THE DANGER MARK
ROBERT W. CHAMBERS
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY
JOHN CARRINGTON YATES
I. The Seagraves
II. In Trust
III. The Threshold
IV. The Year of Discretion
VIII. An Afterglow
XI. Fete Galante
XII. The Love of the Gods
XIII. Ambitions and Letters
XIV. The Prophets
XVI. Through the Woods
XVII. The Danger Mark
XVIII. Bon Chien
XIX. Questions and Answers
XX. In Search of Herself
XXI. The Golden Hours
XXII. Cloudy Mountain
XXIII. Sine Die
XXIV. The Prologue Ends
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"'Please do tell me somebody is scandalized'"
"'Can I have what other women have—silk underwear and stockings?'"
"'Duane!' she gasped—'why did you?'"
"Oh, the horror of it!—the shame, the agonized surprise"
"'This is one of those rare occasions ... where goodness is ... amply rewarded'"
"'I want to confess! I've been horribly depraved for a week!'"
"She dropped him a very low, very slow, very marvellous courtesy"
"Crumpled up like a white flower in his arms"
All day Sunday they had raised the devil from attic to cellar; Mrs. Farren was in tears, Howker desperate. Not one out of the fifteen servants considered necessary to embellish the Seagrave establishment could do anything with them after Kathleen Severn's sudden departure the week before.
When the telegram announcing her mother's sudden illness summoned young Mrs. Severn to Staten Island, every servant in the household understood that serious trouble was impending for them.
Day by day the children became more unruly; Sunday they were demons; and Mrs. Farren shuddered to think what Monday might bring forth.
The day began ominously at breakfast with general target practice, ammunition consisting of projectiles pinched from the interior of hot muffins. Later, when Mrs. Farren ventured into the schoolroom, she found Scott Seagrave drawing injurious pictures of Howker on the black-board, and Geraldine sorting lumps of sugar from the bowl on the breakfast-tray, which had not yet been removed.
"Dearies," she began, "it is after nine o'clock and——"
"No school to-day, Mrs. Farren," interrupted Scott cheerfully; "we haven't anything to do till Kathleen comes back, and you know it perfectly well!"
"Yes, you have, dearie; Mrs. Severn has just sent you this list of lessons." She held out a black-edged envelope.
Geraldine, who had been leisurely occupied in dropping cologne on a lump of sugar, thrust the lump into her pink mouth and turned sharply on Mrs. Farren.
"What list?" she demanded. "Give that letter to me.... Oh, Scott! Did you ever hear of anything half so mean? Kathleen's written out about a thousand questions in geography for us!"
"I can't stand that sort of interference!" shouted Scott, dropping his chalk and aiming a kick at the big papier-mache globe. "I'm sorry Kathleen's mother is probably going to die, but I've had enough geography, too."
"Mrs. Severn's mother died on Friday," said the housekeeper solemnly.
The children paused, serious for a moment in the presence of the incomprehensible.
"We're sorry," said Geraldine slowly.... "When is Kathleen coming back?"
"Perhaps to-night, dearie——"
Scott impatiently detached the schoolroom globe from its brass axis: "I'm sorry, too," he said; "but I'm tired of lessons. Now, Mrs. Farren, watch me! I'm going to kick a goal from the field. Here, you hold it, Geraldine; Mrs. Farren, you had better try to block it and cheer for Yale!"
Geraldine seized the globe, threw herself flat on the floor, and, head on one side, wriggled, carefully considering the angle. Then, tipping the globe, she adjusted it daintily for her brother to kick.
"A little higher, please; look out there, Mrs. Farren!" said Scott calmly; "Harvard is going to score this time. Now, Geraldine!"
Thump! came the kick, but Mrs. Farren had fled, and the big globe struck the nursery door and bounced back minus half of South America.
For ten minutes the upper floors echoed with the racket. Geraldine fiercely disputed her brother's right to kick every time; then, as usual, when she got what she wanted, gave up to Scott and let him monopolise the kicking until, satiated, he went back to the black-board, having obliterated several continents from the face of the globe.
"You might at least be polite enough to hold it for me to kick," said his sister. "What a pig you are, Scott."
"Don't bother me; I'm drawing Howker. You can't kick straight, anyway——"
"Yes, I can!"
Scott, intent on his drawing, muttered:
"I wish there was another boy in this house; I might have a little fun to-day if there was anybody to play with."
There ensued a silence; then he heard his sister's light little feet flying along the hallway toward their bedrooms, but went on calmly with his drawing, using some effective coloured crayon on Howker's nose. Presently he became conscious that Geraldine had re-entered the room.
"What are you going to do to-day?" he asked, preoccupied.
Geraldine, dressed in her brother's clothes, was kneeling on one knee and hastily strapping on a single roller-skate.
"I'll show you," she said, rising and shaking the dark curls out of her eyes. "Come on, Scott, I'm going to misbehave all day. Look at me! I've brought you the boy you wanted to play with."
Her brother turned, considered her with patronising toleration, then shrugged his shoulders.
"You look like one, but you're no good," he said.
"I can be just as bad as any boy!" she insisted. "I'll do whatever you do; I'll do worse, I tell you. Dare me to do something!"
"You don't dare skate backward into the red drawing-room! There's too much bric-a-brac."
She turned like a flash and was off, hopping and clattering down-stairs on her single skate, and a moment later she whirled into the red drawing-room backward and upset a Sang-de-boeuf jar, reducing the maid to horrified tears and the jar to powder.
Howker strove in vain to defend his dining-room when Scott appeared on one skate; but the breakfast-room and pantry were forcibly turned into rinks; the twins swept through the halls, met and defeated their nurses, Margaret and Betty, tumbled down into the lower regions, from there descended to the basement, and whizzed cheerily through the kitchen, waving two skateless legs.
There Mrs. Bramton attempted to buy them off with tribute in the shape of cup-cakes.
"Sure, darlints, they do be starvin' yez," purred Mrs. Bramton. "Don't I know the likes o' them? Now roon away quietlike an' ladylike——"
"Like a hen," retorted Scott. "I want some preserves."
"That's all very well," said Geraldine with her mouth full, "but we expected to skate about the kitchen and watch you make pastry. Kindly begin, Mrs. Bramton."
"I'd like to see what's inside of that chicken over there," said Scott. "And I want you to give me some raisins, Mrs. Bramton——"
"I'm dying for a glass of milk," added Geraldine. "Get me some dough, somebody; I'm going to bake something."
Scott, who, devoured by curiosity, had been sniffing around the spice cupboard, sneezed violently; a Swedish kitchen-maid threw her apron over her head, weak with laughter.
"If you're laughing at me, I'll fix you, Olga!" shouted Scott in a rage; and the air was suddenly filled with balls of dough. Mrs. Bramton fled before the storm; a well-directed volley drove the maids to cover and stampeded the two cats.
"Take whatever is good to eat, Geraldine. Hurrah! The town surrenders! Loot it! No quarter!" shouted Scott. However, when Howker arrived they retired hastily with pockets full of cinnamon sticks, olives, prunes, and dried currants, climbing triumphantly to the library above, where they curled up on a leather divan, under the portrait of their mother, to divide the spoils.
"Am I bad enough to suit you?" inquired Geraldine with pardonable pride.
"Pooh! That's nothing. If I had another boy here I'd—I'd——"
"Well, what?" demanded Geraldine, flushing. "I tell you I can misbehave as well as any boy. Dare me to do anything and you'll see! I dare you to dare me!"
Scott began: "Oh, it's all very easy for a girl to talk——"
"I don't talk; I do it! And you know perfectly well I do!"
"You're a girl, after all, even if you have got on my clothes——"
"Didn't I throw as much dough at Olga and Mrs. Bramton as you did?"
"You didn't hit anybody."
"I did! I saw a soft, horrid lump stick to Olga!"
"Pooh! You can't throw straight——"
"That's a lie!" said Geraldine excitedly.
"If you say that again——"
"All right; go and get the boxing-gloves. You did tell a lie, Scott, because I did hit Olga!"
Scott hastily unstrapped his lone skate, cast it clattering from him, and sped up-stairs. When he returned he hurled a pair of boxing-gloves at Geraldine, who put them on, laced them, trembling with wrath, and flew at her brother as soon as his own gloves were fastened.
They went about their business like lightning, swinging, blocking, countering. Twice she gave him inviting openings and then punished him savagely before he could get away; then he attempted in-fighting, but her legs were too nimble. And after a while he lost his head and came at her using sheer weight, which set her beside herself with fury.
Teeth clenched, crimson-cheeked, she side-stepped, feinted, and whipped in an upper-cut. Then, darting in, she drove home her left with all her might; and Scott went down with an unmistakable thud.
"One—two—three—four," she counted, "and you did tell a lie, didn't you? Five—six—Oh, Scott! I've made your nose bleed horridly! Does it hurt, dear? Seven—eight——"
The boy, still confused, rose and instinctively assumed the classic attitude of self-defence; but his sister threw down her gloves and offered him her handkerchief, saying: "You've just got to be fair to me now, Scott. Tell me that I throw straight and that I did hit Olga!"
He hesitated; wiped his nose:
"I take it back. You can throw straight. Ginger! What a crack you just gave me!"
She was all compunction and honey now, hovering around him where he stood stanching honourable wounds. After a while he laughed. "Thunder!" he exclaimed ruefully; "my nose seems to be growing for fair. You're all right, Geraldine."
"Here's my last cup-cake, if you like," said his sister, radiant.
Embarrassed a little by defeat, but nursing no bitterness, he sat down on the leather divan again and permitted his sister to feed him and tell him that his disaster was only an accident. He tried to think so, too, but serious doubts persisted in his mind. There had been a clean-cut finish to that swing and jab which disturbed his boy's conceit.
"We'll try it again," he began. "I'm all right now, if you like——"
"Oh, Scott, I don't want to!"
