XVII. The Banner Hand
 

Sunday morning Kate arose early and had the house clean and everything ready when the first carriage load drove into the barnyard. As she helped her mother to dress, Mrs. Bates again evidenced a rebellious spirit. Nancy Ellen had slipped upstairs and sewed fine white ruching in the neck and sleeves of her mother's best dress, her only dress, in fact, aside from the calicoes she worked in. Kate combed her mother's hair and drew it in loose waves across her temples. As she produced the dress, Mrs. Bates drew back.

"What did you stick them gew-gaws onto my dress for?" she demanded.

"I didn't," said Kate.

"Oh, it was Nancy Ellen! Well, I don't see why she wanted to make a laughing stock of me," said Mrs. Bates.

"She didn't!" said Kate. "Everyone is wearing ruching now; she wanted her mother to have what the best of them have."

"Humph!" said Mrs. Bates. "Well, I reckon I can stand it until noon, but it's going to be a hot dose."

"Haven't you a thin black dress, Mother?" asked Kate.

"No," said Mrs. Bates, "I haven't; but you can make a pretty safe bet that I will have one before I start anywhere again in such weather as this."

"That's the proper spirit," said Kate. "There comes Andrew. Let me put your bonnet on."

She set the fine black bonnet Nancy Ellen had bought on Mrs. Bates' head at the proper angle and tied the long, wide silk ribbon beneath her chin. Mrs. Bates sat in martyr-like resignation. Kate was pleased with her mother's appearance.

"Look in the mirror," she said. "See what a handsome lady you are."

"I ain't seen in a looking-glass since I don't know when," said Mrs. Bates. "Why should I begin now? Chances are 'at you have rigged me up until I'll set the neighbours laughing, or else to saying that I didn't wait until the breath was out of Pa's body to begin primping."

"Nonsense, Mother," said Kate. "Nobody will say or think anything. Everyone will recognize Nancy Ellen's fine Spencerian hand in that bonnet and ruching. Now for your veil!"

Mrs. Bates arose from her chair, and stepped back.

"There, there, Katie!" she said. "You've gone far enough. I'll be sweat to a lather in this dress; I'll wear the head-riggin', because I've go to, or set the neighbours talkin' how mean Pa was not to let me have a bonnet; and between the two I'd rather they'd take it out on me than on him." She steadied herself by the chair back and looked Kate in the eyes. "Pa was always the banner hand to boss everything," she said. "He was so big and strong, and so all-fired sure he was right, I never contraried him in the start, so before I knowed it, I was waiting for him to say what to do, and then agreeing with him, even when I knowed he was wrong. So goin' we got along fine, but it give me an awful smothered feeling at times."

Kate stood looking at her mother intently, her brain racing, for she was thinking to herself: "Good Lord! She means that to preserve the appearance of self-respect she systematically agreed with him, whether she thought he was right or wrong; because she was not able to hold her own against him. Nearly fifty years of life like that!"

Kate tossed the heavy black crepe veil back on the bed. "Mother," she said, "here alone, and between us, if I promise never to tell a living soul, will you tell me the truth about that deed business?" Mrs. Bates seemed so agitated Kate added: "I mean how it started. If you thought it was right and a fair thing to do."

"Yes, I'll tell you that," said Mrs. Bates. "It was not fair, and I saw it; I saw it good and plenty. There was no use to fight him; that would only a-drove him to record them, but I was sick of it, an' I told him so."

Kate was pinning her hat.

"I have planned for you to walk with Adam," she said.

"Well, you can just change that plan, so far as I am concerned," said Mrs. Bates with finality. "I ain't a-goin' with Adam. Somebody had told him about the deeds before he got here. He came in ravin', and he talked to me something terrible. He was the first to say I shouldn't a-give Pa the box. Not give it to him! An' he went farther than that, till I just rose up an' called him down proper; but I ain't feelin' good at him, an' I ain't goin' with him. I am goin' with you. I want somebody with me that understands me, and feels a little for me, an' I want the neighbours to see that the minute I'm boss, such a fine girl as you has her rightful place in her home. I'll go with you, or I'll sit down on this chair, and sit here."

