XII. Two Letters
 

Nancy Ellen and Robert were sitting on the side porch, not seeming in the least sleepy, when Kate entered the house. As she stepped out to them, she found them laughing mysteriously.

"Take this chair, Kate," said Nancy Ellen. "Come on, Robert, let's go stand under the maple tree and let her see whether she can see us."

"If you're going to rehearse any momentous moment of your existence," said Kate, "I shouldn't think of even being on the porch. I shall keep discreetly in the house, even going at once to bed. Good-night! Pleasant dreams!"

"Now we've made her angry," said Robert.

"I think there was 'a little touch of asperity,' as Agatha would say, in that," said Nancy Ellen, "but Kate has a good heart. She'll get over it before morning."

"Would Agatha use such a common word as 'little'?" asked Robert.

"Indeed, no!" said Nancy Ellen. "She would say 'infinitesimal.' But all the same he kissed her."

"If she didn't step up and kiss him, never again shall I trust my eyes!" said the doctor.

"Hush!" cautioned Nancy Ellen. "She's provoked now; if she hears that, she'll never forgive us."

Kate did not need even a hint to start her talking in the morning. The day was fine, a snappy tinge of autumn in the air, her head and heart were full. Nancy Ellen would understand and sympathize; of course Kate told her all there was to tell.

"And even at that," said Nancy Ellen, "he hasn't just come out right square and said 'Kate, will you marry me?' as I understand it."

"Same here," laughed Kate. "He said he had to be sure about his mother, and there was 'one other thing' he'd write me about this week, and he'd come again next Sunday; then if things were all right with me -- the deluge!"

"And what is 'the other thing?'" asked Nancy Ellen.

"There he has me guessing. We had six, long, lovely weeks of daily association at the lake, I've seen his home, and his inventions, and as much of his business as is visible to the eye of a woman who doesn't know a tinker about business. His mother has told me minutely of his life, every day since he was born, I think. She insists that he never paid the slightest attention to a girl before, and he says the same, so there can't be any hidden ugly feature to mar my joy. He is thoughtful, quick, kind, a self-made business man. He looks well enough, he acts like a gentleman, he seldom makes a mistake in speech --"

"He doesn't say enough to make any mistakes. I haven't yet heard him talk freely, give an opinion, or discuss a question," said Nancy Ellen.

"Neither have I," said Kate. "He's very silent, thinking out more inventions, maybe. The worst thing about him is a kind of hard- headed self-assurance. He got it fighting for his mother from boyhood. He knew she would freeze and starve if he didn't take care of her; he had to do it. He soon found he could. It took money to do what he had to do. He got the money. Then he began performing miracles with it. He lifted his mother out of poverty, he dressed her 'in purple and fine linen,' he housed her in the same kind of home other rich men of the Lake Shore Drive live in, and gave her the same kind of service. As most men do, when things begin to come their way, he lived for making money alone. He was so keen on the chase he wouldn't stop to educate and culture himself; he drove headlong on, and on, piling up more, far more than any one man should be allowed to have; so you can see that it isn't strange that he thinks there's nothing on earth that money can't do. You can see that sticking out all over him. At the hotel, on boats, on the trains, anywhere we went, he pushed straight for the most conspicuous place, the most desirable thing, the most expensive. I almost prayed sometimes that in some way he would strike one single thing that he couldn't make come his way with money; but he never did. No. I haven't an idea what he has in his mind yet, but he's going to write me about it this week, and if I agree to whatever it is, he is coming Sunday; then he has threatened me with a 'deluge,' whatever he means by that"

"He means providing another teacher for Walden, taking you to Chicago shopping for a wonderful trousseau, marrying you in his Lake Shore palace, no doubt."

"Well, if that's what he means by a 'deluge,'" said Kate, "he'll find the flood coming his way. He'll strike the first thing he can't do with money. I shall teach my school this winter as I agreed to. I shall marry him in the clothes I buy with what I earn. I shall marry him quietly, here, or at Adam's, or before a Justice of the Peace, if neither of you wants me. He can't pick me up, and carry me away, and dress me, and marry me, as if I were a pauper."

