These things and many more happened in the winter; in February, to be exact. A month later, when I came to make my annual visit in beloved Cyrus, things had "simpered down," as Mr. Mallow said. The excitement of Kitty's arrival, followed by the nine days' wonder of Miss Johanna Ross's return, were—not forgotten, no indeed! but laid away in spiritual camphor, as it were, to be aired and shaken out from time to time.
"My dear," said Madam Flynt (one's first visit was always to Madam Flynt, one's second to the Misses Bygood: it was a Propriety of Cyrus!)—"it is not only that we could not get along without Kitty: we have forgotten that we ever did get along without her. She drives too fast; I go in fear of my life when we turn a corner; but except for that, it is an ideal arrangement."
"The dear Doctor always drove fast!" Miss Croly looked up pensively from her knitting. "I suppose Kitty learned it naturally from him."
"I suppose she did; but the dear Doctor never broke my neck, Cornelia Croly."
"Kitty has not broken it, Clarissa, has she?"
[pg 99] "Not yet, and I don't mean she shall. Where are you going, Cornelia?"
"To get your milk-posset!" Miss Croly was rolling up her knitting methodically. "It is four o'clock."
"I don't want milk-posset: get me some orange-juice!"
"The Doctor recommended milk-posset!" Miss Croly's tone was mild, but firm. "I will try to make it palatable, Clarissa."
"I tell you I won't have it! Whose house is this, I should like to know?"
"Yours, assuredly, Clarissa. I can leave it at any moment you desire, but while here I must do my duty as I see it."
"What a pretty scarf, Miss Croly!" I said hastily. How natural to be a buffer again! "Is it for a baby?"
Madam Flynt uttered something between a snort and a chuckle.
"Baby, indeed! I don't wonder you ask, my dear. Tell her what it's for, Cornelia Croly!"
"For the deep-sea fishermen, my love!" Miss Croly glowed softly. "Most people send them gray mufflers, you know, but I feel as if a little variety, a touch of color, in their dangerous lives, would be desirable. The ocean! so grand, but so fraught with peril!"
"In a storm, you understand," Madam Flynt actually snorted this time; "a pink, blue and yellow muffler would be more comforting than a gray one. Of course! Any one can see that!"
"You are pleased to be facetious, my dear Clarissa;" Miss Croly paused, her hand on the door; [pg 100] "but I conceive that in case of disaster, the attention of a—of a bark of rescue would be more readily attracted by the waving of a bright object than of a dull one!"
She slipped out quickly and shut the door quietly upon the last word. Madam Flynt looked after her with an air of exasperation.
"The most provoking woman—I have half a mind to call her back! What were you saying, my dear?"
I was saying as quickly as I could how very well Madam Flynt was looking. I hoped the rheumatism was fairly routed this time. The dear lady's brow cleared at once.
"Much better! I am bound to say that it is much better than I ever expected it to be. Cornelia Croly, who has really more sense than you would give her credit for"—she cast another exasperated glance at the door—"says that I seem ten years younger, and I certainly do move much more freely than I have for years. It is partly the driving: Kitty is a delightful companion, you know, and she keeps me out a good part of the afternoon, instead of skimping the last ten minutes of the hour, as Flanagan did—old wretch! His carriage was uncomfortable, too, and as for his horses! Every day he would ask regularly whether I would have 'the plain hoss or the double-speeder:' the double-speeder went about four miles an hour; as for the other—well, he's dead, and Flanagan, too, so no matter. John Tucker's horses, and the cee springs, and Kitty and all, makes driving a very different matter, I can tell you. But besides that, my dear, I verily [pg 101] believe"—Madam Flynt nodded this time, till her green cap ribbons quivered—"I verily believe Johanna has something to do with it!"
Well, I had only arrived the day before, and Kitty was out when I flew into Ross House on my way to Madam Flynt's: going to Kitty's did not count as a visit, of course!
