Billy and Susy

Mary E. Wilkins (Freeman)

From The Winning Lady and Others (Harper and Brothers; New York: 1909)

For years the sisters, Miss Melissa Abbot and Mrs. Sarah Drew, had lived in peace and concord, not in the same house, but in adjoining ones. Mrs. Drew had married when very young, and her husband had lived only a year. At that time the old Abbot homestead had been filled with unmarried sons and daughters, and the young widow had continued to reside in the pretty little cottage which her husband had built for her. Now Miss Melissa had been living alone for some years, and so had Mrs. Drew, and people wondered why they did not keep house together, but both were women of habit, and did not relish any change. Moreover, the two houses, the square old homestead and the little cottage with its piazza under the overhang of the roof, were so near that the sisters could talk from open windows. They were devoted to each other; in fact, they were considered an example of sisterly affection for the whole village, until they were both old women and the advent of Billy and Susy. Billy and Susy were two remarkably pretty yellow kittens; young Mira Holmes had brought them over one afternoon in May, in a covered basket. She stopped at Mrs. Drew's. Miss Melissa was spending the afternoon there. She could see both elderly heads at the sitting-room windows. She knocked, and then ran in. She was quite at home there. She kissed both sisters, then she opened the basket, and two little yellow balls of fur flew out. “Our cat had five,” said Mira, “and they were so pretty we could not bear to have them drowned. So we thought maybe you would like these. Nellie Stowe has two, and we are going to keep one ourselves. Would you like them?” Mira Holmes was a very pretty, slight girl, and she had a wistful, affectionate way of speaking, and a little pathetic expression. Mira had been as good as engaged to Harry Ayres, but he had ceased to visit her some six months before. Mira went her way patiently, but she was thinner, and pathetic, in spite of everything. She laughed with the old ladies when the yellow kittens flew out of the basket, but the laugh was as sad as a sob. The sisters were enthusiastic over the gift.

“It was only yesterday that sister and I were saying that we really must have some cats; we are both overrun with mice,” declared Mrs. Sarah Drew, and she appropriated directly one of the kittens, and folded it under her soft double chin. “I will call him Billy, after the cat I had when I first came to live here,” said she. “That was a yellow cat, too.”

Miss Melissa gathered up the other kitten lovingly. “I will call her Susy,” she announced. “You remember I had a yellow cat named Susy, once, sister?”

Mira did not remain very long. She went her way with her empty basket on her arm. As she went out of the yard between the bridal-wreath bushes, and the flowering almond, and the striped grass, her head drooped wearily under her spring hat trimmed with rosebuds.

“Poor little thing!” said Mrs. Drew, pityingly.

Miss Melissa tossed her head. “Good land!” said she. “I guess she will get another beau, a girl as pretty as Mira Holmes, and if she doesn't it is no matter; beaux are not everything in the world. Girls are silly.”

Then Miss Melissa turned toward her yellow kitten, but both sisters had put the kittens on the floor when they bade farewell to Mira, and now came disaster: their first quarrel. Miss Melissa gathered up a kitten lovingly, but Mrs. Drew interposed. “Stop, Melissa,” said she; “that is my kitten, that is my yellow kitten, that is Billy.”

“Why, Sarah Drew,” cried Miss Melissa, “you know better! You know this is Susy.”

Mrs. Drew caught up the other yellow kitten, and both sisters glared over the little, soft, yellow, wriggling things. “This is Susy,” declared Melissa.

“This is Susy. You have got my cat,” insisted Sarah.

The kittens were exactly alike to the ordinary observer, but not to the sisters. “I know I have my Susy,” said Melissa. “I noticed particularly her expression.”

“Cat's hind leg!” said Sarah, contemptuously. It was a sarcastic expletive peculiar to her herself, and in this case more appropriate than usual. “Talk about a cat having expression,” she added. Then she laughed a disagreeable laugh. Sarah had a temper.

Miss Melissa also had a temper, but hers was of the tearful variety. Tears streamed over her faded blond cheeks — tears of rage and hurt sentiment. “Cats have expression,” she declared, in a hysterical voice. “You can talk all you want. My Susy had the most innocent expression, and this one looks just like her. Precious little Susy cat!” she crooned to the yellow kitten.

“Susy nothing,” said Sarah. “That cat is my Billy, and this is your precious Susy. I wouldn't have this kind of a cat, anyway. They keep you always drowning kittens or trying to give them away. Give me Billy!”

“You have got Billy now,” said Miss Melissa, tearfully. “Precious little Susy cat!”

“That cat you have is Billy,” said Sarah Drew, with awful firmness.

“You have Billy, and this precious is Susy,” returned Melissa, with more sentiment but equal obstinacy.

