A Daughter Of The Land by Gene Stratton-Porter
XXII. Somewhat of Polly
If the spirit of Mrs. Bates hovered among the bloom-whitened apple trees as her mortal remains were carried past the lilacs and cabbage rose bushes, through a rain of drifting petals, she must have been convinced that time had wrought one great change in the hearts of her children. They had all learned to weep; while if the tears they shed were a criterion of their feelings for her, surely her soul must have been satisfied. They laid her away with simple ceremony and then all of them went to their homes, except Nancy Ellen and Robert, who stopped in passing to learn if there was anything they could do for Kate. She was grieving too deeply for many words; none of them would ever understand the deep bond of sympathy and companionship that had grown to exist between her and her mother. She stopped at the front porch and sat down, feeling unable to enter the house with Nancy Ellen, who was deeply concerned over the lack of taste displayed in Agatha's new spring hat. When Kate could endure it no longer she interrupted: "Why didn't all of them come?"
"What for?" asked Nancy Ellen.
"They had a right to know what Mother had done," said Kate in a low voice.
"But what was the use?" asked Nancy Ellen. "Adam had been managing the administrator business for Mother and paying her taxes with his, of course when she made a deed to you, and had it recorded, they told him. All of us knew it for two years before she went after you. And the new furniture was bought with your money, so it's yours; what was there to have a meeting about?"
"Mother didn't understand that you children knew," said Kate.
"Sometimes I thought there were a lot of things Mother didn't understand," said Nancy Ellen, "and sometimes I thought she understood so much more than any of the rest of us, that all of us would have had a big surprise if we could have seen her brain."
"Yes, I believe we would," said Kate. "Do you mind telling me how the boys and girls feel about this?"
Nancy Ellen laughed shortly. "Well, the boys feel that you negotiated such a fine settlement of Father's affairs for them, that they owe this to you. The girls were pretty sore at first, and some of them are nursing their wrath yet; but there wasn't a thing on earth they could do. All of them were perfectly willing that you should have something -- after the fire -- of course, most of them thought Mother went too far."
"I think so myself," said Kate. "But she never came near me, or wrote me, or sent me even one word, until the day she came after me. I had nothing to do with it --"
"All of us know that, Kate," said Nancy Ellen. "You needn't worry. We're all used to it, and we're all at the place where we have nothing to say."
To escape grieving for her mother, Kate worked that summer as never before. Adam was growing big enough and strong enough to be a real help. He was interested in all they did, always after the reason, and trying to think of a better way. Kate secured the best agricultural paper for him and they read it nights together. They kept an account book, and set down all they spent, and balanced against it all they earned, putting the difference, which was often more than they hoped for, in the bank.
So the years ran. As the children grew older, Polly discovered that the nicest boy in school lived across the road half a mile north of them; while Adam, after a real struggle in his loyal twin soul, aided by the fact that Henry Peters usually had divided his apples with Polly before Adam reached her, discovered that Milly York, across the road, half a mile south, liked his apples best, and was as nice a girl as Polly ever dared to be. In a dazed way, Kate learned these things from their after-school and Sunday talk, saw that they nearly reached her shoulder, and realized that they were sixteen. So quickly the time goes, when people are busy, happy, and working together. At least Kate and Adam were happy, for they were always working together. By tacit agreement, they left Polly the easy housework, and went themselves to the fields to wrestle with the rugged work of a farm. They thought they were shielding Polly, teaching her a woman's real work, and being kind to her.
Polly thought they were together because they liked to be; doing the farm work because it suited them better; while she had known from babyhood that for some reason her mother did not care for her as she did for Adam. She thought at first that it was because Adam was a boy. Later, when she noticed her mother watching her every time she started to speak, and interrupting with the never- failing caution: "Now be careful! Think before you speak! Are you sure?" she wondered why this should happen to her always, to Adam never. She asked Adam about it, but Adam did not know. It never occurred to Polly to ask her mother, while Kate was so uneasy it never occurred to her that the child would notice or what she would think. The first time Polly deviated slightly from the truth, she and Kate had a very terrible time. Kate felt fully justified; the child astonished and abused.
