Chapter VIII. A Friend in Need
 

In the turmoil of his own affairs Arthur forgot his promise almost while he was making it. Fortunately, as he was driving home, the sight of Dr. Hargrave, marching absent-mindedly along near the post office, brought it to his mind again. With an impatient exclamation--for he prided himself upon fidelity to his given word, in small matters as well as in larger--he turned the horse about. He liked Dory Hargrave, and in a way admired him; Dory was easily expert at many of the sports at which Arthur had had to toil before he was able to make even a passable showing. But Dory, somehow, made him uncomfortable. They had no point of view in common; Dory regarded as incidental and trivial the things which seemed of the highest importance to Arthur. Dory had his way to make in the world; Arthur had been spared that discomfort and disadvantage. Yet Dory persisted in pretending to regard Arthur as in precisely the same position as himself; once he had even carried the pretense to the impertinence of affecting to sympathize with Arthur for being so sorely handicapped. On that occasion Arthur had great difficulty in restraining plain speech. He would not have been thus tactful and gentlemanly had he not realized that Dory meant the best in the world, and was wholly unconscious that envy was his real reason for taking on such a preposterous pose. "Poor chap!" Arthur had reflected. "One shouldn't blame him for snatching at any consolation, however flimsy." In those days Arthur often, in generous mood, admitted--to himself--that fortune had been shamefully partial in elevating him, without any effort on his part, but merely by the accident of birth, far above the overwhelming majority of young men. He felt doubly generous--in having such broad views and in not aggravating the misfortunes of the less lucky by expressing them.

Dr. Hargrave and his son--his only child--and his dead wife's sister, Martha Skeffington, lived in a quaint old brick house in University Avenue. A double row of ancient elms shaded the long walk straight up from the gate. On the front door was a huge bronze knocker which Arthur lifted and dropped several times without getting response. "Probably the girl's in the kitchen; and old Miss Skeffington is so deaf she couldn't hear," he thought. He had known the persons and the habits of that household from earliest boyhood. He followed the path round the house and thus came in sight of a small outbuilding at the far corner of the yard, on the edge of the bank overlooking and almost overhanging the river--Dory's "workshop." Its door was open and Arthur could see the whole of the interior. Dory and a young woman were standing by a bench at the window, were bending over something in which they seemed to be absorbed. Not until Arthur stepped upon the doorsill did they lift their heads.

"Hello, Artie!" cried Dory, coming forward with extended hand.

Arthur was taking off his hat and bowing to the young woman. "Hello, Theo," said he. "How d'ye do, Estelle?"

Miss Wilmot shook hands with him, a shade constrainedly. "How are you, Arthur?" she said.

It was in his mouth to ask why she hadn't been to see Adelaide. He checked himself just in time. She and Adelaide were great friends as youngsters at the public school, but the friendship cooled into acquaintance as Adelaide developed fashionable ideas and tastes. Also, Estelle had been almost a recluse since she was seventeen. The rest of the Wilmots went into Saint X's newly developed but flourishing fashionable society. They had no money to give return entertainments or even to pay their share of the joint, dances and card parties Arthur decided to sheer off. "I came to ask you to the house for sup--dinner to-night," said he. "It's lonely--just mother and Del and me. Come and cheer us up. Come along with me now."

Dory looked confused. "I'm afraid I can't," he all but stammered.

"Of course, I can't blame you for not caring about coming." This a politeness, for Arthur regarded his invitation as an honor.

"Oh, you didn't understand me," protested Dory. "I was thinking of something entirely different." A pause during which he seemed to be reflecting. "I'll be glad to come," he finally said.

"You needn't bother to dress," continued Arthur.

Dory laughed--a frank, hearty laugh that showed the perfect white teeth in his wide, humorous-looking mouth. "Dress!" said he. "My other suit is, if anything, less presentable than this; and they're all I've got, except the frock--and I'm miserable in that."

Arthur felt like apologizing for having thus unwittingly brought out young Hargrave's poverty. "You look all right," said he.

