Chapter III. Three Men
 

While Mrs. Allen was planning the social pyrotechnics that should dazzle the fashionable world, Edith and Zell were working off their exuberant spirits in the manner described in the last chapter, which was as natural to their city-bred feet as a wild romp is to a country girl.

The brilliant notes of the piano and the rustle of their silks had rendered them oblivious to the fact that the door-bell had rung twice, and that three gentlemen were peering curiously through the half-open door. They were evidently frequent and favored visitors, and had motioned the old colored waiter not to announce them, and he reluctantly obeyed.

For a moment they feasted their eyes on the scene, as the two girls, with twining arms and many innovations on the regular step, whirled through the rooms, and then Zell's quick eye detected them.

Pouncing upon the eldest gentleman of the party, she dragged him from his ambush, while the others also entered. The youngest approached the blushing, panting Edith with an almost boyish confidence of manner, as if assured of a welcome, while the remaining gentleman, who was verging toward middle age, quietly glided to the piano and gave his hand to Laura, who greeted him with a cordiality scarcely to be expected from so stately a young lady.

The laws of affinity and selection were evidently in force here, and as the reader must surmise, long acquaintance had led to the present easy and intimate relations.

"What do you mean," cried Zell, dragging under the gaslight her cavalier, who assumed much penitence and fear, "by thus rudely and abruptly breaking in upon the retirement of three secluded young ladies?"

"At their devotions," added the cynical voice of the gentleman at the piano, who was no other than Mr. Goulden, Laura's admirer.

Zell's attendant threw himself in the attitude of a suppliant and said deprecatingly:

"Nay, but we are astronomers."

"That's a fib, and not a very white one either," she retorted. "I don't believe you ever look toward heaven for anything."

"What need of looking thither for heavenly bodies?" he replied in a low, meaning tone, regarding with undisguised admiration her glowing cheeks. "Moreover, I don't like telescopic distances," he continued, with a half-made motion to put his arm around her waist.

"Come," she said, pirouetting out of his reach, "remember I am no longer a child, I am seventeen to-day."

"Would that you might never be a day older in appearance and feelings!"

"Are you willing to leave me so far behind?" she asked with some maliciousness.

"No, but you would make me a boy again. If old Ponce de Leon had met a Miss Zell, he would soon have forsaken the swamps and alligators of Florida." "Oh, what a watery, scaly compliment! Preferred to swamps and alligators! Who would have believed it?"

"I am not blind to your pretty, wilful blindness. You know I likened you to something too divine and precious to be found on earth."

"Which is still true in the carrying out of your marvellously mixed metaphors. I must lend you my rhetoric book. But as your meaning dawns on me, I see that you are symbolized by old Ponce. I shall look in the history for the age of the ancient Spaniard to-morrow, and then I shall know how old you are, a thing I could never find out."

As with little jets of silvery laughter and with butterfly motion she hovered round him, the very embodiment of life and beautiful youth, she would have made, to an artist's eye, a very true realization of the far-famed mythical fountain.

And yet, as a moment later she confidingly took his arm and strolled toward the library, it was evident that all her flutter and hesitancy, her seeming freedom and mimic show of war, were like those of some bright tropical bird fascinated by a remorseless serpent whose intent eyes and deadly purpose are creating a spell that cannot be resisted.

Mr. Van Dam, upon whose arm she was leaning, was one of the worst products of artificial metropolitan life. He had inherited a name which ancestry had rendered honorable, but which he to the utmost dishonored, and yet so adroitly, so shrewdly respecting fashion's code, though shunning nothing wrong, that he did not lose the entree of the gilded homes of those who called themselves "the best society."

True, it was whispered that he was rather fast, that he played heavily and a trifle too successfully, and that he lived the life of anything but a saint at his luxurious rooms. "But then," continued society, openly and complacently, "he is so fine-looking, so courtly and polished, so well connected, and what is still more to the point, my dear, he is reputed to be immensely wealthy, so we must not heed these rumors. After all, it is the way of these young men of the world."

Thus "the best society" that would have politely frozen out of its parlors the Chevalier Bayard, sans peur et sans reproche, had he not appeared in the latest style, with golden fame rather than golden spurs, welcomed Mr. Van Dam. Indeed, not a few forced exotic belles, who had prematurely developed in the hothouse atmosphere of wealth and extravagance, regarded him as a sort of social lion; and his reticence, with a certain mystery in which he shrouded his evil life, made him all the more fascinating. He was past the prime of life, though exceedingly well preserved, for he was one of those cool, deliberate votaries of pleasure that reduce amusement to a science, and carefully shun all injurious excess. While exceedingly deferential toward the sex in general, and bestowing compliments and attentions as adroitly as a financier would place his money, he at the same time permitted the impression to grow that he was extremely fastidious in his taste, and had never married because it had never been his fortune to meet the faultless being who could satisfy his exacting eyes. Any special and continued admiration on his part therefore made its recipient an object of distinction and envy to very many in the unreal world in which he glided serpent-like, rather than moved as a man. To morbid minds his rumored evil deeds became piquant eccentricities, and the whispers of the oriental orgies that were said to take place in his bachelor apartments made him an object of a curious interest, and many sighed for the opportunity of reforming so distinguished a sybarite.

On Edith's entrance into society he had been much impressed by her beauty, and had gradually grown quite attentive, equally attracted by her father's wealth. But she, though with no clear perception of his character, and with no higher moral standard than that of her set, instinctively shrank from the man. Indeed, in some respects, they were too much alike for that mysterious attraction that so often occurs between opposites. Not that she had his unnatural depravity, but like him she was shrewd, practical, resolute, and was controlled by her judgment rather than by her impulses. Her vanity, of which she had no little share, led her to accept his attentions to a certain point, but the keen man of the world soon saw that his "little game," as in his own vernacular he styled it, would not be successful, and he was the last one to sigh in vain or mope an hour in lovelorn melancholy. While ceasing to press his suit, he continued to be a frequent and familiar visitor at the house, and thus his attention was drawn to Zell, who, though young, had developed early in the stimulating atmosphere in which she lived. At first he petted and played with ner as a child, as she wilfully flitted in and out of the parlors, whether her sisters wanted her or not. He continually brought her bon-bons and like fanciful trifles, till at last, in jest, the family called him Zell's "ancient beau."

But during the past year it had dawned on him that the child he petted on account of her beauty and sprightliness, was rapidly becoming a brilliant woman, who would make a wife far more to his taste than her equally beautiful but matter-of-fact sister. Therefore he warily, so as not to alarm the jealous father, but with all the subtle skill of which he was master, sought to win her affections, knowing that she would have her own way when she knew what way she wanted.

For Zell this unscrupulous man had a peculiar fascination. He petted and flattered her to her heart's content, and thus made her the envy of her young acquaintances, which was incense indeed to her vain little soul. He never lectured or preached to her on account of her follies and nonsense, as her elderly friends usually did, but gave to her wild, impulsive moods free rein. Where a true friend would have cautioned and curbed, he applauded and incited, causing Zell to mistake extravagance in language and boldness in manner for spirit and brilliancy. Laura and Edith often remonstrated with her, but she did not heed them. Indeed, she feared no one save her father, and Mr. Van Dam was propriety itself when he was present, which was but seldom. What with his business, and club, and Mrs. Allen's nerves, the girls were left mainly to themselves.

What wonder that there are so many shipwrecks, when young, heedless, inexperienced hands must steer, unguided, through the most perilous and treacherous of seas?

Mr. Allen's elegant, costly home was literally an unguarded fold, many a laborer, living in a tenement house, doing more to shield his daughters from the evil of the world.

To Mr. Van Dam, Zell was a perfect prize. Though he had sipped at the cup of pleasure so leisurely and systematically, he was getting down to the dregs. His taste was becoming palled, and satiety was burdening him with its leaden weight. But as the child he petted developed daily toward womanhood, he became interested, then fascinated by the process. Her beauty was so brilliant, her excessive sprightliness so contagious, that he felt his sluggish pulses stir and tingle with excitement the moment he came into her presence. Her wild, varying moods kept him constantly on the qui vive, and he would say in confidence to one of his intimate cronies:

"The point is, Hal, she is such a spicy, piquant contrast to the insipid society girls, who have no more individuality than fashion blocks in Broadway windows."

He liked the kittenish young creature all the more because her repartee was often a little cutting. If she had always struck him with a velvet paw, the thing would have grown monotonous, but he occasionally got a scratch that made him wince, cool and brazen as he was. But, after all, he daily saw that he was gaining power over her, and the manner in which the frank-hearted girl took his arm and leaned upon it spoke volumes to the experienced man. While he habitually wore a mask, Zell could conceal nothing, and across her April face flitted her innermost thoughts.

If she had had a mother, she might, even in the wilderness of earth, have become a blossom fit for heavenly gardens, but as it was, her wayward nature, so full of dangerous beauty, was left to run wild.

Edith was beginning to be troubled at Zell's intimacy with Mr. Van Dam, and to conceive a growing dislike for him mingled with suspicion. As for Laura, the eldest, she was like her mother, too much wrapped up in herself to have many thoughts for any one else, and they all regarded Zell as a mere child still. Mr. Allen, who would have been very anxious had Zell been receiving the attentions of some penniless young clerk or artist, laughed at her "flirtation with old Van Dam" as an eminently safe proceeding.

But on the present evening her sisters were too much occupied with their own friends to give Zell or her dangerous admirer much attention. As yet no formal engagement had bound any of them, but an intimacy and mutual liking, tending to such a result, was rapidly growing.

In Edith's case the attraction of contrasts was again shown. Augustus Elliot, the youth who had approached her with such confidence and grace, was quite as stylish a personage as herself, and that was saying a great deal. But every line of his full handsome face, as well as the expression of his light blue eyes, showed that he had less decision in the whole of his luxurious nature than she in her little finger. Self-indulgence and good-natured vanity were unmistakably his characteristics. To yield, not for the good of others, but because not strong enough to stand sturdily alone, was the law of his being. If he could ever have been kept under the influence of good and stronger natures, who would have developed his naturally kind heart and good impulses into something like principle, he might have had a safe and creditable career. But he was the idol of a foolish, fashionable mother, and the pet of two or three sisters who were empty-brained enough to think their handsome brother the perfection of mankind; and by eye, manner, and often the plainest words, they told him as much, and he had at last come to believe them. Why should they not? He was faultless in his own dress, faultless in his criticism of a lady's dress, taking the prevailing fashion as the standard. He was perfectly versed in the polite slang of the day. He scented afar off and announced the slightest change in the mode, so that his elegant sisters could appear on the avenue in advance of the other fashion- plates. As they sailed away on a sunny afternoon in their gorgeous plumage, the envy of many a competing belle, they would say:

"Isn't he a duck of a brother to give us a hint of a change so early? After all there is no eye or taste like that of man when once perfected."

And then they knew him to be equally au fait on the flavor of wines, the points of horses, the merits of every watering-place, and all the other lore which in their world gave pre-eminence. They had been educated to have no other ideal of manhood, and if an earnest, straight forward man, with a purpose, had spoken out before them, they would have regarded him as an uncouth monster.

Notwithstanding all his vanity, "Gus," as he was familiarly called, was a very weak man, and though he would not acknowledge it, even to himself, instinctively recognized the fact. He continually attached himself to strong, resolute natures, by whom, if they were adroit, he could easily be made a tool of. He took a great fancy to Edith from the first hour of their acquaintance, and she soon obtained a strong influence over him. She instinctively detected his yielding disposition, and liked him the better for it, while his good-nature and abundant supply of society talk made him a general favorite.

When every one whispered, "What a handsome couple they would make!" and she found him so looked up to and quoted in the fashionable world, she began to entertain quite an admiration as well as liking for him, though she saw more and more clearly that there was nothing in him that she could lean upon.

Gus's parents, who knew that the Allens were immensely wealthy, urged on the match, but Mr. Allen, aware that the Elliots were living to the extent of their means, discouraged it, plainly telling Edith his reasons.

"But," said Edith, at the same time showing her heart in the practical suggestion, "could not Gus go into business himself?"

"The worst thing he could do," said the keen Mr. Allen. "He has tried it a few times, I have learned, but has not one business qualification. He could not keep himself in toothpicks. His mother and sisters have spoiled him. He is nothing but a society man. Mr. Elliot has not a word to say at home. His business is to make money for them to spend, and a tough time he has to keep up with them. You girls must marry men who can take care of you, unless you wish to support your husbands."

Mr. Allen's verdict was true, and Edith felt that it was. When a boy, Gus could get out of lessons by running to his mother with a plea of headache or any trifle, and in youth he had escaped business in like manner. His father had tried him a few times in his office, but was soon glad to fall in with his wife's opinion, that her son "had too much spirit and refinement for plodding humdrum business, that he was a born gentleman and suited only to elegant leisure," and as his gentleman son only did mischief downtown, the poor over-worked father was glad to have him out of the way, for he with difficulty made both ends meet, as it was. Hoping he would do better with strangers, he had, by personal influence, procured him situations elsewhere, but between the mother's weakness and the young man's confirmed habits of idleness, it always ended by Gus saying to his employers:

"I'm going of on a little trip--by-by," at which they gave a sigh of relief. It had at last become a recognized fact that Gus must marry an heiress, this being about the only way for so fine a gentleman to achieve the fortune that he could not stoop to toil for. As he admired himself complacently in the gilded mirror that ornamented his dressing-room, he felt that a wise selection would be his only difficulty, and though an heiress is something of a rara avis, he sternly resolved to cage one with such heavy golden plumage that even his mother, whom no one satisfied save himself, would give a sigh of perfect content. When at last he met Edith Allen, it seemed as if inclination might happily blend with his lofty sense of duty, and he soon became Edith's devoted and favored attendant. And yet, as we have seen, our heroine was not the sentimental style of girl that falls hopelessly and helplessly in love with a man for some occult reason, not even known to herself, and who mopes and pines till she is permitted to marry him, be he fool, villain, or saint. Edith was fully capable of appreciating and weighing her father's words, and under their influence nearly decided to chill her handsome but helpless admirer into a mere passing acquaintance; but when he next appeared before her in his uniform, as an officer in one of the "crack" city regiments, her eyes, taste, and vanity, and somehow her heart, so pleaded for him that, so far from being an icicle, she smiled on him like a July sun.

But whenever he sought to press his suit into something definite, she evaded and shunned the point, as only a feminine diplomatist can. In fact, Gus, on account of his vanity, was not a very urgent suitor, as the idea of final refusal was preposterous. He regarded himself as virtually accepted already. Meanwhile Edith for once in her life was playing the role of Micawber, and "waiting for something to turn up." And something had, for this trip to Europe would put time and space between them, and gently cure both of their folly, as she deemed it. Folly! She did not realize that Gus regarded himself as acting on sound business principles and a strong sense of duty, as well as obeying the impulses of what heart he had. The sweet approval of conscience and judgment attended his action, while both condemned her.

As Gus approached this evening, she felt a pang of commiseration that not only were they separated by her father's and her own disapproval, but that soon the briny ocean would also be between them, and she was unusually kind. She decided to play with her poor little mouse till the last, and then let absence remedy all. Her mind was quick, if not very profound.

As Mr. Goulden leaned across the corner of the piano, and paid the blushing Laura some delicate compliments, one could not but think of an adroit financier, skilfully placing some money. There was nothing ardent, nothing incoherent and lover-like, in his carefully modulated tones, and nicely selected words that meant much or little, as he might afterward decide. Mr. Goulden always knew what he was about, as truly in a lady's boudoir as in Wall Street. The stately, elegant Laura suited his tastes; her father's financial status had suited him also. But he, who through his agents knew all that was going on in Wall Street, was aware that Mr. Allen had engaged in a very heavy speculation, which, though promising well at the time, might, by some unexpected turn of the wheel, wear a very different aspect. He would see the game through before proceeding with his own, and in the meantime, by judicious attention, hold Laura well in hand.

In that brilliantly lighted parlor none of these currents and counter currents were apparent on the surface. That was like the ripple and sparkle of a summer sea in the sunlight. Every year teaches us something of what is hidden under the fair but treacherous seeming of life.

The young ladies were now satisfied with the company they had, and the gentlemen, as can well be understood, wished no further additions. Therefore they agreed to retire to the library for a game of cards.

"Hannibal," said Edith, summoning the portentous colored butler who presided over the front door and dining-room, "if any one calls, say we are out or engaged."

That solemn dignitary bowed as low as his stiff white collar would permit, but soliloquized:

"I guess I is sumpen too black to tell a white lie, so I'se say dey is engaged."

As the ladies swept away, leaning heavily on the arms of their favored gallants, he added, with a slight grin illumining the gravity of his face, "It looks mighty like it."