KILDARES OF STORM
ELEANOR MERCEIN KELLY
With Frontispiece by Alonzo Kimball
New York The Century Co. 1916
Copyright, 1916, by The Century Co.
Published, October, 1916
TO AN UNFORGOTTEN MOTHER Who moulded for others than her daughter the standard of great womanhood
KILDARES OF STORM
Along a pleasant Kentucky road that followed nature rather than art in its curves and meanderings, straying beside a brook awhile before it decided to cross, lingering in cool, leafy hollows, climbing a sudden little hill to take a look out over the rolling countryside—along this road a single-footing mare went steadily, carrying a woman who rode cross-saddle, with a large china vase tucked under one arm.
People in an approaching automobile stopped talking to stare at her. She returned their gaze calmly, while the startled mare made some effort to climb a tree, thought better of it, and sidled by with a tremulous effort at self-control. A man in the machine lifted his hat with some eagerness. The woman inclined her head as a queen might acknowledge the plaudits of the multitude.
After they passed, comments were audible.
"What a stunner! Who is she, Jack?" The voice was masculine.
"Riding cross-saddle! Jack, do you know her?" The voice was feminine.
The answer was lower, but the woman on horseback heard it. "Of course I know her, or used to. It is the woman I was telling you about, the famous Mrs. Kildare of Storm."
Mrs. Kildare's color did not change as she rode on. Perhaps her lips tightened a little; otherwise the serenity of her face was unaltered. Serenity, like patience, is a thing that must be won, a habit of mind not easily to be broken. She reminded herself that since the invasion of automobiles she must expect often to encounter people who had known her before.
Her eyes, keen and gray and slightly narrowed, like all eyes that are accustomed to gaze across wide spaces, turned from side to side with quick, observant glances. Negroes, "worming" tobacco in a field, bent to their work as she passed with a sudden access of zeal.
"That's right, boys," she called, smiling. "The Madam sees you!"
The negroes guffawed sheepishly in answer.
A certain warmth was in her gaze as she looked about, her, something deeper than mere pride of possession. Her feeling for the land she owned was curiously maternal. "My dear fields," she sometimes said to herself. "My cattle, my trees"; and even, "my birds, my pretty, fleecy clouds up there."
When she came to a certain cornfield, acres of thrifty stalks standing their seven feet and more, green to the roots, plumes nodding proudly in the breeze, she faced her mare about and saluted, as an officer might salute his regiment.
A chuckle sounded from the other side of the road. On a bank almost level with her head a young man lay under a beech-tree, watching her with kindling eyes, as he had watched her ever since she rode into sight. "Miss Kate, Miss Kate, when are you going to grow up and give those girls of yours a chance?"
Her surprised blush took all the maturity out of her face. She might have been twenty. "Spying on me as usual, Philip! Well, why shouldn't I salute this corn of mine? It certainly serves me nobly."
He came down from the bank and stood beside her; a stalwart young man in shabby riding-boots and a clerical collar, with eyes surprisingly blue in a dark, aquiline, un-Anglo-Saxon face. They were filled just now with a look that made the lady blush again.
He was thinking (no new thought to Kentuckians) that of all the products of his great commonwealth, nothing equalled such women as this before him. Erect, deep-bosomed, with the warm brown flush of her cheeks, her level gaze, her tender mouth with the deep corners that mean humor—Kate Kildare, from girlhood to old age, would find in eyes that gazed on her the unconscious tribute that many women never know, and for that reason happily do not miss. But the vital quality of her beauty was not a matter of color, or form, or feature. It was a thing that had come to her since her first youth, a glow from within, the sort of spiritual fire at which a friend may warm himself. If happiness is a great beautifier, Philip Benoix believed he knew of one greater: sorrow.
"Well, well?" she demanded, laughing. "What are you staring at, boy? Why are you ogling me in that sentimental fashion? Have you mistaken me for—Jacqueline, perhaps?"
If she hoped to embarrass him in turn, she was disappointed. He shook his head. "If I were to ogle Jacqueline sentimentally, she'd slap me. Miss Kate," he added, "don't you know that saluting your corn was just your pagan way of thanking God? Why not come to church and do it properly?"
"You may just as well give it up. I shall never go to church. I don't like church, so there! Stop talking shop, and come home to supper with me. What are you doing here, anyway, lolling about like a man of leisure, as if there were no souls to be saved?"
"I was lying in wait for yours. I knew you were out on a tour of inspection, and bound to pass this way."
"Did you want to see me especially?"
"I always do."
She flicked him with her riding-crop, "You're more Irish than French to-day! And where's your horse?"
"Well, old Tom seemed so comfortable and tired, munching away in his stall, that I hadn't the heart—"
"So you walked. Of course you weren't tired! Oh, Phil, Phil, you are your father's own son; too soft-hearted for this 'miserable and naughty world.' It won't be able to resist taking a whack at you."
A little silence fell between them. Both were thinking of a man who was no longer quite of this miserable and naughty world.
"Take my stirrup and trot along beside me, boy," she said. "We'll go faster that way. I wish you were still small enough to climb up behind me as you used to do—remember?"
His face suddenly quivered. "Are you asking me if I remember!—You have never let me tell you how well I remember, nor what your kindness meant to me, in those first days"—He spoke haltingly, yet with a sudden rush, as men speak whose hearts are full. "I was the loneliest little chap in the world, I think. Father and I had always been such friends. They tried to be kind, there at school; but they acted as if I were something strange; they watched me. I knew they were pitying me, remembering father, studying me for signs of inheritance. The son of a 'killer.' It was a dangerous time for a boy to be going through alone.... And then you came and brought me home with you; made me play with those babies of yours, took me with you wherever you went, read with me and discussed things with me as if I were an equal, talked to me about father, too. Do you think I don't know all it meant to you? Do you think I did not realize, even then, what people were saying?"
"I have never been much afraid," said Kate Kildare quietly, "of what people were saying."
"No. And because of you, I dared not be afraid, either. Because of you I knew that I must stay and make my fight here, here where my father had failed. Oh, Kate Kildare, whatever manhood I may have I owe—"
"To your father," she said.
"Perhaps. But whatever good there is in me, you kept alive."
"Dear, dear! And that's why," she cried, with an attempt at lightness, "you feel it your duty to strike attitudes in your pulpit and keep the good alive in the rest of us?"
"That's why," he said, soberly, "But not you, Miss Kate. I do not preach to you. No man alive is good enough to preach to you."
"Good Heavens! When you have just been doing it!" Her laugh was rather tremulous. "What is this—a declaration? Are you making love to me, boy?"
He nodded without speaking.
The flush and the laughter died out of her face, leaving it very pale. "Look here," she said haltingly, "I'd like to accept your hero-worship, dear—it's sweet. But—If I've not been a very good woman, at least I've always been an honest one. You said even at that time you realized what people were saying. Did it never occur to you that what they said—might be true?"
He met her gaze unfalteringly. "I know you," he answered.
Her eyes went dim. Blindly she stooped and drew his head to her and kissed him.
At that moment a plaintive negro voice spoke close at hand. "Gawd sakes, Miss Kate, whar you gwine at wif my prize? Huccom you took'n hit away fum me?"
Unnoticed, an old, shambling negro had approached across the field, and was gazing in wide-eyed dismay at the china vase under her arm.
Mrs. Kildare welcomed the interruption. She did not often encourage her emotions.
"Aha! Well met, Ezekiel," she said dramatically. "Search your heart, search your black heart, I say, and tell me whether a magnificent trophy like this deserves no better resting place than a cabin whose door-yard looks like a pig-sty."
"But ain't I done won it?" insisted the negro. "Ain't I done won it fa'r and squar'? Wan't my do'-yahd de purtiest in de whole Physick League?"
"It was, two weeks ago; and now what is it? A desert, a Sahara strewn with tomato-cans and ashes. No, no, Ezekiel. Winning a prize isn't enough for the Civic League—nor for God," she announced, sententiously. "You've got to keep it won."
She moved on, resistless, like Fate. The negro gazed after her, his month quivering childishly.
"She's a hard 'ooman, the Madam, a mighty hard 'ooman! Huccom she kissin' Mr. Philip Benoix dataway? Him a preacher, too!" Suddenly his eye gleamed with a forgotten memory. "De French doctor's boy—my Lawd! De French doctor's own chile!" He shook his fist after the retreating pair. "White 'ooman, white 'ooman, ain't you got no shame 't all?" he muttered—but very low, for the Madam had good ears.
As they jogged along, man and mare at the same easy foot-pace, Benoix said, "Are you sure that vase doesn't really belong to old Zeke, Miss Kate?"
"No, I'm not," she answered frankly. "I suppose it does belong to him, as a matter of fact. But the whole purpose of the Civic League I formed among the village negroes was to keep their quarters decent. If it fails of that—Well, the Madam giveth, and the Madam taketh away." She shot him a mischievous glance. "Evidently you don't approve of me, Philip?"
"Of you. Not of your ethics, perhaps. They 're rather—feminine."
She shrugged. "Oh, well—feminine ethics are enough for Storm village. They have to be," she said, succinctly.
Before them, outlined against the red round of the low sun, stood the rambling gray outlines of a house, topping a small hill. From one of its huge chimneys a pennant of smoke waved hospitably. The mare whinnied, and chafed a little against the bit.
"Clover smells her oats," said Mrs. Kildare, "and I smell Big Liza's ginger-bread. It makes me hungry. Let's go faster."
He did not seem to hear her. She glanced at his preoccupied face, wondering at this unusual indifference to Big Liza's ginger-bread. "What is it, Philip?"
"I have been thinking how to begin," he said slowly. "I've got to talk to you about something disagreeable."
"Surely you can talk to me about anything, without 'beginning'?"
"Well—I want to ask you to do something very unpleasant. To evict a tenant. Mag Henderson."
"That girl? But why?"
"Your agent says she's months behind in her rent."
"Smith talks too much. What if she is? I can afford to be patient with her. The girl has had a hard time. Her father seems to have deserted her. Oh, I know they're a shiftless pair, but half the prejudice against them is that they are strangers. I know what that is," she added bitterly. "I've been a stranger myself in a rural community. You'll have to give me a better reason than that, Philip."
