"Do you suppose I am too ignorant to take offence?" said the girl unsteadily. "I told you very plainly that I did not understand the matters you chose for discussion; but I do understand impertinence when I am driven to it."
"I am very, very sorry that you believe I meant it that way," said Rosamund, biting her lips.
"What did you mean? You are older than I, you are certainly experienced; besides, you are married. If you can give it a gentler name than insolence I would be glad—for your sake, Mrs. Fane. I only know that you have spoiled my ride, spoiled the day for me, hurt me, humiliated me, and awakened, not curiosity, not suspicion, but the horror of it, in me. You did it once before—at the Minsters' dance; not, perhaps, that you deliberately meant to; but you did it. And your subject was then, as it is now, Captain Selwyn—my friend—"
Her voice became unsteady again and her mouth curved; but she held her head high and her eyes were as fearlessly direct as a child's.
"And now," she said calmly, "you know where I stand and what I will not stand. Natural deference to an older woman, the natural self-distrust of a girl in the presence of social experience—and under its protection as she had a right to suppose—prevented me from checking you when your conversation became distasteful. You, perhaps, mistook my reticence for acquiescence; and you were mistaken. I am still quite willing to remain on agreeable terms with you, if you wish, and to forget what you have done to me this morning."
If Rosamund had anything left to say, or any breath to say it, there were no indications of it. Never in her flippant existence had she been so absolutely flattened by any woman. As for this recent graduate from fudge and olives, she could scarcely realise how utterly and finally she had been silenced by her. Incredulity, exasperation, amazement had succeeded each other while Miss Erroll was speaking; chagrin, shame, helplessness followed as bitter residue. But, in the end, the very incongruity of the situation came to her aid; for Rosamund very easily fell a prey to the absurd—even when the amusement was furnished at her own expense; and a keen sense of the ridiculous had more than once saved her dainty skirts from a rumpling that her modesty perhaps might have forgiven.
"I'm certainly a little beast," she said impulsively, "but I really do like you. Will you forgive?"
No genuine appeal to the young girl's generosity had ever been in vain; she forgave almost as easily as she breathed. Even now in the flush of just resentment it was not hard for her to forgive; she hesitated only in order to adjust matters in her own mind.
Mrs. Fane swung her horse and held out her right hand:
"Is it pax, Miss Erroll? I'm really ashamed of myself. Won't you forgive me?"
"Yes," said the young girl, laying her gloved hand on Rosamund's very lightly; "I've often thought," she added naively, "that I could like you, Mrs. Fane, if you would only give me a chance."
"I'll try—you blessed innocent! You've torn me into rags and tatters, and you did it adorably. What I said was idle, half-witted, gossiping nonsense. So forget every atom of it as soon as you can, my dear, and let me prove that I'm not an utter idiot, if I can."
"That will be delightful," said Eileen with a demure smile; and Rosamund laughed, too, with full-hearted laughter; for trouble sat very lightly on her perfect shoulders in the noontide of her strength and youth. Sin and repentance were rapid matters with Rosamund; cause, effect, and remorse a quick sequence to be quickly reckoned up, checked off, and cancelled; and the next blank page turned over to be ruled and filled with the next impeachment.
There was, in her, more of mischief than of real malice; and if she did pinch people to see them wiggle it was partly because she supposed that the pain would be as momentary as the pinch; for nothing lasted with her, not even the wiggle. So why should the pain produced by a furtive tweak interfere with the amusement she experienced in the victim's jump?
But what had often saved her from a social lynching was her ability to laugh at her own discomfiture, and her unfeigned liking and respect for the turning worm.
* * * * *
"And, my dear," she said, concluding the account of the adventure to Mrs. Ruthven that afternoon at Sherry's, "I've never been so roundly abused and so soundly trounced in my life as I was this blessed morning by that red-headed novice! Oh, my! Oh, la! I could have screamed with laughter at my own undoing."
"It's what you deserved," said Alixe, intensely annoyed, although Rosamund had not told her all that she had so kindly and gratuitously denied concerning her relations with Selwyn. "It was sheer effrontery of you, Rosamund, to put such notions into the head of a child and stir her up into taking a fictitious interest in Philip Selwyn which I know—which is perfectly plain to m—to anybody never existed!"
"Of course it existed!" retorted Rosamund, delighted now to worry Alixe. "She didn't know it; that is all. It really was simple charity to wake her up. It's a good match, too, and so obviously and naturally inevitable that there's no harm in playing prophetess. . . . Anyway, what do we care, dear? Unless you—"
"Rosamund!" said Mrs. Ruthven exasperated, "will you ever acquire the elements of reticence? I don't know why people endure you; I don't, indeed! And they won't much longer—"
"Yes, they will, dear; that's what society is for—a protective association for the purpose of enduring impossible people. . . . I wish," she added, "that it included husbands, because in some sets it's getting to be one dreadful case of who's whose. Don't you think so?"
Alixe, externally calm but raging inwardly, sat pulling on her gloves, heartily sorry she had lunched with Rosamund.
The latter, already gloved, had risen and was coolly surveying the room.
"Tiens!" she said, "there is the youthful brother of our red-haired novice, now. He sees us and he's coming to inflict himself—with another moon-faced creature. Shall we bolt?"
Alixe turned and stared at Gerald, who came up boyishly red and impetuous:
"How d'ye do, Mrs. Ruthven; did you get my note? How d'ye do, Mrs. Fane; awf'fly jolly to collide this way. Would you mind if—"
"You," interrupted Rosamund, "ought to be downtown—unless you've concluded to retire and let Wall Street go to smash. What are you pretending to do in Sherry's at this hour, you very dreadful infant?"
"I've been lunching with Mr. Neergard—and would you mind—"
"Yes, I would," began Rosamund, promptly, but Alixe interrupted: "Bring him over, Gerald." And as the boy thanked her and turned back:
"I've a word to administer to that boy, Rosamund, so attack the Neergard creature with moderation, please. You owe me that at least."
"No, I don't!" said Rosamund, disgusted; "I won't be afflicted with a—"
"Nobody wants you to be too civil to him, silly! But Gerald is in his office, and I want Gerald to do something for me. Please, Rosamund."
"Oh, well, if you—"
"Yes, I do. Here he is now; and don't be impossible and frighten him, Rosamund."
The presentation of Neergard was accomplished without disaster to anybody. On his thin nose the dew glistened, and his thick fat hands were hot; but Rosamund was too bored to be rude to him, and Alixe turned immediately to Gerald:
"Yes, I did get your note, but I'm not at home on Tuesday. Can't you come—wait a moment!—what are you doing this afternoon?"
"Why, I'm going back to the office with Mr. Neergard—"
"Nonsense! Oh, Mr. Neergard, would you mind"—very sweetly—"if Mr. Erroll did not go to the office this afternoon?"
Neergard looked at her—almost—a fixed and uncomfortable smirk on his round, red face: "Not at all, Mrs. Ruthven, if you have anything better for him—"
"I have—an allopathic dose of it. Thank you, Mr. Neergard. Rosamund, we ought to start, you know: Gerald!"—with quiet significance—"good-bye, Mr. Neergard. Please do not buy up the rest of Long Island, because we need a new kitchen-garden very badly."
Rosamund scarcely nodded his dismissal. And the next moment Neergard found himself quite alone, standing with the smirk still stamped on his stiffened features, his hat-brim and gloves crushed in his rigid fingers, his little black mousy eyes fixed on nothing, as usual.
A wandering head-waiter thought they were fixed on him and sidled up hopeful of favours, but Neergard suddenly snarled in his face and moved toward the door, wiping the perspiration from his nose with the most splendid handkerchief ever displayed east of Sixth Avenue and west of Third.
Mrs. Ruthven's motor moved up from its waiting station; Rosamund was quite ready to enter when Alixe said cordially: "Where can we drop you, dear? Do let us take you to the exchange if you are going there—"
Now Rosamund had meant to go wherever they were going, merely because they evidently wished to be alone. The abruptness of the check both irritated and amused her.
"If I knew anybody in the Bronx I'd make you take me there," she said vindictively; "but as I don't you may drop me at the Orchils'—you uncivil creatures. Gerald, I know you want me, anyway, because you've promised to adore, honour, and obey me. . . . If you'll come with me now I'll play double dummy with you. No? Well, of all ingratitude! . . . Thank you, dear, I perceive that this is Fifth Avenue, and furthermore that this ramshackle chassis of yours has apparently broken down at the Orchils' curb. . . . Good-bye, Gerald; it never did run smooth, you know. I mean the course of T.L. as well as this motor. Try to be a good boy and keep moving; a rolling stone acquires a polish, and you are not in the moss-growing business, I'm sure—"
"Rosamund! For goodness' sake!" protested Alixe, her gloved hands at her ears.
"Dear!" said Rosamund cheerfully, "take your horrid little boy!"
And she smiled dazzlingly upon Gerald, then turned up her pretty nose at him, but permitted him to attend her to the door.
When he returned to Alixe, and the car was speeding Parkward, he began again, eagerly:
"Jack asked me to come up and, of course, I let you know, as I promised I would. But it's all right, Mrs. Ruthven, because Jack said the stakes will not be high this time—"
"You accepted!" demanded Alixe, in quick displeasure.
"Why, yes—as the stakes are not to amount to anything—"
"What?" he said uneasily.
"You promised me that you would not play again in my house!"
"I—I said, for more than I could afford—"
"No, you said you would not play; that is what you promised, Gerald."
"Well, I meant for high stakes; I—well, you don't want to drive me out altogether—even from the perfectly harmless pleasure of playing for nominal stakes—"
"Yes, I do!"
"W-why?" asked the boy in hurt surprise.
"Because it is dangerous sport, Gerald—"
"What! To play for a few cents a point—"
"Yes, to play for anything. And as far as that goes there will be no such play as you imagine."
"Yes, there will—I beg your pardon—but Jack Ruthven said so—"
"Gerald, listen to me. A bo—a man like yourself has no business playing with people whose losses never interfere with their appetites next day. A business man has no right to play such a game, anyway. I wonder what Mr. Neergard would say if he knew you—"
"Neergard! Why, he does know."
"You confessed to him?"
"Y-es; I had to. I was obliged to—to ask somebody for an advance—"
"You went to him? Why didn't you go to Captain Selwyn?—or to Mr. Gerard?"
