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Chapter 5

MR. ARBUTON MAKES HIMSELF AGREEABLE.

The first care of Colonel Ellison had been to call a doctor, and to know the worst about the sprained ankle, upon which his plans had fallen lame; and the worst was that it was not a bad sprain, but Mrs. Ellison, having been careless of it the day before, had aggravated the hurt, and she must now have that perfect rest, which physicians prescribe so recklessly of other interests and duties, for a week at least, and possibly two or three.

The colonel was still too much a soldier to be impatient at the doctor's order, but he was of far too active a temper to be quiet under it. He therefore proposed to himself nothing less than the capture of Quebec in an historical sense, and even before dinner he began to prepare for the campaign. He sallied forth, and descended upon the bookstores wherever he found them lurking, in whatsoever recess of the Upper or Lower Town, and returned home laden with guide-books to Quebec, and monographs upon episodes of local history, such as are produced in great quantity by the semi-clerical literary taste of out-of-the-way Catholic capitals. The colonel (who had gone actively into business, after leaving the army, at the close of the war) had always a newspaper somewhere about him, but he was not a reader of many books. Of the volumes in the doctor's library, he had never in former days willingly opened any but the plays of Shakespeare, and Don Quixote, long passages of which he knew by heart. He had sometimes attempted other books, but for the most of Kitty's favorite authors he professed as frank a contempt as for the Mound-Builders themselves. He had read one book of travel, namely, The Innocents Abroad, which he held to be so good a book that he need never read anything else about the countries of which it treated. When he brought in this extraordinary collection of pamphlets, both Kitty and Fanny knew what to expect; for the colonel was as ready to receive literature at second-hand as to avoid its original sources. He had in this way picked up a great deal of useful knowledge, and he was famous for clipping from newspapers scraps of instructive fact, all of which he relentlessly remembered. He had already a fair outline of the local history in his mind, and this had been deepened and freshened by Dr. Ellison's recent talk of his historical studies. Moreover, he had secured in the course of the present journey, from his wife's and cousin's reading of divers guide-books, a new store of names and dates, which he desired to attach to the proper localities with their help.

"Light reading for leisure hours, Fanny," said Kitty, looking askance at the colonel's literature as she sat down near her cousin after dinner.

"Yes; and you start fair, ladies. Start with Jacques Cartier, ancient mariner of Dieppe, in the year 1535. No favoritism in this investigation; no bringing forward of Champlain or Montcalm prematurely; no running off on subsequent conquests or other side-issues. Stick to the discovery, and the names of Jacques Cartier and Donnacona. Come, do something for an honest living."

"Who was Donnacona?" demanded Mrs. Ellison, with indifference.

"That is just what these fascinating little volumes will tell us. Kitty, read something to your suffering cousins about Donnacona,—he sounds uncommonly like an Irishman," answered the colonel, establishing himself in an easy-chair; and Kitty picked up a small sketch of the history of Quebec, and, opening it, fell into the trance which came upon her at the touch of a book, and read on for some pages to herself.

"Well, upon my word," said the colonel, "I might as well be reading about Donnacona myself, for any comfort I get."

"O Dick, I forgot. I was just looking. Now I'm really going to commence."

"No, not yet," cried Mrs. Ellison, rising on her elbow. "Where is Mr. Arbuton?"

"What has he to do with Donnacona, my dear?"

"Everything. You know he's stayed on our account, and I never heard of anything so impolite, so inhospitable, as offering to read without him. Go and call him, Richard, do."

"O, no," pleaded Kitty, "he won't care about it. Don't call him, Dick."

"Why, Kitty, I'm surprised at you! When you read so beautifully! Yon needn't be ashamed, I'm sure."

"I'm not ashamed; but, at the same time, I don't want to read to him."

"Well, call him any way, colonel. He's in his room."

"If you do," said Kitty, with superfluous dignity, "I must go away."

"Very well, Kitty, just as you please. Only I want Richard to witness that I'm not to blame if Mr. Arbuton thinks us unfeeling or neglectful."

"O, if he doesn't say what he thinks, it'll make no difference."

"It seems to me that this is a good deal of fuss to make about one human being, a mere passing man and brother of a day, isn't it?" said the colonel. "Go on with Donnacona, do."

