AUNT JANE'S NIECES IN SOCIETY
EDITH VAN DYNE
LIST OF CHAPTERS
I UNCLE JOHN'S DUTY II A QUESTION OF "PULL" III DIANA IV THE THREE NIECES V PREPARING FOR THE PLUNGE VI THE FLY IN THE BROTH VII THE HERO ENTERS AND TROUBLE BEGINS VIII OPENING THE CAMPAIGN IX THE VON TAER PEARLS X MISLED XI LIMOUSINE XII FOGERTY XIII DIANA REVOLTS XIV A COOL ENCOUNTER XV A BEWILDERING EXPERIENCE XVI MADAME CERISE, CUSTODIAN XVII THE MYSTERY DEEPENS XVIII A RIFT IN THE CLOUDS XIX POLITIC REPENTANCE XX A TELEPHONE CALL XXI THE UNEXPECTED HAPPENS XXII GONE XXIII THE CRISIS XXIV A MATTER OF COURSE
UNCLE JOHN'S DUTY
"You're not doing your duty by those girls, John Merrick!"
The gentleman at whom this assertion was flung in a rather angry tone did not answer his sister-in-law. He sat gazing reflectively at the pattern in the rug and seemed neither startled nor annoyed. Mrs. Merrick, a pink-cheeked middle-aged lady attired in an elaborate morning gown, knitted her brows severely as she regarded the chubby little man opposite; then, suddenly remembering that the wrinkles might leave their dreadful mark on her carefully rolled and massaged features, she banished them with a pass of her ringed hand and sighed dismally.
"It would not have mattered especially had the poor children been left in their original condition of friendless poverty," she said. "They were then like a million other girls, content to struggle for a respectable livelihood and a doubtful position in the lower stratas of social communion. But you interfered. You came into their lives abruptly, appearing from those horrid Western wilds with an amazing accumulation of money and a demand that your three nieces become your special protegees. And what is the result?"
The little man looked up with a charming smile of good humored raillery. His keen gray eyes sparkled as mischievously as a schoolboy's. Softly he rubbed the palms of his hands together, as if enjoying the situation.
"What is it, Martha, my dear? What is the result?" he asked.
"You've raised them from their lowly condition to a sphere in which they reign as queens, the envy of all who know them. You've lavished your millions upon them unsparingly; they are not only presumptive heiresses but already possessed of independent fortunes. Ah, you think you've been generous to these girls; don't you, John Merrick?" "Go on, Martha; go on."
"You've taken them abroad—you took my own daughter, John Merrick, and left me at home!—you've lugged your three nieces to the mountains and carried them to the seashore. You even encouraged them to enlist in an unseemly campaign to elect that young imbecile, Kenneth Forbes, and—"
"Oh, Martha, Martha! Get to the point, if you can. I'm going, presently."
"Not until you've heard me out. You've given your nieces every advantage in your power save one, and the neglect of that one thing renders futile all else you have accomplished."
Now, indeed, her listener seemed perplexed. He passed a hand over his shiny bald head as if to stimulate thought and exorcise bewilderment.
"What is it, then? What have I neglected?" was his mild enquiry.
"To give those girls their proper standing in society."
He started; smiled; then looked grave.
"You're talking foolishly," he said. "Why, confound it, Martha, they're as good girls as ever lived! They're highly respected, and—" "Sir, I refer to Fashionable Society." The capitals indicate the impressive manner in which Mrs. Merrick pronounced those words.
"I guess money makes folks fashionable; don't it, Martha?"
"No, indeed. How ignorant you are, John. Can you not understand that there is a cultured, aristocratic and exclusive Society in New York that millions will not enable one to gain entree to?"
"Oh, is there? Then I'm helpless."
"You are not, sir."
"Eh? I thought you said—"
"Listen, John; and for heaven's sake try for once to be receptive. I am speaking not only for the welfare of my daughter Louise but for Beth and Patricia. Your nieces are charming girls, all three. With the advantages you have given them they may well become social celebrities."
"H-m-m. Would they be happier so?"
"Of course. Every true woman longs for social distinction, especially if it seems difficult to acquire. Nothing is dearer to a girl's heart than to win acceptance by the right social set. And New York society is the most exclusive in America."
"I'm afraid it will continue to exclude our girls, Martha."
"Not if you do your duty, John."
"That reminds me. What is your idea of my duty, Martha? You've been talking in riddles, so far," he protested, shifting uneasily in his chair.
"Let me explain more concisely, then. Your millions, John Merrick, have made you really famous, even in this wealthy metropolis. In the city and at your club you must meet with men who have the entree to the most desirable social circles: men who might be induced to introduce your nieces to their families, whose endorsement would effect their proper presentation."
"It isn't nonsense at all."
"Then blamed if I know what you're driving at."
"You're very obtuse."
"I won't agree to that till I know what 'obtuse' means. See here, Martha; you say this social position, that the girls are so crazy for—but they've never said anything to me about it—can't be bought. In the next breath you urge me to buy it. Phoo! You're a thoughtless, silly woman, Martha, and let your wild ambitions run away with your common sense."
Mrs. Merrick sighed, but stubbornly maintained her position.
"I don't suggest 'buying' such people; not at all, John. It's what is called—ah—ah—'influence'; or, or—"
"Or 'pull.' 'Pull' is a better word, Martha. Do you imagine there's any value in social position that can be acquired by 'pull'?"
"Of course. It has to be acquired some way—if one is not born to it. As a matter of fact, Louise is entitled, through her connection with my family—"
"Pshaw, I knew your family, Martha," he interrupted. "An arrant lot of humbugs."
"Don't get riled. It's the truth. I knew 'em. On her father's side Louise has just as much to brag about—an' no more. We Merricks never amounted to much, an' didn't hanker to trip the light fantastic in swell society. Once, though, when I was a boy, I had a cousin who spelled down the whole crowd at a spellin'-bee. We were quite proud of him then; but he went wrong after his triumph, poor fellow! and became a book agent. Now, Martha, I imagine this talk of yours is all hot air, and worked off on me not because the girls want society, but because you want it for 'em. It's all your ambition, I'll bet a peanut."
"You misjudge me, as usual, John. I am urging a matter of simple justice. Your nieces are lovely girls, fitted to shine in any sphere of life," she continued, knowing his weak point and diplomatically fostering it. "Our girls have youth, accomplishments, money—everything to fit them for social triumphs. The winter season is now approaching; the people are flocking back to town from their country homes; fashionable gaieties and notable events will soon hold full sway. The dear girls are surely entitled to enjoy these things, don't you think? Aren't they worthy the best that life has to offer? And why shouldn't they enter society, if you do your full duty? Once get them properly introduced and they will be able to hold their own with perfect ease. Give me the credit for knowing these things, John, and try to help your nieces to attain their ambition."
"But is it their ambition?" he asked, doubtfully.
"They have not said so in words; but I can assure you it is their ambition, because all three are sensible, spirited, young women, who live in this age and not the one you yourself knew a half century or so ago."
Mr. Merrick sighed and rubbed his head again. Then he slowly rose.
"Mornin', Martha," he said, with a somewhat abstracted nod at his sister-in-law. "This is a new idea to me. I'll think it over."
A QUESTION OF "PULL"
John Merrick's face was not so cheery as usual as he made his way into the city. This suggestion of Martha Merrick's regarding his inattention to duty to his beloved nieces was no easy nut to crack.
He knew his sister-in-law to be a wordly-minded, frivolous woman, with many trivial ambitions; but in this instance he had misgivings that she might be right. What did he, John Merrick, know of select society? A poor man, of humble origin, he had wandered into the infantile, embryo West years ago and there amassed a fortune. When he retired and returned to "civilization" he found his greatest reward In the discovery of three charming nieces, all "as poor as Job's turkey" but struggling along bravely, each in her individual characteristic way, and well worthy their doting uncle's affectionate admiration. Mrs. Merrick had recited some of the advantages they had derived from the advent of this rich relative; but even she could not guess how devoted the man was to the welfare of these three fortunate girls, nor how his kindly, simple heart resented the insinuation that he was neglecting anything that might contribute to their happiness.
Possession of money had never altered John Merrick's native simplicity. He had no extravagant tastes, dressed quietly and lived the life of the people. On this eventful morning the man of millions took a cross-town car to the elevated station and climbed the stairs to his train. Once seated and headed cityward he took out his memorandum book to see what engagements he had for the day. There were three for the afternoon. At twelve o'clock he had promised to meet Von Taer.
"H-m-m. Von Taer."
Gazing reflectively from the window he remembered a conversation with a prominent banker some month or so before. "Von Taer," the banker had said, "is an aristocrat with an independent fortune, who clings to the brokerage business because he inherited it from his father and grandfather. I hold that such a man has no moral right to continue in business. He should retire and give the other fellow a chance."
"Why do you call him an aristocrat?" Mr. Merrick had enquired.
"Because his family is so ancient that it shames the ark itself. I imagine his ancestors might have furnished Noah the lumber to build his ship. In New York the '400' all kowtow to Von Taer."
"Seems to me he has the right to be a broker if he wants to," asserted Mr. Merrick.
"The right; yes. But, between us, Mr. Merrick, this society swell has no mental capacity to handle such an uncertain business. He's noted for doing unwarranted things. To me it's a marvel that Von Taer hasn't shipwrecked the family fortunes long ago. Luck has saved him, not foresight."
That speech of a few weeks ago now seemed prophetic to John Merrick. Within a few days the aristocratic broker had encountered financial difficulties and been forced to appeal to Mr. Merrick, to whom he obtained an introduction through a mutual friend. Von Taer was doubtless solvent, for he controlled large means; but unless a saving hand was extended at this juncture his losses were sure to be severe, and might even cripple him seriously.
All this Mr. Merrick shrewdly considered in the space of a few moments. As he left the train he looked at his watch and found it was barely eleven. He decided not to await the hour of appointment. With his usual brisk stride he walked to Von Taer's offices and was promptly admitted to the broker's sanctum.
Hedrik Von Taer was a fine looking man, tall, grave, of dignified demeanor and courteous manners. He stood until his visitor was seated and with a gesture of deference invited him to open the conversation.
