For a moment the glow remained, then a chill doubt crept in; would he have remained had he known she was to be there? Where did he go after the dinner? As for what they said, it was absurd. And yet—and yet—
He sat, savagely intent upon the waning fire; she turned restlessly again, elbows close together on her knees, face framed in her hands.
"You ask me if I am tired," she said. "I am—of the froth of life."
His face changed instantly. "What?" he exclaimed, laughing.
But she, very young and seriously intent, was now wrestling with the mighty platitudes of youth. First of all she desired to know what meaning life held for humanity. Then she expressed a doubt as to the necessity for human happiness; duty being her discovery as sufficient substitute.
But he heard in her childish babble the minor murmur of an undercurrent quickening for the first time; and he listened patiently and answered gravely, touched by her irremediable loneliness.
For Nina must remain but a substitute at best; what was wanting must remain wanting; and race and blood must interpret for itself the subtler and unasked questions of an innocence slowly awaking to a wisdom which makes us all less wise.
So when she said that she was tired of gaiety, that she would like to study, he said that he would take up anything she chose with her. And when she spoke vaguely of a life devoted to good works—of the wiser charity, of being morally equipped to aid those who required material aid, he was very serious, but ventured to suggest that she dance her first season through as a sort of flesh-mortifying penance preliminary to her spiritual novitiate.
"Yes," she admitted thoughtfully; "you are right. Nina would feel dreadfully if I did not go on—or if she imagined I cared so little for it all. But one season is enough to waste. Don't you think so?"
"Quite enough," he assured her.
"—And—why should I ever marry?" she demanded, lifting her clear, sweet eyes to his.
"Why indeed?" he repeated with conviction. "I can see no reason."
"I am glad you understand me," she said. "I am not a marrying woman."
"Not at all," he assured her.
"No, I am not; and Nina—the darling—doesn't understand. Why, what do you suppose!—but would it be a breach of confidence to anybody if I told you?"
"I doubt it," he said; "what is it you have to tell me?"
"Only—it's very, very silly—only several men—and one nice enough to know better—Sudbury Gray—"
"Asked you to marry them?" he finished, nodding his head at the cat.
"Yes," she admitted, frankly astonished; "but how did you know?"
"Inferred it. Go on."
"There is nothing more," she said, without embarrassment. "I told Nina each time; but she confused me by asking for details; and the details were too foolish and too annoying to repeat. . . . I do not wish to marry anybody. I think I made that very plain to—everybody."
"Right as usual," he said cheerfully; "you are too intelligent to consider that sort of thing just now."
"You do understand me, don't you?" she said gratefully. "There are so many serious things in life to learn and to think of, and that is the very last thing I should ever consider. . . . I am very, very glad I had this talk with you. Now I am rested and I shall retire for a good long sleep."
With which paradox she stood up, stifling a tiny yawn, and looked smilingly at him, all the old sweet confidence in her eyes. Then, suddenly mocking:
"Who suggested that you call me by my first name?" she asked.
"Some good angel or other. May I?"
"If you please; I rather like it. But I couldn't very well call you anything except 'Captain Selwyn.'"
"On account of my age?"
"Your age!"—contemptuous in her confident equality.
"Oh, my wisdom, then? You probably reverence me too deeply."
"Probably not. I don't know; I couldn't do it—somehow—"
"Try it—unless you're afraid."
"I'm not afraid!"
"Yes, you are, if you don't take a dare."
"You dare me?"
"Philip," she said, hesitating, adorable in her embarrassment. "No! No! No! I can't do it that way in cold blood. It's got to be 'Captain Selwyn'. . . for a while, anyway. . . . Good-night."
He took her outstretched hand, laughing; the usual little friendly shake followed; then she turned gaily away, leaving him standing before the whitening ashes.
He thought the fire was dead; but when he turned out the lamp an hour later, under the ashes embers glowed in the darkness of the winter morning.
"Mid-Lent, and the Enemy grins," remarked Selwyn as he started for church with Nina and the children. Austin, knee-deep in a dozen Sunday supplements, refused to stir; poor little Eileen was now convalescent from grippe, but still unsteady on her legs; her maid had taken the grippe, and now moaned all day: "Mon dieu! Mon dieu! Che fais mourir!"
Boots Lansing called to see Eileen, but she wouldn't come down, saying her nose was too pink. Drina entertained Boots, and then Selwyn returned and talked army talk with him until tea was served. Drina poured tea very prettily; Nina had driven Austin to vespers. The family dined at seven so Drina could sit up; special treat on account of Boots's presence at table. Gerald was expected, but did not come.
The next morning, Selwyn went downtown at the usual hour and found Gerald, pale and shaky, hanging over his desk and trying to dictate letters to an uncomfortable stenographer.
So he dismissed the abashed girl for the moment, closed the door, and sat down beside the young man.
"Go home, Gerald" he said with decision; "when Neergard comes in I'll tell him you are not well. And, old fellow, don't ever come near the office again when you're in this condition."
"I'm a perfect fool," faltered the boy, his voice trembling; "I don't really care for that sort of thing, either; but you know how it is in that set—"
"Oh, the Fanes—the Ruthv—" He stammered himself into silence.
"I see. What happened last night?"
"The usual; two tables full of it. There was a wheel, too. . . . I had no intention—but you know yourself how it parches your throat—the jollying and laughing and excitement. . . . I forgot all about what you—what we talked over. . . . I'm ashamed and sorry; but I can stay here and attend to things, of course—"
"I don't want Neergard to see you," repeated Selwyn.
"W-why," stammered the boy, "do I look as rocky as that?"
"Yes. See here, you are not afraid of me, are you?"
"You don't think I'm one of those long-faced, blue-nosed butters-in, do you? You have confidence in me, haven't you? You know I'm an average and normally sinful man who has made plenty of mistakes and who understands how others make them—you know that, don't you, old chap?"
"Then you will listen, won't you, Gerald?"
The boy laid his arms on the desk and hid his face in them. Then he nodded.
For ten minutes Selwyn talked to him with all the terse and colloquial confidence of a comradeship founded upon respect for mutual fallibility. No instruction, no admonition, no blame, no reproach—only an affectionately logical review of matters as they stood—and as they threatened to stand.
The boy, fortunately, was still pliable and susceptible, still unalarmed and frank. It seemed that he had lost money again—this time to Jack Ruthven; and Selwyn's teeth remained sternly interlocked as, bit by bit, the story came out. But in the telling the boy was not quite as frank as he might have been; and Selwyn supposed he was able to stand his loss without seeking aid.
"Anyway," said Gerald in a muffled voice, "I've learned one lesson—that a business man can't acquire the habits and keep the infernal hours that suit people who can take all day to sleep it off."
"Right," said Selwyn.
"Besides, my income can't stand it," added Gerald naively.
"Neither could mine, old fellow. And, Gerald, cut out this card business; it's the final refuge of the feebleminded. . . . You like it? Oh, well, if you've got to play—if you've no better resource for leisure, and if non-participation isolates you too completely from other idiots—play the imbecile gentleman's game; which means a game where nobody need worry over the stakes."
"But—they'd laugh at me!"
"I know; but Boots Lansing wouldn't—and you have considerable respect for him."
Gerald nodded; he had immediately succumbed to Lansing like everybody else.
"And one thing more," said Selwyn; "don't play for stakes—no matter how insignificant—where women sit in the game. Fashionable or not, it is rotten sport—whatever the ethics may be. And, Gerald, tainted sport and a clean record can't take the same fence together."
The boy looked up, flushed and perplexed. "Why, every woman in town—"
"Oh, no. How about your sister and mine?"
"Of course not; they are different. Only—well, you approve of Rosamund Fane and—Gladys Orchil—don't you?"
"Gerald, men don't ask each other such questions—except as you ask, without expecting or desiring an answer from me, and merely to be saying something nice about two pretty women."
The reproof went home, deeply, but without a pang; and the boy sat silent, studying the blotter between his elbows.
A little later he started for home at Selwyn's advice. But the memory of his card losses frightened him, and he stopped on the way to see what money Austin would advance him.
Julius Neergard came up from Long Island, arriving at the office about noon. The weather was evidently cold on Long Island; he had the complexion of a raw ham, but the thick, fat hand, with its bitten nails, which he offered Selwyn as he entered his office, was unpleasantly hot, and, on the thin nose which split the broad expanse of face, a bead or two of sweat usually glistened, winter and summer.
"Where's Gerald?" he asked as an office-boy relieved him of his heavy box coat and brought his mail to him.
"I advised Gerald to go home," observed Selwyn carelessly; "he is not perfectly well."
Neergard's tiny mouse-like eyes, set close together, stole brightly in Selwyn's direction; but they usually looked just a little past a man, seldom at him.
"Grippe?" he asked.
"I don't think so," said Selwyn.
"Lots of grippe 'round town," observed Neergard, as though satisfied that Gerald had it. Then he sat down and rubbed his large, membranous ears.
"Captain Selwyn," he began, "I'm satisfied that it's a devilish good thing."
