She had once, long ago, found in the garret at the Farm, when poking about there on a rainy day that had kept her housed, a little book with her grandmother's name in faded writing on the fly-leaf.
Its title, almost indistinguishable outside on the worn board covers, but plainly enough visible within, read:
"Advice to Young Ladies of Good Family on Entering Society for the First Time By A Former Belle"
This little volume she had brought with her to Lewisburg, packed in the box with her green ribbon, the box that had been slipped into the canvas-covered trunk unknown to Miss Eliza. Arethusa had been very sure there would be Parties for her to attend; had not Miss Asenath told her so? Had not a dress for them been provided? And the book would clear up her ignorance of the line of conduct recognized as to be followed at these entertainments.
The first time she had read it, it had seemed to her to cover every contingency that might arise in the most varied and active of social careers. But there was absolutely nothing in it, she was sorry to see, when she fished it out of the trunk and climbed into her window-seat to study it this day before the Party, relating at all directly to dinner-dances; although two whole chapters were devoted to a full discussion of the subject of dinners.
She went through the pages again and again, but not once did the magic word she hunted greet her eyes. Then she went back to a paragraph in one of those chapters headed "Dinners," which had particularly attracted her attention.
"A Young Lady," so it ran, "should be thoroughly conversant with the affairs of the day and able to take part in an intelligent and lively way in conversation regarding the same with her fellow guests, most especially that member of the other sex next whom she may be seated at the festive board. In a manner of the proper reserve and deference to masculine opinion, she should endeavor to introduce topics that would promote animated and interested discussion among those nearest her, thus adding to the enjoyment of the party and assisting the efforts of her hostess to make the occasion prove an auspicious Event, which is one of the very first requirements of the true guest. It is well, also, before attending a dinner-party, where most of the evening's entertainment inevitably consists of conversation over the delicious viands, to be ready with thoughts formed for expression as opinions in regard to the polite arts; to be well-read in the current novels such as are proper for young females of good family to have read: for talk and discussion may often be led adroitly in such directions with pleasure and profit."
Here, Arethusa dropped the little book, bitterly disappointed, to look out of her window for awhile at the automobiles whirling past her down Lenox Avenue. She leaned her head against the window-casing and reviewed what she had read.
After all, there was nothing to help her very much. She knew scarcely anything about the affairs of the day. Miss Eliza had never allowed her to touch the only newspaper that came to the Farm, not considering her old enough. She had not the vaguest idea what the "polite arts" were, and as to the books she had read, she was very uncertain whether they might be called "current novels."
She picked up her book to read further and discovered that....
"Poetry may often be introduced with charm and effect. A few lines of verse, judiciously interspersed with the conversation; pearls of the thought of our great masters of the world of rhyme falling from the ruby lips of the young and fair daughters of Eve, have often caused a masculine heart to beat faster and to be thrown around the lovely borrower of words an atmosphere of gentle and refined erudition that nothing else could so well impart."
Arethusa brightened up. Here, she felt more at home.
She could certainly learn Poetry! In fact, she had no need to learn it, for she already knew quite a lot. She had read The Family Poetry Book through from cover to cover, a hundred times at least. It contained a great deal of Scott and Burns, and many long-delightful ballads such as "Lord Ullin's Daughter," and "The Cruel Sister," as well as Irish melodies that charmed with their plaintive atmosphere. England, however, had not been neglected, for the work of the Lake Poets held a prominent place, and there was much of Tennyson, his "May Queen" cycle, and "Sir Galahad." "The Prisoner of Chillon" was Arethusa's favorite of Byron's representation; she knew it from end to end. And she knew all of those specifically named off by heart, for the swinging lines of a ballad form were Arethusa's idea of what real poetry should be. But the compilers of the big brown book, which was sacred to the marble-topped center table in the parlor at the Farm, had not stayed entirely on the other side of the ocean; and so Arethusa could recite many of the verses of our own sweetest singers of that day; as well as many that were scattered throughout the book that were signed "Anonymous"; and many that had been written by dead and gone men and women whose very existence would have been forgotten by a fickle world, had not The Family Poetry Book preserved an imperishable record of their achievements.
"Yes," exulted Arethusa, "I know some Poetry!"
She read on, greatly cheered.
"Conversation," continued the quaint little pamphlet of advice, "is best carried on if some definite topic is introduced. This, however, must he accomplished with ease and grace, lest a feeling of awkwardness be aroused."
Arethusa descended to the library and hunted up a dictionary, to look for "topic."
She discovered it to be:
"The subject of any distinct portion of a discourse; a theme or subject as of talk or thought."
This was fairly clear. "I might find a Topic," she thought, for she surely could not quote poetry all through the evening. "I might read about something I could talk about."
Her eyes roved restlessly down the same row of the bookcase where she had got the dictionary. It was nearly all Encyclopedia, stretching away in a formidable array of volumes exactly alike, except for the tiny gold lettering across the center of the back. She lifted out one at random, the "L's," and it opened accommodatingly of its own accord, when its heaviness slid out of her grasp, to "Lepidoptera." Which was a strange and almost unpronounceable word; but the pictures which accompanied this text were somewhat explanatory of its meaning, being all of familiar looking butterflies and moths.
Arethusa grew interested. She spread herself comfortably out on the floor, there in the corner, and began to read; and she gleaned as she read several facts that might "with profit" be introduced into a conversation.
For instance; she learned that there were over fifty different families of these Lepidoptera, and that all of these family divisions were divided also, so many times that they have never all been counted or classified; that all common moths and butterflies belonged under this big head, as well as some "cousins," so aristocratic and so wonderful in their colorings that Arethusa exclaimed aloud over their beauty in the large plate on the page just opposite; and that every single, solitary member of every family, whether of high or low degree, came from some sort of caterpillar. She discovered that these Lepidoptera had traits of character which still further differentiated them. They were exceedingly finicky about their food, she read; the meat of one variety seemed to be the deadly poison of another. And some of them could live under the water; some drowned in a drop of rain.
She committed to memory some of the most interesting and peculiar of the names of the families, so as to be ready when the "member of the other sex next whom she was seated at the festive board" should become so interested in her Topic of Conversation as to inquire.
One of these names was "Nymphlidae," which the writer of the article declared was the largest family of all; and included the commonest of the gaily colored butterflies one saw flying about every day. Arethusa took a deep personal interest in this family, because of its name. She was well acquainted with nymphs, and knew exactly where her own pretty name had been found. This was all sure to prove interesting to her fellow diners-out. It was most fascinating to read.
Elinor and Nettie, Elinor's maid, helped Arethusa to dress for the Party.
It was well that she had their assistance, for she could never have got into that Green Frock alone and unaided. There was an intricacy and invisibility of fastening about it that her trembling, excited fingers could never have managed. Nettie, with the air of an artist loving her work, piled Arethusa's hair up high to show the sweep of the line of her neck and head which Elinor, watching critically from the green sofa, decided was particularly good. And Nettie poked and pulled and fussed with Arethusa as one who dressed a beloved doll, and the result was altogether good.
Ross had hied himself to the florist and his daughter was the recipient of her first flowers, an anonymous bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley which caused much excitement, largely compounded of pleasure, when they arrived; and which looked just as if they had grown with the other wee blossoms out of the green of the frock when Elinor pinned them at its waist.
Arethusa found it hard to believe that the reflection she gazed at in her own long mirror was herself, even after seeing that other so glorified Arethusa in the mirrors of the shop the other day; for this was still more Wonderful. It was metamorphosis from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet. The new arrangement of her hair imparted an air of quaint dignity that was immensely becoming and that made her appear a trifle older. Its piled masses shown like burnished copper under the bright glare of numerous electric lights; and under the same brilliance her arms and neck seemed more like creamy satin than ever. She noted with deep satisfaction that the tiny bridge of freckles which she considered absolutely spoiled her nose, was almost invisible when viewed by this artificial illumination. She struck one satin slipper from under the edge of her dress and lifted her skirts high to see her feet. They looked Perfectly Wonderful also. She did not know them as her own feet.
Elinor had gone to find Ross to show him the completed debutante, so Arethusa had time alone in which to admire to her heart's content.
She curtsied to the figure in the mirror, a long, sweeping, old-fashioned curtsey that ended with a "cheese," and the billowy gown spread itself out around her shimmeringly like the party frock of some belle of long ago; the "Former Belle" of her little book might have curtsied and looked just so. This charmed her utterly, and she did it again and again.
Then Arethusa suddenly leaned close to the mirrored figure and kissed its face fleetingly.
"Oh, but you are beautiful! Beautiful! I'm so glad you're beautiful!"
And Ross and Elinor, arriving at the door just in time to hear the exclamation, slipped away again lest they should spoil her rapture in this impersonal admiration of her own fair self, by letting her know that they had heard.
