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    Chapter 2

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    Chapter 2
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    It was a pretty room, lightly scented with the pink geraniums and blue lobelia and coral fuchsias that poised, urgent with colour, in the window-boxes at the open windows. Sunshine paused delicately just inside, where forms of pale-blue birds and lavender flowers curled up and down the cretonne curtains; and a tempered, respectful light fell upon a cushioned chaise longue; for there fluffily reclined, in garments of tender fabric and gentle colours, the prettiest twenty-year-old girl in that creditably supplied town.

    It must be said that no stranger would have taken Florence at first glance to be her niece, though everybody admitted that Florence's hair was pretty. ("I'll say that for her," was the family way of putting it.). Florence did not care for her hair herself; it was dark and thick and long, like her Aunt Julia's; but Florence--even in the realistic presence of a mirror--preferred to think of herself as an ashen blonde, and also as about a foot taller than she was. Persistence kept this picture habitually in her mind, which, of course, helps to explain her feeling that she was justified in wearing that manner of superciliousness deplored by her mother. More middle-aged gentlemen than are suspected believe that they look like the waspen youths in the magazine advertisements of clothes; and this impression of theirs accounts (as with Florence) for much that is seemingly inexplicable in their behaviour.

    Florence's Aunt Julia was reading an exquisitely made little book, which bore her initials stamped in gold upon the cover; and it had evidently reached her by a recent delivery of the mail, for wrappings bearing cancelled stamps lay upon the floor beside the chaise longue. It was a special sort of book, since its interior was not printed, but all laboriously written with pen and ink--poems, in truth, containing more references to a lady named Julia than have appeared in any other poems since Herrick's. So warmly interested in the reading as to be rather pink, though not always with entire approval, this Julia nevertheless, at the sound of footsteps, closed the book and placed it beneath one of the cushions assisting the chaise longue to make her position a comfortable one. Her greeting was not enthusiastic.

    "What do you want, Florence?"

    "I was going to ask you if Herbert and me--I mean: Was it Noble Dill gave you Fifi and Mimi, Aunt Julia?"

    "Noble Dill? No."

    "I wish it was," Florence said. "I'd like these cats better if they were from Noble Dill."

    "Why?" Julia inquired. "Why are you so partial to Mr. Noble Dill?"

    "I think he's so much the most inter'sting looking of all that come to see you. Are you sure it wasn't Noble Dill gave you these cats, Aunt Julia?"

    A look of weariness became plainly visible upon Miss Julia Atwater's charming face. "I do wish you'd hurry and grow up, Florence," she said.

    "I do, too! What for, Aunt Julia?"

    "So there'd be somebody else in the family of an eligible age. I really think it's an outrageous position to be in," Julia continued, with languid vehemence--"to be the only girl between thirteen and forty-one in a large connection of near relatives, including children, who all seem to think they haven't anything to think of but Who comes to see her, and Who came to see her yesterday, and Who was here the day before, and Who's coming to-morrow, and Who's she going to marry! You really ought to grow up and help me out, because I'm getting tired of it. No. It wasn't Noble Dill but Mr. Newland Sanders that sent me Fifi and Mimi--and I want you to keep away from 'em."

    "Why?" asked Florence.

    "Because they're very rare cats, and you aren't ordinarily a very careful sort of person, Florence, if you don't mind my saying so. Besides, if I let you go near them, the next thing Herbert would be over here mussing around, and he can't go near anything without ruining it! It's just in him; he can't help it."

    Florence looked thoughtful for a brief moment; then she asked: "Did Newland Sanders send 'em with the names already to them?"

    "No," said Julia, emphasizing the patience of her tone somewhat. "I named them after they got here. Mr. Sanders hasn't seen them yet. He had them shipped to me. He's coming this evening. Anything more to-day, Florence?"

    "Well, I was thinking," said Florence. "What do you think grandpa'll think about these cats?"

    "I don't believe there'll be any more outrages," Julia returned, and her dark eyes showed a moment's animation. "I told him at breakfast that the Reign of Terror was ended, and he and everybody else had to keep away from Fifi and Mimi. Is that about all, Florence?"

    "You let Kitty Silver go near 'em, though. She says she's fixing to wash 'em."

    Julia smiled faintly. "I thought she would! I had to go so far as to tell her that as long as I'm housekeeper in my father's house she'd do what I say or find some other place. She behaved outrageously and pretended to believe the natural colour of Fifi and Mimi is gray!"

    "I expect," said Florence, after pondering seriously for a little while--"I expect it would take quite some time to dry them."

    "No doubt. But I'd rather you didn't assist. I'd rather you weren't even around looking on, Florence."

    A shade fell upon her niece's face at this. "Why, Aunt Julia, I couldn't do any harm to Fifi and Mimi just lookin' at 'em, could I?"