"But you didn't send for me," said Kate.

"No, I hadn't quite got round to it yet; but I was coming. I'd told all of them that you were the only one in the lot who had any sense; and I'd said I wished you were here, and as I see it, I'd a-sent for you yesterday afternoon about three o'clock. I was coming to it fast. I didn't feel just like standing up for myself; but I'd took about all fault-finding it was in me to bear. Just about three o'clock I'd a-sent for you, Katie, sure as God made little apples."

"All right then," said Kate, "but if you don't tell them, they'll always say I took the lead."

"Well, they got to say something," said Mrs. Bates. "Most of 'em would die if they had to keep their mouths shut awhile; but I'll tell them fast enough."

Then she led the way downstairs. There were enough members of the immediate family to pack the front rooms of the house, the neighbours filled the dining room and dooryard. The church choir sang a hymn in front of the house, the minister stood on the front steps and read a chapter, and told where Mr. Bates had been born, married, the size of his family and possessions, said he was a good father, an honest neighbour, and very sensibly left his future with his God. Then the choir sang again and all started to their conveyances. As the breaking up began outside, Mrs. Bates arose and stepped to the foot of the casket. She steadied herself by it and said: "Some time back, I promised Pa that if he went before I did, at this time in his funeral ceremony I would set his black tin box on the foot of his coffin and unlock before all of you, and in the order in which they lay, beginning with Adam, Jr., hand each of you boys the deed Pa had made you for the land you live on. You all know what happened. None of you know just how. It wouldn't bring the deeds back if you did. They're gone. But I want you boys to follow your father to his grave with nothing in your hearts against him. He was all for the men. I don't ever want to hear any of you criticize him about this, or me, either. He did his best to make you upstanding men in your community, his one failing being that he liked being an upstanding man himself so well that he carried it too far; but his intentions was the best. As for me, I'd no idea how sick he was, and nobody else did. I minded him just like all the rest of you always did; the boys especially. From the church I want all of you to go home until to-morrow morning, and then I want my sons and daughters by birth only, to come here, and we'll talk things over, quietly, quietly, mind you; and decide what to do. Katie, will you come with me?"

It was not quite a tearless funeral. Some of the daughters-in-law wept from nervous excitement; and some of the little children cried with fear, but there were no tears from the wife of Adam Bates, or his sons and daughters. And when he was left to the mercies of time, all of them followed Mrs. Bates' orders, except Nancy Ellen and Robert, who stopped to help Kate with the dinner. Kate slipped into her second dress and went to work. Mrs. Bates untied her bonnet strings and unfastened her dress neck as they started home. She unbuttoned her waist going up the back walk and pulled it off at the door.

"Well, if I ever put that thing on in July again," she said, "you can use my head for a knock-maul. Nancy Ellen, can't you stop at a store as you come out in the morning and get the goods, and you girls run me up a dress that is nice enough to go out in, and not so hot it starts me burning before my time?"

"Of course I can," said Nancy Ellen. "About what do you want to pay, Mother?"

"Whatever it takes to get a decent and a cool dress; cool, mind you," said Mrs. Bates, "an' any colour but black."

"Why, Mother!" cried Nancy Ellen "it must be black!"

"No," said Mrs. Bates. "Pa kept me in black all my life on the supposition it showed the dirt the least. There's nothing in that. It shows dirt worse 'an white. I got my fill of black. You can get a nice cool gray, if you want me to wear it."

"Well, I never!" said Nancy Ellen. "What will the neighbours say?"

"What do I care?" asked Mrs. Bates. "They've talked about me all my life, I'd be kinda lonesome if they's to quit."

Dinner over, Kate proposed that her mother should lie down while they washed the dishes.

"I would like a little rest," said Mrs. Bates. "I guess I'll go upstairs."

