IX. A Sunbonnet Girl
 

With the first faint light of morning, Kate slipped to the door to find her charge still sleeping soundly. It was eight o'clock when she heard a movement in the adjoining room and went again to the door. This time the woman was awake and smilingly waved to Kate as she called: "Good morning! Come right in. I was wondering if you were regretting your hasty bargain."

"Not a bit of it!" laughed Kate. "I am here waiting to be told what to do first. I forgot to tell you my name last night. It is Kate Bates. I'm from Bates Corners, Hartley, Indiana."

The woman held out her hand. "I'm so very glad to meet you, Miss Bates," she said. "My name is Mariette Jardine. My home is in Chicago."

They shook hands, smiling at each other, and then Kate said: "Now, Mrs. Jardine, what shall I do for you first?"

"I will be dressed, I think, and then you may bring up the manager until I have an understanding with him, and give him a message I want sent, and an order for our breakfast. I wonder if it wouldn't be nice to have it served on the corner of the veranda in front of our rooms, under the shade of that big tree."

"I think that would be famous," said Kate.

They ate together under the spreading branches of a giant maple tree, where they could see into the nest of an oriole that brooded in a long purse of gray lint and white cotton cord. They could almost reach out and touch it. The breakfast was good, nicely served by a neat maid, evidently doing something so out of the ordinary that she was rather stunned; but she was a young person of some self-possession, for when she removed the tray, Mrs. Jardine thanked her and gave her a coin that brought a smiling: "Thank you very much. If you want your dinner served here and will ask for Jennie Weeks, I'd like to wait on you again."

"Thank you," said Mrs. Jardine, "I shall remember that. I don't like changing waiters each meal. It gives them no chance to learn what I want or how I want it."

Then she and Kate slowly walked the length of the veranda several times, while she pointed out parts of the grounds they could see that remained as she had known them formerly, and what were improvements.

When Mrs. Jardine was tired, they returned to the room and she lay on the bed while they talked of many things; talked of things with which Kate was familiar, and some concerning which she unhesitatingly asked questions until she felt informed. Mrs. Jardine was so dainty, so delicate, yet so full of life, so well informed, so keen mentally, that as she talked she kept Kate chuckling most of the time. She talked of her home life, her travels, her friends, her son. She talked of politics, religion, and education; then she talked of her son again. She talked of social conditions, Civic Improvement, and Woman's Rights, then she came back to her son, until Kate saw that he was the real interest in the world to her. The mental picture she drew of him was peculiar. One minute Mrs. Jardine spoke of him as a man among men, pushing, fighting, forcing matters to work to his will, so Kate imagined him tall, broad, and brawny, indefatigable in his undertakings; the next, his mother was telling of such thoughtfulness, such kindness, such loving care that Kate's mental picture shifted to a neat, exacting little man, purely effeminate as men ever can be; but whatever she thought, some right instinct prevented her from making a comment or asking a question.

Once she sat looking far across the beautiful lake with such an expression on her face that Mrs. Jardine said to her: "What are you thinking of, my dear?"

Kate said smilingly: "Oh, I was thinking of what a wonderful school I shall teach this winter."

"Tell me what you mean," said Mrs. Jardine.

"Why, with even a month of this, I shall have riches stored for every day of the year," said Kate. "None of my pupils ever saw a lake, that I know of. I shall tell them of this with its shining water, its rocky, shady, sandy shore lines; of the rowboats and steam-boats, and the people from all over the country. Before I go back, I can tell them of wonderful lectures, concerts, educational demonstrations here. I shall get much from the experiences of other teachers. I shall delight my pupils with just you."

"In what way?" asked Mrs. Jardine.

"Oh, I shall tell them of a dainty little woman who know everything. From you I shall teach my girls to be simple, wholesome, tender, and kind; to take the gifts of God thankfully, reverently, yet with self-respect. From you I can tell them what really fine fabrics are, and about laces, and linens. When the subjects arise, as they always do in teaching, I shall describe each ring you wear, each comb and pin, even the handkerchiefs you carry, and the bags you travel with. To teach means to educate, and it is a big task; but it is almost painfully interesting. Each girl of my school shall go into life a gentler, daintier woman, more careful of her person and speech because of my having met you. Isn't that a fine thought?"

"Why, you darling!" cried Mrs. Jardine. "Life is always having lovely things in store for me. Yesterday I thought Susette's leaving me as she did was the most cruel thing that ever happened to me. To-day I get from it this lovely experience. If you are straight from sunbonnets, as you told me last night, where did you get these advanced ideas?"

"If sunbonnets could speak, many of them would tell of surprising heads they have covered," laughed Kate. "Life deals with women much the same as with men. If we go back to where we start, history can prove to you that there are ten sunbonnets to one Leghorn hat, in the high places of the world."