"Well, we ought to know which of us really can lick the other——"
"Why, of course, you can lick me every time. Besides, I wouldn't want to be able to lick you—except when I'm very, very angry. And I ought not to become angry the way I do. Kathleen tries so hard to make me stop and reflect before I do things, but I can't seem to learn.... Does your nose hurt?"
"Not in the least," said her brother, reddening and changing the subject. "I say, it looks as though it were going to stop raining."
He went to the window; the big Seagrave house with its mansard roof, set in the centre of an entire city block, bounded by Madison and Fifth Avenues and by Ninety-fifth and Ninety-sixth Streets, looked out from its four red brick facades onto strips of lawn and shrubbery, now all green and golden with new grass and early buds.
It was topsy-turvy, March-hare weather, which perhaps accounted for the early April dementia that possessed the children at recurring intervals, and which nothing ever checked except the ultimate slumber of infantile exhaustion.
If anybody in the house possessed authority to punish them, nobody exercised it. Servants grown gray in the Seagrave service endured much, partly for the children's sakes, partly in memory of the past; but the newer and younger domestics had less interest in the past glories and traditions of an old New York family which, except for two little children, ten years old, had perished utterly from the face of the land.
The entire domestic regime was a makeshift—had been almost from the beginning. Mrs. Farren, the housekeeper, understood it; Howker, the butler, knew it; Lacy knew it—he who had served forty years as coachman in the Seagrave family.
For in all the world there remained not one living soul who through ties of kinship was authorised to properly control these children. Nor could they themselves even remember parental authority; and only a shadowy recollection of their grandfather's lax discipline survived, becoming gradually, as time passed, nothing more personal to them than a pleasant legend kept alive and nourished in the carefully guarded stories told them by Kathleen Severn and by Anthony Seagrave's old servants.
Yet, in the land, and in his own city of Manhattan, their grandfather had been a very grand man, with his large fortune, now doubled and still increasing; he had been a very distinguished man in the world of fashion with his cultivated taste in art and wine and letters and horses; he had been a very important man, too, in the civic, social, and political construction of New York town, in the quaint days when the sexton of Old Trinity furnished fashionable hostesses with data concerning the availability of social aspirants. He had been a courtly and fascinating man, too. He had died a drunkard.
Now his grandchildren were fast forgetting him. The town had long since forgotten him. Only an old friend or two and his old servants remembered what he had been, his virtues, his magnificence, his kindness, and his weakness.
But if the Seagrave twins possessed neither father nor mother to exercise tender temporal and spiritual suzerainty in the nursery, and if no memory of their grandfather's adoring authority remained, the last will and testament of Anthony Seagrave had provided a marvellous, man-created substitute for the dead: a vast, shadowy thing which ruled their lives with passionless precision; which ordered their waking hours even to the minutest particulars; which assumed machine-like charge of their persons, their personal expenses, their bringing-up, their schooling, the items of their daily routine.
This colossal automaton, almost terrifyingly impersonal, loomed always above them, throwing its powerful and gigantic shadow across their lives. As they grew old enough to understand, it became to them the embodiment of occult and unpleasant authority which controlled their coming and going; which chose for them their personal but not their legal guardian, Kathleen Severn; which fixed upon the number of servants necessary for the house that Anthony Seagrave directed should be maintained for his grandchildren; which decided what kind of expenses, what sort of clothing, what recreations, what accomplishments, what studies, what religion they should be provided with.
And the name of this enormous man-contrived machine which took the place of father and mother was the Half Moon Trust Company, acting as trustee, guardian, and executor for two little children, who neither understood why they were sometimes very unruly or that they would one day be very, very rich.
As for their outbreaks, an intense sense of loneliness for which they were unable to account was always followed by a period of restlessness sure to culminate in violent misbehaviour.
Such an outbreak had been long impending. So when a telegram called away their personal guardian, Kathleen Severn, the children broke loose with the delicate fury of the April tempest outside, which all the morning had been blotting the western windows with gusts of fragrant rain.
The storm was passing now; light volleys of rain still arrived at intervals, slackening as the spring sun broke out, gilding naked branches and bare brown earth, touching swelling buds and the frail points of tulips which pricked the soaked loam in close-set thickets.
From the library bay windows where they stood, the children noticed dandelions in the grass and snowdrops under the trees and recognised the green signals of daffodil and narcissus.
Already crocuses, mauve, white, and yellow, glimmered along a dripping privet hedge which crowned the brick and granite wall bounding the domain of Seagrave. East, through the trees, they could see the roofs of electric cars speeding up and down Madison Avenue, and the houses facing that avenue. North and south were quiet streets; westward Fifth Avenue ran, a sheet of wet, golden asphalt glittering under the spring sun, and beyond it, above the high retaining wall, budding trees stood out against the sky, and the waters of the Park reservoirs sparkled behind.
"I am glad it's spring, anyway," said Geraldine listlessly.
"What's the good of it?" asked Scott. "We'll have to take all our exercise with Kathleen just the same, and watch other children having good times. What's the use of spring?"
"Spring is tiresome," admitted Geraldine thoughtfully.
"So is winter. I think either would be all right if they'd only let me have a few friends. There are plenty of boys I'd like to have some fun with if they'd let me."
"I wonder," mused Geraldine, "if there is anything the matter with us, Scott?"
"Oh—I don't know. People stare at us so—nurses always watch us and begin to whisper as soon as we come along. Do you know what a boy said to me once when I skated very far ahead of Kathleen?"
"What did he say?" inquired Scott, flattening his nose against the window-pane to see whether it still hurt him.
"He asked me if I were too rich and proud to play with other children. I was so surprised; and I said that we were not rich at all, and that I never had had any money, and that I was not a bit proud, and would love to stay and play with him if Kathleen permitted me."
"Did Kathleen let you? Of course she didn't."
"I told her what the boy said and I showed her the boy, but she wouldn't let me stay and play."
"Kathleen's a pig."
"No, she isn't, poor dear. They make her act that way—Mr. Tappan makes her. Our grandfather didn't want us to have friends."
"I'll tell you what," said Scott impatiently, "when I'm old enough, I'll have other boys to play with whether Kathleen and—and that Thing—likes it or not."
The Thing was the Half Moon Trust Company.
Geraldine glanced back at the portrait over the divan:
"Do you know," she ventured, "that I believe mother would have let us have fun."
"I'll bet father would, too," said Scott. "Sometimes I feel like kicking over everything in the house."
"So do I and I generally do it," observed Geraldine, lifting a slim, graceful leg and sending a sofa-cushion flying.
When they had kicked all the cushions from the sofas and divans, Scott suggested that they go out and help Schmitt, the gardener, who, at that moment, came into view on the lawn, followed by Olsen wheeling a barrowful of seedlings in wooden trays.
So the children descended to the main hall and marched through it, defying Lang, the second man, refusing hats and overshoes; and presently were digging blissfully in a flower-bed under the delighted directions of Schmitt.
"What are these things, anyway?" demanded Scott, ramming down the moist earth around a fragile rootlet from which trailed a green leaf or two.
"Dot vas a verpena, sir," explained the old gardener. "Now you shall vatch him grow."
The boy remained squatting for several minutes, staring hard at the seedling.
"I can't see it grow," he said to his sister, "and I'm not going to sit here all day waiting. Come on!" And he gave her a fraternal slap.
Geraldine wiped her hands on her knickerbockers and started after him; and away they raced around the house, past the fountains, under trees by the coach-house, across paths and lawns and flower-beds, tearing about like a pair of demented kittens. They frisked, climbed trees, chased each other, wrestled, clutched, tumbled, got mad, made up, and finally, removing shoes and stockings, began a game of leapfrog.
Horror-stricken nurses arrived bearing dry towels and footgear, and were received with fury and a volley of last year's horse-chestnuts. And when the enemy had been handsomely repulsed, the children started on a tour of exploration, picking their way with tender, naked feet to the northern hedge.
Here Geraldine mounted on Scott's shoulders and drew herself up to the iron railing which ran along the top of the granite-capped wall between hedge and street; and Scott followed her, both pockets stuffed with chestnuts which he had prudently gathered in the shrubbery.
In the street below there were few passers-by. Each individual wayfarer, however, received careful attention, Scott having divided the chestnuts, and the aim of both children being excellent.
They had been awaiting a new victim for some time, when suddenly Geraldine pinched her brother with eager satisfaction:
"Oh, Scott! there comes that boy I told you about!"
"The one who asked me if I was too rich and proud to play with him. And that must be his sister; they look alike."
"All right," said Scott; "we'll give them a volley. You take the nurse and I'll fix the boy.... Ready.... Fire!"
The ambuscade was perfectly successful; the nurse halted and looked up, expressing herself definitely upon the manners and customs of the twins; the boy, who appeared to be amazingly agile, seized a swinging wistaria vine, clambered up the wall, and, clinging to the outside of the iron railing, informed Scott that he would punch his head when a pleasing opportunity presented itself.
"All right," retorted Scott; "come in and do it now."
"That's all very well for you to say when you know I can't climb over this railing!"
"I'll tell you what I'll do," said Scott, thrilled at the chance of another boy on the grounds even if he had to fight him; "I'll tell you what!" sinking his voice to an eager whisper; "You run away from your nurse as soon as you get into the Park and I'll be at the front door and I'll let you in. Will you?"
"Oh, please!" whispered Geraldine; "and bring your sister, too!"
The boy stared at her knickerbockers. "Do you want to fight my sister?" he asked.
"I? Oh, no, no, no. You can fight Scott if you like, and your sister and I will have such fun watching you. Will you?"
His nurse was calling him to descend, in tones agitated and peremptory; the boy hesitated, scowled at Scott, looked uncertainly at Geraldine, then shot a hasty and hostile glance at the interior of the mysterious Seagrave estate. Curiosity overcame him; also, perhaps, a natural desire for battle.
"Yes," he said to Scott, "I'll come back and punch your head for you."
And very deftly, clinging like a squirrel to the pendant wistaria, he let himself down into the street again.
