Max always blesses the animal when it is referred to; and I don’t deny that things have worked together for good after all. But when I think of the anguish of mind which Ismay and I underwent on account of that abominable cat, it is not a blessing that arises uppermost in my thoughts.
I never was fond of cats, although I admit they are well enough in their place, and I can worry along comfortably with a nice, matronly old tabby who can take care of herself and be of some use in the world. As for Ismay, she hates cats and always did.
But Aunt Cynthia, who adored them, never could bring herself to understand that any one could possibly dislike them. She firmly believed that Ismay and I really liked cats deep down in our hearts, but that, owing to some perverse twist in our moral natures, we would not own up to it, but willfully persisted in declaring we didn’t.
Of all cats I loathed that white Persian cat of Aunt Cynthia’s. And, indeed, as we always suspected and finally proved, Aunt herself looked upon the creature with more pride than affection. She would have taken ten times the comfort in a good, common puss that she did in that spoiled beauty. But a Persian cat with a recorded pedigree and a market value of one hundred dollars tickled Aunt Cynthia’s pride of possession to such an extent that she deluded herself into believing that the animal was really the apple of her eye.
It had been presented to her when a kitten by a missionary nephew who had brought it all the way home from Persia; and for the next three years Aunt Cynthia’s household existed to wait on that cat, hand and foot. It was snow-white, with a bluish-gray spot on the tip of its tail; and it was blue-eyed and deaf and delicate. Aunt Cynthia was always worrying lest it should take cold and die. Ismay and I used to wish that it would — we were so tired of hearing about it and its whims. But we did not say so to Aunt Cynthia. She would probably never have spoken to us again and there was no wisdom in offending Aunt Cynthia. When you have an unencumbered aunt, with a fat bank account, it is just as well to keep on good terms with her, if you can. Besides, we really liked Aunt Cynthia very much — at times. Aunt Cynthia was one of those rather exasperating people who nag at and find fault with you until you think you are justified in hating them, and who then turn round and do something so really nice and kind for you that you feel as if you were compelled to love them dutifully instead.
So we listened meekly when she discoursed on Fatima — the cat’s name was Fatima — and, if it was wicked of us to wish for the latter’s decease, we were well punished for it later on.
One day, in November, Aunt Cynthia came sailing out to Spencervale. She really came in a phaeton, drawn by a fat gray pony, but somehow Aunt Cynthia always gave you the impression of a full rigged ship coming gallantly on before a favorable wind.
That was a Jonah day for us all through. Everything had gone wrong. Ismay had spilled grease on her velvet coat, and the fit of the new blouse I was making was hopelessly askew, and the kitchen stove smoked and the bread was sour. Moreover, Huldah Jane Keyson, our tried and trusty old family nurse and cook and general “boss,” had what she called the “realagy” in her shoulder; and, though Huldah Jane is as good an old creature as ever lived, when she has the “realagy” other people who are in the house want to get out of it and, if they can’t, feel about as comfortable as St. Lawrence on his gridiron.
And on top of this came Aunt Cynthia’s call and request.
“Dear me,” said Aunt Cynthia, sniffing, “don’t I smell smoke? You girls must manage your range very badly. Mine never smokes. But it is no more than one might expect when two girls try to keep house without a man about the place.”
“We get along very well without a man about the place,” I said loftily. Max hadn’t been in for four whole days and, though nobody wanted to see him particularly, I couldn’t help wondering why. “Men are nuisances.”
“I dare say you would like to pretend you think so,” said Aunt Cynthia, aggravatingly. “But no woman ever does really think so, you know. I imagine that pretty Anne Shirley, who is visiting Ella Kimball, doesn’t. I saw her and Dr. Irving out walking this afternoon, looking very well satisfied with themselves. If you dilly-dally much longer, Sue, you will let Max slip through your fingers yet.”
That was a tactful thing to say to me, who had refused Max Irving so often that I had lost count. I was furious, and so I smiled most sweetly on my maddening aunt.
“Dear Aunt, how amusing of you,” I said, smoothly. “You talk as if I wanted Max.”
“So you do,” said Aunt Cynthia.
“If so, why should I have refused him time and again?” I asked, smilingly. Right well Aunt Cynthia knew I had. Max always told her.
“Goodness alone knows why,” said Aunt Cynthia, “but you may do it once too often and find yourself taken at your word. There is something very fascinating about this Anne Shirley.”
“Indeed there is,” I assented. “She has the loveliest eyes I ever saw. She would be just the wife for Max, and I hope he will marry her.”
“Humph,” said Aunt Cynthia. “Well, I won’t entice you into telling any more fibs. And I didn’t drive out here to-day in all this wind to talk sense into you concerning Max. I’m going to Halifax for two months and I want you to take charge of Fatima for me, while I am away.”
“Fatima!” I exclaimed.
“Yes. I don’t dare to trust her with the servants. Mind you always warm her milk before you give it to her, and don’t on any account let her run out of doors.”
I looked at Ismay and Ismay looked at me. We knew we were in for it. To refuse would mortally offend Aunt Cynthia. Besides, if I betrayed any unwillingness, Aunt Cynthia would be sure to put it down to grumpiness over what she had said about Max, and rub it in for years. But I ventured to ask, “What if anything happens to her while you are away?”
“It is to prevent that, I’m leaving her with you,” said Aunt Cynthia. “You simply must not let anything happen to her. It will do you good to have a little responsibility. And you will have a chance to find out what an adorable creature Fatima really is. Well, that is all settled. I’ll send Fatima out to-morrow.”