"Not to entertain me, but because I am interested, my dear, will you tell me about your particular sunbonnet?" asked Mrs. Jardine.

Kate sat staring across the blue lake with wide eyes, a queer smile twisting her lips. At last she said slowly: "Well, then, my sunbonnet is in my trunk. I'm not so far away from it but that it still travels with me. It's blue chambray, made from pieces left from my first pretty dress. It is ruffled, and has white stitching. I made it myself. The head that it fits is another matter. I didn't make that, or its environment, or what was taught it, until it was of age, and had worked out its legal time of service to pay for having been a head at all. But my head is now free, in my own possession, ready to go as fast and far on the path of life as it develops the brains to carry it. You'd smile if I should tell you what I'd ask of life, if I could have what I want."

"I scarcely think so. Please tell me."

"You'll be shocked," warned Kate.

"Just so it isn't enough to set my heart rocking again," said Mrs. Jardine.

"We'll stop before that," laughed Kate. "Then if you will have it, I want of life by the time I am twenty a man of my stature, dark eyes and hair, because I am so light. I want him to be honest, forceful, hard working, with a few drops of the milk of human kindness in his heart, and the same ambitions I have."

"And what are your ambitions?" asked Mrs. Jardine.

"To own, and to cultivate, and to bring to the highest state of efficiency at least two hundred acres of land, with convenient and attractive buildings and pedigreed stock, and to mother at least twelve perfect physical and mental boys and girls."

"Oh, my soul!" cried Mrs. Jardine, falling back in her chair, her mouth agape. "My dear, you don't mean that? You only said that to shock me."

"But why should I wish to shock you? I sincerely mean it," persisted Kate.

"You amazing creature! I never heard a girl talk like that before," said Mrs. Jardine.

"But you can't look straight ahead of you any direction you turn without seeing a girl working for dear life to attract the man she wants; if she can't secure him, some other man; and in lieu of him, any man at all, in preference to none. Life shows us woman on the age-old quest every day, everywhere we go; why be so secretive about it? Why not say honestly what we want, and take it if we can get it? At any rate, that is the most important thing inside my sunbonnet. I knew you'd be shocked."

"But I am not shocked at what you say, I agree with you. What I am shocked at is your ideals. I thought you'd want to educate yourself to such superiority over common woman that you could take the platform, and backed by your splendid physique, work for suffrage or lecture to educate the masses."

"I think more could be accomplished with selected specimens, by being steadily on the job, than by giving an hour to masses. I'm not much interested in masses. They are too abstract for me; I prefer one stern reality. And as for Woman's Rights, if anybody gives this woman the right to do anything more than she already has the right to do, there'll surely be a scandal."

Mrs. Jardine lay back in her chair laughing.

"You are the most refreshing person I have met in all my travels. Then to put it baldly, you want of life a man, a farm, and a family."

"You comprehend me beautifully," said Kate. "All my life I've worked like a towhead to help earn two hundred acres of land for someone else. I think there's nothing I want so much as two hundred acres of land for myself. I'd undertake to do almost anything with it, if I had it. I know I could, if I had the shoulder-to-shoulder, real man. You notice it will take considerable of a man to touch shoulders with me; I'm a head taller than most of them."

Mrs. Jardine looked at her speculatively. "Ummm!" she murmured. Kate laughed.

"For eighteen years I have been under marching orders," said Kate. "Over a year ago I was advised by a minister to 'take the wings of morning' so I took wing. I started on one grand flight and fell ker-smash in short order. Life since has been a series of battering my wings until I have almost decided to buy some especially heavy boots, and walk the remainder of the way. As a concrete example, I started out yesterday morning wearing a hat that several very reliable parties assured me would so assist me to flight that I might at least have a carriage. Where, oh, where are my hat and my carriage now? The carriage, non est! The hat -- I am humbly hoping some little country girl, who has lived a life as barren as mine, will find the remains and retrieve the velvet bow for a hair-ribbon. As for the man that Leghorn hat was supposed to symbolize, he won't even look my way when I appear in by bobby little sailor. He's as badly crushed out of existence as my beautiful hat."

"You never should have been wearing such a hat to travel in, my dear," murmured Mrs. Jardine.

"Certainly not!" said Kate. "I knew it. My sister told me that. Common sense told me that! But what has that got to do with the fact that I was wearing the hat? I guess I have you there!"

"Far from it!" said Mrs. Jardine. "If you're going to start out in life, calmly ignoring the advice of those who love you, and the dictates of common sense, the result will be that soon the wheels of life will be grinding you, instead of a train making bag-rags of your hat."

"Hummm!" said Kate. "There is food for reflection there. But wasn't it plain logic, that if the hat was to bring the man, it should be worn where at any minute he might see it?"

