A Daughter Of The Land by Gene Stratton-Porter
XX. "For a Good Girl"
For a week, Kate lay so dazed she did not care whether she lived or died; then she slowly crept back to life, realizing that whether she cared or not, she must live. She was too young, too strong, to quit because she was soul sick; she had to go on. She had life to face for herself and her children. She wondered dully about her people, but as none of the neighbours who had taken care of her said anything concerning them, she realized that they had not been there. At first she was almost glad. They were forthright people. They would have had something to say; they would have said it tersely and to the point.
Adam, 3d, had wound up her affairs speedily by selling the logs he had bought for her to the Hartley mills, paying what she owed, and depositing the remainder in the Hartley Bank to her credit; but that remainder was less than one hundred dollars. That winter was a long, dreadful nightmare to Kate. Had it not been for Aunt Ollie, they would have been hungry some of the time; they were cold most of it. For weeks Kate thought of sending for her mother, or going to her; then as not even a line came from any of her family, she realized that they resented her losing that much Bates money so bitterly that they wished to have nothing to do with her. Often she sat for hours staring straight before her, trying to straighten out the tangle she had made of her life. As if she had not suffered enough in the reality of living, she now lived over in day and night dreams, hour by hour, her time with George Holt, and gained nothing thereby.
All winter Kate brooded, barely managing to keep alive, and the children in school. As spring opened, she shook herself, arose, and went to work. It was not planned, systematic, effective, Bates work. Piecemeal she did anything she saw needed the doing. The children helped to make garden and clean the yard. Then all of them went out to Aunt Ollie's and made a contract to plant and raise potatoes and vegetables on shares. They passed a neglected garden on the way, and learning that the woman of the house was ill, Kate stopped and offered to tend it for enough cords of windfall wood to pay her a fair price, this to be delivered in mid-summer.
With food and fire assured, Kate ripped up some of George's clothing, washed, pressed, turned, and made Adam warm clothes for school. She even achieved a dress for Polly by making a front and back from a pair of her father's trouser legs, and setting in side pieces, a yoke and sleeves from one of her old skirts. George's underclothing she cut down for both of the children; then drew another check for taxes and second-hand books. While she was in Hartley in the fall paying taxes, she stopped at a dry goods store for thread, and heard a customer asking for knitted mittens, which were not in stock. After he had gone, she arranged with the merchant for a supply of yarn which she carried home and began to knit into mittens such as had been called for. She used every minute of leisure during the day, she worked hours into the night, and soon small sums began coming her way. When she had a supply of teamster's heavy mittens, she began on fancy coloured ones for babies and children, sometimes crocheting, sometimes using needles. Soon she started both children on the rougher work with her. They were glad to help for they had a lively remembrance of one winter of cold and hunger, with no Christmas. That there were many things she might have done that would have made more money with less exertion Kate never seemed to realize. She did the obvious thing. Her brain power seemed to be on a level with that of Adam and Polly.
When the children began to carry home Christmas talk, Kate opened her mouth to say the things that had been said to her as a child; then tightly closed it. She began getting up earlier, sitting up later, knitting feverishly. Luckily the merchant could sell all she could furnish. As the time drew nearer, she gathered from the talk of the children what was the deepest desire of their hearts. One day a heavy wind driving ice-coated trees in the back yard broke quite a large limb from a cherry tree. Kate dragged it into the woodhouse to make firewood. She leaned it against the wall to wait until the ice melted, and as it stood there in its silvery coat, she thought how like a small tree the branch was shaped, and how pretty it looked. After the children had gone to school the next day she shaped it with the hatchet and saw, and fastened it in a small box. This she carried to her bedroom and locked the door. She had not much idea what she was going to do, but she kept thinking. Soon she found enough time to wrap every branch carefully with the red tissue paper her red knitting wool came in, and to cover the box smoothly. Then she thought of the country Christmas trees she had seen decorated with popcorn and cranberries. She popped the corn at night and the following day made a trip up the ravine, where she gathered all the bittersweet berries, swamp holly, and wild rose seed heads she could find. She strung the corn on fine cotton cord putting a rose seed pod between each grain, then used the bittersweet berries to terminate the blunt ends of the branches, and climb up the trunk. By the time she had finished this she was really interested. She achieved a gold star for the top from a box lid and a piece of gilt paper Polly had carried home from school. With yarn ends and mosquito netting, she whipped up a few little mittens, stockings, and bags. She cracked nuts from their fall store and melting a little sugar stirred in the kernels until they were covered with a sweet, white glaze. Then she made some hard candy, and some fancy cookies with a few sticks of striped candy cut in circles and dotted on the top. She polished red, yellow, and green apples and set them under the tree.
