E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE MAN IN LONELY LAND
KATE LANGLEY BOSHER
Author of "Mary Cary" and "Miss Gibbie Gault"
TO MY BROTHER
EDWARD PORTIUS LANGLEY
I. GENERAL II. THE REQUEST III. SCIENTIFICS IV. DOROTHEA AND MR. LAINE V. THE LOSS OF HIS BEST FRIEND VI. A LETTER FROM DOROTHEA VII. AN AFTERNOON CALL VIII. THE RECEPTION IX. DOROTHEA ASKS QUESTIONS X. A DISCOVERY XI. A CHANCE ENCOUNTER XII. CHRISTMAS SHOPPING XIII. MR. LAINE GOES SHOPPING ALONE XIV. AN INFORMAL VISIT XV. THE MAN WHO DID NOT KNOW XVI. A CHANGE OF PLANS XVII. A VISIT TO VIRGINIA XVIII. ELMWOOD XIX. CHRISTMAS XX. CLAUDIA XXI. A VISIT FROM DOROTHEA XXII. SPRINGTIME
Mr. Winthrop Laine threw his gloves on the table, his overcoat on a chair, put his hat on the desk, and then looked down at his shoes.
"Soaking wet," he said, as if to them. "I swear this weather would ruin a Tapley temper! For two weeks rain and sleet and snow and steam heat to come home to. Hello, General! How are the legs tonight, old man?" Stooping, he patted softly the big, beautiful collie which was trying to welcome him, and gently he lifted the dog's head and looked in the patient eyes.
"No better? Not even a little bit? I'd take half if I could, General, more than half. It's hard luck, but it's worse not to know what to do for you." He turned his head from the beseeching eyes. "For the love of heaven don't look at me like that, General, don't make it—" His breath was drawn in sharply; then, as the dog made effort to bark, to raise his right paw in greeting as of old, he put it down carefully, rang the bell, walked over to the window, and for a moment looked out on the street below.
The gray dullness of a late November afternoon was in the air of New York, and the fast-falling snowflakes so thickened it that the people hurrying this way and that seemed twisted figures of fantastic shapes, wind-blown and bent, and with a shiver Laine came back and again stood by General's side.
At the door Moses, his man, waited. Laine turned toward him. "Get out some dry clothes and see what's the matter with the heat. A blind man coming in here would think he'd struck an ice-pond." He looked around and then at the darkey in front of him. "The Lord gave you a head for the purpose of using it, Moses, but you mistake it at times for an ornament. Zero weather and windows down from the top twelve inches! Has General been in here to-day?"
"No, sir. He been in the kitchen 'most all day. You told me this morning to put fresh air in here and I put, but me and General ain't been in here since I clean up. He's been powerful poorly to-day, sir."
"I see he has." Laine's hand went to the dog and rested a moment on his head. "Close up those windows and turn on the lights and see about the heat. This room is almost as cheerful as a morgue at daybreak."
"I reckon you done took a little cold, sir." Moses closed the windows, drew the curtains, turned on more heat, and made the room a blaze of light. "It's a very spacious room, sir, and for them what loves books it's very aspirin', but of course in winter-time a room without a woman or a blazin' fire in it ain't what it might be. Don't you think you'd better take a little something, sir, to het you up inside?"
Laine, bending over General, shook his head. "No, I don't. I want sleep. I came home early to try and get a little, but—"
"You ain't had none to speak of for 'most a week." Moses still lingered. "I wish you'd let General come in my room to-night. You can't stand seein' him suffer, and you'll be sick yourself if you keep a-waitin' on him all night. Can't I get you a little Scotch, sir, or a hot whiskey punch? I got the water waitin'. They say now whiskey ain't no permanent cure for colds, but it sure do help you think it is. Experience is better than expoundin' and—"
Again Laine shook his head. "Get me some dry clothes," he said, then went to the table and looked over the letters laid in a row upon it. "Have a taxi-cab here by quarter past six and don't come in again until I ring. I'm going to lie down."
A few minutes later, on a rug-covered couch, General on the floor beside him, he was trying to sleep. He was strangely tired, and for a while his only well-defined feeling was one of impatience at having to go out. Why must people do so many things they don't want to do? He put out his hand and smoothed softly General's long ears. Why couldn't a man be let alone and allowed to live the way he preferred? Why— "Quit it," he said, half aloud. "What isn't Why in life is Wherefore, and guessing isn't your job. Go to sleep."
After a while he opened his eyes and looked around the book-lined walls. When he first began to invest in books he could only buy one at a time, and now there was no room for more. He wondered if there was anything he could buy to-day that would give him the thrill his first books had given. He had almost forgotten what a thrill could mean. But who cared for books nowadays? The men and women he knew, with few exceptions, wouldn't give a twist of their necks to see his, would as soon think of reading them as of talking Dutch at a dinner-party, and very probably they were right. Knowledge added little to human happiness. Science and skill could do nothing for General. Poor General! Again he smoothed the latter's head. For years he had barked his good-bye in the morning, for years watched eagerly his coming, paws on the window-sill as dusk grew on, for years leaped joyously to meet him on his return, but he would do these things no longer. There was no chance of betterment, and death would be a mercy—a painless death which could be arranged. But he had said no, said it angrily when the doctor so suggested, and had tried a new man, who was deceiving him.
"You are all I have, General"—his hand traveled softly up and down the length of the dog's back—"and somewhere you must wait for me. I've got to stay on and play the game, and it's to be played straight, but when it's called I sha'n't be sorry."
From a box on a table close to him he took a cigar, lighted it, and watched its spirals of smoke curl upward. Life and the smoke that vanisheth had much in common. On the whole, he had no grievance against life. If it was proving a rather wearisome affair it was doubtless his own fault, and yet this finding of himself alone at forty was hardly what he had intended. There was something actually comic about it. That for which he had striven had been secured, but for what? Success unshared is of all things ironic, and soon not even General would be here to greet him when the day's work was done. He blew out a thin thread of smoke and followed its curvings with half-shut eyes. He had made money, made it honestly, and it had brought him that which it brought others, but if this were all life had to give—He threw his cigar away, and as General's soft breathing reached him he clasped his hands at the back of his head and stared up at the ceiling.
Why didn't he love his work as he used to? He had played fair, but to play fair was to play against the odds, and there were times when he hated the thing which made men fight as fiercely to-day as in the days of the jungle, though they no longer sprang at each other's throats. On the whole, he preferred the cavemen's method of attack. They at least fought face to face. As for women—
He got up, stooped down, and patted General softly. "I'm sorry to leave you, old man, but you'll sleep and I won't be long. Why Hope didn't telephone what she wanted me to do, instead of beseeching me to come to her that she might tell me, is beyond male understanding. But we don't try to understand women, do we, General?"
The big brown eyes of the collie looked up in his master's face and in them was beseeching adoration. With painful effort he laid first one paw and then the other on Laine's hand, and as the latter stroked them he barked feebly.
For a moment there was silence, the silence of understanding comrades, then Laine turned away and began to dress.
Hands in his pockets and back to the fire, Mr. Winthrop Laine looked around the room which his sister, Mrs. Channing Warrick, believed was a library, and again wondered why she had sent for him instead of telephoning what she wanted. He wasn't going to do it. That is, if it were one of the old pleadings that he would come to her parties or go to some one else's he would decline to do it, and usually the important matter on which she must see him proved something of that sort. Five years ago he had cut out things of this kind and—
"Oh, Winthrop, I'm so glad you've come!" Laine stooped and kissed his sister. "And going out to prove it." In a gown of clinging silver over soft satin she was very lovely, and as he held her off he looked at her critically. "That is a pretty dress you have on, but there isn't enough of it. What on earth did you make me come for if you're going out? When a man is my age he is privileged to stay at home and enjoy himself, not—"
Mrs. Channing Warrick stopped the buttoning of her long white gloves and looked up in her brother's face. "Do you enjoy yourself when you stay at home?"
"I enjoy myself much more at home than in other people's houses. Where are you going to-night?"
"To the Warings. There'll be cards after dinner. I suppose you declined."
"I wasn't invited."
"Hilda wanted you, but knew it was useless." Again the big blue eyes were raised to her brother's. "What makes you so horrid, Winthrop? If you go on ignoring people as you do—"
"I'll have to have paid pall-bearers at my funeral, won't I? Not a bad idea. Well, why this summons to-night?"
Mrs. Warrick pressed the last button of her glove securely, eased her skirt over her hips, and sat down carefully. "To ask you to do something for me," she said. "Channing won't be back until to-morrow, and there is no one to meet her except Decker if you don't. Outside of an automobile Decker has no sense and—"
"Meet whom?" Laine flicked the ashes from his cigar into the grate. "Who is it you want me to meet?"
"Claudia Keith. She is a cousin of Channing's and lives somewhere in Virginia on the Rappahannock River, miles from a railroad, and has never been to New York alone before. I thought I had told you she was coming, but I see you so seldom lately that I forget what I tell you and what I don't. The children think it's inhuman. After a while you won't know how to behave in company, and what will your old books and your money matter if—"
"By and by nothing will matter, my dear, but Decker's honk will be heard before I understand what you're getting at, if you don't hurry. What do you want me to do?"
