XXIV. Polly Tries Her Wings
 

Finally Kate wandered back to the hotel and went to their room to learn if Nancy Ellen was there. She was and seemed very much perturbed. The first thing she did was to hand Kate a big white envelope, which she opened and found to be a few lines from John Jardine, explaining that he had been unexpectedly called away on some very important business. He reiterated his delight in having seen her, and hoped for the same pleasure at no very distant date. Kate read it and tossed it on the dresser. As she did so, she saw a telegram, lying opened among Nancy Ellen's toilet articles, and thought with pleasure that Robert was coming. She glanced at her sister for confirmation, and saw that she was staring from the window as if she were in doubt about something. Kate thought probably she was still upset about John Jardine, and that might as well be gotten over, so she said: "That note was not delivered promptly. It is from John Jardine. I should have had it before I left. He was called away on important business and wrote to let me know he would not be able to keep his appointment; but without his knowledge, he had a representative on the spot."

Nancy Ellen seemed interested so Kate proceeded: "You couldn't guess in a thousand years. I'll have to tell you spang! It was his wife."

"His wife!" cried Nancy Ellen. "But you said -- "

"So I did," said Kate. "And so he did. Since the wife loomed on the horizon, I remembered that he said no word to me of marriage; he merely said he always had loved me and always would -- "

"Merely?" scoffed Nancy Ellen. "Merely!"

"Just 'merely,'" said Kate. "He didn't lay a finger on me; he didn't ask me to marry him; he just merely met me after a long separation, and told me that he still loved me."

"The brute!" said Nancy Ellen. "He should be killed."

"I can't see it," said Kate. "He did nothing ungentlemanly. If we jumped to wrong conclusions that was not his fault. I doubt if he remembered or thought at all of his marriage. It wouldn't be much to forget. I am fresh from an interview with his wife. She's an old acquaintance of mine. I once secured her for his mother's maid. You've heard me speak of her."

"Impossible! John Jardine would not do that!" cried Nancy Ellen.

"There's a family to prove it," said Kate. "Jennie admits that she studied him, taught him, made herself indispensable to him, and a few weeks after his mother's passing, married him, after he had told her he did not love her and never could. I feel sorry for him."

"Sure! Poor defrauded creature!" said Nancy Ellen. "What about her?"

"Nothing, so far as I can see," said Kate. "By her own account she was responsible. She should have kept in her own class."

"All right. That settles Jennie!" said Nancy Ellen. "I saw you notice the telegram from Robert -- now go on and settle me!"

"Is he coming?" asked Kate.

"No, he's not coming," said Nancy Ellen.

"Has he eloped with the widder?" asked Kate flippantly.

"He merely telegraphs that he thinks it would be wise for us to come home on the first train," said Nancy Ellen. "For all I can make of that, the elopement might quite as well be in your family as mine."

Kate held out her hand, Nancy Ellen laid the message in it. Kate studied it carefully; then she raised steady eyes to her sister's face.

"Do you know what I should do about this?" she asked.

"Catch the first train, of course," she said.

"Far be it from me," said Kate. "I should at once telegraph him that his message was not clear, to kindly particularize. We've only got settled. We're having a fine time; especially right now. Why should we pack up and go home? I can't think of any possibility that could arise that would make it necessary for him to send for us. Can you?"

"I can think of two things," said Nancy Ellen. "I can think of a very pretty, confiding, little cat of a woman, who is desperately infatuated with my husband; and I can think of two children fathered by George Holt, who might possibly, just possibly, have enough of his blood in their veins to be like him, given opportunity. Alone for a week, there is barely a faint possibility that you might be needed. Alone for the same week, there is the faintest possibility that Robert is in a situation where I could help him."

Kate drew a deep breath.

"Isn't life the most amusing thing?" she asked. "I had almost forgotten my wings. I guess we'd better take them, and fly straight home."

She arose and called the office to learn about trains, and then began packing her trunk. As she folded her dresses and stuffed them in rather carelessly she said: "I don't know why I got it into my head that I could go away and have a few days of a good time without something happening at home."

"But you are not sure anything has happened at home. This call may be for me," said Nancy Ellen.

"It may, but this is July," said Kate. "I've been thinking hard and fast. It's probable I can put my finger on the spot."

Nancy Ellen paused and standing erect she looked questioningly at Kate.

"The weak link in my chain at the present minute is Polly," said Kate. "I didn't pay much attention at the time, because there wasn't enough of it really to attract attention; but since I think, I can recall signs of growing discontent in Polly, lately. She fussed about the work, and resented being left in the house while I went to the fields, and she had begun looking up the road to Peters' so much that her head was slightly turned toward the north most of the time. With me away -- "

"What do you think?" demanded Nancy Ellen.