Neither would yield. Melissa, grasping the yellow cat which she claimed so tightly that it clawed and mewed, went home. Sarah Drew thrust the remaining cat viciously into the kitchen. “Here, Abby,” she said to the old woman who had worked for her ever since her marriage, “take this miserable cat! Miss Mira brought it, but I don't want it.”

Abby had heard every word of the discussion. She always heard: she considered it her duty. She gathered up the kitten, and presently she came to the sitting-room door.

“Miss Sarah,” said she.

“I don't want to hear a word,” replied Sarah, shortly and haughtily.

“But —”

“I don't want to hear a word. I know you were listening, and you always take everybody's part against me. Now, you can either keep that miserable cat in the kitchen or drown it, I don't care which, but if you do keep it, you must dispose of the kittens. Now, I don't want to hear another word.”

Abby, who was as tall and angular as a man, went out.

Later in the afternoon she and Miss Melissa's girl, who was also an old woman, had a conference out in the garden, over the fence. Each held a yellow kitten. They parted after a while, because Mrs. Drew was seen standing in the kitchen door watching them. But Maria, Miss Melissa's maid, said, in a whisper, “Both of them were always awful set,” and Abby nodded assent.

Neither of the women was a gossip. It was nearly a month before it leaked out that Melissa Abbot and Sarah Drew had had a quarrel and were not on speaking terms. The two led a sad life. Melissa got no comfort from fondling her yellow cat, which grew in size and beauty. Abby kept the other carefully from her mistress' sight, and tried to cook things to tempt her appetite. Both sisters were very unhappy. They had always been of a sociable disposition, and each was afraid to accept an invitation lest she should meet her sister. They stayed at home and moped. The curtains were drawn over the opposite windows in the cottage and homestead. Mrs. Drew was constantly on the alert, and never stirred out-of-doors unless she was quite sure that her sister was at home and there was no danger of meeting her upon the street. Each became afraid of venturing abroad unless the other was housed. Sarah Drew watched. Melissa Abbot watched. Each knew that the other watched. Each knew the other so well that she could judge exactly of her sister's state of mind from her own. Thus each suffered doubly.

Mira Holmes heard of the estrangement, and came to see Mrs. Drew about it. “I am so sorry,” said she, and the tears, always in her heart for her own trouble, welled into her patient blue eyes.

“It is nothing you are to blame for, child,” replied Sarah Drew with dignity. Both sisters were too proud to say anything to each other's detriment. “It is unfortunate that the cats looked so much alike, but I can't see how you are responsible for that.”

“Maybe not,” admitted Mira. Then she broke down, and wept. “I am so sorry to have been the means of parting two sisters like you,” she sobbed. Her own grief stung her afresh as she wept for that of the sisters.

“You didn't part us,” replied Sarah Drew. “It was two yellow cats that looked exactly alike.” She called to Abby to make some tea and cut some sponge-cake. When the tea and cake arrived she served them as calmly as if there were no yellow cats of confused identity in the world. “Drink this tea and eat some cake,” said she. “There is no sense in making yourself sick. This is a personal matter between my sister and myself.”

“I wish they didn't look so much alike,” sobbed Mira, trying to sip the tea.

“I can't see how you are to blame for that,” Sarah Drew said again.

“If I had only brought one tiger cat and one yellow! There were two lovely tigers that I gave Nellie Stowe,” said Mira, pitifully.

“I never liked tiger cats; I prefer yellow cats, but not one of this kind,” said Sarah Drew. Then she changed the subject. “It is a beautiful day,” said she, “though it is pretty warm for so early in the season.” She talked at length about the weather, and how the apple-trees were blooming, then she talked about the fair which the ladies of the Mission Circle were to give. Whenever poor young Mira Holmes essayed to bring up the subject of the yellow cats, Sarah gently, but firmly, swerved her aside.

When Mira left, she went to make a call upon Melissa, but her call was just as devoid of good results. Miss Melissa was much more reserved than her sister upon the subject. She even refused to justify herself in her conduct. The only thing she did was to call Maria and ask her to take Susy out of the room. The kitten had been curled up in a little coil of yellow fur upon the sofa when Mira entered. Poor Mira had to drink another cup of tea, and eat more sponge-cake made from the identical recipe of the other; then she went home. On her way home she met Harry Ayres, the young man to whom she had been engaged, and he hardly noticed her, simply raising his hat without a smile, as if she had been a stranger. Mira scarcely inclined her pretty head. When she reached home, however, she found a certain comfort in throwing herself openly into a chair and weeping, and sobbing out to her mother how badly she felt about Mrs. Drew and Miss Melissa and the two yellow cats. She had felt obliged to conceal her tears heretofore from her mother. Now it was a comfort to weep before her for something for which she need not be ashamed, and at the same time weep for her own private misery.

If Mira's mother knew that the girl was weeping for something besides the complication of the cats, she did not show it. She was a very gentle, soft-voiced woman, with beautiful rippling folds of yellow hair over her ears. She stroked Mira's head. “Don't, dear,” said she. “You are not to blame.”

