"We all eat too much in this house!" she said aloud, cheerfully. "And we don't exercise enough!" Emily did not answer, merely smiled, as at a joke. The subject of diet was not popular with either of the Misses Saunders. Emily never admitted that her physical miseries had anything to do with her stomach; and Ella, whose bedroom scales exasperated her afresh every time she got on them, while making dolorous allusions to her own size whenever it pleased her to do so, never allowed anyone else the privilege. But even with her healthy appetite, and splendid constitution, Susan was unable to eat as both the sisters did. Every other day she resolved sternly to diet, and frequently at night she could not sleep for indigestion; but the Saunders home was no atmosphere for Spartan resolutions, and every meal-time saw Susan's courage defeated afresh. She could have remained away from the table with far less effort than was required, when a delicious dish was placed before her, to send it away untouched. There were four regular meals daily in the Saunders home; the girls usually added a fifth when they went down to the pantries to forage before going to bed; and tempting little dishes of candy and candied fruits were set unobtrusively on card-tables, on desks, on the piano where the girls were amusing themselves with the songs of the day.
It was a comfortable, care-free life they led, irresponsible beyond any of Susan's wildest dreams. She and Emily lounged about their bright, warm apartments, these winter mornings, until nine o'clock, lingered over their breakfast—talking, talking and talking, until the dining-room clock struck a silvery, sweet eleven; and perhaps drifted into Miss Ella's room for more talk, or amused themselves with Chow Yew's pidgin English, while he filled vases in one of the pantries. At twelve o'clock they went up to dress for the one o'clock luncheon, an elaborate meal at which Mrs. Saunders plaintively commented on the sauce Bechamel, Ella reviled the cook, and Kenneth, if he was present, drank a great deal of some charged water from a siphon, or perhaps made Lizzie or Carrie nearly leap out of their skins by a sudden, terrifying inquiry why Miss Brown hadn't been served to salad before he was, or perhaps growled at Emily a question as to what the girls had been talking about all night long.
After luncheon, if Kenneth did not want the new motor-car, which was supposed to be his particular affectation, the girls used it, giggling in the tonneau at the immobility of Flornoy, the French chauffeur; otherwise they drove behind the bays, and stopped at some lovely home, standing back from the road behind a sweep of drive, and an avenue of shady trees, for tea. Susan could take her part in the tea-time gossip now, could add her surmises and comment to the general gossip, and knew what the society weeklies meant when they used initials, or alluded to a "certain prominent debutante recently returned from an Eastern school."
As the season ripened, she and Emily went to four or five luncheons every week, feminine affairs, with cards or matinee to follow. Dinner invitations were more rare; there were men at the dinners, and the risk of boring a partner with Emily's uninteresting little personality was too great to be often taken. Her poor health served both herself and her friends as an excuse. Ella went everywhere, even to the debutante's affairs; but Emily was too entirely self- centered to be popular.
She and Susan were a great deal alone. They chattered and laughed together through shopping trips, luncheons at the clubs, matinees, and trips home on the boat. They bought prizes for Ella's card- parties, or engagement cups and wedding-presents for those fortunate girls who claimed the center of the social stage now and then with the announcement of their personal plans. They bought an endless variety of pretty things for Emily, who prided herself on the fact that she could not bear to have near her anything old or worn or ugly. A thousand little reminders came to Emily wherever she went of things without which she could not exist.
"What a darling chain that woman's wearing; let's go straight up to Shreve's and look at chains," said Emily, on the boat; or "White- bait! Here it is on this menu. I hadn't thought of it for months! Do remind Mrs. Pullet to get some!" or "Can't you remember what it was Isabel said that she was going to get? Don't you remember I said I needed it, too?"
If Susan had purchases of her own to make, Emily could barely wait with patience until they were completed, before adding:
"I think I'll have a pair of slippers, too. Something a little nicer than that, please"; or "That's going to make up into a dear wrapper for you, Sue," she would enthusiastically declare, "I ought to have another wrapper, oughtn't I? Let's go up to Chinatown, and see some of the big wadded ones at Sing Fat's. I really need one!"
Just before Christmas, Emily went to the southern part of the state with a visiting cousin from the East, and Susan gladly seized the opportunity for a little visit at home. She found herself strangely stirred when she went in, from the bright winter sunshine, to the dingy, odorous old house, encountering the atmosphere familiar to her from babyhood, and the unaltered warm embraces of Mary Lou and her aunt. Before she had hung up her hat and coat, she was swept again into the old ways, listening, while she changed her dress, to Mary Lou's patient complaints and wistful questions, slipping out to the bakery just before dinner to bring home a great paper-bag of hot rolls, and ending the evening, after a little shopping expedition to Fillmore Street, with solitaire at the dining-room table. The shabbiness and disorder and a sort of material sordidness were more marked than ever, but Susan was keenly conscious of some subtle, touching charm, unnoticed heretofore, that seemed to flavor the old environment to-night. They were very pure and loving and loyal, her aunt and cousins, very practically considerate and tender toward each other, despite the flimsy fabric of their absurd dreams; very good, in the old-fashioned sense of the term, if not very successful or very clever.
They made much of her coming, rejoiced over her and kissed her as if she never had even in thought neglected them, and exulted innocently in the marvelous delights of her new life. Georgie was driven over from the Mission by her husband, the next day, in Susan's honor, and carried the fat, loppy baby in for so brief a visit that it was felt hardly worth while to unwrap and wrap up again little Myra Estelle. Mrs. Lancaster had previously, with a burst of tears, informed Susan that Georgie was looking very badly, and that, nursing that heavy child, she should have been spared more than she was by the doctor's mother and the old servant. But Susan, although finding the young mother pale and rather excited, thought that Georgie looked well, and admired with the others her heavy, handsome new suit and the over-trimmed hat that quite eclipsed her small face. The baby was unmanageable, and roared throughout the visit, to Georgie's distress.
"She never cries this way at home!" protested young Mrs. O'Connor.
"Give her some ninny," Mrs. Lancaster suggested, eagerly, but Georgie, glancing at the street where Joe was holding the restless black horse in check, said nervously that Joe didn't like it until the right time. She presently went out to hand Myra to Susan while she climbed into place, and was followed by a scream from Mrs. Lancaster, who remarked later that seeing the black horse start just as Susan handed the child up, she had expected to see them all dashed to pieces.
"Well, Susan, light of my old eyes, had enough of the rotten rich?" asked William Oliver, coming in for a later dinner, on the first night of her visit, and jerking her to him for a resounding kiss before she had any idea of his intention.
"Billy!" Susan said, mildly scandalized, her eyes on her aunt.
"Well, well, what's all this!" Mrs. Lancaster remarked, without alarm. William, shaking out his napkin, drawing his chair up to the table, and falling upon his dinner with vigor, demanded:
"Come on, now! Tell us all, all!"
But Susan, who had been chattering fast enough from the moment of her arrival, could not seem to get started again. It was indeed a little difficult to continue an enthusiastic conversation, unaffected by his running fire of comment. For in these days he was drifting rapidly toward a sort of altruistic socialism, and so listened to her recital with sardonic smiles, snorts of scorn, and caustic annotations.
"The Carters—ha! That whole bunch ought to be hanged," Billy remarked. "All their money comes from the rents of bad houses, and— let me tell you something, when there was a movement made to buy up that Jackson Street block, and turn it into a park, it was old Carter, yes, and his wife, too, who refused to put a price on their property!"
"Oh, Billy, you don't KNOW that!"
"I don't? All right, maybe I don't," Mr. Oliver returned growlingly to his meal, only to break out a moment later, "The Kirkwoods! Yes; that's a rare old bunch! They're still holding the city to the franchise they swindled the Government out of, right after the Civil War! Every time you pay taxes—"
"I don't pay taxes!" Susan interrupted frivolously, and resumed her glowing account. Billy made no further contribution to the conversation until he asked some moments later, "Does old Brock ever tell you about his factories, while he's taking you around his orchid-house? There's a man a week killed there, and the foremen tell the girls when they hire them that they aren't expected to take care of themselves on the wages they get!"
But the night before her return to San Rafael, Mr. Oliver, in his nicest mood, took Susan to the Orpheum, and they had fried oysters and coffee in a little Fillmore Street restaurant afterward, Billy admitting with graceful frankness that funds were rather low, and Susan really eager for the old experience and the old sensations. Susan liked the brotherly, clumsy way in which he tried to ascertain, as they sat loitering and talking over the little meal, just how much of her thoughts still went to Peter Coleman, and laughed outright, as soon as she detected his purpose, as only an absolutely heart-free girl could laugh, and laid her hand over his for a little appreciative squeeze before they dismissed the subject. After that he told her of some of his own troubles, the great burden of the laboring classes that he felt rested on his particular back, and his voice rose and he pounded the table as he talked of the other countries of the world, where even greater outrages, or where experimental solutions were in existence. Susan brought the conversation to Josephine Carroll, and watched his whole face grow tender, and heard his voice soften, as they spoke of her.