"You're right about it," said Nancy Ellen. "I don't know how we came to be so different. I should do at once any way he suggested to get such a fine-looking man and that much money. That it would be a humiliation to me all my after life, I wouldn't think about until the humiliation began, and then I'd have no way to protect myself. You're right! But I'd get out of teaching this winter if I could. I'd love to have you here."

"But I must teach to the earn money for my outfit. I'll have to go back to school in the same old sailor."

"Don't you care," laughed Nancy Ellen. "We know a secret!"

"That we do!" agreed Kate.

Wednesday Kate noticed Nancy Ellen watching for the boy Robert had promised to send with the mail as soon as it was distributed, because she was, herself. Twice Thursday, Kate hoped in vain that the suspense would be over. It had to end Friday, if John were coming Saturday night. She began to resent the length of time he was waiting. It was like him to wait until the last minute, and then depend on money to carry him through.

"He is giving me a long time to think things over," Kate said to Nancy Ellen when there was no letter in the afternoon mail Thursday.

"It may have been lost or delayed," said Nancy Ellen. "It will come to-morrow, surely."

Both of them saw the boy turn in at the gate Friday morning. Each saw that he carried more than one letter. Nancy Ellen was on her feet and nearer to the door; she stepped to it, and took the letters, giving them a hasty glance as she handed them to Kate.

"Two," she said tersely. "One, with the address written in the clear, bold hand of a gentleman, and one, the straggle of a country clod-hopper."

Kate smiled as she took the letters: "I'll wager my hat, which is my most precious possession," she said, "that the one with the beautifully written address comes from the 'clod-hopper,' and the 'straggle' from the 'gentleman.'"

She glanced at the stamping and addresses and smiled again: "So it proves," she said. "While I'm about it, I'll see what the 'clod-hopper' has to say, and then I shall be free to give my whole attention to the 'gentleman.'"

"Oh, Kate, how can you!" cried Nancy Ellen.

"Way I'm made, I 'spect," said Kate. "Anyway, that's the way this is going to be done."

She dropped the big square letter in her lap and ran her finger under the flap of the long, thin, beautifully addressed envelope, and drew forth several quite as perfectly written sheets. She read them slowly and deliberately, sometimes turning back a page and going over a part of it again. When she finished, she glanced at Nancy Ellen while slowly folding the sheets. "Just for half a cent I'd ask you to read this," she said.

"I certainly shan't pay anything for the privilege, but I'll read it, if you want me to," offered Nancy Ellen.

"All right, go ahead," said Kate. "It might possibly teach you that you can't always judge a man by appearance, or hastily; though just why George Holt looks more like a 'clod-hopper' than Adam, or Hiram, or Andrew, it passes me to tell."

She handed Nancy Ellen the letter and slowly ripped open the flap of the heavy white envelope. She drew forth the sheet and sat an instant with it in her fingers, watching the expression of Nancy Ellen's face, while she read the most restrained yet impassioned plea that a man of George Holt's nature and opportunities could devise to make to a woman after having spent several months in the construction of it. It was a masterly letter, perfectly composed, spelled, and written; for among his other fields of endeavour, George Holt had taught several terms of country school, and taught them with much success; so that he might have become a fine instructor, had it been in his blood to stick to anything long enough to make it succeed. After a page as she turned the second sheet Nancy Ellen glanced at Kate, and saw that she had not opened the creased page in her hands. She flamed with sudden irritation.

"You do beat the band!" she cried. "You've watched for two days and been provoked because that letter didn't come. Now you've got it, there you sit like a mummy and let your mind be so filled with this idiotic drivel that you're not ever reading John Jardine's letter that is to tell you what both of us are crazy to know."

"If you were in any mood to be fair and honest, you'd admit that you never read a finer letter than that," said Kate. "As for this, I never was so afraid in all my life. Look at that!"

She threw the envelope in Nancy Ellen's lap.

"That is the very first line of John Jardine's writing I have ever seen," she said. "Do you see anything about it to encourage me to go farther?"

