Saturday's Child by Kathleen Thompson Norris
Part Two. Wealth
The little Town and Country Club, occupying two charmingly- furnished, crowded floors of what had once been a small apartment house on Post Street, next door to the old library, was a small but remarkable institution, whose members were the wealthiest and most prominent women of the fashionable colonies of Burlingame and San Mateo, Ross Valley and San Rafael. Presumably only the simplest and least formal of associations, it was really the most important of all the city's social institutions, and no woman was many weeks in San Francisco society without realizing that the various country clubs, and the Junior Cotillions were as dust and ashes, and that her chances of achieving a card to the Browning dances were very slim if she could not somehow push her name at least as far as the waiting list of the Town and Country Club.
The members pretended, to a woman, to be entirely unconscious of their social altitude. They couldn't understand how such ideas ever got about, it was "delicious"; it was "too absurd!" Why, the club was just the quietest place in the world, a place where a woman could run in to brush her hair and wash her hands, and change her library book, and have a cup of tea. A few of them had formed it years ago, just half a dozen of them, at a luncheon; it was like a little family circle, one knew everybody there, and one felt at home there. But, as for being exclusive and conservative, that was all nonsense! And besides, what did other women see in it to make them want to come in! Let them form another club, exactly like it, wouldn't that be the wiser thing?
Other women, thus advised and reassured, smiled, instead of gnashing their teeth, and said gallantly that after all they themselves were too busy to join any club just now, merely happened to speak of the Town and Country. And after that they said hateful and lofty and insulting things about the club whenever they found listeners.
But the Town and Country Club flourished on unconcernedly, buzzing six days a week with well-dressed women, echoing to Christian names and intimate chatter, sheltering the smartest of pigskin suitcases and gold-headed umbrellas and rustling raincoats in its tiny closets, resisting the constant demand of the younger element for modern club conveniences and more room.
No; the old members clung to its very inconveniences, to the gas- lights over the dressing-tables, and the narrow halls, and the view of ugly roofs and buildings from its back windows. They liked to see the notices written in the secretary's angular hand and pinned on the library door with a white-headed pin. The catalogue numbers of books were written by hand, too--the ink blurred into the shiny linen bands. At tea-time a little maid quite openly cut and buttered bread in a corner of the dining-room; it was permissible to call gaily, "More bread here, Rosie! I'm afraid we're a very hungry crowd to-day!"
Susan enormously enjoyed the club; she had been there more than once with Miss Saunders, and found her way without trouble to-day to a big chair in a window arch, where she could enjoy the passing show without being herself conspicuous. A constant little stream of women came and went, handsome, awkward school-girls, in town for the dentist or to be fitted to shoes, or for the matinee; debutantes, in their exquisite linens and summer silks, all joyous chatter and laughter; and plainly-gowned, well-groomed, middle-aged women, escorting or chaperoning, and pausing here for greetings and the interchange of news.
Miss Saunders, magnificent, handsome, wonderfully gowned, was surrounded by friends the moment she came majestically upstairs. Susan thought her very attractive, with her ready flow of conversation, her familiar, big-sisterly attitude with the young girls, her positiveness when there was the slightest excuse for her advice or opinions being expressed. She had a rich, full voice, and a drawling speech. She had to decline ten pressing invitations in as many minutes.
"Ella, why can't you come home with me this afternoon?--I'm not speaking to you, Ella Saunders, you've not been near us since you got back!--Mama's so anxious to see you, Miss Ella!--Listen, Ella, you've got to go with us to Tahoe; Perry will have a fit if you don't!"
"Mama's not well, and the kid is just home," Miss Saunders told them all good-naturedly, in excuse. She carried Susan off to the lunch- room, announcing herself to be starving, and ordered a lavish luncheon. Ella Saunders really liked this pretty, jolly, little book-keeper from Hunter, Baxter & Hunter's. Susan amused her, and she liked still better the evidence that she amused Susan. Her indifferent, not to say irreverent, air toward the sacred traditions and institutions of her class made Susan want to laugh and gasp at once.
"But this is a business matter," said Miss Saunders, when they had reached the salad, "and here we are talking! Mama and Baby and I have talked this thing all over, Susan," she added casually, "and we want to know what you'd think of coming to live with us?"
Susan fixed her eyes upon her as one astounded, not a muscle of her face moved. She never was quite natural with Ella; above the sudden rush of elation and excitement came the quick intuition that Ella would like a sensational reception of her offer. Her look expressed the stunned amazement of one who cannot credit her ears. Ella's laugh showed an amused pleasure.
"Don't look so aghast, child. You don't have to do it!" she said.
Again Susan did the dramatic and acceptable thing, typical of what she must give the Saunders throughout their relationship. Instead of the natural "What on earth are you talking about?" she said slowly, dazedly, her bewildered eyes on Ella's face:
"Joking! You'll find the Saunders family no joke, I can promise you that!" Ella said, humorously. And again Susan laughed.
"No, but you see Emily's come home from Fowler's a perfect nervous wreck," explained Miss Ella, "and; she can't be left alone for awhile,--partly because her heart's not good, partly because she gets blue, and partly because, if she hasn't anyone to drive and walk and play tennis with, and so on, she simply mopes from morning until night. She hates Mama's nurse; Mama needs Miss Baker herself anyway, and we've been wondering and wondering how we could get hold of the right person to fill the bill. You'd have a pretty easy time in one way, of course, and do everything the Kid does, and I'll stand right behind you. But don't think it's any snap!"
"Snap!" echoed Susan, starry-eyed, crimson-cheeked. "---But you don't mean that you want me?"
"I wish you could have seen her; she turned quite pale," Miss Saunders told her mother and sister later. "Really, she was overcome. She said she'd speak to her aunt to-night; I don't imagine there'll be any trouble. She's a nice child. I don't see the use of delay, so I said Monday."
"You were a sweet to think of it," Emily said, gratefully, from the downy wide couch where she was spending the evening.
"Not at all, Kid," Ella answered politely. She yawned, and stared at the alabaster globe of the lamp above Emily's head. A silence fell. The two sisters never had much to talk about, and Mrs. Saunders, dutifully sitting with the invalid, was heavy from dinner, and nearly asleep. Ella yawned again.
"Want some chocolates?" she finally asked.
"Oh, thank you, Ella!"
"I'll send Fannie in with 'em!" Miss Ella stood up, bent her head to study at close range an engraving on the wall, loitered off to her own room. She was rarely at home in the evening and did not know quite what to do with herself.
Susan, meanwhile, walked upon air. She tasted complete happiness for almost the first time in her life; awakened in the morning to blissful reality, instead of the old dreary round, and went to sleep at night smiling at her own happy thoughts. It was all like a pleasant dream!
She resigned from her new position at Hunter, Baxter & Hunter's exactly as she resigned in imagination a hundred times. No more drudgery over bills, no more mornings spent in icy, wet shoes, and afternoons heavy with headache. Susan was almost too excited to thank Mr. Brauer for his compliments and regrets.
Parting with Thorny was harder; Susan and she had been through many a hard hour together, had shared a thousand likes and dislikes, had loved and quarreled and been reconciled.
"You're doing an awfully foolish thing, Susan. You'll wish you were back here inside of a month," Thorny prophesied when the last moment came. "Aw, don't you do it, Susan!" she pleaded, with a little real emotion. "Come on into Main Office, and sit next to me. We'll have loads of sport."
"Oh, I've promised!" Susan held out her hand. "Don't forget me!" she said, trying to laugh. Miss Thornton's handsome eyes glistened with tears. With a sudden little impulse they kissed each other for the first time.
Then Susan, a full hour before closing, went down from the lunch- room, and past all the familiar offices; the sadness of change tugging at her heart-strings. She had been here a long time, she had smelled this same odor of scorching rubber, and oils and powders through so many slow afternoons, in gay moods and sad, in moods of rebellion and distaste. She left a part of her girlhood here. The cashier, to whom she went for her check, was all kindly interest, and the young clerks and salesmen stopped to offer her their good wishes. Susan passed the time-clock without punching her number for the first time in three years, and out into the sunny, unfamiliar emptiness of the streets.
At the corner her heart suddenly failed her. She felt as if she could not really go away from these familiar places and people. The warehouses and wholesale houses, the wholesale liquor house with a live eagle magnificently caged in one window, the big stove establishment, with its window full of ranges in shining steel and nickel-plate; these had been her world for so long!
But she kept on her way uptown, and by the time she reached the old library, where Mary Lou, very handsome in her well-brushed suit and dotted veil, with white gloves still odorous of benzine, was waiting, she was almost sure that she was not making a mistake.
Mary Lou was a famous shopper, capable of exhausting any saleswoman for a ten-cent purchase, and proportionately effective when, as to- day, a really considerable sum was to be spent. She regretfully would decline a dozen varieties in handkerchiefs or ribbons, saying with pleasant plaintiveness to the saleswoman: "Perhaps I am hard to please. My mother is an old Southern lady--the Ralstons, you know?-- and her linen is, of course, like nothing one can get nowadays! No; I wouldn't care to show my mother this.
"My cousin, of course, only wants this for a little hack hat," she added to Susan's modest suggestion of price to the milliner, and in the White House she consented to Susan's selections with a consoling reminder, "It isn't as if you didn't have your lovely French underwear at home, Sue! These will do very nicely for your rough camping trip!"
Compared to Mary Lou, Susan was a very poor shopper. She was always anxious to please the saleswoman, to buy after a certain amount of looking had been done, for no other reason than that she had caused most of the stock to be displayed.
"I like this, Mary Lou," Susan would murmur nervously. And, as the pompadoured saleswoman turned to take down still another heap of petticoats, Susan would repeat noiselessly, with an urgent nod, "This will do!"
"Wait, now, dear," Mary Lou would return, unperturbed, arresting Susan's hand with a white, well-filled glove. "Wait, dear. If we can't get it here we can get it somewhere else. Yes, let me see those you have there---"
"Thank you, just the same," Susan always murmured uncomfortably, averting her eyes from the saleswoman, as they went away. But the saleswoman, busily rearranging her stock, rarely responded.
To-day they bought, besides the fascinating white things, some tan shoes, and a rough straw hat covered with roses, and two linen skirts, and three linen blouses, and a little dress of dotted lavender lawn. Everything was of the simplest, but Susan had never had so many new things in the course of her life before, and was elated beyond words as one purchase was made after another.
She carried home nearly ten dollars, planning to keep it until the first month's salary should be paid, but Auntie was found, upon their return in the very act of dissuading the dark powers known as the "sewing-machine men" from removing that convenience, and Susan, only too thankful to be in time, gladly let seven dollars fall into the oily palm of the carrier in charge.
"Mary Lou," said she, over her fascinating packages, just before dinner, "here's a funny thing! If I had gone bad, you know, so that I could keep buying nice, pretty, simple things like this, as fast as I needed them, I'd feel better--I mean truly cleaner and more moral--than when I was good!"
"Susan! Why, Susan!" Her cousin turned a shocked face from the window where she was carefully pasting newly-washed handkerchiefs, to dry in the night. "Do you remember who you are, dear, and don't say dreadful things like that!"
