Across the Years by Eleanor H. Porter
In the Footsteps of Katy
Only Alma had lived--Alma, the last born. The other five, one after another, had slipped from loving, clinging arms into the great Silence, leaving worse than a silence behind them; and neither Nathan Kelsey nor his wife Mary could have told you which hurt the more,--the saying of a last good-bye to a stalwart, grown lad of twenty, or the folding of tiny, waxen hands over a heart that had not counted a year of beating. Yet both had fallen to their lot.
As for Alma--Alma carried in her dainty self all the love, hopes, tenderness, ambitions, and prayers that otherwise would have been bestowed upon six. And Alma was coming home.
"Mary," said Nathan one June evening, as he and his wife sat on the back porch, "I saw Jim Hopkins ter-day. Katy's got home."
"Hm-m,"--the low rocker swayed gently to and fro,--"Katy's been ter college, same as Alma, ye know."
"Yes; an'--an' that's what Jim was talkin' 'bout He was feelin' bad- powerful bad."
"Bad!"--the rocker stopped abruptly. "Why, Nathan!"
"Yes; he--" There was a pause, then the words came with the rush of desperation. "He said home wan't like home no more. That Katy was as good as gold, an' they was proud of her; but she was turrible upsettin'. Jim has ter rig up nights now ter eat supper--put on his coat an' a b'iled collar; an' he says he's got so he don't dast ter open his head. They're all so, too--Mis' Hopkins, an' Sue, an' Aunt Jane--don't none of 'em dast ter speak."
"Why, Nathan!--why not?" "'Cause of--Katy. Jim says there don't nothin' they say suit Katy--'bout its wordin', I mean. She changes it an' tells 'em what they'd orter said."
"Why, the saucy little baggage!"--the rocker resumed its swaying, and Mary Kelsey's foot came down on the porch floor with decided, rhythmic pats.
The man stirred restlessly.
"But she ain't sassy, Mary," he demurred. "Jim says Katy's that sweet an' pleasant about it that ye can't do nothin'. She tells 'em she's kerrectin' 'em fur their own good, an' that they need culturin'. An' Jim says she spends all o' meal-time tellin' 'bout the things on the table, --salt, an' where folks git it, an' pepper, an' tumblers, an' how folks make 'em. He says at first 'twas kind o' nice an' he liked ter hear it; but now, seems as if he hain't got no appetite left ev'ry time he sets down ter the table. He don't relish eatin' such big words an' queer names.
"An' that ain't all," resumed Nathan, after a pause for breath. "Jim can't go hoein' nor diggin' but she'll foller him an' tell 'bout the bugs an' worms he turns up,--how many legs they've got, an' all that. An' the moon ain't jest a moon no more, an' the stars ain't stars. They're sp'eres an' planets with heathenish names an' rings an' orbits. Jim feels bad--powerful bad--'bout it, an' he says he can't see no way out of it. He knows they hain't had much schooling any of 'em, only Katy, an' he says that sometimes he 'most wishes that--that she hadn't, neither."
Nathan Kelsey's voice had sunk almost to a whisper, and with the last words his eyes sent a furtive glance toward the stoop-shouldered little figure in the low rocker. The chair was motionless now, and its occupant sat picking at a loose thread in the gingham apron.
"I--I wouldn't 'a' spoke of it," stammered the man, with painful hesitation, "only--well, ye see, I--you-" he stopped helplessly.
"I know," faltered the little woman. "You was thinkin' of--Alma."
"She wouldn't do it--Alma wouldn't!" retorted the man sharply, almost before his wife had ceased speaking.
"No, no, of course not; but--Nahtan, ye don't think Alma'd ever be--ashamed of us, do ye?"
"'Course not!" asserted Nathan, but his voice shook. "Don't ye worry, Mary," he comforted. "Alma ain't a-goin' ter do no kerrectin' of us."
"Nathan, I--I think that's 'co-rectin','" suggested the woman, a little breathlessly.
The man turned and gazed at his wife without speaking. Then his jaw fell.
"Well, by sugar, Mary! You ain't a-goin' ter begin it, be ye?" he demanded.
