Chapter III
 

Nina was duly dressed for the tea-party the next day, and went to show herself to her mother while Harriet dressed. The young girl really did look her best in the filmy white with its severely plain ruffles, and with a wide white hat on her thick, smoothly dressed hair. Miss Field, too, although she was very pale to-day, looked "simply gorgeous," as Isabelle expressed it, when she saw them off in the car, although Harriet's gown was not new, and the little flowered hat she had crushed down upon her splendid hair had been Isabelle's own a season ago. Harriet was in no holiday mood; she felt herself in a false position; this was to be one of the times when she paid high for all the beauty and luxury of her life.

"... so then when she came to me," Nina was recounting the reception of some celebrity at school, "of course I was awfully shy; you know me!" She was suddenly diverted. "But I'm not as shy as I used to be, am I, Miss Harriet?" she asked, confidingly.

"Not nearly!" Harriet made herself say, encouragingly.

"Well, then," Nina resumed, "when she came to me I don't know what I said--I just said something or other--I can't for the life of me remember what it was! Probably I just said that I had seen her in her last three plays or something like that, anyway--anyway, she said to Miss King that she had noticed me, and she said, 'It's an aristocratic face!' Amy Hawkes told me, for a trade last. The girls were wild--they were all so crazy to have her notice them, you know, and I thought--I thought of course she'd speak of Lucia or Ethel Benedict or one of those prettier girls; although," said Nina, with her little air of conscientiousness, "Ethel didn't look a bit pretty that day. Sometimes she does; sometimes she looks perfectly lovely! But that day she looked sort of colourless. 'Aristocratic'!" Nina laughed softly. "Well, I'd rather look aristocratic than be the prettiest girl in the world, wouldn't you?"

Harriet glanced at her with something like pity. This was Nina in her before-the-party mood. Her confidence and complacency would all begin to ooze away from her, presently, and the words that came so readily to Harriet would refuse to flow at all to any one else. She would come home saying that she hated parties because people were all so shallow and uninteresting, and that she couldn't help what her friends said of her, she just wouldn't descend to that sort of nonsense.

"Here we are!" Harriet rather drily interrupted the flood. Nina gave a startled glance at the lawns and gardens of the Jay mansion already dotted with awnings and chairs, and sprinkled with the bright gowns of the first arrivals. They were early, and their hostess, a handsome, heavily built woman with corsets like armourplate under her exquisite gown, and a blonde bang covering her forehead, came forward with her daughter to meet them. Francesca was as slight as a willow, with a demurely drooped little head and a honeyed little self-possessed manner.

"Very decent of you, Miss Field!" breathed Mrs. Jay, in a voice like that of a horn. "You girls run along now--people will be comin' at any minute. I'm going to take Miss Field to the table. Three hundred people comin'," she confided as Harriet followed her across the lawn, and to the rather quiet corner of the awninged porch where the tea table stood, "and Mist' Jay just sent me a message that he won't be here until six. My older daughter, Morgan, is stayin' with the Tom Underbills--you know their place-- lovely people--Well, now, I'll leave you here, and you just ask for anything you need--"

The matron melted away; Harriet looked after her broad, retreating back indifferently. Everyone knew Mrs. Jay, a harmless, generous, good-natured and hospitable target for much secret criticism and laughter. The odd thing was, old Mrs. Carter had sometimes pointed out to the dutifully listening Harriet, that the woman really came of an excellent family, so that her little affectations, her fondness for the phrases "my older daughter, Morgan," and "lovely people, loads of money, you know them?" were honest enough, in their way. She would have loaned Harriet any amount of money, the girl reflected, smouldering, she would have shown her genuine friendship and generosity in a crisis. But she would not introduce people to Harriet this afternoon, and in a day or two she would send Harriet a bit of lace, or a dainty waist, as a delicate reminder that the courtesy had been a business one, after all.

The afternoon was the perfection of summer beauty, and after a few moments' solitude Harriet began to feel its spell. She put her cups and spoons in order, and chatted with a hovering maid. Some elderly persons came out and sat near, and were grateful for the quiet and the tea. From the reception line, on the lawn, came such a brainless confusion of jabbering and chattering as might well appall the old and nervous.

