The Price She Paid by David Graham Phillips
On the Monday before Thanksgiving, Presbury went up to New York to look after one of the little speculations in Wall Street at which he was so clever. Throughout the civilized world nowadays, and especially in and near the great capitals of finance, there is a class of men and women of small capital and of a character in which are combined iron self-restraint, rabbit-like timidity, and great shrewdness, who make often a not inconsiderable income by gambling in stocks. They buy only when the market is advancing strongly; they sell as soon as they have gained the scantest margin of profit. They never permit themselves to be tempted by the most absolute certainty of larger gains. They will let weeks, months even, go by without once risking a dollar. They wait until they simply cannot lose. Tens of thousands every year try to join this class. All but the few soon succumb to the hourly dazzling temptations the big gamblers dangle before the eyes of the little gamblers to lure them within reach of the merciless shears.
Presbury had for many years added from one to ten thousand a year to his income by this form of gambling, success at which is in itself sufficient to stamp a man as infinitely little of soul. On that Monday he, venturing for the first time in six months, returned to Hanging Rock on the three-thirty train the richer by two hundred and fifty dollars--as large a "killing" as he had ever made in any single day, one large enough to elevate him to the rank of prince among the "sure-thing snides." He said nothing about his luck to his family, but let them attribute his unprecedented good humor to the news he brought and announced at dinner.
"I met an old friend in the street this afternoon," said he. "He has invited us to take Thanksgiving dinner with him. And I think it will be a dinner worth while--the food, I mean, and the wine. Not the guests; for there won't be any guests but us. General Siddall is a stranger in New York."
"There are Siddalls in New York," said his wife; "very nice, refined people--going in the best society."
Presbury showed his false teeth in a genial smile; for the old-fashioned or plate kind of false teeth they were extraordinarily good--when exactly in place. "But not my old friend Bill Siddall," said he. "He's next door to an outlaw. I'd not have accepted his invitation if he had been asking us to dine in public. But this is to be at his own house--his new house--and a very grand house it is, judging by the photos he showed me. A regular palace! He'll not be an outlaw long, I guess. But we must wait and see how he comes out socially before we commit ourselves."
"Did you accept for me, too?" asked Mrs. Presbury.
"Certainly," said Presbury. "And for your daughter, too."
"I can't go," said Mildred. "I'm dining with the Fassetts."
The family no longer had a servant in constant attendance in the dining-room. The maid of many functions also acted as butler and as fetch-and-carry between kitchen and butler's pantry. Before speaking, Presbury waited until this maid had withdrawn to bring the roast and the vegetables. Then he said:
"You are going, too, miss." This with the full infusion of insult into the "miss."
Mildred was silent.
"Bill Siddall is looking for a wife," proceeded Presbury. "And he has Heaven knows how many millions."
"Do you think there's a chance for Milly?" cried Mrs. Presbury, who was full of alternating hopes and fears, both wholly irrational.
"She can have him--if she wants him," replied Presbury. "But it's only fair to warn her that he's a stiff dose."
"Is the money--certain?" inquired Mildred's mother with that shrewdness whose rare occasional displays laid her open to the unjust suspicion of feigning her habitual stupidity.
"Yes," said Presbury amiably. "It's nothing like yours was. He's so rich he doesn't know what to do with his income. He owns mines scattered all over the world. And if they all failed, he's got bundles of railway stocks and bonds, and gilt-edged trust stocks, too. And he's a comparatively young man--hardly fifty, I should say. He pretends to be forty."
"It's strange I never heard of him," said Mrs. Presbury.
"If you went to South America or South Africa or Alaska, you'd hear of him," said Presbury. He laughed. "And I guess you'd hear some pretty dreadful things. When I knew him twenty-five years ago he had just been arrested for forging my father's name to a check. But he got out of that--and it's all past and gone. Probably he hasn't committed any worse crimes than have most of our big rich men. Bill's handicap has been that he hadn't much education or any swell relatives. But he's a genius at money-making." Presbury looked at Mildred with a grin. "And he's just the husband for Mildred. She can't afford to be too particular. Somebody's got to support her. I can't and won't, and she can't support herself."
"You'll go--won't you, Mildred?" said her mother. "He may not be so bad."
"Yes, I'll go," said Mildred. Her gaze was upon the untouched food on her plate.
"Of course she'll go," said Presbury. "And she'll marry him if she can. Won't you, miss?"
He spoke in his amiably insulting way--as distinguished from the way of savagely sneering insult he usually took with her. He expected no reply. She surprised him. She lifted her tragic eyes and looked fixedly at him. She said:
"Yes, I'll go. And I'll marry him if I can."
"I told him he could have you," said Presbury. "I explained to him that you were a rare specimen of the perfect lady--just what he wanted--and that you, and all your family, would be grateful to anybody who would undertake your support."
Mrs. Presbury flushed angrily. "You've made it perfectly useless for her to go!" she cried.
"Calm yourself, my love," said her husband. "I know Bill Siddall thoroughly. I said what would help. I want to get rid of her as much as you do--and that's saying a great deal."
Mrs. Presbury flamed with the wrath of those who are justly accused. "If Mildred left, I should go, too," cried she.
"Go where?" inquired her husband. "To the poorhouse?"
By persistent rubbing in Presbury had succeeded in making the truth about her poverty and dependence clear to his wife. She continued to frown and to look unutterable contempt, but he had silenced her. He noted this with a sort of satisfaction and went on:
"If Bill Siddall takes her, you certainly won't go there. He wouldn't have you. He feels strongly on the subject of mothers-in-law."
"Has he been married before?" asked Mrs. Presbury.
"Twice," replied her husband. "His first wife died. He divorced the second for unfaithfulness."
Mildred saw in this painstaking recital of all the disagreeable and repellent facts about Siddall an effort further to humiliate her by making it apparent how desperately off she was, how she could not refuse any offer, revolting though it might be to her pride and to her womanly instincts. Doubtless this was in part the explanation of Presbury's malicious candor. But an element in that candor was a prudent preparing of the girl's mind for worse than the reality. That he was in earnest in his profession of a desire to bring about the match showed when he proposed that they should take rooms at a hotel in New York, to give her a chance to dress properly for the dinner. True, he hastened to say that the expense must be met altogether out of the remnant of Mildred's share of her father's estate, but the idea would not have occurred to him had he not been really planning a marriage.
Never had Mildred looked more beautiful or more attractive than when the three were ready to sally forth from the Manhattan Hotel on that Thanksgiving evening. At twenty-five, a soundly healthy and vigorous twenty-five, it is impossible for mind and nerves, however wrought upon, to make serious inroads upon surface charms. The hope of emancipation from her hideous slavery had been acting upon the girl like a powerful tonic. She had gained several pounds in the three intervening days; her face had filled out, color had come back in all its former beauty to her lips. Perhaps there was some slight aid from art in the extraordinary brilliancy of her eyes.
Presbury inventoried her with a succession of grunts of satisfaction. "Yes, he'll want you," he said. "You'll strike him as just the show piece he needs. And he's too shrewd not to be aware that his choice is limited."
