XXI. Life's Boomerang
 

As they drove into Hartley, Mrs. Bates drew forth the deed.

"You are right about the bank being a safe place for this," she said. "I've had it round the house for two years, and it's a fair nervous thing to do. I wish I'd a-had sense to put it there and come after you the day I made it. But there's no use crying over spilt milk, nor fussin' with the grease spot it makes; salt it down safely now, and when you get it done, beings as this setting is fairly comfortable, take time to run into Harding's and pick up some Sunday-school clothes for the children that will tally up with the rest of their relations'; an' get yourself a cheap frock or two that will spruce you up a bit till you have time to decide what you really want."

Kate passed the lines to her mother, and climbed from the wagon. She returned with her confidence partly restored and a new look on her face. Her mother handed her two dimes.

"I can wait five minutes longer," she said. "Now get two nice oranges and a dime's worth of candy."

Kate took the money and obeyed orders. She handed the packages to her mother as she climbed into the wagon and again took the lines, heading the horse toward the old, familiar road. Her mother twisted around on the seat and gave each of the children an orange and a stick of candy.

"There!" she said. "Go on and spoil yourselves past redemption."

Kate laughed. "But, Mother," she said, "you never did that for us."

"Which ain't saying I never wanted to," said Mrs. Bates, sourly. "You're a child only once in this world; it's a little too rough to strip childhood of everything. I ain't so certain Bates ways are right, that for the rest of my time I'm goin' to fly in the face of all creation to prove it. If God lets me live a few years more, I want the faces around me a little less discontenteder than those I've been used to. If God Almighty spares me long enough, I lay out to make sure that Adam and Polly will squeeze out a tear or two for Granny when she is laid away."

"I think you are right, Mother," said Kate. "It didn't cost anything, but we had a real pretty Christmas tree this year, and I believe we can do better next time. I want the children to love you, but don't buy them."

"Well, I'd hardly call an orange and a stick of candy traffickin' in affection," said Mrs. Bates. "They'll survive it without underminin' their principles, I'll be bound, or yours either. Katie, let's make a beginning to-day. Let's work what is right, and healthy, a fair part of the day, and then each day, and Sunday especially, let's play and rest, just as hard as we work. It's been all work and no play till we've been mighty 'dull boys' at our house; I'm free to say that I hanker for a change before I die."

"Don't speak so often of dying," said Kate. "You're all right. You've been too much alone. You'll feel like yourself as soon as you get rested."

"I guess I been thinking about it too much," said Mrs. Bates. "I ain't been so well as I might, an' not being used to it, it worries me some. I got to buck up. The one thing I can't do is to die; but I'm most tired enough to do it right now. I'll be glad when we get home."

Kate drove carefully, but as fast as she dared with her load. As they neared Bates Corners, the way became more familiar each mile. Kate forgot the children, forgot her mother, forgot ten years of disappointment and failure, and began a struggle to realize what was happening to her now. The lines slipped down, the horse walked slowly, the first thing she knew, big hot tears splashed on her hand. She gathered up the lines, drew a deep breath, and glanced at her mother, meeting her eye fairly. Kate tried to smile, but her lips were quivering.

"Glad, Katie?" asked Mrs. Bates.

Kate nodded.

"Me, too!" said Mrs. Bates.

They passed the orchard.

"There's the house, there, Polly!" cried Adam.

"Why, Adam, how did you know the place?" asked Kate, turning.

Adam hesitated a second. "Ain't you told us times a-plenty about the house and the lilac, and the snowball bush -- " "Yes, and the cabbage roses," added Polly.

"So I have," said Kate. "Mostly last winter when we were knitting. Yes, this will be home for all the rest of our lives. Isn't it grand? How will we ever thank Grandmother? How will we ever be good enough to pay her?"

Both children thought this a hint, so with one accord they arose and fell on Mrs. Bates' back, and began to pay at once in coin of childhood.

"There, there," said Kate, drawing them away as she stopped the horse at the gate. "There, there, you will choke Grandmother."

Mrs. Bates pushed Kate's arm down.

"Mind your own business, will you?" she said. "I ain't so feeble that I can't speak for myself awhile yet."

In a daze Kate climbed down, and ran to bring a chair to help her mother. The children were boisterously half eating Mrs. Bates up; she had both of them in her arms, with every outward evidence of enjoying the performance immensely. That was a very busy evening, for the wagon was to be unpacked; all of them were hungry, while the stock was to be fed, and the milking done. Mrs. Bates and Polly attempted supper; Kate and Adam went to the barn; but they worked very hurriedly, for Kate could see how feeble her mother had grown.