"No; but is it really and truly serious this time, Bill?" she asked, with that little thrill of pain that all good sisters know when the news comes.
"Serious? GOSH!" said the lover, simply.
"No-o. I couldn't very well. I'm in so deep at the works that I may get fired any minute. More than that, the boys generally want me to act as spokesman, and so I'm a sort of marked card, and I mightn't get in anywhere else, very easily. And I couldn't ask Jo to go with me to some Eastern factory or foundry town, without being pretty sure of a job. No; things are just drifting."
"Well, but Bill," Susan said anxiously, "somebody else will step in if you don't! Jo's such a beauty—"
He turned to her almost with a snarl.
"Well, what do you want me to do? Steal?" he asked angrily. And then softening suddenly he added: "She's young,—the little queen of queens!"
"And yet you say you don't want money," Susan said, drily, with a shrug of her shoulders.
The next day she went back to Emily, and again the lazy, comfortable days began to slip by, one just like the other. At Christmas-time Susan was deluged with gifts, the holidays were an endless chain of good times, the house sweet with violets, and always full of guests and callers; girls in furs who munched candy as they chattered, and young men who laughed and shouted around the punch bowl. Susan and Emily were caught in a gay current that streamed to the club, to talk and drink eggnog before blazing logs, and streamed to one handsome home after another, to talk and drink eggnog before other fires, and to be shown and admire beautiful and expensive presents. They bundled in and out of carriages and motors, laughing as they crowded in, and sitting on each other's laps, and carrying a chorus of chatter and laughter everywhere. Susan would find herself, the inevitable glass in hand, talking hard to some little silk-clad old lady in some softly lighted lovely drawing-room, to be whisked away to some other drawing-room, and to another fireside, where perhaps there was a stocky, bashful girl of fourteen to amuse, or somebody's grandfather to interest and smile upon.
Everywhere were holly wreaths and lights, soft carpets, fires and rich gowns, and everywhere the same display of gold picture frames and silver plates, rock crystal bowls, rugs and cameras and mahogany desks and tables, furs and jeweled chains and rings. Everywhere were candies from all over the world, and fruitcake from London, and marrons and sticky candied fruit, and everywhere unobtrusive maids were silently offering trays covered with small glasses.
Susan was frankly sick when the new year began, and Emily had several heart and nerve attacks, and was very difficult to amuse. But both girls agreed that the holidays had been the "time of their lives."
It was felt by the Saunders family that Susan had shown a very becoming spirit in the matter of the Browning dances. Ella, who had at first slightly resented the fact that "Brownie" had chosen to honor Emily's paid companion in so signal a manner, had gradually shifted to the opinion that, in doing so, he had no more than confirmed the family's opinion of Susan Brown, after all, and shown a very decent discrimination.
"No EARTHLY reason why you shouldn't have accepted!" said Ella.
"Oh, Duchess," said Susan, who sometimes pleased her with this name, "fancy the talk!"
"Well," drawled Ella, resuming her perusal of a scandalous weekly, "I don't know that I'm afraid of talk, myself!"
"At the same time, El," Emily contributed, eagerly, "you know what a fuss they made when Vera Brock brought that Miss De Foe, of New York!"
Ella gave her little sister a very keen look,
"Vera Brock?" she said, dreamily, with politely elevated brows.
"Well, of course, I don't take the Brocks seriously—" Emily began, reddening.
"Well, I should hope you wouldn't, Baby!" answered the older sister, promptly and forcibly. "Don't make an UTTER fool of yourself!"
Emily retired into an enraged silence, and a day or two later, Ella, on a Sunday morning late in February, announced that she was going to chaperone both the girls to the Browning dance on the following Friday night.
Susan was thrown into a most delightful flutter, longing desperately to go, but chilled with nervousness whenever she seriously thought of it. She lay awake every night anxiously computing the number of her possible partners, and came down to breakfast every morning cold with the resolution that she would make a great mistake in exposing herself to possible snubbing and neglect. She thought of nothing but the Browning, listened eagerly to what the other girls said of it, her heart sinking when Louise Chickering observed that there never were men enough at the Brownings, and rising again when Alice Chauncey hardily observed that, if a girl was a good dancer, that was all that mattered, she couldn't help having a good time! Susan knew she danced well—
However, Emily succumbed on Thursday to a heart attack. The whole household went through its usual excitement, the doctor came, the nurse was hurriedly summoned, Susan removed all the smaller articles from Emily's room, and replaced the bed's flowery cover with a sheet, the invalid liking the hospital aspect. Susan was not very much amazed at the suddenness of this affliction; Emily had been notably lacking in enthusiasm about the dance, and on Wednesday afternoon, Ella having issued the casual command, "See if you can't get a man or two to dine with us at the hotel before the dance, Emily; then you girls will be sure of some partners, anyway!" Emily had spent a discouraging hour at the telephone.
"Hello, George!" Susan had heard her say gaily. "This is Emily Saunders. George, I rang up because—you know the Browning is Friday night, and Ella's giving me a little dinner at the Palace before it- -and I wondered—we're just getting it up hurriedly—" An interval of silence on Emily's part would follow, then she would resume, eagerly, "Oh, certainly! I'm sorry, but of course I understand. Yes, indeed; I'll see you Friday night—" and the conversation would be ended.
And, after a moment of silence, she would call another number, and go through the little conversation again. Susan, filled with apprehensions regarding her own partners, could not blame Emily for the heart attack, and felt a little vague relief on her own account. Better sure at home than sorry in the dreadful brilliance of a Browning ball!
"I'm afraid this means no dance!" murmured Emily, apologetically.
"As if I cared, Emmy Lou!" Susan reassured her cheerfully.
"Well, I don't think you would have had a good time, Sue!" Emily said, and the topic of the dance was presumably exhausted.
But when Ella got home, the next morning, she reopened the question with some heat. Emily could do exactly as Emily pleased, declared Ella, but Susan Brown should and would come to the last Browning.
"Oh, please, Duchess—!" Susan besought her.
"Very well, Sue, if you don't, I'll make that kid so sorry she ever- -"
"Oh, please!—And beside—" said Susan, "I haven't anything to wear! So that DOES settle it!" '
"What were you going to wear?" demanded Ella, scowling.
"Em said she'd lend me her white lace."
"Well, that's all right! Gerda'll fix it for you—"
"But Emily sent it back to Madame Leonard yesterday afternoon. She wanted the sash changed," Susan hastily explained.
"Well, she's got other gowns," Ella said, with a dangerous glint in her eyes. "What about that thing with the Persian embroidery? What about the net one she wore to Isabel's?"
"The net one's really gone to pieces, Duchess. It was a flimsy sort of thing, anyway. And the Persian one she's only had on twice. When we were talking about it Monday she said she'd rather I didn't—"
"Oh, she did? D'ye hear that, Mama?" Ella asked, holding herself in check. "And what about the chiffon?"
"Well, Ella, she telephoned Madame this morning not to hurry with that, because she wasn't going to the dance."
"Was she going to wear it?"
"Well, no. But she telephoned Madame just the same—I don't know why she did," Susan smiled. "But what's the difference?" she ended cheerfully.
"Quite a Flora McFlimsey!" said Mrs. Saunders, with her nervous, shrill little laugh, adding eagerly to the now thoroughly aroused Ella. "You know Baby doesn't really go about much, Totty; she hasn't as many gowns as you, dear!"
"Now, look here, Mama," Ella said, levelly, "if we can manage to get Susan something to wear, well and good; but—if that rotten, selfish, nasty kid has really spoiled this whole thing, she'll be sorry! That's all. I'd try to get a dress in town, if it wasn't so late! As it is I'll telephone Madame about the Persian—"
"Oh, honestly, I couldn't! If Emily didn't want me to!" Susan began, scarlet-cheeked.
"I think you're all in a conspiracy to drive me crazy!" Ella said angrily. "Emily shall ask you just as nicely as she knows how, to wear—"
"Totty, she's SICK!" pleaded Emily's mother.
"Sick! She's chock-full of poison because she never knows when to stop eating," said Kenneth, with fraternal gallantry. He returned to his own thoughts, presently adding, "Why don't you borrow a dress from Isabel?"
"Isabel?" Ella considered it, brightened. "Isabel Wallace," she said, in sudden approval. "That's exactly what I'll do!" And she swept magnificently to the little telephone niche near the dining- room door. "Isabel," said she, a moment later, "this is Mike—"
So Susan went to the dance. Miss Isabel Wallace sent over a great box of gowns from which she might choose the most effective, and Emily, with a sort of timid sullenness, urged her to go. Ella and her charge went into town in the afternoon, and loitered into the club for tea. Susan, whose color was already burning high, and whose eyes were dancing, fretted inwardly at Ella's leisurely enjoyment of a second and a third sup. It was nearly six o'clock, it was after six! Ella seemed willing to delay indefinitely, waiting on the stairs of the club for a long chat with a passing woman, and lingering with various friends in the foyer of the great hotel.
