It was dimmest twilight when Kitty entered Mrs. Ellison's room and sank down on the first chair in silence.
"The colonel met a friend at the St. Louis, and forgot about the expedition, Kitty," said Fanny, "and he only came in half an hour ago. But it's just as well; I know you've had a splendid time. Where's Mr. Arbuton?"
Kitty burst into tears.
"Why, has anything happened to him?" cried Mrs. Ellison, springing towards her.
"To him? No! What should happen to him?" Kitty demanded with an indignant accent.
"Well, then, has anything happened to you?"
"I don't know if you can call it happening. But I suppose you'll be satisfied now, Fanny. He's offered himself to me." Kitty uttered the last words with a sort of violence, as if since the fact must be stated, she wished it to appear in the sharpest relief.
"O dear!" said Mrs. Ellison, not so well satisfied as the successful match-maker ought to be. So long as it was a marriage in the abstract, she had never ceased to desire it; but as the actual union of Kitty and this Mr. Arbuton, of whom, really, they knew so little, and of whom, if she searched her heart, she had as little liking as knowledge, it was another affair. Mrs. Ellison trembled at her triumph, and began to think that failure would have been easier to bear. Were they in the least suited to each other? Would she like to see poor Kitty chained for life to that impassive egotist, whose very merits were repellent, and whose modesty even seemed to convict and snub you? Mrs. Ellison was not able to put the matter to herself with moderation, either way; doubtless she did Mr. Arbuton injustice now. "Did you accept him?" she whispered, feebly.
"Accept him?" repeated Kitty. "No!"
"O dear!" again sighed Mrs. Ellison, feeling that this was scarcely better, and not daring to ask further.
"I'm dreadfully perplexed, Fanny," said Kitty, after waiting for the questions which did not come, "and I wish you'd help me think."
"I will, darling. But I don't know that I'll be of much use. I begin to think I'm not very good at thinking."
Kitty, who longed chiefly to get the situation more distinctly before herself, gave no heed to this confession, but went on to rehearse the whole affair. The twilight lent her its veil; and in the kindly obscurity she gathered courage to face all the facts, and even to find what was droll in them.
"It was very solemn, of course, and I was frightened; but I tried to keep my wits about me, and not to say yes, simply because that was the easiest thing. I told him that I didn't know,—and I don't; and that I must have time to think,—and I must. He was very ungenerous, and said he had hoped I had already had time to think; and he couldn't seem to understand, or else I couldn't very well explain, how it had been with me all along."
"He might certainly say you had encouraged him," Mrs. Ellison remarked, thoughtfully.
"Encouraged him, Fanny? How can you accuse me of such indelicacy?"
"Encouraging isn't indelicacy. The gentlemen have to be encouraged, or of course they'd never have any courage. They're so timid, naturally."
"I don't think Mr. Arbuton is very timid. He seemed to think that he had only to ask as a matter of form, and I had no business to say anything. What has he ever done for me? And hasn't he often been intensely disagreeable? He oughtn't to have spoken just after overhearing what he did. It was horrid to do so. He was very obtuse, too, not to see that girls can't always be so certain of themselves as men, or, if they are, don't know they are as soon as they're asked."
"Yes," interrupted Mrs. Ellison, "that's the way with girls. I do believe that most of them—when they're young like you, Kitty—never think of marriage as the end of their flirtations. They'd just like the attentions and the romance to go on forever, and never turn into anything more serious; and they're not to blame for that, though they do get blamed for it."
"Certainly," assented Kitty, eagerly, "that's it; that's just what I was saying; that's the very reason why girls must have time to make up their minds. You had, I suppose."
"Yes, two minutes. Poor Dick was going back to his regiment, and stood with his watch in his hand. I said no, and called after him to correct myself. But, Kitty, if the romance had happened to stop without his saying anything, you wouldn't have liked that either, would you?"
"No," faltered Kitty, "I suppose not."
"Well, then, don't you see? That's a great point in his favor. How much time did you want, or did he give you?"
"I said I should answer before we left Quebec," answered Kitty, with a heavy sigh.
"Don't you know what to say now?"
"I can't tell. That's what I want you to help me think out."
Mrs. Ellison was silent for a moment before she said, "Well, then, I suppose we shall have to go back to the very beginning."
"Yes," assented Kitty, faintly.
"You did have a sort of fancy for him the first time you saw him, didn't you?" asked Mrs. Ellison, coaxingly, while forcing herself to be systematic and coherent, by a mental strain of which no idea can be given.
"Yes," said Kitty, yet more faintly, adding, "but I can't tell just what sort of a fancy it was. I suppose I admired him for being handsome and stylish, and for having such exquisite manners."
"Go on," said Mrs. Ellison. "And after you got acquainted with him?"
"Why, you know we've talked that over once already, Fanny."
"Yes, but we oughtn't to skip anything now," replied Mrs. Ellison, in a tone of judicial accuracy which made Kitty smile.
