Chapter IX
 

As Mrs. Basil Sequin swept up the broad steps at Thornwood, she congratulated herself upon a duty about to be accomplished. She had not foregone a bridge luncheon to make this tiresome trip to the country for purely altruistic reasons. She had come to prove to herself, and to her circle, the bond of friendship that existed between her and her distinguished cousin. Experience had taught her that an occasional reference to "my favorite cousin, John Jay Queerington, the author, you know," had its influence. "His is the only great intellect," she was fond of telling her husband, "to which I am related either by blood or marriage."

Doctor Queerington's reputation was one of those local assumptions that might be described as prenatal rather than posthumous. It was what he was going to be, that made his name an awe-inspiring word in the community, more than what he was already. It was the conviction of his friends and colleagues that a tardy world would too late recognize his genius.

After waiting impatiently for some one to respond to her vigorous use of the heavy knocker, Mrs. Sequin tucked Fanchonette under her arm and pushed open the door. The hall had doors to right and left, but before making further investigations she paused to examine minutely the tall mahogany clock, and the quaint silver candlesticks that stood on an old table at the foot of the steps.

While bending to inspect the latter, she heard a door open, and looking up saw a pretty, slender girl in a short white petticoat and a sleeveless black dress lining, which displayed a pair of remarkably shapely arms.

"Oh, I didn't know you had come!" exclaimed the young person, cordially extending a smiling welcome. "What a darling little dog! Is he a poodle?"

"She is a French poodle," said Mrs. Sequin with a manner intended to impress this exceedingly casual person. "Where shall I find my cousin, Doctor Queerington?"

"The front room up-stairs, on that side. I'd go up with you, only Miss Ferney Foster, our neighbor, is fitting this lining and she has to get back to her pickles. I wish we were born feathered like birds, don't you?"

Mrs. Sequin, who had a masculine susceptibility to a pretty face, could not repress a smile.

"I know this lining looks queer," went on the girl with an answering twinkle. "But it doesn't look any queerer than it feels. Miss Ferney doesn't know what's the matter, and neither do I. Would you mind taking a peep at it up there between the shoulders? I'll hold the doggie."

To her surprise, Mrs. Sequin found herself removing her gloves, and adjusting a badly cut lining across a smooth white neck, while the girl before her, having shifted all responsibility, fell to making love to the poodle which she cuddled in her arms.

"It's too tight here," said Mrs. Sequin, pinning and adjusting, "and too loose there. Have her take up the side seams to the place I have marked, and lengthen the shoulder seams at least an inch."

"Thank you so much. It feels heavenly now. You go right up-stairs! You can take your things off in my room, if you like, just across the hall from the Doctor's." And without further ceremony the young hostess went tripping down the hall, leaving Mrs. Sequin to ascend the stairs alone.

Ascending was one of Mrs. Sequin's chief accomplishments. Twenty-five years' experience on the social ladder had made her exceedingly surefooted. Her reward now was in sitting on the top rung and dictating arbitrarily to all those below. She had acquired a passion for dictating, for arranging, and setting in order. The crooked seams which she had just pinned straight gave her a satisfaction that almost counteracted her annoyance at the informality of her reception.

Once established at the Doctor's bedside, with the nurse detailed to exercise Fanchonette in the yard below, she gave herself up to the pleasure of recounting at length her troubles of the past few months. She enjoyed talking, as a prima donna enjoys singing: she loved to hear the cadences of her own voice, and to watch the gestures of her jeweled hands.

"It's an unspeakable relief," she assured the Doctor, "to actually see with my own eyes that you aren't a mangled cripple from the terrible wreck! You can't imagine how frightfully anxious I've been, but then this whole spring has been a veritable nightmare. Donald and Lee Dillingham both involved in this unspeakable scrape, Margery on the verge of nervous prostration, you perhaps fatally injured, and Basil Sequin too engrossed in his own affairs to give mine a moment's consideration."