"Think very likely she has decided that she'll sacrifice her chance for more schooling and to teach, for the sake of marrying a big, green country boy named Hank Peters," said Kate.

"Thereby keeping in her own class," suggested Nancy Ellen.

Kate laughed shortly. "Exactly!" she said. "I didn't aspire to anything different for her from what she has had; but I wanted her to have more education, and wait until she was older. Marriage is too hard work for a girl to begin at less than eighteen. If it is Polly, and she has gone away with Hank Peters, they've no place to go but his home; and if ever she thought I worked her too hard, she'll find out she has played most of her life, when she begins taking orders from Mrs. Amanda Peters. You know her! She never can keep a girl more than a week, and she's always wanting one. If Polly has tackled that job, God help her."

"Cheer up! We're in that delightful state of uncertainty where Polly may be blacking the cook stove, like a dutiful daughter; while Robert has decided that he'd like a divorce," said Nancy Ellen.

"Nancy Ellen, there's nothing in that, so far as Robert is concerned. He told me so the evening we came away," said Kate.

Nancy Ellen banged down a trunk lid and said: "Well, I am getting to the place where I don't much care whether there is or there is not."

"What a whopper!" laughed Kate. "But cheer up. This is my trouble. I feel it in my bones. Wish I knew for sure. If she's eloped, and it's all over with, we might as well stay and finish our visit. If she's married, I can't unmarry her, and I wouldn't if I could."

"How are you going to apply your philosophy to yourself?" asked Nancy Ellen.

"By letting time and Polly take their course," said Kate. "This is a place where parents are of no account whatever. They stand back until it's time to clean up the wreck, and then they get theirs -- usually theirs, and several of someone's else, in the bargain."

As the train stopped at Hartley, Kate sat where she could see Robert on the platform. It was only a fleeting glance, but she thought she had never seen him look so wholesome, so vital, so much a man to be desired.

"No wonder a woman lacking in fine scruples would covet him," thought Kate. To Nancy Ellen she said hastily: "The trouble's mine. Robert's on the platform."

"Where?" demanded Nancy Ellen, peering from the window.

Kate smiled as she walked from the car and confronted Robert.

"Get it over quickly," she said. "It's Polly?"

He nodded.

"Did she remember to call on the Squire?" she asked.

"Oh, yes," said Robert. "It was at Peters', and they had the whole neighbourhood in."

Kate swayed slightly, then lifted her head, her eyes blazing. She had come, feeling not altogether guiltless, and quite prepared to overlook a youthful elopement. The insult of having her only daughter given a wedding at the home of the groom, about which the whole neighbourhood would be laughing at her, was a different matter. Slowly the high colour faded from Kate's face, as she stepped back. "Excuse me, Nancy Ellen," she said. "I didn't mean to deprive you of the chance of even speaking to Robert. I knew this was for me; I was over-anxious to learn what choice morsel life had in store for me now. It's one that will be bitter on my tongue to the day of my death."

"Oh, Kate, I as so sorry that if this had to happen, it happened in just that way," said Nancy Ellen, "but don't mind. They're only foolish kids!"

"Who? Mr. and Mrs. Peters, and the neighbours, who attended the wedding! Foolish kids? Oh, no!" said Kate. "Where's Adam?"

"I told him I'd bring you out," said Robert.

"Why didn't he send for you, or do something?" demanded Kate.

"I'm afraid the facts are that Polly lied to him," said Robert. "She told him that Peters were having a party, and Mrs. Peters wanted her to come early and help her with the supper. They had the Magistrate out from town and had the ceremony an hour before Adam got there. When he arrived, and found out what had happened, he told Polly and the Peters family exactly his opinion of them; and then he went home and turned on all the lights, and sat where he could be seen on the porch all evening, as a protest in evidence of his disapproval, I take it."

Slowly the colour began to creep back into Kate's face. "The good boy!" she said, in commendation.

"He called me at once, and we talked it over and I sent you the telegram; but as he said, it was done; there was no use trying to undo it. One thing will be a comfort to you. All of your family, and almost all of your friends, left as soon as Adam spoke his piece, and they found it was a wedding and not a party to which they'd been invited. It was a shabby trick of Peters."

Kate assented. "It was because I felt instinctively that Mrs. Peters had it in her to do tricks like that, that I never would have anything to do with her," said Kate, "more than to be passing civil. This is how she gets her revenge, and her hired girl, for no wages, I'll be bound! It's a shabby trick. I'm glad Adam saved me the trouble of telling her so."

