V. The Prodigal Daughter
 

Early in the morning Kate set her young nephew on the gate-post to watch for his cousin, and he was to have a penny for calling at his approach. When his lusty shout came, Kate said good-bye to her sister-in-law, paid the penny, kissed the baby, and was standing in the road when Adam stopped. He looked at her inquiringly.

"Well, it happened," she said. "He turned me out instanter, with no remarks about when I might return, if ever, while Mother cordially seconded the motion. It's a good thing, Adam, that you offered to take care of me, because I see clearly that you are going to have it to do."

"Of course I will," said Adam promptly. "And of course I can. Do you want to go to Hartley for anything? Because if you don't, we can cut across from the next road and get to Walden in about fifteen miles, while it's seventeen by Hartley; but if you want to go we can, for I needn't hurry. I've got a box of lunch and a feed for my horse in the back of the buggy. Mother said I was to stay with you until I saw you settled in your room, if you had to go; and if you do, she is angry with Grandpa, and she is going to give him a portion of her mentality the very first time she comes in contact with him. She said so."

"Yes, I can almost hear her," said Kate, struggling to choke down a rising laugh. "She will never know how I appreciate what she has done for me, but I think talking to Father will not do any good. Home hasn't been so overly pleasant. It's been a small, dark, cramped house, dingy and hot, when it might have been big, airy, and comfortable, well furnished and pretty as Father's means would allow, and as all the neighbours always criticize him for not having it; it's meant hard work and plenty of it ever since I was set to scouring the tinware with rushes at the mature age of four, but it's been home, all the home I have had, and it hurts more than I can tell you to be ordered out of it as I was, but if I do well and make a big success, maybe he will let me come back for Christmas, or next summer's vacation."

"If he won't, Ma said you could come to our house," said Adam.

"That's kind of her, but I couldn't do it," said Kate.

"She said you could," persisted the boy.

"But if I did it, and father got as mad as he was last night and tore up your father's deed, then where would I be?" asked Kate.

"You'd be a sixteenth of two hundred acres better off than you are now," said Adam.

"Possibly," laughed Kate, "but I wouldn't want to become a land shark that way. Look down the road."

"Who is it?" asked Adam.

"Nancy Ellen, with my telescope," answered Kate. "I am to go, all right."

"All right, then we will go," said the boy, angrily. "But it is a blame shame and there is no sense to it, as good a girl as you have been, and the way you have worked. Mother said at breakfast there was neither sense nor justice in the way Grandpa always has acted and she said she would wager all she was worth that he would live to regret it. She said it wasn't natural, and when people undertook to controvert -- ain't that a peach? Bet there isn't a woman in ten miles using that word except Ma -- nature they always hurt themselves worse than they hurt their victims. And I bet he does, too, and I, for one, don't care. I hope he does get a good jolt, just to pay him up for being so mean."

"Don't, Adam, don't!" cautioned Kate.

"I mean it!" cried the boy.

"I know you do. That's the awful thing about it," said Kate. "I am afraid every girl he has feels the same way, and from what your father said yesterday, even the sons he favours don't feel any too good toward him."

"You just bet they don't! They are every one as sore as boiled owls. Pa said so, and he knows, for they all talk it over every time they meet. He said they didn't feel like men, they felt like a lot of 'spanked school-boys.'"

"They needn't worry," said Kate. "Every deed is made out. Father reads them over whenever it rains. They'll all get their land when he dies. It is only his way."

"Yes, and this is only his way, too, and it's a dern poor way," said Adam. "Pa isn't going to do this way at all. Mother said he could go and live on his land, and she'd stay home with Susan and me, if he tried it. And when I am a man I am going to do just like Pa and Ma because they are the rightest people I know, only I am not going to save quite so close as Pa, and if I died for it, I never could converse or dance like Ma."

"I should hope not!" said Kate, and then added hastily, "it's all right for a lady, but it would seem rather sissy for a man, I believe."

"Yes, I guess it would, but it is language let me tell you, when Ma cuts loose," said Adam.

"Hello, Nancy Ellen," said Kate as Adam stopped the buggy. "Put my telescope in the back with the horse feed. Since you have it, I don't need ask whether I am the Prodigal Daughter or not. I see clearly I am."

Nancy Ellen was worried, until she was pale.

