THE wagon was rattling down a narrow lane, for though the horse went at a snail's pace, every bolt and hinge in the wagon was loose and contributed its own bit of noise to their progress. Hope looked around her with interest. On either side of the lane lay rolling, fertile fields which were well cultivated. Whatever people may have said of its master, Brier Farm was famed for its good crops. The lane turned abruptly into a neglected driveway, and this led them up to the kitchen door of the farmhouse.
"Never unlocks the front door 'cept for the minister or your funeral," whispered Chris to Hope, as the kitchen door opened and a tall, thin man came out.
"Took you long enough to get here," he greeted the two young people sourly. "Dinner's been over two hours and more. Hustle that trunk inside, you Chris, and put up the horse. Warner and Landon need you to help 'em set tomato plants."
Hope had climbed down and stood helplessly beside the wagon. She judged this tall, thin man to be Mr. Jeter, owner of Brier Farm, though he addressed no word directly to her, but swung on his heel, striding off in the direction of the barn. Chris was, evidently, too cowed to make any introductions. There was nothing for Hope to do, but to follow Chris and her trunk into the house.
The kitchen was hot and swarming with flies. There were no screens at the windows, and, though the shades were drawn down, the pests easily found their way into the room. "How do you do, Hope?" a soft voice in the shade of the kitchen startled Hope."I hope your trip was pleasant. Dinner's all put away, but it won't be long till supper time. I'm just trying to brush some of the flies out," and to Hope's surprise, a thin, loose hand was thrust into hers. Mrs. Jeter was carrying out her idea of a handshake.
Hope stared in wonder at the lifeless creature who smiled wanly at her. What would Uncle Richard say if he saw Anna Jeter now? Where were the long yellow braids and the blue eyes he had described? This woman, thin, absolutely colorless in face, voice, and manner, dressed in a faded, cheap, blue, calico housedress--was this Uncle Richard's old school friend?
"Perhaps you'd like to go upstairs to your room and lie down a while," Mrs. Jeter was saying. "I'll show you where you're to sleep. How is your uncle doing, dear?"
Hope answered dully that he was well. Her mind was too taken up with new impressions to know very clearly what was said to her.
"I'm sorry there aren't any screens," apologized her hostess. "But the flies aren't bad on this side of the house, and the mosquitoes only come when there's a marsh wind. You'll find water in the pitcher, and I laid out a clean towel for you. Do you want me to help you unpack your trunk?"
Hope declined the offer with thanks. She wanted to be alone. She had not noticed Mrs. Jeter's longing glance at the pretty, little trunk. Only later would she understand how that afternoon she had denied Anna Jeter real heart-hunger for handling pretty clothes and the dainty accessories that women love.
When the door had closed on Mrs. Jeter, Hope sat down on the bed to think. She found herself in a long, narrow room with two windows, the sashes propped up with sticks. The floor was bare, but scrubbed very clean; and the sheets and pillow cases on the narrow iron bed, though of coarse, unbleached muslin, were immaculate. Something peculiar about the pillow case made her lean closer to examine it. It was made of flour or salt bags, stitched finely together! "'Puts every penny through the wringer.'" The phrase Chris had used came to Hope.
"There's no excuse for such things if he isn't poor," she argued indignantly. "Well, I suppose I'll have to stay a week, anyway. I might as well wash up."
A half-hour later, the traces of travel removed and her dark suit changed to a pretty, pink, chambray dress, Hope descended the stairs to get acquainted with Brier Farm. She wandered through several darkened rooms on the first floor and out into the kitchen, without finding Mrs. Jeter. A heavy-set, sullen-faced man was getting a drink from the tin dipper at the sink.
"Want some?" he asked, indicating the pump. Hope declined, and asked if he knew where Mrs. Jeter was.
"Out in the chicken yard," was the reply. "You the boarder they been talking about?"
"I'm Hope Lockhart," said the girl pleasantly.
"Yup, they've been going on for a week about you. Old man's got it all figured out what he'll do with your board. The missis thought she ought to have half, but he shut her up mighty quick. Women and money don't hitch up in Jeter's mind." He laughed coarsely and went out, drawing a plug of tobacco from his hip pocket and taking a tremendous chew from it as he closed the door.
Hope felt a sudden longing for fresh air, and, waiting only for the man to get out of sight, she stepped out on the back porch. A line of milk pans were drying in the late afternoon sun and a churn turned up to air showed that Mrs. Jeter made her own butter. Hope was still hungry, and the thought of slices of homemade bread and golden country butter made her feel faint.