"I've decided to make you the loan, Von Taer," began Mr. Merrick, in his practical, matter-of-fact way. "Three hundred thousand, wasn't it? Call on Major Doyle at my office this afternoon and he'll arrange it for you."
An expression of relief crossed the broker's face.
"You are very kind, sir," he answered. "I assure you I fully appreciate the accommodation."
"Glad to help you," responded the millionaire, briskly. Then he paused with marked abruptness. It occurred to him he had a difficult proposition to make to this man. To avoid the cold, enquiring eyes now fixed upon him he pulled out a cigar and deliberately cut the end. Von Taer furnished him a match. He smoked a while in silence.
"This loan, sir," he finally began, "is freely made. There are no strings tied to it. I don't want you to feel I'm demanding any sort of return. But the truth is, you have it in your power to grant me a favor."
Von Taer bowed.
"Mr. Merrick has generously placed me under an obligation it will afford me pleasure to repay," said he. But his eyes held an uneasy look, nevertheless.
"It's this way," explained the other: "I've three nieces—fine girls, Von Taer—who will some day inherit my money. They are already independent, financially, and they're educated, well-bred and amiable young women. Take my word for it."
"I am sure your statements are justified, Mr. Merrick." Yet Hedrik Von Taer's face, usually unexpressive, denoted blank mystification. What connection could these girls have with the favor to be demanded?
"Got any girls yourself, Von Taer?"
"A daughter, sir. My only child.
"A young lady now, sir."
"Then you'll understand. I'm a plain uneducated man myself. Never been any nearer swell society than a Fifth Avenue stage. My money has given me commercial position, but no social one worth mentioning. Your '400's' a bunch I can't break into, nohow."
A slight smile hovered over the other's lips, but he quickly controlled it.
"They tell me, though," continued the speaker, "that your family has long ago climbed into the top notch of society. You're one o' the big guns in the battery, an' hold the fort against all comers."
Von Taer merely bowed. It was scarcely necessary to either admit or contradict the statement. Uncle John was a little indignant that his companion showed no disposition to assist him in his explanation, which a clear head might now easily comprehend. So, with his usual frankness, he went directly to the point.
"I'd like my girls to get into the best—the most select—circles," he announced. "They're good and pretty and well-mannered, so it strikes me they're entitled to the best there is a-going. I don't want to mix with your swell crowd myself, because I ain't fit; likewise the outfit ain't much to my taste, askin' your pardon; but with women it's different. They need to stand high an' shine bright to make 'em really happy, and if any special lot is particularly ex-clusive an' high-falutin', that's the crowd they long to swarm with. It's human nature—female human nature, anyhow. You catch my idea, Von Taer, don't you?"
"I think so, Mr. Merrick. Yet I fail to see how I can be of service to you in gratifying the ambition of your charming nieces." "Then I'll go, and you may forget what I've said." The visitor arose and took his hat from the table. "It was only a fool notion, anyway; just a thought, badly expressed, to help my girls to a toy that money can't buy."
Hedrik Von Taer gazed steadily into the man's face. There was something in the simple, honest self-abnegation of this wealthy and important person that won the respect of all he met. The broker's stern eyes softened a bit as he gazed and he allowed a fugitive smile, due to his own change of attitude, to wreathe his thin lips again—just for an instant.
"Sit down, please, Mr. Merrick," he requested, and rather reluctantly Uncle John resumed his seat. "You may not have an especially clear idea of New York society, and I want to explain my recent remark so that you will understand it. What is called 'the 400' may or may not exist; but certainly it is no distinct league or association. It may perhaps be regarded as a figure of speech, to indicate how few are really admitted to the most exclusive circles. Moreover, there can be no dominant 'leader of society' here, for the reason that not all grades of society would recognize the supremacy of any one set, or clique. These cliques exist for various reasons. They fraternize generally, but keep well within their own circles. Kindred tastes attract some; ancient lineage others. There is an ultra-fashionable set, a sporting set, a literary set, an aristocratic set, a rather 'fast' set, a theatrical set—and so on. These may all lay claim with certain justice to membership in good society. Their circles are to an extent exclusive, because some distinction must mark the eligibility of members. And outside each luminous sphere hovers a multitude eager to pass the charmed circle and so acquire recognition. Often it is hard to separate the initiate from the uninitiate, even by those most expert. Is it difficult to comprehend such a condition as I have described, Mr. Merrick?"
"Somewhat, Mr. Von Taer. The wonder to me is why people waste time in such foolishness."
"It is the legitimate occupation of many; the folly of unwise ambition impels others. There is a fascination about social life that appeals to the majority of natures. Let us compare society to a mountain whose sides are a steep incline, difficult to mount. To stand upon the summit, to become the cynosure of all eyes, is a desire inherent, seemingly, in all humanity; for humanity loves distinction. In the scramble toward the peak many fall by the wayside; others deceive themselves by imagining they have attained the apex when they are far from it. It is a game, Mr. Merrick, just as business is a game, politics a game, and war a game. You know how few really win."
"Here," said Uncle John, musingly, "is a philosophy I did not expect from you, Von Taer. They tell me you're one who stands on top the peak. And you were born that way, and didn't have to climb. Seems to me you rather scorn the crowd that's trying to climb to an eminence you never had to win. That wouldn't be my way. And I suspect that if the crowd wasn't trying to climb to you, your own position wouldn't be worth a cotton hat."
Von Taer had no answer to this criticism. Perhaps he scarcely heard it, for he appeared lost in a brown study. Finally he said: "Will you permit my daughter to call upon your nieces, Mr. Merrick?"
"Of course, sir."
"Then kindly give me their addresses."
Uncle John wrote them on a slip of paper.
"You may now dismiss the subject from your mind, sir, as you lately advised me to do. Whatever may be accomplished in the direction you have suggested I will gladly undertake. If I succeed it will be exceedingly gratifying to us all, I am sure."
Mr. Merrick left the office in a rather humbled and testy mood. He disliked to ask favors at any time and now felt that he had confided himself to the mercy of this callous aristocrat and met with a distinct rebuff.
But he had done it for the sake of his beloved nieces—and they would never know what humiliation this unsatisfactory interview had cost him.
Diana Von Taer can not be called a type. She was individual. Aristocratic to her finger tips, she was unlike all other aristocrats. An admitted queen of society, her subjects were few and indifferent. She possessed ancient lineage, was highly accomplished, had been born to the purple, as the saying is; but none of these things conspired to make her the curious creature she was.
As we make her acquaintance she is twenty-three years of age—and looks eighteen. She is tall and slender and carries her handsome form with exquisite grace. Diana is never abrupt; her voice is ever modulated to soft, even tones; she rises from a chair or couch with the lithe, sinuous motion of a serpent uncoiling.
Her face, critically regarded, is not so admirable as her form. The features are a trifle too elongated, and their delicacy is marred by a nose a bit broad and unshapely and a mouth with thin lips primly set. Her dark eyes might be magnificent if wide open: but through the narrow slits of their lids, half hidden by long curling lashes, the eyes peer at you with a cold, watchful, intent gaze that carries a certain uncanny and disconcerting fascination.
Yet the girl is essentially feminine. If you refrain from meeting that discomfiting gaze—and her familiars have learned to avoid it—Diana impresses you as being graceful, dainty and possessed of charming manners. Her taste in dress is perfect. She converses fluently on many topics. It is her custom to rise at ten o'clock, whatever time she may have retired the night before; to read until luncheon; to devote the remainder of her day to the requirements of society.
Eligible young men of admitted social standing call upon Diana at such intervals as the proprieties require. They chatter "small talk" and are careful to address her with deference. With an exception to be referred to later these young men have no more thought of "flirting" with Miss Von Taer than they would with the statue of the goddess, her namesake. Her dinner parties and entertainments are very successful. She is greatly admired, per se, but has no intimate friends.
When her mother died, some years before, an aunt had come to live with Diana, and now posed as her chaperon. Mrs. Cameron was a stolid, corpulent lady, with a countenance perpetually placid and an habitual aversion to displaying intellect. Her presence in the establishment, although necessary, was frankly ignored. Fortunately she never obtruded herself.
Hedrik Von Taer was passionately devoted to his daughter. He alone, perhaps, of all the world, thoroughly understood her and appreciated her talents. She may have frightened him at times, but that only added to his admiration. In return Diana displayed a calm, but affectionate regard for her father.
Often after dinner these two would pass an hour together in a corner of the drawing-room, where the cold gray eyes of the man met the intent, half-veiled glance of the girl with perfect understanding. They talked of many things, including business. Hedrik had no secrets from his daughter. The desperate condition of his finances, when he had been caught in a "corner" on wheat and nearly crushed, had not dismayed her in the least. It was she who had counseled him to appeal to John Merrick, since the name and fame of the eccentric millionaire were familiar to her as to him.
He related to Diana his interview with Mr. Merrick on his return home. He was saved. The three hundred thousand were now in the bank to his credit and he could weather the coming storm easily—perhaps with profit. In a tone half amused, half serious, he told her of the little millionaire's desire to secure entree into good society for his three nieces.
Diana laughed with her lips; her eyes never laughed. Then she took in her hand the paper containing the addresses of the three girls and regarded it thoughtfully.
"It is a curious request, mon pere," she said, in her soft, even tones; "but one we cannot diplomatically disregard. Provided, however—"
"Yes, Diana;" as she paused.
"Provided these prospective debutantes are not wholly impossible."
"I realize that," returned her father. "John Merrick is a great power in the city. He has been useful to me, and may be again. I have this chance to win him. But the man is very common clay, despite his wealth, and his three nieces are likely to be made of the same material. Should they prove impossible you cannot well descend to introducing them to our set."
"I am not certain of that, sir," said the girl, with a pretty shrug. "My position is too secure to be jeopardized by any error of this sort. I believe I may introduce these girls without risk. I shall not vouch for them too strongly, and after their debut they must stand or fall on their own merits."
"It is something a Von Taer has never yet done," remarked the man, gravely.
"To commercialize his social position? But, father dear, the age is fast commercializing everything. I think our especial set is as yet comparatively free from contamination by the 'lately rich'; but even among us money has glossed many offenses that a generation ago would have meant social ostracism."
