XXIII. Kate's Heavenly Time
 

One evening Kate and Polly went to the front porch to rest until bedtime and found a shining big new trunk sitting there, with Kate's initials on the end, her name on the check tag, and a key in the lock. They unbuckled the straps, turned the key, and lifted the lid. That trunk contained underclothing, hose, shoes, two hats, a travelling dress with half a dozen extra waists, and an afternoon and an evening dress, all selected with especial reference to Kate's colouring, and made one size larger than Nancy Ellen wore, which fitted Kate perfectly. There were gloves, a parasol, and a note which read:

DEAR KATE: Here are some clothes. I am going to go North a week after harvest. You can be spared then as well as not. Come on! Let's run away and have one good time all by ourselves. It is my treat from start to finish. The children can manage the farm perfectly well. Any one of her cousins will stay with Polly, if she will be lonely. Cut loose and come on, Kate. I am going. Of course Robert couldn't be pried away from his precious patients; we will have to go alone; but we do not care. We like it. Shall we start about the tenth, on the night train, which will be cooler? NANCY ELLEN.

"We shall!" said Kate emphatically, when she finished the note. "I haven't cut loose and had a good time since I was married; not for eighteen years. If the children are not big enough to take care of themselves, they never will be. I can go as well as not."

She handed the note to Polly, while she shook out dresses and gloated over the contents of the trunk.

"Of course you shall go!" shouted Polly as she finished the note, but even as she said it she glanced obliquely up the road and waved a hand behind her mother's back.

"Sure you shall go!" cried Adam, when he finished the note, and sat beside the trunk seeing all the pretty things over again. "You just bet you shall go. Polly and I can keep house, fine! We don't need any cousins hanging around. I'll help Polly with her work, and then we'll lock the house and she can come out with me. Sure you go! We'll do all right." Then he glanced obliquely down the road, where a slim little figure in white moved under the cherry trees of the York front yard, aimlessly knocking croquet balls here and there.

It was two weeks until time to go, but Kate began taking care of herself at once, solely because she did not want Nancy Ellen to be ashamed of her. She rolled her sleeves down to meet her gloves and used a sunbonnet instead of a sunshade. She washed and brushed her hair with care she had not used in years. By the time the tenth of July came, she was in very presentable condition, while the contents of the trunk did the remainder. As she was getting ready to go, she said to Polly: "Now do your best while I'm away, and I am sure I can arrange with Nancy Ellen about school this winter. When I get back, the very first thing I shall do will be to go to Hartley and buy some stuff to begin on your clothes. You shall have as nice dresses as the other girls, too. Nancy Ellen will know exactly what to get you."

But she never caught a glimpse of Polly's flushed, dissatisfied face or the tightening of her lips that would have suggested to her, had she seen them, that Miss Polly felt perfectly capable of selecting the clothing she was to wear herself. Adam took his mother's trunk to the station in the afternoon. In the evening she held Polly on her knee, while they drove to Dr. Gray's. Kate thought the children would want to wait and see them take the train, but Adam said that would make them very late getting home, they had better leave that to Uncle Robert and go back soon; so very soon they were duly kissed and unduly cautioned; then started back down a side street that would not even take them through the heart of the town. Kate looked after them approvingly: "Pretty good youngsters," she said. "I told them to go and get some ice cream; but you see they are saving the money and heading straight home." She turned to Robert. "Can anything happen to them?" she asked, in evident anxiety.

"Rest in peace, Kate," laughed the doctor. "You surely know that those youngsters are going to be eighteen in a few weeks. You've reared them carefully. Nothing can, or will, happen to them, that would not happen right under your nose if you were at home. They will go from now on according to their inclinations."

Kate looked at him sharply: "What do you mean by that?" she demanded.

He laughed: "Nothing serious," he said. "Polly is half Bates, so she will marry in a year or two, while Adam is all Bates, so he will remain steady as the Rock of Ages, and strictly on the job. Go have your good time, and if I possibly can, I'll come after you."

"You'll do nothing of the kind," said Nancy Ellen, with finality. "You wouldn't leave your patients, and you couldn't leave dear Mrs. Southey."