"You can't frighten me," said Mildred, with a radiant, coquettish smile--for practice. "Nothing could frighten me."
"I'm not trying," replied Presbury. "Nor will Siddall frighten you. A woman who's after a bill-payer can stomach anything."
"Or a man," said Mildred.
"Oh, your mother wasn't as bad as all that," said Presbury, who never lost an opportunity.
Mrs. Presbury, seated beside her daughter in the cab, gave an exclamation of rage. "My own daughter insulting me!" she said.
"Such a thought did not enter my head," protested Mildred. "I wasn't thinking of anyone in particular."
"Let's not quarrel now," said Presbury, with unprecedented amiability. "We must give Bill a spectacle of the happy family."
The cab entered the porte-cochere of a huge palace of white stone just off Fifth Avenue. The house was even grander than they had anticipated. The wrought- iron fence around it had cost a small fortune; the house itself, without reference to its contents, a large fortune. The massive outer doors were opened by two lackeys in cherry-colored silk and velvet livery; a butler, looking like an English gentleman, was waiting to receive them at the top of a short flight of marble steps between the outer and the inner entrance doors. As Mildred ascended, she happened to note the sculpturing over the inner entrance--a reclining nude figure of a woman, Cupids with garlands and hymeneal torches hovering about her.
Mildred had been in many pretentious houses in and near New York, but this far surpassed the grandest of them. Everything was brand new, seemed to have been only that moment placed, and was of the costliest- statuary, carpets, armor, carved seats of stone and wood, marble staircase rising majestically, tapestries, pictures, drawing-room furniture. The hall was vast, but the drawing-room was vaster. Empty, one would have said that it could not possibly be furnished. Yet it was not only full, but crowded-chairs and sofas, hassocks and tete-a-tetes, cabinets, tables, pictures, statues, busts, palms, flowers, a mighty fireplace in which, behind enormous and costly andirons, crackled enormous and costly logs. There was danger in moving about; one could not be sure of not upsetting something, and one felt that the least damage that could be done there would be an appallingly expensive matter.
Before that cavernous fireplace posed General Siddall. He was a tiny mite of a man with a thin wiry body supporting the head of a professional barber. His black hair was glossy and most romantically arranged. His black mustache and imperial were waxed and brilliantined. There was no mistaking the liberal use of dye, also. From the rather thin, very sharp face looked a pair of small, muddy, brown-green eyes --dull, crafty, cold, cruel. But the little man was so insignificant and so bebarbered and betailored that one could not take him seriously. Never had there been so new, so carefully pressed, so perfectly fitting evening clothes; never a shirt so expensively got together, or jeweled studs, waistcoat buttons and links so high priced. From every part of the room, from every part of the little man's perfumed and groomed person, every individual article seemed to be shrieking, "The best is not too good for Bill Siddall!"
Mildred was agreeably surprised--she was looking with fierce determination for agreeable surprises-- when the costly little man spoke, in a quiet, pleasant voice with an elusive, attractive foreign accent.
"My, but this is grand--grand, General Siddall!" said Presbury in the voice of the noisy flatterer. "Princely! Royal!"
Mildred glanced nervously at Siddall. She feared that Presbury had taken the wrong tone. She saw in the unpleasant eyes a glance of gratified vanity. Said he:
"Not so bad, not so bad. I saw the house in Paris, when I was taking a walk one day. I went to the American ambassador and asked for the best architect in Paris. I went to him, told him about the house-- and here it is."
"Decorations, furniture, and all!" exclaimed Presbury.
"No, just the house. I picked up the interiors in different parts of Europe--had everything reproduced where I couldn't buy outright. I want to enjoy my money while I'm still young. I didn't care what it cost to get the proper surroundings. As I said to my architect and to my staff of artists, I expected to be cheated, but I wanted the goods. And I got the goods. I'll show you through the house after dinner. It's on this same scale throughout. And they're putting me together a country place--same sort of thing." He threw back his little shoulders and protruded his little chest. "And the joke of it is that the whole business isn't costing me a cent."
"Not a cent less than half a dozen or a dozen millions," said Presbury.
"Not so much as that--not quite," protested the delightedly sparkling little general. "But what I meant was that, as fast as these fellows spend, I go down-town and make. Fact is, I'm a little better off than I was when I started in to build."
"Well, you didn't get any of my money," laughed Presbury. "But I suppose pretty much everybody else in the country must have contributed."
General Siddall smiled. Mildred wondered whether the points of his mustache and imperial would crack and break of, if he should touch them. She noted that his hair was roached absurdly high above the middle of his forehead and that he was wearing the tallest heels she had ever seen. She calculated that, with his hair flat and his feet on the ground, he would hardly come to her shoulder--and she was barely of woman's medium height. She caught sight of his hands--the square, stubby hands of a working man; the fingers permanently slightly curved as by the handle of shovel and pick; the skin shriveled but white with a ghastly, sickening bleached white, the nails repulsively manicured into long white curves. "If he should touch me, I'd scream," she thought. And then she looked at Presbury--and around her at the evidences of enormous wealth.
The general--she wondered where he had got that title--led her mother in to dinner, Presbury gave her his arm. On the way he found opportunity to mutter:
"Lay it on thick! Flatter the fool. You can't offend him. Tell him he's divinely handsome--a Louis Fourteen, a Napoleon. Praise everything--napkins, tablecloth, dishes, food. Rave over the wine."
But Mildred could not adopt this obviously excellent advice. She sat silent and cold, while Presbury and her mother raved and drew out the general to talk of himself--the only subject in the whole world that seemed to him thoroughly worth while. As Mildred listened and furtively observed, it seemed to her that this tiny fool, so obviously pleased by these coarse and insulting flatteries, could not possibly have had the brains to amass the vast fortune he apparently possessed. But presently she noted that behind the personality that was pleased by this gross fawning and bootlicking there lay--lay in wait and on guard-- another personality, one that despised these guests of his, estimating them at their true value and using them contemptuously for the gratification of his coarse appetites. In the glimpse she caught of that deeper and real personality, she liked it even less than she liked the one upon the surface.
It was evidence of superior acumen that she saw even vaguely the real Bill Siddall, the money-maker, beneath the General William Siddall, raw and ignorant and vulgar--more vulgar in his refinement than the most shocking bum at home and at ease in foul-smelling stew. Every man of achievement hides beneath his surface-- personality this second and real man, who makes the fortune, discovers the secret of chemistry, fights the battle, carries the election, paints the picture, commits the frightful murder, evolves the divine sermon or poem or symphony. Thus, when we meet a man of achievement, we invariably have a sense of disappointment. "Why, that's not the man!" we exclaim. "There must be some mistake." And it is, indeed, not the man. Him we are incapable of seeing. We have only eyes for surfaces; and, not being doers of extraordinary deeds, but mere plodders in the routines of existence, we cannot believe that there is any more to another than there is to ourselves. The pleasant or unpleasant surface for the conventional relations of life is about all there is to us; therefore it is all there is to human nature. Well, there's no help for it. In measuring our fellow beings we can use only the measurements of our own selves; we have no others, and if others are given to us we are as foozled as one knowing only feet and inches who has a tape marked off in meters and centimeters.