"That is true, Diana."
"Life with me is a bit dull, as well. Everlasting routine, however admirable, is tiresome. I scent amusement in this adventure, which I have decided to undertake. With your permission I will see these girls and quickly decide their fate. Should they prove not too dreadfully outre you may look to see them my especial proteges."
"I leave all to your discretion, Diana," returned Von Taer, with a sigh. "If, in the end, some of the more particular venture to reproach them."
"It will not matter," interrupted the daughter, lightly, as her dark eyes narrowed to a hair's breadth. "Any who dares reproach Diana Von Taer will afford her interesting occupation. And to offset that remote contingency we shall permanently enslave the powerful John Merrick. I understand he is hard as nails in financial matters; but to us the man has disclosed his one weakness—ambition to promote his three nieces. Since we have discovered this vulnerable point, let us take advantage of it. I am satisfied the loan of three hundred thousand was but a lure—and how cleverly the man gauged us!"
Von Taer scowled.
"Get your wraps, Diana. The carriage is waiting, and we are due at Mrs. Doldringham's crush."
THE THREE NIECES
The Von Taers did not affect motor cars. In some circles the carriage and pair is still considered the more aristocratic mode of conveyance. Established customs do not readily give way to fads and freaks.
Consulting her memoranda as she rode along; in her handsome, tastefully appointed equipage, Diana found that Louise Merrick, one of the three girls she had set out to discover, was the nearest on her route. Presently she rang the bell at the Merrick residence, an eminently respectable dwelling; in a desirable neighborhood.
Diana could not resist a sigh of relief as her observant glance noted this detail. A dignified butler ushered her into a reception room and departed with her card.
It was now that the visitor's nose took an upward tendency as she critically examined her surroundings. The furnishings were abominable, a mixture of distressingly new articles with those evidently procured from dealers in "antiquities." Money had been lavished here, but good taste was absent. To understand this—for Miss Von Taer gauged the condition truly—it is necessary to know something of Mrs. Martha Merrick.
This lady, the relict of John Merrick's only brother, was endowed with a mediocre mind and a towering ambition. When left a widow with an only daughter she had schemed and contrived in endless ways to maintain an appearance of competency on a meager income. Finally she divided her capital, derived from her husband's life insurance, into three equal parts, which she determined to squander in three years in an attempt to hoodwink the world with the belief that she was wealthy. Before the three years were ended her daughter Louise would be twenty, and by that time she must have secured a rich parti and been safely married. In return for this "sacrifice" the girl was to see that her mother was made comfortable thereafter.
This worldly and foolish design was confided to Louise when she was only seventeen, and her unformed mind easily absorbed her mother's silly ambition. It was a pity, for Louise Merrick possessed a nature sweet and lovable, as well as instinctively refined—a nature derived from her dead father and with little true sympathy with Mrs. Merrick's unscrupulous schemes. But at that age a girl is easily influenced, so it is little wonder that under such tuition Louise became calculating, sly and deceitful, to a most deplorable degree.
Such acquired traits bade fair in the end to defeat Mrs. Merrick's carefully planned coup, for the daughter had a premature love affair with a youth outside the pale of eligibility. Louise ignored the fact that he had been disinherited by his father, and in her reckless infatuation would have sacrificed her mother without thought or remorse. The dreadful finale had only been averted by the advent of Uncle John Merrick, who had changed the life plans of the widow and her heedless daughter and promptly saved the situation.
John Merrick did not like his sister-in-law, but he was charmed by his lovely niece and took her at once to his affectionate old heart. He saw the faults of Louise clearly, but also appreciated her sweeter qualities. Under his skillful guidance she soon redeemed herself and regained control of her better nature. The girl was not yet perfect, by any means; she was to an extent artificial and secretive, and her thoughtless flirtations were far from wise; but her two cousins and her uncle had come to know and understand her good points. They not only bore patiently with her volatile nature but strove to influence her to demonstrate her inherent good qualities.
In one way her mother's calculating training had been most effective. Louise was not only a dainty, lovely maid to the eye, but her manners were gracious and winning and she had that admirable self-possession which quickly endears one even to casual acquaintances. She did not impress more intimate friends as being wholly sincere, yet there was nothing in her acts, since that one escapade referred to, that merited severe disapproval.
Of course the brilliant idea of foisting her precious daughter upon the "select" society of the metropolis was original with Mrs. Merrick. Louise was well content with things as they were; but not so the mother. The rise from poverty to affluence, the removal of all cares and burdens from her mind, had merely fostered still greater ambitions. Uncle John's generosity had endowed each of his three nieces with an ample fortune. "I want 'em to enjoy the good things of life while they're at an age to enjoy 'em," he said; "for the older one gets the fewer things are found to be enjoyable. That's my experience, anyhow." He also told the girls frankly that they were to inherit jointly—although not equally—his entire fortune. Yet even this glowing prospect did not satisfy Mrs. Merrick. Since all her plans for Louise, from the very beginning, had been founded on personal selfishness, she now proposed to have her daughter gain admission to recognized fashionable society in order that she might herself bask in the reflection of the glory so obtained and take her place with the proud matrons who formed the keystone of such society. After carefully considering ways and means to gain her object she had finally conceived the idea of utilizing Mr. Merrick. She well knew Uncle John would not consider one niece to the exclusion of the others, and had therefore used his influence to get all three girls properly "introduced." Therefore her delight and excitement were intense when the butler brought up Diana's card and she realized that "the perfectly swell Miss Von Taer" was seated in her reception room. She rushed to Louise, who, wholly innocent of any knowledge of the intrigue which had led to this climax, opened her blue eyes in astonishment and said with a gasp:
"Oh, mother! what shall I do?"
"Do? Why, go down and make yourself agreeable, of course. It's your chance, my dear, your great chance in life! Go—go! Don't, for heaven's sake, keep her waiting."
Louise went down. In her most affable and gracious way she approached the visitor and said:
"It is very nice of you to call upon me. I am so glad to meet Miss Von Taer." Diana, passing conversational nothings with the young girl, was pleased by her appearance and self-possession. This aspirant for social honors was fresh, fair and attractive, with a flow of small talk at her tongue's end.
"Really," thought the fastidious visitor, "this one, at least, will do me no discredit. If she is a fair sample of the others we shall get along very nicely In this enterprise."
To Louise she said, before going:
"I'm to have an evening, the nineteenth. Will you assist me to receive? Now that we are acquainted I wish to see more of you, my dear, and I predict we shall get along famously together."
The girl's head swam. Help Miss Von Taer to receive! Such an honor had been undreamed of an hour ago. But she held her natural agitation under good control and only a round red spot Upon each cheek betrayed her inward excitement as she prettily accepted the invitation. Beneath their drooping lashes Diana's sagacious eyes read the thoughts of the girl quite accurately. Miss Von Taer enjoyed disconcerting anyone in any way, and Louise was so simple and unsophisticated that she promised to afford considerable amusement in the future.
By the time Diana had finished her brief call this singular creature had taken the measure of Louise Merrick in every detail, including her assumption of lightness and her various frivolities. She understood that in the girl were capabilities for good or for evil, as she might be led by a stronger will. And, musingly, Diana wondered who would lead her.
As for Louise, she was enraptured by her distinguished visitor's condescension and patronage, and her heart bounded at the thought of being admitted to the envied social coterie in which Diana Von Taer shone a bright, particular star.
The second name in the list of John Merrick's nieces was that of Elizabeth De Graf. She lived at a good private hotel located in an exclusive residence district.
It was true that Elizabeth—or "Beth," as she was more familiarly called—was not a permanent guest at this hotel. When in New York she was accustomed to live with one or the other of her cousins, who welcomed her eagerly. But just now her mother had journeyed from the old Ohio home to visit Beth, and the girl had no intention of inflicting her parent upon the other girls. Therefore she had taken rooms at the hotel temporarily, and the plan suited her mother excellently. For one thing, Mrs. De Graf could go home and tell her Cloverton gossips that she had stopped at the most "fashionable" hotel in New York; a second point was that she loved to feast with epicurean avidity upon the products of a clever chef, being one of those women who live to eat, rather than eat to live.
Mrs. De Graf was John Merrick's only surviving sister, but she differed as widely from the simple, kindly man in disposition as did her ingenious daughter from her in mental attainments. The father, Professor De Graf, was supposed to be a "musical genius." Before Beth came into her money, through Uncle John, the Professor taught the piano and singing; now, however, the daughter allowed her parents a liberal income, and the self-engrossed musician devoted himself to composing oratorios and concertas which no one but himself would ever play. To be quite frank, the girl cared little for her gross and selfish parents, and they in turn cared little for her beyond the value she afforded them in the way of dollars and cents. So she had not lived at home, where constant quarrels and bickerings nearly drove her frantic, since Uncle John had adopted her. In catering to this present whim of her mother, who longed to spend a few luxurious weeks in New York, Beth sacrificed more than might be imagined by one unacquainted with her sad family history.
Whimsical Major Doyle often called Uncle John's nieces "the Three Graces"; but Beth was by odds the beauty of them all. Splendid brown eyes, added to an exquisite complexion, almost faultless features and a superb carriage, rendered this fair young girl distinguished in any throng. Fortunately she was as yet quite unspoiled, being saved from vanity by a morbid consciousness of her inborn failings and a sincere loathing for the moral weakness that prevented her from correcting those faults. Judging Beth by the common standard of girls of her age, both failings and faults were more imaginary than real; yet it was her characteristic to suspect and despise in herself such weaknesses as others would condone, or at least regard leniently. For here was a girl true and staunch, incapable of intrigue or deceit, frank and outspoken, all these qualities having been proven more than once. Everyone loved Beth De Graf save herself, and at this stage of her development the influence of her cousins and of Uncle John had conspired to make the supersensitive girl more tolerant of herself and less morbid than formerly.
I think Beth knew of Diana Von Taer, for the latter's portrait frequently graced the society columns of the New York press and at times the three nieces, in confidential mood, would canvass Diana and her social exploits as they did the acts of other famous semi-public personages. But the girl had never dreamed of meeting such a celebrity, and Miss Von Taer's card filled her with curious wonder as to the errand that had brought her.