"I wonder where the chicken yard is," she thought, going down to the limp gate that swung sadly on a rusty hinge. The Brier Farm house, she discovered, looking at it critically, sorely needed the minor repairs that make a home attractive. The blinds sagged in several places and, in some instances, were missing altogether. Once white, the paint was now a dirty gray. Half the pickets were gone from the garden fence. The lawn was ragged and overgrown with weeds, and the two tired-looking flower-beds were choked this early in the season. Hope's weeding habits moved her irresistibly to kneel down and try to free a few of the plants from the mass of tangled creepers that flourished among them.
"Better not let Bob Jeter see you doing that," said Chris Harris' voice above her bent head. "He hasn't a mite of use for a person who wastes time on flower beds. If you want to see things in good shape, take a look at the vegetable gardens. The missus has to keep that clear, 'cause after it's planted, she's supposed to feed us all summer from it."
Hope shook back her hair from a damp forehead. "For mercy's sake," she demanded with heat, "is there one pleasant, kind thing connected with this place...and just who was that awful man I met in the kitchen?"
"Guess it was Landon, one of the hired men," replied Chris. "He came down to the house to get a drink a few minutes ago. He's all right, Hope, even if he's not much to look at."
"You, Chris!" came a rough shout that shot Chris through the gate and toward the voice with an astonishing speed. Hope stood up, shook the earth from her skirt, and, guided by the shrill cackle of a proud hen, picked her way through a rather cluttered barnyard, till she came to a wire-enclosed space that was the chicken yard.
Mrs. Jeter, staggering under the weight of two heavy pails of water, met her at the gate. "How nice you look!" she said wistfully. "Don't come in here, dear; you might get something on your dress."
"Oh, it washes well," returned Hope carelessly. "Do you always carry water for the chickens?"
"Twice a day in summer," was the answer. "Before Bob - Mr. Jeter- had water put in the barns, I had to carry the water all the way from the well down yonder to the chickens and the herd, as well. It was an awful job; but he couldn't get a man to help him with the cows, unless he had running water at the barn, so this system was new last year. It's a big help."
Silently, and feeling in the way because she could not help, Hope watched the woman fill troughs and drinking vessels for the thirsty hens, which had, evidently, spent an uncomfortable, dry afternoon in the shadeless yard. Scattering a skimpy ration of corn, Mrs. Jeter went into the hen house and reappeared presently with a basket filled with eggs.
"They'd lay better if I could get 'em some meat scraps," she confided to Hope as they walked toward the house. "But I dunno--it's so hard to get things done, I've just about given up arguing."
She would not let Hope help her with the supper, and was so insistent that she should not touch a dish, that Hope finally just gave up. The heat of the kitchen was intense, for Mrs. Jeter had built a fire of corn cobs in the range - There was no gas, and she evidently had did not even have an oil stove.
Precisely at six o'clock, the men came in. "They milk after supper, summers," Mrs. Jeter had explained. "The milk stays sweet longer."
Hope watched in round-eyed amazement, as Mr. Jeter and the two hired men washed at the sink, with much sputtering and blowing, and combed their hair before a small cracked mirror tacked over the sink. If she had not been so hungry, the sight would have taken her appetite away. Chris did not come in till they were seated. He had washed outside, he explained, and Hope liked to think that he had acted out of consideration for her.
"What's that?" demanded Mr. Jeter, pointing his fork at a tiny pat of butter before Hope's plate. There was no other butter on the table, and only a very plain meal of bread, baked tomatoes, raspberries and hot tea.
"I--I had a little butter left over from the last churning," stammered Mrs. Jeter. "It wasn't even enough to make a quarter-pound print, Bob."
"I don't believe that," contradicted her husband. "I told you flat, Anna, that there was to be no pampering. Hope can eat what we eat, or go without. Take that butter away, do you hear me?"
A pale flush rose to Mrs. Jeter's thin cheeks, and her lips moved rebelliously.
Evidently, her husband was practiced at reading her soundless words. "Board?" he cried roughly. "What do I care whether she's paying board or not? Am I not the judge of how my house should be run? Food costs were never higher than they are now, and you've got to watch every scrap. You take that butter off, and don't let me catch you doing nothin' like that again."
The men kept on eating, evidently too used to quarrels to pay any attention to anything but their food. Hope had listened silently, but the bread she ate seemed to choke her. Suddenly, she rose to her feet, shaking with rage. "Take your old butter!" she stormed at the astonished Mr. Jeter. "I wouldn't eat it, if you begged me to. And I won't stay in your house one second longer than it takes to have Uncle Richard send for me--you--you miserable, old miser!"
Butter for greasing dish
6 Sliced tomatoes
1 small, thinly sliced onion
1 c. Bread crumbs
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter 8x8 square baking dish. Place a layer of tomatoes on bottom, then a few slices of onion. Gently season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with bread crumbs. Repeat until you've made 3 layers in all. Bake 30 min. or til browned on top.