It so happened that in her social excursions Mildred had never been in any of the numerous homes of the suddenly and vastly rich of humble origin. She was used to--and regarded as proper and elegant--the ordinary ostentations and crudities of the rich of conventional society. No more than you or I was she moved to ridicule or disdain by the silliness and the tawdry vulgarity of the life of palace and liveried lackey and empty ceremonial, by the tedious entertainments, by the displays of costly and poisonous food. But General Siddall's establishment presented a new phase to her--and she thought it unique in dreadfulness and absurdity.
The general had had a home life in his youth--in a coal-miner's cabin near Wilkes-Barre. Ever since, he had lived in boarding-houses or hotels. As his shrewd and rapacious mind had gathered in more and more wealth, he had lived more and more luxuriously--but always at hotels. He had seen little of the private life of the rich. Thus he had been compelled to get his ideas of luxury and of ceremonial altogether from the hotel-keepers and caterers who give the rich what the more intelligent and informed of the rich are usually shamed by people of taste from giving themselves at home.
She thought the tablecloth, napkins, and gaudy gold and flowery cut glass a little overdone, but on the whole not so bad. She had seen such almost as grand at a few New York houses. The lace in the cloth and in the napkins was merely a little too magnificent. It made the table lumpy, it made the napkins unfit for use. But the way the dinner was served! You would have said you were in a glorified palace-hotel restaurant. You looked about for the cashier's desk; you were certain a bill would be presented after the last course.
The general, tinier and more grotesque than ever in the great high-backed, richly carved armchair, surveyed the progress of the banquet with the air of a god performing miracles of creation and passing them in review and giving them his divine endorsement. He was well pleased with the enthusiastic praises Presbury and his wife lavished upon the food and drink. He would have been better pleased had they preceded and followed every mouthful with a eulogy. He supplemented their compliments with even more fulsome compliments, adding details as to the origin and the cost.
"Darcy"--this to the butler--"tell the chef that this fish is the best yet--really exquisite." To Presbury: "I had it brought over from France--alive, of course. We have many excellent fish, but I like a change now and then. So I have a standing order with Prunier--he's the big oyster- and fish-man of Paris-- to send me over some things every two weeks by special express. That way, an oyster costs about fifty cents and a fish about five or six dollars."
To Mrs. Presbury: "I'll have Darcy make you and Miss Presbury--excuse me, Miss Gower--bouquets of the flowers afterward. Most of them come from New York--and very high really first-class flowers are. I pay two dollars apiece for my roses even at this season. And orchids--well, I feel really extravagant when I indulge in orchids as I have this evening. Ten dollars apiece for those. But they're worth it."
The dinner was interminably long--upward of twenty kinds of food, no less than five kinds of wine; enough served and spoiled to have fed and intoxicated a dozen people at least. And upon every item of food and drink the general had some remarks to make. He impressed it upon his guests that this dinner was very little better than the one served to him every night, that the increase in expense and luxury was not in their honor, but in his own--to show them what he could do when he wished to make a holiday. Finally the grand course was reached. Into the dining-room, to the amazement of the guests, were rolled two great restaurant joint wagons. Instead of being made of silver-plated nickel or plain nickel they were of silver embossed with gold, and the large carvers and serving- spoons and forks had gold-mounted silver handles. When the lackeys turned back the covers there were disclosed several truly wonderful young turkeys, fattened as if by painstaking and skillful hand and superbly browned.
Up to that time the rich and costly food had been sadly medium--like the wines. But these turkeys were a genuine triumph. Even Mildred gave them a look of interest and admiration. In a voice that made General Siddall ecstatic Presbury cried:
"God bless my soul! Where did you get those beauties, old man!"
"Paris," said Siddall in a voice tremulous with pride and self-admiration. You would have thought that he had created not merely the turkeys, but Paris, also. "Potin sends them over to me. Potin, you know, is the finest dealer in groceries, fruit, game, and so on in the world. I have a standing order with him for the best of-- everything that comes in. I'd hate to tell you what my bill with Potin is every month--he only sends it to me once a year. Really, I think I ought to be ashamed of myself, but I reason that, if a man can afford it, he's a fool to put anything but the best into his stomach."
"You're right there!" mumbled Presbury. His mouth was full of turkey. "You have got a chef, General!"
"He ought to cook well. I pay him more than most bank-presidents get. What do you think of those joint wagons, Mrs. Presbury?"
"They're very--interesting," replied she, a little nervous because she suspected they were some sort of vulgar joke.
"I knew you'd like them," said the general. "My own idea entirely. I saw them in several restaurants abroad--only of course those they had were just ordinary affairs, not fit to be introduced into a gentleman's dining-room. But I took the idea and adapted it to my purposes--and there you are!"
"Very original, old man," said Presbury, who had been drinking too much. "I've never seen it before, and I don't think I ever shall again. Got the idea patented?"
But Siddall in his soberest moment would have been slow to admit a suspicion that any of the human race, which he regarded as on its knees before him, was venturing to poke fun at him. Drunk as he now was, the openest sarcasm would have been accepted as a compliment. After a gorgeous dessert which nobody more than touched--a molded mousse of whipped and frozen cream and strawberries--"specially sent on to me from Florida and costing me a dollar apiece, I guess"--after this costly wonder had disappeared fruit was served. General Siddall had ready a long oration upon this course. He delivered it in a disgustingly thick tone. The pineapple was an English hothouse product, the grapes were grown by a costly process under glass in Belgium. As for the peaches, Potin had sent those deli- cately blushing marvels, and the charge for this would be "not less than a louis apiece, sir--a louis d'or --which, as you no doubt know, is about four dollars of Uncle Sam's money."
The coffee--"the Queen of Holland may have it on her private table--may, I say--but I doubt if anyone else in the world gets a smell of it except me"-- the coffee and the brandy came not a moment too soon. Presbury was becoming stupefied with indigestion; his wife was nodding and was wearing that vague, forced, pleasant smile which stands propriety-guard over a mind asleep; Mildred Gower felt that her nerves would endure no more; and the general was falling into a besotted state, spilling his wine, mumbling his words. The coffee and the brandy revived them all somewhat. Mildred, lifting her eyes, saw by way of a mirrored section of the enormous sideboard the English butler surveying master and guests with slowly moving, sneering glance of ineffable contempt.
In the drawing-room again Mildred, requested by Siddall and ordered by Presbury, sang a little French song and then--at the urging of Siddall--"Annie Laurie." Siddall was wiping his eyes when she turned around. He said to Presbury:
"Take your wife into the conservatory to look at my orchids. I want to say a word to your stepdaughter."
Mildred started up nervously. She saw how drunk the general was, saw the expression of his face that a woman has to be innocent indeed not to understand. She was afraid to be left alone with him. Presbury came up to her, said rapidly, in a low tone:
"It's all right. He's got a high sense of what's due a respectable woman of our class. He isn't as drunk as he looks and acts."
