"They had a directors' meeting on Saturday," Thorny said, later, "and if you ask me my frank opinion, I think Henry Brauer is at the bottom of all this. What do you know about his having been at that meeting on Saturday, and his going to have the office right next to J. G.'s—isn't that the extension of the limit? He's as good as in the firm now."
"I've always said that he knew something that made it very well worth while for this firm to keep his mouth shut," said Miss Cashell, darkly.
"I'll bet you there's something in that," Miss Cottle agreed.
"H. B. & H. is losing money hand over fist," Thorny stated, gloomily, with that intimate knowledge of an employer's affairs always displayed by an obscure clerk.
"Brauer asked me if I would like to go into the big office, but I don't believe I could do the work," Susan said.
"Yes; I'm going into the main office, too," Thorny stated. "Don't you be afraid, Susan. It's as easy as pie."
"Mr. Brauer said I could try it," Miss Sherman shyly contributed. But no other girl had been thus complimented. Miss Kelly and Miss Garvey, both engaged to be married now, Miss Kelly to Miss Garvey's brother, Miss Garvey to Miss Kelly's cousin, were rather congratulating themselves upon the turn of events; the other girls speculated as to the wisest step to take next, some talking vaguely of post-office or hospital work; Miss Cashell, as Miss Thornton later said to Susan, hopelessly proving herself no lady by announcing that she could get better money as a coat model, and meant to get into that line of work if she could.
"Are we going to have lunch to-day?" somebody asked. Miss Thornton thoughtfully drew a piece of paper toward her, and wet her pencil in her mouth.
"Best thing we can do, I guess," she said.
"Let's put ten cents each in," Susan suggested, "and make it a real party."
Thorny accordingly expanded her list to include sausages and a pie, cheese and rolls, besides the usual tea and stewed tomatoes. The girls ate the little meal with their hats and wraps on, a sense of change filled the air, and they were all a little pensive, even with an unexpected half-holiday before them.
Then came good-bys. The girls separated with many affectionate promises. All but the selected three were not to return. Susan and Miss Sherman and Thorny would come back to find their desks waiting for them in the main office next day.
Susan walked thoughtfully uptown, and when she got home, wrote a formal application for the position open in her school to little Miss Berrat in Sausalito.
It was a delightful, sunshiny afternoon. Mary Lou, Mrs. Lancaster and Virginia were making a mournful trip to the great institution for the blind in Berkeley, where Virginia's physician wanted to place her for special watching and treatment. Susan found two or three empty hours on her hands, and started out for a round of calls.
She called on her aunt's old friends, the Langs, and upon the bony, cold Throckmorton sisters, rich, nervous, maiden ladies, shivering themselves slowly to death in their barn of a house, and finally, and unexpectedly, upon Mrs. Baxter.
Susan had planned a call on Georgie, to finish the afternoon, for her cousin, slowly dragging her way up the last of the long road that ends in motherhood, was really in need of cheering society.
But the Throckmorton house chanced to be directly opposite the old Baxter mansion, and Susan, seeing Peter's home, suddenly decided to spend a few moments with the old lady.
After all, why should she not call? She had had no open break with Peter, and on every occasion his aunt had begged her to take pity on an old woman's loneliness. Susan was always longing, in her secret heart, for that accident that should reopen the old friendship; knowing Peter, she knew that the merest chance would suddenly bring him to her side again; his whole life was spent in following the inclination of the moment. And today, in her pretty new hat and spring suit, she was looking her best.
Peter would not be at home, of course. But his aunt would tell him that that pretty, happy Miss Brown was here, and that she was going to leave Hunter, Baxter & Hunter's for something not specified. And then Peter, realizing that Susan had entirely risen above any foolish old memory—-
Susan crossed the street and rang the bell. When the butler told her, with an impassive face, that he would find out if Mrs. Baxter were in, Susan hoped, in a panic, that she was not. The big, gloomy, handsome hall rather awed her. She watched Burns's retreating back fearfully, hoping that Mrs. Baxter really was out, or that Burns would be instructed to say so.
But he came back, expressionless, placid, noiseless of step, to say in a hushed, confidential tone that Mrs. Baxter would be down in a moment. He lighted the reception room brilliantly for Susan, and retired decorously. Susan sat nervously on the edge of a chair. Suddenly her call seemed a very bold and intrusive thing to do, even an indelicate thing, everything considered. Suppose Peter should come in; what could he think but that she was clinging to the association with which he had so clearly indicated that he was done?
What if she got up and went silently, swiftly out? Burns was not in sight, the great hall was empty. She had really nothing to say to Mrs. Baxter, and she could assume that she had misunderstood his message if the butler followed her—-
Mrs. Baxter, a little figure in rustling silk, came quickly down the stairway. Susan met her in the doorway of the reception room, with a smile.
"How do you do, how do you do?" Mrs. Baxter said nervously. She did not sit down, but stood close to Susan, peering up at her shortsightedly, and crumpling the card she held in her hand. "It's about the office, isn't it?" she said quickly. "Yes, I see. Mr. Baxter told me that it was to be closed. I'm sorry, but I never interfere in those things,—never. I really don't know ANYTHING about it! I'm sorry. But it would hardly be my place to interfere in business, when I don't know anything about it, would it? Mr. Baxter always prides himself on the fact that I don't interfere. So I don't really see what I could do."
A wave of some supreme emotion, not all anger, nor all contempt, nor all shame, but a composite of the three, rose in Susan's heart. She had not come to ask a favor of this more fortunate woman, but—the thought flashed through her mind—suppose she had? She looked down at the little silk-dressed figure, the blinking eyes, the veiny little hand, and the small mouth, that, after sixty years, was composed of nothing but conservative and close-shut lines. Pity won the day over her hurt girlish feeling and the pride that claimed vindication, and Susan smiled kindly.
"Oh, I didn't come about Front Office, Mrs. Baxter! I just happened to be in the neighborhood—-" Two burning spots came into the older woman's face, not of shame, but of anger that she had misunderstood, had placed herself for an instant at a disadvantage.
"Oh," she said vaguely. "Won't you sit down? Peter—-" she paused.
"Peter is in Santa Barbara, isn't he?" asked Susan, who knew he was not.
"I declare I don't know where he is half the time," Mrs. Baxter said, with her little, cracked laugh. They both sat down. "He has SUCH a good time!" pursued his aunt, complacently.
"Doesn't he?" Susan said pleasantly.
"Only I tell the girls they mustn't take Peter too seriously," cackled the sweet, old voice. "Dreadful boy!"
"I think they understand him." Susan looked at her hostess solicitously. "You look well," she said resolutely. "No more neuritis, Mrs. Baxter?"
Mrs. Baxter was instantly diverted. She told Susan of her new treatment, her new doctor, the devotion of her old maid; Emma, the servant of her early married life, was her close companion now, and although Mrs. Baxter always thought of her as a servant, Emma was really the one intimate friend she had.
Susan remained a brief quarter of an hour, chatting easily, but burning with inward shame. Never, never, never in her life would she pay another call like this one! Tea was not suggested, and when the girl said good-by, Mrs. Baxter did not leave the reception room. But just as Burns opened the street-door for her Susan saw a beautiful little coupe stop at the curb, and Miss Ella Saunders, beautifully gowned, got out of it and came up the steps with a slowness that became her enormous size.
"Hello, Susan Brown!" said Miss Saunders, imprisoning Susan's hand between two snowy gloves. "Where've you been?"
"Where've YOU been?" Susan laughed. "Italy and Russia and Holland!"
"Don't be an utter little hypocrite, child, and try to make talk with a woman of my years I I've been home two weeks, anyway."
Miss Saunders nodded slowly, bit her lip, and stared at Susan in a rather mystifying and very pronounced way.
"Emily is home, indeed," she said absently. Then abruptly she added: "Can you lunch with me to-morrow—no, Wednesday—at the Town and Country, infant?"
"Why, I'd love to!" Susan answered, dimpling.
"Well; at one? Then we can talk. Tell me," Miss Saunders lowered her voice, "is Mrs. Baxter in? Oh, damn!" she added cheerfully, as Susan nodded. Susan glanced back, before the door closed, and saw her meet the old lady in the hall and give her an impulsive kiss.
The little Town and Country Club, occupying two charmingly- furnished, crowded floors of what had once been a small apartment house on Post Street, next door to the old library, was a small but remarkable institution, whose members were the wealthiest and most prominent women of the fashionable colonies of Burlingame and San Mateo, Ross Valley and San Rafael. Presumably only the simplest and least formal of associations, it was really the most important of all the city's social institutions, and no woman was many weeks in San Francisco society without realizing that the various country clubs, and the Junior Cotillions were as dust and ashes, and that her chances of achieving a card to the Browning dances were very slim if she could not somehow push her name at least as far as the waiting list of the Town and Country Club.
