A Daughter Of The Land by Gene Stratton-Porter
XXV. One More for Kate
Polly and Kate had a long day together, while Adam was about the house much of the time. Both of them said and did everything they could think of to cheer and comfort Polly, whose spirits seemed most variable. One minute she would be laughing and planning for the summer gaily, the next she would be gloomy and depressed, and declaring she never would live through the birth of her baby. If she had appeared well, this would not have worried Kate; but she looked even sicker than she seemed to feel. She was thin while her hands were hot and tremulous. As the afternoon went on and time to go came nearer, she grew more and more despondent, until Kate proposed watching when the Peters family came home, calling them up, and telling them that Polly was there, would remain all night, and that Henry should come down.
Polly flatly vetoed the proposition, but she seemed to feel much better after it had been made. She was like herself again for a short time, and then she turned to Kate and said suddenly: "Mother, if I don't get over this, will you take my baby?"
Kate looked at Polly intently. What she saw stopped the ready answer that was on her lips. She stood thinking deeply. At last she said gently: "Why, Polly, would you want to trust a tiny baby with a woman you ran away from yourself?"
"Mother, I haven't asked you to forgive me for the light I put you in before the neighbours," said Polly, "because I knew you couldn't honestly do it, and wouldn't lie to say you did. I don't know what made me do that. I was tired staying alone at the house so much, I was wild about Henry, I was bound I wouldn't leave him and go away to school. I just thought it would settle everything easily and quickly. I never once thought of how it would make you look and feel. Honestly I didn't, Mother. You believe me, don't you?"
"Yes, I believe you," said Kate.
"It was an awful thing for me to do," said Polly. "I was foolish and crazy, and I suppose I shouldn't say it, but I certainly did have a lot of encouragement from the Peters family. They all seemed to think it would be a great joke, that it wouldn't make any difference, and all that, so I just did it. I knew I shouldn't have done it; but, Mother, you'll never know the fight I've had all my life to keep from telling stories and sneaking. I hated your everlasting: 'Now be careful,' but when I hated it most, I needed it worst; and I knew it, when I grew older. If only you had been here to say, 'Now be careful,' just once, I never would have done it; but of course I couldn't have you to keep me straight all my life. All I can say is that I'd give my life and never whimper, if I could be back home as I was this time last year, and have a chance to do things your way. But that is past, and I can't change it. What I came for to-day, and what I want to know now is, if I go, will you take my baby?"
"Polly, you know the Peters family wouldn't let me have it," said Kate.
"If it's a boy, they wouldn't want it," said Polly. "Neither would you, for that matter. If it's a girl, they'll fight for it; but it won't do them any good. All I want to know is, will you take it?"
"Of course I would, Polly," said Kate.
"Since I have your word, I'll feel better," said Polly. "And Mother, you needn't be afraid of it. It will be all right. I have thought about it so much I have it all figured out. It's going to be a girl, and it's going to be exactly like you, and its name is going to be Katherine Eleanor. I have thought about you every hour I was awake since I have been gone; so the baby will have to be exactly like you. There won't be the taint of grandmother in it that there is in me. You needn't be afraid. I quit sneaking forever when Adam told me what I had done to you. I have gone straight as a dart, Mother, every single minute since, Mother; truly I have!"
Kate sat down suddenly, an awful sickness in her heart.
"Why, you poor child you!" she said.
"Oh, I've been all right," said Polly. "I've been almost petted and loved to death; but Mother, there never should be the amount of work attached to living that there is in that house. It's never ending, it's intolerable. Mrs. Peters just goes until she drops, and then instead of sleeping, she lies awake planning some hard, foolish, unnecessary thing to do next. Maybe she can stand it herself, but I'm tired out. I'm going to sit down, and not budge to do another stroke until after the baby comes, and then I am going to coax Henry to rent a piece of land, and move to ourselves."
Kate took heart. "That will be fine!" she cried. "That will be the very thing. I'll ask the boys to keep their eyes open for any chance for you."
