III. Peregrinations
 

"Peregrinations," laughed Kate, turning to the window to hide her face. "Oh, Agatha, you are a dear, but you are too funny! Even a Fourth of July orator would not have used that word. I never heard it before in all of my life outside spelling-school."

Then she looked at the dollar she was gripping and ceased to laugh.

"The dear lad," she whispered. "He did the whole thing. She was going to let us 'fight it out'; I could tell by her back, and Adam wouldn't have helped me a cent, quite as much because he didn't want to as because Father wouldn't have liked it. Fancy the little chap knowing he can wheedle his mother into anything, and exactly how to go about it! I won't spend a penny on myself until she is paid, and then I'll make her a present of something nice, just to let her and Nancy Ellen see that I appreciate being helped to my chance, for I had reached that point where I would have walked to school and worked in somebody's kitchen, before I'd have missed my opportunity. I could have done it; but this will be far pleasanter and give me a much better showing."

Then Kate began watching the people in the car with eager curiosity, for she had been on a train only twice before in her life. She decided that she was in a company of young people and some even of middle age, going to Normal. She also noticed that most of them were looking at her with probably the same interest she found in them. Then at one of the stations a girl asked to sit with her and explained that she was going to Normal, so Kate said she was also. The girl seemed to have several acquaintances on the car, for she left her seat to speak with them and when the train stopped at a very pleasant city and the car began to empty itself, on the platform Kate was introduced by this girl to several young women and men near her age. A party of four, going to board close the school, with a woman they knew about, invited Kate to go with them and because she was strange and shaken by her experiences she agreed. All of them piled their luggage on a wagon to be delivered, so Kate let hers go also. Then they walked down a long shady street, and entered a dainty and comfortable residence, a place that seemed to Kate to be the home of people of wealth. She was assigned a room with another girl, such a pleasant girl; but a vague uneasiness had begun to make itself felt, so before she unpacked she went back to the sitting room and learned that the price of board was eight dollars a week. Forty- eight dollars for six weeks! She would not have enough for books and tuition. Besides, Nancy Ellen had boarded with a family on Butler Street whose charge was only five-fifty. Kate was eager to stay where these very agreeable young people did, she imagined herself going to classes with them and having association that to her would be a great treat, but she never would dare ask for more money. She thought swiftly a minute, and then made her first mistake.

Instead of going to the other girls and frankly confessing that she could not afford the prices they were paying, she watched her chance, picked up her telescope and hurried down the street, walking swiftly until she was out of sight of the house. Then she began inquiring her way to Butler Street and after a long, hot walk, found the place. The rooms and board were very poor, but Kate felt that she could endure whatever Nancy Ellen had, so she unpacked, and went to the Normal School to register and learn what she would need. On coming from the building she saw that she would be forced to pass close by the group of girls she had deserted and this was made doubly difficult because she could see that they were talking about her. Then she understood how foolish she had been and as she was struggling to summon courage to explain to them she caught these words plainly:

"Who is going to ask her for it?"

"I am," said the girl who had sat beside Kate on the train. "I don't propose to pay it myself!"

Then she came directly to Kate and said briefly: "Fifty cents, please!"

"For what?" stammered Kate.

"Your luggage. You changed your boarding place in such a hurry you forgot to settle, and as I made the arrangement, I had to pay it."

"Do please excuse me," said Kate. "I was so bewildered, I forgot."

"Certainly!" said the girl and Kate dropped the money into the extended hand and hurried past, her face scorched red with shame, for one of them had said: "That's a good one! I wouldn't have thought it of her."

Kate went back to her hot, stuffy room and tried to study, but she succeeded only in being miserable, for she realized that she had lost her second chance to have either companions or friends, by not saying the few words of explanation that would have righted her in the opinion of those she would meet each day for six weeks. It was not a good beginning, while the end was what might have been expected. A young man from her neighbourhood spoke to her and the girls seeing, asked him about Kate, learning thereby that her father was worth more money than all of theirs put together. Some of them had accepted the explanation that Kate was "bewildered" and had acted hastily; but when the young man finished Bates history, they merely thought her mean, and left her severely to herself, so her only recourse was to study so diligently, and recite so perfectly that none of them could equal her, and this she did.