"I can," he said.
She lifted her eyebrows. "There's talk then? I suppose so. There's always talk, if a girl 's pretty enough and unprotected enough. The poor little foolish Mag Hendersons of the world! Oh," she cried, "I wonder that men dare to speak of them!"
"I dare," said Benoix, quietly. "I've my parish to think of. The girl's a plague-spot. Vice is as contagious as any other disease. Besides, it 's a question of her own safety. She's been threatened. That's why the father left."
"What?" cried Mrs. Kildare. "The 'Possum-Hunters'? You mean they are trying to run my affairs again?"
It was several years since men in masks had waged their anonymous warfare against certain tobacco planters whose plans did not accord with the sentiment of the community. The organization of Night Riders was supposed to be repressed. But power without penalty is too heady a draft to be relinquished easily, by men who have once known the taste of it.
Benoix nodded. "She has had warning."
Mrs. Kildare's lips set in a straight line. "Let them come! They'll try that sort of thing once too often."
"Yes—but it might be once too often for Mag, too. She—have you seen her lately?"
The other looked at him quickly. "Oh," she said, "oh! Well, she sha'n't suffer alone. Who's the man?"
"She will not tell."
"Loves him—poor thing!"
For a moment the priest showed in young Benoix' face. "Miss Kate! You speak as if that made a difference," he said sternly.
"And doesn't it, doesn't it? Good Lord, how young you are! You'd better pray that the years may teach you a little human weakness. I tell you, Mag sha'n't bear it all. Whoever's concerned in this thing shall suffer with her."
"I am afraid," said Benoix, reluctantly, "that would be—rather a large order."
"Oh! It isn't—love, then." For a moment Mrs. Kildare stared straight in front of her. Then she wheeled her horse, the pity in her face hardened into disgust. "Go on, will you? And tell the girls to save me some of that ginger-bread."
"Where are you going?"
"To evict Mag Henderson."
He protested. "But why to-night? Surely one night more! It will be very hard. Why not let Smith attend to it?"
She gave him a bleak little smile. "My dear boy, if I had left all the hard things to my manager to do, Storm to-day would be just where Basil Kildare left it."
She cantered back along the road and turned up a weed-grown lane, her face set and frowning. Despite her words to Benoix, at times like this she felt a very feminine need of a man, and scorned herself for the feeling.
Coming to a whitewashed log-cabin overgrown with morning-glories—the only crop the shiftless Hendersons had been able to raise—she pounded on the closed door with the butt of her crop. She heard a faint sound within, but nobody came to answer.
"I hear you in there. Don't keep me waiting, Mag."
Still no answer. But once again the faint sound came. It might have been the whining of an animal.
Mrs. Kildare jumped impatiently from her horse, and a few well-aimed blows of fist and knee sent the frail lock flying. The door was barricaded within by a bureau and a table and chairs—Mag's poor little defense, evidently, against the "Possum-Hunters."
"Where are you, my girl?" demanded Mrs. Kildare less impatiently, pushing her way to the back room. "It's not night-riders. It's the Madam."
A little slim creature, hardly more than a child, writhed on a cot in the corner, her eyes bright and fixed like the eyes of a rabbit Kate had once seen caught in a trap, both fists stuffed into her mouth to stifle the groans that burst out in spite of them.
"Git out!" the girl panted fiercely. "Lemme be! I don' want none of ye 'round, not none of ye. You go way from here!"
The change in Mrs. Kildare's face was wonderful. "Why, child, what's the matter?" she said gently, even as she stripped off her gauntlets. For she knew very well what was the matter. In a widely separated rural community where doctors and nurses are scarce, the word "neighbor" becomes more than a mere honorary title.
In a few moments she had a fire going, water boiling, what few clean rags she could find sterilized. While she worked she talked, quietly and cheerfully, watching the girl with experienced eyes. She did not like her pulse nor her color. She saw that she was going to need help.
"I'll be back in ten minutes," she said presently. "I'm going to the nearest telephone to get the doctor. Keep up your courage, Mag. Only ten minutes!"
But the girl was clinging to her, by this time, moaning, begging, praying as if to God. "No, no—you cain't leave me, you cain't! I been alone so long. Don' leave me alone! I know I'm bad, but O Gawd, I'm skeert! Don' leave me to die all alone. You wouldn't leave a dawg die all alone!"
Mrs. Kildare soothed her with touch and word, wondering what was to be done. Through the open door she sent her strong voice ringing out across the twilight fields, again and again. There was nobody to hear. All the world had gone indoors to supper. Her waiting horse pawed the earth with a soft, reproachful nicker, to remind her that horses, too, have their time for supper. It gave her an idea.
"The children will be frightened, but I can't help that. I must have somebody here," she murmured, and slapped the mare sharply on the flank. "Home, Clover. Oats! Branmash! Hurry, pet!"
Obediently the startled creature broke into a trot, which presently, as she realized that she was riderless, became a panic-stricken gallop. Mrs. Kildare went back to her vigil.
It is a terrible experience to watch, helpless, the agony of a fellow creature. She knelt beside the dirty pallet, her face as white as the girl's, beads of sweat on her brow, paralyzed by her utter inability to render aid—a new sensation to Mrs. Kildare. Maternity as she had known it was a thing of awe, of dread, a great brooding shadow that had for its reverse the most exquisite happiness God allows to the earth-born. But maternity as it came to Mag Henderson! None of the preparations here that women love to make, no little white-hung cradle, no piles of snowy flannel, none of the precious small garments sewn with dreams; only squalor, and shame, and fear unutterable.
Never a religious woman, Mrs. Kildare found herself presently engaged in one of her rare conversations with the Almighty, explaining to Him how young, how ignorant was this child to suffer so; how unfair that she should be suffering alone; how wicked it was to send souls into the world unwanted.
"You could do something about it, and You ought to," she urged, aloud. "Oh, God, what a pity You are not a woman!"
Even in her agony, it seemed a queer sort of prayer to Mag Henderson. But strong hands held hers close, a strong heart pounded courage into hers; and who shall say that the helpless tears on Kate Kildare's face were of no help to a girl who had known nothing in all her life of the sisterhood of women?
At last came the sound of thudding hoofs in the lane, and a clear voice, the echo of Kate's own, calling, "Mother! Where are you? Mother! Answer me. I'm coming—"
Mrs. Kildare made a trumpet of her hands and shouted, "Here, Jack. Here in Mag's cabin."
"Phil, Phil!" called back the voice, breaking. "Come on. It's all right! We've found her! She's safe!"
In a moment a whirlwind of pink muslin burst in at the door, and enveloped Mrs. Kildare in an embrace which bade fair to suffocate, while anxious hands felt and prodded her to be sure nothing was broken.
"Oh, Mummy darling," crooned the beautiful voice, "how you frightened us! You're sure no bones are smashed—nothing sprained? Poor Clover had worked herself into a perfect panic, galloping home all alone. And the servants screaming, and Jemima fearing the worst, as she always does. And we didn't even know where to hunt for you, till Philip came—Oh, Mother!"
"There, there, baby—it 's all right. No time for pettings now. There 's work to be done. Why didn't Jemima come? This is no place for a madcap like you."
Jacqueline chuckled and shivered. "The Apple Blossom"—she referred to her elder sister, Jemima—"was turning your room into a hospital-ward when I left, against the arrival of your mangled corpse. She had also ordered the wagon prepared like an ambulance, mattresses, chloroform, bandages—every gruesome detail complete. Our Jemima," she said, "is having the time of her life—isn't she, Reverend Flip?"
Mrs. Kildare smiled in spite of herself. The description of her eldest daughter was apt. But she said reprovingly, "Yon sound as if you were making fun of your sister, dear. And don't call Philip 'the Reverend Flip.' It is rude."
"Pooh! Rudeness is good for that elderly young man," murmured Jacqueline, with an engaging smile in his direction.
But the elderly young man, standing at the door, did not notice. He was gazing at Mrs. Kildare questioningly.
There had come a groan from the inner room.
"What's that?" cried Jacqueline. She ran to investigate. "Oh! The poor thing! What's the matter with her?"
Benoix would have stopped her, but Kate said shortly, "Nonsense, Phil. My girls were born women. You ride for the doctor."
At dawn a faint, fierce whisper came from the inner room.
"Whar's my babby? What you-all doin' with my babby? You ain't goin' to take her away from me? No, no! She's mine, I tell you!"
Jacqueline hurried in to her with the tiny, whimpering bundle. "Of course she's yours, and the sweetest, fattest darling. Oh, Mag, how I envy you!" She kissed the other's cheek.
There was a third girl in the room, a dainty, pink and white little person who well deserved her pet-name of the "Apple Blossom." She looked up in quick distaste from the bandages her capable hands were preparing, and went out to her mother.
"Isn't it like Jacqueline? To sit outside all night with her fingers stuffed in her ears, because she couldn't stand the groaning, and then to—kiss the creature!"
Jemima was nineteen, a most sophisticated young woman.
Her mother smiled a little. "Yes," she admitted, "it is like Jacqueline, and that's why she's going to do poor Mag more good than either of us. The doctor says we shall be able to take Mag and the baby home presently."
"Home!" Philip Benoix looked at her in amaze. Like the others, his face was drawn and pale with that strange vigil. Death does not come so close without leaving its mark on the watchers. "Miss Kate, surely you're not going to take Mag Henderson into your own home?"
"Where else? You wanted me to evict her. I can't evict her into space."
"But, the responsibility!"
"Yes, there is a responsibility," said Kate Kildare, musing. "I don't know whether it's mine or God's, or whose—and I can't afford to take any chances."
"It will be easier to look after them at home," commented the practical Jemima.
On the rare occasions when the mistress of Storm sat idle in her eyrie, her household—children, negroes, even the motley assortment of dogs that claimed her for their own—had learned to go their ways softly. The morning after Mag's affair, three collies, a hound or so, and several curs waited in a respectful row, tentative tails astir, with eyes fixed patiently upon a certain great juniper-tree at the edge of Storm garden. On the other side of it sat a very weary woman, cradled between its hospitable roots, with her back turned on the workaday world and her face to the open country. This was her eyrie; and here, when another woman would have been shut into a darkened chamber courting sleep, came Kate Kildare on occasion to rest her soul.
