"I CONTEND that you ought to have set them house plants different, Margie, closer around the pulpit rail." Mrs. Skimmons retreated to the back of the church to take in the full effect of the decorations and give further directions to Margie. Mrs. Skimmons had a way of confining her services as chairman of the decorative committee to giving directions, and the benefit of her artistic eye.
Miss Margie good naturedly readjusted the "house plants" and asked, "How is that?"
"Well, it's some better," admitted Mrs. Skimmons, critically, "but I contend we ought to have had some evergreens, even if they do look like Christmas. And now that you've used them hy'cinths for the lamp brackets, what are you goin' to put on the little stand before the pulpit?"
"Martin Dempster promised to bring some Easter lilies up from Kansas City. I thought we'd put them there. He ought to be here pretty soon. I heard the train whistle in a bit ago."
"That's three times he's been to Kansas City this month. I don't see how he can afford it. Everybody knows the old ferry boat can't pay him very well, and he wasn't never much of a business man. It beats me how some people can fly high on nothing. There's his railroad fare and his expenses while he is there. I can't make out what he's doin' down there so much. More'n likely it's some girl or other he's goin' down the river after agin. Now that you and your mother have brought up his baby for him, it would be just like Mart Dempster to go trapesin' off and marry some giddy thing and maybe fetch her up here for you to bring up, too. I can't never think he's acted right by you, Margie."
"So long as I'm satisfied I can't see why it should trouble other people, Mrs. Skimmons."
"O, certainly not, if you are goin' to take offense. I meant well."
Margie turned her face away to avoid Mrs. Skimmons' scrutinizing gaze, and went on quietly with the decorations.
Miss Margie was no longer a girl. Most of the girls of her set who had frolicked and gone to school with her had married and moved away. Yet, though she had passed that dread meridian of thirty, and was the village schoolmistress to boot, she was not openly spoken of as an old maid. When a woman retains much of her beauty and youthful vigor the world, even the petty provincial world, feels a delicacy about applying to her that condemning title that when once adopted is so irrevocable. Then Miss Marjorie Pierson had belonged to one of the best families in the old days, before Brownville was shorn of its glory and importance by the railroad maneuvers that had left everybody poor. She had not always taught tow-headed urchins for a living, but had once lived in a big house on the hill and gone to boarding school and driven her own phaeton, and entertained company from Omaha. These facts protected her somewhat.
She was a tall woman, finely, almost powerfully built and admirably developed. She carried herself with an erect pride that ill accorded with the humble position as the village schoolmistress. Her features were regular and well cut, but her face was comely chiefly because of her vivid coloring and her deeply set gray eyes, that were serious and frank like a man's. She was one of those women one sometimes sees, designed by nature in her more artistic moments, especially fashioned for all the fullness of life; for large experiences and the great world where a commanding personality is felt and valued, but condemned by circumstances to poverty, obscurity and all manner of pettiness. There are plenty of such women, who were made to ride in carriages and wear jewels and grace first nights at the opera, who, through some unaccountable blunder of stage management in this little comédie humaine, have the wrong parts assigned them, and cook for farm hands, or teach a country school like this one, or make gowns for ugly women and pad them into some semblance of shapeliness, while they themselves, who need no such artificial treatment, wear cast-offs; women who were made to rule, but who are doomed to serve. There are plenty of living masterpieces that are as completely lost to the world as the lost nine books of Sappho, or as the Grecian marbles that were broken under the barbarians' battle axes. The world is full of waste of this sort.
While Margie was arranging the "house plants" about the pulpit platform, and the other member of the committee was giving her the benefit of her advice, a man strode lazily into the church carrying a small traveling bag and a large pasteboard box.
"There you are, Miss Margie," he cried, throwing the box on the platform; and sitting down in the front pew he proceeded to fan himself with his soft felt hat.
"O, Martin, they are beautiful! They are the first things that have made me feel a bit like Easter."
"One of 'em is for you, Miss Margie, to wear to morrow," said Martin bashfully. Then he hastened to add, "I feel more like it's Fourth of July than Easter. I'm right afraid of this weather, Mrs. Skimmons. It'll coax all the buds out on the fruit trees and then turn cold and nip 'em. And the buds'll just be silly enough to come out when they are asked. You've done well with your decorations, Mrs. Skimmons."
