Kitty was so pleased with her little party, and so interested in seeing how many cheesecakes and hot scones the boys could eat ("There were four dozen of them cakes, I counted as I laid them out," Sarepta announced grimly at supper. "There's one apiece left for you two folks, and that's all there is. If I was their Mas, I'd give 'em a portion of physic and put 'em to bed!") that she hardly noticed Judge Peters's quiet departure. When the young people reluctantly followed a little later, Kitty stood at the window of the Other Parlor, watching them with shining eyes. Melissa and Bobby walked together; well, they had to, of course, with that nice Myers boy so wrapped up in Nelly; dear Nelly! Kitty was so glad! But Bobby's back was really interested, his shoulders most attentive; and he did not once turn round to see if she were standing at the window. He always had, up to now, though of course she never let him see her. Now—of course he would walk home with Lissy; and then—there was no train back to Corona before the eight-thirty—if Lissy would only ask him in to supper!
"Because," said Kitty aloud, "you see, if one could [pg 223] make some one else—some two else—happy, perhaps it would not hurt so much; do you think?"
Lissy did ask him in to supper, in a rapture of wishfulness, in an anguish of terror lest there should not be enough, lest he should not like creamed fish and baked potatoes. Bobby hesitated, guessed the folks were expecting him at home; caught the glance of the sweet brown eyes, and yielded. There was enough; the simple refection proved to be his favorite supper. He ate as if cheesecakes and scones had never existed for him; ate till Lissy glowed with delight over her own humming-bird's portion; till even Mrs. Wibird felt a thin stream of cordiality stealing through her poor chilly little heart, and fetched the plateful set aside for Wilson, mentally promising him "a good scramble," which he really liked better.
"Gee!" said Master Bobby, surveying the total residue of two prunes and one molasses cooky, as he pushed his chair back; "I hope Wilse gets supper with Uncle Marsh, Mrs. Wibird. I don't seem to have left much, do I? Mother always says my legs are hollow!"
Still with that thread of warmth curling about her heart, Mrs. Wibird hesitated a moment after leaving the table. For the first time (except a brief space when Lissy had croup) her house of maternal instinct was divided against itself. She had always sacrificed Lissy, as she had herself, to every wish of her son's. Wilson was so particular, he had to have things just so, or it went to his liver, and made him bilious! He commonly occupied the sitting-room in [pg 224] the evening; he let her and Melissa creep in with their sewing, and sit in the corner, but callers disturbed him. Could she—how could she?
She glanced at Bobby, cheerfully unconscious; then at her daughter, flushing, fluttering, the meek little drudge transfigured for the moment. Her own youth rose up within her and struck.
"You take Robert into the sitting-room, Lissy!" she said. "You can light the stove if it's chilly. I'll wash the dishes; you go right along!"
Oh, blissful hour in the little stuffy sitting-room, which yet was chilly this May evening! Oh, friendly blinking of that one red eye of the baseburner stove! Bobby, comforted by supper, conscious of tender sympathy fluttering by his side in the low rocking chair, waxed confidential; told of college pranks, of contests on ball fields and on the river. Lissy hung on his lips: her own were parted, her breath came quick; she thought he must hear the beating of her heart. Her cries of wonder and admiration warmed him still further. His voice dropped to a lower note. It was awfully nice of Lissy to care. It was ripping to have some one to talk to; he was awfully lonely sometimes! Bobby! Bobby! with three sisters, all a-quiver to share the treasure of your heart—never mind! These things must be.
"I've been awfully unhappy, too, lately!" said Bobby. "Nobody knows, but——"
Out it all came! His love, his hopes, "seeing Tom was out of the running, or so everybody said," his bitter disappointment. Out it all poured in a flood; [pg 225] and little Lissy heard it all with tear-brimmed eyes, with clasped hands, and soft ejaculations of pity, of sympathy, of wonder that was almost anger. How could Kitty? How could she?
"But it is all over now!" Bobby rose and straightened his shoulders manfully. "Of course there will never be any one like her in the world, but I promised I would never say anything more, and I never will. As she says, there's lots to life even if one isn't happy; and she thinks we ought not to stand for kicking because things are the way they are: not that she put it just that way. And I shall be real glad to have you for a sister, Lissy, and I'll tell you everything. You must tell me things, too!" Mr. Chanter added as an afterthought, reaching for his hat. "I'm sure you must have lots of things; good-night, Lissy!"
He took her hand; hesitated a moment, and then took the other.
"Good-night, Sister Lissy! What soft little hands you have! What makes them shake so? I mustn't keep you standing here in the cold!"