There came a knock at the door. Kitty leaped nervously to her feet, and fled out of the room. But it was only the little French serving-maid upon some errand which she quickly despatched.

"Well, now what do you think?" asked Mrs. Ellison.

"Why, I think you've a surprising knowledge of French for one who studied it at school. Do you suppose she understood you?"

"O, nonsense! You know I mean Kitty and her very queer behavior. Richard, if you moon at me in that stupid way," she continued, "I shall certainly end in an insane asylum. Can't you see what's under your very nose?"

"Yes, I can, Fanny," answered the colonel, "if anything's there. But I give you my word, I don't know any more than millions yet unborn what you're driving at." The colonel took up the book which Kitty had thrown down, and went to his room to try to read up Donnacona for himself, while his wife penitently turned to a pamphlet in French, which he had bought with the others. "After all," she thought, "men will be men"; and seemed not to find the fact wholly wanting in consolation.

A few minutes after there was a murmur of voices in the entry without, at a window looking upon the convent garden, where it happened to Mr. Arbuton, descending from his attic chamber, to find Kitty standing, a pretty shape against the reflected light of the convent roofs, and amidst a little greenery of house-plants, tall geraniums, an overarching ivy, some delicate roses. She had paused there, on her way from Fanny's to her own room, and was looking into the garden, where a pair of silent nuns were pacing up and down the paths, turning now their backs with the heavy sable coiffure sweeping their black robes, and now their still, mask-like faces, set in that stiff framework of white linen. Sometimes they came so near that she could distinguish their features, and imagine an expression that she should know if she saw them again; and while she stood self-forgetfully feigning a character for each of them, Mr. Arbuton spoke to her and took his place at her side.

"We're remarkably favored in having this bit of opera under our windows, Miss Ellison," he said, and smiled as Kitty answered, "O, is it really like an opera? I never saw one, but I could imagine it must be beautiful," and they both looked on in silence a moment, while the nuns moved, shadow-like, out of the garden, and left it empty.

Then Mr. Arbuton said something to which Kitty answered simply, "I'll see if my cousin doesn't want me," and presently stood beside Mrs. Ellison's sofa, a little conscious in color. "Fanny, Mr. Arbuton has asked me to go and see the cathedral with him. Do you think it would be right?"

Mrs. Ellison's triumphant heart rose to her lips. "Why, you dear, particular, innocent little goose," she cried, flinging her arms about Kitty, and kissing her till the young girl blushed again; "of course it would! Go! You mustn't stay mewed up in here. I sha'n't be able to go about with you; and if I can judge by the colonel's breathing, as he calls it, from the room in there, he won't, at present. But the idea of your having a question of propriety!" And indeed it was the first time Kitty had ever had such a thing, and the remembrance of it put a kind of constraint upon her, as she strolled demurely beside Mr. Arbuton towards the cathedral.

"You must be guide," said he, "for this is my first day in Quebec, you know, and you are an old inhabitant in comparison."

"I'll show the way," she answered, "if you'll interpret the sights. I think I must be stranger to them than you, in spite of my long residence. Sometimes I'm afraid that I do only fancy I enjoy these things, as Mrs. March said, for I've no European experiences to contrast them with. I know that it seems very delightful, though, and quite like what I should expect in Europe."

"You'd expect very little of Europe, then, in most things; though there's no disputing that it's a very pretty illusion of the Old World."

A few steps had brought them into the market-square in front of the cathedral, where a little belated traffic still lingered in the few old peasant-women hovering over baskets of such fruits and vegetables as had long been out of season in the States, and the housekeepers and serving-maids cheapening these wares. A sentry moved mechanically up and down before the high portal of the Jesuit Barracks, over the arch of which were still the letters I. H. S. carved long ago upon the keystone; and the ancient edifice itself, with its yellow stucco front and its grated windows, had every right to be a monastery turned barracks in France or Italy. A row of quaint stone houses—inns and shops—formed the upper side of the Square; while the modern buildings of the Rue Fabrique on the lower side might serve very well for that show of improvement which deepens the sentiment of the neighboring antiquity and decay in Latin towns. As for the cathedral, which faced the convent from across the Square, it was as cold and torpid a bit of Renaissance as could be found in Rome itself. A red-coated soldier or two passed through the Square; three or four neat little French policemen lounged about in blue uniforms and flaring havelocks; some walnut-faced, blue-eyed old citizens and peasants sat upon the thresholds of the row of old houses, and gazed dreamily through the smoke of their pipes at the slight stir and glitter of shopping about the fine stores of the Rue Fabrique. An air of serene disoccupation pervaded the place, with which the occasional riot of the drivers of the long row of calashes and carriages in front of the cathedral did not discord. Whenever a stray American wandered into the Square, there was a wild flight of these drivers towards him, and his person was lost to sight amidst their pantomime. They did not try to underbid each other, and they were perfectly good-humored; as soon as he had made his choice, the rejected multitude returned to their places on the curbstone, pursuing the successful aspirant with inscrutable jokes as he drove off, while the horses went on munching the contents of their leathern head-bags, and tossing them into the air to shake down the lurking grains of corn.