"If you feel that way about it, why do you leave me?" he asked.

"To show the little fool I'm not afraid of her, for one thing," said Nancy Ellen with her head high. She was very beautiful in her smart travelling dress, while her eyes flashed as she spoke. The doctor looked at her approvingly.

"Good!" he cried. "I like a plucky woman! Go to have a good time, Nancy Ellen; but don't go for that. I do wish you would believe that there isn't a thing the matter with the little woman, she's -- "

"I can go even farther than that," said Nancy Ellen, dryly. "I know 'there isn't a thing the matter with the little woman,' except that she wants you to look as if you were running after her. I'd be safe in wagering a thousand dollars that when she hears I'm gone, she will send for you before to-morrow evening."

"You may also wager this," he said. "If she does, I shall be very sorry, but I'm on my way to the country on an emergency call. Nancy Ellen, I wish you wouldn't!"

"Wouldn't go North, or wouldn't see what every other living soul in Hartley sees?" she asked curtly. Then she stepped inside to put on her hat and gloves.

Kate looked at the doctor in dismay. "Oh, Robert!" she said.

"I give you my word of honour, Kate," he said. "If Nancy Ellen only would be reasonable, the woman would see shortly that my wife is all the world to me. I never have been, and never shall be, untrue to her. Does that satisfy you?"

"Of course," said Kate. "I'll do all in my power to talk Nancy Ellen out of that, on this trip. Oh, if she only had children to occupy her time!"

"That's the whole trouble in a nutshell," said the doctor; "but you know there isn't a scarcity of children in the world. Never a day passes but I see half a dozen who need me, sorely. But with Nancy Ellen, no child will do unless she mothers it, and unfortunately, none comes to her."

"Too bad!" said Kate. "I'm so sorry!"

"Cheer her up, if you can," said the doctor.

An hour later they were speeding north, Nancy Ellen moody and distraught, Kate as frankly delighted as any child. The spring work was over; the crops were fine; Adam would surely have the premium wheat to take to the County Fair in September; he would work unceasingly for his chance with corn; he and Polly would be all right; she could see Polly waiting in the stable yard while Adam unharnessed and turned out the horse.

Kate kept watching Nancy Ellen's discontented face. At last she said: "Cheer up, child! There isn't a word of truth in it!"

"I know it," said Nancy Ellen.

"Then why take the way of all the world to start, and keep people talking?" asked Kate.

"I'm not doing a thing on earth but attending strictly to my own business," said Nancy Ellen.

"That's exactly the trouble," said Kate. "You're not. You let the little heifer have things all her own way. If it were my man, and I loved him as you do Robert Gray, you can stake your life I should be doing something, several things, in fact."

"This is interesting," said Nancy Ellen. "For example --?"

Kate had not given such a matter a thought. She looked from the window a minute, her lips firmly compressed. Then she spoke slowly: "Well, for one thing, I should become that woman's bosom companion. About seven times a week I should uncover her most aggravating weakness all unintentionally before the man in the case, at the same time keeping myself, strictly myself. I should keep steadily on doing and being what he first fell in love with. Lastly, since eighteen years have brought you no fulfillment of the desire of your heart, I should give it up, and content myself and delight him by taking into my heart and home a couple of the most attractive tiny babies I could find. Two are scarcely more trouble than one; you can have all the help you will accept; the children would never know the difference, if you took them as babies, and soon you wouldn't either; while Robert would be delighted. If I were you, I'd give myself something to work for besides myself, and I'd give him so much to think about at home, that charming young grass widows could go to grass!"

"I believe you would," said Nancy Ellen, wonderingly. "I believe you would!"

"You're might right, I would," said Kate. "If I were married to a man like Robert Gray, I'd fight tooth and nail before I'd let him fall below his high ideals. It's as much your job to keep him up, as it is his to keep himself. If God didn't make him a father, I would, and I'd keep him busy on the job, if I had to adopt sixteen."

