"Wait," she said, and, divesting herself of the raincoat, handed it to Walter. "Please leave this with your things in the men's dressing-room, as if it were an extra one of your own, Walter."
He nodded; she jumped out; and they scurried through the drizzle.
As they reached the porte-cochere she began to laugh airily, and spoke to the impassive man in livery who stood there. "Joke on us!" she said, hurrying by him toward the door of the house. "Our car broke down outside the gate."
The man remained impassive, though he responded with a faint gleam as Walter, looking back at him, produced for his benefit a cynical distortion of countenance which offered little confirmation of Alice's account of things. Then the door was swiftly opened to the brother and sister; and they came into a marble-floored hall, where a dozen sleeked young men lounged, smoked cigarettes and fastened their gloves, as they waited for their ladies. Alice nodded to one or another of these, and went quickly on, her face uplifted and smiling; but Walter detained her at the door to which she hastened.
"Listen here," he said. "I suppose you want me to dance the first dance with you——"
"If you please, Walter," she said, meekly.
"How long you goin' to hang around fixin' up in that dressin'-room?"
"I'll be out before you're ready yourself," she promised him; and kept her word, she was so eager for her good time to begin. When he came for her, they went down the hall to a corridor opening upon three great rooms which had been thrown open together, with the furniture removed and the broad floors waxed. At one end of the corridor musicians sat in a green grove, and Walter, with some interest, turned toward these; but his sister, pressing his arm, impelled him in the opposite direction.
"What's the matter now?" he asked. "That's Jazz Louie and his half-breed bunch—three white and four mulatto. Let's——?"
"No, no," she whispered. "We must speak to Mildred and Mr. and Mrs. Palmer."
"'Speak' to 'em? I haven't got a thing to say to THOSE berries!"
"Walter, won't you PLEASE behave?"
He seemed to consent, for the moment, at least, and suffered her to take him down the corridor toward a floral bower where the hostess stood with her father and mother. Other couples and groups were moving in the same direction, carrying with them a hubbub of laughter and fragmentary chatterings; and Alice, smiling all the time, greeted people on every side of her eagerly—a little more eagerly than most of them responded—while Walter nodded in a noncommittal manner to one or two, said nothing, and yawned audibly, the last resource of a person who finds himself nervous in a false situation. He repeated his yawn and was beginning another when a convulsive pressure upon his arm made him understand that he must abandon this method of reassuring himself. They were close upon the floral bower.
Mildred was giving her hand to one and another of her guests as rapidly as she could, passing them on to her father and mother, and at the same time resisting the efforts of three or four detached bachelors who besought her to give over her duty in favour of the dance-music just beginning to blare.
She was a large, fair girl, with a kindness of eye somewhat withheld by an expression of fastidiousness; at first sight of her it was clear that she would never in her life do anything "incorrect," or wear anything "incorrect." But her correctness was of the finer sort, and had no air of being studied or achieved; conduct would never offer her a problem to be settled from a book of rules, for the rules were so deep within her that she was unconscious of them. And behind this perfection there was an even ampler perfection of what Mrs. Adams called "background." The big, rich, simple house was part of it, and Mildred's father and mother were part of it. They stood beside her, large, serene people, murmuring graciously and gently inclining their handsome heads as they gave their hands to the guests; and even the youngest and most ebullient of these took on a hushed mannerliness with a closer approach to the bower.
When the opportunity came for Alice and Walter to pass within this precinct, Alice, going first, leaned forward and whispered in Mildred's ear. "You DIDN'T wear the maize georgette! That's what I thought you were going to. But you look simply DARLING! And those pearls——"
Others were crowding decorously forward, anxious to be done with ceremony and get to the dancing; and Mildred did not prolong the intimacy of Alice's enthusiastic whispering. With a faint accession of colour and a smile tending somewhat in the direction of rigidity, she carried Alice's hand immediately onward to Mrs. Palmer's. Alice's own colour showed a little heightening as she accepted the suggestion thus implied; nor was that emotional tint in any wise decreased, a moment later, by an impression that Walter, in concluding the brief exchange of courtesies between himself and the stately Mr. Palmer, had again reassured himself with a yawn.
But she did not speak of it to Walter; she preferred not to confirm the impression and to leave in her mind a possible doubt that he had done it. He followed her out upon the waxed floor, said resignedly: "Well, come on," put his arm about her, and they began to dance.
Alice danced gracefully and well, but not so well as Walter. Of all the steps and runs, of all the whimsical turns and twirlings, of all the rhythmic swayings and dips commanded that season by such blarings as were the barbaric product, loud and wild, of the Jazz Louies and their half-breed bunches, the thin and sallow youth was a master. Upon his face could be seen contempt of the easy marvels he performed as he moved in swift precision from one smooth agility to another; and if some too-dainty or jealous cavalier complained that to be so much a stylist in dancing was "not quite like a gentleman," at least Walter's style was what the music called for. No other dancer in the room could be thought comparable to him. Alice told him so.
"It's wonderful!" she said. "And the mystery is, where you ever learned to DO it! You never went to dancing-school, but there isn't a man in the room who can dance half so well. I don't see why, when you dance like this, you always make such a fuss about coming to parties."
He sounded his brief laugh, a jeering bark out of one side of the mouth, and swung her miraculously through a closing space between two other couples. "You know a lot about what goes on, don't you? You prob'ly think there's no other place to dance in this town except these frozen-face joints."
"'Frozen face?'" she echoed, laughing. "Why, everybody's having a splendid time. Look at them."
"Oh, they holler loud enough," he said. "They do it to make each other think they're havin' a good time. You don't call that Palmer family frozen-face berries, I s'pose. No?"
"Certainly not. They're just dignified and——"
"Yeuh!" said Walter. "They're dignified, 'specially when you tried to whisper to Mildred to show how IN with her you were, and she moved you on that way. SHE'S a hot friend, isn't she!"
"She didn't mean anything by it. She——"
"Ole Palmer's a hearty, slap you-on-the-back ole berry," Walter interrupted; adding in a casual tone, "All I'd like, I'd like to hit him."
"Walter! By the way, you mustn't forget to ask Mildred for a dance before the evening is over."
"Me?" He produced the lop-sided appearance of his laugh, but without making it vocal. "You watch me do it!"
"She probably won't have one left, but you must ask her, anyway."
"Why must I?"
"Because, in the first place, you're supposed to, and, in the second place, she's my most intimate friend."
"Yeuh? Is she? I've heard you pull that 'most-intimate-friend' stuff often enough about her. What's SHE ever do to show she is?"
"Never mind. You really must ask her, Walter. I want you to; and I want you to ask several other girls afterwhile; I'll tell you who."
"Keep on wanting; it'll do you good."
"Oh, but you really——"
"Listen!" he said. "I'm just as liable to dance with any of these fairies as I am to buy a bucket o' rusty tacks and eat 'em. Forget it! Soon as I get rid of you I'm goin' back to that room where I left my hat and overcoat and smoke myself to death."
"Well," she said, a little ruefully, as the frenzy of Jazz Louie and his half-breeds was suddenly abated to silence, "you mustn't—you mustn't get rid of me TOO soon, Walter."
They stood near one of the wide doorways, remaining where they had stopped. Other couples, everywhere, joined one another, forming vivacious clusters, but none of these groups adopted the brother and sister, nor did any one appear to be hurrying in Alice's direction to ask her for the next dance. She looked about her, still maintaining that jubilance of look and manner she felt so necessary—for it is to the girls who are "having a good time" that partners are attracted—and, in order to lend greater colour to her impersonation of a lively belle, she began to chatter loudly, bringing into play an accompaniment of frolicsome gesture. She brushed Walter's nose saucily with the bunch of violets in her hand, tapped him on the shoulder, shook her pretty forefinger in his face, flourished her arms, kept her shoulders moving, and laughed continuously as she spoke.
"You NAUGHTY old Walter!" she cried. "AREN'T you ashamed to be such a wonderful dancer and then only dance with your own little sister! You could dance on the stage if you wanted to. Why, you could made your FORTUNE that way! Why don't you? Wouldn't it be just lovely to have all the rows and rows of people clapping their hands and shouting, 'Hurrah! Hurrah, for Walter Adams! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!"
He stood looking at her in stolid pity.
"Cut it out," he said. "You better be givin' some of these berries the eye so they'll ask you to dance."
She was not to be so easily checked, and laughed loudly, flourishing her violets in his face again. "You WOULD like it; you know you would; you needn't pretend! Just think! A whole big audience shouting, 'Hurrah! HURRAH! HUR——'"
"The place'll be pulled if you get any noisier," he interrupted, not ungently. "Besides, I'm no muley cow."
"A 'COW?'" she laughed. "What on earth——"
"I can't eat dead violets," he explained. "So don't keep tryin' to make me do it."
This had the effect he desired, and subdued her; she abandoned her unsisterly coquetries, and looked beamingly about her, but her smile was more mechanical than it had been at first.
At home she had seemed beautiful; but here, where the other girls competed, things were not as they had been there, with only her mother and Miss Perry to give contrast. These crowds of other girls had all done their best, also, to look beautiful, though not one of them had worked so hard for such a consummation as Alice had. They did not need to; they did not need to get their mothers to make old dresses over; they did not need to hunt violets in the rain.
At home her dress had seemed beautiful; but that was different, too, where there were dozens of brilliant fabrics, fashioned in new ways—some of these new ways startling, which only made the wearers centers of interest and shocked no one. And Alice remembered that she had heard a girl say, not long before, "Oh, ORGANDIE! Nobody wears organdie for evening gowns except in midsummer." Alice had thought little of this; but as she looked about her and saw no organdie except her own, she found greater difficulty in keeping her smile as arch and spontaneous as she wished it. In fact, it was beginning to make her face ache a little.
Mildred came in from the corridor, heavily attended. She carried a great bouquet of violets laced with lilies of-the-valley; and the violets were lusty, big purple things, their stems wrapped in cloth of gold, with silken cords dependent, ending in long tassels. She and her convoy passed near the two young Adamses; and it appeared that one of the convoy besought his hostess to permit "cutting in"; they were "doing it other places" of late, he urged; but he was denied and told to console himself by holding the bouquet, at intervals, until his third of the sixteenth dance should come. Alice looked dubiously at her own bouquet.
