The Ross house stood—stands, thank heaven!—on the north side of the Common, between Judge Peters's and Madam Flynt's, its front windows facing due south. The main body of the house is of brick, the two wings and the portico with its Doric columns, of wood; all gleaming white, with blinds of exactly the right shade of green. The front fence (Cyrus has not done away with its fences; it would scorn to do so. "When I wish to move into my neighbor's yard," says Madam Flynt, "I shall ask his permission first." And Miss Almeria Bygood says, "I prefer to live on the street, not in it") is of iron, with chains and tassels elaborately looped; the posts of white brick, surmounted by wooden balls large enough for a child to sit on with some measure of comfort. The gate, a beautiful affair of handwrought iron (a testimonial to Dr. Ross from a grateful blacksmith) was made, one would think, to be swung on. Near the bottom were four grapevine circles, into which two pairs of small feet fitted perfectly; while the smooth bar across the top was manifestly intended for the resting of dimpled chins and the grasping of chubby hands. Then, its squeak! At the [pg 30] friendly sound, Kitty Ross glanced down, and all her childhood came flooding back.
"Ah, Tommy!" she sighed. "Ah, Duke! We are too big now, even if you were anywhere."
Then the door opened, and there stood Sarepta Darwin, just as she had stood at similar home-comings all Kitty's lifetime.
"Come in this minute, child!" she said. "You had the life nigh scared out of me. You, John Tucker, you'd ought to be ashamed of yourself, at your time of life!"
"That's just it, S'repty," chuckled John. "I've outgrown the sensation!"
"Don't scold, Sarepta dear!" said Kitty. "I've come home!"
Sarepta snorted, and turned her head away. No one had ever seen a tear in that wintry blue eye, and no one ever should. The idea!
"You're froze, I expect," she said severely, "speedin' like that in this cold. Come in to the fire! Nelly Chanter's comin' to supper with you and spend the night, but I thought you'd want to get your things off first."
Home! After all the wandering, all the longing: home at last! Kitty had enjoyed much of the time abroad. Endless wonder, endless beauty; she rejoiced to have seen it; but the place where she was born, the countryside where she belonged, meant more to her than all the glories of Europe and Asia. So long as her mother was with her, so long as anything strange or fair could lift the languid head or bring a gleam [pg 31] of light to the sad eyes, on they must go, wherever the brightest way seemed to point: but when it was over, and the weary body which held the gay, innocent, flower-like soul, was hid quietly in the churchyard at Vevey, there was but one thought in Kitty's mind. The English cousins, the kind Swiss friends, might plead as they would; they all wanted her; it would mean so much to them if she would make her home with them. Kitty thanked them all with tears, and took the next and swiftest steamer for home.
A plain square hall, with stairs going up at one side; old prints on the walls: Regulus and the Carthaginian Ambassadors, Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi:—Kitty had a loving glance for all: the very oilcloth felt friendly under her feet. Had not Grandfather Ross laid it down fifty years ago, when oilcloth was oilcloth, and not, as dear Father used to say, brown paper and fish glue?
It was late January, but the Christmas wreaths still hung in the windows, the fir boughs over the picture-frames. The mail-table, with its scales and weights, the barometer, the hanging shelf where garden baskets and implements slept the long winter away—Kitty's glance took them all in lovingly.
"Fire's in the settin' room!" said Sarepta.
Kitty turned to the right, and entered the room she loved best in the world. Shabby, Mrs. Sharpe called the sitting room of Ross House. If it was shabby, no one but Mrs. Sharpe knew it. The rugs were worn, it is true, the original patterns lost in a warm blending of reds and blues, but they were still thick and soft, [pg 32] and only Sarepta knew of the mended places. The wallpaper had not been changed since the memory of man. Why should it be, when it was in perfect condition? And how much of it was visible anyhow? Mellow, rich, warm: one sought for other kindred words, feeling the friendly harmony of everything from the Piranesi etchings to the books which lined half the walls and lay on every available flat surface. The fireplace occupied most of one side, the fire leaped and crackled behind the high fender—not so high as it used to be, Kitty, when you and Tom "stumped" each other to climb on it and grimace at your reflections in the round balls of the andirons. A leather sofa stood before the fireplace: well! I grant that the sofa was shabby, but who cared? Never was another, old or new, to compare with it in comfort. Kitty sank down on it now, and stretched her hands to the blaze, and made a little sound, half moan, half coo, of utter thankfulness. Sarepta, erect in the doorway, hands folded over her spotless apron, had the air of waiting for something. Presently Kitty spoke over her shoulder, her eyes still fixed on the fire.
"She didn't suffer at all, Sarepta!"
"She just faded away quietly, like a flower. It was like—do you remember how I used to put the hollyhocks in the little black pool, under the trees? They didn't wither or crumple up, they just grew more transparent, day by day, till at last they seemed almost to melt into the water: it was more like that than anything else."
