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Title: An Ambitious Woman - A Novel
Author: Fawcett, Edgar, 1847-1923
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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=Edgar Fawcett's Novels.=

_Mr. Fawcett is a novelist who does a service that greatly needs to be
done,--a novelist who writes of the life with which he is closely
acquainted, and who manfully emphasizes his respect for his native land,
and his contempt for the weakness and affectation of those who are
ashamed of their country._--New York Evening Post.


_A GENTLEMAN OF LEISURE._

_Ninth Edition._ "Little Classic" style. 18mo, $1.00.

Take it as a whole, we know no English novel of the last few years fit
to be compared with it in its own line for simplicity, truth, and
rational interest.--_London Times._

It is the most truly American novel that has been given to the world in
some time, for the reason that it teaches Americans--or, at all events,
should teach them--what puny and puerile beings they become when they
attempt to decry their own country and ape the idiosyncrasies of
another.--_New York Express._

An amazingly clever book, the story well managed in the telling, the
dialogue bright and sparkling, and the humor unforced and
genuine.--_Boston Transcript._

It is a most charming story of American life and character, with a rare
dash of humor in it, and a good deal of vigorous satire.--_Quebec
Chronicle._


_A HOPELESS CASE._

_Fourth Edition._ "Little Classic" style. 18mo, $1.25.

"A Hopeless Case" contains much that goes to make up a novel of the best
order--wit, sarcasm, pathos, and dramatic power--with its sentences
clearly wrought out and daintily finished. It is a book which ought to
have a great success.--_Cincinnati Commercial._

"A Hopeless Case" will, we are sure, meet with a very enthusiastic
reception from all who can appreciate fiction of a high order. The
picture of New York society, as revealed in its pages, is remarkably
graphic and true to life.... A thoroughly delightful novel--keen, witty,
and eminently American. It will give the author a high rank as a writer
of fiction.--_Boston Traveller._

As a sprightly and interesting comedy this book will find hosts of
interested readers. It has its lessons of value in the striking
contrasts it furnishes of the different styles of life found in our
great cities.--_New England Journal of Education._

Its brilliant and faithful pictures of New York society and its charming
heroine can hardly fail to make it very popular.--_Salem Gazette._


_AN AMBITIOUS WOMAN._

12mo, cloth, $1.50.

*.* _For sale by Booksellers. Sent, by mail, post-paid, on receipt of
price by the Publishers_,

HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN & CO., BOSTON, MASS.



    AN AMBITIOUS WOMAN

    _A Novel_

    BY

    EDGAR FAWCETT

    AUTHOR OF "A GENTLEMAN OF LEISURE," "A HOPELESS
    CASE," ETC.

    [Illustration]

    BOSTON
    HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN AND COMPANY
    New York: 11 East Seventeenth Street
    =The Riverside Press, Cambridge=
    1884



    Copyright, 1888,
    BY EDGAR FAWCETT.

    _All rights reserved._



    _The Riverside Press, Cambridge:_
    Electrotyped and Printed by H. O. Houghton & Co.



AN AMBITIOUS WOMAN.

I.


If any spot on the globe can be found where even Spring has lost the
sweet trick of making herself charming, a cynic in search of an
opportunity for some such morose discovery might thank his baleful stars
were chance to drift him upon Greenpoint. Whoever named the place in
past days must have done so with a double satire; for Greenpoint is not
a point, nor is it ever green. Years ago it began by being the sluggish
suburb of a thriftier and smarter suburb, Brooklyn. By degrees the
latter broadened into a huge city, and soon its neighbor village
stretched out to it arms of straggling huts and swampy river-line, in
doleful welcome. To-day the affiliation is complete. Man has said let it
all be Brooklyn, and it is all Brooklyn. But the sovereign dreariness of
Greenpoint, like an unpropitiated god, still remains. Its melancholy,
its ugliness, its torpor, its neglect, all preserve an unimpaired
novelty. It is very near New York, and yet in atmosphere, suggestion,
vitality, it is leagues away. Our noble city, with its magnificent
maritime approaches, its mast-thronged docks, its lordly encircling
rivers, its majesty of traffic, its gallant avenues of edifices, its
loud assertion of life, and its fine promise of riper culture, fades
into a dim memory when you have touched, after only a brief voyage, upon
this forlorn opposite shore.

No Charon rows you across, though your short trip has too often the most
funereal associations. You take passage in a squat little steamboat at
either of two eastern ferries, and are lucky if a hearse with its
satellite coaches should fail to embark in your company; for, curiously,
the one enlivening fact associable with Greenpoint is its close nearness
to a famed Roman Catholic cemetery. It is doubtful if the unkempt child
wading in the muddy gutter ever turns his frowzy head when these dismal
retinues stream past him. They are always streaming past him; they are
as much a part of this lazy environ as the big, ghostly geese that
saunter across its ill-tended cobblestones, the dirty goats that nibble
at the placards on its many dingy fences, or the dull-faced Germans that
plod its semi-paven streets. Death, that is always so bitter a
commonplace, has here become a glaring triteness. Watched, along the
main thoroughfare, from porches of liquor-shops and windows of
tenement-houses, death has perhaps gained a sombre popularity with not a
few shabby gazers. It rides in state, at a dignified pace; it has
followers, too, riding deferentially behind it. Sometimes it has martial
music, and the pomp of military escort. Life seldom has any of this, in
Greenpoint. It cannot ride, or rarely. It must walk, and strain to keep
its strength even for that. One part of it drudges with the needle,
fumes over the smoky stove, sighs at the unappeasable baby; another part
takes by dawn the little dwarfish ferry-boat, and hies to the great
metropolis across the river, returning jaded from labor by nightfall.
No wonder, here, if death should seem to possess not merely a mournful
importance but a gloomy advantage as well, or if for these toilful
townsfolk philosophy had reversed itself, and instead of the paths of
glory leading to the grave, it should look as if the grave were forever
leading to some sort of peculiar and comfortable glory.

But Greenpoint, like a hardened conscience, still has her repentant
surprises. She is not quite a thing of sloth and penury. True, the broad
street that leads from steamboat to cemetery is lined with squalid
homes, and the mourners who are so incessantly borne along to Calvary
must see little else than beer-sellers standing slippered and coatless
beside their doorways, or thin, pinched women haggling with the venders
of sickly groceries. But elsewhere one may find by-streets lined with
low wooden dwellings that hint of neatness and suggest a better grade of
living. A yellowish drab prevails as the hue of these houses; they seem
all to partake of one period, like certain homogeneous fossils. But they
do not breathe of antiquity; they are fanciful with trellised piazzas
and other modern embellishments of carpentry; sometimes they possess
miniature Corinthian pillars, faded by the trickle of rain between their
tawny flutings, as if stirred with the dumb desire to be white and
classic. Scant gardens front them, edged with a few yards of ornamental
fence. Their high basement windows stare at you from a foundation of
brick. They are very prosaic, chiefly from their lame effort to be
picturesque; and when you look down toward the river, expecting to feel
refreshed by its gleam, you are disheartened at the way in which
lumber-yards and sloop-wharves have quite shut any glimpse of it from
your eyes.

In one of these two-storied wooden houses, not many years ago, dwelt a
family of three people,--a Mr. Francis Twining, his wife, and their only
child, a girl, named Claire. Mr. Twining was an Englishman by birth;
many years had passed since he first landed on these shores. He had come
here nearly penniless, but with proud hopes. He was then only
three-and-twenty. He had sprung from a good country family, had been
fitted at Eton for Oxford, and had seen one year at the famed
University. Then sharp financial disaster had overtaken his father,
whose death soon followed. Francis was a younger son, but even to the
heir had fallen a shattered patrimony, and to himself merely a slender
legacy. With this, confident and undaunted as though it were the purse
of Fortunio, Francis had taken voyage for New York. At first he had
shown a really splendid energy. Slim of figure, with a pale, womanish
face lit by large, soft blue eyes, he gave slight physical sign of force
or even will. But though possessed of both, he proved one of those
ill-fated beings whom failure never tires of rebuffing. His mental
ability was unquestioned; he shrank with sensitive disgust from all
vice; he had plenty of ambition, and the instinct of solid industry.
Yet, as years passed on, both secured him but meagre recompense for
struggle. He had begun his career with a clerkship; now, at fifty-three,
he was a clerk still. All his hope had fled; he had undergone bitter
heart-burnings; he had striven to solve the problem of his own defeat.
Meanwhile its explanation was not difficult. He had a boyish trust in
his fellow-creatures that no amount of stern experience seemed to
weaken. Chicanery had made him its sport. Five separate times he had
been swindled mercilessly by men in whom he had reposed implicit faith.
There had lain his rock of ruin: he was always reposing implicit faith
in everybody. His life had been one long pathos of over-credulity. He
could think, reason, reflect, analyze, but he was incapable of doubting.
A fool could have deceived him, and naturally, on repeated occasions,
knaves had not found it difficult. At fifty-three his last hard-earned
savings had been wormed from him by the last plausible scamp. And now he
had accepted himself as the favorite of misfortune; over the glow of his
spirit disappointment had cast its dulling spell, like the deep film of
ash that sheathes a spent ember. He had now one aim--to keep his wife
and child from indigence while he lived, and one despair--that he could
not keep them from indigence after he was dead. But his really lovely
optimism still remained. He had been essentially amiable and complaisant
in all intercourse with his kind, and this quality had not lost a ray of
its fine former lustre. With ample excuse for the worst cynic feeling,
he continued a gentle yet unconscious philanthropist. There was
something piteously sweet in the obstinacy with which he still saw only
the bright side of humanity. His delicate person had grown more slim;
his rusty clothes hung about him with a mournful looseness; his oval
face, worn by worriment, had taken keener lines; but his large blue eyes
still kept their liquid sparkle, and kindled in prompt unison with his
alert smile. The flaxen growth that had always fringed his lips and chin
with cloudy lightness, had now become of a frosty gray. Seen passingly,
no one would have called him, as the current phrase goes, a gentleman.
His wearied mien forbade the suggestion of leisure, while his broadcloth
spoke of long wear and speedy purchase. But a close gaze might have
caught the unperished refinement that still clung to him with sad
persistence, and was evident in such minor effects of personal detail as
a glimpse of cleanly linen about throat and wrist, a cheap yet careful
lustre of the often jaded boot, a culture and purity of the hand, or
even a choice nicety of the finger-nail.

He had married after reaching these shores, and his marriage had proved
another instance of misplaced confidence. His wife had been handsome
when a young woman, and she had become Mrs. Twining at about the age of
five-and-twenty. She was personally quite the opposite of her
bridegroom; she was an inch taller than he, and had an aquiline face,
splendid with a pair of very black eyes that she had rolled and flashed
at the other sex since early girlhood. She had rolled and flashed them
at her present husband, and so conquered him. She was a good inch taller
than he, and lapse of time had not diminished the difference since their
union. She had been extremely vulgar as Miss Jane Wray, when Twining had
married her, and she was extremely vulgar still. She had first met him
in a boarding-house in East Broadway, where Twining had secured a room
on his arrival from England. At this period East Broadway wore only a
waning grace of gentility; some few conservative nabobs still lingered
there, obstinately defying plebeian inroads. Its roomy brick mansions,
with their arched, antique doorways devoid of any vestibule; their
prim-railed stoops that guessed not of ornate balusters; and their
many-paned, thin-sashed windows where plate-glass had never glittered,
were already invaded by inmates whose Teuton names and convex noses
prophesied the social decline that must soon grasp this once select
purlieu. Jane Wray was neither German nor Hebrew; she was American in
the least pleasant sense of that word, both as regarded parentage and
breeding. She was an orphan, and the recipient of surly charity from
unprosperous relatives. She wanted very greatly to marry, and Twining
had seemed to her a golden chance. There was much about her from which
he shrank; but she contrived to rouse his pity, and then to lure from
him a promise which he would have despised himself not to keep.

The succeeding years had brought bitter mutual disappointments. Mrs.
Twining had believed firmly in her husband's powers to sound the horn of
luck and slay the giant of adversity. But he had done neither, and it
now looked as if his bones were one day to bleach along the roadway to
success. She became an austere grumbler, forever pricking her
sweet-tempered lord with a tireless little bodkin of reproach. Her
vulgarities had sharpened; her wit, always cruel and acute, had tipped
itself with a harsher venom and fledged itself with a swifter feather;
her bright, coarse beauty had dimmed and soured; she was at present a
gaunt, elderly female, with square shoulders and hard, dark eyes, who
flung sarcasms broadcast with a baleful liberality, and seemed forever
standing toward her own destiny in the attitude of a person who has some
large unsettled claim against a nefarious government.

Claire Twining, the one child who had been born of this ill-assorted
marriage, was now nineteen years old. She bore a striking likeness to
her father; she possessed his blue eyes, a trifle darker in shade, his
broad white forehead, his sloping delicacy of visage, and his erect
though slender frame. From him, too, had come the sunny quality of her
smile, the gold tints in her chestnut hair, the fine symmetry of hands
and feet. Rather from association than heredity she had caught his
kindly warmth of manner; but in Claire the cordial impulse was far less
spontaneous; she had her black list of dislikes, and she took people on
trust with wary prudence. Here spoke her mother's share in the girl's
being, as it spoke also in a certain distinct chiseling of every
feature, that suggested a softened memento of Miss Jane Wray's girlish
countenance, though Claire's coloring no more resembled her mother's of
past time than wild-rose is like peony, or pastel like chromo. But there
was one more maternal imprint set deep within this girl's nature, not to
be thinned or marred by any stress of events, and productive of a trait
whose development for good or ill is the chief cause that her life has
here been chronicled. The birthright was a perilous one; it was a
heritage of discontent; its tendency was perpetual longings for better
environment, for ampler share in the world's good gifts, for higher
place in its esteem and stronger claim to its heed. But what in her
mother had been ambition almost as crudely eager as a boorish
elbow-thrust, was in Claire more decorous and interesting, like the push
of a fragile yet determined hand through a sullen crowd. In both cases
the dissatisfaction was something that is peculiar to the woman of our
land and time--a desire not to try and adorn the sphere in which she is
born, but to try and reach a new sphere held as more suited for her own
adornment. Yet Claire's restless yearning lacked the homely grossness of
her mother's; it reflected a finer flash; it was not all cut from one
piece; it had its subtlety, its enthusiasm, even its justification. It
was not a mere stubborn hunger for advancement; it was a wish to gain
advancement by the passport of proper worthiness. She did not want the
air to lift her away from hated surroundings, but she wanted wings that
would turn the air her willing ally. It was what her father had made her
that touched what her mother had made her with a truly poetic
tenderness. By only a little prouder curve of the neck and a little
happier fullness of the plume, we part the statuesque swan from
considerably more commonplace kindred. Something like this delightful
benison of difference had fallen upon Claire.



II.


Circumstance, too, had fed the potency of this difference. Claire had
not been reared like her mother. When she was nine years old her parents
were living in a tiny brick house near the East River, among New York
suburbs. But Claire had been sent to a small school near by, kept by a
dim, worn lady, with an opulent past and a most precarious present. She
had studied for three years under this lady's capable care, and had lost
nothing by the opportunity. Her swift, apt mind had delighted her
instructress, whose name was Mrs. Carmichael. Claire was remarkably
receptive; she had acquired without seeming effort. Mrs. Carmichael was
one of the many ladies who attempt the education of youth without either
system or equipment for so serious a task. Her slight body, doubtless
attenuated by recurring memories of a cherished past, would sometimes
invisibly quake before Claire's precocious questionings. She knew all
that she knew superficially, and she soon became fearful lest Claire
should pierce, by a sort of adroit ignorance, her veneer of academic
sham. She had a narrow little peaked face, of a prevailing pink hue, as
though it were being always bathed in some kind of sunset light, like
the rosy afterglow of her own perished respectability. Her nervous,
alert head was set on a pair of sloping shoulders, and she wore its
sparse tresses shaped into roulades and bandeaus which had an amateurish
look, and seemed to imitate the deft handiwork of some long-departed
tirewoman. She carried her small frame with erect importance. She was
always referring to vanished friendships with this or that notability,
but time and place were so ignored in these volunteered reminiscences as
to make her allusions acquire a tender mythic grandeur. Claire had
watched well her teacher's real and native elegance, and she had set
this down as a solid fact. Perhaps the child had probed her many
harmless falsities with equal skill. As for Mrs. Carmichael, she would
sometimes pat her pupil on the cheek and praise her in no weak terms. "I
wish that I had only known you a long time ago, my little lady," she
would say, in her serene treble voice. "I would have brought you up as
my own dear child, for I never had a child of my own. I would have given
you a place in the world to be proud of, and have watched with interest
the growth of your fine mental abilities, surrounded by those poor lost
friends of mine who would have delighted in so clever a girl as you
are."

"When you speak of your friends as lost, Mrs. Carmichael," Claire had
once replied, "do you mean that they are all dead now?"

At this question the lady slowly shook her head, with just enough
emphasis not to imperil the modish architecture of her locks.

"Some of them are dead, my dear," she murmured, with the least droop of
each pink eyelid, "but the rest are much too grand for me at present.
They have quite forgotten me." Here Mrs. Carmichael gave a quick,
fluttered cough, and then put the tips of her close-pressed fingers to
the edges of her close-pressed lips.

Claire privately thought them very churlish friends to have forgotten
anybody so high-bred and winsome as Mrs. Carmichael. And she publicly
expressed this thought at supper the same evening, while she sat with
her parents in a small lower room opening directly off the kitchen. A
weary maid, whose face flamed from the meal she had just cooked, was
patiently serving it. Mrs. Twining, who had lent no light hand toward
the Monday's washing, was in the act of distributing a somewhat meagre
beefsteak, which fate and an incompetent range had conspired to cover on
both sides with a layer of thick, sooty black. Mr. Twining was waiting
to get a piece of the beefsteak; he did not yet know of its disastrous
condition, for a large set of pewter casters reared its uncouth pyramid
between himself and the maltreated viand; but although such calamities
of cookery were not rare to his board, he was putting confidence, as
usual, in the favors of fortune, and preparing himself blandly for a
fresh little stroke of chagrin.

Outside it was midwinter dusk, and a bleak wind was blowing from
the ice-choked river, pale and dull under the sharp stars.
One-Hundred-and-Twelfth Street was in those years a much wilder spot
than now; its buildings, like its flag-stones, were capricious
incidents; its boon of the elevated railroad was yet undreamed of by
capitalists; you rode to it in languid horse-cars from the remote
centres of commerce, upward past parapets of virgin rock where perched
the hut of the squatter, or wastes of houseless highway where even the
aspiring tavern had not dared to pioneer. Mr. Twining had just ridden
hither by this laggard means, and he was tired and hungry; he wanted his
supper, a little valued chat with his beloved Claire, and a caress or
two from the child as well. After these he wanted a few hours of rest
before to-morrow re-dawned, with its humdrum austerities. One other
thing he desired, and this was a blessing more often desired than
attained. He had the wish for a peaceful domestic interval, as regarded
his wife's deportment, between home-coming and departure.

But to-night it had been otherwise decreed. Mrs. Twining's faint spark
of innate warmth was never roused by the contact of suds. Monday was her
day of wrath; you might almost have fancied that she had used a bit of
her superfluous soap in vainly trying to rub the rust from her already
tarnished hopes.

The small room where the trio sat was void of any real cheer. A pygmy
stove, at one side of it, stood fuel-choked and nearly florid in hue.
From this a strong volume of heat engulfed Mrs. Twining in its
oppressive spell, but lost vigor before it reached her husband or
Claire, and left the corners of the apartment so frigid that a gaunt
sofa, off where the light of the big oil-lamp could only vaguely touch
it, took upon its slippery hair-cloth surface the easy semblance of ice.
Two windows, not fashioned to thwart the unwonted bitterness of the
weather, were draped with nothing more resistant than a pair of canvas
shades, gorgeously pictorial in the full light of day, when seen by the
passer who seldom passed. These shades were of similar designs; in
justice to Mrs. Twining it must be told that they had been rented with
the house. On each a plumed gentleman in a gondola held fond converse
with a disheveled lady in a balcony. The conception was no less
Venetian in meaning than vicious in execution; but to-night, for any
observant wayfarer, such presentments of sunny Italy, while viewed
between blotches of wan frost that crusted the intervening panes, must
have appeared doubly counterfeit. Still, the chief discomfort of the
chamber, just at present, was a layer of brooding cold that lay along
its floor, doggedly inexterminable, and the sole approach to regularity
of temperature that its four walls contained.

It had made Claire gather up her feet toward the top rung of her chair,
and shiver once or twice, but it had not chilled the pretty gayety of
her childish talk, all of which had thus far been addressed to her
father.

"And so you like Mrs. Carmichael, my dear?" Twining had said, in his
smooth, cheerful voice. "Well, I am glad of that."

"Oh yes, I like her," replied Claire, with a slight, wise nod of her
head, where the clear gold of youth had not yet given way to the
brown-gold of maidenhood. "But I think it strange that all her fine
friends have dropped off from her. That's what she told me to-day,
Father; truly, she did! Why don't they care for her any more? Is it
because she's poor and has to teach little dunces like me?"

Twining's feminine blue eyes scanned the rather dingy tablecloth for a
moment. "I am afraid it is," he said, in a low voice, pressing between
his fingers a bit of ill-baked bread that grew doughy at a touch.

Mrs. Twining ceased to carve the obdurate beefsteak, though still
retaining her hold on the horn-handled knife and fork. She lifted her
head so that it quite towered above the formidable group of casters, and
looked straight at her husband.

"Don't put false notions into the child, Francis," she said, each word
seeming to strike the next with a steely click. "You're always doing it.
_You_ know nothing of where that woman came from, or who she is."

Twining looked at his wife. His gaze was very mild. "I only know what
she has told me, Jane," he said.

Mrs. Twining laughed and resumed the carving. Her laugh never went with
a smile; it never had the least concern with mirth; it was nearly always
a presage of irony, as an east wind will blow news of storm.

"Oh, certainly; what she's told you! That's you, all over! Suppose she'd
told you she'd been Lady of the White House once. You wouldn't have
believed her, not you! Of course not!"

"What is a Lady of the White House?" asked Claire, appealing to her
father. She was perfectly accustomed to these satiric outbursts on her
mother's part; they belonged to the home-circle; she would have missed
them if they had ceased; it would have been like a removal of the
hair-cloth sofa, or an accident to one of the lovers on the
window-shades.

Twining disregarded this simple question, which was a rare act with him;
he usually heard and heeded whatever Claire had to say.

"Please don't speak hard things of Mrs. Carmichael," he answered his
wife. "She's really a person who has seen better days."

"Better days!" echoed Mrs. Twining. "Well, then, we ought to shake
hands. _I_ think she's just _the_ plainest humbug I ever saw, with her
continual brag about altered circumstances. But I'll take your word for
it, Francis. The next time I see her I'll tell her we're
fellow-unfortunates. We'll compare our 'better days' together, and
calc'late who's seen the most."

Twining gave a faint sigh, and looked down. Then he raised his eyes
again, and a new spark lit their mildness. Something to-night had made
him lack his old patient tolerance.

"I'm afraid Mrs. Carmichael would have much the longer list," he said.

"Oh, you think so!"

"I know so."

Mrs. Twining tossed her head. The gloss was still on her dark hair,
whose gray threads had yet to come, later, in the Greenpoint days. She
was still, as the phrase goes, a fine figure of a woman. Her black eyes
had not lost their fire, nor her form its imposing fullness. She raised
herself a little from her chair, as she now spoke, and in her voice
there was the harshness that well fitted her bristling, aggressive mien.

"Oh! you _know_ so, do you?" she said, in hostile undertone. Then her
next words were considerably louder. "But _I_ happen to know, Francis
Twining, _Es_quire, who and what _I_ was when you took me from a
comfortable home to land me up here at the end of the world, where I'm
lucky if I can get hold of yesterday's newspaper to-morrow, and cross
over to the cars without leaving a shoe behind me in the mud!"

The least flush had tinged Twining's pale cheeks. He had looked very
steadily at his wife all through this speech. And when he now spoke, his
voice made Claire start. It did not seem his.

"You were a poor girl in a third-rate boarding-house, when I married
you," he said. "And the boarding-house was kept by relatives who
disliked and wanted to be rid of you. I don't see how you have fallen
one degree lower since you became my wife. But if you think that you
have so fallen, I beg that you will not forever taunt me with idle
sneers, of which I am sick to the soul!"

Mrs. Twining rose from her chair. Her dress was of some dark-red stuff,
and as the stronger light struck its woof the wrath of her knit brows
seemed to gain a lurid augment. She had grown pale, and a little mole,
just an inch or so to the left of her assertive nose, had got a new
clearness from this cause. She did not speak, at first, to her husband.
She addressed the fatigued and heated maid, who waited to hand Twining
his share of the doleful beefsteak--in this case a true burnt-offering.

"You can go into the kitchen, Mary Ann," she said, with tones that had a
kind of rumble, like the beginning of a large thunder-peal, before its
threat has become fury. "See to the range, you know. Dump all the coal
out, and then sift it."

Mary Ann went uneasily toward the door. She understood that this order
thinly masked a bluff command for her absence. Mrs. Twining slowly
turned her head, and followed the poor factotum with her kindled black
eyes till she had quitted the room. Then she looked with stern
directness at her husband.

"I've stood a good deal from you," she said, pitching her voice in a
much shriller key, "but I ain't going to stand _this_, Francis Twining,
and it's time I told you so."

Twining rose. He did not look at all angry. There was a weary distress
on his face, mixed with an unhabitual firmness.

"What have you stood?" he asked.

"Being browbeat by you, sir, because I see fit to talk out my mind, and
ain't the weak-spirited goose you'd like to have me!" retorted Mrs.
Twining, all rage and outcry.

"I don't want a quarrel," said Twining, calm as marble. "God knows I
don't, Jane! But the time has come for me to speak plainly. I have never
browbeaten you. It has been quite the opposite. I have already borne too
much from you for the sake of peace. But no peace springs from that
course. So now I mean to try another. You and I must live apart, since
we can't agree." He turned to Claire, at this point, and reached out one
hand, resting it on the girl's head. "Let our child choose which of us
she will go with," he added.

Claire started up, sprang to her father's side, and nestled herself
against him, catching one of his hands in both her own and drawing his
arm about her neck. She was trembling with what seemed sudden fear as
she looked up into his face.

"Father," she cried, "I'll go with _you_! I couldn't live alone with
Mother. If _you_ go, take me with you! Promise--please promise! Mother
isn't good to me a bit. I couldn't live alone with her! She is cross
nearly all the time, when you're not here, and she struck me yesterday,
and she often does it, and I didn't ever tell you before, because I knew
it would trouble you so to know!"

These words were spoken in a high, pleading, plaintive voice. The
child's sad little secret had been wrung from her by sheer terror of
desertion. There was no accusative resentment in her tones; she might
have gone on for a long time hiding the truth; it had leapt to her lips
now only in the shape of an impetuous argument against the dreaded
chance of being left behind, should her father's menace of departure
become fact. Mrs. Twining moved from her own side of the table to where
her husband and daughter stood. She looked persistently at Claire,
during this action, and had soon drawn very close to her.

"You sly young vixen!" she exclaimed. Her cry had a husky note, and she
raised one hand. It was plain that she meant wicked work to Claire.
Twining pushed Claire behind him, quick as thought, and seized his
wife's hand while it fell. He had grown white to the lips. His clasp was
not weak about the wrist which he still retained. He did not appear at
all like a man in a passion, but rather like one filled with the resolve
which gets new sinew from excitement.

"You shall never strike that child again." Then he released his wife's
wrist, and half turned, putting his arms round Claire, while she again
nestled at his side. "I will do all I can for you," he went on, "but
neither she nor I shall live with you after to-morrow. It was bad enough
to have you make things hard for me, but you shan't spoil her with your
own coarseness." The next moment he turned to Claire, wrapped her still
more fervently in both arms, and kissed her twice or thrice on the
uplifted forehead.

Mrs. Twining stood quite still, for a short while. She was watching her
husband intently. Something new in him had revealed itself to her; it
blunted the edge of her anger; she was unprepared for it. Personal
defiance in Twining might merely have quickened her own long-petted
sense of grievance, which had grown morbidly dear, as we know. But a
fresh experience fronted her; she found herself repelled, so to speak,
by the revolt of an insulted fatherhood.

It was a very serious rebellion, and she felt its force. Past
concessions from her husband gave the measure of his present mutiny. He
had never been humble to her, but he had yielded, and she had grown more
used than she realized to his pliant complaisance. This abrupt change
shocked her with an actual fright. Her ready little body-guard of taunts
and innuendoes fled her usual summons. The despot stood deserted; not a
janizary was left. She saw, in quick, startled perspective, her own
future, uncompanioned by the man whose supporting nearness her bitter
gibes had so often slighted. But apart from merely selfish causes, a
thrill of human regard for her child and the father of her child lent
fresh accent to alarm. It was like the tremor wrought in a slack
harp-string, or one rusty with disuse, but it was still a definite
vibration.

She succumbed awkwardly, like most overthrown tyrants. Tears would have
looked incongruous had they left the chill black of her eyes, just as
there are climes of so fixed a rigor that thaws rank in them as
phenomena. But her brows met in a perplexed frown that had no trace of
ire, and she made a flurried upward gesture with both hands, receding
several steps. When she spoke, which she promptly did, her native idiom
forgot the slight garb of change that marriage and nicer association had
lent it, and stood forth, stripped by agitation, in graceless nudity.

"Mercy me, Francis!" she exclaimed, "you ain't talking as if you was a
sane man at all! You'll quit your lawful wife, sir, 'cause she's boxed
her own young one's ears? Why, that child can put on the airs of any
six, when she's a mind to. I ain't punished her half enough. Do set down
and eat your supper and stop bein' a fool!"

These chronicled words have the effect of rather bald commonplace it is
true; but to the man and the child who heard them an apprehensive
whimper, a timorous dilation of the eyeball and a flurried quiver about
the severe mouth were accompaniments that held piercing significance.
Such tokens from their domestic autocrat meant surrender, and surrender
was hard for both Twining and Claire to join with past impressions of
rule and sway, of command and observance, from the very source which now
gave forth their direct opposites.

Both father and daughter still remained silent. Claire's head was still
nestling against his breast; Twining's arms still clasped her slight
frame, as before. Neither spoke. But Mrs. Twining soon spoke again, and
she moved toward the door as she did so.

"Oh, you won't set down, eh?" she inquired; and there was now a sullen
fright both in her manner and tone. "Very well. P'raps you'll eat your
supper when I'm gone. I've always heard crazy people must be humored.
Besides 'tisn't safe, with so many knives and forks round."

After that she left the room, going up stairs into the little hall above
the basement, where she could have seen her breath freeze if economic
reasons had not kept the lank, pendant gas-burner still unlighted.

She had beaten a positive retreat. Her exit had been a distinct
concession. Twining turned his gaze toward the vacant threshold after
she had passed it, as if he could not just realize the unwonted humility
of her leave-taking.

"Claire," he said, again kissing the child, while she yet clung to him,
"you should have told me before that your mother struck you. You should
have told me the first time she did it." He embraced her still more
closely. Since she was a baby he had always treasured her, and now that
defeat and disappointment dealt him such persistent strokes, his love
grew deeper with each disastrous year. Claire's presence in his life had
gained a precious worth from trouble; it was the star that brightened
with sweeter force against a deepening gloom.

He leaned down and slowly passed his lips along her silky hair, just
where its folds flowed off from one pale temple. "Oh, my little girl,"
he said, in a voice whose volume and feeling had both plainly
strengthened, "I hope that happy days are in store for you! I shall do
my best, darling, but if I fail don't blame me. Don't blame me!"

He appeared no longer to be addressing Claire. He had lifted his head.
Both his arms engirt her as previously, but his eyes, looking straight
before him, were sombre with meditation.

Claire gazed up into his face. "Father," she cried, "I shall be happy if
I am always with you! Don't look like that. Please don't. What does it
mean? I have never seen you so sad before. It frightens me. Father, you
are so strange and different." He smiled down at the child as her high,
pained appeal ended; but the smile soon fled again; a gloomy agitation
replaced it. She felt his clasping arms tremble.

"You cannot always have me," he answered. "I love you very much, my
little one, but some day I must leave you; my time will have come, and
it may come while your life is yet in its first flower. Then I want you
to be wiser than I. Listen to what I say. I am in a dark humor now, but
it will soon pass, for I can't help being cheerful, as you know; there's
a good deal more sun than shadow in me. But just now I am all shadow. I
feel as if I should never be successful, Claire. That is a queer word to
your young ears. Do you recollect, when I took you for that one day to
the country, last summer, how we set out to climb the large hill, and
were sure, at starting, that we should reach its top? But half way up we
grew tired and hot; there was no breeze, and the way was rough; so we
sat down, didn't we, and rested, and then went home? You have not
forgotten? Well, success means to do what you set out for, darling. It
means to climb the hill--not to get tired and go home. That is what
everybody is trying to do. But only a few of us ever reach the top. And
to reach the top means to have many good things--to be like the grand
people who were once Mrs. Carmichael's friends. Do you understand,
Claire?"

"Yes," said the child. Her lips were parted. A gloom had clouded the
blue of her eyes; they seemed almost black, and two unwonted gleams
pierced them. She was alarmed yet fascinated by the real sorrow in her
father's look, and by his unfamiliar speech, with its fervent speed and
bitter ring.

"I shall never gain the top of the hill, Claire!" Twining went on.
"Something tells me so now--to-night. To-morrow I shall be changed. I
shall turn hopeful again. I shall go climbing along, and pick myself up
stoutly if I stumble. But remember what I tell you to-night. In my
heart, little girl, there is a great fear. I am afraid I must leave you,
when I do die, poor and helpless. We are always helpless when we are
poor. But you must not lose courage. There is one thing a girl can
always do if she has beauty and wit, and you will have both. She can
marry. In the years of life left to me, I shall strain hard to make you
a lady. I am a gentleman. My father, and his father, and his father,
too, were all gentlemen. It is in your blood to be a lady, and a lady
you shall be. But your mother"--Here he paused. Even his raw sense of
wrong, and the precipitate reasoning native to all passion, forbade his
completing the last sentence.

"I know what you mean, Father," said Claire, who had not lost the
significance of a word, and whose mind would have grasped subtler
discourse than the present. She spoke falteringly, and turned her eyes
toward the deserted table; and then, with her shaken, tragic little
voice, she lapsed into the prose of things, slipping over that edge
between the emotional and the ordinary whose unwilling junction makes
the clash that we like to call comedy.

"Father," she said, "please sit down and eat your supper. It's getting
cold. Please do!"

This is not at all an index of Claire's thoughts, for they were then in
a storm of dread and misgiving; but she shrank from the changed aspect
of one known and loved in moods widely different. She seized, as if by a
fond instinct, the most ready means of re-securing her father as she had
at first found him and had always afterward prized him.

But her attempt was vain. Twining's arms only tightened about her frail
form. Like all with whom outburst is rare, his perturbation worked
toward a climax; it would brook no repression. There are craters that
keep the peace for many decades, but in spite of that their stored lava
will not be cheated of the eruptive chance.

