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Gilbert, C. Allan / Gentle Julia
[Illustration: Gentle Julia]

GENTLE JULIA

BY
BOOTH TARKINGTON

AUTHOR OF PENROD, PENROD AND SAM,
THE TURMOIL, ETC.

ILLUSTRATED BY
C. ALLAN GILBERT
and
WORTH BREHM

GROSSET & DUNLAP
PUBLISHERS NEW YORK

Made in the United States of America

* * * * *

COPYRIGHT, 1922, BY
DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

COPYRIGHT, 1918, BY P. F. COLLIER AND SON COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1919, BY THE PICTORIAL REVIEW COMPANY

PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES
AT
THE COUNTRY LIFE PRESS, GARDEN CITY, N. Y.

* * * * *

TO M. L. K.

* * * * *

GENTLE JULIA

"Rising to the point of order, this one said that since the morgue
was not yet established as the central monument and inspiration of
our settlement, and true philosophy was as well expounded in the
convivial manner as in the miserable, he claimed for himself, not
the license, but the right, to sing a ballad, if he chose, upon even
so solemn a matter as the misuse of the town pump by witches."

* * * * *




GENTLE JULIA

CHAPTER ONE


Superciliousness is not safe after all, because a person who forms the
habit of wearing it may some day find his lower lip grown permanently
projected beyond the upper, so that he can't get it back, and must go
through life looking like the King of Spain. This was once foretold as a
probable culmination of Florence Atwater's still plastic profile, if
Florence didn't change her way of thinking; and upon Florence's
remarking dreamily that the King of Spain was an awf'ly han'some man,
her mother retorted: "But not for a girl!" She meant, of course, that a
girl who looked too much like the King of Spain would not be handsome,
but her daughter decided to misunderstand her.

"Why, mamma, he's my Very Ideal! I'd marry him to-morrow!"

Mrs. Atwater paused in her darning, and let the stocking collapse
flaccidly into the work-basket in her lap. "Not at barely thirteen,
would you?" she said. "It seems to me you're just a shade too young to
be marrying a man who's already got a wife and several children. Where
did you pick up that 'I'd-marry-him-to-morrow,' Florence?"

"Oh, I hear that everywhere!" returned the damsel, lightly. "Everybody
says things like that. I heard Aunt Julia say it. I heard Kitty Silver
say it."

"About the King of Spain?" Mrs. Atwater inquired.

"I don't know who they were saying it about," said Florence, "but they
were saying it. I don't mean they were saying it together; I heard one
say it one time and the other say it some other time. I think Kitty
Silver was saying it about some coloured man. She proba'ly wouldn't want
to marry any white man; at least I don't expect she would. She's _been_
married to a couple of coloured men, anyhow; and she was married twice
to one of 'em, and the other one died in between. Anyhow, that's what
she told me. She weighed over two hunderd pounds the first time she was
married, and she weighed over two hunderd-and-seventy the last time she
was married to the first one over again, but she says she don't know
how much she weighed when she was married to the one in between. She
says she never got weighed all the time she was married to that one. Did
Kitty Silver ever tell you that, mamma?"

"Yes, often!" Mrs. Atwater replied. "I don't think it's very
entertaining; and it's not what we were talking about. I was trying to
tell you----"

"I know," Florence interrupted. "You said I'd get my face so's my
underlip wouldn't go back where it ought to, if I didn't quit turning up
my nose at people I think are beneath contemp'. I guess the best thing
would be to just feel that way without letting on by my face, and then
there wouldn't be any danger."

"No," said Mrs. Atwater. "That's not what I meant. You mustn't let your
feelings get _their_ nose turned up, or their underlip out, either,
because feelings can grow warped just as well as----"

But her remarks had already caused her daughter to follow a trail of
thought divergent from the main road along which the mother feebly
struggled to progress. "Mamma," said Florence, "do you b'lieve it's true
if a person swallows an apple-seed or a lemon-seed or a watermelon-seed,
f'r instance, do you think they'd have a tree grow up inside of 'em?
Henry Rooter said it would, yesterday."

Mrs. Atwater looked a little anxious. "Did you swallow some sort of
seed?" she asked.

"It was only some grape-seeds, mamma; and you needn't think I got to
take anything for it, because I've swallowed a million, I guess, in my
time!"

"In your time?" her mother repeated, seemingly mystified.