"I want you to meet the nine-fifteen train from the South and—"
"Pick out an unknown person and bring her to a hostless house? I wish I was as nice as you think I am, dear madam, but I'm not. I suppose you also want me to apologize to your guest for your absence from home, tell her a pretty fairy tale and say—"
"If you'd say the right thing I'd like you to make up something, but you wouldn't. I certainly have no idea of breaking an engagement, however, just to be home when a country cousin of Channing's arrives. Being such an out-of-the-world sort of person she may think it is strange, so please tell her—"
"I'll tell her nothing." Laine lighted a fresh cigar. "I'm going home."
"But you can't! You're to stay to dinner, that's why I didn't telephone you about Claudia. The children chose taking dinner with you as their compensation for having to stay in on account of the weather, and they're hanging over the banisters this very minute." Mrs. Warrick got up and with care straightened her skimpy skirts. "Please don't let them eat too much. They can have—"
"Not a bit more than they want." Laine took the white fur coat which the maid had laid on the chair a minute before and held it for his sister to put on. "All this sloppy stuff given to children of the present day will mean anemic men and women to-morrow. I'll take dinner with them, and if they are sick I'll take the blame, but not if the Virginian has opinions of her own concerning modern manners. Are you sure you're well wrapped?"
"Sure. I hope Decker can find her, but I doubt it. Maybe she can manage by herself. Anyway, I've done all I could. Good night, and please don't let the children eat too much of a mixture. You'll come and see Claudia, won't you?"
Laine shook his head. "I haven't time."
"Time! Of all nonsense!" She turned and kissed him. "The children will have you at dinner, anyhow, and that's why I sent for you. Good night, mean man!"
She gathered up her skirts, and Laine, following her to the door, at which the second man stood waiting to throw a roll of carpet down the snow-sprinkled steps to the car at the curb, watched it until the corner was turned, then walked toward the dining-room, where two young people threw two pair of arms around his legs and rent the air with two ecstatic shrieks.
"There's turkey and giblet gravy and salad and loads of things, Uncle Winthrop, and I am going to sit at the head of the table, and Timkins says I may pour the coffee for you in the library, and—"
"Mother said I could have some ice-cream and two pieces of cake if they weren't very big." And Channing Warrick, Junior, aged seven, made effort to remove Dorothea Warrick, aged ten, from her point of vantage next her uncle's right hand. But breath was lost in the high toss given him by the strong arms which had sent him in the air, and as he landed on his feet he laughed in gasping delight.
"Come on." Dorothea's voice was eager. "It's ready, and so am I, and at eight we've got to be in bed."
As he took his seat at the perfectly appointed table, Mr. Winthrop Laine nodded at first one child and then the other. "What very piggy relations I have," he said, opening his napkin. "Not a word of greeting to an ancient uncle, but just an announcement of what there is to eat. One would think you were starving."
"We are." Dorothea laid down her napkin and got up. "Excuse me for leaving my seat, but mother 'said we could have a good time to-night, and we can't if we're particular about manners. I hate manners. I guess I get it from you, Uncle Winthrop. I heard Miss Robin French say you didn't have any. She said she'd invited you to her house a dozen times, and you'd never been once, or made a party call or anything."
"What's a party call?" Channing's mouth was full of soup. "What's a party call, Uncle Winthrop?"
"It's the penalty one has to pay for being invited where one doesn't want to go. What were you saying, Dorothea?"
"I've forgotten. Channing is just as rude as if he were somebody! Oh yes—I started to say I'm sorry we were piggy about mentioning the food first. We've been crazy to see you. We had something to tell you. I think I'll sit down here right by you; it's too far off behind those flowers, and I'll kiss you now if you don't mind." And Dorothea's arms were around her uncle's neck and her cheek was laid lovingly to his.
"Of course." Laine unfastened the arms, drew the child's head down, kissed her, and patted the little hands before sending their owner to her seat. "Being the beginning of a woman you kiss and make up, which is more than your heathen brother does. Not another one!" The dish of almonds was withdrawn from Channing's reach. "Let me see your hands, sir! And you a member of polite society! Ah, here's the turkey. And it's the drumstick you said you wanted, did you, Channing? Drumsticks were put on turkeys just for little boys. I always got the drumstick and the gizzard."
"I don't want any drumsticks!" Channing's lips quivered. "I want—"
"And he can't have the gizzard, Uncle Winthrop, really he can't. Maybe you don't know about Fletcherizing, and you ought to be thankful you don't, but you can't Fletcherize a gizzard, not if you chew all night, and if there's breast enough for everybody, I think he'd better have that. And I'll take plenty of gravy, please, and stuffing, if there's oysters in it. Wait a minute!" Dorothea's hand went up and her head went down. "I'd like to say grace: 'I thank Thee, Lord, for this sure-enough food and for Uncle Winthrop being here, and please let it happen again and don't let it make us sick. Amen.'"
Through the grace Channing's fork had been suspended, but his jaws had not stopped work; and at the last word he leaned forward and made a dive for the olives, two of which he put in his mouth at once.
To the man at the foot of the table the situation was perplexing. His niece and nephew, born of wealth and surrounded by abundance, were eating with the eagerness of little pigs; eating as if afraid their plates would be withdrawn before they had had their fill. On the tip of Channing's nose a drop of gravy glistened in the candle-light, and Dorothea was swallowing much too rapidly for health.
Looking up, she caught her uncle's eye and leaned back in her chair. Hands on her breast and eyes half closed, she sighed regretfully. "I'm full already, and we're not half through," she said, and beckoned to the butler, who came closer. "What kind of salad is it, Timkins, and is there mayonnaise on it or that thin stuff?"
Timkins coughed slightly behind his hand. "It's mushrooms and white grapes with mayonnaise, I think, Miss, but—"
Dorothea's eyes closed tightly. "Just my luck. I've never tasted it but once, and it's perfectly grand, Uncle Winthrop. Mother had it for lunch the day that scraggy-looking woman and her daughter were here from London. Mother said she was Lady somebody, but our cook is much nicer-looking on Sundays. She didn't eat her salad."
"You ate it." Channing's fork was pointed accusingly at Dorothea. "You licked the plate."
"I certainly did." Dorothea stood up, shook herself, sat down again, and carefully arranged her knife and fork. "We were in the pantry. Antoinette was ill and Timkins let us come in. You see, Uncle Winthrop, it's this way. We are scientifics, Channing and I. We've been brought up on a book, and we don't get enough to eat. Mother says everything has been learned out of science now—I mean about how much children can eat, and how much they can drink, and how much air they can sleep in, and how to breathe right, and Antoinette says when we were little we used to be weighed every day. And that's why we stuff so when we get a chance. I'm ten, going on eleven."
"And I'm seven, going on eight"—Channing had not yet yielded the turkey in sight for the salad to come, and his fork was still being steadily applied—"and all we have for supper—"
"Is bread and milk." Dorothea's hand waved silence to Channing. "Antoinette says the milk is magnificent, but I'd rather have something with more taste that isn't so grand. I wish I'd been born before all this science had been found out. If we sneeze we have to be sprayed, and if we cough we're sterilized or something, and the only word in the English language Antoinette pronounces right is germs! You'd think they were ghosts, the way she lifts her eyes and raises her hands when she says it. And she don't know what they are, either. Did you kiss me when I was a baby, Uncle Winthrop?"
"In the mouth?"
"In the mouth."
"Well, they don't let anybody kiss babies that way now. But if ever I have any I'm going to let people kiss them and squeeze them, too. I mean nice people. I don't believe in scientifics for children."
"But, my dear Miss Warrick"—Mr. Laine was also waiting on his young nephew—"suppose your husband does. Surely a man should have some say in the upbringing of his family!"
"Father don't." Dorothea leaned forward and selected an olive critically. "Father would let us have anything we want, but he says mother must decide. He's so busy he hasn't time to see about children. He has to make the money to buy us—"
"Milk." Channing pushed his plate back. "I hate milk. Gee! I'm full. You can have my salad, Dorothea, if you'll give me your ice-cream. It didn't make you sick the day you ate all that lady left."
"You ate leavings!" Laine's voice made effort to be horrified. "Dorothea Warrick ate leavings from a lady's plate!"
"It wasn't leavings. She didn't touch it. I was peeping through the door and I heard her say she never ate trash. It was grand. Nobody told me not to eat it, and I ate."
"An inherited habit, my dear." Laine put the almonds, the olives, and the mints beyond the reach of little arms. "Once upon a time there was a lady who lived in a garden and she ate something she ought not to have eaten and thereby made great trouble. She had been told not to, but being a woman—"
"I know about her. She was Eve." Dorothea took some almonds from her uncle's plate and put one in her mouth. "She was made out of Adam's rib, and Adam was made out of the dust of the earth. Ever since she ate that apple everybody has been made of dust, Antoinette says."
Channing sat upright, in his big blue eyes doubt and distress. "Was Dorothea and me made out of dust, Uncle Winthrop?"
"Dust, mere dust, my man."
For a moment there was silence and seeming thought, then Dorothea's head bobbed up and down. "Well, we can't help it, and there's no use letting things hurt that you can't help! But I don't think mother knows, Uncle Winthrop, and please don't tell her. She just hates dirt. Gracious goodness! I'm as full as a frog, and the ice-cream's got chocolate on it, too!"
In the library some minutes later Dorothea was pouring her uncle's coffee, and as he took the cup she brought him he bowed ceremoniously, then put it down to light a cigar. There were times when he wished Dorothea were his. If she were his— He took a long whiff of his cigar and threw the match in the fire.