To the left and right of her rose taller hills, of which Storm was the forerunner, the first small ripple of the Cumberlands as they broke upon the plain. At her feet stretched mile after rolling mile of summer green, and gold, and brown. There were dappled pastures of bluegrass, clover-fields, beech-woods, great golden reaches of corn; there was the rich black-green of tobacco—not much of that, for Kate Kildare loved her land too well to ruin it. Here and there the farm of some neighbor showed larger patches of the parasite that soon or late must sap Kentucky of its vigor, even while it fills her coffers with gold; but these were few. The greater part of the land in sight was Kildare land. Storms, like some feudal keep of the Old World, brooded its chickens under its wings, watchfully.
Far away, perhaps five miles or so, the roof of another mansion showed among the trees; a new house. Kate rarely looked in that direction. It made her feel crowded. It was not the only direction from which she kept her eyes averted. On the edge of the distant horizon rested always a low gray cloud, never lifting, nor shifting. It seemed to her an aureole of shadow crowning some evil thing, even as the saints in old paintings are crowned with light. It was the smoke of the little city of Frankfort, where there is a penitentiary.
The plateau at her feet was crossed by many a slender thread of road, to one of which her eyes came presently, as wandering feet stray naturally into a path they often use. It was rather a famous road, with a name of its own in history. Wild creatures had made it centuries ago, on their way from the hills to the river. The silent moccasins of Indians had widened it; later, pioneers, Kildares and their hardy kindred, flintlock on shoulder, ear alert for the crackling of a twig in the primeval forest, seeking a place of safety for their women and children in the new world they had come to conquer. Now it was become a thoroughfare for prosperous loaded wains, for world-famed horses, for their supplanter, the automobile, which in ever-increasing numbers has come to enjoy and kill the peace of distant countrysides.
But to Kate Kildare the early history of that road meant nothing. It was for her the road that led back, a two days' journey, into her girlhood.
In the house Jacqueline was singing, her voice drowning the mellow tones of the old piano, ringing out singularly pure and clear, like a child's, lacking as yet the modulations to be learned of one teacher alone; life. It was a new song that Philip Benoix had brought for her to try:
"A little winding road Goes over the hill to the plain— A little road that crosses the plain And comes to the hill again. I sought for Love on that road—"
sang Jacqueline, cheerfully.
The eyes of the listener filled with sharp tears. She too had sought for Love on that road.
She saw herself riding down it into her great adventure, so young, so laughing and brave, Basil Kildare on his great horse beside her, all the world a misty golden green. She saw—even with closed eyes, she saw—the turn of the road where Jacques Benoix, Philip's father, had come to meet them on their wedding journey.
So far her memories often led her before she stopped them. But the experience of the night had left her oddly stirred and weakened, not quite herself. To-day the memories had their way with her.
She lived again through the whirlwind courtship that was still remembered in a community where sudden marriages are not unusual; saw again, as she had first seen it, the arresting, great figure of Basil Kildare framed in a ballroom door, with smoldering black eyes upon her, that spoke so much more eloquently than his tongue. Yet his tongue had done well enough, too, that night. Before their first dance was over he had said to her: "I have been watching you grow up, Kate. Now I think you are old enough to marry me."
Two weeks later they went to her mother, hand in hand.
"But, my dearest!" fluttered the startled lady, "Mr. Kildare is a man of forty, and you only seventeen, only a child! Besides—"
"Mr. Kildare," answered the girl, with a proud glance at her lover, "will help me to become a woman, Mother dear."
What was she, newly widowed, who had depended in all things upon her husband, to oppose such a pair of wills? Rumors of the wild doings at Storm were not lacking in that gentler community, nor was the Kildare blood what she would have chosen to mix with her own. But there is among this type of women always the rather touching belief that it needs only matrimony to tame the wildest of eagles into a cooing dove. Kildare, moreover, was one of the great landowners of the State, a man of singular force and determination, and, when he chose to exert it, of a certain virile charm. When Mrs. Leigh realized that, ever since her daughter had been old enough to exhibit promise of the beauty she afterwards attained, this man had marked her for his own, a feeling of utter helplessness came over her.
They were a magnificent pair to look at, as they stood before her, tall, vivid, vital. Beside Basil Kildare the youths who had hitherto courted Kate, young as she was, seemed callow and insignificant, even to the mother. It would need a man to rule such a woman as Kate was to become, not an adoring boy; and Mrs. Leigh was of the type and generation that believed firmly in the mastery of husbands.
She could not make up her mind to consent to the marriage, but she did not forbid it. And it is probable that her forbidding would have had as much effect upon that pair of lovers as the sighing of the southwind. Perhaps less effect; for, in a Kentucky May, the sighing of the southwind is very persuasive.
Bridesmaids and their escorts rode part way on the wedding journey; a gay cavalcade, some of the youths a little white and quiet, all of the girls with envious, sentimental eyes upon Kate where she rode beside the handsomest of the wild Kildares, with the romantic, whispered reputation of his race upon him.
When these had turned back, the bridegroom, chafing a little under their surveillance, swore a great oath of relief and spurred his horse close. In a sudden panic Kate bolted away from him, galloped up a lane, leaped a fence into a field, where he caught her and seized her, laughing aloud: "That's my girl! That's my pretty wild hawk! The spirit for a mother of Kildare men, by God!"
After that she met his kisses unafraid. Girl as she was, it seemed to her a beautiful saying—"a mother of Kildare men." Only three things she was bringing with her from the old home to the new—her piano, her father's books, and the oaken cradle that had come with the first Leigh from overseas, and followed other Leighs across the mountains along the old Wilderness Trail, into Kentucky.
Toward the end of their two days' journey through the May woods and meadows, a little barking dog sprung out at them, frightening Kate's thoroughbred until it almost threw her. Kildare struck furiously at the dog, and missed; struck again, leaped from his horse, and pursued it, striking and kicking, so that the terrified creature ran for its life, and Kate cried out, "Stop, Basil, stop. What are you doing? Stop, I say!"
He came back to her, cursing, an ugly line between his brows. "Got away, damn the luck! I almost—Why, Kate! Tears? Oh, good Lord," he laughed, still frowning. "You're as soft as Jacques Benoix!"
She mastered the tears; mastered, too, a strange little fear at her heart, thinking proudly, "He came when I called! He stopped when I called!"
Aloud she said, "It was the sun that made my eyes water. Who is Jacques Benoix?"
He told her about his neighbor, a stranger—"the only gentleman within ten miles of us, so you'll have to be friends with him"—a man so soft-hearted that he would not hunt foxes or rabbits; a man who broke his colts without the whip, and was trying to break a son the same way.
"More fool he, coming up here out of a city and trying to teach us to break colts!"
"Has he a wife?"
Kildare gave his great laugh. "You don't suppose a man as soft as that would have escaped? The woman's sickly—of course! That's why he married her, and that's why he has come up here. Gave up a big practice in New Orleans, they say, because he thought it would be healthier here. So it is! Too damned healthy for him, I reckon! We don't need more than one doctor around Storm, and old Doc Jones has got a corner on the births and deaths already. Yes, Benoix is rather a fool. But he's got his uses. He'll play poker for twenty-four hours at a stretch, and drink—Lord!" said Kildare, admiringly. "I don't know where the little fellow puts it all!"
It was at the next crossroads that they found Benoix waiting; a slender, rather foreign-looking man, very carefully dressed, with a stiff little bouquet of geraniums in his hands. For the first time Kate's direct young gaze met the eyes whose blueness, in their dark setting, was a never-failing surprise to her. They held hers steadily for a moment; it seemed to her that they had already talked together before he spoke.
"I bring to Mrs. Kildare the first fruits from her kingdom," he said, offering the little bouquet.
"Flowers from Storm?" laughed Basil, incredulously. "Where'd you get them? You're a wizard, Jacques! I never saw any flowers at Storm."
"You were not looking for them, my friend. Now you will look!" Benoix' smile was a gleam of white teeth.
Kate tucked the flowers into her habit, and held out her hand to him. "I've been ordered to be friends with you. I do not think it will be hard," she said.
Kildare laughed again as the other bent formally over her hand. "Thank Heaven, I'm no Frenchman! A woman's hand, in a glove, must be about as thrilling to kiss as a mare's hoof. Try her lips, man! You'll find them better," he urged; and roared with laughter to see them both blushing.
Benoix rode with them the rest of the way, pointing out to the girl the beauties of her kingdom; mares nuzzling their new-born foals; the tender green of young crops; cloud shadows drifting over the rolling miles that darkled like ocean beneath a wind; a pair of mocking-birds at play, their gray wings flashing circles of white. For some time the hills had been marching toward them, and at last they reached the first. It was low, and covered with juniper-bushes. On the crest of it stood a house, grim and stanch as when the pioneer Kildare built it, facing undaunted through the years the brunt of every storm that swept the plateau. Its trees were bent and twisted by the giant grasp of many winds.
"You see why they call it 'Storm,'" said Benoix.
Kildare had left them, spurring forward with sudden eagerness, whistling. Crashing down through the underbrush came two enormous bloodhounds, baying like mad things. Kildare flung himself from his horse and met them with a shout, seizing them in his arms, romping and tumbling about with the great, frantic beasts until all three were covered with mud and slaver. It was a rather terrific spectacle. Kate thought of a bas-relief she had seen somewhere of a satyr playing with leopards.
"The only things in the world Basil loves!" murmured the Creole; adding quickly, "or did love. Do not be startled, Mrs. Kildare. Bloodhounds are greatly maligned. Jove and Juno, there, are as kind as kittens, despite their rough ways. Here you will find many rough ways," he spoke as if in warning. "It is a man's place. But you will change it!"
He was mistaken. After all her years there, Storm was still "a man's place." Kate had never found the time, nor the heart, to make a home of it.
Benoix left them, and Kate and Basil mounted to their house alone. Seen close at hand, it proved to be not without a certain charm, despite its weather-beaten grimness. No house can lack personality that has grown generation by generation with the race it shelters. The older part was of rough-hewn logs, whitewashed. To this had been added later a wing of boulders; later still, one of brick. Across the long front ran a brick-paved gallery, where a disused carriage had been drawn for shelter, and taken possession of by a flock of turkeys.
