XIV. Starting Married Life
 

For two weeks Kate threw herself into the business of teaching with all her power. She succeeded in so interesting herself and her pupils that she was convinced she had done a wise thing. Marriage did not interfere with her teaching; she felt capable and independent so long as she had her salary. George was working and working diligently, to prepare for winter, whenever she was present or could see results. With her first month's salary she would buy herself a warm coat, a wool suit, an extra skirt for school, and some waists. If there was enough left, she would have another real hat. Then for the remainder of the year she would spend only for the barest necessities and save to help toward a home something like Nancy Ellen's. Whenever she thought of Nancy Ellen and Robert there was a choking sensation in her throat, a dull ache where she had been taught her heart was located.

For two weeks everything went as well as Kate hoped: then Mrs. Holt began to show the results of having been partially bottled up, for the first time in her life. She was careful to keep to generalities which she could claim meant nothing, if anything she said was taken up by either George or Kate. George was too lazy to quarrel unless he was personally angered; Kate thought best to ignore anything that did not come in the nature of a direct attack. So long as Mrs. Holt could not understand how some folks could see their way to live off of other folks, or why a girl who had a chance to marry a fortune would make herself a burden to a poor man, Kate made the mistake of ignoring her. Thus emboldened she soon became personal. It seemed as if she spent her spare time and mental force thinking up suggestive, sarcastic things to say, where Kate could not help hearing them. She paid no attention unless the attack was too mean and premeditated; but to her surprise she found that every ugly, malicious word the old woman said lodged in her brain and arose to confront her at the most inopportune times -- in the middle of a recitation or when she roused enough to turn over in her bed at night. The more vigorously she threw herself into her school work, the more she realized a queer lassitude, creeping over her. She kept squaring her shoulders, lifting her chin, and brushing imaginary cobwebs from before her face.

The final Friday evening of the month, she stopped at the post office and carried away with her the bill for her Leghorn hat, mailed with nicely conceived estimate as to when her first check would be due. Kate visited the Trustee, and smiled grimly as she slipped the amount in an envelope and gave it to the hack driver to carry to Hartley on his trip the following day. She had intended all fall to go with him and select a winter headpiece that would be no discredit to her summer choice, but a sort of numbness was in her bones; so she decided to wait until the coming week before going. She declined George's pressing invitation to go along to Aunt Ollie's and help load and bring home a part of his share of their summer's crops, on the ground that she had some work to prepare for the coming week.

Then Kate went to her room feeling faint and heavy. She lay there most of the day, becoming sorrier for herself, and heavier every passing hour. By morning she was violently ill; when she tried to leave her bed, dizzy and faint. All day she could not stand. Toward evening, she appealed to George either to do something for her himself, or to send for the village doctor. He asked her a few questions and then, laughing coarsely, told her that a doctor would do her no good, and that it was very probable that she would feel far worse before she felt better. Kate stared at him in dumb wonder.

"But my school!" she cried. "My school! I must be able to go to school in the morning. Could that spring water have been infected with typhus? I've never been sick like this before."

"I should hope not!" said George. And then he told her bluntly what caused her trouble. Kate had been white to begin with, now she slowly turned greenish as she gazed at him with incredulous eyes. Then she sprang to her feet.

"But I can't be ill!" she cried. "I can't! There is my school! I've got to teach! Oh, what shall I do?"

George had a very clear conception of what she could do, but he did not intend to suggest it to her. She could think of it, and propose it herself. She could not think of anything at that minute, because she fainted, and fell half on the bed, half in his arms as he sprang to her. He laid her down, and stood a second smiling triumphantly at her unheeding face.

"Easy snap for you this winter, Georgie, my boy!" he muttered. "I don't see people falling over each other to get to you for professional services, and it's hard work anyway. Zonoletics are away above the head of these country ignoramuses; blue mass and quinine are about their limit."

He took his time to bathe Kate's face. Presently she sat up, then fell on the pillow again.

"Better not try that!" warned George. "You'll hurt yourself, and you can't make it. You're out of the game; you might as well get used to it."

"I won't be out of the game!" cried Kate. "I can't be! What will become of my school? Oh, George, could you possibly teach for me, only for a few days, until I get my stomach settled?"

"Why, I'd like to help you," he said, "but you see how it is with me. I've got my fall work finished up, and I'm getting ready to open my office next week. I'm going to rent that nice front room over the post office."

