If the secret spring worked by James van Tromp had been an active agency in bringing Diane and Derek Pruyn once more together, as well as in creating the intimacy that sprang up during the next two months between Miss Lucilla and the elder Mrs. Eveleth, it had certainly nothing to do with the South American complications in the business of Van Tromp & Co., which made Pruyn's departure for Rio de Janeiro a possibility of the near future. He had long foreseen that he would be obliged to make the journey sooner or later, but that he should have to do it just now was particularly inconvenient. There was but one aspect in which the expedition might prove a blessing in disguise—he might take Dorothea with him.
During the six or eight weeks following the afternoon at Mrs. Wappinger's he had bestowed upon Dorothea no small measure of attention, obtaining much the same result as a mastiff might gain from his investigation of the ways of a bird of paradise. He informed himself as to her diversions and her dancing-classes, making the discovery that what other girls' mothers did for them, Dorothea was doing for herself. As far as he could see, she was bringing herself up with the aid of a chosen band of eligible, well-conducted young men, varying in age from nineteen to twenty-two, whom she was training as a sort of body-guard against the day of her "coming out." On the occasions when he had opportunities for observation he noted the skill with which she managed them, as well as the chivalry with which they treated her; and yet there was in the situation an indefinable element that displeased him. It was something of a shock to learn that the flower he thought he was cultivating in secluded sweetness under glass had taken root of its own accord in the midst of young New York's great, gay parterre. Aware of the possibilities of this soil to produce over-stimulated growth, he could think of nothing better than to pluck it up and, temporarily at least, transplant it elsewhere. Having come to the decision overnight, he made the proposition when they met at breakfast in the morning.
A prettier object than Miss Dorothea Pruyn, at the head of her father's table, it would have been difficult to find in the whole range of "dainty rogues in porcelain." From the top of her bronze-colored hair to the tip of her bronze-colored shoes she was as complete as taste could make her. The flash of her eyes as she lifted them suddenly, and as suddenly dropped them, over her task among the coffee-cups was like that of summer waters; while the rapture of youth was in her smile, and a becoming school-girl shyness in her fleeting blushes. In the floral language of American society, she was "not a bud"; she was only that small, hard, green thing out of which the bud is to unfold itself, but which does not lack a beauty of promise specially its own. If any criticism could be passed upon her, it was that which her father made—that there was danger of the promise being anticipated by a rather premature fulfilment, and the flower that needed time forced into a hurried, hot-house bloom.
"What! And leave my friends!" she exclaimed, when Derek, with some hesitation, had asked her how she would like the journey.
"They would keep."
"That's just what they wouldn't do. When I came back I should find them in all sorts of new combinations, out of which I should be dropped. You've got to be on the spot to keep in your set, otherwise you're lost."
"Why should you be in a set? Why shouldn't you be independent?"
"That just shows how much you understand, father," she said, pityingly. "A girl who isn't in a set is as much an outsider as a Hindoo who isn't in a caste. I must know people; and I must know the right people; and I must know no one but the right people. It's perfectly simple."
"Oh, perfectly. I can't help wondering, though, how you recognize the right people when you see them."
"By instinct. You couldn't make a mistake about that, any more than one pigeon could make a mistake about another, or take it for a crow."
"And is young Wappinger one of the right people?"
It was with an effort that Derek made up his mind to broach this subject, but Dorothea's self-possession was not disturbed.
"Certainly," she replied, briefly, with perhaps a slight accentuation of her maiden dignity.
"I'm rather surprised at that."
"Yes; you should be," she conceded; "but I couldn't make you understand it, any more than you could make me understand banking."
"I'm not convinced of the impossibility of either," he objected, knocking the top off an egg. "Suppose you were to try."
Dorothea shook her head.
"It wouldn't be of any use. The fact is, I really don't understand it myself. What's more, I don't suppose anybody else does. Carli Wappinger belongs to the right people because the right people say he does; and there is no more to be said about it."
"I should think that Mrs. Wappinger might be a—drawback."
"Not if the right people don't think so; and they don't. They've taken her up, and they ask her everywhere; but they couldn't tell you why they do it, any more than birds could tell you why they migrate. As a matter of fact, they don't care. They just do it, and let it be."
"That sort of election and predestination may be very convenient for Mrs. Wappinger, but I should think you might have reasons for not caring to indorse it."
"I haven't. Why should I, more than anybody else."
"You've so much social perspicacity that I hoped you would see without my having to tell you. It's chiefly a question of antecedents."
Dorothea looked thoughtful, her head tipped to one side, as she buttered a bit of toast.
"I know that's an important point," she admitted, "but it isn't everything. You've got to look at things all round, and not mistake your shadow for your bone."
"I'm glad you see there is a shadow."
"I see there is only a shadow."
"A shadow on—what?"
Pruyn meant this for a leading question, and as such Dorothea took it. She gazed at him for a minute with the clear eyes and straightforward expression that were so essential a part of her dainty, self-reliant personality. If she was bracing herself for an effort, there was no external sign of it.
"I may as well tell you, father," she said, "that Carli Wappinger has asked me to marry him."
For a long minute Derek sat with body seemingly stunned, but with mind busily searching for the wisest way in which to take this astounding bit of information. At the end of many seconds of silence he exploded in loud laughter, choosing this method of treating Dorothea's confidence in order to impress her with the ludicrous aspect of the affair, as it must appear to the grown-up mind.
"Funny, isn't it?" she remarked, dryly, when he thought it advisable to grow calmer.
"It's not only funny; it's the drollest thing I ever heard in my life."
"I thought it might strike you that way. That's why I told you."
"And what did you tell him, if I may ask?"
"I told him it was out of the question—for the present."
"For the present! That's good. But why the reservation?"
"I couldn't tell him it would be out of the question always, because I didn't know. As long as he didn't ask me for a definite answer, I didn't feel obliged to give him one."
"I think you might have committed yourself as far as that."
"I prefer not to commit myself at all. I'm very young and inexperienced—"
"I'm glad you see that."
"Though neither so inexperienced nor so young as mamma was when she married you. And you were only twenty-one yourself, father, while Carli is nearly twenty-three."
"I wouldn't compare the two instances if I were you."
"I don't. I merely state the facts. I want to make it plain that, though we're both very young, we're not so young as to make the case exceptional."
"But I understood you to say that there was no—case."
"There is to this extent: that while I'm free, Carli considers himself bound. That's the way we've left it."
"That is to say, he's engaged, but you aren't."
"That's what Carli thinks."
"Then I refuse to consent to it."
"But, father dear," Dorothea asked, arching her pretty eyebrows, "do you have to consent to what Carli thinks about himself? Can't he do that just as he likes?"
"He can't become a hanger-on of my family without my permission."
"He says he's not going to hang on, but to stand off. He's going to allow me full liberty of action and fair play."
"That's very kind of him."
"Only, when I choose to come back to him I shall find him waiting."
"I might suggest that you never go back to him at all, only that there's a better way of meeting the situation. That is to put a stop to the nonsense now; and I shall take steps to do it."
Dorothea preserved her self-control, but two tiny hectic spots began to burn in her cheeks, while she kept her eyes persistently lowered, as though to veil the spirit of determination glowing there.
"Hadn't you better leave that to me?" she asked, after a brief pause.
"I will, if you promise to put it through."
"You see," she answered, in a reasoning tone, "my whole object is not to promise anything—yet. I should think the advantage of that would strike you, if only from the point of view of business. It's like having the refusal of a picture or a piece of property. You may never want them; but it does no harm to know that nobody else can get them till you decide."
"Neither does it do any harm to let somebody else have a chance, when you know that you can't take them."
"Of course not; but I couldn't say that now. I quite realize that I'm too young to know my own mind; and it's only reasonable to consider things all round. Carli is rich and good-looking. He has a cultivated mind and a kind heart. There are lots of men, to whom you'd have no objection whatever, who wouldn't possess all those qualifications, or perhaps any of them."
"Nevertheless, I should imagine that the fact that I have objections would have its weight with you."
"Naturally; and yet you would neither force me into what I didn't like to do, nor refuse me what I wanted."
With this definition of his parental attitude Dorothea pushed back her chair and moved sedately from the room.
Physically, Derek was able to go on with his breakfast and finish it, but mentally he was like a man, accustomed to action, who suddenly finds himself paralyzed. To the best of his knowledge he had never before been put in a position in which he had no idea whatever as to what to do. He had been placed in some puzzling dilemmas in private life, and had passed through some serious crises in financial affairs, but he had always been able to take some course, even if it was a mistaken one. It had been reserved for Dorothea to checkmate him in such a way that he could not move at all.
* * * * *
That the feminine mind possessed resources which his own did not was a claim Derek had made it a principle to deny. The theory on which he had brought up Dorothea had been based on his belief in his own insight into his daughter's character. Though he was far from abjuring that confidence even yet, nevertheless, when the succeeding days brought no enlightenment of counsel, and the long journey to South America became more imminent, he was forced once more to turn his steps toward Gramercy Park, and seek inspiration from the great, eternal mother-spirit of mankind, as represented by his cousin.