"Yes, and so have you and papa," Florence went on. "I've seen you when
you ate grapes. Henry said maybe not, about grapes, because I told him
all what I've just been telling you, mamma, how I must have swallowed a
million, in my time, and he said grape-seeds weren't big enough to get a
good holt, but he said if I was to swallow an apple-seed a tree would
start up, and in a year or two, maybe, it would grow up so't I couldn't
get my mouth shut on account the branches."

"Nonsense!"

"Henry said another boy told _him_, but he said you could ask anybody
and they'd tell you it was true. Henry said this boy that told him's
uncle died of it when he was eleven years old, and this boy knew a grown
woman that was pretty sick from it right now. I expect Henry wasn't
telling such a falsehood about it, mamma, but proba'ly this boy did,
because I didn't believe it for a minute! Henry Rooter says he never
told a lie _yet_, in his whole life, mamma, and he wasn't going to begin
now." She paused for a moment, then added: "I don't believe a word he
says!"

She continued to meditate disapprovingly upon Henry Rooter. "Old thing!"
she murmured gloomily, for she had indeed known moments of apprehension
concerning the grape-seeds. "Nothing but an old thing--what he is!" she
repeated inaudibly.

"Florence," said Mrs. Atwater, "don't you want to slip over to grandpa's
and ask Aunt Julia if she has a very large darning needle? And don't
forget not to look supercilious when you meet people on the way. Even
your grandfather has been noticing it, and he was the one that spoke of
it to me. Don't forget!"

"Yes'm."

Florence went out of the house somewhat moodily, but afternoon sunshine
enlivened her; and, opening the picket gate, she stepped forth with a
fair renewal of her chosen manner toward the public, though just at that
moment no public was in sight. Miss Atwater's underlip resumed the
position for which her mother had predicted that regal Spanish fixity,
and her eyebrows and nose were all three perceptibly elevated. At the
same time, her eyelids were half lowered, while the corners of her mouth
somewhat deepened, as by a veiled mirth, so that this well-dressed child
strolled down the shady sidewalk wearing an expression not merely of
high-bred contempt but also of mysterious derision. It was an expression
that should have put any pedestrian in his place, and it seems a pity
that the long street before her appeared to be empty of human life. No
one even so much as glanced from a window of any of the comfortable
houses, set back at the end of their "front walks" and basking amid
pleasant lawns; for, naturally, this was the "best residence street" in
the town, since all the Atwaters and other relatives of Florence dwelt
there. Happily, an old gentleman turned a corner before she had gone a
hundred yards, and, as he turned in her direction, it became certain
that they would meet. He was a stranger--that is to say, he was unknown
to Florence--and he was well dressed; while his appearance of age
(proba'ly at least forty or sixty or something) indicated that he might
have sense enough to be interested in other interesting persons.

An extraordinary change took place upon the surface of Florence Atwater:
all superciliousness and derision of the world vanished; her eyes opened
wide, and into them came a look at once far-away and intently fixed.
Also, a frown of concentration appeared upon her brow, and her lips
moved silently, but with rapidity, as if she repeated to herself
something of almost tragic import. Florence had recently read a
newspaper account of the earlier struggles of a now successful actress:
As a girl, this determined genius went about the streets repeating the
lines of various roles to herself--constantly rehearsing, in fact, upon
the public thoroughfares, so carried away was she by her intended
profession and so set upon becoming famous. This was what Florence was
doing now, except that she rehearsed no rôle in particular, and the
words formed by her lips were neither sequential nor consequential,
being, in fact, the following: "Oh, the darkness ... never, never,
never! ... you couldn't ... he wouldn't ... Ah, mother! ... Where the
river swings so slowly ... Ah, _no_!" Nevertheless, she was doing all
she could for the elderly stranger, and as they came closer,
encountered, and passed on, she had the definite impression that he did
indeed take her to be a struggling young actress who would some day be
famous--and then he might see her on a night of triumph and recognize
her as the girl he had passed on the street, that day, so long ago! But
by this time, the episode was concluded; the footsteps of him for whom
she was performing had become inaudible behind her, and she began to
forget him; which was as well, since he went out of her life then, and
the two never met again. The struggling young actress disappeared, and
the previous superiority was resumed. It became elaborately emphasized
as a boy of her own age emerged from the "side yard" of a house at the
next corner and came into her view.