"Kate," she said, "I never have seen Father so angry in all my life. I thought last night that in a day or two I could switch the school over to Serena Woodruff, and go on with my plans, but Father said at breakfast if the Bates name was to stand for anything approaching honour, a Bates would teach that school this winter or he'd know the reason why. And you know how easy it is to change him. Oh, Kate, won't you see if that Walden trustee can't possibly find another teacher, and let you off? I know Robert will be disappointed, for he's rented his office and bought a house and he said last night to get ready as soon after Christmas as I could. Oh, Kate, won't you see if you can't possibly get that man to hire another teacher?"

"Why, Nancy Ellen --" said Kate.

Nancy Ellen, with a twitching face, looked at Kate.

"If Robert has to wait months, there in Hartley, handsome as he is, and he has to be nice to everybody to get practice, and you know how those Hartley girls are --"

"Yes, Nancy Ellen, I know," said Kate. "I'll see what I can do. Is it understood that if I give up the school and come back and take ours, Father will let me come home?"

"Yes, oh, yes!" cried Nancy Ellen.

"Well, nothing goes on guess-work. I'll hear him say it, myself," said Kate.

She climbed from the buggy. Nancy Ellen caught her arm.

"Don't go in there! Don't you go there," she cried. "He'll throw the first thing he can pick up at you. Mother says he hasn't been asleep all night."

"Pooh!" said Kate. "How childish! I want to hear him say that, and he'll scarcely kill me."

She walked swiftly to the side door.

"Father," she said, "Nancy Ellen is afraid she will lose Robert Gray if she has to put off her marriage for months --"

Kate stepped back quickly as a chair crashed against the door facing. She again came into view and continued -- "so she asked me if I would get out of my school and come back if I could" -- Kate dodged another chair; when she appeared again -- "To save the furniture, of which we have none too much, I'll just step inside," she said. When her father started toward her, she started around the dining table, talking as fast as she could, he lunging after her like a furious bull. "She asked me to come back and teach the school -- to keep her from putting off her wedding -- because she is afraid to -- If I can break my contract there -- may I come back and help her out here?"

The pace was going more swiftly each round, it was punctuated at that instant by a heavy meat platter aimed at Kate's head. She saw it picked up and swayed so it missed.

"I guess that is answer enough for me," she panted, racing on. "A lovely father you are -- no wonder your daughters are dishonest through fear of you -- no wonder your wife has no mind of her own -- no wonder your sons hate you and wish you would die -- so they could have their deeds and be like men -- instead of 'spanked school-boys' as they feel now -- no wonder the whole posse of us hate you."

Directly opposite the door Kate caught the table and drew it with her to bar the opening. As it crashed against the casing half the dishes flew to the floor in a heap. When Adam Bates pulled it from his path he stepped in a dish of fried potatoes and fell heavily. Kate reached the road, climbed in the buggy, and said the Nancy Ellen: "You'd better hide! Cut a bundle of stuff and send it to me by Adam and I'll sew my fingers to the bone for you every night. Now drive like sin, Adam!"

As Adam Bates came lurching down the walk in fury the buggy dashed past and Kate had not even time to turn her head to see what happened.

"Take the first turn," she said to Adam. "I've done an awful thing."

"What did you do?" cried the boy.

"Asked him as nicely as I could; but he threw a chair at me. Something funny happened to me, and I wasn't afraid of him at all. I dodged it, and finished what I was saying, and another chair came, so the two Bates went at it."

"Oh, Kate, what did you do?" cried Adam.

"Went inside and ran around the dining table while I told him what all his sons and daughters think of him. 'Spanked school-boys' and all --"

"Did you tell him my father said that?" he demanded.

"No. I had more sense left than that," said Kate. "I only said all his boys felt like that. Then I pulled the table after me to block the door, and smashed half the dishes and he slipped in the fried potatoes and went down with a crash --"

"Bloody Murder!" cried young Adam, aghast.

"Me, too!" said Kate. "I'll never step in that house again while he lives. I've spilled the beans, now."

"That you have," said Adam, slacking his horse to glance back. "He is standing in the middle of the road shaking his fist after you."

"Can you see Nancy Ellen?" asked Kate.

"No. She must have climbed the garden fence and hidden behind the privet bush."

"Well, she better make it a good long hide, until he has had plenty of time to cool off. He'd have killed me if he had caught me, after he fell -- and wasted all those potatoes already cooked ----"

Kate laughed a dry hysterical laugh, but the boy sat white-faced and awed.

"Never mind," said Kate, seeing how frightened he was. "When he has had plenty of time he'll cool off; but he'll never get over it. I hope he doesn't beat Mother, because I was born."

