Said the bishop's wife: "Sylvia, we cannot undertake to save the world from the results of its sins. God has his own ways of punishing men."
"Perhaps so, but surely God does not wish the punishment to fall upon innocent young girls. For instance, Aunt Nannie, think of your own daughters——"
"My daughters!" broke out Mrs. Chilton. And then, mastering her excitement: "At least, you will permit me to look after my own children."
"I noticed, my dear aunt, that Lucy May turned colour when Tom Aldrich came into the room last night. Have you noticed anything?"
"Yes—what of it?"
"It means that Lucy May is falling in love with Tom."
"Why should she not? I certainly consider him an eligible man."
"And yet you know, Aunt Nannie, that he is one of Roger Peyton's set. You know that he goes about town getting drunk with the gayest of them, and you let Lucy May go on and fall in love with him! You have taken no steps to find out about him—you have not warned your daughter—"
Mrs. Chilton was crimson with agitation. "Warned my daughter! Who ever heard of such a thing?"
Said Sylvia, quietly: "I can believe that you never heard of it—but you will hear soon. The other day I had a talk with Lucy May—"
"Sylvia Castleman!" And then it seemed Mrs. Chilton reminded herself that she was dealing with a dangerous lunatic. "Sylvia," she said, in a suppressed voice, "you mean to tell me that you have been poisoning my young daughter's mind—"
"You have brought her up well," said Sylvia, as her aunt stopped for lack of words. "She did not want to listen to me. She said that young girls ought not to know about such matters. But I pointed out Elaine, and then she changed her mind—just as you will have to change yours in the end, Aunt Nannie."
Mrs. Chilton sat glaring at her niece, her bosom heaving. Then suddenly she turned her indignant eyes upon Mrs. Castleman. "Margaret, cannot you stop this shocking business? I demand that the tongues of gossip shall no longer clatter around the family of which I am a member! My husband is the bishop of this diocese, and if our ancient and untarnished name is of no importance to Sylvia van Tuiver, then, perhaps the dignity and authority of the church may have some weight——"
"Aunt Nannie," interrupted Sylvia, "it will do no good to drag Uncle Basil into this matter. I fear you will have to face the fact that from this time on your authority in our family is to be diminished. You had more to do than any other person with driving me into the marriage that has wrecked my life, and now you want to go on and do the same thing for my sister and for your own daughters—to marry them with no thought of anything save the social position of the man. And in the same way you are saving up your sons to find rich girls. You know that you kept Clive from marrying a poor girl in this town a couple of years ago—and meantime it seems to be nothing to you that he's going with men like Roger Peyton and Tom Aldrich, learning all the vices the women in the brothels have to teach him——"
Poor "Miss Margaret" had several times made futile efforts to check her daughter's outburst. Now she and Aunt Varina started up at the same time. "Sylvia! Sylvia! You must not talk like that to your aunt!"
And Sylvia turned and gazed at them with her sad eyes. "From now on," she said, "that is the way I am going to talk. You are a lot of ignorant children. I was one too, but now I know. And I say to you: Look at Elaine! Look at my little one, and see what the worship of Mammon has done to one of the daughters of your family!"
18. After this, Sylvia had her people reduced to a state of terror. She was an avenging angel, sent by the Lord to punish them for their sins. How could one rebuke the unconventionality of an avenging angel? On the other hand, of course, one could not help being in agony, and letting the angel see it in one's face. Outside, there were the tongues of gossip clattering, as Aunt Nannie had said; quite literally everyone in Castleman County was talking about the blindness of Mrs. Douglas van Tuiver's baby, and how, because of it, the mother was setting out on a campaign to destroy the modesty of the State. The excitement, the curiosity, the obscene delight of the world came rolling back into Castleman Hall in great waves, that picked up the unfortunate inmates and buffeted them about.
Family consultations were restricted, because it was impossible for the ladies of the family to talk to the gentlemen about these horrible things; but the ladies talked to the ladies, and the gentlemen talked to the gentlemen, and each came separately to Sylvia with their distress. Poor, helpless "Miss Margaret" would come wringing her hands, and looking as if she had buried all her children. "Sylvia! Sylvia! Do you realise that you are being DISCUSSED?" That was the worst calamity that could befal a woman in Castleman County—it summed up all possible calamities that could befal her—to be "discussed." "They were discussing you once when you wanted to marry Frank Shirley! And now—oh, now they will never stop discussing you!"