Negroes, big and little, came running from the quarters at the back. A huge, beaming black woman waddled out and lifted Kate bodily from the saddle, loudly praising God.
"My Lawdy, ain't she des' a beauty? Ain't Mr. Bas' done picked him a beauty-bright?"
In the open door waited another house-servant; a handsome young mulatto girl, who curtseyed respectfully and stared at her new mistress with hostile, curious eyes.
Remembering, Kate shuddered, as she had shuddered then with the bewilderment, the sense of unreality, that took possession of her at that moment. It was all so unlike what she had expected, so appallingly unlike the gracious, well-ordered life of the stately Bluegrass homes she had known.
Rank weeds grew to the very door-sill. Within she saw a huge, raftered hall hung with antlers and guns and saddles, pelts, fox-brushes. There was a stuffed bloodhound, the ancestor perhaps of Jove and Juno. A horse's head protruded from the wall, nostrils dilated, glassy eyes starting from the sockets, as if the poor creature were still running his last race with Death.
"Welcome home, wife!" cried Basil Kildare, kissing her lips with a loud smack.
The negroes guffawed in delight, the hounds bayed again till the hills echoed.
Then beside the house she saw a few squares and circles of fresh-turned earth, planted with limp coleas, and dusty-millers, and all the other unlovely specimens of horticulture favored by men when they go a-gardening. Her eyes filled with sudden tears.
"Why, Basil!" She slipped a hand into his. "You dear! How sweet of you to try to make me the little garden!"
"Eh? What garden?" His eyes followed hers. "Oh! That must be some of Benoix' doings. He's the only man 'round here who has time to fool with posies."
There was never a stranger honeymoon than that of Kate and Basil Kildare. It began with a view-halloa. It ended ... how should happy hunting end except with the death of something?
That first year was not without its heady charm for a girl with the facile, the almost tragic, adaptability of seventeen years. True, it was not married life as she had dreamed it; but it was her husband's life. She made it hers.
Kildare's boon companions found to their relief that a young wife was no restraint upon their pleasures; was indeed an addition to them. No sport was too rough for her to share, no riding too hard, no gambling too heavy. Despite her town breeding, this was no hothouse plant, this daughter of a horse-racing, whisky-drinking, card-playing gentry. Kildare took a vast delight in her prowess, particularly at the card-table; swearing joyously when she won, paying her losses, which were considerable, with an amused indifference equal to her own. One quality, and one alone, had power to move him in man, woman, or beast. It was the quality he called Spirit.
In that Kate was not lacking. Rumors of the wild Kildares, always rife in a countryside they had made famous for generations with their amusements, did not abate after the coming of a new mistress to Storm. Of the society of her own sex, she had little or nothing. The few women of her class within driving distance were careful to call once—Kildare was not a man to antagonize. But they did not come again. Kate was not sorry. She found them less interesting than their men-folk. Their manners were provincial, their outlook narrow, and—they did not fall in love with her. In this they were unlike their husbands, their brothers, their sons, and fathers.
The guest-house was rarely empty. The bride and groom were never alone. Storm had long been a gathering place for sportsmen of every type, from the neighboring towns, from the city, from other States. Nor were their guests always gentlemen. Kate, indeed, grew to prefer certain of the rough and simple farmers who came there to the more polished visitors. Their admiration was humbler, less troublesome.
Gentlemen or not, Kate numbered her admirers among her husband's friends by the score. She grew as adept in handling them as in handling colts; and her prowess in this, too, amused Basil Kildare enormously. He rallied her on each new victim with chuckles of delight. Too confident of himself for jealousy, he knew, if he thought of it at all, that his honor was safer in her hands than it had ever been in his own.
That the girl came to no harm in that wild year was owing to no watchfulness of her husband's. The Kildare motto was "Liberty For All." Nor was it owing to any love of her husband's, Kate soon knew this.
Her beauty was a matter of great pride to him. He flaunted it, his property, before other envious men; took her often upon his knee when any were about; pulled the pins out of her hair to reveal the full flowing splendor of it; hung her with jewels, sent away for velvets and silks and laces, so that she went about the rough place clad like a young queen at court. But despite various episodes in his career, Kildare was never a woman's man. He had married for one reason, and one alone. He made no concealment of it. "People say we Kildares are doomed, that the stock is dying out. We'll show 'em!" he often said. "Meanwhile, let the girl have her fling."
Nevertheless, there was watchfulness. No matter how far she went, no matter to what lengths her reckless gaiety led her, Kate was aware of the quiet, understanding scrutiny of Jacques Benoix. Their nearest neighbor, and by the strange attraction of opposites, Kildare's chosen intimate, it was inevitable that she should be thrown constantly into the company of the Creole. Despite his very evident admiration, he did not join the ranks of her more or less avowed lovers; a fact that in turn piqued and oddly comforted Kate. For at times this new life of hers seemed a strange dream, in which Benoix, with his gentleness, his punctilious courtesy, his rather formal friendliness of aspect, was the only fixed reality. She felt, vaguely, that she was safe with him; safer than with her husband. She thought of him more as a friend than as a man.
He reminded her somewhat of her father and his companions, courtly, scholarly gentlemen who belonged to that period of the South when men not only gambled and rode and drank, but found leisure to cultivate poetry, and Greek, and music, all the fine things of life. He talked to her about such matters as had interested them, large impersonal matters, taking for granted her intelligent understanding. This flattered the girl, though she had no ambition to be thought a scholar.
Often he borrowed books from her small store, to the impatient amusement of Basil Kildare, who looked upon the reading of books as a pastime suitable for invalids and old women. Kate, too, found no room in her exciting, absorbing life for books, at that time. Still, there was an atmosphere about the Creole far less foreign to her than to her companions. It reminded her of a sheltered, exquisite, finely ordered childhood, of certain standards that she might otherwise have been in danger of forgetting. She never joined a group of her husband's boon companions, whether in the gaming-room or the hunting-field, without first making sure unconsciously that Benoix was there. And he was usually there.
At length Benoix, in his professional capacity, spoke to Kildare.
"What the devil, Jacques! Stop her riding and late hours, and all? What d'ye mean?"
The doctor told him.
The husband swore a pleased oath. "Good little girl! I told you we'd show 'em. But what of it? Child-bearing's no disease, man! Good Gad, the girl ain't goin' to turn out sickly, is she?" Kildare had a queer horror of "sickliness."
"Not if I can help it," said the other. He added, in the language Basil best understood, "You do not race a brood-mare, my friend. You turn her out to pasture."
Kildare admitted the point. Thereafter, though the usual life at Storm went on unchanged, Kate was no longer a part of it.
She was rather glad. It was restful to be turned out to pasture. She liked to hear them start off with the hounds in the cold dawn, knowing that she might turn over and sleep again. Sometimes she was awakened at night by swearing and quarrels and loud laughter from the guest-wing. Sometimes there was singing, one rich baritone leading the rest; and to this Kate listened eagerly. Dr. Benoix sang very beautifully when he was drunk.
One night she started up out of a dream to hear tipsy voices at her very door. It opened, and Basil Kildare stood on the threshold, holding a lamp above his head, saying over his shoulder: "Come on in, boys! That's all right—Kit's a good sport. Come and look at her, if you like. Prettiest thing in a nightgown you ever saw!"
An anger possessed Kate of which she had never dreamed herself capable. She knew then that there would never be any defender for her and her children except herself. She saw that what her inexperience had mistaken for strength in her husband was only violence. She reached for the pistol at her bedside.
"Basil," she said quietly—too quietly—"if you bring those men into my room, I shall shoot."
Her voice sobered him; shocked him into an anger as hot as hers was cold. "Your room? Your room? By God, I do what I choose in this house! D'ye know who I am? By God—"
But her voice had sobered the others as well. They got him away by main force. Not one of them had glanced at her.
In the morning, for the first time in her life, Kate was ill, and Kildare in alarm sent for Benoix. Before her, he told the doctor what had occurred; ashamed, but brazening it out with a laugh. The doctor said nothing; merely looked at him. After a moment, the big man turned and went from the room.
Kate was oddly sorry for her husband. "He did not know what he was doing," she murmured. "But oh, Jacques, if you had been there, it would not have happened!"
"No. Hereafter, I shall be there."
"Please, please," whispered the girl, and she began to cry. She was quite unnerved. "Oh, I am afraid sometimes, Jacques! It's such a comfort to know you are near, to hear your voice—even when you are as drunk as the others!"
He went rather white about the lips. "Hereafter I shall be there," he repeated steadily. "And I shall not be as drunk as the others. I shall not be drunk at all."
After that night there was less company at Storm, and Kildare began to make frequent absences from home, lasting sometimes over several days. Kate was grateful, realizing that it was his way of showing her consideration. But she was also lonely. For the first time, she missed the companionship of women.
She made shy overtures to the tenants' wives, to the women in the village. But the barrier of caste was very evident, and there were other barriers. No virtue is so quick to take up arms as that of the middle classes. Kildare as a landlord was not popular. Beauty, charm, did not help her with them as it had with their husbands. There was the further barrier, which all aliens in a rural community reach soon or late: the well-nigh impassable barrier of strangeness. They would have none of her. They looked askance at her winning sweetness; they accepted her bounty with stony, ungrateful thanks.
She thought of asking friends to visit her, only to be brought up sharply by the realization that hers was not a home to which such women as she had known would care to come. Once she spoke to her husband tentatively of sending for her mother.
"Oh, by all means, if you want her," he agreed, yawning a little. "But what will that genteel female do with herself at Storm? There isn't a tea-party nor an Episcopal Church within half a day's drive of us."
Kate knew that he spoke truly. Her mother would be both shocked and unhappy at Storm. Let her keep what illusions she had a while longer. The girl was young to be guarding other women's illusions.
And so she was thrown for company upon Jacques Benoix and his wife; the latter a personality so colorless, so fragile, that strain as she might she could not now recall a feature of her face, nor a tone of her voice. Yet when Kate's time came, this helpless invalid had herself carried up the hill to Storm, so that the girl might not be without a woman's hand to hold during the ordeal.