Miss Lucilla van Tromp passed among her friends as a sort of diffident Minerva. Though deficient in outward charms, she was considered to possess intellectual ability; and, having once been told that her profile resembled George Eliot's, she made the pursuit of learning, music, and Knickerbocker genealogy her special aims. Derek had, all his life, felt for her a special tenderness; and having neither mother, wife, nor sister, he was in the habit of coming to her with his cares.
"You're a woman," he declared, now, in summing up his case. "You're a woman. If you'd been married, you would probably have had children. You ought to be able to tell me exactly what to do."
Flushes of shy rapture illumined and softened her ill-assorted features on being cited as the type of maternity and sex, so that when she replied it was with an air of authority.
"I can tell you what to do, Derek; but I've done it already, and you wouldn't listen. You should send her to a good school—"
"It's too late for that. She wouldn't go."
"Then you should have some woman to live in your house who would be wise enough to manage her."
He jerked out the monosyllable, and began, according to his custom when puzzled or annoyed, to stride up and down the library.
"That is," Miss Lucilla went on, "you wouldn't like it. It would bore you to see a stranger in the house."
"And so you would sacrifice Dorothea to your personal convenience."
"I wouldn't, if there was a woman competent to take the place; but there isn't."
"There is. There's Diane Eveleth."
The dark flush that swept into his face made it clear to Lucilla that his question was not put for purposes of information. She had remarked in Derek during the past few weeks a manner of fighting shy of Diane at variance with his usual method with women. Safety in flight was the course he commonly adopted; but since Diane appeared on the scene, Lucilla had noticed that it was flight with a curious tendency to looking backward.
"I said Diane Eveleth," she replied, in tactful answer to his superfluous question; "and I assure you she's fully equal to the duties you would require of her. I suppose you've never noticed her especially—?"
"I used to know her a little," he said, in an offhand manner. "I've seen her here. That's all."
"If a woman could have been made on purpose for what you want, it's she."
"Dear me! You don't say so!"
"It's no use trying to be sarcastic about it, Derek. She's not the one to suffer by it; it's Dorothea. Though, when it comes to suffering, she has her share, poor thing."
"I suppose no decent woman who has just lost her husband is expected to be absolutely hilarious over the event."
"She hasn't just lost him; it's getting on toward a year. And, besides, it isn't only that. As a matter of fact, I don't believe she ever loved him as she could love the man to whom she gave her heart. If grief was her only trouble, I am sure the poor thing could bear it."
"And can't she bear it as it is?"
"The fact that she does bear it shows that she can; but it must be hard for a woman, who has lived as she has, to be brought to want."
"Want? Isn't that a strong word? One isn't in want unless one is without food and shelter."
"She has the shelter for the time being; I'm not sure that she always has the food."
"What? You don't know what you're saying."
"I know exactly what I'm saying; and I mean exactly what I say. There have been days when I've suspected that she's pinching in the essentials of meat and drink."
"But she has pupils."
"She has two; but they must pay her very little. It's dreadful for people who have as much as we to have to look on at the tragedy of others going hungry—"
"Good Lord! Don't pile it on."
Striding to a window, he stood with his back to her, staring out.
"I'm not piling it on, Derek. I wish I were."
"Well, can't we do something? If it's as you say, they mustn't be left like that."
"It's a very delicate matter. The mother-in-law has money of her own; but Diane has nothing. It's difficult to see what to do, except to find her a situation."
"Then find her one."
"I have; but you won't take her."
"In any case," he said, in the aggressive tone of a man putting forward a weak final argument, "you couldn't leave the mother-in-law all alone."
"I'd take her," Lucilla said, promptly. "You have no idea how much I want her, in this big, empty house. It's getting to be more than I can do to take care of Aunt Regina all alone."
Minutes went by in silence; but when Derek turned from the window and spoke, Lucilla shrank with constitutional fear from the responsibility she had assumed.
"Go and ring them up, and tell young Mrs. Eveleth I'm waiting to see her here."
"But, Derek, are you sure—?"
"I'm quite sure. Please go and ring them up."
"But, Derek, you're so startling. Have you reflected?"
"It's quite decided. Please do as I say, and call them up."
"But if anything were to go wrong in the future you'd think it was my—"
"I shall think nothing of the kind. Don't say any more about it, but please go and tell Diane I'm waiting."
The use of this name being more convincing to Lucilla than pledges of assurance, she sped away to do his bidding; but it was not till after she had gone that Derek recognized the fact that the word had passed his lips.
During the half-hour before the arrival of Mrs. Eveleth and Diane, Miss Lucilla's tact allowed Derek to have the library to himself. He was thus enabled to co-ordinate his thoughts, and enact the laws which must henceforth regulate his domestic life. It was easy to silence the voice that for an instant accused him of taking this step in order to provide Diane Eveleth with a home; for Dorothea's need of a strong hand over her was imperative. He had reached the point where that circumstance could no longer be ignored. The avowal that the child had passed beyond his control would have had more bitterness in it, were it not for the fact that her naive self-sufficiency touched his sense of humor, while her dainty beauty wakened his paternal pride.
Nevertheless, it was patent that Dorothea had been too much her own mistress. Without admitting that he had been wrong in his methods hitherto, he confessed that the time had come when the duenna system must be introduced, as a matter not only of propriety, but of prudence. He assured himself of his regret that no American lady who could take the position chanced to be on the spot, but allayed his sorrow on the ground that any fairly well-mannered, virtuous woman could fulfil the functions of so mechanical a task, just as any decent, able-bodied man is good enough to be a policeman.
It was somewhat annoying that the lady in question should be young and pretty; for it was a sad proof of the crudity of human nature that the mere residence of a free man and a free woman under the same roof could not pass without comment among their friends. For himself it was a matter of no importance; and as for her, a woman who has her living to earn must often be placed in situations where she is exposed to remark.
To anticipate all possibility of mistake, it would be necessary that his attitude toward Mrs. Eveleth should be strictly that of the employer toward the employed. He must ignore the circumstance of their earlier acquaintance, with its touch of something memorable which neither of them had ever been able to explain, and confine himself as far as possible, both in her interests and his own, to such relations as he held with his stenographers and his clerks. What friendliness she required she must receive from other hands; and, doubtless, she would find sufficient.
Having intrenched himself behind his fortifications of reserve, he was able to maintain just the right shade of dignity, when, in the half-light of the midwinter afternoon, Diane glided into the big, book-lined apartment, in which the comfortable air induced through long occupancy by people of means did not banish a certain sombreness. She entered with the subdued manner of one who has been sent for peremptorily, but who acknowledges the right of summons. The perception of this called an impulse to apologize to Derek's lips; but on reflection he repressed it. It was best to assume that she would do his bidding from the first. Standing by the fireplace, with his arm on the mantelpiece, he bowed stiffly, without offering his hand. Diane bowed in return, keeping her own hands securely in her small black muff.
"Won't you sit down?"
Without changing his position he indicated the large leathern chair on the other side of the hearth. Diane sat down on the very edge—erect, silent, submissive. If he had feared the intrusion of the personal element into what must be strictly a business affair, it was plain that this pale, pinched little woman had forestalled him.
Yes; she was pale and pinched. Lucilla had been right about that. There was something in Diane's appearance that suggested privation. Derek had seen such a thing before among the disinherited of mankind, but never in his own rank in life. With her air of proud gentleness, of gallant acceptance of what fate had apportioned her, she made him think of some plucky little citadel holding out against hunger. If there was no way of showing the pity, the mingled pity and approbation, in his breast, it was at least some consolation to know that in his house she would be beyond the most terrible and elemental touch of want.
"I've troubled you to come and see me," he began, with an effort to keep the note of embarrassment out of his voice, "to ask if you would be willing to accept a position in my family."
Diane sat still and did not raise her eyes, but it seemed to him that he could detect, beneath her veil, a light of relief in her face, like a sudden gleam of sunshine.
"I'm looking for a position," was all she said, "and if I could be of service—"
"I'm very much in need of some one," he explained; "though the duties of the place would be peculiar, and, perhaps, not particularly grateful."
"It would be for me to do them, without questioning as to whether I liked them or not."
"I'm glad you say that, as it will make it easier for us to come to an understanding. You've already guessed, perhaps, that I am looking for a lady to be with my daughter."
"I thought it might be something of that kind."
The difficult part of the interview was now to begin, and Pruyn hesitated a minute, considering how best to present his case. Reflection decided him in favor of frankness, for it was only by frankness on his side that Diane would be able to carry out his wishes on hers. The responsibility imposed upon him by his wife's death, he said, was one he had never wished to shirk by leaving his child to the care of others. Moreover, he had had his own ideas as to the manner in which she should be brought up, and he had put them into practice. The results had been good in most respects, and if in others there was something still to be desired, it was not too late to make the necessary changes, whether in the way of supplement or correction. Indeed, in his opinion, the psychological moment for introducing a new line of conduct had only just arrived.
"It is often better not to force things," Diane murmured, vaguely, "especially with the very young."