[pg 33] Sarepta grunted again. "Got your feet wet reg'lar every time you did it!" she said.
"She knew she was going," the clear lovely voice went on, as if repeating a lesson. "She asked me to—to leave her there, among the flowers: she was so tired, she thought it would trouble her in heaven to know that—it—was being carried about. And then—she said—'Go home, darling! Go home to—Sarepta and John Tucker: they will—take—care—'"
The clear voice faltered, broke: Sarepta Darwin threw her apron over her head and went away.
An hour later, a composed and cheerful Kitty was greeting Nelly Chanter, who came in rosy and breathless as usual, full of tender incoherence.
"Darling Kitty! so heavenly of Sarepta to ask me to come! I didn't mean to be—oh, Kitty, you are home again! I thought you never—what a perfectly delicious kitten!"
All the embarrassment was Nelly's, and she did not quite know what to make of the sensation, an unfamiliar one to Chanters; but she was, as Sarepta said, the most sensible of them, and followed Kitty's lead readily. The trunks had come, Kitty said; they wouldn't begin really to unpack, it was too near supper time, but she must just open the little leather one, and get out—come along!
Up the stairs they went, every step holding its greeting for Kitty, every touch of the carved rail sending its little thrill through her; round the turn, up to the landing, where the orange tree was in full fruitage—one, two, three,—twelve oranges!
[pg 34] "Do look, Nelly! Sarepta is a wonder, isn't she?"
Past the door from which the voice had always called as she went by, "Kitty my Pretty! is that you?"—silent now; the door open, of course, Sarepta knew enough for that, but not to be glanced at yet—not yet! So into her own room opposite, where the fire crackled as gayly as in the room below, and the curtains were drawn and the candles lighted.
The little leather trunk, being investigated, yielded up a lace blouse, the most exquisite dream of a thing, according to Nelly, that ever was seen. It couldn't be for her! no! It wasn't possible! Reassured on this point, Nelly was overwhelmed. How could she ever, ever, ever thank Kitty enough?
"Hush, Nelly! it isn't half pretty enough for you. Tell me about everybody! Your mother is well, you say? How is Madam Flynt?"
"Very well, except for her rheumatism. I saw her this morning: she sent her best love, and hopes you will come in to-morrow. She can't walk much in this slippery weather: she has been driving—" Nelly stopped suddenly, with a queer look: one would say a guilty look.
Kitty, now in her white wrapper, brushing out her long fair hair before the glass, and looking, Nelly thought, like a heavenly mermaid, did not see the look.
"Well, she wouldn't be driving next door anyhow," she said. "I'll run over right after breakfast. Let me see! I've seen all the dearest people, except your mother and Madam Flynt. Wasn't it darling of them [pg 35] to come to meet me? How handsome Miss Almeria looked! How are the Wibirds, Nell?"
"Much as usual, I think. Melissa is poorly, but she keeps on at the Library. I don't think she's having a very good winter. Poor Melissa!"
Nelly's rosy face clouded slightly.
"Wilson?" Kitty spoke low.
"Yes! pretty bad this winter, I'm afraid. Mrs. Wibird can't control him, nor any one else except Mr. Mallow and Billy."
"How's Mr. Cheeseman?"
"Oh, just the same! all agog to see you, like every one else. I was in there yesterday, and he was making every kind of candy you had ever liked since you were a baby, so he'd be sure to have the right thing on hand. And Mr. Bygood was so excited about your coming he got no nap yesterday, and Miss Egeria was so worried! But Miss Almeria told her joy was the best thing for the aged, so she cheered up. My dear, I think you'll have to go and see them all to-morrow, or they will all pass away, and there will be no Cyrus left. Kitty!"
At Nelly's explosive utterance of her name, Kitty, whose toilet had been progressing while they talked, paused, slipper in hand.
"What is it, Nelly?"
"Oh, nothing! that is—well, Mother just wanted me to say that we hope you will come to live with us!"
[pg 36] Nelly went on with a rush. "I know the house is small and crowded, but just listen! The boys are dying to have you, simply dying! So they will sleep in the barn-chamber, and Zephine and I will take their room, and you will have ours. We've got it all planned out, and the boys have always wanted to have the barn-chamber, and they will fit it up themselves, so you see it will be the most convenient thing in the world, besides making us all so happy we want to dance whenever we think of it. Now, Kitty, say you'll think about it? Of course, you can't decide this moment, and of course the other houses are bigger, and you may say some of them are lonely—the people, not the houses!—but you will think about it, Kitty, won't you, and remember that we spoke first!"
Kitty's eyes were wide with astonishment, but full of affection.
"Of course I will, Nelly! Why, I never heard of anything so kind in my life. Thank your dear mother a thousand times, and tell her—but I shall tell her myself. There's the bell! Come along. I'm sure Sarepta has pop-overs for us!"