In the next few days Susan pressed her one suit, laundered a score of little ruffles and collars, cleaned her gloves, sewed on buttons and strings generally, and washed her hair. Late on Sunday came the joyful necessity of packing. Mary Lou folded and refolded patiently, Georgie came in with a little hand-embroidered handkerchief-case for Susan's bureau, Susan herself rushed about like a mad-woman, doing almost nothing.
"You'll be back inside the month," said Billy that evening, looking up from Carlyle's "Revolution," to where Susan and Mary Lou were busy with last stitches, at the other side of the dining-room table. "You can't live with the rotten rich any more than I could!"
"Billy, you don't know how awfully conceited you sound when you say a thing like that!"
"Conceited? Oh, all right!" Mr. Oliver accompanied the words with a sound only to be described as a snort, and returned, offended, to his book.
"Conceited, well, maybe I am," he resumed with deadly calm, a moment later. "But there's no conceit in my saying that people like the Saunders can't buffalo me!"
"You may not see it, but there is!" persisted Susan.
"You give me a pain, Sue! Do you honestly think they are any better than you are?"
"Of course they're not better," Susan said, heatedly, "if it comes right down to morals and the Commandments! But if I prefer to spend my life among people who have had several generations of culture and refinement and travel and education behind them, it's my own affair! I like nice people, and rich people are more refined than poor, and nobody denies it! I may feel sorry for a girl who marries a man on forty a week, and brings up four or five little kids on it, but that doesn't mean I want to do it myself! And I think a man has his nerve to expect it!"
"I didn't make you an offer, you know, Susan," said William pleasantly.
"I didn't mean you!" Susan answered angrily. Then with sudden calm and sweetness, she resumed, busily tearing up and assorting old letters the while, "But now you're trying to make me mad, Billy, and you don't care what you say. The trouble with you," she went on, with sisterly kindness and frankness, "is that you think you are the only person who really ought to get on in the world. You know so much, and study so hard, that you deserve to be rich, so that you can pension off every old stupid German laborer at the works who still wants a job when they can get a boy of ten to do his work better than he can! You mope away over there at those cottages, Bill, until you think the only important thing in the world is the price of sausages in proportion to wages. And for all that you pretend to despise people who use decent English, and don't think a bath-tub is a place to store potatoes; I notice that you are pretty anxious to study languages and hear good music and keep up in your reading, yourself! And if that's not cultivation---"
"I never said a word about cultivation!" Billy, who had been apparently deep in his book, looked up to snap angrily. Any allusion to his efforts at self-improvement always touched him in a very sensitive place.
"Why, you did too! You said---"
"Oh, I did not! If you're going to talk so much, Sue, you ought to have some faint idea what you're talking about!"
"Very well," Susan said loftily, "if you can't address me like a gentleman, we won't discuss it. I'm not anxious for your opinion, anyway."
A silence. Mr. Oliver read with passionate attention. Susan sighed, sorted her letters, sighed again.
"Billy, do you love me?" she asked winningly, after a pause.
Another silence. Mr. Oliver turned a page.
"Are you sure you've read every word on that page, Bill,--every little word?"
"You know, you began this, Bill," Susan said presently, with childish sweet reproach. "Don't say anything, Bill; I can't ask that! But if you still love me, just smile!"
By some miracle, Billy preserved his scowl.
"Not even a glimmer!" Susan said, despondently. "I'll tell you, Bill," she added, gushingly. "Just turn a page, and I'll take it for a sign of love!" She clasped her hands, and watched him breathlessly.
Mr. Oliver reached the point where the page must be turned. He moved his eyes stealthily upward.
"Oh, no you don't! No going back!" exulted Susan. She jumped up, grabbed the book, encircled his head with her arms, kissed her own hand vivaciously and made a mad rush for the stairs. Mr. Oliver caught her half-way up the flight, with more energy than dignity, and got his book back by doubling her little finger over with an increasing pressure until Susan managed to drop the volume to the hall below.
"Bill, you beast! You've broken my finger!" Susan, breathless and dishevelled, sat beside him on the narrow stair, and tenderly worked the injured member, "It hurts!"
"Let Papa tiss it!"
"You try it once!"
"Sh-sh! Ma says not so much noise!" hissed Mary Lou, from the floor above, where she had been summoned some hours ago, "Alfie's just dropped off!"
On Monday a new life began for Susan Brown. She stepped from the dingy boarding-house in Fulton Street straight into one of the most beautiful homes in the state, and, so full were the first weeks, that she had no time for homesickness, no time for letters, no time for anything but the briefest of scribbled notes to the devoted women she left behind her.
Emily Saunders herself met the newcomer at the station, looking very unlike an invalid,--looking indeed particularly well and happy, if rather pale, as she was always pale, and a little too fat after the idle and carefully-fed experience in the hospital. Susan peeped into Miss Ella's big room, as they went upstairs. Ella was stretched comfortably on a wide, flowery couch, reading as her maid rubbed her loosened hair with some fragrant toilet water, and munching chocolates.
"Hello, Susan Brown!" she called out. "Come in and see me some time before dinner,--I'm going out!"
Ella's room was on the second floor, where were also Mrs. Saunders' room, various guest-rooms, an upstairs music-room and a sitting- room. But Emily's apartment, as well as her brother's, were on the third floor, and Susan's delightful room opened from Emily's. The girls had a bathroom as large as a small bedroom, and a splendid deep balcony shaded by gay awnings was accessible only to them. Potted geraniums made this big outdoor room gay, a thick Indian rug was on the floor, there were deep wicker chairs, and two beds, in day-covers of green linen, with thick brightly colored Pueblo blankets folded across them. The girls were to spend all their days in the open air, and sleep out here whenever possible for Emily's sake.
While Emily bathed, before dinner, Susan hung over the balcony rail, feeling deliciously fresh and rested, after her own bath, and eager not to miss a moment of the lovely summer afternoon. Just below her, the garden was full of roses. There were other flowers, too, carnations and velvety Shasta daisies, there were snowballs that tumbled in great heaps of white on the smooth lawn, and syringas and wall-flowers and corn-flowers, far over by the vine-embroidered stone wall, and late Persian lilacs, and hydrangeas, in every lovely tone between pink and lavender, filled a long line of great wooden Japanese tubs, leading, by a walk of sunken stones, to the black wooden gates of the Japanese garden. But the roses reigned supreme-- beautiful standard roses, with not a shriveled leaf to mar the perfection of blossoms and foliage; San Rafael roses, flinging out wherever they could find a support, great sprays of pinkish-yellow and yellowish-pink, and gold and cream and apricot-colored blossoms. There were moss roses, sheathed in dark-green film, glowing Jacqueminot and Papagontier and La France roses, white roses, and yellow roses,--Susan felt as if she could intoxicate herself upon the sweetness and the beauty of them all.
The carriage road swept in a great curve from the gate, its smooth pebbled surface crossed sharply at regular intervals by the clean- cut shadows of the elm trees. Here and there on the lawns a sprinkler flung out its whirling circles of spray, and while Susan watched a gardener came into view, picked up a few fallen leaves from the roadway and crushed them together in his hand.
On the newly-watered stretch of road that showed beyond the wide gates, carriages and carts, and an occasional motor-car were passing, flinging wheeling shadows beside them on the road, and driven by girls in light gowns and wide hats or by grooms in livery. Presently one very smart, high English cart stopped, and Mr. Kenneth Saunders got down from it, and stood whipping his riding-boot with his crap and chatting with the young woman who had driven him home. Susan thought him a very attractive young man, with his quiet, almost melancholy expression, and his air of knowing exactly the correct thing to do, whenever he cared to exert himself at all.
She watched him now with interest, not afraid of detection, for a small head, on a third story balcony, would be quite lost among the details of the immense facade of the house. He walked toward the stable, and whistled what was evidently a signal, for three romping collies came running to meet him, and were leaping and tumbling about him as he went around the curve of the drive and out of sight. Then Susan went back to her watching and dreaming, finding something new to admire and delight in every moment. The details confused her, but she found the whole charming.
Indeed, she had been in San Rafael for several weeks before she found the view of the big house from the garden anything but bewildering. With its wings and ells, its flowered balconies and French windows, its tiled pergola and flower-lined Spanish court, it stood a monument to the extraordinary powers of the modern architect; nothing was incongruous, nothing offended. Susan liked to decide into which room this casement window fitted, or why she never noticed that particular angle of wall from the inside. It was always a disappointment to discover that some of the quaintest of the windows lighted only linen-closets or perhaps useless little spaces under a sharp angle of roof, and that many of the most attractive lines outside were so cut and divided as to be unrecognizable within.
It was a modern house, with beautifully-appointed closets tucked in wherever there was an inch to spare, with sheets of mirror set in the bedroom doors, with every conceivable convenience in nickel- plate glittering in its bathrooms, and wall-telephones everywhere.
The girl's adjectives were exhausted long before she had seen half of it. She tried to make her own personal choice between the dull, soft, dark colors and carved Circassian walnut furniture in the dining-room, and the sharp contrast of the reception hall, where the sunlight flooded a rosy-latticed paper, an old white Colonial mantel and fiddle-backed chairs, and struck dazzling gleams from the brass fire-dogs and irons. The drawing-room had its own charm; the largest room in the house, it had French windows on three sides, each one giving a separate and exquisite glimpse of lawns and garden beyond. Upon its dark and shining floor were stretched a score of silky Persian rugs, roses mirrored themselves in polished mahogany, and here and there were priceless bits of carved ivory, wonderful strips of embroidered Chinese silks, miniatures, and exquisite books. Four or five great lamps glowing under mosaic shades made the place lovely at night, but in the heat of a summer day, shaded, empty, deliciously airy and cool, Susan thought it at its loveliest. At night heavy brocaded curtains were drawn across the windows, and a wood fire crackled in the fireplace, in a setting of creamy tiles. There was a small grand-piano in this room, a larger piano in the big, empty reception room on the other side of the house, Susan and Emily had a small upright for their own use, and there were one or two more in other parts of the house.
Everywhere was exquisite order, exquisite peace. Lightfooted maids came and went noiselessly, to brush up a fallen daisy petal, or straighten a rug. Not the faintest streak of dust ever lay across the shining surface of the piano, not the tiniest cloud ever filmed the clear depths of the mirrors. A slim Chinese houseboy, in plum- color and pale blue, with his queue neatly coiled, and his handsome, smooth young face always smiling, padded softly to and fro all day long, in his thick-soled straw slippers, with letters and magazines, parcels and messages and telegrams.
"Lizzie-Carrie--one of you girls take some sweet-peas up to my room," Ella would say at breakfasttime, hardly glancing up from her mail. And an hour later Susan, looking into Miss Saunders' apartment to see if she still expected Emily to accompany her to the Holmes wedding, or to say that Mrs. Saunders wanted to see her eldest daughter, would notice a bowl of the delicately-tinted blossoms on the desk, and another on the table.
The girls' beds were always made, when they went upstairs to freshen themselves for luncheon; tumbled linen and used towels had been spirited away, fresh blotters were on the desk, fresh flowers everywhere, windows open, books back on their shelves, clothes stretched on hangers in the closets; everything immaculately clean and crisp.