"You don't mean you haven't heard? My dear!" Madam Flynt's handsome hands were trembling with eagerness, her lips began to shape the words before she could find voice to utter them. "You don't mean you haven't heard?" she repeated. Madam Flynt was no gossip, but she loved to talk, and going out so little, she had fewer opportunities than the Gadderenes, as Dr. Ross used to call some of his neighbors. One's first visit was made to her, as I have said: but ten to one Cissy Sharpe or her mother had waylaid one on the way from the station, with "Oh, howdy do! quite a stranger! Have you heard"—and before getting free one had heard.
"Johanna Ross—Kitty's aunt, the Doctor's only sister; very likely you never heard of her, my dear, just visiting as you do"—(Oh, Madam Flynt! as if I were not Cyrus born and bred, and exiled through no fault of mine!)—"but—well, anyhow, she has come home after twenty years of absence; and what is more she has taken to her bed, and there she is!"
Madam Flynt drew herself up and nodded gravely: the green satin cap ribbons following suit.
[pg 102] "Is she seriously ill?" I asked, wondering.
"My dear! she says there is nothing whatever the matter with her except fatigue. I can understand that!" she nodded again. "Perfectly. One doesn't always care to discuss chronic or deep-seated troubles. Sometimes when people say 'rheumatism' to me, I want to throw the fire-irons at them. I don't mean you, my dear; perfectly natural and right for you to ask; I should have been hurt if you hadn't. Well! there Johanna is, as I said. I go over to see her once a week—walk over, with the step of youth, Cornelia Croly says, and there I find her in her bed, looking as permanent as the Pyramids."
At this moment Miss Croly came in softly with the milk-posset. Madam Flynt took it with an absent-minded, "Thanks, Cornelia!" drank it off, then paused with a look of discomfiture.
"I told you I wouldn't take it!" she said sharply.
"Your natural good sense"—murmured Miss Croly with a glance at the empty cup—"the Doctor recommended——"
"Hang the Doctor! and you, too!" exclaimed Madam Flynt. "You—you—you—go away, Cornelia Croly! go and"—Miss Croly was already at the door, aggressive meekness in every line of face and figure—"and bring me my smelling-salts, if you will have the goodness!"
The last words were spoken with austere dignity: but, the door once closed, Madam Flynt's sense of humor was too much for her. Her lips began to twitch, her eyes to twinkle even under the bent brows [pg 103] of anger. She struggled for a moment, then burst into a hearty fit of laughter.
"The old fox!" she cried. "She gets the better of me every time! every time, Mary! She's chuckling to herself now, but she'll come in as sober as—thank you, Cornelia! I hope you haven't over-exerted yourself!" as Miss Croly, still aggressively meek, retired to a corner with her rainbow scarf. Dear me! yes, she always sat in that uncomfortable chair when they had had a tiff.
"What was I saying, my dear?" Madam Flynt rubbed her nose with her silver spectacle-case, and threw a vexed glance toward the corner.
"Oh, yes, Johanna! like the Pyramids, my dear, I assure you! I don't mean in looks" (I had a moment's vision of Cheops with a nightcap tilted over his apex) "she looks like a picture—but in permanence. Sits up morning and evening to have her bed made: and, as Cornelia Croly says, in some mysterious way it makes me feel younger just to look at her. Cornelia, stop being ridiculous, and come out of that corner. I didn't really swear at you, though you are enough to make one."
Seeing reconciliation imminent, I slipped away, to find my Kitty in the stable. My Kitty! I was just as foolish about her as any one else. I had not seen her since all the happenings, but by and by we were quiet and comfortable, and combing out Pilot's beautiful mane, as if we had never been away, either of us. Kitty confided to me that she was awaiting John Tucker's return in trepidation, not to say terror. She [pg 104] had bought a new horse, bought it all by herself, without John Tucker's seeing it. That is, not actually bought it, but taken it on trial.
"How could I? Mary, I don't know! We had decided that we must have a third horse. The business is growing so, my dear! Mr. Chanter's horse is lame, and I have to take the dear man on his out-of-town calls. Such fun! well, this morning—oh! oh! Mary! here is John Tucker. Now I must confess to him. Stay by me, won't you?"
