XI. A Business Proposition
 

Mid-August saw them on their way to Chicago. Kate had taken care of Mrs. Jardine a few days while Jennie Weeks went home to see her mother and arrange for her new work. She had no intention of going back to school teaching. She preferred to brush Mrs. Jardine's hair, button her shoes, write her letter, and read to her.

In a month, Jennie had grown so deft at her work and made herself so appreciated, that she was practically indispensable to the elderly woman, and therefore the greatest comfort to John. Immediately he saw that his mother was properly cared for, sympathetically and even lovingly, he made it his business to smooth Jennie's path in every way possible. In turn she studied him, and in many ways made herself useful to him. Often she looked at him with large and speculative eyes as he sat reading letters, or papers, or smoking.

The world was all right with Kate when they crossed the sand dunes as they neared the city. She was sorry about the situation in her home, but she smiled sardonically as she thought how soon her father would forget his anger when he heard about the city home and the kind of farm she could have, merely by consenting to take it. She was that sure of John Jardine; yet he had not asked her to marry him. He had seemed on the verge of it a dozen times, and then had paused as if better judgment told him it would be wise to wait a little longer. Now Kate had concluded that there was a definite thing he might be waiting for, since that talk about land.

She thought possibly she understood what it was. He was a business man; he knew nothing else; he said so frankly. He wanted to show her his home, his business, his city, his friends, and then he required -- he had almost put it into words -- that he be shown her home and her people. Kate not only acquiesced, she approved. She wanted to know as much of a man she married as Nancy Ellen had known, and Robert had taken her to his home and told his people she was his betrothed wife before he married her.

Kate's eyes were wide open and her brain busy, as they entered a finely appointed carriage and she heard John say: "Rather sultry. Home down the lake shore, George." She wished their driver had not been named "George," but after all it made no difference. There could not be a commoner name than John, and she knew of but one that she liked better. For the ensuing three days she lived in a Lake Shore home of wealth. She watched closely not to trip in the heavy rugs and carpets. She looked at wonderful paintings and long shelves of books. She never had touched such china, or tasted such food or seen so good service. She understood why John had opposed his mother's undertaking the trip without him, for everyone in the house seemed busy serving the little woman.

Jennie Weeks was frankly enchanted.

"My sakes!" she said to Kate. "If I'm not grateful to you for getting me into a place like this. I wouldn't give it up for all the school-teaching in the world. I'm going to snuggle right in here, and make myself so useful I won't have to leave until I die. I hope you won't turn me out when to come to take charge."

"Don't you think you're presuming?" said Kate.

Jennie drew back with a swift apology, but there was a flash in the little eyes and a spiteful look on the small face as she withdrew.

Then Kate was shown each of John's wonderful inventions. To her they seemed almost miracles, because they were so obvious, so simple, yet brought such astounding returns. She saw offices and heard the explanation of big business; but did not comprehend, farther than that when an invention was completed, the piling up of money began. Before the week's visit was over, Kate was trying to fit herself and her aims and objects of life into the surroundings, with no success whatever. She felt housed in, cribbed, confined, frustrated. When she realized that she was becoming plainly cross, she began keen self-analysis and soon admitted to herself that she did not belong there.

Kate watched with keen eyes. Repeatedly she tried to imagine herself in such surroundings for life, a life sentence, she expressed it, for soon she understood that it would be to her, a prison. The only way she could imagine herself enduring it at all was to think of the promised farm, and when she began to think of that on Jardine terms, she saw that it would mean to sit down and tell someone else what she wanted done. There would be no battle to fight. Her mind kept harking back to the day when she had said to John that she hoped there would be a lake on the land she owned, and he had answered casually: "If there isn't a lake, make one!" Kate thought that over repeatedly. "Make one!" Make a lake? It would have seemed no more magical to her if he had said, "Make a cloud," "Make a star," or "Make a rainbow." "What on earth would I do with myself, with my time, with my life?" pondered Kate.

She said "Good-bye" to Mrs. Jardine and Jennie Weeks, and started home with John, still pondering. When the train pulled into Hartley, Nancy Ellen and Robert were on the platform to meet them. From that time, Kate was on solid ground. She was reckoning in terms she could comprehend. All her former assurance and energy came back to her. She almost wished the visit were over, and that she were on the way to Walton to clean the school-house. She was eager to roll her sleeves and beat a tub of soapy clothes to foam, and boil them snowy white. She had a desire she could scarcely control to sweep, and dust, and cook. She had been out of the environment she thought she disliked and found when she returned to it after a wider change than she could have imagined, that she did not dislike it at all. It was her element, her work, what she knew. She could attempt it with sure foot, capable hand, and certain knowledge.