When she made her final trip to Hartley before Christmas the spirit of the day was in the air. She breathed so much of it that she paid a dollar and a half for a stout sled and ten cents for a dozen little red candles, five each for two oranges, and fifteen each for two pretty little books, then after long hesitation added a doll for Polly. She felt that she should not have done this, and said so, to herself; but knew if she had it to do over, she would do the same thing again. She shook her shoulders and took the first step toward regaining her old self-confidence.
"Pshaw! Big and strong as I am, and Adam getting such a great boy, we can make it," she said. Then she hurried to the hack and was driven home barely in time to rush her bundles into her room before school was out. She could scarcely wait until the children were in bed to open the parcels. The doll had to be dressed, but Kate was interested in Christmas by that time, and so contemplated the spider-waisted image with real affection. She never had owned a doll herself. She let the knitting go that night, and cut up an old waist to make white under-clothing with touches of lace, and a pretty dress. Then Kate went to her room, tied the doll in a safe place on the tree, put on the books, and set the candles with pins. As she worked she kept biting her lips, but when it was all finished she thought it was lovely, and so it was. As she set the sled in front of the tree she said: "There, little folks, I wonder what you will think of that! It's the best I can do. I've a nice chicken to roast; now if only, if only Mother or Nancy Ellen would come, or write a line, or merely send one word by Tilly Nepple."
Suddenly Kate lay down on the bed, buried her face in the pillow while her shoulders jerked and shook in dry sobs for a long time. At last she arose, went to the kitchen, bathed her face, and banked the fires. "I suppose it is the Bates way," she said, "but it's a cold, hard proposition. I know what's the matter with all of them. They are afraid to come near me, or show the slightest friendliness, for fear I'll ask them to help support us. They needn't worry, we can take care of ourselves."
She set her tree on the living room table, arranged everything to the best advantage, laid a fire in the stove, and went to sleep Christmas eve, feeling more like herself than she had since the explosion. Christmas morning she had the house warm and the tree ready to light while the children dressed. She slipped away their every-day clothing and laid out their best instead. She could hear them talking as they dressed, and knew the change of clothing had filled them with hope. She hastily lighted the tree, and was setting the table as they entered the dining room.
"Merry Christmas, little people," she cried in a voice they had not heard in a long time. They both rushed to her and Kate's heart stood still as they each hugged her tight, kissed her, and offered a tiny packet. From the size and feeling of these, she realized that they were giving her the candy they had received the day before at school. Surprises were coming thick and fast with Kate. That one shook her to her foundations. They loved candy. They had so little! They had nothing else to give. She held them an instant so tightly they were surprised at her, then she told them to lay the packages on the living room table until after breakfast. Polly opened the door, and screamed. Adam ran, and then both of them stood silently before the brave little tree, flaming red, touched with white, its gold star shining. They looked at it, and then at each other, while Kate, watching at an angle across the dining room, distinctly heard Polly say in an awed tone: "Adam, hadn't we better pray?"
Kate lifted herself full height, and drew a deep breath. "Well, I guess I manage a little Christmas after this," she said, "and maybe a Fourth of July, and a birthday, and a few other things. I needn't be such a coward. I believe I can make it."
