A Daughter Of The Land by Gene Stratton-Porter
XXVI. The Winged Victory
Kate turned and placing the baby on the front seat, she knelt and put her arms around the little thing, but her lips only repeated the words: "Praise the Lord for this precious baby!" Her heart was filled with high resolve. She would rear the baby with such care. She would be more careful with Adam. She would make heroic effort to help him to clean, unashamed manhood. She would be a better sister to all her family. She would be friendlier, and have more patience with the neighbours. She would join in whatever effort the church was making to hold and increase its membership among the young people, and to raise funds to keep up the organization. All the time her mind was busy thinking out these fine resolves, her lips were thanking the Lord for Little Poll. Kate arose with the benediction, picked up the baby, and started down the aisle among the people she had known all her life. On every side strong hands stretched out to greet and welcome her. A daughter of Adam Bates was something new as a church member. They all knew how she could work, and what she could give if she chose; while that she had stood at the altar and been baptized, meant that something not customary with the Bates family was taking place in her heart. So they welcomed her, and praised the beauty and sweetness of the baby until Kate went out into the sunshine, her face glowing.
Slowly she walked home and as she reached the veranda, Adam took the baby.
"Been to the cemetery?" he asked.
Kate nodded and dropped into a chair.
"That's too far to walk and carry this great big woman," he said, snuggling his face in the baby's neck, while she patted his cheeks and pulled his hair. "Why didn't you tell me you wanted to go, and let me get out the car?"
Kate looked at him speculatively.
"Adam," she said, "when I started out, I meant only to take some flowers to Mother and Polly. As I came around the corner of the church to take the footpath, they were singing 'Rejoice in the Lord!' I went inside and joined. I'm going to church as often as I can after this, and I'm going to help with the work of running it."
"Well, I like that!" cried Adam, indignantly. "Why didn't you let me go with you?"
Kate sat staring down the road. She was shocked speechless. Again she had followed an impulse, without thinking of any one besides herself. Usually she could talk, but in that instant she had nothing to say. Then a carriage drew into the line of her vision, stopped at York's gate, and Mr. York alighted and swung to the ground a slim girlish figure and then helped his wife. Kate had a sudden inspiration. "But you would want to wait a little and join with Milly, wouldn't you?" she asked. "Uncle Robert always has been a church member. I think it's a fine stand for a man to take."
"Maybe that would be better," he said. "I didn't think of Milly. I only thought I'd like to have been with you and Little Poll."
"I'm sure Milly will be joining very soon, and that she'll want you with her," said Kate.
She was a very substantial woman, but for the remainder of that day she felt that she was moving with winged feet. She sang, she laughed, she was unspeakably happy. She kept saying over and over: "And a little child shall lead them." Then she would catch Little Poll, almost crushing her in her strong arms. It never occurred to Kate that she had done an unprecedented thing. She had done as her heart dictated. She did not know that she put the minister into a most uncomfortable position, when he followed her request to baptize her and the child. She had never thought of probations, and examinations, and catechisms. She had read the Bible, as was the custom, every morning before her school. In that book, when a man wanted to follow Jesus, he followed; Jesus accepted him; and that was all there was to it, with Kate.
The middle of the week Nancy Ellen came flying up the walk on winged feet, herself. She carried photographs of several small children, one of them a girl so like Little Poll that she might have been the original of the picture.
"They just came," said Nancy Ellen rather breathlessly. "I was wild for that little darling at once. I had Robert telegraph them to hold her until we could get there. We're going to start on the evening train and if her blood seems good, and her ancestors respectable, and she looks like that picture, we're going to bring her back with us. Oh, Kate, I can scarcely wait to get my fingers on her. I'm hungry for a baby all of my own."
Kate studied the picture.
"She's charming!" she said. "Oh, Nancy Ellen, this world is getting entirely too good to be true."
Nancy Ellen looked at Kate and smiled peculiarly.
"I knew you were crazy," she said, "but I never dreamed of you going such lengths. Mrs. Whistler told Robert, when she called him in about her side, Tuesday. I can't imagine a Bates joining church."
"If that is joining church, it's the easiest thing in the world," said Kate. "We just loved doing it, didn't we, Little Poll? Adam and Milly are going to come in soon, I'm almost sure. At least he is willing. I don't know what it is that I am to do, but I suppose they will give me my work soon."
"You bet they'll give you work soon, and enough," said Nancy Ellen, laughing. "But you won't mind. You'll just put it through, as you do things out here. Kate, you are making this place look fine. I used to say I'd rather die than come back here to live, but lately it has been growing so attractive, I've been here about half my time, and wished I were the other half."