"But, George, you must," said Kate. "You've taught several terms. You've a license. You can take it until this passes. If you have waited from June to October to open your office, you can wait a few more days. Suppose you open the office and patients don't come, or we haven't the school; what would we live on? What would I buy things with, and pay doctor bills?"

"Why didn't you think of that before you got married? What was your rush, anyway? I can't figure it to save my soul," he said.

"George, the school can't go," she cried. "If what you say is true, and I suspect it is, I must have money to see me through."

"Then set your wits to work and fix things up with your father," he said casually.

Kate arose tall and straight, standing unwaveringly as she looked at him in blazing contempt.

"So?" she said. "This is the kind of man you are? I'm not so helpless as you think me. I have a refuge. I know where to find it. You'll teach my school until I'm able to take it myself, if the Trustee and patrons will allow you, or I'll sever my relations with you as quickly as I formed them. You have no practice; I have grave doubts if you can get any; this is our only chance for the money we must have this winter. Go ask the Trustee to come here until I can make arrangements with him."

Then she wavered and rolled on the bed again. George stood looking at her between narrowed eyelids.

"Tactics I use with Mother don't go with you, old girl," he said to himself. "Thing of fire and tow, stubborn as an ox; won't be pushed a hair's breadth; old Bates over again -- alike as two peas. But I'll break you, damn you, I'll break you; only, I want that school. Lots easier than kneading somebody's old stiff muscles, while the money is sure. Oh, I go after the Trustee, all right!"

He revived Kate, and telling her to keep quiet, and not excite herself, he explained that it was a terrible sacrifice to him to put off opening his office any longer; she must forgive him for losing self-control when he thought of it; but for her dear sake he would teach until she was better -- possibly she would be all right in a few days, and then she could take her work again. Because she so devoutly hoped it, Kate made that arrangement with the Trustee. Monday, she lay half starved, yet gagging and ill, while George went to teach her school. As she contemplated that, she grew sicker than she had been before. When she suddenly marshalled all the facts she knew of him, she stoutly refused to think of what Nancy Ellen had said; when she reviewed his character and disposition, and thought of him taking charge of the minds of her pupils, Kate suddenly felt she must not allow that to happen, she must not! Then came another thought, even more personal and terrible, a thought so disconcerting she mercifully lost consciousness again.

She sent for the village doctor, and found no consolation from her talk with him. She was out of the school; that was settled. No harpy ever went to its meat with one half the zest Mrs. Holt found in the situation. With Kate so ill she could not stand on her feet half the time, so ill she could not reply, with no spirit left to appeal to George, what more could be asked? Mrs. Holt could add to every grievance she formerly had, that of a sick woman in the house for her to wait on. She could even make vile insinuations to Kate, prostrate and helpless, that she would not have dared otherwise. She could prepare food that with a touch of salt or sugar where it was not supposed to be, would have sickened a well person. One day George came in from school and saw a bowl of broth sitting on a chair beside Kate's bed.

"Can't you drink it?" he asked. "Do, if you possibly can," he urged. "You'll get so weak you'll be helpless."

"I just can't," said Kate. "Things have such a sickening, sweetish taste, or they are bitter, or sour; not a thing is as it used to be. I simply can't!"

A curious look crept over George's face. He picked up the bowl and tasted the contents. Instantly his face went black; he started toward the kitchen. Kate heard part of what happened, but she never lifted her head. After a while he came back with more broth and a plate of delicate toast.

"Try this," he said. "I made it myself."

Kate ate ravenously.

"That's good!" she cried.

"I'll tell you what I'm going to do," he said. "I'm going to take you out to Aunt Ollie's for a week after school to-night. Want to go?"

"Yes! Oh, yes!" cried Kate.

"All right," he said. "I know where I can borrow a rig for an hour. Get ready if you are well enough, if you are not, I'll help you after school."