"I did!—not to Captain Selwyn—I was ashamed to. But I went to Austin and he fired up and lit into me—and we had a muss-up—and I've stayed away since."
"Oh, Gerald! And it simply proves me right."
"No, it doesn't; I did go to Neergard and made a clean breast of it. And he let me have what I wanted like a good fellow—"
"And made you promise not to do it again!"
"No, he didn't; he only laughed. Besides, he said that he wished he had been in the game—"
"What!" exclaimed Alixe.
"He's a first-rate fellow," insisted Gerald, reddening; "and it was very nice of you to let me bring him over to-day. . . . And he knows everybody downtown, too. He comes from a very old Dutch family, but he had to work pretty hard and do without college. . . . I'd like it awfully if you'd let me—if you wouldn't mind being civil to him—once or twice, you know—"
Mrs. Ruthven lay back in her seat, thoroughly annoyed.
"My theory," insisted the boy with generous conviction, "is that a man is what he makes himself. People talk about climbers and butters-in, but where would anybody be in this town if nobody had ever butted in? It's all rot, this aping the caste rules of established aristocracies; a decent fellow ought to be encouraged. Anyway, I'm going to propose, him for the Stuyvesant and the Proscenium. Why not?"
"I see. And now you propose to bring him to my house?"
"If you'll let me. I asked Jack and he seemed to think it might be all right if you cared to ask him to play—"
"I won't!" cried Alixe, revolted. "I will not turn my drawing-rooms into a clearing-house for every money-laden social derelict in town! I've had enough of that; I've endured the accumulated wreckage too long!—weird treasure-craft full of steel and oil and coal and wheat and Heaven knows what!—I won't do it, Gerald; I'm sick of it all—sick! sick!"
The sudden, flushed outburst stunned the boy. Bewildered, he stared round-eyed at the excited young matron who was growing more incensed and more careless of what she exposed every second:
"I will not make a public gambling-hell out of my own house!" she repeated, dark eyes very bright and cheeks afire; "I will not continue to stand sponsor for a lot of queer people simply because they don't care what they lose in Mrs. Ruthven's house! You babble to me of limits, Gerald; this is the limit! Do you—or does anybody else suppose that I don't know what is being said about us?—that play is too high in our house?—that we are not too difficile in our choice of intimates as long as they can stand the pace!"
"I—I never believed that," insisted the boy, miserable to see the tears flash in her eyes and her mouth quiver.
"You may as well believe it for it's true!" she said, exasperated.
"Yes, true, Gerald! I—I don't care whether you know it; I don't care, as long as you stay away. I'm sick of it all, I tell you. Do you think I was educated for this?—for the wife of a chevalier of industry—"
"M-Mrs. Ruthven!" he gasped; but she was absolutely reckless now—and beneath it all, perhaps, lay a certainty of the boy's honour. She knew he was to be trusted—was the safest receptacle for wrath so long repressed. She let prudence go with a parting and vindictive slap, and opened her heart to the astounded boy. The tempest lasted a few seconds; then she ended as abruptly as she began.
To him she had always been what a pretty young matron usually is to a well-bred but hare-brained youth just untethered. Their acquaintance had been for him a combination of charming experiences diluted with gratitude for her interest and a harmless soupcon of sentimentality. In her particular case, however, there was a little something more—a hint of the forbidden—a troubled enjoyment, because he knew, of course, that Mrs. Ruthven was on no footing at all with the Gerards. So in her friendship he savoured a piquancy not at all distasteful to a very young man's palate.
But now!—he had never, never seen her like this—nor any woman, for that matter—and he did not know where to look or what to do.
She was sitting back in the limousine, very limp and flushed; and the quiver of her under lip and the slightest dimness of her averted brown eyes distressed him dreadfully.
"Dear Mrs. Ruthven," he blurted out with clumsy sympathy, "you mustn't think such things, b-because they're all rot, you see; and if any fellow ever said those things to me I'd jolly soon—"
"Do you mean to say you've never heard us criticised?"
"I—well—everybody is—criticised, of course—"
"But not as we are! Do you read the papers? Well, then, do you understand how a woman must feel to have her husband continually made the butt of foolish, absurd, untrue stories—as though he were a performing poodle! I—I'm sick of that, too, for another thing. Week after week, month by month, unpleasant things have been accumulating; and they're getting too heavy, Gerald—too crushing for my shoulders. . . . Men call me restless. What wonder! Women link my name with any man who is k-kind to me! Is there no excuse then for what they call my restlessness? . . . What woman would not be restless whose private affairs are the gossip of everybody? Was it not enough that I endured terrific publicity when—when trouble overtook me two years ago? . . . I suppose I'm a fool to talk like this; but a girl must do it some time or burst!—and to whom am I to go? . . . There was only one person; and I can't talk to—that one; he—that person knows too much about me, anyway; which is not good for a woman, Gerald, not good for a good woman. . . . I mean a pretty good woman; the kind people's sisters can still talk to, you know. . . . For I'm nothing more interesting than a divorcee, Gerald; nothing more dangerous than an unhappy little fool. . . . I wish I were. . . . But I'm still at the wheel! . . . A man I know calls it hard steering but assures me that there's anchorage ahead. . . . He's a splendid fellow, Gerald; you ought to know him—well—some day; he's just a clean-cut, human, blundering, erring, unreasonable,lovable man whom any woman, who is not a fool herself, could manage. . . . Some day I should like to have you know him—intimately. He's good for people of your sort—even good for a restless, purposeless woman of my sort. Peace to him!—if there's any in the world. . . . Turn your back; I'm sniveling."
A moment afterward she had calmed completely; and now she stole a curious side glance at the boy and blushed a little when he looked back at her earnestly. Then she smiled and quietly withdrew the hand he had been holding so tightly in both of his.
"So there we are, my poor friend," she concluded with a shrug; "the old penny shocker, you know, 'Alone in a great city!'—I've dropped my handkerchief."
"I want you to believe me your friend," said Gerald, in the low, resolute voice of unintentional melodrama.
"Why, thank you; are you so sure you want that, Gerald?"
"Yes, as long as I live!" he declared, generous emotion in the ascendant. A pretty woman upset him very easily even under normal circumstances. But beauty in distress knocked him flat—as it does every wholesome boy who is worth his salt.
And he said so in his own naive fashion; and the more eloquent he grew the more excited he grew and the deeper and blacker appeared her wrongs to him.
At first she humoured him, and rather enjoyed his fresh, eager sympathy; after a little his increasing ardour inclined her to laugh; but it was very splendid and chivalrous and genuine ardour, and the inclination to laugh died out, for emotion is contagious, and his earnestness not only flattered her legitimately but stirred the slackened tension of her heart-strings until, tightening again, they responded very faintly.
"I had no idea that you were lonely," he declared.
"Sometimes I am, a little, Gerald." She ought to have known better. Perhaps she did.
"Well," he began, "couldn't I come and—"
"I mean just to see you sometimes and have another of these jolly talks—"
"Do you call this a jolly talk?"—with deep reproach.
"Why—not exactly; but I'm awfully interested, Mrs. Ruthven, and we understand each other so well—"
"I don't understand you", she was imprudent enough to say.
This was delightful! Certainly he must be a particularly sad and subtle dog if this clever but misunderstood young matron found him what in romance is known as an "enigma."
So he protested with smiling humility that he was quite transparent; she insisted on doubting him and contrived to look disturbed in her mind concerning the probable darkness of that past so dear to any young man who has had none.
As for Alixe, she also was mildly flattered—a trifle disdainfully perhaps, but still genuinely pleased at the honesty of this crude devotion. She was touched, too; and, besides, she trusted him; for he was clearly as transparent as the spring air. Also most women lugged a boy about with them; she had had several, but none as nice as Gerald. To tie him up and tack his license on was therefore natural to her; and if she hesitated to conclude his subjection in short order it was that, far in a corner of her restless soul, there hid an ever-latent fear of Selwyn; of his opinions concerning her fitness to act mentor to the boy of whom he was fond, and whose devotion to him was unquestioned.
Yet now, in spite of that—perhaps even partly because of it, she decided on the summary taming of Gerald; so she let her hand fall, by accident, close to his on the cushioned seat, to see what he'd do about it.
It took him some time to make up his mind; but when he did he held it so gingerly, so respectfully, that she was obliged to look out of the window. Clearly he was quite the safest and nicest of all the unfledged she had ever possessed.
"Please, don't," she said sadly.
And by that token she took him for her own.
* * * * *
She was very light-hearted that evening when she dropped him at the Stuyvesant Club and whizzed away to her own house, for he had promised not to play again on her premises, and she had promised to be nice to him and take him about when she was shy of an escort. She also repeated that he was truly an "enigma" and that she was beginning to be a little afraid of him, which was an economical way of making him very proud and happy. Being his first case of beauty in distress, and his first harmless love-affair with a married woman, he looked about him as he entered the club and felt truly that he had already outgrown the young and callow innocents who haunted it.
* * * * *
On her way home Alixe smilingly reviewed the episode until doubt of Selwyn's approval crept in again; and her amused smile had faded when she reached her home.
The house of Ruthven was a small but ultra-modern limestone affair, between Madison and Fifth; a pocket-edition of the larger mansions of their friends, but with less excuse for the overelaboration since the dimensions were only twenty by a hundred. As a matter of fact its narrow ornate facade presented not a single quiet space the eyes might rest on after a tiring attempt to follow and codify the arabesques, foliations, and intricate vermiculations of what some disrespectfully dubbed as "near-aissance."
However, into this limestone bonbon-box tripped Mrs. Ruthven, mounted the miniature stairs with a whirl of her scented skirts, peeped into the drawing-room, but continued mounting until she whipped into her own apartments, separated from those of her lord and master by a locked door.
That is, the door had been locked for a long, long time; but presently, to her intense surprise and annoyance, it slowly opened, and a little man appeared in slippered feet.
He was a little man, and plump, and at first glance his face appeared boyish and round and quite guiltless of hair or of any hope of it.
But, as he came into the electric light, the hardness of his features was apparent; he was no boy; a strange idea that he had never been assailed some people. His face was puffy and pallid and faint blue shadows hinted of closest shaving; and the line from the wing of the nostrils to the nerveless corners of his thin, hard mouth had been deeply bitten by the acid of unrest.
For the remainder he wore pale-rose pajamas under a silk-and-silver kimona, an obi pierced with a jewelled scarf-pin; and he was smoking a cigarette as thin as a straw.
