IV. A Question of Contracts
 

"Hello, Folks!" cried Kate, waving her hand to the occupants of the veranda as she went up the walk. "Glad to find you at home."

"That is where you will always find me unless I am forced away on business," said her brother as they shook hands.

Agatha was pleased with this, and stiff as steel, she bent the length of her body toward Kate and gave her a tight-lipped little peck on the cheek.

"I came over, as soon as I could," said Kate as she took the chair her brother offered, "to thank you for the big thing you did for me, Agatha, when you lent me that money. If I had known where I was going, or the help it would be to me, I should have gone if I'd had to walk and work for my board. Why, I feel so sure of myself! I've learned so much that I'm like the girl fresh from boarding school: 'The only wonder is that one small head can contain it all.' Thank you over and over and I've got a good school, so I can pay you back the very first month, I think. If there are things I must have, I can pay part the first month and the remainder the second. I am eager for pay-day. I can't even picture the bliss of having that much money in my fingers, all my own, to do with as I please. Won't it be grand?"

In the same breath said Agatha: "Procure yourself some clothes!" Said Adam: "Start a bank account!"

Said Kate: "Right you are! I shall do both."

"Even our little Susan has a bank account," said Adam, Jr., proudly.

"Which is no reflection whatever on me," laughed Kate. "Susan did not have the same father and mother I had. I'd like to see a girl of my branch of the Bates family start a bank account at ten."

"No, I guess she wouldn't," admitted Adam, dryly.

"But have you heard that Nancy Ellen has started?" cried Kate. "Only think! A lawn-mower! The house and barn to be painted! All the dinge possible to remove scoured away, inside! She must have worn her fingers almost to the bone! And really, Agatha, have you seen the man? He's as big as Adam, and just fine looking. I'm simply consumed with envy."

"Miss Medira, Dora, Ann, cast her net, and catched a man!" recited Susan from the top step, at which they all laughed.

"No, I have not had the pleasure of casting my optics upon the individual of Nancy Ellen's choice," said Agatha primly, "but Miss Amelia Lang tells me he is a very distinguished person, of quite superior education in a medical way. I shall call him if I ever have the misfortune to fall ill again. I hope you will tell Nancy Ellen that we shall be very pleased to have her bring him to see us some evening, and if she will let me know a short time ahead I shall take great pleasure in compounding a cake and freezing custard."

"Of course I shall tell her, and she will feel a trifle more stuck up than she does now, if that is possible," laughed Kate in deep amusement.

She surely was feeling fine. Everything had come out so splendidly. That was what came of having a little spirit and standing up for your rights. Also she was bubbling inside while Agatha talked. Kate wondered how Adam survived it every day. She glanced at him to see if she could detect any marks of shattered nerves, then laughed outright.

Adam was the finest physical specimen of a man she knew. He was good looking also, and spoke as well as the average, better in fact, for from the day of their marriage, Agatha sat on his lap each night and said these words: "My beloved, to-day I noted an error in your speech. It would put a former teacher to much embarrassment to have this occur in public. In the future will you not try to remember that you should say, 'have gone,' instead of 'have went?'" As she talked Agatha rumpled Adam's hair, pulled off his string tie, upon which she insisted, even when he was plowing; laid her hard little face against his, and held him tight with her frail arms, so that Adam being part human as well as part Bates, held her closely also and said these words: "You bet your sweet life I will!" And what is more he did. He followed a furrow the next day, softly muttering over to himself: "Langs have gone to town. I have gone to work. The birds have gone to building nests." So Adam seldom said: "have went," or made any other error in speech that Agatha had once corrected.

As Kate watched him leaning back in his chair, vital, a study in well-being, the supremest kind of satisfaction on his face, she noted the flash that lighted his eye when Agatha offered to "freeze a custard." How like Agatha! Any other woman Kate knew would have said, "make ice cream." Agatha explained to them that when they beat up eggs, added milk, sugar, and corn-starch it was custard. When they used pure cream, sweetened and frozen, it was iced cream. Personally, she preferred the custard, but she did not propose to call it custard, cream. It was not correct. Why persist in misstatements and inaccuracies when one knew better? So Agatha said iced cream when she meant it, and frozen custard, when custard it was, but every other woman in the neighbourhood, had she acted as she felt, would have slapped Agatha's face when she said it: this both Adam and Kate well knew, so it made Kate laugh despite the fact that she would not have offended Agatha purposely.

