THE INNOCENT ADVENTURESS
BY MARY HASTINGS BRADLEY
AUTHOR OF "THE FORTIETH DOOR," "THE PALACE OF DARKENED WINDOWS," "THE WINE OF ASTONISHMENT," "THE SPLENDID CHANCE," ETC.
D. APPLETON AND COMPANY NEW YORK LONDON 1921
COPYRIGHT, 1921, BY D. APPLETON AND COMPANY
Copyright, 1920, by The McCall Co., Inc. PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
TO MY SISTER
SYLVIA CORWIN FRANCISCO
CHAPTER PAGE I. THE EAVESDROPPER 7 II. UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY 21 III. LUNCHEON AT THE LODGE 47 IV. RI-RI SINGS AGAIN 67 V. BETWEEN DANCES 88 VI. TWO—AND A MOUNTAIN 106 VII. JOHNNY BECOMES INEVITABLE 127 VIII. JOHNNY BECOMES EXPLICIT 143 IX. MRS. BLAIR REGRETS 157 X. FANTASY 173 XI. MORNING LIGHT 204 XII. JOURNEY'S END 235
THE INNOCENT ADVENTURESS
Maria Angelina was eavesdropping. Not upon her sister Lucia and Paolo Tosti whom she had been assigned to chaperon by reading a book to herself in the adjoining room—no, they were safely busy with piano and violin, and she was heartily bored, anyway, with their inanities. Voices from another direction had pricked her to alertness.
Maria Angelina was in the corner room of the Palazzo Santonini, a dim and beautiful old library with faded furnishings whose west arch of doorway looked into the pretentious reception room where the fiances were amusing themselves with their music and their whisperings. It was quite advanced, this allowing them to be so alone, but the Contessa Santonini was an American and, moreover, the wedding was not far off.
One can be indulgent when the settlements are signed.
So only Maria Angelina and her book were stationed for propriety, and, wanting another book, she had gone to the shelves and through the north door, ajar, caught the words that held her intent.
"Three of them!" a masculine voice uttered explosively, and Maria knew that Papa was speaking of his three daughters, Lucia, Julietta and Maria Angelina—and she knew, too, that Papa had just come from the last interview with the Tostis' lawyers.
The Tostis had been stiff in their demands and Papa had been more complaisant than he should have been. Altogether that marriage was costing him dear.
He had been figuring now with Mamma for a pencil went clattering to the floor.
"And something especial," he proclaimed bitterly, "will have to be done for Julietta!"
At that the eavesdropper could smile, a faint little smile of shy pride and self-reliance.
Nothing especial would have to be done for her! A decent dowry, of course, as befitting a daughter of the house, but she would need no more, for Maria was eighteen, as white as a lily and as slender as an aspen, with big, dark eyes like strange pools of night in her child's face.
Whereas poor Julietta——!
"Madre Dio!" said Papa indignantly. "For what did we name her Julietta? And born in Verona! A pretty sentiment indeed. But it was of no inspiration to her—none!"
Mamma did not laugh although Papa's sudden chuckle after his explosion was most irresistible.
"But if Fate went by names," he continued, "then would Maria Angelina be for the life of religion." And he chuckled again.
Still Mamma did not laugh. Her pencil was scratching.
"It's a pity," murmured Papa, "that you did not embrace the faith, my dear, for then we might arrange this matter. They used to manage these things in the old days."
"Send Julietta into a convent?" cried Mamma in a voice of sudden energy.
Maria could not see but she knew that the Count shrugged.
"She appears built to coif Saint Catherine," he murmured.
"Julietta is a dear girl," said the Contessa in a warm voice.
"When one knows her excellencies."
"She will do very well—with enough dowry."
"Enough dowry—that is it! It will take all that is left for the two of them to push Julietta into a husband's arms!"
When the Count was annoyed he dealt directly with facts—a proceeding he preferred to avoid at other moments.
Behind her curtains Maria drew a troubled breath. She, too, felt the family responsibility for Julietta—dear Julietta, with her dumpy figure and ugly face. Julietta was nineteen and now that Lucia was betrothed it was Julietta's turn.
If only it could be known that Julietta had a pretty dot!
Maria stood motionless behind the curtains, her winged imagination rushing to meet Julietta's future, fronting the indifference, the neglect, the ridicule before which Julietta's sensitive, shamed spirit would suffer and bleed. She could see her partnerless at balls, lugged heavily about to teas and dinners, shrinking eagerly and hopelessly back into the refuge of the paternal home. . . . Yet Julietta had once whispered to her that she wanted to die if she could never marry and have an armful of bambinos!
Maria Angelina's young heart contracted with sharp anxiety. Things were in a bad way with her family indeed. There had always been difficulties, for Papa was extravagant and ever since brother Francisco had been in the army, he, too, had his debts, but Mamma had always managed so wonderfully! But the war had made things very difficult, and now peace had made them more difficult still. There had been one awful time when it had looked as if the carriages and horses would have to go and they would be reduced to sharing a barouche with some one else in secret, proud distress—like the Manzios and the Benedettos who took their airings alternately, each with a different crested door upon the identical vehicle—but Mamma had overcome that crisis and the social rite of the daily drive upon the Pincian had been sacredly preserved. But apparently these settlements were too much, even for Mamma.
Then her name upon her mother's lips brought the eavesdropper to swift attention.
It appeared that the Contessa had a plan.
Maria Angelina could go to visit Mamma's cousins in America. They were rich—that is understood of Americans; even Mamma had once been rich when she was a girl, Maria dimly remembered having heard—and they would give Maria a chance to meet people. . . . Men did not ask settlements in America. They earned great sums and could please themselves with a pretty, penniless face. . . . And what was saved on Maria's dowry would plump out Julietta's.
Thunderstruck, the Count objected. Maria was his favorite.
"Send Julietta to America, then," he protested, but swallowed that foolishness at Mamma's calm, "To what good?"
To what good, indeed! It would never do to risk the cost of a trip to America upon Julietta.
Sulkily Papa argued that the cost in any case was prohibitive. But Mamma had the figures.
"One must invest to receive," she insisted; and when he grumbled, "But to lose the child?" she broke out, "Am I not losing her?" on a note that silenced him.
Then she added cheerfully, "But it will be for her own good."
"You want her to marry an American? You are not satisfied, then, with Italians?" said Papa playfully leaning over to ruffle Mamma's soft, light hair and at his movement Maria Angelina fled swiftly from those curtains back to her post, and sat very still, a book in front of her, a haze of romance swimming between it and her startled eyes.
America. . . . A rich husband. . . . Travel. . . . Adventure. . . . The unknown. . . .
It was wonderful. It was unbelievable. . . . It was desperate.
It was a hazard of the sharpest chance.
That knowledge brought a chill of gravity into the hot currents of her beating heart—a chill that was the cold breath of a terrific responsibility. She felt herself the hope, the sole resource of her family. She was the die on which their throw of fortune was to be cast.
Dropping her book she slid down from her chair and crossed to a long mirror in an old carved frame where a dove was struggling in a falcon's talons while Cupids drew vain bows, and in the dimmed glass stared in passionate searching.
She was so childish, so slight looking. She was white—that was the skin from Mamma—and now she wondered if it were truly a charm. Certainly Lucia preferred her own olive tints.
And her eyes were so big and dark, like caverns in her face, and her lips were mere scarlet threads. The beauties she had seen were warm-colored, high-bosomed, full-lipped.
Her distrust extended even to her coronet of black braids.
Her uncertain youth had no vision of the purity and pride of that braid-bound head, of the brilliance of the dark eyes against the satin skin, of the troubling glamour of the red little mouth. In the clear definition of the delicate features, the arch of the high eyebrows, the sweep of the shadowy lashes, her childish hope had never dreamed of more than mere prettiness and now she was torturingly questioning that.
"Practicing your smiles, my dear?" said a voice from the threshold, Lucia's voice with the mockery of the successful, and Maria Angelina turned from her dim glass with a flame of scarlet across her pallor, and joined, with an angry heart, in the laugh which her sister and young Tosti raised against her.
But Maria Angelina had a tongue.
"But yes—for the better fish are yet uncaught," she retorted with a flash of the eyes toward the young man, and Paolo, all ardor as he was for Lucia's olive and rose, shot a glance of tickled humor at her impudence.
He promised himself some merry passes with the little sister-in-law.
Lucia resented the glances.
"Wait your turn, little one," she scoffed. "You will be in pinafores until our poor Julietta is wed," and she laughed, unkindly.
There were times, Maria felt furiously, when she hated Lucia.
Her championing heart resolved that Julietta should not be left unwed and defenseless to that mockery. Julietta should have her chance at life!
Not a word of the great plan was breathed officially to the girl, although the mother's expectancy for mail revealed that a letter had already been sent, until that expectancy was rewarded by a letter with the American postmark. Then the drama of revelation was exquisitely enacted.
It appeared that the Blairs of New York, Mamma's dear cousins, were insistent that one of Mamma's daughters should know Mamma's country and Mamma's relatives. They had a daughter about Maria Angelina's age so Maria Angelina had been selected for the visit. The girls would have a delightful time together. . . . Maria would start in June.