Suddenly she felt that the violets betrayed her; that any one who looked at them could see how rustic, how innocent of any florist's craft they were "I can't eat dead violets," Walter said. The little wild flowers, dying indeed in the warm air, were drooping in a forlorn mass; and it seemed to her that whoever noticed them would guess that she had picked them herself. She decided to get rid of them.
Walter was becoming restive. "Look here!" he said. "Can't you flag one o' these long-tailed birds to take you on for the next dance? You came to have a good time; why don't you get busy and have it? I want to get out and smoke."
"You MUSTN'T leave me, Walter," she whispered, hastily. "Somebody'll come for me before long, but until they do——"
"Well, couldn't you sit somewhere?"
"No, no! There isn't any one I could sit with."
"Well, why not? Look at those ole dames in the corners. What's the matter your tyin' up with some o' them for a while?"
"PLEASE, Walter; no!"
In fact, that indomitable smile of hers was the more difficult to maintain because of these very elders to whom Walter referred. They were mothers of girls among the dancers, and they were there to fend and contrive for their offspring; to keep them in countenance through any trial; to lend them diplomacy in the carrying out of all enterprises; to be "background" for them; and in these essentially biological functionings to imitate their own matings and renew the excitement of their nuptial periods. Older men, husbands of these ladies and fathers of eligible girls, were also to be seen, most of them with Mr. Palmer in a billiard-room across the corridor. Mr. and Mrs. Adams had not been invited. "Of course papa and mama just barely know Mildred Palmer," Alice thought, "and most of the other girls' fathers and mothers are old friends of Mr. and Mrs. Palmer, but I do think she might have ASKED papa and mama, anyway—she needn't have been afraid just to ask them; she knew they couldn't come." And her smiling lip twitched a little threateningly, as she concluded the silent monologue. "I suppose she thinks I ought to be glad enough she asked Walter!"
Walter was, in fact, rather noticeable. He was not Mildred's only guest to wear a short coat and to appear without gloves; but he was singular (at least in his present surroundings) on account of a kind of coiffuring he favoured, his hair having been shaped after what seemed a Mongol inspiration. Only upon the top of the head was actual hair perceived, the rest appearing to be nudity. And even more than by any difference in mode he was set apart by his look and manner, in which there seemed to be a brooding, secretive and jeering superiority and this was most vividly expressed when he felt called upon for his loud, short, lop-sided laugh. Whenever he uttered it Alice laughed, too, as loudly as she could, to cover it.
"Well," he said. "How long we goin' to stand here? My feet are sproutin' roots."
Alice took his arm, and they began to walk aimlessly through the rooms, though she tried to look as if they had a definite destination, keeping her eyes eager and her lips parted;—people had called jovially to them from the distance, she meant to imply, and they were going to join these merry friends. She was still upon this ghostly errand when a furious outbreak of drums and saxophones sounded a prelude for the second dance.
Walter danced with her again, but he gave her a warning. "I don't want to leave you high and dry," he told her, "but I can't stand it. I got to get somewhere I don't haf' to hurt my eyes with these berries; I'll go blind if I got to look at any more of 'em. I'm goin' out to smoke as soon as the music begins the next time, and you better get fixed for it."
Alice tried to get fixed for it. As they danced she nodded sunnily to every man whose eye she caught, smiled her smile with the under lip caught between her teeth; but it was not until the end of the intermission after the dance that she saw help coming.
Across the room sat the globular lady she had encountered that morning, and beside the globular lady sat a round-headed, round-bodied girl; her daughter, at first glance. The family contour was also as evident a characteristic of the short young man who stood in front of Mrs. Dowling, engaged with her in a discussion which was not without evidences of an earnestness almost impassioned. Like Walter, he was declining to dance a third time with sister; he wished to go elsewhere.
Alice from a sidelong eye watched the controversy: she saw the globular young man glance toward her, over his shoulder; whereupon Mrs. Dowling, following this glance, gave Alice a look of open fury, became much more vehement in the argument, and even struck her knee with a round, fat fist for emphasis.
"I'm on my way," said Walter. "There's the music startin' up again, and I told you——"
She nodded gratefully. "It's all right—but come back before long, Walter."
The globular young man, red with annoyance, had torn himself from his family and was hastening across the room to her. "C'n I have this dance?"
"Why, you nice Frank Dowling!" Alice cried. "How lovely!"
They danced. Mr. Dowling should have found other forms of exercise and pastime.
Nature has not designed everyone for dancing, though sometimes those she has denied are the last to discover her niggardliness. But the round young man was at least vigorous enough—too much so, when his knees collided with Alice's—and he was too sturdy to be thrown off his feet, himself, or to allow his partner to fall when he tripped her. He held her up valiantly, and continued to beat a path through the crowd of other dancers by main force.
He paid no attention to anything suggested by the efforts of the musicians, and appeared to be unaware that there should have been some connection between what they were doing and what he was doing; but he may have listened to other music of his own, for his expression was of high content; he seemed to feel no doubt whatever that he was dancing. Alice kept as far away from him as under the circumstances she could; and when they stopped she glanced down, and found the execution of unseen manoeuvres, within the protection of her skirt, helpful to one of her insteps and to the toes of both of her slippers.
Her cheery partner was paddling his rosy brows with a fine handkerchief. "That was great!" he said. "Let's go out and sit in the corridor; they've got some comfortable chairs out there."
"Well—let's not," she returned. "I believe I'd rather stay in here and look at the crowd."
"No; that isn't it," he said, chiding her with a waggish forefinger. "You think if you go out there you'll miss a chance of someone else asking you for the next dance, and so you'll have to give it to me."
"How absurd!" Then, after a look about her that revealed nothing encouraging, she added graciously, "You can have the next if you want it."
"Great!" he exclaimed, mechanically. "Now let's get out of here—out of THIS room, anyhow."
"Why? What's the matter with——"
"My mother," Mr. Dowling explained. "But don't look at her. She keeps motioning me to come and see after Ella, and I'm simply NOT going to do it, you see!"
Alice laughed. "I don't believe it's so much that," she said, and consented to walk with him to a point in the next room from which Mrs. Dowling's continuous signalling could not be seen. "Your mother hates me."
"Oh, no; I wouldn't say that. No, she don't," he protested, innocently. "She don't know you more than just to speak to, you see. So how could she?"
"Well, she does. I can tell."
A frown appeared upon his rounded brow. "No; I'll tell you the way she feels. It's like this: Ella isn't TOO popular, you know—it's hard to see why, because she's a right nice girl, in her way—and mother thinks I ought to look after her, you see. She thinks I ought to dance a whole lot with her myself, and stir up other fellows to dance with her—it's simply impossible to make mother understand you CAN'T do that, you see. And then about me, you see, if she had her way I wouldn't get to dance with anybody at all except girls like Mildred Palmer and Henrietta Lamb. Mother wants to run my whole programme for me, you understand, but the trouble of it is—about girls like that, you see well, I couldn't do what she wants, even if I wanted to myself, because you take those girls, and by the time I get Ella off my hands for a minute, why, their dances are always every last one taken, and where do I come in?"
Alice nodded, her amiability undamaged. "I see. So that's why you dance with me."
"No, I like to," he protested. "I rather dance with you than I do with those girls." And he added with a retrospective determination which showed that he had been through quite an experience with Mrs. Dowling in this matter. "I TOLD mother I would, too!"
"Did it take all your courage, Frank?"
He looked at her shrewdly. "Now you're trying to tease me," he said. "I don't care; I WOULD rather dance with you! In the first place, you're a perfectly beautiful dancer, you see, and in the second, a man feels a lot more comfortable with you than he does with them. Of course I know almost all the other fellows get along with those girls all right; but I don't waste any time on 'em I don't have to. I like people that are always cordial to everybody, you see—the way you are."
"Thank you," she said, thoughtfully.
"Oh, I MEAN it," he insisted. "There goes the band again. Shall we?"
"Suppose we sit it out?" she suggested. "I believe I'd like to go out in the corridor, after all—it's pretty warm in here."
Assenting cheerfully, Dowling conducted her to a pair of easy-chairs within a secluding grove of box-trees, and when they came to this retreat they found Mildred Palmer just departing, under escort of a well-favoured gentleman about thirty. As these two walked slowly away, in the direction of the dancing-floor, they left it not to be doubted that they were on excellent terms with each other; Mildred was evidently willing to make their progress even slower, for she halted momentarily, once or twice; and her upward glances to her tall companion's face were of a gentle, almost blushing deference. Never before had Alice seen anything like this in her friend's manner.
"How queer!" she murmured.
"What's queer?" Dowling inquired as they sat down.
"Who was that man?"
"Haven't you met him?"
"I never saw him before. Who is he?"
"Why, it's this Arthur Russell."
"What Arthur Russell? I never heard of him." Mr. Dowling was puzzled. "Why, THAT'S funny! Only the last time I saw you, you were telling me how awfully well you knew Mildred Palmer."
"Why, certainly I do," Alice informed him. "She's my most intimate friend."
"That's what makes it seem so funny you haven't heard anything about this Russell, because everybody says even if she isn't engaged to him right now, she most likely will be before very long. I must say it looks a good deal that way to me, myself."
"What nonsense!" Alice exclaimed. "She's never even mentioned him to me."
The young man glanced at her dubiously and passed a finger over the tiny prong that dashingly composed the whole substance of his moustache.
"Well, you see, Mildred IS pretty reserved," he remarked. "This Russell is some kind of cousin of the Palmer family, I understand."
