If little has been said hitherto of Miss Ruby Caddie, it is not because she was not an Institution of Cyrus; far from it! She was even more than that, though that would be enough for most people; she was a National Institution; she was the Pan-American! Miss Ruby spent her days in a box measuring eight feet by ten, glazed on two sides; one window giving on the street, the other on a small and dingy space which she called the Outer Office. The other two sides were profusely adorned with illuminated texts, of cheerful and admonitory nature. Miss Ruby's visitors were advised that this was Her Busy Day; that it was proper to Smile While You Wait: that
"When Time is withdrawn, Will Eternity dawn!"
etc., etc. The latter sentiment was also inscribed in letters of gold (decalcomania!) on a manuscript book which lay on Miss Ruby's desk, and which was further labeled "Timely Texts for Troublous Telegrams." This volume (a birthday present from Miss Pearl, who had spent a happy year in its compilation) [pg 277] was a constant help to Miss Ruby in discharging the responsibilities of her position, of which she was acutely conscious. The electric telegraph was to her sensitive nature no mere affair of keys, wires and switches: no, indeed! "It is a Mighty Force," the little lady was wont to say, shaking her flaxen ringlets impressively, "which through my agency raises the heart to the summit of joy or plunges it in the gulf of despair."
Holding these views, Miss Ruby felt it her duty to wing the joyful message with special shafts of cheer, and to prepare the way for the sorrowful one with remarks of a fortifying nature. She invariably began, "Good morning! (or afternoon, as the case might be). This is the Pan-American Telegraph Company." Then would follow, "Do not be alarmed! the news is of a cheering nature." And then the listener would learn that her Aunt Maria was coming that evening by the 8:3O train, or that John Henry had passed his college examinations. But were the message one of sorrowful import, Miss Ruby before delivering it would open the manuscript volume and select an appropriate sentence: then we might hear "Trouble is often benefit in disguise. Permit me to express my sympathy before delivering the following message. 'Your Aunt Maria passed away last night; a blessed release.'"
With these lofty views of her responsibilities, it need not be said that Miss Ruby was the soul of conscientiousness in regard to the winged words of which she was the transmitter. Not even to Miss Pearl, her [pg 278] twin sister and other self, would she breathe a whisper of what passed over the wires. Miss Pearl, equally conscientious, respected her sister's reserve. If questioned by some thoughtless neighbor, she would say, "My sister has her business, and I have mine. I should no more think of asking her about the messages she receives than she would ask me the amount of your bank deposit. We are in positions of Public Trust!"
Once only, in all the years of her service, was Miss Ruby tempted to break her rule of silence; that was on a certain June evening, not long after the events narrated in the last chapter. Miss Pearl had not visited the office that afternoon; it was "the birthday of Sister and Self," as she happily announced to all she met on her way home, and she must prepare for the Treat. The Treat consisted of creamcakes, bought at the bakery, as she hastened homeward; large pale yellow shells of brittle crust, irregularly paneled like alligator-skin, filled with a glutinous semi-liquid substance of irresistibly flowing nature. There were other delicacies of home manufacture; stuffed eggs, and what Miss Pearl called "lion's potatoes," with buttered toast and pickles; but the creamcakes were the real Treat, as they had been ever since the little Twins earned their first five cents apiece by picking berries for Madam Flynt. There were three creamcakes; two apiece would be too much; on the other hand, one was not quite enough; so the third was cut in two, with astonishing results in the way of swift pursuit and skillful capture (with spoons) of the glutinous substance [pg 279] before mentioned. The cakes were displayed upon a beautiful old platter of "flowed blue," the pride of the ladies' hearts. Have I said too much about the Treat? I always thought it so dear and funny! and I never can forget how I chanced in on an errand one Birthday evening, and found the Twins half way through their whole cakes. They held them in their hands, and darted from edge to edge as the custard threatened to overflow here or there. They offered me the third cake; dear little ladies!
On the evening in question, Miss Ruby was not in her usual spirits. She praised the "lovely supper," which Sister had prepared, and joined in the annual duet of admiration for and joy in the flowed blue platter, the pink lustre jug, and the sprigged tea-set. The sisters found it convenient, as I have said, to spend their winters at the Mallow House. It was economical, Mr. Mallow being more than liberal in his rates for "permanents"; it was also social, and saved much time in getting to and from their business, for their cottage was quite at the end of the village; but perhaps the happiest day of the year for the sisters was that on which they "got back to their dishes!"