The De Grafs lived en suite at the hotel, for Beth had determined to surround her Sybaritic mother with all attainable luxury, since the child frequently reproached herself with feeling a distinct repulsion for the poor woman. So to-day Diana was ushered into a pretty parlor where Beth stood calmly awaiting her.
The two regarded one another in silence a moment, Miss De Graf's frank eyes covering the other with a comprehensive sweep while Miss Von Taer's narrowed gaze, profoundly observant, studied the beautiful girl before her with that impenetrable, half-hidden gleam that precluded any solution.
"Miss Von Taer, I believe," said Beth, quietly glancing at the card she held. "Will you be seated?"
Diana sank gracefully into a chair. The sinuous motion attracted Beth's attention and gave her a slight shiver.
"I am so glad to meet you, my dear," began the visitor, in soft, purring accents. "I have long promised myself the pleasure of a call, and in spite of many procrastinations at last have accomplished my ambition."
Beth resented the affectation of this prelude, and slightly frowned. Diana was watching; she always watched. "Why should you wish to call upon me?" was the frank demand. "Do not think me rude, please; but I am scarcely in a position to become a desirable acquaintance of Miss Von Taer." The tone was a trifle bitter, and Diana noted it. A subtile antagonism seemed springing up between them and the more experienced girl scented in this danger to her plans. She must handle this young lady more cautiously than she had Louise Merrick.
"Your position is unimpeachable, my dear," was the sweet-toned response. "You are John Merrick's niece."
Beth was really angry now. She scowled, and it spoiled her beauty. Diana took warning and began to think quickly.
"I referred to my social position, Miss Von Taer. Our family is honest enough, thank God; but it has never been accepted in what is termed select society."
Diana laughed; a quiet, rippling laugh as icy as a brook in November, but as near gaiety as she could at the moment accomplish. When she laughed this way her eyes nearly closed and became inscrutable. Beth had a feeling of repulsion for her caller, but strove to shake it off. Miss Von Taer was nothing to her; could be nothing to her.
"Your uncle is a very wealthy man," said Diana, with easy composure. "He has made you an heiress, placing you in a class much sought after in these mercenary days. But aside from that, my dear, your personal accomplishments have not escaped notice, and gossip declares you to be a very fascinating young woman, as well as beautiful and good. I do not imagine society claims to be of divine origin, but were it so no one is more qualified to grace it."
The blandishments of this speech had less effect upon Beth than the evident desire to please. She began to feel she had been ungracious, and straightway adopted a more cordial tone.
"I am sure you mean well, Miss Von Taer," she hastened to say, "and I assure you I am not ungrateful. But it occurred to me we could have nothing in common." "Oh, my dear! You wrong us both."
"Do you know my uncle?" enquired Beth.
"He is the friend of my father, Mr. Hedrik Von Taer. Our family owes Mr. John Merrick much consideration. Therefore I decided to seek pleasure in the acquaintance of his nieces."
The words and tone seemed alike candid. Beth began to relent. She sat down for the first time, taking a chair opposite Diana.
"You see," she said, artlessly, "I have no personal inclination for society, which is doubtless so large a part of your own amusement. It seems to me artificial and insipid."
"Those who view from a distance the husk of a cocoanut, have little idea of the milk within," declared Diana, softly.
"True," answered Beth. "But I've cracked cocoanuts, and sometimes found the milk sour and tainted."
"The difference you observe in cocoanuts is to be found in the various grades of society. These are not all insipid and artificial, I assure you."
"They may be worse," remarked Beth. "I've heard strange tales of your orgies." Diana was really amused. This girl was proving more interesting than the first niece she had interviewed. Unaccustomed to seeking acquaintances outside her own exclusive circle, and under such circumstances, these meetings were to her in the nature of an adventure. A creature of powerful likes and dislikes, she already hated Beth most heartily; but for that very reason she insisted on cultivating her further acquaintance.
"You must not judge society by the mad pranks of a few of its members," she responded, in her most agreeable manner. "If we are not to set an example in decorum to the rest of the world we are surely unfitted to occupy the high place accorded us. But you must see and decide for yourself."
"I? No, indeed!"
"Ah, do not decide hastily, my dear. Let me become your sponsor for a short time, until you really discover what society is like. Then you may act upon more mature judgment."
"I do not understand you, Miss Von Taer."
"Then I will be more explicit. I am to receive a few friends at my home on the evening of the nineteenth; will you be my guest?" Beth was puzzled how to answer. The thought crossed her mind that perhaps Uncle John would like her to be courteous to his friend's daughter, and that argument decided her. She accepted the invitation.
"I want you to receive with me," continued Diana, rising. "In that way I shall be able to introduce you to my friends."
Beth wondered at this condescension, but consented to receive. She was annoyed to think how completely she had surrendered to the will of Miss Von Taer, for whom she had conceived the same aversion she had for a snake. She estimated Diana, society belle though she was, to be sly, calculating and deceitful. Worse than all, she was decidedly clever, and therefore dangerous. Nothing good could come of an acquaintance with her, Beth was sure; yet she had pledged herself to meet her and her friends the nineteenth, lit a formal society function. How much Beth De Graf misjudged Diana Von Taer the future will determine. The interview had tired Diana. As she reentered her carriage she was undecided whether to go home or hunt up the third niece. But Willing Square was not five minutes' drive from here, so she ordered the coachman to proceed there.
"I am positively out of my element in this affair," she told herself, "for it is more difficult to cultivate these inexperienced girls than I had thought. They are not exactly impossible, as I at first feared, but they are so wholly unconventional as to be somewhat embarrassing as protegees. Analyzing the two I have met—the majority—one strikes me as being transparently affected and the other a stubborn, attractive fool. They are equally untrained in diplomacy and unable to cover their real feelings. Here am I, practically dragging them into the limelight, when it would be far better for themselves—perhaps for me—that they remained in oblivion. Ah, well: I called it an adventure: let me hope some tangible plot will develop to compensate me for my trouble. Life seems deadly dull; I need excitement. Is it to be furnished by John Merrick's nieces, I wonder?" Willing Square is a new district, crowded with fashionable apartment houses. That is, they are called fashionable by their builders and owners and accepted as such by their would-be fashionable occupants. Diana knew at least two good families resident in Willing Square, and though she smiled grimly at the rows of "oppressively new and vulgar" buildings, she still was not ashamed to have her equipage seen waiting there.
Number 3708 Willing Square is a very substantial and cozy appearing apartment building owned in fee by Miss Patricia Doyle. Diana was unaware of this fact, but rang the Doyle bell and ascended to the second floor.
A maid received her with the announcement that Miss Doyle had "just stepped out," but was somewhere in the building. Would the visitor care to wait a few minutes?
Yes; Diana decided she would wait. She took a seat in the snug front parlor and from her position noted the series of rooms that opened one into another throughout the suite, all richly but tastefully furnished in homely, unassuming manner. "This is better," she mused. "There is no attempt at foolish display in this establishment, at any rate. I hope to find Miss Doyle a sensible, refined person. The name is Irish."
A door slammed somewhere down the line of rooms and a high-pitched voice cried in excited tones:
"I've found a baby! Hi, there, Nunkie, dear—I've found a baby!"
Thereupon came the sound of a chair being pushed back as a man's voice answered in equal glee:
"Why, Patsy, Patsy! it's the little rogue from upstairs. Here, Bobby; come to your own old Uncle!"
"He won't. He belongs to me; don't you, Bobby darlin'?"
A babyish voice babbled merrily, but the sounds were all "goos" and "ahs" without any resemblance to words. Bobby may have imagined he was talking, but he was not very intelligible.
"See here, Patsy Doyle; you gimme that baby." cried the man, pleadingly. "I found him myself, and he's mine. I've dragged him here all the way from his home upstairs, an' don't you dare lay a finger on him. Uncle John!"
"Fair play, Patsy! Bobby's my chum, and—"
"Well, I'll let you have half of him, Nunkie. Down on your hands and knees, sir, and be a horse. That's it—Now, Bobby, straddle Uncle John and drive him by his necktie—here it is. S-t-e-a-d-y, Uncle; and neigh—neigh like a horse!"
"How does a horse neigh, Patsy?" asked a muffled voice, choking and chuckling at the same time.
"'Nee, hee-hee—hee; hee!'"
Uncle John tried to neigh, and made a sorry mess of it, although Bobby shrieked with delight.
Then came a sudden hush. Diana caught the maid's voice, perhaps announcing the presence of a visitor, for Patsy cried in subdued accents:
"Goodness me, Mary! why didn't you say so? Listen, Uncle John—"
"Leggo that ear, Bobby—leggo!"
"—You watch the baby, Uncle John, and don't let anything happen to him. I've got a caller."
Diana smiled, a bit scornfully, and then composed her features as a young girl bustled into the room and came toward her with frank cordiality indicated in the wide smile and out-stretched hand.
"Pardon my keeping you waiting," said Patsy, dropping into a chair opposite her visitor, "Uncle John and I were romping with the baby from upstarts—Bobby's such a dear! I didn't quite catch the name Mary gave me and forgot to look at your card."
"I am Miss Von Taer."
"Not Diana Von Taer, the swell society girl?" cried Patsy eagerly.
Diana couldn't remember when she had been so completely nonplused before. After an involuntary gasp she answered quietly:
"I am Diana Von Taer."
"Well, I'm glad to meet you, just the same," said Patsy, cheerfully. "We outsiders are liable to look on society folk as we would on a cage of monkeys—because we're so very ignorant, you know, and the bars are really between us." This frank disdain verged on rudeness, although the girl had no intention of being rude. Diana was annoyed in spite of her desire to be tolerant.
"Perhaps the bars are imaginary," she rejoined, carelessly, "and it may be you've been looking at the side-show and not at the entertainment in the main tent. Will you admit that possibility, Miss Doyle?"
Patsy laughed gleefully.
"I think you have me there, Miss Von Taer. And what do I know about society? Just nothing at all. It's out of my line entirely."
"Perhaps it is," was the slow response. "Society appeals to only those whose tastes seem to require it."
"And aren't we drawing distinctions?" enquired Miss Doyle. "Society at large is the main evidence of civilization, and all decent folk are members of it."