"Thanks," said Dory dryly, his eyes laughing at Arthur.

And, as a matter of fact, though Arthur had not been sincere, Dory did look "all right." It would have been hard for any drapery not to have set well on that strong, lithe figure. And his face--especially the eyes--was so compelling that he would have had to be most elaborately overdressed to distract attention from what he was to what he wore.

On the way to the Rangers, he let Arthur do the talking; and if Arthur had been noticing he would have realized that Dory was not listening, but was busy with his own thoughts. Also Arthur would have noticed that, as they came round from the stables to the steps at the end of the front veranda, and as Dory caught sight of Adelaide, half-reclining in the hammock and playing with Simeon, his eyes looked as if he had been suddenly brought from the darkness into the light.

"Here's Dory Hargrave, Del," cried Arthur, and went on into the house, leaving them facing each other.

"So glad you've come," said Adelaide, her tone and manner at their friendliest.

But as she faced his penetrating eyes, her composure became less assured. He looked straight at her until her eyes dropped--this while they were shaking hands. He continued to look, she feeling it and growing more and more uncomfortable.

"Why did you send for me?" he asked.

She would have liked to deny or to evade; but neither was possible. Now that he was before her she recalled his habit of compelling her always to be truthful not only with him but--what was far worse--also with herself. "Did Arthur tell you I asked him to bring you?" she said, to gain time.

"No," was his reply. "But, as soon as he asked me, I knew."

It irritated her that this young man who was not at all a "man of the world" should be able so easily to fathom her. She had yet to learn that "man of the world" means man of a very small and insignificant world, while Dory Hargrave had been born a citizen of the big world, the real world--one who understands human beings, because his sympathies are broad as human nature itself, and his eyes clear of the scales of pretense. He was an illustration of the shallowness of the talk about the loneliness of great souls. It is the great souls that alone are not alone. They understand better than the self-conscious, posing mass of mankind the weakness and the pettiness of human nature; but they also appreciate its other side. And in the pettiest creature, they still see the greatness that is in every human being, in every living thing for that matter, its majesty of mystery and of potentiality--mystery of its living mechanism, potentiality of its position as a source of ever-ascending forms of life. From the protoplasmal cell descends the genius; from the loins of the sodden toiler chained to the soil springs the mother of genius or genius itself. And where little people were bored and isolated, Dory Hargrave could without effort pass the barriers to any human heart, could enter in and sit at its inmost hearth, a welcome guest. He never intruded; he never misunderstood; he never caused the slightest uneasiness lest he should go away to sneer or to despise. Even old John Skeffington was confidential with him, and would have been friendly had not Dory avoided him.

Adelaide soon fell under the spell of this genius of his for inspiring confidence. She had not fully disclosed her plans to herself; she hesitated at letting herself see what her fury against Theresa and Ross had goaded her on to resolve. So she had no difficulty in persuading herself that she had probably sent for Dory chiefly to consult with him. "There's something I want to talk over with you," said she; "but wait till after din--supper. Have you and Artie been playing tennis?"

"No, he found me at home. Estelle Wilmot and I were playing with a microscope."

"Estelle--she has treated me shamefully," said Adelaide. "I haven't seen her for more than a year--except just a glimpse as I was driving down Monroe Street one day. How beautiful she has become! But, then, she always was pretty. And neither her father nor her mother, nor any of the rest of the family is especially good-looking. She doesn't in the least resemble them."

"There probably was a time when her father and mother really loved," said Dory. "I've often thought that when one sees a beautiful man or woman, one is seeing the monument to some moment of supreme, perfect happiness. There are hours when even the meanest creatures see the islands of enchantment floating in the opal sea."

Adelaide was gazing dreamily into the sunset. It was some time before she came back, dropped from the impersonal to the personal, which is the normal attitude of most young people and of all the self-absorbed. Simeon, who had been inspecting Dory from the far upper end of the hammock, now descended to the floor of the veranda, and slowly advanced toward him. Dory put out his hand. "How are you, cousin?" he said, gravely shaking Simeon's extended paw. Simeon chattered delightedly and sprang into Dory's lap to nestle comfortably there.

