Chapter XIV. Subtle Influence
 

Although Lois preferred to remain in the country, yet she did not waste her days in repining over her life in the city. She at once looked about for opportunities of usefulness. These she found in St. Saviour's, the church she attended. Her musical abilities made her a welcomed member of the choir. But she was not satisfied with merely singing. She wished to do more, and she soon found an outlet in assisting the unfortunate ones in the parish. It was through "The Helping Hand Society" that she found she could do the most effective work, and she never tired of going from house to house where her services were most needed.

Dick often upbraided her for giving so much of her time to Church work, and said that she should go with him to dances and whist parties.

"I have no interest in such things," she told him over and over again. "There is too much to be done around us in helping others, to spend all of one's time upon such gaieties."

"But think what people are saying," her brother protested. "They call you unsociable and stuck-up, and it is hard for me to listen to such things."

Lois laughed at Dick's fears and told him not to worry. She said that she was quite able to look after herself, and did not mind what people were saying so long as she was doing what was right.

When Christmas season came around Lois found herself more busy than ever. There were so many baskets to be provided for the needy, and this year they were going to send a number to poor families out in the country districts. It was just when she was in the midst of this work that Dick asked her to attend a dance with him on Thursday night.

"If you don't go this time I shall never ask you again," he told her. "It's to be at Mrs. Dingle's, and you know how cut up she will feel if you refuse her. Sammie, too, is expecting you, and he will never visit us again if you do not go."

"But how am I to leave my work, Dick?" Lois questioned. "We are so busy every night packing the boxes, which we must get off as soon as possible. I am more interested in them than I am in what Mrs. Dingle and Sammie might think. They surely know by this time that I do not care for them."

"Well, come for my sake, then," Dick pleaded.

"That is a better reason why I should go," and Lois smiled upon her brother.

"And you will go?" Dick was all eagerness now. "There's to be a jolly crowd there. Sammie told me that he has invited a crack-a-jack of an artist he met at the club. He is an English chap and has been out here only a short time. He puts out some great stuff in the way of pictures, so I understand. Then, that Westcote girl is to be there. My, I'm anxious to meet her. She is worth while if what I hear about her is true."

The mention of the Westcote girl gave Lois more interest in the dance than she had hitherto taken. She did want to see her as well as Dick, for she had often thought about her since she had heard that Jasper had luncheon with her and her father at the Sign of the Maple. It was unusual for her to take an interest in a stranger. But this was different, and so she decided to accompany her brother.

Mrs. Dingle was delighted to have Lois at her party, principally on her son's account. She had chosen her for Sammie from all the eligible girls she knew, and the idea that Lois might object to becoming Mrs. Sammie Dingle never once entered her mind. There were financial reasons as well, for was not Peter Sinclair manager and chief owner of the City Light and Power Company?

Lois had not been long in the room, ere she felt herself affected by some unknown influence. She could not account for this feeling as she had never experienced, anything like it before. Even when on the floor in the midst of a dreamy waltz, a sense of dread almost overwhelmed her. A weight seemed suddenly to press upon her heart, as if some terrible disaster were near. Hers was not a mind to be easily disturbed by such things, and she was not naturally of a superstitious nature. She tried to shake off the feeling, but all in vain. What was the cause of it? she asked herself over and over again.

That waltz was the longest she had ever experienced; and most thankful was she when Sammie at last led her off the floor. As she was about to sit down she happened to glance to her right, and as she did so her eyes met those of a man standing not far away. Intuitively she realised that there was the source of her strange agitation. It was only for an instant that their eyes met, but it was long enough for Lois to realise that some subtle influence had come upon her which would affect her whole life.

With as much composure as possible she resumed her seat. She longed to be alone that she might think it all over, and endeavour to cast off the spell which was depressing her. She tried to reason it out, but her thoughts were interrupted by Mrs. Dingle who stood suddenly before her.

"Lois, dear," she heard her say, "I want you to meet my famous guest, Mr. Sydney Bramshaw, the noted English artist, who has favoured us with his presence to-night. I have been waiting this opportunity ever since you arrived, but could not get you and Sammie separated long enough to do so until now."

These closing words annoyed Lois and she longed more than ever to leave the room, especially so when Bramshaw sat down by her side and began to talk to her in a familiar manner.

"I wanted to meet you as soon as I saw you enter the room," he told her, "and I almost despaired of obtaining an opportunity."

"Why should you be so anxious to meet me?" Lois replied. "I am sure that I have done nothing to merit your special attention."

"Oh, but you are so decidedly superior to the rest, don't you know. I am somewhat gifted with a discerning mind, and am able at a glance to tell the gold from the dross."

If Bramshaw imagined that his companion was susceptible to such flattery he was greatly mistaken. His words disgusted Lois, and yet she must remember that he was Mrs. Dingle's guest and that she must be agreeable as far as it was possible.

