Chapter X. Opinions and Theories
 

Mr. and Mrs. Rufus Gray were the last to leave the city, after the house-party. They returned to their brother Robert's home for a day, when the other guests had gone, and it was on the evening before their departure that they related their experiences while at the house of Matthew Kendrick. With most of the members of the Gray household, they were sitting before the fire in the living-room when Aunt Ruth suddenly spoke her mind.

"I don't know when I've felt so sorry for the too rich as I felt in that house," said she. She was knitting a gray silk mitten, and her needles were flying.

"Why, Aunt Ruth?" inquired her nephew Louis, who sat next her, revelling in the comfort of home after a particularly harassing day at the office. "Did they seem to lack anything in particular?"

"I should say they did," she replied. "Nothing that money can buy, of course, but about everything that it can't."

"For instance?" he pursued, turning affectionate eyes upon his aunt's small figure in its gray gown, as the firelight played upon it, touching her abundant silvering locks and making her eyes seem to sparkle almost as brilliantly as her swiftly moving needles.

Aunt Ruth put down her knitting for an instant, looking at her nephew. "Why, you know," said she. "You're sitting in the very middle of it this minute!"

Louis looked about him, smiling. He was, indeed, in the midst of an accustomed scene of both home-likeness and beauty. The living-room was of such generous proportions that even when the entire family were gathered there they could not crowd it. On a wide couch, at one side of the fireplace, sat his father and mother, talking in low tones concerning some matter of evident interest, to judge by their intent faces. Rosamond, like the girl she resembled, sat, girl fashion, on a pile of cushions close by the fire; and Stephen, her husband, not far away, by a table with a drop-light, was absorbed in a book. Uncle Rufus was examining a pile of photographs on the other side of the table. Ted sprawled on a couch at the far end of the room, deep in a boy's magazine, a reading light at his elbow. At the opposite end of the room, where the piano stood, Roberta, music rack before her, was drawing her bow across nearly noiseless strings, while Ruth picked softly at her harp: indications of intention to burst forth into musical strains when a hush should chance to fall upon the company.

Judge Calvin Gray alone was absent from the gathering, and even as Louis's eyes wandered about the pleasant room, his uncle's figure appeared in the doorway. As if he were answering his sister Ruth, Judge Gray spoke his thought.

"I wonder," said he, advancing toward the fireside, "if anywhere in this wide world there is a happier family life than this!"

Louis sprang up to offer Judge Gray the chair he had been occupying--a favourite, luxuriously cushioned armchair, with a reading light beside it ready to be switched on at will, which was Uncle Calvin's special treasure, of an evening. Louis himself took up his position on the hearth-rug, opposite Rosamond.

Aunt Ruth answered her brother energetically: "None happier, Calvin, I'll warrant, and few half as happy. I can't help wishing those two people Rufus and I've been visiting could look in here just now."

"Why make them envious?" suggested Louis, who loved to hear his Aunt Ruth's crisp speeches.

"The question is--would they be envious?" This came from Stephen, whose absorption in his book evidently admitted of penetration from the outside.

"Why, of course they would!" declared Aunt Ruth. "You should have seen the way they had me pour the coffee and tea, all the while I was there. That young man Richard was always getting me to pour something--said he liked to see me do it. And he was always sending a servant off and doing things for me himself. If I'd been a young girl he couldn't have hovered round any more devotedly."

A general laugh greeted this, for Aunt Ruth's expression of face as she told it was provocative.

"We can readily believe that, Ruth," declared Judge Gray, and his brother Robert nodded. The low-voiced talk between Mr. Robert Gray and his wife had ceased; Stephen had laid down his book; Ruth had stopped plucking at her harp strings; and only Roberta still seemed interested in anything but Aunt Ruth and her experiences and opinions.

"I mended his socks and gloves for him," announced Aunt Ruth contentedly. "You needn't tell me they don't miss a woman's hand about the house, over there."

"She mended Rich Kendrick's socks and gloves!" murmured Louis, with a laughing, incredulous glance at Rosamond, who lifted delighted eyes to him. "I can't believe it. He must have made holes in them on purpose."

"Why, not even a spendthrift would do that!" Aunt Ruth promptly denied the possibility of such folly. "I don't say but they are lavish with things there. Rufus and I were a good deal bothered by all their lights. We couldn't seem to get them all put out. And every time we put them out, anywhere, somebody'd turn them on again for us."

