OUT OF THE DUST
AT thirty-four, Martin was still unmarried, and though he had not travelled far on that strange road to affluence which for some seems a macadamized boulevard, but for so many, like himself, a rough cow-path, he had done better than the average farmer of Fallon County. To be sure, this was nothing over which to gloat. A man who received forty cents a bushel for wheat was satisfied; corn sold at twenty-eight cents, and the hogs it fattened in proportion. But his hundred and sixty acres were clear from debt, four thousand dollars were on deposit drawing three per cent in The First State Bank--the old Bank of Fallon, now incorporated with Robinson as its president. In the pasture, fourteen sows with their seventy-five spring pigs rooted beside the sleek herd of steers fattening for market; the granary bulged with corn; two hundred bushels of seed wheat were ready for sowing; his machinery was in excellent condition; his four Percheron mares brought him, each, a fine mule colt once a year; and the well never went dry, even in August. Martin was--if one discounted the harshness of the life, the dirt, the endless duties and the ever-pressing chores--a Kansas plutocrat.
One fiery July day, David Robinson drew up before Martin's shack. The little old box-house was still unpainted without and unpapered within. Two chairs, a home-made table with a Kansas City Star as a cloth, a sheetless bed, a rough cupboard, a stove and floors carpeted with accumulations of untidiness completed the furnishings.
"Chris-to-pher Columbus!" exploded Robinson, "why don't you fix yourself up a bit, Martin? The Lord knows you're going to be able to afford it. What you need is a wife--someone to look after you." And as Martin, observing him calmly, made no response, he added, "I suppose you know what I want. You've been watching for this day, eh, Martin? All Fallon County's sitting on its haunches--waiting."
"Oh, I haven't been worrying. A fellow situated like me, with a hundred and sixty right in the way of a coal company, can afford to be independent."
"You understand our procedure, Martin," Robinson continued. "We are frank and aboveboard. We set the price, and if you can't see your way clear to take it there are no hard feelings. We simply call it off--for good."
Wade knew how true this was. When the mining first began, several rebels toward the East had tried profitlessly to buck this irrefragable game and had found they had battered their unyielding heads against an equally unyielding stone wall. These men had demanded more and Robinson's company, true to its threat, had urbanely gone around their farms, travelled on and left them behind, their coal untouched and certain to so remain. Such inelastic lessons, given time to soak in, were sobering.
"Now," said Robinson, in his amiable matter-of-fact manner, "as I happen to know the history of this quarter, backwards and forwards, we can do up this deal in short order. You sign this contract, which is exactly like all the others we use, and I'll hand over your check. We get the bottom; you keep the top; I give you the sixteen thousand, and the thing is done."
"Well, Martin," he added, genially, as Wade signed his name, "it's a long day since you came in with your father to make that first loan to buy seed corn. Wouldn't he have opened his eyes if any one had prophesied this? It's a pity your mother couldn't have lived to enjoy your good fortune. A fine, plucky woman, your mother. They don't make many like her."
Long after Robinson's buggy was out of sight, Martin stood in his doorway and stared at the five handsome figures, spelled out the even more convincing words and admired the excellent reproduction of The First State Bank.
"This is a whole lot of money," his thoughts ran. "I'm rich. All this land still mine--practically as much mine as ever--all this stock and twenty thousand dollars in money--in cash. It's a fact. I, Martin Wade, am rich."
He remembered how he had exulted, how jubilant, even intoxicated, he had felt when he had received the ten dollars for the first load of wheat he had hauled to Fort Scott. Now, with a check for sixteen thousand--SIXTEEN THOUSAND DOLLARS!--in his hand, he stood dumbly, curiously unmoved.
Slowly, the first bitter months on this land, little Benny's death from lack of nourishment, his father's desperate efforts to establish his family, the years of his mother's slow crucifixion, his own long struggle --all floated before him in a fog of reverie. Years of deprivation, of bending toil and then, suddenly, this had come--this miracle symbolized by this piece of paper. Martin moistened his lips. Mentally, he realized all the dramatic significance of what had happened, but it gave him none of the elation he had expected.
