Kitty had her dinner alone, for Nelly Chanter's school was at some distance.
"Besides," said Sarepta, "I only asked her to come for breakfast and supper and nights. You'd want some time to yourself, I told her."
Sarepta stood in the doorway, her hands folded in her apron, while Kitty ate her excellent little dinner soberly and thoughtfully. She had no idea of slighting Sarepta's cookery; she had a good appetite, and even if she hadn't, there must be no hurting of feelings.
"The pudding is delicious, Sarepta! And—they all want me to come and live with them!"
"H'm!" Sarepta's sniff was eloquent. Kitty went on, crumbling her bread thoughtfully:
"Madam Flynt, Judge Peters, the Miss Bygoods, the Chanters——"
She smiled, still hearing the affectionate shouts and shrieks of that friendly circle, still seeing the dining-room where she had found them all, Mrs. Chanter ladling out chowder, beaming on her clamorous brood, [pg 68] Mr. Chanter with half an eye on his plate, and one and a half on the dog's-eared Thucydides beside him. How affectionate they were; what good friends! "And Mr. Mallow wants me to keep house for him, Sarepta; think of it! Why, he has always said he wouldn't have any woman gormineering over him; ever since I can remember he has said that. And now he thinks he would be as comfortable as old Tilley if I would come and be his lady housekeeper! Who was old Tilley, Sarepta?"
"Some other old fool, I expect!" Sarepta was very grim. "If you asked me, I should say Marsh Mallow was a little wantin'. The idea!"
"The funny thing is, none of them seems to realize that I have a home of my own! Isn't it funny, Sarepta? So dear and kind, every one of them—why, I am so full of gratefulness I couldn't hold any more!—but how can they think I would leave my own dear darling home?"
Sarepta Darwin drew a long breath, and blinked fiercely. If it had been any one but Sarepta, one would have said there were tears in those pale blue eyes, but of course Sarepta never shed tears.
"Then you calc'late to stay on here!" she spoke dryly, but there was something in her tone that made Kitty look up quickly.
"Why, Sarepta, of course I do! What else should I do! Don't be a goose, Sarepta dear!"
She got up and gave Sarepta a little hug: she might as well have hugged the door for all outward response, but that did not matter.
[pg 69] "Who—what is that, Sarepta?" she demanded, as a figure came up the path. "It looks like a postman!"
"Is! we've had d'liv'ry for a year past!"
There was exultation in Sarepta's voice. Next to the well-being of Ross House and its inmates, she lived for the greater glory of Cyrus.
"Why, it's Bingo!"
Kitty was at the front door in a flash, greeting a highly embarrassed youth in gray uniform. "Bingo, how do you do? To think of your being postman! How splendid!"
"Pleased to see you!" muttered Adolphus Evander Byng, who had never had any benefit of his fine name, but was called Addy Evy for long and Bingo for short, as Tom used to say. "Hope I see you well. Letter for you! Goo'day!"
Thus Bingo, hurling himself away from the door, as if he had not been looking forward all day to this moment; as if he had not solemnly promised his Aunt Miny, who "dressmade" as we say in Cyrus, to notice every single thing Kitty Ross had on, coming straight from Paris that way. There was a painful scene that evening at the Byng cottage. Gray dress? Well, what kind of a gray dress? Was it silk, or wool, or melange? Did it do up behind? Was it made D'rectory? Was there gores in the skirt? Here Addy Evy fled to the barn, and his Aunt Miny did think he was real mean; she despised any one who hadn't eyes in his head, be he man or woman: there!
Kitty came back with her letter, turning it over, as [pg 70] people do, before opening it. A large square envelope, superscribed in a stiff, official-looking hand.
"From Aunt Johanna!" she said. "It is surely her hand. I wonder——"
She opened the letter; read it; looked up with a dazed expression at Sarepta, who was lingering by the door with an air of elaborate detachment.
"Why, Sarepta! why——"
"Well," Sarepta's tone was incisive, to say the least.
