NO. 13 WASHINGTON SQUARE
I. THE GREAT MRS. DE PEYSTER
II. ENTER AN AMIABLE YOUNG GENTLEMAN
III. MISTRESS OF HER HOUSE
IV. A SLIGHT PREDICAMENT
V. THE HONOR OF THE NAME
VI. BEHIND THE BLINDS
VII. NOT IN THE PLAN
VIII. THE HONEYMOONERS
IX. THE FLIGHT
X. PEACE—OF A SORT
XI. THE REVEREND MR. PYECROFT
XII. HOME AGAIN
XIII. THE HAPPY FAMILY
XIV. THE ATTIC ROOM
XV. DOMESTIC SCENES
XVI. THE MAN IN THE CELLULOID COLLAR
XVII. A QUESTION OF IDENTITY
XVIII. THE THIRD FLIGHT
XIX. A PLEASANT HERMITAGE
XX. MATILDA BREAKS IT GENTLY
XXI. THE VEILED LADY
XXII. A FAMILY REUNION
XXIII. MR. PYECROFT TAKES CHARGE
"I NEVER SUSPECTED I'D END IN SUCH A LITTLE BLAZE"
"WHAT'S THAT YOU'RE CARRYING?"
"IT IS REALLY A REMARKABLE LIKENESS"
MATILDA UNLOCKED THE SERVANTS' DOOR
"SAME PAPER—SAME HANDWRITING!"
"SO—SO IT'S I—THAT'S—THAT'S DEAD!"
NO. 13 WASHINGTON SQUARE
THE GREAT MRS. DE PEYSTER
It was a raw, ill-humored afternoon, yet too late in the spring for the ministration of steam heat, so the unseasonable May chill was banished from Mrs. De Peyster's sitting-room by a wood fire that crackled in the grate; crackled most decorously, be it added, for Mrs. De Peyster's fire would no more have forgotten itself and shown a boisterous enthusiasm than would one of her admirably trained servants. Beside a small steel safe, whose outer shell of exquisite cabinet-work transformed that fortress against burglarious desire into an article of furniture that harmonized with the comfortable elegance of a lady's boudoir, sat Mrs. De Peyster herself—she was born a De Peyster—carefully transferring her jewels from the trays of the safe to leathern cases. She looked quite as Mrs. De Peyster should have looked: with an aura of high dignity that a sixty-year-old dowager of the first water could not surpass, yet with a freshness of person that (had it not been for her dignity) might have made her early forties seem a blossomy thirty-five.
Before the well-bred fire sat a lady whose tears had long since dried that she had shed when she had bid good-bye to thirty. She was—begging the lady's pardon—a trifle spare, and a trifle pale, and though in a manner well enough dressed her clothes had an air of bewilderment, of general irresolution, as though each article was uncertain in its mind as to whether it purposed to remain where it had been put, or casually wander away on blind and timorous adventures.
A dozen years before, Mrs. De Peyster, then in the fifth year of her widowhood, had graciously undertaken to manage and underwrite the debut of her second cousin (not of the main line, be it said) and had tried to discharge her duty in the important matter of securing her a husband. But her efforts had been futile, and to say that Mrs. De Peyster had not succeeded was to admit that poor Olivetta Harmon was indeed a failure. She had lacked the fortune to attract the conservative investor who is looking for a sound business proposition in her he promises to support; she had lacked the good looks to lure on the lover who throws himself romantically away upon a penniless pretty face; and she had not been clever enough to attract the man so irrationally bold as to set sail upon the sea of matrimony with a woman of brains. And so, her brief summer at an end, she had receded to those remote and undiscovered shores on which dwell the poor relations of the Four Hundred; whereon she had lived respectably, as a lady (for that she should ever appear a lady was due the position of Mrs. De Peyster), upon an almost microscopic income; and from which bleak and distant land of second-cousindom she came in glad and proud obedience to fill an occasional vacant place at one of Mrs. De Peyster's second-best dinner parties.
She had arrived but the moment before to bid her exalted cousin adieu and wish her bon-voyage, and was now silently gazing in unenvious admiration at the jewels Mrs. De Peyster was transferring to their traveling-cases—with never a guess that perturbation might exist beneath her kinswoman's composed exterior. As a matter of fact, under the trying circumstances which confronted Mrs. De Peyster, any other household would have been in confusion, any lesser woman might have been headed toward hysteria. But centuries of having had its own will had established the De Peyster habit of believing that things would eventuate according to the De Peyster wish; it was not in the De Peyster blood to give way. And yet, though self-control might restrain worry from the surface, it could not banish it from the private chambers of her being.
Mrs. De Peyster glanced at the open door of her bedroom—hesitated—then called: "Miss Gardner!"
A trim and pretty girl stepped in. "Yes, Mrs. De Peyster."
"Will you please call up Judge Harvey's office once more, and inquire if there is any news about my son. And ask when Judge Harvey will be here."
Miss Gardner crossed to Mrs. De Peyster's desk and took up the telephone.
"Why, Cousin Caroline, has Jack—"
"One moment, Olivetta,"—motioning toward the telephone,—"until Miss Gardner is through."
They sat silent until the receiver was hung up. Mrs. De Peyster strove to keep anxiety from her voice.
"Well, Miss Gardner,—any trace of my son yet?"
"They have learned nothing whatever."
"And—and Judge Harvey? When will he be here?"
"His office said he was at a meeting of the directors of the New York and New England Railroad, and that he was coming here straight after the meeting."
"Thank you, Miss Gardner. You may now go on with the packing. I'll have the jewels ready very shortly, and Matilda will be in to help you as soon as she is through arranging with the servants."
"Why, Cousin Caroline, what is it about Jack?" burst out Olivetta with an excited flutter after Miss Gardner had gone into the bedroom. "I hadn't heard anything of it before! Has—has anything happened to him?"
Olivetta, an intimate, a relative, and a worshipful inferior, was one of the few persons with whom Mrs. De Peyster could bring herself to unbend and be confidential. "That is what I do not know. About a week ago Jack suddenly disappeared—"
"Oh, he left a note, telling me not to worry. But not a word has been heard from him since. Of course, it may only be some wild escapade, but then he knew we were going on shipboard this evening, and he should have been home long before this."
"How terrible!" cried the sympathetic Olivetta, pushing into place a few of the inconstant hairpins that threatened to bestrew the floor. "Went a week ago!" And then suddenly: "Why, that was about the time that first rumor was printed of his engagement to Ethel Quintard. And again this morning—in the 'Record'—did you see it?"
"I never give thought to the newspapers," was Mrs. De Peyster's somewhat stiff response.
"You have—have told the police?"
"The police, of course not! But I have advised with Judge Harvey, and he has a firm of private detectives on the case."
"And they have clues?"
"They have nothing, as you just heard Miss Gardner report."
"Cousin Caroline! With all these—these thugs and hold-up men we read about—and all the accidents—"
"Olivetta! Don't!" And then in a more composed voice: "I am hoping it is merely some boyish prank. But even that will be bad enough, if he misses the boat."
"Yes, I see. You told me about arranging with Mrs. Quintard also to sail on the Plutonia."
"I had counted on the trip—Jack and Ethel being thrown together, you know."
"Indeed, it was very clever of you!"
"I am hoping it may be only some boyish prank," Mrs. De Peyster repeated. "You may not have noticed it, Olivetta," she continued, permitting a sigh to escape her, "but of late Jack has acted at times—well, rather queerly."
"He has been far from being himself. In fact, I have observed a number of things not at all natural to a De Peyster."
"Caroline! What a worry he must be to you!"
"Yes. But I am hoping for the best. And now, please, we will say no more about it."
They were silent for a moment. Miss Gardner entered, took the jewels which in the mean time Mrs. De Peyster had finished putting in their cases, and went again into the bedroom. Olivetta's eyes followed her.
"You are still pleased with Miss Gardner?"
"Thus far she has proved herself competent. I consider myself very fortunate in finding a secretary who is not above some of the duties of a lady's maid. It is a very happy combination for traveling."
"She seems almost too good to be true," mused Olivetta. "She's really very pretty. I hope Jack hasn't—"
"Olivetta! How can you! Jack has never paid her the slightest attention, nor she him."
"Pardon me, Caroline! But she's so pretty, and she's just the sort of girl who attracts men—and—and"—a bit wistfully—"gets engaged and gets married."
"Nonsense, Olivetta. When she first came to me I asked her if she were in love or engaged. She said she was not, and I told her my rules. She is a very sensible girl."
"At any rate, she must be a great relief after that Marie you had."
Mrs. De Peyster flushed, as though at some disagreeable memory.
"Have you learned yet whether Marie was actually a spy for Mrs. Allistair?" inquired Olivetta.
"She confessed that she was getting money besides the wages I paid her. That is proof enough."
"I believe it of Mrs. Allistair! She wouldn't stop at anything to win your place as social leader. But she could never fill it!"
"She will never win it!" Mrs. De Peyster returned with calm confidence.
At that moment the door from the hallway opened and there entered a woman of middle age, in respectable dull-hued black, with apron of black silk and a white cap.
"Ah, Matilda," remarked Mrs. De Peyster. "The servants, are they all gone yet?"
"The last one, the cook, is just going, ma'am. There's just William and me left. And the men have already come to board up the windows and the door."
"You paid the servants board wages as I instructed, and made clear to them about coming to Newport when I send orders?"
"Yes, ma'am. And they all understand."
"Good," said Mrs. De Peyster. "You have Mr. Jack's trunks packed?"
"All except a few things he may want to put in himself."
"Very well. You may now continue helping Miss Gardner with my things."
But Matilda did not obey. She trembled—blinked her eyes—choked; then stammered:—
"Please, ma'am, there's—there's something else."
"Something else?" queried Mrs. De Peyster.
"Yes, ma'am. Downstairs there are six or seven young men from the newspapers. They want—"
"Matilda," interrupted Mrs. De Peyster in stern reproof, "you are well enough acquainted with my invariable custom regarding reporters to have acted without referring this matter to me. It is a distinct annoyance," she added, "that one cannot make a single move without the newspapers following one!"
