LADIES MUST LIVE
ALICE DUER MILLER
Author of "Come Out of the Kitchen," etc.
Mrs. Ussher was having a small house party in the country over New Year's Day. This is equivalent to saying that the half dozen most fashionable people in New York were out of town.
Certain human beings are admitted to have a genius for discrimination in such matters as objects of art, pigs or stocks. Mrs. Ussher had this same instinct in regard to fashion, especially where fashions in people were concerned. She turned toward hidden social availability very much as the douser's hazel wand turns toward the hidden spring. When she crossed the room to speak to some woman after dinner, whatever that woman's social position might formerly have been, you could be sure that at present she was on the upward wing. When Mrs. Ussher discovered extraordinary qualities of mind and sympathy in some hitherto impossible man, you might be certain it was time to begin to book him in advance.
Not that Mrs. Ussher was a kingmaker; she herself had no more power over the situation than the barometer has over the weather. She merely was able to foretell; she had the sense of approaching social success.
She was unaware of her own powers, and really supposed that her sudden and usually ephemeral friendships were based on mutual attraction. The fact that for years her friends had been the small group of the momentarily fashionable required, in her eyes, no explanation. So simple was her creed that she believed people were fashionable for the same reason that they were her friends, because "they were so nice."
During the short period of their existence, Mrs. Ussher gave to these friendships the utmost loyalty and devotion. She agonized over the financial, domestic and romantic troubles of her friends; she sat up till the small hours, talking to them like a schoolgirl; during the height of their careers she organized plots for their assistance; and even when their stars were plainly on the decline, she would often ask them to lunch, if she happened to be alone.
Many people, we know, are prone to make friends with the rich and great. Mrs. Ussher's genius consisted in having made friends with them before they were either. When you hurried to her with some account of a newly discovered treasure—a beauty or a conversable young man—she would always say: "Oh, yes, I crossed with her two years ago," or "Isn't he a dear?—he was once in Jack's office." The strange thing was these statements were always true; the subjects of them confessed with tears that "dear Mrs. Ussher" or "darling Laura" was the kindest friend they had ever had.
Her house party was therefore likely to be notable.
First, there was of course Mrs. Almar—of course without her husband. There is only one thing, or perhaps two, to be said for Nancy Almar—that she was very handsome and that she was not a hypocrite, no more than a pirate is a hypocrite who comes aboard with his cutlass in his teeth. Mrs. Almar's cutlass was always in her teeth, when it was not in somebody's vitals.
She had smooth, jet-black hair, done close to her pretty head, a clear white-and-vermilion complexion, and a good figure, not too tall. She said little, but everything she did say, she most poignantly meant. If, while you were talking to her, she suddenly cried out: "Ah, that's really good!" there was no doubt you had had the good fortune to amuse her; while if she yawned and left you in the midst of a sentence there was no question that she was bored.
She hated her husband—not for the conventional reason that she had married him. She hated him because he was a hypocrite, because he was always placating and temporizing.
For instance, he had said to her as she was about to start for the Usshers':
"I hope you'll explain to them why I could not come."
There had never been the least question of Mr. Almar's coming, and she turned slowly and looked at him as she asked:
"You mean that I would not have gone if you had?"
He did not seem annoyed.
"No," he said, "that I'm called South on business."
"I shan't tell them that," she said, slowly wrapping her furs about her throat; and then foreseeing a comic moment, she added, "but I'll tell them you say so, if you like."
She was as good as her word—she usually was.
When the party was at tea about the drawing-room fire, she asked without the slightest change of expression:
"Would any one like to hear Roland's explanation of why he is not with us?"
"Had it anything to do with his not being asked?" said a pale young man; and as soon as he had spoken, he glanced hastily round the circle to ascertain how his remark had succeeded.
So far as Mrs. Almar was concerned it had not succeeded at all, in fact, though he did not know it, nothing he said would ever succeed with her again, although a week before she had hung upon his every word. He had been a new discovery, something unknown and Bohemian, but alas, a day or two before, she had observed that underlying his socialistic theories was an aching desire for social recognition. He liked to tell his bejeweled hostesses about his friends the car-drivers; but, oh, twenty times more, he would have liked to tell the car-drivers about his friends the bejeweled hostesses. For this reason Mrs. Almar despised him, and where she despised she made no secret of the fact.
"Not asked, Mr. Wickham!" she said. "I assume my husband is asked wherever I am," and then turning to Laura Ussher she added with a faint smile: "One's husband is always asked, isn't he?"
"Certainly, as long as you never allow him to come," said another speaker.
This was the other great beauty of the hour—or, since she was blond and some years younger than Mrs. Almar, perhaps it would be right to say that she was the beauty of the hour.
She was very tall, golden, fresh, smooth, yet with faint hollows in her cheeks that kept her freshness from being insipid. Christine Fenimer had another advantage—she was unmarried. In spite of the truth of the observation that a married woman's greatest charm is her husband, he is also in the most practical sense a disadvantage; he does sometimes stand across the road of advancement, even in a land of easy divorce. Mrs. Almar, for instance, was regretfully aware that she might have done much better than Roland Almar. The great stakes were really open to the unmarried.
She was particularly aware of this fact at the moment, for the party was understood to be awaiting a great stake. Mrs. Ussher had discovered a cousin, a young man who, soon after graduating from a technical college, had invented a process in the manufacture of rubber that had brought him a fortune before he was thirty. He was now engaged in spending it on aviation experiments. He was reckless and successful. Besides which he was understood to be personally attractive—his picture in a silver frame stood on a neighboring table. He was of the lean type that Mrs. Almar admired.
Now it was perfectly clear to her why he was asked. Mrs. Ussher adored Christine Fenimer. Of all girls in the world it was essential that Christine should marry money. This man, Max Riatt, new to the fashionable world, ought to be comparatively easy game. The thing ought to go on wheels. But Mrs. Almar herself was not indifferent to six feet of splendid masculinity; nor without her own uses at the moment for a good-looking young man.
In other words, there was going to be a contest; in the full sight of the little public that really mattered, the lists were set. Nobody present, except perhaps Wickham, who was dangerously ignorant of the world in which he was moving, doubted for one moment that Miss Fenimer had resolved to marry Max Riatt, if, that is, he turned out to be actually as per the recommendations of Mrs. Ussher; nor was it less certain that Mrs. Almar intended that he should be hers.
Of course if Mrs. Ussher had been absolutely single-minded, she would not have invited Mrs. Almar to this party; but though a warm friend to Christine Fenimer, Laura was not a fanatic, and the piratical Nancy was her friend, too.
Mrs. Almar could have pleaded an additional reason for her wish to interfere with this match, besides the natural one of not wishing Miss Fenimer to attain any success; and that was the fact that Edward Hickson, her brother, had wanted for several years to marry Christine. Hickson was a dull, kindly, fairly well-to-do young man—exactly the type you would like to see your rival marry. Hickson had motored out with his sister, and had received some excellent counsel on the way.
"Now, Ned," she had said, "don't cut your own throat by being an adoring foil. Don't let Christine grind your face in the dust, just to show this new man that she can do it."
"You don't do Christine justice," he had answered, "if you think she would do that."
His sister did not reply. She thought it would have been doing the girl injustice to suppose that she would do anything else.
They were still sitting about the tea-table at a quarter to seven, when Christine and Mrs. Almar rose simultaneously. It was almost time for the arrival of Riatt, and neither had any fancy for meeting him save at her best—in all the panoply of evening dress.
"We're not dining till a quarter past eight, my dears," said Mrs. Ussher.
Both ladies thought they would lie down before dinner. And here chance took a hand. Riatt's train was late, whereas Christine's clock was fast. And so it happened that she came downstairs just as he was coming up.
There had been no one to greet him. He was told by the butler that Mrs. Ussher was dressing, that dinner would be in fifteen minutes; he started to bound up the stairs, following the footman with his bags, when suddenly looking up the broad flight he saw a blond vision in white and pearls coming slowly down. He hoped that his lower jaw hadn't fallen, but she really was extraordinarily beautiful; and he could not help slowing down a little. She stopped, with her hand on the banisters, like Louise of Prussia.
"Oh, you're Mr. Riatt," she said, very gently. "You know you're most awfully late."
"I wish," he said, "that I were wise enough to be able to say: 'Oh, you're Miss ——'"
"I might be a Mrs."
"Oh, I hope not," he answered. "Are you?"
"You'll know as soon as you come down to dinner."
"I shall be quick about dressing."
He went on up, and she pursued her slow progress down. She felt that her future had been settled by those few seconds on the stairs.
"He will do admirably," she said to herself, and a smile like that of a sleeping infant curved her lips. She felt calmly triumphant. She had always said there was no reason why even a rich man should be absolutely impossible. She recalled certain great fortunes with repulsive owners, which some of her friends had accepted. For herself she had always intended to have everything—love and money, too. And here it was, almost in her hands. There had been moments when she had been so discouraged that she had actually made up her mind to marry Ned Hickson. How wise she had been to hold off!
She leant her arm on the mantel-piece and studied herself in the mirror. It was a Chinese painted mirror, and the tint of the glass was green and unbecoming, yet even this could not mar the dazzling reflection. The only object on which she looked with dissatisfaction was her string of pearls; they were imitation. She thought she would have emeralds; and she heard clearly in her own inner ear this sentence: "Yes, that is young Mrs. Max Riatt; is she not very beautiful in her emeralds!"
Fortunately she did not say it aloud, for Mrs. Ussher came down at this moment, and soon Hickson, and then in an incredibly short space of time Riatt himself.
Undoubtedly he would do magnificently. He stood the test even of evening clothes, though Christine fancied as she studied him that she would alter his style of collars. They would be better higher. Mrs. Ussher brought him over at once and introduced him.
