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Katie by Katharine Tynan

 

The little house where Katie lived was over the fields. She was a dimpled, brown child, as soft as the yellow ducklings she used to carry in her pinafore. Her little fat shoulders were bare as I remember them, and you could see the line where the sunburn ended with her frock and the whiteness began. She was the late child of a long-married couple, vouchsafed long after they had given up hopes of a living child.

Her mother was an angular woman who walked a little crookedly, throwing one hip into ungainly prominence as she went. Her face, too, was brown as a russet apple, with a pleasant hard redness on the cheeks. She had white teeth, brown eyes, and an honest expression. But people said she was a difficult woman to live with. She had extreme ideas of her own importance, especially since the honest fellow she was married to had become steward to his master, a 'strong farmer,' as they say in Ireland, and the owner of broad acres. She expected a certain deference from the folk she had grown up amongst, and who were often not quite inclined to yield it. In a sense she was a fortunate woman, for her good man was as much a lover as in the days when he had come whistling his lover's signal, like any blackbird, to call her out from her mother's chimney-corner. She told me about those days herself when I was but a callow girl. I don't know why, except from some spirit of romance in her, which she could not reveal to folk of her own age and circumstances. She was the mother of many dead babies, for never a one had lived but Katie; but the romance of her marriage was still new. I remember one summer evening, when the low sun shone between the slats of her dairy window, and I, on a creepy stool by the wall, alternately read The Arabian Nights and talked to her while she gathered the butter from the churn, that her man came in, and, not seeing me in the shadow, drew her head back and kissed her brown face and head with a passion not all common after courting days.

The house was by the roadside, only shut off by its own garden-wall and a high gate, which it was comfortable to lock of winter evenings. There were two small rooms in it beside the kitchen and the dairy, and a loft reached by a ladder, wherein to store many a sack of potatoes, or wood for the winter firing. The kitchen was very pleasant, with its two square windows full of geraniums in bloom, the pictures of saints on its white-washed walls, the chimney-piece with its china shepherdesses and dogs, and the dresser with a very fine show of crockery. There was always a sweet smell of cream there from the dairy, which opened on one side. The two rooms went off each side of the fire-place. The walls were cleanly white-washed, the tiled floor ochred; altogether it was a charming little house for love to build a home in.

Little Katie, precious as she was, roamed at her own sweet will. No harm could come to her in the fields where she strayed. She was home-keeping, and never went far from her own doorstep; nor need she for variety. On one side of the field there was a violet bank, mossy, and hung over with thorn trees. Under the thorns it was possible to hide as within a greenhouse, and children love such make-believe. On the other side of the bank was a steep descent to a tiny stream prattling over shining stones; and fox-gloves grew in the water with the meadow orchis, and many other water-loving flowers. That field was a meadow every year, and once hidden between the hedge and the meadow-grasses a child was invisible to all but the bright-eyed birds, who themselves have a taste for such mysteries, and the corn-crake, which one thinks of as only half bird, that scuttled on Katie's approach down one of a million aisles of seeding brown grasses.

Then on the other side of the field there was a deep, dry ditch under great curtains of blackberry bushes, which in autumn bore luscious fruit. And by Katie's door, if she would sit in the sun, was a primrose bank, about which the hens stalked and clucked with their long-legged chickens or much prettier ducklings. Katie did not want for playmates. She had none of her own kind, but was sociable to the fowl and the pig in his stye, and the white and red cattle that browsed in the pastures. She held long colloquies with the creatures all day, and if it rained would fetch her stool into an out-house which the hens frequented.

But her grand playmate, the confidant and abettor of all her games, was a placid motherly cat, which had grown up with Katie. A good-natured workman had fetched the pretty brindled kitten from the city, and had made an offering of it at the baby's cradle. Katie with almost her first words called the cat after him. Pussy Hogan was the brindle's name to her dying day. When I hear people say that cats have no attachment for people I always make a mental reservation in Pussy Hogan's favour. No dog could have shown a more faithful and moving devotion. Katie's instincts in the direction of cleanliness led her to wash Pussy Hogan in her kittenish days, till she was come to an age for performing her own ablutions with the requisite care. Many a time have I seen the child washing the kitten in soap-suds, and setting her to dry on the primrose bank, which was in the face of the southern sun, and there with admirable patience the creature would lie, paws extended, till her little mistress deemed she was dry enough to get up from her bleaching.

But Pussy Hogan grew a handsome, stately, well-furred cat, despite her washings; and it was pretty to see her stalking at the child's heels everywhere, with much the same responsible air that a serious dog might assume. For all her gravity, she was not above understanding and enjoying those games under the hedgerows, when Katie set up house, and made banquets with broken bits of crockery, to which she entertained her admiring friend. Even in the winter the cat trotted about over snow and leaped roaring gullies, in attendance on her hardy little mistress; as in summer she followed her to the evening milking, where as a special favour Katie was permitted, with her dimpled fingers, to draw a few spirts of the sweet-smelling milk.

They were beginning to discuss Katie's schooling when she fell ill. The grown people thought school would come hard upon her, she had been so used to a life in the open air. She was very babyish too, even for her age, though there were many younger than she perched on that platform of steps in the Convent Infant School—pupils, so little and drowsy-headed that two or three special couches had to be retained close by to receive those who from time to time toppled off their perch. I remember asking if Katie would take the cat to school, after the manner of Mary and her lamb in the rhyme. I make no doubt Pussy Hogan would have attempted the Irish mile of distance to the school every day, if there were not pressure brought to bear to keep her at home. However, the child was attacked by that horrible dread of mothers, the croup. She was just the one to succumb, being a little round ball of soft flesh. She only fought it a day and night, lifting up her poor little hands to her straining throat incessantly. In less than thirty-six hours Katie was dead.