"Indeed it is!" echoed the worshipful and indignant Olivetta. "But that is because of your position."
"I tried to send them away," said Matilda hurriedly. "And I told them you were never interviewed. But," she ended helplessly, "it didn't do any good. They're all sitting downstairs waiting."
"I shall not see them," Mrs. De Peyster declared firmly.
"There was one," Matilda added timorously, "who drew me aside and whispered that he didn't want an interview. He wants your picture."
"Wants my picture!" exclaimed Mrs. De Peyster.
"Yes, ma'am. He said the pictorial supplement of his paper a week from Sunday was going to have a page of pictures of prominent society women who were sailing for Europe. He said something about calling the page 'Annual Exodus of Social Leaders.' He wants to print that painting of you by that new foreign artist in the center of the page." And Matilda pointed above the fireplace to a gold-framed likeness of Mrs. De Peyster—stately, aloof, remote, of an ineffable composure, a masterpiece of blue-bloodedness.
"You know my invariable custom; give him my invariable answer," was Mrs. De Peyster's crisp response.
"Pardon me, but—but, Cousin Caroline," put in Olivetta, with eager diffidence, "don't you think this is different?"
"Different?" asked Mrs. De Peyster. "How?"
"This isn't at all like the ordinary offensive newspaper thing. A group of the most prominent social leaders, with you in the center of the page—with you in the center of them all, where you belong! Why, Caroline,—why—why—" In her excitement for the just glorification of her cousin, Olivetta's power of speech went fluttering from her.
"Perhaps it may not be quite the same," admitted Mrs. De Peyster. "But I see no reason for departing from my custom."
"If not for your own sake, then—then for the artist's sake!" Olivetta pursued, a little more eagerly, and a little more of diffidence in her eagerness. "You have taken up M. Dubois—you have been his most distinguished patron—you have been trying to get him properly started. To have his picture displayed like that, think how it will help M. Dubois!"
Mrs. De Peyster gave Olivetta a sharp look, as though she questioned the entire disinterestedness of this argument; then she considered an instant; and in the main it was her human instinct to help a struggling fellow being that dictated her decision.
"Matilda, you may give the man a photograph of the picture. And as I treat the papers without discrimination, you may give photographs to all the reporters who wish them. But on the understanding that M. Dubois is to have conspicuous credit."
"Very well, ma'am."
"And send all of them away."
"I'll do what I can, ma'am." And Matilda went out.
"What time does the Plutonia sail?" inquired Olivetta, with the haste of one who is trying to get off of very thin ice.
"At one to-night. Matilda will get me a bit of dinner and I shall go aboard right after it."
"How many times does this make that you've been over?"
"I do not know," Mrs. De Peyster answered carelessly. "Thirty or forty, I dare say."
Olivetta's face was wistful with unenvious envy. "Oh, what a pleasure!"
"Going to Europe, Olivetta, is hardly a pleasure," corrected Mrs. De Peyster. "It is a duty one owes one's social position."
"Yes, I know that's true with you, Cousin Caroline. But with me—what a joy! When you took me over with you that summer, we only did the watering-places. But now"—a note of ecstatic desire came into her voice, and she clasped her hands—"but now, to see Paris!—the Louvre!—the Luxembourg! It's the dream of my life!"
Mrs. De Peyster again gave her cousin a suspicious look.
"Olivetta, have you been allowing M. Dubois to pay you any more attention?"
"No, no,—of course not," cried Olivetta, and a sudden color tinted the too-early autumn of her cheeks. "Do you think, after what you said—"
"M. Dubois is a very good artist, but—"
"I understand, Cousin Caroline," Olivetta put in hastily. "I think too much of your position to think of such a thing. Since you—since then—I have not spoken to him, and have only bowed to him once."
"We will say no more about it," returned Mrs. De Peyster; and she kissed Olivetta with her duchess-like kindness. "By the by, my dear, your comb is on the floor."
"So it is. It's always falling out."
Olivetta picked it up, put it into place, and with nervous hands tried to press into order loose-flying locks of her rather scanty hair.
Mrs. De Peyster arose; her worry about her missing son prompted her to seek the relief of movement. "I think I shall take a turn about the house to see that everything is being properly closed. Would you like to come with me?"
Olivetta would; and, talking, they went together down the stairs. As they neared the ground floor, Matilda's voice arose to them, expostulating, protesting.
"What can that be about?" wondered Mrs. De Peyster, and following the voice toward its source she stepped into her reception-room. Instantly there sprang up and stood before her a young man with the bland, smiling, excessively polite manner of a gentleman-brigand. And around her crowded five or six other figures.
Matilda, pressing through them, glared at these invaders in helpless wrath, then at her mistress in guilty terror.
"I—I did my best, ma'am. But they wouldn't go." And before punishment could fall she discreetly fled.
"Pardon this seeming intrusion, Mrs. De Peyster," the foremost young man said rapidly, smoothly, appeasingly. "But we could not go, as you requested. The sailing of Mrs. De Peyster, under the attendant circumstances, is a piece of news of first importance; in fact, almost a national event. We simply had to see you. I trust you perceive and appreciate our professional predicament."
Mrs. De Peyster was glaring at him with devastating majesty.
"This—this is an outrage!"
"Perhaps it may seem an outrage to you," said the young man swiftly, politely, and thoroughly undevastated. "But, really, it is only our duty. Our duty to our papers, and to the great reading public. And when newspaper men are doing their duty they must necessarily fail, to their great personal regret, in the observance of some of the nicer courtesies."
Mrs. De Peyster was almost inarticulate.
"Who—who are you?"
"Mayfair is my name. Of the 'Record.'"
"The 'Record'! That yellow, radical paper!"
Mr. Mayfair stepped nearer. His voice sank to an easy, confidential tone.
"You are misled by appearances, Mrs. De Peyster. Every paper has got to have a policy; we're the common people's paper—big circulation, you know; and we so denounce the rich on our editorial page. But as a matter of fact we give our readers more live, entertaining, and respectful matter about society people than any other paper in New York. It's just what the common people love. And now"—easily shifting his base—"about this reported engagement of your son and Miss Quintard. As you know, it's the best 'romance in high life' story of the season. Will you either confirm or deny the report?"
"I have nothing whatever to say," flamed out Mrs. De Peyster. "And will you leave this house instantly!"
"Ah, Miss Quintard's mother would not deny it either," commented Mr. Mayfair with his polite imperturbability. His sharp eyes glinted with satisfaction. Young Mr. Mayfair admired himself as being something of the human dynamo. Also it was his private opinion that he was of the order of the super-reporter; nothing ever "got by him." "And so," he went on without a pause, "since the engagement is not denied, I suppose we may take it as a fact. And now"—again with his swift change of base—"may I ask, as a parting word before you sail, whether it is your intention next season to contest with Mrs. Allistair—"
"I have nothing whatever to say!"
"Quite naturally you'd prefer not to say anything," appeasingly continued the high-geared Mr. Mayfair, "but of course you are going to fight her." Again his sharp, unfoilable eyes glinted. "'Duel for social leadership'—pardon me for speaking of it as such, but that's what it is; and most interesting, I assure you; and I, for one, trust that you will retain your supremacy, for I know—I know," he repeated with emphasis—"that Mrs. Allistair has used some methods not altogether—sportsmanlike, may I say? And now"—rapidly shifting once more—"I trust I will not seem indelicate if I inquire whether it is in the scope of your present plans, perhaps at house-parties at the estates of titled friends, to meet the Duke de—"
"I have nothing whatever to say!" gasped Mrs. De Peyster, glaring with consuming fury.
"Naturally. We could hardly expect a categorical 'yes' or 'no.' We understand that your position requires you to be non-committal; and you, of course, understand that we newspaper men interpret a refusal to speak as an answer in the affirmative. Thank you very much for the interview you have given us. And I can assure you that we shall all handle the story with the utmost good taste. Good afternoon."
He bowed. And the next moment the place where he had stood was vacant.
"Of—of all the effrontery!" exploded Mrs. De Peyster.
"Isn't it terrible!" shudderingly gasped the sympathetic Olivetta. "I hope they won't really drag in that horrible Duke de Crecy!"
Mrs. De Peyster shuddered, too. The episode of the Duke de Crecy was still salt in an unhealed social wound. The Duke had been New York's most distinguished titled visitor the previous winter; Mrs. De Peyster, to the general envy, had led in his entertainment; there had been whispers of another international marriage. And then, after respectful adieus, the Duke had sailed away—and within a month the papers were giving columns to his scandalous escapades with a sensational Spanish dancer of parsimonious drapery. Whereupon the rumors of Mrs. De Peyster's previously gossiped-of marriage with the now notorious Duke were revived—by the subtle instigation, and as an act of social warfare, so Mrs. De Peyster believed, of her aspiring rival, Mrs. Allistair. And there was one faint rumor, still daringly breathed around, that the Duke had proposed—had been accepted—had run away: in blunt terms, had jilted Mrs. De Peyster.
"We will not speak of this again, Olivetta," Mrs. De Peyster remarked with returning dignity, "but while the matter is up, I will mention that the Duke did propose to me, and that I refused him."
With a gesture she silenced any comment from Olivetta. In a breath or two she was entirely her usual poiseful self. Too many generations had her blood been trained to ways of dignity, and too long had she herself been drilled in composure and self-esteem and in a perfect confidence in the thing that she was, for an invasion of newspaper creatures to disturb her for longer than a few moments.
She was moving with stately tread toward the dining-room when Matilda came hurrying up from the nether regions of the house. "Did you know, ma'am," Matilda fluttered eagerly, "that Mr. Jack is home?"
"My son back!" There was vast relief in Mrs. De Peyster's voice. "When did he come?"
"A few minutes ago."
"Did—did he say anything?"
"I haven't seen him, ma'am. He came in the back way, through the stable. William told me about it."
Mrs. De Peyster's voice became composed, severe. "I shall see what he has to say for himself." Majestically, somewhat ominously, she turned and began to mount the stairs, followed by Olivetta and Matilda. But as she passed the library's closed door, she heard Miss Gardner's voice and a second voice—and the second voice was the voice of a man.