"For there is nothing like your own!" said Miss Pearl, shaking her curls. "Not but what Mr. Mallow's pattern is handsome; it is, for them that likes a band. But when you have grown up with a sprig, nothing else is quite the same, seems as though."
Miss Ruby, as I say, joined in the duet, but not, her observant twin thought, with her customary heartiness. Neither did she show her usual keen enjoyment [pg 280] of the eggs (scrambled this time, with crisp curls of bacon surrounding them) and the lion's potatoes. She was absent-minded and took little notice even of the Sally Lunns. All this might have passed as the result of fatigue, or an exceptionally busy day; but when, on finishing her creamcake, Miss Ruby refused, positively refused, her half of the odd one, Miss Pearl spoke with conviction.
"Sister," she said, "you have something on your mind; do not deny it!"
"Sister," replied Miss Ruby, "I have. Do not press me! I cannot eat another morsel."
A troubled silence ensued. The table was cleared, the dishes washed and put away, but not to the customary accompaniment of cheerful babble. Miss Ruby sighed deeply over her "wiper," one of a set presented by Mr. Mallow as a birthday gift. Miss Pearl, the elder by half an hour in this world, and with all her maternal instinct centred in her sister, yearned to comfort her; but the bond of discretion and custom kept her silent. Anything that Sister felt at liberty to communicate, she would; far be it from Miss Pearl to intrude upon the sanctity of Office!
Miss Ruby was the first to break the silence.
"Let's we come out on the stoop!" she said. (The Misses Caddie never forgot that their father, the late lamented Cassius M. Caddie, had been a New York Merchant. They were only ten years old when he died, and their mother brought them back to her native Cyrus, but they said "stoop" for "porch" and [pg 281] "aquascutum" for "waterproof," as long as they lived.)
The sisters went out on the porch—I beg their pardon! the stoop!—and sat down on a bench at the side. It was a lovely evening; the air was full of peace and silence, broken now and then by a low call from some nesting bird. Miss Ruby sighed again.
"Sister," Miss Pearl spoke timidly; "could you feel to free your mind? You know that anything you might say would be sacred——"
"I know it well!" Miss Ruby touched her twin's shoulder lightly; it was in the nature of a caress; they had not been brought up to kiss.
"I will own this much to you, Sister, that never, in the course of my professional career, have I been so tempted to speak as I am this night."
She paused; Miss Pearl made a little sound expressive of sympathy and concern.
"It is not only," Miss Ruby went on, "the extra-ordinary nature of the message itself, though—well, Sister, you really never did!—but it is the feeling—" Miss Ruby glanced around her in the dusk and lowered her voice—"the feeling that the sanctity of the Office has been already violated."
"Sister Ruby! how could——"
"I feel it so to be! this much I can say, and will. Pearlie, the message was for Kitty Ross, from California. I delivered it by telephone as usual. 'Kitty,' I said, 'do not be alarmed; the message, though most unusual, is not otherwise than cheerful, if correctly transmitted, though of course at that distance it is impossible [pg 282] to be sure.' Then I gave her the words of the message——"
"Yes, Sister!" Miss Pearl's voice was tense with eagerness.
"The words of the message!" Miss Ruby seemed to be holding herself in forcible restraint. "I then asked her if it was clear, and she made answer that it was. To make quite sure, I asked her to repeat it, and she so did. Then she hung up; and—Sister, at that living moment of time, some one else hung up! I cannot be deceived;" as Miss Pearl uttered a cry of amazement, "and it is not the first time that it has happened, but I am resolved it shall be the last. That——"
"Good evening, girls!" a high-pitched voice broke in on Miss Ruby's low, impressive tones. Mrs. Sharpe appeared, slightly out of breath as usual.
"I thought I'd make a run in, and wish you joy; not that birthdays is all joy in this world, especially when you're on in years. You're gettin' quite gray, ain't you? Well, Ruby, what do you make of that message?"
Miss Ruby grew rigid. "To what do you allude, Sophia?" she asked.
