Mrs. Wibird and Melissa had a hard time of it for the next few days. No part of Wilson's bodily frame had been hurt, except his nose, which had encountered something hard and was swollen to the size and shape of a potato; but his feelings in general and his pride in particular had suffered grievous injury. After one glance in the mirror, the morning after the party, he fled back to his bed, and remained there for some hours; but his room was cold, and by afternoon he was downstairs in the sitting-room, with his back to the light, and his feet on the baseburner stove. No one was to be let in, he informed his mother peremptorily. He wouldn't be seen by any one, a sight like this. Mrs. Wibird, suggesting a flaxseed poultice, was waved away angrily. All he asked, he announced, was to be left alone. This meant that his mother must sit either in the kitchen or in a cold bedroom: she chose the former alternative, and repaired thither meekly with her sewing, leaving her son to nurse his injuries in solitude.
His nose! if it had been anything else! A gash on the brow, or a cut on the cheek, which might look, when healed, like a Scar of Battle: either of them [pg 168] might have been displayed with equanimity, even with pride; might be accounted for in a dozen ways. But a swollen and crimson nose! Wilson groaned and clenched his teeth. He was proud of his nose, which was of the beak variety: he called it his commanding feature. He often, in fancy, read descriptions of his appearance in the leading journals of the country. "A glance at this eminent man shows a commanding nose and an indomitable chin." All great men had large noses; his nose was large; the conclusion was not far to seek.
As a matter of fact, Wilson Wibird was a degenerate shoot from a stock once good. In Colonial days the Wibirds had been prominent among public-spirited citizens; had fought at Bunker Hill, valiantly enough; had held responsible positions, and been commemorated in sounding epitaphs. Little by little the race had dwindled, peaked and pined to its present state. Wilson's father had been postmaster, a meek, sandy little man whom everybody liked and was sorry for, because he had no "faculty." In the son, Nature had played one of her freaks, endowing him with the ambitions (and the features, if you will! it certainly was a good big nose, and his chin was, as Mr. Mallow said, as stubborn as a mule's jaw!) of a Tamburlane, and the abilities of a grocer's clerk in a very small way. The ability of a hotel clerk he did not possess, in Mr. Mallow's opinion.
Deeply as he felt the injury to his commanding feature, deeper injuries still rankled in Wilson's breast. He knew perfectly well that Kitty had tipped [pg 169] him out on purpose. He resented it bitterly. Some twisted fibre of his once hard-bitted race was in him, making him cling like a limpet to any idea he once took up. Instead of relinquishing his quest, he was all the more intent upon it. He would show the proud girl what it meant to spurn a Wibird. She should be his none the less, but he would subdue her will to his. She should fly to him like a fondling bird, fawn upon him like a spaniel. Once humbled, he would take her to his heart, would raise her to his side. "Ha!" he would say. Wilson loved to say, "Ha!" "You sought to escape me, little one! You fluttered in the net, you pecked at the strong hand that held you; but all the time your fate was here, your fate was here, where it has always been!"
Wilson had recently read "Lorna Doone," and been much struck by some of Carver Doone's expressions.
The day passed heavily for both mother and son. Toward evening, Melissa entered, fresh from the Library. She had had a happy day; all the girls had been in, and they had talked over the party to their hearts' content. Everybody told Melissa how well she looked, and how pretty her dress was. When Nelly Chanter added that Bobby had said she looked "out of sight," Melissa's little cup overflowed, and she—hush! never let it be told—but Nelly took out a new book before it had been listed! Melissa being as a rule a most conscientious little soul, and moreover a librarian "not trained, but gifted," this action was eloquent, if unjustifiable. She came home full of compassion for Wilson, and with a bag of the [pg 170] cinnamon buns he specially liked, to "liven up" his supper.
"Poor Wilson!" she said, "how is your poor nose? Have you had a tiresome day? I brought you the second volume of 'The Maid of Sker.'"
Wilson growled something unintelligible and hunched his shoulders over the stove.
"My! it's stuffy here!" Melissa went on. "Shan't I open the window for a minute? It's real warm out!'
