There had been a culmination. Returning from church on the Sunday preceding the collapse with which Adams's illness had begun, Alice found her mother downstairs, weeping and intimidated, while her father's stamping footsteps were loudly audible as he strode up and down his room overhead. So were his endless repetitions of invective loudly audible: "That woman! Oh, that woman; Oh, that danged woman!"
Mrs. Adams admitted to her daughter that it was "the old glue factory" and that her husband's wildness had frightened her into a "solemn promise" never to mention the subject again so long as she had breath. Alice laughed. The "glue factory" idea was not only a bore, but ridiculous, and her mother's evident seriousness about it one of those inexplicable vagaries we sometimes discover in the people we know best. But this Sunday rampage appeared to be the end of it, and when Adams came down to dinner, an hour later, he was unusually cheerful. Alice was glad he had gone wild enough to settle the glue factory once and for all; and she had ceased to think of the episode long before Friday of that week, when Adams was brought home in the middle of the afternoon by his old employer, the "great J. A. Lamb," in the latter's car.
During the long illness the "glue factory" was completely forgotten, by Alice at least; and her laugh was rueful as well as derisive now, in the kitchen, when she realized that her mother's mind again dwelt upon this abandoned nuisance. "I thought you'd got over all that nonsense, mama," she said.
Mrs. Adams smiled, pathetically. "Of course you think it's nonsense, dearie. Young people think everything's nonsense that they don't know anything about."
"Good gracious!" Alice cried. "I should think I used to hear enough about that horrible old glue factory to know something about it!"
"No," her mother returned patiently. "You've never heard anything about it at all."
"No. Your father and I didn't discuss it before you children. All you ever heard was when he'd get in such a rage, after we'd been speaking of it, that he couldn't control himself when you came in. Wasn't I always quiet? Did I ever go on talking about it?"
"No; perhaps not. But you're talking about it now, mama, after you promised never to mention it again."
"I promised not to mention it to your father," said Mrs. Adams, gently. "I haven't mentioned it to him, have I?"
"Ah, but if you mention it to me I'm afraid you WILL mention it to him. You always do speak of things that you have on your mind, and you might get papa all stirred up again about—" Alice paused, a light of divination flickering in her eyes. "Oh!" she cried. "I SEE!"
"What do you see?"
"You HAVE been at him about it!"
"Not one single word!"
"No!" Alice cried. "Not a WORD, but that's what you've meant all along! You haven't spoken the words to him, but all this urging him to change, to 'find something better to go into'—it's all been about nothing on earth but your foolish old glue factory that you know upsets him, and you gave your solemn word never to speak to him about again! You didn't say it, but you meant it—and he KNOWS that's what you meant! Oh, mama!"
Mrs. Adams, with her hands still automatically at work in the flooded dishpan, turned to face her daughter. "Alice," she said, tremulously, "what do I ask for myself?"
"I say, What do I ask for myself? Do you suppose I want anything? Don't you know I'd be perfectly content on your father's present income if I were the only person to be considered? What do I care about any pleasure for myself? I'd be willing never to have a maid again; I don't mind doing the work. If we didn't have any children I'd be glad to do your father's cooking and the housework and the washing and ironing, too, for the rest of my life. I wouldn't care. I'm a poor cook and a poor housekeeper; I don't do anything well; but it would be good enough for just him and me. I wouldn't ever utter one word of com——"
"Oh, goodness!" Alice lamented. "What IS it all about?"
"It's about this," said Mrs. Adams, swallowing. "You and Walter are a new generation and you ought to have the same as the rest of the new generation get. Poor Walter—asking you to go to the movies and a Chinese restaurant: the best he had to offer! Don't you suppose I see how the poor boy is deteriorating? Don't you suppose I know what YOU have to go through, Alice? And when I think of that man upstairs——" The agitated voice grew louder. "When I think of him and know that nothing in the world but his STUBBORNNESS keeps my children from having all they want and what they OUGHT to have, do you suppose I'm going to hold myself bound to keep to the absolute letter of a silly promise he got from me by behaving like a crazy man? I can't! I can't do it! No mother could sit by and see him lock up a horn of plenty like that in his closet when the children were starving!"
"Oh, goodness, goodness me!" Alice protested. "We aren't precisely 'starving,' are we?"
Mrs. Adams began to weep. "It's just the same. Didn't I see how flushed and pretty you looked, this afternoon, after you'd been walking with this young man that's come here? Do you suppose he'd LOOK at a girl like Mildred Palmer if you had what you ought to have? Do you suppose he'd be going into business with her father if YOUR father——"
"Good heavens, mama; you're worse than Walter: I just barely know the man! DON'T be so absurd!"
"Yes, I'm always 'absurd,'" Mrs. Adams moaned. "All I can do is cry, while your father sits upstairs, and his horn of plenty——"
But Alice interrupted with a peal of desperate laughter. "Oh, that 'horn of plenty!' Do come down to earth, mama. How can you call a GLUE factory, that doesn't exist except in your mind, a 'horn of plenty'? Do let's be a little rational!"
"It COULD be a horn of plenty," the tearful Mrs. Adams insisted. "It could! You don't understand a thing about it."
"Well, I'm willing," Alice said, with tired skepticism. "Make me understand, then. Where'd you ever get the idea?"
Mrs. Adams withdrew her hands from the water, dried them on a towel, and then wiped her eyes with a handkerchief. "Your father could make a fortune if he wanted to," she said, quietly. "At least, I don't say a fortune, but anyhow a great deal more than he does make."
"Yes, I've heard that before, mama, and you think he could make it out of a glue factory. What I'm asking is: How?"
"How? Why, by making glue and selling it. Don't you know how bad most glue is when you try to mend anything? A good glue is one of the rarest things there is; and it would just sell itself, once it got started. Well, your father knows how to make as good a glue as there is in the world."
Alice was not interested. "What of it? I suppose probably anybody could make it if they wanted to."
"I SAID you didn't know anything about it. Nobody else could make it. Your father knows a formula for making it."
"What of that?"
"It's a secret formula. It isn't even down on paper. It's worth any amount of money."
"'Any amount?'" Alice said, remaining incredulous. "Why hasn't papa sold it then?"
"Just because he's too stubborn to do anything with it at all!"
"How did papa get it?"
"He got it before you were born, just after we were married. I didn't think much about it then: it wasn't till you were growing up and I saw how much we needed money that I——"
"Yes, but how did papa get it?" Alice began to feel a little more curious about this possible buried treasure. "Did he invent it?"
"Partly," Mrs. Adams said, looking somewhat preoccupied. "He and another man invented it."
"Then maybe the other man——"
"Then his family——"
"I don't think he left any family," Mrs. Adams said. "Anyhow, it belongs to your father. At least it belongs to him as much as it does to any one else. He's got an absolutely perfect right to do anything he wants to with it, and it would make us all comfortable if he'd do what I want him to—and he KNOWS it would, too!"
Alice shook her head pityingly. "Poor mama!" she said. "Of course he knows it wouldn't do anything of the kind, or else he'd have done it long ago."
"He would, you say?" her mother cried. "That only shows how little you know him!"
"Poor mama!" Alice said again, soothingly. "If papa were like what you say he is, he'd be—why, he'd be crazy!"
Mrs. Adams agreed with a vehemence near passion. "You're right about him for once: that's just what he is! He sits up there in his stubbornness and lets us slave here in the kitchen when if he wanted to—if he'd so much as lift his little finger——"
"Oh, come, now!" Alice laughed. "You can't build even a glue factory with just one little finger."
Mrs. Adams seemed about to reply that finding fault with a figure of speech was beside the point; but a ringing of the front door bell forestalled the retort. "Now, who do you suppose that is?" she wondered aloud, then her face brightened. "Ah—did Mr. Russell ask if he could——"
"No, he wouldn't be coming this evening," Alice said. "Probably it's the great J. A. Lamb: he usually stops for a minute on Thursdays to ask how papa's getting along. I'll go."
She tossed her apron off, and as she went through the house her expression was thoughtful. She was thinking vaguely about the glue factory and wondering if there might be "something in it" after all. If her mother was right about the rich possibilities of Adams's secret—but that was as far as Alice's speculations upon the matter went at this time: they were checked, partly by the thought that her father probably hadn't enough money for such an enterprise, and partly by the fact that she had arrived at the front door.
The fine old gentleman revealed when she opened the door was probably the last great merchant in America to wear the chin beard. White as white frost, it was trimmed short with exquisite precision, while his upper lip and the lower expanses of his cheeks were clean and rosy from fresh shaving. With this trim white chin beard, the white waistcoat, the white tie, the suit of fine gray cloth, the broad and brilliantly polished black shoes, and the wide-brimmed gray felt hat, here was a man who had found his style in the seventies of the last century, and thenceforth kept it. Files of old magazines of that period might show him, in woodcut, as, "Type of Boston Merchant"; Nast might have drawn him as an honest statesman. He was eighty, hale and sturdy, not aged; and his quick blue eyes, still unflecked, and as brisk as a boy's, saw everything.
"Well, well, well!" he said, heartily. "You haven't lost any of your good looks since last week, I see, Miss Alice, so I guess I'm to take it you haven't been worrying over your daddy. The young feller's getting along all right, is he?"
