"Used to be in the army. I've chucked it now," he explained, affably, beginning to look quite nice. For really, though small and wiry, with ginger-coloured hair and moustache and no-coloured eyes, Mohunsleigh isn't an ugly man, when you come to notice his nice, sharp features. He's only a distant cousin of mine, and so old (he's nearly forty) that in the first years of our acquaintance he made himself agreeable by teaching me to ride on his foot; but I always liked him—whenever I remembered his existence. Naturally, though, this hasn't been often, as one of his many eccentricities is to be continually prowling at the ends of the earth—anywhere, where there may be animals to shoot. What kind, he doesn't seem to care, if they are only large enough. Once, he was fond of tigers; but the last thing he had a fad for was polar bears, and he sent mother a skin, which makes the oak room smell strongly of camphor.
"I hope, anyhow, you're going to pay a good long visit to Newport," said Mrs. Pitchley.
"I meant to go back to-morrow morning," replied Mohunsleigh. "But perhaps I might stop on a bit longer."
"We'll give you some fun," volunteered Miss Pitchley, looking frightfully pretty.
"Will you?" said Mohunsleigh. "Jolly nice of you. I must think about it." Then he deigned to remember that I was his little long-lost cousin; asked when I'd arrived on this side the water, and a few other things; but he looked more at Miss Pitchley than at me. I suppose it is difficult to be much excited about a person who has taken riding lessons on your foot.
Potter asked Mohunsleigh where he was staying, and when he heard it was at an hotel, he said his sister wouldn't allow that to go on. Lord Mohunsleigh would have to come to The Moorings, that was settled; and his man must be told to pack up his things directly. Mightn't word be sent by messenger at once?
"Haven't brought a man, thanks awfully. Shed that habit long ago," said my cousin. "I've got precious little luggage, too; picked this thing up in a shop as I came along, and they charged me the deuce of a lot for it. You're awfully good, you know, and all that, to offer to put me up, but I only came prepared to spend a night or two."
Then Potter insisted, and blew all Mohunsleigh's objections away one by one, as if they had been threads of cobweb; still, my cousin wouldn't give a definite answer, perhaps not understanding American hospitality, or perhaps having other ideas which he preferred. At all events, we went to the bathing machines (which weren't bathing machines at all, but dear little houses) without anything being decided. The only invitation which Mohunsleigh had really accepted was Mrs. Pitchley's, for her husband's bathing box.
She kept her word, and called him "Lord Mohunsleigh" in quite a high voice, just as we passed the man who had refused to let him go onto the beach before; but the man didn't seem impressed in the least. I think he didn't even recognise Mohunsleigh as the same person, or if he did, he pretended very cleverly not to.
I had forgotten the horror of the bathing dress in my surprise at meeting Mohunsleigh, but it fell over me again like a cloud, as soon as I was shut up in the bathing box with those wisps of green silk. I wouldn't have the maid help me, and wrestled with the ordeal alone. It took me some time; but when everything was on (there were only four things, counting the cap and smart little sandals) I couldn't say to myself that the effect wasn't attractive. It was; and I did approve of myself in the quaint head-dress, which was more like a fetching silk toque with an Alsatian bow in front, than a mere cap.
But the awful moment came when I was ready, with my hand on the door. I'm sure Joan of Arc must have felt like that when she had let her hair down, and put on that graceful white dress of hers one sees in the pictures, to be burned. She may have been dimly aware that she was looking quite her best, as I was; but even that couldn't have buoyed her up much at the moment, and it didn't me.
As I stood hesitating, somebody knocked. I peeped out, and it was Sally—quiet, unassuming little Sally, with her middle-aged airs—looking like one of Stan's Gaiety Girl photographs, in a short, low-necked dress of bright poppy colour, with silk legs as shiny as an Archdeacon's, only with quite a different effect.
"Come on, my green Undine," said she; and I came, because she pulled me so suddenly that otherwise I should have fallen flat on my nose.
Having seen her dressed so much in my style, it wasn't quite as bad as before; and when I was out of my box,—like one of those little barometer women that tell fair weather,—there was Mrs. Pitchley in crimson, and Carolyn Pitchley in white, and lots of pretty women, all with the same lovely stockings. There hadn't been any standing about when we arrived, because we were early, not having gone to the Casino first as the others had, and it was a relief to find them; or it was, until I had a great shock.
Instead of the men being away at a separate beach of their own, they were put with us, and kept popping out of boxes every minute, and running up to talk to the girls they knew, just as calmly as if they were in evening dress. My eyes almost came out of my head for an instant. Then I just swallowed hard, and leaped over about five centuries of prejudice as if I were jumping across a tiny beck.
"Everything's a matter of custom," said I to myself; and in another minute I was racing gaily down to the water, hand in hand with Sally, as if we had been little girls with sand pails and shovels.
I expected to feel as if I had plunged into a million-gallon bath of iced water, when I got out among the creamy breakers; but judging from the sensation, Americans have had their part of the Atlantic beautifully warmed from underneath, with some patent heating apparatus. It would be just like them!
The sandy beach is so level, you can patter out ever so far, until you finally have to bob up and down for the rolling waves, as if they were Royalties—and so they are, for the Kingdom of Mer. I can swim a little, and Potter took me beyond the breakers. It was great fun, under that arch of turquoise sky, with the sun dancing on the clear green water, as if the millionaires of Newport had been sprinkling gold pieces. But the best of all was the floating platform, about a hundred yards from the beach, where we sat and let the emeralds and pearls that the Princesses of Mer threw, spray over us.
At home, when you are at the sea, your governess or some other person who thinks enjoyment ought to be measured off by rule, sits on the shore looking at her watch; and when you have been in exactly twenty minutes she tells you to come out directly, or you will catch a chill. I've always wondered what it would do to you if you stopped in for twenty-one minutes, though I never had the chance to try; but in America all that is quite different, as different as the very way they say "seaside," with their accent on the first instead of the last syllable.
Nobody thinks about watches. You just bathe and bathe as long as you feel like it. When you are tired of it you come out; then you bake yourself in the sand for a little while if you like, and run back to begin over again. It is heavenly. No other adjective half expresses it.
When we did really make up our minds to stop out for good, and had dressed ourselves, feeling like goddesses just born of the foam (or gods, as the case might be), we all met—our party, the Pitchleys and my cousin,—to arrange about what Mohunsleigh would do.
It seemed that Mrs. Pitchley had invited him to lunch, and as she had been so kind about the bathhouse, he explained to Potter, he thought that he couldn't very well refuse. About stopping on, he would decide later; but he consented to drive with us in the afternoon, in a motor car of Potter's that holds six. By that time, he would have had time to send a wire to a friend of his in New York, and to make up his mind what he had better do about going back.
When we got home, we found Mrs. Ess Kay much better, and up. She was inclined at first to be cross with Sally and Potter for taking me to the beach; but when she heard about Mohunsleigh, she forgot to be vexed, and seemed almost excited about him, I can't think why.
She asked lots of questions, very quickly, one after the other, brightening up when Potter told how he had invited Mohunsleigh to come to The Moorings, but looking quite strained and wild at the news about his lunching with the Pitchleys.
"You oughtn't to have let him go, Potter," she said.
Potter shrugged his shoulders—those square American shoulders of his. "Strange as it may seem to you, he wanted to. That settled it. I didn't monkey with the gunpowder."
Mrs. Ess Kay's lips went down at the corners, and her eyes flashed.
"How easy it is to see that woman's game," said she. "Cora Pitchley knows that Mrs. Van der Windt and the committee will be only too anxious for us to go to the Pink Ball now, and she thinks she sees a way of getting there too, after all. Mark my words, she's got her Earl; it'll go hard with her if she doesn't stick to him. Betty, can't you do something? He's your cousin. You've a right to him."
"I don't know that I want him particularly," I confessed. "Mohunsleigh's a dear, queer old thing, and I'm fond of him; but we haven't seen much of him at home, for years. And I know he can't be bothered with me."
"Anyhow, he certainly ought to be here," said Mrs. Ess Kay, anxiously; "it will be perfectly loathsome if we have to sit still and see the Pitchley's gobble him up."
"Poor Mohunsleigh!" I exclaimed. "Why, what will they do with him?" And for a lurid instant I beheld Miss Pitchley and Carolyn as beautiful ogresses, with their lips red—too red.
"They'll go to the Pink Ball with him, and by him. They couldn't without him. That's what they'll do," said Mrs. Ess Kay, as if she saw my cousin's whitening bones picked clean by the Pitchley family. "And we shall have to be intimate with them, the whole time he stays."
"Oh, you needn't feel bound to for my sake. It isn't as though Mohunsleigh——" I began; but Mrs. Ess Kay snapped my poor sentence in two, as if it had been cotton on a reel.
"I have to think for all of us," said she; "Cora Pitchley is a climber."
