Chapter IX
 

It may be remembered that Truesdale, in making an estimate of the resources of his native town upon the occasion of his return to it, had scheduled the five-o'clock tea as the last resource of all. If we find him present, then, at such a function, we may imagine him to have found the possibilities of local entertainment much slighter than he had figured, and time already hanging somewhat heavily on his hands.

Nor need we make any allowance for the fact that the debutante was his sister, and the scene of her coming-out his own mother's house. The catholic tolerance of his sympathies was such as to make his interest in his relatives, as relatives, no greater than his interest in other people whose general qualities would be likely to receive equal recognition from the world at large; and his outlook was so broad as to make his father's house but one of many houses, and to subject happenings in it to the same criterion as would be used to judge and rate the happenings in any other house throughout Christendom. Truesdale considered himself as admirably and flawlessly a cosmopolite.

Yes, he had done his sister's tea, but not until he had done almost everything else. He went to the few good concerts that offered, he made a fortnightly visit to the art stores, and he patronized (so far as he could endure them) the theatres--the chief and final resource of the town. But the concerts were a factor far from constant; and the theatres offered scarcely once a month a play that a person of taste and intelligence cared to sit through. Abroad he had been a valiant first-nighter; but he learned presently that at home the house for a premiere was composed largely of people whose tickets came from the exposition of theatre "paper" throughout the week in their storefronts--it was on Monday evening that they were paid off; and he found himself little disposed to join in judgment with a raft of small shop-keepers, until he recollected that a premiere was not a premiere, after all--the play's footing having already been secured at some other place, at some other time, before some other audience.

As for the picture-dealers, he complained that a canvas of any importance was likely to be displayed after a fashion frankly mercantile, in the show-window of the shop--a step which met more than halfway the public demand for free art, but which unjustly caused many an original to be taken for a copy. "Perhaps, though," he would say, "the public has got so far along as to judge of a picture independent of its surroundings. Possibly the crimson draperies and the row of gas-jets have really come to be superfluous."

He missed, furthermore, many of his accustomed pleasures and conveniences. He was astonished to find a metropolis without a promenade. True, on Sunday afternoons there was a good deal of strolling up and down along a half-mile of the lake shore; but he never observed that the people whose houses overlooked all this strolling ever took any part in it, and he never learned that they enjoyed this diversion anywhere else. "Singular," he said; "no concerted walking or driving. No understanding as to any time for it; no understanding as to any place for it. Not the slightest social organization for out-door life; how much there must be"--(with a backward thought towards Rosy's debut)--"in-doors-- somewhere!"

He deplored the absolute non-existence of the institution known as the cafe--all the more, in view of the long months of waiting that must intervene before he should be able to gain membership in some club. The cafe, that crowning gem in the coronet of civilization--the name was everywhere, the thing nowhere. Nothing offered save a few large places of general and promiscuous resort, which, under one ameliorative title or another, dispensed prompt refreshment amid furnishings of the most reverberant vulgarity.

"It's impossible!" he said in one of these places one day to one of his artists, a new-comer from Milan. "Either you stand here in front of this counter facing all that superfluous glassware, and that cheap young man with the dreadful hair, and the reflections of all those hideous daubs behind you, or else you retire to one of those cubby-holes along the side there and make the disposal of a bottle of light beer seem a disreputable orgy or a dark conspiracy, or a combination of both."

"Not one word against the pictures," replied the other. "How else here do I live?"

"No journals," pursued Truesdale; "no demi-tasse, no clientele, no leisure. No," he added, with the idea of a more general summing up, "nor any excursions; nor any general market; nor any military; nor even any morgue. And five francs for a cab. Quelle ville!"

To Truesdale the cafe was the great social foothold; it was here that he was accustomed to meet on common ground the whole male section of society. It was to the cafe that he would like to lead his young water-colorist with the portfolio of views from rural Missouri, or his last new poet with his thin little volume so finely flattened out between the two millstones of journalism and literature--neither of which, alone, could have ground him out his grist in livable quantities. In the absence of the cafe he led two or three such to the house. It was like thrusting a lighted candle into a jar of nitrogen. The candle went out at once. And never came back. To David Marshall, art in all its forms was an inexplicable thing; but more inexplicable still was the fact that any man could be so feeble as to yield himself to such trivial matters in a town where money and general success still stood ready to meet any live, practical fellow half-way--a fellow, that was to say, who knew an opportunity when he saw it. The desire of beauty was not an inborn essential of the normal human being. Art was not an integral part of the great frame of things; it was a mere surface decoration, and the artist was but for the adornment of the rich man's triumph--in case the rich man were, on his side, so feeble as to need to have his triumph adorned. He himself had taken hold of practical things at an early age; he had made something out of nothing--a good deal out of nothing; and compared with this act of creation the fabrication of verses or of pictures was a paltry affair, indeed.