"Emphatically. I've mastered the details—virtually all of 'em. Here's the situation in a grain of wheat!—the Siowitha Club owns a thousand or so acres of oak scrub, pine scrub, sand and weeds, and controls four thousand more; that is to say—the club pays the farmers' rents and fixes their fences and awards them odd jobs and prizes for the farm sustaining the biggest number of bevies. Also the club pays them to maintain the millet and buckwheat patches and to act as wardens. In return the farmers post their four thousand acres for the exclusive benefit of the club. Is that plain?"
"Very well, then. Now the Siowitha is largely composed of very rich men—among them Bradley Harmon, Jack Ruthven, George Fane, Sanxon Orchil, the Hon. Delmour-Carnes—that crowd—rich and stingy. That's why they are contented with a yearly agreement with the farmers instead of buying the four thousand acres. Why put a lot of good money out of commission when they can draw interest on it and toss an insignificant fraction of that interest as a sop to the farmers? Do you see? That's your millionaire method—and it's what makes 'em in the first place."
He drew a large fancy handkerchief from his pistol-pocket and wiped the beads from the bridge of his limber nose. But they reappeared again.
"Now," he said, "I am satisfied that, working very carefully, we can secure options on every acre of the four thousand. There is money in it either way and any way we work it; we get it coming and going. First of all, if the Siowitha people find that they really cannot get on without controlling these acres—why"—and he snickered so that his nose curved into a thin, ruddy beak—"why, Captain, I suppose we could let them have the land. Eh? Oh, yes—if they must have it!"
Selwyn frowned slightly.
"But the point is," continued Neergard, "that it borders the railroad on the north; and where the land is not wavy it's flat as a pancake, and"—he sank his husky voice—"it's fairly riddled with water. I paid a thousand dollars for six tests."
"Water!" repeated Selwyn wonderingly; "why, it's dry as a desert!"
"Underground water!—only about forty feet on the average. Why, man, I can hit a well flowing three thousand gallons almost anywhere. It's a gold mine. I don't care what you do with the acreage—split it up into lots and advertise, or club the Siowitha people into submission—it's all the same; it's a gold mine—to be swiped and developed. Now there remains the title searching and the damnable job of financing it—because we've got to move cautiously, and knock softly at the doors of the money vaults, or we'll be waking up some Wall Street relatives or secret business associates of the yellow crowd; and if anybody bawls for help we'll be up in the air next New Year's, and still hiking skyward."
He stood up, gathering together the mail matter which his secretary had already opened for his attention. "There's plenty of time yet; their leases were renewed the first of this year, and they'll run the year out. But it's something to think about. Will you talk to Gerald, or shall I?"
"You," said Selwyn. "I'll think the matter over and give you my opinion. May I speak to my brother-in-law about it?"
Neergard turned in his tracks and looked almost at him.
"Do you think there's any chance of his financing the thing?"
"I haven't the slightest idea of what he might do. Especially"—he hesitated—"as you never have had any loans from his people—I understand—"
"No," said Neergard; "I haven't."
"It's rather out of their usual, I believe—"
"So they say. But Long Island acreage needn't beg favours now. That's all over, Captain Selwyn. Fane, Harmon & Co. know that; Mr. Gerard ought to know it, too."
Selwyn looked troubled. "Shall I consult Mr. Gerard?" he repeated. "I should like to if you have no objection."
Neergard's small, close-set eyes were focused on a spot just beyond Selwyn's left shoulder.
"Suppose you sound him," he suggested, "in strictest—"
"Naturally," cut in Selwyn dryly; and turning to his littered desk, opened the first letter his hand encountered. Now that his head was turned, Neergard looked full at the back of his neck for a long minute, then went out silently.
* * * * *
That night Selwyn stopped at his sister's house before going to his own rooms, and, finding Austin alone in the library, laid the matter before him exactly as Neergard had put it.
"You see," he added, "that I'm a sort of an ass about business methods. What I like—what I understand, is to use good judgment, go in and boldly buy a piece of property, wait until it becomes more valuable, either through improvements or the natural enhancement of good value, then take a legitimate profit, and repeat the process. That, in outline, is what I understand. But, Austin, this furtive pouncing on a thing and clubbing other people's money out of them with it—this slyly acquiring land that is necessary to an unsuspecting neighbour and then holding him up—I don't like. There's always something of this sort that prevents my cordial co-operation with Neergard—always something in the schemes which hints of—of squeezing—of something underground—"
"Like the water which he's going to squeeze out of the wells?"
"Phil," said his brother-in-law, "if you think anybody can do a profitable business except at other people's expense, you are an ass."
"Am I?" asked Selwyn, still laughing frankly.
"Certainly. The land is there, plain enough for anybody to see. It's always been there; it's likely to remain for a few aeons, I fancy.
"Now, along comes Meynheer Julius Neergard—the only man who seems to have brains enough to see the present value of that parcel to the Siowitha people. Everybody else had the same chance; nobody except Neergard knew enough to take it. Why shouldn't he profit by it?"
"Yes—but if he'd be satisfied to cut it up into lots and do what is fair—"
"Cut it up into nothing! Man alive, do you suppose the Siowitha people would let him? They've only a few thousand acres; they've got to control that land. What good is their club without it? Do you imagine they'd let a town grow up on three sides of their precious game-preserve? And, besides, I'll bet you that half of their streams and lakes take rise on other people's property—and that Neergard knows it—the Dutch fox!"
"That sort of—of business—that kind of coercion, does not appeal to me," said Selwyn gravely.
"Then you'd better go into something besides business in this town," observed Austin, turning red. "Good Lord, man, where would my Loan and Trust Company be if we never foreclosed, never swallowed a good thing when we see it?"
"But you don't threaten people."
Austin turned redder. "If people or corporations stand in our way and block progress, of course we threaten. Threaten? Isn't the threat of punishment the very basis of law and order itself? What are laws for? And we have laws, too—laws, under the law—"
"Of the State of New Jersey," said Selwyn, laughing. "Don't flare up, Austin; I'm probably not cut out for a business career, as you point out—otherwise I would not have consulted you. I know some laws—including 'The Survival of the Fittest,' and the 'Chain-of-Destruction'; and I have read the poem beginning
"'Big bugs have little bugs to bite 'em.'
"That's all right, too; but speaking of laws, I'm always trying to formulate one for my particular self-government; and you don't mind, do you?"
"No," said Gerard, much amused, "I don't mind. Only when you talk ethics—talk sense at the same time."
"I wish I knew how," he said.
They discussed Neergard's scheme for a little while longer; Austin, shrewd and cautious, declined any personal part in the financing of the deal, although he admitted the probability of prospective profits.
"Our investments and our loans are of a different character," he explained, "but I have no doubt that Fane, Harmon & Co.—"
"Why, both Fane and Harmon are members of the club!" laughed Selwyn. "You don't expect Neergard to go to them?"
A peculiar expression flickered in Gerard's heavy features; perhaps he thought that Fane and Harmon and Jack Ruthven were not above exploiting their own club under certain circumstances. But whatever his opinion, he said nothing further; and, suggesting that Selwyn remain to dine, went off to dress.
A few moments later he returned, crestfallen and conciliatory:
"I forgot, Nina and I are dining at the Orchils. Come up a moment; she wants to speak to you."
So they took the rose-tinted rococo elevator; Austin went away to his own quarters, and Selwyn tapped at Nina's boudoir.
"Is that you, Phil? One minute; Watson is finishing my hair. . . . Come in, now; and kindly keep your distance, my friend. Do you suppose I want Rosamund to know what brand of war-paint I use?"
"Rosamund," he repeated, with a good-humoured shrug; "it's likely—isn't it?"
"Certainly it's likely. You'd never know you were telling her anything—but she'd extract every detail in ten seconds. . . . I understand she adores you, Phil. What have you done to her?"
"That's likely, too," he remarked, remembering his savagely polite rebuke to that young matron after the Minster dinner.
"Well, she does; you've probably piqued her; that's the sort of man she likes. . . . Look at my hair—how bright and wavy it is, Phil. Tell me, do I appear fairly pretty to-night?"
"You're all right, Nina; I mean it," he said. "How are the kids? How is Eileen?"
"That's why I sent for you. Eileen is furious at being left here all alone; she's practically well and she's to dine with Drina in the library. Would you be good enough to dine there with them? Eileen, poor child, is heartily sick of her imprisonment; it would be a mercy, Phil."
"Why, yes, I'll do it, of course; only I've some matters at home—"
"Home! You call those stuffy, smoky, impossible, half-furnished rooms home! Phil, when are you ever going to get some pretty furniture and art things? Eileen and I have been talking it over, and we've decided to go there and see what you need and then order it, whether you like it or not."
"Thanks," he said, laughing; "it's just what I've tried to avoid. I've got things where I want them now—but I knew it was too comfortable to last. Boots said that some woman would be sure to be good to me with an art-nouveau rocking-chair."
"A perfect sample of man's gratitude," said Nina, exasperated; "for I've ordered two beautiful art-nouveau rocking-chairs, one for you and one for Mr. Lansing. Now you can go and humiliate poor little Eileen, who took so much pleasure in planning with me for your comfort. As for your friend Boots, he's unspeakable—with my compliments."
