Chapter XIII
 

It was always an occasion of significance when Mr. and Mrs. Basil Sequin found time in their busy lives to discuss a family matter. There was no particular lack of interest on either side, it was simply that their hours did not happen to fit. When he was not at his club, she was at hers; when she was dining at home, he was detained at a directors' meeting; when he went North to a Bankers' Convention, she went South to attend a bridge tournament. So it was small wonder the butler, removing the breakfast things, should have looked puzzled when Mr. and Mrs. Sequin remained at table in earnest conversation.

Mr. Sequin was a thin, stooped man, prematurely old at fifty. The harassed, driven expression that was so habitual to his face had plowed furrows that no lighter mood could now erase. His present mood, however, was not a light one. He sat with his hand shading his eyes, and scowled gloomily at the tablecloth.

"I told you a month ago," he was saying, "that you'd have to cut some of the expenses on the new house. We've already gone twenty thousand over the original estimate. There isn't a month now that our accounts are not overdrawn. Nothing has been said directly, but it is known on the street. Nothing will be said, as long as it is understood that I am to have the management of the Dillingham estate at the general's death, but if this estrangement should continue between Margery and Lee Dillingham--"

"Now, Basil!" Mrs. Sequin cried dramatically, "don't for mercy's sake take a nervous-prostration patient seriously. Margery is nothing but a bunch of notions, and Cropsie Decker has gotten her all stirred up about the injustice that has been done to Don. I won't even let her talk to me about it, it's all so silly. What possible difference can it make who did the shooting? The boys are well out of the scrape and it's almost forgotten by this time. Young people who are engaged have to have something to quarrel over; this won't amount to a row of pins. I am going right on making preparations for an early spring wedding. By the way, you know the bow window in the drawing-room? Well, I am having it made four feet wider so they can be married there facing the loggia, like this!"

Mrs. Sequin's two plump fingers did duty for the bride and groom, but Mr. Sequin was not interested.

"I should not be surprised if Decker cabled Donald to come home. He's in a great state of indignation over the fact that the blame was put on Don. You see, it is all a fresh issue with them."

"I'd be perfectly furious with Don," declared Mrs. Sequin, "if he came back and got into a quarrel with Lee. Margery will be sure to take his part; she's always so silly about Don. If she were well enough I'd be tempted to rush the wedding through before Christmas. But then, we couldn't have it in the new house, and I have practically built that first floor for the wedding. Everything depends on our having it there."

"Everything depends on our having it somewhere!" said Mr. Sequin grimly.

"Mrs. Queerington's cook, madam, wishes to speak to you," announced the butler at the pantry door.

"Tell her to wait," said Mrs. Sequin without turning her head. "What did you decide about the decorator's estimates, Basil?"

"Decide? What time have I to be considering decorations? Why can't you attend to it?"

"Why, indeed? I only have to attend to the alterations on the bow window, look at the new sketches for the garage, have a shampoo and massage, lunch at the Weldems', take Fanchonette to the veterinary, be fitted at three, and go to the Bartrums' at five. By all means, I'll attend to it. I'll give the order to Lefferan; he handles the most exclusive designs."

"That's what we want," said Mr. Sequin, rising; "the most exclusive and the most expensive. Our credit is good for a few months yet. Have the small car at the bank at 6:30. I will not be home for dinner."

Mrs. Sequin sighed as he slammed the front door. There was no use denying the fact that men were trying, even the best of them. Hadn't Cousin John Queerington, that paragon of perfection, toppled on his pedestal at the smile of an unsophisticated little country girl? And there was Basil, recognized as a veritable wizard of finance, waiting until the new house was almost completed, then getting panicky about the cost. And now Donald, whom she thought safely anchored on the other side of the world, threatening to come home at the most inopportune time and create no end of trouble!

"Excuse me, madam," said the butler, "but she says she ain't going to wait another minute."

"Jenkins!" Mrs. Sequin raised her brows disapprovingly. "Send that odious woman up to Miss Margery's room; I will see her there."