Kate slipped her arm around Nancy Ellen as they walked to the gate.
"You know," said Nancy Ellen, "the more I study you, the less I know about you. Usually it's sickness, and sorrow, and losing their friends that bring people to the consolations of the church. You bore those things like a stoic. When they are all over, and you are comfortable and happy, just the joy of being sure of Little Poll has transformed you. Kate, you make me think of the 'Winged Victory,' this afternoon. If I get this darling little girl, will she make me big, and splendid, and fine, like you?"
Kate suddenly drew Nancy Ellen to her and kissed her a long, hard kiss on the lips.
"Nancy Ellen," she said, "you are 'big, and splendid, and fine,' or you never would be going to Chicago after this little motherless child. You haven't said a word, but I know from the joy of you and Robert during the past months that Mrs. Southey isn't troubling you any more; and I'm sure enough to put it into words that when you get your little child, she will lead you straight where mine as led me. Good-bye and good luck to you, and remember me to Robert."
Nancy Ellen stood intently studying the picture she held in her hand. Then she looked at Kate, smiling with misty eyes: "I think, Kate, I'm very close, if I am not really where you are this minute," she said. Then she started her car; but she looked back, waving and smiling until the car swerved so that Kate called after her: "Do drive carefully, Nancy Ellen!"
Kate went slowly up the walk. She stopped several times to examine the shrubs and bushes closely, to wish for rain for the flowers. She sat on the porch a few minutes talking to Little Poll, then she went inside to answer the phone.
"Kate?" cried a sharp voice.
"Yes," said Kate, recognizing a neighbour, living a few miles down the road.
"Did Nancy Ellen just leave your house?" came a breathless query.
"Yes," said Kate again.
"I just saw a car that looked like hers slip in the fresh sand at the river levee, and it went down, and two or three times over."
"O God!" said Kate. Then after an instant: "Ring the dinner bell for your men to get her out. I'll phone Robert, and come as soon as I can get there."
Kate called Dr. Gray's office. She said to the girl: "Tell the doctor that Mrs. Howe thinks she saw Nancy Ellen's car go down the river levee, and two or three times over. Have him bring what he might need to Howe's, and hurry. Rush him!"
Then she ran to her bell and rang so frantically that Adam came running. Kate was at the little garage they had built, and had the door open. She told him what she had heard, ran to get the baby, and met him at the gate. On the way she said, "You take the baby when we get there, and if I'm needed, take her back and get Milly and her mother to come stay with you. You know where her things are, and how to feed her. Don't you dare let them change any way I do. Baby knows Milly; she will be good for her and for you. You'll be careful?"
"Of course, Mother," said Adam.
He called her attention to the road.
"Look at those tracks," he said. "Was she sick? She might have been drunk, from them."
"No," said Kate, "she wasn't sick. She was drunk, drunken with joy. She had a picture of the most beautiful little baby girl. They were to start to Chicago after her to-night. I suspect she was driving with the picture in one hand. Oh, my God, have mercy!"
They had come to deep grooves in loose gravel, then the cut in the embankment, then they could see the wrecked car standing on the engine and lying against a big tree, near the water, while two men and a woman were carrying a limp form across the meadow toward the house. As their car stopped, Kate kissed the baby mechanically, handed her to Adam, and ran into the house where she dragged a couch to the middle of the first room she entered, found a pillow, and brought a bucket of water and a towel from the kitchen. They carried Nancy Ellen in and laid her down. Kate began unfastening clothing and trying to get the broken body in shape for the doctor to work upon; but she spread the towel over what had been a face of unusual beauty. Robert came in a few minutes, then all of them worked under his directions until he suddenly sank to the floor, burying his face in Nancy Ellen's breast; then they knew. Kate gathered her sister's feet in her arms and hid her face beside them. The neighbours silently began taking away things that had been used, while Mrs. Howe chose her whitest sheet, and laid it on a chair near Robert.
Two days later they laid Nancy Ellen beside her mother. Then they began trying to face the problem of life without her. Robert said nothing. He seemed too stunned to think. Kate wanted to tell him of her final visit with Nancy Ellen, but she could not at that time. Robert's aged mother came to him, and said she could remain as long as he wanted her, so that was a comfort to Kate, who took time to pity him, even in her blackest hour. She had some very black ones. She could have wailed, and lamented, and relinquished all she had gained, but she did not. She merely went on with life, as she always had lived it, to the best of her ability when she was so numbed with grief she scarcely knew what she was doing. She kept herself driven about the house, and when she could find no more to do, took Little Poll in her arms and went out in the fields to Adam, where she found the baby a safe place, and then cut and husked corn as usual. Every Sabbath, and often during the week, her feet carried her to the cemetery, where she sat in the deep grass and looked at those three long mounds and tried to understand life; deeper still, to fathom death.