Polly arrived at the solution of her problem slowly. As she grew older, she saw that her mother, who always was charitable to everyone else, was repelled by her grandmother, while she loved Aunt Ollie. Older still, Polly realized that she was a reproduction of her grandmother. She had only to look at her to see this; her mother did not like her grandmother, maybe Mother did not like her as well as Adam, because she resembled her grandmother. By the time she was sixteen, Polly had arrived at a solution that satisfied her as to why her mother liked Adam better, and always left her alone in the house to endless cooking, dishwashing, sweeping, dusting, washing, and ironing, while she hoed potatoes, pitched hay, or sheared sheep. Polly thought the nicer way would have been to do the housework together and then go to the fields together; but she was a good soul, so she worked alone and brooded in silence, and watched up the road for a glimpse of Henry Peters, who liked to hear her talk, and to whom it mattered not a mite that her hair was lustreless, her eyes steel coloured, and her nose like that of a woman he never had seen. In her way, Polly admired her mother, loved her, and worked until she was almost dropping for Kate's scant, infrequent words of praise.
So Polly had to be content in the kitchen. One day, having finished her work two hours before dinnertime, she sauntered to the front gate. How strange that Henry Peters should be at the end of the field joining their land. When he waved, she waved back. When he climbed the fence she opened the gate. They met halfway, under the bloomful shade of a red haw. Henry wondered who two men he had seen leaving the Holt gate were, and what they wanted, but he was too polite to ask. He merely hoped they did not annoy her. Oh, no, they were only some men to see Mother about some business, but it was most kind of him to let her know he was looking out for her. She got so lonely; Mother never would let her go to the field with her. Of course not! The field was no place for such a pretty girl; there was enough work in the house for her. His sister should not work in the field, if he had a sister, and Polly should not work there, if she belonged to him; No-sir-ee! Polly looked at Henry with shining, young girl eyes, and when he said she was pretty, her blue-gray eyes softened, her cheeks pinked up, the sun put light in her hair nature had failed to, and lo and behold, the marvel was wrought -- plain little Polly became a thing of beauty. She knew it instantly, because she saw herself in Henry Peters' eyes. And Henry was so amazed when this wonderful transformation took place in little Polly, right there under the red haw tree, that his own eyes grew big and tender, his cheeks flooded with red blood, his heart shook him, and he drew to full height, and became possessed of an overwhelming desire to dance before Polly, and sing to her. He grew so splendid, Polly caught her breath, and then she smiled on him a very wondering smile, over the great discovery; and Henry grew so bewildered he forgot either to dance or sing as a preliminary. He merely, just merely, reached out and gathered Polly in his arms, and held her against him, and stared down at her wonderful beauty opening right out under his eyes.
"Little Beautiful!" said Henry Peters in a hushed, choking voice, "Little Beautiful!"
Polly looked up at him. She was every bit as beautiful as he thought her, while he was so beautiful to Polly that she gasped for breath. How did he happen to look as he did, right under the red haw, in broad daylight? He had been hers, of course, ever since, shy and fearful, she had first entered Bates Corners school, and found courage in his broad, encouraging smile. Now she smiled on him, the smile of possession that was in her heart. Henry instantly knew she always had belonged to him, so he grasped her closer, and bent his head.
When Henry went back to the plow, and Polly ran down the road, with the joy of the world surging in her heart and brain, she knew that she was going to have to account to her tired, busy mother for being half an hour late with dinner; and he knew he was going to have to explain to an equally tired father why he was four furrows short of where he should be.
He came to book first, and told the truth. He had seen some men go to the Holts'. Polly was his little chum; and she was always alone all summer, so he just walked that way to be sure she was safe. His father looked at him quizzically.
"So that's the way the wind blows!" he said. "Well, I don't know where you could find a nicer little girl or a better worker. I'd always hoped you'd take to Milly York; but Polly is better; she can work three of Milly down. Awful plain, though!"