Vaguely Maria Angelina recalled the Blairs as she had seen them some six years ago in Rome—a kindly Cousin Jim who had given her sweets and laughed bewilderingly at her and a Cousin Jane with beautiful blonde hair and cool white gowns. Their daughter, Ruth, had not been with them, so Maria had no acquaintance at all with her, but only the recollection of occasional postcards to keep the name in memory.
She remembered once that there had been talk of this Cousin Ruth's coming to school for a winter in Rome and that Mamma had bestirred herself to discover the correct schools, but nothing had ever come of it. The war had intervened.
And now she was to visit them. . . .
"You are going to America just as I went to Italy at your age," cried Mamma. "And—who knows?—you too, may meet your fate on the trip!"
Mamma would overdo it, thought Maria Angelina nervously, her eyes downcast for fear her mother would read their discomfort and her knowledge of the pitiful duplicity, and her cheeks a quick shamed scarlet.
"She will have to—to repair the expense," flashed Lucia with a shrill laugh. "Such expenditure, when you have just been preaching economy on my trousseau!"
"One must economize on the trousseau when the bridegroom has cost the fortune," Maria found her wicked little tongue to say and Lucia turned sallow beneath her olive.
Briskly Mamma intervened. "We are thinking not of one of you but all. Now no more words, my little ones. There is too much to be done."
There was indeed, with this trip to be arranged for before the onrush of Lucia's preparation! Once committed to the great adventure it quickly took on the outer aspects of reality. There were clothes to be made and clothes to be bought, there were discussions, decisions, debates and conjectures and consultations. A thousand preparations to be pushed in haste, and at once the big bedroom of Mamma blossomed with delicate fabrics, with bright ribbons and frilly laces, and amid the blossoming, the whir of the machine and the feet and hands of the two-lire-a-day seamstress went like mad clockwork, while in and out Mamma's friends came hurrying, at the rumor, to hint of congratulation or suggest a style, an advice.
The contagion of excitement seized everyone, so that even Lucia was inspired to lend her clever fingers from her own preparations for September.
"But not to be back by then! Not here for my wedding—that would be too odd!" she complained with the persistent ill-will she had shown the expedition.
Shrewd enough to divine its purpose and practical enough to perceive the necessity for it, the older girl cherished her instinctive objection to any pleasure that did not include her in its scope or that threatened to overcast her own festivities.
"That will depend," returned Mamma sedately, "upon the circumstance. Our cousins may not easily find a suitable chaperon for your sister's return. And they may have plans for her entertainment. We must leave that to them."
A little panic-stricken, Maria Angelina perceived that she was being left to them—until otherwise disposed of!
So fast had preparations whirled them on, that parting was upon the girl before she divined the coming pain of it. Then in the last hours her heart was wrung.
She stared at the dear familiar rooms, the streets and the houses with a look of one already lost to her world, and her eyes clung to the figures of her family as if to relinquish the sight of them would dissolve them from existence.
They were tragic, those following, imploring eyes, but they were not wet. Maria understood it was too late to weep. It was necessary to go. The magnitude of the sums already invested in her affair staggered her. They were so many pledges, those sums!
But America was so desolately far.
She could not sleep, that last night. She lay in the big four-poster where once heavy draperies had shut in the slumbers of dead and gone Contessas, and she watched the square of moonlight travel over the painted cherubs on the ceiling. There was always a lump in her throat to be swallowed, and often the tears soaked into the big feather pillows, but there were no sobs to rouse the household.
Julietta, beside her, slept very comfortably.
But the most terrible moment of all was that last look of Mamma and that last clasp of her hands upon the deck of the steamer.
"You must tell me everything, little one," the Contessa Santonini kept saying hurriedly. She was constrained and repetitious in the grip of her emotion, as they stood together, just out of earshot of the Italian consul's wife who was chaperoning the young girl upon her voyage.
"Write me all about the people you meet and what they say to you, and what you do. Remember that I am still Mamma if I am across the ocean and I shall be waiting to hear. . . . And remember that but few of your ideas of America may be true. Americans are not all the types you have read of or the tourists you have met. You must expect a great difference. . . . I should be strange, myself, now in America."
Maria's quick sensitiveness divined a note of secret yearning.
"Yes, Mamma," she said obediently, tightening her clasp upon her mother's hands.
"You must be on guard against mistakes, Maria Angelina," said the other insistently—as if she had not said that a dozen times before! "Because American girls do things it may be not be wise for you to do. You will be of interest because you are different. Be very careful, my little one."
"Yes, Mamma," said the girl again.
"As to your money—you understand it must last. There can be little to pay when you are a guest. But send to Papa and me your accounts as I have told you."
"You will not let the American freedom turn your head. You will be wise—Oh, I trust you, Maria Angelina, to be very wise!"
How wise Maria Angelina thought herself! She lifted a face that shone with confidence and understanding and for all her quivering lips she smiled.
"My baby!" said the mother suddenly in English and took that face between her hands and kissed it.
"You will be careful," she began again abruptly, and then stopped.
Too late for more cautions. And the child was so sage.
But it was such a little figure that stood there, such young eyes that smiled so confidently into hers. . . . And America was a long, long way off.
The bugles were blowing for visitors to be away. Just one more hurried kiss and hasty clasp.
An overwhelming fright seized upon the girl as the mother went down the ship's ladder into the small boat that put out so quickly for the shore.
Suppose she should fail them! After all she was not so wise—and not so very pretty. And she had no experience—none!
The sun, dancing on the bright waves, hurt Maria Angelina's eyes. She had to shut them, they watered so foolishly. And something in her young breast wanted to cry after that boat, "Take me back—take me back to my home," but something else in her forbade and would have died of shame before it uttered such weakness.
For poor Julietta, for dear anxious Mamma, she knew herself the only hope.
So steadily she waved her handkerchief long after she had lost the responding flutter from the boat.
She was not crying now. She felt exalted. She pressed closer to the rail and stared out very solemnly over the blue and gold bay to beautiful Naples. . . . Suddenly her heart quickened. Vesuvius was moving. The far-off shores of Italy were slipping by. Above her the black smoke that had been coming faster and faster from the great funnels streamed backward like long banners.
Maria Angelina was on her way.
With whatever emotion Jane Blair had received the startling demand upon her hospitality she rallied nobly to the family call. She left her daughter in the Adirondacks where they were summering and descended upon her husband in his New York office to rout him out to meet the girl with her.
"An infernal shame—that's what I call it!" Jim Blair grumbled, facing the steaming heat of the unholy customs shed. "It's an outrage—an imposition——"
"Oh, not all that, Jim! Lucy—that's the mother—and I used to visit like this when we were girls. It was done then," his wife replied with an air of equable amusement.
She added, "I rather think I did most of the visiting. I was awf'ly fond of Lucy."
"That's different. You'll have a total stranger on your hands. . . . Are you sure she speaks English?"
"Oh, dear yes, she speaks English—don't you remember her in Rome? She was the littlest one. All the children speak English, Lucy wrote, except Francisco who is 'very Italian,' which means he is a fascinating spendthrift like the father, I suppose. . . . I imagine," said Mrs. Blair, "that Lucy has not found life in a palace all a bed of roses."
"I remember the palace. . . . Warming pans!" said Mr. Blair grimly.
His ill-humor lasted until the first glimpse of Maria Angelina's slender figure, and the first glance of Maria Angelina's trustfully appealing eyes.
"Welcome to America," he said then very heartily, both his hands closing over the small fingers. "Welcome—very welcome, my dear."
And though Maria Angelina never knew it and Cousin Jane Blair never told, that was Maria Angelina's first American triumph.
Some nine hours afterwards a stoutish gentleman in gray and a thinnish lady in beige and a fragile looking girl in white wound their way from the outer to the inner circle of tables next the dancing floor of the Vandevoort.
The room was crowded with men in light serge and women in gay summer frocks; bright lights were shining under pink shades and sprays of pink flowers on every table were breathing a faint perfume into an air already impregnated with women's scents and heavy with odors of rich food. Now and then a saltish breeze stole through the draped windows on the sound but was instantly scattered by the vigor of the hidden, whirling fans.
Behind palms an orchestra clashed out the latest Blues and in the cleared space couples were speeding up and down to the syncopations, while between tables agile waiters balanced overloaded trays or whisked silver covers off scarlet lobsters or lit mysterious little lights below tiny bubbling caldrons.
Maria Angelina's soft lips were parted with excitement and her dark eyes round with wondering. This, indeed, was a new world. . . .
It was gay—gayer than the Hotel Excelsior at Rome! It was a carnival of a dinner!
Ever since morning, when the cordiality of the new-found cousins had dissipated the first forlorn homesickness of arrival, she had been looking on at scenes that were like a film, ceaselessly unrolling.
After luncheon, Cousin Jim with impulsive hospitality had carried her off to see the Big Town—an expedition from which his wife relievedly withdrew—and he had whirled Maria Angelina about in motors, plunged her into roaring subways, whisked her up dizzying elevators and brought her out upon unbelievable heights, all the time expounding and explaining with that passionate, possessive pride of the New Yorker by adoption, which left his young guest with the impression that he owned at least half the city and was personally responsible for the other half.
It had been very wonderful but Maria had expected New York to be wonderful. And she was not interested, save superficially, in cities. Life was the stuff her dreams were made on, and life was unfolding vividly to her eager eyes at this gay dinner, promising her enchanted senses the incredible richness and excitement for which she had come.
