It seemed to her, as she looked forward to it, the most desirable of vacations.
Her mind was quite at ease concerning Jack. Severity, as she had said, had been necessary. A bit of privation would do him good, would bring him to his senses; she had no slightest doubt of that. And when they met again, he would be in a mood to fit into the place she had carefully prepared for him. Of course, she would let him off in the matter of Ethel Quintard, if he really didn't care for Ethel. There were other nice girls of good families. She wouldn't be hard on him.
Also she felt easier in her mind in the matter of the quarrel with Judge Harvey. The sting and humiliation of his words she had now cast out of her system; she was really superior to such criticism. There remained only Judge Harvey's offense. Certainly he had been inexcusably outspoken and officious. Her resentment had settled down into a calm, implacable, changeless attitude. She would be polite to him, since they must continue to meet in the future. But she would keep him coldly at a distance. She would never unbend. She would never forgive.
Next to the column recording her departure she had noted a few paragraphs giving the progress of the police in their search for James Preston, the forger of the Jefferson letters. What a fool Judge Harvey had been in that affair!...
And yet, in a way, she was sorry. She had liked Judge Harvey; had liked him very much. In fact, there had been relaxed moods in which she had dallied pleasantly with the thought of marrying him. She might, indeed, have married him already had it not been for the obvious social descent.
Also, she thought for a moment of Miss Gardner. In this matter she had likewise been quite right. However, aside from the deception Miss Gardner had practiced, she had seemed a nice girl; and Mrs. De Peyster was lenient enough to feel a very honest wish that the husband, who had so rapidly disappeared, was a decent sort of man. Perhaps later she might favor them with some trifling present.
She had a light luncheon, for it was her custom to eat but little at midday, and spent part of the afternoon with a comfortable sense of improvement over one of John Fiske's volumes of colonial history; popular novels she abhorred as frivolities beneath her. And then she took upon her lap a large volume, weighing perhaps a dozen pounds, entitled "Historic Families in America," in which first place was given to an account of the glories of the De Peysters. Though premiership was no better than the family's due, she was secretly pleased with her forebears' place in the volume—in a sublimated way it was the equivalent of going in first to dinner among distinguished guests. She liked frequently to glance leisurely through the pages, tasting here and there; and now, as she did whenever she read the familiar text, she lingered over certain passages of the deferential genealogist—whom, hardly conscious of the act of imagination, she could almost see in tight satin breeches, postured on his knees, holding out these tributes to her on a golden salver:—
"In 1148 Archambaud de Paster" ... "From an early period of the fourteenth century the De Peysters were among the richest and most influential of the patrician families of Ghent" ... "The exact genealogical connection between the De Peysters of the fourteenth century and the above-noted sixteenth and seventeenth century ancestors of the American De Peysters has not been traced, as the work of translating and analyzing the records of the intervening period is still incompleted. Sufficient has been ascertained, however, to leave no doubt of the continual progress of the family in possessions, social dignity, and public consequence" ... "The first man in New Amsterdam who had a family carriage" ... "The chief people of the city and province, and stately visitors from the Old World, were often grouped together under this roof"....
Such august and ample phrases could but nourish and exalt her sense of worthiness; could but add to her growing sense of satisfaction. She closed the ceremonious volume, and her eyes, lifting, rested for a gratifying moment on a framed steel engraving from the painting of Abraham De Peyster, Mayor of New York from 1691 to 1693. The picture pleased her, with its aristocratically hooked nose, its full wig, its smile of amiable condescension. But fortunately she had forgotten, or perhaps preferred not to learn, that when this ancestor was New York's foremost figure, the city had had within its domain somewhat less than one one-thousandth of its present subjects.
And then her eyes wandered to the three-quarters portrait of herself by M. Dubois, hung temporarily in this room. Yes, it was good. M. Dubois had caught the peculiar De Peyster quality. One looked at it and instinctively thought of generations processioning back into a beginningless past. "In 1148 Archambaud de Paster" ...
Toward five o'clock she rose and, a stately figure in lavender dressing-gown, strolled through the velvet hush of the great darkened house: over foot-flattering rugs, through silken hangings that rustled discreet homage at her passing, by dark tapestries lit with threads of gold, among shadowy bronzes and family portraits and pier-glasses and glinting cut-glass candlesticks and chandeliers. So exaltative yet so soothing, this opulent silence, this spacious solitude!
And for an almost perfect hour she sat in her rear drawing-room, lightly, ever so cautiously, touching bits of Grieg and Tschaikowsky out of her Steinway Grand—just dim whispers of music that did not breathe beyond the door. She played well, for she loved the piano and had a real gift for instrumentation. Often when she played for her friends, she had to hold herself in consciously, had to play below her ability; for to have allowed herself to play her best might have been to suggest that she was striving to be as good as a professional, and that would have caused comment and been in bad taste.
Her piano was going to be another comfort to her.
She was complacent—even happy—even exultant. It was all so restful. And before her were three months—three beautiful months—of this calm, this rest, this security.
At seven o'clock Matilda announced that her dinner was ready, and she swept back into the great dining-room, high-ceilinged, surfaced completely with old paneling of Flemish oak. The room was dimly illuminated by a single shaded electric bulb. The other lighting had all been switched off; during the summer the illumination would, of course, have to be unsuspiciously meager. To a mortal of a less exalted sphere the repast would have seemed a banquet. Mrs. De Peyster, though an ascetic at noon, was something of an epicure at night; she liked a comfortable quantity, and that of many varieties, and these of the best. Under the ministrations of Matilda she pleasurably disposed of clear soup, whitebait, a pair of squabs on toast with asparagus tips, and an alligator pear salad.
"Really, Matilda," she remarked with benign approval as she leisurely began on her iced strawberries, "I had quite forgotten that you were such a wonderful cook. Most excellent!"
"Thank you, ma'am," In her enjoyment Mrs. De Peyster had not noticed that throughout the meal her faithful attendant had worn a somewhat troubled look.
"Just give me food up to this standard, and I shall be most happy, my dear. My summer may grow somewhat tedious toward the end; I shall count a great deal on good meals to keep it pleasant."
"Of course—of course—" and then a salad plate slipped from Matilda's hands. "Oh, ma'am, I—I—"
"What is the matter, Matilda?" demanded Mrs. De Peyster, a trifle stern at this ineptness.
"Nothing, ma'am. Nothing at all. I'll see that you get it, b—but I don't know how I'll get it."
"Don't know how?"
"You see, ma'am, the butcher, the grocer, everybody thinks I'm the only person in the house. We've always traded with these same people, and I've stayed here alone now for fifteen summers, and they know I eat very little and care only for plain food. And so to-day when I ordered all these things, they—they grinned at me. And the butcher said, 'Living pretty high, while the missus is away.'"
Mrs. De Peyster had dropped her dessert spoon, and was staring at her confederate. "I never thought about food!" she exclaimed in dismay.
"Nor did I, ma'am, till the butcher spoke. And, besides, William received the goods, and—and he smiled at me and said—"
"It does look suspicious!" interrupted Mrs. De Peyster.
"I think it does, ma'am."
"If you keep on having so much food sent in—"
"And such high quality, ma'am."
"Some one may suspect—become curious—and might find out—might find out—"
"That's what I was thinking of, ma'am."
Mrs. De Peyster had risen.
"Matilda, we cannot run that risk!"
"Perhaps—perhaps, ma'am, we'd better change our butcher and grocer."
"That would do no good, for the new ones would find out that there was supposed to be only a single person here, No, such ordering has got to be stopped!"
"If you can stand it, I think it would be safer, ma'am. But what will you eat?"
There was a brief silence. Mrs. De Peyster's air grew almost tragic.
"Matilda, do you realize that you and I have got to live for the summer, for the entire summer, upon the amount you have been accustomed to ordering for yourself!"
"It looks that way, ma'am."
The epicure in Mrs. De Peyster spoke out in a voice of even deeper poignancy.
"Two persons—do you realize that, Matilda!—two adult persons will have to live for three months upon the rations of one person!"
"And what's worse," added Matilda, "as I told you, I don't eat much. I've usually had just a little tea and now and then a chop."
"A little tea and a chop!" Mrs. De Peyster looked as though she were going to faint. "A little tea and a chop!... For three months!... Matilda!"
It seemed plain, however, that this was the only way out. But standing over the remains of the last genuine meal she expected to taste until the summer's end, her brow began slowly to clear.
"Matilda," she said after a moment, in a rebuking tone, "I'm surprised you did not see the solution to this!"
"Is there one, ma'am? What is it?"
"You are so fixed in the habit of sending your orders to the tradespeople that your mind cannot conceive of any other procedure. You are to go out in person, at night, if you like, to shops where you are not known, pay cash for whatever you want, and carry your purchases home with you. It is really extremely simple."
"Why, of course, ma'am," meekly agreed Matilda.
With the specter of famine thus banished, confidence, good humor, and the luxurious expectancy of a reposeful summer returned to Mrs. De Peyster. Soon she was being further diverted by the mild excitement of being dressed in one of Matilda's sober housekeeper gowns, the twin of the dress Matilda now wore, for her evening ride with William. They were fortunately of nearly the same figure, though, of course, there was a universe of difference in how those two figures were carried.
Matilda, the competent, skilled Matilda, was inexplicably incompetent at this function. So clumsy, so nervous was she, that Mrs. De Peyster was moved to ask with a little irritation what was the matter. Matilda hastily assured her mistress that there was nothing—nothing at all;—and buttoned a few more buttonholes over the wrong buttons. As she followed the fully garbed and thickly veiled Mrs. De Peyster, now looking the most stately of stately housekeepers, down the stairway, her nervousness increased.
"I wish—I wish—" she began at the door. "What is the matter with you, Matilda?" demanded Mrs. De Peyster severely.