He was willing enough that his daughters should improve themselves; he was even proud, in a way, of Jane's ability to keep step with the general advance of female culture. But for any such turn in one of his sons he had no sympathy, no patience. He conferred with Truesdale on the possible reorganization of the business, and put before him the appositeness of his coming in at such a time; but Truesdale would lift his brows and suck his lips and study the pattern of the carpet, and mumble something about packing his trunk and "going somewhere."

His days, in fact, were becoming long--inordinately so; it was to his evenings that he was coming to look exclusively for diversion. He made the most of these; he drew them out as long as possible--to counterbalance the days. He seldom came home before midnight, frequently not before two or three in the morning; occasionally not at all. In company with three or four choice spirits, Arthur Paston and his like, he turned night into day, and was seen now and then at such conjunction of place and time as would well have justified an explanation to the sober-minded or even to the comparatively correct. Like his other associates on these occasions, he still retained the enviable faculty of being able to "be nice to nice people"; but he acknowledged his taste and his sensibilities both to be badly lacerated, and he confessed now and then with a sigh that he had never amused himself so indifferently in his life.

His sense of ennui was, in fact, driving him out upon society; and the hopes of his sister, which had drooped somewhat after their first leaving-out, now began to lift themselves again. Jane, on reviewing Rosy's debut, had arrived at a juster estimate of her own share in it; she had launched one member of the family very satisfactorily, and she felt herself prompted to the launching of another.

Rosy was now in the full tide of success. The edge of the wedge had been set with singular acumen, and the two or three smart blows that followed had opened up society to her in a twinkling. She had appeared at a few of the best houses, and had at once entered upon a vogue. Her mirror was always full of cards, her cards were always full of names, and her own name was always filling the newspapers. She figured in boxes at theatre-parties, in booths at fancy fairs. She had already poured tea at six receptions, and had acted as bridesmaid at two weddings. An incessant stream had run from the six teapots, and nobody had looked at the two brides. Jane would sit up in the dim library through the small hours waiting for Rosy's ring and planning corresponding triumphs for Truesdale.

Her first and chiefest task was to get him to take society seriously. He had professed himself as unable to put his finger on it; he asked her where it was to be found--what was the general platform on which it met. At the Charity Ball, she had answered him--rightly, perhaps; wrongly, perhaps. Let us waive the point.

"Then to the Charity Ball I shall go," he had answered, promptly.

"Will you?" shrilled Jane. "Oh, goody! And you won't be disappointed, either. It's the one great, magnificent thing of the year. Everybody goes. And they have 'C-h-a-r-i-t-y' in electric lights, and palm-trees, and champagne, and two different places to eat supper in." Jane had never attended one of these entertainments; her wealth of picturesque detail was gathered from the newspapers.

"Ouf!" said Truesdale, indifferently, discounting the magnificence. He had been to one ball at the British embassy in Rome, and to another at the Hotel de Ville in Paris, and did not expect to be impressed. He rather looked to find this coming occasion like the latter--a heterogeneous assemblage of elements whose value was doubtful separately and not much greater collectively.

Jane ran to her fairy godmother; through Mrs. Bates everything appeared possible. "You must put him on the committee," said Jane; "or you must make him a floor-manager or something." Jane's head swam with a social vertigo; she could call spirits from the vasty deep and feel perfectly sure of their coming.

"Very well," responded Mrs. Bates; "a floor-manager he shall be."

"He'll do it splendidly, too," declared Jane; "he's so alert, and so self-possessed, and so awfully graceful and good-looking. Just the right height, and a very handsome figure--don't you think?"

"Too slender."

"Well, of course he's no slugger," retorted Jane, whose thought turned suddenly towards the youthful footballist at Yale. "Yes," she went on, "he's got plenty of assurance and readiness, and he'll do beautifully--if he'll just be disposed to take the trouble. Only--only he doesn't know anybody, hardly," was her dubious conclusion.

"Never mind," returned Mrs. Bates, genially; "lots of 'em he couldn't know--there's too many; and lots of 'em he wouldn't want to know. He can jump about, I imagine, and see that other people are kept jumping about too. The fewer he knows the better he'll do his work."