The boy caught sight of Florence in plenty of time to observe this
emphasis, which was all too obviously produced by her sensations at
sight of himself; and, after staring at her for a moment, he allowed his
own expression to become one of painful fatigue. Then he slowly swung
about, as if to return into that side-yard obscurity whence he had come;
making clear by this pantomime that he reciprocally found the sight of
her insufferable. In truth, he did; for he was not only her neighbour
but her first-cousin as well, and a short month older, though taller
than she--tall beyond his years, taller than need be, in fact, and still
in knickerbockers. However, his parents may not have been mistaken in
the matter, for it was plain that he looked as well in knickerbockers as
he could have looked in anything. He had no visible beauty, though it
was possible to hope for him that by the time he reached manhood he
would be more tightly put together than he seemed at present; and indeed
he himself appeared to have some consciousness of insecurity in the
fastenings of his members, for it was his habit (observable even now as
he turned to avoid Miss Atwater) to haul at himself, to sag and hitch
about inside his clothes, and to corkscrew his neck against the swathing
of his collar. And yet there were times, as the most affectionate of his
aunts had remarked, when, for a moment or so, he appeared to be almost
knowing; and, seeing him walking before her, she had almost taken him
for a young man; and sometimes he said something in a settled kind of
way that was almost adult. This fondest aunt went on to add, however,
that of course, the next minute after one of these fleeting spells, he
was sure to be overtaken by his more accustomed moods, when his eye
would again fix itself with fundamental aimlessness upon nothing. In
brief, he was at the age when he spent most of his time changing his
mind about things, or, rather, when his mind spent most of its time
changing him about things; and this was what happened now.

After turning his back on the hateful sight well known to him as his
cousin Florence at her freshest, he turned again, came forth from his
place of residence, and joining her upon the pavement, walked beside
her, accompanying her without greeting or inquiry. His expression of
fatigue, indicating her insufferableness, had not abated; neither had
her air of being a duchess looking at bugs.

"You _are_ a pretty one!" he said; but his intention was perceived to be
far indeed from his words.

"Oh, _am_ I, Mister Herbert Atwater?" Florence responded. "I'm _awf'ly_
glad _you_ think so!"

"I mean about what Henry Rooter said," her cousin explained. "Henry
Rooter told me he made you believe you were goin' to have a grapevine
climbin' up from inside of you because you ate some grapes with the
seeds in 'em. He says you thought you'd haf to get a carpenter to build
a little arbour so you could swallow it for the grapevine to grow on. He
says----"

Florence had become an angry pink. "That little Henry Rooter is the
worst falsehooder in this town; and I never believed a word he said in
his life! Anyway, what affairs is it of yours, I'd like you to please be
so kind and obliging for to tell me, Mister Herbert Illingsworth
Atwater, Exquire!"

"What affairs?" Herbert echoed in plaintive satire. "What affairs is it
of mine? That's just the trouble! It's _got_ to be my affairs because
you're my first-cousin. My goodness _I_ didn't have anything to do with
you being my cousin, did I?"

"Well, _I_ didn't!"

"That's neither here nor there," said Herbert. "What _I_ want to know
is, how long you goin' to keep this up?"

"Keep what up?"

"I mean, how do you think I like havin' somebody like Henry Rooter
comin' round me tellin' what they made a cousin of mine believe, and
more than thirteen years old, goin' on fourteen ever since about a month
ago!"

Florence shouted: "Oh, for goodness' _sakes_!" then moderated the volume
but not the intensity of her tone. "Kindly reply to _this_. Whoever
asked you to come and take a walk with me to-day?"

Herbert protested to heaven. "Why, I wouldn't take a walk with you if
every policeman in this town tried to make me! I wouldn't take a walk
with you if they brought a million horses and--"

"I wouldn't take a walk with _you_," Florence interrupted, "if they
brought a million million horses and cows and camels and--"

"No, you wouldn't," Herbert said. "Not if _I_ could help it!"

But by this time Florence had regained her derisive superciliousness.
"There's a few things you _could_ help," she said; and the incautious
Herbert challenged her with the inquiry she desired.

"What could I help?"

"I should think you could help bumpin' into me every second when I'm
takin' a walk on my own affairs, and walk along on your own side of the
sidewalk, anyway, and not be so awkward a person has to keep trippin'
over you about every time I try to take a step!"

Herbert withdrew temporarily to his own side of the pavement. "Who?" he
demanded hotly. "_Who_ says I'm awkward?"