"I—I rather wish you—you wouldn't go out, ma'am."
"You are afraid I may be recognized?"
"No, I wasn't thinking of that, ma'am. I—I—"
"What else is there to be afraid of?"
"Nothing, ma'am, nothing. But I wish—"
"I am going, Matilda; we will not discuss it," said Mrs. De Peyster, in a peremptory tone intended to silence Matilda. "You may first clear away the dishes," she ordered. "But I believe I left a squab and some asparagus. You might put them, and any other little thing you have, on the dining-room table; I shall probably be hungry on my return from my drive. And then put my rooms in order. I believe the tea-tray is still in my sitting-room; don't forget to bring it down."
"Certainly, ma'am. But—but—" "Matilda"—very severely—"are you going to do as I bid you?"
"Yes, ma'am,"—very humbly. "But excuse me for presuming to advise you, ma'am, but if you want to pass for me you must remember to be very humble and—"
"I believe I know how to play my part," Mrs. De Peyster interrupted with dignity. Then she softened; it was her instinct to be thoughtful of those who served her. "We shall both try to get to bed early, my dear. You especially need sleep after last night's strain in getting Olivetta away. We shall have a long, restful night."
Mrs. De Peyster opened the door, unlocked the door in the boarding and locked it behind her, and stepped into her brougham, which had been ordered and was waiting at the curb. "Up Fifth Avenue and into the Park, William," she said. She settled back into the courtly embrace of the cushions; she breathed deep of the freedom of the soft May night. The carriage turned northward into the Avenue. Rolling along in such soothing ease—a crowd streaming on either side of her—yet such solitude—so entirely unknown.
Restful, yes. And spiced with just the right pinch of mild adventure.
It really could not possibly have been better.
NOT IN THE PLAN
As she rolled northward behind the miraculously erect and rigid William, the emotion which had been so mildly exciting when she had left her door grew in potency like a swiftly fermenting liquor. It was both fearful and delightful. She was all a-flutter. This was a daring thing that she was doing—the nearest to a real adventure that she had engaged in since her girlhood. Suppose, just suppose, that some one should recognize her from the sidewalk!
The thought sent a series of pricking shivers up and down her usually tranquil spine.
Just as that fear thrummed through her, she saw, a few doors ahead, a man come out of a residence hotel. He sighted the De Peyster carriage, and paused. Mrs. De Peyster's heart stood still, for the man was Judge Harvey. If he should try to stop her and speak to her—!
But Judge Harvey merely bowed, and the carriage rolled on past him.
Mrs. De Peyster's heart palpitated wildly for a block. Then she began to regain her courage. Judge Harvey had, of course, thought her Matilda. A few blocks, and she had completely reassured herself. There was no danger of her discovery. None. Almost every one she knew was out of town; she herself was known to be upon the high seas bound for Europe; Matilda's gown and veil were a most unsuspicious disguise; and William, her paragon of a William, so rigidly upright on the seat before her—William's statuesque, unapproachable figure diffused about her a sense of absolute security. She relaxed, sank back into the upholstery of the carriage, and began fully to enjoy the rare May night.
But a surprise was lying in wait for her as she came into a comparatively secluded drive of Central Park. In itself the surprise was the most trifling of events—so slight a matter as a person twisting his vertebrae some hundred-odd degrees, and silently smiling. But that person was William!
For a moment she gasped with amazed indignation. To think of William daring to smile at her! But quickly she recognized that William, of course, supposed her to be Matilda, and that the smile was no more than the friendly courtesy that would naturally pass between two fellow-servants. Her indignation subsided, but her wonderment remained. To think that William could smile, William in whose thoroughly ironed dignity she had never before detected a wrinkle!
Just as she had re-composed herself, they rolled into another unpeopled stretch of the drive. Again William's vertebrae performed a semicircle and again William smiled.
"Fine night, Matilda," he remarked in a pleasant voice.
Mrs. De Peyster shrank back into the cushions. She had the presence of mind to nod her head, and William faced about. To put it temperately, the situation was becoming very trying. Mrs. De Peyster now realized that she had been guilty of a lack of forethought. It had not occurred to her, in working out this plan of hers, that her frigidly proper William could entertain a friendliness toward any one. What she should have done was to have given William a vacation and secured an entirely strange coachman for the summer who would have had no friendly sentiments to give play to.
But her desire was now all to escape from William's amiable attentions.
"Take me home," she said presently, muffling her voice behind her hand and veil, and withdrawing from it its accustomed tone of authority.
Half an hour later, to her great relief, the carriage turned again into Washington Square and drew up before her house. She stepped quickly out.
"Good-night—thank you," she said in a smothered imitation of Matilda's voice, and hurried up her steps.
She had unlocked the door in the boarding and had stepped into the dark entry, when she became aware that William had deserted his horses and was stepping in just behind her. As though it were a matter of long custom, William slipped an arm about her waist and imprinted a kiss upon her veil.
Mrs. De Peyster let out a little gasping cry, and struggled to free herself.
"Don't be scared, Matilda," William reassured her. "Nobody can see us in here." And he patted her on the shoulder with middle-aged affection.
Mrs. De Peyster, after her first outburst, realized that she dared not cry out, or rebuff William. To do so would reveal her identity. And horrified as she was, she realized that there must have long existed between William and Matilda a carefully concealed affair of the heart.
"It's all right, dear," William again reassured her, with his staid ardor. "It's mighty good to be with you like this, Matilda!" He heaved a love-laden sigh. "We've had it mighty hard, haven't we, with only being able to steal a minute with each other now and then—always afraid of Mrs. De Peyster. It's been mighty hard for me. Hasn't it been hard for you?"
Mrs. De Peyster remained silent.
"Hasn't it been hard for you, dear?" William insisted tenderly.
"Ye—yes," very huskily.
"Why, what's the matter, Matilda? I know; you're tired, dear; your nerves are all worn out with the strain of getting Mrs. De Peyster off." Again his voice became tenderly indignant. "Just see how she treated that Miss Gardner; and wouldn't she have done the same to us, if she'd found us out? To think, dear, that but for her attitude you and me might have been married and happy! I know you are devoted to her, and wouldn't leave her, and I know she's kind enough in her way, but I tell you, Matilda,"—William's voice, so superbly without expression when on duty, was alive with conviction,—"I tell you, Matilda, she's a regular female tyrant!"
There was a mighty surging within Mrs. De Peyster, a premonition of eruption. But she choked it down. William, launched upon the placid sea of his elderly affection, did not heed that his supposed inamorata was making no replies.
"She's a regular tyrant!" he repeated. "But now that she's away," he added in a tender tone, "and left just us two here, Matilda dear, we'll have a lot of nice little times together." And urged by his welling love he again embraced her and again pressed a loverly kiss upon Matilda's veil.
This was too much. The crater could be choked no longer. The eruption came.
"Let me go!" Mrs. De Peyster cried, struggling; and her right hand, striking wildly out, fell full upon William's sacred cheek.
He drew back amazed.
"What's the matter?" he demanded.
Mrs. De Peyster searched frantically for the keyhole to the inner door.
"Matilda, I'm not the man to take that!" he declared irefully. "What do you mean?"
"Go! Go!" she gasped.
He drew back wrathfully, but with an awful dignity.
"Very well, Miss Simpson. But I'm not a man that forgives. You'll be sorry for this!"
As he started stiffly away Mrs. De Peyster found the keyhole. She turned her key, opened the door, and closed it quickly behind her. Gasping, shivering, she groped in the dusky hall until she found a chair. Into this she sank, half fainting, and sat shaking with astoundment, with horror, with wrath.
Wrath swiftly became the ruling emotion. It began to fulminate. She would discharge William! She would send him flying the very next morning, bag and baggage!
Then an appalling thought shot through her. She could not discharge William!
She could not discharge William, because she was not there to discharge him! She was upon the Atlantic highroad, speeding for Europe, and would not be home for many a month! And during all those months, whenever she dared appear, she would be subject to William's loverly attention!
She sat rigid with the horror of this new development. But she had not yet had time to realize its full possibilities—for hardly a minute had passed since she had entered—when she heard a key slide into the lock of the front door and saw a vague figure enter the unlighted hall. She arose in added terror. Had that William come back to—
"Oh, there you are, Matilda," softly called a voice, and the vague figure came toward her.
Mrs. De Peyster's terror took suddenly a new turn. For the voice was not the voice of her coachman.
"J-a-c-k!" she breathed wildly.
Jack threw an arm about Mrs. De Peyster's shoulders.
"Ho, ho, that's the time I caught you, Matilda," said he, in teasing reproof. "U'm, I saw those tender little love passages between you and William!"
Mrs. De Peyster stood a pillar of ice.
"Better not let mother find it out," he advised. "If she got on to this! But I'll never tell on you, Matilda." He patted her shoulder assuringly. "So don't worry."
Mrs. De Peyster's lips opened. If her voice sounded unlike Matilda's voice, the difference was unconsciously attributed by Jack to agitation due to his discovery.
"How—how do you come here?" she asked.
"With an almighty lot of trouble!" grumbled he. "Came around the corner an hour ago just in time to see you drive off with William. I've got a key to the inside door, but none to the door in the boarding; and as I knew there was nobody in the house I could rouse up, there was nothing for it but to wait till you and William came back. So we've been sitting out there on a park bench ever since."
There was one particular word of Jack's explanation that drummed against Mrs. De Peyster's ear.
"We?" she ejaculated. "We?" Then she noticed that another shadowy figure had drawn nearer in the dark. "Who—who's that?"
"Mary," was Jack's prompt and joyous answer.
"Mary! Not that—that Mary Morgan?"
"She used to be. She's Mary de Peyster now."
"You're not—not married?"