But finally they were in the big bedrooms, with Clemence, Ella's maid, in eager and interested attendance. Clemence had laid Susan's delicious frills and laces out upon the bed; Susan's little wrapper was waiting her; there was nothing to do now but plunge into the joy of dressing. A large, placid person known to Susan vaguely as the Mrs. Keith, who had been twice divorced, had the room next to Ella, and pretty Mary Peacock, her daughter, shared Susan's room. The older ladies, assuming loose wrappers, sat gossiping over cocktails and smoking cigarettes, and Mary and Susan seized the opportunity to monopolize Clemence. Clemence arranged Susan's hair, pulling, twisting, flinging hot masses over the girl's face, inserting pins firmly, loosening strands with her hard little French fingers. Susan had only occasional blinded glimpses of her face, one temple bare and bald, the other eclipsed like a gipsy's.
"Look here, Clemence, if I don't like it, out it comes!" she said.
"Mais, certainement, ca va sans dire!" Clemence agreed serenely. Mary Peacock, full of amused interest, watched as she rubbed her face and throat with cold cream.
"I wish I had your neck and shoulders, Miss Brown," said Miss Peacock. "I get so sick of high-necked gowns that I'd almost rather stay home!"
"Why, you're fatter than I am!" Susan exclaimed. "You've got lovely shoulders!"
"Yes, darling!" Mary said, gushingly. "And I've got the sort of blood that breaks out, in a hot room," she added after a moment, "don't look so scared, it's nothing serious! But I daren't ever take the risk of wearing a low gown!"
"But how did you get it?" ejaculated Susan. "Are you taking something for it?"
"No, love," Mary continued, in the same, amused, ironic strain, "because I've been traveling about, half my life, to get it cured, Germany and France, everywhere! And there ain't no such animal! Isn't it lovely?"
"But how did you get it?" Susan innocently persisted. Mary gave her a look half exasperated and half warning; but, when Clemence had stepped into the next room for a moment, she said:
"Don't be an utter fool! Where do you THINK I got it?
"The worst of it is," she went on pleasantly, as Clemence came back, "that my father's married again, you know, to the sweetest little thing you ever saw. An only girl, with four or five big brothers, and her father a minister! Well—"
"Voici!" exclaimed the maid. And Susan faced herself in the mirror, and could not resist a shamed, admiring smile. But if the smooth rolls and the cunning sweeps and twists of bright hair made her prettier than usual, Susan was hardly recognizable when the maid touched lips and cheeks with color and eyebrows with her clever pencil. She had thought her eyes bright before; now they had a starry glitter that even their owner thought effective; her cheeks glowed softly—
"Here, stop flirting with yourself, and put on your gown, it's after eight!" Mary said, and Clemence slipped the fragrant beauty of silk and lace over Susan's head, and knelt down to hook it, and pushed it down over the hips, and tied the little cord that held the low bodice so charmingly in place. Clemence said nothing when she had finished, nor did Mary, nor did Ella when they presently joined Ella to go downstairs, but Susan was satisfied. It is an unfortunate girl indeed who does not think herself a beauty for one night at least in her life; Susan thought herself beautiful tonight.
They joined the men in the Lounge, and Susan had to go out to dinner, if not quite "on a man's arm," as in her old favorite books, at least with her own partner, feeling very awkward, and conscious of shoulders and hips as she did so. But she presently felt the influence of the lights and music, and of the heating food and wine, and talked and laughed quite at her ease, feeling delightfully like a great lady and a great beauty. Her dinner partner presently asked her for the "second" and the supper dance, and Susan, hoping that she concealed indecent rapture, gladly consented. By just so much was she relieved of the evening's awful responsibility. She did not particularly admire this nice, fat young man, but to be saved from visible unpopularity, she would gladly have danced with the waiter.
It was nearer eleven than ten o'clock when they sauntered through various wide hallways to the palm-decorated flight of stairs that led down to the ballroom. Susan gave one dismayed glance at the brilliant sweep of floor as they descended.
"They're dancing!" she ejaculated,—late, and a stranger, what chance had she!
"Gosh, you're crazy about it, aren't you?" grinned her partner, Mr. Teddy Carpenter. "Don't you care, they've just begun. Want to finish this with me?"
But Susan was greeting the host, who stood at the foot of the stairs, a fat, good-natured little man, beaming at everyone out of small twinkling blue eyes, and shaking hands with the debutantes while he spoke to their mothers over their shoulders.
"Hello, Brownie!" Ella said, affectionately. "Where's everybody?"
Mr. Browning flung his fat little arms in the air.
"I don't know," he said, in humorous distress. "The girls appear to be holding a meeting over there in the dressing-room, and the men are in the smoker! I'm going to round 'em up! How do you do, Miss Brown? Gad, you look so like your aunt,—and she WAS a beauty, Ella!—that I could kiss you for it, as I did her once!"
"My aunt has black hair and brown eyes, Miss Ella, and weighs one hundred and ninety pounds!" twinkled Susan.
"Kiss her again for that, Brownie, and introduce me," said a tall, young man at the host's side easily. "I'm going to have this, aren't I, Miss Brown? Come on, they're just beginning—"
Off went Susan, swept deliciously into the tide of enchanting music and motion. She wasn't expected to talk, she had no time to worry, she could dance well, and she did.
Kenneth Saunders came up in the pause before the dance was encored, and asked for the "next but one,"—there were no cards at the Brownings; all over the hall girls were nodding over their partners' shoulders, in answer to questions, "Next, Louise?" "Next waltz—one after that, then?" "I'm next, remember!"
Kenneth brought a bashful blonde youth with him, who instantly claimed the next dance. He did not speak to Susan again until it was over, when, remarking simply, "God, that was life!" he asked for the third ensuing, and surrendered Susan to some dark youth unknown, who said, "Ours? Now, don't say no, for there's suicide in my blood, girl, and I'm a man of few words!"
"I am honestly all mixed up!" Susan laughed. "I think this is promised—"
It didn't appear to matter. The dark young man took the next two, and Susan found herself in the enchanting position of a person reproached by disappointed partners. Perhaps there were disappointed and unpopular girls at the dance, perhaps there was heart-burning and disappointment and jealousy; she saw none of it. She was passed from hand to hand, complimented, flirted with, led into the little curtained niches where she could be told with proper gravity of the feelings her wit and beauty awakened in various masculine hearts. By twelve o'clock Susan wished that the ball would last a week, she was borne along like a feather on its glittering and golden surface.
Ella was by this time passionately playing the new and fascinating game of bridge whist, in a nearby room, but Browning was still busy, and presently he came across the floor to Susan, and asked her for a dance—an honor for which she was entirely unprepared, for he seldom danced, and one that she was quick enough to accept at once.
"Perhaps you've promised the next?" said Browning.
"If I have," said the confident Susan, "I hereby call it off."
"Well," he said smilingly, pleased. And although he did not finish the dance, and they presently sat down together, she knew that it had been the evening's most important event.
"There's a man coming over from the club, later," said Mr. Browning, "he's a wonderful fellow! Writer, and a sort of cousin of Ella Saunders by the way, or else his wife is. He's just on from New York, and for a sort of rest, and he may go on to Japan for his next novel. Very remarkable fellow!"
"A writer?" Susan looked interested.
"Yes, you know him, of course. Bocqueraz—that's who it is!"
"Not Stephen Graham Bocqueraz!" ejaculated Susan, round-eyed.
"Yes—yes!" Mr. Browning liked her enthusiasm.
"But is he here?" Susan asked, almost reverently. "Why, I'm perfectly crazy about his books!" she confided. "Why—why—he's about the biggest there IS!"
"Yes, he writes good stuff," the man agreed. "Well, now, don't you miss meeting him! He'll be here directly," his eyes roved to the stairway, a few feet from where they were sitting. "Here he is now!" said he. "Come now, Miss Brown—-"
"Oh, honestly! I'm scared—I don't know what to say!" Susan said in a panic. But Browning's fat little hand was firmly gripped over hers and she went with him to meet the two or three men who were chatting together as they came slowly, composedly, into the ball-room.
From among them she could instantly pick the writer, even though all three were strangers, and although, from the pictures she had seen of him, she had always fancied that Stephen Bocqueraz was a large, athletic type of man, instead of the erect and square-built gentleman who walked between the other two taller men. He was below the average height, certainly, dark, clean-shaven, bright-eyed, with a thin-lipped, wide, and most expressive mouth, and sleek hair so black as to make his evening dress seem another color. He was dressed with exquisite precision, and with one hand he constantly adjusted and played with the round black-rimmed glasses that hung by a silk ribbon about his neck. Susan knew him, at this time, to be about forty-five, perhaps a little less. If her very first impression was that he was both affected and well aware of his attractiveness, her second conceded that here was a man who could make any affectation charming, and not the less attractive because he knew his value.