"You are an artist, so I understand," she replied.

"Yes, in a way. I am fond of observing the beautiful in the common things of Nature, and placing them upon canvas. So many go through life with their eyes shut. They have eyes but do not see. With me it is different, and because of my ability to see and depict the real things of life, I have received considerable recognition."

"That must give you satisfaction," Lois murmured.

She tried to seem interested, but it was a difficult undertaking.

"It does in a way," and Bramshaw assumed an air of careless indifference. He was a little man, and his effort made him seem ridiculous. "But, it is so seldom that one meets with kindred spirits, don't you know. There are so few who are able to discuss the finer points of art. I would not mind in the least enlightening those around me, but they, as a rule, are so unwilling to listen. With you, however, it is different. You have a trained mind, and that makes such a vast difference."

Lois was about to make some half-hearted reply, when her eyes rested upon the face of a girl on the opposite side of the room. It was the most beautiful and perfect face she had ever seen, and she wondered who she was and where she had come from. She tried to listen to what Bramshaw was saying and at the same time watch the girl before her. She was talking to Dick, and she noted the animated expression upon her face as she smiled at something he was saying. It must have been about her for she suddenly turned and their eyes met. For an instant only the girl hesitated, and then with a graceful movement swept swiftly across the room and stood before Lois.

"Pardon me," she began, as she took Lois' hand, "I could not help coming to you as soon as I saw you. Your brother was telling me what a hard time he had to get you away from your Church work to come to the party. When I heard that I wanted to meet you at once. I am Margaret Westcote, and have been in this country but a short time, and everything is so new and interesting to me."

"Ducedly tame, I call it," Bramshaw interposed before Lois had time to say a word. "I can't for the life of me see what you find congenial in a land like this, Miss Westcote."

"It all depends upon what you call tame, Mr. Bramshaw," was the somewhat sarcastic reply. "If you spend your time thinking only about yourself it is no wonder you are bored. I haven't heard of your doing anything worth while since you came to this city."

"Come, come, Miss Westcote," Bramshaw protested, as he stroked his silky moustache with the soft white fingers of his right hand. "Artists, you should realise, are generally misunderstood. You cannot judge us according to ordinary standards. We are often most intensely busy when we seem to be inactive. Our apparent idleness is the time when valuable impressions are being imbibed to be produced later in masterpieces for the benefit and admiration of the whole world. It is utterly impossible for ordinary minds to grasp this, but it is true, nevertheless."

"I beg your pardon, Mr. Bramshaw," and the girl made him a slight graceful bow, "I really forgot that you are an artist. Appearances are so deceptive, you know. I shall leave you now to carry on your imbibing process. Perhaps Miss Sinclair will come with me, so that you can have the imbibing time all to yourself. It would be a pity to spoil your great masterpiece."

Lois was surprised at Miss Westcote's sarcasm, and, she fully expected that Bramshaw would be angry. But he did not appear to mind in the least. On the contrary, he smiled all the time she was speaking, as if her words greatly amused him. Lois was glad of any excuse to leave this man whose very presence depressed her in a remarkable manner. When at last alone with Miss Westcote in an adjoining room, she sank into a comfortable chair in a cosy corner. Her face was unusually pale, and this her companion at once noted.

"You are tired," she sympathetically remarked, taking a seat by her side. "You seem to be greatly upset."

"It is that man," Lois replied with considerable emphasis. "I never had any one to affect me as he does. I cannot understand it. I am not superstitious, and I have always prided myself upon my self-confidence, but I cannot account for the feeling that has come over me to-night."

"Oh, that man would upset almost any one," Miss Westcote replied. "I can not endure him."

"You do not evidently mind speaking plainly to him," Lois remarked.

"Certainly not. When I take a dislike to any person I generally say just what I think, especially to such a cad as that."

"You know something about him, then?"

"All I want to. He has been trying to get my father to give him the position of looking after an old man up the river. Mr. Randall has been doing it, and Bramshaw wants to have him discharged so he can get the job. Just think of that."

"Why should he wish to do that?" Lois asked in great surprise. "If he is an artist why should he want to take care of old David?"

"So you know the old man?" Miss Westcote enquired.

"Oh, yes. And I know Mr. Randall, too. He is so good to old David."

"I know he would be. I met him once at the Sign of the Maple with my father, and he seemed to be so different from most men. He was so manly and had such a strong face. I liked him as soon as I saw him."

"He deserves great credit, Miss Westcote. He is a self-made man, and his life has been a hard one. He has had to struggle against many obstacles. But he will win and make a name for himself, I feel quite sure."

It was impossible for these two to be long alone in such a quiet spot. Just when the conversation was becoming interesting, they were sought for by their partners for the next dance, and reluctantly they were forced to forego the many things they wished to say to each other.