Volume I
Chapter III
 

The telephone was downstairs, in the rear end of the hall which divided the lower floor into two equal parts. But hardly had Mrs. Warham given the Sinclairs' number to the exchange girl when Ruth called from the head of the stairs:

"What're you doing there, mamma?"

"I'll tell Mrs. Sinclair you're sick and can't come. Then I'll send Susan in your place."

"Don't!" cried Ruth, in an agitated, angry voice. "Ring off--quick!"

"Now, Ruth, let me----"

"Ring off!" ordered Ruth. "You mustn't do that. You'll have the whole town talking about how I'm throwing myself at Sam's head--and that I'm jealous of Susan."

Mrs. Warham said, "Never mind" into the telephone sender and hung up the receiver. She was frightened, but not convinced. Hers was a slow, old-fashioned mind, and to it the scheme it had worked out seemed a model of skillful duplicity. But Ruth, of the younger and subtler generation, realized instantly how transparent the thing was. Mrs. Warham was abashed but not angered by her daughter's curt contempt.

"It's the only way I can think of," said she. "And I still don't see----"

"Of course you don't," cut in Ruth, ruffled by the perilously narrow escape from being the laughing stock of the town. "People aren't as big fools as they used to be, mamma. They don't believe nowadays everything that's told them. There isn't anybody that doesn't know I'm never sick. No--we'll have to----"

She reflected a moment, pausing halfway down the stairs, while her mother watched her swollen and tear-stained face.

"We might send Susan away for the evening," suggested the mother.

"Yes," assented the daughter. "Papa could take her with him for a drive to North Sutherland--to see the Provosts. Then Sam'd come straight on to the Sinclairs'."

"I'll call up your father."

"No!" cried Ruth, stamping her foot. "Call up Mr. Provost, and tell him papa's coming. Then you can talk with papa when he gets home to dinner."

"But maybe----"

"If that doesn't work out we can do something else this afternoon."

The mother and the daughter avoided each other's eyes. Both felt mean and small, guilty toward Susan; but neither was for that reason disposed to draw back. As Mrs. Warham was trying the new dress on her daughter, she said:

"Anyhow, Sam'd be wasting time on Susan. He'd hang round her for no good. She'd simply get talked about. The poor child can't be lively or smile but what people begin to wonder if she's going the way of--of Lorella."

"That's so," agreed Ruth, and both felt better. "Was Aunt Lorella very pretty, mamma?"

"Lovely!" replied Fanny, and her eyes grew tender, for she had adored Lorella. "You never saw such a complexion--like Susan's, only snow-white." Nervously and hastily, "Most as fine as yours, Ruthie."

Ruth gazed complacently into the mirror. "I'm glad I'm fair, and not big," said she.

"Yes, indeed! I like the womanly woman. And so do men."

"Don't you think we ought to send Susan away to visit somewhere?" asked Ruth at the next opportunity for talk the fitting gave. "It's getting more and more--pointed--the way people act. And she's so sweet and good, I'd hate to have her feelings hurt." In a burst of generosity, "She's the most considerate human being I ever knew. She'd give up anything rather than see someone else put out. She's too much that way."

"We can't be too much that way," said Mrs. Warham in mechanical Christian reproof.

"Oh, I know," retorted Ruth, "that's all very well for church and Sundays. But I guess if you want to get along you've got to look out for Number One. . . . Yes, she ought to visit somewhere."

"I've been trying to think," said her mother. "She couldn't go any place but your Uncle Zeke's. But it's so lonesome out there I haven't the heart to send her. Besides, she wouldn't know what to make of it."

"What'd father say?"

"That's another thing." Mrs. Warham had latterly grown jealous-- not without reason--of her husband's partiality for Susan.

Ruth sighed. "Oh, dear!" cried she. "I don't know what to do. How's she ever going to get married!"

"If she'd only been a boy!" said Mrs. Warham, on her knees, taking the unevenness out of the front of the skirt. "A girl has to suffer for her mother's sins."

Ruth made no reply. She smiled to herself--the comment of the younger generation upon the older. Sin it might have been; but, worse than that, it was a stupidity--to let a man make a fool of her. Lorella must have been a poor weak-minded creature.

By dinner time Ruth had completely soothed and smoothed her vanity. Sam had been caught by Susan simply because he had seen Susan before he saw her.