    Julia laughed. "That's the trouble; you never do 'just look' at anything you're interested in, and, if you don't mind my saying so, you've got rather a record, dear! Now, don't you care: you can find lots of other pleasant things to do at home--or over at Herbert's, or Aunt Fanny's. You run along now and----"

    "Well----" Florence said, moving as if to depart.

    "You might as well go out by the front door, child," Julia suggested, with a little watchful urgency. "You come over some day when Fifi and Mimi have got used to the place, and you can look at them all you want to."

    "Well, I just----"

    But as Florence seemed disposed still to linger, her aunt's manner became more severe, and she half rose from her reclining position.

    "No, I really mean it! Fifi and Mimi are royal-bred Persian cats with a wonderful pedigree, and I don't know how much trouble and expense it cost Mr. Sanders to get them for me. They're entirely different from ordinary cats; they're very fine and queer, and if anything happens to them, after all the trouble papa's made over other presents I've had, I'll go straight to a sanitarium! No, Florence, you keep away from the kitchen to-day, and I'd like to hear the front door as you go out."

    "Well," said Florence; "I do wish if these cats are as fine as all that, it was Noble Dill that gave 'em to you. I'd like these cats lots better if he gave 'em to you, wouldn't you?"

    "No, I wouldn't."

    "Well----" Florence said again, and departed.

    Twenty is an unsuspicious age, except when it fears that its dignity or grace may be threatened from without; and it might have been a "bad sign" in revelation of Julia Atwater's character if she had failed to accept the muffled metallic clash of the front door's closing as a token that her niece had taken a complete departure for home. A supplemental confirmation came a moment later, fainter but no less conclusive: the distant slamming of the front gate; and it made a clear picture of an obedient Florence on her homeward way. Peace came upon Julia: she read in her book, while at times she dropped a languid, graceful arm, and, with the pretty hand at the slimmer end of it, groped in a dark shelter beneath her couch to make a selection, merely by her well-experienced sense of touch, from a frilled white box that lay in concealment there. Then, bringing forth a crystalline violet become scented sugar, or a bit of fruit translucent in hardened sirup, she would delicately set it on the way to that attractive dissolution hoped for it by the wistful donor--and all without removing her shadowy eyes from the little volume and its patient struggle for dignified rhymes with "Julia." Florence was no longer in her beautiful relative's thoughts.

    Florence was idly in the thoughts, however, of Mrs. Balche, the next-door neighbour to the south. Happening to glance from a bay-window, she negligently marked how the child walked to the front gate, opened it, paused for a moment's meditation, then hurled the gate to a vigorous closure, herself remaining within its protection. "Odd!" Mrs. Balche murmured.

    Having thus eloquently closed the gate, Florence slowly turned and moved toward the rear of the house, quickening her steps as she went, until at a run she disappeared from the scope of Mrs. Balche's gaze, cut off by the intervening foliage of Mr. Atwater's small orchard. Mrs. Balche felt no great interest; nevertheless, she paused at the sound of a boy's voice, half husky, half shrill, in an early stage of change. "What she say, Flor'nce? D'she say we could?" But there came a warning "Hush up!" from Florence, and then, in a lowered tone, the boy's voice said: "Look here; these are mighty funny-actin' cats. I think they're kind of crazy or somep'n. Kitty Silver's fixed a washtub full o' suds for us."

    Mrs. Balche was reminded of her own cat, and went to give it a little cream. Mrs. Balche was a retired widow, without children, and too timid to like dogs; but after a suitable interval, following the loss of her husband, she accepted from a friend the gift of a white kitten, and named it Violet. It may be said that Mrs. Balche, having few interests in life, and being of a sequestering nature, lived for Violet, and that so much devotion was not good for the latter's health. In his youth, after having shown sufficient spirit to lose an eye during a sporting absence of three nights and days, Violet was not again permitted enough freedom of action to repeat this disloyalty; though, now, in his advanced middle-age, he had been fed to such a state that he seldom cared to move, other than by a slow, sneering wavement of the tail when friendly words were addressed to him; and consequently, as he seemed beyond all capacity or desire to run away, or to run at all, Mrs. Balche allowed him complete liberty of action.

    She found him asleep upon her "back porch," and placed beside him a saucer of cream, the second since his luncheon. Then she watched him affectionately as he opened his eye, turned toward the saucer his noble Henry-the-Eighth head with its great furred jowls, and began the process of rising for more food, which was all that ever seemed even feebly to rouse his mind. When he had risen, there was little space between him anywhere and the floor.

    Violet took his cream without enthusiasm, pausing at times and turning his head away. In fact, he persisted only out of an incorrigible sensuality, and finally withdrew a pace or two, leaving creamy traces still upon the saucer. With a multitude of fond words his kind mistress drew his attention to these, whereupon, making a visible effort, he returned and disposed of them.

