The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together. All's Well that Ends Well; iv.—3
To my three friends who, by generously acting as amanuenses, have made it possible that the book should be finished, I take pleasure in gratefully dedicating
"This is no square temple to the gate of which thou canst arrive precipitately; this is no mosque to which thou canst come with tumult but without knowledge." Persian Religious Hymn.
I. IN PLACE AND IN ACCOUNT NOTHING II. SOME SPEECH OF MARRIAGE III. IN WAY OF TASTE IV. NOW HE IS FOR THE NUMBERS V. 'TWAS WONDROUS PITIFUL VI. THE INLY TOUCH OF LOVE VII. THIS DEED UNSHAPES ME VIII. A NECESSARY EVIL IX. THIS IS NOT A BOON X. THE BITTER PAST XI. THE GREAT ASSAY OF ART XII. WHOM THE FATES HAVE MARKED XIII. THIS "WOULD" CHANGES XIV. THE SHOT OF ACCIDENT XV. LIKE COVERED FIRE XVI. WEIGHING DELIGHT AND DOLE XVII. THE HEAVY MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT XVIII. HE SPEAKS THE MERE CONTRARY XIX. HOW CHANCES MOCK XX. VOLUBLE AND SHARP DISCOURSE XXI. A MINT OF PHRASES IN HIS BRAIN XXII. HIS PURE HEART'S TRUTH XXIII. AS FALSE AS STAIRS OF SAND XXIV. THERE BEGINS CONFUSION XXV. AFTER SUCH A PAGAN CUT XXVI. O, WICKED WIT AND GIFT XXVII. UPON A CHURCH BENCH XXVIII. BEDECKING ORNAMENTS OF PRAISE XXIX. CRUEL PROOF OF THIS MAN'S STRENGTH XXX. THE WORLD IS STILL DECEIVED XXXI. PARTED OUR FELLOWSHIP XXXII. HEART-BURNING HEAT OF DUTY XXXIII. A BOND OF AIR XXXIV. WHAT TIME SHE CHANTED XXXV. HEARTSICK WITH THOUGHT XXXVI. FAREWELL AT ONCE, FOR ONCE, FOR ALL AND EVER XXXVII. A SYMPATHY OF WOE
IN PLACE AND IN ACCOUNT NOTHING. I Henry IV.; v.—I.
When Arthur Fenton, the most outspoken of all that band of protesting spirits who had been so well known in artistic Boston as the Pagans, married Edith Caldwell, there had been in his mind a purpose, secret but well defined, to turn to his own account his wife's connection with the Philistine art patrons of the town. Miss Caldwell was a niece of Peter Calvin, a wealthy and well-meaning man against whom but two grave charges could be made,—that he supposed the growth of art in this country to depend largely upon his patronage, and that he could never be persuaded not to take himself seriously. Mr. Calvin was regarded by Philistine circles in Boston as a sort of re-incarnation of Apollo, clothed upon with modern enlightenment, and properly arrayed in respectable raiment. Had it been pointed out that to make this theory probable it was necessary to conceive of the god as having undergone mentally much the same metamorphosis as that which had transformed his flowing vestments into trousers, his admirers would have received the remark as highly complimentary to Mr. Peter Calvin. To assume identity between their idol and Apollo would be immensely flattering to the son of Latona.
Fenton understood perfectly the weight and extent of Calvin's influence, yet, in determining to profit by it, he did not in the least deceive himself as to the nature of his own course.
"Honesty," he afterward confessed to his friend Helen Greyson, who scorned him for the admission, "is doubtless a charming thing for digestive purposes, but it is a luxury too expensive for me. The gods in this country bid for shams, and shams I purpose giving them."
So well did he carry out his intention, that in a few years he came to be the fashionable portrait-painter of the town; the artist to whom people went who rated the worth of a picture by the amount they were required to pay for it, and the reputation of the painter in conventional circles; the man to whom a Boston society woman inevitably turned when she wished the likeness of her charms preserved on canvas, and when no foreigner was for the moment in vogue and on hand.
The steps by which Fenton attained to this proud eminence were obvious enough. In the first place, he persuaded Mr. Calvin to sit to him. Mr. Calvin always sat to the portrait painters whom he endorsed. This was a sort of official recognition, and the results, as seen in the needlessly numerous likenesses of the gentleman which adorned his Beacon Hill mansion, would have afforded a cynic some amusement, and not a little food for reflection. Once launched under distinguished patronage, Fenton was clever enough to make his way. He really was able to paint well when he chose, a fact which was, on the whole, of less importance in his artistic career than were the adroitness of his address, and his ready and persuasive sympathy. The qualifications of a fashionable doctor, a fashionable clergyman, and a fashionable portrait-painter are much the same; it is only in the man-milliner that skill is demanded in addition to the art of pleasing.
As usually happens in such a case, Fenton's old friends avoided him, or found themselves left in the distance by his rapid strides toward fame and fortune. Then such of them as still came in contact with him made his acquaintance in a new character, and learned to accept him as a wholly different man from the one they had supposed themselves to know in the days when he was never weary of pouring forth tirades against the Philistinism he had now embraced. They admired the skill with which he painted stuffs and gowns, but among themselves they agreed that the old-time vigor and sincerity were painfully lacking in his work; and if they grumbled sometimes at the prices he got, it is only just to believe that it was seldom with any real willingness to pay, in the sacrifice of convictions and ideals, the equivalent which he had given for his popularity.
Fenton was one morning painting, in his luxuriously appointed studio, the portrait of a man who was in the prime of life, and over whom vulgar prosperity had, in forming him, left everywhere her finger marks plainly to be seen. He was tall and robust, with light eyes and blonde whiskers, and a general air of insisting upon his immense superiority to all the world. That he secretly felt some doubts of the perfection of his social knowledge, there were indications in his manner, but on the whole the complacency of a portly bank account overcame all misgivings of this sort. His character might have been easily inferred from the manner in which he now set his broad shoulders expansively back in the armchair in which he was posing, and regarded the artist with a patronizing air of condescending to be wonderfully entertained by his conversation.
"You are the frankest fellow I ever saw," he said, smiling broadly.
"Oh, frank," Fenton responded; "I am too frank. It will be the ruin of me sooner or later. It all comes of being born with a habit of being too honest with myself."
"Honesty with yourself is generally held up as a cardinal virtue."
"Nonsense. A man is a fool who is too frank with himself; he is always sure to end by being too frank with everybody else, just from mere habit."
Mr. Irons smiled more broadly still. He by no means followed all Fenton's vagaries of thought, but they tickled his mental cuticle agreeably. The artist had the name of being a clever talker, and with such a listener this was more than half the battle. The men who can distinguish the real quality of talk are few and far to seek; most people receive what is said as wit and wisdom, or the reverse, simply because they are assured it is the one or the other; and Alfred Irons was of the majority in this.
Fenton painted in silence a moment, inwardly possessed of a desire to caricature, or even to paint in all its ugliness, the vulgar mouth upon which he was working. The desire, however, was not sufficiently strong to restrain him from the judicious flattery of cleverly softening and refining the coarse lips, and he was conscious of a faint amusement at the incongruity between his thought and his action.
"And there is the added disadvantage," he continued the conversation as he glanced up and saw that his sitter's face was quickly, in the silence, falling into a heavy repose, "that frankness begets frankness. My sitters are always telling me things which I do not want to know, just because I am so beastly outspoken and sympathetic."
"You must have an excellent chance to get pointers," responded the sitter, his pale eyes kindling with animation. "You've painted two or three men this winter that could have put you up to a good thing."
"That isn't the sort of line chat takes in a studio," Fenton returned, with a slight shrug. "It isn't business that men talk in a studio. That would be too incongruous."
Irons sneered and laughed, with an air of consequence and superiority.
"I don't suppose many of you artist fellows would make much of a fist at business," he observed.
"Modern business," laughed the other, amused by his own epigram, "is chiefly the art of transposing one's debts. The thing to learn is how to pass the burden of your obligations from one man's shoulders to those of another often enough so that nobody who has them gets tired out, and drops them with a crash."
His sitter grinned appreciatively.
"And they don't tell you how to do this?"
"Oh, no. The things my sitters tell me about are of a very different sort. They make to me confidences they want to get rid of; things you'd rather not hear. Heavens! I have all I can do to keep some men from treating me like a priest and confessing all their sins to me."
Mr. Irons regarded the artist closely, with a curious narrowing of the eyes.
"That must give you a hold over a good many of them," he said. "I shall be careful what I say."
Fenton laughed, with a delightful sense of superiority. It amused him that his sitter should be betraying his nature at the very moment when he fancied himself particularly on his guard.
"You certainly have no crimes on your conscience that interfere with your digestion," was his reply; "but in any case, you may make yourself easy; I am not a blackmailer by profession."
"Oh, I didn't mean that," Mr. Irons answered, easily; "only of course you are a man who has his living to make. Every painter has to depend on his wits, and when you come in contact with men of another class professionally it would be natural enough to suppose you would take advantage of it."
The "lady's finger" in Fenton's cheek stood out white amid the sudden red, and his eyes flashed.
"Of course a sitter," he said in an even voice, which had somehow lost all its smooth sweetness, "is in a manner my guest, and the fact that his class was not up to mine, or that he wasn't a gentleman even, wouldn't excuse my taking advantage of him."
The other flushed in his turn. He felt the keenness of the retort, but he was not dexterous enough to parry it, and he took refuge in coarse bullying.
"Come, now, Fenton," he cried with a short, explosive laugh, "you talk like a gentleman."
But the artist, knowing himself to have the better of the other, and not unmindful, moreover, of the fact that to offend Alfred Irons might mean a serious loss to his own pocket, declined to take offence.
"Of course," he answered lightly, and with the air of one who appreciates an intended jest so subtile that only cleverness would have comprehended it, "that is one of the advantages I have always found in being one. I think I needn't keep you tied down to that chair any longer to-day. Come here and see how you think we are getting on."
