O NE day Aunt Jane and her niece were sitting quietly at work, when there came a long, pitiful mew at the kitchen door.
"There's that cat again!" cried Aunt Jane excitedly. "Go drive her out, Elizabeth! This minute! Quick!"
A pale, thin child, about ten years old, rose slowly from a low seat by the window, where she was sewing, and started for the door.
"Be lively, now! I believe you've got lead in your feet! I never saw a child of your age so slow," went on Aunt Jane. The child hastened and disappeared through the back door, while Aunt Jane resumed her knitting.
"I certainly don't know what I shall do with that child," she said to herself, as her needles flew in and out of the coarse gray yarn she was fashioning into a sock for the poor of next winter. "Such a mope I never saw!—the very sight of her gives me the blues. If she was nice and bright now, she'd be almost a comfort to me; but she grows stupid and dumb every day, till now she scarcely opens her lips from morning to night. I'm sure I don't know why; I've tried hard enough to do my duty by her; she wants nothing.—But I wonder why she doesn't come back?" she went on, after a pause, at the same time stepping towards the door to look after her charge. As she opened the door the child's voice fell on her ear, and its tone made her pause. It was very different from the dull voice she knew, and then the words amazed her.
"Dear pussy," she heard, in a tender, low tone, "I'm so sorry, but you must go home! Aunt Jane 'hates cats,' and I daren't have you come here. I'm afraid she'll throw something at you!"
The listener stepped a little nearer to look through a window, when she saw the child seated on the step, with an ugly yellow cat in her arms, and actually hugged to her heart.
"Oh, dear kitty!" the little voice went on with a sob, "you remind me so much of my own darling kitty, that I had to leave at home when Papa died, and I want her so! She loved me dearly. I wonder if she's forgotten me!" The little face went down in the yellow fur, and the affectionate cat purred and rubbed against her cheek, trying its best to console her. In a moment the child raised her head.
"I daren't stay any longer, dearest kitty. I haven't got my 'stint' done, and Aunt Jane 'hates idlers.' Good-by, darling"—and she kissed the cat, carefully lifted her over the low fence, and dropped her lightly onto her own steps, while Aunt Jane hastily slipped back to her seat, and began to knit furiously. When, a moment later, the child came in with the old weary step, she saw nothing unusual about her aunt, and she sat down on her stool again and took up her work.
But there was something unusual in Aunt Jane, though it did not show outside; there was commotion in her mind; she had received a new idea, and it was working. Her lips were pursed up as usual, and her needles flew faster than ever, but something like this was passing in her thoughts:
"Really, the child is unhappy! I wonder why! I thought I had done everything for her! We two are the last of the family, and ought to be a comfort to each other." Here she moved her chair a little, and glanced at the child. Bessie was bending over her work, but her hands moved slowly, and her eyes were heavy and dull.
"I suppose she's lonely," was Aunt Jane's next thought, "and perhaps she misses her old friends," she went on more slowly. "How she did talk to that cat! As if she loved it!—Well, I suppose a child needs to love something, if it is only a cat. I wonder if I've been too hard with her? I've lived alone so long, maybe I expect too much. Elizabeth!"—this last aloud.
The child started, and looked up quickly. "What makes you start so when I speak?" said Aunt Jane sharply. "I don't bite."
"I—I—never was called Elizabeth," stammered the child, "except when I was naughty."
"What were you called, then? Elizabeth is your name, I believe."
"Yes, but I was always Bessie at home," said she timidly.
"Humph!" said Aunt Jane, "I don't approve of nicknames."
"Papa always called me so," said Bessie, with a little tremble in her voice.
Aunt Jane rubbed her nose. Bessie's father had been her favorite brother, and his doing anything used to be the best of reasons for her doing it. But she went on.
"What did you do at home?"
Bessie looked up questioningly.
"Did you sew? or play all the time? or what did you do?"
"Oh!—I went to school most always," said the child, her face brightening as thoughts of "home" grew on her, "and I sewed some—I made Papa two beautiful handkerchiefs!—and I picked the berries for tea; and—and—I played a good deal in the yard."
"Did you have a nice yard?" asked Aunt Jane.
"Oh, beautiful!" cried Bessie enthusiastically, "so
large and shady—and such green grass—and I
had a swing under the apple-tree,
"And what?" said Aunt Jane.
"And—I wish I was dead, too!—I do—I do!" burst out poor Bessie, with a flood of tears, "and now I know you'll hate me worse than ever!" and throwing down her work, she ran hastily out of the room, up-stairs to her own bedroom.
Aunt Jane sat as if stunned, for a moment.
"Hate her worse than ever!" she said at last. "What does the child mean? Why should she think I 'hate her'?"
A long time she sat there thinking. The knitting lay idle on her lap; the clock rapidly ticked away the minutes into hours; the fire gradually burned down; all unnoticed by this most systematic housekeeper. Back to her own childhood traveled her busy thoughts: old memories, old hopes, stirred in her heart, and her reverie was long and deep.