"It has been delayed!" Kitty looked at the envelope. "Missent to 'Cyrene'! I should think so. Why, Sarepta, this was written a week ago! She's coming to-day!"
"Who's comin'? Not Johanna Ross?"
"Yes!" Kitty rose in agitation and began instinctively straightening everything in the room.
"You no need to do that!" Sarepta spoke grimly, with looks to match. "I went to school with Johanna Ross. She comin' to-day, you say? How long she goin' to stay?"
"She says—I'll read it to you.
"My Dear Kitty,
"I am retiring from business and should like to make you a visit if agreeable. Ask Sarepta to find a young girl to take care of me. Unless otherwise advised, expect me at 2.30 Saturday P. M.
"Affectionately yours, Johanna Ross
"Sarepta, it's two o'clock now! What room shall we put her in? I can't think——"
[pg 71] Kitty's voice was trembling, her cheeks flushed. Seeing this, Sarepta assumed her dryest manner and tone.
"Put her in the Red Injun room. It's all ready: I cleaned it last week."
"Of course!" Kitty's brow lightened. "Clever Sarepta! The Red Indian room will be just the thing. Let's come up and look at it! Of course it's all right, but actually I haven't been in it. Why, I haven't been here two days, Sarepta!"
Her voice quivered again, but she mastered it, and hurried upstairs with Sarepta close behind her.
"I wouldn't let Johanna Ross put me out," Sarepta remarked, apparently addressing the stair-rail, "not for one quarter of a second."
Kitty made no reply. Sarepta, who certainly was "no canny," Kitty often thought, appeared to read her thought through the back of her head.
"But you needn't be scared," she went on. "I know my place. I'm just freein' my mind, so to speak. I went to school with Johanna, and I know her like a book. She's a fine woman in spots, and she's Doctor's sister. I know my place, and she knows hers; you no need to be scared."
Kitty turned and flashed such a look of mingled relief and thankfulness that Sarepta almost stumbled.
"Go on up!" she said austerely.
Before ever I saw the Red Indian room, I used to think—hearing it casually mentioned by Kitty or Tom—it was in some way connected with the North American Indians. I used to wonder about it: whether [pg 72] it were shaped and furnished like a wigwam; whether Indians had ever lived in it; whether—dreadful thought, born of too-early reading of Parkman's histories—there had been a Massacre there! I remember that when Kitty proposed a visit to it one day, as being the most convenient way of attaining the barn roof, I inwardly shrank and cowered, dreading what might meet my eyes. The relief of the first glance is still with me.
Dr. Ross's grandfather had been a sea-captain, and had brought home from China a wonderful toilet set of Red India china. There it was, still perfect, not so much as a cover broken; there it is to-day, I trust. The room had been furnished to match the set, with hangings and cushions, bedspread, etcetera, of Eastern cotton, almost the exact shade of warm dull red; the chairs were lacquered in the same tint. An enchanting room! And its possibilities! Not only did one of its windows give access to the barn roof, but the little red-lacquered door beside the fireplace opened upon the Secret Staircase, the pride of Kitty's heart, the envy of every other child in Cyrus. A little winding, breakneck stair, burrowing down in the thickness of the chimney casing. You could come out in the sitting-room if you wished, but we never did; the staircase burrowed still further downward, and the cellar was far more exciting.
"'Twill suit with Johanna's looks!" said Sarepta, after a critical survey of the room. "Come to think of it, I believe she had this room when she was a gal. It'll be real handy for her, bathroom and all to [pg 73] herself, and no need to bother you. Yes, I expect she'll like it. Hark!"
The sound of wheels. Kitty fled down the stairs, Sarepta scuttling behind her as fast as dignity allowed, and threw open the front door.
"Aunt Johanna! Come in! come in! How good of you to come!"
"But you wish I hadn't, eh? Never mind, Kitty! Will John Tucker see to my trunks? How are you, Sarepta?"
