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Chapter 4

MR. ARBUTON'S INSPIRATION.

The next morning, when Mr. Arbuton awoke, he found a clear light upon the world that he had left wrapped in fog at midnight. A heavy gale was blowing, and the wide river was running in seas that made the boat stagger in her course, and now and then struck her bows with a force that sent the spray from their seething tops into the faces of the people on the promenade. The sun, out of rifts of the breaking clouds, launched broad splendors across the villages and farms of the level landscape and the crests and hollows of the waves; and a certain joy of the air penetrated to the guarded consciousness of Mr. Arbuton. Involuntarily he looked about for the people he meant to have nothing more to do with, that he might appeal to the sympathies of one of them, at least, in his sense of such an admirable morning. But a great many passengers had come on board, during the night, at Murray Bay, where the brief season was ending, and their number hid the Ellisons from him. When he went to breakfast, he found some one had taken his seat near them, and they did not notice him as he passed by in search of another chair. Kitty and the colonel were at table alone, and they both wore preoccupied faces. After breakfast he sought them out and asked for Mrs. Ellison, who had shared in most of the excitements of the day before, helping herself about with a pretty limp, and who certainly had not, as her husband phrased it, kept any of the meals waiting.

"Why," said the colonel, "I'm afraid her ankle's worse this morning, and that we'll have to lie by at Quebec for a few days, at any rate."

Mr. Arbuton heard this sad news with a cheerful aspect unaccountable in one who was concerned at Mrs. Ellison's misfortune. He smiled, when he ought to have looked pensive, and he laughed at the colonel's joke when the latter added, "Of course, this is a great hardship for my cousin, who hates Quebec, and wants to get home to Eriecreek as soon as possible."

Kitty promised to bear her trials with firmness, and Mr. Arbuton said, not very consequently, as she thought, "I had been planning to spend a few days in Quebec, myself, and I shall have the opportunity of inquiring about Mrs. Ellison's convalescence. In fact," he added, turning to the colonel, "I hope you'll let me be of service to you in getting to a hotel."

And when the boat landed, Mr. Arbuton actually busied himself in finding a carriage and putting the various Ellison wraps and bags into it. Then he helped to support Mrs. Ellison ashore, and to lift her to the best place. He raised his hat, and had good-morning on his tongue, when the astonished colonel called out, "Why, the deuce! You're going to ride up with us!"

Mr. Arbuton thought he had better get another carriage; he should incommode Mrs. Ellison; but Mrs. Ellison protested that he would not at all; and, to cut the matter short, he mounted to the colonel's side. It was another stroke of fate.

At the hotel they found a line of people reaching half-way down the outer steps from the inside of the office.

"Hallo! what's this?" asked the colonel of the last man in the queue.

"O, it's a little procession to the hotel register! We've been three quarters of an hour in passing a given point," said the man, who was plainly a fellow-citizen.

"And haven't got by yet," said the colonel, taking to the speaker. "Then the house is full?"

"Well, no; they haven't begun to throw them out of the window."

"His humor is degenerating, Dick," said Kitty; and "Hadn't you better go inside and inquire?" asked Mrs. Ellison. It was part of the Ellison travelling joke for her thus to prompt the colonel in his duty.

"I'm glad you mentioned it, Fanny. I was just going to drive off in despair." The colonel vanished within doors, and after long delay came out flushed, but not with triumph. "On the express condition that I have ladies with me, one an invalid, I am promised a room on the fifth floor some time during the day. They tell me the other hotel is crammed and it's no use to go there."

Mrs. Ellison was ready to weep, and for the first time since her accident she harbored some bitterness against Mr. Arbuton. They all sat silent, and the colonel on the sidewalk silently wiped his brow.

Mr. Arbuton, in the poverty of his invention, wondered if there was not some lodging-house where they could find shelter.