"You'll do nothing of the kind," said Kate. "It's dreadfully hot up there. Go in the spare room, where it is cool; we'll keep quiet. I am going to stay Tuesday until I move you in there, anyway. It's smaller, but it's big enough for one, and you'll feel much better there."

"Oh, Katie, I'm so glad you thought of that," cried Mrs. Bates. "I been thinking and thinking about it, and it just seems as if I can't ever steel myself to go into that room to sleep again. I'll never enter that door that I don't see -- "

"You'll never enter it again as your room," said Kate. "I'll fix you up before I go; and Sally Whistler told me last evening she would come and make her home with you if you wanted her. You like Sally, don't you?"

"Yes, I like her fine," said Mrs. Bates.

Quietly as possible the girls washed the dishes, pulled down the blinds, closed the front door, and slipped down in the orchard with Robert to talk things over. Nancy Ellen was stiffly reserved with Kate, but she would speak when she was spoken to, which was so much better than silence that Kate was happy over it. Robert was himself. Kate thought she had never liked him so well. He seemed to grow even kinder and more considerate as the years passed. Nancy Ellen was prettier than Kate ever had seen her, but there was a line of discontent around her mouth, and she spoke pettishly on slight provocation, or none at all. Now she was openly, brazenly, brutally, frank in her rejoicing. She thought it was the best "joke" that ever happened to the boys; and she said so repeatedly. Kate found her lips closing more tightly and a slight feeling of revulsion growing in her heart. Surely in Nancy Ellen's lovely home, cared for and shielded in every way, she had no such need of money as Kate had herself. She was delighted when Nancy Ellen said she was sleepy, and was going to the living-room lounge for a nap. Then Kate produced her sheet of figures. She and Robert talked the situation over and carefully figured on how an adjustment, fair to all, could be made, until they were called to supper.

After supper Nancy Ellen and Robert went home, while Kate and her mother sat on the back porch and talked until Kate had a clear understanding and a definite plan in her mind, which was that much improvement over wearing herself out in bitter revilings, or selfish rejoicing over her brothers' misfortune. Her mother listened to all she had to say, asked a question occasionally, objected to some things, and suggested others. They arose when they had covered every contingency they could think of and went upstairs to bed, even though the downstairs was cooler.

As she undressed, Mrs. Bates said slowly: "Now in the morning, I'll speak my piece first; and I'll say it pretty plain. I got the whip-hand here for once in my life. They can't rave and fight here, and insult me again, as they did Friday night and Saturday till you got here an' shut 'em up. I won't stand it, that's flat! I'll tell 'em so, and that you speak for me, because you can figure faster and express yourself plainer; but insist that there be no fussing, an' I'll back you. I don't know just what life has been doing to you, Katie, but Lord! it has made a fine woman of you."

Kate set her lips in an even line and said nothing, but her heart was the gladdest it had been in years.

Her mother continued: "Seems like Nancy Ellen had all the chance. Most folks thought she was a lot the purtiest to start with, though I can't say that I ever saw so much difference. She's had leisure an' pettin', and her husband has made a mint o' money; she's gone all over the country with him, and the more chance she has, the narrower she grows, and the more discontenteder. One thing, she is awful disappointed about havin' no children. I pity her about that."

"Is it because she's a twin?" asked Kate.

"I'm afraid so," said Mrs. Bates. "You can't tell much about those things, they just seem to happen. Robert and Nancy Ellen feel awful bad about it. Still, she might do for others what she would for her own. The Lord knows there are enough mighty nice children in the world who need mothering. I want to see your children, Katie. Are they nice little folks, straight and good looking?"

"The boy is," said Kate. "The girl is good, with the exception of being the most stubborn child I've ever seen. She looks so much like a woman it almost sickens me to think of that I have to drive myself to do her justice."

"What a pity!" said Mrs. Bates, slowly.

"Oh, they are healthy, happy youngsters," said Kate. "They get as much as we ever did, and don't expect any more. I have yet to see a demonstrative Bates."

"Humph!" said Mrs. Bates. "Well, you ought to been here Friday night, and I thought Adam came precious near it Saturday."

