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Chapter 9

MR. ARBUTON'S INFATUATION.

Kitty went as usual to Mrs. Ellison's room after her walk, but she lapsed into a deep abstraction as she sat down beside the sofa.

"What are you smiling at?" asked Mrs. Ellison, after briefly supporting her abstraction.

"Was I smiling?" asked Kitty, beginning to laugh. "I didn't know it."

"What has happened so very funny?"

"Why, I don't know whether it's so very funny or not. I believe it isn't funny at all."

"Then what makes you laugh?"

"I don't know. Was I—"

"Now don't ask me if you were laughing, Kitty. It's a little too much. You can talk or not, as you choose; but I don't like to be turned into ridicule."

"O Fanny, how can you? I was thinking about something very different. But I don't see how I can tell you, without putting Mr. Arbuton in a ludicrous light, and it isn't quite fair."

"You're very careful of him, all at once," said Mrs. Ellison. "You didn't seem disposed to spare him yesterday so much. I don't understand this sudden conversion."

Kitty responded with a fit of outrageous laughter. "Now I see I must tell you," she said, and rapidly recounted Mr. Arbuton's adventure.

"Why, I never knew anything so cool and brave, Fanny, and I admired him more than ever I did; but then I couldn't help seeing the other side of it, you know."

"What other side? I don't know."

"Well, you'd have had to laugh yourself, if you'd seen the lordly way he dismissed the poor people who had come running out of their houses to help him, and his stateliness in rewarding that little cooper, and his heroic parting from his cherished overcoat,—which of course he can't replace in Quebec,—and his absent-minded politeness in taking my hand under his arm, and marching off with me so magnificently. But the worst thing, Fanny,"—and she bowed herself under a tempest of long-pent mirth,—"the worst thing was, that the iron, you know, was the cooper's branding-iron, and I had a vision of the dog carrying about on his nose, as long as he lived, the monogram that marks the cooper's casks as holding a certain number of gallons—"

"Kitty, don't be—sacrilegious!" cried Mrs. Ellison.

"No, I'm not," she retorted, gasping and panting. "I never respected Mr. Arbuton so much, and you say yourself I haven't shown myself so careful of him before. But I never was so glad to see Dick in my life, and to have some excuse for laughing. I didn't dare to speak to Mr. Arbuton about it, for he couldn't, if he had tried, have let me laugh it out and be done with it. I trudged demurely along by his side, and neither of us mentioned the matter to Dick," she concluded breathlessly. Then, "I don't know why I should tell you now; it seems wicked and cruel," she said penitently, almost pensively.

Mrs. Ellison had not been amused. She said, "Well, Kitty, in some girls I should say it was quite heartless to do as you've done."

"It's heartless in me, Fanny; and you needn't say such a thing. I'm sure I didn't utter a syllable to wound him, and just before that he'd been very disagreeable, and I forgave him because I thought he was mortified. And you needn't say that I've no feeling"; and thereupon she rose, and, putting her hands into her cousin's, "Fanny," she cried, vehemently, "I have been heartless. I'm afraid I haven't shown any sympathy or consideration. I'm afraid I must have seemed dreadfully callous and hard. I oughtn't to have thought of anything but the danger to him; and it seems to me now I scarcely thought of that at all. O, how rude it was of me to see anything funny in it! What can I do?"

"Don't go crazy, at any rate, Kitty. He doesn't know that you've been laughing about him. You needn't do anything."

"O yes, I need. He doesn't know that I've been laughing about him to you; but, don't you see, I laughed when we met Dick; and what can he think of that?"

"He just thinks you were nervous, I suppose."

"O, do you suppose he does, Fanny? O, I wish I could believe that! O, I'm so horribly ashamed of myself! And here yesterday I was criticising him for being unfeeling, and now I've been a thousand times worse than he has ever been, or ever could be! O dear, dear, dear!"

"Kitty! hush!" exclaimed Mrs. Ellison; "you run on like a wild thing, and you're driving me distracted, by not being like yourself."

"O, it's very well for you to be so calm; but if you didn't know what to do, you wouldn't."

"Yes, I would; I don't, and I am."

"But what shall I do?" And Kitty plucked away the hands which Fanny had been holding and wrung them. "I'll tell you what I can do," she suddenly added, while a gleam of relief dawned upon her face: "I can bear all his disagreeable ways after this, as long as he stays, and not say anything back. Yes, I'll put up with everything. I'll be as meek! He may patronize me and snub me and put me in the wrong as much as he pleases. And then he won't be approaching my behavior. O Fanny!"