DOROTHEA AND MR. LAINE
"Pardonnez-moi!" Mademoiselle Antoinette stood at the door. Around and about her hung blushing apology, and her hands clasped and unclasped in nervous appeal. The hour had struck and her little charges must come. Would Monsieur pardon? She was so sorry, it was sad, but Madame would not like it. "Oh, of course!" Laine waved his hand. "Good night, Buster!" Channing was tossed in the air. "If the gobblers get you to-night, don't mind. They're just turkey. Good night, Miss Wisdom!" Stooping, he kissed Dorothea and unwound the arms with which she clung to him. "I'm sorry, child, but a bargain is a bargain, and your mother won't trust us if we don't play fair— It's after eight and—" "But I haven't told you what was the specialest thing I had to—" Dorothea turned to the woman standing in the door holding her brother's hand; spoke to her rapidly.
"Je vous en prie, Mademoiselle Antoinette, Prenez Channing et ne m'attendez pas. Je vous rejoindrai dans un instant. J'ai quelque chose de tres important a dier a mon oncle—deux minutes et j'arrive!"
Antoinette hesitated, then, with a gesture of despair, left the room; and instantly Dorothea was on a stool at her uncle's feet.
"Did you know?" Elbows on his knees and chin in the palms of her hands she looked up eagerly in his face. "Did you know my cousin Claudia was coming to-night?"
"Isn't it grand!" Dorothea's hands came together, and in another minute she was dancing round and round the room, the tip ends of her skirt held by her fingers. "I'm crazy about my cousin Claudia. She's my only correspondent, the only one I love to write to, I mean. She writes things I like to hear about, and Christmas she sends me something I want. That's the way we began to write. She sent me a present, and father made me thank her in writing myself, and then she wrote me and we've been friends ever since."
Laine knocked the ashes from his cigar toward the grate. "I didn't know you knew Miss Keith."
"I don't. But I'm going to like her all right. Some things you know right here"—she put her hand on her breast. "Father's been wanting mother to ask her for a long time, but mother said she knew she didn't have clothes like New York people wore, and it might make her feel badly. I heard them talking one night, and father said the Keiths didn't have to depend on their clothes to show where they belonged, so mother invited her; but I don't think she wanted to very much. Do you suppose?"—she came toward him, and, with her hands on the arms of his chair, searched his face—"Do you suppose she will be very country-looking?"
"I really couldn't guess. People who live in the backwoods and miles from a railroad are not apt to be leaders of fashion. Doubtless her hands will be red and her face will be red and her hair will be red, but—"
"I don't care how red she is, I'm going to love her. I can tell by her letters!" Dorothea's shoulders were back and her eyes were shining. "And I don't see why you say things like that! I don't think you are very polite!"
"I don't, either. I think I'm very impolite. It may be, you know, that her eyes will be blue and her lips will be blue and her skin will be blue—"
"And that will be worse than red. I thought you were going to be glad she was coming. Aren't you glad?"
"Shall I tell the truth, or be polite?"
"Impossible! If I told you I was glad I would be untruthful; if sorry, I would be impolite."
"But why aren't you glad? Are you too old to be glad over young ladies?"
Laine laughed. "I think I am. Yes, I'm sure that's what's the matter. Not for some years have I been glad over them, I don't care for girls older than you are, Dorothea. When they reach the grown-up age—"
"Claudia has reached the age of twenty-six. She told me so in one of her letters. What age have you reached, Uncle Winthrop?"
"Is that very old?" Dorothea came closer, and her fingers slipped in and out of Laine's hair. "You're gray just a teensy bit, but I don't think she's a person who will mind if a man isn't truly young. You've got such nice strong arms, and I'm not afraid of lions or tigers or bears or—or mice or anything when you are with me. Please like her, Uncle Winthrop!" Dorothea's face was pressed against Laine's. "Next to father and mother and Channing I love you best, and I think I'm going to love her next after you."
From the steps outside Antoinette was calling, and Dorothea nodded her head at her uncle. "That's another thing my children are not going to have. They are never going to have a French governess to put them to bed and make them say their prayers in French. I don't believe the Lord likes it. Good night, Uncle Winthrop. I hope my cousin Claudia will be politer about you than you've been about her, and I know she hasn't red hands." She waved her own and threw a kiss, but as she reached the door Laine called her back.
"Come here, Dorothea."
She turned and came toward him. "Did you call me, Uncle Winthrop?"
"I did." He drew her on his knees. "Did you say you said your prayers in French?"
"Every night, unless for punishment I have to say a German one. Channing just shuffles his out and runs all the words together so I don't believe even God can understand them. I don't like French prayers."
"Then why do you say them?"
"Oh, we have to! All the children I know say their prayers in French. One day six of us had a race to see which could say them fastest and say the most. I beat. Want to hear me?"
"Indeed I don't!" Laine's voice was emphatic. "But I don't like French prayers for little American girls. I never cared for parrots or—"
"What kind do you say, French or American?" Dorothea was stroking her uncle's fingers one by one. "I always say my real prayers inside after I get in bed—that is, if I'm not too sleepy; and they're just plain talking to the Lord. You see, we are not allowed to speak one word except in French to Antoinette, and mother likes us to speak it to her, only she is always in such a hurry she forgets half the time. We speak English to father, all right, though; father says French for breakfast is all foolishness, and I think so, too. We take breakfast with father every morning, and we just have a grand time. Mother is never very well in the mornings, so she don't get up; but we take lunch with her when there isn't company and she isn't going out. Did you know the Dufferns had a new baby at their house?"
Laine shook his head.
"They have. It's a girl. They had four girls already, and Julia says they're going to change their doctor. He always brings girls."
Dorothea slipped from her uncle's lap. "I know what that means. Whenever she says 'Madam-ois-elle Doro-thea!' through her nose it's a German prayer. Good night." And this time she was gone.
Laine followed her to the steps to take upon himself the responsibility of her delay, and as he came back in the room he glanced at the clock and took out his watch. It wouldn't do for a girl from the country to get into New York alone at this time of night, and, of course, he would have to meet her; but why did she come at this hour of night? Ringing for his coat and hat, he put them on, then stopped to light a cigar, and as the match was held to it the front door-bell rang sharply. A moment later some one was talking to Timkins.
"Is this Mr. Warrick's residence?"
The voice that asked the question was fresh and clear, and carried easily to where he stood. He looked around quickly as if for escape.
"Yes'm." He could picture the bow Timkins was making. Timkins was the politest person he knew. "Yes'm, and this is Miss Keith, isn't it? Just come in, ma'm, we're expecting of you, though your train must have been a little earlier than usual, ma'm. Mr. Warrick is out of town, and Mrs. Warrick had a pressing engagement which couldn't be denied, but she left messages for you, and I think a note. Yes'm, just this way." And Timkins, knowing Laine was in the library, led the stranger past the door and up the steps, over the banisters of which was heard from Dorothea a cry of delight.
"Oh, my Cousin Claudia! My Cousin Claudia! I'm so glad you've come! I'm so glad!"
A laugh as fresh as the dawn of perfect morning followed the kisses next heard, and then the new voice spoke again.
"You precious child! I'm so glad you're glad. It's so nice to have somebody glad to see you!"
THE LOSS OF HIS BEST FRIEND
At the click of Laine's latch-key Moses started from the doze into which he had fallen and jumped to his feet. "Lord, sir, I sure is glad you've come," he said, following Laine into the library. "Gineral's been mighty bad off since you went away, and one time I thought he was plumb gone. He done had what you might call a faintin' fit if'n he was a person."
"Where is he?" Laine's voice was quick, and his eyes swept the room. "What have you done for him?"
"He laid himself on the rug in your room, sir, and I give him a little brandy and water. Most in general that will hit the spot and—" But Laine was in his room, and Moses, following, saw him on his knees by the rug, his right arm under the dog's head, his left on the heart which was barely beating, and softly he tiptoed out again.
For an hour or so he stayed away, wandering between his room and the kitchen, the kitchen and the dining-room, and back again to his room, talking to himself in an undertone; and presently he sat down by a table and began to turn the pages of a family Bible which adorned it, and which he had presented to himself the Christmas before.
"It do beat all how he love that dog," he said, as if to some one at his side, "and it's a-goin' to make a hole in his heart when he's gone. I never seen anybody set such store on a thing what ain't a human being as he do on Gineral, and as for Gineral—if a dog could do what you call worship, he sure do worship Mr. Laine. They was partners, them two, and it will be a quiet place when Gineral ain't here any more."
Slowly he turned page after page of the big-printed Bible, with its illuminated text; but presently he closed it. "I've read right much of it, and I've heard a heap of it expounded, but I haven't got no recollections of any references to the passing of dogs in it," he continued, taking out a plug of tobacco and cutting off a good-sized piece. "I wish there was. When something you love is leavin' you, you have a mighty sinkin' feeling in the pit of your stomach, and a terrible understandin' of the unableness of man. And then it is you feel a reachin' out after something what ain't man. Mr. Laine is mighty learned, but learnin' ain't no cure for loneliness, and Gineral is all he's got. And I tell you now, this comin' home to empty rooms is cold comin'."
Moses was speaking to the wall opposite, but the wall not replying he got up and tip-toed to Laine's bedroom. Looking up, Laine saw him and called him in.
"Go to bed, Moses," he said, and his voice was very tired. "There is nothing you can do. If I need you I will let you know."
Moses shook his head. "I ain't a-goin' to bed, Mr. Laine. You can make me go out if you want to, but if I ain't intrudin' I would like to stay."