"Isn't that communism?" asked Diana.
"Perhaps so. It's society at large. But certain classes have leagued together and excluded themselves from their fellows, admitting only those of their own ilk. The people didn't put them on their pedestals—they put themselves there. Yet the people bow down and worship these social gods and seem glad to have them. The newspapers print their pictures and the color of their gowns and how they do their hair and what they eat and what they do, and the poor washwomen and shop-girls and their like read these accounts more religiously than they do their bibles. My maid Mary's a good girl, but she grabs the society sheet of the Sunday paper and reads it from top to bottom. I never look at it myself."
Diana's cheeks were burning. She naturally resented such ridicule, having been born to regard social distinction with awe and reverence. Inwardly resolving to make Miss Patricia Doyle regret the speech she hid all annoyance under her admirable self-control and answered with smooth complacency:
"Your estimate of society, my dear Miss Doyle, is superficial."
"Don't I know it, then?" exclaimed Patsy. "Culture and breeding, similarity of taste and intellectual pursuits will always attract certain people and band them together in those cliques which are called 'social sets,' They are not secret societies; they have no rules of exclusion; congenial minds are ever welcome to their ranks. This is a natural coalition, in no way artificial. Can you not appreciate that, Miss Doyle?"
"Yes, indeed," admitted Patsy, promptly. "You're quite right, and I'm just one of those stupid creatures who criticise the sun because there's a cloud before it. Probably there are all grades of society, because there are all grades of people."
"I thought you would agree with me when you understood," murmured Diana, and her expression was so smug and satisfied that Patsy was seized with an irresistible spirit of mischief.
"And haven't I seen your own pictures in the Sunday papers?" she asked.
"Perhaps; if you robbed your maid of her pleasure."
"And very pretty pictures they were, too. They showed culture and breeding all right, and the latest style in gowns. Of course those intellectual high-brows in your set didn't need an introduction to you; you were advertised as an example of ultra-fashionable perfection, to spur the ambition of those lower down in the social scale. Perhaps it's a good thing."
"Are you trying to annoy me?" demanded Diana, her eyes glaring under their curling lashes.
"Dear me—dear me!" cried Patsy, distressed, "see how saucy and impudent I've been—and I didn't mean a bit of it! Won't you forgive me, please, Miss Von Taer? There! we'll begin all over again, and I'll be on my good behavior. I'm so very ignorant, you know!"
Diana smiled at this; it would be folly to show resentment to such a childish creature.
"Unfortunately," she said, "I have been unable to escape the vulgar publicity thrust upon me by the newspapers. The reporters are preying vultures, rapacious for sensation, and have small respect for anyone. I am sure we discourage them as much as we can. I used to weep with mortification when I found myself 'written up'; now, however, I have learned to bear such trials with fortitude—if not with resignation." "Forgive me!" said Patsy, contritely. "Somehow I've had a false idea of these things. If I knew you better, Miss Von Taer, you'd soon convert me to be an admirer of society."
"I'd like to do that, Miss Doyle, for you interest me. Will you return my call?"
"Indeed I will," promised the girl, readily. "I'm flattered that you called on me at all, Miss Von Taer, for you might easily have amused yourself better. You must be very busy, with all the demands society makes on one. When shall I come? Make it some off time, when we won't be disturbed."
Diana smiled at her eagerness. How nescient the poor little thing was!
"Your cousins, Miss Merrick and Miss De Graf, have consented to receive with me on the evening of the nineteenth. Will you not join us?"
"Louise and Beth!" cried Patsy, astounded.
"Isn't it nice of them? And may I count upon you, also?"
Patsy smiled dubiously into the other's face.
"Let me out of it!" she said. "Can't you see I'm no butterfly?"
Diana saw many things, having taken a shrewd account of the girl long before this. Miss Patricia Doyle was short and plump, with a round, merry face covered with freckles, hair indisputably red and a retrousse nose. Also she possessed a pair of wonderful blue eyes—eyes that danced and scintillated with joyous good humor—eyes so captivating that few ever looked beyond them or noted the plain face they glorified. But the critic admitted that the face was charmingly expressive, the sweet and sensitive mouth always in sympathy with the twinkling, candid eyes. Life and energy radiated from her small person, which Miss Von Taer grudgingly conceded to possess unusual fascination. Here was a creature quite imperfect in detail, yet destined to allure and enchant whomsoever she might meet. All this was quite the reverse of Diana's own frigid personality. Patsy would make an excellent foil for her.
"As you please, my dear," she said graciously; "but do you not think it would amuse you to make your debut in society—unimpeachable society—and be properly introduced to the occupants of the 'pedestals,' as your cousins will be?"
Patsy reflected. If Beth and Louise had determined to undertake this venture why should she hold back? Moreover, she experienced a girlish and wholly natural curiosity to witness a fashionable gathering and "size up" the lions for herself. So she said:
"I'll come, if you really want me; and I'll try my best to behave nicely. But I can't imagine why you have chosen to take us three girls under your wing; unless—" with sudden intuition, "it's for Uncle John's sake."
"That was it, at first," replied Diana, rising to go; "but now that I've seen you I'm delighted to have you on your own account. Come early, dear; we must be ready to receive our guests by nine."
"Nine o'clock!" reflected Patsy, when her visitor had gone; "why, I'm often in bed by that time."
PREPARING FOR THE PLUNGE
John Merrick lived with the Doyles at their Willing Square apartments. There were but two of the Doyles—Patricia and her father, Major Doyle, a tall, handsome, soldierly man with white moustache and hair. The Major was noted as a "character," a keen wit and a most agreeable type of the "old Irish gentleman." He fairly worshipped his daughter, and no one blamed him for it. His business, as special agent and manager for his brother-in-law's millions, kept the Major closely occupied and afforded John Merrick opportunity to spend his days as be pleased. The rich man was supposed to be "retired," yet the care of his investments and income was no light task, as the Major found.
We are accustomed to regard extreme wealth as the result of hard-headed shrewdness, not wholly divorced from unscrupulous methods, yet no one could accuse John Merrick or his representative with being other than kindly, simple-hearted and honest. Uncle John says that he never intended to "get rich"; it was all the result of carelessness. He had been so immersed in business that he failed to notice how fast his fortune was growing. When he awoke to a realization of his immense accumulation he promptly retired, appointing Major Doyle to look after his investments and seeking personal leisure after many years of hard work. He instructed his agent to keep his income from growing into more capital by rendering wise assistance to all worthy charities and individuals, and this, as you may suppose, the Major found a herculean task. Often he denounced Uncle John for refusing to advise him, claiming that the millionaire had selfishly thrust the burden of his wealth on the Major's broad shoulders. While there was an element of truth in this the burden it was not so heavy as to make the old soldier unhappy, and the two men loved and respected one another with manly cordiality.
Patricia was recognized as Uncle John's favorite niece and it was understood she was to inherit the bulk of his property, although some millions might be divided between Beth and Louise "if they married wisely." Neither Uncle John nor the Major ever seemed to consider Patsy's marrying; she was such a child that wedlock for her seemed a remote possibility.
The Sunday afternoon following Diana Von Taer's visit to the three nieces found the girls all congregated in Patsy's own room, where an earnest discussion was being conducted. That left Uncle John to take his after-dinner nap in the big Morris chair in the living room, where Major Doyle sat smoking-sulkily while he gazed from the window and begrudged the moments Patsy was being kept from him.
Finally the door opened and the three girls trooped out.
"Huh! Is the conspiracy all cut-an'-dried?" growled the Major.
Uncle John woke up with a final snort, removed the newspaper from his face and sat up. He smiled benignantly upon his nieces.
"It's all your fault, sor!" declared Major Doyle, selecting the little millionaire as the safest recipient of his displeasure. "Your foolishness has involved us all in this dreadful complication. Why on earth couldn't you leave well-enough alone?"
Uncle John received the broadside with tolerant equanimity.
"What's wrong; my dears?" he enquired, directing his mild glance toward the bevy of young girls.
"I am unaware that anything is wrong, Uncle," replied Louise gravely. "But since we are about to make our debut in society it is natural we should have many things to discuss that would prove quite uninteresting to men. Really, Uncle John, this is a great event—perhaps the most important event of our lives."
"Shucks an' shoestrings!" grunted the Major. "What's in this paper-shelled, painted, hollow thing ye call 'society' to interest three healthy, wide-awake girls? Tell me that!"
"You don't understand, dear," said Patsy, soothing him with a kiss.
"I think he does," remarked Beth, with meditative brows. "Modern society is a man-made—or woman-made—condition, to a large extent artificial, selfish and unwholesome."
"Oh, Beth!" protested Louise. "You're talking like a rank socialist. I can understand common people sneering at society, which is so far out of their reach; but a girl about to be accepted in the best circles has no right to rail at her own caste."
"There can be no caste in America," declared Beth, stubbornly.
"But there is caste in America, and will be so long as the exclusiveness of society is recognized by the people at large," continued Louise. "If it is a 'man-made condition' isn't it the most respected, most refined, most desirable condition that one may attain to?"
"There are plenty of honest and happy people in the world who ignore society altogether," answered Beth. "It strikes me that your social stars are mighty few in the broad firmament of humanity."
"But they're stars, for all that, dear," said Uncle John, smiling at her with a hint of approval in his glance, yet picking up the argument; "and they look mighty big and bright to the crowd below. It's quite natural. You can't keep individuals from gaining distinction, even in America. There are few generals in an army, for instance; and they're 'man-made'; but that's no reason the generals ain't entitled to our admiration."
"Let's admire 'em, then—from a distance," retorted the Major, realizing the military simile was employed to win his sympathy.
"Certain things, my dear Major, are naturally dear to a girl's heart," continued Uncle John, musingly; "and we who are not girls have no right to condemn their natural longings. Girls love dancing, pink teas and fudge-parties, and where can they find 'em in all their perfection but in high society? Girls love admiration and flirtations—you do, my dears; you can't deny it—and the male society swells have the most time to devote to such things. Girls love pretty dresses—"
"Oh, Uncle! you've hit the nail on the head now," exclaimed Patsy, laughing. "We must all have new gowns for this reception, and as we're to assist Miss Von Taer the dresses must harmonize, so to speak, and—and—" "And be quite suited to the occasion," broke in Louise; "and—"
"And wear our lives out with innumerable fittings," concluded Beth, gloomily.