"Oh, drat such a man!" said young Adam. "I hope something worse that this happens to him. If ever I see Father begin to be the least bit like him as he grows older I shall ----"

"Well, what shall you do?" asked Kate, as he paused.

"Tell Ma!" cried young Adam, emphatically.

Kate leaned her face in her hands and laughed. When she could speak she said: "Do you know, Adam, I think that would be the very best thing you could do."

"Why, of course!" said Adam.

They drove swiftly and reached Walden before ten o'clock. There they inquired their way to the home of the Trustee, but Kate said nothing about giving up the school. She merely made a few inquiries, asked for the key of the schoolhouse, and about boarding places. She was directed to four among which she might choose.

"Where would you advise me to go?" she asked the Trustee.

"Well, now, folks differ," said he. "All those folks is neighbours of mine and some might like one, and some might like another, best. I could say this: I think Means would be the cheapest, Knowls the dearest, but the last teacher was a good one, an' she seemed well satisfied with the Widder Holt."

"I see," said Kate, smiling.

Then she and young Adam investigated the schoolhouse and found it far better than any either of them had ever been inside. It promised every comfort and convenience, compared with schools to which they had been accustomed, so they returned the keys, inquired about the cleaning of the building, and started out to find a boarding place. First they went to the cheapest, but it could be seen at a glance that it was too cheap, so they eliminated that. Then they went to the most expensive, but it was obvious from the house and grounds that board there would be more than Kate would want to pay.

"I'd like to save my digestion, and have a place in which to study, where I won't freeze," said Kate, "but I want to board as cheaply as I can. This morning changes my plans materially. I shall want to go to school next summer part of the time, but the part I do not, I shall have to pay my way, so I mustn't spend money as I thought I would. Not one of you will dare be caught doing a thing for me. To make you safe I'll stay away, but it will cost me money that I'd hoped to have for clothes like other girls."

"It's too bad," said Adam, "but I'll stick to you, and so will Ma."

"Of course you will, you dear boy," said Kate. "Now let's try our third place; it is not far from here."

Soon they found the house, but Kate stopped short on sight of it.

"Adam, there has been little in life to make me particular," she said, "but I draw the line at that house. I would go crazy in a house painted bright red with brown and blue decoration. It should be prohibited by law. Let us hunt up the Widder Holt and see how her taste in colour runs."

"The joke is on you," said Adam, when they had found the house.

It was near the school, on a wide shady street across which big maples locked branches. There was a large lot filled with old fruit trees and long grass, with a garden at the back. The house was old and low, having a small porch in front, but if it ever had seen paint, it did not show it at that time. It was a warm linty gray, the shingles of the old roof almost moss-covered.

"The joke is on me," said Kate. "I shall have no quarrel with the paint here, and will you look at that?"

Adam looked where Kate pointed across the street, and nodded.

"That ought to be put in a gold frame," he said.

"I think so, too," said Kate. "I shouldn't be a bit surprised if I stay where I can see it."

They were talking of a deep gully facing the house and running to a levee where the street crossed. A stream ran down it, dipped under a culvert, turned sharply, and ran away to a distant river, spanning which they could see the bridge. Tall old forest trees lined the banks, shrubs and bushes grew in a thicket. There were swaying, clambering vines and a babel of bird notes over the seed and berry bearing bushes.

"Let's go inside, and if we agree, then we will get some water and feed the horse and eat our lunch over there," said Kate.

"Just the thing!" said young Adam. "Come and we will proceed to the residence of Mrs. Holt and investigate her possibilities. How do you like that?"

"That is fine," said Kate gravely.

"It is," said Adam, promptly, "because it is Ma. And whatever is Ma, is right."

"Good for you!" cried Kate. "I am going to break a Bates record and kiss you good-bye, when you go. I probably shan't have another in years. Come on."

They walked up the grassy wooden walk, stepped on the tiny, vine- covered porch, and lifted and dropped a rusty old iron knocker. Almost at once the door opened, to reveal a woman of respectable appearance, a trifle past middle age. She made Kate think of dried sage because she had a dried-out look and her complexion, hair, and eyes were all that colour. She was neat and clean while the hall into which she invited them was clean and had a wholesome odour. Kate explained her errand. Mrs. Holt breathed a sigh of relief.

"Well, thank goodness I was before-handed," she said. "The teacher stayed here last year and she was satisfied, so I ast the Trustee to mention me to the new teacher. Nobody was expecting you until the last of the week, but I says to myself, 'always take time by the fetlock, Samantha, always be ready'; so last week I put in scouring my spare room to beat the nation, and it's all ready so's you can walk right in."

