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Chapter 12

THE PICNIC AT CHATEAU-BIGOT.

"Well," said Mrs. Ellison, who had slipped into Kitty's room, in the morning, to do her back hair with some advantages of light which her own chamber lacked, "it'll be no crazier than the rest of the performance; and if you and he can stand it, I'm sure that we've no reason to complain."

"Why, I don't see how it's to be helped, Fanny. He's asked it; and I'm rather glad he has, for I should have hated to have the conventional headache that keeps young ladies from being seen; and at any rate I don't understand how the day could be passed more sensibly than just as we originally planned to spend it. I can make up my mind a great deal better with him than away from him. But I think there never was a more ridiculous situation: now that the high tragedy has faded out of it, and the serious part is coming, it makes me laugh. Poor Mr. Arbuton will feel all day that he is under my mercilessly critical eye, and that he mustn't do this and he mustn't say that, for fear of me; and he can't run away, for he's promised to wait patiently for my decision. It's a most inglorious position for him, but I don't think of anything to do about it. I could say no at once, but he'd rather not."

"What have you got that dress on for?" asked Mrs. Ellison, abruptly.

"Because I'm not going to wear your things any more, Fanny. It's a case of conscience. I feel like a guilty creature, being courted in another's clothes; and I don't know but it's for a kind of punishment of my deceit that I can't realize this affair as I ought, or my part in it. I keep feeling, the whole time, as if it were somebody else, and I have an absurd kind of other person's interest in it."

Mrs. Ellison essayed some reply, but was met by Kitty's steadfast resolution, and in the end did not prevail in so much as a ribbon for her hair.

It was not till well into the forenoon that the preparations for the picnic were complete and the four set off together in one carriage. In the strong need that was on each of them to make the best of the affair, the colonel's unconsciousness might have been a little overdone, but Mrs. Ellison's demeanor was sublimely successful. The situation gave full play to her peculiar genius, and you could not have said that any act of hers failed to contribute to the perfection of her design, that any tone or speech was too highly colored. Mr. Arbuton, of whom she took possession, and who knew that she knew all, felt that he had never done justice to her, and seconded her efforts with something like cordial admiration; while Kitty, with certain grateful looks and aversions of the face, paid an ardent homage to her strokes of tact, and after a few miserable moments, in which her nightlong trouble gnawed at her heart, began, in spite of herself, to enjoy the humor of the situation.

It is a lovely road out to Château-Bigot. First you drive through the ancient suburbs of the Lower Town, and then you mount the smooth, hard highway, between pretty country-houses, toward the village of Charlesbourg, while Quebec shows, to your casual backward-glance, like a wondrous painted scene, with the spires and lofty roofs of the Upper Town, and the long, irregular wall wandering on the verge of the cliff; then the thronging gables and chimneys of St. Roch, and again many spires and convent walls; lastly the shipping in the St. Charles, which, in one direction, runs, a narrowing gleam, up into its valley, and in the other widens into the broad light of the St. Lawrence. Quiet, elmy spaces of meadow land stretch between the suburban mansions and the village of Charlesbourg, where the driver reassured himself as to his route from the group of idlers on the platform before the church. Then he struck off on a country road, and presently turned from this again into a lane that grew rougher and rougher, till at last it lapsed to a mere cart-track among the woods, where the rich, strong odors of the pine, and of the wild herbs bruised under the wheels, filled the air. A peasant and his black-eyed, open-mouthed boy were cutting withes to bind hay at the side of the track, and the latter consented to show the strangers to the château from a point beyond which they could not go with the carriage. There the small habitant and the driver took up the picnic-baskets, and led the way through pathless growths of underbrush to a stream, so swift that it is said never to freeze, so deeply sprung that the summer never drinks it dry. A screen of water-growths bordered it; and when this was passed, a wide open space revealed itself, with the ruin of the château in the midst.

The pathos of long neglect lay upon the scene; for here were evidences of gardens and bowery aisles in other times, and now, for many a year, desolation and the slow return of the wilderness. The mountain rising behind the château grounds showed the dying flush of the deciduous leaves among the dark green of the pines that clothed it to the crest; a cry of innumerable crickets filled the ear of the dreaming noon.