Then would come the dear major. He loved his eldest daughter as he loved nothing else in the world, and he was a just man at heart. He could not meet her arguments—yes, she was right, she was right. But then he would go away, and the waves of scandal and shame would come rolling.
"My child," he pleaded, "have you thought what this thing is doing to your husband? Do you realise that while you talk about protecting other people, you are putting upon Douglas a brand that will follow him through life?"
Uncle Mandeville came up from New Orleans to see his favourite niece; and the wave smote him as he alighted from the train, and he became so much excited that he went to the club and got drunk, and then could not see his niece, but had to be carried off upstairs and given forcible hypodermics. Cousin Clive told Sylvia about it afterwards—how Uncle Mandeville refused to believe the truth, and swore that he would shoot some of these fellows if they didn't stop talking about his niece. Said Clive, with a grim laugh: "I told him: 'If Sylvia had her way, you'd shoot a good part of the men in the town.'" He answered: "Well, by God, I'll do it—it would serve the scoundrels right!" And he tried to get out of bed and get his pants and his pistols—so that in the end it was necessary to telephone for the major, and then for Barry Chilton and two of his gigantic sons from their plantation.
Sylvia had her way, and talked things out with the agonised Celeste. And the next day came Aunt Varina, hardly able to contain herself. "Oh, Sylvia, such a horrible thing! To hear such words coming from your little sister's lips—like the toads and snakes in the fairy story! To think of these ideas festering in a young girl's brain!" And then again: "Sylvia, your sister declares she will never go to a party again! You are teaching her to hate men! You will make her a STRONG-MINDED woman!"—that was another phrase they had summing up a whole universe of horrors. Sylvia could not recall a time when she had not heard that warning. "Be careful, dear, when you express an opinion, always end it with a question: 'Don't you think so?' or something like that, otherwise, men may get the idea that you are 'STRONG-MINDED'!"
Sylvia, in her girlhood, had heard vague hints and rumours which now she was able to interpret in the light of her experience. In her courtship days she had met a man who always wore gloves, even in the hottest weather, and she had heard that this was because of some affliction of the skin. Now, talking with the young matrons of her own set, she learned that this man had married, and had since had to take to a wheel-chair, while his wife had borne a child with a monstrous deformed head, and had died of the ordeal and the shock.
Oh, the stories that one uncovered—right in one's own town, among one's own set—like foul sewers underneath the pavements! The succession of deceased generations, of imbeciles, epileptics, paralytics! The innocent children born to a life-time of torment; the women hiding their secret agonies from the world! Sometimes women went all through life without knowing the truth about themselves. There was poor Mrs. Valens, for example, who reclined all day upon the gallery of one of the most beautiful homes in the county, and showed her friends the palms of her hands, all covered with callouses and scales, exclaiming: "What in the world do you suppose can be the matter with me?" She had been a beautiful woman, a "belle" of "Miss Margaret's" day; she had married a man who was rich and handsome and witty—and a rake. Now he was drunk all the time, and two of his children had died in hospital, and another had arms that came out of joint, and had to be put in plaster of Paris for months at a time. His wife, the one-time darling of society, would lie on her couch and read the Book of Job until she knew it by heart.
And could you believe it, when Sylvia came home, ablaze with excitement over the story, she found that the only thing that her relatives were able to see in it was the Book of Job! Under the burden of her afflictions the woman had become devout; and how could anyone fail to see in this the deep purposes of Providence revealed? "Verily," said "Miss Margaret," "'whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth.' We are told in the Lord's Word that 'the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children, even unto the third and fourth generations,' and do you suppose the Lord would have told us that, if He had not known there would be such children?"
