The matter came up at Bygoods', next morning, and was discussed with due gravity and decorum: present, Miss Almeria behind the counter, Messrs. Mallow and Jordano in front of it; Mr. Bygood in his wheel-chair, enjoying a little Society in the front shop, before retiring to the slumbrous calm of the back. To these were soon added the Messrs. Jebus, who had been alarmed by a sudden incursion of Sharpes the night before, heralding the proximate over-running of Cyrus by dissolute nobles "cracking their whips round our ears and driving their wheels over our bodies if something isn't done about it!"
Mr. Josiah, in anxious squeaks, wanted to know what all this meant; hey? He was all upset; he didn't know as he could match his silks, this kind of thing going on; his hand fairly shook. They claimed Ruby Caddie had taken to her bed: was that so?
"It is so!" Miss Almeria inclined her head gravely. "Ruby is quite prostrated. My sister is with her, Pearl, of course, being unable to leave the Bank. It is very unfortunate, Mr. Jebus. The sanctity of the Office has been violated, you see, and Ruby feels it [pg 290] keenly. It was not in any way her fault: an unpardonable indiscretion——"
"What I say is," Mr. Mallow broke in,—"excuse me for interruptin', Miss Bygood; what I say is, that woman ought to be taken and ducked, sir! ducked in the hoss-pond for a common cormorant! She is a dirigo, that's what she is! a dirigo, sir!" (Mr. Mallow meant termagant and virago, but it did not matter; everybody understood.)
"Doubtless! doubtless!" Mr. Jordano waved his note-book anxiously. "Most ill-judged! most unfortunate-tate-tate! But as to the—if I may borrow a legal expression, the corpus delicti; as to the alleged message itself. Is that, does Miss Bygood consider, correctly reported? No indiscreeto, I beg to assure you! But if it has been made public—there seem to be two reports current, which in a measure conflict-tict-tict. Is it permissible to ask which is the correct—a—version?"
Miss Almeria pondered a moment, conscious that all eyes were fixed eagerly upon her.
"As the message has been made public," she said at last, "though feloniously so, feloniously so, I must consider——" she bowed to a general murmur of assent from the company—"it is perhaps best to be sure that it is correctly given. The words of the message were these: 'Coming; coach and six: Duke.' So much our friend, Miss Caddie, admits. As to the precise meaning of the message, she declines to express an opinion; very properly, in my judgment."
"Oh, quite so! quite so!" murmured Mr. Jordano.
[pg 291] "Very discreeto, I am sure. Hers not to reason why, hers but to do and—which we sincerely hope that estimable lady will refrain from—" Mr. Jordano became involved, and flourished the note-book nervously.
"Question is, what in hemp does it mean?" broke in Mr. Mallow again. "I beg you'll excuse me, Miss Bygood; that darned tattle-tale has got me all worked up; but I want to get to the bottom of this. Does it mean that the feller is comin' that way, drivin' six hosses—three pair, that would be, I presume—he wouldn't drive that number tantrum, most likely—because if it does, I'd have to get extry help, you see, Miss Almery. Or would he bring his own help with him, think? A Dook is next to a king, isn't he? Did you ever see a Dook, Mr. Bygood?"
Mr. Bygood, as was well known, had made several voyages in his early manhood, in the mystic character of ship's husband, and had visited Foreign Parts. All eyes turned on the old gentleman, who beamed gently through his spectacles. No, he had never seen a duke; that is, never in life, sir! He had seen the statue of the Duke of Wellington, in Hyde Park, London, England; it was considered very fine, he believed: very fine. A work of art, sir!
Mr. Jason Jebus, whose contribution to the conversation had been hitherto a running commentary of squeaks, now became articulate.
"I was in to Abram Hanks's just now to get me some lahstic for my boots—" (have I said that the partners wore elastic-sided Congress boots? They did; the difference between right and left was less [pg 292] obvious in these than in other boots, and Mr. Jason always wore out Mr. Josiah's left boots, which did not fit the club foot)—"and heclaimed the—individual—was comin' by rail, and wanted some one should meet him at the deepo with a coach and six horses. Cissy Sharpe told him, he said."
"Good reason for believin' 'tain't so!" snorted Mr. Mallow.