Mrs. Skimmons looked quizzically at Martin, puzzled by this unusual loquaciousness.
"Well, yes," she admitted, in a satisfied tone, "I think we've done right well considerin' this tryin' weather. I'm about View Image of Page 5 prostrated with the heat myself. How are things goin' down in Kansas City? You must know a good deal about everything there, seein' you go down so much lately."
"'Bout the same," replied Martin, in an uncommunicative tone which evidently offended Mrs. Skimmons.
"Well," remarked that lady briskly, "I guess I can't help you no more now, Margie. I've got to run home and see to them boys of mine. Mr. Dempster can probably help you finish." With this contemptuous use of his surname as a final thrust, Mrs. Skimmons departed.
Martin leaned back in the pew and watched Margie arranging the lilies. He was a big broad-chested fellow, who wore his broad shoulders carelessly and whose full muscular throat betrayed unusual physical strength. His face was simple and honest, bronzed by the weather, and with deep lines about the mild eyes that told that his simple life had not been altogether negative, and that he had not sojourned in this world for forty years without leaving a good deal of himself by the wayside.
"I didn't thank you for the lilies, Martin. It was very kind of you," said Margie, breaking the silence.
"O, that's all right. I just thought you'd like 'em," and he again relapsed into silence, his eyes following the sunny path of the first venturesome flies of the season that buzzed in and out of the open windows. Then his gaze strayed back to where the sunlight fell on Miss Margie and her lilies.
"The fact is, Miss Margie, I've got something to tell you. You know for a long time I've thought I'd like to quit the ferry and get somewhere where I'd have a chance to get ahead. There's no use trying to get ahead in Brownville, for there's nothing to get ahead of. Of late years I wanted to get a job on the lower Mississippi again, on a boat, you know. I've been going down to Kansas City lately to see some gentlemen who own boats down the river, and I've got a place at last, a first rate one that will pay well, and it looks like I could hold it as long as I want it."
Miss Margie looked up from the lilies she was holding and asked sharply, "Then you are going away, Martin?"
"Yes, and I'm going away this time so you won't never have to be ashamed of me for it."
"I ought to be glad on your account. You're right, there's nothing here for you, nor anybody else. But we'll miss you very much, Martin. There are so few of the old crowd left. Will you sell the ferry?"
"I don't just know about that. I'd kind of hate to sell the old ferry. You see I haven't got things planned out very clear yet. After all it's just the going away that matters most."
"Yes, it's just the going away that matters most," repeated Miss Margie slowly, while she watched something out of the window. "But of course you'll have to come back often to see Bobbie."
"Well, you see I was counting on taking Bobbie with me. He's about old enough now, and I don't think I could bear to be apart from him."
"You are not going to take Bobbie away from us, Martin?" cried Miss Margie in a tone of alarm.
"Why yes, Miss Margie. Of course I'll take him, and if you say so—"
"But I don't say so," cried Miss Margie in a tone of tremulous excitement. "He is not old enough, it would be cruel to take a bit of a child knocking around the world like that."
"I can't go without Bobbie. But, Miss Margie—"
"Martin," cried Miss Margie,—she had risen to her feet now and stood facing him, her eyes full of gathering anger and her breast rising and falling perceptibly with her quick-drawn breathing—"Martin, you shall not take Bobbie away from me. He's more my child than yours, anyway. I've been through everything for him. When he was sick I walked the floor with him all night many a time and went with a headache to my work next morning. I've lived and worked and hoped just for him. And I've done it in the face of everything. Not a day passes but some old woman throws it in my face that I'm staying here drivelling my life out to take care of the child of the man who jilted me. I've borne all this because I loved him, because he is all my niggardly life has given me to love. My God! a woman must have something. Every woman's got to have. And I've given him everything, all that I'd starved and beat down and crucified in me. You brought him to me when he was a little wee baby, the only thing of your life you've ever given to mine. From the first time I felt his little cheek on mine I knew that a new life had come into me, and through another woman's weakness and selfishness I had at least one of the things which was mine by right. He was a helpless little baby, dependent on me for everything, and I loved him for just that. He needed my youth and strength and blood, and the very warmth of my body, and he was the only creature on earth who did. In spite of yourself you've given me half my womanhood and you shall not take it from me now. You shall not take it from me now!"