"You shall not! If you find the room stuffy, you needn't stay in it. It does seem as if a man might have a little peace in his own house. Shut the door, will you?"
Melissa retired to the kitchen; her mother looked up anxiously.
"How does he seem, Lissy? I haven't been in. I thought he might be asleep."
"He's awful cross!" pouted Lissy. "Snapped me up like I was a bone!"
"I expect he's feeling mean!" Mrs. Wibird spoke depreciatingly. "His nose must be dreadful sore; and his feelings—he is so sensitive! I do think Kitty Ross ought to be had up for driving that way!"
"Now, mother! Don't you say a word against Kitty! Wilson oughtn't to have asked her to bring him home, tired as she was, and after midnight, too. He ought to have walked, as the other boys did. I hear Bobby Chanter said——"
Here the door opened, and Wilson appeared, his [pg 171] small eyes glaring fiercely, though inadequately, over his crimson potato-nose.
"I am going to bed!" he announced. "My head aches, and this chattering drives me distracted."
"So do, dear!" his mother soothed him. "So do! I'll light the oil stove, and bring your supper up to you soon as it's ready."
"I brought you some cinnamon buns, Wilson!" said Melissa, who could not harbor irritation more than two minutes. "I hope your head'll be better in the morning, dear!"
Wilson flung away with no other answer than a snarl. He ate the buns, though, when they came up hot in a napkin; made a very good supper on the whole. The tray disposed of, he locked his door, and then proceeded to unlock a cupboard and take out a bottle and glass. Poor Wilson! we liked to think it was not his fault entirely, that some of his ancestors had been hard drinking as well as hard-bitted; but that made it no easier for Mrs. Wibird and Melissa.
When putting back the bottle and glass, his hand touched something else in the cupboard, something hard and smooth and cold. He muttered under his breath; groped for the object, and brought it out. A pistol! not of the newest make or deadliest calibre, but still a practical weapon, capable of being loaded and fired. Wilson's face cleared as he looked at it. Here was a friend for a desperate man! He nodded darkly several times; stepped to the mirror to see how he looked when performing this act, but recoiled with a groan. He should, properly speaking, have thrust [pg 172] the pistol in his bosom, but pajamas have no bosoms: besides, the steel was cold. Finally, he put it under his pillow, and went to sleep to the tune of murder, suicide, and three columns in the City newspaper.
Youth and sleep can do much, even for the foolish and befuddled. By morning Wilson was once more the master of Ross House, waving in his guests (and Kitty's) with courtly gesture. He was roused from this happy dream by the untimely entrance of Billy, the clerk of the Mallow House. Billy had just looked in on his way down town, at 6:45, to find Melissa preparing breakfast, Wilson in bed, and likely to remain there. Billy guessed he would go up and say howdy. Melissa protested: Billy grinned cheerfully, and went up.
"Morn'n, Wilse! h'are'y?" (I find the last word cannot be spelled. It is chiefly H and broad A, but the other letters are there, somehow.) Wilson grunted and turned a striped shoulder pointedly on the intruder.
"Better get up!" said Billy amicably. "Better come down!"
"I can't! I'm sick! Can't you see I'm sick? Get out, Billy!"
"Can't see anything but your pyjammer shirt," said Billy. "Better get up; better come down. Boss told me to fetch you."
Wilson expressed his opinion of the Boss and of Billy, too, in no flattering terms.
"Better get up! better come down!" Billy chanted monotonously. "Lose your job if you don't. Boss [pg 173] says he's most as sick of you as he wants to be: Jim Shute's been seekin' round for the job the past month. Better get up! here's your pants! better come down! here's your shirt! I'll wait downstairs."
It was thus that Billy won his battles; he never lost one. Everybody did what Billy told him to. Nobody could analyze his power; Mr. Mallow opined that it was because he didn't open his head except when there was something doin'. "His gun's always lo'ded, but he don't pull it more'n once or twice a year." I think it was really because of his ignoring opposition. He never seemed to hear anything that was said on the other side; he simply went ahead and did what he had to do. Destiny in checks, Kitty called him. His weakness seemed to be for the largest and loudest checks imaginable, especially in his trousers. I always fancied he was in love with Melissa, but—well, no matter!
