DUST BEGETS DUST
YET, through the Wades' busy days the echo of little Rose's visit lingered persistently. Each now anxiously wanted another child, but both were careful to keep this longing locked in their separate bosoms. Their constraint with each other was of far too long a standing to permit of any sudden exchange of confidences. It was with this hope half-acknowledged, however, and in her mind the recent memories of a more approachable Martin, that Rose began to make a greater effort with her appearance. By dint of the most skillful maneuvering, she contrived to purchase herself a silk dress--the first since her marriage. It was of dark blue crepe-de-chine, simply but becomingly made, the very richness of its folds shedding a new luster over her quiet graciousness and large proportions. Even her kind, capable hands seemed subtly ennobled as they emerged from the luscious, well fitting sleeves, and the high collar, with its narrow edge of lace, stressed the nobility of her fine head. When she came home from church, she did not, as she would have heretofore, change at once into calico, but protected by a spick and span white apron, kept on the best frock through dinner and, frequently, until chore time in the afternoon. In the winter, too, she was exposed less to sun and wind and her skin lost much of its weathered look. She took better care of it and was more careful with the arrangement of her hair. Gradually a new series of impressions began to register on Martin's brain.
One Sunday she came in fresh and ruddy from the drive home in the cold, crisp air. Martin found it rather pleasant to watch her brisk movements as she prepared the delayed meal. He observed, with something of a mental start, that today, at least, she still had more than a little of the old sumptuous, full-blown quality. It reminded him, together with the deft way in which she hurried, without haste, without flurry, of their first evening in the shack, nearly seven years ago. How tense they both had been, how afraid of each other, how she had irritated him! Well, he had grown accustomed to her at last, thanks be. Was he, perhaps, foolish not to get more out of their life--it was not improbable that a child might come. Why had he been taking it so for granted that this was out of the question? When one got right down to it, just what was the imaginary obstacle that was blocking the realization of this deep wish? Her chance of not pulling through? He'd get her a hired girl this time and let her have her own head about things. She'd made it all right once, why not again? The settledness of their habitual neutrality? What of it? He would ignore that. It wasn't as if he had to court her, make explanations. She was his wife. He didn't love her, never had, never would, but life was too short to be overly fastidious. It was flying, flying --in a few more years he would be fifty. Fifty! And what had it all been about, anyway? He did have this farm to show for his work--he had not made a bad job of that, he and his Rag-weed. In her own fashion she was a good sort, and better looking than most women past forty.
Rose felt the closeness of his scrutiny, sensed the unusual cordiality of his mood, but from the depths of her hardly won wisdom took no apparent notice of it. She knew well enough how not to annoy him. If only she had not learned too late! What was it about Martin, she wondered afresh, that had held her through all these deadening years? Her love for him was like a stream that, disappearing for long periods underground, seemed utterly lost, only to emerge again unexpectedly, cleared of all past murkiness, tranquil and deep.
This unspoken converging of minds, equivocal though it was on Martin's part, resulted gradually in a more friendly period. Rose always liked to remember that winter, with its peace that quenched her thirsty heart and helped to blur the recollection of old unkindnesses long since forgiven, but still too vividly recalled. When, a year later, Billy was born, she was swept up to that dizzy crest of rapture which, to finely attuned souls, is the recompense and justification of all their valleys.
Martin watched her deep, almost painful delight, with a profound envy. He had looked forward, with more anticipation than even he himself had realized, to the thrill which he had supposed fatherhood would bring, taking it entirely for granted that he would feel a bond with this small reincarnation of his own being, but after the first week of attempting to get interested in the unresponsive bundle that was his son, he decided the idea of a baby had certainly signified in his mind emotions which this tiny, troublesome creature, with a voice like a small-sized foghorn, did not cause to materialize. No doubt when it grew into a child he would feel very differently toward it--more as he did toward little Rose, but that was a long time to wait, and meanwhile he could not shake off a feeling of acute disappointment, of defeated hopes.