Selwyn stayed until he made peace with his sister, then he mounted to the nursery to "lean over" the younger children and preside at prayers. This being accomplished, he descended to the library, where Eileen Erroll in a filmy, lace-clouded gown, full of turquoise tints, reclined with her arm around Drina amid heaps of cushions, watching the waitress prepare a table for two.
He took the fresh, cool hand she extended and sat down on the edge of her couch.
"All O.K. again?" he inquired, retaining Eileen's hand in his.
"Thank you—quite. Are you really going to dine with us? Are you sure you want to? Oh, I know you've given up some very gay dinner somewhere—"
"I was going to dine with Boots when Nina rescued me. Poor Boots!—I think I'll telephone—"
"Telephone him to come here!" begged Drina. "Would he come? Oh, please—I'd love to have him."
"I wish you would ask him," said Eileen; "it's been so lonely and stupid to lie in bed with a red nose and fishy eyes and pains in one's back and limbs. Please do let us have a party."
So Selwyn went to the telephone, and presently returned, saying that Boots was overwhelmed and would be present at the festivities; and Drina, enraptured, ordered flowers to be brought from the dining-room and a large table set for four, with particular pomp and circumstance.
Mr. Archibald Lansing arrived very promptly—a short, stocky young man of clean and powerful build, with dark, keen eyes always alert, and humorous lips ever on the edge of laughter under his dark moustache.
His manner with Drina was always delightful—a mixture of self-repressed idolatry and busily naive belief in a thorough understanding between them to exclude Selwyn from their company.
"This Selwyn fellow here!" he exclaimed. "I warned him over the 'phone we'd not tolerate him, Drina. I explained to him very carefully that you and I were dining together in strictest privacy—"
"He begged so hard," said Eileen. "Will somebody place an extra pillow for Drina?"
They seized the same pillow fiercely, confronting each other; massacre appeared imminent.
"Two pillows," said Drina sweetly; and extermination was averted. The child laughed happily, covering one of Boots's hands with both of hers.
"So you've left the service, Mr. Lansing?" began Eileen, lying back and looking smilingly at Boots.
"Had to, Miss Erroll. Seven millionaires ran into my quarters and chased me out and down Broadway into the offices of the Westchester Air Line Company. Then these seven merciless multi-millionaires in buckram bound and gagged me, stuffed my pockets full of salary, and forced me to typewrite a fearful and secret oath to serve them for five long, weary years. That's a sample of how the wealthy grind the noses of the poor, isn't it, Drina?"
The child slipped her hand from his, smiling uncertainly.
"You don't mean all that, do you?"
"Indeed I do, sweetheart."
"Are you not a soldier lieutenant any more, then?" she inquired, horribly disappointed.
"Only a private in the workman's battalion, Drina."
"I don't care," retorted the child obstinately; "I like you just as much."
"Have you really done it?" asked Selwyn as the first course was served.
"I? No. They? Yes. We'll probably lose the Philippines now," he added gloomily; "but it's my thankless country's fault; you all had a chance to make me dictator, you know. Miss Erroll, do you want a second-hand sword? Of course there are great dents in it—"
"I'd rather have those celebrated boots," she replied demurely; and Mr. Lansing groaned.
"How tall you're growing, Drina," remarked Selwyn.
"Probably the early spring weather," added Boots. "You're twelve, aren't you?"
"Thirteen," said Drina gravely.
"Almost time to elope with me," nodded Boots.
"I'll do it now," she said—"as soon as my new gowns are made—if you'll take me to Manila. Will you? I believe my Aunt Alixe is there—"
She caught Eileen's eye and stopped short. "I forgot," she murmured; "I beg your pardon, Uncle Philip—"
Boots was talking very fast and laughing a great deal; Eileen's plate claimed her undivided attention; Selwyn quietly finished his claret; the child looked at them all.
"By the way," said Boots abruptly, "what's the matter with Gerald? He came in before noon looking very seedy—" Selwyn glanced up quietly.
"Wasn't he at the office?" asked Eileen anxiously.
"Oh, yes," replied Selwyn; "he felt a trifle under the weather, so I sent him home."
"Is it the grippe?"
"N-no, I believe not—"
"Do you think he had better have a doctor? Where is he?"
"He was here," observed Drina composedly, "and father was angry with him."
"What?" exclaimed Eileen. "When?"
"This morning, before father went downtown."
Both Selwyn and Lansing cut in coolly, dismissing the matter with a careless word or two; and coffee was served—cambric tea in Drina's case.
"Come on," said Boots, slipping a bride-rose into Drina's curls; "I'm ready for confidences."
"Confidences" had become an established custom with Drina and Boots; it meant that every time they saw one another they were pledged to tell each other everything that had occurred in their lives since their last meeting.
So Drina, excitedly requesting to be excused, jumped up and, taking Lansing's hand in hers, led him to a sofa in a distant corner, where they immediately installed themselves and began an earnest and whispered exchange of confidences, punctuated by little whirlwinds of laughter from the child.
Eileen settled deeper among her pillows as the table was removed, and Selwyn drew his chair forward.
"Suppose," she said, looking thoughtfully at him, "that you and I make a vow to exchange confidences? Shall we, Captain Selwyn?"
"Good heavens," he protested; "I—confess to you! You'd faint dead away, Eileen."
"Perhaps. . . . But will you?"
He gaily evaded an answer, and after a while he fancied she had forgotten. They spoke of other things, of her convalescence, of the engagements she had been obliged to cancel, of the stupid hours in her room—doubly stupid, as the doctor had not permitted her to read or sew.
"And every day violets from you," she said; "it was certainly nice of you. And—do you know that somehow—just because you have never yet failed me—I thought perhaps—when I asked your confidence a moment ago—"
He looked up quickly.
"What is the matter with Gerald?" she asked. "Could you tell me?"
"Nothing serious is the matter, Eileen."
"Is he not ill?"
She lay still a moment, then with the slightest gesture: "Come here."
He seated himself near her; she laid her hand fearlessly on his arm.
"Tell me," she demanded. And, as he remained silent: "Once," she said, "I came suddenly into the library. Austin and Gerald were there; Austin seemed to be very angry with my brother. I heard him say something that worried me; and I slipped out before they saw me."
Selwyn remained silent.
"Was that it?"
"I—don't know what you heard."
"Don't you understand me?"
"Well, then"—she crimsoned—"has Gerald m-misbehaved again?"
"What did you hear Austin say?" he demanded.
"I heard—something about dissipation. He was very angry with Gerald. It is not the best way, I think, to become angry with either of us—either me or Gerald—because then we are usually inclined to do it again—whatever it is. . . . I do not mean for one moment to be disloyal to Austin; you know that. . . . But I am so thankful that Gerald is fond of you. . . . You like him, too, don't you?"
"I am very fond of him."
"Well, then," she said, "you will talk to him pleasantly—won't you? He is such a boy; and he adores you. It is easy to influence a boy like that, you know—easy to shame him out of the silly things he does. . . . That is all the confidence I wanted, Captain Selwyn. And you haven't told me a word, you see—and I have not fainted—have I?"
They laughed a little; her fingers, which had tightened on his arm, relaxed; her hand fell away, and she straightened up, sitting Turk fashion, and smoothing her hair which contact with the pillows had disarranged so that it threatened to come tumbling over eyes and cheeks.
"Oh, hair, hair!" she murmured, "you're Nina's despair and my endless punishment. I'd twist and pin you tight if I dared—some day I will, too. . . . What are you looking at so curiously, Captain Selwyn? My mop?"
"It's about the most stunningly beautiful thing I ever saw," he said, still curious.
She nodded gaily, both hands still busy with the lustrous strands. "It is nice; but I never supposed you noticed it. It falls to my waist; I'll show it to you some time. . . . But I had no idea you noticed such things," she repeated, as though to herself.
"Oh, I'm apt to notice all sorts of things," he said, looking so provokingly wise that she dropped her hair and clapped both hands over her eyes.
"Now," she said, "if you are so observing, you'll know the colour of my eyes. What are they?"
"Blue—with a sort of violet tint," he said promptly.
She laughed and lowered her hands.
"All that personal attention paid to me!" she exclaimed. "You are turning my head, Captain Selwyn. Besides, you are astonishing me, because you never seem to know what women wear or what they resemble when I ask you to describe the girls with whom you have been dining or dancing."
It was a new note in their cordial intimacy—this nascent intrusion of the personal. To her it merely meant his very charming recognition of her maturity—she was fast becoming a woman like other women, to be looked at and remembered as an individual, and no longer classed vaguely as one among hundreds of the newly emerged whose soft, unexpanded personalities all resembled one another.
For some time, now, she had cherished this tiny grudge in her heart—that he had never seemed to notice anything in particular about her except when he tried to be agreeable concerning some new gown. The contrast had become the sharper, too, since she had awakened to the admiration of other men. And the awakening was only a half-convinced happiness mingled with shy surprise that the wise world should really deem her so lovely.
"A red-headed girl," she said teasingly; "I thought you had better taste than—than—"
"Than to think you a raving beauty?"
"Oh," she said, "you don't think that!"
As a matter of fact he himself had become aware of it so suddenly that he had no time to think very much about it. It was rather strange, too, that he had not always been aware of it; or was it partly the mellow light from the lamp tinting her till she glowed and shimmered like a young sorceress, sitting so straight there in her turquoise silk and misty lace?