At this memory, the older Kate flushed a little. She wondered how much the invalid had seen with her dim and weary eyes, before she closed them.
The day came when Basil, summoned from the field to his wife's bedside, foundered his best hunter in his haste to see his son. The doctor met him at the door.
"It is over, and well over," he said, gravely smiling.
Mrs. Benoix added, "She never whimpered!"
"Of course not, ma'am!" said Kildare. "Neither does my dog, Juno."
He tiptoed to the bed, quietly for him, and stood gazing down at the little wrinkled head on Kate's breast, with a queer, sheepish pride on his face; somewhat the look of a schoolboy who receives a prize for good behavior.
Kate smiled tremulously up at him, "Isn't she sweet?"
His face fell. "Gad, a she-child, is it? Well, can't be helped. We'll name her for my rich Aunt Jemima. Better luck next time, Kit."
But there was not better luck next time; there was worse luck.
Less than a year later, Kildare inspected his second daughter. Kate was sleeping, the baby beside her covered to its chin. The nurse in attendance was the young mulatto woman who had looked so strangely at her new mistress when she came to Storm. Now her hostility to Kate seemed to have lost itself in devotion to Kate's child; the almost passionate devotion that makes of colored women such invaluable nurses.
As Kildare approached, he was aware of this girl's eyes fixed upon him. Stealthily her hand went out, and drew away the sheet that covered the new baby.
He ripped out a startled oath. "Good God! What's the matter with it, Mahaly? It's—it's damaged, ain't it?"
Kate awoke with a gasping cry, and put her hands out to hide the little twisted body from his gaze.
Fortunately the child died. "Fortunately," repeated the mother to herself now, without a quiver. To the end of her days she would carry in her heart the memory of its faint, unbabyish moaning. It opened to her the door of a new world, the world of suffering. She learned the agony of love that cannot help. The little Katherine lived long enough to make a woman of her; and strangely enough it reached the one soft spot in the heart of Basil Kildare. During its brief and piteous life, husband and wife came almost close to each other.
To the man with his passion for physical perfection, the breeder of thoroughbred horses and cattle and dogs, the fact that a child of his should have been born without this precious heritage was a thing incredible, a humiliation beyond words. Whenever he looked at the tiny, whimpering creature, he asked pardon of her with his eyes for so monstrous an injustice. He never tired of carrying her about in his powerful arms, of rubbing the poor twisted limbs in an effort to ease the pain away.
"The stock's sound enough," he would say again and again. "I'm all right, and you're all right, Kit. What's the matter with her?"
Once he whispered in sudden horror, "I've been a pretty bad lot, Kate. God! Do you suppose I'm to blame for this?"
She comforted him with her arms about his neck.
When the child died, Kildare himself made its grave, and carried the coffin in his arms across the fields to the little pasture burying-lot where lay all the Kildares of Storm. It was a queer funeral; none the less pitiful for its queerness. First Basil with the coffin, the two great hounds gamboling and baying around him in their delight at going for a walk with the family; then Kate, alone and quite tearless; then a dozen wailing, hysterical negroes. Benoix and a few others met them at the grave, but there was no clergyman. Kate herself spoke what she could of the burial service, till her memory and her voice failed her. Then Kildare picked his wife up in his arms, and carried her home as tenderly as he had carried his child's coffin.
But that night he was so drunk that Kate kept the woman Mahaly in her room for safety.
It was during this time, with maternity, and sorrow, and womanhood, that love came to her. She did not know it. She knew only that things could be borne so long as Benoix was there to help her, guarding, understanding; Benoix with his steady eyes, and his gentle strength to share with her weakness.
They needed little excuse for their constant companionship; mere neighborliness; small Jemima's health; presents of flower-seeds and baby-patterns from his wife; books to be lent or borrowed, for Kate had turned to books at last. Kate's strength was slow in returning, and she spent much of the day sitting in the garden with her baby. It came to be Benoix' habit to stop there for a while coming or going from his house beyond. The baby knew the pit-a-patter of his racking horse, and had learned to clap her hands and crow when she heard it. The Creole had the same grave simplicity for children, as for his equals. It never failed to win them.
Often Kate drove with him on his rounds, the child on her knees, because she needed air and was not yet strong enough for riding; and in this way she saw a side of her friend which had hitherto been unknown to her. It was true, as Basil Kildare had said, that Dr. Jones "had a corner on the births and deaths in the neighborhood," but between the two extremes there were various physical disabilities which "the French doctor," as he was called, was allowed to treat, especially when there was no money for payment. With increasing frequency he was called in by the older physician to cases which proved baffling; and it became known that when the French doctor prescribed expensive medicines and nourishing luxuries, they were invariably forthcoming, whether they could be paid for or not.
With this the young mistress of Storm had much to do; and while this fact did not apparently lessen the neighborhood's attitude of critical animosity toward her, it gave the girl a keen pleasure to know that she was helping her friend. She began to understand the secret of the strong hold his profession has upon those who follow it truly—that warmly personal relation between the sufferer and his physician which is almost filial in its intensity. Jacques loved his patients, and they loved him. But it was not a lucrative practice.
She was witness to one little scene that came often to her memory in after days. He had stopped to visit a young farm laborer whom he had recently relieved of a stomach-trouble that was literally starving him to death. An old woman had followed him to the door of the cabin, her work-worn hands twisting together, her lips too tremulous for speech.
"But your troubles are over, Mrs. Higgs!" he smiled, lifting his hat with the punctilious courtesy he showed all women. "Live? Certainly he will live, and in a few weeks we shall have him walking about, eating you out of house and home."
Still the old creature was unable to speak; but she seized the hand he held out to her, and carried it to her lips. When he withdrew it, in laughing embarrassment, there were tears upon it.
At last her voice came, hoarsely: "I don' know what it's goin' to cost, an' I don't, keer! It's wuth every cent, an' I'll wuk my fingers to the bone to pay ye. God bless ye, Doc!"
He looked down at the hard-wrung tears on his hand. "You have paid me already," he said; and Kate knew that he meant it.
Afterwards she questioned him a little about the case.
"It was a gastro-enterostomy, without complications," he explained. "A very simple thing, done every day."
He described the operation in some detail, Kate watching him in amaze.
"You can't tell me that a thing like that is done every day! Jacques, be honest—isn't it a very remarkable operation for a country doctor to perform?"
"Oh—for a country doctor, perhaps. For a surgeon who has had some experience, no."
"You are a surgeon, then, not a doctor?"
He smiled, that warm, flashing smile which always fell like a gleam of sunlight across her heart. "I am—whatever people need me to be."
It was true—physician, nurse, companion, guardian, friend—Jacques Benoix was always whatever people needed him to be.
In that moment, Kate realized that he had given up a great career to bring his sick wife into the country.
One of the closest bonds between them was a love for music. Kate's singing, untrained and faulty though it was, gave keen pleasure to his starved ears, and often he brought his little son to hear her; a boy of ten, rather grave and shy, but with his father's beautiful smile. Sometimes there were duets to be tried out together; Kildare, when he was at home, listening tolerantly and beating time out of time to the pleasant sounds they made.
But he was not often at home in those days. He sought his pleasure elsewhere. The guest-house had been empty for months.
Kate and Benoix found his frequent absences rather a relief. They were freer to discuss the things that did not interest him, to read aloud to each other, to play games with the exacting Apple-Blossom, an executive from her cradle. It was at last the sort of domestic life of which every girl dreams in her secret heart; and Kate grew lovelier than her loveliest.
Meanwhile the countryside watched, and whispered, and waited. The countryside was wise in the ways of Nature, if these two were not.
Once Kildare asked (she missed the wistfulness of his voice), "Ain't it time you were riding again, Kit, and playing cards with the boys? They like to have you 'round. They're getting jealous of that kid of yours."
Kate smiled at him, absently. She was sitting on the floor, building a house of blocks under instruction from young Jemima. The amusements of men seemed to her futile things, just then, and childish.
"Benoix has given us the go-by, too. Won't touch a card or drink a drop nowadays. I don't know what's come over him. Good gad—" Kildare gave himself an impatient shake,—"sometimes I think the little Frenchman's a female in disguise!"
Kate smiled again. She knew very well what had come over Jacques. That much at least she had done in return for the precious thing his friendship was.
At last her eyes were opened. One day she saw her husband striding toward the house from the stables, pale, frowning, splashed with blood.
She cried out, and ran to him, "Basil! What's happened? Are you hurt?"
"Nonsense! I've just had to kill Juno, that's all."
"Kill Juno?" she gasped. "Good Heavens! Was she mad? Did she attack you?" She gathered up her child with an instinctive, fierce gesture of protection.
He grinned at her. "What an imagination! Bitches don't go mad, my dear. She littered yesterday, and her pups were all curs, that's all—every damned one of them. Beastly luck! So I've killed the lot of them—Juno, too."
She recoiled from him, repeating stupidly, "You killed them? Killed your own dog because her puppies were mongrels? Basil! I—I—don't think I understand."
"Time you learned something about breeding," he muttered impatiently. "Don't you know she might never have had another decent pup? Storm's got its reputation to sustain. I can't have the place overrun by a lot of curs."
He passed her, and went into the house.
She followed, stunned. All through supper, as she sat opposite her husband, listening, answering, serving his needs, the vision was before her of the great hound's eyes as they must have looked when, one by one, he took her puppies from her; when at last she felt the beloved hand at her own throat.
She looked at her husband furtively. It seemed to her that she had never really seen him before. The coarse, hairy hands, the face with its cruel lips, its low brow above which the hair waved up strongly like a black plume, its eyes, handsome and bright and shallow, like the eyes of certain animals of the cat-tribe—surely those eyes were growing too bright? People called this family "the wild Kildares," sometimes "the mad Kildares." Were they mad? Did that explain?
Slowly a great horror of the man seized her; a fear which never afterwards went away. He was her master, as he had been Juno's. She was at his mercy, his thing, his creature. If she displeased him, if her children displeased him....