"It is like Europe; your friends were right," said Mr. Arbuton as they escaped into the cathedral from one of these friendly onsets. "It's quite the atmosphere of foreign travel, and you ought to be able to realize the feelings of a tourist."

A priest was saying mass at one of the side-altars, assisted by acolytes in their every-day clothes; and outside of the railing a market-woman, with a basket of choke-cherries, knelt among a few other poor people. Presently a young English couple came in, he with a dashing India scarf about his hat, and she very stylishly dressed, who also made their genuflections with the rest, and then sat down and dropped their heads in prayer.

"This is like enough Europe, too," murmured Mr. Arbuton. "It's very good North Italy; or South, for the matter of that."

"O, is it?" answered Kitty, joyously. "I thought it must be!" And she added, in that trustful way of hers: "It's all very familiar; but then it seems to me on this journey that I've seen a great many things that I know I've only read of before"; and so followed Mr. Arbuton in his tour of the pictures.

She was as ignorant of art as any Roman or Florentine girl whose life has been passed in the midst of it; and she believed these mighty fine pictures, and was puzzled by Mr. Arbuton's behavior towards them, who was too little imaginative or too conscientious to make merit for them out of the things they suggested. He treated the poor altar-pieces of the Quebec cathedral with the same harsh indifference he would have shown to the second-rate paintings of a European gallery; doubted the Vandyck, and cared nothing for the Conception, "in the style of Le Brun," over the high-altar, though it had the historical interest of having survived that bombardment of 1759 which destroyed the church.

Kitty innocently singled out the worst picture in the place as her favorite, and then was piqued, and presently frightened, at his cold reluctance about it. He made her feel that it was very bad, and that she shared its inferiority, though he said nothing to that effect. She learned the shame of not being a connoisseur in a connoisseur's company, and she perceived more painfully than ever before that a Bostonian, who had been much in Europe, might be very uncomfortable to the simple, unravelled American. Yet, she reminded herself, the Marches had been in Europe, and they were Bostonians also; and they did not go about putting everything under foot; they seemed to care for everything they saw, and to have a friendly jest, if not praises, for it. She liked that; she would have been well enough pleased to have Mr. Arbuton laugh outright at her picture, and she could have joined him in it. But the look, however flattered into an air of polite question at last, which he had bent upon her, seemed to outlaw her and condemn her taste in everything. As they passed out of the cathedral, she would rather have gone home than continued the walk as he begged her, if she were not tired, to do; but this would have been flight, and she was not a coward. So they sauntered down the Rue Fabrique, and turned into Palace Street. As they went by the door of Hôtel Musty, her pleasant friends came again into her mind, and she said, "This is where we stayed last week, with Mr. and Mrs. March."

"Those Boston people?"

"Yes."

"Do you know where they live in Boston?"

"Why, we have their address; but I can't think of it. I believe somewhere in the southern part of the city—"

"The South End?"

"O yes, that's it. Have you ever heard of them?"

"No."