We changed our dresses (Sally says one must be forever changing one's dress at Newport), lunched; and then at the door appeared a gorgeous white motor car lined with scarlet, which I had never seen before. As we all had on white, from head to foot, we matched it beautifully; and feeling that we looked nice enough even to grace an accident, if it must come, we started to pick up Carolyn Pitchley and my cousin.
Mrs. Ess Kay didn't go, for she wasn't quite herself yet; and besides, she perhaps thought that in the circumstances Mohunsleigh ought to be brought to call before she met him informally. I don't know that any of us were as sorry as we ought to have been not to have her.
The Pitchleys' house, which is called the Chateau de Plaisance, is on a much grander scale than The Moorings. It thinks it is an old French Chateau, and tries to convey the same impression to beholders, as do several others of more or less the same sort. But it's a hopeless effort. The poor dears might as well give up and resign themselves once for all to being a blot on the exquisite blue and gold landscape; though perhaps if they can hold out for two or three hundred years, they may do better. The farther we went, along a glorious road called the Cliff Drive, and the more charming Colonial houses and delightful "cottages" I saw, the more I felt that the regular palaces were mistakes, with Newport for a setting and the sea for a background. I am glad that I didn't live at the time when all the real castles of the world were young and awkward. Perhaps they looked just as crude as these, at first, though it's hard to imagine it.
When we went back, the first thing that Mrs. Ess Kay asked, was: "Well, what about Lord Mohunsleigh?"
"He's made up his mind to stop, and send for his things," said I.
"You gave him my note? He's coming to us?"
"I gave him the note, and he's coming round presently to thank you for being so kind. But—he feels he had better stay with the Pitchleys. You see, it's like this. They happen to be sending a servant to New York to-day, to do some commissions for Mrs. Pitchley, so the man will go to Mohunsleigh's hotel too. And as they're doing so much for him, and Mrs. Pitchley and her husband know some friends of his at Home, he thinks—But he'll tell you all about it himself."
"I told you so!" said Mrs. Ess Kay.
ABOUT A VIOLET TEA AND A MILLIONAIRE
While we were motoring, Mrs. Ess Kay had been terribly busy with her secretary, getting invitations ready for a Violet Tea.
She was giving the Tea, she explained, to introduce me to Newport Society, and she was having a Violet one because it was not the right time of year for violets.
I meekly suggested that as a reason for giving some other kind of Tea, but she said not at all. She wished to have that kind because violets were hard to get, though not impossible. I would see when the time came that she could get them. And I should also see, if it were indeed true that I did not know, what a Violet Tea was. She wanted it to be a surprise for me; she thought I would like it.
I hadn't long to wait before learning the true inwardness of a Violet Tea, for Mrs. Ess Kay was determined to get me "out" as soon as possible; and it seems that in America the time to bring a girl out is at a tea. At least, that is one way; and as Mrs. Ess Kay was even then planning to give something very big just before the much talked about "Pink Ball," so as to "take the shine off that grand affair," she wished to get the teacups washed up before she sent out the next invitations.
I'm sure Mother wouldn't take as much trouble for a house party to meet the King and Queen, as Mrs. Ess Kay did for that Violet Tea; and I daren't think even now—though it happened weeks ago—of the money she must have spent.
For one thing, she and Sally and I had to have violet dresses. She would buy mine (I don't see how I should have done it, if she hadn't, especially as Vic wrote just then that Mother felt poorer than ever, and That Man hadn't yet proposed), and it was beautiful; pale violet silk muslin, trimmed with violets and their leaves. Then violet and silver livery was ordered in a great hurry for the four footmen—to be worn on one afternoon, and no more! But these things were mere sketchy details, compared to other preparations.
One room, where tea was to be served, was entirely draped with violet silk, from the palest to the darkest shades; and for the smaller of the two drawing-rooms—the one where Mrs. Ess Kay would stand to receive her guests—wire frames were made, from measurements, to fit and cover all four walls. I couldn't imagine what these frames were for, at first, but when their hour came, they were padded with moss and covered with fresh violets. The curtains were taken down from the windows, and a network of violets was hung up in their place, with an effect of great loveliness when the light streamed through the screen of flowers. And even this was not all, for a soft thick mat of grass and moss was spread over the polished floor, with a sprinkling of violets. All the furniture was taken away, and instead, along the walls, were placed banks of artificial moss and violets. No doubt these would have been real, too, but when crushed, they would have stained the dresses of those that sat upon them. Altogether, the room was turned into a woodsy bower of violets; and I was given a great bunch of the dear flowers to carry.
There had been only a week in which to prepare these sensational effects, but everything was finished in time, and without flurry. Already I knew a great many of Mrs. Ess Kay's friends; and on the day of the tea it seemed that each person whose acquaintance I had made had remembered me with a cartwheel of violets. All my flowers were placed in vases on tables in the big drawing-room, adjoining the bower of violets; and as a card was attached to each bunch, pinned on the masses of violet satin ribbon which trailed from it, each giver could have the pleasure of seeing how his gift compared with his neighbour's. It was a wonderful display—a violet show. And, as Mrs. Ess Kay had said, "it was not the right time of the year for violets."
We stood on our feet for hours, smiled yards of smiles, and said the same things over and over again so many times, that I began to feel like a phonograph doll which I saw in my first New York shop. Only, when I ran down nobody wound me up, and I had to go on by myself as best I could, which was fatiguing, and made the machinery squeak.
But everybody said it was a huge success. The New York papers had each more than a column about the "function," as they called it, and Mrs. Ess Kay was piously happy.
I had thought we were very gay before; but after the Violet Tea, from getting up to going to bed, we never had a moment that hadn't its own appointed place in the procession of hours, like a bead in a long rosary.
After breakfast, we went to the Casino, to play tennis, listen to the concert, or pretend to, and to gabble. There, we would meet everybody we knew; and it was odd to see the calm, but slightly conscious air of superiority with which the Everybodies, going in or out, passed the poor nobodies assembled to watch the Casino entrance. Just as the middle and lower class people stand till they are ready to drop, only to see the Queen drive into the Park, or leave Buckingham Palace dreadfully bored, to open a bridge, so these Americans jostle each other to see their millionaires and especially millionaires, going to enjoy themselves. Fancy if Londoners reduced themselves to a state of collapse for the pleasure of seeing Mr. Beit take off his hat to Mrs. Wertheimer! But the millionaires in America seem to be like our aristocracy, only more important, for the non millionaires take a great deal more trouble to stare at them than the common people do at us.
After the Casino, there was always the beach, and the most delightful things happened at the beach. It was never twice the same. Then, we would lunch with some one, or some one would lunch with us at The Moorings. Afterwards there would be a drive, calls to make, perhaps two or three wonderful "At Homes," or concerts, with great singers and entertainers from New York; twenty minutes' rest, and then a scramble to dress for dinner, with a "dinner dance" to follow, or amateur theatricals.
Of course, as I haven't been presented yet, and don't know anything about what the Season is like in Town, except what Vic has told me, I can't judge of the differences at first hand; but then, Vic has told me a lot, and I have heard Stan and Loveland talk; besides, one seems to know one's own country and country people by instinct without having actually to see what they do; and I'm sure that even in the smartest set at home they don't dream of bothering their heads to think of such original entertainments as in America.
In England there are just two or three kinds of parties. You give a crush, which is grand if you have a big house, or you ask a few bright, particular ones and enjoy yourself. Or in the country you have a house party, and pick out the men because they can shoot and the women because they are pretty; or else, if it's winter, you hunt and you have theatricals. But the Americans at Newport turn up their noses at that slow, old-fashioned kind of thing. They lie awake nights (I'm sure they must) to think of something so original that nobody else can ever have had anything the least like it before. It is better, too, to have it very sensational and startling. If you are invited to a party, you never know a bit what it will be like; whether you will dance in a barn, and eat your supper on horseback out of decorated mangers; whether there will be captive balloons at a garden party; whether a Noah's Ark will have been rigged up on a miniature lake, or whether you will have a pair of skates provided for you and find yourself cutting figures on the ice in a gorgeously illuminated skating-rink, with the thermometer up to goodness knows how many degrees outside.
Of course, in a place where everybody gets nervous prostration trying to outdo everybody else in originality and extravagance, it wouldn't be like Mrs. Ess Kay to let herself fall behind.
She simply made up her mind that her big entertainment should be the affair of the season, before she decided what form it should take. She thought instead of sleeping, for several nights, and began to wear the expression on her face which I have in motor cars when I think we are going to telescope with something twice our size, and am trying to prepare for eternity with a pleasant smile on my lips. She ate scarcely anything, telephoned a good deal, and took phenacetin in hot milk. Then, suddenly, it came to her;—I mean the Idea.
We were at lunch when she thought of it, and luckily there were no visitors except Mrs. Pitchley and Carolyn, Mohunsleigh, and Tom Doremus. It was bad enough even with them, for she half sprang up, then sat down again, first going red, then going pale; and we all thought she was getting ready to faint. But as soon as she could speak, she said, when we shrieked at her, "It's nothing—nothing. I've just thought of something, that's all."