The Seagrave twins, intensely excited, watched them as far as Fifth Avenue, then rapidly drawing on their shoes and stockings, scrambled down to the shrubbery and raced for the house. Through it they passed like a double whirlwind; feeble and perfunctory resistance was offered by their nurses.
"Get out of my way!" said Geraldine fiercely; "do you think I'm going to miss the first chance for some fun that I've ever had in all my life?"
At the same moment, through the glass-sheeted grill Scott discovered two small figures dashing up the drive to the porte-cochere. And he turned on Lang like a wild cat.
Lang, the man at the door, was disposed to defend his post; Scott prepared to fly at him, but his sister intervened:
"Oh, Lang," she pleaded, jumping up and down in an agony of apprehension, "please, please, let them in! We've never had any friends." She caught his arm piteously; he looked fearfully embarrassed, for the Seagrave livery was still new to him; nor, during his brief service, had he fully digested the significance of the policy which so rigidly guarded these little children lest rumour from without apprise them of their financial future and the contaminating realisation undermine their simplicity.
As he stood, undecided, Geraldine suddenly jerked his hand from the bronze knob and Scott flung open the door.
"Come on! Quick!" he cried; and the next moment four small pairs of feet were flying through the hall, echoing lightly across the terrace, then skimming the lawn to the sheltering shrubbery beyond.
"The thing to do," panted Scott, "is to keep out of sight." He seized his guests by the arms and drew them behind the rhododendrons. "Now," he said, "what's your name? You, I mean!"
"Duane Mallett," replied the boy, breathless. "That's my sister, Naida. Let's wait a moment before we begin to fight; Naida and I had to run like fury to get away from our nurse."
Naida was examining Geraldine with an interest almost respectful.
"I wish they'd let me dress like a boy," she said. "It's fun, isn't it?"
"Yes. They don't let me do it; I just did it," replied Geraldine. "I'll get you a suit of Scott's clothes, if you like. I can get the boxing-gloves at the same time. Shall I, Scott?"
"Go ahead," said Scott; "we can pretend there are four boys here." And, to Duane, as Geraldine sped cautiously away on her errand: "That's a thing I never did before."
"Play with three boys all by myself. Kathleen—who is Mrs. Severn, our guardian—is always with us when we are permitted to speak to other boys and girls."
"That's babyish," remarked Duane in frank disgust. "You are a mollycoddle."
The deep red of mortification spread over Scott's face; he looked shyly at Naida, doubly distressed that a girl should hear the degrading term applied to him. The small girl returned his gaze without a particle of expression in her face.
"Mollycoddles," continued Duane cruelly, "do the sort of things you do. You're one."
"I—don't want to be one," stammered Scott. "How can I help it?"
Duane ignored the appeal. "Playing with three boys isn't anything," he said. "I play with forty every day."
"W-where?" asked Scott, overwhelmed.
"In school, of course—at recess—and before nine, and after one. We have fine times. School's all right. Don't you even go to school?"
Scott shook his head, too ashamed to speak. Naida, with a flirt of her kilted skirts, had abruptly turned her back on him; yet he was miserably certain she was listening to her brother's merciless catechism.
"I suppose you don't even know how to play hockey," commented Duane contemptuously.
There was no answer.
"What do you do? Play with dolls? Oh, what a molly!"
Scott raised his head; he had grown quite white. Naida, turning, saw the look on the boy's face.
"Duane doesn't mean that," she said; "he's only teasing."
Geraldine came hurrying back with the boxing-gloves and a suit of Scott's very best clothes, halting when she perceived the situation, for Scott had walked up to Duane, and the boys stood glaring at one another, hands doubling up into fists.
"You think I'm a molly?" asked Scott in a curiously still voice.
"Yes, I do."
"Oh, Scott!" cried Geraldine, pushing in between them, "you'll have to hammer him well for that——"
Naida turned and shoved her brother aside:
"I don't want you to fight him," she said. "I like him."
"Oh, but they must fight, you know," explained Geraldine earnestly. "If we didn't fight, we'd really be what you call us. Put on Scott's clothes, Naida, and while our brothers are fighting, you and I will wrestle to prove that I'm not a mollycoddle——"
"I don't want to," said Naida tremulously. "I like you, too——"
"Well, you're one if you don't!" retorted Geraldine. "You can like anybody and have fun fighting them, too."
"Put on those clothes, Naida," said Duane sternly. "Are you going to take a dare?"
So she retired very unwillingly into the hedge to costume herself while the two boys invested their fists with the soft chamois gloves of combat.
"We won't bother to shake hands," observed Scott. "Are you ready?"
"Yes, you will, too," insisted Geraldine; "shake hands before you begin to fight!"
"I won't," retorted Scott sullenly; "shake hands with anybody who calls me—what he did."
"Very well then; if you don't, I'll put on those gloves and fight you myself."
Duane's eyes flew wide open and he gazed upon Geraldine with newly mixed emotions. She walked over to her brother and said:
"Remember what Howker told us that father used to say—that squabbling is disgraceful but a good fight is all right. Duane called you a silly name. Instead of disputing about it and calling each other names, you ought to settle it with a fight and be friends afterward.... Isn't that so, Duane?"
Duane seemed doubtful.
"Isn't it so?" she repeated fiercely, stepping so swiftly in front of him that he jumped back.
"Yes, I guess so," he admitted; and the sudden smile which Geraldine flashed on him completed his subjection.
Naida, in her boy's clothes, came out, her hands in her pockets, strutting a little and occasionally bending far over to catch a view of herself as best she might.
"All ready!" cried Geraldine; "begin! Look out, Naida; I'm going to throw you."
Behind her the two boys touched gloves, then Scott rushed his man.
At the same moment Geraldine seized Naida.
"We are not to pull hair," she said; "remember! Now, dear, look out for yourself!"
Of that classic tournament between the clans of Mallett and Seagrave the chronicles are lacking. Doubtless their ancestors before them joined joyously in battle, confident that all details of their prowess would be carefully recorded by the family minstrel.
But the battle of that Saturday noon hour was witnessed only by the sparrows, who were too busy lugging bits of straw and twine to half-completed nests in the cornices of the House of Seagrave, to pay much attention to the combat of the Seagrave children, who had gone quite mad with the happiness of companionship and were expressing it with all their might.
Naida's dark curls mingled with the grass several times before Geraldine comprehended that her new companion was absurdly at her mercy; and then she seized her with all the desperation of first possession and kissed her hard.
"It's ended," breathed Geraldine tremulously, "and nobody gained the victory and—you will love me, won't you?"
"I don't know—I'm all dirt." She looked at Geraldine, bewildered by the passion of the lonely child's caresses. "Yes—I do love you, Geraldine. Oh, look at those boys! How perfectly disgraceful! They must stop—make them stop, Geraldine!"
Hair on end, grass-stained, dishevelled, and unspeakably dirty, the boys were now sparring for breath. Grime and perspiration streaked their countenances. Duane Mallett wore a humorously tinted eye and a prehensile upper lip; Scott's nose had again yielded to the coy persuasion of a left-handed jab and the proud blood of the Seagraves once more offended high heaven on that April day.
Geraldine, one arm imprisoning Naida's waist, walked coolly in between them:
"Don't let's fight any more. The thing to do is to get Mrs. Bramton to give you enough for four to eat and bring it back here. Scott, please shake hands with Duane."
"I wasn't licked," muttered Scott.
"Neither was I," said Duane.
"Nobody was licked by anybody," announced Geraldine. "Do get something to eat, Scott; Naida and I are starving!"
After some hesitation the boys touched gloves respectfully, and Scott shook off his mitts, and started for the kitchen.
And there, to his horror and surprise, he was confronted by Mrs. Severn, black hat, crape veil, and gloves still on, evidently that instant arrived from those occult and, as the children supposed, distant bournes of Staten Island, where the supreme mystery of all had been at work.
"Oh, Scott!" she exclaimed tremulously, "what on earth has happened? What is all this that Mrs. Farren and Howker have been telling me?"
The boy stood petrified. Then there surged over him the memory of his brief happiness in these new companions—a happiness now to be snatched away ere scarcely tasted. Into the child's dirty, disfigured face came a hunted expression; he looked about for an avenue of escape, and Kathleen Severn caught him at the same instant and drew him to her.
"What is it, Scott? Tell me, darling!"
"Nothing.... Yes, there is something. I opened the front door and let a strange boy and girl in to play with us, and I've just been fighting with him, and we were having such good times—I—" his voice broke—"I can't bear to have them go—so soon——"
Kathleen looked at him for a moment, speechless with consternation. Then:
"Where are they, Scott?"
"In the—the hedge."
"Who are they?"
"Their names are Duane Mallett and Naida Mallett. We got them to run away from their nurse. Duane's such a bully fellow." A sob choked him.
"Come with me at once," said Kathleen.
Behind the rhododendrons smiling peace was extending its pinions; Duane had produced a pocketful of jack-stones, and the three children were now seated on the grass, Naida manipulating the jacks with soiled but deft fingers.
Duane was saying to Geraldine:
"It's funny that you didn't know you were rich. Everybody says so, and all the nurses in the Park talk about it every time you and Scott walk past."
"If I'm rich," said Geraldine, "why don't I have more money?"
"Don't they let you have as much as you want?"
"No—only twenty-five cents every month.... It's my turn, Naida! Oh, bother! I missed. Go on, Duane——"
And, glancing up, her tongue clove to the roof of her mouth as Kathleen Severn, in her mourning veil and gown, came straight up to where they sat.
"Geraldine, dear, the grass is too damp to sit on," said Mrs. Severn quietly. She turned to the youthful guests, who had hastily risen.
"You are Naida Mallett, it seems; and you are Duane? Please come in now and wash and dress properly, because I am going to telephone to your mother and ask her if you may remain to luncheon and play in the nursery afterward."
Dazed, the children silently followed her; one of her arms lay loosely about the shoulders of her own charges; one encircled Naida's neck. Duane walked cautiously beside his sister.