I feel as if I ought to pause here to apologize for this utterly one-sided story, with hardly a sound, much less a sight of the hero. Of course every reader who knows anything at all knows that Tom Lee is neither dead nor false, and that he is bound to appear at some point. But Cyrus could not know this; even Kitty could not be sure of it, at least not always, when she was tired. So far as I can make out, Tom at about this time, the time of Madam Flynt's party, was taking leave of the Emperor of China (there were emperors in those days) and receiving from certain officers of that potentate large sums of gold. Filling his pockets with a small proportion of this gold, Tom [pg 174] strolled happily through the streets of Peking, looking in at all the bazaars, and buying everything he thought Kitty might like. Oh! the pale green kimono with the gold dragons! ah! the rose-colored crape showered over with cherry blossoms! How Cyrus was to sigh and clasp its hands over them! And the parure of moonstones and aquamarines, which only a princess or Kitty in her bloom could possibly wear! And then, if that boy did not think of everybody in Cyrus, or almost everybody! and buy pink coral for Miss Egeria and red coral for Miss Almeria (coral was "in" then!) and tortoise-shell for Sarepta, and ebony and sandalwood boxes for all the rest of us, till his trunks could hold no more! Then he sat down and wrote to Kitty out of his faithful heart; saying it was a dog's age since he had heard from her, but the mails were rum in these parts, too rum for him, so he was coming home, coming for keeps. This had been a big job, and he had got big pay for it. In fact, he had made his pile, Kitty: not that he would ever stop working, she wouldn't have anything to say to him if he did that; but he meant to settle down and take expert jobs as they came along. They wanted him in ——, but he would rather live in dear old Cyrus, if Kitty was agreeable, and he fancied she would be. If the dear Lady wanted them to live with her, that would suit him all right; (alas! he did not know!) he loved her dearly, and he loved every nail in Ross House, Kitty knew that. If not, his own house was only let from year to year, and they would move right into that.
"Kitty, you see I am taking it for granted that you have waited for me. What should I do if—but I know you have! that is, I know it almost always, except when I'm dog-tired or the grub has given out. Once or twice, up in the mountains, I got a bit down, but it never lasted. Because, of course, you know how every hour and every minute I am thinking of you, my darling. You must have felt it, Kitty, even when you didn't get my letters, and I'm afraid they didn't always get through, but I hope so. You must have realized that it has been you, standing right beside me, going with me through everything, that has carried me over the rough places; and there have been some pretty rough ones, darling, but all that is over now, and in about two weeks I shall be sailing for home, the happiest man in the wide world, for you are at the other end, waiting for me—aren't you, Kitty?"
Kitty got that letter. It arrived about a month after another arrival, to be chronicled in due time.
Meantime the days came and went, and it was now late April. Not yet quite spring with us, but so near that one could hear her whispering over the hill-tops. Mother Earth was making ready to receive her. There was a vast deal of house-cleaning going on. Great rains sluiced out the roads, and filled the streams to overflowing; they rushed along, brown and foaming, carrying with them the unsightly leavings of winter, who had hurried off, as usual, without "redding up" in any way. The river flowed broad and swift, dotted with floating ice-cakes; the willows along the bank [pg 176] showed brown smoke touched with green. Here and there were bushes with blood-red stems, vivid as coral. In the woods, snow lingered in blackish patches; almost touching these patches, ferns were unrolling, hepaticas taking off their gray furs, bloodroot opening its lovely white cups.
"And oh!" cried Kitty. "Don't speak to me, any one! I believe it's an anemone!"
Kitty was having a holiday. Madam Flynt was not going out that afternoon; John Tucker would never let her, Kitty, meet the trains; Aunt Johanna had pronounced her pale, and bidden her walk five miles and bring back a color. She had meant to be back in time for one o'clock dinner, but as she came downstairs Sarepta appeared with a neat tin box and the announcement, "Here's a snack! You can have your dinner with your supper!"