"He's much better; he's sitting up, Mr. Lamb. Won't you come in?"
"Well, I don't know but I might." He turned to call toward twin disks of light at the curb, "Be out in a minute, Billy"; and the silhouette of a chauffeur standing beside a car could be seen to salute in response, as the old gentleman stepped into the hall. "You don't suppose your daddy's receiving callers yet, is he?"
"He's a good deal stronger than he was when you were here last week, but I'm afraid he's not very presentable, though."
"'Presentable?'" The old man echoed her jovially. "Pshaw! I've seen lots of sick folks. I know what they look like and how they love to kind of nest in among a pile of old blankets and wrappers. Don't you worry about THAT, Miss Alice, if you think he'd like to see me."
"Of course he would—if——" Alice hesitated; then said quickly, "Of course he'd love to see you and he's quite able to, if you care to come up."
She ran up the stairs ahead of him, and had time to snatch the crocheted wrap from her father's shoulders. Swathed as usual, he was sitting beside a table, reading the evening paper; but when his employer appeared in the doorway he half rose as if to come forward in greeting.
"Sit still!" the old gentleman shouted. "What do you mean? Don't you know you're weak as a cat? D'you think a man can be sick as long as you have and NOT be weak as a cat? What you trying to do the polite with ME for?"
Adams gratefully protracted the handshake that accompanied these inquiries. "This is certainly mighty fine of you, Mr. Lamb," he said. "I guess Alice has told you how much our whole family appreciate your coming here so regularly to see how this old bag o' bones was getting along. Haven't you, Alice?"
"Yes, papa," she said; and turned to go out, but Lamb checked her.
"Stay right here, Miss Alice; I'm not even going to sit down. I know how it upsets sick folks when people outside the family come in for the first time."
"You don't upset me," Adams said. "I'll feel a lot better for getting a glimpse of you, Mr. Lamb."
The visitor's laugh was husky, but hearty and re-assuring, like his voice in speaking. "That's the way all my boys blarney me, Miss Alice," he said. "They think I'll make the work lighter on 'em if they can get me kind of flattered up. You just tell your daddy it's no use; he doesn't get on MY soft side, pretending he likes to see me even when he's sick."
"Oh, I'm not so sick any more," Adams said. "I expect to be back in my place ten days from now at the longest."
"Well, now, don't hurry it, Virgil; don't hurry it. You take your time; take your time."
This brought to Adams's lips a feeble smile not lacking in a kind of vanity, as feeble. "Why?" he asked. "I suppose you think my department runs itself down there, do you?"
His employer's response was another husky laugh. "Well, well, well!" he cried, and patted Adams's shoulder with a strong pink hand. "Listen to this young feller, Miss Alice, will you! He thinks we can't get along without him a minute! Yes, sir, this daddy of yours believes the whole works 'll just take and run down if he isn't there to keep 'em wound up. I always suspected he thought a good deal of himself, and now I know he does!"
Adams looked troubled. "Well, I don't like to feel that my salary's going on with me not earning it."
"Listen to him, Miss Alice! Wouldn't you think, now, he'd let me be the one to worry about that? Why, on my word, if your daddy had his way, I wouldn't be anywhere. He'd take all my worrying and everything else off my shoulders and shove me right out of Lamb and Company! He would!"
"It seems to me I've been soldiering on you a pretty long while, Mr. Lamb," the convalescent said, querulously. "I don't feel right about it; but I'll be back in ten days. You'll see."
The old man took his hand in parting. "All right; we'll see, Virgil. Of course we do need you, seriously speaking; but we don't need you so bad we'll let you come down there before you're fully fit and able." He went to the door. "You hear, Miss Alice? That's what I wanted to make the old feller understand, and what I want you to kind of enforce on him. The old place is there waiting for him, and it'd wait ten years if it took him that long to get good and well. You see that he remembers it, Miss Alice!"
She went down the stairs with him, and he continued to impress this upon her until he had gone out of the front door. And even after that, the husky voice called back from the darkness, as he went to his car, "Don't forget, Miss Alice; let him take his own time. We always want him, but we want him to get good and well first. Good-night, good-night, young lady!"
When she closed the door her mother came from the farther end of the "living-room," where there was no light; and Alice turned to her.
"I can't help liking that old man, mama," she said. "He always sounds so—well, so solid and honest and friendly! I do like him."
But Mrs. Adams failed in sympathy upon this point. "He didn't say anything about raising your father's salary, did he?" she asked, dryly.
"No. I thought not."
She would have said more, but Alice, indisposed to listen, began to whistle, ran up the stairs, and went to sit with her father. She found him bright-eyed with the excitement a first caller brings into a slow convalescence: his cheeks showed actual hints of colour; and he was smiling tremulously as he filled and lit his pipe. She brought the crocheted scarf and put it about his shoulders again, then took a chair near him.
"I believe seeing Mr. Lamb did do you good, papa," she said. "I sort of thought it might, and that's why I let him come up. You really look a little like your old self again."
Adams exhaled a breathy "Ha!" with the smoke from his pipe as he waved the match to extinguish it. "That's fine," he said. "The smoke I had before dinner didn't taste the way it used to, and I kind of wondered if I'd lost my liking for tobacco, but this one seems to be all right. You bet it did me good to see J. A. Lamb! He's the biggest man that's ever lived in this town or ever will live here; and you can take all the Governors and Senators or anything they've raised here, and put 'em in a pot with him, and they won't come out one-two-three alongside o' him! And to think as big a man as that, with all his interests and everything he's got on his mind—to think he'd never let anything prevent him from coming here once every week to ask how I was getting along, and then walk right upstairs and kind of CALL on me, as it were well, it makes me sort of feel as if I wasn't so much of a nobody, so to speak, as your mother seems to like to make out sometimes."
"How foolish, papa! Of COURSE you're not 'a nobody.'"
Adams chuckled faintly upon his pipe-stem, what vanity he had seeming to be further stimulated by his daughter's applause. "I guess there aren't a whole lot of people in this town that could claim J. A. showed that much interest in 'em," he said. "Of course I don't set up to believe it's all because of merit, or anything like that. He'd do the same for anybody else that'd been with the company as long as I have, but still it IS something to be with the company that long and have him show he appreciates it."
"Yes, indeed, it is, papa."
"Yes, sir," Adams said, reflectively. "Yes, sir, I guess that's so. And besides, it all goes to show the kind of a man he is. Simon pure, that's what that man is, Alice. Simon pure! There's never been anybody work for him that didn't respect him more than they did any other man in the world, I guess. And when you work for him you know he respects you, too. Right from the start you get the feeling that J. A. puts absolute confidence in you; and that's mighty stimulating: it makes you want to show him he hasn't misplaced it. There's great big moral values to the way a man like him gets you to feeling about your relations with the business: it ain't all just dollars and cents—not by any means!"
He was silent for a time, then returned with increasing enthusiasm to this theme, and Alice was glad to see so much renewal of life in him; he had not spoken with a like cheerful vigour since before his illness. The visit of his idolized great man had indeed been good for him, putting new spirit into him; and liveliness of the body followed that of the spirit. His improvement carried over the night: he slept well and awoke late, declaring that he was "pretty near a well man and ready for business right now." Moreover, having slept again in the afternoon, he dressed and went down to dinner, leaning but lightly on Alice, who conducted him.
"My! but you and your mother have been at it with your scrubbing and dusting!" he said, as they came through the "living-room." "I don't know I ever did see the house so spick and span before!" His glance fell upon a few carnations in a vase, and he chuckled admiringly. "Flowers, too! So THAT'S what you coaxed that dollar and a half out o 'me for, this morning!"
Other embellishments brought forth his comment when he had taken his old seat at the head of the small dinner-table. "Why, I declare, Alice!" he exclaimed. "I been so busy looking at all the spick-and-spanishness after the house-cleaning, and the flowers out in the parlour—'living room' I suppose you want me to call it, if I just GOT to be fashionable—I been so busy studying over all this so-and-so, I declare I never noticed YOU till this minute! My, but you ARE all dressed up! What's goin' on? What's it about: you so all dressed up, and flowers in the parlour and everything?"
"Don't you see, papa? It's in honour of your coming downstairs again, of course."
"Oh, so that's it," he said. "I never would 'a' thought of that, I guess."
But Walter looked sidelong at his father, and gave forth his sly and knowing laugh. "Neither would I!" he said.
Adams lifted his eyebrows jocosely. "You're jealous, are you, sonny? You don't want the old man to think our young lady'd make so much fuss over him, do you?"
"Go on thinkin' it's over you," Walter retorted, amused. "Go on and think it. It'll do you good."
"Of course I'll think it," Adams said. "It isn't anybody's birthday. Certainly the decorations are on account of me coming downstairs. Didn't you hear Alice say so?"
"Sure, I heard her say so."
Walter interrupted him with a little music. Looking shrewdly at Alice, he sang:
"I was walkin' out on Monday with my sweet thing. She's my neat thing, My sweet thing: I'll go round on Tuesday night to see her. Oh, how we'll spoon——"
"Walter!" his mother cried. "WHERE do you learn such vulgar songs?" However, she seemed not greatly displeased with him, and laughed as she spoke.
"So that's it, Alice!" said Adams. "Playing the hypocrite with your old man, are you? It's some new beau, is it?"
