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Margaret Howard stood at the kitchen table kneading dough. The room was called the kitchen, which it was not, except in winter. The stove was moved out in spring to a lean-to, easily reached through the open door leading to the kitchen veranda.
When the stove went out or came in, it marked the approach or the departure of summer. It was the heavy pendulum whose swing this way or that indicated the two great changes of the year. No job about the farm was so much disliked by the farmer and his boys as the semiannual removal of the stove. Soot came down, stovepipes gratingly grudged to go together again; the stove was heavy and cumbersome, and many a pain in a rural back dated from the journey of the stove from outhouse to kitchen.
The kitchen itself was a one-story building, which projected back from the two-story farmhouse, giving the whole a T-shape. There was a veranda on each side of the kitchen, as well as one along the front of the house itself.
Margaret's sleeves were turned back nearly to her elbows, showing a pair of white and shapely arms. Now and then she deftly dusted the kneading board with flour to prevent the dough sticking, and as she pressed her open palms into the smooth, white, spongy mass, the table groaned protestingly. She cut the roll with a knife into lumps that were patted into shape, and placed side by side, like hillocks of snow, in the sheet-iron pan.
At this moment there was a rap at the open kitchen door, and Margaret turned round, startled, for visitors were rare at that hour of the day; besides, neighbors seldom made such a concession to formality as to knock. The young girl flushed as she recognized the man who had spoken to her the day before. He stood smiling in the doorway, with his hat in his hand. She uttered no word of greeting or welcome, but stood looking at him, with her hand on the floury table.
"Good-morning, Miss Howard," said Yates blithely; "may I come in? I have been knocking for some time fruitlessly at the front door, so I took the liberty of coming around."
"I did not hear you knock," answered Margaret. She neglected to invite him in, but he took the permission for granted and entered, seating himself as one who had come to stay. "You must excuse me for going on with my work," she added; "bread at this stage will not wait."
"Certainly, certainly. Please do not let me interrupt you. I have made my own bread for years, but not in that way. I am glad that you are making bread, for I have come to see if I can buy some."
"Really? Perhaps I can sell you some butter and eggs as well."
Yates laughed in that joyous, free-hearted manner of his which had much to do with his getting on in the world. It was difficult to remain long angry with so buoyant a nature.
"Ah, Miss Howard, I see you haven't forgiven me for that remark. You surely could not have thought I meant it. I really intended it for a joke, but I am willing to admit, now that I look back on it, that the joke was rather poor; but, then, most of my jokes are rather shopworn."
"I am afraid I lack a sense of humor."
"All women do," said Yates with easy confidence. "At least, all I've ever met."
Yates was sitting in a wooden chair, which he now placed at the end of the table, tilting it back until his shoulders rested against the wall. His feet were upon the rung, and he waved his hat back and forth, fanning himself, for it was warm. In this position he could look up at the face of the pretty girl before him, whose smooth brow was touched with just the slightest indication of a faint frown. She did not even glance at the self-confident young man, but kept her eyes fixed resolutely on her work. In the silence the table creaked as Margaret kneaded the dough. Yates felt an unaccustomed sensation of embarrassment creeping over him, and realized that he would have to re-erect the conversation on a new basis. It was manifestly absurd that a resourceful New Yorker, who had conversed unabashed with presidents, senators, generals, and other great people of a great nation, should be put out of countenance by the unaccountable coldness of a country girl in the wilds of Canada.
"I have not had an opportunity of properly introducing myself," he said at last, when the creaking of the table, slight as it was, became insupportable. "My name is Richard Yates, and I come from New York. I am camping out in this neighborhood to relieve, as it were, a mental strain--the result of years of literary work."
Yates knew from long experience that the quickest and surest road to a woman's confidence was through her sympathy. "Mental strain" struck him as a good phrase, indicating midnight oil and the hollow eye of the devoted student.
"Is your work mental, then?" asked Margaret incredulously, flashing, for the first time, a dark-eyed look at him.
"Yes," Yates laughed uneasily. He had manifestly missed fire. "I notice by your tone that you evidently think my equipment meager. You should not judge by appearances, Miss Howard. Most of us are better than we seem, pessimists to the contrary notwithstanding. Well, as I was saying, the camping company consists of two partners. We are so different in every respect that we are the best of friends. My partner is Mr. Stillson Renmark, professor of something or other in University College, Toronto."
For the first time Margaret exhibited some interest in the conversation.
"Professor Renmark? I have heard of him."
"Dear me! I had no idea the fame of the professor had penetrated beyond the precincts of the university--if a university has precincts. He told me it had all the modern improvements, but I suspected at the time that was merely Renny's brag."