She looked at Jane steadily for a moment or two. "One thing more; I want you to come and sit in my box."

"Me!" squealed Jane. "Oh-h-h!" It was a complicated cry; it indicated surprise, gratitude, self-depreciation, and (before all) a sense of divided duty.

Mrs. Bates, all unsuspected by her subject, had taken Jane in hand a month ago, and had made her at length fairly presentable. Incidentally she had made herself a martyr. "But never mind," she would say; "the poor child doesn't know how to do herself justice, so somebody else has got to do it for her."

After a pretty thorough canvass of Jane--her hands, her hair, her dress, her carriage, her complexion--she began operations. She went, for example, to a widely celebrated beautifier, as well as to other dealers in those lotions and cosmetics which have secured the recommendation of various singers and professional beauties, and she took Jane with her. The good woman pretended alarm at the state of her complexion--as if her robust health, her careful table, her good allowance of sleep, her active circulation, and her hundred varied forms of daily exercise all went for naught. So she sat in "parlors" with cloths tied round her neck, and let people smear her with creams and prod her with electric needles and work their will on her for the removal of all the "facial blemishes" that flesh is heir to.

"My dear girl," she would call over her shoulder to Jane, "I know this is awfully tiresome to you, and it must be very painful to see your old friend suffering so; but if you will just wait patiently for ten or fifteen minutes more--"

"Oh, don't mind me," Jane would respond, outwardly bored, but inwardly interested. "I'm getting along all right. Go on enjoying your sufferings as long as you please." And after a few of these forenoons Jane had realized her own imperfections, and had learned the means of getting round them.

Then Mrs. Bates would convey her unconscious pupil to the hair-dresser's. She would abandon her gray tresses to the manipulations of operatives skilled to show the possibilities of the natural material and the magical supplementary powers of the unnatural; every frown occasioned by a tug, every tear produced by a tangle, was borne cheerfully for the sake of an ultimate good, and Jane acquired indirectly a complete knowledge of all those preparations and processes which her preceptress felt her needs required.

"Yes, my hair is thinning on the forehead," Mrs. Bates would admit. "If you should happen to have the precise match...."

The match was always difficult, but Jane did not fail to observe how easy the same would be for herself.

Then Mrs. Bates would have her manicure at the house twice as often as before, to increase the chance of her being on hand some morning when Jane should drop in. "Try it yourself--just to see what it's like," she would suggest; and her own plump and shapely hands would yield their place on the small red velvet cushion to the long and graceless fingers of her protegee. And presently the other processes--the soakings, the washings, the rubbings--would follow.

She also recommended exercise--dumb-bells, for example.

"What's the matter with fencing?" asked Jane. "Truesdale, you know; he's awfully good to me." She might have found it difficult to cite any definite example of Truesdale's goodness; perhaps she meant merely that he never snubbed her, never hectored her.

"Better yet. Fencing by all means."

Jane, moreover, always accompanied Mrs. Bates to the milliner's and to the dress-maker's. They priced things, debated things, and tried on things--on themselves, on each other, on the attendants. Mrs. Bates purchased lavishly for herself, and suggested lavishly in regard to purchases by Jane.

"You'd better have this," she would say. "It becomes you first-rate--you won't find anything nicer."

"But the price!" Jane would demur. For Mrs. Bates frequented the most expensive places, and spent money with a prodigal recklessness. "I can't; it isn't right; I couldn't think of costing poor pa so much--especially with Rosy and everything making such an expense for him."

"Nonsense. You're entitled to some of the good things of life, too. Your father can stand it, I should hope. If he hasn't learned how to spend money, it's high time he did. Have you any idea, you poor, simple soul, what's he worth?"

"I suppose he is pretty well off," Jane would acknowledge, reluctantly, indefinitely.

"Well off? I should say so! You ought to have twenty times what you do. Let them send this home for you--I'll take the risk."

Thus in the course of a month or two Jane, to the bewilderment and surprise of her mother and sisters and everybody else, became more presentable than ever before in the whole course of her life. She fully merited, in fact, the sincere encomium finally bestowed by Mrs. Bates herself:

"There, now! You're not the worst-looking girl in this town--not by a jugful!"

Jane was seriously affected by this unstinted praise, and she was almost overwhelmed when her monitress showed the courage of her convictions by offering a place in her box.

"Oh-h-h!" she mimicked, after Jane. "What does that mean? Will you or won't you?"