Upon this, Mrs. Ellison said that she was going to give her a good scolding for her nonsense, and pulled her down and kissed her, and said that she had not done anything, and was, nevertheless, consoled at her resolve to expiate her offence by respecting thenceforward Mr. Arbuton's foibles and prejudices.

It is not certain how far Kitty would have succeeded in her good purposes: these things, so easily conceived, are not of such facile execution; she passed a sleepless night of good resolutions and schemes of reparation; but, fortunately for her, Mr. Arbuton's foibles and prejudices seemed to have fallen into a strange abeyance. The change that had come upon him that day remained; he was still Mr. Arbuton, but with a difference. He could not undo his whole inherited and educated being, and perhaps no chance could deeply affect it without destroying the man. He continued hopelessly superior to Colonel and Mrs. Ellison; but it is not easy to love a woman and not seek, at least before marriage, to please those dear to her. Mr. Arbuton had contested his passion at every advance; he had firmly set his face against the fancy that, at the beginning, invested this girl with a charm; he had only done the things afterwards that mere civilization required; he had suffered torments of doubt concerning her fitness for himself and his place in society; he was not sure yet that her unknown relations were not horribly vulgar people; even yet, he was almost wholly ignorant of the circumstances and conditions of her life. But how he saw her only in the enrapturing light of his daring for her sake, of a self-devotion that had seemed to make her his own; and he behaved toward her with a lover's self-forgetfulness,—or something like it: say a perfect tolerance, a tender patience, in which it would have been hard to detect the lurking shadow of condescension.

He was fairly domesticated with the family. Mrs. Ellison's hurt, in spite of her many imprudences, was decidedly better, and sometimes she made a ceremony of being helped down from her room to dinner; but she always had tea beside her sofa, and he with the others drank it there. Few hours of the day passed in which they did not meet in that easy relation which establishes itself among people sojourning in summer idleness under the same roof. In the morning he saw the young girl fresh and glad as any flower of the garden beneath her window, while the sweet abstraction of her maiden dreams yet hovered in her eyes. At night he sat with her beside the lamp whose light, illuming a little world within, shut out the great world outside, and seemed to be the soft effulgence of her presence, as she sewed, or knit, or read,—a heavenly spirit of home. Sometimes he heard her talking with her cousin, or lightly laughing after he had said good night; once, when he woke, she seemed to be looking out of her window across the moonlight in the Ursulines' Garden while she sang a fragment of song. To meet her on the stairs or in the narrow entries; or to encounter her at the doors, and make way for her to pass with a jest and blush and flutter; to sit down at table with her three times a day,—was a potent witchery. There was a rapture in her shawl flung over the back of a chair; her gloves, lying light as fallen leaves on the table, and keeping the shape of her hands, were full of winning character; and all the more unaccountably they touched his heart because they had a certain careless, sweet shabbiness about the finger-tips.

He found himself hanging upon her desultory talk with Fanny about the set of things and the agreement of colors. There was always more or less of this talk going on, whatever the main topic was, for continual question arose in the minds of one or other lady concerning those adaptations of Mrs. Ellison's finery to the exigencies of Kitty's daily life. They pleased their innocent hearts with the secrecy of the affair, which, in the concealments it required, the sudden difficulties it presented, and the guiltless equivocations it inspired, had the excitement of intrigue. Nothing could have been more to the mind of Mrs. Ellison than to deck Kitty for this perpetual masquerade; and, since the things were very pretty, and Kitty was a girl in every motion of her being, I do not see how anything could have delighted her more than to wear them. Their talk effervesced with the delicious consciousness that he could not dream of what was going on, and babbled over with mysterious jests and laughter, which sometimes he feared to be at his expense, and so joined in, and made them laugh the more at his misconception. He went and came among them at will; he had but to tap at Mrs. Ellison's door, and some voice of unaffected cordiality welcomed him in; he had but to ask, and Kitty was frankly ready for any of those strolls about Quebec in which most of their waking hours were dreamed away.

The gray Lady of the North cast her spell about them,—the freshness of her mornings, the still heat of her middays, the slant, pensive radiance of her afternoons, and the pale splendor of her auroral nights. Never was city so faithfully explored; never did city so abound in objects of interest; for Kitty's love of the place was boundless, and his love for her was inevitable friendship with this adoptive patriotism.

"I didn't suppose you Western people cared for these things," he once said; "I thought your minds were set on things new and square."

"But how could you think so?" replied Kitty, tolerantly. "It's because we have so many new and square things that we like the old crooked ones. I do believe I should enjoy Europe even better than you. There's a forsaken farm-house near Eriecreek, dropping to pieces amongst its wild-grown sweetbriers and quince-bushes, that I used to think a wonder of antiquity because it was built in 1815. Can't you imagine how I must feel in a city like this, that was founded nearly three centuries ago, and has suffered so many sieges and captures, and looks like pictures of those beautiful old towns I can never see?"