From that hour she began trying to think of something she could do that would bring returns more nearly commensurate with the time and strength she was spending. She felt tied to Walden because she owned the house, and could rely on working on shares with Aunt Ollie for winter food; but there was nothing she could do there and take care of the children that would bring more than the most meagre living. Still they were living, each year more comfortably; the children were growing bigger and stronger; soon they could help at something, if only she could think what. The time flew, each day a repetition of yesterday's dogged, soul- tiring grind, until some days Kate was close to despair. Each day the house grew shabbier; things wore out and could not be replaced; poverty showed itself more plainly. So three more years of life in Walden passed, setting their indelible mark on Kate. Time and again she almost broke the spell that bound her, but she never quite reached the place where her thought cleared, her heart regained its courage, her soul dared take wing, and try another flight. When she thought of it, "I don't so much mind the falling," said Kate to herself; "but I do seem to select the hardest spots to light on."
Kate sat on the back steps, the sun shone, her nearest neighbour was spading an onion bed. She knew that presently she would get out the rake and spade and begin another year's work; but at that minute she felt too hopeless to move. Adam came and sat on the step beside her. She looked at him and was surprised at his size and apparent strength. Someway he gave her hope. He was a good boy, he had never done a mean, sneaking thing that she knew of. He was natural, normal, mischievous; but he had not an underhand inclination that she could discover. He would make a fine- looking, big man, quite as fine as any of the Bates men; even Adam, 3d, was no handsomer than the fourth Adam would be. Hope arose in her with the cool air of spring on her cheek and its wine in her nostrils. Then out of the clear sky she said it: "Adam, how long are we going to stay in the beggar class?"
Adam jumped, and turned surprised eyes toward her. Kate was forced to justify herself.
"Of course we give Aunt Ollie half we raise," she said, "but anybody would do that. We work hard, and we live little if any better than Jasons, who have the County Trustee in three times a winter. I'm big and strong, you're almost a man, why don't we do something? Why don't we have some decent clothes, some money for out work and" -- Kate spoke at random -- "a horse and carriage?"
"A horse and carriage?" repeated Adam, staring at her.
"Why not?" said Kate, casually.
"But how?" cried the amazed boy.
"Why, earn the money, and buy it!" said Kate, impatiently. "I'm about fed up on earning cabbage, and potatoes, and skirmishing for wood. I'd prefer to have a dollar in my pocket, and buy what we need. Can't you use your brain and help me figure out a way to earn some money?"
"I meant to pretty soon now, but I thought I had to go to school a few years yet," he said.
"Of course you do," said Kate. "I must earn the money, but can't you help me think how?"
"Sure," said Adam, sitting straight and seeming thoughtful, "but give me a little time. What would you -- could you, do?"
"I taught before I was married," said Kate; "but methods of teaching change so I'd have to have a Normal term to qualify for even this school. I could put you and Polly with Aunt Ollie this summer; but I wouldn't, not if we must freeze and starve together -- "
"Because of Grandma?" asked the boy. Kate nodded.
"I borrowed money to go once, and I could again; but I have been away from teaching so long, and I don't know what to do with you children. The thing I would like would be to find a piece of land somewhere, with a house, any kind of one on it, and take it to rent. Land is about all I really know. Working for money would be of some interest. I am so dead tired working for potatoes. Sometimes I see them flying around in the air at night."
"Do you know of any place you would like?" asked Adam.
"No, I don't," said Kate, "but I am going to begin asking and I'm going to keep my eyes open. I heard yesterday that Dr. James intends to build a new house. This house is nothing, but the lot is in the prettiest place in town. Let's sell it to him, and take the money, and buy us some new furniture and a cow, and a team, and wagon, and a buggy, and go on a piece of land, and live like other people. Seems to me I'll die if I have to work for potatoes any longer. I'm heart sick of them. Don't say a word to anybody, but Oh, Adam, think! Think hard! Can't you just help me think?"
"You are sure you want land?" asked the boy.