"I only wish it were," she said, calmly. "No. It's just what I said: it's all for you, dear."
"Don't let her con you," Walter advised his father. "She's got expectations. You hang around downstairs a while after dinner and you'll see."
But the prophecy failed, though Adams went to his own room without waiting to test it. No one came.
Alice stayed in the "living-room" until half-past nine, when she went slowly upstairs. Her mother, almost tearful, met her at the top, and whispered, "You mustn't mind, dearie."
"Mustn't mind what?" Alice asked, and then, as she went on her way, laughed scornfully. "What utter nonsense!" she said.
Next day she cut the stems of the rather scant show of carnations and refreshed them with new water. At dinner, her father, still in high spirits, observed that she had again "dressed up" in honour of his second descent of the stairs; and Walter repeated his fragment of objectionable song; but these jocularities were rendered pointless by the eventless evening that followed; and in the morning the carnations began to appear tarnished and flaccid.
Alice gave them a long look, then threw them away; and neither Walter nor her father was inspired to any rallying by her plain costume for that evening. Mrs. Adams was visibly depressed.
When Alice finished helping her mother with the dishes, she went outdoors and sat upon the steps of the little front veranda. The night, gentle with warm air from the south, surrounded her pleasantly, and the perpetual smoke was thinner. Now that the furnaces of dwelling-houses were no longer fired, life in that city had begun to be less like life in a railway tunnel; people were aware of summer in the air, and in the thickened foliage of the shade-trees, and in the sky. Stars were unveiled by the passing of the denser smoke fogs, and to-night they could be seen clearly; they looked warm and near. Other girls sat upon verandas and stoops in Alice's street, cheerful as young fishermen along the banks of a stream.
Alice could hear them from time to time; thin sopranos persistent in laughter that fell dismally upon her ears. She had set no lines or nets herself, and what she had of "expectations," as Walter called them, were vanished. For Alice was experienced; and one of the conclusions she drew from her experience was that when a man says, "I'd take you for anything you wanted me to," he may mean it or, he may not; but, if he does, he will not postpone the first opportunity to say something more. Little affairs, once begun, must be warmed quickly; for if they cool they are dead.
But Alice was not thinking of Arthur Russell. When she tossed away the carnations she likewise tossed away her thoughts of that young man. She had been like a boy who sees upon the street, some distance before him, a bit of something round and glittering, a possible dime. He hopes it is a dime, and, until he comes near enough to make sure, he plays that it is a dime. In his mind he has an adventure with it: he buys something delightful. If he picks it up, discovering only some tin-foil which has happened upon a round shape, he feels a sinking. A dulness falls upon him.
So Alice was dull with the loss of an adventure; and when the laughter of other girls reached her, intermittently, she had not sprightliness enough left in her to be envious of their gaiety. Besides, these neighbours were ineligible even for her envy, being of another caste; they could never know a dance at the Palmers', except remotely, through a newspaper. Their laughter was for the encouragement of snappy young men of the stores and offices down-town, clerks, bookkeepers, what not—some of them probably graduates of Frincke's Business College.
Then, as she recalled that dark portal, with its dusty stairway mounting between close walls to disappear in the upper shadows, her mind drew back as from a doorway to Purgatory. Nevertheless, it was a picture often in her reverie; and sometimes it came suddenly, without sequence, into the midst of her other thoughts, as if it leaped up among them from a lower darkness; and when it arrived it wanted to stay. So a traveller, still roaming the world afar, sometimes broods without apparent reason upon his family burial lot: "I wonder if I shall end there."
The foreboding passed abruptly, with a jerk of her breath, as the street-lamp revealed a tall and easy figure approaching from the north, swinging a stick in time to its stride. She had given Russell up—and he came.
"What luck for me!" he exclaimed. "To find you alone!"
Alice gave him her hand for an instant, not otherwise moving. "I'm glad it happened so," she said. "Let's stay out here, shall we? Do you think it's too provincial to sit on a girl's front steps with her?"
"'Provincial?' Why, it's the very best of our institutions," he returned, taking his place beside her. "At least, I think so to-night."
"Thanks! Is that practice for other nights somewhere else?"
"No," he laughed. "The practicing all led up to this. Did I come too soon?"
"No," she replied, gravely. "Just in time!"
"I'm glad to be so accurate; I've spent two evenings wanting to come, Miss Adams, instead of doing what I was doing."
"What was that?"
"Dinners. Large and long dinners. Your fellow-citizens are immensely hospitable to a newcomer."
"Oh, no," Alice said. "We don't do it for everybody. Didn't you find yourself charmed?"
"One was a men's dinner," he explained. "Mr. Palmer seemed to think I ought to be shown to the principal business men."
"What was the other dinner?"
"My cousin Mildred gave it."
"Oh, DID she!" Alice said, sharply, but she recovered herself in the same instant, and laughed. "She wanted to show you to the principal business women, I suppose."
"I don't know. At all events, I shouldn't give myself out to be so much feted by your 'fellow-citizens,' after all, seeing these were both done by my relatives, the Palmers. However, there are others to follow, I'm afraid. I was wondering—I hoped maybe you'd be coming to some of them. Aren't you?"
"I rather doubt it," Alice said, slowly. "Mildred's dance was almost the only evening I've gone out since my father's illness began. He seemed better that day; so I went. He was better the other day when he wanted those cigars. He's very much up and down." She paused. "I'd almost forgotten that Mildred is your cousin."
"Not a very near one," he explained. "Mr. Palmer's father was my great-uncle."
"Still, of course you are related."
"Yes; that distantly."
Alice said placidly, "It's quite an advantage."
He agreed. "Yes. It is."
"No," she said, in the same placid tone. "I mean for Mildred."
"I don't see——"
She laughed. "No. You wouldn't. I mean it's an advantage over the rest of us who might like to compete for some of your time; and the worst of it is we can't accuse her of being unfair about it. We can't prove she showed any trickiness in having you for a cousin. Whatever else she might plan to do with you, she didn't plan that. So the rest of us must just bear it!"
"The 'rest of you!'" he laughed. "It's going to mean a great deal of suffering!"
Alice resumed her placid tone. "You're staying at the Palmers', aren't you?"
"No, not now. I've taken an apartment. I'm going to live here; I'm permanent. Didn't I tell you?"
"I think I'd heard somewhere that you were," she said. "Do you think you'll like living here?"
"How can one tell?"
"If I were in your place I think I should be able to tell, Mr. Russell."
"Why, good gracious!" she cried. "Haven't you got the most perfect creature in town for your—your cousin? SHE expects to make you like living here, doesn't she? How could you keep from liking it, even if you tried not to, under the circumstances?"
"Well, you see, there's such a lot of circumstances," he explained; "I'm not sure I'll like getting back into a business again. I suppose most of the men of my age in the country have been going through the same experience: the War left us with a considerable restlessness of spirit."
"You were in the War?" she asked, quickly, and as quickly answered herself, "Of course you were!"
"I was a left-over; they only let me out about four months ago," he said. "It's quite a shake-up trying to settle down again."
"You were in France, then?"
"Oh, yes; but I didn't get up to the front much—only two or three times, and then just for a day or so. I was in the transportation service."
"You were an officer, of course."
"Yes," he said. "They let me play I was a major."
"I guessed a major," she said. "You'd always be pretty grand, of course."
Russell was amused. "Well, you see," he informed her, "as it happened, we had at least several other majors in our army. Why would I always be something 'pretty grand?'"
"You're related to the Palmers. Don't you notice they always affect the pretty grand?"
"Then you think I'm only one of their affectations, I take it."
"Yes, you seem to be the most successful one they've got!" Alice said, lightly. "You certainly do belong to them." And she laughed as if at something hidden from him. "Don't you?"
"But you've just excused me for that," he protested. "You said nobody could be blamed for my being their third cousin. What a contradictory girl you are!"
Alice shook her head. "Let's keep away from the kind of girl I am."
"No," he said. "That's just what I came here to talk about."
She shook her head again. "Let's keep first to the kind of man you are. I'm glad you were in the War."
"Oh, I don't know." She was quiet a moment, for she was thinking that here she spoke the truth: his service put about him a little glamour that helped to please her with him. She had been pleased with him during their walk; pleased with him on his own account; and now that pleasure was growing keener. She looked at him, and though the light in which she saw him was little more than starlight, she saw that he was looking steadily at her with a kindly and smiling seriousness. All at once it seemed to her that the night air was sweeter to breathe, as if a distant fragrance of new blossoms had been blown to her. She smiled back to him, and said, "Well, what kind of man are you?"
"I don't know; I've often wondered," he replied. "What kind of girl are you?"
"Don't you remember? I told you the other day. I'm just me!"
"But who is that?"
"You forget everything;" said Alice. "You told me what kind of a girl I am. You seemed to think you'd taken quite a fancy to me from the very first."
"So I did," he agreed, heartily.
"But how quickly you forgot it!"
"Oh, no. I only want YOU to say what kind of a girl you are."
She mocked him. "'I don't know; I've often wondered!' What kind of a girl does Mildred tell you I am? What has she said about me since she told you I was 'a Miss Adams?'"
"I don't know; I haven't asked her."
"Then DON'T ask her," Alice said, quickly.
"Because she's such a perfect creature and I'm such an imperfect one. Perfect creatures have the most perfect way of ruining the imperfect ones."