Delicate luminous shadow banded her eyes; her hair, partly in shadow, too, became a sombre mystery in rose-gold.
"Whatever are you staring at?" she laughed. "Me? I don't believe it! Never have you so honoured me with your fixed attention, Captain Selwyn. You really glare at me as though I were interesting. And I know you don't consider me that; do you?"
"How old are you, anyway?" he asked curiously.
"Thank you, I'll be delighted to inform you when I'm twenty."
"You look like a mixture of fifteen and twenty-five to-night," he said deliberately; "and the answer is more and less than nineteen."
"And you," she said, "talk like a frivolous sage, and your wisdom is as weighty as the years you carry. And what is the answer to that? Do you know, Captain Selwyn, that when you talk to me this way you look about as inexperienced as Gerald?"
"And do you know," he said, "that I feel as inexperienced—when I talk to you this way?"
She nodded. "It's probably good for us both; I age, you renew the frivolous days of youth when you were young enough to notice the colour of a girl's hair and eyes. Besides, I'm very grateful to you. Hereafter you won't dare sit about and cross your knees and look like the picture of an inattentive young man by Gibson. You've admitted that you like two of my features, and I shall expect you to notice and admit that you notice the rest."
"I admit it now," he said, laughing.
"You mustn't; I won't let you. Two kinds of dessert are sufficient at a time. But to-morrow—or perhaps the day after, you may confess to me your approbation of one more feature—only one, remember!—just one more agreeable feature. In that way I shall be able to hold out for quite a while, you see—counting my fingers as separate features! Oh, you've given me a taste of it; it's your own fault, Captain Selwyn, and now I desire more if you please—in semi-weekly lingering doses—"
A perfect gale of laughter from the sofa cut her short.
"Drina!" she exclaimed; "it's after eight!—and I completely forgot."
"Oh, dear!" protested the child, "he's being so funny about the war in Samar. Couldn't I stay up—just five more minutes, Eileen? Besides, I haven't told him about Jessie Orchil's party—"
"Drina, dear, you know I can't let you. Say good-night, now—if you want Mr. Lansing and your Uncle Philip to come to another party."
"I'll just whisper one more confidence very fast," she said to Boots. He inclined his head; she placed both hands on his shoulders, and, kneeling on the sofa, laid her lips close to his ear. Eileen and Selwyn waited.
When the child had ended and had taken leave of all, Boots also took his leave; and Selwyn rose, too, a troubled, careworn expression replacing the careless gaiety which had made him seem so young in Miss Erroll's youthful eyes.
"Wait, Boots," he said; "I'm going home with you." And, to Eileen, almost absently: "Good-night; I'm so very glad you are well again."
"Good-night," she said, looking up at him. The faintest sense of disappointment came over her—at what, she did not know. Was it because, in his completely altered face she realised the instant and easy detachment from herself, and what concerned her?—was it because other people, like Mr. Lansing—other interests—like those which so plainly, in his face, betrayed his preoccupation—had so easily replaced an intimacy which had seemed to grow newer and more delightful with every meeting?
What was it, then, that he found more interesting, more important, than their friendship, their companionship? Was she never to grow old enough, or wise enough, or experienced enough to exact—without exacting—his paramount consideration and interest? Was there no common level of mental equality where they could meet?—where termination of interviews might be mutual—might be fairer to her?
Now he went away, utterly detached from her and what concerned her—to seek other interests of which she knew nothing; absorbed in them to her utter exclusion, leaving her here with the long evening before her and nothing to do—because her eyes were not yet strong enough to use for reading.
Lansing was saying: "I'll drive as far as the club with you, and then you can drop me and come back later."
"Right, my son; I'll finish a letter and then come back—"
"Can't you write it at the club?"
"Not that letter," he replied in a low voice; and, turning to Eileen, smiled his absent, detached smile, offering his hand.
But she lay back, looking straight up at him.
"Are you going?"
"Yes; I have several—"
"Stay with me," she said in a low voice.
For a moment the words meant nothing; then blank surprise silenced him, followed by curiosity.
"Is there something you wished to tell me?" he asked.
His perplexity and surprise grew. "Wait a second, Boots," he said; and Mr. Lansing, being a fairly intelligent young man, went out and down the stairway.
"Now," he said, too kindly, too soothingly, "what is it, Eileen?"
"Nothing. I thought—but I don't care. Please go, Captain Selwyn."
"No, I shall not until you tell me what troubles you."
"Why, it is nothing; truly it is nothing. . . . Only I was—it is so early—only a quarter past eight—"
He stood there looking down at her, striving to understand.
"That is all," she said, flushing a trifle; "I can't read and I can't sew and there's nobody here. . . . I don't mean to bother you—"
"Child," he exclaimed, "do you want me to stay?"
"Yes," she said; "will you?"
He walked swiftly to the landing outside and looked down.
"Boots!" he called in a low voice, "I'm not going home yet. Don't wait for me at the Lenox."
"All right," returned Mr. Lansing cheerfully. A moment later the front door closed below. Then Selwyn came back into the library.
For an hour he sat there telling her the gayest stories and talking the most delightful nonsense, alternating with interesting incisions into serious subjects: which it enchanted her to dissect under his confident guidance.
Alert, intelligent, all aquiver between laughter and absorption, she had sat up among her silken pillows, resting her weight on one rounded arm, her splendid young eyes fixed on him to detect and follow and interpret every change in his expression personal to the subject and to her share in it.
His old self again! What could be more welcome? Not one shadow in his pleasant eyes, not a trace of pallor, of care, of that gray aloofness. How jolly, how young he was after all!
They discussed, or laughed at, or mentioned and dismissed with a gesture a thousand matters of common interest in that swift hour—incredibly swift, unless the hall clock's deadened chimes were mocking Time itself with mischievous effrontery.
She heard them, the enchantment still in her eyes; he nodded, listening, meeting her gaze with his smile undisturbed. When the last chime had sounded she lay back among her cushions.
"Thank you for staying," she said quite happily.
"Am I to go?"
Smilingly thoughtful she considered him from her pillows:
"Where were you going when I—spoiled it all? For you were going somewhere—out there"—with a gesture toward the darkness outside—"somewhere where men go to have the good times they always seem to have. . . . Was it to your club? What do men do there? Is it very gay at men's clubs? . . . It must be interesting to go where men have such jolly times—where men gather to talk that mysterious man-talk which we so often wonder at—and pretend we are indifferent. But we are very curious, nevertheless—even about the boys of Gerald's age—whom we laugh at and torment; and we can't help wondering how they talk to each other—what they say that is so interesting; for they somehow manage to convey that impression to us—even against our will. . . . If you stay, I shall never have done with chattering. When you sit there with one lazy knee so leisurely draped over the other, and your eyes laughing at me through your cigar-smoke, about a million ideas flash up in me which I desire to discuss with you. . . . So you had better go."
"I am happier here," he said, watching her.
"Then—then—am I, also, one of the 'good times' a man can have?—when he is at liberty to reflect and choose as he idles over his coffee?"
"A man is fortunate if you permit that choice."
"Are you serious? I mean a man, not a boy—not a dance or dinner partner, or one of the men one meets about—everywhere from pillar to post. Do you think me interesting to real men?—like you and Boots?"
"Yes," he said deliberately, "I do. I don't know how interesting, because—I never quite realised how—how you had matured. . . . That was my stupidity."
"Captain Selwyn!" in confused triumph; "you never gave me a chance; I mean, you always were nice in—in the same way you are to Drina. . . . I liked it—don't please misunderstand—only I knew there was something else to me—something more nearly your own age. It was jolly to know you were really fond of me—but youthful sisters grow faster than you imagine. . . . And now, when you come, I shall venture to believe it is not wholly to do me a kindness—but—a little—to do yourself one, too. Is that not the basis of friendship?"
"Community and equality of interests?—isn't it?"
"—And—in which the—the charity of superior experience and the inattention of intellectual preoccupation and the amused concession to ignorance must steadily, if gradually, disappear? Is that it, too?"
Astonishment and chagrin at his misconception of her gave place to outright laughter at his own expense.
"Where on earth did you—I mean that I am quite overwhelmed under your cutting indictment of me. Old duffers of my age—"
"Don't say that," she said; "that is pleading guilty to the indictment, and reverting to the old footing. I shall not permit you to go back."
"I don't want to, Eileen—"
"I am wondering," she said airily, "about that 'Eileen.' I'm not sure but that easy and fluent 'Eileen' is part of the indictment. What do you call Gladys Orchil, for example?"
"What do I care what I call anybody?" he retorted, laughing, "as long as they
"'Answer to "Hi!" Or to any loud cry'?"
"But I won't answer to 'Hi!'" she retorted very promptly; "and now that you admit that I am a 'good time,' a mature individual with distinguishing characteristics, and your intellectual equal if not your peer in experience, I'm not sure that I shall answer at all whenever you begin 'Eileen.' Or I shall take my time about it—or I may even reflect and look straight through you before I reply—or," she added, "I may be so profoundly preoccupied with important matters which do not concern you, that I might not even hear you speak at all."