"This is my cousin Max, Christine, about whom I've talked so much. Max, this is Miss Fenimer."
They smiled at each other with a common impulse not to confess that earlier meeting on the stairs; and he was just about to settle down beside her, when the door opened and, last of all, Mrs. Almar came in. She was wearing her flame-color and lilac dress. Christine knew she would have it on; knew that she saved it for the greatest moments. She did not advance very far into the room, but stood looking around her.
"Well," she said, "where is Cousin Max?"
It must not be supposed from this question that she had not seen him almost through the crack of the door as the butler opened it for her; but by speaking just when and where she did, she forced him to get up from Christine's side, and come to where she was to be introduced to her. Then as dinner was at the same instant announced, she put her hand on his arm.
"Take me in to dinner, Cousin Max," she said.
"I did not know he was your cousin," said Wickham, who suffered from the fatal tendency in moments of doubt to say something.
Mrs. Almar looked at Riatt.
"Will you be a cousin to me?" she asked. "It commits you to nothing."
"I don't consider that an advantage," he returned, drawing his elbow slightly inward, so that her hand, if not actually pressed, was made to feel secure upon his arm. "There are some things I wouldn't a bit mind being committed to."
Mrs. Almar moved her black head from side to side.
"You must be more specific," she said, "or I shan't understand you."
"More specific in words?" he inquired gently. They were crossing the hall, and had a sort of privacy for an instant.
"Dear me," she returned, "you do move rather rapidly, don't you?"
"I'm an aviator, you see," he answered.
Across the table Christine was trying to be gracious and graceful while she put up with Hickson, but she was feeling as any honest captain feels at having a prize cut out from under his very nose.
Mrs. Ussher seeing this, decided that such methods as Nancy's ought not to prevail; she seated herself on Max's other side, and instantly engaged in conversation.
"Don't you think my dear little Christine is an angel?" she said, without any encumbering subtility.
"She certainly looks like one."
"Who looks like what?" asked Mrs. Almar, from his other side. She had had this sort of thing tried too often not to be on her guard.
Mrs. Ussher leant forward.
"Max was just saying that Christine looks like an angel."
Nancy looked at him and made a very slight grimace.
"Are you so awfully strong for angels?" she said. He laughed.
"I never met one before."
"You haven't met one to-night."
"You mean that you're not an angel, Mrs. Almar?"
"I? Oh, I'm well and favorably known as the wickedest woman in New York. I meant that Miss Fenimer is not an angel."
"You don't like her?"
"How you jump at conclusions! To say she isn't an angel, doesn't mean dislike. As a matter of fact, I am eager to secure her as my sister-in-law."
Riatt glanced at Hickson and was aware of the faintest possible pang. What qualities, he wondered, had a man like that.
"Oh," he said, "is she engaged to your brother?"
"Certainly not," answered Mrs. Almar. "But it is fairly well understood by every one except my brother, that if she doesn't find anything better within the next few years she will put up with him."
At this a slight feeling of disgust for both ladies took possession of Riatt.
"I see," he said rather coldly, and turned to Mrs. Ussher, but Nancy was not so easily disposed of.
"You mean," she went on, "that you see it is my duty as a sister to prevent anything else turning up. Suppose, for example, that a handsome, rich, attractive young man should suddenly appear upon the scene and show an interest in the angelic Christine." (By this time Riatt had turned again to her, and she looked straight into his eyes as she ran through her list of adjectives.) "Don't you think it would be my duty to distract his attention—to go almost any length to distract his attention?"
"However personally disagreeable to you the process might be?"
"Probably if he were as I described him, the process would not be so disagreeable."
He smiled. There was no denying he found her amusing.
In the meantime, the couple across the table had reached a somewhat similar point.
Hickson had said as they sat down:
"Well, and what do you think of this new fellow?"
Christine's natural irritation appeared in her answer.
"I have hardly had an opportunity of judging," she answered, "but, watching your sister's attentions to him, I would say he must be extremely attractive."
Hickson looked a little dashed.
"Oh," he said, "Nancy does not mean anything when she goes on like that."
The only effect of this speech was to depress further Miss Fenimer's estimate of her companion's intelligence, for in her opinion Nancy's whole life was one long black intention. Feeling this, Ned went on:
"As a matter of fact, one reason why she's so nice to him is to keep him away from you and give me a chance."
"Not very flattering to you, is it?"
"What do you mean?"
"The assumption that the only way to make a woman take an interest in you is to prevent her speaking to any other man."
"Oh, I didn't mean that—" Hickson began, but she interrupted him.
"That, if anything, Ned." And she turned to Wickham, who sat on her other side.
Wickham was waiting for a little notice and began instantly.
"I have been taking the liberty of looking at your pearls, Miss Fenimer, and indulging in such an interesting speculation. Here on the one hand, you are wearing round your throat the equivalent of life, health and virtue for half a hundred working girls, as young, as human, as yourself. Are we to say this is wrong? Are we to say that beautiful jewels worn by beautiful women are a crime against society—"
"One moment, Mr. Wickham," she said. "My pearls are imitation and cost eight dollars and fifty cents without the clasp. But," she added cruelly, seeing his face fall, "you can say that same thing to your friend Mrs. Almar, because hers are not artificial, though I have heard her assert sometimes that they are," and turning back to Hickson, who was laboriously trying to carry on a conversation with his host, she interrupted ruthlessly to say, hardly lowering her voice:
"Why in the world, Ned, did Nancy bring this Wickham man here? He's perfectly impossible."
"Nancy didn't bring him," answered her brother innocently. "I motored out with her myself."
"She said she wouldn't come unless he were asked. Still I know the answer. Nancy has always had a weakness for blond boys, and last week she was crazy about this one. Now she has turned against him, she wants to foist him off on us, but I for one don't intend to help her out—"
By this time Wickham, aware that he had been rebuffed, had found an explanation for it. The girl was annoyed at having been forced to admit her pearls were imitation. He decided to put everything right.
"Miss Fenimer," he said, and she turned her head perhaps half an inch in his direction, "I think you misunderstood me just now. My standards are probably different from those of the men you are accustomed to. To me the fact that your pearls are not real is an added beauty. I'm glad they're not—"
"Thank you," said Christine, "but I'm not." And this time he understood that he had lost her for good.
After dinner, Mrs. Almar, knowing that her innings were over, very effectively prevented Christine having hers, by insisting on playing bridge. She had an excellent head for cards, and always needed money. Christine allowed herself to be drawn in, supposing that Riatt would be one of the players, and found herself seated opposite to Hickson and next to Jack Ussher.
Wickham, feeling very much left out and desirous of showing how well accustomed he was to the casual manners of polite society, consoled himself with an evening paper. Laura Ussher led Riatt to a comfortable corner out of earshot of the bridge-table.
"Now do tell me, Max," she said, "what you think of them all."
"I think, my dear Laura," he answered, "that they are a very playful band of cut-throats, and next time you ask me to stay, I hope you and Jack will be entirely alone."
* * * * *
The servants in a household like the Usshers' were subjected to almost every strain, except that of early rising. No one dreamed of coming down stairs before eleven, and most people not until lunch time.
The next morning Riatt was among the first—that is to say he was up early enough not to be able to escape a tour of inspection of the place under the guidance of his host. He had seen the stables and the new garage, and the sheet of snow beneath which lay the garden, and the other totally different sheet of snow beneath which was the soil in which Ussher intended next summer to plant a rose garden. He had gone over, tree by tree, the plantation of firs, and had noted how the tips of some were injured, and had given his opinion as to whether or not it were likely that deer had stolen down from the wild country near at hand and nibbled the young firs in the night.
"It's perfectly possible," said Ussher. "I have five hundred acres myself, and then the Club owns a huge tract, and then there's some state land. You see we have hardly any neighbors except the Fenimers and they're eight or nine miles away."
"They live here?"
"In summer—and then only when Fred Fenimer is in funds, and that's not often. A precarious sort of existence, his—gambling in mining stocks, almost always in wrong. Hard on the daughter—wish some nice fellow would come along and marry her."
"He probably will," answered Riatt rather coldly. "It's beginning to snow again."
Ussher had just had his pond swept so that his guests could skate, and now couldn't imagine what he should provide for them for the afternoon, so that his thoughts were instantly and completely turned from Christine's problems to his own.
At the house they found every one waiting for lunch; Mrs. Almar and Christine chattering together on a window-seat as if they were the most intimate allies; Hickson reading his fourth morning paper, and Mrs. Ussher paying the profoundest attention to something Wickham was saying. She had suddenly wakened to the fact that he was having a wretched time and that he was after all her guest. But he interpreted her actions differently, and supposing that he was at last being appreciated, he had launched fearlessly forth upon the conversational sea. It was this spectacle that had drawn Christine and Nancy together, in their whisperings and giggles in the window.
"This perhaps will illustrate my meaning," he was saying rather loudly: "this is the difference in our outlook on life. If you say 'she dresses well,' you intend a compliment, but to me it is just the reverse. The idea is repellent to me that a woman wastes time, thought, money on her vanity, on decking her body—"
"One on you, my dear," whispered Christine.
"Isn't he tiresome?" answered Nancy, shutting her eyes.
"I thought he was your selection."
"Nobody's infallible, my dear. Besides, I telegraphed him not to accept the invitation, but he says he never got my message."
"Why does he think you sent it?"
"Because I couldn't trust myself—"
They grinned at each other.
With the entrance of Riatt and Ussher they went in to lunch, and there manoeuvering for places for the afternoon immediately began.
Hickson supposed that by starting early he could secure Christine's company. So he at once asked her what she was going to do, and before she had time to answer he had suggested that she skate, take a walk, or go sleighing with him. Ussher explained that the skating was spoiled, and Christine under cover of this diversion managed to avoid committing herself.