Having said which, he took his wife by the arm and pushed her into the adjoining conservatory. Mildred reseated herself upon the inlaid piano-bench. The little man, his face now shiny with the sweat of drink and emotion, drew up a chair in front of her. He sat-- and he was almost as tall sitting as standing. He said graciously:
"Don't be afraid, my dear girl. I'm not that dangerous."
She lifted her eyes and looked at him. She tried to conceal her aversion; she feared she was not succeeding. But she need not have concerned herself about that. General Siddall, after the manner of very rich men, could not conceive of anyone being less impressed with his superiority in any way than he himself was. For years he had heard only flatteries of himself--his own voice singing his praises, the fawning voices of those he hired and of those hoping to get some financial advantage. He could not have imagined a mere woman not being overwhelmed by the prospect of his courting her. Nor would it have entered his head that his money would be the chief, much less the only, consideration with her. He had long since lost all point of view, and believed that the adulation paid his wealth was evoked by his charms of person, mind, and manner. Those who imagine this was evidence of folly and weak-mindedness and extraordinary vanity show how little they know human nature. The strongest head could not re- main steady, the most accurate eyes could not retain their measuring skill, in such an environment as always completely envelops wealth and power. And the much- talked-of difference between those born to wealth and power and those who rise to it from obscurity resolves itself to little more than the difference between those born mad and those who go insane.
Looking at the little man with the disagreeable eyes, so dull yet so shrewd, Mildred saw that within the drunkard who could scarcely sit straight upon the richly upholstered and carved gilt chair there was another person, coldly sober, calmly calculating. And she realized that it was this person with whom she was about to have the most serious conversation of her life thus far.
The drunkard smiled with a repulsive wiping and smacking of the thin, sensual lips. "I suppose you know why I had you brought here this evening?" said he.
Mildred looked and waited.
"I didn't intend to say anything to-night. In fact, I didn't expect to find in you what I've been looking for. I thought that old fool of a stepfather of yours was cracking up his goods beyond their merits. But he wasn't. My dear, you suit me from the ground up. I've been looking you over carefully. You were made for the place I want to fill."
Mildred had lowered her eyes. Her face had become deathly pale. "I feel faint," she murmured. "It is very warm here."
"You're not sickly?" inquired the general sharply. "You look like a good solid woman--thin but wiry. Ever been sick? I must look into your health. That's a point on which I must be satisfied."
A wave of anger swept through her, restoring her strength. She was about to speak--a rebuke to his colossal impudence that he would not soon forget. Then she remembered, and bit her lips.
"I don't ask you to decide to-night," pursued he, hastening to explain this concession by adding: "I don't intend to decide, myself. All I say is that I am willing--if the goods are up to the sample."
Mildred saw her stepfather and her mother watching from just within the conservatory door. A movement of the portiere at the door into the hall let her know that Darcy, the butler, was peeping and listening there. She stood up, clenched her hands, struck them together, struck them against her temples, crossed the room swiftly, flung herself down upon a sofa, and burst into tears. Presbury and his wife entered. Siddall was standing, looking after Mildred with a grin. He winked at Presbury and said:
"I guess we gave her too much of that wine. It's all old and stronger than you'd think."
"My daughter hardly touched her glasses," cried Mrs. Presbury.
"I know that, ma'am," replied Siddall. "I watched her. If she'd done much drinking, I'd have been done, then and there."
"I suspect she's upset by what you've been saying, General," said Presbury. "Wasn't it enough to upset a girl? You don't realize how magnificent you are-- how magnificent everything is here."
"I'm sorry if I upset her," said the general, swelling and loftily contrite. "I don t know why it is that people never seem to be able to act natural with me." He hated those who did, regarding them as sodden, unappreciative fools.
Mrs. Presbury was quieting her daughter. Presbury and Siddall lighted cigars and went into the smoking-- and billiard-room across the hall. Said Presbury:
"I didn't deceive you, did I, General?"
"She's entirely satisfactory," replied Siddall. "I'm going to make careful inquiries about her character and her health. If those things prove to be all right I'm ready to go ahead."
"Then the thing's settled," said Presbury. "She's all that a lady should be. And except a cold now and then she never has anything the matter with her. She comes of good healthy stock."
"I can't stand a sickly, ailing woman," said Siddall. "I wouldn't marry one, and if one I married turned out to be that kind, I'd make short work of her. When you get right down to facts, what is a woman? Why, a body. If she ain't pretty and well, she ain't nothing. While I'm looking up her pedigree, so to speak, I want you to get her mother to explain to her just what kind of a man I am."
"Certainly, certainly," said Presbury.
"Have her told that I don't put up with foolishness. If she wants to look at a man, let her look at me."
"You'll have no trouble in that way," said Presbury.
"I did have trouble in that way," replied the general sourly. "Women are fools--all women. But the principal trouble with the second Mrs. Siddall was that she wasn't a lady born."
"That's why I say you'll have no trouble," said Presbury.
"Well, I want her mother to talk to her plainer than a gentleman can talk to a young lady. I want her to understand that I am marrying so that I can have a wife--cheerful, ready, and healthy. I'll not put up with foolishness of any kind."
"I understand," said Presbury. "You'll find that she'll meet all your conditions."
"Explain to her that, while I'm the easiest, most liberal-spending man in the world when I'm getting what I want, I am just the opposite when I'm not getting what I pay for. If I take her and if she acts right, she'll have more of everything that women want than any woman in the world. I'd take a pride in my wife. There isn't anything I wouldn't spend in showing her off to advantage. And I'm willing to be liberal with her mother, too."
Presbury had been hoping for this. His eyes sparkled. "You're a prince, General," he said. "A genuine prince. You know how to do things right."
"I flatter myself I do," said the general. "I've been up and down the world, and I tell you most of the kings live cheap beside me. And when I get a wife worth showing of, I'll do still better. I've got wonderful creative ability. There isn't anything I can't and won't buy."
Presbury noted uneasily how cold and straight, how obviously repelled and repelling the girl was as she yielded her fingers to Siddall at the leave-taking. He and her mother covered the silence and ice with hot and voluble sycophantry. They might have spared themselves the exertion. To Siddall Mildred was at her most fascinating when she was thus "the lady and the queen." The final impression she made upon him was the most favorable of all.
In the cab Mrs. Presbury talked out of the fullness of an overflowing heart. "What a remarkable man the general is!" said she. "You've only to look at him to realize that you're in the presence of a really superior person. And what tact he has!--and how generous he is!--and how beautifully he entertains! So much dignity--so much simplicity--so much--"
"Fiddlesticks!" interrupted Presbury. "Your daughter isn't a damn fool, Mrs. Presbury."
Mildred gave a short, dry laugh.
Up flared her mother. "I mean every word I said!" cried she. "If I hadn't admired and appreciated him, I'd certainly not have acted as I did. I couldn't stoop to such hypocrisy."