In the house the nurses took charge; Geraldine, turning on the stairs, looked back at Kathleen Severn.
"Are you really going to let them stay?"
"Yes, I am, darling."
"And—and may we play together all alone in the nursery?"
"I think so.... I think so, dear."
She ran back down the stairs and impetuously flung herself into Kathleen's arms; then danced away to join the others in the blessed regions above.
Mrs. Severn moved slowly to the telephone, and first called up and reassured Mrs. Mallett, who, however, knew nothing about the affair, as the nurse was still scouring the Park for her charges.
Then Mrs. Severn called up the Half Moon Trust Company and presently was put into communication with Colonel Mallett, the president. To him she told the entire story, and added:
"It was inevitable that the gossip of servants should enlighten the children sooner or later. The irony of it all is that this gossip filtered in here through your son, Duane. That is how the case stands, Colonel Mallett; and I have used my judgment and permitted the children this large liberty which they have long needed, believe me, long, long needed. I hope that your trust officer, Mr. Tappan, will approve."
"Good Lord!" said Colonel Mallett over the wire. "Tappan won't stand for it! You know that he won't, Mrs. Severn. I suppose, if he consults us, we can call a directors' meeting and consider this new phase of the case."
"You ought to; the time is already here when the children should no longer suffer such utter isolation. They must make acquaintances, they must have friends, they should go to parties like other children—they ought to be given outside schooling sooner or later. All of which questions must be taken up by your directors as soon as possible, because my children are fast getting out of hand—fast getting away from me; and before I know it I shall have a young man and a young girl to account for—and to account to, colonel——"
"I'll sift out the whole matter with Mr. Tappan; I'll speak to Mr. Grandcourt and Mr. Beekman to-night. Until you hear from us, no more visitors for the children. By the way, is that matter—the one we talked over last month—definitely settled?"
"Yes. I can't help being worried by the inclination she displays. It frightens me in such a child."
"Scott doesn't show it?"
"No. He hates anything like that."
"Do the servants thoroughly understand your orders?"
"I'm a little troubled. I have given orders that no more brandied peaches are to be made or kept in the house. The child was perfectly truthful about it. She admitted filling her cologne bottle with the syrup and sipping it after she was supposed to be asleep."
"Have you found out about the sherry she stole from the kitchen?"
"Yes. She told me that for weeks she had kept it hidden and soaked a lump of sugar in it every night.... She is absolutely truthful, colonel. I've tried to make her understand the danger."
"All right. Good-bye." Kathleen Severn hung up the receiver with a deep indrawn breath.
From the nursery above came a joyous clamour and trampling and shouting.
Suddenly she covered her face with her black-gloved hands.
The enfranchisement of the Seagrave twins proceeded too slowly to satisfy their increasing desire for personal liberty and their fast-growing impatience of restraint.
Occasionally, a few carefully selected and assorted children were permitted to visit them in relays, and play in the nursery for limited periods without the personal supervision of Kathleen or the nurses; but no serious innovation was attempted, no radical step taken without authority from old Remsen Tappan, the trust officer of the great Half Moon Trust Company.
There could be no arguing with Mr. Tappan.
Shortly before Anthony Seagrave died he had written to his old friend Tappan:
"If I live, I shall see to it that my grandchildren know nothing of the fortune awaiting them until they become of age—which will be after I am ended. Meanwhile, plain food and clothing, wholesome home seclusion from the promiscuity of modern child life, and an exhaustive education in every grace, fashion, and accomplishment of body and intellect is the training I propose for the development in them of the only thing in the world worth cultivating—unterrified individualism.
"The ignorance which characterises the conduct of modern institutes of education reduces us all to one mindless level, reproducing ad nauseam what is known as 'average citizens.' This nation is already crawling with them; art, religion, letters, government, business, human ideals remain embryonic because the 'average citizen' can conceive nothing higher, can comprehend nothing loftier even when the few who have escaped the deadly levelling grind of modern methods of education attempt to teach the masses to think for themselves.
"That is bad enough in itself—but add to cut-and-dried pedagogy the outrageous liberty which modern pupils are permitted in school and college, and add to that the unheard-of luxury in which they live—and the result is stupidity and utter ruin.
"My babies must have discipline, system, frugality, and leisure for individual development drilled into them. I do not wish them to be ignorant of one single modern grace and accomplishment; mind and body must be trained together like a pair of Morgan colts.
"But I will not have them victims of pedagogy; I will not have them masters of their time and money until they are of age; I will not permit them to choose companions or pursuits for their leisure until they are fitted to do so.
"If there is in them, latent, any propensity toward viciousness—any unawakened desire for that which has been my failing—hard work from dawn till dark is the antidote. An exhausted child is beyond temptation.
"If I pass forward, Tappan, before you—and it is likely because I am twenty years older and I have lived unwisely—I shall arrange matters in such shape that you can carry out something of what I have tried to begin, far better than I, old friend; for I am strong in theory and very weak in practice; they are such dear little things! And when they cry to be taken up—and a modern trained nurse says 'No! let them cry!' good God! Remsen, I sometimes sneak into their thoroughly modern and scientifically arranged nursery, which resembles an operating room in a brand-new hospital, and I take up my babies and rock them in my arms, terrified lest that modern and highly trained nurse discover my infraction of sanitary rule and precept.
"I don't know; babies were born, and survived cradles and mothers' arms and kisses long before sterilised milk and bacilli were invented.
"You see I am weak in more ways than one. But I do mean to give them every chance. It isn't that these old arms ache for them, that this rather tired heart weakens when they cry for God knows what, and modern science says let them cry!—it is that, deep in me, Tappan, a heathenish idea persists that what they need more than hygienics and scientific discipline is some of that old-fashioned love—love which rocks them when it is not good for them—love which overfeeds them sometimes so that they yell with old-fashioned colic—love which ventures a bacilli-laden kiss. Friend, friend—I am very unfit! It will be well for them when I move on. Only try to love them, Tappan. And if you ever doubt, kill them with indulgence, rather than with hygiene!"
He died of pneumonia a few weeks later. He had no chance. Remsen Tappan picked up the torch from the fallen hand and, blowing it into a brisk blaze, shuffled forward to light a path through life for the highly sterilised twins.
So the Half Moon Trust became father and mother to the Seagrave children; and Mr. Tappan as dry nurse prescribed the brand of intellectual pap for them and decided in what manner it should be administered.
Now home tuition and the "culture of the indiwidool" was a personal hobby of Mr. Tappan, and promiscuous schools his abomination. Had not his own son, Peter Stuyvesant Tappan, been reared upon unsteady legs to magnificent physical and intellectual manhood under this theory?
So there was to be no outside education for the youthful Seagraves; from the nursery schoolroom no chance of escape remained. As they grew older they became wild to go to school; stories of schoolrooms and playgrounds and studies and teachers and jolly fellowship and vacations, brought to them from outside by happier children, almost crazed them with the longing for it.
It was hard for them when their little friends the Malletts were sent abroad to school; Naida, now aged twelve, to a convent, and Duane, who was now fifteen, three years older than the Seagrave twins, accompanied his mother and a tutor, later to enter some school of art in Paris and develop whatever was in him. For like all parents, Duane's had been terribly excited over his infantile efforts at picture-making—one of the commonest and earliest developed of talents, but which never fails to amaze and delight less gifted parents and which continues to overstock the world with mediocre artists.
So it was arranged that Colonel Mallett should spend every summer abroad with his wife to watch the incubation of Duane's Titianesque genius and Naida's unbelievable talent for music; and when the children came to bid good-bye to the Seagrave twins, they seized each other with frantic embraces, vowing lifelong fidelity. Alas! it is those who depart who forget first; and at the end of a year, Geraldine's and Scott's letters remained unanswered.
At the age of thirteen, after an extraordinary meeting of the directors of the Half Moon Trust Company, it was formally decided that a series of special tutors should now be engaged to carry on to the bitter end the Tappan-Seagrave system of home culture; and the road to college was definitely closed.
"I want my views understood," said Mr. Tappan, addressing the board of solemn-visaged directors assembled in session to determine upon the fate of two motherless little children. "Indiwidoolism is nurtured in excloosion; the elimination of the extraneous is necessary for the dewelopment of indiwidoolism. I regard the human indiwidool as sacred. Like a pearl"—he pronounced it "poil"—"it can grow in beauty and symmetry and purity and polish only when nourished in seclusion. Indiwidoolism is a poil without price; and the natal mansion, gentlemen—if I may be permitted the simulcritude—is its oyster.
"My old friend, Anthony Seagrave, shared with me this unalterable conwiction. I remember in the autumn of 1859——"
The directors settled themselves in their wadded arm-chairs; several yawned; some folded their hands over their ample stomachs. The June atmosphere was pleasantly conducive to the sort of after-luncheon introspection which is easily soothed by monotones of the human voice.
And while Mr. Tappan droned on and on, some of the directors watched him with one eye half open, thinking of other things, and some listened, both eyes half closed, thinking of nothing at all.
Many considered Mr. Tappan a very terrible old man, though why terrible, unless the most rigid honesty and bigoted devotion to duty terrifies, nobody seemed to know.
Long Island Dutch—with all that it implies—was the dull stock he rooted in. Born a poor farmer's son, with a savage passion for learning, he almost destroyed his eyesight in lonely study under the flicker of tallow dips. All that had ever come to him of knowledge came in these solitary vigils. Miry and sweating from the plough he mastered the classics, law, chemistry, engineering; and finally emerging heavily from the reek of Long Island fertiliser, struck with a heavy surety at Fortune and brought her to her knees amidst a shower of gold. And all alone he gathered it in.
On Coenties Slip his warehouse still bore the legend: "R. Tappan: Iron." All that he had ever done he had done alone. He knew of no other way; believed in no other way.
Plain living, plainer clothing, tireless thinking undisturbed—that had been his childhood; and it had suited him.