Robert took Nancy Ellen home, and then drove to Bates Corners with Kate.

"In a few days now I hope we can see each other oftener," he said, on the way. "I got a car yesterday, and it doesn't seem so complicated. Any intelligent person can learn to drive in a short time. I like it so much, and I knew I'd have such constant use for it that -- now this is a secret -- I ordered another for Nancy Ellen, so she can drive about town, and run out here as she chooses. Will she be pleased?"

"She'll be overjoyed! That was dear of you, Robert. Only one thing in world would please her more," said Kate.

"What's that?" asked Robert.

Kate looked him in the eye, and smiled.

"Oh," he said. "But there is nothing in it!"

"Except talk, that worries and humiliates Nancy Ellen," said Kate.

"Kate," he said suddenly, "if you were in my shoes, what would you do?"

"The next time I got a phone call, or a note from Mrs. Southey, and she was having one of those terrible headaches, I should say: 'I'm dreadfully sorry, Mrs. Southey, but a breath of talk that might be unpleasant for you, and for my wife, has come to my ear, so I know you'll think it wiser to call Dr. Mills, who can serve you better than I. In a great rush this afternoon. Good-bye!' That is what I should do, Robert, and I should do it quickly, and emphatically. Then I should interest Nancy Ellen in her car for a time, and then I should keep my eyes open, and the first time I found in my practice a sound baby with a clean bill of health, and no encumbrances, I should have it dressed attractively, and bestow it on Nancy Ellen as casually as I did the car. And in the meantime, love her plenty, Robert. You can never know how she feels about this; and it's in no way her fault. She couldn't possibly have known; while you would have married her just the same if you had known. Isn't that so?"

"It's quite so. Kate, I think your head is level, and I'll follow your advice to the letter. Now you have 'healed my lame leg,' as the dog said in McGuffey's Third, what can I do for this poor dog?"

"Nothing," said Kate. "I've got to hold still, and take it. Life will do the doing. I don't want to croak, but remember my word, it will do plenty."

"We'll come often," he said as he turned to go back.

Kate slowly walked up the path, dreading to meet Adam. He evidently had been watching for her, for he came around the corner of the house, took her arm, and they walked up the steps and into the living room together. She looked at him; he looked at her. At last he said: "I'm afraid that a good deal of this is my fault, Mother."

"How so?" asked Kate, tersely.

"I guess I betrayed your trust in me," said Adam, heavily. "Of course I did all my work and attended to things; but in the evening after work was over, the very first evening on the way home we stopped to talk to Henry at the gate, and he got in and came on down. We could see Milly at their gate, and I wanted her, I wanted her so much, Mother; and it was going to be lonesome, so all of us went on there, and she came up here and we sat on the porch, and then I took her home and that left Henry and Polly together. The next night Henry took us to town for a treat, and we were all together, and the next night Milly asked us all there, and so it went. It was all as open and innocent as it could be; only Henry and Polly were in awful earnest and she was bound she wouldn't be sent to town to school -- "

"Why didn't she tell me so? She never objected a word, to me," said Kate.

"Well, Mother, you are so big, and Polly was so little, and she was used to minding -- "

"Yes, this looks like it," said Kate. "Well, go on!"

"That's all," said Adam. "It was only that instead of staying at home and attending to our own affairs we were somewhere every night, or Milly and Henry were here. That is where I was to blame. I'm afraid you'll never forgive me, Mother; but I didn't take good care of Sister. I left her to Henry Peters, while I tried to see how nice I could be to Milly. I didn't know what Polly and Henry were planning; honest, I didn't, Mother. I would have told Uncle Robert and sent for you if I had. I thought when I went there it was to be our little crowd like it was at York's. I was furious when I found they were married. I told Mr. and Mrs. Peters what they were, right before the company, and then I came straight home and all the family, and York's, and most of the others, came straight away. Only a few stayed to the supper. I was so angry with Polly I just pushed her away, and didn't even say good-night to her. The little silly fool! Mother, if she had told you, you would have let her stay at home this winter and got her clothing, and let her be married here, when she was old enough, wouldn't you?"

"Certainly!" said Kate. "All the world knows that. Bates all marry; and they all marry young. Don't blame yourself, Adam. If Polly had it in her system to do this, and she did, or she wouldn't have done it, the thing would have happened when I was here, and right under my nose. It was a scheme all planned and ready before I left. I know that now. Let it go! There's nothing we can do, until things begin to go wrong, as they always do in this kind of wedding; then we shall get our call. In the meantime, you mustn't push your sister away. She may need you sooner than you'd think; and will you just please have enough confidence in my common sense and love for you, to come to me, first, when you feel that there's a girl who is indispensable to your future, Adam?"