"Thank you," said Kate, rather resenting the assumption that she was to have no option in the matter. "I have four places on my list where they want the teacher, so I thought I would look at each of them and then decide."

"My, ain't we choicey!" said Mrs. Holt in sneering tones. Then she changed instantly, and in suave commendation went on: "That's exactly right. That's the very thing fer you to do. After you have seen what Walden has to offer, then a pretty young thing like you can make up your mind where you will have the most quiet fer your work, the best room, and be best fed. One of the greatest advantages here fer a teacher is that she can be quiet, an' not have her room rummaged. Every place else that takes boarders there's a lot of children; here there is only me and my son, and he is grown, and will be off to his medical work next week fer the year, so all your working time here, you'd be alone with me. This is the room."

"That surely would be a great advantage, because I have much studying to do," said Kate as they entered the room.

With one glance, she liked it. It was a large room with low ceiling, quaintly papered in very old creamy paper, scattered with delicately cut green leaves, but so carefully had the room been kept, that it was still clean. There were four large windows to let in light and air, freshly washed white curtains hanging over the deep green shades. The floor was carpeted with a freshly washed rag carpet stretched over straw, the bed was invitingly clean and looked comfortable, there was a wash stand with bowl and pitcher, soap and towels, a small table with a lamp, a straight- backed chair and a rocking chair. Mrs. Holt opened a large closet having hooks for dresses at one end and shelves at the other. On the top of these there were a comfort and a pair of heavy blankets.

"Your winter covers," said Mrs. Holt, indicating these, "and there is a good stove I take out in summer to make more room, and set up as soon as it gets cold, and that is a wood box."

She pointed out a shoe box covered with paper similar to that on the walls.

Kate examined the room carefully, the bed, the closet, and tried the chairs. Behind the girl, Mrs. Holt, with compressed lips, forgetting Adam's presence, watched in evident disapproval.

"I want to see the stove," said Kate.

"It is out in the woodhouse. It hasn't been cleaned up for the winter yet."

"Then it won't be far away. Let's look at it."

Almost wholly lacking experience, Kate was proceeding by instinct in exactly the same way her father would have taken through experience. Mrs. Holt hesitated, then turned: "Oh, very well," she said, leading the way down the hall, through the dining room, which was older in furnishing and much more worn, but still clean and wholesome, as were the small kitchen and back porch. From it there was only a step to the woodhouse, where on a little platform across one end sat two small stoves for burning wood, one so small as to be tiny. Kate walked to the larger, lifted the top, looked inside, tried the dampers and drafts and turning said: "That is very small. It will require more wood than a larger one."

Mrs. Holt indicated dry wood corded to the roof.

"We git all our wood from the thicket across the way. That little strip an' this lot is all we have left of father's farm. We kept this to live on, and sold the rest for town lots, all except that gully, which we couldn't give away. But I must say I like the trees and birds better than mebby I'd like people who might live there; we always git our wood from it, and the shade an' running water make it the coolest place in town."

"Yes, I suppose they do," said Kate.

She took one long look at everything as they returned to the hall.

"The Trustee told me your terms are four dollars and fifty cents a week, furnishing food and wood," she said, "and that you allowed the last teacher to do her own washing on Saturday, for nothing. Is that right?"

The thin lips drew more tightly. Mrs. Holt looked at Kate from head to foot in close scrutiny.

"I couldn't make enough to pay the extra work at that," she said. "I ought to have a dollar more, to really come out even. I'll have to say five-fifty this fall."

"If that is the case, good-bye," said Kate. "Thank you very much for showing me. Five-fifty is what I paid at Normal, it is more than I can afford in a village like this."

She turned away, followed by Adam. They crossed the street, watered the horse at the stream, placed his food conveniently for him, and taking their lunch box, seated themselves on a grassy place on the bank and began eating.

"Wasn't that a pretty nice room?" asked Adam. "Didn't you kind of hate to give it up?"

"I haven't the slightest intention of giving it up," answered Kate. "That woman is a skin-flint and I don't propose to let her beat me. No doubt she was glad to get four-fifty last fall. She's only trying to see if she can wring me for a dollar more. If I have to board all next summer, I shall have to watch every penny, or I'll not come out even, let alone saving anything. I'll wager you a nickel that before we leave, she comes over here and offers me the room at the same price she got last winter."