"I think -- I think," said Agatha, "that Nancy Ellen has much upon which to congratulate herself. More education would not injure her, but she has enough that if she will allow her ambition to rule her and study in private and spend her spare time communing with the best writers, she can make an exceedingly fair intellectual showing, while she surely is a handsome woman. With a good home and such a fine young professional man as she has had the good fortune to attract, she should immediately put herself at the head of society in Hartley and become its leader to a much higher moral and intellectual plane than it now occupies."

"Bet she has a good time," said young Adam. "He's awful nice."

"Son," said Agatha, "'awful,' means full of awe. A cyclone, a cloudburst, a great conflagration are awful things. By no stretch of the imagination could they be called nice."

"But, Ma, if a cyclone blew away your worst enemy wouldn't it be nice?"

Adam, Jr., and Kate laughed. Not the trace of a smile crossed Agatha's pale face.

"The words do not belong in contiguity," she said. "They are diametrically opposite in meaning. Please do not allow my ears to be offended by hearing you place them in propinquity again."

"I'll try not to, Ma," said young Adam; then Agatha smiled on him approvingly. "When did you meet Mr. Gray, Katherine?" she asked.

"On the foot-log crossing the creek beside Lang's line fence. Near the spot Nancy Ellen first met him I imagine."

"How did you recognize him?"

"Nancy Ellen had just been showing me his picture and telling me about him. Great Day, but she's in love with him!"

"And so he is with her, if Lang's conclusions from his behaviour can be depended upon. They inform me that he can be induced to converse on no other subject. The whole arrangement appeals to me as distinctly admirable."

"And you should see the lilac bush and the cabbage roses," said Kate. "And the strangest thing is Father. He is peaceable as a lamb. She is not to teach, but to spend the winter sewing on her clothes and bedding, and Father told her he would give her the necessary money. She said so. And I suspect he will. He always favoured her because she was so pretty, and she can come closer to wheedling him than any of the rest of us excepting you, Agatha."

"It is an innovation, surely!"

"Mother is nearly as bad. Father furnishing money for clothes and painting the barn is no more remarkable than Mother letting her turn the house inside out. If it had been I, Father would have told me to teach my school this winter, buy my own clothes and linen with the money I had earned, and do my sewing next summer. But I am not jealous. It is because she is handsome, and the man fine-looking and with such good prospects."

"There you have it!" said Adam emphatically. "If it were you, marrying Jim Lang, to live on Lang's west forty, you would pay your own way. But if it were you marrying a fine-looking young doctor, who will soon be a power in Hartley, no doubt, it would tickle Father's vanity until he would do the same for you."

"I doubt it!" said Kate. "I can't see the vanity in Father."

"You can't?" said Adam, Jr., bitterly. "Maybe not! You have not been with him in the Treasurer's office when he calls for 'the tax on those little parcels of land of mine.' He looks every inch of six feet six then, and swells like a toad. To hear him you would think sixteen hundred and fifty acres of the cream of this county could be tied in a bandanna and carried on a walking stick, he is so casual about it. And those men fly around like buttons on a barn door to wait on him and it's 'Mister Bates this' and 'Mister Bates that,' until it turns my stomach. Vanity! He rolls in it! He eats it! He risks losing our land for us that some of us have slaved over for twenty years, to feed that especial vein of his vanity. Where should we be if he let anything happen to those deeds?"

"How refreshing!" cried Kate. "I love to hear you grouching! I hear nothing else from the women of the Bates family, but I didn't even know the men had a grouch. Are Peter, and John, and Hiram, and the other boys sore, too?"

