Chapter II. The Way it Began
 

It makes me angry every time I think how I tried to make that dinner a success. I canceled a theater engagement, and I took the Mercer girls in the electric brougham father had given me for Christmas. Their chauffeur had been gone for hours with their machine, and they had telephoned all the police stations without success. They were afraid that there had been an awful smash; they could easily have replaced Bartlett, as Lollie said, but it takes so long to get new parts for those foreign cars.

Jim had a house well up-town, and it stood just enough apart from the other houses to be entirely maddening later. It was a three-story affair, with a basement kitchen and servants' dining room. Then, of course, there were cellars, as we found out afterward. On the first floor there was a large square hall, a formal reception room, behind it a big living room that was also a library, then a den, and back of all a Georgian dining room, with windows high above the ground. On the top floor Jim had a studio, like every other one I ever saw--perhaps a little mussier. Jim was really a grind at his painting, and there were cigarette ashes and palette knives and buffalo rugs and shields everywhere. It is strange, but when I think of that terrible house, I always see the halls, enormous, covered with heavy rugs, and stairs that would have taken six housemaids to keep in proper condition. I dream about those stairs, stretching above me in a Jacob's ladder of shining wood and Persian carpets, going up, up, clear to the roof.

The Dallas Browns walked; they lived in the next block. And they brought with them a man named Harbison, that no one knew. Anne said he would be great sport, because he was terribly serious, and had the most exaggerated ideas of society, and loathed extravagance, and built bridges or something. She had put away her cigarettes since he had been with them--he and Dallas had been college friends--and the only chance she had to smoke was when she was getting her hair done. And she had singed off quite a lot--a burnt offering, she called it.

"My dear," she said over the telephone, when I invited her, "I want you to know him. He'll be crazy about you. That type of man, big and deadly earnest, always falls in love with your type of girl, the appealing sort, you know. And he has been too busy, up to now, to know what love is. But mind, don't hurt him; he's a dear boy. I'm half in love with him myself, and Dallas trots around at his heels like a poodle."

But all Anne's geese are swans, so I thought little of the Harbison man except to hope that he played respectable bridge, and wouldn't mark the cards with a steel spring under his finger nail, as one of her "finds" had done.

We all arrived about the same time, and Anne and I went upstairs together to take off our wraps in what had been Bella's dressing room. It was Anne who noticed the violets.

"Look at that!" she nudged me, when the maid was examining her wrap before she laid it down. "What did I tell you, Kit? He's still quite mad about her."

Jim had painted Bella's portrait while they were going up the Nile on their wedding trip. It looked quite like her, if you stood well off in the middle of the room and if the light came from the right. And just beneath it, in a silver vase, was a bunch of violets. It was really touching, and violets were fabulous. It made me want to cry, and to shake Bella soundly, and to go down and pat Jim on his generous shoulder, and tell him what a good fellow I thought him, and that Bella wasn't worth the dust under his feet. I don't know much about psychology, but it would be interesting to know just what effect those violets and my sympathy for Jim had in influencing my decision a half hour later. It is not surprising, under the circumstances, that for some time after the odor of violets made me ill.

We all met downstairs in the living room, quite informally, and Dallas was banging away at the pianola, tramping the pedals with the delicacy and feeling of a football center rush kicking a goal. Mr. Harbison was standing near the fire, a little away from the others, and he was all that Anne had said and more in appearance. He was tall--not too tall, and very straight. And after one got past the oddity of his face being bronze-colored above his white collar, and of his brown hair being sun-bleached on top until it was almost yellow, one realized that he was very handsome. He had what one might call a resolute nose and chin, and a pleasant, rather humorous, mouth. And he had blue eyes that were, at that moment, wandering with interest over the lot of us. Somebody shouted his name to me above the Tristan and Isolde music, and I held out my hand.

Instantly I had the feeling one sometimes has, of having done just that same thing, with the same surroundings, in the same place, years before, I was looking up at him, and he was staring down at me and holding my hand. And then the music stopped and he was saying:

"Where was it?"

"Where was what?" I asked. The feeling was stronger than ever with his voice.