"And what do I do, Mr. Br-r-rowning," asked Mr. Bocqueraz with pleasant precision, "when I wish to monopolize the company of a very charming young lady, at a dance, and yet, not dancing, cannot ask her to be my partner?"
"The next is the supper dance," suggested Susan, dimpling, "if it isn't too bold to mention it!"
He flashed her an appreciative look, the first they had really exchanged.
"Supper it is," he said gravely, offering her his arm. But Browning delayed him for a few introductions first; and Susan stood watching him, and thinking him very distinguished, and that to study a really great man, so pleasantly at her ease, was very thrilling. Presently he turned to her again, and they went in to supper; to Susan it was all like an exciting dream. They chose a little table in the shallow angle of a closed doorway, and watched the confusion all about them; and Susan, warmed by the appreciative eyes so near her, found herself talking quite naturally, and more than once was rewarded by the writer's unexpected laughter. She asked him if Mrs. Bocqueraz and his daughter were with him, and he said no, not on this particular trip.
"Julie and her mother are in Europe," he said, with just a suggestion of his Spanish grandfather in his clean-clipped speech. "Julie left Miss Bence's School at seventeen, had a coming-out party in our city house the following winter. Now it seems Europe is the thing. Mrs. Bocqueraz likes to do things systematically, and she told me, before Julie was out of the nursery, that she thought it was very nice for a girl to marry in her second winter in society, after a European trip. I have no doubt my daughter will announce her engagement upon her return."
"To whom?" said Susan, laughing at his precise, re-signed tone.
"That I don't know," said Stephen Bocqueraz, with a twinkle in his eye, "nor does Julie, I fancy. But undoubtedly her mother does!"
"Here is somebody coming over for a dance, I suppose!" he said after a few moments, and Susan was flattered by the little hint of regret in his tone. But the newcomer was Peter Coleman, and the emotion of meeting him drove every other thought out of her head. She did not rise, as she gave him her hand; the color flooded her face.
"Susan, you little turkey-buzzard—" It was the old Peter!— "where've you been all evening? The next for me!"
"Mr. Bocqueraz, Mr. Coleman," Susan said, with composure, "Peter, Mr. Stephen Graham Bocqueraz."
Even to Peter the name meant something.
"Why, Susan, you little grab-all!" he accused her vivaciously. "How dare you monopolize a man like Mr. Bocqueraz for the whole supper dance! I'll bet some of those women are ready to tear your eyes out!"
"I've been doing the monopolizing," Mr. Bocqueraz said, turning a rather serious look from Peter, to smile with sudden brightness at Susan. "When I find a young woman at whose christening ALL the fairies came to dance," he added, "I always do all the monopolizing I can! However, if you have a prior claim—"
"But he hasn't!" Susan said, smilingly. "I'm engaged ten deep," she added pleasantly to Peter. "Honestly, I haven't half a dance left! I stole this."
"Why, I won't stand for it," Peter said, turning red.
"Come, it seems to me Mr. Coleman deserves something!" Stephen Bocqueraz smiled. And indeed Peter looked bigger and happier and handsomer than ever.
"Not from me," Susan persisted, quietly pleasant. Peter stood for a moment or two, not quite ready to laugh, not willing to go away. Susan busied herself with her salad, stared dreamily across the room. And presently he departed after exchanging a few commonplaces with Bocqueraz.
"And what's the significance of all that?" asked the author when they were alone again.
Susan had been wishing to make some sort of definite impression upon Mr. Stephen Graham Bocqueraz; wishing to remain in his mind as separated from the other women he had met to-night. Suddenly she saw this as her chance, and she took him somewhat into her confidence. She told him of her old office position, and of her aunt, and of Peter, and that she was now Emily Saunders' paid companion, and here only as a sort of Cinderella.
Never did any girl, flushing, dimpling, shrugging her shoulders over such a recital, have a more appreciative listener. Stephen Bocqueraz's sympathetic look met hers whenever she looked up; he nodded, agreed, frowned thoughtfully or laughed outright. They sat through the next dance, and through half the next, hidden in one of the many diminutive "parlors" that surrounded the ball-room, and when Susan was surrendered to an outraged partner she felt that she and the great man were fairly started toward a real friendship, and that these attractive boys she was dancing with were really very young, after all.
"Remember Stephen Bocqueraz that Brownie introduced to you just before supper?" asked Ella, as they went home, yawning, sleepy and headachy, the next day. Ella had been playing cards through the supper hour.
"Perfectly!" Susan answered, flushing and smiling.
"You must have made a hit," Ella remarked, "because—I'm giving him a big dinner on Tuesday, at the Palace—and when I talked to him he asked if you would be there. Well, I'm glad you had a nice time, kiddy, and we'll do it again!"
Susan had thanked her gratefully more than once, but she thanked her again now. She felt that she truly loved Ella, so big and good natured and kind.
Emily was a little bit cold when Susan told her about the ball, and the companion promptly suppressed the details of her own successes, and confined her recollections to the girls who had asked for Emily, and to generalities. Susan put her wilting orchids in water, and went dreamily through the next two or three days, recovering from the pleasure and excitement. It was almost a week before Emily was quite herself again; then, when Isabel Wallace came running in to Emily's sick-room to beg Susan to fill a place at their dinner-table at a few hours' notice, Susan's firm refusal quite won Emily's friendship back.
"Isabel's a dear," said Emily, contentedly settling down with the Indian bead-work in which she and Susan had had several lessons, and with which they filled some spare time, "but she's not a leader. I took you up, so now Isabel does! I knew—I felt sure that, if Ella let you borrow that dress, Isabel would begin to patronize you!"
It was just one of Emily's nasty speeches, and Emily really wasn't well, so Susan reminded herself, when the hot, angry color burned in her face, and an angry answer came to her mind. What hurt most was that it was partly true; Emily HAD taken her up, and, when she ceased to be all that Emily required of sympathy and flattery and interest, Emily would find someone else to fill Miss Brown's place. Without Emily she was nobody, and it did not console Susan to reflect that, had Emily's fortune been hers and Emily in her position, the circumstances would be exactly reversed. Just the accident of having money would have made Miss Brown the flattered and admired, the safe and secure one; just the not having it would have pushed Emily further even than Susan was from the world of leisure and beauty and luxury.
"This world IS money!" thought Susan, when she saw the head-waiter come forward so smilingly to meet Ella and herself at the Palm Garden; when Leonard put off a dozen meekly enduring women to finish Miss Emily Saunders' gown on time; when the very sexton at church came hurrying to escort Mrs. Saunders and herself through the disappointed crowds in the aisles, and establish them in, and lock them in, the big empty pew. The newspapers gave half a column of blame to the little girl who tried to steal a two-dollar scarf from the Emporium, but there was nothing but admiration for Ella on the day when she and a twenty-year-old boy, for a wager, led a woolly white toy lamb, a lamb costing twenty-five dollars, through the streets, from the club to the Palace Hotel. The papers were only deeply interested and amused when Miss Elsa Chisholm gave a dinner to six favorite riding-horses, who were entertained in the family dining-room after a layer of tan-bark had been laid on the floor, and fed by their owners from specially designed leather bags and boxes; and they merely reported the fact that Miss Dolly Ripley had found so unusual an intelligence in her gardener that she had deeded to him her grandfather's eighty-thousand-dollar library. "He really has ever so much better brains than I have, don't you know?" said Miss Ripley to the press.
In return for the newspapers' indulgent attitude, however, they were shown no clemency by the Saunders and the people of their set. On a certain glorious, golden afternoon in May, Susan, twisting a card that bore the name of Miss Margaret Summers, representing the CHRONICLE, went down to see the reporter. The Saunders family hated newspaper notoriety, but it was a favorite saying that since the newspapers would print things anyway, they might as well get them straight, and Susan often sent dinner or luncheon lists to the three morning papers.
However, the young woman who rose when Susan went into the drawing- room was not in search of news. Her young, pretty face was full of distress.
"Miss Saunders?" asked she.
"I'm Miss Brown," Susan said. "Miss Saunders is giving a card-party and I am to act for her."
Miss Summers, beginning her story, also began to cry. She was the society editor, she explained, and two weeks before she had described in her column a luncheon given by Miss Emily Saunders. Among the list of guests she had mentioned Miss Carolyn Seymour.
"Not Carolyn Seymour!" said Susan, shocked. "Why, she never is here! The Seymours—-" she shook her head. "I know people do accept them," said Susan, "but the Saunders don't even know them! They're not in the best set, you know, they're really hardly in society at all!"