"But why new dresses?" demanded the Major. "You've plenty of old ones that are clean and pretty, I'm sure; and our Patsy had one from the dressmaker only last week that's fit for a queen."
"Oh, Daddy! you don't understand," laughed Patsy.
"This time, Major, I fear you don't," agreed Beth. "Your convictions regarding society may be admirable, but you're weak on the gown question."
"If the women would only listen to me," began the Major, dictatorially; but Uncle John cut him short.
"They won't, sir; they'll listen to no man when it comes to dressmaking."
"Don't they dress to captivate the men, then?" asked the Major, with fine sarcasm.
"Not at all," answered Louise, loftily. "Men seldom know what a woman has on, if she looks nice; but women take in every detail of dress and criticise it severely if anything happens to be out of date, ill fitting or in bad taste."
"Then they're in bad taste themselves!" retorted the Major, hotly.
"Tut-tut, sir; who are you to criticise woman's ways?" asked Uncle John, much amused. The Major was silenced, but he glared as if unconvinced.
"Dressmaking is a nuisance," remarked Beth, placidly; "but it's the penalty we pay for being women."
"You're nothing but slips o' girls, not out of your teens," grumbled the Major. And no one paid any attention to him.
"We want to do you credit, Uncle John," said Patsy, brightly. "Perhaps our names will be in the papers."
"They're there already," announced Mr. Merrick, picking up the Sunday paper that lay beside him.
A chorus of exclamations was followed by a dive for the paper, and even the Major smiled grimly as he observed the three girlish heads close together and three pair of eager eyes scanning swiftly the society columns.
"Here it is!" cried Patsy, dancing up and down like a school-girl; and Louise read in a dignified voice—which trembled slightly with excitement and pleasure—the following item:
"Miss Von Taer will receive next Thursday evening at the family mansion in honor of Miss Merrick, Miss Doyle and Miss De Graf. These three charming debutantes are nieces of John Merrick, the famous tin-plate magnate."
"Phoo!" growled the Major, during the impressive hush that followed; "that's it, exactly. Your names are printed because you're John Merrick's nieces. If it hadn't been for tin-plate, my dears, society never would 'a' known ye at all, at all!"
THE FLY IN THE BROTH
Diana was an experienced entertainer and under her skillful supervision the reception proved eminently successful. Nor had she cause to be ashamed of the three protegees she presented to society, since capable modistes had supplemented their girlish charms and freshness with costumes pertinent to the occasion. Perhaps Patsy's chubby form looked a little "dumpish" in her party gown, for some of Diana's female guests regarded her with quiet amusement and bored tolerance, while the same critical posse was amazed and envious at Beth's superb beauty and stately bearing. After all, it was Louise who captured the woman contingency and scored the greatest success; for her appearance was not only dainty and attractive but she was so perfectly self-possessed and responsive and bore herself so admirably under the somewhat trying; circumstances of a debut that she won the cordial goodwill of all whom she encountered. The hostess was elaborately gowned in white pompadour satin, trimmed with white chiffon and embroidered in pink roses and pearls. The Von Taer home was handsomely decorated for the occasion, since Diana never did anything by halves and for her own credit insisted on attention to those details of display that society recognizes and loves. Hundreds of long-stemmed American Beauties and Kentia palms were combined in beautifying the spacious hall, while orchids in marvelous variety nodded their blossoms in the great drawing-room, where the young-ladies received. These rare and precious flowers were arranged in bronze baskets with sprays of maidenhair. In the music room adjoining, great clusters of Madam Chantenay roses embellished the charming scene. Branches of cherry-blossoms, supplied by hot-houses, were banked in the lofty dining-room, where a Japanese pergola made of bamboo and lighted with red lanterns was erected at the upper end. The attendants here were Japanese girls in native costume, and the long table was laid with a lace cloth over pink satin, with butterfly bows of pink tulle. The table itself was decorated with cut-glass baskets of Cecil Brunner roses mingled with lilies of the valley and refreshments were distributed to the standing guests as they entered.
The affair was in the nature of a typical "crush," for Diana's list of eligibles included most of the prominent society folk then in town, and she was too important a personage to have her invitations disregarded. Beth and Patsy were fairly bewildered by the numerous introductions, until names became meaningless in their ears; but Louise, perfectly composed and in no wise distracted by her surroundings or the music of the orchestra and the perpetual buzz of conversation in the crowded rooms, impressed each individual upon her memory clearly, and was not likely to blunder in regard to names or individuality in the future. This is a rare talent, indeed, and scores, largely in one's favor; for no one likes to think himself so unimportant as to be forgotten, under any circumstances.
It was during the thick of the reception that one of Miss Von Taer's intimates, a graceful blond girl, suddenly seized her arm and whispered: "Oh, Diana! Guess who's here—guess, my dear!" Diana knew. Her eyes, always narrowed until the lashes shielded their sharp watchfulness, seldom missed observing anything of importance. She pressed her friend's hand and turned again to the line of guests, while Louise, who had overheard the excited whisper, wondered casually what it might mean.
Soon after she knew. A tall, handsome young fellow was bowing before Diana, who—wonder of wonders!—for an instant unclosed her great eyes and shot an electric glance into his smiling face. The glance was brief as unexpected, yet it must have told the young man something, for he flushed and bowed again as if to hide his embarrassment. It also told Louise something, and her heart, which had given a quick bound at sight of the man's face, began to cry out against Diana Von Taer's artifices.
"Mr. Arthur Weldon," said the hostess, in her soft voice; and now, as the young man turned an eager gaze on Louise and half extended his hand, the girl's face grew pale and she imitated Diana to the extent of dropping her eyes and bowing with frigid indifference. Standing close he whispered "Louise!" in a pleading tone that made Diana frown wickedly. But the girl was unresponsive and another instant forced him to turn to Beth.
"Why, Arthur! are you here, then?" said the girl, in a surprised but cordial tone.
"That is not astonishing, Miss Beth," he replied. "The puzzling fact is that you are here—and under such auspices," he added, in a lower tone.
Patsy now claimed him, with a frank greeting, and Arthur Weldon could do little more than press her hand when the line forced him to move on and give place to others.
But this especial young fellow occupied the minds of all four girls long after the crowd had swallowed him up. Diana was uneasy and obviously disturbed by the discovery that he was known to the three cousins, as well as by the memory of his tone as he addressed Louise Merrick. Louise, who had read Diana's quick glance with the accuracy of an intuitionist, felt a sudden suspicion and dislike for Diana now dominating her. Behind all this was a mystery, which shall be explained here because the reader deserves to be more enlightened than the characters themselves.
Arthur Weldon's nature was a queer combination of weakness and strength. He was physically brave but a moral coward. The motherless son of a man wholly immersed in business, he had been much neglected in his youth and his unstable character was largely the result of this neglect. On leaving college he refused a business career planned for him by his father, who cast him off with scornful indifference, and save for a slim temporary allowance promised to disinherit him. It was during this period that Arthur met Louise and fell desperately in love with her. The girl appeared to return the young fellow's devotion, but shrewd, worldly Mrs. Merrick, discovering that the boy was practically disinherited and had no prospects whatever, forbade him the house. Louise, until now but mildly interested in the young-man, resented her mother's interference and refused to give him up. She found ways to meet Arthur Weldon outside her home, so that the situation had become complicated and dangerous when Uncle John seized his three nieces and whisked them off to Europe. Young Weldon, under an assumed name, followed and attached himself to the party; but John Merrick's suspicions were presently aroused and on discovering the identity of the youth he forbade him or Louise to "make love" or even speak of such a thing during the remainder of the trip.
The young fellow, by manly acts on some occasions and grave weaknesses on others, won Uncle John's kindly interest. The old gentleman knew human nature, and saw much to admire as well as condemn in Louise's friend. Beth and Patsy found him a pleasant comrade, and after all love-making was tabooed they were quite a harmonious party. Finally the sudden death of Weldon's father left him the possessor of a fortune. He returned to America to look after his newly-acquired business and became so immersed in it that Louise felt herself neglected when she came home expecting him to dance attendance upon her as before. She treated him coldly and he ceased calling, his volatile and sensitive nature resenting such treatment. It is curious what little things influence the trend of human lives. Many estrangements are caused by trifles so intangible that we can scarcely locate them at all.
At first the girl was very unhappy at the alienation, but soon schooled herself to forget her former admirer. Arthur Weldon, for his part, consoled himself by plunging into social distractions and devoting himself to Diana Von Taer, whose strange personality for a time fascinated him.
The business could not hold young Weldon's vacillant temperament for long; neither could Diana. As a matter of fact his heart, more staunch than he himself suspected, had never wavered much from Louise. Yet pride forbade his attempting to renew their former relations. It was now some months since he had seen the girl, and his eager exclamation was wrested from him by surprise and a sudden awakening to the fact that his love for her had merely slumbered.
Diana, worldly, cold and calculating as was her nature, had been profoundly touched by Arthur's devotion to her. Usually young men were soon repulsed by her unfortunate personality, which was not easily understood. Therefore her intense nature responded freely to this admirer's attentions, and if Diana could really love she loved Arthur Weldon. He had never proposed to her or even intimated it was his intention to do so, but she conceived a powerful desire to win him and had never abandoned this motive when he grew cold and appeared to desert her. Just now he was recently back from Italy, where he had passed several months, and Diana's reception was his first reappearance in society. The girl had planned to bring him to her side this evening and intended to exert her strongest fascinations to lure him back to his former allegiance; so her annoyance may be guessed when she found her three protegees seemingly more familiar with the young man than was she herself.
At last the line ended and the introductions were complete. The debutantes were at once the center of interested groups composed of those who felt it a duty or pleasure to show them attention. Diana wandered to the music room and waylaid Arthur Weldon, who was just about to make his escape from the house, having decided it was impossible to find an opportunity to converse with Louise that evening.
"I'm so glad you came, Arthur," she said, a quick glance assuring her they were not overheard. "You landed from the steamer but yesterday, I hear."