It was apparently impossible to interrupt the quiet running of the domestic machinery. If Susan and Emily left wet skirts and umbrellas and muddy overshoes in one of the side hallways, on returning from a walk, it was only a question of a few hours, before the skirts, dried and brushed and pressed, the umbrellas neatly furled, and the overshoes, as shining as ever, were back in their places. If the girls wanted tea at five o'clock, sandwiches of every known, and frequently of new types, little cakes and big, hot bouillons, or a salad, or even a broiled bird were to be had for the asking. It was no trouble, the tray simply appeared and Chow Yew or Carrie served them as if it were a real pleasure to do so.
Whoever ordered for the Saunders kitchen--Susan suspected that it was a large amiable person in black whom she sometimes met in the halls, a person easily mistaken for a caller or a visiting aunt, but respectful in manner, and with a habit of running her tongue over her teeth when not speaking that vaguely suggested immense capability--did it on a very large scale indeed. It was not, as in poor Auntie's case, a question of selecting stewed tomatoes as a suitable vegetable for dinner, and penciling on a list, under "five pounds round steak," "three cans tomatoes." In the Saunders' house there was always to be had whatever choicest was in season,--crabs or ducks, broilers or trout, asparagus an inch in diameter, forced strawberries and peaches, even pomegranates and alligator pears and icy, enormous grapefruit--new in those days--and melons and nectarines. There were crocks and boxes of cakes, a whole ice-chest just for cream and milk, another for cheeses and olives and pickles and salad-dressings. Susan had seen the cook's great store-room, lined with jars and pots and crocks, tins and glasses and boxes of delicious things to eat, brought from all over the world for the moment when some member of the Saunders family fancied Russian caviar, or Chinese ginger, or Italian cheese.
Other people's brains and bodies were constantly and pleasantly at work to spare the Saunders any effort whatever, and as Susan, taken in by the family, and made to feel absolutely one of them, soon found herself taking hourly service quite as a matter of course, as though it was nothing new to her luxury-loving little person. If she hunted for a book, in a dark corner of the library, she did not turn her head to see which maid touched the button that caused a group of lights, just above her, to spring suddenly into soft bloom, although her "Thank you!" never failed; and when she and Emily came in late for tea in the drawing-room, she piled her wraps into some attendant's arms without so much as a glance. Yet Susan personally knew and liked all the maids, and they liked her, perhaps because her unaffected enjoyment of this new life and her constant allusions to the deprivations of the old days made them feel her a little akin to themselves.
With Emily and her mother Susan was soon quite at home; with Ella her shyness lasted longer; and toward a friendship with Kenneth Saunders she seemed to make no progress whatever. Kenneth addressed a few kindly, unsmiling remarks to his mother during the course of the few meals he had at home; he was always gentle with her, and deeply resented anything like a lack of respect toward her on the others' parts. He entirely ignored Emily, and if he held any conversation at all with the spirited Ella, it was very apt to take the form of a controversy, Ella trying to persuade him to attend some dance or dinner, or Kenneth holding up some especial friend of hers for scornful criticism. Sometimes he spoke to Miss Baker, but not often. Kenneth's friendships were mysteries; his family had not the most remote idea where he went when he went out every evening, or where he was when he did not come home. Sometimes he spoke out in sudden, half-amused praise of some debutante, she was a "funny little devil," or "she was the decentest kid in this year's crop," and perhaps he would follow up this remark with a call or two upon the admired young girl, and Ella would begin to tease him about her. But the debutante and her mother immediately lost their heads at this point, called on the Saunders, gushed at Ella and Emily, and tried to lure Kenneth into coming to little home dinners or small theater parties. This always ended matters abruptly, and Kenneth returned to his old ways.
His valet, a mournful, silent fellow named Mycroft, led rather a curious life, reporting at his master's room in the morning not before ten, and usually not in bed before two or three o'clock the next morning. About once a fortnight, sometimes oftener, as Susan had known for a long time, a subtle change came over Kenneth. His mother saw it and grieved; Ella saw it and scolded everyone but him. It cast a darkness over the whole house. Kenneth, always influenced more or less by what he drank, was going down, down, down, through one dark stage after another, into the terrible state whose horrors he dreaded with the rest of them. He was moping for a day or two, absent from meals, understood to be "not well, and in bed." Then Mycroft would agitatedly report that Mr. Kenneth was gone; there would be tears and Ella's sharpest voice in Mrs. Saunders' room, pallor and ill-temper on Emily's part, hushed distress all about until Kenneth was brought home from some place unknown by Mycroft, in a cab, and gotten noisily upstairs and visited three times a day by the doctor. The doctor would come downstairs to reassure Mrs. Saunders; Mycroft would run up and down a hundred times a day to wait upon the invalid. Perhaps once during his convalescence his mother would go up to see him for a little while, to sit, constrained and tender and unhappy, beside his bed, wishing perhaps that there was one thing in the wide world in which she and her son had a common interest.
She was a lonesome, nervous little lady, and at these times only a little more fidgety than ever. Sometimes she cried because of Kenneth, in her room at night, and Ella braced her with kindly, unsympathetic, well-meant, uncomprehending remarks, and made very light of his weakness; but Emily walked her own room nervously, raging at Ken for being such a beast, and Mama for being such a fool.
Susan, coming downstairs in the morning sunlight, after an evening of horror and strain, when the lamps had burned for four hours in an empty drawing-room, and she and Emily, early in their rooms, had listened alternately to the shouting and thumping that went on in Kenneth's room and the consoling murmur of Ella's voice downstairs, could hardly believe that life was being so placidly continued; that silence and sweetness still held sway downstairs; that Ella, in a foamy robe of lace and ribbon, at the head of the table, could be so cheerfully absorbed in the day's news and the Maryland biscuit, and that Mrs. Saunders, pottering over her begonias, could show so radiant a face over the blossoming of the double white, that Emily, at the telephone could laugh and joke.
She was a great favorite with them all now, this sunny, pretty Susan; even Miss Baker, the mouse-like little trained nurse, beamed for her, and congratulated her upon her influence over every separate member of the family. Miss Baker had held her place for ten years and cherished no illusions concerning the Saunders.
Susan had lost some few illusions herself, but not many. She was too happy to be critical, and it was her nature to like people for no better reason than that they liked her.
Emily Saunders, with whom she had most to do, who was indeed her daily and hourly companion, was at this time about twenty-six years old, and so two years older than Susan, although hers was a smooth- skinned, baby-like type, and she looked quite as young as her companion. She had had a very lonely, if extraordinarily luxurious childhood, and a sickly girlhood, whose principal events were minor operations on eyes or ears, and experiments in diets and treatments, miserable sieges with oculists and dentists and stomach-pumps. She had been sent to several schools, but ill-health made her progress a great mortification, and finally she had been given a governess, Miss Roche, a fussily-dressed, effusive Frenchwoman, who later traveled with her. Emily's only accounts of her European experience dealt with Miss Roche's masterly treatment of ungracious officials, her faculty for making Emily comfortable at short notice and at any cost or place, and her ability to bring certain small possessions through the custom-house without unnecessary revelations. And at eighteen the younger Miss Saunders had been given a large coming-out tea, had joined the two most exclusive Cotillions,--the Junior and the Browning--had lunched and dined and gone to the play with the other debutantes, and had had, according to the admiring and attentive press, a glorious first season.
As a matter of fact, however, it had been a most unhappy time for the person most concerned. Emily was not a social success. Not more than one debutante in ten is; Emily was one of the nine. Before every dance her hopes rose irrepressibly, as she gazed at her dainty little person in the mirror, studied her exquisite frock and her pearls, and the smooth perfection of the hair so demurely coiled under its wreath of rosebuds, or band of shining satin. To-night, she would be a success, to-night she would wipe out old scores. This mood lasted until she was actually in the dressing-room, in a whirl of arriving girls. Then her courage began to ebb. She would watch them, as the maid took off her carriage shoes; pleasantly take her turn at the mirror, exchange a shy, half-absent greeting with the few she knew; wish, with all her heart, that she dared put herself under their protection. Just a few were cool enough to enter the big ballroom in a gale of mirth, surrender themselves for a few moments of gallant dispute to the clustered young men at the door, and be ready to dance without a care, the first dozen dances promised, and nothing to do but be happy.
But Emily drifted out shyly, fussed carefully with fans or glove- clasps while looking furtively about for possible partners, returned in a panic to the dressing-room on a pretense of exploring a slipper-bag for a handkerchief, and made a fresh start. Perhaps this time some group of chattering and laughing girls and men would be too close to the door for her comfort; not invited to join them, Emily would feel obliged to drift on across the floor to greet some gracious older woman, and sink into a chair, smiling at compliments, and covering a defeat with a regretful:
"I'm really only looking on to-night. Mama worries so if I overdo."
And here she would feel out of the current indeed, hopelessly shelved. Who would come looking for a partner in this quiet corner, next to old Mrs. Chickering whose two granddaughters were in the very center of the merry group at the door? Emily would smilingly rise, and go back to the dressing-room again.
The famous Browning dances, in their beginning, a generation earlier, had been much smaller, less formal and more intimate than they were now. The sixty or seventy young persons who went to those first dances were all close friends, in a simpler social structure, and a less self-conscious day. They had been the most delightful events in Ella's girlhood, and she felt it to be entirely Emily's fault that Emily did not find them equally enchanting.
"But I don't know the people who go to them very well!" Emily would say, half-confidential, half-resentful. Ella always met this argument with high scorn.
"Oh, Baby, if you'd stop whining and fretting, and just get in and enjoy yourself once!" Ella would answer impatiently. "You don't have to know a man intimately to dance with him, I should hope! Just go, and have a good time! My Lord, the way we all used to laugh and talk and rush about, you'd have thought we were a pack of children!"
Ella and her contemporaries always went to these balls even now, the magnificent matrons of forty showing rounded arms and beautiful bosoms, and gowns far more beautiful than those the girls wore. Jealousy and rivalry and heartaches all forgot, they sat laughing and talking in groups, clustered along the walls, or played six- handed euchre in the adjoining card-room, and had, if the truth had been known, a far better time than the girls they chaperoned.
After a winter or two, however, Emily stopped going, except perhaps once in a season. She began to devote a great deal of her thought and her conversation to her health, and was not long in finding doctors and nurses to whom the subject was equally fascinating. Emily had a favorite hospital, and was frequently ordered there for experiences that touched more deeply the chords of her nature than anything else ever did in her life. No one at home ever paid her such flattering devotion as did the sweet-faced, low-voiced nurses, and the doctor--whose coming, twice a day, was such an event. The doctor was a model husband and father, his beautiful wife a woman whom Ella knew and liked very well, but Emily had her nickname for him, and her little presents for him, and many a small, innocuous joke between herself and the doctor made her feel herself close to him. Emily was always glad when she could turn from her mother's mournful solicitude, Kenneth's snubs and Ella's imperativeness, and the humiliating contact with a society that could get along very well without her, to the universal welcome she had from all her friends in Mrs. Fowler's hospital.