The ruin itself is not of impressive size, and it is a château by grace of the popular fancy rather than through any right of its own; for it was, in truth, never more than the hunting-lodge of the king's Intendant, Bigot, a man whose sins claim for him a lordly consideration in the history of Quebec, He was the last Intendant before the British conquest, and in that time of general distress he grew rich by oppression of the citizens, and by peculation from the soldiers. He built this pleasure-house here in the woods, and hither he rode out from Quebec to enjoy himself in the chase and the carouses that succeed the chase. Here, too, it is said, dwelt in secret the Huron girl who loved him, and who survives in the memory of the peasants as the murdered sauragesse; and, indeed, there is as much proof that she was murdered as that she ever lived. When the wicked Bigot was arrested and sent to France, where he was tried with great result of documentary record, his château fell into other hands; at last a party of Arnold's men wintered there in 1775, and it is to our own countrymen that we owe the conflagration and the ruin of Château-Bigot. It stands, as I said, in the middle of that open place, with the two gable walls and the stone partition-wall still almost entire, and that day showing very effectively against the tender northern sky. On the most weatherward gable the iron in the stone had shed a dark red stain under the lash of many winter storms, and some tough lichens had incrusted patches of the surface; but, for the rest, the walls rose in the univied nakedness of all ruins in our climate, which has no clinging evergreens wherewith to pity and soften the forlornness of decay. Out of the rubbish at the foot of the walls there sprang a wilding growth of syringas and lilacs; and the interior was choked with flourishing weeds, and with the briers of the raspberry, on which a few berries hung. The heavy beams, left where they fell a hundred years ago, proclaimed the honest solidity with which the château had been built, and there was proof in the cut stone of the hearths and chimney-places that it had once had at least the ambition of luxury.

While its visitors stood amidst the ruin, a harmless garden-snake slipped out of one crevice into another; from her nest in some hidden corner overhead a silent bird flew away. For the moment,—so slight is the capacity of any mood, so deeply is the heart responsive to a little impulse,—the palace of the Cæsars could not have imparted a keener sense of loss and desolation. They eagerly sought such particulars of the ruin as agreed with the descriptions they had read of it, and were as well contented with a bit of cellar-way outside as if they had really found the secret passage to the subterranean chamber of the château, or the hoard of silver which the little habitant said was buried under it. Then they dispersed about the grounds to trace out the borders of the garden, and Mr. Arbuton won the common praise by discovering the foundations of the stable of the château.

Then there was no more to do but to prepare for the picnic. They chose a grassy plot in the shadow of a half-dismantled bark-lodge,—a relic of the Indians, who resort to the place every summer. In the ashes of that sylvan hearth they kindled their fire, Mr. Arbuton gathering the sticks, and the colonel showing a peculiar genius in adapting the savage flames to the limitations of the civilized coffee-pot borrowed of Mrs. Gray. Mrs. Ellison laid the cloth, much meditating the arrangement of the viands, and reversing again and again the relative positions of the sliced tongue and the sardines that flanked the cold roast chicken, and doubting dreadfully whether to put down the cake and the canned peaches at once, or reserve them for a second course; the stuffed olives drove her to despair, being in a bottle, and refusing to be balanced by anything less monumental in shape. Some wild asters and red leaves and green and yellowing sprays of fern which Kitty arranged in a tumbler were hailed with rapture, but presently flung far away with fierce disdain because they had ants on them. Kitty witnessed this outburst with her usual complacency, and then went on making the coffee. With such blissful pain as none but lovers know, Mr. Arbuton saw her break the egg upon the edge of the coffee-pot, and let it drop therein, and then, with a charming frenzy, stir it round and round. It was a picture of domestic suggestion, a subtle insinuation of home, the unconscious appeal of inherent housewifery to inherent husbandhood. At the crash of the eggshell he trembled; the swift agitation of the coffee and the egg within the pot made him dizzy.