Mrs. Sharpe laughed, a high excited titter. "That telephone!" she cried: "it is the beat! I keep tellin' and tellin' Jonas Chamberlain, and he doesn't do a thing about it. Everything that goes to Kitty Ross's goes right through my house. I s'posed you knew, of course. It's real annoying; I should think they would stop it. But—well, if that is so, girls, we shall see great times in Cyrus, what say, Pearlie?"
[pg 283] "I do not understand you!" Miss Pearl spoke stiffly.
"What!" Mrs. Sharpe bent forward eagerly, trying through the twilight to scrutinize the features of the twins. "You don't mean to say—you don't mean Ruby hasn't told you? Well! It's my belief that such things should be made public. The idea! Is this a Republic, I ask you, or a Monarchy? 'Coming, coach and six. Duke.' Did you ever? If that isn't English Aristocracy trying to lord it over——"
She stopped. The twin sisters had risen to their feet; their round spectacles glistened through the dim twilight.
"Sophia Sharpe!" Miss Ruby spoke slowly, her curls nodding emphasis. "Sophia Sharpe, you have tampered with the sanctity of Public Office. I forbid you to repeat what you have criminally—I repeat, criminally overheard!"
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself!" piped Miss Pearl, her bird-like voice shrill with indignation. "To cast reflection upon Sister's faithfulness in office!"
"Oh!" Mrs. Sharpe's tone was shriller yet. "I've come here to be instructed, have I? By two old maids, too, who have never had any encouragement that I know of to change their state! This is what I get by coming out of my way to wish you joy on your birthday! a precious day it is! so important to everybody! One sure thing, you've had enough of 'em, te hee! I guess my run-in will be a run-off, though you are so pleasant and hospitable, I'm sure!"
"Do not darken these doors again!" said Miss Pearl.
[pg 284] "Do not speak to me in the street!" said Miss Ruby. "The acquaintance is at an end!"
"I thank you for the favor!" the visitor flung back over her departing shoulder. "Of course it's been a great privilege to come traipsing out here to the other end of nowhere, but it's one I can dispense with, if I try hard; and as for speaking to two poor mildewed little old maids that stick to their jobs like seaweed to a rock, and that's kept there out of pity—out of pity!——"
The sound of the closing door checked her flow of eloquence; she departed.
This is the true story of the quarrel between the Misses Caddie, "two ladies as highly respected in our midst for their ability and discretion as beloved for their many endearing social qualities," as Mr. Jordano took occasion to say in the next Centinel, and one who from this time on was commonly spoken of as "that mean Sophia Sharpe!"
But the deed was done. Before morning all Cyrus knew that Kitty Ross was about to receive a visit from an English Nobleman, and that: A, he expected to be met by a coach and six horses, or, B, that his arrival by such conveyance was to be anticipated.
Before considering the effect of this news upon Cyrus, let us glance for a moment into Madam Flynt's parlor on the evening of the day just past. Madam Flynt was receiving a visitor; alone, Miss Croly having gone for the quiet stroll which was her delight on summer evenings. "With Nature!" the good lady would explain. "I love to stroll hand in hand with [pg 285] Nature: so vast, yet so benignant, in her gentler aspects." She recited poetry as she strolled, finding it most beneficial.
Madam Flynt's visitor stood by the door, declining a proffered seat; an apron thrown over her head announced in some subtle way that her visit was one of urgency; she spoke in low, emphatic tones.
"No'm! no! she wasn't feverish that I could see; I couldn't feel her pult, but her skin felt natural. She acted more like she was out of her mind. I thought I'd step over!"
"You were quite right, Sarepta! Tell me again just how it was, will you? I didn't quite take it in the first time."
Evidently nothing loth, Sarepta spoke as follows:
"It was five o'clock, or thereabouts. She had just come in from the stable; she feeds too much sugar to them hosses, and so I tell John Tucker, but of course he knew all about hosses before they was created. The telephone rang and she went. It was Ruby Caddie's voice. I could tell by the cackle; she sounds for all the world like our Black Spanish hen; of course I couldn't hear what she said. 'Yes,' says Kitty. 'Yes, quite clear! Yes, I understand entirely.' Then I judge Ruby asked her to repeat the message, for she says, kind o' singin' it, Madam Flynt, the way I never heard her speak before since she could speak: 'Comin', coach and six. Duke!'