"Yes, I will," said Adam. "And it won't be long, and the girl will be Milly York."

"All right," said Kate, gravely, "whenever the time comes, let me know about it. Now see if you can find me something to eat till I lay off my hat and wash. It was a long, hot ride, and I'm tired. Since there's nothing I can do, I wish I had stayed where I was. No, I don't, either! I see joy coming over the hill for Nancy Ellen."

"Why is joy coming to Nancy Ellen?" asked the boy, pausing an instant before he started to the kitchen.

"Oh, because she's had such a very tough, uncomfortable time with life," said Kate, "that in the very nature of things joy should come her way."

The boy stood mystified until the expression on his face so amused Kate that she began laughing, then he understood.

"That's why it's coming," said Kate; "and, here's how it's coming. She is going to get rid of a bothersome worry that's troubling her head -- and she's going to have a very splendid gift, but it's a deep secret."

"Then you'll have to whisper it," said Adam, going to her and holding a convenient ear. Kate rested her hands on his shoulder a minute, as she leaned on him, her face buried in his crisp black hair. Then she whispered the secret.

"Crickey, isn't that grand!" cried the boy, backing away to stare at her.

"Yes, it is so grand I'm going to try it ourselves," said Kate. "We've a pretty snug balance in the bank, and I think it would be great fun evenings or when we want to go to town in a hurry and the horses are tired."

Adam was slowly moving toward the kitchen, his face more of a study than before.

"Mother," he said as he reached the door, "I be hanged if I know how to take you! I thought you'd just raise Cain over what Polly has done; but you act so sane and sensible; someway it doesn't seem so bad as it did, and I feel more sorry for Polly than like going back on her. And are you truly in earnest about a car?"

"I'm going to think very seriously about it this winter, and I feel almost sure it will come true by early spring," said Kate. "But who said anything about 'going back on Polly?'"

"Oh, Mrs. York and all the neighbours said that you'd never forgive her, and that she'd never darken your door again, and things like that until I was almost crazy," answered Adam.

Kate smiled grimly. "Adam," she said, "I had seven years of that 'darken you door' business, myself. It's a mighty cold, hard proposition. It's a wonder the neighbours didn't remember that. Maybe they did, and thought I was so much of a Bates leopard that I couldn't change my spots. If they are watching me, they will find that I am not spotted; I'm sorry and humiliated over what Polly has done; but I'm not going to gnash my teeth, and tear my hair, and wail in public, or in private. I'm trying to keep my real mean spot so deep it can't be seen. If ever I get my chance, Adam, you watch me pay back Mrs. Peters. That is the size and location of my spot; but it's far deeper than my skin. Now go on and find me food, man, food!"

Adam sat close while Kate ate her supper, then he helped her unpack her trunk and hang away her dresses, and then they sat on the porch talking for a long time.

When at last they arose to go to bed Kate said: "Adam, about Polly: first time you see her, if she asks, tell her she left home of her own free will and accord, and in her own way, which, by the way, happens to be a Holt way; but you needn't mention that. I think by this time she has learned or soon she will learn that; and whenever she wants to come back and face me, to come right ahead. I can stand it if she can. Can you get that straight?"

Adam said he could. He got that straight and so much else that by the time he finished, Polly realized that both he and her mother had left her in the house to try to shield her; that if she had told what she wanted in a straightforward manner she might have had a wedding outfit prepared and been married from her home at a proper time and in a proper way, and without putting her mother to shame before the community. Polly was very much ashamed of herself by the time Adam finished. She could not find it in her heart to blame Henry; she knew he was no more to blame than she was; but she did store up a grievance against Mr. and Mrs. Peters. They were older and had had experience with the world; they might have told Polly what she should do instead of having done everything in their power to make her do what she had done, bribing, coaxing, urging, all in the direction of her inclinations.

At heart Polly was big enough to admit that she had followed her inclinations without thinking at all what the result would be. Adam never would have done what she had. Adam would have thought of his mother and his name and his honour. Poor little Polly had to admit that honour with her had always been a matter of, "Now remember," "Be careful," and like caution on the lips of her mother.