He fell asleep presently in a chair, according to his wont, snoring like a well-fed animal. She sat and watched him for a while, shivering. Suddenly she gave a little choked cry, and ran out of the house. She stumbled down the hill, through the ravine below, along the road to where a lighted window shone through the darkness. It was the window of Jacques Benoix' study. She did not pause to realize why she was going. She wanted only to be near her friend.
He sat beside a lamp, reading to his wife, who lay on her couch beyond. Against his shoulder leaned his boy, rubbing a cheek upon the rough coat as if he loved to touch it. The light fell on the two dark heads so close together, the clustering boyish curls, the strong, curved lips, as sweet as any woman's. Kate pressed her white face against the window, drinking in the homely comfort of the scene. She had no wish to speak to him, no disloyal thought of betraying to her friend this new and terrible knowledge of her husband. It was enough to know that help was within reach; always within reach.
The invalid's cough sounded from the couch. Benoix laid his took aside and went to adjust her pillows. He bent over his wife and kissed her.
Then Kate knew. This stabbing shock in her heart—it was not friendship. It was jealousy; love.
She started away from the window. She must have made some slight sound, for Jacques looked up suddenly, and after a moment came out into the darkness.
He almost stumbled over her in the ravine, face downward among dead leaves, shaken with dry sobbing. He went on his knees beside her, gripping his hands together behind him so that he should not touch her. But his voice was beyond his control. It broke into little sounds of tenderness and dismay.
"Kate—you! But what has happened? Tell me! What is wrong with you? What?"
His nearness, the trembling of his voice, filled her with an exquisite terror. If she could have risen and run away she would have done so, but she dared not trust her legs. Nor could she look at him, there in the starlight, with this new secret in her eyes. She clutched desperately at her self-command.
He bent closer. "Kate, tell me! You are hurt. Dieu! That man—" It was the first time she had heard a trace of accent in his speech. "What has he done to you?"
Still she could not trust herself to speak. In the silence she heard his breath come hard. When he said, in a crisp, queer staccato that was not his voice at all:
"If Basil Kildare has hurt you, I shall kill him."
"No, no," she gasped out. "It is not Basil. It is you!" She would have given years of her life to recall the words the instant they were spoken.
"I? I have hurt you, I, who would—But tell me! You must tell me!"
His will was stronger than hers. She told him.
"I saw you—kiss her."
"Your wife." She was close to hysteria now, all hope of self-command gone. She caught him by the arm. "Jacques, do you love her? I never knew, I never thought—Oh, but you can't love her! It is impossible, Jacques. Why don't you answer me?"
He was shivering as if with a chill. "That is a question you have no right to ask."
"I—no right?" She laughed aloud. "What do rights matter? Besides, I have every right, because it is me you love, me! I know it by your eyes, your voice. See, you are afraid to touch me. And yet you kiss her! Why? Why?"
She could barely hear the answer. "Because—it makes her a little happy."
She laughed again, brokenly. "You hypocrite!"
"No, not quite a hypocrite—" he got it out in jerks. "She cares for me. She needs me. She has given me our son. If one cannot have—the moon—at least there are stars."
She knelt facing him, with her hands out, whispering desperately, "But if you can have the moon, if you can—? Oh, my dear, my dear! Why don't you take me?"
He took her then, held her so close that his heart shook her body as if it were her own, kissed her eyes, her hair, her lips, until she was ashamed and put up her hands before her face so that he might kiss only them.
At last he put her from him, and went without a word back to his wife.
The older Kate, looking from her eyrie at that other self of hers as at some stranger she had once known and pitied, saw a girl who wore her secret in her face, careless of who might read. Indeed she rather hoped the world would read; she had no shame of loving.
The negroes, sensitive as devoted dogs to the mood of their mistress, vied with each other in serving her, and whispered uneasily behind her back. Several times the mulatto nurse, Mahaly, more often with her than the others, seemed about to speak to her of something, but lost courage.
Kate did not notice. She noticed very little that went on around her in those days. Sometimes, indeed, she caught the hard, shallow gaze of her husband fixed upon her, curiously. But if he drew his own conclusions from her pallor, her starry eyes, her long fits of brooding, he at least did not trouble her with questions. Which perhaps was just as well. She would have answered them.
For a while she went about in a sort of daze, living over again what had passed in the ravine, wondering what she and Jacques would say to each other when he came to her. Then she began to wonder why he did not come to her. A week passed—two weeks. She grew troubled, frightened; for the first time a little ashamed. What if it were not love with him? The girl had learned in a hard school the difference between love and the thing that is called love.
She spent hours out under the juniper tree, listening for the pit-a-patter of a racking horse. She heard it often, but it did not stop. The baby playing near heard it, too; and when it passed she murmured with a tragic droop of the little mouth: "Aw—gone—by-by, Muddy! Aw—gone—by-by!"
Presently Kate lost all sense of shame; ordered out a saddle-horse in defiance of doctor's advice, and took to haunting the crossroads and the village on the chance of meeting him alone. This never happened. Fate, rather late in the day, seemed to have taken her good name into its keeping. They met, of course, but under the furtive, curious gaze of others. Usually, too, Jacques had his boy beside him. It was as if he were afraid to go alone.
So Kate had nothing to feed her heart upon but an occasional grave "Good morning," or a meeting of eyes that were instantly wrenched apart. It was enough for her, however. This was no mere emotion she had stirred. The man's face was worn as by a long illness. The least touch of his eyes was a caress.
She grew to pity him more than herself. "Poor Jacques!" she thought tenderly. "Poor, miserable, foolish Jacques!—" and longed to comfort, to reassure him. She felt in herself the strength for two.
At last she wrote to him:
When are you coming, Jacques? I miss you so! Do not be afraid. Friends need be none the less friends because they love each other. Don't you trust me?
It was her custom to send her baby once or twice in the week to visit the invalid, Mrs. Benoix. She gave her note to the nurse to carry.
"It is to ask the doctor for a prescription," she explained. "If he is not there, it will not be necessary to leave the note. You understand?"
It was her first lie, and she told it badly, flushing and stammering. Mahaly understood only too well. The woman seemed oddly reluctant; tried once again to say what she had to say, and failed.
When she had gone, Kate felt in the reaction as if her heart had been released from some heavy weight. "Why haven't I written before?" she thought. "Shyness, pride between people who love—what a silly thing! He shall see how strong I am; how much better and truer a friend, now that we know."
To prove the purely friendly nature of her intentions, she donned her most becoming dress, in case he chose to bring his answer in person.
Mahaly brought the answer, however, written across a leaf of a prescription-pad:
I do not dare to come. It is myself I cannot trust. Forgive me!
It was her one love-letter from Jacques Benoix. She wore it out with reading.
Some days later the bomb fell. Her husband said casually, at the supper-table, "I bought the Benoix place to-day, Kate."
"Bought—the Benoix place?"
"Yes; not that I could afford it! God knows I'm land-poor enough as it is. But they needed the money, and I knew you would like me to help them, my dear. They're such friends of yours."
Kate moistened her lips. "Of yours, too, Basil. But—why do they need money?"
He looked at her. "Oh, haven't you heard?" He spoke slowly, as if the words were pleasant to him. "Has Jacques not told you that they are going away to live, to the mountains? Mrs. Benoix' health; lungs, you know."
The room was whirling; around her. Clutching the tablecloth to steady herself, she was aware of Mahaly behind her master's chair, looking at her sharply, warningly. "Isn't it rather foolish of Jacques?" she heard herself asking, evenly, "to give up his practice a second time?"
Kildare laughed. "Not much practice to give up, my dear! Old Jones is good enough for us—he's not a d——d Frenchman, at least," he said with sudden savagery. "In fact," he added, smoothly again, "it was I who advised Jacques to try the mountains. He has worn out his welcome here."
At last Kate understood. Her husband had seen. He meant to guard what he did not value. He had forced Benoix to sell his home, and to give up his means of livelihood. He was driving him out of the neighborhood because he was her lover.
She rose, and walked steadily from the room. The girl Mahaly followed.
"Tek keer, tek keer!" she muttered, in a low voice. "He's watchin' you, Miss Kate!"
"He is always watching me," said Kate, dully.
"Yas 'm. I done tried to warn you. Hit were de letter. Ef you jes' hadn't 'a' sent de letter!"
"My husband saw that?"
"Yas 'm. I don gib it to him."
Kate recoiled, staring at her. "You! You gave it?" she whispered. "You whom I have trusted! My own servant!"
The mulatto woman's expression was a queer mixture of malice, and triumph, and pity.
"I was his servant first," said Mahaly.
* * * * *
Several months later, news came of the death of Mrs. Benoix in the mountains.
But it found Kate oddly indifferent. She was lingering, then, upon a certain dark threshold which she would have crossed very gladly but for voices that held her back; the prattle of a child, the thin, helpless whimper of a baby. She had just given birth to her third daughter.
Basil Kildare did not trouble himself to inspect his new property. Servants brought him word of its sex and its soundness.
"Good gad, another female?" he cried; and went off down the hill at a gallop.
Kate heard him go, and retreated a step from the dark threshold.
There was peace in the room.
Presently it seemed to her as if some one were near, a dear familiar presence she had learned to associate with that threshold; a strength to lean her weakness on; a hand gripping hers; eyes that held her with their tenderness, would not let her go.
By a great effort she raised her lids. The vision held. A voice said steadily: "Quiet, Kate. Remember your baby."
But she had no thought of excitement. It seemed too natural to have him there. "I knew—you would come—if you could—" she whispered.
He knelt beside her. She drew his head down to her breast, just above where the baby lay. So they stayed a while without speaking.
There was some sort of commotion downstairs; a cry, instantly hushed. The old doctor entered the room in haste, and paused, staring. After a moment he went out softly, clearing his throat. A mulatto-girl, curiously gray of face, was mounting fierce guard over the door, and would allow no others to enter.
Then came a sound of trampling feet in the road, as of men bearing some heavy burden.
Benoix began to speak, in a low and rapid whisper: "Whatever comes now, you will remember how I have loved you. From the very first, when I saw you riding to me—There is for every man one woman, only we are fools and do not wait. Wherever I am, my love shall reach you. They cannot keep my love from going to you, and you will know. For me there is only you in the world. The other things are shadows. You will remember—whatever happens, you will remember?"