To this he agreed, though he laid down the principle that not to take strong measures when there was need for them would be the part of weakness. Diane having no objection to offer to this bit of wisdom, it was possible for him to go on to explain the emergency she would be called on to meet. Briefly, it arose from his own error in allowing Dorothea too much liberty of judgment. While he was in favor of a reasonable freedom for all young people, it was evident that in this case the pendulum had been suffered to swing so far in one directionthat it would require no small amount of effort on his part and Diane's—chiefly on Diane's—to bring it back. In the interest of Dorothea's happiness it was essential that the proper balance should be established with all possible speed, even though they raised some rebellion on her part in doing it.
He explained Dorothea's methods in creating her body-guard of young men, as far as he understood them; he described the young people whose society she frequented, and admitted that he was puzzled as to the precise quality in them that shocked his views; coming to the affair with Carli Wappinger, he spoke of it as "a bit of preposterous nonsense, to which an immediate stop must be put." There were minor points in his exposition; and at each one, as he made it, Diane nodded her head gravely, to show that she followed him with understanding, and was in sympathy with his opinion that it was "high time that some step should be taken."
Encouraged by this intelligent comprehension, Derek went on to define the good offices he would expect from Diane. She should come to his house not only as Dorothea's inseparable companion, but as a sort of warder-in-chief, armed, by his authority, with all the powers of command. There was no use in doing things by halves; and if Dorothea needed discipline she had better get it thoroughly, and be done with it. It was not a thing which he, Derek, would want to see last forever; but while it did last it ought to be effective, and he would look to Diane to make it so. As it was not becoming that a daughter of his should need a bodyguard of youths, Diane would undertake the task of breaking up Dorothea's circle. Young men might still be permitted "to call," but under Diane's supervision, while Dorothea sat in the background, as a maiden should. Diane would make it a point to know the lads personally, so as to discriminate between them, and exclude those who for one reason or another might not be desirable friends. As for Mr. Carli Wappinger, the door was to be rigorously shut against him. Here the question was not one of gradual elimination, but of abrupt termination to the acquaintanceship. He must request Diane to see to it that, as far as possible, Dorothea neither met the young man, nor held communication with him, on any pretext whatever. He laid down no rule in the case of Mrs. Wappinger, but it would follow as a natural consequence that the mother should be dropped with the son. These might seem drastic measures to Dorothea, to begin with; but she was an eminently reasonable child, and would soon come to recognize their wisdom. After all, they were only the conditions to which, as he had been given to understand, other young girls were subjected, so that she would have nothing to complain of in her lot. The probability of his own departure for South America, with an absence lasting till the spring, would make it necessary for Diane to use to the full the powers with which he commissioned her. He trusted that he made himself clear.
For some minutes after he ceased speaking Diane sat looking meditatively at the fire. When she spoke her voice was low, but the ring of decision in it was not to be mistaken.
"I'm afraid I couldn't accept the position, Mr. Pruyn."
Derek's start of astonishment was that of a man who sees intentions he meant to be benevolent thrown back in his face.
"You couldn't—? But surely—?"
"I mean, I couldn't do that kind of work."
"But I thought you were looking for it—or something of the sort."
"Yes; something of the sort, but not precisely that."
"And it's precisely that that I wish to have done," he said, in a tone that betrayed some irritation; "so I suppose there is no more to be said."
"No; I suppose not. In any case," she added, rising, "I must thank you for being so good as to think of me; and if I feel obliged to decline your proposition, I must ask you to believe that my motives are not petty ones. Now I will say good-afternoon."
Keeping her hands rigidly within her muff, and with a slight, dignified inclination of the head, she turned from him.
She was half-way to the door before Derek recovered himself sufficiently to speak.
"May I ask," he inquired, "what your objections are?"
She turned where she stood, but did not come back toward him.
"I have only one. The position you suggest would be intolerable to your daughter and odious to me."
"But," he asked, with a perplexed contraction of the brows, "isn't it what companions to young ladies are generally engaged for?"
"I was never engaged as a companion before, so I'm not qualified to say. I only know—"
She stopped, as if weighing her words.
"Yes?" he insisted; "you only know—what?"
"That no girl with spirit—and Miss Pruyn is a girl with spirit—would submit to that kind of tyranny."
"It wouldn't be tyranny in this case; it would be authority."
"She would consider it tyranny—especially after the freedom you've allowed her."
"But you admit that it's freedom that ought to be curbed?"
"Quite so; but aren't there methods of restriction other than those of compulsion?"
"Such as special circumstances may suggest."
"And in these particular circumstances—?"
"I'm not prepared to say. I'm not sufficiently familiar with them."
"Precisely; but I am."
"You're familiar with them from a man's point of view," she smiled; "but it's one of those instances in which a man's point of view counts for very little."
"Admitting that, what would be your advice?"
"I have none to give."
She shook her head. Leaving his fortified position by the mantelpiece, he took a step or two toward her.
"And yet when I began to speak you seemed favorably inclined to the offer I was making you. You must have had ideas on the subject, then."
"Only vague ones. I made the mistake of supposing that yours would be equally so."
"And with your vague ideas, your intention was—?"
"To adapt myself to circumstances; I couldn't tell beforehand what they would be. I imagined that what you wanted for your daughter was the society of an experienced woman of the world; and I am that, whatever else I may not be."
"You're very young to make the claim."
"There are other ways of gaining experience than by years; and," she added, with the intention to divert the conversation from herself, "the small store I happen to possess I was willing to share with your daughter, in whatever way she might have need of it."
"But not in my way."
"Not in your way, perhaps, but for the furthering of your purposes."
"How could you further my purposes when you wouldn't do what I wanted?"
"By getting her to do it of her own accord."
"Could you promise me she would?"
"I couldn't promise you anything at all. I could only do my best, and see how she would respond to it."
"She's a very good little girl," he hastened to declare.
"I'm sure of that. Though I don't know her well, I've seen her often enough to understand that whatever mistakes she may make, they are those of youth and independence. She is only a motherless girl who has been allowed—who, in a certain way, has been obliged—to look after herself. I've noticed that underneath her self-reliant manner she's very much a child."
"But I should never treat her as a child, except—except in one way."
"Which would be—?"
"To give her plenty of affection."
"She's always had that."
"Yes, yours; she hasn't had her mother's. Don't think me cruel in saying it, but no girl can grow up nourished only by her father's love, and not miss something that the good God intended her to have. The reason women are so essential to babies and men is chiefly because of their faculty for understanding the inarticulate. With all your daughter has had, there is one great thing that she hasn't had; and if you had placed me near her, my idea, which I call vague, would have been—as far as any one could do it now—to supply her with some of that."
Derek retreated again to the fireside, alarmed by a language suspiciously like that he had heard on other occasions concerning the motherless condition of his child. Was it going to turn out that all women were alike? There had been minutes during the last half-hour when, as he looked into Diane's face, it seemed to him that here at last was one as honest as air and as straightforward as light. But no experienced woman of the world, as she declared herself to be, could forget that this was a ludicrously delicate topic with a widower. She must either avoid it altogether, or expose herself to misinterpretation in pursuing it. It took him a few minutes to perceive that Diane had chosen the latter course, and had done it with a fine disdain of anything he might choose to think. She was not of the order of women who hesitate for petty considerations, or who stoop to small manoeuvrings.
"I'm afraid I must go now," she said, when he had stood some time without speaking.
"Don't go yet. Sit down."
His tone was still one of command, but not of the same quality of command as that which he had used on her entry. He brought her a chair, and she seated herself again.
"You said just now," he began, resuming his former attitude, with his arm on the mantelpiece, "that you didn't expect me to be so definite. Suppose I had been indefinite; then what would you have done?"
"I should have been indefinite, too."
"That's all very well; but, you see, I have to look at things from the point of view of business."
"And is there never anything indefinite in business?"
"Not if we can help it."
"And what happens when you can't help it?"
"Then we have to look for some one to whose discretion we can trust."
"Exactly; and, if you'll allow me to say it, Miss Pruyn is at an age and in a position where she needs a friend armed with discretion rather than authority."
"Well, suppose we were agreed about everything—the discretion and all—what would you begin by doing?"
"I shouldn't begin by doing anything. I should try to win your daughter's confidence; and if I couldn't do that I should go away."
"So that in the end it might happen that nothing would be accomplished."
"It might happen so. I shouldn't expect it. Good hearts are generally sensitive to good influences; and beneath her shell of manner Miss Pruyn strikes me as neither more nor less than a dear little girl."
Again he was suspicious of a bid for favor; but again Diane's air of almost haughty honesty negatived the thought.
"I'm glad you see that," was the only comment he made. "But," he added, once more taking a step or two toward her, "when you had won her confidence, then you would do things that I suggested, wouldn't you?"
"I shouldn't have to. She would probably do them herself, and a great deal better than you or I."
"I don't see how you can be sure of that. If you don't make her—"
"When you've watered your plant and kept it in the sunshine you don't have to make it bloom. It will do that of itself."
"But all these young men?—and this young Wappinger—?"
"I should let them alone."
"Not young Wappinger!"
"What harm is he doing? I admit that the present situation has its foolish aspects from your point of view and mine; but I can think of things a great deal worse. At least you know there is nothing clandestine going on; and young people who have the virtue of being open have the very first quality of all. If you let them alone—or leave them to sympathetic management—you will probably find that they will outgrow the whole thing, as children outgrow an inordinate love of sweets."