"Sha'n't I stir that for you, Miss Ellison?" he said, awkwardly.

"O dear, no!" she answered in surprise at a man's presuming to stir coffee; "but you may go get me some water at the creek, if you please."

She gave him a pitcher, and he went off to the brook, which was but a minute's distance away. This minute, however, left her alone, for the first time that day, with both Dick and Fanny, and a silence fell upon all three at once. They could not help looking at one another; and then the colonel, to show that he was not thinking of anything, began to whistle, and Mrs. Ellison rebuked him for whistling.

"Why not?" he asked. "It isn't a funeral, is it?"

"Of course it isn't," said Mrs. Ellison; and Kitty, who had been blushing to the verge of tears, laughed instead, and then was consumed with vexation when Mr. Arbuton came up, feeling that he must suspect himself the motive of her ill-timed mirth. "The champagne ought to be cooled, I suppose," observed Mrs. Ellison, when the coffee had been finally stirred and set to boil on the coals.

"I'm best acquainted with the brook," said Mr. Arbuton, "and I know just the eddy in it where the champagne will cool soonest."

"Then you shall take it there," answered the governess of the feast; and Mr. Arbuton duteously set off with the bottle in his hand.

The pitcher of water which he had already brought stood in the grass; by a sudden movement of the skirt, Kitty knocked it over. The colonel made a start forward; Mrs. Ellison arrested him with a touch, while she bent a look of ineffable admiration upon Kitty.

"Now, I'll teach myself," said Kitty, "that I can't be so clumsy with impunity. I'll go and fill that pitcher again myself." She hurried after Mr. Arbuton; they scarcely spoke going or coming; but the constraint that Kitty felt was nothing to that she had dreaded in seeking to escape from the tacit raillery of the colonel and the championship of Fanny. Yet she trembled to realize that already her life had become so far entangled with this stranger's, that she found refuge with him from her own kindred. They could do nothing to help her in this; the trouble was solely hers and his, and they two must get out of it one way or other themselves; the case scarcely admitted even of sympathy, and if it had not been hers, it would have been one to amuse her rather than appeal to her compassion. Even as it was, she sometimes caught herself smiling at the predicament of a young girl who had passed a month in every appearance of love-making, and who, being asked her heart, was holding her lover in suspense whilst she searched it, and meantime was picnicking with him upon the terms of casual flirtation. Of all the heroines in her books, she knew none in such a strait as this.

But her perplexities did not impair the appetite which she brought to the sylvan feast. In her whole simple life she had never tasted champagne before, and she said innocently, as she put the frisking fluid from her lips after the first taste, "Why, I thought you had to learn to like champagne."

"No," remarked the colonel, "it's like reading and writing: it comes by nature. I suppose that even one of the lower animals would like champagne. The refined instinct of young ladies makes them recognize its merits instantly. Some of the Confederate cellars," added the colonel, thoughtfully, "had very good champagne in them. Green seal was the favorite of our erring brethren. It wasn't one of their errors. I prefer it myself to our own native cider, whether made of apples or grapes. Yes, it's better even than the water from the old chain-pump in the back yard at Eriecreek, though it hasn't so fine a flavor of lubricating oil in it."

The faint chill that touched Mr. Arbuton at the mention of Eriecreek and its petrolic associations was transient. He was very light of heart, since the advance that Kitty seemed to have made him; and in his temporary abandon he talked well, and promoted the pleasure of the time without critical reserves. When the colonel, with the reluctance of our soldiers to speak of their warlike experiences before civilians, had suffered himself to tell a story that his wife begged of him about his last battle, Mr. Arbuton listened with a deference that flattered poor Mrs. Ellison, and made her marvel at Kitty's doubt concerning him; and then he spoke entertainingly of some travel experiences of his own, which he politely excused as quite unworthy to come after the colonel's story. He excused them a little too much, and just gave the modest soldier a faint, uneasy fear of having boasted. But no one else felt this result of his delicacy, and the feast was merry enough. When it was ended, Mrs. Ellison, being still a little infirm of foot, remained in the shadow of the bark-lodge, and the colonel lit his cigar, and loyally stretched himself upon the grass before her.