This bewildered and angered him. Sixteen thousand dollars and with it no thrill. What was lacking? As he pondered, puzzled and disappointed, it came to him that he needed something by which to measure his wealth, someone whose appreciation of it would make it real to him, give him a genuine sense of its possession. What if he were to take Robinson's advice: fix up a bit and--marry?
Nellie had often urged the advantages of this, but he had never had much to do with women; they did not belong in his world and he had not missed them; he had never before felt a need of marriage. Upon the few occasions when, driven by his sister's persistence, he had vaguely considered it, he had shrunk away quickly from the thought of the unavoidable changes which would be ushered in by such a step. This shack, itself--no one whom he would want would, in this day, consent to live in it, and, if he should marry, his wife must be a superior woman, good looking, and with the push and energy of his mother. He thought of all she had meant to his father; and there was Nellie, not to be spoken of in the same breath, yet making Bert Mall a good wife. What a cook she was! Memories of her hot, fluffy biscuits, baked chicken, apple pies and delicious coffee, carried trailing aromas that set his nostrils twitching. It would be pleasant to have satisfying meals once more, to be relieved, too, of the bother of the three hundred chickens, to have some one about in the evenings. True, there would be expense, oh, such expense--the courting, the presents, the wedding, the building, the furniture, and, later, innumerable new kinds of bills. But weren't all the men around him married? Surely, if they, not nearly as well off as himself, could afford it, so could he.
Besides, wasn't it all different now that he held this check in his hand? These sixteen thousand dollars were not the same dollars which he had extorted from close-fisted Nature. Each of those had come so lamely, was such a symbol of sweat and aching muscles, that to spend one was like parting with a portion of himself, but this new, almost incredible fortune, had come without a turn of his hand, without an hour's labor. To Martin, the distinction was sharp and actual.
He figured quickly. Five thousand dollars would do wonders. With that amount, he would build so substantially that his neighbors could no longer feel the disapprobation in which, according to Nellie, he was beginning to be held, because of his sordid, hermit-like life. That five thousand could buy many cows and additional acreage--but just now a home and a wife would be better investments. Yes, he would marry and a house should be his bait. That was settled. He would drive into Fallon at once to see the carpenter and deposit the check.
He was already out of the house when a thought struck him. Suppose he were to meet just the woman he might want? These soiled, once-blue overalls, these heavy, manure-spotted shoes, this greasy, shapeless straw hat, with its dozen matches showing their red heads over the band, the good soils and fertilizers of Kansas resting placidly in his ears and the lines of his neck--such a Romeo might not tempt his Juliet; he must spruce up.
On an aged soap-box behind the house, several inches of grey water in a battered tin-pan indicated a previous effort. He tossed the greasy liquid to the ground and from the well, near the large, home-built barn, refilled the make-shift basin. Martin's ablutions were always a strenuous affair. In his cupped hands he brought the water toward his face and, at the moment he was about to apply it, made pointless attempts to blow it away. This blowing and sputtering indicated the especial importance of an occasion--the more important, the more vigorously he blew. Today, the cold water gave a healthy glow to his face, which, after much stropping of his razor, he shaved of a week's growth of beard, tawny as his thick, crisp hair where the sun had not yet bleached it. This, he soaked thoroughly, in lieu of brushing, before using a crippled piece of comb. The dividing line between washed and unwashed was one inch above his neckband and two above his wrists. Even when fresh from a scrubbing, his hands were not entirely clean. They had been so long in contact with the earth that it had become absorbed into the very pores of his skin; but they were powerful hands, interesting, with long palms and spatulate fingers. The black strips at the end of each nail, Martin pared off with his jackknife.