Their light-hearted laughter mingled delightfully—fresh, free, uncontrolled, peal after peal. She sat huddled up like a schoolgirl, lovely head thrown back, her white hands clasping her knees; he, both feet squarely on the floor, leaned forward, his laughter echoing hers.
"What nonsense! What blessed nonsense you and I are talking!" she said, "but it has made me quite happy. Now you may go to your club and your mysterious man-talk—"
"I don't want to—"
"Oh, but you must!"—she was now dismissing him—"because, although I am convalescent, I am a little tired, and Nina's maid is waiting to tuck me in."
"So you send me away?"
"Send you—" She hesitated, delightfully confused in the reversal of roles—not quite convinced of this new power which, of itself, had seemed to invest her with authority over man. "Yes," she said, "I must send you away." And her heart beat a little faster in her uncertainty as to his obedience—then leaped in triumph as he rose with a reluctance perfectly visible.
"To-morrow," she said, "I am to drive for the first time. In the evening I may be permitted to go to the Grays' mid-Lent dance—but not to dance much. Will you be there? Didn't they ask you? I shall tell Suddy Gray what I think of him—I don't care whether it's for the younger set or not! Goodness me, aren't you as young as anybody! . . . Well, then! . . . So we won't see each other to-morrow. And the day after that—oh, I wish I had my engagement list. Never mind, I will telephone you when I'm to be at home—or wherever I'm going to be. But it won't be anywhere in particular because it's Lent, of course. . . . Good-night, Captain Selwyn; you've been very sweet to me, and I've enjoyed every single instant."
When he had gone she rose, a trifle excited in the glow of abstract happiness, and walked erratically about, smiling to herself, touching and rearranging objects that caught her attention. Then an innocent instinct led her to the mirror, where she stood a moment looking back into the lovely reflected face with its disordered hair.
"After all," she said, "I'm not as aged as I pretended. . . . I wonder if he is laughing at me now. . . . But he was very, very nice to me—wherever he has gone in quest of that 'good time' and to talk his man-talk to other men—"
In a reverie she stood at the mirror considering her own flushed cheeks and brilliant eyes.
"What a curiously interesting man he is," she murmured naively. "I shall telephone him that I am not going to that mi-careme dance. . . . Besides, Suddy Gray is a bore with the martyred smile he's been cultivating. . . . As though a happy girl would dream of marrying anybody with all life before her to learn important things in! . . . And that dreadful, downy Scott Innis—trying to make me listen to him! . . . until I was ashamed to be alive! And Bradley Harmon—ugh!—and oh, that mushy widower, Percy Draymore, who got hold of my arm before I dreamed—"
She shuddered and turned back into the room, frowning and counting her slow steps across the floor.
"After all," she said, "their silliness may be their greatest mystery—but I don't include Captain Selwyn," she added loyally; "he is far too intelligent to be like other men."
* * * * *
Yet, like other men, at that very moment Captain Selwyn was playing the fizzing contents of a siphon upon the iced ingredients of a tall, thin glass which stood on a table in the Lenox Club.
The governor's room being deserted except by himself and Mr. Lansing, he continued the animated explanation of his delay in arriving.
"So I stayed," he said to Boots with an enthusiasm quite boyish, "and I had a perfectly bully time. She's just as clever as she can be—startling at moments. I never half appreciated her—she formerly appealed to me in a different way—a young girl knocking at the door of the world, and no mother or father to open for her and show her the gimcracks and the freaks and the side-shows. Do you know, Boots, that some day that girl is going to marry somebody, and it worries me, knowing men as I do—unless you should think of—"
"Great James!" faltered Mr. Lansing, "are you turning into a schatschen? Are you planning to waddle through the world making matches for your friends? If you are I'm quitting you right here."
"It's only because you are the decentest man I happen to know," said Selwyn resentfully. "Probably she'd turn you down, anyway. But—" and he brightened up, "I dare say she'll choose the best to be had; it's a pity though—"
"What's a pity?"
"That a charming, intellectual, sensitive, innocent girl like that should be turned over to a plain lump of a man."
"When you've finished your eulogy on our sex," said Lansing, "I'll walk home with you."
"Come on, then; I can talk while I walk; did you think I couldn't?"
And as they struck through the first cross street toward Lexington Avenue: "It's a privilege for a fellow to know that sort of a girl—so many surprises in her—the charmingly unexpected and unsuspected!—the pretty flashes of wit, the naive egotism which is as amusing as it is harmless. . . . I had no idea how complex she is. . . . If you think you have the simple feminine on your hands—forget it, Boots!—for she's as evanescent as a helio-flash and as stunningly luminous as a searchlight. . . . And here I've been doing the benevolent prig, bestowing society upon her as a man doles out indigestible stuff to a kid, using a sort of guilty discrimination in the distribution—"
"What on earth is all this?" demanded Lansing; "are you perhaps non compos, dear friend?"
"I'm trying to tell you and explain to myself that little Miss Erroll is a rare and profoundly interesting specimen of a genus not usually too amusing," he replied with growing enthusiasm. "Of course, Holly Erroll was her father, and that accounts for something; and her mother seems to have been a wit as well as a beauty—which helps you to understand; but the brilliancy of the result—aged nineteen, mind you—is out of all proportion; cause and effect do not balance. . . . Why, Boots, an ordinary man—I mean an everyday fellow who dines and dances and does the harmlessly usual about town, dwindles to anaemic insignificance when compared to that young girl—even now when she's practically undeveloped—when her intelligence is like an uncut gem still in the matrix of inexperience—"
"Help!" said Boots feebly, attempting to bolt; but Selwyn hooked arms with him, laughing excitedly. In fact Lansing had not seen his friend in such excellent spirits for many, many months; and it made him exceedingly light-hearted, so that he presently began to chant the old service canticle:
"I have another, he's just as bad, He almost drives me crazy—"
And arm in arm they swung into the dark avenue, singing "Barney Riley" in resonant undertones, while overhead the chilly little Western stars looked down through pallid convolutions of moving clouds, and the wind in the gas-lit avenue grew keener on the street-corners.
"Cooler followed by clearing," observed Boots in disgust. "Ugh; it's the limit, this nipping, howling hemisphere." And he turned up his overcoat collar.
"I prefer it to a hemisphere that smells like a cheap joss-stick," said Selwyn.
"After all, they're about alike," retorted Boots—"even to the ladrones of Broad Street and the dattos of Wall. . . . And here's our bally bungalow now," he added, fumbling for his keys and whistling "taps" under his breath.
As the two men entered and started to ascend the stairs, a door on the parlour floor opened and their landlady appeared, enveloped in a soiled crimson kimona and a false front which had slipped sideways.
"There's the Sultana," whispered Lansing, "and she's making sign-language at you. Wig-wag her, Phil. Oh . . . good-evening, Mrs. Greeve; did you wish to speak to me? Oh!—to Captain Selwyn. Of course."
"If you please," said Mrs. Greeve ominously, so Lansing continued upward; Selwyn descended; Mrs. Greeve waved him into the icy parlour, where he presently found her straightening her "front" with work-worn fingers.
"Captain Selwyn, I deemed it my duty to set up in order to inform you of certain special doin's," she said haughtily.
"What 'doings'?" he inquired.
"Mr. Erroll's, sir. Last night he evidentially found difficulty with the stairs and I seen him asleep on the parlour sofa when I come down to answer the milkman, a-smokin' a cigar that wasn't lit, with his feet on the angelus."
"I'm very, very sorry, Mrs. Greeve," he said—"and so is Mr. Erroll. He and I had a little talk to-day, and I am sure that he will be more careful hereafter."
"There is cigar-holes burned into the carpet," insisted Mrs. Greeve, "and a mercy we wasn't all insinuated in our beds, one window-pane broken and the gas a blue an' whistlin' streak with the curtains blowin' into it an' a strange cat on to that satin dozy-do; the proof being the repugnant perfume."
"All of which," said Selwyn, "Mr. Erroll will make every possible amends for. He is very young, Mrs. Greeve, and very much ashamed, I am sure. So please don't make it too hard for him."
She stood, little slippered feet planted sturdily in the first position in dancing, fat, bare arms protruding from the kimona, her work-stained fingers linked together in front of her. With a soiled thumb she turned a ring on her third finger.
"I ain't a-goin' to be mean to nobody," she said; "my gentlemen is always refined, even if they do sometimes forget theirselves when young and sporty. Mr. Erroll is now a-bed, sir, and asleep like a cherub, ice havin' been served three times with towels, extra. Would you be good enough to mention the bill to him in the morning?—the grocer bein' sniffy." And she handed the wadded and inky memorandum of damages to Selwyn, who pocketed it with a nod of assurance.
"There was," she added, following him to the door, "a lady here to see you twice, leavin' no name or intentions otherwise than business affairs of a pressin' nature."
"A—lady?" he repeated, halting short on the stairs.
"Young an' refined, allowin' for a automobile veil."
"She—she asked for me?" he repeated, astonished.
"Yes, sir. She wanted to see your rooms. But havin' no orders, Captain Selwyn—although I must say she was that polite and ladylike and," added Mrs. Greeve irrelevantly, "a art rocker come for you, too, and another for Mr. Lansing, which I placed in your respective settin'-rooms."