"You needn't take any bother about it," said Polly, "because that isn't what is going to happen. All I want to be sure of now is that you and Adam will take my baby. I'll see to the rest."
"How will you see to it, Polly?" asked Kate, gently.
"Well, it's already seen to, for matter of that," said Polly conclusively. "I've known for quite a while that I was sick; but I couldn't make them do anything but kiss me, and laugh at me, until I am so ill that I know better how I feel than anybody else. I got tired being laughed at, and put off about everything, so one day in Hartley, while Mother Peters was shopping, I just went in to the lawyer Grandmother always went to, and told him all about what I wanted. He has the papers made out all right and proper; so when I send for Uncle Robert, I am going to send for him, too, and soon as the baby comes I'll put in its name and sign it, and make Henry, and then if I have to go, you won't have a bit of trouble."
Kate gazed at Polly in dumb amazement. She was speechless for a time, then to break the strain she said: "My soul! Did you really, Polly? I guess there is more Bates in you than I had thought!"
"Oh, there's some Bates in me," said Polly. "There's enough to make me live until I sign that paper, and make Henry Peters sign it, and send Mr. Thomlins to you with it and the baby. I can do that, because I'm going to!"
Ten days later she did exactly what she had said she would. Then she turned her face to the wall and went into a convulsion out of which she never came. While the Peters family refused Kate's plea to lay Polly beside her grandmother, and laid her in their family lot, Kate, moaning dumbly, sat clasping a tiny red girl in her arms. Adam drove to Hartley to deposit one more paper, the most precious of all, in the safety deposit box.
Kate and Adam mourned too deeply to talk about it. They went about their daily rounds silently, each busy with regrets and self investigations. They watched each other carefully, were kinder than they ever had been to everyone they came in contact with; the baby they frankly adored. Kate had reared her own children with small misgivings, quite casually, in fact; but her heart was torn to the depths about this baby. Life never would be even what it had been before Polly left them, for into her going there entered an element of self-reproach and continual self-condemnation. Adam felt that if he had been less occupied with Milly York and had taken proper care of his sister, he would not have lost her. Kate had less time for recrimination, because she had the baby.
"Look for a good man to help you this summer, Adam," she said. "The baby is full of poison which can be eliminated only slowly. If I don't get it out before teething, I'll lose her, and then we never shall hear the last from the Peters family." Adam consigned the Peters family to a location he thought suitable for them on the instant. He spoke with unusual bitterness, because he had heard that the Peters family were telling that Polly had grieved herself to death, while his mother had engineered a scheme whereby she had stolen the baby. Occasionally a word drifted to Kate here and there, until she realized much of what they were saying. At first she grieved too deeply to pay any attention, but as the summer went on and the baby flourished and grew fine and strong, and she had time in the garden, she began to feel better; grief began to wear away, as it always does.
By midsummer the baby was in short clothes, sitting in a high chair, which if Miss Baby only had known it, was a throne before which knelt her two adoring subjects. Polly had said the baby would be like Kate. Its hair and colouring were like hers, but it had the brown eyes of its father, and enough of his facial lines to tone down the too generous Bates features. When the baby was five months old it was too pretty for adequate description. One baby has no business with perfect features, a mop of curly, yellow silk hair, and big brown eyes. One of the questions Kate and Adam discussed most frequently was where they would send her to college, while one they did not discuss was how sick her stomach teeth would make her. They merely lived in mortal dread of that. "Convulsion," was a word that held a terror for Kate above any other in the medical books.