That week with Aunt Ollie remained a bright spot in Kate's memory. The October days were beginning to be crisp and cool. Food was different. She could sleep, she could eat many things Aunt Ollie knew to prepare especially; soon she could walk and be outdoors. She was so much better she wrote George a note, asking him to walk out and bring her sewing basket, and some goods she listed, and in the afternoons the two women cut and sewed quaint, enticing little garments. George found Kate so much better when he came that he proposed she remain another week. Then for the first time he talked to her about her theory of government and teaching, until she realized that the School Director had told him he was dissatisfied with him -- so George was trying to learn her ways. Appalled at what might happen if he lost the school, Kate made notes, talked at length, begged him to do his best, and to come at once if anything went wrong. He did come, and brought the school books so she went over the lessons with him, and made marginal notes of things suggested to her mind by the text, for him to discuss and elucidate. The next time he came, he was in such good spirits she knew his work had been praised, so after that they went over the lessons together each evening. Thinking of what would help him also helped fill her day.

He took her home, greatly improved, in much better spirits, to her room, cleaned and ready for winter, with all of her things possible to use in place, so that it was much changed, prettier, and more convenient. As they drove in she said of him: "George, what about it? Did your mother purposely fix my food so I could not eat it?"

"Oh, I wouldn't say that," he said. "You know neither of you is violently attached to the other. She'll be more careful after this, I'm sure she will."

"Why, have you been sick?" asked Kate as soon as she saw Mrs. Holt.

She seemed so nervous and appeared so badly Kate was sorry for her; but she could not help noticing how she kept watch on her son. She seemed to keep the width of the room and a piece of furniture between them, while her cooking was so different that it was not in the least necessary for George to fix things for Kate himself, as he had suggested. Everything was so improved, Kate felt better. She began to sew, to read, to sit for long periods in profound thought, then to take walks that brought back her strength and colour. So through the winter and toward the approach of spring they lived in greater comfort. With Kate's help, George was doing so well with the school that he was frequently complimented by the parents. That he was trying to do good work and win the approval of both pupils and parents was evident to Kate. Once he said to her that he wondered if it would be a good thing for him to put in an application for the school the coming winter. Kate stared at him in surprise: "But your profession," she objected. "You should be in your office and having enough practice to support us by then."

"Yes, I should!" he said. "But this is a new thing, and you know how these clodhoppers are."

"If I came as near living in the country, and worked at farming as much as you do, that's the last thing I would call any human being," said Kate. "I certainly do know how they are, and what I know convinces me that you need not look to them for any patients."

"You seem to think I won't have any from any source," he said hotly.

"I confess myself dubious," said Kate. "You certainly are, or you wouldn't be talking of teaching."

"Well, I'll just show you!" he cried.

"I'm waiting," said Kate. "But as we must live in the meantime, and it will be so long before I can earn anything again, and so much expense, possibly it would be a good idea to have the school to fall back on, if you shouldn't have the patients you hope for this summer. I think you have done well with the school. Do your level best until the term closes, and you may have a chance."

Laughing scornfully, he repeated his old boast: "I'll just show you!"

"Go ahead," said Kate. "And while you are at it, be generous. Show me plenty. But in the meantime, save every penny you can, so you'll be ready to pay the doctor's bills and furnish your office."

"I love you advice; it's so Batesy," he said. "I have money saved for both contingencies you mention, but I'll tell you what I think, and about this I'm the one who knows. I've told you repeatedly winter is my best time. I've lost the winter trying to help you out; and I've little chance until winter comes again. It takes cold weather to make folks feel what ails their muscles, and my treatment is mostly muscular. To save so we can get a real start, wouldn't it be a good idea for you to put part of your things in my room, take what you must have, and fix Mother's bedroom for you, let her move her bed into her living room, and spare me all you can of your things to fix up your room for my office this summer. That would save rent, it's only a few steps from downtown, and when I wasn't busy with patients, I could be handy to the garden, and to help you."

"If your mother is willing, I'll do my share," said Kate, "although the room's cramped, and where I'll put the small party when he comes I don't know, but I'll manage someway. The big objection to it is that it will make it look to people as if it were a makeshift, instead of starting a real business."