Startled, she paused. She caught a few fragments of phrases. Indignation surged up within her. Resolutely she stepped to the door; but by instinct she was no eavesdropper, and she would not come upon people in compromising attitudes without giving them fair warning. So she knocked, waited a moment—then opened the door and entered.
ENTER AN AMIABLE YOUNG GENTLEMAN
Half an hour earlier, across in Washington Square, a young gentleman was sauntering about taking the crisp May air. He was fashionably but quietly dressed, and in his chamois-gloved hand he swung a jaunty wand of a cane; a slender, lithe young gentleman, with a keen face that had an oddly wide but yet attractive mouth: a young man emanating an essence of lightness both of body and of spirit. He might have been the very person of agreeable, irresponsible Spring, if Spring is ever of the male gender, out for a promenade.
It seemed most casual, the saunter of this pleasant idler; the keenest observer would never have guessed purpose in his stroll. But never for longer than an instant were the frank gray eyes of this young gentleman away from the splendid stone steps, with their carved balustrade, and the fine old doorway of Mrs. De Peyster's house at No. 13 Washington Square.
Presently he noted three men turn up Mrs. De Peyster's steps. Swiftly, but without noticeable haste, he was across the street. The trio had no more than touched the bell when he was beside them.
"What papers are you boys with?" he inquired easily, merging himself at once with the party.
One man told him—and looked him up and down. "Thought I knew all the fellows," added the speaker, a middle-aged man, "but never ran into you before. What's your rag?"
"'Town Gossip,'" replied the agreeable young gentleman.
"'Town Gossip'!" The old reporter gave a grunt of contempt. "And you've come to interview Mrs. De Peyster?"
"First time I ever knew that leprous scandal-scavenger and black-hander to send a man out in the open to get a story." Evidently the old reporter, whom the others addressed as "colonel," had by his long service acquired the privilege of surly out-spokenness. "Thought 'Town Gossip' specialized in butlers and ladies' maids and such—or faked up its dope in the office."
"This is something special." The young gentleman's smiling but unpresuming camaraderie seemed unruffled by the colonel's blunt contempt, and though they all drew apart from him he seemed to be untroubled by his journalistic ostracism.
The next moment the door was opened by a stout, short-breathed woman, hat, jacket, and black gloves on. All stepped in. The three late-arriving reporters, seeing in the reception-room beyond a group of newspapermen about a servant,—Matilda making her first futile effort to rid the house of this pestilential horde, generaled by Mr. Mayfair,—started quickly toward the members of their fraternity. But the young gentleman remained behind with their stout admitter.
"Huh—thought that was really your size—tackling a servant!" commented the caustic colonel.
But the reporter from "Town Gossip" smiled and did not reply; and the three disappeared into the reception-room. The young gentleman, very politely, half pushed, half followed the stout woman out of the reception-room's range of vision.
"Just leaving, I suppose," he remarked with pleasant matter-of-factness.
"Yes, sir. My bags are down at the basement door. When I heard the ring, I just happened—"
"I understand. You wouldn't have answered the door, if almost all the regular servants had not been gone. Now, I'd say," smiling engagingly, "that you might be the cook, and a mighty good cook, too."
He had such an "air," did this young man,—the human air of the real gentleman,—that, despite the unexpectedness of his overture, the stout woman, instead of taking offense, flushed with pleasure.
"I ought to be a good one, sir; that's what I'm paid for."
"Seventy-five a month?" estimated the young gentleman.
"Eighty," corrected the cook.
"That's mighty good—twenty dollars a week. But, Mrs. Cook,"—again with his open, engaging smile,—"pardon me for not knowing your proper name,—could I induce you to enter my employment—at, say, twenty dollars a minute?"
"For only a limited period," continued the young gentleman—"to be exact, say one minute. Light work," he added with a certain whimsicality, "short hours, seven days out—unusual opportunity."
"But what—what am I to do?" gasped the cook, and before she could gasp again one surprised black glove was clutching two ten-dollar bills.
"Arrange for me to see Miss Gardner—alone. It's all right. She and I are old friends."
"But—but how?" helplessly inquired this mistress of all non-intrigantes.
"Isn't there some room where nobody will come in?"
"The library might be best, sir," pointing up the stairway at a door.
"The library, then! And arrange matters so that no one will know we're meeting."
"But, sir, I don't see how—"
"Most simple, Mrs. Cook. Before you go, you, of course, want to bid Miss Gardner good-bye. Just request the lady in black in there with the reporters to tell Miss Gardner that you want to speak to her and will be waiting in the library. When you've said that, you've earned the money. Then just watch your chance until the somber lady isn't looking, and continue with your original plan of leaving the house."
"Perhaps it will work," hesitated the cook. But with a gesture in which there was no hesitation she slipped her minute's pay between the buttons of her waist.
The young gentleman went lightly and swiftly up the stairs and through the mahogany door that had been pointed out to him. Curiously he looked about the spacious, dark-toned room of splendid dignity. He had the ease of the man to whom the world is home, and seemed not one whit abashed by the exclusive grandeur of the great chamber. With a watchful eye on the door, he glanced at the rows and rows of volumes: well-bred authors whom time had elevated to a place among literary "old families." Also he examined some old Chinese ivory carvings with a critical, valuating, meditative eye. Also in passing—and this he did absently, as one might do from habit—he tried the knob of a big safe, but it was locked.
The next moment there was a sound at the door. Instantly he was out of sight behind the brown velvet hangings of a recessed French window. Miss Gardner entered, saw upon the embarrassed edges of none of the shrouded chairs a plump and short-breathed Susan. Surprised, she was turning to leave when a cautious but clear whisper floated across the room.
She whirled about. At sight of the young gentleman, who had stepped forth, she went pale, then red, then pale again.
"Eliot—Mr. Bradford!" she exclaimed. Then in a husky frightened whisper: "How did you get in here?"
He sought to take one of her hands, but she put both behind her back. At this repulse the young gentleman winced, then smiled gravely, then pleasantly,—and then with a whimsical upward twist to his wide mouth.
"Via the cook," he answered, and told her the rest.
"Did any one else belonging to the house see you?"
"Besides you and my excellent old friend, the cook, no one."
"But don't you realize that this house is one of the most dangerous places in the world for you?" she cried in a low voice. "Why, Judge Harvey himself is expected here any minute!"
"Judge Harvey!" The equable young man gave a start. But the next moment his poise came back.
"And after what I saw only to-day in the papers about Thomas Preston—! Don't you know you are this moment standing on a volcano?"
"Yes—but what of it?" he answered cheerfully. "It's the most diverting indoor or outdoor sport I've ever indulged in—dodging eruptions. Besides, in standing on this volcano I have the advantage of also standing near you."
"Didn't I tell you I never wanted to see you again!" she flamed at him. "How dared you come here?"
"I had to come, dear." His voice was pleading, yet imperturbably pleasant. "You refused to answer the letters I wrote you begging you to meet me somewhere to talk things over. I read that Mrs. De Peyster was sailing to-night, and I knew that you were sailing with her. Surely you understand, before she went, I had to see my wife."
"I refuse to recognize myself as such!" cried Miss Gardner.
"But, my dear, you married—"
"Yes, after knowing you just two days! Oh, you can be charming and plausible, but that shows just how foolish a girl can be when she's a bit tired and lonesome, and then gets a bit of a holiday."
"But, Clara, you really liked me!"
"That was because I didn't know who you were and what you were!"
"But, Clara," he went on easily—he could not help talking easily, though his tone had the true ring of sincerity. There seemed to be no bit of agressive self-assurance about this young gentleman; he seemed to be just quietly, pleasantly, whimsically, unsubduably his natural self. "But, Clara, you must remember that it was as sudden with me as with you. I hardly thought about explaining. And then, I'll be frank, I was afraid if I did tell, you wouldn't have me. I did side-step a bit, that's a fact."
"You admit this, and yet you expect me to accept as my husband a man who admits he is a crook!"
"My dear Clara," he protested gently, "I never admitted I was such an undraped, uneuphonious, square-cornered word as that."
"Well, if a forger isn't a crook, then who is? The business of those forged letters of Thomas Jefferson, do you think I can stand for that?"
The young man was in earnest, deadly earnest; yet he could not help his wide mouth tilting slightly upward to the right. Plainly there was something here that amused him.
"But, Clara, you don't seem to understand that business—and you don't seem to understand me."
"No, I must say I don't!" she said caustically.
"Well, perhaps I can't blame you," he admitted soothingly, "for I don't always understand myself. But really, my dear, you're not seeing this in the right light. Oh, I'm not going to defend myself. It's sad, very sad, but I'll confess I'm no chromo of sweet and haloed rectitude to be held up for the encouragement and beatification of young John D. Rockefeller's Bible Class. Still, I get my living quite as worthily as many of the guests who grace"—with a light wave of his hand about the great chamber—"this noble habitation. Though," in a grieved tone, "I'll confess some of my methods are not yet adequately recognized and protected by law."
"Won't you ever take anything seriously?" she cried in exasperation.
"Besides yourself, what is there to take seriously?"
"Don't consider me in your calculations, if you please!" And then with sudden suspicion: "See here—you're not here to try any of your tricks on this house, or on Mrs. De Peyster!"
"I was thinking," said he, smiling about the room, "that you might hide me here till the police become infatuated with some other party. A fashionable house closed for the summer—nothing could possibly be superior for my purposes."
"I'd never do it! Besides, Mrs. De Peyster's housekeeper will be here."
"But Mrs. De Peyster's housekeeper would never know I was here."
"I can't stand your talk another minute," she burst out. "Go!"
He did not stir; continued to smile at her pleasantly. "Oh, I'm not really asking the favor, Clara. I'm pretty safe where I'm staying."
"Go, I say! And if you don't care for your own danger, then at least consider mine."
"I've told you of Mrs. De Peyster's attitude toward married—"
"Then leave her, my dear. Even though it wouldn't be safe for you to be with me till the police resume their interrupted nap—still, you can have your own flat and your own bank account. Nothing would make me happier."