So it was with Twining. He trembled more than ever, and his cheeks were
now quite hueless. "I want you to do all that I shall leave undone,
Claire!" he exclaimed, with voluble swiftness. "I want you to conquer a
high place among men and women. Be cool and wary, my daughter. Don't
live to serve self only, but push your claims, enforce your rights,
refuse to be thrust back, never make false steps, put faith in the few
and doubt the many. Remember what I am saying. You will need to recall
it, for you must start (God help you, little one!) with all the world
against you! Yes, all the world against you" ...

A sudden gasp ended Twining's words. His embrace of Claire relaxed, and
he staggered toward the sofa, which was just behind him. As he sank upon
it, his eyes closed and his head fell sideways. One hand fluttered about
his throat, and he seemed in straits for breath. Claire was greatly
terrified. She thought that to be death which was merely a transient
pause of vitality. The rough gust will bow the frailer tree, and
Twining, weary in mind and body, had made too abrupt drafts upon a
temperament far from robust.

The child uttered a piercing cry. It summoned the proscribed Mary Ann
from exile in the neighboring kitchen; it was heard and heeded by Mrs.
Twining, aloof in some remoter chamber. Yet, before either had reached
the scene of Claire's disquietude, her father had already pressed the
warm hand which sought his cold one, and had looked at her with a gaze
that wore the glow of recognition.

"Claire," he soon said, brokenly, and with faint utterance, "I--I was
unwell for a moment--that is all. Here, little girl, kiss me, and then
give me a glass of water."

"Yes, Father," said Claire. Her response showed a joyous relief. She
knelt beside him, and put her lips to his. It was like the good-night
kiss she always gave him, except that she made it longer than of old.
And then she rose to get the glass of water, hearing footsteps approach.

As she poured the liquid, with unsteady fingers, a partial echo of her
father's impetuous enjoinder swept through her mind. "I shall never
forget this night," she told herself. Her silent prophecy proved true.
She never did forget.



III.


Twining's menace was not carried out. There was no actual reconciliation
between husband and wife, and yet matters slowly rearranged themselves.
The domestic machinery, being again set moving, went at first in a lame,
spasmodic way, as though jarred and strained through all its wheel-work.
But by degrees the old order of things returned. And yet a marked
change, in one respect at least, was always afterward evident. Mrs.
Twining had received a clear admonition, and she was discreet enough
permanently to regard it. She still dealt in her former slurs and
innuendoes; the leopard could not change its spots; no such radical
reformation was naturally to be expected. But Twining had put forth his
protest; he had shown very plainly that his endurance had its limits,
and through all the years that followed, his wife never lost sight of
this vivid little fact. She had been seriously frightened, and the
fright left its vibration of warning as long as she and her husband
dwelt under the same roof. Her sting had by no means been extracted, but
its point was blunter and its poison less irritant. She never again
struck Claire. She was sometimes very imperious to her daughter, and
very acrimonious as well. But in her conduct there was now a sombre
acknowledgment of curtailed authority,--an under-current of concession,
occasionally rather faint, it is true, yet always operative.

During the next year the family deserted One-Hundred-and-Twelfth Street
for a new place of abode. Twining received a few extra hundreds as
earnest of shadowy thousands promised him by a glib-tongued rogue who
was to appall the medical world with a wondrous compound that must soon
rob half the diseases known to pathology of their last terrors. The
elixir was to be "placed handsomely on the market," and toward this
elegant enterprise poor Twining gave serious aid. For the lump of
savings that went from him, however, he was paid only a tithe of his
rash investment. One day he learned that the humane chemist had fled
from the scene of his proposed benignities, and a little later came the
drear discovery that his miraculous potion was merely an unskillful
blending of two or three common specifics with as many popular nervines.

Meanwhile the halcyon promise of bettered fortunes had induced Twining
to secure easier quarters. For several months he set his household gods
within apartments on the second floor of a shapely brownstone residence
in a central side-street. This was really a decisive move toward greater
social importance. The very tone of his upholstery bespoke a distinct
rise in life. There was not a hair-cloth sofa in his pretty suite of
chambers. The furniture was tufted and modish; one or two glowing grates
replaced the dark awkwardness of stoves; draughts were an abolished
evil; to sup on burnt beefsteak had grown a shunned memory, since the
family now dined at six o'clock each evening in a lower room, where
they had a small table all to themselves, and ate a repast served in
courses with a distinct air of fashion, if not always cooked after the
loftier methods. Here they met other groups at other small tables, and
bowed to them with the bland nod of co-sharers in worldly comfort. It
was all a most noteworthy change for the Twinings, and its effect upon
Mrs. Twining was no less obvious than acute. She seemed to clutch the
new favors of fate with a mingled greed and distrust. She was like one
who crushes thirstily between his lips a luscious fruit, won by theft,
and thought to be watched with the intent of quick seizure.

She had already quite lost faith in anything like the permanence of her
husband's good fortune. "I'd better make hay while the sun shines," she
would exclaim, with a burst of laughter that had, as usual, no touch of
mirth in it. "Lord knows when it'll end. I'm sure I hope never. Don't
think I'm croaking. Gracious me, no! But even the Five Points won't seem
so bad, after this. They say every dog has his day, don't they, Francis?
So, all right; if mine's a short day, I'll be up and doing while it
lasts."

She was undoubtedly up and doing. She carried her large frame with a
more assertive majesty; she aired one or two fresh gowns with a loud
ostentation; she had a little quarrel with a fellow-lodger of her own
sex about the prevailing fashion in bonnets, and said so many personal
things during the contest that her adversary, who was a person with
nerves, retired in tearful disarray. On more than one Sunday morning she
induced her husband to walk with her along Fifth Avenue and "see the
churches come out." At such times she would lean upon his arm, grandly
indifferent to the fact that her stature overtopped his own, and stare
with her severe black eyes at all the passing phases of costume. It is
probable that the pair made a very grotesque picture on these occasions,
since all that implied refinement in the man's face and demeanor must
have acquired a fatal stamp of insignificance beside the woman's
pretension of carriage and raw spruceness of apparel. But Mrs. Twining
was making her hay, as she has told us, while the sun shone, and it is
hardly strange that she should not be critical as to the exact quality
of her crop. A good deal of rough experience in the woes of dearth and
drouth had, naturally, not made her a fastidious harvester.

Claire, meanwhile, had begun to feel as if she dwelt on quite a new sort
of planet. Her environment had lost every trace of its former dullness.
Its neutral shades had freshened into brilliant and exciting tints.
Little Mrs. Carmichael, with her hoard of memories stowed away like old
brocades in a scented chest, had herself faded off into a memory as dim
as these. Claire had of late become one of the pupils in a large,
well-reputed school, where she met girls of all ages and characters, but
seemingly of only a single social rank. The academy was superintended by
a magnificent lady in chronic black corded-silk, whose rich rustle was
heard for a half minute before she entered each of her various
class-rooms and held bits of whispered converse with the instructresses
under her serene sway. Her name was Mrs. Arcularius, and its fine
rhythmical polysyllable seemed to symbolize the dignity of its owner's
slow walk, the majesty of her arched nose and gold eye-glasses, and the
white breadth of her forehead, from which the gray tresses were rolled
backward in high solidness, with quite a regal effect of hair-dressing.
This lady was the direct contra-type of Mrs. Carmichael. It was widely
recorded of her that she had once been a gentlewoman of independent
wealth, had chanced upon adverse times, and had for this reason become
the proprietress of a school. But she had made her grand friends pay the
penalty of her misfortunes; she had acquired the skill of using them as
an advertisement of her venture at self-support. She had not gone up to
One-Hundred-and-Twelfth Street and mourned their loss; she had stayed in
Twenty-Third Street, and suffered their children, little and big, to
come unto her. She had at first graciously allowed herself to be pitied
for her reverses, but she had always possessed the art of handing back
their patronage to those who proffered it, in the wholly altered form of
a gracious condescension from herself. This is a very clever thing to
do; it is a thing which they alone know how to do who know how to fall
from high places with a self-saving rebound; and Mrs. Arcularius, who
was a decidedly ignorant woman, was also a marvelously clever one. She
knew rather less, in a strictly educational sense, than poor,
unsuccessful Mrs. Carmichael. She had been a friend of Mrs. Carmichael's
in the latter's gladsome days, but she was now not even aware that her
old associate was teaching school anywhere. Everybody was aware, on the
other hand, that Mrs. Arcularius was teaching school, and just where she
was teaching it. Poverty had crushed one; it had stimulated the other.
Mrs. Arcularius was now exceedingly particular as regarded her
visiting-book. She was a conspicuous figure at the most select
receptions. Whether the fact that she presided over a fashionable school
had made her lose caste or no, she chose secretly to believe that it
had, and for this reason let her voluminous black silk robes rustle only
in the most irreproachable assemblages.

She greatly desired that her pupils should all bear the sacred sign of
aristocratic parentage. She did not object to the offspring of
struggling plutocrats; for she was wise in her generation, and had seen
more than one costly-laden camel squeeze itself through a needle's eye
straight into the kingdom of the blessed. But she had strong objections
to having her school lose tone. Above all things, this was her dread and
abhorrence.

And therefore she had been covertly distressed by the application of
Twining for his daughter's admission. She had "placed" him before he had
spoken three words to her. She always "placed" with equal speed
everybody whom she met for the first time. He was a decayed foreigner,
and she abominated decayed foreigners. He was a person who wanted to
make his common little daughter profit by the prestige of her
establishment, and she had a like distaste for all persons of this
class. She looked at Claire's attire, and inwardly shivered. The girl
had on a frock cut and trimmed in a way that struck her observer as
positively satanic. The lovely natural wave of her hair had been
tortured by her mother into long ringlets, made sleek and firm under the
stiffening spell of sugar-and-water, and pendant about her shoulders
with a graceless vertical primness. But the head and front of the poor
child's offending was, in the sight of her new critic, a hat which Mrs.
Twining esteemed a triumph of taste, which she had bought as a great
bargain the day before, and which was half-smothered, from crown to
brim, in small white roses, each bearing a little movable glass bead
that was meant to imitate a dew-drop.

Mrs. Arcularius decided, however, to receive Claire as one of her
pupils. There had been a falling-off, of late, in their list. A good
many sweet girl-graduates had gone off at her last commencement day.
Besides, it was absurd to suppose that any flock could be kept from an
incidental black sheep or so. More than this, there was a fascinating
intelligence about Claire's face, with its two dark-blue stars of eyes,
and a musical sorcery in the child's timid tones when she spoke, that no
_diablerie_ of millinery could dispel.

It soon proved that Claire's fellow-scholars were far from sharing this
latter opinion. She was received among them with haughty coolness,
varied by incidental giggles. She suffered three days of silent torture,
and at their end told her father, in a passion of tears, that he must
take her away from Mrs. Arcularius's school. The girls there all
despised her and laughed at her; hardly one of them had yet even spoken
to her; they seemed to think her beneath them; it was horrible; she
could not stand it; it was just as if she had some disease and they were
all afraid of catching it from her.

"There is one girl," sobbed Claire, with her arms round her father's
neck and her head on his dear, kindly breast, "that I know I shall slap
or throw something at if I stay. She has red hair and very white skin,
with little freckles all over it, and she is quite fat. She wears a
different dress every day, and it's always something handsome but queer
to look at.... I heard her tell another girl that all her clothes came
from Paris. She brings two bananas for lunch, and long cakes spread over
with chocolate, that spirt out something soft and yellow, like custard,
when she bites into them, and soil her fingers.... Well, Father, that
girl sits near me, and she is always making fun of me behind my back,
and whispering things about me to the others that make them burst out
laughing and watch me from the corners of their eyes.... Of course this
is only at recess, but at all times, Father, I can feel how they are
thinking that I have no right, no business among them.... And perhaps I
haven't. Oh, Father, I want to be a lady as much as you want me to be
one, but ... isn't there some other way of learning how? If you'll only
take me from that dreadful place, I'll ... I'll go anywhere else you
please!"

Indignant, yet pierced with sympathy for his darling, Twining promised
her that she should go back no more to Mrs. Arcularius's.

Claire kissed him, and then put her wet cheek against his. But an
instant later she lifted her head. She had thought of her mother, who
was paying one of their fellow-boarders a visit that evening, and at
this very moment was stating to her hostess, with a sort of saturnine
braggadocio, that Claire's new school "ought to be a regular first-class
one, and no mistake, for it was going to cost a regular first-class kind
of a price."

"But Mother?" said Claire, in anxious query, "what will _she_ say,
Father?"

"Never mind what your mother will say, my dear," answered Twining, in
his gentle undertone. And Claire remembered a certain night in
One-Hundred-and-Twelfth Street,--a night which she had never really
forgotten, as we know, and whose incident was fated sharply to revisit
her through many an eventful year yet unlived.

But Claire's tears were scarcely dried before she regretted the promise
won from her father, and asked him to revoke it. Her young face looked
pale and resolute as she did so. Her brief burst of weakness had passed.
The ambition to seize and hold any near means of advancement was already
no weak impulse in her youthful being. As it afterward struck the great
key-note of her life, and became the source of every discord or harmony
which that life was to contain, so now its force had begun to stir
secret centres and to prelude the steady influence which must soon impel
and sway her.

"Let me try a little while longer, Father," she said, standing near him
and holding his hand. Her head was slightly thrown backward; her mouth
was grave and firm. She was so slender and fragile that this solemn mood
might have made one think, as he regarded her, of a lily that had found
some art to cast aside its droop, while all its lightsome traits of stem
or petal still remained.

"Yes, I mean it, Father," she continued, with a very deep seriousness.
"I have begun to climb the hill, and I shan't get tired so soon and sit
down to rest. You told me I must not, and I won't. I do not want to sit
down at all until I shall reach the top.... But you can help me, if you
will; you can make it easier for me." She pressed his hand. "_Will_ you
make it easier, Father?" she said.

"Yes!" he answered. He spoke the word without knowing what she meant. He
could have spoken no other at this moment, with her eyes fixed on him
like that, and her clinging hand tense about his own. He loved her so
well that he would have faced any peril to save her from any harm. She
was his cheer, his pride, his hope, his happiness. He thought her the
most beautiful little girl in all the world. He had forgotten to tell
himself that her mother made her look a guy in seeking to make her more
pretty. To him she was always his innocent, blameless idol--his Claire,
whom he had named after his own dead mother, known only in the
idealizing years of early childhood. He never looked into her face
without feeling his heart beat a trifle quicker. He had been in love
with her from the time when he first held her, a new-born baby, and he
was in love with her still. It was a love which had the best glow and
thrill of those dramatic passions that make our tales, our tragedies,
and our epics, only that by absence of the one fevered sentiment knit
and kinned with these, it so gained in purity and unselfishness as to
strip from all hint of over-praise the holier epithet of divine.

Naturally enough came Twining's afterthought.

"What is it that I can do for you, Claire?" he asked. "How _can_ I make
it easier?"

"In this way, Father. Listen. I want to dress differently at school. I
want to wear another frock--I know which one--I am afraid you wouldn't
recollect which it is if I told you. But it is not the pink merino which
I have on now. Pink merino is not nice. And my new hat with the white
roses is not nice, either. I didn't think of this till I noticed how the
other girls dressed at Mrs. Arcularius's. Then I remembered that mine
was something very like the style in which Mrs. Halloran used to dress
her little girl, Bridget, every Sunday. You do recollect Mrs. Halloran,
don't you Father? Her husband used to work on one of the Harlem boats,
and they lived down near the river in that small red house, and there
was a bee-hive in the garden, and a horrid bull-dog that used to jump
out of his kennel if he heard the least noise, and bark so, and try to
break his chain. But little Bridget used to have pink kid shoes, though,
to match her dress, and very proud they made her. And her hair was
curled in that stiff way, just as Mother curls mine. Now, Father, I want
you to let me brush all the curl out of my hair except what it has of
its own free choice, and to let me just tie it in a bunch behind with a
dark ribbon, and to let me wear my brown bonnet, which is rather shabby,
perhaps, though I don't mind that. And if Mother cares to buy me
anything new, I want you to go with us--say some Saturday evening when
the stores keep open--and to let me use my own taste in choosing quiet
and pretty things. But that will be afterward. I'd like you to think,
just now, only about to-morrow, you know. I'd like"--But there Twining
stopped her with a kiss. He was smiling, but his eyes were moist.

"You shan't dress like little Bridget Halloran any longer, Claire,
darling," he said. "I'll see to it as soon as your mother returns."

He kept his word. When Mrs. Twining reappeared he sent Claire out of the
room. She knew a storm was coming; she was glad to be away while it
broke and raged. She went as far away as possible, into her own bedroom,
two chambers off, closing the intermediate doors. Once, while waiting
here, she heard the smothered sound of a high, wrathful voice. It was
her mother's, no doubt. But she knew that however hot the conflict, her
father had made up his mind to be victor.

And he was. The next day Claire went to Mrs. Arcularius's without her
white roses or her pink merino.

"You look for all the world like a charity-child," her mother said to
her, in gruff leave-taking. "Still, I don't s'pose it matters any. You
might as well practice for a short spell beforehand."

Claire's altered raiment produced an immense sensation among her
classmates. Even several of the teachers showed signs of surprise. The
new plainness of her attire brought out her unquestioned beauty, as
gaudier and ill-blended vestments had before marred and obscured it. The
back-drawn effect of her chestnut tresses, which were still streaked
here and there with sunny threads, could not be doubted as charming even
by the most prejudiced caviler. Her brow and temples were shown in their
full purity of moulding, and the eyes beneath them gained poetic
tenderness from this lovely exposure. She was not yet a girl clothed at
all after the dainty manner of the girls about her, but she was at least
no longer spoiled and hampered by unbecoming and vulgar garments.
Everybody felt this promptly, and Claire herself soon recognized, by an
intuition which always stood vassal to her singularly quick perceptions,
that everybody had felt it.

This was to be a memorable day with her. It may seem trivial to employ
so august a term when dealing with one yet on the threshold of our truly
vital episodes, but, after all, there is a reality about the chagrins
and victories of childhood which is none the less potent while both
exist because both must shortly drop into shadow before harsher pangs
and warmer transports. Claire had resolved to be a kind of miniature
heroine if occasion should ask her to play that part; and she had a
conviction, based on very fair grounds of reasoning, that some such
demand might be made of her before the school-exercises for that day
should reach their end.

Nor was she wrong. The recitations began, and were continued under
various teachers until the twelve o'clock recess. Claire had suffered
hitherto from the embarrassments of her surroundings, as regarded any
frank assertion of what she knew and just how she knew it. But to-day
she had conquered embarrassment; she was on her mettle, as the phrase
goes; it was the main aim of her meditated plan to let herself be
browbeaten in no particular, and the excitement born of this resolve had
put her best faculties into nimble readiness.

Her understanding was of the quality beloved by instructors; it had a
prehensile trait; it seized things and clung to them. The alarm of Mrs.
Carmichael lest her pupil should unmask her elegant deficiencies had
been no unfounded one. This lady's tuition of Claire had been but a
series of suggestions, each of which the girl had rapidly tracked to its
lair of remoter truth. Mrs. Carmichael had pointed her the path--quite
often, it must be owned, with a somewhat faltering finger--and she had
glided whither it led at a pace no less swift than secure. This was
especially true of the French language, for which her aptitude was
phenomenal, and which, under new conditions of instruction, she soon
almost mastered. As a matter of mere fact, she had been placed, at
present, among her inferiors in knowledge. She was much more advanced
than the class of superb young misses who had wounded her with their
callow disdain. And to-day she made this tellingly evident. Her answers
came placid, self-assured, unhesitating. She sat, all through the
morning, with hands folded together in her lap, and with looks that paid
no seeming heed to any of her associates. Some of them were extremely
stupid. They gave stammering responses, or rattled off the wrong thing
with fatal glibness, or preserved that stolid silence which is the most
naked candor of ignorance. The freckled girl, who ate bananas, cut an
especially dull figure. Through some novel freak of parental indulgence
she had been permitted to wear, this morning, a ring of clustered
sapphires and diamonds, very beautiful and precious; and this she turned
and re-turned, while puckering her forehead, whenever a question was put
to her, as though the fair bauble might prove talismanic and show her
some royal road out of learning's tangled mazes. No one appeared to
think her replies particularly blundering or fatuous. Her ring, and her
last new Parisian gown, and the luxurious prospect of her approaching
lunch, seemed to invest even her weak wit with prestige. Claire felt it
to be somehow in the air that this maiden's mental poverty should
receive nothing except respectful sympathy from her fellows. Fortune
does not shower every known gift on one favorite; that seemed to be
tacitly understood. When she floundered in a French verb, or came to
dire grief in compound fractions, the imbecility provoked no laughter;
it bore a sort of gilded pardonableness, like the peccadillo of a
princess.

When recess came, Claire had distinguished herself. Everybody was
convinced that her powers of mind were much above the common. Two of the
teachers, both ladies of gentle bearing and kindly disposition, came to
her side, and cheered her with a few words of complimentary
encouragement. The grand Mrs. Arcularius did not come; she was
elsewhere, in her elegant little reception-room; she had not yet heard
of her new pupil's handsome exploits. But if she had already heard of
them she would have paid Claire no congratulations. Good scholarship,
she would have argued, with splendid egotism, was in this case a form of
gratitude to which she was of course amply entitled, since she had
allowed Twining the honor of seeing her autograph on his daughter's
future receipted bills.

During the first portion of the recess hour Claire ate her modest lunch,
choking it down with strong reluctance. But one teacher now remained in
the large class-room, and she was closely occupied in the examination of
some written exercises. The girls were gathered here and there, among
the files of desks, in whispering groups. They were all discussing
Claire; she herself knew it; an instinct told her so. She was very much
excited, but outwardly quite calm. The girls no longer stared at her;
not a single giggle now broke the air; they had been impressed,
startled, and perhaps a little awed as well; their pariah had turned out
a sort of notability; she had clad herself in a sudden armor of cool
defiance against impudence. They might have regarded her lately-revealed
endowments as a queerness collateral with the eccentric quality of her
clothing. But the pink robe, the brittle-looking curls, the beflowered
hat, had vanished and left them no chance for such associative
ridicule. There had been a transformation, abrupt and baffling. Claire
was not going to be their butt; of this there was no doubt; she must
either be accepted as an equal, or avoided as an inferior; she could no
longer hold the position of a target for their covert raillery.

The freckled girl, of the sumptuous mid-day meal, however, preserved
opposite opinions. Her name was Ada Gerrard, and her family was one of
great wealth and distinction. Her elder sister, a mindless blonde with
creamy skin and exuberant figure, had made a notable English marriage,
having wedded no less a potentate than the young Marquis of Monogram,
heir of a renowned ducal house. Miss Ada was a leader in her way, and
she felt keenly disappointed by the unforeseen turn of affairs. She had
anticipated prodigious fun out of the new scholar. She was by nature
cruel and arrogant, and she was now affected as some feline creature
that has been cheated of the prey it has meant to maul and maim.

Her reddish-hazel eyes, that showed so little white as to look like two
large beads of clouded amber, and were fringed with scant lashes of
lighter red, kept up a persistent scrutiny of Claire. She was sitting
not far away from the latter, who caught, now and then, a waft of the
delicate violet perfume which exhaled from her fine foreign apparel. She
was occupied with her epicurean repast, whose dainties she devoured with
a solemn gluttony; but this did not prevent her from keeping up a little
fusillade of whispers to a friend on whom she had bestowed one or two
bites of luscious cake as a mark of peculiar clemency.

The converse was at first low-toned. Claire had finished her brief
refreshment. She had opened a book, and maintained at least the
semblance of being engaged in its contents. Suddenly she heard Ada
Gerrard speak these words, in a voice lifted above her former key,
though doubtless meant solely for her companion's ears:

"I don't care _how_ much she knows. She's a common little thing, and _I_
wouldn't notice her if she got on her knees and begged me to."

Claire waited a few seconds, with head lowered above her book. She
trembled while she so waited. The tremor was half from anger, half from
intimidation. She felt, in every fibre of her being, the coarseness of
this speech, but through her sensitive soul had shot a pang of false
shame, dealt by the piercing sense of contrast between her own humble
state and the probable grandeur and comfort of life which had fed Ada
Gerrard's present superciliousness. But anger conquered. She ceased to
tremble, and closed her book. Then she rose, quietly, and faced her
classmate. It may have been that the generations of gentlewomen from
which, on her father's side, she had sprung, helped to nerve and steady
her now; since the primal source of all aristocracy is a cogent
self-assertion, and those races alone gain heights overbrowing their
kind whose first founders have had the will and vigor to push forward
resisted claims.

Everybody saw her rise. It flashed through the little throng, in an
instant, that something had spurred her into a course of retaliation. At
least fifteen pairs of eager eyes were leveled upon her pale face. But
she regarded Ada Gerrard only; and when she spoke, with enough clearness
to be heard in all parts of the room, her first words were addressed
strictly to that special offender.

"You say that you will not notice me," Claire began, "and yet you say it
so loudly that I can hear you, and thus you very plainly contradict
yourself; or, in other words, you try to attract my attention by
speaking a falsehood."

Here she paused. A dead silence ensued. Many bewildered looks were
exchanged. The presiding teacher stopped her task, and sat with a gaze
of puzzled alarm fixed upon this resolute young combatant. Ada Gerrard
flushed crimson, and ceased to discuss her savory confections.

Claire's voice quivered as she now proceeded, but she quickly controlled
this perturbed sign: "I do not think there is much chance of my begging
you on my knees to notice me," she said. "But I might be tempted to take
such a way of begging that you would try and help me to forget, as long
as I remain here, how I have had the ill-luck of being thrown near
anyone so unkind, so impudent, and so vulgar as yourself."

Ada Gerrard sprang to her feet as the last calm word sounded from
Claire's lips. She had clenched both of her plump hands, and there was a
wrathful scowl on her face. Several titters were heard from her
companions; they seemed to sting her; it was impossible for her to fail
in perceiving that she had met an adversary of twice her own prowess.
She knew to which side the sympathy had veered; all her imposing
superiority in the way of dress, of diet, of home-splendor, of titled
kindred, were momentarily as nothing beside Claire's placid antagonism.
She was only an ugly girl in an ugly rage, who had behaved insolently
and been rebuked with justice; while Claire, pale, unflinching, wholly
in the right and wholly aware of it, her drawbacks of uncouth costume
no longer present, her beauty a fact beyond dispute, her intelligence a
recent discovery and a sharp surprise, stood clad with the dignity of
easy and complete conquest.

Ada Gerrard suddenly burst into tears. They were very irate tears; there
was not the least tincture of remorse or shame in them. She flung
herself back into her chair, and covered her face for several minutes
while she wept.

Claire watched her, tranquilly, for a little while. Then she sat down
again and reopened her book. An intense silence reigned, broken by the
sobs of Ada Gerrard. Claire leaned her head on her hand, feigning abrupt
absorption in the page that she regarded, and feigning it very well. But
her mind was in a secret whirl, now. She was mutely, but impetuously
asking herself: "Will they think I was right? Will they take my part?
Will they treat me any more kindly, or just as before?"

These silent, pathetic queries were fated to receive a speedy answer.
Before the school hours of that same day had ended, the ostracism which
had so wrung poor Claire's spirit was in a measure ended likewise. Less
than a week had elapsed before she was on friendly terms with a number
of her classmates. A little adverse clique soon shaped itself against
her. Ada Gerrard, fiercely unforgiving, headed this hostile faction; its
remaining members were a few stanch personal adherents who had never
been able to resist the dazzling fascination of Miss Gerrard's toilets
and lunches. But this opposing element was not actively inimical.
Claire's party had the strength of multitude and the courage of its
opinions. Still, its members were by no means ardent devotees; they
sometimes hurt her with the sly stab of patronage, and they often gave
her furtively to understand that her claims upon their favor were of a
sort which they practically recognized without theoretically approving.

It would be hard to define just how they conveyed this impression. And
yet Claire frequently felt its weight, like that of some vague tyranny
which offers no tangible excuse for revolt. She could neither realize
nor estimate the force with which she had been thrown into contact. Her
years were yet too few, her experience was yet too limited; nor was the
force manifest in active strength at Mrs. Arcularius's school, a narrow
enough theatre for its exercise, and one where its full-grown momentum
must of necessity dwindle into something like mere juvenile parody.
Claire was yet to learn with how much rank haste its evil growth had
sprung up in the big metropolis outside, thwarting and clogging any pure
development of what has been called the republican idea, and making us
sometimes bitterly wonder if the great dead philosophers were not
tricked, after all, by wills-o'-the-wisp no less lovely than elusive.

But there were a few girls who met Claire on a perfectly equal footing,
and left from their intercourse, at all times, the least frosty sparkle
of condescension. Some of these may or may not consciously have
undertaken their rôles. But with one, past doubt, and for excellent
reasons, the kindly impulse was in every way spontaneous. The name of
this pupil was Sophia Bergemann. She professed a deep fondness for
Claire, and it was evidently sincere. She belonged among Mrs.
Arcularius's tolerated plutocrats. Her father was a German brewer who
had made a very large fortune out of lager-beer, and who dwelt in
Hoboken, where he had built an immense house on spacious grounds. It was
said that the lawns were adorned with statues in bronze and marble, and
that the main drawing-room of the mansion was frescoed with a design
representing Germany offering a tankard of foaming beer to Columbia, in
colossal sociability. But the latter statement may have been only the
caustic invention of Sophia's foes. She was stoutly disapproved by the
conservative element, and this fact had helped to make her so warm a
supporter of Claire. Being at daggers drawn with Ada Gerrard, she
naturally hailed Claire's public rebuke with rapture, and immediately
became her stanch ally.

"I was afraid you'd stay meek and mild right straight along, just as you
began," she afterward confessed. "Somehow you looked as if you hadn't
got any spunk. And I do like spunk. I believe in it." This article of
faith Sophia had several times frankly verified. She had once pulled the
ear of her fellow-pupil, and again narrowly escaped expulsion by
slapping another's face. She had a buxom figure, a broad-blown
countenance, nearly as round as a moon at the full, solid cheeks of
constant vivid coloring, and hair so yellow that its keen tint blent
with her brilliant complexion in producing the effect of an expensive
wax doll enlarged and animated. She was drearily stupid at all her
lessons, rivaling Ada Gerrard as the regnant ignoramus of the academy.
Her gestures were painfully awkward; her walk was a cumbrous prance; she
seemed incapable of seating herself without an elastic bounce. She grew
very fond of Claire, as weeks went on, and gave her repeated
invitations to pass a portion of the summer holidays at the grand
Hoboken abode.

But before the summer holidays arrived, Claire had left Mrs.
Arcularius's school for good. Twining had awakened to one more dismayed
perception of having been grossly duped; the reed on which he had leaned
had snapped beneath him; prompt retrenchments became inevitable; his
poor ventured thousands were dissolved, as a last ironical sort of
ingredient, in the worthless elixir.

For a long time his affairs stood miserably involved. His innocent share
in a matter of imposture and chicanery was misconstrued and sharply
censured by his employers. He was discharged from his clerkship, and put
face to face with the worst threats of need. Mrs. Twining, forced to
resign her briefly-worn robes of ease for the old garb of drudgery,
spared no zeal in proving herself not to have been a false prophetess of
disaster.

"I ain't a bit surprised," she would declare, with one of her thin, acid
laughs. "Mercy, no! Don't mind me. I was prepared for it, Francis. So
here we are over in Jersey City, and a pretty shabby part of it, too!
Oh, well, it's better'n keeping a peanut-stand, anyhow. You'll bring me
there, some day; you're bound to. I ain't eaten a peanut in ever so
long. I'm saving my taste for 'em."

Twining secretly writhed under these thrusts. His meagre stock of money
was slipping from him daily. But he was still cheerful. The tough
texture of his optimism still refused to be rent. A few more years, and
its severance must come, warp and woof, but as yet the sturdy fibres
held good against every strain.

He secured another position at last. The salary, smaller than before,
was at least regular. But the quarters in Jersey City, though humble and
restricted, made too strong an annual drain upon his impoverished purse.
After two years of pitiful struggle, the family removed to Greenpoint.
Claire was then sixteen. But before this new change occurred, Twining's
evil genius had again tempted him, and with the usual malign result. He
trusted a fellow-man once more, and once more he was confounded. This
time it was of necessity a much smaller hazard. Only three hundred
dollars went, though millions were of course to be ultimately realized.
One day a sallow, elderly man, with eyes bleared from dissipation and
clothes that hung glazed round a bony figure, fell in with poor Twining,
and talked to him glibly about a miraculous patent. It concerned the
giving of signals on railroads by an electrical process. It was to
effect a sublime security against all future accidents of travel by
land. A few primary steps were to be taken before this marvel should
obtain the indorsements of eager capitalists. The sallow little man, in
three interviews, during which he cleverly contrived not to smell too
strongly of liquor, convinced Twining that he was a neglected genius.
The money was given him, and a receipt for it was signed with a hand
whose insecurity passed for grateful emotion. But this origin might have
been ascribed with more truth to the rheumy moisture that filled the
recipient's eyes when he placed a plump roll of bills within his
threadbare waistcoat-pocket. Twining never saw him after that eventful
conference. He died about three weeks later of delirium tremens in a
city hospital. It was his seventh attack.

This fresh blow leveled Twining. Neither his wife nor his child ever
knew of it. But it struck into him a sort of terror at himself from
which he never recovered. He had trusted humanity for the last time. He
still remained amiable, genial, gentle. But despair had turned his heart
to lead. Both Claire and Mrs. Twining saw the change, though ignorant of
its cause. The Greenpoint epoch had now begun.

In Jersey City Claire had been sent to a public school. Here she had met
genuine daughters of the people. Some of them were almost in rags;
others represented thrifty home-surroundings; all were very different
from the sleek children of wealth and caste whom she had known at Mrs.
Arcularius's. At first she suffered torments of disgust. But by degrees
the slow, continual pressure of habit wore away the edge of her
distaste, as a constant sea-wash will blunt the rim of a shell. She
absorbed herself in study, made rapid progress, and learned much that a
fashionable school would have left untaught.

Her fastidiousness in a measure vanished. A good deal of the old
acquired nicety stayed, but her age was impressionable, and ceaseless
contact with rough manners and crude opinions wrought its certain
effect. She was now rubbing against taffetas, and before it had been
against silk. She was hearing the boorish laugh and the slovenly idiom
to-day, when yesterday she had heard the mirth of culture and the phrase
of decorum. Her young life had thus far been a strange discord of
opposing influences. She felt this in periods of half-bewildered
retrospect, and sometimes with moods of passionate melancholy as well.
The intense contrast of the changes through which she had passed,
disheartened while it stimulated her. She meant to try her best; she
wanted with all her energy to gain secure and permanent elevation; she
had no intent of sitting down and resting before she reached the top of
the hill, for her father's heated words of admonition and entreaty yet
swept their insistent echo through her spirit.

But the hill seemed a sheer steep, defiant of any foothold. If she was
eager to ascend, loath to rest, full of splendid activity, what mattered
these favoring conditions when circumstances turned them to mockery?