Nancy Ellen laughed, as they went to their berths. The next morning they awakened in cool Michigan country and went speeding north among evergreen forests and clear lakes mirroring the pointed forest tops and blue sky, past slashing, splashing streams, in which they could almost see the speckled trout darting over the beds of white sand. By late afternoon they had reached their destination and were in their rooms, bathed, dressed, and ready for the dinner hour. In the evening they went walking, coming back to the hotel tired and happy. After several days they began talking to people and making friends, going out in fishing and boating parties in the morning, driving or boating in the afternoon, and attending concerts or dances at night. Kate did not dance, but she loved to see Nancy Ellen when she had a sufficiently tall, graceful partner; while, as she watched the young people and thought how innocent and happy they seemed, she asked her sister if they could not possibly arrange for Adam and Polly to go to Hartley a night or two a week that winter, and join the dancing class. Nancy Ellen was frankly delighted, so Kate cautiously skirted the school question in such a manner that she soon had Nancy Ellen asking if it could not be arranged. When that was decided, Nancy Ellen went to dance, while Kate stood on the veranda watching her. The lights from the window fell strongly on Kate. She was wearing her evening dress of smoky gray, soft fabric, over shining silk, with knots of dull blue velvet and gold lace here and there. She had dressed her hair carefully; she appeared what she was, a splendid specimen of healthy, vigorous, clean womanhood.

"Pardon me, Mrs. Holt," said a voice at her elbow, "but there's only one head in this world like yours, so this, of course, must be you."

Kate's heart leaped and stood still. She turned slowly, then held out her hand, smiling at John Jardine, but saying not a word. He took her hand, and as he gripped it tightly he studied her frankly.

"Thank God for this!" he said, fervently. "For years I've dreamed of you and hungered for the sight of your face; but you cut me off squarely, so I dared not intrude on you -- only the Lord knows how delighted I am to see you here, looking like this."

Kate smiled again.

"Come away," he begged. "Come out of this. Come walk a little way with me, and tell me who you are, and how you are, and all the things I think of every day of my life, and now I must know. It's brigandage! Come, or I shall carry you!"

"Pooh! You couldn't!" laughed Kate. "Of course I'll come! And I don't own a secret. Ask anything you want to know. How good it is to see you! Your mother --?"

"At rest, years ago," he said. "She never forgave me for what I did, in the way I did it. She said it would bring disaster, and she was right. I thought it was not fair and honest not to let you know the worst. I thought I was too old, and too busy, and too flourishing, to repair neglected years at that date, but believe me, Kate, you waked me up. Try the hardest one you know, and if I can't spell it, I'll pay a thousand to your pet charity."

Kate laughed spontaneously. "Are you in earnest?" she asked.

"I am incomprehensibly, immeasurably in earnest," he said, guiding her down a narrow path to a shrub-enclosed, railed-in platform, built on the steep side of a high hill, where they faced the moon- whitened waves, rolling softly in a dancing procession across the face of the great inland sea. Here he found a seat.

"I've nothing to tell," he said. "I lost Mother, so I went on without her. I learned to spell, and a great many other things, and I'm still making money. I never forget you for a day; I never have loved and never shall love any other woman. That's all about me, in a nutshell; now go on and tell me a volume, tell me all night, about you. Heavens, woman, I wish you could see yourself, in that dress with the moon on your hair. Kate, you are the superbest thing! I always shall be mad about you. Oh, if only you could have had a little patience with me. I thought I couldn't learn, but of course I could. But, proceed! I mustn't let myself go."

Kate leaned back and looked a long time at the shining white waves and the deep blue sky, then she turned to John Jardine, and began to talk. She told him simply a few of the most presentable details of her life: how she had lost her money, then had been given her mother's farm, about the children, and how she now lived. He listened with deep interest, often interrupting to ask a question, and when she ceased talking he said half under his breath: "And you're now free! Oh, the wonder of it! You're now, free!"

Kate had that night to think about the remainder of her life. She always sincerely hoped that the moonlight did not bewitch her into leading the man beside her into saying things he seemed to take delight in saying.

She had no idea what time it was; in fact, she did not care even what Nancy Ellen thought or whether she would worry. The night was wonderful; John Jardine had now made a man of himself worthy of all consideration; being made love to by him was enchanting. She had been occupied with the stern business of daily bread for so long that to be again clothed as other women and frankly adored by such a man as John Jardine was soul satisfying. What did she care who worried or what time it was?