The members pretended, to a woman, to be entirely unconscious of their social altitude. They couldn't understand how such ideas ever got about, it was "delicious"; it was "too absurd!" Why, the club was just the quietest place in the world, a place where a woman could run in to brush her hair and wash her hands, and change her library book, and have a cup of tea. A few of them had formed it years ago, just half a dozen of them, at a luncheon; it was like a little family circle, one knew everybody there, and one felt at home there. But, as for being exclusive and conservative, that was all nonsense! And besides, what did other women see in it to make them want to come in! Let them form another club, exactly like it, wouldn't that be the wiser thing?
Other women, thus advised and reassured, smiled, instead of gnashing their teeth, and said gallantly that after all they themselves were too busy to join any club just now, merely happened to speak of the Town and Country. And after that they said hateful and lofty and insulting things about the club whenever they found listeners.
But the Town and Country Club flourished on unconcernedly, buzzing six days a week with well-dressed women, echoing to Christian names and intimate chatter, sheltering the smartest of pigskin suitcases and gold-headed umbrellas and rustling raincoats in its tiny closets, resisting the constant demand of the younger element for modern club conveniences and more room.
No; the old members clung to its very inconveniences, to the gas- lights over the dressing-tables, and the narrow halls, and the view of ugly roofs and buildings from its back windows. They liked to see the notices written in the secretary's angular hand and pinned on the library door with a white-headed pin. The catalogue numbers of books were written by hand, too—the ink blurred into the shiny linen bands. At tea-time a little maid quite openly cut and buttered bread in a corner of the dining-room; it was permissible to call gaily, "More bread here, Rosie! I'm afraid we're a very hungry crowd to-day!"
Susan enormously enjoyed the club; she had been there more than once with Miss Saunders, and found her way without trouble to-day to a big chair in a window arch, where she could enjoy the passing show without being herself conspicuous. A constant little stream of women came and went, handsome, awkward school-girls, in town for the dentist or to be fitted to shoes, or for the matinee; debutantes, in their exquisite linens and summer silks, all joyous chatter and laughter; and plainly-gowned, well-groomed, middle-aged women, escorting or chaperoning, and pausing here for greetings and the interchange of news.
Miss Saunders, magnificent, handsome, wonderfully gowned, was surrounded by friends the moment she came majestically upstairs. Susan thought her very attractive, with her ready flow of conversation, her familiar, big-sisterly attitude with the young girls, her positiveness when there was the slightest excuse for her advice or opinions being expressed. She had a rich, full voice, and a drawling speech. She had to decline ten pressing invitations in as many minutes.
"Ella, why can't you come home with me this afternoon?—I'm not speaking to you, Ella Saunders, you've not been near us since you got back!—Mama's so anxious to see you, Miss Ella!—Listen, Ella, you've got to go with us to Tahoe; Perry will have a fit if you don't!"
"Mama's not well, and the kid is just home," Miss Saunders told them all good-naturedly, in excuse. She carried Susan off to the lunch- room, announcing herself to be starving, and ordered a lavish luncheon. Ella Saunders really liked this pretty, jolly, little book-keeper from Hunter, Baxter & Hunter's. Susan amused her, and she liked still better the evidence that she amused Susan. Her indifferent, not to say irreverent, air toward the sacred traditions and institutions of her class made Susan want to laugh and gasp at once.
"But this is a business matter," said Miss Saunders, when they had reached the salad, "and here we are talking! Mama and Baby and I have talked this thing all over, Susan," she added casually, "and we want to know what you'd think of coming to live with us?"
Susan fixed her eyes upon her as one astounded, not a muscle of her face moved. She never was quite natural with Ella; above the sudden rush of elation and excitement came the quick intuition that Ella would like a sensational reception of her offer. Her look expressed the stunned amazement of one who cannot credit her ears. Ella's laugh showed an amused pleasure.
"Don't look so aghast, child. You don't have to do it!" she said.
Again Susan did the dramatic and acceptable thing, typical of what she must give the Saunders throughout their relationship. Instead of the natural "What on earth are you talking about?" she said slowly, dazedly, her bewildered eyes on Ella's face:
"Joking! You'll find the Saunders family no joke, I can promise you that!" Ella said, humorously. And again Susan laughed.
"No, but you see Emily's come home from Fowler's a perfect nervous wreck," explained Miss Ella, "and; she can't be left alone for awhile,—partly because her heart's not good, partly because she gets blue, and partly because, if she hasn't anyone to drive and walk and play tennis with, and so on, she simply mopes from morning until night. She hates Mama's nurse; Mama needs Miss Baker herself anyway, and we've been wondering and wondering how we could get hold of the right person to fill the bill. You'd have a pretty easy time in one way, of course, and do everything the Kid does, and I'll stand right behind you. But don't think it's any snap!"
"Snap!" echoed Susan, starry-eyed, crimson-cheeked. "—-But you don't mean that you want ME?"
"I wish you could have seen her; she turned quite pale," Miss Saunders told her mother and sister later. "Really, she was overcome. She said she'd speak to her aunt to-night; I don't imagine there'll be any trouble. She's a nice child. I don't see the use of delay, so I said Monday."
"You were a sweet to think of it," Emily said, gratefully, from the downy wide couch where she was spending the evening.
"Not at all, Kid," Ella answered politely. She yawned, and stared at the alabaster globe of the lamp above Emily's head. A silence fell. The two sisters never had much to talk about, and Mrs. Saunders, dutifully sitting with the invalid, was heavy from dinner, and nearly asleep. Ella yawned again.
"Want some chocolates?" she finally asked.
"Oh, thank you, Ella!"
"I'll send Fannie in with 'em!" Miss Ella stood up, bent her head to study at close range an engraving on the wall, loitered off to her own room. She was rarely at home in the evening and did not know quite what to do with herself.
Susan, meanwhile, walked upon air. She tasted complete happiness for almost the first time in her life; awakened in the morning to blissful reality, instead of the old dreary round, and went to sleep at night smiling at her own happy thoughts. It was all like a pleasant dream!
She resigned from her new position at Hunter, Baxter & Hunter's exactly as she resigned in imagination a hundred times. No more drudgery over bills, no more mornings spent in icy, wet shoes, and afternoons heavy with headache. Susan was almost too excited to thank Mr. Brauer for his compliments and regrets.
Parting with Thorny was harder; Susan and she had been through many a hard hour together, had shared a thousand likes and dislikes, had loved and quarreled and been reconciled.
"You're doing an awfully foolish thing, Susan. You'll wish you were back here inside of a month," Thorny prophesied when the last moment came. "Aw, don't you do it, Susan!" she pleaded, with a little real emotion. "Come on into Main Office, and sit next to me. We'll have loads of sport."
"Oh, I've promised!" Susan held out her hand. "Don't forget me!" she said, trying to laugh. Miss Thornton's handsome eyes glistened with tears. With a sudden little impulse they kissed each other for the first time.
Then Susan, a full hour before closing, went down from the lunch- room, and past all the familiar offices; the sadness of change tugging at her heart-strings. She had been here a long time, she had smelled this same odor of scorching rubber, and oils and powders through so many slow afternoons, in gay moods and sad, in moods of rebellion and distaste. She left a part of her girlhood here. The cashier, to whom she went for her check, was all kindly interest, and the young clerks and salesmen stopped to offer her their good wishes. Susan passed the time-clock without punching her number for the first time in three years, and out into the sunny, unfamiliar emptiness of the streets.
At the corner her heart suddenly failed her. She felt as if she could not really go away from these familiar places and people. The warehouses and wholesale houses, the wholesale liquor house with a live eagle magnificently caged in one window, the big stove establishment, with its window full of ranges in shining steel and nickel-plate; these had been her world for so long!
But she kept on her way uptown, and by the time she reached the old library, where Mary Lou, very handsome in her well-brushed suit and dotted veil, with white gloves still odorous of benzine, was waiting, she was almost sure that she was not making a mistake.
Mary Lou was a famous shopper, capable of exhausting any saleswoman for a ten-cent purchase, and proportionately effective when, as to- day, a really considerable sum was to be spent. She regretfully would decline a dozen varieties in handkerchiefs or ribbons, saying with pleasant plaintiveness to the saleswoman: "Perhaps I am hard to please. My mother is an old Southern lady—the Ralstons, you know?— and her linen is, of course, like nothing one can get nowadays! No; I wouldn't care to show my mother this.
"My cousin, of course, only wants this for a little hack hat," she added to Susan's modest suggestion of price to the milliner, and in the White House she consented to Susan's selections with a consoling reminder, "It isn't as if you didn't have your lovely French underwear at home, Sue! These will do very nicely for your rough camping trip!"
Compared to Mary Lou, Susan was a very poor shopper. She was always anxious to please the saleswoman, to buy after a certain amount of looking had been done, for no other reason than that she had caused most of the stock to be displayed.
"I like this, Mary Lou," Susan would murmur nervously. And, as the pompadoured saleswoman turned to take down still another heap of petticoats, Susan would repeat noiselessly, with an urgent nod, "This will do!"
