Open main menu
 

XII

THE PUSSY-KITTEN

{{di|YOLANDE was married—she was married at Elmhurst church, Chloe and I her only supporters. And after the wedding we all walked quietly down together from the church and said “Good-bye” to them at the door of their cottage, through whose windows the welcoming firelight shone out into the cheerless January dusk.

“What an ideal beginning to a honey-moon!” said my wife. “Fancy walking straight home to your own house. No broughams and slippers and things, no long railway journey and horrid hotels and lodgings, with the rice dropping out of you in showers every time you move an inch, and everybody grinning sympathetically after you. It's like Frances's wedding in the Professor.”

“It's a warmer wedding than that,” said I, “That description always chills me to the bone, And does it matter so much where you go, as long as you go together? I seem to remember a hideous parlor at Pevensey that once contented two moderately happy people.”

“Yes,” she said, “but this is best. Who knows how much happier we should have been if we'd gone straight home to the Bandbox?”

“We should never have been able to leave it,” said I. “It's better as it is. Suppose I had been wise and firm and inflexible—”

“A youthful Murdstone—”

“And refused to yield to your superior wisdom and obstinacy, and—”

“And we had never come to the Red House! Yes, it's all my doing, Len—the only thing I'm really and truly proud of. It's Yolande's doing, partly, but it's mine, too. Our lines have fallen unto us in pleasant places. Come in. I feel as if it was us who had just been married and were going home to our own house. It's odd—I always feel that we've only just been married, and yet that we've been married ever since we can remember.”

“So we have,” said I.

“We are very fortunate,” she said, “and I am very, very grateful.”

We were, indeed, fortunate. Chloe's daring adoption of the Red House as our home had been generously repaid. Instead of being the white elephant as which it had sometimes sought to disguise itself, it was now a credit to us, and an unchanging joy. Our cottages were let, and our garden. Our work in the Red House had been prosperous, the memories that had grown up there were precious, the hopes more precious still. Mary was happier than ever, now that she had a small servant—her slender personalty personality wholly justified by our prosperity and our future—to teach and order about and be kind to. Our lives were peaceful, ordered, incredibly pleasant. And if I still sometimes cleaned a candlestick or a sword, and Chloe now and then washed china or dusted the white parlor, not even Yolande could complain that we neglected our work to indulge in these recreations.

Chloe remarked one day that we had grown uninteresting. Our earlier domestic adventures, she declared, might have been made really amusing by a competent narrator, but now nothing happened to us except the things that ought to happen.

“Ah, wait,” I said, “my regretful optimist; things will go on happening to us all our lives long. This is only an ‘easy.’ We are in a peaceful backwater just now. We shall be pulling against the stream again soon enough.”

“But we are uninteresting,” she persisted.

“It's not polite of you to say so. Even the plural pronoun doesn't redeem that speech. I don't find you uninteresting—at least, not very.”

“It's all quite dull and flat,” she went on, scorning to take up the gauntlet; “and the worst of it is, it is so beautiful when things are flat and dull. I hardly dare to draw my breath for fear something should happen. Things that happen are always horrid. It's the times when nothing happens that are too good for one to dare to be quite happy in them.”

“Nice things do happen sometimes,” I said, softly. “Besides, we have the interest of watching Yolande just now. She won't elude our vigilance forever; sooner or later she'll justify your prediction and be discovered darning the tenant's socks.”

“Even that won't be a very wonderful happening,” said my wife; “though so far, I confess, she has lived up to her ideals most nobly. He supports her in her resolution to keep her fingers clean of house-work, and the ferret's wife does all her sewing. It's us that things don't happen to any more. And, oh, Len, I don't want anything to happen. Don't you notice that we hardly ever even quarrel now?”

“Did we ever—much?”

“We used to be snarky sometimes—much snarkier than we are now. Why is it? Is it because we have more money? People are always supposed to quarrel when they are poor.”

“We were never poor enough to throw the teacups at each other's heads,” I said, “even in our worst days. Look at that little gold ball.”

“It's winter aconite,” she informed me. “It has a prettier name, but I've forgotten it. It's very late. I suppose it overslept itself; the others are over long ago.”

We were walking slowly round the garden, where the crocuses showed green and gold, and the birds were singing like mad. The spikes and buds of the daffodils made green patches, and the blue squills were out. The pigeons on the farm-roof were preening their shining breasts, nestling up to each other, repeating unceasingly the pretty, monotonous, proud cry of their pairing-time.

“You can hear quite well what they're saying,” said Chloe. “Listen: ‘Look at us two! Look at us two!’ They are absurdly happy.”