Dan and John Tucker came into the stable, a sturdy, handsome pair. I was warmly greeted (I, too, had been Don Tutter's Dal when time was) and allowed to lead Dan into his stall. I hurried to the harness room in time to hear Kitty's confession, she standing like a schoolgirl with her hands behind her, John Tucker in that state of glowing pride in her that he could hardly take in the situation.
"John Tucker, dear, I have bought a horse!"
"You have, Miss Kitty? You have? Well, to be sure! the spirit of you! I'll bet he's a good one."
"He's a miracle, John! A beautiful bright bay, with a star on his forehead, and four white stockings; you know I never could abide odd stockings."
"No, Miss! To be sure not. Where did you get him, if I may make so bold, Miss Kitty?"
"Don't talk about making bold, John Tucker. It's I who have been making bold. I am scared out of my wits, you know I am, but he is such a beauty! Let's sit down, John Tucker dear, and I'll tell you all about it."
[pg 105] Perched sidewise on the arm of a chair, her hands clasped on her knee, her chin tilted up, Kitty was so enchanting an object that I could not wonder at John Tucker's fatuous expression. Probably if she had told him of the purchase of a giraffe or an elephant, he would have looked no less fatuous. As it was——
"You see, John," Kitty began slowly, taking out a hatpin and jabbing it into the arm of the chair to punctuate her remarks, "I took Mr. Chanter to see a poor old Thing who is sick, and in trouble besides; sad trouble, I'm afraid. Her son hasn't been doing well lately; but—well—he is a good son to her, only he has been unfortunate. He deals in horses——"
John Tucker looked up. "What was the name, did you say, Miss?"
"I didn't say, John Tucker dear, but the name is Boody; Mrs. L. M. Boody. Her son is L. M., too. I don't know——"
"Ellum Boody: Slippery Ellum!" murmured John Tucker. "Scuse me, Miss Kitty. Luke his name is, but he's known like I say. Scuse me, Miss Kitty!"
"Oh, I hope he isn't slippery, John Tucker, dear. Let me tell you! I was sitting out in Mr. Chanter's buggy, when he—Boody, I mean—drove into the yard with this horse. His name is Hero, John; good name, don't you think? I was taken with him at once; such a beautiful color, and holds his head so well! The man touched his hat, and was very civil; I said how handsome the horse was, and he was most enthusiastic. Said he had never had such a fine horse in his stable, and he wouldn't part with him for a gold [pg 106] mine if things weren't just as they were. So I asked was he thinking of selling him, because you know we decided we had to have one, John; and he said yes, if the right party could be found. 'For sell that hoss to the wrong party is what I couldn't do, not if he was the Angel Gable!' he said. Then I asked about him, you know; six years old, sound and kind, a lady's horse every inch of him, Boody said, and wouldn't I like to take a turn behind him while I waited. So I did, and he is a good roadster, John; eight or ten miles an hour, I should think; Boody says twelve, but I'm not sure——" I glanced at John Tucker and saw that he was not sure. "Good action! lifts his feet a little high, but Boody says that is his spirit; and as to his disposition, John, just think what he did one day! Some women hired him, Boody says, and put him in their own wagon, and forgot to fasten the breeching. They drove him seven miles over that rough road by Gambrel Hill, all ups and downs, you know, and he never did a thing! What do you think of that, John Tucker?"
"Sounds as if he might be some hoss!" said John Tucker cautiously. "You've took him on trial, you say, Miss Kitty?"
"Yes, John, a week. I thought in that time—why, here he is now, this very minute!"
A man was driving into the yard in a light trotting sulky. We all hastened out into the yard.
"You were quick, Mr. Boody!" cried Kitty. "This is Mr. Boody, John Tucker, and this is Hero: isn't he a beauty?"
[pg 107] "Mornin', Slip!"