"Wait, now, dear," Mary Lou would return, unperturbed, arresting Susan's hand with a white, well-filled glove. "Wait, dear. If we can't get it here we can get it somewhere else. Yes, let me see those you have there—-"
"Thank you, just the same," Susan always murmured uncomfortably, averting her eyes from the saleswoman, as they went away. But the saleswoman, busily rearranging her stock, rarely responded.
To-day they bought, besides the fascinating white things, some tan shoes, and a rough straw hat covered with roses, and two linen skirts, and three linen blouses, and a little dress of dotted lavender lawn. Everything was of the simplest, but Susan had never had so many new things in the course of her life before, and was elated beyond words as one purchase was made after another.
She carried home nearly ten dollars, planning to keep it until the first month's salary should be paid, but Auntie was found, upon their return in the very act of dissuading the dark powers known as the "sewing-machine men" from removing that convenience, and Susan, only too thankful to be in time, gladly let seven dollars fall into the oily palm of the carrier in charge.
"Mary Lou," said she, over her fascinating packages, just before dinner, "here's a funny thing! If I had gone bad, you know, so that I could keep buying nice, pretty, simple things like this, as fast as I needed them, I'd feel better—I mean truly cleaner and more moral—than when I was good!"
"Susan! Why, SUSAN!" Her cousin turned a shocked face from the window where she was carefully pasting newly-washed handkerchiefs, to dry in the night. "Do you remember who you ARE, dear, and don't say dreadful things like that!"
In the next few days Susan pressed her one suit, laundered a score of little ruffles and collars, cleaned her gloves, sewed on buttons and strings generally, and washed her hair. Late on Sunday came the joyful necessity of packing. Mary Lou folded and refolded patiently, Georgie came in with a little hand-embroidered handkerchief-case for Susan's bureau, Susan herself rushed about like a mad-woman, doing almost nothing.
"You'll be back inside the month," said Billy that evening, looking up from Carlyle's "Revolution," to where Susan and Mary Lou were busy with last stitches, at the other side of the dining-room table. "You can't live with the rotten rich any more than I could!"
"Billy, you don't know how awfully conceited you sound when you say a thing like that!"
"Conceited? Oh, all right!" Mr. Oliver accompanied the words with a sound only to be described as a snort, and returned, offended, to his book.
"Conceited, well, maybe I am," he resumed with deadly calm, a moment later. "But there's no conceit in my saying that people like the Saunders can't buffalo ME!"
"You may not see it, but there IS!" persisted Susan.
"You give me a pain, Sue! Do you honestly think they are any better than you are?"
"Of course they're not better," Susan said, heatedly, "if it comes right down to morals and the Commandments! But if I prefer to spend my life among people who have had several generations of culture and refinement and travel and education behind them, it's my own affair! I like nice people, and rich people ARE more refined than poor, and nobody denies it! I may feel sorry for a girl who marries a man on forty a week, and brings up four or five little kids on it, but that doesn't mean I want to do it myself! And I think a man has his nerve to expect it!"
"I didn't make you an offer, you know, Susan," said William pleasantly.
"I didn't mean you!" Susan answered angrily. Then with sudden calm and sweetness, she resumed, busily tearing up and assorting old letters the while, "But now you're trying to make me mad, Billy, and you don't care what you say. The trouble with you," she went on, with sisterly kindness and frankness, "is that you think you are the only person who really ought to get on in the world. You know so much, and study so hard, that you DESERVE to be rich, so that you can pension off every old stupid German laborer at the works who still wants a job when they can get a boy of ten to do his work better than he can! You mope away over there at those cottages, Bill, until you think the only important thing in the world is the price of sausages in proportion to wages. And for all that you pretend to despise people who use decent English, and don't think a bath-tub is a place to store potatoes; I notice that you are pretty anxious to study languages and hear good music and keep up in your reading, yourself! And if that's not cultivation—-"
"I never said a word about cultivation!" Billy, who had been apparently deep in his book, looked up to snap angrily. Any allusion to his efforts at self-improvement always touched him in a very sensitive place.
"Why, you did TOO! You said—-"
"Oh, I did not! If you're going to talk so much, Sue, you ought to have some faint idea what you're talking about!"
"Very well," Susan said loftily, "if you can't address me like a gentleman, we won't discuss it. I'm not anxious for your opinion, anyway."
A silence. Mr. Oliver read with passionate attention. Susan sighed, sorted her letters, sighed again.
"Billy, do you love me?" she asked winningly, after a pause.
Another silence. Mr. Oliver turned a page.
"Are you sure you've read every word on that page, Bill,—every little word?"
"You know, you began this, Bill," Susan said presently, with childish sweet reproach. "Don't say anything, Bill; I can't ask that! But if you still love me, just smile!"
By some miracle, Billy preserved his scowl.
"Not even a glimmer!" Susan said, despondently. "I'll tell you, Bill," she added, gushingly. "Just turn a page, and I'll take it for a sign of love!" She clasped her hands, and watched him breathlessly.
Mr. Oliver reached the point where the page must be turned. He moved his eyes stealthily upward.
"Oh, no you don't! No going back!" exulted Susan. She jumped up, grabbed the book, encircled his head with her arms, kissed her own hand vivaciously and made a mad rush for the stairs. Mr. Oliver caught her half-way up the flight, with more energy than dignity, and got his book back by doubling her little finger over with an increasing pressure until Susan managed to drop the volume to the hall below.
"Bill, you beast! You've broken my finger!" Susan, breathless and dishevelled, sat beside him on the narrow stair, and tenderly worked the injured member, "It hurts!"
"Let Papa tiss it!"
"You try it once!"
"Sh-sh! Ma says not so much noise!" hissed Mary Lou, from the floor above, where she had been summoned some hours ago, "Alfie's just dropped off!"
On Monday a new life began for Susan Brown. She stepped from the dingy boarding-house in Fulton Street straight into one of the most beautiful homes in the state, and, so full were the first weeks, that she had no time for homesickness, no time for letters, no time for anything but the briefest of scribbled notes to the devoted women she left behind her.
Emily Saunders herself met the newcomer at the station, looking very unlike an invalid,—looking indeed particularly well and happy, if rather pale, as she was always pale, and a little too fat after the idle and carefully-fed experience in the hospital. Susan peeped into Miss Ella's big room, as they went upstairs. Ella was stretched comfortably on a wide, flowery couch, reading as her maid rubbed her loosened hair with some fragrant toilet water, and munching chocolates.
"Hello, Susan Brown!" she called out. "Come in and see me some time before dinner,—I'm going out!"
Ella's room was on the second floor, where were also Mrs. Saunders' room, various guest-rooms, an upstairs music-room and a sitting- room. But Emily's apartment, as well as her brother's, were on the third floor, and Susan's delightful room opened from Emily's. The girls had a bathroom as large as a small bedroom, and a splendid deep balcony shaded by gay awnings was accessible only to them. Potted geraniums made this big outdoor room gay, a thick Indian rug was on the floor, there were deep wicker chairs, and two beds, in day-covers of green linen, with thick brightly colored Pueblo blankets folded across them. The girls were to spend all their days in the open air, and sleep out here whenever possible for Emily's sake.
While Emily bathed, before dinner, Susan hung over the balcony rail, feeling deliciously fresh and rested, after her own bath, and eager not to miss a moment of the lovely summer afternoon. Just below her, the garden was full of roses. There were other flowers, too, carnations and velvety Shasta daisies, there were snowballs that tumbled in great heaps of white on the smooth lawn, and syringas and wall-flowers and corn-flowers, far over by the vine-embroidered stone wall, and late Persian lilacs, and hydrangeas, in every lovely tone between pink and lavender, filled a long line of great wooden Japanese tubs, leading, by a walk of sunken stones, to the black wooden gates of the Japanese garden. But the roses reigned supreme— beautiful standard roses, with not a shriveled leaf to mar the perfection of blossoms and foliage; San Rafael roses, flinging out wherever they could find a support, great sprays of pinkish-yellow and yellowish-pink, and gold and cream and apricot-colored blossoms. There were moss roses, sheathed in dark-green film, glowing Jacqueminot and Papagontier and La France roses, white roses, and yellow roses,—Susan felt as if she could intoxicate herself upon the sweetness and the beauty of them all.
The carriage road swept in a great curve from the gate, its smooth pebbled surface crossed sharply at regular intervals by the clean- cut shadows of the elm trees. Here and there on the lawns a sprinkler flung out its whirling circles of spray, and while Susan watched a gardener came into view, picked up a few fallen leaves from the roadway and crushed them together in his hand.
On the newly-watered stretch of road that showed beyond the wide gates, carriages and carts, and an occasional motor-car were passing, flinging wheeling shadows beside them on the road, and driven by girls in light gowns and wide hats or by grooms in livery. Presently one very smart, high English cart stopped, and Mr. Kenneth Saunders got down from it, and stood whipping his riding-boot with his crap and chatting with the young woman who had driven him home. Susan thought him a very attractive young man, with his quiet, almost melancholy expression, and his air of knowing exactly the correct thing to do, whenever he cared to exert himself at all.
