How beautiful she was in her superb calmness, so graceful, so mild, and yet so majestic! Ah! I was a younger man then, of course, than I am now, and possibly more impressionable; but I thought her then the most perfect creature I had ever beheld. And even now, looking back through the gathering mists of time and the chilling frosts of advancing age, and recalling what she was, I endorse that earlier sentiment - she lives in my memory now, as she lived in my presence then, as the most perfect creature I ever beheld.
I had gone the round of all the best boarding-houses in town, when, at last, I went to Mrs. Honeywold's, and there, in her small, unpretending establishment, I, General Leslie Auchester, having been subdued, I trust, to a proper and humble state of mind by my past experiences, agreed to take up my abode.
And it was there I first met her! Hers was the early maturity of loveliness, perfect in repose, with mild, thoughtful eyes, intelligent and tender, a trifle sad at times, but lighting up with quick brilliancy as some new object met her view, or some vivid thought darted its lightning flash through her brain - for she was wonderfully quick of perception - with an exquisite figure, splendidly symmetrical, yet swaying and supple as a young willow, and with unstudied grace in every quick, sinewy motion.
She spent little upon dress (I was sure she was not wealthy); but though there was little variety, her dress was always exquisitely neat and in perfect good taste, of some soft glossy fabric, smooth as silk and lustrous as satin, and of the softest shade of silver-gray, that colour so beautiful in itself, and so becoming to beautiful wearers; simply made, but fitting with a nicety more like the work of nature than of art to every curve and outline of that full and stately figure, and finished off round her white throat with something scarcely whiter.
She never wore ornaments of any kind, no chain, no brooch, no ring or pin. She had twins - two beautiful little blue-eyed things, wonderfully like herself - little shy, graceful creatures, always together, always playful. She never spoke of her own affairs, and affable as she was, and gentle in manner, there was something about her which repelled intrusion.
When, after some weeks' residence there, I had gained the good-will of my simple-minded but kindly little landlady, I cautiously ventured to ask her to gratify my not, I think, unnatural curiosity; but I found, to my surprise, she knew but little more than I did myself.
"She came to me," she said, "just at the edge of the evening, one cold rainy night, and I could not refuse to give her shelter, at least for the night, or till she could do better. I did not think of her remaining; but she is so pretty and gentle, and innocent-looking, I could not turn her out of my house - could I, now? I know I am silly in such ways; but what could I do?"
"But is it possible," I said, "that she has remained here ever since, and you know nothing more about her?"
"No more than you do yourself, general," said Mrs. Honeywold. " I do not even know where she lived before she came here. I cannot question her, and now, indeed, I have become so fond of her, I should not be willing to part with her; and I would not turn her and her little ones out of my house for the world! "
Further conversation elicited the fact that she was not a boarder, but that she and her little ones were the dependents upon Mrs. Honeywold's charity.
One fine summer day I had made an appointment with a friend to drive out to his place in the suburbs and dine with him, returning in the evening. When I came down in the afternoon, dressed for my excursion, I went into the dining-room to tell Mrs. Honeywold she need not wait for me. As I came back through the parlour, she was there alone. She was sitting on the sofa. A book lay near her, but I do not think she had been reading. She was sitting perfectly still, as if lost in reverie, and her eyes looked heavy with sleep or thought. But as I passed out of the room I looked back. I saw she had risen to her feet, and standing with her graceful figure drawn up to its full height, she was looking after me, with a look which I flattered myself was a look of interest. Ah, how well I remember that look!
The day had been a beautiful one, though sultry; but in the early evening we had a heavy thunder-shower, the violence of the summer rain delaying my return to town for an hour or two; and when the rain ceased, the evening was still starless, cloudy, and damp; and as I drove back to town I remember that the night air, although somewhat freshened by the rain, was warm, and heavy with the scent of unseen flowers.