19. I cannot pass over this part of my story without bringing forward Mrs. Armistead, the town cynic, who constituted herself one of Sylvia's sources of information in the crisis. Mrs. Sallie Ann Armistead was the mother of two boys with whom Sylvia, as a child, had insisted upon playing, in spite of the protests of the family. "Wha' fo' you go wi' dem Armistead chillun, Mi' Sylvia?" would cry Aunt Mandy, the cook. "Doan' you know they granddaddy done pick cottin in de fiel' 'long o' me?" But while her father was picking cotton, Sallie Ann had looked after her complexion and her figure, and had married a rising young merchant. Now he was the wealthy proprietor of a chain of "nigger stores," and his wife was the possessor of the most dreaded tongue in Castleman County.
She was a person who, if she had been born a duchess, would have made a reputation in history; the one woman in the county who had a mind and was not afraid to have it known. She used all the tricks of a duchess—lorgnettes, for example, with which she stared people into a state of fright. She did not dare try anything like that on the Castlemans, of course, but woe to the little people who crossed her path! She had an eye that sought out every human weakness, and such a wit that even her victims were fascinated. One of the legends about her told how her dearest foe, a dashing young matron, had died, and all the friends had gathered with their floral tributes. Sallie Ann went in to review the remains, and when she came out a sentimental voice inquired: "And how does our poor Ruth look?"
"Oh," was the answer, "as old and grey as ever!"
Now Mrs. Armistead stopped Sylvia in the street: "My dear, how goes the eugenics campaign?"
And while Sylvia gazed, dumbfounded, the other went on as if she were chatting about the weather: "You can't realise what a stir you are making in our little frog pond. Come, see me, and let me tell you the gossip! Do you know you've enriched our vocabulary?"
"I have made someone look up the meaning of eugenics, at least," answered Sylvia—having got herself together in haste.
"Oh, not only that, my dear. You have made a new medical term—the 'van Tuiver disease.' Isn't that interesting?"
For a moment Sylvia shrivelled before this flame from hell. But then, being the only person who had ever been able to chain this devil, she said: "Indeed? I hope that with so fashionable a name the disease does not become an epidemic!"
Mrs. Armistead gazed at her, and then, in a burst of enthusiasm, she exclaimed: "Sylvia Castleman, I have always insisted that one of the most interesting women in the world was spoiled by the taint of goodness in you."
She took Sylvia to her bosom, as it were. "Let us sit on the fence and enjoy this spectacle! My dear, you can have no idea what an uproar you are making! The young married women gather in their boudoirs and whisper ghastly secrets to each other; some of them are sure they have it, and some of them say they can trust their husbands—as if any man could be trusted as far as you can throw a bull by the horns! Did you hear about poor Mrs. Pattie Peyton, she has the measles, but she sent for a specialist, and vowed she had something else—she had read about it, and knew all the symptoms, and insisted on having elaborate blood-tests! And little Mrs. Stanley Pendleton has left her husband, and everybody says that's the reason. The men are simply shivering in their boots—they steal into the doctor's offices by the back-doors, and a whole car-load of the boys have been shipped off to Hot Springs to be boiled—" And so on, while Mrs. Armistead revelled in the sensation of strolling down Main Street with Mrs. Douglas van Tuiver!
Then Sylvia would go home, and get the newest reactions of the family to these horrors. Aunt Nannie, it seemed, made the discovery that Basil, junr., her fifth son, was carrying on an intrigue with a mulatto girl in the town; and she forbade him to go to Castleman Hall, for fear lest Sylvia should worm the secret out of him; also she shipped Lucy May off to visit a friend, and came and tried to persuade Mrs. Chilton to do the same with Peggy and Maria, lest Sylvia should somehow corrupt these children.
The bishop came, having been ordered to preach religion to his wayward niece. Poor dear Uncle Basil—he had tried preaching religion to Sylvia many years ago, and never could do it because he loved her so well that with all his Seventeenth Century theology he could not deny her chance of salvation. Now the first sight that met his eyes when he came to see her was his little blind grand-niece. And also he had in his secret heart the knowledge that he, a rich and gay young planter before he became converted to Methodism, had played with the fire of vice, and been badly burned. So Sylvia did not find him at all the Voice of Authority, but just a poor, hen-pecked, unhappy husband of a tyrannous Castleman woman.