And the sitter forgot quickly that he had been on the very verge of a quarrel.
SOME SPEECH OF MARRIAGE. Measure for Measure; v.—I.
When dinner was announced that night, Mrs. Arthur Fenton had not appeared, but presently she came into the room with that guilty and anxious look which marks the consciousness of social misdemeanors. She was dressed in a gown of warm primrose plush, softened by draperies of silver-gray net. It was a costume which her husband had designed for her, and which set off beautifully her brown hair and creamy white skin.
"I hope I have not kept you waiting long," she said, "but I wanted to dress for Mrs. Frostwinch's before dinner, and I was late about getting home."
There was a certain wistfulness in her manner which betrayed her anxiety lest he should be vexed at the trifling delay. Arthur Fenton was too well bred to be often openly unkind to anybody, but none the less was his wife afraid of his displeasure. He was one of those men who have the power of making their disapproval felt from the simple fact that they feel it so strongly themselves. The most oppressive of domestic tyrants are by no means those who vent their ill-nature in open words. The man who strenuously insists to himself upon his will, and cherishes in silence his dislike of whatever is contrary to it, is oftener a harder man to live with than one who is violently outspoken. Fenton was hardly conscious of the absolute despotism with which he ruled his home, but his wife was too susceptible to his moods not to feel keenly the unspoken protest with which he met any infringement upon his wishes or his pleasure. Tonight he was in good humor, and his sense of beauty was touched by the loveliness of her appearance.
"Oh, it is no matter," he answered lightly. "How stunning you look. That topaz," he continued, walking toward her, and laying his finger upon the single jewel she wore fastened at the edge of the square-cut corsage of her gown, "is exactly right. It is so deep in color that it gives the one touch you need. It was uncommonly nice of your Uncle Peter to give it to you."
"And of you to design a dress to set it off," returned she, smiling with pleasure. "I am glad you like me in it."
"You are stunning," her husband repeated, kissing her with a faint shade of patronage in his manner. "Now come on before the dinner is as cold as a stone. A cold dinner is like a warmed-over love affair; you accept it from a sense of duty, but there is no enjoyment in it."
Mrs. Fenton smiled, more from pleasure at his evident good nature than from any especial amusement, and they went together into the pretty dining-room.
Fenton acknowledged himself fond of the refinements of life, and his sensitive, sensuous nature lost none of the delights of a well- appointed home. He lived in a quiet and elegant luxury which would have been beyond the attainment of most artists, and which indeed not infrequently taxed his resources to the utmost.
The table at which the pair sat down was laid with exquisite damask and china, the dinner admirable and well served. The dishes came in hot, the maid was deft and comely in appearance, and the master of the house, who always kept watch, in a sort of involuntary self- consciousness, of all that went on about him, was pleasantly aware that the most fastidious of his friends could have found nothing amiss in the appointment or the service of his table. How much the perfect arrangement of domestic affairs demanded from his wife, Fenton found it more easy and comfortable not to inquire, but he at least appreciated the results of her management. He never came to accept the smallest trifles of life without emotion. His pleasure or annoyance depended upon minute details, and things which people in general passed without notice were to him the most important facts of daily life. The responsibility for the comfort of so highly organized a creature, Edith had found to be anything but a light burden. Only a wife could have appreciated the pleasure she had in having the most delicate shades in her domestic management noted and enjoyed; or the discomfort which arose from the same source. It was delightful to have her husband pleased by the smallest pains she took for his comfort; to know that his eye never failed to discover the little refinements of dress or cookery or household adornment; but wearing was the burden of understanding, too, that no flaw was too small to escape his sight. Mrs. Fenton's friends rallied her upon being a slave to her housekeeping; few of them were astute enough to understand that, kind as was always his manner toward her, she was instead the slave of her husband.
The room in which they were dining was one in which the artist took especial pleasure. He had panelled it with stamped leather, which he had picked up somewhere in Spain; while the ceiling was covered with a novel and artistic arrangement of gilded matting. Among Edith's wedding gifts had been some exquisite jars of Moorish pottery, and these, with a few pieces of Algerian armor, were the only ornaments which the artist had admitted to the room. The simplicity and richness of the whole made an admirable setting for the dinner table, and as the host when he entertained was willing to take the trouble of overlooking his wife's arrangements, the Fentons' dinner parties were among the most picturesquely effective in Boston.
"I have two big pieces of news for you," Mrs. Fenton said, when the soup had been removed. "I have been to call on Mrs. Stewart Hubbard this afternoon, and Mr. Hubbard is going to have you paint him. Isn't that good?"
Her husband looked up in evident pleasure.
"That isn't so bad," was his reply. "He'll make a stunning picture, and the Hubbards are precisely the sort of people one likes to have dealings with. Is he going at it soon?"
"He is coming to see you to-morrow, Mrs. Hubbard said. The picture is to be her birthday present. I told her you were so busy I didn't know when you could begin."
"I would stretch a point to please Mr. Hubbard. I am almost done with Irons, vulgar old cad. I wish I dared paint him as bad as he really looks."
"But your artistic conscience won't let you?" she queried, smiling. "He is a dreadful old creature; but he means well."
"People who mean well are always worse than those who don't mean anything; but I can make it up with Hubbard. He looks like Rubens' St. Simeon. I wish he wore the same sort of clothes."
"You might persuade him to, for the picture. But my second piece of news is almost as good. Helen is coming home."
"Helen Greyson. I had a letter from her today, written in Paris. She had already got so far, and she ought to be here very soon."
"How long has she been in Rome?" Fenton asked.
He had suddenly become graver. He had been intimate with Mrs. Greyson, a sculptor of no mean talent, in the days when he had been a fervid opponent of people and of principles with whom he had later joined alliance, and the idea of her return brought up vividly his parting from her, when she had scornfully upbraided him for his apostasy from convictions which he had again and again declared to be dearer to him than life.
"It is six years," Mrs. Fenton answered. "Caldwell was born the March after she went, and he will be six in three weeks. Time goes fast. We are getting to be old people."
Fenton stared at his plate absently, his thoughts busy with the past.
"Has Grant Herman been married six years?" he asked, after a moment.
"Grant Herman? Yes; he was married just before she sailed; but what of it?"
Fenton laid down the fork with which he had been poking the bits of fish about on his plate. He folded his arms on the edge of the table, and regarded his wife.
"It is astonishing, Edith," he observed, "how well one may know a woman and yet be mistaken in her. For six years I have supposed you to be religiously avoiding any allusion to Helen's love for Grant Herman, and it seems you never knew it at all."
It was Mrs. Fenton's turn to look up in surprise.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
Her husband laughed lightly, yet not very joyously.
"Nothing, if you will. Nobody ever told me they were in love with each other, but I am as sure that Helen made Herman marry Ninitta as if I had been on hand to see the operation."
"Made him marry her? Why should he marry her if he didn't want to?"
"Oh, well, I don't know anything about it. I know Ninitta followed Herman to America, for she told me so; and I am sure he had no idea of marrying her when she got here. Anybody can put two and two together, I suppose, especially if you know what infernally Puritanical notions Helen had."
The artist leaned back in his chair and smiled at his wife in his superior and tantalizing fashion.
"She thought she'd outgrown Puritanism," he returned, "but really she was, in her way, as much of a Puritan as you are. The country is full of people who don't understand that the essence of Puritanism is a slavish adherence to what they call principle, and who think because they have got rid of a certain set of dogmas they are free from their theologic heritage. There never was greater rubbish than such an idea."
Mrs. Fenton was silent. She had long ago learned the futility of attempting any argument in ethics with Arthur, and she received in silence whatever flings at her beliefs he chose to indulge in. She had even come hardly to heed words which in the early days of her married life would have wounded her to the quick. She had readjusted her conception of her husband's character, and if she still cherished illusions in regard to him, she no longer believed in the possibility of changing his opinions by opposing them.
Her thoughts were now, moreover, occupied with the personal problem which would in any case have appealed more strongly to the feminine mind than abstract theories, and she was considering what he had told her of Mrs. Greyson and Grant Herman, a sculptor for whom she had a warm admiration, and a no less strong liking.
However we busy ourselves with high aims, with learning, or art, or wisdom, or ethics, personal human interests appeal to us more strongly than anything else. Human emotions respond instinctively and quickly to any hint of the emotional life of others. Nothing more strikingly shows the essential unity of the race than the readiness with which all minds lay aside all concerns and ideas which they are accustomed to consider higher, to give attention to the trifling details of the intimate history of their fellows. Quite unconsciously, Edith had gathered up many facts, insignificant in themselves, concerning the relations of Mrs. Greyson and Herman, and she now found herself suddenly called upon to reconsider whatever conclusions they had led her to in the light of this new development. The sculptor's marriage with an ex-model had always been a mystery to her, and she now endeavored to decide in her mind whether it were possible that her husband could be right in putting the responsibility upon Helen Greyson. The form of his remark seemed to her to hint that the Italian's claim upon Herman had been of so grave a nature as to imply serious complications in their former relations; but she strenuously rejected any suspicion of evil in the sculptor's conduct.
"I am sure, Arthur," she said, hesitatingly, "there can have been nothing wrong between Mr. Herman and Ninitta. I have too much faith in him."
"To put faith in man," was his answer, "is only less foolish than to believe in woman. I didn't, however, mean to imply anything very dreadful. The facts are enough, without speculating on what is nobody's business but theirs. I wonder how he and Helen will get on together, now she is coming home? Mrs. Herman is a jealous little thing, and could easily be roused up to do mischief."
"I do not believe Helen had anything to do with their marriage," Edith said, with conviction. "It was a mistake from the outset."
"Granted. That is what makes it so probable that Helen did it. Grant isn't the man to make a fool of himself without outside pressure, and in the end a sacrifice to principle is always some ridiculous tomfoolery that can't be come at in any other way. However, we shall see what we shall see. What time are you going to Mrs. Frostwinch's?"