"Demonstrating power, or anger, yes," said Kate. "I meant affection. And isn't it the queerest thing how people are made? Of all the boys, Adam is the one who has had the most softening influences, and who has made the most money, and yet he's acting the worst of all. It really seems as if failure and hardship make more of a human being of folks than success."

"You're right," said Mrs. Bates. "Look at Nancy Ellen and Adam. Sometimes I think Adam has been pretty much galled with Agatha and her money all these years; and it just drives him crazy to think of having still less than she has. Have you got your figures all set down, to back you up, Katie?"

"Yes," said Kate. "I've gone all over it with Robert, and he thinks it's the best and only thing that can be done. Now go to sleep."

Each knew that the other was awake most of the night, but very few words passed between them. They were up early, dressed, and waiting when the first carriage stopped at the gate. Kate told her mother to stay where she would not be worried until she was needed, and went down herself to meet her brothers and sisters in the big living room. When the last one arrived, she called her mother. Mrs. Bates came down looking hollow-eyed, haggard, and grim, as none of her children ever before had seen her. She walked directly to the little table at the end of the room, and while still standing she said: "Now I've got a few words to say, and then I'll turn this over to a younger head an' one better at figures than mine. I've said my say as to Pa, yesterday. Now I'll say this, for myself. I got my start, minding Pa, and agreeing with him, young; but you needn't any of you throw it in my teeth now, that I did. There is only one woman among you, and no man who ever disobeyed him. Katie stood up to him once, and got seven years from home to punish her and me. He wasn't right then, and I knew it, as I'd often known it before, and pretty often since; but no woman God ever made could have lived with Adam Bates as his wife and contraried him. I didn't mind him any quicker or any oftener than the rest of you; keep that pretty clear in your heads, and don't one of you dare open your mouth again to tell me, as you did Saturday, what I should a-done, and what I shouldn't. I've had the law of this explained to me; you all know it for that matter. By the law, I get this place and one third of all the other land and money. I don't know just what money there is at the bank or in notes and mortgages, but a sixteenth of it after my third is taken out ain't going to make or break any of you. I've told Katie what I'm willing to do on my part and she will explain it, and then tell you about a plan she has fixed up. As for me, you can take it or leave it. If you take it, well and good; if you don't, the law will be set in motion to-day, and it will take its course to the end. It all depends on you.

"Now two things more. At the start, what Pa wanted to do seemed to me right, and I agreed with him and worked with him. But when my girls began to grow up and I saw how they felt, and how they struggled and worked, and how the women you boys married went ahead of my own girls, and had finer homes, an' carriages, and easier times, I got pretty sick of it, and I told Pa so more'n once. He just raved whenever I did, an' he always carried his keys in his pocket. I never touched his chest key in my life, till I handed him his deed box Friday afternoon. But I agree with my girls. It's fair and right, since things have come out as they have, that they should have their shares. I would, too.

"The other thing is just this: I'm tired to death of the whole business. I want peace and rest and I want it quick. Friday and Saturday I was so scared and so knocked out I s'pose I'd 'a' took it if one of the sucking babies had riz up and commenced to tell me what I should a-done, and what I shouldn't. I'm through with that. You will all keep civil tongues in your heads this morning, or I'll get up and go upstairs, an' lock myself in a room till you're gone, an' if I go, it will mean that the law takes its course; and if it does, there will be three hundred acres less land to divide. You've had Pa on your hands all your lives, now you will go civil, and you will go easy, or you will get a taste of Ma. I take no more talk from anybody. Katie, go ahead with your figures."