To Susan the thought of hypodermics, anesthetics, antisepsis and clinic thermometers, charts and diets, was utterly mysterious and abhorrent, and her healthy distaste for them amused Emily, and gave Emily a good reason for discussing and defending them.
Susan's part was to listen and agree, listen and agree, listen and agree, on this as on all topics. She had not been long at "High Gardens" before Emily, in a series of impulsive gushes of confidence, had volunteered the information that Ella was so jealous and selfish and heartless that she was just about breaking Mama's heart, never happy unless she was poisoning somebody's mind against Emily, and never willing to let Emily keep a single friend, or do anything she wanted to do.
"So now you see why I am always so dignified and quiet with Ella," said Emily, in the still midnight when all this was revealed. "That's the one thing that makes her mad!"
"I can't believe it!" said Susan, aching for sleep, and yawning under cover of the dark.
"I keep up for Mama's sake," Emily said. "But haven't you noticed how Ella tries to get you away from me? You must have! Why, the very first night you were here, she called out, 'Come in and see me on your way down!' Don't you remember? And yesterday, when I wasn't dressed and she wanted you to go driving, after dinner! Don't you remember?"
"Yes, but---" Susan began. She could dismiss this morbid fancy with a few vigorous protests, with a hearty laugh. But she would probably dismiss herself from the Saunders' employ, as well, if she pursued any such bracing policy.
"You poor kid, it's pretty hard on you!" she said, admiringly. And for half an hour she was not allowed to go to sleep.
Susan began to dread these midnight talks. The moon rose, flooded the sleeping porch, mounted higher. The watch under Susan's pillow ticked past one o'clock, past half-past one--
"Emily, you know really Ella is awfully proud of you," she was finally saying, "and, as for trying to influence your mother, you can't blame her. You're your mother's favorite--anyone can see that- -and I do think she feels--"
"Well, that's true!" Emily said, mollified. A silence followed. Susan began to settle her head by imperceptible degrees into the pillow; perhaps Emily was dropping off! Silence--silence--heavenly delicious silence. What a wonderful thing this sleeping porch was, Susan thought drowsily, and how delicious the country night--
"Susan, why do you suppose I am Mama's favorite?" Emily's clear, wide-awake voice would pursue, with pensive interest.
Or, "Susan, when did you begin to like me?" she would question, on their drives. "Susan, when I was looking straight up into Mrs. Carter's face,--you know the way I always do!--she laughed at me, and said I was a madcap monkey? Why did she say that?" Emily would pout, and wrinkle her brows in pretty, childish doubt. "I'm not a monkey, and I don't think I'm a madcap? Do you?"
"You're different, you see, Emily. You're not in the least like anybody else!" Susan would say.
"But why am I different?" And if it was possible, Emily might even come over to sit on the arm of Susan's chair, or drop on her knees and encircle Susan's waist with her arms.
"Well, in the first place you're terribly original, Emily, and you always say right out what you mean--" Susan would begin.
With Ella, when she grew to know her well, Susan was really happier. She was too honest to enjoy the part she must always play with Emily, yet too practically aware of the advantages of this new position, to risk it by frankness, and eventually follow the other companions, the governesses and trained nurses who had preceded her. Emily characterized these departed ladies as "beasts," and still flushed a deep resentful red when she mentioned certain ones among them.
Susan found in Ella, in the first place, far more to admire than she could in Emily. Ella's very size made for a sort of bigness in character. She looked her two hundred and thirty pounds, but she looked handsome, glowing and comfortable as well. Everything she wore was loose and dashing in effect; she was a fanatic about cleanliness and freshness, and always looked as if freshly bathed and brushed and dressed. Ella never put on a garment, other than a gown or wrap, twice. Sometimes a little heap of snowy, ribboned underwear was carried away from her rooms three or four times a day.
She was dictatorial and impatient and exacting, but she was witty and good-natured, too, and so extremely popular with men and women of her own age that she could have dined out three times a night. Ella was fondly nicknamed "Mike" by her own contemporaries, and was always in demand for dinners and lunch parties and card parties. She was beloved by the younger set, too. Susan thought her big-sisterly interest in the debutantes very charming to see and, when she had time to remember her sister's little companion now and then, she would carry Susan off for a drive, or send for her when she was alone for tea, and the two laughed a great deal together. Susan could honestly admire here, and Ella liked her admiration.
Miss Saunders believed herself to be a member of the most distinguished American family in existence, and her place to be undisputed as queen of the most exclusive little social circle in the world. She knew enough of the social sets of London and Washington and New York society to allude to them casually and intimately, and she told Susan that no other city could boast of more charming persons than those who composed her own particular set in San Francisco. Ella never spoke of "society" without intense gravity; nothing in life interested her so much as the question of belonging or not belonging to it. To her personally, of course, it meant nothing; she had been born inside the charmed ring, and would die there; but the status of other persons filled her with concern. She was very angry when her mother or Emily showed any wavering in this all-important matter.
"Well, what did you have to see her for, Mama?" Ella would irritably demand, when her autocratic "Who'd you see to-day? What'd you do?" had drawn from her mother the name of some caller.
"Why, dearie, I happened to be right there. I was just crossing the porch when they drove up!" Mrs. Saunders would timidly submit.
"Oh, Lord, Lord, Lord! Mama, you make me crazy!" Ella would drop her hands, fling her head back, gaze despairingly at her mother. "That was your chance to snub her, Mama! Why didn't you have Chow Yew say that you were out?"
"But, dearie, she seemed a real sweet little thing!"
"Sweet little--! You'll have me crazy! Sweet little nothing--just because she married Gordon Jones, and the St. Johns have taken her up, she thinks she can get into society! And anyway, I wouldn't have given Rosie St. John the satisfaction for a thousand dollars! Did you ask her to your bridge lunch?"
"Ella, dear, it is my lunch," her mother might remind her, with dignity.
"Mama, did you ask that woman here to play cards?"
"Well, dearie, she happened to say--"
"Oh, happened to say--!" A sudden calm would fall upon Miss Ella, the calm of desperate decision. The subject would be dropped for the time, but she would bring a written note to the lunch table.
"Listen to this, Mama; I can change it if you don't like it," Ella would begin, kindly, and proceed to read it.
"But, Ella, dear," the mother would protest, "there are others coming--"
"Leave the others to me! I'll telephone and make it the day before." Ella would seal and dispatch the note, and be inclined to feel generously tender and considerate of her mother for the rest of the day.
Ella was at home for a few moments, almost every day; but she did not dine at home more than once or twice in a fortnight. But she was always there for the family's occasional formal dinner party in which events Susan refused very sensibly to take part. She and Miss Baker dined early and most harmoniously in the breakfast-room, and were free to make themselves useful to the ladies of the house afterward. Ella would be magnificent in spangled cloth-of-gold; Emily very piquante in demure and drooping white, embroidered exquisitely with tiny French blossoms in color; Mrs. Saunders rustling in black lace and lavender silk, as the three went downstairs at eight o'clock. Across the wide hall below would stream the hooded women and the men in great-coats, silk hats in hand. Ella did not leave the drawing-room to meet them, as on less formal occasions, but a great chattering and laughing would break out as they went in.
Susan, sitting back on her knees in the upper hall, to peer through the railing at the scene below, to Miss Baker's intense amusement, could admire everything but the men guests. They were either more or less attractive and married, thought Susan, or very young, very old, or very uninteresting bachelors. Red-faced, eighteen-year-old boys, laughing nervously, and stumbling over their pumps, shared the honors with cackling little fifty-year-old gallants. It could only be said that they were males, and that Ella would have cheerfully consigned her mother to bed with a bad headache rather than have had one too few of them to evenly balance the number of women. The members of the family knew what patience and effort were required, what writing and telephoning, before the right number was acquired.
The first personal word that Kenneth Saunders ever spoke to his sister's companion was when, running downstairs, on the occasion of one of these dinners, he came upon her, crouched in her outlook, and thoroughly enjoying herself.
"Good God!" said Kenneth, recoiling.
"Sh-sh--it's only me--I'm watching 'em!" Susan whispered, even laying her hand upon the immaculate young gentleman's arm in her anxiety to quiet him.
"Why, Lord; why doesn't Ella count you in on these things?" he demanded, gruffly. "Next time I'll tell her--"
"If you do, I'll never speak to you again!" Susan threatened, her merry face close to his in the dark. "I wouldn't be down there for a farm!"
"What do you do, just watch 'em?" Kenneth asked sociably, hanging over the railing beside her.
"It's lots of fun!" Susan said, in a whisper. "Who's that?"
"That's that Bacon girl--isn't she the limit!" Kenneth whispered back. "Lord," he added regretfully, "I'd much rather stay up here than go down! What Ella wants to round up a gang like this for--"
And, sadly speculating, the son of the house ran downstairs, and Susan, congratulating herself, returned to her watching.
Indeed, after a month or two in her new position, she thought an evening to herself a luxury to be enormously enjoyed. It was on such an occasion that Susan got the full benefit of the bathroom, the luxuriously lighted and appointed dressing-table, the porch with its view of a dozen gardens drenched in heavenly moonlight. At other times Emily's conversation distracted her and interrupted her at her toilet. Emily gave her no instant alone.
Emily came up very late after the dinners to yawn and gossip with Susan while Gerda, her mother's staid middle-aged maid, drew off her slippers and stockings, and reverently lifted the dainty gown safely to its closet. Susan always got up, rolled herself in a wrap, and listened to the account of the dinner; Emily was rather critical of the women, but viewed the men more romantically. She repeated their compliments, exulting that they had been paid her "under Ella's very nose," or while "Mama was staring right at us." It pleased Emily to imagine a great many love-affairs for herself, and to feel that they must all be made as mysterious and kept as secret as possible.
It was the old story, thought Susan, listening sympathetically, and in utter disbelief, to these recitals. Mary Lou and Georgie were not alone in claiming vague and mythical love-affairs; Emily even carried them to the point of indicating old bundles of letters in her desk as "from Bob Brock--tell you all about that some time!" or alluding to some youth who had gone away, left that part of the country entirely for her sake, some years ago. And even Georgie would not have taken as seriously as Emily did the least accidental exchange of courtesies with the eligible male. If the two girls, wasting a morning in the shops in town, happened to meet some hurrying young man in the street, the color rushed into Emily's face, and she alluded to the incident a dozen times during the course of the day. Like most girls, she had a special manner for men, a rather audacious and attractive manner, Susan thought. The conversation was never anything but gay and frivolous and casual. It always pleased Emily when such a meeting occurred.
"Did you notice that Peyton Hamilton leaned over and said something to me very quickly, in a low voice, this morning?" Emily would ask, later, suddenly looking mischievous and penitent at once.
"Oh, ho! That's what you do when I'm not noticing!" Susan would upbraid her.
"He asked me if he could call," Emily would say, yawning, "but I told him I didn't like him well enough for that!"