"Well, I believe that's the 'charm,' and I'll try it!" she said aloud at last, and coming out of her brown study, she glanced at the clock.
"Six o'clock, as I'm alive! and not a thing done about tea!" She sprang from her seat, sending the coarse sock and its big gray ball across the room, and upsetting her footstool with a crash. Things were lively for a few minutes in that pleasant room, while she mended the fire, put on the kettle, drew out a small round table, and began to spread it for tea. In less time than one would think possible, the kettle was boiling and the tea put on; the table set, and all things ready. She then went to the door and called "Bessie!"
The child had cried herself quiet long before, and was now sitting on the edge of her bed, alarmed at the growing darkness, and fearing her aunt would never forgive her naughty words. "She must have had tea long ago," she thought, "and I don't believe she's going to let me have any; and how can I live here any longer!"
This thought was interrupted by the call of "Bessie." Her heart leaped within her. She rushed to the door.
"Come to tea, child," said Aunt Jane pleasantly. Bessie could hardly believe her ears, but she crept softly down-stairs. The neat kitchen was light and cheerful, the tea steamed on the table, and beside the usual snowy bread stood a dish of marmalade, her favorite sweetmeat, which she had often looked longingly at, on Aunt Jane's top shelf.
Now pleasant tones are comforting, and so is marmalade, each in its own way, and a smile stole to her lips as she took her seat opposite her aunt.
"Really," thought that lady, looking at the brightening face, "the cat's charm works quickly."
"Bessie, will you have some marmalade?"
"Yes, if you please, Aunt Jane," said Bessie.
When tea was over, Bessie offered to help wash the dishes, for—as you have seen—Aunt Jane was a country-bred, old-fashioned Yankee housekeeper, who couldn't endure a "shiftless servant girl" about her. Bessie had never offered to help before, and now she was very careful as she handled the dainty old china, which was an heirloom, and more precious than gold in Aunt Jane's eyes. "You see, Bessie," said she, as she showed her how to delicately rinse each frail cup and gently dry it on the soft old damask, "this china was your grandmother's, and it'll be yours when I am dead. None but ladies have ever washed a piece of it, and not a piece is broken or lost. It's worth its weight in gold nearly, now that old things are so fashionable; but I'd as soon think of selling my eyes as the dear old china. I hope you'll learn to love it as I do. I can't bear the thought of having it leave the family."
"Oh! I'm sure, Aunt," said Bessie, happily, "if it is ever mine, I'll take the best care of it."
After tea was cleared away, Aunt Jane took her knitting, and Bessie her school-books, and not a word was spoken till the clock struck nine, and the child closed her books to go to bed.
"Bessie," said her aunt, "didn't you ask me, when you first came here, to let you send for your cat?"
"Yes'm," said Bessie, surprised.
"Well, I've thought of it, and concluded to let you have it."
"Why!—I thought you hated cats," burst from the astonished Bessie.
"Well, my dear, I do in general; but I see you are lonely, and I'm going to try having a companion for you. I think a cat will be less trouble than a child."
"And so much nicer!" broke in Bessie. "Oh! I'll be so glad, Aunt Jane!—and I most know you'll like her—she's so beautiful!—and not a bit of trouble."
Aunt Jane smiled. "Well, I'll try it for once."
That night a letter was written to an old neighbor, who had promised to send the cat when Bessie wrote for it, and the next morning a bright-faced girl—quite different from "Elizabeth"—took it to the post office herself.
A week rolled by—Aunt Jane's "charm" still worked well; and much to her surprise that good lady found that it not only made Bessie happy, but reacted on herself, and created a new warmth about her heart. Smiles began to grow common around her mouth, and altogether—so wonderful is that "charm"—the whole house seemed to grow brighter and warmer.
One night, Christmas eve it was, something queer happened. They had gone to bed, and Aunt Jane was roused out of her first doze by a strange noise. She lifted her head and listened. It seemed to be coming down the street, and was like nothing she had ever heard. It grew louder; she sat up in bed to hear better, and at the same moment a door softly opened, and a white, scared face peered in.
"Oh, Auntie! What is that awful noise?" came trembling from Bessie's lips.
"I don't know, child," said her aunt, "but come in here; we'll soon see, for it's coming nearer."
Nearer it came. The most hideous wails and cries, like a crowd of people in direst agony. Bessie crept into her aunt's bed in terror, while the sounds came ever nearer, accompanied by the noise of a wagon, driven frantically down the street. At last, opposite the door, the wagon seemed to stop, and the mysterious sounds were frightful. Aunt Jane slipped out of bed, and peeped through the blinds.
"Oh, what is it?" gasped Bessie.
"It seems to be a wagon," said Aunt Jane, "with a box! He is taking it out!—and bringing it into my yard! What in the world!—I'll stop it!—I won't have it!" and she turned hastily to seize her wrapper. At that instant came a dreadful peal of the doorbell, and the wagon drove furiously off, while the sounds came with fearful distinctness.
"Oh, what'll you do?" cried Bessie, half dead with terror.
"Go and see what it is," said Aunt Jane resolutely, hunting about for slippers and matches, and everything that is always out of the way when needed.