As a matter of fact her afternoon was arranged. She had told Laura Ussher a pathetic story of having to go over to her father's house, and look up an old fur coat of his which had been left behind when the house was shut for the winter. Mr. Fenimer was known to be rather an irritable parent where questions of his own comfort were concerned; it was not impossible that he would make himself disagreeable if his orders were not carried out. Laura did not inquire very closely, but she agreed that the best way for Christine to traverse the distance would be for Riatt to drive her over in the cutter. Riatt sat next to Laura at luncheon, and she put it to him, when the general conversation was loudest.
"Would you mind awfully driving poor little Christine over to her own place to get something or other for that horrid father of hers?"
Of course Riatt didn't say he did mind; as a matter of fact he didn't. He might even have enjoyed the prospect, if it hadn't been for the slight hint of compulsion about it.
"It's snowing, you know," he said.
"It doesn't amount to anything," answered his cousin. "But surely, Max, you're not afraid of a little snow, if she isn't!"
"Anything to oblige you, Laura," he said.
She did not quite like his tone, but felt she might safely leave the rest to Christine.
Mrs. Almar, unaware of these plots, settled down as soon as the meal was over, on a comfortable sofa large enough for two, with a box of cigarettes at her side and a current magazine that contained a new article on flying. The bird-like objects in the huge page of cloudy sky at once caught Max's eye. He came and bent over it and her, with his hands in his pockets. Still absorbed in it, she half-unconsciously swept aside her skirts, and he sat down beside her. She murmured a question—it was only about planes, and he answered it. Their heads were close together when Christine came down in her dark furs ready to go. The bells of Jack Ussher's fastest trotter were already to be heard tinkling at the door.
"Are you ready, Max?" said Laura, rather sharply.
"Laura expects every man to do his duty," murmured Nancy, without looking up.
Riatt expressed himself as entirely ready. Ussher lent him a fur cap and heavy gloves, warned him about the charmingly uncertain character of the horse; he and Christine were tucked into the sleigh, and they were off.
The snow, as Laura had said, did not seem to amount to much, the wind was behind them, the horse fast, the roads well packed. Riatt glanced down at his lovely companion, and felt his spirits rising. He smiled at her and she smiled back.
"I do hope you really feel like that," she said, "not sorry, I mean, to go on this expedition. Because it was extremely wicked of me to forget my father's coat, and this was obviously the occasion to make amends, but there was no one to take me—"
"No one to take you?"
"Oh, I suppose one of the grooms might have driven me over, but I should have hated that. There was no one else. Jack is much too selfish, and I wouldn't have gone with that Wickham person for anything in the world, even if he had ever driven a sleigh, which I am sure he hasn't."
"And how about Mr. Hickson?" Riatt asked. "Wasn't he a possibility?"
"What has Nancy Almar told you about her brother and me?"
"Nothing but what he told me himself in every look and word—that he loves you."
He smiled at her.
"And you're glad of it," he said.
"You mean I care for him?"
"I don't know anything about that, but you're glad he cares for you."
"You're utterly mistaken."
"How would you feel if another woman came and took him away from you to-morrow?"
"Took him away from me?" cried Christine, in a tone of surprise that made Riatt laugh aloud.
"That's the wonderful thing about the so-called weaker sex," he said. "Saying 'no' seems to have no terrors to them at all. The timidest girl will refuse a man with no more trouble and anxiety than she would expend on refusing a dinner invitation; whereas men, with all their vaunted courage, are absolutely at the mercy of a determined woman. I have a friend who has just married a girl—whom he three times explicitly refused—only because she asked him to."
Miss Fenimer looked at him thoughtfully.
"Surely you exaggerate," she said.
He shook his head sadly.
"I wish I did," he returned, "but I assure you that is the great secret—that any man would rather marry any woman than refuse her to her face. You see, no graceful way for a man to say 'no' has ever been discovered."
"Why, you poor defenseless creatures!" said Christine. "I'll teach you some ways immediately. I couldn't bear to think of your going about a prey to the first woman who proposed to you. Let us begin our lessons immediately. Have I your attention?"
"Let me see. In the first place there are several general types of proposal. There is the calmly rational, the passionate whirlwind, the dangerously controlled, or volcano under a sheet of ice—" she broke off. "I don't know how women do it," she said. "I only know about men."
He smiled, "But you admit to knowing all about them, I gather?"
It would have been folly to deny it.
"And then there's the meltingly pathetic," she went on. "I imagine that's what women attempt oftenest. Let us begin with that. Now you are to suppose that I, with tears streaming down my face, have just confessed that I have always looked up to you as a sort of god, that I hardly dare—"
"Wait, wait!" cried Riatt. "This is by far the most interesting part of the lesson, and you go so fast. I have no imagination. I don't know how it would be, you must say all those things."
"Do I have to cry?" said Christine.
Riatt debated the point.
"No," he answered at length, "I can imagine the tears, but everything else you must act out. Particularly that part about my seeming like a god to you."
"But how in the world can I teach you what to do, if I have to act a part myself?"
"Well, before we begin, just give me a sketch of what I ought to do."
"You must be very cold and firm, and explain to me that though my mistake is natural, you are really not a god at all; and then that gives you an excuse to talk a great deal about yourself, and tell how wicked and human and splendid you are, and that you are not worthy of a simple, good girl like myself, and how you don't love me anyhow. And then the essential thing is to go away quickly, and end the interview before I have a chance to begin all over again."
He looked doubtfully at the snow.
"Must I get out and walk home?" he asked.
"No," she said. "I think that's too complicated. We might try an easier one to begin. Suppose we do the calmly rational first. I explain to you that I have watched you from boyhood, and have come to the conclusion that our tastes, our intellects, our—"
"Oh, no," said Riatt, "there's really no use in going on with that. Even I should have no difficulty with any lady who approached me in that way. But there was one of the others that sounded rather promising and difficult. How about the passionate whirlwind? I say to try that next."
To her surprise, Christine found herself coloring a little.
"Ah," she said, laying her hand on her lips and shaking her head, "that's very difficult, because you see, it really can't be imitated—"
"Can't be imitated!" cried Max. "Why, what sort of a teacher are you? I believe you don't know your job. You are the sort of teacher who would tell an arithmetic class that long division could not be imitated. I believe the trouble with you is that you don't understand the passionate whirlwind yourself. I believe you're a fraud, and I shall have your license to teach taken away from you. Can't be imitated! Well, let me see you try, at least."
Christine felt that he had the better of her, but she said firmly:
"Are you teaching this subject, or am I?"
"Certainly you can't think you are. But if you say so, I'll have a try."
Not sorry to create a diversion, Christine looked about her, and was more diverted from the subject in hand than she had expected to be.
They were on the wrong road. What with the snow and the fact that she had been so busy talking that she really had no idea how far they had been, it took her a moment to orient herself anew. She told him with a conscience-struck look.
"And you," said Riatt, "who do not even know the road to your own house, were volunteering to pilot me through an emotional crisis."
Even a suggestion of adverse criticism was unpleasant to Miss Fenimer. She was not accustomed to it; and she answered with some sharpness:
"Yes, but the road is real, whereas I understand your embarrassment through the attentions of ladies is purely fictitious."
Riatt wondered how fictitious, but he turned the cutter about in obedience to her commands. The horse started forward even more gaily, under the impression that he was going home. But for the drivers, the change was not so agreeable. A high wind had come up, the snow was falling faster, and the light of the winter afternoon, already beginning to fade, was obscured by high, dark, silver-edged banks of clouds.
"Upon my word," said Riatt, "I think we had better go back."
"It's only a little way from here," Christine answered, trying hard to think how far it really was. She did want to get her father's coat, but she was not indifferent to the triumph of making Riatt late for dinner, and leaving Nancy Almar throughout the afternoon with no companion but Wickham or Jack Ussher.
The wind cut their faces, the horse pulled and pranced, the gaiety had gone out of their little expedition. They drove on a mile or so, and then Riatt stopped the horse.
"We've got to go back, Miss Fenimer," he said firmly.
"Oh, please not, Mr. Riatt; we are almost there, and," she added with a fine sense of filial obligation, "I really feel I must do as my father asked me."
Riatt felt inclined to point out that she, with her muff held up to her face, was not making the greatest sacrifice to the ideal of duty.
"Have you any very clear idea where your house is?" he asked. His tone was not flattering, and Christine was quick to feel it.
"Do I know where I live five months of the year?" she returned. "Of course I do. It's just over this next hill."
The afternoon was turning out so perversely that she would hardly have been surprised to find that the house had disappeared from its accustomed place. But as they came over the crest, there it was, in a hollow between two hills, looking as summer houses do in winter, like a forlorn toy left out in the snow.
"But it's shut up," said Riatt. "There's no one in it."
"I have the keys to the back door."
He touched the horse for the first time with the whip, and they went jingling down the slope, in between the almost completely buried gateposts, and drew up before the kitchen door.
Miss Fenimer kicked her feet free from the rugs, jumped out, and from the recesses of her muff produced a key which she inserted in the lock.
"Now you won't be long, will you?" said Riatt, with more of command than persuasion in his tone.
It was a principle of life on the part of Christine that she never allowed any man to bully her; or perhaps, it would be more nearly just to say that she never intended to allow any man to do so until she herself became persuaded that he could, and with this object she always made the process look as difficult and dangerous as possible at the very beginning.
She looked back at him and smiled with irritating calm.
"I shall be just as long as is necessary," she replied, and so saying, she turned, or rather attempted to turn, the key.
But disuse, or cold, or her own lack of strength prevented and she was presently reduced to asking Riatt to help her. He did not volunteer his assistance. She had definitely and directly to ask for it. Then he was friendliness itself.
