VIII. The History of a Leghorn Hat
 

Kate finished her school in the spring, then went for a visit with Nancy Ellen and Robert, before George Holt returned. She was thankful to leave Walden without having seen him, for she had decided, without giving the matter much thought, that he was not the man she wanted to marry. In her heart she regretted having previously contracted for the Walden school another winter because she felt certain that with the influence of Dr. Gray, she could now secure a position in Hartley that would enable her either to live with, or to be near, her sister. With this thought in mind, she tried to make the acquaintance of teachers in the school who lived in Hartley and she soon became rather intimate with one of them.

It was while visiting with this teacher that Kate spoke of attending Normal again in an effort to prepare herself still better for the work of the coming year. Her new friend advised against it. She said the course would be only the same thing over again, with so little change or advancement, that the trip was not worth the time and money it would cost. She proposed that Kate go to Lake Chautauqua and take the teachers' course, where all spare time could be put in attending lectures, and concerts, and studying the recently devised methods of education. Kate went from her to Nancy Ellen and Robert, determined at heart to go.

She was pleased when they strongly advised her to, and offered to help her get ready. Aside from having paid Agatha, and for her board, Kate had spent almost nothing on herself. She figured the probable expenses of the trip for a month, what it would cost her to live until school began again, if she were forced to go to Walden, and then spent all her remaining funds on the prettiest clothing she had ever owned. Each of the sisters knew how to buy carefully; then the added advantage of being able to cut and make their own clothes, made money go twice as far as where a dressmaker had to be employed. When everything they had planned was purchased, neatly made, and packed in a trunk, into which Nancy Ellen slipped some of her prettiest belongings, Kate made a trip to a milliner's shop to purchase her first real hat.

She had decided on a big, wide-brimmed Leghorn, far from cheap. While she was trying the effect of flowers and ribbon on it, the wily milliner slipped up and with the hat on Kate's golden crown, looped in front a bow of wide black velvet ribbon and drooped over the brim a long, exquisitely curling ostrich plume. Kate had one good view of herself, before she turned her back on the temptation.

"You look lovely in that," said the milliner. "Don't you like it?"

"I certainly do," said Kate. "I look the best in that hat, with the black velvet and the plume, I ever did, but there's no use to look twice, I can't afford it."

"Oh, but it is very reasonable! We haven't a finer hat in the store, nor a better plume," said the milliner.

She slowly waved it in all its glory before Kate's beauty-hungry eyes. Kate turned so she could not see it.

"Please excuse on question. Are you teaching in Walden this winter?" asked the milliner.

"Yes," said Kate. "I have signed the contract for that school."

"Then charge the hat and pay for it in September. I'd rather wait for my money than see you fail to spend the summer under that plume. It really is lovely against your gold hair."

"'Get thee behind me, Satan,'" quoted Kate. "No. I never had anything charged, and never expect to. Please have the black velvet put on and let me try it with the bows set and sewed."

"All right," said the milliner, "but I'm sorry."

She was so sorry that she carried the plume to the work room, and when she walked up behind Kate, who sat waiting before the mirror, and carefully set the hat on her head, at exactly the right angle, the long plume crept down one side and drooped across the girl's shoulder.

"I will reduce it a dollar more," she said, "and send the bill to you at Walden the last week of September."

Kate moved her head from side to side, lifted and dropped her chin. Then she turned to the milliner.

"You should be killed!" she said.

The woman reached for a hat box.

"No, I shouldn't!" she said. "Waiting that long, I'll not make much on the hat, but I'll make a good friend who will come again, and bring her friends. What is your name, please?"

Kate took one look at herself -- smooth pink cheeks, gray eyes, gold hair, the sweeping wide brim, the trailing plume.

"Miss Katherine Eleanor Bates," she said. "Bates Corners, Hartley, Indiana. Please call my carriage?"

The milliner laughed heartily. "That's the spirit of '76," she commended. "I'd be willing to wager something worth while that this very hat brings you the carriage before fall, if you show yourself in it in the right place. It's a perfectly stunning hat. Shall I send it, or will you wear it?"

Kate looked in the mirror again. "You may put a fresh blue band on the sailor I was wearing, and send that to Dr. Gray's when it is finished," she said. "And put in a fancy bow, for my throat, of the same velvet as the hat, please. I'll surely pay you the last week of September. And if you can think up an equally becoming hat for winter -- --"

"You just bet I can, young lady," said the milliner to herself as Kate walked down the street.

