XXVIII. The Eleventh Hour
 

Robert said good-bye and started back toward his car. Kate looked after him as he reached the fence. A surge of pity for him swept up in her heart. He seemed far from happy, and he surely was very tired. Impulsive as always, she lifted her clear voice and called: "Robert!"

He paused with his foot on a rail of the fence, and turned toward her.

"Have you had any dinner?" she asked.

He seemed to be considering. "Come to think of it, I don't believe I have," he said.

"I thought you looked neglected," said Kate. "Sonny across the field is starting a shock ahead of me; I can't come, but go to the kitchen -- the door is unlocked -- you'll find fried chicken and some preserves and pickles in the pantry; the bread box is right there, and the milk and butter are in the spring house."

He gave Kate one long look. "Thank you," he said and leaped the fence. He stopped on the front walk and stood a minute, then he turned and went around the house. She laughed aloud. She was sending him to chicken perfectly cooked, barely cold, melon preserves, pickled cucumbers, and bread like that which had for years taken a County Fair prize each fall; butter yellow as the goldenrod lining the fences, and cream stiff enough to stand alone. Also, he would find neither germ nor mould in her pantry and spring house, while it would be a new experience for him to let him wait on himself. Kate husked away in high good humour, but she quit an hour early to be on time to go to Agatha. She explained this to Adam, when she told him that he would have to milk alone, while she bathed and dressed herself and got supper.

When she began to dress, Kate examined her hair minutely, and combed it with unusual care. If Robert was at Agatha's when she got there, she would let him see that her hair was not sunburned and ruined. To match the hair dressing, she reached back in her closet and took down her second best white dress. She was hoping that Agatha would be well enough to have a short visit. Kate worked so steadily that she seldom saw any of her brothers and sisters during the summer. In winter she spent a day with each of them, if she could possibly manage. Anyway, Agatha would like to see her appearing well, so she put on the plain snowy linen, and carefully pinning a big apron over it, she went to the kitchen. They always had a full dinner at noon and worked until dusk. Her bath had made her later than she intended to be. Dusk was deepening, evening chill was beginning to creep into the air. She closed the door, fed Little Poll and rolled her into bed; set the potatoes boiling, and began mixing the biscuit. She had them just ready to roll when steam lifted the lid of the potato pot; with the soft dough in her hand she took a step to right it. While it was in her fingers, she peered into the pot.

She did not look up on the instant the door opened, because she thought it would be Adam. When she glanced toward the door, she saw Robert standing looking at her. He had stepped inside, closed the door, and with his hand on the knob was waiting for her to see him.

"Oh! Hello!" said Kate. "I thought it was Adam. Have you been to Agatha's yet?"

"Yes. She is very much better," he said. "I only stopped to tell you that her mother happened to come out for the night, and they'll not need you."

"I'm surely glad she is better," said Kate, "but I'm rather disappointed. I've been swimming, and I'm all ready to go."

She set the pot lid in place accurately and gave her left hand a deft turn to save the dough from dripping. She glanced from it to Robert, expecting to see him open the door and disappear. Instead he stood looking at her intently. Suddenly he said: "Kate, will you marry me?"

Kate mechanically saved the dough again, as she looked at the pot an instant, then she said casually: "Sure! It would be splendid to have a doctor right in the house when Little Poll cuts her double teeth."

"Thank you!" said Robert, tersely. "No doubt that would be a privilege, but I decline to marry you in order to see Little Poll safely through teething. Good-night!"

He stepped outside and closed the door very completely, and somewhat pronouncedly.

Kate stood straight an instant, then realized biscuit dough was slowly creeping down her wrist. With a quick fling, she shot the mass into the scrap bucket and sinking on the chair she sat on to peel vegetables, she lifted her apron, laid her head on her knees, and gave a big gulping sob or two. Then she began to cry silently. A minute later the door opened again. That time it had to be Adam, but Kate did not care what he saw or what he thought. She cried on in perfect abandon.