    "Dat's de 'itty darlin'," she said, stooping to stroke him. "Eat um all up nice clean. Dood for ole sweet sin!" She continued to stroke him, and Violet half closed his eye, but not with love or serenity, for he simultaneously gestured with his tail, meaning to say: "Oh, do take your hands off o' me!" Then he opened the eye and paid a little attention to sounds from the neighbouring yard. A high fence, shrubberies, and foliage concealed that yard from the view of Violet, but the sounds were eloquent to him, since they were those made by members of his own general species when threatening atrocities. The accent may have been foreign, but Violet caught perfectly the sense of what was being said, and instinctively he muttered reciprocal curses within himself.

    "What a matta, honey?" his companion inquired sympathetically. "Ess, bad people f'ighten poor Violet!"

    From beyond the fence came the murmurings of a boy and a girl in hushed but urgent conversation; and with these sounds there mingled watery agitations, splashings and the like, as well as those low vocalizings that Violet had recognized; but suddenly there were muffled explosions, like fireworks choked in feather beds; and the human voices grew uncontrollably somewhat louder, so that their import was distinguishable. "Ow!" "Hush up, can't you? You want to bring the whole town to--ow!" "Hush up yourself!" "Oh, goodness!" "Look out! Don't let her----" "Well, look what she's doin' to me, can't you?" "For Heavenses' sakes, catch holt and----Ow!"

    Then came a husky voice, inevitably that of a horrified coloured person hastening from a distance: "Oh, my soul!" There was a scurrying, and the girl was heard in furious yet hoarsely guarded vehemence: "Bring the clo'es prop! Bring the clo'es prop! We can poke that one down from the garage, anyway. Oh, my goodness, look at 'er go!"

    Mrs. Balche shook her head. "Naughty children!" she said, as she picked up the saucer and went to the kitchen door, which she held open for Violet to enter. "Want to come with mamma?"

    But Violet had lost even the faint interest in life he had shown a few moments earlier. He settled himself to another stupor in the sun.

    "Well, well," Mrs. Balche said indulgently. "Afterwhile shall have some more nice keem."

    * * * * * * *

    Sunset was beginning to be hinted, two hours later, when, in another quarter of the town, a little girl of seven or eight, at play on the domestic side of an alley gate, became aware of an older girl regarding her fixedly over the top of the gate. The little girl felt embarrassed and paused in her gayeties, enfolding in her arms her pet and playmate. "Howdy' do," said the stranger, in a serious tone. "What'll you take for that cat?"

    The little girl made no reply, and the stranger, opening the gate, came into the yard. She looked weary, rather bedraggled, yet hurried: her air was predominantly one of anxiety. "I'll give you a quarter for that cat," she said. "I want an all-white cat, but this one's only got that one gray spot over its eye, and I don't believe there's an all-white cat left in town, leastways that anybody's willing to part with. I'll give you twenty-five cents for it. I haven't got it with me, but I'll promise to give it to you day after to-morrow."

    The little girl still made no reply, but continued to stare, her eyes widening, and the caller spoke with desperation.

    "See here," she said, "I got to have a whitish cat! That'n isn't worth more'n a quarter, but I'll give you thirty-five cents for her, money down, day after to-morrow."

    At this, the frightened child set the cat upon the ground and fled into the house. Florence Atwater was left alone; that is to say, she was the only human being in the yard, or in sight. Nevertheless, a human voice spoke, not far behind her. It came through a knot-hole in the fence, and it was a voice almost of passion.

    "You grab it!"

    Florence stood in silence, motionless; there was a solemnity about her. The voice exhorted. "My goodness!" it said. "She didn't say she wouldn't sell it, did she? You can bring her the money like you said you would, can't you? I got mine, didn't I, almost without any trouble at all! My Heavens! Ain't Kitty Silver pretty near crazy? Just think of the position we've put her into! I tell you, you got to!"

    But now Florence moved. She moved slowly at first: then with more decision and rapidity.

    * * * * * * *

    That evening's dusk had deepened into blue night when the two cousins, each with a scant, uneasy dinner eaten, met by appointment in the alley behind their mutual grandfather's place of residence, and, having climbed the back fence, approached the kitchen. Suddenly Florence lifted her right hand, and took between thumb and forefinger a lock of hair upon the back of Herbert's head.

    "Well, for Heavenses' sakes!" he burst out, justifiably protesting.

    "Hush!" Florence warned him. "Kitty Silver's talkin' to somebody in there. It might be Aunt Julia! C'm'ere!"

    She led him to a position beneath an open window of the kitchen. Here they sat upon the ground, with their backs against the stone foundation of the house, and listened to voices and the clink of dishes being washed.