Afterwards, when she and Sally and Potter and I were alone together, she told us that at last she had got the right inspiration for her big entertainment.
It was two days after the Violet Tea, so it was quite time she should get it, she said; and she had been dreadfully worried, because the invitations ought to go out almost at once. The famous Pink Ball at the Casino was for the 23d, and she wanted to have her party the night before, so that everybody would be worn out, and the ball would fall flat.
"But we've got our cards all right now," said Potter. "Why do you want to queer the show?"
"I intend to show Mrs. Van der Windt what I can do," she answered.
"Suppose a lot of the people you want refuse you, so that they can be fresh for the ball?" Sally suggested.
"They won't," said Mrs. Ess Kay, "when they have seen what I shall say on the invitations."
Then she got up, went to her desk, took out some engraved cards which she had ready, all but filling in the date, and wrote something in one corner. "What do you think of that?" she asked Sally.
Sally took the card, looked at it for a minute, laughed, and passed it on to me, while Potter came and stared over my shoulder.
She had written across the card: "Fancy Dress, with Masks. A Visit to the Maze; and Aladdin's Cave."
"Do you think that will bring them?" she enquired, with a triumphant and mysterious air.
"I think it will," said Sally.
"You know your business, old girl," remarked Potter.
"They'll want to know what it means, and they'll be bound to come and find out. What is your idea, anyway?"
"I'll tell you another time," said Mrs. Ess Kay. "I should like it to be a surprise for Betty, just as it will be for people outside. She'll enjoy it more."
I didn't tease to know the secret, though I was really curious, especially about Aladdin's Cave, which seemed to promise something gorgeous. The mystery was religiously kept; but there was plenty of excitement in sending out the invitations.
There were endless discussions between Mrs. Ess Kay and Potter, and though she seemed so angry with Mrs. Van der Windt and several other members of the Ball committee, for trying to make a stand against her, she was perfectly ruthless about the names she would scratch off the lists her secretary was continually making out and revising for her.
I heard her say that she wouldn't have dreamed of asking the Pitchleys, if they hadn't "got hold of" Mohunsleigh; and that Cora Pitchley, whatever else she might be, was the cleverest woman in Newport, to have scooped in all the honours. Though to this day I can't see exactly what she meant, for she never would explain.
Anyhow, whatever the superlatively clever thing was that Mrs. Pitchley had done, there was no longer a question of her being kept out from the Pink Ball, or anything else. People were charming to her, and we met Mrs. Van der Windt herself at the Chateau at a luncheon party with a vaudeville entertainment afterwards, and also at a dinner. Mrs. Van der Windt seemed to like my cousin, Mohunsleigh, very much, too, and gave a moonlight motor car picnic especially for him, with only a few people asked besides ourselves, and the Pitchleys and Tom Doremus.
Mohunsleigh had not expected to stay more than a few days; but when he found that the friend he wanted to visit in California was detained in New York on business, and Mrs. Pitchley and everybody urged him very much to stop, he decided that he would. I didn't suppose that Mohunsleigh would care for frivolities, after all the years he has spent tramping about in strange countries, killing things; but he appeared to be perfectly happy and nothing bored him, so long as the Pitchleys were there.
When Mrs. Ess Kay was making out the list of invitations for the great Blow Out, as Potter called it, Mohunsleigh happened to stroll over to The Moorings alone. He came to tell us that he had made up his mind to stay, and why.
"You see," he exclaimed, "I hadn't an invitation for any special time, from Harborough. It was a sort of standing thing, given when we met in Damascus last winter. I was to come when I could, and be always welcome; that sort of thing, don't you know. I cabled the day I sailed, and didn't get any answer, but I hadn't been in New York two hours when I'm blessed if the beggar didn't walk in on me at the Waldorf. Jolly glad to see me, and all that, but had to hang on in New York for a bit, on some business or other. Now he thinks he can't get off for a fortnight or so, and as what he's got on isn't my sort of racket, I might as well be here as anywhere else, perhaps a little better."
"What Harborough is your friend?" enquired Mrs. Ess Kay, with interest. "The new San Francisco millionaire?"
"Don't know how new he is," said Mohunsleigh, "or even whether he's a millionaire, for it's the sort of thing one doesn't ask a chap. But if he isn't a millionaire he can spend money like one, for I've seen him do it. A deuce of a good fellow he is; don't know a better anywhere."
"It's Jameson B. Harborough, isn't it?" asked Sally; and I was quite surprised to hear her ask the question, for she never seems to take any interest in a man just because he is a millionaire, as so many of the other people I meet do.
"Yes, those are his initials," said Mohunsleigh, looking bored.
"Then it is the millionaire, Katherine," went on Sally, quite eagerly. "Don't you think, as he's said to be such an interesting, original sort of person, and such a friend of Lord Mohunsleigh's, besides, that it would be nice if you gave Lord Mohunsleigh a card to send him, for your party on the 22d?"
"Why, yes, that's a very good idea of yours, Sally," exclaimed Mrs. Ess Kay. "I shall be delighted. I'll give you the card now, Lord Mohunsleigh, if you don't mind."
Lord Mohunsleigh said that he would be very pleased, but he couldn't tell at all whether his friend went in for that sort of thing—had an idea he didn't, and rather fought shy of society shows, though, of course, Harborough was a gentleman, and all that.
"Anyhow, you send him the card, and write him a line saying we should like to meet him," persisted Mrs. Ess Kay.
Accordingly, Mohunsleigh slipped the card in its crested envelope into his pocket, and we heard nothing more of it for a while. Then, when I at least had forgotten the conversation, in the wild rush for pleasure in which we lived, he said one day to Mrs. Ess Kay and Sally that his friend would be so much obliged if the invitation might be kept open. Harborough couldn't be sure until the last moment whether he could come or not, but would be delighted to do so, if he might be allowed to decide at the last moment.
All Newport was soon talking about Mrs. Ess Kay's mysterious fancy dress party, which wasn't exactly a ball, but was—nobody knew what. People wondered about the Maze and Aladdin's Cave; and those who were asked were sure they would be something to be remembered and talked of through coming seasons; while those who were not, were equally certain that the great mysteries would turn out to be stupid and childish. The Pink Ball, which had been the one absorbing topic of conversation till Mrs. Ess Kay's invitations appeared, became a matter of secondary interest, and Mrs. Ess Kay and Mrs. Pitchley both began thus early to be avenged.
Potter surprised me one morning with the design of a fancy dress, which he announced that he'd been inspired in the night to sketch for my benefit. According to him, I was to represent the Frost Sprite, in glittering white garments, with a long veil like a trail of sparkling mist. I thought it rather suggestive of a diamond-dusted Christmas card, but Mrs. Ess Kay was so charmed with the idea that she begged me to have it. "Potter will be broken-hearted if you don't, and besides, it will cost you next to nothing," she said.
It was the latter consideration rather more than the first which decided me to give my gracious consent. Mrs. Ess Kay telegraphed to a costumier, who was also an artist. He came, made a few practical alterations in Potter's design, and arranged costumes for Mrs. Ess Kay and Sally. Afterwards, when my bill came in, which it didn't do till I asked for it, it certainly was ridiculously small, a mere nothing even for me; but I couldn't help having some uncomfortable suspicions, and I have them still.
ABOUT A GREAT AFFAIR
And now I have come to the Great Affair.
It is the day after, and I have been scribbling down in a hurry all the things that happened to me in Newport meanwhile, for somehow most things have seemed to lead up to that.
I knew no more than anybody outside about the mystery of the Maze, and Aladdin's Cave. The secret was wonderfully kept, although there was a constant undertone of excitement running through the house for days beforehand, and an army of workmen were busy in "the grounds"—as everyone calls them—first putting up a gigantic marquee, and then working inside it. One man told Mrs. Ess Kay that he had been offered a hundred dollars by a New York newspaper to tell what was the nature of his work at The Moorings, but either the bribe wasn't enough, or else he was impeccable.
All under the house runs a great cellar. I knew this from the first, because one broiling hot day, soon after I came, Sally took me down to get cool after I had dressed for somebody's At Home, and looked like a freshly boiled lobster. It's a series of rooms, perfectly ventilated, with rough walls, and cemented floors. One of the rooms is of enormous size, and there are stone pillars dotted about here and there for supports. There is one other that is rather large, but the rest are small. One is used as if it were an ice house; there are others for wine; and there are some storerooms. For a week before the Great Affair men were working down there all day, and towards the last far into the night. Big boxes and bales were lugged down stairs, and didn't come up again. Not a hint went round of what was going on, but I was sure that Aladdin's Cave was in mysterious process of manufacture.