"Just stand by the horse's head, will you?" he said, and when he saw her stationed there, he sprang out, and with an almost insulting ease opened the door.
Just as he did so, however, a gust of wind, fiercer than any other, swept round the corner of the house and carried away Christine's hat. She made a quick gesture to catch it, and as she did so, struck the horse under the chin. The animal reared, and Christine jumped aside to avoid being struck by its hoofs; the next instant, it had thrown its head in the air, and started at full speed down the road, dragging the empty sleigh after it. Riatt, who had his back turned, did not see the beginning of the incident, but a cry from Christine soon roused his attention, and he started in pursuit, calling to the animal to stop, in the hope that the human voice might succeed when all other methods were quite obviously useless. But the horse, now thoroughly excited by the hanging reins, the bells, and the sense of its own power, went only faster and faster, and finally disappeared at full speed.
Riatt came slowly back; he was sinking in the snow to his waist at every step. Christine was watching him with some anxiety.
"Is there a telephone in the house?" he asked.
She shook her head.
"No, it's disconnected when we leave in the autumn."
There was a moment's silence, then she said questioningly: "What shall we do?"
"There's only one thing we can do," he returned; "go into the house and light a fire."
But Christine hesitated.
"I don't think it will be wise to waste time doing that," she said, "if you have to go back on foot to the Usshers'—"
"Go back on foot!" Riatt interrupted. "My dear Miss Fenimer, that is quite impossible. It must be every inch of ten miles, it's dark, a blizzard is blowing, I don't know the way, and we haven't passed a house."
"But, but," said she, "suppose they don't rescue us to-night?"
"They probably will to-morrow," answered Riatt, and he walked past her into the house.
Christine was glad to get out of the wind, but the damp chill of the deserted house was not much of an improvement. Ahead of her in the darkness, she could hear Riatt snapping electric switches which produced nothing.
"Isn't the light connected?" he called.
"I don't know."
"Aren't there lamps in the house?"
"I don't know."
"Where could I find some candles?"
"What a tiresome man!" she thought; and for the third time she answered: "I don't know."
A rather unappreciative grunt was his only reply, and then he called back: "You'd better stay where you are, till I find something to make a light."
She asked nothing better. She was oppressed with a sense of crisis. An inner voice seemed to be saying, in parody of Charles Francis Adams's historic words: "I need hardly point out to your ladyship that this means marriage."
She had thought, lightly enough, that everything was settled the evening before on the stairs when she had made up her mind that he would do. But with all her belief in herself, she was not unaware even then that unforeseen obstacles might arise. He might be secretly engaged for all she knew to the contrary. But now she felt quite sure of him. With Fate playing into her hands like this—with romance and adventure and the possibilities of an uninterrupted tete-a-tete, she knew she could have him if she wanted him. And the point was that she did. At least she supposed she did. She felt as many a young man feels when he lands his first job—triumphant, but conscious of lost freedoms.
Marriage, she knew, was the only possible solution of her problems. Her life with her father was barely possible. As a matter of fact they were but rarely together. The tiny apartment in New York did not attract Fred Fenimer as a winter residence, when he had an opportunity of going to Aiken or Florida or California at the expense of some more fortunate friend. In summer it was much the same. "My dear," he would say to his daughter, "I really can't afford to open the house this summer." And Christine would coldly acquiesce, knowing that this statement only meant that he had received an invitation that he preferred to a quiet summer with her.
Sometimes throughout the whole season father and daughter would only meet by chance on some unexpected visit, or coming into a harbor on different yachts.
"Isn't that the Sea-Mew's flag?" Christine would say languidly. "I rather think my father is on board."
And then, perhaps, some amiable hostess in need of an extra man would send the launch to the Sea-Mew to bring Mr. Fenimer back to dine; and he would come on board, very civil, very neat, very punctilious on matters of yachting etiquette; and he and Christine having exchanged greeting, would find that they had really nothing whatsoever to say to each other.
Their only vital topic of conversation was money, and as this was always disagreeable, both of them instinctively tried to avoid it. Whenever Fenimer had money, he either speculated with it, or immediately spent it on himself. So that he was always able to say with perfect truth, whenever his daughter asked for it, that he had none. The result of this was that she had easily drifted into the simple custom of running up bills for whatever she needed, and allowing the tradesmen to fight it out with her father.
Such a system does not tend to economy. Christine's idea of what was necessary, derived from the extravagant friends who offered her the most opportunity for amusing herself, enlarged year by year. Besides, she asked herself, why should she deny herself, in order that her father might lose more money in copper stocks?
Sometimes during one of their casual meetings, he would say to her under his breath: "Good Heavens, girl, do you know, I've just had a bill of almost three thousand dollars from your infernal dressmaker? How can I stop your running up such bills?" And she would answer coolly: "By paying them every year or so."
She knew—she had always known since she was a little girl—that from this situation, only marriage could rescue her, and from the worse situation that would follow her father's death; for she suspected that he was deeply in debt. Not having been brought up in a sentimental school she was prepared to do her share in arranging such a marriage. In the world in which she lived, competition was severe. Already she had seen a possible husband carried off under her nose by a little school-room mouse who had had the aid of an efficient mother.
But now for the first time in her life, she saw that the game was in her own hands. She had only to do the right thing—only perhaps to avoid doing the wrong one—and her future was safe.
She heard Riatt calling and she followed him into the laundry, where he had collected some candles: he was much engaged in lighting a fire in the stove.
"But wouldn't the kitchen range be better?" she asked.
"No water turned on," he answered.
To her this answer was utterly unintelligible. What, she wondered, was the connection between fire and water. But, rather characteristically, she was disinclined to ask. She walked to the sink, however, and turned the tap; a long husky cough came from it, but no water.
After this burst of energy she sank into a chair, amused to watch his arrangements. Thoroughly idle people—and there is not much question that Miss Fenimer was idle—learn a variety of methods for keeping other people at work, and probably the most effective of these is flattery. Christine may have been ignorant of the feminine arts of cooking and fire-making; but of the super-feminine art of flattery she was a thorough mistress.
Now as Riatt finished building his fire, and began to bring in buckets of snow to supply their need of water, the gentle flow of her flattery soothed him as the sound of a hidden brook in the leafy month of June. Nor, strangely enough, did the fact that he dimly apprehended its purpose in the least interfere with his enjoyment.
"If ever I'm thrown away on a desert island, I speak to be thrown away with you," she said. "There isn't another man of my acquaintance who could bring order out of these primitive conditions."
He laughed. "Well, you know," he said, "this isn't really what you'd call primitive. I was snowed up in Alaska once."
"Alaska! You've been snowed up in Alaska?" she echoed in the tone of a child who says: was it a black bear?
Oh, yes, it lightened his toil. Nevertheless, he asked for her assistance in trying to find something to eat. She knew no more about the kitchen than he did, but she advanced toward a door and opened it gingerly between her thumb and forefinger. It was the kitchen closet. She opened a tin box.
"There is something here that looks like gravel," she called. He rushed to her side. It was cereal. He found other supplies, too, a little salt, sugar, coffee, and a jar of bacon.
"How clever of you to know what they all are," she murmured, and he felt as if he had invented them out of thin air, like an Eastern magician.
He carried them back to the kitchen. "I wonder if you'd get the coffee grinder," he said.
She hadn't the faintest idea what a coffee grinder looked like, but she went away to find it, and came back presently with an object strange enough to serve any purpose.
"Is this it?" she asked.
"That's a meat chopper," he answered, and then laughed. "You're not a very good housekeeper, are you?"
"Of course not," she said. "Did you ever know an agreeable woman who was? Good housekeepers are always bores, because they can never for an instant get their minds off the most tiresome things in the world like bills, and how the servants are behaving. All clever women are bad housekeepers, and so they always find some one like you to take care of them."
He was putting the cereal to boil, and answered only after a second. "Perhaps you'll think me old-fashioned, but I cannot help respecting the art of housekeeping."
"Oh, so do I in its place," replied Miss Fenimer. "My maid does the whole thing capitally. But let me give you a test. Think of the very best housekeeper you ever met. Would you like to have her here instead of me? You may be quite candid."
Riatt stopped and considered an instant with his head on one side. "She'd make me awfully comfortable," he said.
Miss Fenimer nodded, as much as to say: yes, but even so—
"No," he said at length, as if the decision had been close. "No, after all I would rather do the work and have you. But it isn't because you are a poor housekeeper that I prefer you. It's because—"
Compliments upon her, charms were platitudes to Christine, and she cut him short. "Yes, it is. It's because I'm so detached, and don't interfere, and let you do things your own way, and think you so wonderful to be able to do them at all. Now if I knew how to do them, too, I should be criticizing and suggesting all the time, and you'd have no peace. You like me for being a poor housekeeper."
He smiled. "On that ground I ought to like you very much then," he answered.
"Perhaps you do," she said cheerfully. "Anyhow I'm sure you like me better than that other girl you were thinking of—that good housekeeper. Who is she?"
"I like her quite a lot."
"I see—you think she'd make a good wife."
"I think she'd make a good wife to any man who was fortunate enough—"
"Oh, what a dreadful way to talk of the poor girl!"
"On the contrary, I admire her extremely."
"I believe you are engaged to her."
"Not as much as you are to Hickson."
Christine laughed. "From the way you describe her," she said, "I believe she'd make a perfect wife for Ned."
"Oh, she's much too good for him."
"Thank you. You seem to think I'll do nicely for him."
"Ah, but she's much better than you are."
"And yet you said you'd rather have me here than her."
He smiled. "I think," he said, and Christine rather waited for his next words, "I think I shall go down and see if I can't get the furnace going."
Nevertheless, she said to herself when he was gone, "I should not feel at all easy about him, if I were the other girl."