Martin heard her going, he heard the sob that broke as she reached the door but he did not stir from his seat or lift his bowed head. He sat staring at the sunlit spot in front of the pulpit where she had stood with the lilies in her hand, looking to him, somehow, despite her anger, like the pictures of the Holy woman who is always painted with lilies.
When the twilight began to fall and the shadows in the church grew dim he got up and went slowly down to the river toward the ferry boat. Back over the horse-shoe shaped gulch in which the town is built the sky was glorious with red splotches of sunset cloud just above the horizon. The big trees on the bluffs were tossing their arms restlessly in the breeze that blew up the river, and across on the level plains of the Missouri side the lights of the farm houses began to glow through the soft humid atmosphere of the April night. The smell of burning grass was everywhere, and the very air tasted of spring.
The boat hands had all gone to supper, and Martin sat down on the empty deck and lit his pipe. When he was perplexed or troubled he always went to the river. For the river means everything to Brownville folk; it has been at once their making and their undoing.
Brownville was not always the sleepy, deserted town that it is to-day, full of empty buildings and idle men and of boys growing up without aim or purpose. No, the town has had a history, a brief, sad little history which recalls the scathing epigram that Herr Heine once applied to M. Alfred de Musset; it is a young town with a brilliant past. It was the first town built on the Nebraska side of the river, and there, sheltered by the rugged bluffs and washed by the restless Missouri, a new state struggled into existence and proclaimed its right to be. Martin Dempster was the first child born on the Nebraska side, and he had seen the earth broken for the first grave. There, in Senator Tipton's big house on the hillside, when he was a very little boy, he had heard the first telegraph wire ever stretched across the Missouri click its first message that made the blood leap in all his boyish veins, "Westward the course of Empire takes its way."
In the days of his boyhood Brownville was the head of river navigation and the old steamboat trade. He had seen the time when a dozen river steamers used to tie up at the wharves at one time, and unload supplies for the wagon trains that went overland to Pike's Peak and Cherry Creek, that is Denver now. He had sat on the upper veranda of the old Marsh House and listened to the strange talk of the foreign potentates that the "Montana" and "Silver Heels" used to bring up the river and who stopped there on their way into the big game country. He had listened with them to the distant throbbing of the engines that once stirred the lonely sand-split waters of the old river, and watched the steamers swing around the bend at night, glittering with lights, with bands of music playing on their decks and the sparks from the smokestacks blowing back into the darkness. He had sat under the gigantic oak before the Lone Tree saloon and heard the teamsters of the wagon trains and the boat hands exchange stories of the mountains and alkali deserts for stories of the busy world and its doings, filling up the pauses in conversation with old frontier songs and the strumming of banjos. And he could remember only too well when the old "Hannibal" brought up the steel rails for the Union Pacific Railroad, the road that was to kill Brownville.
Brownville had happened because of the steamboat trade, and when the channel of the river had become so uncertain and capricious that navigation was impossible, Brownville became impossible too, and all the prosperity that the river had given it took back in its muddy arms again and swept away. And ever since, overcome by shame and remorse, it had been trying to commit suicide by burying itself in the sand. Every year the channel grows narrower and more treacherous and its waters more turbid. Perhaps it does not even remember any more how it used to hurry along into the great aorta of the continent, or the throb of the wheels of commerce that used to beat up the white foam on its dark waters, or how a certain old Indian chief desired to be buried sitting bolt upright upon the bluff that he might always watch the steamers go up and down the river.
So it was that the tide went out at Brownville, and the village became a little Pompeii buried in bonded indebtedness. The sturdy pioneers moved away and the "river rats" drifted in, a nondescript people who came up the river from nowhere, and bought up the big houses for a song, cut the tall oaks and cedars in the yards for firewood, and plowed up the terraces for potato patches, and were content after the manner of their kind. The river gypsies are a peculiar people; like the Egyptians of old their lives are for and of the river. They each have their skiff and burn driftwood and subsist on catfish and play their banjos, and forget that the world moves—if they ever knew it. The river is the school and religion of these people.