The room above the dining-room was one of those pink-and-white jumbles that convention prescribes for debutantes. Garlands of pink roses festooned the paper, tied at intervals by enormous pink bows. Pink bows and ruffles smothered the dresser and sewing table, and pink and white cushions filled the window seat. Cotillion favors, old dance cards, theater programs, were pinned to the heavy pink and white curtains that shut out the sunlight. Among the lace pillows of the brass bed lay a languid, pale-faced girl, who stared up at the rose- entwined ceiling, as a prisoner might stare at her bars.

"Close the door, Myrtella," Mrs. Sequin said as they entered. "I am mortally afraid of drafts. Good morning, Margery. Where is your blue hat? I told Miss Lady to send up for it, because I am going to take her to the Bartrums' this afternoon and I simply could not have her appear in that ridiculous little hat she wears all the time."

The girl in the bed turned a fretful face toward her mother:

"Why, Miss Lady promised to spend the afternoon with me. I've been looking forward to it for days."

"Yes, I know, dear, but I told her you weren't quite so well, and that she could come to-morrow. You see, she really can't afford to miss the Bartrums' tea; it's the first entertainment this fall and everybody will be there. I know you think Mrs. Bartrum a little gay, but you can't deny she runs that younger set."

Margery Sequin clasped her thin white hands tensely, and resumed her study of the vine-covered ceiling.

"Here's the hat," said Mrs. Sequin, handing a large hat box to Myrtella, then noting her offended expression she added by way of propitiation: "I don't know how they would get along without you at the Doctor's. I hear that the new mistress doesn't know a saucepan from a skillet."

"She ain't no fool," returned Myrtella instantly on the defensive.

"Of course not, just young and careless. I dare say she doesn't even order the groceries, does she?"

"No, mam."

"Nor plan for the meals?"

"No, mam."

"And you attend to everything just as if she weren't there? It's really too funny, isn't it, Margery? Tell Mrs. Queerington that I'll send the motor for her at five; and do see that she is properly hooked up."

Myrtella succeeded in getting herself and the box silently out of the room, but the butler passing her on the back stairs was startled by a verbal shower that was not in the least intended for him. It was as if a watering cart had suddenly and unexpectedly turned on its supply regardless of its surroundings.

At five o'clock Miss Lady, very radiant and apparently in high spirits, presented herself at the Sequins'.

"May I come in just for a minute?" she asked at Margery's door. "I've brought you some chrysanthemums. Uncle Jimpson brought them in from Thornwood this morning. It's too bad you aren't so well."

Margery turned admiring eyes on the bright face above her.

"I'm no worse," she said, "just disappointed. I thought I was going to have you all to myself this afternoon."

"But I didn't know you could have me! I'll run in and tell your mother."

Mrs. Sequin, who was being insinuated into a very tight gown by the sheer physical prowess of her maid, exclaimed with satisfaction as Miss Lady entered:

"There, I knew it! The hat makes the costume. You are perfect! Now, remember the people I want you to be especially nice to, Mrs. Gibbs, Mrs. Marchmont--"

"The silly old woman that paints her face and wears the pearls like moth balls? She drove around yesterday to tell me the name of her hairdresser. It's always the people that haven't any hair that want to have it dressed."

"Miss Lady! She is Mrs. Leslie Marchmont, the most sought after woman in town!"

"I don't care, her horses look as if they had been fed on corn stalks."

"But you mustn't say such things! You must cultivate discretion. If you want me to introduce you to the right people--"

"But they may not be the right people for me! Some of them are lovely, but I can't stand the affected ones, nor the ones that patronize me."

"But they won't patronize you if you are a little more reserved. There's no earthly reason for your telling them that you keep only one servant, and saying that you come from Billy-goat Hill. It's a horrid name given our beautiful hillside, by horrid people. You see, you really must cultivate more caution. You are,--what shall I say? too frank, too natural."

Miss Lady laughed. "I haven't the least idea how to go about being unnatural, but, thank heaven, I don't have to learn to-day! Margery is feeling better and is going to let me stay with her."

"That's absurd! You are all ready to go, and I want Mrs. Bartrum to see you for the first time just as you look now. Where are your gloves?"

"I forgot them, but it doesn't matter, I'm not going."