Sunday morning she said to Nancy Ellen as they washed the breakfast dishes, while the men smoked on the veranda: "Nancy Ellen, I don't believe I was ever cut out for a rich woman! If I have got a chance, I wish you had it, and I had this. This just suits my style to a T."

"Tell me about it," said Nancy Ellen.

"Kate told all she could remember.

"You don't mean to say you didn't like it?" cried Nancy Ellen.

"I didn't say anything," said Kate, "but if I were saying exactly what I feel, you'd know I despise it all."

"Why, Kate Barnes!" cried the horrified Nancy Ellen, "Whatever do you mean?"

"I haven't thought enough to put it to you clearly," said Kate, "but someway the city repels me. Facilities for manufacturing something start a city. It begins with the men who do the work, and the men who profit from that work, living in the same coop. It expands, and goes on, and grows, on that basis. It's the laborer, living on his hire, and the manufacturer living on the laborer's productions, coming in daily contact. The contrast is too great, the space is too small. Somebody is going to get the life crowded out of him at every turn, and it isn't always the work hand in the factory. The money kings eat each other for breakfast every day. As for work, we always thought we worked. You should take a peep into the shops and factories I've seen this week. Work? Why, we don't know what work is, and we waste enough food every day to keep a workman's family, and we're dressed liked queens, in comparison with them right now."

"Do you mean to say if he asks you --?" It was a small explosion.

"I mean to say if he asks me, 'buy me that two hundred acres of land where I want it, build me the house and barns I want, and guarantee that I may live there as I please, and I'll marry you to-morrow.' If it's Chicago -- Never! I haven't stolen, murdered, or betrayed, who should I be imprisoned?"

"Why, you hopeless anarchist!" said Nancy Ellen, "I am going to tell John Jardine on you."

"Do!" urged Kate. "Sound him on the land question. It's our only hope of a common foundation. Have you send Agatha word that we will be out this afternoon?"

"I have," said Nancy Ellen. "And I don't doubt that now, even now, she is in the kitchen -- how would she put it?"

"'Compounding a cake,'" said Kate, "while Adam is in the cellar 'freezing a custard.' Adam, 3d, will be raking the yard afresh and Susan will be sweeping the walks steadily from now until they sight us coming down the road. What you bet Agatha asked John his intentions? I almost wish she would," she added. "He has some, but there is a string to them in some way, and I can't just make out where, or why it is."

"Not even a guess?" asked Nancy Ellen.

"Not even a guess, with any sense to it. I've thought it was coming repeatedly; but I've got a stubborn Bates streak, and I won't lift a finger to help him. He'll speak up, loud and plain, or there will be no 'connubial bliss' for us, as Agatha says. I think he has ideas about other things than freight train gear. According to his programme we must have so much time to become acquainted, I must see his home and people, he must see mine. If there's more after that, I'm not informed. Like as not there is. It may come after we get back to-night, I can't say."

"Have you told him --?" asked Nancy Ellen.

"Not the details, but the essentials. He knows that I can't go home. It came up one day in talking about land. I guess they had thought before, that my people were poor as church mice. I happened to mention how much land I had helped earn for my brothers, and they seemed so interested I finished the job. Well, after they had heard about the Land King, it made a noticeable difference in their treatment of me. Not that they weren't always fine, but it made, I scarcely know how to put it, it was so intangible -- but it was a difference, an added respect. You bet money is a power! I can see why Father hangs on to those deeds, when I get out in the world. They are his compensation for his years of hard work, the material evidence that he has succeeded in what he undertook. He'd show them to John Jardine with the same feeling John showed me improved car couplers, brakes, and air cushions. They stand for successes that win the deference of men. Out in the little bit of world I've seen, I notice that men fight, bleed, and die for even a tiny fraction of deference. Aren't they funny? What would I care --?"

"Well, I'D care a lot!" said Nancy Ellen.

Kate surveyed her slowly. "Yes, I guess you would."