Susan was astonished to find herself generally accepted because of her association with Emily Saunders. She had always appreciated the difficulty of entering the inner circle of society with insufficient credentials. Now she learned how simple the whole thing was when the right person or persons assumed the responsibility. Girls whom years ago she had rather fancied to be "snobs" and "stuck-up" proved very gracious, very informal and jolly, at closer view; even the most prominent matrons began to call her "child" and "you little Susan Brown, you!" and show her small kindnesses.
Susan took them at exactly their own valuation, revered those women who, like Ella, were supreme; watched curiously others a little less sure of their standing; and pitied and smiled at the struggles of the third group, who took rebuffs and humiliations smilingly, and fell only to rise and climb again. Susan knew that the Thayers, the Chickerings and Chaunceys and Coughs, the Saunders and the St. Johns, and Dolly Ripley, the great heiress, were really secure, nothing could shake them from their proud eminence. It gave her a little satisfaction to put the Baxters and Peter Coleman decidedly a step below; even lovely Isabel Wallace and the Carters and the Geralds, while ornamenting the very nicest set, were not quite the social authorities that the first-named families were. And several lower grades passed before one came to Connie Fox and her type, poor, pushing, ambitious, watching every chance to score even the tiniest progress toward the goal of social recognition. Connie Fox and her mother were a curious study to Susan, who, far more secure for the time being than they were, watched them with deep interest. The husband and father was an insurance broker, whose very modest income might have comfortably supported a quiet country home, and one maid, and eventually have been stretched to afford the daughter and only child a college education or a trousseau as circumstances decreed. As it was, a little house on Broadway was maintained with every appearance of luxury, a capped-and-aproned maid backed before guests through the tiny hall; Connie's vivacity covered the long wait for the luncheons that an irate Chinese cook, whose wages were perpetually in arrears, served when it pleased him to do so. Mrs. Fox bought prizes for Connie's gay little card-parties with the rent money, and retired with a headache immediately after tearfully informing the harassed breadwinner of the fact. She ironed Connie's gowns, bullied her little dressmaker, cried and made empty promises to her milliner, cut her old friends, telephoned her husband at six o'clock that, as "the girls" had not gone yet, perhaps he had better have a bite of dinner downtown. She gushed and beamed on Connie's friends, cultivated those she could reach assiduously, and never dreamed that a great many people were watching her with amusement when she worked her way about a room to squeeze herself in next to some social potentate.
She had her reward when the mail brought Constance the coveted dance-cards; when she saw her name in the society columns of the newspapers, and was able to announce carelessly that that lucky girlie of hers was really going to Honolulu with the Cyrus Holmes. Dolly Ripley, the heiress, had taken a sudden fancy to Connie, some two years before Susan met her, and this alone was enough to reward Mrs. Fox for all the privations, snubs and humiliations she had suffered since the years when she curled Connie's straight hair on a stick, nearly blinded herself tucking and embroidering her little dresses, and finished up the week's ironing herself so that her one maid could escort Connie to an exclusive little dancing-class.
Susan saw Connie now and then, and met the mother and daughter on a certain autumn Sunday when Ella had chaperoned the two younger girls to a luncheon at the Burlingame club-house. They had spent the night before with a friend of Ella's, whose lovely country home was but a few minutes' walk from the club, and Susan was elated with the glorious conviction that she had added to the gaiety of the party, and that through her even Emily was having a really enjoyable time. She met a great many distinguished persons to-day, the golf and polo players, the great Eastern actress who was the center of a group of adoring males, and was being entertained by the oldest and most capable of dowagers, and Dolly Ripley, a lean, eager, round- shouldered, rowdyish little person, talking as a professional breeder might talk of her dogs and horses, and shadowed by Connie Fox. Susan was so filled with the excitement of the occasion, the beauty of the day, the delightful club and its delightful guests, that she was able to speak to Miss Dolly Ripley quite as if she also had inherited some ten millions of dollars, and owned the most expensive, if not the handsomest, home in the state.
"That was so like dear Dolly!" said Mrs. Fox later, coming up behind Susan on the porch, and slipping an arm girlishly about her waist.
"What was?" asked Susan, after greetings.
"Why, to ask what your first name was, and say that as she hated the name of Brown, she was going to call you Susan!" said Mrs. Fox sweetly. "Don't you find her very dear and simple?"
"Why, I just met her--" Susan said, disliking the arm about her waist, and finding Mrs. Fox's interest in her opinion of Dolly Ripley quite transparent.
"Ah, I know her so well!" Mrs. Fox added, with a happy sigh. "Always bright and interested when she meets people. But I scold her--yes, I do!--for giving people a false impression. I say, 'Dolly,'--I've known her so long, you know!--'Dolly, dear, people might easily think you meant some of these impulsive things you say, dear, whereas your friends, who know you really well, know that it's just your little manner, and that you'll have forgotten all about it to- morrow!' I don't mean you, Miss Brown," Mrs. Fox interrupted herself to say hastily. "Far from it!----Now, my dear, tell me that you know I didn't mean you!"
"I understand perfectly," Susan said graciously. And she knew that at last she really did. Mrs. Fox was fluttering like some poor bird that sees danger near its young. She couldn't have anyone else, especially this insignificant little Miss Brown, who seemed to be making rather an impression everywhere, jeopardize Connie's intimacy with Dolly Ripley, without using such poor and obvious little weapons as lay at her command to prevent it.
Standing on the porch of the Burlingame Club, and staring out across the gracious slopes of the landscape, Susan had an exhilarated sense of being among the players of this fascinating game at last. She must play it alone, to be sure, but far better alone than assisted as Connie Fox was assisted. It was an immense advantage to be expected to accompany Emily everywhere; it made a snub practically impossible, while heightening the compliment when she was asked anywhere without Emily. Susan was always willing to entertain a difficult guest, to play cards or not to play with apparently equal enjoyment--more desirable than either, she was "fun," and the more she was laughed at, the funnier she grew.
"And you'll be there with Emily, of course, Miss Brown," said the different hostess graciously. "Emily, you're going to bring Susan Brown, you know!--I'm telephoning, Miss Brown, because I'm afraid my note didn't make it clear that we want you, too!"
Emily's well-known eccentricity did not make Susan the less popular; even though she was personally involved in it.
"Oh, I wrote you a note for Emily this morning, Mrs. Willis," Susan would say, at the club, "she's feeling wretchedly to-day, and she wants to be excused from your luncheon to-morrow!"
"Oh?" The matron addressed would eye the messenger with kindly sharpness. "What's the matter--very sick?"
"We-ell, not dying!" A dimple would betray the companion's demureness.
"Not dying? No, I suppose not! Well, you tell Emily that she's a silly, selfish little cat, or words to that effect!"
"I'll choose words to that effect," Susan would assure the speaker, smilingly.
"You couldn't come, anyway, I suppose?"
"Oh, no, Mrs. Willis! Thank you so much!"
"No, of course not." The matron would bite her lips in momentary irritation, and, when they parted, the cause of that pretty, appreciative, amusing little companion of Emily Saunders would be appreciably strengthened.
One winter morning Emily tossed a square, large envelope across the breakfast table toward her companion.
"Sue, that looks like a Browning invitation! What do you bet that he's sent you a card for the dances!"
"He couldn't!" gasped Susan, snatching it up, while her eyes danced, and the radiant color flooded her face. Her hand actually shook when she tore the envelope open, and as the engraved card made its appearance, Susan's expression might have been that of Cinderella eyeing her coach-and-four.
For Browning--founder of the cotillion club, and still manager of the four or five winter dances--was the one unquestioned, irrefutable, omnipotent social authority of San Francisco. To go to the "Brownings" was to have arrived socially; no other distinction was equivalent, because there was absolutely no other standard of judgment. Very high up, indeed, in the social scale must be the woman who could resist the temptation to stick her card to the Brownings in her mirror frame, where the eyes of her women friends must inevitably fall upon it, and yearly hundreds of matrons tossed through sleepless nights, all through the late summer and the fall, hoping against hope, despairing, hoping again, that the magic card might really be delivered some day in early December, and her debutante daughter's social position be placed beyond criticism once more. Only perhaps one hundred persons out of "Brownie's" four hundred guests could be sure of the privilege. The others must suffer and wait.
Browning himself, a harassed, overworked, kindly gentleman, whose management of the big dances brought him nothing but responsibility and annoyance, threatened yearly to resign from his post, and yearly was dragged back into the work, fussing for hours with his secretary over the list, before he could personally give it to the hungrily waiting reporters with the weary statement that it was absolutely correct, that no more names were to be added this year, that he did not propose to defend, through the columns of the press, his omission of certain names and his acceptance of others, and that, finally, he was off for a week's vacation in the southern part of the state, and thanked them all for their kindly interest in himself and his efforts for San Francisco society.
It was the next morning's paper that was so anxiously awaited, and so eagerly perused in hundreds of luxurious boudoirs--exulted over, or wept over and reviled,--but read by nearly every woman in the city.
And now he had sent Susan a late card, and Susan knew why. She had met the great man at the Hotel Rafael a few days before, at tea- time, and he had asked Susan most affectionately of her aunt, Mrs. Lancaster, and recalled, with a little emotion, the dances of two generations before, when he was a small boy, and the lovely Georgianna Ralston was a beauty and a belle. Susan could have kissed the magic bit of pasteboard!
But she knew too well just what Emily wanted to think of Browning's courtesy, to mention his old admiration for her aunt. And Emily immediately justified her diplomatic silence by saying:
"Isn't that awfully decent of Brownie! He did that just for Ella and me--that's like him! He'll do anything for some people!"
"Well, of course I can't go," Susan said briskly. "But I do call it awfully decent! And no little remarks about sending a check, either, and no chaperone's card! The old duck! However, I haven't a gown, and I haven't a beau, and you don't go, and so I'll write a tearful regret. I hope it won't be the cause of his giving the whole thing up. I hate to discourage the dear boy!"
Emily laughed approvingly.
"No, but honestly, Sue," she said, in eager assent, "don't you know how people would misunderstand--you know how people are! You and I know that you don't care a whoop about society, and that you'd be the last person in the world to use your position here--but you know what other people might say! And Brownie hates talk--"
Susan had to swallow hard, and remain smiling. It was part of the price that she paid for being here in this beautiful environment, for being, in every material sense, a member of one of the state's richest families. She could not say, as she longed to say, "Oh, Emily, don't talk rot! You know that before your own grandfather made his money as a common miner, and when Isabel Wallace's grandfather was making shoes, mine was a rich planter in Virginia!" But she knew that she could safely have treated Emily's own mother with rudeness, she could have hopelessly mixed up the letters she wrote for Ella, she could have set the house on fire or appropriated to her own use the large sums of money she occasionally was entrusted by the family to draw for one purpose or another from the bank, and been quickly forgiven, if forgivness was a convenience to the Saunders family at the moment. But to fail to realize that between the daughter of the house of Saunders and the daughter of the house of Brown an unspanned social chasm must forever stretch would have been, indeed, the unforgivable offense.