"It is all I know," said Kate. "How do you feel about it?"
"I want horses, and cows, and pigs -- lots of pigs -- and sheep, and lots of white hens," said Adam, promptly.
"Get the spade and spade the onion bed until I think," said Kate. "And that reminds me, we didn't divide the sets last fall. Somebody will have to go after them."
"I'll go," said Adam, "but it's awful early. It'll snow again. Let me go after school Friday and stay over night. I'd like to go and stay over night with Aunt Ollie. Grandma can't say anything to me that I'll listen to. You keep Polly, and let me go alone. Sure I can."
"All right," said Kate. "Spade the bed, and let it warm a day. It will be good for it. But don't tell Polly you're going, or she'll want to go along."
Until Friday night, Kate and Adam went around in such a daze of deep thought that they stumbled, and ran against each other; then came back to their affairs suddenly, looking at each other and smiling understandingly. After one of these encounters Kate said to the boy: "You may not arrive at anything, Adam, but I certainly can't complain that you are not thinking."
Adam grinned: "I'm not so sure that I haven't got it," he said.
"Tell me quick and let me think, too" said Kate.
"But I can't tell you yet," said Adam. "I have to find out something first."
Friday evening he wanted to put off his trip until Saturday morning, so Kate agreed. She was surprised when he bathed and put on his clean shirt and trousers, but said not a word. She had made some study of child psychology, she thought making the trip alone was of so much importance to Adam that he was dressing for the occasion. She foresaw extra washing, yet she said nothing to stop the lad. She waved good-bye to him, thinking how sturdy and good looking he was, as he ran out of the front door. Kate was beginning to be worried when Adam had not returned toward dusk Sunday evening, and Polly was cross and fretful. Finally they saw him coming down the ravine bank, carrying his small bundle of sets. Kate felt a glow of relief; Polly ran to meet him. Kate watched as they met and saw Adam take Polly's hand.
"If only they looked as much alike as some twins do, I'd be thankful," said Kate.
Adam delivered the sets, said Aunt Ollie and Grandma were all right, that it was an awful long walk, and he was tired. Kate noticed that his feet were dust covered, but his clothes were so clean she said to him: "You didn't fish much."
"I didn't fish any," said Adam, "not like I always fish," he added.
"Had any time to think?" asked Kate.
"You just bet I did," said the boy. "I didn't waste a minute."
"Neither did I," said Kate. "I know exactly what the prettiest lot in town can be sold for."
"Good!" cried Adam. "Fine!"
Monday Kate wanted to get up early and stick the sets, but Adam insisted that Aunt Ollie said the sign would not be right until Wednesday. If they were stuck on Monday or Tuesday, they would all grow to top.
"My goodness! I knew that," said Kate. "I am thinking so hard I'm losing what little sense I had; but anyway, mere thinking is doing me a world of good. I am beginning to feel a kind of rising joy inside, and I can't imagine anything else that makes it."
Adam went to school, laughing. Kate did the washing and ironing, and worked in the garden getting beds ready. Tuesday she was at the same occupation, when about ten o'clock she dropped her spade and straightened, a flash of perfect amazement crossing her face. She stood immovable save for swaying forward in an attitude of tense listening.
Kate ran across the yard and as she turned the corner of the house she saw a one-horse spring wagon standing before the gate, while a stiff, gaunt figure sat bolt upright on the seat, holding the lines. Kate was at the wheel looking up with a face of delighted amazement.
"Why, Mother!" she cried. "Why, Mother!"
"Go fetch a chair and help me down," said Mrs. Bates, "this seat is getting tarnation hard."
Kate ran after a chair, and helped her mother to alight. Mrs. Bates promptly took the chair, on the sidewalk.
"Just drop the thills," she said. "Lead him back and slip on the halter. It's there with his feed."
Kate followed instructions, her heart beating wildly. Several times she ventured a quick glance at her mother. How she had aged! How lined and thin she was! But Oh, how blessed good it was to see her! Mrs. Bates arose and they walked into the house, where she looked keenly around, while her sharp eyes seemed to appraise everything as she sat down and removed her bonnet.