The baby had a good, formal name, but no one ever used it. Adam, on first lifting the blanket, had fancied the child resembled its mother and had called her "Little Poll." The name clung to her. Kate could not call such a tiny morsel either Kate or Katherine; she liked "Little Poll," better. The baby had three regular visitors. One was her father. He was not fond of Kate; Little Poll suited him. He expressed his feeling by bringing gifts of toys, candy, and unsuitable clothes. Kate kept these things in evidence when she saw him coming and swept them from sight when he went; for she had the good sense not to antagonize him. Nancy Ellen came almost every day, proudly driving her new car, and with the light of a new joy on her face. She never said anything to Kate, but Kate knew what had happened. Nancy Ellen came to see the baby. She brought it lovely and delicate little shoes, embroidered dresses and hoods, cloaks and blankets. One day as she sat holding it she said to Kate: "Isn't the baby a dreadful bother to you? You're not getting half your usual work done."
"No, I'm doing unusual work," said Kate, lightly. "Adam is hiring a man who does my work very well in the fields; there isn't money that would hire me to let any one else take my job indoors, right now."
A slow red crept into Nancy Ellen's cheeks. She had meant to be diplomatic, but diplomacy never worked well with Kate. As Nancy Ellen often said, Kate understood a sledge-hammer better. Nancy Ellen used the hammer. Her face flushed, her arms closed tightly. "Give me this baby," she demanded.
Kate looked at her in helpless amazement.
"Give it to me," repeated Nancy Ellen.
"She's a gift to me," said Kate, slowly. "One the Peters family are searching heaven and earth to find an excuse to take from me. I hear they've been to a lawyer twice, already. I wouldn't give her up to save my soul alive, for myself; for you, if I would let you have her, they would not leave you in possession a day."
"Are they really trying to get her?" asked Nancy Ellen, slowly loosening her grip.
"They are," said Kate. "They sent a lawyer to get a copy of the papers, to see if they could pick a flaw in them."
"Can they?" cried Nancy Ellen.
"God knows!" said Kate, slowly. "I hope not. Mr. Thomlins is the best lawyer in Hartley; he says not. He says Henry put his neck in the noose when he signed the papers. The only chance I can see for him would be to plead undue influence. When you look at her, you can't blame him for wanting her. I've two hopes. One that his mother will not want the extra work; the other that the next girl he selects will not want the baby. If I can keep them going a few months more with a teething scare, I hope they will get over wanting her."
"If they do, then may we have her?" asked Nancy Ellen.
Kate threw out her hands. "Take my eyes, or my hands, or my feet," she said; "but leave me my heart."
Nancy Ellen went soon after, and did not come again for several days. Then she began coming as usual, so that the baby soon knew her and laughed in high glee when she appeared. Dr. Gray often stopped in passing to see her; if he was in great haste, he hallooed at the gate to ask if she was all right. Kate was thankful for this, more than thankful for the telephone and car that would bring him in fifteen minutes day or night, if he were needed. But he was not needed. Little Poll throve and grew fat and rosy; for she ate measured food, slept by the clock, in a sanitary bed, and was a bathed, splendidly cared for baby. When Kate's family and friends laughed, she paid not the slightest heed.
"Laugh away," she said. "I've got something to fight with this baby; I don't propose for the battle to come and find the chances against me, because I'm unprepared."
With scrupulous care Kate watched over the child, always putting her first, the house and land afterward. One day she looked up the road and saw Henry Peters coming. She had been expecting Nancy Ellen. She had finished bathing the baby and making her especially attractive in a dainty lace ruffled dress with blue ribbons and blue shoes that her sister had brought on her latest trip. Little Poll was a wonderful picture, for her eyes were always growing bigger, her cheeks pinker, her skin fairer, her hair longer and more softly curling. At first thought Kate had been inclined to snatch off the dress and change to one of the cheap, ready-made ginghams Henry brought, but the baby was so lovely as she was, she had not the heart to spoil the picture, while Nancy Ellen might come any minute. So she began putting things in place while Little Poll sat crowing and trying to pick up a sunbeam that fell across her tray. Her father came to the door and stood looking at her. Suddenly he dropped in a chair, covered his face with his hands and began to cry, in deep, shuddering sobs. Kate stood still in wonderment. As last she seated herself before him and said gently: "Won't you tell me about it, Henry?"