"I am going to the Browning Club at Mrs. Gore's first. Will you come?"
"Thank you, no. I have too much respect for Browning to assist at his dismemberment. I'll meet you at Mrs. Frostwinch's about ten."
IN WAY OF TASTE. Troilus and Cressida; iii.—3.
One of the most curious of modern whims in Boston has been the study of the poems of Robert Browning. All at once there sprang up on every hand strange societies called Browning Clubs, and the libraries were ransacked for Browning's works, and for the books of whoever has had the conceit or the hardihood to write about the great poet. Lovely girls at afternoon receptions propounded to each other abstruse conundrums concerning what they were pleased to regard as obscure passages, while little coteries gathered, with airs of supernatural gravity, to read and discuss whatever bore his signature.
A genuine, serious Boston Browning Club is as deliciously droll as any form of entertainment ever devised, provided one's sense of the ludicrous be strong enough to overcome the natural indignation aroused by seeing genuine poetry, the high gift of the gods, thus abused. The clubs meet in richly furnished parlors, of which the chief fault is usually an over-abundance of bric-a-brac. The house of Mrs. Gore, for instance, where Edith was going this evening, was all that money could make it; and in passing it may be noted that Boston clubs are seldom of constitutions sufficiently vigorous to endure unpleasant surroundings. The fair sex predominates at all these gatherings, and over them hangs an air of expectant solemnity, as if the celebration of some sacred mystery were forward. Conversation is carried on in subdued tones; even the laughter is softened, and when the reader takes his seat, there falls upon the little company a hush so deep as to render distinctly audible the frou-frou of silken folds, and the tinkle of jet fringes, stirred by the swelling of ardent and aspiring bosoms.
The reading is not infrequently a little dull, especially to the uninitiated, and there have not been wanting certain sinister suggestions that now and then, during the monotonous delivery of some of the longer poems, elderly and corpulent devotees listen only with the spiritual ear, the physical sense being obscured by an abstraction not to be distinguished by an ordinary observer from slumber. The reader, however, is bound to assume that all are listening, and if some sleep and others consider their worldly concerns or speculate upon the affairs of their neighbors, it interrupts not at all the steady flow of the reading.
Once this is finished, there is an end also of inattention, for the discussion begins. The central and vital principle of all these clubs is that a poem by Robert Browning is a sort of prize enigma, of which the solution is to be reached rather by wild and daring guessing than by any commonplace process of reasoning. Although to an ordinary and uninspired intellect it may appear perfectly obvious that a lyric means simply and clearly what it says, the true Browningite is better informed. He is deeply aware that if the poet seems to say one thing, this is proof indisputable that another is intended. To take a work in straightforward fashion would at once rob the Browning Club of all excuse for existence, and while parlor chairs are easy, the air warm and perfumed, and it is the fashion for idle minds to concern themselves with that rococo humbug Philistines call culture, societies of this sort must continue.
Once it is agreed that a poem means something not apparent, it is easy to make it mean anything and everything, especially if the discussion, as is usually the case, be interspersed with discursions of which the chief use is to give some clever person or other a chance to say smart things. When all else fails, moreover, the club can always fall back upon allegory. Commentators on the poets have always found much field for ingenious quibbling and sounding speculation in the line of allegory. Let a poem be but considered an allegory, and there is no limit to the changes which may be rung upon it, not even Mrs. Malaprop's banks of the Nile restraining the creature's headstrong ranging. Only a failure of the fancy of the interpreter can afford a check, and as everybody reads fiction nowadays, few people are without a goodly supply of fancies, either original or acquired.
Although Fenton had declined to go to Mrs. Gore's with his wife, he had finished his cigar when the carriage was announced, and decided to accompany her, after all. The parlors were filling when they arrived, and Arthur, who knew how to select good company, managed to secure a seat between Miss Elsie Dimmont, a young and rather gay society girl, and Mrs. Frederick Staggchase, a descendant of an old Boston family, who was called one of the cleverest women of her set.
"Is Mr. Fenwick going to read?" he asked of the latter, glancing about to see who was present.
"Yes," Mrs. Staggchase answered, turning toward him with her distinguished motion of the head and high-bred smile. "Don't you like him?"
"I never had the misfortune to hear him. I know he detests me, but then I fear, that like olives and caviare, I have to be an acquired taste."
"Acquired tastes," she responded, with that air of being amused by herself which always entertained Fenton, "are always the strongest."
"And generally least to a man's credit," he retorted quickly. "What is he going to inflict upon us?"
"Really, I don't know. I seldom come to this sort of thing. I don't think it pays."
"Oh, nothing pays, of course," was Fenton's reply, "but it is more or less amusing to see people make fools of themselves."
The president of the club, at this moment, called the assembly to order, and announced that Mr. Fenwick had kindly consented—"Readers always kindly consent," muttered Fenton aside to Mrs. Staggchase—to read, Bishop Blougram's Apology, to which they would now listen. There was a rustle of people settling back into their chairs; the reader brushed a lank black lock from his sallow brow, and with a tone of sepulchral earnestness began:
"'No more wine? then we'll push back chairs, and talk.'"
For something over an hour, the monotonous voice of the reader went dully on. Fenton drew out his tablets and amused himself and Miss Dimmont by drawing caricatures of the company, ending with a sketch of a handsome old dowager, who went so soundly to sleep that her jaw fell. Over this his companion laughed so heartily that Mrs. Staggchase leaned forward smilingly, and took his tablets away from him; whereat he produced an envelope from his pocket and was about to begin another sketch, when suddenly, and apparently somewhat to the surprise of the reader, the poem came to an end.
There was a joyful stir. The dowager awoke, and there was a perfunctory clapping of hands when Mr. Fenwick laid down his volume, and people were assured that there was no mistake about his being really quite through. A few murmurs of admiration were heard, and then there was an awful pause, while the president, as usual, waited in the never- fulfilled hope that the discussion would start itself without help on his part.
"How cleverly you do sketch," Miss Dimmont said, under her breath; "but it was horrid of you to make me laugh."
"You are grateful," Fenton returned, in the same tone. "You know I kept you from being bored to death."
"I have a cousin, Miss Wainwright," pursued Miss Dimmont, "whose picture we want you to paint."
"If she is as good a subject as her cousin," Fenton answered, "I shall be delighted to do it."
The president had, meantime, got somewhat ponderously upon his feet, half a century of good living not having tended to increase his natural agility, and remarked that the company were, he was sure, extremely grateful to Mr. Fenwick, for his very intelligent interpretation of the poem read.
"Did he interpret it?" Fenton whispered to Mrs. Staggchase. "Why wasn't I told?" "Hush!" she answered, "I will never let you sit by me again if you do not behave better."
"Sitting isn't my metier, you know," he retorted.
The president went on to say that the lines of thought opened by the poem were so various and so wide that they could scarcely hope to explore them all in one evening, but that he was sure there must be many who had thoughts or questions they wished to express, and to start the discussion he would call upon a gentleman whom he had observed taking notes during the reading, Mr. Fenton.
"The old scaramouch!" Fenton muttered, under his breath. "I'll paint his portrait and send it to Punch."
Then with perfect coolness he got upon his feet and looked about the parlor.
"I am so seldom able to come to these meetings," he said, "that I am not at all familiar with your methods, and I certainly had no idea of saying anything; I was merely jotting down a few things to think over at home, and not making notes for a speech, as you would see if you examined the paper."
At this point Miss Dimmont gave a cough which had a sound strangely like a laugh strangled at its birth.
"The poem is one so subtile," Fenton continued, unmoved; "it is so clever in its knowledge of human nature, that I always have to take a certain time after reading it to get myself out of the mood of merely admiring its technique, before I can think of it critically at all. Of course the bit about 'an artist whose religion is his art' touches me keenly, for I have long held to the heresy that art is the highest thing in the world, and, as a matter of fact, the only thing one can depend upon. The clever sophistry of Bishop Blougram shows well enough how one can juggle with theology; and, after all, theology is chiefly some one man's insistence that everybody else shall make the same mistakes that he does."
Fenton felt that he was not taking the right direction in his talk, and that in his anxiety to extricate himself from a slight awkwardness he was rapidly getting himself into a worse one. It was one of those odd whimsicalities which always came as a surprise when committed by a man who usually displayed so much mental dexterity, that now, instead of endeavoring to get upon the right track, he simply broke off abruptly and sat down.
His words had, however, the effect of calling out instantly a protest from the Rev. De Lancy Candish. Mr. Candish was the rector of the Church of the Nativity, the exceedingly ritualistic organization with which Mrs. Fenton was connected. He was a tall and bony young man, with abundant auburn hair and freckles, the most ungainly feet and hands, and eyes of eager enthusiasm, which showed how the result of New England Puritanism had been to implant in his soul the true martyr spirit. Fenton was never weary of jeering at Mr. Candish's uncouthness, his jests serving as an outlet, not only for the irritation physical ugliness always begot in him, but for his feeling of opposition to his wife's orthodoxy, in which he regarded the clergyman as upholding her. The rector's self-sacrificing devotion to truth, moreover, awakened in the artist a certain inner discomfort. To the keenly sensitive mind there is no rebuke more galling than the unconscious reproof of a character which holds steadfastly to ideals which it has basely forsaken. Arthur said to himself that he hated Candish for his ungainly person. "He is so out of drawing," he once told his wife, "that I always have a strong inclination to rub him out and make him over again." In that inmost chamber of his consciousness where he allowed himself the luxury of absolute frankness, however, the artist confessed that his animosity to the young rector had other causes.
As Fenton sank into his seat, Mrs. Staggchase leaned over to quote from the poem,—
"'For Blougram, he believed, say, half he spoke.'"
The artist turned upon her a glance of comprehension and amusement, but before he could reply, the rough, rather loud voice of Mr. Candish arrested his attention.