"I beg your pardon," he said, and let my hand drop. "Just for a second I had an idea that we had met before somewhere, a long time ago. I suppose--no, it couldn't have happened, or I should remember." He was smiling, half at himself.

"No," I smiled back at him. "It didn't happen, I'm afraid--unless we dreamed it."

"We?"

"I felt that way, too, for a moment."

"The Brushwood Boy!" he said with conviction. "Perhaps we will find a common dream life, where we knew each other. You remember the Brushwood Boy loved the girl for years before they really met." But this was a little too rapid, even for me.

"Nothing so sentimental, I'm afraid," I retorted. "I have had exactly the same sensation sometimes when I have sneezed."

Betty Mercer captured him then and took him off to see Jim's newest picture. Anne pounced on me at once.

"Isn't he delicious?" she demanded. "Did you ever see such shoulders? And such a nose? And he thinks we are parasites, cumberers of the earth, Heaven knows what. He says every woman ought to know how to earn her living, in case of necessity! I said I could make enough at bridge, and he thought I was joking! He's a dear!" Anne was enthusiastic.

I looked after him. Oddly enough the feeling that we had met before stuck to me. Which was ridiculous, of course, for we learned afterward that the nearest we ever came to meeting was that our mothers had been school friends! Just then I saw Jim beckoning to me crazily from the den. He looked quite yellow, and he had been running his fingers through his hair.

"For Heaven's sake, come in, Kit!" he said. "I need a cool head. Didn't I tell you this is my calamity day?"

"Cook gone?" I asked with interest. I was starving.

He closed the door and took up a tragic attitude in front of the fire. "Did you ever hear of Aunt Selina?" he demanded.

"I knew there was one," I ventured, mindful of certain gossip as to whence Jimmy derived the Wilson income.

Jim himself was too worried to be cautious. He waved a brazen hand at the snug room, at the Japanese prints on the walls, at the rugs, at the teakwood cabinets and the screen inlaid with pearl and ivory.

"All this," he said comprehensively, "every bite I eat, clothes I wear, drinks I drink--you needn't look like that; I don't drink so darned much--everything comes from Aunt Selina--buttons," he finished with a groan.

"Selina Buttons," I said reflectively. "I don't remember ever having known any one named Buttons, although I had a cat once--"

"Damn the cat!" he said rudely. "Her name isn't Buttons. Her name is Caruthers, my Aunt Selina Caruthers, and the money comes from buttons."

"Oh!" feebly.

"It's an old business," he went on, with something of proprietary pride. "My grandfather founded it in 1775. Made buttons for the Continental Army."

"Oh, yes," I said. "They melted the buttons to make bullets, didn't they? Or they melted bullets to make buttons? Which was it?"

But again he interrupted.

"It's like this," he went on hurriedly. "Aunt Selina believes in me. She likes pictures, and she wanted me to paint, if I could. I'd have given up long ago--oh, I know what you think of my work--but for Aunt Selina. She has encouraged me, and she's done more than that; she's paid the bills."

"Dear Aunt Selina," I breathed.

"When I got married," Jim persisted, "Aunt Selina doubled my allowance. I always expected to sell something, and begin to make money, and in the meantime what she advanced I considered as a loan." He was eyeing me defiantly, but I was growing serious. It was evident from the preamble that something was coming.

"To understand, Kit," he went on dubiously, "you would have to know her. She won't stand for divorce. She thinks it is a crime."

"What!" I sat up. I have always regarded divorce as essentially disagreeable, like castor oil, but necessary.

"Oh, you know well enough what I'm driving at," he burst out savagely. "She doesn't know Bella has gone. She thinks I am living in a little domestic heaven, and--she is coming tonight to hear me flap my wings."

"Tonight!"

I don't think Jimmy had known that Dallas Brown had come in and was listening. I am sure I had not. Hearing his chuckle at the doorway brought us up with a jerk.

"Where has Aunt Selina been for the last two or three years?" he asked easily.

Jim turned, and his face brightened.

"Europe. Look here, Dal, you're a smart chap. She'll only be here about four hours. Can't you think of some way to get me out of this? I want to let her down easy, too. I'm mighty fond of Aunt Selina. Can't we--can't I say Bella has a headache?"

"Rotten!" laconically.