Mrs. Chestnut was sending a youth by name of Harrison to escort Arethusa to the Party, a youth who did not want to come. He had fully intended to go alone to the festivities since his own particular inamorata was already provided with company, and thus he would have the best of chances to show this lady a "real time."
But Mrs. Chestnut, being his own blood aunt, felt perfectly privileged to call upon him in emergencies, and so his carefully laid plans were all upset with the "country jane" shoved upon him for the evening.
He was one of the few beaux of Lewisburg who possessed an automobile—entirely his own—in which to carry ladies to Parties. When he appeared with it, he handed the cocoon that was introduced to him as Arethusa into the back seat and climbed, ungraciously, in front all by himself. Conversation on the road to the Party was clearly an impossibility, so Arethusa reviewed her knowledge of the article on "Lepidoptera," and recited under her breath a few selections of the Poetry she had deemed most appropriate for use on this occasion. She was as ready for eventualities as she knew how to be.
Mr. Harrison dumped his cocoon in the dressing-room and departed, in search of a little refreshing man-talk before taking up his arduous duties in connection with Arethusa.
As Elinor had instructed her to wait until he should return for her, Arethusa waited. But they had been so late in their coming that the few girls who had been in the room when she arrived, were soon gone with their liveliness and laughter, and the tardiest guest was left alone. She sat on the extreme edge of a chair quite near the door as she waited, and tapped her feet impatiently.
The Party seemed already to be in full swing; music was playing, and she caught a glimpse of dancers in the large ball room at the other end of the hall. It was maddening to be so near It and not a part of It. She went to the door and peered out. She considered that Mr. Harrison was entirely too long in returning. But he was amusing himself in the hall, and was not in the least hurry to take up the burden of his evening.
One of the men in the little group where he stood, whose eyes were towards that dressing-room door, noticed Arethusa.
"Who's the stranger?" he enquired, "And she's some looker, too, believe me."
The whole group turned as one man to stare in Arethusa's direction. Mr. Harrison was unpleasantly reminded of what was before him.
"I've got a skirt in there," he muttered, "and I might as well go get her, I reckon."
"This one yours? Confide in us, Harry, and introduce us, immediately if not sooner. The idea of your keeping anything like that all to yourself!"
"No." Mr. Harrison was admiring Arethusa's lovely, eager face. "I haven't any idea who she is! Wish I did know! But mine's a hayseed, daughter of a friend of Aunt Nell's up from the country for the very first time in her life! That's what I drew for being in the family! Well, pray for me, fellows, for here goes!"
He made straight for Arethusa.
With each step he took towards her, the greater his admiration grew. Mr. Harrison's affections fluttered from girl to girl like a moth in a room, full of candles, unable to settle down steadily to one particular flame. He did not recognize Arethusa as his lady for the evening. He had been so late in going for her that she had been all muffled and waiting for him when he arrived. And he had not cared to look very closely at the figure in those wrappings. Mr. Harrison asked very little of the damsels he honored with his attention, save that they be pretty. He decided, without the slightest hesitancy, that Arethusa was the prettiest girl he had ever seen.
She did not see him coming, or even hear his approach, with all her thought for the gay scene before her, until he asked her if she would mind telling Miss Worthington that Mr. Harrison was waiting for her.
Then she turned and smiled such a welcome of him from her shining eyes, that the weather-vane of Mr. Harrison's volatile affections veered to point straight Arethusa-ward.
"Oh, it's you! I'm so glad! I've been wishing you'd come! I thought maybe you'd forgotten!"
And the weather-vane became firmly fixed.
But Mr. Harrison felt as if some audible apology were surely due this dream of a girl for all those unkind things he had thought (and uttered), earlier in the evening, that her entertainment should have devolved upon himself. He considered himself now the very luckiest of mortals.
Arethusa laughed at his attempt at vindication of his first greeting of her, that ripply soft laugh of hers, and the susceptible Mr. Harrison named it the most musical, and the prettiest, laugh he had ever heard.
"You didn't know me, did you? I don't wonder, because I was so wrapped up when you came for me, and it was Mother's cloak! She thought I might take cold, because I'm not used to going out at night, and my own cloak wasn't near warm enough, she said; and so she...."
Then Arethusa paused, and flushed prettily with embarrassment. One did not confide such intimate personalities to strange gentlemen at Parties, she was quite sure, from that close study of the little book. She must be more careful of her tongue.
But Mr. Harrison cared not a bit what she said, or whether she ever said anything at all. She was a joy for him to behold if she never opened her mouth. He escorted her, with the pride of a personal possession, to Mrs. Chestnut and introduced her. Mrs. Chestnut held her hand kindly for a moment and spoke of Elinor, and expressed a Hope that Arethusa would have a Good Time; then passed her on to Emily, who was almost hidden behind a mass of roses she carried, and so excited at the Whole Affair, she could pay no real attention to Arethusa; but she managed to transfer her to her older sister just next; and the older sister to a cousin or so next to her, and a bosom friend or two thrown in for good measure.
It was a long receiving line and Arethusa was so utterly bewildered long before she had ever reached the end of it, by this way she was shoved, so to speak, from person to person, without ever really finding out who half of them were, for it would seem as if there had been a conspiracy to mumble the names spoken to Arethusa, that she could almost have fled the Party. "The Advice to Young Ladies" had said nothing of such a proceeding as being part of the Routine of Parties, nor had Elinor made any mention of it. Arethusa was totally unprepared. And it was, as an experience, well calculated to dampen even the exuberance of spirits with which Arethusa had fared forth to this new adventure. Everyone about her seemed to know everyone else intimately; she had no part in the gay greetings of old friends. It made her feel herself, as she watched, the only stranger at the Dinner Dance.
So she clung to Mr. Harrison for an old acquaintance, as to a rock in a weary land of unfamiliar surroundings. But such clinging was really unnecessary; for he wanted not to leave her side. Arethusa's little confusion only made her prettier.
"Am I going to sit by you at the dinner-table?" she asked him, when she had summoned sufficient courage to add this bit to the general uproar of pleasant conversation. It would help matters mightily, if she was.
"I don't know," he began slowly, but then he added, very briskly indeed, "but I can go find out and change the cards around if you're not."
"Oh, don't leave me! Don't leave me!" Arethusa fairly shrieked this request, and she grabbed at his coat-tails as he started away. "Please don't go off and leave me!"
Consequently, he was forced to leave her when they finally sought the dining-room, and he was miles away on the other side of the huge apartment at another table. Arethusa found herself next to a perfectly strange youth, a rotund, almost moon-faced individual with eyes that danced good-humoredly behind glasses.
This person addressed himself strictly to business, weeding out from the silver by his plate with such a reassuring air of knowing that he did the right thing, a small article shaped like a tiny pitchfork, that Arethusa followed suit immediately.
But she had a very decided dislike of eating blindly ahead without knowing what it was she ate, and although the objects before her presented a rather familiar appearance, she wanted to be quite positive. Having somewhat recovered her spirits by this time, it was not so hard to ask her neighbor the question. He did not look at all formidable, and one talked to one's partner at dinners, so the "Advice" had said, and it had not specified any condition of previously knowing that partner.
"Would you mind telling me," inquired Arethusa, as courteously as possible, "what these are?"
But her neighbor paid no attention.
She repeated her request, raising her voice a trifle. "Maybe he's deaf," she thought.
And this time he turned, "I beg your pardon.... But did you speak to me?"
"Yes," she replied, "I asked you to tell me what these were."
He stared at her, surprised into a direct reply, "Why, they're oysters!"
Arethusa examined them critically. No wonder they had looked so familiar! "But they're raw!" she exclaimed.
"It's an oyster cocktail! Of course they're raw!"
"But I never saw them this way before! I didn't know people ate raw fish at Parties! I.... This is the Very First Party I ever went to," she explained. It was surely extenuation enough for any ignorance of the customs of such gatherings!
His glance searched her, up and down. He struggled visibly with amusement. It was all he could do not to laugh outright.
"I suppose you're visiting here?" he remarked, after awhile, when speech was once more somewhat of a possibility.
Arethusa thought it was most polite of him to show this interest. She nodded.
"I'm Arethusa Worthington."
"Arethusa Worthington!" The youth was all real interest and animation at once. "Not Mr. Ross Worthington's daughter! Why, I ... I'm proud to call him one of my best friends! I'm just crazy about that man! I met him abroad. And so you're really his daughter! I certainly am glad to meet you! Now, that I think, of it, I believe he did tell me the other day that you were coming!"
Arethusa smiled all over, showing every dimple; she felt at home immediately with any friend of her father's, self-announced though he might be.
"My name's Watts, Miss Worthington," he continued, "William Watts. But most people call me 'Billy.'"
"I don't know you quite well enough yet to call you 'Billy,'" she replied, seriously reproving. "But wasn't it just dear that we happened to sit next to each other?"
Mr. Watts enthusiastically agreed. And acquaintanceship established on this firm foundation, he turned his attention once more to food.