"I'll send Jenkins for them at once."

Miss Lady's cheek flushed and she looked at Mrs. Sequin in perplexity, then her brow cleared.

"You are afraid I'll stay too long and wear Margery out? I promise to go the minute she looks tired. You can trust her with me, can't you?"

"But she has her nurse, there's no earthly reason--"

"Except that she wants me to stay. You'll feel happier, too, knowing that she isn't lonely."

"But don't you want to go to the tea?"

"Oh, I did a little. But I think that was because you and Connie and Margery said I looked nice. I'm awfully squeezed and uncomfortable; I wonder if Margery can't lend me a dressing sacque?"

Thus it was that Mrs. Sequin went off to the Bartrums' in a very bad humor, leaving the two girls chattering together in the pink boudoir, with the nurse banished to the lower regions.

"Don't you want some fresh air?" asked Miss Lady, when she had stood the heat as long as she could.

"You may open the door," said Margery, "we never leave the window up on account of drafts."

"But I can wrap you up, and put the screen up. There! You can't take cold with all that on. It's the kind of day that makes me want to be on a horse, galloping through the woods with the wind in my face."

Margery watched Miss Lady's quick motion as she opened all the windows behind the ruffled curtains, and let in a current of fresh invigorating air.

"How young you are!" she said. "Years and years younger than I feel. I can't realize you are married and have three step-children."

"Neither can I," said Miss Lady. "I'm always forgetting it. Wouldn't you like to sit up for a while?"

"Oh! I can't. I have to lie perfectly quiet."

"Who said so?"

"Everybody does who has nervous prostration. The doctors say that my nerves are nothing but quivering wires. I suppose I went too hard last winter, but of course I couldn't drop out in the middle of my first season."

"I don't believe it would hurt you a bit to sit up. If I fix that big rocker will you try it?"

"But I haven't sat up for six weeks. When I try it in bed I have such tingly sensations."

"That's because your legs are straight out. Let's try it in the chair, with them hanging down."

"I'll try it, but I know I can't stand it. There! Thank you so much! You wouldn't think that a year ago I was as strong as you are! Why, between October and March I went to over a hundred and fifty entertainments, besides the theaters and opera."

"Good heavens!" cried Miss Lady aghast.

"Of course, about New Year's, I began to wobble, but mother had me take massage and electricity and kept me going until Lent. After that I collapsed until summer. Then we went to White Sulphur, where the Dillinghams have a cottage, I had to lie down every afternoon, but I was always able to be up for the dances."

The nurse coming in with a long flower box, paused in surprise at the sight of her patient sitting up, then discreetly tiptoed out again.

"Somebody has sent you some flowers!" cried Miss Lady excitedly. "How nice! Shall I open the box?"

"Just as you like. They are probably from Lee. He sends them now instead of coming."

"But there may be a note," said Miss Lady, searching in the tissue paper.

Margery shook her head wearily; the little animation that had flushed her face, died out leaving it wan and listless.

"I suppose you think this is a queer way for an engaged girl to talk," she said presently, with a nervous catch in her voice. "The truth is Lee and I have quarreled over my uncle, Donald Morley. I will never forgive him for the way he has treated Don; never!"

"You will if you love him," said Miss Lady.

"But I'm not sure that I do!" burst out Margery. "I oughtn't to say it! I shan't say it again, but I shall die if I don't talk to somebody. Mother won't listen to a word. She says it's nerves. But the truth is, Miss Lady, I've never been sure; that's what's making me ill!"

"Have you told him?"

"Yes, and he laughs at me. He may be right, they all may be right. When I get well I may laugh at myself. But just now it seems so terrible for the preparations to be going on while I'm lying here, night after night, fighting down the doubts, trying to persuade myself, trying to be sure. How can you tell when you are in love? How do you know?"

Miss Lady's hand that had been softly stroking the girl's thin white fingers, paused; her eyes sought the open window, and she drew a short breath.

"Know?" she repeated as if to herself. "How do you know when you are cold, when you are hungry, when you're tired, when you're lonesome? How do you know that you want air when you are smothering? Everything about you tells you, your heart, your mind, your body, your soul. You can't help knowing!"