The next thing was that "Miss Margaret" took up the notion that a time such as this was not one for Sylvia's husband to be away from her. What if people were to say that they had separated? There were family consultations, and in the midst of them there came word that van Tuiver was called North upon business. When the family delegations came to Sylvia, to insist that she go with him, the answer they got was that if they could not let her stay quietly at home without asking her any questions, she would go off to New York and live with a divorced woman Socialist!
"Of course, they gave up," she wrote me. "And half an hour ago poor dear mamma came to my room and said: 'Sylvia, dear, we will let you do what you want, but won't you please do one small favour for me?' I got ready for trouble, and asked what she wanted. Her answer was: 'Won't you go with Celeste to the Young Matrons' Cotillion tomorrow night, so that people won't think there's anything the matter?'"
20. Roger Peyton had gone off to Hot Springs, and Douglas van Tuiver was in New York; so little by little the storms about Castleman Hall began to abate in violence. Sylvia was absorbed with her baby, and beginning to fit her life into that of her people. She found many ways in which she could serve them—entertaining Uncle Mandeville to keep him sober; checking the extravagrance of Celeste; nursing Castleman Lysle through green apple convulsions. That was to be her life for the future, she told herself, and she was making herself really happy in it—when suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, came an event that swept her poor little plans into chaos.
It was an afternoon in March, the sun was shining brightly and the Southern springtime was in full tide, and Sylvia had had the old family carriage made ready, with two of the oldest and gentlest family horses, and took the girls upon a shopping expedition to town. In the front seat sat Celeste, driving, with two of her friends, and in the rear seat was Sylvia, with Peggy and Maria. When an assemblage of allurements such as this stopped on the streets of the town, the young men would come out of the banks and the offices and gather round to chat. There would be a halt before an ice-cream parlour, and a big tray of ices would be brought out, and the girls would sit in the carriage and eat, and the boys would stand on the curb and eat—undismayed by the fact that they had welcomed half a dozen such parties during the afternoon. The statistics proved that this was a thriving town, with rapidly increasing business, but there was never so much business as to interfere with gallantries like these.
Sylvia enjoyed the scene; it took her back to happy days, before black care had taken his seat behind her. She sat in a kind of dream, only half hearing the merriment of the young people, and only half tasting her ice. How she loved this old town, with its streets deep in black spring mud, its mud-plastered "buck-boards" and saddle horses hitched at every telegraph pole! Its banks and stores and law offices seemed shabbier after one had made the "grand tour," but they were none the less dear to her for that. She would spend the rest of her days in Castleman County, and the sunshine and peace would gradually enfold her.
Such were her thoughts when the unforeseen event befel. A man on horse-back rode down a side-street, crossing Main Street a little way in front of her; a man dressed in khaki, with a khaki riding hat pulled low over his face. He rode rapidly—appearing and vanishing, so that Sylvia scarcely saw him—really did not see him with her conscious mind at all. Her thoughts were still busy with dreams, and the clatter of boys and girls; but deep within her had begun a tumult—a trembling, a pounding of the heart, a clamouring under the floors of her consciousness.
And slowly this excitement mounted. What was the matter, what had happened? A man had ridden by, but why should a man—. Surely it could not have been—no. There were hundreds of men in Castleman County who wore khaki and rode horse-back, and had sturdy, thick-set figures! But then, how could she make a mistake? How could her instinct have betrayed her so? It was that same view of him as he sat on a horse that had first thrilled her during the hunting party years ago!
He had gone West, and had said that he would never return. He had not been heard from in years. What an amazing thing, that a mere glimpse of a man who looked and dressed and rode like him should be able to set her whole being into such a panic! How futile became her dreams of peace!
She heard the sound of a vehicle close beside her carriage, and turned and found herself looking into the sharp eyes of Mrs. Armistead. It happened that Sylvia was on the side away from the curb, and there was no one talking to her; so Mrs. Armistead ran her electric alongside, and had the stirring occasion to herself. Sylvia looked into her face, so full of malice, and knew two things in a flash: First, it really had been Frank Shirley riding by; and second, Mrs. Armistead had seen him!
"Another candidate for your eugenics class!" said the lady.