“I thought they would — like the — cats,” sobbed Mira.

“Of course you did, dear. Don't feel so. I will go over and see them myself to-morrow afternoon. I have an errand about the fair, and I will see if I can't do something.”

“Miss Melissa may be mistaken, and Mrs. Drew may be mistaken; nobody knows,” said Mira.

“If they are, it will be very hard for them to give in,” said Mrs. Holmes. “They are nice women, but they were always very set. They were when I used to go to school with them. But I will see what I can do.”

It ended in Mrs. Holmes drinking tea and eating sponge-cake in both houses, and coming away exactly as Mira had done. It ended in the same way for many others. Many good women called, and drank tea and ate sponge-cake and tried to make peace between the sisters, and came away realizing that their effort had been fruitless. Even the minister's wife drank tea and ate sponge-cake, and the minister himself drank, and ate, and offered prayer in vain. After his call the sisters did not attend church at all. Previously they had gone to church, but had sat in different pews, leaving the old Abbot pew quite unoccupied. Both Miss Melissa and Mrs. Drew, on the Sunday after the minister's call, watched with secret pride and approved each other's staying at home from church. Although at bitter enmity with her, each sister felt that she should have been personally mortified had she seen the other emerge from her front door, clad in her Sabbath best, after the minister's call and his direct importunities at the throne of grace that they of the Abbot family should see the error of their ways.

Miss Melissa caressed her yellow cat, and said, aloud: “Well, I am glad she has some pride, if she hasn't anything else”; and Mrs. Drew told Abby, after the church bell had done ringing, if she had made up her mind to keep that miserable cat, to be sure it had plenty of milk and no meat until it was older, for fear of fits, and added that if she had to keep animals that belonged to other folks she did not want them neglected under her roof anyway.

That Sunday there was almost a rift in the cloud of dissension between the sisters, a rift based upon common pride and resentment of interference: an unworthy rift of unnatural sunlight of forgiveness caused by anger against another. But it did not last. By the next Sunday, neither expecting the other to go to church, each realized a complete return of the old bitterness. And the bitterness, as the days and weeks went on, caused more and more unhappiness. The two old women were fighting with two-edged swords, which they who love and fight must always use, and every time one inflicted a wound upon the other she hurt herself. People began to say that the sisters were aging terribly. Finally the doctor was seen stopping every day at both houses, then the news was spread abroad that the sisters had been told that they must have a change of scene. They were not wealthy enough to have a change of scene, unless it took the form of a visit. Then Miss Melissa went to pay her married brother, Thomas Abbot, who lived in Springfield, a visit, and Mrs. Drew went to pay her married sister Eliza, who lived in New York State, a visit, and Abby and Maria took care of their houses and the two yellow cats. Now and then they had letters from the sisters, which stated that they were improving in health, but one day the two old servants, knee-deep in catnip and with their skirts catching in a tangle of sweetbrier, talking over the back fence, agreed that their mistresses did not write as if they were happy.

“I know Mis' Drew,” said Abby. “She can set up as stiff as she's a mind to, but she can't cheat me. She'll never be herself ag'in till she and her sister make up. When two women have lived as many years as they have, and thought so much of each other, it's goin' to take somethin' more'n a quarrel over two yeller cats to make them live this way and be jest as chipper as if nothin' had happened.”

“I know Miss Melissa never will be the same,” said Maria. “She's tried to make out as if she set the earth by that cat, but I've seen her look as if she'd like to pitch it out of the winder.”

“It's a pity they wouldn't neither of them let us tell them,” said Abby.

“Well, they wouldn't. The minute I begun to speak I was hushed up, and so was you,” said Maria.

“Yes, that's so,” said Abby. “Guess I'll take in some of this catnip for the cat. It won't last much longer, and I guess I'll dry some.”

“I guess I will, too,” said Maria. “It looks something like frost to-night.”

“There won't be a frost unless the wind goes down,” returned Abby. Her gray hair whipped about her face as she picked a great bunch of catnip.

“It does blow. When do you expect her home?”

“She hasn't said anything about coming. I shouldn't wonder if she didn't come before Thanksgiving. When do you expect her?”

“I don't know any more than you do. Good land! It will be a queer Thanksgiving if they don't make up first!”

“Maybe they will.”

“They're awful set, both of them.”

“Well,” said Abby, “they may hate each other like poison for the rest of their natural lives. They may be set about that, but there's some things they can't be set about, nohow.”

Both women laughed as they parted, and went their ways with bundles of catnip.