"You Goose!" cried the exasperated Nancy Ellen. "I suppose he transacts so much business he scarcely ever puts pen to paper. What's the difference how he writes? Look at what he is and what he does! Go on and read his letter."

Kate arose and walked to the window, turning her back to Nancy Ellen, who sat staring at her, while she read John Jardine's letter. Once Nancy Ellen saw Kate throw up her head and twist her neck as if she were choking; then she heard a great gulping sob down in her throat; finally Kate turned and stared at her with dazed, incredulous eyes. Slowly she dropped the letter, deliberately set her foot on it, and leaving the room, climbed the stairs. Nancy Ellen threw George Holt's letter aside and snatched up John Jardine's. She read:

MY DEREST KATE: I am a day late with this becos as I told you I have no schooling and in writing a letter is where I prove it, so I never write them, but it was not fare to you for you not to know what kind of a letter I would write if I did write one, so here it is very bad no dout but the best I can possably do which has got nothing at all to do with my pashion for you and the aughful time I will have till I here from you. If you can stand for this telagraf me and I will come first train and we will forget this and I will never write another letter. With derest love from Mother, and from me all the love of my hart. Forever yours only,
JOHN JARDINE.

The writing would have been a discredit to a ten-year-old schoolboy. Nancy Ellen threw the letter back on the floor; with a stiffly extended finger, she poked it into the position in which she thought she had found it, and slowly stepped back.

"Great God!" she said amazedly. "What does the man mean? Where does that dainty and wonderful little mother come in? She must be a regular parasite, to such ease and comfort for herself out of him, and not see that he had time and chance to do better than that for himself. Kate will never endure it, never in the world! And by the luck of the very Devil, there comes that school-proof thing in the same mail, from that abominable George Holt, and Kate reads it first. It's too bad! I can't believe it! What did his mother mean?"

Suddenly Nancy Ellen began to cry bitterly; between sobs she could hear Kate as she walked from closet and bureau to her trunk which she was packing. The lid slammed heavily and a few minutes later Kate entered the room dressed for the street.

"Why are you weeping?" she asked casually.

Her eyes were flaming, her cheeks scarlet, and her lips twitching. Nancy Ellen sat up and looked at her. She pointed to the letter: "I read that," she said.

"Well, what do I care?" said Kate. "If he has no more respect for me than to write me such an insult as that, why should I have the respect for him to protect him in it? Publish it in the paper if you want to."

"Kate, what are you going to do?" demanded Nancy Ellen.

"Three things," said Kate, slowly putting on her long silk gloves. "First, I'm going to telegraph John Jardine that I never shall see him again, if I can possibly avoid it. Second, I'm going to send a drayman to get my trunk and take it to Walden. Third, I'm going to start out and walk miles, I don't know or care where; but in the end, I'm going to Walden to clean the schoolhouse and get ready for my winter term of school."

"Oh, Kate, you are such a fine teacher! Teach him! Don't be so hurried! Take more time to think. You will break his heart," pleaded Nancy Ellen.

Kate threw out both hands, palms down.

"P-a-s-h, a-u-g-h, h-a-r-t, d-o-u-t, d-e-r-e," she slowly spelled out the letters. "What about my heart and my pride? Think I can respect that, or ask my children to respect it? But thank you and Robert, and come after me as often as you can, as a mercy to me. If John persists in coming, to try to buy me, as he thinks he can buy anything he wants, you needn't let him come to Walden; for probably I won't be there until I have to, and I won't see him, or his mother, so he needn't try to bring her in. Say good-bye to Robert for me."

She walked from the house, head erect, shoulders squared, and so down the street from sight. In half an hour a truckman came for her trunk, so Nancy Ellen made everything Kate had missed into a bundle to send with it. When she came to the letters, she hesitated.