"Don't you like oysters?"
"Yes, but they look so horrid! Ugh!" Arethusa shivered. "Generally, I love 'em, but these are raw! I never ate any raw ones before!"
"Go ahead and try them," he urged in all friendliness. "If you like them at all, you'll like them this way, too, I'll bet."
But she still hung back, "I don't know how."
"It's perfectly easy. Just like this." He speared one and lifted it to show her.
Arethusa watched the operation, fascinated at his skill, but she shook her head with decision when he suggested that she do likewise.
"I couldn't possibly. I believe I'd drop it. That little pitchfork thing doesn't look near big enough to hold such an enormous oyster."
"Oh, you won't drop any," he encouraged; "nobody ever has that I have heard of. Go on and try."
"No," she shook her head again, "no, I don't believe I will. I think I'd much rather practice at home first."
For it looked far too difficult to attempt thus offhand, even though reassured that none had ever been dropped. And should one really miss its way to her mouth and fall off the pitchfork thing to land in her lap? Well, the Dress was far too beautiful and too precious to be risked so foolishly. Those oysters had a most slimy appearance.
There was a little silence while the epicurean Mr. Watts consumed his oysters unaccompanied.
Arethusa wondered if the time was ripe for her to introduce into the Conversation the Subject of Lepidoptera, but if it was, she was quite at a loss how to do so with "ease and grace." Perhaps a little Poetry would be appreciated, but there was nothing as yet with which it could be "interspersed." None of the verses she knew had any remotest application to what had been said so far.
Mr. Watts finished his oysters to the very last one, and then turned her way with a little sigh of satisfaction.
"You certainly did make a mistake this time, Miss Worthington, for those were perfectly bully. This hotel is rather famous for its sea food, you know, especially for oysters."
Now Arethusa was getting somewhat tired of hearing of these bivalves and their extremely succulent taste; she did not want the entire evening to be given over to a discussion of oysters. There were other things. The Subject she had been at such pains to prepare, for instance, would make a much more interesting Conversation. So she plunged right in.
"Do you know anything about Lep—lep-e-e-top-dera?" she asked, with a charming and social smile.
He looked frankly puzzled.
"Moths and butterflies," she added, in explanation to that questioning expression.
"No, I bite. What about 'em?"
"I thought they would be nice for us to talk about. I read about them in the Encyclopedia so I could. The 'Advice to Young Ladies' said at a dinner you must always have something to talk about."
But this "member of the other sex next whom she was seated at the festive board" was not at all affected by her attempt to make the evening pleasant as Arethusa had been led by the little book to believe he would be; for after a momentary stare, he began to laugh.
He went through all the gamut of mirth. He gurgled. He giggled. He shrieked. He roared. And he even pounded on the table.
"Oh, but this is rich!" he gasped. "My word! But this is rich! It's the very richest thing I ever heard!"
His unseemly merriment attracted the attention of nearly everybody around them.
Arethusa was rather startled by his laughter at first, and then she was infuriated; for she realized that it was laughter directed straight at her. Timothy could have told Mr. Watts that it was very unsafe to laugh at Arethusa; that she hated nothing in the world so much as to be laughed at. Her eyes darkened with anger, and the mirthful one was given the full battery of their wrathful blazing.
But he did not even pause. He laughed on and on, uncontrollably.
So she reached over and pinched him with all the power of strong young fingers on the very fleshiest part of his arm.
His laughter stopped abruptly. "Say," he exclaimed, "that hurt like fury!"
"I meant it to hurt!" breathed Arethusa, and she turned as far away from him as was possible, owing to the fact that their chairs were so close together.
She was trembling all over with her rage, and he mistook it for weeping.
"I didn't mean to make you cry, Miss Worthington," he began.
Her angry dark eyes flashed around at him for a moment. "I'm not crying!" she announced with emphasis, and then turned away from him again.
But that one brief glance had shown him how far she was from tears. "Well, I most certainly didn't mean to make you mad," he had only to change the words of his apology. "But ... that was funny!"
"Why?" she demanded, peremptorily, half turning back to face him.
"It just was! You ask your father!" Arethusa's expression remained most unrelenting. "But I really do beg your pardon, in all humbleness, for laughing at you. It was horribly rude of me, I'll have to admit, and I'm certainly sorry that I did it. So do forgive me this time, and let's go on being friends. Please...." he coaxed.
Arethusa softened, just the least bit. "But why was it so funny, what I said? You didn't tell me. Oughtn't I to have said it?"
"It wasn't what you said. There wasn't anything so dead wrong in that. You could talk about such creatures all you wanted, I suppose, and still not commit anything that wasn't right according to Hoyle. It was the way you handed it out that got my goat so completely!" He gurgled reminiscently. "But listen here, Miss Arethusa, you do just what I'm telling you and you let the natural history alone for the rest of this party, no matter what your book said about it. You can the high-brow stuff from now on, and you'll get along better."
She could plainly tell that every word of this was meant as advice between friends. It was impossible to construe Mr. Watts' manner as anything but eagerness to help. And it sounded delightfully like Timothy in their happier moments.
Her face broke into a forgiving smile.
She informed her repentant neighbor of how he had pleasantly reminded her of Timothy; just who Timothy was, and all about him. Mr. Watts was the personification of absorbed interest. Timothy sounded to him as if he might be a "human being," he declared, and quite worth while.
Arethusa and her adjacent "member of the other sex" managed to get along famously for the rest of the dinner, oblivious to the fact that each had another person on the other side, Mr. Watts because he did not like the girl in blue at his left, and Arethusa because she was almost unconscious that there was anybody else at this table beside their two selves. Mr. Watts was quite sufficient for her entertainment.
As the courses proceeded and Arethusa ate and laughed and chattered away, from time to time her glance roved around the huge dining-room, so gorgeously decorated for this occasion, admiring everything she saw, the diners themselves, as well as the decorations. There were some very pretty girls at this Party, as well as some passably handsome men; and Arethusa liked the contrast of the sombre black and white of the men's attiring silhouetted against the gay dresses of the girls near them. And she liked to watch them as they laughed and talked together.
Among the faces which most interested her was one, a man's face, to which she returned again and again to steal a look. Finally, she asked Mr. Watts to tell her who he was.
"The one next to the girl with the feather fan, at that second table by the pillar."
"Oh, that? That's Gridley Bennet."
There was something in the way he said the name that made Arethusa ask if there was anything wrong with Mr. Bennet.
"Nothing I know of. He's just our prize debutante's delight."
"Lady-killer," he amplified. "All the girls are crazy about him."
"I don't wonder!" Arethusa's own admiration was wholly undisguised by now. "He's the handsomest man I ever saw!" she added recklessly.
"He's handsome enough, I reckon, but he knows it almost too well. And he just hates himself!"
"That's a horrid thing to say about anybody; I don't believe it at all! And how on earth could he help knowing he's good-looking if he ever looks in the mirror! There's no harm in knowing you're good-looking if you are!"
The subject of this discussion looked far more as those charming gentlemen pictured in the advertising sections of our various current magazines to show the superiority of certain brands of collars and other necessary articles of manly garb were intended to look than the artists have ever been able to make the pictures. He was superbly tall and broad of shoulder; in every way he fulfilled the most exacting requirements of what a Hero should be. No dream of a Prince Charming could have formed a being half so well-fitted for the role as this living Reality.
He wore his faultless dress clothes as if they had been a veritable part of him, not something donned for the few hours of this evening. And he had gold-tipped eyelashes every bit as long as Arethusa's own (she could tell that they were even so far away as she sat from him), and the most irresistible of smiles. He smiled with commendable frequency. Perhaps he knew that his rows of teeth were as perfect as ordinary human teeth could very well be, and that this superlative smile was in consequence no trifling addition to his other attractions of person. He had a little trick of flinging his head back when he laughed aloud, that showed to still greater advantage all of these wonderful teeth, and his eyelashes, and even called attention to the perfect straightness of his handsome nose.
He laughed for Arethusa's benefit as she watched him, and she smiled in sympathy for such a charming laugh, although she was so far across the room from him she could have no idea why he laughed.
And then she gazed and gazed at him, unashamed; a tiny sigh fluttered through her parted red lips.
"I wish I could meet Him!"
"That's perfectly simple," remarked Mr. Watts. "Introductions haven't gone out yet, as I have heard." His tone was scornful, but it was all lost on Arethusa.
"Could you introduce me?" eagerly.
"I might, if really urged." Then he added, half to himself, "It's a regular slaughter of the innocents whenever Grid Bennet goes to a debutante party. He ought to be barred from 'em by law."
"I think you're jealous of him," said Arethusa reprovingly.
"I haven't a thing to be jealous of him about, and just to prove it, here goes."