"Understand this, Mr. Bradford,—I'm going to have nothing to do with you!"
For a moment he sobered. "Come, Clara: give me a chance to make good—"
"Will you turn straight?" she caught him up sharply. "And will you fix up the affair of the Jefferson letters?"
"That last is a pretty stiff proposition; I don't see how it's to be done. As to the first—but, really, Clara,"—smiling again appeasingly,—"really, you take this thing altogether too seriously."
"Too seriously!" She almost choked. "Why—why—I'm through with you! That's final! And I don't dare stay here another minute! Good-bye."
"Wait, Clara." He caught her hand as she turned to go, and spoke rapidly. "I don't think I'm so bad as you think I am—honest. You may change your mind; I hope you do, dear; and if you do, write me, 'phone me, telegraph me, cable me, wireless me. But, of course, not to me direct; the police, you know. Address me in care of the Reverend Mr. Pyecroft." Tense though the moment was to him, the young man could not restrain his odd whimsical smile. "The Reverend Mr. Pyecroft has taken an interest in me; like you he is trying to make me a better man. He'll see that I get your message. Herbert E. Pyecroft—P-y-e-c-r-o-f-t—remember his name. Here's a card of the boarding-house at which he is staying." He thrust the bit of pasteboard into her free hand. "Remember, dear, I really am your husband."
With an outraged gesture she flung the card to the floor. "There'll be no message!" Her voice was raised; she trembled in fierce humiliation, and in scorn of him. "You ... my husband!"
"Yes, your husband!" he said firmly. "And I'm going to make you love me!"
It was at just this moment that Mrs. De Peyster, ascending from her scene with the reporters, was passing without, and it was these last words that she overheard. And it was at just this moment that her knock sounded upon the door.
"Quick, you mustn't be seen here!" breathed Miss Gardner. "The French windows there, and out the back way through the stable!"
With a cat's silent swiftness he was at the windows, Miss Gardner beside him. But in the back-yard stood William, the coachman, sunning himself. That way was closed.
"Into the study," whispered Miss Gardner, pointing at a door, "and watch your chance to get out!"
In the same instant the heavy sound-proof mahogany door closed softly behind him—leaving Miss Gardner in the middle of the room, with heightened color, breathing rapidly. Into the library swept Mrs. De Peyster, followed by Olivetta and Matilda.
There was a lofty sternness in Mrs. De Peyster's manner. "Miss Gardner, I believe I heard you speaking with a man."
"You did." Miss Gardner was stiff, proudly erect, for she sensed what might be coming.
"Where is he?"
"He went out through the window," said Miss Gardner.
"Ah, he did not want me to find out about you. But by chance I overheard him say he was your husband."
"He is." Then with an effort: "But husband or no husband, Mrs. De Peyster, I believe I would be of equal value—"
"I desire no scene, no argument," interrupted Mrs. De Peyster, dignified, not a strident note in her voice—for she never lost her self-possession or the true grand manner. "I believe you will remember, Miss Gardner, that when you applied for your present position two months ago, I told you that I made it a rule to have no servants or employees of any kind who were married. As I desired that you should understand my reasons, I informed you that I had once had a cook and a footman who were married, and who paid so much attention to one another that they had time to pay no attention to me. I then asked you if you were married. You informed me you were not."
"And I was not, at that time."
"Indeed! Then you have married since. That makes your deception all the worse. Remember, Miss Gardner, it was on the distinct understanding that you were unmarried that I employed you. I have no desire to pass judgment upon you. I try to be fair and just and generous with all my employees. If you had been what you declared yourself to be, and remained such, you could have stayed with me indefinitely. Matilda there came to me as my son's nurse over twenty years ago, and has been with me ever since—happy, as she will tell you, with no desire to change her state whatever."
"N—no—none—none at all!"
Matilda hastily dropped her eyes. Mechanically her eyes noted the rejected card Mr. Bradford had tendered Miss Gardner. Her long habit of perfect orderliness, and perhaps the impulse to hide the slight confusion that suddenly had seized upon her, prompted her to bend over and secure this bit of litter. She glanced at it, would have put it in the waste-basket had that receptacle not been across the room, then thrust it into the capacious slit-pocket of her black skirt.
Mrs. De Peyster continued in her tone of exact justice: "Miss Gardner, you have the perfect right to be married or unmarried. I have the perfect right to have the sort of employees I prefer. But since you are not what you declared yourself to be, I no longer require your service."
Miss Gardner bowed stiffly.
"Matilda, see that Miss Gardner is paid in full to the end of her month; and also pay her one month in advance. And telephone about until you can find me a maid—do not bother about the secretary part of it—a maid who is not married, and who can come at once. That is all."
Matilda, still somewhat pale and agitated, started to follow out the proud Miss Gardner, who gave a swift glance at the study door—while Mrs. De Peyster looked on with her invariable calm majesty.
MISTRESS OF HER HOUSE
But at just this moment there was a smart rap at the library door, it was partly opened, and a cheery masculine voice called out:—
"May I come in, mother?"
"You, Jack. You may," was the somewhat eager response from Mrs. De Peyster.
The door swung entirely open, Miss Gardner stepped out, and there entered a young man of twenty-two or three, good-natured confidence in his manner, flawlessly dressed, with hands that were swathed in bandages. He crossed limpingly to Mrs. De Peyster, who, her affection now under control, stood regarding him with reproving and sternly questioning eyes.
"Good-morning, mother,—glad to get back," he said, imprinting an undaunted kiss upon her stately cheek.
Her reply was a continuance of her reproving look. The young man turned to Mrs. De Peyster's faithful satellite.
"Hello, Olivetta. Hands out of commission. You'll have to shake my elbow." And he held out his angled arm.
"Good-morning, Jack," responded Olivetta, in trepidation, hardly daring to be gracious where Mrs. De Peyster had been cool.
Jack slipped an arm across Matilda's shoulders. "How are you, Matilda? Glad to see you again."
"And I'm glad to see you again, Mr. Jack," returned Matilda, with a look of stealthy affection.
"Please go, Matilda," said Mrs. De Peyster crisply. "And now, Jack," she continued with frigid dignity after Matilda had withdrawn, "I trust that you will explain your absence, and your long silence."
"Certainly, mother," said Jack, pushing a slip-covered chair before the fireplace—for an open wood fire burned here as in her sitting-room above—and letting himself down into the chair slowly and with extreme care and crossing his legs. "I got a sudden invitation from Reggie Atwater to—"
"You know I do not approve of that young scape-grace!"
"I know you don't. I suppose that's one reason I didn't tell you beforehand what I was up to."
"What have you been doing?"
"Reggie asked me to go on a long trip to try out his new car. It's a hummer. Hundred-and-twenty horse-power—bloody-eyed, fire-spitting devil—"
"Such cars are dangerous," severely commented Mrs. De Peyster, who still kept to her horses and carriage as better maintaining old-family distinction.
"I know. That's another reason I didn't tell you—especially since we were planning a thousand-mile lark."
"What's the matter with your hands?" suddenly demanded Mrs. De Peyster.
Jack gazed meditatively at the bandaged members.
"You were right about that car being dangerous, mother," said he. "I'll confess the whole business. We were whizzing around a corner coming into Yonkers this morning when the machine skidded. I did a loop-the-loop and lit on my hands. But the skin of my palms—"
"Oh!" shuddered Olivetta.
"Were you much hurt?" asked Mrs. De Peyster, for a moment forgetting her reproving manner in her affectionate concern.
"Mother, with your love for old lace, you certainly would like the openwork effect of my skin. But—the patient will recover."
"I trust this experience has been a lesson to you!" said Mrs. De Peyster with returned severity.
"Oh, it has—a big lesson!" Jack heartily agreed.
"Then I trust you will do nothing of the kind again."
"I trust I won't have to!"
There was rather an odd quality in Jack's tone.
"Won't have to? What do you mean?"
"You've questioned me a lot, mother. I'd like to put a few leading questions to you. And—u'm—alone. Olivetta," he remarked pleasantly, "do you know that Sherlock Holmes found it an instructive and valuable occupation to count the stair-steps in a house? Suppose you run out for five minutes and count 'em. I'll bet you a box of—"
Olivetta had risen, somewhat indignantly.
"I never eat candy!"
"A box of hairpins," continued Jack, clumsily picking up one from the floor, "that there aren't more than seventy-five."
"Oh, if you want me out of the way, all right!" said Olivetta, sticking the pin into place.
"Here, is that your purse?" asked Jack, fishing an open purse from beneath the chair Olivetta had just vacated.
"Yes, I'm always dropping it. I lost two—"
"I must say, Olivetta," put in Mrs. De Peyster reprovingly, "that you really must not be so careless!"
Jack was looking at a card that had fallen from the purse.
"Hello! And a ticket to the exhibition of paintings of—"
"Give it to me!" And Olivetta, with suddenly crimson face, snatched purse and card from Jack's hands. "I'll wait up in your bedroom, Caroline, and look at your new gowns." And with a rapidity that approached instantaneity she disappeared.
"Jack," his mother demanded suspiciously, "what was that card?"
"Just an old admission ticket to varnishing day at the spring exhibit of the American Society of Painters," said Jack easily. And without giving Mrs. De Peyster an instant in which to pursue the matter further, he awkwardly pushed her favorite chair toward the fire to a place beside his own. "Come sit down, mother. There's a lot of things I want to tell you."
Mrs. De Peyster lowered herself into the chair. "Yes?"
Jack's eyes had meditatively followed Olivetta. "Do you know, mother, that Olivetta would really be an awfully good sort if she only had the right chance?"
"The right chance?"
"Yes. Think of her living on and on in that deadly proper little hotel—chuck full of primped and crimped and proud poor relations who don't dare draw a single full-sized breath without first considering whether such a daring act might not disturb the social standing of somebody over on Fifth Avenue or down here on Washington Square—Oh, I say, mother, five more years of that life and Olivetta will be choked—dessicated—salted away—a regular forever-and-ever-amen old maid. But if—" He hesitated.
