Madam Flynt was evidently expecting Kitty. She was ready dressed and in the drawing-room: the large, bright room with its hangings of apple green and gold brocade, its gilded cornices and fire screen. Dr. Ross used to say that the room was an apple-tree bower, and Madam Flynt the apple; indeed, she did look like one, a Bellefleur, say, or a rosy Porter. A woman of sixty, large, massive, fair. Her hair was faded from the bright gold of her girlhood, but was still yellow; her eyes were China blue, her cheeks apple red. The color was so set in them (no one had ever seen Madam Flynt pale, even in sickness) that a stranger might well think it clumsy art, instead of—what shall I say, over-zealous Nature? The story ran that one day in her youth, walking along the street, she heard a stranger say after passing her, "Painted, by God!" She turned instantly.
"Yes, sir," she said calmly, "I am painted by God!"
Of course this was not in Cyrus: Cyrus people knew.
"Well, Kitty!" Madam Flynt held out a large, plump white hand, amply be-ringed. She was dressed in flowing [pg 52] robes of green and white, a most un-negligent "negligée," and was a pleasant sight enough. "Well, Kitty! You have to come to me, you see. I couldn't go down with the rest of the town to meet you. I am glad to see you, my dear. We have been too long without you, Kitty."
"Dear Madam Flynt, I am so glad to get home! How is the rheumatism?"
"The rheumatism is very well, Kitty, it thanks you: it's more vigorous than I am; but I do very well, on the whole, very well. I get my airing, which is the principal thing. John Tucker told you of our little arrangement? A very good plan! John Tucker is a sensible man. He and Sarepta are really an able pair. Pity he didn't marry her, instead of that poor creature, Mary Spinney. You had a good voyage, my dear?"
She talked easily, Kitty following her lead.
"Glad to hear it! And now, Kitty, I hope you are going to be a sensible girl, and do as I wish."
"As you wish, Madam Flynt? About the driving? Oh, surely! I am only too grateful. It is so dear of you—"
"Nothing of the kind! A business arrangement, nothing more. Flanagan was dead—I didn't kill him, did I? What I wish, Kitty, is quite another thing. I want you to come and live with me."
"Oh, Madam Flynt!"
"There is everything to be said in favor of the plan," Madam Flynt swept on, "and nothing against it, so far as I can see. You can manage your home affairs, [pg 53] John and Sarepta, the house and so on, as well here as there; you've only to step across the yard. I need a companion, and so do you."
Kitty opened wide eyes of astonishment.
"Madam Flynt! Has Miss Croly left you?"
"Miss Croly left me? Certainly not. Why should she leave me? Cornelia Croly is as old as I am, or very near it; she needs a companion, too. She grows more set every day of her life. Just move that poker, will you, Kitty? To the left side of the fireplace! Cornelia Croly will always put it at the right; she does it to assert herself; she told me so, in so many words. We both need a young person to keep us from biting each other, Kitty, and you are the person."
At this point, Miss Croly entered the room, beaming welcome. Tall, thin, upright, hard-favored, with the kindest eyes and the most obstinate chin imaginable. Dressed in gray alpaca by day, in purple alpaca by night, with little benefit of fashion; such was Miss Cornelia Croly, Madam Flynt's quondam schoolmate—her companion now these many years of her widowhood. The two made a singular contrast, yet complemented each other oddly. Kitty could never think of one without the other. Corolla and calyx, Dr. Ross used to call them.
Miss Croly had to hear all about Kitty's voyage; the sea had a fascination for her, though she had never ventured upon it.
"A storm! how thrilling! the wonders of the deep!" sighed Miss Croly, all in one breath. "You make it [pg 54] all so real, Kitty. I can hear the roar of the elements and the dash of the breakers—"
As she spoke, Miss Croly had taken up the poker, and after making a dab at the fire, was gently replacing it at the right of the fireplace, when Madam Flynt interrupted her.
"There are no breakers in mid-ocean, Cornelia! And will you kindly leave the poker where it was, on the left side?"