Slowly the hours passed. From the street occasional stirrings reached them faintly; but in the room only short breathing broke the silence. As day dawned Moses, from his seat near the door, spoke:
"Well." Laine did not look up.
"When dogs die do they live again?"
"I don't know."
"I don't reckon anybody knows. But that don't mean they don't. If I was as certain I was fixed for heaven as I know Gineral is a-goin' to be waitin' for you somewhere, I'd feel more reconcilement to death. Some things can die and some things can't. There ain't no time limit to love, Mr. Laine. I think"—Moses got up—"I think Gineral is trying to make you understand something, sir."
Half an hour later Laine called Moses back into the room, gave a few orders, changed his clothes, and without waiting for breakfast went out, and not until dark did he come in again.
Dinner was a pretense, and presently he pushed his coffee aside, lighted a cigar, and took up the evening paper. The headlines were glaring, but he passed them quickly. Telegraphic news was skimmed, stock reports and weather conditions glimpsed unheedingly, and the editorial page ignored, and, finally, with a gesture of weariness, he threw the paper on the floor and went into the library.
It was, as Moses had said, a very spacious room, and its furnishings were distinctive; but, though warm and brightly lighted, to stay in it to-night was impossible, and, ringing for his coat and hat, he made ready to go out.
At the table he lingered a moment and glanced at some letters upon it. Mechanically he took one up, looked at the writing of his name, and wondered indifferently who it was from. Breaking it open, he read the few words it contained, and at them his face colored and he bit his lips to hide their twitching. He read:
DEAR MR. LAINE,—Dorothea has just told me. I am so sorry. CLAUDIA KEITH.
With a sudden surrender to something stubbornly withheld, he sat down in the chair near the table, leaned back in it, and closed his eyes to keep back that which stung and blinded them. To most of his friends the going of General would be but the going of a dog, and barely a passing thought would be its portion when they heard, but she must understand. He got up. No. There was no one who could really understand.
A LETTER PROM DOROTHEA
For a moment he hesitated whether to go down or up the street. The air was biting, but the snow, fairly well cleaned from the sidewalks, no longer bothered; and, crossing into Madison Avenue, he turned down and began to walk rapidly toward that part of the city where there would be few people and little glare, and as he walked unconsciously he repeated over and over to himself: "Dorothea has just told me. I am so sorry."
"Mister, please, sir, buy a paper?" He stopped abruptly. The boy in front of him stamped first one foot and then the other, and the hand he held out was rough and red. Drawing it back he blew on it for a little warmth.
"What are you doing out this time of night?" Laine asked the question hardly knowing why. "You ought to be home in bed."
"Ain't got no home." The boy laughed cheerfully, and again put his fist to his mouth and blew upon it. "I'm sleepin' with another boy this week, but I have to pay him. Please buy a paper, Mister!"
Under his breath Laine caught himself saying something, then handed the boy a piece of money and passed on. Where was he, anyhow? Surely he was in no mood for the life of this neighborhood. It was one he had seldom been in, and as he looked at its houses dull wonder filled him as to their occupants. To keep breath in their bodies meant sordid struggle and bitter strife, but possibly they were happy. Certainly he had long since learned the possession of mere material things did not mean happiness. He had long since learned a great many things it was unfortunate to know.
A clock in the church near by struck ten, and turning he went over into the Avenue and began his walk up-town. As he reached Madison Square he looked at the empty benches and wondered as to the fate of the derelicts who daily filled them in warm weather, and wondered if they, too, wondered what it was all for—this thing called life.
In contrast to the traffic of the day the stillness of the Avenue was puzzling. Only the whir of an automobile or the occasional hoofbeats of a cab-horse broke the silence, and hardly less dark than the tenements just passed were its handsome houses, with their closed shutters and drawn curtains, and the restless occupants therein. As he reached the Park he stopped, hesitated, and lighted a fresh cigar. Three squares away was his sister's house, and in it was the girl with the fresh, clear voice. He took the note she had sent him out of his pocket, and in the light hanging just above him looked again at the firm, clear writing, then put it back. Did she, too, wonder at life, at its emptiness and aimlessness? Her voice did not sound as if she were tired of it or found it wearisome. It sounded like a very happy voice.
At his door he turned the latch-key, and for a moment—a bare moment—drew back; then, with a shiver, he opened the door and went inside.
Moses was waiting. "Miss Dorothea she called me up, sir, and told me to be sure and give you this letter to-night. She slip out of bed to telephone when that French white lady was out the room, she say. She had her Ma send it by messenger, and she was so 'fraid you wouldn't get it to-night she couldn't sleep. She sent a peck of love."
Laine took the letter and went to his room. Dorothea was given to letters, and if his absence was unduly long a communication to that effect was promptly received. He had seen her last night, however. What was she wanting now? Breaking the seal, he read the sprawly writing with narrowed eyes, then read again, that he might miss no word.
DEAR UNCLE WINTHROP,—Moses telefoned us and Channing and I have just cried and cried and cried. But I won't even call his name if you will only come and let me kiss you so you will know. We wanted to send you some flowers but Claudia said our love was best. She is so sorry too. She had one and it died last spring. I had a headake to-day. It came from my heart because of you and she made it go away. I think she could make most any kind of pain go away. And her hands are not red and her hair is brown and her lashes are brown too, and long and lovely. I don't know the color of her eyes. I think they are glad color. I love her! I knew I would.
Your devoted niece, DOROTHEA.
P. S.—I told her you didn't like young ladies and she said she didn't like old gentlemen, except a few. Please, P-L-E-A-S-E come and see me—and you can come in the nursery if you don't want to see her. She knows.
Your loving niece, DOROTHEA.
P. S. Again.—You ought to hear her laugh. Its delishus.
He put the letter back in the envelope, and the envelope in his pocket. "She knows," he repeated. What under heaven had Dorothea been telling her? He must see Dorothea and have it stopped. Did she think him a feeble and infirm person who leaned on a stick, or a crabbed and cross one who had no manners? He would have to call, if only to thank her for her note. No. He would do that in writing. Next week, perhaps, he might drop in and see Dorothea. But Hope and Channing should take the girl about, show her the city. Certainly Hope could not be so idiotic as to let clothes matter. In his sister's world clothes were the insignia of its order, and of late Hope had shown signs that needed nipping. He must see Hope. Next week would be time enough, but Hope and Dorothea must both be seen.
AN AFTERNOON CALL
"How do you do? Oh, how do you do, too, Miss Keith?" Miss Robin French held out a hand first to Mrs. Channing Warrick and then to her guest and shook their hands with vigor.
"Did you ever know such weather at this season of the year? Even heat and cold are no longer like they used to be. Everything is intensified. Indeed I will have some tea! No lemon, and one lump. One. That's a sick-looking fire, Hope. Good gracious! I just did catch that vase of flowers! Such a stupid fancy, putting flowers everywhere for people to knock over. Well, Miss Keith, have you gotten your breath since you reached New York? Something of a town, isn't it?"
A gulp of hot tea, taken standing by Miss French, gave pause for a moment, and Claudia Keith instinctively drew her feet up under her chair behind the tea-table. To duck her head, as one would dodge an on-coming deluge, was an impulse, but only with her feet could effort be made for self-preservation, and as she refilled the cup held out to her by the breezy visitor she blessed the table which served as a breastwork of defense. With a hasty movement she put in the one lump and handed the cup back. "I breathe here very well," she said, and smiled into the scrutinizing eyes. "New York is very wonderful."
"And very disagreeable eight months out of the twelve." Miss French put her cup on the table, threw her fur coat on the chair behind her, sat down, and, taking the cup again, drank its entire contents. "Pretty good tea, Hope; at most places it's undrinkable." Again she handed the cup to Claudia. "One more and that's all. I'm cutting out tea a bit—only twelve cups a day now."
"Twelve!" The exclamation was beyond recall. Claudia's hand stopped in its pouring. "Twelve!"
"That's what I said. Have taken thirty many times, but the doctor thought I was getting nerves and called me down. Nerves!" Miss French's nose went up. "Nerves and nonsense are twin sisters, and I've no opinion of either. How did you like the opera last night?"
The question being addressed apparently to the cigarette Miss French took out of a little silver case, lighted, and began to smoke, neither Mrs. Warrick nor Miss Keith answered, each waiting for the other; but it did not matter, Miss French was looking at a photograph in front of her. With lorgnette to her eyes, she examined it critically.
"Rather a good picture of your brother, Hope. Didn't know he'd do anything so human as have a picture taken." She took it up. "Winthrop would hardly take prizes at a beauty show, but he's certainly all there for something better. When did you get this?"
"A month ago, I guess." Mrs. Warrick took a log from the basket on the hearth and put it on the andirons. "The editors of the Review made him send his picture when that article of his came out on 'Tax Terrors and Tax Traditions.' Channing says it's the best thing that's been written on taxation for years, and in banking circles—"
"He's earned his pedestal." Miss French put down her cigarette and handed the case to Claudia.
Claudia shook her head. "Thanks. I don't—"
"Pity. You've lots to learn yet. Most of you Southerners have, but when you catch up you speed all right. I'll give you this for nothing—don't toboggan all at once. Have you seen this picture of Hope's crank of a brother? You needn't expect to meet him. He comes of good Vermont stock, and its granite is no firmer than his principles; but he has no manners. I've known him fifteen years and am qualified to speak."
