A Daughter Of The Land by Gene Stratton-Porter
VI. Kate's Private Pupil
At first Kate merely sat in a pleasant place and allowed her nerves to settle, after the short nap she had enjoyed in the rocking chair. It was such a novel experience for her to sit idle, that despite the attractions of growing things, running water, and singing birds, she soon veered to thoughts of what she would be doing if she were at home, and that brought her to the fact that she was forbidden her father's house; so if she might not go there, she was homeless. As she had known her father for nearly nineteen years, for she had a birth anniversary coming in a few days, she felt positive that he never would voluntarily see her again, while with his constitution, he would live for years. She might as well face the fact that she was homeless; and prepare to pay her way all the year round. She wondered why she felt so forlorn and what made the dull ache in her throat.
She remembered telling Nancy Ellen before going away to Normal that she wished her father would drive her from home. Now that was accomplished. She was away from home, in a place where there was not one familiar face, object, or plan of life, but she did not wish for it at all. She devoutly wished that she were back at home even if she were preparing supper, in order that Nancy Ellen might hem towels. She wondered what they were saying: her mind was crystal clear as to what they were doing. She wondered if Nancy Ellen would send Adam, 3d, with a parcel of cut-out sewing for her to work on. She resolved to sew quickly and with stitches of machine-like evenness, if it came. She wondered if Nancy Ellen would be compelled to put off her wedding and teach the home school in order that it might be taught by a Bates, as her father had demanded. She wondered if Nancy Ellen was forced to this uncongenial task, whether it would sour the wonderful sweetness developed by her courtship, and make her so provoked that she would not write or have anything to do with her. They were nearly the same age; they had shared rooms, and, until recently, beds, and whatever life brought them; now Kate lifted her head and ran her hand against her throat to ease the ache gathering there more intensely every minute. With eyes that did not see, she sat staring at the sheer walls of the ravine as it ran toward the east, where the water came tumbling and leaping down over stones and shale bed. When at last she arose she had learned one lesson, not in the History she carried. No matter what its disadvantages are, having a home of any kind is vastly preferable to having none. And the casualness of people so driven by the demands of living and money making that they do not take time even to be slightly courteous and kind, no matter how objectionable it may be, still that, even that, is better than their active displeasure. So she sat brooding and going over and over the summer, arguing her side of the case, honestly trying to see theirs, until she was mentally exhausted and still had accomplished nothing further than arriving at the conclusion that if Nancy Ellen was forced to postpone her wedding she would turn against her and influence Robert Gray in the same feeling.
Then Kate thought of Him. She capitalized him in her thought, for after nineteen years of Bates men Robert Gray would seem a deified creature to their women. She reviewed the scene at the crossing log, while her face flushed with pleasure. If she had remained at home and had gone after the blackberries, as it was sure as fate that she would have done, then she would have met him first, and he would have courted her instead of Nancy Ellen. Suddenly Kate shook herself savagely and sat straight. "Why, you big fool!" she said. "Nancy Ellen went to the berry patch in a pink dress, wearing a sunbonnet to match, and carrying a blue bowl. Think of the picture she made! But if I had gone, I'd have been in a ragged old dirt-coloured gingham, Father's boots, and his old straw hat jammed down to my ears; I'd have been hot and in a surly temper, rebelling because I had the berries to pick. He would have taken one look at me, jumped the fence, and run to Lang's for dear life. Better cut that idea right out!"