"To-day," he cried in exultation. "We slipped out to Stamford; everything was done secretly there, and it's to be kept strictly on the quiet for a time." He bent down close to Mrs. De Peyster's ear. "Don't let Mary know how mother objected to her; I haven't told her, and she doesn't guess it. And oh, Matilda," he bubbled out enthusiastically, "she's the kind of a little sport that will stick by a chap through anything, and she's clever and full of fun, and a regular little dear!"
He turned. "Come here, Mary," he called softly. "This is Matilda."
The next instant a slight figure threw its arms about Mrs. De Peyster and kissed her warmly.
"I'm so glad to meet you at last, Matilda!" exclaimed a low, clear voice. "Jack has told me how good you have been to him ever since he was a baby. I know we shall be the very, very best of friends!"
"And so—you're—you're married!" mumbled Mrs. De Peyster.
Jack was too excited by his happiness to have noticed Mrs. De Peyster's voice had it been a dozen-fold more unlike Matilda's than it was. "Yes!" he cried. "And wouldn't it surprise mother if she knew! Mother, sailing so unsuspiciously along on the Plutonia!" He gave a chortle of delight. "But oh, I say, Matilda," he cried suddenly, "you mustn't write her!"
Mrs. De Peyster did not answer.
"We don't want her to know yet," Jack insisted; "that's one reason we've done the whole thing so quietly." Then he added jocosely: "If you tell, there's a thing I might tell her about you. About—u'm—about you and William. Want me to do that—eh? Better promise not to tell."
"I won't," whispered Mrs. De Peyster.
"It's a bargain, then. But there's something else that would surprise her, too. I'm going to work."
"But not at once," put in Mary de Peyster, nee Mary Morgan, in her soft contralto voice, that seemed to effervesce with mischief. "Tell Matilda what you're doing to do."
"I've already told you, Matilda, about my little experiment in the pick-and-shovel line. I decided that I didn't care for that profession. I've saved a few hundred out of my allowance. Monday I'm going to enter the School of Mines at Columbia—am going to study straight through the summer—night and day till the money gives out. By that time I ought to be able to get a job that will support us. And then I'll study hard of nights till I become a real mining engineer!"
"But we've got to live close! Oh, but we've got to live close!" exclaimed Mary joyously, as though living close were one of the chiefest pleasures of life.
"Yes, we've certainly got to live close!" emphasized Jack. "That's why we're here."
"Why you're here?" repeated Mrs. De Peyster in a low, dazed tone.
"Yes." Jack gave a gleeful, excited laugh. "I had an inspiration how to economize. Says I to Mary, 'Mary, since mother is away, and this big house is empty except for you, Matilda, why pay rent?' So here we are, and here we're going to live all summer—on the 'q t,' of course." He slipped an arm about Mary and one about Mrs. De Peyster, and again laughed his gleeful, excited laugh. "Just you, and Mary, and me—and, oh, say, Matilda, won't it be a lark!"
Again Jack's arm tightened about Mrs. De Peyster in his convulsive glee, and again he exclaimed, "Oh, Matilda, won't it be a lark!"
Only the embrace of Jack's good left arm kept Mrs. De Peyster from subsiding into a jellied heap upon her parqueted floor. It had ever been her pride, and a saying of her admirers, that she always rose equal to every emergency. But at the present moment she had not a thought, had not a single distinct sensation. She was wildly, weakly, terrifyingly dizzy—that was all; and her only self-control, if the paralysis of an organ may be called controlling it, was that she held her tongue.
Fortunately, at first, there was little necessity for her speaking. The bride and groom were too joyously loquacious to allow her much chance for words, and too bubbling over with their love and with the spirit of daring mischief to be observant of any strangeness in her demeanor that the darkness did not mask. As they chattered on, Mrs. De Peyster began to regain some slight steadiness—enough to consider spasmodically how she was to escape undiscovered from the pair, how she was to extricate herself from the predicament of the moment—for beyond that moment's danger she had not the power to think. She had decided that she must somehow get away from the couple at once; in the darkness slip unobserved into her sitting-room; lock the door; remain there noiseless;—she had decided so much, when suddenly her wits were sent spinning by a new fear.
The real Matilda! Mrs. De Peyster's ears, at that moment frantically acute, registered dim movements of Matilda overhead.
Suppose the real Matilda should hear their voices; suppose she should come walking down into the scene! With two Matildas simultaneously upon the stage—
Mrs. De Peyster reached out and clutched the banister of the stairway with drowning hands.
The pair talked on to her, answering themselves. They would take the rooms above Mrs. De Peyster's suite, they said—they would give her, Matilda, no trouble at all—they would attend to their own housework, everything—and so on, and so on, with Mrs. De Peyster hearing nothing, but reaching aurally out for Matilda's exposing tread. To forestall this exposure, she started weakly up the stairs, only to be halted by the slipping of Jack's arm around her shoulder. The couple chattered on about their household arrangements, and Mrs. De Peyster the prisoner of Jack's affectionate arm, stood gulping, as though her soul were trying to swallow itself, ready to sink through her floor at the faintest approach of her housekeeper's slippers.
And then again the arm of the exuberant Jack tightened about her. "Oh, say, what a wild old time we're going to have! Won't we, Matilda?"
"Ye—yes," Mrs. De Peyster felt constrained to answer.
"But it's mighty dangerous!" cried the little figure, with a shivery laugh.
"Dangerous!" chuckled Jack with his mischievous glee. "Well, rather! And that's half the fun. If the newspapers were to get on to the fact that the son of the Mrs. De Peyster had secretly married without his mother's knowledge, and that the young scamp and his wife were secretly living in her house—can't you just see the reporters jimmying open every window to get at us!"
"Oh!" breathed Mrs. De Peyster faintly.
"Really, Jack," protested the girlish voice, "I think it's scandalous of us to be doing this!"
"Come, now, Mary, nobody's going to be any the worse, or any the wiser, for it. We're just using something that would otherwise be wasted—and we'll vanish at the first news that mother's coming back. But, of course, Matilda, we've certainly got to be all-fired careful. I'll leave the house only in the early mornings—by the back way—through Washington Mews—either when the coast is clear or there's a crowd. There are so many artists and chauffeurs and stablemen coming and going through the Mews that I'm sure I can manage it without being noticed. And I'll come back in the same way; and our food I'll smuggle in of nights."
"And I, Matilda, I shall not mind staying in at all," bubbled the Mary person. "It will give me a splendid chance to practice. You see, I hope to go on a concert tour this fall."
"By the way, Matilda, about the row Mary'll be making on the piano. Couldn't you just casually mention to anybody you see that mother had bought one of these sixty-horse-power, steam-hammer piano-players and you were the engineer, running it a lot to while away the lonesome months?"
"Do you want to intimate, sir," demanded Mary with mock hauteur, "that my playing sounds like a—"
"What I want to intimate, madam, is that I'd like to avoid having our happy home raided by the police. Matilda, you could do that, couldn't you—just casually?"
"Yes—M—Mr. Jack," mumbled Mrs. De Peyster.
"There, everything's settled. We'll go up to our rooms. You wouldn't mind helping us a bit, Matilda?"
Mrs. De Peyster had one supreme thought. If they went upstairs, they might run into the other Matilda. The frantic, drowning impulse to put off disaster every possible moment caused her to clutch Jack's arm.
"There's—something to eat—in the dining-room. Perhaps you'd like—"
"Great idea, Matilda! Lead on."
Mrs. De Peyster gave thanks that all the lights but one had been switched off. And fortunately the light from that one shaded bulb was almost lost in the great dining-room. Subconsciously Mrs. De Peyster recalled Matilda's injunction to "be humble," and she let her manner slump—though at that moment she had no particular excess of dignity to discard.
Jack sighted the food Matilda had left upon the table. With a swoop he was upon it.
"Oh, joy! Squabs! Asparagus!" And he seized a squab by the legs, with a hand that was still bandaged. "Here you are, my dear," tearing off a leg and handing it to Mary, who accepted it gingerly. With much gusto Jack took a bite of bird and a huge bite of bread. "Great little wedding supper, Matilda! Thanks. But I say, Matilda, you haven't yet spoken up about meine liebe Frau. Don't you think she'll do?"
"Now, Jack dear, don't be a fool!"
"Mrs. Jack de Peyster, I'll have you understand your husband can't be a fool! Come now, Matilda,—my bonny bride, look at her. Better lift your veil."
Mrs. De Peyster did not lift her veil. But helplessly she gave a glance toward this new wife Jack had thus brought home: a glance so distracted that it could see nothing but vibrating blurs.
"Well? Well?" prompted Jack. "Won't she do?"
"Yes," in a husky whisper.
"And don't you think, when mother sees her, she'll say the same?"
"I'm sure—I'm sure—" her choking voice could get out no more.
"Oh, but I shall be so afraid!" cried Mary, again with that shivery little laugh.
"Nothing to be afraid of, Mary. Mother's really a good sort."
"Jack! To call one's mother a 'good sort'!"
"Why not? She's bug-house on this social position business, but aside from that she's perfectly human."
"Jack!" in her scandalized tone. "Isn't he awful Matilda?"
"Don't call me 'ma'am,' Matilda. Since we're to be together constantly this summer, call me Mary."
"That's right, Matilda," put in Jack. "We're going to run this place as a democracy. You're to have all your meals with us."
"And I'll help you get them!" Mary cried excitedly. "You'll find me tagging around after you most of the time. For, think of it, you're the only woman I'm going to see in months!"
"Jack, you run along, there's a dear," commanded Mary, "and unpack your things. Matilda and I want to have a little chat."
"Married six hours, and bossed already," grumbled Jack happily. "All right. But that bit of a squab I ate was nothing. I'm starved. I'll be back in five minutes and then we'll get a real supper down in the kitchen."
"Yes, all three of us," agreed Mary.
Jack picked up his bag. Frantically Mrs. De Peyster tried to think of some way of holding him back from a possible damnatory encounter with Matilda upon the stairway. But she could think of nothing. Jack went out.
