XV. A New Idea
 

Kate slowly came back to consciousness. She was conscious of her body, sore from head to foot, with plenty of pain in definite spots. Her first clear thought was that she was such a big woman; it seemed to her that she filled the room, when she was one bruised ache from head to heels. Then she became conscious of a moving bundle on the bed beside her, and laid her hand on it to reassure herself. The size and shape of the bundle were not reassuring.

"Oh, Lord!" groaned Kate. "Haven't You any mercy at all? It was Your advice I followed when I took wing and started out in life."

A big sob arose in her throat, while at the same time she began to laugh weakly. Dr. James heard her from the hall and entered hastily. At the sight of him, Kate's eyes filled with terrified remembrance. Her glance swept the room, and rested on her rocking chair. "Take that out of here!" she cried. "Take it out, split it into kindling wood, and burn it."

"All right," said Dr. James calmly. "I'll guarantee that you never see it again. Is there anything else you want?"

"You -- you didn't --?"

The doctor shook his head. "Very sorry," he said, "but there wasn't a thing could be done."

"Where is he?" she asked in a whisper.

"His people took him home immediately after the Coroner's inquest, which found that he died from heart failure, brought on by his long walk in the heat."

Kate stared at him with a face pitiful to behold.

"You let him think that?" she whispered again.

"I did," said the old doctor. "I thought, and still think, that for the sake of you and yours," he waved toward the bundle, "it was the only course to pursue."

"Thank you," said Kate. "You're very kind. But don't you think that I and mine are going to take a lot of shielding? The next man may not be so kindly disposed. Besides, is it right? Is it honest?"

"It is for you," said the doctor. "You had nothing to do with it. If you had, things would not have gone as they did. As for me, I feel perfectly comfortable about it in my conscience, which is my best guide. All I had to do was to let them tell their story. I perjured myself only to the extent of testifying that you knew nothing about it. The Coroner could well believe that. George and his mother could easily manage the remainder."

Kate waved toward the bundle: "Am I supposed to welcome and love them?"

"A poet might expect you to," said the doctor. "In the circumstances, I do not. I shall feel that you have done your whole duty if you will try to nurse them when the time comes. You must have a long rest, and they must grow some before you'll discover what they mean to you. There's always as much chance that they'll resemble your people as that they will not. The boy will have dark hair and eyes I think, but he looks exactly like you. The girl is more Holt."

"Where is George?" she asked.

"He was completely upset," said the doctor. "I suggested that he go somewhere to rest up a few days, so he took his tackle and went fishing, and to the farm."

"Shouldn't he have stayed and faced it?" asked Kate.

"There was nothing for him to face, except himself, Kate," said the doctor.

Kate shook her head. She looked ghastly ill.

"Doctor," she said, "couldn't you have let me die?"

"And left your son and your little daughter to them?" he asked. "No, Kate, I couldn't have let you die; because you've your work in the world under your hand right now."

He said that because when he said "left your son and your little daughter to them," Kate had reached over and laid her hand possessively, defensively, on the little, squirming bundle, which was all Dr. James asked of her. Presently she looked the doctor straight in the face. "Exactly what do you know?" she asked.

"Everything," said the doctor. "And you?"

"Everything," said Kate.

There was a long silence. Then Kate spoke slowly: "That George didn't know that he shouldn't have touched that man, proves him completely incompetent," she said. "That he did, and didn't have the courage to face the results, proves him lacking in principle. He's not fit for either work to which he aspires."

"You are talking too much," said the doctor. "Nurse Nepple is in charge here, and Aunt Ollie. George's mother went to the farm to cook for him. You're in the hands of two fine women, who will make you comfortable. You have escaped lasting disgrace with your skirts clear, now rest and be thankful."

"I can't rest until I know one thing," said Kate. "You're not going to allow George to kill any one else?"

"No," said the doctor. "I regretted telling him very much; but I had to tell him that could not happen."

"And about the school?" she asked. "I half thought he might get it."

"He won't!" said the doctor. "I'm in a position to know that. Now try to take some rest."

Kate waved toward the babies: "Will you please take them away until they need me?" she asked.