All that would be necessary was a good chance at him, and he would never look at Susan again. He had been in the East, where the admired type was her own--refined, ladylike, the woman of the dainty appearance and manners and tastes. A brief undisturbed exposure to her charms and Susan would seem coarse and countrified to him. There was no denying that Susan had style, but it was fully effective only when applied to a sunny fairy-like beauty such as hers.

But at midday, when Susan came in with Warham, Ruth's jealousy opened all her inward-bleeding wounds again. Susan's merry eyes, her laughing mouth, her funny way of saying even commonplace things--how could quiet, unobtrusive, ladylike charms such as Ruth's have a chance if Susan were about? She waited, silent and anxious, while her mother was having the talk with her father in the sitting-room. Warham, mere man, was amused by his wife's scheming.

"Don't put yourself out, Fanny," said he. "If the boy wants Ruth and she wants him, why, well and good. But you'll only make a mess interfering. Let the young people alone."

"I'm surprised, George Warham," cried Fanny, "that you can show so little sense and heart."

"To hear you talk, I'd think marriage was a business, like groceries."

Mrs. Warham thought it was, in a sense. But she would never have dared say so aloud, even to her husband--or, rather, especially to her husband. In matters of men and women he was thoroughly innocent, with the simplicity of the old-time man of the small town and the country; he fancied that, while in grocery matters and the like the world was full of guile, in matters of the heart it was idyllic, Arcadian, with never a thought of duplicity, except among a few obviously wicked and designing people.

"I guess we both want to see Ruth married well," was all she could venture.

"I'd rather the girls stayed with us," declared Warham. "I'd hate to give them up."

"Of course," hastily agreed Fanny. "Still--it's the regular order of nature."

"Oh, Ruth'll marry--only too soon," said Warham. "And marry well. I'm not so sure, though, that marrying any of old Wright's breed would be marrying what ought to be called well. Money isn't everything--not by a long sight--though, of course, it's comfortable."

"I never heard anything against Sam," protested Mrs. Warham.

"You've heard what I've heard--that he's wild and loose. But then you women like that in a man."

"We've got to put up with it, you mean," cried Fanny, indignant.

"Women like it," persisted Warham. "And I guess Sam's only sowing the usual wild oats, getting ready to settle. No, mother, you let Ruth alone. If she wants him, she'll get him--she or Susan."

Mrs. Warham compressed her lips and lowered her eyes. Ruth or Susan--as if it didn't matter which! "Susan isn't ours," she could not refrain from saying.

"Indeed, she is!" retorted George warmly. "Why, she couldn't be more our own----"

"Yes, certainly," interrupted Fanny.

She moved toward the door. She saw that without revealing her entire scheme--hers and Ruth's--she could make no headway with George. And if she did reveal it he would sternly veto it. So she gave up that direction. She went upstairs; George took his hat from the front hall rack and pushed open the screen door. As he appeared on the veranda Susan was picking dead leaves from one of the hanging baskets; Ruth, seated in the hammock, hands in lap, her whole attitude intensely still, was watching her with narrowed eyes.

"What's this I hear," cried Warham, laughing, "about you two girls setting your caps for Sam Wright?" And his good-humored brown eyes glanced at Ruth, passed on to Susan's wealth of wavy dark hair and long, rounded form, and lingered there.

Ruth lowered her eyes and compressed her lips, a trick she had borrowed from her mother along with the peculiarities of her mother's disposition that it fitted. Susan flung a laughing glance over her shoulder at her uncle. "Not Ruth," said she. "Only me. I saw him first, so he's mine. He's coming to see me this evening."

"So I hear. Well, the moon's full and your aunt and I'll not interrupt--at least not till ten o'clock. No callers on a child like you after ten."

"Oh, I don't think I'll be able to hold him that long."

"Don't you fret, Brownie. But I mustn't make you vain. Coming along to the store?"

"No. Tomorrow," said Susan. "I can finish in the morning. I'm going to wear my white dress with embroidery, and it's got to be pressed--and that means I must do it myself."

"Poor Sam! And I suppose, when he calls, you'll come down as if you'd put on any old thing and didn't care whether he came or not. And you'll have primped for an hour--and he, too--shaving and combing and trying different ties."