She watched him now with interest, not afraid of detection, for a small head, on a third story balcony, would be quite lost among the details of the immense facade of the house. He walked toward the stable, and whistled what was evidently a signal, for three romping collies came running to meet him, and were leaping and tumbling about him as he went around the curve of the drive and out of sight. Then Susan went back to her watching and dreaming, finding something new to admire and delight in every moment. The details confused her, but she found the whole charming.
Indeed, she had been in San Rafael for several weeks before she found the view of the big house from the garden anything but bewildering. With its wings and ells, its flowered balconies and French windows, its tiled pergola and flower-lined Spanish court, it stood a monument to the extraordinary powers of the modern architect; nothing was incongruous, nothing offended. Susan liked to decide into which room this casement window fitted, or why she never noticed that particular angle of wall from the inside. It was always a disappointment to discover that some of the quaintest of the windows lighted only linen-closets or perhaps useless little spaces under a sharp angle of roof, and that many of the most attractive lines outside were so cut and divided as to be unrecognizable within.
It was a modern house, with beautifully-appointed closets tucked in wherever there was an inch to spare, with sheets of mirror set in the bedroom doors, with every conceivable convenience in nickel- plate glittering in its bathrooms, and wall-telephones everywhere.
The girl's adjectives were exhausted long before she had seen half of it. She tried to make her own personal choice between the dull, soft, dark colors and carved Circassian walnut furniture in the dining-room, and the sharp contrast of the reception hall, where the sunlight flooded a rosy-latticed paper, an old white Colonial mantel and fiddle-backed chairs, and struck dazzling gleams from the brass fire-dogs and irons. The drawing-room had its own charm; the largest room in the house, it had French windows on three sides, each one giving a separate and exquisite glimpse of lawns and garden beyond. Upon its dark and shining floor were stretched a score of silky Persian rugs, roses mirrored themselves in polished mahogany, and here and there were priceless bits of carved ivory, wonderful strips of embroidered Chinese silks, miniatures, and exquisite books. Four or five great lamps glowing under mosaic shades made the place lovely at night, but in the heat of a summer day, shaded, empty, deliciously airy and cool, Susan thought it at its loveliest. At night heavy brocaded curtains were drawn across the windows, and a wood fire crackled in the fireplace, in a setting of creamy tiles. There was a small grand-piano in this room, a larger piano in the big, empty reception room on the other side of the house, Susan and Emily had a small upright for their own use, and there were one or two more in other parts of the house.
Everywhere was exquisite order, exquisite peace. Lightfooted maids came and went noiselessly, to brush up a fallen daisy petal, or straighten a rug. Not the faintest streak of dust ever lay across the shining surface of the piano, not the tiniest cloud ever filmed the clear depths of the mirrors. A slim Chinese houseboy, in plum- color and pale blue, with his queue neatly coiled, and his handsome, smooth young face always smiling, padded softly to and fro all day long, in his thick-soled straw slippers, with letters and magazines, parcels and messages and telegrams.
"Lizzie-Carrie—one of you girls take some sweet-peas up to my room," Ella would say at breakfasttime, hardly glancing up from her mail. And an hour later Susan, looking into Miss Saunders' apartment to see if she still expected Emily to accompany her to the Holmes wedding, or to say that Mrs. Saunders wanted to see her eldest daughter, would notice a bowl of the delicately-tinted blossoms on the desk, and another on the table.
The girls' beds were always made, when they went upstairs to freshen themselves for luncheon; tumbled linen and used towels had been spirited away, fresh blotters were on the desk, fresh flowers everywhere, windows open, books back on their shelves, clothes stretched on hangers in the closets; everything immaculately clean and crisp.
It was apparently impossible to interrupt the quiet running of the domestic machinery. If Susan and Emily left wet skirts and umbrellas and muddy overshoes in one of the side hallways, on returning from a walk, it was only a question of a few hours, before the skirts, dried and brushed and pressed, the umbrellas neatly furled, and the overshoes, as shining as ever, were back in their places. If the girls wanted tea at five o'clock, sandwiches of every known, and frequently of new types, little cakes and big, hot bouillons, or a salad, or even a broiled bird were to be had for the asking. It was no trouble, the tray simply appeared and Chow Yew or Carrie served them as if it were a real pleasure to do so.
Whoever ordered for the Saunders kitchen—Susan suspected that it was a large amiable person in black whom she sometimes met in the halls, a person easily mistaken for a caller or a visiting aunt, but respectful in manner, and with a habit of running her tongue over her teeth when not speaking that vaguely suggested immense capability—did it on a very large scale indeed. It was not, as in poor Auntie's case, a question of selecting stewed tomatoes as a suitable vegetable for dinner, and penciling on a list, under "five pounds round steak," "three cans tomatoes." In the Saunders' house there was always to be had whatever choicest was in season,—crabs or ducks, broilers or trout, asparagus an inch in diameter, forced strawberries and peaches, even pomegranates and alligator pears and icy, enormous grapefruit—new in those days—and melons and nectarines. There were crocks and boxes of cakes, a whole ice-chest just for cream and milk, another for cheeses and olives and pickles and salad-dressings. Susan had seen the cook's great store-room, lined with jars and pots and crocks, tins and glasses and boxes of delicious things to eat, brought from all over the world for the moment when some member of the Saunders family fancied Russian caviar, or Chinese ginger, or Italian cheese.
Other people's brains and bodies were constantly and pleasantly at work to spare the Saunders any effort whatever, and as Susan, taken in by the family, and made to feel absolutely one of them, soon found herself taking hourly service quite as a matter of course, as though it was nothing new to her luxury-loving little person. If she hunted for a book, in a dark corner of the library, she did not turn her head to see which maid touched the button that caused a group of lights, just above her, to spring suddenly into soft bloom, although her "Thank you!" never failed; and when she and Emily came in late for tea in the drawing-room, she piled her wraps into some attendant's arms without so much as a glance. Yet Susan personally knew and liked all the maids, and they liked her, perhaps because her unaffected enjoyment of this new life and her constant allusions to the deprivations of the old days made them feel her a little akin to themselves.
With Emily and her mother Susan was soon quite at home; with Ella her shyness lasted longer; and toward a friendship with Kenneth Saunders she seemed to make no progress whatever. Kenneth addressed a few kindly, unsmiling remarks to his mother during the course of the few meals he had at home; he was always gentle with her, and deeply resented anything like a lack of respect toward her on the others' parts. He entirely ignored Emily, and if he held any conversation at all with the spirited Ella, it was very apt to take the form of a controversy, Ella trying to persuade him to attend some dance or dinner, or Kenneth holding up some especial friend of hers for scornful criticism. Sometimes he spoke to Miss Baker, but not often. Kenneth's friendships were mysteries; his family had not the most remote idea where he went when he went out every evening, or where he was when he did not come home. Sometimes he spoke out in sudden, half-amused praise of some debutante, she was a "funny little devil," or "she was the decentest kid in this year's crop," and perhaps he would follow up this remark with a call or two upon the admired young girl, and Ella would begin to tease him about her. But the debutante and her mother immediately lost their heads at this point, called on the Saunders, gushed at Ella and Emily, and tried to lure Kenneth into coming to little home dinners or small theater parties. This always ended matters abruptly, and Kenneth returned to his old ways.
His valet, a mournful, silent fellow named Mycroft, led rather a curious life, reporting at his master's room in the morning not before ten, and usually not in bed before two or three o'clock the next morning. About once a fortnight, sometimes oftener, as Susan had known for a long time, a subtle change came over Kenneth. His mother saw it and grieved; Ella saw it and scolded everyone but him. It cast a darkness over the whole house. Kenneth, always influenced more or less by what he drank, was going down, down, down, through one dark stage after another, into the terrible state whose horrors he dreaded with the rest of them. He was moping for a day or two, absent from meals, understood to be "not well, and in bed." Then Mycroft would agitatedly report that Mr. Kenneth was gone; there would be tears and Ella's sharpest voice in Mrs. Saunders' room, pallor and ill-temper on Emily's part, hushed distress all about until Kenneth was brought home from some place unknown by Mycroft, in a cab, and gotten noisily upstairs and visited three times a day by the doctor. The doctor would come downstairs to reassure Mrs. Saunders; Mycroft would run up and down a hundred times a day to wait upon the invalid. Perhaps once during his convalescence his mother would go up to see him for a little while, to sit, constrained and tender and unhappy, beside his bed, wishing perhaps that there was one thing in the wide world in which she and her son had a common interest.
She was a lonesome, nervous little lady, and at these times only a little more fidgety than ever. Sometimes she cried because of Kenneth, in her room at night, and Ella braced her with kindly, unsympathetic, well-meant, uncomprehending remarks, and made very light of his weakness; but Emily walked her own room nervously, raging at Ken for being such a beast, and Mama for being such a fool.