She and her mother had agreed that there was "something." Now Kate tried as never before to understand what, and where, and why, that "something" was. Many days she would sit for an hour at a time, thinking, and at last she arrived at fixed convictions that settled matters forever with her. One day after she had arranged the fall roses she had grown, and some roadside asters she had gathered in passing, she sat in deep thought, when a car stopped on the road. Kate looked up to see Robert coming across the churchyard with his arms full of greenhouse roses. He carried a big bunch of deep red for her mother, white for Polly, and a large sheaf of warm pink for Nancy Ellen. Kate knelt up and taking her flowers, she moved them lower, and silently helped Robert place those he had brought. Then she sat where she had been, and looked at him.
Finally he asked: "Still hunting the 'why,' Kate?"
"'Why' doesn't so much matter," said Kate, "as 'where.' I'm enough of a fatalist to believe that Mother is here because she was old and worn out. Polly had a clear case of uric poison, while I'd stake my life Nancy Ellen was gloating over the picture she carried when she ran into that loose sand. In each of their cases I am satisfied as to 'why,' as well as about Father. The thing that holds me, and fascinates me, and that I have such a time being sure of, is 'where.'"
Robert glanced upward and asked: "Isn't there room enough up there, Kate?"
"Too much!" said Kate. "And what is the soul, and how can it bridge the vortex lying between us and other worlds, that man never can, because of the lack of air to breathe, and support him?"
"I don't know," said Robert; "and in spite of the fact that I do know what a man cannot do, I still believe in the immortality of the soul."
"Oh, yes," said Kate. "If there is any such thing in science as a self-evident fact, that is one. That is provable."
Robert looked at her eager face. "How would you go about proving it, Kate?" he asked.
"Why, this way," said Kate, leaning to straighten and arrange the delicate velvet petalled roses with her sure, work-abused fingers. "Take the history of the world from as near dawn as we have any record, and trace it from the igloo of the northernmost Esquimo, around the globe, and down to the ice of the southern pole again, and in blackest Africa, farthest, wildest Borneo, you will never discover one single tribe of creatures, upright and belonging to the race of man, who did not come into the world with four primal instincts. They all reproduce themselves, they all make something intended for music, they all express a feeling in their hearts by the exercise we call dance, they all believe in the after life of the soul. This belief is as much a part of any man, ever born in any location, as his hands and his feet. Whether he believes his soul enters a cat and works back to man again after long transmigration, or goes to a Happy Hunting Ground as our Indians, makes no difference with the fact that he enters this world with belief in after life of some kind. We see material evidence in increase that man is not defeated in his desire to reproduce himself; we have advanced to something better than tom-toms and pow-wows for music and dance; these desires are fulfilled before us, now tell me why the very strongest of all, the most deeply rooted, the belief in after life, should come to nothing. Why should the others be real, and that a dream?"
"I don't think it is," said Robert.
"It's my biggest self-evident fact," said Kate, conclusively. "I never heard any one else say these things, but I think them, and they are provable. I always believed there was something; but since I saw Mother go, I know there is. She stood in full evening light, I looked straight in her face, and Robert, you know I'm no creature of fancies and delusions, I tell you I saw her soul pass. I saw the life go from her and go on, and on. I saw her body stand erect, long enough for me to reach her, and pick her up, after its passing. That I know."
"I shouldn't think of questioning it, Kate," said Robert. "But don't you think you are rather limiting man, when you narrow him to four primal instincts?"
"Oh, I don't know," said Kate. "Air to breathe and food to sustain are presupposed. Man learns to fight in self-defense, and to acquire what he covets. He learns to covet by seeing stronger men, in better locations, surpass his achievements, so if he is strong enough he goes and robs them by force. He learns the desire for the chase in food hunting; I think four are plenty to start with."
"Probably you are right," said the doctor, rising. "I must go now. Shall I take you home?"
Kate glanced at the sun and shook her head. "I can stay half an hour longer. I don't mind the walk. I need exercise to keep me in condition. Good-bye!"
As he started his car he glanced back. She was leaning over the flowers absorbed in their beauty. Kate sat looking straight before her until time to help with the evening work, and prepare supper, then she arose. She stood looking down a long time; finally she picked up a fine specimen of each of the roses and slowly dropped them on her father's grave.
"There! You may have that many," she said. "You look a little too lonely, lying here beside the others with not a single one, but if you could speak, I wonder whether you would say, 'Thank you!' or 'Take the damn weeds off me!'"