Still he hesitated, holding the little hands in his. How they trembled! How they seemed to nestle in his! Kitty shook hands like another chap: her wrists were like steel. Well, of course, driving that way, she had to be strong. It was very pleasant to hold the little trembling hands; if they were to be brother and sister—perhaps? The girls were always bothering him to kiss them—Bobby decided it would be "too cheeky for the first time," and finally departed, [pg 226] warmer about the heart than he had felt since Madam Flynt's party.
And Melissa? I believe her little cold attic glowed that night with all the warmth and light of paradise, and that she went to sleep lulled by the sound of silver bells.
Kitty turned away happily from her window, and crossed the hall to the sitting-room, humming under her breath.
"What is that tune you are forever humming, child?" Miss Johanna looked up from her knitting.
"'The Duke of Lee?' Oh, it's an old, old English song and dance. Mother used to sing it, don't you remember? And Tommy and I used to dance it: he was the Duke of Lee, and I was the gentlewoman of high qualitee. Surely you remember! How handsome you look, Aunt Johanna!"
"Fiddlededee!" said Aunt Johanna; she got up and poked the fire. It was true none the less. The lady was slightly flushed; her dark eyes were very bright; the purple broadcloth, with touches of gold about the bodice, was extremely becoming; certainly she was a handsome woman.
"It's true!" said Kitty. "Just look in the glass and see if it isn't! I wonder the dear Judge managed to go at all, with you looking so, and the violets smelling so, and the fire crackling so, and—he might have waited to see me!" Kitty was hovering over the bowl of violets, drawing deep breaths of fragrance. "Business, Sarepta said. Nothing wrong, I hope, Auntie?"
"N-no!" said Miss Johanna, slowly and meditatively. [pg 227] "Nothing precisely wrong that I know of. Nothing half as wrong as this knitting!" she added briskly. "Come here, child! You and Sarepta Darwin together having accomplished this atrocity of teaching me to knit, are bound to see me through. I seem to have done something queer here!"
Kitty sat down beside her on the leather sofa, and for some minutes both were absorbed in the mysteries of purling, compared with which, Miss Johanna declared, those of Eleusis were kindergarten play.
"That's a ridiculous tune!" she remarked presently. "It keeps jigging through my head so, I can't keep my feet still. So you used to dance it with Tommy Lee. Tommy was a nice boy; I always liked him. Do you ever hear from him, Kitty?"
"No," said Kitty quietly. "I believe he is doing very well—Mr. Chanter heard of him last winter from a friend who had met him in the West—but I don't know that any one has heard directly."
She did not add that, according to Cissy Sharpe, "they claimed" that Tom Lee had married the widow of a cattle king, and was spending millions on a marble palace overlooking the Golden Gate; she did not believe this, but it hurt, somehow. If he would only write a line; a postal card even! Cissy had heard it in Tinkham; she fixed greedy eyes on Kitty as she spoke. Millions of money, they claimed! A handsome woman, ten years older than what he was. She presumed Kitty knew more about it than what she did; ha! ha!
"There!" Kitty handed Miss Johanna her knitting [pg 228] and took up her own. "That's all clear, dear. Now knit straight on, ten rows, and then I'll show you about the neck."
A long silence followed, broken only by clicking needles and purring fire. Presently Miss Johanna spoke, abruptly:
"Elderly marriages are ridiculous! Grandpa Westcott to the contrary notwithstanding. Ridiculous!"
Kitty started, then looked up wondering. "Are they?" she said vaguely. "And what about Grandpa Westcott, Aunt Johanna?"
Miss Johanna looked a little confused. "My dear," she said, "I was just thinking aloud. I was in a referee, as old Mr. Weller says. Nothing of importance; and then I thought of Grandpa Westcott; that's all!"
"Did he elderly marry?" Kitty roused herself with a little effort. If it were true, what did anything else matter? But that was no reason why she should be an unsociable curmudgeon.
"Tell me about him, Aunt Jo! dear Father never had time to tell me family stories, and blessed Mother didn't know them, I suppose. Let's have a good tell now!"
She looked up brightly. Miss Johanna returned the smile, not quite with her usual crisp composure. Her fine eyebrows lifted and knitted in a curious little way they had when she was disturbed; her laugh rang not wholly clear.
"I certainly cannot leave you in ignorance about Grandpa Westcott's third marriage!" she said. "I wonder at John; but he never cared about Family. Little White Lily didn't know, of course. Her grandfather was an archangel and her grandmother a seraph; good gracious! Suppose Egeria should hear me! Well, my dear, you shall have your 'tell'; I have brought it upon myself."