Susan, coming downstairs in the morning sunlight, after an evening of horror and strain, when the lamps had burned for four hours in an empty drawing-room, and she and Emily, early in their rooms, had listened alternately to the shouting and thumping that went on in Kenneth's room and the consoling murmur of Ella's voice downstairs, could hardly believe that life was being so placidly continued; that silence and sweetness still held sway downstairs; that Ella, in a foamy robe of lace and ribbon, at the head of the table, could be so cheerfully absorbed in the day's news and the Maryland biscuit, and that Mrs. Saunders, pottering over her begonias, could show so radiant a face over the blossoming of the double white, that Emily, at the telephone could laugh and joke.
She was a great favorite with them all now, this sunny, pretty Susan; even Miss Baker, the mouse-like little trained nurse, beamed for her, and congratulated her upon her influence over every separate member of the family. Miss Baker had held her place for ten years and cherished no illusions concerning the Saunders.
Susan had lost some few illusions herself, but not many. She was too happy to be critical, and it was her nature to like people for no better reason than that they liked her.
Emily Saunders, with whom she had most to do, who was indeed her daily and hourly companion, was at this time about twenty-six years old, and so two years older than Susan, although hers was a smooth- skinned, baby-like type, and she looked quite as young as her companion. She had had a very lonely, if extraordinarily luxurious childhood, and a sickly girlhood, whose principal events were minor operations on eyes or ears, and experiments in diets and treatments, miserable sieges with oculists and dentists and stomach-pumps. She had been sent to several schools, but ill-health made her progress a great mortification, and finally she had been given a governess, Miss Roche, a fussily-dressed, effusive Frenchwoman, who later traveled with her. Emily's only accounts of her European experience dealt with Miss Roche's masterly treatment of ungracious officials, her faculty for making Emily comfortable at short notice and at any cost or place, and her ability to bring certain small possessions through the custom-house without unnecessary revelations. And at eighteen the younger Miss Saunders had been given a large coming-out tea, had joined the two most exclusive Cotillions,—the Junior and the Browning—had lunched and dined and gone to the play with the other debutantes, and had had, according to the admiring and attentive press, a glorious first season.
As a matter of fact, however, it had been a most unhappy time for the person most concerned. Emily was not a social success. Not more than one debutante in ten is; Emily was one of the nine. Before every dance her hopes rose irrepressibly, as she gazed at her dainty little person in the mirror, studied her exquisite frock and her pearls, and the smooth perfection of the hair so demurely coiled under its wreath of rosebuds, or band of shining satin. To-night, she would be a success, to-night she would wipe out old scores. This mood lasted until she was actually in the dressing-room, in a whirl of arriving girls. Then her courage began to ebb. She would watch them, as the maid took off her carriage shoes; pleasantly take her turn at the mirror, exchange a shy, half-absent greeting with the few she knew; wish, with all her heart, that she dared put herself under their protection. Just a few were cool enough to enter the big ballroom in a gale of mirth, surrender themselves for a few moments of gallant dispute to the clustered young men at the door, and be ready to dance without a care, the first dozen dances promised, and nothing to do but be happy.
But Emily drifted out shyly, fussed carefully with fans or glove- clasps while looking furtively about for possible partners, returned in a panic to the dressing-room on a pretense of exploring a slipper-bag for a handkerchief, and made a fresh start. Perhaps this time some group of chattering and laughing girls and men would be too close to the door for her comfort; not invited to join them, Emily would feel obliged to drift on across the floor to greet some gracious older woman, and sink into a chair, smiling at compliments, and covering a defeat with a regretful:
"I'm really only looking on to-night. Mama worries so if I overdo."
And here she would feel out of the current indeed, hopelessly shelved. Who would come looking for a partner in this quiet corner, next to old Mrs. Chickering whose two granddaughters were in the very center of the merry group at the door? Emily would smilingly rise, and go back to the dressing-room again.
The famous Browning dances, in their beginning, a generation earlier, had been much smaller, less formal and more intimate than they were now. The sixty or seventy young persons who went to those first dances were all close friends, in a simpler social structure, and a less self-conscious day. They had been the most delightful events in Ella's girlhood, and she felt it to be entirely Emily's fault that Emily did not find them equally enchanting.
"But I don't know the people who go to them very well!" Emily would say, half-confidential, half-resentful. Ella always met this argument with high scorn.
"Oh, Baby, if you'd stop whining and fretting, and just get in and enjoy yourself once!" Ella would answer impatiently. "You don't have to know a man intimately to dance with him, I should hope! Just GO, and have a good time! My Lord, the way we all used to laugh and talk and rush about, you'd have thought we were a pack of children!"
Ella and her contemporaries always went to these balls even now, the magnificent matrons of forty showing rounded arms and beautiful bosoms, and gowns far more beautiful than those the girls wore. Jealousy and rivalry and heartaches all forgot, they sat laughing and talking in groups, clustered along the walls, or played six- handed euchre in the adjoining card-room, and had, if the truth had been known, a far better time than the girls they chaperoned.
After a winter or two, however, Emily stopped going, except perhaps once in a season. She began to devote a great deal of her thought and her conversation to her health, and was not long in finding doctors and nurses to whom the subject was equally fascinating. Emily had a favorite hospital, and was frequently ordered there for experiences that touched more deeply the chords of her nature than anything else ever did in her life. No one at home ever paid her such flattering devotion as did the sweet-faced, low-voiced nurses, and the doctor—whose coming, twice a day, was such an event. The doctor was a model husband and father, his beautiful wife a woman whom Ella knew and liked very well, but Emily had her nickname for him, and her little presents for him, and many a small, innocuous joke between herself and the doctor made her feel herself close to him. Emily was always glad when she could turn from her mother's mournful solicitude, Kenneth's snubs and Ella's imperativeness, and the humiliating contact with a society that could get along very well without her, to the universal welcome she had from all her friends in Mrs. Fowler's hospital.
To Susan the thought of hypodermics, anesthetics, antisepsis and clinic thermometers, charts and diets, was utterly mysterious and abhorrent, and her healthy distaste for them amused Emily, and gave Emily a good reason for discussing and defending them.
Susan's part was to listen and agree, listen and agree, listen and agree, on this as on all topics. She had not been long at "High Gardens" before Emily, in a series of impulsive gushes of confidence, had volunteered the information that Ella was so jealous and selfish and heartless that she was just about breaking Mama's heart, never happy unless she was poisoning somebody's mind against Emily, and never willing to let Emily keep a single friend, or do anything she wanted to do.
"So now you see why I am always so dignified and quiet with Ella," said Emily, in the still midnight when all this was revealed. "That's the ONE thing that makes her mad!"
"I can't believe it!" said Susan, aching for sleep, and yawning under cover of the dark.
"I keep up for Mama's sake," Emily said. "But haven't you noticed how Ella tries to get you away from me? You MUST have! Why, the very first night you were here, she called out, 'Come in and see me on your way down!' Don't you remember? And yesterday, when I wasn't dressed and she wanted you to go driving, after dinner! Don't you remember?"
"Yes, but—-" Susan began. She could dismiss this morbid fancy with a few vigorous protests, with a hearty laugh. But she would probably dismiss herself from the Saunders' employ, as well, if she pursued any such bracing policy.
"You poor kid, it's pretty hard on you!" she said, admiringly. And for half an hour she was not allowed to go to sleep.
Susan began to dread these midnight talks. The moon rose, flooded the sleeping porch, mounted higher. The watch under Susan's pillow ticked past one o'clock, past half-past one—
"Emily, you know really Ella is awfully proud of you," she was finally saying, "and, as for trying to influence your mother, you can't blame her. You're your mother's favorite—anyone can see that- -and I do think she feels—"
"Well, that's true!" Emily said, mollified. A silence followed. Susan began to settle her head by imperceptible degrees into the pillow; perhaps Emily was dropping off! Silence—silence—heavenly delicious silence. What a wonderful thing this sleeping porch was, Susan thought drowsily, and how delicious the country night—
"Susan, why do you suppose I am Mama's favorite?" Emily's clear, wide-awake voice would pursue, with pensive interest.
Or, "Susan, when did you begin to like me?" she would question, on their drives. "Susan, when I was looking straight up into Mrs. Carter's face,—you know the way I always do!—she laughed at me, and said I was a madcap monkey? Why did she say that?" Emily would pout, and wrinkle her brows in pretty, childish doubt. "I'm not a monkey, and I don't think I'm a madcap? Do you?"
"You're different, you see, Emily. You're not in the least like anybody else!" Susan would say.
"But WHY am I different?" And if it was possible, Emily might even come over to sit on the arm of Susan's chair, or drop on her knees and encircle Susan's waist with her arms.
"Well, in the first place you're terribly original, Emily, and you always say right out what you mean—" Susan would begin.
With Ella, when she grew to know her well, Susan was really happier. She was too honest to enjoy the part she must always play with Emily, yet too practically aware of the advantages of this new position, to risk it by frankness, and eventually follow the other companions, the governesses and trained nurses who had preceded her. Emily characterized these departed ladies as "beasts," and still flushed a deep resentful red when she mentioned certain ones among them.