"But then they wouldn't be perfect. Not if they——"
"Oh, yes, they remain perfectly perfect," she assured him. "That's because they never go into details. They're not so vulgar as to come right out and TELL that you've been in jail for stealing chickens. They just look absent-minded and say in a low voice, 'Oh, very; but I scarcely think you'd like her particularly'; and then begin to talk of something else right away."
His smile had disappeared. "Yes," he said, somewhat ruefully. "That does sound like Mildred. You certainly do seem to know her! Do you know everybody as well as that?"
"Not myself," Alice said. "I don't know myself at all. I got to wondering about that—about who I was—the other day after you walked home with me."
He uttered an exclamation, and added, explaining it, "You do give a man a chance to be fatuous, though! As if it were walking home with me that made you wonder about yourself!"
"It was," Alice informed him, coolly. "I was wondering what I wanted to make you think of me, in case I should ever happen to see you again."
This audacity appeared to take his breath. "By George!" he cried.
"You mustn't be astonished," she said. "What I decided then was that I would probably never dare to be just myself with you—not if I cared to have you want to see me again—and yet here I am, just being myself after all!"
"You ARE the cheeriest series of shocks," Russell exclaimed, whereupon Alice added to the series.
"Tell me: Is it a good policy for me to follow with you?" she asked, and he found the mockery in her voice delightful. "Would you advise me to offer you shocks as a sort of vacation from suavity?"
"Suavity" was yet another sketch of Mildred; a recognizable one, or it would not have been humorous. In Alice's hands, so dexterous in this work, her statuesque friend was becoming as ridiculous as a fine figure of wax left to the mercies of a satirist.
But the lively young sculptress knew better than to overdo: what she did must appear to spring all from mirth; so she laughed as if unwillingly, and said, "I MUSTN'T laugh at Mildred! In the first place, she's your—your cousin. And in the second place, she's not meant to be funny; it isn't right to laugh at really splendid people who take themselves seriously. In the third place, you won't come again if I do."
"Don't be sure of that," Russell said, "whatever you do."
"'Whatever I do?'" she echoed. "That sounds as if you thought I COULD be terrific! Be careful; there's one thing I could do that would keep you away."
"I could tell you not to come," she said. "I wonder if I ought to."
"Why do you wonder if you 'ought to?'"
"Don't you guess?"
"Then let's both be mysteries to each other," she suggested. "I mystify you because I wonder, and you mystify me because you don't guess why I wonder. We'll let it go at that, shall we?"
"Very well; so long as it's certain that you DON'T tell me not to come again."
"I'll not tell you that—yet," she said. "In fact——" She paused, reflecting, with her head to one side. "In fact, I won't tell you not to come, probably, until I see that's what you want me to tell you. I'll let you out easily—and I'll be sure to see it. Even before you do, perhaps."
"That arrangement suits me," Russell returned, and his voice held no trace of jocularity: he had become serious. "It suits me better if you're enough in earnest to mean that I can come—oh, not whenever I want to; I don't expect so much!—but if you mean that I can see you pretty often."
"Of course I'm in earnest," she said. "But before I say you can come 'pretty often,' I'd like to know how much of my time you'd need if you did come 'whenever you want to'; and of course you wouldn't dare make any answer to that question except one. Wouldn't you let me have Thursdays out?"
"No, no," he protested. "I want to know. Will you let me come pretty often?"
"Lean toward me a little," Alice said. "I want you to understand." And as he obediently bent his head near hers, she inclined toward him as if to whisper; then, in a half-shout, she cried,
He clapped his hands. "By George!" he said. "What a girl you are!"
"Well, for the first reason, because you have such gaieties as that one. I should think your father would actually like being ill, just to be in the house with you all the time."
"You mean by that," Alice inquired, "I keep my family cheerful with my amusing little ways?"
"Yes. Don't you?"
"There were only boys in your family, weren't there, Mr. Russell?"
"I was an only child, unfortunately."
"Yes," she said. "I see you hadn't any sisters."
For a moment he puzzled over her meaning, then saw it, and was more delighted with her than ever. "I can answer a question of yours, now, that I couldn't a while ago."
"Yes, I know," she returned, quietly.
"But how could you know?"
"It's the question I asked you about whether you were going to like living here," she said. "You're about to tell me that now you know you WILL like it."
"More telepathy!" he exclaimed. "Yes, that was it, precisely. I suppose the same thing's been said to you so many times that you——"
"No, it hasn't," Alice said, a little confused for the moment. "Not at all. I meant——" She paused, then asked in a gentle voice, "Would you really like to know?"
"Well, then, I was only afraid you didn't mean it."
"See here," he said. "I did mean it. I told you it was being pretty difficult for me to settle down to things again. Well, it's more difficult than you know, but I think I can pull through in fair spirits if I can see a girl like you 'pretty often.'"
"All right," she said, in a business-like tone. "I've told you that you can if you want to."
"I do want to," he assured her. "I do, indeed!"
"How often is 'pretty often,' Mr. Russell?"
"Would you walk with me sometimes? To-morrow?"
"Sometimes. Not to-morrow. The day after."
"That's splendid!" he said. "You'll walk with me day after to-morrow, and the night after that I'll see you at Miss Lamb's dance, won't I?"
But this fell rather chillingly upon Alice. "Miss Lamb's dance? Which Miss Lamb?" she asked.
"I don't know—it's the one that's just coming out of mourning."
"Oh, Henrietta—yes. Is her dance so soon? I'd forgotten."
"You'll be there, won't you?" he asked. "Please say you're going."
Alice did not respond at once, and he urged her again: "Please do promise you'll be there."
"No, I can't promise anything," she said, slowly. "You see, for one thing, papa might not be well enough."
"But if he is?" said Russell. "If he is you'll surely come, won't you? Or, perhaps——" He hesitated, then went on quickly, "I don't know the rules in this place yet, and different places have different rules; but do you have to have a chaperone, or don't girls just go to dances with the men sometimes? If they do, would you—would you let me take you?"
Alice was startled. "Good gracious!"
"What's the matter?"
"Don't you think your relatives——Aren't you expected to go with Mildred—and Mrs. Palmer?"
"Not necessarily. It doesn't matter what I might be expected to do," he said. "Will you go with me?"
"I——No; I couldn't."
"I can't. I'm not going."
"Papa's not really any better," Alice said, huskily. "I'm too worried about him to go to a dance." Her voice sounded emotional, genuinely enough; there was something almost like a sob in it. "Let's talk of other things, please."
He acquiesced gently; but Mrs. Adams, who had been listening to the conversation at the open window, just overhead, did not hear him. She had correctly interpreted the sob in Alice's voice, and, trembling with sudden anger, she rose from her knees, and went fiercely to her husband's room.
He had not undressed, and he sat beside the table, smoking his pipe and reading his newspaper. Upon his forehead the lines in that old pattern, the historical map of his troubles, had grown a little vaguer lately; relaxed by the complacency of a man who not only finds his health restored, but sees the days before him promising once more a familiar routine that he has always liked to follow.
As his wife came in, closing the door behind her, he looked up cheerfully, "Well, mother," he said, "what's the news downstairs?"
"That's what I came to tell you," she informed him, grimly.
Adams lowered his newspaper to his knee and peered over his spectacles at her. She had remained by the door, standing, and the great greenish shadow of the small lamp-shade upon his table revealed her but dubiously. "Isn't everything all right?" he asked. "What's the matter?"
"Don't worry: I'm going to tell you," she said, her grimness not relaxed. "There's matter enough, Virgil Adams. Matter enough to make me sick of being alive!"
With that, the markings on his brows began to emerge again in all their sharpness; the old pattern reappeared. "Oh, my, my!" he lamented. "I thought maybe we were all going to settle down to a little peace for a while. What's it about now?"
"It's about Alice. Did you think it was about ME or anything for MYSELF?"
Like some ready old machine, always in order, his irritability responded immediately and automatically to her emotion. "How in thunder could I think what it's about, or who it's for? SAY it, and get it over!"
"Oh, I'll 'say' it," she promised, ominously. "What I've come to ask you is, How much longer do you expect me to put up with that old man and his doings?"
"Whose doings? What old man?"
She came at him, fiercely accusing. "You know well enough what old man, Virgil Adams! That old man who was here the other night."
"Yes; 'Mister Lamb!'" She mocked his voice. "What other old man would I be likely to mean except J. A. Lamb?"
"What's he been doing now?" her husband inquired, satirically. "Where'd you get something new against him since the last time you——"
"Just this!" she cried. "The other night when that man was here, if I'd known how he was going to make my child suffer, I'd never have let him set his foot in my house."
Adams leaned back in his chair as though her absurdity had eased his mind. "Oh, I see," he said. "You've just gone plain crazy. That's the only explanation of such talk, and it suits the case."
"Hasn't that man made us all suffer every day of our lives?" she demanded. "I'd like to know why it is that my life and my children's lives have to be sacrificed to him?"
"How are they 'sacrificed' to him?"
"Because you keep on working for him! Because you keep on letting him hand out whatever miserable little pittance he chooses to give you; that's why! It's as if he were some horrible old Juggernaut and I had to see my children's own father throwing them under the wheels to keep him satisfied."
