"'The clambering rose vines—'"
"Roses, pure and simple."
"'See! The clambering roses, pure and—'"
"Mademoiselle Gretry, will you do me the extreme obligation to bound yourself by the lines of the book?"
"I thought you said—"
"Go on, go on, go on! Is it God-possible to be thus stupid? Lady Mary, ready."
"'See, the clambering roses have wrapped the old stones in a loving embrace. The birds build in the same old nests—'"
"Well, well, Lady Mary, where are you? You enter from the porch."
"I'm waiting for my cue," protested Page. "My cue is: 'Are there none that will remember me.'"
"Say," whispered Landry, coming up behind Page, "it would look bully if you could come out leading a greyhound."
"Ah, so, Mademoiselle Gretry," cried Monsieur Gerardy, "you left out the cue." He became painfully polite. "Give the speech once more, if you please."
"A dog would look bully on the stage," whispered Landry. "And I know where I could get one."
"A friend of mine. He's got a beauty, blue grey—"
They become suddenly aware of a portentous silence The coach, his arms folded, was gazing at Page with tightened lips.
"'None who will remember me,'" he burst out at last. "Three times she gave it."
Page hurried upon the scene with the words:
"'Ah, another glorious morning. The vines are drenched in dew.'" Then, raising her voice and turning toward the "house," "'Arthur.'"
"'Arthur,'" warned the coach. "That's you. Mr. Corthell. Ready. Well then, Mademoiselle Gretry, you have something to say there."
"I can't say it," murmured the Gretry girl, her handkerchief to her face.
"What now? Continue. Your lines are 'I must not be seen here. It would betray all,' then conceal yourself in the arbor. Continue. Speak the line. It is the cue of Arthur."
"I can't," mumbled the girl behind her handkerchief.
"Can't? Why, then?"
"I—I have the nose-bleed."
Upon the instant Monsieur Gerardy quite lost his temper. He turned away, one hand to his head, rolling his eyes as if in mute appeal to heaven, then, whirling about, shook his play-book at the unfortunate Marion, crying out furiously:
"Ah, it lacked but that. You ought to understand at last, that when one rehearses for a play one does not have the nose-bleed. It is not decent."
Miss Gretry retired precipitately, and Laura came forward to say that she would read Marion's lines.
"No, no!" cried Monsieur Gerardy. "You—ah, if they were all like you! You are obliging, but it does not suffice. I am insulted."
The others, astonished, gathered about the "coach." They laboured to explain. Miss Gretry had intended no slight. In fact she was often taken that way; she was excited, nervous. But Monsieur Gerardy was not to be placated. Ah, no! He knew what was due a gentleman. He closed his eyes and raised his eyebrows to his very hair, murmuring superbly that he was offended. He had but one phrase in answer to all their explanations:
"One does not permit one's self to bleed at the nose during rehearsal."
Laura began to feel a certain resentment. The unfortunate Gretry girl had gone away in tears. What with the embarrassment of the wrong gown, the brow-beating, and the nose-bleed, she was not far from hysterics. She had retired to the dining-room with Mrs. Cressler and from time to time the sounds of her distress made themselves heard. Laura believed it quite time to interfere. After all, who was this Gerardy person, to give himself such airs? Poor Miss Gretry was to blame for nothing. She fixed the little Frenchman with a direct glance, and Page, who caught a glimpse of her face, recognised "the grand manner," and whispered to Landry:
"He'd better look out; he's gone just about as far as Laura will allow."
"It is not convenient," vociferated the "coach." "It is not permissible. I am offended."
"Monsieur Gerardy," said Laura, "we will say nothing more about it, if you please."
There was a silence. Monsieur Gerardy had pretended not to hear. He breathed loud through his nose, and Page hastened to observe that anyhow Marion was not on in the next scenes. Then abruptly, and resuming his normal expression, Monsieur Gerardy said:
"Let us proceed. It advances nothing to lose time. Come. Lady Mary and Arthur, ready."
The rehearsal continued. Laura, who did not come on during the act, went back to her chair in the corner of the room.
But the original group had been broken up. Mrs. Cressler was in the dining-room with the Gretry girl, while Jadwin, Aunt Wess', and Cressler himself were deep in a discussion of mind-reading and spiritualism.
As Laura came up, Jadwin detached himself from the others and met her.
"Poor Miss Gretry!" he observed. "Always the square peg in the round hole. I've sent out for some smelling salts."
It seemed to Laura that the capitalist was especially well-looking on this particular evening. He never dressed with the "smartness" of Sheldon Corthell or Landry Court, but in some way she did not expect that he should. His clothes were not what she was aware were called "stylish," but she had had enough experience with her own tailor-made gowns to know that the material was the very best that money could buy. The apparent absence of any padding in the broad shoulders of the frock coat he wore, to her mind, more than compensated for the "ready-made" scarf, and if the white waistcoat was not fashionably cut, she knew that she had never been able to afford a pique skirt of just that particular grade.
"Suppose we go into the reception-room," he observed abruptly. "Charlie bought a new clock last week that's a marvel. You ought to see it."
"No," she answered. "I am quite comfortable here, and I want to see how Page does in this act."
"I am afraid, Miss Dearborn," he continued, as they found their places, "that you did not have a very good time Sunday afternoon."
He referred to the Easter festival at his mission school. Laura had left rather early, alleging neuralgia and a dinner engagement.
"Why, yes I did," she replied. "Only, to tell the truth, my head ached a little." She was ashamed that she did not altogether delight in her remembrance of Jadwin on that afternoon. He had "addressed" the school, with earnestness it was true, but in a strain decidedly conventional. And the picture he made leading the singing, beating time with the hymn-book, and between the verses declaring that "he wanted to hear everyone's voice in the next verse," did not appeal very forcibly to her imagination. She fancied Sheldon Corthell doing these things, and could not forbear to smile. She had to admit, despite the protests of conscience, that she did prefer the studio to the Sunday-school.
"Oh," remarked Jadwin, "I'm sorry to hear you had a headache. I suppose my little micks" (he invariably spoke of his mission children thus) "do make more noise than music."
"I found them very interesting."
"No, excuse me, but I'm afraid you didn't. My little micks are not interesting—to look at nor to listen to. But I, kind of—well, I don't know," he began pulling his mustache. "It seems to suit me to get down there and get hold of these people. You know Moody put me up to it. He was here about five years ago, and I went to one of his big meetings, and then to all of them. And I met the fellow, too, and I tell you, Miss Dearborn, he stirred me all up. I didn't "get religion." No, nothing like that. But I got a notion it was time to be up and doing, and I figured it out that business principles were as good in religion as they are—well, in La Salle Street, and that if the church people—the men I mean—put as much energy, and shrewdness, and competitive spirit into the saving of souls as they did into the saving of dollars that we might get somewhere. And so I took hold of a half dozen broken-down, bankrupt Sunday-school concerns over here on Archer Avenue that were fighting each other all the time, and amalgamated them all—a regular trust, just as if they were iron foundries—and turned the incompetents out and put my subordinates in, and put the thing on a business basis, and by now, I'll venture to say, there's not a better organised Sunday-school in all Chicago, and I'll bet if D. L. Moody were here to-day he'd say, 'Jadwin, well done, thou good and faithful servant.'"
"I haven't a doubt of it, Mr. Jadwin," Laura hastened to exclaim. "And you must not think that I don't believe you are doing a splendid work."
"Well, it suits me," he repeated. "I like my little micks, and now and then I have a chance to get hold of the kind that it pays to push along. About four months ago I came across a boy in the Bible class; I guess he's about sixteen; name is Bradley—Billy Bradley, father a confirmed drunk, mother takes in washing, sister—we won't speak about; and he seemed to be bright and willing to work, and I gave him a job in my agent's office, just directing envelopes. Well, Miss Dearborn, that boy has a desk of his own now, and the agent tells me he's one of the very best men he's got. He does his work so well that I've been able to discharge two other fellows who sat around and watched the clock for lunch hour, and Bradley does their work now better and quicker than they did, and saves me twenty dollars a week; that's a thousand a year. So much for a business like Sunday-school; so much for taking a good aim when you cast your bread upon the waters. The last time I saw Moody I said, 'Moody, my motto is "not slothful in business, fervent in spirit, praising the Lord."' I remember we were out driving at the time, I took him out behind Lizella—she's almost straight Wilkes' blood and can trot in two-ten, but you can believe he didn't know that—and, as I say, I told him what my motto was, and he said, 'J., good for you; you keep to that. There's no better motto in the world for the American man of business.' He shook my hand when he said it, and I haven't ever forgotten it."
Not a little embarrassed, Laura was at a loss just what to say, and in the end remarked lamely enough:
"I am sure it is the right spirit—the best motto."
"Miss Dearborn," Jadwin began again suddenly, "why don't you take a class down there. The little micks aren't so dreadful when you get to know them."
"I!" exclaimed Laura, rather blankly. She shook her head. "Oh, no, Mr. Jadwin. I should be only an encumbrance. Don't misunderstand me. I approve of the work with all my heart, but I am not fitted—I feel no call. I should be so inapt that I know I should do no good. My training has been so different, you know," she said, smiling. "I am an Episcopalian—'of the straightest sect of the Pharisees.' I should be teaching your little micks all about the meaning of candles, and 'Eastings,' and the absolution and remission of sins."
