Chapter XVI
 

Christmas night on Billy-goat Hill, and twinkling lights, beginning with candles set in bottles in the humblest cottages in Bean Alley, dotted the hillside here and there, until they all seemed to converge at one brilliant spot on the summit, where a veritable halo of light hung above the hilltop.

For Angora Heights was having a house-warming, and never since old Bob Carsey brought home his young bride from Alabama, had such preparations been known for a social function. All the carriages in the neighborhood had been pressed into service, and a half dozen motors had been sent out from town to convey the guests from the station to the house.

Within the mansion everything was magnificently new. Period rooms, carried out with conscientious accuracy, opened into each other through arcaded doorways. Massive gilt mirrors accentuated the wide spaces of the hall, and repeated the lights of innumerable chandeliers. If a stray memory or an old association had by any chance crept into the Christmas ball, it would have found no familiar object on which to dwell. The atmosphere was as formal and impersonal as that of a museum.

In the middle of the drawing-room, like a general issuing last orders before a battle, stood Mrs. Sequin, her ample figure encased in an armor of glistening black spangles, and her elaborately puffed coiffure surmounted by an incipient helmet of blazing gems.

"Pull those portieres back a trifle," she commanded, "and lower that window from the top. Has Jimpson gone to the station for the Queeringtons?"

"Yes, madam, half an hour ago," answered the maid.

"The moment he returns tell him that he is to take the small wagon and go back to the station at ten o'clock. The caterer has just 'phoned that he is sending the extra ices out on the last train, but that he cannot send another waiter. Jenkins, leaving the way he did, has upset everything. I suppose it is too late to get anybody now; the special car gets here at nine. What is that noise? It sounds like some one singing in the dining-room."

"It's the new furnace man, madam, that Mrs. Queerington sent. It looks like he can't keep himself quiet."

"I'll quiet him!" said Mrs. Sequin, who was as near irritation as full dress would permit.

Phineas Flathers, having replenished the fire, was pausing a moment to admire himself in the Dutch mirror above the mantel when Mrs. Sequin startled him by inquiring peremptorily if he was the new man.

"I am," said Phineas with pronounced deference, "the new man and a new man. Regenerated, born again, mam, the spirit of evil having departed from me."

Mrs. Sequin gasped. "What is your name?"

"Flathers, mam."

"Dreadful! I will call you Benson."

"Benson it is. Better men than me have changed their names. There was Saul now, Saul of Tarsus--"

"Turn the drafts off in the furnace and don't come up-stairs again on any account. But no,--wait a moment." Mrs. Sequin's keen eye swept him from head to foot. "Have you ever had any experience in serving?"

Phineas, whose only claim to serving was that "they also serve who only stand and wait," dropped his eyes.

"Only the communion, mam, and the collection. But I ain't above lending a hand, mam. You'd do as much for me. I was just saying to the lady in the kitchen, that anybody was fortunate to work for a person with as generous a face as yours."

"Clean yourself up, and put on Jenkins' coat, and if another waiter is absolutely necessary, they can call on you," directed Mrs. Sequin hurriedly, then calling to the maid, "Has Miss Margery come down yet?"

"She's in the library, mam."

Margery, pale and listless, turned from the window as her mother entered.

"I was just watching for Miss Lady," she said; "it will be rather amusing to see her and Connie at their first big party."

"I hope she won't wear that childish dress she was married in. It is all right for Connie to affect white muslin and blue ribbons, but Cousin John's wife ought to wear something that makes her look older. Why, with that short gown, and the way she wears her hair, she looks like a schoolgirl!"

"She looks very beautiful."

"Of course she does, but what good does it do her? Here at the end of four months she has made practically no headway. Not that she didn't have every opportunity! People were quite ready to take her up, but she simply wouldn't let them. What can you expect of a person who says that bridge and boned gowns make her back ache? She hasn't an idea in her head beyond the Doctor, the children and a lot of paupers. I must say I am terribly disappointed in her. But then I ought to be used to disappointments by this time. What will she be when she's middle- aged?"