Miss Johanna Ross might be forty-five, but looked younger. A tall, fine figure of a woman, with dark eyes and hair, the former of a singularly piercing quality. Kitty felt, she told Nelly Chanter afterward, as if at the first glance her spinal marrow had been investigated. She was handsomely and fashionably dressed, and carried a satchel of the latest mode. Her voice was deep-toned, her speech as incisive as Sarepta's own, her gestures and carriage impressive. Such was the lady who now confronted Kitty in the sitting room.
"You got my letter last week?" she said. "Has Sarepta got a young woman for me?"
"No, Aunt Johanna. The letter was missent, you see: it only came an hour ago."
"Missent? Inexcusable! I'll write to the Post Office Department. Well! I may as well explain matters at once, Kitty; Sarepta, you'd better wait a minute, as this concerns you also."
Miss Ross sat down on the leather sofa, and looked thoughtfully from Kitty to Sarepta, and back again. [pg 74] "I haven't been here for twenty years," she said. "I am actually glad I came!" She seemed surprised at this, and pondered a moment. Sarepta sniffed slightly: Kitty was silent, hardly knowing what to say.
"I have retired from business," Miss Ross went on in a clear, explanatory voice, "because I am tired. I intend to take to my bed—What is it?" She paused: Kitty had uttered a cry of surprise.
"Nothing, Aunt Johanna. Did I understand—are you ill, Aunt Johanna?"
"Not in the least. I have never been ill in my life, except for measles at the age of five. I tell you I am tired, and I intend to take to my bed. For twenty years," Miss Ross went on, still more explanatorily, "I have been Rug and Tapestry Expert for Kostly and Richmore:" she named one of the great houses of New York. "During these twenty years I have been on my feet all day, and often half the night. I have now retired—on a competence—and, as I said before, I intend to take to my bed. I am used to wholesale ways," she added with a smile. "I have worked in a wholesale way; now I mean to rest in a wholesale way. Have you found me a maid, Sarepta?"
"Land sakes!" cried Sarepta, throwing her hands out in indignant protest. "Why, it ain't an hour since we heard you was coming!"
"True!" Miss Ross paused and considered. "Well! I suppose you can find me one?"
"I dunno as I can, and I dunno as I can!" replied Sarepta cautiously. "What do you want of her, Miss Ross?"
[pg 75] Miss Ross laughed outright, a merry laugh which somehow transformed her rather sharp face.
"To take care of me, Miss Darwin! You don't suppose I expected you to take care of me, do you? Find me a young girl, whom I can order about, and send on errands and bully, and throw things at. I couldn't throw the bolster at you, Miss Darwin!"
"You might try!" Sarepta replied with a grim chuckle, and a distinct softening of the frosty manner which had been upon her ever since the visitor entered. She looked at Kitty. "Jenny Tucker might do!" she said doubtfully. "She's sixteen, and takes after her father more than the rest."
"Jenny! That's a good name to call," Miss Ross nodded approvingly. "John Tucker's daughter, is she? That's good, too. John and I were always friends. Is she pretty?"
"Pretty enough, I guess."
"Then send for her, will you? I won't go to bed now, Kitty. You shall come and help me unpack, and we'll have supper together—if Miss Darwin approves——" she threw a quizzical glance at Sarepta, who gave a snort and vanished—"and a cosy evening by the fire. You shall tell me everything you like, my dear, and nothing you don't like, and at ten o'clock I shall go to bed and stay there."
"Yes, my dear! How delightful this room is! What is it, Kitty?"
"Do you mean—do you think of taking a long rest, or only a few days?"
[pg 76] "One year!" said Miss Ross crisply. Kitty gasped. "That is, if I find it suits me. Six months anyhow, to give it a full trial. That seems sensible, eh?" She looked up sharply. "Eh?" she repeated.
"Oh, I—suppose so!" stammered Kitty. "Only—it seems a very long time, Aunt Johanna. You see, I have never been ill."