"All the fam'ly," Miss Atwater returned, with a light but infuriating
laugh. "You bump into 'em sideways and keep gettin' half in front of
'em whenever they try to take a step, and then when it looks as if
they'd pretty near fall over you--"

"You look here!"

"And besides all that," Florence went on, undisturbed, "why, you
generally keep kind of snorting, or somep'n, and then making all those
noises in your neck. You were doin' it at grandpa's last Sunday dinner
because every time there wasn't anybody talking, why, everybody could
hear you plain as everything, and you ought to've seen grandpa look at
you! He looked as if you'd set him crazy if you didn't quit that
chuttering and cluckling!"

Herbert's expression partook of a furious astonishment. "I don't any
such thing!" he burst out. "I guess I wouldn't talk much about last
Sunday dinner, if I was _you_ neither. Who got caught eatin' off the ice
cream freezer spoon out on the back porch, if you please? Yes, and I
guess you better study a little grammar, while you're about it. There's
no such words in the English language as 'cluckling' and 'chuttering.'"

"I don't care what language they're in," the stubborn Florence insisted.
"It's what you do, just the same: cluckling and chuttering!"

Herbert's manners went to pieces. "Oh, dry up!" he bellowed.

"That's a _nice_ way to talk! So gentlemanly----"

"Well, you try be a lady, then!"

"'Try!'" Florence echoed. "Well, after that, I'll just politely thank you
to dry up, yourself, Mister Herbert Atwater!"

At this Herbert became moody. "Oh, pfuff!" he said; and for some moments
walked in silence. Then he asked: "Where you goin', Florence?"

The damsel paused at a gate opening upon a broad lawn evenly divided by
a brick walk that led to the white-painted wooden veranda of an ample
and honest old brick house. "Righ' there to grandpa's, since you haf to
know!" she said. "And thank you for your delightful comp'ny which I
never asked for, if you care to hear the truth for once in your life!"

Herbert meditated. "Well, I got nothin' else to do, as I know of," he
said. "Let's go around to the back door so's to see if Kitty Silver's
got anything."

Then, not amiably, but at least inconsequently, they passed inside the
gate together. Their brows were fairly unclouded; no special marks of
conflict remained; for they had met and conversed in a manner customary
rather than unusual.

They followed a branch of the brick walk and passed round the south side
of the house, where a small orchard of apple-trees showed generous
promise. Hundreds of gay little round apples among the leaves glanced
the high lights to and fro on their polished green cheeks as a breeze
hopped through the yard, while the shade beneath trembled with
coquettishly moving disks of sunshine like golden plates. A pattern of
orange light and blue shadow was laid like a fanciful plaid over the
lattice and the wide, slightly sagging steps of the elderly "back
porch"; and here, taking her ease upon these steps, sat a middle-aged
coloured woman of continental proportions. Beyond all contest, she was
the largest coloured woman in that town, though her height was not
unusual, and she had a rather small face. That is to say, as Florence
had once explained to her, her face was small but the other parts of her
head were terribly wide. Beside her was a circular brown basket, of a
type suggesting arts-and-crafts; it was made with a cover, and there was
a bow of brown silk upon the handle.

"What you been up to to-day, Kitty Silver?" Herbert asked genially.
"Any thing special?" For this was the sequel to his "so's we can see if
Kitty Silver's got anything." But Mrs. Silver discouraged him.

"No, I ain't," she replied. "I ain't, an' I ain't goin' to."

"I thought you pretty near always made cookies on Tuesday," he said.

"Well, I ain't _this_ Tuesday," said Kitty Silver. "I ain't, and I ain't
goin' to. You might dess well g'on home ri' now. I ain't, an' I ain't
goin' to."

Docility was no element of Mrs. Silver's present mood, and Herbert's
hopeful eyes became blank, as his gaze wandered from her head to the
brown basket beside her. The basket did not interest him; the ribbon
gave it a quality almost at once excluding it from his consciousness. On
the contrary, the ribbon had drawn Florence's attention, and she stared
at the basket eagerly.

"What you got there, Kitty Silver?" she asked.

"What I got where?"

"In that basket."

"Nemmine what I got 'n 'at basket," said Mrs. Silver crossly, but added
inconsistently: "I dess _wish_ somebody ast me what I got 'n 'at basket!
_I_ ain't no cat-washwoman fer _no_body!"