"Excuse me, my dear Clarissa, it is far more convenient on the right side. As attending to the fire is one of my little duties—a very pleasant one, I am sure—it seems not unreasonable for me to have the poker where I can use it. You grant that?"
Seeing Argument throned on both brows, Kitty rose hastily and made her excuses. She had several other visits to make; she would run in this evening, or surely to-morrow morning. Madam Flynt was the kindest of the kind, as she always was: yes, Kitty would think over very carefully what she had said, and would let her know: she thanked her ever and ever so much: good-bye! "Good-bye, Miss Croly! So glad to see you!"
Kitty shut the door on a rather awful "Cornelia!" and fled, only stopping a moment in the kitchen to greet the two maids, friends of her childhood, and to steal a cooky from under Sarah Cook's nose, to the huge delight of that kindly mammoth.
Down the street sped Kitty: the dear, friendly street, where every house smiled a welcome, every window shed a friendly blink. The Common was on her left, [pg 55] a smooth field of snow, crossed by two intersecting board walks. Every tree was a friend too: the bare, graceful branches were moving in the crisp breeze, and each seemed to wave her a welcome. There was the Earliest Maple! Kitty wondered what children drove their spiles and hung their pails now for the sap. She and Tom used to be rather odious, she feared, about that tree. They assumed ownership of all rights in it, both tapping and climbing. She recalled a keen frosty morning like this, when Wilson Wibird had "cut in" early, pulled out her spile and driven in his own. Tom came like a flame of fire across the Common, tore out the spile and threw it away, then pummeled Wilson till he ran shrieking home. Wilson always shrieked when any one touched him.
Where next? Judge Peters would be at his office: she would go down there. He was so wise, he would tell her what to say to Madam Flynt. Resisting the call of many a friendly housefront, Kitty went down the hill and turned into "the Street." There were several streets in Cyrus, be it understood, but only one that began with a capital.
The first person she met was Wilson Wibird himself. He was on the opposite sidewalk, and came across, waving his hand with a familiar gesture.
"Weedy, seedy, needy, greedy!" naughty Tom! But Wilson looked exactly the same, only a man instead of a hobbledehoy.
"Katrine! my one thought since I opened my eyes [pg 56] this morning. Welcome! a hundred thousand welcomes!"
Kitty gave Wilson her hand readily enough, but she did not altogether like his looks. His eyes were bloodshot, his speech thick; he seemed to waver a little as he spoke.
"How do you do, Wilson? How is your mother, and Melissa?"
"Less well than I, for they have not seen you, Katrine! You are more beautiful than ever," murmured Mr. Wibird. He cast on Kitty what he would have called a burning glance. To Kitty it looked rather like a leer, but she must not be unkind. But there was no earthly reason why Wilson Wibird should hold her hand, so she removed it firmly.
"I am going to see Judge Peters," she said: her tone was cheerfully matter-of-fact. "Give my love at home, and say I'll run in soon to see your mother."
"My way is yours!" Mr. Wibird announced, and fell into step, to Kitty's great annoyance. Wilson Wibird had been the butt of her childhood and Tom's; what on earth did he mean by assuming this tone?
They were just outside the Mallow House; at this moment the door opened, and Mr. Very Jordano came out. He had been taking his leisurely breakfast and reading his New York paper, sitting in the office with Marshall Mallow; and seeing the meeting between the two young people had exchanged a word with his host and crony, and hastened out.
"Good morning, Miss Kitty!" he said urbanely. "The sight of you is a refreshment indeed. Good [pg 57] morning, Wilson. Mr. Mallow would like to see you a moment, if you have a moment to spare-pare-pare!"
Mr. Jordano's tone was faintly ironical, as he fell into step with Kitty on the other side. Wilson Wibird glared at him.
"I have not!" he said sullenly. "I am escorting Miss Ross."
"That shall be my privilege!" Mr. Jordano bowed blandly to Kitty. "Go away, Wilson!" he added in a lower and different tone. "Go quite away-tay-tay! Or I'll call Billy!"