"Of course there is," cried Mrs. Ellison, beaming upon her hero, and calling Kitty's attention to his ingenuity by a pressure with her well foot. "Richard, we must look up a boarding-house."

"Do you know of any good boarding-houses?" asked the colonel of the driver, mechanically.

"Plenty," answered the man.

"Well, drive us to twenty or thirty first-class ones," commanded the colonel; and the search began.

The colonel first asked prices and looked at rooms, and if he pronounced any apartment unsuitable, Kitty was despatched by Mrs. Ellison to view it and refute him. As often as she confirmed him, Mrs. Ellison was sure that they were both too fastidious, and they never turned away from a door but they closed the gates of paradise upon that afflicted lady. She began to believe that they should find no place whatever, when at last they stopped before a portal so unboarding-house-like in all outward signs, that she maintained it was of no use to ring, and imparted so much of her distrust to the colonel that, after ringing, he prefaced his demand for rooms with an apology for supposing that there were rooms to let there. Then, after looking at them, he returned to the carriage and reported that the whole affair was perfect, and that he should look no farther. Mrs. Ellison replied that she never could trust his judgment, he was so careless. Kitty inspected the premises, and came back in a transport that alarmed the worst fears of Mrs. Ellison. She was sure that they had better look farther, she knew there were plenty of nicer places. Even if the rooms were nice and the situation pleasant, she was certain that there must be some drawbacks which they did not know of yet. Whereupon her husband lifted her from the carriage, and bore her, without reply or comment of any kind, into the house.

Throughout the search Mr. Arbuton had been making up his mind that he would part with his friends as soon as they found lodgings, give the day to Quebec, and take the evening train for Gorham, thus escaping the annoyances of a crowded hotel, and ending at once an acquaintance which he ought never to have let go so far. As long as the Ellisons were without shelter, he felt that it was due to himself not to abandon them. But even now that they were happily housed, had he done all that nobility obliged? He stood irresolute beside the carriage.

"Won't you come up and see where we live?" asked Kitty, hospitably.

"I shall be very glad," said Mr. Arbuton.

"My dear fellow," said the colonel, in the parlor, "I didn't engage a room for you. I supposed you'd rather take your chances at the hotel."

"O, I'm going away to-night."

"Why, that's a pity!"

"Yes, I've no fancy for a cot-bed in the hotel parlor. But I don't quite like to leave you here, after bringing this calamity upon you."

"O, don't mention that! I was the only one to blame. We shall get on splendidly here."

Mr. Arbuton suffered a vague disappointment. At the bottom of his heart was a formless hope that he might in some way be necessary to the Ellisons in their adversity; or if not that, then that something might entangle him further and compel his stay. But they seemed quite equal in themselves to the situation; they were in far more comfortable quarters than they could have hoped for, and plainly should want for nothing; Fortune put on a smiling face, and bade him go free of them. He fancied it a mocking smile, though, as he stood an instant silently weighing one thing against another. The colonel was patiently waiting his motion; Mrs. Ellison sat watching him from the sofa; Kitty moved about the room with averted face,—a pretty domestic presence, a household priestess ordering the temporary Penates. Mr. Arbuton opened his lips to say farewell, but a god spoke through them,—inconsequently, as the gods for the most part do, saying, "Besides, I suppose you've got all the rooms here."

"O, as to that I don't know," answered the colonel, not recognizing the language of inspiration, "let's ask." Kitty knocked a photograph-book off the table, and Mrs. Ellison said, "Why, Kitty!" But nothing more was spoken till the landlady came. She had another room, but doubted if it would answer. It was in the attic, and was a back room, though it had a pleasant outlook. Mr. Arbuton had no doubt that it would do very well for the day or two he was going to stay, and took it hastily, without going to look at it. He had his valise carried up at once, and then he went to the post-office to see if he had any letters, offering to ask also for Colonel Ellison.