And though she sat up very sedately, like a well-behaved child in the midst of blazing carnival, her glowing face, her breathless lips and wide, shining eyes revealed her innocent ardors and young expectancies.
She was very proud of herself, in the midst of all the prideful splendor, proud of her new, absurdly big white hat, of her new, absurdly small white shoes, and of her new, white mull frock, soft and clinging and exquisite with the patient embroidery of the needlewoman.
Its low cut neck left her throat bare and about her throat hung the string of white coral that her father had given her in parting—white coral, with a pale, pale pink suffusing it.
"Like a young girl's dreams," Santonini had said. "Snowy white—with a blush stealing over them."
That was so like dear Papa! What dreams did he think his daughter was to have in this New World upon her golden quest? And yet, though Maria Angelina's mocking little wit derided, her young heart believed somehow in the union of all the impossibilities. Dreams and blushes . . . and good fortune. . . .
Strange food was set before her; delicious jellied cold soups, and scarlet lobsters with giant claws; and Maria Angelina discovered that excitement had not dulled her appetite.
The music sounded again and Cousin Jim asked her to dance. Shyly she protested that she did not know the American dances, and then, to her astonishment, he turned to his wife, and the two hurried out upon the floor, leaving her alone and unattended at that conspicuous table.
That was American freedom with a vengeance! She sat demurely, not daring to raise her lashes before the scrutiny she felt must be beating upon her, until her cousins returned, warm-faced and breathless.
"You'll learn all this as soon as you get to the Lodge," Cousin Jim prophesied, in consolation.
Maria Angelina smiled absently, her big eyes brilliant. Unconsciously she was wondering what dancing could mean to these elders of hers. . . . Dancing was the stir of youth . . . the carnival of the blood . . . the beat of expectancy and excitement. . . .
"Why, there's Barry Elder!" Cousin Jane gave a quick cry of pleasure.
Cousin Jim turned to look, and Maria Angelina looked too, and saw a young man making his way to their table. He was a tall, thin, brown young man with close-cropped curly brown hair, and very bright, deep-set eyes. He was dressed immaculately in white with a gay tie of lavender.
"Barry? You in town?" Cousin Jane greeted him with an exaggerated astonishment as he shook her hand.
Maria Angelina noted that he did not kiss it. She had read that this was not done openly in America but was a mark of especial tenderness.
"Why not?" he retorted promptly. "You seem to forget, dear lady, that I am again a wor-rking man, without whom the World's Greatest Daily would lose half its circulation. Of course I'm here."
"I thought you might be taking a vacation—in York Harbor," she said, laughing.
"Oh, cat!" he derided. "Kitty, kitty, kitty."
"Don't let her kid you, Barry," advised Cousin Jim, delving into his lobster.
"But since you are here," went on Cousin Jane, "you can meet my little cousin from Italy, which is the reason why we are here. Her boat came in this morning and she has never been away from home before. Mr. Elder, the Signorina Santonini."
"Welcome to the city, Signorina," said the young man, with a quick, bright smile, stooping to gaze under the huge, white hat. He had odd eyes, not large, but vivid hazel, with yellow lights in them.
"How do you like New York? What do you think of America? What is your opinion of prohibition and the uniformity of divorce laws? Have you ever written vers libre? Are——"
"Barry, stop bombarding the child!" exclaimed Mrs. Blair. "You are the first young man she has met in America. Stop making her fear the race."
"Take him away and dance with him, Jane," said Mr. Blair. "This was probably prearranged, you know."
If he believed it, he looked very tranquil, the startled Maria Angelina thought, surprised into an upward glance. The two men were smiling very frankly at each other. Mrs. Blair did not protest but rose, remarking, "Come, Barry, since we are discovered. You can have something cool afterwards."
"I'll have little Cousin afterwards," said Barry Elder. "I want to be the first young man she has danced with in America."
"You won't be the last," Mr. Blair told him with a twinkling glance at Maria Angelina's lovely little face.
"One of Jane's youngsters," he added, explanatorily to her. "She always has a lot around—she says they are the companions her son would have had if she'd had one."
Then, before Maria Angelina's polite but bewildered attention, he said more comprehensibly, "You'll find Jane a lot younger than Ruth . . . Barry's a clever chap—special work on one of the papers. Was in the aviation. Did a play that fluked last year. Too much Harvard in it, I expect. But a clever chap, very clever. Like him," he added decisively.
Maria Angelina had heard of Harvard. Her mother's father had been a Harvard man. But she did not understand just why too much Harvard would make a play fluke nor what a play did when it fluked, but she asked no questions and sat very still, looking out at the dancing couples.
She saw her Cousin Jane whirling past. She tried to imagine her mother dancing with young men at the Hotel Excelsior and she could not. Already she wondered if she had better write everything.
Then the dancing pair came back to them and the young man sat down and talked a little to her cousins. But at the music's recommencement he turned directly to her.
"Signorina, are you going to do me the honor?"
He had a merry way with him as if he were laughing ever so little at her, and Maria Angelina's heart which had been beating quite fast before began to skip dizzily.
She thanked Heaven that it was a waltz for, while the new steps were unknown, Maria could waltz—that was a gift from Papa.
"With pleasure, Signor," she murmured, rising.
"But you must take off your hat," Mrs. Blair told her.
"My hat? Take off?"
"That brim is too wide, my dear. You couldn't dance."
"But to go bareheaded—like a peasant?" Maria Angelina faltered and they laughed.
"It doesn't matter—it's much better than that brim," Mrs. Blair pronounced and obediently Maria's small hands rose and removed the overshadowing whiteness from the dark little head with its coronet of heavy braids.
She did not raise her eyes to see Barry Elder's sudden flash of astonishment. Shyly she slipped within his clasp and let him swing her out into the circle of dancers.
Maria Angelina could waltz, indeed. She was fairy-footed, and for some moments Barry Elder was content to dance without speaking; then he bent his head closer to those dark braids.
"So I am the first young man you have met in America?"
Maria Angelina looked up through her lashes in quick gayety.
"It is my first day, Signor!"
"Your first American—Ah, but on the boat! There must have been young men on that boat, American young men?"
"On that boat? Signor!" Maria Angelina laughed mischievously. "One reads of such in novels—yes? But as to that boat, it was a floating nunnery."
"Oh, come now," he protested amusedly, "there must have been some men!"
"Some men, yes—a ship's officer, some married ones, a grandfather or two—but nothing young and nothing American."
"It must have been a great disappointment," said Barry enjoying himself.
"It would not have mattered if there had been a thousand. The Signora Mariotti would have seen to it that I met no one. She is a very good chaperon, Signor!"
"I thank her. She has preserved the dew on the rose, the flush on the dawn—the wax for the record and the—er—niche for the statue. I never had my statue done," said Barry gayly, "but if you would care for it, in terra cotta, rather small and neat——"
Confusedly Maria Angelina laughed.
"And this is your maiden voyage of discovery!" He was looking down at her as he swept her about a corner. "Rash young person! Don't you know what happened to your kinsman, Our First Discoverer?"
"He was loaded with fetters," said Barry solemnly.
"Fetters? But what fetters could I fear?"
"Have you never heard," he demanded of her upraised eyes, "of the fetters of matrimony?"
"Oh, Signor!" Actually the color swept into her cheeks and her eyes fled from his, though she laughed lightly. "That is a golden fetter."
"Sometimes," said he, dryly, "or gilded."
But Maria Angelina was pursuing his jest. "It was not until Columbus returned to his Europe that he was fettered. It was not from the—the natives that he had such ill-treatment to fear."
"Now, do you think the—the natives"—gayly Barry mimicked her quaint inflection—"will let you get away with that? Or let you return? . . . You have a great many discoveries before you, Signorina Santonini!"
Deftly he circled, smiling down into her upturned face.
Maria Angelina's eyes were shining, and the smooth oval of her cheeks had deepened from poppy pink to poppy rose. She was dancing in a dream, a golden dream . . . incredibly, ecstatically happy. . . . She was in a confusion of young delight in which the extravagance of his words, the light of his glances, the thrill of the violins were inextricably involved in gayety and glamour.
And then suddenly the dance was over, and he was returning her to her cousins. And he was saying good-by.
"I have a table yonder—although I appear to have forsaken it," he was explaining. "Don't forget your first American, Signorina—I'm sorry you are going to-morrow, but perhaps I shall be seeing you in the Adirondacks before very long."
He gave Maria Angelina a directly smiling glance whose boldness made her shiver.
Then he turned to Mrs. Blair. "You know my uncle had a little shack built on Old Chief Mountain—not so far from you at Wilderness. I always like to run up there——"
"Oh, no, you won't, Barry," said Mrs. Blair, laughing incomprehensibly. "You'll be running where the breaking waves dash high, on a stern and rock-bound coast."
He met the sally with answering laughter a trifle forced.
"I'm flattered you think me so constant! But you underestimate the charms of novelty. . . . If I should meet, say, a petite brune, done in cotton wool and dewy with innocence——"
"You're incorrigible," vowed the lady. "I have no faith in you!"
"Not even in my incorrigibility?"
"I'll believe it when I see you again. . . . Love to Leila."
He made a mocking grimace at her.