"And came straightway to pay my respects to my old friend," he answered lightly. "Isn't it unusual for you to present debutantes, Diana?"
"You know these girls, don't you, Arthur?"
"Yes; I met them in Europe."
"And flirted with Miss Merrick? Be honest, Arthur, I know your secret."
"Do you? Then you know we were merely good friends," said he, annoyed at her accusation.
"Of course. You called her 'Louise,' didn't you?"
"To be sure. And Patsy called me 'Arthur. You may have heard her."
"That's Miss Patricia Doyle—our dear little Patsy."
"Oh. I'm sure you didn't fall in love with her, at any rate."
"I'm not so sure. Everybody loves Patsy. But I had no time for love-making. I was doing Europe."
"Wasn't that a year or so ago?" she asked, realizing he was trying to evade further reference to Louise.
"And since then?"
"I've been away the last six or seven months, as you know, on my second trip abroad."
"But before that—when you first returned?"
"If I remember rightly I was then much in the society of Miss Von Taer. Is the catechism ended at last?"
"Yes," she replied, laughing. "Don't think me inquisitive, Arthur; I was surprised to find you knew these girls, with whom I am myself but lightly acquainted."
"Yet you introduce them to your very select set?"
"To please my father, who wishes to please Mr. Merrick."
"I understand," said he, nodding. "But they're nice girls, Diana. You're not running chances, I assure you."
"That relieves me," she replied rather scornfully. "If Arthur Weldon will vouch for them—"
"But I don't. I'll vouch for no one—not even myself," he declared hastily. She was calmly reading his face, and did not seem to approve the text.
"Are you as fickle as ever, then, mon cher?" she asked, softly.
"I'm not fickle, Diana. My fault is that I'm never serious."
"I cannot remember ever being serious; at least, where a girl was concerned."
Diana bit her lips to restrain a frown, but her eyes, which he was avoiding, flashed wickedly.
"That is surely a fault, my Arthur," was her tender reply. "Were you never serious during our quiet evenings together; our dances, theatre parties and romps?"
"That was merely fun. And you, Diana?"
"Oh, I enjoyed the fun, too. It meant so much to me. I began to live, then, and found life very sweet. But when you suddenly left me and went abroad—ah, that was indeed serious."
Her tone was full of passionate yearning. He laughed, trying to appear at ease. Some sort of an understanding must be had with Diana sooner or later, and she might as well realize at this present interview that the old relations could not be restored. His nature was not brutal and he disliked to hurt her; moreover, the boy had an uneasy feeling that he had been a far more ardent admirer of this peculiar girl than any fellow should be who had had no serious intentions; yet it would be folly to allow Diana to think she could win him back to his former allegiance. No compromising word had ever left his lips; he had never spoken of love to her. Yet the girl's attitude seemed to infer a certain possession of him which was far from agreeable.
Having gone so far, he should have said more; but here again his lack of moral courage proved his stumbling-block, and he weakly evaded a frank expression of his true feelings. "Life," he began somewhat haltingly, to break the embarrassing pause, "is only serious when we make it so; and as soon as we make it serious it makes us unhappy. So I've adopted one invariable rule: to laugh and be gay."
"Then I too will be gay, and together we'll enjoy life," responded Diana, with an effort to speak lightly. "I shall let your moods be my moods, Arthur, as a good friend should. Are we not affinities?"
Again he knew not what to say. Her persistence in clinging to her intangible hold upon him was extremely irritating, and he realized the girl was far too clever for him to cope with and was liable to cause him future trouble. Instead of seizing the opportunity to frankly undeceive her he foolishly evaded the subject.
"You've been tempting fate to-night," he remarked with assumed carelessness. "Don't you remember that to stand four girls in a row is a bad omen?"
"Only for the one who first winks. Isn't that the way the saying goes? I seldom wink, myself," she continued, smilingly. "But I have no faith in ill omens. Their power is entirely due to mental fear."
"I think not," said Arthur, glad the conversation had taken this turn. "Once I knew a fellow with thirteen letters in his name. He had no mental fear. But he proposed to a girl—and was accepted."
She gave him one of those sudden, swift glances that were so disconcerting.
"If you had a middle initial, there would be thirteen letters in your own name, Arthur Weldon."
"But I haven't, Diana; I haven't," he protested, eagerly. "And if ever I propose to a girl I'm sure she'll refuse me. But I've no intention of doing such a crazy thing, so I'm perfectly safe."
"You cannot be sure until you try, Arthur," she replied pointedly, and with a start he became conscious that he was again treading upon dangerous ground.
"Come; let us rejoin your guests," said he, offering her his arm. "They would all hate me if they knew I was keeping the fair Diana from them so long." "Arthur, I must have a good long; talk with you—one of our old, delightful confabs," she said, earnestly. "Will you call Sunday afternoon? Then we shall be quite undisturbed."
"Sunday afternoon?" he answered.
"All right; I'll come, Diana."
She gave him a grateful look and taking his arm allowed him to lead her back to the drawing-room. The crush was over, many having already departed. Some of the young people were dancing in the open spaces to the music of a string orchestra hidden behind a bank of ferns in the hall.
Louise and Beth were the centers of attentive circles; Patsy conversed with merry freedom with a group of ancient dowagers, who delighted in her freshness and healthy vigor and were flattered by her consideration. Mrs. Merrick—for she had been invited—sat in a corner gorgeously robed and stiff as a poker, her eyes devouring the scene. Noting the triumph of Louise she failed to realize she was herself neglected. A single glance sufficed to acquaint Diana with all this, and after a gracious word to her guests here and there she asked Arthur to dance with her. He could not well refuse, but felt irritated and annoyed when he observed Louise's eyes fastened upon him in amused disdain. After a few turns he discovered some departing ones waiting to bid their hostess adieu, and escaped from his unpleasant predicament by halting his partner before them. Then he slipped away and quietly left the house before Diana had time to miss him.
THE HERO ENTERS AND TROUBLE BEGINS
The Von Taer reception fully launched the three nieces in society. Endorsed by Diana and backed by John Merrick's millions and their own winsome charms, they were sure to become favorites in that admirable set to which they had fortunately gained admittance.
Cards poured in upon them during; the succeeding days and they found themselves busy returning calls and attending dinners, fetes, bridge parties and similar diversions. The great Mrs. Sandringham took a decided fancy to Louise, and when the committee was appointed to arrange for the social Kermess to be held in December, this dictatorial leader had the girl's name included in the list. Naturally the favor led to all three cousins taking active part in the most famous social event of the season, and as an especial mark of favoritism they were appointed to conduct the "flower booth," one of the important features of the Kermess.
Mrs. Merrick was in the seventh heaven of ecstatic delight; Uncle John declared his three girls were sure to become shining lights, if not actual constellations, wherever they might be placed; Major Doyle growled and protested; but was secretly pleased to have "our Patsy the captain of the dress parade," where he fondly imagined she outclassed all others. All former denunciations of society at large were now ignored, even by unimpressive Beth, and the girls soon became deeply interested in their novel experiences.
Arthur Weldon sulked at home, unhappy and undecided, for a day or two after the reception. Sunday noon he dispatched a messenger to Diana with a note saying he would be unable to keep his appointment with her that afternoon. Then he went straight to the Merrick home and sent his card to Louise. The girl flushed, smiled, frowned, and decided to go down.
No one had ever interested her so much as Arthur Weldon. There had been a spice of romance about their former relations that made her still regard him as exceptional among mankind. She had been asking herself, since the night of the reception, if she still loved him, but could not come to a positive conclusion. The boy was no longer "ineligible," as he had been at first; even Uncle John could now have no serious objection to him. He was handsome, agreeable, occupied a good social position and was fairly well off in the way of worldly goods—the last point removing Mrs. Merrick's former rejection of Arthur as a desirable son-in-law.
But girls are wayward and peculiar in such an affaire du coeur, and none of these things might have weighed with Louise had she not discovered that Diana Von Taer was in love with Arthur and intended to win him. That aroused the girl's fighting instincts, rendered the young man doubly important, and easily caused Louise to forget her resentment at his temporary desertion of her. Perhaps, she reflected, it had partially been her own fault. Now that Arthur showed a disposition to renew their friendship, and she might promise herself the satisfaction of defeating Diana's ambitions, it would be diplomatic, at least, to receive the youth with cordial frankness.
Therefore she greeted him smilingly and with outstretched hand, saying:
"This is quite a surprise, Mr. Weldon. I'd a notion you had forgotten me." "No, indeed, Louise! How could you imagine such a thing?" he answered, reproachfully.
"There was some evidence of the fact," she asserted archly. "At one time you gave me no peace; then you became retiring. At last you disappeared wholly. What could I think, sir, under such circumstances?"
He stood looking down at her thoughtfully. How pretty she had grown; and how mature and womanly.
"Louise," said he, gently, "don't let us indulge in mutual reproaches. Some one must have been at fault and I'll willingly take all the blame if you will forgive me. Once we were—were good friends. We—we intended to be still more to one another, Louise, but something occurred, I don't know what, to—to separate us."
"Why, you went away," said the girl, laughing; "and that of course separated us."
"You treated me like a beggar; don't forget that part of it, dear. Of course I went away."
"And consoled yourself with a certain Miss Diana Von Taer. It has lately been rumored you are engaged to her." "Me? What nonsense?" But he hushed guiltily, and Louise noted everything and determined he should not escape punishment.
"Diana, at least, is in earnest," she remarked, with assumed indifference. "You may not care to deny that you have been very attentive to her."
"Not especially so," he declared, stoutly.
"People gossip, you know. And Diana is charming."
"She's an iceberg!"
"Oh, you have discovered that? Was she wholly unresponsive, then?"
"No," he said, with a touch of anger. "I have never cared for Diana, except in a friendly way. She amused me for a while when—when I was wretched. But I never made love to her; not for a moment. Afterward, why—then——"
"Well; what then?" as he hesitated, growing red again.
"I found she had taken my careless attentions in earnest, and the play was getting dangerous. So I went abroad."