"Abram didn't let on he felt anyways sure of it," Mr. Jason continued. "He thought mebbe he'd dress up his window a mite on the chance—strangers, you know—and I didn't know but what I would. Like to have 'em see a tasty window, if they should come. Like to have Cyrus stores make as good appearance as any. Josiah has a handsome centrepiece just com——"
"Now! now!" Mr. Josiah put in testily. "Don't you go runnin' away with no notions, Jason! I ain't said I was willin' to put that piece in the winder, and I don't know as I am. There's consid'able blue in it, and blue won't stand a winder light, it perishes right out. Come on! we must be goin'. Give you good mornin', neighbors!"
Mr. Josiah stumped off, Mr. Jason twittering at his heels. Mr. Mallow looked after them with a tolerant smile.
"Now Jason will put in the day," he said, "publishin' up that winder. Start him and Abram Hanks, and we shall have the whole Street dandied up like Decoration Day. I guess the Mallow House will stay pretty much as it is, Dook or no Dook." (Oh, Mr. Mallow! [pg 293] Mr. Mallow! as if Hannah Sullivan were not at work at this moment "cleaning" your spotless paint, while Billy polishes the shining silver!) "I guess what suits the Boarders'll do for him, what say?"
"Indeed, yes, Mr. Mallow!" Miss Almeria cast a kind glance on "the Mine Host." "The Mallow House is always the perfection of order and taste. You would put him in the Bird of Paradise Room, I presume?"
"Yes'm; that is, I think so!" Mr. Mallow's brow was thoughtful. "It's the largest room, and the handsomest, most think. Me and Billy was lookin' things over this mornin'. He didn't know but the Castle Room would be the most suitable;" (the Mallow House rooms were named from the patterns of their wall-paper) "you know I put a resource in there last fall, kind o' balcove like, and he thought set the bed inside that, 'twould have the look of two rooms; but I don't know! Nor I don't know as we've got this matter rightly settled," he added with a laugh, "which way this feller is comin', if he is comin'. It may be all folderido, some fool kid monkeyin' with the telegraph, thinkin' he's all-fired smart. How 'bout that, Very?"
Mr. Jordano, on reflection, thought that improbable. The message was not such as a boy would be likely to invent: besides, the distance—he understood California was the source——
At this point Mr. Bygood, who had been dozing in his chair, looked up. "What does Kitty say?" he asked calmly.
[pg 294] The others looked at each other.
"Dear Father," said Miss Almeria gently; "under all the circumstances, it would be hardly suitable, I fear, to——"
Mr. Mallow colored high and cleared his throat nervously. "That's right!" he said. "That's right, Miss Bygood. I—I met Kitty this mornin', on my way down: I forgot to mention it. I didn't say anything, you understand: I only just threw it off, jokin' like. 'Well, Kitty,' I says. 'How's the British this mornin'?' She looks at me, Doctor all over; astonishin' the way she'll call him up sometimes. 'Pretty well, Mr. Mallow,' she says. 'As well as can be expected after Bunker Hill,' she says. We shan't get anything out of Kitty."
It was finally decided, Miss Almeria voicing the general opinion, that the less said about the momentous telegram the better. The dignity of Cyrus would be compromised by taking any notice of tidings received in a manner "equally irregular and reprehensible." Miss Almeria bent her handsome head at its severest angle.
"I am confident, dear friends," she concluded, "that silence is the only—shall I say attitude?—worthy of Cyrus in this emergency."
"Oh, quite so! quite so!" murmured Mr. Jordano with forlorn nobility. "You point us the skyward way, Miss Almeria, as ever!"
"That's right!" said Mr. Mallow. "Silence and Cyrus: both begin with C. Guess we can get along, even if he don't come at all, what say? Shall we toddle, [pg 295] Very? Good mornin', Mr. Bygood! mornin', Miss Bygood, and thank you kindly!"
John Tucker was perhaps the only person in Cyrus who knew nothing of the fateful telegram. He was having a suffering time, poor John, with rheumatism. He had struggled valiantly against it through the long winter and the perilous combination of extremes that we call spring in New England. He had managed to keep the knowledge of his ailment from Kitty, and had gone to the station in all weathers, steadfastly refusing to allow her to meet "them pesky trains." Now, however, when "the season of snows and sins" was over, and summer was here with her lap full of roses, the enemy clutched John Tucker in an iron grip and held him fast. He struggled out every day, and crept over to Ross House, where he sat, in stable or harness room, directing his son Tim, who did his fourteen-year-old best, but found "Pa" hard to satisfy. Tim felt fully equal to driving Old Crummles, or even Dan, to meet the trains, but was bidden briefly to "shut up" when he volunteered to do so. Kitty was all eagerness to drive herself, but John's face of misery at the suggestion smote her heart, and she engaged Amos Barrell, the blacksmith's stalwart son, to perform this duty, and to help in the stable when more help was needed. Amos was usually a silent youth, with little more to say than "Yep" and "Nope" and "That so?" but about this time he became conversational, not to say inquisitive. He wanted to know if they was any coaches in town. What was that big wagon there all kivered up? Was that a coach? [pg 296] Warn't? Well, he didn't hardly think—some said there was a coach in the stable out to Gaylords'. Was it sold, think, or was it there yet? Gramp said there used to be one to the Maller House when he was a boy, but he never heard of their puttin' more'n four hosses to it, Gramp said. Gramp allowed mebbe——
"Shut up!" said John Tucker. "Know what that means?"