"Of course," said the doctor. "But don't you want to see them, Kate? There isn't a mark or blemish on either of them. The boy weighs seven pounds and the girl six; they seem as perfect as children can be."

"You needn't worry about that," said Kate. "Twins are a Bates habit. My mother had three pairs, always a boy and a girl, always big and sound as any children; mine will be all right, too."

The doctor started to turn back the blanket. Kate turned her head away: "Don't you think I have had about enough at present?" she asked. "I'd stake my life that as a little further piece of my punishment, the girl looks exactly like Mrs. Holt."

"By Jove," said the doctor, "I couldn't just think who it was."

He carried the babies from the room, lowered the blinds, and Kate tried to sleep, and did sleep, because she was so exhausted she could not keep awake.

Later in the evening Aunt Ollie slipped in, and said George was in the woodhouse, almost crying himself to death, and begging to see her.

"You tell him I'm too sick to be seen for at least a week," said Kate.

"But, my dear, he's so broken up; he feels so badly," begged Aunt Ollie.

"So do I," said Kate. "I feel entirely too badly to be worried over seeing him. I must take the babies now."

"I do wish you would!" persisted Aunt Ollie.

"Well, I won't," said Kate. "I don't care if I never see him again. He knows why he is crying; ask him."

"I'll wager they ain't a word of truth in that tale they're telling," she said.

Kate looked straight at her: "Well, for their sakes and my sake, and the babies' sake, don't talk about it."

"You poor thing!" said Aunt Ollie, "I'll do anything in the world to help you. If ever you need me, just call on me. I'll go start him back in a hurry."

He came every night, but Kate steadily refused, until she felt able to sit up in a chair, to see him, or his mother when she came to see the babies. She had recovered rapidly, was over the painful part of nursing the babies, and had a long talk with Aunt Ollie, before she consented to see George. At times she thought she never could see him again; at others, she realized her helplessness. She had her babies to nurse for a year; there was nothing she could think of she knew to do, that she could do, and take proper care of two children. She was tied "hand and foot," as Aunt Ollie said. And yet it was Aunt Ollie who solved her problem for her. Sitting beside the bed one day she said to Kate: "My dear, do you know that I'm having a mighty good time? I guess I was lonesomer than I thought out there all alone so much, and the work was nigh to breaking me during the long, cold winter. I got a big notion to propose somepin' to you that might be a comfort to all of us."

"Propose away," said Kate. "I'm at my wit's end."

"Well, what would you think of you and George taking the land, working it on the shares, and letting me have this room, an' live in Walden, awhile?"

Kate sat straight up in bed: "Oh, Aunt Ollie! Would you?" she cried. "Would you? That would be a mercy to me; it would give George every chance to go straight, if there is a straight impulse in him."

"Yes, I will," said Aunt Ollie, "and you needn't feel that I am getting the little end of the bargain, either. The only unpleasant thing about it will be my sister, and I'll undertake to manage her. I read a lot, an' I can always come to see you when mortal sperrits will bear her no more. She'll be no such trial to me, as she is to you."

"You're an angel," said Kate. "You've given me hope where I had not a glimmer. If I have George out there alone, away from his mother, I can bring out all the good there is in him, and we can get some results out of life, or I can assure myself that it is impossible, so that I can quit with a clear conscience. I do thank you."

"All right, then, I'll go out and begin packing my things, and see about moving this afternoon. I'll leave my stoves, and beds, and tables, and chairs for you; you can use your wedding things, and be downright comfortable. I'll like living in town a spell real well."

So once more Kate saw hope a beckoning star in the distance, and ruffled the wings of the spirit preparatory to another flight: only a short, humble flight this time, close earth; but still as full of promise as life seemed to hold in any direction for her. She greeted George casually, and as if nothing had happened, when she was ready to see him.

"You're at the place where words are not of the slightest use to me," she said. "I'm giving you one, and a final chance to act. This seems all that is open to us. Go to work like a man, and we will see what we can make of our last chance."

Kate was so glad when she sat in the carriage that was to take her from the house and the woman she abominated that she could scarcely behave properly. She clasped Adam tightly in her arms, and felt truly his mother. She reached over and tucked the blanket closer over Polly, but she did not carry her, because she resembled her grandmother, while Adam was a Bates.