"Nor tired!" Miss Ross spoke in short, sharp jerks, throwing up her chin with each remark. "You think you have been tired, but you haven't. I tell you, the marrow is withered in my bones. You say I don't look it, and I don't; every one says so. Last month, one of our partners asked me to open a branch in Nijninovgorod; said I looked strong enough for that or anything. Last week," this astonishing lady went on, "another of 'em asked me to marry him, because I looked as if I could take good care of him. That settled it! 'I'll take to my bed!' says I; and here I am. Well! that's enough about me. Now about you! Poor little White Rose couldn't stay any longer, could she? No! not to be expected. She couldn't live without John; she had merged her existence in his, you see. You did all you could, and the look you have of John probably kept her alive till now; but it couldn't last. No! So here you are, with Sarepta and John Tucker—and me!" she added with a sharp, quizzical glance. "What are your ideas? What are your plans? Is there any money left?"
Kitty told her quietly what there was: told, too, of Sarepta's and John Tucker's earnings and of the proposed partnership with the latter. She found it singularly [pg 77] easy to talk to this relative whom she had hitherto known so slightly and seen so seldom. Miss Ross sat bolt upright on the sofa, listening intently, nodding emphatic approval from time to time.
"Excellent!" she said, when Kitty had finished her story. "Admirable! With my board money and your earnings, you ought to be able to lay by, my dear."
"Oh, Aunt Johanna!" Kitty lifted a shocked face. "I couldn't—you mustn't think of such a thing. Why, this is your own home, where you were born! Why should you pay board here?"
"Little goose, why do you suppose I came here? Why didn't I go to a Rest Cure? 'Because,' I said, 'why pay good money to strangers and harpies when I can pay it to my own lawful niece in my own—not precisely lawful, because it belongs to her—but my natural home?' Enough about that. Besides, there was another reason. I wanted to do what I wanted, Kitty! For twenty years I have lived in a mold, worked in a mold, spoken in a mold, smiled in a mold. Now the mold is broken. I want to be able, if I feel like it, to fling open all the windows in this house—there are forty of them, I believe—and scream out of each one. Can you understand that?"
"Perfectly!" cried Kitty kindling.
"Exactly! You are a Ross, I see. Well! I shall not be likely to do that, because I shall be in my bed; but if I did, or whatever I might do, the neighbors would just say, 'Johanna! always peculiar!' and there would be an end of it."
[pg 78] "Aunt Johanna!" Kitty came and sat down by her aunt. "Do you know what I think?"
"No, my dear, unless you think I am mad. I'm not, only a bit cracked, like most people."
"I think you are a dear! I think—I should like to give you a hug!"
Suiting the action to the word, Kitty threw her arms round her aunt, who returned the embrace heartily.
"Good little girl!" she said, and her clear emphatic voice was rather husky. "Nice little girl! We shall get on famously together."
"And—" Kitty's eyes were opening very wide, as they always did when a new idea dawned upon her. "Why, Aunt Johanna, you are just like all the rest, only reversed."
"What do you mean, Kitty? Speak English, child!"
"Why, every one in the village, all the dear friends and neighbors, want me to come and live with them. Madam Flynt, Judge Peters, Miss Bygoods, the Chanters—and Mr. Mallow"—Kitty broke into a little crow of laughter—"wants me to be his housekeeper and matron! Well! and now you come, with the same dear wish to help me, at the other end. And, oh!" Kitty, jumping up, clapped her hands and actually began to dance, "Don't you see, Aunt Johanna, here is my answer to them all. They were all so kind, and so urgent, I didn't know what to say to them, though of course nothing would have induced me to leave my dear darling home. But now, don't you see, I can't go to any of them, because of——"
[pg 79] "Because of bedridden aunt! Precisely. Johanna ex machina. I learned my Latin of Mr. Bygood, my dear; he taught at the Academy when I was a girl. Well! so that is all settled. They all wanted my little niece, eh? And I've stolen a march on 'em. Ha! ha! and now, Kitty, I should like to see my room and unpack a bit. I thought possibly, my dear, you might spare me the Red Indian room, which used to be mine, but I can sleep anywhere."
"It is all ready for you!" cried Kitty joyously. "Oh, Aunt Johanna, you are a dear, and you really belong, and I am so happy!"
The last band snapped from Kitty's heart, and she led the way joyously upstairs.