"I should say they are! But they are too diplomatic to say so. They are afraid to cheep. I just open my head and say right out loud in meeting that since I've turned in the taxes and insurance for all these years and improved my land more than fifty per cent., I'd like to own it, and pay my taxes myself, like a man."

"I'd like to have some land under any conditions," said Kate, "but probably I never shall. And I bet you never get a flipper on that deed until Father has crossed over Jordan, which with his health and strength won't be for twenty-five years yet at least. He's performing a miracle that will make the other girls rave, when he gives Nancy Ellen money to buy her outfit; but they won't dare let him hear a whisper of it. They'll take it all out on Mother, and she'll be afraid to tell him."

"Afraid? Mother afraid of him? Not on your life. She is hand in glove with him. She thinks as he does, and helps him in everything he undertakes."

"That's so, too. Come to think of it, she isn't a particle afraid of him. She agrees with him perfectly. It would be interesting to hear them having a private conversation. They never talk a word before us. But they always agree, and they heartily agree on Nancy Ellen's man, that is plainly to be seen."

"It will make a very difficult winter for you, Katherine," said Agatha. "When Nancy Ellen becomes interested in dresses and table linen and bedding she will want to sew all the time, and leave the cooking and dishes for you as well as your schoolwork."

Kate turned toward Agatha in surprise. "But I won't be there! I told you I had taken a school."

"You taken a school!" shouted Adam. "Why, didn't they tell you that Father has signed up for the home school for you?"

"Good Heavens!" said Kate. "What will be to pay now?"

"Did you contract for another school?" cried Adam.

"I surely did," said Kate slowly. "I signed an agreement to teach the village school in Walden. It's a brick building with a janitor to sweep and watch fires, only a few blocks to walk, and it pays twenty dollars a month more than the home school where you can wade snow three miles, build your own fires, and freeze all day in a little frame building at that. I teach the school I have taken."

"And throw our school out of a teacher? Father could be sued, and probably will be," said Adam. "And throw the housework Nancy Ellen expected you to do on her," said Agatha, at the same time.

"I see," said Kate. "Well, if he is sued, he will have to settle. He wouldn't help me a penny to go to school, I am of age, the debt is my own, and I don't owe it to him. He's had all my work has been worth all my life, and I've surely paid my way. I shall teach the school I have signed for."

"You will get into a pretty kettle of fish!" said Adam.

"Agatha, will you sell me your telescope for what you paid for it, and get yourself a new one the next time you go to Hartley? It is only a few days until time to go to my school, it opens sooner than in the country, and closes later. The term is four months longer, so I earn that much more. I haven't gotten a telescope yet. You can add it to my first payment."

"You may take it," said Agatha, "but hadn't you better reconsider, Katherine? Things are progressing so nicely, and this will upset everything for Nancy Ellen."

"That taking the home school will upset everything for me, doesn't seem to count. It is late, late to find teachers, and I can be held responsible if I break the contract I have made. Father can stand the racket better than I can. When he wouldn't consent to my going, he had no business to make plans for me. I had to make my own plans and go in spite of him; he might have known I'd do all in my power to get a school. Besides, I don't want the home school, or the home work piled on me. My hands look like a human being's for the first time in my life; then I need all my time outside of school to study and map out lessons. I am going to try for a room in the Hartley schools next year, or the next after that, surely. They sha'n't change my plans and boss me, I am going to be free to work, and study, and help myself, like other teachers."

"A grand row this will be," commented young Adam. "And as usual Kate will be right, while all of them will be trying to use her to their advantage. Ma has done her share. Now it is your turn, Pa. Ain't you going to go over and help her?"

"What could I do?" demanded his father. "The mischief is done now."

"Well, if you can't do anything to help, you can let me have the buggy to drive her to Walden, if they turn her out."

"'Forcibly invite her to proceed to her destination,' you mean, son," said Agatha.

"Yes, Ma, that is exactly what I mean," said young Adam. "Do I get the buggy?"

"Yes, you may take my private conveyance. But do nothing to publish the fact. There is no need to incur antagonism if it can be avoided."