Kitty stole off to explore the chamber given her at the rear of the house; that is to say, she opened the window looking out on what their hostess told her was the garden of the Ursuline Convent, and stood there in a mute transport. A black cross rose in the midst, and all about this wandered the paths and alleys of the garden, through clumps of lilac-bushes and among the spires of hollyhocks. The grounds were enclosed by high walls in part, and in part by the group of the convent edifices, built of gray stone, high gabled, and topped by dormer-windowed steep roofs of tin, which, under the high morning sun, lay an expanse of keenest splendor, while many a grateful shadow dappled the full-foliaged garden below. Two slim, tall poplars stood against the gable of the chapel, and shot their tops above its roof, and under a porch near them two nuns sat motionless in the sun, black-robed, with black veils falling over their shoulders, and their white faces lost in the white linen that draped them from breast to crown. Their hands lay quiet in their laps, and they seemed unconscious of the other nuns walking in the garden-paths with little children, their pupils, and answering their laughter from time to time with voices as simple and innocent as their own. Kitty looked down upon them all with a swelling heart. They were but figures in a beautiful picture of something old and poetical; but she loved them, and pitied them, and was most happy in them, the same as if they had been real. It could not be that they and she were in the same world: she must be dreaming over a book in Charley's room at Eriecreek. She shaded her eyes for a better look, when the noonday gun boomed from the citadel; the bell upon the chapel jangled harshly, and those strange maskers, those quaint black birds with white breasts and faces, flocked indoors. At the same time a small dog under her window howled dolorously at the jangling of the bell; and Kitty, with an impartial joy, turned from the pensive romance of the convent garden to the mild comedy of the scene to which his woeful note attracted her. When he had uttered his anguish, he relapsed into the quietest small French dog that ever was, and lay down near a large, tranquil cat, whom neither the bell nor he had been able to stir from her slumbers in the sun; a peasant-like old man kept on sawing wood, and a little child stood still amidst the larkspurs and marigolds of a tiny garden, while over the flower-pots on the low window-sill of the neighboring house to which it belonged, a young, motherly face gazed peacefully out. The great extent of the convent grounds had left this poor garden scarce breathing-space for its humble blooms; with the low paling fence that separated it from the adjoining house-yards it looked like a toy-garden or the background of a puppet-show, and in its way it was as quaintly unreal to the young girl as the nunnery itself.

When she saw it first, the city's walls and other warlike ostentations had taken her imagination with the historic grandeur of Quebec; but the fascination deepened now that she was admitted, as it were, to the religious heart and the domestic privacy of the famous old town. She was romantic, as most good young girls are; and she had the same pleasure in the strangeness of the things about her as she would have felt in the keeping of a charming story. To Fanny's "Well, Kitty, I suppose all this just suits you," when she had returned to the little parlor where the sufferer lay, she answered with a sigh of irrepressible content, "O yes! could anything be more beautiful?" and her enraptured eye dwelt upon the low ceilings, the deep, wide chimneys eloquent of the mighty fires with which they must roar in winter, the French windows with their curious and clumsy fastenings, and every little detail that made the place alien and precious.

Fanny broke into a laugh at the visionary absence in her face.

"Do you think the place is good enough for your hero and heroine?" asked she, slyly; for Kitty had one of those family reputes, so hard to survive, for childish attempts of her own in the world of fiction where so great part of her life had been passed; and Mrs. Ellison, who was as unliterary a soul as ever breathed, admired her with the heartiness which unimaginative people often feel for their idealizing friends, and believed that she was always deep in the mysteries of some plot.

"O, I don't know," Kitty answered with a little color, "about heroes and heroines; but, I'd like to live here, myself. Yes," she continued, rather to herself than to her listener, "I do believe this is what I was made for. I've always wanted to live amongst old things, in a stone house with dormer-windows. Why, there isn't a single dormer-window in Eriecreek, nor even a brick house, let alone a stone one. O yes, indeed! I was meant for an old country."