And presently the sun came out for Harriet in the arrival of a tall, swiftly moving, dark-eyed woman some ten years older than she was herself: Mary Putnam, one of the real friends the girl had gained in the last four years. Young Mrs. Putnam, Harriet used to think, with a little natural jealousy under her admiration, had everything. She was not pretty, but hers was a distinguished appearance and a lovely face; she had the self-possessed manner of a woman whose whole life has been given to the social arts; she had a clever, kindly, silent husband who adored her; her home, her garden, her clubs and her charities, and finally she had her nursery, where Billy and Betty were rioting through an ideal childhood.

"Harriet--you dear child!" said the rich and pleased voice, as Mary's fine hand crossed the tea table for a welcoming touch. "But how nice to find you here! I'm trying to get some tea for Mr. Putnam's aunt and mother, but, my dear--it's getting very thick out there!"

"I can imagine it!" Harriet glanced toward the lawn.

"I've been wanting to see you," Mrs. Putnam said in an undertone. "But suppose I carry them a tray first? Harriet, you are prettier than ever. I love the green stripes! I've just been trying to think how long it is since I've seen you."

"Not since the day you lunched with Mrs. Carter, and that was almost two weeks ago!" Harriet's hands were busy with cups and plates; now she nodded to a maid. "Mayn't Inga carry this to your mother, Mrs. Putnam?" she asked. "And couldn't you stay here and have some tea yourself?"

Mrs. Putnam immediately settled herself in the neighbouring chair.

"I'm chaperoning little Lettice Graham for a week," she began, in the delightful voice upon which Harriet had modelled her own. "But Lettice is trying her little arts upon Ward Carter. Dear boy, that!"

"Ward? He is a dear!" Harriet said, innocently.

"No blushing?" Mary Putnam asked, with a smiling look. The colour came into Harriet's lovely face, and the smoky blue eyes widened innocently.

"Blushing--for Ward?" she asked.

Mrs. Putnam stirred her tea thoughtfully.

"I didn't know," she said. "You're young, and you know him well, and you're--well, you have appearance, as it were!"

Harriet laughed.

"Ward is twenty-two," she observed.

"And you're--?"

"I shall be twenty-seven in August."

"Well, that's not serious," the older woman decided, mildly. "The point is, he's a man. Ward has fine stuff in him," she added, "and also, I think, he is beginning to care. It would be an engagement that would please the Carters, I imagine."

The word engagement brought a filmy vision before Harriet's eyes, born of the fragrance and sunshine of the summer. She saw a ring, laughter and congratulations, dinner parties and receptions, shopping in glittering Fifth Avenue.

"Perhaps it would," she said, with a hint of surprise in her tone. "They are really very simple, and always good to me! But old Madame Carter," she laughed, "would go out of her mind!"

"A boy in Ward's position may do much worse than marry a lovely and sensible woman," Mrs. Putnam said. "Well, it just occurred to me. It is your affair, of course. But looking back one sees how much just the--well, the lack of a tiny push has meant in one's life!"

"And this is the push?" Harriet said, her heart full of the confusion and happiness that this unusual mood of confidence and affection on Mary Putnam's part had brought her.

"Perhaps!" The smooth, cool hand touched hers for a second before Mrs. Putnam went upon her gracious way. Harriet hardly heard the bustle and confusion about her for a few minutes. She sat musing, with her splendid eyes fixed upon some point invisible to the joyous group about her.

To Nina, meanwhile, had come the most extraordinary hour of her life. It had begun with the familiar and puzzling humiliations, but where it was to end the fluttered heart of the seventeen-year- old hardly dared to think.

She had sauntered to a green bench, under great maples, with Lettice Graham and Harry Troutt and Anna Poett. And Joshua Brevoort had come for Anna, and they had sauntered away, with that mysterious ease with which other girls seemed to manage young men. And then Harry and Lettice had in some manner communicated with each other, for Lettice had jumped up suddenly, saying, "Nina, will you excuse us? We'll be back directly," and they had wandered off in the direction of the river, giggling as they went. Nina had smiled gallantly in farewell, but her feelings were deeply hurt. She hated to sit on here, visibly alone, and yet there was small object in going back to the absorbed groups nearer the house.