Susan sparkled at the idea of a young man, and such a young man, taking trouble for her. Ruth, pale, kept her eyes down and her lips compressed. She was picturing the gallant appearance the young Sophomore from Yale, away off in the gorgeous fashionable East, would make as he came in at that gate yonder and up the walk and seated himself on the veranda--with Susan! Evidently her mother had failed; Susan was not to be taken away.

When Warham departed down the walk Ruth rose; she could not bear being alone with her triumphant rival--triumphant because unconscious. She knew that to get Sam to herself all she would have to do would be to hint to Susan, the generous, what she wanted. But pride forbade that. As her hand was on the knob of the screen door, Susan said: "Why don't you like Sam?"

"Oh, I think he's stuck-up. He's been spoiled in the East."

"Why, I don't see any sign of it."

"You were too flattered by his talking to you," said Ruth, with a sweet-sour little laugh--an asp of a sneer hid in a basket of flowers.

Susan felt the sting; but, seeing only the flowers, did not dream whence it had come. "It was nice, wasn't it?" said she, gayly. "Maybe you're right about him, but I can't help liking him. You must admit he's handsome."

"He has a bad look in his eyes," replied Ruth. Such rage against Susan was swelling within her that it seemed to her she would faint if she did not release at least part of it. "You want to look out for him, Susie," said she, calmly and evenly. "You don't want to take what he says seriously."

"Of course not," said Susan, quite honestly, though she, no more than the next human being, could avoid taking seriously whatever was pleasantly flattering.

"He'd never think of marrying you." Ruth trembled before and after delivering this venomous shaft.

"Marrying!" cried Susan, again quite honestly. "Why, I'm only seventeen."

Ruth drew a breath of relief. The shaft had glanced off the armor of innocence without making the faintest dent. She rushed into the house. She did not dare trust herself with her cousin. What might the demon within her tempt her to say next?

"Come up, Ruth!" called her mother. "The dress is ready for the last try-on. I think it's going to hang beautifully."

Ruth dragged herself up the stairs, lagged into the sitting-room, gazed at the dress with a scowl. "What did father say?" she asked.

"It's no use trying to do anything with your father."

Ruth flung herself in a corner of the sofa.

"The only thing I can think of," said her mother, humbly and timidly, "is phone the Sinclairs as I originally set out to do."

"And have the whole town laughing at me. . . . Oh, what do I care, anyhow!"

"Arthur Sinclair's taller and a sight handsomer. Right in the face, Sam's as plain as Dick's hatband. His looks is all clothes and polish--and mighty poor polish, I think. Arthur's got rise in him, too, while Sam--well, I don't know what'd become of him if old Wright lost his money."

But Arthur, a mere promise, seemed poor indeed beside Sam, the actually arrived. To marry Sam would be to step at once into grandeur; to marry Arthur would mean years of struggle. Besides, Arthur was heavy, at least seemed heavy to light Ruth, while Sam was her ideal of gay elegance. "I detest Arthur Sinclair," she now announced.

"You can get Sam if you want him," said her mother confidently. "One evening with a mere child like Susie isn't going to amount to much."

Ruth winced. "Do you suppose I don't know that?" cried she. "What makes me so mad is his impudence--coming here to see her when he wouldn't marry her or take her any place. It's insulting to us all."

"Oh, I don't think it's as bad as all that, Ruthie," soothed her mother, too simple-minded to accept immediately this clever subtlety of self-deception.

"You know this town--how people talk. Why, his sister----" and she related their conversation at the gate that morning.

"You ought to have sat on her hard, Ruth," said Mrs. Warham, with dangerously sparkling eyes. "No matter what we may think privately, it gives people a low opinion of us to----"

"Don't I know that!" shrilled Ruth. She began to weep. "I'm ashamed of myself."

"But we must try the dress on." Mrs. Warham spread the skirt, using herself as form. "Isn't it too lovely!"

Ruth dried her eyes as she gazed. The dress was indeed lovely. But her pleasure in it was shadowed by the remembrance that most of the loveliness was due to Susan's suggestions. Still, she tried it on, and felt better. She would linger until Sam came, would exhibit herself to him; and surely he would not tarry long with Susan. This project improved the situation greatly. She began her toilet for the evening at once, though it was only three o'clock. Susan finished her pressing and started to dress at five--because she knew Ruth would be appealing to her to come in and help put the finishing touches to the toilet for the party. And, sure enough, at half-past five, before she had nearly finished, Ruth, with a sneaking humility, begged her to come "for half a minute--if you don't mind--and have got time."

