Book III
Chapter XIV
 

I

Alexina went up to Joan's room to remain until the gong sounded for luncheon, when she drifted down innocently and kissed the somewhat furtive-looking Maria, who was in chaste duck and fresh from a bath.

"So glad to see you, darling," she murmured almost effusively. "I hope you haven't waited long. A number of my friends have a lesson every Thursday morning, and meet at one house or another."

"Irregular French verbs, I suppose. So fascinating, and one does forget so. I thought I'd never brush up my French."

Not for anything would she have forced Maria into the most innocent equivocation, and she rattled on about her wonderful summer as people are expected to do after their first visit to Europe.

No time could have been more propitious for this necessary understanding with Maria, who was feeling amiable, apologetic, as limber as Joan, and almost as warm. She had also lost two-thirds of a pound.

II

Alexina began as soon as Joan left them alone on the shady side of the wide piazza.

"I have a lot of things to tell you," she said nervously. "I have to make certain economies and I want the benefit of your advice."

Mrs. Abbott looked up from her embroidery. "Of course, darling. I was afraid you were going a little too fast for young people."

"That is not it. I always managed well enough....You know we've never gone the limit: polo at Burlingame and Monterey, gambling, big parties and all the rest of it. I've never run into debt or spent any of my capital. But..."

Maria began to feel anxious and took off the large round shell-rimmed spectacles that enlarged stitches and print. "Yes?"

"You know I had bonds--about forty thousand dollars' worth--those that mother left: I spent those that Ballinger and Geary gave me on the house and one thing and another."

"Yes?" Mrs. Abbott was now alarmed. She had a very keen sense of the value of money, like most persons that have inherited it, and was extremely conservative in its use.

"Well, you see, I thought I saw a chance to treble it--we never really had enough--and I speculated and lost it."

Alexina was a passionate lover of the truth, but she could always lie like a gentleman.

Maria Abbott readjusted her spectacles and took a stitch or two in her linen. She was aghast and did not care to speak for a moment. She was no fool and Tom had told her that Mortimer had changed his business and might bluff the street, but could never bluff him. She knew quite as well as if Alexina had confessed it that Mortimer had lost the money, either in his business or in stocks; although of course she was far from suspecting the whole truth.

III

"That is dreadful," she said finally. "I wish you had consulted Tom. He understands stocks as he does everything else."

"I thought I had the best tips. However--the thing is done, and the point is that I must make great changes. Mortimer is not making as much as he was, either; he came to the conclusion that he couldn't get anywhere in that business on so small a capital, and has gone into real estate. It will be some time before he makes enough to keep things going in the old way. I made all my plans last night and came down to ask you if you could take James. He has been with us so long; I can't let him go to strangers. Then I shall turn out all those high-priced servants and get a woman to do general housework. Alice says her aunt always gets green ones from an agency and breaks them in. They are quite cheap. I shall help her, of course, and if she doesn't know much about cooking I know a little and can learn more. I shall shut up the big drawing-room, put everything into moth balls, and give out that the doctor has ordered me to rest this winter, to go to bed every night at eight. That will stop people coming up three or four times a week to dance. And I can sell the new clothes I brought from Paris and New York to Polly Roberts. She's just my height and weight. Of course I must tell the girls the truth--that I'm economizing; but wild horses wouldn't drag it out of them. I don't care tuppence, but Morty says it would hurt his business. I rather like the idea of working. I'm tired of the old round, and would like to get a job if Morty wasn't so opposed--says it would ruin him."

"I should think so. At least let us wash our dirty linen at home....I have been thinking while you talked. I've only spent two whole winters in town since I married, end I've always thought I'd love to live in the old house. I've rather envied you, Alexina, dear...it is so full of happy memories for me. I did have such a good time as a girl...such a good, simple time....I'm wondering if Tom wouldn't rent it for the winter and spring. He's been doing splendidly these last two or three years, and he owned some of the property west of Twin Peaks that is building up so fast. I know he sold it for quite a lot....And I sometimes wonder if he doesn't get as tired of living in the same place year after year as I do. He could play golf at the Ingleside....I am sure he will....It would be the very best thing all round. Then we could run the house, and you and Mortimer would pay something--never mind what....People would think it was the other way, if they thought anything about it. Families often double up in that fashion."

"Maria! I can't believe it. It would be too perfect a solution, provided of course that we pay all we cost. I should insist upon keeping the slips as usual. You are an angel."

"We Groomes and Ballingers always stand by one another, don't we? The Abbotts, too. Besides, it will certainly be no sacrifice on any of our parts. It will mean a great deal to me to spend six months in town, and I know that Tom has grown as tired of motoring back and forth every day as be used to be of the train."

"It will be heavenly just having you." Alexina spoke with perfect sincerity. She had not faltered before the prospect of work, but that of Mortimer's society unrelieved for an indefinite time had filled her with something like panic. It had been the one test of her powers of endurance of which she had not felt assured.

"That will give us time, too, to get on our feet again. Morty is very hopeful of this new business. I shall go out very little, and as Joan will be the natural center of attraction it will be understood that her friends, not mine, have the run of the house."

Maria nodded. "It's just the thing for Joan. Really a godsend. She worries me more than all three of the boys. They are east at school for the winter and of course don't come home for the Christmas holidays. If you want to be housekeeper you may. I don't know anything I should like better than a rest from ordering dinner, after all these years."

"Perfect! I'll also take care of my room and Morty's. Then I'd be sure I wasn't really imposing on you. You're a dead game sport, Maria, and I'd like to drink your health."