They were at Greenpoint, now. They had been there three years. Claire
was nineteen. Her school days had ended. They could no longer afford to
keep a servant; she had to help her mother in all menial domestic
offices. She had to bake, to sweep, to wash, to sew. She hated the
place; she hated the life. But she saw her father's hidden despair, and
so hid her own. More than this, she trembled at certain signs that his
health was failing. He would have seizures of sudden weakness at morning
or night; she feared to ask him whether they also occurred when he was
absent at his business, lest he might suspect the acute nature of her
anxiety, and so acquire new cause for worriment.

She loved him more than ever. The dread of his loss would steal with
ghastly intrusion along her dreams at night. She thought of her grim,
acrimonious mother, and said to herself: 'If he should die! It would be
terrible! I should be worse than alone!' Every kiss that she gave him
took a more clinging fondness.

He never spoke of his future. He never spoke of hers. She understood
why. Each always met the other with a smile. There was something
beautiful in their reciprocal deceit. They heard the dead leaves crackle
under their footsteps, but they strove to talk as if the boughs were in
bud.

And so the weeks went on. The bitterness of their second winter in
Greenpoint had now yielded to the mildness of a second spring. But the
vernal change brought no cheer to Claire. In the little yellowish-drab
wooden house where they dwelt, with lumber-yards and sloop-wharves
blocking all view of the river, with stupid, haggling neighbors on
either side of them, with ugliness and stagnation and poverty at
arm's-reach, was a girl so weighed upon and crushed by the stern
arbitraments of want, that she often felt herself as much a captive as
if she could not have moved a limb without hearing the clank of a
chain.



IV.


One afternoon Claire said to her mother: "I intend to take a little
holiday. I am going out for a walk." Mrs. Twining and her daughter were
in the kitchen when this very novel announcement was made. The elder
lady had just taken her preliminary steps toward the getting of supper.
She let her big knife remain bedded in the side of a large, soggy potato
that she was peeling, and glanced up at Claire with her quick black eye.
A long spiral of skin hung from the half-pared vegetable. It seemed to
denote with peculiar aptness the paralyzing effect of Mrs. Twining's
astonishment.

"Going to take a holiday, are you?" she exclaimed, with the favorite
jerky, joyless laugh. "And what am _I_ going to do, if you please? Stay
at home, no doubt, and slave over this stove till supper's cooked. Hey?"

"I cooked the supper yesterday," said Claire, "and you vowed that
everything I had done was bad, and that I should never make myself so
smart again. I recollect your exact words--'make myself so smart,'"
continued Claire, with cutting fidelity of quotation. "I would readily
do the whole cooking every afternoon, on Father's account. For he likes
the food I prepare better than he likes what you prepare. There's no
doubt about that."

"Oh, not a bit," returned Mrs. Twining, who could never cow her daughter
nowadays, and avoided all open skirmishes with Claire, preferring to
fire her volleys under cover of ambiguous sneers, being sure of rout in
any fair-fought engagement. "Not a bit, certainly. When he knows you've
pottered away at anything, he'll eat it and smack his lips over it
whether it's roasted to a cinder, or as raw as a fresh clam."

"I'm very glad to hear you say so," returned Claire, with a weary little
smile. "It's pleasant to think Father loves me like that."

Mrs. Twining vigorously resumed work on her potato, speaking at the same
time. "Pity about both o' you two, I _do_ declare," she retorted,
lapsing into the vernacular with which she loved to accompany her worst
gibes. "'Pears to me that if he's so fond o' _you_ he mightn't have made
you the poor mean fag at nineteen that he's made o' me at forty-four;
and if you are so fond o' _him_, why, you might try and catch a decent
husband, with a few dollars in his pocket, to raise up the family out o'
the mud and muck Francis Twining's got it in."

Claire's eyes flashed a little; but she was not specially angered; she
was so used to this kind of verbal savagery.

"Father never meant anything but good to either of us," she said, "and
you know it. I don't want to hear you speak against him when he is away
and can't defend himself. _I_ am able to defend him, if I choose. I
think you know that, Mother, by this time. I'm going out, as I told you.
I shall be back rather soon, I suppose."

She left the kitchen, and presently the house as well. She might have
stayed to wrangle; but she knew that would be for no purpose. She had
stood up for her loved father so often, and always with the same
results. Her wit was quicker than her mother's; it could thrust deeper
and parry more dexterously; but she was very tired of this aimless
warfare, where she got wounds that she hid and gave wounds that it cost
her only pain to deal. She had no definite idea whither she would go, on
quitting the house. At first she took her way through the cheap and
vulgar main street of Greenpoint. It was the first real day of Spring;
the air was bland; something had called her forth to breathe it, even
here in this dreary spot. She did not quite know whence the silent
summons had come. She was by no means sure if it were her own youth that
had called her, conspiring in some subtile way with the push of leaves
and grasses out toward the strengthened sunshine. She had felt old and
tired, of late; the monotony of toil had dulled her spirits; her
mother's arrowy slurs had pierced and hurt her more than she guessed.
But the mild atmosphere, stirred by tender breezes, made it pleasant to
be abroad, even in this malodorous thoroughfare.

Everything was dull and common. It seemed a sort of beautiful outrage
that the pure, misty blue of the afternoon sky should arch so
contentedly over these slimy gutters, shabby tenements, dirty children,
and neglected sidewalks. A German woman jostled against her as she
pressed onward; the woman carried a pail of liquid refuse, and issued
from a near doorway. She had a tawdry red bow at her throat, one or two
smaller bows to match it in her tossed blonde hair, and an immense flat
water-curl glued against either temple, with the effect of some old
hieroglyph. She was a beer-seller's wife, and she was about to empty her
vessel of stale malt upon the neighboring cobble-stones. But the random
speed of her gait caused her to collide abruptly with Claire's passing
figure, and some of the contents of her pail shot out upon the latter's
dress, making an instant stain. Claire paused, and looked at the woman
with a slight annoyed motion of the head. The offender was a
high-tempered person; it was currently whispered by members of their
special Teuton clique that her husband was a rank socialist who had been
forced to fly the police of his native town overseas, and that she
shared in secret his rebellious opinions. This may or may not have been
truth; but the woman flung her pailful fiercely into the street, and
then as fiercely confronted Claire.

"Vell, vat you got to say?" she cried, shrilly. "You looks at me as if I
vass to blame for you running against me, ain't it? I see you before.
You ain't much, annerhow. You got a big lot uf airs; you valks shust
like a grant laty." Here the virago dropped her pail, set a hand on
either hip, and attempted, with sad lack of success, while two long,
tarnished ear-rings oscillated in her big, flushed ears, to imitate
Claire's really graceful walk. "Sho," she continued, in sarcastic
explanation of her parody. "You valks jush sho! Bud you ain't much. You
ain't no laty. You better stop ride avay treing to be one. Dot's too
thin, dot iss. Aha, you're off. I t'ought I'd freiden you!"

Claire was indeed "off," and moving somewhat briskly, too. She had grown
rather white. This rude encounter left a harsh memory behind it. For
some time she could not dissipate the recollection of the German jade's
insolence.

"Perhaps she was right," her set lips at length murmured. "I am _not_ a
lady. I _had_ better stop right away trying to be one."

A little later she had quitted the main street of the town, and gained
an open expanse at whose verge the houses stood with wide gaps between
them, as though a forlorn effort had been made to conquer vacancy by
ugliness. But vacancy had won the fight; space never resisted time with
more complete conquest. An immense drab plain, shorn of the least green
feature, now stretched before Claire's gaze. On one hand, like a slow,
interminable snake, wound a black thread of slimy creek, flanked by
ragged embankments of crumbling clay. On the other hand was a dull, bare
sweep, unrelieved by even a single hut. Far to the eastward, facing
Claire, gleamed a wide assemblage of cottages; this was a settlement
that some wag or optimist, whichever he may have been, had long ago
named Blissville.

Claire had a fanciful thought, now, as she walked along the hard
macadamized road which the incessant trains of funerals took toward
Calvary, that Blissville, seen so distantly at the end of this treeless,
herbless waste, was like the mirage glimpsed by a wanderer on a desert.
But she might more aptly have compared the lonely desolation which
encompassed her to those classic fields where the Greek and Roman dead
found their reputed bourne. The shocking creek would have made an
excellent Styx, and even the most barren imagination could have traced
ready analogy between these monotonous levels of sun-baked mud and the
flowerless lands where disconsolate shades were supposed to wander.

The tender amethyst sky, arching over this hideous spot, alone saved it,
to-day, from the last sort of infernal suggestiveness. An enormous
funeral presently appeared in sight, just as Claire reached a certain
uncouth bridge that spanned a curve of the impure current. The slow
procession of dark carriages uncoiled itself, so to speak, from the
massed habitations of Greenpoint, and drew gradually nearer without yet
revealing its final vehicle. It was a mortuary cavalcade of phenomenal
length, even for the present place, where New York quite often sends
some of her worst reprobates to their graves under conditions of the
most imposing solemnity. The whole retinue was at last unfurled upon the
smooth roadway, along which it crawled with something of the same
serpentine stealthiness as that of the almost parallel creek. A sombre
rivalry seemed evident, now, between the two differing streams. This
blank tract of repulsive land, so strangely dedicated to death, had lost
every hint of Lethean likeness. The arrival of the funeral had wrought
striking change. Here we had the modern mode of dealing with death. It
seemed to make paganism wither and vanish. An old, half-rotten barge,
moored in a slushy cove, might have served for an emblem of the decay
and contempt now fallen upon antique legend. Was this the melancholy
boat that once ferried the ghosts to Hades? Ah! but if so, the oars were
lost, the planks leaked wofully, and the grim pilot had gone permanently
away into the great shadow-land of all the dead gods! Claire looked
toward the coming funeral, and shuddered in silence. There seemed so
unholy a contrast between her own fresh, vital maidenhood and this
ghastly, morbid domain. How had her healthful young spirit ever courted
death, that it should thus force upon her its continual grisly
fellowship? She placed both elbows on the rough balustrade of the
bridge, leaned her fair girlish chin against both hands, and stared
straight before her across the bleak heath. Not far off several
venturesome swine were waddling; they were near enough for their absurd
grunts now and then to reach her, and for her to see the pink flush of
their cumbrous bodies between coarse, soiled hairs, and the earthward
thrust of their long, gray, cylindrical noses. But a moment later a
flock of pigeons suddenly lighted just at the foot of the bridge, on a
little loamy flat. The sight gave her a thrill of pleasure. It was so
odd to get any bit of beauty here, and each bird was a true bit of
beauty, with its flexible irised neck, its rounded sleekness, and its
rosy feet. Presently the flock began their rich peculiar coo, and the
sound fascinated Claire as much as their shapes had done. She quite
forgot the advancing funeral; here were color, grace, and a sort of
music. They had fallen to her, as might be said, from the skies. In a
dumb, unformulated way she wished that more of all three charms would so
fall to her. It was such a wretched doom to dwell in this abominable
suburb. All her youth was being wasted here. She was already getting
rather old. She was already nearly twenty--four months of her twentieth
year had gone--and she had been accustomed to think people quite old
when they were twenty. Would it last years longer? Ah! to fly as those
lovely birds could! Why had they come hither, of all places in the
world? If she were a green-and-purple thing, with strong wings, like any
of them, she would soar away to the window of some rich lady's house on
Fifth Avenue, and be taken inside some handsome chamber, perhaps, and
fed and petted--yes, even put into a cage, if the lady chose. A cage
there would be better than one's full freedom here, where the dead were
always going to their graves.

From a reverie which may or may not have resembled this if it had been
made into actual language, the sudden spontaneous flight of the whole
charming flock roused poor ruminative Claire. She now perceived that the
funeral train had drawn much nearer. A sort of metallic resonance
sounded from the many horse-hooves on the hard surface of the road. But
another sound, at this point, turned her attention elsewhere. It was a
cracked, thin, piping voice, and its utterances were delivered only a
short distance from her side. She discovered that an old man had joined
her on the bridge during her absorbed preoccupation with the pigeons. He
was a very old man; he leant on a staff, and was clad in an evident
holiday-attire of black, whose rusty broadcloth hung about his shrunken
shape with tell-tale looseness; it had too evidently been cut for a far
more portly person. He had a wrinkled face, and yet one of rubicund
plumpness; a spot of red flushed each cheek, centring in a little
crimson net-work of veins there, while the same peculiarity cropped out
a third time, as it were, on the ball-like lump at the end of his
irregular nose. Claire had a feeling, as she looked at him, that he was
a reformed toper. Everything about him told of present sobriety, but he
was like a colored lantern seen without the illuminative candle; you had
a latent certainty, as you regarded him, that only a few glasses of
sufficiently bad liquor were needed to warm up those three red spots
into their old auroral splendor. While speaking, he put forth a brown
hand that trembled a good deal. The tremor came, no doubt, from senile
feebleness, and the hand was so gnarled and knotty that it might almost
have been one of those rough excrescences which sometimes bulge from
tree-trunks, instead of the sad rheumatic member that it really was. The
new-comer spoke with an extremely strong Irish accent, and in a hollow,
husky voice that implied, on first hearing it, a kind of elfin and
subterranean origin.

"Begorra, ma'am, here it is, ma'am! I'm alludin' to the funeral, ma'am.
Shure I made th' ould woman dresh me up in mee besht clothes thish day,
ma'am, so I did. Fur it's Mishter Bairned McCafferty that's to be buried
thish day, I sez, ma'am, sez I to th' ould woman, I sez, an' sez I, ever
since I haird he wasn't expected, I sez, it's his wake I wants to be
goin' to. An' if I wus too ould, I sez, to crossh over an' pay mee
respechts when they waked him in the city, sez I, it'll be meeself, I
sez, that'll shtand here an' watch 'em parade 'im to Calvary, ma'am, sez
I."

Claire had a pity for the old man, at first. But before his speech ended
he had roused in her a repulsion. He appeared quietly hilarious; he had
produced several distinct chuckles, and his watery, peering eyes, which
one of his misshapen hands soon shaded, revealed an actually gay
twinkle.

"I don't see why you wanted to come out and watch the person go to his
grave," said Claire. "What pleasure can that possibly give you?"

"Pleasure, ma'am, is it, ma'am?" was the startled response. "Why, shure,
ma'am, it's the foinest funeral that's been seen in these parts, ma'am,
fur manny a day! An' it's mee own son, Larry, that's drivin' the hairse,
ye'll understand, ma'am, an' it's a proud day for Larry, so it is.
Excuse me, ma'am, but do ye take sight o' the hairse yet?"

"Oh, yes; very well," said Claire. "It has a number of wooden ornaments
along its top, that are gilded and look like large black cabbages." She
gave a little burst of weary laughter as she finished the last sentence,
whose irony was quite lost on her dim-sighted companion. "And its sides
are glass," she continued, "and you can see the large coffin within
quite plainly, and there are four horses with white and black plumes."

"An'--an'--the carriages, ma'am, if ye plaise, ma'am?" eagerly
questioned the old man. "Shure there should be forty if there's wan,
ma'am, an' a few loight wagons thrown in behoind as well. How's that,
ma'am?"

"I think there must be forty," said Claire, turning a curious look on
the questioner, as he bent excitedly forward to hear her answer. "And
there are several light wagons, also."

The old man rubbed his weird hands together in gleeful ecstasy, nearly
toppling over as he did so, because the act necessitated a transient
disregard of the needful prop lent by his staff. "Shure I towld th' ould
woman jusht that!" he cried, in great triumph. "Shure I sez to her, sez
I, Barney McCafferty's too daicent a man, I sez, to go to his grave, sez
I, anny less daicenter nor that, I sez. It'll be forty carriages, I sez,
if it's wan. An' there'll be a shport or so, sez I to her, ma'am (bee
thish shtick in mee hand, ma'am, I sed it, ma'am!) there'll be a shport
or so that'll bring a buggy or so, sez I, for a woind up at the end, I
sez, like the laugh that comes, ye mind, at the tail of a joke, I sez.
An' it's you I'm thankful to, ma'am, fur the loan o' your two broight
eyes, ma'am, that lets me see the soight that God's denied me, ma'am:
an' I mean, wid a blessin' to yer, the shtyle o' the hairse an' the
gineral natur o' the intertainmint altogether, ma'am, the Lord love yer
fur yer frindly assistance!"

"Perhaps you can see the funeral better when it gets in front of the
bridge," said Claire, somewhat kindly, but with a shocked sense still
remaining. Her varied past, that had shown her so many differing human
phases, had not till now presented to her the extraordinary fact of how
positively festal are the associations with which the Irish, as our
shores find them, are wont to accompany death. At the same time, she
felt interested, and rather curious. She could always manage, on brief
notice, to feel interested and curious regarding any fellow-creature;
and this trait (one that has grown historic among the most noted
charmers of her own sex) was now tested to perhaps its last limits.

"Does your son always drive hearses?" she continued, unconsciously
looking at the old man as if he were something in a museum, to be
marveled at for antiquity and strangeness, but not, on pain of
expulsion, to be touched.

"Oh, no, ma'am. Larry's wan o' the hands to a livery shtable, ma'am; but
yer see, ma'am, he's timperance, an' so they gives 'im the hairse at
mosht o' the high-toned funerals, bekase they're shure, then, that
there'll be no dishrespect showed to the corpse, y' undershtand. An'
it's always the behavior o' the hairse that's mosht cruticized, fur if
that goes an' comes quiet, wid no singin' nur shkylarkin' on the part o'
him that drives it, d' y' undershtand, why there's lesh talk nur if all
the mourners an' relashuns should come home shtavin' drunk, ma'am, d' ye
mind?"

"And who is this Bernard McCafferty?" asked Claire.

"Is it Barney McCafferty that ye're ashkin' about?" was the old man's
amazed response, a sharp falsetto note piercing through his usual
huskiness. "Why, shure, ma'am, he run six places acrosh in the city fur
tin year all to wanst, so he did, an' that ain't countin' the wan he
kep' in Harlem, naythur."

This explanation was delivered with an air of astonished rebuke, as
though one should enumerate the possessions of some slighted prince.

"What sorts of places do you mean?" inquired Claire.

The old man put his head on one side and looked at her with uneasy
suspicion, as though he feared she was making sport of him.

"Places? Why, liquor-sthores, to be sure."

"Oh," said Claire. "And what did he die of? Drink?"

Her companion brightened noticeably, and seemed to gain confidence in
his questioner. He scratched one cheek, where the unshorn beard showed
in white, bristly patches along the fleshless jaw, and winked at Claire
as though she had at once put the matter upon a basis of mutual and
intimate comprehension.

"I guess it _wus_ the drink ash laid 'im out at lasht, ma'am. Manny is
the good glass I had wid Barney afore he went into politics an' got
shut of his besht frinds, bad luck to 'im. But he shtood well up to his
liquor fur nigh forty year, though I'm thinkin' it fetched 'im in the
end, ma'am."

This was said with the manner and tone of a person who might have
alluded to some rather genteel foible in the deceased, like a fondness
for chess or whist. Claire found herself confronting another fact in the
lower Irish nature, hitherto but half surmised: the enormous indulgence
and sympathetic tolerance with which this unique race regards every form
and feature of drunkenness.

"If he sold liquor all his life and died of it himself," she exclaimed,
with heat and force, "he doesn't deserve to have half so large a
funeral. And I think it's dreadful," she went on, with a little angry
stamp of the foot, while she lifted one finger and shook it at the old
man in a way with which her sex had doubtless familiarized him at an
earlier stage in his long career--"yes, I think it's perfectly horrible
that you people should ever dare to get drunk at funerals as you do! I
often see the carriage-loads come back from the cemetery through
Greenpoint, laughing and smoking, and sometimes yelling and swearing as
well! Oh, I don't know how you _can_ do it! There is something so grand,
so terrible about death! You ought to be ashamed, all of you! Such
actions make this place more sad and wretched than it really is. It is a
miserable place enough, Heaven knows!"

She moved away from the old man as she spoke the last sentence. Going
forth upon the road, she retraced her steps in the direction of the
town, and thus met each separate vehicle of the long funeral as it
stole laggingly onward. First came the black-and-gilt hearse, flaunting
its interior coffin with horrid ostentation, as though it wanted you to
see how many wreaths and crosses had been lavished upon the remains of
Mr. McCafferty by his bereaved constituents. Then followed a carriage to
whose driver had been confided a capacious wooden box which would
doubtless receive the coffin before its interment, and into which the
driver, having placed its glaring unpainted mass on a line with the
dashboard, had thrust his feet, and by the act engulfed, as it were,
nearly half his person. He was a man of sallow, cadaverous visage and
very gaunt frame; he looked as if he might possess some eerie fellowship
with the corpse itself; he seemed to alter the popular phrase about
having a foot in the grave, and to make it quite thinkable that life
could exist under still more moribund conditions. In the conveyance
which he drove was a group of four people. Two of them were stout
Irishwomen, swathed in crape, and two were middle-aged Irishmen, dressed
with a holiday smartness. In this vehicle silence appeared to reign; its
occupants, all four, sat with lowered eyes. But in the other carriages,
as one by one passed Claire, not a sign of grief was manifest. There was
a good deal of audible conversation; there was considerable leaning of
heads out of windows; there were not a few querulous children of various
ages, some of whom had been given oranges to suck or sticks of striped
candy to munch; there were buxom women and spare women, massive men and
slim men, little girls and little boys, all huddled together, quite
often three or even more on a seat. But in the whole long panorama of
human visages, as it glided past her, Claire could not discern a single
trace of solemnity. The impression of mere hollow and senseless form was
produced, by this crude _cortège_, with complete and dismal success.
Nobody--with the slight exceptions recorded--seemed to be sorry that Mr.
McCafferty had made a permanent departure from the liquor-business.

"I wonder why they come, if they are not sorry," Claire said to herself,
as she reëntered the town, leaving the great serpentine funeral behind
her. "I suppose it is because of the ride. They seize on even this grim
excuse for getting a little pastime." ... Then her thoughts took a new,
self-questioning turn. "And what reason have I to pity them and call
them 'poor'? They come here only in the way of holiday, but I never get
a glimpse of anything better or worse, month after month. I dare say
there _are_ worse places than this. I should like to see one, if there
really are, just for the change."

Passing back through the unlovely streets again, Claire had a desire to
be near the water before she returned in-doors. She now regretted not
having gone thither at first, instead of taking her dolorous inland
walk. It was nearly sunset; the twilight had not yet learned to loiter,
as it does in maturer Spring, and a gloom had already crept, with
purplish effect, into the sweet pale azure of the heavens. Claire made
as short a cut toward one special place at the water's edge as her
regretted familiarity with Greenpoint would permit, and presently stood
on a raised spot close beside the river. It was a bare scarp of earth,
touched faintly, here and there, with the most meagre intervals of
struggling green. Its site commanded the delightful view beyond, and
now, at the ruddy but transient advent of evening, this view was
peculiarly delightful. You saw the wrinkled river, drab and tremulous,
under a stretch of sky which the sinking sun had made from verge to
zenith a turmoil of little rosy and feathery clouds. Each cloud had the
damask glow, without its fleetness, that we see in the scales of a
darting trout. The whole ember-colored array arched over the wide stream
in brief, unusual brilliancy, and stole now and then from the gray waves
beneath it a slight gleam, no larger than the bud of a carnation, but
quite as rich-hued. Just beneath Claire was a low, uncouth, many-patched
hut, near to the muddy strand, and looking not unlike something that had
drifted up from aqueous recesses with the intent of making itself
habitable for men. A ragged contiguous wharf had been built here, at
whose edge, when summer came, small boats would be grouped to let. A
little northward, great yellowish piles of lumber loomed, tier after
tier, with big sloops moored beside them, and with one acute red pennon,
on one slim mast, blown out bright against the darkening air. Steamboats
and sail-boats were slipping over the ruffled river, these urged by
their steady mechanic push, those winning the capricious breeze to favor
their full-stretched canvas. Beyond, in dusky, irregular semicircle, lay
the opposite city. Its many church-spires pierced the dimness, but all
its other traits of architecture, viewed at this distance, had a flat,
massed look. There was something symbolic in the isolated saliency of
these spires; they seemed to typify the permanence of a faith which had
already defied centuries. But still more, their vague group merged every
detail of creed into one pictorial whole; you forgot, as you gazed,
what various paths toward salvation this or that steeple might be
supposed to point. The whole effect was simply and powerfully Christian.

Claire fixed her eyes upon the shadowy city. A few early lights already
dotted its expanse with gold, as if to outspeed the tardier stars
overhead. It spread away, for the gaze that watched it, like a huge
realm of fascinating mystery. Claire forgot how much sin it hid; perhaps
she scarcely knew if it hid any. She thought only of the diversions,
relaxations, festivities that would soon hold sway there. Odd memories
of her old school-fellows crossed her mind. Doubtless Ada Gerrard was
there now, thinking of some new robe in which she would show her plump
white neck with the little freckles on it, that very evening. It should
be a pale-blue dress, Claire decided; that would suit Ada's red hair the
best. How full was the big city, yonder, of happy, handsome, prosperous
people! And so many of them were saying, now that the nightfall had
begun, "I shall go to this ball to-night," or "I shall go to that
theatre." They were getting the theatres ready for the plays, now; the
entrances were being lighted. She could see Wallack's and the Union
Square, each with its small court and the baize doors beyond. Oh, how
pleasant it would be to do something, to look at something, to hear
something, to-night, that she had not done and looked at and heard,
again and again, for weeks and months past! The girl's blood and bone
hungered for a holiday. She must go back home, soon. And there was only
one thought to make the prospect of return endurable; that thought was
meeting her father. But he would be tired; he was always more tired
nowadays than in other times. When he lay upon the lounge in the
basement, and she got the stool and sat down beside him, he would smile
to have her put both arms round his neck and press her cheek up close to
his, but he would go to sleep very soon afterward; he would be so tired
that he would forget even to ask her if she had had a hard time with her
mother that day. And then her mother would grumble a hint that the
dishes were yet to be washed, and she would take her arms away from the
beloved neck, and scrape and clean for quite a long time; and then she
would get sleepy, more because she remembered how early she must rise
to-morrow than because a very little diversion would not have made the
alert young lids loath to shade her eyes for hours to come.

It would all be the same as on other nights. It was always, every new
night, the same as on that which went before. There was the dull burden
of it. When would the burden be shifted? Would it ever be shifted? Would
it not merely grow heavier, and slowly crush her down, till her back
should get the crook of age, and so bear it with better ease?

She went nearer to the edge of the hillock, and set her eyes once more
upon the city, as if for a farewell view. Its lights had become more
numerous; the tips of its spires were lost in tender vapor. Above, the
tiny scraps of luminous cloud had begun to fade; the river had roughened
and grown dull, and there was a damp keenness in the freshening breeze.
That exquisite melancholy which is sure to breathe from evening when it
sheds a spell over the triple charm of blended sky, land, and water, was
now in the full tide of its lovely power.

Claire lifted her hand to her lips, and waved a kiss toward the glooming
city. It was a pretty gesture, and so furtive and stealthy that it might
have fled the notice of any one who stood quite close at her side. And
the low words that now succeeded it, too, were just low enough to escape
such heed, though their sense might easily have met a possible listener
with the effect of broken and half-audible speech.

"Good-night," she said to the city. "Good-night, and be merry for hours
to come. You seem just like something alive and breathing, but I know
that if you had one mind and one heart to think and to feel with,
instead of the thousands and thousands that you have got, you would pity
me because I'm so sorry that this big, cold river is always between us!"

Claire nearly broke into a laugh at her own soft and quaint little
apostrophe. Like most lonely people who dislike their solitude, she
often felt the temptation to soliloquize; especially since her
imagination was vigorous, and sometimes loved, as well, to let mount
from its wrist the agile falcon of fancy. But a practical bent, as we
call it, and a rather sharp sense of the humor of things besides,
usually mingled to repress this volatile impulse. As it was, she gave a
strong, tired sigh instead of a laugh, and turned her face homeward,
though not her steps quite yet, for she still remained standing on the
mound beside the water.

"My holiday," she thought, "is over." She did not know that it was just
beginning.

Her last action had brought her into abrupt contact with a girlish
figure, whose countenance she might have recognized had not the dusk so
deepened.



V.


"I was mos' sure '_twas_ you, Miss Twining," said the new-comer, holding
out a hand to Claire, "so I run a little further up the hill, jus' to
make reel _certain_ sure."

"Well, you were not wrong, Josie," said Claire, giving her own hand. It
did not occur to her that she had been called "Miss Twining" and had
answered by "Josie." In this case she took her rights of superiority
without thinking; she did not stop to consider their soundness; it had
always been to her an accepted fact that she was an alien and an exile,
here in Greenpoint, and that the few residents whom she knew must of
necessity admit her claim to having existed under better previous
conditions. There was no taint of arrogance in this unargued assumption.

"You ain't often out's late's this, Miss Twining," said Josie, with a
little burst of laughter. "Are you, now?"

"No, indeed," answered Claire. "I am not often out at all." She sighed
again, quite unconsciously. "Well, Josie," she went on, "I must be
getting back home. I've been away too long, as it is. You seem to be
dressed in your very finest. Does it mean that you are going to enjoy
yourself somewhere?"

Josie gave another laugh. "I expect so, Miss Twining," she said, with a
touch of mysterious piquancy in her manner. She turned herself quickly
about, looking over her shoulder all the while with the air of waiting
for some one to appear. Claire watched her closely during the
unconscious but significant by-play.

The name of this young girl was Josephine Morley. She was of Irish
parents, but felt ashamed of the fact. Perhaps consciously, perhaps not,
she had banished from her speech all hereditary traces. She spoke in a
rattling way, and every now and then she would heap massive emphasis on
one special word. Her talk made you think of a railway that is all
broken up with _dépôts_, none of which the engine discountenances. Her
widowed mother kept a grocery store, not amply patronized, and of
moderate prices. By pre-arrangement with the Twinings on a basis of the
most severe economy, Josie would bring them their needed supply of
vegetables thrice a week. She was not so jaunty-looking on those
occasions as she now appeared. Then she would be clad in any flotsam and
jetsam of apparel that charity might have drifted toward her. But
to-night she was smartly dressed. Now that Claire scanned her closer in
the dimness, it was plain that she wore very unusual gear. Josie was not
much over twenty. She was extremely thin, but still rather shapely, and
endowed with a good deal of grace. Her face would have been pretty but
for its high cheek-bones and the hectic blotch of color that was wont to
flush them, in sharp contrast with her remaining pallor. She had had
several sisters who had died of a speedy consumption. Her eyes were
black, and would glitter as she moved them; she was always moving her
eyes; like herself, they never seemed at rest. She constantly smiled,
and the smile would have had a charm of its own if it had failed to
reveal somewhat ruinous teeth. Claire had always liked her vivacity,
though it had seemed to possess a spur that came from an unhealthy
impulse, like the heat of internal fever. She wore a wide-brimmed hat of
dark straw, with a great crimson feather, and a costume of some cheap
maroon stuff, violently relieved by trimmings of broad white braid. The
_ensemble_ was very far from ugly. She had copied its effect from a
popular weekly journal, whose harrowing fiction would sometimes be
supplemented by prints of the latest fashions, "given away" to its
devoted patrons.

Claire, having drawn nearer to Josie, took in all her details of costume
with ready swiftness. This fleet sort of observation was always an easy
matter for Claire. In most cases of a like sort, she would both see and
judge before others had accomplished even the first process.

"You seem to be waiting for somebody, Josie," she now said.

"Yes, I am," returned Josie, with another laugh. She put one slim hand
to her mouth as she laughed; she nearly always employed this gesture at
such a time; it came, no doubt, from a consciousness of dental
deficiencies. "I ain't goin' to be _shy_, Miss Twining," she pursued.
"Why _should_ I? I'm expectin' a gent'man friend o' mine. We was goin'
over t' the city together. We was goin' to _Niblo's_. There's an el'gant
play there, they _say_." ... Here Josie paused, drew backward for an
instant, and then impulsively seized one of Claire's hands in both of
her own. "Oh, Miss Twining!" she suddenly exclaimed, "I know I hadn't
ought to ask you if _you'd_ come along, too, but I do wish you just
_would_! You ain't the same kind as me a bit, and there's more'n me in
Greenpoint--now, 'pon my word there is--that's said when they see you
that you _was_ a reel lady. But still, you might come with me and my
friend, Mr. MacNab, and just get a spell of _'musement_. I know you
ain't had any 'musement in goodness sakes _how_ long! It's a reel
el'gant play! Do say you will! Now I ain't a bit _soft_ on Mr. MacNab.
P'aps he'd _like_ me to be, but I ain't. So three won't spoil comp'ny.
Now, _do_! Oh, Miss Twining, I'd be awful glad if you _would!_"

Josie's tones, like her words, were warmly persuasive. She still
retained Claire's hand. Nor did Claire withdraw it. She was tempted. She
turned her head toward the darkling city, in whose realm of deepened
shadow many new lights had begun to burn.

"Ah, Josie," she said, "you are very kind to ask me. But I'm quite
shabby beside you, you know."

"Pshaw!" flatly objected Josie; "you look fust rate. That ain't _no_
sort of reason.... Do! Now, _do_!"

Claire laughed nervously. She was thinking how pleasant it would be to
hear an orchestra play, to see a curtain rise, to watch a drama roll its
story out, behind vivid footlights, between painted scenes.

"I am sure Mr. MacNab wouldn't like," she said. And then she thought of
how her father would soon come home and miss her, and have to be told,
when they next met, that she had been to the theatre over in New York
with the girl who brought them vegetables thrice a week. She seemed
quite to have made up her mind, presently. She withdrew her hand from
Josie's with a good deal of placid force.

"No, Josie, I can't," she said.

"Yes, you _can_!" was the fervid reply. "Yes, you just _shall_, Miss
Twining; now _there_! I ain't goin' t' let you _off_! When I get my mind
set right _onto_ anything, I'm as stubb'n as ever I can _be_! An' I'm
sure you'd _like_ to come. There ain't no doubt of 't--not one single
_grain_!"

Josie was laughing while she thus spoke, and had again caught Claire's
unwilling hand with more of entreaty than boldness.

"What makes you sure?" Claire asked. She smiled now, though the smile
was sad.

Josie's laughter became a high treble ripple. She put both feet, visible
beneath her short skirt, suddenly very close together, and curved her
lithe body in an abrupt burlesque bow. The trick was graceful, though
vulgar; it savored of the cheaper variety entertainments, where Josie
had no doubt found it. She still held Claire's hand, and she was looking
straight into the eyes of her companion with her own dark, brisk eyes.

"What _makes_ me sure you'd like to go?" she said. "Why, sakes alive,
Miss Twining, I can see the need of a little fun oozin' right out of
your _face_--now, 'pon my word and sacred honor I just _can_! Oh, pshaw!
We'll be home early 'nough. It won't be _much_ more'n quarter past
'leven, I guess. B'sides, who'll _know_? 'Tain't anybody's business but
_ours_."

'Father would know. It would be his business,' Claire thought. But she
did not answer aloud, as yet. She permitted Josie to retain her hand,
while she turned and gave another glance toward the city across the
river.

The rapid darkness had thickened. Where New York had lain, dim as a
mirage, hundreds of lights had clustered; their yellow galaxy more than
rivaled the pale specks of fire now crowding with silent speed into the
heavens domed so remotely above them.

She faced Josie again. She trembled, though imperceptibly. Drooping her
eyes, at first, she then raised them. "Well," she said, "I will let you
persuade me. I will go with you, Josie."

