THIS is the story of a true happening with a real sequel and, because it is true (that is, all except a few details that don't count) the narrator is somewhat handicapped. In the first place, the heroine of it is pretty, and everybody knows that pretty heroines are out of fashion. They're employed occasionally to point a moral, but never to adorn a tale.
Now Kitty, who points no moral, is distractingly pretty. Not stunning, you know, or disconcertingly smart, but a slim, lovely grown-up child with wide, dark eyes, a delicious little tip-tilted nose, and lips as red as a "jack" rosebud, all set in a heart-shaped face. Not even for the sake of appearing literary will I deny this: Moreover, I fancy if she hadn't been pretty there'd be no story to tell. Then there's another awkward thing. In every well-regulated tale, whenever the heroine meets with an adventure, the right man turns up. In this story the wrong man turned up. Not wrong in the sense of - but I'm anticipating.
It began in New York, in the Grand Central Station, whither Uncle Gerry had escorted Kitty. She had spent the summer in Paris with the Gerrys and was en route to her own home, which is - well, Chisaga is near enough. Aunt Gerry was not a good sailor and the ocean voyage had used her up, and that was why she didn't come to the station to see Kitty off. Uncle Gerry had an important business engagement, and that was why he left her there half an hour before train-time. Before he left, however, he did everything he could think of to insure her comfort. Among other things he checked her suit-case.
"You won't have to bother about it until it is time to board your train," he said as he kissed her good-by.
Twenty -minutes later, her suit-case grasped firmly in one small, gloved hand, she was boarding the train. Uncle Gerry began it and the porter was the next one to serve in the capacity of first aid to a misguided destiny. Kitty, too young and strong to be concerned about creature comforts, had seated herself unconsciously with her back toward the engine.
"Yo'll be more comf't'ble, miss, if yo' face th'uther way," the black servitor observed, respectfully but solicitously.
His anxiety for her comfort seemed to Kitty the most natural thing in the world. It was but a continuation of the attention she had received on the other side, where a long procession of subservient officials had striven to convince her that they existed but to serve her. Almost unconsciously she changed to the seat across the aisle, absorbed in anticipating the delights of home-coming. In her suit-case was a marvelous mechanical toy for the pride of the house of Hunnewell, her eldest sister's baby, and she was picturing John Hunnewell Hampton's delight when she demonstrated to him the toy's remarkable proficiency in the matter of rapid and continuous transit.
Instinctively she glanced down at the bag at her feet. The initialed end faced her and she started as she took in the significance of the stiff black lettering.
"G. F. E." the initials were, and hers were "K. F. H." In a flash she saw what was wrong. The man to whom she had given the check had made a mistake. Excitedly she consulted a locket watch. There was still five minutes before the train pulled out. Impulsively seizing the alien bag, she hurried out with it.
The check man was sympathetic even in the mad whirl of which he was the steadfast center. He accepted with polite resignation Kitty's disjointed accusation, but he was unable to produce her suit-case. " All you c'n do is to leave this un here with your address, an' we'll forward yours as soon as it comes back," was the best advice he could give her. He added consolingly, however, that it was a cinch that the party who had received her bag would return it.
For sixty anxious seconds Kitty debated, then she reluctantly surrendered the suit-case, scribbled her address on a card, and hastened back to the train, which began to move the instant she stepped aboard.
During her absence the porter had been busy, and all the seats now faced one way. This, however, she did not notice until afterward. She was too concerned about her loss. There was nothing of extraordinary value in the missing bag, only her modest silver toilet things; two or three of the souvenirs she had picked up abroad, and the necessities of traveling, but as she sank despairingly into a seat she felt that she could better have spared her trunk. She had no intention of crying, she sternly refused to take out her handkerchief, but she had to wink her lashes very fast to keep back the tears. Between two of those winks she chanced to glance down at her feet. Her heart gave a joyful bound, and then - every bit of the wild rose color faded from her cheeks. Her own suit-case, with the familiar black lettering, confronted her!
Five minutes later Kitty emerged, white and shaken, :from what she herself has described as "a plunge into indescribable emotions." The thing was horribly plain to her. She had carried some other person's suit-case off the train. Whose? She glanced furtively across the aisle at the seat which she realized must have been the one she slipped into after the porter had made his suggestion. It was without an occupant and destitute of any luggage. She ventured a look about the car. Besides herself it contained five passengers, four women and a man. It took only a few seconds to satisfy her that each woman sat in close and watchful proximity to her own bag. The man was a giant of a creature, with an unprepossessing countenance, and it was with sharp relief that she observed that his immense boots were firmly planted on a battered suit-case.