"Gone out of town?" Jim was desperate.

"And you with a houseful of dinner guests! Try again, Jim."

"I have it," Jim said suddenly. "Dallas, ask Anne if she won't play hostess for tonight. Be Mrs. Wilson pro tem. Anne would love it. Aunt Selina never saw Bella. Then, afterward, next year, when I'm hung in the Academy and can stand on my feet"--("Not if you're hung," Dallas interjected.)--I'll break the truth to her."

But Dallas was not enthusiastic.

"Anne wouldn't do at all," he declared. "She'd be talking about the kids before she knew it, and patting me on the head." He said it complacently; Anne flirts, but they are really devoted.

"One of the Mercer girls?" I suggested, but Jimmy raised a horrified hand.

"You don't know Aunt Selina," he protested. "I couldn't offer Leila in the gown she's got on, unless she wore a shawl, and Betty is too fair."

Anne came in just then, and the whole story had to be told again to her. She was ecstatic. She said it was good enough for a play, and that of course she would be Mrs. Jimmy for that length of time.

"You know," she finished, "if it were not for Dal, I would be Mrs. Jimmy for any length of time. I have been devoted to you for years, Billiken."

But Dallas refused peremptorily.

"I'm not jealous," he explained, straightening and throwing out his chest, "but--well, you don't look the part Anne. You're--you are growing matronly, not but what you suit me all right. And then I'd forget and call you 'mammy,' which would require explanation. I think it's up to you, Kit."

"I shall do nothing of the sort!" I snapped. "It's ridiculous!"

"I dare you!" said Dallas.

I refused. I stood like a rock while the storm surged around me and beat over me. I must say for Jim that he was merely pathetic. He said that my happiness was first; that he would not give me an uncomfortable minute for anything on earth; and that Bella had been perfectly right to leave him, because he was a sinking ship, and deserved to be turned out penniless into the world. After which mixed figure, he poured himself something to drink, and his hands were shaking.

Dal and Anne stood on each side of him and patted him on the shoulders and glared across at me. I felt that if I was a rock, Jim's ship had struck on me and was sinking, as he said, because of me. I began to crumble.

"What--what time does she leave?" I asked, wavering.

"Ten: nine; Kit, are you going to do it?"

"No!" I gave a last clutch at my resolution. "People who do that kind of thing always get into trouble. She might miss her train. She's almost certain to miss her train."

"You're temporizing," Dallas said sternly. "We won't let her miss her train; you can be sure of that."

"Jim," Anne broke in suddenly, "hasn't she a picture of Bella? There's not the faintest resemblance between Bella and Kit."

Jim became downcast again. "I sent her a miniature of Bella a couple of years ago," he said despondently. "Did it myself."

But Dal said he remembered the miniature, and it looked more like me than Bella, anyhow. So we were just where we started. And down inside of me I had a premonition that I was going to do just what they wanted me to do, and get into all sorts of trouble, and not be thanked for it after all. Which was entirely correct. And then Leila Mercer came and banged at the door and said that dinner had been announced ages ago and that everybody was famishing. With the hurry and stress, and poor Jim's distracted face, I weakened.

"I feel like a cross between an idiot and a criminal," I said shortly, "and I don't know particularly why every one thinks I should be the victim for the sacrifice. But if you will promise to get her off early to her train, and if you will stand by me and not leave me alone with her, I--I might try it."

"Of course, we'll stand by you!" they said in chorus. "We won't let you stick!" And Dal said, "You're the right sort of girl, Kit. And after it's all over, you'll realize that it's the biggest kind of lark. Think how you are saving the old lady's feeling! When you are an elderly person yourself, Kit, you will appreciate what you are doing tonight."

Yes, they said they would stand by me, and that I was a heroine and the only person there clever enough to act the part, and that they wouldn't let me stick! I am not bitter now, but that is what they promised. Oh, I am not defending myself; I suppose I deserved everything that happened. But they told me that she would be there only between trains, and that she was deaf, and that I had an opportunity to save a fellow-being from ruin. So in the end I capitulated.

When they opened the door into the living room, Max Reed had arrived and was helping to hide a decanter and glasses, and somebody said a cab was at the door.

And that was the way it began.