"Basil has grave responsibilities as president of the People's Bank, Katherine," said the Doctor, keeping his fingers between the leaves of the massive volume which he had regretfully closed at her entrance. "I, for one, owe him a debt of gratitude for relieving me of all financial anxiety. Besides you are always thoroughly capable of taking the reins in a family crisis."

"Yes, but it's telling on me. I notice it in bridge. I am not the player I was a year ago. This trial of Lee Dillingham's has been a hideous strain. Of course, if he had been convicted, I should have compelled Margery to break her engagement, and that would have complicated things frightfully. You know his grandfather, the old general, is the largest stockholder in the People's Bank, and Basil insists that he must not be offended. That was one reason why I was so anxious to keep Don out of the way. Even if Lee was guilty, Don couldn't appear against him when he was engaged to Margery. The only possible course was to hush up the entire affair with as little publicity as possible. Thank heaven, General Dillingham has gotten Lee off, and I am beginning to breathe again."

"And you have heard nothing from Donald?"

"No, indeed, and I hope I won't for the present. I wrote immediately after the shooting to every place I could possibly think of his going, and implored him, if he had a grain of gratitude for me, or affection for Margery, that he would keep away, and not even let his whereabouts be known until this wretched affair had blown over. I can nearly always appeal to Don on the score of gratitude. I must say for him that, like the rest of the Morley men, he sows his wild oats like a gentleman. You remember Uncle Curtis? They said at the club he was a frightful drinker, and yet not a woman of his family ever saw him intoxicated. Then look at Grandfather Morley!" Mrs. Sequin was mounted on a favorite hobby. She had a large and varied collection of family skeletons, some of rare antiquity, which she delighted in exhibiting. She could recount the details of the unfortunate matrimonial alliances on both sides of the family for generations back, and was even more infallible in the matter of birth dates than the family Bible. If a relative by any chance got a trifle confused, and acknowledged to thirty-nine next June instead of last June, Mrs. Sequin pounced upon the error like a cat on a mouse. She could prove to him immediately that he was born the spring that Uncle Lem Miller died, and that was the same year that Grandmother Weller married the second time, therefore he was thirty-nine last June.

"Donald ought to return at once," declared Doctor Queerington, when she paused for breath; "if he is guilty, he ought to take his punishment; if innocent, as I believe, he ought to be vindicated."

"Well, we can't find him," said Mrs. Sequin with resigned cheerfulness. "He is probably in the Orient with Cropsie Decker. What a magnificent bed this is! Do you suppose I could buy it? Country people nearly always prefer new furniture."

The suggestion of a smile hovered over the Doctor's thin lips: "Thornwood's possessions, I imagine, are not for sale."

"I suppose the extraordinary young person I met in the front hall was Miss Carsey? What sort of a girl is she, anyhow?"

"Miss Lady?" The Doctor shifted his pillow. "An extremely nice girl, I believe. Exceedingly sympathetic and attentive to all my wants, and receptive to a remarkable degree. She has been reading to me daily, and I find rather an unusual mind, undisciplined of course, but original and interesting."

"But what amazing manners the child has! She greeted me in her bare arms, and asked me to fit a dress for her when she had never seen me before in her life. But she certainly is pretty! I haven't seen as pretty a creature for years."

"Indeed!" said the Doctor, adjusting his eyeglasses. "I had not observed it, especially. A fine, frank countenance, with dark eyes-- yes, I believe I did notice that she had chestnut eyes of unusual clearness; I remember I did notice that."

"What is she going to do? Who is going to stay with her?" asked Mrs. Sequin. "Fancy a girl like that buried here in the country! Properly dressed, and toned down a bit, she'd make a sensation. I shouldn't at all mind asking her in to spend a few days with me sometime. You know I adore young people, and poor Margery, like all the other last year debutantes, is simply done for. Hasn't a spark of enthusiasm for anything. I hope you have not forgotten the fact that your Constance ought to come out this winter?"