"I thought perhaps you might have known Mr. March. He's in the insurance business—"

"O no! No, I don't know him," said Mr. Arbuton, eagerly. Kitty wondered if there could be anything wrong with the business repute of Mr. March, but dismissed the thought as unworthy; and having perceived that her friends were snubbed, she said bravely, that they were the most delightful people she had ever seen, and she was sorry that they were not still in Quebec. He shared her regret tacitly, if at all, and they walked in silence to the gate, whence they strolled down the winding street outside the wall into the Lower Town. But it was not a pleasant ramble for Kitty: she was in a dim dread of hitherto unseen and unimagined trespasses against good taste, not only in pictures and people, but in all life, which, from having been a very smiling prospect when she set out with Mr. Arbuton, had suddenly become a narrow pathway, in which one must pick one's way with more regard to each step than any general end. All this was as obscure and uncertain as the intimations which had produced it, and which, in words, had really amounted to nothing. But she felt more and more that in her companion there was something wholly alien to the influences which had shaped her; and though she could not know how much, she was sure of enough to make her dreary in his presence.

They wandered through the quaintness and noiseless bustle of the Lower Town thoroughfares, and came by and by to that old church, the oldest in Quebec, which was built near two hundred years ago, in fulfilment of a vow made at the repulse of Sir William Phipps's attack upon the city, and further famed for the prophecy of a nun, that this church should be ruined by the fire in which a successful attempt of the English was yet to involve the Lower Town. A painting, which represented the vision of the nun, perished in the conflagration which verified it, in 1759; but the walls of the ancient structure remain to witness this singular piece of history, which Kitty now glanced at furtively in one of the colonel's guide-books; since her ill-fortune with the picture in the cathedral, she had not openly cared for anything.

At one side of the church there was a booth for the sale of crockery and tin ware; and there was an every-day cheerfulness of small business in the shops and tented stands about the square on which the church faced, and through which there was continual passing of heavy burdens from the port, swift calashes, and slow, country-paced market-carts.

Mr. Arbuton made no motion to enter the church, and Kitty would not hint the curiosity she felt to see the interior; and while they lingered a moment, the door opened, and a peasant came out with a little coffin in his arms. His eyes were dim and his face wet with weeping, and he bore the little coffin tenderly, as if his caress might reach the dead child within. Behind him she came who must be the mother, her face deeply hidden in her veil. Beside the pavement waited a shabby calash, with a driver half asleep on his perch; and the man, still clasping his precious burden, clambered into the vehicle, and laid it upon his knees, while the woman groped, through her tears and veil, for the step. Kitty and her companion had moved reverently aside; but now Mr. Arbuton came forward, and helped the woman to her place. She gave him a hoarse, sad "Merci!" and spread a fold of her shawl fondly over the end of the little coffin; the drowsy driver whipped up his beast, and the calash jolted away.

Kitty cast a grateful glance upon Mr. Arbuton, as they now entered the church, by a common impulse. On their way towards the high-altar they passed the rude black bier, with the tallow candles yet smoking in their black wooden candlesticks. A few worshippers were dropped here and there in the vacant seats, and at a principal side-altar knelt a poor woman praying before a wooden effigy of the dead Christ that lay in a glass case under the altar. The image was of life-size, and was painted to represent life, or rather death, with false hair and beard, and with the muslin drapery managed to expose the stigmata: it was stretched upon a bed strewn with artificial flowers; and it was dreadful. But the poor soul at her devotions there prayed to it in an ecstasy of supplication, flinging her arms asunder with imploring gesture, clasping her hands and bowing her head upon them, while her person swayed from side to side in the abandon of her prayer. Who could she be, and what was her mighty need of blessing or forgiveness? As her wont was, Kitty threw her own soul into the imagined case of the suppliant, the tragedy of her desire or sorrow. Yet, like all who suffer sympathetically, she was not without consolations unknown to the principal; and the waning afternoon, as it lit up the conventional ugliness of the old church, and the paraphernalia of its worship, relieved her emotional self-abandon with a remote sense of content, so that it may have been a jealousy for the integrity of her own revery, as well as a feeling for the poor woman, that made her tremble lest Mr. Arbuton should in some way disparage the spectacle. I suppose that her interest in it was more an aesthetic than a spiritual one; it embodied to her sight many a scene of penitence that had played before her fancy, and I do not know but she would have been willing to have the suppliant guilty of some dreadful misdeed, rather than eating meat last Friday, which was probably her sin. However it was, the ancient crone before that ghastly idol was precious to her, and it seemed too great a favor, when at last the suppliant wiped her eyes, rose trembling from her knees, and approaching Kitty, stretched towards her a shaking palm for charity.