Both men spoke gravely. Seeing that they knew each other, Kitty exchanged a glance with me, and we slipped back a pace. Followed remarks on the weather. It was seasonable, take it by and large, but dry. What we wanted was a nice warm rain. That was right; dry May made poor hay, no two ways to that. John Tucker, still grave, inquired for the health of Mr. Boody's Ma; he trusted she was smart these days. It appeared that she was slim, Mr. Boody was obliged to John Tucker for askin'. Her victuals didn't nourish her: any one gettin' on in years, they had to be nourished, you understand. John Tucker expected that was right, too. Upon this, both men pondered; John Tucker scrutinizing a wart on his left knuckle, Mr. Boody whistling through his teeth and looking up at the clouds. Presently:
"Got a new hoss, I see!" said John Tucker.
"Yep!" Mr. Boody's gaze came down with alacrity. "The lady thought she'd like to try him. Best hoss ever I had in my stable, bar none. Pequot out of Lady Lansing: sound and kind anywhere; lady's hoss every inch of him. Rising six, and not an out about him. You get that hoss and you'll get——"
Boody paused abruptly. John Tucker had lifted one of the bay's hind feet, and was examining it carefully. Presently he straightened himself and looked at Boody.
"I was to Rochester Fair last fall!" he said.
"You was?" A curious change came over Mr. [pg 108] Boody's countenance. It seemed to flatten itself in a singular way, while his mouth widened into an uneasy grin. "Pooty good show, wasn't it?" he said.
"Pooty fair! good truck, and middlin' stock. The most re-markable thing I see at that fair"—John Tucker spoke slowly, and there was a certain metallic quality in his voice that made Kitty look at him quickly—"the most re-markable was a young hoss; bright bay, as it might be this hoss: same color, same markin's; he was a pictur' to look at, he sure was. Well, sir, I see that hoss take and kick the wagon he was hitched to into pieces that the biggest of 'em wouldn't sell to a match factory. I was surprised!"
There was a silence. Then L. M. Boody spoke, a hint of bluster in his voice.
"Wal!" he said. "A kicker is a poor hoss, sure enough; but all kickers ain't bay, nor all bays ain't kickers. I brung this hoss for the lady to try, like she said for me to. Where shall I leave him? Is she boss here, or are you?"
His speech was insolent, his look craven. John Tucker stepped forward, his sixty years resting very lightly on him. His meditative drawl gave place to quick, ringing speech.
"Miss Ross is boss here," he said, "and that hoss shall go anywhere she tells me to put him. Before she gives her orders, she's going to hear what I have to say—if you have the time to spare, Miss—Miss Ross!" He turned to Kitty with a bow and gesture that would not have shamed a court. Kitty's cheeks were flushing and her eyes widening and darkening. [pg 109] One knew precisely what the Chanters meant by saying that her eyes were sometimes a mile round.
"If you please, John!" she said quietly.
Then John Tucker, standing very straight, thus delivered himself.
"Miss Kitty, I'm a common man, and I may be mistook; but if I know anything—anything at all, let alone hosses—this young hoss is that identical young hoss that I see kick that shay to slivers over to Rochester. How do I know? Well, his color is the same, his markin's is the same, his shape and his action is the same. But that ain't all! That young hoss over to Rochester, he was a pictur' fer looks, same as this one; but yet when I looked in his countenance, I felt someways or another as if I couldn't say nothin' favorable about him. Don't know how 'tis, but that feelin' 'll come over me, 'bout a hoss or 'bout a bein', 'cordin' to; and when it comes, I know it's right. Now that same feelin' has come over me about this young hoss. And why?" John Tucker's voice rose. "Because he is the same hoss! But that ain't all!" as Mr. Boody was about to speak. "You might say one bust don't set a hoss down a kicker. That is so, but I say this ain't a case of one bust; I say this hoss has been kickin' within twenty-four hours."
"Like to see you prove it!" said Boody. "Easy there, Hero! He knows you're slanderin' him. You can't fool this hoss. You'll get into trouble, John Tucker. I'll have the law of you if——"
The horse had laid back his ears, and was settling back in a curious way.