"I wouldn't care if you did," he answered. "It's the indirect influence I'm thinking of—the indirect influence that a beautiful, pure-hearted, noble-minded woman spreads around her wherever she goes. I know what it has done for me. And I know that not only my little micks, but every teacher and every superintendent in that school would be inspired, and stimulated, and born again so soon as ever you set foot in the building. Men need good women, Miss Dearborn. Men who are doing the work of the world. I believe in women as I believe in Christ. But I don't believe they were made—any more than Christ was—to cultivate—beyond a certain point—their own souls, and refine their own minds, and live in a sort of warmed-over, dilettante, stained-glass world of seclusion and exclusion. No, sir, that won't do for the United States and the men who are making them the greatest nation of the world. The men have got all the get-up-and-get they want, but they need the women to point them straight, and to show them how to lead that other kind of life that isn't all grind. Since I've known you, Miss Dearborn, I've just begun to wake up to the fact that there is that other kind, but I can't lead that life without you. There's no kind of life that's worth anything to me now that don't include you. I don't need to tell you that I want you to marry me. You know that by now, I guess, without any words from me. I love you, and I love you as a man, not as a boy, seriously and earnestly. I can give you no idea how seriously, how earnestly. I want you to be my wife. Laura, my dear girl, I know I could make you happy."
"It isn't," answered Laura slowly, perceiving as he paused that he expected her to say something, "much a question of that."
"What is it, then? I won't make a scene. Don't you love me? Don't you think, my girl, you could ever love me?"
Laura hesitated a long moment. She had taken the rose from her shoulder, and plucking the petals one by one, put them delicately between her teeth. From the other end of the room came the clamorous exhortations of Monsieur Gerardy. Mrs. Cressler and the Gretry girl watched the progress of the rehearsal attentively from the doorway of the dining-room. Aunt Wess' and Mr. Cressler were discussing psychic research and seances, on the sofa on the other side of the room. After a while Laura spoke.
"It isn't that either," she said, choosing her words carefully.
"What is it, then?"
"I don't know—exactly. For one thing, I don't think I want to be married, Mr. Jadwin—to anybody."
"I would wait for you."
"Or to be engaged."
"But the day must come, sooner or later, when you must be both engaged and married. You must ask yourself some time if you love the man who wishes to be your husband. Why not ask yourself now?"
"I do," she answered. "I do ask myself. I have asked myself."
"Well, what do you decide?"
"That I don't know."
"Don't you think you would love me in time? Laura, I am sure you would. I would make you."
"I don't know. I suppose that is a stupid answer. But it is, if I am to be honest, and I am trying very hard to be honest—with you and with myself—the only one I have. I am happy just as I am. I like you and Mr. Cressler and Mr. Corthell—everybody. But, Mr. Jadwin"—she looked him full in the face, her dark eyes full of gravity—"with a woman it is so serious—to be married. More so than any man ever understood. And, oh, one must be so sure, so sure. And I am not sure now. I am not sure now. Even if I were sure of you, I could not say I was sure of myself. Now and then I tell myself, and even poor, dear Aunt Wess', that I shall never love anybody, that I shall never marry. But I should be bitterly sorry if I thought that was true. It is one of the greatest happinesses to which I look forward, that some day I shall love some one with all my heart and soul, and shall be a true wife, and find my husband's love for me the sweetest thing in my life. But I am sure that that day has not come yet."
"And when it does come," he urged, "may I be the first to know?"
She smiled a little gravely.
"Ah," she answered, "I would not know myself that that day had come until I woke to the fact that I loved the man who had asked me to be his wife, and then it might be too late—for you."
"But now, at least," he persisted, "you love no one."
"Now," she repeated, "I love—no one."
"And I may take such encouragement in that as I can?"
And then, suddenly, capriciously even, Laura, an inexplicable spirit of inconsistency besetting her, was a very different woman from the one who an instant before had spoken so gravely of the seriousness of marriage. She hesitated a moment before answering Jadwin, her head on one side, looking at the rose leaf between her fingers. In a low voice she said at last:
"If you like."
But before Jadwin could reply, Cressler and Aunt Wess' who had been telling each other of their "experiences," of their "premonitions," of the unaccountable things that had happened to them, at length included the others in their conversation.
"J.," remarked Cressler, "did anything funny ever happen to you—warnings, presentiments, that sort of thing? Mrs. Wessels and I have been talking spiritualism. Laura, have you ever had any 'experiences'?"
She shook her head.
"No, no. I am too material, I am afraid."
"How about you, 'J.'?"
"Nothing much, except that I believe in 'luck'—a little. The other day I flipped a coin in Gretry's office. If it fell heads I was to sell wheat short, and somehow I knew all the time that the coin would fall heads—and so it did."
"And you made a great deal of money," said Laura. "I know. Mr. Court was telling me. That was splendid."
"That was deplorable, Laura," said Cressler, gravely. "I hope some day," he continued, "we can all of us get hold of this man and make him solemnly promise never to gamble in wheat again."
Laura stared. To her mind the word "gambling" had always been suspect. It had a bad sound; it seemed to be associated with depravity of the baser sort.
"Gambling!" she murmured.
"They call it buying and selling," he went on, "down there in La Salle Street. But it is simply betting. Betting on the condition of the market weeks, even months, in advance. You bet wheat goes up. I bet it goes down. Those fellows in the Pit don't own the wheat; never even see it. Wou'dn't know what to do with it if they had it. They don't care in the least about the grain. But there are thousands upon thousands of farmers out here in Iowa and Kansas or Dakota who do, and hundreds of thousand of poor devils in Europe who care even more than the farmer. I mean the fellows who raise the grain, and the other fellows who eat it. It's life or death for either of them. And right between these two comes the Chicago speculator, who raises or lowers the price out of all reason, for the benefit of his pocket. You see Laura, here is what I mean." Cressler had suddenly become very earnest. Absorbed, interested, Laura listened intently. "Here is what I mean," pursued Cressler. "It's like this: If we send the price of wheat down too far, the farmer suffers, the fellow who raises it if we send it up too far, the poor man in Europe suffers, the fellow who eats it. And food to the peasant on the continent is bread—not meat or potatoes, as it is with us. The only way to do so that neither the American farmer nor the European peasant suffers, is to keep wheat at an average, legitimate value. The moment you inflate or depress that, somebody suffers right away. And that is just what these gamblers are doing all the time, booming it up or booming it down. Think of it, the food of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people just at the mercy of a few men down there on the Board of Trade. They make the price. They say just how much the peasant shall pay for his loaf of bread. If he can't pay the price he simply starves. And as for the farmer, why it's ludicrous. If I build a house and offer it for sale, I put my own price on it, and if the price offered don't suit me I don't sell. But if I go out here in Iowa and raise a crop of wheat, I've got to sell it, whether I want to or not at the figure named by some fellows in Chicago. And to make themselves rich, they may make me sell it at a price that bankrupts me."
Laura nodded. She was intensely interested. A whole new order of things was being disclosed, and for the first time in her life she looked into the workings of political economy.
"Oh, that's only one side of it," Cressler went on, heedless of Jadwin's good-humoured protests. "Yes, I know I am a crank on speculating. I'm going to preach a little if you'll let me. I've been a speculator myself, and a ruined one at that, and I know what I am talking about. Here is what I was going to say. These fellows themselves, the gamblers—well, call them speculators, if you like. Oh, the fine, promising manly young men I've seen wrecked—absolutely and hopelessly wrecked and ruined by speculation! It's as easy to get into as going across the street. They make three hundred, five hundred, yes, even a thousand dollars sometimes in a couple of hours, without so much as raising a finger. Think what that means to a boy of twenty-five who's doing clerk work at seventy-five a month. Why, it would take him maybe ten years to save a thousand, and here he's made it in a single morning. Think you can keep him out of speculation then? First thing you know he's thrown up his honest, humdrum position—oh, I've seen it hundreds of times—and takes to hanging round the customers' rooms down there on La Salle Street, and he makes a little, and makes a little more, and finally he is so far in that he can't pull out, and then some billionaire fellow, who has the market in the palm of his hand, tightens one finger, and our young man is ruined, body and mind. He's lost the taste, the very capacity for legitimate business, and he stays on hanging round the Board till he gets to be—all of a sudden—an old man. And then some day some one says, 'Why, where's So-and-so?' and you wake up to the fact that the young fellow has simply disappeared—lost. I tell you the fascination of this Pit gambling is something no one who hasn't experienced it can have the faintest conception of. I believe it's worse than liquor, worse than morphine. Once you get into it, it grips you and draws you and draws you, and the nearer you get to the end the easier it seems to win, till all of a sudden, ah! there's the whirlpool.... 'J.,' keep away from it, my boy."
Jadwin laughed, and leaning over, put his fingers upon Cressler's breast, as though turning off a switch.
"Now, Miss Dearborn," he announced, "we've shut him off. Charlie means all right, but now and then some one brushes against him and opens that switch."
Cressler, good-humouredly laughed with the others, but Laura's smile was perfunctory and her eyes were grave. But there was a diversion. While the others had been talking the rehearsal had proceeded, and now Page beckoned to Laura from the far end of the parlor, calling out:
"Laura—'Beatrice,' it's the third act. You are wanted."
"Oh, I must run," exclaimed Laura, catching up her play-book. "Poor Monsieur Gerardy—we must be a trial to him."