“So they ought to be,” I said; “it's a happy day. There's no doubt at all now that spring will come again. I've only half believed it all these winter months. How neat that market-gardener man has made everything! I do hope we sha'n't loathe it in the summer when we walk in it and remember how sweet and untidy and all-over-the-place it was last year. That would be a happening, indeed.”

“If we are both alive and in this garden together in the summer we sha'n't hate anything much, shall we? Very well, I won't, if you hate it so, but it's silly not to face things. People do die sometimes, you know, even people who love each other.”

“I won't have it,” I said, firmly. “Dearest and silliest, you must not scratch my heart with those kitty claws of yours, or I shall be sorry I ever let you have it to play with. I'd rather quarrel with you. As you say, we've neglected that pastime shockingly. Let us begin. Come, think of something to quarrel about, and you shall see what reserve forces of crude disagreeableness I have been getting ready all these dear months. Ah, don't, don't! You know it always makes you ill to cry.”

For she was clinging to me and hiding her eyes.

“Don't,” I heard her say. “I don't want to claw you. It claws me just as much. You don't know how silly I am. I can't bear to let you out of my sight, because, perhaps, I sha'n't be able to be with you very much longer. Len dear, we know each other so well; we've been such friends, too, haven't we? We've been so happy. It makes me frightened. And now it's so peaceful; I feel as if things were gathering together for some awful thing to happen. You don't know!”

I was silent. Did I not know?

“Yes, you do,” she went on, holding me more closely. “You do, you do, but you pretend you aren't afraid of anything, because you think it makes me cheerful. It doesn't. I hate to think that we're pretending to each other—now. So I tell you plainly, Len, I'm very, very frightened, and you know it, and so are you, and I know that, and if you'd only let me look straight at it, perhaps I shouldn't be so frightened. Oh, there are so many things I want to say to you. There, I won't any more. Let me take your arm, and we'll walk quietly and respectably like good children, and you must let me say anything I like, and you mustn't try not to say everything that comes into your head, and you're not to try to cheer me up, because I can't bear it.”

So we walked and talked. And, indeed, such talk, while it intensified my own aching passion of tenderness and solicitude, did, by its frank revelation of that passion, do more to calm and cheer my wife than all my brave pretence—it was brave—of confident fearlessness had ever done. But I have written already more than is needed. It is because, when I remember that time, I cannot well command my thought; and my pen, seeing its superior officer in mutiny, mutinies too. For it was March now, and the time of our great fear and our great happiness was very near.

Strangely enough, after that day it was Chloe who made the brave pretences and I who clung to her, imploring her to teach me her courage and confidence. Once again in the history of the Red House my wife and I had changed parts.

The hushed peace that brooded over us folded us in wings too soft and close to let any breath of outside tempest come near. Yolande and the tenant talked to us, as it were, through a soft, warm veil. Our relations—oh, fortunate destiny that was ours!—kept away. Chloe's mother (who is as nice as any one could be who is not Chloe, and is twice Chloe's age) sprained an opportune ankle and could not come to us as she had intended, and as I had thought I wished. So that my wife and I had these last days—the last, as we alternately prayed and feared—alone together. The doings of Yolande and Yolande's husband were like a bright, gay embroidery on the rich fabric of our quiet happiness. And the time drew near.

It was on the 1st of April—a too appropriate date, as Yolande afterwards bewailed—that Chloe suddenly realized, in an imperative shock, that there was a certain Japanese dressing-jacket pattern without which she could not be happy another moment. She had the stuff to make it, a demurely eccentric Eastern-patterned silk; she also had the material—a dull, soft blue—for what she called the revers. I suppose a man would call it the lining, but I am not quite sure.

So she left a half-written story of the very strongest possible “domestic interest” (it was, indeed, for she was to get twenty pounds for the finished article) to go down to Yolande's cottage and borrow this priceless pattern which Yolande was known to possess. She had bought it among others for the guidance of the dressmaker who prepared her trousseau. And I, almost without a pang, abandoned a nearly finished drawing to go with her.

The buds were gray and green on the trees, on the lilacs the buds were bronze, and carmine on the creeper. The daffodils were out, and the tulips rigid with the energy of pride and promise. Everything that makes the glory of the summer garden was pushing up green leaves and crying: “I am coming, I am coming—only be patient! And don't disturb me, for I am very busy making flowers for you. Wait, and you shall see!” The birds' song was almost as intense as in the first pairing-time. We walked up the neat cottage garden, and we remembered the days of Prosser and the rags and the dead mouse and the mutton-bone. Now the garden was all trim and neat, and the earth had stirred in her sleep and thrown out handfuls of primroses and violets and early red tulips, just to show what she could do, and to remind us what she would do for us when the sun, her lover, had kissed her fully awake.