"Fiddlesticks!" sneered Presbury. "Bill Siddall is a horror. His house is a horror. His dinner was a horror. These loathsome rich people! They're ruining the world--as they always have. They're making it impossible for anyone to get good service or good food or good furniture or good clothing or good anything. They don't know good things, and they pay exorbitant prices for showy trash, for crude vulgar luxury. They corrupt taste. They make everyone round them or near them sycophants and cheats. They substitute money for intelligence and discrimination. They degrade every fine thing in life. Civilization is built up by brains and hard work, and along come the rich and rot and ruin it!"
Mildred and her mother were listening in astonishment. Said the mother:
"I'd be ashamed to confess myself such a hypocrite."
"And I, madam, would be ashamed to be such a hypocrite without taking a bath of confession afterward," retorted Presbury.
"At least you might have waited until Mildred wasn't in hearing," snapped she.
"I shall marry him if I can," said Mildred.
"And blissfully happy you'll be," said Presbury. "Women, ladies--true ladies, like you and your mother--have no sensibilities. All you ask is luxury. If Bill Siddall were a thousand times worse than he is, his money would buy him almost any refined, delicate lady anywhere in Christendom."
Mrs. Presbury laughed angrily. "You, talking like this--you of all men. Is there anything you wouldn't stoop to for money?"
"Do you think I laid myself open to that charge by marrying you?" said Presbury, made cheerful despite his savage indigestion by the opportunity for effective insult she had given him and he had promptly seized. "I am far too gallant to agree with you. But I'm also too gallant to contradict a lady. By the way, you must be careful in dealing with Siddall. Rich people like to be fawned on, but not to be slobbered on. You went entirely too far."
Mrs. Presbury, whom indigestion had rendered stupid, could think of no reply. So she burst into tears. "And my own daughter sitting silent while that man insults her mother!" she sobbed.
Mildred sat stiff and cold.
"It'll be a week before I recover from that dinner," Presbury went on sourly. "What a dinner! What a villainous mess! These vulgar, showy rich! That champagne! He said it cost him six dollars a bottle, and no doubt it did. I doubt if it ever saw France. The dealers rarely waste genuine wine on such cattle. The wine-cellars of fine houses the world through are the laughing-stock of connoisseurs--like their picture- galleries and their other attempts to make money do the work of taste. I forgot to put my pills in my bag. I'll have to hunt up an all-night drug-store. I'd not dare go to bed without taking an antidote for that poison."
But Presbury had not been altogether improvident. He had hoped great things of Bill Siddall's wine-cellar --this despite an almost unbroken series of bitter disillusionments and disappointments in experience with those who had the wealth to buy, if they had had the taste to select, the fine wines he loved. So, resolving to indulge himself, he had put into his bag his pair of gout-boots.
This was a device of his own inventing, on which he prided himself. It consisted of a pair of roomy doe- skin slippers reenforced with heavy soles and provided with a set of three thin insoles to be used according as the state of his toes made advisable. The cost of the Presbury gout-boot had been, thanks to patient search for a cheap cobbler, something under four dollars-- this, when men paid shoe specialists twenty, thirty, and even forty dollars a pair for gout-boots that gave less comfort. The morning after the dinner at which he had drunk to drown his chagrin and to give him courage and tongue for sycophantry, he put on the boots. Without them it would have been necessary to carry him from his room to a cab and from cab to train. With them he was able to hobble to a street-car. He tried to distract his mind from his sufferings by lashing away without ceasing at his wife and his step-daughter.
When they were once more at home, and the mother and daughter escaped from him, the mother said:
"I was glad to see that you put up with that wretch, and didn't answer him back."
"Of course," said Mildred. "He's mad to be rid of me, but if I offended him he might snatch away this chance."
"He would," said Mrs. Presbury. "I'm sure he would. But--" she laughed viciously--"once you're married you can revenge yourself--and me!"
"I wonder," said Mildred thoughtfully.
"Why not?" exclaimed her mother, irritated.
"I can't make Mr. Presbury out," replied the girl. "I understand why he's helping me to this chance, but I don't understand why he isn't making friends with me, in the hope of getting something after I'm married."
Her mother saw the point, and was instantly agitated. "Perhaps he's simply leading you on, intending to up- set it all at the last minute." She gritted her teeth. "Oh, what a wretch!"
Mildred was not heeding. "I must have General Siddall looked up carefully," she went on. "It may be that he isn't rich, or that he has another wife somewhere, or that there's some other awful reason why marrying him would be even worse than it seems."
"Worse than it seems!" cried her mother. "How can you talk so, Milly! The general seems to be an ideal husband--simply ideal! I wish I had your chance. Any sensible woman could love him."
A strange look came into the girl's face, and her mother could not withstand her eyes. "Don't, mother," she said quietly. "Either you take me for a fool or you are trying to show me that you have no self- respect. I am not deceiving myself about what I'm doing."
Mrs. Presbury opened her lips to remonstrate, changed her mind, drew a deep sigh. "It's frightful to be a woman," she said.
"To be a lady, Mr. Presbury would say," suggested Mildred.
After some discussion, they fixed upon Joseph Tilker as the best available investigator of General Siddall. Tilker had been head clerk for Henry Gower. He was now in for himself and had offered to look after any legal business Mrs. Presbury might have without charging her. He presently reported that there was not a doubt as to the wealth of the little general. "There are all sorts of ugly stories about how he made his money," said Tilker; "but all the great fortunes have a scandalous history, and I doubt if Siddall's is any worse than the others. I don't see how it well could be. Siddall has the reputation of being a mean and cruel little tyrant. He is said to be pompous, vain, ignorant--"
"Indeed he's not," cried Mrs. Presbury. "He's a rough diamond, but a natural gentleman. I've met him."
"Well, he's rich enough, and that was all you asked me to find out," said Tilker. "But I must warn you, Mrs. Presbury, not to have any business or intimate personal relations with him."
Mrs. Presbury congratulated herself on her wisdom in having come alone to hear Tilker's report. She did not repeat any part of it to Mildred except what he had said about the wealth. That she enlarged upon until Mildred's patience gave out. She interrupted with a shrewd:
"Anything else, mamma? Anything about him personally?"
"We've got to judge him in that way for ourselves," replied Mrs. Presbury. "You know how wickedly they lie about anyone who has anything."
"I should like to read a full account of General Siddall," said Mildred reflectively; "just to satisfy my curiosity."
Mrs. Presbury made no reply.
Presbury had decided that it was best to make no advance, but to wait until they heard from Siddall. He let a week, ten days, go by; then his impatience got the better of his shrewdness. He sought admittance to the great man at the offices of the International Metals and Minerals Company in Cedar Street. After being subjected to varied indignities by sundry under- strappers, he received a message from the general through a secretary: "The general says he'll let you know when he's ready to take up that matter. He says he hasn't got round to it yet." Presbury apologized courteously for his intrusion and went away, cursing under his breath. You may be sure that he made his wife and his stepdaughter suffer for what he had been through. Two weeks more passed--three--a month. One morning in the mail there arrived this note--type- written upon business paper:
JAMES PRESBURY, Esqr.:
General Siddall asks me to present his compliments and to say that he will be pleased if you and your wife and the young lady will dine with him at his house next Thursday the seventeenth at half-past seven sharp.