Then steps crossed the room, someone knelt beside her, put an arm around her and said: "Kate, why are you crying?"

Kate lifted her head suddenly, and applied her apron skirt. "None of your business," she said to Robert's face, six inches from hers.

"Are you so anxious as all this about Little Poll's teeth?" he asked.

"Oh, drat Little Poll's teeth!" cried Kate, the tears rolling uninterruptedly.

"Then why did you say that to me?" he demanded.

"Well, you said you 'only stopped to tell me that I needn't go to Agatha's,'" she explained. "I had to say something, to get even with you!"

"Oh," said Robert, and took possession. Kate put her arms around his neck, drew his head against hers, and knew a minute of complete joy.

When Adam entered the house his mother was very busy. She was mixing more biscuit dough, she was laughing like a girl of sixteen, she snatched out one of their finest tablecloths, and put on many extra dishes for supper, while Uncle Robert, looking like a different man, was helping her. He was actually stirring the gravy, and getting the water, and setting up chairs. And he was under high tension, too. He was saying things of no moment, as if they were profound wisdom, and laughing hilariously at things that were scarcely worth a smile. Adam looked on, and marvelled and all the while his irritation grew. At last he saw a glance of understanding pass between them. He could endure it no longer.

"Oh, you might as well say what you think," he burst forth. "You forgot to pull down the blinds."

Both the brazen creatures laughed as if that were a fine joke. They immediately threw off all reserve. By the time the meal was finished, Adam was struggling to keep from saying the meanest things he could think of. Also, he had to go to Milly, with nothing very definite to tell. But when he came back, his mother was waiting for him. She said at once: "Adam, I'm very sorry the blind was up to-night. I wanted to talk to you, and tell you myself, that the first real love for a man that I have ever known, is in my heart to-night."

"Why, Mother!" said Adam.

"It's true," said Kate, quietly. "You see Adam, the first time I ever saw Robert Gray, I knew, and he knew, that he had made a mistake in engaging himself to Nancy Ellen; but the thing was done, she was happy, we simply realized that we would have done better together, and let it go at that. But all these years I have known that I could have made him a wife who would have come closer to his ideals than my sister, and she should have had the man who wanted to marry me. They would have had a wonderful time together."

"And where did my father come in?" asked Adam, quietly.

"He took advantage of my blackest hour," said Kate. "I married him when I positively didn't care what happened to me. The man I could have loved was married to my sister, the man I could have married and lived with in comfort to both of us was out of the question; it was in the Bates blood to marry about the time I did; I had seen only the very best of your father, and he was an attractive lover, not bad looking, not embarrassed with one single scruple -- it's the way of the world. I took it. I paid for it. Only God knows how dearly I paid; but Adam, if you love me, stand by me now. Let me have this eleventh hour happiness, with no alloy. Anything I feel for your Uncle Robert has nothing in the world to do with my being your mother; with you being my son. Kiss me, and tell me you're glad, Adam."

Adam rose up and put his arms around his mother. All his resentment was gone. He was happy as he could be for his mother, and happier than he ever before had been for himself.

The following afternoon, Kate took the car and went to see Agatha instead of husking corn. She dressed with care and arrived about three o'clock, leading Poll in whitest white, with cheeks still rosy from her afternoon nap. Agatha was sitting up and delighted to see them. She said they were the first of the family who had come to visit her, and she thought they had come because she was thinking of them. Then she told Kate about her illness. She said it dated from father Bates stroke, and the dreadful days immediately following, when Adam had completely lost self-control, and she had not been able to influence him. "I think it broke my heart," she said simply. Then they talked the family over, and at last Agatha said: "Kate, what is this I hear about Robert? Have you been informed that Mrs. Southey is back in Hartley, and that she is working every possible chance and using multifarious blandishments on him?"

Kate laughed heartily and suddenly. She never had heard "blandishments" used in common conversation. As she struggled to regain self-possession Agatha spoke again.