It was the first time she had ever made a resolve whose fulfillment she
felt sure would displease her father. The certainty that he would not
sanction her going in companionship of this proposed sort made Claire's
decision a sacrilege to herself, even while she perversely took it. She
trampled on her own filial loyalty, and she seemed to feel it tremble in
pained protest under the outrage. It was in vain that a troop of
self-excusing pleas sprang to battle against her shamed afterthought.
She knew that remorse was already whetting for her its poniard. The
gloom of her father's future rebuke had already made itself a part of
the increasing nightfall.

"Oh, ain't I glad, though!" Josie broke forth, gleefully. Her triumph
was one of pure good-natured impulse, but at the same time she had a
flattered sense that her evening's amusement would now gain a stamp of
distinction. One or two girls in Greenpoint had derided her for
encouraging Mr. MacNab as a devotee. She herself secretly derided the
young man in that same tender office. For this reason she had arranged
that they should meet here to-night at the foot of the little hillock
near the river, and invest their purposed trip with enough clandestine
association to defeat the couchant raillery of certain unsparing
neighbors.

Almost immediately Mr. MacNab made his appearance below, and Josie
tripped lightly down toward him, followed by Claire at a much more sober
pace. The introduction promptly followed, and Josie's glib,
matter-of-course explanation soon succeeded that. The reason of Claire's
presence was given Mr. MacNab by Josie with a handsome, off-hand
patronage. "It's awful nice o' Miss Twining to _consent_ to go along
with us," she ended. "_Aint_ it, now?"

"Oh, yes, indeed," said Mr. MacNab.

The young man was inwardly tortured by this abrupt announcement. He was
very much in love with Josie, and he had felt deeper and deeper thrills
of anticipation all day long, as the hour of their rendezvous drew near.
He was a youth of about two-and-twenty. His stature was so low as to be
almost dwarfish; both Claire's and Josie's well overtopped it. He was
very stout, however; the breadth of his shoulders and the solid girth of
his limbs might have suited six feet of clean height. He had a large,
smooth, moon-like face, a pair of little black eyes, and a pair of huge
red ears. He was immoderately ugly, but with an expression so simply
amiable as quite to escape repulsiveness. You felt that his ready smile
possessed vast hidden funds of geniality; there was no telling what
supple resources that long slit of big-lipped mouth might draw upon, at
a really mirthful emergency. One glance at his abnormal hands, where
every joint was an uncouth protuberance and every nail a line of inky
darkness, left it certain that they held no dainty share of the world's
manual requirements. Mr. James MacNab was an oyster-opener for about
eight months in the year, and a clam-opener through the remaining four.
The narrow window of his employer's shop looked upon Greenpoint Avenue,
wedged between the stores of a butcher and a candy-seller. Like Josie
Morley, James was of Irish parentage; like her, he abjured the accent of
his ancestors, having been born here, and having breathed into his being
at an early age that peculiar shame of Celtic origin which belongs among
our curiosities of immigration. His wages were meagre, and his hours of
work numerous. To-night was a precious interval of relaxation. He had
been released at three o'clock that afternoon, and had gone heavy-lidded
to a tiny cot in a garret-room, where he had slept the exhausted sleep
of one who is always in arrears to the drowsy god. Not long ago he had
waked, highly refreshed, and pierced with the expectation of soon
meeting his beloved Josie. He had four dollars and seventy-five cents in
his pocket, and the possession of this sum gave him a firm sense of
pecuniary security. The strong faith that he was finely dressed, too,
increased his confidence. He had a little low hat of black felt, tipped
sideways on his ungainly head; an overcoat of muddy cinnamon-brown, with
broad black binding along its lappels and edges; and a pair of boots so
capably polished that their lustre dissuaded you from too close scrutiny
of the toe-joint bulging from either clumsy foot. He was entirely
satisfied with his general effect. He knew that nature had not made him
comely, but he felt complete repose of conscience in the matter of
having atoned artistically for this personal slight.

Josie's tidings left him almost speechless. In a trice his glowing hopes
had crumbled to ashes. He had long known Claire by sight. He had, in a
way, admired her. But she was not of his _monde_, and he saw with woe
and dismay that for this reason her company would prove all the more
burdensome. As a matter of expense, too, it presented the most painful
objections. New drafts must be made upon his limited capital. All his
past calculations were suddenly rendered null. Who could say what
financial disaster might overtake him, if he should now aspire to three
oyster-stews after three seats at the theatre? Would his four dollars
and seventy-five cents not pass its powers of elasticity if subjected to
this unforeseen stretching-process? Claire, meanwhile, was wholly
unconscious of his distress. It was not till they had embarked on the
ferry-boat that the thought of her escort's possible poverty occurred to
her flurried mind. "Oh, Josie," she soon found a chance to whisper, "I
am afraid I shall be a great expense to your friend! I would have
thought of it sooner if you had not pressed me so, without any warning
beforehand. And I have only a little change in my pocket, so I can't"--

But here Josie interrupted her with a magnificent murmured fiction to
the effect that they were under the protection of a young man who "jus'
made money hand over fist"; and Claire, believing this handsome
falsehood, let Josie talk with her gallant while she relapsed into
silence.

They were all on the forward deck of the steamboat, close against its
wooden railing. Claire was a little apart from her companions; she had
instinctively withdrawn from them. The night had now woven its web to
the full. Overhead the stars beamed more richly; below, the black river
shimmered with glassy lustre where it met the sides of the speeding
vessel, and then rolled off again into darkness with great swollen
waves. Long points of light pierced the gloom below the opposite shore,
like golden plummets that were slowly fathoming its opaque tide. Here
and there scarlet or green lights moved over the waters, given by the
viewless barks that bore them the look of weird, wandering
jack-o'-lanterns. These were simply fantastic; they held no human
analogies. A sloop, thus brilliantly decked, hove on a sudden into
sight, not many yards from Claire's peering gaze. Its expanse of canvas,
tense in the sharp breeze, caught a momentary unearthly pallor; it
slipped into view like a monstrous phantom, and like a phantom it
vanished again. This, too, was a merely elfin and quaint apparition; no
sense of vital reality lay behind it. But the journeying ferry-boats,
that voyaged to their several goals on either side the river, took, with
their curved lines of small, keen-lit windows and their illuminations at
various other points, the likeness of stately galleys gliding after
nightfall to some opulent port. All their horrors of nautical
architecture were deadened by merciful shadow. Claire felt the quiet
splendor of the suggestion. Her varied educational past made this fully
possible. But the whole effect of transformation, of magic, of mystery,
and of beauty, which follows the advent of night along all the watery
environs of our great metropolis, appealed to her with deep force.

She had a fancy that the hard prose had left her life forever; that she
was now being softly swept into luxurious and romantic surroundings;
that the festal and poetic look of city and river symbolized a fairer
and kindlier future. The indulgence of this fancy thrilled her
delightfully; it was a sort of intoxication; she no longer felt
culpable, unfilial; she leaned her graceful young head far over the
boat-rail, as though to gain by this act a stronger intimacy with the
sweet, drowsy sorceries that encompassed her.

"_My_! ain't it _reel_ chilly out here, though?" said Josie. "We'd ought
to 'a stayed inside, _hadn't_ we, Miss Twining?"

This half broke the spell with Claire. "I like it so much better out
here," she answered. "The air isn't too sharp for me, and then
everything is so beautiful and strange." She slightly waved one hand
toward the brilliant city as she spoke.

Josie did not understand at all. How could there be anything beautiful
in a lot of boats screaming to each other after dark with
steam-whistles? But she said "yes," and cast a glance at Mr. MacNab,
which was meant to veto in him the first symptom of surprise. Claire's
superiority must not have the least slight cast upon it. It would never
do to encourage Mr. MacNab in undervaluing the compliment of her
companionship.

The boat soon landed, and all Claire's lovely illusions fled. Still,
here was the city, noisy, populous, alluring. After disembarking at the
ferry they were yet far away from Niblo's, and a long ride ensued, in a
car crowded and of ill odor. Then came a walk of considerable length,
fleetly taken, for they were a little late by Mr. MacNab's silver
time-piece, which afterward proved to be fast.

Mr. MacNab was meanwhile in a sort of nervous trance. He had made what
for him was a _tour de force_ in mental arithmetic, though he still
remained insecure about the exactitude of his calculation. However, he
felt confident of one thing: three seats, of a certain kind, would cost
three dollars. A dollar would solidly remain to him, though the precise
amount of surplus change now in his pocket defied all his mathematical
modes of discovery. Pride forbade that he should take out the silver
bits and count them. But his residual dollar could at least pay the
homeward fares. Cold as this comfort may have been, it took, no doubt, a
certain relative warmth when contrasted with dire pecuniary exposure.

They at length reached the theatre, and easily procured upstairs seats
that commanded an excellent view of the stage. The curtain had not yet
risen. Claire was glad of that; she had the desire not to miss a single
detail of the coming performance. She was intently examining her
play-bill, when, on a sudden, a man's voice, close at her right, spoke
to this effect:--

"Hello, Jimmy, is that yerself?"

The next moment Claire perceived a hand and arm to have been
unceremoniously thrust in front of her, while a young man leaned his
body very much sideways indeed. She receded, herself, not without
annoyance.

Josie sat next to her, and then came Mr. MacNab, who now permitted
himself to be shaken hands with across the laps of the two girls.

"Hello, Jack," he responded, at the same time. "What you doin' here?"

"Come t' see the show," said the person called Jack.

"Is that so?"

"'Course. Nuthin' strange 'bout it, is there?"

"That's all right."

"S'pose you're on the same racket yerself. Hey?"

"You bet, ole boy."

All these utterances were exchanged in tones of the most easy
cordiality. The two young men had ceased to shake hands, but were
leaning each toward the other, apparently quite unconscious of the
inconvenience which they inflicted upon both Josie and Claire.

"I got sold t'night," Jack continued, with a blended wink and giggle.

"How's that?"

Jack gave a demonstrative jerk of the elbow, meant to indicate a vacant
seat on his further side. "Me an' my gal was comin' t'gether, but she
gimme the slip after I'd got mer seats. Sent word she had the headache.
Well, I dunno how 'tis, but I reckon I'll have to punch some feller's
head, 'fore long. Hey, Jimmy?"

This hostile prophecy was hailed by Jimmy with a laugh whose repressed
enjoyment took the semblance of a goose's hiss, except that its tone was
more guttural and its volume more massive.

"I guess that's 'bout the size of it, Jack," he replied. The next moment
he straightened himself in his seat, having received an exasperated
nudge from Josie.

Mr. MacNab's friend followed his example. Claire felt relieved. She
examined her programme again. She had already managed to see quite as
much as she wished of the person seated next her.

His name was Slocumb. He had a cousin in Greenpoint, an undertaker's
son, whom he would occasionally visit of a Sunday, bringing across the
river to the doleful quarters of his kinsfolk a demeanor of high
condescension and patronage. He was in reality a loafer of very vicious
sort, feeding his idleness upon the alms of an infatuated woman, whose
devotion he did not repay with even the saving grace of fidelity. He had
contrived to hide his real badness of life and lowness of repute from
both uncle and cousin, and had won the latter to believe him a superior
kind of metropolitan product. Together MacNab and he had partaken of
refreshment at the shop of the former's employer, and from such events
had sprung an intimacy with the oyster-opener which had found its most
active development in a near drinking-shop. Mr. John Slocumb had a dull,
brownish complexion, a light-brown eye, and a faint brown mustache. His
face was not ugly, judged by line and feature, but it had a hardness
that resembled bronze; you fancied that you might touch its cheek and
meet no resistance. There was a look of vice and depravity about it that
was not to be explained; the repulsive element was there, but it eluded
direct proof; it was no more in eyelid than in nostril, but it was as
much in forehead and chin as in either. Claire felt the repelling force
almost instantly. Mr. Slocumb's dress was not designed in a fashion to
decrease its effect. He wore a suit of green-and-blue plaid, each tint
being happily moderated, like evil that prefers to lurk in ambush. The
collar of his shirt sloped down at the breast, leaving an unwonted
glimpse of his neck visible. But you saw a good deal of his cravat,
which was green, barred with broad yellow stripes, and pierced by a pin
that appeared to be a hand of pink coral clutching a golden dumb-bell.
His figure was slender almost to litheness, but his shoulders outspread
two such long and bulky ridges that you at once placed their athletic
proportions among the most courageous frauds of tailoring.

The orchestra had now begun to play a lively and rather clangorous
prelude. And meanwhile Claire was gradually made to learn that Mr. John
Slocumb was keeping up a cool, persistent stare at her half-averted
face. She soon became troubled by this unrelaxing scrutiny, as minutes
slipped by. Mr. Slocumb had a slim black cane that looked like a
polished and rounded whalebone and ended in the head of a bull-dog, with
two white specks of ivory for its eyes. Holding this between his knees,
he flung it from one hand to another in nervous oscillation, while
continuing his stare.

He had decided that Claire was a damned good-looking girl. He had a
secret contempt for her escort, Mr. MacNab. He judged all men by the
capabilities of their muscle, and he had practical reasons for feeling
sure that his own wiry frame held easy resources for the annihilation of
"poor little Jimmy." 'She looks putty high-toned,' he was reflecting,
'but I guess that's on'y a put-up job to tease a feller. She can't be
much if she's along with that young un. I'll say somepn.'

He was on the verge of carrying out this resolve and addressing Claire,
when an event occurred which had the effect of thwarting his meditated
impertinence.

The mind of James MacNab was dull and sluggish. But he had seen a way of
perhaps securing for himself the undivided attention of Josie. He did
not wait for the latter to sanction his design; he feared her opposition
to it, and suddenly spoke, leaning forward again with his look directed
full upon Claire.

"Miss Twinin'," he said, "'low me t' intrerdooce a friend o' mine, Mr.
Slocumb. Mr. Slocumb, Miss Twinin'; Miss Twinin', Mr. Slocumb."

During this ponderous formula of presentation Claire had started,
colored, turned toward the neighbor thus pointedly named, and finally
bowed with extreme coldness, at once re-averting her face after doing
so.

She seized the chance of whispering to Josie: "Why did he do that? I
don't want to meet any strangers to-night. I hoped he would understand."

"He'd _ought_ to," replied Josie, in swift aside. "I do declare it's
_too_ bad!"

The next moment she addressed Mr. MacNab. Claire could not hear what she
said to him, but her brisk asperity of gesture somewhat plainly denoted
reprimand. Her remarks, whatever their nature, were met in stolid
silence. He who received them rather enjoyed being scolded by Josie. Her
wrath had the charm of exclusiveness; for the time, at least, it
vouchsafed to him her unshared heed.

Slocumb made prompt use of his new opportunity. "I guess we'll have a
putty decent show to-night," he said. "They say it lays over most
ev'rything that's been here fur a year or two."

Claire was now forced to turn and look at the speaker. To ignore him was
no longer to preserve dignity. He had received his right of way beyond
the barriers of her disregard; he had become an authorized nuisance;
civility from herself had taken the instant shape of a debt, due her
present escort.

"I shall be glad if it is a good play," she said. Her tones were chill
and forced; her manner was repellent because so restrained. Immediately
after speaking she looked at the stage. The orchestra had just stopped
its brassy tumults. The green width of curtain was slowly rolling
upward.

The play began. It was one of those melodramas that are the despair of
reformatory critics, yet reach the protective approval of the populace
through scenic novelty, swift action, and vivid, if coarse-lined,
portraitures. Claire was too infrequent a theatre-goer not promptly to
fall under the spell wrought by a playwright deft enough for the capture
of others far more experienced than she in tricks of climax, dialogue,
and situation.

Occasionally, during the progress of this act, she would murmur pleased
comments to Josie. She betrayed an interest that was childish; she had
forgotten the proximity of Slocumb. He still stared at her; he had not
been effectually repulsed by her suppressed, colorless demeanor. Her
refined accent and the musical quality inseparable at all times from her
voice had affected him like a new sensation. He failed to follow the
actors while they diligently stored up material for future agony. He had
enormous confidence in his own powers of fascination with women. It did
not occur to him that Claire might be a lady. He knew nothing of ladies.
He had met some women who disliked him at sight, who would have none of
him, whose fortresses of prejudice he could not storm. But these
incidents of disfavor were rare; his list of conquests far outnumbered
them.

"She's playin' off," sped his further reflections, once more shaped in
the vernacular of actual speech. "I'll let up on her fur a spell. When
the fust act's through I'll tackle her agin. _She_ aint 's offish as she
looks. Bet she ain't!"

The act progressed, and at length ended. Its _finale_ foretold a
plentitude of woe and disaster; a great deal of pipe, so to speak, had
been laid for future calamity; everything promised to be inclement and
tempestuous. The audience exchanged murmurs of grim approbation; it was
going to get its money's worth of horror.

But now an event abruptly took place which for lurid reality far
eclipsed all within the limits of canvas and calcium. Just as the
drop-curtain had reached half-way in its descent, a sudden burst of
flame was seen to issue from one of the wings. It may at once be said
that the fire was completely extinguished soon after the curtain had
touched the boards, and that nothing more serious had caused it than the
momentary conflagration of some gauze side-scene which was to serve in a
coming effect of misty moonlight.

But the large mass of people who witnessed the blaze, and who saw and
smelt the smoke as it curled and eddied in black spirts forth from
behind the edges of the fallen curtain, had no knowledge of their own
slight peril. Here, in the upper tiers, they rose impetuously; it was a
prompt and general panic. Dashes were made on every hand toward the
staircases. Cries of "fire" sounded from many throats. Claire felt
herself swept by sheer bodily pressure at least twenty yards. A few
seconds before this she had heard a sort of whimpering shriek from Josie
Morley, and then had seen a sidelong wedge of close-packed humanity pry
itself between her own form and that of the girl. Josie was clinging
with both hands to the arm of James MacNab at the moment of her
disappearance.

Claire was more shocked than frightened. She had never before found
herself in physical danger; to-night was a crucial test for her nerve
and coolness. Both stood the test well. John Slocumb, who had kept close
at her side, with his stout arm firmly clasped about her waist, now felt
a thrill of admiration as she turned to him and quietly said, while they
stood jammed together in the panting throng, whose very fierceness of
impetus had produced for it a brief, terrible calm, "I wish you would
not hold me like that, please. There's no need of it."

We sometimes hear of the ruling passion that is strong in death. Claire
knew there was danger of her being crushed. But she had not lost her
head, as the phrase goes. She could still prefer solitary extinction to
the fate of being annihilated while in the embrace of Mr. John Slocumb.

He removed his arm. "All right," he muttered, "if you'd rather go it
alone."

"I would, thank you," said Claire.



VI.


But, as it happened, they were not separated. The crowd, pouring down
either staircase, soon thinned. There was better breathing-space, and a
fairer chance as well, for the more demoralized to push and struggle.
Slocumb kept close behind Claire. He warded off from her a number of
desperate thrusts. She was not aware of these defensive tactics; she
paid no further heed to her former champion; as her sense of danger
lessened, the idea of re-meeting Josie took shape and strength. When the
first step of the staircase was reached, she stumbled, and then regained
herself. She had no suspicion, at this moment, what actually doughty
work Slocumb was doing, just in her rear. He was a man of unusual
muscular power, and, like not a few of his rough, pugnacious species,
endowed with dogged physical courage. At sight Claire had keenly
attracted him; her recent aversion had piqued him into liking her still
more. If the occasion had grown one of sharper immediate jeopardy, it is
by no means doubtful that he might have shown intrepid heroism as her
rescuer. He was gross, coarse, unprincipled, but he had that quality of
stubbornly defending what he liked which we often see in the finest of
brutes and sometimes in the least fine of men.

Up to this time the prevailing affright had meant bitter ill to all
whom it had seized. The threat of a hideous destruction had by no means
passed when the crowd about Claire grew less dense; for not far behind
her were two opposite streams of life that had met and were each
destroying the other's progress by their very madness of encounter.
Below stairs, and at one of the intermediate landings, numerous people
had already been severely hurt; limbs had been broken, and acute
injuries of other kinds had been dealt. The cries heard here and there
were made as much by pain as fear.

But powers of good were working with ardor among the lower quarters of
the building. A man had sprung forth upon the stage, and was imploring
order amid the smoke which partly enveloped him, while at the same time
he shouted to the multitude that the fire was now under perfect control.
Two policemen and two ushers were abetting him further on, where neither
his entreaties nor explanations could reach. Suddenly, with the same
speed shown by the panic at its origin, an orderly lull was manifest in
its haphazard turmoil. A few caught the sense of the cheering
intelligence, and these spread it swiftly from tongue to tongue. At the
moment when this change began to be clearly assertive, Claire and
Slocumb had almost gained the last landing of the stairs. By the time
they were in the lower part of the theatre, not a few persons who
desired to air their bravery, now that safety seemed certain, were
returning to their seats in dress-circle or parquette. "It's on'y a
hoax, after all," said Slocumb. "There's a heap more scared nor hurt.
S'pose we git upstairs again? Hey? What d'yer think?"

Claire shook her head. "No, I want to find Josie," she answered. "I
don't care to go back. I think she will not, either."

"All right," said Slocumb; "jus' take my hook, an' we'll git out o'
here, an' watch fur Jim an' her where they're mos' likely to be."

He extended an arm to Claire as he spoke, and pointed at the same time
toward a spacious outer hallway, in which the terrified multitude had
already become much more tractable. But Claire resolutely refused to see
the offered arm. She had begun to tremble; now that the cause for fright
had passed, she was made to realize with how strong a wrench she had
screwed her nerves to the sticking-point. A touch of giddiness came upon
her; then a knot rose in her throat, and she fought transiently, but
with silent success, against a novel sensation that only slight
self-surrender might have encouraged into turbid hysteria. Still, she
preserved her repugnance, as it were. She would not accept Slocumb's
arm. She had made up her mind that he was a vulgar and worthless
creature, and moreover she had a distressing instinct that he had thus
stayed at her side because of some new-born personal enticement.

He saw plainly her rebuff, though she did not put it in any salient way,
choosing to let him suppose it a mere unconscious omission. But he
preferred not to let it pass unnoticed.

"Oho," he said, with surly force, while still keeping his arm crooked,
and shoving it so prominently toward her that no further subterfuge was
possible. "So y' ain't goin' to ketch on, hey? W'at's the reason? We can
git 'long better. Come, now, _let's_."

"No," said Claire, driven to bay. "I am very much obliged to you, but I
don't need any help."

"Oh! You'll go it alone. All right."

But Mr. Slocumb did not look as if he thought it by any means right. His
hard, brown face had clouded with sulky disapprobation. A little gleam
of teeth had stolen out under his crisp, short mustache, with an effect
not unlike what we see when an angry dog snarls. He felt offended, and
this meant that he should either sting with his tongue or smite with his
fists. But in the present case a fresh glance at Claire, whose profile
was turned to him, made his spleen swiftly perish. Her cheek had got a
deep tint of rose; he saw the liquid sparkle of one dark-blue eye, and
the dense, rippling hair, chestnut threaded with gold, flowing above one
faint-veined temple.

'_Ain't_ she a stunner!' he thought. After that he forgot to be
offended. They were now in a spacious hallway leading directly to the
street. The panic had quite subsided. Knots of people were standing here
and there, loudly discussing their late alarms. Some of the women looked
and acted as if they were midway between mirth and tears. Most of the
men seemed grave; a few were laughing, but in a nervous, furtive way.
Along the centre of the broad passage pressed a line of people whom the
shock had left too dispirited for further sojourn in the house.

Claire, with her adherent, was among these latter. In quest of Josie,
she scanned every face within her field of vision. She had already
caught sight of more than one injured unfortunate, further back, where
the rush on the lower floor had been most disastrous, and just before
she and Slocumb had gained their present open quarters. On this account,
rather than because of the wild stampede itself, she had quite lost
desire to wait through the rest of the play. It was now her fixed design
to regain Josie and urge the plan of an immediate return to Greenpoint.
Her sense of having met her father's known wishes with overt disrespect
had become an assailant self-reproach. The very harshness of the event
which had so rudely broken in upon her enjoyment seemed to have borrowed
its disrelish from the rebuke that she had known as waiting all along to
shame her. Providence, for the time, had gone with her father; it had
abetted him; it had been telling her, in stern terms of personal threat,
how flagrant was her filial disloyalty.

She searched for Josie, but found her nowhere visible. She had soon
reached the limit of the large passage. A gate now confronted her, where
a man waited, ready to give those who sought egress a strip of cardboard
insuring their readmission.

Claire took this guarantee of further diversion unconsciously. The man
had stood at his post through all the furor that had just ended. He was
a sort of new Horatius at the bridge, though possibly with less sublime
motive, his wage being a permanent annuity, and his position one of easy
proximity to Broadway.

Claire stood in the vestibule of the theatre, and felt the breeze from
the street blow on her heated face, before she was well aware just what
vantage of exit she had secured. Still she had not seen Josie. And she
now began to realize that there was a very strong chance of not seeing
Josie. True, the girl might have returned with Mr. MacNab to their
former seats in the second gallery of the theatre. But Claire's
reluctance to place herself again within the walls of the building had
by this time grown a fierce distaste. Meanwhile, Slocumb had maintained
an unrelenting nearness to her. She knew this perfectly well. If
possible, a more meagre means than the extreme corner of each eye had
told her of it; for so great was her repugnance that she had thus far
grudged him even the knowledge of receiving the most minute regard. But
now she was forced to turn and look at him.

"Do you think Josie can have gone back into the theatre?" she asked, not
being herself aware just what frost and distance she had put into voice
and manner.

"Dunno," said Slocumb. "Guess she ain't, though. Guess her an' him's out
there in the crowd." The crowd to which he referred was already dense,
and every moment increasing. It flooded the flag-stones and a portion of
the middle street. Three or four policemen were stirring it to the
needful sense of decorum, no less by application than menace of their
clubs.

"I am afraid I should never find her there," Claire said, hopelessly.

"That's so," quickly returned Slocumb. "You'd better come inside agin.
The scare'll be over in a minnit. The piece'll go on, 'fore long,
certain sure."

"I don't care for the piece," replied Claire, with a little toss of the
head, more anxious than imperious. "I don't want to see the rest of it.
I want to find Josie, and have her take me home at once."

"All right. Jus' step inside an' wait fur 'em both."

Claire looked straight at the speaker. She did not know of the droop in
each full-fringed lid of her beautiful eyes. It was an unconscious token
of her abhorrence.

"Suppose that they should not return," she said.

"All right," replied Slocumb, brutally impervious. "_I'll_ take yer
home, if they don't."

"Thank you," faltered Claire. This view of the question gave her a new
shock. It was like hearing that the ferry-boats between New York and
Greenpoint had stopped running for the night. "But I won't trouble you,"
she added, trying to make her voice and mien indifferently calm. "I will
wait here a little while, and then, if I don't find Josie, I will go
home alone."

"Go home alone?" repeated Slocumb, with a sort of sympathetic
interrogation that was detestable to her. "Why, how far is it?"

"Oh, not very far," she replied, turning her back on him, and feeling
that in another moment she might treat his offensive persistence with
the blunt rigor it deserved.

"I thought you was livin' over to Greenpoint," said Slocumb, shifting
with tough pertinacity round to her side.

What a man of cleaner life and thought would simply have praised as
sweet and chaste about her fired in this corrupt oaf his one gross
substitute for sentiment. She could no more appeal to him by her
fineness of line, coloring, or movement than the field-flower when
cropped by the brute mouth whose appetite its very grace and perfume may
perhaps whet. And Claire divined this. Pure things know impure ones, all
through the large scheme of nature. There are nicer grades of
intelligence, of course, as we move along the upward scale of such
antagonisms. The milk will not cloud till we dilute it with the
ink-drop, but a white soul can usually note a black one by earlier and
wiser signals of alarm.

"Why should I not go home alone?" Claire had been saying to herself. "No
one would know me--I could reach the Tenth Street Ferry--I could ask
some one, and get the right car--Yes, I will try no more to find
Josie--I will break away from this low creature--I have enough money to
bring me safely home--I don't care; I will take my chances and slip
off--he will not follow me when he sees me shun him like that."

She ignored his last remark. She did not even glance at him where he now
stood. Her gaze was fixed on the crowd, and she was watching to find a
brief break in its edge, through which she might flit and be lost. The
next instant such a chance came. Claire seized it. She made an oblique
dart through the large doorway, slanted her nimble steps across the
pavement, and was soon breasting the adverse tide, so to speak, of a
little human sea. Each man or woman stood in the place of a choppy,
obstructive wave. At every moment poor Claire found herself gently
buffeting a new impediment, male or female, as the case might be. Since
she wanted to move in a course different from that of nearly every one
before or beside her, the carrying out of her object involved a good
amount of determined propulsion. But she at length gained the open, as
it were. She had now only to strike along in a northerly direction until
she reached the point at which a certain line of small cars crossed
Broadway. She was not sure at just what street this intersection
occurred; she knew that it was by no means near by. A cumbrous omnibus
rolled clamorously toward her, and for a moment she was inclined to
hail it; but a swift look into its lighted space, well freighted with
passengers, made her shrink from the concentration of stares that her
sex and loneliness must equally provoke. The publicity of the long,
lamp-fringed sidewalk, with its incidents of potential if not always
tangible policemen, expressed, after all, a more secure privacy. When
she took one of the little trundling cars which would bring her eastward
to the ferry, she would not be forced to clamber and stoop and stagger
before getting a seat. Their mode of conveyance, too, would be somehow
more safely plebeian; they would hold their last fragments of the
work-a-day world going back to Greenpoint; in case of insult, she might
have her final appeal to some reputable occupant bound for the same
destination as herself.

Meanwhile, the big-bodied omnibus clattered by. Claire had resolved to
walk. The high-perched driver had not seen her pause, hurry to the
curbstone, and then lift a hand which was straightway dropped at the
bidding of her changed mood. But this action, while it wrought delay in
her progress, rendered somewhat earlier her meeting with one who still
obstinately pursued her. Just as she had again started, with slightly
quickened pace, the inexterminable Slocumb appeared at her side. He
seemed to have used no effort in catching up with her. There was a
terrible ease in the way his length of limb accommodated its free stride
to Claire's more repressed motions. He had not immediately given chase.
She had got rather deep into the crowd about the theatre-doors before
his impudence, positive as it always was, had trumped up sufficient real
nerve to follow her. Claire continued walking; but she looked at him
with fixity as she said, "I suppose you saw that I wanted to go alone."

"'T aint right, nohow," he replied, peering into her face with his bad,
hard eyes. "A putty gal like you hadn't ought t' walk the streets all by
herself after dark. You lemme go along. Don' look scared; I wouldn't
hurt ye fur a cent."

"Oh, I am not afraid of you," said Claire, between her teeth. "Why
should I be?"

"That's the ticket. W'y should ye be?"

"I don't want your company. I have shown this to you, and now I tell it
to you."

Slocumb laughed. It seemed to Claire that his laugh had the cold of ice
and the thrust of steel in it. His lowered arm touched hers with
intentional pressure, but she swerved sideways, at once thwarting the
contact. He, however, promptly narrowed the distance thus made between
them.

"Say!" he now broke forth, in peculiar, confidential undertone, as
though a third party were listening. "W'at ye mad fur, hey? You was
along with Jimmy MacNab, wasn't ye? An' wasn't we intrerdooced all
reg'lar? I'm a better feller 'n Jim, any day in the year. Jus' gimme a
show. Won't ye? Say, now, _won't_ ye? I took a dead shine to you the
minnit I clapped eyes on them two nice pink cheeks--blowed if I didn't!
I sez to myself, 'She can walk round any gal I've seen fur a devil of a
time,' I sez."

Claire looked straight ahead. She still went quickly along. Her feet and
limbs felt light, almost void of sense. Fear had to do with this, and
she was keenly frightened. For the first time in her life she knew the
terror that feminine honesty has when fronted with the close chance of
physical insult.

Slocumb justified her dread. He had no more regard for common laws of
restraint than the majority of untamed brutes, when conscious, as in his
case, of firm thews and active bulk. As for moral bravery, his nature
harbored no concern with such nicer elements. The only vices he did not
possess were those for which he had never known an hour of temptation.
His father had drank himself to death, and he inherited what was perhaps
an embryo taste in the same direction. He got drunk once a fortnight,
now, in his twenty-seventh year, whereas, two years ago, these
diversions had been much rarer; in a decade, under his uncontrolled
conditions, there was a fair chance of his becoming a sot. To speak more
generally, the vast social momentum of heredity, which seems to be so
plainly understood and so ill appreciated in our golden century, had
Slocumb well in its stern grip. There were no outward incident forces,
as the philosophic phrase goes, to make his case in any way a hopeful
one. He had seen Claire; he had exchanged a word with her; he had liked
her. If his liking were put in the baldest form of explanation it would
have to deal with rather darksome realisms. And it is always preferable
that the pursuant satyr and the unwilling nymph be treated wholly from
the poetic and picturesque point of view.

Claire would not speak. She was very frightened, as before has been
recorded: she seemed to see, between the gloomy interspaces of the
lamps, a phantasmal semblance of her father, looking untold rebuke at
her, and then vanishing only to reappear. She walked onward with fleet
energy. An idea shot through her mind that she might call a policeman to
rid her of this incubus. But she dismissed the idea at once. It was too
savagely desperate even for the confronting dilemma.

By this time Slocumb had begun to see plainly that Claire was proof
against all his known methods of conquest. But she was unprotected, and
he had a dogged dislike of giving up the siege. The silence continued
for nearly five blocks. During this time his eyes scarcely once left her
face, gleaming distinct or dim as the lamplight waxed or waned.

"Say!" he at length re-addressed her. "Ain't ye hungry? I was thinkin' a
stew would go putty good, just now, or a dish o' ice-cream. P'r'aps ye'd
rather tackle sumpn sweet. Hey?"

She made no answer. He peered closer into her face, and repeated the
last odious little interrogative monosyllable a good many times. But
Claire remained as mute and irresponsive as though it had fallen on
stone-deaf ears.

This lure suddenly held out to appetite was his last persuasive stroke.
It sprang naturally enough from the man who dealt it. It expressed in
the most exhaustive terms just how narrow and barren his conception was
of Claire's reasons for shunning him. He stood as the hideous result of
a hideous phase of society; and he could no more divine or imagine
higher and richer levels of life than if to know of these had meant to
be familiar with the soil and climates of a remote star.

He was disappointed and chagrined, but not angry. Anger could not
consort with his present state; another kind of heat already filled his
veins; one flush kept the other aloof. He had now decided that Claire
was not to be conciliated, and yet the perfect lawlessness of his past
made him in a manner unable to snap the bond of attraction and leave
her. Self-control was a sealed book to him; he had not even opened its
cover, apart from learning its rudimentary lessons.

When they had gone five or six blocks further, and the street at which
Claire would take the cross-town car was by no means far away, he
abruptly caught her arm and drew it close to his side, so holding it
with an exertion of purely muscular strength, beside which her own
resistance counted for little more than the flutter of a bird.

Even at this most trying juncture she still moved on. He continued to
walk, as well. She veered her face toward his, however, forced out of
all her previous pitiful disdain, and he saw that she had grown pale as
death.

"Let me go," she said. "Don't dare to hold me like this!"