Never but once had he made any concession to custom and nature, and that was only when, desiring an heir, he was obliged to enter into human partnership to realise the wish.
His son was what his father had made him under the iron cult of solitary development; and now, the father, loyal in his own way to the memory of his old friend Anthony Seagrave, meant to do his full duty toward the orphaned grandchildren.
So it came to pass that tutors and specialists replaced Kathleen in the schoolroom; and these ministered to the twin "poils," who were now fretting through their thirteenth year, mad with desire for boarding-school.
Four languages besides their own were adroitly stuffed into them; nor were letters, arts, and sciences neglected, nor the mundane and social patter, accomplishments, and refinements, including poise, pose, and deportment.
Specialists continued to guide them indoors and out; they rode every morning at eight with a specialist; they drove in the Park between four and five with the most noted of four-in-hand specialists; fencing, sparring, wrestling, swimming, gymnastics, were all supervised by specialists in those several very important and scientific arts; and specialists also taught them hygiene: how to walk, sit, breathe; how to masticate; how to relax after the manner of the domestic cat.
They had memory lessons; lessons in personal physiology, and in first aid to themselves.
Specialists cared for their teeth, their eyes, their hair, their skin, their hands and feet.
Everything that was taught them, done for them, indirectly educated them in the science of self-consideration and deepened an unavoidably natural belief in their own overwhelming importance. They had not been born so.
But in the house of Seagrave everything revolved around and centred in them; everything began for them and ended for them alone. They had no chance.
True, they were also instructed in theology and religion; they became well grounded in the elements of both,—laws, by-laws, theory, legends, proverbs, truisms, and even a few abstract truths. But there was no meaning in either to these little prisoners of self. Seclusion is an enemy to youth; solitude its destruction.
When the twins were fifteen they went to their first party. A week of superficial self-restraint and inward delirium was their preparation, a brief hour of passive bewilderment the realisation. Dazed by the sight and touch and clamor of the throng, they moved and spoke as in a vision. The presence of their own kind in such numbers confused them; overwhelmed, they found no voices to answer the call of happiness. Their capacity to respond was too limited.
As in a dream they were removed earlier than anybody else—taken away by a footman and a maid with decorous pomp and circumstance, carefully muffled in motor robes, and embedded in a limousine.
The daily papers, with that lofty purpose which always characterises them, recorded next morning the important fact that the famous Seagrave twins had appeared at their first party.
* * * * *
Between the ages of fifteen and sixteen the twins might have entered Harvard, for the entrance examinations were tried on both children, and both passed brilliantly.
For a year or two they found a substitute for happiness in pretending that they were really at college; they simulated, day by day, the life that they supposed was led there; they became devoted to their new game. Excited through tales told by tutor and friend, they developed a passionate loyalty for their college and class; they were solemnly elected to coveted societies, they witnessed Harvard victories, they strove fiercely for honours; their ideals were lofty, their courage clean and high.
So completely absorbed in the pretence did they become that their own tutors ventured to suggest to Mr. Tappan that such fiercely realistic mimicry deserved to be rewarded. Unfortunately, the children heard of this; but the Trust Officer's short answer killed their interest in playing at happiness, and their junior year began listlessly and continued without ambition. There was no heart in the pretence. Their interest had died. They studied mechanically because they were obliged to; they no longer cared.
That winter they went to a few more parties—not many. However, they were gingerly permitted to witness their first play, and later, the same year, were taken to "Lohengrin" at the opera.
During the play, which was a highly moral one, they sat watching, listening, wide-eyed as children.
At the opera Geraldine's impetuous soul soared straight up to paradise with the first heavenly strains, and remained there far above the rigid, breathless little body, bolt upright in its golden sarcophagus of the grand tier.
Her physical consciousness really seemed to have fled. Until the end she sat unaware of the throngs, of Scott and Kathleen whispering behind her, of several tall, broad-shouldered, shy young fellows who came into their box between the acts and tried to discuss anything at all with her, only to find her blind, deaf, and dumb.
These were the only memories of her first opera—confused, chaotic brilliancy, paradise revealed: and long, long afterward, the carriage flying up Fifth Avenue through darkness all gray with whirling snow.
* * * * *
Their eighteenth year dragged, beginning in physical and intellectual indifference, but promised stormily as they became more accustomed to glimpses of an outside world—a world teeming with restless young people in unbelievable quantities.
Scott had begun to develop two traits: laziness and a tendency to sullen, unspoken wrath. He took more liberty than was officially granted him—more than Geraldine dared take—and came into collision with Kathleen more often now. He boldly overstayed his leave in visiting his few boy friends for an afternoon; he returned home alone on foot after dusk, telling the chauffeur to go to the devil. Again and again he remained out to dinner without permission, and, finally, one afternoon quietly and stealthily cut his studies, slipped out of the house, and reappeared about dinner-time, excited, inclined to be boisterously defiant, admitting that he had borrowed enough money from a friend to go to a matinee with some other boys, and that he would do it again if he chose.
Also, to Kathleen's horror, he swore deliberately at table when Mr. Tappan's name was mentioned; and Geraldine looked up with startled brown eyes, divining in her brother something new—something that unconsciously they both had long, long waited for—the revolt of youth ere youth had been crushed for ever from the body which encased it.
"Damn him," repeated Scott, a little frightened at his own words and attitude; "I've had enough of this baby business; I'm eighteen and I want two things: some friends to go about with freely, and some money to do what other boys do. And you can tell Mr. Tappan, for all I care."
"What would you buy with money that is not already provided for, Scott?" asked Kathleen, gently ignoring his excited profanity.
"I don't know; there is no pleasure in using things which that fool of a Trust Company votes to let you have. Anyway, what I want is liberty and money."
"What would you do with what you call liberty, dear?"
"Do? I'd—I'd—well, I'd go shooting if I wanted to. I'd buy a gun and go off somewhere after ducks."
"But your father's old club on the Chesapeake is open to you. Shall I ask Mr. Tappan?"
"Oh, yes: I know," he sneered, "and Mr. Tappan would send some chump of a tutor there to teach me. I don't want to be taught how to hit ducks. I want to find out for myself. I don't care for that sort of thing," he repeated savagely; "I just ache to go off somewhere with a boy of my own age where there's no club and no preserve and no tutor; and where I can knock about and get whatever there is to get without anybody's help."
Geraldine said: "You have more liberty now than I have, Scott. What are you howling for?"
"The only real liberty I have I take! Anyway, you have enough for a girl of your age. And you'd better shut up."
"I won't shut up," she retorted irritably. "I want liberty as much as you do. If I had any, I'd go to every play and opera in New York. And I'd go about with my friends and I'd have gowns fitted, and I'd have tea at Sherry's, and I'd shop and go to matinees and to the Exchange, and I'd be elected a member of the Commonwealth Club and play basket-ball there, and swim, and lunch and—and then have another fitting——"
"Is that what you'd do with your liberty?" he sneered. "Well, I don't wonder old Tappan doesn't give you any money."
"I do need money and decent gowns. I'm sick of the frumpy prunes-and-prisms frocks that Kathleen makes me wear——"
Kathleen's troubled laugh interrupted her:
"Dearest, I do the best I can on the allowance made you by Mr. Tappan. His ideas on modern feminine apparel are perhaps not yours or mine."
"I should say not!" returned Geraldine angrily. "There isn't a girl of my age who dresses as horridly as I do. I tell you, Mr. Tappan has got to let me have money enough to dress decently. If he doesn't, I—I'll begin to give him as much trouble as Scott does—more, too!"
She set her teeth and stared at her glass of water.
"What about my coming-out gown?" she asked.
"I have written him about your debut," said Kathleen soothingly.
"Oh! What did the old beast say?"
"He writes," began Kathleen pleasantly, "that he considers eighteen an unsuitable age for a young girl to make her bow to New York society."
"Did he say that?" exclaimed Geraldine, furious. "Very well; I shall write to Colonel Mallett and tell him I simply will not endure it any longer. I've had enough education; I'm suffocated with it! Besides, I dislike it. I want a dinner-gown and a ball-gown and my hair waved and dressed on top of my head instead of bunched half way! I want to have an engagement pad—I want to have places to go to—people expecting me; I want silk stockings and pretty underclothes! Doesn't that old fool understand what a girl wants and needs?"
She half rose from her seat at the table, pushing away the fruit which a servant offered; and, laying her hands flat on the cloth, leaned forward, eyes flashing ominously.
"I'm getting tired of this," she said. "If it goes on, I'll probably run away."
"So will I," said Scott, "but I've good reasons. They haven't done anything to you. You're making a terrible row about nothing."
"Yes, they have! They've suppressed me, stifled me, bottled me up, tinkered at me, overgroomed me, dressed me ridiculously, and stuffed my mind. And I'm starved all the time! O Kathleen, I'm hungry! hungry! Can't you understand?
"They've made me into something I was not. I've never yet had a chance to be myself. Why couldn't they let me be it? I know—I know that when at last they set me free because they have to—I—I'll act like a fool; I'll not know what to do with my liberty—I'll not know how to use it—how to understand or be understood.... Tell Mr. Tappan that! Tell him that it is all silly and wrong! Tell him that a young girl never forgets when other girls laugh at her because she never had any money, and dresses like a frump, and wears her hair like a baby!... And if he doesn't listen to us, some day Scott and I will show him and the others how we feel about it! I can make as much trouble as Scott can; I'll do it, too——"
"Very well. I'm boiling inside when I think of—some things. The injustice of a lot of hateful, snuffy old men deciding on what sort of underclothes a young girl shall wear!... And I will make my debut! I will! I will!"
"Yes, I will! I'll write to them and complain of Mr. Tappan's stingy, unjust treatment of us both——"
"Let me do the writing, dear," said Kathleen quietly. And she rose from the table and left the dining-room, both arms around the necks of the Seagrave twins, drawing them close to her sides—closer when her sidelong glance caught the sullen bitterness on the darkening features of the boy, and when on the girl's fair face she saw the flushed, wide-eyed, questioning stare.