Uncle Rufus broke in here, narrating their experience with the various switch-buttons in the suite of rooms, and the company laughed until they wept over his comments.

"But all that's neither here nor there," said he, finally. "Of course we weren't up to such elaborate arrangements, and it made us feel sort of rustic. But I can tell you they didn't spare any pains to make us comfortable and at home--if, as Ruth says, you can make anybody feel at home in a great place like that. I feel, as she does, sorry for 'em both. They're pretty fine gentlemen, if I'm any judge, and I don't know which I like better, the older or the younger."

"There can be no question about the older," said his brother, Robert Gray, joining in the talk with evident interest. "Mr. Matthew Kendrick made his place long ago in the business world as one of the great and just. He has taught that world many fine lessons of truth and honour, as well as of success."

Judge Gray nodded. "I'm glad to hear that you appreciate him, Robert," said he. "Few know better than I how deserved that is. And still fewer recognize the fine and sensitive nature behind the impression of power he has always given. He is the type of man, as sister Ruth here is quick to discern, who must be lonely in the midst of his great wealth, for the lack of just such a privilege as this we have here to-night, the close association with people whom we love, and with whom we sympathize in all that matters most. Matthew Kendrick was a devoted husband and father. In spite of his grandson's presence, of late, he must sorely long for companionship."

"His grandson's going to give him more of that than he has," declared Aunt Ruth, smiling over her knitting as if recalling a pleasant memory. "He and I had quite a bit of talk while I was there, and he's beginning to realize that he owes his grandfather more than he's given him. I had a good chance to see what was in that boy's heart, and I know there's plenty of warmth there. And there's real character in him, too. I've had enough sons of my own to know the signs, and the fact that they were poor in this world's goods, and he is rich--too rich--doesn't make a mite of difference in the signs!"

Mrs. Robert Gray, who had been listening with an intent expression in eyes whose beauty was not more appealing than their power of observation was keen, now spoke, and all turned to her. She was a woman whose opinion on any subject of common interest was always waited for and attended upon. Her voice was rich and low--her family did not fully know how dear to their ears was the sound of that voice.

"Young Mr. Kendrick," said she, "couldn't wish, Ruth, for a more powerful advocate than you. To have you approve him, after seeing him under more intimate circumstances than we are likely to do, must commend him to our good will. To tell the frank truth, I have been rather afraid to admit him to my good graces, lest there be really no great force of character, or even promise of it, behind that handsome face and winning manner. But if you see the signs--as you say--we must look more hopefully upon him."

"She's not the only one who sees signs," asserted Judge Gray. "He's coming on--he's coming on well, in his work with me. He's learning really to work. I admit he didn't know how when he came to me. Something has waked him up. I'm inclined to think," he went on, with a mischievous glance toward the end of the room where sat the noiseless musicians, "it might have been my niece Roberta's shining example of industry when she spent a day with us in my library, typing work for me back in October. Never was such a sight to serve as an inspiration for a laggardly young man!"

There was a general laugh, and all eyes were turned toward that end of the room devoted to the users of the musical instruments. In response came a deep, resonant note from Roberta's 'cello, over which the silent bow had been for some time suspended. There followed a minor scale, descending well into the depths and vibrating dismally as it went. Louis, a mocking light in his eye, strolled down the room to his sisters.

"That's the way you feel about it, eh?" he queried, regarding Roberta with brotherly interest. "Consigning the poor, innocent chap to the bottom of the ladder, when he's doing his best to climb up to the sunshine of your smile. Have you no respect for the opinion of your betters?"

"Get out your fiddle and play the Grieg Danse Caprice, with us," was her reply, and Louis obeyed, though not without a word or two more in her ear which made her lift her bow threateningly. Presently the trio were off, playing with a spirit and dash which drew all ears, and at the close of the Danse hearty applause called for more. After this diversion, naturally enough, new subjects came up for discussion.

Returning to the living-room in search of a dropped letter, after the family had dispersed for the night, Roberta found her mother lingering there alone. She had drawn a low chair close to the fire, and, having extinguished all other lights, was sitting quietly looking into the still glowing embers. Roberta, forgetting her quest, came close, and flinging a cushion at her mother's knee dropped down there. This was a frequent happening, and the most intimate hours the two spent together were after this fashion.