By the end of the second month, he was sure he must have been out of his senses to bring such a nuisance upon himself and into his well-ordered house. Not only was his rest disturbed with trying regularity by night, and his meals served with an equally trying irregularity by day, but he was obliged to deal with an altogether changed wife. For, yielding as Rose was in all other matters, where Billy was concerned she was simply imperturbable. At times, as she held the chubby little fellow to her breast or caught and kissed a waving pink foot, she would feel a sense of physical weakness come over her--it seemed as if her breath would leave her. Martin could be what he might; life, at last, was worth its price. With the courage of her mother-love she could resist anything and everyone.
To her, the relative importance of the farm to Billy was as simple as a problem in addition. She had lost none of her old knack for turning off large amounts of work quickly, but she firmly stopped just short of the point where her milk might be impaired by her exertions. Martin had insisted that the requirement for hired help was over; however, in despair over his wife's determined sabotage, it was Martin himself who commanded that the girl be reinstated for another two months.
Rose was a methodical mother and not overly fussy. As soon as Billy could sit in a highchair or an ordinary packing box on the floor, she kept him with her while she went about her different tasks, cooing and laughing with him as she worked, but when he needed attention she could disregard calling dishes, chickens, half-churned butter, unfinished ironing, unmilked cows or an irate husband with a placidity that was worthy of the old Greek gods. Martin was dumbfounded to the point of stupefaction. He was too thoroughly self-centred, however, to let other than his own preferences long dominate his Rag-weed's actions. Her first duty was clearly to administer to his comfort, and that was precisely what she would do. It was ridiculous, the amount of time she gave to that baby--out of all rhyme and reason. If she wasn't feeding him, she was changing him; if she wasn't bathing him she was rocking him to sleep. And there, at last, Martin found a tangible point of resistance, for he discovered from Nellie that not only was it not necessary to rock a baby, but that it was contrary to the new ideas currently endorsed. Reinforced, he argued the matter, adding that he could remember distinctly his own mother had never rocked Benny.
"Yes, and Benny died."
"It wasn't her fault if he did," he retorted, a trifle disconcerted.
"I don't know about that. She took chances I would never take with Billy. She sacrificed him, with her eyes open, for you and Nellie--gave him up so that you could have this farm."
Martin did not care for this new version. "What has that to do with the question?" he demanded coldly.
"Just this--your mother had her ideas and I have mine. I am going to raise Billy in my own way." But, for weeks thereafter she managed with an almost miraculous adroitness to have him asleep at meal times.
At seven months, Billy was the most adorable, smiling, cuddly baby imaginable, with dimples, four teeth and a tantalizing hint of curl in his soft, surprisingly thick, fawn-colored hair. Already, it was quite evident that he had his mother's sensitive, affectionate nature. If only his father had picked him up, occasionally, had talked to him now and then, he scarcely could have resisted the little fellow's crowing, sweet-tempered, responsive charm, but resentment at the annoyance of his presence was now excessive. For the present, Martin's only concern in his son consisted in seeing to it that his effacement was as nearly complete as possible.
The long-impending clash came one evening after a sultry, dusty day when Rose, occupied with a large washing in the morning and heavy work in the dairy in the afternoon, realized with compunction that never had she come so near to neglecting her boy. Tired and hot from fretting, he had been slow about going to sleep, and was just dozing off, when Martin came in, worn out and hungry.
"Isn't supper ready yet?"
"All but frying the sausage," Rose answered, achieving a pleasant tone in spite of her jadedness. "He's almost turning the corner--hear his little sleepy song? Sit down and cool off. I'll have it ready by the time you and the boys are washed."
Under its thick coat of tan, Martin's face went white. "I've had enough of this," he announced levelly. "You'll put him down and fry that meat."
"Wait just a minute," she coaxed; "he'll be off for the night and if you wake him, he'll cry and get all worked up."