"I know NOW," Miss Summers said miserably. "But all the other girls- -this year's debutantes—were there, and I had to guess at most of the names, and I chanced it! Fool that I was!" she interrupted herself bitterly. "Well, the next day, while I was in the office, my telephone rang. It was Thursday, and I had my Sunday page to do, and I was just RUSHING, and I had a bad cold,—I've got it yet. So I just said, 'What is it?' rather sharply, you know, and a voice said, in a businesslike sort of way, 'How did you happen to put Miss Carolyn Seymour's name on Miss Emily Saunders' lunch list?' I never dreamed that it was Miss Saunders; how should I? She didn't say 'I' or 'me' or anything—just that. So I said, 'Well, is it a matter of international importance?'"
"Ouch!" said Susan, wincing, and shaking a doubtful head.
"I know, it was awful!" the other girl agreed eagerly. "But—" her anxious eyes searched Susan's face. "Well; so the next day Mr. Brice called me into the office, and showed me a letter from Miss Ella Saunders, saying—" and Miss Summers began to cry again. "And I can't tell Mamma!" she sobbed. "My brother's been so ill, and I was so proud of my position!"
"Do you mean they—FIRED you?" Susan asked, all sympathy.
"He said he'd have to!" gulped Miss Summers, with a long sniff. "He said that Saunders and Babcock advertise so much with them, and that, if she wasn't appeased somehow—"
"Well, now, I'll tell you," said Susan, ringing for tea, "I'll wait until Miss Saunders is in a good mood, and then I'll do the very best I can for you. You know, a thing like that seems small, but it's just the sort of thing that is REALLY important," she pursued, consolingly. She had quite cheered her caller before the tea-cups were emptied, but she was anything but hopeful of her mission herself.
And Ella justified her misgivings when the topic was tactfully opened the next day.
"I'm sorry for the little thing," said Ella, briskly, "but she certainly oughtn't to have that position if she doesn't know better than that! Carolyn Seymour in this house—I never heard of such a thing! I was denying it all the next day at the club and it's extremely unpleasant. Besides," added Ella, reddening, "she was extremely impertinent about it when I telephoned—-"
"Duchess, she didn't dream it was you! She only said that she didn't know it was so important—-" Susan pleaded.
"Well," interrupted Miss Saunders, in a satisfied and final tone, "next time perhaps she WILL know who it is, and whether it is important or not! Sue, while you're there at the desk," she added, "will you write to Mrs. Bergess, Mrs. Gerald Florence Bergess, and tell her that I looked at the frames at Gump's for her prizes, and they're lovely, from fourteen up, and that I had him put three or four aside—-"
After the dance Peter began to call rather frequently at "High Gardens," a compliment which Emily took entirely to herself, and to escort the girls about on their afternoon calls, or keep them and Ella, and the old mistress of the house as well, laughing throughout the late and formal dinner. Susan's reserve and her resolutions melted before the old charm; she had nothing to gain by snubbing him; it was much pleasanter to let by-gones be by-gones, and enjoy the moment. Peter had every advantage; if she refused him her friendship a hundred other girls were only too eager to fill her place, so she was gay and companionable with him once more, and extracted a little fresh flavor from the friendship in Emily's unconsciousness of the constant interchange of looks and inflections that went on between Susan and Peter over her head. Susan sometimes thought of Mrs. Carroll's old comment on the popularity of the absorbed and busy girl when she realized that Peter was trying in vain to find time for a personal word with her, or was resenting her interest in some other caller, while she left Emily to him. She was nearer to Peter than ever, a thousand times more sure of herself, and, if she would still have married him, she was far less fond of him than she had been years ago.
Susan asked him some questions, during one idle tea-time, of Hunter, Baxter & Hunter. His uncle had withdrawn from the firm now, he told her, adding with characteristic frankness that in his opinion "the old guy got badly stung." The Baxter home had been sold to a club; the old people had found the great house too big for them and were established now in one of the very smartest of the new apartment houses that were beginning to be built in San Francisco. Susan called, with Emily, upon Mrs. Baxter, and somehow found the old lady's personality as curiously shrunk, in some intangible way, as was her domestic domain in actuality. Mrs. Baxter, cackling emphatically and disapprovingly of the world in general, fussily accompanying them to the elevator, was merely a rather tiresome and pitiful old woman, very different from the delicate little grande dame of Susan's recollection. Ella reported the Baxter fortune as sadly diminished, but there were still maids and the faithful Emma; there were still the little closed carriage and the semi-annual trip to Coronado. Nor did Peter appear to have suffered financially in any way; although Mrs. Baxter had somewhat fretfully confided to the girls that his uncle had suggested that it was time that Peter stood upon his own feet; and that Peter accordingly had entered into business relations with a certain very wealthy firm of grain brokers. Susan could not imagine Peter as actively involved in any very lucrative deals, but Peter spent a great deal of money, never denied himself anything, and took frequent and delightful vacations.
He took Emily and Susan to polo and tennis games, and, when the season at the hotel opened, they went regularly to the dances. In July Peter went to Tahoe, where Mrs. Saunders planned to take the younger girls later for at least a few weeks' stay. Ella chaperoned them to Burlingame for a week of theatricals; all three staying with Ella's friend, Mrs. Keith, whose daughter, Mary Peacock, had also Dolly Ripley and lovely Isabel Wallace for her guests. Little Constance Fox, visiting some other friends nearby, was in constant attendance upon Miss Ripley, and Susan thought the relationship between them an extraordinary study; Miss Ripley bored, rude, casual, and Constance increasingly attentive, eager, admiring.
"When are you going to come and spend a week with me?" drawled Miss Ripley to Susan.
"You'll have the loveliest time of your life!" Connie added, brilliantly. "Be sure you ask me for that week, Dolly!"
"We'll write you about it," Miss Ripley said lazily, and Constance, putting the best face she could upon the little slight, slapped her hand playfully, and said:
"Oh, aren't you mean!"
"Dolly takes it so for granted that I'm welcome at her house at ANY time," said Constance to Susan, later, "that she forgets how rude a thing like that can sound!" She had followed Susan into her own room, and now stood by the window, looking down a sun-steeped vista of lovely roads and trees and gardens with a discontented face. Susan, changing her dress for an afternoon on the tennis-courts, merely nodded sympathetically.
"Lord, I would like to go this afternoon!" added Constance, presently.
"Aren't you going over for the tennis?" Susan asked in amazement. For the semi-finals of the tournament were to be played on this glorious afternoon, and there would be a brilliant crowd on the courts and tea at the club to follow.
"No; I can't!" Miss Fox said briefly. "Tell everyone that I'm lying down with a terrible headache, won't you?"
"But why?" asked Susan. For the headache was obviously a fiction.
"You know that mustard-colored linen with the black embroidery that Dolly's worn once or twice, don't you?" asked Connie, with apparent irrelevancy.
Susan nodded, utterly at a loss.
"Well, she gave it to me to-day, and the hat and the parasol," said Constance, with a sort of resigned bitterness. "She said she had got the outfit at Osbourne's, last month, and she thought it would look stunning on me, and wouldn't I like to wear it to the club this afternoon?"
"Well—?" Susan said, as the other paused. "Why not?"
"Oh, why not!" echoed Connie, with mild exasperation. "Don't be a damned fool!"
"Oh, I see!" Susan said, enlightened. "Everybody knows it's Miss Ripley's, of course! She probably didn't think of that!"
"She probably did!" responded Connie, with a rather dry laugh. "However, the fact remains that she'll take it out of me if I go and don't wear it, and Mamma never will forgive me if I do! So, I came in to borrow a book. Of course, Susan, I've taken things from Dolly Ripley before, and I probably will again," she added, with the nearest approach to a sensible manner that Susan had ever seen in her, "but this is going a little TOO far!"
And, borrowing a book, she departed, leaving Susan to finish her dressing in a very sober frame of mind. She wondered if her relationship toward Emily could possibly impress any outsider as Connie's attitude toward Dolly Ripley impressed her.
With Isabel Wallace she began, during this visit, the intimate and delightful friendship for which they two had been ready for a long time. Isabel was two years older than Susan, a beautiful, grave-eyed brunette, gracious in manner, sweet of voice, the finest type that her class and environment can produce. Isabel was well read, musical, traveled; she spoke two or three languages besides her mother tongue. She had been adored all her life by three younger brothers, by her charming and simple, half-invalid mother, and her big, clever father, and now, all the girls were beginning to suspect, was also adored by the very delightful Eastern man who was at present Mrs. Butler Holmes' guest in Burlingame, and upon whom all of them had been wasting their prettiest smiles. John Furlong was college-bred, young, handsome, of a rich Eastern family, in every way a suitable husband for the beautiful woman with whom he was so visibly falling in love.
Susan watched the little affair with a heartache, not all unworthy. She didn't quite want to be Isabel, or want a lover quite like John. But she did long for something beautiful and desirable all her own; it was hard to be always the outsider, always alone. When she thought of Isabel's father and mother, their joy in her joy, her own pleasure in pleasing them, a thrill of pain shook her. If Isabel was all grateful, all radiant, all generous, she, Susan, could have been graceful and radiant and generous too! She lay awake in the soft summer nights, thinking of what John would say to Isabel, and what Isabel, so lovely and so happy, would reply.