She hurried across the room, where the coach was disposing the furniture for the scene, consulting the stage directions in his book:
"Here the kitchen table, here the old-fashioned writing-desk, here the armoire with practicable doors, here the window. Soh! Who is on? Ah, the young lady of the sick nose, 'Marion.' She is discovered—knitting. And then the duchess—later. That's you Mademoiselle Dearborn. You interrupt—you remember. But then you, ah, you always are right. If they were all like you. Very well, we begin."
Creditably enough the Gretry girl read her part, Monsieur Gerardy interrupting to indicate the crossings and business. Then at her cue, Laura, who was to play the role of the duchess, entered with the words:
"I beg your pardon, but the door stood open. May I come in?"
Monsieur Gerardy murmured:
"Elle est vraiment superbe."
Laura to the very life, to every little trick of carriage and manner was the high-born gentlewoman visiting the home of a dependent. Nothing could have been more dignified, more gracious, more gracefully condescending than her poise. She dramatised not only her role, but the whole of her surroundings. The interior of the little cottage seemed to define itself with almost visible distinctness the moment she set foot upon the scene.
Gerardy tiptoed from group to group, whispering:
"Eh? Very fine, our duchess. She would do well professionally."
But Mrs. Wessels was not altogether convinced. Her eyes following her niece, she said to Corthell:
"It's Laura's 'grand manner.' My word, I know her in that part. That's the way she is when she comes down to the parlor of an evening, and Page introduces her to one of her young men."
"I nearly die," protested Page, beginning to laugh. "Of course it's very natural I should want my friends to like my sister. And Laura comes in as though she were walking on eggs, and gets their names wrong, as though it didn't much matter, and calls them Pinky when their name is Pinckney, and don't listen to what they say, till I want to sink right through the floor with mortification."
In haphazard fashion the rehearsal wore to a close. Monsieur Gerardy stormed and fretted and insisted upon repeating certain scenes over and over again. By ten o'clock the actors were quite worn out. A little supper was served, and very soon afterward Laura made a move toward departing. She was wondering who would see her home, Landry, Jadwin, or Sheldon Corthell.
The day had been sunshiny, warm even, but since nine o'clock the weather had changed for the worse, and by now a heavy rain was falling. Mrs. Cressler begged the two sisters and Mrs. Wessels to stay at her house over night, but Laura refused. Jadwin was suggesting to Cressler the appropriateness of having the coupe brought around to take the sisters home, when Corthell came up to Laura.
"I sent for a couple of hansoms long since," he said. "They are waiting outside now." And that seemed to settle the question.
For all Jadwin's perseverance, the artist seemed—for this time at least—to have the better of the situation.
As the good-bys were being said at the front door Page remarked to Landry:
"You had better go with us as far as the house, so that you can take one of our umbrellas. You can get in with Aunt Wess' and me. There's plenty of room. You can't go home in this storm without an umbrella."
Landry at first refused, haughtily. He might be too poor to parade a lot of hansom cabs around, but he was too proud, to say the least, to ride in 'em when some one else paid.
Page scolded him roundly. What next? The idea. He was not to be so completely silly. She didn't propose to have the responsibility of his catching pneumonia just for the sake of a quibble.
"Some people," she declared, "never seemed to be able to find out that they are grown up."
"Very well," he announced, "I'll go if I can tip the driver a dollar."
Page compressed her lips.
"The man that can afford dollar tips," she said, "can afford to hire the cab in the first place."
"Seventy-five cents, then," he declared resolutely. "Not a cent less. I should feel humiliated with any less."
"Will you please take me down to the cab, Landry Court?" she cried. And without further comment Landry obeyed.
"Now, Miss Dearborn, if you are ready," exclaimed Corthell, as he came up. He held the umbrella over her head, allowing his shoulders to get the drippings.
They cried good-by again all around, and the artist guided her down the slippery steps. He handed her carefully into the hansom, and following, drew down the glasses.
Laura settled herself comfortably far back in her corner, adjusting her skirts and murmuring:
"Such a wet night. Who would have thought it was going to rain? I was afraid you were not coming at first," she added. "At dinner Mrs. Cressler said you had an important committee meeting—something to do with the Art Institute, the award of prizes; was that it?"
"Oh, yes," he answered, indifferently, "something of the sort was on. I suppose it was important—for the Institute. But for me there is only one thing of importance nowadays," he spoke with a studied carelessness, as though announcing a fact that Laura must know already, "and that is, to be near you. It is astonishing. You have no idea of it, how I have ordered my whole life according to that idea."
"As though you expected me to believe that," she answered.
In her other lovers she knew her words would have provoked vehement protestation. But for her it was part of the charm of Corthell's attitude that he never did or said the expected, the ordinary. Just now he seemed more interested in the effect of his love for Laura upon himself than in the manner of her reception of it.
"It is curious," he continued. "I am no longer a boy. I have no enthusiasms. I have known many women, and I have seen enough of what the crowd calls love to know how futile it is, how empty, a vanity of vanities. I had imagined that the poets were wrong, were idealists, seeing the things that should be rather than the things that were. And then," suddenly he drew a deep breath: "this happiness; and to me. And the miracle, the wonderful is there—all at once—in my heart, in my very hand, like a mysterious, beautiful exotic. The poets are wrong," he added. "They have not been idealists enough. I wish—ah, well, never mind."
"What is it that you wish?" she asked, as he broke off suddenly. Laura knew even before she spoke that it would have been better not to have prompted him to continue. Intuitively she had something more than a suspicion that he had led her on to say these very words. And in admitting that she cared to have the conversation proceed upon this footing, she realised that she was sheering towards unequivocal coquetry. She saw the false move now, knew that she had lowered her guard. On all accounts it would have been more dignified to have shown only a mild interest in what Corthell wished. She realised that once more she had acted upon impulse, and she even found time to wonder again how it was that when with this man her impulses, and not her reason prevailed so often. With Landry or with Curtis Jadwin she was always calm, tranquilly self-possessed. But Corthell seemed able to reach all that was impetuous, all that was unreasoned in her nature. To Landry she was more than anything else, an older sister, indulgent, kind-hearted. With Jadwin she found that all the serious, all the sincere, earnest side of her character was apt to come to the front. But Corthell stirred troublous, unknown deeps in her, certain undefined trends of recklessness; and for so long as he held her within his influence, she could not forget her sex a single instant.
It dismayed her to have this strange personality of hers, this other headstrong, impetuous self, discovered to her. She hardly recognised it. It made her a little afraid; and yet, wonder of wonders, she could not altogether dislike it. There was a certain fascination in resigning herself for little instants to the dominion of this daring stranger that was yet herself.
Meanwhile Corthell had answered her:
"I wish," he said, "I wish you could say something—I hardly know what—something to me. So little would be so much."
"But what can I say?" she protested. "I don't know—I—what can I say?"
"It must be yes or no for me," he broke out. "I can't go on this way."
"But why not? Why not?" exclaimed Laura. "Why must we—terminate anything? Why not let things go on just as they are? We are quite happy as we are. There's never been a time of my life when I've been happier than this last three or four months. I don't want to change anything. Ah, here we are."
The hansom drew up in front of the house. Aunt Wess' and Page were already inside. The maid stood in the vestibule in the light that streamed from the half-open front door, an umbrella in her hand. And as Laura alighted, she heard Page's voice calling from the front hall that the others had umbrellas, that the maid was not to wait.
The hansom splashed away, and Corthell and Laura mounted the steps of the house.
"Won't you come in?" she said. "There is a fire in the library."
But he said no, and for a few seconds they stood under the vestibule light, talking. Then Corthell, drawing off his right-hand glove, said:
"I suppose that I have my answer. You do not wish for a change. I understand. You wish to say by that, that you do not love me. If you did love me as I love you, you would wish for just that—a change. You would be as eager as I for that wonderful, wonderful change that makes a new heaven and a new earth."
This time Laura did not answer. There was a moment's silence. Then Corthell said:
"Do you know, I think I shall go away."
"Yes, to New York. Possibly to Paris. There is a new method of fusing glass that I've promised myself long ago I would look into. I don't know that it interests me much—now. But I think I had better go. At once, within the week. I've not much heart in it; but it seems—under the circumstances—to be appropriate." He held out his bared hand. Laura saw that he was smiling.
"Well, Miss Dearborn—good-by."
"But why should you go?" she cried, distressfully. "How perfectly—ah, don't go," she exclaimed, then in desperate haste added: "It would be absolutely foolish."
"Shall I stay?" he urged. "Do you tell me to stay?"
"Of course I do," she answered. "It would break up the play—your going. It would spoil my part. You play opposite me, you know. Please stay."
"Shall I stay," he asked, "for the sake of your part? There is no one else you would rather have?" He was smiling straight into her eyes, and she guessed what he meant.
She smiled back at him, and the spirit of daring never more awake in her, replied, as she caught his eye:
"There is no one else I would rather have."
Corthell caught her hand of a sudden.
"Laura," he cried, "let us end this fencing and quibbling once and for all. Dear, dear girl, I love you with all the strength of all the good in me. Let me be the best a man can be to the woman he loves."
Laura flashed a smile at him.
"If you can make me love you enough," she answered.
"And you think I can?" he exclaimed.
"You have my permission to try," she said.
She hoped fervently that now, without further words, he would leave her. It seemed to her that it would be the most delicate chivalry on his part—having won this much—to push his advantage no further. She waited anxiously for his next words. She began to fear that she had trusted too much upon her assurance of his tact.
Corthell held out his hand again.
"It is good-night, then, not good-by."
