. Martin say? Not a word! Yes, I shall see her safely off the place. Quiet now!" She kept up a continuous stream of sprightly chatter to cover her own anxiety and to turn the current of her patient's thoughts. By the time she had reached the entrance hall, however, Mandy had vanished.
"Great silly goose!" said the indignant nurse. "I'd see myself far enough before I'd give myself away like that. Little fool! He'll have a temperature sure and I will catch it. Bah! These girls! Next time she sees him it will not be here. I hope the doctor will just give me an hour to get him quiet again."
But in this hope she was disappointed, for upon her return to her patient she found Dr. Martin in the room. His face was grave.
"What's up, nurse? What is the meaning of this rotten pulse? What has he been having to eat?"
"Well, Dr. Martin, I may as well confess my sins," replied the nurse, "for there is no use trying to deceive you anyway. Mr. Cameron has had a visitor and she has excited him."
"Ah!" said the doctor in a relieved tone. "A visitor! A lady visitor! A charming, sympathetic, interested, and interesting visitor."
"Exactly!" said the nurse with a giggle.
"It was Miss Haley, Martin," said Cameron gravely.
The doctor looked puzzled.
"The daughter of the farmer with whom I was working," explained Cameron.
"Ah, I remember her," said the doctor. "And a deuce of a time I had with her, too, getting you away from her, if I remember aright. I trust there is nothing seriously wrong in that quarter?" said Martin with unusual gravity.
"Oh, quit it, Martin!" said Cameron impatiently. "Don't rag. She's an awful decent sort. Her looks are not the best of her."
"Ah! I am relieved to hear that," said the doctor earnestly.
"She is very kind, indeed," said the nurse. "For these six weeks she has fed us up with eggs and cream so that both my patient and myself have fared sumptuously every day. Indeed, if it should continue much longer I shall have to ask an additional allowance for a new uniform. I have promised that Mr. Cameron shall visit the farm within two weeks if he behaves well."
"Exactly!" replied the doctor. "In two weeks if he is good. The only question that troubles me is--is it quite safe? You see in his present weak condition his susceptibility is decidedly emphasised, his resisting power is low, and who knows what might happen, especially if she should insist? I shall not soon forget the look in her eye when she dared me to lay a finger upon his person."
"Oh, cut it out, Martin!" said Cameron. "You make me weary." He lay back on his pillow and closed his eyes.
The nurse threw a signal to the doctor.
"All right, old man, we must stop this chaff. Buck up and in two weeks we will let you go where you like. I have something in mind for you, but we won't speak of it to-day."
The harvest was safely stored. The yellow stubble showed the fields at rest, but the vivid green of the new fall wheat proclaimed the astounding and familiar fact that once more Nature had begun her ancient perennial miracle. For in those fields of vivid green the harvest of the coming year was already on the way. On these green fields the snowy mantle would lie soft and protecting all the long winter through and when the spring suns would shine again the fall wheat would be a month or more on the way towards maturity.
Somehow the country looked more rested, fresher, cleaner to Cameron than when he had last looked upon it in late August. The rain had washed the dust from the earth's face and from the green sward that bordered the grey ribbon of the high road that led out from the city. The pastures and the hay meadows and the turnip fields were all in their freshest green, and beyond the fields the forest stood glorious in all its autumn splendour, the ash trees bright yellow, the oaks rich brown, and the maples all the colours of the rainbow. In the orchard--ah, the wonder and the joy of it! even the bare and bony limbs of the apple trees only helped to reveal the sumptuous wealth of their luscious fruit. For it was apple time in the land! The evanescent harvest apples were long since gone, the snows were past their best, the pippins were mellowing under the sharp persuasion of the nippy, frosty nights and the brave gallantry of the sunny days. In this ancient warfare between the frosty nights and the gallant sunny days the apples ripened rapidly; and well that they should, for the warfare could not be for long. Already in the early morning hours the vanguard of winter's fierce hosts was to be seen flaunting its hoary banners even in the very face of the gallant sun so bravely making stand against it. But it was the time of the year in which men felt it good to be alive, for there was in the air that tang that gives speed to the blood, spring to the muscle, edge to the appetite, courage to the soul, and zest to life--the apple time of the year.
It was in apple time that Cameron came back to the farm. Under compulsion of Mandy, Haley had found it necessary to drive into the city for some things for the "women folk" and, being in the city, he had called for Cameron and had brought him out. Under compulsion, not at all because Haley was indifferent to the prospect of a visit from his former hired man, not alone because the fall plowing was pressing and the threshing gang was in the neighbourhood, but chiefly because, through the channel of Dr. Martin, the little nurse, and Mandy, it had come to be known in the Haley household and in the country side that the hired man was a "great swell in the old country," and Haley's sturdy independence shrank from anything that savoured of "suckin' round a swell," as he graphically put it. But Mandy scouted this idea and waited for the coming of the expected guest with no embarrassment from the knowledge that he had been in the old country "a great swell."
Hence when, through a crack beside the window blind, she saw him, a poor, pale shadow, descending wearily and painfully from the buggy, the great mother heart in the girl welled with pity. She could hardly forbear rushing out to carry him bodily in her strong arms to the spare room and lay him where she had once helped to lay him the night of the tragedy some eight weeks before. But in this matter she had learned her lesson. She remembered the little nurse and her indignant scorn of the lack of self-control she had shown on the occasion of her last visit to the hospital. So, instead of rushing forth, she clutched the curtains and forced herself to stand still, whispering to herself the while, "Oh, he will die sure! He will die sure!" But when she looked upon him seated comfortably in the kitchen with a steaming glass of ginger and whiskey, her mother's unfailing remedy for "anything wrong with the insides," she knew he would not die and her joy overflowed in boisterous welcome.
For five days they all, from Haley to Tim, gave him of their very best, seeking to hold him among them for the winter, for they had learned that his mind was set upon the West, till Cameron was ashamed, knowing that he must go.
The last afternoon they all spent in the orchard. The Gravensteins, in which species of apple Haley was a specialist, were being picked, and picked with the greatest care, Cameron plucking them from the limbs and dropping them into a basket held by Mandy below. It was one of those sunny days when, after weeks of chilly absence, summer comes again and makes the world glow with warmth and kindly life and quickens in the heart the blood's flow. Cameron was full of talk and fuller of laughter than his wont; indeed he was vexed to find himself struggling to maintain unbroken the flow of laughter and of talk. But in Mandy there was neither speech nor laughter, only a quiet dignity that disturbed and rebuked him.
The last tree of Gravensteins was picked and then there came the time of parting. Cameron, with a man's selfish desire for some token of a woman's adoration, even although he well knew that he could make no return, lingered in the farewell, hoping for some sign in the plain quiet face and the wonderful eyes with their new mystery that when he had gone he would not be forgotten; but though the lips quivered pitifully and the heavy face grew drawn and old and the eyes glowed with a deeper fire, the words, when they came, came quietly and the eyes looked steadily upon him, except that for one brief moment a fire leaped in them and quickly died down. But when the buggy, with Tim driving, had passed down the lane, behind the curtain of the spare room the girl stood looking through the crack beside the blind, with both hands pressed upon her bosom, her breath coming in sobs, her blue lips murmuring brokenly, "Good-by, good-by! Oh, why did you come at all? But, oh, I'm glad you came! God help me, I'm glad you came!" Then, when the buggy had turned down the side lane and out of sight, she knelt beside the bed and kissed, again and again, with tender, reverent kisses, the pillow where his head had lain.
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