VII. Helping Nancy Ellen and Robert to Establish a Home
 

The remainder of the time before leaving, George Holt spent in the very strongest mental and physical effort to show Kate how much of a man he was. He succeeded in what he hoped he might do. He so influenced her in his favour that during the coming year whenever any one showed signs of criticising him, Kate stopped them by commendation, based upon what she supposed the be knowledge of him.

With the schoolhouse and grounds cleaned as they never had been before, the parents and pupils naturally expected new methods. During the week spent in becoming acquainted with the teacher, the parents heartily endorsed her, while the pupils liked her cordially. It could be seen at a glance that she could pick up the brawniest of them, and drop him from the window, if she chose. The days at the stream had taught them her physical strength, while at the same time they had glimpses of her mental processes. The boys learned many things: that they must not lie or take anything which did not belong to them; that they must be considerate and manly, if they were to be her friends; yet not one word had been said on any of these subjects. As she spoke to them, they answered her, and soon spoke in the same way to each other. She was very careful about each statement she made, often adducing convenient proof, so they saw that she was always right, and never exaggerated. The first hour of this made the boys think, the second they imitated, the third they instantly obeyed. She started in to interest and educate these children; she sent them home to investigate more subjects the first day than they had ever carried home in any previous month. Boys suddenly began asking their fathers about business; girls questioned their mothers about marketing and housekeeping.

The week of Christmas vacation was going to be the hardest; everyone expected the teacher to go home for the Holidays. Many of them knew that her sister was marrying the new doctor of Hartley. When Kate was wondering how she could possibly conceal the rupture with her family, Robert Gray drove into Walden and found her at the schoolhouse. She was so delighted to see him that she made no attempt to conceal her joy. He had driven her way for exercise and to pay her a call. When he realized from her greeting how she had felt the separation from her family, he had an idea that he at once propounded: "Kate, I have come to ask a favour of you," he said.

"Granted!" laughed Kate. "Whatever can it be?"

"Just this! I want you to pack a few clothes, drive to Hartley with me and do what you can to straighten out the house, so there won't be such confusion when Nancy Ellen gets there."

Kate stared at him in a happy daze. "Oh, you blessed Robert Gray! What a Heavenly idea!" she cried. "Of course it wouldn't be possible for me to fix Nancy Ellen's house the way she would, but I could put everything where it belonged, I could arrange well enough, and I could have a supper ready, so that you could come straight home."

"Then you will do it?" he asked.

"Do it?" cried Kate. "Do it! Why, I would be willing to pay you for the chance to do it. How do you think I'm to explain my not going home for the Holidays, and to my sister's wedding, and retain my self-respect before my patrons?"

"I didn't think of it in that way," he said.

"I'm crazy," said Kate. "Take me quickly! How far along are you?"

"House cleaned, blinds up, stoves all in, coal and wood, cellar stocked, carpets down, and furniture all there, but not unwrapped or in place. Dishes delivered but not washed; cooking utensils there, but not cleaned."

"Enough said," laughed Kate. "You go marry Nancy Ellen. I shall have the house warm, arranged so you can live in it, and the first meal ready when you come. Does Nancy Ellen know you are here?"

"No. I have enough country practice that I need a horse; I'm trying this one. I think of you often so I thought I'd drive out. How are you making it, Kate?"

"Just fine, so far as the school goes. I don't particularly like the woman I board with. Her son is some better, yes, he is much better. And Robert, what is a Zonoletic Doctor?"

"A poor fool, too lazy to be a real doctor, with no conscience about taking people's money for nothing," he said.

"As bad as that?" asked Kate.

"Worse! Why?" he said.

"Oh, I only wondered," said Kate. "Now I am ready, here; but I must run to the house where I board a minute. It's only a step. You watch where I go, and drive down."

She entered the house quietly and going back to the kitchen she said: "The folks have come for me, Mrs. Holt. I don't know exactly when I shall be back, but in plenty of time to start school. If George goes before I return, tell him 'Merry Christmas,' for me."

"He'll be most disappointed to death," said Mrs. Holt.

"I don't see why he should," said Kate, calmly. "You never have had the teacher here at Christmas."

"We never had a teacher that I wanted before," said Mrs. Holt; while Kate turned to avoid seeing the woman's face as she perjured herself. "You're like one of the family, George is crazy about you. He wrote me to be sure to keep you. Couldn't you possibly stay over Sunday?"

"No, I couldn't," said Kate.

"Who came after you," asked Mrs. Holt.

"Dr. Gray," answered Kate.

"That new doctor at Hartley? Why, be you an' him friends?"

Mrs. Holt had followed down the hall, eagerly waiting in the doorway. Kate glanced at her and felt sudden pity. The woman was warped. Everything in her life had gone wrong. Possibly she could not avoid being the disagreeable person she was. Kate smiled at her.

"Worse than that," she said. "We be relations in a few days. He's going to marry my sister Nancy Ellen next Tuesday."

Kate understood the indistinct gurgle she heard to be approving, so she added: "He came after me early so I could go to Hartley and help get their new house ready for them to live in after the ceremony."