ROBERT CHANDLESS, Secretary.
The only words in longhand were the two forming the name of the secretary. Presbury laughed and tossed the note across the breakfast table to his wife. "You see what an ignorant creature he is," said he. "He imagines he has done the thing up in grand style. He's the sort of man that can't be taught manners because he thinks manners, the ordinary civilities, are for the lower orders of people. Oh, he's a joke, is Bill Siddall--a horrible joke."
Mrs. Presbury read and passed the letter to Mildred. She simply glanced at it and returned it to her step-father.
"I'm just about over that last dinner," pursued Presbury. "I'll eat little Thursday and drink less. And I'd advise you to do the same, Mrs. Presbury."
He always addressed her as "Mrs. Presbury" because he had discovered that when so addressed she always winced, and, if he put a certain tone into his voice, she quivered.
"That dinner aged you five years," he went on. "Besides, you drank so much that it went to your head and made you slather him with flatteries that irritated him. He thought you were a fool, and no one is stupid enough to like to be flattered by a fool."
Mrs. Presbury bridled, swallowed hard, said mildly: "We'll have to spend the night in town again, I suppose."
"You and your daughter may do as you like," said Presbury. "I shall return here that night. I always catch cold in strange beds."
"We might as well all return here," said Mildred. "I shall not wear evening dress; that is, I'll wear a high-neck dress and a hat."
She had just got a new hat that was peculiarly becoming to her. She had shown Siddall herself at the best in evening attire; another sort of costume would give him a different view of her looks, one which she flattered herself was not less attractive. But Presbury interposed an emphatic veto.
"You'll wear full evening dress," said he. "Bare neck and arms for men like Bill Siddall. They want to see what they're getting."
Mildred flushed scarlet and her lips trembled as though she were about to cry. In fact, her emotion was altogether shame--a shame so poignant that even Presbury was abashed, and mumbled something apologetic. Nevertheless she wore a low-neck dress on Thursday evening, one as daring as the extremely daring fashions of that year permitted an unmarried woman to wear. It seemed to her that Siddall was still more costly and elegant-looking than before, though this may have been due to the fact that he always created an impression that in the retrospect of memory seemed exaggerated. It seemed impossible that anyone could be so clean, so polished and scoured, so groomed and tailored, so bedecked, so high-heeled and loftily coiffed. His mean little countenance with its grotesquely waxed mustache and imperial wore an expression of gracious benignity that assured his guests they need anticipate no disagreeable news.
"I owe you an apology for keeping you in suspense so long," said he. "I'm a very busy man, with interests in all parts of the world. I keep house-- some of 'em bigger than this--open and going in sis different places. I always like to be at home wherever my business takes me."
Mrs. Presbury rolled her eyes. "Isn't that wonderful!" she exclaimed. "What an interesting life you must lead!"
"Oh, so--so," replied the general. "But I get awful lonesome. I'm naturally a domestic man. I don't care for friends. They're expensive and dangerous. A man in my position is like a king. He can't have friends. So, if he hasn't got a family, he hasn't got noth--anything."
"Nothing like home life," said Presbury.
"Yes, indeed," cried Mrs. Presbury.
The little general smiled upon Mildred, sitting pale and silent, with eyes downcast. "Well, I don't intend to be alone much longer, if I can help it," said he. "And I may say that I can make a woman happy if she's the right sort--if she has sense enough to appreciate a good husband." This last he said sternly, with more than a hint of his past matrimonial misfortunes in his frown and in his voice. "The trouble with a great many women is that they're fools--flighty, ungrateful fools. If I married a woman like that, I'd make short work of her."
"And she'd deserve it, General," said Mildred's mother earnestly. "But you'll have no trouble if you select a lady--a girl who's been well brought up and has respect for herself."
"That's my opinion, ma'am," said the general. "I'm convinced that while a man can become a gentleman, a woman's got to be born a lady or she never is one."
"Very true, General," cried Mrs. Presbury. "I never thought of it before, but it's the truest thing I ever heard."
Presbury grinned at his plate. He stole a glance at Mildred. Their eyes met. She flushed faintly.
"I've had a great deal of experience of women," pur- sued the general. "In my boyhood days I was a ladies' man. And of course since I've had money they've swarmed round me like bees in a clover-patch."
"Oh, General, you're far too modest," cried Mrs. Presbury. "A man like you wouldn't need to be afraid, if he hadn't a cent."
"But not the kind of women I want," replied he, firmly if complacently. "A lady needs money to keep up her position. She has to have it. On the other hand, a man of wealth and station needs a lady to assist him in the proper kind of life for men of his sort. So they need each other. They've got to have each other. That's the practical, sensible way to look at it."
"Exactly," said Presbury.
"And I've made up my mind to marry, and marry right away. But we'll come back to this later on. Presbury, you're neglecting that wine."
"I'm drinking it slowly to enjoy it better," said Presbury.
The dinner was the same unending and expensive function that had wearied them and upset their digestions on Thanksgiving Day. There was too much of everything, and it was all just wrong. The general was not quite so voluble as he had been before; his gaze was fixed most of the time on Mildred--roving from her lovely face to her smooth, slender shoulders and back again. As he drank and ate his gesture of slightly smacking his thin lips seemed to include an enjoyment of the girl's charms. And a sensitive observer might have suspected that she was not unconscious of this and was suffering some such pain as if abhorrent and cruel lips and teeth were actually mouthing and mumbling her. She said not a word from sitting down at table until they rose to go into the library for coffee.
"Do tell me about your early life, General," Mrs. Presbury said. "Only the other day Millie was saying she wished she could read a biography of your romantic career."
"Yes, it has been rather--unusual," conceded the general with swelling chest and gently waving dollar- and-a-half-apiece cigar.
"I do so admire a man who carves out his own fortune," Mrs. Presbury went on--she had not obeyed her husband's injunction as to the champagne. "It seems so wonderful to me that a man could with his own hands just dig a fortune out of the ground."
"He couldn't, ma'am," said the general, with gracious tolerance. "It wasn't till I stopped the fool digging and hunting around for gold that I began to get ahead. I threw away the pick and shovel and opened a hotel." (There were two or three sleeping-rooms of a kind in that "hotel," but it was rather a saloon of the species known as "doggery.") "Yes, it was in the hotel that I got my start. The fellows that make the money in mining countries ain't the prospectors and diggers, ma'am."
"Really!" cried Mrs. Presbury breathlessly. "How interesting!"
"They're fools, they are," proceeded the general. "No, the money's made by the fellows that grub-stake the fools--give 'em supplies and send 'em out to nose around in the mountains. Then them that find any- thing have to give half to the fellow that did the grub- staking. And he looks into the claim, and if there's anything in it, why, he buys the fool out. In mines, like everywhere else, ma'am, it ain't work, it's brains that makes the money. No miner ever made a mining fortune--not one. It's the brainy, foxy fellows that stay back in the camps. I used to send out fifty and a hundred men a year. Maybe only two or three'd turn up anything worth while. No, ma'am, I never got a dollar ahead on my digging. All the gold I ever dug went right off for grub--or a good time."