So Kate "cut that idea out" at once, but the operation was painful, because when one turns mental surgeon and operates on the ugly spots in one's disposition, there is no anaesthetic, nor is the work done with skilful hands, so the wounds are numerous and leave ugly scars; but Kate was ruthless. She resolved never to think of that brook scene again. In life, as she had lived it, she would not have profited by having been first at the berry patch. Yet she had a right to think of Robert Gray's face, grave in concern for her, his offers to help, the influence he would have in her favour with Nancy Ellen. Of course if he was forced to postpone his wedding he would not be pleased; but it was impossible that the fears which were tormenting Nancy Ellen would materialize into action on his part. No sane man loved a woman as beautiful as her sister and cast her aside because of a few months' enforced waiting, the cause of which he so very well knew; but it would make both of them unhappy and change their beautiful plans, after he even had found and purchased the house. Still Nancy Ellen said that her father was making it a point of honour that a Bates should teach the school, because he had signed the contract for Kate to take the place Nancy Ellen had intended to fill, and then changed her plans. He had sworn that a Bates should teach the school. Well, Hiram had taken the county examination, as all pupils of the past ten years had when they finished the country schools. It was a test required to prove whether they had done their work well. Hiram held a certificate for a year, given him by the County Superintendent, when he passed the examinations. He had never used it. He could teach; he was Nancy Ellen's twin. School did not begin until the first of November. He could hire help with his corn if he could not finish alone. He could arise earlier than usual and do his feeding and milking; he could clean the stables haul wood on Saturday and Sunday, if he must, for the Bates family looked on Sunday more as a day of rest for the horses and physical man than as one of religious observances. They always worked if there was anything to be gained by it. Six months being the term, he would be free by the first of May; surely the money would be an attraction, while Nancy Ellen could coach him on any new methods she had learned at Normal. Kate sprang to her feet, ran across the street, and entering the hall, hurried to her room. She found Mrs. Holt there in the act of closing her closet door. Kate looked at her with astonished eyes.
"I was just telling my son," Mrs. Holt said rather breathlessly, "that I would take a peep and see if I had forgot to put your extra covers on the shelf."
Kate threw her book on the bed and walked to the table. She had experienced her share of battle for the day. "No children to rummage," passed through her brain. It was the final week of hot, dry August weather, while a point had been made of calling her attention to the extra cover when the room had been shown her. She might have said these things, but why say them? The shamed face of the woman convicted her of "rummaging," as she had termed it. Without a word Kate sat down beside the table, drew her writing material before her, and began addressing an envelope to her brother Hiram. Mrs. Holt left the room, disliking Kate more than if she had said what the woman knew she thought.
Kate wrote briefly, convincingly, covering every objection and every advantage she could conceive, and then she added the strongest plea she could make. What Hiram would do, she had no idea. As with all Bates men, land was his God, but it required money to improve it. He would feel timid about making a first attempt to teach after he was married and a father of a child, but Nancy Ellen's marriage would furnish plausible excuse; all of the family had done their school work as perfectly as all work they undertook; he could teach if he wanted to; would he want to? If he did, at least, she would be sure of the continued friendship of her sister and Robert Gray. Suddenly Kate understood what that meant to her as she had not realized before. She was making long strides toward understanding herself, which is the most important feature of any life.
She sent a line of pleading to her sister-in-law, a word of love to the baby, and finishing her letter, started to post it, as she remembered the office was only a few steps down the street. In the hall it occurred to her that she was the "Teacher" now, and so should be an example. Possibly the women of Walden did not run bareheaded down the street on errands. She laid the letter on a small shelf of an old hatrack, and stepped back to her room to put on her hat. Her return was so immediate that Mrs. Holt had the letter in her fingers when Kate came back, and was reading the address so intently, that with extended hand, the girl said in cold tones: "My letter, please!" before the woman realized she was there. Their eyes met in a level look. Mrs. Holt's mouth opened in ready excuse, but this time Kate's temper overcame her better judgment.
"Can you read it clearly, without your glasses?" she asked politely. "I wouldn't for the world have you make a mistake as to whom my letter is addressed. It goes to my brother Hiram Bates, youngest son of Adam Bates, Bates Corners, Hartley, Indiana."
"I was going to give it to my son, so that he could take it to the office," said Mrs. Holt.
"And I am going to take it myself, as I know your son is down town and I want it to go over on the evening hack, so it will be sure to go out early in the morning."
Surprise overcame Mrs. Holt's discomfiture.
"Land sakes!" she cried. "Bates is such a common name it didn't mean a thing to me. Be you a daughter of Adam Bates, the Land King, of Bates Corners?"
"I be," said Kate tersely.
"Well, I never! All them hundreds of acres of land an' money in the bank an' mortgages on half his neighbours. Whut the nation! An' no more of better clo's an' you got! An' teachin' school! I never heard of the like in all my days!"