"Did your father give them the house?" asked Mrs. Holt eagerly.

"No. Dr. Gray bought his home," said Kate.

"How nice! What did you father give them?"

Kate's patience was exhausted. "You'll have to wait until I come back," she said. "I haven't the gift of telling about things before they have happened."

Then she picked up her telescope and saying "good-bye," left the house.

As they drove toward Hartley: "I'm anxious to see your house," said Kate. "Did you find one in a good neighbourhood?"

"The very best, I think," said the doctor. "That is all one could offer Nancy Ellen."

"I'm so glad for her! And I'm glad for you, too! She'll make you a beautiful wife in every way. She's a good cook, she knows how to economize, and she's too pretty for words, if she is my sister."

"I heartily agree with you," said the doctor. "But I notice you put the cook first and the beauty last."

"You will, too, before you get through with it," answered Kate.

"Here we are!" said he, soon after they entered Hartley. "I'll drive around the block, so you can form an idea of the location." Kate admired every house in the block, the streets and trees, the one house Robert Gray had selected in every particular. They went inside and built fires, had lunch together at the hotel, and then Kate rolled up her sleeves and with a few yards of cheese-cloth for a duster, began unwrapping furniture and standing it in the room where it belonged. Robert moved the heavy pieces, then he left to call on a patient and spend the evening with Nancy Ellen.

So Kate spent several happy days setting Nancy Ellen's new home in order. From basement to garret she had it immaculate and shining. No Bates girl, not even Agatha, ever had gone into a home having so many comforts and conveniences.

Kate felt lonely the day she knew her home was overcrowded with all their big family; she sat very still thinking of them during the hour of the ceremony; she began preparing supper almost immediately, because Robert had promised her that he would not eat any more of the wedding feast than he could help, and he would bring Nancy Ellen as soon afterward as possible. Kate saw them drive to the gate and come up the walk together. As they entered the door Nancy Ellen was saying: "Why, how does the house come to be all lighted up? Seems to me I smell things to eat. Well, if the table isn't all set!"

There was a pause and then Nancy Ellen's clear voice called: "Kate! Kate! Where are you? Nobody else would be this nice to me. You dear girl, where are you?"

"I'll get to stay until I go back to school!" was Kate's mental comment as she ran to clasp Nancy Ellen in her arms, while they laughed and very nearly cried together, so that the doctor felt it incumbent upon him to hug both of them. Shortly afterward he said: "There is a fine show in town to-night, and I have three tickets. Let's all go."

"Let's eat before we go," said Nancy Ellen, "I haven't had time to eat a square meal for a week and things smell deliciously."

They finished their supper leisurely, stacked the dishes and went to the theatre, where they saw a fair performance of a good play, which was to both of the girls a great treat. When they returned home, Kate left Nancy Ellen and Robert to gloat over the carpets they had selected, as they appeared on their floors, to arrange the furniture and re-examine their wedding gifts; while she slipped into the kitchen and began washing the dishes and planning what she would have for breakfast. But soon they came to her and Nancy Ellen insisted on wiping the dishes, while Robert carried them to the cupboard. Afterward, they sat before their fireplace and talked over events since the sisters' separation.

Nancy Ellen told about getting ready for her wedding, life at home, the school, the news of the family; the Kate drew a perfect picture of the Walden school, her boarding place, Mrs. Holt, the ravine, the town and the people, with the exception of George Holt -- him she never mentioned.

After Robert had gone to his office the following morning, Kate said to Nancy Ellen: "Now I wish you would be perfectly frank with me --"

"As if I could be anything else!" laughed the bride.

"All right, then," said Kate. "What I want is this: that these days shall always come back to you in memory as nearly perfect as possible. Now if my being here helps ever so little, I like to stay, and I'll be glad to cook and wash dishes, while you fix your house to suit you. But if you'd rather be alone, I'll go back to Walden and be satisfied and happy with the fine treat this has been. I can look everyone in the face now, talk about the wedding, and feel all right."

Nancy Ellen said slowly: "I shan't spare you until barely time to reach your school Monday morning. And I'm not keeping you to work for me, either! We'll do everything together, and then we'll plan how to make the house pretty, and go see Robert in his office, and go shopping. I'll never forgive you if you go."

"Why, Nancy Ellen --!" said Kate, then fled to the kitchen too happy to speak further.

None of them ever forgot that week. It was such a happy time that all of them dreaded its end; but when it came they parted cheerfully, and each went back to work, the better for the happy reunion. Kate did not return to Walden until Monday; then she found Mrs. Holt in an evil temper. Kate could not understand it. She had no means of knowing that for a week George had nagged his mother unceasingly because Kate was gone on his return, and would not be back until after time for him to go again. The only way for him to see her during the week he had planned to come out openly as her lover, was to try to find her at her home, or at her sister's. He did not feel that it would help him to go where he never had been asked. His only recourse was to miss a few days of school and do extra work to make it up; but he detested nothing in life as he detested work, so the world's happy week had been to them one of constant sparring and unhappiness, for which Mrs. Holt blamed Kate. Her son had returned expecting to court Kate Bates strenuously; his disappointment was not lightened by his mother's constant nagging. Monday forenoon she went to market, and came in gasping.