"Well!" said his young wife in astonished displeasure, instinctively tucking her feet—from which her maid had just removed the shoes—under her own chamber-robe.
"Send her out a moment," he said, with a nod of his head toward the maid. His voice was agreeable and full—a trifle precise and overcultivated, perhaps.
When the maid retired, Alixe sat up on the lounge, drawing her skirts down over her small stockinged feet.
"What on earth is the matter?" she demanded.
"The matter is," he said, "that Gerald has just telephoned me from the Stuyvesant that he isn't coming."
"No, it isn't well. This is some of your meddling."
"What if it is?" she retorted; but her breath was coming quicker.
"I'll tell you; you can get up and ring him up and tell him you expect him to-night."
She shook her head, eyeing him all the while.
"I won't do it, Jack. What do you want him for? He can't play with the people who play here; he doesn't know the rudiments of play. He's only a boy; his money is so tied up that he has to borrow if he loses very much. There's no sport in playing with a boy like that—"
"So you've said before, I believe, but I'm better qualified to judge than you are. Are you going to call him up?"
"No, I am not."
He turned paler. "Get up and go to that telephone!"
"You little whippet," she said slowly, "I was once a soldier's wife—the only decent thing I ever have been. This bullying ends now—here, at this instant! If you've any dirty work to do, do it yourself. I've done my share and I've finished."
He was astonished; that was plain enough. But it was the sudden overwhelming access of fury that weakened him and made him turn, hand outstretched, blindly seeking for a chair. Rage, even real anger, were emotions he seldom had to reckon with, for he was a very tired and bored and burned-out gentleman, and vivid emotion was not good for his arteries, the doctors told him.
He found his chair, stood a moment with his back toward his wife, then very slowly let himself down into the chair and sat facing her. There was moisture on his soft, pallid skin, a nervous twitching of the under lip; he passed one heavily ringed hand across his closely shaven jaw, still staring at her.
"I want to tell you something," he said. "You've got to stop your interference with my affairs, and stop it now."
"I am not interested in your affairs," she said unsteadily, still shaken by her own revolt, still under the shock of her own arousing to a resistance that had been long, long overdue. "If you mean," she went on, "that the ruin of this boy is your affair, then I'll make it mine from this moment. I've told you that he shall not play; and he shall not. And while I'm about it I'll admit what you are preparing to accuse me of; I did make Sandon Craig promise to keep away; I did try to make that little fool Scott Innis promise, too; and when he wouldn't I informed his father. . . . And every time you try your dirty bucket-shop methods on boys like that, I'll do the same."
He swore at her quite calmly; she smiled, shrugged, and, imprisoning her knees in her clasped hands, leaned back and looked at him.
"What a ninny I have been," she said, "to be afraid of you so long!"
A gleam crossed his faded eyes, but he let her remark pass for the moment. Then, when he was quite sure that violent emotion had been exhausted within him:
"Do you want your bills paid?" he asked. "Because, if you do, Fane, Harmon & Co. are not going to pay them."
"We are living beyond our means?" she inquired disdainfully.
"Not if you will be good enough to mind your business, my friend. I've managed this establishment on our winnings for two years. It's a detail; but you might as well know it. My association with Fane, Harmon & Co. runs the Newport end of it, and nothing more."
"What did you marry me for?" she asked curiously.
A slight colour came into his face: "Because that damned Rosamund Fane lied about you."
"Oh! . . . You knew that in Manila? You'd heard about it, hadn't you—the Western timber-lands? Rosamund didn't mean to lie—only the titles were all wrong, you know. . . . And so you made a bad break, Jack; is that it?"
"Yes, that is it."
"And it cost you a fortune, and me a—husband. Is that it, my friend?"
"I can afford you if you will stop your meddling," he said coolly.
"I see; I am to stop my meddling and you are to continue your downtown gambling in your own house in the evenings."
"Precisely. It happens that I am sufficiently familiar with the stock-market to make a decent living out of the Exchange; and it also happens that I am sufficiently fortunate with cards to make the pleasure of playing fairly remunerative. Any man who can put up proper margin has a right to my services; any man whom I invite and who can take up his notes, has a right to play under my roof. If his note goes to protest, he forfeits that right. Now will you kindly explain to yourself exactly how this matter can be of any interest to you?"
"I have explained it," she said wearily. "Will you please go, now?"
He sat a moment, then rose:
"You make a point of excluding Gerald?"
"Very well; I'll telephone Draymore. And"—he looked back from the door of his own apartments—"I got Julius Neergard on the wire this afternoon and he'll dine with us."
He gathered up his shimmering kimona, hesitated, halted, and again looked back.
"When you're dressed," he drawled, "I've a word to say to you about the game to-night, and another about Gerald."
"I shall not play," she retorted scornfully, "nor will Gerald."
"Oh, yes, you will—and play your best, too. And I'll expect him next time."
"I shall not play!"
He said deliberately: "You will not only play, but play cleverly; and in the interim, while dressing, you will reflect how much more agreeable it is to play cards here than the fool at ten o'clock at night in the bachelor apartments of your late lamented."
And he entered his room; and his wife, getting blindly to her feet, every atom of colour gone from lip and cheek, stood rigid, both small hands clutching the foot-board of the gilded bed.
Differences of opinion between himself and Neergard concerning the ethics of good taste involved in forcing the Siowitha Club matter, Gerald's decreasing attention to business and increasing intimacy with the Fane-Ruthven coterie, began to make Selwyn very uncomfortable. The boy's close relations with Neergard worried him most of all; and though Neergard finally agreed to drop the Siowitha matter as a fixed policy in which Selwyn had been expected to participate at some indefinite date, the arrangement seemed only to cement the man's confidential companionship with Gerald.
This added to Selwyn's restlessness; and one day in early spring he had a long conference with Gerald—a most unsatisfactory one. Gerald, for the first time, remained reticent; and when Selwyn, presuming on the cordial understanding between them, pressed him a little, the boy turned sullen; and Selwyn let the matter drop very quickly.
But neither tact nor caution seemed to serve now; Gerald, more and more engrossed in occult social affairs of which he made no mention to Selwyn, was still amiable and friendly, even at times cordial and lovable; but he was no longer frank or even communicative; and Selwyn, fearing to arouse him again to sullenness or perhaps even to suspicious defiance, forbore to press him beyond the most tentative advances toward the regaining of his confidence.
This, very naturally, grieved and mortified the elder man; but what troubled him still more was that Gerald and Neergard were becoming so amazingly companionable; for it was easy to see that they had in common a number of personal interests which he did not share, and that their silence concerning these interests amounted to a secrecy almost offensive.
Again and again, coming unexpectedly upon them, he noticed that their confab ceased with his appearance. Often, too, glances of warning intelligence passed between them in his presence, which, no doubt, they supposed were unnoticed by him.
They left the office together frequently, now; they often lunched uptown. Whether they were in each other's company evenings, Selwyn did not know, for Gerald no longer volunteered information as to his whereabouts or doings. And all this hurt Selwyn, and alarmed him, too, for he was slowly coming to the conclusion that he did not like Neergard, that he would never sign articles of partnership with him, and that even his formal associateship with the company was too close a relation for his own peace of mind. But on Gerald's account he stayed on; he did not like to leave the boy alone for his sister's sake as well as for his own.
Matters drifted that way through early spring. He actually grew to dislike both Neergard and the business of Neergard & Co.—for no one particular reason, perhaps, but in general; though he did not yet care to ask himself to be more precise in his unuttered criticisms.
However, detail and routine, the simpler alphabet of the business, continued to occupy him. He consulted both Neergard and Gerald as usual; they often consulted him or pretended to do so. Land was bought and sold and resold, new projects discussed, new properties appraised, new mortgage loans negotiated; and solely because of his desire to remain near Gerald, this sort of thing might have continued indefinitely. But Neergard broke his word to him.
And one morning, before he left his rooms at Mrs. Greeve's lodgings to go downtown, Percy Draymore called him up on the telephone; and as that overfed young man's usual rising hour was notoriously nearer noon than eight o'clock, it surprised Selwyn to be asked to remain in his rooms for a little while until Draymore and one or two friends could call on him personally concerning a matter of importance.
He therefore breakfasted leisurely; and he was still scanning the real estate columns of a morning paper when Mrs. Greeve came panting to his door and ushered in a file of rather sleepy but important looking gentlemen, evidently unaccustomed to being abroad so early, and bored to death with their experience.
They were men he knew only formally, or, at best, merely as fellow club members; men whom he met when a dance or dinner took him out of the less pretentious sets he personally affected; men whom the newspapers and the public knew too well to speak of as "well known."
First there was Percy Draymore, overgroomed for a gentleman, fat, good-humoured, and fashionable—one of the famous Draymore family noted solely for their money and their tight grip on it; then came Sanxon Orchil, the famous banker and promoter, small, urbane, dark, with that rich almost oriental coloring which he may have inherited from his Cordova ancestors who found it necessary to dehumanise their names when Rome offered them the choice with immediate eternity as alternative.
Then came a fox-faced young man, Phoenix Mottly, elegant arbiter of all pertaining to polo and the hunt—slim-legged, hatchet-faced—and more presentable in the saddle than out of it. He was followed by Bradley Harmon, with his washed-out colouring of a consumptive Swede and his corn-coloured beard; and, looming in the rear like an amiable brontasaurus, George Fane, whose swaying neck carried his head as a camel carries his, nodding as he walks.
"Well!" said Selwyn, perplexed but cordial as he exchanged amenities with each gentleman who entered, "this is a killing combination of pleasure and mortification—because I haven't any more breakfast to offer you unless you'll wait until I ring for the Sultana—"
"Breakfast! Oh, damn! I've breakfasted on a pill and a glass of vichy for ten years," protested Draymore, "and the others either have swallowed their cocktails, or won't do it until luncheon. I say, Selwyn, you must think this a devilishly unusual proceeding."
"Pleasantly unusual, Draymore. Is this a delegation to tend me the nomination for the down-and-out club, perhaps?"
Fane spoke up languidly: "It rather looks as though we were the down-and-out delegation at present; doesn't it, Orchil?"
"I don't know," said Orchil; "it seems a trifle more promising to me since I've had the pleasure of seeing Captain Selwyn face to face. Go on, Percy; let the horrid facts be known."