She vanished. Kitty peeped, saw chicken sandwiches and an apple turnover, and departed joyful.
"Dear Sarepta," she murmured. "If one must have a tyrant, how nice to have one who can make turnovers!"
It was a day of days. Not warm; one was not ready for warmth yet; but every breath was a delight, the air so tingled with wakening life. Kitty walked not five miles, but ten, if she had known it. She took no count of miles, swinging along over hill and dale, her quick eyes taking in every sign of promise; here a catkin waving, there a little host of green spears pushing up through the brown earth. She sat on a huge silvered root in a stump fence to [pg 177] eat her luncheon. A chipmunk came to make inquiries and received crumbs; a bluebird sang in a cherry tree near by. It was a delightful feast. This was on top of the Great Hill, from which one saw all the kingdoms of the earth, more or less. Kitty saw and rejoiced in all: the kingdom of pines, stretching dark and velvety along its waving miles; the kingdom of hills, bare and ruddy in the sunlight; the kingdom of streams and ponds, a great necklace of sapphires flung across the countryside. Kitty saw, and sighed with delight; then slipped her empty box in her pocket and set her face homeward. Already the sunbeams came slanting through the pines on the crest; she had a long way to go. "And I must and will go back through Lancaston Woods!" said Kitty. "Perhaps I'll make a call on Savory Bite; similarly, perhaps I won't. I wonder if his paint is blue still. Naughty Tom!"
Down the hillside went Kitty, across lots; through steep pastures of slippery russet grass, where the huddled rocks looked like flocks of gray sheep, browsing; through hanging copses, the outlying pickets of the kingdom of pines; so down at last to the kingdom itself, the long stretch of woodland, bordered on one side by the river, on the other by that shy, pleasant thoroughfare known as Lancaston Road. It was near the edge of the road that Kitty was wandering happily along, about five o'clock, when she should have been nearer home; it was here that she found the first anemone. She was bending over it in rapture, when she heard a name pronounced; not her [pg 178] own name, but a perversion of it to which she was now only too well accustomed.
"Katrine!" cried Wilson Wibird. "Can it be? Fate is kind for once!"
Wilson had been to Tinkham: I fear on no profitable errand. He was on his homeward way, walking with a rather uncertain step, wavering from side to side of the road. Catching sight of a figure through the trees, his half-tipsy fancy prompted him to see who it was. Here he was now, balancing himself on unsteady feet, leering at Kitty in a way which he felt to be irresistible. Wilson's nose had long since resumed its normal appearance. He had by a happy inspiration put on his good suit; a necktie of undeniable brilliancy flaunted beneath the high collar which partly sheltered his long bird-like neck. He felt that the occasion was a fortunate one.
"Well met by sunlight, proud Titania!" was his greeting to Kitty.
"How d'ye do, Wilson!" Kitty nodded, and stepped past him toward the open: he, however, stepped with her.
"Don't hurry, Katrine! it is a sweet evening: let us stroll home together! Fate has not lightly brought about this meeting."
"I haven't time to stroll, Wilson! I must walk fast. Don't let me hurry you, though! Good evening!"
She stepped aside to pass him, but again he stepped with her; tried for a space to keep pace with her, and finding this difficult, planted himself squarely in front of her.
"Not so fast, sweet one!" he said. "I have a word to say to thee. We have not met since the dance, Katrine. A long month ago!"
"I believe not!" Kitty spoke coolly, but she gave a quick glance up and down the road. No one was in sight: there was no house near except Savory Bite's cottage, and that was out of sight round the next corner.
"Katrine was cruel that night!" Wilson went on, still balancing himself from side to side. He could not seem to stand still and straight at the same time. "Katrine was cruel indeed. She flung her Fate from her; tipped me out in the snow, didn't she? But her Fate came back." He laughed. "Here's Fate, Katrine! Can't escape it; here is Fate! Fate is here!"
He tapped himself on the breast, and assumed an attitude of command.