He entered the house a trifle nervously, positive that his only clean shirt, at present spread over his precious shot-gun, had been worn once more than he could have wished, but, after all, how much of one's shirt showed? It would pass. The coat-shirt not yet introduced, a man had to slip the old-fashioned kind over his head, drag it down past his shoulders and poke blindly for the sleeve openings. Martin was thankful when he felt the collar buttons in their holes. His salt and pepper suit was of a stiff, unyielding material, and the first time he had worn it the creases had vanished never to return. Before putting on his celluloid collar, he spat on it and smeared it off with the tail of his shirt. A recalcitrant metal shaper insisted on peeking from under his lapels, and his ready-made tie with its two grey satin-covered cardboard wings pushed out of sight, see-sawed, necessitating frequent adjustments. His brown derby, the rim of which made almost three quarters of a circle at each side, seemed to want to get as far as possible from his ears and, at the same time, remain perched on his head. The yellow shoes looked as though each had half a billiard ball in the toe, and the entire tops were perforated with many diverging lines in an attempt for the decorative. Those were the days of sore feet and corns! Hart Schaffner and Marx had not yet become rural America's tailor. Sartorial magicians in Chicago had not yet won over the young men of the great corn belt, with their snappy lines and style for the millions. In 1890, when a suit served merely as contrast to a pair of overalls, the Martin Wades who would clothe themselves pulled their garments from the piles on long tables. It was for the next generation to patronize clothiers who kept each suit on its separate hanger. A moving-picture of the tall, broad-shouldered fellow, as, with creaking steps, he walked from the house, might bring a laugh from the young farmers of this more fastidious day, but Martin was dressed no worse than any of his neighbors and far better than many. Health, vigor, sturdiness, self-reliance shone from him, and once his make-up had ceased to obtrude its clumsiness, he struck one as handsome. His was a commanding physique, hard as the grim plains from which he wrested his living.
As Martin drove into Fallon, his attention was directed toward the architecture and the women. He observed that the average homes were merely a little larger than his own--four, six, or eight rooms instead of one, made a little trimmer with neat porches and surrounded by well-cut lawns, instead of weeds. He, with his new budget, could do better. Even Robinson's well-constructed residence had probably cost only three thousand more than he himself planned to spend. Its suggestion of originality had been all but submerged by carpenters spoiled through constant work on commonplace buildings. But to Martin it was a marvellous mansion. He told himself that with such a place moved out to his quarter-section, he could have stood on his door-step and chosen whomever he wished for a wife.
It was an elemental materialism, difficult to understand, but it was a language very clear to Martin. Marriage with the men and women of his world was a practical business, arranged and conducted by practical people, who lived practical lives, and died practical deaths. The women who might pass his way could deny their lust for concrete possessions, but their actions, however concealed their motives, would give the lie to any ineffectual glamour of romance they might attempt to fling over their carefully measured adventures of the heart.
Martin smiled cynically as he let his thoughts drift along this channel. "What a lot of bosh is talked about lovers," his comment ran. "As if everyone didn't really know how much like drunken men they are--saying things which in a month they'll have forgotten. Folks pretend to approve of 'em and all the while they're laughing at 'em up their sleeves. But how they respect a man who's got the root they're all grubbing for! It may be the root of all evil, but it's a fact that everything people want grows from it. They hate a man for having it, but they'd like to be him. Their hearts have all got strings dangling from 'em, especially the women's. A house tied onto the other end ought to be hefty enough to fetch the best of the lot."
Who could she be, anyway? Was she someone in Fallon? He drove slowly, thinking over the families in the different houses--four to each side of the block. The street, even yet, was little more than a country road. There was no indication of the six miles of pavement which later were to be Fallon's pride. It had rained earlier in the week and Martin was obliged to be careful of the chuck-holes in the sticky, heavy gumbo soon to be the bane of pioneers venturing forth in what were to be known for a few short years as "horseless carriages."
Bumping along he recalled to his mind the various girls with whom he had gone to school. As if the sight of the building, itself, would sharpen his memory, he turned north and drove past it. Like its south, east and west counterparts, it was a solid two-story brick affair. In time it would be demolished to make way for what would be known as the "Emerson School," in which, to be worthy of this high title, the huge stoves would be supplanted with hot-water pipes, oil lamps with soft, indirect lighting, and unsightly out-buildings with modern plumbing. The South building would become the "Whittier School," the East, the "Longfellow," and the West, not to be neglected by culture's invasion, the "Oliver Wendell Holmes." But these changes were still to be effected. Many a school board meeting was first to be split into stormy factions of conservatives fighting to hold the old, and of anarchists threatening civilization with their clamors for experimentation. Many a bond election was yet to rip the town in two, with the retired farmers, whose children were grown and through school, satisfied with things as they were and parents of the new generation demanding gymnasiums, tennis courts, victrolas, domestic science laboratories, a public health nurse and individual lockers. Yes, and the faddists were to win despite the other side's incontrovertible evidence that Fallon was headed for bankruptcy and that the proposed bonds and outstanding ones could never be met.