The frown on the girl's brow deepened, and Yates was quick to see that he had lost ground again, if, indeed, he had ever gained any, which he began to doubt. She evidently did not relish his glib talk about the university. He was just about to say something deferentially about that institution, for he was not a man who would speak disrespectfully of the equator if he thought he might curry favor with his auditor by doing otherwise, when it occurred to him that Miss Howard's interest was centered in the man, and not in the university.
"In this world, Miss Howard," he continued, "true merit rarely finds its reward; at least, the reward shows some reluctance in making itself visible in time for man to enjoy it. Professor Renmark is a man so worthy that I was rather astonished to learn that you knew of him. I am glad for his sake that it is so, for no man more thoroughly deserves fame than he."
"I know nothing of him," said Margaret, "except what my brother has written. My brother is a student at the university."
"Is he really? And what is he going in for?"
"A good education."
"Well, that is an all-round handy thing for a person to have about him. I often wish I had had a university training. Still, it is not valued in an American newspaper office as much as might be. Yet," he added in a tone that showed he did not desire to be unfair to a man of education, "I have known some university men who became passably good reporters in time."
The girl made no answer, but attended strictly to the work in hand. She had the rare gift of silence, and these intervals of quiet abashed Yates, whose most frequent boast was that he could outtalk any man on earth. Opposition, or even abuse, merely served as a spur to his volubility, but taciturnity disconcerted him.
"Well," he cried at length, with something like desperation, "let us abandon this animated discussion on the subject of education, and take up the more practical topic of bread. Would you believe, Miss Howard, that I am an expert in bread making?"
"I think you said already that you made your bread."
"Ah, yes, but I meant then that I made it by the sweat of my good lead pencil. Still, I have made bread in my time, and I believe that some of those who subsisted upon it are alive to-day. The endurance of the human frame is something marvelous, when you come to think of it. I did the baking in a lumber camp one winter. Used to dump the contents of a sack of flour into a trough made out of a log, pour in a pail or two of melted snow, and mix with a hoe after the manner of a bricklayer's assistant making mortar. There was nothing small or mean about my bread making. I was in the wholesale trade."
"I pity the unfortunate lumbermen."
"Your sympathy is entirely misplaced, Miss Howard. You ought to pity me for having to pander to such appetites as those men brought in from the woods with them. They never complained of the quality of the bread, although there was occasionally some grumbling about the quantity. I have fed sheaves to a threshing machine and logs to a sawmill, but their voracity was nothing to that of a big lumberman just in from felling trees. Enough, and plenty of it, is what he wants. No 'tabbledote' for him. He wants it all at once, and he wants it right away. If there is any washing necessary, he is content to do it after the meal. I know nothing, except a morning paper, that has such an appetite for miscellaneous stuff as the man of the woods."
The girl made no remark, but Yates could see that she was interested in his talk in spite of herself. The bread was now in the pans, and she had drawn out the table to the middle of the floor; the baking board had disappeared, and the surface of the table was cleaned. With a light, deft motion of her two hands she had whisked over its surface the spotlessly white cloth, which flowed in waves over the table and finally settled calmly in its place like the placid face of a pond in the moonlight. Yates realized that the way to success lay in keeping the conversation in his own hands and not depending on any response. In this way a man may best display the store of knowledge he possesses, to the admiration and bewilderment of his audience, even though his store consists merely of samples like the outfit of a commercial traveler; yet a commercial traveler who knows his business can so arrange his samples on the table of his room in a hotel that they give the onlooker an idea of the vastness and wealth of the warehouses from which they are drawn.
"Bread," said Yates with the serious air of a very learned man, "is a most interesting subject. It is a historical subject--it is a biblical subject. As an article of food it is mentioned oftener in the Bible than any other. It is used in parable and to point a moral. 'Ye must not live on bread alone.'"
From the suspicion of a twinkle in the eye of his listener he feared he had not quoted correctly. He knew he was not now among that portion of his samples with which he was most familiar, so he hastened back to the historical aspect of his subject. Few people could skate over thinner ice than Richard Yates, but his natural shrewdness always caused him to return to more solid footing.
"Now, in this country bread has gone through three distinct stages, and although I am a strong believer in progress, yet, in the case of our most important article of food, I hold that the bread of to-day is inferior to the bread our mothers used to make, or perhaps, I should say, our grandmothers. This is, unfortunately, rapidly becoming the age of machinery--and machinery, while it may be quicker, is certainly not so thorough as old-fashioned hand work. There is a new writer in England named Ruskin who is very bitter against machinery. He would like to see it abolished--at least, so he says. I will send for one of his books, and show it to you, if you will let me."