There seemed quite a pressure on the atmosphere for days at The Moorings, except in Sally Woodburn's rooms, for I've noticed that she is never excited by social events. They seem of little real importance to her, I suppose, compared with the past which she has always in her thoughts. When I was with her I felt calmer; but with others, or when I was alone (which seldom happened for more than ten minutes at a stretch) I was as much excited as anybody. Partly it may have been the effect of climate, for the air in America certainly does make you feel always as if something wonderful was going to happen to you round the next corner; and partly it was the effect of Potter.
Potter was most disturbing—and is still, for that matter. He has the air of feeling that he and he alone has a right to me, and it's quite a lesson in tact keeping the peace between him and other men who feel it their Christian duty to be a little nice to a young foreigner.
But I am thinking now of the time before the Great Affair. It really was a strain wondering what it would be like, and whether it would be a grand success, or whether it would fall short of all the brilliant expectations, when the mystery should be revealed.
At last the night came. The invitations were for ten o'clock, and people could not resist the temptation to come soon after the hour, and begin. Mrs. Ess Kay stood in the Early English drawing-room (that's the style it's furnished in, or she believes it is) receiving without a mask, and dressed to represent Queen Margaret of Navarre, from whom she says that she is descended. She had another dress to put on afterwards, so that none of the guests would recognise her, and she could have fun with the rest, but no one knew about that except Sally and Potter, and me.
We others didn't appear at first, because we had no costumes to change with, but by and by, when a lot of people had arrived, we mingled with them.
As soon as anyone came in, Mrs. Ess Kay would say, "How do you do, my Lord of Leicester, or my noble George Washington," or whatever the person might be trying to be. "So glad to see you. You must go and have a look at the Maze. Do you know how to find it? Just through that curtain. You can't miss the way."
Then the gorgeous masker would cross the hall, and disappear behind a great curtain of tapestry that covered an open doorway leading to the garden. But he hadn't to go out of doors. A canvas covered, winding passage took him to the vast marquee, which was, of course, the Maze. But why it was the Maze, and what happened to you in the Maze after you had got in, I didn't know any more than the outsiders. That was the fun of it for me, of course; and it really was fun.
Sally had only taken enough pains about her dress to save annoying Mrs. Ess Kay. She was a White Carmelite, with a veil over her face instead of a mask. But Potter had made a tremendous fuss about himself. He was Flame, which he said was appropriate in the circumstances, as he had got so used to playing Fire to my Frost, he felt quite at home in the character. And he was very magnificent. He had designed the costume himself, for he fancies himself at that sort of thing; and my white sparkling robes, and his scarlet satin and carbuncle embroidery, and copper and gold fringes did look rather effective side by side.
He made that an excuse for insisting that I should go with him into the Maze, although a tall Hamlet and a Henry V. of England both wanted to take me.
Potter whisked me away from them somehow, and we passed under the tapestry curtains while one of the two Hungarian bands Mrs. Ess Kay had hired played a waltz which made me long to dance.
"This way to the Maze; this way to the Maze," a man dressed like a Beefeater was continually saying. He stood just outside the door, in a kind of canvas vestibule, lined with greenery, so that it looked like the entrance to a bower.
The passage to the marquee had been made so beautiful, that I couldn't help crying out to Potter with admiration. Not an inch of the canvas showed, for we walked through a sort of tunnel of roses, all lit up with invisible electric lights. It was like the way to fairyland; and the floor was covered with a mat of artificial grass, like they have for stage lawns, Potter said.
I thought, when we came to the end of the rose-tunnel, we should find ourselves in a big open space in the marquee, but when the tunnel stopped, we were in a narrow alley between tall green bushes, set so thickly and so close together that we couldn't see what was on the other side. Above us, instead of the canvas roof of the marquee (which must have been over all), a violet mist seemed to float, with a very faint, soft light filtering through it, like blue moonlight. I suppose it must have been ever and ever so many thicknesses of blue gauze, with shaded lights hanging above, but the effect was mysterious and alluring.
We had only gone on a little way when we arrived at a tiny house built apparently of red flowers; and there was a red light coming out of the one little window. "The Witch of the Woods Lives Here," said a card on the door.
We pushed, and inside was a room, with a young woman in white, crystal-gazing as hard as she could. She had also a velvet cushion on which you laid your hand, and she told your character and your fortune. Some people in historical dress were ready to come out just as we were going in, and one of them said, "It's Madame Cortelyn. Mrs. Stuyvesant-Knox must have given her at least five hundred dollars or she wouldn't have come a step."
We had our hands done, and the Witch of the Woods told me that I had come from "across the water," but that I would marry a man on this side; and then she saw some one in the crystal who looked so exactly like Potter Parker, that I wished I had stopped outside her red house.
After this, we kept losing ourselves in different green-walled paths, and suddenly coming on booths where variety entertainments were going on; or funny cardboard pagodas, where celebrated Japanese artists did your portrait in five minutes on rice paper; or silk tents with conjuring shows. And there was a place where you fished in a small round pond with magnets and caught little metal frogs with jewels in their heads, which you picked out. Farther on was a miniature Eastern bazaar where girls in gauze danced, while you drank Turkish coffee and pushed spoonfuls of sherbet under the lace on your mask. And there was a kinematograph entertainment of a bull fight, which I wouldn't look at, and some martyrs being reluctantly eaten by lions; and Otero dancing.
All the masked people we met were enjoying themselves very much, and saying this was the best thing for years. And it really was fun, but at last I thought we must have seen it all, and I wanted to go out. Besides, I was tired of being with Potter, who would be sentimental, though I begged him not.
"How do you propose to escape?" he asked. "This is a Maze. The proper dodge in a Maze is to be lost, and I am lost. So are you. We're lost together."
"But I want to be found now," said I. "We've been lost long enough. There are lots of other things to do."
"And there's all night to do them in," said Potter. "I daresay we shall be lost for an hour or so yet. We've been wandering around from one path to another, and we've never seen the same thing twice, so perhaps there's a lot more to explore."
"You must know," I said. "It wasn't kept a secret from you, as it was from me. You must have been through this Maze heaps of times, and of course you know the way out."
"If I did, I've forgotten it," Potter coolly remarked. Then he changed his tone. "You make me forget everything, Betty—everything but yourself."
"You're not to call me Betty!" I said crossly, for I was tired of having conversations turned like that. And I thought that I would be having much more fun with someone else; for what is the good of wearing a mask, if you are only to talk with people you know?
"There's something else I'd a great deal sooner call you," he half whispered. "Come into this little dell where the fountain is, and the orange trees, and let me tell you."
"I don't want to know," I said.
"Yes, you do. Come along, anyhow, and I'll pick you an orange. Perhaps there'll be something nice inside it, like there was in the toad's head."
I wasn't to be bribed in that way, but he took hold of my hand, and pulled, so that I had to go with him unless I wished to resist and be silly. Several people were coming towards us round the twist of the path, and one tall man ahead of the others, dressed very plainly like a Puritan, was looking hard at us. Rather than make a scene, I went quietly with Potter; but as soon as he had whisked me into the little dell with the orange trees and the fountain, he pushed one of the trees, and it moved forward in a groove, so as to block up the entrance and hide the dell from anyone who walked along the path.
"That's not a bad trick, is it?" said he. "I had that arranged on purpose."
"On purpose for what?" I was silly enough to ask.
"To bring you here, and get you to myself. This is Betty's Bower; but nobody knows it except you and me."
With that, he pulled off his mask, and made as if he would help me to do the same with mine, but I stepped back, and almost tumbled over into the fountain. Perhaps I would, if he hadn't caught me round the waist; but instead of letting go when he had steadied me on my feet, he drew me closer to him. I gave a twist and a little angry cry, and just then, to my joy, someone from outside pushed the orange tree back in its groove so as to leave an opening again.
I darted out, and caught a glimpse of the tall Puritan man who was apparently engaged in pulling the tree forward so as to close the gap and shut Potter in.
It was so quick, that I hardly had time to understand whether it was being done for my sake or not, but I didn't stop to think; I simply ran. I met harlequins, and queens, kings and columbines hunting in couples (the green alleys were only broad enough for two), but I pushed by them and went flitting down path after path, though voices called after me, and people pretended to shiver with cold as Frost passed.
Then, suddenly, "I think this is a way out," said a voice I knew, speaking just behind me. It was the voice of my brown man. I could have recognised it among thousands. But when I looked, it was the tall figure of the grey Puritan who had helped me to get away from Potter Parker.
I didn't answer a word; not even to say "Thank you"; or "Is this really you, Mr. Brett?" I just went in the direction he said, and in another minute I was out under the Italian pergola, draped with roses and wistaria, that runs for a long way overlooking the sea. Then I glanced over my shoulder, and he was there, but hesitating as if he hadn't decided whether to come with me, or go back.
When I saw this, I did stop and mumble in a low voice, "It is you, isn't it, Mr. Brett?"
"Yes," he answered. "I hope you forgive me?"
"Oh, I thank you," said I. "I—wanted to come away. But how did you know that—and how did you know me?"