"But I'm keeping you here until you will be wet with these mists," John Jardine cried at last. "Forgive me, Kate, I never did have any sense where you were concerned! I'll take you back now, but you must promise me to meet me here in the morning, say at ten o'clock. I'll take you back now, if you'll agree to that."

"There's no reason why I shouldn't," said Kate.

"And you're free, free!" he repeated.

The veranda, halls, and ballroom were deserted when they returned to the hotel. As Kate entered her room, Nancy Ellen sat up in bed and stared at her sleepily, but she was laughing in high good humour. She drew her watch from under her pillow and looked at it.

"Goodness gracious, Miss!" she cried. "Do you know it's almost three o'clock?"

"I don't care in the least," said Kate, "if it's four or five. I've had a perfectly heavenly time. Don't talk to me. I'll put out the light and be quiet as soon as I get my dress off. I think likely I've ruined it."

"What's the difference?" demanded Nancy Ellen, largely. "You can ruin half a dozen a day now, if you want to."

"What do you mean?" asked Kate.

"'Mean?'" laughed Nancy Ellen. "I mean that I saw John Jardine or his ghost come up to you on the veranda, looking as if he'd eat you alive, and carry you away about nine o'clock, and you've been gone six hours and come back having had a 'perfectly heavenly time.' What should I mean! Go up head, Kate! You have earned your right to a good time. It isn't everybody who gets a second chance in this world. Tell me one thing, and I'll go to sleep in peace and leave you to moon the remainder of the night, if you like. Did he say he still loved you?"

"Still and yet," laughed Kate. "As I remember, his exact words were that he 'never had loved and never would love any other woman.' Now are you satisfied?"

Nancy Ellen sprang from the bed and ran to Kate, gathering her in her strong arms. She hugged and kissed her ecstatically. "Good! Good! Oh, you darling!" she cried. "There'll be nothing in the world you can't have! I just know he had gone on making money; he was crazy about you. Oh, Kate, this is too good! How did I ever think of coming here, and why didn't I think of it seven years ago? Kate, you must promise me you'll marry him, before I let you go."

"I'll promise to think about it," said Kate, trying to free herself, for despite the circumstances and the hour, her mind flew back to a thousand times when only one kind word from Nancy Ellen would have saved her endless pain. It was endless, for it was burning in her heart that instant. At the prospect of wealth, position, and power, Nancy Ellen could smother her with caresses; but poverty, pain, and disgrace she had endured alone.

"I shan't let you go till you promise," threatened Nancy Ellen. "When are you to see him again?"

"Ten, this morning," said Kate. "You better let me get to bed, or I'll look a sight."

"Then promise," said Nancy Ellen.

Kate laid firm hands on the encircling arms. "Now, look here," she said, shortly, "it's about time to stop this nonsense. There's nothing I can promise you. I must have time to think. I've got not only myself, but the children to think for. And I've only got till ten o'clock, so I better get at it."

Kate's tone made Nancy Ellen step back.

"Kate, you haven't still got that letter in your mind, have you?" she demanded.

"No!" laughed Kate, "I haven't! He offered me a thousand dollars if I could pronounce him a word he couldn't spell; and it's perfectly evident he's studied until he is exactly like anybody else. No, it's not that!"

"Then what is it? Simpleton, there was nothing else!" cried Nancy Ellen.

"Not so much at that time; but this is nearly twenty years later, and I have the fate of my children in my hands. I wish you'd go to bed and let me think!" said Kate.

"Yes, and the longer you think the crazier you will act," cried Nancy Ellen. "I know you! You better promise me now, and stick to it."

For answer Kate turned off the light; but she did not go to bed. She sat beside the window and she was still sitting there when dawn crept across the lake and began to lighten the room. Then she stretched herself beside Nancy Ellen, who roused and looked at her.

"You just coming to bed?" she cried in wonder.

"At least you can't complain that I didn't think," said Kate, but Nancy Ellen found no comfort in what she said, or the way she said it. In fact, she arose when Kate did, feeling distinctly sulky. As they returned to their room from breakfast, Kate laid out her hat and gloves and began to get ready to keep her appointment. Nancy Ellen could endure the suspense no longer.