"If Olivetta were only to marry some one—some decent fellow—she'd blossom out, grow as young as she actually is—and, who knows, perhaps even her hairpins might stay in."
"Marry, yes. But whom?"
"I've seen a few things—there's a certain party—and—" He stumbled a bit, conscious that he was becoming indiscreet. "And, oh, well, just on general principles marriage is a good thing."
"That is just the opinion I have been urging upon you in regard to yourself," returned his mother in her even, confident tone.
"U'm—yes," Jack said hastily. "But that was not—not the first thing I wanted to speak about."
"I believe you did say there were several matters."
"So there are." He rubbed his face tentatively with his bandaged hand; then smiled blandly at his mother. "Yes, there are a few."
"Well, first of all, mother, I want to make a kick."
She frowned. "How often must I request you not to use such common expressions!"
"All right, all right," said he. "Suppose I say, then, that I'm dissatisfied."
"Dissatisfied!" She straightened up. "Dissatisfied! What about? Do I not allow you all the money you want?"
"And have I not practically arranged a match between you and Ethel Quintard? Ethel will have three millions some day. And there is no better family to marry into; that is, except our own."
"Yes, yes,—I know."
"And yet you say you are dissatisfied!" She stared. "What more can you want?"
"Well, for one thing, to go to school," was Jack's amiable response.
"Go to school! Why—why, you've already had the best of educations! Exeter—Yale—not to speak of private tutors!"
"And what did I learn? That is," he added, "over and above being a fairly decent half-back and learning how to spend money—u'm—pretty thoroughly."
"I trust," said Mrs. De Peyster with all her dignity, "that you learned to be a gentleman!"
"Oh, I suppose I learned that all right," Jack acquiesced. "And I've been working hard at the profession ever since—sixteen to twenty hours a day, no half-holidays and no Sundays off. I can't stand it any longer. So I've decided to go on strike."
"Strike?" exclaimed his mother, bewildered.
"Yes. For better conditions. I'm tired loafing such long hours. I'd like a little leisure in which to work."
"Work!" repeated his mother—and human voice could hardly express amazement greater than did hers. "Work! Jack—you're not in earnest?"
He held upon her a clear-eyed, humorous, but resolute face.
"Don't I look in earnest?"
He did; and his mother could only dazedly repeat, "Work! You go to work!"
"Oh, not at once. No, thank you! I want to ask you to give me a little proper education first that will equip me to do something. You've spent—how much have you spent on my education, mother? Tens and tens of thousands, I know. Pretty big investment, on the whole. Now, how large returns do you suppose I can draw on that investment?"
"I was not thinking about dividends; I was thinking about fitting you for your station," returned his mother stiffly.
"Well, as for me, I've been thinking of late about how much I could get out of that investment. I've wanted to test myself and find what I was worth—as a worker." He leaned a little closer. "I say, mother," he said confidentially, "you remember that little explanation I just gave you of my absence."
"About your trip in that high-powered automobile?"
"That was just a high-powered fib. Just a bit of diplomatic romance—for Olivetta's consumption."
"Then where have you been?" demanded Mrs. De Peyster.
"Prospecting. Prospecting to find out just how much that hundred thousand or two or three you've sunk in me is worth. And I've found out. It's present value is not quite nine a week."
"I mean," he said pleasantly, "I've been at work."
Mrs. De Peyster slowly rose and looked down at him with staring, loose-fallen face.
"At work!" she gasped again. "At work!"
"Yes, mother. At work."
"But—but that skidding automobile? Those hands?"
"Blisters, mother dear. Most horrible blisters."
"You've worked—you've worked—at what?"
"Well, you see, mother, if I could have knocked out a home run, say a job as a railroad president, when I stepped up to the plate in the first inning, I suppose I wouldn't have backed away from the chance. But I wanted to find my real value, so I wore cheap clothes and kept clear of my friends. 'What could I do?' every one asked me. You know my answer. And their answer! I thought only sub-way guards could say, 'Step lively,' like that. Lordy, how I tramped! But finally I met a kind gentleman who gave me a chance."
"About the size of your piano—only he had a red mustache and a red shirt and I should say his complexion needed re-decorating. Irish—foreman on a water-main trench."
"And you—you took it?"
"Took it? I grabbed it!"
"J—a—c—k D—e P—e—y—s—t—e—r!" his appalled mother slowly exclaimed—so slowly that each letter seemed to shiver out by itself in horrified disjunction. "Well, at any rate," she declared with returning vigor, "I'm glad you have had enough of it to bring you to your senses and bring you home!"
"Oh, I've had enough all right. My cubic contents of ache is—well, you wouldn't believe a man of my size could hold so much discomfort. But that isn't the only thing that brought me home. It was—er—I might say, mother, that it was suggested to me."
"Suggested? I do not understand."
"If you will permit the use of so inelegant an expression, I was 'fired.'"
"Yes. The foreman intimated—I won't repeat his language, mother, but the muscles stood out on his profanity in regular knots—he intimated, in a way that left no doubt as to his meaning, that I was not quite up to the nine per week standard. I'll be honest with you and admit that I didn't lean against the pay-shed and weep. I still wanted to work, but I decided that I didn't want to start life at its pick-and-shovel end—if I could help it. So here I am, mother, asking you to give me a little real education—say as a mining engineer, or something like that."
Mrs. De Peyster was trembling with indignation.
"J—a—c—k D—e P—e—y—s—t—e—r!" again a letter at a time. "J—a—c—k D—e P—e—y—s—t—e—r! I'm astounded at you!"
"I thought you might be—a little," he admitted.
"I think you might have some consideration for me! And my position!"
"I suppose it is rather selfish of me to want to earn my own living. But you don't know what dreary hard work being a gentleman becomes."
"I won't have it!" cried Mrs. De Peyster wrathfully. "This is what comes of your attending that Intercollegiate Socialist thing in college! I protested to the president against the college harboring such unsettling influences, and urged him to put it out."
"Well, dear old prexy did his best to comply."
"It's that Socialist thing! As for what you propose, I simply will not have it!"
"No? I could have started in up at Columbia, and kept it from you. But I wanted to be all on the level—"
"I won't have it!"
"You really mean that you are not going to add a few thousand more to my hundred thousands' worth of education?"
"I certainly shall not!"
"Then," said Jack regretfully, "I suppose after all I've got to start in at the pick-and-shovel end."
"No, you will not! I have reared you to be a gentleman! And you are going to be a gentleman!"
"Well, if that's the way you feel about it," he sighed, "we'll drop the matter—temporarily."
"We'll drop it permanently!" said Mrs. De Peyster decisively. "Besides, all this talk is utterly footless. You seem to forget that you are sailing with me to Europe to-morrow."
"That brings me to the second point. I was hoping," Jack said mildly, "that you would consent to take my regrets to Europe. Don't you think Europe might be willing to overlook my negligence—just this once?"
"Jack—I can't endure your facetiousness!"
"I'm not facetious, mother dear. I'm most confoundedly and consummately serious. I really want you to let me off on this Europe business. Won't you—there's a dear?"
"Why, your passage is paid for, and my plans—You know Ethel Quintard and her mother are sailing on the same boat. No, most certainly I shall not let you off!"
"Well, if that's the way you feel about it," he sighed again, "perhaps we'd better drop this matter also—temporarily."
"This matter we'll also drop permanently," his mother said, again with her calm, incontrovertible emphasis.
"Well, that brings us to the third point." He drew a copy of the "Record" from his pocket and pointed to a paragraph. "Mother, this is the second time my engagement to Ethel Quintard has been in print. I must say that I don't think it's nice of Ethel and Mrs. Quintard to let those rumors stand. I would deny them myself, only it seems rather a raw thing for a fellow to do. Mother, you must deny them."
"Jack, this marriage is bound to come!"
"Mother, you are simply hypnotizing yourself into the belief that I am going to marry Ethel Quintard. When"—he painfully recrossed his legs, and smiled pleasantly at his mother—"when, as a matter of fact, what I have been trying to lead up to is to tell you that I shall never lead Ethel's three millions to the altar."
"It's all off."
Jack slowly nodded his head. "Yes, all off."
"And why, if you please?"
"Oh, for several reasons," he returned mildly. "But one of the reasons is, that I happen to be engaged to someone else."
"Engaged!" gasped Mrs. De Peyster, falling back. "And without my knowing it! Who is she?"
"Mary Morgan! I never heard of her. Who's her father?"
"First name Henry, I believe."
"I don't mean his name. But who is he—what's his family—his financial affiliations?"
"Oh, I see. Mary told me he runs a shoe store up in Buffalo."
"A shoe store! A shoe store!"
"Or perhaps," Jack corrected, "it was a grocery. I'm not certain."
"Oh!" gasped Mrs. De Peyster. "Oh! And—and this—this—Mary person—"
"She plays the piano, and is going to be a professional."
For a moment Mrs. De Peyster's horror was inarticulate. Then it began to regain its power of speech.
"What—you throw away—Ethel Quintard—for a little pianist! You compare a girl like—like that—to Ethel Quintard!"
"Compare them? Not for one little minute, mother, dear! For Mary has brains and—"
"Stop!" exploded Mrs. De Peyster, in majestic rage. "Young man, have you considered the social disgrace you are plunging us all into? But—but surely you cannot be in earnest!"
He looked imperturbably up into her face. "Not in earnest, mother? I'm as earnest as a preacher on Sunday."
She choked with her words. Before she could get them out, Jack was on his feet and had an arm around her shoulders.
"Come, mother, don't be angry—please!" he cried with warm boyish eagerness. "Before you say another word, let me bring Mary to see you. I can get her here before you go on board. The sight of her will show you how right I am. She is the dearest, sweetest—"
"Stop!" She caught his arm. "I shall not see this—this Mary person!"
She was the perfect figure of wrath and pride and confident power of domination. "I shall never see her! Never! And what is more," she continued, with the energy of one who believes her will to be equivalent to the accomplished fact, "you are going to give up, yes, and entirely forget, all those foolish things you have just been speaking of!"