"I guess she didn't want them," she said. "I'll just keep them awhile and if she doesn't ask about them, the next time she comes, I'll burn them. Robert must go after her every Friday evening, and we'll keep her until Monday, and do all we can to cheer her; and this very day he must find out all there is to know about that George Holt. That is the finest letter I ever read; she does kind of stand up for him; and in the reaction, impulsive as she is and self-confident -- of course she wouldn't, but you never can tell what kind of fool a girl will make of herself, in some cases."

Kate walked swiftly, finished two of the errands she set out to do, then her feet carried her three miles from Hartley on the Walden road, before she knew where she was, so she proceeded to the village.

Mrs. Holt was not at home, but the house was standing open. Kate found her room cleaned, shining, and filled with flowers. She paid the drayman, opened her trunk, and put away her dresses, laying out all the things which needed washing; then she bathed, put on heavy shoes, and old skirt and waist, and crossing the road sat in a secluded place in the ravine and looked stupidly at the water. She noticed that everything was as she had left it in the spring, with many fresher improvements, made, no doubt, to please her. She closed her eyes, leaned against a big tree, and slow, cold and hot shudders alternated in shaking her frame.

She did not open her eyes when she heard a step and her name called. She knew without taking the trouble to look that George had come home, found her luggage in her room, and was hunting for her. She heard him come closer and knew when he seated himself that he was watching her, but she did not care enough even to move. Finally she shifted her position to rest herself, opened her eyes, and looked at him without a word. He returned her gaze steadily, smiling gravely. She had never seen him looking so well. He had put in the summer grooming himself, he had kept up the house and garden, and spent all his spare time on the ravine, and farming on the shares with his mother's sister who lived three miles east of them. At last she roused herself and again looked at him.

"I had your letter this morning," she said.

"I was wondering about that," he replied.

"Yes, I got it just before I started," said Kate. "Are you surprised to see me?"

"No," he answered. "After last year, we figured you might come the last of this week or the first of next, so we got your room ready Monday."

"Thank you," said Kate. "It's very clean and nice."

"I hope soon to be able to offer you such a room and home as you should have," he said. "I haven't opened my office yet. It was late and hot when I got home in June and Mother was fussing about this winter -- that she had no garden and didn't do her share at Aunt Ollie's, so I have farmed most of the summer, and lived on hope; but I'll start in and make things fly this fall, and by spring I'll be sailing around with a horse and carriage like the best of them. You bet I am going to make things hum, so I can offer you anything you want."

"You haven't opened an office yet?" she asked for the sake of saying something, and because a practical thing would naturally suggest itself to her.

"I haven't had a breath of time," he said in candid disclaimer.

"Why don't you ask me what's the matter?"

"Didn't figure that it was any of my business in the first place," he said, "and I have a pretty fair idea, in the second."

"But how could you have?" she asked in surprise.

"When your sister wouldn't give me your address, she hinted that you had all the masculine attention you cared for; then Tilly Nepple visited town again last week and she had been sick and called Dr. Gray. She asked him about you, and he told what I fine time you had at Chautauqua and Chicago, with the rich new friends you'd made. I was watching for you about this time, and I just happened to be at the station in Hartley last Saturday when you got off the train with your fine gentleman, so I stayed over with some friends of mine, and I saw you several times Sunday. I saw that I'd practically no chance with you at all; but I made up my mind I'd stick until I saw you marry him, so I wrote just as I would if I hadn't known there was another man in existence."

"That was a very fine letter," said Kate.

"It is a very fine, deep, sincere love that I am offering you," said George Holt. "Of course I could see prosperity sticking out all over that city chap, but it didn't bother me much, because I knew that you, of all women, would judge a man on his worth. A rising young professional man is not to be sneered at, at least until he makes his start and proves what he can do. I couldn't get an early start, because I've always had to work, just as you've seen me last summer and this, so I couldn't educate myself so fast, but I've gone as fast and far as I could."

Kate winced. This was getting on places that hurt and to matters she well understood, but she was the soul of candour. "You did very well to educate yourself as you have, with no help at all," she said.

"I've done my best in the past, I'm going to do marvels in the future, and whatever I do, it is all for you and yours for the taking," he said grandiosely.

"Thank you," said Kate. "But are you making that offer when you can't help seeing that I'm in deep trouble?"