"You, in New York, surely do not call the author of 'Modern Painters' and 'The Seven Lamps of Architecture' a new man. My father has one of his books which must be nearly twenty years old."
This was the longest speech Margaret had made to him, and, as he said afterward to the professor in describing its effects, it took him right off his feet. He admitted to the professor, but not to the girl, that he had never read a word of Ruskin in his life. The allusion he had made to him he had heard someone else use, and he had worked it into an article before now with telling effect. "As Mr. Ruskin says" looked well in a newspaper column, giving an air of erudition and research to it. Mr. Yates, however, was not at the present moment prepared to enter into a discussion on either the age or the merits of the English writer.
"Ah, well," he said, "technically speaking, of course, Ruskin is not a new man. What I meant was that he is looked on--ah--in New York as-- that is--you know--as comparatively new--comparatively new. But, as I was saying about bread, the old log-house era of bread, as I might call it, produced the most delicious loaf ever made in this country. It was the salt-rising kind, and was baked in a round, flat-bottomed iron kettle. Did you ever see the baking kettle of other days?"
"I think Mrs. Bartlett has one, although she never uses it now. It was placed on the hot embers, was it not?"
"Exactly," said Yates, noting with pleasure that the girl was thawing, as he expressed it to himself. "The hot coals were drawn out and the kettle placed upon them. When the lid was in position, hot coals were put on he top of it. The bread was firm and white and sweet inside, with the most delicious golden brown crust all around. Ah, that was bread! but perhaps I appreciated it because I was always hungry in those days. Then came the alleged improvement of the tin Dutch oven. That was the second stage in the evolution of bread in this country. It also belonged to the log-house and open-fireplace era. Bread baked by direct heat from the fire and reflected heat from the polished tin. I think our present cast-iron stove arrangement is preferable to that, although not up to the old-time kettle."
If Margaret had been a reader of the New York Argus, she would have noticed that the facts set forth by her visitor had already appeared in that paper, much elaborated, in an article entitled "Our Daily Bread." In the pause that ensued after Yates had finished his dissertation on the staff of life the stillness was broken by a long wailing cry. It began with one continued, sustained note, and ended with a wail half a tone below the first. The girl paid no attention to it, but Yates started to his feet.
"In the name of--What's that?"
Margaret smiled, but before she could answer the stillness was again broken by what appeared to be the more distant notes of a bugle.
"The first," she said, "was Kitty Bartlett's voice calling the men home from the field for dinner. Mrs. Bartlett is a very good housekeeper and is usually a few minutes ahead of the neighbors with the meals. The second was the sound of a horn farther up the road. It is what you would deplore as the age of tin applied to the dinner call, just as your tin oven supplanted the better bread maker. I like Kitty's call much better than the tin horn. It seems to me more musical, although it appeared to startle you."
"Oh, you can talk!" cried Yates with audacious admiration, at which the girl colored slightly and seemed to retire within herself again. "And you can make fun of people's historical lore, too. Which do you use-- the tin horn or the natural voice?"
"Neither. If you will look outside, you will see a flag at the top of a pole. That is our signal."
It flashed across the mind of Yates that this was intended as an intimation that he might see many things outside to interest him. He felt that his visit had not been at all the brilliant success he had anticipated. Of course the quest for bread had been merely an excuse. He had expected to be able to efface the unfavorable impression he knew he had made by his jaunty conversation on the Ridge Road the day before, and he realized that his position was still the same. A good deal of Yates' success in life came from the fact that he never knew when he was beaten. He did not admit defeat now, but he saw he had, for some reason, not gained any advantage in a preliminary skirmish. He concluded it would be well to retire in good order, and renew the contest at some future time. He was so unused to anything like a rebuff that all his fighting qualities were up in arms, and he resolved to show this unimpressionable girl that he was not a man to be lightly valued.
As he rose the door from the main portion of the house opened, and there entered a woman hardly yet past middle age, who had once been undoubtedly handsome, but on whose worn and faded face was the look of patient weariness which so often is the result of a youth spent in helping a husband to overcome the stumpy stubbornness of an American bush farm. When the farm is conquered, the victor is usually vanquished. It needed no second glance to see that she was the mother from whom the daughter had inherited her good looks. Mrs. Howard did not appear surprised to see a stranger standing there; in fact, the faculty of being surprised at anything seemed to have left her. Margaret introduced them quietly, and went about her preparation for the meal. Yates greeted Mrs. Howard with effusion. He had come, he said, on a bread mission. He thought he knew something about bread, but he now learned he came too early in the day. He hoped he might have the privilege of repeating his visit.