He gazed squarely back into her flashing eyes. His face had tightened, and at that moment there was a remarkable likeness between the two faces, usually so dissimilar.
"Pardon me, mother; you are mistaken," he said quietly. "I am going to give up nothing."
"What, you defy me?" she gasped.
"I am not defying you. I tried to tell you in as pleasant a way as I could what my plans are. But everything I said, I am going to do."
"Then—then—" At first the words would not come forth; she stood trembling, clutching the back of her chair. "Then I beg to inform you," she was saying thickly in her outraged majesty, when Matilda opened the hall door and ushered in an erect, slender man of youngish middle age and with graying hair and dark mustache, and with a pleasant, distinguished face.
"I beg pardon; I fear I come inopportunely," he said, as he sighted Mrs. De Peyster's militant attitude. "But I was told to come right up. I'll just wait—"
"Do not go, Judge Harvey," Mrs. De Peyster commanded, as he started to withdraw. "On the other hand, your arrival is most opportune. Please come here."
"Good-morning, Uncle Bob," Jack said cheerfully. "Excuse me for not shaking hands. Just a little automobile accident."
"Jack, you home!" cried the Judge. "My boy, but you have given us all a scare!" And then in affectionate concern, noticing his hands: "Nothing serious, I hope?"
"Nothing serious about the accident," said Jack, glancing at his mother.
Mrs. De Peyster glared at her son, then crossed to the safe, larger and more formidable than the one above from which she had been removing her jewels, took out a document and returned to the two men. She had something of the ominous air of a tragedy queen who is foreshadowing an approaching climax.
"Judge Harvey, I do not care to go into explanations," said she. "But I desire to give you an order and to have you be a witness to my act."
"Of course, I am at your service, Caroline."
"In the first place," she said, striving to speak calmly, "I beg to request my son to move such of his things as he may wish out of this house—and within the hour."
"Certainly, mother," Jack said pleasantly.
"And to you, Judge Harvey,—I wish my son's allowance, which is paid through your office, to be discontinued from this moment."
"Why—of course—just as you say," said the astonished Judge. "But perhaps if the case were—"
"This paper is my will," interrupted Mrs. De Peyster, holding up the document she had taken from the safe. "As my man of affairs, I believe you are acquainted with its contents."
"It gives the bulk of my fortune to my son here."
"Why, yes," admitted the Judge with increasing bewilderment.
"His share amounts to two millions, or thereabouts."
Mrs. De Peyster took two rustling, majestic steps toward her fireplace. "Until my son gives me very definite assurance that his conduct will be more suitable to me and my position, he is no longer my son." And so saying she tossed the will upon the fire. She allowed a moment of effective silence to elapse. "That is all, Jack. You are excused."
Jack stood and watched the flaming will flicker down to a glowing ash. One bandaged hand slowly smoothed his blond hair.
"Gee! I've seen people burning up money, and I've burnt up quite a bit myself, but I never saw two millions go as quick! Well, mother," he sighed, shaking his head, "I never suspected I'd end in such a little blaze. With such a pile I could have made a bigger bonfire than that."
A SLIGHT PREDICAMENT
For several moments after Jack had withdrawn, Mrs. De Peyster stood in majestic silence beside the mantelpiece.
"We will forget this incident, Judge Harvey," she said at length. "Be seated, if you please."
Judge Harvey took a chair, as ordered. Out in the world, Judge Harvey was a disconcerting personality, though a respected one; a judge who had resigned his judgeship, with the bold announcement that law-courts were in the main theaters for farces; a thinker who rejected all labels, who was daring enough to perceive and applaud what was good even in the conventional.
"But, Caroline," he began hesitantly, "weren't you perhaps a little too stern with Jack?"
"As I said, Judge Harvey, I do not care to explain the situation."
"I understood it—a little—anyhow. See here, you don't want Jack to grow up to be a member of that geranium-cheeked, leather-chair brigade that stare out of Fifth Avenue Club windows, their heaviest labor lifting a whiskey-and-soda all the way up to their mouths?"
"I certainly do not propose to accept the alternative he proposed!" she retorted. "I assure you, such severity as I used was necessary. Nothing will bring a young man to his senses so quickly and so surely as having his resources cut off." Her composure, her confidence in her judgment, were now fully returned. "Jack will come around all right. What I did was imperative to save myself; and certainly it was best for him."
"I trust so. But I hope you don't mind if I'm a bit sorry for the boy, for, you know,"—in a lower voice, and with a stealthy look at her,—"Jack's the nearest thing to a son I've ever had."
She did not answer. In the silence that ensued an uneasiness crept into his manner.
"Caroline," bracing himself, "there is something—something you were perhaps not expecting to hear—that I must tell you."
"I trust, Judge Harvey,"—somewhat stiffly,—"that you are not about to propose to me again."
"I am not." His face flushed; then set grimly. "But I'm going to again, sometime, and I'd do it now if I thought it would do any good."
"It will not."
"Oh, I know I wouldn't fit into your present scheme of life." Bitterness and contempt had risen like a tide in the Judge's voice. "I know I'm no social figure; at least, not up to your dimensions. I know it would be a come-down to change from Mrs. De Peyster to Mrs. Harvey. Not that I'm so infernally humble, Caroline, that I don't consider myself a damned lot better than most of the men you might possibly think about marrying."
He rose abruptly, and with a groaning burst of impatience that had a tinge of anger: "Oh, for God's sake, Caroline, why don't you throw overboard all this fashionable business, this striving to keep an empty position, and be—and be—"
"And be what?" put in Mrs. De Peyster with glittering eye.
"And be just yourself!" he cried defiantly, squarely facing her. "There, at last I've said it! And I'm going to say the rest of it. This Mrs. De Peyster that heads everything isn't at all the simple, natural gracious Carrie De Peyster that John De Peyster and I made love to! You're not the real Mrs. De Peyster; you only think you are. This Mrs. De Peyster the world knows is something that's been built by and out of the obligation which you accepted to maintain the De Peyster dignity. She's only a surface, a shell, a mask! If your mother hadn't died, and then your mother-in-law, and thrown upon you this whole infernal family business and this infernal social leadership, why, you'd have been an entirely different person—"
"You'd then have been the real Mrs. De Peyster!" he rushed hotly on. "Oh, all this show, this struggle for place, this keeping up a front, I know it's only a part of the universal comedy of our pretending to be what we're not,—every one of us is doing the same, in a big way, or a little way,—but it makes me sick! For God's sake, Caroline, chuck it—chuck it all and be just the fine human woman that there is in you!"
She was trembling with suppressed wrath. Never before—not to her face, at least—had such criticism been directed at her.
"And ultimately be Mrs. Harvey—no, thank you!" she replied, in a choking, caustic voice. "But while you are at it, have you any further suggestions for my conduct?"
"Yes," said he determinedly. "You have been spending too much money, and spending it on utterly worthless purposes. This social duel—that's just what it is—between you and Mrs. Allistair, besides being nonsense, will be absolutely ruinous if you keep it up. Mrs. Allistair is as unprincipled in a social way as her husband has been in a business way; her ambition will hesitate to use no means, you know that—and, don't forget this, she can spend fifty dollars to your one!"
"I believe," with blazing hauteur, yet still controlled, "that I possess something superior to Mrs. Allistair's dollars."
"Yes," groaned the Judge, "your confounded old-family business!"
"And speaking of money," continued Mrs. De Peyster in her cuttingest, most withering, most annihilatory grand manner, "perhaps I should have spent my money worthily, like Judge Harvey, upon a gift of Thomas Jefferson letters to the American Historical Society."
The shaft of sarcasm quivered into the center of Judge Harvey's sorest spot. Those recently discovered letters of Thomas Jefferson which Judge Harvey had presented to the Historical Society, and which had been so widely discussed as throwing new light upon the beginnings of the United States Republic, had a month before been pronounced and proved to be clever but arrant forgeries. The newspaper sensation and the praise that had attended the discovery and gift—warming and exalting Judge Harvey's very human pride—had been followed by an anti-climax of gibes and jeers at his gullibility. Whenever the hoax was spoken of, Judge Harvey writhed with personal humiliation, and with anger against the person who had recalled his discomfiture, and with a desire for vengeance against the perpetrator of the swindle.
"Remember this, that the first experts pronounced those letters genuine," he retorted in a hot, trembling voice. "And I'm going to get that scoundrel—you see! Only to-day I had word from the Police Commissioner that his department at last had clues to that fellow Preston. And, besides," he ended cuttingly, "though I was deceived, I at least made an effort to spend my money upon a worthy object."
They glared into one another's eyes; old friends now thoroughly aroused against each other. They might be sarcastic or out-spoken; but their self-respect, their good-breeding, would not permit them to become vituperative, to lose themselves in outbursts of wrath—though such might have been the healthier course. They knew how to plug the volcano. So for a space, though they quivered, they were silent.
Mrs. De Peyster it was who first spoke. Her voice had recovered its most formal, frigid tone.
"Please recall, Judge Harvey, that you are here at the present moment not as a friend but as my man of affairs."
"All right," he said grimly. "But at least I've told you what I thought as a friend."
"As my man of affairs," she continued with her magnificent iciness, "you may now tell me what you have been able to do for me about a cottage in Newport."
"Very well, here goes as your man of affairs: You said you wished to be in Newport from the middle of July to early in September."
"The house, of those available, which I thought would come nearest suiting you is 'The Heron's Nest.'"
"You mean the cottage Mrs. Van der Grift had last season?"
"You need not describe it then. I know it perfectly. It is exactly what I desire; elegant, but not showy. And the terms?"
"Ten thousand for the season."
"Quite satisfactory. I hope you have taken a lease."
"I have an option till to-morrow."
"Then close it. I suppose you have brought my letters of credit?"
"That," said he in formal lawyer tone, "brings me back to the news which, as your man of affairs, I was trying to break to you when you thought, as a friend, I was trying to propose."
"You will recall that the money with which I was to buy your letters of credit was money which I was to draw for you, to-day, as dividends on the stock you hold in the New York and New England Railroad."