And as the Party was all beginning to rise from the tables, Mr. Watts headed straight for Mr. Bennet. He was a trifle disgusted with Arethusa for this display of enthusiasm over Gridley Bennet. His type did not appeal to Mr. Watts very much.
But it certainly did to Arethusa.
A nearer view of Mr. Bennet showed him to her as even handsomer than she had thought at a distance. The Introduction was a Momentous Affair, far more of a Real Event than any introduction in which Arethusa had ever participated. Mr. Bennet's manner of bending over her hand in his acknowledgment of it called loudly for satin knee breeches and lace ruffles, silver buckled shoon and a decorative sword, as the most appropriate accompaniments. It was delightfully suggestive, to the thrilled Arethusa, of the pages of her favorite novels of those days when ladies' hands were kissed in public.
"Grid's squshy manner would get him anywhere he wanted with the skirts, even if he didn't have the looks to back it up," commented Mr. Watts, with inward dryness, of the meeting.
"I've been watching you for some time, Miss Worthington," was Mr. Bennet's flattering opening to the conversation, "and I was planning an introduction to you just as soon as dinner was over."
Now he very probably had not noticed her at all until Billy Watts had him face to face with her, but he could no more help saying such things than he could help his breathing. He was built just that way.
But Arethusa found no reason to doubt the sincerity of these charming words. And his little way of looking at her and of leaning toward her as he talked, were a perfect corollary, seeming to single her out from among all these hundred or more feminine beings in the vast room as the one whose company he most ardently desired. "These other stupid folks do not exist for me at present," proclaimed his manner, "and I am just where I most want to be."
Her heart fluttered painfully. She could only stand there at first, silently flushing and paling by turns, at a loss for the words of a reply that should suitably acknowledge such a marvelous greeting of her insignificant self. Then the music started up in the ball room at the other end of the hall, and she moved away with all the rest of the Party toward the sound, at Mr. Bennet's side, still quite unable to find her generally so-ready tongue.
"Shall we dance?" asked Mr. Bennet courteously, as they walked. His voice was another of his distinct attractions, rather deep and with the slightest possible drawl.
Arethusa paused just under the broad arch of the ball-room doorway, and so Mr. Bennet paused also, to watch the dancers for a moment, all of them bending and turning and twisting to a tune of such impelling rhythm that it would have made a wooden-legged man almost to attempt the impossible, and then to curse his fate; then she lifted troubled eyes to Mr. Bennet.
"But I don't dance what they're dancing."
"Oh, yes, you do, I'm sure," with the intimation in his tone that she was sure to be the very best dancer on the floor. "It's only the one-step."
Arethusa could not help but laugh.
"Well, it certainly doesn't look anything like the one-step that I know! You see, Mr. Bennet, I've never been to any Parties. Timothy just taught me some down in our barn." She was beginning to feel a little less awed by his magnificence as a Man, for he was, after all, human, and quite inclined to be kind.
"Then let me give you another lesson, now.... Do, please. You won't really need it as a lesson though, I know."
Still she hesitated. Yet her feet unconsciously kept time to the gay music as she stood, just watching.
"Surely you won't confer a favor on this Timothy person you'd deny to me," and Arethusa was quite convinced there was a wee tinge of reproachful jealousy in Mr. Bennet's attractive voice. "I may not prove to be so good a teacher as he is, but I shall certainly do my best."
Arethusa laughed again; with real merriment this time.
The very idea of Timothy as a better teacher of anything than this Wonderful Mr. Bennet!
The picture of herself in those blue print dresses she wore around the Farm and Timothy in khaki trousers and blue flannel shirt, hopping about on the barn floor (which, though clean-swept and smooth, was hardly meant for dancing) to tunes which were hummed and whistled by each alternately, rose before her; and she compared it in its utter inferiority with this picture of herself in this Heavenly Green Frock and Mr. Bennet in his Perfect Evening Clothes, the shining floor which stretched away from them, and the lilt of the band music which went to her head like wine.
She shook her head. "But suppose I should fall down or something. This floor looks so dreadfully slick and hard to stand up on. I wouldn't mind a bit if I was awkward with Timothy. But...."
"I'm getting rather jealous of Timothy, I'm afraid," said Mr. Bennet. "Miss Worthington, you couldn't be awkward if you tried. And you won't fall down, I can promise to take care of that. Please give me this great pleasure."
So Arethusa allowed herself to be thus charmingly persuaded.
But it must be confessed that their start was a bit awkward.
Arethusa was horribly self-conscious, and not at all sure, despite his reassurance, that she was going to manage this new venture. After a few moments, however, and his low-spoken command to let herself be guided, her natural-born instinct to dance asserted itself, the self-consciousness wore away, and she was one-stepping with the best of any on that floor.
She was more certainly meant for a dancer. She was as light as a feather, for all her height, and like a piece of thistledown she swayed and circled about the room in perfect time to the music. She seemed to feel instinctively the beat of the measures, and her flying feet obeyed Mr. Bennet's guidance, as if he and she had danced together all of their lives. Mr. Bennet himself was a truly wonderful exponent of the art. He danced with a grace and ease that few men ever attain, and he had an arm of sureness at his partner's back that took her safely through that crowded room without a single bump or mishap. Had Arethusa but known it, there was no one at the Party who could so well have conducted her in her first real effort of this kind as Mr. Bennet.
It was over much too soon to please her. She could have gone on for hours, just like that without a pause, and without once tiring.
"Why, you dance beautifully!" exclaimed Mr. Bennet, when the music stopped. "I verily believe," very softly, "that you were fibbing when you said you had danced so little!"
She looked up at him shyly, from under her long lashes, and blushed just a bit. "That was you. I couldn't have danced with anyone else that way. Timothy doesn't dance at all like that!"
Now this was the rankest ingratitude on Arethusa's part. For had it not been for Timothy's surreptitious lessons, so kindly and willingly given, she would never have experienced the intense pleasure of this one-step with Mr. Bennet. But Arethusa was honestly surprised at her own swallow-like ability to keep time to music that was played instead of whistled.
Then Mr. Harrison caught sight of her and rushed across the room to claim her. He had been hunting everywhere for her, he declared.
Then Mr. Watts came in his turn, and inquired saucily, as he "broke in," if she had found Mr. Bennet as charming as he looked. But she laughed at him merrily, for his friendly teasing. She was too happy to be offended at anything.
And she laughed and chatted away with these two oldest acquaintances her most enthusiastic and Arethusa-like self; with every one introduced to her she had just as Wonderful a Time. There were a great many who asked to be introduced to her, for her shining eyes and her very evident enjoyment of everything she did made her an object of interest to nearly everybody who observed her. Arethusa was really one of the belles of the evening; such unreserved happiness as hers is bound to attract. Consequently, the Party fulfilled her most sanguine expectations as to what a Party should be, although she did not know how large was her own personal share in this fulfillment.
She entirely forgot that she had ever prepared a Topic of Conversation for the Occasion; she made no other mention of moths and butterflies; not once did she quote a line of Poetry. Her words poured forth in as mad a rush, as gaily inconsequential, as the words of the most hardened Party-goer who has ever been an assistance to her hostess in adding to the enjoyment of her fellow guests. Without making any conscious effort to do so, Arethusa followed Mr. Watts' kindly advice, and his words as to the result proved delightfully true.
The terpsichorean attempts which she made during the evening without Mr. Bennet's able guidance, might have been managed with a little more gratifying success, had not her eyes been so prone to follow him in his whirling about the room, wherever she could, as he honored other ladies with his attentions. But when she did miss step, or stumbled, her apologies were so pretty, and she was so sincere in her confused regrets, that it could make no difference to any one with his heart in the right place.
Yet Mr. Bennet came back to Arethusa herself quite often to ask for dances—a truly flattering number of times—for it was a kindly fate that had given her that lightness of foot and her undeniable grace. Then too, Mr. Bennet, like Mr. Watts, knew Ross rather well, and he wanted to be nice to Ross's daughter for various reasons. And last, but not least, her ingenuous admiration of his own attractive person amused Mr. Bennet more than he had been amused for a long while.
There was one last wild romp of a dance as an encore from the more good-natured members of the orchestra, while the other musicians packed their instruments, and then the First Real Party was only a thing to be remembered.
Mr. Bennet made a special point of telling Arethusa good-night, and he bent lingeringly over her hand as he did so, in his own inimitable way of making it seem the very hardest parting he had ever had to make.
"I'm coming to see you some time, if I may," he said.
Her heart almost stopped beating at this. Then it raced on again to beat in quick, little jumps. She lifted young, frankly adoring eyes to the handsome man before her, and quite suddenly, without a word of real warning, Arethusa knew....
She had fallen in love!
But it was not as she had fallen in love with Elinor, and it was not such love as she gave Ross or Miss Asenath or even Timothy; for this was without doubt the Miracle she had read about so many times under the hollow tree in Miss Asenath's Woods. And it had come just as she had always dreamed it would come, with a Hand-clasp and a Glance.
