The Birthday Girl
The Kate Chronicles
Disclaimer: The characters and situations of the TV program "Big Valley" are the creations of Four Star/Republic Pictures and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended by the author. The ideas expressed in this story are copyrighted to the author.
Kate Wardell woke early on the morning of her sixth birthday and gazed around her beautiful blue and white room that Mother had decorated just for her. Her big bed had a lacy white canopy that matched the curtains at the long windows forming two corners of the room. Beneath the windows were cushioned seats—blue, of course—like the soft rug covering most of the shiny hardwood floor.
In the third corner stood a mahogany cabinet that held, behind beveled glass doors, her doll collection—thirty-six at last count. Papa was always bringing home a new doll. When Mother protested, he’d wink and say that it looked so lonely in the store window that he just had to buy it.
Beside the cabinet was a three-story dollhouse built especially for her by Uncle Rand Vandemeer who worked with Papa. Flocked paper covered the walls, and elegant furniture and even carpets graced the rooms. In addition, there was a family of miniature dolls who lived there and with whom Kate spent endless solitary but contented hours.
She stretched beneath the warm silk comforter. It seemed like just a few minutes ago that Mother and Papa had tucked her in and assured her that her guardian angel would be watching her all night. She believed them. In the dark, quiet room, she never felt alone or afraid. Her guardian angel was there—and Mother and Papa were just down the hall.
She ducked her head beneath the cover as she became aware of the cold around her. It was too early for Papa to come in and light the gas heater, and the rule was that she couldn’t get out of bed until the room had been transformed into a warm, cozy haven. Usually she didn’t mind waiting if she woke early—but today was her birthday, and she wanted it to last as long as possible!
She let her mind wander over all the presents that might be waiting on the dining table at her place. Would there be another doll? The blue bonnet with the tiny feather that she’d tried on a few weeks ago when Isabel took her downtown the afternoon that Mother went to a tea at the Vandemeers’?
The tea set she’d gazed at longingly in the department store window? Of course, Mother said she had three tea sets already and that this one was much too expensive for a toy, and Mother never changed her mind.
On the first of December, when Papa asked what she wanted for her birthday, she’d replied promptly, “A pony, please, Papa.” Her brother Nick had taught her to ride when she was three—a huge cocoa-colored mare named Maudie. Papa had protested that it was too big for her, but Nick shook his head. Maudie’s gentle as a kitten, Royce. She’s perfect for KatieBee, and besides, I’ll be right here with her every second.
She hadn’t been afraid even though the ground was so far below her and the saddle was twice as big as she was. Nick’s arm around her waist and his face close to hers had reassured her as Maudie plodded patiently around the corral. It was almost like sitting in Mother’s lap in the rocking chair.
But she couldn’t ride Maudie alone because she couldn’t get up on her without help. A pony, however. . .
“So you want a pony, do you?”
Mother didn’t even look up from the magazine she was thumbing through. “Royce, don’t even think about it.”
“A pony to keep in a local stable might be a good idea, my love.”
“Royce.” When Mother said Royce in that tone, Kate knew that it was unlikely the discussion would go any further.
“She loves riding, and we don’t get to the ranch but twice a year.”
Papa had looked at Kate and sighed, and so had she. Mother could be very firm. So a pony didn’t seem likely to be waiting downstairs, at least not this year.
Her birthday came just two days before Christmas, however, and there was always the possibility that Santa would bring a pony. How he’d get it in his sleigh was a little worrisome, but Papa said that Santa could manage anything. He always found her at the ranch, too, but this year they weren’t going to the ranch until after Christmas. Jarrod and Sarah were going to spend Christmas in Minnesota with Sarah’s parents, and Nick would be in San Francisco with Laura’s family making plans for their wedding this summer.
Audra, of course, would stay home to manage Christmas at the orphanage, and Heath and Gene would help her. Kate liked going to the orphanage on Christmas Eve. There were so many children to play with, and Audra let her help fill the stockings.
“Why doesn’t Santa fill them?” she’d asked Audra once.
“Well, because, Santa appointed me his special helper here, and he said that you could help me.”
Kate had thought that over. It seemed reasonable, just like it seemed reasonable that her brothers and sister were so much older than she was. Of course, Mother had explained it several times. Jarrod, Nick, Heath, Audra, and Gene were all the children of Tom Barkley, the man I was married to before. When he died, I was very lonely, and then your Papa asked me to marry him, and we needed a little girl all our own.
Whenever she looked at the picture of Tom Barkley above the fireplace in the library at the ranch, she couldn’t help but be glad that she belonged to Papa and not to him. Audra said he was wonderful, but he looked stern, and his eyes didn’t twinkle the way Papa’s did.