"If you have Bates history down so fine, you should know that every girl of the entire Bates family has taught from the time she finished school until she married. Also we never buy more clothing than we need, or of the kind not suitable for our work. This may explain why we own some land and have a few cents in the Bank. My letter, please."
Kate turned and went down the street, a dull red tingeing her face. "I could hate that woman cordially without half trying," she said.
The house was filled with the odour of cooking food when she returned and soon she was called to supper. As she went to the chair indicated for her, a step was heard in the hall. Kate remained standing and when a young man entered the room Mrs. Holt at once introduced her son, George. He did not take the trouble to step around the table and shake hands, but muttered a gruff "howdy do?" and seating himself, at once picked up the nearest dish and began filling his plate.
His mother would have had matters otherwise. "Why, George," she chided. "What's your hurry? Why don't you brush up and wait on Miss Bates first?"
"Oh, if she is going to be one of the family," he said, "she will have to learn to get on without much polly-foxing. Grub is to eat. We can all reach at a table of this size."
Kate looked at George Holt with a searching glance. Surely he was almost thirty, of average height, appeared strong, and as if he might have a forceful brain; but he was loosely jointed and there was a trace of domineering selfishness on his face that was repulsive to her. "I could hate that man cordially, without half trying," she thought to herself, smiling faintly at the thought.
The sharp eyes of Mrs. Holt detected the smile. She probably would have noticed it, if Kate had merely thought of smiling.
"Why do you smile, my dear?" she asked in melting tone.
"Oh, I was feeling so at home," answered Kate, suavely. "Father and the boys hold exactly those opinions and practise them in precisely the same way; only if I were to think about it at all, I should think that a man within a year of finishing a medical course would begin exercising politeness with every woman he meets. I believe a doctor depends on women to be most of his patients, and women don't like a rude doctor."
"Rot!" said George Holt.
"Miss Bates is exactly right," said his mother. "Ain't I been tellin' you the whole endurin' time that you'd never get a call unless you practised manners as well as medicine? Ain't I, now?"
"Yes, you have," he said, angrily. "But if you think all of a sudden that manners are so essential, why didn't you hammer some into me when you had the whip hand and could do what you pleased? You didn't find any fault with my manners, then."
"How of all the world was I to know that you'd grow up and go in for doctorin'? I s'pos'd then you'd take the farm an' run it like your pa did, stead of forcin' me to sell it off by inches to live, an' then you wastin' half the money."
"Go it, Mother," said George Holt, rudely. "Tell all you know, and then piece out with anything you can think of that you don't."
Mrs. Holt's face flushed crimson. She looked at Kate and said vindictively: "If you want any comfort in life, never marry and bring a son inter the world. You kin humour him, and cook for him, an work your hands to the bone fur him, and sell your land, and spend all you can raise educatin' him for half a dozen things, an' him never stickin to none or payin' back a cent, but sass in your old age -- "
"Go it, Mother, you're doing fine!" said George. "If you keep on Miss Bates will want to change her boarding place before morning."
"It will not be wholly your mother's fault, if I do," said Kate. "I would suggest that if we can't speak civilly, we eat our supper in silence. This is very good food; I could enjoy it, if I had a chance."
She helped herself to another soda biscuit and a second piece of fried chicken and calmly began eating them.
"That's a good idy!" said Mrs. Holt.
"Then why don't you practice it?" said her son.
Thereupon began a childish battle for the last word. Kate calmly arose, picked up her plate, walked from the room, down the hall, and entering her own room, closed the door quietly.
"You fool! You great big dunderheaded fool!" cried Mrs. Holt. "Now you have done it, for the thousandth time. She will start out in less than no time to find some place else to stay, an' who could blame her? Don't you know who she is? Ain't you sense in your head? If there was ever a girl you ort to go after, and go quick an' hard, there she is!"
"What? That big beef! What for?" asked George.
"You idjit! You idjit! Don't you sense that she's a daughter of Adam Bates? Him they call the Land King. Ain't you sense ner reason? Drive her from the house, will you? An' me relyin' on sendin' you half her board money to help you out? You fool!"
"Why under the Heavens didn't you tell me? How could I know? No danger but the bowl is upset, and it's all your fault. She should be worth ten thousand, maybe twenty!"