"He has got manners!" Mrs. Warrick turned indignantly toward Miss French. "Claudia only got here Thursday night, and Winthrop has been too busy—"
"Busy! You're dippy about Winthrop, Hope. He's the most indifferent human being to other human beings that walks this earth, and has more friends—men friends—than any man I know. He's rotten spoiled; that's what's the matter with him. He's been chased, I admit. What uncaught man of means isn't? I've no patience with Winthrop. It's natural young girls should bore him, but that's no reason why he should live so entirely to himself."
"Perhaps"—Claudia took up a letter from the table in front of her and with it tapped her lips absently—"perhaps he prefers to live that way. I wonder, Miss French, if you can tell me where Kroonstater's is? No one here seems to know, and every day I get further commissions from my county which can only be filled there. Years ago some one from Brooke Bank bought wonderful and marvelous Christmas things from Kroonstater's, and ever since it's been the one store in New York for many of our people. I must find it."
"Kroonstater's?" Miss French again put up her lorgnette. "Never heard of it."
Claudia laughed. "I see you, too, have something to learn. You don't know the joy of shopping if you don't know a store of that kind. I suppose I'll have to find it by myself."
"For goodness' sake don't, Claudia." Mrs. Warrick got up; some one at the telephone wanted her. "I passed one of those downtown stores once, and the crowd in it was something awful. You never know what kind of disease you might catch, and the people are so pushy. All the nice stores have Christmas things."
"I don't doubt it." Claudia smiled. "But Brooke Bank people have ideas of their own. Their demands are many, and their dollars few. And, then, I love to see the crowd. Their pennies are as important as our pounds, and to watch their spending is the best kind of a play."
"Where did you say you came from?" Miss French surveyed the girl in front of her with sudden interest. Something new under the sun was ever the quest of her inquiries and pursuits, and as if she had possibly found it she looked closer at her friend's guest. Not the youth, not the fair skin now flushed with color that came and went, nor the long dark lashes, nor perfect teeth, nor anything that could be named made the girl distinctive, but something well-defined and penetrating. Again she asked the question. "Where did you say you were from?"
"From Virginia. Have you ever been there?"
Miss French shook her head.
Claudia sat up. In her eyes no longer laughter, and incredulity that was genuine. "You mean you never have been to Virginia?"
Elbows on the table and chin in the palms of her hands, Claudia looked at Miss French as intently as Miss French looked at Claudia. "Then you've never heard, I suppose, of the Northern Neck, or Westmoreland County, or Essex, or Lancaster, or King George, or—"
"Never. Quite English, aren't they? Is that where you live?"
"I live in Essex. We're on the Rappahannock. There isn't a railroad in the county. We have to take the boat for Fredericksburg or Norfolk to get anywhere, unless we cross the river into Westmoreland County and drive over to the Potomac side and make the boat to Washington. Have you ever been to Washington?"
"Of course. I've been pretty well over the world."
"And left out its best part!" Claudia laughed and got up to turn the logs which were smoking. "You mustn't die before seeing it. There isn't so much to see, perhaps, but a good deal to feel. Do you like fox-hunting?"
"Never tried it." Again Miss French looked at the girl now standing in front of her. She was certainly not a plate of fashion—that is, not a French plate—but she was graceful, and her clothes were really very good. Her unconsciousness of self was rather astounding in a country girl.
"I think you'd like a fox-hunt. I will miss the big one this year—Thanksgiving comes so late, and Christmas there's no time."
"Christmas in the country must be very stupid."
"Stupid!" Claudia's hands, which had been clasped behind her back, opened and came together on her breast. "Of course"—her eyes were raised to Miss French's—"it's a point of view, I suppose. We don't think it's stupid. We love it."
Miss French got up, put her cigarette-case in her velvet hand-bag, slipped on her coat, fastened her veil, picked up her muff, shook it, and looked toward the door, between whose curtains Mrs. Warrick was standing.
"I thought you'd gone for good, Hope. You must have been telling all you knew, and more. Miss Keith was just saying she loved Christmas in the country. I can't imagine anything worse, unless it's Christmas in town. I hate Christmas! If I could go to sleep a week before, and not wake up until a week after, I'd surely do it. Why, Winthrop Laine!"
On her way to the door Miss Robin French stood still and looked at the man coming in; and over her ruddy face swept color, almost purple in its deepness. She was a handsome woman, stubbornly resisting the work of time. In her eyes was restless seeking, in her movements an energy that could not be exercised in the limits of her little world; and Claudia, watching her, felt sudden whimsical sympathy. She was so big, so lordly, so hungrily unhappy.
She held out her hand. "How do you do?" she said. "I am just going home, as your sister hasn't asked me to dinner. I suppose you will stay—"
"If there's to be any dinner. Hope has a way of cutting it out every now and then." He turned to his sister. "Are you going out to-night?"
"I certainly am not, and I'm so glad you've come! I've lots to tell you and ask you. Won't you stay, Robin?" The question was put feebly. "Do stay. Oh, I beg your pardon, Claudia, you were so far off! You haven't met my brother. Winthrop, this is Channing's cousin, Miss Keith. Please give him some tea, Claudia. I know he's frozen. Can't you stay, Robin—really?"
"Really nothing! Good-bye." Miss French waved her muff to the man who, over the teacups, was shaking hands with the girl on the opposite side of the table, and shook her head as he started toward her. "Don't come, Jenkins is out there with the car. I'd stay to dinner, but Hope doesn't enjoy hers if there's a high-neck dress at the table. Good-bye, Miss Keith; see you to-morrow night, I suppose." And, like a good strong draught that passes, she was gone.
"I'm glad she had sense enough not to stay." Mrs. Warrick came toward the tea-table. "I'm fond of Robin, but of late she's been even more energetic and emphatic than usual, and I feel like I'm being battledored and shuttlecocked whenever I see her. Why don't you drink your tea, Winthrop?"
"I don't believe I put any sugar in it. I beg your pardon!" Claudia took up the sugarbowl. "It was Miss French, I guess. She's such a—such a gusty person. I love to hear her talk. How many, Mr. Laine?"
"Three, please, and no comments, Hope. If a man must drink tea he ought to have all the sugar he wants. That last lump was so very little I think you might put in another, Miss Keith. Thank you. Perhaps this is sweet enough." "Winthrop just takes tea to have the sugar, He's as bad as Dorothea about sweet things." Mrs. Warrick turned to her brother. "Are you really going to stay to dinner? Please do. This is the only evening we're to be home for a week, and Charming is anxious to see you on some business."
"Is he?" Laine put down his cup. "Well, he won't see me on business to-night. I've an office down-town. In your part of the world, Miss Keith, don't you ever let men have a chance to forget there's such a thing as business?"
Claudia got up. "I'm afraid they have too much chance." She put her hand lightly on Mrs. Warrick's arm. "Will you excuse me, Hope? I have a letter to write." She bowed slightly in Laine's direction and was gone before he could reach the door to draw aside the curtains for her.
Mrs. Warrick leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. "Do sit down, Winthrop, and let's talk. I'm so glad to have a little time alone with you. I so seldom have it that—"
"Your guest was certainly not slow in giving it to you. She could hardly do anything but leave after your insistence upon having things to tell me. What in the name of Heaven did you do that for? Does she think we don't know how to behave up here?"
"Oh, she understands! She knows you didn't come to see her, and, besides, she's gone up-stairs to write to her mother. If King George had been here she'd have gone. You know, I really dreaded her coming, but I needn't. She has been to a good many places—was abroad for a year with one of her sisters whose husband was secretary or something to one of our ministers or somebody—but she doesn't know New York at all. She's met a number of her friend's friends already, and I won't have to scoop up men for her. Last night at the Van Doren's she had more around her than she could talk to. Always has had, Channing says. She'll be no bother; and don't stay away because she's here. Tell me"—she put her hand on his knee—"is it true you are going to Panama next month? Robin French told me she heard you would leave on the twelfth."
"If Miss French could sell fairy tales as rapidly as she can repeat them she'd make a fortune. I have no idea what I am going to do next month."
"I wish I didn't know I was going to Savannah for Christmas. It's Channing's year, and of course we ought to go to his mother, as she is too old to come to us, but there's so much going on, and then you'll be alone."
"Oh, I'll manage all right. The one good thing about Christmas is it doesn't last long." He leaned forward and with the tongs turned a smoldering log. "But it's incomprehensible how a woman with a home can keep up this everlasting going to other people's houses. To-morrow night you go—"
"To the Taillors. Mrs. Taillor's debutante daughter makes her first bow to—"
"Capitalized society, does she? Poor child! The pains of pleasure are many."
"They surely are! She looks like a scared rabbit, and I heard her say only a week ago she'd rather die than be a debutante. But she'll get on. Her mother will corral the men and compel them to come in and pay her attention. Are you going?"
"Hardly." Laine looked at his watch. "What time do you have dinner?"
"Seven. It's time for me to dress." Mrs. Warrick got up. "Do pray be decent and go to-morrow night, Winthrop. Mr. Taillor has been such a good friend, and Mrs. Taillor will be so pleased. Don't forget to send the child flowers. I wonder if Claudia is ready. Dorothea grabs her every chance she gets, and I don't doubt she's with the children this minute. She'll stay until dinner is served, so don't worry; and for goodness' sake don't let her being here keep you away."
Going down the crowded steps into the crowded drawing-room, Winthrop Laine slowly made his way through the door to the place where Mr. and Mrs. Taillor and their daughter were receiving their guests and passing them on with a rapidity that would have been creditable to the custodian of a game of human roulette, and as he reached them his name was called with uncomfortable clearness.