And Martin Dempster was one of them. When most of the better people of the town moved away Martin remained loyal to the river. The feeling of near kinship with the river had always been in him, he was View Image of Page 6 born with it. When he was a little boy he had continually run away from school, and when his father hunted for him he always found him about the river. River boys never take kindly to education; they are always hankering for the water. In summer its muddy coolness is irresistibly alluring, and in winter its frozen surface is equally so. The continual danger which attends its treacherous currents only adds to its enticing charm. They know the river in all its changes and fluctuations as a stock broker knows the markets.
When Martin was a boy his father owned a great deal of Brownville real estate and was considered a wealthy man. Town property was a marketable article in those days, though now no real estate ever sells in Brownville—except cemetery lots. But Martin never cared for business. The first ambition he was ever guilty of was that vague yearning which stirs in the breasts of all river boys, to go down the river sometime, clear down, as far as the river goes. Then, a little later, when he heard an old stump speaker who used to end all his oratorical flights with a figure about "rearing here in the Missouri Valley a monument as high as the thought of man," he had determined to be a great navigator and to bring glory and honor to the town of Brownville. And here he was, running the old ferry boat that was the last and meanest of all the flock of mighty river crafts. So it goes. When we are very little we all dream of driving a street car or wearing a policeman's star or keeping a peanut stand; and generally, after catching at the clouds a few times, we live to accomplish our juvenile ambitions more nearly than we ever realize.
When he was sixteen Martin had run away as cabin boy on the "Silver Heels." Gradually he had risen to the pilot house on the same boat. People wondered why Marjorie Pierson should care for a fellow of that stamp, but the fact that she did care was no secret. Perhaps it was just because he was simple and unworldly and lived for what he liked best that she cared.
Martin's downfall dated back to the death of the steamboat trade at Brownville. His fate was curiously linked with that of his river. When the channel became so choked with sand that the steamers quit going up to Brownville, Martin went lower down the river, making his headquarters at St. Louis. And there the misfortune of his life befell him. There was a girl of French extraction, an Aimée de Mar, who lived down in the shipping district. She lived by her wits principally. She was just a wee mite of a thing, with brown hair that fluffed about her face and eyes that were large and soft like those of Guido's penitent Magdalen, and which utterly belied her. You would wonder how so small a person could make so much harm and trouble in the world. Not that she was naturally malignant or evil at all. She simply wanted the nice things of this world and was determined to have them, no matter who paid for them, and she enjoyed life with a frank sort of hedonism, quite regardless of what her pleasure might cost others. Martin was a young man who stood high in favor with the captains and boat owners and who seemed destined to rise. So Aimée concentrated all her energies to one end, and her project was not difficult of accomplishment under the circumstances. A wiser or worse man would have met her on her own ground and managed her easily enough. But Martin was slow at life as he had been at books, heady and loyal and foolish, the kind of man who pays for his follies right here in this world and who keeps his word if he walks alive into hell for it. The upshot of it was that, after writing to Margie the hardest letter he ever wrote in his life, he married Aimée de Mar.
Then followed those three years that had left deep lines in Martin's face and gray hairs over his temples. Once married Aimée did not sing "Toujours j'amais!" any more. She attired herself gorgeously in satins and laces and perfumed herself heavily with violettes de Parme and spent her days visiting her old friends of the milliners' and hairdressers' shops and impressing them with her elegance. The evenings she would pass in a box at some second rate theatre, ordering ices brought to her between the acts. When Martin was in town he was dragged willy-nilly through all these absurdly vulgar performances, and when he was away matters went even worse. This would continue until Martin's salary was exhausted, after which Aimée would languish at home in bitter resentment against the way the world is run, and consoling herself with innumerable cigarettes de Caporale until pay day. Then she would blossom forth in a new outfit and the same program would be repeated. After running him heavily into debt, by some foolish attempt at a flirtation with a man on board his own boat, she drove Martin into a quarrel which resulted in a fierce hand-to-hand scrimmage on board ship and was the cause of his immediate discharge. In December, while he was hunting work, living from hand to mouth and hiding from his creditors, his baby was born. "As if," Aimée remarked, "the weather were not disagreeable enough without that!"