Sylvia glanced at the young people and made sure they were paying no attention. She might have made some remark that would have brought them into the conversation, and delivered her from the torments of this devil. But no, she had never quailed from Mrs. Armistead in her life, and she would not now give her the satisfaction of driving off to tell the town that Sylvia van Tuiver had seen Frank Shirley, and had been overcome by it, and had taken refuge behind the skirts of her little sisters!
"You can see I have my carriage full of pupils" she said, smilingly.
"How happy it must make you, Sylvia—coming home and meeting all your old friends! It must set you trembling with ecstasy—angels singing in the sky above you—little golden bells ringing all over you!"
Sylvia recognised these phrases. They were part of an effort she had made to describe the raptures of young love to her bosom friend, Harriet Atkinson. And so Harriet had passed them on to the town! And they had been cherished all these years.
She could not afford to recognise these illegitimate children of romance. "Mrs. Armistead," she said, "I had no idea you had so much poetry in you!"
"I am simply improvising, my dear—upon the colour in your cheeks at present!"
There was no way save to be bold. "You couldn't expect me not to be excited, Mrs. Armistead. You see, I had no idea he had come back from the West."
"They say he left a wife there." remarked the lady, innocently.
"Ah!" said Sylvia. "Then he will not be staying long, presumably."
There was a pause; all at once Mrs. Armistead's voice became gentle and sympathetic. "Sylvia," she said, "don't imagine that I fail to appreciate what is going on in your heart. I know a true romance when I see one. If only you could have known in those days what you know now, there might have been one beautiful love story that did not end as a tragedy."
You would have thought the lady's better self had suddenly been touched. But Sylvia knew her; too many times she had seen this huntress trying to lure a victim out of his refuge.
"Yes, Mrs. Armistead," she said, gently. "But I have the consolation at least of being a martyr to science."
"In what way?"
"Have you forgotten the new medical term that I have given to the world?"
And Mrs. Armistead looked at her for a moment aghast. "My God, Sylvia!" she whispered; and then—an honest tribute: "You certainly can take care of yourself!"
"Yes," said Sylvia. "Tell that to my other friends in town." And so, at last, Mrs. Armistead started her machine, and this battle of hell-cats came to an end.
21. Sylvia rode home in a daze, answering without hearing the prattle of the children. She was appalled at the emotions that possessed her—that the sight of Frank Shirley riding down the street could have affected her so! She forgot Mrs. Armistead, she forgot the whole world, in her dismay over her own state of mind. Having dismissed Frank from her life and her thoughts forever, it seemed to her preposterous that she should be at the mercy of such an excitement.
She found herself wondering about her family. Did they know that Frank Shirley had returned? Would they have failed to mention it to her? For a moment she told herself it would not have occurred to them she could have any interest in the subject. But no—they were not so naive—the Castleman women—as their sense of propriety made them pretend to be! But how stupid of them not to give her warning! Suppose she had happened to meet Frank face to face, and in the presence of others! She must certainly have betrayed her excitement; and just at this time, when the world had the Castleman family under the microscope!
She told herself that she would avoid such difficulty in future; she would stay at home until Frank had gone away. If he had a wife in the West, presumably he had merely come for a visit to his mother and sisters. And then Sylvia found herself in an argument with herself. What possible difference could it make that Frank Shirley had a wife? So long as she, Sylvia, had a husband, what else mattered? Yet she could not deny it—it brought her a separate and additional pang that Frank Shirley should have married. What sort of wife could he have found—he, a stranger in the far West? And why had he not brought his wife home to his people?
When she stepped out of the carriage, it was with her mind made up that she would stay at home until all danger was past. But the next afternoon a neighbour called up to ask Sylvia and Celeste to come and play cards in the evening. It was not a party, Mrs. Witherspoon explained to "Miss Margaret," who answered the 'phone; just a few friends and a good time, and she did so hope that Sylvia was not going to refuse. The mere hint of the fear that Sylvia might refuse was enough to excite Mrs. Castleman. Why should Sylvia refuse? So she accepted the invitation, and then came to plead with her daughter—for Celeste's sake, and for the sake of all her family, so that the world might see that she was not crushed by misfortune!