"Yes—second or third or something, the girls say. You see, my sister Ella hasn't got much to do at home, and don't read anything, or sew, or play solitaire, you see; and she hears about pretty much everything that goes on, you see. Well, Ella says a lot of the girls have been talking about Mildred and this Arthur Russell for quite a while back, you see. They were all wondering what he was going to look like, you see; because he only got here yesterday; and that proves she must have been talking to some of 'em, or else how——"
Alice laughed airily, but the pretty sound ended abruptly with an audible intake of breath. "Of course, while Mildred IS my most intimate friend," she said, "I don't mean she tells me everything—and naturally she has other friends besides. What else did your sister say she told them about this Mr. Russell?"
"Well, it seems he's VERY well off; at least Henrietta Lamb told Ella he was. Ella says——"
Alice interrupted again, with an increased irritability. "Oh, never mind what Ella says! Let's find something better to talk about than Mr. Russell!"
"Well, I'M willing," Mr. Dowling assented, ruefully. "What you want to talk about?"
But this liberal offer found her unresponsive; she sat leaning back, silent, her arms along the arms of her chair, and her eyes, moist and bright, fixed upon a wide doorway where the dancers fluctuated. She was disquieted by more than Mildred's reserve, though reserve so marked had certainly the significance of a warning that Alice's definition, "my most intimate friend," lacked sanction. Indirect notice to this effect could not well have been more emphatic, but the sting of it was left for a later moment. Something else preoccupied Alice: she had just been surprised by an odd experience. At first sight of this Mr. Arthur Russell, she had said to herself instantly, in words as definite as if she spoke them aloud, though they seemed more like words spoken to her by some unknown person within her: "There! That's exactly the kind of looking man I'd like to marry!"
In the eyes of the restless and the longing, Providence often appears to be worse than inscrutable: an unreliable Omnipotence given to haphazard whimsies in dealing with its own creatures, choosing at random some among them to be rent with tragic deprivations and others to be petted with blessing upon blessing.
In Alice's eyes, Mildred had been blessed enough; something ought to be left over, by this time, for another girl. The final touch to the heaping perfection of Christmas-in-everything for Mildred was that this Mr. Arthur Russell, good-looking, kind-looking, graceful, the perfect fiance, should be also "VERY well off." Of course! These rich always married one another. And while the Mildreds danced with their Arthur Russells the best an outsider could do for herself was to sit with Frank Dowling—the one last course left her that was better than dancing with him.
"Well, what DO you want to talk about?" he inquired.
"Nothing," she said. "Suppose we just sit, Frank." But a moment later she remembered something, and, with a sudden animation, began to prattle. She pointed to the musicians down the corridor. "Oh, look at them! Look at the leader! Aren't they FUNNY? Someone told me they're called 'Jazz Louie and his half-breed bunch.' Isn't that just crazy? Don't you love it? Do watch them, Frank."
She continued to chatter, and, while thus keeping his glance away from herself, she detached the forlorn bouquet of dead violets from her dress and laid it gently beside the one she had carried.
The latter already reposed in the obscurity selected for it at the base of one of the box-trees.
Then she was abruptly silent.
"You certainly are a funny girl," Dowling remarked. "You say you don't want to talk about anything at all, and all of a sudden you break out and talk a blue streak; and just about the time I begin to get interested in what you're saying you shut off! What's the matter with girls, anyhow, when they do things like that?"
"I don't know; we're just queer, I guess."
"I say so! Well, what'll we do NOW? Talk, or just sit?"
"Suppose we just sit some more."
"Anything to oblige," he assented. "I'm willing to sit as long as you like."
But even as he made his amiability clear in this matter, the peace was threatened—his mother came down the corridor like a rolling, ominous cloud. She was looking about her on all sides, in a fidget of annoyance, searching for him, and to his dismay she saw him. She immediately made a horrible face at his companion, beckoned to him imperiously with a dumpy arm, and shook her head reprovingly. The unfortunate young man tried to repulse her with an icy stare, but this effort having obtained little to encourage his feeble hope of driving her away, he shifted his chair so that his back was toward her discomfiting pantomime. He should have known better, the instant result was Mrs. Dowling in motion at an impetuous waddle.
She entered the box-tree seclusion with the lower rotundities of her face hastily modelled into the resemblance of an over-benevolent smile a contortion which neglected to spread its intended geniality upward to the exasperated eyes and anxious forehead.
"I think your mother wants to speak to you, Frank," Alice said, upon this advent.
Mrs. Dowling nodded to her. "Good evening, Miss Adams," she said. "I just thought as you and Frank weren't dancing you wouldn't mind my disturbing you——"
"Not at all," Alice murmured.
Mr. Dowling seemed of a different mind. "Well, what DO you want?" he inquired, whereupon his mother struck him roguishly with her fan.
"Bad fellow!" She turned to Alice. "I'm sure you won't mind excusing him to let him do something for his old mother, Miss Adams."
"What DO you want?" the son repeated.
"Two very nice things," Mrs. Dowling informed him. "Everybody is so anxious for Henrietta Lamb to have a pleasant evening, because it's the very first time she's been anywhere since her father's death, and of course her dear grandfather's an old friend of ours, and——"
"Well, well!" her son interrupted. "Miss Adams isn't interested in all this, mother."
"But Henrietta came to speak to Ella and me, and I told her you were so anxious to dance with her——"
"Here!" he cried. "Look here! I'd rather do my own——"
"Yes; that's just it," Mrs. Dowling explained. "I just thought it was such a good opportunity; and Henrietta said she had most of her dances taken, but she'd give you one if you asked her before they were all gone. So I thought you'd better see her as soon as possible."
Dowling's face had become rosy. "I refuse to do anything of the kind."
"Bad fellow!" said his mother, gaily. "I thought this would be the best time for you to see Henrietta, because it won't be long till all her dances are gone, and you've promised on your WORD to dance the next with Ella, and you mightn't have a chance to do it then. I'm sure Miss Adams won't mind if you——"
"Not at all," Alice said.
"Well, I mind!" he said. "I wish you COULD understand that when I want to dance with any girl I don't need my mother to ask her for me. I really AM more than six years old!"
He spoke with too much vehemence, and Mrs. Dowling at once saw how to have her way. As with husbands and wives, so with many fathers and daughters, and so with some sons and mothers: the man will himself be cross in public and think nothing of it, nor will he greatly mind a little crossness on the part of the woman; but let her show agitation before any spectator, he is instantly reduced to a coward's slavery. Women understand that ancient weakness, of course; for it is one of their most important means of defense, but can be used ignobly.
Mrs. Dowling permitted a tremulousness to become audible in her voice. "It isn't very—very pleasant—to be talked to like that by your own son—before strangers!"
"Oh, my! Look here!" the stricken Dowling protested. "I didn't say anything, mother. I was just joking about how you never get over thinking I'm a little boy. I only——"
Mrs. Dowling continued: "I just thought I was doing you a little favour. I didn't think it would make you so angry."
"Mother, for goodness' sake! Miss Adams'll think——"
"I suppose," Mrs. Dowling interrupted, piteously, "I suppose it doesn't matter what I think!"
Alice interfered; she perceived that the ruthless Mrs. Dowling meant to have her way. "I think you'd better go, Frank. Really."
"There!" his mother cried. "Miss Adams says so, herself! What more do you want?"
"Oh, gracious!" he lamented again, and, with a sick look over his shoulder at Alice, permitted his mother to take his arm and propel him away. Mrs. Dowling's spirits had strikingly recovered even before the pair passed from the corridor: she moved almost bouncingly beside her embittered son, and her eyes and all the convolutions of her abundant face were blithe.
Alice went in search of Walter, but without much hope of finding him. What he did with himself at frozen-face dances was one of his most successful mysteries, and her present excursion gave her no clue leading to its solution. When the musicians again lowered their instruments for an interval she had returned, alone, to her former seat within the partial shelter of the box-trees.
She had now to practice an art that affords but a limited variety of methods, even to the expert: the art of seeming to have an escort or partner when there is none. The practitioner must imply, merely by expression and attitude, that the supposed companion has left her for only a few moments, that she herself has sent him upon an errand; and, if possible, the minds of observers must be directed toward a conclusion that this errand of her devising is an amusing one; at all events, she is alone temporarily and of choice, not deserted. She awaits a devoted man who may return at any instant.
Other people desired to sit in Alice's nook, but discovered her in occupancy. She had moved the vacant chair closer to her own, and she sat with her arm extended so that her hand, holding her lace kerchief, rested upon the back of this second chair, claiming it. Such a preemption, like that of a traveller's bag in the rack, was unquestionable; and, for additional evidence, sitting with her knees crossed, she kept one foot continuously moving a little, in cadence with the other, which tapped the floor. Moreover, she added a fine detail: her half-smile, with the under lip caught, seemed to struggle against repression, as if she found the service engaging her absent companion even more amusing than she would let him see when he returned: there was jovial intrigue of some sort afoot, evidently. Her eyes, beaming with secret fun, were averted from intruders, but sometimes, when couples approached, seeking possession of the nook, her thoughts about the absentee appeared to threaten her with outright laughter; and though one or two girls looked at her skeptically, as they turned away, their escorts felt no such doubts, and merely wondered what importantly funny affair Alice Adams was engaged in. She had learned to do it perfectly.
She had learned it during the last two years; she was twenty when for the first time she had the shock of finding herself without an applicant for one of her dances. When she was sixteen "all the nice boys in town," as her mother said, crowded the Adamses' small veranda and steps, or sat near by, cross-legged on the lawn, on summer evenings; and at eighteen she had replaced the boys with "the older men." By this time most of "the other girls," her contemporaries, were away at school or college, and when they came home to stay, they "came out"—that feeble revival of an ancient custom offering the maiden to the ceremonial inspection of the tribe. Alice neither went away nor "came out," and, in contrast with those who did, she may have seemed to lack freshness of lustre—jewels are richest when revealed all new in a white velvet box. And Alice may have been too eager to secure new retainers, too kind in her efforts to keep the old ones. She had been a belle too soon.
The device of the absentee partner has the defect that it cannot be employed for longer than ten or fifteen minutes at a time, and it may not be repeated more than twice in one evening: a single repetition, indeed, is weak, and may prove a betrayal. Alice knew that her present performance could be effective during only this interval between dances; and though her eyes were guarded, she anxiously counted over the partnerless young men who lounged together in the doorways within her view. Every one of them ought to have asked her for dances, she thought, and although she might have been put to it to give a reason why any of them "ought," her heart was hot with resentment against them.