In the spring, at Mardi-Gras time, Martin happened to be out of town. Aimée was thoroughly weary of domesticity and poverty and of being shut up in the house. She strained her credit for all it was worth for one last time, and on the first night of the fête, though it was bitterly cold, she donned an airy domino and ran away from her baby, and went down the river in a steam launch, hung with colored lights and manned by some gentlemen who were neither sober nor good boatmen. The launch was overturned a mile below the Point, and three of the party went to the bottom. Two days later poor little Aimée was picked up in the river, the yellow and black velvet of her butterfly dress covered with mud and slime, and her gay gauze wings frozen fast to her pretty shoulders.
So Martin spoke the truth when he said that everything that had ever affected his life one way or the other was of the river. To him the river stood for Providence, for fate.
Some of the saddest fables of ancient myth are of the fates of the devotees of the River Gods. And the worship of the River Gods is by no means dead. Martin had been a constant worshipper and a most faithful one, and here he was at forty, not so well off as when he began the world for himself at sixteen. But let no one dream that because the wages of the River God cannot be counted in coin or numbered in herds of cattle, that they are never paid. Its real wages are of the soul alone, and not visible to any man. To all who follow it faithfully, and not for gain but from inclination, the river gives a certain simpleness of life and freshness of feeling and receptiveness of mind not to be found among the money changers of the market place. It feeds his imagination and trains his eye, and gives him strength and courage. And it gives him something better than these, if aught can be better. It gives him, no matter how unlettered he may be, something of that intimate sympathy with inanimate nature that is the base of all poetry, something of that which the high-faced rocks of the gleaming Sicilian shore gave Theocritus.
Martin had come back to Brownville to live down the memory of his disgrace. He might have found a much easier task without going so far. Every day for six years he had met the reproachful eyes of his neighbors unflinchingly, and he knew that his mistake was neither condoned nor forgotten. Brownville people have nothing to do but to keep such memories perenially green. If he had been a coward he would have run away from this perpetual condemnation. But he had the quiet courage of all men who have wrestled hand to hand with the elements, and who have found out how big and terrible nature is. So he stayed.
Miss Margie left the church with a stinging sense of shame at what she had said, and wondered if she were losing her mind. For the women who are cast in that tragic mould are always trying to be like their milder sisters, and are always flattering themselves that they have succeeded. And when some fine day the fire flames out they are more astonished and confounded than anyone else can be. Miss Margie walked rapidly through the dusty road, called by courtesy a street, and crossed the vacant building lots unmindful that her skirts were switching among the stalks of last year's golden rods and sunflowers. As she reached the door a little boy in much abbreviated trousers ran around the house from the back yard and threw his arms about her. She kissed him passionately and felt better. The child seemed to justify her in her own eyes. Then she led him in and began to get supper.
"Don't make my tea as strong as you did last night, Margie. It seems like you ought to know how to make it by this time," said the querrelous invalid from the corner.
"All right, mother. Why mother, you worked my button-holes in black silk instead of blue!"
"How was I to tell, with my eyes so bad? You ought to have laid it out for me. But there is always something wrong about everything I do," complained the old lady in an injured tone.
"No, there isn't, it was all my fault. You can work a better buttonhole than I can, any day."
"Well, in my time they used to say so," said Mrs. Pierson somewhat mollified.
Margie was practically burdened with the care of two children. Her mother was crippled with rheumatism, and only at rare intervals could "help about the house." She insisted on doing a little sewing for her daughter, but usually it had to come out and be done over again after she went to bed. With the housework and the monotonous grind of her work at school, Miss Margie had little time to think about her misfortunes, and so perhaps did not feel them as keenly as she would otherwise have done. It was a perplexing matter, too, to meet even the modest expenses of their household with the salary paid a country teacher. She had never touched a penny of the money Martin paid for the child's board, but put it in the bank for the boy's own use when he should need it.