From afar, Kate saw Nancy Ellen on the veranda, so she walked slowly to let the effect sink in, but it seemed to make no impression until she looked up at Nancy Ellen's very feet and said: "Well, how do you like it?"

"Good gracious!" cried Nancy Ellen. "I thought I was having a stylish caller. I didn't know you! Why, I never saw you walk that way before."

"You wouldn't expect me to plod along as if I were plowing, with a thing like this on my head, would you?"

"I wouldn't expect you to have a thing like that on your head; but since you have, I don't mind telling you that you are stunning in it," said Nancy Ellen.

"Better and better!" laughed Kate, sitting down on the step. "The milliner said it was a stunning hat."

"The goose!" said Nancy Ellen. "You become that hat, Kate, quite as much as the hat becomes you."

The following day, dressed in a linen suit of natural colour, with the black bow at her throat, the new hat in a bandbox, and the renewed sailor on her head, Kate waved her farewells to Nancy Ellen and Robert on the platform, then walked straight to the dressing room of the car, and changed the hats. Nancy Ellen had told her this was not the thing to do. She should travel in a plain untrimmed hat, and when the dust and heat of her journey were past, she should bathe, put on fresh clothing, and wear such a fancy hat only with her best frocks, in the afternoon. Kate need not have been told that. Right instincts and Bates economy would have taught her the same thing, but she had a perverse streak in her nature. She had seen herself in the hat.

The milliner, who knew enough of the world and human nature to know how to sell Kate the hat, when she never intended to buy it, and knew she should not in the way she did, had said that before fall it would bring her a carriage, which put into bald terms meant a rich husband. Now Kate liked her school and she gave it her full attention; she had done, and still intended to keep on doing, first-class work in the future; but her school, or anything pertaining to it, was not worth mentioning beside Nancy Ellen's home, and the deep understanding and strong feeling that showed so plainly between her and Robert Gray. Kate expected to marry by the time she was twenty or soon after; all Bates girls had, most of them had married very well indeed. She frankly envied Nancy Ellen, while it never occurred to her that any one would criticise her for saying so. Only one thing could happen to her that would surpass what had come to her sister. If only she could have a man like Robert Gray, and have him on a piece of land of their own. Kate was a girl, but no man of the Bates tribe ever was more deeply bitten by the lust for land. She was the true daughter of her father, in more than one way. If that very expensive hat was going to produce the man why not let it begin to work from the very start? If her man was somewhere, only waiting to see her, and the hat would help him to speedy recognition, why miss a change?

She thought over the year, and while she deplored the estrangement from home, she knew that if she had to go back to one year ago, giving up the present and what it had brought and promised to bring, for a reconciliation with her father, she would not voluntarily return to the old driving, nagging, overwork, and skimping, missing every real comfort of life to buy land, in which she never would have any part.

"You get your knocks 'taking the wings of morning,'" thought Kate to herself, "but after all it is the only thing to do. Nancy Ellen says Sally Whistler is pleasing Mother very well, why should I miss my chance and ruin my temper to stay at home and do the work done by a woman who can do nothing else?"

Kate moved her head slightly to feel if the big, beautiful hat that sat her braids so lightly was still there. "Go to work, you beauty," thought Kate. "Do something better for me than George Holt. I'll have him to fall back on if I can't do better; but I think I can. Yes, I'm very sure I can! If you do your part, you lovely plume, I know I can!"

Toward noon the train ran into a violent summer storm. The sky grew black, the lightning flashed, the wind raved, the rain fell in gusts. The storm was at its height when Kate quit watching it and arose, preoccupied with her first trip to a dining car, thinking about how little food she could order and yet avoid a hunger headache. The twisting whirlwind struck her face as she stepped from the day coach to go to the dining car. She threw back her head and sucked her lungs full of the pure, rain-chilled air. She was accustomed to being out in storms, she liked them. One second she paused to watch the gale sweeping the fields, the next a twitch at her hair caused her to throw up her hands and clutch wildly at nothing. She sprang to the step railing and leaned out in time to see her wonderful hat whirl against the corner of the car, hold there an instant with the pressure of the wind, then slide down, draw under, and drop across the rail, where passing wheels ground it to pulp.