For a girl who has been a belle, it is harder to live through these bad times than it is for one who has never known anything better. Like a figure of painted and brightly varnished wood, Ella Dowling sat against the wall through dance after dance with glassy imperturbability; it was easier to be wooden, Alice thought, if you had your mother with you, as Ella had. You were left with at least the shred of a pretense that you came to sit with your mother as a spectator, and not to offer yourself to be danced with by men who looked you over and rejected you—not for the first time. "Not for the first time": there lay a sting! Why had you thought this time might be different from the other times? Why had you broken your back picking those hundreds of violets?
Hating the fatuous young men in the doorways more bitterly for every instant that she had to maintain her tableau, the smiling Alice knew fierce impulses to spring to her feet and shout at them, "You IDIOTS!" Hands in pockets, they lounged against the pilasters, or faced one another, laughing vaguely, each one of them seeming to Alice no more than so much mean beef in clothes. She wanted to tell them they were no better than that; and it seemed a cruel thing of heaven to let them go on believing themselves young lords. They were doing nothing, killing time. Wasn't she at her lowest value at least a means of killing time? Evidently the mean beeves thought not. And when one of them finally lounged across the corridor and spoke to her, he was the very one to whom she preferred her loneliness.
"Waiting for somebody, Lady Alicia?" he asked, negligently; and his easy burlesque of her name was like the familiarity of the rest of him. He was one of those full-bodied, grossly handsome men who are powerful and active, but never submit themselves to the rigour of becoming athletes, though they shoot and fish from expensive camps. Gloss is the most shining outward mark of the type. Nowadays these men no longer use brilliantine on their moustaches, but they have gloss bought from manicure-girls, from masseurs, and from automobile-makers; and their eyes, usually large, are glossy. None of this is allowed to interfere with business; these are "good business men," and often make large fortunes. They are men of imagination about two things—women and money, and, combining their imaginings about both, usually make a wise first marriage. Later, however, they are apt to imagine too much about some little woman without whom life seems duller than need be. They run away, leaving the first wife well enough dowered. They are never intentionally unkind to women, and in the end they usually make the mistake of thinking they have had their money's worth of life. Here was Mr. Harvey Malone, a young specimen in an earlier stage of development, trying to marry Henrietta Lamb, and now sauntering over to speak to Alice, as a time-killer before his next dance with Henrietta.
Alice made no response to his question, and he dropped lazily into the vacant chair, from which she sharply withdrew her hand. "I might as well use his chair till he comes, don't you think? You don't MIND, do you, old girl?"
"Oh, no," Alice said. "It doesn't matter one way or the other. Please don't call me that."
"So that's how you feel?" Mr. Malone laughed indulgently, without much interest. "I've been meaning to come to see you for a long time honestly I have—because I wanted to have a good talk with you about old times. I know you think it was funny, after the way I used to come to your house two or three times a week, and sometimes oftener—well, I don't blame you for being hurt, the way I stopped without explaining or anything. The truth is there wasn't any reason: I just happened to have a lot of important things to do and couldn't find the time. But I AM going to call on you some evening—honestly I am. I don't wonder you think——"
"You're mistaken," Alice said. "I've never thought anything about it at all."
"Well, well!" he said, and looked at her languidly. "What's the use of being cross with this old man? He always means well." And, extending his arm, he would have given her a friendly pat upon the shoulder but she evaded it. "Well, well!" he said. "Seems to me you're getting awful tetchy! Don't you like your old friends any more?"
"Not all of them."
"Who's the new one?" he asked, teasingly. "Come on and tell us, Alice. Who is it you were holding this chair for?"
"Well, all I've got to do is to sit here till he comes back; then I'll see who it is."
"He may not come back before you have to go."
"Guess you got me THAT time," Malone admitted, laughing as he rose. "They're tuning up, and I've got this dance. I AM coming around to see you some evening." He moved away, calling back over his shoulder, "Honestly, I am!"
Alice did not look at him.
She had held her tableau as long as she could; it was time for her to abandon the box-trees; and she stepped forth frowning, as if a little annoyed with the absentee for being such a time upon her errand; whereupon the two chairs were instantly seized by a coquetting pair who intended to "sit out" the dance. She walked quickly down the broad corridor, turned into the broader hall, and hurriedly entered the dressing-room where she had left her wraps.
She stayed here as long as she could, pretending to arrange her hair at a mirror, then fidgeting with one of her slipper-buckles; but the intelligent elderly woman in charge of the room made an indefinite sojourn impracticable. "Perhaps I could help you with that buckle, Miss," she suggested, approaching. "Has it come loose?" Alice wrenched desperately; then it was loose. The competent woman, producing needle and thread, deftly made the buckle fast; and there was nothing for Alice to do but to express her gratitude and go.
She went to the door of the cloak-room opposite, where a coloured man stood watchfully in the doorway. "I wonder if you know which of the gentlemen is my brother, Mr. Walter Adams," she said.
"Yes'm; I know him."
"Could you tell me where he is?"
"No'm; I couldn't say."
"Well, if you see him, would you please tell him that his sister, Miss Adams, is looking for him and very anxious to speak to him?"
"Yes'm. Sho'ly, sho'ly!"
As she went away he stared after her and seemed to swell with some bursting emotion. In fact, it was too much for him, and he suddenly retired within the room, releasing strangulated laughter.
Walter remonstrated. Behind an excellent screen of coats and hats, in a remote part of the room, he was kneeling on the floor, engaged in a game of chance with a second coloured attendant; and the laughter became so vehement that it not only interfered with the pastime in hand, but threatened to attract frozen-face attention.
"I cain' he'p it, man," the laughter explained. "I cain' he'p it! You sut'n'y the beatin'es' white boy 'n 'is city!"
The dancers were swinging into an "encore" as Alice halted for an irresolute moment in a doorway. Across the room, a cluster of matrons sat chatting absently, their eyes on their dancing daughters; and Alice, finding a refugee's courage, dodged through the scurrying couples, seated herself in a chair on the outskirts of this colony of elders, and began to talk eagerly to the matron nearest her. The matron seemed unaccustomed to so much vivacity, and responded but dryly, whereupon Alice was more vivacious than ever; for she meant now to present the picture of a jolly girl too much interested in these wise older women to bother about every foolish young man who asked her for a dance.
Her matron was constrained to go so far as to supply a tolerant nod, now and then, in complement to the girl's animation, and Alice was grateful for the nods. In this fashion she supplemented the exhausted resources of the dressing-room and the box-tree nook; and lived through two more dances, when again Mr. Frank Dowling presented himself as a partner.
She needed no pretense to seek the dressing-room for repairs after that number; this time they were necessary and genuine. Dowling waited for her, and when she came out he explained for the fourth or fifth time how the accident had happened. "It was entirely those other people's fault," he said. "They got me in a kind of a corner, because neither of those fellows knows the least thing about guiding; they just jam ahead and expect everybody to get out of their way. It was Charlotte Thom's diamond crescent pin that got caught on your dress in the back and made such a——"
"Never mind," Alice said in a tired voice. "The maid fixed it so that she says it isn't very noticeable."
"Well, it isn't," he returned. "You could hardly tell there'd been anything the matter. Where do you want to go? Mother's been interfering in my affairs some more and I've got the next taken."
"I was sitting with Mrs. George Dresser. You might take me back there."
He left her with the matron, and Alice returned to her picture-making, so that once more, while two numbers passed, whoever cared to look was offered the sketch of a jolly, clever girl preoccupied with her elders. Then she found her friend Mildred standing before her, presenting Mr. Arthur Russell, who asked her to dance with him.
Alice looked uncertain, as though not sure what her engagements were; but her perplexity cleared; she nodded, and swung rhythmically away with the tall applicant. She was not grateful to her hostess for this alms. What a young hostess does with a fiance, Alice thought, is to make him dance with the unpopular girls. She supposed that Mr. Arthur Russell had already danced with Ella Dowling.
The loan of a lover, under these circumstances, may be painful to the lessee, and Alice, smiling never more brightly, found nothing to say to Mr. Russell, though she thought he might have found something to say to her. "I wonder what Mildred told him," she thought. "Probably she said, 'Dearest, there's one more girl you've got to help me out with. You wouldn't like her much, but she dances well enough and she's having a rotten time. Nobody ever goes near her any more.'"
When the music stopped, Russell added his applause to the hand-clapping that encouraged the uproarious instruments to continue, and as they renewed the tumult, he said heartily, "That's splendid!"
Alice gave him a glance, necessarily at short range, and found his eyes kindly and pleased. Here was a friendly soul, it appeared, who probably "liked everybody." No doubt he had applauded for an "encore" when he danced with Ella Dowling, gave Ella the same genial look, and said, "That's splendid!"
When the "encore" was over, Alice spoke to him for the first time.
"Mildred will be looking for you," she said. "I think you'd better take me back to where you found me."
He looked surprised. "Oh, if you——"
"I'm sure Mildred will be needing you," Alice said, and as she took his arm and they walked toward Mrs. Dresser, she thought it might be just possible to make a further use of the loan. "Oh, I wonder if you——" she began.
"Yes?" he said, quickly.
"You don't know my brother, Walter Adams," she said. "But he's somewhere I think possibly he's in a smoking-room or some place where girls aren't expected, and if you wouldn't think it too much trouble to inquire——"
"I'll find him," Russell said, promptly. "Thank you so much for that dance. I'll bring your brother in a moment."
It was to be a long moment, Alice decided, presently. Mrs. Dresser had grown restive; and her nods and vague responses to her young dependent's gaieties were as meager as they could well be. Evidently the matron had no intention of appearing to her world in the light of a chaperone for Alice Adams; and she finally made this clear. With a word or two of excuse, breaking into something Alice was saying, she rose and went to sit next to Mildred's mother, who had become the nucleus of the cluster. So Alice was left very much against the wall, with short stretches of vacant chairs on each side of her. She had come to the end of her picture-making, and could only pretend that there was something amusing the matter with the arm of her chair.