Susan did Ruth's hair over, made her change to another color of stockings and slippers, put the dress on her, did nearly an hour's refitting and redraping. Both were late for supper; and after supper Susan had to make certain final amendments to the wonderful toilet, and then get herself ready. So it was Ruth alone who went down when Sam Wright came. "My, but you do look all to the good, Ruth!" cried Sam. And his eyes no less than his tone showed that he meant it. He hadn't realized what a soft white neck the blond cousin had, or how perfectly her shoulders rounded into her slim arms. As Ruth moved to depart, he said: "Don't be in such a rush. Wait till Susie finishes her primping and comes down."

"She had to help me," said Ruth, with a righteousness she could justly plume herself upon. "That's why she's late. No, I must get along." She was wise enough to resist the temptation to improve upon an already splendid impression. "Come as soon as you can."

"I'll be there in a few minutes," Sam assured her convincingly. "Save some dances for me."

Ruth went away happy. At the gate she glanced furtively back. Sam was looking after her. She marched down the street with light step. "I must wear low-necked dresses more in the evenings," she said to herself. "It's foolish for a girl to hide a good neck."

Sam, at the edge of the veranda, regretting his promise to call on Susan, was roused by her voice: "Did you ever see anything as lovely as Ruth?"

Sam's regret vanished the instant he looked at her, and the greedy expression came into his sensual, confident young face. "She's a corker," said he. "But I'm content to be where I am."

Susan's dress was not cut out in the neck, was simply of the collarless kind girls of her age wear. It revealed the smooth, voluptuous yet slender column of her throat. And her arms, bare to just above the elbows, were exquisite. But Susan's fascination did not lie in any or in all of her charms, but in that subtlety of magnetism which account for all the sensational phenomena of the relations of men and women. She was a clever girl--clever beyond her years, perhaps--though in this day seventeen is not far from fully developed womanhood. But even had she been silly, men would have been glad to linger on and on under the spell of the sex call which nature had subtly woven into the texture of her voice, into the glance of her eyes, into the delicate emanations of her skin.

They talked of all manner of things--games and college East and West--the wonders of New York--the weather, finally. Sam was every moment of the time puzzling how to bring up the one subject that interested both above all others, that interested him to the exclusion of all others. He was an ardent student of the game of man and woman, had made considerable progress at it--remarkable progress, in view of his bare twenty years. He had devised as many "openings" as an expert chess player. None seemed to fit this difficult case how to make love to a girl of his own class whom his conventional, socially ambitious nature forbade him to consider marrying. As he observed her in the moonlight, he said to himself: "I've got to look out or I'll make a damn fool of myself with her." For his heady passion was fast getting the better of those prudent instincts he had inherited from a father who almost breathed by calculation.

While he was still struggling for an "opening," Susan eager to help him but not knowing how, there came from the far interior of the house three distant raps. "Gracious!" exclaimed Susan. "That's Uncle George. It must be ten o'clock." With frank regret, "I'm so sorry. I thought it was early."

"Yes, it did seem as if I'd just come," said Sam. Her shy innocence was contagious. He felt an awkward country lout. "Well, I suppose I must go."

"But you'll come again--sometime?" she asked wistfully. It was her first real beau--the first that had interested her--and what a dream lover of a beau he looked, standing before her in that wonderful light!

"Come? Rather!" exclaimed he in a tone of enthusiasm that could not but flatter her into a sort of intoxication. "I'd have hard work staying away. But Ruth--she'll always be here."

"Oh, she goes out a lot--and I don't."

"Will you telephone me--next time she's to be out?"

`Yes," agreed she with a hesitation that was explained when she added: "But don't think you've got to come. . . . Oh, I must go in!"

"Good night--Susie." Sam held out his hand. She took it with a queer reluctance. She felt nervous, afraid, as if there were something uncanny lurking somewhere in those moonlight shadows. She gently tried to draw her hand away, but he would not let her. She made a faint struggle, then yielded. It was so wonderful, the sense of the touch of his hand. "Susie!" he said hoarsely. And she knew he felt as she did. Before she realized it his arms were round her, and his lips had met hers. "You drive me crazy," he whispered.

Both were trembling; she had become quite cold--her cheeks, her hand, her body even. "You mustn't," she murmured, drawing gently away.

"You set me crazy," he repeated. "Do you--love me--a little?"