Kate stood very still a second, then she reached up and tried to pat the disordered strands of hair into place. She turned and went back into the day coach, opened the bandbox, and put on the sailor. She resumed her old occupation of thinking things over. All the joy had vanished from the day and the trip. Looking forward, it had seemed all right to defy custom and Nancy Ellen's advice, and do as she pleased. Looking backward, she saw that she had made a fool of herself in the estimation of everyone in the car by not wearing the sailor, which was suitable for her journey, and would have made no such mark for a whirling wind.

She found travelling even easier than any one had told her. Each station was announced. When she alighted, there were conveyances to take her and her luggage to a hotel, patronized almost exclusively by teachers, near the schools and lecture halls. Large front suites and rooms were out of the question for Kate, but luckily a tiny corner room at the back of the building was empty and when Kate specified how long she would remain, she secured it at a less figure than she had expected to pay. She began by almost starving herself at supper in order to save enough money to replace her hat with whatever she could find that would serve passably, and be cheap enough. That far she proceeded stoically; but when night settled and she stood in her dressing jacket brushing her hair, something gave way. Kate dropped on her bed and cried into her pillow, as she never had cried before about anything. It was not all about the hat. While she was at it, she shed a few tears about every cruel thing that had happened to her since she could remember that she had borne tearlessly at the time. It was a deluge that left her breathless and exhausted. When she finally sat up, she found the room so close, she gently opened her door and peeped into the hall. There was a door opening on an outside veranda, running across the end of the building and the length of the front.

As she looked from her door and listened intently, she heard the sound of a woman's voice in choking, stifled sobs, in the room having a door directly across the narrow hall from hers.

"My Lord! There's two of us!" said Kate.

She leaned closer, listening again, but when she heard a short groan mingled with the sobs, she immediately tapped on the door. Instantly the sobs ceased and the room became still. Kate put her lips to the crack and said in her off-hand way: "It's only a school-marm, rooming next you. If you're ill, could I get anything for you?"

"Will you please come in?" asked a muffled voice.

Kate turned the knob, and stepping inside, closed the door after her. She could dimly see her way to the dresser, where she found matches and lighted the gas. On the bed lay in a tumbled heap a tiny, elderly, Dresden-china doll-woman. She was fully dressed, even to her wrap, bonnet, and gloves; one hand clutched her side, the other held a handkerchief to her lips. Kate stood an instant under the light, studying the situation. The dark eyes in the narrow face looked appealingly at her. The woman tried to speak, but gasped for breath. Kate saw that she had heart trouble.

"The remedy! Where is it?" she cried.

The woman pointed to a purse on the dresser. Kate opened it, took out a small bottle, and read the directions. In a second, she was holding a glass to the woman's lips; soon she was better. She looked at Kate eagerly.

"Oh, please don't leave me," she gasped.

"Of course not!" said Kate instantly. "I'll stay as long as you want me."

She bent over the bed and gently drew the gloves from the frail hands. She untied and slipped off the bonnet. She hunted keys in the purse, opened a travelling bag, and found what she required. Then slowly and carefully, she undressed the woman, helped her into a night robe, and stooping she lifted her into a chair until she opened the bed. After giving her time to rest, Kate pulled down the white wavy hair and brushed it for the night. As she worked, she said a word of encouragement now and again; when she had done all she could see to do, she asked if there was more. The woman suddenly clung to her hand and began to sob wildly. Kate knelt beside the bed, stroked the white hair, patted the shoulder she could reach, and talked very much as she would have to a little girl.

"Please don't cry," she begged. "It must be your heart; you'll surely make it worse."

"I'm trying," said the woman, "but I've been scared sick. I most certainly would have died if you hadn't come to me and found the medicine. Oh, that dreadful Susette! How could she?"

The clothing Kate had removed from the woman had been of finest cloth and silk. Her hands wore wonderful rings. A heavy purse was in her bag. Everything she had was the finest that money could buy, while she seemed as if a rough wind never had touched her. She appeared so frail that Kate feared to let her sleep without knowing where to locate her friends.

"She should be punished for leaving you alone among strangers," said Kate indignantly.

"If I only could learn to mind John," sighed the little woman. "He never liked Susette. But she was the very best maid I ever had. She was like a loving daughter, until all at once, on the train, among strangers, she flared out at me, and simply raved. Oh, it was dreadful!"

"And knowing you were subject to these attacks, she did the thing that would precipitate one, and then left you alone among strangers. How wicked! How cruel!" said Kate in tense indignation.