She supposed that Mildred's Mr. Russell had forgotten Walter by this time. "I'm not even an intimate enough friend of Mildred's for him to have thought he ought to bother to tell me he couldn't find him," she thought. And then she saw Russell coming across the room toward her, with Walter beside him. She jumped up gaily.
"Oh, thank you!" she cried. "I know this naughty boy must have been terribly hard to find. Mildred'll NEVER forgive me! I've put you to so much——"
"Not at all," he said, amiably, and went away, leaving the brother and sister together.
"Walter, let's dance just once more," Alice said, touching his arm placatively. "I thought—well, perhaps we might go home then."
But Walter's expression was that of a person upon whom an outrage has just been perpetrated. "No," he said. "We've stayed THIS long, I'm goin' to wait and see what they got to eat. And you look here!" He turned upon her angrily. "Don't you ever do that again!"
"Send somebody after me that pokes his nose into every corner of the house till he finds me! 'Are you Mr. Walter Adams?' he says. I guess he must asked everybody in the place if they were Mr. Walter Adams! Well, I'll bet a few iron men you wouldn't send anybody to hunt for me again if you knew where he found me!"
"Where was it?"
Walter decided that her fit punishment was to know. "I was shootin' dice with those coons in the cloak-room."
"And he saw you?"
"Unless he was blind!" said Walter. "Come on, I'll dance this one more dance with you. Supper comes after that, and THEN we'll go home."
Mrs. Adams heard Alice's key turning in the front door and hurried down the stairs to meet her.
"Did you get wet coming in, darling?" she asked. "Did you have a good time?"
"Just lovely!" Alice said, cheerily, and after she had arranged the latch for Walter, who had gone to return the little car, she followed her mother upstairs and hummed a dance-tune on the way.
"Oh, I'm so glad you had a nice time," Mrs. Adams said, as they reached the door of her daughter's room together. "You DESERVED to, and it's lovely to think——"
But at this, without warning, Alice threw herself into her mother's arms, sobbing so loudly that in his room, close by, her father, half drowsing through the night, started to full wakefulness.
On a morning, a week after this collapse of festal hopes, Mrs. Adams and her daughter were concluding a three-days' disturbance, the "Spring house-cleaning"—postponed until now by Adams's long illness—and Alice, on her knees before a chest of drawers, in her mother's room, paused thoughtfully after dusting a packet of letters wrapped in worn muslin. She called to her mother, who was scrubbing the floor of the hallway just beyond the open door,
"These old letters you had in the bottom drawer, weren't they some papa wrote you before you were married?"
Mrs. Adams laughed and said, "Yes. Just put 'em back where they were—or else up in the attic—anywhere you want to."
"Do you mind if I read one, mama?"
Mrs. Adams laughed again. "Oh, I guess you can if you want to. I expect they're pretty funny!"
Alice laughed in response, and chose the topmost letter of the packet. "My dear, beautiful girl," it began; and she stared at these singular words. They gave her a shock like that caused by overhearing some bewildering impropriety; and, having read them over to herself several times, she went on to experience other shocks.
MY DEAR, BEAUTIFUL GIRL:
This time yesterday I had a mighty bad case of blues because I had not had a word from you in two whole long days and when I do not hear from you every day things look mighty down in the mouth to me. Now it is all so different because your letter has arrived and besides I have got a piece of news I believe you will think as fine as I do. Darling, you will be surprised, so get ready to hear about a big effect on our future. It is this way. I had sort of a suspicion the head of the firm kind of took a fancy to me from the first when I went in there, and liked the way I attended to my work and so when he took me on this business trip with him I felt pretty sure of it and now it turns out I was about right. In return I guess I have got about the best boss in this world and I believe you will think so too. Yes, sweetheart, after the talk I have just had with him if J. A. Lamb asked me to cut my hand off for him I guess I would come pretty near doing it because what he says means the end of our waiting to be together. From New Years on he is going to put me in entire charge of the sundries dept. and what do you think is going to be my salary? Eleven hundred cool dollars a year ($1,100.00). That's all! Just only a cool eleven hundred per annum! Well, I guess that will show your mother whether I can take care of you or not. And oh how I would like to see your dear, beautiful, loving face when you get this news.
I would like to go out on the public streets and just dance and shout and it is all I can do to help doing it, especially when I know we will be talking it all over together this time next week, and oh my darling, now that your folks have no excuse for putting it off any longer we might be in our own little home before Xmas.
Would you be glad?
Well, darling, this settles everything and makes our future just about as smooth for us as anybody could ask. I can hardly realize after all this waiting life's troubles are over for you and me and we have nothing to do but to enjoy the happiness granted us by this wonderful, beautiful thing we call life. I know I am not any poet and the one I tried to write about you the day of the picnic was fearful but the way I THINK about you is a poem.
Write me what you think of the news. I know but write me anyhow.
I'll get it before we start home and I can be reading it over all the time on the tram.
Your always loving
The sound of her mother's diligent scrubbing in the hall came back slowly to Alice's hearing, as she restored the letter to the packet, wrapped the packet in its muslin covering, and returned it to the drawer. She had remained upon her knees while she read the letter; now she sank backward, sitting upon the floor with her hands behind her, an unconscious relaxing for better ease to think. Upon her face there had fallen a look of wonder.
For the first time she was vaguely perceiving that life is everlasting movement. Youth really believes what is running water to be a permanent crystallization and sees time fixed to a point: some people have dark hair, some people have blond hair, some people have gray hair. Until this moment, Alice had no conviction that there was a universe before she came into it. She had always thought of it as the background of herself: the moon was something to make her prettier on a summer night.
But this old letter, through which she saw still flickering an ancient starlight of young love, astounded her. Faintly before her it revealed the whole lives of her father and mother, who had been young, after all—they REALLY had—and their youth was now so utterly passed from them that the picture of it, in the letter, was like a burlesque of them. And so she, herself, must pass to such changes, too, and all that now seemed vital to her would be nothing.
When her work was finished, that afternoon, she went into her father's room. His recovery had progressed well enough to permit the departure of Miss Perry; and Adams, wearing one of Mrs. Adams's wrappers over his night-gown, sat in a high-backed chair by a closed window. The weather was warm, but the closed window and the flannel wrapper had not sufficed him: round his shoulders he had an old crocheted scarf of Alice's; his legs were wrapped in a heavy comfort; and, with these swathings about him, and his eyes closed, his thin and grizzled head making but a slight indentation in the pillow supporting it, he looked old and little and queer.
Alice would have gone out softly, but without opening his eyes, he spoke to her: "Don't go, dearie. Come sit with the old man a little while."
She brought a chair near his. "I thought you were napping."
"No. I don't hardly ever do that. I just drift a little sometimes."
"How do you mean you drift, papa?"
He looked at her vaguely. "Oh, I don't know. Kind of pictures. They get a little mixed up—old times with times still ahead, like planning what to do, you know. That's as near a nap as I get—when the pictures mix up some. I suppose it's sort of drowsing."
She took one of his hands and stroked it. "What do you mean when you say you have pictures like 'planning what to do'?" she asked.
"I mean planning what to do when I get out and able to go to work again."
"But that doesn't need any planning," Alice said, quickly. "You're going back to your old place at Lamb's, of course."
Adams closed his eyes again, sighing heavily, but made no other response.
"Why, of COURSE you are!" she cried. "What are you talking about?"
His head turned slowly toward her, revealing the eyes, open in a haggard stare. "I heard you the other night when you came from the party," he said. "I know what was the matter."
"Indeed, you don't," she assured him. "You don't know anything about it, because there wasn't anything the matter at all."
"Don't you suppose I heard you crying? What'd you cry for if there wasn't anything the matter?"
"Just nerves, papa. It wasn't anything else in the world."
"Never mind," he said. "Your mother told me."
"She promised me not to!"
At that Adams laughed mournfully. "It wouldn't be very likely I'd hear you so upset and not ask about it, even if she didn't come and tell me on her own hook. You needn't try to fool me; I tell you I know what was the matter."
"The only matter was I had a silly fit," Alice protested. "It did me good, too."
"Because I've decided to do something about it, papa."
"That isn't the way your mother looks at it," Adams said, ruefully. "She thinks it's our place to do something about it. Well, I don't know—I don't know; everything seems so changed these days. You've always been a good daughter, Alice, and you ought to have as much as any of these girls you go with; she's convinced me she's right about THAT. The trouble is——" He faltered, apologetically, then went on, "I mean the question is—how to get it for you."
"No!" she cried. "I had no business to make such a fuss just because a lot of idiots didn't break their necks to get dances with me and because I got mortified about Walter—Walter WAS pretty terrible——"
"Oh, me, my!" Adams lamented. "I guess that's something we just have to leave work out itself. What you going to do with a boy nineteen or twenty years old that makes his own living? Can't whip him. Can't keep him locked up in the house. Just got to hope he'll learn better, I suppose."
"Of course he didn't want to go to the Palmers'," Alice explained, tolerantly—"and as mama and I made him take me, and he thought that was pretty selfish in me, why, he felt he had a right to amuse himself any way he could. Of course it was awful that this—that this Mr. Russell should——" In spite of her, the recollection choked her.
"Yes, it was awful," Adams agreed. "Just awful. Oh, me, my!"
But Alice recovered herself at once, and showed him a cheerful face. "Well, just a few years from now I probably won't even remember it! I believe hardly anything amounts to as much as we think it does at the time."
"Well—sometimes it don't."
"What I've been thinking, papa: it seems to me I ought to DO something."
She looked dreamy, but was obviously serious as she told him: "Well, I mean I ought to be something besides just a kind of nobody. I ought to——" She paused.
"Well—there's one thing I'd like to do. I'm sure I COULD do it, too."
"I want to go on the stage: I know I could act." At this, her father abruptly gave utterance to a feeble cackling of laughter; and when Alice, surprised and a little offended, pressed him for his reason, he tried to evade, saying, "Nothing, dearie. I just thought of something." But she persisted until he had to explain.