"You heard what I said." His tone was vibrant with determination. "How am I going to keep hired men if you treat them like this? When they come in to eat, they want to find their food on the table."
"This doesn't often happen any more and they know, good and well, I make it up to them in other ways," returned Rose truthfully.
For answer, he crossed over to her quickly, reached down and took the baby from her.
"What are you going to do with him?" she demanded, a-tremble with rage and a sense of impotent helplessness, as, avoiding her quick movement, Martin went into the bedroom.
"Let him go to sleep as other children do, while you finish getting supper. Do you want to make a sissy of him?"
"A lot you care what he becomes!" she flashed, conflicting impulses contending for mastery, as Billy, now thoroughly awake and seeing his mother, began to cry, pleading to her with big blue eyes and out-stretched arms to take him. She started forward, but Martin stepped between herself and the crib.
"Martin Wade, let me pass. He's mine."
"It isn't going to hurt him to cry. He does it often enough."
"If you had a really cross baby around you'd know how good and reasonable Billy is," she flamed, torn by the little sobs.
"You get out to that kitchen," he ordered, more openly angry than Rose had ever seen him. "I've had enough of this talk, do you hear, and enough of this way of doing. Don't you set foot in here again till supper's over. I've had quite enough, too, of jumping up and down to wait on myself."
Confusedly, Rose thought of her countless hours of lost sleep, her even yet unrecovered strength, the enormous readjustment of her own life in her sincere efforts to do her best by the whole household, her joyous acceptance of all the perpetual self-denial her new duties to Billy necessitated. In comparison, the inconveniences to which Martin had been put seemed trifling. The occasional delays, and the unusual bother of stepping to the stove, now and then, to pour himself and the men a hot cup of coffee--this was their sum total. And how injured he really felt! The injustice of it left her speechless. Nails biting into her hands in her struggle for self-control, she left the room. With a slam of the door behind him, Martin followed her.
Blindly she strove for reason. Billy would simply cry himself to sleep--it was bad for his whole nervous system, but it would not actually make him sick. What a chaos must be in that little heart! His mother had failed him for the first time in his life. It was cruel, the way Martin had forced her to this, and as she listened, for the next half hour, to the muffled sound of Billy's crying and saw how impervious to it Martin was, she knew that never again could things be the same between her husband and herself.
But when, supper over, she found the corners of the rosebud mouth still pathetically down and Billy's breath still quivering in long gasps, she gathered the snuggly body to her and vowed in little broken love-words that from now on his father should have no further opportunities for discipline. Knowing him as she did, she should have trained the baby in the first place to go to sleep alone, should have denied herself those added sweet moments. After this she would be on her guard, forestall Martin, do tenderly what he would do harshly. Never again should her boy be made to suffer through any such mistaken selfishness of hers.
And though, after a while, the importance of this episode shrank to its true proportions, she never forgot or broke this promise. It would have been literally impossible for her to touch Billy, even when he was naughtiest and most exasperating, with other than infinite love, but she had an even firmness of her own. As sensitive as herself, adoring her to the point of worship, he was easily punished by her displeasure or five minutes of enforced quiet on a chair. The note of dread in her voice as she pleaded: "Hush, oh, hush, Billy, be good; quick, darling, papa's coming," was always effective. By ceaseless vigilance and indefatigable patience, she evaded further open rupture until the boy was three years old.
His shrieks had brought both his father and herself flying to the hog barn to find him dancing up and down as, frightened and aghast, he vainly attempted to beat off old Dorcas, a mammoth sow, from one of her day-old litter on which, having crushed it by accident, she was now quite deliberately feasting.
"God Almighty!" stormed Martin, hastily putting the little pigs back into the next pen. "Who let them in to her? That's her old trick."
"I opened the door," confessed Billy, troubled, frank eyes looking straight into his father's. "They were hungry; that one wanted her most." And, at the thought of the tragedy he had witnessed, he flung himself heartbroken into his mother's comforting arms.
"I'll whip you for this," said Martin sternly.