"What are you talking about, Wilson?" exclaimed Kitty impatiently. "Please let me pass, and don't be silly."
"Silly! she calls me silly!"
Wilson nodded thrice solemnly and tried to take Kitty's hand; failing in which, he waved his own and then leveled a wavering forefinger at her.
"Katrine, it is time we came to an unshand—undershand—understanding! I feel—I have long felt—that we were born for each other. Why blink the fact?"
This struck Wilson as a strong expression; he repeated it—"Why blink the fact! Let us hail it, joyfully, [pg 180] Katrine. Two hearts that beat as one! You are mine, little bird: mine!"
Now, however much Wilson Wibird might indulge in remarks of this kind to his crony, the mirror, he would not have dared to make them to Kitty when sober, and Kitty knew it. After that swift glance up and down the road, she drew out a long steel hatpin and held it in her hand.
"Wilson," she said briefly, "what do you mean? What are you talking about, and what do you want?"
"Want—you!" Wilson opened his arms with a dramatic gesture. "You are mine, I say! I have an iron will, Katrine, and that will claims you. Come, little bird! Let us seal our union with a k——"
"If you come one step nearer," said Kitty quietly, "I'll run this pin into you."
She displayed the pin, really a formidable weapon.
Wilson, who had taken a step forward, paused.
"I have an iron will!" he protested. "'Wibird hath iron will;' did you never hear that, Katrine? 'Tis the motto of our House. I am the tenth and perhaps the last Wilson Wimberley Wibird. In me meet the features—" he indicated his nose and chin—"and the forces of my ancestors. Don't be obstinate, Katrine!"
Here his mood changed suddenly; his eyes filled with tears.
"Don't be cruel, Kitty!" he implored. "You've always been cruel, Kitty, and I've always loved you. Don't be cruel to the tenth and perhaps the last Wilson Wimberley Wibird! Be kind, not cruel! They [pg 181] both begin with—at least the sound is the same. I am your Fate, Kitty—I mean Katrine! I should think you would be kind to your Fate."
Here the gentleman wept bitterly.
Kitty spoke kindly and distinctly.
"I would go home now, Wilson, if I were you!" she said. "You are not yourself. Forget this foolishness, and go home to your mother. If you will walk ahead, I will follow you."
But Wilson's mood changed again. "Never!" he said. "I am desh—desperate! deshperate man! If you won't be mine, I won't be—I mean, I'll put an end to myself! Blow my brains out, here's minute. Then you'll know what it is to spurn a Wibird! ha! You mock me!" He pulled out the pistol and flourished it in the air.
Kitty stepped quickly forward and took it from him.
"Now," she said quietly, "if you will walk ahead, Wilson, I will follow you."
While these things were going on, Mr. Very Jordano had been making his annual call on Avery Bright, the hermit. This call was made at no regular time or season. When news was scarce, or the pulse of Cyrus seemed to beat feebly, the editor of the Centinel was wont to cast about him for legitimate subjects of possible interest from which a "story" might be extracted. His native delicacy being perpetually at war with his professional instinct, he could not bring himself to take advantage of any occurrence the mention of which might cause any "feeling" in any quarter of [pg 182] the neighborhood. This warfare hampered him sadly. But "Savory Bite" never read a newspaper; he had no relations; there seemed no reason why he should not be exploited, if only he could be brought to unfold his tale. He never yet had unfolded his tale, but hope sprang eternal in Mr. Jordano's breast, and once a year, as I say, he would try his fortune. His zealous questions were met alternately by "Yep" and "Nope," with "I d'no!" as an occasional variant. As a matter of fact, Savory had no tale to unfold. He was not in any way an interesting or mysterious person, save to the young or the newcomer in Cyrus. The elders knew that he lived alone merely because his parents had died and left him so. There he was, and there he stayed. He had lost the habit of talking after twenty years of a stone-deaf mother; also, he had nothing special to say. So much for our hermit!