"Certainly—though I do not see the drift of your remarks."
"And I hardly need remind you that the bulk of your fortune is invested in this railroad."
"A perfectly good stock, I believe," Mrs. De Peyster commented.
"Perfectly good—perfectly sound," Judge Harvey agreed. "But there has existed a certain possibility in the company's affairs for some time of which I hesitated to inform you. I did not wish to give you any unnecessary concern, which would have been the case if I had spoken to you and if the situation had terminated happily."
"And what is the situation to which you refer?"
"You are doubtless aware that all the railroads have been complaining about bad business, owing to increased wages on the one side and governmental regulation of rates on the other. That's the way the officers explain it; but the truth is, the roads have been abominably mismanaged."
"Yes, I have vaguely heard something about bad business," said Mrs. De Peyster with a bored air. "But what does all this lead to?"
"I am trying to lead you gently, Mrs. De Peyster, to realize the possibility that, in view of its alleged bad business, the New York and New England might decide to pass dividends for this quarter."
Mrs. De Peyster started forward. "Do you mean to say, Judge Harvey, that such a possibility exists?"
"It's rather more than a possibility."
"More than a possibility?"
"Yes. In fact, it's a—a fact."
"I have just come from the meeting of the directors. They have voted to pay no dividends."
"No dividends!" Mrs. De Peyster gazed stupefied into the face of Judge Harvey. "No dividends! Then—then—my income?"
"I am very sorry," said Judge Harvey.
Mrs. De Peyster sank back in her chair and laid one hand across her eyes. For a moment she was dazed by this undreamed-of disaster; so overwhelmed that she did not even hear Judge Harvey, whose anger had ere this begun to relax, try to reassure her with remarks about the company being perfectly solvent. But it was not befitting the De Peyster dignity to exhibit consternation. Instinct, habit, ruled. So, after a moment, she removed her hand, and, though all her senses were floundering, she remarked with an excellent imitation of calm:—
"Thank you very much, Judge Harvey, for your information."
Judge Harvey, though still resentful, was by now feeling contrite for his share of their quarrel and looked unusually handsome in his contrition. And in his concern he could not help pointing the way out.
"I trust you have enough in your bank for your present plans. And if not, your bank will readily advance you what you need."
"Of course," said she with her mechanical composure.
"Or if there is any difficulty," he continued, desirous of making peace, "I shall be glad to arrange a loan for you."
She was too blinded by disaster to think, to realize her needs. And dazed though she was by this reverse, her anger against Judge Harvey for daring to criticize burned as high as before. And then, too, she remembered the haughtiness with which she had just refused his advice and put him in his place. At that moment, the person of all persons in the world from whom it would have been most humiliating to her to accept even a finger's turn of assistance was Judge Harvey.
"Thank you. I shall manage very well."
"And the Newport house?"
"I shall send you my instructions concerning it later."
He hesitated, waiting for her to speak. But she did not.
"Then that is all?" he queried.
"Quite all," she replied.
He still lingered. He was not to see her again for three months. And he didn't like to part like this; even if—
"After all, Caroline," he said impulsively, holding out his hand, "let's forget what we said and be friends. At any rate, I certainly hope you have a most enjoyable time in Europe."
"Thank you. I am sure I shall have."
Her words were cool, calm; the hand she gave him was without pressure. Stiffening again, he made her the briefest of bows and angrily walked out.
At the sound of the closing door, announcing that Judge Harvey's eyes were outside the room, Mrs. De Peyster unloosed the mantle of dignity, which with so great an effort she had kept folded about her person, let her face fall forward into her hands, and slumped down into her chair, a loose, inert bundle. Several lifeless minutes dragged by.
A little before, during a silence between Judge Harvey and Mrs. De Peyster, the study door had slowly opened and there had appeared the reconnoitering face of the entrapped Mr. Bradford. Though their attention had apparently been too centered on each other for them to be observant of what happened beyond their very contracted horizon, that had seemed to him no promising moment to try for an escape. With high curiosity, eyes amused and alight with delectable danger, he had studied Judge Harvey a moment, and then the duchess-like Mrs. De Peyster in her most magnificent towering attitude of wrathful hauteur. Then quickly and soundlessly the heavy door had closed.
Now again the heavy, sound-proof door of the study began to open—noiselessly, inch by inch. Again the light, humorous, but shrewd, very shrewd, face of Mr. Bradford appeared in the crack. This time the face did not withdraw. He watched the bowed figure of the solitary Mrs. De Peyster for several moments; considered; measured the distance to the door of escape; evaluated the silencing quality of the deep library rug; then slipped through the door, closed it, and with tread as soft as a bird's wing against the air started across the room.
At Mrs. De Peyster's back curiosity checked him and he turned his whimsical face down upon the motionless figure. The great Mrs. De Peyster! He wondered what had thus changed her from the all-commanding presence of a few moments since; for within that perfection of a study he had overheard nothing. An instant he stood thus at her back, alert to disappear upon the warning of a changing breath—the two but an arm's reach apart, and apparently about to go their separate ways forever—she unconscious of him, and he equally unconscious of the seed of a common drama which their own acts had already sown—with never a thought that ships that pass in the night may possibly alter their courses and meet again in the morning.
He slipped on out of the room, closing the door without a sound. In the hallway he paused. He wished to see Miss Gardner again, ignorant of the sudden fate that had befallen her. But he decided little would be gained by trying for another meeting. Certainly she must have relented sufficiently to have picked up the card he had given her; and perhaps she would change her mind and send him a message in care of the Reverend Mr. Pyecroft. Anyhow, that was his best hope.
Lightly, and with a light heart—for the presence of danger was to him a stimulant—he went down the stairs, eyes and ears on guard against unfortunate rencontres, and eyes also instinctively noting doors and passages and articles worth a gentleman's while. At the front door he waited a moment until the sidewalk was empty; then he let himself out, and went down Mrs. De Peyster's noble stone steps, his face pleasant and frank-gazing, and with the easy self-possession of departing from a call to wish a friend bon-voyage.
THE HONOR OF THE NAME
After a time Mrs. De Peyster rose totteringly from the sheeted library chair, mounted weakly to the more intimate asylum of her private sitting-room, and sat down and stared into her fire. She was still dazed by Judge Harvey's announcement of the decision of the New York and New England to pay no dividends.
She was not rich, as the rich count riches. Nor did she desire a greater wealth; at least not much greater. In fact, she looked down upon the possessors of those huge fortunes acquired during the last generation as upon beings of an inferior order. It was blood-discs that gave her her supremacy, not vulgar discs of gold. She had enough to maintain the De Peyster station, but just enough; and she had so adjusted her scale of living that her expenses exactly consumed her normal income—no more, no less.
That is, had exactly consumed it, except during the last year or two. One reason she had so resented Judge Harvey's criticism of her manner of living was that the criticism had the unfortunate quality of being based on truth. Of late, the struggle to maintain her inherited and rightful leadership had involved her in greatly increased expenditure, and this excess she had met in ways best known to herself.
The collapsed Mrs. De Peyster heard Matilda enter, pause, then pass into the bedroom, but did not look up; nor a moment later when Olivetta reentered from the bedroom, did she at first raise her dejected head.
"Why, what's the matter, Cousin Caroline?" cried Olivetta.
There was no occasion for maintaining an appearance before Olivetta, who was almost as faithful and devoted as though a very member of her body. So Mrs. De Peyster related her misfortune, interrupted by frequent interjections from her sympathetic cousin.
"Do you realize what it means, Olivetta?" she concluded in a benumbed voice. "It means that, except for less than a thousand which I have on hand,—a mere nothing,—I am penniless until more dividends are due—perhaps months! I cannot go to Europe! I cannot go to Newport!"
Olivetta was first stunned, then was ejaculative with consternation.
"But, Caroline," she cried after a moment, "why not have Judge Harvey get you the money?"
"Out of the question, Olivetta; I do not care to explain." She would never unbend to Judge Harvey! Never!
"Then, why not borrow the money from the bank, as you say Judge Harvey suggested?"
"Olivetta, you should know that that is against my principles." She tried to instill proud rebuke into her voice. But just here was the pinch—or one of them. To cover the excess in her expenses she had already borrowed—secretly, for she would never have had it come to Judge Harvey's knowledge—from her bank to the very limit of her personal credit.
Olivetta's distressed eyes fell upon one of the jewel cases which Marie had left in the sitting-room.
"There are your jewels, Caroline. But, of course you wouldn't consider raising money—"
"On my jewels! How can you think of such a thing!"
"Of course not, of course not," fluttered Olivetta. "Please forgive me, Caroline. I do so admire your strict principles!"
Mrs. De Peyster accepted apology and tribute with a forgiving nod. But just here was another of the pinches. The previous spring, while in Paris, she had had her jewels most confidentially replaced with excellent imitations; and the original stones were at this moment lying as pledges in the vaults of a Parisian banker.
"But, Caroline," pursued the sympathetic Olivetta, "can't you cut down expenses and remain in town? What with your credit, you have enough for that!"
"Remain in town, when everybody is leaving?" cried Mrs. De Peyster. "Are you out of your senses Olivetta? Why, people would never stop talking about it!"
"Of course—you're right—forgive me," stammered Olivetta. "But you might go to some modest resort for the summer—or—or—go to Europe in a more modest way."
"Olivetta, you grow more absurd every moment!" exclaimed Mrs. De Peyster. "You know it has long been my custom to spend the first half of the summer in Europe, in a style befitting me, and to spend the second half in Newport. To do less would set people talking, and might endanger my position."
"Of course! Of course!" cried the humbled Olivetta.
"I hope you fully realize my dilemma."
"It is terrible—terrible!" Olivetta's tone was slow, and full of awed dismay. "You must maintain your social position and there is no money!"
Detailed horrors of the situation began to move in spasmodic procession through Olivetta's mind.
"And your passage is taken on the Plutonia—and it has been widely announced that you are leaving for Europe—and that newspaper is going to print your picture among the social leaders who have sailed—and, oh, Caroline, all those reporters are going to fill the papers with long articles about your going!"