"Look here!" he returned, his tones taking a nasal whisper, and his
breath sweeping so close to her nostrils that she caught in it a stale
taint, as of liquor drank some time ago. "I wouldn't harm a hair o' your
head; you can jus' bet on that. I've took a likin' to you, an' I'll
treat ye good. If you wus a lady livin' up t' Fifth Avenyer, ye wouldn't
git more respectfuller behaved to nur I'll do."

"If you don't let me go," said Claire, gasping a little as she got out
the words, "I'll complain to the first policeman we meet."

He dropped her arm at once, stopping short. "D' ye mean it?" he asked,
with great show of reproach. "Say! d' ye mean it?"

But Claire hurried on. She had a wild momentary hope that she had hit at
random upon a blessed source of deliverance. Here, however, she had
quite miscalculated. Slocumb's outburst had merely formed a bit of the
cheap sentimentality which one of his race and stamp would select as the
lame makeshift in a forlorn cause.

It chanced that when Claire reached the desired corner a car was
opportunely passing. She signaled to it; the driver saw her; it stopped,
and she entered it. Meanwhile Slocumb had kept at her side, though with
the distance between them materially widened. She paid no heed to the
question of whether or not he entered with her. The car was entirely
empty as she took her seat. A little later she slipped a five-cent piece
into the small glass repository for passengers' fares--that touching
proof of the confidence reposed in drivers by those who employ them.
Shortly afterward she saw Slocumb standing on the outer platform. Her
heart and courage almost failed her, then. He presently walked inside
the car, and paid his fare, as she had done. She expected him to sit
down and resume his persecutions, but he did neither. He went out again
and stood on the platform.

The little car jingled along Eighth Street. It passed the grim, bastard
architecture of the Mercantile Library, once, long ago, an opera house,
in which Steffenone sang to assemblages where a gentleman in
evening-dress or a lady without her bonnet was a rare enough incident,
and nothing prophesied the horse-shoe of resplendent boxes before which
Patti and Nilsson have since revealed their vocal charms. Soon afterward
it came to Third Avenue, easily betrayed by the flare of gaslight in
beer-saloon or liquor-shop, and a thoroughfare in which night revelry
seems to have claimed especial stronghold. Near at hand, that hideous
monument of philanthropy, the Cooper Union, frowns its unavailing
displeasure upon the malt of Schneider and the alcohol of Moriarty, both
of which project their noxious forces southward through the Bowery to
the City Hall, and northward across many reputable side streets on to
the shabby vulgarity of Harlem.

But Claire was naturally unprepared, just now, either to recognize or
ponder the importance of this great popular boulevard which we call
Third Avenue; how it blends our ruling Irish and German elements in one
huge strand of commercial interests, each petty by itself, yet all, when
massed together, of enormous metropolitan note; how its very name is
pronounced with a mild sneer by our so-called better classes; how it is
held common and of ill repute; how one must not speak of it in a Fifth
Avenue drawing-room, lest he shall be suspected of having trodden its
tainted pavements; and yet how there pulses through its big, tough
artery nearly all the hot, impure political blood that feeds the
venality of our elective systems, making it for this reason a fact to be
always deplored but never lightly dismissed. Should the sombre growl
against that sin of over-possession which we term monopoly ever grow
into a revolutionary roar, it is very thinkable that the Robespierre of
such an event would be born in Third Avenue; but if not, he might safely
be depended on for having near relations there. The little car presently
crossed Second Avenue, at its most quiet portion. All the garish
brilliance had now quite vanished. Once beloved of respectability, this
broad street, here in what we designate its lower portion, has preserved
abundant souvenirs of perished fame. Many of the roomy old mansions
that line it may be dispeopled of their pristine Knickerbockers, but
even these retain much of their old stately repose. Up beyond, the
tenement-house thrives, and the tavern flaunts a bottle-decked casement;
but here, within generous limits, it remains a quarter full of decent
though not dismal gloom, and touched with an occasional solid grandeur.

The car soon advanced into a very different region. It had reached one
of the two long if not deep river-edges which skirt the central domain
of our wealth and thrift. That squalor which dogs the heel of poverty
was everywhere manifest. The very street-lamps seemed to burn with a
dejected flicker. Night, however, was kind, and spared from view much
unsightly soilure. The high brick houses, thronged with inmates whom all
degrees of want and all modes of toil oppressed, lost themselves in
shadow; but now and then you caught glimpses of the liquid filth
clogging the gutters, and perhaps of a half-submerged cabbage-leaf or a
more buoyant egg-shell, to fleck its slime with baleful color. Here
spoke a crying municipal disgrace. The prosperous part of our city has
its streets kept cleanly throughout the year, but dread injustice is
wreaked upon these that are skirted by abodes of penury and need. Fat
appropriations are of no avail; the tax-money slips into fingers that
are deft in legerdemain; fraud and mismanagement meet as friends; it is
not enough that our beautiful island must crowd her shores with all the
disfeaturing accompaniments of commerce; she is forced, as well, to see
them polluted, far inland, by the foulness born of bad legislation. This
is one of the too frequent cases where, in our enlightened polity,
democracy plays wantonly into the hands of monarchism.

A little later the car came into a wide, airy expanse, along two of
whose sides it journeyed for a considerable distance. Here was Tompkins
Square, now lighted with innumerable lamps, but only a few years ago a
dark horror to all decent citizens living near it. By day set aside as a
parade-ground for the city militia, which paraded there scarcely twice a
year, its lampless lapse of earth was by night at least four good acres
of brooding gloom, which he who ventured to cross stood the risk of
thievish assault, if nothing more harmful. What added to the unique
repulsiveness of the place for peace-loving denizens of its near
streets, was an occasional concourse of growling and saturnine German
socialists, held with stormy harangues and blood-thirsty diatribes under
moon or star, and amid the congenial environing shadow, which was
relieved, on these lurid occasions, by torches whose fitful flames
typified the feverish theories disclosed.

But the car now passed a very different Tompkins Square from that of
old. The grim blank has become, since then, a bright-lit realm where the
tramp may fall prone on some of its many neat-built benches, but where
the highwayman will find slim chance to ply his fell trade. When this
region had been passed there remained only a brief space to be traversed
before the ferry was reached. The avenues by this time had ceased to be
numerically named; they had become alphabetical. But Avenues A, B, C,
and D are all quite homogeneous as regards dolorous discomfort. The city
here hides some of its worst lairs, and many a desperado infests them.
After a little journey, such as Claire now took, you gain the small,
dull-looking ferry.

Meanwhile seven or eight new passengers had entered the car. They were
mostly Germans, and of both sexes. Claire felt a sense of protection.
One stout woman, of truly colossal build, with a sleeping baby in her
arms and an evident husband so hollow-cheeked and slight that it seemed
wrong for him even to assume the responsibility of paying their double
fare, especially reassured her. The rest were commonplace people enough.
One was a weary work-girl; one was a collier, grimy with his trade and
drowsy from drink; one was a dapper, bejeweled Hebrew, with oily amber
whiskers and large, loose red lips; still another was a handsome young
woman, smartly geared, who had said good-night, on entering, to a male
escort, and who now glanced uneasily about her at intervals, as though
fearful of being known. All this while Slocumb remained on the outer
platform.

Presently the car stopped. Everybody alighted. The Tenth Street Ferry
was close at hand. Claire knew that her hateful adherent was close at
hand also. She paid her toll to the ferryman and glided through the
narrow bit of passage-way forth upon the long dark dock beyond. She
expected, at every new step, to be re-accosted by Slocumb. A boat had
landed, and was soon to disembark again. From the opposite dimness came
an ominous clank of chains, made by the men at either of the two wheels,
and a sudden "All aboard!" flung out in gruff tones as a stimulating
monition. The other passengers all hastened forward. Claire was among
them, though in the rear of the hurry. The foremost had gained the boat,
when she felt a strong clutch upon her arm. Compelled by sheer force to
pause, now, she turned, meeting Slocumb's face quite near her own. He
at once spoke, in the same intimate sort of whisper that she had before
found so distressing.

"Say! 'T ain't right t' shake me like this. I ain't goin' t' stand it,
either. Come, change your mind. Treat me square. Will ye?"

Claire, driven to bay, did what her sex is sometimes held by a few
renowned cynics as having a special talent for doing; she employed
stratagem.

Her voice shook as she said: "Very well. What is it you wish me to do?"

She could feel the tense grasp upon her arm relax a little. This was
just the kind of result she had aimed for.

"I want ye t' stay this side the river a spell yet, an' we'll eat somepn
somewhere. Hey?"

The fingers about her arm had acquired a fondling laxity that half
sickened her. But she waited a little. They were a good ten yards from
the boat. It was possible that both their figures were too shadowed for
the men at the chains to see them. Perhaps, on the other hand, these
wardens did not care to shout a final notice that the boat was now
unmoored.

Claire still chose to temporize. Her heart beat so that it seemed about
to burst through her side; but she nevertheless kept her brain clear
enough to maintain a subtlety of intent in strange contrast to her deep
fear.

She had determined to get free if she could, and find refuge among the
passengers on the boat. Here, in the lonely dusk of the dock, she was at
a sad disadvantage; but once within the lighted cabin of the boat, she
could find the same silent protection of mere surrounding that the car
had afforded. She had a latent resolve, also, of future appeal to some
of those whom she knew had preceded her, though this formed no real
part of her present quick-formed scheme.

"Suppose that I do go with you," she said. "At what time would I be able
to get home?"

Slocumb's grasp materially loosened. "Why, any time at all!" he
exclaimed. "The boats run till 'bout two o'clock or so, an'"--

His sentence was cut short in its valuable explanation by a sudden
disengaging spring on the part of Claire. She ran with her best speed
toward the boat. She now perceived that it was just leaving the pier. By
the time that she had gained almost the extreme edge of the latter, a
voice from the receding boat itself cried out to her, "Don't jump!"

She saw, then, that a long, curved crevice was widening in a very rapid
way at a slight space beyond the spot where she had abruptly halted. A
few more seconds would make the leap a mere madness; now it needed
nerve, agility, and was indeed a venture. But Slocumb stood behind her.
The risk was worth the prize. Claire waited perhaps ten seconds; the
crevice had grown a fissure; she saw the murky water give a dull flash
or two, far below it. Then she jumped.

The space had not been more than three feet. She cleared it well. But
_what she had cleared_ sent a sharp terror through her the instant after
both feet had touched the firm bourne of the deck. For a little while
she stood quite still, shivering, with her back to the dock thus boldly
quitted. Her mind was wholly in a whirl. She did not hear the
half-growled words of one of the men who had lately unloosed the boat,
chiding her upon her folly, in gruff contempt of syntax.

But very soon this access of intense alarm lessened. She partly ceased
to fix her thought upon what she had done, recalling instead, why she
had done it. She turned, giving two flurried looks to right and left,
doubtless from a sense that the abhorred one might have breasted the
same peril as herself--in his case far lighter, of course.

Her gaze swept the opposite pier. It gleamed drowsy and obscure, with
the effect of some grave marine monster just risen from the muddy tides
below it. Strangely, also, the lights at either side gave it the
semblance of two malign blazing eyes. And in the glimmer thus made
Claire saw Slocumb.

He had not taken the leap. At first amazement had wrought in him its
brief yet telling effect. Then he had dashed to the end of the pier,
momentarily furious at thus being balked. But in a second his fury had
cooled. And something had cooled it, very new to him, though very
forcible. This was pity. He might easily have cleared the interspace.
But he forbore to do so. He thrust both hands into his pockets, and with
lowered head moved away. In an instant more it was too late for him to
have changed his novel resolve, even had he so wished.

By the time that Claire's look lighted upon the pier he was nowhere
visible. He had disappeared from her sight forever, as also from her
life. He had been a dread though brief experience--a glimpse given her
into the melancholy darkness of human wrong. The shadows had seemed to
take him back among themselves, where he rightly belonged. Perhaps the
episode of his insolence wrought some sort of effect upon her future
acts; it is certain that she never quite forgot the miserable dismay he
had roused; and when the struggle for worldly success afterward spurred
her with so keen a goad, some vague remembrance of to-night may have
quickened her aspiring impulses and made what we call the socially best
gain fresh worth in her eyes by contrast with such foul deeps as lie
below it.

Once confident that Slocumb had not followed her, she managed, with
unsteady pace, to reach the outer rail of the deck and lean against it
while the boat traversed the river. She was trembling a good deal, and
felt an extreme weakness as well. But a glow of triumph upbore her. She
had escaped at last!

The ugly boat, as it sped along, seemed a sentient accomplice of her
final good fortune. She had a fancy that its thick wooden rail dumbly
throbbed beneath her grasp. Her posture was a half-cowering one; the
spell of her poignant fears had not yet passed. Her head leaned itself
peeringly from stooped shoulders in such a way that its slim neck took
the sort of curve we see in a frightened deer's.

A somewhat late moon had recently risen, whose advent had altered the
whole face of the heavens, flooding it with a spectral, yellowish light.
But borne rapidly across the moon's blurred disk, on some high, fleet
rush of air, scudded volumes of rolling and mutable vapor. They
constantly soared above the great dusky city, at first in dense black
masses, then thinning and lengthening as they came midway between zenith
and horizon. While Claire watched these strange and volatile clouds, so
incessant in their motion and so swift in their continual upward stream,
they took, for her confused fancy, the semblance of pursuant phantom
shapes. They formed themselves into visages and bodies; they stretched
forth uncouth yet life-like arms; they clenched hands of misty gloom,
and shook them far above her, with ghostly, imminent defiance. Her
former transit across the river had been fraught with sweet, poetic
mystery; her present voyage was one touched with a kind of allegoric
terror.

But the boat soon found its second wharfage. Claire sped out through the
two cabins in time to join the crowd of disembarking passengers. Once
more back in Greenpoint, she hurried along certain familiar streets
until she arrived at her own dwelling. It was now a little after ten
o'clock. She had an instinct that it was about this time. Above the high
piazza, both parlor-windows were dark, but below it the windows of the
basement portion were brightly lit. She passed into the scant space of
garden and sought the lower door; she pulled the bell, set in the
woodwork at her right, and waited.

No answer came, and she rang again. One of the side-lights gave her a
good view into the hall beyond. She presently saw her mother appear.
Mrs. Twining opened the door. It was not till she and her daughter stood
face to face that the latter made a certain sharp, abrupt discovery.

"Mother!" she said, "you're pale--you look very strange. Is it because I
staid away so long?"

"No," replied Mrs. Twining.

Claire grasped her mother's arm with both hands. "Then what is it?" she
questioned. "You don't mean that--that Father's sick? _Do_ you?"

Mrs. Twining was white as death, and had dark rings round her fine black
eyes. She laughed with great bitterness as she closed the door.

"Oh, no," she said. "Your father ain't sick, Claire."

These few words teemed, somehow, with a frightful irony. Claire knew her
mother's moods so well that she now staggered backward a little as the
two faced each other in this narrow hallway.

"Mother," she said, with a gasp, "what do you mean? Has anything
_happened_ to Father?"

"Yes," said Mrs. Twining with a cruelty that Claire never forgot and
never forgave. "Your father's dead. He died at nine o'clock. The
doctor's here now. He says it's heart-disease. You're a nice gadabout,
to be off for hours, nobody knows where, and come home to find" ...

Mrs. Twining ended her sentence at just this point, for Claire had
dropped in a swoon before the next word could be spoken, upon the
oil-cloth of the little hall which her own hands had so often swept.



VII.


That night was one of anguish and horror. As soon as enough strength had
come to her with the return of consciousness, Claire insisted upon being
taken to where her father lay. Not a tear left her eyes as she knelt
beside his body. She was very white, and seemed perfectly calm. She
kissed the dead man, now and then, on forehead and cheek. Once she rose,
went to the window, and set both arms lengthwise upon its sash, propping
her chin against her clasped hands. In this attitude she stared forth at
the heaven, still full of moony light and still alive with its black
pageantry of hurrying clouds. But their motion was more quick, now; the
wind had grown stronger and colder; all touch of mildness was rapidly
vanishing from the atmosphere. Claire felt the panes shake, and heard
them rattle, as she leaned thus. There seemed an awful sympathy between
this wild phase of nature and her own tumultuous, distraught sensations.

Grief and alarm clashed within her soul. She could not simply and
passionately regret her father's loss, for the thought of her own
friendless and penurious state would thrust itself into her
consciousness. Her feelings of pure bereavement, of standing face to
face with a vast and stern solitude, of having had something torn from
her heart by the roots, were terrible enough. But none the less, on
this account, could she fail to think with inward thrills of fright on
the subject of her merely material future. In an hour or two something
solidly defensive had been shattered and swept away. Her father's
protection had kept aloof, so to speak, the huge, merciless forces of
society. Now these forces were rushing upon her like yonder stream of
antic-shaped clouds.

"What is to become of me?" she murmured aloud, not knowing that she
spoke at all. "Who will help me? Where shall I turn? I am so alone--so
fearfully alone!"

Mrs. Twining had come into the room, as it chanced, a moment before the
utterance of Claire's first words. It was now a little before midnight;
she had entered this chamber of death twice before, and had looked at
her daughter's kneeling figure, there beside the corpse, but had retired
again in silence. Now she spoke, as Claire finished speaking. The girl
turned instantly as she began.

"Yes," she said, in her most hard and curt way. "I s'pose you _are_
alone, now _he's_ gone! You ain't got any mother, of course not! She's a
cipher; she always was. You're going to quit her, I dare say; you're
going to leave her in the lurch. P'raps you'll find some of those you
was with to-night that'll see you don't come to grief. Well, 't ain't
for me to complain at this late day. I've had chance enough to take your
measure, Miss, long ago!"

There was a look of dreary fatigue on Claire's white face as she slowly
answered: "Mother, I will not leave you. I don't wish to leave you."

"Oh, you don't, eh? Then why did you say you was _alone_?"

"Did I say it?" returned Claire. She put one hand to her forehead. "I--I
must have spoken aloud without knowing it." ... Immediately afterward
she crossed the room, going very close to her mother's side, and looking
with eager meaning into the cold, austere, aquiline face.

"Don't be unkind to-night," she went on. "Remember this dreadful thing
that has happened. It--it ought to--to soften you, Mother. It has nearly
crazed _me_. I cannot reason; I can scarcely think. I--I can only
suffer!"

Mrs. Twining curled her mouth in bitter dissent. "Oh, you didn't know
the poor man was sick when you ran off and staid for hours. No, indeed!
If you had, you wouldn't 'a' worried him as you did when he come home to
tea and found you gone. He fell like a log, just as he got up from the
table. But he hadn't eaten hardly a thing, and I guess you know why he
didn't."

Claire uttered a quick, flurried cry. She grasped her mother's arm.
"You--you don't mean," she exclaimed, in a piteously fierce way, "that
_I_ killed Father--or--or hastened his death by--by not being home? Oh,
say, Mother, that you don't mean this! It would drive me mad if I
believed so! Please say it isn't true!"

Claire's aspect breathed such desperation that it wrought havoc even
with so stolid a perversity as that of the harsh, unpropitiable being
whom she confronted.

"Well, no, I don't say _that_," murmured Mrs. Twining, with sullen
alteration of mien and tone. "But I _do_ say, Claire, that you was off
somewhere, and _he_ was fretted and pestered because you was, and" ...

Here the peculiar nature of this most tormenting woman suddenly revealed
a change. Her grim mouth twitched; her nostrils produced a kind of
catarrhal sniff; her cold black eyes winked, as if tears were lurking to
assail them. The next words that she spoke were in a high, querulous
key.

"Oh! so you're the only one that's fit to mourn for that poor dead one,
hey? I, his lawful wedded wife, and your own mother, ain't got any right
to grieve! Oh, very well! I'm nobody at all, here. I'd better get away.
You're chief mourner. There's nobody but you. I s'pose you'll pay all
the expenses of the funeral, since you're so dreadful stuck-up about
it!"

Claire shook her head, in a pathetic, conciliating way. She lifted one
finger, at the same time. Her face was still white, and her dark-blue
eyes were burning feverishly.

"No, no, Mother!" she said. "This is all wrong. You mustn't speak like
that, here. If you didn't love him, I did. There's a little money yet.
It's yours, but you'll give it; you've told me of it; it will be enough
to bury Father decently. I promise you that if you _do_ give it I will
try very hard to get some work that will support us both."

Mrs. Twining put a hand on either hip. She stared at Claire for a
moment. Then she answered her.

"No," she said. "I won't give a cent of it. It's only about a hundred
dollars. He ain't led me such a nice life that I should be so awful
grateful to him now he's gone. There's ways of burying that don't cost
money. Yes, there's ways.... Let 'em come and take him. I ain't going to
beggar myself because he wants a rosewood coffin, and"--

"Mother!" cried Claire, pointing toward the dead, "he is _here_!"

"Oh, well!" said Mrs. Twining. She spoke the two brief words in a sort
of abrupt whimper, taking a step or two toward the calm sheeted form of
her dead husband. "S'pose he _is_ here. I can't use that money, and I
won't!"

Claire felt the hideous taste of those words. They who have thus far
read this chronicle must have read it ill if they are not sure that no
love for a mother so ceaselessly froward and hostile could now survive
in her daughter's heart. But though she knew her mother capable of dread
acts if occasion favored, Claire was thunderstruck by this last
announcement.

It appeared to her monstrous and barbarous, as it indeed was. She
clenched both hands, for an instant, and her eyes flashed.

"Say what you mean!" she retorted, not raising her voice, because of
that piteous reverence which the still, prone shape inspired. "_Can_ you
mean that you will let charity bury our dead for us? _Can_ you mean
that?"

Mrs. Twining gave a quick, grim nod. "Yes, I do mean it," she returned.
"And if you wasn't a fool you'd see why."

Claire folded her arms. Her next words came with grave, measured
composure from white, set lips. "I may be a fool," she said, "but thank
God I haven't your kind of wisdom! Keep your money, Mother. Do as you
threaten. But when Potter's Field takes poor Father's body, that will be
the end of everything between you and me. Remember that I said this. I
will never speak to you, never notice you again, if you do so shameful a
thing. If you spend that money as duty and as decency should both
prompt, I will work for you, slave for you, cling to you always. But if
not, we are no longer mother and daughter. You see, I don't speak with
heat or with haste. I am perfectly calm. Now choose which course you
will take. But never say that I did not fully warn you, when it will be
too late for retraction!"

There was a splendidly quiet impressiveness in this speech of Claire's.
She went and knelt once more beside her father's body after she had
finished it. She had resolved upon no further entreaty or argument. The
very atrocity of her mother's proposed design seemed to place continued
discussion of it beyond the pale of all womanly dignity.

Mrs. Twining was too coarse a soul to see the matter as Claire saw it.
She preferred to take the chances that her daughter would relent when
the ignoble interment was over.

To-morrow came, and she gave no sign of altering her purpose. Claire
scarcely addressed a word to her during this day. A few of the
Greenpoint folk called at the house. Among these was Josie Morley,
distressed at the tidings of death, and prepared to utter voluble
regrets for having lost Claire in the crowd during the previous night.

But Claire would see no one. She remained with her father's body in the
little room upstairs, locking its door when she thought there was any
chance of a visitor being brought thither.

Now and then she wondered, with a dumb misery, whether her mother had
made any attempt to bring about the loathed burial. She herself had a
few dollars in her possession. This sum she meant to use in seeking
employment after the earth had closed over her father's corpse. Once or
twice a passionate impulse had seized her to go and seek help from those
under whom her father had lately served in his drudging clerkship. But
she repressed this feeling--or rather shame at the thought of possible
refusal, mixed with a natural proud reluctance to own the sad need in
which she stood, repressed it for her.

The next day she learned the full, torturing truth. Mrs. Twining had
carried out her threat. Two shabby men came with a pine box. They placed
the corpse herein. Claire had already paid it all the final reverential
rites which her sex and her grief would allow. It was dressed in the
same rusty outward garments which it had worn when death came. The men
held a little discussion below stairs with Mrs. Twining. They afterward
departed and remained away two good hours. When they returned they
brought a dark wagon with an arched top. In the interval Claire still
watched. She was quite silent. Perhaps if she had deigned now to plead
with her mother, the latter, already a little frightened at the girl's
stony, unvaried calmness, might have relented and agreed to more seemly
obsequies. But except one glance of immeasurable reproach, during a
brief visit which Mrs. Twining paid to the chamber, Claire gave no
further sign of revolt.

When the men returned, she chanced to be looking from the window. She
saw the wagon. She shuddered, and went back to her father. No one saw
her bid him the last farewells. She showed no trace of tears when the
men presently reëntered the room, but her dark-blue eyes shone from her
hueless face with a dry, glassy glitter. Her mother now appeared. She
looked at Claire in a covert, uneasy way, though there was much dogged
obstinacy about the lines of her mouth. A moment later she spoke to the
men. It seemed to Claire like the refinement of hypocrisy that she
should set her voice in a mournful key.

"I s'pose you want to get it through right away," she said.

"Yes, ma'am," replied one of the men. "Those is always the orders."

Claire went to the window again. It was a raw, misty, drizzling day. She
stared out into the dreary street. She did not want to see that pitiful
box closed and sealed. She presently heard a grating sound which told
her just what the men were doing.

And then she heard another sound that was quite as harsh. It was her
mother's voice, lowered, and with a sort of whine in it.

"It's true enough that the dead ought to be buried properly, Claire, but
that ain't any reason why the living shouldn't live--the best way they
can. You take it hard now, but after a while you'll see you ain't got
any real right to blame me. You'll see"--

"Don't touch me, please," interrupted Claire. Her mother had laid a hand
on her arm, and she had receded instantly. Then she said, while
steadying her voice, though not caring whether the men heard or no: "Did
you intend going to--to the grave with him?"

Mrs. Twining gave a great elegiac sigh. "Oh, no, I couldn't stand it. I
should break right down long before I got there."

"Very well," said Claire, "I am going."

One of the men looked up at her. He had a small, round face, an odd
blond tuft of beard, and a pair of mild blue eyes. He held his
screw-driver thrust into a screw while he spoke. His voice was very
respectful. He had noticed Claire's look and mien before; he had a wife
and children at home. Scarcely ever, in his experience, had he known a
burial of this sort to take place from a dwelling as apparently thrifty
as the present one.

"Excuse me, Miss," the man said, "but you couldn't ride in the wagon.
There's just room for him and me." He indicated his companion by a
little motion of the head. "And there's three other bodies. We're takin'
'em to the almshouse."

"Where is the almshouse?" asked Claire. She could not help giving her
mother one shocked sidelong glance while this question left her lips.

"It's over in Flatbush," the man said.

Claire went close up to his side. If he had not seen the white distress
in her face before, he must plainly have seen it now. "I know where that
is," she said. "I could go there. The cars would take me." She put her
hand on the rough wood of the box. The touch was so light that it
resembled a caress. "Would they let me go to--to the almshouse and wait
... near _him_ ... till he is buried?"

Mrs. Twining at once began to weep. Or rather, she spoke in a wailing
tone that indicated tears, even if no tears really either gathered or
fell.

"Claire, you mustn't think of going! No, you mustn't! Things are bad
enough, as it is. Now, promise me that you won't take any such notion!
_Do_ promise!"

Claire paid no heed to this outburst. She was looking with eager fixity
at the man. She had already roused his sympathy; she felt certain of
it; his big, mild eye seemed to tell her so. "They won't all be buried
till about two o'clock," he said. "There'll be five or six bodies
to-day, I guess. If you start from here in about an hour, Miss, you can
get to the buryin'-ground by just the right time. I'll see to it you
do." The speaker here turned and winked one mild eye at his companion.
The latter was staring rather lifelessly at Claire. He had a long, pale,
tired-looking face.

"All right," he muttered, apathetically, as if he had not at all
comprehended, but was willing to take matters on trust.

"I'll see to it that he ain't got in till you come," pursued Claire's
new friend. "The Potter's Field ain't far from the County Buildings, as
they call 'em. I s'pose you know how to get to Flatbush?" He scratched
his sandy shock of hair for an instant, and told her just what cars to
take.

Claire put faith in him. Something made her do so. When the pine box had
been carried down stairs, placed inside the dark wagon, and driven away,
she went to her own room and made a small, neat brown-paper parcel. Her
clothes were few enough, and she left all of these except what seemed to
her of vital necessity. "I don't want to look like a tramp," she told
herself, with a darksome pleasantry. "I shall not, either. I shall only
be a poor, shabby girl with a bundle."

When she emerged from her room her mother met her in the hall. Claire
wore her bonnet. Mrs. Twining gave a frightened whimper as she saw this
and the parcel.

"Oh, Claire," she said, "you ain't really going _to_ the--the grave?"

"Yes, I am," she said. Her tones were so frigid and so melancholy that
they caused a palpable start in her who heard them.

"Oh, Claire," moaned her mother, "if you go, _I_ can't! I can't see him
buried that way! Of course _you_ can, if you want!"

"I do want," said Claire.

"But you'll come back! you'll come home again!"

As she was passing her mother, there in the hall, Claire turned and
faced her. "I shall never come home again," she said, scarcely raising
her voice above a whisper. "You remember what I told you."

Mrs. Twining was no longer merely frightened; she was terrified.
"Claire!" she burst forth, "I ain't done right, perhaps. But don't be
headstrong--now, don't! if you'd spoke to me yesterday--if you'd even
spoke to me this morning, I might, ... well, I might, after all, have
given the money. But it's too late now, and" ...

"Yes, it is too late now," Claire interrupted, and somehow with the
effect of a shaft, shot noiselessly, and tellingly aimed.

After that she hurried straight down stairs, passed along the lower
hall, and made rapid exit from the house.

A number of heads had been thrust from neighboring windows while the
body was being borne away. Claire, who endured what was thus far the
supreme humiliation of her life, wondered whether any one was watching
now, but she kept her eyes drooped toward the pavement as she moved
along, and never once looked to left or right. She despised these
possible watchers, and yet she remembered what her dead had been--how
kindly, how pure, how noble; and it was to her sense an infamy that his
ignominious burial should be made a theme of vulgar gossip.

"He is to be put in Potter's Field," she told her own aching, bursting
heart, while she still hurried along. "Yes, _he_! And he was so good, so
fine, so much a gentleman! He is to be put in Potter's Field!... But I
will see the last sod placed over him.... That man _will_ keep his
word.... I shall stand by poor Father, his only mourner. He will be glad
if he knows. What a slight thing it is to do for him, after all the love
he gave me! But it is all I _can_ do. All, and yet so little!"

A dreary ride in the cars at last brought her to Flatbush. After
alighting she had quite a long walk through the gray, foggy atmosphere
of a region which the sweetest mood of spring or summer finds no spell
to beautify. It was now as hideous and lonesome as that hateful tract
just beyond Greenpoint. The immense gloomy structures of the almshouses
loomed beside the path she took. The conductor on the car had told her
just how to reach the pauper graveyard. It lay at some distance from the
grim buildings that she was obliged to pass, and within whose walls were
prisoned the sin, the sickness and the madness of a great city.

Nothing could be more common, more neglectful, more wretchedly
melancholy, than the place she at length gained. It was scarcely an acre
in extent; it did not contain a single tree or shrub; it was enclosed by
a fence of coarse, careless boarding. Its graves were so thick that you
could scarcely pass between them. In each grave had been laid four
bodies, and excepting a pathetic half-dozen or so of simple wooden
crosses, there were no signs to tell who slept here, except rough, low
stakes, each bearing four numbers. Never was the oblivion of death more
sternly typified; never was its dark mockery more dolefully accentuated!

A little group of men stood near an open grave as Claire reached the
gate. She saw them, and recognized one of them, who advanced toward her.
She felt herself grow slightly faint as she perceived a box placed just
at the rim of the earthy cavity.

"Was I in time?" she asked of the man, as they walked together inside
the enclosure.

"Yes," he said, with a very kind voice. "You was just in time, Miss. All
the others is turned in except him. I saved him on purpose."



VIII.


This same afternoon, about two hours later, Claire was in New York. She
had crossed thither, spurred by an idea born of her desperation. It was
a forlorn hope; it was like the straw clutched by the sinking hand; and
yet it formed a comforting preventive against complete despair. She had
remembered her old friend at Mrs. Arcularius's school, the plump-cheeked
and yellow-haired Sophia Bergemann. She had determined to seek her out
and ask her aid in obtaining work. Years had elapsed since Claire and
Sophia had met; but if the buxom young creature had preserved even half
of her old amiable friendship, there was excellent chance of cordial
welcome and kindly assistance.

'I only hope that she still lives in Hoboken,' Claire thought, while
taking the journey across town. 'Suppose the family have left there.
Suppose I cannot find Sophia. Suppose that she is married and has gone
to live elsewhere--in Europe, perhaps. Suppose that she is dead.'

More than once, before she had reached the central part of the city,
Claire felt herself grow weak with dread. Night would soon approach. She
had money enough to get lodgment, but in her ignorance and her
loneliness how could she secure it? Her mother's face, clothed with the
old mocking smile, repeatedly rose before her fancy. She seemed to see
the hard, bitter mouth frame certain sentences. "Oh, you'll come back,"
it seemed to say. "You've got to. You can't go gallivanting round New
York after dark. I ain't afraid. Oh, you'll come back to Greenpoint,
_sure_!"

'I will never go back,' Claire said to her own thoughts, answering this
phantasmal sort of taunt. 'No, not if I walk the streets to-night and
many another night. Not if I have to beg for food. Not if I die of
hunger. I will never go back _there_! No, no, no!'

There was nothing theatrically fervid about this silent resolve. The
girl was quite capable of confronting any sharp ill rather than remeet
the woman who had so pitilessly outraged her most sacred instincts. She
knew well enough that her mother confidently counted upon her return.
She knew well enough that her mother would undergo wild alarm on finding
herself permanently deserted. Yet Claire, with a grim desire of
inflicting punishment for the insult flung at her beloved dead, silently
exulted in what she could not help but deem a just and rightful
vengeance. True, her own act may have dealt the vengeance; but did it
not really spring from that departed soul whose corpse had met the lash
of so undeserved an indignity? When Claire had reached the centre of the
city she suddenly determined to seek Mrs. Arcularius's establishment.
The school might either have changed its locality or else ceased to
exist. Still, she would apply at the old quarters. There she would
inquire for Sophia Bergemann. They might know nothing concerning the
girl. But if this resulted, she would still have all Hoboken left, in
which the dwelling-place of so prominent a resident--even though one of
past time--would most probably be known on inquiry. A throng of memories
beset her as she rang the bell of Mrs. Arcularius's abode. The name of
that august lady gleamed on a large silver-plated square, affixed to the
second door, beyond the marble-paved vestibule. A smartly-dressed maid
answered her summons. Claire stated in brief, civil terms what
information she desired to gain. The maid left her standing in the
well-known hall for several minutes, and at length returned with the
tidings, apparently fresh from the lips of Mrs. Arcularius herself, that
Miss Bergemann was then living at No. -- Fifth Avenue, only a slight
distance away.

Claire felt a thrill of relief as she thanked the maid and resought the
street. This intelligence seemed a most happy stroke of luck. It augured
well for the success of her sad little enterprise.