The hand in Mr. Bennet's holding trembled and grew cold before Arethusa could withdraw it. Her misbehaving heart almost interfered with her breathing. But the world around them went on as casually unaware of the Miracle as if neither Arethusa nor Mr. Bennet existed, when it should surely have been hushed into a Startled Silence by What had happened.
All through that night, Arethusa wandered with a tall man of long-lashed hazel eyes of marvelous beauty, through a country which was a Country of Rare Delight, even if only a Country of Dreaming. And as they wandered, he bent his head again and again to whisper, in a deep drawling voice, Words which bore a remarkable resemblance to some of the lyrics of the early nineteenth-century poets, and the pages of conversation in Arethusa's much read romances.
What though the Gentleman of the Dream wore a modern suit of commonplace evening clothes, instead of Ruffles and a Velvet Coat and Satin Small-clothes? It did not prevent, in the Dream, his pressing his Hand to his Heart at moments when it was logical that he should have done so, nor did it rob his Voice of the Proper Passionate Inflection. Nor did it keep the cardiac region of the Arethusa of the Dream from fluttering in an altogether delightful way.
Ross took Arethusa out to the Country Club for a round of golf the next afternoon, and as it was the first and only time she had ever spied a golf club, it is not at all difficult to imagine what sort of game she played. It deserved a name all of its own; and her method of holding her club would have brought tears to the eyes of any true devotee of the sport. But from the standpoint of pure enjoyment for the two most intimately concerned, the occasion was a great success.
"I don't believe I care very much for golf," she remarked decidedly, after she had almost dug a trench around her ball on the second tee, "and I believe you move that ball, Father, when I'm not looking with my stick up over my head."
Ross protested his innocence, and insisted that she try once more. So she did. But when she missed it this time also, she was firm in her resolve to quit.
"You do move it, Father!" she repeated. "I just know you do! To tease me! Because, why shouldn't my stick come down in the right place when I know exactly where it is when I start to hit it, if you don't push it away?"
"Because of one of the cardinal rules of the game, my dear, 'Keep your eye on the ball.' You are demonstrating its truth of that aphorism every time you take your eye off."
"But how can I?" retorted Arethusa. "I've only got two eyes. How can I watch my ball and my stick and where I'm going to knock it, and everything, when they won't look but one way at once? I'm not cross-eyed!"
Ross gave it up as beyond his powers of reasoning.
So Arethusa put her driver back in the bag and announced that she would do the caddying. But as conversation is one of the things most unnecessary to a caddy, she could hardly be said to approach perfection in this role, either, though as Ross, very fortunately, did not take his golf with any too much seriousness, they got along in fine shape. Arethusa was outspoken in her loyal admiration of each one of his shots, and when he made one drive of two hundred yards and over, her proud delight was manifest all over the course.
She had not even begun to exhaust the dinner-dance and the Wonderful Mr. Bennet as congenial topics of conversation, although the breakfast-table and the luncheon-table had heard much of both, so she continued to find a great deal to say about them as they walked,—especially about Mr. Bennet, upon which subject she enlarged to Ross's amusement. But Arethusa did not consider that his replies to her raptures were suitably enthusiastic.
"Now don't you really think he's good-looking, Father?"
"Undoubtedly so, my dear."
"I think," Arethusa's expression was dreamy, and her eyes were far away, apparently on the hazy skyline, "I think that he looks just like a Prince!"
It spoiled Ross's drive from the seventh tee completely. He sliced far over into the tall grass, and as she had not been watching as a caddy should, they had to go on without ever finding the ball.
While they were on the fourteenth fairway it began to rain in hard pelting drops, a fulfillment of the morning's promise of a heavy gray sky. Arethusa was in her element then, and as there was no Miss Eliza to drag her in by the power of her will, to all of Ross's entreaties that they seek shelter with more haste, she turned a deaf and unheeding ear. He was far more of a hot-house plant than his daughter, so he caught a violent cold from his drenching in the chilly fall rain, which made itself promptly known with much sneezing before he had gone to bed that night.
Arethusa was thoroughly conscience-stricken when he was unable to get up the next morning. She felt personally responsible for his aches and pains and his fever. It was her duty, she decided, as the contributing cause of it all, to nurse and amuse him. She refused to budge from his side for the next several days, indefatigable in her attentions. She read aloud to him, jumping up from her chair with almost every turning of a page to plump up his pillows with zeal, and to demand if he wanted anything. Arethusa was hardly a gentle nurse, even if a conscientious one. She fetched him veritable gallons of ice-water, and carried up his meals with her own fair hands. And while he dozed, at intervals through the days, she stayed near him, dreaming of Mr. Bennet. Ross accepted all of this solicitude with a lazy nonchalance, not in the least averse to being fussed over.
All of Sunday afternoon, Arethusa watched anxiously for Mr. Bennet. Had he not said that he was coming to call?
But he did not come, although Mr. Harrison and Billy Watts and several other acquaintances made at the Party did. She denied herself to all of these visitors. How could she leave her sick father for such as they?
By Wednesday afternoon, however, Ross was undeniably better. Even Arethusa could see that he was, in spite of the fact that he continued to complain. But it was such complaining as only too plainly indicated that he was loth to relinquish any of this delightful attention he was receiving. So when George announced a caller who had asked for "Miss Worthington," Elinor, who had just that moment come back from down-town with those two new and widely advertised detective stories for Ross's amusement which he had earlier in the day expressed a desire to see, said that she would begin the reading aloud in Arethusa's place, and that Arethusa must receive the visitor.
"And you'll like Candace Warren, I think. She's rather a dear girl. I suppose she came to see you because I know her mother so well. It was very kind of her." To Elinor's rose-colored view of youth, all young girls were attractive because of what they were.
"I think it was perfectly lovely!" chanted Arethusa happily.
She would certainly see Miss Warren, come to call on a stranger in her city, just because of her mother's friendship for Elinor! There was a warm little glow in her heart at the thought of the kindness shown her by so many people for the sake of Ross and Elinor; the Chestnuts, and Mr. Watts, innumerable others at the dinner-dance, and now Miss Warren!
"I'll send George in with tea a little later on," said Elinor, "if you would like to have it."
Then Arethusa's face clouded somewhat, "But I wanted to have supper up here again!"
"Not supper, Arethusa, it's just afternoon tea. I thought perhaps it might help you to get acquainted."
That was very different. It might be great fun to have afternoon tea. She had read about it, and it had always sounded most delightful in the reading.
"But Aunt 'Liza says I can't pour anything," she added doubtfully. "She never lets me at home. She says my fingers are all thumbs."
George could pour it for her, if she wished.
And so with these trifling details arranged, and the tea a settled prospect, Arethusa went in search of Miss Warren.
She ran gaily down the wide front steps, humming a little tune, and skipped into the small reception room at the side of the hall, both hands cordially outstretched.
"I think it was perfectly dear of you to come to see me!" she exclaimed.
Miss Warren rose politely from the spindle-legged sofa where she had been sitting, and touched one of the outstretched hands with rather extraordinary limpness. She murmured something altogether indistinguishable.
Arethusa's cordiality felt somewhat thrown back upon herself. She sat down abruptly in the nearest chair. Miss Warren resumed her place on the sofa. There was a long silence, while the visitor covertly studied her hostess, and the hostess openly observed the details of her visitor's appearance with the frankest interest.
Arethusa thought Miss Warren was very pretty. She had coal black hair, although very little of it showed from under her hat, bright black eyes, and a wonderfully white skin with a great deal of color in her lips and cheeks.
But it was her clothes that really most intensely interested the clothes-loving Arethusa.
For Miss Warren was exceedingly well-dressed in garments that could but excite admiration. She wore silky furs as black as her hair, soft and long and smoothly shining. Arethusa had a childish longing to stroke them. Miss Warren's suit was made of a marvelous sort of stuff unlike any material Arethusa had ever seen, dark wine in color, and it spelled "Paris" in every well-cut line. The blouse she wore was a superlative affair of lace and delicacy and tracings of fine embroidery. It could never have been called a "shirtwaist," as Arethusa's plain garments of the same shape with their simple rows of tucking were named. From one daintily gloved hand she dangled a gold purse, and several other small articles of the same metal of an unknown variety.
Arethusa's glance traveled downward, still admiring, and there it paused. For it was hard in the first glimpse to determine just where Miss Warren's feet could be, in those long narrow shoes, with the ends just like pointed pencils. It did not seem possible that human toes, of the number of five, could fit into one of those shoes. Arethusa looked suddenly at her own feet, and as Miss Warren's eyes were at that moment upon them also, they seemed to Arethusa to appear very large, and very awkward to have as feet, in her comfortable house slippers with the broad, round toes. She tucked them as far under her chair as she could, and felt a little hot. Miss Eliza had selected those slippers, as a special privilege of an extra pair of shoes for the Visit. But they were a half-size larger than Arethusa ordinarily wore, because they had been the only pair obtainable at Tobin's, in Blue Spring. She had never minded this fact before, but by contrast with Miss Warren's so slim foot-covering they looked really dreadful.