A new horror, that till then had escaped Mrs. De Peyster's inventory, a horror out-climaxing any in Olivetta's tragic list, burst suddenly upon Mrs. De Peyster. Her face went pale, fell loose.
"Mrs. Allistair!" she barely articulated.
"Mrs. Allistair?" Olivetta repeated blankly.
"Don't you see—if I stay at home—don't sail—Mrs. Allistair will use it as capital against me—and she'll ride over me to—"
"Caroline!" gasped the appalled Olivetta.
Mrs. De Peyster stood up, rigid with desperation.
"I simply must sail!" she cried.
"Of course you must! Can't you think of some way out of it? I never knew you unequal to an emergency!"
Mrs. De Peyster, her brow knitted with agitated thought, walked slowly to one of her windows and stood looking down into the pleasant bustle of Washington Square. Olivetta watched her intently, waiting for the brilliant plan that would be the result of her cousin's cogitations.
But the minutes passed, Mrs. De Peyster did not move, and Olivetta's gaze wandered about the large, luxurious sitting-room. Her mind roamed afar to the desolate realm which she inhabited, and she thought of her own sitting-room, dark and stingily furnished, and rather threadbare, in which she was expecting to spend the summer, save for a few weeks at a respectable, poor-relations' resort. She sighed.
"If it wasn't for your social position," she said, half to herself, "it really wouldn't be so bad to spend the summer here."
Mrs. De Peyster must have heard, for she turned slowly about and gazed at Olivetta—gazed at her steadily. And gradually, as she gazed, her whole appearance changed. The consternation on her face was succeeded by calm resolution. Poise and dignity returned.
"You have an idea, Caroline?" cried Olivetta, struck by her look.
Mrs. De Peyster stood silent for yet a few more moments. Then, completely her dignified and composed self, she stepped toward her bedroom. Olivetta's eyes followed her in wondering, worshipful fascination.
Mrs. De Peyster opened the door.
The housekeeper instantly appeared.
"Yes, Mrs. De Peyster."
"Matilda, call William and have him waiting in the hall till I summon him. Come back immediately."
"But, Cousin Caroline, what is it?" asked Olivetta excitedly, as Matilda went out.
"Wait!" said Mrs. De Peyster in a majestic tone.
A minute passed, Mrs. De Peyster standing composedly by the fireplace, Olivetta gazing at her in throbbing suspense. Then Matilda returned. Her Mrs. De Peyster summoned to her side.
"Matilda, you have proved your loyalty to me by twenty years of service," she began, "and you, Olivetta, I know are completely devoted to me. So I know you both will faithfully execute my requests. But I must ask you not to breathe a word of what I tell you, and what we do."
"I?" cried Olivetta. "Never a syllable!"
"Nor I, ma'am,—never!" declared Matilda.
"But first, Matilda, I must acquaint you with a situation that has just arisen." And Mrs. De Peyster outlined such details of her predicament as she thought Matilda needed to know. "And now, here are my orders, Matilda. The house, of course, is being boarded up as usual. All the servants are sent away except William; and that order, if you have given it, for a maid for me is to be countermanded. You, Matilda, are to remain here alone in charge of the house as has been your custom. The report that I am sailing is to be allowed to stand. But in reality—"
"Yes, in reality?" cried the excited Olivetta.
"In reality," continued Mrs. De Peyster calmly, for she knew how a denouement is heightened by a quiet manner—"in reality, I shall, during the entire summer, stay here in my own house."
"Stay here!" ejaculated Olivetta.
"Stay here!" exclaimed Matilda.
"Stay here. Chiefly in my suite. Secretly, of course. No one but you two will ever know of it. By staying here, I shall be practically at no expense. But the world will think I am in Europe, and my position will be saved."
Staggered as she was, Olivetta had remaining a few fragments of reason.
"But—but, Caroline! You cannot merely announce that you are going abroad! You are a person of importance—your every move is observed. People will see that you do not sail. How will you get around that?"
It sounded a poser. But Mrs. De Peyster was unruffled.
"Very simply, Olivetta. You shall sail in my stead."
"Me!" cried Olivetta, yet more bewildered.
"But—but, if you cannot afford Europe for yourself, how can you afford it for me?"
"It would take a great many thousands for me to go in the manner that is expected of me. I cannot afford that. For you, Olivetta, since the passage is already paid, it would take but a few hundred—and that I can afford."
"You—you mean that I am to pass for you?"
"But I never can! People will know the difference!"
"People will never see you," returned the calm voice of Mrs. De Peyster. "The Plutonia sails at one to-night. You will go on board with my trunks late this evening, heavily veiled. Since no one must see you on the way over, you must of course, keep to your cabin. You must be seasick."
"But I am never seasick!" cried Olivetta.
"Then you must stay in your berth anyhow and pretend to be. You are to be too ill to receive any friends who may chance to be on board. Your stewardess will bring your meals to your stateroom. When the boat arrives, you must wait till every one else is off, and when you land you must again be heavily veiled and be too sick to speak to any one. Once you are in Paris—"
"Yes, there's the difficulty!"
"Not so great as you think. I shall give you full directions what to do. Once you are in Paris, you quietly disappear. It will become known that Mrs. De Peyster has gone off on a long motor trip through unvisited portions of Europe and will not return for the Newport season. With Mrs. De Peyster started on this trip, you become yourself, and you see Europe just as you please."
"Oh!" ejaculated Olivetta, drawing in a deep breath.
"But please, ma'am," put in Matilda, "why could you not go over yourself and then slip away to some modest resort?"
"So many people know me I should be sure to be seen and recognized. And then think of the talk! No, that would never do. I have considered all possibilities. My plan is best."
"Of course, you're right, ma'am," agreed Matilda.
"On the way back, Olivetta, you are to preserve the same precautions as on the way over. And to avoid any possible difficulty in getting into the house, I shall provide you with a key to the house and one to my sitting-room."
"But you, ma'am," objected Matilda, "in the mean time you cannot stay cooped up all summer in this room!"
"I do not intend to," returned Mrs. De Peyster with her consummate calm, which assured her co-conspirators that they could lean untroubled upon her unblundering brain. "Matilda, will you now please have William come in?"
Matilda, bewildered but obedient, stepped to the door and a moment later followed in the most clean-shaven, the most stiffly perpendicular, the most deferentially dignified, the most irreproachably expressionless of men-servants. He was the ultimate development of his kind. It seems almost a sacrilege to add that he was past man's perfect prime, and to hint that perhaps his scanty, unstreaked hair sought surreptitious rejuvenation in a drug-store bottle.
"William, Matilda will acquaint you with certain alterations in my plans," began his mistress. "I desire to add that she will remain in the house alone during my absence; that you are to keep to your quarters in the stable and not enter the house; and that you are to arrange to take, at my expense, all your meals outside."
William inclined his body slightly, as if to say, "Yes, my lady."
"And in order to give the horses proper exercise, and to relieve Matilda's monotony, I desire you to take Matilda out driving every evening."
Again William bowed a "Yes, my lady."
"You understand this perfectly?"
William's lips executed one of their rare movements.
"Perfectly, Mrs. De Peyster."
Mrs. De Peyster dismissed him with a wave of her hand, and William made the exit of a minister from his queen.
"You don't mean—" began Matilda, almost breathless.
"Yes, I mean that I shall go out driving nightly in your clothes," responded Mrs. De Peyster.
"But—but—" gasped Matilda.
"Have no fear. I shall, of course, be veiled, and William is the best-trained, the most incurious of servants."
Mrs. De Peyster, looking her most majestic, stood waiting for the outburst of approval, just tribute to one who has conceived a supernally clever and flawless scheme.
"Well, now, Matilda," she prompted, "what do you think of the whole plan?"
"Since you thought it out, I—I—suppose it's all right," stammered Matilda.
"And you, Olivetta, what do you think?"
"Me!" cried Olivetta, who for the last minute had with difficulty restrained her ecstasy. "Paris!—the Louvre!—the Luxembourg!—Versailles!" She flung her arms about Mrs. De Peyster's neck amid a shower of hairpins. "Oh, Caroline—Caroline. It's—it's simply glorious!"
BEHIND THE BLINDS
It was the next day.
Olivetta had mailed a few hurried notes to friends about her sudden departure for a complete rest in the utter seclusion of an unnamed spot in Maine—Jack De Peyster had moved out—the front door way and the windows had been boarded up—the house wore the proper countenance of respectable desertion—and up in her sitting-room, lighted only by little diamond panes in her thick shutters, sat Mrs. De Peyster reading a newspaper. From this she gleaned that Mrs. De Peyster had sailed that morning on the Plutonia, having gone on board late the night before. Also she learned that Mrs. De Peyster would not be back as was her custom for the Newport season, but was going to make an extended motor trip off the main-traveled roads, perhaps penetrating as far as the beautiful but rarely visited Balkan States.
Mrs. De Peyster was well satisfied as she rested at ease in her favorite chair. It would not be too much to say that she was very proud; for hers was certainly a happy plan, a plan few intellects could have evolved. And thus far it had worked to perfection, and there was no doubt but that it would work so to the end; for, although Olivetta, to be sure, was rather careless, the instructions given her, the arrangements made in her behalf, were so admirable and complete that any miscarriage could not possibly have Olivetta for its source.
Also Mrs. De Peyster was at heart honestly contented. She had spoken truly when she had told Olivetta that Europe was old to her and had become merely a social duty. Of that fatiguing obligation to her position she was glad to be relieved. The past season, with its struggle with Mrs. Allistair and that Duke de Crecy affair, had been a trying one, and she was tired. By the present arrangement, which she regarded as nothing short of an inspiration, her social prestige was secure, her financial difficulties were taken care of, and she herself would have the desired opportunity for a sorely needed rest. She would have her books, she would have the society of Matilda (for Matilda had in the long years grown to be more than a mere servant—she was a companion, a confidant)—her creature comforts would be well seen to by Matilda,—she would have the whole house to roam over at her will during the day, and every night she would have the pleasant relaxation of a drive behind the peerless William.