But she quickly became serious again, and said, "Afterwards I couldn't tell whether to like him or not, or whether he wanted me to. I think he acted very strangely for a person in—love. I used to feel so troubled and oppressed when I was with him. He seemed always to be making himself agreeable under protest."
"Perhaps that was just your imagination, Kitty."
"Perhaps it was; but it troubled me just the same."
"Well, and then?"
"Well, and then after that day of the Montgomery expedition, he seemed to change altogether, and to try always to be pleasant, and to do everything he could to make me like him. I don't know how to account for it. Ever since then he's been extremely careful of me, and behaved—of course without knowing it—as if I belonged to him already. Or maybe I've imagined that too. It's very hard to tell what has really happened the last two weeks."
Kitty was silent, and Mrs. Ellison did not speak at once. Presently she asked, "Was his acting as if you belonged to him disagreeable?"
"I can't tell. I think it was rather presuming. I don't know why he did it."
"Do you respect him?" demanded Mrs. Ellison.
"Why, Fanny, I've always told you that I did respect some things in him."
Mrs. Ellison had the facts before her, and it rested upon her to sum them up, and do something with them. She rose to a sitting posture, and confronted her task.
"Well, Kitty, I'll tell you: I don't really know what to think. But I can say this: if you liked him at first, and then didn't like him, and afterwards he made himself more agreeable, and you didn't mind his behaving as if you belonged to him, and you respected him, but after all didn't think him fascinating—"
"He is fascinating—in a kind of way. He was, from the beginning. In a story his cold, snubbing, putting-down ways would have been perfectly fascinating."
"Then why didn't you take him?"
"Because," answered Kitty, between laughing and crying, "it isn't a story, and I don't know whether I like him."
"But do you think you might get to like him?"
"I don't know. His asking brings back all the doubts I ever had of him, and that I've been forgetting the past two weeks. I can't tell whether I like him or not. If I did, shouldn't I trust him more?"
"Well, whether you are in love or not, I'll tell you what you are, Kitty," cried Mrs. Ellison, provoked with her indecision, and yet relieved that the worst, whatever it was, was postponed thereby for a day or two.
But at this important juncture the colonel came lounging in, and Kitty glided out of the room.
"Richard," said Mrs. Ellison, seriously, and in a tone implying that it was the colonel's fault, as usual, "you know what has happened, I suppose."
"No, my dear, I don't; but no matter: I will presently, I dare say."
"O, I wish for once you wouldn't be so flippant. Mr. Arbuton has offered himself to Kitty."
Colonel Ellison gave a quick, sharp whistle of amazement, but trusted himself to nothing more articulate.
"Yes," said his wife, responding to the whistle, "and it makes me perfectly wretched."
"Why, I thought you liked him."
"I didn't like him; but I thought it would be an excellent thing for Kitty."
"And won't it?"
"She doesn't know."
The colonel was silent, while Mrs. Ellison stated the case in full, and its pending uncertainty. Then he exclaimed vehemently, as if his amazement had been growing upon him, "This is the most astonishing thing in the world! Who would ever have dreamt of that young iceberg being in love?"
"Haven't I told you all along he was?"
"O yes, certainly; but that might be taken either way, you know. You would discover the tender passion in the eye of a potato."
"Colonel Ellison," said Fanny with sternness, "why do you suppose he's been hanging about us for the last four weeks? Why should he have stayed in Quebec? Do you think he pitied me, or found you so very agreeable?"
"Well, I thought he found us just tolerable, and was interested in the place."
Mrs. Ellison made no direct reply to this pitiable speech, but looked a scorn which, happily for the colonel, the darkness hid. Presently she said that bats did not express the blindness of men, for any bat could have seen what was going on.
"Why," remarked the colonel, "I did have a momentary suspicion that day of the Montgomery business; they both looked very confused, when I saw them at the end of that street, and neither of them had anything to say; but that was accounted for by what you told me afterwards about his adventure. At the time I didn't pay much attention to the matter. The idea of his being in love seemed too ridiculous."
"Was it ridiculous for you to be in love with me?"
"No; and yet I can't praise my condition for its wisdom, Fanny."
"Yes! that's like men. As soon as one of them is safely married, he thinks all the love-making in the world has been done forever, and he can't conceive of two young people taking a fancy to each other."
"That's something so, Fanny. But granting—for the sake of argument merely—that Boston has been asking Kitty to marry him, and she doesn't know whether she wants him, what are we to do about it? I don't like him well enough to plead his cause; do you? When does Kitty think she'll be able to make up her mind?"
"She's to let him know before we leave."
The colonel laughed. "And so he's to hang about here on uncertainties for two whole days! That is rather rough on him. Fanny, what made you so eager for this business?"
"Eager? I wasn't eager."
"Well, then,—reluctantly acquiescent?"
"Why, she's so literary and that."
"How insulting!—Intellectual, and so on; and I thought she would be just fit to live in a place where everybody is literary and intellectual. That is, I thought that, if I thought anything."