"I never knew till jist before supper. I got it frum a letter she wrote to her brother. I'd no chanct to tell you. Course I meant to, first chanct I had; but you go to work an upset everything before I get a chanct. You never did amount to anything, an' you never will."
"Oh, well, now stop that. I didn't know. I thought she was just common truck. I'll fix it up with her right after supper. Now shut up."
"You can't do it! It's gone too far. She'll leave the house inside fifteen minutes," said Mrs. Holt.
"Well, I'll just show you," he boasted.
George Holt pushed back his plate, wiped his mouth, brushed his teeth at the washing place on the back porch, and sauntered around the house to seat himself on the front porch steps. Kate saw him there and remained in her room. When he had waited an hour he arose and tapped on her door. Kate opened it.
"Miss Bates," he said. "I have been doing penance an hour. I am very sorry I was such a boor. I was in earnest when I said I didn't get the gad when I needed it. I had a big disappointment to-day, and I came in sore and cross. I am ashamed of myself, but you will never see me that way again. I know I will make a failure of my profession if I don't be more polite than Mother ever taught me to be. Won't you let me be your scholar, too? Please do come over to the ravine where it is cool and give me my first lesson. I need you dreadfully."
Kate was desperately in need of human companionship in that instant, herself, someone who could speak, and sin, and suffer, and repent. As she looked straight in the face of the man before her she saw, not him being rude and quarrelling pettily with his mother, but herself racing around the dining table pursued by her father raving like an insane man. Who was she to judge or to refuse help when it was asked? She went with him; and Mrs. Holt, listening and peering from the side of the window blind of her room across the hall, watched them cross the road and sit beside each other on the bank of the ravine in what seemed polite and amicable conversation. So she heaved a deep sign of relief and went to wash the dishes and plan breakfast. "Better feed her up pretty well 'til she gits the habit of staying here and mebby the rest who take boarders will be full," she said to herself. "Time enough to go at skimpin' when she's settled, and busy, an' I get the whip hand."
But in planning to get the "whip hand" Mrs. Holt reckoned without Kate. She had been under the whip hand all her life. Her dash to freedom had not been accomplished without both mental and physical hurt. She was doing nothing but going over her past life minutely, and as she realized more fully with each review how barren and unlovely it had been, all the strength and fresh young pride in her arose in imperative demand for something better in the future. She listened with interest to what George Holt said to her. All her life she had been driven by a man of inflexible will, his very soul inoculated with greed for possessions which would give him power; his body endowed with unfailing strength to meet the demands he made on it, and his heart wholly lacking in sentiment; but she did not propose to start her new life by speaking of her family to strangers. George Holt's experiences had been those of a son spoiled by a weak woman, one day petted, the next bribed, the next nagged, again left to his own devices for days, with strong inherited tendencies to be fought, tendencies to what he did not say. Looking at his heavy jaw and swarthy face, Kate supplied "temper" and "not much inclination to work." He had asked her to teach him, she would begin by setting him an example in the dignity of self-control; then she would make him work. How she would make that big, strong man work! As she sat there on the bank of the ravine, with a background of delicately leafed bushes and the light of the setting sun on her face and her hair, George Holt studied her closely, mentally and physically, and would have given all he possessed if he had not been so hasty. He saw that she had a good brain and courage to follow her convictions, while on closer study he decided that she was moulded on the finest physical lines of any woman he ever had seen, also his study of medicine taught him to recognize glowing health, and to set a right estimate on it. Truly he was sorry, to the bottom of his soul, but he did not believe in being too humble. He said as much in apology as he felt forced, and then set himself the task of calling out and parading the level best he could think up concerning himself, or life in general. He had tried farming, teaching, merchandise, and law before he had decided his vocation was medicine.