Susan found in Ella, in the first place, far more to admire than she could in Emily. Ella's very size made for a sort of bigness in character. She looked her two hundred and thirty pounds, but she looked handsome, glowing and comfortable as well. Everything she wore was loose and dashing in effect; she was a fanatic about cleanliness and freshness, and always looked as if freshly bathed and brushed and dressed. Ella never put on a garment, other than a gown or wrap, twice. Sometimes a little heap of snowy, ribboned underwear was carried away from her rooms three or four times a day.
She was dictatorial and impatient and exacting, but she was witty and good-natured, too, and so extremely popular with men and women of her own age that she could have dined out three times a night. Ella was fondly nicknamed "Mike" by her own contemporaries, and was always in demand for dinners and lunch parties and card parties. She was beloved by the younger set, too. Susan thought her big-sisterly interest in the debutantes very charming to see and, when she had time to remember her sister's little companion now and then, she would carry Susan off for a drive, or send for her when she was alone for tea, and the two laughed a great deal together. Susan could honestly admire here, and Ella liked her admiration.
Miss Saunders believed herself to be a member of the most distinguished American family in existence, and her place to be undisputed as queen of the most exclusive little social circle in the world. She knew enough of the social sets of London and Washington and New York society to allude to them casually and intimately, and she told Susan that no other city could boast of more charming persons than those who composed her own particular set in San Francisco. Ella never spoke of "society" without intense gravity; nothing in life interested her so much as the question of belonging or not belonging to it. To her personally, of course, it meant nothing; she had been born inside the charmed ring, and would die there; but the status of other persons filled her with concern. She was very angry when her mother or Emily showed any wavering in this all-important matter.
"Well, what did you have to SEE her for, Mama?" Ella would irritably demand, when her autocratic "Who'd you see to-day? What'd you do?" had drawn from her mother the name of some caller.
"Why, dearie, I happened to be right there. I was just crossing the porch when they drove up!" Mrs. Saunders would timidly submit.
"Oh, Lord, Lord, Lord! Mama, you make me crazy!" Ella would drop her hands, fling her head back, gaze despairingly at her mother. "That was your chance to snub her, Mama! Why didn't you have Chow Yew say that you were out?"
"But, dearie, she seemed a real sweet little thing!"
"Sweet little—! You'll have me CRAZY! Sweet little nothing—just because she married Gordon Jones, and the St. Johns have taken her up, she thinks she can get into society! And anyway, I wouldn't have given Rosie St. John the satisfaction for a thousand dollars! Did you ask her to your bridge lunch?"
"Ella, dear, it is MY lunch," her mother might remind her, with dignity.
"Mama, did you ask that woman here to play cards?"
"Well, dearie, she happened to say—"
"Oh, happened to say—!" A sudden calm would fall upon Miss Ella, the calm of desperate decision. The subject would be dropped for the time, but she would bring a written note to the lunch table.
"Listen to this, Mama; I can change it if you don't like it," Ella would begin, kindly, and proceed to read it.
HIGH GARDENS. MY DEAR MRS. JONES:
Mother has asked me to write you that her little bridge lunch for Friday, the third, must be given up because of the dangerous illness of a close personal friend. She hopes that it is only a pleasure deferred, and will write you herself when less anxious and depressed. Cordially yours,
ELLA CORNWALLIS SAUNDERS.
"But, Ella, dear," the mother would protest, "there are others coming—"
"Leave the others to me! I'll telephone and make it the day before." Ella would seal and dispatch the note, and be inclined to feel generously tender and considerate of her mother for the rest of the day.
Ella was at home for a few moments, almost every day; but she did not dine at home more than once or twice in a fortnight. But she was always there for the family's occasional formal dinner party in which events Susan refused very sensibly to take part. She and Miss Baker dined early and most harmoniously in the breakfast-room, and were free to make themselves useful to the ladies of the house afterward. Ella would be magnificent in spangled cloth-of-gold; Emily very piquante in demure and drooping white, embroidered exquisitely with tiny French blossoms in color; Mrs. Saunders rustling in black lace and lavender silk, as the three went downstairs at eight o'clock. Across the wide hall below would stream the hooded women and the men in great-coats, silk hats in hand. Ella did not leave the drawing-room to meet them, as on less formal occasions, but a great chattering and laughing would break out as they went in.
Susan, sitting back on her knees in the upper hall, to peer through the railing at the scene below, to Miss Baker's intense amusement, could admire everything but the men guests. They were either more or less attractive and married, thought Susan, or very young, very old, or very uninteresting bachelors. Red-faced, eighteen-year-old boys, laughing nervously, and stumbling over their pumps, shared the honors with cackling little fifty-year-old gallants. It could only be said that they were males, and that Ella would have cheerfully consigned her mother to bed with a bad headache rather than have had one too few of them to evenly balance the number of women. The members of the family knew what patience and effort were required, what writing and telephoning, before the right number was acquired.
The first personal word that Kenneth Saunders ever spoke to his sister's companion was when, running downstairs, on the occasion of one of these dinners, he came upon her, crouched in her outlook, and thoroughly enjoying herself.
"Good God!" said Kenneth, recoiling.
"Sh-sh—it's only me—I'm watching 'em!" Susan whispered, even laying her hand upon the immaculate young gentleman's arm in her anxiety to quiet him.
"Why, Lord; why doesn't Ella count you in on these things?" he demanded, gruffly. "Next time I'll tell her—"
"If you do, I'll never speak to you again!" Susan threatened, her merry face close to his in the dark. "I wouldn't be down there for a farm!"
"What do you do, just watch 'em?" Kenneth asked sociably, hanging over the railing beside her.
"It's lots of fun!" Susan said, in a whisper. "Who's that?"
"That's that Bacon girl—isn't she the limit!" Kenneth whispered back. "Lord," he added regretfully, "I'd much rather stay up here than go down! What Ella wants to round up a gang like this for—"
And, sadly speculating, the son of the house ran downstairs, and Susan, congratulating herself, returned to her watching.
Indeed, after a month or two in her new position, she thought an evening to herself a luxury to be enormously enjoyed. It was on such an occasion that Susan got the full benefit of the bathroom, the luxuriously lighted and appointed dressing-table, the porch with its view of a dozen gardens drenched in heavenly moonlight. At other times Emily's conversation distracted her and interrupted her at her toilet. Emily gave her no instant alone.
Emily came up very late after the dinners to yawn and gossip with Susan while Gerda, her mother's staid middle-aged maid, drew off her slippers and stockings, and reverently lifted the dainty gown safely to its closet. Susan always got up, rolled herself in a wrap, and listened to the account of the dinner; Emily was rather critical of the women, but viewed the men more romantically. She repeated their compliments, exulting that they had been paid her "under Ella's very nose," or while "Mama was staring right at us." It pleased Emily to imagine a great many love-affairs for herself, and to feel that they must all be made as mysterious and kept as secret as possible.
It was the old story, thought Susan, listening sympathetically, and in utter disbelief, to these recitals. Mary Lou and Georgie were not alone in claiming vague and mythical love-affairs; Emily even carried them to the point of indicating old bundles of letters in her desk as "from Bob Brock—tell you all about that some time!" or alluding to some youth who had gone away, left that part of the country entirely for her sake, some years ago. And even Georgie would not have taken as seriously as Emily did the least accidental exchange of courtesies with the eligible male. If the two girls, wasting a morning in the shops in town, happened to meet some hurrying young man in the street, the color rushed into Emily's face, and she alluded to the incident a dozen times during the course of the day. Like most girls, she had a special manner for men, a rather audacious and attractive manner, Susan thought. The conversation was never anything but gay and frivolous and casual. It always pleased Emily when such a meeting occurred.
"Did you notice that Peyton Hamilton leaned over and said something to me very quickly, in a low voice, this morning?" Emily would ask, later, suddenly looking mischievous and penitent at once.
"Oh, ho! That's what you do when I'm not noticing!" Susan would upbraid her.
"He asked me if he could call," Emily would say, yawning, "but I told him I didn't like him well enough for that!"
Susan was astonished to find herself generally accepted because of her association with Emily Saunders. She had always appreciated the difficulty of entering the inner circle of society with insufficient credentials. Now she learned how simple the whole thing was when the right person or persons assumed the responsibility. Girls whom years ago she had rather fancied to be "snobs" and "stuck-up" proved very gracious, very informal and jolly, at closer view; even the most prominent matrons began to call her "child" and "you little Susan Brown, you!" and show her small kindnesses.