There were reasons why the invitation was a difficult one to decline. Mrs. Virginia Witherspoon was the daughter of a Confederate general whose name you read in every history-book; and she had a famous old home in the country which was falling about her ears—her husband being seldom sober enough to know what was happening. She had also three blossoming daughters, whom she must manage to get out of the home before the plastering of the drawing-room fell upon the heads of their suitors; so that the ardour of her husband-hunting was one of the jokes of the State. Naturally, under such circumstances, the Witherspoons had to be treated with consideration by the Castlemans. One might snub rich Yankees, and chasten the suddenly-prosperous; but a family with an ancient house in ruins, and with faded uniforms and battle-scarred sabres in the cedar-chests in its attic—such a family can with difficulty overdraw its social bank account.
Dolly Witherspoon, the oldest daughter, had been Sylvia's rival for the palm as the most beautiful girl in Castleman County. And Sylvia had triumphed, and Dolly had failed. So, in her secret heart she hated Sylvia, and the mother hated her; and yet—such was the social game—they had to invite Sylvia and her sister to their card-parties, and Sylvia and her sister had to go. They had to go and be the most striking figures there: Celeste, slim and pale from sorrow, virginal, in clinging white chiffon; and Sylvia, regal and splendid, shimmering like a mermaid in a gown of emerald green.
The mermaid imagined that she noticed a slight agitation underneath the cordiality of her hostess. The next person to greet her was Mrs. Armistead; and Sylvia was sure that she did not imagine the suppressed excitement in that lady's manner. But even while she was speculating and suspecting, she was led toward the drawing-room. It was late, her hostess explained; the other guests were waiting, so if they did not mind, the play would start at once. Celeste was to sit at that table over there, with Mr. Witherspoon's crippled brother, and old Mr. Perkins, who was deaf; and Sylvia was to come this way—the table in the corner. Sylvia moved toward it, and Dolly Witherspoon and her sister, Emma, greeted her cordially, and then stepped out of the way to let her to her seat; and Sylvia gave one glance—and found herself face to face with Frank Shirley!
22. Frank's face was scarlet; and Sylvia had a moment of blind terror, when she wanted to turn and fly. But there about her was the circle of her enemies; a whole roomful of people, breathless with curiosity, drinking in with eyes and ears every hint of distress that she might give. And the next morning the whole town would, in imagination, attend the scene!
"Good-evening, Julia," said Sylvia, to Mrs. Witherspoon's youngest daughter, the other lady at the table. "Good-evening, Malcolm"—to Malcolm McCallum, an old "beau" of hers. And then, taking the seat which Malcolm sprang to move out for her, "How do you do, Frank?"
Frank's eyes had fallen to his lap. "How do you do?" he murmured. The sound of his voice, low and trembling, full of pain, was like the sound of some old funeral bell to Sylvia; it sent the blood leaping in torrents to her forehead. Oh, horrible, horrible!
For a moment her eyes fell like his, and she shuddered, and was beaten. But there was the roomful of people, watching; there was Mrs. Armistead, there were the Witherspoon women gloating. She forced a tortured smile to her lips, and asked, "What are we playing?"
"Oh, didn't you know that?" said Julia. "Progressive whist."
"Thank-you," said Sylvia. "When do we begin?" And she looked about—anywhere but at Frank Shirley, with his face grown so old in four years.
No one said anything, no one made a move. Was everybody in the room conspiring to break her down? "I thought we were late," she said, desperately; and then, with another effort—"Shall I cut?" she asked, of Julia.
"If you please," said the girl; but she did not make a motion to pass the cards. Her manner seemed to say, You may cut all night, but it won't help you to rob me of this satisfaction.
Sylvia made a still more determined effort. If the game was to be postponed indefinitely, so that people might watch her and Frank—well, she would have to find something to talk about.
"It is a surprise to see you again, Frank Shirley!" she exclaimed.
"Yes," he said. His voice was a mumble, and he did not lift his eyes.
"You have been in the West, I understand?"
"Yes," again; but still he did not lift his eyes.
Sylvia managed to lift hers as far as his cravat; and she saw in it an old piece of imitation jewelry which she had picked up once on the street, and had handed to him in jest. He had worn it all these years! He had not thrown it away—not even when she had thrown him away!