Arethusa found it quite impossible to admire Miss Warren's hat, although liking everything else she wore so much. It was much too small to conform to Arethusa's ideas of beauty in a hat, and it came so close down over the visitor's delicate eyebrows, that it seemed impossible that she could have much of that black hair tucked underneath it. Arethusa began to feel a trifle better, minding the difference in feet and the house-slippers a little less, as she remembered her own glorious mop of redness; which, although so undesirable in color, could never have been squeezed into so small a space as that hat represented.
"I think it was perfectly dear of you to come to see me," said Arethusa for the second time.
But the words elicited very little more response than they had when first spoken.
Miss Warren seemed to be glad that Arethusa should feel as she did about her coming to call, but there was no real animation in her gladness.
The hostess cast around for sentiments, which if uttered, might loosen her visitor's tongue, but the visitor fortunately loosened it of her own accord.
"Do you like Lewisburg, Miss Worthington? Is this your first visit here?"
"Yes, and I just love it!" declared Arethusa, "Everybody is perfectly darling to me! I went to a dinner-dance the other night and had the Most Heavenly Time! Mrs. Chestnut's it was, at the Hotel. Were you there?"
Miss Warren had not been invited, she was sorry to say. She volunteered the information that she was a second-year girl, and that she believed that very few of them had been asked.
While her information as to the cause of it shed very little light, Arethusa was exceedingly regretful that her visitor had missed such a Wonderful Party. She described it in detail for the one so unfortunately deprived of first-hand enjoyment of the Heavenly Affair, bringing Mr. Bennet into the narrative.
Did Miss Warren, by any chance, know Mr. Bennet?
Miss Warren did.
Arethusa waxed more eloquent upon so moving a theme.
But Miss Warren had not added that Mr. Bennet had recently been devoting quite a little of his valuable time and attention to herself, and that there was very little of Mr. Bennet's charm that Arethusa could mention which she did not already know. One of the reasons she had called so promptly when her mother suggested a visit to Mr. Worthington's daughter was because she had been informed that Mr. Bennet had "rushed" the visiting lady at the Chestnut's dinner-dance, and so a very natural curiosity as to the personality of the visiting lady craved gratification as soon as possible.
Mr. Bennet as a subject was exhausted before very long, for Miss Warren was so very unresponsive that it was hard to continue the discussion of him in just the way it had started. Arethusa felt a shyness descending upon her at the cold reception of her enthusiasm for the Wonderful Being who had so recently come into her life. Rhapsodies are well-nigh impossible unless the mood of the listener answers in some small degree.
So the conversation languished once more.
Miss Warren languidly dangled her gold purse and stared through the lace curtains of the window nearest her. It was gloriously autumnal as to weather this afternoon, and the world was gay to the vision. The trees were bright with their rapidly turning Joseph's coat of foliage, and the sunlight streamed like liquid gold. Overhead, the sky was the very clearest of bright blues. Lenox Avenue was unusually full of those who had been tempted out to revel in it; babies and nurses strolled past on the sidewalk, and loaded automobiles sped by in a sort of procession in the street.
Arethusa's regard was largely for the outside also. It was such a day as she adored. Then, feeling it was quite beyond her power to sit so unsociably so close to anyone in the same room, when it was so glorious a world they were both viewing, she turned back to Miss Warren with a friendly little smile.
"It's a perfectly beautiful day, isn't it?"
Miss Warren seemed to thaw a trifle. "It's just gorgeous outside!"
"I like fall better than spring, always," replied Arethusa, "and especially when it's like this."
"Yes," agreed Miss Warren.
The silence descended once more, to be first broken by Miss Warren with the polite inquiry, "Do you play bridge, Miss Worthington?"
Arethusa's surprised gray eyes were removed from the window to which they had returned with the silence, to be fixed on Miss Warren.
"Do I what?" she exclaimed.
Miss Warren made this contribution to conversation for no other reason than that it had a strong personal appeal. And from her point of view, it had more possibilities as a theme for development than had the weather; the silence had grown almost oppressive.
Arethusa laughed gaily. She had played a game called "London Bridge" when she was quite small, she and Timothy and the little darkies from the washer-woman's cabin, and they had all liked it very much as a game; but they had never thought of calling it just "bridge."
"I used to play London Bridge when I was little, but of course I don't now."
"I meant cards," explained the visitor with a well-bred smile. "I'm perfectly mad about it. Though some people do like auction better, I never have."
Her smile had nettled her hostess. It had a calm superiority about it that was rather trying. "No," she replied, shortly. "No, I don't know anything about it, or that other thing either. Aunt 'Liza says playing cards are wicked."
The delicate black eyebrows of the visitor lifted a little.
"It's too bad if you don't play. There're so many bridge parties given here. And," she added, "Mr. Bennet plays a beautiful game."
Arethusa decided that Miss Warren was not nearly so pretty as she had at first considered her.
At this critical juncture, George made his entrance with the tea-tray. Arethusa remembered she was a hostess and had a guest. She enquired if the guest would care for some tea.
The guest would be delighted to have some tea. She was famished, she added.
But Arethusa made no reply to this sally. She had not yet forgiven that last remark about Mr. Bennet's ability as a bridge-player.
While the tea and its attendant sandwiches were consumed almost in silence, Arethusa did some thinking. When in Rome do as the Romans do is an excellent old saw, and although Miss Eliza's views on the subject of games played with a deck of cards were firm and had been expressed so as not to be mistaken, Arethusa was meditating open defiance. If the Wonderful Mr. Bennet played bridge, then she, Arethusa, would learn the game, Miss Eliza or no Miss Eliza.
Over her last sandwich, she eyed Miss Warren.
"Is it very hard to learn?"
"That.... That card game you called 'bridge'?"
Miss Warren laughed with softness. Arethusa was really rather amusing.
"Why, not at all, I think, for some people. Would you care to learn? I'd be delighted to teach you myself, sometime. Mr. Bennet says I play a very good game."
Arethusa choked on her sandwich.
"I don't think I shall bother you," she said, pointedly; "Mr. Bennet would show me, if I asked him, I reckon."
Once more Miss Warren's well-bred and superior smile shone forth to arouse resentment. "I think if I were you, Miss Worthington, that I would ask some one else first, because," very kindly, "Gridley Bennet is a perfect old maid about his game. It bores him almost to tears to play with a poor player or a beginner. I've heard him say so more than once. And men just simply hate that sort of thing when they do hate it, you know."
The air with which Miss Warren called the Wonderful Mr. Bennet by his Christian name was galling. It bespoke a degree of intimacy with his charming self from which Arethusa felt herself far removed. And her manner of stating his likes and dislikes was that of one who knew. Arethusa boiled over.
"I didn't ask your advice!" she exploded. "And when I want any of it, I'll let you know!"
Miss Warren looked surprised.
"Why, I...." she began, and then she decided that it was time to leave. She could not quarrel with Arethusa, and Arethusa looked very ready to quarrel.
As Miss Warren made her way gracefully homeward along the avenue, she decided that she really had nothing to fear from Mr. Bennet's casual attentions to the visiting lady at parties. She was countrified and queer, and her clothes were awful. Miss Warren knew Mr. Bennet to be a gentleman of taste. Yet she was glad she had made the call, for she had rather enjoyed it. It would be fun to tell Gladys, friend nearest her heart, all about it.
Arethusa went up the stairs about three at a time, and burst into Ross's room like a small whirlwind, cheeks glowing and hands still clenched in righteous anger at Miss Warren.
"Well, well," exclaimed Ross, "what has happened? Did not the fair Candace come up to expectations?"
"I thought you said she was a dear girl!" Arethusa looked accusingly at Elinor.
"And isn't she?" asked Ross mischievously.
"She's ... she's a cat!" said Arethusa with emphasis. "She said perfectly awful things to me, and she was as nasty as could be to me about Mr. Bennet!"
"So that is where the shoe pinches! Elinor, dearest, methinks there is one of your friends' daughters who has no sort of attraction for our daughter. But Arethusa, my child, I told you, when you first mentioned his name, that he was in a class apart. I told you that he was no lonely floweret wasting his sweetness on the desert air, and that the competition where you would compete was keen. I told you...."
"Ross, for heaven's sake!" laughed Elinor.
"Arethusa is only finding out the truth of my words," replied Ross seriously. "She will learn to depend on her father with one or two more experiences of this kind."
Arethusa perched herself on the arm of Ross's big chair, and Ross tweaked at her ear affectionately. "Is that not so, mine own daughter?"
Arethusa disregarded this question, and asked one of her own.
"Could I learn bridge, do you reckon?"
Ross jumped. "Shades of Miss Eliza!"