On account of Robert Gray, Kate was much interested in this, but when she asked what college he was attending, he said he was going to a school in Chicago that was preparing to revolutionize the world of medicine. Then he started on a hobby that he had ridden for months, paying for the privilege, so Kate learned with surprise and no small dismay that in a few months a man could take a course in medicine that would enable him "to cure any ill to which the human flesh is heir," as he expressed it, without knowing anything of surgery, or drugs, or using either. Kate was amazed and said so at once. She disconcertingly inquired what he would do with patients who had sustained fractured skulls, developed cancers, or been exposed to smallpox. But the man before her proposed to deal with none of those disagreeable things, or their like. He was going to make fame and fortune in the world by treating mental and muscular troubles. He was going to be a Zonoletic Doctor. He turned teacher and spelled it for her, because she never had heard the word. Kate looked at George Holt long and with intense interest, while her mind was busy with new thoughts. On her pillow that night she decided that if she were a man, driven by a desire to heal the suffering of the world, she would be the man who took the long exhaustive course of training that enabled him to deal with accidents, contagions, and germ developments.
He looked at her with keen appreciation of her physical freshness and mental strength, and manoeuvred patiently toward the point where he would dare ask blankly how many there were in her family, and on exactly how many acres her father paid tax. He decided it would not do for at least a week yet; possibly he could raise the subject casually with someone down town who would know, so that he need never ask her at all. Whatever the answer might be, it was definitely settled in his own mind that Kate was the best chance he had ever had, or probably ever would have. He mapped out his campaign. This week, before he must go, he would be her pupil and her slave. The holiday week he would be her lover. In the spring he would propose, and in the fall he would marry her, and live on the income from her land ever afterward. It was a glowing prospect; so glowing that he seriously considered stopping school at once so that her could be at the courting part of his campaign three times a day and every evening. He was afraid to leave for fear people of the village would tell the truth about him. He again studied Kate carefully and decided that during the week that was coming, by deft and energetic work he could so win her approval that he could make her think that she knew him better than outsiders did. So the siege began.
Kate had decided to try making him work, to see if he would, or was accustomed to it. He was sufficiently accustomed to it that he could do whatever she suggested with facility that indicated practice, and there was no question of his willingness. He urged her to make suggestions as to what else he could do, after he had made all the needed repairs about the house and premises. Kate was enjoying herself immensely, before the week was over. She had another row of wood corded to the shed roof, in case the winter should be severe. She had the stove she thought would warm her room polished and set up while he was there to do it. She had the back porch mended and the loose board in the front walk replaced. She borrowed buckets and cloths and impressed George Holt for the cleaning of the school building which she superintended. Before the week was over she had every child of school age who came to the building to see what was going on, scouring out desks, blacking stoves, raking the yard, even cleaning the street before the building.
Across the street from his home George sawed the dead wood from the trees and then, with three days to spare, Kate turned her attention to the ravine. She thought that probably she could teach better there in the spring than in the school building. She and George talked it over. He raised all the objections he could think of that the townspeople would, while entirely agreeing with her himself, but it was of no use. She over-ruled the proxy objections he so kindly offered her, so he was obliged to drag his tired body up the trees on both banks for several hundred yards and drop the dead wood. Kate marshalled a corps of boys who would be her older pupils and they dragged out the dry branches, saved all that were suitable for firewood, and made bonfires from the remainder. They raked the tin cans and town refuse of years from the water and banks and induced the village delivery man to haul the stuff to the river bridge and dump it in the deepest place in the stream. They cleaned the creek bank to the water's edge and built rustic seats down the sides. They even rolled boulders to the bed and set them where the water would show their markings and beat itself to foam against them. Mrs. Holt looked on in breathless amazement and privately expressed to her son her opinion of him in terse and vigorous language. He answered laconically: "Has a fish got much to say about what happens to it after you get it out of the water?"
"No!" snapped Mrs. Holt, "and neither have you, if you kill yourself to get it."
"Do I look killed?" inquired her son.
"No. You look the most like a real man I ever saw you," she conceded.
"And Kate Bates won't need glasses for forty years yet," he said as he went back to his work in the ravine.
Kate was in the middle of the creek helping plant a big stone. He stood a second watching her as she told the boys surrounding her how best to help her, then he turned away, a dull red burning his cheek. "I'll have her if I die for it," he muttered, "but I hope to Heaven she doesn't think I am going to work like this for her every day of my life."
As the villagers sauntered past and watched the work of the new teacher, many of them thought of things at home they could do that would improve their premises greatly, and a few went home and began work of like nature. That made their neighbours' places look so unkempt that they were forced to trim, and rake, and mend in turn, so by the time the school began, the whole village was busy in a crusade that extended to streets and alleys, while the new teacher was the most popular person who had ever been there. Without having heard of such a thing, Kate had started Civic Improvement.