"I couldn't help seeing that you were being pretty well forced to do something you didn't want to do," he replied, coming a few steps nearer; and there seemed to be nobody under the pergola except just us two. "I don't suppose I had any right to be angry at seeing that happen, but I was. So I did what I did on the spur of the moment. As for recognising you—I—well, you're rather tall, you know, and have a way of holding your head that—that isn't easily forgotten."
"I'm sorry I'm so badly disguised," I said, laughing. "But I'm glad you knew me. I'm so glad, too, that I'm out here. I began to have—quite a stifled feeling. How lovely it is in this pergola, isn't it? Do you think we might walk for a few minutes—and get cool?"
"May I walk with you?" he asked, in a humble sort of way, that gave me a funny little pain in my heart.
"Please do," I said quickly, and as cordially as I could—far more cordially than I would have spoken to any man in Mrs. Ess Kay's set. "It's nice to see you here to-night."
"You must be very much surprised."
I had said "Yes," before I stopped to think; and then I was sorry, because it showed that I was thinking he did not belong in such a scene as this. But it was too late to go back, so I went on, instead. "It's a good surprise."
"It's more than kind of you not quite to have forgotten a waif like me," he said.
"I shall never forget you," said I. "Why, of course, I couldn't." And I noticed that my voice sounded quite earnest, just as I felt; but I wasn't sure that I ought to let him know—even if he was poor and unlucky—that I did feel so sincerely about it. "There's Vivace, you know, for one reason."
"What about Vivace?"
"Oh, you needn't pretend; because I was sure you gave him to me, and I wanted so much to write to that Club and thank you, only I thought as you had put no name, perhaps I'd better not. I must tell you now, though; I can't think how you came to be so kind."
"It was one of the greatest pleasures I have ever had. You were kind not to be offended with me. I didn't mean to take a liberty. I thought you would like the little chap."
"I love him dearly. Often I should have been dreadfully homesick if it hadn't been for him. He always seems to understand if I feel gloomy, and he does his dear little brindled best to cheer me up."
"Vivace is a lucky and happy dog."
"But don't you miss him?"
"No. For I like to think that you have him. You see, you were very kind to me, when I was in a hard position, and a good deal down on my luck. There was nothing I could do to show how I appreciated it—until I thought of Vivace. It was our little talk on the dock, about 'finding a lost dog,' that put the idea into my head."
"I guessed as much," said I, laughing. "It was that made me sure at once who it was I had to thank for Vivace. And—I was glad he had been yours. After what I'd seen you do on board ship, you know, I—I honoured you. And I feel proud to think that—we are friends."
"You think of me as your friend?" he asked, in a voice that showed he was glad, or excited, or something that wasn't quite calm.
"Indeed, I do think of you so," I assured him. "And you've proved your friendship for me three times. Once on the dock. Once, by giving up dear Vivace for me. And now again to-night, when you came to my rescue. I was—really bored in there, you know. And people seem to give themselves so much liberty in—in their jokes when they're masked."
"I have to thank the masks for being at Mrs. Stuyvesant-Knox's house to-night," said Jim Brett. "You must be wondering how they let me in, considering that, on account of the masks, everybody had to show their invitation cards at the gates. I had mine all right. But—there are such things as newspaper reporters, as you know to your sorrow. I don't say I am here in that capacity; but I leave you to draw your own conclusions."
"What fun!" I exclaimed.
"It is fun now; I had no right to dare, but I did dare to hope that I might have a glimpse of you. I was sure that I should recognise you."
"If I'd dreamed of your being here, I should have recognised you," I said. "You're taller than any other man here, I think."
"Men grow tall in the West, where I come from."
"Yes, and strong, too—thank God."
"Men are brave all the world over."
"I should think there are none braver than you, Mr. Brett," I said.
"It's glorious for a man like me to hear such kind words from a girl like you, though I don't deserve them," he answered. "But I shall try to deserve them. All my life I shall be better for having heard them from your lips. You can hardly guess what it is to me. Perhaps the thing that comes nearest to it, would be if a prisoner for life in some dark pit heard a voice of sympathy speaking to him—actually to him—from a high white star."
"Oh, don't speak of yourself as a prisoner in the dark!" I cried.
"What else am I, when I stop to reflect how hopelessly I must be removed by circumstances from glorious heights—where stars shine."
"But there can be nothing in your circumstances, Mr. Brett," I insisted, eagerly, "which need remove you from any heights. I wonder you—so brave and strong, and an American, too—can say that of yourself. Why, you can reach anything, do anything you really wish, if you just want it enough."
"Do you, an English girl, a daughter of the aristocracy, tell me that?" he asked.
"I do. As if that makes any difference—any real, true difference, I mean, when it comes to the heart of things. Oh, I've been thinking of such matters a great deal lately. I suppose because I'm among Americans. It must be that which has put the subject so much in my head."
"Tell me what you have been thinking."
"Oh, I can hardly tell. But for one thing, I've begun to see that a man—a man like you, for instance, Mr. Brett—oughtn't to call himself unlucky because he's poor, and has perhaps not been able to have as many advantages as richer men. He ought simply to feel that he has it in him to make himself equal in every way with the highest."
"You mean, he can 'hustle,' as the saying is with us, and get rich, so as to stand on an equality with millionaires?"
"No, it wasn't money I was thinking about. I've met a good many millionaires since I've been here, but I've seen none whom you need look upon as your superior. What I mean is that you've only to be ambitious enough, and not feel that you're handicapped by your start, to attain to what you want in life—yes, whatever it may be."
"You mean all this, Lady Betty?" he asked quickly. "You have as much faith as that in me?"
"Yes," I answered; and the stars and the sea seemed to sing with my thoughts. I felt uplifted, somehow. It was a wonderful sensation, which it would be impossible to describe. But I had an exciting impression that Jim Brett shared it. The music of the Hungarian band flowed out from the house, and beat in my blood. His voice sounded as if it beat in his, too.
"You can't dream what my ambitions are, or maybe you wouldn't say that."
"I'm sure they would only be noble ones."
"It's true; they are noble. Yet you might not approve. But they're part of my life. I couldn't give them up now, and live."
"I should like to hear about them," I said, almost more to myself than to him.
"Some day, if we meet again—and I mean we shall, since you have called me friend—perhaps you will let me tell you about them. I shall ask you to listen. But not now. I daren't now. The time hasn't come. Only promise me this, Lady Betty; that you won't forget me; that you'll think of me kindly, sometimes."
"I do think of you very often," I said, "and talk about you to Vivace. Poor little Vivace. He doesn't forget. How he did whimper when I had to drag him away from you that day in the wistaria arbour at Central Park. This isn't unlike that arbour, is it? There's wistaria here too. I believe I shall always think of that day when I see wistaria. It is odd we should meet again next time in a place so much the same—and just as unexpectedly."
"Just as unexpectedly," echoed Mr. Brett, in an odd, thoughtful tone. "It's wonderful that we should meet at all—considering everything." Then he laughed, rather bitterly, I thought. "Aren't you afraid of me, Lady Betty, after your experience of journalists—since I've half hinted to you I may be acting in that capacity to-night?"
"Afraid of you?" I repeated, laughing. "As if I could be. I would trust you in everything."
As I said that, a lot of people came out of the Maze in the marquee, by the exit Mr. Brett had found for me. They streamed into the dimly lighted pergola, in their fantastic costumes, laughing and talking, and the beautiful peace of the blue night—broken only by the throb of distant music—was gone completely.
I had thought of taking off my mask, but I was glad now that I'd kept it on.
They came towards us, all in great spirits, having a game of "Follow my Leader," and their leader, a Chinese Mandarin, was offering to guide them to the Cave of Aladdin. I was glad that the Flame Spirit wasn't in the gay procession. Evidently he had missed me, and gone some other way; or else he was too angry to wish to find me again.
The crowd stopped to speak to us, making jokes in disguised voices. Some of the things they said made me feel that it would be uncomfortable to linger behind with the Puritan, when they had passed on.
"Let's join them, shall we?" I asked. "They're going to Aladdin's Cave. Wouldn't you like to see it?"
"Yes," he said. And we followed the wild party, at a discreet distance.
We went into the house again, by a roundabout way, and it wasn't until we were in the big hall that we learned just how Aladdin's Cave was to be found. On a background of dark red flowers, made into a great shield and hung over a door, glittered and scintillated three words, in electric light, "To Aladdin's Cave." The letters had been lighted up only since I had been gone, for I suppose the idea was to make everyone go into the Maze first.
We had to pass through several rooms and corridors, all of which had been emptied of furniture and lined with canvas scenery cleverly painted to illustrate events in the story of Aladdin. Everything was shown up to the time that Aladdin went down into the Cave at the bidding of the magician disguised as his "uncle"; and then came the entrance of the cave itself, which was done in imitation rockwork. But I knew that it was the way down to the cellar. Either the stairs had been removed, or else covered up with a theatrical kind of embankment, that made a winding path, twisting back and forth under a roof of the imitation rock, and sloping always downward. At the bottom was a screen of spun glass, made to look like a falling cataract of bright water, and until you had passed out from behind it you saw nothing except a glow of rosy light filtering through the transparent glass. But when you did come out, unless you were a stick or a stone, you couldn't resist giving an "Oh!" of surprised admiration.
