Chapter Ten
 

Nevertheless, she accepted the invitation that came from Bert's cousin Dorothy, one autumn, for a week-end visit. Dorothy had married now, and had a baby. She was living in a rented "place," up near Rhinecliff, she wrote, and she wanted to see something of Cousin Bert.

Neither Bert nor Nancy could afterward remember exactly why they went. It was partly curiosity, perhaps; partly the strong lure exerted by Dorothy's casual intimation that "the car" would come for them, and that this particular week-end was "the big dance, at the club." Bert chanced to have a new suit, and Nancy had a charming blue taffeta that seemed to her good enough for any place or anybody.

The boys were asked, but they did not take them. Ned was almost two now, and Junior past three, and they behaved beautifully with Hannah, the quiet old Danish woman who had been with them since they came back from the woods, the year before. Nancy, full of excited anticipation, packed her suit-case daintily, and fluttered downstairs as happily as a girl, when a hundredth glance at the street showed the waiting motor at last.

Hawkes was the chauffeur. "To Mr. Bradley's office please, Hawkes," said Nancy. She could not think of anything friendly to say to him, as they wheeled through the streets. Bert kept them waiting, and once or twice she said "I can't think what's delaying Mr. Bradley." But Hawkes did not answer.

Presently Bert came out and greeted Nancy and Hawkes.

"But I thought Mrs. Benchley was coming into town to-day," Bert said. Dorothy was now Mrs. George Benchley. Hawkes spoke at last. "An old friend of Mrs. Benchley has unexpectedly arrived this morning, sir, and she has changed her mind." "Oh, all right," said Bert, grinning at Nancy as the pleasant drive began.

It was all wonderful; the bright autumn sunshine, the sense of freedom and leisure in the early afternoon, and the lovely roads they followed. Bert however, seemed to be thinking of his sons, and asked of them more than once. And Nancy could not rid herself of an uncomfortable suspicion that whoever Dorothy's old friend was, she had changed Dorothy's plans, and perhaps made the coming of the Bradleys untimely. Now and then husband and wife smiled at each other and said "This is fun!"

Dorothy's "place" was a beautiful estate, heavily wooded, wound with white driveways, and equipped with its own tennis courts, and its boathouse on the river. The house was enormous, and naturally had assumed none of the personality of its occupants, in this casual summer tenancy. There were countless rooms, all filled with tables and chairs and rugs and desks and bowls of flowers; and several maids came and went in the interest of the comfort of the house. There were seven or eight other guests besides the Bradleys, and they all seemed to know each other well. The unexpected guest was a young Mrs. Catlin affectionately mentioned by Dorothy in every other breath as "Elaine"; she and Dorothy had been taken to Europe together, after their schooldays, and had formed an intimacy then.

Dorothy came into the big hall to meet her cousin and his wife, and, with a little laugh, kissed Bert. She looked particularly young and lovely in what Nancy supposed to be a carefully-selected costume; later she realized that all Dorothy's clothes gave this impression. She said that the baby was out, when Nancy asked for him, and that Katharine would take care of them.

Katharine, an impassive maid, led them upstairs, and to the large room in which their suit cases already stood. Dorothy had said, "After you change, come down and have something to drink!" but Nancy had nothing prettier than the taffeta, except her evening gown, and as the sunshine was streaming into the room, she could not change to that. So she merely freshened her appearance, and wasted fifteen or twenty minutes in a close inspection of the room, before they went down. To her somewhat shy question Bert responded enthusiastically, "You look lovely!"

They went through empty open rooms, talking as naturally as they could, and smilingly joined the others on the porch. Tea and other drinks were being dispensed by Elaine, whose attention was meanwhile absorbed by two young men. Dorothy, lying almost flat in a wicker chair, with her small silk-shod ankles crossed, was lazily arguing some question of golf scores.

She introduced the new-comers, and as Bert, somewhat more at home in his cousin's house than his wife was, fell into conversation with the middle-aged man nearest him, Dorothy dutifully addressed herself to Nancy. They spoke of Bert's mother, and of Boston, and Dorothy asked Nancy if she liked tennis--or golfing--or yachting? There was to be quite a large dance at the club to-night, and an entertainment before it.

"Isn't Dorothy a wonder, Mrs. Bradley?" asked Elaine. "She's going to have twenty people to dinner, she runs this big house, she's got a baby not yet six months old, and she looks about sixteen!"

"You must have wonderful maids," suggested Nancy, smiling.

"I have!" said Dorothy amusedly, "They're crazy about me--I don't know why, because I work them like dogs. But of course we're away a lot, and then they always have parties," she added, "and they run things pretty much to suit themselves. But we have good meals, don't we, Elaine?" she asked, childishly.

"Heavenly!" said Elaine. Nancy, trying to appear brightly sympathetic, smiled again.

But she and Bert dressed for dinner almost silently, an hour later. It was all delightful and luxurious, truly, and they were most considerately and hospitably accepted by the entire establishment. But something was wrong. Nancy did not know what it was, and she did not want to risk a mere childish outburst, so easily construed into jealousy. Perhaps it was jealousy.

She found herself arguing, as she dressed. This sort of thing was not life, after all. The quiet wife of an obscure man, rejoicing in her home and her children, had a thousand times more real pleasure. These well-dressed idle people didn't count, after all. ...

"Sort of nice of Dorothy to send Hawkes in for us," Bert said; "Did you hear her explain that she thought we'd be more comfortable with Hawkes, so she and Mrs. Catlin kept the younger man?"

"Considerate!" Nancy said, lifelessly.

"Isn't it a wonder she isn't spoiled?" Bert pursued.

"Really it is!"

"Benchley looks like an ass," Bert conceded. "But he's not so bad. He's in the firm now, you know, and Dorothy was just telling me that he's taken hold wonderfully."

"Isn't that nice?" Nancy said, mildly. She was struggling with her hair, which entirely refused to frame her face in its usual rich waves, and lay flat or split into unexpected partings despite her repeated efforts. "How's that now, Bert? "she asked, turning toward him with an arrangement half-completed.

"Well--that's all right--" he began uncertainly. Nancy, dropping the brown strands, and tossing the whole hot mass free, felt that she could burst into tears.