Mary ordered Mrs. De Peyster into a chair, and sat down facing her.
Mrs. De Peyster strained her ears for the surprised voices that would announce the disastrous meeting. But there sounded from above no startled cries. Jack must have got to his room, unnoticed by Matilda. Mrs. De Peyster breathed just a little easier. The evil moment was put off.
"Matilda," began Mary, "I want you to tell me the honest truth about something. I think Jack's been trying to deceive me. To make me feel better, the dear boy, he's been telling me there'd not be the least doubt about his mother being reconciled to our marriage. Do you think she ever will be?"
"Please! Will she, or won't she?"
"You can only—only hope—for the best."
"I hope she will, for Jack's sake!" sighed Mary deeply. She picked up an evening paper Jack had brought in. "Did you know his mother was very ill at the time she sailed? This paper says she was so sick that she was unable to see a single one of her friends who came to see her off. That was too bad, wasn't it!" There was a great deal of genuine feeling in the voice of the small person.
Mrs. De Peyster remained silent.
"Why, you don't seem at all sympathetic, Matilda!"
Mrs. De Peyster put a hand to her lips. "I'm—I'm very sorry, ma'am," she mumbled between her fingers, trying to assume Matilda's humility.
"Why, what's the matter with your voice? It seems husky."
"It's just"—Mrs. De Peyster swallowed—a little summer cold I caught to-day. It's—it's nothing, ma'am."
"I'm sorry!" exclaimed the little person. "But, Matilda, how many more times have I got to tell you I don't like your 'ma'aming' me. Call me Mary."
"That's right. And now, as to Jack's mother; the paper says society is very much concerned over her condition."
On the whole, Mrs. De Peyster's concern over her condition was rather more acute than society's. But she had begun to recover in a degree, and was now, though palpitant within, making a furtive study of Mary. Such light as there was fell full upon that small person. Mrs. De Peyster saw a dark, piquant face, with features not regular, but ever in motion and quick with expression—eyes of a deep, deep brown, with a glimmer of red in them, eyes that gave out an ever-changing sparkle of sympathy and mischief and intelligence—and a mass of soft dark hair, most unstylishly, most charmingly arranged, that caught some of the muffled light and softly glowed with a reddish tone. If there was anything vulgar, or commonplace, about Jack's wife, the shaded bulb was too kindly disposed to betray it to Mrs. De Peyster's scrutiny.
Suddenly Mary laughed—softly, musically.
"If Jack's mother ever dreamed what Jack and I are doing here! Oh—oh! Some day, after she's forgiven us—if ever she does forgive us—You've said you're sure she'll forgive us, Matilda; do you honestly, truly, cross-your-heartly, believe she will?"
"Y-e-s," said Mrs. De Peyster's numb lips.
"I do hope so, for Jack's sake!" sighed the little person. "After she forgives us, I'm going to 'fess up everything. Of course she'll be scandalized—for what we're doing is simply awful!—but all the same I'll tell her. And after she's forgiven us, I'll make her forgive you, too, Matilda, for your part in harboring us here. We'll see that you do not suffer."
Mrs. De Peyster realized that she should have expressed thanks at this point. But silence she considered better than valor.
"This paper prints that picture of her by M. Dubois again. Really, Matilda, is she as terribly dignified as that makes her look?"
Mrs. De Peyster had to speak. "I—I—hardly, ma'am."
"There you go with that 'ma'am' again!"
"Hardly, Mary," mumbled Mrs. De Peyster.
"Because if she looks anything like that picture, it must simply scare you to death to live with her. Did she ever bend her back?"
"Or forget that she was a De Peyster?"
"The lady of that picture never did!" declared the little person with conviction. "She's just dignity and pride—calm, remote, lofty, icebergy pride. She can say her ancestors backwards. Why, she's her family tree, petrified!"
Mrs. De Peyster did not feel called upon to add to these remarks.
"I don't see how she can possibly like me!" cried the little person. "Do you, Matilda?"
"I suppose—you can—only wait—and see," replied Mrs. De Peyster.
"I haven't got any dignity, or any money, or any ancestors; only a father and a couple of grandfathers—though I dare say there were some Morgans before them. No, she'll never care for me—never!" wailed the little person. "She couldn't! Why, she's carved out of a solid block of dignity! She never did an un-De-Peyster thing in her life!"
Mrs. De Peyster felt herself choking. She had to get out of the room, or die.
Just then Jack walked back in. For a few moments she had forgotten Jack. The terror arising from the menace upstairs returned to her. But Jack's happy face was assurance that as yet he knew nothing of the second Matilda.
Yes, she had to get out, or die. And Jack's reappearance gave her frantic mind a cue for an unbetraying exit.
"I'll go to the kitchen—and start supper," she gulped, and hurried into the butler's pantry.
"Jack," she heard Mary's perplexed voice, "Matilda, somehow, seems rather queer to me."
"She doesn't seem quite herself," agreed Jack.
Mrs. De Peyster sank into a chair beside the door, and sat there motionless, hardly daring to breathe—shattered by the narrowness of her escape, and appalled by this new situation that had risen around her—too appalled even to consider what might be the situation's natural developments. Soon amid the wild churning of various emotions, anger began to rise, and outraged pride. Such cool, dumbfounding impudence!
Then curiosity began to stir. Instinct warned her, incoherently, for all her faculties were too demoralized to be articulate, that this was no place for her. But those two persons in there—her son, and this daughter-in-law who had burst out of a fair cloud upon her—a daughter-in-law whom she would never recognize—what were they doing? Cautiously, ever so cautiously, she pushed open the pantry door till there was a slight crack giving into the other room.
Jack had his arms about Mary's shoulders.
"Well, little lady," she heard him ask with tremulous fondness—the young fool!—"What do you think of our honeymoon?"
"I think, sir, that it's something scandalous!" (Not such an unpleasant voice—but then!)
"U'm! Has the fact occurred to you"—very solemnly—"that you haven't kissed me since we have been in this room?"
"Was it written in the bond that I had to kiss you in every room?"
"No matter about the bond. A kiss or a divorce. Take your choice."
"It isn't worth divorcing you, since you may be too poor to pay alimony. So"—sighing and turning her face up to him.
"Mary"—after a moment of clinging lips—"you think you can really be happy with me?"
"I know I shall be, dear!"
"Even if things don't go right between mother and me, and even if for a long time I shall be awfully, awfully poor?"
"It's just you I care for, Jack,—just you!"
Jack stared at her; then suddenly:
"Do you know what I feel like?"
"Like kissing you again."
"Now don't be—"
His voice was tremulous. Slowly their lips came together; they embraced; then drew apart, and holding hands, stood gazing at each other.
"You're a dear, dear fool!" said Mary softly.
"And you're a dear, dear another!" softly said Jack.
(Outrageous fools, both! agreed Mrs. De Peyster.)
They were still gazing at each other when in the wide doorway at their back appeared Matilda, carrying the tray of tea-things that had been in Mrs. De Peyster's sitting-room. For the last few moments Mrs. De Peyster's danger had been forgotten in her indignation. But at sight of Matilda, regained its own.
Matilda stopped short. The tea-things almost rattled from the tray. Jack wheeled about.
"Hello, Matilda. Thought you'd gone down to the kitchen."
"Why—why—if it isn't Mr. Jack!" stammered Matilda.
Mrs. De Peyster trembled. What more likely than that Matilda, in her amazement, should reveal the house's secret? But the half-light of the room was a very obliging ally against such unsuspicion as her son's.
"Of course, it's Jack," said he. "Who else did you suppose it was? But say, what's the matter, Matilda?"
"Yes, what's the matter, Matilda?" asked Mary with great concern.
"Ma'am—ma'am"—staring wildly at Mary—"I—I don't know, ma'am."
"What, have you already forgotten what I told you about calling me Mary!"
"Ma—Mary?" gasped Matilda blankly.
"Jack," said Mary in a low voice, "I said awhile ago that she seemed queer."
"Where have you put your head, Matilda? Yes—Mary!—Mary!—Mary! Mary De Peyster—Mrs. Jack De Peyster—my wedded wife—whom it cost me four thirty-nine to make my own. Understand?"
"P-per-perfectly, Mr. Jack."
"Well, that's happy news. What's that you're carrying?"
"It's—ah—er—my breakfast," explained Matilda.
"Your breakfast!" exclaimed Jack. "What are you doing with it here?"
"I was—I was—er—was going to—to get it all ready to—to take up to myself to-morrow."
Jack took the tray from Matilda's nerveless hands.
"Sit down, Matilda," firmly pressing her into a chair. "Mary, have you some salts in that bag."
"Yes, Jack." In an instant Mary had a bottle from her bag and was holding it beneath Matilda's nose. "You'll be all right in just a moment. Take it easy. The surprise must have been too much for you. For it was a big surprise, wasn't it?"
"Yes, ma'am," replied Matilda, for the first time speaking with no hesitancy.
"Matilda, it's almost provoking the way you ignore my request to call me Mary."
"Ah—er—" staring wildly—"yes, Mary."
Jack moved to the wall near the door, where were several buttons.
"Mary, I'm going to ring for William—we'd better take him into this thing straight off, or he may stumble on the fact that extra people are in the house and call in the police."
At her crack in the pantry door, Mrs. De Peyster grew even more apprehensive.
Jack and Mary cooed; Matilda sat all of a heap; and presently William walked in. To her other emotions, Mrs. De Peyster had added a new shock. For William the peerless—fit coachman for an emperor—William, whom till that night she could not have imagined, had she imagined about such things at all, other than as sleeping in a high collar and with all his brass buttons snugly buttoned—William was coatless, and collarless, and slouching from his mouth was an old pipe!
He came in with a haughty glower, for he had supposed the ring to be Matilda's. But at sight of Jack and Mary his face went blank with amazement.