We knocked at the cottage door. It was a very nice knocker—old brass. Yolande—under my guidance—had picked it up for sevenpence at a rag-and-bottle shop in Deptford. There was a long pause. Usually the door was opened almost coincidently with the fall of the knocker by pretty, fair-haired, cheery-faced Mrs. Bates, but now we stood long on the narrow doorstep and heard from within sounds of scuffling and rustling. We had time to see how right Browning was when he said, “The leaf-buds on the vine are woolly,” and how very long before their white perfection come the green pledges of the annunciation lilies.

We knocked again. The scuffle or rustle assured us that some one was within. The leisure of our next waiting showed us the auriculas—“honey-flowers” our grandmothers used to call them; “dusty millers” the country-folk call them still—glowing in their soft shades of primrose and orange and red and purple.

But when one desires, with all one's soul, the cut-out paper pattern of a Japanese dressing-jacket for which one has already the material, even auriculas cannot charm away desire for long.

This time it was Chloe who knocked; she knocked vehemently, and almost on the instant the door was opened by our tenant in person—our tenant, resplendent in speckless frock-coat and gleaming high hat—the armor in which he habitually leaves his home to fight with beasts in the newspaper-offices of Fleet Street.

“I'm rushing for my train,” he said, hurriedly, and, indeed, its smoke showed already beyond the gray veil of leaf-buds on the trees of our railway embankment. “I'm glad you've come. I wanted to send for you yesterday, but Yolande wouldn't—”

“Whatever is the matter?”

“Oh, nothing—a domestic crisis. Yolande's coping with it. She loathes a crisis in little, but she's coping with it with the detail of a dictionary and the generalship of a—of a general. I've no time to turn the phrase.” He tore off down the red path, shouting as he went, “I say, Yo, I'll bring home something cold for dinner.”

We were left planted on the doorstep. The next moment Yolande came down the stairs—they lead, sans phrases, from the bedrooms into the dining-room—and stood before us, a changed, a transfigured Yolande. Her stuff dress of dull Venetian red was pinned up over a delicious petticoat of mauve silk and lace; she wore an apron—one of Mrs. Bates's, I knew at once by its tasteful Nottingham trimmings—and over her bright hair she had pinned a white silk handkerchief that conscientiously strove to look like a mob-cap.

“Pray come in,” she said, in a bitter travesty of hospitality. “Come in and gloat over my sorrows. Come in and tell me how you always told me so. ‘This is the most unkindest cut of all’—‘Earl Percy sees my fall’—”

“This madness of quotations,” I said—

“I'd rather be a dog and bay the morn,” she went on, pretending to tear her pretty hair, “than—than what I am.”

“And what are you?” asked Chloe, sitting down on the settle.

“I'm a house-maid,” she said, tragically—“a house-maid, and a parlor-maid, and a cook, and a boy in buttons, and a butler, and a footman, and a person who mends socks and sews on buttons. The ferret's wife's sister's husband is ill, and the ferret's wife has gone to nurse her—”

“Without asking you?”

“Of course she asked me. And what could I say? Of course I said I could manage perfectly. And now I am managing perfectly. It's been going on since yesterday morning. Have some bottled beer? ‘It's not what you want, but what you need, Brother Humphrey!’”

With this last quotation she sat down and poured out foaming beer for herself and us—at half-past eleven o'clock in the morning!

We drank it in respectful silence.

“We've been up since the middle of the night,” she went on, setting down her empty tumbler. “We're both involved in one common ruin. He lit the fires; I got the breakfast. Then he found he had no socks mended, and—and there were buttons. Chloe, Chloe! I darned his socks, but I did not sew on his buttons. He did that. I think he'll get shirts with studs for the future. The needle broke and the end went into his finger. Fortunately, I'd attended classes on—what do you call it?—‘first injuries to the aided,’ or something—so I was able to bandage his wounds; but it all took time, and he's two trains late already. I am prostrate—a worm at your intruding feet, for you've no business to come here in the morning and see my disgrace. But since you are here, I'll confess. I almost wish I had learned to do things like this before.”

“Confess a little more, my darling housemaid, page, and cook,” said Chloe, “and then I'll help you to wash up.” For the breakfast things still covered the table.

“What am I to confess?” asked Yolande. Her eyes were bright, and in her cheeks shone the prettiest shell-pink.

“Confess that you like doing house-work and making breakfast and darning socks in your own house and for your own man.”

“I hate it,” said Yolande, firmly, but her eyes betrayed her; “but even if I liked it, it doesn't effect what I used to say to you. I used to tell you that you ought not to neglect your proper work for orgies of dish-washing and knife-cleaning or wild revels of wood-chopping. And no more you ought. But if I choose to do it, I may. If I choose to concentrate myself on it, I can do it as well as you can. And in a crisis—it is my work. So my conscience is at peace.”

“And the higher education of women!” said Chloe.