George drove carefully. He was on behaviour too good to last, but fortunately both women with him knew him well enough not to expect that it would. When they came in sight of the house, Kate could see that the grass beside the road had been cut, the trees trimmed, and Oh, joy, the house freshly painted a soft, creamy white she liked, with a green roof. Aunt Ollie explained that she furnished the paint and George did the work. He had swung oblong clothes baskets from the ceiling of a big, cheery, old-fashioned bedroom for a cradle for each baby, and established himself in a small back room adjoining the kitchen. Kate said nothing about the arrangement, because she supposed it had been made to give her more room, and that George might sleep in peace, while she wrestled with two tiny babies.

There was no doubt about the wrestling. The babies seemed of nervous temperament, sleeping in short naps and lightly. Kate was on her feet from the time she reached her new home, working when she should not have worked; so that the result developed cross babies, each attacked with the colic, which raged every night from six o'clock until twelve and after, both frequently shrieking at the same time. George did his share by going to town for a bottle of soothing syrup, which Kate promptly threw in the creek. Once he took Adam and began walking the floor with him, extending his activities as far as the kitchen. In a few minutes he had the little fellow sound asleep and he did not waken until morning; then he seemed to droop and feel listless. When he took the baby the second time and made the same trip to the kitchen, Kate laid Polly on her bed and silently followed. She saw George lay the baby on the table, draw a flask from his pocket, pour a spoon partly full, filling it the remainder of the way from the teakettle. As he was putting the spoon to the baby's lips, Kate stepped beside him and taking it, she tasted the contents. Then she threw the spoon into the dishpan standing near and picked up the baby.

"I knew it!" she said. "Only I didn't know what. He acted like a drugged baby all last night and to-day. Since when did you begin carrying that stuff around with you, and feeding it to tiny babies?"

"It's a good thing. Dr. James recommended it. He said it was harmful to let them strain themselves crying, and very hard on you. You could save yourself a lot," he urged.

"I need saving all right," said Kate, "but I haven't a picture of myself saving myself by drugging a pair of tiny babies."

He slipped the bottle back in his pocket. Kate stood looking at him so long and so intently, he flushed and set the flask on a shelf in the pantry. "It may come in handy some day when some of us have a cold," he said.

Kate did her best, but she was so weakened by nursing both of the babies, by loss of sleep, and overwork in the house, that she was no help whatever to George in getting in the fall crops and preparing for spring. She had lost none of her ambition, but there was a limit to her capacity.

In the spring the babies were big and lusty, eating her up, and crying with hunger, until she was forced to resort to artificial feeding in part, which did not agree with either of them. As a saving of time and trouble she decided to nurse one and feed the other. It was without thought on her part, almost by chance, yet the chance was that she nursed Adam and fed Polly. Then the babies began teething, so that she was rushed to find time to prepare three regular meals a day, and as for the garden and poultry she had planned, George did what he pleased about them, which was little, if anything.

He would raise so much to keep from being hungry, he would grow so many roots, and so much cabbage for winter, he would tend enough corn for a team and to fatten pork; right there he stopped and went fishing, while the flask was in evidence on the pantry shelf only two days. Kate talked crop rotation, new seed, fertilization, until she was weary; George heartily agreed with her, but put nothing of it all into practice.

"As soon as the babies are old enough to be taken out," she said, "things will be better. I just can't do justice to them and my work, too. Three pairs! My poor mother! And she's alive yet! I marvel at it."

So they lived, and had enough to eat, and were clothed, but not one step did they advance toward Kate's ideals of progression, economy, accumulation. George always had a little money, more than she could see how he got from the farming. There were a few calves and pigs to see occasionally; she thought possibly he saved his share from them.

For four years, Kate struggled valiantly to keep pace with what her mother always had done, and had required of her at home; but she learned long before she quit struggling that farming with George was hopeless. So at last she became so discouraged she began to drift into his way of doing merely what would sustain them, and then reading, fishing, or sleeping the remainder of the time. She began teaching her children while very small, and daily they had their lessons after dinner, while their father slept.