They finished the dishes and went to church, because Robert was accustomed to going. They made a remarkable group. Then they went to the hotel for dinner, so that the girls would not have to prepare it, and then in a double carriage Robert had secured for the occasion, they drove to Bates Corners and as Kate said, "Viewed the landscape o'er." Those eight pieces of land, none under two hundred acres, some slightly over, all in the very highest state of cultivation, with modern houses, barns, outbuildings, and fine stock grazing in the pastures, made an impressive picture. It was probably the first time that any of the Bates girls had seen it all at once, and looked on it merely as a spectacle. They stopped at Adam's last, and while Robert was busy with the team and John had alighted to help him, Nancy Ellen, revealing tight lips and unnaturally red cheeks, leaned back to Kate.

"This is about as mean a trick, and as big a shame as I've ever seen," she said, hotly. "You know I was brought up with this, and I never looked at it with the eyes of a stranger before. If ever I get my fingers on those deeds, I'll make short work of them!"

"And a good job, too!" assented Kate, instantly. "Look out! There comes Adam."

"I'd just as soon tell him so as not!" whispered Nancy Ellen.

"Which would result in the deeds being recorded to-morrow and spoiling our trip to-day, and what good would it do you?" said Kate.

"None, of course! Nothing ever does a Bates girl any good, unless she gets out and does it for herself," retorted Nancy Ellen spitefully.

"There, there," said Robert as he came to help Nancy Ellen protect her skirts in alighting. "I was afraid this trip would breed discontent."

"What's the trouble?" asked John, as he performed the same service for Kate.

"Oh, the girls are grouching a little because they helped earn all this, and are to be left out of it," explained Robert in a low voice.

"Let's get each one of them a farm that will lay any of these completely in the shade," suggested John.

"All right for you, if you can do it," said Robert, laughing, "but I've gone my limit for the present. Besides, if you gave each of them two hundred acres of the Kingdom of Heaven, it wouldn't stop them from feeling that they had been defrauded of their birthright here."

"How would you feel if you was served the same way?" asked John, and even as she shook hands with Adam, and introduced John Jardine, Kate found herself wishing that he had said "were."

As the girls had predicted, the place was immaculate, the yard shady and cool from the shelter of many big trees, the house comfortable, convenient, the best of everything in sight. Agatha and Susan were in new white dresses, while Adam Jr. and 3d wore tan and white striped seersucker coats, and white duck trousers. It was not difficult to feel a glow of pride in the place and people. Adam made them cordially welcome.

"You undoubtedly are blessed with good fortune," said Agatha. "Won't you please enlighten us concerning your travels, Katherine?"

So Kate told them everything she could think of that she thought would interest and amuse them, even outlining for Agatha speeches she had heard made by Dr. Vincent, Chaplain McCabe, Jehu DeWitt Miller, a number of famous politicians, teachers, and ministers. Then all of them talked about everything. Adam took John and Robert to look over the farm, whereupon Kate handed over her hat for Agatha to finger and try on.

"And how long will it be, my dear," said Agatha to Kate, "before you enter connubial bliss?"

"My goodness! I'm glad you asked me that while the men are at the barn," said Kate. "Mr. Jardine hasn't said a word about it himself, so please be careful what you say before him."

Agatha looked at Kate in wonder.

"You amaze me," she said. "Why, he regards you as if he would devour you. He hasn't proposed for your hand, you say? Surely you're not giving him proper encouragement!"

"She isn't giving him any, further than allowing him to be around," said Nancy Ellen.

"Do enlighten me!" cried the surprised Agatha. "How astonishing! Why, Kate, my dear, there is a just and proper amount of encouragement that must be given any self-respecting youth, before he makes his declarations. You surely know that."

"No, I do not know it!" said Kate. "I thought it was a man's place to speak up loud and plain and say what he had to propose."

"Oh, dear!" wailed Agatha, wringing her thin hands, her face a mirror of distress. "Oh, dear, I very much fear you will lose him. Why, Katherine, after a man has been to see you a certain number of times, and evidenced enough interest in you, my dear, there are a thousand strictly womanly ways in which you can lend his enterprise a little, only a faint amount of encouragement, just enough to allow him to recognize that he is not -- not -- er -- repulsive to you."

"But how many times must he come, and how much interest must he evince?" asked Kate.

"I can scarcely name an exact number," said Agatha. "That is personal. You must decide for yourself what is the psychological moment at which he is to be taken. Have you even signified to him that you -- that you -- that you could be induced, even to contemplate marriage?"

"Oh, yes," said Kate, heartily. "I told his mother that it was the height of my ambition to marry by the time I'm twenty. I told her I wanted a man as tall as I am, two hundred acres of land, and at least twelve babies."

