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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Little Cat

By Frank Lee Benedict (1834–1910)

[Born in Alexander, Genesee Co., N. Y., 1834. Died in Philadelphia, Penn., 1910. My Daughter Elinor. 1869.]

I BELIEVE I have quoted somewhere what wise old Balzac said about fifty-two being the age at which a man is most dangerous to women. I never was fifty-two, and am therefore unable to speak from experience, but observation has taught me that if a pretty girl wants to make a puffy, pulpy, disjointed idiot of a member of my ill-used race, she ought to select a man of that age to do it in perfection.

Now Mr. Grey was a wise old serpent, and had been un homme galant, and knew a good many things about women that women never know about each other; but Miss Laidley’s type was not familiar to him, and he was completely deceived by her pretty innocence, her appealing helplessness, her solitary condition, and the entire trust she had in him, which was expressed with such artless freedom. He was not to be deluded into making a blatant idiot of himself, but he was a good deal more fascinated than he would have liked anybody to perceive.

Elinor did not observe Miss Laidley’s performances at first—puss was exceedingly wary. She had ways and means of knowing when Mr. Grey was alone in his library—old Juanita was the most faithful of waiting-women—and she was always going in by accident, or to seek advice, or to ask him to comfort her because she was a lonely little thing, who would never be wise enough to remain unguarded in a wicked world. When Elinor did discover what was going on, she was filled with wrath; and not aspiring to angelic amiability, she gave way to her temper, and Miss Laidley had an unpleasant morning. Not that Elinor betrayed the real cause of her irritation; she was quite a match for any woman when it came to the necessity of employing high art; and the Laidley had not the satisfaction of knowing that her success was noticed. In the midst of her rage Elinor would be civil; but there was an opening, and she improved it. Miss Laidley chanced to amuse some callers with a reproduction of the Idol the very day on which Elinor discovered her machinations toward the Secretary, and she read her a lecture which was worse than being scalped.

And Elinor would not quarrel; she only would do her duty. She told Miss Laidley that she had talked so much about duty that her, Elinor’s, mind was infected too; and she had to say, that to accept a person’s hospitality and presents, and then laugh about him or her, was the most contemptible thing of which any woman past twenty could be guilty. She frightened Miss Laidley by vowing that if it happened again she would write to Mrs. Hackett and let her know how her kindness had been returned; she begged to be understood thoroughly in earnest. She conquered, and Miss Laidley had to cry and beg, and wound up with a hysteric fit from passion. Elinor gave her a dose of very bitter medicine, spattered her new dress mercilessly with water, and brought her out of it.

“I mean it all for your good,” said she, sweetly; “you know that. But, my dear Genevieve, I cannot permit you to abuse my friends; I want you to remember it.”

Miss Laidley did a war-dance in private, and pulled old Juanita’s hair, and called Elinor certain names which would not look well in print, but which are sometimes not strangers to the lips of pink-and-white creatures who look too ethereal for an earthly thought.

Elinor could not be sorry that she had given way to her temper, and she vowed inwardly that, with all her craft, the creature should not trouble the peace of her home. She had the highest respect for her father’s judgment, but she did know what unheard-of things men will do, and she had no intention that Miss Laidley should carry proceedings far enough for her to be forced to acknowledge that her father had foibles like common men.

Miss Laidley was more wary than ever, because she had sworn vengeance, and meant to sting Elinor’s very soul. Indeed, she felt that she could almost marry Mr. Grey for the satisfaction of torturing her; perhaps she would have said quite, if it had not been for the recollection of Leighton Rossitur and her unfinished romance. She did show her hand, however, crafty as she was. A few days after the explosion in regard to the Idol, she suddenly fell at Elinor’s feet, and, sobbing as if her heart would break, cried out:

“Forgive me, Elinor, forgive me! Your coldness tortures me.”

“I have not been cold,” replied Elinor; “I have treated you just as usual.”

“But I feel the difference—here—in my heart. Only say that you forgive me. I know how wrong it was to speak so of Mrs. Hackett; I know you meant it for my good; I should be called ill-natured if I indulged in such thoughtlessness. Only say that you forgive me.”