When at last the children were bathed and in bed, Kate and her mother sat on the little front porch to smell spring a few minutes before going to rest. Kate reached over and took her mother's hand.

"There's no word I know in any language big enough to thank you for this, Mother," she said. "The best I can do is make each day as nearly a perfect expression of what I feel as possible."

Mrs. Bates drew away her hand and used it to wipe her eyes; but she said with her usual terse perversity: "My, Kate! You're most as wordy as Agatha. I'm no glibtonguer, but I bet you ten dollars it will hustle you some to be any gladder than I am."

Kate laughed and gave up the thanks question.

"To-morrow we must get some onions in," she said. "Have you made any plans about the farm work for this year yet?"

"No," said Mrs. Bates. "I was going to leave that till I decided whether I'd come after you this spring or wait until next. Since I decided to come now, I'll just leave your farm to you. Handle it as you please."

"Mother, what will the other children say?" implored Kate.

"Humph! You are about as well acquainted with them as I am. Take a shot at it yourself. If it will avoid a fuss, we might just say you had to come to stay with me, and run the farm for me, and let them get used to your being here, and bossing things by degrees; like the man that cut his dog's tail off an inch at a time, so it wouldn't hurt so bad."

"But by inches, or 'at one fell swoop,' it's going to hurt," said Kate.

"Sometimes it seems to me," said Mrs. Bates, "that the more we get hurt in this world the decenter it makes us. All the boys were hurt enough when Pa went, but every man of them has been a bigger, better man since. Instead of competing as they always did, Adam and Andrew and the older, beforehandeder ones, took hold and helped the younger as you told them to, and it's done the whole family a world of good. One thing is funny. To hear Mary talk now, you'd think she engineered that plan herself. The boys are all thankful, and so are the girls. I leave it to you. Tell them or let them guess it by degrees, it's all one to me."

"Tell me about Nancy Ellen and Robert," said Kate.

"Robert stands head in Hartley. He gets bigger and broader every year. He is better looking than a man has any business to be; and I hear the Hartley ladies give him plenty of encouragement in being stuck on himself, but I think he is true to Nancy Ellen, and his heart is all in his work. No children. That's a burning shame! Both of them feel it. In a way, and strictly between you and me, Nancy Ellen is a disappointment to me, an' I doubt if she ain't been a mite of a one to him. He had a right to expect a good deal of Nancy Ellen. She had such a good brain, and good body, and purty face. I may miss my guess, but it always strikes me that she falls short of what he expected of her. He's coined money, but she hasn't spent it in the ways he would. Likely I shouldn't say it, but he strikes me as being just a leetle mite too good for her."

"Oh, Mother!" said Kate.

"Now you lookey here," said Mrs. Bates. "Suppose you was a man of Robert's brains, and education, and professional ability, and you made heaps of money, and no children came, and you had to see all you earned, and stood for, and did in a community spent on the selfishness of one woman. How big would you feel? What end is that for the ambition and life work of a real man? How would you like it?"

"I never thought of such a thing," said Kate.

"Well, mark my word, you will think of it when you see their home, and her clothes, and see them together," said Mrs. Bates.

"She still loves pretty clothing so well?" asked Kate.

"She is the best-dressed woman in the county, and the best looking," said Mrs. Bates, "and that's all there is to her. I'm free to say with her chances, I'm ashamed of what she has, and hasn't made of herself. I'd rather stand in your shoes, than hers, this minute, Katie."

"Does she know I'm here?" asked Kate.

"Yes. I stopped and told her on my way out, this morning," said Mrs. Bates. "I asked them to come out for Sunday dinner, and they are coming."

"Did you deliver the invitation by force?" asked Kate.

"Now, none of your meddling," said Mrs. Bates. "I got what I went after, and that was all I wanted. I've told her an' told her to come to see you during the last three years, an' I know she wanted to come; but she just had that stubborn Bates streak in her that wouldn't let her change, once her mind was made up. It did give us a purty severe jolt, Kate, havin' all that good Bates money burn up."

"I scarcely think it jolted any of you more than it did me," said Kate dryly.