There was no speech for a little, though Mrs. Gray's hand wandered caressingly about her daughter's neck in a way Roberta dearly loved, drawing the loosened dark locks away from the small ears, or twisting a curly strand about her fingers. Suddenly the girl burst out:

"Mother, what are you to do when you find all your theories upset?"

"All upset?" repeated Mrs. Gray, in her rich and quiet voice. "That would be a calamity indeed. Surely there must be one or two of yours remaining stable?"

"It seems not, just now. One disproved overturns another. They all hinge on one another--at least mine do."

"Perhaps not as closely as you think. What is it, dear? Can you tell me anything about it?"

"Not much, I'm afraid. Oh, it's nothing very real, I suppose--just a sort of vague discomfort at feeling that certain ideals I thought were as fixed as the stars in the heavens seem to be wobbling as if they might shoot downward any minute, and--and leave only a trail of light behind!"

The last words came on a note of rather shaky laughter. Roberta's arm lay across her mother's knee, her head upon it. She turned her head downward for an instant, burying her face in the angle of her arm. Mrs. Gray regarded the mass of dark locks beneath her hand with a look amused yet sympathetic.

"That sort of discomfort attacks us all, at times," she said. "Ideals change and develop with our growth. One would not want the same ones to serve her all her life."

"I know. But when it's not a new and better ideal which displaces the old one, but only--an attraction--"

"An attraction not ideal?"

Roberta shook her head. "I'm afraid not. And I don't see why it should be an attraction at all. It ought not to be, if my ideals have been what they should have been. And they have. Why, you gave them to me, mother, many of them--or at least helped me to work them out for myself. And I--I had confidence in them!"

"And they're shaken?"

"Not the ideals--they're all the same. Only--they don't seem to be proof against--assault. Oh, I'm talking in riddles, I know. I don't want to put any of it into words, it makes it seem more real. And it's only a shadowy sort of difficulty. Maybe that's all it will be."

Mothers are wonderful at divination; why should they not be, when all their task is a training in understanding young natures which do not understand themselves. From these halting phrases of mystery Mrs. Gray gathered much more than her daughter would have imagined. But she did not let that be seen.

"If it is only a shadowy difficulty the rising of the sun will put it to flight," she predicted.

Roberta was silent for a space. Then suddenly she sat up.

"I had a long letter from Forbes Westcott to-day," she said, in a tone which tried to be casual. "He's staying on in London, getting material for that difficult Letchworth case he's so anxious to win. It's a wonderfully interesting letter, though he doesn't say much about the case. He's one of the cleverest letter writers I ever knew--in the flesh. It's really an art with him. If he hadn't made a lawyer of himself he would have been a man of letters, his literary tastes are so fine. It's quite an education in the use of delightfully spirited English, a correspondence with him. I've appreciated that more with each letter."

She produced the letter. "Just listen to this account of an interview he had with a distinguished Member of Parliament, the one who has just made that daring speech in the House that set everybody on fire." And she read aloud from several closely written pages, holding the sheets toward the still bright embers, and giving the words the benefit of her own clear and understanding interpretation. Her mother listened with interest.

"That is, indeed, a fine description," she agreed. "There is no question that Forbes has a brilliant mind. The position he already occupies testifies to that, and the older men all acknowledge that he is rising more rapidly than could be expected of any ordinary man. He will be one of the great men of the legal profession, your father and uncle think, I know."

"One of the great men," repeated Roberta, her face still bent over her letter. "I suppose there's no doubt at all of that. And, mother--you may imagine that when he sets himself to persuade--any one--to--any course, he knows how to put it as irresistibly as words can."

"Yes, I should imagine that, dear," said her mother, her eyes on the down-bent profile, whose outlines, against the background of the firelight, would have held a gaze less loving than her own.

"His age makes him interesting, you know," pursued Roberta. "He's just enough older--and maturer--than any of the men I know, to make him seem immensely more worth while. His very looks--that thin, keen face of his--it's plain, yet attractive, and his eyes look as if they could see through stone walls. It flatters you to have him seem to find the things you say worth listening to. I can't just explain his peculiar--fascination--I really think it is that, except that it's his splendid mind that grips yours, somehow. Oh, I sound like a, schoolgirl," she burst out, "in spite of my twenty-four years. I wonder if you see what I mean."