Then he stooped to clasp Maria Angelina's hand. "A rivederci, Signorina," he insisted. "Don't you believe a thing she tells you about me. . . . I'm a poor, misunderstood young man in a world of women. Addio, Signorina—a rivederci."
And then he was gone, so gay and brown and smiling.
Sudden anguish swept down upon Maria Angelina, like the cold mistral upon the southlands.
He was gone. . . . Would she really see him again? . . . Would he come to those mountains?
But why would he not? He had spoken of it, all of himself . . . he had that place he called a shack. That was beautiful good fortune—all of a part of the amazing fairy story of the New World. . . . And he had looked so at her. He had made such jokes. He had pressed her hands . . . ever so lightly but without mistake. . . .
And his eyes, that shining brightness of his eyes. . . .
"Why rub it in about York Harbor?"
Cousin Jim was speaking and Maria Angelina came out of her dream with sudden, painful intensity. Instinctively she divined that here was something vital to her hope, and while her young face held the schooled, unstirred detachment of the jeune fille, her senses were straining nervously for any flicker of enlightenment.
"Why not rub it in?" countered Cousin Jane briskly. "He'll go there before long, and he might as well know that he isn't throwing any sand in our eyes. . . . This sulking here in town is simply to punish her."
"Perhaps he isn't sulking. Perhaps he doesn't care to run after her any more. He may not be as keen about Leila Grey as you women think."
Maria Angelina's involuntary glance at Mrs. Blair caught the superior assurance of her smile.
"My dear Jim! He was simply mad about her. That last leave, before he went to France, he only went places to meet her."
"Well, he may have got over it. Men do," argued Cousin Jim stubbornly.
"Yes," echoed Maria Angelina's beating heart in hope, "men do!"
Cousin Jane laughed. "Men don't get over Leila Grey—not if Leila Grey wants to keep them."
"If she wanted so darn much to keep him why didn't she take him then?"
"I didn't say she wanted to keep him then." Mrs. Blair's tones were mysteriously, ironically significant. "Leila wasn't throwing herself away on any young officer—with nothing but his insurance. It was Bobby Martin that she was after——"
"Gad! Was she?" Cousin Jim was patently struck by this. "Why, Bobby's just a kid and she——"
"There's not two years' difference between them—in years. But Leila came out very young—and she's the most thoroughly calculating——"
"Oh, come now, Jane—just because the girl didn't succumb to the impecunious Barry and did like the endowed Bobby——! She may really have liked him, you know."
"Oh, come now, yourself, Jim," retorted his wife good-humoredly. "Just because she has blue eyes! No, if Leila really liked anybody I always had the notion it was Barry—but she wanted Bobby."
For a long moment Cousin Jim was silent, turning the thing over with his cigar. Maria Angelina sat still as a mouse, fearful to breathe lest the bewildering revelations cease. Cousin Jane, over her second cup of coffee, had the air of a humorous and superior oracle.
Then Mr. Blair said slowly, "And Bobby couldn't see her?"
He had an air of asking if Bobby were indeed of adamant and Mrs. Blair hesitated imperceptibly over the sweeping negative. Equally slowly, "Oh, Bobby liked her, of course—she may have turned his head," she threw out, "but I don't believe he ever lost it for a moment. And after he met Ruth that summer at Plattsburg——"
The implication floated there, tenuous, iridescent. Even to Maria Angelina's eyes it was an arch of promise.
Ruth was their daughter, the cousin of her own age. And the unknown Bobby was some one who liked Ruth. And he was some one whom this Leila Grey had tried to ensnare—although all the time Mrs. Blair suspected her of liking more the Signor Barry Elder.
Hotly Maria Angelina's precipitous intuitions endorsed that supposition. Of course this Leila liked that Barry Elder. Of course. . . . But she had not taken him. He was an officer, then—without fortune. Maria Angelina was familiar enough with that story. But she had supposed that here, in America, where dowries were not exigent and the young people were free, there was more romance. And now it was not even Leila's parents who had interfered, apparently, but Leila herself.
What was it Mrs. Blair had said? Thoroughly calculating. . . . Thoroughly calculating—and blue eyes. . . .
Maria Angelina felt a quick little inrush of fear. If it should be blue eyes that Americans—that is, to say now, that Barry Elder—preferred——!
And then she wondered why, if this Leila with the blue eyes had not taken Barry Elder before, Cousin Jane now regarded it as a foregone conclusion between them? Was it because she could not get that Signor Bobby Martin? Or was Barry Elder more successful now that he had left the army?
She puzzled away at it, like a very still little cat at an indestructible mouse, but dared say not a word. And while she worried away her surface attention was caught by the glance of candid humor exchanged between Mr. Blair and his wife.
"Ah, Jane, Jane," he was saying, in mock deprecation, "is that why we are spending the summer at Wilderness, not two miles from the Martin place——?"
Mrs. Blair was smiling, but her eyes were serious. "I preferred that to having Ruth at a house party at the Martins," she said quietly.
At that Maria Angelina ceased to attend. She would know soon enough about her Cousin Ruth and Bobby Martin. But as for Barry Elder and Leila Grey——! Had he cared? Had she? . . . Unconsciously her young heart repudiated her cousin's reading of the affair. As if Barry Elder would be unsuccessful with any woman that he wanted! That was unbelievable. He had not wanted her—enough.
He could not want Leila now or he would not have spoken so of coming to the mountains to see her—his direct glance had been a promise, his eyes a prophecy.
Dared she believe him? Dared she trust? But he was no deceiver, no flirt, like the lady-killers who used to come to the Palazzo to bow over Lucia's hand and eye each other with that half hostile, half knowing swagger. She had watched them. . . . But this was America.
And Barry Elder was—different.
She was lost to the world about her now. Its color and motion and hot counterfeit of life beat insensibly upon her; she was aware of it only as an imposition, a denial to that something within her which wanted to relax into quiet and dreaming, which wanted to live over and over again the intoxicating excitement, the looks, the words. . . .
She was grateful when Cousin Jane declared for an early return. She could hardly wait to be alone.
"What did I tell you?" Jane Blair stopped suddenly in their progress to the door and turned to her husband in low-toned triumph. "She's with him. Leila's with him."
"Huh?" said Cousin Jim unexcitedly.
"She's pretended some errand in town—she's come in to get hold of him again," went on Cousin Jane hurriedly, as one who tells the story of the act to the unobservant. "She's afraid to leave him alone. . . . And he never mentioned her. I wonder——"
Maria Angelina's eyes had followed theirs. She saw a group about a table, she saw Barry Elder's white-clad shoulders and curly brown head. She saw, unregardfully, a man and woman with him, but all her eagerness, all her straining vision was on the young girl with him—a girl so blonde, so beautiful that a pang went to Maria Angelina's heart. She learned pain in a single throb.
She heard Cousin Jim quoting oddly in undertone, "'And Beauty drew him, by a single hair,'" and the words entered her consciousness hauntingly.
If Leila Grey looked like that—why then——
Yet he had said that he would come!
Maria Angelina's first night in America, like that last night in Italy, was of sleepless watching through the dark. But now there were no child's tears at leaving home. There was no anxious planning for poor Julietta. Already Julietta and Lucia and the Palazzo, even Papa and dear, dear Mamma, appeared strangely unreal—like a vanished spell—and only this night was real and this strange expectant stir in her.
And then she fell asleep and dreamed that Barry Elder was advancing to her across the long drawing-room of the Palazzo Santonini and as she turned to receive him Lucia stepped between, saying, "He is for me, instead of Paolo Tosti," and behold! Lucia's eyes were as blue as the sea and Lucia's hair was as golden as amber and her face was the face of the girl in the restaurant.
LUNCHEON AT THE LODGE
Wilderness Lodge, Cousin Jane had said, was a simple little place in the mountains, not a hotel but rather a club house where only certain people could go, and Maria Angelina had pictured a white stucco pension-hotel set against some background like the bare, bright hills of Italy.
She found a green smother of forest, an ocean of greenness with emerald crests rising higher and higher like giant waves, and at the end of the long motor trip the Lodge at last disclosed itself as a low, dark, rambling building, set in a clearing behind a blue bend of sudden river.
And built of logs! Did people of position live yet in logs in America? demanded the girl's secret astonishment as the motor whirled across the rustic bridge and stopped before the wide steps of a veranda full of people.
Springing down the steps, two at a time, came a tall, short-skirted girl in white.
"Dad—you came, too!" she cried. "Oh, that's bully. You must enter the tournament—Mother, did you remember about the cup and the—you know? What we talked of for the booby?"
She had a loud, gay voice like a boy's and as Maria was drawn into the commotion of greetings, she opened wide, half-intimidated eyes at the bigness and brownness of this Cousin Ruth.
She had expected Heaven knows what of incredible charm in the girl who had detached the Signor Bobby Martin from the siren Leila. Her instant wonder was succeeded by a sensation of gay relief. After all, these things went by chance and favor. . . . And if Bobby Martin could prefer this brown young girl to that vision at the restaurant why then—then perhaps there was also a chance for—what was it the young Signor Elder had called her? A petite brune wrapped in cotton wool.
These thoughts flashed through her as one thought as she followed her three cousins across the wide verandas, full of interested eyes, into the Lodge and up the stairs to their rooms, where Ruth directed the men in placing the big trunk and the bags and hospitably explained the geography of the suite.