"Kate, I'll be driving past the privet bush about nine in the morning. If you need me, hang a white rag on it, and I'll stop at the corner of the orchard."

"I shall probably be standing in the road waiting for you," said Kate.

"Oh, I hope not," said Agatha.

"Looks remarkably like it to me," said Kate.

Then she picked up the telescope, said good-bye to each of them, and in acute misery started back to her home. This time she followed the footpath beside the highway. She was so busy with her indignant thought that she forgot to protect her skirts from the dust of wayside weeds, while in her excitement she walked so fast her face was red and perspiring when she approached the church.

"Oh, dear, I don't know about it," said Kate to the small, silent building. "I am trying to follow your advice, but it seems to me that life is very difficult, any way you go at it. If it isn't one thing, it is another. An hour ago I was the happiest I have ever been in my life; only look at me now! Any one who wants 'the wings of morning' may have them for all of me. It seems definitely settled that I walk, carry a load, and fight for the chance to do even that."

A big tear rolled down either side of Kate's nose and her face twisted in self-pity for an instant. But when she came in sight of home her shoulders squared, the blue-gray of her eyes deepened to steel, and her lips set in a line that was an exact counterpart of her father's when he had made up his mind and was ready to drive his family, with their consent or without it. As she passed the vegetable garden -- there was no time or room for flowers in a Bates garden -- Kate, looking ahead, could see Nancy Ellen and Robert Gray beneath the cherry trees. She hoped Nancy Ellen would see that she was tired and dusty, and should have time to brush and make herself more presentable to meet a stranger, and so Nancy Ellen did; for which reason she immediately arose and came to the gate, followed by her suitor whom she at once introduced. Kate was in no mood for words; one glance at her proved to Robert Gray that she was tired and dusty, that there were tear marks dried on her face. They hastily shook hands, but neither mentioned the previous meeting. Excusing herself Kate went into the house saying she would soon return.

Nancy Ellen glanced at Robert, and saw the look of concern on his face.

"I believe she has been crying," she said. "And if she has, it's something new, for I never saw a tear on her face before in my life."

"Truly?" he questioned in amazement.

"Why, of course! The Bates family are not weepers."

"So I have heard," said the man, rather dryly.

Nancy Ellen resented his tone.

"Would you like us better if we were?"

"I couldn't like you better than I do, but because of what I have heard and seen, it naturally makes me wonder what could have happened that has made her cry."

"We are rather outspoken, and not at all secretive," said Nancy Ellen, carelessly, "you will soon know."

Kate followed the walk around the house and entered at the side door, finding her father and mother in the dining room reading the weekly papers. Her mother glanced up as she entered.

"What did you bring Agatha's telescope back with you for?" she instantly demanded.

For a second Kate hesitated. It had to come, she might as well get it over. Possibly it would be easier with them alone than if Nancy Ellen were present.

"It is mine," she said. "It represents my first purchase on my own hook and line."

"You are not very choicy to begin on second-hand stuff. Nancy Ellen would have had a new one."

"No doubt!" said Kate. "But this will do for me."

Her father lowered his paper and asked harshly: "What did you buy that thing for?"

Kate gripped the handle and braced herself.

"To pack my clothes in when I go to my school next week," she said simply.

"What?" he shouted. "What?" cried her mother.

"I don't know why you seem surprised," said Kate. "Surely you knew I went to Normal to prepare myself to teach. Did you think I couldn't find a school?"

"Now look here, young woman," shouted Adam Bates, "you are done taking the bit in your teeth. Nancy Ellen is not going to teach this winter. I have taken the home school for you; you will teach it. That is settled. I have signed the contract. It must be fulfilled."

"Then Nancy Ellen will have to fulfill it," said Kate. "I also have signed a contract that must be fulfilled. I am of age, and you had no authority from me to sign a contract for me."

For an instant Kate thought there was danger that the purple rush of blood to her father's head might kill him. He opened his mouth, but no distinct words came. Her face paled with fright, but she was of his blood, so she faced him quietly. Her mother was quicker of wit, and sharper of tongue.