"She'll never be middle-aged," Margery smiled; "she'll go on being young and making people around her feel young. Father says she is the only person he knows who makes him forget his age. By the way, where is Father?"

"Delayed in town as usual. He'll probably motor out when the evening is half over and be too tired to be polite. I've never seen him so upset. Of course it's your broken engagement. He says we may have to close the house, now that we've gotten into it, and go abroad to reduce expenses, but of course that's ridiculous! That reminds me, did the Hortons send regrets?"

"She did," said Margery absently.

"Oh, dear, that means he'll be here! He's so horribly fastidious, he's sure to make remarks about my putting an Italian loggia on a Louis XVI drawing-room. It does seem that with all the time and money we've spent on this place--Isn't that the carriage?"

"Yes, I hear Miss Lady laughing."

As the front door swung open two bundled-up figures hurried into the hall, bringing a gust of youth and merriment along with the keen night air.

"I hope we are the first guests," cried Miss Lady, shaking a scarf from her head, "because we have had an accident. We both fell down. Connie slipped on the step and I sat down on top of her. There was an awful rip and we don't know whose it is! I'm afraid to take my coat off!"

"But where is the Doctor?" cried Mrs. Sequin in dismay.

"Father would love to have come," began Connie glibly, but Miss Lady broke in: "I don't think he really wanted to come, Mrs. Sequin. He said he would be ever so much happier up in his study, playing pinocle, than sitting out here in a straight-back gilt chair eating ice cream. Perhaps you think I oughtn't to have come without him?"

"Nonsense!" exclaimed Mrs. Sequin. "I get perfectly exasperated when Cousin John does this way. There were at least a half dozen people I'd promised to introduce to him. If he had no consideration for me he ought to have for you. He has been keeping you at home entirely too much. He forgets that you are twenty years his junior; he expects you to act as if you were forty."

"No, he doesn't," protested Miss Lady loyally; "the Doctor never expects anything of anybody that isn't right. He urged me to come, didn't he, Connie?"

But Connie was absorbed in a trailing flounce that hung limply about her feet.

"Look!" she cried tragically; "it's torn clear across the front. What shall I do?"

"Margery's gowns would all be too long for you," said Mrs. Sequin, viewing the rent through her lorgnette, "perhaps Marie can do something with this."

"I won't wear it all tacked up!" cried Connie on the verge of tears; "I'll go home first--"

"No, you won't," said Miss Lady; "this is your first grown-up party and you've been counting on it for weeks. You are going to change dresses with me. I don't mind a bit being hiked up a little, and, besides, nobody's going to notice me."

"That's perfectly absurd!" exclaimed Mrs. Sequin indignantly; "you must remember who you are, and that everybody is noticing you. Why can't you wear one of Margery's dresses, and let Connie have yours?"

"All right, I'll wear anything you say. Don't you dare cry, Connie! I'll never forgive you if you make your nose red. Listen! The musicians are tuning up! May I have the first waltz, madam?" and seizing Mrs. Sequin by her plump gloved hands, she danced that august person down the long hall.

"Let me go, you ridiculous child," laughed Mrs. Sequin, hurrying her up the steps; "the motors are coming up the hill now. Make her look as pretty as you can, Marie, and hurry!"

At a distance the brilliant, moving lights of automobiles and the dimmer ones of carriages could be seen approaching, and very soon under the blaze of the porch lights, hurrying figures in furs, rustling satin, and soft velvets were being ushered formally into the big reception hall.