She smiled: there was no need to answer.
She asked, incuriously: "What are those feet in the hall? What are they carrying?"
He answered, "Basil Kildare."
"Basil? He is hurt?"
"He is dead," said Benoix.
After a moment she began to laugh—but very softly, so that the sleeping baby on her breast might not be disturbed: "Oh, thank God, thank God! God is good to us, Jacques!"
He stopped the terrible words on her lips with his own. There were feet on the stairs. He tried to speak to her once more from the door, but he could not. He closed the door behind him.
The peace of that quiet time with her lover remained with Kate through the days that followed, even as he had intended it should, guarding her like an armor from the seething excitement of the world beyond her door. Wailing servants, friends arriving from far and near, people filling the house with lamentations (for the kindly magic of Death had transformed Kildare for the moment into the noblest of mortals)—all this stopped at the door of the quiet room where Mahaly mounted guard over the mistress she had betrayed.
None entered that room save the old doctor, and later Kate's mother, become suddenly an old woman, broken by the terrible rumors which had penetrated her peaceful Bluegrass home. She was shocked beyond words to find her newly widowed daughter serene as some Madonna out of a painting, wrapped in a rose-colored dressing-gown that would better have suited a bride.
"Whatever comes, you will remember how I love you," Benoix had said. Kate was remembering.
She lay dreaming of the future, thinking sometimes of her husband, not unkindly, but with pity, as one thinks of poor, blundering people who have gone through life unloving and unloved. Of his death she thought not at all. It was what he would have chosen, painless and quick, a fall from his horse within sight of his own house. So her mother found her, calm and very beautiful, placidly nursing her child.
Only once was the agitated lady able to prick her serenity. It was when she began to babble of Kildare's will. This stipulated that in case of re-marriage, Kate and her children were to be deprived of any interest in the estate save only that provided by law, in which event Storm was to become an endowed home for crippled children.
At this news, indeed, Kate winced. Her husband had managed to strike at her one last time from his grave, and in a vulnerable spot—her maternity. He was forcing her to rob her children.
But she regained her calm. Surely such a father as Jacques Benoix was a better gift to her children than houses and lands and cattle!
"I can't understand it," her bewildered mother moaned. "It's a cruel will, almost an insulting will, daughter! It is almost as if he—suspected you of something. What was Mr. Kildare thinking of? You are so young, you have a right to re-marry! Surely he could have had no—reason?"
Kate told her mother the reason; partly out of justice to her husband, partly because her love was a thing she wished to confess.
The other rose to her feet, staggered, gasping: "Then they are true, those dreadful rumors! You with a lover—you a married woman! Ah, my little girl—my little girl! Such things do not happen in our family. They do not! A scandal—a murder? Thank Heaven your father died in time!"
It was Kate who comforted her mother. But in the midst of her soothing caresses, a sudden trembling seized her. The color fled out of her cheeks.
"Mother! What was that you said—A murder—?"
So at last the truth came, the truth which Mahaly and the few who loved Kate had tried to keep out of that peaceful chamber. Jacques Benoix had gone from her side to prison for the killing of her husband.
As soon as she was strong enough to travel—indeed before she was strong enough to travel—Kate went to her lover in prison; saw him for ten minutes alone.
She wasted not a moment in preliminaries; there had already developed in her that ability for affairs that was later to make her one of the foremost women of her State.
"I have engaged the best lawyers to be had for money," she said. "You will never go to the penitentiary, Jacques!"
He shook his head, his eyes roaming over her hungrily, imprinting every detail of her beauty on his memory to stay. "It is of no use, my dear one."
She blenched a little. "You mean—you did kill Basil? But no! I don't believe it. You kill a man?" she laughed. "Why, you could not kill a fox, a rabbit!"
"Nevertheless," he said, "I fear that I did kill Basil."
She caught at the doubt in his words. "You 'fear'—you do not know, Jacques?"
"I know only that I tried."
He told her the story then. Others had wished to tell her, but she would listen to nobody, saying proudly, "Jacques shall explain to me...."
He had been waiting at the foot of Storm hill, watching her window, desperate for news of how she did, when Kildare came galloping down the road. Before Benoix could speak, he had reined in his horse, crying out; "You, is it? I thought I'd catch you skulking around. You'll find a new brat at the house; female, of course. If it's yours, you're welcome to it—damn you!"
Benoix, blind with sudden fury, tried to drag him from his horse. Kildare struck with his whip, broke away, jeering back over his shoulder. Then Benoix found to his hand a jagged piece of rock, and flung it straight at the grinning face that mocked him. Kildare's horse reared, toppled...
A negro who had seen it all came trembling out of the hedge and found the French doctor striving to staunch a wound in Kildare's temple, from which blood and brains oozed together.
Benoix finished with Kate's face hidden on his breast "Oh, Jacques, Jacques!" she shuddered. "It was for me, then—you tried to defend me! But—perhaps the fall killed him, not your stone?"
"Perhaps," said her lover, soothing her.
In a moment she lifted her head. "Now," she cried, "we will face this thing together!" She proposed that he should marry her at once.
He knew nothing of Kildare's will; but he refused, would not listen, hid his eyes with his hand so that the pleading of her face would not weaken him.
"I've dragged you low enough without that, my Kate. Remember your children," he bade her, sternly, "Remember my boy. We have more than ourselves to consider."
She could not move him, neither with tears nor with kisses. The jailor came.
As they led him away, her voice followed him so that the grim place rang with it! "Your boy shall be mine till you come for us both. Jacques, I'll wait, I'll wait!"
Benoix was right. The best lawyers to be had could not keep him from the penitentiary. The judge, a just and troubled man who had known Kildare from boyhood, laid what emphasis he could on the uncertainty of the case, the probability that Benoix had fought in self-defense. The jury would have none of it. Popular prejudice had transformed the master of Storm into a hero, a martyr to the unwritten law, who had given his life to defend the sanctity of his home. It did not help the accused that he was a stranger in the State, reputed to be an atheist, had not even a decent, pronounceable English name, was—of all things!—a Frenchman.
"A Creole American," corrected the accused, quietly. It was his one word in his own behalf.
Kate was in the courtroom when the jury brought in its verdict. She rose to receive it as if she were the accused, and more than one member of the jury, glancing at her, pursed virtuous lips.
The sentence was a life term in the penitentiary.
Mrs. Kildare, now famous and infamous throughout the country, made one more public appearance, this time in the church where she had been christened, confirmed, and married. She did not wear mourning, but her face was like marble against the bright color of her dress. The congregation began to whisper. She had brought her two children to be christened.
She was not quite alone. Two friends entered with her and stood at her side: her mother, and a young man named Thorpe, who had been the least among her girlhood adorers, and was the first to offer his support in her disgrace. It was he, as godfather, who spoke the children's names: "Jemima" for the elder, and for the younger, "Jacqueline Benoix."
At this there was a rustle throughout the church. Was it possible that she was actually naming her child for the condemned lover? The old minister's voice faltered, almost stopped, in his dismay. Afterwards, she had to brave the blank, frozen glances of people who had known her since her birth, and who now, it seemed, knew her no longer.
Not until that moment did Kate realize what interpretation the world might put upon her act of public loyalty to the man who had gone for her sake into a living death.
She had, indeed, her answer for the world; but it was an answer that must wait many years, until the baby Jacqueline was old enough to marry Benoix' son.
On the gallery at Storm stood two anxious girls with eyes fixed upon the big juniper-tree less patiently than the eyes of the waiting dogs. Their mother was invisible, but the presence of the dogs betrayed her.
"We'll have to do it, Jack," murmured the elder of the girls. "I hate to disturb her, but—there they come!"
She pointed to the road immediately below, along which an object that looked like a large black beetle was rattling and panting and honking its leisurely way toward Storm.
"The voice of the Ark will arouse her—just wait," advised Jacqueline. "It would arouse anything. Professor Jimsy must have bought the original trial machine made by the inventor, Blossom. How did he come to see mother before there were automobiles?"
"I don't remember—but you may be sure he came. Regularly every Friday night, and again Sunday, if encouraged. There! Mother must be stirring. Look at the dogs."
Mrs. Kildare appeared from the other side of the great tree, moving rather dazedly, as people move who have just awakened from sleep. The dogs leaped and gamboled around her, and she put them down with vague, kind gestures.
"There, Beauty! Never mind! No muddy feet, please, Jock! So, boys, so—"
"Mother, do hurry," called Jemima, with some impatience.
Mrs. Kildare hurried. It had long been her habit to obey her eldest child, who made her feel at times quite immature and thoughtless.
"What's up, girlies?" she asked.
"Company," they said together.
"Oh, yes. Jim Thorpe's night for supper. But why so much excitement about it?"
"Only that the automobile is now at the foot of the hill, and your hair is coming down, and he's going to catch you in an old, faded gingham. What am I going to do with such a mother?" sighed Jemima. "I don't believe you ever notice what you put on!"
"I don't," admitted her parent, humbly.
"And you think it's highmindedness, whereas it's just pure vanity. You know that no matter what you wear, you're more beautiful than everybody else!" The girl's voice was sternly accusing.
Kate laughed and kissed them both. "You spoil me, dears," she said; but Jemima's shrewdness made her wince, as it often did.
It was quite true that clothes existed for Kate Kildare only as more or less comfortable covering for her body; but of that body itself, the fine, satin skin, the hands, the lustrous hair, she took a care that she would have scorned to use in the days of her bellehood. She was aware of her comeliness, and she treasured it; not, however, for herself. She was a woman of one idea. Never for a moment, despite many failures, had she relinquished the hope of securing Jacques Benoix' release.
She asked meekly, "What dress am I to wear this evening, please, Blossom? Dear me! It seems to me you two have made yourselves rather gorgeous for a mere godfather. He'll be quite dazzled."
Both girls looked down consciously at their pretty frocks. They exchanged glances.
"It isn't exactly for Professor Jimsy," murmured Jacqueline. "He never looks at any one but you, anyway. It's—you tell her, Jemmy!"
In the end, they told her together. "It's a party!"