    "She's got another ole coloured darky woman in there with her," said Florence. "It's a woman belongs to her church and comes to see her 'most every evening. Listen; she's telling her about it. I bet we could get the real truth of it maybe better this way than if we went in and asked her right out. Anyway, it isn't eavesdropping if you listen when people are talkin' about you, yourself. It's only wrong when it isn't any of your own bus--"

    "For Heavenses' sakes hush up!" her cousin remonstrated. "Listen!"

    "'No'm, Miss Julia, ma'am,' I say"--thus came the voice of Mrs. Silver--"'no'm, Miss Julia, ma'am. Them the same two cats you han' me, Miss Julia, ma'am,' I say. 'Leas'wise,' I say, 'them the two same cats whut was in nat closed-up brown basket when I open it up an' take an' fix to wash 'em. Somebody might 'a' took an' change 'em 'fo' they got to me,' I say, 'Miss Julia, ma'am, but all the change happen to 'em sence they been in charge of me, that's the gray whut come off 'em whiles I washin' 'em an' dryin' 'em in corn meal and flannel. I dunno how much washin' 'em change 'em, Miss Julia, ma'am,' I say, "cause how much they change or ain't change, that's fer you to say and me not to jedge,' I say."

    "Lan' o' misery!" cried the visitor, chuckling delightedly. "I wonder how you done kep' you face, Miss Kitty. What Miss Julia say?"

    A loud, irresponsible outburst of mirth on the part of Mrs. Silver followed. When she could again control herself, she replied more definitely. "Miss Julia say, she say she ain't never hear no sech outragelous sto'y in her life! She tuck on! Hallelujah! An' all time, Miz Johnson, I give you my word, I stannin' there holdin' nat basket, carryin' on up hill an' down dale how them the same two Berjum cats Mista Sammerses sen' her: an' trouble enough dess ten'in' to that basket, lemme say to you, Miz Johnson, as anybody kin tell you whutever tried to take care o' two cats whut ain't yoosta each other in the same basket. An' every blessed minute I stannin' there, can't I hear that ole Miz Blatch nex' do', out in her back yod an' her front yod, an' plum out in the street, hollerin': 'Kitty? Kitty? Kitty?' 'Yes!' Miss Julia say, she say, 'Fine sto'y!' she say. 'Them two cats you claim my Berjum cats, they got short hair, an' they ain't the same age an' they ain't even nowheres near the same size,' she say. 'One of 'em's as fat as bofe them Berjum cats,' she say: 'an' it's on'y got one eye,' she say. 'Well, Miss Julia, ma'am,' I say--'one thing; they come out white, all 'cept dess around that there skinnier one's eye,' I say: 'dess the same you tell me they goin' to,' I say. 'You right about that much, ma'am!' I say."

    "Oh, me!" Mrs. Johnson moaned, worn with applausive laughter. "What she respon' then?"

    "I set that basket down," said Kitty Silver, "an' I start fer the do', whiles she unfasten the lid fer to take one mo' look at 'em, I reckon: but open window mighty close by, an' nat skinny white cat make one jump, an' after li'l while I lookin' out thishere window an' see that ole fat Miz Blatch's tom, waddlin' crost the yod todes home."

    "What she doin' now?" Mrs. Johnson inquired.

    "Who? Miss Julia? She settin' out on the front po'che talkin' to Mista Sammerses."

    "My name! How she goin' fix it with him, after all thishere dishcumaraddle?"

    "Who? Miss Julia? Leave her alone, honey! She take an' begin talk so fas' an' talk so sweet, no young man ain't goin' to ricklect he ever give her no cats, not till he's gone an' halfway home! But I ain't tole you the en' of it, Miz Johnson, an' the en' of it's the bes' part whut happen."

    "What's that, Miss Kitty?"

    "Look!" said Mrs. Silver. "Mista Atwater gone in yonder, after I come out, an' ast whut all them goin's-on about. Well suh, an' di'n' he come walkin' out in my kitchen an' slip me two bright spang new silbuh dolluhs right in my han'?"

    "My name!"

    "Yessuh!" said Mrs. Silver triumphantly. And in the darkness outside the window Florence drew a deep breath. "I'd of felt just awful about this," she said, "if Noble Dill had given Aunt Julia those Persian cats."

    "Why?" Herbert inquired, puzzled by her way of looking at things. "I don't see why it would make it any worse who gave 'em to her."

    "Well, it would," Florence said. "But anyway, I think we did rather wrong. Did you notice what Kitty Silver said about what grandpa did?"


    "I think we ought to tell him our share of it," Florence returned thoughtfully. "I don't want to go to bed to-night with all this on my mind, and I'm going to find grandpa right now and confess every bit of it to him."

    Herbert hopefully decided to go with her.
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