There was a brief pause, during which he stood looking down at her, a smile something like that of amusement hovering about his lips.
"So that, in your judgment," he began again, "the whole thing resolves itself into a matter of discretion. But now—if you'll pardon me for asking anything so blunt—how am I to know that you would be discreet?"
For an instant she lifted her eyes to his, as if begging to be spared the reply.
"If it's not a fair question—" he began.
"It is a fair question," she admitted; "only it's one I find difficult to answer. If it wasn't important—urgently important—that I should obtain work, I should prefer not to answer it at all. I must tell you that I haven't always been discreet. I've had to learn discretion—by bitter lessons."
"I'm not asking about the past," he broke in, hastily, "but about the future."
"About the future one cannot say; one can only try."
"Then suppose we try it?"
His own words took him by surprise, for he had meant to be more cautious; but now that they were uttered he was ready to stand by them. Once more, as it seemed to him, he could detect the light of relief steal into her expression, but she made no response.
"Suppose we try it?" he said again.
"It's for you to decide," she answered, quietly. "My position places me entirely at the disposal of any one who is willing to employ me."
"So that this is better than nothing," he said, in some disappointment at her lack of enthusiasm.
"I shouldn't put it in that way," she smiled; "but then I shouldn't put it in any way, until I saw whether or not I gave you satisfaction. You must remember you're engaging an untried person; and, as I've told you, I have nothing in the way of recommendations."
"We will assume that you don't need them."
"It's a good deal to assume; but since you're good enough to do it, I can't help being grateful. Is there any particular time when you would like me to begin?"
"Perhaps," he suggested, drawing up a small chair and seating himself nearer her, "it would be best to settle the business part of our arrangement first. You must tell me frankly if there is anything in what I propose that you don't find satisfactory."
"I'm sure there won't be," Diane murmured, faintly, with a feeling akin to shame that any one should be offering to pay for such feeble services as hers. She was thankful that the winter dusk, creeping into the room, hid the surging of the hot color in her face, as Derek talked of sums of money and dates of payment. She did her best to pretend to give him her attention, but she gathered nothing from what he said. If she had any coherent thought at all, it was of the greatness, the force, the authority, of one who could control her future, and dictate her acts, and prescribe her duties, with something like the power of a god. In times past she would have tried to weave her spell around this strong man, in sheer wantonness of conquest, as Vivian threw her enchantments over Merlin; now she was conscious only of a strange willingness to submit to him, to take his yoke, and bow down under it, serving him as master.
She was glad when he ended, leaving her free to rise and say his arrangements suited her exactly. She had promised to join Miss Lucilla van Tromp and Mrs. Eveleth at tea, and perhaps he would come with her.
"No, I'll run away now," he said, accompanying her to the door, "if you'll be good enough to make my excuses to Lucilla. But one word more! You asked me when you had better begin. I should say as soon as you can. As I may leave for Rio de Janeiro at any time, it would be well for things to be in working order before I go."
So it was settled, and as she departed he opened the door for her and held out his hand. But once more the little black muff came into play, and Diane walked out as she had come in, with no other salutation than a dignified inclination of the head.
Derek closed the door behind her and stood with his hand on the knob. He took the gentle rebuke like a man.
"I'm a cad," he said to himself. "I'm a cad."
Returning to his former place on the hearth, he remained long, gazing into the dying embers, and rehearsing the points of the interview in his mind. The gloaming closed around him, and he took pleasure in the fancy that she was still sitting there—silent, patient, erect, with that pinched look of privation so gallantly borne.
"By Jove! she's a brave one!" he murmured, under his breath. "She's a brick. She's a soldier. She's a lady. She's the one woman in the world to whom I could intrust my child."
Then, as his head sank in meditation, he shook himself as though to wake up from sleep into actual day.
"I've been dreaming," he said—"I've been dreaming. I must get away. I must go back to the office. I must get to work."
But instead of going he threw himself into one of the deep arm-chairs. Dropping off into a reverie, he conjured up the scene which had long been the fairest in his memory.
It was the summer. It was the country. It was a garden. In the long bed the carnations of many colors were bending their beauty-drunken heads, while over them a girl was stooping. She picked one here, one there, in search of that which would suit him best. When she had found it—deep red, with shades in the inner petals nearly black—she turned to offer it. But when she looked at him, he saw it was—Diane.
It had apparently been decreed that Derek Pruyn was not to go to South America that year. On more than one occasion he had been delayed on the eve of sailing. From February the voyage was postponed to May, and from May to September. In September it had ceased for the moment to be urgent, while remaining a possibility. It was the February of a year later before it became a definite necessity no longer to be put off.
In the mean while, under the beneficent processes of time, sunshine, and Diane Eveleth's cultivation, Miss Dorothea Pruyn had become a "bud." The small, hard, green thing had unfolded petals whose delicacy, purity, and fragrance were a new contribution to the joy of living. Society in general showed its appreciation, and Derek Pruyn was proud.
He was more than proud; he was grateful. The development that had changed Dorothea from a forward little girl into a charming maiden, and which might have been the mere consequence of growth, was to him the evident fruit of Diane's influence. The subtle differences whereby his own dwelling was transformed from a handsome, more or less empty, shell into an abode of the domestic amenities sprang, in his opinion, from a presence shedding grace. All the more strange was it, therefore, that both presence and influence remained as remote from his own personal grasp as music on the waves of sound or odors in the air. Of the many impressions produced by a year of Diane's residence beneath his roof, none perplexed him more than her detachment. Moreover, it was a detachment as difficult to comprehend in quality as to define in words. There was in her attitude nothing of the retreating nymph or of the self-effacing sufferer. She took her place equally without obtrusiveness and without affectation. Such effects as she brought about came without noise, without effort, and without laboriousness of good intention. Simple and straightforward in all her ways, she nevertheless contrived to throw into her relations with himself an element as impersonal as sunshine.
In the first days of her coming it was he who, in pursuance of his method of reserve, had held aloof. He had been frequently absent from New York, and, even when there, had lived much at one or another of his clubs. Weeks had already passed when the perception stole on him that his goings and comings meant little more to her than to the trees waving in the great Park before his door.
The discovery that he had been taking such pains to abstract himself from eyes which scarcely noticed whether he was there or not brought with it a little bitter raillery at his own expense. He was piqued at once in his self-love and in his masculine instinct for domination. It seemed to be out of the natural order of things that his thoughts should dwell so much on a woman to whom he was only a detail in the scheme of her surroundings—superior to the butler, and more animate than the pictures on the wall, but as little in her consciousness as either. It was certainly an easy opportunity in which to display that self-restraint which he had undertaken to make his portion; but when the heroic nature finds no obstacles to overcome, it has a tendency to create them.
Without obtruding himself upon Diane, Derek began to dine more frequently at his own house. On those occasions when Dorothea went out alone it was impossible for the two who remained at home to avoid a kind of conversation, which, with the topics incidental to the management of a common household, often verged upon the intimate. When Diane accompanied his daughter to the opera, he adopted the habit of dropping into the box, and perhaps taking them, with some of Dorothea's friends, to a restaurant for supper. He planned the little parties and excursions for which Dorothea's "budding" offered an excuse; and, while he recognized the subterfuge, he made his probable journey, with the long absence it would involve, serve as a palliation. Since, too, there was no danger to Diane, there could be the less reason for stinting himself in the pleasure of her presence, so long as he was prepared to pay for it afterward in full.
Thus the first winter had gone by, until with the shifting of the environment in summer a certain change entered into the situation. The greater freedom of country life on the Hudson made it requisite that Diane should be more consciously circumspect. In her detachment Derek noticed first of all a new element of intention; but since it was the first sign she had given of distinguishing between him and the dumb creation, it did not displease him. While he could not affirm that she avoided him, he saw less of her than when in town. During those difficult moments when they had no guests and Dorothea was making visits among her friends, Diane found pretexts for slipping away to New York, on what she declared to be business of her own—availing herself of the seclusion of the little French hostelry that had first given her shelter.
It was at times such as these that Derek began to perceive what she had become to him. As long as she was near him he could keep his feelings within the limitations he had set for them; but in her absence he was restless and despondent till she returned. The brutality of life, which made him master of the beauty of the country and the coolness of the hills, while it drove her to stifle in the town, stirred him with alternate waves of indignation and compassion.
There was a torrid afternoon in August when the sight of her, trudging along the dusty highway to the station, almost led him to betray himself by his curses upon fate. Dorothea having left for Newport in the morning, Diane was, as usual, seeking the privacy of University Place for the two weeks the girl's visit was to last. Understanding her desire not to be alone with him for even a few hours when there was no third person in the house, Derek had taken the opportunity to motor for lunch to a friend's house some miles away. With the intention of not returning till after she had gone, he had ordered a carriage to be in readiness to drive her to her train; but his luncheon was scarcely ended when the thought occurred to him that, by hurrying back, he might catch a last glimpse of her before she started.