"If the poem teaches anything," Mr. Candish said, speaking according to his custom, somewhat too warmly, "it seems to me it is the sophistry of the sort of talk which puts art above religion. The thing that offends an honest man in Bishop Blougram is the fact that he looks at religion as if it were an art, and not a vital and eternal necessity,—a living truth that cannot be trifled with."
"Ah," Fenton's smooth and beautiful voice rejoined, "that is to confound art with the artificial, which is an obvious error. Art is a passion, an utter devotion to an ideal, an absolute lifting of man out of himself into that essential truth which is the only lasting bond by which mankind is united."
Fenton's coolness always had a confusing and irritating effect upon Mr. Candish, who was too thoroughly honest and earnest to quibble, and far from possessing the dexterity needed to fence with the artist. He began confusedly to speak, but with the first word became aware that Mrs. Fenton had come to the rescue. Edith never saw a contest between her husband and the clergyman without interfering if she could, and now she instinctively spoke, without stopping to consider where she was.
"It is precisely for that reason," she said, "that art seems to me to fall below religion. Art can make man contented with life only by keeping his attention fixed upon an ideal, while religion reconciles us to life as it really is."
A murmur of assent showed Arthur how much against the feeling of those around him were the views he was advancing.
"Oh, well," he said, in a droll sotto voce, "if it is coming down to a family difference we will continue it in private."
And he abandoned the discussion.
"It seems to me," pursued Mr. Candish, only half conscious that Mrs. Fenton had come to his aid, "that Bishop Blougram represents the most dangerous spirit of the age. His paltering with truth is a form of casuistry of which we see altogether too much nowadays."
"Do you think," asked a timid feminine voice, "that Blougram was quite serious? That he really meant all he said, I mean?"
The president looked at the speaker with despair in his glance; but she was adorably pretty and of excellent social position, so that snubbing was not to be thought of. Moreover, he was thoroughly well trained in keeping his temper under the severest provocation, so he expressed his feelings merely by a deprecatory smile.
"We have the poet's authority," he responded, in a softly patient voice, "for saying that he believed only half."
There was a little rustle of leaves, as if people were looking over their books, in order to find the passage to which he alluded. Then a young girl in the front row of chairs, a pretty creature, just on the edge of womanhood, looked up earnestly, her finger at a line on the page before her.
"I can't make out what this means," she announced, knitting her girlish brow,—
"'Here, we've got callous to the Virgin's winks That used to puzzle people wholesomely.'"
"Of course he can't mean that the Madonna winks; that would be too irreverent."
There were little murmurs of satisfaction that the question had been asked, confusing explanations which evidently puzzled some who had not thought of being confused before; and then another girl, ignoring the fact that the first difficulty had not been disposed of, propounded another.
"Isn't the phrase rather bold," she asked, "where he speaks of 'blessed evil?'"
"Where is that?" some one asked.
"On page 106, in my edition," was the reply; and a couple of moments were given to finding the place in the various books.
"Oh, I see the line," said an old lady, at last. "It's one—two—three— five lines from the bottom of the page:"
"'And that's what all the blessed evil's for.'"
"You don't think," queried the first speaker, appealing personally to the president, "that Mr. Browning can really have meant that evil is blessed, do you?"
The president regarded her with an affectionate and fatherly smile.
"I think," he said, with an air of settling everything, "that the explanation of his meaning is to be found in the line which follows,—
"'It's use in Time is to environ us.'"
"Heavens!" whispered Fenton to Mrs. Staggchase; "fancy that incarnate respectability environed by 'blessed evil!'"
"For my part," she returned, in the same tone, "I feel as if I were visiting a lunatic asylum." "Yes, that line does make it beautifully clear," observed the voice of Miss Catherine Penwick; "and I think that's so beautiful about the exposed brain, and lidless eyes, and disemprisoned heart. The image is so exquisite when he speaks of their withering up at once."
Fenton made a droll grimace for the benefit of his neighbor, and then observed with great apparent seriousness,—
"The poem is most remarkable for the intimate knowledge it shows of human nature. Take a line like:"
'Men have outgrown the shame of being fools;'
"We can see such striking instances of its truth all about us."
"How can you?" exclaimed Elsie Dimmont, under her breath.
Fenton had not been able wholly to keep out of his tone the mockery which he intended, and several people looked at him askance. Fortunately for him, a nice old gentleman who, being rather hard of hearing, had not caught what was said, now broke in with the inevitable question, which, sooner or later, was sure to come into every discussion of the club:
"Isn't this poem to be most satisfactorily understood when it is regarded as an allegory?"
The members, however, did not take kindly to this suggestion in the present instance. The question passed unnoticed, while a severe-faced woman inquired, with an air of vast superiority,—
"I have understood that Bishop Blougram is intended as a portrait of Cardinal Wiseman; can any one tell me if Gigadibs is also a portrait?"
"Oh, Lord!" muttered Fenton, half audibly. "I can't stand any more of this."
And at that moment a servant came to tell him that his carriage was waiting.
NOW HE IS FOR THE NUMBERS. Romeo and Juliet; ii.——4.
When Mr. and Mrs. Fenton were in the carriage, driving from Mrs. Gore's to Mrs. Frostwinch's, Arthur broke into a pleasant little laugh, as if a sudden thought had amused him.
"Why in the world, Edith," he asked, "couldn't you let that moon-calf Candish fight his own battle to-night? He would have tied himself all up in two moments, with a little judicious help I should have been glad to give him."
"I knew it," was her answer, "and that is precisely why I wanted to stop things. What possible amusement it can be to you to get the better of a man who is so little a match for you in argument, I don't understand."
"I never begin," Fenton responded. "Of course if he starts it I have to defend myself."
The stopping of the carriage prevented further discussion, and the pair were soon involved in the crowd of people struggling toward the hostess across Mrs. Denton Frostwinch's handsome drawing-room. Mrs. Frostwinch belonged, beyond the possibility of any cavilling doubt, to the most exclusive circle of fashionable Boston society. Boston society is a complex and enigmatical thing, full of anomalies, bounded by wavering and uncertain lines, governed by no fixed standards, whether of wealth, birth, or culture, but at times apparently leaning a little toward each of these three great factors of American social standing.
It is seldom wise to be sure that at any given Boston house whatever, one will not find a more or less strong dash of democratic flavor in general company, and there are those who discover in this fact evidences of an agreeable and lofty republicanism. At Mrs. Frostwinch's one was less likely than in most houses to encounter socially doubtful characters, a fact which Arthur Fenton, who was secretly flattered to be invited here, had once remarked to his wife was an explanation of the dulness of these entertainments.
For Mrs. Frostwinch's parties were apt to be anything but lively. One was morally elevated by being able to look on the comely and high-bred face of Mrs. Bodewin Ranger, but that fine old lady had a sort of religious scruple against saying anything in particular in company, a relic of the days of her girlhood, when cleverness was not the fashion in her sex and when she had been obliged to suppress herself lest she outshine the high-minded and courtly but dreadfully dull gentleman she married.
One had here the pleasure of shaking one of the white fingers of Mr. Plant, the most exquisite gourmet in Boston, whose only daughter had made herself ridiculous by a romantic marriage with a country farmer. The Stewart Hubbards, who were the finest and fiercest aristocrats in town, and whose ancestors had been possessed not only of influence but of wealth ever since early colonial days, were old and dear friends of Mrs. Frostwinch and always decorated her parlors on gala nights with their benign presence. Mr. Peter Calvin, the leader of art fashions, high priest of Boston conservatism, and author of numerous laboriously worthless books, seldom failed to diffuse the aroma of his patronizing personality through the handsome parlors of this hospitable mansion when there was any reasonable chance of his securing an audience to admire him; and in general terms the company was what the newspapers call select and distinguished.
For Mrs. Frostwinch was entitled to a leading place in society upon whichever of the three great principles it was based. She was descended from one of the best of American families, while her good-tempered if somewhat shadowy husband was of lineage quite as unexceptional as her own. She was possessed of abundant wealth, while in cleverness and culture she was the peer of any of the brilliant people who frequented her house. She was moderately pretty, dressed beautifully, was sweet tempered, and possessed all good gifts and graces except repose and simplicity. She perhaps worked too hard to keep abreast of the times in too many currents, and her mental weariness instead of showing itself by an irritable temper found a less disagreeable outlet in a certain nervous manner apt to seem artificial to those who did not know her well. She was a clever, even a brilliant woman, who assembled clever and brilliant people about her, although as has been intimated, the result was by no means what might have been expected from such material and such opportunities. The truth is that there seems to be a fatal connection between exclusiveness and dulness. The people who assembled in Mrs. Frostwinch's handsome parlors usually seemed to be unconsciously laboring under the burden of their own respectability. They apparently felt that they had fulfilled their whole duty by simply being there; and while the list of people present at one of Mrs. Frostwinch's evenings made those who were not there sigh with envy at thought of the delights they had missed, the reality was far from being as charming as their fancy.
"I wish somebody would bring Amanda Welsh Sampson here," murmured Arthur in his wife's ear, as the Fentons made their way toward their hostess. "It would be too delicious to see how she'd stir things up, and how shocked the old tabby dowagers would be."
But there were some social topics which were too serious to Edith to be jested upon.
"Mrs. Sampson!" she returned, with an expression of being really shocked. "That dreadful creature!"
The rooms were well filled; the clatter of innumerable tongues speaking English with that resonant dryness which reminds one of nothing else so much as of the clack of a negro minstrel's clappers indefinitely reduplicated, rang in the ears with confusing steadiness. An hour was spent in fragmentary conversations, which somehow were always interrupted at the instant the interesting point was reached. The men bestirred themselves with more or less alacrity, making their way about the room with a conscientious determination to speak to everybody whom duty called upon them to address, or more selfishly devoting themselves to finding out and chatting with the pretty girls. Fenton found time for the latter method while being far too politic to neglect the former. He was chatting in a corner with Ethel Mott, when Fred Rangely, whose successful novel had made him vastly the fashion that winter, joined them.