"Oh, please!" protested Rose, gathering the child closer. "Can't you see he's had a bitter enough lesson? His little heart is full."
"He's got to learn, once and for all, not to meddle with the stock. Come here."
"No! I won't have it. I'll see to it that he never does a thing like this again. He's too young to understand. He's never been struck in his life. You shan't."
Martin's cold blue eyes looked icily into his wife's blazing gray ones. "Don't act like a fool. Suppose he had gotten in there himself, and had fallen down --do you think she'd have waited to kill him? Where'd he be now--like that?" and he pointed to the half-eaten carcass.
Rose shuddered. There it was again--the same, familiar, disarming plausibility of Martin's, the old trick of making her seem to be the one in the wrong.
"I wish I had an acre for every good thrashing I got when I was a boy," he commented drily. "But in those days a father who demanded obedience wasn't considered a monster."
"If you only loved him, I wouldn't care," sobbed Rose. "I could stand it better to have you hit him in anger, but you're so hard, so cruel. You plan it all out so--how can you?"
Nevertheless, with a last convulsive hug and a broken "Mother can't help it, darling," she put Billy on his feet, her tormented heart wrung with bitterness as Martin took the clinging child from her and carried him away, hysterical and resisting.
"What else could I do?" she asked herself miserably, stabbed by the added fear that Billy might not forgive her. Could he understand how powerless she had been?
When once more the child was cuddled against her, she realized that in some mystical way there was a new bond between them, and as the days passed, she discovered it was not so much the whipping, but the unnatural perfidy of Dorcas that had scarred his mind. With his own eyes he had seen a mother devour her baby. He woke from dreams of it at night. Even the sight of her in the pasture contentedly suckling the remaining nine did not reassure him. The modern methods of psychology were then, to such women as Rose, a sealed book, but love and intuition taught her to apply them.
"You see, Billy," she explained, "hogs are meant to eat meat like dogs or bears or tigers. But they can live on just grain and grass, and that is what most farmers make them do because there is so much more of it and it costs so much less. Some of them feed what is called tankage. If old Dorcas could have had some of that she probably would not have eaten the little pig. You mustn't blame her too much, for she was just famishing for flesh, the way you are, sometimes, for a drink of water, when you've been playing hard." Thus rationalized, the old sow's conduct lost some of its grewsomeness, and in time, of course, the shock of the whole experience was submerged under other and newer impressions, but always the remembrance of it floated near the surface of his consciousness, his first outstanding memory of his father and the farm.
Inheriting a splendid physique from both parents, at six little Bill was as tall as the average child of eight, well set up and sturdy, afraid of nothing on the place except Martin, who, resenting his attitude, not unreasonably put the blame for it on his wife. "It's not what I do to him," he told her, "it's what you teach him to think I might do that makes him dislike me." To which Rose looked volumes, but made no reply.
Whatever the reason for the child's distrust, and honestly as he tried not to let it affect his feeling for his son, Martin found himself as much repelled by it as he had once been drawn to little Rose by her sweet faith and affection. Yet, in spite of the only too slightly veiled enmity between them, he was rather proud of the handsome lad and determined to give him a thorough stockman's and agriculturist's training. Some day he would run this farm, and Martin had put too much of his very blood into it not to make sure that the hands into which it would fall became competent. With almost impersonal approval he noticed the perfect co-ordination of the boy's muscles, his insatiable curiosity about machinery and his fondness for animals; all of which only made his pronounced distaste for work just that much more aggravating. He was, his father decided contemptuously, a dreamer.
Martin reached this conclusion early in his son's life--Bill was nine--and he determined to grind the objectionable tendency out of him. The youngster had a way of stopping for no reason whatever and just standing there. For all his iron self-control, it nearly drove the energetic man to violence. He would leave Bill in the barn to shovel the manure into the litter-carrier--a good fifteen-minute job; he would return in half an hour to find him sitting in the alleyway, staring down into his idle scoop.