There was nothing else for Kitty and Mr. Arbuton but to stroll off together, and she preferred to do this.

They sauntered up to the château in silence, and peered somewhat languidly about the ruin. On a bit of smooth surface in a sheltered place many names of former visitors were written, and Mr. Arbuton said he supposed they might as well add those of their own party.

"O yes," answered Kitty, with a half-sigh, seating herself upon a fallen stone, and letting her hands fall into each other in her lap as her wont was, "you write them." A curious pensiveness passed from one to the other and possessed them both.

Mr. Arbuton began to write. Suddenly, "Miss Ellison," said he, with a smile, "I've blundered in your name; I neglected to put the Miss before it; and now there isn't room on the plastering."

"O, never mind," replied Kitty, "I dare say it won't be missed!"

Mr. Arbuton neither perceived nor heeded the pun. He was looking in a sort of rapture at the name which his own hand had written now for the first time, and he felt an indecorous desire to kiss it.

"If I could speak it as I've written it—"

"I don't see what harm there would be in that," said the owner of the name, "or what object," she added more discreetly.

—"I should feel that I had made a great gain."

"I never told you," answered Kitty, evasively, "how much I admire your first name, Mr. Arbuton."

"How did you know it?"

"It was on the card you gave my cousin," said Kitty, frankly, but thinking he now must know she had been keeping his card.

"It's an old family name,—a sort of heirloom from the first of us who came to the country; and in every generation since, some Arbuton has had to wear it."

"It's superb!" cried Kitty. "Miles! 'Miles Standish, the Puritan captain,' 'Miles Standish, the Captain of Plymouth.' I should be very proud of such a name."

"You have only to take it," he said, gravely.

"O, I didn't mean that," she said with a blush, and then added, "Yours is a very old family, then, isn't it?"

"Yes, it's pretty well," answered Mr. Arbuton, "but it's not such a rare thing in the East, you know."

"I suppose not. The Ellisons are not an old family. If we went back of my uncle, we should only come to backwoodsmen and Indian fighters. Perhaps that's the reason we don't care much for old families. You think a great deal of them in Boston, don't you?"

"We do, and we don't. It's a long story, and I'm afraid I couldn't make you understand, unless you had seen something of Boston society."

"Mr. Arbuton," said Kitty, abruptly plunging to the bottom of the subject on which they had been hovering, "I'm dreadfully afraid that what you said to me—what you asked of me, yesterday—was all through a misunderstanding. I'm afraid that you've somehow mistaken me and my circumstances, and that somehow I've innocently helped on your mistake."

"There is no mistake," he answered, eagerly, "about my loving you!"

Kitty did not look up, nor answer this outburst, which flattered while it pained her. She said, "I've been so much mistaken myself, and I've been so long finding it out, that I should feel anxious to have you know just what kind of girl you'd asked to be your wife, before I—"

"What?"

"Nothing. But I should want you to know that in many things my life has been very, very different from yours. The first thing I can remember—you'll think I'm more autobiographical than our driver at Ha-Ha Bay, even, but I must tell you all this—is about Kansas, where we had moved from Illinois, and of our having hardly enough to eat or wear, and of my mother grieving over our privations. At last, when my father was killed," she said, dropping her voice, "in front of our own door—"

Mr. Arbuton gave a start. "Killed?"

"Yes; didn't you know? Or no: how could you? He was shot by the Missourians."

Whether it was not hopelessly out of taste to have a father-in-law who had been shot by the Missourians? Whether he could persuade Kitty to suppress that part of her history? That she looked very pretty, sitting there, with her earnest eyes lifted toward his. These things flashed wilfully through Mr. Arbuton's mind.