It was all very different from Susan's old ideals of a paid companion's duties. She had drawn these ideals from the English novels she consumed with much enjoyment in early youth--from "Queenie's Whim" and "Uncle Max" and the novels of Charlotte Yonge. She had imagined herself, before her arrival at "High Gardens," as playing piano duets with Emily, reading French for an hour, German for an hour, gardening, tramping, driving, perhaps making a call on some sick old woman with soup and jelly in her basket, or carrying armfuls of blossoms to the church for decoration. If one of Emily's sick headaches came on, it would be Susan's duty to care for her tenderly, and to read to her in a clear, low, restful voice when she was recovering; to write her notes, to keep her vases filled with flowers, to "preside" at the tea-table, efficient, unobtrusive, and indispensable. She would make herself useful to Ella, too; arrange her collections of coins, carry her telephone messages, write her notes. She would accompany the little old mother on her round through the greenhouses, read to her and be ready to fly for her book or her shawl. And if Susan's visionary activities also embraced a little missionary work in the direction of the son of the house, it was of a very sisterly and blameless nature. Surely the most demure of companions, reading to Mrs. Saunders in the library, might notice an attentive listener lounging in a dark corner, or might color shyly when Ken's sisters commented on the fact that he seemed to be at home a good deal these days.
It was a little disillusioning to discover, as during her first weeks in the new work she did discover, that almost no duties whatever would be required of her. It seemed to make more irksome the indefinite thing that was required of her; her constant interested participation in just whatever happened to interest Emily at the moment. Susan loved tennis and driving, loved shopping and lunching in town, loved to stroll over to the hotel for tea in the pleasant afternoons, or was satisfied to lie down and read for an hour or two.
But it was very trying to a person of her definite impulsive briskness never to know, from one hour or one day to the next, just what occupation was in prospect. Emily would order the carriage for four o'clock, only to decide, when it came around, that she would rather drag the collies out into the side-garden, to waste three dozen camera plates and three hours in trying to get good pictures of them. Sometimes Emily herself posed before the camera, and Susan took picture after picture of her.
"Sue, don't you think it would be fun to try some of me in my Mandarin coat? Come up while I get into it. Oh, and go get Chow Yew to get that Chinese violin he plays, and I'll hold it! We'll take 'em in the Japanese garden!" Emily would be quite fired with enthusiasm, but before the girls were upstairs she might change in favor of her riding habit and silk hat, and Susan would telephone the stable that Miss Emily's riding horse was wanted in the side- garden. "You're a darling!" she would say to Susan, after an exhausting hour or two. "Now, next time I'll take you!"
But Susan's pictures never were taken. Emily's interest rarely touched twice in the same place.
"Em, it's twenty minutes past four! Aren't we going to tea with Isabel Wallace?" Susan would ask, coming in to find Emily comfortably stretched out with a book.
"Oh, Lord, so we were! Well, let's not!" Emily would yawn.
"But, Em, they expect us!"
"Well, go telephone, Sue, there's a dear! And tell them I've got a terrible headache. And you and I'll have tea up here. Tell Carrie I want to see her about it; I'm hungry; I want to order it specially."
Sometimes, when the girls came downstairs, dressed for some outing, it was Miss Ella who upset their plans. Approving of her little sister's appearance, she would lure Emily off for a round of formal calls.
"Be decent now, Baby! You'll never have a good time, if you don't go and do the correct thing now and then. Come on. I'm going to town on the two, and we can get a carriage right at the ferry--"
But Susan rarely managed to save the afternoon. Going noiselessly upstairs, she was almost always captured by the lonely old mistress of the house.
"Girls gone?" Mrs. Saunders would pipe, in her cracked little voice, from the doorway of her rooms. "Don't the house seem still? Come in, Susan, you and I'll console each other over a cup of tea."
Susan, smilingly following her, would be at a loss to account for her own distaste and disappointment. But she was so tired of people! She wanted so desperately to be alone!
The precious chance would drift by, a rich tea would presently be served; the little over-dressed, over-fed old lady was really very lonely; she went to a luncheon or card-party not oftener than two or three times a month, and she loved company. There was almost no close human need or interest in her life; she was as far from her children as was any other old lady of their acquaintance.
Susan knew that she had been very proud of her sons and daughters, as a happy young mother. The girl was continually discovering, among old Mrs. Saunders' treasures, large pictures of Ella, at five, at seven, at nine, with straight long bangs and rosetted hats that tied under her chin, and French dresses tied with sashes about her knees, and pictures of Kenneth leaning against stone benches, or sitting in swings, a thin and sickly-looking little boy, in a velvet suit and ribboned straw hat. There were pictures of the dead children, too, and a picture of Emily, at three months, sitting in an immense shell, and clad only in the folds of her own fat little person. On the backs of these pictures, Mrs. Saunders had written "Kennie, six years old," and the date, or "Totty, aged nine"--she never tired of looking at them now, and of telling Susan that the buttons on Ella's dress had been of sterling silver, "made right from Papa's mine," and that the little ship Kenneth held had cost twenty-five dollars. All of her conversation was boastful, in an inoffensive, faded sort of way. She told Susan about her wedding, about her gown and her mother's gown, and the cost of her music, and the number of the musicians.
Mrs. Saunders, Susan used to think, letting her thoughts wander as the old lady rambled on, was an unfortunately misplaced person. She had none of the qualities of the great lady, nothing spiritual or mental with which to fend off the vacuity of old age. As a girl, a bride, a young matron, she had not shown her lack so pitiably. But now, at sixty-five, Mrs. Saunders had no character, no tastes, no opinions worth considering. She liked to read the paper, she liked her flowers, although she took none of the actual care of them, and she liked to listen to music; there was a mechanical piano in her room, and Susan often heard the music downstairs at night, and pictured the old lady, reading in bed, calling to Miss Baker when a record approached its finish, and listening contentedly to selections from "Faust" and "Ernani," and the "Chanson des Alpes." Mrs. Saunders would have been far happier as a member of the fairly well-to-do middle class. She would have loved to shop with married daughters, sharply interrogating clerks as to the durability of shoes, and the weight of little underflannels; she would have been a good angel in the nurseries, as an unfailing authority when the new baby came, or hushing the less recent babies to sleep in tender old arms. She would have been a judge of hot jellies, a critic of pastry. But bound in this little aimless groove of dressmakers' calls, and card-parties, she was quite out of her natural element. It was not astonishing that, like Emily, she occasionally enjoyed an illness, and dispensed with the useless obligation of getting up and dressing herself at all!
Invitations, they were really commands, to the Browning dances were received early in December; Susan, dating her graceful little note of regret, was really shocked to notice the swift flight of the months. December already! And she had seemed to leave Hunter, Baxter & Hunter only last week. Susan fell into a reverie over her writing, her eyes roving absently over the stretch of wooded hills below her window. December--! Nearly a year since Peter Coleman had sent her a circle of pearls, and she had precipitated the events that had ended their friendship. It was a sore spot still, the memory; but Susan, more sore at herself for letting him mislead her than with him, burned to reestablish herself in his eyes as a woman of dignity and reserve, rather than to take revenge upon him for what was, she knew now, as much a part of him as his laughing eyes and his indomitable buoyancy.
The room in which she was writing was warm. Furnace heat is not common in California, but, with a thousand other conveniences, the Saunders home had a furnace. There were winter roses, somewhere near her, making the air sweet; the sunlight slanted in brightly across the wide couch where Emily was lying, teasing Susan between casual glances at her magazine. A particularly gay week had left both girls feeling decidedly unwell. Emily complained of headache and neuralgia; Susan had breakfasted on hot soda and water, her eyes felt heavy, her skin hot and dry and prickly.
"We all eat too much in this house!" she said aloud, cheerfully. "And we don't exercise enough!" Emily did not answer, merely smiled, as at a joke. The subject of diet was not popular with either of the Misses Saunders. Emily never admitted that her physical miseries had anything to do with her stomach; and Ella, whose bedroom scales exasperated her afresh every time she got on them, while making dolorous allusions to her own size whenever it pleased her to do so, never allowed anyone else the privilege. But even with her healthy appetite, and splendid constitution, Susan was unable to eat as both the sisters did. Every other day she resolved sternly to diet, and frequently at night she could not sleep for indigestion; but the Saunders home was no atmosphere for Spartan resolutions, and every meal-time saw Susan's courage defeated afresh. She could have remained away from the table with far less effort than was required, when a delicious dish was placed before her, to send it away untouched. There were four regular meals daily in the Saunders home; the girls usually added a fifth when they went down to the pantries to forage before going to bed; and tempting little dishes of candy and candied fruits were set unobtrusively on card-tables, on desks, on the piano where the girls were amusing themselves with the songs of the day.
It was a comfortable, care-free life they led, irresponsible beyond any of Susan's wildest dreams. She and Emily lounged about their bright, warm apartments, these winter mornings, until nine o'clock, lingered over their breakfast--talking, talking and talking, until the dining-room clock struck a silvery, sweet eleven; and perhaps drifted into Miss Ella's room for more talk, or amused themselves with Chow Yew's pidgin English, while he filled vases in one of the pantries. At twelve o'clock they went up to dress for the one o'clock luncheon, an elaborate meal at which Mrs. Saunders plaintively commented on the sauce Bechamel, Ella reviled the cook, and Kenneth, if he was present, drank a great deal of some charged water from a siphon, or perhaps made Lizzie or Carrie nearly leap out of their skins by a sudden, terrifying inquiry why Miss Brown hadn't been served to salad before he was, or perhaps growled at Emily a question as to what the girls had been talking about all night long.
After luncheon, if Kenneth did not want the new motor-car, which was supposed to be his particular affectation, the girls used it, giggling in the tonneau at the immobility of Flornoy, the French chauffeur; otherwise they drove behind the bays, and stopped at some lovely home, standing back from the road behind a sweep of drive, and an avenue of shady trees, for tea. Susan could take her part in the tea-time gossip now, could add her surmises and comment to the general gossip, and knew what the society weeklies meant when they used initials, or alluded to a "certain prominent debutante recently returned from an Eastern school."
As the season ripened, she and Emily went to four or five luncheons every week, feminine affairs, with cards or matinee to follow. Dinner invitations were more rare; there were men at the dinners, and the risk of boring a partner with Emily's uninteresting little personality was too great to be often taken. Her poor health served both herself and her friends as an excuse. Ella went everywhere, even to the debutante's affairs; but Emily was too entirely self- centered to be popular.
She and Susan were a great deal alone. They chattered and laughed together through shopping trips, luncheons at the clubs, matinees, and trips home on the boat. They bought prizes for Ella's card- parties, or engagement cups and wedding-presents for those fortunate girls who claimed the center of the social stage now and then with the announcement of their personal plans. They bought an endless variety of pretty things for Emily, who prided herself on the fact that she could not bear to have near her anything old or worn or ugly. A thousand little reminders came to Emily wherever she went of things without which she could not exist.
"What a darling chain that woman's wearing; let's go straight up to Shreve's and look at chains," said Emily, on the boat; or "White- bait! Here it is on this menu. I hadn't thought of it for months! Do remind Mrs. Pullet to get some!" or "Can't you remember what it was Isabel said that she was going to get? Don't you remember I said I needed it, too?"