"Well, this is a surprise!" Both of Mrs. Taillor's hands held Laine's. "But commend me to a person who knows when to change his mind. Jessica, you should feel honored. Awfully good of you to come! How do you do, Mrs. Haislip?" And Laine, too, was passed on, and a moment later found himself in a corner where he could watch the door and all who came in.
What was he here for? He didn't know. The air was heavy with perfume. In the distance music reached him faintly, and the throb and stir and color and glow for some minutes interested him as he glanced around the handsome room with its massed palms, its wealth of flowers, its brilliant lights, and streams of gorgeously gowned women and prosperous-looking men, and then he wondered what had made him start anything of this sort again. To come had been a sudden decision. Long ago the dreariness of functions such as these had caused their giving-up, but a fancy to look once more upon one had possessed him unaccountably, and he had come.
Up-stairs in the men's room his reappearance had been banteringly commented on, and with good-natured hand-shaking he had been welcomed back; but down here many faces were strange and figures unrecognizable; and with something of shock he realized how few were the years necessary to change the personnel of any division of humanity. The heat was intense, and moving farther back toward a screen of palms near a half-open window, he pulled one slightly forward that he might see and not be seen, and again watched each newcomer with mild speculation as to whether he or she were known or not.
For a while it was puzzling, this continuing arrival of new faces, with here and there one he knew well or slightly; but gradually its effect chilled, and he was wondering if he could get away when he heard his name called.
"Winthrop Laine! Of all people!" Miss French held out her hand. "From what loophole were you watching this passing show for man's derision given? May I come in?"
Miss French moved behind the palms and pushed a tall leaf aside. "You and I are too old for these things, Winthrop. I don't know why I come—to get away from myself, I suppose. Look at that Miss Cantrell! She parades her bones as if they were a private collection of which she was proud! And did you ever see anything as hideous as that gown Miss Gavins has on? Paris green couldn't be more deadly. I heard Mathilda Hickman tell her just now to be sure and wear it to her dinner next week, it was so becoming; and only yesterday she was shrieking over it at a luncheon where everybody was talking about it, Mr. Trehan is to be at the dinner, and Mathilda wants every woman to look her worst. Hello! There comes Channing and Hope and the cousin from the country. Rather a nice sort of person, awfully young and inexperienced, but—" She put up her lorgnette. "They are talking to Miss Cantrell. Miss Keith is not becoming to Miss Cantrell, or Miss Gavins, either. Her shoulders are excellent and her head perfectly poised. That white dress suits her. Have you been in the dining-room?"
Laine came from behind the palms. "No; I was to wait for Hope. Awfully glad to have seen you, Robin. A stranger in a strange land has a chance, but a man who has lost his place hasn't. People have a way of closing up if you lose step, and I"—he laughed—"I lost step long ago. I'll see you again." And, watching, Miss French saw him take possession of Miss Keith and go with her out of the room.
Half an hour later Laine found a chair for Claudia at the end of the hall opposite the dining-room, and as she sat down he wiped his forehead. "I used to play football, but—"
"You're out of practice? I don't believe you did take more than three men by the shoulders and put them aside. I don't understand football very well, but a dining-room seems to be the center-rush. Please look at that crowd over there!" She nodded toward the open door, through which a mass of men could be seen struggling. "Isn't it queer—the eagerness with which a plate of salad is pursued?"
"And the earnestness with which it is devoured." Laine put his handkerchief in his pocket. Will you wait here a moment until I can get you something? I'll be back—"
"Indeed I won't." Claudia stood up. "It's fun to watch, but only fruit from the tree of life would be worth a scrimmage of that kind. If I could get on top of a picture-frame or a curtain-pole, or anything from which I could look down on a show like this, I'd have a beautiful time, but"—she opened her fan—"it's rather stuffy to be in it."
Laine glanced around. He knew the house well. Next to the library, but not opening into it, was a small room of Taillor's which could only be reached by a narrow passage at their right. He walked away and looked in at the door. The room was empty.
"I think it will be more comfortable over there," he said, coming back, then saw she was talking to a man he had long known and long disliked. He stopped a servant who was passing, a man who had once been in the employ of one of his clubs. "Bring some stuff over here and be quick, will you, David?" he said, then spoke to the man talking to Miss Keith.
His greeting to Dudley was not cordial. It was with difficulty indeed that he did not take Claudia away at once. Dudley was not the sort of man for her to have anything to do with. In a time incredibly short, but to Laine irritatingly long, David was back, abundantly supplied; and with a nod he was directed to the room at the end of the narrow hall, and Laine turned to the girl at his side. "Are you ready?"
"Good night." Miss Keith held out her hand. "Bettina sent you many messages."
"I'm coming to get them—may I?" Mr. Dudley's eyes were frankly eager. "But where are you going? Laine always was a monopolist. What are you doing at a thing of this kind, anyhow, Laine? Don't pay any attention to him, Miss Keith. He's mere facts and figures, and the froth of life is not in him. I'm much better company."
The last words were lost in the push of new arrivals, and quickly Laine led the way to the room where David was waiting. Through the open door the sound of music reached them faintly over the shrill rise and fall of many voices; and as Claudia sat down near the table on which various plates had been placed she put her hands to the sides of her face and, laughing, drew them away.
"Did you ever put a cockle-shell to your ear and notice its roar?" she asked. "That's how a Tea sounds when there're only women at it. When there're men it's more so. What is this?" She held her fork suspended for a moment. "It's awfully good, but very elusive. What do you suppose it is?"
"A bunch of guesses wouldn't hit it. Clicot is providing the provender, I believe; I see his men here, and the ambition of Clicot's life is to create a new dish. I'm glad you like it. It's as near nothing as anything I ever ate. Are you comfortable? Is that chair all right?"
Claudia nodded. "Why don't you sit down? I'm sorry we can't see the people, but it's nice to be out of the crowd." She looked around the room. "This is a very handsome house. I never saw more gorgeous flowers, and tomorrow," she gave a queer little sigh, "tomorrow it will all be over—and the flowers faded."
"Faded things are the penalties of wealth. It's the one compensation for follies of this sort that they are soon over."
"I don't think they are always follies. When I was young—"
He looked down at her, in his eyes a quiet gleam. "When you were what?"
"Young. Really young, I mean. I had my party when I was eighteen. I remember it just as well." She gave a happy little laugh. "But of course we change with time. My sister says I am developing a dreadful disease. It's a tendency. Did you ever have it?"
"A tendency—to think and wonder and ask questions, you know. She says people who have it are very trying. But how can you help a thing you're born with?" She leaned forward, pushed the plates aside, and folded her arms on the table. "I always wondered about things, but I didn't entirely wake up until I was over twenty. I don't blame people for having things like this"—she waved her hands inclusively—"that is, if they like this kind of thing." She looked up at him. "We're just like children. All of us love to splurge every now and then. Don't we?"
"It looks that way. Splurge has a variety of forms." Laine leaned forward, hands clasped loosely between his knees. "But the tendency—is it catching?"
She laughed. "In the country it is. I live in the country, but it didn't develop in me until I had several winters in the city. I used to love things like this. I didn't know much about a good many other things, and it was when I found out that I began to look at people and wonder if they knew, and cared, and what they were doing with it—their life I mean, their chance, their time, their money. One winter it got so bad Lettice sent me home. Lettice lives in Washington; she's my second sister. My oldest sister is a widow, and is still in London, where her husband died two years ago. I kept looking for glad faces and real, sure-enough happiness; and so many people looked bored and bothered and tired that I couldn't understand—and Lettice made me go home. Her husband is in Congress, and she said I wanted to know too much."
"Have you yet found what you were looking for?" Laine leaned back in his chair and shaded his eyes with his hand.
"Yes." She laughed lightly and got up. "You can find anything, I guess, if you look for it right. And in such unexpected places you find things!" She stopped and listened. "I believe people are going home. Please take me to Hope. I can't imagine what made us stay in here so long!"
DOROTHEA ASKS QUESTIONS
At the library window Dorothea drew the curtains aside and looked up and down the street. Presently she blew softly upon the pane and with her finger made on it four large letters, then rubbed them out and went back to the mantel, before whose mirror, on tiptoe, she surveyed the bow on her hair and straightened it with care.
"I don't see why they don't come," she said, aggrievedly, smoothing down her skirt. "It's time, and I'm going to ring for tea, anyhow. Mother said I could pour it, and I'll play lady all by myself if nobody comes to play it with. I believe"—she turned her head—"I believe they're coming now."
Again she went to the window, then rang for tea. "Quick, Timkins; please hurry and bring it in before they come," she said. "They'll be frozen." And as Timkins disappeared she put a fresh log on the fire, drew the table closer to it, and seated herself at it.
"I'm a chaperone lady. I'm chaperoning my Uncle Winthrop and my Cousin Claudia!" In gleeful delight she rocked backward and forward and twisted her hands together tightly. "I'm sorry mother has a headache, but I certainly am glad I can pour tea for them. I don't know why anybody wants to go horseback-riding on a day like this, though; I'd freeze." She straightened the embroidered cloth on the table as Timkins put the tray on it, and lighted the lamp under the kettle, and, taking up the tea-caddy, she measured out a generous amount of its contents.