In acute discomfort and with a sore heart, Kate passed her first six weeks away from home. She wrote to each man on the list of school directors she had taken from Nancy Ellen's desk. Some answered that they had their teachers already engaged, others made no reply. One bright spot was the receipt of a letter from Nancy Ellen saying she was sending her best dress, to be very careful of it, and if Kate would let her know the day she would be home she would meet her at the station. Kate sent her thanks, wore the dress to two lectures, and wrote the letter telling when she would return.

As the time drew nearer she became sickeningly anxious about a school. What if she failed in securing one? What if she could not pay back Agatha's money? What if she had taken "the wings of morning," and fallen in her flight? In desperation she went to the Superintendent of the Normal and told him her trouble. He wrote her a fine letter of recommendation and she sent it to one of the men from whom she had not heard, the director of a school in the village of Walden, seven miles east of Hartley, being seventeen miles from her home, thus seeming to Kate a desirable location, also she knew the village to be pretty and the school one that paid well. Then she finished her work the best she could, and disappointed and anxious, entered the train for home.

When the engine whistled at the bridge outside Hartley Kate arose, lifted her telescope from the rack overhead, and made her way to the door, so that she was the first person to leave the car when it stopped. As she stepped to the platform she had a distinct shock, for her father reached for the telescope, while his greeting and his face were decidedly friendly, for him. As they walked down the street Kate was trying wildly to think of the best thing to say when he asked if she had a school. But he did not ask. Then she saw in the pocket of his light summer coat a packet of letters folded inside a newspaper, and there was one long, official-looking envelope that stood above the others far enough that she could see "Miss K --" of the address. Instantly she decided that it was her answer from the School Director of Walden and she was tremblingly eager to see it. She thought an instant and then asked: "Have you been to the post office?"

"Yes, I got the mail," he answered.

"Will you please see if there are any letters for me?" she asked.

"When we get home," he said. "I am in a hurry now. Here's a list of things Ma wants, and don't be all day about getting them."

Kate's lips closed to a thin line and her eyes began to grow steel coloured and big. She dragged back a step and looked at the loosely swaying pocket again. She thought intently a second. As they passed several people on the walk she stepped back of her father and gently raised the letter enough to see that the address was to her. Instantly she lifted it from the others, slipped it up her dress sleeve, and again took her place beside her father until they reached the store where her mother did her shopping. Then he waited outside while Kate hurried in, and ripping open the letter, found a contract ready for her to sign for the Walden school. The salary was twenty dollars a month more than Nancy Ellen had received for their country school the previous winter and the term four months longer.

Kate was so delighted she could have shouted. Instead she went with all speed to the stationary counter and bought an envelope to fit the contract, which she signed, and writing a hasty note of thanks she mailed the letter in the store mail box, then began her mother's purchases. This took so much time that her father came into the store before she had finished, demanding that she hurry, so in feverish haste she bought what was wanted and followed to the buggy. On the road home she began to study her father; she could see that he was well pleased over something but she had no idea what could have happened; she had expected anything from verbal wrath to the buggy whip, so she was surprised, but so happy over having secured such a good school, at higher wages than Nancy Ellen's, that she spent most of her time thinking of herself and planning as to when she would go to Walden, where she would stay, how she would teach, and Oh, bliss unspeakable, what she would do with so much money; for two month's pay would more than wipe out her indebtedness to Agatha, and by getting the very cheapest board she could endure, after that she would have over three fourths of her money to spend each month for books and clothes. She was intently engaged with her side of the closet and her end of the bureau, when she had her first glimpse of home; even preoccupied as she was, she saw a difference. Several loose pickets in the fence had been nailed in place. The lilac beside the door and the cabbage roses had been trimmed, so that they did not drag over the walk, while the yard had been gone over with a lawn-mower.

Kate turned to her father. "Well, for land's sake!" she said. "I wanted a lawn-mower all last summer, and you wouldn't buy it for me. I wonder why you got it the minute I was gone."

"I got it because Nancy Ellen especially wanted it, and she has been a mighty good girl all summer," he said.

"If that is the case, then she should be rewarded with the privilege of running a lawn-mower," said Kate.

Her father looked at her sharply; but her face was so pleasant he decided she did not intend to be saucy, so he said: "No doubt she will be willing to let you help her all you want to."

"Not the ghost of a doubt about that," laughed Kate, "and I always wanted to try running one, too. They look so nice in pictures, and how one improves a place! I hardly know this is home. Now if we only had a fresh coat of white paint we could line up with the neighbours."

"I have been thinking about that," said Mr. Bates, and Kate glanced at him, doubting her hearing.