"Well—er—oh, hang it all!" blurted out Draymore, "we heard last night how that fellow—how Neergard has been tampering with our farmers—what underhand tricks he has been playing us; and I frankly admit to you that we're a worried lot of near-sports. That's what this dismal matinee signifies; and we've come to ask you what it all really means."
"We lost no time, you see," added Orchil, caressing the long pomaded ends of his kinky moustache and trying to catch a glimpse of them out of his languid oriental eyes. He had been trying to catch this glimpse for thirty years; he was a persistent man with plenty of leisure.
"We lost no time," repeated Draymore, "because it's a devilish unsavoury situation for us. The Siowitha Club fully realises it, Captain Selwyn, and its members—some of 'em—thought that perhaps—er—you—ah—being the sort of man who can—ah—understand the sort of language we understand, it might not be amiss to—to—"
"Why did you not call on Mr. Neergard?" asked Selwyn coolly. Yet he was taken completely by surprise, for he did not know that Neergard had gone ahead and secured options on his own responsibility—which practically amounted to a violation of the truce between them.
Draymore hesitated, then with the brutality characteristic of the overfed: "I don't give a damn, Captain Selwyn, what Neergard thinks; but I do want to know what a gentleman like yourself, accidentally associated with that man, thinks of this questionable proceeding."
"Do you mean by 'questionable proceeding' your coming here?—or do you refer to the firm's position in this matter?" asked Selwyn sharply. "Because, Draymore, I am not very widely experienced in the customs and usages of commercial life, and I do not know whether it is usual for an associate member of a firm to express, unauthorised, his views on matters concerning the firm to any Tom, Dick, and Harry who questions him."
"But you know what is the policy of your own firm," suggested Harmon, wincing, and displaying his teeth under his bright red lips; "and all we wish to know is, what Neergard expects us to pay for this rascally lesson in the a-b-c of Long Island realty."
"I don't know," replied Selwyn, bitterly annoyed, "what Mr. Neergard proposes to do. And if I did I should refer you to him."
"May I ask," began Orchil, "whether the land will be ultimately for sale?"
"Oh, everything's always for sale," broke in Mottly impatiently; "what's the use of asking that? What you meant to inquire was the price we're expected to pay for this masterly squeeze in realty."
"And to that," replied Selwyn more sharply still, "I must answer again that I don't know. I know nothing about it; I did not know that Mr. Neergard had acquired control of the property; I don't know what he means to do with it. And, gentlemen, may I ask why you feel at liberty to come to me instead of to Mr. Neergard?"
"A desire to deal with one of our own kind, I suppose," returned Draymore bluntly. "And, for that matter," he said, turning to the others, "we might have known that Captain Selwyn could have had no hand in and no knowledge of such an underbred and dirty—"
Harmon plucked him by the sleeve, but Draymore shook him off, his little piggish eyes sparkling.
"What do I care!" he sneered, losing his temper; "we're in the clutches of a vulgar, skinflint Dutchman, and he'll wring us dry whether or not we curse him out. Didn't I tell you that Philip Selwyn had nothing to do with it? If he had, and I was wrong, our journey here might as well have been made to Neergard's office. For any man who will do such a filthy thing—"
"One moment, Draymore," cut in Selwyn; and his voice rang unpleasantly; "if you are simply complaining because you have been outwitted, go ahead; but if you think there has been any really dirty business in this matter, go to Mr. Neergard. Otherwise, being his associate, I shall not only decline to listen but also ask you to leave my apartments."
"Captain Selwyn is perfectly right," observed Orchil coolly. "Do you think, Draymore, that it is very good taste in you to come into a man's place and begin slanging and cursing a member of his firm for crooked work?"
"Besides," added Mottly, "it's not crooked; it's only contemptible. Anyway, we know with whom we have to deal, now; but some of you fellows must do the dealing—I'd rather pay and keep away than ask Neergard to go easy—and have him do it."
"I don't know," said Fane, grinning his saurian grin, "why you all assume that Neergard is such a social outcast. I played cards with him last week and he lost like a gentleman."
"I didn't say he was a social outcast," retorted Mottly—"because he's never been inside of anything to be cast out, you know."
"He seems to be inside this deal," ventured Orchil with his suave smile. And to Selwyn, who had been restlessly facing first one, then another: "We came—it was the idea of several among us—to put the matter up to you. Which was rather foolish, because you couldn't have engineered the thing and remained what we know you to be. So—"
"Wait!" said Selwyn brusquely; "I do not admit for one moment that there is anything dishonourable in this deal!—nor do I accept your right to question it from that standpoint. As far as I can see, it is one of those operations which is considered clever among business folk, and which is admired and laughed over in reputable business circles. And I have no doubt that hundreds of well-meaning business men do that sort of thing daily—yes, thousands!" He shrugged his broad shoulders. "Because I personally have not chosen to engage in matters of this—ah—description, is no reason for condemning the deal or its method—"
"Every reason!" said Orchil, laughing cordially—"every reason, Captain Selwyn. Thank you; we know now exactly where we stand. It was very good of you to let us come, and I'm sorry some of us had the bad taste to show any temper—"
"He means me," added Draymore, offering his hand; "good-bye, Captain Selwyn; I dare say we are up against it hard."
"Because we've got to buy in that property or close up the Siowitha," added Mottly, coming over to make his adieux. "By the way, Selwyn, you ought to be one of us in the Siowitha—"
"Thank you, but isn't this rather an awkward time to suggest it?" said Selwyn good-humouredly.
Fane burst into a sonorous laugh and wagged his neck, saying: "Not at all! Not at all! Your reward for having the decency to stay out of the deal is an invitation from us to come in and be squeezed into a jelly by Mr. Neergard. Haw! Haw!"
And so, one by one, with formal or informal but evidently friendly leave-taking, they went away. And Selwyn followed them presently, walking until he took the Subway at Forty-second Street for his office.
As he entered the elaborate suite of rooms he noticed some bright new placards dangling from the walls of the general office, and halted to read them:
"WHY PAY RENT!
What would you say if we built a house for you in Beautiful Siowitha Park and gave you ten years to pay for it!
If anybody says
YOU ARE A FOOL!
to expect this, refer him to us and we will answer him according to his folly.
TO PAY RENT
when you might own a home in Beautiful Siowitha Park, is not wise. We expect to furnish plans, or build after your own plans.
All City Improvements Are Contemplated! Map and Plans of Beautiful Siowitha Park Will probably be ready In the Near Future.
Julius Neergard & Co. Long Island Real Estate."
Selwyn reddened with anger and beckoned to a clerk:
"Is Mr. Neergard in his office?"
"Yes, sir, with Mr. Erroll."
"Please say that I wish to see him."
He went into his own office, pocketed his mail, and still wearing hat and gloves came out again just as Gerald was leaving Neergard's office.
"Hello, Gerald!" he said pleasantly; "have you anything on for to-night?"
"Y-es," said the hoy, embarrassed—"but if there is anything I can do for you—"
"Not unless you are free for the evening," returned the other; "are you?"
"I'm awfully sorry—"
"Oh, all right. Let me know when you expect to be free—telephone me at my rooms—"
"I'll let you know when I see you here to-morrow," said the boy; but Selwyn shook his head: "I'm not coming here to-morrow, Gerald"; and he walked leisurely into Neergard's office and seated himself.
"So you have committed the firm to the Siowitha deal?" he inquired coolly.
Neergard looked up—and then past him: "No, not the firm. You did not seem to be interested in the scheme, so I went on without you. I'm swinging it for my personal account."
"Is Mr. Erroll in it?"
"I said that it was a private matter," replied Neergard, but his manner was affable.
"I thought so; it appears to me like a matter quite personal to you and characteristic of you, Mr. Neergard. And that being established, I am now ready to dissolve whatever very loose ties have ever bound me in any association with this company and yourself."
Neergard's close-set black eyes shifted a point nearer to Selwyn's; the sweat on his nose glistened.
"Why do you do this?" he asked slowly. "Has anybody offended you?"
"Do you really wish to know?"
"Yes, I certainly do, Captain Selwyn."
"Very well; it's because I don't like your business methods, I don't like—several other things that are happening in this office. It's purely a difference of views; and that is enough explanation, Mr. Neergard."
"I think our views may very easily coincide—"
"You are wrong; they could not. I ought to have known that when I came back here. And now I have only to thank you for receiving me, at my own request, for a six months' trial, and to admit that I am not qualified to co-operate with this kind of a firm."
"That," said Neergard angrily, "amounts to an indictment of the firm. If you express yourself in that manner outside, the firm will certainly resent it!"
"My personal taste will continue to govern my expressions, Mr. Neergard; and I believe will prevent any further business relations between us. And, as we never had any other kind of relations, I have merely to arrange the details through an attorney."
Neergard looked after him in silence; the tiny beads of sweat on his nose united and rolled down in a big shining drop, and the sneer etched on his broad and brightly mottled features deepened to a snarl when Selwyn had disappeared.
For the social prestige which Selwyn's name had brought the firm, he had patiently endured his personal dislike and contempt for the man after he found he could do nothing with him in any way.
He had accepted Selwyn purely in the hope of social advantage, and with the knowledge that Selwyn could have done much for him after business hours; if not from friendship, at least from interest, or a lively sense of benefits to come. For that reason he had invited him to participate in the valuable Siowitha deal, supposing a man as comparatively poor as Selwyn would not only jump at the opportunity, but also prove sufficiently grateful later. And he had been amazed and disgusted at Selwyn's attitude. But he had not supposed the man would sever his connection with the firm if he, Neergard, went ahead on his own responsibility. It astonished and irritated him; it meant, instead of selfish or snobbish indifference to his own social ambitions, an enemy to block his entrance into what he desired—the society of those made notorious in the columns of the daily press.
For Neergard cared only for the notorious in the social scheme; nothing else appealed to him. He had, all his life, read with avidity of the extravagances, the ostentation, the luxurious effrontery, the thinly veiled viciousness of what he believed to be society, and he craved it from the first, working his thick hands to the bone in dogged determination to one day participate in and satiate himself with the easy morality of what he read about in his penny morning paper—in the days when even a penny was to be carefully considered.
That was what he wanted from society—the best to be had in vice. That was why he had denied himself in better days. It was for that he hoarded every cent while actual want sharpened his wits and his thin nose; it was in that hope that he received Selwyn so cordially as a possible means of entrance into regions he could not attain unaided; it was for that reason he was now binding Gerald to him through remission of penalties for slackness, through loans and advances, through a companionship which had already landed him in the Ruthven's card-room, and promised even more from Mr. Fane, who had won his money very easily.