"Well, then, Kitty, I don't see what you're to do but to marry East and live East; or else find a rich husband, and get him to take you to Europe to live."

"Yes; or get him to come and live in Quebec. That's all I'd ask, and he needn't be a very rich man, for that."

"Why, you poor child, what sort of husband could you get to settle down in this dead old place?"

"O, I suppose some kind of artist or literary man."

This was not Mrs. Ellison's notion of the kind of husband who was to realize for Kitty her fancy for life in an old country; but she was content to let the matter rest for the present, and, in a serene thankfulness to the power that had brought two marriageable young creatures together beneath the same roof, and under her own observance, she composed herself among the sofa-cushions, from which she meant to conduct the campaign against Mr. Arbuton with relentless vigor.

"Well," she said, "it won't be fair if you are not happy in this world, Kitty, you ask so little of it"; while Kitty turned to the window overlooking the street, and lost herself in the drama of the passing figures below. They were new, and yet oddly familiar, for she had long known them in the realm of romance. The peasant-women who went by, in hats of felt or straw, some on foot with baskets, and some in their light market-carts, were all, in their wrinkled and crooked age or their fresh-faced, strong-limbed youth, her friends since childhood in many a tale of France or Germany; and the black-robed priests, who mixed with the passers on the narrow wooden sidewalk, and now and then courteously gave way, or lifted their wide-rimmed hats in a grave, smiling salutation, were more recent acquaintances, but not less intimate. They were out of old romances about Italy and Spain, in which she was very learned; and this butcher's boy, tilting along through the crowd with a half-staggering run, was from any one of Dickens's stories, and she divined that the four-armed wooden trough on his shoulder was the butcher's tray, which figures in every novelist's description of a London street-crowd. There were many other types, as French mothers of families with market-baskets on their arms; very pretty French school-girls with books under their arms; wild-looking country boys with red raspberries in birch-bark measures; and quiet gliding nuns with white hoods and downcast faces: each of whom she unerringly relegated to an appropriate corner of her world of unreality. A young, mild-faced, spectacled Anglican curate she did not give a moment's pause, but rushed him instantly through the whole series of Anthony Trollope's novels, which dull books, I am sorry to say, she had read, and liked, every one; and then she began to find various people astray out of Thackeray. The trig corporal, with the little visorless cap worn so jauntily, the light stick carried in one hand, and the broad-sealed official document in the other, had also, in his breast-pocket, one of those brief, infrequent missives which Lieutenant Osborne used to send to poor Amelia; a tall, awkward officer did duty for Major Dobbin; and when a very pretty lady driving a pony carriage, with a footman in livery on the little perch behind her, drew rein beside the pavement, and a handsome young captain in a splendid uniform saluted her and began talking with her in a languid, affected way, it was Osborne recreant to the thought of his betrothed, one of whose tender letters he kept twirling in his fingers while he talked.

Most of the people whom she saw passing had letters or papers, and, in fact, they were coming from the post-office, where the noonday mails had just been opened. So she went on turning substance into shadow,—unless, indeed, flesh and blood is the illusion,—and, as I am bound to own, catching at very slight pretexts in many cases for the exercise of her sorcery, when her eye fell upon a gentleman at a little distance. At the same moment he raised his eyes from a letter at which he had been glancing, and ran them along the row of houses opposite, till they rested on the window at which she stood. Then he smiled and lifted his hat, and, with a start, she recognized Mr. Arbuton, while a certain chill struck to her heart through the tumult she felt there. Till he saw her there had been such a cold reserve and hauteur in his bearing, that the trepidation which she had felt about him at times, the day before, and which had worn quite away under the events of the morning, was renewed again, and the aspect, in which he had been so strange that she did not know him, seemed the only one that he had ever worn. This effect lasted till Mr. Arbuton could find his way to her, and place in her eager hand a letter from the girls and Dr. Ellison. She forgot it then, and vanished till she read her letter.

William Dean Howells

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