"Sue, you will know how wonderful it is when it comes to you!" Isabel said, on the last night of their Burlingame visit, when she gave Susan a shy hint that it was "all RIGHT," if a profound secret still.
The girls did not stay for the theatricals, after all. Emily was deeply disgusted at being excluded from some of the ensembles in which she had hoped to take part and, on the very eve of the festivities, she became alarmingly ill, threw Mrs. Keith's household into utter consternation and confusion, and was escorted home immediately by Susan and a trained nurse.
Back at "High Gardens," they settled down contentedly enough to the familiar routine. Emily spent two-thirds of the time in bed, but Susan, fired by Isabel Wallace's example, took regular exercises now, airing the dogs or finding commissions to execute for Emily or Mrs. Saunders, made radical changes in her diet, and attempted, with only partial success, to confine her reading to improving books. A relative had sent Emily the first of the new jig-saw puzzles from New York, and Emily had immediately wired for more. She and Susan spent hours over them; they became in fact an obsession, and Susan began to see jig-saw divisions: in everything her eye rested on; the lawn, the clouds, or the drawing-room walls.
Sometimes Kenneth joined them, and Susan knew that it was on her account. She was very demure with him; her conversation for Emily, her eyes all sisterly unembarrassment when they met his. Mrs. Saunders was not well, and kept to her room, so that more than once Susan dined alone with the man of the house. When this happened Kenneth would bring his chair down from the head of the table and set it next to hers. He called her "Tweeny" for some favorite character in a play, brought her some books she had questioned him about, asked her casually, on the days she went to town for Emily, at what time she would come back, and joined her on the train.
Susan had thought of him as a husband, as she thought of every unattached man, the instant she met him. But the glamour of those early views of Kenneth Saunders had been somewhat dimmed, and since her arrival at "High Gardens" she had tried rather more not to displease this easily annoyed member of the family, than to make a definite pleasant impression upon him. Now, however, she began seriously to consider him. And it took her a few brief moments only to decide that, if he should ask her, she would be mad to refuse to become his wife. He was probably as fine a match as offered itself at the time in all San Francisco's social set, good-looking, of a suitable age, a gentleman, and very rich. He was so rich and of so socially prominent a family that his wife need never trouble herself with the faintest thought of her own standing; it would be an established fact, supreme and irrefutable. Beside him Peter Coleman was a poor man, and even Isabel's John paled socially and financially. Kenneth Saunders would be a brilliant "catch" for any girl; for little Susan Brown—it would be a veritable triumph!
Susan's heart warmed as she thought of the details. There would be a dignified announcement from Mrs. Saunders. Then,—Babel! Telephoning, notes, telegrams! Ella would of course do the correct thing; there would be a series of receptions and dinners; there would be formal affairs on all sides. The newspapers would seize upon it; the family jewels would be reset; the long-stored silver resurrected. There would be engagement cups and wedding-presents, and a trip East, and the instant election of young Mrs. Saunders to the Town and Country Club. And, in all the confusion, the graceful figure of the unspoiled little companion would shine serene, poised, gracious, prettily deferential to both the sisters-in-law of whom she now, as a matron, took precedence.
Kenneth Saunders was no hero of romance; he was at best a little silent and unresponsive; he was a trifle bald; his face, Susan had thought at first sight, indicated weakness and dissipation. But it was a very handsome face withal, and, if silent, Kenneth could be very dignified and courteous in his manner; "very much the gentleman," Susan said to herself, "always equal to the situation"!
Other things, more serious things, she liked to think she was woman of the world enough to condone. He drank to excess, of course; no woman could live in the same house with him and remain unaware of that; Susan had often heard him raging in the more intense stages approaching delirium tremens. There had been other things, too;— women, but Susan had only a vague idea of just what that meant, and Kenneth's world resolutely made light of it.
"Ken's no molly-coddle!" Ella had said to her complacently, in connection with this topic, and one of Ella's closest friends had added, "Oh, Heaven save me from ever having one of my sons afraid to go out and do what the other boys do. Let 'em sow their wild oats, they're all the sooner over it!"
So Susan did not regard this phase of his nature very seriously. Indeed his mother often said wailingly that, if Kenneth could only find some "fine girl," and settle down, he would be the steadiest and best fellow in the world. It was Mrs. Saunders who elucidated the last details of a certain episode of Kenneth's early life for Susan. Emily had spoken of it, and Ella had once or twice alluded to it, but from them Susan only gathered that Kenneth, in some inexplicable and outrageous way, had been actually arrested for something that was not in the least his fault, and held as a witness in a murder case. He had been but twenty-two years old at the time, and, as his sisters indignantly agreed, it had ruined his life for years following, and Ken should have sued the person or persons who had dared to involve the son of the house of Saunders in so disgraceful and humiliating an affair.
"It was in one of those bad houses, my dear," Mrs. Saunders finally contributed, "and poor Ken was no worse than the thousands of other men who frequent 'em! Of course, it's terrible from a woman's point of view, but you know what men are! And when this terrible thing happened, Ken wasn't anywhere near—didn't know one thing about it until a great big brute of a policeman grabbed hold of his arm—-! And of course the newspapers mentioned my poor boy's name in connection with it, far and wide!"
After that Kenneth had gone abroad for a long time, and whether the trained nurse who had at that time entered his life was really a nurse, or whether she had merely called herself one, Susan could not quite ascertain. Either the family had selected this nurse, to take care of Kenneth who was not well at the time, or she had joined him later and traveled with him as his nurse. Whatever it was, the association had lasted two or three years, and then Kenneth had come home, definitely disenchanted with women in general and woman in particular, and had settled down into the silent, cynical, unresponsive man that Susan knew. If he ever had any experiences whatever with the opposite sex they were not of a nature to be mentioned before his sisters and his mother. He scorned all the women of Ella's set, and was bitingly critical of Emily's friends.
One night, lying awake, Susan thought that she heard a dim commotion from the direction of the hallway—Kenneth's voice, Ella's voice, high and angry, some unfamiliar feminine voice, hysterical and shrill, and Mrs. Saunders, crying out: "Tottie, don't speak that way to Kennie!"
But before she could rouse herself fully, Mycroft's soothing tones drowned out the other voices; there was evidently a truce. The episode ended a few moments later with the grating of carriage wheels on the drive far below, and Susan was not quite sure, the next morning, that it had been more than a dream.
But Kenneth's history, summed up, was not a bit less edifying, was not indeed half as unpleasant, as that of many of the men, less rich and less prominent than he, who were marrying lovely girls everywhere, with the full consent and approval of parents and guardians. Susan had seen the newspaper accounts of the debauch that preceded young Harry van Vleet's marriage only by a few hours; had seen the bridegroom, still white-faced and shaking, lead away from the altar one of the sweetest of the debutantes. She had heard Rose St. John's mother say pleasantly to Rose's promised husband, "I asked your Chinese boy about those little week-end parties at your bungalow, Russell; I said, 'Yoo, were they pretty ladies Mr. Russ used to have over there?' But he only said 'No can 'member!'"
"That's where his wages go up!" the gentleman had responded cheerfully.
And, after all, Susan thought, looking on, Russell Lord was not as bad as the oldest Gerald boy, who married an Eastern girl, an heiress and a beauty, in spite of the fact that his utter unfitness for marriage was written plain in his face; or as bad as poor Trixie Chauncey's husband, who had entirely disappeared from public view, leaving the buoyant Trixie to reconcile two infant sons to the unknown horrors and dangers of the future.
If Kenneth drank, after his marriage, Mycroft would take care of him, as he did now; but Susan honestly hoped that domesticity, for which Kenneth seemed to have a real liking, would affect him in every way for good. She had not that horror of drink that had once been hers. Everybody drank, before dinner, with dinner, after dinner. It was customary to have some of the men brighten under it, some overdo it, some remain quite sober in spite of it. Susan and Emily, like all the girls they knew, frequently ordered cocktails instead of afternoon tea, when, as it might happen, they were in the Palace or the new St. Francis. The cocktails were served in tea- cups, the waiter gravely passed sugar and cream with them; the little deception was immensely enjoyed by everyone. "Two in a cup, Martini," Emily would say, settling into her seat, and the waiter would look deferentially at Susan, "The same, madam?"
It was a different world from her old world; it used a different language, lived by another code. None of her old values held here; things she had always thought quite permissible were unforgivable sins; things at which Auntie would turn pale with horror were a quietly accepted part of every-day life. No story was too bad for the women to tell over their tea-cups, or in their boudoirs, but if any little ordinary physical misery were alluded to, except in the most flippant way, such as the rash on a child's stomach, or the preceding discomforts of maternity, there was a pained and disgusted silence, and an open snub, if possible, for the woman so crude as to introduce the distasteful topic.