He had already half smothered her in dust when he perceived that the little woman in black, under a black parasol, was actually Diane. To his indignant queries as to why she should be plodding her way on foot, with this scorching sun overhead, her replies were cheerful and uncomplaining. A series of small accidents in the stable—such had constantly happened at her own little chateau in the Oise—having made it inadvisable to take the horses out, one of the men had conveyed her luggage to the station, while she herself preferred to walk. She was used to the exigencies of country life, in both France and Ireland; and as for the heat, it was a detail to be scorned. Dust, too, was only matter out of place, and a necessary concomitant of summer. Would he not drive on, without troubling himself any more about her?
No; decidedly he would not. She must get in and let him take her to the station. There he could work off his wrath only by buying her ticket and seeing to her luggage; while his charge to the negro porter to look to her comfort was of such a nature that during the whole of the journey she was pelted with magazine literature and tormented with glasses of ice-water.
That night he found himself impelled by his sense of honor as a gentleman to write a letter of apology for the indignity she had been exposed to while in his house. When it had gone he considered it insufficient, and only the reflection that he ought to have business in town next day kept him from following it up with a second note.
Arrived in New York, where the city was burning as if under a sun-glass, he found his chief subject for consideration to be the choice of a club at which to lunch. There, in the solitude of the deserted smoking-room, where the heat was tempered, the glare shut out, and the very footfall subdued, he thought of the little hotel in University Place. Because human society had mysterious unwritten laws, the woman he loved was forced to steal away from the freshness and peace of green fields and sweeping river, to take refuge amid the noisome ugliness from which, in spite of her courage, her exquisite nature must shrink. He, whose needs were simple, as his tastes were comparatively coarse, could command the sybaritic luxury of a Roman patrician, while she, who could not lift her hand without betraying the habits of inborn refinement, was exposed not only to vulgar contact, but to a squalor of discomfort as odious as vice. The thought was a humiliation. Even if he had not loved her, it would have seemed almost the duty of a man of honor to step in between her and the cruel pathos of her lot.
It was a curious reflection that it was the very fact that he did love her which held him back. Could he have turned toward Paradise and said to the sweet soul waiting for him there, "This woman has need of me, but you alone reign in my heart," he would have felt more free to act. But the time when that would have been possible had gone by. Anything he might do now would be less for her need than his own; and his own he could endure if loyalty to his past demanded it. None the less was it necessary to find a way in which to come to Diane's immediate relief; and by the time he had finished his cigar he thought he had discovered it.
"Having been obliged to run up to town," he explained, when she had received him in the little hotel parlor, "I've dropped in to tell you that I'm going away for a few weeks into Canada."
"Isn't it rather hot weather for travelling?" she asked, with that clear, smiling gaze which showed him at once that she had seen through his pretext for coming.
"It won't be hot where I'm going—up into the valley of the Metapedia."
"It's rather a sudden decision, isn't it?"
"N—no. I generally try to get a little sport some time during the year."
"Naturally you know your own intentions best. I only happen to remember that you said, yesterday morning, you hoped not to leave Rhinefields till the middle of next month."
"Did I say that? I must have been dreaming?"
"Very likely you were. Or perhaps you're dreaming now."
"Not at all; in fact, I'm particularly wide awake. I see things so clearly that I've looked in to tell you some of them. You must get out of this stifling hole and go back to Rhinefields at once."
"I don't like that way of speaking of a place I've become attached to. It isn't a stifling hole; it's a clean little inn, where the service is the very law of kindness. The art may be of a period somewhat earlier than the primitive," she laughed, looking round at the highly colored chromos of lake and mountain scenery hanging on the walls, "and the furniture may not be strictly in the style of Louis Quinze, but the host and hostess treat me as a daughter, and every garcon is my slave."
"I can quite understand that; but all the same it's no fit place for you."
"I suppose the fittest place for any one is the place in which he feels at home."
"Don't say that," he begged, with sudden emotion in his voice.
"I think I ought to say it," she insisted, "first of all because it's true; and then because you would feel more at ease about me if you knew just how it's true."
"You know that I'm not at ease about you."
"I know you think I must be discontented with my lot, when—in a certain sense—I'm not at all so. I don't pretend that I prefer working for a living to having money of my own; but I've found this"—she hesitated, as if thinking out her phrase—"I've found that life grows richer as it goes on, in whatever way one has to live it. It's as if the streams that fed it became more numerous the farther one descended from the height."
"I'm glad you're able to say that—"
"I can say it very sincerely; and I lay stress upon it, because I know you're kind enough to be worried about me. I wish I could make you understand how little reason there is for it, though you mustn't think that I'm not touched by it, or that I mistake its motive. I've come to see that what I've often heard, and used scarcely to believe, is quite true, that American men have an attitude toward women entirely different from that of our men. Our men probably think more about women than any other men in the world; but they think of them as objects of prey—with joys and sorrows not to be taken seriously. You, on the contrary, are willing to put yourself to great inconvenience for me, merely because I am a woman."
"Not merely because of that," Derek permitted himself to say.
"We needn't weigh motives as if they were golddust. When we have their general trend we have enough. I only want you to see that I understand you, while I must ask you not to be hurt if I still persist in not availing myself of your courtesy. I wish you wouldn't question me any more about it, because there are situations in which one cheapens things by the very effort to put them into words. If you were a woman, you'd comprehend my feeling—"
"Let us assume that I do, as it is. I have still another suggestion to make. Admitting that I stay at Rhinefields, why can't you ask your mother-in-law to come and make you a couple of weeks' visit there?"
For a moment Diane forgot the restraint she made it a habit to impose upon herself in the new conditions of her life, and slipped back into the spontaneous manner of the past.
"How tiresome you are! I never knew any one but a child twist himself in so many directions to get his own way."
"You see, I'm accustomed to having my own way. You ought not to think of resisting me."
"I'm not resisting you; I'm only eluding your grasp. There's one great obstacle to what you've just been good enough to propose: my mother-in-law couldn't come. Miss Lucilla van Tromp couldn't spare her. As a matter of fact, she—Miss Lucilla—asked me to go to Newport and stay with her all the time Dorothea is with the Prouds; but I declined the invitation. You see now that I don't lack cool and comfortable quarters because I couldn't get them."
"I see," he nodded. "You evidently prefer—this."
"I'll tell you what I prefer: I prefer a breathing-space in which to commune with my own soul."
"You could commune with your own soul at Rhinefields."
"No, I couldn't. It's an exercise that requires not only solitude and seclusion, but a certain withdrawal from the world. If I were in France, I should go and spend a fortnight in my old convent at Auteuil; but in this country the nearest approach I can make to that is to be here where I am. After all that has happened in the last year and more, I am trying to find myself again, so to speak—I'm trying to re-establish my identity with the Diane de la Ferronaise, who seems to me to have faded back into the distant twilight of time. Won't you let me do it in my own way, and ask me no more questions? Yes; I see by your face that you will; and we can be friends again. Now," she added, briskly, springing up and touching a bell, "you're going to have some of my iced coffee. I've taught them to make it, just as I used to have it at the Mauconduit—that was our little place near Compiegne—and I know you'll find it refreshing."
It was half an hour later, while he was taking leave of her, that a thought occurred to him which promised to be fruitful of new resources.
"Very well," he declared, as they were parting, "if you persist in staying here, I, too, shall persist in looking in whenever I come to town—which will have to be pretty often just now—to see that you're not down with some sort of fever."
"But," she laughed, "I thought you were going away—to Canada?"
"I'm not obliged to; and you've rather succeeded in dissuading me."
"Then let me succeed in dissuading you from everything. Don't come here again—please don't."
"I certainly shall."
"I'm generally out."
"In that case I shall stay till you come in."
"Of course I can't keep you from doing that. I will only say that the American man I've had in mind for the past few months—wouldn't."
The fact that he did not go back to University Place, either on this or any subsequent occasion when she thought it well to withdraw there, emphasized his helplessness to aid her. By the time autumn returned, and the household was once more settled in town, he had grown aware that between Diane and himself there was an impalpable wall of separation, which he could no more pass than he could transcend the veil between material existence and the Unseen World. He began to perceive that what he had called detachment of manner, more or less purposely maintained, was in reality an element in the situation which from the beginning had precluded friendship. Diane and he could not be friends in any of the ordinary senses of the word. As employer and employed their necessary dealings might be friendly; but to anything more personal, under the present arrangement, there was attached the impossible condition of stepping off from terra firma into space.
The obvious method of putting their mutual relationship on a basis richer in future potentialities Derek still felt himself unable to adopt of his own initiative act. The vow which bound him to his dead wife was one from which circumstances—and not merely his own fiat—must absolve him; but as winter advanced it seemed to him that life had begun to speak on the subject with a voice of imperative command.
It was the middle of January, when a small, accidental happening drew all his growing but still debatable intentions into one sharp point of resolution. It was such an afternoon as comes rarely, even in the exhilarating winter of New York—an afternoon when the unfathomable blue of the sky overhead runs through all the gamut of tones from lavender to indigo; when the air has the living keenness of that which the Spirit first breathed into the nostrils of man; when the rapture of the heart is that of neither passion, wine, nor nervous excitement, but comes nearer the exaltation of deathless youth in a deathless world than anything else in a temporary earth. It was a day on which even the jaded heart is in the mood to begin all over again, in renewed pursuit of the happiness which up to now has been elusive. To Derek, whose heart was by no means jaded, it was a day on which the instinctive hope of youth, which he supposed he had outlived, proved itself of one essence with the conscious passion of maturity.