Her mother took it in a blank stupor. She scarcely seemed to heed the friends who came and went, the Sisters of Mercy, in their black bonnets and cloaks, the priest with his attempts at comfort. Her husband sat by her those days, his eyes turning from the heart-breaking face of his wife to the brown baby on the bed, as piteous as a frozen robin. After the funeral the mother went about her usual occupations. She milked the cow, fed the hens, churned, swept, and baked as of old. Yet she did all those things as with a broken heart, and it would have been less dreadful in a way to see her sitting with folded hands. She was incessantly weeping in those months that followed Katie's death. One would have thought that her eyes would be drained dry, but still the tears followed each other all day long, and no one seemed able to comfort her. It was wretched enough for her husband, poor fellow, coming home of an evening from his work, but he did all unwearying patience could do to comfort her.

The only desire she seemed to have in those days was that she might keep Katie's pussy with her, but that was not gratified. The cat had moped and fretted greatly during the child's short illness, and had cried distressingly about the house when Katie lay dead. Then after the funeral had gone she had turned her back on the desolate house, and had walked across the couple of fields that separated it from the farmhouse. She came into the big airy kitchen that July day with so evident an intention of remaining that no one disputed her right. Once she had a sudden impulse to go and seek her little mistress, and went running and leaping over the long pastures to the low white house. They said it was the thing that wakened Katie's mother from the first merciful stupor of her bereavement, the cat running in and moaning piteously about the empty rooms, and the places where they had played their jolly games. They said she inspected every possible place where the child might be hiding, turning again and again, after moments of disappointed bewilderment, to a new search. At last she gave it up, and seemed to realise that Katie was gone. She turned then and trotted back quickly to the farmhouse, from whence no one's coaxing afterwards could bring her. Every one wanted that the poor mother should have her as she seemed to crave, but the cat would not; she escaped over and over from her captors, and at last we gave up trying to constrain her, though her desertion seemed a new cruelty to the stricken woman across the fields.

I don't know how many months the mother's weeping went on. It was a day close upon Christmas when I opened the half-door and went in and saw, for the first time since the child's death, that her eyes were dry. She was making bread at a table under the window, and her face had grown wonderfully calm since I had last seen her. I made no remark, but she led up to the subject herself, with a pathetic, wintry smile.

'You remember the poem you read to me one day, miss,' she said, 'about the dead child that couldn't be glad in heaven because its mother's crying wet its fine dress?' I remembered perfectly; it was my poor little way of trying to insinuate some comfort, for like many of her class in Ireland, she loved poetry. 'Well,' she went on, 'I've been thinking a power over it since. Who knows but that there might be the truth behind it?' I nodded assent. 'Now there's Christmas coming,' she said, 'and I think that would be a fine time for the children in heaven, so I'm not going to spoil Katie's glory among them.'

She didn't say much more after this curious little bit of confidence, but it was a comfort to every one when she left off crying. Her husband was rejoiced at the change. He began to build on it that presently she would be cheerful once more, and they would be quite happy again; for a man doesn't miss a child as a woman does, and, dear as his little Katie was, the love of his boyhood was yet spared to him, and could still make earth paradise if she would.

However, there was a new cause for apprehension in those latter days. I remember that the women shook their heads and looked gloomy when it came to be known that Katie's mother was likely to have a baby in the spring. She had been very ill before, and after this long interval and all the trouble things were not likely to go easier with her. I know the old doctor, who was kind and fatherly, and had been full of sorrow about Katie, seemed vexed at the new turn of affairs. I heard him telling a matron much in his confidence that he wouldn't answer for the woman's life.

She herself plucked up heart from the time she was certain that the baby was coming. I don't think now that she expected to live through it. She probably thought that through that gate she would rejoin Katie. She was very sweet to her husband in those days, very gentle and considerate to the neighbours, to whom she had often been peevish and haughty in old times. Many a one changed their former opinion of her that winter, and her kindness made kindness for her. This neighbour would often help her at the washing-tub, and that would send her grown boy in at dinner-time to see if Katie's mother wanted wood chopped or water carried. I am always glad to think of those four or five months, when a great calm, as it seems to me, settled down on the little house in the fields.

The baby was born in April—dead, as people had feared. It was a boy, and had died in being born. They said the little waxen image bore traces of a pathetic struggle for life. As for the mother, she never rallied at all; I think she would not. She passed away quite calmly, with not a flutter of the eyelids to answer her husband, who prayed for a parting word from her.

They sleep together, mother and children, in Kilbride, in the shadow of a great thorn-bush, and not far from St. Brigid's Tower. Lonely and far as the churchyard is, there is not a Sunday in the year that the husband and father does not find his way there after mass, trudging along that solitary way, between bare hedges or blooming, as faithfully as the day comes round. All those things were over a dozen years ago, and he is married again, to a spare, unattractive woman, who looks after his food and clothes, and makes him in her way a very excellent wife. She was long past middle age when he married her and took her out of service. But there was no pretence of love-making about it. She would be the first herself to tell you that her man's heart was in Kilbride. She said to me once: 'He's a good man to me, and I'm glad to do my duty by him; but if you talked to him about his wife he'd think you meant Kitty, God rest her! Men's seconds, miss, don't count.'

She said it in a simple, open-faced way, but I thought there was a homely tragedy concealed behind it. I am sure that in the heaven, of which those Irish peasants think as confidently as of the next room, he will forget all about poor hard-working Margaret, and will look with eager eyes for the love of his youth.

 
 
 

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