"When wit and beauty get into a corner together," was Rangely's salutation, "there is sure to be mischief brewing."
"It isn't at all kind," Miss Mott retorted, "for you to emphasize the fact that Mr. Fenton has all the wit and I not any."
"It is as kind," Fenton said, "as his touching upon the plainness of my personal appearance."
"Your mutual modesty in appropriating wit and beauty," Rangely returned, "goes well toward balancing the account."
"One has to be modest when you appear, Mr. Rangely," Miss Mott declared, saucily, "simply to keep up the average."
"Come," Fenton said, "this will serve as an excellent beginning for a quarrel. I will leave you to carry it on by yourselves. I have got too old for that sort of amusement."
Rangely looked after the artist as the latter took himself off to join Mrs. Staggchase, who was holding court not far away.
"You may follow if you want to," Ethel said, intercepting the glance.
Rangely laughed, a trifle uneasily.
"I don't want to," he replied, "if you will be good natured."
"Good natured? I like that! I am always good natured. You had better go than to stay and abuse me. But then, as you have been at Mrs. Staggchase's all the afternoon, you ought to be pretty well talked out."
The young man turned toward her with an air of mingled surprise and impatience.
"Who said I had been there?" he demanded.
"It was in the evening papers," she returned, teasingly. "All your movements are chronicled now you have become a great man."
"Humph! I am glad you were interested in my whereabouts."
"But I wasn't in the least."
"Are you sparring as usual, Miss Mott?" asked Mr. Stewart Hubbard, joining them. "Good evening, Mr. Rangely."
"Oh, Mr. Hubbard," Miss Mott said, ignoring the question, "I want to know who is to make the statue of America. It is going to stand opposite our house, so that it will be the first thing I shall see when I look out of the window in the morning, and naturally I am interested."
"Mr. Herman is making a study, and Mr. Irons has been put up to asking this new woman for a model. What is her name? The one whose Galatea made a stir last year."
"Mrs. Greyson," Rangely answered. "I used to know her before she went to Rome."
"Is she clever?" demanded Miss Mott, with a sort of girlish imperiousness which became her very well. "I can't have a statue put up unless it is very good indeed."
"She might take Miss Mott as a model," Mr. Hubbard suggested, smiling.
"For America? Oh, I am too little, and altogether too civilized. I'd do better for a model of Monaco, thank you."
"There is always a good deal of chance about you," Rangely said in her ear, as Mr. Staggchase spoke to Mr. Hubbard and drew his attention away.
Mr. Staggchase was a thin, wintry man, looking, as Fenton once said, like the typical Yankee spoiled by civilization. He had always in a scene of this sort the air of being somewhat out of place, but of having brought his business with him, so that he was neither idle nor bored. It was upon business that he now spoke to Hubbard.
"Did you see Lincoln to-day?" he asked. "He has got an ultimatum from those parties. They will sell all their rights for $70,000."
"For $70,000," repeated Mr. Hubbard, thoughtfully. "We can afford to give that if we are sure about the road; but I don't know that we are. If Irons gets hold of any hint of what we are doing he can upset the whole thing."
"But he won't. There is no fear of that."
A movement in the crowd brought Edith Fenton at this moment to the side of Mr. Hubbard. She was radiant to-night in her primrose gown, and the gentleman, with whom she was always a favorite, turned toward her with evident pleasure.
"Isn't it a jam," she said. "I have ceased to have any control over my movements."
"That is unkind, when I fancied you allowed yourself to give me the pleasure of seeing you," returned he with elaborate courtesy. "Let me take you in to the supper-room."
"Thank you," Edith replied, taking his arm. "I do not object to an ice, and I want to ask a favor. Haven't you some copying you can give a protegee of mine? She's a lovely girl, and she really writes very nicely. I assure you she needs the work, or I wouldn't bother you."
They made their way into the hall before he answered. Then he asked, with some seriousness,—
"Are you sure she is absolutely to be trusted?"
"Trusted? Why, of course. I'd trust her as absolutely as I would myself."
"I asked because I do happen to have some copying I want done; but it is of the most serious importance that it be kept secret. It is the prospectus of a big business scheme, and if a hint of it got on the air it would all be ruined."
Edith looked up into his face and smiled.
"Her name," she said, "is Melissa Blake, and you will find her—Or, wait; what time shall I send her to your office to-morrow?"
Her companion smiled in turn. They had reached the door of the supper- room, where the clatter of dishes, the popping of champagne corks, and the rattle of silver were added to the babble of conversation which filled the whole house. About the tables was going on a struggle which, however well-bred, was at least sufficiently vigorous.
"You take a good deal for granted," he said. "However, it will do no harm for me to see the young woman. She may come at eleven. What shall I bring you?"
'TWAS WONDROUS PITIFUL. Othello; i.—3.
"Dear John, I will give it up any day you say, and go back to Feltonville and live on the farm; but you know"—
Melissa Blake broke off and left her chair to take a seat on the corner of that on which her betrothed, John Stanton, was sitting, a proceeding which made it necessary for him to put his arm about her trig waist to support her.
"Don't think I don't understand, dear," she said, nestling up to him, "how hard it is, and what a long drag it has been, but we should neither of us ever feel quite satisfied to give it up. We can hold on, can't we, as long as we are together."
He kissed her fondly, but with a certain air of distraction which showed how full was his mind of the matter which troubled him. Two years before, he had come to Boston, and obtained work as a carpenter, determined to pay the debts left by his dead father, before he would marry and settle down on the small farm which belonged to his betrothed, and which, while it might be made to yield a living, could by no means be looked to for more. For the sake of being near him, Melissa had given up the school teaching of which she was fond, and come to the city also, and although she had found the difficulty of earning the means of support far greater than she had anticipated, she had still clung to the fortunes of her lover, to whom her steadfastness and unfailing cheer were of a value such as men realize only when it is lost.
"I got a letter to-day," John went on, while Melissa stroked his fingers fondly, "about the meadows. The time for redeeming them is up this month, and if I try to do it I can't pay anything on the debts this winter. The truth is "—
Melissa sat up suddenly.
"John!" she exclaimed.
"Why, what—what is the matter?"
She looked at him with wide open eyes, drawing in her under lip beneath her white teeth, with the air of profound meditation. Then she freed herself abruptly from his arms and went hastily to the table upon which were her writing materials. She had been at work copying when her lover came in, and her papers lay still open, with ink scarcely dry, where she had stopped to welcome him. She took one sheet up and studied it eagerly, and then turned toward him with shining eyes, her whole face aglow.
"Oh, John!" she exclaimed.
He regarded her in puzzled silence. Then in an instant the glad light faded from her eyes, and her lips lost their smile. An expression of pain and almost of terror replaced the look of joy. There had suddenly come to Melissa a sense of what she was doing. In the paper she held was written the plan of the formation of a syndicate to purchase the very range of meadows along the river in Feltonville of which those mentioned by John formed a part. At Mrs. Fenton's direction, Melissa had gone to see Mr. Hubbard, and had by him been employed to copy these papers for use at a meeting of the proposed stockholders, which was to take place in a few days.
"Mrs. Fenton tells me," he had said, "that you are to be trusted. It is absolutely essential that you do not mention these plans to any living being. Perfect secrecy is expected from you, and it is only because Mrs. Fenton is your guarantee that I run the risk of putting them into your hands."
"I think you can trust me," she had answered; "even if," she had added, with the ghost of a smile, "there were anybody that I know who would be at all likely to be interested."
And now the temptation had come to her in a way of which she had never dreamed. She had gone on with her copying, smiling to herself at the coincidence which put into the hands of a Feltonville girl this plan for the metamorphosis of the sleepy old village into a bustling manufacturing town, but she had not considered that this scheme might have important bearing upon the fortunes of her lover. She knew that Stanton's father had owned meadows along the river where the new factories were to lie, and she knew also that when old Mr. Stanton died these had been sold with a condition of redemption, but until this moment she had not connected the facts. She did not understand business, and had been puzzling her brain as she wrote, to understand what was meant by the statement that a certain company would sell a "six months' option at seventy thousand dollars" on a water-power for two thousand dollars. She did understand now, however, that were John in possession of the secret of the syndicate's plans, he could redeem his father's meadows with the money he had saved toward the payment of the debts which had forced the old man into the bankruptcy that broke his heart, and once he owned these lands lying in the midst of the desirable tract, John could command his own price for them. She held in her hand the secret which would free her lover from the heavy burden of years, and bring quickly the wedding-day for which they had both waited and longed so patiently.
The blood bounded so hotly in Melissa's veins as she realized all this, that she could scarcely breathe; but like a lightning flash a thought followed which sent the tide surging back to her heart, and left her cold and faint. She remembered that this knowledge was a trust. That she had given her word not to betray it. With instant recoil, she leaped to the thought that advising her lover to redeem these meadows was not betraying the secret. Like a swift shuttle flew her mind between argument and defence, between temptation and resistance, between love and duty.
"Why, what is it, Milly?" John demanded, starting up and coming to her. "What in the world makes you act so funny? Are you sick? Why don't you speak?"
It is not easy to express the force of the struggle which went on in poor Milly's mind. It seemed to her at that moment as if all the hopes of her life were set against her honesty. The material issues in any conflict between principle and inclination are of less importance than the desire which they represent. The few thousand dollars involved in the redemption of the Stanton meadows was little when compared to the magnificent scheme of which this would be a mere trifling accident, but the sum represented all the desires of Milly Blake's life, while over against it stood all her faith, her honesty, and her religion.
For an instant she wavered, standing as if by some spell suddenly arrested, with arms half extended. Then she flung down the paper and threw herself upon her lover's breast with a burst of tears.
"Why, Milly," he said, soothingly. "Milly, Milly."