"My room's on that side and Dad's and Mother's is just across—and we all have to use this one bath—stupid, isn't it, but Dad is hardly ever here and there's running water in the rooms. You'll survive, won't you?"
Hastily Maria Angelina assured her that she would.
Glimpsing the white-tiled splendors of this bath she wondered how Ruth would survive the tin tub, set absurdly in a red plush room of the Palazzo. . . .
"Now you know your way about," the American girl rattled on, her tone negligent, her eyes colored with a little warmer interest as her glance swept her foreign little cousin. "Frightfully hot, wasn't it? I'll clear out so you can pop into the tub. You'll just have time before luncheon," she assured her and was off.
The next instant, from closed doors beyond, her voice rose in unguarded exclamation.
"Oh, you baby doll! Mother, did you ever——"
The voices sank from hearing and Maria Angelina was left with the feeling that a baby doll was not a desirable being in America. This Cousin Ruth intimidated her and her breezy indifference and lack of affectionate interest shot the visitor with the troubled suspicion that her own presence was entirely superfluous to her cousin's scheme of things. She felt more at home with the elders.
Uncertainly she crossed to her big trunk and stood looking down on the bold labels.
How long since she and Mamma had packed it, with dear Julietta smoothing the folds in place! And how far away they all were. . . . It was not the old Palazzo now that was unreal—it was this new, bright world and all the strange faces.
The chintz-decked room with its view of alien mountains seemed suddenly remote and lonely.
Her hands shook a little as she unpacked a tray of pretty dresses and laid them carefully across the bed. . . . Unconsciously she had anticipated a warmer welcome from this young cousin. . . . She winked away the tears that threatened to stain the bright ribbons, and stole into the splendor of the white bathroom, marveling at its luxurious contrast to the logs without.
The water refreshed her. She felt more cheerful, and when she came to a choice of frocks, decidedly a new current of interest was stealing through life again.
First impressions were so terribly important! She wanted to do honor to the Blairs—to justify the hopes of Mamma. This was not enough of an occasion for the white mull. The silks look hot and citified. Hesitantly she selected the apricot organdie with a deeper-shaded sash; it was simple for all its glowing color, though the short frilled sleeves struck her as perhaps too chic. It had been a copy of one of Lucia's frocks, that one bought to such advantage of Madame Revenant.
With it went a golden-strawed hat—but Maria Angelina was uncertain about the hat.
Did you wear one at a hotel—when you lived at a hotel? Mamma's admonitions did not cover that. She put the hat on; she took the hat off. She rather liked it on—but she dropped it on the bed at Ruth's sudden knock and felt a sense of escape for Ruth was hatless.
And Ruth still wore the same short white skirt and white blouse, open at the throat, in which she had greeted them. . . . Was the apricot too much then of a toilette? Ruth's eyes were frankly on it; her expression was odd.
But Mrs. Blair had changed. She appeared now in blue linen, very smart and trim.
Worriedly Maria Angelina's dark eyes went from one to the other.
"Is this—is this what I should wear?" she asked timidly. "Am I not—as you wish?"
It would have taken a hard heart to wish her otherwise.
"It's very pretty," said Cousin Jane in quick reassurance.
"Too pretty, s'all," said Cousin Ruth. "But it won't be wasted. . . . Bobby Martin is staying to luncheon," she flung casually at her parents. "Has a guest with him. You remember Johnny Byrd."
American freedom, indeed! thought Maria Angelina following down the slippery stairs into the wide hall below where, in a boulder fireplace that was surmounted by a stag's head, a small blaze was flickering despite the warmth of the day.
Wasteful, thought Maria Angelina reprovingly. One could see that the Americans had never suffered for fuel. . . .
Upon a huge, black fur rug before the fire two young men were waiting.
Demurely Maria thought of the letter she would write home that night—one young man the first evening in New York, two young men the first luncheon at the Lodge. Decidedly, America brimmed with young men!
Meanwhile, Ruth was presenting them. The big dark youth, heavy and lazy moving, was the Signor Bob Martin.
The other, Johnny Byrd, was shorter and broad of shoulder; he had reddish blonde hair slightly parted and brushed straight back; he had a short nose with freckles and blue eyes with light lashes. When he laughed—and he seemed always laughing—he showed splendid teeth.
Both young men stared—but staring was a man's prerogative in Italy and Maria Angelina was unperturbed. At table she sat serenely, her dark lashes shading the oval of her cheeks, while the young men's eyes—and one pair of them, especially—took in the black, braid-bound head and the small, Madonna-like face, faintly flushed by sun and wind, above the golden glow of the sheer frock.
Then Johnny Byrd leaned across the table towards her.
"I say, Signorina," he began abruptly, "what's the Italian for peach?" and as Maria Angelina looked up and started very innocently to explain, he leaned back and burst into a shout of amusement in which the others more moderately joined.
"Don't let him get you," was Ruth's unintelligible advice, and Bobby Martin turned to his friend to admonish, "Now, Johnny, don't start anything. . . . Johnny's such a good little starter!"
"And a poor finisher," added Ruth smartly and both young men laughed again as at a very good joke.
"A starter—but not a beginner, eh?" chuckled Cousin Jim, and Mrs. Blair smiled at both young men even as she protested, "This is the noisiest table in the room!"
It was a noisy table. Maria Angelina was astounded at the hilarity of that meal. Already she began censoring her report to Mamma. Certainly Mamma would never understand Ruth's elbows on the table, her shouts of laughter—or the pellets of bread she flipped.
And the words they used! Maria could only feel that the language of Mamma must be singularly antiquated. So much she did not understand . . . had never heard. . . . What, indeed, was a simp, a boob, a nut? What a poor fish? . . . She held her peace, and listened, confused by the astounding vocabulary and the even more astounding intimacy. What things they said to each other in jest!
And whatever Maria Angelina said they took in jest. She evoked an appreciative peal when she ventured that the Lodge must be very old because she had read that the first settlers made their homes of logs.
"I'll take you up and show you our ancestral hut," declared Bob Martin. "Where Granddad used to stretch the Red Skins to dry by the back door—before tanning 'em for raincoats."
"Really?" said Maria Angelina ingenuously, then at sight of his expression, "But how shall I know what you tell me is true or not?" she appealed. "It all sounds so strange to me—the truth as well."
"You look at me," said Johnny Byrd leaning forward. "When I shut this eye, so, you shake your head at them. When I nod—you can believe."
"But you will not always be there——"
"I'll say you're wrong," he retorted. "I'm going to be there so usually, like the weather—did you say you wanted me to stay a month, Bob?"
Color stole into the young girl's cheeks even while she laughed with them. She was conscious of a faint and confused half-distress beneath her mounting confidence. They were so very jocular. . . .
Of course this was but chaff, she understood, and she began to wonder if that other, that young Signor Elder, had been but joking. It might be the American way. . . . And yet this was all flattering chaff and so perhaps she could trust the flattery of her secret hope.
Surely, surely, it was all going to happen. He would come—she would see him again.
Meanwhile she shook her young braids at Johnny Byrd.
"But you are so sudden! I think he is a flirter, yes?" she said gayly to Mr. Blair who smiled back appreciatively and a trifle protectively at her.
But Bobby Martin drawled, "Oh, no, he's not. He's too careful," and more laughter ensued.
After luncheon they went back into the hall where the three men drifted out into a side room where cigars and cigarettes were sold, and began filling their cases, while Mrs. Blair stepped out on the verandas and joined a group there. Ruth remained by the fireplace, and Maria Angelina waited by her.
"Your friends are very nice," she began with a certain diffidence, as her cousin had nothing to say. "That Johnny Byrd—he is very funny——"
"Oh, Johnny's funny," said Ruth in an odd voice. She added, "Regular spoiled baby—had everything his way. Only an old guardian to boss him."
"You mean he is an orphan?"
Maria Angelina did not smile. "But that is very sad," she said soberly. "No home life——"
"Don't get it into your head that Johnny Byrd wants any home life," said her cousin dryly, and with a hint of hard warning in her negligent voice. "He's been dodging home life ever since he wore long trousers."
"He must then," Maria Angelina deduced, very simply, "be rich."
"He's one of the Long Island Byrds."
It sounded to Maria like a flock of ducks, but she perceived that it was given for affirmation. She followed Ruth's glance to where the backs of the young men's heads were visible, bending over some coins they were apparently matching. . . . Johnny Byrd's head was flaming in the sunshine. . . .
"He's a bird from a hard-boiled egg," Ruth said with a smile of inner amusement.
But whatever cryptic signal she flashed slipped unseen from Maria Angelina's vision. Johnny Byrd was nice, but it was a gay, cheery, everyday sort of niceness, she thought, with none of the quicksilver charm of the young man at the dinner dance. . . . And she was unimpressed by Johnny's money. She took the millionaires in America as for granted as fish in the sea.
She merely felt cheerfully that Fate was galloping along the expected course.
Subconsciously, perhaps, she recorded a possible second string to her bow.
With tact, she thought, she turned the talk to Ruth's young man.
"And the Signor Bob Martin—I suppose he, too, is a millionaire," she smiled, and was astonished at Ruth's derisive laugh.
"Not unless he murders his father," said that barbaric young woman.