Kate thought often of what was happening to her; she hated it, she fought it; but with George Holt for a partner she could not escape it. She lay awake nights, planning ways to make a start toward prosperity; she propounded her ideas at breakfast. To save time in getting him early to work she began feeding the horses as soon as she was up, so that George could go to work immediately after breakfast; but she soon found she might as well save her strength. He would not start to harness until he had smoked, mostly three quarters of an hour. That his neighbours laughed at him and got ahead of him bothered him not at all. All they said and all Kate said, went, as he expressed it, "in at one ear, out at the other."

One day in going around the house Kate was suddenly confronted by a thing she might have seen for three years, but had not noticed. Leading from the path of bare, hard-beaten earth that ran around the house through the grass, was a small forking path not so wide and well defined, yet a path, leading to George's window. She stood staring at it a long time with a thoughtful expression on her face.

That night she did not go to bed when she went to her room. Instead she slipped out into the night and sitting under a sheltering bush she watched that window. It was only a short time until George crawled from it, went stealthily to the barn, and a few minutes later she saw him riding barebacked on one of the horses he had bridled, down the footpath beside the stream toward town. She got up and crossing the barnyard shut the gate after him, and closed the barn door. She went back to the house and closed his window and lighting a lamp set it on his dresser in front of his small clock. His door was open in the morning when she passed it on her way to the kitchen, so she got breakfast instead of feeding the horses. He came in slowly, furtively watching her. She worked as usual, saying no unpleasant word. At length he could endure it no longer.

"Kate," he said, "I broke a bolt in the plow yesterday, and I never thought of it until just as I was getting into bed, so to save time I rode in to Walden and got another last night. Ain't I a great old economist, though?"

"You are a great something," she said. "'Economist' would scarcely be my name for it. Really, George, can't you do better than that?"

"Better than what?" he demanded.

"Better than telling such palpable lies," she said. "Better than crawling out windows instead of using your doors like a man; better than being the most shiftless farmer of your neighbourhood in the daytime, because you have spend most of your nights, God and probably all Walden know how. The flask and ready money I never could understand give me an inkling."

"Anything else?" he asked, sneeringly.

"Nothing at present," said Kate placidly. "I probably could find plenty, if I spent even one night in Walden when you thought I was asleep."

"Go if you like," he said. "If you think I'm going to stay here, working like a dog all day, year in and year out, to support a daughter of the richest man in the county and her kids, you fool yourself. If you want more than you got, call on your rich folks for it. If you want to go to town, either night or day, go for all I care. Do what you damn please; that's what I am going to do in the future and I'm glad you know it. I'm tired climbing through windows and slinking like a dog. I'll come and go like other men after this."

"I don't know what other men you are referring to," said Kate. "You have a monopoly of your kind in this neighbourhood; there is none other like you. You crawl and slink as 'to the manner born.'"

"Don't you go too far," he menaced with an ugly leer.

"Keep that for your mother," laughed Kate. "You need never try a threat with me. I am stronger than you are, and you may depend upon it I shall see that my strength never fails me again. I know now that you are all Nancy Ellen said you were."

"Well, if you married me knowing it, what are you going to do about it?" he sneered.

"I didn't know it then. I thought I knew you. I thought she had been misinformed," said Kate, in self-defence.

"Well," he said insultingly, "if you hadn't been in such a big hurry, you could soon have found out all you wanted to know. I took advantage of it, but I never did understand your rush."

"You never will," said Kate.

Then she arose and went to see if the children had wakened. All day she was thinking so deeply she would stumble over the chairs in her preoccupation. George noticed it, and it frightened him. After supper he came and sat on the porch beside her.

"Kate," he said, "as usual you are 'making mountains out of mole hills.' It doesn't damn a fellow forever to ride or walk, I almost always walk, into town in the evening, to see the papers and have a little visit with the boys. Work all day in a field is mighty lonesome; a man has got the have a little change. I don't deny a glass of beer once in awhile, or a game of cards with the boys occasionally; but if you have lived with me over five years here, and never suspected it before, it can't be so desperately bad, can it? Come now, be fair!"

