To understand this story, you must know something of the topography of Cyrus, which is like no other town in the State. (But every town says that of itself!)
In the middle is the Common; square, green, with intersecting gravel paths, each with its marshaled rows of maples, which in summer are just trees, but in autumn turn to bowers and towers of scarlet and gold. On one side of the Common are the Churches, Congregational and Baptist; on two others the Houses, whereof anon; the fourth side, that fronting west, is mostly occupied by the Mallow House, where Mr. Marshall Mallow reigns as king and landlord. Under the hill runs the Street proper, where are the "stores": Abram Hanks's, where you may buy everything from pins to poplin, from buttons to bonnet wire; the general store, kept by Orison and Aquila Wesley—peace to their memory! they are gone now, but one never forgets the large sign which gave their names in full, black on white, spelled over in wonder by generations of children; the "bookstore"—how proud we were of having a bookstore! Tinkham had none, nor Tupham. There were not many books in it, [pg 6] it is true; a selection of fifty-cent novels, chosen (it was always supposed) by Miss Almeria Bygood for their "tone." Parents were perfectly safe in buying a book for their children at Bygood's; "Bygones," Cissy Sharpe called them; some of the novels, the shopworn ones, were let out at two cents a day. My first novel, "John Halifax," came from Bygood's; I read "St. Elmo," too, and "Queechy," and learned from the latter that a heroine may weep on every page of two hundred and be none the worse for it. Mr. Bygood was very old even when I first remember him. He sat mostly in the back shop, reading the Farmers' Almanac; a venerable figure in a black frock coat with a high dickey. His blue eyes were full of kindness. If a child of his acquaintance (and what child was not?) came in to buy a paper or get a library book, he would utter a gentle bellow. Then Miss Almeria or Miss Egeria would give one a little push and say, "Go on, dear! Father wants to pass the time of day with you!"
One was not clear in one's mind as to what passing the time of day meant, but one went, and shook hands with Mr. Bygood—rather dreadful, this, because his hand shook, and the joints had chalk swellings—and said one was very well, thank you, and so was Father, and so was Mother. Then Mr. Bygood would say, "Do you mind your book, my dear? Always mind your book! Remember Goody Twoshoes!" The first part of this address was also puzzling, for to "mind" meant, in our vocabulary, A, to obey, as one's parents and elders, B, to dislike, as spiders and [pg 7] large, smooth green caterpillars. (We were told that they were Beautiful Works of Nature, but we knew better!) However, when we came to Goody Twoshoes, we were on safe ground, and could say heartily and sincerely, "Please show me, Mr. Bygood!"
Then Mr. Bygood's mild blue eyes would brighten, and he would open a queer old desk and take out a queer little old book—very old, for he had had it when he was a little boy, he said—only one could hardly think printing was invented then!—and read aloud in his high quavering voice the immortal tale of the little school mistress.
"Nothing could have supported little Margery under the affliction she was in for the loss of her brother but the pleasure she took in her two shoes. She ran to Mrs. Smith as soon as they were put on, and stroking down her ragged apron, cried out: 'Two Shoes, Ma'am; see Two Shoes!' And so she behaved to all the people she met, and by that means obtained the name of Little Goody Twoshoes."
This was for little girls. Mr. Bygood did not care much for boys as a rule; but when Tom Lee came in he always produced "Marmaduke Multiply," which was even older than Goody Twoshoes, and read to him from that. Dear Mr. Bygood! how kind he was! He had peppermints, too, sometimes, but I fear we were not always grateful for these: they were apt to be fuzzy, from carrying in his blue cotton handkerchief; and besides, was not Cheeseman's next door? But we have not come to Cheeseman's yet.
Miss Almeria and Miss Egeria kept the shop, sold [pg 8] the daily paper (that came from Tinkham; Tinkham was larger, we had to admit that, though otherwise—well, no matter!) and the Cyrus Centinel, our own weekly; besides pens and paper and the above-described books. They were dear ladies, Miss Almeria and Miss Egeria: we loved them both, and much of the romance of old-time Cyrus—long before our own time, Kitty Ross's and mine—clustered about them. Miss Almeria was tall and handsome, with jet-black hair and eyes of brilliant Irish blue. She had a fine figure and great dignity, yet her laugh was as merry as Kitty's own. Apparently, half Cyrus had wanted to marry Miss Almeria: it was matter of common knowledge that Mr. Mallow had asked her five times, and Mr. Jordano three. Hannah Sullivan, who did our chores and waited at our parties, was a warm partisan of Mr. Mallow's, and could never meet Miss Almeria without crying, "He'll die but he'll have ye!" Mr. Mallow did not look as if he would die, but one never could tell.
Miss Egeria was gentle and quiet, a still brook where her sister was a flashing rapid. She had her father's mild eyes and kind, hesitating way. She never seemed quite sure of anything, dear Miss Egeria, but would always appeal to her sister. "I wouldn't wonder but it rained to-morrow, would you, Almy?" And if Miss Almeria said crisply, "Nonsense, Gerie! there isn't a cloud in the sky," Miss Egeria would nod her curls with a gentle, "I wouldn't wonder if 'twas pleasant, after all!"