“If you want my forgiveness, Miss Laidley, you have it.”

“Darling, perfect Elinor! And don’t be icy; you won’t, dear? That nearly kills me, for indeed I am a good little thing.”

“I am willing to think it was only thoughtlessness,” replied Elinor kindly enough, but not to be deluded, “unless you force me to believe otherwise by continuing the practice.”

“I never will say a word against anybody,” sobbed Miss Laidley. “You are sure you forgive me, cherie? You will, I know you will, because you are better than other women; you are perfect—”

“If I am not amiable when my friends are attacked,” said Elinor, not thinking it necessary to thank the young lady for her encomiums.

“I am thoroughly ashamed. I can’t think how I came to let my tongue run away with me; I am so heedless. But I shall be careful now; you have made me see how wrong it is, and I thank you so much for doing it—oh, so much!”

She did such exaggerated gratitude that Elinor knew how venomous she was at heart. Miss Laidley made the mistake of employing too much art; her penitence and her thankfulness might have deceived a man, but they only left her little game more apparent to her listener, and she was on her guard.

Elinor did not say a word to her father, and she hoped that he was too much occupied to bestow any thought on the small serpent. But one day, when weeks of preparation led Miss Laidley to believe that she could venture on striking what she would have called her grand coup, make a smiling idiot of her guardian, and have the pleasure of telling the story far and wide, she rose up like a young Napoleon in his might.

Elinor was out, and Mr. Grey had returned earlier than usual. The Laidley heard him go up to his room. She knew his habits, and was certain that he would presently descend to the library. She stood before the glass and made her wavy hair look more picturesque than ever; she could at any time grow pale by working herself into a nervous state; she would have artistically darkened her eyelids till they seemed heavy with painful thoughts and unshed tears, had she not remembered that she might have to shed real ones, which would disturb the lines: and down stairs she crept with the velvet tread of a panther.

When Mr. Grey opened the door of his library a few moments later, he saw a figure crouched in a graceful attitude on the floor with her head buried in her hands, and heard a broken voice sob—

“O my father, my father! Come and take me—your lonely little Evangel—O my father, my father!”

The diplomatist was absolutely startled by this paroxysm of suffering. He closed the door softly and stood uncertain what to do, but the slight sound he made was enough to disturb the mourner, who sprang to her feet, uttering in a tone of passionate bitterness—

“Who is it? Can I never have a moment’s peace?”

“My dear child,” he said, going toward her, “what is the matter?”

“Hélas! it is my guardian,” she gasped, putting out her hands with a gesture of confusion. “Let me go. I beg your pardon, sir; I did not mean to intrude; I thought I was alone in the house; let me go.” She ran straight to him. and almost fell in his arms.

“You must not go,” he said, greatly touched by her grief. “Tell me what has happened—what troubles you.”

“Nothing—nothing! Let me go; let me go!” and she clung tight to his hand with her trembling fingers.

“Are you ill, dear child? Have you had bad news?”

“No; oh, no. There is nothing the matter. I was lonely—foolish. Oh, I was thinking of papa. I would not have had you found me for the world; I did not dream of your being near.”

“My dear little Genevieve, you know I am your nearest friend now,” he said, somewhat fluttered, as masculine nature will be by the trembling pressure of two white hands.

“The kindest, dearest friend ever a lonely, heart-sick creature had,” she murmured, looking up in his face through her tears. That appeal was irresistible.

“You can talk to me if you really consider me such; you can tell me everything that pains you,” he continued.

“Oh, don’t; you will make me cry again; don’t speak in that gentle voice. I thank you so much. I am so sorry to distress you.” She tried to check her sobs, but they would burst forth in spite of her efforts, and very lovely she looked in her agitation.

“I am grieved to think you suffer,” he said; “I cannot have it; you stay too much alone.”

“No, no; I am best alone. Nobody understands me, nobody cares for me—but you,” with the softest lingering inflection on the pronoun.