"I'll be careful and not get burnt up." She waved Timkins out. "They're coming right in. It's the funniest thing about Uncle Winthrop," she went on, as if to the tea-cups she was arranging. "He didn't want to come and see Cousin Claudia, and now he comes here every day. Wouldn't it be funny if he wanted her for a sweetheart—and wouldn't it be grand!" Her arms were thrown out and then hugged rapturously to her bosom; but instantly her face sobered. "He can't have her, though, because she's somebody else's. I wonder if he knows? He ought to, for Miss Robin says when he wants anything he never gives up until he gets it, and he can't get her if she's gotten. Mother says he just comes here and takes her out and sends her flowers and things because she asked him to be nice to her; but I don't believe it's just for kindness. Gentler men aren't kind to ladies if they don't like them. I believe— Heigho, Cousin Claudia!" She waved her hand from behind the table. "Have you had a nice ride? Where's Uncle Winthrop?"
Drawing off his gloves, Laine came in the library, and as he reached the table he took from Dorothea's hands the cup of tea just poured and handed it to Claudia.
"Are you frozen?" His voice was slightly worried. "We shouldn't have gone—I did not know how very cold it was."
"It wasn't a bit too cold. I love it." Claudia shook her head. "I don't want any tea until my hands can hold the cup, though. They are cold." With her foot on the fender, she held out first one hand and then the other to the blazing fire and laughed in Dorothea's wide-opened eyes. "What is it, Madam Hostess? Is anything the matter with me?"
"Your cheeks look like they're painted. They didn't when you went out."
"Do they?" Claudia put her hands to her face. "The wind did it." Taking off her hat, she laid it on the table, loosened the hair on her temples, and sat down on the tapestried footstool near the hearth. "I'll have some tea now, please. Are there any sandwiches? I'm starving. Where's your mother, Dorothea?"
"Sick. Got a headache. I'm to pour tea, unless you'd rather." She got up reluctantly. "Would you?"
"Indeed I wouldn't." Claudia waved her back. "You suit that table beautifully. When you're a real grown-up lady you won't leave out anything; but this time you forgot the sugar."
"Did I? I was thinking of something else, I guess." Two lumps were put in the cup Laine handed her. "Where did you all go this afternoon?"
Claudia looked at Laine. "I don't know the names of the places around here. Where did we go?"
"We went—" Laine put his cup on the table and, drawing a chair closer to the fire, sat down. "I've forgotten the name of the road."
"Forgotten!" Dorothea stopped the rattling of the spoons. "You told me once you knew all the roads within twenty miles of New York in the pitch-dark. I think it's very funny you don't know where you've been. You couldn't have been looking much."
"We didn't look at all. It was too cold—" Laine put another log on the fire—"the roads were frozen, and to keep the horses from slipping was all we could attend to."
"Couldn't you talk?"
"Not a great deal. Miss Keith insists upon keeping her horse ahead of mine. It is snowing! Did you know it?"
Dorothea jumped up and ran to the window. "It wasn't just now when I looked out. Yes, it is." She peered through the pane, pressing her nose close to it. "It hasn't snowed since that first week you came, Cousin Claudia, and that's nearly a month ago. I hope it will snow fifty feet deep, so the cars can't run, and that the river will freeze so the boats can't go down it, and then you will have to stay; and so would we, and we could all be together Christmas. Don't you wish so, too, Uncle Winthrop?" She came back and leaned against her uncle's chair. "Did you know Cousin Claudia was going home next week?"
"She told me so this afternoon."
"I certainly am." Elbows on her knees and chin in her hands, Claudia looked straight into the fire. "If your wish comes true, Dorothea, I'll get an air-ship. I expected to stay three weeks, and will have stayed five before I get back. I ought to be home this minute."
"I don't think five weeks is long. I think it's very short." Dorothea took a seat on a stool at her uncle's feet, and looked up in his face. "Father says he thinks it's downright mean in her to go before we do. Don't you think she might stay, Uncle Winthrop?"
"I do." Laine changed his position and looked away from Dorothea's eyes. "Is there nothing we can do to make her change her mind?"
"Is there?" Dorothea fumed to Claudia. "I think you ought to, for mother says Uncle Winthrop is just beginning to act like a Christian in coming to see her regularly, and when you go he might stop acting that way. Are you going to stay to dinner to-night?" She took Laine's hand and intertwined her fingers in his. "Please do."
"In these clothes?"
Dorothea hesitated. "Mother wouldn't like them, but—" She jumped up and clapped her hands in excited delight. "Mother's got a headache and isn't coming down to-night, and if you will stay I think she will let me take dinner with you. I hate foolishness about clothes, and these are the becomingest ones you wear; and, besides, at the Hunt Club you eat in them, and why can't you do it here just once? Wouldn't it be magnificent if I could sit up?" Dorothea whirled round and round. "Father is out of town, and Channing has a tiny bit of cold and can't leave his room, and I'm so lonesome. Oh, please, Uncle Winthrop, please stay!"
"Ask Miss Keith if I can stay. She may have other engagements."
"Have you?" Dorothea was on her knees by Claudia, hands on her shoulders. "And may he stay? You won't have to change your clothes, either. You look precious in those riding things, and, when you take the coat off, anybody who didn't know would think you were a little girl, the skirt is so short and skimpy; and your hair with a bow in the back looks like me. Can't he stay, Cousin Claudia?"
"If he wants to, of course. I'm sorry your mother is sick. She didn't tell me at lunch."
"It's just a headache, and as father is away and there was nothing to go to, I think she thought she'd take a rest and read something. Are you going out to-night?"
Claudia got up. "No, I'm not going out; but I have a letter to write. Will you stay to dinner, Mr. Laine?"
"I will. Thank you very much, Miss Warrick. The invitation was forced from Miss Keith, but I accept it notwithstanding." Laine, who had risen, put his hand on Dorothea's shoulder. "I think we will have a very nice dinner-party."
"I'll chaperone it!" Dorothea rose to full height and balanced herself on her toes. "Miss Robin French said she couldn't go on some trip the other day because there was no chaperone; and if a lady with a mole on her chin and nearly forty has to have a chaperone, I guess you all will. Please don't stay long, Cousin Claudia. If you don't want to see mother, Uncle Winthrop, I'll talk to you, for after dinner I will have to go right straight to bed, being a brought-up-on-a-book child, and then you and Cousin Claudia will be all by yourselves. Maybe if you asked mother, though, she might let me sit up just this once. Shall I go and tell her you say so?"
Laine held the curtains for Claudia to pass out. "We wouldn't be so cruel as to keep her up, would we?" he asked, and smiled in the eyes turned quickly from his. "You will not be gone long, and you won't change your dress?"
"I will be back in time for dinner—and I won't change my dress. Tell Dorothea about the birds we saw this afternoon."
During the hour that passed before Claudia came back Dorothea had a chance that seldom came for uninterrupted conversation, and that her uncle said little was not noticed for some time. Presently she looked up,
"I don't believe you've opened your lips since Cousin Claudia went up-stairs," she said. "I don't wonder you don't know where you went this afternoon if you didn't see any more than you're hearing now. You don't know a thing I've been talking about."
Laine raised his head with a start. "Oh yes, I do. You were saying—saying—"
"I told you so! You didn't even know where you were! You were way off somewhere." Dorothea's voice was triumphant. "I want to ask you something, Uncle Winthrop. I won't tell anybody." She settled herself more comfortably on the stool at his feet, and crossed her arms on his knees. "Don't you think my Cousin Claudia is nice?"
"Very nice." Laine took out his handkerchief, wiped his glasses, and held them to the light.
"And don't you think she has a lovely mouth? When she talks I watch her like I haven't got a bit of sense." Dorothea scanned her uncle's face critically. "Your eyes are dark; and hers are light, with dark rims around the seeing part, and she just comes to your shoulder; but you look so nice together. I hope you feel sorry about the things you said about her before she came."
"That maybe her face was red and her hair was red and her hands were red, or if they weren't, maybe they were blue. Aren't you sorry?"
"Very sorry, Dorothea. I was rude and tired and worried that evening. Let's forget it."
"I never have told her, but I supposed you must have changed your mind, for you've been here so much lately, and gone to so many places with her that you don't like to go to, that I thought—"
"Thought what, Dorothea?"
"That maybe—" Dorothea stroked Laine's fingers one by one—"maybe you liked her a little bit. Don't you remember I asked you please to like her, and you didn't seem to think you would. But you do, don't you? I won't tell anybody. Don't you like her, Uncle Winthrop?"
"I like her very much, Dorothea." Into Laine's clear-cut face the color crept to his temples, "She is very different from any one I've—"
"I knew you would." Dorothea's hands came together excitedly. "I knew it the minute I saw her, for she isn't a bit frilly, and you don't like frills any more than I do, and she doesn't, either. She's sees through people like they were glass, and she tells us the grandest, shiveringest, funniest stories you ever heard. I bet she's telling Channing one this minute. She loves children. I'm so glad you like her, Uncle Winthrop. I knew you would if you saw her, but I didn't know you'd see her so much."
"How could I help it if I saw her once? The trouble has been to get her to see me. Perhaps she thinks I am too old to—"
"Oh, she knows you aren't the sweetheart kind—Miss Robin French told her so, and mother and everybody says you are too set in your ways to get married, and that's why I think she likes you, because you aren't that sort. She hates flum talk, and you talk sense and things. She told father so. Here she is now. Please stay with Uncle Winthrop, Cousin Claudia, while I ask mother if I may take dinner with you." Dorothea got up. "You took off your riding boots, didn't you?"
Claudia looked at her slippers. "I surely did. I never wear high shoes in the house. Your mother says you may take dinner with us, but she wants to see you as soon as it is over. Her headache is better, but she doesn't feel like coming down to-night."