"No, I reckon it didn't," said Mrs. Bates. "But they's no use hauling ourselves over the coals to go into that. It's past. You went out to face life bravely enough and it throwed you a boomerang that cut a circle and brought you back where you started from. Our arrangements for the future are all made. Now it's up to us to live so that we get the most out of life for us an' the children. Those are mighty nice children of yours, Kate. I take to that boy something amazin', and the girl is the nicest little old lady I've seen in many a day. I think we will like knittin' and sewin' together, to the top of our bent."

"My, but I'm glad you like them, Mother," said Kate. "They are all I've got to show for ten years of my life."

"Not by a long shot, Katie," said Mrs. Bates. "Life has made a real woman of you. I kept watchin' you to-day comin' over; an' I was prouder 'an Jehu of you. It's a debatable question whether you have thrown away your time and your money. I say you've got something to show for it that I wish to God the rest of my children had. I want you should brace your back, and stiffen your neck, and make things hum here. Get a carpenter first. Fix the house the way it will be most convenient and comfortable. Then paint and paper, and get what new things you like, in reason -- of course, in reason -- and then I want you should get all of us clothes so's there ain't a noticeable difference between us and the others when we come together here or elsewhere. Put in a telephone; they're mighty handy, and if you can scrape up a place -- I washed in Nancy Ellen's tub a few weeks ago. I never was wet all over at once before in my life, and I'm just itching to try it again. I say, let's have it, if it knocks a fair-sized hole in a five-hundred-dollar bill. An' if we had the telephone right now, we could call up folks an' order what we want without ever budgin' out of our tracks. Go up ahead, Katie, I'll back you in anything you can think of. It won't hurt my feelings a mite if you can think of one or two things the rest of them haven't got yet. Can't you think of something that will lay the rest of them clear in the shade? I just wish you could. Now, I'm going to bed."

Kate went with her mother, opened her bed, pulled out the pins, and brushed her hair, drew the thin cover over her, and blew out the light. Then she went past the bed on her way to the door, and stooping, she kissed her mother for the first time since she could remember.

Then she lighted a lamp, hunted a big sheet of wrapping paper, and sitting down beside the living room table, she drew a rough sketch of the house. For hours she pored over it, and when at last she went to bed, on the reverse of the sheet she had a drawing that was quite a different affair; yet it was the same house with very few and easily made changes that a good contractor could accomplish in a short time. In the morning, she showed these ideas to her mother who approved all of them, but still showed disappointment visibly.

"That's nothing but all the rest of them have," she said. "I thought you could think up some frills that would be new, and different."

"Well," said Kate, "would you want to go to the expense of setting up a furnace in the cellar? It would make the whole house toasty warm; it would keep the bathroom from freezing in cold weather; and make a better way to heat the water."

"Now you're shouting!" cried Mrs. Bates. "That's it! But keep still. Don't you tell a soul about it, but go on and do it, Katie. Wade right in! What else can you think of?"

"A brain specialist for you," said Kate. "I think myself this is enough for a start; but if you insist on more, there's a gas line passing us out there on the road; we could hitch on for a very reasonable sum, and do away with lamps and cooking with wood."

"Goody for you! That's it!" cried Mrs. Bates. "That's the very thing! Now brush up your hair your prettiest, and put on your new blue dress, and take the buggy, and you and Adam go see how much of this can be started to-day. Me and Polly will keep house."

In a month all of these changes had been made, and were in running order; the painting was finished, new furniture in place, a fair start made on the garden, while a strong, young, hired man was not far behind Hiram with his plowing. Kate was so tired she almost staggered; but she was so happy she arose each morning refreshed, and accomplished work enough for three average women before the day was over. She suggested to her mother that she use her money from the sale of the Walden home to pay for what furniture she had bought, and then none of the others could feel that they were entitled to any share in it, at any time. Mrs. Bates thought that a good idea, so much ill will was saved among the children.

They all stopped in passing; some of them had sharp words to say, which Kate instantly answered in such a way that this was seldom tried twice. In two months the place was fresh, clean, convenient, and in good taste. All of them had sufficient suitable clothing, while the farm work had not been neglected enough to hurt the value of the crops.

In the division of labour, Adam and the hired man took the barn and field work, Mrs. Bates and Polly the house, while Kate threw all her splendid strength wherever it was most needed. If a horse was sick, she went to the barn and doctored it. If the hay was going to get wet, she pitched hay. If the men had not time for the garden she attended it, and hoed the potatoes. For a change, everything went right. Mrs. Bates was happier than she ever had been before, taking the greatest interest in the children. They had lived for three years in such a manner that they would never forget it. They were old enough to appreciate what changes had come to them, and to be very keen about their new home and life. Kate threw herself into the dream of her heart with all the zest of her being. Always she had loved and wanted land. Now she had it. She knew how to handle it. She could make it pay as well as any Bates man, for she had man strength, and all her life she had heard men discuss, and helped men apply man methods.