"It's no laughing matter," she said. "The report has every ear- mark of verisimilitude. The Bates family has a way of feeling deeply. We all loved Nancy Ellen. We all suffered severely and lost something that never could be replaced when she went. Of course all of us realized that Robert would enter the bonds of matrimony again; none of us would have objected, even if he remarried soon; but all of us do object to his marrying a woman who would have broken Nancy Ellen's heart if she could; and yesterday I took advantage of my illness, and told him so. Then I asked him why a man of his standing and ability in this community didn't frustrate that unprincipled creature's vermiculations toward him, by marrying you, at once."

Slowly Kate sank down in her chair. Her face whitened and then grew greenish. She breathed with difficulty.

"Oh, Agatha!" was all she could say.

"I do not regret it," said Agatha. "If he is going to ruin himself, he is not going to do it without knowing that the Bates family highly disapprove of his course."

"But why drag me in?" said Kate, almost too shocked to speak at all. "Maybe he loves Mrs. Southey. She has let him see how she feels about him; possibly he feels the same about her."

"He does, if he weds her," said Agatha, conclusively. "Anything any one could say or do would have no effect, if he had centred his affections upon her, of that you may be very sure."

"May I?" asked Kate, dully.

"Indeed, you may!" said Agatha. "The male of the species, when he is a man of Robert's attainments and calibre, can be swerved from pursuit of the female he covets, by nothing save extinction."

"You mean," said Kate with an effort, "that if Robert asked a woman to marry him, it would mean that he loved her."

"Indubitably!" cried Agatha.

Kate laughed until she felt a little better, but she went home in a mood far different from that in which she started. Then she had been very happy, and she had intended to tell Agatha about her happiness, the very first of all. Now she was far from happy. Possibly -- a thousand things, the most possible, that Robert had responded to Agatha's suggestion, and stopped and asked her that abrupt question, from an impulse as sudden and inexplicable as had possessed her when she married George Holt. Kate fervently wished she had gone to the cornfield as usual that afternoon.

"That's the way it goes," she said angrily, as she threw off her better dress and put on her every-day gingham to prepare supper. "That's the way it goes! Stay in your element, and go on with your work, and you're all right. Leave your job and go trapesing over the country, wasting your time, and you get a heartache to pay you. I might as well give up the idea that I'm ever to be happy, like anybody else. Every time I think happiness is coming my way, along comes something that knocks it higher than Gilderoy's kite. Hang the luck!"

She saw Robert pass while she was washing the dishes, and knew he was going to Agatha's, and would stop when he came back. She finished her work, put Little Poll to bed, and made herself as attractive as she knew how in her prettiest blue dress. All the time she debated whether she would say anything to him about what Agatha had said or not. She decided she would wait awhile, and watch how he acted. She thought she could soon tell. So when Robert came, she was as nearly herself as possible, but when he began to talk about being married soon, the most she would say was that she would begin to think about it at Christmas, and tell him by spring. Robert was bitterly disappointed. He was very lonely; he needed better housekeeping than his aged mother was capable of, to keep him up to a high mark in his work. Neither of them was young any longer; he could see no reason why they should not be married at once. Of the reason in Kate's mind, he had not a glimmering. But Kate had her way. She would not even talk of a time, or express an opinion as to whether she would remain on the farm, or live in Nancy Ellen's house, or sell it and build whatever she wanted for herself. Robert went away baffled, and disappointed over some intangible thing he could not understand.

For six weeks Kate tortured herself, and kept Robert from being happy. Then one morning Agatha stopped to visit with her, while Adam drove on to town. After they had exhausted farming, Little Poll's charms, and the neighbours, Agatha looked at Kate and said: "Katherine, what is this I hear about Robert coming here every day, now? It appeals to me that he must have followed my advice."

"Of course he never would have thought of coming, if you hadn't told him so," said Kate dryly.