"I hope you are right," said Adam. "How do you like her?"

"Got a grouch, nasty temper, mean disposition; clean house, good room, good cook -- maybe; lives just on the edge of comfort by daily skimping," summarized Kate.

"If she comes, are you going to try it?" asked Adam.

"Yes, I think I shall. It is nearest my purse and requirements and if the former teacher stayed there, it will seem all right for me; but she isn't going to put that little stove in my room. It wouldn't heat the closet. How did you like her?"

"Not much!" said Adam, promptly. "If glaring at your back could have killed you, you would have fallen dead when you examined the closet, and bedding, and stove. She honeyed up when she had to, but she was mad as hops. I nearly bursted right out when she talked about 'taking time by the fetlock.' I wanted to tell her she looked like she had, and almost got the life kicked out of her doing it, but I thought I'd better not."

Kate laughed. "Yes, I noticed," she said, "but I dared not look at you. I was afraid you'd laugh. Isn't this a fine lunch?"

"Bet your life it is," said Adam. "Ma never puts up any other kind."

"I wish someone admired me as much as you do your mother, Adam," said Kate.

"Well, you be as nice as Ma, and somebody is sure to," said he.

"But I never could," said Kate.

"Oh, yes, you could," said Adam, "if you would only set yourself to do it and try with all your might to be like her. Look, quick! That must be her 'Medical Course' man!"

Kate glanced across the way and saw a man she thought to be about thirty years of age. He did not resemble his mother in any particular, if he was the son of Mrs. Holt. He was above the average man in height, having broad, rather stooping shoulders, dark hair and eyes. He stopped at the gate and stood a few seconds looking at them, so they could not very well study him closely, then he went up the walk with loose, easy stride and entered the house.

"Yes, that is her son," said Kate. "That is exactly the way a man enters a house that belongs to him."

"That isn't the way I am going to enter my house," said Adam. "Now what shall we do?"

"Rest half an hour while they talk it over, and then get ready to go very deliberately. If she doesn't come across, literally and figuratively, we hunt another boarding place."

"I half believe she will come," said Adam. "She is watching us; I can see her pull back the blind of her room to peep."

"Keep looking ahead. Don't let her think you see her. Let's go up the creek and investigate this ravine. Isn't it a lovely place?"

"Yes. I'm glad you got it," said Adam, "that is, if she come across. I will think of you as having it to look at in summer; and this winter -- my, what rabbit hunting there will be, and how pretty it will look!"

So they went wandering up the ravine, sometimes on one bank, sometimes crossing stepping-stones or logs to the other, looking, talking, until a full hour had passed when they returned to the buggy. Adam began changing the halter for the bridle while Kate shook out the lap robe.

"Nickel, please," whispered Kate.

Adam glanced across the street to see Mrs. Holt coming. She approached them and with no preliminaries said: "I have been telling my son about you an' he hates so bad to go away and leave me alone for the winter, that he says to take you at the same as the last teacher, even if I do lose money on it."

"Oh, you wouldn't do that, Mrs. Holt," said Kate, carelessly. "Of course it is for you to decide. I like the room, and if the board was right for the other teacher it will be for me. If you want me to stay, I'll bring my things over and take the room at once. If not, I'll look farther."

"Come right over," said Mrs. Holt, cordially. "I am anxious to git on the job of mothering such a sweet young lady. What will you have for your supper?"

"Whatever you are having," said Kate. "I am not accustomed to ordering my meals. Adam, come and help me unpack."

In half an hour Kate had her dresses on the hooks, her underclothing on the shelves, her books on the table, her pencils and pen in the robin cup, and was saying goodbye to Adam, and telling him what to tell his father, mother, and Nancy Ellen -- if he could get a stolen interview with her on the way home. He also promised to write Kate what happened about the home school and everything in which she would be interested. Then she went back to her room, sat in the comfortable rocking chair, and with nothing in the world she was obliged to do immediately, she stared at the opposite wall and day by day reviewed the summer. She sat so long and stared at the wall so intently that gradually it dissolved and shaped into the deep green ravine across the way, which sank into soothing darkness and the slowly lightened until a peep of gold came over the tree tops; and then, a red sun crept up having a big wonderful widespread wing on each side of it. Kate's head fell with a jerk which awakened her, so she arose, removed her dress, washed and brushed her hair, put on a fresh dress and taking a book, she crossed the street and sat on the bank of the stream again, which she watched instead of reading, as she had intended.