There was a strong strain of her father's spirit of driving in Kate's blood; but her mother was so tired of it that whenever Kate had gone just so far the older woman had merely to caution: "Now, now, Katie!" to make Kate realized what she was doing and take a slower pace. All of them were well, happy, and working hard; but they also played at proper times, and in convenient places. Kate and her mother went with the children when they fished in the meadow brook, or hunted wild flowers in the woods for Polly's bed in the shade of the pear tree beside the garden. There were flowers in the garden now, as well as vegetables. There was no work done on Sunday. The children always went to Sunday-school and the full term of the District School at Bates Corners. They were respected, they were prosperous, they were finding a joy in life they never before had known, while life had taught them how to appreciate its good things as they achieved them.

The first Christmas Mrs. Bates and Kate made a Christmas tree from a small savine in the dooryard that stood where Kate wanted to set a flowering shrub she had found in the woods. Guided by the former year, and with a few dollars they decided to spend, these women made a real Christmas tree, with gifts and ornaments, over which Mrs. Bates was much more excited than the children. Indeed, such is the perversity of children that Kate's eyes widened and her mouth sagged when she heard Adam say in a half-whisper to Polly: "This is mighty pretty, but gee, Polly, there'll never be another tree as pretty as ours last year!"

While Polly answered: "I was just thinking about it, Adam. Wasn't it the grandest thing?"

The next Christmas Mrs. Bates advanced to a tree that reached the ceiling, with many candles, real ornaments, and an orange, a stocking of candy and nuts, and a doll for each girl, and a knife for each boy of her grandchildren, all of whom she invited for dinner. Adam, 3d, sat at the head of the table, Mrs. Bates at the foot. The tiniest tots that could be trusted without their parents ranged on the Dictionary and the Bible, of which the Bates family possessed a fat edition for birth records; no one had ever used it for any other purpose, until it served to lift Hiram's baby, Milly, on a level with her roast turkey and cranberry jelly. For a year before her party Mrs. Bates planned for it. The tree was beautiful, the gifts amazing, the dinner, as Kate cooked and served it, a revelation, with its big centre basket of red, yellow, and green apples, oranges, bananas, grapes, and flowers. None of them ever had seen a table like that. Then when dinner was over, Kate sat before the fire and in her clear voice, with fine inflections, she read from the Big Book the story of the guiding star and the little child in the manger. Then she told stories, and they played games until four o'clock; and then Adam rolled all of the children into the big wagon bed mounted on the sled runners, and took them home. Then he came back and finished the day. Mrs. Bates could scarcely be persuaded to go to bed. When at last Kate went to put out her mother's light, and see that her feet were warm and her covers tucked, she found her crying.

"Why, Mother!" exclaimed Kate in frank dismay. "Wasn't everything all right?"

"I'm just so endurin' mad," sobbed Mrs. Bates, "that I could a- most scream and throw things. Here I am, closer the end of my string than anybody knows. Likely I'll not see another Christmas. I've lived the most of my life, and never knowed there was a time like that on earth to be had. There wasn't expense to it we couldn't easy have stood, always. Now, at the end of my tether, I go and do this for my grandchildren. 'Tween their little shining faces and me, there kept coming all day the little, sad, disappointed faces of you and Nancy Ellen, and Mary, and Hannah, and Adam, and Andrew, and Hiram and all the others. Ever since he went I've thought the one thing I couldn't do was to die and face Adam Bates, but to-day I ain't felt so scared of him. Seems to me he has got about as much to account for as I have."

Kate stood breathlessly still, looking at her mother. Mrs. Bates wiped her eyes. "I ain't so mortal certain," she said, "that I don't open up on him and take the first word. I think likely I been defrauded out of more that really counts in this world, than he has. Ain't that little roly-poly of Hannah's too sweet? Seems like I'll hardly quit feeling her little sticky hands and her little hot mouth on my face when I die; and as she went out she whispered in my ear: 'Do it again, Grandma, Oh, please do it again!' an it's more'n likely I'll not get the chance, no matter how willing I am. Kate, I am going to leave you what of my money is left -- I haven't spent so much -- and while you live here, I wish each year you would have this same kind of a party and pay for it out of that money, and call it 'Grandmother's Party.' Will you?"