"But you are not going now?" said Mrs. Howard with hospitable anxiety.
"I fear I have already stayed too long," answered Yates lingeringly. "My partner, Professor Renmark, is also on a foraging expedition at your neighbors', the Bartletts. He is doubtless back in camp long ago, and will be expecting me."
"No fear of that. Mrs. Bartlett would never let anyone go when there is a meal on the way."
"I am afraid I shall be giving extra trouble by staying. I imagine there is quite enough to do in every farmhouse without entertaining any chance tramp who happens along. Don't you agree with me for once, Miss Howard?"
Yates was reluctant to go, and yet he did not wish to stay unless Margaret added her invitation to her mother's. He felt vaguely that his reluctance did him credit, and that he was improving. He could not remember a time when he had not taken without question whatever the gods sent, and this unaccustomed qualm of modesty caused him to suspect that there were depths in his nature hitherto unexplored. It always flatters a man to realize that he is deeper than he thought.
Mrs. Howard laughed in a subdued manner because Yates likened himself to a tramp, and Margaret said coldly:
"Mother's motto is that one more or less never makes any difference."
"And what is your motto, Miss Howard?"
"I don't think Margaret has any," said Mrs. Howard, answering for her daughter. "She is like her father. She reads a great deal and doesn't talk much. He would read all the time, if he did not have to work. I see Margaret has already invited you, for she has put an extra plate on the table."
"Ah, then," said Yates, "I shall have much pleasure in accepting both the verbal and the crockery invitation. I am sorry for the professor at his lonely meal by the tent; for he is a martyr to duty, and I feel sure Mrs. Bartlett will not be able to keep him."
Before Mrs. Howard could reply there floated in to them, from the outside, where Margaret was, a cheery voice which Yates had no difficulty in recognizing as belonging to Miss Kitty Bartlett.
"Hello, Margaret!" she said. "Is he here?"
The reply was inaudible.
"Oh, you know whom I mean. That conceited city fellow."
There was evidently an admonition and a warning.
"Well, I don't care if he does. I'll tell him so to his face. It might do him good."
Next moment there appeared a pretty vision in the doorway. On the fair curls, which were flying about her shoulders, had been carelessly placed her brother's straw hat, with a broad and torn brim. Her face was flushed with running; and of the fact that she was a very lovely girl there was not the slightest doubt.
"How de do?" she said to Mrs. Howard, and, nodding to Yates, cried: "I knew you were here, but I came over to make sure. There's going to be war in our house. Mother's made a prisoner of the professor already, but he doesn't know it. He thinks he's going back to the tent, and she's packing up the things he wanted, and doing it awfully slow, till I get back. He said you would be sure to be waiting for him out in the woods. We both told him there was no fear of that. You wouldn't leave a place where there was good cooking for all the professors in the world."
"You are a wonderful judge of character, Miss Bartlett," said Yates, somewhat piqued by her frankness.
"Of course I am. The professor knows ever so much more than you, but he doesn't know when he's well off, just the same. You do. He's a quiet, stubborn man."
"And which do you admire the most, Miss Bartlett--a quiet, stubborn man, or one who is conceited?"
Miss Kitty laughed heartily, without the slightest trace of embarrassment. "Detest, you mean. I'm sure I don't know. Margaret, which is the most objectionable?"
Margaret looked reproachfully at her neighbor on being thus suddenly questioned, but said nothing.
Kitty, laughing again, sprang toward her friend, dabbed a little kiss, like the peck of a bird, on each cheek, cried: "Well, I must be off, or mother will have to tie up the professor to keep him," and was off accordingly with the speed and lightness of a young fawn.
"Extraordinary girl," remarked Yates, as the flutter of curls and calico dress disappeared.
"She is a good girl," cried Margaret emphatically.
"Bless me, I said nothing to the contrary. But don't you think she is somewhat free with her opinions about other people?" asked Yates.
"She did not know that you were within hearing when she first spoke, and after that she brazened it out. That's her way. But she's a kind girl and good-hearted, otherwise she would not have taken the trouble to come over here merely because your friend happened to be surly."
"Oh, Renny is anything but surly," said Yates, as quick to defend his friend as she was to stand up for hers. "As I was saying a moment ago, he is a martyr to duty, and if he thought I was at the camp, nothing would keep him. Now he will have a good dinner in peace when he knows I am not waiting for him, and a good dinner is more than he will get when I take to the cooking."