"But my dear, my dear! If such a man as a woman like you should have, had seen you wearing that hat in the morning, on a railway train, he would merely have thought you prideful and extravagant. You would have been far more attractive to any man I know in your blue sunbonnet."

"I surely have learned that lesson," said Kate. "Hereafter, sailors or sunbonnets for me in the morning. Now what may I do to add to your comfort?"

"Leave me for an hour until I take a nap, and then we'll have lunch and go to a lecture. I can go to-day, perfectly well, after an hour's rest."

So Kate went for a very interesting walk around the grounds. When she returned Mrs. Jardine was still sleeping so she wrote Nancy Ellen, telling all about her adventure, but not a word about losing her hat. Then she had a talk with Jennie Weeks whom she found lingering in the hall near her door. When at last that nap was over, a new woman seemed to have developed. Mrs. Jardine was so refreshed and interested the remainder of the day that it was easier than before for Kate to see how shocked and ill she had been. As she helped dress her for lunch, Kate said to Mrs. Jardine: "I met the manager as I was going to post a letter to my sister, so I asked him always to send you the same waiter. He said he would, and I'd like you to pay particular attention to her appearance, and the way she does her work."

"Why?" asked Mrs. Jardine.

"I met her in the hall as I came back from posting my letter, so we 'visited' a little, as the country folks say. She has taught one winter of country school, a small school in an out county. She's here waiting table two hours three times a day, to pay for her room and board. In the meantime, she attends all the sessions and studies as much as she can; but she's very poor material for a teacher. I pity her pupils. She's a little thing, bright enough in her way, but she has not much initiative, not strong enough for the work, and she has not enough spunk. She'll never lead the minds of school children anywhere that will greatly benefit them."

"And your deduction is -- "

"That she would make you a kind, careful, obedient maid, who is capable enough to be taught to wash your hair and manicure you with deftness, and who would serve you for respect as well as hire. I think it would be a fine arrangement for you and good for her."

"This surely is kind of you," said Mrs. Jardine. "I'll keep strict watch of Jennie Weeks. If I could find a really capable maid here and not have to wire John to bring one, I'd be so glad. It does so go against the grain to prove to a man that he has a right to be more conceited than he is naturally."

As they ate lunch Kate said to Mrs. Jardine: "I noticed one thing this morning that is going to be balm to my soul. I passed many teachers and summer resorters going to the lecture halls and coming from them, and half of them were bareheaded, so my state will not be remarkable, until I can get another hat."

"'God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform,'" laughingly quoted Mrs. Jardine. "You thought losing that precious hat was a calamity; but if you hadn't lost it, you probably would have slept soundly while I died across the hall. My life is worth the price of a whole millinery shop to me; I think you value the friendship we are developing; I foresee I shall get a maid who will not disgrace my in public; you will have a full summer here; now truly, isn't all this worth many hats?"

"Of course! It's like a fairy tale," said Kate. "Still, you didn't see the hat!"

"But you described it in a truly graphic manner," said Mrs. Jardine.

"When I am the snowiest of great-grandmothers, I shall still be telling small people about the outcome of my first attempt at vanity," laughed Kate.

The third morning dawned in great beauty, a "misty, moisty morning," Mrs. Jardine called it. The sun tried to shine but could not quite pierce the intervening clouds, so on every side could be seen exquisite pictures painted in delicate pastel colours. Kate, fresh and rosy, wearing a blue chambray dress, was a picture well worth seeing. Mrs. Jardine kept watching her so closely that Kate asked at last: "Have you made up your mind, yet?"

"No, and I am afraid I never shall," answered Mrs. Jardine. "You are rather an astonishing creature. You're so big, so vital; you absorb knowledge like a sponge takes water -- "

"And for the same purpose," laughed Kate. "That it may be used for the benefit of others. Tell me some more about me. I find me such an interesting subject."

"No doubt!" admitted Mrs. Jardine. "Not a doubt about that! We are all more interested in ourselves than in any one else in this world, until love comes; then we soon learn to a love man more than life, and when a child comes we learn another love, so clear, so high, so purifying, that we become of no moment at all, and live only for those we love."

"You speak for yourself, and a class of women like you," answered Kate gravely. "I'm very well acquainted with many women who have married and borne children, and who are possibly more selfish than before. The Great Experience never touched them at all."

There was a tap at the door. Kate opened it and delivered to Mrs. Jardine a box so big that it almost blocked the doorway.

Mrs. Jardine lifted from the box a big Leghorn hat of weave so white and fine it almost seemed like woven cloth instead of braid. There was a bow in front, but the bow was nested in and tied through a web of flowered gold lace. One velvet end was slightly long and concealed a wire which lifted one side of the brim a trifle, beneath which was fastened a smashing big, pale-pink velvet rose. There was an ostrich plume even longer than the other, broader, blacker, as wonderful a feather as ever dropped from the plumage of a lordly bird. Mrs. Jardine shook the hat in such a way as to set the feather lifting and waving after the confinement of the box. With slender, sure fingers she set the bow and lace as they should be, and touched the petals of the rose. She inspected the hat closely, shook it again, and held it toward Kate.