"Why, no, 'course not!" she laughed confusedly. "An'--an' Alma wouldn't."
"'Course Alma wouldn't," echoed her husband. "Come, it's time ter shut up the house."
The date of Alma's expected arrival was yet a week ahead.
As the days passed, there came a curious restlessness to the movements of both Nathan and his wife. It was on the last night of that week of waiting that Mrs. Kelsey spoke.
"Nathan," she began, with forced courage, "I've been over to Mis' Hopkins's--an' asked her what special things 'twas that Katy set such store by. I thought mebbe if we knew 'em beforehand, an' could do 'em, an'--"
"That's jest what I asked Jim ter-day, Mary," cut in Nathan excitedly.
"Nathan, you didn't, now! Oh, I'm so glad! An' we'll do 'em, won't we?-- jest ter please her?"
"'Course we will!"
"Ye see it's four years since she was here, Nathan, what with her teachin' summers."
"Sugar, now! Is it? It hain't seemed so long."
"Nathan," interposed Mrs. Kelsey, anxiously, "I think that 'hain't' ain't--I mean aren't right. I think you'd orter say, 'It haven't seemed so long.'"
The man frowned, and made an impatient gesture.
"Yes, yes, I know," soothed his wife; "but,--well, we might jest as well begin now an' git used to it. Mis' Hopkins said that them two words, 'hain't an' 'ain't, was what Katy hated most of anythin'."
"Yes; Jim mentioned 'em, too," acknowledged Nathan gloomily. "But he said that even them wan't half so bad as his riggin' up nights. He said that Katy said that after the 'toil of the day' they must 'don fresh garments an' come ter the evenin' meal with minds an' bodies refreshed.'"
"Yes; an', Nathan, ain't my black silk--"
"Ahem! I'm a-thinkin' it wa'n't me that said 'ain't' that time," interposed Nathan.
"Dear, dear, Nathan!--did I? Oh, dear, what will Alma say?"
"It don't make no diff'rence what Alma says, Mary. Don't ye fret," returned the man with sudden sharpness, as he rose to his feet. "I guess Alma'll have ter take us 'bout as we be--'bout as we be."
Yet it was Nathan who asked, just as his wife was dropping off to sleep that night:--
"Mary, is it three o' them collars I've got, or four?--b'iled ones, I mean."
At five o'clock the next afternoon Mrs. Kelsey put on the treasured black silk dress, sacred for a dozen years to church, weddings, and funerals. Nathan, warm and uncomfortable in his Sunday suit and stiff collar, had long since driven to the station for Alma. The house, brushed and scrubbed into a state of speckless order, was thrown wide open to welcome the returning daughter. At a quarter before six she came.
"Mother, you darling!" cried a voice, and Mrs. Kelsey found herself in the clasp of strong young arms, and gazing into a flushed, eager face. "Don't you look good! And doesn't everything look good!" finished the girl.
"Does it--I mean, do it?" quavered the little woman excitedly. "Oh, Alma, I am glad ter see ye!"
Behind Alma's back Nathan flicked a bit of dust from his coat. The next instant he raised a furtive hand and gave his collar and neckband a savage pull.
At the supper-table that night ten minutes of eager questioning on the part of Alma had gone by before Mrs. Kelsey realized that thus far their conversation had been of nothing more important than Nathan's rheumatism, her own health, and the welfare of Rover, Tabby, and the mare Topsy. Commensurate with the happiness that had been hers during those ten minutes came now her remorse. She hastened to make amends.
"There, there, Alma, I beg yer pardon, I'm sure. I hain't--er--I haven't meant ter keep ye talkin' on such triflin' things, dear. Now talk ter us yer self. Tell us about things--anythin'--anythin' on the table or in the room," she finished feverishly.
For a moment the merry-faced girl stared in frank amazement at her mother; then she laughed gleefully.
"On the table? In the room?" she retorted. "Well, it's the dearest room ever, and looks so good to me! As for the table--the rolls are feathers, the coffee is nectar, and the strawberries--well, the strawberries are just strawberries--they couldn't be nicer."