"It is good-night," said Laura.
With the words he was gone, and Laura, entering the house, shut the door behind her with a long breath of satisfaction.
Page and Landry were still in the library. Laura joined them, and for a few moments the three stood before the fireplace talking about the play. Page at length, at the first opportunity, excused herself and went to bed. She made a great show of leaving Landry and Laura alone, and managed to convey the impression that she understood they were anxious to be rid of her.
"Only remember," she remarked to Laura severely, "to lock up and turn out the hall gas. Annie has gone to bed long ago."
"I must dash along, too," declared Landry when Page was gone.
He buttoned his coat about his neck, and Laura followed him out into the hall and found an umbrella for him.
"You were beautiful to-night," he said, as he stood with his hand on the door knob. "Beautiful. I could not keep my eyes off of you, and I could not listen to anybody but you. And now," he declared, solemnly, "I will see your eyes and hear your voice all the rest of the night. I want to explain," he added, "about those hansoms—about coming home with Miss Page and Mrs. Wessels. Mr. Corthell—those were his hansoms, of course. But I wanted an umbrella, and I gave the driver seventy-five cents."
"Why of course, of course," said Laura, not quite divining what he was driving at.
"I don't want you to think that I would be willing to put myself under obligations to anybody."
"Of course, Landry; I understand."
He thrilled at once.
"Ah," he cried, "you don't know what it means to me to look into the eyes of a woman who really understands."
Laura stared, wondering just what she had said.
"Will you turn this hall light out for me, Landry?" she asked. "I never can reach."
He left the front door open and extinguished the jet in its dull red globe. Promptly they were involved in darkness.
"Good-night," she said. "Isn't it dark?"
He stretched out his hand to take hers, but instead his groping fingers touched her waist. Suddenly Laura felt his arm clasp her. Then all at once, before she had time to so much as think of resistance, he had put both arms about her and kissed her squarely on her cheek.
Then the front door closed, and she was left abruptly alone, breathless, stunned, staring wide-eyed into the darkness.
Her first sensation was one merely of amazement. She put her hand quickly to her cheek, first the palm and then the back, murmuring confusedly:
Then she whirled about and ran up the stairs, her silks clashing and fluttering about her as she fled, gained her own room, and swung the door violently shut behind her. She turned up the lowered gas and, without knowing why, faced her mirror at once, studying her reflection and watching her hand as it all but scoured the offended cheek.
Then, suddenly, with an upward, uplifting rush, her anger surged within her. She, Laura, Miss Dearborn, who loved no man, who never conceded, never capitulated, whose "grand manner" was a thing proverbial, in all her pitch of pride, in her own home, her own fortress, had been kissed, like a school-girl, like a chambermaid, in the dark, in a corner.
And by—great heavens!—Landry Court. The boy whom she fancied she held in such subjection, such profound respect. Landry Court had dared, had dared to kiss her, to offer her this wretchedly commonplace and petty affront, degrading her to the level of a pretty waitress, making her ridiculous.
She stood rigid, drawn to her full height, in the centre of her bedroom, her fists tense at her sides, her breath short, her eyes flashing, her face aflame. From time to time her words, half smothered, burst from her.
"What does he think I am? How dared he? How dared he?"
All that she could say, any condemnation she could formulate only made her position the more absurd, the more humiliating. It had all been said before by generations of shop-girls, school-girls, and servants, in whose company the affront had ranged her. Landry was to be told in effect that he was never to presume to seek her acquaintance again. Just as the enraged hussy of the street corners and Sunday picnics shouted that the offender should "never dare speak to her again as long as he lived." Never before had she been subjected to this kind of indignity. And simultaneously with the assurance she could hear the shrill voice of the drab of the public balls proclaiming that she had "never been kissed in all her life before."
Of all slights, of all insults, it was the one that robbed her of the very dignity she should assume to rebuke it. The more vehemently she resented it, the more laughable became the whole affair.
But she would resent it, she would resent it, and Landry Court should be driven to acknowledge that the sorriest day of his life was the one on which he had forgotten the respect in which he had pretended to hold her. He had deceived her, then, all along. Because she had—foolishly—relaxed a little towards him, permitted a certain intimacy, this was how he abused it. Ah, well, it would teach her a lesson. Men were like that. She might have known it would come to this. Wilfully they chose to misunderstand, to take advantage of her frankness, her good nature, her good comradeship.
She had been foolish all along, flirting—yes, that was the word for it flirting with Landry and Corthell and Jadwin. No doubt they all compared notes about her. Perhaps they had bet who first should kiss her. Or, at least, there was not one of them who would not kiss her if she gave him a chance.
But if she, in any way, had been to blame for what Landry had done, she would atone for it. She had made herself too cheap, she had found amusement in encouraging these men, in equivocating, in coquetting with them. Now it was time to end the whole business, to send each one of them to the right-about with an unequivocal definite word. She was a good girl, she told herself. She was, in her heart, sincere; she was above the inexpensive diversion of flirting. She had started wrong in her new life, and it was time, high time, to begin over again—with a clean page—to show these men that they dared not presume to take liberties with so much as the tip of her little finger.
So great was her agitation, so eager her desire to act upon her resolve, that she could not wait till morning. It was a physical impossibility for her to remain under what she chose to believe suspicion another hour. If there was any remotest chance that her three lovers had permitted themselves to misunderstand her, they were to be corrected at once, were to be shown their place, and that without mercy.
She called for the maid, Annie, whose husband was the janitor of the house, and who slept in the top story.
"If Henry hasn't gone to bed," said Laura, "tell him to wait up till I call him, or to sleep with his clothes on. There is something I want him to do for me—something important."
It was close upon midnight. Laura turned back into her room, removed her hat and veil, and tossed them, with her coat, upon the bed. She lit another burner of the chandelier, and drew a chair to her writing-desk between the windows.
Her first note was to Landry Court. She wrote it almost with a single spurt of the pen, and dated it carefully, so that he might know it had been written immediately after he had left. Thus it ran:
"Please do not try to see me again at any time or under any circumstances. I want you to understand, very clearly, that I do not wish to continue our acquaintance."
Her letter to Corthell was more difficult, and it was not until she had rewritten it two or three times that it read to her satisfaction.
"My dear Mr. Corthell," so it was worded, "you asked me to-night that our fencing and quibbling be brought to an end. I quite agree with you that it is desirable. I spoke as I did before you left upon an impulse that I shall never cease to regret. I do not wish you to misunderstand me, nor to misinterpret my attitude in any way. You asked me to be your wife, and, very foolishly and wrongly, I gave you—intentionally—an answer which might easily be construed into an encouragement. Understand now that I do not wish you to try to make me love you. I would find it extremely distasteful. And, believe me, it would be quite hopeless. I do not now, and never shall care for you as I should care if I were to be your wife. I beseech you that you will not, in any manner, refer again to this subject. It would only distress and pain me.
The letter to Curtis Jadwin was almost to the same effect. But she found the writing of it easier than the others. In addressing him she felt herself grow a little more serious, a little more dignified and calm. It ran as follows:
MY DEAR MR. JADWIN:
"When you asked me to become your wife this evening, you deserved a straightforward answer, and instead I replied in a spirit of capriciousness and disingenuousness, which I now earnestly regret, and which ask you to pardon and to ignore.
"I allowed myself to tell you that you might find encouragement in my foolishly spoken words. I am deeply sorry that I should have so forgotten what was due to my own self-respect and to your sincerity.
"If I have permitted myself to convey to you the impression that I would ever be willing to be your wife, let me hasten to correct it. Whatever I said to you this evening, I must answer now—as I should have answered then—truthfully and unhesitatingly, no.
"This, I insist, must be the last word between us upon this unfortunate subject, if we are to continue, as I hope, very good friends.
She sealed, stamped, and directed the three envelopes, and glanced at the little leather-cased travelling clock that stood on the top of her desk. It was nearly two.
"I could not sleep, I could not sleep," she murmured, "if I did not know they were on the way."
In answer to the bell Henry appeared, and Laura gave him the letters, with orders to mail them at once in the nearest box.
When it was all over she sat down again at her desk, and leaning an elbow upon it, covered her eyes with her hand for a long moment. She felt suddenly very tired, and when at last she lowered her hand, her fingers were wet. But in the end she grew calmer. She felt that, at all events, she had vindicated herself, that her life would begin again to-morrow with a clean page; and when at length she fell asleep, it was to the dreamless unconsciousness of an almost tranquil mind.
She slept late the next morning and breakfasted in bed between ten and eleven. Then, as the last vibrations of last night's commotion died away, a very natural curiosity began to assert itself. She wondered how each of the three men "would take it." In spite of herself she could not keep from wishing that she could be by when they read their dismissals.
Towards the early part of the afternoon, while Laura was in the library reading "Queen's Gardens," the special delivery brought Landry Court's reply. It was one roulade of incoherence, even in places blistered with tears. Landry protested, implored, debased himself to the very dust. His letter bristled with exclamation points, and ended with a prolonged wail of distress and despair.
Quietly, and with a certain merciless sense of pacification, Laura deliberately reduced the letter to strips, burned it upon the hearth, and went back to her Ruskin.
A little later, the afternoon being fine, she determined to ride out to Lincoln Park, not fifteen minutes from her home, to take a little walk there, and to see how many new buds were out.
As she was leaving, Annie gave into her hands a pasteboard box, just brought to the house by a messenger boy.