Involuntarily, Kitty quickened her pace, Mr. Jordano beside her. The other stood glowering, irresolute: suddenly the hotel door opened again, revealing Mr. Mallow, massive and rosy.
"You come here, Wilson!" he commanded. "Don't stand dilatorin' there! Come on in, you hear me?"
Mr. Mallow was Wilson Wibird's uncle; Mrs. Wibird had been a Mallow: moreover, such work as Wilson did was done for him. The young man, after kicking the curbstone sullenly for a moment, obeyed the summons and turned into the hotel.
Kitty turned to Mr. Jordano with a breath of relief.
"Quite so!" returned that gentleman. "He meant no harm: Wilson meant no harm, but nimporto! Miss Kitty, I welcome this opportunity for a word with you. You have been much in my thoughts, both during your absence and since your return. Miss Kitty, I feel assured that you have much of the deepest interest to impart-tart-tart. You will allow me the privilege [pg 58] of calling on you, I trust, some evening in the near future?"
"Oh, surely, Mr. Jordano! I shall be very glad indeed to see you."
"You have seen my country, Miss Kitty! Ah! counterio joyoso, would I might behold it! Italy, Miss Kitty! you have seen Italy?
"Yes, Mr. Jordano, Mother and I spent last winter in Italy."
"Ah! happy, happy—that is—" Mr. Jordano recollected himself, and changed his look of rapture for one of sympathy—" tender reminiscences! tender is the word. I shall take great pleasure in waiting upon you, Miss Kitty. It has occurred to me that you might-tite-tite—that you might be willing to contribute some Sketches of Travel to the Centinel. They would be eagerly welcomed, eagerly welcomed, by all Cyrus and adjoining towns: the Centinel, you may be aware, has a considerable circulation. Our editorials are copied—nimporto! but if you could give me some sketches, Miss Kitty, I should regard it as a choice boon. No laborioso, you understand; nothing that would burden your—a—elegant leisure: a scratch of the pen, a scratch of the pen! the light feminine touch. It would indeed be a choice boon. The honorarium—we could arrange at a later date-tate-tate. I should wish to be lib——"
"Oh, Mr. Jordano," cried downright Kitty, "I never wrote a word in my life, except just letters, and very few of them. Why, I couldn't! and as for writing for a newspaper—you take my breath away! But it's just [pg 59] as kind of you!" she cried. "I am ever so much obliged, Mr. Jordano. I wish I could, but I truly could not. I know I couldn't."
"Not at all! not at all!" Mr. Jordano was still bland, in spite of his evident disappointment. "The modesty of the sex, Miss Kitty. Perhaps you will be good enough to think it over. A—here we are at Judge Peters's, and I will leave you. I shall give myself the pleasure of calling—ah! good day-tay-tay!" And the good gentleman bowed himself off, having, indeed, stolen precious minutes from what he called the Ideals of Italio, his special contribution to the weekly Centinel.
Judge Peters, like Madam Flynt, was evidently expecting Kitty: as if every one in Cyrus were not! The office windows were as dusty as ever—Kitty half expected to see an inscription on them in a round childish hand:
"Tom-mee, Duke of Lee." —but his desk was a miracle of tidiness. His own person was not more carefully attired than usual, because that would have been difficult: he was the picture of a dignified jurist as he sat with his hand in the breast of his coat, reading a law book of appalling size and weight.
His thin, somewhat austere countenance relaxed at sight of Kitty. He rose and came forward with extended hands, grasping hers cordially.
"My dear child! welcome again! My dear Kitty, I am heartily glad to see you."
[pg 60] He was: they all were: never was such a welcome, thought Kitty; another band snapped, and she looked up into the kindly face with a smile that was almost merry.