The Fifth Avenue dwelling proved to be a mansion of imposing dimensions.
It stood on a corner, and had a wide window at one side of its spacious
entrance, and two at the other. From either panel of its polished walnut
door jutted a griffon's head of bronze, holding a ring pendant from its
tense lips. Beyond the glossy plate-glass of the casements gleamed misty
folds of lace, and still further beyond these you caught a charming
glimpse of large-leaved tropic plants in rich-hued vases. Claire pulled
a bronze bell-handle that was wrought in the likeness of some
close-folded flower. A dull yet distinct peal ensued, having in its
sound a trim directness that suggested prompt and capable attendance
from interior quarters. While Claire waited for admission she cast her
look downward upon the middle street, and across at the line of opposite
residences, all marked by a calm uniformity of elegance. The sight was
very new to her after Greenpoint, but at the same time it stirred
certain sources of youthful recollection. Many carriages were passing.
One or two were shaped with fashionable oddity, having only a single
pair of huge wheels and a booted and cockaded flunkey, who sat in
cramped, oblique posture, with his back to the other occupants, a lady
and a gentleman, and who seemed forever taking a resigned plunge off the
vehicle, with stoically folded arms. Another was a heavy, sombre family
coach, with two men on the box, both clad in dark, dignified livery.
Still another was the so-called dog-cart, borne along by a team of
responsible silver-trapped bays, and having on its second seat a footman
graciously permitted, in this instance, to face the horses whose
lustrous flanks his own hands had doubtless groomed into their present
brilliance. The two parallel yet contrary streams of vehicles made an
incessant subdued clatter; numerous pedestrians were also passing to and
fro along either sidewalk; the weather had changed again from harsh to
clement; the strip of clear, blue sky above the massive housetops wore a
shining delicacy and airiness of tint; even Claire's new wound, that
still bled unseen, could not distract her from a buoyant congeniality
with the prosperous and festal tumult so amply manifest. She understood
then, and perhaps with a qualm of shame as well, that no grief could
quite repress, however transiently, her love for life, action, and
refined social intercourse. The old desire to win a noted place among
those of her own kind who were themselves notable, quickened within
her, too, as she gazed upon the bright bustle and the palatial
importance which were both so near at hand.

'Near,' she mused, 'and yet so far! Shall I ever do what _he_ bade me to
do on that night long ago? Shall I ever climb the hill? Shall I not grow
tired and sit down to rest? What chance have I _now_ of ever reaching
the top? Where is the hand to help me even ever so little? Will Sophia
Bergemann do it? Yes; if the ways of the world haven't changed her since
we met at school.'

A man-servant, in what is termed full-dress, soon opened the door, and
Claire asked if Miss Sophia Bergemann was at home. The man appeared to
be a very majestic person. Claire felt a good deal of secret awe in his
presence. He had a superb development of the chest, a sort of senatorial
nose, and two oblong tufts of sorrel whisker, growing with a mossy
density close to either ear.

But he was very civil, notwithstanding his grandeur. He told Claire, in
a rich voice that would have deepened her veneration if it had not been
blent with a valiant North-of-Ireland brogue, that Miss Bergemann was at
home but about to leave the house for a drive.

The hall in which this announcement was made glowed with sumptuous yet
tasteful decorations. A dark curve of heavy-balustered staircase, which
four or five persons might have ascended abreast, met the eye only a
short space away. From the lofty ceiling depended a costly lamp of
illumined glass. Soft, thick tapestries of Turkish design drooped from
several near doorways. A fleet remembrance of the old school-room
sarcasms about the Bergemanns' vulgar Hoboken home flashed through
Claire's mind.

"Will you tell Miss Sophia, please," she said, in as firm and calm a
tone as she could manage, "that Miss Twining, whom she knew some years
ago, would like to speak with her?"

The butler was about to reply, when a loud feminine voice suddenly
pealed from upper regions. In reality it was the voice of a lady who had
already descended several steps of the broad, winding staircase; but the
lady was still in obscurity, and therefore the liberal size of the house
caused her tones to sound as if they had come from a still greater
distance. "Michael," shrilled the voice, "I see the carriage isn't here
yet. It's nearly a quarter of an hour behind time. Thomas has done this
twice before in one week. Now, you just send Robert straight round to
the stable, and let him say that we're very angry about it, and that Ma
won't put up with such behavior if it ever happens again!"

The butler had left Claire before the end of the final belligerent
sentence, and had moved, with a certain military briskness, toward the
first wide step of the staircase.

"Yes, Miss Sophia," he said, employing his fine sonorous voice so that
it somehow had the effect of not being unduly raised, though still
strongly audible. The next moment he turned toward Claire, with a mien
in which his natural official gravity gave sign of being cruelly
fluttered.

"Miss Sophia is coming downstairs, Miss," he said.

Claire had a swift feeling of gratitude for that single word "Miss." She
knew that she was dingily clothed; she had fancied that all her claims
to the nicer grades of gentility lived solely within her mental wish and
hope; but she failed to perceive that her face was filled with those
tender and sweet charms which we term patrician, and that her least
gesture carried with it a grace which previous conditions of culture
alone have the art to bestow. It was indeed true, as Michael had said,
that Miss Sophia was coming downstairs. Claire soon heard a decisive
rustle of robes, and presently a descendent shape dawned upon her view,
arrayed in very modish costume.

But the instant that Claire caught sight of Sophia she recognized the
plump, rubicund face, grown only a trifle more womanly beneath its
low-arranged floss of yellow hair. She went forward to meet her old
friend. Just as Sophia left the last step of the staircase, Claire had
so managed that they stood very near to each other.

She did not put forth a hand. Her pale, beautiful face had grown paler,
through fear of some possibly haughty reception. But she spoke the
moment that Sophia's round blue eyes had fairly met her own.

"I hope you know me," she said. "I hope you have not forgotten me."

A blank, dismayed look possessed Sophia for a few seconds, and then she
put forth two hands which were sheathed half-way up to the elbow in
dull-brown gloves, seizing both of Claire's hands the next instant.

"Forgotten you!" she cried. "Why, you're Claire Twining! Of course you
are! And as pretty as a picture, just as you always were! Why, you dear
old thing! Give me a kiss!"

Claire felt the lips of the speaker forcibly touch each of her cheeks.
Sophia still held her hands. The welcome had been too abruptly cordial.
A mist slipped before her sight and clouded her brain. She staggered
backward....

Perhaps she would have fallen, if the magnificent Michael had not been
near enough to place a muscular arm between herself and the floor. But
she rallied almost at once. And while clearness was returning to her
mind, she heard Sophia say, in imperious yet hearty tones,--

"Michael, take her into the reception-room! Now, don't look so stupid!
Do as I say!"

Claire's attack, though more than partly past, still left her weak. She
allowed herself to be led, and indeed half supported, by Michael. A
little later she was seated on a big, yielding lounge, with the sense of
a big, yielding pillow at her back. And presently, close beside her, she
saw the ruddy, broad-blown face of Sophia, surmounted by a Parisian
bonnet of the most deft and dainty millinery.

"Sophia," she said, breaking into a tremulous, pathetic little laugh,
"please don't--_please_ don't think I've lost my senses! But it--it was
so good of you to--remember me, after we hadn't met for such a long
time, that--that I"--

Here Claire burst into an actual tempest of tears and sobs, and
immediately afterward felt Sophia's hands again clasp both her own.

"Michael!" cried her new hostess at the same moment, in tones of
imperative command, "for Heaven's sake, don't stand staring there, but
_do_ leave the room!"

"Yes, Miss," came the nicely decorous reply. Faultless servant as he
was, it must still be set to the credit of Michael that he closed a
sliding door of solid rosewood, which worked on easy grooves between the
double _portière_ of the apartment, just after crossing its threshold.
His act was wholly unnecessary, considering the nature of the command
his young mistress had given; and when we note the obstructing force of
the door itself, it implies a sublime abstinence from the fascinations
of eavesdropping.

"Now, don't cry so!" exclaimed Sophia, with great sympathy and a strong
suspicion of active emotion as well. "I suppose something dreadful has
happened to you, dear old Claire. What is it? Just tell me, and I'll see
what I can do. You're not dressed as if you were very well off. Is it
poverty? Oh, pshaw! I'll soon fix things all right if you want help that
way. I'll"--

Here Sophia abruptly paused, and withdrew her hands. She stood facing
Claire, who still struggled to master the sobs that shook her. Sophia
seemed sternly troubled: her full cheeks had reddened; this was her one
invariable way of showing agitation; she never turned pale, like other
people. "Claire!" she broke forth, in solemn undertone. "I do hope it
isn't _one thing_! I do hope you haven't been ... been _going wrong_!
You know what I mean. I wouldn't mind anything but that, and that I
couldn't forgive--or even excuse!"

Claire sprang to her feet as the last word passed Sophia's lips. Wrath
had calmed her, and with a wondrous speed. The tears were still
glittering on her cheeks, however, as she spoke, with eyes that flashed
and a lip that curled.

"Sophia!" she said; "how dare you insult me like this!"

The distressed frown on Sophia's face instantly vanished. "Oh, Claire,"
she cried, "I'm so glad it _isn't_ true! Don't be angry. You see, my
dear, we hadn't met for so long, and you looked as if--as if something
horrible had happened, and it's such a funny, topsy-turvy world. So many
queer things do happen in it. _Don't_ be angry, please!"

"I am angry," said Claire. In her shabby dress she gave,
notwithstanding, a noble portrayal of disdain. She had taken several
steps toward the door, though Sophia, having caught her arm, endeavored,
with a mien contrite and even supplicating, to detain her within the
chamber. "Why should I not be angry?" Claire went on, her voice dry and
bitter. "Allow that I do look as if I were miserable. Is misery another
name for sin?... No, Sophia, let me go, please.... Perhaps you may
learn, some day, as I've learned already, that the unhappy people in
life are not always the bad ones!"

But Sophia, whose impulsive and explosive nature had not altered very
markedly since we last heard of her childish escapades, now replied by a
most excited outburst of appeal. Her exuberant figure, which no
dexterity of dressmaking and no splendor of combined satins and velvets
could turn less unwieldy and cumbrous, bowed and swayed till you almost
heard the seams of its rich garb crack their stitches under the fleshly
disturbance to which she subjected them.

"Claire! Claire!" she ejaculated; "I _have_ insulted you.... But you'll
forgive me--I know you will. I've never forgotten you. You stood up
against that horrid Ada Gerrard and her set so finely, years ago! You
were good then--yes, just as good as gold,--and I'm sure you're just
exactly as good still. Now, Claire, don't look that way! I was talking
to Ma about you only a few days since. Pa's dead, you know--but I
suppose you don't. Yes, I said to Ma that I'd give anything to find out
what had become of you. Ma and I are dreadfully rich--I mean well off.
Poor Pa left ever so much money. He's been dead nearly three years.
There's nobody but Ma and I left. I hate Hoboken. I made her buy this
house. Now, Claire, just stop! You shan't go. You're going to tell me
all about your troubles. Yes, you shall! I'll be your friend. There, let
me kiss you.... Do, Claire!... You know I was always awfully fond of
you. I never knew any girl I was half so fond of as you. I've asked your
pardon. You were always a lady. I remember about that dreadful dress you
came to school in, first. But that didn't matter. You were a lady born,
and you showed it afterward. Every girl thought so, too. Even those
hateful snobs had to own it--I'm sure they did. I see some of them quite
often. Ada Gerrard's a great swell, as they say, now. She gives me a
little nod when I meet her, driving in the Park or on the Avenue. But
you're twice the lady she is. Yes, Claire, I mean it. Kiss me, now,
won't you? Kiss me, and be friends!"

Claire had succumbed several minutes before this eager tirade was ended.
Her anger had fled. She let Sophia put both arms about her. She returned
Sophia's kiss. Then she leaned her head upon the shoulder of her
companion, and gave way to another access of tears. But they were quiet
tears, this time. The hysteric impulse had wholly passed. A little later
she told Sophia, with as much placid directness as she could manage,
every important detail of the hard, dreary life lived since they two had
last met.

While she thus spoke, the extraordinary charm of her manner and the
distinct loveliness of her delicate yet notable beauty more than once
thrilled her listener. Sophia's old worship, if the term be not too
strong, returned in full force. She had sworn by Claire, as the phrase
goes, in earlier days. She was prepared to swear by her still. The story
of Mr. Twining's death and the disloyal deportment of his wife roused
her vehement contempt. By the time that Claire had finished her gloomy
recital, the two girls were seated close together. Sophia's large fat
hand, in its fashionable glove, was fervidly clasping Claire's.

"You did perfectly right!" Sophia at length exclaimed, after the pause
had come, and while her visitor sat with drooped head and pale,
compressed lips. "Your poor father! To bury him that way! It was
frightful! And you told her you'd do anything on earth for her if she
only wouldn't! And I know how you loved your father. Don't you recollect
telling me about him, one recess, when I gave you half my
sardine-sandwich? You said he was a gentleman by birth, and had come of
a fine family in England. That's where you get your swell looks from,
Claire. Yes, you _are_ a swell, even though you've got on a frock that
didn't cost, altogether, as much as one yard of mine.... Why, just look
at me! I'm awkward and clumsy, exactly as I was at Mrs. Arcularius's.
I'll never be any different. And yet I spend loads and loads of money on
my things. I do, really! But gracious goodness! there _you_ sit, with
your sweet, pure face, shaped like a heart, and your hair that's got the
same bright sparkle through its brown that it used to have, and those
long eyelashes over those black-blue kind of eyes, and that cunning
little dimple in your chin, and those long, slender, ladylike hands"--

Here Claire stopped her, with a sad smile and a shake of the head. She
spread open one hand, holding it up for scrutiny at the same moment.

"Don't talk of my hands, Sophia," she said. "They've been doing hard
work since you saw them last."

Sophia gazed down at the inner portion of her friend's hand, for a
moment, and then suddenly exclaimed,--

"Work! Why, they're not hard a bit. Oh, Claire, you've worn gloves all
the time you worked. Come, own up, now!"

Claire smiled in a furtive way. But she spoke with simple frankness the
next instant. "Well, yes, Sophia," she said, "I _have_ worn gloves as
often as I could. I wanted to save my hands. Some of the girls at Mrs.
Arcularius's used to call them pretty. I wanted them to stay pretty--if
I could manage it. I don't mind telling you so. But I thought they must
have lost every trace of nice looks by this time."

Sophia bent over the hand that she still held, and whose palm was turned
upward to the light, so that all its inner details, from wrist to
finger-tips, could not possibly escape notice.

"Why, there's a pink flush all round the edge, inside there," commented
Sophia. "It's funny, Claire. I never saw it in any other girl's hand
before. It's just like the rose-color at the edge of a shell. Upon my
word it is! I don't care a straw what work you've been doing; you've got
hands like--well, I was going to say like a queen. But I don't doubt a
good many queens have awful hands, so I'll say like a lady.... There,
kiss me again.... Here's Ma. Don't mind Ma. She'll be nice. She always
_is_ nice when I want her to be. Isn't that so, Ma?"

A lady had just entered the small, brilliantly-appointed room in which
Claire and Sophia had thus far held their rather noteworthy converse.
The lady was Mrs. Bergemann.

She was exceedingly stout; both in visage and form she looked like a
matured and intensified Sophia. As far as features went, she wonderfully
resembled her daughter. Every undue trait of plumpness in Sophia's
countenance was reproduced by Mrs. Bergemann with a sort of facial
compound interest. Flesh seemed to have besieged her, like a comic
malady. Her good-natured eyes sparkled between two creases of it; her
loose, full chin revealed more than one fold of it. She was by no means
attired like a widow of recent bereavement. She wore a bonnet in which
there was no violence of coloring; it was purple and brown, but at the
same time so severely _à la mode_ that if any symbol lurked behind its
decorative fantasies this must have signified the soothing influences of
resignation and consolation.

She had heard her daughter's last words. She was devoted to Sophia; it
was an allegiance wed with pride. She had been a poor German girl, years
ago, and had drifted, through the chance of matrimony, into her present
opulent place. She was by nature meek and conciliatory; all Sophia's
temper and temerity had come from her father, who had combined large
superficial good-humor with a notorious intolerance of the least fancied
wrong. Sophia's last words had embarrassed her. She had no idea who
Claire was, but the evident cordiality of her daughter's deportment
produced the effect of a gentle mandate.

"I shan't go driving, Ma!" Sophia exclaimed, after she had made Claire
and her mother acquainted. "I'll stay at home and talk of old times with
Claire Twining. Poor Claire's in trouble, Ma. I won't tell you about it
yet. You go off in the carriage--that is, if it ever comes; but I'm
afraid we'll have to discharge Thomas; he's always behind time."

"The carriage is here, Sophia," said Mrs. Bergemann. She spoke without
the slightest German accent; this had perished long ago. She was looking
at Claire with the manner of one who has been deeply attracted. "I've
often heard you mention Miss Twining," she went on. "You was talking of
her only the other day, wasn't you, Sophia?"

"Yes," said Sophia, rising. She went to her mother, and spoke a few low
words, which Claire quite failed to hear. The prompt result of this
intercourse was Mrs. Bergemann's exit from the room. Sophia followed her
to the door, with one hand laid upon her shoulder.

"All right, Ma," she said, pausing a moment on the threshold. "You go
and take your drive. I'll stay and chat with Claire."

A little while afterward Sophia had reseated herself at Claire's side.
"Ma likes you," she at once began, in her voluble, oddly frank way. "She
told me she did. She's very funny about liking and disliking people. She
takes fancies--or she doesn't. Ma isn't a swell. She's what they call
vulgar. But she's ever so nice. She never had much education, but she
has a large, warm heart. I wouldn't have her one bit different from what
she is. I wouldn't give Ma for Queen Victoria. She and I are the
dearest friends in the world. I know you'll like her, Claire. She likes
you, as I said. And Claire, look here, now; I want to say something. It
may surprise you. I hope, though, that it will please you, too. You're
going to stay here in this house. You're going to live here as my
friend. Yes, you are. You were always as smart as a steel trap. We'll
read together, every morning. Yes, we will. You know what a perfect fool
I used to be at Mrs. Arcularius's. Well, I'm the same fool still. But
_you_ know a lot; you always did. And you shall help me to be less of an
ignoramus than I am. We've got a library upstairs. Oh, there are a crowd
of books. I got Mr. Thurston to buy them for me. He's a gentleman friend
of ours, and he knows a tremendous amount. He just filled all the
book-shelves for us. I'm sure he bought the right kind of books, too; he
knows pretty much everything in that line. Now, Claire, if you'll do as
I say, we'll get along splendidly together. And as for ... well, as for
salary, you know, I'll"--

Here Claire rose, placing a hand on Sophia's arm. "No," she said, "I
couldn't accept such a place as that. I'm not able to fill it. I have
been living a life of hard work for three or four years past. I've
scarcely looked into a book, Sophia, in all that time. I came here to
ask you if you would get me work. I can sew very well; I was always
clever with my needle. If you will give me something of that sort to do,
I will gladly and thankfully remain. But otherwise, I can't."



IX.


Sophia consented to this plan, but only as a strategical manoeuvre. She
had determined that Claire should fill precisely the position just
proffered her, and no other. By seeming to yield she at length won her
cause. She was quite in earnest about her wish for mental improvement.
Nor was Claire, in spite of latter years passed under the gloom of toil,
half as much at sea among the many smart-bound volumes of the library as
she herself had expected. She had been, in her day, a diligent student;
she found that she remembered this or that famous writer, as she
examined book after book. Now and then a celebrated name recurred to her
with sharp appeal of recollection; again she had a vivid sense of
forgetfulness, and of ignorance as well. But she was of the kind who
read swiftly and retain with force. It was not long before she had
discovered certain volumes which guided and at the same time instructed
her in just that literary direction needful for the task required by her
would-be pupil. A great deal of her old intellectual method and industry
soon came back to her. She turned the pages of the many good books
stored on the shelves near by with a hand more composed and deliberate;
she began to see just what Sophia wanted her to do, and realize her full
capability of doing it.

Meanwhile a week or more had passed. She was now clad in appropriate
mourning. She was one of the family. Sophia, devoted and affectionate,
was constantly at her side.

Now and then Claire said, with a nervous laugh, "I'm afraid I have never
learned enough to be of the least use to you, Sophia, in the way you've
proposed."

But Sophia would smile, and answer, "Oh, I'm not afraid, Claire dear.
You'll get it all back again, pretty soon."

She rapidly got it all back again, and a great deal more besides. The
morning readings began. Sophia soon expressed herself as in raptures;
but it was the teacher that charmed her far more than the teaching.

Claire's life was now one of easy luxury. She walked or drove with
Sophia every afternoon; she ate delicate food; she slept in a spacious
bed-chamber that possessed every detail of comfort; all things moved
along on oiled wheels; the machinery of her life had lost all its
clogging rust. Greenpoint began to fade from her thoughts; it grew a
dim, detested memory. Scarcely a day passed, however, without she
definitely recalled some incident connected with her father. Now that
this softness and daintiness surrounded her, the refinement which no
adverse years could alienate from his personality became for her a more
distinct conception. She realized how complete a gentleman he had been.
At the same time, under these altered conditions, her own taste for the
superfine niceties of cultivation increased with much speed. She was
like a plant that has been borne back to its native soil and clime from
some land where it has hitherto lived but as a dwarfed and partial
growth; the foliage was expanding, the fibre was strengthening, the
flowers were taking a warmer tint and a richer scent.

She soon perceived that the Bergemanns moved in a set of almost
uniformly vulgar people. Many of them seemed very wealthy. Nearly all of
them dressed handsomely and drove about in their private carriages. Not
a few of them lived in fine adjacent houses on "the Avenue," as it is
called. Sophia had a number of intimate friends, maidens of her own age,
who constantly visited her. She had admirers, too, of the other sex, who
would sometimes call for her of an evening, and take her to a party,
unattended by any chaperone. She went, during the winter months, to
numerous parties. She belonged to an organization which she always spoke
of as "our sociable," and which met at the various homes of its female
members. One evening a "sociable" was given at the Bergemann mansion.
The music and dancing were kept up till two o'clock in the morning, and
the house was effectively adorned with flowers. Claire, because of her
mourning, abstained from this and all similar gayety. But as a matter of
course she met many of Sophia's and Mrs. Bergemann's friends. Only one
of all the throng had power pleasurably to interest her.

This exceptional person was Mr. Beverley Thurston, whom we have already
heard Sophia mention as having selected the volumes of her mother's
library. He was a man about forty years old, who had never married. His
figure was tall and shapely; his face, usually grave, was capable of
much geniality. He had traveled, read, thought, and observed. He stood
somewhat high in the legal profession, and came, on the maternal side,
of a somewhat noted family. He managed the large estate of Mrs.
Bergemann and her daughter, and solely on this account was a frequent
guest at their house. He had one widowed sister, of very exclusive
views, who possessed large means, and who placed great value upon her
position as a fashionable leader. For several years this lady (still
called by courtesy Mrs. Winthrop Van Horn) had haughtily refused her
brother's urgent request that she should leave a card upon Mrs.
Bergemann, though several thousand a year resulted from his connection
with the deceased brewer's property. But Mr. Thurston, while he
succumbed to the arrogant obstinacy of his sister, had employed great
tact in blinding his profitable patrons to the awkward truth of her
disdain. He had been bored for three years past by his politic intimacy
with Sophia and her mother, and he had always felt a lurking dread lest
they should make a sudden appeal for his aid in the way of social
advancement. But here he had committed a marked error. Mrs. Bergemann
and Sophia understood nothing whatever about social advancement. They
were both magnificently contented with their present places in society.
The inner patrician mysteries were quite unknown to them. Their
ignorance, in this respect, was a serene bliss. They believed themselves
valuably important. They saw no new heights to gain.

Mr. Thurston had long secretly smiled at their self-confidence. He was a
clever observer; he had seen the world; the Bergemanns were sometimes a
delicious joke to him, when he felt in an appreciative mood. At other
times the bouncing, coltish manners of Sophia, and the educational
deficiencies of her mother, grated harshly upon his nerves. But when
Claire entered the household he at once experienced a new sensation. He
watched her in quiet wonder. No points of her beauty escaped his trained
eye. What he had learned of her past career made her seem to him
remarkable, even phenomenal. By degrees an intimacy was established
between them. At first it concerned literary subjects; Claire consulted
him about the books appropriate for her readings with Sophia. But they
soon talked of other things, and occasionally these chats took the form
of very private _tête-à-têtes_. Claire was perfectly loyal to her new
friends, but she could not crush a spirit of inquiry, of investigation
and of valuation, so far as concerned the people with whom they
associated.

The gentlemen distressed her more than the ladies. The latter were often
so full of grace and prettiness that their loud talk, shrill laughter,
and faulty grammar could not wholly rid them of charm. But the gentlemen
had no grace, and slight good looks as an offset to their haphazard
manners. Some of them appeared to be quite uneducated; others would
blend ignorance with conceit; still others were ungallant and
ungracious, and not seldom pompously boastful of their wealth.

Mr. Thurston was at first cautious in his answers to Claire's rather
searching questions. But by degrees he threw aside restraint; he grew to
understand just why he was thus interrogated.

He had a slow yet significant mode of talk that was nearly sure of
entertaining any listener. Shallow people had called him a cynic, but
not a few clever ones had strongly denied this charge. Claire began to
look upon him as one who was forever opening doors for her, and showing
her glimpses of discovery that either surprised or impressed the gazer.

On the evening of Sophia's "sociable" Claire remained in a large chamber
that was approached from the second hall of the house, and appointed
with that admirable taste which clearly indicated that the Bergemanns
had once confided devoutly in their upholsterer, just as they now did in
their milliner. She was quite alone; she held a book open in her lap,
but was not reading it; her black dress became her charmingly; it seemed
to win a richer shade from the chestnut-and-gold of her tresses, and to
increase the delightful fragility of her oval, soft-tinted face. The
music below stairs kept her thoughts away from her book; it pealed up to
her with a dulcet, provocative melody; it made her feel that she would
love to go down and join the merry-makers. But this was only a kind of
abstract emotion; there was nobody in the bright-lit, flower-decked
drawing-rooms whom she would have cared to meet, with the possible
exception of Mr. Thurston, although what she then considered his
advanced age made him seem more suitable as a companion of less jubilant
hours.

But it chanced that a knock presently sounded at the half-closed door,
and that Mr. Thurston soon afterward presented himself. He sat down
beside her. His evening dress had a felicity of cut and fit that gave
his naturally stately figure an added distinction, even to the
inexperienced eye of Claire. She thought how the white tie at his throat
became him--how different he was, in spite of the gray at his temples
and the crow's-feet under his hazel eyes, from the younger men clad in
similar vesture, whom she had seen pass through the upper hall a little
earlier in the evening.

By this time Mr. Thurston's acquaintance with Claire had grown to be a
facile and agreeable intimacy. He had learned from Sophia that she was
here alone, and he had sought her with the freedom of one wont to make
himself wholly at home in the mansions of his clients. At the same time,
as it happened, he came with a vastly fatigued feeling toward the guests
below.

"I didn't want to leave," he began, with his nice, social smile, "until
I had seen you for a few moments."

"Ah," said Claire, pleased at his coming, and with a little sweet-toned
laugh, "I'm afraid you came up here only because it was too early to go
just yet."

Mr. Thurston put his head on one side, and his eyes twinkled
quizzically. "Oh, come, now," he said; "are you going to talk badly
about the party? You haven't seen it. I'm sure you'd like to be down
there, dancing and romping among all those young people."

Claire shook her head; she looked rather serious as she did so. "No,"
she answered; "I shouldn't like it at all. I think you know why. There
is nobody there--that is, among the guests--whom I like. Some of them
I've never met. But I don't doubt that they are all much the same. Now,
please don't look as if you didn't understand me. I am sure that you do,
perfectly. Remember, we have talked on these subjects before."

Mr. Thurston stroked his thick gray mustache, whose ends slightly curved
against cheeks which somehow looked as if they still wore the sun-tan of
travel in remote sultry climates.

"Of course we have, Miss Claire," he gently exclaimed. "It's wonderful
what an inquiring turn you possess. We've settled that there's no
treachery to Sophia and her mamma in all these dreadful things that you
and I say; haven't we?"

"Certainly we have settled it," returned Claire, still looking serious.
"But I'm not by any means sure that we do say dreadful things. I ask the
truth, and you tell it me." Here Claire's expression suddenly changed.
She looked at her companion archly, and each cheek dimpled. "At least I
hope you do."

Mr. Thurston shifted in his seat, and crossed his legs. "I do. I speak
by the card when you ask questions. I'm compelled to. There's an
enormous earnestness about you. You make me think of a person with a
purpose. I'm sure you have a purpose. I haven't yet fathomed it, but I'm
sure it's there."

"I have a purpose," Claire said.

"Very well. What is it?"

"To know about the world I live in. I mean New York, of course. That is
my world, now. I think it a very nice world. At least, I've never seen a
better one."

"Yes; I understand. And you want to explore it. You want to examine it
in detail. You want to know its bad, worse, worst, and its good, better,
best."

"I want to know its good, better, best."

Mr. Thurston laughed again. "Do you know," he said, "that the more I see
of you the more you amuse me? No; I won't say 'amuse'; I'll say
'interest.' You are such a tremendous type. You are so characteristic. I
called you a person with a purpose, just now, and I pretended not to
know what your purpose was. That was an intentional hypocrisy on my
part. I comprehend your purpose thoroughly. You wish to find out what
New York society means. You're making a mental social dictionary. And
you desire that I shall supply you with definitions to the best extent
of my ability. Isn't that true? Pray confess, now."

Claire looked at him steadily for several seconds. There was a mild yet
bright spark in her dusky-blue eyes, and a faint smile on her lips.

"You say less than you mean," she answered. "I think that I guess what
is behind your words. I think that you suspect me of wishing to make my
dictionary from motives of future personal preference. That is, you
believe that I am a girl with strong ambitions--that I want to rise,
thrive, succeed.... Well, you're not wrong. I do want to rise, thrive,
succeed. It's in me, as the saying goes. I can't help the impulse."

Mr. Thurston lifted both hands and slightly waved them. "The impulse is
enough--with you," he said.

Claire started. "What do you mean?" she asked.

Mr. Thurston looked at the floor, for a moment, then raised his eyes.
They dwelt on Claire's very forcefully.

"I mean," he said, "that you are too beautiful and charming not to gain
your object."

Claire laughed, lightly and yet a little consciously. "That is very kind
of you. If a young man had only said it! How delighted I would have
been!"

"Then you think me so very old?" Thurston replied, watching her face
with intentness.

"Oh, no," Claire at once said, growing serious again. "Not that, of
course. But still ... well, it would be idle for me to declare that I
think you young."

"Perhaps I am younger than you think," he said, with low, peculiar
emphasis on each word. "Mind, I only say 'perhaps.' ... But do not let us
talk of that. As I told you, I am sure you will gain your object. You
will succeed. That is, you will find a higher level than these poor
Bergemanns. There is a restless fire in your soul that will goad you on.
And in the end you must win."

"Tell me by what means, please."

"Marriage will be your first stepping-stone."

"To what?"

"Success."

"Success in what form?"

"Social success. I assume that your aim lies there. You want men and
women of a certain grade to pay you courtesy and deference."

Claire seemed to muse, for a brief time. "Yes, I do," she then said.
"You are quite right. But you speak of my gaining all this by marriage.
How shall I meet the man who is to lend me such important help?"

There was a daring candor about this question--a simplicity of
worldliness, in fact--which startled her hearer. But his usual gravity
betrayed no signs of dismay.

"You will meet him," he said, tranquilly. "Oh, yes; you will meet him.
It is your fate. He will drop to you from the skies. But after you have
secured through matrimony this desired end, will you be contented with
what you have secured? So much depends on that--the success of your
success, as one might say."

Claire raised her brows in demure perplexity. "I don't understand," she
murmured.

Thurston slowly shook his head. A smile was on his lips, but it held
sadness, and a hint of pity as well. "If I read you rightly," he
answered, "you _will_ understand, some day."

Claire made an impatient gesture. "Please don't talk in riddles," she
exclaimed. "Do you mean that the prize will turn out worthless after I
have got it? I have not found this true in my reading. I have not found
many kings or queens who wearied so much of their thrones that they were
ready to resign them." An eagerness now possessed her manner; she leaned
slightly forward; her nostril dilated a little; her color deepened.
"Power and place are what I want, and never to have them will be never
to have contentment. This sounds cold to you. I'm sure of it."

"Yes," he said, softly; "it sounds very cold. But I don't know that such
a coldness as that will not prove for you a tough safeguard. It is very
protective to a woman--if it lasts."

"Mine will last, such as it is."

"I neither affirm nor deny that it will. Time will show."

She broke into a laugh, full of sportive irony. "You mean that I may
fall in love with somebody. But I have little fear of that." ... Her
face suddenly grew very sober, and her voice trembled some what as she
next said: "I loved my poor dead father dearly. I shall never love any
one else half so much again. No mere words could tell you of my firm
certainty on this subject. But the certainty remains. I don't mean that
I wish to live a loveless life. Far from that! I wish to have friends
in abundance. And I shall not be disloyal to them in any case. But they
must be friends of influence, standing, importance. They must not be
like the Bergemanns, though I mean never to falter for an instant in my
grateful fidelity toward Sophia and her mother."

"Your frankness," said Thurston, with one of his calm, wise smiles, "has
a positive prodigality. What another woman would hide with the most
jealous care, you openly speak. It is easy to see that your experience
is yet limited."

"I should not talk to every one as I talk to you," Claire quickly
answered.

He took one of her hands in his for a few moments. He held it, and she
let him do so. He looked into her face with great fixity.

"My poor child," he said, "you have a hard road before you. But I know
you mean to tread it with determined feet. In many women there would be
something repellent about such resolves as those you have just
confessed. In you they are charming. I suppose that is easily explained:
you are charming yourself. I shall watch your career with the deepest
concern. You will not mind if I watch it? Am I wrong, here?"

Claire, still letting him keep her hand, swiftly replied: "Oh, no; of
course I shall not mind. You belong to that other world. You are one of
the people whom I wish to have for my adherents--my clients, as it were.
I hope we shall always be friends. I like you very greatly. You remember
we have talked it all over before now. You have told me of the people
whom I wish to meet. You have even told me some of their names. I have
forgotten nothing of what you have said. I count you as my first
conquest. If others follow--as I firmly believe that they will--we will
have talks together, and laugh over the old times when I was obscure and
a nobody. Yes, if I ever get to be that great lady you prophesy that I
shall become, we will discuss, in little intimate chats, every detail of
my progress toward grandeur and distinction. It will be very pleasant,
will it not? But now I must say something that I have never said before.
I must ask you to help me. Why should you not do so? You have means of
doing so. And you like me; we are excellent friends. If you give me some
real aid I will never forget it. I'm not ungrateful. I'm cold, if you
choose, in a certain way, but I always recollect a service. Don't think
I am begging any favor of you. I'm rather requiring one. Yes, requiring.
You've told me that you think I have ... well that I'm not ugly. You
know just what I want to do. And you've said that I have ... well that
I'm very far from a fool.... Now let us strike a compact. Shall we? Put
me into some path where I may reach your fine, grand world, in which I
should like to shine and be a power!"