Susan saw good little women ostracized for the fact that their husbands did not appear at ease in evening dress, for their evident respect for their own butlers, or for their mere eagerness to get into society. On the other hand, she saw warmly accepted and admired the beautiful Mrs. Nokesmith, who had married her second husband the day after her release from her first, and pretty Beulah Garrett, whose father had swindled a hundred trusting friends out of their entire capital, and Mrs. Lawrence Edwards, whose oldest son had just had a marriage, contracted with a Barbary Coast woman while he was intoxicated, canceled by law. Divorce and disease, and dishonesty and insanity did not seem so terrible as they once had; perhaps because they were never called by their real names. The insane were beautifully cared for and safely out of sight; to disease no allusion was ever made; dishonesty was carried on in mysterious business avenues far from public inspection and public thought; and, as Ella once pointed out, the happiest people in society were those who had been married unhappily, divorced, and more fortunately mated a second time. All the married women Ella knew had "crushes"—young men who lounged in every afternoon for tea and cigarettes and gossip, and filled chairs at dinner parties, and formed a background in a theater box. Sometimes one or two matrons and their admirers, properly chaperoned, or in safe numbers, went off on motoring trips, and perhaps encountered, at the Del Monte or Santa Cruz hotels their own husbands, with the women that they particularly admired. Nothing was considered quite so pitiful as the wife who found this arrangement at all distressing. "It's always all right," said Ella, broadly, to Susan.
In the autumn Susan went home for a week, for the Lancaster family was convulsed by the prospect of Alfie's marriage to a little nobody whose father kept a large bakery in the Mission, and Susan was needed to brace Alfred's mother for the blow. Mary Lou's old admirer and his little, invalid wife, were staying at the house now, and Susan found "Ferd" a sad blow to her old romantic vision of him: a stout, little, ruddy-cheeked man, too brilliantly dressed, with hair turning gray, and an offensive habit of attacking the idle rich for Susan's benefit, and dilating upon his own business successes. Georgie came over to spend a night in the old home while Susan was there, carrying the heavy, lumpy baby. Myra was teething now, cross and unmanageable, and Georgie was worried because a barley preparation did not seem to agree with her, and Joe disapproved of patent foods. Joe hoped that the new baby—Susan widened her eyes. Oh, yes, in May, Georgie announced simply, and with a tired sigh,— Joe hoped the new baby would be a boy. She herself hoped for a little girl, wouldn't it be sweet to call it May? Georgie looked badly, and if she did not exactly break down and cry during her visit, Susan felt that tears were always close behind her eyes.
Billy, beside her somewhat lachrymose aunt and cousins, shone out, during this visit, as Susan had never known him to do before. He looked splendidly big and strong and well, well groomed and erect in carriage, and she liked the little compliment he paid her in postponing the German lesson that should have filled the evening, and dressing himself in his best to take her to the Orpheum. Susan returned it by wearing her prettiest gown and hat. They set out in great spirits, Susan chattering steadily, in the relief it was to speak her mind honestly, and Billy listening, and now and then shouting out in the laughter that never failed her spirited narratives.
He told her of the Carrolls,—all good news, for Anna had been offered a fine position as assistant matron in one of the best of the city's surgical hospitals; Betts had sold a story to the Argonaut for twelve dollars, and Philip was going steadily ahead; "you wouldn't believe he was the same fellow!" said Billy. Jimmy and Betts and their mother were to go up in a few days for a fortnight's holiday in the little shooting-box that some Eastern friends had built years ago in the Humboldt woods. The owners had left the key with Mrs. Carroll, and she might use the little cabin as much as she liked.
"And what about Jo?" Susan asked.
This was the best news of all. Jo was to go East for the winter with one of her mother's friends, whose daughter was Jo's own age. They were to visit Boston and Washington, New York for the Opera, Palm Beach in February, and New Orleans for the Mardi Gras. Mrs. Frothingham was a widow, and had a son at Yale, who would join them for some of the holidays. Susan was absolutely delighted at the news, and alluded to it over and over again.
"It's so different when people DESERVE a thing, and when it's all new to them," she said to Billy, "it makes it seem so much more glorious!"
They came out of the theater at eleven, cramped and blinking, and Susan, confused for a moment, was trying to get her bearings, when Billy touched her arm.
"The Earl of Somerset is trying to bow to you, Sue!"
She laughed, and followed the direction of his look. It was Stephen Bocqueraz who was smiling at her, a very distinguished figure under the lamp-post, with his fur-lined great-coat, his round tortoise- shell eye-glasses and his silk hat. He came up to them at once, and Susan, pleasantly conscious that a great many people recognized the great man, introduced him to Billy.
He had just gotten back from a long visit in the Southern part of the state, he said, and had been dining to-night with friends at the Bohemian Club, and was walking back to his hotel. Susan could not keep the pleasure the meeting gave her out of her eyes and voice, and Billy showed a sort of boyish and bashful admiration of the writer, too.
"But this—this is a very felicitous occasion," said Mr. Bocqueraz. "We must celebrate this in some fitting manner!"
So he took them to supper, dismissing their hesitation as unworthy of combat; Susan and Billy laughed helplessly and happily as they sat down at the little table, and heard the German waiter's rapture at the commands Stephen Bocqueraz so easily gave him in his mother tongue. Billy, reddening but determined, must at once try his German too, and the waiter and Bocqueraz laughed at him even while they answered him, and agreed that the young man as a linguist was ganz wunderbar. Billy evidently liked his company; he was at his best to- night, unaffected, youthful, earnest. Susan herself felt that she had never been so happy in her life.
Long afterward she tried to remember what they had talked about. She knew that the conversation had been to her as a draught of sparkling wine. All her little affections were in full play to-night, the little odds and ends of worldly knowledge she had gleaned from Ella and Ella's friends, the humor of Emily and Peter Coleman. And because she was an Irishman's daughter a thousand witticisms flashed in her speech, and her eyes shone like stars under the stimulus of another's wit and the admiration in another's eyes.
It became promptly evident that Bocqueraz liked them both. He began to call Billy "lad," in a friendly, older-brotherly manner, and his laughter at Susan was alternated with moments of the gravest, the most flattering attention.
"She's quite wonderful, isn't she?" he said to Billy under his breath, but Susan heard it, and later he added, quite impersonally, "She's absolutely extraordinary! We must have her in New York, you know; my wife must meet her!"
They talked of music and musicians, and Bocqueraz and Billy argued and disputed, and presently the author's card was sent to the leader of the orchestra, with a request for the special bit of music under discussion. They talked of authors and poets and painters and actors, and he knew many of them, and knew something of them all. He talked of clubs, New York clubs and London clubs, and of plays that were yet to be given, and music that the public would never hear.
Susan felt as if electricity was coursing through her veins. She felt no fatigue, no sleepiness, no hunger; her champagne bubbled untouched, but she emptied her glass of ice-water over and over again. Of the lights and the music and the crowd she was only vaguely conscious; she saw, as if in a dream, the hands of the big clock, at the end of the room, move past one, past two o'clock, but she never thought of the time.
It was after two o'clock; still they talked on. The musicians had gone home, lights were put out in the corners of the room, tables and chairs were being piled together.
Stephen Bocqueraz had turned his chair so that he sat sideways at the table; Billy, opposite him, leaned on his elbows; Susan, sitting between them, framing her face in her hands, moved her eyes from one face to the other.
"And now, children," said the writer, when at last they were in the empty, chilly darkness of the street, "where can I get you a carriage? The cars seem to have stopped."
"The cars stop at about one," said William, "but there's a place two blocks up where we can get a hack. Don't let us take you out of your way."
"Good-night, then, lad," said Bocqueraz, laying his hand affectionately on Billy's shoulder. "Good-night, you wonderful little girl. Tell my wife's good cousins in San Rafael that I am coming over very soon to pay my respects."
He turned briskly on his heel and left them, and Susan stood looking after him for a moment.
"Where's your livery stable?" asked the girl then, taking Billy's arm.
"There isn't any!" Billy told her shamelessly. "But I've got just a dollar and eighty cents, and I was afraid he would put us into a carriage!"
Susan, brought violently to earth, burst out laughing, gathered her skirts up philosophically, and took his arm for the long walk home. It was a cool bright night, the sky was spattered thickly with stars, the moon long ago set. Susan was very silent, mind and heart swept with glorious dreams. Billy, beyond the remark that Bocqueraz certainly was a king, also had little to say, but his frequent yawns indicated that it was rather because of fatigue than of visions.
The house was astir when they reached it, but the confusion there was too great to give anyone time to notice the hour of their return. Alfie had brought his bride to see his mother, earlier in the evening, and Ma had had hysterics the moment that they left the house. These were no sooner calmed than Mrs. Eastman had had a "stroke," the doctor had now come and gone, but Mary Lou and her husband still hovered over the sufferer, "and I declare I don't know what the world's coming to!" Mrs. Lancaster said despairingly.