She added, relenting towards her cousin's ignorance, "Oh, Bob hasn't anything of his own, you know. . . . But his father's taking him into business this fall."
Maria Angelina was bewildered. Distinctly she had understood, from the Leila Grey conversation, that Bobby Martin was a very eligible young man and yet here was her cousin flouting any financial congratulation.
Hesitantly, "Is his father—in a good business?" she offered, and won from Ruth more merriment as inexplicable as her speech.
"He's in Steel," she murmured, which was no enlightenment to Maria.
She ventured to more familiar ground.
"He is very handsome."
To her astonishment Ruth snorted. . . . Now Lucia always bridled consciously when one praised Paolo Tosti.
"Don't let him hear you say so," she scoffed. "He's too fat. He needs a lot more tennis."
And then to Maria's horror she raised her voice and confided this conviction to the approaching young men.
"You're getting fat, Bob. I just got your profile—and you need a lot of tennis for that tummy!"
And young Martin laughed—the indolent, submissive laughter with which he appeared to accept all things at the hands of this audacious, brown-cheeked, gray-eyed young girl.
She must be very sure of him, thought the little Italian sagely. Then, not so sagely, she wondered if Ruth was exhibiting her power to warn off all newcomers. . . . Was that why she refused to admit his wealth or his good looks—she wanted to invite no competition?
Maria Angelina believed she saw the light.
She would reassure Ruth, she thought eagerly. She was a young person of honor. Never would she attempt to divert a glance from her cousin's admirer.
Meanwhile a debate was carried on between golf and tennis, and was carried in favor of golf by Cousin Jim. There was unintelligible talk of hazards and bunkers and handicaps for the tournament, of records and of bogey, and then as Johnny turned to her with a casual, "Like the game?" a shadow of misgiving crept into her confidence.
She could not golf. Nor could she play tennis. Nor could she follow the golfers—as Johnny Byrd suggested—for Cousin Jane declared her frock and slippers too delicate. She must get into something more appropriate.
And in Maria Angelina the worried suspicion woke that she had nothing more appropriate.
A few minutes later Cousin Jane confirmed that suspicion as she paused by the trunk the young girl was hastily unpacking.
"I'll send to town for some plain little things for you to play in," she said cheerfully. "You must have some low-heeled white shoes and short white skirts and a batting hat. They won't come to much," she added as if carelessly, going down to her bridge game on the veranda.
But Maria Angelina's small hands clenched tightly at her sides in a panic out of all proportion to the idea.
More expense, she was thinking quiveringly. More investment!
Oh, she must not fail—she dared not fail. She must find some one—the right some one——
She dropped beside her trunk of pretty things in a passion of frightened tears.
But the night swung her back to triumph again.
For although she could not golf, and her hands could not wield a tennis racket, Maria Angelina could play a guitar and she could sing to it like the angels she had been named for. And the young people at the Lodge had a way of gathering in the dark upon the wide steps and strumming chords and warbling strange strains about intimate emotions. And as Maria Angelina's voice rose with the rest her gift was discovered.
"Gosh, the little Wop's a Galli-Curci," was John Byrd's aside to Bob.
So presently with Johnny Byrd's guitar in her hands Maria Angelina was singing the songs of Italy, sometimes in English, when she knew the words, that all might join in the choruses, but more often in their own Italian.
A crescent moon edged over the shadowy dark of the mountains before her . . . the same moon whose silver thread of light slipped down those far Apennine hills of home and touched the dome of old Saint Peter's. She felt far away and lonely . . . and deliciously sad and subtly expectant. . . .
"'O Sole mio——"
And as she sang, with her eyes on the far hills, her ears caught the whir of wheels on the road below, and all her nerves tightened like wires and hummed with the charged currents.
Out of the dark she conjured a tall young figure advancing . . . a figure topped by short-cut curly brown hair . . . a figure with eyes of incredible brightness. . . .
If he would only come now and find her like this, singing. . . .
It was so exquisite a hope that her heart pleaded for it.
But the wheels went on.
"But he will come," she thought swiftly, to cover the pang of that expiring hope. "He will come soon. He said so. And perhaps again it will be like this and he will find me here——"
"'O Sole mio——"
And only Johnny Byrd, staring steadily through the dusk, discerned that there were tears in her eyes.
RI-RI SINGS AGAIN
She told herself that she was foolish to hope for him so soon. Of course he could not follow at once. He could not leave New York. He had work to be done. She must not begin to hope until the week-end at least.
But though she talked to herself so wisely, she hoped with every breath she drew. She was accustomed to Italian precipitancy—and nothing in Barry Elder suggested delay. If he came, he would come while his memory of her was fresh.
It would be either here or York Harbor. Either herself or that girl with the blue eyes. If he really wanted to see her at all, if he had any memory of their dance, any interest in the newness of her, then he would come soon.
And so through Maria Angelina's days ran a fever of expectancy.
At first it ran high. The honk of a motor horn, the reverberation of wheels upon the bridge, the slam of a door and the flurry of steps in the hall set up that instant, tumultuous commotion.
At any moment, she felt, Barry Elder might arrive. Every morning her pulses confessed that he might come that day; every night her courage insisted that the next morning would bring him.
And as the days passed the expectancy increased. It grew acute. It grew painful. The feeling, at every arrival, that he might be there gave her a tight pinch of suspense, a hammering racket of pulse-beats—succeeded by an empty, sickening, sliding-down-to-nothingness sensation when she realized that he was not there, when her despair proclaimed that he would never be there—and then, stoutly, she told herself that he would come the next time.
They were days of dreams for her—dreams of the restaurant, of color, light and music, of that tall, slim figure . . . dreams of the dance, of the gay, half-teasing voice, the bright eyes, the direct smile. . . . Every word he had uttered became precious, infinitely significant.
"A rivederci, Signorina. . . . Don't forget me."
She had not forgotten him. Like the wax he had named she had guarded his image. Through all the swiftly developing experiences of those strange days she retained that first vivid impression.
She saw him in every group. She pictured him in every excursion. Above Johnny Byrd's light, straight hair she saw those close-cropped brown curls. . . . She held long conversations with him. She confided her impressions. She read him Italian poems.
But still he did not come.
And sharply she went from hope to despair. She told herself that he would never come.
She did not believe herself. Beneath a set little pretense of indifference she listened intently for the sound of arrivals; her heart turned over at an approaching car.
But she did not admit it. She said that she was through with hope. She said that she did not care whether he came or not. She said she did not want him to come.
He was with Leila Grey, of course.
Well—she was with Johnny Byrd.
She was with him every day, for with that amazing American freedom, Bobby Martin came down to see Ruth every day and the four young people with other couples from the Lodge were always involved in some game, some drive, some expedition.
But it was not accident nor a lazy concurrence with propinquity that kept Johnny Byrd at Maria Angelina's side.
Openly he announced himself as tied hand and foot. His admiration was as vivid as his red roadster. It was as unabashed and clamant as his motor horn. He reveled in her. He monopolized her. In his own words, he lapped her up.
With amazing simplicity Maria Angelina accepted this miracle. It was only a second-rate miracle to her, for it was not the desire of her heart, and she was uneasy about it. She did not want to be involved with Johnny Byrd if Barry Elder should arrive. . . . Of course, if she had never met Barry Elder. . . .
Johnny Byrd was a very nice, merry boy. And he was rich . . . independent. . . . If one has never tasted Asti Spumante, then one can easily be pleased with Chianti.
Her secret dream was the young girl's protection against over-eagerness.
To her young hostess this indifference came as an enormous relief.
"She's all right," Ruth reported to her mother, upon an afternoon that Maria Angelina had taken herself downstairs to the piano and to a prospective call from Johnny Byrd while Ruth herself, in riding togs, awaited Bob Martin and his horses.
"She isn't jumping down Johnny's throat at all," the girl went on. "I was afraid, that first day, when she asked such nutty questions. . . . But she seems to take it all for granted. That ought to hold Johnny for a while—long enough so he won't get tired and throw her down for somebody else before he goes."
"You think, then, there isn't a chance of——?"
Mrs. Blair left the hypothesis in midair, convicted of ancient sentiment by the frank amusement of her young daughter's look.
"No, my dear, there isn't a chance of," Ruth so competently informed her that Mrs. Blair, in revolt, was moved to murmur, "After all, Ruth, people do fall in love and get married in this world."
Patiently Ruth gave this thought her consideration and in fair-mindedness turned her scrutiny upon past days to evoke some sign that should contradict her own conclusions.
"She's got something—it's something different from the rest of us—but it would take more than that to do for Johnny Byrd."
Definitely, Ruth shook her head.
"You don't suppose she's beginning to think——?" hazarded Mrs. Blair.
Better than her daughter, she envisaged the circumstances which might have led, in her Cousin Lucy's mind, to this young girl's visit. Lucy, herself, had been taken abroad in those early days by a competent aunt. Now Lucy, in the turn of the tide, was sending her daughter to America.
Jane Blair would have liked to play fairy godmother, to make a benevolent gesture, to scatter largess. . . .
But she was not going to have it said that she was a fortune hunter. She was not going to alarm Johnny Byrd and implicate Bob Martin and disturb the delicate balance between him and Ruth.
Lucy's daughter must take her chances. This wasn't Europe.