"A very small price to pay for the breath of life, which I was rapidly losing," she said. "Do me the favour to accept it as casually as I offer it. Did I understand your description anywhere near right? Is this your hat?"

"Thank you," said Kate. "It is just 'the speaking image' of my hat, but it's a glorified, sublimated, celestial image. What I described was merely a hat. This is what I think I have lately heard Nancy Ellen mention as a 'creation.' Wheuuuuuu!"

She went to the mirror, arranged her hair, set the hat on her head, and turned.

"Gracious Heaven!" said Mrs. Jardine. "My dear, I understand now why you wore that hat on your journey."

"I wore that hat," said Kate, "as an ascension stalk wears its crown of white lilies, as a bobolink wears its snowy courting crest, as a bride wears her veil; but please take this from me to- night, lest I sleep in it!"

That night Mrs. Jardine felt tired enough to propose resting in her room, with Jennie Weeks where she could be called; so for the first time Kate left her, and, donning her best white dress and the hat, attended a concert. At its close she walked back to the hotel with some of the other teachers stopping there, talked a few minutes in the hall, went to the office desk for mail, and slowly ascended the stairs, thinking intently. What she thought was: "If I am not mistaken, my hat did a small bit of execution to- night." She stepped to her room to lock the door and stopped a few minutes to arrange the clothing she had discarded when she dressed hurriedly before going to the concert, then, the letters in her hand, she opened Mrs. Jardine's door.

A few minutes before, there had been a tap on that same door.

"Come in," said Mrs. Jardine, expecting Kate or Jennie Weeks. She slowly lifted her eyes and faced a tall, slender man standing there.

"John Jardine, what in the world are you doing here?" she demanded after the manner of mothers, "and what in this world has happened to you?"

"Does it show on me like that?" he stammered.

"Was your train in a wreck? Are you in trouble?" she asked. "Something shows plainly enough, but I don't understand what it is."

"Are you all right, Mother?" He advanced a step, looking intently at her.

"Of course I'm all right! You can see that for yourself. The question is, what's the matter with you?"

"If you will have it, there is something the matter. Since I saw you last I have seen a woman I want to marry, that's all; unless I add that I want her so badly that I haven't much sense left. Now you have it!"

"No, I don't have it, and I won't have it! What designing creature has been trying to intrigue you now?" she demanded.

"Not any one. She didn't see me, even. I saw her. I've been following her for nearly two hours instead of coming straight to you, as I always have. So you see where I am. I expect you won't forgive me, but since I'm here, you must know that I could only come on the evening train."

He crossed the room, knelt beside the chair, and took it and its contents in his arms.

"Are you going to scold me?" he asked.

"I am," she said. "I am going to take you out and push you into the deepest part of the lake. I'm so disappointed. Why, John, for the first time in my life I've selected a girl for you, the very most suitable girl I ever saw, and I hoped and hoped for three days that when you came you'd like her. Of course I wasn't so rash as to say a word to her! But I've thought myself into a state where I'm going to be sick with disappointment."

"But wait, Mother, wait until I can manage to meet the girl I've seen. Wait until I have a chance to show her to you!" he begged.

"I suppose I shall be forced," she said. "I've always dreaded it, now here it comes. Oh, why couldn't it have been Kate? Why did she go to that silly concert? If only I'd kept her here, and we'd walked down to the station. I'd half a mind to!"

Then the door opened, and Kate stepped into the room. She stood still, looking at them. John Jardine stood up, looking at her. His mother sat staring at them in turn. Kate recovered first.

"Please excuse me," she said.

She laid the letters on a small table and turned to go. John caught his Mother's hand closer, when he found himself holding it.

"If you know the young lady, Mother," he said, "why don't you introduce us?"

"Oh, I was so bewildered by your coming," she said. "Kate, dear, let me present my son."

Kate crossed the room, and looking straight into each other's eyes they shook hands and found chairs.

"How was your concert, my dear?" asked Mrs. Jardine.

"I don't think it was very good," said Kate. "Not at all up to my expectations. How did you like it, Mr. Jardine?"

"Was that a concert?" he asked.

"It was supposed to be," said Kate.

"Thank you for the information," he said. "I didn't see it, I didn't hear it, I don't know where I was."

"This is most astonishing," said Kate.

Mrs. Jardine looked at her son, her eyes two big imperative question marks. He nodded slightly.

"My soul!" she cried, then lay back in her chair half-laughing, half-crying, until Kate feared she might have another attack of heart trouble.