Agatha collapsed suddenly. She turned her shocked face toward Nancy Ellen.

"Great Day of Rest!" she cried. "No wonder the man doesn't propose!"

When the men returned from their stroll, Agatha and Susan served them with delicious frozen custard and Angel's food cake. Then they resumed their drive, passing Hiram's place last. At the corner Robert hesitated and turned to ask: "Shall we go ahead, Kate?"

"Certainly," said Kate. "I want Mr. Jardine to see where I was born and spent my time of legal servitude. I suppose we daren't stop. I doubt if Mother would want to see me, and I haven't the slightest doubt that Father would not; but he has no jurisdiction over the road. It's the shortest way -- and besides, I want to see the lilac bush and the cabbage roses."

As they approached the place Nancy Ellen turned.

"Father's standing at the gate. What shall we do?"

"There's nothing you can do, but drive straight ahead and you and Robert speak to him," said Kate. "Go fast, Robert."

He touched the team and at fair speed they whirled past the white house, at the gate of which, stiffly erect, stood a brawny man of six feet six, his face ruddy and healthy in appearance. He was dressed as he prepared himself to take a trip to pay his taxes, or to go to Court. He stood squarely erect, with stern, forbidding face, looking directly at them. Robert spoke to him, and Nancy Ellen leaned forward and waved, calling "Father," that she might be sure he knew her, but he gave not the slightest sign of recognition. They carried away a distinct picture of him, at his best physically and in appearance; at his worst mentally.

"There you have it!" said Kate, bitterly. "I'd be safe in wagering a thousand dollars, if I had it, that Agatha or the children told, at Hiram's or to Mother's girl, that we were coming. They knew we would pass about this time. Mother was at the side door watching, and Father was in his Sunday best, waiting to show us what would happen if we stopped, and that he never changes his mind. It didn't happen by accident that he was standing there dressed that way. What do you think, Nancy Elen?"

"That he was watching for us!" said Nancy Ellen.

"But why do you suppose that he did it?" asked Kate.

"He thought that if he were not standing guard there, we might stop in the road and at least call Mother out. He wanted to be seen, and seen at his best; but as always, in command, showing his authority."

"Don't mind," said John Jardine. "It's easy to understand the situation."

"Thank you," said Kate. "I hope you'll tell your mother that. I can't bear her to think that the trouble is wholly my fault."

"No danger of that," he said. "Mother thinks there's nobody in all the world like you, and so do I."

Nancy Ellen kicked Robert's shin, to let him know that she heard. Kate was very depressed for a time, but she soon recovered and they spent a final happy evening together. When John had parted from Robert and Nancy Ellen, with the arrangement that he was to come again the following Saturday evening and spend Sunday with them, he asked Kate to walk a short distance with him. He seemed to be debating some proposition in his mind, that he did not know how to approach. Finally he stopped abruptly and said: "Kate, Mother told me that she told you how I grew up. We have been together most of every day for six weeks. I have no idea how a man used to women goes at what I want, so I can only do what I think is right, and best, and above all honest, and fair. I'd be the happiest I've ever been, to do anything on earth I've got the money to do, for you. There's a question I'm going to ask you the next time I come. You can think over all you know of me, and of Mother, and of what we have, and are, and be ready to tell me how you feel about everything next Sunday. There's one question I want to ask you before I go. In case we can plan for a life together next Sunday, what about my mother?"

"Whatever pleases her best, of course," said Kate. "Any arrangement that you feel will make her happy, will be all right with me; in the event we agree on other things."

He laughed, shortly.

"This sounds cold-blooded and business-like," he said. "But Mother's been all the world to me, until I met you. I must be sure about her, and one other thing. I'll write you about that this week. If that is all right with you, you can get ready for a deluge. I've held in as long as I can. Kate, will you kiss my goody-bye?"

"That's against the rules," said Kate. "That's getting the cart before the horse."

"I know it," he said. "But haven't I been an example for six weeks? Only one. Please?"

They were back at Dr. Gray's gate, standing in the deep shelter of a big maple. Kate said: "I'll make a bargain with you. I'll kiss you to-night, and if we come to an agreement next Sunday night, you shall kiss me. Is that all right?"

The reply was so indistinct Kate was not sure of it; but she took his face between her hands and gave him exactly the same kind of kiss she would have given Adam, 3d. She hesitated an instant, then gave him a second. "You may take that to your mother," she said, and fled up the walk.