Martin drove, meditatively, around the school-house and was still engrossed in the problem of "Who?" when he reached the Square. The neat canvas drops of later years had not yet replaced the wooden awnings which gave to the town such a decidedly western appearance and which threw the sidewalks and sheltered windows into deep pools of shadow. The old brick store-building which housed The First State Bank was like a cool cavern. He brought out the check quietly but with a full consciousness that with one gesture he was shoving enough over that scratched and worn walnut counter to buy out half the bank.
James Osborne, the youthful cashier, feigned complete paralysis.
"Why don't you give a poor fellow some warning?" he beamed good-naturedly, "or maybe you think you've strayed into Wall Street. This is Fallon. Fallon, Kansas. So you've had your merry little session with Robinson? Put it here!" and he extended a cordial hand.
"Oh, considering the wait, it isn't so wonderful. Sixteen thousand is an awful lot when it's coming, but it just seems about half as big when it gets here."
Martin was talking not so much for Osborne's benefit as to impress a woman who had entered behind him and was awaiting her turn. He wondered why, in his mental quest, he had not thought of her. Here was the very person for whom he was looking. Rose Conroy, the editor of the better local weekly, a year or so younger than himself, pleasant, capable. Here was a real woman, one above the average in character and brains.
With a quick glance he took in her well-built figure. Everything about Rose--every line, every tone of her coloring suggested warmth, generosity, bigness. She was as much above medium height for a woman as Martin for a man. About her temples the line of her bright golden-brown hair had an oddly pleasing irregularity. The rosy color in her cheeks brought out the rich creamy whiteness of her skin. Warm, gray-blue eyes were set far apart beneath a kind, broad forehead and her wide, generous mouth seemed made to smile. The impression of good temper and fun was accented by her nose, ever so slightly up-tilted. Some might have thought Rose too large, her hips too rounded, the soft deep bosom too full, but Martin's eyes were approving. Even her hands, plump, with broad palms, square fingers and well-kept nails, suggested decision. He felt the quiet distinction of her simple white dress. She was like a full-blown, luxuriant white and gold flower--like a rose, a full-blown white rose, Martin realized, suddenly. One couldn't call her pretty, but there was something about her that gave the impression of sumptuous good looks. He liked, too, the spirited carriage of her head. "Healthy, good-sense, sound all through," was his final appraisement.
Pocketing his bank-book, he gave her a sharp nod, a colorless "how-de-do, Miss Rose," and a tip of the hat that might have been a little less stiff had he been more accustomed to greeting the ladies. "Right well, thank you, Martin," was her cordial response, and her friendly smile told him she had heard and understood the remarks about the big deal. He was curious to know how it had impressed her.
Hurrying out, he asked himself how he could begin advances. Either he must do something quickly in time to get home for the evening chores or he must wait until another day. He must think out a plan, at once. Passing the bakery, half way down the block, he dropped in, ordered a chocolate ice-cream soda, and chose a seat near the window. As he had expected, it was not long before he saw Rose go across the courthouse yard toward her office on the north side of the square. He liked the swift, easy way in which she walked. She had been walking the first time he had ever seen her, thirteen years before, when her father had led his family uptown from the station, the day of their arrival in Fallon.
Patrick Conroy had come from Sharon, Illinois, to perform the thankless task of starting a weekly newspaper in a town already undernourishing one. By sheer stubbornness he had at last established it. Twelve hundred subscribers, their little printing jobs, advertisers who bought liberal portions of space at ten cents an inch--all had enabled him to give his children a living that was a shade better than an existence. He had died less than a year ago, and Martin, like the rest of the community, had supposed the Fallon Independent would be sold or suspended. Instead, as quietly and matter-of-factly as she had filled her dead mother's place in the home while her brothers and sisters were growing up, Rose stepped into her father's business, took over the editorship and with a boy to do the typesetting and presswork, continued the paper without missing an issue. It even paid a little better than before, partly because it flattered Fallon's sense of Christian helpfulness to throw whatever it could in Rose's way, but chiefly because she made the Independent a livelier sheet with double the usual number of "Personals."