When, as he walked homeward along Fifth Avenue, he overtook Diane, also making her way homeward, the happy occurrence seemed but part of the general radiance permeating life. The chance meeting on the neutral ground of out-of-doors took Diane by surprise; and before she had time to put up her guards of reserve she had betrayed her youth in a shy heightening of color. Under the protection of the cheerful, slowly moving crowd she felt at liberty to drop for a minute the subdued air of his daughter's paid companion, and in her replies to what he said she spoke with some of her old gayety of verve. It was an unfortunate moment in which to yield to this temptation, for it was, perhaps, the only occasion since her coming to New York on which she was closely observed.
Engrossed as they were, the one with the other, they had insensibly relaxed their pace, becoming mere strollers on the outside edge of the throng. The sense of being watched came to both of them at once, and, looking up at the same moment, they saw, approaching at a snail's pace, an open Victoria, in which were two ladies, to whom they were objects of plainly expressed interest. The elder was an insignificant little woman, who looked as though she were being taken out by her costly furs, while the younger was a girl of some two or three and twenty, of a type of beauty that would have been too imperious had it not been toned down by that air which to the unintelligent means boredom, though the wise know it to spring from something gone amiss in life. Both ladies kept their eyes fixed so exclusively on Diane that they had almost passed before remembering to salute Derek with a nod.
"I've seen those ladies somewhere," Diane observed, when they had gone by.
"I dare say. They've probably seen you, too. The elder is Mrs. Bayford, sister of Mr. Grimston, my uncle's partner in Paris. The girl is Marion Grimston, his daughter."
"I remember perfectly now. They used to come to our charity sales, and—and—anything of that kind."
"Anything, you mean, that was open to all comers. Mrs. Grimston would be flattered."
"I didn't mean to speak slightingly," she hastened to say. "There were plenty of nice people in Paris whom I didn't know."
"And plenty, I imagine, who thought you ought to have known them. Mrs. Grimston, and Mrs. Bayford, too, would have been among that number."
"Well, you see I do know them—by sight. I recall Miss Grimston especially. She's so handsome."
"I shall tell her that to-night."
"Yes; it's with them that Dorothea and I are dining. The name conveying nothing to you, you probably didn't remember it. The fact is that, as Mrs. Bayford is the sister of my uncle's partner—my partner, too—I make it a point to be very civil to her twice a year—once when I dine with her, and once when she dines with me. The annual festivals have been delayed this season because she has only just returned from a long visit to Japan and India, with Marion in her wake."
There had been so much to say which, in the glamour of that glorious afternoon, was more important that no further time was spent on the topic. Derek forgot the meeting till Mrs. Bayford recalled it to him as he sat beside her in the evening. She was one of those small, ill-shapen women whose infirmities are thrown into more conspicuous relief by dress and jewels and decolletage. Seated at the head of her table, she produced the impression of a Goddess of Discord at a feast of well-meaning, hapless mortals.
"I want a word with you," she said, parenthetically, to Derek, on her left, before turning her attention to the more important neighbor on her right.
"One is scant measure," he laughed, in reply, "but I must be grateful even for that."
It was the middle of dinner before she took notice of him again, but when she did she plunged into her subject boldly.
"I suppose you didn't think I knew who you were walking with this afternoon?"
"Yes, I did, because the lady recognized you. She said you and Mrs. Grimston were among the nice people in Paris whom she hadn't met—but whom she knew very well by sight."
If Derek thought this reply calculated to appease an angry deity, he discovered his mistake.
"Did she have the indecency to say she hadn't met me?"
"I think she did; but she probably didn't know that the word indecency could apply to anything connected with you."
"Why, I was introduced to her four times in one season!"
"I suppose she hasn't as good a memory as yours."
"Oh, as for that, it wasn't a matter of memory. Nobody was permitted to forget her—she was quite notorious."
"I've always heard that in Paris the mere possession of beauty is enough to keep any one in the public eye."
"It wasn't beauty alone—if she has beauty; though for my part I can't see it."
"It is of rather an elusive quality."
"It must be. But if it exists at all, I can tell you that it's of a dangerous quality."
"Hasn't that always been the peculiarity of beauty ever since the days of Helen of Troy?"
"I'm sure I can't say. I've always tried to steer clear of that sort of thing—"
"That must be an excellent plan; only it deprives one of the power of speaking as an authority, doesn't it?"
"I don't pretend to speak as an authority. If I say anything at all, it's what everybody knows."
"What everybody knows is generally—scandal."
"This was certainly scandal; but it wasn't the fact that everybody knew it that made it so."
"Then I'm sure you wouldn't wish to repeat it."
"I don't see why you should be sure of anything of the kind. I consider it my duty to repeat it."
"Then you won't be surprised if I consider it mine to contradict it."
"Certainly not. I shouldn't be surprised at anything you could do, Derek, after what I've heard since I came home."
"I won't ask you what that is—"
"No; your own conscience must tell you. No one can go on as you've been doing, and not know he must be talked about."
"I've always understood that that was more flattering than to be ignored."
"It depends. There's such a thing as receiving that sort of flattery first, only to be ignored in the sequel. I speak as your friend, Derek—"
"I thoroughly understand that; but may I ask if it's in the way of warning or of threat?"
"It's in the way of both. You must see that, whatever risks I may be prepared to run myself, as long as I have Marion with me I can't expose her to—"
Notwithstanding his efforts to keep the conversation to a tone of banter, acrimonious though it had to be, Derek was unable to pronounce the two brief syllables without betraying some degree of anger. Glancing up at him as she shrank under her weight of jewels, Mrs. Bayford found him very big and menacing; but she was a brave woman, and if she shrivelled, it was only as a cat shrivels before springing at a mastiff.
"I can't expose her to the chance of meeting—"
She paused, not from hesitation, but with the rhetorical intention of making the end of her phrase more telling.
"My future wife," he whispered, before she had time to go on. "It's only fair to tell you that."
"Good heavens! You're not going to marry the creature!"
Mrs. Bayford brought out the words with the dramatic action and intensity they deserved. In the hum of talk around and across the table it was doubtful whether or not they were heard, and yet more than one of the guests glanced up with a look of interrogation. Dorothea caught her father's eyes in a gaze which he had some difficulty in returning with the proper amount of steadiness; but Mrs. Berrington Jones came to the rescue of the company by asking Mrs. Bayford to tell the amusing story of how her bath had been managed in Japan.
So the incident passed by, leaving a sense of mystery in the air; though for Derek, all sense of annoyance disappeared in the knowledge that he was Diane's champion.
He was thinking over the incident in the luxurious semi-darkness of the electric brougham as they were going homeward, when the clear voice of Dorothea broke in on his meditation.
"Are you going to be married, father?"
The question could not be a surprise to him after the occurrence at the table, but he was not prepared to give an affirmative answer on the spur of the moment.
"What makes you ask?" he inquired, after a second's reflection.
"I heard what Mrs. Bayford said."
"And how should you feel if I were?"
"It would depend."
"On whether or not it was any one I liked."
"That's fair. And if it was some one whom you did like?"
"Then it would depend on whether or not it was—Diane."
"And if it was Diane?"
"I should be very glad."
She slipped her arm through his and snuggled up to him.
"Oh, for a lot of reasons. First, because I've always supposed you'd be getting married one day; and I've been terribly afraid you'd pick out some one I couldn't get along with."
"Have I ever shown any symptom to justify that alarm?"
"N—no; but you never can tell—with a man."
"Can you be any surer with a woman?"
"No; and that's one of my other reasons. I'm not very sure about myself."
"You don't mean that it's to be young Wap—?" he began, uneasily.
"I suppose it will have to be he—or some one else. They keep at me."
"And you don't know how long you may be able to hold out."
"I'm holding out as well as I can," she laughed, "but it can't go on forever. And then—if I do—"
"You'd be left all alone, and, of course, I should be worried about that—unless you—you—"
"Unless I married some one."
"No; not some one; no one—but Diane."
They were now at their own door, but before she sprang out she drew down his face to hers and kissed him.
During the succeeding week Derek Pruyn, having practically announced an engagement which did not exist, found himself in a somewhat ludicrous situation. Too proud to extort a promise of secrecy from Mrs. Bayford, he knew the value of his indiscretion—if indiscretion it were—to any purveyor of tea-table gossip; and while Diane and he remained in the same relative positions he was sure it was being bruited about, with his own authority, that they were to become man and wife. It did not diminish the absurdity of the situation that he was debarred from proposing and settling the affair at once by the grotesque fact that he actually had not time.
There was certainly little opportunity for lovemaking in those hurried days of preparing for his long absence in South America. He was often obliged to leave home by eight in the morning, rarely returning except to go wearily to bed. Though nothing had been said to him, he had more than one reason for suspecting that Mrs. Bayford was at work; and, at the odd minutes when he saw Diane, it seemed to him as if her clearness of look was extinguished by an expression of perplexity.