"My father was a Free-State man," continued Kitty, in a tone of pride. "He wasn't when he first went to Kansas," she added simply; while Mr. Arbuton groped among his recollections of that forgotten struggle for some association with these names, keenly feeling the squalor of it all, and thinking still how very pretty she was. "He went out there to publish a proslavery paper. But when he found out what the Border Ruffians really were, he turned against them. He used to be very bitter about my uncle's having become an Abolitionist; they had had a quarrel about it; but father wrote to him from Kansas, and they made it up; and before father died he was able to tell mother that we were to go to uncle's. But mother was sick then, and she only lived a month after father; and when my cousin came out to get us, just before she died, there was scarcely a crust of cornbread in our cabin. It seemed like heaven to get to Eriecreek; but even at Eriecreek we live in a way that I am afraid you wouldn't respect. My uncle has just enough, and we are very plain people indeed. I suppose," continued the young girl meekly, "that I haven't had at all what you'd call an education. Uncle told me what to read, at first, and after that I helped myself. It seemed to come naturally; but don't you see that it wasn't an education?"

"I beg pardon," said Mr. Arbuton, with a blush; for he had just then lost the sense of what she said in the music of her voice, as it hesitated over these particulars of her history.

"I mean," explained Kitty, "that I'm afraid I must be very one-sided. I'm dreadfully ignorant of a great many things. I haven't any accomplishments, only the little bit of singing and playing that you've heard; I couldn't tell a good picture from a bad one; I've never been to the opera; I don't know anything about society. Now just imagine," cried Kitty, with sublime impartiality, "such a girl as that in Boston!"

Even Mr. Arbuton could not help smiling at this comic earnestness, while she resumed: "At home my cousins and I do all kinds of things that the ladies whom you know have done for them. We do our own work, for one thing," she continued, with a sudden treacherous misgiving that what she was saying might be silly and not heroic, but bravely stifling her doubt. "My cousin Virginia is housekeeper, and Rachel does the sewing, and I'm a kind of maid-of-all-work."

Mr. Arbuton listened respectfully, vainly striving for some likeness of Miss Ellison in the figure of the different second-girls who, during life, had taken his card, or shown him into drawing-rooms, or waited on him at table; failing in this, he tried her in the character of daughter of that kind of farm-house where they take summer boarders and do their own work; but evidently the Ellisons were not of that sort either; and he gave it up and was silent, not knowing what to say, while Kitty, a little piqued by his silence, went on: "We're not ashamed, you understand, of our ways; there's such a thing as being proud of not being proud; and that's what we are, or what I am; for the rest are not mean enough ever to think about it, and once I wasn't, either. But that's the kind of life I'm used to; and though I've read of other kinds of life a great deal, I've not been brought up to anything different, don't you understand? And maybe—I don't know—I mightn't like or respect your kind of people any more than they did me. My uncle taught us ideas that are quite different from yours; and what if I shouldn't be able to give them up?"

"There is only one thing I know or see: I love you!" he said, passionately, and drew nearer by a step; but she put out her hand and repelled him with a gesture.

"Sometimes you might be ashamed of me before those you knew to be my inferiors,—really common and coarse-minded people, but regularly educated, and used to money and fashion. I should cower before them, and I never could forgive you."

"I've one answer to all this: I love you!"

Kitty flushed in generous admiration of his magnanimity, and said, with more of tenderness than she had yet felt towards him, "I'm sorry that I can't answer you now, as you wish, Mr. Arbuton."

"But you will, to-morrow."

She shook her head. "I don't know; O, I don't know! I've been thinking of something. That Mrs. March asked me to visit her in Boston; but we had given up doing so, because of the long delay here. If I asked my cousins, they'd still go home that way. It's too bad to put you off again; but you must see me in Boston, if only for a day or two, and after you've got back into your old associations there, before I answer you. I'm in great trouble. You must wait, or I must say no."

"I'll wait," said Mr. Arbuton.

"O, thank you," sighed Kitty, grateful for this patience, and not for the chance of still winning him; "you are very forbearing, I'm sure."

She again put forth her hand, but not now to repel him. He clasped it, and kept it in his, then impulsively pressed it against his lips.

Colonel and Mrs. Ellison had been watching the whole pantomime, forgotten.

"Well," said the colonel, "I suppose that's the end of the play, isn't it? I don't like it, Fanny; I don't like it."