"John didn't want me to come. But I used to be a teacher, and I came here when this place was mostly woods, with my dear husband. Then after he died, through the long years of poverty and struggle, I would read of the place and the wonderful meetings, but I could never afford to come. Then when John began to work and made good so fast I was dizzy half the time with his successes, I didn't think about the place. But lately, since I've had everything else I could think of, something possessed me to come back here, and take a suite among the women and men who are teaching our young people so wonderfully; and to sail on the lake, and hear the lectures, and dream my youth over again. I think that was it most of all, to dream my youth over again, to try to relive the past."

"There now, you have told me all about it," said Kate, stroking the white forehead in an effort to produce drowsiness, "close your eyes and go to sleep."

"I haven't even begun to tell you," said the woman perversely. "If I talked all night I couldn't tell you about John. How big he is, and how brave he is, and how smart he is, and how he is the equal of any business man in Chicago, and soon, if he keeps on, he will be worth as much as some of them -- more than any one of his age, who has had a lot of help instead of having his way to make alone, and a sick old mother to support besides. No, I couldn't tell you in a week half about John, and he didn't want me to come. If I would come, then he wanted me to wait a few days until he finished a deal so he could bring me, but the minute I thought of it I was determined to come; you know how you get."

"I know how badly you want to do a thing you have set your heart on," admitted Kate.

"I had gone places with Susette in perfect comfort. I think the trouble was that she tried from the first to attract John. About the time we started, he let her see plainly that all he wanted of her was to take care of me; she was pretty and smart, so it made her furious. She was pampered in everything, as no maid I ever had before. John is young yet, and I think he is very handsome, and he wouldn't pay any attention to her. You see when other boys were going to school and getting acquainted with girls by association, even when he was a little bit of a fellow in knee breeches, I had to let him sell papers, and then he got into a shop, and he invented a little thing, and then a bigger, and bigger yet, and then he went into stocks and things, and he doesn't know anything about girls, only about sick old women like me. He never saw what Susette was up to. You do believe that I wasn't ugly to her, don't you?"

"You couldn't be ugly if you tried," said Kate.

The woman suddenly began to sob again, this time slowly, as if her forces were almost spent. She looked to Kate for the sympathy she craved and for the first time really saw her closely.

"Why, you dear girl," she cried. "Your face is all tear stained. You've been crying, yourself."

"Roaring in a pillow," admitted Kate.

"But my dear, forgive me! I was so upset with that dreadful woman. Forgive me for not having seen that you, too, are in trouble. Won't you please tell me?"

"Of course," said Kate. "I lost my new hat."

"But, my dear! Crying over a hat? When it is so easy to get another? How foolish!" said the woman.

"Yes, but you didn't see the hat," said Kate. "And it will be far from easy to get another, with this one not paid for yet. I'm only one season removed from sunbonnets, so I never should have bought it at all."

The woman moved in bed, and taking one of Kate's long, crinkly braids, she drew the wealth of gold through her fingers repeatedly.

"Tell me about your hat," she said.

So to humour this fragile woman, and to keep from thinking of her own trouble, Kate told the story of her Leghorn hat and ostrich plume, and many things besides, for she was not her usual terse self with her new friend who had to be soothed to forgetfulness.

Kate ended: "I was all wrong to buy such a hat in the first place. I couldn't afford it; it was foolish vanity. I'm not really good-looking; I shouldn't have flattered myself that I was. Losing it before it was paid for was just good for me. Never again will I be so foolish."

"Why, my dear, don't say such things or think them," chided the little woman. "You had as good a right to a becoming hat as any girl. Now let me ask you one question, and then I'll try to sleep. You said you were a teacher. Did you come here to attend the Summer School for Teachers?"

"Yes," said Kate.

"Would it make any great difference to you if you missed a few days?" she asked.

"Not the least," said Kate.

"Well, then, you won't be offended, will you, if I ask you to remain with me and take care of me until John comes? I could send him a message to-night that I am alone, and bring him by this time to-morrow; but I know he has business that will cause him to lose money should he leave, and I was so wilful about coming, I dread to prove him right so conclusively the very first day. That door opens into a room reserved for Susette, if only you'd take it, and leave the door unclosed to-night, and if only you would stay with me until John comes I could well afford to pay you enough to lengthen your stay as long as you'd like; and it makes me so happy to be with such a fresh young creature. Will you stay with me, my dear?"

"I certainly will," said Kate heartily. "If you'll only tell me what I should do; I'm not accustomed to rich ladies, you know."

"I'm not myself," said the little woman, "but I do seem to take to being waited upon with the most remarkable facility!"