After this letter had been dropped into the pillar-box just in front of the house, Ruth began to look out still more eagerly for the kitchen cat, but days passed and she caught no glimpse of it anywhere.
It was disappointing, and troublesome too, because she had to carry the Bath bun about with her so long. Not only was it getting hard and dry, but it was such an awkward thing for her pocket that she had torn her frock in the effort to force it in.
"You might a' been carrying brick-bats about with you, Miss Ruth," said Nurse, "by the way you've slit your pocket open."
This went on till Ruth began to despair. "I'll try it one more evening," she said to herself, "and if it doesn't come then I shall give it up."
Once more, therefore, when she was ready to go downstairs, she took the bun out of the dolls' house, where she kept it wrapped up in tissue paper, and squeezed it into her pocket. Rather hopelessly, but still keeping a careful look-out, she proceeded slowly on her way, when behold, just as she reached the top of the last flight, a little cringing grey figure crossed the hall below.
"It's come!" she exclaimed in an excited whisper. "It's come at last!"
But though it had come, it seemed now the cat's greatest desire to go, for it was hurrying towards the kitchen stairs.
"Puss! puss!" called out Ruth in an entreating voice as she hastily ran down. "Stop a minute! Pretty puss!"
Startled at the noise and the patter of the quick little feet, the cat paused in its flight and turned its scared yellow-green eyes upon Ruth.
She had now reached the bottom step, where she stood struggling to get the Bath bun out of her small pocket, her face pink with the effort and anxiety lest the cat should go before she succeeded
One more desperate wrench, which gashed open the corner of the pocket, and the bun was out. The cat looked on with one paw raised, ready to fly at the first sign of danger, as with trembling fingers Ruth managed to break a piece off the horny surface. She held it out. The cat came nearer, sniffed at it suspiciously, and then to her great joy took the morsel, crouched down, and munched it up. "How good it must taste," she thought, "after the mice and rats."
By degrees it was induced to make further advances, and before long to come on to the step where Ruth sat, and make a hearty meal of the bun which she crumbled up for it.
"I'm afraid it's dry," she said; "but I couldn't bring any milk, you know, and you must get some water afterwards."
The cat seemed to understand, and replied by pushing its head against her, and purred loudly. How thin it was! Ruth wondered as she looked gravely at it whether it would soon be fatter if she fed it every day. She became so interested in talking to it, and watching its behaviour, that she nearly forgot she had to go into the dining-room, and jumped up with a start.
"Good-night," she said. "If you'll come again I'll bring you something else another day." She looked back as she turned the handle of the heavy door. The cat was sitting primly upright on the step washing its face after its meal. "I expect it doesn't feel so hungry now," thought Ruth as she went into the room.
The acquaintance thus fairly begun was soon followed by other meetings, and the cat was often in the hall when Ruth came downstairs, though it did not appear every evening. The uncertainty of this was most exciting, and "Will it be there to-night?" was her frequent thought during the day. As time went on, and they grew to know each other better, she began to find the kitchen cat a far superior companion to either her dolls or the man in the picture. True, it could not answer her any more than they did—in words, but it had a language of its own which she understood perfectly. She knew when it was pleased, and when it said "Thank you" for some delicacy she brought for it; its yellow eyes beamed with sympathy and interest when she described the delights of that beautiful life it would enjoy in the nursery; and when she pitied it for the darkness of its present dwelling below, she knew it understood by the way it rubbed against her and arched up its back. There were many more pleasures in each day now that she had made this acquaintance. Shopping became interesting, because she could look forward to the cat's surprise and enjoyment when the parcel was opened in the evening; everything that happened was treasured up to tell it when they met, or, if it was not there, to write to it on the pink note-paper; the very smartest sash belonging to her best doll was taken to adorn the cat's thin neck; and the secrecy which surrounded all this made it doubly delightful. Ruth had never been a greedy child, and if Nurse Smith wondered sometimes that she now spent all her money on cakes, she concluded that they must be for a dolls' feast, and troubled herself no further. Miss Ruth was always so fond of "making believe". So things went on very quietly and comfortably, and though Ruth could not discover that the kitchen cat got any fatter, it had certainly improved in some ways since her attentions. Its face had lost its scared look, and it no longer crept about as close to the ground as possible, but walked with an assured tread and its tail held high. It could never be a pretty cat to the general eye, but when it came trotting noiselessly to meet Ruth, uttering its short mew of welcome, she thought it beautiful, and would not have changed it for the sleekest, handsomest cat in the kingdom.
But it was the kitchen cat still. All this did not bring it one step nearer to the nursery. It must still live, Ruth often thought with sorrow, amongst the rats and mice and beetles. Nothing could ever happen which would induce Nurse Smith to allow it
to come upstairs. And yet something did happen which brought this very thing to pass in a strange way which would never have entered her mind.
The spring came on with a bright sun and cold sharp winds, and one day Ruth came in from her walk feeling shivery and tired. She could not eat her dinner, and her head had a dull ache in it, and she thought she would like to go to bed. She did not feel ill, she said, but she was first very hot and then very cold. Nurse Smith sent for the doctor; and he came and looked kindly at her, and felt her pulse and said she must stay in bed and he would send some medicine. And she went to sleep, and had funny dreams in which she plainly saw the kitchen cat dressed in Aunt Clarkson's bonnet and cloak. It stood by her bed and talked in Aunt Clarkson's voice, and she saw its grey fur paws under the folds of the cloak. She wished it would go away, and wondered how she could have been so fond of it. When Nurse came to give her something she said feebly:
"Send the cat away."
"Bless you, my dear, there's no cat here," she answered. "There's nobody been here but me and Mrs. Clarkson."
At last there came a day when she woke up from a long sleep and found that the pain in her head was gone, and that the things in the room which had been taking all manner of queer shapes looked all right again.
"And how do you feel, Miss Ruth, my dear?" asked Nurse, who sat sewing by the bedside.
"I'm quite well, thank you," said Ruth. "Why am I in bed in the middle of the day?"
"Well, you haven't been just quite well, you know," said Nurse.