He noticed her surprise and added in explanation: "Paint every so often saves a building. It's good economy."

"Then let's economize immediately," said Kate. "And on the barn, too. It is even more weather-beaten than the house."

"I'll see about it the next time I go to town," said Mr. Bates; so Kate entered the house prepared for anything and wondering what it all meant for wherever she looked everything was shining the brightest that scrubbing and scouring could make it shine, the best of everything was out and in use; not that it was much, but it made a noticeable difference. Her mother greeted her pleasantly, with a new tone of voice, while Nancy Ellen was transformed. Kate noticed that, immediately. She always had been a pretty girl, now she was beautiful, radiantly beautiful, with a new shining beauty that dazzled Kate as she looked at her. No one offered any explanation while Kate could see none. At last she asked: "What on earth has happened? I don't understand."

"Of course you don't," laughed Nancy Ellen. "You thought you ran the whole place and did everything yourself, so I thought I'd just show you how things look when I run them."

"You are a top-notcher," said Kate. "Figuratively and literally, I offer you the palm. Let the good work go on! I highly approve; but I don't see how you found time to do all this and go to Institute."

"I didn't go to Institute," said Nancy Ellen.

"You didn't! But you must!" cried Kate.

"Oh must I? Well, since you have decided to run your affairs as you please, in spite of all of us, just suppose you let me run mine the same way. Only, I rather enjoy having Father and Mother approve of what I do."

Kate climbed the stairs with this to digest as she went; so while she put away her clothing she thought things over, but saw no light. She would go to Adam's to return the telescope to-morrow, possibly he could tell her. As she hung her dresses in the closet and returned Nancy Ellen's to their places she was still more amazed, for there hung three pretty new wash dresses, one of a rosy pink that would make Nancy Ellen appear very lovely.

What was the reason, Kate wondered. The Bates family never did anything unless there was some purpose in it, what was the purpose in this? And Nancy Ellen had not gone to Institute. She evidently had worked constantly and hard, yet she was in much sweeter frame of mind than usual. She must have spent almost all she had saved from her school on new clothes. Kate could not solve the problem, so she decided to watch and wait. She also waited for someone to say something about her plans, but no one said a word, so after waiting all evening Kate decided that they would ask before they learned anything from her. She took her place as usual, and the work went on as if she had not been away; but she was happy, even in her bewilderment.

If her father noticed the absence of the letter she had slipped from his pocket he said nothing about it as he drew the paper and letters forth and laid them on the table. Kate had a few bad minutes while this was going on, she was sure he hesitated an instant and looked closely at the letters he sorted; but when he said nothing, she breathed deeply in relief and went on being joyous. It seemed to her that never had the family been in such a good-natured state since Adam had married Agatha and her three hundred acres with house, furniture, and stock. She went on in ignorance of what had happened until after Sunday dinner the following day. Then she had planned to visit Agatha and Adam. It was very probable that it was because she was dressing for this visit that Nancy Ellen decided on Kate's enlightenment, for she could not have helped seeing that her sister was almost stunned at times.

Kate gave her a fine opening. As she stood brushing her wealth of gold with full-length sweeps of her arm, she was at an angle that brought her facing the mirror before which Nancy Ellen sat training waves and pinning up loose braids. Her hair was beautiful and she slowly smiled at her image as she tried different effects of wave, loose curl, braids high piled or flat. Across her bed lay a dress that was a reproduction of one that she had worn for three years, but a glorified reproduction. The original dress had been Nancy Ellen's first departure from the brown and gray gingham which her mother always had purchased because it would wear well, and when from constant washing it faded to an exact dirt colour it had the advantage of providing a background that did not show the dirt. Nancy Ellen had earned the money for a new dress by raising turkeys, so when the turkeys went to town to be sold, for the first time in her life Nancy Ellen went along to select the dress. No one told her what kind of dress to get, because no one imagined that she would dare buy any startling variation from what always had been provided for her.

