XXVII. Blue Ribbon Corn
 

Never in her life had Kate worked harder than she did that fall; but she retained her splendid health. Everything was sheltered and housed, their implements under cover, their stock in good condition, their store-room filled, and their fruits and vegetables buried in hills and long rows in the garden. Adam had a first wheat premium at the County Fair and a second on corn, concerning which he felt abused. He thought his corn scored the highest number of points, but that the award was given another man because of Adam's having had first on wheat. In her heart Kate agreed with him; but she tried to satisfy him with the blue ribbon on wheat and keep him interested sufficiently to try for the first on corn the coming year. She began making suggestions for the possible improvement of his corn. Adam was not easily propitiated.

"Mother," he said, "you know as well as you know you're alive, that if I had failed on wheat, or had second, I would have been given first on my corn; my corn was the best in every way, but they thought I would swell up and burst if I had two blue ribbons. That was what ailed the judges. What encouragement is that to try again? I might grow even finer corn in the coming year than I did this, and be given no award at all, because I had two this year. It would amount to exactly the same thing."

"We'll get some more books, and see if we can study up any new wrinkles, this winter," said Kate. "Now cheer up, and go tell Milly about it. Maybe she can console you, if I can't."

"Nothing but justice will console me," said Adam. "I'm not complaining about losing the prize; I'm fighting mad because my corn, my beautiful corn, that grew and grew, and held its head so high, and waved its banners of triumph to me with every breeze, didn't get its fair show. What encouragement is there for it to try better the coming year? The crows might as well have had it, or the cutworms; while all my work is for nothing."

"You're making a big mistake," said Kate. "If your corn was the finest, it was, and the judges knew it, and you know it, and very likely the man who has the first prize, knows it. You have a clean conscience, and you know what you know. They surely can't feel right about it, or enjoy what they know. You have had the experience, you have the corn for seed; with these things to back you, clear a small strip of new land beside the woods this winter, and try what that will do for you."

Adam looked at her with wide eyes. "By jing, Mother, you are a dandy!" he said. "You just bet I'll try that next year, but don't you tell a soul; there are more than you who will let a strip be cleared, in an effort to grow blue ribbon corn. How did you come to think of it?"

"Your saying all your work had been for nothing, made me think of it," she answered. "Let them give another man the prize, when they know your corn is the best. It's their way of keeping a larger number of people interested and avoiding the appearance of partiality; this contest was too close; next year, you grow such corn, that the corn will force the decision in spite of the judges. Do you see?"

"I see," said Adam. "I'll try again."

After that life went on as usual. The annual Christmas party was the loveliest of all, because Kate gave it loving thought, and because all of their hearts were especially touched. As spring came on again, Kate and Adam studied over their work, planning many changes for the better, but each time they talked, when everything else was arranged, they came back to corn. More than once, each of them dreamed corn that winter while asleep, they frankly talked of it many times a day. Location, soil, fertilizers, seed, cultivation -- they even studied the almanacs for a general forecast of the weather. These things brought them very close together. Also it was admitted between them, that Little Poll "grappled them with hooks of steel." They never lacked subjects for conversation. Poll always came first, corn next, and during the winter there began to be discussion of plans for Adam and Milly. Should Milly come with them, or should they build a small house on the end of the farm nearest her mother? Adam did not care, so he married Milly speedily. Kate could not make up her mind. Milly had the inclination of a bird for a personal and private nest of her own. So spring came to them.

August brought the anniversary of Nancy Ellen's death, which again saddened all of them. Then came cooler September weather, and the usual rush of preparation for winter. Kate was everywhere and enjoying her work immensely. On sturdy, tumbly legs Little Poll trotted after her or rode in state on her shoulder, when distances were too far. If Kate took her to the fields, as she did every day, she carried along the half of an old pink and white quilt, which she spread in a shaded place and filled the baby's lap with acorns, wild flowers, small brightly coloured stones, shells, and whatever she could pick up for playthings. Poll amused herself with these until the heat and air made her sleepy, then she laid herself down and slept for an hour or two. Once she had trouble with stomach teeth that brought Dr. Gray racing, and left Kate white and limp with fear. Everything else had gone finely and among helping Adam, working in her home, caring for the baby, doing whatever she could see that she thought would be of benefit to the community, and what was assigned her by church committees, Kate had a busy life. She had earned, in a degree, the leadership she exercised in her first days in Walden. Everyone liked her; but no one ever ventured to ask her for an opinion unless they truly wanted it.

Adam came from a run to Hartley for groceries one evening in late September, with a look of concern that Kate noticed on his face. He was very silent during supper and when they were on the porch as usual, he still sat as if thinking deeply. Kate knew that he would tell her what he was thinking about when he was ready but she was not in the least prepared for what he said.

"Mother, how do you feel about Uncle Robert marrying again?" he asked suddenly.

Kate was too surprised to answer. She looked at him in amazement. Instead of answering, she asked him a question: "What makes you ask that?"