"Cats!" Florence cried. "Are there cats in that basket, Kitty Silver?
Let's look at 'em!"

The lid of the basket, lifted by the eager, slim hand of Miss Atwater,
rose to disclose two cats of an age slightly beyond kittenhood. They
were of a breed unfamiliar to Florence, and she did not obey the impulse
that usually makes a girl seize upon any young cat at sight and caress
it. Instead, she looked at them with some perplexity, and after a moment
inquired: "Are they really cats, Kitty Silver, do you b'lieve?"

"Cats what she done tole _me_," the coloured woman replied. "You betta
shet lid down, you don' wan' 'em run away, 'cause they ain't yoosta
livin' 'n 'at basket yit; an' no matter whut kine o' cats they is or
they isn't, _one_ thing true: they _wile_ cats!"

"But what makes their hair so long?" Florence asked. "I never saw cats
with hair a couple inches long like that."

"Miss Julia say they Berjum cats."

"What?"

"I ain't tellin' no mo'n she tole me. You' aunt say they Berjum cats."

"Persian," said Herbert. "That's nothing. I've seen plenty Persian cats.
My goodness, I should think you'd seen a Persian cat at yow age.
Thirteen goin' on fourteen!"

"Well, I _have_ seen Persian cats plenty times, I guess," Florence said.
"I thought Persian cats were white, and these are kind of gray."

At this Kitty Silver permitted herself to utter an embittered laugh.
"You wrong!" she said. "These cats, they white; yes'm!"

"Why, they aren't either! They're gray as----"

"No'm," said Mrs. Silver. "They plum spang white, else you' Aunt Julia
gone out her mind; me or her, one. I say: 'Miss Julia, them gray cats.'
'White,' she say. 'Them two cats is white cats,' she say. 'Them cats
been crated,' she say. 'They been livin' in a crate on a dirty express
train fer th'ee fo' days,' she say. 'Them cats gone got all smoke' up
thataway,' she say. 'No'm, Miss Julia,' I say, 'No'm, Miss Julia, they
ain't _no_ train,' I say, 'they ain't _no_ train kin take an' smoke two
white cats up like these cats so's they hair is gray clean plum up to
they hide.' You betta put the lid down, I tell you!"

Florence complied, just in time to prevent one of the young cats from
leaping out of the basket, but she did not fasten the cover. Instead,
she knelt, and, allowing a space of half an inch to intervene between
the basket and the rim of the cover, peered within at the occupants. "I
believe the one to this side's a he," she said. "It's got greenisher
eyes than the other one; that's the way you can always tell. I b'lieve
this one's a he and the other one's a she."

"I ain't stedyin' about no he an' she!"

"What did Aunt Julia say?" Florence asked.

"Whut you' Aunt Julia say when?"

"When you told her these were gray cats and not white cats?"

"She tole me take an' clean 'em," said Kitty Silver. "She say, she say
she want 'em clean' up spick an' spang befo' Mista Sammerses git here to
call an' see 'em." And she added morosely: "I ain't no cat-washwoman!"

"She wants you to bathe 'em?" Florence inquired, but Kitty Silver did
not reply immediately. She breathed audibly, with a strange effect upon
vasty outward portions of her, and then gave an incomparably dulcet
imitation of her own voice, as she interpreted her use of it during the
recent interview.

'Miss Julia, ma'am,' I say--'Miss Julia, ma'am, my bizniss cookin'
vittles,' I say. 'Miss Julia, ma'am,' I tole her, 'Miss Julia, ma'am, I
cook fer you' pa, an' cook fer you' fam'ly year in, year out, an' I hope
an' pursue, whiles some might make complaint, I take whatever I find,
an' I leave whatever I find. No'm, Miss Julia, ma'am,' I say--'no'm,
Miss Julia, ma'am, I ain't no cat-washwoman!'"

"What did Aunt Julia say then?"

"She say, she say: 'Di'n I tell you take them cats downstairs an' clean
'em?' she say. I ain't _no_body's cat-washwoman!"

Florence was becoming more and more interested. "I should think that
would be kind of fun," she said. "To be a cat-washwoman. _I_ wouldn't
mind that at all: I'd kind of like it. I expect if you was a
cat-washwoman, Kitty Silver, you'd be pretty near the only one was in
the world. I wonder if they do have 'em any place, cat-washwomen."