He would have reproached himself more keenly for his lack of energy in overcoming obstacles had it not been for the fact that, owing to their peculiar position as members of one household, and that household his, he was planning to ask Diane to become his wife on that occasion when he would also be bidding her adieu. She would thus be spared the difficulties of a trying situation, while she would have the season of his absence in which to adjust her mind to the revolution in her life. He resolved to adhere to this intention, the more especially as a small family dinner at Gramercy Park, from which he was to go directly to his steamer, would give him the exact combination of circumstances he desired.
When, after dinner, Miss Lucilla's engineering of the company allowed him to find himself alone with Diane in the library, he made her sit down by the fireside, while he stood, his arm resting on the mantelpiece, as on the afternoon of their first serious interview, over a year before. As on that other occasion, so, too, on this, she sat erect, silent, expectant, waiting for him to speak. What was coming she did not know; but she felt once more his commanding dominance, with its power to ordain, prescribe, and regulate the conditions of her life.
"Doesn't this make you think of—our first long talk together?"
"I often think of it," Diane said, faintly, trying to assume that they were entering on an ordinary conversation. "As you didn't agree with me—"
"I do now," he said, quickly. "I see you were right, in everything. I want to thank you for what you've done for Dorothea—and for me. I didn't dream, a year ago, that the change in both of us could be so great."
"Dorothea was a sweet little girl, to begin with—"
"Yes; but I don't want to talk about that now. She will express her own sense of gratitude; but in the mean while I want to tell you mine. You will understand something of its extent when I say that I ask you to be my wife."
Diane neither spoke nor looked at him. The only sign she gave of having heard him was a slight bowing of the head, as of one who accepts a decree. The first few instants' stillness had the ineffable quality which might spring from the abolition of time when bliss becomes eternity. There was a space, not to be reckoned by any terrestrial counting, during which each heart was caught up into wonderful spheres of emotion—on his side the relief of having spoken, on hers the joy of having heard; and though it passed swiftly it was long enough to give to both the vision of a new heaven and a new earth. It was a vision that never faded again from the inward sight of either, though the mists of mortal error began creeping over it at once.
"If I take you by surprise—" he began, as he felt the clouds of reality closing round him.
"No," she broke in, still without looking up at him; "I heard you intended to ask me."
Though he made a little uneasy movement, he knew that this was precisely what she might have been expected to say.
"I thought you had possibly heard that," he said, in her own tone of quiet frankness, "and I want to explain to you that what happened was an accident."
"So I imagined."
"If I spoke of you as my future wife, I must ask you to believe that it was in the way of neither ill-timed jest nor foolish boast."
"You needn't assure me of that, because I could never have thought so. If I want assurance at all it's on other points."
"If I can explain them—"
"I can almost explain them myself. What I require is rather in the way of corroboration. Wasn't it much as the knight of old threw the mantle of his protection over the shoulders of a distressed damsel?"
"I know what you mean; but I don't admit the justice of the simile."
"But if you did admit it, wouldn't it be something like what actually occurred?"
"You're putting questions to me," he said, smiling down at her; "but you haven't answered mine."
"I must beg leave to point out," she smiled, in return, "that you haven't asked me one. You've only stated a fact—or what I presume to be a fact. But before we can discuss it I ought to be possessed of certain information; and you've put me in a position where I have a right to demand it."
After brief reflection Derek admitted that. As nearly as he could recall the incident at Mrs. Bayford's dinner-party, he recounted it.
"You see," he explained, in summing up, "that, as a snobbish person, she could hardly be expected to forgive you for forgetting her, when she had been introduced to you four times in a season. She not unnaturally fancied you forgot her on purpose, so to speak—"
"I suppose I did," she murmured, penitently.
"What?" he asked, with sudden curiosity. "Would you—"
"I wouldn't now. I used to then. Everybody did it, when people were introduced to us whom we didn't want to know. I've done it when it wasn't necessary even from that point of view—out of a kind of sport, a kind of wantonness. I've really forgotten about Mrs. Bayford now— everything except her face—but I dare say I remembered perfectly well, at the time. It would have been nothing unusual if I had."
"In that case," he said, slowly, "you can't be surprised—"
"I'm not," she hastened to say. "If Mrs. Bayford retaliates, now that she has the power, she's within her right—a right which scarcely any woman would forego. It was perfectly natural for Mrs. Bayford to speak ill of me; and it was equally natural for you to spring to my defence. You'd have sprung to the defence of any one—"
"No, no," he interjected, hurriedly.
"Of any one whom you—respected, as I hope you respect me. You've offered me," she went on, her eyes filling with sudden tears—"you've offered me the utmost protection a man can give a woman. To tell you how deeply I'm touched, how sincerely I'm grateful, is beyond my power; but you must see that I can't avail myself of your kindness. Your very willingness to repeat at leisure what you said in haste makes it the more necessary that I shouldn't take advantage of your chivalry."
"Would that be your only reason for hesitating to become my wife?"
The deep, vibrant note that came into his voice sent a tremor through her frame, and she looked about her for support. He himself offered it by taking both her hands in his. She allowed him to hold them for a second before withdrawing behind the intrenched position afforded by the huge chair from which she had risen, and on the back of which she now leaned.
"It's the reason that looms largest," she replied—"so large as to put all other reasons out of consideration."
"Then you're entirely mistaken," he declared, coming forward in such a way that only the chair stood between them. "It's true that at Mrs. Bayford's provocation I spoke in haste, but it was only to utter the resolution I had taken plenty of time to form. If I were to tell you how much time, you'd be inclined to scorn me for my delay. But the truth is I'm no longer a very young man; in comparison with you I'm not young at all. You yourself, as a woman of the world, must readily understand that at my age, and in my position, prudence is as honorable an element in the offer I am making you as romance would be in a boy's. I make no apology for being prudent. I state the fact that I've been so only that you may know that I've tried to look at this question from every point of view—Dorothea's as well as yours and mine. I took my time about it, and long before I warned Mrs. Bayford that she was speaking of one who was dear to me, my mind was made up. With such hopes as I had at heart it would have been wrong to have allowed her to go on without a word of warning."
"I can see that it would have that aspect."
"Then, if you can see that, you must see that I speak to you now in all sincerity. My desire isn't new. I can truthfully say that, since the first day I saw you, your eyes and voice have haunted me, and the longing to be near you has never been absent from my heart. I'll be quite frank with you and say that, before you came here, it was my avowed intention not to marry again. Now I have no desire on earth—my child apart—so strong as to win you for my wife. The year we've spent under the same roof must have given you some idea of the man whom you'd be marrying; and I think I can promise you that with your help he would be a better man than in the past. Won't you say that I may hope for it?"
With arms supported by the high back of the chair and cheek on her clasped hands, she gazed away into the dimness of the room, as if waiting for him to continue; but during the silence that ensued it seemed to Derek as if a shadow crossed her features, while her bright look died out in a kind of wistfulness. She had, perhaps, been hoping for a word he had not spoken—a word whose absence he had only covered up by phrases.
"Well? Have you nothing to say to me?" he asked, when some minutes had gone by.
"Of what you say about prudence. I like it. It seems to me I ought to be prudent, too."
"Undoubtedly," he agreed, in the dry tone of one who assents to what he finds slightly disagreeable.
"I mean," she said, quickly, "that I ought to be prudent for you—for us all. There are a great many things to be thought of, things which people of our age ought not to let pass unconsidered. Men think the way through difficulties, while women feel it. I'm afraid I must ask for time to get my instincts into play."
"Do you mean that you can't give me an answer to-night—before I go on this long journey?"
"I couldn't give you an affirmative one."
"But you could say, No?"
"If you pressed the matter—if you insisted—that's what I should have to say."
"That would be—my secret."
"Is it that you think you couldn't love me?"
For the first time the color came to her cheek and surged up to her temples, not suddenly or hotly, but with the semi-diaphanous lightness of roseate vapor mounting into winter air. As he came nearer, rounding the protective barrier of the arm-chair, she retreated.
"I should have to solve some other questions before I could answer that," she said, trying to meet his eyes with the necessary steadiness.
"Couldn't I help you?"
She shook her head.
"Then couldn't you consider it first?"
"A woman generally does consider it first, but she speaks about it last."
"But you could tell me the result of what you think, as far as you've drawn conclusions?"
"No; because whatever I should say you would find misleading. If you're in earnest about what you say to-night, it would be better for us both that you should give me time."
"I'm willing to do that. But you speak as if you had a doubt of me."
"I've no doubt of you; I've only a doubt about myself. The woman you've known for the last twelve months isn't the woman other people have known in the years before that. She isn't the Diane Eveleth of Paris any more than she is the Diane de la Ferronaise of the hills of Connemara, or of the convent at Auteuil. But I don't know which is the real woman, or whether the one who now seems to me dead mightn't rise again."
"I shouldn't be afraid of her."
"But I should. You say that because you didn't know her; and I couldn't let you marry me without telling you something of what she was."