"Hush!" whispered Mrs. Ellison.

They were both puzzled when Kitty and Mr. Arbuton came towards them with anxious faces. Kitty was painfully revolving in her mind what she had just said, and thinking she had said not so much as she meant and yet so much more, and tormenting herself with the fear that she had been at once too bold and too meek in her demand for longer delay. Did it not give him further claim upon her? Must it not have seemed a very audacious thing? What right had she to make it, and how could she now finally say no? Then the matter of her explanation to him: was it in the least what she meant to say? Must it not give him an idea of intellectual and spiritual poverty in her life which she knew had not been in it? Would he not believe, in spite of her boasts, that she was humiliated before him by a feeling of essential inferiority? O, had she boasted? What she meant to do was just to make him understand clearly what she was; but, had she? Could he be made to understand this with what seemed his narrow conception of things outside of his own experience? Was it worth while to try? Did she care enough for him to make the effort desirable? Had she made it for his sake, or in the interest of truth, merely, or in self-defence?

These and a thousand other like questions beset her the whole way home to Quebec, amid the frequent pauses of the talk, and underneath whatever she was saying. Half the time she answered yes or no to them, and not to what Dick, or Fanny, or Mr. Arbuton had asked her; she was distraught with their recurrence, as they teased about her like angry bees, and one now and then settled, and stung and stung. Through the whole night, too, they pursued her in dreams with pitiless iteration and fantastic change; and at dawn she was awakened by voices calling up to her from the Ursulines' Garden,—the slim, pale nun crying out, in a lamentable accent, that all men were false and there was no shelter save the convent or the grave, and the comfortable sister bemoaning herself that on meagre days Madame de la Peltrie ate nothing but choke-cherries from Château-Bigot.

Kitty rose and dressed herself, and sat at the window, and watched the morning come into the garden below: first, a tremulous flush of the heavens; then a rosy light on the silvery roofs and gables; then little golden aisles among the lilacs and hollyhocks. The tiny flower-beds just under her window were left, with their snap-dragons and larkspurs, in dew and shadow; the small dog stood on the threshold, and barked uneasily when the bell rang in the Ursulines' Chapel, where the nuns were at matins.

It was Sunday, and a soft tranquillity blest the cool air in which the young girl bathed her troubled spirit. A faint anticipative homesickness mingled now with her nightlong anxiety,—a pity for herself that on the morrow she must leave those pretty sights, which had become so dear to her that she could not but feel herself native among them. She must go back to Eriecreek, which was not a walled city, and had not a stone building, much less a cathedral or convent, within its borders; and though she dearly loved those under her uncle's roof there, yet she had to own that, beyond that shelter, there was little in Eriecreek to touch the heart or take the fancy; that the village was ugly, and the village people mortally dull, narrow, and uncongenial. Why was not her lot cast somewhere else? Why should she not see more of the world that she had found so fair, and which all her aspirations had fitted her to enjoy? Quebec had been to her a rapture of beautiful antiquity; but Europe, but London, Venice, Rome, those infinitely older and more storied cities of which she had lately talked so much with Mr. Arbuton,—why should she not see them?

Here, for the guilty space of a heat-lightning flash, Kitty wickedly entertained the thought of marrying Mr. Arbuton for the sake of a bridal trip to Europe, and bade love and the fitness of things and the incompatibility of Boston and Eriecreek traditions take care of themselves. But then she blushed for her meanness, and tried to atone for it as she could by meditating the praise of Mr. Arbuton. She felt remorse for having, as he had proved yesterday, undervalued and misunderstood him; and she was willing now to think him even more magnanimous than his generous words and conduct showed him. It would be a base return for his patience to accept him from a worldly ambition; a man of his noble spirit merited the best that love could give. But she respected him; at last she respected him fully and entirely, and she could tell him that at any rate.

The words in which he had yesterday protested his love for her repeated themselves constantly in her revery. If he should speak them again after he had seen her in Boston, in the light by which she was anxious to be tested,—she did not know what she should say.

William Dean Howells

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