After supper she put her mother to bed and then put on the red wrapper that she always wore in the evening hour that she had alone with Bobbie. The woman in one dies hard, and after she had ceased to dress View Image of Page 7 for men the old persistent instinct made her wish to be attractive to the boy. She heard him say his "piece" that he was to recite at the Easter service to-morrow, and then sat down in the big rocking chair before the fire and Bobbie climbed up into her lap.
"Bobbie, I want to tell you a secret that we mustn't tell grandma yet. Your father is talking about taking you away."
"Away on the ferry boat?" his eyes glistened with excitement.
"No dear, away down the river; away from grandma and me for good."
"But I won't go away from you and grandma, Miss Margie. Don't you remember how I cried all night the time you were away?"
"Yes, Bobbie, I know, but you must always do what your father says. But you wouldn't like to go, would you?"
"Of course I wouldn't. There wouldn't be anybody to pick up chips, or go to the store, or take care of you and grandma, 'cause I'm the only boy you've got."
"Yes Bobbie, that's just it, dear heart, you're the only boy I've got!" And Miss Margie gathered him up in her arms and laid her hot cheek on his and fell to sobbing, holding him closer and closer.
Bobbie lay very still, not even complaining about the tears that wetted his face. But he wondered very much why any one should cry who had not cut a finger or been stung by a wasp or trodden on a sand-burr. Poor little Bobbie, he had so much to learn! And while he was wondering he fell asleep, and Miss Margie undressed him and put him to bed.
During the five years since that night when Marjorie Pierson and her mother, in the very face of the village gossips, had gone to the train to meet Martin Dempster when he came back to Brownville, worn and weak with fever, and had taken his wailing little baby from his arms, giving it the first touch of womanly tenderness it had ever known, the two lonely women had grown to love it better than anything else in the world, better even than they loved each other. Marjorie had felt every ambition of her girlhood die out before the strength of the vital instinct which this child awakened and satisfied within her. She had told Martin in the church that afternoon that "a woman must have something." Of women of her kind this is certainly true. You can find them everywhere slaving for and loving other women's children. In this sorry haphazard world such women are often cut off from the natural outlet of what is within them; but they always make one. Sometimes it is an aged relative, sometimes an invalid sister, sometimes a waif from the streets no one else wants, sometimes it is only a dog. But there is something, always.
When the child was in his bed Miss Margie took up a bunch of examination papers and began looking through them. As she worked she heard a slow rapping at the door, a rap she knew well indeed, that had sent the blood to her cheeks one day. Now it only left them white.
She started and hesitated, but as the rap was repeated she rose and went to the door, setting her lips firmly.
"Good evening, Martin, come in," she said quietly. "Bobbie is in bed. I'm sorry."
Martin stood by the door and shook his head at the proffered chair. "I didn't come to see Bobbie, Margie. I came to finish what I began to say this afternoon when you cut me off. I know I'm slow spoken. It's always been like it was at school, when the teacher asked a question I knew as well as I knew my own name, but some other fellow'd get the answer out before me. I started to say this afternoon that if I took Bobbie to St. Louis I couldn't take him alone. There is somebody else I couldn't bear to be apart from, and I guess you've known who that is this many a year."
A painful blush overspread Miss Margie's face and she turned away and rested her arm on the mantel. "It is not like you to take advantage of what I said this afternoon when I was angry. I wouldn't have believed it of you. You have given me pain enough in years gone by without this—this that makes me sick and ashamed."
"Sick and ashamed? Why Margie, you must have known what I've been waiting in Brownville for all these years. Don't tell me I've waited too long. I've done my best to live it down. I haven't bothered you nor pestered you so folks could talk. I've just stayed and stuck it out till I could feel I was worthy. Not that I think I'm worthy now, Margie, but the time has come for me to go and I can't go alone."
He paused, but there was no answer. He took a step nearer. "Why Margie, you don't mean that you haven't known I've been loving you all the time till my heart's near burst in me? Many a night down on the old ferry I've told it over and over again to the river till even it seemed to understand. Why Margie, I've"—the note of fear caught in his throat and his voice broke and he stood looking helplessly at his boots.