"A thousand times over," he said. "All I want to know about your trouble is whether there is anything a man of my size and strength can do to help you."

"Not a thing," said Kate, "in the direction of slaying a gay deceiver, if that's what you mean. The extent of my familiarities with John Jardine consists in voluntarily kissing him twice last Sunday night for the first and last time, once for himself, and once for his mother, whom I have since ceased to respect."

George Holt was watching her with eyes lynx-sharp, but Kate never saw it. When she mentioned her farewell of Sunday night, a queer smile swept over his face and instantly disappeared.

"I should thing any girl might be permitted that much, in saying a final good-bye to a man who had shown her a fine time for weeks," he commented casually.

"But I didn't know I was saying good-bye," explained Kate. "I expected him back in a week, and that I would then arrange to marry him. That was the agreement we made then."

As she began to speak, George Holt's face flashed triumph at having led her on; at what she said it fell perceptibly, but he instantly controlled it and said casually: "In any event, it was your own business."

"It was," said Kate. "I had given no man the slightest encouragement, I was perfectly free. John Jardine was courting me openly in the presence of his mother and any one who happened to be around. I intended to marry him. I liked him as much as any man need be liked. I don't know whether it was the same feeling Nancy Ellen had for Robert Gray or not, but it was a whole lot of feeling of some kind. I was satisfied with it, and he would have been. I meant to be a good wife to him and a good daughter to his mother, and I could have done much good in the world and extracted untold pleasure from the money he would have put in my power to handle. All was going 'merry as a marriage bell,' and then this morning came my Waterloo, in the same post with your letter."

"Do you know what you are doing?" cried George Holt, roughly, losing self-control with hope. "You are proving to me, and admitting to yourself, that you never loved that man at all. You were flattered, and tempted with position and riches, but your heart was not his, or you would be mighty sure of it, don't you forget that!"

"I am not interested in analyzing exactly what I felt for him," said Kate. "It made small difference then; it makes none at all now. I would have married him gladly, and I would have been to him all a good wife is to any man; then in a few seconds I turned squarely against him, and lost my respect for him. You couldn't marry me to him if he were the last and only man on earth; but it hurt terribly, let me tell you that!"

George Holt suddenly arose and went to Kate. He sat down close beside her and leaned toward her.

"There isn't the least danger of my trying to marry you to him," he said, "because I am going to marry you myself at the very first opportunity. Why not now? Why not have a simple ceremony somewhere at once, and go away until school begins, and forget him, having a good time by ourselves? Come on, Kate, let's do it! We can go stay with Aunt Ollie, and if he comes trying to force himself on you, he'll get what he deserves. He'll learn that there is something on earth he can't buy with his money."

"But I don't love you," said Kate.

"Neither did you love him," retorted George Holt. "I can prove it by what you say. Neither did you love him, but you were going to marry him, and use all his wonderful power of position and wealth, and trust to association to bring love. You can try that with me. As for wealth, who cares? We are young and strong, and we have a fine chance in the world. You go on and teach this year, and I'll get such a start that by next year you can be riding around in your carriage, proud as Pompey."

"Of course we could make it all right, as to a living," said Kate. "Big and strong as we are, but --"

Then the torrent broke. At the first hint that she would consider his proposal George Holt drew her to him and talked volumes of impassioned love to her. He gave her no chance to say anything; he said all there was to say himself; he urged that Jardine would come, and she should not be there. He begged, he pleaded, he reasoned. Night found Kate sitting on the back porch at Aunt Ollie's with a confused memory of having stood beside the little stream with her hand in George Holt's while she assented to the questions of a Justice of the Peace, in the presence of the School Director and Mrs. Holt. She knew that immediately thereafter they had walked away along a hot, dusty country road; she had tried to eat something that tasted like salted ashes. She could hear George's ringing laugh of exultation breaking out afresh every few minutes; in sudden irritation at the latest guffaw she clearly remembered one thing: in her dazed and bewildered state she had forgotten to tell him that she was a Prodigal Daughter.