"I surely will," said Kate. "And hadn't I better have all of them, and put some little thing from you on the tree for them? You know how Hiram always was wild for cuff buttons, and Mary could talk by the hour about a handkerchief with lace on it, and Andrew never yet has got that copy of 'Aesop's Fables,' he always wanted. Shall I?"

"Yes," said Mrs. Bates. "Oh, yes, and when you do it, Katie, if they don't chain me pretty close in on the other side, I think likely I'll be sticking around as near as I can get to you."

Kate slipped a hot brick rolled in flannel to the cold old feet, and turning out the light she sat beside the bed and stroked the tired head until easy breathing told her that her mother was sound asleep. Then she went back to the fireplace and sitting in the red glow she told Adam, 3d, part of what her mother had said. Long after he was gone, she sat gazing into the slowly graying coals, her mind busy with what she had not told.

That spring was difficult for Kate. Day after day she saw her mother growing older, feebler, and frailer. And as the body failed, up flamed the wings of the spirit, carrying her on and on, each day keeping her alive, when Kate did not see how it could be done. With all the force she could gather, each day Mrs. Bates struggled to keep going, denied that she felt badly, drove herself to try to help about the house and garden. Kate warned the remainder of the family what they might expect at an hour; but when they began coming in oftener, bringing little gifts and being unusually kind, Mrs. Bates endured a few of the visits in silence, then she turned to Kate and said after her latest callers: "I wonder what in the name of all possessed ails the folks? Are they just itching to start my funeral? Can't they stay away until you send them word that the breath's out of my body?"

"Mother, you shock me," said Kate. "They come because they love you. They try to tell you so with the little things they bring. Most people would think they were neglected, if their children did not come to see them when they were not so well."

"Not so well!" cried Mrs. Bates. "Folly! I am as well as I ever was. They needn't come snooping around, trying to make me think I'm not. If they'd a-done it all their lives, well and good; it's no time for them to begin being cotton-mouthed now."

"Mother," said Kate gently, "haven't you changed, yourself, about things like Christmas, for example? Maybe your children are changing, too. Maybe they feel that they have missed something they'd like to have from you, and give back to you, before it's too late. Just maybe," said Kate.

Mrs. Bates sat bolt upright still, but her flashing eyes softened.

"I hadn't just thought of that," she said. "I think it's more than likely. Well, if it's that way, I s'pose I've got to button up my lip and stand it; but it's about more than I can go, when I know that the first time I lose my grip I'll land smash up against Adam Bates and my settlement with him."

"Mother," said Kate still more gently, "I thought we had it settled at the time Father went that each of you would be accountable to God, not to each other. I am a wanderer in darkness myself, when it come to talking about God, but this I know, He is somewhere and He is redeeming love. If Father has been in the light of His love all these years, he must have changed more, far more than you have. He'll understand now how wrong he was to force ways on you he knew you didn't think right; he'll have more to account to you for than you ever will to him; and remember this only, neither of you is accountable, save to your God."

Mrs. Bates arose and walked to the door, drawn to full height, her head very erect. The world was at bloom-time. The evening air was heavily sweet with lilacs, and the widely branching, old apple trees of the dooryard with loaded with flowers. She stepped outside. Kate followed. Her mother went down the steps and down the walk to the gate. Kate kept beside her, in reach, yet not touching her. At the gate she gripped the pickets to steady herself as she stared long and unflinchingly at the red setting sun dropping behind a white wall of bloom. Then she slowly turned, life's greatest tragedy lining her face, her breath coming in short gasps. She spread her hands at each side, as if to balance herself, her passing soul in her eyes, and looked at Kate.

"Katherine Eleanor," she said slowly and distinctly, "I'm going now. I can't fight it off any longer. I confess myself. I burned those deeds. Every one of them. Pa got himself afire, but he'd thrown them out of it. It was my chance. I took it. Are you going to tell them?"

Kate was standing as tall and straight as her mother, her hands extended the same, but not touching her.

"No," she said. "You were an instrument in the hands of God to right a great wrong. No! I shall never tell a soul while I live. In a minute God himself will tell you that you did what He willed you should."

"Well, we will see about that right now," said Mrs. Bates, lifting her face to the sky. "Into thy hands, O Lord, into thy hands!"

Then she closed her eyes and ceased to breathe. Kate took her into her arms and carried her to her bed.