He was unused to feminine vagaries. His betrothed was of the outwardly quiet order of women, and an outburst like this was incomprehensible to him. He could only hold the weeping girl in his strong embrace, soothing her in helpless masculine fashion, awkward, but exactly what she needed.
"There, John," she cried at last, giving him a tumultuous hug, and looking up into his face through her tears, "I always told you you were engaged to a fool, and this is a new proof of it."
"But what in the world," Stanton asked, looking down into her eyes with mingled fondness and bewilderment, "is it all about? What is the matter?"
"It is nothing but my foolishness," she answered, leading him back to the chair from which he had risen. "I was going to show you something in a paper I am copying, and just in time I remembered that I had particularly promised not to show it to anybody."
He regarded her curiously.
"But why," he asked, with a certain deliberateness which somehow made her uneasy, "did you want to show it to me."
She could not equivocate, and her innocent soul had had little training in the arts of evasion.
Stanton leaned back in his chair, holding her by the shoulders as she sat upon his knee, and searching her face with his strong brown eyes. Milly's glance drooped.
"Don't ask me, John," she responded, putting her hand against his cheek, wistfully. "Don't you see I couldn't tell you without letting you know what is in the paper, and that is precisely the thing I promised not to do."
There are few men in whom a woman's open refusal to yield a point, no matter how trifling, does not arouse a tyrannous masculine impulse to compel obedience. Stanton had really no great curiosity about the secret, whatever it might be, but he instinctively felt that it was right to demand the telling because his betrothed refused to speak. His face grew more grave. The hands upon Milly's shoulders unconsciously tightened their hold. The girl intuitively felt that a struggle was coming, although even yet the signs were hardly tangible. She grew a little paler, putting her hand beneath her lover's bearded chin, and holding his face up so that she could look straight into his fearless, honest eyes.
"Dear John," she said, wistfully, "you know I never have a secret of my own that I keep from you in all the world."
"But why," demanded he, "can it do any harm for you to give me some reason why you ever thought of telling me this; and just at a time, too, when we were talking of business."
"Because," she answered, thoughtlessly, "it was about business."
A new light came into Stanton's face. His lips subtly changed their expression.
"It must have been a chance to make some money," he said.
She grew deadly pale, but she did not answer him. He searched her face an instant, and then he lifted her in his strong arms, rising from the chair, and seating her in his place. He took a step forward, and stretched out his hand to take the paper she had thrown upon the table. With a cry of terror she sprang up and caught his arm.
"John!" she exclaimed. "Oh, for pity's sake, don't look at it."
He turned and regarded her with a more unkind glance than she had ever seen upon his face.
"Will you tell me?" he asked.
"I can't, I can't!" she answered, half sobbing.
He looked at the paper, and then at his sweetheart. Then with a rough motion he shook off her fingers from his arm, and without a word went abruptly from the room.
Milly looked toward the door which had closed after him as if she could not believe that he had really gone; then she sank down to the floor, and, leaning her head upon a chair, she sobbed as if her heart were broken.
THE INLY TOUCH OF LOVE. Two Gentlemen of Verona; ii.—7.
Grant Herman looked across the breakfast table at his Italian wife thoughtfully a moment, considering, as he often did, what was likely to be the effect of something he was about to say. In six years of married life he had not learned how to adapt himself to the narrower mind and more personal views of his wife. He perhaps fell into the error, so common to strong natures, of being unable to comprehend that by far the larger part of the principles which influence broad minds do not for narrow ones exist at all. He continually tried to discover what process of reasoning led Ninitta to given results, but he was never able to appreciate the fact that often it was by no chain of logic whatever that certain conclusions had been arrived at. A mental habit of catching up opinions at haphazard, of acting simply from emotions, however transient, instead of from convictions, was wholly outside his mental experience, and equally unrealized in his comprehension.
He regarded Ninitta, whose foreign face and beautiful figure looked as much out of place behind the coffee urn as would the faun of Praxiteles at an afternoon reception, and a smothered sigh rose to his lips with the thought how utterly he was at a loss to comprehend her. It happened in the present case, as it often did, that his failure to understand arose chiefly from the fact that there was nothing in particular to understand, and, when he spoke, Ninitta received his remark quite simply.
"Mrs. Greyson is at home again," he said.
"Mrs. Greyson," she echoed, her dark eyes lighting up with genuine pleasure. "Oh, that is indeed good. Where is she? Have you seen her?"
There shot through Herman's mind the reflection that since his wife could not know that he married her out of love not for herself but for Helen Greyson, it was absurd to have fancied that Ninitta would be jealously displeased at Helen's return; and the inevitable twinge of conscience at his wife's trusting ignorance followed.
"I haven't seen her," he answered; "she only arrived yesterday. Mrs. Fenton told me when I met her at the Paint and Clay Exhibition last night."
Ninitta folded her hands on the edge of the table, with a gesture of childish pleasure.
"I wonder what she will say to Nino," she said musingly, her voice taking a new softness.
A sudden spasm contracted the sculptor's throat. His whole being was shaken by the return of the woman to whom all the passionate devotion of his manhood was given, and he never heard that soft, maternal note with which his wife spoke of his boy without emotion.
"She may say that the young rascal ought to be out of his bed in time for breakfast," he retorted with affected brusqueness. "He has all the Italian laziness in him."
He pushed back his chair as he spoke, and rose from the table. He hesitated a moment, as if some sudden thought absorbed him, then he went to his wife and kissed her forehead.
"Good-by," he said. "I sha'n't come up for lunch. Don't coddle the boy too much."
"But when," his wife persisted, as he turned away, "shall I see Mrs. Greyson? I want to show her the bambino."
She always spoke in Italian to her husband and her child, and indeed her English had never been of the most fluent.
"The bambino" the father repeated, smiling. "He will be a bambino to you when he is as big as I am, I suppose. I do not know about Mrs. Greyson, but I will find out, if I can."
He left the room and went to the chamber where his swarthy boy of five lay still luxuriously in his crib, although he was fully awake. Nino gave a soft cry of joy at the sight of his father, and greeted him rapturously.
"Papa," he asked in Italian, "does the kitty know how much she hurts when she scratches? she made a long place on my arm, and it hurt like fire."
"Do you know how much you hurt her to make her do it?" his father returned, smiling fondly.
"Oh, but she is so soft and so little, of course I don't hurt her," Nino answered, with boyish logic. "Anyway, she ought not to hurt me. I don't like to be hurt."
The foolish, childish words came back to Herman's mind a couple of hours later, as he waited in the boarding-house parlor for Helen Greyson. He smiled with bitterness to think how perfectly they represented his own state of mind. He said to himself that he was tired of being hurt, and rose at the moment to take in both his hands the hands of a beautiful woman, to his eyes no older and no less fair than when he had said good-by to her on his wedding morning, six years before. He tried to speak, but tears came instead of words; choked and blinded, he turned away abruptly, struggling to regain his composure.
The meeting after long years of those who have loved and been separated, may, for the moment, carry them back to the time of their parting so completely that all that lies between seems annihilated. The old emotion reasserts itself so strongly, the past lives again so vividly, that there seems to have been no break in feeling, and they stand in relation to one another as if the parting were yet to come. When they had been together a little, the time which lay between them would once more become a reality; but at the first touch of their hands those bitter days of loneliness ceased to exist, and they seemed to stand together again, as when they were saying good-by six years before.
With her old time self-control, it was Helen who spoke first, and her words recalled him from the past and its passion, to the present and its duty.
"Tell me how Ninitta is," she said, "and the boy. I do so want to see that wonderful boy."
The sculptor commanded his voice by a powerful effort.
"They are both well," he answered. "The boy is a wonderful little fellow, although perhaps I am not an unprejudiced judge. Ninitta is crazy to show him to you. She has pretty nearly effaced herself since he came, and only lives for his benefit."
"She is a happy woman," Helen said, assuming that air of cheerfulness which is one of the first accomplishments that women are forced by life to learn. "I should know she would be devoted to her children."
There were a few moments of silence. Both cast down their eyes, and then each raised them to study whatever changes time might have made in the years that lay between them. Helen's heart was beating painfully, but she was determined not to lose her self-control. She knew of old how completely she could rule the mood of her companion, and she felt that upon her calmness depended his. She had been schooling herself for this interview from the moment she began to consider whether she might return to America, and she was therefore less unprepared than was Herman for the trying situation in which she now found herself; yet it required all her strength of mind and of will not to give way to the tide of love and emotion which surged within her breast.
Herman fixed his eyes resolutely on an ungainly group in pinkish clay which represented an American commercial sculptor's idea of Romeo and Juliet at the moment when the Nurse separates them with a message from Lady Capulet. With artistic instinct he noted the stupidity of the composition, the vulgarity of the lines, the cheap ugliness of the group. In that singular abstraction which comes so frequently in moments of high emotion, he let his glance wander to the pictures on the wall, the enormities in embroidery which adorned the chair backs, the garish hues of the rug lying before the open grate. Then it occurred to him, with a vague sense of amusement, how great was the incongruity between such a setting as this vulgar boarding-house reception-room, and the woman before him. The idea brought to his mind the contrast between the life to which Helen had come, and the life at Rome, artistic, rich, and full of possibilities, which she had left.
The thought of Rome recalled instantly the old days there, almost a score of years ago, when he had first known Ninitta. So vivid were the memories which awakened, that he seemed to see again the Roman studio, the fat old aunt, voluble and sharp eyed, who always accompanied her niece when the girl posed; and most clearly of all did his inner vision perceive the fresh, silent maiden whose exquisite figure was at once the admiration and the despair of all the young artists in Rome. He remembered how Hoffmeir had discovered the girl drawing water from an old broken fountain he had gone out to sketch; and the difficulties that had to be overcome before she could be persuaded to pose. The Capri maidens are brought up to be averse to posing, and Ninitta had not long enough breathed the air of Rome to have overcome the prejudices of her youth. He reflected, with a bitterness rendered vague by a certain strange impersonality of his mood, how different would have been his life had Hoffmeir been unable to overcome the girl's scruples. He wondered whether the fat old aunt, and the greasy, good- natured little priest with whom she had taken counsel, would have urged Ninitta to take up the life of a model, could they have foreseen all the results to which this course was to lead in the end.