Susan took them at exactly their own valuation, revered those women who, like Ella, were supreme; watched curiously others a little less sure of their standing; and pitied and smiled at the struggles of the third group, who took rebuffs and humiliations smilingly, and fell only to rise and climb again. Susan knew that the Thayers, the Chickerings and Chaunceys and Coughs, the Saunders and the St. Johns, and Dolly Ripley, the great heiress, were really secure, nothing could shake them from their proud eminence. It gave her a little satisfaction to put the Baxters and Peter Coleman decidedly a step below; even lovely Isabel Wallace and the Carters and the Geralds, while ornamenting the very nicest set, were not quite the social authorities that the first-named families were. And several lower grades passed before one came to Connie Fox and her type, poor, pushing, ambitious, watching every chance to score even the tiniest progress toward the goal of social recognition. Connie Fox and her mother were a curious study to Susan, who, far more secure for the time being than they were, watched them with deep interest. The husband and father was an insurance broker, whose very modest income might have comfortably supported a quiet country home, and one maid, and eventually have been stretched to afford the daughter and only child a college education or a trousseau as circumstances decreed. As it was, a little house on Broadway was maintained with every appearance of luxury, a capped-and-aproned maid backed before guests through the tiny hall; Connie's vivacity covered the long wait for the luncheons that an irate Chinese cook, whose wages were perpetually in arrears, served when it pleased him to do so. Mrs. Fox bought prizes for Connie's gay little card-parties with the rent money, and retired with a headache immediately after tearfully informing the harassed breadwinner of the fact. She ironed Connie's gowns, bullied her little dressmaker, cried and made empty promises to her milliner, cut her old friends, telephoned her husband at six o'clock that, as "the girls" had not gone yet, perhaps he had better have a bite of dinner downtown. She gushed and beamed on Connie's friends, cultivated those she could reach assiduously, and never dreamed that a great many people were watching her with amusement when she worked her way about a room to squeeze herself in next to some social potentate.
She had her reward when the mail brought Constance the coveted dance-cards; when she saw her name in the society columns of the newspapers, and was able to announce carelessly that that lucky girlie of hers was really going to Honolulu with the Cyrus Holmes. Dolly Ripley, the heiress, had taken a sudden fancy to Connie, some two years before Susan met her, and this alone was enough to reward Mrs. Fox for all the privations, snubs and humiliations she had suffered since the years when she curled Connie's straight hair on a stick, nearly blinded herself tucking and embroidering her little dresses, and finished up the week's ironing herself so that her one maid could escort Connie to an exclusive little dancing-class.
Susan saw Connie now and then, and met the mother and daughter on a certain autumn Sunday when Ella had chaperoned the two younger girls to a luncheon at the Burlingame club-house. They had spent the night before with a friend of Ella's, whose lovely country home was but a few minutes' walk from the club, and Susan was elated with the glorious conviction that she had added to the gaiety of the party, and that through her even Emily was having a really enjoyable time. She met a great many distinguished persons to-day, the golf and polo players, the great Eastern actress who was the center of a group of adoring males, and was being entertained by the oldest and most capable of dowagers, and Dolly Ripley, a lean, eager, round- shouldered, rowdyish little person, talking as a professional breeder might talk of her dogs and horses, and shadowed by Connie Fox. Susan was so filled with the excitement of the occasion, the beauty of the day, the delightful club and its delightful guests, that she was able to speak to Miss Dolly Ripley quite as if she also had inherited some ten millions of dollars, and owned the most expensive, if not the handsomest, home in the state.
"That was so like dear Dolly!" said Mrs. Fox later, coming up behind Susan on the porch, and slipping an arm girlishly about her waist.
"What was?" asked Susan, after greetings.
"Why, to ask what your first name was, and say that as she hated the name of Brown, she was going to call you Susan!" said Mrs. Fox sweetly. "Don't you find her very dear and simple?"
"Why, I just met her—" Susan said, disliking the arm about her waist, and finding Mrs. Fox's interest in her opinion of Dolly Ripley quite transparent.
"Ah, I know her so well!" Mrs. Fox added, with a happy sigh. "Always bright and interested when she meets people. But I scold her—yes, I do!—for giving people a false impression. I say, 'Dolly,'—I've known her so long, you know!—'Dolly, dear, people might easily think you meant some of these impulsive things you say, dear, whereas your friends, who know you really well, know that it's just your little manner, and that you'll have forgotten all about it to- morrow!' I don't mean YOU, Miss Brown," Mrs. Fox interrupted herself to say hastily. "Far from it!——Now, my dear, tell me that you know I didn't mean you!"
"I understand perfectly," Susan said graciously. And she knew that at last she really did. Mrs. Fox was fluttering like some poor bird that sees danger near its young. She couldn't have anyone else, especially this insignificant little Miss Brown, who seemed to be making rather an impression everywhere, jeopardize Connie's intimacy with Dolly Ripley, without using such poor and obvious little weapons as lay at her command to prevent it.
Standing on the porch of the Burlingame Club, and staring out across the gracious slopes of the landscape, Susan had an exhilarated sense of being among the players of this fascinating game at last. She must play it alone, to be sure, but far better alone than assisted as Connie Fox was assisted. It was an immense advantage to be expected to accompany Emily everywhere; it made a snub practically impossible, while heightening the compliment when she was asked anywhere without Emily. Susan was always willing to entertain a difficult guest, to play cards or not to play with apparently equal enjoyment—more desirable than either, she was "fun," and the more she was laughed at, the funnier she grew.
"And you'll be there with Emily, of course, Miss Brown," said the different hostess graciously. "Emily, you're going to bring Susan Brown, you know!—I'm telephoning, Miss Brown, because I'm afraid my note didn't make it clear that we want you, too!"
Emily's well-known eccentricity did not make Susan the less popular; even though she was personally involved in it.
"Oh, I wrote you a note for Emily this morning, Mrs. Willis," Susan would say, at the club, "she's feeling wretchedly to-day, and she wants to be excused from your luncheon to-morrow!"
"Oh?" The matron addressed would eye the messenger with kindly sharpness. "What's the matter—very sick?"
"We-ell, not dying!" A dimple would betray the companion's demureness.
"Not dying? No, I suppose not! Well, you tell Emily that she's a silly, selfish little cat, or words to that effect!"
"I'll choose words to that effect," Susan would assure the speaker, smilingly.
"You couldn't come, anyway, I suppose?"
"Oh, no, Mrs. Willis! Thank you so much!"
"No, of course not." The matron would bite her lips in momentary irritation, and, when they parted, the cause of that pretty, appreciative, amusing little companion of Emily Saunders would be appreciably strengthened.
One winter morning Emily tossed a square, large envelope across the breakfast table toward her companion.
"Sue, that looks like a Browning invitation! What do you bet that he's sent you a card for the dances!"
"He couldn't!" gasped Susan, snatching it up, while her eyes danced, and the radiant color flooded her face. Her hand actually shook when she tore the envelope open, and as the engraved card made its appearance, Susan's expression might have been that of Cinderella eyeing her coach-and-four.
For Browning—founder of the cotillion club, and still manager of the four or five winter dances—was the one unquestioned, irrefutable, omnipotent social authority of San Francisco. To go to the "Brownings" was to have arrived socially; no other distinction was equivalent, because there was absolutely no other standard of judgment. Very high up, indeed, in the social scale must be the woman who could resist the temptation to stick her card to the Brownings in her mirror frame, where the eyes of her women friends must inevitably fall upon it, and yearly hundreds of matrons tossed through sleepless nights, all through the late summer and the fall, hoping against hope, despairing, hoping again, that the magic card might really be delivered some day in early December, and her debutante daughter's social position be placed beyond criticism once more. Only perhaps one hundred persons out of "Brownie's" four hundred guests could be sure of the privilege. The others must suffer and wait.
Browning himself, a harassed, overworked, kindly gentleman, whose management of the big dances brought him nothing but responsibility and annoyance, threatened yearly to resign from his post, and yearly was dragged back into the work, fussing for hours with his secretary over the list, before he could personally give it to the hungrily waiting reporters with the weary statement that it was absolutely correct, that no more names were to be added this year, that he did not propose to defend, through the columns of the press, his omission of certain names and his acceptance of others, and that, finally, he was off for a week's vacation in the southern part of the state, and thanked them all for their kindly interest in himself and his efforts for San Francisco society.
It was the next morning's paper that was so anxiously awaited, and so eagerly perused in hundreds of luxurious boudoirs—exulted over, or wept over and reviled,—but read by nearly every woman in the city.
And now he had sent Susan a late card, and Susan knew why. She had met the great man at the Hotel Rafael a few days before, at tea- time, and he had asked Susan most affectionately of her aunt, Mrs. Lancaster, and recalled, with a little emotion, the dances of two generations before, when he was a small boy, and the lovely Georgianna Ralston was a beauty and a belle. Susan could have kissed the magic bit of pasteboard!
But she knew too well just what Emily wanted to think of Browning's courtesy, to mention his old admiration for her aunt. And Emily immediately justified her diplomatic silence by saying:
"Isn't that AWFULLY decent of Brownie! He did that just for Ella and me—that's like him! He'll do anything for some people!"