It was a week before Thanksgiving when Miss Melissa came home, and Mrs. Drew arrived the next day. It was four o'clock in the afternoon when Melissa, with her white hood over her head, muffled against the bitter wind in her soft gray shawl, entered the south door, just as she had been accustomed to do. “So you've got home, Sarah?” said she. She was pale and red by turns. She looked afraid and troubled, and yet as if she wanted to laugh. Mrs. Drew had much the same shift of expression.

“Yes,” said she. “I came on the half-past-three train. Sit down.”

Melissa sat down.

“Take your things off and stay to supper. Abby's making cream-of-tartar biscuits. Did you have a pleasant visit at Thomas's?”

“Very pleasant, thank you.”

“How are they all? How is Thomas's wife? Is Grace well?”

“They both seem real well. Did you have a pleasant visit at Eliza's?”

“Very pleasant, thank you.”

“How is Eliza? Is Henry getting on well in his law-office, and how is Lizzie?”

“They all seem real well, and Henry is smart as a whip. Eliza has a beautiful new winter cloak.”

There was a silence. Miss Melissa's face reddened and paled, then reddened. She laughed nervously. “Oh,” said she, “I have something to say to you, Sarah.”

“Well?”

“It's nothing, only — I feel as if I must tell you, I — was right — Billy is Susy, and she's got five kittens. They haven't got their eyes open yet.”

Mrs. Drew laughed. “Susy, is she?”

“Yes. You must have been mistaken.”

“Well, I guess I was; but as for Billy's being Susy, well —” Mrs. Drew gave a long sigh. Then she laughed again, a sharp cackle of nervous mirth.

Miss Melissa stared at her. She looked relieved, but a little alarmed. “I'm glad you don't lay it up,” said she, “but —”

“Just wait a minute. Abby!”

Abby opened the door.

“Bring in that basket, please, Abby,” said Mrs. Drew.

Melissa looked at her sister with such curiosity that her face assumed a vacant expression. Mrs. Drew continued to laugh. Finally Melissa joined in, although unwillingly. “What in the world we are laughing at I don't see,” she tittered.

“Because we've been a pair of fools,” said Mrs. Drew, as Abby returned. She set down on the floor before the two old women a basket in which lay curled up a yellow mother cat luxuriously purring love to some yellow kittens.

“There are four of them,” said Mrs. Drew, “all yellow, and they have had their eyes opened some time.”

Miss Melissa stared at the cat and kittens, then at her sister.

“Then —” she began.

“They were both Susy,” said Mrs. Drew, “and we quarrelled over nothing at all.”

“Sarah —”

“Well?”

“I had made up my mind, anyway, to come over here and ask you to forgive me, and take my Susy if you thought she was Billy.”

“And I had made up my mind to go over to your house, anyway, and ask you to forgive me, and keep Billy if you thought he was Susy,” said Mrs. Drew.

Then the two women laughed in chorus. “No Billy at all,” said Miss Melissa, giggling like a girl.

“And two old women making themselves ridiculous, fighting over two yellow cats,” said Mrs. Drew.

Out in the kitchen Abby echoed their mirth with an irrestrainable peal of laughter.

“Mira Holmes and Harry Ayres have made up and are going to be married, Abby tells me,” said Mrs. Drew. “I mean she shall have two of those yellow kittens.”

“I hate to have my Susy's drowned,” said Melissa. “Maria says she thinks we can give them away. They are beautiful kittens: all yellow, just like these. Of course, you are coming over to dinner to-morrow, Sarah. Maria has the Thanksgiving cooking all done.”

“I'd like to see myself doing anything else,” said Mrs. Drew.

“I'll tell you what I'll do,” said Melissa.

“What?”

“I'll send over and ask Mira and her mother and Harry to supper to-morrow night. I suppose they'll go to his folks to dinner, but maybe they'll like to come to supper. Maria has made some chicken pies.”

“I think that is a real good idea,” said Sarah Drew, warmly.

So it happened that Thanksgiving evening the old Abbot house was brightly lighted, and after supper the sisters, Mira and her mother, and Harry Ayres all sat in the best parlor in the old Abbot house, before the hearth-fire. It was so pleasant that Mira had begged not to have the lamp lighted. She wore a red gown, and the firelight played over her pretty face and over her lover's, and the two held hands under a fold of the red gown, and trusted that nobody saw in the uncertain light.

“I thought maybe you would like to have two of the kittens when you begin housekeeping,” Mrs. Drew was saying.

“That house your father has bought for you is the handsomest in the village,” Miss Melissa said to Harry; “but it is old, and I never saw an old house yet where there weren't mice.”

“That is true,” said Mira's mother, in her soft voice.

“I think that is a grand idea, thank you, Mrs. Drew,” Harry said, in his pleasant, happy, boyish voice.

“I should love to have them, thank you, Mrs. Drew,” said Mira.

Neither she nor her young lover dreamed that the love in the hearts of the two old sisters struck, albeit free from all romance, a note which chorded with their own into a true harmony of thanksgiving.