Papa always took up the story at this point. “The Christ Child brought you on Christmas Eve, Kate precious. When we saw you at the orphanage, we knew you were supposed to come home with us and be our very special little Kate.”
To be brought by the Christ Child was something special. Having Jarrod, Nick, Heath, Audra, and Gene was special, too. Whenever she was at the ranch—Christmas and a month during the summer—she looked forward to her time with each of them.
She always spent one night in town with Jarrod and Sarah. Their son Trevor was just a year younger than she was. Jarrod said that what Trevor couldn’t think of to get into simply couldn’t be thought of. The time he’d climbed out his window and managed to coax her to follow him onto the narrow ledge two stories up was a day she didn’t like to remember.
She’d begged Jarrod not to tell Papa and Mother, but, of course, he had. He’d spanked Trevor, and she was very much afraid that Mother was going to spank her, too, until Papa came to her rescue.
Now, Victoria, my love, you told me that Audra and the boys were always getting into scrapes.
Yes, and I took a wooden spoon to all of them more than once!
Kate had tried to make herself very small behind Papa’s legs as Mother stood in the door clutching that same wooden spoon.
I believe that we can explain to Kate why what she did was wrong, don’t you? He’d reached to take the wooden spoon out of Mother’s hand. Kate had sighed in relief when she’d let him have it.
Then you talk to her, Royce! But make sure she understands that if I ever catch her doing something so dangerous again, I’ll use that spoon on her, and she’ll think twice the next time! With that, Mother had gone, her skirts rustling, and Papa had picked Kate up and cuddled her close.
Now, Kate precious, you see how what you did has upset your Mother. Do you understand why? Do you understand how very much we both love you? Our hearts would be broken if anything should happen to our Kate.
He’d brought her to tears—for she had a tender heart—and she’d thought that perhaps the wooden spoon would have hurt less than the sorrow she felt for worrying both of them. Later, she’d found Mother in the kitchen and told her how sorry she was. Mother had hugged and kissed her forgivingly, and Kate had wept again.
Nick had given her the name KatieBee. He was big and gruff, and whenever he came though the door yelling—which he did a lot—she was sure the walls shook a little. But in the evenings, when they all sat in the library after dinner, she liked to crawl up into his lap and listen sleepily to the grown-up talk. Later he’d carry her upstairs with her head pillowed on his shoulder, and just before he handed her over to Mother, he’d whisper, Nick loves his little KatieBee.
Heath was as quiet as Nick was loud, but she had only to ask, and he’d stop whatever he was doing and come to a tea party with her dolls. Silas helped her spread a small white cloth under the biggest tree in the backyard and put real tea with a little milk in the small pitcher. Then he’d cut teeny-tiny pieces of cake just the right size for the plates in her tea set.
Heath would sit on the ground with her and talk to whichever doll she’d brought along. He never forgot their names either. Sometimes he looked very funny holding the dainty doll-sized cups in his big hands, but he always sipped politely and tried not to eat the little pieces of cake in one bite.
Gene had read aloud to her since she was old enough to sit up. He could make all the characters in the stories sound different, and he never minded reading her favorites over and over again.
Audra liked to dress her up and take her to pay calls on the neighbors or to shop in town. Once Kate heard Mother tell Papa that Audra was still playing dolls only this time she has a real live one. But she loved to go out with Audra.
This is my little sister Katherine, Audra always said proudly. Audra always told her how beautiful she was and let her sit at her dressing table and try anything from the many bottles and jars of creams and lotions. Once she’d accidentally spilled some perfume on her dress just before dinner. Nick had sniffed the air in the dining room and said it smelled like a bawdy house.
Mother had said, Nicholas, mind your tongue! Little pitchers have big ears!
Kate was curious about exactly what a bawdy house was, but Papa just said there were things that little girls didn’t need to know. Papa could be very firm, too—just not as often as Mother.
She knew she was loved—they didn’t have to tell her, although everyone did tell her everyday. Papa said she was the most loved little girl in the entire United States. Papa knew everything, so she supposed she was.
Mother said that God knew everything, too, and lately Kate had been thinking about some things she rather wished that God didn’t know—like the toffee she’d taken out of the pantry last week when Isabel wasn’t looking—and also about the night that she’d told Mother that all her toys were put away—when she’d really pushed them out of sight under the bed. She did hope that God didn’t talk to Santa very often—or maybe if He did, He’d forgotten to mention the toffee and the toys.
She sighed. The minister at church said that people who stole and told lies went to Hell, and from the way he described that place, she was quite sure she didn’t want to go there, especially not at Christmas. Papa said that Santa would know she was in New Orleans and not Stockton this year. But if God told Santa. . .oh, dear, oh, dear. . . Kate turned over and buried her face in the pillow. I’ll never do it again, God! I promise!