By this time the silent signal on the flagpole had done its work, and Margaret's father and brother arrived from the field. They put their broad straw hats on the roof of the kitchen veranda, and, taking water in a tin basin from the rain barrel, placed it on a bench outside and proceeded to wash vigorously.
Mr. Howard was much more interested in his guest than his daughter had apparently been. Yates talked glibly, as he could always do if he had a sympathetic audience, and he showed an easy familiarity with the great people of this earth that was fascinating to a man who had read much of them, but who was, in a measure, locked out of the bustling world. Yates knew many of the generals in the late war, and all of the politicians. Of the latter there was not an honest man among them, according to the reporter; of the former there were few who had not made the most ghastly mistakes. He looked on the world as a vast hoard of commonplace people, wherein the men of real genius were buried out of sight, if there were any men of genius, which he seemed to doubt, and those on the top were there either through their own intrigues or because they had been forced up by circumstances. His opinions sometimes caused a look of pain to cross the face of the older man, who was enthusiastic in his quiet way, and had his heroes. He would have been a strong Republican if he had lived in the States; and he had watched the four-years' struggle, through the papers, with keen and absorbed interest. The North had been fighting, in his opinion, for the great and undying principle of human liberty, and had deservedly won. Yates had no such delusion. It was a politicians' war, he said. Principle wasn't in it. The North would have been quite willing to let slavery stand if the situation had not been forced by the firing on Fort Sumter. Then the conduct of the war did not at all meet the approval of Mr. Yates.
"Oh, yes," he said, "I suppose Grant will go down into history as a great general. The truth is that he simply knew how to subtract. That is all there is in it. He had the additional boon of an utter lack of imagination. We had many generals who were greater than Grant, but they were troubled with imaginations. Imagination will ruin the best general in the world. Now, take yourself, for example. If you were to kill a man unintentionally, your conscience would trouble you all the rest of your life. Think how you would feel, then, if you were to cause the death of ten thousand men all in a lump. It would break you down. The mistake an ordinary man makes may result in the loss of a few dollars, which can be replaced; but if a general makes a mistake, the loss can never be made up, for his mistakes are estimated by the lives of men. He says 'Go' when he should have said 'Come.' He says 'Attack' when he should have said 'Retreat.' What is the result? Five, ten, or fifteen thousand men, many of them better men than he is, left dead on the field. Grant had nothing of this feeling. He simply knew how to subtract, as I said before. It is like this: You have fifty thousand men and I have twenty-five thousand. When I kill twenty-five thousand of your men and you kill twenty-five thousand of my men, you have twenty-five thousand left and I have none. You are the victor, and the thoughtless crowd howls about you, but that does not make you out the greatest general by a long shot. If Lee had had Grant's number, and Grant had Lee's, the result would have been reversed. Grant set himself to do this little sum in subtraction, and he did it--did it probably as quickly as any other man would have done it, and he knew that when it was done the war would have to stop. That's all there was to it."
The older man shook his head. "I doubt," he said, "if history will take your view either of the motives of those in power or of the way the war was carried on. It was a great and noble struggle, heroically fought by those deluded people who were in the wrong, and stubbornly contested at immense self-sacrifice by those who were in the right."
"What a pity it was," said young Howard to the newspaper man, with a rudeness that drew a frown from his father, "that you didn't get to show 'em how to carry on the war."
"Well," said Yates, with a humorous twinkle in his eye, "I flatter myself that I would have given them some valuable pointers. Still, it is too late to bemoan their neglect now."
"Oh, you may have a chance yet," continued the unabashed young man. "They say the Fenians are coming over here this time sure. You ought to volunteer either on our side or on theirs, and show how a war ought to be carried on."
"Oh, there's nothing in the Fenian scare! They won't venture over. They fight with their mouths. It's the safest way."
"I believe you," said the youth significantly.
Perhaps it was because the boy had been so inconsiderate as to make these remarks that Yates received a cordial invitation from both Mr. and Mrs. Howard to visit the farm as often as he cared to do so. Of this privilege Yates resolved to avail himself, but he would have prized it more if Miss Margaret had added her word--which she did not, perhaps because she was so busy looking after the bread. Yates knew, however, that with a woman apparent progress is rarely synonymous with real progress. This knowledge soothed his disappointment.
As he walked back to the camp he reviewed his own feelings with something like astonishment. The march of events was rapid even for him, who was not slow in anything he undertook.
"It is the result of leisure," he said to himself. "It is the first breathing time I have had for fifteen years. Not two days of my vacation gone, and here I am hopelessly in love!"
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