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Chapter 28

BUT IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN MISS KITTY


The ottoman whence, as Gavinia said, Miss Ailie produced the presents
she gave to Mr. McLean, stood near the door of the blue-and-white room,
with a reel of thread between, to keep them apart forever. Except on
washing days it was of a genteel appearance, for though but a wooden
kist, it had a gay outer garment with frills, which Gavinia starched,
and beneath this was apparel of a private character that tied with
tapes. When Miss Ailie, pins in her mouth, was on her knees arraying the
ottoman, it might almost have been mistaken for a female child.

The contents of the ottoman were a few trivial articles sewn or knitted
by Miss Kitty during her last illness, "just to keep me out of languor,"
she would explain wistfully to her sister. She never told Miss Ailie
that they were intended for any special person; on the contrary, she
said, "Perhaps you may find someone they will be useful to," but almost
without her knowing it they always grew into something that would be
useful to Ivie McLean.

"The remarkable thing is that they are an exact fit," the man said
about the slippers, and Miss Ailie nodded, but she did not think it
remarkable.

There were also two fluffy little bags, and Miss Ailie had to explain
their use. "If you put your feet into them in bed," she faltered,
"they--they keep you warm."

McLean turned hastily to something else, a smoking-cap. "I scarcely
think this can have been meant for me," he said; "you have forgotten how
she used to chide me for smoking."

Miss Ailie had not forgotten. "But in a way," she replied, flushing a
little, "we--that is, Kitty--could not help admiring you for smoking.
There is something so--so dashing about it."

"I was little worthy all the friendship you two gave me, Ailie," he told
her humbly, and he was nearly saying something to her then that he had
made up his mind to say. The time came a few days later. They had been
walking together on the hill, and on their return to the Dovecot he had
insisted, "in his old imperious way," on coming in to tea. Hearing
talking in the kitchen Miss Ailie went along the passage to discover
what company her maid kept; but before she reached the door, which was
ajar, she turned as if she had heard something dreadful and hurried
upstairs, signing to Mr. McLean, with imploring eyes, to follow her.
This at once sent him to the kitchen door.

Gavinia was alone. She was standing in the middle of the floor, with
one arm crooked as if making believe that another's arm rested on it,
and over her head was a little muslin window-blind, representing a
bride's veil. Thus she was two persons, but she was also a third, who
addressed them in clerical tones.

"Ivie McLean," she said as solemnly as tho' she were the Rev. Mr.
Dishart, "do you take this woman to be thy lawful wedded wife?" With
almost indecent haste she answered herself, "I do."

"Alison Cray," she said next, "do you take this man to be thy lawful
wedded husband?" "I do."

Just then the door shut softly; and Gavinia ran to see who had been
listening, with the result that she hid herself in the coal-cellar.

While she was there, Miss Ailie and Mr. McLean were sitting in the
blue-and-white room very self-conscious, and Miss Ailie was speaking
confusedly of anything and everything, saying more in five minutes than
had served for the previous hour, and always as she slackened she read
an intention in his face that started her tongue upon another journey.
But, "Timid Ailie," he said at last, "do you think you can talk me
down?" and then she gave him a look of reproach that turned
treacherously into one of appeal, but he had the hardihood to continue;
"Ailie, do you need to be told what I want to say?"

Miss Ailie stood quite still now, a stiff, thick figure, with a soft,
plain face and nervous hands. "Before you speak," she said, nervously,
"I have something to tell you that--perhaps then you will not say it.

"I have always led you to believe," she began, trembling, "that I am
forty-nine. I am fifty-one."

He would have spoken, but the look of appeal came back to her face,
asking him to make it easier for her by saying nothing. She took a pair
of spectacles from her pocket, and he divined what this meant before she
spoke. "I have avoided letting you see that I need them," she said.
"You--men don't like--" She tried to say it all in a rush, but the words
would not come.

"I am beginning to be a little deaf," she went on. "To deceive you about
that, I have sometimes answered you without really knowing what you
said."

"Anything more, Ailie?"

"My accomplishments--they were never great, but Kitty and I thought my
playing of classical pieces--my fingers are not sufficiently pliable
now. And I--I forget so many things."

"But, Ailie--"

"Please let me tell you. I was reading a book, a story, last winter, and
one of the characters, an old maid, was held up to ridicule in it for
many little peculiarities that--that I recognized as my own. They had
grown upon me without my knowing that they made me ridiculous, and now
I--I have tried, but I cannot alter them."

"Is that all, Ailie?"

"No."

The last seemed to be the hardest to say. Dusk had come on, and they
could not see each other well. She asked him to light the lamp, and his
back was toward her while he did it, wondering a little at her request.
When he turned, her hands rose like cowards to hide her head, but she
pulled them down. "Do you not see?" she said.

"I see that you have done something to your hair," he answered, "I liked
it best the other way."

Most people would have liked it best the other way. There was still a
good deal of it, but the "bun" in which it ended had gone strangely
small. "The rest was false," said Miss Ailie, with a painful effort; "at
least, it is my own, but it came out when--when Kitty died."

She stopped, but he was silent. "That is all now," she said, softly; and
she waited for him to speak if he chose. He turned his head away
sharply, and Miss Ailie mistook his meaning. If she gave one little
sob--Well, it was but one, and then all the glory of womanhood came
rushing to her aid, and it unfurled its flag over her, whispering, "Now,
sweet daughter, now, strike for me," and she raised her head gallantly,
and for a moment in her life the old school-mistress was a queen. "I
shall ring for tea," she said, quietly and without a tremor; "do you
think there is anything so refreshing after a walk as a dish of tea?"

She rang the bell, but its tinkle only made Gavinia secede farther into
the cellar, and that summons has not been answered to this day, and no
one seems to care, for while the wires were still vibrating Mr. McLean
had asked Miss Ailie to forgive him and marry him.

Miss Ailie said she would, but, "Oh," she cried, "ten years ago it might
have been my Kitty. I would that it had been Kitty!"

Miss Ailie was dear to him now, and ten years is a long time, and men
are vain. Mr. McLean replied, quite honestly, "I am not sure that I did
not always like you best," but that hurt her, and he had to unsay the
words.

"I was a thoughtless fool ten years ago," he said, bitterly, and Miss
Ailie's answer came strangely from such timid lips. "Yes, you were!" she
exclaimed, passionately, and all the wrath, long pent up, with very
different feelings, in her gentle bosom, against the man who should have
adored her Kitty, leapt at that reproachful cry to her mouth and eyes,
and so passed out of her forever.

James M. Barrie