"Well," said the colonel, "you may have been right on the whole, but I don't think Kitty is showing any particular force of mind, just now, that would fit her to live in Boston. My opinion is, that it's ridiculous for her to keep him in suspense. She might as well answer him first as last. She's putting herself under a kind of obligation by her delay. I'll talk to her—"
"If you do, you'll kill her. You don't know how she's wrought up about it."
"O well, I'll be careful of her sensibilities. It's my duty to speak with her. I'm here in the place of a parent. Besides, don't I know Kitty? I've almost brought her up."
"Maybe you're right. You're all so queer that perhaps you're right. Only, do be careful, Richard. You must approach the matter very delicately,—indirectly, you know. Girls are different, remember, from young men, and you mustn't be blunt. Do maneuver a little, for once in your life."
"All right, Fanny; you needn't be afraid of my doing anything awkward or sudden. I'll go to her room pretty soon, after she is quieted down, and have a good, calm old fatherly conversation with her."
The colonel was spared this errand; for Kitty had left some of her things on Fanny's table, and now came back for them with a lamp in her hand. Her averted face showed the marks of weeping; the corners of her firm-set lips were downward bent, as if some resolution which she had taken were very painful. This the anxious Fanny saw; and she made a gesture to the colonel which any woman would have understood to enjoin silence, or, at least, the utmost caution and tenderness of speech. The colonel summoned his finesse and said, cheerily, "Well, Kitty, what's Boston been saying to you?"
Mrs. Ellison fell back upon her sofa as if shot, and placed her hand over her face.
Kitty seemed not to hear her cousin. Having gathered up her things, she bent an unmoved face and an unseeing gaze full upon him, and glided from the room without a word.
"Well, upon my soul," cried the colonel, "this is a pleasant, nightmarish, sleep-walking, Lady-Macbethish little transaction. Confound it, Fanny this comes of your wanting me to maneuver. If you'd let me come straight at the subject,—like a man—"
"Please, Richard, don't say anything more now," pleaded Mrs. Ellison in a broken voice. "You can't help it, I know; and I must do the best I can, under the circumstances. Do go away for a little while, darling! O dear!"
As for Kitty, when she had got out of the room in that phantasmal fashion, she dimly recalled, through the mists of her own trouble, the colonel's dismay at her so glooming upon him, and began to think that she had used poor Dick more tragically than she need, and so began to laugh softly to herself; but while she stood there at the entry window a moment, laughing in the moonlight, that made her lamp-flame thin, and painted her face with its pale lustre, Mr. Arbuton came down the attic stairway. He was not a man of quick fancies; but to one of even slower imagination and of calmer mood, she might very well have seemed unreal, the creature of a dream, fantastic, intangible, insensible, arch, not wholly without some touch of the malign. In his heart he groaned over her beauty as if she were lost to him forever in this elfish transfiguration.
"Miss Ellison!" he scarcely more than whispered.
"You ought not to speak to me now," she answered, gravely.
"I know it; but I could not help it. For heaven's sake, do not let it tell against me. I wished to ask if I should not see you to-morrow; to beg that all might go on as had been planned, and as if nothing had been said to-day."
"It'll be very strange," said Kitty. "My cousins know everything now. How can we meet before them!"
"I'm not going away without an answer, and we can't remain here without meeting. It will be less strange if we let everything take its course."
He looked strangely humbled, but even more bewildered than humbled.
She listened while he descended the steps, unbolted the street door, and closed it behind him. Then she passed out of the moonlight into her own room, whose close-curtained space the lamp filled with its ruddy glow, and revealed her again, no malicious sprite, but a very puzzled, conscientious, anxious young girl.
Of one thing, at least, she was clear. It had all come about through misunderstanding, through his taking her to be something that she was not; for she was certain that Mr. Arbuton was of too worldly a spirit to choose, if he had known, a girl of such origin and lot as she was only too proud to own. The deception must have begun with dress; and she determined that her first stroke for truth and sincerity should be most sublimely made in the return of Fanny's things, and a rigid fidelity to her own dresses. "Besides," she could not help reflecting, "my travelling-suit will be just the thing for a picnic." And here, if the cynical reader of another sex is disposed to sneer at the method of her self-devotion, I am sure that women, at least, will allow it was most natural and highly proper that in this great moment she should first think of dress, upon which so great consequences hang in matters of the heart Who—to be honest for once, O vain and conceited men!—can deny that the cut, the color, the texture, the stylish set of dresses, has not had everything to do with the rapture of love's young dream? Are not certain bits of lace and knots of ribbon as much a part of it as any smile or sidelong glance of them all? And hath not the long experience of the fair taught them that artful dress is half the virtue of their spells? Full well they know it; and when Kitty resolved to profit no longer by Fanny's wardrobe, she had won the hardest part of the battle in behalf of perfect truth towards Mr. Arbuton. She did not, indeed, stop with this, but lay awake, devising schemes by which she should disabuse him of his errors about her, and persuade him that she was no wife for him.