The box was full of Jacqueminot roses, to the stems of which a note from Corthell was tied. He wrote but a single line:
"So it should have been 'good-by' after all."
Laura had Annie put the roses in Page's room.
"Tell Page she can have them; I don't want them. She can wear them to her dance to-night," she said.
While to herself she added:
"The little buds in the park will be prettier."
She was gone from the house over two hours, for she had elected to walk all the way home. She came back flushed and buoyant from her exercise, her cheeks cool with the Lake breeze, a young maple leaf in one of the revers of her coat. Annie let her in, murmuring:
"A gentleman called just after you went out. I told him you were not at home, but he said he would wait. He is in the library now."
"Who is he? Did he give his name?" demanded Laura.
The maid handed her Curtis Jadwin's card.
That year the spring burst over Chicago in a prolonged scintillation of pallid green. For weeks continually the sun shone. The Lake, after persistently cherishing the greys and bitter greens of the winter months, and the rugged white-caps of the northeast gales, mellowed at length, turned to a softened azure blue, and lapsed by degrees to an unruffled calmness, incrusted with innumerable coruscations.
In the parks, first of all, the buds and earliest shoots asserted themselves. The horse-chestnut bourgeons burst their sheaths to spread into trefoils and flame-shaped leaves. The elms, maples, and cottonwoods followed. The sooty, blackened snow upon the grass plats, in the residence quarters, had long since subsided, softening the turf, filling the gutters with rivulets. On all sides one saw men at work laying down the new sod in rectangular patches.
There was a delicious smell of ripening in the air, a smell of sap once more on the move, of humid earths disintegrating from the winter rigidity, of twigs and slender branches stretching themselves under the returning warmth, elastic once more, straining in their bark.
On the North Side, in Washington Square, along the Lake-shore Drive, all up and down the Lincoln Park Boulevard, and all through Erie, Huron, and Superior streets, through North State Street, North Clarke Street, and La Salle Avenue, the minute sparkling of green flashed from tree top to tree top, like the first kindling of dry twigs. One could almost fancy that the click of igniting branch tips was audible as whole beds of yellow-green sparks defined themselves within certain elms and cottonwoods.
Every morning the sun invaded earlier the east windows of Laura Dearborn's bedroom. Every day at noon it stood more nearly overhead above her home. Every afternoon the checkered shadows of the leaves thickened upon the drawn curtains of the library. Within doors the bottle-green flies came out of their lethargy and droned and bumped on the panes. The double windows were removed, screens and awnings took their places; the summer pieces were put into the fireplaces.
All of a sudden vans invaded the streets, piled high with mattresses, rocking-chairs, and bird cages; the inevitable "spring moving" took place. And these furniture vans alternated with great trucks laden with huge elm trees on their way from nursery to lawn. Families and trees alike submitted to the impulse of transplanting, abandoning the winter quarters, migrating with the spring to newer environments, taking root in other soils. Sparrows wrangled on the sidewalks and built ragged nests in the interstices of cornice and coping. In the parks one heard the liquid modulations of robins. The florists' wagons appeared, and from house to house, from lawn to lawn, iron urns and window boxes filled up with pansies, geraniums, fuchsias, and trailing vines. The flower beds, stripped of straw and manure, bloomed again, and at length the great cottonwoods shed their berries, like clusters of tiny grapes, over street and sidewalk.
At length came three days of steady rain, followed by cloudless sunshine and full-bodied, vigorous winds straight from out the south.
Instantly the living embers in tree top and grass plat were fanned to flame. Like veritable fire, the leaves blazed up. Branch after branch caught and crackled; even the dryest, the deadest, were enfolded in the resistless swirl of green. Tree top ignited tree top; the parks and boulevards were one smother of radiance. From end to end and from side to side of the city, fed by the rains, urged by the south winds, spread billowing and surging the superb conflagration of the coming summer.
Then, abruptly, everything hung poised; the leaves, the flowers, the grass, all at fullest stretch, stood motionless, arrested, while the heat, distilled, as it were, from all this seething green, rose like a vast pillar over the city, and stood balanced there in the iridescence of the sky, moveless and immeasurable.
From time to time it appeared as if this pillar broke in the guise of summer storms, and came toppling down upon the city in tremendous detonations of thunder and weltering avalanches of rain. But it broke only to reform, and no sooner had the thunder ceased, the rain intermitted, and the sun again come forth, than one received the vague impression of the swift rebuilding of the vast, invisible column that smothered the city under its bases, towering higher and higher into the rain-washed, crystal-clear atmosphere.
Then the aroma of wet dust, of drenched pavements, musty, acute—the unforgettable exhalation of the city's streets after a shower—pervaded all the air, and the little out-door activities resumed again under the dripping elms and upon the steaming sidewalks.
The evenings were delicious. It was yet too early for the exodus northward to the Wisconsin lakes, but to stay indoors after nightfall was not to be thought of. After six o'clock, all through the streets in the neighbourhood of the Dearborns' home, one could see the family groups "sitting out" upon the front "stoop." Chairs were brought forth, carpets and rugs unrolled upon the steps. From within, through the opened windows of drawing-room and parlour, came the brisk gaiety of pianos. The sidewalks were filled with children clamouring at "tag," "I-spy," or "run-sheep-run." Girls in shirt-waists and young men in flannel suits promenaded to and fro. Visits were exchanged from "stoop" to "stoop," lemonade was served, and claret punch. In their armchairs on the top step, elderly men, householders, capitalists, well-to-do, their large stomachs covered with white waistcoats, their straw hats upon their knees, smoked very fragrant cigars in silent enjoyment, digesting their dinners, taking the air after the grime and hurry of the business districts.
It was on such an evening as this, well on towards the last days of the spring, that Laura Dearborn and Page joined the Cresslers and their party, sitting out like other residents of the neighbourhood on the front steps of their house. Almost every evening nowadays the Dearborn girls came thus to visit with the Cresslers. Sometimes Page brought her mandolin.
Every day of the warm weather seemed only to increase the beauty of the two sisters. Page's brown hair was never more luxuriant, the exquisite colouring of her cheeks never more charming, the boyish outlines of her small, straight figure—immature and a little angular as yet—never more delightful. The seriousness of her straight-browed, grave, grey-blue eyes was still present, but the eyes themselves were, in some indefinable way, deepening, and all the maturity that as yet was withheld from her undeveloped little form looked out from beneath her long lashes.
But Laura was veritably regal. Very slender as yet, no trace of fulness to be seen over hip or breast, the curves all low and flat, she yet carried her extreme height with tranquil confidence, the unperturbed assurance of a chatelaine of the days of feudalism.
Her coal-black hair, high-piled, she wore as if it were a coronet. The warmth of the exuberant spring days had just perceptibly mellowed the even paleness of her face, but to compensate for this all the splendour of coming midsummer nights flashed from her deep-brown eyes.
On this occasion she had put on her coat over her shirt-waist, and a great bunch of violets was tucked into her belt. But no sooner had she exchanged greetings with the others and settled herself in her place than she slipped her coat from her shoulders.
It was while she was doing this that she noted, for the first time, Landry Court standing half in and half out of the shadow of the vestibule behind Mr. Cressler's chair.
"This is the first time he has been here since—since that night," Mrs. Cressler hastened to whisper in Laura's ear. "He told me about—well, he told me what occurred, you know. He came to dinner to-night, and afterwards the poor boy nearly wept in my arms. You never saw such penitence."
Laura put her chin in the air with a little movement of incredulity. But her anger had long since been a thing of the past. Good-tempered, she could not cherish resentment very long. But as yet she had greeted Landry only by the briefest of nods.
"Such a warm night!" she murmured, fanning herself with part of Mr. Cressler's evening paper. "And I never was so thirsty."
"Why, of course," exclaimed Mrs. Cressler. "Isabel," she called, addressing Miss Gretry, who sat on the opposite side of the steps, "isn't the lemonade near you? Fill a couple of glasses for Laura and Page."
Page murmured her thanks, but Laura declined.
"No; just plain water for me," she said. "Isn't there some inside? Mr. Court can get it for me, can't he?" Landry brought the pitcher back, running at top speed and spilling half of it in his eagerness. Laura thanked him with a smile, addressing him, however, by his last name. She somehow managed to convey to him in her manner the information that though his offence was forgotten, their old-time relations were not, for one instant, to be resumed.
Later on, while Page was thrumming her mandolin, Landry whistling a "second," Mrs. Cressler took occasion to remark to Laura:
"I was reading the Paris letter in the 'Inter-Ocean' to-day, and I saw Mr. Corthell's name on the list of American arrivals at the Continental. I guess," she added, "he's going to be gone a long time. I wonder sometimes if he will ever come back. A fellow with his talent, I should imagine would find Chicago—well, less congenial, anyhow, than Paris. But, just the same, I do think it was mean of him to break up our play by going. I'll bet a cookie that he wouldn't take part any more just because you wouldn't. He was just crazy to do that love scene in the fourth act with you. And when you wouldn't play, of course he wouldn't; and then everybody seemed to lose interest with you two out. 'J.' took it all very decently though, don't you think?"
Laura made a murmur of mild assent.
"He was disappointed, too," continued Mrs. Cressler. "I could see that. He thought the play was going to interest a lot of our church people in his Sunday-school. But he never said a word when it fizzled out. Is he coming to-night?"
"Well I declare," said Laura. "How should I know, if you don't?"