For Neergard did not care how he got in, front door or back door, through kitchen or card-room, as long as he got in somehow. All he desired was the chance to use opportunity in his own fashion, and wring from the forbidden circle all and more than they had unconsciously wrung from him in the squalid days of a poverty for which no equality he might now enjoy, no liberty of license, no fraternity in dissipation, could wholly compensate.
He was fairly on the outer boundary now, though still very far outside. But a needy gentleman inside was already compromised and practically pledged to support him; for his meeting with Jack Ruthven through Gerald had proven of greatest importance. He had lost gracefully to Ruthven; and in doing it had taken that gentleman's measure. And though Ruthven himself was a member of the Siowitha, Neergard had made no error in taking him secretly into the deal where together they were now in a position to exploit the club, from which Ruthven, of course, would resign in time to escape any assessment himself.
Neergard's progress had now reached this stage; his programme was simple—to wallow among the wealthy until satiated, then to marry into that agreeable community and found the house of Neergard. And to that end he had already bought a building site on Fifth Avenue, but held it in the name of the firm as though it had been acquired for purposes purely speculative.
* * * * *
About that time Boots Lansing very quietly bought a house on Manhattan Island. It was a small, narrow, three-storied house of brick, rather shabby on the outside, and situated on a modest block between Lexington and Park avenues, where the newly married of the younger set were arriving in increasing numbers, prepared to pay the penalty for all love matches.
It was an unexpected move to Selwyn; he had not been aware of Lansing's contemplated desertion; and that morning, returning from his final interview with Neergard, he was astonished to find his comrade's room bare of furniture, and a hasty and exclamatory note on his own table:
"Phil! I've bought a house! Come and see it! You'll find me in it! Carpetless floors and unpapered walls! It's the happiest day of my life!
And Selwyn, horribly depressed, went down after a solitary luncheon and found Lansing sitting on a pile of dusty rugs, ecstatically inspecting the cracked ceiling.
"So this is the House that Boots built!" he said.
"Phil! It's a dream!"
"Yes—a bad one. What the devil do you mean by clearing out? What do you want with a house, anyhow?—you infernal idiot!"
"A house? Man, I've always wanted one! I've dreamed of a dinky little house like this—dreamed and ached for it there in Manila—on blistering hikes, on wibbly-wabbly gunboats—knee-deep in sprouting rice—I've dreamed of a house in New York like this! slopping through the steaming paddy-fields, sweating up the heights, floundering through smelly hemp, squatting by green fires at night! always, always I've longed for a home of my own. Now I've got it, and I'm the happiest man on Manhattan Island!"
"O Lord!" said Selwyn, staring, "if you feel that way! You never said anything about it—"
"Neither did you, Phil; but I bet you want one, too. Come now; don't you?"
"Yes, I do," nodded Selwyn; "but I can't afford one yet"—his face darkened—"not for a while; but," and his features cleared, "I'm delighted, old fellow, that you have one. This certainly is a jolly little kennel—you can fix it up in splendid shape—rugs and mahogany and what-nots and ding-dongs—and a couple of tabby cats and a good dog—"
"Isn't it fascinating!" cried Boots. "Phil, all this real estate is mine! And the idea makes me silly-headed. I've been sitting on this pile of rugs pretending that I'm in the midst of vast and expensive improvements and alterations; and estimating the cost of them has frightened me half to death. I tell you I never had such fun, Phil. Come on; we'll start at the cellar—there is some coal and wood and some wonderful cobwebs down there—and then we'll take in the back yard; I mean to have no end of a garden out there, and real clothes-dryers and some wistaria and sparrows—just like real back yards. I want to hear cats make harrowing music on my own back fence; I want to see a tidy laundress pinning up intimate and indescribable garments on my own clothes-lines; I want to have maddening trouble with plumbers and roofers; I want to—"
"Come on, then, for Heaven's sake!" said Selwyn, laughing; and the two men, arm in arm, began a minute tour of the house.
"Isn't it a corker! Isn't it fine!" repeated Lansing every few minutes. "I wouldn't exchange it for any mansion on Fifth Avenue!"
"You'd be a fool to," agreed Selwyn gravely.
"Certainly I would. Anyway, prices are going up like rockets in this section—not that I'd think of selling out at any price—but it's comfortable to know it. Why, a real-estate man told me—Hello! What was that? Something fell somewhere!"
"A section of the bath-room ceiling, I think," said Selwyn; "we mustn't step too heavily on the floors at first, you know."
"Oh, I'm going to have the entire thing done over—room by room—when I can afford it. Meanwhile j'y suis, j'y reste. . . . Look there, Phil! That's to be your room."
"Thanks, old fellow—not now."
"Why, yes! I expected you'd have your room here, Phil—"
"It's very good of you, Boots, but I can't do it."
Lansing faced him: "Won't you?"
Selwyn, smiling, shook his head; and the other knew it was final.
"Well, the room will be there—furnished the way you and I like it. When you want it, make smoke signals or wig-wag."
"I will; thank you, Boots."
Lansing said unaffectedly, "How soon do you think you can afford a house like this?"
"I don't know; you see, I've only my income now—"
"Plus what you make at the office—"
"I've left Neergard."
"This morning; for good."
"The deuce!" he murmured, looking at Selwyn; but the latter volunteered no further information, and Lansing, having given him the chance, cheerfully switched to the other track:
"Shall I see whether the Air Line has anything in your line, Phil? No? Well, what are you going to do?"
"I don't exactly know what I shall do. . . . If I had capital—enough—I think I'd start in making bulk and dense powders—all sorts; gun-cotton, nitro-powders—"
"You mean you'd like to go on with your own invention—Chaosite?"
"I'd like to keep on experimenting with it if I could afford to. Perhaps I will. But it's not yet a commercial possibility—if it ever is to be. I wish I could control it; the ignition is simultaneous and absolutely complete, and there is not a trace of ash, not an unburned or partly burned particle. But it's not to be trusted, and I don't know what happens to it after a year's storage."
For a while they discussed the commercial possibilities of Chaosite, and how capital might be raised for a stock company; but Selwyn was not sanguine, and something of his mental depression returned as he sat there by the curtainless window, his head on his closed hand, looking out into the sunny street.
"Anyway," said Lansing, "you've nothing to worry over."
"No, nothing," assented Selwyn listlessly.
After a silence Lansing added: "But you do a lot of worrying all the same, Phil."
Selwyn flushed up and denied it.
"Yes, you do! I don't believe you realise how much of the time you are out of spirits."
"Does it impress you that way?" asked Selwyn, mortified; "because I'm really all right."
"Of course you are, Phil; I know it, but you don't seem to realise it. You're morbid, I'm afraid."
"You've been talking to my sister!"
"What of it? Besides, I knew there was something the matter—"
"You know what it is, too. And isn't it enough to subdue a man's spirits occasionally?"
"No," said Lansing—"if you mean your—mistake—two years ago. That isn't enough to spoil life for a man. I've wanted to tell you so for a long time."
And, as Selwyn said nothing: "For Heaven's sake make up your mind to enjoy your life! You are fitted to enjoy it. Get that absurd notion out of your head that you're done for—that you've no home life in prospect, no family life, no children—"
Selwyn turned sharply, but the other went on: "You can swear at me if you like, but you've no business to go through the world cuddling your own troubles closer and closer and squinting at everybody out of disenchanted eyes. It's selfish, for one thing; you're thinking altogether too much about yourself."
Selwyn, too annoyed to answer, glared at his friend.
"Oh, I know you don't like it, Phil, but what I'm saying may do you good. It's fine physic, to learn what others think about you; as for me, you can't mistake my friendship—or your sister's—or Miss Erroll's, or Mr. Gerard's. And one and all are of one opinion, that you have everything before you, including domestic happiness, which you care for more than anything. And there is no reason why you should not have it—no reason why you should not feel perfectly free to marry, and have a bunch of corking kids. It's not only your right, it's your business; and you're selfish if you don't!"
"I'm not going to swear; I'm only hurt, Boots—"
"Sure you are! Medicine's working, that's all. We strive to please, we kill to cure. Of course it hurts, man! But you know it will do you good; you know what I say is true. You've no right to club the natural and healthy inclinations out of yourself. The day for fanatics and dippy, dotty flagellants is past. Fox's martyrs are out of date. The man who grabs life in both fists and twists the essence out of it, counts. He is living as he ought to, he is doing the square thing by his country and his community—by every man, woman, and child in it! He's giving everybody, including himself, a square deal. But the man who has been upper-cut and floored, and who takes the count, and then goes and squats in a corner to brood over the fancy licks that Fate handed him—he isn't dealing fairly and squarely by his principles or by a decent and generous world that stands to back him for the next round. Is he, Phil?"
"Do you mean to say, Boots, that you think a man who has made the ghastly mess of his life that I have, ought to feel free to marry?"
"Think it! Man, I know it. Certainly you ought to marry if you wish—but, above all, you ought to feel free to marry. That is the essential equipment of a man; he isn't a man if he feels that he isn't free to marry. He may not want to do it, he may not be in love. That's neither here nor there; the main thing is that he is as free as a man should be to take any good opportunity—and marriage is included in the list of good opportunities. If you become a slave to morbid notions, no wonder you are depressed. Slaves usually are. Do you want to slink through life? Then shake yourself, I tell you; learn to understand that you're free to do what any decent man may do. That will take the morbidness out of you. That will colour life for you. I don't say go hunting for some one to love; I do say, don't avoid her when you meet her."
"You preach a very gay sermon, Boots," he said, folding his arms. "I've heard something similar from my sister. As a matter of fact I think you are partly right, too; but if the inclination for the freedom you insist I take is wanting, then what? I don't wish to marry, Boots; I am not in love, therefore the prospect of home and kids is premature and vague, isn't it?"
"As long as it's a prospect or a possibility I don't care how vague it is," said the other cordially. "Will you admit it's a possibility? That's all I ask."
"If it will please you, yes, I will admit it. I have altered certain ideas, Boots; I cannot, just now, conceive of any circumstances under which I should feel justified in marrying, but such circumstances might arise; I'll say that much."