"Go fetch me a drink," she said, "and take the horse one and then I'll tell you why I came."
"I don't care why you came," said Kate, "but Oh, Mother, thank God you are here!"
"Now, now, don't get het up!" cautioned Mrs. Bates. "Water, I said."
Kate hurried to obey orders; then she sank on a chair and looked at her mother. Mrs. Bates wiped her face and settled in the chair comfortably.
"They's no use to waste words," she said. "Katie, you're the only one in the family that has any sense, and sometimes you ain't got enough so's you could notice it without a magnifyin' glass; but even so, you're ahead of the rest of them. Katie, I'm sick an' tired of the Neppleses and the Whistlers and being bossed by the whole endurin' Bates tribe; sick and tired of it, so I just came after you."
"Came after me?" repeated Kate stupidly.
"Yes, parrot, 'came after you,'" said Mrs. Bates. "I told you, you'd no great amount of sense. I'm speakin' plain, ain't I? I don't see much here to hold you. I want you should throw a few traps, whatever you are beholden to, in the wagon - that's why I brought it - and come on home and take care of me the rest of my time. It won't be so long; I won't interfere much, nor be much bother. I've kep' the place in order, but I'm about fashed. I won't admit it to the rest of them; but I don't seem to mind telling you, Katie, that I am almost winded. Will you come?"
"Of course I will," said Kate, a tide of effulgent joy surging up in her heart until it almost choked her. "Of course I will, Mother, but my children, won't they worry you?"
"Never having had a child about, I s'pect likely they may," said Mrs. Bates, dryly. "Why, you little fool! I think likely it's the children I am pinin' for most, though I couldn't a-stood it much longer without you. Will you get ready and come with me to- day?"
"Yes," said Kate, "if I can make it. There's very little here I care for; I can have the second-hand man give me what he will for the rest; and I can get a good price for the lot to-day, if I say so. Dr. James wants it to build on. I'll go and do the very best I can, and when you don't want me any longer, Adam will be bigger and we can look out for ourselves. Yes, I'll get ready at once if you want me to."
"Not much of a haggler, are you, Katie?" said Mrs. Bates. "Why don't you ask what rooms you're to have, and what I'll pay you, and how much work you'll have to do, and if you take charge of the farm, and how we share up?"
Kate laughed: "Mother," she said, "I have been going to school here, with the Master of Life for a teacher; and I've learned so many things that really count, that I know now none of the things you mention are essential. You may keep the answers to all those questions; I don't care a cent about any of them. If you want me, and want the children, all those things will settle themselves as we come to them. I didn't use to understand you; but we got well enough acquainted at Father's funeral, and I do, now. Whatever you do will be fair, just, and right. I'll obey you, as I shall expect Adam and Polly to."
"Well, for lands sakes, Katie," said Mrs. Bates. "Life must a- been weltin' it to you good and proper. I never expected to see you as meek as Moses. That Holt man wasn't big enough to beat you, was he?"
"The ways in which he 'beat' me no Bates would understand. I had eight years of them, and I don't understand them yet; but I am so cooked with them, that I shall be wild with joy if you truly mean for me to pack up and come home with you for awhile."
"Oh, Lordy, Katie!" said Mrs. Bates. "This whipped out, take- anything-anyway style ain't becomin' to a big, fine, upstanding woman like you. Hold up your head, child! Hold up your head, and say what you want, an' how you want it!"
"Honestly, Mother, I don't want a thing on earth but to go home with you and do as you say for the next ten years," said Kate.
"Stiffen up!" cried Mrs. Bates. "Stiffen up!" "Don't be no broken reed, Katie! I don't want you dependin' on me; I came to see if you would let me lean on you the rest of the way. I wa'n't figuring that there was anything on this earth that could get you down; so's I was calculatin' you'd be the very one to hold me up. Since you seem to be feeling unaccountably weak in the knees, let's see if we can brace them a little. Livin' with Pa so long must kind of given me a tendency toward nussin' a deed. I've got one here I had executed two years ago, and I was a coming with it along about now, when 'a little bird tole me' to come to-day, so here I am. Take that, Katie."