Jadwin was an almost regular visitor at the Cresslers' during the first warm evenings. He lived on the South Side, and the distance between his home and that of the Cresslers was very considerable. It was seldom, however, that Jadwin did not drive over. He came in his double-seated buggy, his negro coachman beside him the two coach dogs, "Rex" and "Rox," trotting under the rear axle. His horses were not showy, nor were they made conspicuous by elaborate boots, bandages, and all the other solemn paraphernalia of the stable, yet men upon the sidewalks, amateurs, breeders, and the like—men who understood good stock—never failed to stop to watch the team go by, heads up, the check rein swinging loose, ears all alert, eyes all alight, the breath deep, strong, and slow, and the stride, machine-like, even as the swing of a metronome, thrown out from the shoulder to knee, snapped on from knee to fetlock, from fetlock to pastern, finishing squarely, beautifully, with the thrust of the hoof, planted an instant, then, as it were, flinging the roadway behind it, snatched up again, and again cast forward.
On these occasions Jadwin himself inevitably wore a black "slouch" hat, suggestive of the general of the Civil War, a grey "dust overcoat" with a black velvet collar, and tan gloves, discoloured with the moisture of his palms and all twisted and crumpled with the strain of holding the thoroughbreds to their work.
He always called the time of the trip from the buggy at the Cresslers' horse block, his stop watch in his hand, and, as he joined the groups upon the steps, he was almost sure to remark: "Tugs were loose all the way from the river. They pulled the whole rig by the reins. My hands are about dislocated."
"Page plays very well," murmured Mrs. Cressler as the young girl laid down her mandolin. "I hope J. does come to-night," she added. "I love to have him 'round. He's so hearty and whole-souled."
Laura did not reply. She seemed a little preoccupied this evening, and conversation in the group died away. The night was very beautiful, serene, quiet; and, at this particular hour of the end of the twilight, no one cared to talk much. Cressler lit another cigar, and the filaments of delicate blue smoke hung suspended about his head in the moveless air. Far off, from the direction of the mouth of the river, a lake steamer whistled a prolonged tenor note. Somewhere from an open window in one of the neighbouring houses a violin, accompanied by a piano, began to elaborate the sustained phrases of "Schubert's Serenade." Theatrical as was the theme, the twilight and the muffled hum of the city, lapsing to quiet after the febrile activities of the day, combined to lend it a dignity, a persuasiveness. The children were still playing along the sidewalks, and their staccato gaiety was part of the quiet note to which all sounds of the moment seemed chorded.
After a while Mrs. Cressler began to talk to Laura in a low voice. She and Charlie were going to spend a part of June at Oconomowoc, in Wisconsin. Why could not Laura make up her mind to come with them? She had asked Laura a dozen times already, but couldn't get a yes or no answer from her. What was the reason she could not decide? Didn't she think she would have a good time?
"Page can go," said Laura. "I would like to have you take her. But as for me, I don't know. My plans are so unsettled this summer." She broke off suddenly. "Oh, now, that I think of it, I want to borrow your 'Idylls of the King.' May I take it for a day or two? I'll run in and get it now," she added as she rose. "I know just where to find it. No, please sit still, Mr. Cressler. I'll go."
And with the words she disappeared in doors, leaving Mrs. Cressler to murmur to her husband:
"Strange girl. Sometimes I think I don't know Laura at all. She's so inconsistent. How funny she acts about going to Oconomowoc with us!"
Mr. Cressler permitted himself an amiable grunt of protest.
"Pshaw! Laura's all right. The handsomest girl in Cook County."
"Well, that's not much to do with it, Charlie," sighed Mrs. Cressler. "Oh, dear," she added vaguely. "I don't know."
"Don't know what?"
"I hope Laura's life will be happy."
"Oh, for God's sake, Carrie!"
"There's something about that girl," continued Mrs. Cressler, "that makes my heart bleed for her."
Cressler frowned, puzzled and astonished.
"Hey—what!" he exclaimed. "You're crazy, Carrie!"
"Just the same," persisted Mrs. Cressler, "I just yearn towards her sometimes like a mother. Some people are born to trouble, Charlie; born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward. And you mark my words, Charlie Cressler, Laura is that sort. There's all the pathos in the world in just the way she looks at you from under all that black, black hair, and out of her eyes the saddest eyes sometimes, great, sad, mournful eyes."
"Fiddlesticks!" said Mr. Cressler, resuming his paper.
"I'm positive that Sheldon Corthell asked her to marry him," mused Mrs. Cressler after a moment's silence. "I'm sure that's why he left so suddenly."
Her husband grunted grimly as he turned his paper so as to catch the reflection of the vestibule light.
"Don't you think so, Charlie?"
"Uh! I don't know. I never had much use for that fellow, anyhow."
"He's wonderfully talented," she commented, "and so refined. He always had the most beautiful manners. Did you ever notice his hands?"
"I thought they were like a barber's. Put him in 'J.'s' rig there, behind those horses of his, and how long do you suppose he'd hold those trotters with that pair of hands? Why," he blustered, suddenly, "they'd pull him right over the dashboard."
"Poor little Landry Court!" murmured his wife, lowering her voice. "He's just about heart-broken. He wanted to marry her too. My goodness, she must have brought him up with a round turn. I can see Laura when she is really angry. Poor fellow!"
"If you women would let that boy alone, he might amount to something."
"He told me his life was ruined."
Cressler threw his cigar from him with vast impatience.
"Oh, rot!" he muttered.
"He took it terribly, seriously, Charlie, just the same."
"I'd like to take that young boy in hand and shake some of the nonsense out of him that you women have filled him with. He's got a level head. On the floor every day, and never yet bought a hatful of wheat on his own account. Don't know the meaning of speculation and don't want to. There's a boy with some sense."
"It's just as well," persisted Mrs. Cressler reflectively, "that Laura wouldn't have him. Of course they're not made for each other. But I thought that Corthell would have made her happy. But she won't ever marry 'J.' He asked her to; she didn't tell me, but I know he did. And she's refused him flatly. She won't marry anybody, she says. Said she didn't love anybody, and never would. I'd have loved to have seen her married to 'J.,' but I can see now that they wouldn't have been congenial; and if Laura wouldn't have Sheldon Corthell, who was just made for her, I guess it was no use to expect she'd have 'J.' Laura's got a temperament, and she's artistic, and loves paintings, and poetry, and Shakespeare, and all that, and Curtis don't care for those things at all. They wouldn't have had anything in common. But Corthell—that was different. And Laura did care for him, in a way. He interested her immensely. When he'd get started on art subjects Laura would just hang on every word. My lands, I wouldn't have gone away if I'd been in his boots. You mark my words, Charlie, there was the man for Laura Dearborn, and she'll marry him yet, or I'll miss my guess."
"That's just like you, Carrie—you and the rest of the women," exclaimed Cressler, "always scheming to marry each other off. Why don't you let the girl alone? Laura's all right. She minds her own business, and she's perfectly happy. But you'd go to work and get up a sensation about her, and say that your 'heart bleeds for her,' and that she's born to trouble, and has sad eyes. If she gets into trouble it'll be because some one else makes it for her. You take my advice, and let her paddle her own canoe. She's got the head to do it; don't you worry about that. By the way—" Cressler interrupted himself, seizing the opportunity to change the subject. "By the way, Carrie, Curtis has been speculating again. I'm sure of it."
"Too bad," she murmured.
"So it is," Cressler went on. "He and Gretry are thick as thieves these days. Gretry, I understand, has been selling September wheat for him all last week, and only this morning they closed out another scheme—some corn game. It was all over the Floor just about closing time. They tell me that Curtis landed between eight and ten thousand. Always seems to win. I'd give a lot to keep him out of it; but since his deal in May wheat he's been getting into it more and more."
"Did he sell that property on Washington Street?" she inquired.
"Oh," exclaimed her husband, "I'd forgot. I meant to tell you. No, he didn't sell it. But he did better. He wouldn't sell, and those department store people took a lease. Guess what they pay him. Three hundred thousand a year. 'J.' is getting richer all the time, and why he can't be satisfied with his own business instead of monkeying 'round La Salle Street is a mystery to me."
But, as Mrs. Cressler was about to reply, Laura came to the open window of the parlour.
"Oh, Mrs. Cressler," she called, "I don't seem to find your 'Idylls' after all. I thought they were in the little book-case."
"Wait. I'll find them for you," exclaimed Mrs. Cressler.
"Would you mind?" answered Laura, as Mrs. Cressler rose.
Inside, the gas had not been lighted. The library was dark and cool, and when Mrs. Cressler had found the book for Laura the girl pleaded a headache as an excuse for remaining within. The two sat down by the raised sash of a window at the side of the house, that overlooked the "side yard," where the morning-glories and nasturtiums were in full bloom.
"The house is cooler, isn't it?" observed Mrs. Cressler.
Laura settled herself in her wicker chair, and with a gesture that of late had become habitual with her pushed her heavy coils of hair to one side and patted them softly to place.
"It is getting warmer, I do believe," she said, rather listlessly. "I understand it is to be a very hot summer." Then she added, "I'm to be married in July, Mrs. Cressler."
Mrs. Cressler gasped, and sitting bolt upright stared for one breathless instant at Laura's face, dimly visible in the darkness. Then, stupefied, she managed to vociferate:
"What! Laura! Married? My darling girl!"
"Yes," answered Laura calmly. "In July—or maybe sooner."