Miss Margie still stood leaning on her elbow, her face from him. "You'd better have been telling it to me, Martin," she said bitterly.
"Why Margie, I couldn't till I got my place. I couldn't have married you here and had folks always throwing that other woman in your face."
"But if you had loved me you would have told me, Martin, you couldn't have helped that."
He caught her hand and bent over it, lifting it tenderly to his lips. "O Margie, I was ashamed, bitter ashamed! I couldn't forget that letter I had to write you once. And you might have had a hundred better men than me. I never was good enough for you to think of one minute. I wasn't clever nor ready spoken like you, just a tramp of a river rat who could somehow believe better in God because of you."
Margie felt herself going and made one last desperate stand. "Perhaps you've forgotten all you said in that letter, perhaps you've forgotten the shame it would bring to any woman. Would you like to see it? I have always kept it."
He dropped her hand.
"No, I don't want to see it and I've not forgot. I only know I'd rather have signed my soul away than written it. Maybe you're right and there are things a man can't live down,—not in this world. Of course you can keep the boy. As you say he is more yours than mine, a thousand times more. I've never had anything I could call my own. It's always been like this and I ought to be used to it by this time. Some men are made that way. Good night, dear."
"O Martin, don't talk like that, you could have had me any day for the asking. But why didn't you speak before? I'm too old now!" Margie leaned closer to the mantel and the sobs shook her.
He looked at her for a moment in wonder, and, just as she turned to look for him, caught her in his arms. "I've always been slow spoken, Margie,—I was ashamed,—you were too good for me," he muttered between his kisses.
"Don't Martin, don't! That's all asleep in me and it must not come, it shan't come back! Let me go!" cried Margie breathlessly.
"O I'm not near through yet! I'm just View Image of Page 8 showing you how young you are,—its the quickest way," came Martin's answer muffled by the trimmings of her gown.
"O Martin, you may be slow spoken, but you're quick enough at some things," laughed Margie as she retreated to the window, struggling hard against the throb of reckless elation that arose in her. She felt as though some great force had been unlocked within her, great and terrible enough to rend her asunder, as when a brake snaps or a band slips and some ponderous machine grinds itself in pieces. It is not an easy thing, after a woman has shut the great natural hope out of her life, to open the flood gates and let the riotous, aching current come throbbing again through the shrunken channels, waking a thousand undreamed-of possibilities of pleasure and pain.
Martin followed her to the window and they stood together leaning against the deep casing while the spring wind blew in their faces, bearing with it the yearning groans of the river.
"We can kind of say goodbye to the old place tonight. We'll be going in a week or two now," he said nervously.
"I've wanted to get away from Brownville all my life, but now I'm someway afraid to think of going."
"How did that piece end we used to read at school, 'My chains and I—' Go on, you always remember such things." "My very chains and I grew friends, So much a long communion tends To make us what we are. Even I Regained my freedom with a sigh," quoted Margie softly.
"Yes, that's it. I'm counting on you taking some singing lessons again when we get down to St. Louis."
"Why I'm too old to take singing lessons now. I'm too old for everything. O Martin, I don't believe we've done right. I'm afraid of all this! It hurts me."
He put his arm about her tenderly and whispered: "Of course it does, darling. Don't you suppose it hurts the old river down there to-night when the spring floods are stirring up the old bottom and tearing a new channel through the sand? Don't you suppose it hurts the trees to-night when the sap is climbing up and up till it breaks through the bark and runs down their sides like blood? Of course it hurts."
"Oh Martin, when you talk like that it don't hurt any more," whispered Margie.
Truly the service of the river has its wages and its recompense, though they are not seen of men. Just then the door opened and Bobbie came stumbling sleepily across the floor, trailing his little night gown after him.
"It was so dark in there, and I'm scared of the river when it sounds so loud," he said, hiding his face in Margie's skirts.
Martin lifted him gently in his arms and said, "The water won't hurt you, my lad. My boy must never be afraid of the river."
And as he stood there listening to the angry grumble of the swollen waters, Martin asked their benediction on his happiness. For he knew that a river man may be happy only as the river wills.