Then, with a sudden stinging consciousness, the thought came of all that her decision had meant to his life. The old question whether he had done right in marrying Ninitta forced itself upon him as if it were some enemy springing up from ambush. He raised his eyes, and his glance met that of Mrs. Greyson.
"It is no use, Helen," he broke out, impulsively, "we must talk frankly. It is idle to suppose that we can go on in an artificial pretence that we have nothing to say."
She put up her hand appealingly.
"Only do not drive me away again," she pleaded. "Don't say things that I have no right to hear!"
A dark red stained Herman's cheek, and the tears came into his eyes.
"No," he returned. "If any one is to be driven away it shall not be you."
"But why need we trouble the things that are past," she went on, with wistful eagerness. "Why cannot we accept it all in silence, and be friends."
He looked at her with a passionate, penetrating glance. She felt a wild and foolish longing to fling herself upon the floor and embrace his feet; but the old Puritan training, the resistant fibre inherited from sturdy ancestors, still did not fail her.
"You have your wife," she hurried on, "your home, your boy. That is enough. That"—
"That is not enough," he interrupted, with an emphasis, which seemed stern. "Helen, I shall not talk love to you. I am another woman's husband. I made a ghastly mistake when I married Ninitta, but it is done. She loves me; she is happy, and I love"—his voice faltered into a wonderful softness more eloquent than words,—"I love Nino."
She would not let him go on. She sprang up and ran to him, taking his hands in hers with a touch that made his blood rush tingling through his veins.
"Yes," she cried, "you love Nino! Think of that! Think most of all that whatever you are, good or bad, you are for your son, for Nino! Come! There is safety for us in that. We will go and talk with Nino between us. Then we shall say nothing of which we can be ashamed or regret."
There came to Herman a vision of his boy clasped in Helen's arms which made him feel as if suffocating with the excess of his emotion. He rose blindly, only half conscious of what he was doing; and without giving time for objections Helen hastened to dress herself for the street, and in a few moments they were walking together toward the sculptor's house.
To Herman's surprise, his wife was absent when he reached home. The maid did not know where she had gone. She often went out in the morning without saying where she was going, and of course the servant did not ask.
"That is odd," Herman said; "but she has probably gone shopping or something of the sort. It is too bad, she had so set her heart on showing you the bambino, as she calls him, herself."
But it proved that Nino also was out, having been taken for a walk; and so Helen, who returned home at once, saw neither of them.
THIS DEED UNSHAPES ME. Measure for Measure; iv.—4.
Ninitta had not gone shopping. She was posing for Arthur Fenton, at his studio. Even the presence of her boy could not wholly make up to the Italian for the loss of all the old interest and excitement of her life as a model. The boy was with his nurse or at the kindergarten for long hours during which Ninitta, who had few of the resources with which an educated woman would have filled her time, mingled longings for her old life with blissful gloatings over Nino's beauty and cleverness. Her husband was always kind, but since his marriage delicacy of sentiment had made him shrink from having his wife pose even for himself, while naturally no thought of her doing so for another would have been entertained for a moment.
Ninitta had been so long in the life, to pose had been so large a part of her very existence, that she hardly knew how to do without the old- time flavor. Mrs. Fenton had perceived something of this without at all appreciating the strength of the feeling of the sculptor's wife, and she had at one time tried to interest Ninitta in what might perhaps be called missionary work among the models of Boston, a class of whose calling Edith held views which her husband was not wholly wrong in calling absurdly narrow. She was met at once by the difficulty that it was impossible to make Ninitta see that missionary work was needed among the models, and the effort resulted in nothing except to convince Mrs. Fenton that she could do little with the Italian.
Just how Arthur Fenton had persuaded her to pose without her husband's knowledge, Ninitta could not have told; and the artist himself would have assured any investigator, even that speculative spirit which held the place left vacant by the dismissal of his conscience, that he had never deliberately tried to entice her. He had talked to her of the picture he was painting for a national competitive exhibition, it is true, and dwelt upon the difficulty of procuring a proper model; he had met her on the street one day and taken her into his studio to see it; he had regretted that it was impossible to ask her; and of a hundred apparently blameless and trivial things, the result was that this morning, while Helen and Herman were walking across the Common to find her, Ninitta was lying amid a heap of gorgeous stuffs and cushions in Fenton's studio, while he painted and talked after his fashion.
It is as impossible to trace the beginnings of any chain of events as it is to find the mystery of the growth of a seed. Whatever Arthur Fenton's faults, he certainly believed himself to be one who could not betray a friend. The ideal which he vaguely called honor, and which served him as that ultimate ethical standard which in one shape or another is necessary to every human being, forbade his taking advantage of any one whose friendship he admitted. His instinct of self- indulgence had, however, made him so expert a casuist that he was able to silence all inner misgivings by arguing that the demands of art were above all other laws. He reasoned that Ninitta's posing could do no possible harm to Grant Herman, while the success of his Fatima depended upon it; and since art was his religion, he came at last to feel as if he were nobly sacrificing his prejudices to his highest convictions in violating for the sake of art his principle which forbade his deceiving her husband.
Least of all, in asking the Italian to pose, had Fenton been actuated by any intention of tempting her to evil. He needed a model for the Fatima as he needed his canvas and brushes; and his satisfaction at having induced Ninitta to serve his purpose was in kind much the same as his pleasure that his brushes and canvas were exactly what he wanted.
But it is always difficult to tell to what an action may lead; and most of all is it hard to foresee the consequences which will follow from the violation of principle. Perhaps the air of secrecy with which Ninitta found it necessary to invest her coming, had an intoxicating effect upon the artist; perhaps it was simply that his persistent egotism moved him to test his power. Men often feel the keenest curiosity in regard to the extent of their ability to commit crimes into which they have yet not the remotest intention of being betrayed; and especially is this true in their relations to women. Men of a certain vanity are always eager to discover how great an influence for evil they could exercise over women, even when they have not the nerve or the wickedness to exert it. A man must be morally great to be above finding pleasure in the belief that he could be a Don Juan if he chose; and moral grandeur was not for Arthur Fenton.
From whatever cause, the fact was, that as he painted this morning and reflected, with a complacency of which he was too keen an analyst not to know he should have been ashamed, how he had secured the model he desired despite her husband, the speculation came into his mind how far he could push his influence over Ninitta. At first a mere impersonal idea, the thought was instantly, by his habit of mental definiteness, realized so clearly that his cheek flushed, partly, it is to be said to his credit, with genuine shame. He looked at the beautiful model, and turned away his eyes. Then, hardly conscious of what he was doing, he laid down his palette, and took a step forward.
At that instant the studio bell rang sharply. He started with so terrible a sense of being discovered in a crime, that his jaw trembled and his knees almost failed under him.
Then instantly he recovered his self-possession, although his heart was beating painfully, and looked up at the clock.
"Heavens!" he exclaimed. "I had no idea how late it was! It is that beastly Irons for his last sitting. I'd forgotten all about him."
Ninitta rose from her position and hurried toward the screen behind which she dressed.
"Don't let him in," she said. "He knows me."
The bell rang again, as they stood looking at each other.
"I will try to send him off," Arthur said. "Dress as quickly as you can."
She retreated behind the screen while he went to the door and unlocked it. Instantly Irons stepped inside.
"You must excuse me," the artist said. "I'll be ready for you in fifteen minutes. I have a model here, and got to painting so busily that I forgot the time. Come back in a quarter of an hour."
"Oh, I don't mind," Irons said, advancing into the studio. "I'll look round until you are ready."
"But I never admit sitters when I have a model," Fenton protested, standing before him. "I shall have to ask you to go."
The other stopped and looked at the artist with suspicion in his eyes.
"What a fuss you make," he commented coarsely. "No intrigue, I suppose?"
A hot flush sprang into Fenton's face. He tried to assume a haughty air, but the consciousness of being entrapped in a misdemeanor had not left him. The need of getting Mrs. Herman out of the studio unseen would have been awkward at any time; when to this was added the sense of guilt and shame which was begotten of the base impulse to which he had almost yielded, the situation became for him painfully embarrassing.
"I am not in the habit of carrying on intrigues with my models," he replied, haughtily. "Or," he added, regaining self-possession, "of discussing my affairs with others."
Mr. Irons laughed in a significant way which made Arthur long to kill him on the spot, and, stepping past Fenton, he walked further into the studio.
"Don't put on airs with me," he said. "Your looks give you away. You've been up to some mischief."
He paused an instant before the unfinished picture on the easel, then when the artist coolly took the canvas and placed it with its face to the wall, he turned with deliberate rudeness and craned his neck so that he could look behind the screen. A leering smile came over his coarse features. Without a word he went over to the most distant corner of the studio, where he apparently became absorbed in studying a sketch hanging on the wall.
There was a dead silence of some moments. Fenton was literally speechless with rage, yet, too, his quick wit was busy devising some way of escape from the unpleasant predicament in which he found himself. He did not speak, nor did Mr. Irons turn until Ninitta had completed her toilet and slipped hastily out. As the door closed after her, Irons wheeled about and confronted the indignant artist with a smile of triumphant glee.
"Sly dog!" he said.
Fenton advanced a step toward his tormentor with his clenched hand half raised as if he would strike.
"What do you mean?" he demanded. "Do you call yourself a gentleman?"
"Oh, come, now," the other responded, with an easy wave of the hand, "no heroics, if you please. They won't go down with me. She's a devilish fine woman, and I don't blame you."
"I tell you," began Fenton, "you"—
"Oh, of course, of course. I know all that. But sit down while I say something to you."