"I always thought you would fall in love with Estelle, some day," Adelaide was saying.

Dory looked at Simeon with an ironical smile. "Why does she say those things to me?" he asked. Simeon looked at Adelaide with a puzzled frown that said, "Why, indeed?"

"You and Estelle are exactly suited to each other," explained she.

"Exactly unsuited," replied he. "I have nothing that she needs; she has nothing that I need. And love is an exchange of needs. Now, I have hurt your vanity."

"Why do you say that?" demanded Adelaide.

"You'd like to feel that your lover came to you empty-handed, asking everything, humbly protesting that he had nothing to give. And you know that I--" He smiled soberly. "Sometimes I think you have really nothing I need or want, that I care for you because you so much need what I can give. You poor pauper, with the delusion that you are rich!"

"You are frank," said she, smiling, but not liking it.

"And why shouldn't I be? I've given up hope of your ever seeing the situation as it is. I've nothing to lose with you. Besides, I shouldn't want you on any false terms. One has only to glance about him to shrink from the horrors of marriage based on delusions and lies. So, I can afford to be frank."

She gave him a puzzled look. She had known him all her life; they had played together almost every day until she was seventeen and went East, to school, with Janet Whitney. It was while she was at home on her first long vacation that she had flirted with him, had trapped him into an avowal of love; and then, having made sure of the truth which her vanity of conquest and the fascination of his free and frank manliness for her, though she denied it to herself, had led her on to discover beyond doubt, she became conscience-stricken. And she confessed to him that she loved Ross Whitney and was engaged to him; and he had taken the disclosure so calmly that she almost thought he, like herself, had been simply flirting. And yet--She dimly understood his creed of making the best of the inevitable, and of the ridiculousness of taking oneself too seriously. "He probably has his own peculiar way of caring for a woman," she was now reflecting, "just as he has his own peculiar way in every other respect."

Arthur came, and their mother; and not until long after supper, when her father had been got to bed, did she have the chance to continue the conversation. As soon as she appeared on the veranda, where Dory and Arthur were smoking, Arthur sauntered away. She was alone with Dory; but she felt that she had nothing to say to him. The surge of fury against Ross and Theresa had subsided; also, now that she had seen Theodore Hargrave again, she realized that he was not the sort of man one tries to use for the purpose she had on impulse formed, nor she the sort of woman who, in the deliberateness of the second thought, carries into effect an impulse to such a purpose.

When they had sat there in the moonlight several minutes in silence, she said: "I find I haven't anything especial to say to you, after all."

A wait, then from him: "I'm sorry. I had hoped--" He halted.

"Hoped--what?"

"Hoped it was off with you and Whitney."

"Has some one been saying it was?" she asked sharply.

"No. I thought I felt it when I first saw you."

"Oh!" she said, enormously relieved. A pause, then constrainedly, "Your guess was right."

"And was that why you sent for me?"

The assent of silence.

"You thought perhaps you might--care for--me?"

It seemed almost true, with him looking so earnestly and hopefully at her, and in the moonlight--moonlight that can soften even falsehood until true and false seem gently to merge. She hesitated to say No. "I don't know just what I thought," she replied.

But her tone jarred on the young man whose nerves were as sensitive as a thermostat. "You mean, when you saw me again, you felt you really didn't care," he said, drawing back so that she could not see his face.

"No," she replied, earnestly and honestly. "Not that." And then she flung out the truth. "Ross has engaged himself to Theresa Howland, a girl with a huge big fortune. And I--I--"

"You needn't say it," he interrupted, feeling how it was distressing her to confess. "I understand."