If Susan had purchases of her own to make, Emily could barely wait with patience until they were completed, before adding:
"I think I'll have a pair of slippers, too. Something a little nicer than that, please"; or "That's going to make up into a dear wrapper for you, Sue," she would enthusiastically declare, "I ought to have another wrapper, oughtn't I? Let's go up to Chinatown, and see some of the big wadded ones at Sing Fat's. I really need one!"
Just before Christmas, Emily went to the southern part of the state with a visiting cousin from the East, and Susan gladly seized the opportunity for a little visit at home. She found herself strangely stirred when she went in, from the bright winter sunshine, to the dingy, odorous old house, encountering the atmosphere familiar to her from babyhood, and the unaltered warm embraces of Mary Lou and her aunt. Before she had hung up her hat and coat, she was swept again into the old ways, listening, while she changed her dress, to Mary Lou's patient complaints and wistful questions, slipping out to the bakery just before dinner to bring home a great paper-bag of hot rolls, and ending the evening, after a little shopping expedition to Fillmore Street, with solitaire at the dining-room table. The shabbiness and disorder and a sort of material sordidness were more marked than ever, but Susan was keenly conscious of some subtle, touching charm, unnoticed heretofore, that seemed to flavor the old environment to-night. They were very pure and loving and loyal, her aunt and cousins, very practically considerate and tender toward each other, despite the flimsy fabric of their absurd dreams; very good, in the old-fashioned sense of the term, if not very successful or very clever.
They made much of her coming, rejoiced over her and kissed her as if she never had even in thought neglected them, and exulted innocently in the marvelous delights of her new life. Georgie was driven over from the Mission by her husband, the next day, in Susan's honor, and carried the fat, loppy baby in for so brief a visit that it was felt hardly worth while to unwrap and wrap up again little Myra Estelle. Mrs. Lancaster had previously, with a burst of tears, informed Susan that Georgie was looking very badly, and that, nursing that heavy child, she should have been spared more than she was by the doctor's mother and the old servant. But Susan, although finding the young mother pale and rather excited, thought that Georgie looked well, and admired with the others her heavy, handsome new suit and the over-trimmed hat that quite eclipsed her small face. The baby was unmanageable, and roared throughout the visit, to Georgie's distress.
"She never cries this way at home!" protested young Mrs. O'Connor.
"Give her some ninny," Mrs. Lancaster suggested, eagerly, but Georgie, glancing at the street where Joe was holding the restless black horse in check, said nervously that Joe didn't like it until the right time. She presently went out to hand Myra to Susan while she climbed into place, and was followed by a scream from Mrs. Lancaster, who remarked later that seeing the black horse start just as Susan handed the child up, she had expected to see them all dashed to pieces.
"Well, Susan, light of my old eyes, had enough of the rotten rich?" asked William Oliver, coming in for a later dinner, on the first night of her visit, and jerking her to him for a resounding kiss before she had any idea of his intention.
"Billy!" Susan said, mildly scandalized, her eyes on her aunt.
"Well, well, what's all this!" Mrs. Lancaster remarked, without alarm. William, shaking out his napkin, drawing his chair up to the table, and falling upon his dinner with vigor, demanded:
"Come on, now! Tell us all, all!"
But Susan, who had been chattering fast enough from the moment of her arrival, could not seem to get started again. It was indeed a little difficult to continue an enthusiastic conversation, unaffected by his running fire of comment. For in these days he was drifting rapidly toward a sort of altruistic socialism, and so listened to her recital with sardonic smiles, snorts of scorn, and caustic annotations.
"The Carters--ha! That whole bunch ought to be hanged," Billy remarked. "All their money comes from the rents of bad houses, and-- let me tell you something, when there was a movement made to buy up that Jackson Street block, and turn it into a park, it was old Carter, yes, and his wife, too, who refused to put a price on their property!"
"Oh, Billy, you don't know that!"
"I don't? All right, maybe I don't," Mr. Oliver returned growlingly to his meal, only to break out a moment later, "The Kirkwoods! Yes; that's a rare old bunch! They're still holding the city to the franchise they swindled the Government out of, right after the Civil War! Every time you pay taxes--"
"I don't pay taxes!" Susan interrupted frivolously, and resumed her glowing account. Billy made no further contribution to the conversation until he asked some moments later, "Does old Brock ever tell you about his factories, while he's taking you around his orchid-house? There's a man a week killed there, and the foremen tell the girls when they hire them that they aren't expected to take care of themselves on the wages they get!"
But the night before her return to San Rafael, Mr. Oliver, in his nicest mood, took Susan to the Orpheum, and they had fried oysters and coffee in a little Fillmore Street restaurant afterward, Billy admitting with graceful frankness that funds were rather low, and Susan really eager for the old experience and the old sensations. Susan liked the brotherly, clumsy way in which he tried to ascertain, as they sat loitering and talking over the little meal, just how much of her thoughts still went to Peter Coleman, and laughed outright, as soon as she detected his purpose, as only an absolutely heart-free girl could laugh, and laid her hand over his for a little appreciative squeeze before they dismissed the subject. After that he told her of some of his own troubles, the great burden of the laboring classes that he felt rested on his particular back, and his voice rose and he pounded the table as he talked of the other countries of the world, where even greater outrages, or where experimental solutions were in existence. Susan brought the conversation to Josephine Carroll, and watched his whole face grow tender, and heard his voice soften, as they spoke of her.
"No; but is it really and truly serious this time, Bill?" she asked, with that little thrill of pain that all good sisters know when the news comes.
"Serious? Gosh!" said the lover, simply.
"No-o. I couldn't very well. I'm in so deep at the works that I may get fired any minute. More than that, the boys generally want me to act as spokesman, and so I'm a sort of marked card, and I mightn't get in anywhere else, very easily. And I couldn't ask Jo to go with me to some Eastern factory or foundry town, without being pretty sure of a job. No; things are just drifting."
"Well, but Bill," Susan said anxiously, "somebody else will step in if you don't! Jo's such a beauty--"
He turned to her almost with a snarl.
"Well, what do you want me to do? Steal?" he asked angrily. And then softening suddenly he added: "She's young,--the little queen of queens!"
"And yet you say you don't want money," Susan said, drily, with a shrug of her shoulders.
The next day she went back to Emily, and again the lazy, comfortable days began to slip by, one just like the other. At Christmas-time Susan was deluged with gifts, the holidays were an endless chain of good times, the house sweet with violets, and always full of guests and callers; girls in furs who munched candy as they chattered, and young men who laughed and shouted around the punch bowl. Susan and Emily were caught in a gay current that streamed to the club, to talk and drink eggnog before blazing logs, and streamed to one handsome home after another, to talk and drink eggnog before other fires, and to be shown and admire beautiful and expensive presents. They bundled in and out of carriages and motors, laughing as they crowded in, and sitting on each other's laps, and carrying a chorus of chatter and laughter everywhere. Susan would find herself, the inevitable glass in hand, talking hard to some little silk-clad old lady in some softly lighted lovely drawing-room, to be whisked away to some other drawing-room, and to another fireside, where perhaps there was a stocky, bashful girl of fourteen to amuse, or somebody's grandfather to interest and smile upon.
Everywhere were holly wreaths and lights, soft carpets, fires and rich gowns, and everywhere the same display of gold picture frames and silver plates, rock crystal bowls, rugs and cameras and mahogany desks and tables, furs and jeweled chains and rings. Everywhere were candies from all over the world, and fruitcake from London, and marrons and sticky candied fruit, and everywhere unobtrusive maids were silently offering trays covered with small glasses.
Susan was frankly sick when the new year began, and Emily had several heart and nerve attacks, and was very difficult to amuse. But both girls agreed that the holidays had been the "time of their lives."
It was felt by the Saunders family that Susan had shown a very becoming spirit in the matter of the Browning dances. Ella, who had at first slightly resented the fact that "Brownie" had chosen to honor Emily's paid companion in so signal a manner, had gradually shifted to the opinion that, in doing so, he had no more than confirmed the family's opinion of Susan Brown, after all, and shown a very decent discrimination.
"No earthly reason why you shouldn't have accepted!" said Ella.
"Oh, Duchess," said Susan, who sometimes pleased her with this name, "fancy the talk!"
"Well," drawled Ella, resuming her perusal of a scandalous weekly, "I don't know that I'm afraid of talk, myself!"
"At the same time, El," Emily contributed, eagerly, "you know what a fuss they made when Vera Brock brought that Miss De Foe, of New York!"
Ella gave her little sister a very keen look,
"Vera Brock?" she said, dreamily, with politely elevated brows.
"Well, of course, I don't take the Brocks seriously--" Emily began, reddening.
"Well, I should hope you wouldn't, Baby!" answered the older sister, promptly and forcibly. "Don't make an utter fool of yourself!"
Emily retired into an enraged silence, and a day or two later, Ella, on a Sunday morning late in February, announced that she was going to chaperone both the girls to the Browning dance on the following Friday night.
Susan was thrown into a most delightful flutter, longing desperately to go, but chilled with nervousness whenever she seriously thought of it. She lay awake every night anxiously computing the number of her possible partners, and came down to breakfast every morning cold with the resolution that she would make a great mistake in exposing herself to possible snubbing and neglect. She thought of nothing but the Browning, listened eagerly to what the other girls said of it, her heart sinking when Louise Chickering observed that there never were men enough at the Brownings, and rising again when Alice Chauncey hardily observed that, if a girl was a good dancer, that was all that mattered, she couldn't help having a good time! Susan knew she danced well--
However, Emily succumbed on Thursday to a heart attack. The whole household went through its usual excitement, the doctor came, the nurse was hurriedly summoned, Susan removed all the smaller articles from Emily's room, and replaced the bed's flowery cover with a sheet, the invalid liking the hospital aspect. Susan was not very much amazed at the suddenness of this affliction; Emily had been notably lacking in enthusiasm about the dance, and on Wednesday afternoon, Ella having issued the casual command, "See if you can't get a man or two to dine with us at the hotel before the dance, Emily; then you girls will be sure of some partners, anyway!" Emily had spent a discouraging hour at the telephone.
"Hello, George!" Susan had heard her say gaily. "This is Emily Saunders. George, I rang up because--you know the Browning is Friday night, and Ella's giving me a little dinner at the Palace before it- -and I wondered--we're just getting it up hurriedly--" An interval of silence on Emily's part would follow, then she would resume, eagerly, "Oh, certainly! I'm sorry, but of course I understand. Yes, indeed; I'll see you Friday night--" and the conversation would be ended.
And, after a moment of silence, she would call another number, and go through the little conversation again. Susan, filled with apprehensions regarding her own partners, could not blame Emily for the heart attack, and felt a little vague relief on her own account. Better sure at home than sorry in the dreadful brilliance of a Browning ball!
"I'm afraid this means no dance!" murmured Emily, apologetically.
"As if I cared, Emmy Lou!" Susan reassured her cheerfully.
"Well, I don't think you would have had a good time, Sue!" Emily said, and the topic of the dance was presumably exhausted.
But when Ella got home, the next morning, she reopened the question with some heat. Emily could do exactly as Emily pleased, declared Ella, but Susan Brown should and would come to the last Browning.