Henry struggled for self-control. He looked at the baby longingly. Finally he said: "It's pretty tough to give up a baby like that, Mrs. Holt. She's my little girl. I wish God had struck my right hand with palsy, when I went to sign those papers."
"Oh, no, you don't, Henry," said Kate, suavely. "You wouldn't like to live the rest of your life a cripple. And is it any worse for me to have your girl in spite of the real desires and dictates of your heart, than it was for you to have mine? And you didn't take the intelligent care of my girl that I'm taking of yours, either. A doctor and a little right treatment at the proper time would have saved Polly to rear her own baby; but there's no use to go into that. I was waiting for Polly to come home of her own accord, as she left it; and while I waited, a poison crept into her system that took her. I never shall feel right about it; neither shall you -- "
"No, I should say I won't!" said Henry emphatically. "I never thought of anything being the matter with Polly that wouldn't be all over when the baby came -- "
"I know you didn't, Henry," said Kate. "I know how much you would have done, and how gladly, if you had known. There is no use going into that, we are both very much to blame; we must take our punishment. Now what is this I hear about your having been to see lawyers and trying to find a way to set aside the adoption papers you signed? Let's have a talk, and see what we can arrive at. Tell me all about it."
So Henry told Kate how he had loved Polly, how he felt guilty of her death, how he longed for and wanted her baby, how he had signed the paper which Polly put before him so unexpectedly, to humour her, because she was very ill; but he had not dreamed that she could die; how he did not feel that he should be bound by that signature now. Kate listened with the deepest sympathy, assenting to most he said until he was silent. Then she sat thinking a long time. At last she said: "Henry, if you and Polly had waited until I came home, and told me what you wanted and how you felt, I should have gotten her ready, and given you a customary wedding, and helped you to start a life that I think would have saved her to you, and to me. That is past, but the fact remains. You are hurt over giving up the baby as you have; I'm hurt over losing my daughter as I did; we are about even on the past, don't you think?"
"I suppose we are," he said, heavily.
"That being agreed," said Kate, "let us look to the future. You want the baby now, I can guess how much, by how much I want her, myself. I know your point of view; there are two others, one is mine, and the other is the baby's. I feel that it is only right and just that I should have this little girl to replace the one you took from me, in a way far from complimentary to me. I feel that she is mine, because Polly told me the day she came to see me how sick she had been, how she had begged for a doctor, and been kissed and told there was nothing the matter with her, when she knew she was very ill. She gave the baby to me, and at that time she had been to see a lawyer, and had her papers all made out except the signatures and dates. Mr. Thomlins can tell you that; and you know that up to that time I had not seen Polly, or had any communication with her. She simply was unnerved at the thought of trusting her baby to the care she had had."
Kate was hitting hard and straight from the shoulder. The baby, busy with her sunbeam, jabbered unnoticed.
"When Polly died as she did," continued Kate, "I knew that her baby would be full of the same poison that killed her; and that it must be eliminated before it came time to cut her worst teeth, so I undertook the work, and sleeping or waking, I have been at it ever since. Now, Henry, is there any one at your house who would have figured this out, and taken the time, pains, and done work that I have? Is there?"
"Mother raised six of us." he said defensively.
"But she didn't die of diathesis giving birth to the first of you," said Kate. "You were all big, strong boys with a perfectly sound birthright. And your mother is now a much older, wearier woman than she was then, and her hands are far too full every day, as it is. If she knew how to handle the baby as I have, and was willing to add the work to her daily round, would you be willing to have her? I have three times her strength, while I consider that I've the first right. Then there is the baby's side of the question. I have had her through the worst, hardest part of babyhood; she is accustomed to a fixed routine that you surely will concede agrees with her; she would miss me, and she would not thrive as she does with me, for her food and her hours would not be regular, while you, and your father, and the boys would tire her to death handling her. That is the start. The finish would be that she would grow up, if she survived, to take the place Polly took at your house, while you would marry some other girl, as you will before a year from now. I'm dreadfully sorry to say these things to you, Henry, but you know they are the truth. If you're going to try to take the baby, I'm going to fight you to the last dollar I can raise, and the last foot of land I own. That's all. Look at the baby; think it over; and let me know what you'll do as soon as you can. I'm not asking mercy at your hands, but I do feel that I have suffered about my share."