But Nancy Ellen had stood facing a narrow mirror when she reached the gingham counter and the clerk, taking one look at her fresh, beautiful face with its sharp contrasts of black eyes and hair, rose-tinted skin that refused to tan, and red cheeks and lips, began shaking out delicate blues, pale pinks, golden yellows. He called them chambray; insisted that they wore for ever, and were fadeless, which was practically the truth. On the day that dress was like to burst its waist seams, it was the same warm rosy pink that transformed Nancy Ellen from the disfiguration of dirt-brown to apple and peach bloom, wild roses and swamp mallow, a girl quite as pretty as a girl ever grows, and much prettier than any girl ever has any business to be. The instant Nancy Ellen held the chambray under her chin and in an oblique glance saw the face of the clerk, the material was hers no matter what the cost, which does not refer to the price, by any means. Knowing that the dress would be an innovation that would set her mother storming and fill Kate with envy, which would probably culminate in the demand that the goods be returned and exchanged for dirt-brown, when she reached home Nancy Ellen climbed from the wagon and told her father that she was going on to Adam's to have Agatha cut out her dress so that she could begin to sew on it that night. Such commendable industry met his hearty approval, so he told her to go and he would see that Kate did her share of the work. Wise Nancy Ellen came home and sat her down to sew on her gorgeous frock, while the storm she had feared raged in all its fury; but the goods was cut, and could not be returned. Yet, through it, a miracle happened: Nancy Ellen so appreciated herself in pink that the extreme care she used with that dress saved it from half the trips of a dirt-brown one to the wash board and the ironing table; while, marvel of marvels, it did not shrink, it did not fade, also it wore like buckskin. The result was that before the season had passed Kate was allowed to purchase a pale blue, which improved her appearance quite as much in proportion as pink had Nancy Ellen's; neither did the blue fade nor shrink nor require so much washing, for the same reason. Three years the pink dress had been Nancy Ellen's piece de resistance; now she had a new one, much the same, yet conspicuously different. This was a daring rose colour, full and wide, peeping white embroidery trimming, and big pearl buttons, really a beautiful dress, made in a becoming manner. Kate looked at it in cheerful envy. Never mind! The coming summer she would have a blue that would make that pink look silly. From the dress she turned to Nancy Ellen, barely in time to see her bend her head and smirk, broadly, smilingly, approvingly, at her reflection in the glass.

"For mercy sake, what is the matter with you?" demanded Kate, ripping a strand of hair in sudden irritation.

"Oh, something lovely!" answered her sister, knowing that this was her chance to impart the glad tidings herself; if she lost it, Agatha would get the thrill of Kate's surprise. So Nancy Ellen opened her drawer and slowly produced and set upon her bureau a cabinet photograph of a remarkably strong-featured, handsome young man. Then she turned to Kate and smiled a slow, challenging smile. Kate walked over and picked up the picture, studying it intently but in growing amazement.

"Who is he?" she asked finally.

"My man!" answered Nancy Ellen, possessively, triumphantly.

Kate stared at her. "Honest to God?" she cried in wonderment.

"Honest!" said Nancy Ellen.

"Where on earth did you find him?" demanded Kate.

"Picked him out of the blackberry patch," said Nancy Ellen.

"Those darn blackberries are always late," said Kate, throwing the picture back on the bureau. "Ain't that just my luck! You wouldn't touch the raspberries. I had to pick them every one myself. But the minute I turn my back, you go pick a man like that, out of the blackberry patch. I bet a cow you wore your pink chambray, and carried grandmother's old blue bowl."

"Certainly," said Nancy Ellen, "and my pink sun-bonnet. I think maybe the bonnet started it."

Kate sat down limply on the first chair and studied the toes of her shoes. At last she roused and looked at Nancy Ellen, waiting in smiling complaisance as she returned the picture to her end of the bureau.

"Well, why don't you go ahead?" cried Kate in a thick, rasping voice. "Empty yourself! Who is he? Where did he come from? Why was he in our blackberry patch? Has he really been to see you, and is he courting you in earnest? -- But of course he is! There's the lilac bush, the lawn-mower, the house to be painted, and a humdinger dress. Is he a millionaire? For Heaven's sake tell me --"

"Give me some chance! I did meet him in the blackberry patch. He's a nephew of Henry Lang and his name is Robert Gray. He has just finished a medical course and he came here to rest and look at Hartley for a location, because Lang thinks it would be such a good one. And since we met he has decided to take an office in Hartley, and he has money to furnish it, and to buy and furnish a nice house."

"Great Jehoshaphat!" cried Kate. "And I bet he's got wings, too! I do have the rottenest luck!"

"You act for all the world as if it were a foregone conclusion that if you had been here, you'd have won him!"

Nancy Ellen glanced in the mirror and smiled, while Kate saw the smile. She picked up her comb and drew herself to full height.

"If anything ever was a 'foregone conclusion,'" she said, "it is a 'foregone conclusion' that if I had been here, I'd have picked the blackberries, and so I'd have had the first chance at him, at least."