But the relief was merely temporary. Somebody must be the owner of the bag she had carried off the train. Shudderingly rehearsing the whole dreadful occurrence, she recalled dimly having seen a number of men stroll into the car, kick their bags negligently under the seats, and saunter out again. Presumably they were in the smoking compartment.
With terror-stricken but fascinated eyes she began to watch the passage-way from which the smokers must emerge and as she did so she battled with temptation. It was probable that no one had seen her carry away the suit-case. Why say anything about it? Why not wait until she arrived home, when she could transfer the burden to her father's broad shoulders? The battle was short, sharp, and decisive, and Kitty's conscience, a regular thoroughbred Puritan conscience, won.
Yet the first smoker who entered the car caused her resolution to waver. He was a short, fat little man, with a red, irascible face. Exactly the sort of creature, so she instantly decided, to doubt the truth of her story and hand her over to the police at the next station. I once overheard her attempt to describe how she felt as he made his way down the aisle. Her heart, she asserted, was in her mouth, but she also insisted that it seemed to be in the aisle, too, or, rather, that, an assortment of hearts all belonging to her seemed to be in the aisle and that the fat man stepped on them as he walked.
This, however, was but one phase of her emotional experience. She declared that, while acutely conscious of this phenomenal heart-action, she was able at the same time to rehearse the trial proceedings and was prepared to receive the judge's sentence when the fat man hesitated beside the empty seat. You will gather from this, doubtless, some idea of the real state of her feelings. But just as she was about to clear her parched throat for confession, the fat little man moved on.
The respite she enjoyed was very brief, however, for hardly had he faded from her line of vision when a young man in violent checks appeared. His hat was perched rakishly on the back of his head, a very big stone ornamented his elaborate scarf, and his waistcoat was of a strange and prominent pattern. Meeting Kitty's intent gaze and misinterpreting it, he made her the recipient of a joyous smile and a confidential wink. I don't know how she manages it, but I've seen Kitty, on one or two occasions, transform herself with remarkable ease into an ice princess. She lifts her chin a little and her eyebrows, which are inclined to arch, become very level and her eyes darken until they look quite black, and the trick is done. The young man in the noisy checks shrank away abashed and deposited himself in a seat far removed from that uncongenial atmosphere.
But Kitty, though outwardly frigid, was inwardly on fire. She quite seriously considered the advisabilitv of alighting at the next station, leaving a note for the porter and her own suitcase to compensate the victim of her blunder. While she pondered this possible solution two more passengers strolled into the car, but they did not so much as glance at the luggageless seat. What if the suit-case had been left behind by some absent-minded traveler? she asked herself with a thrill of hope.
She was hugging the pleasing thought to her bosom when another man emerged from the passage-way and sauntered down the aisle. Now a historian, I realize, should be without prejud4ce, and to avoid the appearance of anything like bias on my part, I'm going to quote Kitty's description of this man.
"Clean and big and brown, you know, in a nice American way, with such a trustable look about the eyes."
Yet I fancy the fact that the fellow was presentable enough relieved the situation only a trifle for Kitty when he dropped into the seat across the aisle. She sat as motionless as a statue, her hands tightly clasped, waiting for him to make the painful discovery that he was luggageless. Hearing no excited exclamation, she ventured, after a while, to steal a glance at him. The man was gazing out of the window, but he seemed conscious of her scrutiny, for he turned and looked at her suddenly. Kitty shrank back in her seat, pale and dumb. But the more she considered her painful dilemma, the more convinced she became that if she desired to avoid attracting the attention of the entire car she had better explain before he discovered his loss and called the porter. She clasped her hands more tightly, cleared her throat, and turned resolutely.
"I - I beg your pardon," she faltered.
He faced her instantly. Queer how, though I have his word for it that he was thinking of business matters, and Kitty's word for it that he seemed absent-minded, he was conscious of her slightest movement!
"Is there something you wish - shall I call the porter?" he questioned (coldly, Kitty avers; anxiously he asserts).