"Now there you are in error," said the literal Agatha, as she smoothed down Little Poll's skirts and twisted her ringlets into formal corkscrews. "Right there, you are in error, my dear. The reason I told Robert to marry you was because he said to me, when he suggested going after you to stay the night with me, that he had seen you in the field when he passed, and that you were the most glorious specimen of womanhood that he ever had seen. He said you were the one to stay with me, in case there should be any trouble, because your head was always level, and your heart was big as a barrel."

"Yes, that's the reason I can't always have it with me," said Kate, looking glorified instead of glorious. "Agatha, it just happens to mean very much to me. Will you just kindly begin at the beginning, and tell me every single word Robert said to you, and you said to him, that day?"

"Why, I have informed you explicitly," said Agatha, using her handkerchief on the toe of Poll's blue shoe. "He mentioned going after you, and said what I told you, and I told him to go. He praised you so highly that when I spoke to him about the Southey woman I remembered it, so I suggested to him, as he seemed to think so well of you. It just that minute flashed into my mind; but he made me think of it, calling you 'glorious,' and 'level headed,' and 'big hearted.' Heavens! Katherine Eleanor, what more could you ask?"

"I guess that should be enough," said Kate.

"One certainly would presume so," said Agatha.

Then Adam came, and handed Kate her mail as she stood beside his car talking to him a minute, while Agatha settled herself. As Kate closed the gate behind her, she saw a big, square white envelope among the newspapers, advertisements, and letters. She slipped it out and looked at it intently. Then she ran her finger under the flap and read the contents. She stood studying the few lines it contained, frowning deeply. "Doesn't it beat the band?" she asked of the surrounding atmosphere. She went up the walk, entered the living room, slipped the letter under the lid of the big family Bible, and walking to the telephone she called Dr. Gray's office. He answered the call in person.

"Robert, this is Kate," she said. "Would you have any deeply rooted objections to marrying me at six o'clock this evening?"

"Well, I should say not!" boomed Robert's voice, the "not" coming so forcibly Kate dodged.

"Have you got the information necessary for a license?" she asked.

"Yes," he answered.

"Then bring one, and your minister, and come at six," she said. "And Oh, yes, Robert, will it be all right with you if I stay here and keep house for Adam until he and Milly can be married and move in? Then I'll come to your house just as it is. I don't mind coming to Nancy Ellen's home, as I would another woman's."

"Surely!" he cried. "Any arrangement you make will satisfy me."

"All right, I'll expect you with the document and the minister at six, then," said Kate, and hung up the receiver.

Then she took it down again and calling Milly, asked her to bring her best white dress, and come up right away, and help her get ready to entertain a few people that evening. Then she called her sister Hannah, and asked her if she thought that in the event she, Kate, wished that evening at six o'clock to marry a very fine man, and had no preparations whatever made, her family would help her out to the extent of providing the supper. She wanted all of them, and all the children, but the arrangement had come up suddenly, and she could not possibly prepare a supper herself, for such a big family, in the length of time she had. Hannah said she was perfectly sure everyone of them would drop everything, and be tickled to pieces to bring the supper, and to come, and they would have a grand time. What did Kate want? Oh, she wanted bread, and chicken for meat, maybe some potato chips, and Angel's Food cake, and a big freezer or two of Agatha's best ice cream, and she thought possibly more butter, and coffee, than she had on hand. She had plenty of sugar, and cream, and pickles and jelly. She would have the tables all set as she did for Christmas. Then Kate rang for Adam and put a broom in his hand as he entered the back door. She met Milly with a pail of hot water and cloths to wash the glass. She went to her room and got out her best afternoon dress of dull blue with gold lace and a pink velvet rose. She shook it out and studied it. She had worn it twice on the trip North. None of them save Adam ever had seen it. She put it on, and looked at it critically. Then she called Milly and they changed the neck and sleeves a little, took a yard of width from the skirt, and behold! it became a "creation," in the very height of style. Then Kate opened her trunk, and got out the petticoat, hose, and low shoes to match it, and laid them on her bed.