“Oh, bother the higher education of women!” said Yolande. “Let's wash up.”

We helped in the house-work; it was to us a holiday excursion—a treat to good children. Incidentally, in the course of it we observed several things. One, that the two studies were now in one house, and that the door between them had been taken off its hinges and replaced by an Indian curtain drawn back in folds too stiff and formal to allow one to suppose for an instant that it was ever drawn across the doorway. Two, that Yolande had a work-basket, and that from it peeped a half-hemmed man's necktie, and a half-knitted man's sock. Third— But why sing songs of triumph over the vanquished? Yolande had found her happiness where we had found it, so let my last words of her leave her there.

And now, if I might, I would leave here certain blank pages to speak for me of certain April days, not ever to be forgotten, and never, never, never to be written about.

I always look with wonder alternating with envy on those men who can set down, in black and white, the heights of their joy, the depths of their trouble. And I marvel whether they have less imagination than I, or more. Chloe can do this thing—and in a woman one can only envy the faculty; it is that which makes her a better story-teller than I.

For my part, when I think of those days my lips are closed like the lips of the dead, and my pen falls from between my fingers. So, because, somehow, those days should be recorded, I long for the blank pages, on which every man who loves his wife should read for himself what his heart would write for him there.

And now it was May, and the sweet-plumed lilac was out, the red and white hawthorns were in bud-round, shining beads of coral and pearl. The garden had forgotten the lean days of winter and was all curves and softnesses in its new green gown; fat thrushes hopped and pecked on the wide, wet lawns. The yellow tulips stood up like tall lamps above the delicate brocade of the forget-me-nots and their leaves. It was mid-May, and this was the morning which Chloe has chosen, since it is Saturday and a whole holiday, to invite the whole tribe of those astonishing Bastable children to spend the day.

They arrived, much neater than I had expected, and when Chloe had greeted them—she remembered all their names, down to H.O.—she said:

“I've something new to show you—something new and nice. Come up-stairs and let's look at it.”

Chloe always would go up the stairs two steps at a time when anything she wanted was at the top of them. The children now, light-footed, heavy-booted, followed, clattering, her flying Turkish-slippered feet and the flutter of her spring-green gown.

She led them to our loafery—now transformed in many undreamed-of ways, but with its window-bars still screened with budding creeper.

“Do you remember this?” she asked, pointing to a brown object by the fireside.

“Rather,” said the boy they call Oswald. “It's one of the things we found in your secret cellar that day. We all thought what a good rabbit-hutch it would make.”

The girls had made a rush forward, with the prettiest “Oh!” of wonder and delight.

The smallest boy of all put his fat legs very far apart. “Why,” said he, in a tone of positive injury, “you've been and gone and put a baby in it!”

“Don't you think a baby's rather a good thing to put in a cradle?” I said, meekly.

“It would have made a jolly good hutch,” he said, with undisguised regret.

The girls were gloating over the cradle in the most charming feminine attitudes. I should have liked to draw them.

“The dear! the precious!” they said, in chorus. “What color are its eyes? Is it a boy or a girl? What's its name?”

“Its eyes are blue—at present,” I said, “and it is a girl. And we call it the Pussy-Kitten.”

“I should have thought you would have called it after some one with a real name—an aunt or something,” said Oswald, rather gloomily.

“So I did. I called it after the dearest and best and prettiest lady in the world.”

I could not help a glance at Chloe; she certainly did grow prettier every day, and as for dearer—well, all things wax or wane.

The second boy, Dickie, surprised my glance. “Oh,” he said, with obvious cessation of interest, “you mean her.”

He indicated Chloe by a not discourteous gesture, and instantly asked if they might not go and see the pig. (Have I mentioned that Jim kept a pig?)

Permission given, they swept away like a tidal wave, and we heard their boots sound fainter and fainter on the stairs.

Chloe and I were left alone with the cradle.

“It is hard, isn't it,” I said, meeting her eyes across the cradle, “to lose one's high estate—even when one mounts from it to a higher?”

“Is it?” she said, covering up a fat, pink fist thrust out from beneath the pink eider-down.

“To have been a princess and then to be merely a queen! To have been a pussy-kitten and to have given up that title to another, and such a very, very small usurper, too!”

“She's not so very small, Len,” said my wife, anxiously.

“It sounds like a riddle,” I went on. “Would you rather be—a pussy-kitten or a pussy-cat? Do you know the answer?”

“Oh yes,” she said, softly, “I know the answer; I know the answer very well, indeed. And you—aren't you proud to have such a collection of pussies—a pussy-cat and a pussy-kitten?”

“Yes,” I said, and across the cradle we kissed each other for the last time in this story. “You know just how happy and how proud I am, my little mother pussy-cat.”

 

THE END