"Well, I've said enough to her," Ruth stated briskly, in answer to her mother's supposition. "I don't know how much she believes. . . . You know Ri-Ri is seething with Old World sentiment and she may be such a little nut as to think—but she doesn't act as if she really cared about it. It isn't just a pose. . . . Do you imagine," said Ruth, suddenly lapsing into a little Old World sentiment herself, "that she's gone on some one in Italy and they sent her over to forget him? That might account——"
"Lucy's letter didn't sound like it. She was very emphatic about Maria Angelina's knowing nothing of the world or young men. I rather gathered," Mrs. Blair made out, "that the family had a plain daughter to marry off and wanted the pretty one in ambush for a while—they take care of those things, you know."
"And I suppose if she copped a millionaire in the ambush they wouldn't howl bloody murder," said the girl, with admirable intuition.
"Oh, well——" She yawned and looked out of the window. "She's probably having the time of her life. . . . I'm grateful she turned out such a little peach. . . . When she goes back and marries some fat spaghetti it will give her something to moon about to remember how she and Johnny Byrd used to sit out and strum to the stars—— There he is now."
"Bob?" said Mrs. Blair absently, her mind occupied by her young daughter's large sophistication.
"Johnny," said Ruth.
She leaned half out the window as the red roadster shot thunderously across the rustic bridge and brought up sharply on the driveway below. With a shouted greeting she brought the driver's red-blonde head to attention.
"Hullo—where's the Bob?"
Johnny grinned. "Trying to ride one horse and lead another. Sweet mount he's bringing you, Ruth. Didn't like the way I passed him. Bet you he throws you."
"Bet you he doesn't."
"You lose. . . . Where's the little Wop?"
"You mean Maria Angelina Santonini?"
"Gosh, is that all? Well, you scoot across to her room and tell Maria Angelina Santonini that she has a perfectly good date with me."
"She powdered her nose and went down stairs an hour ago," Ruth sang down, just as a small figure emerged from the music room upon the veranda and approached the rail.
"The little Wop is here, Signor," said Maria Angelina lightly.
Unabashed Johnny Byrd beamed at her. It was a perfectly good sensation, each time, to see her. One grew to suspect, between times, that anything so enchanting didn't really exist—and then, suddenly, there she was, like a conjurer's trick, every lovely young line of her.
Johnny knew girls. He knew them, he would have informed you, backwards and forwards. And he liked girls—devilish cunning games, with the same old trumps up their sleeves—when they wore 'em—but this girl was just puzzlingly different enough to evoke a curiously haunting wonder.
Was it the difference in environment? Or in herself? He couldn't quite make her out.
He seemed to be groping for some clew, some familiar sign that would resolve all the unfamiliarities to old acquaintance.
Meanwhile he continued to smile cheerily at the young person he had so rudely designated as a little Wop and gestured to the seat beside him.
"Hop in," he admonished. "Let us be off before that horse comes and steps on me. That's a dear girl."
But Maria Angelina shook her dark head.
"I told you, no, Signor, I could not go. In my country one does not ride with young men."
"But you are in my country now. And in my country one jolly well rides with young men."
"In your country—but for a time, yes." Unconvinced Maria Angelina stood by her rail, like the boy upon the burning deck.
"But your aunt—cousin, I mean—would let you," he argued. "I'll shout up now and see——"
Unrelentingly, "It is not my cousin, but my mother who would object," she informed him.
"Holy Saint Cecilia! You're worse than boarding school. Come on, Maria Angelina—I'll promise not to kiss you."
That was one of Johnny's best lines. It always had a deal of effect—one way or another. It startled Maria Angelina. Her eyes opened as if he had set off a rocket—and something very bright and light, like the impish reflections of that rocket, danced a moment in her look.
"I will write that promise to my mother and see if it persuades her," she informed him.
"Oh, all right, all right."
With the sigh of the defeated Johnny Byrd turned off the gas and climbed out of his car.
"Just for that the promise is off," he announced. "Do you think your mother would mind letting you sit in the same room with me and teach me that song you promised?"
"She would mind very much in Italy." Over her shoulder Maria cast a laughing look at him as she stepped back into the music room. "There I would never be alone like this."
Incredulously Johnny stared past her into the music room. Through the windows upon the other side came the voices of bridge players upon the veranda without. Through those same windows were visible the bridge players' heads. Other windows opened upon the veranda in the front of the Lodge from which they had just come. An arch of doorway gave upon the wide hall where a guest was shuffling the mail.
"Alone!" ejaculated Johnny.
"My mother allows this when my sister Lucia and her fiance, Paolo Tosti, are together," said Maria Angelina. "I am in the next room with a book. And that is very advanced. It is because Mamma is American."
"I'll say it's advanced," Johnny muttered. "You mean—you mean your sister and that—that toasted one she's engaged to have never really seen each other——?"
"Oh, they have seen each other——"
"The poor fish," said Johnny heavily. He glanced with increasing curiosity at the young girl by his side. . . . After all, this jeune fille thing might be true. . . .
"Well, I'm glad your mother was American," he declared, beginning to strum upon the piano and inviting her to a seat beside him.
But Maria Angelina remained looking through her music.
"Then I am only half a Wop," said she. She added, bright mischief between her long lashes, "What is it then—a Wop?"
Johnny Byrd, striking random chords, looked up at her.
"What is it?" he repeated. "I'll say that depends. . . . Sometimes it's dark and greasy and throws bombs. . . . Sometimes it's bad and glad and sings Carmen. . . . And sometimes it's—it's——"
Deliberately he stared at the small braid-bound head, the shadowy dark of the eyes, the scarlet curve of the small mouth.
"Sometimes it's just the prettiest, youngest——"
"I am not so young," said Maria Angelina indignantly.
"Lordy, you're a babe in arms."
"I am not." Her defiance was furious. It had a twinge of terror—terror lest they treat her everlastingly as child.
"I am eighteen. I am but a year and three months younger than Ruth."
"She's a kid," grinned Johnny.
"The Signor Bob Martin does not think so!"
"The Signor Bob Martin is nuts on that particular kid. And he's a kid himself."
"And do you think that you are——?"
"Sure. We're all kids together. Why not? I like it," declared young Byrd.
But Maria Angelina was not appeased. She had half glimpsed that indefinite irresponsibility of these strangers which treated youth as a toy, an experiment. . . .
"And is the Signorina Leila Grey," said she suddenly, "is she, also, a kid?"
Roundly Johnny opened his eyes. His face presented a curious stolidity of look, as if a protection against some unforeseen attack. At the same time it was streaked with humor.
"Now where," said he, "did you get that?"
"Is she," the girl persisted, "is she also a kid?"
"The Signorina Leila Grey? No," conceded Johnny, "the Signorina Leila Grey was born with her wisdom teeth cut. . . . At that she hasn't found so much to chew on," he murmured cheerily.
The girl's eyes were bright with divinations. "You mean that she did not—did not find your friend Bob something to chew upon?"
Johnny's laugh was a guffaw. It rang startlingly in that quiet room. "You're there, Ri-Ri—absolutely there," he vowed. "But where, I wonder——" He broke off. His look held both surmise and a shrewd suspicion.
"I—guessed," said Maria Angelina hastily. "And I saw her the first evening in New York. . . . She is very beautiful."
"She's a wonder," he admitted heartily. "Yes—and I'll say Bob nearly fell for her. If she'd been expert enough she could have gathered him in. He just dodged in time—and now he's busy forgetting he ever knew her."
"Perhaps," slowly puzzled out Maria Angelina, "perhaps the reason that she was not—not expert, as you say—was because her attention was just a little—wandering."
Johnny yawned. "Often happens." He struck a few chords. "Where's that little song of yours—the one you were going to teach me? I could do something with that at the next show at the club."
"If you will let me sit down, Signor——"
"I'm not crabbing the bench."
"But I wish the place in the center."
"What you 'fraid of, Ri-Ri?" Obligingly Johnny moved over. "Why, you have me tied hand and foot. I'm afraid to move a muscle for fear you'll tell me it isn't done—in Italy."
But Ri-Ri gave this an absent smile. For long, now, she had been leading up to this talk and she felt herself upon the brink of revelations. . . . Perhaps this Johnny Byrd knew where Barry Elder was. Perhaps they were friends. . . .
"In New York," she told him, "that Leila Grey was at the restaurant with a young man—with the Signor Barry Elder."
"Huh? Barry Elder?"
"Are you,"—she was proud of the splendid indifference of her voice,—"are you a friend of his?"
Uninterestedly, "Oh, I know Barry," Johnny told her. "Bright boy—Barry. Awful high-brow, though. Wrote a play or something. Not a darn bed in it. Oh, well," said Johnny hastily, with a glance at the girl's young face, "I say, how does this go? Ta tump ti tum ti tump tump—what do those words of yours mean?"
"Perhaps this Barry Elder," said Ri-Ri with averted eyes, her hands fluttering the pages, "perhaps he is the one that Leila Grey's attention was upon. Did you not hear that?"
"Has he not," said the girl desperately, "become recently more desirable to her—more rich, perhaps——"
"That play didn't make him anything, that's sure," the young man meditated. "But seems to me I did hear—something about an uncle shuffling off and leaving him a few thous. . . . Maybe he left enough to buy Leila a supper."