"Land sakes!" she cried as she panted down the hall. "I've got a good one on that impident huzzy now!"

"You better keep your mouth shut, and not gossip about her," he said. "Everyone likes her!"

"No, they don't, for I hate her worse 'n snakes! If it wa'n't for her money I'd fix her so's 'at she'd never marry you in kingdom come."

George Holt clenched his big fist.

"Just you try it!" he threatened. "Just you try that!"

"You'll live to see the day you'd thank me if I did. She ain't been home. Mind you, she ain't been home! She never seen her sister married at all! Tilly Nepple has a sister, living near the Bates, who worked in the kitchen. She's visitin' at Tilly's now. Miss High-and-Mighty never seen her sister married at all! An' it looked mighty queer, her comin' here a week ahead of time, in the fall. Looks like she'd done somepin she don't dare go home. No wonder she tears every scrap of mail she gets to ribbons an' burns it. I told you she had a secret! If ever you'd listen to me."

"Why, you're crazy!" he exclaimed. "I did listen to you. What you told me was that I should go after her with all my might. So I did it. Now you come with this. Shut it up! Don't let her get wind of it for the world!"

"And Tilly Nepple's sister says old Land King Bates never give his daughter a cent, an' he never gives none of his girls a cent. It's up to the men they marry to take keer of them. The old skin- flint! What you want to do is to go long to your schoolin', if you reely are going to make somepin of yourself at last, an' let that big strap of a girl be, do --"

"Now, stop!" shouted George Holt. "Scenting another scandal, are you? Don't you dare mar Kate Bates' standing, or her reputation in this town, or we'll have a time like we never had before. If old Bates doesn't give his girls anything when they marry, they'll get more when he dies. And so far as money is concerned, this has gone past money with me. I'm going to marry Kate Bates, as soon as ever I can, and I've got to the place where I'd marry her if she hadn't a cent. If I can't take care of her, she can take care of me. I am crazy about her, an' I'm going to have her; so you keep still, an' do all you can to help me, or you'll regret it."

"It's you that will regret it!" she said.

"Stop your nagging, I tell you, or I'll come at you in a way you won't like," he cried.

"You do that every day you're here," said Mrs. Holt, starting to the kitchen to begin dinner.

Kate appeared in half an hour, fresh and rosy, also prepared; for one of her little pupils had said: "Tilly Nepple's sister say you wasn't at your sister's wedding at all. Did you cry 'cause you couldn't go?"

Instantly Kate comprehended what must be town gossip, so she gave the child a happy solution of the question bothering her, and went to her boarding house forewarned. She greeted both Mrs. Holt and her son cordially, then sat down to dinner, in the best of spirits. The instant her chance came, Mrs. Holt said: "Now tell us all about the lovely wedding."

"But I wasn't managing the wedding," said Kate cheerfully. "I was on the infare job. Mother and Nancy Ellen put the wedding through. You know our house isn't very large, and close relatives fill it to bursting. I've seen the same kind of wedding about every eighteen months all my life. I had a new job this time, and one I liked better."

She turned to George: "Of course your mother told you that Dr. Gray came after me. He came to ask me as an especial favour to go to his new house in Hartley, and do what I could to arrange it, and to have a supper ready. I was glad. I'd seen six weddings that I can remember, all exactly alike -- there's nothing to them; but brushing those new carpets, unwrapping nice furniture and placing it, washing pretty new dishes, untying the loveliest gifts and arranging them -- that was something new in a Bates wedding. Oh, but I had a splendid time!"

George Holt looked at his mother in too great disgust to conceal his feelings.

"Another gilt-edged scandal gone sky high," he said. Then he turned to Kate. "One of the women who worked in your mother's kitchen is visiting here, and she started a great hullabaloo because you were not at the wedding. You probably haven't got a leg left to stand on. I suspect the old cats of Walden have chewed them both off, and all the while you were happy, and doing the thing any girl would much rather have done. Lord, I hate this eternal picking! How did you come back, Kate?"

"Dr. Gray brought me."

"I should think it would have made talk, your staying there with him," commented Mrs. Holt.

"Fortunately, the people of Hartley seem reasonably busy attending their own affairs," said Kate. "Doctor Gray had been boarding at the hotel all fall, so he just went on living there until after the wedding."

George glared at his mother, but she avoided his eyes, and laughing in a silly, half-confused manner she said: "How much money did your father give the bride?"

"I can't tell you, in even dollars and cents," said Kate. "Nancy Ellen didn't say."

Kate saw the movement of George's foot under the table, and knew that he was trying to make his mother stop asking questions; so she began talking to him about his work. As soon as the meal was finished he walked with her to school, visiting until the session began. He remained three days, and before he left he told Kate he loved her, and asked her to be his wife. She looked at him in surprise and said: "Why, I never thought of such a thing! How long have you been thinking about it?"

"Since the first instant I saw you!" he declared with fervour.

"Hum! Matter of months," said Kate. "Well, when I have had that much time, I will tell you what I think about it."