"But could I?" recklessly; "Miss Warren said Mr. Bennet played a beautiful game and she said it was cards and that he was fond of it."
"I see. I've heard that he did. Well, something will have to be done about this. Myself, being the sort of player from whom the bridge world runs as one man cannot help you much. But Elinor might. She is said to be somewhat proficient at it. We'll give Arethusa a bridge-party, how about it, Belovedest?"
Elinor agreed, and so Ross suggested a lesson right away.
And Arethusa was just starting off to fetch some cards and have George bring what Elinor spoke of a "card-table," when George himself knocked at the door to announce that Miss Arethusa was wanted on the telephone.
"Mr. Bennet wishes to speak to her."
Bridge lessons were forgotten as if they had never been heard of. Every vestige of color left Arethusa's face. Her hands clasped tightly over her suddenly tumultuous heart.
"To.... To me, George? To me," she stammered; "are you real sure he said to me?"
George nodded, smiling. "He said, 'Miss Worthington,' very plain, Miss Arethusa."
Then the deepest of red flamed back into her checks and she scuttled off down the hall so fast that she upset every single rug in her path.
Mr. Bennett was Waiting at the telephone!
Arethusa's trembling fingers could hardly find the telephone receiver at first, and even when once located, they could scarcely keep it to her ear.
"Hello!" her greeting was soft and almost breathless.
"Hello!" And she recognized the deep drawl immediately. "Is this Miss Worthington at the 'phone?"
"Yes, it's me, all right!" Arethusa was too excited to be quite grammatical. "But I've been running to get here, and I've lost my breath!"
At the other end of the line, Mr. Bennet smiled rather broadly, and his stenographer, just then depositing a pile of letters to be signed on his desk, could not help wondering what the young lady had said that was so funny. Mr. Bennet did not often smile so into a mere telephone.
"Well, this is Gridley Bennet talking."
"I knew it was!" happily.
"And I should like to know if you have any engagement for to-morrow night?"
"Oh, Mr. Bennet!"
"Of course, I haven't!" Arethusa considered it a foregone conclusion that if he wanted her for anything, she was free.
"Then will you go to see the 'Earl and His Girl' with me?"
"What is that?"
"A musical comedy, and quite a good one, I've heard them say."
"Is.... Is it the Theater?"
"Why.... Yes! Certainly!" This surprised him just a bit.
"Oh, Mr. Bennet!" exclaimed Arethusa once more.
"I take it, then, you'll go with me?"
"You just bet! I should just love it! Why, I've never been to the Theater in all my life! Not even to the Opera House in Hawesville!" Hawesville was the county-seat.
Mr. Bennet laughed outright then. He had been smiling right straight through this conversation, to the deep interest of his blonde stenographer, who smiled herself in sympathy for the laugh. She took a frank pride in Mr. Bennet's popularity, his many invitations and his telephone calls. It was something to be stenographer to the very handsomest man in the fourteen-story building without his being one of the very nicest to work for, as well.
"That surely makes it all the better," said Mr. Bennet, "and I'll call for you about eight." Then he added, being what he was, "I was rather afraid I wasn't going to be allowed this great pleasure; I was sure one of those many youths that surrounded you the other evening had been before me."
"Well, they haven't. And I'm awfully glad they weren't, because I would so much rather go with you."
It was only the truth which Arethusa spoke, just as she had been taught it was best to do on every occasion.
Mr. Bennet was still smiling when he hung up the receiver and turned to the blonde stenographer. "Please get me two seats for to-morrow night at the Masonic, Miss Ford. You'd better telephone first to see what they have, and then you can go after them." He looked up at the tall clock between the office windows. "And you needn't come back any more to-night, unless you yourself have something to do," he added kindly, "because these letters were all, and I can mail them. Just bring the tickets with you to-morrow."
Miss Ford, with a beaming face, sat down to telephone for the seats which were to introduce Arethusa to the world of the theater, while Mr. Bennet busied himself with the signing of his letters.
It was a kindly Providence that spared Arethusa the loss of life or limb on her way back to impart this Marvelous piece of news, for such a plunge across slippery floors was never made before. Ross and Elinor seemed quite as excited over it as she could have wished, and had a very proper appreciation of the Signal Honor paid their daughter by the Princely-looking Mr. Bennet, although Ross was rather regretful that he had not realized before that she had never attended the theater. He would have taken her himself.
Elinor's most immediate concern was for the costume, and after due deliberation of Arethusa's slender wardrobe, it was decided a purchase must be made for this Occasion.
The next day was the longest that Arethusa had ever spent, in spite of all that had to be done toward getting ready for the theater expedition. The hands of the little silver clock on her mantel seemed to Arethusa to be afflicted with a sort of palsy, during the last hours of that day. She consulted them with frequency, but they never seemed to move forward enough to be noticeable. And deeming something to have happened to the clock, for surely time could not creep so slowly by, she was ready and waiting for Mr. Bennet long before the stroke of eight.
On this visit to Miss Rosa, she had produced a Dress of the soft colors of the tinted autumn leaves, shading into almost the color of the bronzy hair of the girl who was to wear it. It was made with soft skirt on top of soft skirt, in these tones, of shimmering chiffon. It was as Wonderful a Frock in its way as the Green Frock itself. Arethusa fairly held her breath with delight when she saw it. And as it was such a very Momentous Occasion, far too momentous for anything borrowed to be worn, Elinor purchased her daughter, to wear with this dress, a cloak of soft velvet in deep olive green with a collar of fluffy brown fur that framed her glowing face in the most fascinating way possible.
So Mr. Bennet could not help but approve her appearance as he handed her into the automobile. He liked those ladies he escorted to festivities to do him credit. He was as much addicted to a liking for feminine loveliness as was ever Mr. Harrison. For Mr. Bennet had looked in the mirror often, and being a person of discernment, had liked what he had seen there; and he had a deep and abiding sense of the fitness of things. Had the gods been less kind to Arethusa in the matter of looks, undoubtedly her adoration of Mr. Bennet must have remained of a distance. But even a more carping critic than her escort could have found no fault with her this evening; from the crown of her ruddy head to the soles of her satin slippered feet, she was joy to the eye.
The theater lobby was full when they arrived, of a good-natured crowd that laughed and chatted and greeted its acquaintances gayly as it moved slowly toward the inside entrance; where the women whose bare necks gleamed white in their settings of silks and velvets and furs, with their dress-suited men folks, were separated, like the sheep from the goats, for the downstairs of the theater, from the more plainly attired who climbed balconyward. Mr. Bennet and his lady belonged unmistakably with the sheep.
It would be a good house, judging from this number waiting to get inside. It was the first night of a much heralded show, "with the original New York company," its advance notices had said; and it had called forth what the morning newspapers of Lewisburg delighted to call a "representative audience."
Arethusa recognized, among the many, one or two faces she had seen to know at the dinner-dance, and so she could nod and smile a greeting or so, as she and Mr. Bennet pushed forward, with the rest of that crowd. But the people around her pressed against her so closely, that all unknown to Mr. Bennet, she timidly grasped the skirt of his overcoat and gripped it tightly for an anchor should they be forced apart. It was a fearful thought. What on earth would she do, if she lost him in that swarm of folks?
But once in the more open space inside, she breathed more easily, and could lose her hold, for separation was no longer to be really feared.
She looked about her then, as Mr. Bennet divested himself of that anchoring overcoat, and they waited for an usher, and, Arethusa-like, was deeply impressed with all that her eyes rested upon; the glittering crystal chandeliers that gleamed like hundreds of diamonds high above her, the distorted pair of cupids, unnaturally fat, who swayed from garlands of stiff flowers over the proscenium arch, the badly anatomized ladies on the ceiling, riding impossible blue clouds; the gorgeousness of many gilded columns, and even the bright red plush of the seats. Arethusa's tastes were ever slightly rococo.
They were barely seated when the curtain rose, to a fanfare of sound more deafening than musical, and she gave a long drawn out and delighted, "O ... Oh!" for a really pleasing riot of color was before her.
The advertising of this musical show had not so very far falsified its attractions. There was plenty of action in the piece, much trotting on and off the stage; a great many songs with an exceedingly active chorus doing its best, and the dancing was unusually good. It had a big company of principals, well costumed; and such music as was offered was almost music.
But Mr. Bennet gave up all pretense of watching the performance after a little while and devoted his attention entirely to Arethusa, for he had never seen anyone before who so personified enjoyment. Her eyes, great, deep pools of darkness, were glued immovably to the scene before her. A soft flush came and went in her cheeks. She clutched the programme that had been given her at the door tightly in one hand. She had made no move to open it. She had no time to waste on programmes. Once, at a very exciting moment, when the villain was eavesdropping within a hand's distance of the handsome Earl of the piece, she grabbed Mr. Bennet's arm and squeezed it painfully, almost totally unaware whose arm it was.