“Poor child, if I could help you in any way, you must know how ready I should be.”

“I do, I do; I am not ungrateful. Say you believe I am not.”

“How could I think it? But where is my daughter Elinor?”

“She is out. Don’t tell her how you found me; it would only pain her. Oh, dear sir, I am such a foolish child. You are both too kind to me; but when I see you happy together, it makes me wretched. Once I was loved and petted, and now I am alone—all alone!”

She flung up her snowy arms with a despairing gesture as they do in novels, and fresh tears gushed from her eyes; then she clung to him again with that mute expression of confidence, and Mr. Grey was very much moved, and quite dazed between her grief and her entire trust in him….

“Your presence here is always a pleasure to me,” he said, “and no business could be so important as my ward’s happiness.”

“Thanks—oh, a thousand thanks. Then sit down, and let me sit by you—I’m such a foolish little thing. you know. See, I am quite composed and happy now,” and she turned her angelic eyes upon him and smiled again.

He permitted her to lead him to his favorite seat; she nestled on an ottoman close at his side, and, in her childishness, laid her head down on his hand, which chanced to be resting on the arm of the chair.

“Now I am quiet,” she said, in a voice which might have made Mr. Grey think of Lurely, or the wind-spirits of German legends, or any other dangerous and devilish and beautiful thing, if he had not been for the time under the influence of her spells. “Now I am quiet; I can rest here—I can rest.”

“Rest, my pretty Genevieve,” he replied; “this shall be your place as long as you choose to keep it.”

He was bewildered, and he was a good deal fascinated, but he was not prepared to be quite a smiling idiot. Lurely saw that she must go further, she must do something that would upset him completely; she might never have another opportunity like this.

“At rest, at peace,” she murmured; “ah! if I might always be as happy as I am now!” She raised her blue eyes to his and smiled; her soft hair floated over his sleeve. I’ll be hanged if she would not have made a fool of Solomon himself.

“If it were in my power to make you so, you should be,” he said.

“I know that,” she answered; “oh, don’t think me ungrateful.”

“I think you everything that is lovely and charming,” returned he, “and yet a child at heart.”

That was very pretty and it was pleasant to hear, but Lurely wanted more than that, much more. She had not been singing her siren’s songs for so little return; she wanted to dizzy his brain with her notes till she could carry him down an unresisting captive, and bang his head against the sharpest rocks, in order properly to avenge herself upon Elinor; and bang his head she would, no matter what sort of song she had to sing.

“Yes, yes,” she sighed, “you only think of me as a child to be petted and coaxed out of crying; you forget that I have a woman’s heart.”

Bless the creature, what did she mean? Had he not been deceiving himself? Did this lovely girl care for him in earnest, despite the difference of age? What was he to think—what was he to say? He had no fancy for being a dunce; he had known from the first how absurd he should have considered thoughts like his in another man; but indeed, when it comes to having a pink-and-white creature lay her head on the arm of the sagest Solon of fifty-two, and look up in his eyes, and be the very soul of childish innocence and truthfulness, it is somewhat difficult to think at all.

“And I shall always be a child,” Lurely sang in his ear; “I need to be petted and loved—it is sunshine and life to me; I fade, and freeze, and die without the warmth.”

And the statesman was more bewildered than ever.

“I shall never marry; nobody will ever pet me as you do, so I shall stay here always—always,” sang Lurely. “Oh, mayn’t I stay? Won’t you keep your little Evangel? When darling Elinor marries some great man, I’ll stay and be petted; oh, mayn’t I?”

He was more bewildered and dizzy still, but, before he could speak, Lurely suddenly cried in a changed voice:

“I forgot. Perhaps I ought not to say such things. Oh, dear, I am such a foolish girl, wearing my heart on my lips with those I trust; but they are so few now. Oh, my poor, lonely little life—only you—I have nobody—no one in the world left but you!”

Without the slightest warning, she went off into a fresh paroxysm of anguish more poignant than the first, more painful to her audience of one from its unexpectedness, when he had thought her lying on his arm and singing herself into quiet.