Louise considered this explanation seriously. She believed he was speaking the truth, so far as he knew. But at the same time she realized from her own experience that Arthur might as easily deceive himself as Diana in his estimate as to the warmth of the devotion he displayed. His nature was impetuous and ardent. That Diana should have taken his attentions seriously and become infatuated with the handsome young fellow was not a matter to cause surprise.
Gradually Louise felt her resentment disappearing. In Arthur's presence the charm of his personality influenced her to be lenient with his shortcomings. And his evident desire for a reconciliation found an echo in her own heart.
Mutual explanations are excellent to clear a murky atmosphere, and an hour's earnest conversation did much to restore these two congenial spirits to their former affectionate relations. Of course Louise did not succumb too fully to his pleadings, for her feminine instinct warned her to keep the boy on "the anxious seat" long enough to enable him to appreciate her value and the honor of winning her good graces. Moreover, she made some severe conditions and put him on his good behavior. If he proved worthy, and was steadfast and true, why then the future might reward him freely.
Diana had been making careful plans for her interview with Arthur that Sunday afternoon. With no futile attempt to deceive herself as to existent conditions she coldly weighed the chances in her mental scale and concluded she had sufficient power to win this unstable youth to her side and induce him to forget that such a person as Louise Merrick ever existed.
Diana was little experienced in such affairs, it is true. Arthur Weldon had been her first and only declared admirer, and no one living had studied his peculiar nature more critically than this observant girl. Also she knew well her own physical failings. She realized that her personality was to many repulsive, rather than attractive, and this in spite of her exquisite form, her perfect breeding and many undeniable accomplishments. Men, as a rule, seldom remained at her side save through politeness, and even seemed to fear her; but never until now had she cared for any man sufficiently to wish to retain or interest him. There were unsuspected fascinations lying dormant in her nature, and Miss Von Taer calmly reflected that the exercise of these qualities, backed by her native wit and capacity for intrigue, could easily accomplish the object she desired.
Thus she had planned her campaign and carefully dressed herself in anticipation of Arthur's call when his note came canceling the engagement. After rereading his lame excuse she sat down in a quiet corner and began to think. The first gun had been fired, the battle was on, and like a wise general she carefully marshaled her forces for combat.
An hour or two later she turned to her telephone book and called up the Merrick establishment. A voice, that of a maid, evidently, answered her.
"I wish to speak with Miss Merrick," said Diana.
Louise, annoyed at being disturbed, left Arthur's side to respond to the call.
"Who is it, please?" she asked.
"Is Mr. Weldon still there, or has he gone?" enquired Diana, disguising her voice and speaking imperatively.. "Why, he's still here," answered bewildered Louise; "but who is talking, please?"
"Do you wish to speak with Mr. Weldon?" continued the girl, mystified at such an odd procedure.
Diana hung up her receiver, severing the connection. The click of the instrument assured Louise there was no use in waiting longer, so she returned to Arthur. She could not even guess who had called her. Arthur could, though, when he had heard her story, and Diana's impudent meddling made him distinctly uneasy. He took care not to enlighten Louise, and the incident was soon forgotten by her.
"It proved just as I expected," mused Diana, huddled in her reclining' chair. "The fool has thrown me over to go to her. But this is not important. With the situation so clearly defined I shall know exactly what I must do to protect my own interests."
Mr. Von Taer was away from home that Sunday afternoon, and would not return until a late hour. Diana went to the telephone again and after several unsuccessful attempts located her cousin, Mr. Charles Connoldy Mershone, at a club.
"It's Diana," she said, when at last communication was established. "I want you to come over and see me; at once."
"You'll have to excuse me, Di," was the answer. "I was unceremoniously kicked out the last time, you know."
"Father's away. It's all right, Charlie. Come along."
"Can't see it, my fair cousin. You've all treated me like a bull-pup, and I'm not anxious to mix up with that sort of a relationship. Anything more? I'm going to play pool to win my dinner."
"Funds running low, Charlie?"
"Worse than that; they're invisible."
"Then pay attention. Call a taxi at once, and get here as soon as you can. I'll foot the bill—and any others that happen to be bothering you."
A low, surprised whistle came over the wire.
"What's up, Di?" he asked, with new interest.
"Come and find out."
"Can I be useful?"
"Assuredly; to yourself."
"All right; I'm on the way."
He hung up, and Diana gave a sigh of content as she slowly returned to her den and the easy chair, where Mr. Mershone found her "coiled" some half hour later.
"This is a queer go," said the young man, taking a seat and glancing around with knitted brows. "It isn't so long since dear Uncle Hedrik tumbled me out of here neck and crop; and now Cousin Diana invites me to return."
At first glance young Mershone seemed an attractive young fellow, tall, finely formed and well groomed. But his eyes were too close together and his handsome features bore unmistakable marks of dissipation.
"You disgraced us a year or so ago, Charlie," said Diana, in her soft, quiet accents, "and under such circumstances we could not tolerate you. You can scarcely blame us for cutting your acquaintance. But now—"
"Well, now?" he enquired coolly, trying to read her impassive face.
"I need the services of just such an unscrupulous and clever individual as you have proven yourself to be. I'm willing to pay liberally for those services, and you doubtless need the money. Are we allies, then?"
Mershone laughed, with little genuine mirth.
"Of course, my dear cousin," he responded; "provided you propose any legal villainy. I'm not partial to the police; but I really need the money, as you suggest."
"And you will be faithful?" she asked, regarding him doubtfully.
"To the cause, you may be sure. But understand me: I balk at murder and burglary. Somehow, the police seem to know me. I'll not do anything that might lead to a jail sentence, because there are easier ways to get money. However, I don't imagine your proposed plan is very desperate, Diana; it's more liable to be dirty work. Never mind; you may command me, my dear cousin—if the pay is ample."
"The pay will be ample if you succeed," she began.
"I don't like that. I may not succeed."
"Listen to me, Charlie. Do you know Arthur Weldon?"
"Slightly; not very well."
"I intend to marry him. He has paid me marked attentions in the past; but now—he—"
"Wants to slip the leash. Quite natural, my dear."
"He has become infatuated with another girl; a light-headed, inexperienced little thing who is likely to marry the first man who asks her. She is very rich—in her own right, too—and her husband will be a fortunate man."
Mershone stared at her. Then he whistled, took a few turns up and down the room, and reseated himself.
"Evidently!" he ejaculated, lighting a cigarette without permission and then leaning back thoughtfully in his chair.
"Charlie," continued Diana, "you may as well marry Louise Merrick and settle down to a life of respectability. You've a dashing, masterful way which no girl of her sort can long resist. I propose that you make desperate love to Louise Merrick and so cut Arthur Weldon out of the deal entirely. My part of the comedy will be to attract him to my side again. Now you have the entire proposition in a nutshell."
He smoked for a time in reflective silence.
"What's the girl like?" he enquired, presently. "Is she attractive?"
"Sufficiently so to fascinate Arthur Weldon. Moreover, she has just been introduced in our set, and knows nothing of your shady past history. Even if rumors came to her ears, young creatures of her sort often find a subtle charm in a man accused of being 'naughty.'"
"If you win her, you get a wife easily managed and a splendid fortune to squander as you please."
"Sounds interesting, Di, doesn't it? But—"
"In regard to preliminary expenses," she interrupted, calmly, "I have said that your reward will be ample when you have won the game. But meantime I am willing to invest the necessary funds in the enterprise. I will allow you a thousand a month." "Bah! that's nothing at all!" said he, contemptuously, as he flicked the ashes from his cigarette.
"What do you demand, then?"
"Five hundred a week, in advance. It's an expensive job, Di."
"Very well; I will give you five hundred a week; but only as long as you work earnestly to carry out the plot. I shall watch you, Charlie. And you must not lose sight of the ultimate reward."
"I won't, my sweet cousin. It's a bargain," he said, readily enough. "When do I begin, and what's the program?"
"Draw your chair nearer," said Diana, restraining her triumphant joy. "I'll explain everything to you in detail. It will be my part to plan, and yours to execute."
"Good!" he exclaimed, with a cheerful grin. "I feel like an executioner already!"
OPENING THE CAMPAIGN
Louise's little romance, which now began to thrive vigorously, was regarded with calmness by her cousins and her mother, who knew of the former episode between her and Arthur and attached little importance to the renewed flirtation in which they indulged. That they were deceived in their estimate was due to the girl's reputation for frivolity where young men were concerned. She had been dubbed a "flirt" ever since she first began to wear long dresses, and her nature was not considered deep enough for her heart to be ever seriously affected. Therefore the young girl was gravely misjudged.
Louise was not one to bare her heart, even to her most intimate friends, and no one now suspected that at last her deepest, truest womanly affections were seriously involved. The love for Arthur that had lain dormant in her heart was aroused at a time when she was more mature and capable of recognizing truly her feelings, so that it was not long before she surrendered her reserve and admitted to him that life would mean little for her unless they might pass the years together. For his part, young Weldon sincerely loved Louise, and had never wavered from his firm devotion during all the past months of misunderstanding.
The general impression that they were "merely flirting" afforded the lovers ample opportunity to have their walks and drives together undisturbed, and during these soulful communions they arrived at such a perfect understanding that both were confident nothing could ever disturb their trust and confidence.
It was at a theatre party that the three debutantes first met Charlie Mershone, but they saw little of him that first evening and scarcely noticed his presence. Louise, indeed, noted that his eyes were fixed upon her more than once with thinly veiled admiration, and without a thought of disloyalty to Arthur, but acting upon the impulse of her coquettish nature, she responded with a demure smile of encouragement. Charlie Mershone was an adept at playing parts. He at first regarded Louise much as a hunter does the game he is stalking. Patsy Doyle was more jolly and Beth De Graf more beautiful than Miss Merrick; but the young man would in any event have preferred the latter's dainty personality. When he found her responsive to his admiring glances he was astounded to note his heart beating rapidly—a thing quite foreign to his usual temperament. Yes, this girl would do very nicely, both as a wife and as a banker. Assuredly the game was well worth playing, as Diana had asserted. He must make it his business to discover what difficulties must be overcome in winning her. Of course Arthur Weldon was the main stumbling-block; but Weldon was a ninny; he must be thrust aside; Diana had promised to attend to that.