"God Almighty!" Martin would explode. "How many times must I tell you to do a thing?"
The boy would look up slowly, like a frightened colt, expecting a blow, his non-resistance as angering as his indolence. Gazing at the enormous, imposing person who was his father, he would simply wait with wide open eyes--eyes that reminded Martin of a calf begging for a bucket of milk.
"I'm asking you! Answer when I speak. Have you lost the use of your tongue? What are you, anyway --a lump of jelly? Didn't I tell you to clean this barn? It's fly time and no wonder the cows suffer and slack up on their milk when there is a lazy bones like you around who won't even help haul away the manure."
"I was just a-goin' to."
"You should have been through long ago. What are you good for, is what I'd like to find out. You eat a big bellyful and what do you give in return? Do you expect to go through the world like this--having other people do your work for you? If this job isn't finished in fifteen minutes, I'll whip you."
Bill would work swiftly and painfully, for the carrier was high and hard for him to manipulate. But he would do his best, desperate over the threat, his whole nature rebelling, not so much at the task, as at the interruption of the pleasant stream of pictures which had been flowing so excitingly through his mind. Always it was like this--just when he was most blissfully happy, he was jerked back to some mean, dirty job by the stern, driving demands of his tireless father.
Without regard to the fact that harness is heavy, and a horse's back high, Martin would order him to hitch up. He was perfectly aware that it was too much for the child, but lack of affection, and a vague, extenuating belief that especially trying jobs developed one, made him merciless. The boy frequently boiled with rage, but he was so weaponless, so completely in his father's power--there was no escape from this tyranny. He knew he could not live without him; even his mother could not do that. His mother! What a sense of rest would come over him when he sat in her capacious lap, his head on her soft shoulder. With her cheek against his and her kind hand gently patting the back of his still chubby one, something hard in him always melted away.
"Why do I love you so, mama," he asked once, "and hate papa so?"
Mrs. Wade realized what was in his sore heart and hers ached for him, but she answered quietly: "You mustn't hate anybody, dear. You shouldn't."
"I don't hate anybody but him. I hate him and I'm afraid of him--just like you are."
"Oh, Billy," cried Rose, shocked to the quick. "You must never, never say I hate your father--when you're older you'll understand. He is a wonderful man."
"He's mean," said Billy succinctly. "When I get big I'm going to run away."
"From me? Oh, darling, don't think such thoughts. Papa doesn't intend to be mean. He just doesn't know what fun it is to play. You see, dear, when he was a boy like you, he had to work, oh, ever and ever so much more than you do--yes, he did," she nodded solemnly at Bill's incredulous stare. "And his mother never talked with him or held him close as I do you. She didn't have time. Aunt Nellie has told me all about it. He just worked and worked and worked--they all did. That's all there was in their life--just work. Why, when he was your age, his father was at war and papa and Grandmother Wade had to do everything. He did a man's share at fourteen and by the time he was fifteen, he ran this whole farm. Work has gotten to be a habit with him and it's made him different from a great many people. But he thinks that is why he's gone ahead and so he's trying to raise you the same way. If he really didn't care about you, Billy, it wouldn't bother him what you did."
In the silence that fell they could hear old Molly bellowing with pathetic monotony for her calf that had been taken from her. Yesterday she had been so proud, so happy. She had had such a hard time bringing it into the world, too. Martin had been obliged to tie a rope to its protruding legs and pull with all his strength. It didn't seem fair to think that the trusting-eyed little fellow had been snatched from her so soon, as if her pain had been an entirely negligible incident. Already, after six short weeks, he was hanging, drawn and quartered, in one of Fallon's meat-markets.
"I hate this place!" burst out the boy passionately. "I hate it!"
"All farms are cruel," agreed his mother quickly. "But I suppose they have to be. People must have milk and they must have veal."