"I think I do," said her mother, smiling a little. "You mean that your judgment approves him, but that your heart lags a little behind?"

"How did you know?" Roberta folded her arms upon her mother's lap, and looked up eagerly into her face. "I didn't say anything about my heart."

"But you did, dear. The very fact that you can discuss him so coolly tells me that your heart isn't seriously involved as yet. Is it?"

"That's what I don't know," said the girl. "When he writes like this--the last two pages I can't read to you--I don't know what I think. And I'm not used to not knowing what I think! It's disconcerting. It's like being taken off your feet and--not set down again. Yet, when I'm with him--I'm not at all sure I should ever want him nearer than--well, than three feet away. And he's so insistent--persistent. He wants an answer--now, by mail."

"Are you ready to give it?"

"No. I'm afraid to give it--at long distance."

"Then do not. You are under no obligation to do that. The test of actual presence is the only one to apply. Let him wait till he comes home. It will not hurt him."

She spoke with spirit, and her daughter responded to the tone.

"I know that's the best advice," Roberta said, getting to her feet. "Mother, you like him?"

"Yes, I have always liked Forbes," said Mrs. Gray, with cordiality. "Your father likes him, and trusts him, as a man of honour, in his profession. That is much to say. Whether he is a man who would make you happy--that is a different question. No one can answer that but yourself."

"I haven't wanted any one to make me happy." Roberta stood upon the hearth-rug, a figure of charm among the lights and shadows. "I've been absorbed in my work--and my play. I enjoy my men friends--and am glad when they go away and leave me. Life is so full--and rich--just of itself. There are so many wonderful people, of all sorts. The world is so interesting--and home is so dear!" She lifted her arms, her head up. "Mother, let's play the Bach Air," she said. "That always takes the fever out of me, and makes me feel calm and rational. Is it very late?--are you too tired? Nobody will be disturbed at this distance."

"I should love to play it," said Mrs. Gray, and together the two went down the room to the great piano which stood there in the darkness. Roberta switched on one hooded light, produced the music for her mother, and tuned her 'cello, sitting at one side away from the light, with no notes before her. Presently the slow, deep, and majestic notes of the "Air for the G String" were vibrating through the quiet room, the 'cello player drawing her bow across and across the one string with affection for each rich note in her very touch. The other string tones followed her with exquisite sympathy, for Mrs. Gray was a musician from whom three of her four children had inherited an intense love for harmonic values.

But a few bars had sounded when a tall figure came noiselessly into the room, and Mr. Robert Gray dropped into the seat before the fire which his wife had lately occupied. With head thrown back he listened, and when silence fell at the close of the performance, his deep voice was the first to break it.

"To me," he said, "that is the slow flowing and receding of waves upon a smooth and rocky shore. The sky is gray, but the atmosphere is warm and friendly. It is all very restful, after a day of perturbation."

"Oh, is it like that to you?" queried Roberta softly, out of the darkness. "To me it's as if I were walking down the nave of a great cathedral--Westminster, perhaps--big and bare and wonderful, with the organ playing ever so far away. The sun is shining outside and so it's not gloomy, only very peaceful, and one can't imagine the world at the doors." She looked over at her mother, whose face was just visible in the shaded light. "What is it to you, lovely lady?"

"It is a prayer," said her mother slowly, "a prayer for peace and purity in a restless world, yet a prayer for service, too. The one who prays lies very low, with his face concealed, and his spirit is full of worship."

The light was put out; the three, father, mother, and daughter, came together in the fading fire-glow. Roberta laid a warm young hand upon the shoulder of each. "You dears," she said, "what fortunate and happy children your four are, to be the children of you!"

Her father placed his firm fingers under her chin, lifting her face. "Your mother and I," said he, "consider ourselves fairly fortunate and happy to be the parents of you. You are an interesting quartette. 'Age cannot wither nor custom stale' your 'infinite variety.' But age will wither you if you often sit up to play Bach at midnight, when you must teach school next day. Therefore, good-night, Namesake!"

Yet when she had gone, her father and mother lingered by the last embers of the fire.

"God give her wisdom!" said Roberta's mother.

"He will--with you to ask Him," replied Roberta's father, with his arms about his wife. "I think He never refuses you anything! I don't see how He could!"