Miss Johanna paused to pick up a brand with the tongs and lay it carefully on top of the back-log. Kitty, turning the heel of her stocking, prepared for a pleasant season. She loved "tells," and Aunt Johanna was the ideal story-teller.
"Grandpa Westcott," the lady began, "my great, your great-great, was one of the best men that ever lived. I remember him well; tall, dignified, handsome: the only person I ever saw in a queue. He had had two wives, both patterns in every way. The first—she was a Siddall of Trimount, and a Beauty—the Stuart portrait—had no children and died young. The second was my grandmother, Katharine Turner; you are named for her, of course, and you look like her. She was not altogether plain, either," said Miss Johanna dryly, with a glance at the lovely face that smiled down from the wall in an exquisite pastel. "She had four children and lived to see them all grown up and settled in life, and to be the delight of her grandchildren's hearts. Then, when she was sixty and Grandpa seventy, she died quite suddenly, and Grandpa went all to pieces. Naturally! he was a very affectionate man, and for fifty years he had been told every day what to eat, drink and avoid, what shirt to put on, and where his socks were. More than that, he had been listened to, which is the most necessary [pg 230] thing for a man. He mourned and he moaned, he moaned and he mourned, till at last old Delia, who had been with him thirty of the fifty years, sent to the City for Uncle Doctor. I can just remember old Delia. She had large white teeth, and used to let me scribble on them with a pencil: horrid child! She sang old Irish songs as no one else ever did: I wish you could have heard her sing, 'Irish Molly O!'"
Miss Johanna broke off to sing, in a high, clear little voice:
She's galliant, she's beautiful, She's the fairest one I know; She's the primrose of Ireland, All for my guinea, oh! And the only one entices me Is Irish Molly O, Molly O!
"Well! So Delia sent for Uncle Doctor, and he came. 'Mr. Doctor,' she said, 'your Da is looking for his dead clo'es. If you don't find a woman for him to marry, I'll have to marry him myself, and fine I'd look cocking in the parlor, d'ye see?"
"'Bless my soul!' says Uncle Doctor, 'I see. I'll attend to it, Delia.'
"So Delia went back to her pots and pans, and Uncle Doctor, after thinking a little, went down the street and called on Aunt Elizabeth. Aunt Elizabeth was Grandma's sister; they were like a pair of gloves, only she was a single woman.
"'Auntie,'" says Uncle Doctor, 'would you mind marrying Father?'
"'Bless my soul, Nathaniel!' says Aunt Elizabeth. So he told her what Delia said, and they talked it over. She was a sensible woman and fond of Grandpa. By and by, back he goes to Grandpa. 'Father,' he says, 'I want you to put on your hat and go down street and ask Aunt Elizabeth to marry you.'
"'Bless my soul!' says Grandpa. 'She wouldn't have me, Nathaniel!'
"'I think she would,' says Uncle Doctor.
"'And what would Katharine say?' says Grandpa.
"'She would say, "Put on your hat, and don't forget your muffler."'
"So Uncle Doctor put on the hat and muffler for him and saw him out of the door, headed down street; and he and Aunt Elizabeth were married next day, and had ten happy years together. So there is that."
Miss Johanna rolled up her knitting briskly, and rose from her seat. "But one swallow doesn't make a summer, Kitty, and one pair of old f— of dear old things doesn't make folly the less foolish. I am going upstairs, my dear. If you are watering the plants, you might just change the water for those violets: they are drooping a little."
"Dear things! so they are!" Kitty rose, too, and bent lovingly over the bowl. "The new ones are due to-morrow, aren't they, Auntie?"
"I don't know anything about the new ones!"
Miss Johanna spoke rather snappishly from the door.
"We may all be dead to-morrow, and very likely the best thing for us. They would be nice for our [pg 232] funerals!" she added rather enigmatically from the stairs: and the door of the Red Indian Room closed shortly behind her.
Judge Peters seemed to have a good deal of business to transact with Miss Johanna. He came regularly once a week, almost always during the hour of Madam Flynt's drive. This puzzled Kitty, used all her life to being the Judge's pet and playmate. He could not be vexed with her, for his smile and greeting when they met was as affectionate as ever, even more so perhaps. He pressed her hand very tenderly on the steps one day, and said, "God bless you, my dear child!" in a way that brought the tears to Kitty's eyes. Yet he never came to see her nowadays!
"I do hope Aunt Johanna's business is all right!" she said to Madam Flynt one day, when that lady had brought her in after the drive for a little visit.
"I hope so!" said Madam Flynt. "Why shouldn't it be? Johanna is an excellent woman of business, I have always heard."
