Chapter VIII
 

Susan Bates drove homeward, filled with a vague dissatisfaction. "I expected too much," she said to herself, as she half opened the door again to free the skirt that Bingham had fastened there. "I ought to have chosen a different time and place. I might have known that he would be deep in his business--I ought not to have taken him with the harness actually on his back."

She sighed as she thought of all the things she had meant to say, but had come away without saying--the thousand and one minor reminiscences of those early days in the straggling and struggling prairie town. She had imagined a mutual evocation of the past, and it had not been accomplished. But presently consolation came: she realized all at once that her present mood was but one of those early reminiscences made modern. She recalled now how many times he had taken his departure from that little parlor, leaving her to feel just as she felt now--piqued, balked, impatient over his slow, taciturn, unresponsive ways. But her impatience and her pique had always passed off in due time, and he had always returned, his same kindly and inscrutable self. "I believe he meant to do the best he could. Anyway, I shall follow things up, all the same," she declared to the opposite cushions. Her thought deflected in the direction of Belden. "I wonder how they get along together. He is not at all the man that I should think of David being associated with--as a matter of choice. I never heard how the partnership began. I never understood why it kept up so long as it has."

The partnership, as a matter of fact, dated back twenty years, and had originated through a kind of crisis in the affairs of Marshall & Co.--the only weak spot in the history of the firm. After several years of unbroken prosperity, David Marshall (with thousands of others) had been overtaken by fire. A year or two later fire was followed by panic, and Marshall felt himself crowded towards the brink of ruin. In a moment of weakness he permitted himself a course to which only so great an emergency could have prompted him. The situation was saved by a species of legerdemain--of card-shuffling, so to speak--which was quite outside the lines of mercantile morality, and barely inside the lines of legality itself. An instrument willing to lend itself to this feat of juggling was needed, and was found in a pushing young fellow who left a rival house to play discreetly and shrewdly the role of figure-head that the juncture required. Marshall had long ago made full amends to the men whose welfare he had temporarily sacrificed to his own salvation, but he had never shaken off Belden, who remained constantly as a reminder of his early and only lapse from rectitude. In moments when conscience became tender under the quickening touch of reminiscence, Belden was upon him not only as a punishment, but as an incubus.

Belden had never yielded a single inch of the foothold gained by his sudden intrusion upon the affairs of the concern. His first demand was for the headship of a department; he had required, next, an interest as a partner; he had exacted, more lately, the presence of his name in the style and title of the firm; and to-day he was moving towards the making of the firm over into a stock company. He was younger than Marshall, stronger, more aggressive, more ambitious, more adventuresome; nor was it difficult to imagine him as fundamentally insolent and selfish.

His standard of mercantile morality was never higher than at the beginning, and his standard of social propriety was felt to leave much to desire. His first entry into the firm seemed to have been accompanied by a clairvoyant confidence and assurance and ambition. He was understood to have divorced his first wife, an amiable, faithful, but limited little creature, under circumstances of some cruelty, and even barbarity, to form a second union more in harmony with his mounting ideas for the future. A subtle atmosphere of distaste and disapproval had enveloped him and his for many years, and the social advances of himself and his wife had been, however determined, but slow--almost imperceptible.

Finally, what could not be accomplished in the West was accomplished, to some extent, in the East. Statira Belden was of New England origin; her family had resided for years in a small town which the taste of a few Boston families of consideration was turning into a summer resort. They contrived their cottages, and she contrived hers. She discreetly renovated the old "homestead," as she called it, and arranged to reside in eastern Massachusetts through the summer season. She made a few careful acquaintances among her neighbors, and presently found it possible to spend a profitable and distinguished winter month in the Back Bay. One step more brought her to her goal. Social exchange between Boston and New York being practically at par, she passed from one town to the other with an unimpaired currency. In Manhattan she was received with sufficient frequency by people sufficiently distinguished, and announcements in correspondence with the facts were borne westward by various metropolitan dailies and weeklies. She herself followed, in due course; she had now conquered a certain foothold at home, and her progress there was distinctly perceptible.