“You can take care of that horrid Fatima beast yourself,” said Ismay, when the door closed behind Aunt Cynthia. “I won’t touch her with a yard-stick. You had no business to say we’d take her.”
“Did I say we would take her?” I demanded, crossly. “Aunt Cynthia took our consent for granted. And you know, as well as I do, we couldn’t have refused. So what is the use of being grouchy?”
“If anything happens to her Aunt Cynthia will hold us responsible,” said Ismay darkly.
“Do you think Anne Shirley is really engaged to Gilbert Blythe?” I asked curiously.
“I’ve heard that she was,” said Ismay, absently. “Does she eat anything but milk? Will it do to give her mice?”
“Oh, I guess so. But do you think Max has really fallen in love with her?”
“I dare say. What a relief it will be for you if he has.”
“Oh, of course,” I said, frostily. “Anne Shirley or Anne Anybody Else, is perfectly welcome to Max if she wants him. I certainly do not. Ismay Meade, if that stove doesn’t stop smoking I shall fly into bits. This is a detestable day. I hate that creature!”
“Oh, you shouldn’t talk like that, when you don’t even know her,” protested Ismay. “Every one says Anne Shirley is lovely — ”
“I was talking about Fatima,” I cried in a rage.
“Oh!” said Ismay.
Ismay is stupid at times. I thought the way she said “Oh” was inexcusably stupid.
Fatima arrived the next day. Max brought her out in a covered basket, lined with padded crimson satin. Max likes cats and Aunt Cynthia. He explained how we were to treat Fatima and when Ismay had gone out of the room — Ismay always went out of the room when she knew I particularly wanted her to remain — he proposed to me again. Of course I said no, as usual, but I was rather pleased. Max had been proposing to me about every two months for two years. Sometimes, as in this case, he went three months, and then I always wondered why. I concluded that he could not be really interested in Anne Shirley, and I was relieved. I didn’t want to marry Max but it was pleasant and convenient to have him around, and we would miss him dreadfully if any other girl snapped him up. He was so useful and always willing to do anything for us — nail a shingle on the roof, drive us to town, put down carpets — in short, a very present help in all our troubles.
So I just beamed on him when I said no. Max began counting on his fingers. When he got as far as eight he shook his head and began over again.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I’m trying to count up how many times I have proposed to you,” he said. “But I can’t remember whether I asked you to marry me that day we dug up the garden or not. If I did it makes — ”
“No, you didn’t,” I interrupted.
“Well, that makes it eleven,” said Max reflectively. “Pretty near the limit, isn’t it? My manly pride will not allow me to propose to the same girl more than twelve times. So the next time will be the last, Sue darling.”
“Oh,” I said, a trifle flatly. I forgot to resent his calling me darling. I wondered if things wouldn’t be rather dull when Max gave up proposing to me. It was the only excitement I had. But of course it would be best — and he couldn’t go on at it forever, so, by the way of gracefully dismissing the subject, I asked him what Miss Shirley was like.
“Very sweet girl,” said Max. “You know I always admired those gray-eyed girls with that splendid Titian hair.”
I am dark, with brown eyes. Just then I detested Max. I got up and said I was going to get some milk for Fatima.
I found Ismay in a rage in the kitchen. She had been up in the garret, and a mouse had run across her foot. Mice always get on Ismay’s nerves.
“We need a cat badly enough,” she fumed, “but not a useless, pampered thing, like Fatima. That garret is literally swarming with mice. You’ll not catch me going up there again.”
Fatima did not prove such a nuisance as we had feared. Huldah Jane liked her, and Ismay, in spite of her declaration that she would have nothing to do with her, looked after her comfort scrupulously. She even used to get up in the middle of the night and go out to see if Fatima was warm. Max came in every day and, being around, gave us good advice.
Then one day, about three weeks after Aunt Cynthia’s departure, Fatima disappeared — just simply disappeared as if she had been dissolved into thin air. We left her one afternoon, curled up asleep in her basket by the fire, under Huldah Jane’s eye, while we went out to make a call. When we came home Fatima was gone.
Huldah Jane wept and was as one whom the gods had made mad. She vowed that she had never let Fatima out of her sight the whole time, save once for three minutes when she ran up to the garret for some summer savory. When she came back the kitchen door had blown open and Fatima had vanished.
Ismay and I were frantic. We ran about the garden and through the out-houses, and the woods behind the house, like wild creatures, calling Fatima, but in vain. Then Ismay sat down on the front doorsteps and cried.
“She has got out and she’ll catch her death of cold and Aunt Cynthia will never forgive us.”
“I’m going for Max,” I declared. So I did, through the spruce woods and over the field as fast as my feet could carry me, thanking my stars that there was a Max to go to in such a predicament.
Max came over and we had another search, but without result. Days passed, but we did not find Fatima. I would certainly have gone crazy had it not been for Max. He was worth his weight in gold during the awful week that followed. We did not dare advertise, lest Aunt Cynthia should see it; but we inquired far and wide for a white Persian cat with a blue spot on its tail, and offered a reward for it; but nobody had seen it, although people kept coming to the house, night and day, with every kind of a cat in baskets, wanting to know if it was the one we had lost.
“We shall never see Fatima again,” I said hopelessly to Max and Ismay one afternoon. I had just turned away an old woman with a big, yellow tommy which she insisted must be ours — “cause it kem to our place, mem, a-yowling fearful, mem, and it don’t belong to nobody not down Grafton way, mem.”
“I’m afraid you won’t,” said Max. “She must have perished from exposure long ere this.”