"Oh," said Selwyn, laughing in relief, "it's all right, Mrs. Greeve. The lady who came is my sister, Mrs. Gerard; and whenever she comes you are to admit her whether or not I am here."
"She said she might come again," nodded Mrs. Greeve as he mounted the stairs; "am I to show her up any time she comes?"
"Certainly—thank you," he called back—"and Mr. Gerard, too, if he calls."
He looked into Boots's room as he passed; that gentleman, in bedroom costume of peculiar exotic gorgeousness, sat stuffing a pipe with shag, and poring over a mass of papers pertaining to the Westchester Air Line's property and prospective developments.
"Come in, Phil," he called out; "and look at the dinky chair somebody sent me!" But Selwyn shook his head.
"Come into my rooms when you're ready," he said, and closed the door again, smiling and turning away toward his own quarters.
Before he entered, however, he walked the length of the hall and cautiously tried the handle of Gerald's door. It yielded; he lighted a match and gazed at the sleeping boy where he lay very peacefully among his pillows. Then, without a sound, he reclosed the door and withdrew to his apartment.
As he emerged from the bedroom in his dressing-gown he heard the front door-bell below peal twice, but paid no heed, his attention being concentrated on the chair which Nina had sent him. First he walked gingerly all around it, then he ventured nearer to examine it in detail, and presently he tried it.
"Of course," he sighed—"bless her heart!—it's a perfectly impossible chair. It squeaks, too." But he was mistaken; the creak came from the old stairway outside his door, weighted with the tread of Mrs. Greeve. The tread and the creaking ceased; there came a knock, then heavy descending footsteps on the aged stairway, every separate step protesting until the incubus had sunk once more into the depths from which it had emerged.
As this happened to be the night for his laundry, he merely called out, "All right!" and remained incurious, seated in the new chair and striving to adjust its stiff and narrow architecture to his own broad shoulders. Finally he got up and filled his pipe, intending to try the chair once more under the most favourable circumstances.
As he lighted his pipe there came a hesitating knock at the door; he jerked his head sharply; the knock was repeated.
Something—a faintest premonition—the vaguest stirring of foreboding committed him to silence—and left him there motionless. The match burned close to his fingers; he dropped it and set his heel upon the sparks.
Then he walked swiftly to the door, flung it open full width—and stood stock still.
And Mrs. Ruthven entered the room, partly closing the door behind, her gloved hand still resting on the knob.
For a moment they confronted one another, he tall, rigid, astounded; she pale, supple, relaxing a trifle against the half-closed door behind her, which yielded and closed with a low click.
At the sound of the closing door he found his voice; it did not resemble his own voice either to himself or to her; but she answered his bewildered question:
"I don't know why I came. Is it so very dreadful? Have I offended you? . . . I did not suppose that men cared about conventions."
"But—why on earth—did you come?" he repeated. "Are you in trouble?"
"I seem to be now," she said with a tremulous laugh; "you are frightening me to death, Captain Selwyn."
Still dazed, he found the first chair at hand and dragged it toward her.
She hesitated at the offer; then: "Thank you," she said, passing before him. She laid her hand on the chair, looked a moment at him, and sank into it.
Resting there, her pale cheek against her muff, she smiled at him, and every nerve in him quivered with pity.
"World without end; amen," she said. "Let the judgment of man pass."
"The judgment of this man passes very gently," he said, looking down at her. "What brings you here, Mrs. Ruthven?"
"Will you believe me?"
"Then—it is simply the desire of the friendless for a friend. Nothing else—nothing more subtle, nothing of effrontery; n-nothing worse. Do you believe me?"
"I don't understand—"
"Do you mean that you have differed with—"
"Him?" She laughed. "Oh, no; I was talking of real people, not of myths. And real people are not very friendly to me, always—not that they are disagreeable, you understand, only a trifle overcordial; and my most intimate friend kisses me a little too frequently. By the way, she has quite succumbed to you, I hear."
"Who do you mean?"
He said something under his breath and looked at her impatiently.
"Didn't you know it?" she asked, smiling.
"That Rosamund is quite crazy about you?"
"Good Lord! Do you suppose that any of the monkey set are interested in me or I in them?" he said, disgusted. "Do I ever go near them or meet them at all except by accident in the routine of the machinery which sometimes sews us in tangent patches on this crazy-quilt called society?"
"But Rosamund," she said, laughing, "is now cultivating Mrs. Gerard."
"What of it?" he demanded.
"Because," she replied, still laughing, "I tell you, she is perfectly mad about you. There's no use scowling and squaring your chin. Oh, I ought to know what that indicates! I've watched you do it often enough; but the fact is that the handsomest and smartest woman in town is for ever dinning your perfections into my ears—"
"I know," he said, "that this sort of stuff passes in your set for wit; but let me tell you that any man who cares for that brand of humour can have it any time he chooses. However, he goes outside the residence district to find it."
She flushed scarlet at his brutality; he drew up a chair, seated himself very deliberately, and spoke, his unlighted pipe in his left hand:
"The girl I left—the girl who left me—was a modest, clean-thinking, clean-minded girl, who also had a brain to use, and employed it. Whatever conclusion that girl arrived at concerning the importance of marriage-vows is no longer my business; but the moment she confronts me again, offering friendship, then I may use a friend's privilege, as I do. And so I tell you that loosely fashionable badinage bores me. And another matter—privileged by the friendship you acknowledge—forces me to ask you a question, and I ask it, point-blank: Why have you again permitted Gerald to play cards for stakes at your house, after promising you would not do so?"
The colour receded from her face and her gloved fingers tightened on the arms of her chair.
"That is one reason I came," she said; "to explain—"
"You could have written."
"I say it was one reason; the other I have already given you—because I—I felt that you were friendly."
"I am. Go on."
"I don't know whether you are friendly to me; I thought you were—that night. . . . I did not sleep a wink after it . . . because I was quite happy. . . . But now—I don't know—"
"Whether I am still friendly? Well, I am. So please explain about Gerald."
"Are you sure?" raising her dark eyes, "that you mean to be kind?"
"Yes, sure," he said harshly. "Go on."
"You are a little rough with me; a-almost insolent—"
"I—I have to be. Good God! Alixe, do you think this is nothing to me?—this wretched mess we have made of life! Do you think my roughness and abruptness comes from anything but pity?—pity for us both, I tell you. Do you think I can remain unmoved looking on the atrocious punishment you have inflicted on yourself?—tethered to—to that!—for life!—the poison of the contact showing in your altered voice and manner!—in the things you laugh at, in the things you live for—in the twisted, misshapen ideals that your friends set up on a heap of nuggets for you to worship? Even if we've passed through the sea of mire, can't we at least clear the filth from our eyes and see straight and steer straight to the anchorage?"
She had covered her pallid face with her muff; he bent forward, his hand on the arm of her chair.
"Alixe, was there nothing to you, after all? Was it only a tinted ghost that was blown into my bungalow that night—only a twist of shredded marsh mist without substance, without being, without soul?—to be blown away into the shadows with the next and stronger wind—and again to drift out across the waste places of the world? I thought I knew a sweet, impulsive comrade of flesh and blood; warm, quick, generous, intelligent—and very, very young—too young and spirited, perhaps, to endure the harness which coupled her with a man who failed her—and failed himself.
"That she has made another—and perhaps more heart-breaking mistake, is bitter for me, too—because—because—I have not yet forgotten. And even if I ceased to remember, the sadness of it must touch me. But I have not forgotten, and because I have not, I say to you, anchor! and hold fast. Whatever he does, whatever you suffer, whatever happens, steer straight on to the anchorage. Do you understand me?"
Her gloved hand, moving at random, encountered his and closed on it convulsively.
"Do you understand?" he repeated.
Head still sinking, face covered with the silvery fur, the tremors from her body set her hand quivering on his.
Heart-sick, he forbore to ask for the explanation; he knew the real answer, anyway—whatever she might say—and he understood that any game in that house was Ruthven's game, and the guests his guests; and that Gerald was only one of the younger men who had been wrung dry in that house.
No doubt at all that Ruthven needed the money; he was only a male geisha for the set that harboured him, anyway—picked up by a big, hard-eyed woman, who had almost forgotten how to laugh, until she found him furtively muzzling her diamond-laden fingers. So, when she discovered that he could sit up and beg and roll over at a nod, she let him follow her; and since then he had become indispensable and had curled up on many a soft and silken knee, and had sought and fetched and carried for many a pretty woman what she herself did not care to touch, even with white-gloved fingers.
What had she expected when she married him? Only innocent ignorance of the set he ornamented could account for the horror of her disillusion. What splendours had she dreamed of from the outside? What flashing and infernal signal had beckoned her to enter? What mute eyes had promised? What silent smile invited? All skulls seem to grin; but the world has yet to hear them laugh.
* * * * *
"I did my best, w-without offending Gerald. Can you believe me?"
"I know you did. . . . Don't mind what I said—"
"N-no, not now. . . . You do believe me, don't you?"
"Yes, I do."
"Thank you. . . . And, Phil, I will try to s-steer straight—because you ask me."
"I will. . . . It is good to be here. . . . I must not come again, must I?"
"Not again, Alixe."
"On your account?"
"On your own. . . . What do I care?"