"Oh, I must go!" she pleaded. Tears were glistening in her long dark lashes. The sight of them maddened him. "Do you--Susie?" he pleaded.

"I'm--I'm--very young," she stammered.

"Yes--yes--I know," he assented eagerly. "But not too young to love, Susie? No. Because you do--don't you?"

The moonlit world seemed a fairyland. "Yes," she said softly. "I guess so. I must go. I must."

And moved beyond her power to control herself, she broke from his detaining hand and fled into the house. She darted up to her room, paused in the middle of the floor, her hands clasped over her wildly beating heart. When she could move she threw open the shutters and went out on the balcony. She leaned against the window frame and gazed up at the stars, instinctively seeking the companionship of the infinite. Curiously enough, she thought little about Sam. She was awed and wonderstruck before the strange mysterious event within her, the opening up, the flowering of her soul. These vast emotions, where did they come from? What were they? Why did she long to burst into laughter, to burst into tears? Why did she do neither, but simply stand motionless, with the stars blazing and reeling in the sky and her heart beating like mad and her blood surging and ebbing? Was this--love? Yes--it must be love. Oh, how wonderful love was--and how sad--and how happy beyond all laughter--and how sweet! She felt an enormous tenderness for everybody and for everything, for all the world--an overwhelming sense of beauty and goodness. Her lips were moving. She was amazed to find she was repeating the one prayer she knew, the one Aunt Fanny had taught her in babyhood. Why should she find herself praying? Love--love love! She was a woman and she loved! So this was what it meant to be a woman; it meant to love!

She was roused by the sound of Ruth saying good night to someone at the gate, invisible because of the intervening foliage. Why, it must be dreadfully late. The Dipper had moved away round to the south, and the heat of the day was all gone, and the air was full of the cool, scented breath of leaves and flowers and grass. Ruth's lights shone out upon the balcony. Susan turned to slip into her own room. But Ruth heard, called out peevishly:

"Who's there?"

"Only me," cried Susan.

She longed to go in and embrace Ruth, and kiss her. She would have liked to ask Ruth to let her sleep with her, but she felt Ruth wouldn't understand.

"What are you doing out there?" demanded Ruth. "It's 'way after one."

"Oh--dear--I must go to bed," cried Susan. Ruth's voice somehow seemed to be knocking and tumbling her new dream-world.

"What time did Sam Wright leave here?" asked Ruth.

She was standing in her window now. Susan saw that her face looked tired and worn, almost homely.

"At ten," she replied. "Uncle George knocked on the banister."

"Are you sure it was ten?" said Ruth sharply.

"I guess so. Yes--it was ten. Why?"

"Oh--nothing."

"Was he at Sinclairs'?"

"He came as it was over. He and Lottie brought me home." Ruth was eyeing her cousin evilly. "How did you two get on?"

Susan flushed from head to foot. "Oh--so-so," she answered, in an uncertain voice.

"I don't know why he didn't come to Sinclairs'," snapped Ruth.

Susan flushed again--a delicious warmth from head to foot. She knew why. So he, too, had been dreaming alone. Love! Love!

"What are you smiling at?" cried Ruth crossly.

"Was I smiling?. . . Do you want me to help you undress?"

"No," was the curt answer. "Good night."

"Please let me unhook it, at least," urged Susan, following Ruth into her room.

Ruth submitted.

"Did you have a good time?" asked Susan.

"Of course," snapped Ruth. "What made you think I didn't?"

"Don't be a silly, dear. I didn't think so."

"I had an awful time--awful!"

Ruth began to sob, turned fiercely on Susan. "Leave me alone!" she cried. "I hate to have you touch me." The dress was, of course, entirely unfastened in the back.

"You had a quarrel with Arthur?" asked Susan with sympathy. "But you know he can't keep away from you. Tomorrow----"

"Be careful, Susan, how you let Sam Wright hang around you," cried Ruth, with blazing eyes and trembling lips. "You be careful--that's all I've got to say."

"Why, what do you mean?" asked Susan wonderingly.

"Be careful! He'd never think for a minute of marrying you."

The words meant nothing to Susan; but the tone stabbed into her heart. "Why not?" she said.

Ruth looked at her cousin, hung her head in shame. "Go--go!" she begged. "Please go. I'm a bad girl--bad--bad! Go!" And, crying hysterically, she pushed amazed Susan through the connecting door, closed and bolted it.