"I won't hear any more such stuff!" Lifting his paper, Adams affected to read.
"You'd better listen to me," she admonished him. "You might be sorry you didn't, in case he ever tried to set foot in my house again! I might tell him to his face what I think of him."
At this, Adams slapped the newspaper down upon his knee. "Oh, the devil! What's it matter what you think of him?"
"It had better matter to you!" she cried. "Do you suppose I'm going to submit forever to him and his family and what they're doing to my child?"
"What are he and his family doing to 'your child?'"
Mrs. Adams came out with it. "That snippy little Henrietta Lamb has always snubbed Alice every time she's ever had the chance. She's followed the lead of the other girls; they've always all of 'em been jealous of Alice because she dared to try and be happy, and because she's showier and better-looking than they are, even though you do give her only about thirty-five cents a year to do it on! They've all done everything on earth they could to drive the young men away from her and belittle her to 'em; and this mean little Henrietta Lamb's been the worst of the whole crowd to Alice, every time she could see a chance."
"What for?" Adams asked, incredulously. "Why should she or anybody else pick on Alice?"
"'Why?' 'What for?'" his wife repeated with a greater vehemence. "Do YOU ask me such a thing as that? Do you really want to know?"
"Yes; I'd want to know—I would if I believed it."
"Then I'll tell you," she said in a cold fury. "It's on account of you, Virgil, and nothing else in the world."
He hooted at her. "Oh, yes! These girls don't like ME, so they pick on Alice."
"Quit your palavering and evading," she said. "A crowd of girls like that, when they get a pretty girl like Alice among them, they act just like wild beasts. They'll tear her to pieces, or else they'll chase her and run her out, because they know if she had half a chance she'd outshine 'em. They can't do that to a girl like Mildred Palmer because she's got money and family to back her. Now you listen to me, Virgil Adams: the way the world is now, money IS family. Alice would have just as much 'family' as any of 'em every single bit—if you hadn't fallen behind in the race."
"How did I——"
"Yes, you did!" she cried. "Twenty-five years ago when we were starting and this town was smaller, you and I could have gone with any of 'em if we'd tried hard enough. Look at the people we knew then that do hold their heads up alongside of anybody in this town! WHY can they? Because the men of those families made money and gave their children everything that makes life worth living! Why can't we hold our heads up? Because those men passed you in the race. They went up the ladder, and you—you're still a clerk down at that old hole!"
"You leave that out, please," he said. "I thought you were going to tell me something Henrietta Lamb had done to our Alice."
"You BET I'm going to tell you," she assured him, vehemently. "But first I'm telling WHY she does it. It's because you've never given Alice any backing nor any background, and they all know they can do anything they like to her with perfect impunity. If she had the hundredth part of what THEY have to fall back on she'd have made 'em sing a mighty different song long ago!"
"How would she?"
"Oh, my heavens, but you're slow!" Mrs. Adams moaned. "Look here! You remember how practically all the nicest boys in this town used to come here a few years ago. Why, they were all crazy over her; and the girls HAD to be nice to her then. Look at the difference now! There'll be a whole month go by and not a young man come to call on her, let alone send her candy or flowers, or ever think of TAKING her any place and yet she's prettier and brighter than she was when they used to come. It isn't the child's fault she couldn't hold 'em, is it? Poor thing, SHE tried hard enough! I suppose you'd say it was her fault, though."
"No; I wouldn't."
"Then whose fault is it?"
"Oh, mine, mine," he said, wearily. "I drove the young men away, of course."
"You might as well have driven 'em, Virgil. It amounts to just the same thing."
"How does it?"
"Because as they got older a good many of 'em began to think more about money; that's one thing. Money's at the bottom of it all, for that matter. Look at these country clubs and all such things: the other girls' families belong and we don't, and Alice don't; and she can't go unless somebody takes her, and nobody does any more. Look at the other girls' houses, and then look at our house, so shabby and old-fashioned she'd be pretty near ashamed to ask anybody to come in and sit down nowadays! Look at her clothes—oh, yes; you think you shelled out a lot for that little coat of hers and the hat and skirt she got last March; but it's nothing. Some of these girls nowadays spend more than your whole salary on their clothes. And what jewellery has she got? A plated watch and two or three little pins and rings of the kind people's maids wouldn't wear now. Good Lord, Virgil Adams, wake up! Don't sit there and tell me you don't know things like this mean SUFFERING for the child!"
He had begun to rub his hands wretchedly back and forth over his bony knees, as if in that way he somewhat alleviated the tedium caused by her racking voice. "Oh, my, my!" he muttered. "OH, my, my!"
"Yes, I should think you WOULD say 'Oh, my, my!'" she took him up, loudly. "That doesn't help things much! If you ever wanted to DO anything about it, the poor child might see some gleam of hope in her life. You don't CARE for her, that's the trouble; you don't care a single thing about her."
"No; you don't. Why, even with your miserable little salary you could have given her more than you have. You're the closest man I ever knew: it's like pulling teeth to get a dollar out of you for her, now and then, and yet you hide some away, every month or so, in some wretched little investment or other. You——"
"Look here, now," he interrupted, angrily. "You look here! If I didn't put a little by whenever I could, in a bond or something, where would you be if anything happened to me? The insurance doctors never passed me; YOU know that. Haven't we got to have SOMETHING to fall back on?"
"Yes, we have!" she cried. "We ought to have something to go on with right now, too, when we need it. Do you suppose these snippets would treat Alice the way they do if she could afford to ENTERTAIN? They leave her out of their dinners and dances simply because they know she can't give any dinners and dances to leave them out of! They know she can't get EVEN, and that's the whole story! That's why Henrietta Lamb's done this thing to her now."
Adams had gone back to his rubbing of his knees. "Oh, my, my!" he said. "WHAT thing?"
She told him. "Your dear, grand, old Mister Lamb's Henrietta has sent out invitations for a large party—a LARGE one. Everybody that is anybody in this town is asked, you can be sure. There's a very fine young man, a Mr. Russell, has just come to town, and he's interested in Alice, and he's asked her to go to this dance with him. Well, Alice can't accept. She can't go with him, though she'd give anything in the world to do it. Do you understand? The reason she can't is because Henrietta Lamb hasn't invited her. Do you want to know why Henrietta hasn't invited her? It's because she knows Alice can't get even, and because she thinks Alice ought to be snubbed like this on account of only being the daughter of one of her grandfather's clerks. I HOPE you understand!"
"Oh, my, my!" he said. "OH, my, my!"
"That's your sweet old employer," his wife cried, tauntingly. "That's your dear, kind, grand old Mister Lamb! Alice has been left out of a good many smaller things, like big dinners and little dances, but this is just the same as serving her notice that she's out of everything! And it's all done by your dear, grand old——"
"Look here!" Adams exclaimed. "I don't want to hear any more of that! You can't hold him responsible for everything his grandchildren do, I guess! He probably doesn't know a thing about it. You don't suppose he's troubling HIS head over——"
But she burst out at him passionately. "Suppose you trouble YOUR head about it! You'd better, Virgil Adams! You'd better, unless you want to see your child just dry up into a miserable old maid! She's still young and she has a chance for happiness, if she had a father that didn't bring a millstone to hang around her neck, instead of what he ought to give her! You just wait till you die and God asks you what you had in your breast instead of a heart!"
"Oh, my, my!" he groaned. "What's my heart got to do with it?"
"Nothing! You haven't got one or you'd give her what she needed. Am I asking anything you CAN'T do? You know better; you know I'm not!"
At this he sat suddenly rigid, his troubled hands ceasing to rub his knees; and he looked at her fixedly. "Now, tell me," he said, slowly. "Just what ARE you asking?"
"You know!" she sobbed.
"You mean you've broken your word never to speak of THAT to me again?"
"What do I care for my word?" she cried, and, sinking to the floor at his feet, rocked herself back and forth there. "Do you suppose I'll let my 'word' keep me from struggling for a little happiness for my children? It won't, I tell you; it won't! I'll struggle for that till I die! I will, till I die till I die!"
He rubbed his head now instead of his knees, and, shaking all over, he got up and began with uncertain steps to pace the floor.
"Hell, hell, hell!" he said. "I've got to go through THAT again!"
"Yes, you have!" she sobbed. "Till I die."
"Yes; that's what you been after all the time I was getting well."
"Yes, I have, and I'll keep on till I die!"
"A fine wife for a man," he said. "Beggin' a man to be a dirty dog!"
"No! To be a MAN—and I'll keep on till I die!"
Adams again fell back upon his last solace: he walked, half staggering, up and down the room, swearing in a rhythmic repetition.
His wife had repetitions of her own, and she kept at them in a voice that rose to a higher and higher pitch, like the sound of an old well-pump. "Till I die! Till I die! Till I DIE!"
She ended in a scream; and Alice, coming up the stairs, thanked heaven that Russell had gone. She ran to her father's door and went in.
Adams looked at her, and gesticulated shakily at the convulsive figure on the floor. "Can you get her out of here?"
Alice helped Mrs. Adams to her feet; and the stricken woman threw her arms passionately about her daughter.
"Get her out!" Adams said, harshly; then cried, "Wait!"
Alice, moving toward the door, halted, and looked at him blankly, over her mother's shoulder. "What is it, papa?"