"Well: Kitty covered her face with her two hands and stood there a spell: if you'll excuse me mentionin' it, as if she was prayin'! Then she hung up, and [pg 286] swung round, and see me standin' there. I had no idea of listenin' you understand, Madam Flynt. I would scorn the action. I was just passin' through the hall, and the sound of her voice—well, it was so peculiar, I just stopped in my steps. First of it when she looked up, she was white as my apurn: then, all in a flash, the child's face was like she was afire, so to express it; her eyes were shinin', and her cheeks—well, there! I expected to hear the flames cracklin'. She rushes up to me and takes my two hands. 'Dance, Sarepta!' she says, wild as a hawk. 'Dance! you must dance!' and she drags me up and down that hall—you know the stren'th of her wrists, drivin' like she does—till the breath was out of my body; and all the time she was singin', a crazy kind of jig tune she's ben singin' about the house this two weeks past till I thought I should fly. 'Do for the land's sake,' I'd say, 'sing something that has some sense to it!' It don't begin nor end anywhere, goes round and round like a cat's cradle—well, it's crazy, that's all there is to it! She sang and danced till her breath gave out; I was past speech or cry by that time. Then she throws her arms round me and hugs me till—well, I hadn't any breath, but if I had, I wouldn't of, if you understand what I mean: and then off she flings out the back door, and I heard her routin' round in the stable, and next thing out she comes with Pilot in the light wagon and off they go down the ro'd like Job's cat after a fish. That was two hours ago, and she ain't come back yet. I thought I'd step over——"
"Where is John Tucker?" asked Madam Flynt.
[pg 287] "Home sick, with the rheumatism. If he'd ben there, I don't know as I need to have troubled you; not that he has much sense, but still he has some. Hark! there! I do believe—yes'm, there she is; just turnin' into the yard. Thanks be! I must hasten back."
"You are a good soul, Sarepta Darwin!" Madam Flynt spoke with feeling. "You were very right to come over. Get Kitty to come in and see me in the morning, will you? Make some errand, so she won't know——"
"Yes'm, I will! I'll borry an egg or something; thank you, Madam Flynt! Good-night!"
Kitty, dancing into the kitchen half an hour later, found a grim figure sitting bolt upright, reading a religious paper of austere appearance. Her gay "Supper, please, Sarepta!" was rewarded with the information that there was no supper that Sarepta knew of. Supper was at six o'clock; if folks were here, they'd get it; if they preferred to get their victuals elsewhere, it was no concern of hers that she knew of. Kitty opened wide eyes.
"Oh! Excuse me for living!" she said. "Am I so very late? The moonlight is so heavenly, Sarepta, I think I was very good to come in at all; and of course I had to see to those Lambs before I had my own supper. John Tucker wanted to send Timmy over, but I wouldn't let him; I love to put them to bed once in a while. But no matter, Sarepta. I'll find a doughnut and some milk; don't bother. I'm not really hungry!"
[pg 288] Kitty's hand was on the buttery door when Sarepta intervened with a truly awful aspect.
"When you wish me to go, Kitty Ross, you can say so and I will. While I stay, I calc'late to attend to things in this kitchen. You go into the sittin'-room and I'll bring you a tray."
The tray, when brought, displayed a most tempting little meal: creamed chicken, buttered scones, cocoa and strawberry jam; but for once Kitty seemed hardly conscious of the good things. She looked up as if in a dream, her eyes soft and dewy.
"Are you very cross, Sarepta?" she asked. "I'm sorry I was late."
"Humph!" Sarepta apparently extremely cross, and busy setting down the tray.
"Don't you love me?" asked the girl, as she had been used to ask when she was six and wanted an extra cooky. No answer being returned, Kitty came out of her dream, her own alert, thoughtful self; looked and saw the grim lips quivering, the workworn hands trembling as they hovered about the tray.
"Sarepta!" Kitty sprang up, threw her arms round the neck of her faithful friend, and whispered three words in her ear.
"So you see!" she said.
Sarepta Darwin threw her apron over her head and departed, to hurry up to her room and lock her door. For this time, Sarepta was crying, and no one must ever know it. The idea!