"Why, why, Mr. Jack!" Hastily he jerked his pipe into his pocket and began buttoning the open collar of his shirt. "I—I beg pardon, sir."
"Hello, William! This is Mrs. Jack, William. Just married. We've come to spend the summer with you."
"But on the quiet, William. Understand? If you leak a word about our being here—well, I know about the heart-throb business between you and Matilda. If you drop one word—one single word, I put mother next to what's doing between you two."
"Just wanted you to know we were here, William, so you wouldn't by any chance throw a surprise that would give us away. That's all. Keep mum about us"—with a sly wink at him and another at Matilda—"and you two can goo-goo at each other like a popular song. Good-night."
Jack turned his back; and Mary, whose heart went out to all lovers, delicately turned hers.
"William," fluttered Matilda, taking an eager, hesitating step toward him.
He stared at her haughtily—as haughtily as is in the power of a mere mortal who has no collar on.
"William," she cried bewildered, "what is it?"
"I believe you know what it is, Miss Simpson," he replied witheringly, and stalked out under full majesty.
She stood dumbfounded; but only for a moment.
"Matilda," spoke up Jack, "have you got supper things started yet in the kitchen?"
"Er—er—what?" stammered poor Matilda.
"Say, see here—what the dickens is the matter with you?" Jack exploded in exasperation. "You just promised to start supper in the kitchen, and now—"
"Of course—of course," gulped Matilda, "I forgot. I'll do it right away."
Matilda was reeling. But she perceived that here was her chance to get out of the room—and for the moment that was her supreme and only desire. She started for the door of the butler's pantry.
"We'll be down with you in about five minutes," Jack called after her.
In the darkness of the pantry a hand fell upon her arm. "Matilda," breathed her mistress's voice, and Matilda had enough control not to cry out, or was too far gone. Clutching hands, they went down the winding stairs that led from the butler's pantry to the kitchen.
"Oh, ma'am, ma'am!" moaned Matilda in the darkness.
"Matilda"—in awed breathlessness—"isn't this terrible?"
"Oh, ma'am! ma'am!"
"If Jack should learn that I am here—" She could not express the horror of it.
Mrs. De Peyster's voice rang out with wild desperation.
"Matilda, there is only one thing to do! We must leave the house!"
"I think we'd better, ma'am," Matilda snuffled hysterically, "for with all of you here, and this keeping up, I—I don't think I'd last a day, ma'am."
"And we must leave at once! We've not a second to spare. They said they were coming right down. We must be out of the house before they come!"
"Oh, ma'am, yes! This minute! But where—"
"There's no time to think of anything now but getting out," cried Mrs. De Peyster with frantic energy. "Slip up the front stairway, Matilda, and get your hat. And here are my keys. Lock my sitting-room, so they can't see any one's been living in it. You can manage it without them seeing you. And for heaven's sake, hurry!"
Two minutes later these things were done, and Matilda, bonneted, was hurrying forward hand in hand with Mrs. De Peyster through the black hallway of the basement. Behind them, descending the stairs from the butler's pantry, sounded the chatter and laughter of the larking honeymooners; and then from the kitchen came the surprised and exasperated call: "Hello, Matilda—See here, where the dickens are you?"
But at just that moment the twin, unbreathing figures in black slipped through the servants' door and noiselessly closed it behind them.
The two dark figures stood an instant, breathless, in the dark mouth of the cavern beneath the marble balustraded stairway that ascended with chaste dignity to Mrs. De Peyster's noble front door. Swiftly they surveyed the scene. Not a policeman was in sight: no one save, across the way on Washington Square benches, a few plebeian lovers enjoying the soft calm of a May eleven o'clock.
The pair, with veils down, each looking a plagiarism of the other, slipped out of the servants' entrance, through the gate of the low iron fence, and arm clutching arm hastened eastward to University Place. Thus far no one had challenged them. Here they turned and went rapidly northward: past the Lafayette, where Mrs. De Peyster's impulse to take a taxicab was instantly countermanded by the fear that so near her home there was danger of recognition: and onward, onward they went, swiftly, wordlessly, their one commanding impulse to get away—to get away.
At Fourteenth Street they passed a policeman. Again they choked back their breath; shiveringly they felt his eyes upon them. And, indeed, his eyes were—interestedly; for to that Hibernian, with his native whimsicality, they suggested the somewhat unusual phenomenon of the same person out walking with herself. But he did not speak.
At the head of Union Square they caught a roving taxicab. Their next thought, after bare escape, was necessarily concerned with shelter, a hiding-place. To the chauffeur's "Where to, ladies?" Mrs. De Peyster said, "Hotel Dauphin." The instinct, the Mrs. De Peyster of habit, which was beneath her surface of agitation, said the Dauphin because the Dauphin was quite the most select hotel in New York. In fact, six months before, when Mrs. De Peyster desired to introduce and honor the Duke de Crecy in a larger way than her residence permitted, it was at the Dauphin that she had elected to give the ball that had brought her so much deferential praise—which occasion was the first and only time she had departed from her strict old-family practice of limiting her social functions to such as could be accommodated within her own house. She had then been distinctly pleased; one could hardly have expected good breeding upon so large a scale. And her present subconscious impression of the Dauphin was that it was ducal, if not regal, in its reserved splendor, in its manner of subdued, punctilious ceremony.
She could remain at the Dauphin, in seclusion, until she had time to think. Then she could act.
As she sped smoothly up Fifth Avenue—her second ride on the Avenue that night—she began, in the cushioned privacy of the taxi, to recover somewhat from the panic of dire necessity that had driven them forth. Other matters began to flash spasmodically across the screen of her mind. One of these was William. And there the film stopped. The cold, withering look William had given Matilda a few minutes before remained fixed upon the screen. That look threatened her most unpleasantly as to the future. What if William should learn who was the real Matilda to whom he had made love!
"Matilda," she began, calling up her dignity, "I desire to instruct you upon a certain matter."
"Yes, ma'am," whispered Matilda.
"I expressly instruct you not to mention or hint to any one, particularly William, that it was I and not you who went out driving with him to-night."
"I'll not, ma'am."
"I swear, ma'am. Never!"
"Remember, Matilda. You have sworn." And relieved of that menace, she leaned back.
The taxi drew up before the Dauphin. A grenadier-lackey, who seemed bulk and brass buttons and braid of gold, handed them out with august white gloves.
"Pay the fare, Matilda," ordered Mrs. De Peyster.
Mrs. De Peyster's bills, when she had a servant with her, were always paid by the attendant. Matilda did so, out of a square black leather bag that was never out of Matilda's fingers when Matilda was out of the house; it seemed almost a flattened extension of Matilda's hand.
They entered the Dauphin, passing other white-gloved lackeys, each a separate perfection of punctiliousness; and passed through a marble hallway, muted with rugs of the Orient, and came into a vast high chamber, large as a theater—marble walls and ceiling, tapestries, moulded plaster and gilt in moderation, silken ropes instead of handrails on the stairways, electric lights so shaded that each looked a huge but softly unobtrusive pearl. The chamber was pervaded by, was dedicated to, splendid repose.
Mrs. De Peyster, Matilda trailing, headed for a booth of marble and railing of dull gold—the latter, possibly, only bronze, or gilded iron—within which stood a gentleman in evening dress, with the bearing of one no lower than the first secretary of an embassy.
"A suite," Mrs. De Peyster remarked briefly across the counter, "with sitting-room, two bed-rooms and bath."
"Certainly," said the distinguished gentleman. "I have a most desirable suite on the fifteenth floor, with a splendid outlook over the park."
"That will do."
"The name, please?" queried the gentleman, reaching for a pen.
"Mrs. David Harrison," invented Mrs. De Peyster.
"When do your employers wish to occupy the suite?" pursued the courtly voice of the secretary of the embassy.
"Our employers!" repeated Mrs. De Peyster. And then with wrathful hauteur: "The apartment is for ourselves. We desire to occupy it at once."
The gentleman glanced her up and down; then up and down his eyes went over Matilda, just behind her. There was no doubting what Matilda was; and since the two were patently the same, there could be no doubt as to what Mrs. De Peyster was.
"I'm sorry—but, after all, the suite is not available," he said courteously.
"Not available?" cried Mrs. De Peyster. "Why not?"
"I prefer to say no more."
"But I insist!"
"Since you insist—the Dauphin does not receive servants, even of the higher order, as regular guests." The hotel clerk's voice was silken with courtesy; there was no telling with what important families these two were connected; and it would not do to give offense. "We receive servants only when they accompany their employers, and then assign them to the servants' quarters. You yourself must perceive the necessity of this," he added hastily, seeing that Mrs. De Peyster was shaking, "to preserve the Dauphin's social tone—"
"The servants' quarters!" gasped Mrs. De Peyster. "You mean—"
"You'll excuse me, please," interrupted the clerk, and with a bow ended the scene and moved to the rear of the office where he plainly busied himself over nothing at all.
Mrs. De Peyster, quivering, gulping, glared through her veil at him. A hotel clerk had turned his back on her! And this mere clerk had dared refuse her a room! Refuse her! Because she, she, Mrs. De Peyster had not the social tone!
Nothing like it had ever happened to her before.
Her desire to annihilate that clerk with the suave ambassadorial look, and the Dauphin, and all therein and all appertaining thereunto, was mounting toward explosion, when Matilda clutched her arm.
"It's awful, ma'am,—but let's go," she whispered. "What else can we do?"
Yes, what else could they do? Mrs. De Peyster's wrath was still at demolitory pressure, but she saw the sense in that question. The next moment the two figures, duplicates of somberness, one magnificently upright, the other shrinking, were re-passing over the muting rugs, through the corridor of noble marble, by the lackeys between whose common palms and the hands of patrician guests was the antiseptic intermediary of white thread gloves.