"I don' know if they got 'em some place," said Kitty Silver, "an' I
don't know if they ain't got 'em no place; but I bet if they do got 'em
any place, it's some place else from here!"

Florence looked thoughtful. "Who was it you said is going to call this
evening and see 'em?"

"Mista Sammerses."

"She means Newland Sanders," Herbert explained. "Aunt Julia says all her
callers that ever came to this house in their lives, Kitty Silver never
got the name right of a single one of 'em!"

"Newland Sanders is the one with the little moustache," Florence said.
"Is that the one you mean by 'Sammerses,' Kitty Silver?"

"Mista Sammerses who you' Aunt Julia tole _me_," Mrs. Silver responded
stubbornly. "He ain't got no moustache whut you kin look at--dess some
blackish whut don' reach out mo'n halfway todes the bofe ends of his
mouf."

"Well," said Florence, "was Mr. Sanders the one gave her these Persian
cats, Kitty Silver?"

"I reckon." Mrs. Silver breathed audibly again, and her expression was
strongly resentful. "When she go fer a walk 'long with any them callers
she stop an' make a big fuss over any li'l ole dog or cat an' I don't
know whut all, an' after they done buy her all the candy from all the
candy sto's in the livin' worl', an' all the flowers from all the
greenhouses they is, it's a wonder some of 'em ain't sen' her a mule fer
a present, 'cause seem like to me they done sen' her mos' every kine of
animal they is! Firs' come Airydale dog you' grampaw tuck an' give away
to the milkman; 'n'en come two mo' pups; I don't know whut they is,
'cause they bofe had dess sense enough to run away after you' grampaw
try learn 'em how much he ain't like no pups; an' nex' come them two
canaries hangin' in the dinin'-room now, an' nex'--di'n' I holler so's
they could a-hear me all way down town? Di'n' I walk in my kitchen one
mawnin' right slam in the face of ole warty allagatuh three foot long
a-lookin' at me over the aidge o' my kitchen sink?"

"It was Mr. Clairdyce gave her that," said Florence. "He'd been to
Florida; but she didn't care for it very much, and she didn't make any
fuss at all when grandpa got the florist to take it. Grandpa hates
animals."

"He don' hate 'em no wuss'n whut I do," said Kitty Silver. "An' he ain't
got to ketch 'em lookin' at him outen of his kitchen sink--an' he ain't
fixin' to be no cat-washwoman neither!"

"_Are_ you fixing to?" Florence asked quickly. "You don't need to do it,
Kitty Silver. I'd be willing to, and so'd Herbert. Wouldn't you,
Herbert?"

Herbert deliberated within himself, then brightened. "I'd just as soon,"
he said. "I'd kind of like to see how a cat acts when it's getting
bathed."

"I think it would be spesh'ly inter'sting to wash Persian cats,"
Florence added, with increasing enthusiasm. "I never washed a cat in my
life."

"Neither have I," said Herbert. "I always thought they did it
themselves."

Kitty Silver sniffed. "Ain't I says so to you' Aunt Julia? She done tole
me, 'No,' she say. She say, she say Berjum cats ain't wash they self;
they got to take an' git somebody else to wash 'em!"

"If we're goin' to bathe 'em," said Florence, "we ought to know their
names, so's we can tell 'em to hold still and everything. You can't do
much with an animal unless you know their name. Did Aunt Julia tell you
these cats' names, Kitty Silver?"

"She say they name Feef an' Meemuh. Yes'm! Feef an' Meemuh! Whut kine o'
name is Feef an' Meemuh fer cat name!"

"Oh, those are lovely names!" Florence assured her, and, turning to
Herbert, explained: "She means Fifi and Mimi."

"Feef an' Meemuh," said Kitty Silver. "Them name don' suit me, an' them
long-hair cats don' suit me neither." Here she lifted the cover of the
basket a little, and gazed nervously within. "Look at there!" she said.
"Look at the way they lookin' at me! Don't you look at _me_ thataway,
you Feef an' Meemuh!" She clapped the lid down and fastened it. "Fixin'
to jump out an' grab me, was you?"

"I guess, maybe," said Florence, "maybe I better go ask Aunt Julia if I
and Herbert can't wash 'em. I guess I better go _ask_ her anyhow." And
she ran up the steps and skipped into the house by way of the kitchen. A
moment later she appeared in the open doorway of a room upstairs.




CHAPTER TWO


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?



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