"I didn't know. They say—"
"What?" he asked sharply.
"A rumour—I heard it—others speak of it—perhaps to be disagreeable to me—"
"What have you heard?"
"That—that you might marry again—"
"Well, you can nail that lie," he said hotly.
"Then it is not true?"
"True! Do you think I'd take that chance again even if I felt free to do it?"
"Free?" she faltered; "but you are free, Phil!"
"I am not," he said fiercely; "no man is free to marry twice under such conditions. It's a jest at decency and a slap in the face of civilisation! I'm done for—finished; I had my chance and I failed. Do you think I consider myself free to try again with the chance of further bespattering my family?"
"Wait until you really love," she said tremulously.
He laughed incredulously.
"I am glad that it is not true. . . . I am glad," she said. "Oh, Phil! Phil!—for a single one of the chances we had again and again and again!—and we did not know—we did not know! And yet—there were moments—"
Dry-lipped he looked at her, and dry of eye and lip she raised her head and stared at him—through him—far beyond at the twin ghosts floating under the tropic stars locked fast in their first embrace.
Then she rose, blindly, covering her face with her hands, and he stumbled to his feet, shrinking back from her—because dead fires were flickering again, and the ashes of dead roses stirred above the scented embers—and the magic of all the East was descending like a veil upon them, and the Phantom of the Past drew nearer, smiling, wide-armed, crowned with living blossoms.
The tide rose, swaying her where she stood; her hands fell from her face. Between them the grave they had dug seemed almost filled with flowers now—was filling fast. And across it they looked at one another as though stunned. Then his face paled and he stepped back, staring at her from stern eyes.
"Phil," she faltered, bewildered by the mirage, "is it only a bad dream, after all?" And as the false magic glowed into blinding splendour to engulf them: "Oh, boy! boy!—is it hell or heaven where we've fallen—?"
There came a loud rapping at the door.
"Phil," she wrote, "I am a little frightened. Do you suppose Boots suspected who it was? I must have been perfectly mad to go to your rooms that night; and we both were—to leave the door unlocked with the chance of somebody walking in. But, Phil, how could I know it was the fashion for your friends to bang like that and then come in without the excuse of a response from you?
"I have been so worried, so anxious, hoping from day to day that you would write to reassure me that Boots did not recognise me with my back turned to him and my muff across my eyes.
"But scared and humiliated as I am I realise that it was well that he knocked. Even as I write to you here in my own room, behind locked doors, I am burning with the shame of it.
"But I am not that kind of woman, Phil; truly, truly, I am not. When the foolish impulse seized me I had no clear idea of what I wanted except to see you and learn for myself what you thought about Gerald's playing at my house after I had promised not to let him.
"Of course, I understood what I risked in going; I realised what common interpretation might be put upon what I was doing. But ugly as it might appear to anybody except you, my motive, you see, must have been quite innocent—else I should have gone about it in a very different manner.
"I wanted to see you, that is absolutely all; I was lonely for a word—even a harsh one—from the sort of man you are. I wanted you to believe it was in spite of me that Gerald came and played that night.
"He came without my knowledge. I did not know he was invited. And when he appeared I did everything to prevent him from playing; you will never know what took place—what I submitted to—
"I am trying to be truthful, Phil; I want to lay my heart bare for you—but there are things a woman cannot wholly confess. Believe me, I did what I could. . . . And that is all I can say. Oh, I know what it costs you to be mixed up in such contemptible complications. I, for my part, can scarcely bear to have you know so much about me—and what I am come to. That is my real punishment, Phil—not what you said it was.
"I do not think it is well for me that you know so much about me. It is not too difficult to face the outer world with a bold front—or to deceive any man in it. But our own little world is being rapidly undeceived; and now the only real man remaining in it has seen my gay mask stripped off—which is not well for a woman, Phil.
"I remember what you said about an anchorage; I am trying to clear these haunted eyes of mine and steer clear of phantoms—for the honour of what we once were to each other before the world. But steering a ghost-ship through endless tempests is hard labour, Phil; so be a little kind—a little more than patient, if my hand grows tired at the wheel.
"And now—with all these madly inked pages scattered across my desk, I draw toward me another sheet—the last I have still unstained; to ask at last the question which I have shrunk from through all these pages—and for which these pages alone were written:
"What do you think of me? Asking you, shows how much I care; dread of your opinion has turned me coward until this last page. What do you think of me? I am perfectly miserable about Boots, but that is partly fright—though I know I am safe enough with such a man. But what sets my cheeks blazing so that I cannot bear to face my own eyes in the mirror, is the fear of what you must think of me in the still, secret places of that heart of yours, which I never, never understood. ALIXE."
It was a week before he sent his reply—although he wrote many answers, each in turn revised, corrected, copied, and recopied, only to be destroyed in the end. But at last he forced himself to meet truth with truth, cutting what crudity he could from his letter:
"You ask me what I think of you; but that question should properly come from me. What do you think of a man who exhorts and warns a woman to stand fast, and then stands dumb at the first impact of temptation?
"A sight for gods and men—that man! Is there any use for me to stammer out trite phrases of self-contempt? The fact remains that I am unfit to advise, criticise, or condemn anybody for anything; and it's high time I realised it.
"If words of commendation, of courage, of kindly counsel, are needed by anybody in this world, I am not the man to utter them. What a hypocrite must I seem to you! I who sat there beside you preaching platitudes in strong self-complacency, instructing you how morally edifying it is to be good and unhappy.
"Then, what happened? I don't know exactly; but I'm trying to be honest, and I'll tell you what I think happened:
"You are—you; I am—I; and we are still those same two people who understood neither the impulse that once swept us together, nor the forces that tore us apart—ah, more than that! we never understood each other! And we do not now.
"That is what happened. We were too near together again; the same spark leaped, the same blindness struck us, the same impulse swayed us—call it what we will!—and it quickened out of chaos, grew from nothing into unreasoning existence. It was the terrific menace of emotion, stunning us both—simply because you are you and I am I. And that is what happened.
"We cannot deny it; we may not have believed it possible—or in fact considered it at all. I did not; I am sure you did not. Yet it occurred, and we cannot deny it, and we can no more explain or understand it than we can understand each other.
"But one thing we do know—not through reason but through sheer instinct: We cannot venture to meet again—that way. For I, it seems, am a man like other men except that I lack character; and you are—you! still unchanged—with all the mystery of attraction, all the magic force of vitality, all the esoteric subtlety with which you enveloped me the first moment my eyes met yours.
"There was no more reason for it then than there is now; and, as you admit, it was not love—though, as you also admit, there were moments approaching it. But nothing can have real being without a basis of reason; and so, whatever it was, it vanished. This, perhaps, is only the infernal afterglow.
"As for me, I am, as you are, all at sea, self-confidence gone, self-faith lost—a very humble person, without conceit, dazed, perplexed, but still attempting to steer through toward that safe anchorage which I dared lately to recommend to you.
"And it is really there, Alixe, despite the fool who recites his creed so tritely.
"All this in attempt to bring order into my own mental confusion; and the result is that I have formulated nothing.
"So now I end where I began with that question which answers yours without the faintest suspicion of reproach: What can you think of such a man as I am? And in the presence of my second failure your answer must be that you now think what you once thought of him when you first realised that he had failed you, PHILIP SELWYN."
That very night brought him her reply:
"Phil, dear, I do not blame you for one instant. Why do you say you ever failed in anything? It was entirely my fault. But I am so happy that you wrote as you did, taking all the blame, which is like you. I can look into my mirror now—for a moment or two.
"It is brave of you to be so frank about what you think came over us. I can discuss nothing, admit nothing; but you always did reason more clearly than I. Still, whatever spell it was that menaced us I know very well could not have threatened you seriously; I know it because you reason about it so logically. So it could have been nothing serious. Love alone is serious; and it sometimes comes slowly, sometimes goes slowly; but if you desire it to come quickly, close your eves! And if you wish it to vanish, reason about it!
"We are on very safe ground again, Phil; you see we are making little epigrams about love.
"Rosamund is impatient—it's a symphony concert, and I must go—the horrid little cynic!—I half believe she suspects that I'm writing to you and tearing off yards of sentiment. It is likely I'd do that, isn't it!—but I don't care what she thinks. Besides, it behooves her to be agreeable, and she knows that I know it does! Voila!
"By the way, I saw Mrs. Gerard's pretty ward at the theatre last night—Miss Erroll. She certainly is stunning—"
Selwyn flattened out the letter and deliberately tore out the last paragraph. Then he set it afire with a match.
"At least," he said with an ugly look, "I can keep her out of this"; and he dropped the brittle blackened paper and set his heel on it. Then he resumed his perusal of the mutilated letter, reread it, and finally destroyed it.
"Alixe," he wrote in reply, "we had better stop this letter-writing before somebody stops us. Anybody desiring to make mischief might very easily misinterpret what we are doing. I, of course, could not close the correspondence, so I ask you to do so without any fear that you will fail to understand why I ask it. Will you?"
To which she replied:
"Yes, Phil. Good-bye.
A box of roses left her his debtor; she was too intelligent to acknowledge them. Besides, matters were going better with her.
And that was all for a while.