"Wonderful!" exclaimed Mrs. Presbury. "I never heard of such a thing."
"But we're not here to talk about mines," said the general, his eyes upon Mildred. "I've been looking into matters--to get down to business--and I've asked you here to let you know that I'm willing to go ahead."
Profound silence. Mildred suddenly drew in her breath with a sound so sharp that the three others started and glanced hastily at her. But she made no further sign. She sat still and cold and pale.
The general, perfectly at ease, broke the silence. "I think Miss Gower and I would get on faster alone."
Presbury at once stood up; his wife hesitated, her eyes uneasily upon her daughter. Presbury said: "Come on, Alice." She rose and preceded him into the adjoining conservatory. The little general posed himself before the huge open fire, one hand behind him, the other at the level of his waistcoat, the big cigar be- tween his first and second fingers. "Well, my dear?" said he.
Mildred somewhat hesitatingly lifted her eyes; but, once she had them up, their gaze held steadily enough upon his--too steadily for his comfort. He addressed himself to his cigar:
"I'm not quite ready to say I'm willing to go the limit," said he. "We don't exactly know each other sufficiently well as yet, do we?"
"No," said Mildred.
"I've been making inquiries," he went on; "that is, I had my chief secretary make them--and he's a very thorough man, thanks to my training. He reports everything entirely all right. I admire dignity and reserve in a woman, and you have been very particular. Were you engaged to Stanley Baird?"
Mildred flushed, veiled her eyes to hide their resentful flash at this impertinence. She debated with herself, decided that any rebuke short of one that would anger him would be wasted upon him. "No," said she.
"That agrees with Harding's report," said the general. "It was a mere girlish flirtation--very dignified and proper," he hastened to add. "I don't mean to suggest that you were at all flighty."
"Thank you," said Mildred sweetly.
"Are there any questions you would like to ask about me?" inquired he.
"No," said Mildred.
"As I understand it--from my talk with Presbury --you are willing to go on?"
"Yes," said Mildred.
The general smiled genially. "I think I may say without conceit that you will like me as you know me better. I have no bad habits--I've too much regard for my health to over-indulge or run loose. In my boyhood days I may have put in rather a heavy sowing of wild oats"--the general laughed; Mildred conjured up the wintriest and faintest of echoing smiles--"but that's all past," he went on, "and there's nothing that could rise up to interfere with our happiness. You are fond of children?"
A pause, then Mildred said quite evenly, "Yes."
"Excellent," said the general. "I'll expect you and your mother and father to dinner Sunday night. Is that satisfactory?"
"Yes," said Mildred.
A longish pause. Then the general: "You seem to be a little--afraid of me. I don't know why it is that people are always that way with me." A halt, to give her the opportunity to say the obvious flattering thing. Mildred said nothing, gave no sign. He went on: "It will wear away as we know each other better. I am a simple, plain man--kind and generous in my instincts. Of course I am dignified, and I do not like familiarity. But I do not mean to inspire fear and awe."
A still longer pause. "Well, everything is settled," said the general. "We understand each other clearly? --not an engagement, nothing binding on either side --simply a--a--an option without forfeit." And he laughed--his laugh was a ghoulish sound, not loud but explosive and an instant check upon demonstration of mirth from anyone else.
"I understand," said Mildred with a glance toward the door through which Presbury and his wife had disappeared.
"Now, we'll join the others, and I'll show you the house"--again the laugh--"what may be your future home--one of them."
The four were soon started upon what was for three of them a weariful journey despite the elevator that spared them the ascents of the stairways. The house was an exaggerated reproduction of all the establishments of the rich who confuse expenditure with luxury and comfort. Bill Siddall had bought "the best of everything"; that is, the things into which the purveyors of costly furnishings have put the most excuses for charging. Of taste, of comfort, of discrimination, there were few traces and these obviously accidental. "I picked out the men acknowledged to be the best in their different lines," said the general, "and I gave them carte blanche."
"I see that at a glance," said Presbury. "You've done the grand thing on the grandest possible scale."
"I've looked into the finest of the famous places on the other side," said the general. "All I can say is, I've had no regrets."
"I should say not," cried Mrs. Presbury.
With an affectation of modest hesitation--to show that he was a gentleman with a gentleman's fine appreciation of the due of maiden modesty--Siddall paused at the outer door of his own apartments. But at one sentence of urging from Mrs. Presbury he opened the door and ushered them in. And soon he was showing them everything--his Carrara marble bathroom and bathing-pool, his bed that had been used by several French kings, his dressing-room with its appliances of gold and platinum and precious stones, his clothing. They had to inspect a room full of suits, huge chiffoniers crowded with shirts and ties and underclothes. He exhibited silk dressing-robes and pajamas, pointed out the marks of the fashionable London and Paris makers, the monograms, the linings of ermine and sable. "I'm very particular about everything that touches me," explained he. "It seems to me a gentleman can't be too particular." With a meaning glance at Mildred, "And I'd feel the same way about my wife."
"You hear that, Mildred?" said Presbury, with a nasty little laugh. He had been relieving the tedium of this sight-seeing tour by observing--and from time to time aggravating--Mildred's sufferings.
The general released his mirth-strangling goat laugh; Mrs. Presbury echoed it with a gale of rather wild hysterics. So well pleased was the general with the excursion and so far did he feel advanced toward intimacy that on the way down the majestic marble stairway he ventured to give Mildred's arm a gentle, playful squeeze. And at the parting he kissed her hand. Presbury had changed his mind about returning to the country. On the way to the hotel he girded at Mildred, reviewing all that the little general had said and done, and sneering, jeering at it. Mildred made not a single retort until they were upstairs in the hotel. At the door to her room she said to Presbury--said it in a quiet, cold, terrible way:
"If you really want me to go through with this thing, you will stop insulting him and me. If you do it again, I'll give up--and go on the streets before I'll marry him."
Presbury shrugged his shoulders and went on to the other room. But he did not begin again the next day, and from that time forth avoided reference to the general. In fact, there was an astonishing change in his whole demeanor. He ceased to bait his wife, became polite, even affable. If he had conducted himself thus from the outset, he would have got far less credit, would have made far less progress toward winning the liking of his wife, and of her daughter, than he did in a brief two weeks of change from petty and malignant tyrant to good-natured, interestingly talkative old gentleman. After the manner of human nature, Mildred and her mother, in their relief, in their pleasure through this amazing sudden and wholly unexpected geniality, not merely forgave but forgot all they had suffered at his hands. Mildred was not without a suspicion of the truth that this change, inaugurated in his own good time, was fresh evidence of his contempt for both of them--of his feeling that he could easily make reparation with a little kindness and decency and put himself in the way of getting any possible benefits from the rich alliance. But though she practically knew what was going on in his mind, she could not prevent herself from softening toward him.