When the young, seeking reasons, gaze questioningly at nothing, it is well to divine and find the truthful answer, lest their other selves, evoked, stir in darkness, counselling folly.
The answer to such questions Kathleen knew; who should know better than she? But it was not for her to reply. All she could do was to summon out of the vasty deep the powers that ruled her wards and herself; and these, convoked in solemn assembly because of conflict with their Trust Officer, might decide in becoming gravity such questions as what shall be the proper quality and cost of a young girl's corsets; and whether or not real lace and silk are necessary for attire more intimate still.
* * * * *
During the next two years the steadily increasing friction between Remsen Tappan and his wards began seriously to disturb the directors of the Half Moon Trust. That worthy old line company viewed with uneasiness the revolutionary tendencies of the Seagrave twins as expressed in periodical and passionate letters to Colonel Mallett. The increasing frequency of these appeals for justice and for intervention fore-shadowed the desirability of a conference. Besides, there was a graver matter to consider, which implicated Scott.
When Kathleen wrote, suggesting a down-town conference to decide delicate questions concerning Geraldine's undergarments and Scott's new gun, Colonel Mallett found it more convenient to appoint the Seagrave house as rendezvous.
And so it came to pass one pleasant Saturday afternoon in late October that, in twos and threes, a number of solemn old gentlemen, faultlessly attired, entered the red drawing-room of the Seagrave house and seated themselves in an impressive semicircle upon the damask chairs.
They were Colonel Stuart Mallett, president of the institution, just returned from Paris with his entire family; Calvin McDermott, Joshua Hogg, Carl Gumble, Friedrich Gumble; the two vice-presidents, James Cray and Daniel Montross; Myndert Beekman, treasurer; Augustus Varick, secretary; the Hon. John D. Ellis; Magnelius Grandcourt 2d, and Remsen Tappan, Trust Officer.
If the pillars of the house of Seagrave had been founded upon millions, the damask and rosewood chairs in the red drawing-room now groaned under the weight of millions. Power, authority, respectability, and legitimate affluence sat there majestically enthroned in the mansion of the late Anthony Seagrave, awaiting in serious tribunal the appearance of the last of that old New York family.
Mrs. Severn came in first; the directors rose as one man, urbane, sprightly, and gallant. She was exceedingly pretty; they recognised it. They could afford to.
Compositely they were a smooth, soft-stepping, soft-voiced, company. An exception or two, like Mr. Tappan, merely accented the composite impression of rosy-cheeked, neatly shaven, carefully dressed prosperity. They all were cautious of voice, moderate of speech, chary of gesture. There was always an impressive pause before a director of the Half Moon Trust answered even the most harmless question addressed to him. Some among them made it a conservative rule to swallow nothing several times before speaking at all. It was a safe habit to acquire. Aut prudens aut nullus.
Geraldine's starched skirts rustled on the stairway. When she came into the room the directors of the Half Moon Trust were slightly astonished. During the youth of the twins, the wives of several gentlemen present had called at intervals to inspect the growth of Anthony Seagrave's grandchildren, particularly those worthy and acquisitive ladies who had children themselves. The far-sighted reap rewards. Some day these baby twins would be old enough to marry. It was prudent to remember such details. A position as an old family friend might one day prove of thrifty advantage in this miserably mercenary world where dog eats dog, and dividends are sometimes passed. God knows and pities the sorrows of the rich.
Geraldine, her slim hand in Colonel Mallett's, courtesied with old-time quaintness, then her lifted eyes swept the rosy, rotund countenances before her. To each she courtesied and spoke, offering the questioning hand of amity.
The thing that seemed to surprise them was that she had grown since they had seen her. Time flies when hunting safe investments. The manners she retained, like her fashion of wearing her hair, and the cut and length of her apparel were clearly too childish to suit the tall, slender, prettily rounded figure—the mature oval of the face, the delicately firm modelling of the features.
This was no child before them; here stood adorable adolescence, a hint of the awakening in the velvet-brown eyes which were long and slightly slanting at the corners; hints, too, in the vivid lips, in the finer outline of the profile, in faint bluish shadows under the eyes, edging the curved cheeks' bloom.
They had not seen her in two years or more, and she had grown up. They had merely stepped down-town for a hasty two years' glance at the market, and, behind their backs, the child had turned into a woman.
Hitherto they had addressed her as "Geraldine" and "child," when a rare interview had been considered necessary. Now, two years later, unconsciously, it was "Miss Seagrave," and considerable embarrassment when the subject of intimate attire could no longer be avoided.
But Geraldine, unconscious of such things, broached the question with all the directness characteristic of her.
"I am sorry I was rude in my last letter," she said gravely, turning to Mr. Tappan. "Will you please forgive me?... I am glad you came. I do not think you understand that I am no longer a little girl, and that things necessary for a woman are necessary for me. I want a quarterly allowance. I need what a young woman needs. Will you give these things to me, Mr. Tappan?"
Mr. Tappan's dry lips cracked apart; he swallowed grimly several times, then his long bony fingers sought the meagre ends of his black string tie:
"In the cultiwation of the indiwidool," he began harshly, and checked himself, when Geraldine flushed to her ear tips and stamped her foot. Self-control had gone at last.
"I won't listen to that!" she said, breathless; "I've listened to it for ten years—as long as I can remember. Answer me honestly, Mr. Tappan! Can I have what other women have—silk underwear and stockings—real lace on my night dresses—and plenty of it? Can I have suitable gowns and furs, and have my hair dressed properly? I want you to answer; can I make my debut this winter and have the gowns I require—and the liberty that girls of my age have?" She turned on Colonel Mallett: "The liberty that Naida has had is all I want; the sort of things you let her have all I ask for." And appealing to Magnelius Grandcourt, who stood pursing his thick lips, puffed out like a surprised pouter pigeon: "Your daughter Catherine has more than I ask; why do you let her have what you consider bad for me? Why?"
Mr. Grandcourt swallowed several times, and spoke in an undertone to Joshua Hogg. But he did not reply to Geraldine.
Remsen Tappan turned his iron visage toward Colonel Mallett—ignoring Geraldine's questions.
"In the cultiwation of the indiwidool," he began again dauntlessly——
"Isn't there anybody to answer me?" asked Geraldine, turning from one to another.
"Concerning the cultiwation——"
"Answer me!" she flashed back. There were tears in her voice, but her eyes blazed.
"Miss Seagrave," interposed old Mr. Montross gravely, "I beg of you to remember——"
"Let him answer me first! I asked him a perfectly plain question. It—it is silly to ignore me as though I were a foolish child—as though I didn't know my mind."
"I think, Mr. Tappan, perhaps if you could give Miss Seagrave a qualified answer to her questions—make some preliminary statement—" began Mr. Cray cautiously.
"Concerning what?" snapped Tappan with a grim stare.
"Concerning my stockings and my underwear," said Geraldine fiercely. "I'm tired of dressing like a servant!"
Mr. Tappan's rugged jaw opened and shut with another snap.
"I'm opposed to any such innowation," he said.
"And—my coming out this winter? And my quarterly allowance? Answer me!"
"Time enough when you turn twenty-one, Miss Seagrave. Cultiwation of mind concerns you now, not cultiwation of raiment."
"That—that—" stammered Geraldine, "is s-su-premely s-silly." The tears reached her eyes; she brushed them away angrily.
Mallett coughed and glanced at Myndert Beekman, then past the secretary, Mr. Varick, directly at Mr. Tappan.
"If you could see your way to—ah—accede to some—a number—perhaps, in a measure, to all of Miss Seagrave's not unreasonable requests, Mr. Tappan——"
He hesitated, looked dubiously at Mr. Montross, who nodded. Mr. Cray, also, made an almost imperceptible sign of concurrence. Magnelius Grandcourt, the sixty-year enfant terrible of the company, dreaded for his impulsive outbursts—though the effect of these outbursts was always very carefully considered before-hand—stepped jauntily across the floor, and lifting Geraldine's hand to his rather purplish lips, saluted it with a flourish.
"Oh, I say, Tappan, let Miss Seagrave have what she wants!" he exclaimed with a hearty disregard of caution, which outwardly disturbed but inwardly deceived nobody except Geraldine and Mrs. Severn.
Colonel Mallett thought: "The acquisitive beast is striking attitudes on his fool of a son's account."
Mr. Tappan's small iron-gray eyes bored two holes through the inward motives of Mr. Grandcourt, and his mouth tightened till the seamed lips were merely a line.
"I think, Magnelius," said Colonel Mallett coldly, "that it is, perhaps, the sense of our committee that the time has practically arrived for some change—perhaps radical change—in the—in the—ah—the hitherto exceedingly wise regulations——"
"May I have real lace?" cried Geraldine—"Oh, I beg your pardon, Colonel Mallett, for interrupting, but I was perfectly crazy to know what you were going to say."
Other people have been crazier and endured more to learn what hope the verdict of ponderous authority might hold for them.
Colonel Mallett, a trifle ruffled at the interruption, swallowed several times and then continued without haste to rid himself of a weighty opinion concerning the debut and the petticoats of the Half Moon's ward. He might have made the child happy in one word. It took him twenty minutes.
Concurring opinions were then solemnly delivered by every director in turn except Mr. Tappan, who spoke for half an hour, doggedly dissenting on every point.
But the days of the old regime were evidently numbered. He understood it. He looked across at the crackled portrait of his old friend Anthony Seagrave; the faded, painted features were obliterated in a bar of slanting sunlight.
So, concluding his dissenting opinion, and having done his duty, he sat down, drawing the skirts of his frock-coat close around his bony thighs. He had done his best; his reward was this child's hatred—which she already forgot in the confused delight of her sudden liberation.
Dazed with happiness, to one after another Geraldine courtesied and extended the narrow childlike hand of amity—even to him. Then, as though treading on invisible pink clouds, she floated out and away up-stairs, scarcely conscious of passing her brother on the stairway, who was now descending for his turn before the altar of authority.