"Kate," she said in her gentlest tones, "if you have no mercy on yourself, have some on your children. You've no right, positively no right, to take such a chance away from them."

"Chance for what?" asked Kate tersely.

"Education, travel, leisure, every opportunity in the world," enumerated Nancy Ellen.

Kate was handling her gloves, her forehead wrinkled, her eyes narrowed in concentration.

"That is one side of it," she said. "The other is that neither my children nor I have in our blood, breeding, or mental cosmos, the background that it takes to make one happy with money in unlimited quantities. So far as I'm concerned personally, I'm happier this minute as I am, than John Jardine's money ever could make me. I had a fierce struggle with that question long ago; since I have had nearly eight years of life I love, that is good for my soul, the struggle to leave it would be greater now. Polly would be happier and get more from life as the wife of big gangling Henry Peters, than she would as a millionaire's daughter. She'd be very suitable in a farmhouse parlour; she'd be a ridiculous little figure at a ball. As for Adam, he'd turn this down quick and hard."

"Just you try him!" cried Nancy Ellen.

"For one thing, he won't be here at ten o'clock," said Kate, "and for another, since it involves my becoming the wife of John Jardine, it isn't for Adam to decide. This decision is strictly my own. I merely mention the children, because if I married him, it would have an inevitable influence on their lives, an influence that I don't in the least covet either for them or for myself. Nancy Ellen, can't you remotely conceive of such a thing as one human being in the world who is satisfied that he has his share, and who believes to the depths of his soul that no man should be allowed to amass, and to use for his personal indulgence, the amount of money that John Jardine does?"

"Yes, I can," cried Nancy Ellen, "when I see you, and the way you act! You have chance after chance, but you seem to think that life requires of you a steady job of holding your nose to the grindstone. It was rather stubby to begin with, go on and grind it clear off your face, if you like."

"All right," said Kate. "Then I'll tell you definitely that I have no particular desire to marry anybody; I like my life immensely as I'm living it. I'm free, independent, and my children are in the element to which they were born, and where they can live naturally, and spend their lives helping in the great work of feeding, clothing, and housing their fellow men. I've no desire to leave my job or take them from theirs, to start a lazy, shiftless life of self-indulgence. I don't meddle much with the Bible, but I have a profound belief in it, and a large respect for it, as the greatest book in the world, and it says: 'By the sweat of his brow shall man earn his bread,' or words to that effect. I was born a sweater, I shall just go on sweating until I die; I refuse to begin perspiring at my time of life."

"You big fool!" cried Nancy Ellen.

"Look out! You're 'in danger of Hell fire,' when you call me that!" warned Kate.

"Fire away!" cried Nancy Ellen, with tears in her eyes and voice. "When I think what you've gone through -- "

Kate stared at her fixedly. "What do you know about what I've gone though?" she demanded in a cold, even voice. "Personally, I think you're not qualified to mention that subject; you better let it rest. Whatever it has been, it's been of such a nature that I have come out of it knowing when I have my share and when I'm well off, for me. If John Jardine wants to marry me, and will sell all he has, and come and work on the farm with me, I'll consider marrying him. To leave my life and what I love to go to Chicago with him, I do not feel called on, or inclined to do. No, I'll not marry him, and in about fifteen minutes I'll tell him so."

"And go on making a mess of your life such as you did for years," said Nancy Ellen, drying her red eyes.

"At least it was my life," said Kate. "I didn't mess things for any one else."

"Except your children," said Nancy Ellen.

"As you will," said Kate, rising. "I'll not marry John Jardine; and the sooner I tell him so and get it over, the better. Good- bye. I'll be back in half an hour."

Kate walked slowly to the observation platform, where she had been the previous evening with John Jardine; and leaning on the railing, she stood looking out over the water, and down the steep declivity, thinking how best she could word what she had to say. She was so absorbed she did not hear steps behind her or turn until a sharp voice said: "You needn't wait any longer. He's not coming!"

Kate turned and glanced at the speaker, and then around to make sure she was the person being addressed. She could see no one else. The woman was small, light haired, her face enamelled, dressed beyond all reason, and in a manner wholly out of place for morning at a summer resort in Michigan.