Sarepta had pop-overs for them, marvelous efflorescences of brown and gold, such as all Europe could not afford. Kitty exclaiming to this effect, Sarepta grimly supposed they hadn't the faculty, and drew attention to the creamed chicken and oysters, which were done the way Kitty used to like 'em, though Sarepta presumed she'd learned newer-fangled ways over there. Mebbe she wouldn't care. Reassured on this point, she handed the fried potatoes with a challenging air—she [pg 37]knew no one could beat her there—and retired, to count over every word Kitty had said and store it away for future need.
The girls fell to their supper as healthy, hungry girls should, and for a time conversation was chiefly exclamatory, dealing with the wonders of Sarepta's cookery. By and by, however, over the ice-cream which made it a "party," as they exclaimed with delight, and later, sitting on the sofa before the singing, purring fire, they had much talk, Kitty telling of things she had seen abroad, Nelly wondering, admiring, exclaiming. But always the talk would come back to Cyrus, the home of their hearts, and to the people who lived there. Only two thousand, all told, this including the three French families and the two "Polanders" down by the little woolen mill which was our one "industry," so that between them the two girls knew or knew of almost every one within the village limits. It was a farming community, save for the comfortable store-keepers, and the half dozen "tony" families as Mrs. Sharpe called them, whose ample mansions, white or yellow, had stood about the Common since Colonial days. Cyrus, her people were wont to say, did not grow: she remained. I don't know just why they were proud of this stationary quality, but they certainly were. For fifty years, the population had hardly changed; or to be accurate, it had changed in so gradual and regular a fashion that it always seemed the same. An accurate observer like Judge Peters would tell you that once in about thirty years there were more children: the schools were fuller, the wave [pg 38] of youth crept slowly up till street and meeting house blossomed with youths and maidens. Then, still gradually, the wave would recede: some of the lads went away to work, some of the lasses married "out-of-towners"; the numbers dwindled again, till in another thirty years another vigorous generation would come shouting to the front.
"And how is Savory Bite?" asked Kitty. "Does he still live alone?" (This gentleman's real name was Avery Bright, but he was never called by it.)
"My dear, yes! No one goes near him: where is the use, when he won't let any one in? He did our garden last spring, and was just the same, snapping your head off if you spoke to him. I have never been in the house, though I have peeped in the window sometimes. It's always neat as wax, I'll say that for Savory."
Kitty gave a little sudden laugh.
"I've been in it!" she said. "Tom and I got in one day through the cellar; he had left the door unlocked. We got up into the kitchen, and had a wonderful time. You know everything is painted blue, floor, tables, chairs, everything? Well, naughty Tom had a piece of chalk in his pocket, and what does he do but write on the blue table in big letters,
"'Savory Bite, Why not paint it white?'" A silence fell: then Nelly asked the question which had been on her tongue twenty times, and twenty times kept back.
[pg 39] "Where is Tom, Kitty? Do you know?"
Kitty looked straight at her with honest eyes.
"I don't know, Nelly. I haven't heard one word from him. I wrote," she added, "when Father died—that was after Mrs. Lee's death, but I knew he was in Omaha, and I had his uncle's address—but I never had one word of answer."
If a writer could only tell all she knows! That letter, Kitty, in which you poured out your sad heart to the lad who had been brother, playmate and boy lover ever since you can remember, is in the pocket of his uncle's spring overcoat, now laid away in camphor, till the first of May, when he changes from winter to spring clothes, regardless of weather. His uncle is not a villain, far from it; he would gladly forward the letter, only he does not know it is there, nor will till the above date.
As for Tom's letter to you, Kitty, written about the same time, I don't know whose pocket that is in. He wrote it on board the steamer at San Francisco, and sent it back by the pilot: but it never reached you. It was a good letter, too. Tom knew nothing of Dr. Ross's death: full of his own recent loss of a beloved mother, he thought of you in your happy home with the two dear and delightful parents who seemed to belong almost equally to him—almost! He told you of his great "job"; he begged you to think of him whenever you had a minute to spare, but not to bother about writing, because he had no address to give beyond the Shanghai Bank, and he might not get back there for a year or two, from the way the job looked [pg 40] at this end. But you would know he was thinking about you, and you must be a good Cat and purr a great deal, and not scratch anybody except Wilson Wibird. And when he came back, Kitty—well, perhaps he'd better wait till then, but all the same you knew well enough, so he remained yours always, The Duke of Lee.
Yes, that letter would have comforted Kitty a great deal: it was a pity she did not get it.
Tom, meanwhile, building bridges in a remote province of northern China, supposed comfortably that she had got it, and thought of her daily with great contentment.
So things go—sometimes! And here is Sarepta with the bedroom candles.