* * * * *
When Scott returned he appeared to be unusually red in the face. Geraldine seized him ecstatically:
"Oh, Scott! I am to come out, after all—and I'm to have my quarterly, and gowns, and everything. I could have hugged Mr. Grandcourt—the dear! I was so frightened—frightened into rudeness—and then that beast of a Tappan scared me terribly. But it is all right now—and what did they promise you, poor dear?"
Scott's face still remained flushed as he stood, hands in his pockets, head slightly bent, tracing with the toe of his shoe the carpet pattern.
"You want to know what they promised me?" he asked, looking up at his sister with an unpleasant laugh. She poured a few drops of cologne onto a lump of sugar, placed it between her lips, and nodded:
"They did promise you something—didn't they?"
"Oh, certainly. They promised to make it hot for me if I ever again borrowed money on notes."
"Scott! did you do that?"
"Give my note? Certainly. I needed money—I've told old tabby Tappan so again and again. In a year I'll have all the money I need—so what's the harm if I borrow a little and promise to pay when I'm of age?"
Geraldine considered a moment: "It's curious," she reflected, "but do you know, Scott, I never thought of doing that. It never occurred to me to do it! Why didn't you tell me?"
"Because," said her brother with an embarrassed laugh, "it's not exactly a proper thing to do, I believe. Anyway, they raised a terrible row about it. Probably that's why they have at last given me a decent quarterly allowance; they think it's safer, I suppose—and they're right. The stingy old fossils."
The boyish boast, the veiled hint of revolt and reprisal vaguely disturbed Geraldine's sense of justice.
"After all," she said, "they have meant to be kind. They didn't know how, that's all. And, Scott, do let us try to be better now. I'm ashamed of my rudeness to them. And I'm going to be very, very good to Kathleen and not do one single thing to make her unhappy or even to bother Mr. Tappan.... And, oh, Scott! my silks and laces! my darling clothes! All is coming true! Do you hear? And, Scott! Naida and Duane are back and I'm dying to see them. Duane is twenty-three, think of it!"
She seized him and spun him around.
"If you don't hug me and tell me you're fond of me, I shall go mad. Tell me you're fond of me, Scott! You do love me, don't you?"
He kissed his sister with preoccupied toleration: "Whew!" he said, "your breath reeks of cologne!
"As for me," he added, half sullenly, "I'm going to have a few things I want, now.... And do a few things, too."
But what these things were he did not specify. Nor did Geraldine have time to speculate, so occupied was she now with preparations for the wonderful winter which was to come true at last—which was already beginning to come true with exciting visits to that magic country of brilliant show-windows which, like an enchanted city by itself, sparkles from Madison Square to the Plaza between Fourth Avenue and Broadway.
* * * * *
Into this sparkling metropolitan zone she hastened with Kathleen; all day long, week after week, she flitted from shop to shop, never satisfied, always eager to see, to explore. Yet two things Kathleen noticed: Geraldine seemed perfectly happy and contented to view the glitter of vanity fair without thought of acquiring its treasures for herself; and, when reminded that she was there to buy, she appeared to be utterly ignorant of the value of money, though a childhood without it was supposed to have taught her its rarity and preciousness.
The girl's personal tastes were expensive; she could linger in ecstasy all the morning over piles of wonderful furs without envy, without even thinking of them for herself; but when Kathleen mentioned the reason of their shopping, Geraldine always indicated sables as her choice, any single piece of which would have required half her yearly allowance to pay for.
And she was for ever wishing to present things to Kathleen; silks that were chosen, model gowns that they examined together, laces, velvets, jewels, always her first thought seemed to be that Kathleen should have what they both enjoyed looking at so ardently; and many a laughing contest they had as to whether her first quarterly allowance should be spent upon herself or her friends.
On the surface it would appear that unselfishness was the key to her character. That was impossible; she had lived too long alone. Yet Geraldine was clearly not acquisitive; though, when she did buy, her careless extravagance worried Kathleen. Spendthrift—in that she cared nothing for the money value of anything—her bright, piquant, eager face was a welcome sight to the thrifty metropolitan shopkeeper at Christmas-tide. A delicate madness for giving obsessed her; she bought a pair of guns for Scott, laces and silks for Kathleen, and for the servants everything she could think of. Nobody was forgotten, not even Mr. Tappan, who awoke Christmas morning to gaze grimly upon an antique jewelled fob all dangling with pencils and seals. In the first flush of independence it gave her more pleasure to give than to acquire.
Also, for the first time in her life, she superintended the distribution of her own charities, flying in the motor with Kathleen from church to mission, eager, curious, pitiful, appalled, by turns. Sentiment overwhelmed her; it was a new kind of pleasure.
* * * * *
One night she arose shivering from her warm bed, and with ink and paper sat figuring till nearly dawn how best to distribute what fortune she might one day possess, and live an exalted life on ten dollars a week.
Kathleen found her there asleep, head buried in the scattered papers, limbs icy to the knees; and there ensued an interim of bronchitis which threatened at one time to postpone her debut.
But the medical profession of Manhattan came to the rescue in battalions, and Geraldine was soon afoot, once more drifting ecstatically among the splendours of the shops, thrilling with the nearness of the day that should set her free among unnumbered hosts of unknown friends.
Who would these unknown people turn out to be? What hearts were at that very moment destined to respond in friendship to her own?
Often lying awake, nibbling her scented lump of sugar, the darkness reddening, at intervals, as embers of her bedroom fire dropped glowing to the hearth, she pictured to herself this vast, brilliant throng awaiting to welcome her as one of them. And her imagination catching fire, through closed lids she seemed to see heavenly vistas of youthful faces—a thousand arms outstretched in welcome; and she, advancing, eyes dim with happiness, giving herself to this world of youth and friendship—crossing the threshold—leaving for ever behind her the past with its loneliness and isolation.
It was of friendships she dreamed, and the blessed nearness of others, and the liberty to seek them. She promised herself she would never, never again permit herself to be alone. She had no definite plans, except that. Life henceforth must be filled with the bright shapes of comrades. Life must be only pleasure. Never again must sadness come near her. A miraculous capacity for happiness seemed to fill her breast, expanding with the fierce desire for it, until under the closed lids tears stole out, and there, in the darkness, she held out her bare arms to the world—the kind, good, generous, warm-hearted world, which was waiting, just beyond her threshold, to welcome her and love her and companion her for ever.
She awoke tired; she had scarcely closed her eyes that night. The fresh odour of roses filled her room when her maid arrived with morning gifts from Kathleen and Scott.
She lay abed until noon. They started dressing her about three. After that the day became unreal to her.
* * * * *
Manhattan was conventionally affable to Geraldine Seagrave, also somewhat curious to see what she looked like. Fifth Avenue and the neighbouring side streets were jammed with motors and carriages on the bright January afternoon that Geraldine made her bow, and the red and silver drawing-rooms, so famous a generation ago, were packed continually.
What people saw was a big, clumsy house expensively overdecorated in the appalling taste of forty years ago, now screened by forests of palms and vast banks of flowers; and they saw a number of people popularly identified with the sort of society which newspapers delight to revere; and a few people of real distinction; and a young girl, noticeably pale, standing beside Kathleen Severn and receiving the patronage of dowagers and beaux, and the impulsive clasp of fellowship from fresh-faced young girls and nice-looking, well-mannered young fellows.
The general opinion seemed to be that Geraldine Seagrave possessed all the beauty which rumour had attributed to her as her right by inheritance, but the animation of her clever mother was lacking. Also, some said that her manners still smacked of the nursery; and that, unless it had been temporarily frightened out of her, she had little personality and less charm.
Nothing, as a matter of fact, had been frightened out of her; for weeks she had lived in imagination so vividly through that day that when the day really arrived it found her physically and mentally unresponsive; the endless reiteration of names sounded meaninglessly in her ears, the crowding faces blurred. She was passively satisfied to be there, and content with the touch of hands and the pleasant-voiced formalities of people pressing toward her from every side.
* * * * *
Afterward few impressions remained; she remembered the roses' perfume, and a very fat woman with a confusing similarity of contour fore and aft who blocked the lines and rattled on like a machine-gun saying dreadfully frank things about herself, her family, and everybody she mentioned.
Naida Mallett, whom she had not seen in many years, she had known immediately, and now remembered. And Naida had taken her white-gloved hand shyly, whispering constrained formalities, then had disappeared into the unreality of it all.
Duane, her old playmate, may have been there, but she could not remember having seen him. There were so many, many youths of the New York sort, all dressed alike, all resembling one another—many, many people flowing past her where she stood submerged in the silken ebb eddying around her.
* * * * *
These were the few hazy impressions remaining—she was recalling them now while dressing for her first dinner dance. Later, when her maid released her with a grunt of Gallic disapproval, she, distraite, glanced at her gown in the mirror, still striving to recall something definite of the day before.
"Was Duane there?" she asked Kathleen, who had just entered.
"No, dear.... Why did you happen to think of Duane Mallett?"
"Naida came.... Duane was such a splendid little boy.... I had hoped——"
Mrs. Severn said coolly:
"Duane isn't a very splendid man. I might as well tell you now as later."
"What in the world do you mean, Kathleen?"
"I mean that people say he was rather horrid abroad. Some women don't mind that sort of thing, but I do."
"He went about Europe with unpleasant people. He had too much money—and that is ruinous for a boy. I hate to disillusion you, but for several years people have been gossipping about Duane Mallett's exploits abroad; and they are not savoury."
"What were they? I am old enough to know."
"I don't propose to tell you. He was notoriously wild. There were scandals. Hush! here comes Scott."
"For Heaven's sake, pinch some colour into your cheeks!" exclaimed her brother; "we're not going to a wake!"
And Kathleen said anxiously: "Your gown is perfection, dear; are you a trifle tired? You do look pale."
"Tired?" repeated Geraldine—"not in the least, dearest.... If I seem not to be excited, I really am, internally; but perhaps I haven't learned how to show it.... Don't I look well? I was so preoccupied with my gown in the mirror that I forgot to examine my face."