Miss Egeria, if not such a belle as Miss Almeria, [pg 9] had yet had her admirers. We all knew that the two gentlemen disrespectfully known as "Twinnies" had loved Miss Egeria and her alone, the greater part of their meek lives. They were not twins, not even brothers; but cousins and closest friends, Mr. Jason and Mr. Josiah Jebus. They kept the Crewel Shop: it had been opened under that name during the last craze for crewel work in the seventies, and had never changed. As Mr. Jason said, if they changed with every turn of fashion in fancy work, where would they be?
"Why not call it the Fancy Shop once for all, and stick to that?" Kitty Ross asked him once; but Mr. Jason shook his head. "That would sound frivolous, Katharine!" he said. "Josiah and I are not frivolous!"
They were not. They carried on their funny little business with a gravity and decorum that was all their own. Mr. Jason, as a rule, did the selling, matched the worsteds and yarns, advised the selection of patterns. Mr. Josiah embroidered. He had a club foot, and walked very lame, but his fingers were wonderfully nimble; we loved to watch him, as seated at his embroidery frame, half hidden by the green rep curtain which divided the front shop from the back (the latter was their living room), he sent his needle flying back and forth with what seemed to us miraculous speed.
The Crewel Shop was a tiny building, tucked in between Adams's and the Mallow House. A minute kitchen behind the back-shop-sitting-room, a bedroom [pg 10] above:—that was all, but it was enough for the little gentlemen. They never wanted to lose sight of each other; they had only one opinion between them on any subject. In this they differed from the Miss Bygoods. They did not appeal to each other; they simply said, "We think it will rain to-morrow." This was carried so far that one or the other might be heard, in "grippy" weather, to say, "We have a cold!" and Cissy Sharpe insisted—but one did not always believe Cissy implicitly—that that she had seen Mr. Jason on several occasions try to walk lame like Mr. Josiah.
This being so, it was no more than natural that both gentlemen should have loved the same lady. Our theory (a knot of school girls gossiping over their noonday buns and pickled limes, we had a theory to fit everything in town) was that they had never told their love, for fear of interfering with each other. If this was true, it might have been hard on Miss Egeria, supposing her to have cared for either; but we somehow doubted if she ever had. They were so very mild, and their wigs (exactly alike, and dressed every month by Mr. Beard the barber—so appropriately named, we thought!) were such a peculiar shade of pinkish brown, and so palpably made of jute!
My mother, who detested gossip, put an end one fine day to all our romancing about still-remaining possibilities for "Miss Bygoods" by telling us the simple truth; that the dear ladies had both lost their lovers in the Civil War, and had never thought of matrimony since. She added that Kitty and I were a pair of silly girls, and would much better study our algebra lesson [pg 11] than gossip about people who presumably knew their own affairs; Kitty and I went off with hanging heads, but more imbued than ever with sentimental melancholy.
We couldn't help it, we agreed: Cyrus certainly was a romantic place. There were so many interesting people; so many curious names! Mr. Very Jordano! How could a man be named Very Jordano and not be romantic? His mother was a Miss Very, but his father was—must be—of Italian descent. Look at Mr. Jordano's hair, and eyes, and the way he wore that picturesque cloak, such as no one else in Cyrus would ever think of wearing. Mr. Jordano had no objection to our looking at his hair and eyes and cloak: his Italian aspect was his joy and pride, and he cultivated it sedulously. "A poor scribbler!" he was wont to say of himself. "A poor country editor, sir; but in my veins flows the blood of—h'm! ha! nimporto!" and then he would glance over his shoulder mysteriously, as if to see whether he was being followed, and curl his long mustache, and hum "Santa Lucia" as fiercely as that plaintive air can be hummed. He edited the Centinel, as I have said, and signed his own articles "Italio." When, as sometimes happened, his spelling of Centinel was criticized, he would say: "It is the spelling used by Sir Walter Scott, sir! what is good enough for the Wizard of the North is good enough for me—tee! tee!"
I have left Cheeseman's till the last, but it was first in our hearts and our thoughts. Mr. Ivory Cheeseman's candy shop and kitchen was the delight and [pg 12] the despair of every child in Cyrus. We knew to a nicety the day each kind of candy was made. Monday was peppermint day, Tuesday was devoted to caramels, Wednesday to sticks, Thursday to drops, and so on. We timed our visits accordingly, and I fear we were shameless little beggars, for though we clutched our legitimate "nickel" tight, prepared to surrender it when we had made our choice, we knew very well that if we were "pretty-behaved," Uncle Ivory would probably ask us to taste those lemon drops or to see if that batch of cream ribbon wasn't a little mite better than common. Dear Uncle Ivory! how we loved him, spite of the sharp tongue that was the terror of "slack" or unmannerly children!