"I wasn't altogether--wicked," she pleaded. "I didn't think of you wholly because I thought you cared for me. I thought of you chiefly because I feel more at home with you than with anyone else. It has always seemed to me that you see me exactly as I am, with all the pretenses and meannesses--yet not unkindly, either. And, while you've made me angry sometimes, when you have refused to be taken in by my best tricks, still it was as one gets angry with--with oneself. It simply wouldn't last. And, as you see, I tell you anything and everything."

"You thought you'd engage yourself to me--and see how it worked out?"

"I'm afraid I did."

A pause. She knew what he was going to say next, and waited for him to say it. At last it came. "Well, now that there's no deception, why shouldn't you?"

"Somehow, I don't seem to mind--about Ross, so much. It--it was while I was in with father this evening. You haven't seen him since he became so ill, but you will understand why he is a rebuke to all mean thoughts. I suppose I'll be squirming again to-morrow, but to-night I feel--"

"That Ross has done you a great service. That you've lost nothing but a dangerous illusion; that you have been honorable with him, and all the wrong and the shame are upon him. You must feel it, for it is true."

Adelaide sighed. "I wish I were strong enough to feel it with my friends jeering at me, as I can feel it now, Dory."

He moved nearer the hammock in which she was sitting. "Del," he said, "shall we become engaged, with the condition that we'll not marry unless we both wish to, when the time comes?"

"But you're doing this only to help me--to help me in a weakness I ought to be ashamed of."

"Not altogether," he replied. "You on your part give me a chance to win you. You will look at me differently--and there's a great deal in that, a very great deal, Del."

She smiled--laughed. "I see what you mean."

But he looked gravely at her. "You promise to do your best to care? An engagement is a very solemn thing, Del. You promise?"

She put out her hand. "Yes," she answered. And, after a moment, in tones he would have known meant opportunity had he been less in love with her, less modest about his own powers where she was concerned, she went on: "The night you told me you loved me I did not sleep. What you said--what I saw when you opened your heart to me--oh, Dory, I believed then, and I believe now, that the reason I have not loved you is because I am not worthy of you. And I'm afraid I never can--for just that reason."

He laughed and kissed her hand. "If that's all that stands in the way," said he, "you'll love me to distraction."

Her spirits went soaring as she realized that she had gained honorably all she had been tempted to gain by artifice. "But you said a while ago," she reminded him mischievously, "that you didn't need me."

"So I did," said he, "but the fox shouldn't be taken too literally as he talks about the grapes that are out of reach."

Suddenly she was longing for him to take her in his arms and compel her to feel, and to yield to, his strength and his love. But he, realizing that he was in danger of losing his self-control, released her hand and drew away--to burn aloof, when he might have set her on fire.

Ross Whitney found his cousin, Ernest Belden, in the Chicago express next morning. When they were well on their way, Belden said: "I'm really sorry it's all off between you and Adelaide, Ross."

Ross was silent, struggling against curiosity. Finally curiosity won. "How did you know, Ernest?" he asked.

"On the way to the station I met Dory Hargrave looking like a sunrise. I asked him what was up--you know, he and I are like brothers. And he said: 'I've induced Adelaide Ranger to promise to marry me.' 'Why, I never knew you cared about her in that way,' said I. And he said: 'There's lots of things in this world you don't know, Ernest, a lot of important things, and this is one of 'em. I've never cared about anybody else.'"

Belden had been thinking that the engagement between Ross and Adelaide was dissolved by mutual consent. A glance at Ross and he changed his mind; for, Ross was so amazed at Adelaide's thus challenging him--it could be nothing more than an audacious challenge--that he showed it. "I beg your pardon, old man," Belden said impulsively. "I didn't appreciate that I was making a prying brute of myself."

Ross decided that a "gentleman" would be silent under the suspicion of having been jilted, and that therefore he must be silent--on that subject. "Not at all," said he. "I suppose you haven't heard yet that I'm engaged to Miss Howland, of Chicago."

"Ah--Really--I congratulate you," said Belden.

And Ross, seeing that his cousin understood precisely what he had intended he should, felt meaner than ever.