Kate looked at them in surprise. Suddenly their eagerness, their excitement, struck her as being pathetic. What had they known of parties, of the gay, pleasure-seeking life usual to girls of their class?
The county of which Storm was the chief estate occupied toward its more aristocratic neighbor, the Bluegrass, the relative position of an unpretentious side-street toward the fashionable residence district of a city. It had a social life of its own—what portion of the hospitable, gregarious, pleasure-loving State has not? There were many simple gaieties, dances, picnics, and the like, which took no account of distance or other obstacles to the natural coming together of young men and girls, and of older folk who have exchanged gallantry for gossip. In this life, the mistress of Storm held a certain place. No farmers' dinner, no fair, or barbecue, was complete without the presence of the county's one great landowner.
But her daughters were creatures apart, young princesses among admiring vassals. The country people looked with awe upon their tutors and dancing-masters and singing-teachers, their books, their clothes from the city. It had never occurred to them to include the little heiresses of Storm in their humble amusements; they belonged so palpably to a different world. The fact that this world was closed to them, because of the unforgotten scandal connected with their mother, left Jemima and Jacqueline singularly friendless; princesses, perhaps, but lonely princesses in their castle.
For the first time Kate realized this. Hitherto she had felt that they three were all sufficient unto themselves, with Philip Benoix, and James Thorpe, and one or two others who came regularly to Storm. Now she said to herself with a sharp pang, "My poor babies! My little hidden, lovely girls!"
Aloud she said, "A party?—that is splendid! Who are coming to the party? Some neighbor boys and girls?"
"Hardly," replied Jemima, with a superior smile. "The party is coming from Lexington."
Kate's face changed. She asked in quick dread, "Who are they?" It was not often that she met people from Lexington, except in the way of business, and then it was an ordeal to her.
"We don't know. Isn't it exciting? Professor Thorpe is bringing them."
Then Kate smiled. They would not be people who knew her. She could trust James Thorpe.
"I must make myself presentable," she murmured, moving toward the stairs.
The two girls heaved sighs of relief. It was evident that they had entertained doubts as to her reception of the party. Jacqueline walked beside her, rubbing a caressing cheek against her shoulder—a trick she had learned from the horses among whom she spent much of her time.
"You see, Mummy, Blossom thought it was high time for us to be having some beaux."
"Good Heavens—not yet!" murmured Kate.
"At my age, you had several babies," Jemima reminded her, firmly; and Kate could not deny it.
"So we consulted our godfather," continued Jacqueline. "It seemed to us we had at last found a use for a godfather—besides candy, and birthday presents, and things like that, which don't really count. We asked him if he couldn't find us some nice young professors at the university—attractive, dancing ones, you know, not old fossils like him."
"Pleasant for James," murmured Kate. "He must be very little over forty!"
"But imagine him dancing," cried Jacqueline, and dismissed him from her world with a gesture. "So Jemima suggested to him that the surest way of having you alone, the next time he came, was to bring some young professors to amuse us. And," she finished dramatically, "here he comes, the Ark simply bursting with young professors!"
There was a loud honk at the door.
Mrs. Kildare fled up the stairs. Jemima, following her, said in a low voice, "You don't really mind, then—about the party?"
Something odd in the girl's voice arrested her. "Mind? Why should I mind, dear?"
"I don't know. I thought perhaps—you see you never do have any of your old friends here, and—and sometimes that seems to me queer. You must have had so many friends there, in Lexington, a woman like you. Or were they all beaux?"
Kate's heart beat hard. It was not the first time the girl's observant intelligence had frightened her, nor did the wistfulness of the query escape notice.
"Yes, I had many friends, and beaux, too—just as you will have, dear," she said steadily. "But you see I have been too busy with the farm and such things, since your father died, to keep up with people. That is all."
Jemima looked immeasurably relieved. "I knew you would give us friends some day, Mother, just as you have given us everything else. Only, I—I got a little tired of waiting."
"Did you, dear?" said her mother sadly. "I thought you were quite happy."
"We are, of course. But you see, we've got to get married some day, Jackie and I, and—there's no use waiting too long."
Despite her dismay, Kate's lips twitched. It was so like this capable child of hers to be arranging the future, at nineteen, ready to be a mother to herself in case her natural mother failed her. But as she got quickly into the dress laid out for her, her hands shook a little. It is disconcerting to discover that one is no longer the parent of children, but of women grown.
She had the weary, bruised feeling of one who has traveled too far—and indeed it was a long journey she had made that day, from her own wistful and eager young womanhood to that of her daughters. She brushed her hands across her eyes to clear them of memories and dreams alike.
Introspection is always a difficult matter to direct and simple natures, such as Kate Kildare's, but she forced herself to it now. Had she in any way failed her children, as Jemima seemed to imply? Was it possible that in her absorption in a fixed idea she had neglected them, taken their welfare too much for granted? Was there anything she might have done for them that she had not done?
Conscience answered, No. It was for their sakes, far more than her own, that she had isolated herself with them, hidden them away from a world which she had found unkind. It was for their interests that she had worked harder than any man of her acquaintance, experimenting, studying, managing, until she was recognized as one of the greatest agriculturists of the State, and the unproductive property left by Basil Kildare had become a stock and dairy farm which netted her an income that ran well into five figures. More than wealth, she had given them education, bringing to Storm the best tutors and governesses to be had in the country. She had shared with them, too, her own practical knowledge and experience, the wisdom not to be found in books.
Every step of the way she had walked beside them. She who could not give them friends, had given them instead herself. Busy woman that she was, she was far closer to them than mothers and daughters usually find themselves, sentiment to the contrary notwithstanding. Between them, she believed, were none of the unfortunate reticences usual in that relation, no questions that might not be asked, nor answers given. Kate would have said that she knew her daughters truly "by heart."
And yet already and without warning the time was upon her which she dreaded—the time when she might no longer walk beside them, watchfully, but only behind, and far behind. She knew—she had always known—that only the childhood of her girls could belong to her. Their womanhood, their future, they must face unaided.
It is a bitter moment for all mothers, but more especially for Kate Kildare, who knew better than most what pitfalls lie in wait for young and hurrying feet, and whose nightmare was inheritance.
Then a consoling thought came to her; came in the shape of Jacques Benoix' son, Philip, with the steady eyes, and the great, tender heart of his father. Inheritance is not always a nightmare. The future of little Jacqueline, at least, was secure. (Thus Kate to herself, with a characteristic self-confidence which took no account of chance or choice, or other obstacle to her intent.)
As for Jemima—once more her lips twitched. Jemima was certainly very capable.
Mrs. Kildare went down to meet her guests somewhat heartened.
"This," murmured a voice into the ear of Professor Thorpe, "is the real thing at last! Everything so far has been a rather crude imitation of New York. I am disappointed in Lexington. But there's character here, distinction, local color. My dear uncle, why have you not brought me to this house before?"
"I did not bring you this time, as it happens," commented Professor Thorpe somewhat acidly. "You came."
"Thanks to a firm character and a discerning eye. What, miss a chance of seeing the Kildare on her native heath? Certainly not!"
The other turned and looked at him. "Suppose," he murmured, "that hereafter you speak of my friend and your hostess as 'Mrs. Kildare.'"
The younger man made a smiling gesture of apology. "What, ho! A tendresse here—I had forgotten," he said to himself; and added aloud, "Of course, you know, one does speak of famous women without adding handles to their names. The Duse, for instance, or Bernhardt—it would be ridiculous to call them 'Madame.'"
"Mrs. Kildare is not an actress," said the Professor, primly.
His nephew's smile grew broader. He sometimes found his uncle amusing. "I yearn to see the lady, by whatever name," he murmured. "Here she comes now. Jove, what a woman!"
His voice quite lost its drawling note. Percival Channing was a sincere admirer of beauty in all its forms, and he had without doubt a right to his claim of a discerning eye. There was something that set him apart from the other young men who had come with Professor Thorpe to Storm, aside from his English-cut clothes and a certain ease and finish which they lacked. It was an effect of keenness, of aliveness to the zest of the passing moment. He spoke of himself sometimes as a collector of impressions; and it was a true characterization. His slight, casual glance invariably took in more than the stare of other people; his nostrils quivered constantly, like those of a hound, as if they, too, were busy gathering impressions. It was a rather interesting face; a little vague in drawing about the chin and lips, but mobile, sensitive, vivid; distinctly the face of an artist.
He gazed at Kate Kildare approaching down the long stairway with the appreciation of a connoisseur. Beside her moved a slender sprite of a girl, whose hair gleamed like spun gold above a dress of apple-green. But his glance for her was merely cursory, and returned at once to the older woman. Of this Jemima was quite aware. It had happened to her before. Her lips straightened, where another girl's would have drooped, but the sensation was the same. Jemima, not for the first time, was a little jealous of her mother.
Kate greeted her guests with a gracious courtesy that was almost regal in its simplicity. Channing in particular she welcomed warmly.
"What, Jim's nephew! And you have been with him for some time? Then why has he never brought you to us before?"
"Just what I have been asking him," murmured Channing, bending over her hand. His manner reminded her sharply of Jacques Benoix.
She asked, on an unconsidered impulse, "You have lived in France?"
"For many years. Have you?"
The group around them was silent, listening. Kate went rather pale. "No. But my greatest friend happens to be a Frenchman, a Creole," she said, steadily, and turned to the others.
Channing, who knew her story, guessed at once the identity of that "greatest friend." He gazed after her in renewed admiration. It was not often in his native land that he had come across a perfect type of the grande amoureuse.
He contrasted her with the setting in which he found her—a distinctly masculine setting. The hall was enormous, rough and simple; skins on the floor, rather wooden portraits of dead Kildares on the wall, together with antlers and fox-brushes, and the stuffed head of the horse running his race with Death. The huge fireplace of field-boulders might have roasted oxen in its time. There were some modern comforts; a piano, many books, a table heaped with periodicals; even that indispensable adjunct of American homes, the graphophone; but no curtains, nor cushions, nor draperies, none of the little touches that speak of feminine habitation. In twenty years, Kate had made few changes in the house; she regarded Basil Kildare's home as merely a temporary abode until Jacques came to claim her and her children.