"Why, I thought you had rejected Mr. Corthell. I thought that's why he went away."
"Went away? He never went away. I mean it's not Mr. Corthell. It's Mr. Jadwin."
"Thank God!" declared Mrs. Cressler fervently, and with the words kissed Laura on both cheeks. "My dear, dear child, you can't tell how glad I am. From the very first I've said you were made for one another. And I thought all the time that you'd told him you wouldn't have him."
"I did," said Laura. Her manner was quiet. She seemed a little grave. "I told him I did not love him. Only last week I told him so."
"Well, then, why did you promise?"
"My goodness!" exclaimed Laura, with a show of animation. "You don't realize what it's been. Do you suppose you can say 'no' to that man?"
"Of course not, of course not," declared Mrs. Cressler joyfully. "That's 'J.' all over. I might have known he'd have you if he set out to do it."
"Morning, noon, and night," Laura continued. "He seemed willing to wait as long as I wasn't definite; but one day I wrote to him and gave him a square 'No,' so as he couldn't mistake, and just as soon as I'd said that he—he—began. I didn't have any peace until I'd promised him, and the moment I had promised he had a ring on my finger. He'd had it ready in his pocket for weeks it seems. No," she explained, as Mrs. Cressler laid her fingers upon her left hand, "That I would not have—yet."
"Oh, it was like 'J.' to be persistent," repeated Mrs. Cressler.
"Persistent!" murmured Laura. "He simply wouldn't talk of anything else. It was making him sick, he said. And he did have a fever—often. But he would come out to see me just the same. One night, when it was pouring rain—Well, I'll tell you. He had been to dinner with us, and afterwards, in the drawing-room, I told him 'no' for the hundredth time just as plainly as I could, and he went away early—it wasn't eight. I thought that now at last he had given up. But he was back again before ten the same evening. He said he had come back to return a copy of a book I had loaned him—'Jane Eyre' it was. Raining! I never saw it rain as it did that night. He was drenched, and even at dinner he had had a low fever. And then I was sorry for him. I told him he could come to see me again. I didn't propose to have him come down with pneumonia, or typhoid, or something. And so it all began over again."
"But you loved him, Laura?" demanded Mrs. Cressler. "You love him now?"
Laura was silent. Then at length:
"I don't know," she answered.
"Why, of course you love him, Laura," insisted Mrs. Cressler. "You wouldn't have promised him if you hadn't. Of course you love him, don't you?"
"Yes, I—I suppose I must love him, or—as you say—I wouldn't have promised to marry him. He does everything, every little thing I say. He just seems to think of nothing else but to please me from morning until night. And when I finally said I would marry him, why, Mrs. Cressler, he choked all up, and the tears ran down his face, and all he could say was, 'May God bless you! May God bless you!' over and over again, and his hand shook so that—Oh, well," she broke off abruptly. Then added, "Somehow it makes tears come to my eyes to think of it."
"But, Laura," urged Mrs. Cressler, "you love Curtis, don't you? You—you're such a strange girl sometimes. Dear child, talk to me as though I were your mother. There's no one in the world loves you more than I do. You love Curtis, don't you?"
Laura hesitated a long moment.
"Yes," she said, slowly at length. "I think I love him very much—sometimes. And then sometimes I think I don't. I can't tell. There are days when I'm sure of it, and there are others when I wonder if I want to be married, after all. I thought when love came it was to be—oh, uplifting, something glorious like Juliet's love or Marguerite's. Something that would—" Suddenly she struck her hand to her breast, her fingers shut tight, closing to a fist. "Oh, something that would shake me all to pieces. I thought that was the only kind of love there was."
"Oh, that's what you read about in trashy novels," Mrs. Cressler assured her, "or the kind you see at the matinees. I wouldn't let that bother me, Laura. There's no doubt that 'J.' loves you."
Laura brightened a little. "Oh, no," she answered, "there's no doubt about that. It's splendid, that part of it. He seems to think there's nothing in the world too good for me. Just imagine, only yesterday I was saying something about my gloves, I really forget what—something about how hard it was for me to get the kind of gloves I liked. Would you believe it, he got me to give him my measure, and when I saw him in the evening he told me he had cabled to Brussels to some famous glovemaker and had ordered I don't know how many pairs."
"Just like him, just like him!" cried Mrs. Cressler. "I know you will be happy, Laura, dear. You can't help but be with a man who loves you as 'J.' does."
"I think I shall be happy," answered Laura, suddenly grave. "Oh, Mrs. Cressler, I want to be. I hope that I won't come to myself some day, after it is too late, and find that it was all a mistake." Her voice shook a little. "You don't know how nervous I am these days. One minute I am one kind of girl, and the next another kind. I'm so nervous and—oh, I don't know. Oh, I guess it will be all right." She wiped her eyes, and laughed a note. "I don't see why I should cry about it," she murmured.
"Well, Laura," answered Mrs. Cressler, "if you don't love Curtis, don't marry him. That's very simple."
"It's like this, Mrs. Cressler," Laura explained. "I suppose I am very uncharitable and unchristian, but I like the people that like me, and I hate those that don't like me. I can't help it. I know it's wrong, but that's the way I am. And I love to be loved. The man that would love me the most would make me love him. And when Mr. Jadwin seems to care so much, and do so much, and—you know how I mean; it does make a difference of course. I suppose I care as much for Mr. Jadwin as I ever will care for any man. I suppose I must be cold and unemotional."
Mrs. Cressler could not restrain a movement of surprise.
"You unemotional? Why, I thought you just said, Laura, that you had imagined love would be like Juliet and like that girl in 'Faust'—that it was going to shake you all to pieces."
"Did I say that? Well, I told you I was one girl one minute and another another. I don't know myself these days. Oh, hark," she said, abruptly, as the cadence of hoofs began to make itself audible from the end of the side street. "That's the team now. I could recognise those horses' trot as far as I could hear it. Let's go out. I know he would like to have me there when he drives up. And you know"—she put her hand on Mrs. Cressler's arm as the two moved towards the front door—"this is all absolutely a secret as yet."
"Why, of course, Laura dear. But tell me just one thing more," Mrs. Cressler asked, in a whisper, "are you going to have a church wedding?"
"Hey, Carrie," called Mr. Cressler from the stoop, "here's J."
Laura shook her head.
"No, I want it to be very quiet—at our house. We'll go to Geneva Lake for the summer. That's why, you see, I couldn't promise to go to Oconomowoc with you."
They came out upon the front steps, Mrs. Cressler's arm around Laura's waist. It was dark by now, and the air was perceptibly warmer.
The team was swinging down the street close at hand, the hoof beats exactly timed, as if there were but one instead of two horses.
"Well, what's the record to-night J.?" cried Cressler, as Jadwin brought the bays to a stand at the horse block. Jadwin did not respond until he had passed the reins to the coachman, and taking the stop watch from the latter's hand, he drew on his cigar, and held the glowing tip to the dial.
"Eleven minutes and a quarter," he announced, "and we had to wait for the bridge at that."
He came up the steps, fanning himself with his slouch hat, and dropped into the chair that Landry had brought for him.
"Upon my word," he exclaimed, gingerly drawing off his driving gloves, "I've no feeling in my fingers at all. Those fellows will pull my hands clean off some day."
But he was hardly settled in his place before he proposed to send the coachman home, and to take Laura for a drive towards Lincoln Park, and even a little way into the park itself. He promised to have her back within an hour.
"I haven't any hat," objected Laura. "I should love to go, but I ran over here to-night without any hat."
"Well, I wouldn't let that stand in my way, Laura," protested Mrs. Cressler. "It will be simply heavenly in the Park on such a night as this."
In the end Laura borrowed Page's hat, and Jadwin took her away. In the light of the street lamps Mrs. Cressler and the others watched them drive off, sitting side by side behind the fine horses. Jadwin, broad-shouldered, a fresh cigar in his teeth, each rein in a double turn about his large, hard hands; Laura, slim, erect, pale, her black, thick hair throwing a tragic shadow low upon her forehead.
"A fine-looking couple," commented Mr. Cressler as they disappeared.
The hoof beats died away, the team vanished. Landry Court, who stood behind the others, watching, turned to Mrs. Cressler. She thought she detected a little unsteadiness in his voice, but he repeated bravely:
"Yes, yes, that's right. They are a fine, a—a fine-looking couple together, aren't they? A fine-looking couple, to say the least."
A week went by, then two, soon May had passed. On the fifteenth of that month Laura's engagement to Curtis Jadwin was formally announced. The day of the wedding was set for the first week in June.
During this time Laura was never more changeable, more puzzling. Her vivacity seemed suddenly to have been trebled, but it was invaded frequently by strange reactions and perversities that drove her friends and family to distraction.
About a week after her talk with Mrs. Cressler, Laura broke the news to Page. It was a Monday morning. She had spent the time since breakfast in putting her bureau drawers to rights, scattering sachet powders in them, then leaving them open so as to perfume the room. At last she came into the front "upstairs sitting-room," a heap of gloves, stockings, collarettes—the odds and ends of a wildly disordered wardrobe—in her lap. She tumbled all these upon the hearth rug, and sat down upon the floor to sort them carefully. At her little desk near by, Page, in a blue and white shirt waist and golf skirt, her slim little ankles demurely crossed, a cone of foolscap over her forearm to guard against ink spots, was writing in her journal. This was an interminable affair, voluminous, complex, that the young girl had kept ever since she was fifteen. She wrote in it—she hardly knew what—the small doings of the previous day, her comings and goings, accounts of dances, estimates of new acquaintances. But besides this she filled page after page with "impressions," "outpourings," queer little speculations about her soul, quotations from poets, solemn criticisms of new novels, or as often as not mere purposeless meanderings of words, exclamatory, rhapsodic—involved lucubrations quite meaningless and futile, but which at times she re-read with vague thrills of emotion and mystery.