Then came the miracle. For as she uncomfortably waited, Ward's friend, the queer man with the black eyes and thick hair, suddenly took the seat beside her. Nina's heart gave a plunge, for if she was ill at ease with "kids" like Harry and Joshua, how much less could she manage a conversation with the lion of the hour! But Royal Blondin needed no help from Nina.

"You're little Miss Carter, aren't you?" he said. "We were introduced, back there, but there were too many young men around you then for me to get a word in! However, I was watching you--I wonder if you know why I've been watching you all afternoon?"

Nina cleared her throat, and gave one fleeting upward glance at the dark and earnest eyes.

"I'm sure I don't know why any one should watch me!" she tried to say. But everything after the first three words was lost in the ruffles of the white gown.

"I'll tell you why. I watched you because, from the moment I saw you, I said to myself, 'if that little girl isn't utterly wretched and out of her element, among all these shallow chatterers and gigglers, I'm mistaken!' I saw the lads gather about you, and I had my little laugh--you must forgive me!--at the quiet little way you evaded them all. Nice boys, all of them! But not worth your while!"

Nina murmured a confidence.

"What did you say?" Blondin said. "But come," he added, frankly, "you're not afraid of me, are you? My dear little girl, I'm old enough to be your father! Look up--I want to see those eyes. That's better. Now, that's more friendly. Tell me what you said?"

"I said--that Mother expected me to--to like them."

"To--? Oh, to like the boys. Mother expects it? Of course she does! And some day she'll expect to dress you in white, and bid us all to come and dance at the wedding! But in the meantime, Mother mustn't blame someone who has just a little more discernment than- -well, young Brevoort, for example, for seeing that her tame dove is really a wild little sea-gull starving for the sea. Now, look here, Miss Nina, you hate all this society nonsense, don't you?"

"Loathe it!" Nina stammered, with a little excited laugh.

"Loathe it? Of course you do! Of course you do! And you don't want to fall in love with one of these lads for a year or two, anyway?"

"Oh, my, no!" Nina felt the expression inadequate, but her breath had been taken away. The man had turned about a little, his eyes were all for her, and his arm, laid carelessly along the back of the green bench, almost touched the white ruffles. They were in full sight of the house, too, and if Lettice or Anna came back, they would see Nina in deep and lasting conversation with the man that all the older women were so mad about--

"You don't. But--what?" He bent his dark head.

"I said, 'But I don't know how you knew it'!" Nina repeated, looking down in her overwhelming self-consciousness, but with a smile of utter happiness and excitement.

A second later she looked up in some alarm. He was silent--she had somehow said the awkward thing again I Nina's heart fluttered nervously.

But what she saw reassured her. Royal Blondin had squared himself about, and had folded his arms, and was staring darkly into space.

"How I knew it!" he said in a half-whisper, as if to himself, after a full half-minute of silence that thrilled Nina to the soul. "Child, I don't know! Some day you and I will read books together--wonderful books! And then perhaps we will begin to understand the cosmic secret--why your soul reaches out to mine-- why I not only want to know you better, but why it is my solemn obligation to take the exquisite thing your coming into my life may mean to us both! You're only a child," he went on, in a lighter tone, "and I can read those big eyes of yours, and can see that I'm frightening you! Well, this much remains. You and I have somehow found each other in all this wilderness of lies and affectations, and we're going to be friends, aren't we?"

"I--hope we are!" Nina said, clearing her throat, with a bashful laugh.

"You know we are!" Royal Blondin amended. And in a musing tone he added: "I'm afraid I was a little bitter a few hours ago. And then I saw you, just an honest, brave, bewildered little girl, wondering why the deuce they all make such a fuss about nothing-- clothes and bridge parties and dinners--"

"They never say anything worth while!" Nina said, with daring. There was exquisite homage in the dropped, listening head, the eyes that smiled so close to her own. "But if I tell Mother that, she thinks I'm crazy!" she added, lapsing into the school vernacular against a desperate effort to sustain the conversation at his level.