Kate spread her sheet on the table and glanced around the room:

"The Milton County records show sixteen hundred and fifty acres standing in Father's name," she said. "Of these, Mother is heir to five hundred and fifty acres, leaving one thousand one hundred acres to be divided among sixteen of us, which give sixty-eight and three-fourths acres to each. This land is the finest that proper fertilization and careful handling can make. Even the poorest is the cream of the country as compared with the surrounding farms. As a basis of estimate I have taken one hundred dollars an acre as a fair selling figure. Some is worth more, some less, but that is a good average. This would make the share of each of us in cash that could easily be realized, six thousand eight hundred and seventy-five dollars. Whatever else is in mortgages, notes, and money can be collected as it is due, deposited in some bank, and when it is all in, divided equally among us, after deducting Mother's third. Now this is the law, and those are the figures, but I shall venture to say that none of us feel right about it, or ever will."

An emphatic murmur of approval ran among the boys, Mary and Nancy Ellen stoutly declared that they did.

"Oh, no, you don't!" said Kate. "If God made any woman of you so that she feels right and clean in her conscience about this deal, he made her wrong, and that is a thing that has not yet been proven of God. As I see it, here is the boys' side: from childhood they were told, bribed, and urged to miss holidays, work all week, and often on Sunday, to push and slave on the promise of this land at twenty-one. They all got the land and money to stock it and build homes. They were told it was theirs, required to pay the taxes on it, and also to labour at any time and without wages for Father. Not one of the boys but has done several hundred dollars' worth of work on Father's farm for nothing, to keep him satisfied and to insure getting his deed. All these years, each man has paid his taxes, put thousands in improvements, in rebuilding homes and barns, fertilizing, and developing his land. Each one of these farms is worth nearly twice what it was the day it was received. That the boys should lose all this is no cause for rejoicing on the part of any true woman; as a fact, no true woman would allow such a thing to happen -- "

"Speak for yourself!" cried several of the girls at once.

"Now right here is where we come to a perfect understanding," said Kate. "I did say that for myself, but in the main what I say, I say for Mother. Now you will not one of you interrupt me again, or this meeting closes, and each of you stands to lose more than two thousand dollars, which is worth being civil for, for quite a while. No more of that! I say any woman should be ashamed to take advantage of her brother through an accident; and rob him of years of work and money he was perfectly justified in thinking was his. I, for one, refuse to do it, and I want and need money probably more than any of you. To tear up these farms, to take more than half from the boys, is too much. On the other hand, for the girls to help earn the land, to go with no inheritance at all, is even more unfair. Now in order to arrive at a compromise that will leave each boy his farm, and give each girl the nearest possible to a fair amount, figuring in what the boys have spent in taxes and work for Father, and what each girl has lost by not having her money to handle all these years, it is necessary to split the difference between the time Adam, the eldest, has had his inheritance, and Hiram, the youngest, came into possession, which by taking from and adding to, gives a fair average of fifteen years. Now Mother proposes if we will enter into an agreement this morning with no words and no wrangling, to settle on this basis: she will relinquish her third of all other land, and keep only this home farm. She even will allow the fifty lying across the road to be sold and the money put into a general fund for the share of the girls. She will turn into this fund all money from notes and mortgages, and the sale of all stock, implements, etc., here, except what she wants to keep for her use, and the sum of three thousand dollars in cash, to provide against old age. This releases quite a sum of money, and three hundred and fifty acres of land, which she gives to the boys to start this fund as her recompense for their work and loss through a scheme in which she had a share in the start. She does this only on the understanding that the boys form a pool, and in some way take from what they have saved, sell timber or cattle, or borrow enough money to add to this sufficient to pay to each girl six thousand dollars in cash, in three months. Now get out your pencils and figure. Start with the original number of acres at fifty dollars an acre which is what it cost Father on an average. Balance against each other what the boys have lost in tax and work, and the girls have lost in not having their money to handle, and cross it off. Then figure, not on a basis of what the boys have made this land worth, but on what it cost Father's estate to buy, build on, and stock each farm. Strike the fifteen-year average on prices and profits. Figure that the girls get all their money practically immediately, to pay for the time they have been out of it; while each boy assumes an equal share of the indebtedness required to finish out the six thousand, after Mother has turned in what she is willing to, if this is settled here and now."