The last stronghold of the opposition existed, much to her mortification, in her own immediate neighborhood, where a stubborn little clique (as she called it) continued, under the leadership of Susan Bates, to ignore her. The Belden carriage-block, measuring diagonally across the street, was three hundred feet from that of the Bateses, but the distance might as well have been three hundred miles. Mrs. Bates, who, on some occasion or other, had met her face to face, continued to hold sturdily the impression that her eyes were at once too furtive and too bold, and that her hair was too yellow for a woman of her age; "or, for that matter, too yellow for a woman of any age."

In view of these considerations and others, Mrs. Bates was the reverse of pleased when Jane, one morning, came up to her little room, sat down on the foot of the bed, and announced that Mrs. Belden, among others, was likely to be bidden to Rosy's coming-out.

"Ma doesn't like her so extra well," Jane admitted, candidly; "she thinks they might have done something for Rosy this past summer. But it would seem awful to pa if his own partner's wife wasn't asked; and, besides, we don't know so very many people to ask, anyway."

Mrs. Bates had made her advances in due form to the women of the Marshall family. Throughout the call the talk had been frankly, inevitably personal, and Susan Bates had treated Eliza Marshall, whose difficult and captious character she at once apprehended, with the most elaborate and ingenious simplicity. Rosy was passed in review and then dexterously dispensed with, after having aroused the caller's interest and approval; and the subsequent talk ran along quite freely on the child's deserts and prospects. Mrs. Bates was quite direct and unadorned; and, though Rosy's future was the only common ground upon which the two women could meet, yet she handled this material with such a sympathetic persistence that Eliza Marshall was fain to believe that she and her caller had been knit in a close community of interests from time immemorial.

Mrs. Bates divined readily enough that nothing would be more galling to Eliza Marshall than a betrayal of her own social ignorance. "How glad we ought to be," she said, in an innocent, left-handed fashion, "that girls are no longer brought out at a crush. Imagine, once more, that crowd of people surging up and down your stairs, and trampling each other underfoot as they try to dance in a room not a quarter big enough, and ten times too many poor flowers wilting all over the house, and a big band of music going it for dear life, and fifty or a hundred carnages tangled up in a noisy crowd outside;--why go through all that for the sake of getting a new little girl acquainted with a few of her mother's friends?"

Eliza Marshall fastened her intent but inexpressive gaze upon her caller's face and said never a word. The function thus sketched by Mrs. Bates was the precise function that for the past fortnight she had been imagining and dreading. She had filled her secluded old parlors with the squeak and the blare of music; alien draperies in their swift gyrations had whisked her immemorial ornaments from her immemorial old "whatnot"; in the dining-room a squad of custard-colored waiters had opposed a firm front to the hungry hordes that assaulted the various viands on the table; and a thousand teasing points of form and usage had afflicted her with worry, uncertainty, and possible mortification and despair. She saw now that nothing like her imagined entertainment was desirable, or even tolerable, to-day, and she gave unconsciously a little sigh of relief.

Mrs. Bates divined further that, having instructed ignorance, she must now allay timidity. She must represent the coming function as a mere bagatelle for simplicity and informality.

"Isn't it pleasant to think that things are being made so much easier for us than they used to be? Otherwise, I should have been dead long before this. Nothing to do but for our little girl to stand up with her mother and two or three of her mother's friends in one room, and for two or three other people to look after the tea and other things in some other room off behind somewhere or other." Mrs. Bates waved her hand genially towards the rear rooms. "When Lottie came out I said to Mrs. Ingles, 'Now you must just take the tea part of it off my hands. Get some girls for me--you know about the ones I want--and see that their gowns are right; and then I shall be at peace, knowing that people are nibbling their biscuits'--or crackers" (this in a tone unconsciously expository)--"'dawdling with their spoons, as they ought to.' A few, of course, really drank tea; but the others--well, they had had tea somewhere half an hour before, or expected to have it somewhere half an hour after. How tired we all get of this old rigmarole, don't we?"