But this will never do. I am wandering all about Cyrus, shaking hands with everybody—I wish I could!—as if I still lived there, as if this were my own story; whereas, it is the story of Kitty Ross, and it is high time that I brought her in properly, instead of letting her whisk round an occasional corner, as she has hitherto been doing.
The story begins with Kitty's return to Cyrus after her mother's death. Her father had died two years before. Mrs. Ross—the gay, lovely, flower-like little lady, who had never felt a rough wind while he lived—could not stay long after him. She and Kitty went abroad, and wandered about here and there. Then came the panic, and most of the comfortable property Dr. Ross had left was swept away, I am not clear just how. Very little was left, and much of that little was invested in western railroads that paid no dividends. I [pg 13] will hurry over this part. Mrs. Ross drooped like a broken flower; drooped and died, and Kitty was left alone.
If Tom Lee had been at home that year, this story would never have been written; but Tom was in China, building railways. So Kitty came back alone to Cyrus, where she was born and bred. Cyrus people are the kindest in the world, I believe. They may be fond of gossip (I don't find that a thousand miles away it is less popular) and they may be a trifle stiff-necked, like their Puritan ancestors before them, but kind they certainly are. Ever since the news of Mrs. Ross's death came, Cyrus had been asking, what would Kitty do? The money was gone, practically gone, Judge Peters said. There was enough for her clothes and fal-lals, but little more, sir, little more. Something must be thought of. Some—thing—must—be—thought—of. The judge looked and spoke cheerfully, because he had already thought of something. He was Dr. Ross's executor, and who had a better right, he would like to know?
The Miss Bygoods, talking together in low tones, while Father nodded over the fire, voiced the same sentiment. The dear child! they said. Of course she could not stay in that great house alone, even with Sarepta. Sarepta was good and faithful, of course, and an excellent cook, as everyone knew; but she was no companion for Kitty, even if her temper were not—well, uncertain.
"I think the little blue room, Sister!" said Miss Almeria. "There are bluebirds on the paper, you know, [pg 14] and Kitty always made me think of a bluebird. Dear me! how pleasant to think of having a young creature in the house again!"
"And oh, sister!" Miss Egeria beamed softly over her tatting. "We can give her a little Society! Nothing elaborate, of course, only ice-cream and sponge-drops, but—wandering about the Continent as she has been—not that I mean a word in criticism of dear, sainted Mrs. Ross; no, indeed! but to meet Cyrus people, and have a little social life, will mean a great deal to dear Kitty. I mean when she puts on half mourning, of course."
Miss Almeria pondered.
"I wish there were more young people!" she said. "There is no better society than that of Cyrus, but—but we must acknowledge that most of our agreeable people are—a—mature, and Kitty is so young!"
"There is Wilson Wibird;" Miss Egeria spoke timidly. "Wilson is young."
Miss Almeria looked grave.
"Wilson is young!" she acknowledged with a dignified bend of her handsome head. "I fear there is little more to be said in his favor." She paused. Wilson Wibird had been in Egeria's Sunday School class, and she could not bear to think ill of him. Why give pain? thought Miss Almeria.
"I cannot think that Kitty would find him interesting!" she concluded.
Interesting, indeed! Miss Almeria had never heard Wilson Wibird shrieking from the gutter, "Ma! Ma! Kitty Ross knocked me down and trompled on me!"
[pg 15] "And there are the Chanters!" Miss Egeria spoke more confidently, as Miss Almeria's face lightened.
"Yes, there are the Chanters. They will be pleasant playmates for Kitty: they are young, and gay: I almost think—I fear—Zephine and Rodney may sometimes be a little too gay, sister, but perhaps not. Yes, the Chanters will certainly be a resource; still, my dear, we must acknowledge that there have been great changes in Cyrus. It is not what it was in our youth."
And Miss Egeria did acknowledge it meekly.
Mr. Marshall Mallow, at the Mallow House, made a careful examination of his rooms about this time; studying wall-papers, carpets and decorations, with meticulous care. One room, he decided, a pleasant corner room, facing south and west, could do with a new paper, and one or two nice "edgin's." "I don't care for these chromios," he said to Billy. (Billy was his clerk: if he had another name, I never knew it.) "They're too glarish. Give me a good edgin' or engravement!"
Mr. Mallow's English was all his own, but nobody minded, because he never said anything unkind in it. He overflowed with warmth, like the rising sun, which, indeed, he somewhat resembled, with his round, rosy face and polished head. He inherited the Mallow House from his father, who in turn had taken it from his father, who built it. It was a family affair. Since old Mrs. Mallow died, Mr. Marshall (known as "Marsh" among his intimates) had been his own housekeeper, major-domo and butler. "I don't want [pg 16] no woman gormineerin' over me!" he often said; but this was when youth was past, and with it all hope of Miss Almeria; or so we girls maintained.
The boarders at the Mallow House—but here I go wandering again. The boarders must wait.