Mrs. Sequin, mounted on her highest social stilts, stood with Margery in the alcove, so carefully planned for another occasion. A ball to be sure was a poor substitute for a wedding, but Mrs. Sequin was not one to waste her energies on vain regret. The ball was going to be a success; already the rooms were filling rapidly with the people Mrs. Sequin most desired to see. Old Mrs. Marchmont had risen from a sick bed to drive out from town and bare her ancient bones in honor of the occasion. Mrs. Bartrum had taken possession of the most becoming corner in the library and was holding gay court there; the young people were thronging from one room to another; everybody was laughing and chatting and exclaiming over the charms of the new house. In fact the complacency of the hostess over her achievement was only surpassed by the curiosity of the guests who were confirming with their own eyes the wild rumors which had been current of the Sequins' extravagance.

Mr. Horton, the local architect who had not been considered of sufficient renown to make the plans for the house, wandered from room to room on a quiet tour of inspection. Mrs. Sequin's fears of his judgment were not without cause, for Mr. Horton was one of those critics whose advice one always ignores but whose approval one ardently desires. He was a trim, immaculate person with short, pointed beard, and narrow, critical eyes that always seemed to be taking measurements. Passing from the Dutch dining-room, with its blue tile, and old pewter, he paused in the doorway of the drawing-room where the dancing had already begun. His glance, taking in everything from the gilded fluting of the panels to the bronze heads on the upright lines of the marble mantels, rested at last upon an object which evidently gave his critical taste complete satisfaction.

A young girl had paused near him and was eagerly watching the dancers. She presented a harmony in green and gold, from her shining hair caught in a loose coil low on her neck, to her small gold slippers that tapped time to the music. The clinging gown of pale green that fell in loose lines from her shoulders was veiled in deep-toned lace, revealing her round white throat and long shapely arms, bare from shoulder to finger tips. Horton smiled unconsciously as he watched her eager, responsive face, and felt the suppressed vitality in every movement of her slender body.

"Who is she?" he asked of Cropsie Decker, who stood near.

"Who's who?"

"That radiant young thing in green. She doesn't belong in a ballroom, she belongs in a forest with ivy leaves in her hair. By Jove, look at the lines of her, and the freedom of her movements. I haven't seen such arms in years!"

Cropsie followed his glance: "Oh, that's the new Mrs. Queerington,-- the wife of John Jay, you know."

"But I mean the young girl going through the door there, with the wonderful hair, and the profile?"

"That's Mrs. Queerington. Isn't she a stunner? Everybody's talking about her to-night. I'll introduce you if you like."

Horton followed him around the outer edge of the dancers, still confident that Cropsie had made a mistake. But when he was duly presented there was no longer room for doubt.

"I hope I'm not too late to claim a dance," he said. "I always make it a point to dance but once during an evening, and that with the most beautiful woman on the floor. I hope you aren't going to let these young sharks cut me out of my dance?"

Miss Lady lifted a pair of sparkling, excited eyes to his. From the moment when she had appeared, half timidly in her borrowed feathers and taken refuge under Mrs. Sequin's experienced wing, she had been the sensation of the evening. Adroitly conveyed from one group to another she had left enthusiasm in her wake. She was evidently enjoying to the utmost the novelty of receiving homage from one black- coated courtier after another, and of hearing delightful things about herself. The only apparent drawback to her pleasure was when she was compelled to say as she did now:

"Thank you ever so much, but I'm not dancing."

"Not dancing?" repeated Mr. Horton, not unmindful of the whiteness of her shoulders against the dark marble of a neighboring pedestal,-- '"Why not?"

"The Doctor and I have given up dancing."

"Oh, so he doesn't allow you to dance?"

"Allow me?" she lifted her level brows, smiling. "He simply doesn't care for it."

"And you don't care for it either?"

"Oh, yes, I do, I care for it too much. That's why I'm not dancing."

"But you are dancing. You've been dancing ever since you came in. I've watched you. Mightn't you just as well be dancing with me, as dancing by yourself?"

She laughed and shook her head, but her foot continued to pat the time, and her eyes followed the swaying couples that swung past.

"What's the Doctor's objection?" Mr. Horton urged.

"He thinks it's undignified for married women to dance, and I guess I do, too, only--" Miss Lady sighed,--"you see, I keep forgetting that I am a married woman!"