Eliza Marshall bowed gravely. For her this tiresome old rigmarole was a complete novelty. "Lyddy's niece," she said, turning to Jane; "that girl from Madison--she could pour for one, couldn't she?"

"Sure," assented Jane. "Our niece, too--sort o'," she added, correctively; for Eliza Marshall made little of certain vague ties to a half-brother.

Mrs. Bates cast her eye round the dim, old-fashioned room. One might have fancied her as exploring for the portraits of two or three mature female relations of the Marshalls.

"I don't know whether I am right in asking it," she began, with a fetching pretence of hesitancy; "but I am an old friend of the family--in a sense--and so interested in Rosy, too. If I might help you receive--"

Mrs. Marshall heard this proposal with a second little sigh of relief, and accepted as a matter of course. Indeed, outside of Mrs. Rhodes--and possibly Mrs. Belden--she had absolutely no one to whom she could turn.

"And Aunt Lyddy for another," said Jane.

"Yes," assented Mrs. Bates, in the tone of indorsement. "Mrs. Rhodes and I are acquainted"--with a sly look towards Jane; "and there--with your other sister, perhaps--our little party is made up."

"And about the people to be invited," Eliza Marshall proceeded, with some little show of initiative. Her task was becoming less and less formidable; she felt herself approaching this supposed ordeal with something almost like buoyancy.

"Let's have it nice and little and cosey," suggested Mrs. Bates, with a cosey little air of her own. "Twenty-five or thirty at the outside." She wondered inwardly where even so small a number could be got. "Why, six would do--if they were the right six! And why should we want more than three carriages before the house at any one time?--not to have a man shouting numbers, I hope!"

She drew her wraps together and rose to go. "If I might ask for cards for one or two of my own friends?--nice, pleasant people, who would be glad to become acquainted among the old families," she added, diplomatically. "If she can only be kept from suspecting how swell they really are, till it's all over!" was the good creature's inner thought. "Of course Rosy's appearance here isn't public, nor any equivalent for it; that will come later. I myself shall want to do something for her on the South side, and there will be one or two good houses for her on the North side--oh, our little duck will swim, when once put into the pond, as you shall see. After that, we shall want only a kind papa to pay the bills and a patient maid to sit up until three or four in the morning."

Mrs. Bates got herself away in great good-humor and kept that humor until the following day, when Jane came to announce the participation of Mrs. Belden.

"Have her pour tea!" cried Susan Bates, without a moment's hesitation. "Let her come early, and let her stay late, and pour and pour and pour until the last cup is drunk. I can't promise your mother that I shall be there throughout, but I will be there for half an hour--during the middle, perhaps. And tea--well, I never drink it, even at home."

Jane looked at her in some surprise.

"And don't let your mother change her rooms any," Mrs. Bates went on, rapidly. "They're right as they are--in perfect agreement. They have a quiet tone; and a low, quiet tone, after all, is the best thing--and the hardest thing to get. And not too many flowers."

"Never fear," said Jane, grimly. "She won't change anything."

"And don't let her have too much on the table. Give them tea and chocolate and sandwiches and Albert biscuits--that's plenty. And if your second girl shows, a cap would do no harm. Put a slice of lemon in every cup--that discourages lots of people."

Jane laughed. "But ma doesn't want to discourage her friends."

"My good girl," said Mrs. Bates, impressively, "this whole function has only one object. That object is to show your sister for five minutes to Cecilia Ingles."

"Oh, that's it?"

"That's it, and all of it."

Mrs. Bates's function came off on the appointed afternoon, and was so limited in size and so simple in character that Eliza Marshall would have reproached herself for slighting her own child, had not Susan Bates, before her early departure, whispered in the old lady's ear a word of complete approbation.