It was late when I reached the quiet street where I had taken up my abode, and as I mounted the steps I involuntarily felt for my latch-key, but to my surprise I found the hall-door not only unfastened, but a little way opened.
"Why, how is this, Mrs. Honeywold?" I said, as my landlady met me in the hall. "Do you know that your street-door was left open?"
"Yes," she said, quietly, "I know it."
"But is it safe? " I asked, as I turned to lock the door; "and so late, too."
"I do not think there is any danger," she said. "I was on the watch; I was in the hall myself, waiting."
"Not waiting for me, I hope?" said I; "that was surely unnecessary."
"No, not for you," she answered. "I presume you can take care of yourself; but," she added, in a low voice, "she is out, and I was waiting to let her in."
"Out at this time of night! - that seems strange. Where has she gone? "
"I do not know."
"And how long has she been gone?" I asked, as I hung up my hat.
"I cannot tell just what time she went out," she said; "I know she was in the garden with the little ones, and came in just before tea. After they had had their suppers and gone to bed I saw her in the parlour alone, and when I came into the room again she was gone, and she has not returned, and I - "
"Oh, then she went out before the rain, did she?"
"Yes, sir; some time before the rain."
"Oh, then that explains it; she was probably caught out by the rain, and took shelter somewhere, and has been persuaded to stay. There is nothing to be alarmed at; you had better not wait up another moment."
" But I don't like to shut her out, general; I should not sleep a wink."
"Nonsense, nonsense!" I said. "Go to bed, you silly woman; you will hear her when she comes, of course, and can come down and let her in." And so saying, I retired to my own room.
The next morning at breakfast, I noticed that my landlady was looking pale and troubled, and I felt sure she had spent a sleepless night.
"Well, Mrs. Honeywold," I said, with assumed cheerfulness, as she handed my coffee to me, "how long did you have to sit up? What time did she come in? "
"She did not come in all night, general,"said my landlady, in a troubled voice. "She has not come home yet, and I am very anxious about it."
"No need of that, I trust," I said, reassuringly; "she will come this morning, no doubt."
"I don't know. I wish I was sure of that. I don't know what to make of it. I don't understand it. She never did so before. How she could have stayed out, and left those two blessed little things all night - and she always seemed such a tender, loving mother, too - I don't understand it."
When I returned at dinner-time I found matters still worse. She had not returned. My poor landlady was almost in hysterics, though she tried hard to control herself.
To satisfy her I set off to consult the police. My mission was not encouraging. They promised to do their best, but gave slight hopes of a successful result.
So sad, weary, and discouraged, I returned home, only to learn there were no tidings of the missing one.
"I give her up now," said my weeping landlady; "I shall never see her again. She is lost for ever; and those two poor pretty little creatures - "
"By the way," I said, "I wanted to speak to you about them. If she never does return, what do you purpose to do with them? "
"Keep them!" said the generous and impulsive little woman.
"I wanted to say, if she does not return, I will, if you like, relieve you of one of them. My sister, who lives with me, and keeps my house, is a very kind, tender-hearted woman. There are no children in the house, and she would, I am sure, be very kind to the poor little thing. What do you say? "
"No, no! " sobbed the poor woman; "I cannot part with them. I am a poor woman, it is true, but not too poor to give them a home; and while I have a bit and a sup for myself they shall have one too. Their poor mother left them here, and if she ever does return she shall find them here. And if she never returns, then - "
And she never did return, and no tidings of her fate ever reached us. If she was enticed away by artful blandishments, or kidnapped by cruel violence, we knew not. But I honestly believe the latter. Either way, it was her fatal beauty that led her to destruction; for, as I have said before, she was the most perfect creature, the most beautiful Maltese cat, that I ever beheld in my life! I am sure she never deserted her two pretty little kittens of her own accord. And if - poor dumb thing - she was stolen and killed for her beautiful fur, still I say, as I said at first, she was "more sinned against than sinning." - C. H. Grattan, in Tit-Bits.