"You needn't suffer any longer," said Henry, drying his eyes. "All you say is true; just as what I said was true; but I might as well tell you, and let one of us be happy. I saw my third lawyer yesterday, and he said the papers were unbreakable unless I could prove that the child was neglected, and not growing right, or not having proper care. Look at her! I might do some things! I did do a thing as mean as to persuade a girl to marry me without her mother's knowledge, and ruined her life thereby, but God knows I couldn't go on the witness stand and swear that that baby is not properly cared for! Mother's job is big enough; and while it doesn't seem possible now, very likely I shall marry again, as other men do; and in that event, Little Poll would be happier with you. I give her up. I think I came this morning to say that I was defeated; and to tell you that I'd give up if I saw that you would fight. Keep the baby, and be as happy as you can. You shan't be worried any more about her. Polly shall have this thing as she desired and planned it. Good-bye."
When he had gone Kate knelt on the floor, laid her head on the chair tray, and putting her arms around the baby she laughed and cried at the same time, while Miss Baby pulled her hair, patted her face, and plastered it with wet, uncertain kisses. Then Kate tied a little bonnet on the baby's head and taking her in her arms, she went to the field to tell Adam. It seemed to Kate that she could see responsibility slipping from his shoulders, could see him grow taller as he listened. The breath of relief he drew was long and deep.
"Fine!" he cried. "Fine! I haven't told you half I knew. I've been worried until I couldn't sleep."
Kate went back to the house so glad she did not realize she was touching earth at all. She fed the baby and laid her down for her morning nap, and then went out in the garden; but she was too restless to work. She walked bareheaded in the sun and was glad as she never before in her life had known how to be glad. The first thing Kate knew she was standing at the gate looking up at the noonday sky and from the depths of her heart she was crying aloud: "Praise ye the Lord, Oh my soul. Let all that is within me praise His holy name!"
For the remainder of the day Kate was unblushingly insane. She started to do a hundred things and abandoned all of them to go out and look up at the sky and to cry repeatedly: "Praise the Lord!"
If she had been asked to explain why she did this, Kate could have answered, and would have answered: "Because I feel like it!" She had been taught no religion as a child, she had practised no formal mode of worship as a woman. She had been straight, honest, and virtuous. She had faced life and done with small question the work that she thought fell to her hand. She had accepted joy, sorrow, shame, all in the same stoic way. Always she had felt that there was a mighty force in the universe that could as well be called God as any other name; it mattered not about the name; it was a real force, and it was there.
That day Kate exulted. She carried the baby down to the brook in the afternoon and almost shouted; she sang until she could have been heard a mile. She kept straight on praising the Lord, because expression was imperative, and that was the form of expression that seemed to come naturally to her. Without giving a thought as to how, or why, she followed her impulses and praised the Lord. The happier she grew, the more clearly she saw how uneasy and frightened she had been.
When Nancy Ellen came, she took only one glance at Kate's glorified face and asked: "What in this world has happened to you?"
Kate answered in all seriousness: "My Lord has 'shut the lions' mouths,' and they are not going to harm me."
Nancy Ellen regarded her closely. "I hope you aren't running a temperature," she said. "I'll take a shot at random. You have found out that the Peters family can't take Little Poll."
Kate laughed joyously. "Better than that, sister mine!" she cried. "I have convinced Henry that he doesn't want her himself as much as he wants me to have her, and he can speedily convert his family. He will do nothing more! He will leave me in peace with her."
"Thank God!" said Nancy Ellen.