"Well, of course I can't go," Susan said briskly. "But I do call it awfully decent! And no little remarks about sending a check, either, and no chaperone's card! The old duck! However, I haven't a gown, and I haven't a beau, and you don't go, and so I'll write a tearful regret. I hope it won't be the cause of his giving the whole thing up. I hate to discourage the dear boy!"
Emily laughed approvingly.
"No, but honestly, Sue," she said, in eager assent, "don't you know how people would misunderstand—you know how people are! You and I know that you don't care a whoop about society, and that you'd be the last person in the world to use your position here—but you know what other people might say! And Brownie hates talk—"
Susan had to swallow hard, and remain smiling. It was part of the price that she paid for being here in this beautiful environment, for being, in every material sense, a member of one of the state's richest families. She could not say, as she longed to say, "Oh, Emily, don't talk ROT! You know that before your own grandfather made his money as a common miner, and when Isabel Wallace's grandfather was making shoes, mine was a rich planter in Virginia!" But she knew that she could safely have treated Emily's own mother with rudeness, she could have hopelessly mixed up the letters she wrote for Ella, she could have set the house on fire or appropriated to her own use the large sums of money she occasionally was entrusted by the family to draw for one purpose or another from the bank, and been quickly forgiven, if forgivness was a convenience to the Saunders family at the moment. But to fail to realize that between the daughter of the house of Saunders and the daughter of the house of Brown an unspanned social chasm must forever stretch would have been, indeed, the unforgivable offense.
It was all very different from Susan's old ideals of a paid companion's duties. She had drawn these ideals from the English novels she consumed with much enjoyment in early youth—from "Queenie's Whim" and "Uncle Max" and the novels of Charlotte Yonge. She had imagined herself, before her arrival at "High Gardens," as playing piano duets with Emily, reading French for an hour, German for an hour, gardening, tramping, driving, perhaps making a call on some sick old woman with soup and jelly in her basket, or carrying armfuls of blossoms to the church for decoration. If one of Emily's sick headaches came on, it would be Susan's duty to care for her tenderly, and to read to her in a clear, low, restful voice when she was recovering; to write her notes, to keep her vases filled with flowers, to "preside" at the tea-table, efficient, unobtrusive, and indispensable. She would make herself useful to Ella, too; arrange her collections of coins, carry her telephone messages, write her notes. She would accompany the little old mother on her round through the greenhouses, read to her and be ready to fly for her book or her shawl. And if Susan's visionary activities also embraced a little missionary work in the direction of the son of the house, it was of a very sisterly and blameless nature. Surely the most demure of companions, reading to Mrs. Saunders in the library, might notice an attentive listener lounging in a dark corner, or might color shyly when Ken's sisters commented on the fact that he seemed to be at home a good deal these days.
It was a little disillusioning to discover, as during her first weeks in the new work she did discover, that almost no duties whatever would be required of her. It seemed to make more irksome the indefinite thing that was required of her; her constant interested participation in just whatever happened to interest Emily at the moment. Susan loved tennis and driving, loved shopping and lunching in town, loved to stroll over to the hotel for tea in the pleasant afternoons, or was satisfied to lie down and read for an hour or two.
But it was very trying to a person of her definite impulsive briskness never to know, from one hour or one day to the next, just what occupation was in prospect. Emily would order the carriage for four o'clock, only to decide, when it came around, that she would rather drag the collies out into the side-garden, to waste three dozen camera plates and three hours in trying to get good pictures of them. Sometimes Emily herself posed before the camera, and Susan took picture after picture of her.
"Sue, don't you think it would be fun to try some of me in my Mandarin coat? Come up while I get into it. Oh, and go get Chow Yew to get that Chinese violin he plays, and I'll hold it! We'll take 'em in the Japanese garden!" Emily would be quite fired with enthusiasm, but before the girls were upstairs she might change in favor of her riding habit and silk hat, and Susan would telephone the stable that Miss Emily's riding horse was wanted in the side- garden. "You're a darling!" she would say to Susan, after an exhausting hour or two. "Now, next time I'll take you!"
But Susan's pictures never were taken. Emily's interest rarely touched twice in the same place.
"Em, it's twenty minutes past four! Aren't we going to tea with Isabel Wallace?" Susan would ask, coming in to find Emily comfortably stretched out with a book.
"Oh, Lord, so we were! Well, let's not!" Emily would yawn.
"But, Em, they expect us!"
"Well, go telephone, Sue, there's a dear! And tell them I've got a terrible headache. And you and I'll have tea up here. Tell Carrie I want to see her about it; I'm hungry; I want to order it specially."
Sometimes, when the girls came downstairs, dressed for some outing, it was Miss Ella who upset their plans. Approving of her little sister's appearance, she would lure Emily off for a round of formal calls.
"Be decent now, Baby! You'll never have a good time, if you don't go and do the correct thing now and then. Come on. I'm going to town on the two, and we can get a carriage right at the ferry—"
But Susan rarely managed to save the afternoon. Going noiselessly upstairs, she was almost always captured by the lonely old mistress of the house.
"Girls gone?" Mrs. Saunders would pipe, in her cracked little voice, from the doorway of her rooms. "Don't the house seem still? Come in, Susan, you and I'll console each other over a cup of tea."
Susan, smilingly following her, would be at a loss to account for her own distaste and disappointment. But she was so tired of people! She wanted so desperately to be alone!
The precious chance would drift by, a rich tea would presently be served; the little over-dressed, over-fed old lady was really very lonely; she went to a luncheon or card-party not oftener than two or three times a month, and she loved company. There was almost no close human need or interest in her life; she was as far from her children as was any other old lady of their acquaintance.
Susan knew that she had been very proud of her sons and daughters, as a happy young mother. The girl was continually discovering, among old Mrs. Saunders' treasures, large pictures of Ella, at five, at seven, at nine, with straight long bangs and rosetted hats that tied under her chin, and French dresses tied with sashes about her knees, and pictures of Kenneth leaning against stone benches, or sitting in swings, a thin and sickly-looking little boy, in a velvet suit and ribboned straw hat. There were pictures of the dead children, too, and a picture of Emily, at three months, sitting in an immense shell, and clad only in the folds of her own fat little person. On the backs of these pictures, Mrs. Saunders had written "Kennie, six years old," and the date, or "Totty, aged nine"—she never tired of looking at them now, and of telling Susan that the buttons on Ella's dress had been of sterling silver, "made right from Papa's mine," and that the little ship Kenneth held had cost twenty-five dollars. All of her conversation was boastful, in an inoffensive, faded sort of way. She told Susan about her wedding, about her gown and her mother's gown, and the cost of her music, and the number of the musicians.
Mrs. Saunders, Susan used to think, letting her thoughts wander as the old lady rambled on, was an unfortunately misplaced person. She had none of the qualities of the great lady, nothing spiritual or mental with which to fend off the vacuity of old age. As a girl, a bride, a young matron, she had not shown her lack so pitiably. But now, at sixty-five, Mrs. Saunders had no character, no tastes, no opinions worth considering. She liked to read the paper, she liked her flowers, although she took none of the actual care of them, and she liked to listen to music; there was a mechanical piano in her room, and Susan often heard the music downstairs at night, and pictured the old lady, reading in bed, calling to Miss Baker when a record approached its finish, and listening contentedly to selections from "Faust" and "Ernani," and the "Chanson des Alpes." Mrs. Saunders would have been far happier as a member of the fairly well-to-do middle class. She would have loved to shop with married daughters, sharply interrogating clerks as to the durability of shoes, and the weight of little underflannels; she would have been a good angel in the nurseries, as an unfailing authority when the new baby came, or hushing the less recent babies to sleep in tender old arms. She would have been a judge of hot jellies, a critic of pastry. But bound in this little aimless groove of dressmakers' calls, and card-parties, she was quite out of her natural element. It was not astonishing that, like Emily, she occasionally enjoyed an illness, and dispensed with the useless obligation of getting up and dressing herself at all!
Invitations, they were really commands, to the Browning dances were received early in December; Susan, dating her graceful little note of regret, was really shocked to notice the swift flight of the months. December already! And she had seemed to leave Hunter, Baxter & Hunter only last week. Susan fell into a reverie over her writing, her eyes roving absently over the stretch of wooded hills below her window. December—! Nearly a year since Peter Coleman had sent her a circle of pearls, and she had precipitated the events that had ended their friendship. It was a sore spot still, the memory; but Susan, more sore at herself for letting him mislead her than with him, burned to reestablish herself in his eyes as a woman of dignity and reserve, rather than to take revenge upon him for what was, she knew now, as much a part of him as his laughing eyes and his indomitable buoyancy.
The room in which she was writing was warm. Furnace heat is not common in California, but, with a thousand other conveniences, the Saunders home had a furnace. There were winter roses, somewhere near her, making the air sweet; the sunlight slanted in brightly across the wide couch where Emily was lying, teasing Susan between casual glances at her magazine. A particularly gay week had left both girls feeling decidedly unwell. Emily complained of headache and neuralgia; Susan had breakfasted on hot soda and water, her eyes felt heavy, her skin hot and dry and prickly.