Again came a surge of emotion; and out of the mist she looked about her and saw the faces of tormenting demons, leering. "Well," she demanded, "are we going to play?"
"We were waiting for you to cut," said Julia, graciously; and Sylvia's fury helped to restore her self-posession. She cut the cards; and fate was kind, sparing both her and Frank the task of dealing.
But then a new difficulty arose. Julia dealt, and thirteen cards lay in front of Frank Shirley; but he did not seem to know that he ought to pick them up. And when the opposing lady called him to time, in what seemed an unnecessarily penetrating voice, he found that he was physically unable to get the cards from the table. And when with his fumbling efforts he got them into a bunch, he could not straighten them out—to say nothing of the labour of sorting them according to suit, which all whist-players know to be an indispensable preliminary to the game. When the opposing lady prodded him again, Frank's face changed from vivid scarlet to a dark and alarming purple.
Miss Julia led the tray of clubs; and Frank, whose turn came next, spilled three cards upon the table, and finally selected from them the king of hearts to play—hearts being trumps. "But you have a club there, Mr. Shirley," said his opponent; something that was pardonable, inasmuch as the nine of clubs lay face up where he had shoved it aside.
"Oh—I beg pardon," he stammered, and took back his king, and reached into his hand and pulled out the six of clubs, and a diamond with it.
It was evident that this could not go on. Sylvia might be equal to the emergency, but Frank was not. He was too much of a human being and too little of a social automaton. Something must be done.
"Don't they play whist out West, Mr. Shirley," asked Julia, still smiling benevolently.
And Sylvia lowered her cards. "Surely, my dear, you must understand," she said, gently. "Mr. Shirley is too much embarrassed to think about cards."
"Oh!" said the other, taken aback. (L'audace, touljours l'audace! runs the formula!)
"You see," continued Sylvia, "this is the first time that Frank has seen me in more than three years. And when two people have been as much in love as he and I were, they are naturally disturbed when they meet, and cannot put their minds upon a game of cards."
Julia was speechless. And Sylvia let her glance wander casually about the room. She saw her hostess and her daughters standing watching; and near the wall at the other side of the room stood the head-devil, who had planned this torment.
"Mrs. Armistead," Sylvia called, "aren't you going to play to-night?" Of course everybody in the room heard this; and after it, anyone could have heard a pin drop.
"I'm to keep score," said Mrs. Armistead.
"But it doesn't need four to keep score," objected Sylvia—and looked at the three Witherspoon ladies.
"Dolly and Emma are staying out," said Mrs. Witherspoon. "Two of our guests did not come."
"Well," Sylvia exclaimed, "that just makes it right! Please let them take the place of Mr. Shirley and myself. You see, we haven't seen each other for three or four years, and it's hard for us to get interested into a game of cards."
The whole room caught its breath at once; and here and there one heard a little squeak of hysteria, cut short by some one who was not sure whether it was a joke or a scandal. "Why—Sylvia!" stammered Mrs. Witherspoon, completely staggered.
Then Sylvia perceived that she was mistress of the scene. There came the old rapture of conquest, that made her social genius. "We have so much that we want to talk about," she said, in her most winning voice. "Let Dolly and Emma take our places, and we will sit on the sofa in the other room and chat. You and Mrs. Armistead come and chaperone us. Won't you do that, please?"
"Why—why——" gasped the bewildered lady.
"I'm sure that you will both be interested to hear what we have to say to each other; and you can tell everybody about it afterwards—and that will be so much better than having the card-game delayed any more."
And with this side-swipe Sylvia arose. She stood and waited, to make sure that her ex-fianc was not too paralysed to follow. She led him out through the tangle of card-tables; and in the door-way she stopped and waited for Mrs. Armistead and Mrs. Witherspoon, and literally forced these two ladies to come with her out of the room.
23. Do you care to hear the details of the punishment which Sylvia administered to the two conspirators? She took them to the sofa, and made Frank draw up chairs for them, and when she had got comfortably seated, she proceeded to talk to Frank just as gently and sincerely and touchingly as she would have talked if there had been nobody present. She asked about all that had befallen him, and when she discovered that he was still not able to chat, she told him about herself, about her baby, who was beautiful and dear, even if she was blind, and about all the interesting things she had seen in Europe. When presently the old ladies showed signs of growing restless, she put hand cuffs on them and chained them to their chairs.