Visitors came to the harness room, as usual; more than usual, in fact. John Tucker, his bones like red-hot iron within him, thought they came like grasshoppers in a hayfield. Orison Wesley sidled in, lank and lantern-jawed; sat upon a keg and sympathized with John's sufferings. He knew what 'twas; ketched you in the small of your back—gorry! he guessed he'd used a case of Carter's Chlorodyne Liniment last winter. The woman just slabbed it on; slabbed it on, sir. That was right; you wanted something that s'arched your vitals.
"How many hosses you drivin' now, Tucker?"
"I ain't drivin' none!" growled John, one eye on the clock.
"That's right! but I mean when you have your health? Lemme see! You've got three here, ain't you?"
John grunted assent.
"Drive 'em single mostly, do ye? Ever hitch 'em up together?"
What ye mean? Three hosses together? No! did ever you go up to the Asylum? Well, I wouldn't if I was you; they mightn't let you out again."
Mr. Wesley swayed to and fro on the keg, chuckling slowly. He could make allowances for a man's being a mite crotchetty with the rheumatiz. Besides, he had not got the information he sought.
"Ever drive more than three?" he droned on. "Ever drive six hosses, Tucker?"
John Tucker rose slowly and painfully, creaking in every joint.
"I've drove six jackasses," he said. "I drove 'em out of this stable. S'pose you foller 'em, Orison, and see where they've got to by this time! I'm goin' home to supper."
At the "Chantery," great excitement prevailed. The girls were all a-twitter, speculating on the probable age of the expected nobleman, his appearance—("He ought to be dark, of course, to contrast; and dark is so much more aristo——." "My dear! how absurd! every duke I ever read of was pure Saxon, with blue or gray eyes and fair hair swept back from a marble—")—the the probable date of his advent.
"My dear! he may be here to-morrow; just think! what shall we say to him? Will he expect us to curtsey, do you suppose?"
Thus Zephine, the least sensible of the girls.
"Well, we won't!" said Nelly stoutly. Nelly was engaged to Joe Myers now, and was not afraid of all the Dukes in creation. "I'll tell you what, girls! Kitty is coming to supper to-night: I asked her this morning. Mother, you said there would be plenty, didn't you? We'll ask her right out. I'm sure we know her well enough!"
"Ask what?" Mr. Chanter spoke abruptly, looking up from his Congregationalist. That was the most singular thing about Pa; you never could tell when he wouldn't hear, though generally you might discuss the most thrilling events in the (Cyrus) world without his taking the slightest notice.
"Ask what?" repeated the Reverend Timothy.
"Lor, Pa! how you startled us! Ask Kitty about this duke, or whatever he is, who is coming to see her. She is coming to supper to-night, and Nelly is going to ask her all about him, right straight out, and about the coach and six, and all."
"Nelly will do nothing of the sort." Mr. Chanter spoke with calm decision. "Kitty knows her own affairs; if she has anything to tell us, she will; if not, it is none of our business."
"Quite right!" nodded Mrs. Chanter over her basket. "Suppose we finish the stockings, girls! you will each want a whole pair to receive the Duke in, you know; perhaps Pa will read us a chapter of 'Pickwick' while we work."
What was to be done with parents like these? "Wax nine times out of ten," whispered Zephine to Lina, "and the tenth time cast iron with a twinkle!"