The more Polly thought, the worse she felt. The worse she felt, the more the whole Peters family tried to comfort her. She was violently homesick in a few days; but Adam had said she was to come when she "could face her mother," and Polly suddenly found that she would rather undertake to run ten miles than to face her mother, so she began a process of hiding from her. If she sat on the porch, and saw her mother coming, she ran in the house. She would go to no public place where she might meet her. For a few weeks she lived a life of working for Mrs. Peters from dawn to dark, under the stimulus of what a sweet girl she was, how splendidly she did things, how fortunate Henry was, interspersed with continual kissing, patting, and petting, all very new and unusual to Polly. By that time she was so very ill, she could not lift her head from the pillow half the day, but it was to the credit of the badly disappointed Peters family that they kept up the petting. When Polly grew better, she had no desire to go anywhere; she worked to make up for the trouble she had been during her illness, to sew every spare moment, and to do her full share of the day's work in the house of an excessively nice woman, whose work never was done, and most hopeless thing of all, never would be. Mrs. Peters' head was full of things that she meant to do three years in the future. Every night found Polly so tired she staggered to bed early as possible; every morning found her confronting the same round, which from the nature of her condition every morning was more difficult for her.

Kate and Adam followed their usual routine with only the alterations required by the absence of Polly. Kate now prepared breakfast while Adam did the feeding and milking; washed the dishes and made the beds while he hitched up; then went to the field with him. On rainy days he swept and she dusted; always they talked over and planned everything they did, in the house or afield; always they schemed, contrived, economized, and worked to attain the shortest, easiest end to any result they strove for. They were growing in physical force, they were efficient, they attended their own affairs strictly. Their work was always done on time, their place in order, their deposits at the bank frequent. As the cold days came they missed Polly, but scarcely ever mentioned her. They had more books and read and studied together, while every few evenings Adam picked up his hat and disappeared, but soon he and Milly came in together. Then they all read, popped corn, made taffy, knitted, often Kate was called away by some sewing or upstairs work she wanted to do, so that the youngsters had plenty of time alone to revel in the wonder of life's greatest secret.

To Kate's ears came the word that Polly would be a mother in the spring, that the Peters family were delighted and anxious for the child to be a girl, as they found six males sufficient for one family. Polly was looking well, feeling fine, was a famous little worker, and seldom sat on a chair because some member of the Peters family usually held her.

"I should think she would get sick of all that mushing," said Adam when he repeated these things.

"She's not like us," said Kate. "She'll take all she can get, and call for more. She's a long time coming; but I'm glad she's well and happy."

"Buncombe!" said Adam. "She isn't so very well. She's white as putty, and there are great big, dark hollows under her eyes, and she's always panting for breath like she had been running. Nearly every time I pass there I see her out scrubbing the porches, or feeding the chickens, or washing windows, or something. You bet Mrs. Peters has got a fine hired girl now, and she's smiling all over about it."

"She really has something to smile about," said Kate.

To Polly's ears went the word that Adam and her mother were having a fine time together, always together; and that they had Milly York up three times a week to spend the evening; and that Milly said that it passed her to see why Polly ran away from Mrs. Holt. She was the grandest woman alive, and if she had any running to do in her neighbourhood, she would run to her, and not from her. Whereupon Polly closed her lips firmly and looked black, but not before she had said: "Well, if Mother had done just one night a week of that entertaining for Henry and me, we wouldn't have run from her, either."

Polly said nothing until April, then Kate answered the telephone one day and a few seconds later was ringing for Adam as if she would pull down the bell. He came running and soon was on his way to Peters' with the single buggy, with instructions to drive slowly and carefully and on no account to let Polly slip getting out. The Peters family had all gone to bury an aunt in the neighbourhood, leaving Polly alone for the day; and Polly at once called up her mother, and said she was dying to see her, and if she couldn't come home for the day, she would die soon, and be glad of it. Kate knew the visit should not have been made at that time and in that way; but she knew that Polly was under a dangerous nervous strain; she herself would not go to Peters' in Mrs. Peters' absence; she did not know what else to do. As she waited for Polly she thought of many things she would say; when she saw her, she took her in her arms and almost carried her into the house, and she said nothing at all, save how glad she was to see her, and she did nothing at all, except to try with all her might to comfort and please her, for to Kate, Polly did no seem like a strong, healthy girl approaching maternity. She appeared like a very sick woman, who sorely needed attention, while a few questions made her so sure of it that she at once called Robert. He gave both of them all the comfort he could, but what he told Nancy Ellen was: "Polly has had no attention whatever. She wants me, and I'll have to go; but it's a case I'd like to side-step. I'll do all I can, but the time is short."

"Oh, Lord!" said Nancy Ellen. "Is it one more for Kate?"

"Yes," said Robert, "I am very much afraid it's 'one more for Kate.'"