"Dear Judge Peters! you are so good; everybody is so good. Never was such a home-coming—"
A little stumble here, but only for a moment. Soon they were seated comfortably, the Judge in his chair, Kitty on a certain stool which had been hers ever since she was big enough to visit the "Dudds" in his office, which was long before she could speak his name plain. Kitty told her sad little story to a running commentary of "H'm!" "ha!" or "tut, tut!" which conveyed a sympathy that needed no words. Then the Judge took up the thread, and they went through many matters carefully and thoroughly. Kitty was clear-headed; he knew that; she had to know just where she stood. Yes, yes! There was something left, only a little, but a little was very different from nothing. Now the question was how they were to add to that little. John and Sarepta—yes! yes! good souls! good souls! they had consulted him. Very right, very proper. A nice little nest-egg, and John Tucker could carry on the business perfectly. The question was about Kitty herself. She—ah—had not heard from any of her relatives? True! she had but one, and—they need not go into that at present. Now, the Judge had a proposition to make: a—a business proposition. Here was he, a lone man, sixty years old and not getting any younger. He was lonely, very lonely, in that big house. It was absurd that he should be lonely in one house and Kitty in [pg 61] another; "absurd, you see that. Too many lonely people in Cyrus, as it is. I want you to come and live with me, Kitty. There! now don't answer at once: think it over! I never had a daughter of my own, but you have always been like a daughter to me, my dear. I think we could be very comfortable together: very comfortable. Another thing! I need help here, in the office; a—a—in point of fact, secretary! now, if you could manage to give me two or three hours a day—not too much; not enough to fatigue you, or interfere with your getting plenty of fresh air and exercise—and amusement, too, my dear, amusement, too, of course!—why, it would be a great help and comfort to me, and the salary—" he named a substantial sum—"would help to get—gloves, you know; fal-lals, my dear—toggery of various descriptions. Yes! well, my dear, how does it strike you?"
It struck Kitty as the kindest thought that ever was in the wide world. Why was every one so good to her? Why, Madam Flynt had asked her to come and live with her! but—
"That," Judge Peters struck in with some heat: "that is unnecessary! Clarissa—Madam Flynt—has a companion already. Cornelia Croly is an excellent person; they have lived together for twenty years; she cannot think of discharging Cornelia Croly! Monstrous!"
"Oh, no! no, indeed, Judge! She only thought—she seemed to think—they both needed some one a little younger—but I—oh no, indeed! I only promised to think it over."
[pg 62] "H'm!" the Judge was quite flushed: he rose and paced the floor. "The more you think it over, Kitty, the more unconscionable you will find it. Two women, used to each other for twenty years, fitting like ball and socket (I admit an occasional creak of the joint, but that only makes for variety): a young girl cooped up in that house, with two elderly women and a spaniel—monstrous, my dear! monstrous! Now my case——"
"But!" cried Kitty to herself, as she went down the stairs, after a solemn promise to think it over well, "the dear old darling things! not one of them seems to realize!"
Where next? Kitty looked up and down the street. One way was Cheeseman's, where one of her oldest friends would be looking for her, she knew: Mr. Cheeseman's, and the Twinnies: on the other—"Oh, I must see Miss Egeria and Mr. Bygood before any one else!" said Kitty, and turned back toward the Mallow House.
At Bygoods', she found the same air of happy expectation. Miss Egeria had been fluttering to the door every five minutes all the morning, looking up and down the street; now she came fluttering to meet Kitty, and folded her in a tender embrace, and wept over her. Mrs. Ross had been Miss Egeria's goddess, and for her sake, Kitty seemed to the dear lady only half mortal. She uttered little soft moans in which "Heaven," "saint," "crown of glory," and the like could be distinguished. It was Kitty who comforted her with [pg 63] soothing words and affectionate pats, and soon Miss Egeria collected herself and dried her eyes.
"Forgive me, dear child!" she said. "I am so glad, Kitty, so happy to see you! Sister is in back with Father; come right in, won't you dear? They are so eager——"
Here was Miss Almeria herself, stately and handsome, parting the curtains with a welcoming gesture: here was Mr. Bygood leaning forward in his armchair, his mild eyes shining, his lips trembling with eagerness. Such a welcome here, too, as never could be anywhere else except in dear Cyrus.