"Oh, it's only—well, Judge Peters comes pretty often, and—it may be all my imagination, but she seems rather troubled sometimes after he is gone. I ought not to speak of this, perhaps, but—Mother always used to come to you, didn't she, Madam Flynt?"
Madam Flynt took off her gold spectacles to wipe her eyes.
"She did, my dear. That sweetest flower of all the world used to bring her little troubles to me: she never had any big ones, bless her! she didn't like to bother John about the price of butter, she said. She called me her Cousin Confessor; as if she ever had anything to confess! But about Johanna—wait a moment, my dear!"
The door opened, and Miss Croly appeared with the inevitable milk posset.
"I will take it in ten minutes, Cornelia. I am busy now."
"It is the regular hour——" Miss Croly began mildly; but she was cut short.
"I will take it in ten minutes!" Madam Flynt raised her voice, a rare thing with her. "There is a gazelle in the garden, Cornelia!"
Miss Croly vanished without a word. Kitty opened wondering eyes; Madam Flynt waved her hand.
"She understands. We have our private code, my dear. Though exasperating at times, Cornelia Croly is no fool. She will be back in ten minutes. Kitty, my child——" Madam Flynt spoke with kindly emphasis—"don't be disturbed about your Aunt Johanna and the Judge. They know each other like two old shoes."
"Of course! I was only afraid——"
"You needn't be afraid. You would be glad, I should think, wouldn't you? Edward Peters is the very salt of the earth, and he has been in love with her all his life. It's the Cyrus way!" Madam Flynt added rather pettishly. "One-idea'd people: that's why they are mostly spinsters and bachelors. Well, Kitty! What is it?"
Kitty had risen from her low stool, pale and wide-eyed.
"You don't mean," she faltered; "Madam Flynt, you cannot mean that they——"
Madam Flynt nodded her cap-ribbons into a perfect dance of triumph. "I mean that they are probably going to marry each other," she announced. "I certainly hope they are! Why upon earth shouldn't they? Kitty, do you suppose the affections run down like a clock if they are not wound up in the early twenties? Nothing of the sort! A man of sixty needs a wife as much as a boy of twenty; more, in many cases! And if ever," she added emphatically, "a woman needed a sensible man to take care of her, and keep the bees out of her bonnet, that woman is Johanna Ross! There! Give me a kiss, my dear, and then run along, and tell Cornelia Croly, as you go, that she may bring in her noxious draught. She doesn't sleep at night if I don't take it regularly. Most exasperating woman—and, Kitty!" she called the girl back to add impressively; "if you meet your Uncle Edward on the steps to-day give him a kiss, and tell him you are thankful for your mercies!"
Was Madam Flynt in league with Occult Powers? An already sufficiently bewildered Kitty did meet Judge Peters on the steps, just coming out of Ross House. Some strong emotion had broken up his usual courtly calm; his face was suffused, his eyes shone.
"Kitty!" he cried. "Kitty, I——" He bent and kissed her forehead. "She will tell you!" he murmured, with a gesture toward the house. "Blessed,-blessed——" [pg 235] He waved his hand, almost (poor Kitty thought) like Mr. Jordano, and departed with long, hasty strides.
Kitty hesitated a moment at the sitting-room door, dreading she hardly knew what. Strong emotions shook her like a leaf in these days, she did not ask herself why.
"Foolish creature!" she murmured.
She need have had no fear; Miss Johanna was pale, and her eyes showed traces of tears, but she was entirely calm.
"Sit down, Kitty, my dear!" she said. "Here, by me, on the sofa. I have something to tell you. Do you remember my quoting Peggotty the other day? Barkis was willin', you know, and David didn't understand the message; 'Drat the man! he wants to marry me,' said Peggotty. Well, my child, drat the Judge, he wants to marry me! I haven't spoken of it before, because if I had decided to say no, there would have been no occasion; but he is the most obstinate man I ever saw, in his quiet way; so—I have said yes, Kitty. I told you, didn't I, it is he who has sent the violets all these years? You needn't smother me, my dear!"
Kitty had her in her arms, exclaiming, caressing, laughing and crying, all at once.
"Auntie! Darling, wicked, deceitful Auntie! What a blind bat I have been! I was afraid—oh! I am so glad, so glad! But you always said you didn't know who sent them."
"I didn't—exactly—know! I only felt at the back [pg 236] of my head that it was probably Edward; he is that kind of faithful, doggy person. It's perfectly ridiculous, as I said. And—my stars!" Miss Johanna was all in a moment her crispest, most incisive self. "There is no possible thing that a woman of fifty can be married in except gray or lavender, and I look like a blown-out tallow dip in either of 'em. Run after him, Kitty, and tell him I've changed my mind!"