Then they set the table, laid a fire ready to strike in the cook stove, saw that the gas was all right, set out the big coffee boiler, and skimmed a crock full of cream. By four o'clock, they could think of nothing else to do. Then Kate bathed and went to her room to dress. Adam and Milly were busy making themselves fine. Little Poll sat in her prettiest dress, watching her beloved "Tate," until Adam came and took her. He had been instructed to send Robert and the minister to his mother's room as soon as they came. Kate was trying to look her best, yet making haste, so that she would be ready on time. She had made no arrangements except to spread a white goatskin where she and Robert would stand at the end of the big living room near her door. Before she was fully dressed she began to hear young voices and knew that her people were coming. When she was ready Kate looked at herself and muttered: "I'll give Robert and all of them a good surprise. This is a real dress, thanks to Nancy Ellen. The poor girl! It's scarcely fair to her to marry her man in a dress she gave me; but I'd stake my life she'd rather I'd have him than any other woman."

It was an evening of surprises. At six, Adam lighted a big log, festooned with leaves and berries so that the flames roared and crackled up the chimney. The early arrivals were the young people who had hung the mantel, gas fixtures, curtain poles and draped the doors with long sprays of bittersweet, northern holly, and great branches of red spice berries, dogwood with its red leaves and berries, and scarlet and yellow oak leaves. The elders followed and piled the table with heaps of food, then trailed red vines between dishes. In a quandary as to what to wear, without knowing what was expected of him further than saying "I will," at the proper moment, Robert ended by slipping into Kate's room, dressed in white flannel. The ceremony was over at ten minutes after six. Kate was lovely, Robert was handsome, everyone was happy, the supper was a banquet. The Bates family went home, Adam disappeared with Milly, while Little Poll went to sleep.

Left to themselves, Robert took Kate in his arms and tried to tell her how much he loved her, but felt he expressed himself poorly. As she stood before him, he said: "And now, dear, tell me what changed you, and why we are married to-night instead of at Christmas, or in the spring."

"Oh, yes," said Kate, "I almost forgot! Why, I wanted you to answer a letter for me."

"Lucid!" said Robert. He seated himself beside the table. "Bring on the ink and stationary, and let me get it over."

Kate obeyed, and with the writing material, laid down the letter she had that morning received from John Jardine, telling her that his wife had died suddenly, and that as soon as he had laid her away, he was coming to exact a definite promise from her as to the future; and that he would move Heaven and earth before he would again be disappointed. Robert read the letter and laid it down, his face slowing flushing scarlet.

"You called me out here, and married me expressly to answer this?" he demanded.

"Of course!" said Kate. "I thought if you could tell him that his letter came the day I married you, it would stop his coming, and not be such a disappointment to him."

Robert pushed the letter from him violently, and arose "By -- --!" he checked himself and stared at her. "Kate, you don't mean that!" he cried. "Tell me, you don't mean that!"

"Why, sure I do," said Kate. "It gave me a fine excuse. I was so homesick for you, and tired waiting to begin life with you. Agatha told me about her telling you the day she was ill, to marry me; and the reason I wouldn't was because I thought maybe you asked me so offhandlike, because she told you to, and you didn't really love me. Then this morning she was here, and we were talking, and she got round it again, and then she told me all you said, and I saw you did love me, and that you would have asked me if she hadn't said anything, and I wanted you so badly. Robert, ever since that day we met on the footlog, I've know that you were the only man I'd every really want to marry. Robert, I've never come anywhere near loving anybody else. The minute Agatha told me this morning, I began to think how I could take back what I'd been saying, how I could change, and right then Adam handed me that letter, and it gave me a fine way out, and so I called you. Sure, I married you to answer that, Robert; now go and do it."

"All right," he said. "In a minute."

Then he walked to her and took her in his arms again, but Kate could not understand why he was laughing until he shook when he kissed her.