Yet until that moment he had not dreamed of admitting as much to anybody, even to himself; but Lansing's logic, his own loneliness, his disappointment in Gerald, had combined to make him doubt his own methods of procedure. Too, the interview with Alixe Ruthven had not only knocked all complacency and conceit out of him, but had made him so self-distrustful that he was in a mood to listen respectfully to his peers on any question.
He was wondering now whether Boots had recognised Alixe when he had blundered into the room that night. He had never asked the question; he was very much inclined to, now. However, Boots's reply could be only the negative answer that any decent man must give.
Sitting there in the carpetless room piled high with dusty, linen-shrouded furniture, he looked around, an involuntary smile twitching his mouth. Somehow he had not felt so light-hearted for a long, long while—and whether it came from his comrade's sermon, or his own unexpected acknowledgment of its truth, or whether it was pure amusement at Boots in the role of householder and taxpayer, he could not decide. But he was curiously happy of a sudden; and he smiled broadly upon Mr. Lansing:
"What about your marrying," he said—"after all this talk about mine! What about it, Boots? Is this new house the first modest step toward the matrimony you laud so loudly?"
"Sure," said that gentleman airily; "that's what I'm here for."
"Well, of course, idiot. I've always been in love."
"You mean you actually have somebody in view—?"
"No, son. I've always been in love with—love. I'm a sentimental sentry on the ramparts of reason. I'm properly armed for trouble, now, so if I'm challenged I won't let my chance slip by me. Do you see? There are two kinds of sentimental warriors in this amorous world: the man and the nincompoop. The one brings in his prisoner, the other merely howls for her. So I'm all ready for the only girl in the world; and if she ever gets away from me I'll give you my house, cellar, and back yard, including the wistaria and both cats—"
"You have neither wistaria nor cats—yet."
"Neither am I specifically in love—yet. So that's all right—Philip. Come on; let's take another look at that fascinating cellar of mine!"
But Selwyn laughingly declined, and after a little while he went away, first to look up a book which he was having bound for Eileen, then to call on his sister who, with Eileen, had just returned from a week at Silverside with the children, preliminary to moving the entire establishment there for the coming summer; for the horses and dogs had already gone; also Kit-Ki, a pessimistic parrot, and the children's two Norwegian ponies.
"Silverside is too lovely for words!" exclaimed Nina as Selwyn entered the library. "The children almost went mad. You should have seen the dogs, too—tearing round and round the lawn in circles—poor things! They were crazy for the fresh, new turf. And Kit-Ki! she lay in the sun and rolled and rolled until her fur was perfectly filthy. Nobody wanted to come away; Eileen made straight for the surf; but it was an arctic sea, and as soon as I found out what she was doing I made her come out."
"I should think you would," he said; "nobody can do that and thrive."
"She seems to," said Nina; "she was simply glorious after the swim, and I hated to put a stop to it. And you should see her drying her hair and helping Plunket to roll the tennis-courts—that hair of hers blowing like gold flames, and her sleeves rolled to her arm-pits!—and you should see her down in the dirt playing marbles with Billy and Drina—shooting away excitedly and exclaiming 'fen-dubs!' and 'knuckle-down, Billy!'—like any gamin you ever heard of. Totally unspoiled, Phil!—in spite of all the success of her first winter!—and do you know that she had no end of men seriously entangled? I don't mind your knowing—but Sudbury Gray came to me, and I told him he'd better wait, but in he blundered and—he's done for, now; and so are my plans. He's an imbecile! And then, who on earth do you think came waddling into the arena? Percy Draymore! Phil, it was an anxious problem for me—and although I didn't really want Eileen to marry into that set—still—with the Draymores' position and tremendous influence—But she merely stared at him in cold astonishment. And there were others, too, callow for the most part. . . . Phil?"
"What?" he said, laughing.
His sister regarded him smilingly, then partly turned around and perched herself on the padded arm of a great chair.
"Phil, am I garrulous?"
"No, dear; you are far too reticent."
"Pooh! Suppose I do talk a great deal. I like to. Besides, I always have something interesting to say, don't I?"
"Well, then, why do you look at me so humorously out of those nice gray eyes? . . . Phil, you are growing handsome! Do you know it?"
"For Heaven's sake!" he protested, red and uncomfortable, "what utter nonsense you—"
"Of course it bores you to be told so; and you look so delightfully ashamed—like a reproved setter-puppy! Well, then, don't laugh at my loquacity again!—because I'm going to say something else. . . . Come over here, Phil; no—close to me. I wish to put my hands on your shoulders; like that. Now look at me! Do you really love me?"
"Sure thing, Ninette."
"And you know I adore you; don't you?"
"Madly, dear, but I forgive you."
"No; I want you to be serious. Because I'm pretty serious. See, I'm not smiling now; I don't feel like it. Because it is a very, very important matter, Phil—this thing that has—has—almost happened. . . . It's about Eileen. . . . And it really has happened."
"What has she done?" he asked curiously.
His sister's eyes were searching his very diligently, as though in quest of something elusive; and he gazed serenely back, the most unsuspicious of smiles touching his mouth.
"Phil, dear, a young girl—a very young girl—is a vapid and uninteresting proposition to a man of thirty-five; isn't she?"
"Rather—in some ways."
"In what way is she not?"
"Well—to me, for example—she is acceptable as children are acceptable—a blessed, sweet, clean relief from the women of the Fanes' set, for example?"
"Yes. And, Ninette, you and Austin seem to be drifting out of the old circles—the sort that you and I were accustomed to. You don't mind my saying it, do you?—but there were so many people in this town who had something besides millions—amusing, well-bred, jolly people who had no end of good times, but who didn't gamble and guzzle and stuff themselves and their friends—who were not eternally hanging around other people's wives. Where are they, dear?"
"If you are indicting all of my friends, Phil—"
"I don't mean all of your friends—only a small proportion—which, however, connects your circle with that deadly, idle, brainless bunch—the insolent chatterers at the opera, the gorged dowagers, the worn-out, passionless men, the enervated matrons of the summer capital, the chlorotic squatters on huge yachts, the speed-mad fugitives from the furies of ennui, the neurotic victims of mental cirrhosis, the jewelled animals whose moral code is the code of the barnyard—!"
"Oh, I don't mean that they are any more vicious than the idle and mentally incompetent in any walk of life. East Side, West Side, Harlem, Hell's Kitchen, Fifth Avenue, Avenue A, and Abingdon Square—the denizens are only locally different, not specifically—the species remains unchanged. But everywhere, in every quarter and class and set and circle there is always the depraved; and the logical links that connect them are unbroken from Fifth Avenue to Chinatown, from the half-crazed extravagances of the Orchils' Louis XIV ball to a New Year's reception at the Haymarket where Troy Lil's diamonds outshine the phony pearls of Hoboken Fanny, and Hatpin Molly leads the spiel with Clarence the Pig."
"Phil, you are too disgusting!"
"I'm sorry—it isn't very nice of me, I suppose. But, dear, I'm dead tired of moral squalor. I do like the brightness of things, too, but I don't care for the phosphorescence of social decay."
"What in the world is the matter?" she exclaimed in dismay. "You are talking like the wildest socialist."
He laughed. "We have become a nation of what you call 'socialists'—though there are other names for us which mean more. I am not discontented, if that is what you mean; I am only impatient; and there is a difference. . . . And you have just asked me whether a young girl is interesting to me. I answer, yes, thank God!—for the cleaner, saner, happier hours I have spent this winter among my own kind have been spent where the younger set dominated.
"They are good for us, Nina; they are the hope of our own kind—well-taught, well-drilled, wholesome even when negative in mind; and they come into our world so diffident yet so charmingly eager, so finished yet so unspoiled, that—how can they fail to touch a man and key him to his best? How can they fail to arouse in us the best of sympathy, of chivalry, of anxious solicitude lest they become some day as we are and stare at life out of the faded eyes of knowledge!"
He laid his hands in hers, smiling a little at his own earnestness.
"Alarmist? No! The younger set are better than those who bred them; and if, in time, they, too, fall short, they will not fall as far as their parents. And, in their turn, when they look around them at the younger set whom they have taught in the light and wisdom of their own shortcomings, they will see fresher, sweeter, lovelier young people than we see now. And it will continue so, dear, through the jolly generations. Life is all right, only, like art, it is very, very long sometimes."
"Good out of evil, Phil?" asked his sister, smiling; "innocence from the hotbeds of profligacy? purity out of vulgarity? sanity from hideous ostentation? Is that what you come preaching?"
"Yes; and isn't it curious! Look at that old harridan, Mrs. Sanxon Orchil! There are no more innocent and charming girls in Manhattan than her daughters. She knew enough to make them different; so does the majority of that sort. Look at the Cardwell girl and the Innis girl and the Craig girl! Look at Mrs. Delmour-Carnes's children! And, Nina—even Molly Hatpin's wastrel waif shall never learn what her mother knows if Destiny will help Madame Molly ever so little. And I think that Destiny is often very kind—even to the Hatpin offspring."
Nina sat silent on the padded arm of her chair, looking up at her brother.
"Mad preacher! Mad Mullah!—dear, dear fellow!" she said tenderly; "all ills of the world canst thou discount, but not thine own."
"Those, too," he insisted, laughing; "I had a talk with Boots—but, anyway, I'd already arrived at my own conclusion that—that—I'm rather overdoing this blighted business—"
"Phil!"—in quick delight.
"Yes," he said, reddening nicely; "between you and Boots and myself I've decided that I'm going in for—for whatever any man is going in for—life! Ninette, life to the full and up to the hilt for mine!—not side-stepping anything. . . . Because I—because, Nina, it's shameful for a man to admit to himself that he cannot make good, no matter how thoroughly he's been hammered to the ropes. And so I'm starting out again—not hunting trouble like him of La Mancha—but, like him in this, that I shall not avoid it. . . . Is that plain to you, little sister?"
"Yes, oh, yes, it is!" she murmured; "I am so happy, so proud—but I knew it was in your blood, Phil; I knew that you were merely hurt and stunned—badly hurt, but not fatally!—you could not be; no weaklings come from our race."
"But still our race has always been law-abiding—observant of civil and religious law. If I make myself free again, I take some laws into my own hands.".
"How do you mean?" she asked.
"Well," he said grimly, "for example, I am forbidden, in some States, to marry again—"
"But you know there was no reason for that!"