The audacity of this whole speech was exquisite. In plain substance it
belonged to what we call by harsh names. It was the sort of thing that
in ordinary dealing we denounce and even contemn, as the effort of
unsolicited pretension to thrust itself against barred gates with
immodest vigor. But in Claire's case there was no question of ordinary
dealing. Her impetuosity was so lovely, her youth, her beauty, and her
freshness were so entirely delightful, that the unreserved freedom with
which she spoke of aims in their essence purely selfish acquired a
charming picturesqueness. Her ambition, thus openly expressed, lost
every trace of gross worldly meaning. She became, to the eyes of him who
watched her, a fascinating zealot. She seemed to demand what was merely
her just due. It was indeed as though she had been robbed by some
hostile fate of a royalty that she now declared her stolen right, and
proudly reclaimed. All this time she had let Thurston retain her hand.
Once or twice her slight fingers pressed against his palm, with
unconscious warmth. Her face, meanwhile, lifted above the darkness of
her mourning robes, was sweet and brilliant as some early dew-washed
flower.

Thurston fixed his gaze upon her eyes, whose dark-blue depths were full
of a rich, liquid light. His clasp tightened about her hand.

"I will give you my help," he said, with a new note in his voice that
was a sort of husky throb; "I will give it to you gladly. But I am
afraid you will not accept it when it is offered."

"Yes," returned Claire, still not guessing the truth, "I will accept it
most willingly, since it comes from one whom I know to be my friend and
well-wisher."

"That is not what I mean," Thurston objected. He rose as he spoke, still
holding Claire's hand.

She looked at him wonderingly. She perceived his changed manner.
"Explain," she said. "How do you mean that you will help me?"

"I will help you as my wife," Thurston replied. He looked as grave, as
gray, as bronzed, as always; but his voice was in a hoarse flurry. "I
will help you, as my wife, to be something more than a great lady. You
shall be that, if you choose, but you shall be more. Your ambition is
made of finer stuff than you know. I will help you to see just how fine
it is."

The instant that he began to speak thus Claire had drawn away her hand.
She did not rise. But she now looked up at him, and shook her head with
negative vehemence.

"No, no!" she said. The words rang sharply.



X.


Not long afterward Claire found herself alone. Thurston had gone. She
felt her cheeks burn as she sat and stared at the floor. His declaration
had strangely shocked her, at first, for the entire man, as it were, had
undergone a transformation so abrupt and radical as to wear a hue of
actual miracle; and it is only across a comfortable lapse of centuries
that the human mind can regard such manifestations with anything like
complacency. Balaam could not have been more bewildered and disturbed
when the Ass spoke. Claire had never thought of Thurston as capable of a
live sentiment toward any woman. She had taken it for granted that all
this part of his nature was in dignified decay, like his hair and
complexion. She had drifted unconsciously, somehow, into the conviction
that his passions, if he had ever felt them, were now like the
lavendered relics that we shut away in chests. She had warmed to him
with a truly filial ardor, and this sudden ruin of their mutual
relations now gave her acute stings of regret.

But Thurston, who had managed to depart from her with a good deal of
nice repose of visage and demeanor, also contrived, with that skill born
of wide social experience, to make their next meeting by far less
awkward than Claire herself had nervously anticipated. Sophia and Mrs.
Bergemann were both present on this occasion. He looked at Claire in so
ordinary a way, and spoke with so much apparent ease and serenity, that
her self-possession was fed by his, and her dread swiftly became
thankful relief.

Through the days that followed, Claire and Thurston gradually yet firmly
resumed their past agreeable converse. Of course matters could never be
the same between them. He stood toward her, inevitably, in a new light;
a cloak had fallen from him; she was not quite sure whether she liked
him less or more, now that she knew him as the man who had asked her to
be his wife; but in reality she did like him much more, and this was
because, being a woman, she constantly divined his admiration beneath
the intimate yet always guarded courtesy of his manner.

Their former chats were resumed, steadily interrogative on her side,
complaisantly responsive on his. As Winter softened into Spring, the
dissipations of Sophia decreased. She had more evenings at home, and not
a few of her devotees would pay her visits during the hours of nine and
eleven. It frequently happened that Thurston would enter the
drawing-room at such times. He always talked with Claire, who would
often emerge from back recesses on his arrival. Both Sophia and her
mother would occasionally deliver themselves of comments upon the
evident preference of their legal adviser. But Mrs. Bergemann was much
more outspoken than her daughter. Sophia could not bring herself to
believe that there was "anything in it," as her own phrase repeatedly
went. She thought Beverly Thurston "just as nice as he could be"; but
the slender and blooming beauty of Claire made to her young eyes
anomalous contrast with Thurston's _fade_ though attractive appearance.

"Good gracious, Ma!" she once asseverated, in private debate, "Claire
wouldn't ever think of marrying a man old enough to be her father!"

"She might do worse, now, Sophia," protested Mrs. Bergemann, with the
coolly formulated style of talk and thought which marks so many matrons
when they discuss matrimonial subjects. "You just leave Claire alone.
Wait and see what she'll do. He's taken a shine to her. Recollect, she
ain't got a cent, poor dear girl. He'd make a splendid husband. I guess
he'll propose soon. I hope he will, too. He's a real ellergant
gentleman. Just think how we trust him with rents and mortgages and
things. I declare I don't scarcely know half what he does with my own
property."

"Pshaw, Ma," responded Sophia, with vast contempt. "Claire wouldn't look
at him that way. She's young, like me. She may be as poor as a
church-mouse, but she isn't going to sell herself like that. Now do be
quiet."

Mrs. Bergemann became obediently quiet. But she continued to have her
private opinions. Meanwhile Claire and Thurston held their brief or long
interviews, as chance favored.

Matters had rearranged themselves between them on the old basis. There
was a change, and yet not a change. Claire spoke with all her former
freedom. Thurston listened and replied with all his former concession.

A certain admirer of Sophia's had of late deserted her, and sought the
attention of Claire whenever occasion permitted. His name was Brady. His
father was the owner of a large and popular emporium on Sixth Avenue. He
was an only child, and supplied with a liberal allowance. The
mercantile success of his father had been comparatively recent. He was
now three-and-twenty; his early education had been one long, persistent
neglect. After the money had begun to flow into the paternal coffers,
Brady had gone abroad, and seen vice and little else in the various
European capitals, and finally, coming home again, had slipped, by a
most natural and facile process, into just that ill-bred, wealthy,
low-toned set of which poor, rich Sophia Bergemann was one of the
leading spirits.

Claire could hardly endure the attentions of Brady. She was civil to him
because of her two hostesses, whose perception in all matters of social
degree seemed hopelessly obtuse. But Brady had fallen in love with her,
severely and effusively, and she soon had good cause to know it. He was
very tall and slim of figure, with a face whose utter smoothness would
have been the despair of a mercenary barber. His large ears, jutting
from a bullet-shaped head, gave to this head, at a little distance away,
the look of some odd, unclassic amphora. He spoke very indifferent
English, and always kept the last caprice of slang in glib readiness, as
a tradesman will keep his newest goods where he can soonest reach them.
He was excessively purse-proud, and liked to tell you the price of the
big sunken diamond worn on his little finger; of the suite of rooms at
his expensive hotel; of the special deep-olive cigars, dotted with a
lighter yellow speck, which lined his ivory cigar-case. He possessed, in
truth, all the cardinal vulgarities. He was lavishly conceited; he paid
no deference to age; he had not a vestige of gallantry in his deportment
toward women; his self-possession was so frangible that a blow could
shatter it, but his coarse wrath would at once rise from the ruin, like
the foul aroma from a broken phial. At such times he would scowl and be
insolent, quite regardless of sex, years, or general superiority on the
part of the offender. Indeed, he admitted no superiority. The shadow of
the Sixth Avenue emporium hedged him, in his own shallow esteem, with
impregnable divinity.

"I think," said Thurston, speaking of him one day to Claire, "that he is
truly an abominable creature. The ancients used to believe that monsters
were created by the union of two commingling elements, such as earth and
heaven. But to-day in America we have a horrid progeny growing up about
us, resultant from two forces, each dangerous enough by itself, but both
deadly when they meet. I mean Wealth and Ignorance. This Brady is their
child. If he were merely a poor man, his illiteracy would be endurable.
If he were merely illiterate, we could stand his opulence. But he is
both very uneducated and very rich. The combination is a horror. He is
our modern way of being devoured by dragons, minotaurs, and giants."

Claire laughed, and presently shook her head in gentle argumentative
protest. "I think there is a flaw in your theory," she said, "and I'll
tell you why. There are the Bergemanns. Sophia, I admit, is not
precisely uncultivated--that is, she has had good chances of instruction
and not profited by them. This may mean little, yet it is surely better
than having had no chances at all. But Mrs. Bergemann--she is both rich
and ignorant, poor dear woman. And yet she is very far from a monster.
She is a sweet, comfortable, motherly person. She would not harm a
fly." Claire put her head a little sideways, and looked with winsome
challenge at her companion; she assumed pretty airs and graces with him,
nowadays, which she had never dealt in before the occurrence of a
certain momentous episode. "What have you to say," she went on, "in
answer to my rather shrewd objection? Doesn't it send you quite into a
corner."

"Well, I confess that it rather floors me to have Mrs. Bergemann cited
against me," he said, smiling. "I am afraid that I must yield. I am
afraid that my theory is torn in tatters. I must congratulate you on
your destructive instincts."

He spoke these words with his usual robust sort of languor, in which
there was never a single trace of affectation or frivolity. At the same
time a secret feeling of wonder possessed him; he was thinking how
swiftly active had been the change in Claire since their first
acquaintance. She had told him every particular of her past life, so far
as concerned its opportunities of instruction. He marveled now, as he
had repeatedly done on recent occasions, at her remarkable power to
grasp new phrases, new forms of thought, new methods of inquiry. She had
never, from the first, shown a gleam of coarseness. But she had often
been timid of speech and falteringly insecure of expression. Yet
latterly all this was altered. Thurston had a sense of how phenomenal
was the improvement. It was plain that the books in the library, and
Claire's power of fleet reading, had wrought this benefit upon a mind
which past study and training had already rendered flexibly receptive.
And yet all of the explanation did not lie here; at least half of it
lurked in the fact that she had quitted drudgery, need, and depression.
Her mental shutters had been flung open, and the sunshine let to stream
in through the casements. A few days later she had suspected the
existence of Brady's passion. He made no attempt, on his own side, to
conceal his preference for her society. Claire saw love in his
prominent, slate-colored eyes; she saw it in the increased awkwardness
of his motions when he either walked or sat near her; she saw it in his
bluff yet repressed bravado of manner, as though he were at surly odds
with himself for having been suddenly cut off in the flower of his
vainglorious bachelorhood. She had grown sharper-sighted for the
detection of these tender signs. And even in Brady their tenderness was
unmistakable. His clownish crudity had softened, in all its raw lines.
The effect might be compared to those graceful disguises in which we
have seen moonlight clothe things that repel us under the glare of day.

One morning when Claire came down to breakfast she found a huge basket
of Jacqueminot roses awaiting her, with Brady's card attached to it. She
flushed, for a moment, almost as red as the florid, velvety petals
themselves. Then she said, equally addressing Mrs. Bergemann and Sophia:

"How strange that he sent them to _me_! There may have been some
mistake."

"Oh, not a bit of it!" Sophia exclaimed. "He's dead gone about you,
Claire. I've seen it lately. So has Ma." Here the young lady turned
toward her mother, and lifted an admonishing finger. "Now, Ma, don't you
say a thing!"

But Mrs. Bergemann would say a number of things. Her amiability was so
expansive, and made such a radius of glow and warmth all about her,
that she rarely found it possible to dislike anybody. She had failed to
realize that Brady was an offensive clod. In her matrimonial concern for
Claire, the fact that he would one day, as the only child of his father,
inherit a vast fortune, reared itself before her with irresistible
temptation.

"Upon my word," she declared, "I don't know as any girl _had_ ought to
refuse a fellow as awful well-off as he is. Sophia's always talking of
his great big ears, and his boastful ways, and his style of getting into
tantrums about nothin' whatever. But still, I guess he might make a good
husband. He might be just the kind that'll tame down and behave
'emselves after marriage. And they say he ain't a bit mean; he ain't got
_that_ fault, anyhow. And I guess he'd buy a manshun on the Avenu for
any girl he took, and just make her shine like a light-house with
di'monds, and roll round in her carriage, and be high an' mighty as you
can find. _I'd_ think twice, Claire, if _I_ was you, before I let him
slip. That is, I mean if you don't decide you'd rather have Mr.
Thurston, who _does_ seem fond o' you, though I ain't said so before in
your hearing, dear, and who's an ellergant gentleman, of course, even if
he is a bit too old for a fresh young thing like yourself."

Claire laughed, in a high key, trying to conceal her nervousness. "Oh,
Mr. Thurston is quite too old, Mrs. Bergemann," she said. "Please be
sure of that."

The rich hue of the roses haunted her all day, even when she was not
near them. Their splendid crimson seemed like a symbol of the luxury
that she might be called upon to refuse. She had heard about the
emporium on Sixth Avenue. It made her bosom flutter when she thought of
being the mistress of a great mansion, and wearing diamonds and rolling
about in her carriage. Then she remembered Thurston's words concerning
this man who had sent her the roses. Was he so much of a monster, after
all? Might she not be able to humanize him? For a long time she was in a
very perturbed state. During this interval it almost seemed to her that
if he should ask her to marry him she would nerve herself and answer
'yes.'

That afternoon she did not go to drive with Sophia. Mrs. Bergemann went
in her place. Claire sat beside one of the big plate-glass windows of
her delightful chamber, and watched the clattering streams of carriages
pass below. Some of these she had now grown to remember and recognize; a
few of them possessed a dignity of contour and equipment that pleased
her greatly. She would have liked to lean back upon the cushions of some
such vehicle, and have its footman jauntily touch his hat while he
received her order from within, after he had shut the shining door with
a hollow little clang. The door should have arms and crest upon it; she
would strongly prefer a door with arms and crest.

Suddenly, while watching from the window, she saw a flashy brougham,
with yellow wheels, a light-liveried coachman and a large, high-stepping
horse in gilded harness, pause before the Bergemanns' stoop. The next
instant Brady sprang out, and soon a mellow bell-peal sounded below.
Claire sat and wondered whether he who had sent her the roses would now
solicit her company. It even occurred to her that he might have passed
Sophia and Mrs. Bergemann on the avenue, and hence have drawn the
conclusion that she would be at home alone.

She was quite right in this assumption. The grand Michael presently
brought up Mr. Brady's card. Claire hesitated for an instant, and then
said that she would see the gentleman.

She found Brady in the reception-room. He was dressed with an almost
gaudy smartness, which brought all his misfortunes of face and figure
into bolder relief. He wore a suit of clothes that might have been quiet
as a piece of tapestry, but was surely assertive in its pattern when
used for coat and trousers; his cravat was of scarlet and blue satin,
and a pin was thrust into it which flashed and glittered so that you
could not at first perceive it to be a cock's head wrought of diamonds,
with a little carcanet of rubies for the red comb. He had a number of
brilliant rings on his big-knuckled hands, and the sleeve-buttons that
secured his low, full wristbands were a blaze of close-bedded gems at
every chance recession of his sleeve. As he greeted Claire it struck her
that his expression was unwontedly sulky, even for him. He appeared like
a person who had been put darkly out of humor by some aggravating event.

"How are you, Miss Twining?" he said, holding Claire's hand till she
herself withdrew it. "I hope you're well. I hope you're as well as they
make 'em."

Claire sat down while she answered: "I am very well, Mr. Brady." Her
visitor at once seated himself beside her, leaning his face toward her
own. "I am sorry that both Mrs. Bergemann and Sophia are out," she went
on, with the desire to bridge an awkward interspace of silence.

"Oh, _I_ ain't, not a bit," said Brady, ardently contradictory. "I'm
glad of it, Miss Twining. I wanted to have a little chin with you." He
laughed at his own slang, crossed his long legs, and leaned back on the
lounge which Claire was also occupying. At the same time he turned his
face toward his companion.

Claire felt that decency now compelled her to offer a certain
acknowledgment. "I want to thank you for those lovely flowers," she
said. "They were beautiful, and it was very kind of you to send them."

He began to sway his head slightly from side to side. It was his way of
showing nearly every emotion, whether embarrassment, perplexity,
chagrin, or even mollification.

"Come, now," he began, "you didn't really think a lot about 'em, did
you?"

"I liked them very much," returned Claire. She was watching him, in all
his unpleasant details, though very covertly. She was asking herself, in
the dispassionate reflectiveness born of her calculating yet feverish
ambition, whether she could possibly consent to be his wife if he should
ever ask her. The remembrance of his great prospective wealth dealt her
more than one thrilling stroke, and yet feelings of self-distrustful
dread visited her also. She feared lest she might commit some
irreparable mistake. She was still very ignorant of the world in which
she desired to achieve note and place. But she had, at the same time, a
tolerably definite understanding of some things that she aimed to do.
Her talks with Thurston had let in a good deal of light upon her mind.
She had not lost a single point in all his explanatory discourse.

"I'm glad you _did_ like 'em," said Brady, examining his radiant rings
for an instant. "They cost a heap of stamps," he added, suddenly lifting
his head and giving her an intent look. "But I don't mind that. I ain't
a close-fisted chap, especially when I'm fond of anybody. I guess you've
seen that I think a deal about _you_. I can't talk flowery, like some
chaps, but that don't matter." ... At this point he suddenly took
Claire's hand; his face had acquired a still more sulky gloom; it was
clouded by an actual scowl. "Look here, now, Miss Twining," he said, "I
never expected to get married. I've had some pretty nice girls make
regular dead sets at me--yes, I have--but none of 'em ever took my
fancy. You did, though. I stuck it out for two or three weeks, and I
daresay I kept giving myself clean away all the time. But I saw 't
wasn't any use; I'm caught, sure; there ain't any mistake about it.
We'll be married whenever you say. I'll do the handsome thing--that is,
Father will. Father's crazy to have me settle down. He's worth a lot o'
money--I s'pose you know that. He'll like you when he sees you--I ain't
afraid he won't. We can have a slam-bang stylish wedding, or a plain,
quiet one, just as you choose. And don't you be alarmed about too big a
difference between you and I. Father may kick a little at first, but
he'll come round when you've met once or twice. He'll see you're a good,
sound girl, even if you ain't as high up, quite, as he'd want me to go
for. There, now, I've broken the ice, and I s'pose it's all fixed, ain't
it?"

Claire had been trying to withdraw her hand, for several moments, from
the very firm grasp of this remarkable suitor. But as Brady ended, she
literally snatched the hand away, and rose, facing him, contemptuous,
and yet calm because her contempt was so deep.

"It is impertinent for you to address me like this," she said, in
haughty undertone. "You have no right to take for granted that I will
marry you. In the first place, I do not like you; in the second place, I
think myself by no means your inferior, but greatly above you as regards
breeding, education, and intelligence; and in the third place, I would
never consent to be the wife of one whom I do not consider a gentleman."

She at once left the room, after thus speaking, and saw, as she did so,
that Brady's face was pale with rage and consternation. His insolent
patronage had wounded her more than she knew. On reaching her own room,
she had a fit of indignant weeping. But by the time that Sophia and Mrs.
Bergemann returned from their drive, she was sufficiently tranquil to
betray no sign of past perturbation.

That evening Sophia went to one of her "sociables." A male friend called
for her, and they were driven together to the entertainment in question,
with superb yet innocent defiance of those stricter proprieties
advocated in higher social realms. Mrs. Bergemann retired somewhat
early, and Claire was left alone, as it happened, with Thurston, who
chanced to drop in a little after nine o'clock. Just before Mrs.
Bergemann left the drawing-room, she contrived to whisper, in garrulous
aside, with her plump face quite close to Claire's, and all her genial,
harmless vulgarity at a sort of momentary boiling-point: "I shouldn't be
surprised, dear, if he should pop to-night. And if he does, I ain't sure
that you hadn't better have him than Brady, for he's ever so rich,
though the other'll get that Sixth Avenu store and two or three millions
o' money behind it. Still, please yourself, Claire, and don't forget to
leave the hall gas burnin' for Sophia when you go upstairs."

Claire was in a very interrogative mood to-night. "I should like to have
Mr. Brady explained a little more fully," she said, when Thurston and
herself were again seated side by side.

Her companion gave a soft laugh. "I thought that we had exhausted that
subject," he said. "It's not a very rich one, you know."

"I don't want you to tell me anything about his character as a man,"
Claire quickly replied. "But I want to find out his standing in
society."

"He has no standing in society," said Thurston, with instant
decisiveness.

"Do the people of whom you have spoken repeatedly--those whom you term
the best class, I mean--entirely refuse to know him?"

"Not at all. They have never been called upon to know or not to know
him. The best class is in a different world altogether. Perhaps Brady is
aware of their existence; he may have read of their entertainments in
the newspapers, or he may have seen them occasionally at
watering-places. But that is all. His self-importance prevents him from
realizing that they are above him. He is essentially and utterly common.
He is surrounded by a little horde of sycophants who worship him for his
money, and who are, in nearly all respects, as common as himself."

"You mean the set of people with whom Sophia associates?"

"Yes. I mean the rich, vulgar set of which you have so frequently seen
specimens in this very room."

Claire seemed to muse for a short while. "But the others?" she soon
asked. "Those people who hold themselves above the Bergemanns--are they
all refined and cultured? That is, are there any Bradys among them? Are
there any Mrs. Bergemanns or Sophias?"

"I should emphatically say not. One may meet people among them who are
by no means models of propriety or of high-breeding, but only as
exceptional cases. They are generally found to be ladies and gentlemen;
I don't know two more comprehensive words than those for just what I
desire to express. Of course I have no large moral meaning, now. I would
merely imply that in outward actions, at least, they preserve the
niceties. Their occasional deeds of darkness may be as solidly bad as
anything of the kind elsewhere. I should be very loth to describe them
as saintly. But they are usually polished. Quite often they are rank
snobs. Still oftener they are stupid. Their virtues might best be
explained negatively, perhaps. They don't shock you; they are not crude;
they haven't forgotten that a verb agrees with its nominative in number
and person; they don't overdress themselves; they very rarely shout
instead of talking, and ... well, for a final negative, they never tell
the truth when its utterance might wound or annoy."

Claire had seemed to be listening very earnestly. She did not respond
with her usual promptness. Her tones were slow and thoughtful when she
at length said: "And they are what you would call an aristocracy?"

"I don't know why they are not. They are incessantly being compared, to
their own disadvantage, with the aristocracies of foreign lands. But I
have traveled considerably, in my time, and on the whole I prefer them
to all similar bodies. There is less sham about them, and quite as much
reason for existence. They point a very sad moral, perhaps; they
illustrate what certain austere critics like to call the failure of
republican ideas. But I've had so many good friends among them that I
can't consider any institution a failure which is responsible for their
development."

"And it is very hard to become one of their number," Claire said, after
another little pause. She did not put the words as a question.

"You seem to think it hard," Thurston answered. Rare as was any
impulsive order of speech with him, this slight yet meaning sentence had
nevertheless found utterance, almost against his will.

It was his first reference to the episode which both vividly remembered,
though in far different ways, and which had cast round their subsequent
intercourse, even when directed upon the most mundane topics, a delicate
glamour of sentiment plainly perceptible to each. Claire dropped her
eyes, for a moment, then suddenly lifted them, while the pink was yet
deepening in her cheeks.

"Let us suppose that I am not speaking of myself," she said. "Indeed,"
she went on, with a soft, peculiar smile that had hardly lighted her
lips before it fled, "you have told me that _my_ gate into the kingdom
of the elect is through--well, through matrimony." She now looked at her
companion with so subtle a blending of the arch and the grave that
Thurston, in all the solidity of his veteran experience, was baffled how
to explain it. "Suppose," she suddenly announced to him, "that I should
marry Mr. Brady. He is your abhorrence, I know. But if he put his
millions at my disposal, could I become the great lady you and I have
talked about?"

Thurston was stroking his mustache, and he now seemed to speak under it,
a trifle gruffly, as he answered her.

"Yes," he said, "I think you could--provided Brady quitted the world
after marrying you."

Claire gave a little rippling laugh. "They would never allow him to be
one of them?" she asked, in tones whose precise import her hearer still
failed to define, and which impressed him as midway between raillery and
seriousness.

"No, never. If he has proposed to you, my poor child, don't for an
instant flatter yourself that you could use him as a ladder by which to
climb up into your coveted distinction."

These words were spoken with a commiserating ridicule. Tried a man of
the world as he was, Thurston had of late been so deeply wounded that he
now felt his wound bleed afresh, at an instant's notice, and deal him a
severe pang as well. But Claire, quite forgetting to make allowances,
flushed hotly, and at once said:--

"I never told you that Mr. Brady had proposed to me. And I do not think
it proper or civil for you to throw in my face what I have put to you in
the shape of a confidence."

"Marry Brady. By all means marry him," said Thurston. He had not been so
bitterly affronted in years.

Claire felt conscience-stricken by the recollection of her own thoughts
just previous to Brady's offer. She had permitted herself to weigh the
question of whether or not marriage with such a man might be possible.
Then had come the sharp sense that it would be degrading. For this
reason she was now humiliated beyond measure, and hence keenly angry.

"I shall not marry him," she said, her lip faintly quivering. "Why do
you speak to me like this?" Tears of shame now gathered to her eyes, and
her voice notably faltered. She found no more words to utter. She felt
that she was in a false, miserable position. She felt that she deserved
Thurston's contempt, too, since she had given him, stupidly and rashly,
a hint of what had passed between herself and the man whom they both
despised.

Thurston rose and placidly faced her. He was so angry that he had just
enough control left to preserve tranquillity.

"I don't know that I have said anything very hard to you," he began.

"Yes, you have," retorted Claire, her voice in wretched case. She
knotted both hands together while she spoke. She was still seated.

Thurston went on as if there had been no interruption. "But if I tell
you the plain truth, I don't doubt you will think me hard. I will tell
it because you need it. You are still a mere girl, and very foolish. I
am profoundly sorry for you. You have no possible regard for that
frightful young millionaire, and yet you have permitted yourself to
think of marrying him. Such a marriage would be madness. You would not
accept me because you thought me old, but it would be better if you
married a decent man of ninety than a gross cad and ruffian of
twenty-three. But whether you do sell yourself in this horrid way or no,
it is a plain fact that you are in danger of committing some terrible
folly. I see by your face that you do not mean to heed my words. But
perhaps if you listen to them now, you will recall them and heed them
hereafter."

"No," cried Claire, tingling with mortification, and seizing on satire
as a last defensive resort against this deserved rebuke, whose very
justice revealed her own culpability in a clearer light; "no, if you
please, I won't listen! I shall ask, instead, that you will kindly grant
me the liberty of purchasing my own sackcloth and of collecting my own
ashes."

She half turned away from him, with glowing face, as she spoke; it was
her intent to beat a prompt retreat; but Thurston's firm, even tones
detained her.

"I warn you against yourself," he went on. His anger had cooled now, and
melancholy had replaced it. "You have some fine traits, but there is an
actual curse hanging over you, and as a curse it will surely fall,
unless by the act of your own will you change it into a blessing. It is
more than half the consequence of your land and your time, but it is due
in part, also, to your special nature. In other countries the women whom
fate has placed as it has placed you, are never stung by ambition like
yours. They are born _bourgeoises_, and such they are contented to
remain. If they possess any ambition, it is to adorn the sphere in which
their destinies have set them, and this alone. They long for no new
worlds to conquer; their small world is enough, but it is not too small
to hold a large store of honest pride. All over Europe one finds it
thus. But in America the affair is quite different. Here, both women and
men have what is called 'push.' Not seldom it is a really noble
discontent; I am not finding fault with it in all cases. But in yours,
Claire Twining, I maintain that it will turn out a dowry of bitter risk
if not woful disaster. I exhort you to be careful, to be very careful,
lest it prove the latter. Don't let your American 'push' impel you into
swamps and quicksands. Don't let it thrust you away from what is true
and sterling in yourself. Be loyal to it as a good impulse, and it will
not betray and confound you like a bad one. You can do something so much
better than to wreck your life; you can make it a force, a guidance, a
standard, a leadership. You can keep conscience and self-respect clean,
and yet shine with a far surer and more lasting brilliancy on this
account.... Think of my counsel; I shall not besiege you with any more;
no doubt I have given you too much, and with too slight a warrant,
already.... Good-by. If I should never see you again, I shall always
hope for you until I hear ill news of you. And if bright news reaches
me, I shall be vain enough to tell myself that we have not met, talked,
argued--even quarreled, perhaps--without the gain on your own side of
happy and valued results." ...

Thurston passed from the room, swiftly, and yet not seeming to use the
least haste, before Claire, strongly impressed and with her wrath at a
vanishing point, could collect herself for the effort of any coherent
sort of reply.

She had caught one very clear glimpse of his face just as he
disappeared. His hazel eyes, troubled, yet quiet, had momentarily dwelt
with great fixity on her own. As she afterward recalled this parting
vision of a face grown so familiar through recent weeks, it appeared to
her solely in imaginative terms. It ceased to be a face; it became a
reproach, a remonstrance, an advice, an entreaty.

Immediately after his exit she sank into a chair, feeling his late words
ring through mind and heart. She had never liked him so much as at that
moment.

She had a sense that he meant to avoid seeing her again. But she did not
realize through how much vivid novelty of experience she must pass
before they once more met. If any such prescience had reached her, she
would have gone out into the hall and plucked him by the sleeve, begging
him to return, filled with conciliatory designs, eager that he should
abandon all thought of permanent farewell.

But as it was, she let the hall-door close behind him, and sat staring
at the floor and saying within her own thoughts: "He is right. I am in
danger. I can save myself if I choose. And I _will_ save myself in
time!"

She clenched both hands as they drooped at either side, and her eyes
flashed softly below their shading lids.



XI.


She was wholly unprepared for the intelligence, a few days later, that
Thurston had gone, in the most sudden manner, to Europe. The Bergemanns,
mother and daughter, were both amazed by the departure of their legal
adviser, without a premonitory word from him on the subject and
apparently at such brief notice. Claire, in the midst of her own
consternation, sharply dreaded lest some suspicion should dawn upon them
that she was concerned in this precipitate change. But if Mrs. Bergemann
let fall any hint that such was her belief, it was made in the hearing
of Sophia alone; and the latter had scouted from the first, as we know,
all idea that Thurston's regard for her friend could partake of
lover-like tenderness. The letter which he had written to his client,
announcing that he had sailed, gave no reason for this abrupt course. It
was a letter somewhat copious in other respects, however, and made
thoroughly plain the fact that the partner of him who wrote it would in
every way defend and supervise the interests of Mrs. Bergemann. "I shall
probably be abroad a number of months," ran Thurston's written words,
"but during that time rest sure that all details of the slightest
importance with respect to your affairs shall be safely communicated
through Mr. Chadwick."

Mr. Chadwick soon afterward presented himself. He was a lank man, of
bloodless complexion and irreproachable manners. "I think he's a reg'lar
wet blanket," said Mrs. Bergemann, with critical cruelty, "after dear,
high-toned Mr. Thurston. He _was_ high-toned, Claire, wasn't he, now?"
she persevered, with a sidelong, timorous look toward Sophia, who
chanced, besides Claire, to be present at the time.

"Now, Ma!" broke in Sophia, accompanying this vocative with a tart
gesture of remonstrance, "Claire doesn't know a bit better than you or I
do whether he was high-toned or not. _Do_ you, Claire?"

"I think almost everybody who ever met him," said Claire, answering the
appeal, "must have seen it very clearly."

She spoke this with nice composure. But she was inwardly dismayed,
wounded, almost tortured. For many succeeding days she contrived to
absent herself from all Sophia's guests. Brady had totally disappeared
from her experience; he no longer presented himself at the house. He was
secretly fearful lest Claire might publish the fact of his proposal
broadcast among the adherents with whom he stood supreme as their
moneyed and autocratic leader. He suffered those torments of humiliation
which only a small soul, with small views of things and an immoderate
vanity, has learned the petty trick of suffering. It is by no means
hyperbole to state that he inwardly cursed Claire for being the girl
within whose power he had put it to say that she had actually repelled
his superb matrimonial advances. Longer concern with so unwholesome a
creature would be idle for the chronicler, especially since henceforth
he drops out of our record somewhat as Slocumb did, and with a scarcely
more chivalrous exit.

Claire now passed through a period of extreme repentance. Her old
longings had vanished; she silently planned for herself, with ascetic
enthusiasm, a future of humility and obscurity. She was a zealot in a
totally new way; she had abandoned all thought of marrying, and had
conceived the idea of mentally fitting herself to become a governess.
With this end, she spent hours in the library. Incapable of doing
anything by halves, she now bent the full force of her strong will and
capable intellect toward obtaining a proper educational competence. She
swam far out, so to speak, into the blue waters of knowledge, and
breasted them with good, vigorous strokes. She was, for the time at
least, passionately in earnest. Thurston's farewell words rang
incessantly through her memory. She would crush down all that American
"push," once and forever. She would steer from the perils against which
he had warned her, by one broad, divergent swerve. Her remorse and her
resignation held a poetic ardor of kinship. Her past longings had indeed
been a folly, and as such she would unvaryingly treat them. She would be
consistent henceforward, and seek only what lay within her lawful scope
of action. She was like the convert to a new faith, and she had all a
convert's intensity of fervor.

From her two friends, however, she chose to guard with caution the
secret of this change. It was now the early portion of June, and the
fierce heat of summer had literally leapt down on the city after several
weeks of raw, inclement May weather. The judgment long ago passed upon
our climate, that it has a summer, an autumn, a winter, but no spring,
had never been more fully confirmed. The city was wrapt all day in a
torrid drowse; the pavements lay either in bleak glare or breathless
shadow. On the benches of the parks, where spots of dusk were wrought by
overbrowing branches, groups of jaded citizens huddled together in moist
discomfort. The cars tinkled sleepily; the omnibuses lagged in rumbling
sloth; foul smells beset the nostrils, even from genteel gutters or the
doorways of high-priced restaurants. People looked up at the wool-like
pallor of the sky, and wished that it would darken into the cooling
gloom of a thunderstorm.

But Claire scarcely minded the heat. She had known the fetid miseries of
a Greenpoint summer. Those spacious chambers and halls of the
Bergemanns' solid-built mansion were delicious indeed by contrast.
Striped awnings had been affixed to each window, whose scalloped edges
would flap in chance waftures of breeze, while the stout bunting above
them changed the sunny rigors outside to a continual soothing gloom. It
was true that she had no sympathy with hot weather; she liked an
atmosphere in which quick movement was pleasantly possible. But she was
nevertheless very much at her ease here and now. She read; she studied;
the library, bathed in a tender dimness, pleased her with its vague rows
of books, its rough rich carpeting, its dark massive wood-work. She had,
for a time, that exquisite feeling of the scholar who clothes himself
with silence, solitude, and repose, and who lets the outer world touch
him through soft, impersonal yet cogent mediums. During this interval
she was completely happy. It was the old self-surrender of the
_dévote_. Literature was henceforth to be her cult, her idolatry. The
mere process of reading had always been one of ease and speed with her.
Past training helped her now in the way of method and system. She had
learned how to learn. Her French readings were frequent. Sophia had a
French maid with whom she often conversed. Her proficiency in the
language soon became marked and thorough.