"Here are the English words." Maria Angelina spread the music open before them. "Mrs. Blair was joking with him," she reverted, "because he was not going to that York Harbor this summer where this Leila Grey was. But perhaps he has gone, after all?"
"Search me," said Johnny negligently. "I'm not his keeper."
"But you would know if he is coming to the dance at the Martins—that dance next week——?"
"He isn't coming to the house party, he's not invited. He and Bob aren't anything chummy at all. Barry trains in an older crowd. . . . Seems to me," said Johnny, turning to look at her out of bright blue eyes, "you're awf'ly interested in this Barry Elder thing. Did you say you met him in New York?"
"I met him—yes," said Maria Angelina, in a steady little voice, beginning suddenly to play. "And I thought it was so romantic—about him and this Leila Grey. She was so beautiful and he had been so brave in the war. And so I wondered——"
"Well, don't you wonder about who's coming to that dance. That dance is mine," said Johnny definitely. "I want you to look your darndest—put it all over those flappers. Show them what you got," admonished Johnny with the simple directness in such vogue.
"And now come on, Ri-Ri—let's get into this together.
'I cannot now forget you And you think not of me!'
Come on, Maria Angelina!"
And Maria Angelina, her face lifted, her eyes strangely bright, sang, while Johnny Byrd stared fixedly down at her, angrily, defiantly, sang to that unseen young man—back in the shadows——
"I cannot now forget you And you think not of me!"
And then she told herself that she would forget him very well indeed.
There had been distinct proprietorship in Johnny's reference to the dance, a hint of possessive admonition, a shade of anxiety to which Maria Angelina was not insensitive.
He wanted her to excel. His pride was calling, unconsciously, upon her, to justify his choice. The dance was an exhibition . . . competition. It was the open market . . . appraisal. . . .
No matter how charming she might be in the motor rides with the four, how pretty and piquant in the afternoon at the piano, how melodious in the evenings upon the steps, the full measure of his admiration was not exacted.
Sagely she surmised this. Anxiously she awaited the event.
It was her first real dance. It was her first American affair. Casually, in the evenings at the Lodge, they had danced to the phonograph and she had been initiated into new steps and amazed at the manner of them, but there had been nothing of the slightest formality.
Now the Martins were entertaining over the week-end, and giving a dance to which the neighborhood—meaning the neighborhood of the Martins' acquaintance—was assembling.
And again Maria Angelina felt the inrush of fear, the overwhelming timidity of inexperience held at bay by pride alone . . . again she knew the tormenting question which she had confronted in that dim old glass at the Palazzo Santonini on the day when she had heard of the adventure before her.
She asked it that night of a different glass, the big, built-in mirror of the dressing-room at the Martins given over to the ladies—a mirror that was a dissolving kaleidoscope of color and motion, of bright silks, bare shoulders and white arms, of pink cheeks, red lips and shining hair.
Advancing shyly among the young girls, filled with divided wonder at their self-possession and their extreme decolletage, Ri-Ri gazed at the glass timidly, determinedly, fatefully, as one approaches an oracle, and out from the glittering surface was flung back to her a radiant image of reassurance—a vision of a slim figure in filmiest white, slender arms and shoulders bare, dark hair not braided now, but piled high upon her head—a revelation of a nape of neck as young and kissable as a baby's and yet an addition of bewildering years to her immaturity.
To-night she was glad of the white skin, that was a gift from Mamma. The white coral string, against the satin softness of her throat, revealed its opalescent flush. She was immaculate, exquisite, like some figurine of fancy—an image of youth as sweet and innocently troubling as a May night.
"You're a love," said Ruth heartily, appearing at her side, very stunning herself in jade green, with her smooth hair a miracle of shining perfection.
"And you're—different," added Ruth in a slightly puzzled voice, looking her small cousin over with the thoroughness of an inventory. "It must be the hair, Ri-Ri. . . . You've lost that little Saint Susy air."
"But there is no Saint Susy," Ri-Ri interposed gayly, lightly fingering the dark curves of her hair.
Truly—for Johnny—she had done her darndest! Surely he would be pleased.
"If you'd only let me cut that lower—you're simply swaddled in tulle——"
Startled, Maria glanced down at the hollows of her young bosom, at the scantiness of her bodice suspended only by bands of sheerest gauze. She wondered what Mamma would say, if she could see her so, without that drape of net. . . .
"You have the duckiest shoulder blades," said Ruth.
"Oh—do they show?" cried Maria Angelina in dismay. She twisted for a view and the movement drew Ruth's glance along her lithe figure.
"We ought to have cut two inches more off," she declared, and now Ri-Ri's glance fled down to the satin slippers with their crossed ribbons, to the narrow, silken ankles, to the slender legs above the ankles. It seemed to her an utterly limitless exhibition. And Ruth was proposing two more inches!
Apprehensively she glanced about to make sure that no scissors were in prospect.
"But you'll do," Ruth pronounced, and in relief Maria Angelina relinquished the center of the mirror, and slipped out into the gallery that ran around three sides of the house.
It was built like a chalet, but Maria Angelina had seen no such chalet in her childish summers in Switzerland. Over the edge of the rail she gazed into the huge hall, cleared now for dancing. The furniture had been pushed back beneath the gallery where it was arranged in intimate little groups for future tete-a-tetes, except a few lounging chairs left on the black bear-skins by the chimney-piece. In one corner a screen of pine boughs and daisies shut off the musicians from the streets, and in the opposite corner an English man-servant was presiding over a huge silver punch bowl.
To Maria Angelina, accustomed to Italian interiors, the note was buoyantly informal. And the luxury of service in this informality was a piquant contrast. . . . No one seemed to care what anything cost. . . . They gave dances in a log chalet and sent to New York for the favors and to California for the fruit. . . . Into the huge punch-bowl they poured wine of a value now incredible, since the supply could never be replenished. . . .
Very different would be Lucia's wedding party in the Palazzo Santonini, on that marvelous old service that Pietro polished but three times a year, with every morsel of refreshment arranged and calculated beforehand.
What miracles of economy would be performed in that stone-flagged kitchen, many of them by Mamma's own hands! Suddenly Maria Angelina found a moment to wonder afresh at that mother . . . and with a new vision. . . . For Mamma had come from this profusion.
"They have a regular place at Newport." Ruth was concluding some unheard speech behind her. "But they like this better. . . . This is the life," and with a just faintly discernible note of proprietorship in her air she was off down the stairs.
"Didn't they find Newport rather chilly?" murmured the girl to whom she had been talking. "Wasn't Mrs. M. a Smith or a Brown-Jones or something——?"
"It was something in butterine," said another guest negligently and swore, softly and intensely, at a shoulder strap. "Oh, damn the thing! . . . Well—flop if you want to. I've got nothing to hide."
"You know why girls hide their ears, don't you?" said the other voice, and the second girl flung wearily back, "Oh, so they can have something to show their husbands—I heard that in my cradle!"
"It is rather old," its sponsor acknowledged wittily, and the pair went clattering on.
Had America, Maria Angelina wondered, been like this in her mother's youth? Was it from such speeches that her mother had turned, in helplessness or distaste, to the delicate implications, the finished innuendo of the Italian world?
Or had times changed? Were these girls truly different from their mothers? Was it a new society?
That was it, she concluded, and she, in her old-world seclusion, was of another era from these assured ones. . . . Again, for a moment the doubt of her capacity to cope with these times assailed her, but only for a moment, for next instant she caught Johnny Byrd's upturned glance from the floor below and in its flash of admiration, as unstinted as a sun bath, her confidence drew reanimation.
Later, she found that same warmth in other men's eyes and in the eagerness with which they kept cutting in.
That cutting in, itself, was strange to her. It filled her with a terrifying perspective of what would happen if she were not cut in upon—if she were left to gyrate endlessly in the arms of some luckless one, eternally stuck. . . .
At home, at a ball, she knew that there were fixed dances, and programs, in which engagements were jotted definitely down, and at each dance's end a girl was returned respectfully to her chaperon where the next partner called for her. Often she had scanned Lucia's scrawled programs for the names there.
But none of that now.
Up and down the hall she sped in some man's arms, round and round, up and down, until another man, agile, dexterous, shot between the couples and claimed her. And then up and down again until some other man. . . . And sometimes they went back to rest in the intimately arranged chairs beneath the balcony, and sometimes stepped out of doors to saunter along a wide terrace.
It was incredibly independent. It was intoxicatingly free. It was also terrifyingly responsible.
And Maria Angelina, in her young fear of unpopularity, smiled so ingenuously upon each arrival, with a shy, backward deprecatory glance at her lost partner, that she stirred something new and wondering in each seasoned breast, and each dancer came again and again.
But all of them, the new young men from town, the tennis champion from Yale, the polo player from England, the lawyer from Washington, the stout widower, the professional bachelor, all were only moving shapes that came and went and came again and by their tribute made her successful in Johnny's eyes.
Indeed, so well did they do their work that Johnny was moved to brusque expostulation.
"Look here, Ri-Ri, I told you this was to be my dance! With all those outsiders cutting in—Freeze them, Ri-Ri. Try a long, hard level look on the next one you see making your way. . . . Don't you want to dance with me, any more? Huh? Where's that stand-in of mine? Is it a little, old last year's model?"