"It made me think of your mother's sister, your Aunt Flora, that died when you were little," he said. "She was always telling how she was going on the stage, and talking about how she was certain she'd make a great actress, and all so on; and one day your mother broke out and said she ought 'a' gone on the stage, herself, because she always knew she had the talent for it—and, well, they got into kind of a spat about which one'd make the best actress. I had to go out in the hall to laugh!"
"Maybe you were wrong," Alice said, gravely. "If they both felt it, why wouldn't that look as if there was talent in the family? I've ALWAYS thought——"
"No, dearie," he said, with a final chuckle. "Your mother and Flora weren't different from a good many others. I expect ninety per cent. of all the women I ever knew were just sure they'd be mighty fine actresses if they ever got the chance. Well, I guess it's a good thing; they enjoy thinking about it and it don't do anybody any harm."
Alice was piqued. For several days she had thought almost continuously of a career to be won by her own genius. Not that she planned details, or concerned herself with first steps; her picturings overleaped all that. Principally, she saw her name great on all the bill-boards of that unkind city, and herself, unchanged in age but glamorous with fame and Paris clothes, returning in a private car. No doubt the pleasantest development of her vision was a dialogue with Mildred; and this became so real that, as she projected it, Alice assumed the proper expressions for both parties to it, formed words with her lips, and even spoke some of them aloud. "No, I haven't forgotten you, Mrs. Russell. I remember you quite pleasantly, in fact. You were a Miss Palmer, I recall, in those funny old days. Very kind of you, I'm shaw. I appreciate your eagerness to do something for me in your own little home. As you say, a reception WOULD renew my acquaintanceship with many old friends—but I'm shaw you won't mind my mentioning that I don't find much inspiration in these provincials. I really must ask you not to press me. An artist's time is not her own, though of course I could hardly expect you to understand——"
Thus Alice illuminated the dull time; but she retired from the interview with her father still manfully displaying an outward cheerfulness, while depression grew heavier within, as if she had eaten soggy cake. Her father knew nothing whatever of the stage, and she was aware of his ignorance, yet for some reason his innocently skeptical amusement reduced her bright project almost to nothing. Something like this always happened, it seemed; she was continually making these illuminations, all gay with gildings and colourings; and then as soon as anybody else so much as glanced at them—even her father, who loved her—the pretty designs were stricken with a desolating pallor. "Is this LIFE?" Alice wondered, not doubting that the question was original and all her own. "Is it life to spend your time imagining things that aren't so, and never will be? Beautiful things happen to other people; why should I be the only one they never CAN happen to?"
The mood lasted overnight; and was still upon her the next afternoon when an errand for her father took her down-town. Adams had decided to begin smoking again, and Alice felt rather degraded, as well as embarrassed, when she went into the large shop her father had named, and asked for the cheap tobacco he used in his pipe. She fell back upon an air of amused indulgence, hoping thus to suggest that her purchase was made for some faithful old retainer, now infirm; and although the calmness of the clerk who served her called for no such elaboration of her sketch, she ornamented it with a little laugh and with the remark, as she dropped the package into her coat-pocket, "I'm sure it'll please him; they tell me it's the kind he likes."
Still playing Lady Bountiful, smiling to herself in anticipation of the joy she was bringing to the simple old negro or Irish follower of the family, she left the shop; but as she came out upon the crowded pavement her smile vanished quickly.
Next to the door of the tobacco-shop, there was the open entrance to a stairway, and, above this rather bleak and dark aperture, a sign-board displayed in begrimed gilt letters the information that Frincke's Business College occupied the upper floors of the building. Furthermore, Frincke here publicly offered "personal instruction and training in practical mathematics, bookkeeping, and all branches of the business life, including stenography, typewriting, etc."
Alice halted for a moment, frowning at this signboard as though it were something surprising and distasteful which she had never seen before. Yet it was conspicuous in a busy quarter; she almost always passed it when she came down-town, and never without noticing it. Nor was this the first time she had paused to lift toward it that same glance of vague misgiving.
The building was not what the changeful city defined as a modern one, and the dusty wooden stairway, as seen from the pavement, disappeared upward into a smoky darkness. So would the footsteps of a girl ascending there lead to a hideous obscurity, Alice thought; an obscurity as dreary and as permanent as death. And like dry leaves falling about her she saw her wintry imaginings in the May air: pretty girls turning into withered creatures as they worked at typing-machines; old maids "taking dictation" from men with double chins; Alice saw old maids of a dozen different kinds "taking dictation." Her mind's eye was crowded with them, as it always was when she passed that stairway entrance; and though they were all different from one another, all of them looked a little like herself.
She hated the place, and yet she seldom hurried by it or averted her eyes. It had an unpleasant fascination for her, and a mysterious reproach, which she did not seek to fathom. She walked on thoughtfully to-day; and when, at the next corner, she turned into the street that led toward home, she was given a surprise. Arthur Russell came rapidly from behind her, lifting his hat as she saw him.
"Are you walking north, Miss Adams?" he asked. "Do you mind if I walk with you?"
She was not delighted, but seemed so. "How charming!" she cried, giving him a little flourish of the shapely hands; and then, because she wondered if he had seen her coming out of the tobacco-shop, she laughed and added, "I've just been on the most ridiculous errand!"
"What was that?"
"To order some cigars for my father. He's been quite ill, poor man, and he's so particular—but what in the world do I know about cigars?"
Russell laughed. "Well, what DO you know about 'em? Did you select by the price?"
"Mercy, no!" she exclaimed, and added, with an afterthought, "Of course he wrote down the name of the kind he wanted and I gave it to the shopman. I could never have pronounced it."
In her pocket as she spoke her hand rested upon the little sack of tobacco, which responded accusingly to the touch of her restless fingers; and she found time to wonder why she was building up this fiction for Mr. Arthur Russell. His discovery of Walter's device for whiling away the dull evening had shamed and distressed her; but she would have suffered no less if almost any other had been the discoverer. In this gentleman, after hearing that he was Mildred's Mr. Arthur Russell, Alice felt not the slightest "personal interest"; and there was yet to develop in her life such a thing as an interest not personal. At twenty-two this state of affairs is not unique.
So far as Alice was concerned Russell might have worn a placard, "Engaged." She looked upon him as diners entering a restaurant look upon tables marked "Reserved": the glance, slightly discontented, passes on at once. Or so the eye of a prospector wanders querulously over staked and established claims on the mountainside, and seeks the virgin land beyond; unless, indeed, the prospector be dishonest. But Alice was no claim-jumper—so long as the notice of ownership was plainly posted.
Though she was indifferent now, habit ruled her: and, at the very time she wondered why she created fictitious cigars for her father, she was also regretting that she had not boldly carried her Malacca stick down-town with her. Her vivacity increased automatically.
"Perhaps the clerk thought you wanted the cigars for yourself," Russell suggested. "He may have taken you for a Spanish countess."
"I'm sure he did!" Alice agreed, gaily; and she hummed a bar or two of "LaPaloma," snapping her fingers as castanets, and swaying her body a little, to suggest the accepted stencil of a "Spanish Dancer." "Would you have taken me for one, Mr. Russell?" she asked, as she concluded the impersonation.
"I? Why, yes," he said. "I'D take you for anything you wanted me to."
"Why, what a speech!" she cried, and, laughing, gave him a quick glance in which there glimmered some real surprise. He was looking at her quizzically, but with the liveliest appreciation. Her surprise increased; and she was glad that he had joined her.
To be seen walking with such a companion added to her pleasure. She would have described him as "altogether quite stunning-looking"; and she liked his tall, dark thinness, his gray clothes, his soft hat, and his clean brown shoes; she liked his easy swing of the stick he carried.
"Shouldn't I have said it?" he asked. "Would you rather not be taken for a Spanish countess?"
"That isn't it," she explained. "You said——"
"I said I'd take you for whatever you wanted me to. Isn't that all right?"
"It would all depend, wouldn't it?"
"Of course it would depend on what you wanted."
"Oh, no!" she laughed. "It might depend on a lot of things."
"Well——" She hesitated, having the mischievous impulse to say, "Such as Mildred!" But she decided to omit this reference, and became serious, remembering Russell's service to her at Mildred's house. "Speaking of what I want to be taken for," she said;—"I've been wondering ever since the other night what you did take me for! You must have taken me for the sister of a professional gambler, I'm afraid!"
Russell's look of kindness was the truth about him, she was to discover; and he reassured her now by the promptness of his friendly chuckle. "Then your young brother told you where I found him, did he? I kept my face straight at the time, but I laughed afterward—to myself. It struck me as original, to say the least: his amusing himself with those darkies."
"Walter IS original," Alice said; and, having adopted this new view of her brother's eccentricities, she impulsively went on to make it more plausible. "He's a very odd boy, and I was afraid you'd misunderstand. He tells wonderful 'darky stories,' and he'll do anything to draw coloured people out and make them talk; and that's what he was doing at Mildred's when you found him for me—he says he wins their confidence by playing dice with them. In the family we think he'll probably write about them some day. He's rather literary."
"Are you?" Russell asked, smiling.
"I? Oh——" She paused, lifting both hands in a charming gesture of helplessness. "Oh, I'm just—me!"
His glance followed the lightly waved hands with keen approval, then rose to the lively and colourful face, with its hazel eyes, its small and pretty nose, and the lip-caught smile which seemed the climax of her decorative transition. Never had he seen a creature so plastic or so wistful.
Here was a contrast to his cousin Mildred, who was not wistful, and controlled any impulses toward plasticity, if she had them. "By George!" he said. "But you ARE different!"
With that, there leaped in her such an impulse of roguish gallantry as she could never resist. She turned her head, and, laughing and bright-eyed, looked him full in the face.
"From whom?" she cried.
"From—everybody!" he said. "Are you a mind-reader?"
"How did you know I was thinking you were different from my cousin, Mildred Palmer?"
"What makes you think I DID know it?"
"Nonsense!" he said. "You knew what I was thinking and I knew you knew."