She knew there was no prospect of their being rescued that night. When the sleigh arrived at the Usshers', if it ever did arrive, its empty shattered condition would suggest an accident. The Usshers were at that moment probably searching for them in ditches, and hedges. The marks of the sleigh would be quickly obliterated by the storm. No, she thought comfortably, there was no escape from the fact that their situation was compromising. The only question was how could the matter be most tactfully called to his attention. At the moment he seemed happily unaware that such things as the proprieties existed.
At this his head appeared at the head of the cellar stairs.
"Watch the cereal, please," he said, "and see that it doesn't burn."
"Like King Alfred?"
"Not too much like him, please, for that pitiful little dab of food is about all we have to eat."
When he was gone Christine advanced toward the stove and looked at the cereal—looked at it closely, but it seemed to her to be but little benefited by her attention. Presently she discovered on a shelf beside the laundry clock a pinkish purple paper novel, called: "The Crime of the Season." Its cover depicted a man in a check suit and side-whiskers looking on in astonishment at the removal of a drowned lady in full evening dress from a very minute pond. Christine opened it, and was so fortunate as to come full upon the crime. She became as completely absorbed in it as the laundress had been before her.
She was recalled to the more sordid but less criminal surroundings of real life by a strong pungent smell. She sniffed, and then her heart suddenly sank as she realized that the cereal was burning. She recognized a peculiarly disagreeable flavor about which she had often scolded the cook, thinking such carelessness on the part of one of her employees to be absolutely inexcusable.
She ran to the head of the cellar stairs. "Mr. Riatt!" she called.
He was now shaking down the furnace, and the noise completely drowned her voice. "Oh, dear, what a noisy man he is," she thought and when he had finished, she called again: "Mr. Riatt!"
This time he heard. "What is it?" he answered.
"Mr. Riatt, what shall I do? The cereal is burning terribly."
"I should think it was," he said. "I can smell it down here." He sprang up the stairs and snatched the pot from the stove. "You must have stopped stirring it," he said.
"Oh, I didn't stir it!"
"What did you do?"
"You didn't tell me to stir it."
"I certainly did."
"No, you said just to watch it."
Riatt looked at her. "Well," he said, "I've heard of glances cutting like a knife, but never stirring like a spoon. If I were a really just man," he went on, "I'd make you eat that burnt mess for your supper, but I'm so absurdly indulgent that I'll share some of my bacon and biscuits with you."
His tone as well as his words were irritating to one not used to criticism in any form.
"I don't care for that sort of joke," she said.
"I wasn't aware of having made a joke."
"I mean your attitude as if I were a child that had been naughty."
"It wouldn't be so bad if you were a child."
"You consider me to blame because that wretched cereal chose to burn?"
"Emphatically I do."
"How perfectly preposterous," said Christine, and a sense of bitter injustice seethed within her. "Why in the world should I be expected to know how to cook?"
"I'm a little too busy at the moment to explain it to you," Riatt answered, "but I promise to take it up with you at a later date."
There was something that sounded almost like a threat in this. She turned away, and walking to the window stood staring out into the darkness. He was really quite a disagreeable young man, she thought. How true it was, that you couldn't tell what people were like when everything was going smoothly. She wondered if he would always be like that—trying to keep one up to one's duty and making one feel stupid and ignorant about the merest trifles.
"Well, this rich meal is ready," he said presently.
She turned around. The table was set—she couldn't help wondering where he had found the kitchen knives and forks—the bacon was sizzling, the tin of biscuits open, and the coffee bubbling and gurgling in its glass retort.
She sat down and began to eat in silence, but as she did so, she studied him furtively. She was used to many different kinds of masculine bad temper; her father's irritability whenever anything affected his personal comfort: and from other men all forms of jealousy and hurt feelings. But this stern indifference to her as a human being was something a little different. She decided on her method.
"Oh, dear," she said, "this meal couldn't be much drearier if we were married, could it?"
"Except," he returned, unsmilingly, "that then it would be one of a long series."
"Not as far as I'm concerned," she answered. "I should leave you on account of your bad temper."
"If I hadn't first left you on account of—"
"Of burning the cereal?"
"Of being so infernally irresponsible about it."
"Oh, that's the trouble, is it?" she said. "That I did not seem to care? Well, I assure you that I don't like burnt food any better than you do, but I have some self-control. I wouldn't spoil a whole evening just because—" A sudden inspiration came to her. Her voice failed her, and she hid her face in her pocket handkerchief.
Riatt leant back in his chair and looked at her, looked at least at the back of her long neck, and the twist of her golden hair and the occasional heave of her shoulders.
The strange and the humiliating thing was that she had just as much effect upon him when he quite obviously knew that she was insincere.
"Why," he said gently, "are you crying? Or perhaps I ought to say, why are you pretending to cry?"
She paid no attention to the latter part of his question.
"You're so unkind," she said, careful not to overdo a sob. "You don't seem to understand what a terrible situation this is for me."
"In what way is it terrible?"
"Don't you know that a story like this clings to a girl as long as she lives? That among the people I know there will always be gossip—"
"You're not serious?"
She nodded, still behind her handkerchief, "Yes, I am. This will be something I shall have to live down, as much as you would if you had robbed a bank."
She now raised her head, and wiping her eyes hard enough to make them a little red, she glanced at him.
Really she thought it would save a great deal of time and trouble, if he could just see the thing clearly and ask her to marry him now.
But apparently his mind did not work so quickly.
"Who will repeat it?" he said. "Not the Usshers—"
"Nancy Almar won't let it pass. She'll have found the evening dull without you, and she'll feel she has a right to compensation. And that worm, Wickham; it will be his favorite anecdote for the rest of his life. I was horrible to him last night at dinner."
"Sorry you were?"
"Not a bit. I'd do it again, but I may as well face the fact that he won't be eager to conceal his own social triumphs for the sake of my good name. Can't you hear him, 'Curious thing happened the other day—at my friends the Usshers'. Know them? A lovely country place—'—"
"I'm awfully sorry," he said. "What a bore! Is there anything I could do—"
"Well, there is one thing."
He looked up quickly. If ever terror flashed in a man's eyes, she saw it then in his. Her heart sank, but her mind worked none the less well.
"It's this," she went on smoothly. "There's a lodge, a sort of tool-house, only about half a mile down the road. Couldn't you take a lantern, couldn't you possibly spend the night there?"
"It isn't by any chance," he said, "that you're afraid of having me here?"
"Oh, no, not you," she answered. "No, I should feel much safer with you here than there." (If he went her case was ruined, and she was now actually afraid perhaps he would go.) "I should be terrified in this great place all by myself. Still, I think you ought to go. It's not so very far. You go down the road a little way and then turn to the right through the woods. I think you'll find it. The roof used to leak a little, but I dare say you won't mind that. There isn't any fireplace, but you could take lots of blankets—"
"I tell you what I'll do," he said. "No one will come to rescue us to-night. I'll sleep here to-night, and to-morrow as soon as it's light, I'll go to this cottage, and when they come, you can tell them any story you please. Will that do?"
It did perfectly. "Oh, thank you," she said. "How kind you are! And you do forgive me, don't you?"
"About the cereal? Oh, yes, on one condition."
"What is that?" She was still meltingly sweet.
"That you wash these dishes."
She felt inclined to box his ears. Had he seen through her all the time?
"I never washed a dish in my life," she observed thoughtfully.
"Have you ever done anything useful?"
She reflected, and after some thought she replied, not boastfully, but as one who states an indisputable fact: "Never."
He folded his arms, leant against the wall and looked down upon her. "I wish," he said, "if it isn't too much trouble that you would give me a detailed account of one of your average days."
"You talk," said she, "as if you were studying the manners and customs of savages."
"Let us say of an unknown tribe."
She leant back in her chair and stretched her arms over her head. "Well, let me see," she said. "I wake up about nine or a little after if I haven't been up all night, and I ring for my maid. And about eleven—"
"Don't skip, please. You ring for your maid. What does she do for you?"
Imagine any one's not knowing! Miss Fenimer marveled. "Why, she draws my bath and puts out my things, and while I'm taking my bath, she straightens the room and lights the fire, if it's cold, and brings in my breakfast-tray and my letters. And by half-past ten, I'm finally dressed if no one has come in to delay me, only some one always has. Last winter my time was immensely occupied by two friends of mine who had both fallen in love with the same man—one of them was married to him—and they used to come every day and confide in me. You have no idea how amusing it was. He behaved shockingly, but I couldn't help feeling a little sorry for him. They were both such determined women. Finally I went to him, and told him how it was I knew so much about his affairs, and said I thought he ought to try and make up his mind which of them he really did care for. And what do you think he said? That he had always been in love with me." She laughed. "How absurdly things happen, don't they?"
"Good Heavens!" said Riatt.
"But even at the worst, I'm generally out by noon, and get a walk. I'm rather dependent on exercise, and then I lunch with some one or other—"
"Men or women?"
"Either or both. And then after lunch I drive with some one, or go to see pictures or hear music, and then I like to be at home by tea time, because that's, of course, the hour every one counts on finding you; and then there's dressing and going out to dinner, and very often something afterwards."
"Good Lord," said Riatt again, and after a moment he added: "And does that life amuse you?"
"No, but it doesn't bore me as much as doing things that are more trouble."
"What sort of things?"
"Oh, being on committees that you don't really take any interest in." She rather enjoyed his amazement.
"Now tell me one thing more," he said. "What would you do if you had to earn your living?"
The true answer was that she would marry Edward Hickson, but, though heretofore she had been fairly candid, she thought on this point a little dissembling was permissible. "I should starve, I suppose," she returned gaily.
"And suppose you fell in love with a poor man?"
She grew grave at once. "Oh, that's a dreadful thing to happen to one," she said. "I've had two friends who did that." She almost shuddered. "One actually married him."
"And what happened to her?"
Miss Fenimer shook her head. "I don't know. She's living in the suburbs somewhere. I haven't seen her for ages."
"And the other?"
"She was more practical. She married him to a rich widow ten years older than he was. That provided for him, you see, at least. But it turned out worse than the other case."
"Why, he fell in love with this other woman—"
"His wife, you mean?"
"Yes. Imagine it! Men are so fickle."
"Do you know that you really shock me?"
"It's better to appreciate the way things are."
"It isn't the way things are among decent normal human beings."
She shrugged her shoulders. "Oh, I imagine it is," she said, "only they're not honest enough to admit it."
He continued to stare at her and, strangely enough, she had never seemed to him more beautiful.
"And do you mean to tell me," he said, "that people who have the standards that you describe will attach the slightest importance to an innocent little adventure like this of ours?"
"Of course. They are the very people who will."
"Yes, because they make a point of always believing the worst, or at least of pretending to."
"Because it makes conversation so much more amusing. Sometimes," she added thoughtfully, "I have a terrible suspicion that there really isn't an atom of harm in any of them—that they all behave perfectly well, and just excite themselves by talking as if they didn't."
"And you call that suspicion terrible?"
"Well, it makes it all seem a little flat. But then sometimes," she went on brightly, "one does find out something absolutely hideous."
"See here," he said, "it's a crime for a girl of your age to talk like this. It's a silly habit. I don't believe you're like that at heart."
"You talk," said she, "like Edward Hickson."
"In some communities that would be thought a fighting word," he returned. "But you haven't yet answered my question. You've told me what your friends have done; but what would you do yourself, if you fell in love with a poor man?"
"In the first place, I never should. What makes a man attractive to me is power, preeminence, being bowed down to. If I lived in a military country, I'd love the greatest soldier; and if I lived in a savage country, I'd love the strongest warrior; but here to-day, the only form of power I see is money. It's what makes you able to have everything you want, and that's a man's greatest charm."
"And it seems to me that the most tied-down creatures I ever saw are the rich men I've met in the East."
She was honestly surprised. "Why, what is there they can't do?" she asked.
He smiled. "They can't do anything that might endanger their property rights," he answered, "and that seems to me to cut them off from most forms of human endeavor. But no matter about that. You say you would not be likely to fall in love with a poor man, but suppose you did. Perhaps it has happened already?"
Miss Fenimer looked thoughtful. "I was trying to think," she said. "Yes, there was a young artist two years ago that I was rather interested in. He was very nice looking, and Nancy Almar kept telling me how much he was in love with her."
"And that stimulated your interest?"
"Just for the sake of information," he said, "do you always want to take away any man who is safely devoted to another woman?"
Christine seemed resolved to be accurate. "It depends," she answered, "whether or not I have anything else to do, but of course the idea always pops into one's head: I wonder if I couldn't make him like me best."
"And do you always find you can?"
"Oh, there's no rule about it; only as a newcomer one has the advantage of novelty, and that's something."
"And what happened about this artist?"
Christine smiled reminiscently: "I found he wasn't really in love with Nancy at all: he just wanted to paint her portrait."
"I should think he would have wanted to paint yours."
"He did and gave it to me as a present, and then he behaved very badly." She sighed.
"What did he do?"
"Well," she hesitated. "He did not really want to give me the picture. He thought he wanted to keep it himself. It was much the best thing he ever did. I had to persuade him a good deal, and in persuading him, I may have given him the impression that I cared about him more than I really did. Anyhow, after I actually had the portrait hanging in my sitting-room, I told him I thought it was better for us not to meet any more. Some men would have been flattered to think I took them so seriously. But he was furious, and one day when I was out he sent for the portrait and cut it all to pieces. Wasn't that horrible? My pretty portrait!"
"Horrible!" said Riatt. "It seems to me the one spark of spirit the poor young man showed."
She glanced at him under her lashes. "What would you have done?"
"I'd take you out to the plains for a year or so, and let you find out a little about what life is like."
"I don't think it would be a success," she returned. "I don't profit by discipline, I'm afraid. But," she stood up, "I'm perfectly open minded. I'll make a beginning. I'll wash the dishes—just to please you."
He watched her go to the kitchen sink, and pour water from the steaming kettle into a dish pan, saw her turn up her lace-frilled cuffs, and begin with her long, slim, inefficient hands to take up the dirty plates. Suddenly, much to his surprise, he found he couldn't bear it, couldn't bear to see the lace fall down again and again, and her obvious shrinking from the task.
He crossed the room and took the plates from her, and then with a clean towel, he deliberately dried her hands, finger by finger, while she stood by like a docile child, looking up at him in wonder.
"Don't you want to reform me?" she asked plaintively.
"No," he answered shortly.
"Because you would be too dangerous," he returned. "Now you have every charm except goodness. If you turned good and gentle you'd be supreme."
"I never thought goodness was a charm," she objected.
"And that's just what I hope you will never find out."
She laughed. "I don't believe there's much danger," she said. "I think I shall go on being wicked and mercenary and selfish to the day of my death, and probably getting everything I want."
"I hope not. I mean I hope you won't get what you want."
"Oh, why are you so unkind?"
"Because I shall want to use you as a terrible example to my grandchildren."
"Do you think you will remember me as long as that?"
"I feel no doubt about it."
She smiled. "It seems rather hard that I have to come to a bad end just to oblige your horrid little grandchildren," she said. "As a matter of fact, I shall probably run them down in my motor as they go to work with their little dinner-pails. And as I take their mangled forms to the hospital, I'll murmur: 'Riatt, Riatt, I think I once knew a half-hearted reformer of that name.'"
"You think you, too, will remember as long as that?"
"I have an excellent memory for trifles," she returned, and rose yawning. "And now I think I'll go to bed—unless there's anything more you want to know about our tribal customs. Are you going to write a nature book about us: 'Head-hunting Among the Idle Rich'?"
"'The Cannibals of the Atlantic Coast' is the title," he answered as he gave her a candle. "I'll leave your breakfast for you in the morning before I go. And by the way, if some one comes to rescue you, don't go off and leave me in the tool-house, will you?"
"Oh, I'm not really as bad as that."
He shook his head as if he didn't feel sure.
She went away well satisfied with her evening's work. There had been something extremely flattering in his mingled horror and amusement at her candid revelations. Holding up the candle she looked at her own image in her mirror. "I wonder," she thought, "if that young man knows what a dangerous frame of mind he's in?"
He had some suspicion, for as he dragged a mattress downstairs and laid it before the kitchen fire, he kept repeating to himself, as if in a last effort to rouse some moral enthusiasm: "What a band of cut-throats they are!"
Christine woke the next morning to find the sun shining on an unbroken sheet of snow. The storm had passed in the night. She dressed quickly and went down to find the kitchen empty, and the track of footsteps in the snow leading away in the direction of the tool-house. Her coffee was bubbling and slices of bacon neatly laid in the frying pan were ready for cooking. She thought he might have stayed and cooked it for her.
"No one will come as early as this," she thought, plaintively.
But hardly had she finished her simple meal, when the sound of sleigh bells reached her ears, and running to the window she saw that Ussher and Hickson in a two horse sleigh were driving down the slope.
A moment later they were in the kitchen. And after the minimum time had elapsed during which all three talked at once recounting their own individual anxieties, Ussher asked:
Christine cast down her eyes with a sort of Paul-and-Virginia expression, as she answered: "Oh, he is sleeping in the tool-house!"
"Well, I call that damned nonsense," said Ussher. "Let a man freeze to death! Upon my word, Christine, I thought you had more sense." And he strode away to the back door. "Yes, here are his tracks, poor fellow." Ussher went out after him, and Hickson turned back.
"But you think I was right, don't you, Edward?" said Christine, for she had never failed to elicit commendation from Edward.
But now his brow was dark. "But, I say, Christine," he said, "there's one thing I don't understand. These tracks of his footsteps in the snow."
"He didn't fly, Ned, even if he is an aviator."
"Yes, but it didn't stop snowing until four o'clock this morning."
How irritating the weather always is, Christine thought. For though she was willing to use scandal as a weapon over Riatt, she was not sure that she wished to put it into Hickson's hands.
She thought hard, and then said brightly:
"Oh, perhaps he came back for his breakfast before I was up."
Hickson shook his head: "They only lead one way," he said.
In the face of the tactlessness of hard facts, Christine decided to create a diversion.
"I can't stand here gossiping about the conduct of an aviator," she said, "when there's so much to be done. Look at all these dirty plates. What ought to be done with them, Edward, dear?" she appealed to him as to a fountain of wisdom, and he did not fail her.
"They ought to be washed," he said. "Give me a towel. I'll do it." And he felt more than rewarded when, as she handed him a towel, her hand touched his.
The many duties of which she had just spoken seemed suddenly to have melted away, for she sat down quite idly and watched him.
"How well you do it, Edward," she said, not quite honestly, for she compared his slow gestures very unfavorably with Riatt's deft hands. "It's quite as if you had washed dishes all your life."
"Ah, Christine," he answered, looking at her sentimentally over a coffee-cup, "I shouldn't ask anything better than to wash your dishes for the rest of my life."
"Thank you, Edward, but I think I should ask something a good deal better," she answered.
It was on this scene that Ussher and Riatt entered, and the eyes of the latter twinkled.
"Engaged a kitchen-maid, I see," he said in a low tone to Christine.
"I think it's so good for people to do something useful now and then, don't you?"
"A form of education that you offer almost every one who comes near you."
Hickson did not hear everything, but he caught the idea, and said severely:
"I don't suppose any one would ask Miss Fenimer to wash dirty dishes."