On this occasion Mr. Jordano was in great need of a "story" to fill a certain column for this week's Centinel, already half set up. There had been no arrivals in Cyrus since the last issue; people had not begun to shingle their barns or plant their gardens: it was a dry time for editors. His success with Mr. Bright had been no more marked than usual, but as he left the house he was already composing a paragraph which could not, he modestly thought, fail to interest the public.
"The Scribe made a neighborly call yesterday on our isolated but ever courteous fellow-townsman Mr. Avery Bright, in his domicile on the Lancaston Road. The gentle hermit received me in his commodious [pg 183] kitchen, which he would appear to use also as a sitting room. It is painted of a cerulean blue, and is as tasty an apartment as any housewife could desire. Mr. Bright is a man of few words, and may be said to cultivate the golden flower of silence: yet Italio received from him some valuable information, which he feels at liberty to impart to his readers. Spring will be late, in Mr. Bright's opinion. The breast of that useful and (when roasted with the seasonable adjuncts of sage, onion and applesauce) toothsome feathered biped, the goose, which hangs beside his well-polished stove, displays large patches of white. This shows that the winter has been a hard one, which, indeed, we know to have been the case: it also foretells, the weatherwise anchorite intimated, that the spring will be backward. On the Scribe's venturing a pleasantry to the effect that spring, like other good things, was worth waiting for, Mr. Bright signified his assent to the proposition by a sagacious nod. As to the woodchuck——"
Mr. Jordano got no farther with the woodchuck. Lifting his eyes as he closed the gate of the hermitage behind him, he saw a sight that made him start and almost drop his notebook. Up the road came Wilson Wibird, plodding sullenly along with bent head and muttering lips; behind him walked Kitty Ross, holding a pistol in her hand. After the first petrified glance, Mr. Jordano hastened forward, calling Kitty's name; she and her convoy looked up at the same moment.
"Damn!" said Wilson.
"Oh, Mr. Jordano!" cried Kitty. "I am so glad to see you! Are you—are you going my way?"
"Absolutely! absolutely!" cried Mr. Jordano, seizing the first word that came to his bewildered mind. "I should esteem it a high privilege, Miss Kitty. Permit me, my—my dear young lady!"
He motioned toward the pistol; Kitty gladly relinquished it, and he drew a breath of relief.
"Periloso!" he murmured. "Extremely periloso! If your foot should slip-pip-pip—step out, Wilson!"
His tone changed from that of anxious courtesy to imperious command. The unhappy Wilson, feeling the impact of the pistol muzzle between his shoulders, stepped out. Beginning to mutter curses, he was sternly bidden to hold his tongue-pung-pung! Thus they proceeded along the Lancaston Road, where fortunately the houses are few and far between; a tragi-comic little procession. Mr. Jordano was fairly snorting with chivalrous indignation. His dark eyes flashed real fire; his cloak was thrown superbly over his shoulder. Could the dear gentleman have known it, he really looked for the nonce like one of the Italian patriots on whom he so desired to form himself. Presently he became aware that Kitty was trembling. Bending anxiously toward her, she turned on him a face of suppressed and remorseful laughter.
"Put it away!" she whispered. "We are coming to a house. He won't give any more trouble, I am sure."
Mr. Jordano nodded and slipped the pistol into his pocket. Soon after, they came to a crossroad which [pg 185] led by a short cut to the Common and Ross House. Seeing Kitty about to turn aside, Mr. Jordano made as if to accompany her, but she checked him with a decided shake of her head. As he hesitated, she laid her finger on her lips, kissed it toward him with an adorable gesture of gratitude and affection, and, turning, sped away in the gathering dusk. Mr. Jordano looked after her with a sigh; he felt that kiss warm at his heart. He would lay down his life, if necessary, for that sweet young lady. Anger sweeping him again as he turned to the shambling figure before him, he addressed it with asperity.
"Come, Wilson! wake up-pup-pup! Step out-tout-tout! You ought to be lighting the lamps this minute."
But I ask you, was it not hard that the real "story" which had dropped for him out of a clear sky, as it were, was one that Mr. Jordano's knightly soul could not for an instant think of as matter for publication?
What a paragraph it would have made!