Mrs. Bates pulled a long sealed envelope from the front of her dress and tossed it in Kate's lap.
"Mother, what is this?" asked Kate in a hushed voice.
"Well, if you'd rather use your ears than your eyes, it's all the same to me," said Mrs. Bates. "The boys always had a mortal itchin' to get their fingers on the papers in the case. I can't say I don't like the difference; and I've give you every chance, too, an you wouldn't demand, you wouldn't specify. Well, I'll just specify myself. I'm dead tired of the neighbours taking care of me, and all of the children stoppin' every time they pass, each one orderin' or insinuatin' according to their lights, as to what I should do. I've always had a purty clear idea of what I wanted to do myself. Over forty years, I sided with Pa, to keep the peace; now I reckon I'm free to do as I like. That's my side. You can tell me yours, now."
Kate shook her head: "I have nothing to say."
"Jest as well," said Mrs. Bates. "Re-hashing don't do any good. Come back, and come to-day; but stiffen up. That paper you are holding is a warrantee deed to the home two hundred to you and your children after you. You take possession to-day. There's money in the bank to paper, an' paint, and make any little changes you'd like, such as cutting doors or windows different places, floorin' the kitchen new, or the like. Take it an' welcome. I got more 'an enough to last me all my days; all I ask of you is my room, my food, and your company. Take the farm, and do what you pretty please with it."
"But, Mother!" cried Kate. "The rest of them! They'd tear me limb for limb. I don't dare take this."
"Oh, don't you?" asked Mrs. Bates. "Well, I still stand for quite a bit at Bates Corners, and I say you will take that farm, and run it as you like. It is mine, I give it to you. We all know it wasn't your fault you lost your money, though it was a dose it took some of us a good long time to swallow. You are the only one out of your share; you settled things fine for the rest of them; and they all know it, and feel it. You'll never know what you did for me the way you put me through Pa's funeral; now if you'll just shut up, and stick that deed somewhere it won't burn, and come home an' plant me as successfully as you did Pa, you'll have earned all you'll get, an' something coming. Now set us out a bite to eat, and let's be off."
Kate slowly arose and handed back the deed.
"I'll be flying around so lively I might lose that," she said, "you put it where you had it, till we get to Hartley, and then I'll get a place in the bank vault for it. I can't quite take this in, just yet, but you know I'll do my best for you, Mother!"
"Tain't likely I'd be here else," said Mrs. Bates, "and tea, Katie. A cup of good strong hot tea would fix me up about proper, right now."
Kate went to the kitchen and began setting everything she had to eat on the table. As she worked Polly came flying in the door crying: "Mother, who has come?" so Kate stepped toward the living room to show the child to her grandmother and as she advanced she saw a queer thing. Adam was sitting on his grandmother's lap. Her arms were tight around him, her face buried in his crisp hair, and he was patting her shoulder and telling her he would take care of her, while her voice said distinctly: "Of course you will, birdie!" Then the lad and the old woman laid their heads together and laughed almost hysterically.
"Well, if that isn't quick work!" said Kate to herself. Then she presented Polly, who followed Adam's lead in hugging the stranger first and looking at her afterward. God bless all little children. Then Adam ran to tell the second-hand man to come at one o'clock and Dr. James that he might have the keys at three. They ate hurriedly. Kate set out what she wished to save; the children carried things to the wagon; she packed while they ran after their books, and at three o'clock all of them climbed into the spring wagon, and started to Bates Corners.
Kate was the last one in. As she climbed on the seat beside her mother and took the lines, she handed Mrs. Bates a small china mug to hold for her. It was decorated with a very fat robin and on a banner floating from its beak was inscribed: "For a Good Girl."