The whole cellar—at least all of it that was left visible—had been turned into a fairy cave of jewels. The walls and ceiling looked like rocks studded with blazing rubies and flashing diamonds. The rough pillars which supported the floor of the house above were great sparkling stalactites and stalagmites. The cemented floor was covered with sand that glittered like diamond dust, and there were fruit trees and rose bushes, rows of tall hollyhocks, and buds of tulips all apparently made of illuminated jewels, something like the transformation scene in a Pantomime they once took me to see—only a hundred times prettier.
At the far end of the Cave a bright red light kept coming and going, but I couldn't see by what it was made, because of the laughing crowd collected round it. We went nearer, and as others moved away we took their places, so that at last we saw what caused the light and made the great attraction for the people.
It was a giant lamp of a strange shape, standing up to the height of four or five feet from the floor, on a pedestal; and behind it stood the Genie, a fearful and wonderful apparition who said things, in a deep bass voice, which made everybody shout with laughter. "It's Fred Kane, the great Funny Man," said somebody.
The Genie's witticisms came whenever anyone rubbed the lamp, which each person was requested to do, as he or she approached. While it was being rubbed the magic lamp flared up, and gave out the bright red light we'd seen at a distance, and simultaneously the Genie took something from a huge sequin covered bag he had looped over one of his arms. If the person who rubbed the lamp was a man, he dipped into the left hand bag; if a woman, he dived into the right hand one. Each time a beautiful trinket came out, and was presented with a low bow and an excruciatingly funny speech, suitable to the character which the person had undertaken for the evening. His wit never failed.
Mr. Brett and I went up together. The Genie crossed arms and grabbed something for us out of both his bags at the same time. Then, by mistake, he gave me the thing from the left hand bag, and Mr. Brett the one from the right. We walked away to let others have their chance, looking at the presents we had got. It was funny, they both happened to be rings.
Mine was twisted bands of platinum and gold, forming a knot to hold a cabuchon sapphire. His was a thin setting for seven stones, set in a straight row; diamond, emerald, amethyst, ruby, emerald, sapphire, topaz.
"Yours is meant for a woman, and mine for a man," I said. "He got them out of the wrong bags. But they're both pretty, and so queer."
"Will you—shall we change?" he asked.
"Oh, I didn't mean to suggest that," I hurried to say. "I can give mine to my brother when I go home. And you—there must be some one——"
"I've no sister. And there's no one else," said Mr. Brett. "Do have it. You see, I couldn't get it on my little finger. And won't you keep the big one too? It isn't as if I were like Mrs. Stuyvesant-Knox's other guests——"
I couldn't bear to hear him say that, so I broke in and insisted that he should have the ring. "She would want you to have it of course, if she knew," I said. "And besides, I want you to, which is something."
"It's everything," he answered.
Then we changed rings, and I told him that I hoped his would bring him luck, glorious luck.
"Do you wish it may give me what I want most in the world?" he asked; and I said that I did.
"What do you wish mine may give me?" I went on.
"What do you want most? Great wealth?" he questioned me.
I shook my head.
"To have the world at your feet?"
"I shouldn't know what to do with it."
"To have the one you love best on earth love you?"
"I should have to stop and think which one it is."
"Then I wish that you may love the one who loves you best on earth and more than all the world."
Just as I was looking up, surprised at his tone more than his words, there came a burst of music, and part of the wall, with the platform on which the Genie and his Lamp had been standing, rolled away. The other big room of the cellar was revealed, with quantities of little tables all laid out for supper, and the walls covered with smilax and roses. In the middle of this new room was a huge illuminated ship of ice, in a green sea.
Everybody exclaimed and laughed in their surprise at such an unexpected transformation. Now was the time for unmasking, of course, and there were shrieks of surprise and amusement as people discovered who their companions really were. For a minute—I'm sure it couldn't have been more—I forgot Mr. Brett, to stare at the great glittering ice ship. When I turned to speak to him, he was gone. And whether he vanished on purpose, because he didn't want to unmask in a company of strange people, or whether he was separated from me by the sudden press of the crowd, I don't know. I suppose I shall never know. I only know that I lost him, and that I was immediately surrounded by other men, saying nice things about my costume, wanting me to have supper with them, and asking me for dances afterwards.
The rest of the night went by with a wild rush. We didn't stop dancing till four, we young people; and I believe the older ones played bridge. We had a second supper served upstairs towards dawn, and when the last people went away, it was broad and glorious daylight.
"Well, deah," said Sally, cosily, when everyone had gone, and she had come into my room to help me undress. "Had you a good time?"
"Splendid!" said I, sighing with joy. "I'm dancing still—in my head. My first ball!"
"Katherine doesn't call it a ball. But that's a detail. Had you any proposals?"
"Oh, Sally, how came you to think of such a thing? But isn't it too extraordinary? I had three."
"Because I hardly knew the men!"
"Americans make up their minds quickly about what they want."
"So Mr. P—So I've been told."
"Didn't even give them a wee mite of hope?"
"Dear me, no."
"Poor Potter—for one."
"Sally, I do wish he wouldn't—do that sort of thing, since you speak of it. It makes it so embarrassing. And somehow, I don't feel he really means it. I've always the impression that—that he does it because he thinks he ought."
"He'd like to marry you, Betty. There's no doubt of that. And one can't blame him for it."
"Well, if he keeps on, I shall be driven away," I said. "Although they don't want me to go home yet, for—for several reasons. I don't want to go, either. I'm having a wonderful experience. But——"
"Haven't you met any man you could imagine yourself caring for, deah? Or, perhaps, you don't fancy Americans."
"Oh, I do," I exclaimed. "They're all great fun. And one—one man I've met I think superior to any other I ever knew. But then, I've known so few, and I don't know him well. You needn't look at me like that. It isn't a romance, you dear. I'm most unlikely to know him any better, ever. He—isn't like the rest. He isn't like anybody else I ever saw."
"Now," said Sally, coaxingly, "you might tell me if he's one of the three who proposed?"
"Indeed, he isn't, and he never will. Why, Sally, I don't mind telling you I mean that Mr. Brett, who was on the ship, and whom we met afterwards accidentally in the Park. He is rather wonderful—considering his station—isn't he?"
"He'd be rather wonderful in any station. That's my theory about him."
"I think it's mine, too. He was here to-night—as a newspaper reporter, he hinted, though he didn't exactly say he was, in so many words. Did he talk to you?"
"Yes," said Sally. "Indirectly, I got him his chance to come."
"I gave him good advice," said I, laughing. "All about his future, and ambition, and things like that. I hope he'll take it."
"He'll probably try all he knows. Did he thank you prettily?"
"I'm not sure whether he thanked me at all. But he gave me this ring, and wished me luck with it. It was the Genie's present to him in Aladdin's Cave. I changed with him, for the one I had. But this is much prettier. Look."
"D-E-A-R-E-S-T, Dearest," Sally spelt out, as she held the third finger of my right hand, on which I'd slipped the ring.
"Where do you find that?" I asked quickly.
"Don't you know? Why, the stones spell it. Diamond, emerald, amethyst, ruby, emerald, sapphire, topaz."
I felt my cheeks burn when she gave me this explanation.
I wonder if Mr. Brett knew?
ABOUT A WEDDING AND A DISASTER
It's more than a fortnight since I've been able to write about any of the things that have happened to me. The last I did was on the morning after the Great Affair, when we were looking forward to the Pink Ball in the evening. Mrs. Ess Kay didn't quite have her wish, for the ball was a moderate success; but it did seem a pale pink after the gorgeousness of the night before, and it might have been still paler (as everyone felt rather washed out) if it hadn't been for one special excitement. Mohunsleigh's engagement to Carolyn Pitchley was announced, and we were told that the wedding would have to be soon, as Mohunsleigh had had news which called him back to England, and he wanted to take his bride with him.
Before I stopped to think, I'd promised Carolyn to be one of her bridesmaids; but five minutes later I would almost have liked to change my mind, because of Potter. He was asked to be an usher. (I didn't know at the time what that meant, but I had a vague impression it was something of importance at American weddings) so that I was sure to see a lot of him if I were bridesmaid, and in any case, I was beginning to feel he might make it too awkward for me to visit much longer with Mrs. Ess Kay.
However, when on second thoughts, I tried to get out of my promise, by hinting that I might have to go home, Carolyn seemed ready to cry and said that if I threw her over it would spoil everything. The wedding would be in ten days, and surely, I hadn't been thinking of going back to England as soon as that?