"Real," was the wrong word. It was the red rag that started George raging, until to save her self-respect, Kate left the room. Later in the day he announced that his mother was willing, she would clean the living room and move in that day. How Kate hated the tiny room with its one exterior wall, only one small window, its scratched woodwork, and soiled paper, she could not say. She felt physically ill when she thought of it, and when she thought of the heat of the coming summer, she wondered what she would do; but all she could do was to acquiesce. She made a trip downtown and bought a quart of white paint and a few rolls of dainty, fresh paper. She made herself ill with turpentine odours in giving the woodwork three coats, and fell from a table almost killing herself while papering the ceiling. There was no room for her trunk; the closet would not hold half her clothes; her only easy chair was crowded out; she was sheared of personal comfort at a clip, just at a time when every comfort should have been hers. George ordered an operating table, on which to massage his patients, a few other necessities, and in high spirits, went about fixing up his office and finishing his school. He spent hours in the woodshed with the remainder of Kate's white paint, making a sign to hang in front of the house.

He was so pathetically anxious for a patient, after he had put his table in place, hung up his sign, and paid for an announcement in the county paper and the little Walden sheet, that Kate was sorry for him.

On a hot July morning Mrs. Holt was sweeping the front porch when a forlorn specimen of humanity came shuffling up the front walk and asked to see Dr. Holt. Mrs. Holt took him into the office and ran to the garden to tell George his first patient had come. His face had been flushed from pulling weeds, but it paled perceptibly as he started to the back porch to wash his hands.

"Do you know who it is, Mother?" he asked.

"It's that old Peter Mines," she said, "an' he looks fit to drop."

"Peter Mines!" said George. "He's had about fifty things the matter with him for about fifty years."

"Then you're a made man if you can even make him think he feels enough better so's he'll go round talking about it," said Mrs. Holt, shrewdly.

George stood with his hands dripping water an instant, thinking deeply.

"Well said for once, old lady," he agreed. "You are just exactly right."

He hurried to his room, and put on his coat.

"A patient that will be a big boom for me," he boasted to Kate as he went down the hall.

Mrs. Holt stood listening at the hall door. Kate walked around the dining room, trying to occupy herself. Presently cringing groans began to come from the room, mingling with George's deep voice explaining, and trying to encourage the man. Then came a wild shriek and then silence. Kate hurried out to the back walk and began pacing up and down in the sunshine. She did not know it, but she was praying.

A minute later George's pallid face appeared at the back door: "You come in here quick and help me," he demanded.

"What's the matter?" asked Kate.

"He's fainted. His heart, I think. He's got everything that ever ailed a man!" he said.

"Oh, George, you shouldn't have touched him," said Kate.

"Can't you see it will make me, if I can help him! Even Mother could see that," he cried.

"But if his heart is bad, the risk of massaging him is awful," said Kate as she hurried after George.

Kate looked at the man on the table, ran her hand over the heart region, and lifted terrified eyes to George.

"Do you think --?" he stammered.

"Sure of it!" she said, "but we can try. Bring your camphor bottle, and some water," she cried to Mrs. Holt.

For a few minutes, they worked frantically. Then Kate stepped back. "I'm scared, and I don't care who knows it," she said. "I'm going after Dr. James."

"No, you are not!" cried George. "You just hold yourself. I'll have him out in a minute. Begin at his feet and rub the blood up to his heart."

"They are swollen to a puff, he's got no circulation," said Kate. "Oh, George, how could you ever hope to do anything for a man in this shape, with muscular treatment?"

"You keep still and rub, for God's sake," he cried, frantically. "Can't you see that I am ruined if he dies on this table?"

"No, I can't," said Kate. "Everybody would know that he was practically dying when he came here. Nobody will blame you, only, you never should have touched him! George, I am going after Dr. James."

"Well, go then," he said wildly.

Kate started. Mrs. Holt blocked the doorway.

"You just stop, Missy!" she cried. "You're away too smart, trying to get folks in here, and ruin my George's chances. You just stay where you are till I think what to do, to put the best face on this!"

"He may not be really gone! The doctor might save him!" cried Kate.

Mrs. Holt looked long at the man.

"He's deader 'an a doornail," she said. "You stay where you are!"

Kate picked her up by the shoulders, set her to one side, ran from the room and down the street as fast as possible. She found the doctor in his office with two patients. She had no time to think or temporize.

"Get your case and come to our house quick, doctor," she cried. "An old man they call Peter Mines came to see George, and his heart has failed. Please hurry!"

"Heart, eh?" said the doctor. "Well, wait a minute. No use to go about a bad heart without digitalis."

He got up and put on his hat, told the men he would be back soon, and went to the nearest drug store. Kate followed. The men who had been in the office came also.

"Doctor, hurry!" she panted. "I'm so frightened."