"Oh, Alma, but I didn't mean----"
"Tut, tut, tut!" interrupted Alma laughingly. "Just as if the cook didn't like her handiwork praised! Why, when I draw a picture--oh, and I haven't told you!" she broke off excitedly. The next instant she was on her feet. "Alma Mead Kelsey, Illustrator; at your service," she announced with a low bow. Then she dropped into her seat again and went on speaking.
"You see, I've been doing this sort of thing for some time," she explained, "and have had some success in selling. My teacher has always encouraged me, and, acting on his advice, I stayed over in New York a week with a friend, and took some of my work to the big publishing houses. That's why I didn't get here as soon as Kate Hopkins did. I hated to put off my coming; but now I'm so glad I did. Only think! I sold every single thing, and I have orders and orders ahead."
"Well, by sugar!" ejaculated the man at the head of the table.
"Oh-h-h!" breathed the little woman opposite. "Oh, Alma, I'm so glad!"
In spite of Mrs. Kelsey's protests that night after supper, Alma tripped about the kitchen and pantry wiping the dishes and putting them away. At dusk father, mother, and daughter seated themselves on the back porch.
"There!" sighed Alma. "Isn't this restful? And isn't that moon glorious?"
Mrs. Kelsey shot a quick look at her husband; then she cleared her throat nervously.
"Er--yes," she assented. "I--I s'pose you know what it's made of, an' how big 'tis, an'--an' what there is on it, don't ye, Alma?"
Alma raised her eyebrows.
"Hm-m; well, there are still a few points that I and the astronomers haven't quite settled," she returned, with a whimsical smile.
"An' the stars, they've got names, I s'pose--every one of 'em," proceeded Mrs. Kelsey, so intent on her own part that Alma's reply passed unnoticed.
Alma laughed; then she assumed an attitude of mock rapture, and quoted:
"'Scintillate, scintillate, globule vivific, Fain would I fathom thy nature specific; Loftily poised in ether capacious, Strongly resembling the gem carbonaceous.'"
There was a long silence. Alma's eyes were on the flying clouds.
"Would--would you mind saying that again, Alma?" asked Mrs. Kelsey at last timidly.
Alma turned with a start.
"Saying what, dearie?--oh, that nonsensical verse? Of course not! That's only another way of saying 'twinkle, twinkle, little star.' Means just the same, only uses up a few more letters to make the words. Listen." And she repeated the two, line for line.
"Oh!" said her mother faintly. "Er--thank you."
"I--I guess I'll go to bed," announced Nathan Kelsey suddenly.
The next morning Alma's pleadings were in vain. Mrs. Kelsey insisted that Alma should go about her sketching, leaving the housework for her own hands to perform. With a laughing protest and a playful pout, Alma tucked her sketchbook under her arm and left the house to go down by the river. In the field she came upon her father.
"Hard at work, dad?" she called affectionately. "Old Mother Earth won't yield her increase without just so much labor, will she?"
"That she won't," laughed the man. Then he flushed a quick red and set a light foot on a crawling thing of many legs which had emerged from beneath an overturned stone.
"Oh!" cried Alma. "Your foot, father--your're crushing something!"
The flush grew deeper.
"Oh, I guess not," rejoined the man, lifting his foot, and giving a curiously resigned sigh as he sent an apprehensive glance into the girl's face.
"Dear, dear! isn't he funny?" murmured the girl, bending low and giving a gentle poke with the pencil in her hand. "Only fancy," she added, straightening herself, "only fancy if we had so many feet. Just picture the size of our shoe bill!" And she laughed and turned away.
"Well, by gum!" ejaculated the man, looking after her. Then he fell to work, and his whistle, as he worked, carried something of the song of a bird set free from a cage.
A week passed.
The days were spent by Alma in roaming the woods and fields, pencil and paper in hand; they were spent by her mother in the hot kitchen over a hotter stove. To Alma's protests and pleadings Mrs. Kelsey was deaf. Alma's place was not there, her work was not housework, declared Alma's mother.
On Mrs. Kelsey the strain was beginning to tell. It was not the work alone--though that was no light matter, owing to her anxiety that Alma's pleasure and comfort should find nothing wanting--it was more than the work.