In a chair of curious carving, his feet on a pile of books which had been unpacked, but for which there was as yet no place, Winthrop Laine leaned back, partly relaxed, partly tense, and with half-shut eyes looked at a picture on the wall opposite. For an hour, two hours, he had sat like this. On his desk was an unfinished article, but "The Punishments of Progress" did not interest to-night, and after vain effort to write he had thrown the pages aside and yielded to the unrest which possessed him.
In his hands was a small calendar, and with it he tapped unconsciously the arm of his chair; but after a while he again looked at it and with his pencil marked the date of the month. It was the fifteenth of December. Miss Keith was going home on the eighteenth. Three days of her visit yet remained, a month of it had passed, and after she went— He stirred uneasily, changed his position, put down the calendar, then got up and began to walk the length of the room backward and forward. A long mirror filled the space between the two southern windows, and for some time as he reached it he avoided the face seen therein; but after a while he stopped in front of it, hands in his pockets, and spoke with smiling bitterness to it.
"Take it off, man, take it off! All men wear masks, but they needn't go to bed with them. For years you've pretended, smiled, sworn, played with all the toys, worked with the best you had, and believed you were content. And you're finding out at forty what a fool you've been. You love her. She isn't married yet, if she is engaged to another man—and if you've no fight in you, go make a hole and get in it!"
In the glass he saw his face whiten, saw the lines on his forehead swell, saw his eyes grow dark with rebellious pain, and, turning away, went to a window, opened it, and let the cold air blow upon him. Few people were on the street, and in the windows opposite was little light. The neighborhood was exclusively correct; and only that evening walking home from the club the man with him had frankly envied his manner of life, his freedom and independence. He closed the window, turned off some of the lights, and went back to his chair. "I am an entirely free and independent person," he said aloud. "A most desirable condition for a man without a heart." Why did men have hearts, anyhow, and especially such a queer kind as he had. In the days of his youth he had expected the days of his maturity to find him married, find him with the responsibilities and obligations of other men; but he had strange views of marriage. One by one his friends had entered the estate; he had helped them enter it, but he had acquired an unhealthy habit of watching their venture with wonder at its undertaking and with doubt of its success, and the years had gone by with no desire on his part to assume the risk. What he saw was not the life he wanted. Just what he did want he was not sure; but years of contact with much that blights and withers had not killed his belief in certain old-fashioned things, and if they could not come true the journey would be made alone.
What whimsical ways fate had of deciding great issues. Four weeks ago he was something of a piece of mechanism, fairly content with his drab-colored life; and now a girl had entered it and brought to him visions too fair and beautiful to be viewed unveiled, and he knew at last the mystery and power of love. Almost a week of her stay had gone before he met her. In those that followed, he had seen her many times, but frequently he had to stand back and know that others were taking her time when there was none for him to lose.
Should love come to him, he had imagined he would pursue it with the same directness and persistence which had impelled the securing of whatever was determined upon, and instead he was that most despicable of things—a coward.
She was so young—fourteen years younger than he—and what was his to offer in exchange for her life of varied interests, of sweet, sane, helpful, happy things of which he knew so little? He had thought he knew life, its all sides; and unknown to herself she had shown him what had not been understood before, and his was cold and colorless by the side of the warmth and glow of hers.
Yesterday he had known, however, he would not wait long. After she had returned to her home he would go to it and tell her why he had come. All through the day certain words had sung in his ears, and over his books had danced and blurred the figures he was making; and before him in fancy she was waiting for his coming when the day was done, was in the room with outstretched hands to give him greeting as he entered the door. The light of a new vision had blinded, and in its fire the loneliness of his life had stood out in chill clearness, and no longer could it be endured. Some one to care if the days were dark, some one to share the giving and taking of life. At the thought of trust so sacred, his face had whitened, and in his heart unconscious prayer had sprung.
That was yesterday. This afternoon he had stopped at his sister's home for tea, as he had done for days past now, and, Dorothea being sick, he had gone up to see her and give her the book bought for her. As usual, she had much to say, and he let her talk uninterruptedly. It was of Claudia that she talked, always of Claudia, and he had listened in a silence that gave chance for much detail.
"She gets more letters!" Dorothea's hands came together as if very full. "Every day there is one from the same person, sometimes two, and specials and telegrams; and sometimes he talks over the telephone. I know his handwriting now. She lets me come in her room whenever I want to. I don't see how one person could have so much to say. I knew he must be her sweetheart, and I asked mother, and mother says she's engaged to a, man in Washington. Miss Robin French told her. Mother thinks it's real strange Claudia didn't tell her." And he had answered nothing, but had gone down the steps and out of the house, and to no one said good night.
A CHANCE ENCOUNTER
Claudia glanced at the clock. She must be dressed by seven. Hurriedly she put aside the letters which could wait, and began to write.
"Just three days more, precious mother, and I will leave for home. I've seen such remarkable things; heard such wonderful music; been to so many parties and luncheons and teas and dinners; met so many people, some fearfully, dreadfully dressed, some beautifully, gorgeously gowned, that my brain is a plum-pudding, and my mind mere moving pictures. It's been a lovely visit. Channing is a dear, and Hope has done her full duty, but it's something of a strain to dwell in the tents of the wealthy. I'm so glad we're not wealthy, mother. There are hundreds of things I'd like money for, but I've gotten to be as afraid of it as I am of potato-bugs when the plants are well up. It has a way of making you think things that aren't so. I do hope Uncle Bushrod's cold is better.
"I've tried to fill all the orders from everybody, but some I haven't found yet. Hope and her friends shop only in the expensive stores, and the prices are so paralyzing that, though outwardly I don't blink, I'm inwardly appalled; but I put the things aside as if undecided whether to get them or something nicer. I'm afraid I don't mean I'm glad we're not wealthy. Certainly when shopping I don't wish it. I want millions then. Millions! And when I get among the books I'd like to be a billionaire. To-morrow I'm going out by myself and finish up everything. Hope would be horrified at my purchases, for Hope has forgotten when she, too, had to be careful in her expenditures. Her brother hasn't.
"Did I tell you about the crazy mistake I made? I thought, from what Dorothea told me, he was an old gentleman, her mother's uncle, and wrote him a note before I met him. Dorothea adores him, and when his dog died I was so sorry I told him so. I wonder what does make me do such impulsive things! I get so discouraged about myself. I'll never, never be a proper person. He isn't old.
"I wish you could see the letter Beverly wrote me from Mammy Malaprop. She says she is 'numberating the date of my return to the dissolute land in which I live, and is a-preparing to serve for supper all the indelicacies of the season.' If I didn't know old Malaprop I'd think Beverly was making up her messages, but no imagination could conceive of her twists and turns of the English language.
"Are the hens laying at all? and please tell Andrews to watch the sheep carefully; it's so bitterly cold.
"I've had a beautiful time, but, oh, mother dear, I shall be so glad to get home, where there are real things to do and where you all love me just for myself! Every night I kiss your picture and wish it was you. Best love for everybody. I have Gabriel's little trumpet.
"P. S.—We are going again to-night to the opera. If only you were going, too! I never see anything beautiful, hear anything beautiful, that I don't wish you could see it and hear it also. I'm so glad I brought my riding-habit. They have been the best things of all, the long, splendid rides in the country. So much nicer than motoring. Mr. Laine rides better than any city man I know. Three days more and I leave for home.
Guilty gladness at being alone, at getting off by herself and going where she chose, so possessed her the next day that as Claudia passed Mrs. Warrick's sitting-room she tip-toed lest she be called in and a moment of her precious freedom be lost. Several hours of daylight were still left, but there was much to be done; and hurriedly she went down the steps, hurriedly walked to the avenue, and caught the 'bus she saw coming with a sigh of thankfulness. In the center of the shopping district she got out and disappeared soon after in one of the stores. It was her only chance for the simple purchases to be made for the slim purses of her country friends; and as she read first one list and then the other she smiled at the variety of human desires and the diversities of human needs, and quickly made decisions. A letter received just before leaving the house had not been read, but its writing was recognized, and going to the door she tried to make out the scrawly contents and get, at the same time, the breath of fresh air brought in by its opening as hurrying customers came and went. To read there was impossible, however. Darkness had fallen; and, going outside for a moment, she looked up and down at the surging, pushing, shivering crowd and wondered as to the time. She was not through, and she must finish before going back.
"Is Madame Santa Claus ready to go home?"
Startled, she looked up. "Oh, Mr. Laine, I'm so glad! Indeed I'm not through, and it's dark already. Do you think Hope will mind if I don't get back for tea?"
"I think not." He smiled in the troubled face. "What is left to be done?"
"This among other things." Together they moved slowly down the crowded street, and she held the letter in her hand toward him. "It's from Mrs. Prosser, who has eleven children and a husband who is their father and that's all. They live on faith and the neighbors, but she has sold a pig and sent me part of the money with which to buy everybody in the family a Christmas present. That's all I've made out."
Laine took the sheets of paper torn from a blank-book and looked at them under an electric light. "This Syro-Phoenician writing needs what it can't get out here," he said, after a half-minute's pause. "A cipher requires a code, and a code means sitting down. Aren't you cold? You are. Come over here and we'll have some tea and work it out together." And before protest could be made they were in a hotel across the street and at a table on which a shaded light permitted a closer examination of the penciled scrawl which went for writing. Slowly he read aloud: