THE WORKS OF JOSEPH HERGESHEIMER
THE LAY ANTHONY
THE THREE BLACK PENNYS
GOLD AND IRON
THE HAPPY END
To CARL VAN VECHTEN
This, Linda Condon's Gravest Bow.
A black bang was, but not ultimately, the most notable feature of her uncommon personality—straight and severe and dense across her clear pale brow and eyes. Her eyes were the last thing to remember and wonder about; in shade blue, they had a velvet richness, a poignant intensity of lovely color, that surprised the heart. Aside from that she was slim, perhaps ten years old, and graver than gay.
Her mother was gay for them both, and, therefore, for the entire family. No father was in evidence; he was dead and never spoken of, and Linda was the only child. Linda's dresses, those significant trivialities, plainly showed two tendencies—the gaiety of her mother and her own always formal gravity. If Linda appeared at dinner, in the massive Renaissance materialism of the hotel dining-room, with a preposterous magenta hair-ribbon on her shapely head, her mother had succeeded in expressing her sense of the appropriately decorative; while if Linda wore an unornamented but equally "unsuitable" frock of dark velvet, she, in her turn, had been vindicated.
Again, but far more rarely, the child's selection was evident on the woman. As a rule Mrs. Condon garbed her flamboyant body in large and expensive patterns or extremely tailored suits; and of the two, the evening satins and powdered arms barely retaining an admissible line, and the suits, the latter were the most, well—spectacular.
She was not dark in color but brightly golden; a gold, it must be said in all honesty, her own, a metallic gold crisply and solidly marcelled; with hazel-brown eyes, and a mouth which, set against her daughter's deep-blue gaze, was her particular attraction. It was rouged to a nicety, the under lip a little full and never quite against the upper. If Linda's effect was cool and remote, Mrs. Condon, thanks to her mouth, was reassuringly imminent. She was, too, friendly; she talked to women—in her not overfrequent opportunities—in a rapid warm inaccurate confession of almost everything they desired to hear. The women, of course, were continually hampered by the unfortunate fact that the questions nearest their hearts, or curiosity, were entirely inadmissible.
Viewed objectively, they all, with the exception of Linda, seemed alike; but that might have been due to their common impressive setting. The Boscombe, in its way, was as lavish as Mrs. Condon's dresses. The main place of congregation, for instance, was a great space of white marble columns, Turkey-red carpet and growing palms. It was lighted at night indirectly by alabaster bowls hanging on gilded chains—a soft bright flood of radiance falling on the seated or slowly promenading women with bare shoulders.
Usually they were going with a restrained sharp eagerness toward the dining-room or leaving it in a more languid flushed repletion. There were, among them, men; but somehow the men never seemed to be of the least account. It was a women's paradise. The glow from above always emphasized the gowns, the gowns like orchids and tea-roses and the leaves of magnolias. It sparkled in the red and green and crystal jewels like exotic dew scattered over the exotic human flowers. Very occasionally there was a complacent or irritable masculine utterance, and then it was immediately lost in the dominant feminine sibilance.
Other children than Linda sped in the manner of brilliant fretful tops literally on the elaborate outskirts of the throng; but they were as different from her as she was from the elders. Indeed Linda resembled the latter, rather than her proper age, remarkably. She had an air of responsibility, sometimes expressed in a troubled frown, and again by the way she hurried sedately through drifting figures toward a definite purpose and end.
Usually it was in the service of one of her mother's small innumerable requests or necessities; if the latter were sitting with a gentleman on the open hotel promenade that overlooked the sea and needed a heavier wrap, Linda returned immediately with a furred cloak on her arm; if the elder, going out after dinner, had brought down the wrong gloves, Linda knew the exact wanted pair in the long perfumed box; while countless trifles were needed from the convenient drug-store.
The latter was a place of white mosaic floor and glittering glass, with a marble counter heaped with vivid fruit and silver-covered bowls of sirups and creams with chopped nuts. Linda often found time to stop here for a delectable glass of assorted sweet compounds. She was on terms of intimacy with the colored man in a crisp linen coat who presided over the refreshments, and he invariably gave her an extra spoonful of the marron paste she preferred. When at lunch, it might be, she cared for very little, her mother would complain absently:
"You must stop eating those sickening mixtures. They'd ruin any skin." At this she invariably found the diminutive mirror in the bag on her lap and glanced at her own slightly improved color. The burden of the feminine conversations in which Mrs. Condon was privileged to join, Linda discovered, was directed toward these overwhelming considerations of appearance. And their importance, communicated to her, resulted in a struggle between the desire to preserve her skin from ruin and the seductions of marron paste and maple chocolates.
Now, with an uncomfortable sense of impending disaster, she would hastily consume one or the other; again, supported by a beginning self-imposed inflexibility, she would turn steadily away from temptation. In the end the latter triumphed; and her normal appetite, always moderate, was unimpaired.
This spirit of resolution, it sometimes happened, was a cause of humorous dismay to her mother. "I declare, Linda," she would observe with an air of helplessness, "you make me feel like the giddy one and as if you were mama. It's the way you look, so disapproving. I have to remind myself you're only—just how old are you? I keep forgetting." Linda would inform her exactly and the other sigh:
"The years slip around disgustingly. It seems only yesterday I was at my first party." Usually, in spite of Linda's eagerness to hear of that time when her mother was a girl, the elder would stop abruptly. On rare occasions solitary facts emerged from the recalled existence of a small town in the country. There were such details as buggy-riding and prayer-meetings and excursions to a Boiling Springs where the dancing-floor, open among the trees, was splendid. At these memories Mrs. Condon had been known to cry.
But she would recover shortly. Her emotions were like that—easily roused, highly colored and soon forgotten. She forgot, Linda realized leniently, a great deal. It wasn't safe to rely on her promises. However, if she neglected a particular desire of Linda's, she continually brought back unexpected gifts of candy, boxes of silk stockings, or lovely half-wilted flowers.
The flowers, they discovered, although they stayed fresh for a long while pinned to Linda's slim waist, died almost at once if worn by her mother. "It's my warm nature, I am certain," the latter proclaimed to her daughter; "while you are a little refrigerator. I must say it's wonderful how you keep your clothes the same. Neat as a pin." Somehow, with this commendation, she managed to include a slight uncomplimentary impatience. Linda didn't specially want to resemble a pin, a disagreeable object with a sharp point. She considered this in the long periods when, partly by preference, she was alone.
Seated, perhaps, in the elaborate marble and deep red of the Boscombe's reception-rooms, isolated in the brilliant expensive throng, she would speculate over what passed in the light of her own special problems. But nothing, really, came out to her satisfaction. There was, notably, no one she might ask. Her mother, approached seriously, declared that Linda gave her the creeps; while others made it plain that it was their duty to repress the forwardness inevitable from the scandalous neglect of her upbringing.
They, the women of the Boscombe, glancing at their finger-nails stained and buffed to a shining pale vermilion, lightly rubbing their rings on the dry palm of a hand, wondered pessimistically within Linda's hearing what could come out of such an association. That term, she vaguely gathered, referred to her mother. The latter evidently interested them tremendously; because, she explained, they had no affairs of their own to attend to. This was perfectly clear to Linda until Mrs. Condon further characterized them as "busy."
The women, stopped by conventions from really satisfactory investigation at the source, drew her on occasion into a laboriously light inquisition. How long would Linda and her mama stay at the Boscombe? Had they closed their apartment? Where was it? Hadn't Mrs. Condon mentioned Cleveland? Wasn't Linda lonely with her mama out so much—they even said late—in rolling chairs? Had she ever seen Mr. Jasper before his arrival last week?
No, of course she hadn't.
Here they exchanged skeptical glances beneath relentlessly pulled eyebrows. He was really very nice, Mr. Jasper. Linda in a matter-of-fact voice replied that he had given her a twenty-dollar gold piece. Mr. Jasper was very generous. But perhaps he had rewarded her for being a good little girl and not—not bothering or hanging about. "Why should he?" was Linda's just perceptibly impatient response. Then they told her to be quiet because they wanted to listen to the music.
This consisted in studying, through suspended glasses in chased platinum, a discreet programme. At the end of a selection they either applauded condescendingly or told each other that they hadn't cared for that last—really too peculiar. Whichever happened, the leader of the small orchestra, an extravagant Italian with a supple waist, turned and bowed repeatedly with a grimacing smile. The music, usually Viennese, was muted and emotional; its strains blended perfectly with the floating scents of the women and the faintly perceptible pungent odors of dinner. Every little while a specially insinuating melody became, apparently, tangled in the women's breathing, and their breasts, cunningly traced and caressed in tulle, would be disturbed.
Mrs. Condon applauded more vigorously than was sanctioned by the others' necessity for elegance; the frank clapping of her pink palms never failed to betray a battery of affected and significant surprise in eyes like—polished cold agates. Linda, seated beside her parent, could be seen to lay a hand, narrow and blanched and marked by an emerald, on the elder's knee. Her pale fine lips moved rapidly with the shadow of trouble beneath the intense black bang.
"I wish you wouldn't do it so loudly, mother," was what she whispered.
The jealously guarded truth was that, by her daughter at least, Mrs. Condon was adored. Linda observed that she was not like an ordinary mother, but more nearly resembled a youthful companion. Mrs. Condon's gaiety was as genuine as her fair hair. Not kept for formal occasion, it got out of bed with her, remained through the considerable difficulties of dressing with no maid but Linda, and if the other were not asleep called a cheerful or funny good night.
Their rooms were separated by a bath, but Linda was scarcely ever in her own—her mother's lovely things, acting like a magnet, constantly drew her to their arrangement in the drawers. When the laundry came up, crisp and fragile webs heaped on the bed, Linda laid it away in a sort of ritual. Even with these publicly invisible garments a difference of choice existed between the two: Mrs. Condon's preference was for insertions, and Linda's for shadow embroidery and fine shell edges. Mrs. Condon, shaking into position a foam of ribbon and lace, would say with her gurgle of amusement, "I want to be ready when I fall down; if I followed your advice they'd take me for a nun."
This brought out Linda's low clear laugh, the expression of her extreme happiness. It sounded, for an instant, like a chime of small silver bells; then died away, leaving the faintest perceptible flush on her healthy pallor. At other times her mother's humor made her vaguely uncomfortable, usually after wine or other drinks that left the elder's breath thick and oppressive. Linda failed completely to grasp the allusions of this wit but a sharp uneasiness always responded like the lingering stale memory of a bad dream.
Once, at the Boscombe, her mother had been too silly for words: she had giggled and embraced her sweet little girl, torn an expensive veil to shreds and dropped a French model hat into the tub. After a distressing sickness she had gone to sleep fully dressed, and Linda, unable to move or wake her, had sat long beyond dinner into the night, fearful of the entrance of the chambermaid.
The next day Mrs. Condon had been humble with remorse. Men, she said, were too beastly for description. This was not an unusual opinion. Linda observed that she was always condemning men in general and dressing for them in particular. She offered Linda endless advice in an abstracted manner:
"They're all liars, Lin, and stingy about everything but their pleasure. Women are different but men are all alike. You get sick to death of them! Never bother them when they are smoking a cigar; cigarettes don't matter. Leave the cigarette-smokers alone, anyhow; they're not as dependable as the others. A man with a good cigar—you must know the good from the bad—is usually discreet. I ought to bring you up different, but, Lord, life's too short. Besides, you will learn more useful things right with mama, whose eyes are open, than anywhere else.
"Powder my back, darling; I can't reach. If I'm a little late to-night go to sleep like a duck. You think Mr. Jasper's nice, don't you? So does mother. But you mustn't let him give you any more money. It'll make him conceited."
Linda wondered what she meant by the last phrase. How could it make Mr. Jasper conceited to give her a gold piece? However, she decided that she had better not ask.
It was like that with a great many of her mother's mysterious remarks—Linda had an instinctive feeling of drawing away. The other kissed her warmly and left a print of vivid red on her cheek.
She examined the mark in the mirror when her mother had gone; it was, she decided, the kiss made visible. Then she laid away the things scattered about the room by Mrs. Condon's hasty dressing. Her own belongings were always in precise order.
A sudden hesitation seized her at the thought of going down to the crowd at the music. The women made her uncomfortable. It wasn't what they said, but the way they said it; and the endless questions wearied her. She was, as well, continually bothered by her inability to impress upon them how splendid her mother was. Some of them she was certain did not appreciate her. Mrs. Condon at once admitted and was entertained by this, but it disturbed Linda. However, she understood the reason—when any nice men came along they always liked her mother best. This made the women mad.
The world, she gathered, was a place where women played a game of men with each other. It was very difficult, she couldn't comprehend the rules or reason; and Linda was afraid that she would be unsuccessful and never have the perfect time her mother wanted for her. In the first place, she was too thin, and then she knew that she could never talk like her dearest. Perhaps when she had had some wine it would be different.
She decided, after all, to go down to the assemblage; and, by one of the white marble pillars, Mrs. Randall captured her. "Why, here's Linda-all-alone," Mrs. Randall said. "Mama out again?" Linda replied stoutly, "She has a dreadful lot of invitations."
Mrs. Randall, who wore much brighter clothes than her mother, was called by the latter an old buzzard. She was very old, Linda could see, with perfectly useless staring patches of paint on her wrinkled cheeks, and eyes that look as though they might come right out of her head. Her frizzled hair supported a dead false twist with a glittering diamond pin, and her soft cold hands were loaded with jewels. She frightened Linda, really, although she could not say why. Mrs. Randall was a great deal like the witch in a fairy-story, but that wasn't it. Linda hadn't the belief in witches necessary for dread. It might be her scratching voice; or the way she turned her head, without any chin at all, like a turtle; or her dresses, which led you to expect a person very different from an old buzzard.
"Of course she does," said Mrs. Randall, "any number of invitations, and why shouldn't she? Your mother is very pleasant, to be sure." She nodded wisely to the woman beside her, Miss Skillern.
Miss Skillern was short and broad and, in the evening, always wore curled ostrich plumes on tightly filled gray puffs. She reminded Linda of a wadded chair. Mrs. Randall, after the other's slight stiff assent, continued:
"Your mama would never be lonely, not she. All I wonder is she doesn't get married again—with that blondine of hers. Wouldn't you rather have one papa than, in a way of speaking, a different one at every hotel?"
Linda, completely at a loss for answer, studied Mrs. Randall with her direct deep blue gaze. Miss Skillern again inclined her plumes. With the rest of her immobile she was surprisingly like one of those fat china figures with a nodding head. Linda was assaulted by the familiar bewildered feeling of not understanding what was said and, at the same time, passionately resenting it from an inner sensitive recognition of something wrong.
"How could I have that?" she finally asked.
"How?" repeated Miss Skillern, breathing loudly.
"Yes, how?" Mrs. Randall echoed. "You can ask your mama. You really can. And you may say that, as a matter of fact, the question came from us," she included her companion.
"From you," Miss Skillern exactly corrected her.
"Indeed," the other cried heatedly, "from me! I think not. Didn't you ask? Answer me that, if you please. I heard you with my own ears say, 'How?' While now, before my face, you try to deny it." It was plain to Linda that Miss Skillern was totally unmoved by the charge. She moved her lorgnette up, gazing stolidly at the musical programme. "From you," she said again, after a little. Mrs. Randall suddenly regained her equilibrium.
"If the ladies of this hotel are afraid to face that creature I—I—am not. I'll tell her in a minute what a respectable person thinks of her goings-on. More than that, I shall complain to Mr. Rennert. 'Mr. Rennert,' I'll say, 'either she leaves or me. Choose as you will. The reputation of your hotel—'" she spluttered and paused.
"Proof," Miss Skillern pronounced judicially; "proof. We know, but that's not proof."
"He has a wife," Mrs. Randall replied in a shrill whisper; "a wife who is an invalid. Mrs. Zoock, she who had St. Vitus' dance and left yesterday, heard it direct. George A. Jasper, woolen mills in Frankford, Pennsylvania. Mr. Rennert would thank me for that information."
They had forgotten Linda. She stood rigid and cold—they were blaming her mother for going out in a rolling chair with Mr. Jasper because he was married. But her mother didn't know that; probably Mr. Jasper had not given it a thought. She was at the point of making this clear, when it seemed to her that it might be better to say that her mother knew everything there was about Mr. Jasper's wife; she could even add that they were all friends.
Linda would have to tell her mother the second she came in, and then, of course, she'd stop going with Mr. Jasper. Men, she thought in the elder's phrase, were too beastly for words.
"After all," Mrs. Randall was addressing her again, "you needn't say anything at all to your mama. It might make her so cross that she'd spank you."
"Mother never spanks me," Linda replied with dignity.
"If you were my little girl," said Miss Skillern, with rolling lips, "I'd put you over my knee with your skirts up and paddle you."
Never, Linda thought, had she heard anything worse; she was profoundly shocked. The vision of Miss Skillern performing such an operation as she had described cut its horror on her mind. There was a sinking at her heart and a misty threat of tears.
To avert this she walked slowly away. It was hardly past nine o'clock; her mother wouldn't be back for a long while, and she was too restless and unhappy to sit quietly above. Instead, she continued down to the floor where there were various games in the corridor leading to the billiard-room. The hall was dull, no one was clicking the balls about the green tables, and a solitary sick-looking man, with inky shadows under fixed eyes, was smoking a cigarette in a chair across from the cigar-stand.
He looked over a thick magazine in a chocolate cover, his gaze arrested by her irresolute passage. "Hello, Bellina," he said.
She stopped. "Linda," she corrected him, "Linda Condon." Obeying a sudden impulse, she dropped, with a sigh, into a place beside him.
"You're bored," he went on, the magazine put away. "So am I, but my term is short."
She wondered, principally, what he was doing, among so many women, at the Boscombe. He was different from Mr. Jasper, or the other men with fat stomachs, the old men with dragging feet. It embarrassed her to meet his gaze, it was so—so investigating. She guessed he was by the sea because he felt as badly as he looked. He asked surprisingly:
"Why are you here?"
"On the account of my mother," she explained. "But it doesn't matter much where I am. Places are all alike," she continued conversationally. "We're mostly at hotels—Florida in winter and Lake George in summer. This is kind of between."
"Oh!" he said; and she was sure, from that short single exclamation, he understood everything.
"Like all true beauty," he added, "it's plain that you are durable."
"I don't like the seashore," she went on easily; "I'd rather be in a garden with piles of flowers and a big hedge."
"Have you ever lived in a garden-close?"
"No," she admitted; "it's just an idea. I told mother but she laughed at me and said a roof-garden was her choice."
"Some day you'll have the place you describe," he assured her. "It is written all over you. I would like to see you, Bellina, in a space of emerald sod and geraniums." She decided to accept without further protest his name for her. "You are right, too, about the hedge—the highest and thickest in creation. I should recommend a pseudo-classic house, Georgian, rather small, a white facade against the grass. A Jacobean dining-room, dark certainly, the French windows open on dipping candle flames. You'd wear white, with your hair low and the midnight bang as it is now."
"That would be awfully nice," Linda replied vaguely. She sighed.
"But a very light drawing-room!" he cried. "White panels and arches and Canton-blue rugs—the brothers Adam. A fluted mantel, McIntires, and a brass hod. Curiously enough, I always see you in the evening ... at the piano. I'm not so bored, now." Little flames of red burned in either thin cheek. "What nonsense!" Suddenly he was tired. "This is a practical and earnest world," his voice grew thin and hurt her. "Yet beauty is relentless. You'll have your garden, but I shouldn't be surprised at difficulties first."
"It won't be so hard to get," she declared confidently. "I mean to choose the right man. Mother says that's the answer. Women, she says, won't use their senses."
Linda began to think this was a most unpleasant monosyllable.
"So that's the lay! Has she succeeded?"
"She has a splendid time. She's out tonight with Mr. Jasper in a rolling chair, and he has loads and loads of money. It makes all the other women cross."
"Here you are, then, till she gets back?"
"There's no one else."
"But, as a parent, infinitely preferable to the righteous," he murmured. "And you—"
"I think mother's perfect," she answered simply.
He shook his head. "You won't succeed at it, though. Your mother, for example, isn't dark."
"The loveliest gold hair," she said ecstatically. "She's much much prettier than I'll ever be."
"Prettier, yes. The trouble is, you are lovely, magical. You will stay for a lifetime in the memory. The merest touch of you will be more potent than any duty or fidelity. A man's only salvation will be his blindness."
Although she didn't understand a word of this, Linda liked to hear him; he was talking as though she were grown up, and in response to the flattery she was magnetic and eager.
"One time," he said, "very long ago, beauty was worshiped. Men, you see, know better now. They want their dollar's worth. The world was absolutely different then—there were deep adventurous forests with holy chapels in the green combe for an orison, and hermits rising to Paradise on the Te Deum Laudamus of the angels and archangels. There were black castles and, in the broad meadows, silk tents with ivory pegs and poles of gold.
"The enchantments were as thick as shadows under the trees: perhaps the loveliest of women riding a snow-white mule, with a saddle cloth of red samite, or, wrapped in her shining hair, on a leopard with yellow eyes, lured you to a pavilion, scattered with rushes and flowers and magical herbs, and a shameful end. Or a silver doe would weep, begging you to pierce her with your sword, and, when you did, there knelt the daughter of the King of Wales.
"But I started to tell you about the worship of beauty. Plato started it although Cardinal Pietro Bembo was responsible for the creed. He lived in Italy, in an age like a lily. It developed mostly at Florence in the Platonic Academy of Cosomo and Pico della Mirandola. Love was the supreme force, and its greatest expression a desire beyond the body."
He gazed at Linda with a quizzical light in his eyes deep in shadow.
"Love," he said again, and then paused. "One set of words will do as well as another. You will understand, or not, with something far different from intellectual comprehension. The endless service of beauty. Of course, a woman—but never the animal; the spirit always. Born in the spirit, served in the spirit, ending in the spirit. A direct contradiction, you see, to nature and common sense, frugality and the sacred symbol of the dollar.
"It wouldn't please your Mr. Jasper, with his heaps and heaps of money. Mr. Jasper would consider himself sold. But Novalis, not so very long ago, understood.... A dead girl more real than all earth. You mustn't suppose it to be mere mysticism."
Linda said, "Very well, I won't."
He nodded. "No one could call Michelangelo hysterical. Sometime in the history of man, of a salt solution, this divinity has touched them. Touched them hopefully, and perhaps gone—banished by the other destination. Or I can comprehend nature killing it relentlessly, since it didn't lead to propagation. Then, too, as much as was useful was turned into a dogma for politics and priests.
"You saw in the rushlight a woman against the arras; there was a humming of viola d'amore from the musicians' balcony; she smiled at you, lingering, and then vanished with a whisper of brocade de Lyons on a sanded floor. Nothing else but a soft white glove, eternally fragrant, in your habergeon, an eternally fragrant memory; the dim vision in stone street and coppice; a word, a message, it might be, sent across the world of steel at death. And then, in the last flicker of vision, the arras and the clear insistent strings, the whispering brocade de Lyons on the landing.
"The philosophy of it," he said in a different tone, "is exact, even a scientific truth. But men have been more concerned with turning lead into gold; naturally the spirit has been neglected. The science of love has been incredibly soiled:
"The old gesture toward the stars, the bridge of perfection, the escape from the fatality of flesh. Yet it was a service of the body made incredibly lovely in actuality and still never to be grasped. Never to be won. It ought to be clear to you that realized it would diminish into quite a different thing—
"'La figlia della sua mente, l'amorosa idea.'"
His voice grew so faint that Linda could scarcely distinguish articulate sounds. All that he said, without meaning for her, stirred her heart. She was used to elder enigmas of speech; her normal response was instinctively emotional, and nothing detracted from the gravity of her attention.
"Not in pious men," he continued, more uncertain; "nor in seminaries of virtue. They have their reward. But in men whose bitterness of longing grew out of hideous fault. The distinction of beauty—not a payment for prayers or chastity. The distinction of love ... above chests of linen and a banker's talent and patents of nobility.... Divine need. Idiotic. But what else, what better, offers?"
He was, she saw, terribly sick. His hands were clenched and his entire being strained and rigid, as though he were trying to do something tremendously difficult. At last, with infinite pain, he succeeded.
"I must get away," he articulated.
Linda was surprised at the effort necessary for this slight accomplishment when he had said the most bewildering things with complete ease. Well, the elevators were right in front of him. He rose slowly, and, with Linda standing at his side, dug a sharp hand into her shoulder. It hurt, but instinctively she bore it and, moving forward, partly supported him. She pressed the bell that signaled for the elevator and it almost immediately sank into view. "Hurry," he said harshly to the colored operator in a green uniform; and quite suddenly, leaving a sense of profound mystery, he disappeared.
Linda decided that he had told her a rather stupid fairy story. She was too old for such ridiculous things as ladies in their shining hair on a leopard. She remembered clearly seeing one of the latter at a zoological garden. It had yellow eyes, but no one would care to ride on it. Her mother, she was certain, knew more about love than any man. His words faded quickly from her memory, but a confused rich sense stirred her heart, a feeling such as she experienced after an unusually happy day: white gloves and music and Mr. Jasper displeased.
A clock chimed ten, and she proceeded to her mother's room, where she must wait up with her information about Mr. Jasper's wife. She was furious at him for a carelessness that had brought her mother such unfavorable criticism. Everything had been put away before going down, and there was nothing for her to do. The time dragged tediously. The hands of the traveling-clock in purple leather on the dressing-table moved deliberately around to eleven. A ringing of ice in one of the metal pitchers carried by the bell boys sounded from the corridor. There was the faint wail of a baby.
Suddenly and acutely Linda was lonely—a new kind of loneliness that had nothing to do with the fact that she was by herself. It was a strange cold unhappiness, pressing over her like a cloud and, at the same time, it was nothing at all. That is, there was no reason for it. The room was brightly lighted and, anyhow, she wasn't afraid of "things." She thought that at any minute she must cry like that baby. After a little she felt better; rather the unhappiness changed to wanting. What she wanted was a puzzle; but nothing else would satisfy her. It might be a necklace of little pearls, but it wasn't. It might be—. Now it was twelve o'clock. Dear, dear, why didn't she come back!
Music, awfully faint, and a whisper, like a dress, across the floor. Her emotion changed again, to an extraordinary delight, a glow like that which filled her at the expression of her adoration for her mother, but infinitely greater. She was seated, and she lifted her head with her eyes closed and hands clasped. The clock pointed to one and her parent came into the room.
"Linda," she exclaimed crossly, "whatever are you doing up? A bad little girl. I told you to be asleep hours before this."
"There is something you had to know right away," Linda informed her solemnly. "I only just heard it from Mrs. Randall and Miss Skillern." Her mother's flushed face hardened. "Mr. Jasper is married," Linda said.
Mrs. Condon dropped with an angry flounce into a chair. Her broad scarf of sealskin slipped from one shoulder. Her hat was crooked and her hair disarranged. "So that's it," she said bitterly; "and they went to you. The dam' old foxes. They went to you, nothing more than a child."
Linda put in, "They didn't mean to; it just sort of came out. I knew you'd stop as soon as you heard. Wasn't it horrid of him?"
"And this," Mrs. Condon declared, "is what I get for being, yes—proper.
"I said to-night, 'George,' I said, 'go right back home. It's the only thing. They have a right to you.' I told him that only to-night. And, 'No, I must consider my little Linda.' If I had held up my finger," she held up a finger to show the smallness of the act necessary, "where would we have all been?
"But this is what I get. You might think the world would notice a woman's best efforts. No, they all try to crowd her and see her slip. If they don't watch out I'll skid, all right, and with some one they least expect. I have opportunities."
Linda realized with a sense of confusion that her mother had known of Mr. Jasper's marriage all the while. But she had nobly tried to save him from something; just what Linda couldn't make out. The other's breath was heavy with drinking.
"You go to bed, Lin," she continued; "and thank you for taking care of mama. I hope to goodness you'll learn from all this—pick out what you want and make for it. Don't bother with the antique frumps, the disappointed old tabbies. Have your fun. There's nothing else. If you like a man, be on the level with him—give and take. Men are not saints and we're better for it; we don't live in a heaven. You've got a sweet little figure. Always remember mama telling you that the most expensive corsets are the cheapest in the end."
Linda undressed slowly and methodically, her mother's words ringing in her head. Always remember—but of course she would have the nicest things possible.... A keepsake and faint music. She thought, privately, that she was too thin; she'd rather be her mother, with shoulders like bunches of smooth pink roses. In bed, just as she was falling asleep, a sound disturbed her from the corridor above—the slow tramping of heavy feet, like a number of men carefully bearing an awkward object. She listened with suspended breath while they passed. The footfalls seemed to pound on her heart. Slowly, slowly they went, unnatural and measured. They were gone now, but she still heard them. The crashing of her mother into bed followed with a deep sigh. The long fall of a wave on the shore was audible. Two things contended in her stilled brain—the mysterious feeling of desire and her mother's advice. They were separate and fought, yet they were strangely incomprehensibly joined.
In the morning Mrs. Condon, with a very late breakfast-tray in bed, had regained her usual cheerful manner. "The truth is," she told Linda, "I'm glad that Jasper man has gone. He had no idea of discretion; tired of them anyhow." Linda radiated happiness. This was the mother she loved above all others. Her mind turned a little to the man who had talked to her the night before. She wondered if he were better. His thin blanched face, his eyes gleaming uncomfortably in smudges, recurred to her. Perhaps he'd be down by the cigar-stand again. She went, presently, to see, but the row of chairs was empty.
However, the neglected thick brown-covered magazine was still on the ledge by which he had been sitting. There was a name on it, and while, ordinarily, she couldn't read handwriting, this was so clear and regular, but minutely small, that she was able to spell it out—Howard Welles.
It disappointed her not to find him; at lunch she observed nearly every one present, but still he was lost. He wasn't listening to the music after dinner, nor below. A deep sense of disappointment grew within her. Linda wanted to see him, hear him talk; at times a sharp hurt in the shoulder he had grasped brought him back vividly. The next day it was the same, and finally, diffidently, she approached the hotel desk. A clerk she knew, Mr. Fiske, was rapidly sorting mail, and she waited politely until he had finished.
"Well?" he asked.
"I found this down-stairs," she said, giving him the magazine. "Perhaps he'll want it." Mr. Fiske looked at the written name, and then glanced sharply at her. "No," he told her brusquely, "he won't want it." He turned away with the magazine and left Linda standing irresolutely. She wanted to ask if Mr. Welles were still at the Boscombe; if the latter didn't want the magazine she'd love to have it, Linda couldn't tell why. But the clerk went into the treasurer's office and she was forced to move away.
Later, lingering inexplicably about the spot where she had heard so many bewildering words, a very different man spoke to her. He, Linda observed, was smoking a cigar, a good one, she was certain. He was smallish and had a short bristling mustache and head partly bald. His shoes were very shiny and altogether he had a look of prosperity. "Hello, cutie!" he cried, capturing her arm. She responded listlessly. The other produced a crisp dollar bill. "Do you see the chocolates in that case?" he said, indicating the cigar-stand. "Well, get the best. If they cost more, let me know. Our financial rating is number one." Linda answered that she didn't think she cared for any. "All right," the man agreed; "sink the note in the First National Ladies Bank, if you know where that is."
He engineered her unwillingly onto a knee. "How's papa?" he demanded. "I suppose he will be here Saturday to take his family through the stores?"
She replied with dignity, "There is only my mother and me."
At this information he exclaimed "Ah!" and touched his mustache with a diminutive gold-backed brush from a leather case. "That's more than I have," he confided to her; "there is only myself. Isn't that sad? You must be sorry for the lonely old boy."
She wasn't. Probably he, too, had a wife somewhere; men were beastly. "I guess your mother wants a little company at times herself?"
Linda, straining away from him, replied, "Oh, dear, no; there are just packs of gentlemen whenever she likes. But she is tired of them all." She escaped and he settled his waistcoat.
"You mustn't run away," he admonished her; "nice children don't. Your mother didn't bring you up like that, I'm sure. She wouldn't like it."
Linda hesitated, plainly conveying the fact that, if she were to wait, he would have to say something really important.
"Just you two," he deliberated; "Miss and Mrs. Jones."
"Not at all," Linda asserted shortly; "our name is Condon."
"I wonder if you'd tell her this," he went on: "a gentleman's here by himself named Bardwell, who has seen her and admires her a whole lot. Tell her he's no young sprig but he likes a good time all the better. Dependable, too. Remember that, cutie. And he wouldn't presume if he had a short pocket. He knows class when he sees it."
"It won't do any good," Linda assured him in her gravest manner. "She said only this morning she was sick of them."
"That was before dinner," he replied cheerfully. "Things look different later in the day. You do what I tell you."
All this Linda dutifully repeated. Her mother was at the dressing-table, rubbing cream into her cheeks, and she paused, surveying her reflection in the mirror. "He was smoking a big cigar," Linda added. The other laughed. "What a sharp little thing you are!" she exclaimed. "A body ought to be careful what they tell you." She wiped off the cream and rubbed a soft pinkish powder into her skin.
"He saw me, did he?" she apparently addressed the glass. "Admired me a whole lot. Was he nice, Linda?" she turned. "Were his clothes right? You must point him out to me to-night. But do it carefully, darling. No one should notice. Your mother isn't on the shelf yet; she can hold her own, even in the Boscombe, against the whole barnyard."
Linda, at the entrance to the dining-room, whispered, "There he is." But immediately Mr. Bardwell was smiling and speaking to them.
"I had a delightful conversation with your little girl to-day," he told Mrs. Condon; "such a pretty child and well brought up."
"And good, too," her mother replied; "not a minute's trouble. The common sense of the grown; you'd never believe it."
"Why shouldn't I?" he protested gallantly. "Every reason to." Mrs. Condon blushed becomingly.
"She had to make up for a lot," she sighed.
An hour or more after dinner Mrs. Randall stopped Linda in the hall beyond the music. "Mama out?" she inquired brightly. "I thought Mr. Jasper left this morning?"
Linda told her that Mr. Jasper had gone; she added nothing else.
"I must look at the register," Mrs. Randall continued; "I really must."
Obeying an uncontrollable impulse Linda half cried, "I'd like to see you riding on a leopard!" A flood of misery enveloped her, and she hurried up to the silence of her mother's deserted room.
It was on her fourteenth birthday that Linda noticed a decided change in her mother; a change, unfortunately, that most of all affected the celebrated good humors. In the first place Mrs. Condon spent an increasingly large part of the day before the mirror of her dressing-table, but without any proportionate pleasure; or, if there was a proportion kept, it exhibited the negative result of a growing annoyance. "God knows why they all show at once," she exclaimed discontentedly, seated—as customary—before the eminently truthful reflection of a newly discovered set of lines. "I'm not old enough to begin to look like a hag."
"Oh, mother," Linda protested, shocked, "you mustn't say such horrid things about yourself. Why, you're perfectly lovely, and you don't seem a speck older than you did years ago."
The other, biting her full underlip at the unwelcome fact in turn biting a full lower lip back at her, made no reply. Linda lingered for a moment at her mother's ruffled pink shoulders; then, with a sigh, she turned to the reception-room of their small suite at the Hotel Gontram. It was a somber chamber furnished in red plush, with a complication of shades and gray-white net curtains at long windows and a deep green carpet. There was a fireplace, with a grate, supported by varnished oak pillars and elaborate mantel and glass, a glittering reddish center-table with a great many small odd shelves below, a desk with sheaves of hotel writing paper and the telephone.
The Gontram was entirely different from the hotels at the lakes or seashore or in the South. It was a solid part of a short block west of Fifth Avenue in the middle of the city. Sherry's filled a corner with its massive stone bulk and glimpses of dining-rooms with glittering chandeliers and solemn gaiety, then impressive clubs and wide entrances under heavy glass and metal, tall porters in splendid livery, succeeded each other to the Hotel Gontram and the dull thunder of the elevated trains beyond.
The revolving door, through which Linda sedately permitted herself to be moved, opened into a high space of numerous columns and benches, writing-desks and palms. At the back was the white room where, usually alone, she had breakfast, while the dining-room, discreetly lighted, was at the left. It was more interesting here than, for example, at the Boscombe; people were always coming in or going, and there were quantities of men. She watched them arriving with shoals of leather bags in the brisk care of the bellboys, disappear into the elevator, and, if it was evening, come down in dinner coats with vivid silk scarfs folded over their white shirts.
The women were perpetually in street clothes or muffled in satin wraps; Linda only regarded them when they were exceptional. Usually she was intent on the men. It often happened that they returned her frank gaze with a smile, or stopped to converse with her. Sometimes it was an actor with a face dryly pink like a woman's from make-up; they were familiar and pinched her cheeks, calling her endearing names in conscious echoing voices as if they were quite hollow within. Then there were simply business men, who never appeared to take off their derby hats, and spoke to her of their little girls at home. She was entirely at ease with the latter—so many of her mother's friends were similar—and critically valued the details of their dress, the cigar-cases with or without gold corners, the watch-chains with jeweled insignia, the cuff-links and embroidered handkerchiefs.
If her mother approached while Linda was so engaged the elder would linger with a faint smile, at which, now, the girl was conscious of a growing impatience. She'd rise with dignity and, if possible, escape with her parent from florid courtesies. This sense of annoyance oppressed her, too, in the dining-room, where her mother, a cocktail in her hand, would engage in long cheerful discussions with the captains or waiters. Other women, Linda observed, spoke with complete indifference and their attention on the carte de jour. Of course it was much more friendly to be interested in the servants' affairs—they told her mother about their wives and the number of their children, the difficulties of bringing both ends together, and served her with the promptest care; but instinctively Linda avoided any but the most formal contact.
She had to insist, as well, on paying the tips; for Mrs. Condon, her sympathies engaged, was quite apt to leave on the table a five-dollar bill or an indiscriminate heap of silver. "You are a regular little Jew," she would reply lightly to Linda's protests. This, the latter thought, was unfair; for the only Jew she knew, Mr. Moses Feldt, an acquaintance of their present period in New York, was quite the most generous person she knew. "Certainly you don't take after your mama."
After she said this she always paused with tight lips. It was charged with the assumption that, while Linda didn't resemble her, she did very much a mysterious and unfavorably regarded personage. Her father, probably. More and more Linda wondered about him. He was dead, she knew, but that, she began to see, was no reason for the positive prohibition to mention him at all. Perhaps he had done something dreadful, with money, and had disgraced them all. Yet she was convinced that this was not so.
She had heard a great many uncomplimentary words applied to husbands, most of which she had been unable to comprehend; and she speculated blankly on them in her mother's connection. On the whole the women agreed that they were remarkably stupid and transparent, they protested that they understood and guided every move husbands made; and this surely gave her father no opportunity for independent crime. She was held from questioning not so much by her mother's command—at times she calmly and successfully ignored that—as from its unfortunate effect on the elder.
Mrs. Condon would burn with a generalized anger that sank to a despondency fortified by the brandy flask. Straining embraces and tears, painful to support, would follow, or more unbearable silliness. The old difficulties with giggling or sympathetic chambermaid;—Linda couldn't decide which was worse—then confronted her with the necessity for rigid lies, misery, and the procuring of sums of money from the bag in the top drawer. Altogether, and specially with the fresh difficulties of her mother's unaccountable irritation and apprehensions, things were frightfully complicated.
It was late afternoon in November, and the electric lights were on; however, they were lighted when they rose, whenever they were in the rooms, for it was always gloomy if not positively dark; the bedroom looked into a deep exterior well and the windows of the other chamber opened on an uncompromising blank wall. Yet Linda, now widely learned in such settings, rather liked her present situation. They had occupied the same suite before, for one thing; and going back into it had given her a sense of familiarity in so much that always shifted.
Linda, personally, had changed very little; she was taller than four years before, but not a great deal; she was, perhaps, more graceful—her movements had become less sudden—more assured, the rapidly maturing qualities of her mind made visible; and she had gained a surprising repose.
Now, for example, she sat in a huge chair cushioned with black leather and thought, with a frowning brow, of her mother. It was clear that the latter was obviously worried about—to put it frankly—her face. Her figure, she repeatedly asserted, could be reasoned with; she had always been reconciled to a certain jolly stoutness, but her face, the lines that appeared about her eyes overnight, fairly drove her to hot indiscreet tears. She had been to see about it, Linda knew; and returned from numerous beauty-parlors marvelously rejuvenated—for the evening.
She had been painted, enameled, vibrated, massaged; she had had electric treatment, rays and tissue builders; and once she had been baked. To-day the toilet table would be loaded with milkweed, cerates and vanishing cream; tomorrow they would all be swept away, given to delighted chambermaids, while Mrs. Condon declared that, when all was said, cold water and a rough towel was nature's way.
This afternoon, apparently everything, including hope, had failed. She was as cross as cross. From the manner in which she spoke it might have been Linda's fault. The worst of it was that even the latter saw that nothing could be done. Her mother was growing—well, a little tired in appearance. Swift tears gathered in Linda's eyes. She hadn't been quite truthful in that reassuring speech of hers. She set herself to the examination of various older women with whom she had more or less lately come in contact. How had they regarded and met the loss of whatever good looks they had possessed?
It was terribly mixed up, but, as she thought about it, it seemed to her that the world of women was divided into two entirely different groups, the ones men liked, and who had such splendid parties; and the ones who sat together and gossiped in sharp lowered voices. She hoped passionately that her mother would not become one of the latter for a long long while. But eventually it seemed that there was no escape from the circle of brilliantly dressed creatures with ruined faces who congregated in the hotels and whispered and nodded in company until they went severally to bed.
The great difference between one and the other, of course, was the favor of men. Their world revolved about that overwhelming fact. Her mother had informed her of this on a hundred occasions and in countless ways; but more by her actions, her present wretchedness, than by speech. It was perfectly clear to Linda that nothing else mattered. She was even beginning, in a vague way, to think of it in connection with herself; but still most of her preoccupation was in her mother. She decided gravely that a great deal, yet, could be done. For instance, lunch to-day:
Her mother had given her a birthday celebration at Henri's, the famous confectioner but a door or two from their hotel, and at the end, when a plate of the most amazing and delightful little cakes had been set on the table, the elder had eaten more than half. Afterwards she had sworn ruefully at her lack of character, begging Linda—in a momentary return of former happy companionship—never to let her make such a silly pig of herself again. Then she got so tired, Linda continued her mental deliberations; if she could only rest, go away from cities and resorts for a number of months, the lines in turn would soon vanish.
The elder moved impatiently, with a fretful exclamation, in the inner room; from outside came the subdued dull ceaseless clamor of New York. Formerly it had frightened Linda; but her dread had become a wordless excitement at the thought of so much just beyond the windows; her hands grew cold and her heart suddenly pounded, destroying the vicarious image of her mother.
"I wish now I'd been different," Mrs. Condon said, standing in the door. Her dress was not yet on, but her underthings were fully as elaborate and shimmering as any gown could hope to be. "And above everything else, I am sorry for the kind of mother you've had." This was so unexpected, the other's voice was so unhappy, that Linda was startled. She hurried across the room and laid a slim palm on her mother's full bare arm. "Don't say that," Linda begged, distressed; "you've been the best in the world."
"You know nothing about it," the elder returned, momentarily seated, her hands clasped on her full silken lap. "But perhaps it's not too late. You ought to go to a good school, where you'd learn everything, but principally what a bad thoughtless mama you have."
"I shouldn't stay a second in a place where they said that," Linda declared. A new apprehension touched her. "You're not really thinking of sending me away!" she cried. "Why, you simply could not get along. You know you couldn't! The maids never do up your dresses right; and you'd be so lonely in the mornings you would nearly die."
"That's true," Mrs. Condon admitted wearily. "I would expire; but I was thinking of you—you're only beginning life; and the start you'll get with me is all wrong. Or, anyway, most people think so."
"They are only jealous."
"Will you go into the closet, darling, and pour out a teeny little sip from my flask; mama feels a thousand years old this evening."
Returning with the silver cup of the flask half full of pale pungent brandy Linda could scarcely keep the tears from spilling over her cheeks. She had never before felt so sad. Her mother hastily drank, the stinging odor was transferred to her lips; and there was a palpable recovery of her customary spirit.
"I don't know what gets over me," she asserted. "I'm certain, from what I've heard of them, that you wouldn't be a bit better off in one of those fashionable schools for girls. Woman, young and older, were never meant to be a lot together in one place. It's unnatural. They don't like each other, ever, and it's all hypocritical and nasty. You will get more from life, yes, and me. I'm honest, too honest for my own good, if the truth was known."
She rose and unconsciously strayed to the mirror over the mantel where she examined her countenance in absorbed detail.
"My skin is getting soft like putty," she remarked aloud to herself. "The thing is, I've had my time and don't want to pay for it. Blondes go quicker than dark women; you ought to last a long while, Linda." Mrs. Condon had turned, and her tone was again almost complaining, almost ill-natured. Linda considered this information with a troubled face. It was quite clear that it made her mother cross. "I've seen men stop and look at you right now, too, and you nothing more than a slip fourteen years old. Of course, when I was fifteen I had a proposal; but I was very forward; and somehow you're different—so dam' serious."
She couldn't help it, Linda thought, if she was serious; she really had a great deal to think about, their income among other things. If she didn't watch it, pay the bills every three months when it arrived, her mother would never have a dollar in the gold mesh bag. Then, lately, the dresses the elder threatened to buy were often impossible; Linda learned this from the comments she heard after the wearing of evening affairs sent home against her earnest protests. They were, other women more discreetly gowned had agreed, ridiculous.
Linda calmly realized that in this her judgment was superior to her mother's. In other ways, too, she felt she was really the elder; and her dismay at the possibility of going away to school had been mostly made up of the realization of how much her mother's well-being was dependent on her.
Mrs. Condon, finishing her dressing in the bedroom, at times called out various injunctions, general or immediate. "Tell them to have a taxi at the door for seven sharp. Have you talked to that little girl in the black velvet?" Linda hadn't and made a mental note to avoid her more pointedly in the future. "Get out mother's carriage boots from the hall closet; no, the others—you know I don't wear the black with coral stockings. They come off and the fur sticks to my legs. It will be very gay to-night; I hope to heaven Ross doesn't take too much again." Linda well remembered that the last time Ross had taken too much her mother's Directoire wrap had been completely torn in half. "There, it is all nonsense about my fading; I look as well as I ever did."
Mrs. Condon stood before her daughter like a large flame-pink tulle flower. Her bright gold hair was constrained by black gauze knotted behind, her bare shoulders were like powdered rosy marble and the floating skirts gathered in a hand showed marvelously small satin-tied carriage boots. Indeed Linda's exclamation of delight was entirely frank. She had never seen her mother more radiant. The cunningly applied rouge, the enhanced brilliancy of her long-lashed eyes, had perfectly the illusion of unspent beauty.
"Do stay down-stairs after dinner and play," the elder begged. "And if you want to go to the theatre, ask Mr. Bendix, at the desk, to send you with that chauffeur we have had so much. I positively forbid your leaving the hotel else. It's a comfort after all, that you are serious. Kiss mama—"
However, she descended with her mother in the elevator; there was a more public caress; and the captain in the Chinese dining-room placed Linda at a small table against the wall. There she had clams—she adored iced clams—creamed shrimps and oysters with potatoes bordure, alligator-pear salad and a beautiful charlotte cream with black walnuts. After this she sedately instructed the captain what to sign on the back of the dinner check—Linda Condon, room five hundred and seven—placed thirty-five cents beside the finger-bowl for the waiter, and made her way out to the news stand and the talkative girl who had it in charge. Exhausting the possibilities of gossip, and deciding not to go out to the theatre—in spite of the news girl's exciting description of a play called "The New Sin"—she was walking irresolutely through the high gilded and marble assemblage space when, unfortunately, she was captured by Mr. Moses Feldt.
He led her to a high-backed lounge against the wall, where, seated on its extreme edge, he gazed silently at her with an expression of sentimental concern. Mr. Moses Feldt was a short round man, bald but for a fluffy rim of pale hair, and with the palest imaginable eyes in a countenance perpetually flushed by the physical necessity of accommodating his rotundity to awkward edges and conditions. As usual he was dressed with the nicest care—a band of white linen laid in the opening of his waistcoat, his scarf ornamented by a pear-shaped pearl on a diamond finished stem; his cloth-topped varnished black shoes glistened, while his short fat fingers clasped a prodigious unlighted cigar. At last, in a tone exactly suited to his gaze, he exclaimed:
"So that naughty mama has gone out again and deserted Moses and her little Linda!" In what way her mother had deserted Mr. Feldt she failed to understand. Of course he wanted to marry them—the comprehensive phrase was his own—but that didn't include him in whatever they did. Principally it made a joke for their private entertainment. Mrs. Condon would mimic his eager manner, "Stella, let me take you both home where you'll have the best in the land," And, "Ladies like you ought to have a loving protection." Linda would laugh in her cool bell-like manner, and her mother add a satirical comment on the chance any Moses Feldt had of marrying her.
Linda at once found him ridiculous and a being who forced a slighting warmth of liking. His appearance was preposterous, the ready emotion often too foolish for words; but underneath there was a—a goodness, a mysterious quality that stirred her heart to recognition. Certain rare things in life and experience affected her like that memory of an old happiness. She could never say what they might be, they came at the oddest times and by the most extraordinary means; but at their occurrence she would thrill for a moment as if in response to a sound of music.
It was, for example, absurd that Mr. Moses Feldt, who was a Jew, should make her feel like that, but he did. And all the while that she was disagreeable to him, or mocking him behind his back, she was as uncomfortable and "horrid" as possible. While this fact, of course, only served to make her horrider still. At present she adopted the manner of a patience that nothing could quite exhaust; she was polite and formal, relentlessly correct in position.
Mr. Moses Feldt, the cigar in his grasp, pressed a hand to the probable region of his heart. "You don't know how I think of you," he protested, tears in his eyes; "just the idea of you exposed to anything at all in hotels keeps me awake nights. Now it's a drunk, or a fresh feller on the elevator, or—"
"It's nice of you," Linda said, "but you needn't worry. No one would dare to bother us. No one ever has."
"You wouldn't know it if they did," he replied despondently, "at your age. And then your mother is so trustful and pleasant. Take those parties where she is so much—roof frolics and cocoanut groves and submarine cafes; they don't come to any good. Rowdy." Linda studied him coldly; if he criticized them further she would leave. He mopped a shining brow with a large colorful silk handkerchief. "It throws me into a sweat," he admitted.
"Really, Mr. Feldt, you mustn't bother," she told him in one of her few impulses of friendliness. "You see, we are very experienced." He nodded without visible happiness at this truth. "I'm a jackass!" he cried. "Judith tells me that all the time. If you could only see my daughters," he continued with a new vigor; "such lovely girls as they are. One dark like you and the other fair as a daisy. Judith and Pansy. And my home that darling mama made before she died." The handkerchief was again in evidence.
"Women and girls are funny. I can't get you there and not for nothing will Judith make a step. It may be pride but it seems to me such nonsense. I guess I'm old-fashioned and love's old-fashioned. Homes have gone out of style with the rest. It's all these restaurants and roofs now, yes, and studios. I tell the girls to stay away from them and from artists and so on. I don't encourage them at the apartment—a big lump of a feller with platinum bracelets on his wrists. What kind of a man would that be! I'd like to know who'd buy goods from him.
"Sometimes, I'm sorry I got a lot of money, but it made mama happy. When she laid there at the last sick and couldn't live, I said, 'Oh, if you only won't leave me I'll give you gold to eat.'" He was so moved, his face so red, that Linda grew acutely embarrassed. People were looking at them. She rose stiffly but, in spite of her effort to escape him, he caught both her hands in his:
"You say I'm an old idiot like Judith," he begged. This Linda declined to do. And, "Ask your mother if you won't come to dinner with the girls and me, cozy and at home—just once."
"I'm afraid it will do no good," she admitted; "but I'll try." She realized that he was about to kiss her and moved quickly back. "I am almost afraid of you," he told her; "you're so distant and elegant. Judith and Pansy would get on with you first rate. I'll telephone tomorrow, in the afternoon. If the last flowers I sent you came I never heard of it."
She thanked him appropriately for the roses and stood, erect and impersonal, as a man in the hotel livery helped him into a coat. Mr. Moses Feldt waved the still unlighted cigar at her and disappeared through the rotating door to the street.
She gave a half-affected sigh of relief. Couldn't he see that her mother would never marry him. At the same time the strange thrill touched her; the sense of his absurdity vanished and she no longer remembered him perched like a painted rubber ball on the edge of the lounge.
In the somber red plush and varnished wood of the reception-room of their suite he seemed again charming. Perhaps it was because he, too, adored her mother. That wasn't the reason. The familiar rare joy lingered. It seemed now as though she were to capture and understand it ... there was the vibration of music; and then, as always, she felt at once sad and brave. But, in spite of her old effort to the contrary, the feeling died away. Some day it would be clear to her; in the meanwhile Mr. Moses Feldt became once more only ridiculous.
In the morning she was dressed and had returned from breakfast before her mother stirred. The latter moved sharply, brought an arm up over her head, and swore. It was a long while before she got up or spoke again, and Linda never remembered her in a worse temper. When, finally, she came into the room where the breakfast-tray was laid, Linda was inexpressibly shocked—all that her mother had dreaded about her appearance had come disastrously true. Her face was hung with shadows like smudges of dirt and her eyes were netted with lines.
Examining the dishes with distaste she told Linda that positively she could slap her for letting them bring up orange-juice. "How often must I explain to you that it freezes my fingers." Linda replied that she had repeated this in the breakfast-room and perhaps they had the wrong order. Neither her mother nor she said anything more until Mrs. Condon had finished her coffee and started a second cigarette. Then Linda related something of Mr. Moses Feldt's call on the evening before. "He cried right into his handkerchief," she said, "until I thought I should sink."
Mrs. Condon eyed her daughter speculatively. "Now if you were only four years older," she declared, "it would be a good thing. He was simply born to be a husband." Horror filled Linda at the other's implication. "Yes," the elder insisted; "you couldn't do better; except, perhaps, for those girls of his. But then you'd have no trouble making them miserable. It's time to talk to you seriously about marriage." The smoke from the cigarette eddied in a gray veil across her unrefreshed face.
"You're old for your age, Linda; your life has made you that; and, like I said last night, it is rather better than not. Well, for you marriage, and soon as possible, is the proper thing. Mind, I have never said a word against it; only what suits one doesn't suit another. Where it wouldn't be anything more than an old ladies' home to me you need it early and plenty. You are too intense. That doesn't go in the world. Men don't like it. They want their pleasure and comfort without strings tied to them; the intensity has to be theirs.
"What you must get through your head is that love—whatever it is—and marriage are two different things, and if you are going to be successful they must be kept separate. You can't do anything with a man if you love him; but then you can't do anything with him if he doesn't love you. That's the whole thing in a breath. I am not crying down love, either; only I don't want you to think it is the bread and butter while it's nothing more than those little sweet cakes at Henri's.
"Now any girl who marries a poor man or for love—they are the same thing—is a fool and deserves what she gets. No one thanks her for it, him least of all; because if she does love him it is only to make them miserable. She's always at him—where did he go and why did he stay so long, and no matter what he says she knows it's a lie. More times than not she's right, too. I can't tell you too often—men don't want to be loved, they like to be flattered and flattered and then flattered again. You'd never believe how childish they are.
"Make them think they're it and don't give too much—that's the secret. Above all else don't be easy on them. Don't say 'all right, darling, next spring will do as well for a new suit.' Get it then and let him worry about paying for it, if worry he must. If they don't give it to you some one smarter will wear it. But I started to talk about getting married.
"Choose a Moses Feldt, who will always be grateful to you, and keep him at it. They are so easy to land it's a kind of shame, too. Perhaps I am telling you this too soon, but I don't want any mistakes. Well, pick out your Moses—and mama will help you there—and suddenly, at the right time, show him that you can be affectionate; surprise him with it and you so staid and particular generally. Don't overdo it, promise more than you ever give—
"In the closet, dearie, just a little. That's a good girl. Mama's so dry." She rose, the silver cup of the flask in her hand, and moved inevitably to the mirror. "My hair's a sight," she remarked; "all strings. I believe I'll get a permanent wave. They say it lasts for six months or more, till the ends grow out. Makes a lot of it, too, and holds the front together. If you've ever had dye in your hair, I hear, it will break off like grass."
Linda pondered over what she had been told of love and marriage; on the whole the exposition had been unsatisfactory. The latter she was able to grasp, but her mother had admitted an inability exactly to fix love. One fact, apparently, was clear—it was a nuisance and a hindrance to happiness, or rather to success. Love upset things. Still she had the strongest objection possible to living forever with a man like Mr. Moses Feldt. At once all that she had hoped for from life grew flat and uninteresting. She had no doubt of her mother's correctness and wisdom; the world was like that; she must make the best of it.
There was some telephoning, inquiries, and she heard the elder make an appointment with a hair-dresser for three that afternoon. She wondered what it would be like to have your hair permanently waved and hoped that she would see it done. This, too, she realized, was a part of the necessity of always considering men—they liked your hair to be wavy. Hers was as straight and stupid as possible. She, in turn, examined herself in a mirror: the black bang fell exactly to her eyebrows, her face had no color other than the carnation of her lips and her deep blue eyes. She moved away and critically studied her figure; inches and inches too thin, she decided. Undoubtedly her mother was right, and she must marry at the first opportunity—if she could find a man, a rich man, who was willing.
Her thoughts returned vaguely to the mystery, the nuisance, of love. Surely she had heard something before, immensely important, about it, and totally different from all her mother had said. Her mind was filled with the fantastic image of a forest, of dangers, and a fat china figure with curled plumes, a nodding head, that brushed her with fear and disgust. A shuddering panic took possession of her, flashes burned before her eyes, and she ran gasping to the perfumed soft reassurances of her mother.
In a recurrence of her surprising concern of the day before Mrs. Condon declined to leave her dearest Linda alone; and, their arms caught together in a surging affection, they walked down Fifth Avenue toward the hairdresser's. There was a diffused gray sparkle of sunlight—it was early for the throngs—through which they passed rapidly to the accompaniment of a rapid eager chatter. Linda wore a deep smooth camel's hair cape, over which her intense black hair poured like ink, and her face was shaded by a dipping green velvet hat. Her mother, in one of the tightly cut suits she affected, had never been more like a perfect companion.
They saw, in the window of a store for men, a set of violent purple wool underwear, and barely escaped hysterics at the thought of Mr. Moses Feldt in such a garb. They giggled idiotically at the spectacle of a countryman fearfully making the sharp descent from the top of a lurching omnibus. And then, when they had reached the place of Mrs. Condon's appointment, stopped at the show of elaborately waved hair on wax heads and chose which, probably, would resemble the elder and which, in a very short while now, Linda.
There was an impressive interior, furnished in gray panels and silvery wood; and the young woman at the desk was more surprisingly waved than anything they had yet seen. M. Joseph would be ready almost immediately; and in the meanwhile Mrs. Condon could lay aside her things in preparation for the hair to be washed. She did this while Linda followed every movement with the deepest interest.
At the back of the long room was a succession of small alcoves, each with an important-looking chair and mirror and shelves, a white basin, water-taps and rubber tubes. Settled, in comfort, Mrs. Condon's hair was spread out in a bright metal tray fastened to the back of the chair, and the attendant, a moist tired girl in a careless waist, sprayed the short thick gold-colored strands.
"My," she observed, "what some wouldn't give for your shade! Never been touched, I can see, either. A lady comes in with real Titian, but yours is more select. It positively is Lillian Russell." While she talked her hands sped with incredible rapidity and skill. "The gentlemen don't notice it; of course not; oh, no! There was a girl here, a true blonde, but she didn't stay long—her own car, yes, indeed. Married her right out of the establishment. There wasn't any nonsense to her.
"So this is your little girl! I'd never have believed it. Not that she hasn't a great deal of style, a great deal—almost, you might say, like an Egyptian. In the movies last night; her all over. It's a type that will need studying. Bertha Kalich. But for me—"
Already, Linda saw, this part of the operation was done. The girl wheeled into position a case that had a fan and ring of blue flickering flames, and a cupped tube through which hot air was poured over her mother's head. M. Joseph strutted in, a small carefully dressed man with a diminutive pointed gray beard and formal curled mustache. He spoke with what Linda supposed was a French accent, and his manners, at least to them, were beautiful. But because the girl had not put out the blue flames quickly enough he turned to her with a voice of quivering rage.
It was so unexpected, in the middle of his bowing and smooth assurances, that Linda was startled, and had to think about him all over. The result of this was a surprising dislike; she hated, even, to see him touch her mother, as he unnecessarily did in directing them into the enclosure for the permanent wave.
The place itself filled her with the faint horror of instruments and the unknown. Above the chair where Mrs. Condon now sat there was a circle in the ceiling like the base of a chandelier and hanging down from it on twisted green wires were a great number of the strangest things imaginable: they were as thick as her wrist, but round, longer and hollow, white china inside and covered with brown wrapping. The wires of each, she discovered, led over a little wheel and down again to a swinging clock-like weight. In addition to this there were strange depressing handles on the wall by a dial with a jiggling needle and clearly marked numbers.
The skill of the girl who had washed her mother's hair, however, was slight compared with M. Joseph's dexterity. The comb flashed in his white narrow hands; in no time at all every knot was urged out into a shining smoothness. "Just the front?" he inquired. Not waiting for Mrs. Condon's reply, he detached a strand from the mass over her brow, impaled it on a hairpin, while he picked up what might have been a thick steel knitting-needle with one end fastened in the middle of a silver quarter. The latter, it developed, had a hole in it, through which he drew the strand of hair, and then wrapped it with an angry tightness about the long projection.
At this exact moment a new girl, but tired and moist, appeared, took a hank of white threads from a dressing-table, and tied that separate lock firmly. This, Linda counted, was repeated fifteen times; and when it was accomplished she was unable to repress a nervous laughter. Really, her mother looked too queer for words: the long rigid projections stood out all over her head like—like a huge pincushion; no, it was a porcupine. Mrs. Condon smiled in uncertain recognition of her daughter's mirth.
Then Linda's attention followed M. Joseph to a table against a partition, where he secured a white cotton strip from a film of them soaking in a shallow tray, took up some white powder on the blade of a dessert knife and transferred it to the strip. This he wrapped and wrapped about the hair fastened on a spindle, tied it in turn, and dragged down one of the brown objects on wires, which, to Linda's great astonishment, fitted precisely over the cotton-bound hair. Again, fifteen times, M. Joseph did this, fastening each connection with the turn of a screw. When so much was accomplished her mother's hair, it seemed, had grown fast to the ceiling in a tangle of green ends. It was the most terrifying spectacle Linda had ever witnessed. Obscure thoughts of torture, of criminals executed by electricity, froze her in a set apprehension.
The hair-dresser stepped over to the dials on the wall, and, with a sharp comprehensive glance at his apparatus, moved a handle as far as it would go. Nothing immediately happened, and Linda gave a relaxing sigh of relief. M. Joseph, however, became full of a painful attention.
He brought into view an unsuspected tube, with a cone of paper at its end, and bent over her mother, directing a stream of cold air against her head. "How do you feel?" he asked, with, Linda noticed, a startling loss of his first accent. Mrs. Condon so far felt well enough. Then, before Linda's startled gaze, every single one of the fifteen imprisoning tubes began to steam with an extraordinary vigor; not only did they steam, like teapots, but drops of water formed and slowly slid over her mother's face. If the process appeared weird at the beginning, now it was utterly fantastic.
The little white vapor spurts played about Mrs. Condon's dripping countenance; they increased rather than diminished; actually it resembled a wrecked locomotive she had once seen. "How are you?" M. Joseph demanded nervously. "Is it hot anywhere?" With a sudden gesture she replied in a shaking voice, "Here."
Instantly he was holding the paper cone with its cold air against her scalp, and the heat was subdued. He glanced nervously at his watch, and Mrs. Condon managed to ask, "How long?"
Dangerous as the whole proceeding seemed nothing really happened, and Linda's fears gradually faded into a mere curiosity and interest. A curtain hung across the door to the rest of the establishment, but it had been brushed partly aside; and she could see, in the compartment they had vacated, another man bending with waving irons over the liberated mass of a woman's hair. He was very much like M. Joseph, but he was younger and had only a dark scrap of mustache. As he caught up the hair with a quick double twist he leaned very close to the woman's face, whispering with an expression that never changed, an expression like that of the wax heads in the show-case. He bent so low that Linda was certain their cheeks had touched. She pondered at length over this, gazing now at the man beyond and now at M. Joseph flitting with the cold-air tube about her mother; wondering if, when she grew older, she would like a hair-dresser's cheek against hers. Linda decided not. The idea didn't shock her, the woman in the other space plainly liked it; still she decided she wouldn't. A different kind of man, she told herself, would be nicer.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a sharp, unpleasant odor—the odor of scorched hair; and she was absolutely rigid with horror at an agonized cry from her mother.
"It's burning me terribly," the latter cried. "Oh, I can't stand it. Stop! Stop!"
M. Joseph, as white as plaster, rushed to the wall and reversed the handle, and Mrs. Condon started from the chair, her face now streaming with actual tears; but before she could escape the man threw himself on her shoulders.
"You mustn't move," he whispered desperately, "you'll tear your hair out. I tell you no harm's been done. Everything is all right. Please, please don't cry like that. It will ruin my business. There are others in the establishment. Stop!" he shook her viciously.
Linda had risen, terrorized; and Mrs. Condon, with waving plucking hands, was sobbing an appeal to be released. "My head, my head," she repeated. "I assure you"—the man motioned to a pallid girl to hold her in the chair. With a towel to protect his hand he undid a screw, lifted off the cap and untwisted the cotton from a bound lock of hair; releasing it, in turn, from the spindle it fell forward in a complete corkscrew over Mrs. Condon's face.
"Do you see!" he demanded. "Perfect. I give you my word they'll all be like that. The cursed heat ran up on me," he added in a swift aside to his assistant. "Has Mrs. Bellows gone? Who's still in the place? Here, loose that binding ... thank God, that one is all right, too."
Together they unfastened most of the connections, and a growing fringe of long remarkable curls marked Mrs. Condon's pain-drawn and dabbled face. Linda sobbed uncontrollably; but perhaps, after all, nothing frightful had happened. Her poor mother! Then fear again tightened about her heart at the perturbed expression that overtook the hair-dresser. He was trying in vain to remove one of the caps. She caught enigmatic words—"the borax, crystallized ... solid. It would take a plumber ... have to go."
The connection was immovable. Even in her suffering Mrs. Condon implored M. Joseph to save her hair. Nothing, however, could be done; he admitted it with pale lips. The thing might be chiseled off; in the end he tried to force a release and the strand, with a renewal of Mrs. Condon's agony—now, in the interest of her appearance, heroically withstood—snapped short in the container.
Rapidly recovering her vigor, she launched on a tirade against M. Joseph and his permanent waving establishment—Linda had never before heard her mother talk in such a loud brutal manner, nor use such heated unpleasant words, and the girl was flooded with a wretched shame. Still another lock, it was revealed, had been ruined, and crumbled to mere dust in its owner's fingers.
"The law will provide for you," she promised.
"Your hair was dyed," the proprietor returned vindictively. "The girl who washed it will testify. Every one is warned against the permanent if their hair has been colored. So it was at your own risk."
"My head's never been touched with dye," Mrs. Condon shrilly answered. "You lying little ape. And well does that young woman know it. She complimented me herself on a true blonde." The girl had, too, right before Linda.
"You ought to be thrashed out of the city."
"Your money will be given back to you," M. Joseph told her.
Outside they found a taxi, and sped back to their hotel. Above, Mrs. Condon removed her hat; and, before the uncompromising mirror, studied her wrecked hair—a frizzled vacancy was directly over her left brow—and haggard face. When she finally turned to Linda, her manner, her words, were solemn.
"I'm middle-aged," she said.
A dreary silence enveloped them sitting in the dark reception-room while Mrs. Condon restlessly shredded unlighted cigarettes on the floor. She had made no effort to repair the damages to her appearance, and when the telephone bell sharply sounded, she reached out in a slovenly negligence of manner. Linda could hear a blurred articulation and her mother answering listlessly. The latter at last said: "Very well, at seven then; you'll stop for us." She hung up the receiver, stared blankly at Linda, and then went off into a harsh mirth. "Oh, my God!" she cried; "the old ladies' home!"
With her mother away on a wedding-trip with Mr. Moses Feldt, Linda was suddenly projected into the companionship of his two daughters. One, as he had said, was light, but a different fairness from Mrs. Condon's—richly thick, like honey; while Judith, the elder, who must have been twenty, was dark in skin, in everything but her eyes, which were a contrasting ashen-violet. She spoke at once of Linda's flawless whiteness:
"A magnolia," she said, in a deliberate dark voice; "you are quite a gorgeous child. Do you mind my saying that your clothes are rather quaint? They aren't inevitable, and yours ought to be that."
They were at lunch in the Feldt dining-room, an interior of heavy ornately carved black wood, panels of Chinese embroidery in imperial yellow, and a neutral mauve carpet. The effect, with glittering iridescent pyramids of glass, massive frosted repousse silver, burnished gold-plate and a wide table decoration of orchids and fern, was tropical and intense. It was evident to Linda that the Feldts were very rich indeed.
The entire apartment resembled the dining-room, while the building itself filled a whole city block, with a garden and fountains like an elaborate public square. Linda, however, wasn't particularly impressed by such show; she saw that Judith and Pansy had expected that of her; but she was determined not to exhibit a surprise that would imply any changes in her mother's and her condition. In addition, Linda calmly took such surroundings for granted. Her primary conception of possible existence was elegance; its necessity had so entered into her being that it had departed from her consciousness.
"I must take you to Lorice," Judith continued; "she will know better than any one else what you ought to have. You seem terribly pure—at first. But you're not a snowdrop; oh, no—something very rare in a conservatory. Much better style than your mother."
"I hope you won't mind Judith," Pansy put in; "she's always like that." A silence followed in which they industriously dipped the leaves of mammoth artichokes into a buttery sauce. Linda, as customary, said very little, she listened with patient care to the others and endeavored to arrive at conclusions. She liked Pansy, who was as warm and simple as her father. Judith was harder to understand. She was absorbed in color and music, and declared that ugliness gave her a headache at once. Altogether, Linda decided, she was rather silly, especially about men; and at times her emotions would rise beyond control until she wept in a thin hysterical gasping.
The room where, mostly, they sat was small, but with a high ceiling, and hung in black, with pagoda-like vermilion chairs. The light, in the evening, was subdued; and Pansy and Judith, in extremely clinging vivid dresses, the former's hair piled high in an amber mass and Judith's drawn severely across her ears, were lovely. Linda thought of the tropical butterflies of the river Amazon, of orchids like those always on the dining-room table. A miniature grand piano stood against the drapery, and Judith often played. Linda learned to recognize some of the composers. Pansy liked best the modern waltzes; Judith insisted that Richard Strauss was incomparable; but Linda developed an overwhelming preference for Gluck. The older girl insisted that this was an affectation; for a while she tried to confuse Linda's knowledge; but finally, playing the airs of "Orpheus and Eurydice," she admitted that the latter was sincere.
"They sound so cool," Linda said in a clear and decided manner.
There was a man with them, and he shook his head in a mock sadness. "So young and yet so formal. If, with the rest, you had Judith's temperament, you would be the most irresistible creature alive. For see, my dear child, as it is you stir neither tenderness nor desire; you are remote and perfect, and faintly wistful. I can't imagine being human or even comfortable with you about. Then, too, you have too much wisdom."
"She is frightful," Pansy agreed; "she's never upset nor her hair a sight; and, above all else, Linda won't tell you a thing."
"Some day," Judith informed them from the rippling whisper of the piano, "she will be magnificently loved."
"Certainly," the man continued; "but what will Linda, Linda Condon, give in return?"
"It's a mistake to give much," Linda said evenly.
"No, no, no!" Judith cried. "Give everything; spend every feeling, every nerve."
"You are remarkable, of course; almost no women have the courage of their emotions." His name was Reynold Chase, a long thin grave young man in a dinner coat, who wrote brilliant and successful comedies. "Yet Linda isn't parsimonious." He turned to her. "Just what are you? What do you think of love?"
"I haven't thought about it much," she replied slowly. "I'm not sure that I know what it means. At least it hasn't anything to do with marriage—"
"Ah!" he interrupted her.
Her usually orderly mind grew confused; it eddied as though with the sound of the piano. "It is not marriage," she vaguely repeated her mother's instruction. Reynold Chase supported her.
"That destroys it," he asserted. "This love is as different as possible from the ignominious impulse eternally tying the young into knots. It's anti-social."
"How stupid you are, Reynold," Pansy protested. "If you want to use those complicated words take Judith into the drawing-room. I'm sure Linda is dizzy, too."
The latter's mental confusion lingered; she had a strong sense of having heard Reynold Chase say these strange things long before. Judith left the piano, sat beside him, and he lightly kissed her. A new dislike of Judith Feldt deepened in Linda's being. She had no reason for it, but suddenly she felt absolutely opposed to her. The manner in which Judith rested against the man by her was very distasteful. It offended Linda inexplicably; she wanted to draw into an infinity of distance from all contact with men and life.
She didn't even want to make one of those marriages that had nothing to do with love, but was only a sensible arrangement for the securing of gowns and velvet hangings and the luxury of enclosed automobiles. Suddenly she felt lonely, and hoped that her mother would come back soon.
But when her mother, now Mrs. Moses Feldt, did return, Linda was conscious of a keen disappointment. Somehow she never actually came back. It wasn't only that, after so many years together, she occupied a room with another than Linda, but her manner was changed; it had lost all freedom of heart and speech. The new Mrs. Feldt was heavily polite to her husband's daughters; Linda saw that she liked Pansy, but Judith made her uncomfortable. She expressed this in an isolated return of the old confidences:
"That girl," she said sharply, "likes petting. She can talk all night about her soul and beauty, and play the piano till her fingers drop off, but I—I—know. You can't fool me where they are concerned. I can recognize an unhealthy sign. I never believed in going to all those concerts and kidding yourself into a fever. I may have shown myself a time, but you mark my word—I was honest compared to Judith Feldt. Don't you be impressed with all her art talk and the books she reads. I was looking into one yesterday, and it made me blush; you can believe it or not, it takes some book for that!"
At the same time she treated Judith with a studious sweetness. Mr. Moses Feldt—Linda always thought of him as that—was a miracle of kindly cheerfulness. He made his wife and her daughter, and his own girls, an unbroken succession of elaborate and costly presents. "What's it for if not to spend on those you love?" he would remark, bringing a small jeweler's box wrapped in creamy-pink paper from his pocket. "You can't take it with you. I wasn't born with it—mama and I were as poor as any—you'll forgive me, Stella, I know, for speaking of her. I got enough heart to love you both. 'Oh, mama!' I said, and she dying, 'if you only won't go, I'll give you gold to eat.'"
Curiously, as Linda grew older, the consciousness of her stepfather as an absurd fat little man dwindled; she lost all sense of his actual person; and, as the influence of her mother slipped from her life, the mental conception of Mr. Moses Feldt deepened. She thought about him a great deal and very seriously; the things he said, the warm impact of his being, vibrated in her memory. He had the effect on her of the music of Christopher Gluck—the effect of a pure fine chord.
Pansy she now thought of with a faint contempt: she was rapidly growing thick-waisted and heavy, and she was engaged to a dull young man not rich enough to be interesting. They sat about in frank embraces and indulged in a sentimental speech that united Judith and Linda in common oppression.
There were, not infrequently, gatherings of the Feldts at dinner, a noisy good-tempered uproar of a great many voices speaking at once; extraordinary quantities of superlative jewels and dresses of superfine textures; but the latter, Linda thought, were too vivid in pattern or color for the short full maternal figures they often adorned. But no one, it seemed, considered himself ageing or even, in spite of the most positive indications, aged. The wives with faded but fashionable hair and animated eyes in spent faces talked with vigorous raillery about the "boys," who, it might have happened, had gone in a small masculine company to a fervid musical show the evening before. While they, in their turn, thick like their brother or cousin Moses, with time-wasted hair and countenances marked with the shrewdness in the service of which the greater part of their lives had vanished, had their little jokes about the "girls" and the younger and handsomer beaux who threatened their happiness.
At times the topic of business crept into the lighter discussion, and, in an instant, the gaiety evaporated and left expressionless men and quick sharp sentences steely with decision, or indirect and imperturbably blank. A memorandum book and a gold pencil would appear for an enigmatic note, after which the cheerfulness slowly revived.
The daughters resembled Judith or the slower placidity of Pansy; while there was still another sort, more vigorous in being, who consciously discussed riding academies, the bridle-paths of Central Park, and the international tennis. Their dress held a greater restraint than the elders; though Linda recognized that it was no less lavish; and their feminine trifles, the morocco beauty-cases and powder-boxes, the shoulder-pins, their slipper and garter buckles were extravagant in exquisite metals and workings.
They arrived in limousines with dove-colored upholstery and crystal vases of maidenhair fern and moss-roses; and often, in such a car, Linda went to the theatre with Judith or Pansy and some cousins. Usually it was a matinee, where their seats were the best procurable, directly at the stage; and they sat in a sleek expensive row eating black chocolates from painted boxes ruffled in rose silk. The audience, composed mostly of their own world, followed the exotic fortunes of the plays with a complete discrimination in every possible emotional display and crisis.
Lithe actresses in a revealing severity of attire, like spoiled nuns with carmine lips, suffering in ingenuous problems of the passions, agonized in shuddering tones; or else they went to concerts to hear young violinists, slender, with intense faces and dramatic hair, play concertos that irritated Linda with little shivers of delight.
Sometimes they had lunch in a restaurant of Circassian walnut and velvet carpets, with cocktails, and eggs elaborate with truffles and French pastry. Then, afterward, they would stop at a confectioner's, or at a cafe where there was dancing, for tea. They all danced in a perfection of slow graceful abandon, with youths who, it seemed to Linda, did nothing else.