"Oh, please, Duchess--!" Susan besought her.
"Very well, Sue, if you don't, I'll make that kid so sorry she ever- -"
"Oh, please!--And beside--" said Susan, "I haven't anything to wear! So that does settle it!" '
"What were you going to wear?" demanded Ella, scowling.
"Em said she'd lend me her white lace."
"Well, that's all right! Gerda'll fix it for you--"
"But Emily sent it back to Madame Leonard yesterday afternoon. She wanted the sash changed," Susan hastily explained.
"Well, she's got other gowns," Ella said, with a dangerous glint in her eyes. "What about that thing with the Persian embroidery? What about the net one she wore to Isabel's?"
"The net one's really gone to pieces, Duchess. It was a flimsy sort of thing, anyway. And the Persian one she's only had on twice. When we were talking about it Monday she said she'd rather I didn't--"
"Oh, she did? D'ye hear that, Mama?" Ella asked, holding herself in check. "And what about the chiffon?"
"Well, Ella, she telephoned Madame this morning not to hurry with that, because she wasn't going to the dance."
"Was she going to wear it?"
"Well, no. But she telephoned Madame just the same--I don't know why she did," Susan smiled. "But what's the difference?" she ended cheerfully.
"Quite a Flora McFlimsey!" said Mrs. Saunders, with her nervous, shrill little laugh, adding eagerly to the now thoroughly aroused Ella. "You know Baby doesn't really go about much, Totty; she hasn't as many gowns as you, dear!"
"Now, look here, Mama," Ella said, levelly, "if we can manage to get Susan something to wear, well and good; but--if that rotten, selfish, nasty kid has really spoiled this whole thing, she'll be sorry! That's all. I'd try to get a dress in town, if it wasn't so late! As it is I'll telephone Madame about the Persian--"
"Oh, honestly, I couldn't! If Emily didn't want me to!" Susan began, scarlet-cheeked.
"I think you're all in a conspiracy to drive me crazy!" Ella said angrily. "Emily shall ask you just as nicely as she knows how, to wear--"
"Totty, she's sick!" pleaded Emily's mother.
"Sick! She's chock-full of poison because she never knows when to stop eating," said Kenneth, with fraternal gallantry. He returned to his own thoughts, presently adding, "Why don't you borrow a dress from Isabel?"
"Isabel?" Ella considered it, brightened. "Isabel Wallace," she said, in sudden approval. "That's exactly what I'll do!" And she swept magnificently to the little telephone niche near the dining- room door. "Isabel," said she, a moment later, "this is Mike--"
So Susan went to the dance. Miss Isabel Wallace sent over a great box of gowns from which she might choose the most effective, and Emily, with a sort of timid sullenness, urged her to go. Ella and her charge went into town in the afternoon, and loitered into the club for tea. Susan, whose color was already burning high, and whose eyes were dancing, fretted inwardly at Ella's leisurely enjoyment of a second and a third sup. It was nearly six o'clock, it was after six! Ella seemed willing to delay indefinitely, waiting on the stairs of the club for a long chat with a passing woman, and lingering with various friends in the foyer of the great hotel.
But finally they were in the big bedrooms, with Clemence, Ella's maid, in eager and interested attendance. Clemence had laid Susan's delicious frills and laces out upon the bed; Susan's little wrapper was waiting her; there was nothing to do now but plunge into the joy of dressing. A large, placid person known to Susan vaguely as the Mrs. Keith, who had been twice divorced, had the room next to Ella, and pretty Mary Peacock, her daughter, shared Susan's room. The older ladies, assuming loose wrappers, sat gossiping over cocktails and smoking cigarettes, and Mary and Susan seized the opportunity to monopolize Clemence. Clemence arranged Susan's hair, pulling, twisting, flinging hot masses over the girl's face, inserting pins firmly, loosening strands with her hard little French fingers. Susan had only occasional blinded glimpses of her face, one temple bare and bald, the other eclipsed like a gipsy's.
"Look here, Clemence, if I don't like it, out it comes!" she said.
"Mais, certainement, ca va sans dire!" Clemence agreed serenely. Mary Peacock, full of amused interest, watched as she rubbed her face and throat with cold cream.
"I wish I had your neck and shoulders, Miss Brown," said Miss Peacock. "I get so sick of high-necked gowns that I'd almost rather stay home!"
"Why, you're fatter than I am!" Susan exclaimed. "You've got lovely shoulders!"
"Yes, darling!" Mary said, gushingly. "And I've got the sort of blood that breaks out, in a hot room," she added after a moment, "don't look so scared, it's nothing serious! But I daren't ever take the risk of wearing a low gown!"
"But how did you get it?" ejaculated Susan. "Are you taking something for it?"
"No, love," Mary continued, in the same, amused, ironic strain, "because I've been traveling about, half my life, to get it cured, Germany and France, everywhere! And there ain't no such animal! Isn't it lovely?"
"But how did you get it?" Susan innocently persisted. Mary gave her a look half exasperated and half warning; but, when Clemence had stepped into the next room for a moment, she said:
"Don't be an utter fool! Where do you think I got it?
"The worst of it is," she went on pleasantly, as Clemence came back, "that my father's married again, you know, to the sweetest little thing you ever saw. An only girl, with four or five big brothers, and her father a minister! Well--"
"Voici!" exclaimed the maid. And Susan faced herself in the mirror, and could not resist a shamed, admiring smile. But if the smooth rolls and the cunning sweeps and twists of bright hair made her prettier than usual, Susan was hardly recognizable when the maid touched lips and cheeks with color and eyebrows with her clever pencil. She had thought her eyes bright before; now they had a starry glitter that even their owner thought effective; her cheeks glowed softly--
"Here, stop flirting with yourself, and put on your gown, it's after eight!" Mary said, and Clemence slipped the fragrant beauty of silk and lace over Susan's head, and knelt down to hook it, and pushed it down over the hips, and tied the little cord that held the low bodice so charmingly in place. Clemence said nothing when she had finished, nor did Mary, nor did Ella when they presently joined Ella to go downstairs, but Susan was satisfied. It is an unfortunate girl indeed who does not think herself a beauty for one night at least in her life; Susan thought herself beautiful tonight.
They joined the men in the Lounge, and Susan had to go out to dinner, if not quite "on a man's arm," as in her old favorite books, at least with her own partner, feeling very awkward, and conscious of shoulders and hips as she did so. But she presently felt the influence of the lights and music, and of the heating food and wine, and talked and laughed quite at her ease, feeling delightfully like a great lady and a great beauty. Her dinner partner presently asked her for the "second" and the supper dance, and Susan, hoping that she concealed indecent rapture, gladly consented. By just so much was she relieved of the evening's awful responsibility. She did not particularly admire this nice, fat young man, but to be saved from visible unpopularity, she would gladly have danced with the waiter.
It was nearer eleven than ten o'clock when they sauntered through various wide hallways to the palm-decorated flight of stairs that led down to the ballroom. Susan gave one dismayed glance at the brilliant sweep of floor as they descended.
"They're dancing!" she ejaculated,--late, and a stranger, what chance had she!
"Gosh, you're crazy about it, aren't you?" grinned her partner, Mr. Teddy Carpenter. "Don't you care, they've just begun. Want to finish this with me?"
But Susan was greeting the host, who stood at the foot of the stairs, a fat, good-natured little man, beaming at everyone out of small twinkling blue eyes, and shaking hands with the debutantes while he spoke to their mothers over their shoulders.
"Hello, Brownie!" Ella said, affectionately. "Where's everybody?"
Mr. Browning flung his fat little arms in the air.
"I don't know," he said, in humorous distress. "The girls appear to be holding a meeting over there in the dressing-room, and the men are in the smoker! I'm going to round 'em up! How do you do, Miss Brown? Gad, you look so like your aunt,--and she was a beauty, Ella!--that I could kiss you for it, as I did her once!"
"My aunt has black hair and brown eyes, Miss Ella, and weighs one hundred and ninety pounds!" twinkled Susan.
"Kiss her again for that, Brownie, and introduce me," said a tall, young man at the host's side easily. "I'm going to have this, aren't I, Miss Brown? Come on, they're just beginning--"
Off went Susan, swept deliciously into the tide of enchanting music and motion. She wasn't expected to talk, she had no time to worry, she could dance well, and she did.
Kenneth Saunders came up in the pause before the dance was encored, and asked for the "next but one,"--there were no cards at the Brownings; all over the hall girls were nodding over their partners' shoulders, in answer to questions, "Next, Louise?" "Next waltz--one after that, then?" "I'm next, remember!"
Kenneth brought a bashful blonde youth with him, who instantly claimed the next dance. He did not speak to Susan again until it was over, when, remarking simply, "God, that was life!" he asked for the third ensuing, and surrendered Susan to some dark youth unknown, who said, "Ours? Now, don't say no, for there's suicide in my blood, girl, and I'm a man of few words!"
"I am honestly all mixed up!" Susan laughed. "I think this is promised--"
It didn't appear to matter. The dark young man took the next two, and Susan found herself in the enchanting position of a person reproached by disappointed partners. Perhaps there were disappointed and unpopular girls at the dance, perhaps there was heart-burning and disappointment and jealousy; she saw none of it. She was passed from hand to hand, complimented, flirted with, led into the little curtained niches where she could be told with proper gravity of the feelings her wit and beauty awakened in various masculine hearts. By twelve o'clock Susan wished that the ball would last a week, she was borne along like a feather on its glittering and golden surface.
Ella was by this time passionately playing the new and fascinating game of bridge whist, in a nearby room, but Browning was still busy, and presently he came across the floor to Susan, and asked her for a dance--an honor for which she was entirely unprepared, for he seldom danced, and one that she was quick enough to accept at once.
"Perhaps you've promised the next?" said Browning.
"If I have," said the confident Susan, "I hereby call it off."
"Well," he said smilingly, pleased. And although he did not finish the dance, and they presently sat down together, she knew that it had been the evening's most important event.
"There's a man coming over from the club, later," said Mr. Browning, "he's a wonderful fellow! Writer, and a sort of cousin of Ella Saunders by the way, or else his wife is. He's just on from New York, and for a sort of rest, and he may go on to Japan for his next novel. Very remarkable fellow!"
"A writer?" Susan looked interested.
"Yes, you know him, of course. Bocqueraz--that's who it is!"
"Not Stephen Graham Bocqueraz!" ejaculated Susan, round-eyed.
"Yes--yes!" Mr. Browning liked her enthusiasm.
"But is he here?" Susan asked, almost reverently. "Why, I'm perfectly crazy about his books!" she confided. "Why--why--he's about the biggest there is!"
"Yes, he writes good stuff," the man agreed. "Well, now, don't you miss meeting him! He'll be here directly," his eyes roved to the stairway, a few feet from where they were sitting. "Here he is now!" said he. "Come now, Miss Brown---"
"Oh, honestly! I'm scared--I don't know what to say!" Susan said in a panic. But Browning's fat little hand was firmly gripped over hers and she went with him to meet the two or three men who were chatting together as they came slowly, composedly, into the ball-room.