"Then tell me."
"No, not now; not to-night. Go on your long journey, and come back. When it's all over, I shall be sure—sure, that is, of myself—sure on the point about which I'm so much in doubt, as to whether or not the other woman could return."
"I should be willing to run the risk," he said, with a short laugh, "even if she did."
"But I shouldn't be willing to let you. You forget she ruined one rich man; she might easily ruin another."
"That would depend very much upon the man."
"No man can cope with a woman such as I was only a few years ago. You can put fetters on a criminal, and you can quell a beast to submission, but you can't bind the subtle, mischievous woman-spirit, bent on doing harm. It's more ruthless than war; it's more fatal than disease. You, with your large, generous nature, are the very man for it to fasten on, and waste him, like a fever."
She moved back from him, close to the bookshelves against the wall. The eyes which Derek had always seen sad and lustreless glowed with a fire like the amber's.
"You must understand that I couldn't allow myself to do the same thing twice," she hurried on, "and, if I married you, who knows but what I might? I'm not a bad woman by nature, but I think I must need to be held in repression. You'd be giving me again just those gifts of money, position, and power which made me dangerous."
"Suppose you were to let me guard against that?" he said.
"You couldn't. It would be like fighting a poisonous vapor with the sword. The woman's spell, whether for good or ill, is more subtle and more potent than anything in the universe but the love of God."
"I can believe that, and still be willing to trust myself to yours," he answered, gravely. "I know you, and honor you as men rarely do the women they marry, until the proof of the years has tried them. In your case the trial has come first. I've watched you bear it—watched you more closely than you've ever been aware of. I've stood by, and seen you carry your burden, when it was harder than you imagine not to take my part in it. I've looked on, and seen you suffer, when it was all I could do to keep from saying some word of sympathy you might have resented. But, Diane," he cried, his voice taking on a strange, peremptory sharpness, "I can't do it any longer! My power of standing still, while you go on with your single-handed fight, is at an end. If ever God sent a man to a woman's aid, He has sent me to yours; and you must let me do what I'm appointed for. You must come to me for comfort in your loneliness. You must come to me for care in your necessity. I have both care and comfort for you here; and you must come."
Without moving toward her he stood with open arms.
"Come!" he cried again, commandingly.
The tears coursed down her cheeks, but she gave no sign of obeying him, except to drag one hand from the protecting bookcase ledge, to which she seemed to cling.
"Come, Diane!" he repeated! "Come to me!"
The other hand fell to her side, while she gazed at him piteously, as though in reluctant submission to his will.
"Come!" he said once more, in a tone of authority mingled with appeal.
Drawn by a force she had no power to withstand, she took one slow, hesitating step toward him.
"I haven't yielded," she stammered. "I haven't consented. I can't consent—yet."
"No, dearest, no," he murmured, with arms yearning to her as she approached him; "nevertheless—come!"
Notwithstanding the fact that she had wept in his arms—wept as women weep who are brave in the hour of trial, only to break down in the moment of relief—Diane would give Derek Pruyn no other answer. She could not consent—yet. With this reply he was obliged to sail away, getting what comfort he might from its implications.
During the three months of his absence Diane took knowledge of herself, appraising her strength and probing her weakness. She was too honest not to own that there were desires in her nature which leaped into newness of life at the thought that there might again be means to support them. Diane de la Ferronaise was not dead, but sleeping. Her love of luxury and pleasure—her joy in jewels, equipage, and dress—her woman's elemental weaknesses, second only to the instinct for maternity—all these, grown lethargic from hunger, were ready to awake again at the mere possibility of food. She was forced to confront the fact that, with the same opportunities, she had it in her to go back to the same life. It was a humiliating fact, but it stared her in the face, that experience had shown her a creature for a man to be afraid of. Derek Pruyn had seen her subdued by circumstances, as the panther is subdued by famine; but it was not yet proved that the savage, preying thing was tamed.
There was only one force that would tame her; but there was that force, and Diane knew that she had submitted to its domination. From weeks of tortuous self-examination she emerged into this knowledge, as one comes out of a labyrinthine cavern into sunshine. Even here in the open, however, was a problem still to solve. Could she marry the man who had never told her that he loved her, even though she herself loved him? Had she the power to give herself without stint, while asking of him only what he chose to offer her? Would she, who had made men serve her, with little more than smiles for their reward, be content to serve in her own turn, getting nothing but a half-loaf for her heart's sustenance? She asked herself these questions, but put off answering them—waiting for him to force decision on her.
So the rest of the winter passed, and by the time Derek came back the hyacinths were fading from the gardens and parks, and the tulips were coming into bloom. To both Diane and Dorothea spring was bringing a new motive for looking forward together with a new comprehension of the human heart's capacity for joy.
Perhaps no day of their patient waiting was so long in passing as that on which it was announced to them that Derek Pruyn had landed that afternoon. He had sent word that he could not come home at once, as business required his immediate presence at the office. Having already exhausted their ingenuity in adorning the house, and putting everything he could possibly want in the place where he could most easily find it, there was nothing to do but to sit through the long hours in an impatience which even Diane found it difficult to disguise. The visits of the postman were welcomed as affording the additional task of arranging Derek's letters on the desk in the small, book-lined room specially devoted to his use; and when, in the evening, a cablegram arrived, Diane herself propped it in a conspicuous place, with a tiny silver dagger, for opening the envelope, beside it. The act, with its suggestion of intimate life, gave her a stealthy pleasure; and when Dorothea glided in and caught her sitting in Derek's own chair at the desk, she blushed like a school-girl detected in a crime. It was perhaps this acknowledgment of weakness that enabled Dorothea to speak out, and say what had been for some time on her mind.
"Diane," she asked, dropping among the cushions of a divan, "are you going to marry father?"
Diane felt the color receding from her face as suddenly as it had come, while she gained time in which to collect her astonished wits by putting the silver dagger down beside the telegram with needless exactitude before attempting a response.
"Do you remember what Sir Walter Scott said, in the days when the authorship of Waverley was still a secret, to the indiscreet people who asked him if he had written it? 'No,' he answered; 'but if I had I should give you the same reply.'"
"That means, I suppose, that you don't want to tell me?"
"It might be taken to imply something of the sort."
"As a matter of fact, I suppose it would be more delicate on my part not to ask you."
"I won't attempt to contradict you there."
"I shouldn't do it if I didn't wish you were going to marry him. I've wanted it a long time; but I want it more than ever now."
"Why more than ever now?"
"Because I expect to be married before very long myself."
"May I venture to inquire to which of the many—"
"To none of the many. There's never, really, been more than one."
"And his name—?"
"Is Carli Wappinger."
"That's just it. That's why I want you to marry father. I want to put a stop to the 'Oh, Dorotheas!' and you're the only person in the world who can help me do it."
"I don't have to tell you that. It's one of the reasons why I rely on you so thoroughly that you always know exactly what to do without having to receive suggestions. I put myself in your hands entirely."
"You mean that you're going to marry a man to whom your father will be bitterly opposed, and you expect me to win his joyful benediction."
"That's about it," Dorothea sighed, from the depth of her cushions.
"Of course, I must be grateful to you, dear, for this display of confidence; but you won't be surprised if I find it rather overwhelming."
"I shall be very much surprised, indeed. I've never seen you find anything overwhelming yet; and you've been put in some difficult situations. You only have to live things in order to make other people take them for granted. You've never done anything to specially please father, and yet he listens to you as if you were an oracle. It's the same way with me. If any one had told me two years ago that I should ever come to praying for a stepmother I should have thought them crazy; and yet I have come to it, just because it's you."
After that it was not unnatural that Diane should go and sit on the divan beside Dorothea for any exchange of such confidences as could not be conveniently made from a distance. If she admitted anything on her own part, it was by implication rather than by direct assertion, and though she did not promise in words to come to the aid of the youthful lovers, she allowed the possibility that she would do so to be assumed.
So, in soft, whispered, broken confessions the evening slipped away more rapidly than the day had done, and by ten o'clock they knew he must be near. The last touch of welcome came when they passed from room to room, lighting up the big house in cheerful readiness for its lord's inspection. When all was done Dorothea stationed herself at a window near the street; while Diane, with a curious shrinking from what she had to face, took her seat in the remotest and obscurest corner in the more distant of the two drawingrooms. When the sound of wheels, followed by a loud ring at the bell, told her that he was actually at the door, she felt faint from the violence of her heart's beating.
Dorothea danced into the hail, with a cry and a laugh which were stifled in her father's embrace. Diane rose instinctively, waiting humbly and silently where she stood. At their parting she had torn herself, weeping and protesting, from his arms; but when he came in to find her now, he would see that she had yielded. The door was half open through which he was to pass—never again to leave her!
"Diane is in there."
It was Dorothea's voice that spoke, but the reply reached the far drawing-room only as a murmur of deep, inarticulate bass.
"What's the matter, father?"
Dorothea's clear voice rose above the noise of servants moving articles of luggage in the hall; but again Diane heard nothing beyond a confused muttering in answer. She wondered that he did not come to her at once, though she supposed there was some slight prosaic reason to prevent his doing so.