It was quite true, I hadn't. And more than that, I knew I shouldn't be welcome at home. I made up my mind to get through somehow, and told Carolyn I had only been joking.
She had always wanted to be married at Grace Church in New York, but New York is no place for August weddings, if an August wedding you must have; so Carolyn's invitations, which appeared almost immediately after the engagement was announced, told everyone that Mr. and Mrs. Pitchley begged them to be present at their daughter's marriage in the drawing room of the Chateau de Plaisance.
I didn't know that you could be married in a drawing room, but it seems you can, quite properly. However, when I go home I don't think I'd better say much about that part of Mohunsleigh's wedding, or some of the old-fashioned people mightn't understand. I should hate them to get the idea just because of the drawing room, that poor Carolyn was morganatic, or something.
She seemed ecstatically happy, more than I could imagine any girl being if she had to marry Mohunsleigh, who, although a dear good fellow when you know him, isn't a bit romantic. But he suddenly blossomed out into all sorts of pleasant American ways, sent Caro flowers and things every day, though I fancy he couldn't afford it, gave her a lovely solitaire diamond ring, which I'm sure he couldn't, and a "guard," an heirloom in his family.
It would have been shocking, Carolyn said, for her to be seen anywhere after the invitations were out, though I can't think why, as she didn't seem at all ashamed of marrying Mohunsleigh, but rather the contrary, and asked me hundreds of questions about what she would have to do when she was a Countess. Fortunately, though, she had lots of things to keep her busy indoors, trying on such frocks as she could get made in a hurry, and writing letters to every girl she knew, announcing her engagement.
The funniest things about the whole affair were—for me—the ushers, the rehearsals for the wedding, and having a married woman as a sort of head bridesmaid. Carolyn's best girl chum was married herself in the spring, so she had to be what they call a Matron of Honour.
It seemed horribly irreverent to rehearse for the ceremony, but nobody else thought so, except Mohunsleigh and me, and Mohunsleigh said in confidence, that he'd found out the bridegroom was a mere lay figure at a wedding,—anyhow in America,—and he intended to let Caro do exactly as she liked until after they were married. Then she might have to find out that once in a while it would be just as well if she did what he liked. But he asked me not to mention this to Carolyn and her stepmother, so I didn't. And in spite of my objection, the rehearsals were interesting. I felt as if I oughtn't to laugh and joke, but the others all did tremendously, so I did too in the end.
Mohunsleigh was disappointed because that Californian friend of his (whom he would have visited if it hadn't been for falling in love unexpectedly and getting married) couldn't come and be his best man. He urged him, but something interfered, Mohunsleigh didn't tell us what, and Mr. Jameson B. Harborough wasn't even able to come to the wedding. I was disappointed, too, as Mohunsleigh had told us such romantic things about his friend, that we all wanted to see him. Mr. Harborough had been a sailor, and a cowboy, and had left everything to fight in the Spanish war, where he'd done brave and splendid things, and might have stayed in the army afterwards as a Captain, if he had liked. But he preferred to go back to his old, free life, and was still a poor young man until two or three years ago, when some land in which he'd invested a few savings, turned out to have gold in it—quantities of gold, gold enough to make a famous mine, and give Mr. Harborough a great fortune. Sally knew a good deal about the new millionaire, too. It seemed that cousins of his in the West somewhere were acquaintances of hers, and had told her how immensely he had been sought out and flattered in San Francisco and other places, since he'd become rich. He hated it so much that he'd gone abroad and stopped a long time wandering about in strange Eastern countries making friends with Bedouins and people like that, who love horses better than money, and on account of certain experiences with women, he'd got almost a morbid horror of falling in love with some girl who would only pretend to like him, while in reality, all she cared about was his money. Nobody in Mrs. Ess Kay's set knew Jameson B. Harborough, though everybody would like to, so it was a blow to others beside Mohunsleigh and me that he couldn't or wouldn't show himself at Newport for the wedding.
With the exception of this one hitch, nothing went wrong so far as the wedding party was concerned, but with me things began to go very wrong several days before Caro and Mohunsleigh were married. There was a fuss of some sort between Sally and Mrs. Ess Kay, and Sally came to me, very much upset, to say that she would have to leave The Moorings immediately, she couldn't stand it twenty-four hours longer, even for my sake. She had promised to visit a friend in Chicago, sooner or later, so she would go straight to her, and if anything too tiresome should happen before I was ready to sail for home, I had better run out there;—the friend would be delighted to have me. Sally gave me the address, and I told her I would write often, but of course I didn't dream of having to accept her invitation. I missed her badly, but not as much as if the wedding had not been so near.
Poor old Mohunsleigh—who knows more about the manners of polar bears than etiquette in American society,—was coached by Potter; and the night before the wedding rehearsal reluctantly gave an elaborate dinner to his best man, (an officer in Stan's regiment who happened to turn up) and the six ushers. The same day Carolyn had her Matron of Honour and the bridesmaids to lunch, and we did have fun talking over things. I should have thought a luncheon with all girls and no men might have been a little tame, and perhaps it would in England, but in America girls are not at all shy. They say just as funny things as men, and take the most beautiful pains to amuse each other, so that it's impossible to be bored, and for hours on end you forget there is such a creature as Man.
At home, Mohunsleigh would have had to give us things, of course; but in America, it appears that the bridegroom makes presents to the best man and the ushers; so it was from Carolyn that I got a duck of a brooch, like an American flag, with stripes of diamonds and rubies, and the blue part sapphires. Mohunsleigh said that, as he was awfully hard up, it was bad luck for him to have to provide each of the bridesmaids with bouquets and chiffon muffs, and he could not see at all that it was a pretty idea for everything they carried in their hands to come from the bridegroom. But as Sally had told me that Carolyn's father had settled ten million dollars on her, I don't think Mohunsleigh need have complained.
Although it was in a house, the wedding was very picturesque, and the bride and groom stood under a bell of white roses about as large as Big Ben.
I enjoyed it all immensely, for it was my first time as bridesmaid, and I had a lovely frock and hat (copied from an old picture) for which—when I wanted the bill—I found Sally had paid. There was a crush at the reception, but it only lasted two hours. After the bride and groom had gone, with showers of rice and satin slippers, we stayed and had a dance—just the ushers and bridesmaids and a few young people, who were intimate friends of Carolyn's.
It was then that my greatest troubles began. On a pretence of showing some wedding presents which he said I hadn't seen because they were in a different room from the others, Potter got me alone and proposed again. This time he didn't laugh and joke, as he had before, so that I could take it half in fun even while it made me uncomfortable, but was very serious indeed. When I wanted to go out he stood in front of the door, and wouldn't let me pass; and his chin and eyes looked so horribly determined that he was more like Mrs. Ess Kay than ever.
"My dear little ladyship," he said, "you're not going to get away until you've given me my answer."
"But I have given it," said I.
"I don't call what you've given me an answer, because you see, I want you so much, and I've made up my mind so hard and fast to have you, that I shan't take 'no' for an answer."
"I don't see how you can help it, as it's the only one I have to give, and I've told you that two dozen times at least," I said, beginning to feel irritable, as I always have from the first, whenever Potter talked about love.
"I know you have, but that doesn't count. There's no such word as fail in the bright lexicon of my youth. Look here, dear girl, you don't quite realise perhaps what a good time I'd give you if you married me. I've got as much money as my sister has, and I'd do just as you liked about staying in the army. You could have a house in New York, and a whole, real live castle in your own country, if you liked. I wouldn't care a rap how much you spent on clothes, and there isn't a woman in America who's got better jewels than you should have—I'd see to that. Besides, you could do what you chose—for your own people. I couldn't stint you; I want to be friends with them. I never talked like this to you before, but you see what I mean; and now, isn't what I've said any inducement?"
"I wouldn't need any such inducements if I loved you," I answered. "But I don't, and can't; and somehow I never have been able to believe that you really loved me."
"If that's the trouble, you can make your mind easy. I want you badly."
"Then I'm sorry, for—I simply can't marry you. I should be miserable, and so would you."
"I'll risk that. You're too much of an English rosebud to understand anything about love. What you must do is to trust others who know what you ought to want better than you do yourself. Your mother, for instance. You'd like to please her—and your sister and brother, wouldn't you? Well, they all want you to say 'yes' to me."
"How do you know?" I broke out.
"I do know. You can ask Kath if it isn't true."
"I don't want to talk to her about it."
"You needn't, if you'll only be a good girl and do what everybody expects you to do. Come now, do say yes, and let's be happy."
That did make me furious.
"Anyone would think I was a naughty child, and you were some kind of medicine the whole family was waiting for me to take!" I exclaimed. "It's a wonder you don't get out your watch and give me five minutes to do it in."
His eyes began to sparkle with anger. I believe he would have liked to box my ears, and I know I could have boxed his.
"I thought English girls were brought up to be sensible," said he, "and amiable."