"I'm afraid to stay alone," sobbed Bessie. "Then come along," said Aunt Jane grimly, as she started down the stairs.
Out of bed sprang the child, and followed close at her heels. On the stairway Aunt Jane lighted the gas, and then proceeded to draw bolt and bar which held the door.
"Oh, Aunt Jane! I'm so frightened!" whispered Bessie.
"Well, then stand behind me," said Aunt Jane hurriedly, as she turned the knob. The door unclosed a little. "Who's there?" she asked.
For reply came a louder, nearer, more horrible wail—nothing else.
Bessie screamed, but something familiar in the sound seemed to strike Aunt Jane.
"Why, goodness gracious! it's cats!" she cried. "Some bad boys have done it, knowing that I hate cats."
"But why do they cry so?" asked Bessie, still more than half afraid.
"Must be starved," said Aunt Jane, "but what can I do? I can't leave them here yowling all night."
"Oh, Auntie!" exclaimed Bessie, a thought striking her, "could it be my cat? but she never made such a noise."
"Well—well—like enough!" said Aunt Jane, "and she hasn't been fed!—But there must be a dozen in that box. Anyway, we'll see!" and taking hold of a rope handle, she hastily dragged the box into the hall and closed the door.
The top of the box was slats, and between them could be seen a dark moving mass, with many paws grasping the slats, now and then a lashing tail pressing through, and fiery eyes glaring everywhere.
Bessie peered anxiously in.
"They're the same color as mine—maltese—and there! I see a white nose! I do believe it's Muff! Muff—poor Muff! poor pussy!" she went on caressingly. A face came close to the bars, and a long pitiful "mew" replied.
"Oh, it is Muff! You dear old darling!" she cried. "Oh, let me get her out!"
"But wait," said Aunt Jane; "we must get something for them to eat, or they'll eat us. They're wild with hunger; must be. But why so many! I can't understand!"
"Nor I," said Bessie, "only I know Muff. What shall we get to eat?"
"There's nothing in the house," said Aunt Jane reflectively, "except the steak for breakfast! Oh!—and the milk—but that's only a quart, and won't last a minute; however, we must get what we have."
So they hastily rushed to the kitchen, and brought the pan of milk, and the pound of porterhouse steak, cut into bits. Through the bars they fed out the steak, till the first pangs were quieted and the wailing ceased, and then Aunt Jane got a hammer and pulled off one slat. Through the opening leaped in quick succession seven cats!
Aunt Jane laughed, but she jumped upon a chair, while the poor creatures instantly crowded around the pan of milk. Seeing them quiet, Aunt Jane stepped down.
"But why seven!" she continually repeated.
"Where can they stay to-night?" asked Bessie anxiously. "I made a bed for Muff in the shed—but seven!"
"They must all go into the shed to-night," said Aunt Jane, "and in the morning we'll see."
In the morning came a letter from the good-natured farmer who had given Muff a home since Bessie left. In it he said: "Since you went, your cat has brought up a family of kittens, and remembering how fond you are of kittens, and not knowing what else to do with them,—for everybody around here is well supplied with cats,—I send them too. I thought maybe you could give them away in the city."
"Oh, dear! they're every one Muffie's own kittens!" she exclaimed.
"Kittens!" said Aunt Jane.
"Well, they are pretty big," said Bessie, "but they belong to Muff," she added timidly, fearing that seven cats were really too many for one who "hated cats."
"Well," said Aunt Jane at last, "I'll tell you what I'll do, Bessie dear. I'll keep the cats till we find good homes for them, for they are choice,—as cats go,—but I can't consent to keep, for good, any but Muff."
Bessie was obliged to be contented, and she and Aunt Jane went vigorously to work to find homes. One by one they were comfortably settled in life till but two were left, Muff and the prettiest of the kits, a pure maltese. She was an affectionate puss, and had specially clung to Aunt Jane, rubbing against her dress when she came near, and jumping up to rub her head against Aunt Jane's hand. She even sprang into her lap, and after gently putting her down once or twice, Aunt Jane actually at last let her stay a little while.
"Auntie," said Bessie, one evening, "I've asked every girl in school, and the milkman, and the washerwoman, and the grocery boy, and everybody I can think of, and nobody wants another kitten. What can we do?"
"Well, Bessie," said Aunt Jane slowly, "I've been thinking. A cat taught me a charm one day, and it has worked so well that I've concluded to let you keep two cats."
"Oh, you dear old Auntie!" cried Bessie, throwing her arms around her neck, "and you don't hate cats any more?"
"Well, dear," said Aunt Jane, putting her arm around the child, "I'm not fond of them yet, but they're affectionate little creatures, and I owe the race something."
"I'm afraid you've heard all my stories, Kristy," said Miss Martin, the little schoolmistress. "I'm sure I have told you about a funny Christmas celebration that I know about. It was, in fact, the first I ever heard of, when I was a child out West."
"Oh, no, you haven't," said Kristy eagerly. "Do tell it! It's so much nicer to have a story about people we know."