Riatt laughed: "No one who had ever seen her try."
Ussher, who had been fuming in the background, now broke out:
"Upon my word, Christine, that tool-house was like a vault. It was madness to ask any one to spend the night in such a place."
"Did you spend the night in the tool-house?" said Hickson with unusual directness.
"There are worse places than the tool-house," said Riatt, as he and Ussher hurried down to the cellar to put out the furnace fire.
Hickson turned to Christine. "The fellow didn't answer me," he said.
"Perhaps he thought it was none of your business, Edward, my dear," she answered.
"Everything connected with you is my business," he returned.
"Oh, Edward, what a dreary outlook for me!"
"Christine, answer me. Did or did not this man make advances to you?"
"Edward, he did."
"He gave me a long, tiresome, moral lecture and, judging by you, my dear, that is proof of affection."
"You're simply amusing yourself with me!"
"I'm not amusing myself very much, Edward, if that's any comfort."
"You drive me mad," he said and stamped away from her so hard, that Ussher came up from the cellar.
"What's Edward doing?" he said.
"He says he's going mad," returned Christine, "but I thought he was washing the dishes."
"There's no pleasing Edward," said Ussher. "He was in my room at six o'clock this morning trying to get me to start a rescuing party (and I needn't tell you, Christine, we none of us had much sleep last night), and now that he is here and finds you safe, he seems to be just as restless as ever." And Ussher returned to the cellar still grumbling.
"You know why I'm restless, Christine," Hickson said when they were again alone.
Christine seemed to wonder. "The artistic temperament is usually given as the explanation, but somehow, in your case, Edward—"
He came and stood directly in front of her.
"Christine, what did happen last night?"
Although not a muscle of Miss Fenimer's face moved, she knew very well that this was a turning-point. She had the choice between killing the scandal, or giving it such life and strength that nothing but her marriage with Riatt would ever allay it. She knew that a few sensible words would put Hickson straight, and Hickson would be a powerful ally. On the other hand, if he came back plainly weighted with a terrible doubt, no one would ask any further evidence. The question was, how much would Riatt feel the responsibility of such a situation. It was a fighting chance. Themistocles when he burnt his ships must have argued in very much the same way, but probably not so rapidly.
"There are some things, Edward," Christine said in a low shaken voice, "that I cannot discuss even with you."
Hickson turned away with a groan.
Christine had been right when she told Riatt that Nancy Almar would be resentful after a dull evening at the Usshers'.
The evening, as far as Nancy was concerned, had been very dull indeed. To be bored, in her creed, was a confession of complete failure; it indicated the most contemptible inefficiency, since she designed the whole fabric of her life with the unique object of keeping herself amused. Nothing bored her more than to have the general attention centered on some one else, as all that evening it had been focussed on the absent ones. Not only did she miss the excitement of her contest with Christine over the possession of Riatt, but she was positively wearied by the Usshers' anxiety, by her brother's agony of jealousy and fear, and by Wickham's continual effort to strike an original thought from the dramatic quality of the situation.
She was finally reduced to playing piquet with Wickham, and though she won a good deal of money from him—more, that is, than he could comfortably afford to lose—she still counted the evening a failure, bad in the present, and extremely menacing to the future. For with her habitual mental candor, she admitted that by this time Christine, if not actually frozen to death—which after all one could not exactly hope—had probably won the game. The chances were that Riatt was captured.
"What is the matter, Ned?" she said to her brother, as he fidgeted about the card-table, after a last futile expedition to the telephone. "Can't you decide whether you'd rather the lady of your love were dead or subjected for twenty-four hours to the fascinations of an irresistible young man?"
"What an interesting question that raises," observed Wickham, examining rather ruefully the three meager cards he had drawn. "A modern Lady-or-the-Tiger idea. I am not of a jealous temperament and should always prefer to see a woman happy with another man."
"And often do, I dare say," said Nancy. "I have a point of seven, and fourteen aces."
"I must own I can't see Riatt's irresistible quality," said Hickson irritably.
"Rich, nice-looking and has his wits about him," replied Mrs. Almar succinctly.
"About as good-looking as a fence-rail."
"And they say women are envious!" exclaimed his sister.
"Are you a feminist, Mrs. Almar?" inquired the irrepressible Wickham.
"No, just a female, Mr. Wickham."
"I never thought a big bony nose made a man a beauty," grumbled Hickson.
"Ah, how much wisdom there is in that reply of yours, Mrs. Almar," said Wickham. "Just a female. Your meaning is, if I interpret you rightly, that you are content with the duties and charms which Nature has bestowed upon your sex—"
"Until I can get something better," replied Nancy briskly, drawing the score toward her and beginning to add it up. "My idea is to let the other women do the fighting; if they win, I shall profit; if they lose, I'm no worse off. I believe I've rubiconed you again, Mr. Wickham."
"Well, I don't understand women's taste, anyhow," said Hickson.
"You never spoke a truer word than that, my dear," said Nancy. "Seventy-four fifty, I think that makes it, Mr. Wickham, subtracting the dollar and a half you made on the first game. Oh, yes, a check will do perfectly. I'm less likely to lose it."
"I never had a worse run of luck," observed Wickham with an attempt at indifference.
Mrs. Almar stood up yawning. "Doubtless you are on the brink of a great amorous triumph," she said languidly, and went off to bed.
Hickson did not attempt to sleep. He sat up for the remainder of the night, in the hope that some sudden call might come, and at six o'clock as Ussher had told Christine, he was ready for new efforts.
Rescued and rescuers reached the Usshers' house about half past ten the following morning. Nancy was not yet downstairs. Wickham had not been able to judge what was the correct note to strike in connection with the whole incident, and so did not dare to sound any. The arrival was comparatively simple. Mrs. Ussher received her beloved Christine with open arms; Riatt went noncommittally upstairs to take a bath; Hickson had decided, in spite of his depression of spirits, to try to make up a little of last night's lost sleep, when he received a summons from his sister. Her maid, a clever, sallow little Frenchwoman, came down with her hands in her apron pockets to say that Madame should like to speak to Monsieur at once.
He found Nancy still in bed; her little black head looking blacker than usual against the lace of the pillows and the coverlet and of her own bed-jacket. The only color about her was the yellow covered French novel she laid down as he entered, and the one enormous ruby on her fourth finger.
"And now, Ned, my dear," she said quite affectionately for her, "I hear you have brought the wanderers safely home. Tell me all about it."
Hickson, to whom this summons had not come as a surprise, had resolved that he would confide none of his anxieties to his sister but, alas, as well might a pane of glass resolve to be opaque to a ray of sunlight. Within ten minutes, Nancy knew not only all that he knew, but such additional deductions as her sharper wits enabled her to draw.
"I see," she murmured, as he finished. "The only positive fact that we have is that he did not leave the house until after five. How very interesting!"
"Very terrible," said Hickson.
"Terrible," exclaimed Nancy, with the most genuine surprise. "Not at all. From your point of view most encouraging. It can mean only one thing. The young man very prudently ran away."
Edward was really stirred to anger. "Nancy," he said, "how do you dare, even in fun—"
"Oh, my dear," answered his sister, as one wearied by all the folly in the world, "how can I be of any use to you if you will not open your eyes? He ran away. We don't know of course just from what; but we do know this: Max Riatt is the best match that has yet presented himself, and that Christine is the last girl in the world to ignore that simple fact. Come, Ned, even if you do love her, you may as well admit the girl is not a perfect fool. Fate, accident, or possibly her own clever manoeuvering put the game into her hands. The question is, how did she play it? I know what I'd have done, but I don't believe she would. I think she probably tried to make him believe that she was hopelessly compromised in the eyes of the world, and that there was no course open to an honorable man but to ask her to marry him."
"I can't imagine Christine playing such a part."
"I tell you, you never do the poor girl justice. If she did that—and the chances are she did—then his running away is most encouraging. It means, in your own delightful language, that he did not fall for it—did not want to run any risk of compromising her, if marriage was the consequence."
"But, Nancy, Christine almost admitted that—that he tried to make love to her."
"I can't see what that has to do with it, or what difference it makes," replied Mrs. Almar. "However, too much importance should not be attached to such admissions. I have sometimes made them myself when the facts did not bear me out. No woman likes to confess, especially to an old adorer like you, that she has spent so many hours alone with a man and he has not made love to her."
Hickson shook his head. "I'm not clever enough to be able to explain it," he said, "but I received the clearest impression from her that she had been through some painful experience."
"Good," said Nancy. "Do you know the most painful experience she could have been through?"
"If he hadn't paid the slightest attention to her; and that, my dear brother, is what I am inclined to think took place. No, the game is still on; only now she'll have the Usshers to help her. This is no time for me to lie in bed."
Ned looked at her doubtfully. "I thought I'd try and sleep a little," he said.
"The best thing you can do," she returned. "Lucie! Lucie! Where are the bells in this house! What privations one suffers for staying away from home! Oh, yes, here it is," and she caught the atom of enamel and gold dangling at the head of her bed, and rang it without ceasing until the maid, who regarded her mistress with an admiration quite untinctured by affection, appeared silently at the doorway.
In an astonishingly short space of time, she was dressed and downstairs, presenting her usual sleek and polished appearance. Wickham was alone in the drawing-room, and a suggestion that they should have another game of piquet quickly drove him to the writing of some purely imaginary business letters.
The coast was thus clear, but Riatt was still absent.
Nancy's methods were nothing if not direct. She rang the bell and when the butler appeared she said:
"Where is Mr. Riatt?"
"In his room, madam."
"No, madam, he is dressed. Resting, I should say."