"Yes, I do happen to know; but still I am taking the liberty of disregarding the law if I do. Then, what clergyman, of our faith, would marry me to anybody?"
"That, too, you know is not just, Phil. You were innocent of wrong-doing; you were chivalrous enough to make no defence—"
"Wrong-doing? Nina, I was such a fool that I was innocent of sense enough to do either good or evil. Yet I did do harm; there never was such a thing as a harmless fool. But all I can do is to go and sin no more; yet there is little merit in good conduct if one hides in a hole too small to admit temptation. No; there are laws civil and laws ecclesiastical; and sometimes I think a man is justified in repealing the form and retaining the substance of them, and remoulding it for purposes of self-government; as I do, now. . . . Once, oppressed by form and theory, I told you that to remarry after divorce was a slap at civilisation. . . . Which is true sometimes and sometimes not. Common sense, not laws, must govern a man in that matter. But if any motive except desire to be a decent citizen sways a self-punished man toward self-leniency, then is he unpardonable if he breaks those laws which truly were fashioned for such as he!"
"Saint Simon! Saint Simon! Will you please arise, stretch your limbs, and descend from your pillar?" said Nina; "because I am going to say something that is very, very serious; and very near my heart."
"I remember," he said; "it's about Eileen, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is about Eileen."
He waited; and again his sister's eyes began restlessly searching his for something that she seemed unable to find.
"You make it a little difficult, Phil; I don't believe I had better speak of it."
"Why, just because you ask me 'why not?' for example."
"Is it anything that worries you about Eileen?"
"N-no; not exactly. It is—it may be a phase; and yet I know that if it is anything at all it is not a passing phase. She is different from the majority, you see—very intelligent, very direct. She never forgets—for example. Her loyalty is quite remarkable, Phil. She is very intense in her—her beliefs—the more so because she is unusually free from impulse—even quite ignorant of the deeper emotions; or so I believed until—until—"
"Is she in love?" he asked.
"A little, Phil."
"Does she admit it?" he demanded, unpleasantly astonished.
"She admits it in a dozen innocent ways to me who can understand her; but to herself she has not admitted it, I think—could not admit it yet; because—because—"
"Who is it?" asked Selwyn; and there was in his voice the slightest undertone of a growl.
"Dear, shall I tell you?"
"Because—because—Phil, I think that our pretty Eileen is a little in love with—you."
He straightened out to his full height, scarlet to the temples; she dropped her linked fingers in her lap, gazing at him almost sadly.
"Dear, all the things you are preparing to shout at me are quite useless; I know; I don't imagine, I don't forestall, I don't predict. I am not discounting any hopes of mine, because, Phil, I had not thought—had not planned such a thing—between you and Eileen—I don't know why. But I had not; there was Suddy Gray—a nice boy, perfectly qualified; and there were alternates more worldly, perhaps. But I did not think of you; and that is what now amazes and humiliates me; because it was the obvious that I overlooked—the most perfectly natural—"
"Nina! you are madder than a March heiress!"
"Air your theories, Phil, then come back to realities. The conditions remain; Eileen is certainly a little in love with you; and a little with her means something. And you, evidently, have never harboured any serious intentions toward the child; I can see that, because you are the most transparent man I ever knew. Now, the question is, what is to be done?"
"Done? Good heavens! Nothing, of course! There's nothing to do anything about! Nina, you are the most credulous little matchmaker that ever—"
"Oh, Phil, must I listen to all those fulminations before you come down to the plain fact? And it's plain to me as the nose on your countenance; and I don't know what to do about it! I certainly was a perfect fool to confide in you, for you are exhibiting the coolness and sagacity of a stampeded chicken."
He laughed in spite of himself; then, realising a little what her confidence had meant, he turned a richer red and slowly lifted his fingers to his moustache, while his perplexed gray eyes began to narrow as though sun-dazzled.
"I am, of course, obliged to believe that you are mistaken," he said; "a man cannot choose but believe in that manner. . . . There is no very young girl—nobody, old or young, whom I like as thoroughly as I do Eileen Erroll. She knows it; so do you, Nina. It is open and above-board. . . . I should be very unhappy if anything marred or distorted our friendship. . . . I am quite confident that nothing will."
"In that frame of mind," said his sister, smiling, "you are the healthiest companion in the world for her, for you will either cure her, or she you; and it is all right either way."
"Certainly it will be all right," he said confidently.
For a few moments he paced the room, reflective, quickening his pace all the while; and his sister watched him, silent in her indecision.
"I'm going up to see the kids," he said abruptly.
The children, one and all, were in the Park; but Eileen was sewing in the nursery, and his sister did not call him back as he swung out of the room and up the stairs. But when he had disappeared, Nina dropped into her chair, aware that she had played her best card prematurely; forced by Rosamund, who had just told her that rumour continued to be very busy coupling her brother's name with the name of the woman who once had been his wife.
Nina was now thoroughly convinced of Alixe's unusual capacity for making mischief.
She had known Alixe always—and she had seen her develop from a talented, restless, erratic, emotional girl, easily moved to generosity, into an impulsive woman, reckless to the point of ruthlessness when ennui and unhappiness stampeded her; a woman not deliberately selfish, not wittingly immoral, for she lacked the passion which her emotion was sometimes mistaken for; and she was kind by instinct.
Sufficiently intelligent to suffer from the lack of it in others, cultured to the point of recognising culture, her dangerous unsoundness lay in her utter lack of mental stamina when conditions became unpleasant beyond her will, not her ability to endure them.
The consequences of her own errors she refused to be burdened with; to escape somehow, was her paramount impulse, and she always tried to—had always attempted it even in school-days—and farther back when Nina first remembered her as a thin, eager, restless little girl scampering from one scrape into another at full speed. Even in those days there were moments when Nina believed her to be actually irrational, but there was every reason not to say so to the heedless scatterbrain whose father, in the prime of life, sat all day in his room, his faded eyes fixed wistfully on the childish toys which his attendant brought to him from his daughter's nursery.
All this Nina was remembering; and again she wondered bitterly at Alixe's treatment of her brother, and what explanation there could ever be for it—except one.
Lately, too, Alixe had scarcely been at pains to conceal her contempt for her husband, if what Rosamund related was true. It was only one more headlong scrape, this second marriage, and Nina knew Alixe well enough to expect the usual stampede toward that gay phantom which was always beckoning onward to promised happiness—that goal of heart's desire already lying so far behind her—and farther still for every step her little flying feet were taking in the oldest, the vainest, the most hopeless chase in the world—the headlong hunt for happiness.
And if that blind hunt should lead once more toward Selwyn? Suppose, freed from Ruthven, she turned in her tracks and threw herself and her youthful unhappiness straight at the man who had not yet destroyed the picture that Nina found when she visited her brother's rooms with the desire to be good to him with rocking-chairs!
Not that she really believed or feared that Philip would consider such an impossible reconciliation; pride, and a sense of the absurd, must always check any such weird caprice of her brother's conscience; and yet—and yet other amazing and mismated couples had done it—had been reunited.
And Nina was mightily troubled, for Alixe's capacity for mischief was boundless; and that she, in some manner, had already succeeded in stirring up Philip, was a rumour that persisted and would not be annihilated.
To inform a man frankly that a young girl is a little in love with him is one of the oldest, simplest, and easiest methods of interesting that man—unless he happen to be in love with somebody else. And Nina had taken her chances that the picture of Alixe was already too unimportant for the ceremony of incineration. Besides, what she had ventured to say to him was her belief; the child appeared to be utterly absorbed in her increasing intimacy with Selwyn. She talked of little else; her theme was Selwyn—his influence on Gerald, and her delight in his companionship. They had, at his suggestion, taken up together the study of Cretan antiquities—a sort of tender pilgrimage for her, because, with the aid of her father's and mother's letters, note-books, and papers, she and Selwyn were following on the map the journeys and discoveries of her father.
But this was not all; Nina's watchful eyes opened wider and wider as she witnessed in Eileen the naissance of an unconscious and delicate coquetry, quite unabashed, yet the more significant for that; and Nina, intent on the new phenomena, began to divine more about Eileen in a single second, than the girl could have suspected of herself in a month of introspection and of prayer.
Love was not there; Nina understood that; but its germ was—still dormant, but bedded deliciously in congenial soil—the living germ in all its latent promise, ready to swell with the first sudden heart-beat, quicken with the first quickening of the pulse, unfold into perfect symmetry if ever the warm, even current in the veins grew swift and hot under the first scorching whisper of Truth.
* * * * *
Eileen, sewing by the nursery window, looked up; her little Alsatian maid, cross-legged on the floor at her feet, sewing away diligently, also looked up, then scrambled to her feet as Selwyn halted on the threshold of the room.
"Why, how odd you look!" said Eileen, laughing: "come in, please; Susanne and I are only mending some of my summer things. Were you in search of the children?—don't say so if you were, because I'm quite happy in believing that you knew I was here. Did you?"
"Where are the children?" he asked.
"In the Park, my very rude friend. You will find them on the Mall if you start at once."
He hesitated, but finally seated himself, omitting the little formal hand-shake with which they always met, even after an hour's separation. Of course she noticed this, and, bending low above her sewing, wondered why.
It seemed to him, for a moment, as though he were looking at a woman he had heard about and had just met for the first time. His observation of her now was leisurely, calm, and thorough—not so calm, however, when, impatient of his reticence, bending there over her work, she raised her dark-blue eyes to his, her head remaining lowered. The sweet, silent inspection lasted but a moment, then she resumed her stitches, aware that something in him had changed since she last had seen him; but she merely smiled quietly to herself, confident of his unaltered devotion in spite of the strangely hard and unresponsive gaze that had uneasily evaded hers.
As her white fingers flew with the glimmering needle she reflected on conditions as she had left them a week ago. A week ago, between him and her the most perfect of understandings existed; and the consciousness of it she had carried with her every moment in the country—amid the icy tumble of the surf, on long vigorous walks over the greening hills where wild moorland winds whipped like a million fairy switches till the young blood fairly sang, pouring through her veins.
Since that—some time within the week, something evidently had happened to him, here in the city while she had been away. What?
As she bent above the fine linen garment on her knee, needle flying, a sudden memory stirred coldly—the recollection of her ride with Rosamund; and instinctively her clear eyes flew open and she raised her head, turning directly toward him a disturbed gaze he did not this time evade.