"You see," she said, "it would never do for Mr. Shirley and myself to talk without a chaperon. You got me into this situation, you know, and papa and mamma would never forgive you."
"You are mistaken, Sylvia!" cried Mrs. Witherspoon. "Mr. Shirley so seldom goes out, and he had said he didn't think he would come!"
"I am willing to accept that explanation," said Sylvia, politely, "but you must help me out now that the embarrassing accident has happened."
Nor did it avail Mrs. Witherspoon to plead her guests and their score. "You may be sure they don't care about the score," said Sylvia. "They'd much prefer you stayed here, so that you can tell them how Frank and I behaved."
And then, while Mrs. Witherspoon was getting herself together, Sylvia turned upon the other conspirator. "We will now hold one of my eugenics classes," she said, and added, to Frank, "Mrs. Armistead told me that you wanted to join my class."
"I don't understand," replied Frank, at a loss.
"I will explain," said Sylvia. "It is not a very refined joke they have in the town. Mrs. Armistead meant to say that she credits a disgraceful story that was circulated about you when we were engaged, and which my people made use of to make me break our engagement. I am glad to have a chance to tell you that I have investigated and satisfied myself that the story was not true. I want to apologise to you for ever having believed it; and I am sure that Mrs. Armistead may be glad of this opportunity to apologise for having said that she believed it."
"I never said that I believed it!" cried Sallie Ann.
"No, you didn't, Mrs. Armistead—you would not be so crude as to say it directly. You merely dropped a hint, which would lead everybody to understand that you believed it."
Sylvia paused, just long enough to let the wicked lady suffer, but not long enough to let her find a reply. "When you tell your friends about this scene," she continued, "please make clear that I did not drop hints about anything, but said exactly what I meant—that the story is false, so far as it implies any evil done by Mr. Shirley, and that I am deeply ashamed of myself for having ever believed it. It is all in the past now, of course—we are both of us married, and we shall probably never meet again. But it will be a help to us in future to have had this little talk—will it not, Frank?"
There was a pause, while Sallie Ann Armistead recovered from her dismay, and got back a little of her fighting power. Suddenly she rose: "Virginia," she said, firmly, "you are neglecting your guests."
"I don't think you ought to go until Frank has got himself together," said Sylvia. "Frank, can you sort your cards now?"
"Virginia!" commanded Sallie Ann, imperiously. "Come!"
Mrs. Witherspoon rose, and so did Sylvia. "We can't stay here alone," said she. "Frank, will you take Mrs. Witherspoon in?" And she gently but firmly took Mrs. Armistead's arm, and so they marched back into the drawing-room.
Dolly and Emma had progressed to separate tables, it developed, so that the ordeal of Frank and Sylvia was over. Through the remainder of the evening Sylvia chatted and played, and later partook of refreshments with Malcolm McCallum, and mildly teased that inconsolable bachelor, quite as in the old days. Now and then she stole a glance at Frank Shirley, and saw that he was holding up his end; but he kept away from her, and she never even caught his eye.
At last the company broke up, and Sylvia thanked her hostess for a most enjoyable evening. She stepped into the motor with Celeste, and sat with compressed lips, answering in monosyllables her "little sister's" flood of excited questions—"Oh, Sylvia, didn't you feel perfectly terrible? Oh, sister, I felt thrills running up and down my back! Sister, what did you say to him? Sister, do you know old Mr. Perkins kept leaning over me and asking what was happening; and how could I shout into his deaf ear that everybody was stopping to hear what you were saying to Frank Shirley?"
At the end of the ride, there was Aunt Varina waiting up as usual—to renew her own youth in the story of the evening, what this person had worn and what that person had said. But Sylvia left her sister to tell the story, and fled to her room and locked the door, and flung herself upon the bed and gave way to a torrent of weeping.
Half an hour later Celeste went up, and finding that the door between her room and Sylvia's was unlocked, opened it softly, and stood listening. Finally she stole to her sister's side and put her arm about her. "Never mind, sister dear," she whispered, solemnly, "I know how it is! We women all have to suffer!"