Nancy nodded her head once. "One moment," she said; and going to the writing table she sat down and wrote quickly:
"I should like five minutes' conversation with you. Strange to say my motive is altruistic—so altruistic that I feel I should sign myself 'Pro Bono Publico,' instead of Nancy Almar. There is no one down here in the drawing-room at the moment."
She put this in an envelope, sealed it with sealing wax (to the disgust of the butler who found it hard enough, as it was, to keep up with all that went on in the house) and told the man to send it at once to Mr. Riatt's room.
She did not have long to wait. Riatt, with all the satisfaction in his bearing of one who has just bathed, shaved and eaten, came down to her at once.
"Good morning, Pro Bono Publico," he said, just glancing about to be sure he was not overheard. "It was not necessary to put this interview on an altruistic basis. I should have been glad to come to it, even if it had been as a favor to you."
She looked at him with her hard, dark eyes. "Isn't that rather a reckless way for a man in your situation to talk?"
"I was not aware that I was in a situation."
This was exactly the expression that she had wanted from him. It seemed to come spontaneously, and could only mean that at least he was not newly engaged.
She relaxed the tension of her attitude. "Are you really under the impression that you're not?"
"I feel quite sure of it."
"You poor, dear, innocent creature."
"However," he went on, sitting down beside her on the wide, low sofa, "something tells me that I shall enjoy extremely having you tell me all about it."
Tucking one foot under her, as every girl is taught in the school-room it is most unladylike to do, she turned and faced him. "Mr. Riatt," she said, "when I was a child I used to let the mice out of the traps—not so much, I'm afraid, from tenderness for the mice, as from dislike of my natural enemy, the cook. Since then I have never been able to see a mouse in anybody's trap but my own, without a desire to release it."
"And I am the mouse?"
She nodded. "And in rather a dangerous sort of trap, too."
He smiled at the seriousness of her tone.
"Ah," said she, "the self-confidence which your smile betrays is one of the weaknesses by which nature has delivered your sex into the hands of mine. I would explain it to you at length, but the time is too short. The great offensive may begin at any moment. The Usshers have made up their minds that you are to marry Christine Fenimer. That was why you were asked here."
"Innocent Westerner as I am," he answered, "that idea—"
She interrupted him. "Yes, but don't you see it's entirely different now. Now they really have a sort of hold on you. I don't know what Christine's own attitude may be, but I can tell you this: her position was so difficult that she was on the point of engaging herself to Ned."
"Oh, come," said Riatt politely, "your brother is not so bad as you seem to think."
"He's not bad at all, poor dear. He's very good; but women do not fall in love with him. You, on the contrary, are rich and attractive. You'll just have to take my word for that," she added without a trace of coquetry. "And so—and so—and so, if I were you, my dear Cousin Max, I should give orders to have my bag packed at once, and take a very slow, tiresome train that leaves here at twelve-forty-something, and not even wait for the afternoon express."
There was that in her tone that would have made the blood of any man run cold with terror, but he managed a smile. "In my place you would run away?" he said.
She shook her head. "No, I wouldn't run away myself, but I advise you to. I shouldn't be in any danger. Being a mere woman, I can be cruel, cold and selfish when the occasion demands. But this is a situation that requires all the qualities a man doesn't possess."
"What do you mean?"
"Does your heart become harder when a pretty woman cries? Is your conscience unmoved by the responsibility of some one else's unhappiness? Can you be made love to without a haunting suspicion that you brought it on yourself?"
"Good heavens, no!" cried Riatt from the heart.
"Then, run while there's time."
As the ox fears the gad-fly and the elephant the mouse, so does the bravest of men fear the emotional entanglement of any making but his own. For an instant Riatt felt himself swept by the frankest, wildest panic. Misadventures among the clouds he had had many times, and had looked a clean straight death in the face. He had never felt anything like the terror that for an instant possessed him. Then it passed and he said with conviction:
"Well, after all, there are certain things you can't be made to do against your will."
"Certainly. But you are not referring to marriage, are you?"
"Yes, I was."
"My poor, dear man! As if half the marriages in the world were not made against the wish of one party or the other."
His heart sank. "It's perfectly true," he said. "And yet one does rather hate to run away."
"Not so much as one hates afterward to think one might have."
He laughed and she went on: "The moment is critical. Laura Ussher and Christine have been closeted together for the better part of two hours. Something is going to happen immediately. At any moment Laura may appear and say with that wonderfully casual manner of hers, 'May I have a word with you, Max?' And then you'll be lost."
"Oh, not quite as bad as that, I hope," said Riatt.
"Lost," she repeated, and leaning over she laid one polished finger tip on the bell. "When the man comes, tell him to get you ready for that early train."
There was complete silence between them until the footman appeared and Riatt had given the necessary orders.
"I wonder," he said when they were again alone, "whether I shall be angry at you for this advice, or grateful. It's a dangerous thing, you know, to advise a man to run away."
"Dine with me in town on Wednesday, and you can tell me which it is."
"You don't seem to be much afraid of my anger."
"I think perhaps your gratitude might be the more dangerous of the two."
While he was struggling between a new-found prudence, and a natural desire to inquire further into her meaning, a door upstairs was heard to shut, and presently Laura Ussher came sauntering into the room.
"You're up early, Nancy," she said pleasantly.
"I thought I ought to recognize the return of the wanderers in some way—particularly, as I hear we are to lose one of them so soon."
Mrs. Ussher glanced quickly at her cousin. "Are you leaving us, Max?"
"I'm sorry to say I've just had word that I must, and I told the man to make arrangements for me to get that twelve-something-or-other train."
Mrs. Ussher did not change a muscle. "I'm sorry you have to go," she said. "We shall all miss you. By the way, you won't be able to get anything before the four-eighteen. That midday train is taken off in winter. Didn't the footman tell you? Stupid young man; but he's new and has not learnt the trains yet, I suppose. Do you want to send a telegram? They have to be telephoned here, but if you write it out I'll have it sent for you."
"How wonderful you are, Laura," murmured Mrs. Almar.
Mrs. Ussher looked vague. "In what way, dear?"
"In all ways, but I think it's as a friend that I admire you most."
Mrs. Ussher smiled. "Yes," she said, "I'm very devoted to my friends even when they don't behave quite fairly to me. But I love my relations, too," she added. "Max, since I'm to lose you so soon, I'd like to have a talk with you before lunch. Shall we go to my little study?"
Nancy's eyes danced. "No, Laura," she said, "he will not. He has just promised to teach me a new solitaire, and I won't yield him to any one."
Riatt, terrified at this proof that Nancy's prophecy was coming true, resolved to cling to her.
"Sit down and learn the game, too, Laura," he said. "It's a very good one."
"I want to speak to you about a business matter, Max."
"I never attend to business during church hours, Laura," he answered. "We'll talk about it after lunch, if you like."
Laura had learnt the art of yielding gracefully. "That will do just as well," she said, and sat down to watch the game.
Presently Wickham, seeing that Mrs. Almar seemed to be safely engaged, ventured back. And they were all thus innocently occupied when luncheon was announced.
Christine came down looking particularly lovely. It is a precaution which a good-looking woman rarely fails to take in a crisis. She was wearing a deep blue dress trimmed with fur, and only needed a solid gold halo behind her head to make her look like a Byzantine saint.
"Well, Miss Fenimer," said Wickham, as they sat down. "You look very blooming after your terrible experiences."
Christine had come prepared for battle. "Oh, they weren't so very terrible, Mr. Wickham, thank you," she said, and she leant her elbow on the table and played with those imitation pearls which she now hoped so soon to give to her maid. "Mr. Riatt is the most wonderful provider—expert as a cook as well as a furnace-man."
"It mayn't have been terrible for you," put in Ussher, who had a habit of conversational reversion, "but I bet it was no joke in the tool-house! How an intelligent woman like you, Christine, could dream of making a man spend the night in that hole, just for the sake of—"
"But I thought it was Mr. Riatt's own choice," said Nancy gently.
"You wouldn't think so if you could have felt the place," Ussher continued. "And what difference did it make? Who was there to talk? Every one knows that their being there was just an unavoidable accident—"
"Oh, if it had been an accident!" said Nancy, and it was as if a little venomous snake had suddenly wriggled itself into the conversation. Every one turned toward her, and her brother asked sternly:
"If, it had been an accident, Nancy? What the deuce do you mean by if?"
Nancy shook her small head. "I express myself badly," she said. "English rhetoric was left out of my education."
"You manage to convey your ideas, dear," said Laura.
"I was trying to say that if poor, dear Christine had not been so unfortunately the one to hit the horse in the head, and start him off—"
Wickham pricked up his ears. "Oh, I say, Miss Fenimer," he exclaimed, "did you really hit the horse?"
"Certainly, I did, Mr. Wickham."
"But what did you do that for?"
Christine did not trouble to answer this question. Hickson, who had been suffering far more than any one, rushed to the rescue.
"Miss Fenimer did not do it on purpose, Wickham. She happened to be standing—"
"Oh, is that what your sister meant?" said Christine, as if a sudden light dawned on her. "Tell me, Nancy darling, do you really think I hit the horse on purpose, so as to have an uninterrupted evening with Mr. Riatt? How you do flatter men! It's a great art. I'm afraid I shall never learn it."
For the first time, Riatt found himself looking at her with a certain amount of genuine admiration. This was very straight fighting. "They have the piratical virtues," he thought, "courage, and the ability to give and take hard blows."
Mrs. Almar was not to be outdone. "Well," she said, "I may as well be honest. I can imagine myself doing it, for the right man. And we should have had an amusing evening of it, which was more than we had here, I can tell you. We were very dreary. Mr. Wickham tried to relieve the monotony by a game of piquet, but I'm afraid he did not really enjoy it, for he has not asked me to play since." And she cast a quick stimulating glance at Wickham, whose usual inability to say nothing again betrayed him.