"But suppose I don't feel like that! And suppose I should, some day, for some one else! Oh! Miss Lady tell me what to do! Everybody else is rushing me on, telling me not to worry, not to be afraid. But you are not like the others, you consider something more than the outside advantages to be gained. Tell me, what would you do in my place?"

"I'd wait for the real one to come," cried Miss Lady, turning upon her almost fiercely, "I'd wait, if it was forever! They have no right to persuade you. You either love or you don't love and no power on earth can make it different. You can laugh at sentiment and pretend you don't believe in it, you can tell yourself a thousand times that you are doing the sensible thing. You can blind yourself utterly to the truth for a time. But some day you've got to realize that the only real thing in life is love, and that you are powerless to make it live or die."

After that they sat a long time in silence, until Miss Lady rose abruptly and, making some excuse, took a hurried departure. She was frightened at what she had said, at what she had thought. She was terrified at this strange, new self, that spoke out of a strange, new experience, and set at naught all her carefully acquired opinions. It was not until she reached home after a brisk walk through the crisp air, that the turmoil in her brain subsided.

On the hall table, beside a well-worn copy of Shelley, lay the Doctor's gloves and soft gray hat. She seized the gloves impulsively and laid them against her cheek.

"Dear, dear Doctor!" she whispered almost fiercely. "So good, and kind, and--and wonderful!"

Suddenly she was aware of some one watching her covertly through the crack of the dining-room door.

"Myrtella!" she cried. "Is that you?"

"Yes'm, if you please," came in strange, meek accents. "I'd like to speak with you."

It was so entirely out of the course of human events for Myrtella to assume humility, that Miss Lady looked at her in amazement.

"I can't say," began Myrtella, still half behind the door, "that I like the way things is run in this house. I'm thinkin' some of givin' notice."

"Why, Myrtella!" cried Miss Lady in dismay. "I'm afraid the work is too heavy. We might get--"

"Needn't mind finishing, Mis' Squeerington, you was goin' to say a house girl. If you think I'd share my room with any Dutch or Irish biddy, I must say you're mighty mistaken! Besides, ain't I givin' satisfaction? Ain't I doin' the work to suit you?"

"Of course you are, but I thought you--"

"Was gettin' old, I suppose, and couldn't do as much work as I used to. I look feeble, don't I?"

Miss Lady glanced at the massive figure with brawny arms akimbo, and smiled.

"Well, what's the trouble then?" she asked kindly. "Why do you want to leave?"

Myrtella's eyes shifted as she rubbed some imaginary dust from the door:

"I ain't used to working fer a lady that don't take no holt. It don't seem natural, and it leaves folks room to talk."

"But I thought you wanted to have full charge and run things just as you have done in the past."

"Well, it don't look right fer you not to be givin' me no orders, nor rowin' the grocery man, nor lightin' into nobody. If folks didn't know better they'd think you wasn't used to bein' a lady!"

Miss Lady bit her lip to keep from laughing. "I'll be only too glad to keep house, only I don't know much about it. Aunt Caroline and Uncle Jimpson did everything out home, and you've done everything here."

"Well, I ain't goin' to no longer," said Myrtella firmly. "If you want to light in and learn, I'll learn you. But I ain't going to stay except on one condition, you got to take a holt of everything! You got to lock things up and give me out what I need. You got to order all the meals and tell me what you want done every mornin'. I ain't goin' to have people throwin' it in my face that I work for a lady that don't know a skillet from a saucepan!"

"You're right, Myrtella," said Miss Lady, her face grown suddenly grave. "I don't wonder you are ashamed of me. Perhaps some good hard work will brush the cobwebs out of my brain. When shall I take charge of things, to-morrow?"

"As you say," said Myrtella meekly; then with a sudden flare, "though it does look like I might be trusted one more day to finish up the general cleaning and git after the ashman for not emptyin' them barrels."

"Friday, then?"

"Friday," said Myrtella as one who signed her own death warrant, and the young mistress gazing absently out of the window little guessed that a powerful usurper was voluntarily abdicating a throne in order that the rightful owner might come into her own.