It was a touch that transfigured all, and gave even Mr. Arbuton's neutrality a light of ideal character. He bestowed the alms craved of him in turn, he did not repulse the beldame's blessing; and Kitty, who was already moved by his kindness to that poor mourner at the door, forgot that the earlier part of their walk had been so miserable, and climbed back to the Upper Town through the Prescott Gate in greater gayety than she had yet known that day in his company. I think he had not done much to make her cheerful; but it is one of the advantages of a temperament like his, that very little is expected of it, and that it can more easily than any other make the human heart glad; at the least softening in it, the soul frolics with a craven lightsomeness. For this reason Kitty was able to enjoy with novel satisfaction the picturesqueness of Mountain Street, and they both admired the huge shoulder of rock near the gate, with its poplars atop, and the battery at the brink, with the muzzles of the guns thrust forward against the sky. She could not move him to her pleasure in the grotesqueness of the circus-bills plastered half-way up the rock; but he tolerated the levity with which she commented on them, and her light sallies upon passing things, and he said nothing to prevent her reaching home in serene satisfaction.

"Well, Kitty," said the tenant of the sofa, as Kitty and the colonel drew up to the table on which the tea was laid at the sofa-side, "you've had a nice walk, haven't you?"

"O yes, very nice. That is, the first part of it wasn't very nice; but after a while we reached an old church in the Lower Town,—which was very interesting,—and then we appeared to cheer up and take a new start."

"Well," asked the colonel, "what did you find so interesting at that old church?"

"Why, there was a baby's funeral; and an old woman, perfectly crushed by some trouble or other, praying before an altar, and—"

"It seems to take very little to cheer you up," said the colonel. "All you ask of your fellow-beings is a heart-breaking bereavement and a religious agony, and you are lively at once. Some people might require human sacrifices, but you don't."

Kitty looked at her cousin a moment with vague amaze. The grossness of the absurdity flashed upon her, and she felt as if another touch must bring the tears. She said nothing; but Mrs. Ellison, who saw only that she was cut off from her heart's desire of gossip, came to the rescue.

"Don't answer a word, Kitty, not a single word; I never heard anything more insulting from one cousin to another; and I should say it, if I was brought into a court of justice."

A sudden burst of laughter from Kitty, who hid her conscious face in her hands, interrupted Mrs. Ellison's defence.

"Well," said Mrs. Ellison, piqued at her desertion, "I hope you understand yourselves. I don't." This was Mrs. Ellison's attitude towards her husband's whole family, who on their part never had been able to account for the colonel's choice except as a joke, and sometimes questioned if he had not perhaps carried the joke too far; though they loved her too, for a kind of passionate generosity and sublime, inconsequent unselfishness about her.

"What I want to know, now," said the colonel, as soon as Kitty would let him, "and I'll try to put it as politely as I can, is simply this: what made the first part of your walk so disagreeable? You didn't see a wedding-party, or a child rescued from a horrible death, or a man saved from drowning, or anything of that kind, did you?"

But the colonel would have done better not to say anything. His wife was made peevish by his persistence, and the loss of the harmless pleasure upon which she had counted in the history of Kitty's walk with Mr. Arbuton. Kitty herself would not laugh again; in fact she grew serious and thoughtful, and presently took up a book, and after that went to her own room, where she stood awhile at her window, and looked out on the garden of the Ursulines. The moon hung full orb in the stainless heaven, and deepened the mystery of the paths and trees, and lit the silvery roofs and chimneys of the convent with tender effulgence. A wandering odor of leaf and flower stole up from the garden, but she perceived the sweetness, like the splendor, with veiled senses. She was turning over in her thought the incidents of her walk, and trying to make out if anything had really happened, first to provoke her against Mr. Arbuton, and then to reconcile her to him. Had he said or done anything about her favorite painting (which she hated now), or the Marches, to offend her? Or if it had been his tone and manner, was his after-conduct at the old church sufficient penance? What was it he had done that common humanity did not require? Was he so very superior to common humanity, that she should meekly rejoice at his kindness to the afflicted mother? Why need she have cared for his forbearance toward the rapt devotee? She became aware that she was ridiculous. "Dick was right," she confessed, "and I will not let myself be made a goose of"; and when the bugle at the citadel called the soldiers to rest, and the harsh chapel-bell bade the nuns go dream of heaven, she also fell asleep, a smile on her lips and a light heart in her breast.

William Dean Howells

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