"Then I understand," said Mary, "that if we take under the law, each of us is entitled to sixty-eight and three quarter acres; and if we take under Mother's proposition we are entitled to eighty- seven and a half acres."

"No, no, E. A.," said Kate, the old nickname for "Exceptional Ability" slipping out before she thought. "No, no! Not so! You take sixty-eight and three quarters under the law. Mother's proposition is made only to the boys, and only on condition that they settle here and now; because she feels responsible to them for her share in rearing them and starting them out as she did. By accepting her proposition you lose eight hundred and seventy- five dollars, approximately. The boys lose on the same basis, figuring at fifty dollars and acre, six thousand five hundred and sixty-two dollars and fifty cents, plus their work and taxes, and minus what Mother will turn in, which will be about, let me see -- It will take a pool of fifty-four thousand dollars to pay each of us six thousand. If Mother raises thirty-five thousand, plus sale money and notes, it will leave about nineteen thousand for the boys, which will divide up at nearly two thousand five hundred for them to lose, as against less than a thousand for us. That should be enough to square matters with any right-minded woman, even in our positions. It will give us that much cash in hand, it will leave the boys, some of the younger ones, in debt for years, if they hold their land. What more do you want?"

"I want the last cent that is coming to me," said Mary.

"I thought you would," said Kate. "Yet you have the best home, and the most money, of any of the girls living on farms. I settle under this proposition, because it is fair and just, and what Mother wants done. If she feels that this is defrauding the girls any, she can arrange to leave what she has to us at her death, which would more than square matters in our favour -- "

"You hold on there, Katie," said Mrs. Bates. "You're going too fast! I'll get what's coming to me, and hang on to it awhile, before I decide which way the cat jumps. I reckon you'll all admit that in mothering the sixteen of you, doing my share indoors and out, and living with Pa for all these years, I've earned it. I'll not tie myself up in any way. I'll do just what I please with mine. Figure in all I've told you to; for the rest -- let be!"

"I beg your pardon," said Kate. "You're right, of course. I'll sign this, and I shall expect every sister I have to do the same, quickly and cheerfully, as the best way out of a bad business that has hurt all of us for years, and then I shall expect the boys to follow like men. It's the fairest, decentest thing we can do, let's get it over."

Kate picked up the pen, handed it to her mother, signed afterward herself, and then carried it to each of her sisters, leaving Nancy Ellen and Mary until last. All of them signed up to Nancy Ellen. She hesitated, and she whispered to Kate: "Did Robert --?" Kate nodded. Nancy Ellen thought deeply a minute and then said slowly: "I guess it is the quickest and best we can do." So she signed. Mary hesitated longer, but finally added her name. Kate passed on to the boys, beginning with Adam. Slowly he wrote his name, and as he handed back the paper he said: "Thank you, Kate, I believe it's the sanest thing we can do. I can make it easier than the younger boys."

"Then help them," said Kate tersely, passing on.

Each boy signed in turn, all of them pleased with the chance. It was so much better than they had hoped, that it was a great relief, which most of them admitted; so they followed Adam's example in thanking Kate, for all of them knew that in her brain had originated the scheme, which seemed to make the best of their troubles.

Then they sat closer and talked things over calmly and dispassionately. It was agreed that Adam and his mother should drive to Hartley the following afternoon and arrange for him to take out papers of administration for her, and start the adjustment of affairs. They all went home thinking more of each other, and Kate especially, than ever before. Mrs. Bates got dinner while Kate and Nancy Ellen went to work on the cool gray dress, so that it would be ready for the next afternoon. While her mother was away Kate cleaned the spare bedroom and moved her mother's possessions into it. She made it as convenient and comfortable and as pretty as she could, but the house was bare to austerity, so that her attempt at prettifying was rather a failure. Then she opened the closed room and cleaned it, after studying it most carefully as it stood. The longer she worked, the stronger became a conviction that was slowly working its way into her brain. When she could do no more she packed her telescope, installed Sally Whistler in her father's room, and rode to Hartley with a neighbour. From there she took the Wednesday hack for Walden.