The door opened, and Papa, wearing his dressing gown, came in to light the fire. She sat up. “Good morning, Papa.”
“What’s Papa’s princess doing awake so early on a cold morning?”
“It’s my birthday, Papa. I’m six years old today.”
“Your birthday? Oh, surely not! six years old? No, no, Papa’s princess can’t be such a big girl already!”
She giggled. “Oh, Papa, you’re teasing me!”
He lit the fire, then came to the bed and scooped her up in his arms. “I expect Mother’s waiting to give her little girl a birthday kiss.”
In her parents’ bedroom, a fire blazed cheerily in the fireplace. Mother was sitting up in bed drinking coffee, but she put aside her cup and held out her arms for Kate. “Happy birthday, Kate darling!”
Papa tucked her into the bed beside Mother and got in, too. “Six years old today!”
Kate squirmed happily.
“I’m getting to be a big girl, aren’t I? Jarrod’nNick’nAudra’nHeath’nGene will be so surprised!” She paused to catch her breath.
“Oh, very surprised,” Papa said firmly. He winked and offered her a sip of coffee.
“Royce, that’s not good for her,” Mother said immediately.
Kate liked her sips of coffee whenever she was allowed to snuggle in the big bed with her parents, but she never asked. It was a rule: Always wait until something is offered to you—never ask for it.
“I suppose one sip once in awhile won’t hurt her,” Papa said lightly.
Mother began to smooth the tangles out of her hair. “Goodness, Kate, how tousled you are in the mornings! I’ll soon have to begin braiding your hair for the night.”
“Mother, am I pretty? Audra says I’m pretty.”
“Pretty is as pretty does, Kate,” Mother said crisply.
Kate frowned, not understanding.
“I mean that you should think more of being a good, kind little girl than of how you look.”
Kate thought of the toffee and the toys again. Did Mother know? She dived under the cover.
“Now, what are you doing under there?” Mother asked.
“I don’t want to go to Hell,” came the muffled response.
“Go to—what in the world are you talking about?” Papa pushed back the comforter and lifted her into his arms.
Two big tears rolled down Kate’s cheeks. “I took a piece of toffee out of the pantry when Isabel wasn’t looking,” she choked, “and I pushed my toys under the bed and told Mother I put them away! And Pastor says I’ll go to Hell!”
“Of course, you won’t,” Mother said immediately. “That’s for people who aren’t sorry for what they’ve done. And you’re sorry, aren’t you?”
“Y-y-yes,” Kate hiccupped.
Papa kissed her. “Don’t cry, Kate precious.”
“But m-m-maybe God told Santa, and now Santa won’t come!”
“I think you needn’t worry about that,” Mother said, looking away. Kate thought she sounded as if she were laughing.
“Santa will certainly come to see the best little girl in New Orleans!” Papa said heartily.
“B-b-but I was b-b-bad!” Kate sobbed. “I told God I’d never do it again! I did!”
Mother took her face between her hands. “Listen to me, Kate. You know the difference between right and wrong. Everyone does things they shouldn’t do.”
“Even y-y-you and P-P-Papa?”
“Even Papa and I. And then we’re sorry and try to do better next time, and that’s what you’ll do. Now—this is a gloomy conversation for such a happy day! Kate Wardell is six years old today, and I happen to know that there is something downstairs that she’ll like very much!”
Kate lifted her head from Papa’s chest. “A pony?” she asked hopefully.
Mother threw back her head and laughed. Then Papa laughed, too, and used the corner of the sheet to wipe away Kate’s tears. He reached past Kate to cup her mother’s face in his hand. “So much love,” he murmured.
Mother covered Papa’s hand with her own. “So very much,” she said softly.
Kate’s heart soared as it always did whenever Mother and Papa looked at each other in that special way. If anyone had asked her, at that particular moment, to describe love, she’d have told them it was the way she felt when Mother and Papa looked at each other—and at her—and smiled softly.
She put one small arm around Mother’s neck and the other around Papa’s. Maybe there wasn’t a pony waiting downstairs, but Isabel would certainly have made something special for her birthday breakfast. Later, there would be a trip downtown for her birthday picture wearing the new dress bought especially for that occasion. Tonight the three of them would have a birthday picnic in front of the parlor fireplace.
And in two days it would be Christmas! She would be allowed to put the figure of the Christ Child in the manager beneath the tree, and Papa would tell her the story again—how the Christ Child came to be born long, long ago—and how she had come to be born almost on His birthday because, next to each other, she was the most wonderful gift he and Mother had ever been given.
Mother brought her warm blue dressing gown from her room, and Papa put it on her and tied the sash. Then, perched in Papa’s arms with Mother beside them, Kate Wardell was borne downstairs to breakfast thinking that, if God knew everything, surely He knew that she was the happiest, luckiest little girl in the whole world.