"Where did you get a school? Why didn't you wait until you got home?" she demanded.

"I am going to teach the village school in Walden," said Kate. "It is a brick building, has a janitor, I can board reasonably, near my work, and I get twenty dollars more a month than our school pays, while the term is four months longer."

"Well, it is a pity about that; but it makes no difference," said her mother. "Our home school has got to be taught as Pa contracted, and Nancy Ellen has got to have her chance."

"What about my chance?" asked Kate evenly. "Not one of the girls, even Exceptional Ability, ever had as good a school or as high wages to start on. If I do well there this winter, I am sure I can get in the Hartley graded schools next fall."

"Don't you dare nickname your sister," cried Mrs. Bates, shrilly. "You stop your impudence and mind your father."

"Ma, you leave this to me," said Adam Bates, thickly. Then he glared at Kate as he arose, stretching himself to full height. "You've signed a contract for a school?" he demanded.

"I have," said Kate.

"Why didn't you wait until you got home and talked it over with us?" he questioned.

"I went to you to talk over the subject to going," said Kate. "You would not even allow me to speak. How was I to know that you would have the slightest interest in what school I took, or where."

"When did you sign this contract?" he continued.

"Yesterday afternoon, in Hartley," said Kate.

"Aha! Then I did miss a letter from my pocket. When did you get to be a thief?" he demanded.

"Oh, Father!" cried Kate. "It was my letter. I could see my name on the envelope. I asked you for it, before I took it."

"From behind my back, like the sneak-thief you are. You are not fit to teach in a school where half the scholars are the children of your brothers and sisters, and you are not fit to live with honest people. Pack your things and be off!"

"Now? This afternoon?" asked Kate.

"This minute!" he cried.

"All right. You will be surprised at how quickly I can go," said Kate.

She set down the telescope and gathered a straw sunshade and an apron from the hooks at the end of the room, opened the dish cupboard, and took out a mug decorated with the pinkest of wild roses and the reddest and fattest of robins, bearing the inscription in gold, "For a Good Girl" on a banner in its beak. Kate smiled at it grimly as she took the telescope and ran upstairs. It was the work of only a few minutes to gather her books and clothing and pack the big telescope, then she went down the front stairs and left the house by the front door carrying in her hand everything she possessed on earth. As she went down the walk Nancy Ellen sprang up and ran to her while Robert Gray followed.

"You'll have to talk to me on the road," said Kate. "I am forbidden the house which also means the grounds, I suppose."

She walked across the road, set the telescope on the grass under a big elm tree, and sat down beside it.

"I find I am rather tired," she said. "Will you share the sofa with me?"

Nancy Ellen lifted her pink skirt and sat beside Kate. Robert Gray stood looking down at them.

"What in the world is the matter?" asked Nancy Ellen.

"You know, of course, that Father signed a contract for me to teach the home school this winter," explained Kate. "Well, I am of age, and he had no authority from me, so his contract isn't legal. None of you would lift a finger to help me get away to Normal, how was I to know that you would take any interest in finding me a school while I was gone? I thought it was all up to me, so I applied for the school in Walden, got it, and signed the contract to teach it. It is a better school, at higher wages. I thought you would teach here -- I can't break my contract. Father is furious and has ordered me out of the house. So there you are, or rather here I am."

"Well, it isn't much of a joke," said Nancy Ellen, thinking intently.

What she might have said had they been alone, Kate always wondered. What she did say while her betrothed looked at her with indignant eyes was possibly another matter. It proved to be merely: "Oh, Kate, I am so sorry!"

"So am I," said Kate. "If I had known what your plans were, of course I should gladly have helped you out. If only you had written me and told me."

"I wanted to surprise you," said Nancy Ellen.

"You have," said Kate. "Enough to last a lifetime. I don't see how you figured. You knew how late it was. You knew it would be nip and tuck if I got a school at all."

"Of course we did! We thought you couldn't possibly get one, this late, so we fixed up the scheme to let you have my school, and let me sew on my linen this winter. We thought you would be as pleased as we were."