As if under the constraining influence of a nightmare, Fenton obeyed when Mr. Irons, having seated himself in an easy chair, waved him into another with a commanding gesture. The artist felt himself to have lost his place as the stronger of the two, of which he had hitherto been proudly conscious, and he sat angrily gnawing his lip while his tormentor regarded him with smiling malice.
"Do you remember telling me one day," Irons asked, fixing his narrow eyes on the other's disturbed face, "that you could make your sitters tell you things?"
Fenton stared at his questioner in angry silence, but did not answer.
"Now, if," continued Irons; "I say if, you observe,—if Stewart Hubbard should chance to tell you where the new syndicate mean to locate their mills, it might be a mighty good thing for you."
Still Fenton said nothing, but his regard became each moment more wrathful.
"Of course," the sitter continued, with an assumption of airy lightness which grated on every nerve of the hearer, "you are not in a position to turn such knowledge to advantage; but I am, and I am always inclined to help a bright fellow like you when there is a good chance. So if you should come to me and say that the mills are to be so and so, I'd do all I could to make things pleasant for you. I happen to belong to a syndicate myself that has bought a mill privilege at Wachusett, and it is important to us to have the new railroad go our way, and we'd like to know how far the other fellows' plans are dangerous to our interests, don't you see."
Still Fenton did not speak. He had grown very pale, and his lips were set firmly together. His hands clasped the arms of his chair so strongly that the blood had settled under the middle of the nails. Mr. Irons looked at him with narrow, piercing eyes. He paused a moment and then went on.
"You are perfectly capable of keeping a secret," he said in a hard, deliberate tone, "so I don't in the least mind telling you what we should do. Your sitters always tell you things, you know; and you are to be trusted. The case is here; our syndicate stand in with the railroad corporation and ask the Railroad Commissioners for a certificate of exigency, to authorize laying the new branch out through Wachusett. Now we have information that Staggchase and Stewart Hubbard and that set, are planning to spring a petition asking for special legislation locating the road somewhere else. Of course, they'll have to get it in under a suspension of the rules, but they can work that easily enough. The Commissioners will have to hold on, then, until the Legislature finishes with that petition."
He paused again, with an air which convinced the artist that he was going on with this elaborate explanation to cover his awkwardness. Fenton did not speak, and his visitor continued,—
"The Commissioners might settle the matter now, but they won't, and we've got to have the fight, I suppose; so, of course, you can see how it is for our interest to know just what we are fighting."
He rose as he spoke, and with an air of deliberation, buttoned his overcoat, which he had not removed.
"I don't think you feel like painting this morning," he observed, "and I'll come in again. I'll leave you to think over what I have said."
Fenton rose also, regarding him with fierce, level eyes.
"And suppose," he said, "that I call you a damned scoundrel, and forbid you ever to set foot in my studio again?"
The other laughed, with the easy assurance of a bully who feels himself secure.
"Oh, you won't," he replied. "If you did,—well, I am on the committee for the new statue, and have to see Herman now and then you know, and I should, perhaps, ask him why his wife poses for you. Good morning."
And with a chuckling laugh, he took himself out.
A NECESSARY EVIL. Julius Caesar; ii.—2.
"Oh, I assure you that my temper has been such for a week that my family have threatened to have me sent to a nervine asylum," Ethel Mott observed to Fred Rangely, who was calling on her, ostensibly to inquire after her health, some trifling indisposition having kept her housed for a few days. "What with my cold and my vexation at losing things I wanted to go to, I have been positively unendurable."
"That's your way of looking at it," he responded; "but I hardly fancy that anybody else found it out. But what has there been to lose, except the Throgmorton ball?"
"Well, first there was the concert Saturday night."
"Do you care so much about the Symphonies, then? I thought you were the one girl in Boston who doesn't pretend to care for music."
"Oh, but we have lovely seats this year, and the nicest people all about us, you know. Thayer Kent and his mother are directly behind us."
"Where he can lean forward and talk to you," interrupted Rangely, jealously.
"Yes," she said, nodding with a gleam of mischievous laughter in her dark eyes. "And I do have a nice time at the Symphonies. Besides, I don't in the least object to the music, you know."
Fred fixed his gaze on a large old-fashioned oil painting on the opposite wall, a copy from some of the innumerable pastorals which have been made in imitation of Nicholas Poussin. It was of no particular value, but it was surrounded by a beautiful carved Venetian frame, and was one of those things which confer an air of distinction upon a Boston parlor, because they are plainly the art purchases of a bygone generation.
"But you have, of course, had no end of girls running in to see you," he observed.
"Yes; but, then, that didn't make up for the Throgmorton ball. You ask what else there was to lose; I should think that was enough. Why, Janet Graham says she never had such a lovely time in her life."
"Is Miss Graham engaged to Fred Gore?" Rangely asked.
Ethel's gesture of dissent showed how little she would have approved of such a consummation.
"No, indeed," she returned. "Fred Gore only wants Janet's money, anyway; and she can't abide him, any more than I can."
"Then, you have the correct horror of a marriage for money."
"I think a girl is a fool to let a man marry her for her money. She'd much better give him her fortune and keep herself back. Then she'd at least save something. I don't approve of people's marrying for money anyway; although, of course," she added, with a twinkle in her eye, "I think it is wicked to marry without it."
There shot through Rangely's mind the reflection that Thayer Kent had not an over-abundance of this world's goods; and to this followed the less pleasant thought that he was himself in the same predicament.
"But Jack Gerrish hasn't anything," he said, aloud.
"But Janet has enough, so she can marry anybody she wants to," was the reply; "and Jack Gerrish is too perfectly lovely for anything."
The visitor laughed, but he was evidently not at his ease. He was always uncomfortably conscious that Ethel had not the slightest possible scruple against laughing at him, and he was not a little afraid of her well-known propensity to tease. Ethel regarded him with secret amusement. A woman is seldom displeased at seeing a man disconcerted by her presence, even when she pities him and would fain put him at his ease. It is a tribute to her powers too genuine to be disputed, and while she may labor to overcome the man's feeling, her vanity cannot but be gratified that he has it.
"Did you ever know anything like the way Elsie Dimmont is going on with Dr. Wilson?" Ethel said, presently, by way of continuing the conversation. "I can't see what she finds to like in him. He's as coarse as Fred Gore, only, of course, he's cleverer, and he isn't dissipated."
"Wilson isn't a half bad fellow," Rangely replied, rather patronizingly. "Though, of course, I can understand that you wouldn't care for that kind of a man."
"Am I so particular, then?"
"Yes, I think you are."
"Thank you for nothing."
"Oh, I meant to be complimentary, I assure you. Isn't it a compliment to be thought particular in your tastes?"
"That depends upon how you are told. Your manner was not at all calculated to flatter me. It said too plainly that you thought me captious."
"But I don't."
"Of course you wouldn't own it," Ethel retorted, playing with a tortoise-shell paper-cutter she had picked up from the table by which she sat; "but your manner was not to be mistaken. It betrayed you in spite of yourself."
Rangely knew how foolish he was to be affected by light banter like this, but for his life he could not have helped it. The fact that Ethel knew how easily she could tease him lent a tantalizing sparkle to her eyes. She smiled mockingly as he vainly tried to keep the flush from rising in his cheeks.
"You are singularly fond of teasing," he observed, in a manner he endeavored to make cool and philosophical.
"Now you are calling me singular as well as captious."
"The girl who is singular," returned he, in an endeavor to turn the talk by means of an epigram which only made matters worse for him, "the girl who is singular runs great risk of never becoming plural."
Ethel laughed merrily, her glee arising chiefly from a sense of the chance he was giving her to work up one of those playful mock quarrels which amused her and so thoroughly teased her admirer.
"Upon my word, Mr. Rangely," she said, assuming an air of indignant surprise, "is it your idea of making yourself agreeable to tell an unfortunate girl that she is destined to be an old maid? I could stand being one well enough, but to be told that I've got to be is by no means pleasant."
He knew she was playing with him, but he could not on that account meet her on her own ground. He endeavored to protest.
"You are trying to make me quarrel."
"Make you quarrel?" she echoed. "I like that! Of course, though, to be so full of faults that you can't help abusing me is one way of making you quarrel."
"How you do twist things around!" exclaimed he, beginning to be thoroughly vexed.
She pursed up her lips and regarded him with an expression more aggravating than words could have been. She had been for several days deprived of the pleasure of teasing anybody, and her delight in vexing Rangely made his presence a temptation which she was seldom able to resist. She was unrestrained by any regard for the young author which should make her especially concerned how seriously she offended him; and when she now changed the conversation abruptly, it was with a forbearing air which was anything but soothing to his nerves.
"Don't you think," she asked, "that Mr. Berry was absurd in the way he acted about playing at Mrs. West's?"
"No, I can't say that I do," the caller retorted savagely. "Mrs. West gives out that she is going to give the neglected native musicians at last a chance to be heard, and then she invites them to play their compositions in her parlor. Westbrooke Berry isn't the man to be patronized in any such way. Just think of her having the cheek to give to a man whose work has been brought out in Berlin an invitation which is equivalent to saying that he can't get a public hearing, but she'll help him out by asking her guests to listen to him. Heavens! Mrs. West is a perfectly incredible woman."
Ethel smiled sweetly. In her secret heart she agreed with him; but it did not suit her mood to show that she did so.
"You seem bound to take the opposite view of everything to-day," she said, in tones as sweet as her smile; "or perhaps it is only that my temper has been ruined by my cold. I told you it had been bad."
He rose abruptly.
"If everything is to put us more at odds," he said, rather stiffly, "the sooner I withdraw, the better. I am sorry I have fallen under your displeasure; it is generally my ill luck to annoy you."
And in a few moments he was going down the street in a frame of mind not unusual to him after a call upon Miss Mott, from whose house he was apt to come away so ruffled and irritated that nothing short of a counteracting feminine influence could restore his self-complacency.