[pg 110] "Look out!" said John Tucker sharply.
Boody, with a muttered curse and a savage look, laid his whip heavily over the horse's withers. The animal hesitated a moment, then sprang forward; another moment, and they had vanished round the corner in a cloud of dust.
John Tucker turned to Kitty with an apologetic air.
"I'm sorry, Miss Kitty!" he said. "I'm real sorry. I would of if I could——"
"Oh, John Tucker, don't!" Kitty was scarlet, her eyes flashing, her hands clenched. "The horrid man! Oh, I am so grateful to you, John! But how did you know?"
"Well, Miss Kitty, you see, 'twas easy enough, look at it one way. I'd seed the hoss before, seed him at his tricks, too. Yes'm: I'd seed him before, and—" a joke began to twinkle in John Tucker's eyes, and spread all over him till he became incandescent; you could have lighted a match at him; "and now I've seed him behind! haw! haw! You see me lift up his off hind foot? Well, why did I do that? Because when he shifted his footin' I see a spark of yeller. Come to look, and lo ye, his hoof was kind o' crushed in above the shoe, where he'd struck iron, and there was a flake of yellow paint on it big as my thumb nail."
"And he knew that!" Kitty was pale now, not with fear but with anger. "The scoundrel!"
"Well!" John Tucker pulled out his jack-knife and made a thoughtful incision in the door-jamb. "I dono as I'd just say that; I dono as he's a scoundrel; he's a trader! I've heard it said,—I dono as it's so, and I [pg 111] dono as it is—but I've heard it said that there ain't no one, not even a minister of the Gospel, a holy man, but what he'll stretch the truth just a little grain in a hoss trade."
John Tucker closed his jack-knife with a snap. "Forget it, Miss Kitty!" he said, and his tone expressed finality. "You won't have no more trouble with Slippery Ellum. He thought he'd try it on, that's all, to keep his hand in, like; tradin' is like drink to him. Hark! there's that hen again!"
"What hen, John?"
John Tucker chuckled and made a gesture of caution.
"Now I'll show ye something curious, gals. I would say young ladies. You hear that hen cackle? Well, it's that little Brown Leghorn. She's made her nest in Dan's manger, and she won't lay nowhere else, not if the President was to ask her. Easy now! Don't let Dan see you!"
Cautiously, we followed him into the stable, flattening ourselves against the wall so that we could not be seen from the loose boxes; very cautiously we peeped round the window opening. Dan, wisest of horses since old Victory died, was standing in the middle of the box, every fibre of him alert, his eyes fixed on a corner of the manger. In this corner sat a Brown Leghorn hen, proclaiming to the world that she had laid an egg. Having made this perfectly clear, she rose slowly from her nest, clucked, cocked an approving eye at the egg, clapped her wings, said, "Scraw!" several times, finally hopped down to the [pg 112] barn floor and departed, presumably in search of corn. In a flash, Dan's velvet nose was in the nest. Carefully he lipped the egg, daintily he took it in his teeth; a crack, a gulp; luncheon was over, and Dan looked up as we advanced, with eyes of innocent welcome.
"Why, Dan!" cried Kitty. "You old fox! Do you mean that he does this regularly, John?"
"Reg'lar every day since she begun to lay. I'd ought to stop him, but honest, he's so cute, and so quick, I'd need to spend the mornin' watchin'!"
"Sugar, please!" said Dan. "I am very hungry!"
"You really ought to be ashamed, Dan." Kitty was searching in her pocket. "You are extremely greedy, beloved. You shall have only one lump, and Pilot shall have two, because he has had no egg. Oh, me! there is the supper bell. We must run, Mary!"
Sarepta, at the kitchen door, bell in hand, addressed us with severity.
"Supper's ready, girls. Come in just as you are, Kitty, or the waffles will be leathery. Hasten, now!"
"Mary," said Kitty, as we scurried across the yard, "do you suppose I shall ever be more than ten years old, in blessed Cyrus?"