Kitty came to supper, looking so lovely that even these friends, who knew and loved her beauty so well, marveled at it. The girls worshiped openly; Rodney and Aristides heaved furtive sighs and cast shy glances over their cocoa-cups. The elders noticed with silent joy that a little pallor, a little drawn look about the sweet mouth, a little dark line under the eyes, [pg 299] that had troubled their kind hearts, was gone from the girl's face. She bloomed like one of her own June roses; her eyes shot gay sparkles; her laughter sounded every note of joyous mirth—but alas! for the girls! she said no word of dukes or coaches. At parting she kissed Mrs. Chanter with special warmth, and lingered a moment at the door looking at her host with shining eyes. "Would you mind if I kissed you, too?" she asked: and Mr. Chanter went back to his books with blurred spectacles and a lump in his throat. But Kitty made Rodney, her proud escort, race her all the way home, and honestly, he had no idea a girl could sprint like that.
Madam Flynt? That lady kept her own counsel in these days. She refused a visit from Mrs. Sharpe, sending word that she was specially engaged. So she was, up in her room, looking over her jewel-case, selecting certain emeralds, and being very short with Miss Croly, who deemed it her duty to touch lightly on the unwisdom (she did not say folly: the word would be discourteous!) of persons in later life wearing other than the simpler forms of jewelry. A chaste gold brooch, now——
It was intimated that when the lady's opinion was desired it would be asked for, and the friends parted—for half an hour.
Mrs. Sharpe, failing of entrance at Madam Flynt's, rang at the door of Ross House; continued to ring at intervals, for fifteen minutes, Kitty being out; finally went round to the back door and knocked. The door [pg 300] was opened three inches by Sarepta, a figure of granite.
"Oh, how do you do, Sarepta?" thus Mrs. Sharpe in honeyed tones. "I think the front door bell must be out of order. I've been ringing and ringing! Kitty at home?"
Kitty out: not likely to return before night. Sarepta attempted to close the door, but the visitor slipped an adroit foot into the opening.
"How well you're looking, Sarepta! I declare I think I must come in and make you a little visit, he! he!"
She tried to push the door, wider, but it was held in an iron grip; Sarepta, apparently, had not heard her remark.
"Ahem!" Mrs. Sharpe tried a new tack. "Expecting visitors, are you, Sarepta?"
"Not as I know of!"
"Oh, I understand! a visitor, I should have said. It's always well to be exact. Well, all I called for was to say, if you wanted to borrow anything, silver or the like of that, I hope you'll come to me, Sarepta. Mr. Sharpe was part English, you know; his grandfather came from the Provinces, and of course I'm acquainted with English ways. Perhaps I'd better come in and talk it over——"
"Excuse me! My bread is in the oven!" said Sarepta Darwin.
The door closed on a shriek.
"I scrouged her toe good!" Sarepta told Madam [pg 301] Flynt that night. "She bellered right out, and I was glad."
Perhaps the most complete summing up of the situation was given that evening by Miss Almeria Bygood as she sat with her sister over nine o'clock supper, that pleasant meal that still lingers in blessed Cyrus, where we dine at half-past twelve and sup at five or six. Molly had brought in the tray and drawn up the little round table between the two ladies as they sat with their feet on the embroidered fender-stool. (There was no fire, but they always sat there in the evening.) Pretty Molly, crisp and trim in her light print dress! Miss Bygoods did not hold with putting maids in black, especially young maids. "Why should they be made to ape the semblance of sorrow?" Miss Almeria asked with dignity. "We trust our service is not so arduous as to cause them the reality!"
They were talking of the duke, of course, over their cocoa and sponge drops: who, save Kitty and John Tucker, talked of anything else in this week of the Tribulations of Cyrus? They wondered, hoped, feared, wondered again. Would they lose their Kitty, the rose and jewel of their little world? Would this great nobleman carry her off, if not on his horse (Miss Egeria knew nothing of strong men from the north!) at least in his coach and six? Thus Miss Egeria, trembling, romantic.
Surely not, Miss Almeria replied gravely. A sense of propriety would assuredly not be wanting in a person of such lofty position. At the same time, it was most unfortunate that Johanna and Edward were absent.
"Most unfortunate!" Miss Egeria sighed. "Not only for the—the suitability of it, of course, in every way, but—well, Sister, Johanna has such an air, such knowledge of the world; and Edward is such an elegant man! I am sure the duke would not anywhere meet finer manners, and we would wish him to see Cyrus at its best!"
"Dear Sister!" Miss Almeria laid her slender hand, with its antique but costly rings, gently on Miss Egeria's cashmere sleeve; "have no fears on that score! there at least, if nowhere else, we may feel secure. In matters of courtesy and breeding—with one or two exceptions——" Miss Almeria closed her eyes; "Cyrus is always at its best!"