"If I only could," said Jane; "it's the first thing of any account I've had a chance at since I don't know when. But I've got another engagement for that evening. I'm going to the university extension lecture with--I'm going to the university extension lecture; it's my regular night." She ended with a heavy downward inflection which she hoped was pronounced enough to conceal the tell-tale dislocation that had preceded it.

"Indeed? Where does your lecture carry you?"

"Over on the West side--to that Settlement."

"Um. Bad neighborhood to be going into alone, at night."

"I'm not going alone," returned Jane, with a kind of fluttering joyfulness.

"Oh! with some girl friends, then? Not much better--that way."

"I'm not going with any girl friends"--this accompanied by a perceptible palpitation of delight. She looked at Mrs. Bates with eyes that seemed to say, "Please go on; don't stop right there."

"Oh, then, that kind, good brother, perhaps," suggested Mrs. Bates--going on.

"No, not that kind, good brother." Jane's face was fairly beaming.

"Some other kind, good young man, then."

"Yes," responded Jane, with a challenging light on her countenance; "some other kind, good young man."

"Ah! And when does your lecture end?"

"At nine."

"Before the other thing begins. Of course the lecture is much too instructive to lose, and then there's the fascination of a mile or two in a dirty street-car; but couldn't you look in on us between ten and half-past? The box is small, but I have a great fondness for those kind, good young men. Couldn't you induce one of them--any one at all, of course--to bring you, if he knew there was a place waiting for you both?"

"The gentleman who is going to escort me," began Jane, rising suddenly to a very formal tone, "is--well, in fact, he--he doesn't go out very much," she proceeded, lapsing back into her former manner. "He's kind of quiet and retiring. I don't believe he'd ever go to anything like this."

"Not when he's got a good place offered him--and a nice girl to take, with a brand-new dress of just the right sort to go in? I should want a beau of mine to have a little more spunk than that."

"How can you talk that way?" whimpered Jane, quite quivering with pleasure. "I can't sit here and listen to anything like that. What right"--with a feint of maiden indignation--"what right have you to say that Mr. Br--that anybody is--is my--"

"Beau," supplied Mrs. Bates, serenely. "Beau--that's what I said. Old-fashioned word, I know; but I can't think of a better one."

"You're just dreadful; you are," stammered Jane, trying to withdraw as best she might from too pronounced an attitude of protest. She fingered the length of ravelled bordering that drooped from the hair-cloth cushion of her chair and ran an eye, pretendedly speculative, up and down the pink and green stripes of Mrs. Bates's wall-paper.

"I'm pretty sure he wouldn't go--the gentleman who is to escort me to the lecture," she said, with another return to her vain paraphrase. "He's earnest. He's serious. Besides, he hasn't got a dress-coat."

"Hasn't got a dress-coat?"

"He doesn't approve of them. He thinks they're ugly and foolish and--and not right. He believes that society is--well, not exactly wrong, but--"

"All the same," declared Mrs. Bates, "he will receive a ticket, and I shall contrive to let him know that there's a place waiting for him."

"Oh, no! No, you mustn't! What would he ever think of me?"

"I shall, too."

"No! Don't--please don't. He wouldn't know what to think. He might think that I--"

"I shall, too!" repeated Mrs. Bates, more loudly and stubbornly. "I shall, too!" She knew that anything less marked than this would be a chilling disappointment to the girl before her. "And if he hasn't got a dress-coat, why, he can just get one. I'm sure if a young man cared anything for me--"

"Oh, don't talk that way--please don't!" implored Jane, half hiding her face with a kind of despairing joy. "Don't say such things, I beg of you!"

"--I should expect him to make some little sacrifice for me," Mrs. Bates completed. "Let him come and look at us; we may not be half so bad as he imagines."

"Sacrifice." What a delightful and comforting sound the word had to Jane. It vitalized in a moment all her story-reading of the past ten years. That anybody should ever be moved to make a sacrifice for her!

"But he used to live in the Settlement," persisted Jane; "he used to work there. He doesn't approve of Charity Balls; he thinks that isn't at all the way to do things."

"Well," said Mrs. Bates, thoughtfully, "it's a way; but there are better ones, no doubt. Come, cut that lecture altogether. He could pick up more in half an hour with me there at his elbow than he could learn in half a dozen courses of lectures, however extended they were."

"And have you act as you acted at Rosy's afternoon? You'd paralyze us both." Jane blushed at her "both."

"Oh, that's only my little way," returned Mrs. Bates, laughing. "You'd both understand." Jane blushed again. "A way," she repeated; "but there are better ones, no doubt." And she laughed once more.