Now followed a succession of dinners, of theater- and opera-goings, of week-ends at the general's new country palace in the fashionable region of Long Island. All these festivities were of the same formal and tedious character. At all the general was the central sun with the others dim and draggled satellites, hardly more important than the outer rim of satellite servants. He did most of the talking; he was the sole topic of conversation; for when he was not talking about himself he wished to be hearing about himself. If Mildred had not been seeing more and more plainly that other and real personality of his, her contempt for him and for herself would have grown beyond control. But, with him or away from him, at every instant there was the sense of that other real William Siddall--a shadowy menace full of terror. She dreamed of it--was startled from sleep by visions of a monstrous and mighty distortion of the little general's grotesque exterior. "I shall marry him if I can," she said to her self. "But--can I?" And she feared and hoped that she could not, that courage would fail her, or would come to her rescue, whichever it was, and that she would refuse him. Aside from the sense of her body that cannot but be with any woman who is beautiful, she had never theretofore been especially physical in thought. That side of life had remained vague, as she had never indulged in or even been strongly tempted with the things that rouse it from its virginal sleep. But now she thought only of her body, because that it was, and that alone, that had drawn this prospective purchaser, and his eyes never let her forget it. She fell into the habit of looking at herself in the glass-- at her face, at her shoulders, at her whole person, not in vanity but in a kind of wonder or aversion. And in the visions, both the waking and the sleeping, she reached the climax of horror when the monster touched her--with clammy, creepy fingers, with munching lips, with the sharp ends of the mustache or imperial.
Said Mrs. Presbury to her husband, "I'm afraid the general will be irritated by Mildred's unresponsiveness."
"Don't worry," replied Presbury. "He's so crazy about himself that he imagines the whole world is in the same state."
"Isn't it strange that he doesn't give her presents? Never anything but candy and flowers."
"And he never will," said Presbury.
"Not until they're married, I suppose."
Presbury was silent.
"I can't help thinking that if Milly were to rouse herself and show some--some liking--or at least interest, it'd be wiser."
"She's taking the best possible course," said Presbury. "Unconsciously to both of them, she's leading him on. He thinks that's the way a lady should act-- restrained, refined."
Mildred's attitude was simple inertia. The most positive effort she made was avoiding saying or doing anything to displease him--no difficult matter, as she was silent and almost lifeless when he was near. Without any encouragement from her he gradually got a deep respect for her--which meant that he became convinced of her coldness and exclusiveness, of her absolute trustworthiness. Presbury was more profoundly right than he knew. The girl pursued the only course that made possible the success she longed for, yet dreaded and loathed. For at the outset Siddall had not been nearly so strongly in earnest in his matrimonial project as he had professed and had believed himself. He wished to marry, wished to add to his possessions the admirable show-piece and exhibition opportunity afforded by the right sort of wife; but in the bottom of his heart he felt that such a woman as he dreamed of did not exist in all the foolish, fickle, and shallow female sex. This girl--so cold, so proud, beautiful yet not eager to display her charms or to have them praised--she was the rare bird he sought.
In a month he asked her to marry him; that is, he said: "My dear, I find that I am ready to go the limit--if you are." And she assented. He put his arm around her and kissed her cheek--and was delighted to discover that the alluring embrace made no impression upon the ice of her "purity and ladylike dignity." Up to the very last moment of the formal courtship he held himself ready to withdraw should she reveal to his watchfulness the slightest sign of having any "unladylike" tendencies or feelings. She revealed no such sign, but remained "ladylike"; and certainly, so the general reasoned, a woman who could thus resist him, even in the license of the formal engagement, would resist anybody.
As soon as the engagement was formally concluded, the general hurried on the preparations for the wedding. He opened accounts at half a dozen shops in New York--dressmakers, milliners, dealers in fine and fashionable clothing of every kind--and gave them orders to execute whatever commands Miss Gower or her mother--for her--might give them. When he told her of this munificence and magnificence and paused for the outburst of gratitude, he listened in vain. Mildred colored to the roots of her hair and was silent, was seeking the courage to refuse.
"I know that you and your people can't afford to do the thing as things related to me must be done," he went on to say. "So I decided to just start in a little early at what I've got to do anyhow. Not that I blame you for your not having money, my dear. On the contrary, that's one of your merits with me. I wouldn't marry a woman with money. It puts the family life on a wrong basis."
"I had planned a quiet wedding," said Mildred. "I'd much prefer it."
"Now you can be frank with me, my dear," said the general. "I know you ladies--how cheated you feel if you aren't married with all the frills and fixings. So that's the way it shall be done."
"Really," protested Mildred, "I'm absolutely frank. I wish it to be quite quiet--in our drawing-room, with no guests."
Siddall smiled, genial and tolerant. "Don't argue with me, my dear. I know what you want, and I'll see that you get it. Go ahead with these shop-people I've put at your disposal--and go as far as you like.
There isn't anything--anything--in the way of clothes that you can't have--that you mustn't have. Mrs. General Siddall is going to be the best-dressed woman in the world--as she is the prettiest. I haven't opened an account for you with Tiffany's or any of those people. I'll look out for that part of the business, myself."
"I don't care for jewelry," said Mildred.
"Naturally not for the kind that's been within your means heretofore," replied he; "but you'll open your eyes when you see my jewelry for my wife. All in good time, my dear. You and your mother must start right in with the shopping; and, a week or so before the wedding, I'll send my people down to transform the house. I may be wrong, but I rather think that the Siddall wedding will cause some talk."
He was not wrong. Through his confidential secretary, Harding the thorough, the newspaper press was induced to take an interest in the incredible extravagance Siddall was perpetrating in arranging for a fitting wedding for General William Siddall. For many days before the ceremony there were daily columns about him and his romantic career and his romantic wooing of the New Jersey girl of excellent family and social position but of comparatively modest means. The shopkeepers gave interviews on the trousseau. The decorators and caterers detailed the splendors and the costliness of the preparations of which they had charge. From morning until dark a crowd hung round the house at Hanging Rock, and on the wedding day the streets leading to it were blocked--chiefly with people come from a distance, many of them from New York.
At the outset all this noise was deeply distasteful to Mildred, but after a few days she recovered her normal point of view, forgot the kind of man she was marry- ing in the excitement and exultation over her sudden splendor and fame. So strongly did the delusion presently become, that she was looking at the little general with anything but unfavorable eyes. He seemed to her a quaint, fascinating, benevolent necromancer, having miraculous powers which he was exercising in her behalf. She even reproached herself with ingratitude in not being wildly in love with him. Would not any other girl, in her place, have fallen over ears in love with this marvelous man?
However, while she could not quite convince herself that she loved, she became convinced without effort that she was happy, that she was going to be still happier. The excitement wrought her into a state of exaltation and swept her through the wedding ceremony and the going away as radiant a bride as a man would care to have.
There is much to be said against the noisy, showy wedding. Certainly love has rarely been known to degrade himself to the point of attending any such. But there is something to be said for that sort of married start--for instance, where love is neither invited nor desired, an effort must be made to cover the painful vacancy his absence always causes.
The little general's insistence on a "real wedding" was most happy for him. It probably got him his bride.