"It's no difference whether I am fair or unfair," Kate said, wearily. "It explains why you simply will not brace up, and be a real man, and do a man's work in the world, and achieve a man's success."

"Who can get anywhere, splitting everything in halves?" he demanded.

"The most successful men in this neighbourhood got their start exactly that way," she said.

"Ah, well, farming ain't my job, anyway," he said. "I always did hate it. I always will. If I could have a little capital to start with, I know a trick that would suit you, and make us independent in no time."

Kate said no word, and seeing she was not going to, he continued: "I've thought about this till I've got it all down fine, and it's a great scheme; you'll admit that, even angry as you are. It is this: get enough together to build a saw mill on my strip of ravine. A little damming would make a free water power worth a fortune. I could hire a good man to run the saw and do the work, and I could take a horse and ride, or drive around among the farmers I know, and buy up timber cheaper than most men could get it. I could just skin the eyes out of them."

"Did it ever occur to you that you could do better by being honest?" asked Kate, wearily.

"Aw, well, Smarty! you know I didn't mean that literally!" he scoffed. "You know I only meant I could talk, and jolly, and buy at bed-rock prices; I know where to get the timber, and the two best mill men in the country; we are near the railroad; it's the dandiest scheme that ever struck Walden. What do you think about it?"

"I think if Adam had it he'd be rich from it in ten years," she said, quietly.

"Then you do think it's a bully idea," he cried. "You would try it if we had a chance?"

"I might," said Kate.

"You know," he cried, jumping up in excitement, "I've never mentioned this to a soul, but I've got it all thought out. Would you go to see your brother Adam, and see if you could get him to take an interest for young Adam? He could manage the money himself."

"I wouldn't go to a relative of mine for a cent, even if the children were starving," said Kate. "Get, and keep, that clear in your head."

"But you think there is something in it?" he persisted.

"I know there is," said Kate with finality. "In the hands of the right man, and with the capital to start."

"Kate, you can be the meanest," he said.

"I didn't intend to be, in this particular instance," she said. "But honestly, George, what have I ever seen of you in the way of financial success in the past that would give me hope for the future?"

"I know it," he said, "but I've never struck exactly the right thing. This is what I could make a success of, and I would make a good big one, you bet! Kate, I'll not go to town another night. I'll stop all that." He drew the flask from his pocket and smashed it against the closest tree. "And I'll stop all there ever was of that, even to a glass of beer on a hot day; if you say so, if you'll stand by me this once more, if I fail this time, I'll never ask you again; honest, I won't."

"If I had money, I'd try it, keeping the building in my own name and keeping the books myself; but I've none, and no way to get any, as you know," she said. "I can see what could be done, but I'm helpless."

"I'm not!" said George. "I've got it all worked out. You see I was doing something useful with my head, if I wasn't always plowing as fast as you thought I should. If you'll back me, if you'll keep books, if you'll handle the money until she is paid back, I know Aunt Ollie will sell enough of this land to build the mill and buy the machinery. She could keep the house, and orchard, and barn, and a big enough piece, say forty acres, to live on and keep all of us in grub. She and Mother could move out here -- she said the other day she was tired of town and getting homesick -- and we could go to town to put the children in school, and be on the job. I won't ever ask you and Mother to live together again. Kate, will you go in with me? Will you talk to Aunt Ollie? Will you let me show you, and explain, and prove to you?"

"I won't be a party to anything that would even remotely threaten to lose Aunt Ollie's money for her," she said.

"She's got nobody on earth but me. It's all mine in the end. Why not let me have this wonderful chance with it? Kate, will you?" he begged.

"I'll think about it," she conceded. "If I can study out a sure, honourable way. I'll promise to think. Now go out there, and hunt the last scrap of that glass; the children may cut their feet in the morning."

Then Kate went in to bed. If she had looked from her window, she might have seen George scratching matches and picking pieces of glass from the grass. When he came to the bottom of the bottle with upstanding, jagged edges, containing a few drops, he glanced at her room, saw that she was undressing in the dark, and lifting it, he poured the liquid on his tongue to the last drop that would fall.