At nine, though his fingers would become cramped and his wrists would pain him, Bill had three cows to account for twice a day. At five in the morning, he would be shaken by Martin and told to hurry up. It would be dark when he stepped out into the chill air, and he would draw back with a shiver. Somewhere on these six hundred acres was the herd and it was his chore to find it and bring it in. He would go struggling through the pasture, unable to see twenty-five feet ahead of him, the cold dew or snow soaking through his overalls, his shoes becoming wet. Often he would go a mile north only to have to wander to another end of the farm before he located them. Other times, when he was lucky, they would be waiting within a hundred yards of the barn. Oh, how precious the warm bed was, and how his growing body craved a few more hours of sleep! He had a trick of pulling the sheet up over his head, as if thus he could shut out the world, but always his father was there to rout him out from this nest and set him none too gently on his feet; always there was a herd to be brought in and udders to be emptied. It made no difference to Martin that the daily walk to and from the district school was long, and left no spare time; it made no difference that the long hours at his lessons left the boy longing for play--always there was the herd, twice a day, cows and cows without end.
At twelve, Bill was plowing behind four heavy horses. He could run a mower, and clean a pasture of weeds in a day. He could cultivate and handle the manure spreader. In the hot, blazing sun, he could shock wheat behind Martin, who sat on the binder and cut the beautiful swaying gold. There wasn't a thing he could not do, but there was not one that he did with a willing heart. His dreams were all of escape from this grinding, harsh farm. It seemed to him that it was as ruthless as his father; that everything it demanded of him was, at best, just a little beyond his strength. If there was a lever to be pulled on the disk, very likely it was rusted and refused to give unless he yanked until he was short of breath and his heart beat fast; four horses were so unruly and hard to keep in place; the gates were all so heavy--they were not easy to lift and then drag open. It was such a bitter struggle every step of the way. It was so hard to plow as deeply as he was commanded. It was so wearing to make the seed bed smooth enough to measure up to his father's standard. Never was there a person who saw less to love about a farm than this son of Martin's. He even ceased to take any interest in the little colts.
"You used to be foolish about them," Martin taunted, "cried whenever I broke one."
"If I don't get to liking 'em, I don't care what happens to em," Bill answered with his father's own laconicism.
This chicken-heartedness, as he dubbed it, disgusted Martin, who consequently took a satisfaction in compelling the boy to assist him actively whenever there were cattle to be dehorned, wire rings to be pushed through bunches of pigs' snouts, calves to be delivered by force, young stuff to be castrated or butchering to be done. Often the sensitive lad's nerves were strained to the breaking point by the inhuman torture he was constantly forced to inflict upon creatures that had learned to trust him. There was a period when it seemed to him every hour brought new horrors; with each one, his determination strengthened to free himself as soon as possible from this life that was one round of toil and brutality.
Rose gave him all the sympathy and help her great heart knew. His rebellion had been her own, but she had allowed it to be ground out of her, with her soul now in complete surrender. And here was her boy going through it all over again, for himself, learning the dull religion of toil from one of its most fanatical priests. What if Bill, too, should finally have acquiescence to Martin rubbed into his very marrow, should absorb his father's point of view, grow up and run, with mechanical obedience, the farm he abhorred? The very possibility made her shudder. If only she could rescue him in some manner, help him to break free from this bondage. College--that would be the open avenue. Martin would insist upon an agricultural course, but she would use all her tact and rally all her powers that Billy might be given the opportunity to fit himself for some congenial occupation. Martin might even die, and if she were to have the farm to sell and the interest from the investments to live on, how happy she could be with this son of hers, so like her in temperament. She caught herself up sharply. Well, it was Martin himself who was driving her to such thoughts.
"You are like old Dorcas," she once told her husband, driven desperate by the exhausted, harrowed look that was becoming habitual in Bill's face. "You're trampling down your own flesh and blood, that's what you're doing--eating the heart out of your own boy."
"Go right on," retorted Martin, all his loneliness finding vent in his bitter sneer, "tell that to Bill. You've turned him against me from the day he was born. A fine chance I've ever had with my son!"Next