"There you go, too!" cried Kate. "That's the very first thought that came to me, only I said, 'Praise the Lord,' which is exactly the same thing; and Nancy Ellen, since Robert has been trying to praise the Lord for twenty years, and both of us do praise Him when our time comes, wouldn't it be a good idea to open up our heads and say so, not only to ourselves and to the Lord, but to the neighbours? I'm afraid she won't understand much of it, but I think I shall find the place and read to Little Poll about Abraham and Isaac to-night, and probably about Hagar and Ishmael to-morrow night, and it wouldn't surprise me a mite to hear myself saying 'Praise the Lord,' right out loud, any time, any place. Let's gather a great big bouquet of our loveliest flowers, and go tell Mother and Polly about it."
Without a word Nancy Ellen turned toward the garden. They gathered the flowers and getting in Nancy Ellen's car drove the short distance to the church where Nancy Ellen played with the baby in the shade of a big tree while Kate arranged her flowers. Then she sat down and they talked over their lives from childhood.
"Nancy Ellen, won't you stay to supper with us?" asked Kate.
"Yes," said Nancy Ellen, rising, "I haven't had such a good time in years. I'm as glad for you as I'd be if I had such a child assured me, myself."
"You can't bring yourself --?" began Kate.
"Yes, I think so," said Nancy Ellen. "Getting things for Little Poll has broken me up so, I told Robert how I felt, and he's watching in his practice, and he's written several letters of inquiry to friends in Chicago. Any day now I may have my work cut out for me."
"Praise the Lord again!" cried Kate. "I see where you will be happier than you ever have been. Real life is just beginning for you."
Then they went home and prepared a good supper and had such a fine time they were exalted in heart and spirit. When Nancy Ellen started home, Kate took the baby and climbed in the car with her, explaining that they would go a short way and walk back. She went only as far as the Peters gate; then she bravely walked up to the porch, where Mr. Peters and some of the boys sat, and said casually: "I just thought I'd bring Little Poll up to get acquainted with her folks. Isn't she a dear?"
An hour later, as she walked back in the moonlight, Henry beside her carrying the baby, he said to her: "This is a mighty big thing, and a kind thing for you to do, Mrs. Holt. Mother has been saying scandalous things about you."
"I know," said Kate. "But never mind! She won't any more."
The remainder of the week she passed in the same uplifted mental state. She carried the baby in her arms and walked all over the farm, going often to the cemetery with fresh flowers. Sunday morning, when the work was all done, the baby dressed her prettiest, Kate slipped into one of her fresh white dresses and gathering a big bunch of flowers started again to whisper above the graves of her mother and Polly the story of her gladness, and to freshen the flowers, so that the people coming from church would see that her family were remembered. When she had finished she arose, took up the baby, and started to return across the cemetery, going behind the church, taking the path she had travelled the day she followed the minister's admonition to "take the wings of morning." She thought of that. She stood very still, thinking deeply.
"I took them," she said. "I've tried flight after flight; and I've fallen, and risen, and fallen, and got up and tried again, but never until now have I felt that I could really 'fly to the uttermost parts of the earth.' There is a rising power in me that should benefit more than myself. I guess I'll just join in."
She walked into the church as the last word of the song the congregation were singing was finished, and the minister was opening his lips to say: "Let us pray." Straight down the aisle came Kate, her bare, gold head crowned with a flash of light at each window she passed. She paused at the altar, directly facing the minister.
"Baby and I would like the privilege of praising the Lord with you," she said simply, "and we would like to do our share in keeping up this church and congregation to His honour and glory. There's some water. Can't you baptize us now?"
The minister turned to the pitcher, which always stood on his desk, filled his palm, and asked: "What is the baby's name?"
"Katherine Eleanor Peters," said Kate.
"Katherine Eleanor, I baptize thee," said the minister, and he laid his hand on the soft curls of the baby. She scattered the flowers she was holding over the altar as she reached to spat her hands in the water on her head and laughed aloud.
"What is your name?" asked the minister.
"Katherine Eleanor Holt," said Kate.
Again the minister repeated the formula, and then he raised both hands and said: "Let us pray."