Yes, decidedly, Rose had force and push. Martin's mind was made up. He would drop into the Independent ostensibly to extend his subscription, but really to get on more intimate terms with the woman whom he had now firmly determined should become his wife. He drew a deep breath of relaxation and finished the glass of sweetness with that sense of self-conscious sheepishness which most men feel when they surrender to the sticky charms of an ice-cream soda. A few minutes later he stood beside Rose's worn desk.
"How-do-you-do, once more, Miss Rose of Sharon. You're not the Bible's Rose of Sharon, are you?" he joshed a bit awkwardly.
"If I were a rose of anywhere, I'd soon wilt in this stuffy little office of inky smells," she answered pleasantly. "A rose would need petals of leather to get by here."
"A rose, by rights, belongs out of doors,"--Martin indicated the direction of his farm--"out there where the sun shines and there's no smells except the rich, healthy smells of nature."
A merry twinkle appeared in Rose's eyes. "Aren't roses out there"--and her gesture was in the same direction--"rather apt to be crowded down by the weeds?"
"Not if there was a good strong man about--a man who wanted to cultivate the soil and give the rose a pretty place in which to bloom."
"Why, Martin," Rose laughed lightly, "the way you're fixed out there with that shack, the only thing that ever blooms is a fine crop of rag-weeds."
At this gratuitous thrust a flood of crimson surged up Martin's magnificent, column-like throat and broke in hot waves over his cheeks. "Well, it's not going to be that way for long," he announced evenly. "I'm going to plant a rose--a real rose there soon and everything is going to be right--garden, house and all."
"Is this your way of telling me you're going to be married?"
"Kinda. The only trouble is, I haven't got my rose yet."
"Well, if I can't have that item, at least I can print something about the selling of your coal rights. People will be interested because it shows the operators are coming in our direction. Here in Fallon, we can hardly realize all that this sudden new promotion may mean. From that conversation I heard at the bank I guess you got the regulation hundred an acre."
"Yes, and a good part of it is going into a first-class modern house with a heating plant and running hot and cold water in a tiled-floor bath-room, and a concrete cellar for the woman's preserved things and built-in cupboards, lots of closets, a big garret, and hardwood floors and fancy paper on the walls, and the prettiest polished golden oak furniture you can buy in Kansas City, not to mention a big fireplace and wide, sunny porches. A rose ought to be happy in a garden like that, don't you think? Folks'll say I've gone crazy when they see my building spree, but I know what I'm about. It's time I married and the woman who decides to be my wife is going to be glad to stay with me--"
"See here, Martin Wade, what ARE you driving at? What does all this talk mean anyway? Do you want me to give you a boost with someone?"
"You've hit it."
"Who is she?" Rose asked, with genuine curiosity.
"You," he said bluntly.
"Well, of all the proposals!"
"There's nothing to beat around the bush about. I'm only thirty-four, a hard worker, with a tidy sum to boot--not that I'm boasting about it."
"But, Martin, what makes you think I could make you happy?"
Martin felt embarrassed. He was not looking for happiness but merely for more of the physical comforts, and an escape from loneliness. He was practical; he fancied he knew about what could be expected from marriage, just as he knew exactly how many steers and hogs his farm could support. This was a new idea--happiness. It had never entered into his calculations. Life as he knew it was hard. There was no happiness in those fields when burned by the hot August winds, the soil breaking into cakes that left crevices which seemed to groan for water. That sky with its clouds that gave no rain was a hard sky. The people he knew were sometimes contented, but he could not remember ever having known any to whom the word "happy" could be applied. His father and mother --they had been a good husband and wife. But happy? They had been far too absorbed in the bitter struggle for a livelihood to have time to think of happiness. This had been equally true of the elder Malls, was true today of Nellie and her husband. A man and a woman needed each other's help, could make a more successful fight, go farther together than either could alone. To Martin that was the whole matter in a nutshell, and Rose's gentle question threw him into momentary confusion.