George Holt leaned against a tree trunk and looked down at her as he rested.
"Do you suppose there is such a thing as ever making anything out of this?" he asked.
"A perfectly lovely public park for the village, yes; money, selling it for anything, no! It's too narrow a strip, cut too deeply with the water, the banks too steep. Commercially, I can't see that it is worth ten cents."
"Cheering! It is the only thing on earth that truly and wholly belongs to me. The road divided the land. Father willed everything on the south side to Mother, so she would have the house, and the land on this side was mine. I sold off all I could to Jasper Linn to add to his farm, but he would only buy to within about twenty rods of the ravine. The land was too rocky and poor. So about half a mile of this comprises my earthly possessions."
"Do you keep up the taxes?" she asked.
"No. I've never paid them," he said carelessly.
"Then don't be too sure it is yours," she said. "Someone may have paid them and taken the land. You had better look it up."
"What for?" he demanded.
"It is beautiful. It is the shadiest, coolest place in town. Having it here doubles the value of your mother's house across the street. In some way, some day, it might turn out to be worth something."
"I can't see how," he said.
"Some of the trees may become valuable when lumber gets scarcer, as it will when the land grows older. Maybe a stone quarry could be opened up, if the stone runs back as far as you say. A lot of things might make it valuable. If I were you I would go to Hartley, quietly, to-morrow, and examine the records, and if there are back taxes I'd pay them."
"I'll look it up, anyway," he agreed. "You surely have made another place of it. It will be wonderful by spring.
"I can think of many uses for it," said Kate. "Here comes your mother to see how we are getting along."
Instead, she came to hand Kate a letter she had brought from the post office while doing her marketing. Kate took the letter, saw at a glance that it was from Nancy Ellen, and excusing herself, she went to one of the seats they had made, and turning her face so that it could not be seen, she read:
DEAR KATE: You can prepare yourself for the surprise of your
life. Two Bates men have done something for one of their women.
I hope you will survive the shock; it almost finished me and
Mother is still speechless. I won't try to prepare you. I could
not. Here it is. Father raged for three days and we got out of
his way like scared rabbits. I saw I had to teach, so I said I
would, but I had not told Robert, because I couldn't bear to.
Then up came Hiram and offered to take the school for me. Father
said no, I couldn't get out of it that way. Hiram said I had not
seen him or sent him any word, and I could prove by mother I
hadn't been away from the house, so Father believed him. He said
he wanted the money to add two acres to his land from the Simms
place; that would let his stock down to water on the far side of
his land where it would be a great convenience and give him a
better arrangement of fields so he could make more money. You
know Father. He shut up like a clam and only said: "Do what you
please. If a Bates teaches the school it makes my word good." So
Hiram is going to teach for me. He is brushing up a little nights
and I am helping him on "theory," and I am wild with joy, and so
is Robert. I shall have plenty of time to do all my sewing and we
shall be married at, or after, Christmas. Robert says to tell you
to come to see him if you ever come to Hartley. He is there in
his office now and it is lonesome, but I am busy and the time will
soon pass. I might as well tell you that Father said right after
you left that you should never enter his house again, and Mother
and I should not speak your name before him. I do hope he gets
over it before the wedding. Write me how you like your school,
and where you board. Maybe Robert and I can slip off and drive
over to see you some day. But that would make Father so mad if he
found out that he would not give me the money he promised; so we
had better not, but you come to see us as soon as we get in our
home. Love from both,
Kate read the joyful letter slowly. It contained all she hoped for. She had not postponed Nancy Ellen's wedding. That was all she asked. She had known she would not be forgiven so soon, there was slight hope she ever would. Her only chance, thought Kate, lay in marrying a farmer having about a thousand acres of land. If she could do that, her father would let her come home again sometime. She read the letter slowly over, then tearing it in long strips she cross tore them and sifted the handful of small bits on the water, where they started a dashing journey toward the river. Mrs. Holt, narrowly watching her, turned with snaky gleaming eyes to her son and whispered: "A-ha! Miss Smart Alec has a secret!"