On this occasion Page wrote rapidly and steadily for a few moments after Laura's entrance into the room. Then she paused, her eyes growing wide and thoughtful. She wrote another line and paused again. Seated on the floor, her hands full of gloves, Laura was murmuring to herself.
"Those are good ... and those, and the black suedes make eight.... And if I could only find the mate to this white one.... Ah, here it is. That makes nine, nine pair."
She put the gloves aside, and turning to the stockings drew one of the silk ones over her arm, and spread out her fingers in the foot.
"Oh, dear," she whispered, "there's a thread started, and now it will simply run the whole length...."
Page's scratching paused again.
"Laura," she asked dreamily, "Laura, how do you spell 'abysmal'?"
"With a y, honey," answered Laura, careful not to smile.
"Oh, Laura," asked Page, "do you ever get very, very sad without knowing why?"
"No, indeed," answered her sister, as she peeled the stocking from her arm. "When I'm sad I know just the reason, you may be sure."
Page sighed again.
"Oh, I don't know," she murmured indefinitely. "I lie awake at night sometimes and wish I were dead."
"You mustn't get morbid, honey," answered her older sister calmly. "It isn't natural for a young healthy little body like you to have such gloomy notions."
"Last night," continued Page, "I got up out of bed and sat by the window a long time. And everything was so still and beautiful, and the moonlight and all—and I said right out loud to myself,
"My breath to Heaven in vapour goes—
You know those lines from Tennyson:
"My breath to Heaven in vapour goes, May my soul follow soon."
I said it right out loud just like that, and it was just as though something in me had spoken. I got my journal and wrote down, 'Yet in a few days, and thee, the all-beholding sun shall see no more.' It's from Thanatopsis, you know, and I thought how beautiful it would be to leave all this world, and soar and soar, right up to higher planes and be at peace. Laura, dearest, do you think I ever ought to marry?"
"Why not, girlie? Why shouldn't you marry. Of course you'll marry some day, if you find—"
"I should like to be a nun," Page interrupted, shaking her head, mournfully.
"—if you find the man who loves you," continued Laura, "and whom you—you admire and respect—whom you love. What would you say, honey, if—if your sister, if I should be married some of these days?"
Page wheeled about in her chair.
"Oh, Laura, tell me," she cried, "are you joking? Are you going to be married? Who to? I hadn't an idea, but I thought—I suspected."
"Well," observed Laura, slowly, "I might as well tell you—some one will if I don't—Mr. Jadwin wants me to marry him."
"And what did you say? What did you say? Oh, I'll never tell. Oh, Laura, tell me all about it."
"Well, why shouldn't I marry him? Yes—I promised. I said yes. Why shouldn't I? He loves me, and he is rich. Isn't that enough?"
"Oh, no. It isn't. You must love—you do love him?"
"I? Love? Pooh!" cried Laura. "Indeed not. I love nobody."
"Oh, Laura," protested Page earnestly. "Don't, don't talk that way. You mustn't. It's wicked."
Laura put her head in the air.
"I wouldn't give any man that much satisfaction. I think that is the way it ought to be. A man ought to love a woman more than she loves him. It ought to be enough for him if she lets him give her everything she wants in the world. He ought to serve her like the old knights—give up his whole life to satisfy some whim of hers; and it's her part, if she likes, to be cold and distant. That's my idea of love."
"Yes, but they weren't cold and proud to their knights after they'd promised to marry them," urged Page. "They loved them in the end, and married them for love."
"Oh, 'love'!" mocked Laura. "I don't believe in love. You only get your ideas of it from trashy novels and matinees. Girlie," cried Laura, "I am going to have the most beautiful gowns. They're the last things that Miss Dearborn shall buy for herself, and"—she fetched a long breath—"I tell you they are going to be creations."
When at length the lunch bell rang Laura jumped to her feet, adjusting her coiffure with thrusts of her long, white hands, the fingers extended, and ran from the room exclaiming that the whole morning had gone and that half her bureau drawers were still in disarray.
Page, left alone, sat for a long time lost in thought, sighing deeply at intervals, then at last she wrote in her journal:
"A world without Love—oh, what an awful thing that would be. Oh, love is so beautiful—so beautiful, that it makes me sad. When I think of love in all its beauty I am sad, sad like Romola in George Eliot's well-known novel of the same name."
She locked up her journal in the desk drawer, and wiped her pen point until it shone, upon a little square of chamois skin. Her writing-desk was a miracle of neatness, everything in its precise place, the writing-paper in geometrical parallelograms, the pen tray neatly polished.
On the hearth rug, where Laura had sat, Page's searching eye discovered traces of her occupancy—a glove button, a white thread, a hairpin. Page was at great pains to gather them up carefully and drop them into the waste basket.
"Laura is so fly-away," she observed, soberly.
When Laura told the news to Aunt Wess' the little old lady showed no surprise.
"I've been expecting it of late," she remarked. "Well, Laura, Mr. Jadwin is a man of parts. Though, to tell the truth, I thought at first it was to be that Mr. Corthell. He always seemed so distinguished-looking and elegant. I suppose now that that young Mr. Court will have a regular conniption fit."
"Oh, Landry," murmured Laura.
"Where are you going to live, Laura? Here? My word, child, don't be afraid to tell me I must pack. Why, bless you."
"No, no," exclaimed Laura, energetically, "you are to stay right here. We'll talk it all over just as soon as I know more decidedly what our plans are to be. No, we won't live here. Mr. Jadwin is going to buy a new house—on the corner of North Avenue and State Street. It faces Lincoln Park—you know it, the Farnsworth place."
"Why, my word, Laura," cried Aunt Wess' amazed, "why, it's a palace! Of course I know it. Why, it takes in the whole block, child, and there's a conservatory pretty near as big as this house. Well!"
"Yes, I know," answered Laura, shaking her head. "It takes my breath away sometimes. Mr. Jadwin tells me there's an art gallery, too, with an organ in it—a full-sized church organ. Think of it. Isn't it beautiful, beautiful? Isn't it a happiness? And I'll have my own carriage and coupe, and oh, Aunt Wess', a saddle horse if I want to, and a box at the opera, and a country place—that is to be bought day after to-morrow. It's at Geneva Lake. We're to go there after we are married, and Mr. Jadwin has bought the dearest, loveliest, daintiest little steam yacht. He showed the photograph of her yesterday. Oh, honey, honey! It all comes over me sometimes. Think, only a year ago, less than that, I was vegetating there at Barrington, among those wretched old blue-noses, helping Martha with the preserves and all and all; and now"—she threw her arms wide—"I'm just going to live. Think of it, that beautiful house, and servants, and carriages, and paintings, and, oh, honey, how I will dress the part!"
"But I wouldn't think of those things so much, Laura," answered Aunt Wess', rather seriously. "Child, you are not marrying him for carriages and organs and saddle horses and such. You're marrying this Mr. Jadwin because you love him. Aren't you?"
"Oh," cried Laura, "I would marry a ragamuffin if he gave me all these things—gave them to me because he loved me."
Aunt Wess' stared. "I wouldn't talk that way, Laura," she remarked. "Even in fun. At least not before Page."
That same evening Jadwin came to dinner with the two sisters and their aunt. The usual evening drive with Laura was foregone for this occasion. Jadwin had stayed very late at his office, and from there was to come direct to the Dearborns. Besides that, Nip—the trotters were named Nip and Tuck—was lame.
As early as four o'clock in the afternoon Laura, suddenly moved by an unreasoning caprice, began to prepare an elaborate toilet. Not since the opera night had she given so much attention to her appearance. She sent out for an extraordinary quantity of flowers; flowers for the table, flowers for Page and Aunt Wess', great "American beauties" for her corsage, and a huge bunch of violets for the bowl in the library. She insisted that Page should wear her smartest frock, and Mrs. Wessels her grenadine of great occasions. As for herself, she decided upon a dinner gown of black, decollete, with sleeves of lace. Her hair she dressed higher than ever. She resolved upon wearing all her jewelry, and to that end put on all her rings, secured the roses in place with an amethyst brooch, caught up the little locks at the back of her head with a heart-shaped pin of tiny diamonds, and even fastened the ribbon of satin that girdled her waist, with a clasp of flawed turquoises.
Until five in the afternoon she was in the gayest spirits, and went down to the dining-room to supervise the setting of the table, singing to herself.
Then, almost at the very last, when Jadwin might be expected at any moment, her humour changed again, and again, for no discoverable reason.
Page, who came into her sister's room after dressing, to ask how she looked, found her harassed and out of sorts. She was moody, spoke in monosyllables, and suddenly declared that the wearing anxiety of house-keeping was driving her to distraction. Of all days in the week, why had Jadwin chosen this particular one to come to dinner. Men had no sense, could not appreciate a woman's difficulties. Oh, she would be glad when the evening was over.
Then, as an ultimate disaster, she declared that she herself looked "Dutchy." There was no style, no smartness to her dress; her hair was arranged unbecomingly; she was growing thin, peaked. In a word, she looked "Dutchy."