He stretched out his arm and pointed at her. "She says—she says you have a mean life, Alice."
Mrs. Adams turned in her daughter's arms. "Do you hear her lie? Couldn't you be as brave as she is, Virgil?"
"Are you lying, Alice?" he asked. "Do you have a mean time?"
He came toward her. "Look at me!" he said. "Things like this dance now—is that so hard to bear?"
Alice tried to say, "No, papa," again, but she couldn't. Suddenly and in spite of herself she began to cry.
"Do you hear her?" his wife sobbed. "Now do you——"
He waved at them fiercely. "Get out of here!" he said. "Both of you! Get out of here!"
As they went, he dropped in his chair and bent far forward, so that his haggard face was concealed from them. Then, as Alice closed the door, he began to rub his knees again, muttering, "Oh, my, my! OH, my, my!"
There shone a jovial sun overhead on the appointed "day after to-morrow"; a day not cool yet of a temperature friendly to walkers; and the air, powdered with sunshine, had so much life in it that it seemed to sparkle. To Arthur Russell this was a day like a gay companion who pleased him well; but the gay companion at his side pleased him even better. She looked her prettiest, chattered her wittiest, smiled her wistfulest, and delighted him with all together.
"You look so happy it's easy to see your father's taken a good turn," he told her.
"Yes; he has this afternoon, at least," she said. "I might have other reasons for looking cheerful, though."
"Exactly!" she said, giving him a sweet look just enough mocked by her laughter. "For instance!"
"Well, go on," he begged.
"Isn't it expected?" she asked.
"Of you, you mean?"
"No," she returned. "For you, I mean!"
In this style, which uses a word for any meaning that quick look and colourful gesture care to endow it with, she was an expert; and she carried it merrily on, leaving him at liberty (one of the great values of the style) to choose as he would how much or how little she meant. He was content to supply mere cues, for although he had little coquetry of his own, he had lately begun to find that the only interesting moments in his life were those during which Alice Adams coquetted with him. Happily, these obliging moments extended themselves to cover all the time he spent with her. However serious she might seem, whatever appeared to be her topic, all was thou-and-I.
He planned for more of it, seeing otherwise a dull evening ahead; and reverted, afterwhile, to a forbidden subject. "About that dance at Miss Lamb's—since your father's so much better——"
She flushed a little. "Now, now!" she chided him. "We agreed not to say any more about that."
"Yes, but since he IS better——"
Alice shook her head. "He won't be better to-morrow. He always has a bad day after a good one especially after such a good one as this is."
"But if this time it should be different," Russell persisted; "wouldn't you be willing to come if he's better by to-morrow evening? Why not wait and decide at the last minute?"
She waved her hands airily. "What a pother!" she cried. "What does it matter whether poor little Alice Adams goes to a dance or not?"
"Well, I thought I'd made it clear that it looks fairly bleak to me if you don't go."
"Oh, yes!" she jeered.
"It's the simple truth," he insisted. "I don't care a great deal about dances these days; and if you aren't going to be there——"
"You could stay away," she suggested. "You wouldn't!"
"Unfortunately, I can't. I'm afraid I'm supposed to be the excuse. Miss Lamb, in her capacity as a friend of my relatives——"
"Oh, she's giving it for YOU! I see! On Mildred's account you mean?"
At that his face showed an increase of colour. "I suppose just on account of my being a cousin of Mildred's and of——"
"Of course! You'll have a beautiful time, too. Henrietta'll see that you have somebody to dance with besides Miss Dowling, poor man!"
"But what I want somebody to see is that I dance with you! And perhaps your father——"
"Wait!" she said, frowning as if she debated whether or not to tell him something of import; then, seeming to decide affirmatively, she asked: "Would you really like to know the truth about it?"
"If it isn't too unflattering."
"It hasn't anything to do with you at all," she said. "Of course I'd like to go with you and to dance with you—though you don't seem to realize that you wouldn't be permitted much time with me."
"Oh, yes, I——"
"Never mind!" she laughed. "Of course you wouldn't. But even if papa should be better to-morrow, I doubt if I'd go. In fact, I know I wouldn't. There's another reason besides papa."
"Yes. The truth is, I don't get on with Henrietta Lamb. As a matter of fact, I dislike her, and of course that means she dislikes me. I should never think of asking her to anything I gave, and I really wonder she asks me to things SHE gives." This was a new inspiration; and Alice, beginning to see her way out of a perplexity, wished that she had thought of it earlier: she should have told him from the first that she and Henrietta had a feud, and consequently exchanged no invitations. Moreover, there was another thing to beset her with little anxieties: she might better not have told him from the first, as she had indeed told him by intimation, that she was the pampered daughter of an indulgent father, presumably able to indulge her; for now she must elaborately keep to the part. Veracity is usually simple; and its opposite, to be successful, should be as simple; but practitioners of the opposite are most often impulsive, like Alice; and, like her, they become enmeshed in elaborations.
"It wouldn't be very nice for me to go to her house," Alice went on, "when I wouldn't want her in mine. I've never admired her. I've always thought she was lacking in some things most people are supposed to be equipped with—for instance, a certain feeling about the death of a father who was always pretty decent to his daughter. Henrietta's father died just, eleven months and twenty-seven days before your cousin's dance, but she couldn't stick out those few last days and make it a year; she was there."
Alice stopped, then laughed ruefully, exclaiming, "But this is dreadful of me!"
"Blackguarding her to you when she's giving a big party for you! Just the way Henrietta would blackguard me to you—heaven knows what she WOULDN'T say if she talked about me to you! It would be fair, of course, but—well, I'd rather she didn't!" And with that, Alice let her pretty hand, in its white glove, rest upon his arm for a moment; and he looked down at it, not unmoved to see it there. "I want to be unfair about just this," she said, letting a troubled laughter tremble through her appealing voice as she spoke. "I won't take advantage of her with anybody, except just—you! I'd a little rather you didn't hear anybody blackguard me, and, if you don't mind—could you promise not to give Henrietta the chance?"
It was charmingly done, with a humorous, faint pathos altogether genuine; and Russell found himself suddenly wanting to shout at her, "Oh, you DEAR!" Nothing else seemed adequate; but he controlled the impulse in favour of something more conservative.
"Imagine any one speaking unkindly of you—not praising you!"
"Who HAS praised me to you?" she asked, quickly.
"I haven't talked about you with any one; but if I did, I know they'd——"
"No, no!" she cried, and went on, again accompanying her words with little tremulous runs of laughter. "You don't understand this town yet. You'll be surprised when you do; we're different. We talk about one another fearfully! Haven't I just proved it, the way I've been going for Henrietta? Of course I didn't say anything really very terrible about her, but that's only because I don't follow that practice the way most of the others do. They don't stop with the worst of the truth they can find: they make UP things—yes, they really do! And, oh, I'd RATHER they didn't make up things about me—to you!"
"What difference would it make if they did?" he inquired, cheerfully. "I'd know they weren't true."
"Even if you did know that, they'd make a difference," she said. "Oh, yes, they would! It's too bad, but we don't like anything quite so well that's had specks on it, even if we've wiped the specks off;—it's just that much spoiled, and some things are all spoiled the instant they're the least bit spoiled. What a man thinks about a girl, for instance. Do you want to have what you think about me spoiled, Mr. Russell?"
"Oh, but that's already far beyond reach," he said, lightly.
"But it can't be!" she protested.
"Because it never can be. Men don't change their minds about one another often: they make it quite an event when they do, and talk about it as if something important had happened. But a girl only has to go down-town with a shoe-string unfastened, and every man who sees her will change his mind about her. Don't you know that's true?"
"Not of myself, I think."
"There!" she cried. "That's precisely what every man in the world would say!"
"So you wouldn't trust me?"
"Well—I'll be awfully worried if you give 'em a chance to tell you that I'm too lazy to tie my shoe-strings!"
He laughed delightedly. "Is that what they do say?" he asked.
"Just about! Whatever they hope will get results." She shook her head wisely. "Oh, yes; we do that here!"
"But I don't mind loose shoe-strings," he said. "Not if they're yours."
"They'll find out what you do mind."
"But suppose," he said, looking at her whimsically; "suppose I wouldn't mind anything—so long as it's yours?"
She courtesied. "Oh, pretty enough! But a girl who's talked about has a weakness that's often a fatal one."
"What is it?"
"It's this: when she's talked about she isn't THERE. That's how they kill her."
"I'm afraid I don't follow you."
"Don't you see? If Henrietta—or Mildred—or any of 'em—or some of their mothers—oh, we ALL do it! Well, if any of 'em told you I didn't tie my shoe-strings, and if I were there, so that you could see me, you'd know it wasn't true. Even if I were sitting so that you couldn't see my feet, and couldn't tell whether the strings were tied or not just then, still you could look at me, and see that I wasn't the sort of girl to neglect my shoe-strings. But that isn't the way it happens: they'll get at you when I'm nowhere around and can't remind you of the sort of girl I really am."
"But you don't do that," he complained. "You don't remind me you don't even tell me—the sort of girl you really are! I'd like to know."
"Let's be serious then," she said, and looked serious enough herself. "Would you honestly like to know?"
"Well, then, you must be careful."
"'Careful?'" The word amused him.