"Perhaps it's just as well, ma'am," Matilda began tremulously as soon as they were in the street, before Mrs. De Peyster's black storm could burst. "How much would that suite have been?"
"Perhaps fifty dollars a day."
"I only just now thought about it—but—but please, ma'am, did you happen to bring your purse?"
"My purse!" Mrs. De Peyster stopped short. "Matilda!"—in a voice chilled with dismay—"I never thought of my purse until this moment! There wasn't time! I haven't a cent!"
"And after paying for the cab, ma'am, I have only a little over fifteen dollars."
"Perhaps, ma'am," repeated Matilda, "it was just as well they wouldn't take us."
Mrs. De Peyster did not speak.
"And what's worse," Matilda faltered, as though the blame was hers, "the hotels won't trust you unless you have baggage. And we have no baggage, ma'am."
"Matilda!" There was now real tragedy in Mrs. De Peyster's voice. "What are we going to do?"
They walked along the Park, whispering over their unforeseen and unforeseeable predicament. It had many aspects, their situation; it was quickly clear to them that the most urgent aspect was the need of immediate refuge. Other troubles and developments could be handled as they arose, should any such arise. But a place to hide, to sleep, had to be secured within the hour. Also they needed two or three days in which to think matters over calmly, and to apply to them clear reason. And they had only the fifteen dollars in Matilda's black bag.
"It seems to me, ma'am," ventured Matilda, "that a rooming-house or a boarding-house would be cheapest."
"A boarding-house!" exclaimed Mrs. De Peyster. "But where?"
Matilda remembered and reached into her slit pocket. "Yesterday I happened to pick up the card of a boarding-house in the library—I've no idea how it came there. I saved it because my sister Angelica, who lives in Syracuse, wrote me to look up a place where she might stay."
They examined the address upon the card, and twenty minutes later, now close upon midnight, Matilda was pressing the bell of a house on the West Side. Visible leadership Mrs. De Peyster had resigned to Matilda, for they were entering a remote and lowly world whose ways Mrs. De Peyster knew not. In all her life she had never been inside a boarding-house.
The door opened slightly. A voice, female, interrogated Matilda. Then they were admitted into a small hall, lighted by an electric bulb in a lantern of stamped sheet-iron with vari-colored panes and portholes. From this hall a stairway ascended, and from it was a view into a small rear parlor, where sat a clergyman. The lady who had admitted them was the mistress; a Junoesque, superior, languid sort of personage, in a loose dressing-gown of pink silk with long train. To her Matilda made known their desire.
"Excuse me, Mr. Pyecroft," she called to the clergyman. "So you and your friend want board and room," the landlady repeated in a drawling tone, yet studying them sharply with heavy-penciled eyes. "I run a select house, so I've got to be careful about whom I admit. Consequently you will not object to answering a few questions. You and your friend are working-women?"
The heavy eyes had concluded their inventory. "Perhaps both housekeepers?"
Matilda had a double impulse to explain, first to clear Mrs. De Peyster of this unmerited indignity, and second to prevent their being once more turned away as servants. But something kept her still. And perhaps it was just as well. Mrs. Gilbert, considering the two, did have a moment's thought about refusing them; she, too, liked to maintain the social tone of her establishment, and certainly servants as guests did not help; but then the arid season for boarding-houses was at hand, and she was not one to sacrifice real money to mere principle.
"How long do you want to stay?"
"We don't know yet. Per—perhaps several months."
This was agreeable news to Mrs. Gilbert. But it was not boarding-house policy to show it.
"When would you want to come in?"
"To-night!" The penciled eyebrows lifted in surprise. "And your baggage?"
"We came to New York without any," Matilda lied desperately. "We're—we're going to buy some things here."
"Naturally, then, you expect to pay in advance."
"Ah—er—at least a deposit."
"One room or two?"
"One." One would come cheaper.
"Excuse me, Mr. Pyecroft," she called again to the clergyman. "This way." And she collected her silken skirt, and swished up two flights of stairs and into a bedroom at the back, where she turned on the light. "A very comfortable room," she went on in the voice of a tired and very superior auctioneer. "Just vacated by a Wall Street broker and his wife; very well-connected people. Bed and couch; easy-chairs; running hot and cold water. And for it I'm making a special summer rate, with board, of only twenty-five dollars a week for two."
"We'll take it," said Matilda.
"Very well. Now the deposit—how much can you pay?"
"Ah—er—say fifteen dollars?"
Mrs. Gilbert's hands that tried to seem indifferent to money and that yet were remarkably prompt, took the bills Matilda held out and thrust them into the folds of her voluminous gown.
"Thank you. Breakfast Sunday mornings from eight to ten. Good-night." And with that her large pink-tinted ladyship made a rustling exit.
Mrs. De Peyster sank overcome into a chair, drew up her veil, and gazed about her. The other of Mrs. Gilbert's "easy"-chairs had a seat of faded and frayed cotton tapestry; there was a lumpy and unstable-looking couch; a yellow washstand with dandruffy varnish and cracked mirror; wall-paper with vast, uncataloguable flowers gangrenous in suggestion; on the ceiling a circle of over-plump dancing Cupids; and over against one wall a huge, broad, dark box that to Mrs. De Peyster's amazed vision suggested an upended coffin, contrived for the comfort of some deceased with remarkable width of shoulder.
"Matilda!" she shiveringingly ejaculated. "I didn't know there was anything like it in the world!"
"I know, ma'am, that it's not fit for you," grieved Matilda. "But—it's better than nothing."
"And that thing there!" pointing a shaking finger at the abnormal coffin. "What's that?"
"That's your bed, ma'am."
"It lets down, ma'am. Like this."
Whereupon Matilda proceeded to let down that sine qua non of a profitable boarding-house, while Mrs. De Peyster, dismayed, looked for the first time in her life upon the miracle of the unfolding of a folding-bed. Her mistress's slumber prepared for Matilda then softened the inaccuracies of the couch's surface for her own more humble repose.
Neither felt like talking; there was too much to talk about. So soon both were in their beds, the lights out. Mrs. De Peyster lay dazed upon this strange bed that operated like a lorgnette: tremulously existing, awake, yet hardly capable of coherent thought.
For a space she heard Matilda toss about, draw long, tremulous breaths; then from the couch of that elderly virgin sounded the incontrovertible tocsin of deep sleep. But for Mrs. De Peyster there was no sleep; not yet.
She now was thinking; casting up accounts. Exactly twenty-four hours since, she had officially sailed. Jack and that Mary person were now in sweet and undisturbed possession of her house; Olivetta, on board the Plutonia, was this minute reposing at ease amid the luxuries of her cabin de luxe; and she, herself, Mrs. De Peyster, was lying on a folding-bed, a most knobby bed,—the man who invented cobblestone paving must have got his idea from such a bed as this,—in a boarding-house the like of which till this night she had never imagined to exist.
And only twenty-four hours!...
She stared up toward where, in the dark, the corpulent Cupids were dancing their aerial May-ring ... and stared ... and stared....
PEACE—OF A SORT
The next morning there was a long, whispered discussion as to whether Mrs. De Peyster should go down to breakfast or have all her meals sent up to this chamber of distempered green. In the end two considerations decided the matter. In the first place, meals sent to the room would undoubtedly be charged extra. In the second, it was possible that Mrs. De Peyster's remaining in her room might rouse suspicion. It seemed the cheaper and safer course to try to merge herself, an unnoticed figure, in the routine of the house.
The dining-room was low-ceilinged and occupied the front basement and seemed to be ventilated solely through the kitchen. Mrs. De Peyster hazily saw perhaps a dozen people; from among whom a bare arm, slipping from the sleeve of a pink silk wrapper, languidly waved toward a small table. Into the two chairs Mrs. Gilbert indicated the twain sank.
A colored maid who had omitted her collar dropped before Mrs. De Peyster a heavy saucer containing three shriveled black objects immured in a dark, forbidding liquor that suggested some wry tincture from a chemist's shop. In response to Mrs. De Peyster's glance of shrinking inquiry Matilda whispered that they were prunes. Next the casual-handed maid favored them with thin, underdone oatmeal, and with thin, bitter coffee; and last with two stacks of pancakes, which in hardly less substantial incarnation had previously been served them by every whiff of kitchen air.
While she pretended to eat this uneatable usurper of her dainty breakfasts, Mrs. De Peyster glanced furtively at the company. Utterly common. And with such she had to associate—for months, perhaps!—she who had mixed and mingled only with the earth's best!
Mrs. Gilbert—naturally Mrs. Gilbert was a widow—did not give Mrs. De Peyster a second glance. The other boarders, after their first scrutiny, hardly looked at her again. The effect was as if all had turned their backs upon her.
Certainly this was odd behavior.
Then, in a flash, she understood. They were snubbing her as a social inferior!
Mrs. De Peyster was beginning to flame when the clergyman they had glimpsed the night before entered and pronounced a sonorous good-morning, all-inclusive, as though intended for a congregation. He seated himself at a small table just beyond Mrs. De Peyster's and was unfolding his napkin when his eyes fell upon Mrs. De Peyster. And then Mrs. De Peyster saw one of the oddest changes in a man's face imaginable. Mr. Pyecroft's eyes, which had been large with benedictory roundness, flashed with a smile. And then, at an instant's end, his face was once more grave and clerically benign.
But that instant-long look made her shiver. What was in this clergyman's mind? She watched him, in spite of herself—strangely fascinated; stole looks at him during this meal, and the next, and when they passed upon the stairway. He had a confusingly contradictory face, had the Reverend Herbert E. Pyecroft—for such she learned was his full name; a face customarily sedate and elderish, and then, almost without perceptible change, for swift moments oddly youthful; with a wide mouth, which would suddenly twist up at its right corner as though from some unholy quip of humor, and whose as sudden straightening into a solemn line would show that the unseemly humor had been exorcised. In manner he was bland, ornate, gestureish, ample; giving the sense that in nothing less commodious than a church could he loose his person and his powers to their full expression. He was genially familiar; the church-man who is a good fellow. Yet never did he let one forget the respect that was due his cloth.