"I don't know," he answered uneasily. "We both like to make a success of things and we'd have plenty to do with. We'd make a pretty good pulling team."
Rose considered this thoughtfully. "Perhaps the people who work together best are the happiest. But somehow I'd never pictured myself on a farm."
"Of course, I don't expect you to make up your mind right away," Martin conceded. "It's something to study over. I'll come around to your place tomorrow evening after I get the chores done up and we can talk some more."
So far as Martin was concerned, the matter was clinched. He felt not the slightest doubt but that it was merely a question of time before Rose would consent to his proposition.
After he had left, she reviewed it a little sadly. It wasn't the kind of marriage of which she had always dreamed. She realized that she was capable of profound devotion, of responding with her whole being to a deep love. But was it probable that this love would ever come? She thought over the men of Fallon and its neighborhood. There were few as handsome as Martin--not one with such generous plans. She knew her own domestic talents. She was a born housekeeper and home-maker. It had been a curious destiny that had driven her into a newspaper office, and at that very moment, there lay on her desk, like a whisper from Fate, the written offer from the rival paper to buy her out for fifteen hundred dollars, giving herself a position on the consolidated staff. She had been pondering over this proposal when Martin interrupted her.
It wasn't as if she were younger or likely to start somewhere else. She would live out her life in Fallon, that she knew. There was little chance of her meeting new men, and those established enough to make marriage with them desirable were already married. Candidly, she admitted that if she turned Martin Wade down now, she might never have another such opportunity. If only she could feel that he cared for her--loved her. But wasn't the fact that he was asking her to be his wife proof of that? It was very strange. She had never suspected that Martin had ever felt drawn to her. With a sigh she pressed her large, capable hands to her heart. Its deep piercing ache brought tears to her eyes. She felt, bitterly, that she was being cheated of too much that was sweet and precious--it was all wrong--she would be making a mistake. For a moment, she was overwhelmed. Then the practical common sense that had been instilled into her from her earliest consciousness, even as it had been instilled into Martin, reasserted itself. After all, perhaps he was right--the busy people were the happy people. Many couples who began marriage madly in love ended in the divorce courts. Martin was kind and it would be wonderful to have the home he had described. She imagined herself mistress of it, thrilled with the warm hospitality she would radiate, entertained already at missionary meetings and at club. At least, she would be less lonely. It would be a fuller life than now. What was she getting, really getting, alone, out of this world? She and Martin would be good partners. Poor boy! What a long, hard, cheerless existence he had led. Tenderness welled in her heart and stilled its pain. Perhaps his emotions were far deeper than he could express in words. His way was to plan for her comfort. Wasn't there something big about his simple cards-on-the-table wooing? And he had called her his rose, his Rose of Sharon. The new house was to be the garden in which she should blossom. To be sure, he had said it all awkwardly, but Rose, who was devout, knew the stately Song of Solomon and as she recalled the magnificent outburst of passion she almost let herself be convinced that Martin was a poet-lover in the rough.
And all the while, giving pattern to her flying thoughts, the contents of a letter, received the day before, echoed through her mind. Her sister, Norah, the youngest of the family, had told of her first baby. "We have named her for you, darling," she wrote. "Oh, Rose, she has brought me such deep happiness. I wonder if this ecstasy can last. Her little hand against my breast--it is so warm and soft--like a flower's curling petal, as delicate and as beautiful as a butterfly's wing. I never knew until now what life really meant." As Rose reread the throbbing lines and pictured the eager-eyed young mother, her own sweet face glowed with reflected joy and with the knowledge that this ecstasy, this deeper understanding could come to her, too--Martin, he was vigorous, so worthy of being the father of her children. He would love them, of course, and provide for them better than any other man she knew. Had not Norah married a plain farmer who was only a tenant? The new little Rose's father was not to be compared to Martin, and yet he had brought the supreme experience to her sister. So Rose sat dreaming, the arid level of monotonous days which, one short hour ago, had stretched before her, flowering into fragrant, sun-filled fields.
Meanwhile, Martin congratulated himself upon having found a woman as sensible, industrious and free from foolish notions, as even he could wish.Next