Rosy herself flashed and sparkled in the dim and depressing old parlor like a garnet set in dull gold. Indeed, it must be confessed that she showed some of the hard glitter of such a jewelled fabrication, as well as its splendor. Cecilia Ingles, who could not but admire her beauty and her readiness, thought that her tone was a little too hard, and that in her excess of aplomb she pushed self-possession to the verge of self-assertion. Rosy, in fact, entered society not with the tentative step and slow advance of one who cautiously feels an unaccustomed way, but by a single confident and intuitive leap. As she stood there beside her mother, dressed in a pale yellow gown and playing carelessly with her bunch of red roses, she shifted any embarrassment incident to the occasion from her own shoulders to those of her mother's friends--two or three of whom, retired and aging persons, withdrew feeling their own social rustiness quite keenly.

Jane, who had no definite role to play, but who did general utility all over the house, was enabled to observe various episodes from various points of view. When the actual test came she had little more aptitude for the social graces than her mother had, and she imitated her mother's own cautious reserve. She did not meet Mrs. Ingles at all, but she witnessed from a distant doorway the conjunction which Mrs. Bates effected between the leading luminary of the day and the newly-discovered asteroid. Jane ungrudgingly acknowledged Cecilia Ingles to be magnificently beautiful, and her dress to be a miracle of taste, and her advances to be most winningly gracious. "And she's just about my own age, too," thought poor Jane, in half-unconscious comparison. "And the way that little chit stands up there and talks to her! I couldn't, for a hundred worlds. Rosy acts as if she was just as pretty herself--well, I suppose she is; and of just as good position--h'm, that's all right enough, I'm sure; and just as used to the ways of the world--well, so she will be, fast enough." And the dear girl gave a long slow sigh--partly that the family had at last such a champion, partly that she herself should have been doomed to such complete uselessness in so high a cause. She quite failed to realize that she alone and no other was the real motive-power of her family's tardy spurt.

As for Mrs. Bates, Jane caught quite another side of her. She showed herself profoundly formal and punctilious. She seemed to have dilated for the occasion, with the express determination of dominating it. "She acts mighty queer," said honest Jane, who was the same to one and all, to-day and tomorrow; "but I suppose she knows what tone to take. If she acts like that, though, the next time I see her, I shall want to stop knowing her. She calls it a 'function,' and I suppose she's trying to make it like one. But one's enough."

Jane observed, furthermore, that her aunt Lydia was inclined to neglect her own part in the ceremony in order to perform pirouettes and pigeon-wings (so to speak) before the backgammon-player of the tropics. "If Aunt Lyddy forgets, after all," said Jane, anxiously, "and does mention Florida, why, I've told a fib for nothing." Jane had informed Mrs. Rhodes that the Bateses had lost their youngest child at Jacksonville, and so could not bear the slightest mention of the South; though she knew perfectly well that the youngest child of the Bateses was a lusty youth of eighteen, with strong hopes of becoming one of the Yale football team next season.

In the midst of the ceremonial Truesdale sauntered in and passed through the rooms with a graceful indifference; he was the last to be disconcerted by an assemblage purely feminine. He had doffed for the hour most of his imported eccentricities in the way of dress, and had consented to appear, properly enough, in a double-breasted black frock-coat with extremely long skirts. He had an orchid in his button-hole--a large one, very vivid and flamboyant. Jane had looked, rather, for a chrysanthemum--one of those immeasurable blooms worn by the young men in Life. "But Dick will be individual," she acknowledged. "Thank goodness it wasn't a peony, or worse. He does look nice, if he is my brother; and he's the only young man I know with violet eyes."

Truesdale drifted into the tea-room, and Jane presently saw him lounging in a chair alongside Bertie Patterson. The table was officered after the fashion that Mrs. Bates had suggested--by Mrs. Belden, who, in the absence of her own daughter, kept away by illness, had brought, instead, another girl, her daughter's friend, a visitor from New York. Truesdale failed to catch her name.

Mrs. Belden herself was somewhat large and inclined to be a bit high-colored and full-blown. An excess of blond down lined her cheeks just below and before her ears, and her light-colored eyebrows spread themselves rather broadly and dispersedly on her forehead. A superfluity of straw-colored hair, of a shade essentially improbable waved about her ears and temples, and a high gold comb emphasized the loose knot into which it was drawn behind. "She would do better on the stage," Truesdale said to himself; "she has gotten herself up for the photographer. And if all those rings are her own, she has more than any one woman needs."