"Yes," she said with cool humour. "How intimate that seems to make us all at once!"
Russell left no doubt that he was delighted with these gaieties of hers. "By George!" he exclaimed again. "I thought you were this sort of girl the first moment I saw you!"
"What sort of girl? Didn't Mildred tell you what sort of girl I am when she asked you to dance with me?"
"She didn't ask me to dance with you—I'd been looking at you. You were talking to some old ladies, and I asked Mildred who you were."
"Oh, so Mildred DIDN'T——" Alice checked herself. "Who did she tell you I was?"
"She just said you were a Miss Adams, so I——"
"'A' Miss Adams?" Alice interrupted.
"Yes. Then I said I'd like to meet you."
"I see. You thought you'd save me from the old ladies."
"No. I thought I'd save myself from some of the girls Mildred was getting me to dance with. There was a Miss Dowling——"
"Poor man!" Alice said, gently, and her impulsive thought was that Mildred had taken few chances, and that as a matter of self-defense her carefulness might have been well founded. This Mr. Arthur Russell was a much more responsive person than one had supposed.
"So, Mr. Russell, you don't know anything about me except what you thought when you first saw me?"
"Yes, I know I was right when I thought it."
"You haven't told me what you thought."
"I thought you were like what you ARE like."
"Not very definite, is it? I'm afraid you shed more light a minute or so ago, when you said how different from Mildred you thought I was. That WAS definite, unfortunately!"
"I didn't say it," Russell explained. "I thought it, and you read my mind. That's the sort of girl I thought you were—one that could read a man's mind. Why do you say 'unfortunately' you're not like Mildred?"
Alice's smooth gesture seemed to sketch Mildred. "Because she's perfect—why, she's PERFECTLY perfect! She never makes a mistake, and everybody looks up to her—oh, yes, we all fairly adore her! She's like some big, noble, cold statue—'way above the rest of us—and she hardly ever does anything mean or treacherous. Of all the girls I know I believe she's played the fewest really petty tricks. She's——"
Russell interrupted; he looked perplexed. "You say she's perfectly perfect, but that she does play SOME——"
Alice laughed, as if at his sweet innocence. "Men are so funny!" she informed him. "Of course girls ALL do mean things sometimes. My own career's just one long brazen smirch of 'em! What I mean is, Mildred's perfectly perfect compared to the rest of us."
"I see," he said, and seemed to need a moment or two of thoughtfulness. Then he inquired, "What sort of treacherous things do YOU do?"
"I? Oh, the very worst kind! Most people bore me particularly the men in this town—and I show it."
"But I shouldn't call that treacherous, exactly."
"Well, THEY do," Alice laughed. "It's made me a terribly unpopular character! I do a lot of things they hate. For instance, at a dance I'd a lot rather find some clever old woman and talk to her than dance with nine-tenths of these nonentities. I usually do it, too."
"But you danced as if you liked it. You danced better than any other girl I——"
"This flattery of yours doesn't quite turn my head, Mr. Russell," Alice interrupted. "Particularly since Mildred only gave you Ella Dowling to compare with me!"
"Oh, no," he insisted. "There were others—and of course Mildred, herself."
"Oh, of course, yes. I forgot that. Well——" She paused, then added, "I certainly OUGHT to dance well."
"Why is it so much a duty?"
"When I think of the dancing-teachers and the expense to papa! All sorts of fancy instructors—I suppose that's what daughters have fathers for, though, isn't it? To throw money away on them?"
"You don't——" Russell began, and his look was one of alarm. "You haven't taken up——"
She understood his apprehension and responded merrily, "Oh, murder, no! You mean you're afraid I break out sometimes in a piece of cheesecloth and run around a fountain thirty times, and then, for an encore, show how much like snakes I can make my arms look."
"I SAID you were a mind-reader!" he exclaimed. "That's exactly what I was pretending to be afraid you might do."
"'Pretending?' That's nicer of you. No; it's not my mania."
"Oh, nothing in particular that I know of just now. Of course I've had the usual one: the one that every girl goes through."
"Good heavens, Mr. Russell, you can't expect me to believe you're really a man of the world if you don't know that every girl has a time in her life when she's positive she's divinely talented for the stage! It's the only universal rule about women that hasn't got an exception. I don't mean we all want to go on the stage, but we all think we'd be wonderful if we did. Even Mildred. Oh, she wouldn't confess it to you: you'd have to know her a great deal better than any man can ever know her to find out."
"I see," he said. "Girls are always telling us we can't know them. I wonder if you——"
She took up his thought before he expressed it, and again he was fascinated by her quickness, which indeed seemed to him almost telepathic. "Oh, but DON'T we know one another, though!" she cried.
"Such things we have to keep secret—things that go on right before YOUR eyes!"
"Why don't some of you tell us?" he asked.
"We can't tell you."
"Too much honour?"
"No. Not even too much honour among thieves, Mr. Russell. We don't tell you about our tricks against one another because we know it wouldn't make any impression on you. The tricks aren't played against you, and you have a soft side for cats with lovely manners!"
"What about your tricks against us?"
"Oh, those!" Alice laughed. "We think they're rather cute!"
"Bravo!" he cried, and hammered the ferrule of his stick upon the pavement.
"What's the applause for?"
"For you. What you said was like running up the black flag to the masthead."
"Oh, no. It was just a modest little sign in a pretty flower-bed: 'Gentlemen, beware!'"
"I see I must," he said, gallantly.
"Thanks! But I mean, beware of the whole bloomin' garden!" Then, picking up a thread that had almost disappeared: "You needn't think you'll ever find out whether I'm right about Mildred's not being an exception by asking her," she said. "She won't tell you: she's not the sort that ever makes a confession."
But Russell had not followed her shift to the former topic. "'Mildred's not being an exception?'" he said, vaguely. "I don't——"
"An exception about thinking she could be a wonderful thing on the stage if she only cared to. If you asked her I'm pretty sure she'd say, 'What nonsense!' Mildred's the dearest, finest thing anywhere, but you won't find out many things about her by asking her."
Russell's expression became more serious, as it did whenever his cousin was made their topic. "You think not?" he said. "You think she's——"
"No. But it's not because she isn't sincere exactly. It's only because she has such a lot to live up to. She has to live up to being a girl on the grand style to herself, I mean, of course." And without pausing Alice rippled on, "You ought to have seen ME when I had the stage-fever! I used to play 'Juliet' all alone in my room.' She lifted her arms in graceful entreaty, pleading musically,
"O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon, That monthly changes in her circled orb, Lest thy love prove——"
She broke off abruptly with a little flourish, snapping thumb and finger of each outstretched hand, then laughed and said, "Papa used to make such fun of me! Thank heaven, I was only fifteen; I was all over it by the next year."
"No wonder you had the fever," Russell observed. "You do it beautifully. Why didn't you finish the line?"
"Which one? 'Lest thy love prove likewise variable'? Juliet was saying it to a MAN, you know. She seems to have been ready to worry about his constancy pretty early in their affair!"
Her companion was again thoughtful. "Yes," he said, seeming to be rather irksomely impressed with Alice's suggestion. "Yes; it does appear so."
Alice glanced at his serious face, and yielded to an audacious temptation. "You mustn't take it so hard," she said, flippantly.
"It isn't about you: it's only about Romeo and Juliet."
"See here!" he exclaimed. "You aren't at your mind-reading again, are you? There are times when it won't do, you know!"
She leaned toward him a little, as if companionably: they were walking slowly, and this geniality of hers brought her shoulder in light contact with his for a moment. "Do you dislike my mind-reading?" she asked, and, across their two just touching shoulders, gave him her sudden look of smiling wistfulness. "Do you hate it?"
He shook his head. "No, I don't," he said, gravely. "It's quite pleasant. But I think it says, 'Gentlemen, beware!'"
She instantly moved away from him, with the lawless and frank laugh of one who is delighted to be caught in a piece of hypocrisy. "How lovely!" she cried. Then she pointed ahead. "Our walk is nearly over. We're coming to the foolish little house where I live. It's a queer little place, but my father's so attached to it the family have about given up hope of getting him to build a real house farther out. He doesn't mind our being extravagant about anything else, but he won't let us alter one single thing about his precious little old house. Well!" She halted, and gave him her hand. "Adieu!"
"I couldn't," he began; hesitated, then asked: "I couldn't come in with you for a little while?"
"Not now," she said, quickly. "You can come——" She paused.
"Almost any time." She turned and walked slowly up the path, but he waited. "You can come in the evening if you like," she called back to him over her shoulder.
"As soon as you like!" She waved her hand; then ran indoors and watched him from a window as he went up the street. He walked rapidly, a fine, easy figure, swinging his stick in a way that suggested exhilaration. Alice, staring after him through the irregular apertures of a lace curtain, showed no similar buoyancy. Upon the instant she closed the door all sparkle left her: she had become at once the simple and sometimes troubled girl her family knew.
"What is going on out there?" her mother asked, approaching from the dining-room.
"Oh, nothing," Alice said, indifferently, as she turned away. "That Mr. Russell met me downtown and walked up with me."
"Mr. Russell? Oh, the one that's engaged to Mildred?"
"Well—I don't know for certain. He didn't seem so much like an engaged man to me." And she added, in the tone of thoughtful preoccupation: "Anyhow—not so terribly!"
Then she ran upstairs, gave her father his tobacco, filled his pipe for him, and petted him as he lighted it.
After that, she went to her room and sat down before her three-leaved mirror. There was where she nearly always sat when she came into her room, if she had nothing in mind to do. She went to that chair as naturally as a dog goes to his corner.
She leaned forward, observing her profile; gravity seemed to be her mood. But after a long, almost motionless scrutiny, she began to produce dramatic sketches upon that ever-ready stage, her countenance: she showed gaiety, satire, doubt, gentleness, appreciation of a companion and love-in-hiding—all studied in profile first, then repeated for a "three-quarter view." Subsequently she ran through them, facing herself in full.