"You know how that Mrs. Southey pursued him one summer. Well, she's back in Hartley, staying at the hotel right across from his office; she's dressed to beat the band, she's pretty as a picture; her car stands out in front all day, and to get to ride in it, and take meals with her, all the women are running after her. I hear she has even had Robert's old mother out for a drive. What do you think of that?"

"Think she's in love with him, of course, and trying to marry him, and that she will very probably succeed. If she has located where she is right under his eye, and lets him know that she wants him very much, he'll, no doubt, marry her."

"But what do you think about it?" asked Adam.

"I've had no time to think," said Kate. "At first blush, I'd say that I shall hate it, as badly as I could possibly hate anything that was none of my immediate business. Nancy Ellen loved him so. I never shall forget that day she first told me about him, and how loving him brought out her beauty, and made her shine and glow as if from an inner light. I was always with her most, and I loved her more than all the other girls put together. I know that Southey woman tried to take him from her one summer not long ago, and that he gave her to understand that she could not, so she went away. If she's back, it means only one thing, and I think probably she'll succeed; but you can be sure it will make me squirm properly."

"I thought you wouldn't like it," he said emphatically.

"Now understand me, Adam," said Kate. "I'm no fool. I didn't expect Robert to be more than human. He has no children, and he'd like a child above anything else on earth. I've known that for years, ever since it became apparent that none was coming to Nancy Ellen. I hadn't given the matter a thought, but if I had been thinking, I would have thought that as soon as was proper, he would select a strong, healthy young woman, and make her his wife. I know his mother is homesick, and wants to go back to her daughters and their children, which is natural. I haven't an objection in the world to him marrying a proper woman, at a proper time and place; but Oh, dear Lord, I do dread and despise to see that little Southey cat come back and catch him, because she knows how."

"Did you ever see her, Mother?"

"No, I never," said Kate, "and I hope I never shall. I know what Nancy Ellen felt, because she told me all about it that time we were up North. I'm trying with all my might to have a Christian spirit. I swallowed Mrs. Peters, and never blinked, that anybody saw; but I don't, I truly don't know from where I could muster grace to treat a woman decently, who tried to do to my sister, what I know Mrs. Southey tried to do to Nancy Ellen. She planned to break up my sister's home; that I know. Now that Nancy Ellen is gone, I feel to-night as if I just couldn't endure to see Mrs. Southey marry Robert."

"Bet she does it!" said Adam.

"Did you see her?" asked Kate.

"See her!" cried Adam. "I saw her half a dozen times in an hour. She's in the heart of the town, nothing to do but dress and motor. Never saw such a peach of a car. I couldn't help looking at it. Gee, I wish I could get you one like that!"

"What did you think of her looks?" asked Kate.

"Might pretty!" said Adam, promptly. "Small, but not tiny; plump, but not fat; pink, light curls, big baby blue eyes and a sort of hesitating way about her, as if she were anxious to do the right thing, but feared she might not, and wished somebody would take care of her."

Kate threw out her hands with a rough exclamation. "I get the picture!" she said. "It's a dead centre shot. That gets a man, every time. No man cares a picayune about a woman who can take care of herself, and help him with his job if he has a ghost of a chance at a little pink and white clinger, who will suck the life and talent out of him, like the parasite she is, while she makes him believe he is on the job, taking care of her. You can rest assured it will be settled before Christmas."

Kate had been right in her theories concerning the growing of blue ribbon corn. At the County Fair in late September Adam exhibited such heavy ears of evenly grained white and yellow corn that the blue ribbon he carried home was not an award of the judges; it was a concession to the just demands of the exhibit.

Then they began husking their annual crop. It had been one of the country's best years for corn. The long, even, golden ears they were stripping the husks from and stacking in heaps over the field might profitably have been used for seed by any farmer. They had divided the field in halves and Adam was husking one side, Kate the other. She had a big shock open and kneeling beside it she was busy stripping open the husks, and heaping up the yellow ears. Behind her the shocks stood like rows of stationed sentinels; above, the crisp October sunshine warmed the air to a delightful degree; around the field, the fence rows were filled with purple and rose coloured asters, and everywhere goldenrod, yellower than the corn, was hanging in heavy heads of pollen-spraying bloom.

On her old pink quilt Little Poll, sound asleep, was lifted from the shade of one shock to another, while Kate worked across her share of the field. As she worked she kept looking at the child. She frankly adored her, but she kept her reason and held to rigid rules in feeding, bathing, and dressing. Poll minded even a gesture or a nod.

Above, the flocking larks pierced the air with silver notes, on the fence-rows the gathering robins called to each other; high in the air the old black vulture that homed in a hollow log in Kate's woods, looked down on the spots of colour made by the pink quilt, the gold corn, the blue of Kate's dress, and her yellow head. An artist would have paused long, over the rich colour, the grouping and perspective of that picture, while the hazy fall atmosphere softened and blended the whole. Kate, herself, never had appeared or felt better. She worked rapidly, often glancing across the field to see if she was even with, or slightly in advance of Adam. She said it would never do to let the boy get "heady," so she made a point of keeping even with him, and caring for Little Poll, "for good measure."