“Oh, my lonely life,” she sobbed, snatching her hands from him and flinging them wildly about. “Oh, my heart! I freeze—I die! Oh, papa, come and take your poor Evangel—father, father, come! Is there no one to hear? Are the angels deaf? has Heaven no mercy?”

“Genevieve, Genevieve!” pleaded Mr. Grey, nearly frightened out of such wits as he had not lost before.

“Let me die,” she moaned; “I only ask for death! O Heaven, be merciful, and give me rest in the grave.”

She threw herself on her knees, looked up, and seemed ready to soar away, but Mr. Grey’s voice checked her heavenward flight.

“My dear child, you frighten me; be calm, I entreat.”

“Yes,” she shrieked, “one friend left—one! Oh, my only friend, don’t grow tired of me—don’t hate me; don’t let another take my place.” She caught his hand in her frenzied pleading; she had changed her attitude, and was leaning on the ottoman. “Promise me,” she repeated, with passionate sobs; “promise, if you would not see me die here!”

Oh, Mr. Grey, Mr. Grey! Lurely had conquered, and you fifty-two! The words were on his lips—he actually was going to be, not a smiling but an agitated idiot, and ask Lurely if she could be content always to stay there, if she could be his wife, his darling, his—Goodness knows what he might have said: an elderly fool is much worse than a young one.

But at that instant the door opened and Elinor Grey walked unsuspectingly into the room, not knowing that her father had returned, and stood petrified by the tableau. Mr. Grey saw her and felt his senses come back; no, he felt as if somebody had slapped a lump of ice suddenly on his head.

“Is Miss Laidley ill?” asked Elinor in the lowest, quietest voice, but one which would have sent the wildest dream whizzing away from a man when heard under such circumstances.

Miss Laidley called her a dreadful name between her teeth, went off into a new spasm of sobs dictated by different sensations, and rushed frantically out of the room. Once within the privacy of her apartment she gave way to her emotions without restraint. She had made herself nervous in order to play her part well, and now, enraged by this defeat at the moment when victory was within her grasp, she was ready to have spasms in earnest. She fairly danced up and down; she flew at the bed and pulled the blankets off; she caught some china ornaments from the mantel and dashed them on the floor; she must break things and dance and storm, or she should fly in pieces. She moaned and shrieked and belabored Elinor in terrible apostrophes, and when Juanita came up and tried to get her in bed she flew at the long-suffering mulatto and nearly took a brown fragment out of her with teeth and finger-nails; but it did more to restore her than a quart of red lavender could have done.

When disappointed Lurely dashed past Elinor and flew out of the room in that high-tragedy way, the wise princess said coolly:

“Has Miss Laidley gone quite mad, papa?”

Mr. Grey was a good deal confused, and it took several pinches of snuff to revive him, but somehow the sight of Elinor had restored his senses; the remembrance of her would steady his head during any future scene Lurely might attempt.

“I am afraid the poor child is ill,” said he. “I found her here a few moments ago, crying as though her heart would break.”

“What occasioned her grief?”

“Upon my word, I hardly know. She was weeping for her father, and I did my best to soothe her; but I absolutely thought she would burst a blood-vessel.”

“Oh, no,” returned Elinor quietly; “she often makes those scenes. She told me herself that she did it on purpose, by way of having a little excitement when she was dull.”

“Oh!” was all Mr. Grey said, but he said it in the voice of a man who had just tumbled out of the clouds; and he took another pinch of snuff.

“She has them only twice a week, as a habit,” continued merciless Elinor, “and she has had two without this one, which must have been for your special benefit.”

Mr. Grey lingered over his pinch of snuff. When any woman who has a claim on a man, be she sister, daughter, or aunt, interrupts a tender scene and remains beautifully unconscious that it was tender, but talks about the woman who did Pauline in that mild voice, I would counsel the man in whose home the speaker rules, be he President of the United States or Emperor of France, to follow Mr. Grey’s example—take a pinch of snuff and say nothing.