"I mean careful not to get me mixed up," she said. "Careful not to mix up the girl you might hear somebody talking about with the me I honestly try to make you see. If you do get those two mixed up—well, the whole show'll be spoiled!"
"What makes you think so?"
"Because it's——" She checked herself, having begun to speak too impulsively; and she was disturbed, realizing in what tricky stuff she dealt. What had been on her lips to say was, "Because it's happened before!" She changed to, "Because it's so easy to spoil anything—easiest of all to spoil anything that's pleasant."
"That might depend."
"No; it's so. And if you care at all about—about knowing a girl who'd like someone to know her——"
"Just 'someone?' That's disappointing."
"Well—you," she said.
"Tell me how 'careful' you want me to be, then!"
"Well, don't you think it would be nice if you didn't give anybody the chance to talk about me the way—the way I've just been talking about Henrietta Lamb?"
With that they laughed together, and he said, "You may be cutting me off from a great deal of information, you know."
"Yes," Alice admitted. "Somebody might begin to praise me to you, too; so it's dangerous to ask you to change the subject if I ever happen to be mentioned. But after all——" She paused.
"'After all' isn't the end of a thought, is it?"
"Sometimes it is of a girl's thought; I suppose men are neater about their thoughts, and always finish 'em. It isn't the end of the thought I had then, though."
"What is the end of it?"
She looked at him impulsively. "Oh, it's foolish," she said, and she laughed as laughs one who proposes something probably impossible. "But, WOULDN'T it be pleasant if two people could ever just keep themselves TO themselves, so far as they two were concerned? I mean, if they could just manage to be friends without people talking about it, or talking to THEM about it?"
"I suppose that might be rather difficult," he said, more amused than impressed by her idea.
"I don't know: it might be done," she returned, hopefully. "Especially in a town of this size; it's grown so it's quite a huge place these days. People can keep themselves to themselves in a big place better, you know. For instance, nobody knows that you and I are taking a walk together today."
"How absurd, when here we are on exhibition!"
"No; we aren't."
"Not a bit of it!" she laughed. "We were the other day, when you walked home with me, but anybody could tell that had just happened by chance, on account of your overtaking me; people can always see things like that. But we're not on exhibition now. Look where I've led you!"
Amused and a little bewildered, he looked up and down the street, which was one of gaunt-faced apartment-houses, old, sooty, frame boarding-houses, small groceries and drug-stores, laundries and one-room plumbers' shops, with the sign of a clairvoyant here and there.
"You see?" she said. "I've been leading you without your knowing it. Of course that's because you're new to the town, and you give yourself up to the guidance of an old citizen."
"I'm not so sure, Miss Adams. It might mean that I don't care where I follow so long as I follow you."
"Very well," she said. "I'd like you to keep on following me at least long enough for me to show you that there's something nicer ahead of us than this dingy street."
"Is that figurative?" he asked.
"Might be!" she returned, gaily. "There's a pretty little park at the end, but it's very proletarian, and nobody you and I know will be more likely to see us there than on this street."
"What an imagination you have!" he exclaimed. "You turn our proper little walk into a Parisian adventure."
She looked at him in what seemed to be a momentary grave puzzlement. "Perhaps you feel that a Parisian adventure mightn't please your—your relatives?"
"Why, no," he returned. "You seem to think of them oftener than I do."
This appeared to amuse Alice, or at least to please her, for she laughed. "Then I can afford to quit thinking of them, I suppose. It's only that I used to be quite a friend of Mildred's—but there! we needn't to go into that. I've never been a friend of Henrietta Lamb's, though, and I almost wish she weren't taking such pains to be a friend of yours."
"Oh, but she's not. It's all on account of——"
"On Mildred's account," Alice finished this for him, coolly. "Yes, of course."
"It's on account of the two families," he was at pains to explain, a little awkwardly. "It's because I'm a relative of the Palmers, and the Palmers and the Lambs seem to be old family friends."
"Something the Adamses certainly are not," Alice said. "Not with either of 'em; particularly not with the Lambs!" And here, scarce aware of what impelled her, she returned to her former elaborations and colourings. "You see, the differences between Henrietta and me aren't entirely personal: I couldn't go to her house even if I liked her. The Lambs and Adamses don't get on with each other, and we've just about come to the breaking-point as it happens."
"I hope it's nothing to bother you."
"Why? A lot of things bother me."
"I'm sorry they do," he said, and seemed simply to mean it.
She nodded gratefully. "That's nice of you, Mr. Russell. It helps. The break between the Adamses and the Lambs is a pretty bothersome thing. It's been coming on a long time." She sighed deeply, and the sigh was half genuine; this half being for her father, but the other half probably belonged to her instinctive rendering of Juliet Capulet, daughter to a warring house. "I hate it all so!" she added.
"Of course you must."
"I suppose most quarrels between families are on account of business," she said. "That's why they're so sordid. Certainly the Lambs seem a sordid lot to me, though of course I'm biased." And with that she began to sketch a history of the commercial antagonism that had risen between the Adamses and the Lambs.
The sketching was spontaneous and dramatic. Mathematics had no part in it; nor was there accurate definition of Mr. Adams's relation to the institution of Lamb and Company. The point was clouded, in fact; though that might easily be set down to the general haziness of young ladies confronted with the mysteries of trade or commerce. Mr. Adams either had been a vague sort of junior member of the firm, it appeared, or else he should have been made some such thing; at all events, he was an old mainstay of the business; and he, as much as any Lamb, had helped to build up the prosperity of the company. But at last, tired of providing so much intelligence and energy for which other people took profit greater than his own, he had decided to leave the company and found a business entirely for himself. The Lambs were going to be enraged when they learned what was afoot.
Such was the impression, a little misted, wrought by Alice's quick narrative. But there was dolorous fact behind it: Adams had succumbed.
His wife, grave and nervous, rather than triumphant, in success, had told their daughter that the great J. A. would be furious and possibly vindictive. Adams was afraid of him, she said.
"But what for, mama?" Alice asked, since this seemed a turn of affairs out of reason. "What in the world has Mr. Lamb to do with papa's leaving the company to set up for himself? What right has he to be angry about it? If he's such a friend as he claims to be, I should think he'd be glad—that is, if the glue factory turns out well. What will he be angry for?"
Mrs. Adams gave Alice an uneasy glance, hesitated, and then explained that a resignation from Lamb's had always been looked upon, especially by "that old man," as treachery. You were supposed to die in the service, she said bitterly, and her daughter, a little mystified, accepted this explanation. Adams had not spoken to her of his surrender; he seemed not inclined to speak to her at all, or to any one.
Alice was not serious too long, and she began to laugh as she came to the end of her decorative sketch. "After all, the whole thing is perfectly ridiculous," she said. "In fact, it's FUNNY! That's on account of what papa's going to throw over the Lamb business FOR! To save your life you couldn't imagine what he's going to do!"
"I won't try, then," Russell assented.
"It takes all the romance out of ME," she laughed. "You'll never go for a Parisian walk with me again, after I tell you what I'll be heiress to." They had come to the entrance of the little park; and, as Alice had said, it was a pretty place, especially on a day so radiant. Trees of the oldest forest stood there, hale and serene over the trim, bright grass; and the proletarians had not come from their factories at this hour; only a few mothers and their babies were to be seen, here and there, in the shade. "I think I'll postpone telling you about it till we get nearly home again," Alice said, as they began to saunter down one of the gravelled paths. "There's a bench beside a spring farther on; we can sit there and talk about a lot of things—things not so sticky as my dowry's going to be."
"'Sticky?'" he echoed. "What in the world——" She laughed despairingly.
"A glue factory!"
Then he laughed, too, as much from friendliness as from amusement; and she remembered to tell him that the project of a glue factory was still "an Adams secret." It would be known soon, however, she added; and the whole Lamb connection would probably begin saying all sorts of things, heaven knew what!
Thus Alice built her walls of flimsy, working always gaily, or with at least the air of gaiety; and even as she rattled on, there was somewhere in her mind a constant little wonder. Everything she said seemed to be necessary to support something else she had said. How had it happened? She found herself telling him that since her father had decided on making so great a change in his ways, she and her mother hoped at last to persuade him to give up that "foolish little house" he had been so obstinate about; and she checked herself abruptly on this declivity just as she was about to slide into a remark concerning her own preference for a "country place." Discretion caught her in time; and something else, in company with discretion, caught her, for she stopped short in her talk and blushed.
They had taken possession of the bench beside the spring, by this time; and Russell, his elbow on the back of the bench and his chin on his hand, the better to look at her, had no guess at the cause of the blush, but was content to find it lovely. At his first sight of Alice she had seemed pretty in the particular way of being pretty that he happened to like best; and, with every moment he spent with her, this prettiness appeared to increase. He felt that he could not look at her enough: his gaze followed the fluttering of the graceful hands in almost continual gesture as she talked; then lifted happily to the vivacious face again. She charmed him.
After her abrupt pause, she sighed, then looked at him with her eyebrows lifted in a comedy appeal. "You haven't said you wouldn't give Henrietta the chance," she said, in the softest voice that can still have a little laugh running in it.
He was puzzled. "Give Henrietta the chance?"
"YOU know! You'll let me keep on being unfair, won't you? Not give the other girls a chance to get even?"
He promised, heartily.