"Because you're a little natural rebel," interpreted the man, smilingly. "And that's the price we pay for it!"

"I'm afraid I've always been a rebel, then!" confessed Nina.

"Yes, those eyes of yours say that," Blondin conceded, sadly. "And it doesn't make for happiness, Little Girl!" he warned her.

Nina narrowed her eyes, and stared into the green garden. She was not wearing her glasses to-day, and hers were fine eyes, albeit a trifle prominent, and with a somewhat strained expression.

"Oh, I know that!" she said. "Mother and Father," she confided, with the merciless calm of seventeen, "they'd like me to be exactly like all the other girls, flirting and dressing, and rushing about all day and all night! But oh--how I hate it! Oh, I like the girls and boys--truly I do, and I am popular with them all, I know that! But 'cases'!" said Nina with scorn.

"Dear Heaven!" Royal said, under his breath. "No--no--no--that's not for you!" he murmured. "And yet--" and he turned upon her a look that Nina was to remember with a thrill in the waking hours of the summer night--"and yet, is it kindness to wake you up, child?" he mused. "Is it right to show you the full beauty of that questing soul of yours?"

It was said as if to himself, as if he thought aloud. But Nina answered it.

"I often think," she said, mirthfully, "that if people knew what I was thinking, they'd go crazy! 'Oh, isn't the floor lovely--isn't the music divine! Are you going to the club to-morrow? What are you going to wear?'"

It was not a very brilliant imitation of a society girl's tone and manner, but Royal Blondin seemed deeply impressed by it.

"Look here!" he said. "You're a little actress!"

"No. I'm not!" Nina laughed. "But I can always imitate anything or anybody," she admitted. "It makes the girls perfectly wild sometimes! But Ward's different," she resumed, going back to the more serious topic. "I envy Ward! He is just as different from me as black and white. Now Ward likes everyone--and everyone likes him. He just drifts along, perfectly content to be popular, and to have a good time, and to do the regular thing, and of course he knows nothing of moods--!"

"Bless the lad!" Blondin said, paternally.

"Oh, I manage to keep the appearance of doing exactly what the others do," Nina hastened to say, "and I laugh and flirt just as if that was the only thing in life! If people want to think I am a butterfly, why, let them think so! My friend Miss Hawkes says that I have two natures--but I don't know about that!"

She looked up at him to find his eyes fixed steadily upon her, and flushed happily, with a fast-beating heart.

"With one of those natures I have nothing to do," Royal said. "But the other I claim as my friend. Come, how about it? Are we going to be friends? I am old enough to be your father, you know; you may tell Mother that it is perfectly safe. When the right young man comes to claim you, why, I'll resign my little friend with all the good will in the world. But meanwhile, am I going to pick you out some books, am I going to have some talks as wonderful as this one now and then? No--not as wonderful, for of course this sort of thing doesn't come twice in a lifetime! Will you give me your hand on it--and your eyes? Good girl! And now I'll take you back to be scolded for running away from your own friends for so long. I'm dining with Mother to-morrow. Shall I see you?"

"Oh, yes--if Mother lets me come down!" fluttered Nina. "But, no-- we're to be at Granny's!" she remembered.

"Soon, then!" He left her in the circling group, but all the world saw him kiss her hand. Nina wandered about in a daze of pleasure and satisfaction for another half-hour, paying attentions to Mother's poky friends with a sparkle and charm that amazed them. Presently Ward and the demure Amy Hawkes found her; the car was waiting. Miss Field, Ward said, was no longer at the tea table; she had left a message to the effect that she was walking home and would be there as soon as they were.

He asked Amy and Nina, whose irrepressible gossip and giggling met with only silence and scowls from his superior altitude, if they knew why Miss Harriet had decided to walk. They stared at each other innocently, on the brink of fresh laughter. No; they hadn't the least idea.