"What is it-what is it?" Mary Lord was calling, when Susan reached the top flight. Susan went in to give her the news, Mary was restless to-night, and glad of company; the room seemed close and warm. Lydia, sleeping heavily on the couch, only turned and grunted occasionally at the sound of the girls' voices.
Susan lay awake until almost dawn, wrapped in warm and delicious emotion. She recalled the little separate phases of the evening's talk, brought them from her memory deliberately, one by one. When she remembered that Mr. Bocqueraz had asked if Billy was "the fiance," for some reason she could not define, she shut her eyes in the dark, and a wave of some new, enveloping delight swept her from feet to head. Certain remembered looks, inflections, words, shook the deeps of her being with a strange and poignantly sweet sense of weakness and power: a trembling joy.
The new thrill, whatever it was, was with her when she wakened, and when she ran downstairs, humming the Toreador's song, Mary Lou and her aunt told her that she was like a bit of sunshine in the house; the girl's eyes were soft and bright with dreams; her cheeks were glowing.
When the postman came she flew to meet him. There was no definite hope in her mind as she did so, but she came back more slowly, nevertheless. No letter for her.
But at eleven o'clock a messenger boy appeared with a special delivery letter for Miss Susan Brown, she signed the little book with a sensation that was almost fear. This—this was beginning to frighten her—-
Susan read it with a fast-beating heart. It was short, dignified. Mr. Bocqueraz wrote that he was sending her the book of which he had spoken; he had enjoyed nothing for a long time as much as their little supper last evening; he hoped to see her and that very fine lad, Billy, very soon again. His love to them both. He was her faithful friend, all ways and always, Stephen Graham Bocqueraz.
She slipped it inside her blouse, ignored it for a few moments, returned to it from other thoughts with a sense of infinite delight, and read it again. Susan could not quite analyze its charm, but in her whole being she was conscious of a warmth, a lightness, and a certain sweet and heady happiness throughout the entire day and the next day.
Her thoughts began to turn toward New York. All young Californians are conscious, sooner or later in their growth, of the call of the great city, and just now Susan was wrapped in a cloud of dreams that hung over Broadway. She saw herself one of the ebbing and flowing crowd, watching the world from her place at the breakfast table in a great hotel, sweeping through the perfumed warmth and brightness of a theater lobby to her carriage.
Stephen Bocqueraz had spoken of her coming to New York as a matter of course. "You belong there," he decided, gravely appraising her. "My wife will write to ask you to come, and we will find you just the niche you like among your own sort and kind, and your own work to do."
"Oh, it would be too wonderful!" Susan had gasped.
"New York is not wonderful," he told her, with smiling, kindly, disillusioned eyes, "but YOU are wonderful!"
Susan, when she went back to San Rafael, was seized by a mood of bitter dissatisfaction with herself. What did she know—what could she do? She was fitted neither for the stage nor for literature, she had no gift of music or of art. Lost opportunities rose up to haunt her. Ah, if she had only studied something, if she were only wiser, a linguist, a student of poetry or of history. Nearing twenty-five, she was as ignorant as she had been at fifteen! A remembered line from a carelessly read poem, a reference to some play by Ibsen or Maeterlinck or d'Annunzio, or the memory of some newspaper clipping that concerned the marriage of a famous singer or the power of a new anaesthetic,—this was all her learning!
Stephen Bocqueraz, on the Sunday following their second meeting, called upon his wife's mother's cousin. Mrs. Saunders was still at the hospital, and Emily was driven by the excitement of the occasion behind a very barrier of affectations, but Kenneth was gracious and hospitable, and took them all to the hotel for tea. Here they were the center of a changing, admiring, laughing group; everybody wanted to have at least a word with the great man, and Emily enjoyed a delightful feeling of popularity. Susan, quite eclipsed, was apparently pleasantly busy with her tea, and with the odds and ends of conversation that fell to her. But Susan knew that Stephen Bocqueraz did not move out of her hearing for one moment during the afternoon, nor miss a word that she said; nor say, she suspected, a word that she was not meant to hear. Just to exist, under these conditions, was enough. Susan, in quiet undertones, laughed and chatted and flirted and filled tea-cups, never once directly addressing the writer, and never really addressing anyone else.
Kenneth brought "Cousin Stephen" home for dinner, but Emily turned fractious, and announced that she was not going down.
"YOU'D rather be up here just quietly with me, wouldn't you, Sue?" coaxed Emily, sitting on the arm of Susan's chair, and putting an arm about her.
"Of course I would, old lady! We'll send down for something nice, and get into comfortable things," Susan said.
It hardly disappointed her; she was walking on air. She went demurely to the library door, to make her excuses; and Bocqueraz's look enveloped her like a shaft of sunlight. All the evening, upstairs, and stretched out in a long chair and in a loose silk wrapper, she was curiously conscious of his presence downstairs; whenever she thought of him, she must close her book, and fall to dreaming. His voice, his words, the things he had not said ... they spun a brilliant web about her. She loved to be young; she saw new beauty to-night in the thick rope of tawny hair that hung loosely across her shoulder, in the white breast, half-hidden by the fold of her robe, in the crossed, silk-clad ankles. All the world seemed beautiful tonight, and she beautiful with the rest.
Three days later she came downstairs, at five o'clock on a gloomy, dark afternoon, in search of firelight and tea. Emily and Kenneth, Peter Coleman and Mary Peacock, who were staying at the hotel for a week or two, were motoring. The original plan had included Susan, but at the last moment Emily had been discovered upstairs, staring undecidedly out of the window, humming abstractedly.
"Aren't you coming, Em?" Susan had asked, finding her.
"I—I don't believe I will," Emily said lightly, without turning. "Go on, don't wait for me! It's nothing," she had persisted, when Susan questioned her, "Nothing at all! At least," the truth came out at last, "at least, I think it looks ODD. So now go on, without me," said Emily.
"What looks odd?"
"Nothing does, I tell you! Please go on."
"You mean, three girls and two men," Susan said slowly.
Emily assented by silence.
"Well, then, you go and I'll stay," Susan said, in annoyance, "but it's perfect rubbish!"
"No, you go," Emily said, pettishly.
Susan went, perhaps six feet; turned back.
"I wish you'd go," she said, in dissatisfaction.
"If I did," Emily said, in a low, quiet tone, still looking out of the window, "it would be simply because of the looks of things!"
"Well, go because of the looks of things then!" Susan agreed cheerfully.
"No, but you see," Emily said eagerly, turning around, "it DOES look odd—not to me, of course! But mean odd to other people if you go and I don't-don't you think so, Sue?"
"Ye-es," drawled Susan, with a sort of bored and fexasperated sigh. And she went to her own room to write letters, not disappointed, but irritated so thoroughly that she could hardly control her thoughts.
At five o'clock, dressed in a childish black velvet gown—her one pretty house gown—with the deep embroidered collar and cuffs that were so becoming to her, and with her hair freshly brushed and swept back simply from her face, she came downstairs for a cup of tea.
And in the library, sunk into a deep chair before the fire, she found Stephen Bocqueraz, his head resting against the back of the chair, his knees crossed and his finger-tips fitted together. Susan's heart began to race.
He got up and they shook hands, and stood for too long a moment looking at each other. The sense of floating—floating—losing her anchorage—began to make Susan's head spin. She sat down, opposite him, as he took his chair again, but her breath was coming too short to permit of speech.
"Upon my word I thought the woman said that you were all out!" said Bocqueraz, appreciative eyes upon her, "I hardly hoped for a piece of luck like this!"
"Well, they are, you know. I'm not, strictly speaking, a Saunders," smiled Susan.
"No; you're nobody but yourself," he agreed, following a serious look with his sudden, bright smile. "You're a very extraordinary woman, Mamselle Suzanne," he went on briskly, "and I've got a nice little plan all ready to talk to you about. One of these days Mrs. Bocqueraz—she's a wonderful woman for this sort of thing!—shall write to your aunt, or whoever is in loco parentis, and you shall come on to New York for a visit. And while you're there—-" He broke off, raised his eyes from a study of the fire, and again sent her his sudden and sweet and most disturbing smile.
"Oh, don't talk about it!" said Susan. "It's too good to be true!"
"Nothing's too good to be true," he answered. "Once or twice before it's been my extraordinary good fortune to find a personality, and give it a push in the right direction. You'll find the world kind enough to you—Lillian will see to it that you meet a few of the right people, and you'll do the rest. And how you'll love it, and how they'll love you!" He jumped up. "However, I'm not going to spoil you," he said, smilingly.
He went to one of the bookcases and presently came back to read to her from Phillips' "Paolo and Francesca," and from "The Book and the Ring." And never in later life did Susan read either without hearing his exquisite voice through the immortal lines: