The Twenty-Fourth of June by Grace S. Richmond
Chapter VII. A Traitorous Proceeding
"We shall have to make our work count this week, Mr. Kendrick. Next week I anticipate that there will be no chance whatever to do a stroke." So spoke Judge Gray to his assistant on one Monday morning as he shook hands with him in greeting.
"Very well, sir," replied the young man, with, however, a sense of its not being at all well. It was to him a regrettable fact that he seldom saw much of the various members of the household, and of one particular member so little that he was tempted to wonder if she ever took the trouble to evade him. But, of course, there was always the chance of an encounter, and he never opened the house door without the feeling that just inside might be a certain figure on its way out.
"Next week is Christmas week," explained Judge Gray. He stood upon the hearth-rug, his back to the open fire, warming his hands preparatory to taking up his pen. His fingers were apt to be a little stiff on these December mornings. "During Christmas week this house is always given over to such holiday doings as I don't imagine another house in town ever knows. Christmas house-parties are plenty, I believe, but not the sort of house-party we indulge in. I am inclined to think ours beats the world."
He chuckled, running his hand through the thick white locks above his brow with a gesture which Richard had come to know meant special satisfaction.
"You have so many and such delightful people?" suggested his assistant.
The white head nodded. "The house would hardly hold more, nor could they be more delightful. You see, there are five brothers of us. I am the eldest, Robert the youngest. Rufus, Henry, and Philip come between. Henry and Philip live in small towns, Rufus in the country proper. Each has a good-sized family, with several married sons and daughters who have children of their own. It has been my brother Robert's custom for twenty years to ask them all here for Christmas week." He began to laugh. "If the family keeps on growing much larger I don't know that there will be room to accommodate them all, but so far my sister has always managed. Fortunately this is an even more roomy old homestead than it looks. But you may easily imagine, Mr. Kendrick, that there is very little chance for solitude and quiet work during that week."
"I can fully imagine," agreed Richard. "And yet I can't imagine," he amended. "I never saw such a gathering in my life."
"Never did, eh? You must come in some time during the week and get a glimpse of it. We have fine times, I can tell you. My old head sometimes whirls a bit," the Judge admitted, "before the week is over, but--it's worth it. Particularly on the night of the party. The children always have a party on Christmas Eve in the attic. It's a great affair. No dancing-parties nor balls in other places can be mentioned in the same breath with it. You should see brother Rufus taking out my niece Roberta, and brother Henry dancing with Stephen's little wife. The girls accommodate themselves to the old-fashioned steps in great style."
"I certainly should like to see it," Richard said, wondering if there were any possible chance of his being invited.
But Judge Gray offered no suggestion of the sort, and Richard made up his mind that the Christmas Eve dance would be a strictly family affair. "Probably the country relatives are a queer lot," he decided, "and the Grays don't care to show them off. Still--that's not like them, either. It's certainly like them to do such an eccentric thing as to get their cousins all here and try to give them a good time. I should like to see it. I should!"
He found his thoughts wandering many times during the morning's work to the image of Roberta dancing with the old uncle from the country. He had never met her at any of the society dances which were now and then honoured by his presence. Unquestionably the Grays moved in a circle with which he was not familiar--a circle made up of people distinguished rather for their good birth and the things which they had done than for their wealth. Nobody in the city stood upon a higher social level than the Grays, but they lived in a world in which the gay and fashionable set Richard knew were totally unknown and unhonoured.
The more he thought about it the more he wished that, if only for a week, he were at least a sixteenth cousin of the Gray family, that he might be present at that Christmas party. But during the week chance did not even throw him in the way of meeting the various members of the family proper, and when Saturday night came he had discovered no prospect of attaining his wish. He knew that the guests were to arrive on the following Monday. Christmas Day was on Saturday; the night of the party then would be Friday night. And the Judge, in taking leave of him, did not even mention again his wish that Richard might see the guests together.
He was coming out of the library, on his way to the hall door, hope having died hard and his spirits being correspondingly depressed, when Fate at last intervened in his behalf. Fate took the form of young Mrs. Stephen Gray, descending the stairs with a two-year-old child in her arms, such a rosy, brown-eyed cherub of a child that an older and more hardened bachelor than Richard Kendrick need not have been suspected of dissimulation if he had stopped short in his course as Richard did, to admire and wonder.
"Is that a real, live boy?" cried the young man softly. "Or have you stolen him out of a frame somewhere?"
Mrs. Stephen stood still, smiling, on the bottom stair, and Richard approached with eager interest. He came close and stood looking into the small face with eyes which took in every exquisite feature.
"Jove!" he said, under his breath, and looked up at the young mother. "I didn't know they made them like that."
She laughed softly, with a mother's happy pride. "His little sister really ought to have had his looks," she said. "But we're hoping she'll develop them, and he'll grow plain in time to save him from being spoiled."
"Do you really hope that?" he laughed incredulously. "Don't hope it too fast. See here, Boy, are you real? Come here and let me see." He held out his arms.
"He's very shy," began Mrs. Stephen in explanation of the situation she now expected to have develop. It did develop in so far that the child shyly buried his head in her shoulder. But in a moment he peeped out again. Richard continued to hold out his arms, smiling, and suddenly the little fellow leaned forward. Richard gently drew him away from his mother, and, though he looked back at her as if to make sure that she was there, he presently seemed to surrender himself with confidence into the stranger's care and gave him back smile for smile.
Richard sat down with little Gordon Gray on his knee, and then ensued such a conversation between the two, such a frolic of games and smiles, as his mother could only regard in wonder.
"He never makes friends easily," she said. "I can't understand it. You must have had plenty of experience with little children somehow, in spite of those statements about your never having seen a family like ours before."
"I never held a child like this one before in my life," said Richard Kendrick. He looked up at her as he spoke.
"If Roberta could see him now," thought Mrs. Stephen, "she wouldn't be so hard on him. No man who isn't worth knowing can win a baby's confidence like that. I think he has one of the nicest faces I ever saw--even though it isn't lined with care." Aloud she said: "It surprises me that you should care to begin now."
"It's one of those new experiences I'm getting from time to time under this roof; that's the only way I can account for it. I never even guessed at the pleasure of making the acquaintance of a small chap like this. But I've no right to keep you while I taste new experiences. Thank you for this one. I shan't forget it."
He surrendered the boy with evident reluctance. "I hear you are to have a houseful of guests next week," he ventured to add. "Do they include any first cousins of this little man?"
"Two--of his own age--and any number of older ones. I'll take you up to the playroom some afternoon next week and show you the babies together, if you're interested, and if Uncle Calvin will let me interrupt his work for a few minutes."
"Thank you; I'll gladly come to the house for that special purpose, if you'll let me know when. Judge Gray has decided not to try to work at all next week; he's giving me a holiday I really don't want."
"Are you so interested in your labours with him?"
Their eyes met. There was something very sweet and womanly in Mrs. Stephen's face and in the eyes which scanned his, or he would never have dared to say what he said next.
"Not in the work itself," he confessed frankly, "though I don't find it as hard as I did at first. But--the association with Judge Gray, the--well, I suppose it's really having something definite to do with my time. Above all, just being in this house, though I don't belong to it, is getting to seem so interesting to me that I'm afraid I shall hardly know what to do with myself all next week."
She could not doubt the genuineness of his admission, strange as it sounded. So the young aristocrat was really dreading a week's vacation, he who had done nothing but idle away his time. She felt a touch of pity for him; yet how absurd it was!
"I wish you could meet some of the people who will be here next week," she said. "I wonder if you would care to?"
"If they're anything like those of the Gray family, I already know I should care immensely." He spoke with enthusiasm.
"I think some of them are the most interesting people I have ever met. My husband's Uncle Rufus, Judge Gray's brother--why, you must meet Uncle Rufus. I'll speak to Mrs. Robert Gray about it. I'm sure if she thought you cared she'd be delighted to have you know him. Then there's the Christmas Eve dance. I wonder if you would enjoy that? We don't usually have many people outside of the family, but there are always some of Rob's and Louis's special friends asked for the dance, and I'm sure I can arrange it. I'll mention it to Roberta."
"Must it--er--rest with Miss Roberta? I'm afraid she won't ask me," declared Richard anxiously.
"Won't she? Why? She will probably say that she doesn't believe you will enjoy it, but if I assure her that you want to come I think she will trust me. She's very exacting as to the qualifications of the guests at this dance, and will have nobody who isn't ready for a good time in every unconventional way. I warn you, Mr. Kendrick, who are used to leading cotillions, you may have to dance the Virginia reel with one of the dear little country cousins. I wonder if you will have the discernment to see that some of them are better worth meeting than a good many of the girls you probably know."
She gave him a keen, analyzing look. Small and sweet as she was, clearly she belonged to this singular Gray family as if she had been born in it. He met her look unflinchingly. Then his glance fell to little Gordon.
"You trusted me with the boy," said he. "I think you may trust me with the little country cousin--if she will do me the honour."
"I will see that you have the chance," she assured him, and he went away feeling like a boy who has been promised a long-desired and despaired-of treat.
But it was not of the Virginia reel he was thinking as he went swinging away down the wintry street.
* * * * *
They were sitting, most of them, before the living-room fire, discussing the plans for the week of the house-party, when Rosamond broke the news.
"I've taken a great liberty," said she serenely, "for which I hope you'll all forgive me. I've--tentatively--promised Mr. Kendrick an invitation to the Christmas dance."
There was a shout from Louis and Ted together. Ruth beamed with delight. Across the fireplace Roberta shot at her sister-in-law one rebellious glance.
"I knew I had no right to do it," admitted Rosamond gayly. "But I knew we always asked a few young people to swell the company to the dancing size, and I was sure you couldn't ask anybody who would appreciate it more."
"Hasn't the poor fellow a chance at any other merry-making?" mocked Louis. "Poor little millionaire! Won't anybody invite him to lead a Christmas Eve cotillion? I believe there's to be a most gorgeous affair of the sort at Mrs. Van Tassel Grieve's that night. Has he been inadvertently overlooked? Not with Miss Gladys Grieve to oversee the list of the lucky ones, I'll wager. It's a wonder he hadn't accepted that invitation before you got in yours."
"I didn't get mine in," was Rosamond's demure rejoinder. "I laid it in an humbly beseeching hand."
"How on earth did he know there was to be a dance here?" Stephen inquired.
"I mentioned it."
"I had already told him of it," put in Judge Gray from the background, where he was listening with interest. "I'm glad you asked him, Rosamond, and I'll answer for your forgiveness. While you are inviting I should like to invite his grandfather also. Christmas Eve is a lonely time for him, I'll be bound, and it would do him good to meet Rufus and Phil, and the rest again."
"I'll tell you what we're going to end by being," murmured Louis to Roberta:--"a 'Discontented Millionaires' Home.'"
* * * * *
On the stairs an hour afterward a brief but significant colloquy took place between Rosamond Gray and her sister-in-law, Roberta.
"Why do you mind having him come, Rob? Haven't you any charity for the poor at Christmas time?"
"Poor! He's poor enough, but he doesn't know it."
"Doesn't he? The night he was here at dinner he told me he felt poor." Rosamond's look was triumphant. "He feels it very much; he's never known what family life meant."
"Do you imagine he can adapt himself to the conditions of the Christmas party? If I catch him laughing--ever so covertly--I'll send him home!"
"You savage person! You don't expect to catch him laughing! He's a gentleman. And I believe he's enough of a man to appreciate the aunts and uncles and cousins, even those of them who don't patronize city tailors and dressmakers. Why, they're perfectly delightful people, every one of them, and he will have the discernment to see it."
"I don't believe it. Where have you seen him that you have so much more confidence than I have?"
"I've had one or two little talks with him that have told me a good deal. And this afternoon he met me as I was coming downstairs with Gordon. Rob, what do you think? Gordon went to him exactly as he goes to Stephen; they had the greatest time. Gordon knows better than you do whom to trust."
"You and Gordon are very discerning. A handsome face and a wheedling manner--and you think you have a fine, strong character. Handsome is as handsome does, Rosy Gray of the soft heart, and a wheedling manner is dust and ashes compared with the ability to accomplish something worth effort. But--bring your nice young man to the party if you like; only take care of him. I shall be busy with the real men!"