The girl with her, whose name presently came to him as Gladys--"Gladys what?" he wondered--let herself loose on him at once with a fusillade of ready familiarities. The field was clear, for Bertie Patterson, at his side, had few words to interpose. Her large brown eyes rested half appealingly upon him in the intervals of her constrained and halting little service, and he readily divined the poor child as in a lonely and uncomfortable minority.

"To-day is only my second time," she said to him, with a kind of appealing protest; "you mustn't watch me and criticise me." She had just finished her ministrations on a pair of old-time family friends whom Rosy, in the fulness of her social efflorescence, had banished for consolation and reassurance to the tea-room. Somehow, the guests that had fallen to her side of the table had all been of this character. "When was the first?"

"Why, don't you know? The day you--you--"

"Oh, that day!" laughed Truesdale. "I didn't know you were there, of course. You must have thought me absurd."

"No; not--not--absurd. But on such a long, wide street, with so many handsome houses all around--"

Truesdale smiled. "Poor little thing! I believe she admires Michigan Avenue; I believe she's impressed by it." To him this thoroughfare was not completely innocent of the cheap and vulgar restlessness which is the dominant note of all American street architecture. "But let her admire it, if she can. Think what I expected to find Piccadilly!"

"I enjoy driving down it so much," she continued, confidentially, yet with a shy little look as if trying to learn whether her confidence was misplaced. "Aunt Lydia and I go shopping almost every day."

"Ten kilometres down and back," estimated Truesdale; "ten kilometres of luxury and grandeur--don't let it overpower you. And you are learning where the shops are, I suppose, and the theatres, and the post-office, perhaps, and the hotels, and what all besides."

"No," said Bertie Patterson, proudly; "I knew all that before I came. There are books, you know--and maps. I studied them at home beforehand."

Truesdale had never seen any of the books, but he thought their existence probable enough. He remembered, to, his own maps--how he had become familiar with the London clubs long before walking through Pall Mall, and how he knew where to find all the Paris theatres years previous to his first stroll along the Boulevard. "And you have been to all the high places, I suppose?"

"I've been to the top of the Masonic Temple."

"And to the places were they have the sun-dials, and the gates ajar, and the American flag made of--of--Heaven knows what?"

"The parks? Yes, we have been to one or two of them, but we were a little late for all those lovely things; most of them had been dug up."

"Lovely things!" groaned Truesdale. "Fancy them in the Bois or along the Row--or anywhere but here!" Yet he felt sure that she had his own fondness for pleasure-grounds and points of view. She had doubtless anticipated the Masonic Temple and Washington Park, just as he had anticipated the Pincian and the Tower of the Capitol. His fellow-feeling forgave her this crudity; after all, she was praising what she had never seen.

"I've been to your parks myself," the other girl broke in, as she glanced round the vase of chrysanthemums from the other side of the table. "But if you want to see a park, come to New York." She was rather abrupt and boisterous; Truesdale wondered if she had not at one time been a tomboy.

"And I know where ever so many of the society people live," Bertie went on in a low tone, which implored him not to repeat, and above all not to laugh. "I saw a book once with all their addresses, and I marked the places on the map."

Truesdale did smile here--crumbling, the while, a biscuit on the corner of the table. He smiled, not because she had seemed to refer to society people as a distinct and unique order of beings, but from pure sympathy. He himself had placed Stafford House and Bridgewater House and all the other town residences of the English aristocracy in those same days when he had found sites for the Pall Mall clubs.

"Yes," she went on, "I know where Mrs. Bates lives, and Mrs. Ingles, and lots of other prominent people."

"Upon my word!" cried Truesdale, in generous emulation. "Just what I did in Paris. I went all up and down the Rue de Crenelle and the Rue St. Dominique trying to select the right sort of hotels--houses, you know--for the Viscountess of Beauseant and the Duchess of Langeais and the Princess Galathionne, and all those great ladies in Balzac--in Balzac's novels," he added, considerately.