"If you are speaking to me, will you kindly tell me to whom you refer, and give me the message you bring?" said Kate.

"I refer to Mr. John Jardine, Mrs. Holt," said the little woman and then Kate saw that she was shaking, and gripping her hands for self-control.

"Very well," said Kate. "It will save me an unpleasant task if he doesn't come. Thank you," and she turned back to the water.

"You certainly didn't find anything unpleasant about being with him half last night," said the little woman.

Kate turned again, and looked narrowly at the speaker. Then she laughed heartily. "Well done, Jennie!" she cried. "Why, you are such a fashionable lady, such a Dolly Varden, I never saw who you were. How do you do? Won't you sit down and have a chat? It's just dawning on me that very possibly, from your dress and manner, I should have called you Mrs. Jardine."

"Didn't he tell you?" cried Jennie.

"He did not," said Kate. "Your name was not mentioned. He said no word about being married."

"We have been married since a few weeks after Mrs. Jardine died. I taught him the things you turned him down for not knowing; I have studied him, and waited on him, and borne his children, and this is my reward. What are you going to do?"

"Go back to the hotel, when I finish with this view," said Kate. "I find it almost as attractive by day as it was by night."

"Brazen!" cried Mrs. Jardine.

"Choose your words carefully," said Kate. "I was her first; since you have delivered your message, suppose you go and leave me to my view."

"Not till I get ready," said Mrs. Jardine. "Perhaps it will help you to know that I was not twenty feet from you at any time last night; and that I stood where I could have touched you, while my husband made love to you for hours."

"So?" said Kate. "I'm not at all surprised. That's exactly what I should have expected of you. But doesn't it clarify the situation any, at least for me, when I tell you that Mr. Jardine gave me no faintest hint that he was married? If you heard all we said, you surely remember that you were not mentioned?"

Mrs. Jardine sat down suddenly and gripped her little hands. Kate studied her intently. She wondered what she would look like when her hair was being washed; at this thought she smiled broadly. That made the other woman frantic.

"You can well laugh at me," she said. "I made the banner fool of the ages of myself when I schemed to marry him. I knew he loved you. He told me so. He told me, just as he told you last night, that he never had loved any other woman and he never would. I thought he didn't know himself as I knew him. He was so grand to his mother, I thought if I taught him, and helped him back to self-respect, and gave him children, he must, and would love me. Well, I was mistaken. He does not, and never will. Every day he thinks of you; not a night but he speaks your name. He thinks all things can be done with money -- "

"So do you, Jennie," interrupted Kate. "Well, I'll show you that this can't!"

"Didn't you hear him exulting because you are now free?" cried Jennie. "He thinks he will give me a home, the children, a big income; then secure his freedom and marry you."

"Oh, don't talk such rot!" cried Kate. "John Jardine thinks no such thing. He wouldn't insult me by thinking I thought such a thing. That thought belongs where it sprang from, right in your little cramped, blonde brain, Jennie."

"You wouldn't? Are you sure you wouldn't?" cried Jennie, leaning forward with hands clutched closely.

"I should say not!" said Kate. "The last thing on earth I want is some other woman's husband. Now look here, Jennie, I'll tell you the plain truth. I thought last night that John Jardine was as free as I was; or I shouldn't have been here with him. I thought he was asking me again to marry him, and I was not asleep last night, thinking it over. I came here to tell him that I would not. Does that satisfy you?"

"Satisfy?" cried Jennie. "I hope no other woman lives in the kind of Hell I do."

"It's always the way," said Kate, "when people will insist on getting out of their class. You would have gotten ten times more from life as the wife of a village merchant, or a farmer, than you have as the wife of a rich man. Since you're married to him, and there are children, there's nothing for you to do but finish your job as best you can. Rest your head easy about me. I wouldn't touch John Jardine married to you; I wouldn't touch him with a ten-foot pole, divorced from you. Get that clear in your head, and do please go!"

Kate turned again to the water, but when she was sure Jennie was far away she sat down suddenly and asked of the lake: "Well, wouldn't that freeze you?"