Mrs. Severn kissed her. "You and your gown are charming. Come, we are late, and that isn't permitted to debutantes."
* * * * *
It was Mrs. Magnelius Grandcourt who was giving the first dinner and dance for Geraldine Seagrave. In the cloak-room she encountered some very animated women of the younger married set, who spoke to her amiably, particularly a Mrs. Dysart, who said she knew Duane Mallett, and who was so friendly that a bit of colour warmed Geraldine's pallid cheeks and still remained there when, a few minutes later, she saluted her heavily jewelled hostess and recognised in her the fat fore-and-aft lady of the day before.
Mrs. Magnelius Grandcourt, glittering like a South American scarab, detained her with the smallest and chubbiest hands she had ever seen inside of gloves.
"My dear, you look ghastly," said her hostess. "You're probably scared to death. This is my son, Delancy, who is going to take you in, and I'm wondering about you, because Delancy doesn't get on with debutantes, but that can't be helped. If he's pig enough not to talk to you, it wouldn't surprise me—and it's just as well, too, for if he likes anybody he compromises them, but it's no use your ever liking a Grandcourt, for all the men make rotten husbands—I'm glad Rosalie Dysart threw him over for poor Jack Dysart; it saved her a divorce! I'd get one if I could; so would Magnelius. My husband was a judge once, but he resigned because he couldn't send people up for the things he was doing himself."
Mrs. Grandcourt, still gabbling away, turned to greet new arrivals, merely switching to another subject without interrupting her steady stream of outrageous talk. She was celebrated for it—and for nothing else.
Geraldine, bewildered and a little horrified, looked at her billowy, bediamonded hostess, then at young Delancy Grandcourt, who, not perceptibly abashed by his mother's left-handed compliments, lounged beside her, apparently on the verge of a yawn.
"My mother says things," he explained patiently; "nobody minds 'em.... Shall we exchange nonsense—or would you rather save yourself until dinner?"
"Save myself what?" she asked nervously.
"The nuisance of talking to me about nothing. I'm not clever."
"I don't usually talk about nothing."
"I do," he said. "I never have much to say."
"Is that because you don't like debutantes?" she asked coldly.
"It's because they don't care about me.... If you would talk to me, I'd really be grateful."
He flushed and stepped back awkwardly to allow room for a slim, handsome man to pass between them. The very ornamental man did not pass, however, but calmly turned toward Geraldine, and began to talk to her.
She presently discovered his name to be Dysart; and she also discovered that Mr. Dysart didn't know her name; and, for a moment after she had told him, surprise and a confused sense of resentment silenced her, because she was quite certain now that they had never been properly presented.
That negligence of conventions was not unusual in this new world she was entering, she had already noticed; and this incident was evidently another example of custom smilingly ignored. She looked up questioningly, and Dysart, instantly divining the trouble, laughed in his easy, attractive fashion—the fashion he usually affected with women.
"You seemed so fresh and cool and sweet all alone in this hot corner that I simply couldn't help coming over to hear whether your voice matched the ensemble. And it surpasses it. Are you going to be resentful?"
"I'm too ignorant to be—or to laugh about it as you do.... Is it because I look a simpleton that you come to see if I really am?"
"Are you planning to punish me, Miss Seagrave?"
"I'm afraid I don't know how."
"Fate will, anyway, unless I am placed next you at dinner," he said with his most reassuring smile, and rose gracefully.
"I'm going to fix it," he added, and, pushing his way toward his hostess, disappeared in the crush.
Later young Grandcourt reappeared from the crush to take her in. Every table seated eight, and, sure enough, as she turned involuntarily to glance at her neighbour on the right, it was Dysart's pale face, cleanly cut as a cameo, that met her gaze. He nodded back to her with unfeigned satisfaction at his own success.
"That's the way to manage," he said, "when you want a thing very much. Isn't it, Miss Seagrave?"
"You did not ask me whether I wanted it," she said.
"Don't you want me here? If you don't—" His features fell and he made a pretence of rising. His pale, beautifully sculptured face had become so fearfully serious that she coloured up quickly.
"Oh, you wouldn't do such a thing—now! to embarrass me."
"Yes, I would—I'd do anything desperate."
But she had already caught the flash of mischief, and realising that he had been taking more or less for granted in tormenting her, looked down at her plate and presently tasted what was on it.
"I know you are not offended," he murmured. "Are you?"
She knew she was not, too; but she merely shrugged. "Then why do you ask me, Mr. Dysart?"
"Because you have such pretty shoulders," he replied seriously.
"What an idiotic reply to make!"
"Why? Don't you think you have?"
"I don't think anything about my shoulders!"
"You would if there was anything the matter with them," he insisted.
Once or twice he turned his handsome dark gaze on her while she was dissecting her terrapin.
"They tip up a little—at the corners, don't they?" he inquired anxiously. "Does it hurt?"
"Tip up? What tips up?" she demanded.
She swung around toward him, confused and exasperated; but no seriousness was proof against the delighted malice in Dysart's face; and she laughed a little, and laughed again when he did. And she thought that he was, perhaps, the handsomest man she had ever seen. All debutantes did.
Young Grandcourt turned from the pretty, over-painted woman who, until that moment, had apparently held him interested when his food failed to monopolise his attention, and glanced heavily around at Geraldine.
All he saw was the back of her head and shoulders. Evidently she was not missing him. Evidently, too, she was having a very good time with Dysart.
"What are you laughing about?" he asked wistfully, leaning forward to see her face.
Geraldine glanced back across her shoulder.
"Mr. Dysart is trying to be impertinent," she replied carelessly; and returned again to the impertinent one, quite ready for more torment now that she began to understand how agreeable it was.
But Dysart's expression had changed; there was something vaguely caressing in voice and manner as he murmured:
"Do you know there is something almost divine in your face."
"What did you say?" asked Geraldine, looking up from her ice in its nest of spun sugar.
"You so strenuously reject the truthful compliments I pay you, that perhaps I'd better not repeat this one."
"Was it really more absurd flattery?"
"No, never mind...." He leaned back in his chair, absently turning the curious, heavily chiselled ring on his little finger, but every few moments his expressive eyes reverted to her. She was eating her ice with all the frank enjoyment of a schoolgirl.
"Do you know, Miss Seagrave, that you and I are really equipped for better things than talking nonsense."
"I know that I am," she observed.... "Isn't this spun sugar delicious!"
"Yes; and so are you."
But she pretended not to hear.
He laughed, then fell silent; his dreamy gaze shifted from vacancy to her—and, casually, across the room, where it settled lightly as a butterfly on his wife, and there it poised for a moment's inexpressive examination. Scott Seagrave was talking to Rosalie; she did not notice her husband.
After that, with easy nonchalance approaching impudence, he turned to his own neglected dinner partner, Sylvia Quest, who received his tardy attentions with childish irritation. She didn't know any better. And there was now no time to patch up matters, for the signal to rise had been given and Dysart took Sylvia to the door with genuine relief. She bored him dreadfully since she had become sentimental over him. They always did.
Lounging back through the rising haze of tobacco-smoke he encountered Peter Tappan and stopped to exchange a word.
"Dancing?" he inquired, lighting his cigarette.
Tappan nodded. "You, too, of course." For Dysart was one of those types known in society as a "dancing man." He also led cotillions, and a morally blameless life as far as the more virile Commandments were concerned.
He said: "That little Seagrave girl is rather fetching."
Tappan answered indifferently:
"She resembles the general run of this year's output. She's weedy. They all ought to marry before they go about to dinners, anyway."
"Anybody—Delancy, here, for instance. You know as well as I do that no woman is possible unless she's married," yawned Tappan. "Isn't that so, Delancy?" clapping Grandcourt on the shoulder.
Grandcourt said "yes," to be rid of him; but Dysart turned around with his usual smile of amused contempt.
"You think so, too, Delancy," he said, "because what is obvious and ready-made appeals to you. You think as you eat—heavily—and you miss a few things. That little Seagrave girl is charming. But you'd never discover it."
Grandcourt slowly removed the fat cigar from his lips, rolled it meditatively between thick forefinger and thumb:
"Do you know, Jack, that you've been saying that sort of thing to me for a number of years?"
"Yes; and it's just as true now as it ever was, old fellow."
"That may be; but did it ever occur to you that I might get tired hearing it.... And might, possibly, resent it some day?"
For a long time Dysart had been uncomfortably conscious that Grandcourt had had nearly enough of his half-sneering, half-humourous frankness. His liking for Grandcourt, even as a schoolboy, had invariably been tinged with tolerance and good-humoured contempt. Dysart had always led in everything; taken what he chose without considering Grandcourt—sometimes out of sheer perversity, he had taken what Grandcourt wanted—not really wanting it himself—as in the case of Rosalie Dene.
"What are you talking about resenting?—my monopolising your dinner partner?" asked Dysart, smiling. "Take her; amuse yourself. I don't want her."
Grandcourt inspected his cigar again. "I'm tired of that sort of thing, too," he said.
"What sort of thing?"
"Contenting myself with what you don't want."
Dysart lit a cigarette, still smiling, then shrugged and turned as though to go. Around them through the smoke rose the laughing clamour of young men gathering at the exit.
"I want to tell you something," said Grandcourt heavily. "I'm an ass to do it, but I want to tell you."
Dysart halted patiently.
"It's this," went on Grandcourt: "between you and my mother, I've never had a chance; she makes me out a fool and you have always assumed it to be true."
Dysart glanced at him with amused contempt.
A heavy flush rose to Grandcourt's cheek-bones. He said slowly:
"I want my chance. You had better let me have it when it comes."
"What chance do you mean?"
"I mean—a woman. All my life you've been at my elbow to step in. You took what you wanted—your shadow always falls between me and anybody I'm inclined to like.... It happened to-night—as usual.... And I tell you now, at last, I'm tired of it."