"But Mrs. Bates isn't in a novel?"

"Oh no; she's real, I hope. So you have covered the North side and the South side and all? You know us through and through?"

"This talk about 'sides'!" the girl opposite broke in again. She took the other way round the chrysanthemums. "We have 'sides' in New York, but nobody you know lives on them. Fancy nice people scattered in squads all over a city and having their shops and clubs and theatres all jumbled up in the middle along with everything else! It's horrid."

Truesdale nodded across to the girl and smiled brightly. He wondered if she were really quite second-rate.

"Where do you suppose I went night before last with Aunt Lydia?" Bertie resumed, as she fingered the remaining two or three of a row of shining teaspoons. "To the opera"--in an awe-struck undertone; "to Rig-o-letto. Aunt Lydia couldn't get a box--she said they were all taken for the season; but we had seats close to one side, just below the boxes. Such a grand place! Ever since the Auditorium was opened I've been hoping to see it, and now I have."

"Congratulations!" cried Truesdale, heartily, and Mrs. Belden turned round to see the reason for it. He remembered how he himself had panted for the Scala, and for the Apollo at Rome--that poor Apollo, razed to the ground before ever he could behold its historic stage.

"I've been to your opera myself," the other girl proclaimed. "What was the matter with all the box people, anyway? They seemed afraid to assert themselves. I never saw a lot of rich people so cowed-like."

"Do you mean that they kept quiet during the performance?" asked Truesdale. "The effect was rather primitive, wasn't it? Whenever I sing I always ask the whole room to shout-especially if somebody shows any sign of listening."

"And I thought they looked pretty plain, too," the girl volunteered further. "If you want to see style and display, take the Metropolitan on a real gala night. I didn't see half a dozen necklaces among your people--and not a single tiara."

"You should have worn yours," declared Truesdale, genially. "Every one would have helped." Yes, she seemed second-rate, truly, and the worst type of a second-rate person at that--the second-rate person away from home. "Let her have them," he whispered to Bertie, as a brace of new-comers crossed the threshold.

"She'll take them anyway," said Bertie, ruefully. She did not at all seem to realize the greater triumph of completely monopolizing the one man present.

"I wanted to walk in the foy--in the place where they promenade," Bertie went on; "such a lovely place, and such a grand crush under all those yellow arches! But we didn't have any gentleman," she concluded, lamely.

"Never mind; you'll have one next time," responded Truesdale; gallantly. "I'm awfully fond of that place, already--the whole of it. It's one of the few good things they've got here. It's the only place in town where you can see any number of nice people together."

"Oh, really," protested Mrs. Belden, speaking to him for the first time. She had decided that he was worth talking to, as well as concluded that his attentions had been given too exclusively to one side of the table. "Oh, really, now!" Her voice was thickly, sweetly sibilant. "I shall hope to show you that you are wrong. Gladys, child, remind me to send this young man a card for a week from Wednesday."

"Very well," answered Truesdale; "I'm perfectly willing to be convinced. Only don't ask me to a dinner--I can't sit through a dinner. A little bit of a tea--well, that's different." And he turned his friendly eyes in the direction of Bertie Patterson.

"It isn't a dinner," said Mrs. Belden, as brusquely as her vocalization would allow. "It's--" But a new-comer advanced, and she turned to manipulate her teapot with her large, fair, plump hands.

Bertie Patterson smiled at Truesdale in return. She seemed to consider herself indebted to him not only for that vague promise of future festivities, but for a certain degree of moral support at a juncture which might have brought her mortification, if not actual tears.

"What a downright nice little soul she is, anyway!" thought Truesdale. "There are nice good girls in this world, after all, and some of them are right here. And how she idealizes this brutal and ugly town! If only she doesn't idealize me!"

Truesdale had been idealized more than once before. Sometimes the result had been merely embarrassing, sometimes disastrous.