"You certainly make other people want to forget it," then his eyes dropped before the childlike candor of her gaze. "Come now, Mrs. Queerington, aren't you taking matrimony a little seriously?"

"Perhaps I am, but I'm new, you know, and I've an awful lot to learn."

"Hasn't it ever occurred to you that the Doctor might have something to learn?"

"No," she said brightly, "he knows everything. I sometimes wish he didn't. I'd be proud if I could teach him even that much!" and she measured off the amount on the tip of her little finger.

"Perhaps he isn't as good a pupil as you are. You should take him to see 'Harnessing a Husband,' at the Ardmore this week."

"A play? I'd love to go to the theater just once."

"You've never been? How extraordinary! Come with Mrs. Horton and me on Friday night and let us share your first thrill."

"May I?" Miss Lady began eagerly, then checking herself, "I'm afraid the Doctor doesn't care much about the modern stage. He used to enjoy seeing the great actors, but he says the plays they put on now bore him fearfully. Mayn't we come to call sometime instead?"

"As you like," said Mr. Horton, shrugging, "but I hope you realize that you are spoiling that learned husband of yours. Instead of adapting yourself to him, make him adapt himself to you. Come now, isn't it about time for you to reform? Why not begin by finishing this dance with me?"

Still she laughed and shook her head. "It isn't that I don't want to! I'd rather dance than do anything in the world--except ride horseback."

"I might have known you were a horsewoman. Do you ride much?"

"Not now."

"The Doctor doesn't care for it, I suppose?"

She flashed a questioning glance at him, then she looked away:

"No," she said, "he doesn't care for it."

Cropsie Decker, who had been hovering in her vicinity, now came up and claimed the next number.

"There's a bully little corner in the conservatory where we can sit out this waltz. You won't mind if I carry her off, Mr. Horton?"

"Not if she takes to heart some of the wise things I've been telling her," said Horton, looking at her through his narrow eyes and pulling at his small, fair mustache. "Au revoir, Madame Beaux Yeux!"

Miss Lady did not move from the spot where he left her. Out under the palms in the hall, the orchestra was beginning one of Strauss' most distracting waltzes; her fingers tapped the time. Suddenly she held out her hand to Cropsie.

"I can't stand it another minute! I've got to dance once if I never dance again!"

Every eye in the ballroom followed the slender figure, as it circled in and out among the throng. Miss Lady danced with the grace and abandonment of a child. She had given herself utterly to the joy of the moment. She was letting herself go for the first time since her marriage, following the glad impulse of her heart, and dancing as a Bacchante might have danced alone on a moonlight night in some forest glade.

When at last the music stopped Cropsie drew her into the conservatory.

"Here, come around this palm, quick! They'll all be after you for the next dance. Gerald Ivy is charging around now looking for you, and so is Mr. Horton. Sit there in the window and cool off!"

She sank laughing and breathless on the window sill. All the exhilaration of the dance was in her eyes, her lips were parted, her cheeks flushed, and a strand of loosened hair fell across her shoulder.

It was at this moment that wheels sounded on the driveway below, caused her to lean idly out to see who was coming. A wagon stopped at the side entrance, and a man alighted. Uncle Jimpson's voice was heard asking a question, then came the other man's voice, in quick, incisive answer.

Miss Lady, sitting motionless, looking down, turned suddenly from the window. The color had left her face and her hand trembled visibly against the curtain.

"What's the matter?" cried Cropsie; "are you ill? Did you dance too long?"

"It's nothing, I'm all right. That is I will be--"

"Can't I get you some water, or an ice, or call Mrs. Sequin?"

"No, no, please! It's nothing. I'll slip off to the dressing-room until I feel better. I can go through here up the side stairs."

"Wait, I'll go with you. You are as white as if you'd seen a ghost!"

But before he could join her she had disappeared into mysterious regions where he dared not follow.