"My dear Katherine," said the Doctor with an air of enforced patience, "you do not seem to realize that my time and mind are engrossed in far greater things than society. I hope in the next year to complete the fifth and last volume of my 'History of the Norman Influence on English Literature and Language.' If I have been able to give my children very little of my time and attention, it is only because of my desire to leave them something of far greater worth--a name that I trust will stand among those of the foremost English scholars of my day."

Mrs. Sequin soothed her irritation by studying her highly polished nails. "Of course, that will be an advantage to them. But what on earth's to become of them in the meanwhile? Heaven knows what Hattie will develop into if she isn't taken in hand. She refuses to have trimming on her underclothes now, and wears boy's shoes. As for Constance! I've quite despaired of getting hold of her. She's simply running wild, making no social connections whatever. What they really need, Cousin John, is a mother."

"I must try to look after them more," the Doctor said, somewhat helplessly. "Have you seen them recently?"

"I came by there this morning. They were all well, I suppose; Connie was at the Ivy's as usual, and Hattie at school. What a savage creature your new cook, Myrtella, is. I believe she is an anarchist! She opened the door only a crack, and when I asked her how the young ladies were, she said she was sure she didn't know, that she hadn't asked them."

"And Bertie, did you see Bertie?"

"Yes, he was with her. Had a dirty piece of dough in his hands which he said was going to be a cake. I must say she seems good to Bertie, but I would not tolerate her impertinence for a moment."

"Myrtella carries concealed virtues," said the Doctor. "She is an excellent cook, and a good manager. Her only faults, apparently, are faults of the disposition."

"From which Heaven defend me! What on earth is that noise? It sounds as if some one were kicking the door."

"Please open!" called a voice from without, and as Mrs. Sequin complied, Miss Lady came in, carrying a large luncheon tray gaily decorated with flowers from the garden.

"'Blest be those feasts with simple plenty crowned,'" quoted the Doctor. "You see how they spoil me, Katherine?"

"I don't believe he could be spoiled, do you, Mrs. Sequin?" Miss Lady asked, as she fixed his eggs. "Is there anything else, Doctor?"

"Don't run away," Mrs. Sequin said, following her movements with frank admiration. "Come here and sit down, I want to talk to you. I've discovered the ideal site for my new house, and I want to ask you about it. You know the western crest of this hill overlooking the river; did that belong to your father?"

"It all used to be ours, long before it was ever called Billy-goat Hill."

"The name is a handicap," said the Doctor. "You might modify it, Katherine, by calling your prospective mansion 'Angora Heights.'"

"The very thing," said Mrs. Sequin, eager to seize upon any suggestion that emanated from the Queerington intellect. "But who does the ground belong to?"

"It belongs to Mr. Wicker, now."

"Wicker?" repeated Mrs. Sequin. "Where have I heard that name? Why, Cousin John, wasn't that the man Don stayed with, when he was looking for a farm? How we laughed over that absurd notion of his farming!"

"I did not laugh at it," said the Doctor. "I encouraged him. It seemed to me the most excellent idea!"

"But you did not allow for Don's fickleness. Of course he's a darling fellow but he has had as many hobbies as he has had sweethearts."

"I allowed for his character, which may yet strike root in the proper soil," the Doctor said with dignity; then turning to Miss Lady, who had risen and was standing by the bed, her hands tightly clasped and her eyes fixed on his, he explained: "We are speaking of the young brother of Mrs. Sequin; I was telling you about him this morning. Why, child!" For Miss Lady had suddenly dropped her face in her hands and made a rush for the door.

"It's the shock of her father's death," explained Mrs. Sequin, who prided herself on divining motives. "I was like that for weeks when my last dog was run over. The most casual thing would upset me. I lost two games of cards one afternoon because somebody merely mentioned an ice wagon."

The Doctor's long, slender fingers drummed absently on the bedspread. Presently he broke in quite irrelevantly on Mrs. Sequin's steady flow of talk: "I said chestnut brown, Katherine, they are more of a hazel, I should say, a deep hazel with considerable fire."