Meanwhile Lent had gone, and with it the last soiled snow of winter. It was an unusually early spring; tulips in Union Square appeared coincident with crocus and snow-drop; high above the city's haze wavering wedges of wild-fowl drifted toward the Canadas; a golden perfumed bloom clotted the naked branches of the park shrubs; Japanese quince burst into crimson splendour; tender chestnut leaves unfolded; the willows along the Fifty-ninth Street wall waved banners of gilded green; and through the sunshine battered butterflies floated, and the wild bees reappeared, scrambling frantically, powdered to the thighs in the pollen of a million dandelions.
"Spring, with that nameless fragrance in the air Which breathes of all things fair,"
sang a young girl riding in the Park. And she smiled to herself as she guided her mare through the flowering labyrinths. Other notes of the Southern poet's haunting song stole soundless from her lips; for it was only her heart that was singing there in the sun, while her silent, smiling mouth mocked the rushing melody of the birds.
Behind her, powerfully mounted, ambled the belted groom; she was riding alone in the golden weather because her good friend Selwyn was very busy in his office downtown, and Gerald, who now rode with her occasionally, was downtown also, and there remained nobody else to ride with. Also the horses were to be sent to Silverside soon, and she wanted to use them as much as possible while the Park was at its loveliest.
She, therefore, galloped conscientiously every morning, sometimes with Nina, but usually alone. And every afternoon she and Nina drove there, drinking the freshness of the young year—the most beautiful year of her life, she told herself, in all the exquisite maturity of her adolescence.
So she rode on, straight before her, head high, the sun striking face and firm, white throat; and in her heart laughed spring eternal, whose voiceless melody parted her lips.
Breezes blowing from beds of iris quickened her breath with their perfume; she saw the tufted lilacs sway in the wind, and the streamers of mauve-tinted wistaria swinging, all a-glisten with golden bees; she saw a crimson cardinal winging through the foliage, and amorous tanagers flashing like scarlet flames athwart the pines.
From rock and bridge and mouldy archway tender tendrils of living green fluttered, brushing her cheeks. Beneath the thickets the under-wood world was very busy, where squirrels squatted or prowled and cunning fox-sparrows avoided the starlings and blackbirds; and the big cinnamon-tinted, speckle-breasted thrashers scuffled among last year's leaves or, balanced on some leafy spray, carolled ecstatically of this earthly paradise.
It was near Eighty-sixth Street that a girl, splendidly mounted, saluted her, and wheeling, joined her—a blond, cool-skinned, rosy-tinted, smoothly groomed girl, almost too perfectly seated, almost too flawless and supple in the perfect symmetry of face and figure.
"Upon my word," she said gaily, "you are certainly spring incarnate, Miss Erroll—the living embodiment of all this!" She swung her riding-crop in a circle and laughed, showing her perfect teeth. "But where is that faithful attendant cavalier of yours this morning? Is he so grossly material that he prefers Wall Street, as does my good lord and master?"
"Do you mean Gerald?" asked Eileen innocently, "or Captain Selwyn?"
"Oh, either," returned Rosamund airily; "a girl should have something masculine to talk to on a morning like this. Failing that she should have some pleasant memories of indiscretions past and others to come, D.V.; at least one little souvenir to repent—smilingly. Oh, la! Oh, me! All these wretched birds a-courting and I bumping along on Dobbin, lacking even my own Gilpin! Shall we gallop?"
When at length they pulled up along the reservoir, Eileen's hair had rebelled as usual and one bright strand eurled like a circle of ruddy light across her cheek; but Rosamund drew bridle as immaculate as ever and coolly inspected her companion.
"What gorgeous hair," she said, staring. "It's worth a coronet, you know—if you ever desire one."
"I don't," said the girl, laughing and attempting to bring the insurgent curl under discipline.
"I dare say you're right; coronets are out of vogue among us now. It's the fashion to marry our own good people. By the way, you are continuing to astonish the town, I hear."
"What do you mean, Mrs. Fane?"
"Why, first it was Sudbury, then Draymore, and how everybody says that Boots—"
"Boots!" repeated Miss Erroll blankly, then laughed deliciously.
"Poor, poor Boots! Did they say that about him? Oh, it really is too bad, Mrs. Fane; it is certainly horridly impertinent of people to say such things. My only consolation is that Boots won't care; and if he doesn't, why should I?"
Rosamund nodded, crossing her crop.
"At first, though, I did care," continued the girl. "I was so ashamed that people should gossip whenever a man was trying to be nice to me—"
"Pooh! It's always the men's own faults. Don't you suppose the martyr's silence is noisier than a shriek of pain from the house-tops? I know—a little about men," added Rosamund modestly, "and they invariably say to themselves after a final rebuff: 'Now, I'll be patient and brave and I'll bear with noble dignity this cataclysm which has knocked the world galley-west for me and loosened the moon in its socket and spoiled the symmetry of the sun.' And they go about being so conspicuously brave that any debutante can tell what hurts them."
Eileen was still laughing, but not quite at her ease—the theme being too personal to suit her. In fact, there usually seemed to be too much personality in Rosamund's conversation—a certain artificial indifference to convention, which she, Eileen, did not feel any desire to disregard. For the elements of reticence and of delicacy were inherent in her; the training of a young girl had formalised them into rules. But since her debut she had witnessed and heard so many violations of convention that now she philosophically accepted such, when they came from her elders, merely reserving her own convictions in matters of personal taste and conduct.
For a while, as they rode, Rosamund was characteristically amusing, sailing blandly over the shoals of scandal, though Eileen never suspected it—wittily gay at her own expense, as well as at others, flitting airily from topic to topic on the wings of a self-assurance that becomes some women if they know when to stop. But presently the mischievous perversity in her bubbled up again; she was tired of being good; she had often meant to try the effect of a gentle shock on Miss Erroll; and, besides, she wondered just how much truth there might be in the unpleasantly persistent rumour of the girl's unannounced engagement to Selwyn.
"It would be amusing, wouldn't it?" she asked with guileless frankness; "but, of course, it is not true—this report of their reconciliation."
"Whose reconciliation?" asked Miss Erroll innocently.
"Why, Alixe Ruthven and Captain Selwyn. Everybody is discussing it, you know."
"Reconciled? I don't understand," said Eileen, astonished. "They can't be; how can—"
"But it would be amusing, wouldn't it? and she could very easily get rid of Jack Ruthven—any woman could. So if they really mean to remarry—"
The girl stared, breathless, astounded, bolt upright in her saddle.
"Oh!" she protested, while the hot blood mantled throat and cheek, "it is wickedly untrue. How could such a thing be true, Mrs. Fane! It is—is so senseless—"
"That is what I say," nodded Rosamund; "it's so perfectly senseless that it's amusing—even if they have become such amazingly good friends again. I never believed there was anything seriously sentimental in the situation; and their renewed interest in each other is quite the most frankly sensible way out of any awkwardness," she added cordially.
Miserably uncomfortable, utterly unable to comprehend, the girl rode on in silence, her ears ringing with Rosamund's words. And Rosamund, riding beside her, cool, blond, and cynically amused, continued the theme with admirable pretence of indifference:
"It's a pity that ill-natured people are for ever discussing them; and it makes me indignant, because I've always been very fond of Alixe Ruthven, and I am positive that she does not correspond with Captain Selwyn. A girl in her position would be crazy to invite suspicion by doing the things they say she is doing—"
"Don't, Mrs. Fane, please, don't!" stammered Eileen; "I—I really can't listen. I simply will not!" Then bewildered, hurt, and blindly confused as she was, the instinct to defend flashed up—though from what she was defending him she did not realise: "It is utterly untrue!" she exclaimed hotly—"all that yo—all that they say!—whoever they are—whatever they mean. I cannot understand it—I don't understand, and I will not! Nor will he!" she added with a scornful conviction that disconcerted Rosamund; "for if you knew him as I do, Mrs. Fane, you would never, never have spoken as you have."
Mrs. Fane relished neither the naive rebuke nor the intimation that her own acquaintance with Selwyn was so limited; and least of all did she relish the implied intimacy between this red-haired young girl and Captain Selwyn.
"Dear Miss Erroll," she said blandly, "I spoke as I did only to assure you that I, also, disregard such malicious gossip—"
"But if you disregard it, Mrs. Fane, why do you repeat it?"
"Merely to emphasise to you my disbelief in it, child," returned Rosamund. "Do you understand?"
"Y-es; thank you. Yet, I should never have heard of it at all if you had not told me."
Rosamund's colour rose one degree:
"It is better to hear such things from a friend, is it not?"
"I didn't know that one's friends said such things; but perhaps it is better that way, as you say, only, I cannot understand the necessity of my knowing—of my hearing—because it is Captain Selwyn's affair, after all."
"And that," said Rosamund deliberately, "is why I told you."
"Told me? Oh—because he and I are such close friends?"
"Yes—such very close friends that I"—she laughed—"I am informed that your interests are soon to be identical."
The girl swung round, self-possessed, but dreadfully pale.
"If you believed that," she said, "it was vile of you to say what you said, Mrs. Fane."
"But I did not believe it, child!" stammered Rosamund, several degrees redder than became her, and now convinced that it was true. "I n-never dreamed of offending you, Miss Erroll—"