"I can't help what you thought," I answered, rudely, for I was getting desperate. "You've no right to keep me here like this, and it won't do you a bit of good, for if you stand there till we're both in our second childhood, I won't change my mind. You ought to know that now, Mr. Parker. Please let me go."
He didn't move.
"If you don't, I'll scream at the top of my lungs," I said. And he must have seen that I meant it, for he flung open the door with a slam and I swept past him, with my nose in the air, trying to look like Mother.
I didn't see him again till it was time to go home. Then he drove back with Mrs. Ess Kay and me to The Moorings in the shut-up motor car, and didn't open his mouth once on the way—which was wonderful for him, and seemed somehow ominous.
I had been too angry and excited after that scene of ours to feel unhappy, or to worry much about what might come next, but that drive, short as it was, with Potter freezingly silent, and Mrs. Ess Kay alarmingly polite, made me feel that the end had come. I was sure she had been told by her brother what an obstinate, ungrateful girl I was, and I had a guilty sinking of the heart, as if I really had been both. There was no Sally to protect me now, no one to advise me what to do, and there was a big lump in my throat as I said good night and went to my own room.
I hadn't been there long when there came a knock at the door—the same determined kind of inexorable knock which Mother gives when I've been found out in something which she thinks it her duty to make me sorry for.
I'd locked the door, and would have liked to make some excuse not to open it; but it was Mrs. Ess Kay's door, and Mrs. Ess Kay's room, just as much as it was Mrs. Ess Kay's brother I had refused.
She sailed in all in black, like an executioner, though of course, executioners don't go down into history wearing chiffon trimmed with jet.
"My dear Betty," said she, subsiding into a large armchair, "I want to have a serious talk with you."
It would have been stupid pretending not to understand, so I just looked at her, and waited.
"I daresay, you can guess what it's about?" she went on.
"I suppose so," I said. "I'm very sorry about everything. But I can't help not being in love with Mr. Parker, can I?"
"I should have thought," said Mrs. Ess Kay, "that your Mother's daughter would have attached very little importance to being in love. Apparently she hasn't been as successful with you as with Lady Victoria. Believe me, Betty, there's nothing in it—nothing at all."
"In what you call 'being in love.' A girl fancies a man for his eyes, or his dancing, or because he is strong, and she thinks she's in love with him, but it's only a fancy which passes before she's been his wife for twelve months, and she wonders what she ever saw in him then. A year after you have been married to my brother, you will be very fond of him, and you will be one of the most important young women in America as well as in Europe. Oh, my dear, you will have to take him. Your Mother will never forgive you, if you don't. It was quite an understood thing between us, when she lent you to me, that if possible there was to be a match. Your beauty and name, and Potter's money. He's really a very good fellow—a temper, perhaps; but I wouldn't give much for a man without one, and like most Americans, he'll make a splendid husband."
"For someone," I murmured.
"For you, Betty. I assure you, I daren't tell the Duchess you've definitely refused Potter. You must be persuaded. Be engaged to him; let him follow you to England."
"If I did that, I should find myself being married off to him before I knew."
"Well, and if you did? It would be because you'd had the chance to change your mind."
I shook my head. "I must go home to England," I said, "but Mr. Parker mustn't follow me."
Mrs. Ess Kay's face hardened.
"I'm afraid if you go home after refusing Potter, you'll have a very poor welcome, my child. The Duchess has been kind enough to take me a little into her confidence. I don't think she would have sent you over with me, if she hadn't known something about Potter; and your sister's affairs aren't arranged yet. Oh, you needn't blush, and look so indignant. The Duchess didn't mind putting her difficulties in a letter, when I wrote her you weren't behaving quite satisfactorily, and you may take it from me that at present things stand like this: You must go back an engaged girl or else stay away until Lady Victoria is married."
If Mother were different, I should have hoped Mrs. Ess Kay was exaggerating; but as it was, I believed her, though I did my best to be high-eyebrowed and incredulous, till she remarked that I could see the Duchess's letter if I liked, though it might be rather embarrassing.
I was sure it would be, and preferred to take its contents on faith; but I was so miserable that I had to keep my eyes staring wide open to prevent the tears dropping down. I was tired, and forlorn, and homesick—for Vic and Stan, and the dear dogs and everything except Mother—and I felt such a horrible weakness creeping over me that I could even imagine myself by and by doing what they meant me to do. I thought the best thing was to gain a respite, lest Mrs. Ess Kay should drag some kind of a concession from me, which I would have to live up to, afterwards.
"I can't talk any more about it now," I said. "I believe what you say, but it only makes it worse for me, to think that Mother should have made what amounts to a kind of bargain with you. Maybe by to-morrow everything won't seem so dreadful."
She got up, with a relieved air. Perhaps even she hadn't been enjoying the conversation.
"Of course it won't," said she. "It won't seem dreadful at all. You've no idea how happy we're all going to be. Now, just you sleep well, and dream sweet dreams, and you'll wake up feeling a different girl. Maybe poor Potter hasn't been as tactful as he might be; that's because he's too much in love to be clever. But he has a lovely surprise for you to-morrow. Something connected with a certain finger of your left hand. I promise you that you'll like it; and now I'm going to leave you in peace for the night." I can't tell what savage deed I mightn't have been capable of doing if she had had the idea of kissing me; but she hadn't. She merely patted me on the shoulder, and went out, leaving me to stare aimlessly at the door after she had softly closed it.
ABOUT RUNNING AWAY
I don't know how long it was before the thought came to me that I would take Vivace and a handbag and run away to Sally; but anyway it was before it had occurred to me to sit down.
Sally said before she went away that I was to go to her if I felt like it, and Sally always means what she says. Now I felt like it so much that it seemed suddenly the only possible thing to do, so all I had to decide was the best way and the best time to do it.
As for the time, if I didn't escape before Mrs. Ess Kay and Potter formed a hollow square round me to pour their volleys into my heart in the morning, all that was prophetic in my soul said I would never escape, but would suffer great confusion and rout.
As for the way, it was more difficult to make up my mind, but the first thing was to see how much money I had in my exchequer—which happened to be a gold purse Sally had given me.
I hadn't spent much, and since coming over, dear old Stan had sent me another fifteen pounds, which he wrote was part of one night's winnings at bridge—unusual for him, if it's true, as Vic thinks that he continually loses. Altogether, I had nearly thirty pounds in hand, which seemed a lot, only I didn't know at all how much it would cost for Vivace and me to reach Sally in Chicago; and I couldn't tell until I had got irrevocably away from Mrs. Ess Kay and The Moorings.
By this time it was nearly two o'clock, and in a couple of hours it would be light. I must sneak out of the house with a dressing bag before any of the servants were stirring, and meanwhile I must pack up all my belongings except such things as Mrs. Ess Kay had given me—so that I could write and have my boxes sent on by and by.
As soon as I had realised that there wasn't a minute to throw away, the worst was over, for I didn't stop to grizzle. I finished getting out of my bridesmaid's dress in which I had danced so gaily a little while ago, dashed a thin frock, a dressing gown and a few others things into my fitted dressing bag (which was almost too heavy to carry, but not quite), and then stuffed everything else, except a travelling frock, into the boxes that were stored in a huge wardrobe built into the wall.
I made all the haste I could, but I'm not clever at packing, so I heard some clock striking four, when I had slipped on my thin grey canvas coat and skirt, and was putting on my hat, with cold hands that trembled so much I could hardly stick in the hat pins.
I had been excited enough the day I heard I was to come to Mrs. Ess Kay, but I was twice as excited now when I was going to leave her. I felt rather frightened, still I couldn't help smiling when I said to myself how little I had thought when I learned the great news about America and Mrs. Ess Kay, in what circumstances I should part from her.
Each step Vivace and I took in the corridors and on the stairs seemed to make such an incredible noise in the quiet house, that I felt like a runaway elephant eloping with a hippopotamus, but either it wasn't as bad as I thought, or everyone was lying charmed in a magic sleep, for we got out through a window in the dining room, down the verandah steps and across the lawn without being stopped, as I half expected.
I knew the way to the railway station very well, for I had often been there since I arrived (the last time was when I saw Sally off), but the question was, when would there be a train? And a good deal depended on that question, for though Mrs. Ess Kay and Potter might not exactly have the power to drag me back, I wanted to get as far away from them as I could before they discovered that I had gone.
I was horrified to find when we arrived that—as the Americans say—there was "nothing doing," not a soul in sight, and there I was, very hot and hysterical, with Vivace and my dressing bag looking like an escaped burglaress. I had been so nervous while I was packing, that I'd been afraid of everything, even the soap in the soap dish, which had two great blinking bubbles at one end, like a pair of goblin eyes that watched me move, but I was much worse now, and I could have fallen on the neck of the first official person I saw moving about the station after I had waited for perhaps a quarter of an hour. I don't know what he was, but when I appealed to him for news of a train for New York, instead of calling the police to give Vivace and me in charge as a dangerous pair, he scratched his head and said there was a milk train due presently, if I was mighty anxious.