"You go to some of the neighbours, and stay away from there," he said.

"Hurry!" begged Kate. "Oh, do hurry!"

She was beside him as they sped down the street, and at his shoulder as they entered the room. With one glance she lurched against the casing and then she plunged down the hall, entered her room, closed the door behind her, and threw herself on the bed. She had only a glance, but in that glance she had seen Peter Mines sitting fully clothed, his hat on his head, his stick in his hands, in her easy chair; the operating table folded and standing against the wall; Mrs. Holt holding the camphor bottle to Peter's nose, while George had one hand over Peter's heart, the other steadying his head.

The doctor swung the table in place, and with George's help laid Peter on it, then began tearing open his clothes. As they worked the two men followed into the house to see if they could do anything and excited neighbours began to gather. George and his mother explained how Peter had exhausted himself walking two miles from the country that hot morning, how he had entered the office, tottering with fatigue, and had fallen in the chair in a fainting condition. Everything was plausible until a neighbour woman, eager to be the centre of attention for a second, cried: "Yes, we all see him come more'n an hour ago; and when he begin to let out the yells we says to each other, 'There! George has got his first patient, sure!' An' we all kind of waited to see if he'd come out better."

The doctor looked at her sharply: "More than an hour ago?" he said. "You heard cries?"

"Yes, more'n a good hour ago. Yes, we all heard him yell, jist once, good and loud!" she said.

The doctor turned to George. Before he could speak his mother intervened.

"That was our Kate done the yellin'," she said. "She was scart crazy from the start. He jest come in, and set in the chair and he's been there ever since."

"You didn't give him any treatment, Holt?" asked the doctor.

Again Mrs. Holt answered: "Never touched him! Hadn't even got time to get his table open. Wa'n't nothing he could 'a' done for him anyway. Peter was good as gone when he got here. His fool folks never ought 'a' let him out this hot day, sick as he was."

The doctor looked at George, at his mother, long at Peter. "He surely was too sick to walk that far in this heat," he said. "But to make sure, I'll look him over. George, you help me. Clear the room of all but these two men."

He began minutely examining Peter's heart region. Then he rolled him over and started to compress his lungs. Long white streaks marked the puffy red of the swollen, dropsical flesh. The doctor examined the length of the body, and looked straight into George Holt's eyes.

"No use," he said. "Bill, go to the 'phone in my office, and tell Coroner Smith to get here from Hartley as soon as he can. All that's left to do here is to obey the law, and have a funeral. Better some of the rest of you go tell his folks. I've done all I can do. It's up to the Coroner now. The rest of you go home, and keep still till he comes."

When he and George were left alone he said tersely: "Of course you and your mother are lying. You had this man stripped, he did cry out, and he did die from the pain of the treatment you tried to give him, in his condition. By the way, where's your wife? This is a bad thing for her right now. Come, let's find her and see what state she is in."

Together they left the room and entered Kate's door. As soon as the doctor was busy with her, George slipped back into the closed room, rolled Peter on his back and covered him, in the hope that the blood would settle until it would efface the marks of his work before the Coroner arrived. By that time the doctor was too busy to care much what happened to Peter Mines; he was a poor old soul better off as he was. Across Kate's unconscious body he said to George Holt: "I'm going to let the Coroner make what he pleases out of this, solely for your wife's sake. But two things: take down that shingle. Take it down now, and never put it up again if you want me to keep still. I'll give you what you paid for that table. It's a good one. Get him out as soon as you can. Set him in another room. I've got to have Mrs. Holt where I can work. And send Sarah Nepple here to help me. Move fast! This is going to be a close call. And the other thing: I've heard you put in an application for our school this winter. Withdraw it! Now move!"

So they set Peter in the living room, cleaned Kate's room quickly, and moved in her bed. By the time the Coroner arrived, the doctor was too busy to care what happened. On oath he said a few words that he hoped would make life easier for Kate, and at the same time pass muster for truth; told the Coroner what witnesses to call; and gave an opinion as to Peter's condition. He also added that he was sure Peter's family would be very glad he was to suffer no more, and then he went back to Kate who was suffering entirely too much for safety. Then began a long vigil that ended at midnight with Kate barely alive and Sarah Nepple, the Walden mid-wife, trying to divide a scanty wardrobe between a pair of lusty twins.