"O, perhaps you will see them some day!" he said, touched by her fervor.

"I don't ask it at present: Quebec's enough. I'm in love with the place. I wish I never had to leave it. There isn't a crook, or a turn, or a tin-roof, or a dormer-window, or a gray stone in it that isn't precious."

Mr. Arbuton laughed. "Well, you shall be sovereign lady of Quebec for me. Shall we have the English garrison turned out?"

"No; not unless you can bring back Montcalm's men to take their places."

This might be as they sauntered out of one of the city gates, and strayed through the Lower Town till they should chance upon some poor, bare-interiored church, with a few humble worshippers adoring their Saint, with his lamps alight before his picture; or as they passed some high convent-wall, and caught the strange, metallic clang of the nuns' voices singing their hymns within. Sometimes they whiled away the hours on the Esplanade, breathing its pensive sentiment of neglect and incipient decay, and pacing up and down over the turf athwart the slim shadows of the poplars; or, with comfortable indifference to the local observances, sat in talk on the carriage of one of the burly, uncared-for guns, while the spider wove his web across the mortar's mouth, and the grass nodded above the tumbled pyramids of shot, and the children raced up and down, and the nursery-maids were wooed of the dapper sergeants, and the red-coated sentry loitered lazily to and fro before his box. On the days of the music, they listened to the band in the Governor's Garden, and watched the fine world of the old capital in flirtation with the blond-whiskered officers; and on pleasant nights they mingled with the citizen throng that filled the Durham Terrace, while the river shaped itself in the lights of its shipping, and the Lower Town, with its lamps, lay, like a nether firmament, two hundred feet below them, and Point Levis glittered and sparkled on the thither shore, and in the northern sky the aurora throbbed in swift pulsations of violet and crimson. They liked to climb the Break-Neck Steps at Prescott Gate, dropping from the Upper to the Lower Town, which reminded Mr. Arbuton of Naples and Trieste, and took Kitty with the unassociated picturesqueness of their odd shops and taverns, and their lofty windows green with house-plants. They would stop and look up at the geraniums and fuchsias, and fall a thinking of far different things, and the friendly, unbusy people would come to their doors and look up with them. They recognized the handsome, blond young man, and the pretty, gray-eyed girl; for people in Quebec have time to note strangers who linger there, and Kitty and Mr. Arbuton had come to be well-known figures, different from the fleeting tourists on their rounds; and, indeed, as sojourners they themselves perceived their poetic distinction from mere birds of passage.

Indoors they resorted much to the little entry-window looking out on the Ursulines' Garden. Two chairs stood confronted there, and it was hard for either of the young people to pass them without sinking a moment into one of them, and this appeared always to charm another presence into the opposite chair. There they often lingered in the soft forenoons, talking in desultory phrase of things far and near, or watching, in long silences, the nuns pacing up and down in the garden below, and waiting for the pensive, slender nun, and the stout, jolly nun whom Kitty had adopted, and whom she had gayly interpreted to him as an allegory of Life in their quaint inseparableness; and they played that the influence of one or other nun was in the ascendant, according as their own talk was gay or sad. In their relation, people are not so different from children; they like the same thing over and over again; they like it the better the less it is in itself.

At times Kitty would come with a book in her hand (one finger shut in to keep the place),—some latest novel, or a pirated edition of Longfellow, recreantly purchased at a Quebec bookstore; and then Mr. Arbuton must ask to see it; and he read romance or poetry to her by the hour. He showed to as much advantage as most men do in the serious follies of wooing; and an influence which he could not defy, or would not, shaped him to all the sweet, absurd demands of the affair. From time to time, recollecting himself, and trying to look consequences in the face, he gently turned the talk upon Eriecreek, and endeavored to possess himself of some intelligible image of the place, and of Kitty's home and friends. Even then, the present was so fair and full of content, that his thoughts, when they reverted to the future, no longer met the obstacles that had made him recoil from it before. Whatever her past had been, he could find some way to weaken the ties that bound her to it; a year or two of Europe would leave no trace of Eriecreek; without effort of his, her life would adapt itself to his own, and cease to be a part of the lives of those people there; again and again his amiable imaginations—they were scarcely intents—accomplished themselves in many a swift, fugitive revery, while the days went by, and the shadow of the ivy in the window at which they sat fell, in moonlight and sunlight, upon Kitty's cheeks, and the fuchsia kissed her hair with its purple and crimson blossom.

William Dean Howells

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