In silence their regard lingered; then, satisfied, she smiled again, saying: "Have I been away so long that we must begin all over, Captain Selwyn?"
"Begin what, Eileen?"
"To remember that the silence of selfish preoccupation is a privilege I have not accorded you?"
"I didn't mean to be preoccupied—"
"Oh, worse and worse!" She shook her head and began to thread the needle. "I see that my week's absence has not been very good for you. I knew it the moment you came in with all that guilty absent-minded effrontery which I have forbidden. Now, I suppose I shall have to recommence your subjection. Ring for tea, please. And, Susanne"—speaking in French and gathering up a fluffy heap of mended summer waists—"these might as well be sent to the laundress—thank you, little one; your sewing is always beautiful."
The small maid, blushing with pleasure, left the room, both arms full of feminine apparel; Selwyn rang for tea, then strolled back to the window, where he stood with both hands thrust into his coat-pockets, staring out at the sunset.
A primrose light bathed the city. Below, through the new foliage of the Park, the little lake reflected it in tints of deeper gold and amber where children clustered together, sailing toy ships. But there was no wind; the tiny sails and flags hung motionless, and out and in, among the craft becalmed, steered a family of wild ducks, the downy yellow fledglings darting hither and thither in chase of gnats, the mother bird following in leisurely solicitude.
And, as he stood there, absently intent on sky and roof and foliage, her soft bantering voice aroused him; and turning he found her beside him, her humorous eyes fixed on his face.
"Suppose," she said, "that we go back to first principles and resume life properly by shaking hands. Shall we?"
He coloured up as he took her hand in his; then they both laughed at the very vigorous shake.
"What a horribly unfriendly creature you can be," she said. "Never a greeting, never even a formal expression of pleasure at my return—"
"You have not returned!" he said, smiling; "you have been with me every moment, Eileen."
"What a pretty tribute!" she exclaimed; "I am beginning to recognise traces of my training after all. And it is high time, Captain Selwyn, because I was half convinced that you had escaped to the woods again. What, if you please, have you been doing in town since I paroled you? Nothing? Oh, it's very likely. You're probably too ashamed to tell me. Now note the difference between us; I have been madly tearing over turf and dune, up hills, down hillocks, along headlands, shores, and shingle; and I had the happiness of being half-frozen in the surf before Nina learned of it and stopped me. . . . Come; sit over here; because I'm quite crazy to tell you everything as usual—about how I played marbles with the children—yes, indeed!—down on my knees and shooting hard! Oh, it is divine, that sea-girdled, wind-drenched waste of moor and thicket!—the strange little stunted forests in the hollows of the miniature hills—do you remember? The trees, you know, grow only to the wind-level, then spread out like those grotesque trees in fairy-haunted forests—so old, so fantastic are these curious patches of woods that I am for ever watching to see something magic moving far in the twilight of the trees! . . . And one night I went out on the moors; oh, heavenly! celestial!—under the stretch of stars! Elf-land in silence, save for the bewitched wind. And the fairy forests drew me toward their edges, down, down into the hollow, with delicious shivers.
"Once I trembled indeed, for the starlight on the swamp was suddenly splintered into millions of flashes; and my heart leaped in pure fright! . . . It was only a wild duck whirring headlong into the woodland waters—but oh, if you had been there to see the weird beauty of its coming—and the star-splashed blackness! You must see that with me, some time. . . . When are you coming to Silverside? We go back very soon, now. . . . And I don't feel at all like permitting you to run wild in town when I'm away and playing hopscotch on the lawn with Drina!"
She lay back in her chair, laughing, her hands linked together behind her head.
"Really, Captain Selwyn, I confess I missed you. It's much better fun when two can see all those things that I saw—the wild roses just a tangle of slender green-mossed stems, the new grass so intensely green, with a touch of metallic iridescence; the cat's-paws chasing each other across the purple inland ponds—and that cheeky red fox that came trotting out of the briers near Wonder Head, and, when he saw me, coolly attempted to stare me out of countenance! Oh, it's all very well to tell you about it, but there is a little something lacking in unshared pleasures. . . . Yes, a great deal lacking. . . . And here is our tea-tray at last."
Nina came up to join them. Her brother winced as she smiled triumphantly at him, and the colour continued vivid in his face while she remained in the room. Then the children charged upstairs, fresh from the Park, clamouring for food; and they fell upon Selwyn's neck, and disarranged his scarf-pin, and begged for buttered toast and crumpets, and got what they demanded before Nina's authority could prevent.
"I saw a rabbit at Silverside!" said Billy, "but do you know, Uncle Philip, that hunting pack of ours is no good! Not one dog paid any attention to the rabbit though Drina and I did our best—didn't we, Drina?"
"You should have seen them," murmured Eileen, leaning close to whisper to Selwyn; "the children had fits when the rabbit came hopping across the road out of the Hither Woods. But the dogs all ran madly the other way, and I thought Billy would die of mortification."
Nina stood up, waving a crumpet which she had just rescued from Winthrop. "Hark!" she said, "there's the nursery curfew!—and not one wretched infant bathed! Billy! March bathward, my son! Drina, sweetheart, take command. Prune souffle for the obedient, dry bread for rebels! Come, children!—don't let mother speak to you twice."
"Let's go down to the library," said Eileen to Selwyn—"you are dining with us, of course. . . . What? Yes, indeed, you are. The idea of your attempting to escape to some dreadful club and talk man-talk all the evening when I have not begun to tell you what I did at Silverside!"
They left the nursery together and descended the stairs to the library. Austin had just come in, and he looked up from his solitary cup of tea as they entered:
"Hello, youngsters! What conspiracy are you up to now? I suppose you sniffed the tea and have come to deprive me. By the way, Phil, I hear that you've sprung the trap on those Siowitha people."
"Neergard has, I believe."
"Well, isn't it all one?"
"No, it is not!" retorted Selwyn so bluntly that Eileen turned from the window at a sound in his voice which she had never before heard.
"Oh!" Austin stared over his suspended teacup, then drained it. "Trouble with our friend Julius?" he inquired.
"No trouble. I merely severed my connection with him."
"In that case," said Austin, laughing, "I've a job for you—"
"No, old fellow; and thank you with all my heart. I've half made up my mind to live on my income for a while and take up that Chaosite matter again—"
"And blow yourself to smithereens! Why spatter Nature thus?"
"No fear," said Selwyn, laughing. "And, if it promises anything, I may come to you for advice on how to start it commercially."
"If it doesn't start you heavenward you shall have my advice from a safe distance. I'll telegraph it," said Austin. "But, if it's not personal, why on earth have you shaken Neergard?"
And Selwyn answered simply: "I don't like him. That is the reason, Austin."
The children from the head of the stairs were now shouting demands for their father; and Austin rose, pretending to grumble:
"Those confounded kids! A man is never permitted a moment to himself. Is Nina up there, Eileen! Oh, all right. Excuses et cetera; I'll be back pretty soon. You'll stay to dine, Phil?"
"I don't think so—"
"Yes, he will stay," said Eileen calmly.
And, when Austin had gone, she walked swiftly over to where Selwyn was standing, and looked him directly in the eyes.
"Is all well with Gerald?"
"Y-yes, I suppose so."
"Is he still with Neergard & Co.?"
"And you don't like Mr. Neergard?"
"Then Gerald must not remain."
He said very quietly: "Eileen, Gerald no longer takes me into his confidence. I am afraid—I know, in fact—that I have little influence with him now. I am sorry; it hurts; but your brother is his own master, and he is at liberty to choose his own friends and his own business policy. I cannot influence him; I have learned that thoroughly. Better that I retain what real friendship he has left for me than destroy it by any attempt, however gentle, to interfere in his affairs."
She stood before him, straight, slender, her face grave and troubled.
"I cannot understand," she said, "how he could refuse to listen to a man like you."
"A man like me, Eileen? Well, if I were worth listening to, no doubt he'd listen. But the fact remains that I have not been able to hold his interest—"
"Don't give him up," she said, still looking straight into his eyes. "If you care for me, don't give him up."
"Care for you, Eileen! You know I do."
"Yes, I know it. So you will not give up Gerald, will you? He is—is only a boy—you know that; you know he has been—perhaps—indiscreet. But Gerald is only a boy. Stand by him, Captain Selwyn; because Austin does not know how to manage him—really he doesn't. . . . There has been another unpleasant scene between them; Gerald told me."
"Did he tell you why, Eileen?"
"Yes. He told me that he had played cards for money, and he was in debt. I know that sounds—almost disgraceful; but is not his need of help all the greater?"
Selwyn's eyes suddenly narrowed: "Did you help him out, this time?"
"I—I—how do you mean, Captain Selwyn?" But the splendid colour in her face confirmed his certainty that she had used her own resources to help her brother pay the gambling debt; and he turned away his eyes, angry and silent.
"Yes," she said under her breath, "I did aid him. What of it? Could I refuse?"
"I know. Don't aid him again—that way."
She stared: "You mean—"
"Send him to me, child. I understand such matters; I—that is—" and in sudden exasperation inexplicable, for the moment, to them both: "Don't touch such matters again! They soil, I tell you. I will not have Gerald go to you about such things!"
"My own brother! What do you mean?"
"I mean that, brother or not, he shall not bring such matters near you!"
"Am I to count for nothing, then, when Gerald is in trouble?" she demanded, flushing up.
"Count! Count!" he repeated impatiently; "of course you count! Good heavens! it's women like you who count—and no others—not one single other sort is of the slightest consequence in the world or to it. Count? Child, you control us all; everything of human goodness, of human hope hinges and hangs on you—is made possible, inevitable, because of you! And you ask me whether you count! You, who control us all, and always will—as long as you are you!"
She had turned a little pale under his vehemence, watching him out of wide and beautiful eyes.
What she understood—how much of his incoherence she was able to translate, is a question; but in his eyes and voice there was something simpler to divine; and she stood very still while his roused emotions swept her till her heart leaped up and every vein in her ran fiery pride.
"I am—overwhelmed . . . I did not consider that I counted—so vitally—in the scheme of things. But I must try to—if you believe all this of me—only you must teach me how to count for something in the world. Will you?"
"Teach you, Eileen. What winning mockery! I teach you? Well, then—I teach you this—that a man's blunder is best healed by a man's sympathy; . . . I will stand by Gerald as long as he will let me do so—not alone for your sake, nor only for his, but for my own. I promise you that. Are you contented?"