Alice had said that no one who knew either Russell or herself would be likely to see them in the park or upon the dingy street; but although they returned by that same ungenteel thoroughfare they were seen by a person who knew them both. Also, with some surprise on the part of Russell, and something more poignant than surprise for Alice, they saw this person.
All of the dingy street was ugly, but the greater part of it appeared to be honest. The two pedestrians came upon a block or two, however, where it offered suggestions of a less upright character, like a steady enough workingman with a naughty book sticking out of his pocket. Three or four dim shops, a single story in height, exhibited foul signboards, yet fair enough so far as the wording went; one proclaiming a tobacconist, one a junk-dealer, one a dispenser of "soft drinks and cigars." The most credulous would have doubted these signboards; for the craft of the modern tradesman is exerted to lure indoors the passing glance, since if the glance is pleased the feet may follow; but this alleged tobacconist and his neighbours had long been fond of dust on their windows, evidently, and shades were pulled far down on the glass of their doors. Thus the public eye, small of pupil in the light of the open street, was intentionally not invited to the dusky interiors. Something different from mere lack of enterprise was apparent; and the signboards might have been omitted; they were pains thrown away, since it was plain to the world that the business parts of these shops were the brighter back rooms implied by the dark front rooms; and that the commerce there was in perilous new liquors and in dice and rough girls.
Nothing could have been more innocent than the serenity with which these wicked little places revealed themselves for what they were; and, bound by this final tie of guilelessness, they stood together in a row which ended with a companionable barbershop, much like them. Beyond was a series of soot-harried frame two-story houses, once part of a cheerful neighbourhood when the town was middle-aged and settled, and not old and growing. These houses, all carrying the label. "Rooms," had the worried look of vacancy that houses have when they are too full of everybody without being anybody's home; and there was, too, a surreptitious air about them, as if, like the false little shops, they advertised something by concealing it.
One of them—the one next to the barber-shop—had across its front an ample, jig-sawed veranda, where aforetime, no doubt, the father of a family had fanned himself with a palm-leaf fan on Sunday afternoons, watching the surreys go by, and where his daughter listened to mandolins and badinage on starlit evenings; but, although youth still held the veranda, both the youth and the veranda were in decay. The four or five young men who lounged there this afternoon were of a type known to shady pool-parlours. Hats found no favour with them; all of them wore caps; and their tight clothes, apparently from a common source, showed a vivacious fancy for oblique pockets, false belts, and Easter-egg colourings. Another thing common to the group was the expression of eye and mouth; and Alice, in the midst of her other thoughts, had a distasteful thought about this.
The veranda was within a dozen feet of the sidewalk, and as she and her escort came nearer, she took note of the young men, her face hardening a little, even before she suspected there might be a resemblance between them and any one she knew. Then she observed that each of these loungers wore not for the occasion, but as of habit, a look of furtively amused contempt; the mouth smiled to one side as if not to dislodge a cigarette, while the eyes kept languidly superior. All at once Alice was reminded of Walter; and the slight frown caused by this idea had just begun to darken her forehead when Walter himself stepped out of the open door of the house and appeared upon the veranda. Upon his head was a new straw hat, and in his hand was a Malacca stick with an ivory top, for Alice had finally decided against it for herself and had given it to him. His mood was lively: he twirled the stick through his fingers like a drum-major's baton, and whistled loudly.
Moreover, he was indeed accompanied. With him was a thin girl who had made a violent black-and-white poster of herself: black dress, black flimsy boa, black stockings, white slippers, great black hat down upon the black eyes; and beneath the hat a curve of cheek and chin made white as whitewash, and in strong bilateral motion with gum.
The loungers on the veranda were familiars of the pair; hailed them with cacklings; and one began to sing, in a voice all tin:
"Then my skirt, Sal, and me did go Right straight to the moving-pitcher show. OH, you bashful vamp!"
The girl laughed airily. "God, but you guys are wise!" she said.
"Come on, Wallie."
Walter stared at his sister; then grinned faintly, and nodded at Russell as the latter lifted his hat in salutation. Alice uttered an incoherent syllable of exclamation, and, as she began to walk faster, she bit her lip hard, not in order to look wistful, this time, but to help her keep tears of anger from her eyes.
Russell laughed cheerfully. "Your brother certainly seems to have found the place for 'colour' today," he said. "That girl's talk must be full of it."
But Alice had forgotten the colour she herself had used in accounting for Walter's peculiarities, and she did not understand. "What?" she said, huskily.
"Don't you remember telling me about him? How he was going to write, probably, and would go anywhere to pick up types and get them to talk?"
She kept her eyes ahead, and said sharply, "I think his literary tastes scarcely cover this case!"
"Don't be too sure. He didn't look at all disconcerted. He didn't seem to mind your seeing him."
"That's all the worse, isn't it?"
"Why, no," her friend said, genially. "It means he didn't consider that he was engaged in anything out of the way. You can't expect to understand everything boys do at his age; they do all sorts of queer things, and outgrow them. Your brother evidently has a taste for queer people, and very likely he's been at least half sincere when he's made you believe he had a literary motive behind it. We all go through——"
"Thanks, Mr. Russell," she interrupted. "Let's don't say any more."
He looked at her flushed face and enlarged eyes; and he liked her all the better for her indignation: this was how good sisters ought to feel, he thought, failing to understand that most of what she felt was not about Walter. He ventured only a word more. "Try not to mind it so much; it really doesn't amount to anything."
She shook her head, and they went on in silence; she did not look at him again until they stopped before her own house. Then she gave him only one glimpse of her eyes before she looked down. "It's spoiled, isn't it?" she said, in a low voice.
"Our walk—well, everything. Somehow it always—is."
"'Always is' what?" he asked.
"Spoiled," she said.
He laughed at that; but without looking at him she suddenly offered him her hand, and, as he took it, he felt a hurried, violent pressure upon his fingers, as if she meant to thank him almost passionately for being kind. She was gone before he could speak to her again.
In her room, with the door locked, she did not go to her mirror, but to her bed, flinging herself face down, not caring how far the pillows put her hat awry. Sheer grief had followed her anger; grief for the calamitous end of her bright afternoon, grief for the "end of everything," as she thought then. Nevertheless, she gradually grew more composed, and, when her mother tapped on the door presently, let her in. Mrs. Adams looked at her with quick apprehension.
"Oh, poor child! Wasn't he——"
Alice told her. "You see how it—how it made me look, mama," she quavered, having concluded her narrative. "I'd tried to cover up Walter's awfulness at the dance with that story about his being 'literary,' but no story was big enough to cover this up—and oh! it must make him think I tell stories about other things!"
"No, no, no!" Mrs. Adams protested. "Don't you see? At the worst, all HE could think is that Walter told stories to you about why he likes to be with such dreadful people, and you believed them. That's all HE'D think; don't you see?"
Alice's wet eyes began to show a little hopefulness. "You honestly think it might be that way, mama?"
"Why, from what you've told me he said, I KNOW it's that way. Didn't he say he wanted to come again?"
"N-no," Alice said, uncertainly. "But I think he will. At least I begin to think so now. He——" She stopped.
"From all you tell me, he seems to be a very desirable young man," Mrs. Adams said, primly.
Her daughter was silent for several moments; then new tears gathered upon her downcast lashes. "He's just—dear!" she faltered.
Mrs. Adams nodded. "He's told you he isn't engaged, hasn't he?"
"No. But I know he isn't. Maybe when he first came here he was near it, but I know he's not."
"I guess Mildred Palmer would LIKE him to be, all right!" Mrs. Adams was frank enough to say, rather triumphantly; and Alice, with a lowered head, murmured:
The words were all but inaudible.
"Don't you worry," her mother said, and patted her on the shoulder. "Everything will come out all right; don't you fear, Alice. Can't you see that beside any other girl in town you're just a perfect QUEEN? Do you think any young man that wasn't prejudiced, or something, would need more than just one look to——"
But Alice moved away from the caressing hand. "Never mind, mama. I wonder he looks at me at all. And if he does again, after seeing my brother with those horrible people——"
"Now, now!" Mrs. Adams interrupted, expostulating mournfully. "I'm sure Walter's a GOOD boy——"
"You are?" Alice cried, with a sudden vigour. "You ARE?"
"I'm sure he's GOOD, yes—and if he isn't, it's not his fault. It's mine."
"No, it's true," Mrs. Adams lamented. "I tried to bring him up to be good, God knows; and when he was little he was the best boy I ever saw. When he came from Sunday-school he'd always run to me and we'd go over the lesson together; and he let me come in his room at night to hear his prayers almost until he was sixteen. Most boys won't do that with their mothers—not nearly that long. I tried so hard to bring him up right—but if anything's gone wrong it's my fault."
"How could it be? You've just said——"
"It's because I didn't make your father this—this new step earlier. Then Walter might have had all the advantages that other——"
"Oh, mama, PLEASE!" Alice begged her. "Let's don't go over all that again. Isn't it more important to think what's to be done about him? Is he going to be allowed to go on disgracing us as he does?"
Mrs. Adams sighed profoundly. "I don't know what to do," she confessed, unhappily. "Your father's so upset about—about this new step he's taking—I don't feel as if we ought to——"
"No, no!" Alice cried. "Papa mustn't be distressed with this, on top of everything else. But SOMETHING'S got to be done about Walter."