"No - o, I don't want the porter. I want to speak to you," she answered hurriedly. Anybody can see that it was a reply that might be misconstrued, but I'll say this for the fellow that he did not misconstrue it. He has since acknowledged to me privately, however, that for a few minutes he was sure she was a lovely little lunatic escaped from her keeper. But he dissembled cleverly.
"What is it?" he asked, and showed his bravery by moving a little nearer to her.
"I carried your suit-case off the train," she confessed, staring at him with wide, tragic eyes.
"Oh, that's all right," he responded easily, glad that he had read somewhere that lunatics should never be contradicted.
But just at this point Kitty's intuition, until now held in abeyance by her excited mental condition, came into play.
"I'm not crazy, and I really did carry your suit-case off the train!" she exclaimed indignantly, preferring, naturally enough, to be taken for a blunderer rather than a lunatic. Then with a flood of words she explained her mistake.
Tears followed the words. The few girls I've seen cry have looked like limp rags. I'll wager Kitty looks different. I imagine that heart-shaped little face of hers merely becomes a trifle pinker and that the tears, instead of splashing down her cheeks, cling to her long, thick, silky lashes, and that her soft, red lips quiver in a childish, maddening way; I don't blame the man across the aisle for what followed, but I do contend that he needn't have let it go the length he did.
You see Kitty, whose instinct is unerring (for after all there's no use denying the fellow's a gentleman) and who has the happiest faculty of saying exactly the right thing in the right place, wound' tip her confession with, "and I was so afraid that it might belong to somebody impossible or horrid or frightfully Cross."
And the man, who hadn't said a word, who had just stared at her, you know, peeked around the car then too, and nodded his head understandingly and assured her, "it's not of the slightest consequence. I have two suit-cases, and really there was nothing of value in the one left behind." (Much he knew about it!)
"I thought I could send a telegram and they could forward it," suggested Kitty, smiling through her tears. "and you can't imagine how much I appreciate your taking it so beautifully!"
It was Kitty's gratitude, out of all proportion to the fellow's service, that inspired him to steer the course he did. He shamelessly accepted that gratitude and basked in it and took advantage of it in a way that was sad to behold.
I saw them together first in the dining-car, where they seemed to be on perfectly good terms and were making their table a little oasis of friendly gayety in a desert of disapproval. All the women passengers had drawn their own conclusions from Kitty's sudden acquaintance with Fessenden, and the men had all decided that a man that could take advantage of such an innocent little woman must be something in the gold brick line. Kitty and Fessenden, however, were blissfully unconscious of all this.
From a retired corner I was a witness to their very evident enjoyment of each other's society. I hadn't the remotest idea who Kitty was, but when I beheld Fessenden in friendly converse with her I endeavored to let him know that I was willing to overlook the fact that he was my cousin and a shameless abuser of my good-nature. Would you believe it? Instead of being grateful he turned me down cold. Pretended that he didn't know me at all. Worse than that. After one of my well-meant efforts to extend the olive-branch, I observed him say something to Kitty and saw her lips curl unmistakably as she looked at me out of the corner of her eye. Both afterward indignantly denied this, but I'll take my oath on it.
This being a true story there can, of course, be no dramatic denouement. There are, however, wedding cards - Kitty's and Fessenden's. I received them yesterday.
But in order that you may properly appreciate my position and feelings in the whole matter, I add a few facts. When that fatal blunder in regard to the suit-case was made, I was on my way to Chisaga to take testimony in an important case there. Kitty's brother had been my particular college pal. I had heard a great deal about Kitty and I was fully prepared to fall in love with her. Her brother Dixie had often assured me fervently that I was just the fellow he'd pick out for his sister.
And who was Fessenden? To begin with, he was my cousin. Furthermore, he was one of your bred-in-the-bone, dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers, an architect by profession, on a business trip to Chisaga, which he had arranged to take at the same time that my mistress, the law, called me out. Fate saw fit to play him as favorite, for of course, after his grandstand pose in the beginning, he had the inside track. I didn't stand the ghost of a chance even after the truth came out.
And what was the truth? Why, that it was my suit-case that Kitty carried off the train, of course. My initials are GFF and Fessenden had taken shameless advantage of our relationship to bulldoze me into keeping quiet after he learned Kitty's mistake.
I have been greatly abused and mistreated, and swear I wouldn't go near the wedding - if it were not for Kitty's sister. But that is another story.