"Mr. Bygood, you have been growing younger!" Kitty spoke with decision. "I believe you have found the Fountain of Youth. I think you might give me a drop!"
"No, no, my dear!" Mr. Bygood quavered in high delight. "An old hulk, Kitty, left high and dry, high and dry.
"I came there again when the day was declining, The bark was still there, but the waters were gone. You remember the song, my dear?"
"Indeed I do, Mr. Bygood. You are going to sing it to me the very first I come to tea. When may I come to tea, Miss Almegeria?" This was her child name for the two sisters. "I want Banbury cakes, please, and apple sauce with whipped cream."
"And fried oysters!" Miss Almeria beamed; Miss Egeria cooed, "You shall come to-night, if you will, Kitty. To-night and—presently!" Miss Almeria cast [pg 64] a warning look at her sister, on whose lips something seemed to be trembling. "Presently, Sister! Father's turn now; ours can wait!"
"I have brought you a little present, Mr. Bygood!" Kitty was pulling something from her pocket; a little parcel, white tissue paper neatly tied with blue ribbon. The old gentleman opened it with trembling fingers. Only a bit of Derbyshire spar, Kitty explained, for the Collection; but he exclaimed delightedly at sight of the pretty thing, a golden egg darting rays as the sunlight struck it; surely, the Phœnix's egg, or as near it as mortal eyes may hope to see. Kitty was thanked, blessed, questioned, thanked again. Then she begged for a sight of Goody Twoshoes, and got it, and Marmaduke Multiply, too, because poor Tom had been so fond of it. Yes, poor Tom! Nobody heard from him, which was very sad. If he had only stayed in Cyrus, Mr. Bygood said, it would have been so much better: so much better! The old gentleman sighed, and shook his white head, fumbling meantime in his pockets for peppermint drops.
"You know," Miss Egeria whispered to Kitty, "Father offered Thomas a position in the store!" Her tone implied affairs of Rothschildic scope. "It would have been such an opportunity for Thomas!"
"Hush, sister!" Miss Almeria spoke with some severity. "Thomas had his own views; I am told he considered Cyrus slow! It is true I did not hear him say it!" she added more gently.
"Believe half that you see and nothing that you [pg 65] hear!" murmured Mr. Bygood gently. "Tom was a dear boy, Almeria!"
"Yes, Father dear! You set me right, as ever!" Miss Almeria patted his shoulder affectionately. "We must not judge!"
"Almy is impulsive!" Mr. Bygood smiled to Kitty. "Youth is apt to be. Do you find Cyrus changed, my dear?"
Presently he nodded, and on a sign from the ladies, Kitty stole into the front shop with them. Here they unfolded their great plan, which was just like all the rest. Kitty was to come and live with them: to be their—their younger sister, as it were. They had a little room—the blue room! Kitty remembered? She used to like it. It was never used, and it would be such a happiness to them! She could help in the store—it was so interesting, Kitty, and truly educational, with the Library and all.
"The gentlemen come in, too, for their morning paper, my dear, and discuss affairs of National Importance! I assure you, we feel that we have great opportunities, and I trust we are not ungrateful for them. Our gentlemen have such sound opinions! When I hear Judge Peters and Mr. Jordano exchange their views on public affairs, and dear Father adds his word of ripe experience, you know, Kitty, my dear, I feel that we are privileged, indeed!"
Thus Miss Almeria, bending her stately head in emphasis.
"So you will come, Kitty darling, won't you?" begged Miss Egeria; "at least think it over well; we [pg 66] feel that we have as much claim as any of the friends, and—perhaps—I cannot help feeling, my love, as if our dear departed Saint might have wished——"
"But!" cried Kitty, again, as after promising gratefully to think it over, she took her way to Cheeseman's, "the dear, kind, darling things! Nobody seems to realize that I have come home, to my own house!"