"Much good it would have done you!" cried Nancy Ellen. "Wait until he comes, and you see him!"

"You may do your mushing in private," said Kate. "I don't need a demonstration to convince me. He looks from the picture like a man who would be as soft as a frosted pawpaw."

Nancy Ellen's face flamed crimson. "You hateful spite-cat!" she cried.

Then she picked up the picture and laid it face down in her drawer, while two big tears ran down her cheeks. Kate saw those also. Instantly she relented.

"You big silly goose!" she said. "Can't you tell when any one is teasing? I think I never saw a finer face than the one in that picture. I'm jealous because I never left home a day before in all my life, and the minute I do, here you go and have such luck. Are you really sure of him, Nancy Ellen?"

"Well, he asked Father and Mother, and I've been to visit his folks, and he told them; and I've been with him to Hartley hunting a house; and I'm not to teach this winter, so I can have all my time to make my clothes and bedding. Father likes him fine, so he is going to give me money to get all I need. He offered to, himself."

Kate finished her braid, pulled the combings from the comb and slowly wrapped the end of her hair as she digested these convincing facts. She swung the heavy braid around her head, placed a few pins, then crossed to her sister and laid a shaking hand on her shoulder. Her face was working strongly.

"Nancy Ellen, I didn't mean one ugly word I said. You gave me an awful surprise, and that was just my bald, ugly Bates way of taking it. I think you are one of the most beautiful women I ever have seen, alive or pictured. I have always thought you would make a fine marriage, and I am sure you will. I haven't a doubt that Robert Gray is all you think him, and I am as glad for you as I can be. You can keep house in Hartley for two with scarcely any work at all, and you can have all the pretty clothes you want, and time to wear them. Doctors always get rich if they are good ones, and he is sure to be a good one, once he gets a start. If only we weren't so beastly healthy there are enough Bates and Langs to support you for the first year. And I'll help you sew, and do all I can for you. Now wipe up and look your handsomest!"

Nancy Ellen arose and put her arms around Kate's neck, a stunningly unusual proceeding. "Thank you," she said. "That is big and fine of you. But I always have shirked and put my work on you; I guess now I'll quit, and do my sewing myself."

Then she slipped the pink dress over her head and stood slowly fastening it as Kate started to leave the room. Seeing her go: "I wish you would wait and meet Robert," she said. "I have told him about what a nice sister I have."

"I think I'll go on to Adam's now," said Kate. "I don't want to wait until they go some place, and I miss them. I'll do better to meet your man after I become more accustomed to bare facts, anyway. By the way, is he as tall as you?"

"Yes," said Nancy Ellen, laughing. "He is an inch and a half taller. Why?"

"Oh, I hate seeing a woman taller than her husband and I've always wondered where we'd find men to reach our shoulders. But if they can be picked at random from the berry patch --"

So Kate went on her way laughing, lifting her white skirts high from the late August dust. She took a short cut through the woods and at a small stream, with sure foot, crossed the log to within a few steps of the opposite bank. There she stopped, for a young man rounded the bushes and set a foot on the same log; then he and Kate looked straight into each other's eyes. Kate saw a clean- shaven, forceful young face, with strong lines and good colouring, clear gray eyes, sandy brown hair, even, hard, white teeth, and broad shoulders a little above her own. The man saw Kate, dressed in her best and looking her best. Slowly she extended her hand.

"I bet a picayune you are my new brother, Robert," she said.

The young man gripped her hand firmly, held it, and kept on looking in rather a stunned manner at Kate.

"Well, aren't you?" she asked, trying to withdraw the hand.

"I never, never would have believed it," he said.

"Believed what?" asked Kate, leaving the hand where it was.

"That there could be two in the same family," said he.

"But I'm as different from Nancy Ellen as night from day," said Kate, "besides, woe is me, I didn't wear a pink dress and pick you from the berry patch in a blue bowl."

Then the man released her hand and laughed. "You wouldn't have had the slightest trouble, if you had been there," he said.

"Except that I should have inverted my bowl," said Kate, calmly. "I am looking for a millionaire, riding a milk-white steed, and he must be much taller than you and have black hair and eyes. Good- bye, brother! I will see you this evening."

Then Kate went down the path to deliver the telescope, render her thanks, make her promise of speedy payment, and for the first time tell her good news about her school. She found that she was very happy as she went and quite convinced that her first flight would prove entirely successful.