This sacrilege came while Henry's lips were tingling with their first kiss, and his heart was drunken with the red wine of innocent young love.
"Why, Dad, you're crazy!" he cried. "There isn't another girl in the whole world as pretty and sweet as Polly. Milly York? She can't hold a candle to Polly! Besides, she's been Adam's as long as Polly has been mine!"
"God bless my soul!" cried Mr. Peters. "How these youngsters to run away with us. And are you the most beautiful young man at Bates Corners, Henry?"
"I'm beautiful enough that Polly will put her arms around my neck and kiss me, anyway," blurted Henry. "So you and Ma can get ready for a wedding as soon as Polly says the word. I'm ready, right now."
"So am I," said Mr. Peters, "and from the way Ma complains about the work I and you boys make her, I don't think she will object to a little help. Polly is a good, steady worker."
Polly ran, but she simply could not light the fire, set the table, and get things cooked on time, while everything she touched seemed to spill or slip. She could not think what, or how, to do the usual for the very good reason that Henry Peters was a Prince, and a Knight, and a Lover, and a Sweetheart, and her Man; she had just agreed to all this with her soul, less than an hour ago under the red haw. No wonder she was late, no wonder she spilled and smeared; and red of face she blundered and bungled, for the first time in her life. Then in came Kate. She must lose no time, the corn must be finished before it rained. She must hurry -- for the first time dinner was late, while Polly was messing like a perfect little fool.
Kate stepped in and began to right things with practised hand. Disaster came when she saw Polly, at the well, take an instant from bringing in the water, to wave in the direction of the Peters farm. As she entered the door, Kate swept her with a glance.
"Have to upset the bowl, as usual?" she said, scathingly. "Just as I think you're going to make something of yourself, and be of some use, you begin mooning in the direction of that big, gangling Hank Peters. Don't you ever let me see you do it again. You are too young to start that kind of foolishness. I bet a cow he was hanging around here, and made you late with dinner."
"He was not! He didn't either!" cried Polly, then stopped in dismay, her cheeks burning. She gulped and went on bravely: "That is, he wasn't here, and he didn't make me late, any more than I kept him from his work. He always watches when there are tramps and peddlers on the road, because he knows I'm alone. I knew he would be watching two men who stopped to see you, so I just went as far as the haw tree to tell him I was all right, and we got to talking --"
If only Kate had been looking at Polly then! But she was putting the apple butter and cream on the table. As she did so, she thought possibly it was a good idea to have Henry Peters seeing that tramps did not frighten Polly, so she missed dawn on the face of her child, and instead of what might have been, she said: "Well, I must say that is neighbourly of him; but don't you dare let him get any foolish notions in his head. I think Aunt Nancy Ellen will let you stay at her house after this, and go to the Hartley High School in winter, so you can come out of that much better prepared to teach than I ever was. I had a surprise planned for you to-night, but now I don't know whether you deserve it or not. I'll have to think."
Kate did not think at all. After the manner of parents, she said that, but her head was full of something she thought vastly more important just then; of course Polly should have her share in it. Left alone to wash the dishes and cook supper while her mother went to town, it was Polly, who did the thinking. She thought entirely too much, thought bitterly, thought disappointedly, and finally thought resentfully, and then alas, Polly thought deceitfully. Her mother had said: "Never let me see you." Very well, she would be extremely careful that she was not seen; but before she slept she rather thought she would find a way to let Henry know how she was being abused, and about that plan to send her away all the long winter to school. She rather thought Henry would have something to say about how his "Little Beautiful" was being treated. Here Polly looked long and searchingly in the mirror to see if by any chance Henry was mistaken, and she discovered he was. She stared in amazement at the pink-cheeked, shining eyed girl she saw mirrored. She pulled her hair looser around the temples, and drew her lips over her teeth. Surely Henry was mistaken. "Little Beautiful" was too moderate. She would see that he said "perfectly lovely," the next time, and he did.