Every night at six the anxious little woman, flushed from biscuit-baking and chicken-broiling and almost sick with fatigue, got out the black silk gown and the white lace collar and put them on with trembling hands. Thus robed in state she descended to the supper-table, there to confront her husband still more miserable in the stiff collar and black coat.
Nor yet was this all. Neither the work nor the black silk dress contained for Mrs. Kelsey quite the possibilities of soul torture that were to be found in the words that fell from her lips. As the days passed, the task the little woman had set for herself became more and more hopeless, until she scarcely could bring herself to speak at all, so stumbling and halting were her sentences.
At the end of the eighth day came the culmination of it all. Alma, her nose sniffing the air, ran into the kitchen that night to find no one in the room, and the biscuits burning in the oven. She removed the biscuits, threw wide the doors and windows, then hurried upstairs to her mother's room.
Mrs. Kelsey stood before the glass, a deep flush on her cheeks and tears rolling down her face. Two trembling hands struggled with the lace at her throat until the sharp point of a pin found her thumb and left a tiny crimson stain on the spotlessness of the collar. It was then that Mrs. Kelsey covered her face with her hands and sank into the low chair by the bed.
"Why, mother!" cried Alma again, hurrying across the room and dropping on her knees at her mother's side.
"I can't, Alma, I can't!" moaned the woman. "I've tried an' tried; but I've got ter give up, I've got ter give up."
"Can't what, dearie?--give up what?" demanded Alma.
Mrs. Kelsey shook her head. Then she dropped her hands and looked fearfully into her daughter's face.
"An' yer father, too, Alma--he's tried, an' he can't," she choked.
"Tried what? What do you mean?"
With her eyes on Alma's troubled, amazed face, Mrs. Kelsey made one last effort to gain her lost position. She raised her shaking hands to her throat and fumbled for the pin and the collar.
"There, there, dear, don't fret," she stammered. "I didn't think what I was sayin'. It ain't nothin'--I mean, it aren't nothin'--it am not--oh-h!" she sobbed; "there, ye see, Alma, I can't, I can't. It ain't no more use ter try!" Down went the gray head on Alma's strong young shoulder.
"There, there, dear, cry away," comforted Alma, with loving pats. "It will do you good; then we'll hear what this is all about, from the very beginning."
And Mrs. Kelsey told her--and from the very beginning. When the telling was over, and the little woman, a bit breathless and frightened, sat awaiting what Alma would say, there came a long silence.
Alma's lips were close shut. Alma was not quite sure, if she opened them, whether there would come a laugh or a sob. The laugh was uppermost and almost parted the firm-set lips, when a side glance at the quivering face of the little woman in the big chair turned the laugh into a half- stifled sob. Then Alma spoke.
"Mother, dear, listen. Do you think a silk dress and a stiff collar can make you and father any dearer to me? Do you think an 'ain't' or a 'hain't' can make me love either of you any less? Do you suppose I expect you, after fifty years' service for others, to be as careful in your ways and words as if you'd spent those fifty years in training yourself instead of in training six children? Why, mother, dear, do you suppose that I don't know that for twenty of those years you have had no thoughts, no prayers, save for me?--that I have been the very apple of your eye? Well, it's my turn, now, and you are the apple of my eye--you and father. Why, dearie, you have no idea of the plans I have for you. There's a good strong woman coming next week for the kitchen work. Oh, it's all right," assured Alma, quickly, in response to the look on her mother's face. "Why, I'm rich! Only think of those orders! And then you shall dress in silk or velvet, or calico--anything you like, so long as it doesn't scratch nor prick," she added merrily, bending forward and fastening the lace collar. "And you shall----"
"Ma-ry?" It was Nathan at the foot of the back stairway.
"Ain't it 'most supper-time?"
"Bless my soul!" cried Mrs. Kelsey, springing to her feet.
"Hain't I got a collar--a b'iled one, on the bureau up there?"
"No," called Alma, snatching up the collar and throwing it on the bed. "There isn't a sign of one there. Suppose you let it go to-night, dad?"
"Well, if you don't mind!" And a very audible sigh of relief floated up the back stairway.