He was at present without a charge, as she learned later. It was understood that he was waiting an almost certain call from a church in Kansas City.
As Mrs. De Peyster came out of her room that first Sunday at supper-time, there emerged from the room in front of hers the Reverend Mr. Pyecroft. He held out his hand, and smiled parochially.
"Ah, Miss Thompson,"—that was the name she had given the landlady,—"since we are neighbors we should also be friends." And on he went, voluminously, in his full, upholstered voice.
Somehow Mrs. De Peyster got away from him. But thereafter he spoke to her whenever he could waylay her in the hallway or upon the stairs. And his attentions did not stop with words. Flowers, even edibles, were continuously found against her door, his card among them. The situation somehow recalled to her the queer gentleman in shorts who threw vegetables over Mrs. Nickleby's garden wall. Mrs. De Peyster felt outraged; she fumed; yet she dared not be outspokenly resentful.
She had at first no inkling of the meaning of these attentions. It was Matilda who suggested the dismaying possibility.
"Don't you think, ma'am, he's trying to make love to you?"
"Make love to me!" rising in horror from one of Mrs. Gilbert's veteran "easy"-chairs.
"I'm sure it's that, ma'am," said the troubled Matilda.
"Matilda! Of all the effrontery!"
"Indeed, it is an insult to you, ma'am. But that may not be the worst of it. For if he really falls in love with you, he may try to follow you when you get ready to leave."
"Matilda!" gasped Mrs. De Peyster.
Thereafter, whenever he tried to speak to her in the hallways she shrank from him in both fear and indignation. But her rebuffs did not lessen by one ray the smiling amicability of his bland countenance He tried to become confidential, tried to press toward intimacy; one evening he even had the unbelievable audacity to ask if he might call upon her! She flamed with the desire to destroy him with a look, a word; Mrs. De Peyster knew well how thus to snuff out presuming upstarts. But caution warned her that she dared not unloose her powers. So she merely turned and fled, choking.
But the reverend gentleman's unperturbed overtures continued.
Mrs. De Peyster and Matilda did not speak of money at first; but it was constantly in both their minds as a problem of foremost importance. Their failure to buy fresh outfits, as they had told Mrs. Gilbert they intended doing, thus supplying "baggage" that would be security for their board, caused Mrs. Gilbert to regard them with hostile suspicion. Matilda saw eviction in their landlady's penciled eyes, and without a word as to her intention to Mrs. De Peyster, she slipped out on the third day, returned minus her two rings, and handed Mrs. Gilbert ten dollars.
They were secure to the week's end. After that—?
Fitfully Mrs. De Peyster pondered this matter of finances. She had money so near, yet utterly unreachable. Her house was filled with negotiable wealth, but she dared not go near it. Judge Harvey would secure her money gladly; but if the previous Friday she could not accept his aid, then a thousand times less could she accept it now. To ask his aid would be to reveal, not alone her presence in America, but the series of undignified experiences which had involved her deeper and deeper. That humiliation was unthinkable.
But on Thursday, locked in their room, they spoke of the matter openly.
"Please, ma'am," said Matilda, who had been maturing a plan, "you might make out a check to me, dated last week, before you sailed, and I could get it cashed. They'd think it was for back wages."
"I told you last Friday, when everything happened, that I had drawn out my balance."
"But your bank won't mind your overdrawing for a hundred or two," urged Matilda.
"That," said Mrs. De Peyster with an air of noble principle, "is a thing I will not do."
Matilda knew nothing of the secret of Mrs. De Peyster's exhausted credit at her bank.
"My own money," Matilda remarked plaintively, "is all in a savings bank. I have to give thirty days' notice before I can draw a penny."
There was a brief silence. Matilda's gaze, which had several times wandered to a point a few inches below Mrs. De Peyster's throat, now fixed themselves upon this spot. She spoke hesitantly.
"There's your pearl pendant you forgot and kept on when you put on my dress to go out riding with William." It was not one of the world's famous jewels; yet was of sufficient importance to be known, in a limited circle, as "The De Peyster Pearl." "I know the chain wouldn't bring much; but you could raise a lot on the pearl from a pawnbroker."
Mrs. De Peyster tried to look shocked. "What! I take my pearl to a pawnbroker!"
"Of course, I wouldn't expect you to go to a pawnshop, ma'am," Matilda apologized. "I'd take it."
Mrs. De Peyster had a moment's picture of Matilda's laying the pearl before a pawnbroker and asking for a fraction of its worth, a mere thousand or two; and of the hard-eyed usurer glancing at it, announcing that the pearl was spoof, and offering fifty cents upon it.
"Matilda, you should know that I would not part with such an heirloom," she said rebukingly.
"But, ma'am, in a crisis like this—"
"That will do, Matilda!"
Matilda said no more about the pearl then. She went to her bank and gave due notice of her desire to withdraw her funds. That, however, was provision merely for the next month and thereafter. It did not help to-day.
But all the rest of that day, and all of the following, Mrs. De Peyster felt Matilda's eyes, aggrieved, bitterly resentful, upon the spot where beneath her black housekeeper's dress hung the pearl she was unwilling to pawn to save them.
It was most uncomfortable.
THE REVEREND MR. PYECROFT
The next evening, Friday, as they left the dining-room, draped with the heavy odor of a dark, mysterious viand which Matilda in a whisper had informed Mrs. De Peyster to be pot-roast, Mrs. Gilbert stopped them on the stairs. In her most casual, superior tone, she notified Mrs. De Peyster that she would thank them for another week's pay in advance the following day, or their room.
Here was a crisis that had to be faced at once. Up in their room they discussed finance, going over and over their predicament, for two hours. There seemed no practical solution.
A heavy rain had begun to fall. The night was hot, close. The unaccustomed high collar of Matilda's dress had seemed suffocating to Mrs. De Peyster, and she had loosened it, and also she had taken off the pearl pendant which had chafed her beneath the warm, heavy cloth. The pearl and its delicate chain of platinum were now lying on their center-table.
Several times Matilda's eye had gone furtively toward the pendant. "I don't see why," she at length said doggedly, "you shouldn't let me pawn that pearl."
"I believe I have requested you not to refer to this again." Mrs. De Peyster's tone was stiff.
Matilda's face showed stubborn bitterness. But the habit of obedience was too old and strong for her to speak further.
There was another silence. Both sat in desperate thought. Suddenly Mrs. De Peyster looked up. "Matilda, I think I have it."
"What is it, ma'am?"—with faintly reviving hope.
"You have the keys to my house. You slip back there to-night, find my purse, or bring something that you might sell."
Matilda slumped down, aghast.
"It's perfectly simple," Mrs. De Peyster reassured her. "We should have thought of it at first."
"But, ma'am!" quaveringly protested Matilda. "Suppose a policeman should see me! They watch those closed houses. And suppose—suppose he should shoot!"
"Nonsense, Matilda! No one will see you if you are careful."
"But if—if—Mr. Jack should hear me and come down and see me—"
"We shall prepare for such an emergency some kind of plausible explanation that will satisfy Jack."
"But, ma'am, please! I don't think I could ever do it!"
"Matilda, it is the only way"—in the voice of authority. And then more emphatically, and in some desperation: "Remember, we have got to do something! We have simply got to have money!"
Matilda was beginning to whimper yieldingly, when a knock sounded at their door. They clutched each other, but did not answer.
The knuckles rapped again.
They continued silent.
The knock sounded more loudly.
"It's the landlady, come to throw us out," quaked Matilda.
"Open the door," ordered Mrs. De Peyster, decorously rearranging the throat of her dress, "and tell her she shall have her money in the morning."
Matilda unlocked the door, partially opened it, then fell back with a little cry. There entered the Reverend Mr. Pyecroft. He smiled at them, put a finger to his lips. Then he locked the door behind him.
"Please leave this instant!" commanded Mrs. De Peyster.
"It is not in my nature," he returned in his bland voice, "to go and leave behind me fellow creatures in distress."
"Fellow creatures in distress?" repeated Mrs. De Peyster.
"I was passing," said he, "and chanced to overhear you say a moment since that you simply had to have money."
Mrs. De Peyster's face filled with suspicion. "You have been listening all the while?"
"Possibly," said Mr. Pyecroft, with the same bland smile.
His smile did not alter. "I did not hear very much, really. Miss Thompson, may I beg the favor of a few minutes with you alone?"
"Most certainly not!"
"I am sure when you learn what it is, Miss Thompson, you would prefer that it be between yourself and myself."
"Matilda, don't go!"
He shrugged his shoulders pleasantly. "I had really hoped that the matter might be between just you and me, Miss Thompson. However, if you prefer Miss Perkins"—Matilda's name at Mrs. Gilbert's—"to be present, yours is the right to command. Shall we be seated?"
Matilda had already subsided upon her couch. Mrs. De Peyster sank into one of the chairs. The Reverend Mr. Pyecroft drew the other up to face her and sat down.
"Miss Thompson," he began, "I have a very serious proposition to lay before you."
Mrs. De Peyster shrank away. An awful premonition burst upon her. It was coming! This impudent, pompous, philandering clergyman was about to propose to her! To her! She gave a swift horrified glance at Matilda, who gave back a look of sympathetic understanding.
Then Mrs. De Peyster's horror at the indignity changed to horror of quite another sort; for the Reverend Mr. Pyecroft was leaning confidentially close to her, eyes into hers, and was saying in a low voice:—
"I suppose, Miss Thompson, you are not aware how much you look like a certain great lady, a famous social leader? To be explicit, like Mrs. De Peyster?"