Then the curtain went down with a grand flourish to a long roll from the snare drum. It went up again, an encore to much applause, then down; then up and down swiftly several times. Arethusa clapped a great split right through the middle of her brand new gloves. The curtain descended once more, and this time.... It stayed. The lights in the theater flashed on.
It had seemed all too short a period of pleasure. Arethusa sighed as she rose and reached behind her for her Green Cloak.
"I wish," she said, regretfully, "I wish it had lasted longer!"
"Lasted longer!" exclaimed Mr. Bennet, "Why!..."
"Isn't it over?" she almost shrieked.
"Over! Good gracious, child! That was only the first act! I believe there are two more, before it's over."
"Two more! Oh! Goody!" Arethusa plumped herself down again with such solid decision to stay where she was, that had her seat not been strongly made, she might have gone clear through it. "But I saw men going out! And I thought of course that was all! It did seem awfully short, though!"
That there should be two whole more acts; such richness of prospect!
The curtain rose for the second act, and Arethusa's smile began to widen in glad anticipation. Then it faded, and her expression changed to that of one rather bewildered. She looked all about her, but no one else seemed at all affected as she was herself. Everybody in the audience was gazing intently, and with pleasure, at the stage.
"What's the matter?" inquired Mr. Bennet.
Arethusa nodded towards the frolicking chorus girls who were just immediately back of the foot-lights, all with arms out-stretched to their responsive audience, singing vociferously of unintelligible words.
"It's.... It's the girls."
"They.... They have on pa ... pajamas." She stumbled a little over the word.
"Yes...." encouraged Mr. Bennet once more.
"They must have been resting," replied Arethusa.
"Pa ... pajamas are bedclothes," she explained, blushing just a bit.
"Yes, I know," said Mr. Bennet kindly, "but I don't just see...." He glanced back at the stage.
"I reckon they put them on to rest between the acts," continued Arethusa, "because they must have been tired, after dancing so hard, and the curtain must have gone up so quick they didn't have time to change. They must be awfully embarrassed to come out before us like that. I think it's mean to laugh at them. I wouldn't laugh for anything myself."
The picture conjured up by this speech of Arethusa's, of the chorus girls changing wildly to pajamas and reclining after the arduous labors of the first act, tickled Mr. Bennet more than anything that had happened on the stage, even the best efforts of the expensive comedian. And the effect upon him of the idea was the very same effect that the idea of moths and butterflies as a Topic of Conversation for Parties had had upon Mr. Watts, when Arethusa had presented it to him at the dinner-dance.
Mr. Bennet laughed.
His laughter was much more refined and less boisterous than that of Mr. William Watts, but Arethusa realized, nevertheless, that he was laughing at her. He was not laughing at the chorus girls who had been caught unawares by a rising curtain, in garments in which they had not intended that they should be seen; but he was laughing at her, Arethusa. Whatever it was she had said this time that was wrong, she had made herself ridiculous enough for the Wonderful Mr. Bennet to laugh at her!
Her throat filled suddenly with a perfectly solid lump. Something back of her eyes began to smart unbearably, and they filled also, filled quickly with tears that so blinded her that she could not see even her own shimmering lap. Her hands trembled unmanageably, until the programme dropped from their uncertain grasp, and she fumbled about to find that handkerchief which was so badly needed. She dabbed at her eyes with it, and winked back those tears as best she could, biting her lips fiercely to keep from sobbing outright. But there were so many tears and they came so fast that they brimmed clear over, and some fell, great shining drops, on the yellow chiffon of her dress. Her tiny handkerchief was all unavailing to quench this flow, and in a very short while it was only a small lump of wet. Her head drooped lower and lower.
It was absolute and overwhelming humiliation.
Mr. Bennet heard a queer little sound at his side, a little sound that she was quite unable to control, and he turned to see this weeping Arethusa.
"Why, my dear little girl!" he exclaimed, bending over. "What on earth!"
She managed to swallow a small portion of the lump that filled her throat. "You.... You laughed at me!" she said brokenly. "You laughed at me!"
So he had. But Mr. Bennet was very sure that this was not the time to acknowledge it.
He was genuinely distressed to see her cry, but his interest was more acute that something be done to stop it before too much attention was accorded them. Mr. Bennet disliked very much to be made at all conspicuous.
He slid one arm gently along the back of her seat. Arethusa was conscious of this movement through her unhappiness, and she could not help being thrilled at the thought of that Wonderful Arm being where it was. Mr. Bennet, however, knew very well just how far it might go. Miss Eliza herself thought no more of the proprieties than did Mr. Bennet. Then he leaned protectingly close. Arethusa thrilled some more.
"Did you imagine for a moment that I was laughing at you!" And his rich drawling voice was so convincing that she believed him immediately. "Indeed, I was not! There was something very funny just then that you missed. Why, I wouldn't laugh at you for all the world!"
Arethusa smiled through her tears at him like a veritable bit of April.
"I didn't like to think you would. But.... But.... It seemed just exactly like you were!"
"You misjudged me dreadfully!"
And this time he sounded so reproachful that she was just as ashamed of herself for so misjudging him, as she had been humiliated the moment before because she had thought herself the object of his mirth.
"I ... I'm sorry," she faltered. Would Mr. Bennet ever be able to forgive such a misinterpretation of his charming laugh?
But Mr. Bennet was a truly magnanimous soul, and it seemed that he would.
So an atmosphere of enjoyment once more restored, Arethusa turned her attention back to the chorus ladies, who had in the meantime clothed themselves in garments belonging less to the hours of rest and more to those of activity, and responded to their antics to amuse as she had before that most unfortunate episode.
She sighed a gusty sigh of real forlornness when the curtain had descended in such a way that it could not possibly be construed by even inexperienced theatergoers to mean anything but that it was all over.
"It doesn't last near long enough, not near!" she said, regretfully, as she was being helped into the Green Cloak.
Mr. Bennet produced his watch. "I don't know just how long you expected it to last," he replied, "but right this moment it happens to be ten minutes past eleven; which means that we have been here almost three hours!"
Arethusa regarded him open-eyed and open-mouthed.
"Why, it hasn't seemed like any time at all!"
"Well, it seems to me that if you enjoyed it so much, we'll have to come again some time very soon. Shall we?"
Arethusa accepted this invitation with undoubted pleasure.
"I'll be a little more careful, though, in my selection of our next play, so there will be nothing in it you could misunderstand that might possibly spoil a few moments for us. I don't want any spoiled moments with you," tenderly.
Arethusa blushed deeply and her head drooped.
She had spoiled it, all by herself; those moments of unhappiness had been all her own fault, because she was such a goose. This play had been as near perfection as a play could be, thought she, who knew so little of plays. At the next one, she herself would see that nothing of the kind occurred. She had learned her lesson, and there would be no more misinterpretation of Mr. Bennet's charming little ways.
Mr. Bennet was just a bit conscience-stricken in the morning by the way he had turned that episode, when reviewing it at his office. She was a dear child. The Worthington interest was a solid one. There were dollars galore that stood to that name in various financial institutions, and when one is a dealer in the commodities known as stocks and bonds, one must not let the smallest chance slip by to cement a friendship outside which might prove to extend itself into the business world. There was no telling how quickly bread cast upon the waters might return. At least, it could do no sort of harm. She was a dear child!
Which explains why Arethusa received a long green box, brought to her by George as she ate her luncheon. It was a box of American Beauties with stems a yard long, roses that were far too beautiful as roses to be real, and that seemed to Arethusa to have gathered all the perfume of heaven within their deep, red centers. She sniffed and smelled them in ecstasy; and stroked the glossy green leaves that spread out from their stems, so marvelous as leaves. She could hardly part with them that they might be put in the tallest vase on the library table, which would display their beauty to the greatest advantage.
Inside the box was a tiny note....
"Would Miss Worthington do Mr. Bennet the honor of reserving the date of the January Cotillion for him?"
"But that's so awfully far off," objected Arethusa, as she read this communication aloud to her interested parents. "It's only the first of November right now!"
It was entirely too lovely of Mr. Bennet to send her roses; it heaped coals of fire with effective vengeance. She was almost ashamed to accept them. But she did wish that he had made that engagement for something a trifle closer at hand.
"You little goose!" exclaimed Ross. "Why, that is the event of the whole Lewisburg season! And not one debutante in ten out of a winter ever gets to go! As superlative as I'll have to admit Mr. Bennet's taste in flowers, I believe most girls would care far more about that invitation than they would about the roses!"
"Really!" Arethusa brightened up considerably.
"I'd let a man laugh at me every day from now till Christmas if he'd ask me to go to the January Cotillion with him," continued Ross, "that is, if I was a young lady with any hope of being a social success."
"But he wasn't laughing at me," protested his daughter. She had narrated the affair in detail. "I told you that, Father. He said very positively he wasn't laughing at me!"