She was smiling as she watched him working like a machine as he ripped open husks, gave the ear a twist, tossed it aside, and reached for the next. Kate was doing the same thing, quite as automatically. She was beginning to find the afternoon sun almost hot on her bare head, so she turned until it fell on her back. Her face was flushed to coral pink, and framed in a loose border of her beautiful hair. She was smiling at the thought of how Adam was working to get ahead of her, smiling because Little Poll looked such a picture of healthy loveliness, smiling because she was so well, she felt super-abundant health rising like a stimulating tide in her body, smiling because the corn was the finest she ever had seen in a commonly cultivated field, smiling because she and Adam were of one accord about everything, smiling because the day was very beautiful, because her heart was at peace, her conscience clear.

She heard a car stop at her gate, saw a man alight and start across the yard toward the field, and knew that her visitor had seen her, and was coming to her. Kate went on husking corn and when the man swung over the fence of the field she saw that he was Robert, and instantly thought of Mrs. Southey, so she ceased to smile. "I've got a big notion to tell him what I think of him," she said to herself, even as she looked up to greet him. Instantly she saw that he had come for something.

"What is it?" she asked.

"Agatha," he said. "She's been having some severe heart attacks lately, and she just gave me a real scare."

Instantly Kate forgot everything, except Agatha, whom she cordially liked, and Robert, who appeared older, more tired, and worried than she ever had seen him. She thought Agatha had "given him a real scare," and she decided that it scarcely would have been bad enough to put lines in his face she never had noticed before, dark circles under his eyes, a look of weariness in his bearing. She doubted as she looked at him if he were really courting Mrs. Southey. Even as she thought of these things she was asking: "She's better now?"

"Yes, easier, but she suffered terribly. Adam was upset completely. Adam, 3d, and Susan and their families are away from home and won't be back for a few days unless I send for them. They went to Ohio to visit some friends. I stopped to ask if it would be possible for you to go down this evening and sleep there, so that if there did happen to be a recurrence, Adam wouldn't be alone."

"Of course," said Kate, glancing at the baby. "I'll go right away!"

"No need for that," he said, "if you'll arrange to stay with Adam to-night, as a precaution. You needn't go till bed-time. I'm going back after supper to put them in shape for the night. I'm almost sure she'll be all right now; but you know how frightened we can get about those we love."

"Yes, I know," said Kate, quietly, going straight on ripping open ear after ear of corn. Presently she wondered why he did not go. She looked up at him and met his eyes. He was studying her intently. Kate was vividly conscious in an instant of her bare wind-teased head, her husking gloves; she was not at all sure that her face was clean. She smiled at him, and picking up the sunbonnet lying beside her, she wiped her face with the skirt.

"If this sun hits too long on the same spot, it grows warm," she told him.

"Kate, I do wish you wouldn't!" he exclaimed abruptly.

Kate was too forthright for sparring.

"Why not?" she asked.

"For one thing, you are doing a man's work," he said. "For another, I hate to see you burn the loveliest hair I ever saw on the head of a woman, and coarsen your fine skin."

Kate looked down at the ear of corn she held in her hands, and considered an instant.

"There hasn't any man been around asking to relieve me of this work," she said. "I got my start in life doing a man's work, and I'm frank to say that I'd far rather do it any day, than what is usually considered a woman's. As for my looks, I never set a price on them or let them interfere with business, Robert."

"No, I know you don't," he said. "But it's a pity to spoil you."

"I don't know what's the matter with you," said Kate, patiently. She bent her head toward him. "Feel," she said, "and see if my hair isn't soft and fine. I always cover it in really burning sun; this autumn haze is good for it. My complexion is exactly as smooth and even now, as it was the day I first met you on the footlog over twenty years ago. There's one good thing about the Bates women. They wear well. None of us yet have ever faded, and frazzled out. Have you got many Hartley women, doing what you call women's work, to compare with me physically, Robert?"

"You know the answer to that," he said.

"So I do!" said Kate. "I see some of them occasionally, when business calls me that way. Now, Robert, I'm so well, I feel like running a footrace the first thing when I wake up every morning. I'm making money, I'm starting my boy in a safe, useful life; have you many year and a half babies in your practice that can beat Little Poll? I'm as happy as it's humanly possible for me to be without Mother, and Polly, and Nancy Ellen. Mother used always to say that when death struck a family it seldom stopped until it took three. That was my experience, and saving Adam and Little Poll, it took my three dearest; but the separation isn't going to be so very long. If I were you I wouldn't worry about me, Robert. There are many women in the world willing to pay for your consideration; save it for them."

"Kate, I'm sorry I said anything," he said hastily. "I wouldn't offend you purposely, you know."

Kate looked at him in surprise. "But I'm not offended," she said, snapping an ear and reaching for another. "I am merely telling you! Don't give me a thought! I'm all right! If you'll save me an hour the next time Little Poll has a tooth coming through, you'll have completely earned my gratitude. Tell Agatha I'll come as soon as I finish my evening work."

That was clearly a dismissal, for Kate glancing across the field toward Adam, saw that he had advanced to a new shock, so she began husking faster than before.