"I am too sorry for words," said Kate. "If I had known your plan, I would have followed it, even though I gave up a better school at a higher salary. But I didn't know. I thought I had to paddle my own canoe, so I made my own plans. Now I must live up to them, because my contract is legal, while Father's is not. I would have taught the school for you, in the circumstances, but since I can't, so far as I am concerned, the arrangement I have made is much better. The thing that really hurts the worst, aside from disappointing you, is that Father says I was not honest in what I did."

"But what did you do?" cried Nancy Ellen.

So Kate told them exactly what she had done.

"Of course you had a right to your own letter, when you could see the address on it, and it was where you could pick it up," said Robert Gray.

Kate lifted dull eyes to his face.

"Thank you for so much grace, at any rate," she said.

"I don't blame you a bit," said Nancy Ellen. "In the same place I'd have taken it myself."

"You wouldn't have had to," said Kate. "I'm too abrupt -- too much like the gentleman himself. You would have asked him in a way that would have secured you the letter with no trouble."

Nancy Ellen highly appreciated these words of praise before her lover. She arose immediately.

"Maybe I could do something with him now," she said. "I'll go and see."

"You shall do nothing of the kind," said Kate. "I am as much Bates as he is. I won't be taunted afterward that he turned me out and that I sent you to him to plead for me."

"I'll tell him you didn't want me to come, that I came of my own accord," offered Nancy Ellen.

"And he won't believe you," said Kate.

"Would you consent for me to go?" asked Robert Gray.

"Certainly not! I can look out for myself."

"What shall you do?" asked Nancy Ellen anxiously.

"That is getting slightly ahead of me," said Kate. "If I had been diplomatic I could have evaded this until morning. Adam, 3d, is to be over then, prepared to take me anywhere I want to go. What I have to face now is a way to spend the night without letting the neighbours know that I am turned out. How can I manage that?"

Nancy Ellen and Robert each began making suggestions, but Kate preferred to solve her own problems.

"I think," she said, "that I shall hide the telescope under the privet bush, there isn't going to be rain to-night; and then I will go down to Hiram's and stay all night and watch for Adam when he passes in the morning. Hiram always grumbles because we don't come oftener."

"Then we will go with you," said Nancy Ellen. "It will be a pleasant evening walk, and we can keep you company and pacify my twin brother at the same time."

So they all walked to the adjoining farm on the south and when Nancy Ellen and Robert were ready to start back, Kate said she was tired and she believed she would stay until morning, which was agreeable to Hiram and his wife, a girlhood friend of Kate's. As Nancy Ellen and Robert walked back toward home: "How is this going to come out?" he asked, anxiously.

"It will come out all right," said Nancy Ellen, serenely. "Kate hasn't a particle of tact. She is Father himself, all over again. It will come out this way: he will tell me that Kate has gone back on him and I shall have to teach the school, and I will say that is the only solution and the best thing to do. Then I shall talk all evening about how provoking it is, and how I hate to change my plans, and say I am afraid I shall lose you if I have to put off our wedding to teach the school, and things like that," Nancy Ellen turned a flushed sparkling face to Robert, smiling quizzically, "and to-morrow I shall go early to see Serena Woodruff, who is a fine scholar and a good teacher, but missed her school in the spring by being so sick she was afraid to contract for it. She is all right now, and she will be delighted to have the school, and when I know she will take it then I shall just happen to think of her in a day or two and I'll suggest her, after I've wailed a lot more; and Father will go to see her of his own accord, and it will all be settled as easy as falling off a chunk, only I shall not get on so fast with my sewing, because of having to help Mother; but I shall do my best, and everything will be all right."

The spot was secluded. Robert Gray stopped to tell Nancy Ellen what a wonderful girl she was. He said he was rather afraid of such diplomacy. He foresaw clearly that he was going to be a managed man. Nancy Ellen told him of course he was, all men were, the thing was not to let them know it. Then they laughed and listened to a wood robin singing out his little heart in an evening song that was almost as melodious as his spring performances had been.