In this manner she outlined a playful scenario for her next interview with Arthur Russell; but grew solemn again, thinking of the impression she had already sought to give him. She had no twinges for any underminings of her "most intimate friend"—in fact, she felt that her work on a new portrait of Mildred for Mr.
Russell had been honest and accurate. But why had it been her instinct to show him an Alice Adams who didn't exist?
Almost everything she had said to him was upon spontaneous impulse, springing to her lips on the instant; yet it all seemed to have been founded upon a careful design, as if some hidden self kept such designs in stock and handed them up to her, ready-made, to be used for its own purpose. What appeared to be the desired result was a false-coloured image in Russell's mind; but if he liked that image he wouldn't be liking Alice Adams; nor would anything he thought about the image be a thought about her.
Nevertheless, she knew she would go on with her false, fancy colourings of this nothing as soon as she saw him again; she had just been practicing them. "What's the idea?" she wondered. "What makes me tell such lies? Why shouldn't I be just myself?" And then she thought, "But which one is myself?"
Her eyes dwelt on the solemn eyes in the mirror; and her lips, disquieted by a deepening wonder, parted to whisper:
"Who in the world are you?"
The apparition before her had obeyed her like an alert slave, but now, as she subsided to a complete stillness, that aspect changed to the old mockery with which mirrors avenge their wrongs. The nucleus of some queer thing seemed to gather and shape itself behind the nothingness of the reflected eyes until it became almost an actual strange presence. If it could be identified, perhaps the presence was that of the hidden designer who handed up the false, ready-made pictures, and, for unknown purposes, made Alice exhibit them; but whatever it was, she suddenly found it monkey-like and terrifying. In a flutter she jumped up and went to another part of the room.
A moment or two later she was whistling softly as she hung her light coat over a wooden triangle in her closet, and her musing now was quainter than the experience that led to it; for what she thought was this, "I certainly am a queer girl!" She took a little pride in so much originality, believing herself probably the only person in the world to have such thoughts as had been hers since she entered the room, and the first to be disturbed by a strange presence in the mirror. In fact, the effect of the tiny episode became apparent in that look of preoccupied complacency to be seen for a time upon any girl who has found reason to suspect that she is a being without counterpart.
This slight glow, still faintly radiant, was observed across the dinner-table by Walter, but he misinterpreted it. "What YOU lookin' so self-satisfied about?" he inquired, and added in his knowing way, "I saw you, all right, cutie!"
"Where'd you see me?"
"This afternoon, you mean, Walter?"
"Yes, 'this afternoon, I mean, Walter,'" he returned, burlesquing her voice at least happily enough to please himself; for he laughed applausively. "Oh, you never saw me! I passed you close enough to pull a tooth, but you were awful busy. I never did see anybody as busy as you get, Alice, when you're towin' a barge. My, but you keep your hands goin'! Looked like the air was full of 'em! That's why I'm onto why you look so tickled this evening; I saw you with that big fish."
Mrs. Adams laughed benevolently; she was not displeased with this rallying. "Well, what of it, Walter?" she asked. "If you happen to see your sister on the street when some nice young man is being attentive to her——"
Walter barked and then cackled. "Whoa, Sal!" he said. "You got the parts mixed. It's little Alice that was 'being attentive.' I know the big fish she was attentive to, all right, too."
"Yes," his sister retorted, quietly. "I should think you might have recognized him, Walter."
Walter looked annoyed. "Still harpin' on THAT!" he complained. "The kind of women I like, if they get sore they just hit you somewhere on the face and then they're through. By the way, I heard this Russell was supposed to be your dear, old, sweet friend Mildred's steady. What you doin' walkin' as close to him as all that?"
Mrs. Adams addressed her son in gentle reproof, "Why Walter!"
"Oh, never mind, mama," Alice said. "To the horrid all things are horrid."
"Get out!" Walter protested, carelessly. "I heard all about this Russell down at the shop. Young Joe Lamb's such a talker I wonder he don't ruin his grandfather's business; he keeps all us cheap help standin' round listening to him nine-tenths of our time. Well, Joe told me this Russell's some kin or other to the Palmer family, and he's got some little money of his own, and he's puttin' it into ole Palmer's trust company and Palmer's goin' to make him a vice-president of the company. Sort of a keep-the-money-in-the-family arrangement, Joe Lamb says."
Mrs. Adams looked thoughtful. "I don't see——" she began.
"Why, this Russell's supposed to be tied up to Mildred," her son explained. "When ole Palmer dies this Russell will be his son-in-law, and all he'll haf' to do'll be to barely lift his feet and step into the ole man's shoes. It's certainly a mighty fat hand-me-out for this Russell! You better lay off o' there, Alice. Pick somebody that's got less to lose and you'll make better showing."
Mrs. Adams's air of thoughtfulness had not departed. "But you say this Mr. Russell is well off on his own account, Walter."
"Oh, Joe Lamb says he's got some little of his own. Didn't know how much."
Walter laughed his laugh. "Cut it out," he bade her. "Alice wouldn't run in fourth place."
Alice had been looking at him in a detached way, as though estimating the value of a specimen in a collection not her own. "Yes," she said, indifferently. "You REALLY are vulgar, Walter."
He had finished his meal; and, rising, he came round the table to her and patted her good-naturedly on the shoulder. "Good ole Allie!" he said. "HONEST, you wouldn't run in fourth place. If I was you I'd never even start in the class. That frozen-face gang will rule you off the track soon as they see your colours."
"Walter!" his mother said again.
"Well, ain't I her brother?" he returned, seeming to be entirely serious and direct, for the moment, at least. "I like the ole girl all right. Fact is, sometimes I'm kind of sorry for her."
"But what's it all ABOUT?" Alice cried. "Simply because you met me down-town with a man I never saw but once before and just barely know! Why all this palaver?"
"'Why?'" he repeated, grinning. "Well, I've seen you start before, you know!" He went to the door, and paused. "I got no date to-night. Take you to the movies, you care to go."
She declined crisply. "No, thanks!"
"Come on," he said, as pleasantly as he knew how.
"Give me a chance to show you a better time than we had up at that frozen-face joint. I'll get you some chop suey afterward."
"All right," he responded and waved a flippant adieu. "As the barber says, 'The better the advice, the worse it's wasted!' Good-night!"
Alice shrugged her shoulders; but a moment or two later, as the jar of the carelessly slammed front door went through the house, she shook her head, reconsidering. "Perhaps I ought to have gone with him. It might have kept him away from whatever dreadful people are his friends—at least for one night."
"Oh, I'm sure Walter's a GOOD boy," Mrs. Adams said, soothingly; and this was what she almost always said when either her husband or Alice expressed such misgivings. "He's odd, and he's picked up right queer manners; but that's only because we haven't given him advantages like the other young men. But I'm sure he's a GOOD boy."
She reverted to the subject a little later, while she washed the dishes and Alice wiped them. "Of course Walter could take his place with the other nice boys of the town even yet," she said. "I mean, if we could afford to help him financially. They all belong to the country clubs and have cars and——"
"Let's don't go into that any more, mama," the daughter begged her. "What's the use?"
"It COULD be of use," Mrs. Adams insisted. "It could if your father——"
"But papa CAN'T."
"Yes, he can."
"But how can he? He told me a man of his age CAN'T give up a business he's been in practically all his life, and just go groping about for something that might never turn up at all. I think he's right about it, too, of course!"
Mrs. Adams splashed among the plates with a new vigour heightened by an old bitterness. "Oh, yes," she said. "He talks that way; but he knows better."
"How could he 'know better,' mama?"
"HE knows how!"
"But what does he know?"
Mrs. Adams tossed her head. "You don't suppose I'm such a fool I'd be urging him to give up something for nothing, do you, Alice? Do you suppose I'd want him to just go 'groping around' like he was telling you? That would be crazy, of course. Little as his work at Lamb's brings in, I wouldn't be so silly as to ask him to give it up just on a CHANCE he could find something else. Good gracious, Alice, you must give me credit for a little intelligence once in a while!"
Alice was puzzled. "But what else could there be except a chance? I don't see——"
"Well, I do," her mother interrupted, decisively. "That man could make us all well off right now if he wanted to. We could have been rich long ago if he'd ever really felt as he ought to about his family."
"What! Why, how could——"
"You know how as well as I do," Mrs. Adams said, crossly. "I guess you haven't forgotten how he treated me about it the Sunday before he got sick."
She went on with her work, putting into it a sudden violence inspired by the recollection; but Alice, enlightened, gave utterance to a laugh of lugubrious derision. "Oh, the GLUE factory again!" she cried. "How silly!" And she renewed her laughter.
So often do the great projects of parents appear ignominious to their children. Mrs. Adams's conception of a glue factory as a fairy godmother of this family was an absurd old story which Alice had never taken seriously. She remembered that when she was about fifteen her mother began now and then to say something to Adams about a "glue factory," rather timidly, and as a vague suggestion, but never without irritating him. Then, for years, the preposterous subject had not been mentioned; possibly because of some explosion on the part of Adams, when his daughter had not been present. But during the last year Mrs. Adams had quietly gone back to these old hints, reviving them at intervals and also reviving her husband's irritation. Alice's bored impression was that her mother wanted him to found, or buy, or do something, or other, about a glue factory; and that he considered the proposal so impracticable as to be insulting. The parental conversations took place when neither Alice nor Walter was at hand, but sometimes Alice had come in upon the conclusion of one, to find her father in a shouting mood, and shocking the air behind him with profane monosyllables as he departed. Mrs. Adams would be left quiet and troubled; and when Alice, sympathizing with the goaded man, inquired of her mother why these tiresome bickerings had been renewed, she always got the brooding and cryptic answer, "He COULD do it—if he wanted to." Alice failed to comprehend the desirability of a glue factory—to her mind a father engaged in a glue factory lacked impressiveness; had no advantage over a father employed by Lamb and Company; and she supposed that Adams knew better than her mother whether such an enterprise would be profitable or not. Emphatically, he thought it would not, for she had heard him shouting at the end of one of these painful interviews, "You can keep up your dang talk till YOU die and I die, but I'll never make one God's cent that way!"