She sank back, mere jelly with a human contour. So she was discovered! She rolled her eyes wildly toward Matilda; Matilda rolled wild eyes toward her.
"It is really a remarkable likeness," went on the low voice of the Reverend Mr. Pyecroft. "I've seen Mrs. De Peyster, you know; not more than six yards away; and the likeness struck me the very moment I saw you. You haven't the grand-duchess dignity she had on when I saw her—say, but you should have seen the figure she made!—but it's a wonderful coincidence. Dressed right, and with some lofty spirit pumped into you, you could pass anywhere as Mrs. De Peyster, provided they did not know Mrs. De Peyster too intimately. That likeness is the foundation of my proposition."
Mrs. De Peyster stared at him, and began to clutch at consciousness. After all, was it possible that he hadn't recognized her as Mrs. De Peyster? Perhaps he hadn't—for every one knew Mrs. De Peyster was abroad, and, furthermore, all the social world yawned inimitably between Mrs. De Peyster and this apparent nobody that she was, in an obscure boarding-house, and in a housekeeper's gown. But if he hadn't recognized her, then what was he driving at?
While she gazed she became aware of an amazing change in his face, of the possibility of which she had previously had only hints. The bland, elderish, clerical look faded; the face grew strangely young, the right corner of his mouth twisted upward, and his right eyelid drooped in a prodigious, unreverend wink.
"Friend," he remarked, "what's you two ladies' game?"
"Our game?" Mrs. De Peyster repeated blankly.
"Now don't try to come Miss Innocence over me," he said easily. "I sized you two up from the first minute, and I've been watching you ever since. The other one could get away with the housekeeper's part O.K., but any one could see through your makeup. What are the bulls after you for?"
"Oh, come,—you're dodging the police, or why the disguise?" he queried pleasantly. He picked up Mrs. De Peyster's pearl pendant. "Housekeepers don't sport this kind of jewelry. What are you? Housebreakers—sneak thieves—confidence game?"
Mrs. De Peyster gaped at him. "I—I don't understand."
"It's really a pretty fair front you're putting up," he commented with a dry indulgent smile. "But might as well drop it, for you see I'm on. But I think I understand." He nodded. "You don't want to admit anything until you feel you can trust me. That's about the size of it, isn't it, friends?"
Mrs. De Peyster stared, without speaking.
"Now I know I can trust you," he went on easily, "for I've got something on you and I give you away if you give me away. Well, sisters, of course you know you're not the only people the police are after. That's why I am temporarily in the ministry."
He grinned widely—a grin of huge enjoyment.
"Who are you?" demanded Mrs. De Peyster.
"Well, you don't hesitate to ask, do you?" He laughed, lightly. "Say, it's too good to keep! I always was too confiding a lad; but I've got you where you won't squeal, and I suppose we've got to know each other if we're going to do business together. You must know, my dear ladies, that every proposition I've handled I've gone into it as much for the fun as for the coin." He cocked his head; plainly there was an element of conceit in his character. "Well, fair ones—ready?"
Mrs. De Peyster nodded.
"Ever heard of the American Historical Society's collection of recently discovered letters of a gentleman named Thomas Jefferson?"
Mrs. De Peyster started.
"And perhaps you have heard that authorities now agree that said Thomas Jefferson was dead almost a hundred years when said letters were penned; and that he must have been favored with the assistance of an amanuensis of, so to say, the present generation?"
"That being the case you may have heard of one Thomas Preston, alleged to be said amanuensis?"
He put his hand across his clerical vest, and bowed first to Mrs. De Peyster, then to Matilda.
"It gives Mr. Preston very great pleasure to meet you, ladies. Only for the present he humbly petitions to be known as Mr. Pyecroft."
Mrs. De Peyster was quite unable to speak. So this was the man Judge Harvey was trying to hunt down! Her meeting him like this, it seemed an impossible coincidence—utterly impossible! She little dreamed that the laws of chance were not at all concerned in this adventure; that this meeting was but the natural outcome of Matilda's trifling act in picking up from the library rug a boarding-house card and slipping it into her slit-pocket.
The young man, for he now obviously was a young man, plainly delighted in the surprise he had created.
"I like to hand it to these pompous old stiffs," he went on gleefully—"these old boys who will come across with sky-high prices for old first editions and original manuscripts, and who don't care one little wheeze of a damn for what the author actually wrote. I'm sorry, though,"—in a tone of genuine contrition,—"that Judge Harvey was the man finally to be stung; they say he's the real thing." Suddenly his mood changed; his eye dropped in its unreverend wink. "There's a Raphael that the Metropolitan is solemnly proud of. It cost Morgan a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. It cost me an even five hundred to have it made."
He laughed again: that gay, whimsical, irresponsible laugh. Mrs. De Peyster was recovering somewhat from her first surprise.
Mr. Pyecroft leaned forward. "But this isn't getting down to our business. I've got a plan that's more fun than the Jefferson letters, and that will make us a lot of money, Miss Thompson. And it's easy and it's sure fire. It depends, as I said, upon the remarkable coincidence of your likeness to Mrs. De Peyster."
"Yes?" Mrs. De Peyster managed to say.
"You've read of her, of course; stiffest swell of the lot," went on the young gentleman rapidly, in clipped phrases oddly unlike the sonorous sentences of the Reverend Mr. Pyecroft. "Looks down on most of the Four Hundred as hoi polloi. She's in Europe now, and the papers say she won't be back until the very end of summer. We can't do a thing till then; have to lie low and wait. You need money, I heard you say; I suppose you're afraid to hock this twinkler"—touching the pearl pendant. "Police probably watching the pawnshops and would nab you. Well, I'll stake you till Mrs. De Peyster comes back."
"Stake me?" breathed Mrs. De Peyster.
"Yes. Give you, both of you, what money you need."
"And—and when—Mrs. De Peyster comes back?"
Young Mr. Pyecroft chortled with delight.
"Say, this scheme's the best ever! The day we learn Mrs. De Peyster has landed, we dress you up as a top-notcher—gad, but we can make you look the part!—we put you in a swell carriage, with her coat of arms painted on it—and you go around to Tiffany's and all the other swell shops where in the mean time I'll have learned Mrs. De Peyster has charge accounts. You select the most valuable articles in the shop, and then in the most casual, dignified manner,—I can coach you on how to put on the dignity,—you remark, 'Charge to my account, and I'll just take it along with me.' And off you go, with a diamond necklace under your arm. And same thing at all the shops. Then we duck before the thing breaks, and divide the fruits of our industry and superior intelligence, as the economists say. Isn't that one great little game!"
Mrs. De Peyster stared at his face, grinning like an elated gargoyle; herself utterly limp, her every nerve a filament of icy horror.
"Well, what do you say, girls?" prompted Mr. Pyecroft.
Mrs. De Peyster at first could say nothing at all. Whereupon the young man, gleeful over his invention, prompted her again.
"I—can't—can't do it," she gulped out.
"Can't do it!" He stared at her, amazed. "Say, do you realize what you're passing up?"
"I can't do it," repeated Mrs. De Peyster.
"Why?" he demanded.
She did not reply.
He stood up, smiling again. "I won't argue with you; it's bigger than anything you ever pulled off—so big, I guess it stuns you; I'll just let the matter soak in, and put up its own argument. You'll come in, all right," he continued confidently, "for you need money, and I'm the party that can supply you. And to make certain that you don't get the money elsewhere, I'll just take along this vault of the First National Bank as security"—with which he slipped Mrs. De Peyster's pearl pendant into his pocket. "Now, think the matter over, girls. I'll be back in half an hour. So-long for the present."
The door closed behind him.
Mrs. De Peyster gazed wildly after him. The plan "soaked in," as he had said it would; and as it soaked in, her horror grew. She saw herself becoming involved, helpless to prevent it, in the plan Mr. Pyecroft considered so delectable; she saw herself later publicly exposed as engaged in this scheme to defraud herself; she could hear all New York laughing. Her whole being shivered and gasped. Of all the plans ever proposed to a woman—!
And all the weeks and months this Mr. Pyecroft would be hovering about her!...
Despairingly she sat upright.
"Matilda, we can't stay in the same house with that man."
"Oh, ma'am," breathed the appalled Matilda, "of course not!"
"We've got to leave! And leave before he comes back!"
"Of course, ma'am," cried Matilda. And then: "But—but where?"
"Anywhere to get away from him!"
"But, ma'am, the money?" said Matilda who had handled Mrs. De Peyster's petty cash account for twenty years, and whose business it had been to think of petty practicalities. "We've only got twenty-three cents left, and we can't possibly get any more soon, and no one will take us in without money or baggage. Don't you see? We can't stay here, and we can't go any place else."
This certainly was a dilemma. The two gazed at each other, their faces momently growing more ghastly with helplessness. Then suddenly Mrs. De Peyster leaned forward, with desperate decision.
"Matilda, we shall go back home!"
"Go home, ma'am?" cried Matilda.
"There's nothing else we can do. I'll slip into my sitting-room, lock the door, and live there quietly—and Jack will never know I'm in the house."
"But, ma'am, won't that be dangerous?"
"Danger is comparative. Anything is better than this!"
"Just as you say; I suppose you're right, ma'am." And then with an hysterical snuffle: "But oh, ma'am, I wish I knew how this thing was ever going to turn out!"
Five minutes later the two twin figures of somberness, their veils down, stole stealthily down the stairs and out into the night.
The two dark figures, giving a glance through the rain in either direction, stole down beneath the stately marble steps of No. 13 Washington Square, and Matilda unlocked the servants' door. They slipped inside; the door was cautiously relocked. Breathless, they stood listening. A vast, noble silence pervaded the great house. They flung their arms about each other, and thus embraced tottered against the wall; and Mrs. De Peyster relaxed in an unspeakable relief.