But suddenly her new contentment was shattered, and by a rude stroke.
Mrs. Bergemann began to talk of leaving town. Claire almost felt, at
first, as if the ground were giving way beneath her feet. She could only
accompany her friends to a watering-place in the position of a dependent
and pensioner. Her salary must stop, because her relations with Sophia
must of necessity lose all their instructive character. "You would never
continue our readings, Sophia," she said, "in a crowded hotel, where you
would have countless distractions."

"Oh, yes, I would, Claire," was the alert reply. "We'll keep it up just
the same. You'll pack a few books in one of the trunks, and I'll promise
to be a good girl; you needn't feel a bit afraid. Ma's decided on Coney
Island. Now, don't look so glum, as if you didn't have a friend in all
the world. You've been sort of queer, lately; you talk slower, somehow,
and you stick up there in the library nearly all the time. But you're
still my own nice Claire. I swear by you, dear girl, just as I always
did. If there's anything on your mind I won't ask you what it is."

"There is something on my mind, Sophia," Claire said. "But you must not
ask me what it is, just yet. I will tell you soon. Yes, I hope to tell
you quite soon."

She went with them to Coney Island. They engaged rooms at the Manhattan
Beach Hotel. The books had been packed and brought, but very few of them
were ever opened.

"It's not a bit of use, Claire!" Sophia affirmed, after the lapse of
about five days. "We can't manage it. There's always something
happening, as you see. Besides, nobody works here. Everybody idles. It's
in the air. Let's take a vacation."

"Why, yes, girls," said Mrs. Bergemann, at this point, with motherly
persuasion. "You better just lay up some health for next winter, and
quit the books till we get home. Or p'raps we may get tired of this
place 'fore the summer's through, an' go somewheres where it ain't so
lively--I mean some lazy place like Lake George or the White Mountains.
Then books and reading will fit in kinder natural. But I don't think
_I'll_ care to leave here for a good big while. I ain't ever seen
anything like it before. If we could only go driving here, now, and them
horses wasn't eating their heads off over in the city, why 'twould be a
reg'lar paradise. Sophia, I've just rec'lected that I came to this very
spot twenty years ago if it's a day, with poor Pa! We was quite a young
couple, then ... that girl wasn't more'n a baby, Claire. We took her
along. Pa carried you, Sophia. The Brewery wasn't started in them times,
an' ... well, I guess we got along with about five hundred dollars a
year, over at the small saloon at Hoboken."

"Now, Ma, you needn't go into such very close particulars, please!"
chided Sophia, whose large, warm heart was not democratic enough always
to stand the intense humility of certain maternal reminiscences.

"Pshaw!" said Mrs. Bergemann, with a good-humored laugh; "we don't mind
Claire. She's one of us. Besides, we're up here in the bedroom, not down
on that crowded piazzer. Well, girls, as I was saying, Pa and me came
here that day, an' I declare to goodness, the place was only a bare
strip o' sand with a few little shanties here and there, that they
called hotels. And just look at it now! Three monstrous palaces, and all
New York streaming down every decent afternoon. It's like enchantment. I
can't believe I'm where I was twenty years ago. I'm afraid I must be
dreaming. But if I am, I don't want to wake up; I want to keep right on
till the first o' September."

"Only a few years ago the island was very much the same as you describe
it twenty years ago," said Claire, who had dipped into a small
descriptive handbook telling about the marvelous growth of this unique
and phenomenal watering-place.

"I s'pose I ought to find it a little bit too _gay_," pursued Mrs.
Bergemann, presently, in reflective afterthought. "Poor Pa's been gone
such a short time." Here the lady heaved an imposing sigh which her
massive bust made no less visible than audible. "But I can grieve just
as well by mixing in with folks as if I was hung round with crape an'
stuck off alone somewheres. Everybody's got their own ways o' grieving,
an' I ain't goin' to forget poor Pa merely 'cause I look about a little
and make my second-mourning kinder stylish. Not a bit of it!"

Mrs. Bergemann certainly showed the courage of her opinions, as regarded
the sort of grief due her departed spouse. Her laugh was loud in hall,
in dining-room, or on piazza. Her costumes tinkled with black bugles,
or rustled and crackled in sombre yet ornamented grandeur. It is
probable that grief may have dealt her real pangs, and yet that the
irrepressible glow and warmth of her spirits kept always at bay the
gloom and chill of grief. Her nature was not a shallow one; she could
feel with depth and force, but she could not mope or even muse; solitude
was hateful to her; she was gregarious; she wanted to hear the voices
and look into the faces of her kind. In spite of her German origin she
was excessively representative, from a purely American stand-point. Her
very vulgarities--and they were certainly profuse--possessed a wide,
healthful sincerity. Her enormous benevolence stood for her in the place
of refinement; it was indeed a certain code of manners by itself; she
was always so good to you that you might pardonably forget to remark the
unconventionalism of her goodness. She was precisely the sort of person
whom Coney Island must have pleased.

But it pleased Claire in a totally different way. The immense concourse
of people who flocked thither, by such easy modes of travel, from New
York and Brooklyn and elsewhere, were an incessant source of interest.
Their numbers, their activities, their enjoyments, kept her blood in a
soft tingle. This brilliant and picturesque city by the sea appeared to
her in the light of a delicious reparation. It was a long, splendid
festivity, compensating her for those years of dire dullness passed but
a few miles away. All her recent resolutions to spend a life of lowly
quietude, had melted into thin air. The ambition to climb, to shine, and
to rule was once more a dominant force within her being. It seemed to
her as if she had flung away some sort of irksome disguise, and now
beheld it lie like an ugly heap near at hand, while wondering, in the
exhilaration of regained freedom, how she had ever chosen to shroud
herself with its clogging folds.

She bathed every day in the ocean, and acquired a richer fund of health
on this account. Either with Sophia or alone, though more often the
latter, she explored the whole wondrous little life-crowded island, in
which every grade of human society, from lowest to highest, held for her
its distinct representation. The two huge Iron Piers, jutting out into
the surf and assailed by continual salty breezes, charmed her with their
streams of coming and departing people, with their noonday lunchers,
with their _table d'hôte_ diners, seated over cigarettes or coffee in
the sweet marine dusk. She loved West Brighton, with its beer-bibbers,
its gaudy booths, its preposterous exhibited fat woman, its amazing
Irish giant, its games of strength or skill, and its whirling
_carrousels_, where delighted children span round on wooden horses,
cows, lions, or dragons, to the clamors of a shameless brass band. But
Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach, and the Oriental each afforded a
steadier satisfaction. The delicate and lightsome architecture of these
three hotels, with their myriads of windows, their _châlet_-like
patterns of roof, gable, and chimney, and their noble outlooks upon the
sea, grew dearer to her as the structures themselves became more
familiar. She loved the fine sonorous music that pealed forth from the
big deft-built pavilions, where troups of well-trained minstrels set
many a brazen instrument to their capable lips, and would often find
assembled thousands for their listeners, either in the long, salubrious
afternoons, or in the breezy starlight and moonlight of those exquisite
seaside evenings. Her observant eyes were never weary of watching, and
they forever found something to watch. She soon acquired an
extraordinary keenness in the matter of "placing" people at sight. Few
points of manner, costume, or visage escaped her. She found herself
classifying and arranging the vast crowds that she daily encountered.
She became familiar with the faces of many who frequently disembarked
from the loaded cars. Nor was her own face in turn unnoticed. Augmented
health had freshened its tender tints, and lent to its lines a choicer
symmetry. Many an eye dwelt upon her with admiration. Almost
instinctively she had learned the art of disposing her black garments to
dainty advantage, and of heightening their effect with little subdued
touches of maidenly tastefulness.

Sophia's diversions increased with each fresh day. Many of the male
devotees with whom she had romped during "sociables" of the previous
winter, sought her in these new surroundings. Claire was compelled to
acknowledge former introductions, and sometimes to assume a
conversational attitude with the friends of her friend. But they all
seemed to her alike; they all reminded her of Brady, though in a
mercifully moderated way. She was invariably civil to them, though they
wearied and tried her. They made her recall Thurston, whose remembered
comments fleeted through her mind, while his grave, manly image appealed
to it in retrospective vision. She was on the verge of a novel and
important experience; but, of this unborn fact her longing for better
companionship alone gave monition, and addressed her by the imaginative
stimulus which we sometimes carelessly term presentiment.

One evening, as she joined Mrs. Bergemann and Sophia upon that portion
of the hotel piazza which was usually set aside for its regular patrons,
she found the two ladies in conversation with two gentlemen, of whom she
knew only one, ranking him as not by any means the most ill-bred of
Sophia's friends. He was a young man named Trask, of canary-colored
eyebrows and a cloudy complexion, who had made himself a favorite with
both sexes of his particular set through rousing no jealousies by
superior personal and mental gifts, yet winning golden repute as one
whose complaisant good-will would wince under nothing short of positive
imposition. The second gentleman was presented to Claire as Mr.
Hollister, and her look had scarcely lit on his face before she felt
convinced that he was quite of another world from his companions. Even
while he was seated she could see that he was tall and of shapely build.
His head was small, and covered with glossy blond curls; his blond
mustache fringed a lip of sensitive cut, though the smooth chin beneath
it fell away a little, leaving his large, frank blue eyes, broad
forehead, and well-formed nose to fail of implying the strength they
would otherwise have easily told. He wore a suit of some thin, dark
stuff that clung tightly about his athletic arms and chest, and
contrasted with the light silken tie knotted at his wide, solid throat.
Every detail of his dress was what Claire soon decided to be in the best
fashion; she had already learned a good deal about the correct reigning
mode in men's dress. The extraordinary nicety and comprehensiveness of
her observation had made this one of the sure results of her present
sojourn.

She liked Mr. Hollister at sight, and she liked him more after she had
heard him speak. His voice was full and rich, like the voice of a man
used to the shout that often goes with the out-door game; he could not
be more than five-and-twenty, at the most, she decided; he seemed a
trifle bashful, too, but bashful with a virile grace that pleased her
better, in so robust and engaging a person, than the most trained
self-possession could have done.

Sophia had always felt a liking for the yellow-eyebrowed young
gentleman; they were the firmest of friends. The coming of Claire
appeared to relieve her from the responsibility of "entertaining" Mr.
Hollister, whom she had never met till this evening. She soon drifted
away arm-in-arm with her preferred companion, among the dark throngs
beyond the huge bright-lit piazza. Mrs. Bergemann, perhaps from an
instinctive perception of how matters lay with Claire, presently rose
and sought the society of a matronly friend, seated not many yards
distant, whom she had known in anterior Hoboken days, and who had
reached nearly as fat a prosperity as her own, from possibly similar
causes.

Claire was glad to be alone with her new acquaintance. He had roused her
curiosity; she wanted to find out about him, to account for him. Thus
far they had said the most impersonal and ordinary things to each other.
She remembered afterward that they had used the old meteorological
method which has so often served as the plain, dull path into fervent
friendships or still warmer human relations; they had talked of the
weather.

"I'm really surprised to hear that it has been so very hot in the city,"
Claire said, breaking the pause that followed Mrs. Bergemann's
departure.

"Oh, it has been dreadful, I assure you," said Mr. Hollister. "Ninety in
the shade at four o'clock."

"Why, we have had a lovely breeze here, all day, straight from the
ocean," Claire resumed, with a pretty little proprietary wave of one
hand seaward, as though she were commending the atmospheric virtues of
her own special domain. "Once or twice I have felt actually chilly." He
looked incredulous at this, then broke into a soft, bass laugh; laughter
was frequent with him, and made his blue eyes sparkle whenever it came.

"I've forgotten how it feels to be chilly," he said. "I wonder if I
could stand any chance of reviving the sensation down on the shore
yonder."

He spoke the words in the manner of an invitation, and doubtless seeing
prompt acquiescence in Claire's face, at once leaned forward to ask
"Will you go?" Claire straightway rose, answering "With pleasure." She
took his offered arm, and thought while she did so how strong and firm
it was, as if bronze or stone were beneath its flimsy vestment, instead
of muscular mortality. The band in the illuminated pavilion near by had
lately paused, but it now struck up a waltz rich in long mellow-pealing
cadences. "Is this your first visit here?" said Claire, as they
descended the broad piazza steps, down toward the smooth, trim levels of
grass and the massive, rounded beds of geranium, whose scarlets and
greens now looked vague in the starlight. "Or have you been here many
times before," she went on, "during past seasons, and so lost all your
enthusiasm for this charming place?"

"I've been here about six times in all," he answered, "but my enthusiasm
is still in fine order. It's ready to break forth at any minute. If you
want, Miss Twining, we can have a combined eruption this evening."

Claire thought this clever; it had so fresh a sound after the blunt fun
she had long heard; it made her think a little of the way Beverley
Thurston phrased his ideas, though any resemblance between the two men
could only exist for her in the large generic sense that they were both
gentlemen. She laughed, with a note of real glee among the liquid
trebles of her mirth. It seemed to her that she had already got to know
Mr. Hollister quite well. And yet they were still such strangers! She
had still so much to learn regarding him!

"I'm glad you've nothing to say against this delightful island," she
declared, as if mildly jubilant over the discovery. "I heard a man on
the sands talking about it to a friend only a few mornings ago. He was a
shabby man who wanted shaving, and I'm not sure that he had on any
collar. I think he must have been a kind of philosopher. He said that
Coney Island was an immense fact. There is just my opinion--that it is
an immense fact." They were now but a slight distance from the foamy,
rolling plash of the dark sea-waves. The music came to them in bursts of
softer richness. With her arm still in that of her companion, Claire
half turned toward the hotel, starred with countless lights, and
looking, as it rose above the vague throngs beneath it, like some palace
of dreamy legend, lit for festival.

"I often think that this mere strip of sand must be so surprised," she
continued, "to find itself grown suddenly important and famous after it
has lain here lonely, almost unnoticed, for long centuries. I sometimes
fancy that I can hear the waves talk to it as they break on its shore,
and ask it what is meant by this wonderful change."

"That's a very pretty way of looking at the matter," replied Hollister,
while he gazed down into her face from his considerably taller height
with a keener expression of interest and charm than he himself guessed.
"Perhaps the waves congratulate Coney Island on its final success in
life, and gently quote to it the old proverb about everything coming to
those who know how to wait."

Claire started. "Do you believe that?" she said. "_Does_ everything come
to those who know how to wait?"

Hollister laughed again. "You talk as if _you_ had been waiting. But I'm
sure it can't have been for very long."

This last sentence was put at least half in the form of a question. But
she evaded it, saying with a light little toss of the head: "Hasn't
everybody always something to wait for, between youth and old age?"

"Tell me something about your expectations, won't you?" he asked, with
the non-committal tenderness of a man whose acquaintanceship has been
too brief for any serious depth to accompany his words. "You can't think
how much I wish that I was one of them."

"One of my expectations? You?"

"Decidedly."

"But how could I answer you on that point?" she returned, letting him
catch in the gloom a glimpse of her sly smile. "You're only a name to
me. If you'll not think my candor rude, I haven't an idea who you are."

"I don't believe I should think you rude if you really were so," he
said, smiling, and yet seeming to mean with much quiet force each word
that he spoke. "So you want me to give an account of myself? Well, I'm a
rather obscure fellow. That is, I don't believe I know more than ten
people in New York at all well. I lead a quiet life; I'm what they call
a Wall Street man, but I mingle with the big throng there only in a sort
of business way. I was graduated at Dartmouth two years ago, and spent a
year in Europe afterward. Then I came back, and began hard work. There
were reasons why I should do so--I mean financial reasons. I'm not a New
Yorker; I was born and reared in Providence. Do you know Providence?"

"No," said Claire. "I know only New York."

She was looking at him interestedly at short intervals; they had resumed
their stroll again; her arm was still within his; he had continued to
please her, though she felt no thrill of warm attraction toward him,
however mild in degree. She had a sense of friendship, of easy
familiarity. But apart from this, she was conscious, as a woman
sometimes not merely will but must be, that she had won him to like her
by a very easy and rapid victory. Already she was not sure but that she
had won him to like her strongly as well. Her few recent words of reply
had carried with them a subtle persuasion of which Hollister himself was
oddly and most pleasurably conscious. He yielded to their effect, and
became somewhat more free in his personal confidences.

"My father had been a Dartmouth man," he went on. "That was the reason
of my going there. Father and Mother have both passed away, now. It's a
lovely old college, and it gained me some strong friendships. But I find
that all my favorite classmates have drifted into other cities. They
sometimes write to me, even yet, after my year in Europe. But, of
course, the old good feeling will shortly cease ... how can it fail to
cease?... I'm a good deal alone, just now. I know a number of men there
in Wall Street, but I feel a little afraid of making friends with them.
I don't just know why, but I do. Perhaps it's because of getting into
bad habits. Some of them, I've noticed have very bad habits. And I've
made up my mind ... that is, I--I half promised my poor dear mother just
before she.... Well, Miss Twining, the plain truth is that I keep
regular hours and live straight, as they say. I like to take a sail down
here while the weather is hot, but I nearly always take it quite by
myself. To-night I happened to meet Trask on the boat. I'd nearly
forgotten Trask. He was in my Freshman year with me, but he dropped off
after that. It was he who introduced me to--to the Miss--excuse me, but
I really forget your friend's name."

"Miss Bergemann," said Claire.

"Oh, yes--Miss Bergemann." He paused, at this point, gently forcing
Claire to pause also. They were still beside the sea; the music still
came to them in its modulated sweetness. Hollister bent his head quite
low, looking straight down into her upturned face.

"I've told you ever so much about myself," he said. "I wish, now, that
you'd give me a little knowledge also. Will you?"

"About _my_self?" asked Claire. "About just who I am?"

"Well, yes, if you don't mind."

She reflected for a short space. Then she began to speak. She told him,
as she went on, more than she had at first intended to tell. He listened
intently while they slowly walked on, beside the dark, harmonious
billows.

Before she had ended, he had realized that he was in love with her. He
had never known anything of such love till now. His heart was fluttering
in a new, wild way; he could scarcely find voice to answer her when she
at length ceased to speak. But she had not told him all her past life.
She had reserved certain facts. And her own feelings were entirely
tranquil. Not the least responsive tremor disturbed her.



XII.


Hollister nearly missed the last boat back to the city, that evening.
His night was partially sleepless, and morning brought with it a mental
preoccupation that was surely perilous to what tasks lay before him.
Like most men who have escaped the stress of any important sentiment
until the age of five-and-twenty, he was in excellent condition for just
such a leveling seizure as that to which he had now made complete
surrender. He was what we call a weak nature, judged by those small and
ordinary affairs of life which so largely predominate in almost every
human career. If some great event were ever fated to rouse within him an
especial strength, this summons had not yet sounded, and he still
remained, for those who had found cause to test the fibre of his general
traits, a person in whom conciliating kindliness laid soft spell upon
them all. His friends at college had been mostly of tough calibre, of
unyielding will; he seemed unconsciously to have selected them in order
that they might receive his concessions. But they were never encouraged
in fostering the least contempt for him. The spark of his anger always
leapt out with the true fire, prompt to resent any definite disrespect.
Yet the anger sometimes cooled too quickly toward those whom he liked;
there had been cases where he would waive his own claims to be
indignant, with too humble a repentance of past heat. Necessarily such
qualities made him popular, and this result was not lessened by the fact
of his being almost rashly generous besides. His mental gifts had never
been called powerful, but he had cut no sorry sort of figure as a
student; and he possessed an airy humor that seldom deserted for a long
time either his language or thought.

During the week that followed his introduction to Claire, he visited the
hotel where she was a guest on every evening but two. One of those
evenings chanced to be fiercely rainy; he could not have come to Coney
Island without having his appearance there savor markedly of the
ludicrous. The other evening was the last of the week. He had asked
Claire to marry him the night before. She had not consented, neither had
she refused: she had demurred. He was piqued by her hesitation, and
affrighted by the thought of her possible coming refusal. He passed a
night and a day of simple torture. Then, his suspense becoming
insupportable, he appeared once more within her presence. His aspect
shocked her; a few hours had made him actually haggard. His hand
trembled so when she placed her own within it that she feared the
perturbation might be noticed by others besides herself, there on the
crowded piazza where they met.

"I've come to get your answer," he began, doggedly, under his breath.
"You said last night that you were not sure if you--you cared enough for
me. Have you found out, by this time, whether you do or no?"

"There are two empty seats, yonder, near the railing of the piazza.
Shall we sit there?" She said this almost in a whisper.

"If you choose. But I--I'd rather be down on the sands. I'd rather
listen to it there, whatever it is."

But Claire feigned not to hear him. It was her caprice to remain among
the throng. She moved toward the empty seats that she had indicated, he
following. In all such minor matters she had already become the one who
dictated and he the one who acquiesced.

The night, lying beyond them, was cool but beautifully calm. An immature
moon hung in the heavens, and tinged the smooth sea with vapory silver,
so that its outward spaces took an unspeakable softness, as though
Nature were putting the idea of infinity in her very tenderest terms.

There was no music to-night, for some reason. The buzz of voices all
about them soon produced for each a sense of privacy in the midst of
publicity.

"You asked me to be your wife last night," Claire began, looking at him
steadily a little while after they were both seated, and not using any
special moderation of tone because certain of her own vantage in the
prompt detection of a would-be listener. "Before I give you any final
answer to that request--which I, of course, feel to be a great honor--it
is only just and fair that I should make you know one or two facts of my
past life, hitherto left untold."

This was not the language of passion. Perhaps he saw but too plainly its
entire lack of fervor. Yet it seemed to point toward future consent, and
he felt his bosom swell with hope.

"If it is anything you would rather leave untold," he said, with a
magnanimity not wholly born of his deep love, "I have not the least
desire to learn it."

Claire shook her head. "You must know it," she returned. "I prefer, I
demand that you shall know it."

He felt too choked for any answer to leave him. If she imposed this
condition, what was meant by its sweet imperiousness except the happy
future truce for which he so strongly yearned? On some men might have
flashed the dread suspicion that her words carried portent of an
unpardonable fault, about to be confessed there and then. But
Hollister's love clad its object in a sanctifying purity. Apart from
this, moreover, his mind could give none of that grim welcome which
certain dark fears easily gain elsewhere. The sun had long ago knit so
many wholesome gleams into his being that he had no morbid hospitality
for the entertainment of shadows.

"I want to tell you of how my father died," Claire went on, with her
face so grave in every line that it won a new, unwonted beauty from the
change. "And I want to tell you, also, of something that was done to me
after his death, and of something that I myself did, not in personal
revenge for my own sense of injury, but with the desire to assert my
great respect for his loved memory, and to deal justice where I thought
justice was deserved."

Then in somewhat faltering tones, because she had deliberately pressed
backward among recollections so holy that she seemed to herself like one
treading on a place filled with sacred tombs, she recounted the whole
bitter story of her mother's avarice, of her father's ignoble burial,
and of her own resultant flight. The tears stood in her eyes before she
had ended, though they did not fall. As her voice ceased she saw that
Hollister had grown very pale, and that his brows met in a stern frown.
At the same moment his lip trembled; and as he leaned forward, took her
hand into his own, pressed it once, briefly but forcibly, and then
released it, she caught within his gaze a light of profound and
unmistakable sympathy.

"I think your mother's course was infamous," he said. "Did you suppose
that I could possibly blame you for leaving her?"

Claire had dropped her head, now, so that he could see only the white
curve of her forehead beneath its floss of waved and gold-tinted hair.
And she spoke so low that he could just hear her, and no more.

"Yes, I thought you might blame me.... I was not sure.... Or, if not
this, I feared that the way in which poor Father was buried might ...
might make you feel as if I bore a stain--or at least that the disgrace
of such a burial, and of having a mother who could commit so hard and
bad an act, must reflect in shame upon myself."

If they had been alone together, Hollister would have answered this
faint-voiced, hesitant speech by simply clasping Claire within his arms.
But the place forbade any such fondly demonstrative course. He was
forced to keep his glad impetuosity within conventional bounds; yet the
glow on his face and the tremulous ardor of his tones betrayed how
cogent a surge of feeling was threatening to sweep him, poor fellow,
past all barriers of propriety.

As it was, he spoke some words which he afterward failed to remember,
except in the sense that they were filled with fond, precipitate denial
of all that Claire had said. He felt so dazed by the bliss that had
rushed upon him as to fail, also, of recalling just how he and Claire
left the populous piazza, and just how they reached the lonelier dusk of
the shore. But the waves brought him rare music as he paced the sands a
little later. His was the divine intoxication that may drug the warder,
memory, but that wakes to no remorseful morrow....

Claire wondered to herself when she was alone, that night, at the
suddenness of the whole rapid event. She had given her pledge to become
Herbert Hollister's wife in the autumn. While she viewed her promise in
every sort of light, it seemed to her sensible, discreet, even
creditable. He was a gentleman, and she liked him very much. She had no
belief, no premonition that she would ever like any one else better. She
was far from telling herself that she did not love him. We have heard
her call herself cold, and it had grown a fixed creed with her that she
was exempted by some difference of temperament from the usual throes and
fervors. He suited her admirably, in person, in disposition, in manners.
She need never be ashamed of him; she might indeed be well proud of so
gallant and handsome a husband. Her influence over him was great; she
could doubtless sway, even mould him, just as she desired. And she would
bear clearly in mind those warning words of Beverley Thurston's: she
would use her power to good ends, though they might be ambitious ones.
From a worldly stand-point, he was comfortably well off; his income was
several thousands a year; he had told her so. With his youth and energy
he might gain much more. She would stimulate, abet, encourage him toward
the accomplishment of this purpose. He should always be glad of having
chosen her. She would hold it constantly to heart that he should find
in her a guide, a help, a devoted friend. And he, on his side, should
aid her to win the place that she coveted, loving her all the better
because she had achieved it.

When these rather curious meditations had ceased, she fell into a placid
sleep. She had been wholly unconscious of the selfish pivot on which
they turned. It had quite escaped her realization that they were
singularly unsuited to the night of her betrothal. She had no conception
of how little she was giving and how much she was demanding. She fell
asleep with a perfectly good conscience, and a secret amused expectancy
on the subject of Sophia's and Mrs. Bergemann's surprise when to-morrow
should bring them the momentous tidings of her engagement.

But they were not so much surprised as she had anticipated. The
attentions of Hollister had been brief, yet of telling earnestness.
Sophia hugged her friend, and cried a little. "You mean old thing," she
exclaimed, "to go and get engaged! Now, of course, you'll be getting
married and leaving us."

"I'm afraid that's the natural consequence," said Claire, with a smile.
Mrs. Bergemann pressed her to the portly bosom, and whispered
confidentially, just after the kiss of congratulation: "He's a real
ellergant gentleman. I think I know one when I see one, Claire. And
don't you let Sophia set you against him. She better try and do half as
well herself. _She'll_ marry some adventuring pauper, if she ain't
careful, I just do believe."

Claire felt a great inward amusement at the thought of Hollister being
depreciated in her eyes by any light value which Sophia might set upon
him. As it proved, however, Sophia soon learned to forgive him for the
engagement, and to treat him very graciously. Before the summer had
grown much older Claire and her lover began to be pointed out by the few
other permanent boarders of the hotel, with that interest which clings
like a rosy nimbus about the doings of all betrothed young people. They
certainly made a very handsome couple, as they strolled hither and
thither. But Claire's interest, on her own side, had been roused by
certain little côteries that would often group at one end of the monster
piazza. The ladies of these small assemblages were mostly very
refined-looking persons, and many of the gentlemen reminded her of
Hollister, though their coats, trousers, boots, and neck-ties not seldom
bore an elaborated smartness unpossessed by his. They looked, in current
idiom, as though they had come out of band-boxes, with their high, stiff
collars, their silver-topped walking sticks, and their general air of
polite indolence. The ladies, clad in lace-trimmed muslins and wearing
long gloves that reached above their elbows, would hold chats with their
gallants under the shade of big, cool-colored parasols. Claire was often
pierced by a sense of their remarkable exclusiveness when she watched
their dainty gatherings; and she watched them with a good deal of covert
concern. Hollister could not even tell her any of the gentlemen's names.
This caused her a sting of regret. She wanted him to be at least
important enough for that. His ignorance argued him too unknown, too
unnoted. One day, to her surprise, Claire perceived Mrs. Arcularius, her
former august schoolmistress, seated amid a group of this select
description. Mrs. Arcularius had lost none of her old majesty. It was
still there, and it was an older majesty, by many new gray hairs, many
acquired wrinkles. She was a stouter person, but the stoutness did not
impair her dignity; she bore her flesh well.

Claire determined to address her. She waited the chance, and carried out
her project. Mrs. Arcularius was just rising, with two or three other
ladies, for the purpose of going inside to luncheon, when Claire decided
to make the approach.

She looked very charming as she did so. Hollister had brought her a
bunch of roses the evening before, and she had kept them fresh with good
care until now. They were fixed, at present, in the bosom of her simple
white muslin dress, and they became her perfectly. She went quite close
to Mrs. Arcularius, and boldly held out her hand.

"I am very glad to meet you again," she said, "and I hope you have not
forgotten me."

Mrs. Arcularius took her hand. Under the circumstances she could not
have done otherwise without committing a harsh rudeness. And she was a
woman whose rudenesses were never harsh.

With her disengaged hand she put up a pair of gold eye-glasses. "Oh,
yes, surely yes," she said, while softly dropping Claire's hand; "you
were one of my pupils?"

Claire did not like this at all. But she would not have shown a trace of
chagrin, just then, for a heavy reward. She smiled, knowing how sweet
her smile was, and promptly answered:

"I'm sorry that you only remember me as one of your pupils. I should
like you to remember my name also. Are you quite certain that it has
escaped you? Does not my face recall it?"

"Your face is a very pretty one, my dear," said Mrs. Arcularius. She
looked, while speaking, toward her recent companions, who were moving
away, with light touches of their disarranged draperies and sidelong
glances at Claire. Her tones were impenetrably civil, but her wandering
eye, and the slight averted turn of her large frame, made their civility
bear the value, no less, of an impromptu veneer.

Claire divined all this, with rapid insight. Her wit began to work, in a
sudden defensive way. She preserved her smile, looking straight at Mrs.
Arcularius while she said, in a voice pitched so that the other ladies
must of necessity hear it:

"I was so obscure a little girl among all the grand little girls who
went to your school in my time, that I don't at all blame you for
finding it inconvenient to recall me. I fear I have been mistaken in
addressing you as the woman of business, my dear madam, when you find
the great lady alone to your humor. But you have played both parts with
so much success that perhaps you will pardon me for alluding to one at
the expense of the other."

There was nothing pert in Claire's little speech. The few seconds that
it took her to make it were epical in her life; they showed her the
quality of her own powers to strike back with a sure aim and a calm
nerve; she was trying those powers as we try the temper of a new blade.

She moved away at once, with tranquil grace, and not a hint of added
color or disconcerted demeanor. It was really very well done, in the
sense that we call things well done which depend upon their manner,
their felicity, their _chic_ of method. The ladies looked at each other
and smiled, as though they would rather have kept their lips grave
through politeness to Mrs. Arcularius; and she, on her own side, did
not smile at all, but revealed that disarray of manner which we can best
express in the case of some large fluttered bird by noting its ruffled
plumage.

Nothing in Claire's past had qualified her for this deft nicety of
rebuke. Those stands made against her mother's coarse onsets had surely
offered but a clumsy training-school for such delicate defiance. And yet
her history has thus far been followed ill if what she said and did on a
certain day in Mrs. Arcularius's school-room has not foreshadowed in
some measure the line of her present action. Perhaps it was all purely
instinctive, and there had been, back in the gentility of her father's
ancestry, some dame of nimble repartee and impregnable self-possession,
who had won antique repute as dangerous to bandy speech with.

But Claire's tranquillity soon fled. She was scarcely out of Mrs.
Arcularius's sight before an angry agitation assailed her. When, a
little later, she met Sophia in one of the halls, it was with sharp
difficulty that she hid her distress.

Still, however, she did hide it, sure of no sympathy, in this quarter,
of a sort that could help to heal her fresh wound. That evening,
however, a little after the arrival of Hollister, and while they walked
the sea-fronting lawns and listened to the distant band, as had now
grown a nightly and accepted event with them, she narrated the whole
circumstance of the morning.

"Do you think I did right, Herbert?" she finished, sure of his answer
before it came.

"Perfectly, my darling," he said, looking down into her dim, uplifted
face. "I wouldn't have had you do anything else. You must cut that old
Gorgon if you ever meet her again. You must cut her dead, before she has
a chance to serve the same trick on you."

"I don't know about that," returned Claire, as if his words had set her
thoughts into a new groove. "Perhaps she may be of use to me afterward.
I may need her if we ever meet in ... society." She slightly paused
before speaking the last word. "If she hasn't left by to-morrow I shan't
see her, you know. I won't cut her; I simply shan't see her. It will be
better."

Hollister laughed. What he would have disliked in another woman
fascinated him in Claire. "You little ambitious vixen," he said, in his
mellow undertone. "I suppose you will lead me a fine dance, after we are
married. I suppose you will make me strain and struggle to put you high
up, on the top rung of the ladder."

"I should like to be on the top rung of the ladder," said Claire, with
that supreme frankness a woman sometimes employs when sure that the man
who listens to her will clothe each word she speaks in an ideal halo.

At the same time, she had an honest impulse toward Hollister which
should be recorded to her credit. She had not planned for him any
thrilling discoveries of her worldliness after their marriage; she
candidly saved him all peril of disappointment. But he, on the other
hand, could see neither rock nor shoal ahead. If she pointed toward
them, he looked only at the hand which pointed, and not at the object it
so gracefully signaled.

She did not see Mrs. Arcularius again. That lady's visit had doubtless
been for a day only. The dainty groups still assembled, mornings and
afternoons, just as before. Now and then she thought that some of their
members--those who had witnessed the little scene with her former
schoolmistress--gave her a look of placid attention which seemed to say:
"There you are. We remember you. You are the young person who asserted
yourself."

She wanted them to address her, to strike an acquaintance with her. But
they never did. This piqued her, as they were all permanent residents at
the hotel. She made no concealment of her wish to Hollister.

"It is too bad you do not know some of their male friends," she said.
"If you did, I should get you to introduce them."

He fired a little at this, mildly jealous. "Do you really mean it?" he
asked, with doleful reproach.

Claire did not understand his jealousy, at first; then it flashed upon
her, through a sudden realization of his great fondness.

"Oh, I should merely like to know them for one reason," she said,
laughing. "They would introduce me in turn, perhaps, to those charming
looking ladies, who belong to another world. I like their world--that
is, the little I have seen of it. I want to see more. I want to have
them find out that I am quite suited to be one of them."

His jealousy was appeased. He softened in a moment. It was only her
pretty little foible, after all--her delightfully droll longing to be
ranked among the lofty aristocrats.

"I wish I did know some of the men you mean," he said, with apologetic
concern, as though she had asked him for some gift which he could not
manage to secure. "I think that I have seen two or three of them in Wall
Street; but we have never met on speaking-terms."

More than once he pointed out to her a gentleman in the throng whom he
did know, or told her the name of such an acquaintance, after
transiently bowing to him. But Claire, with a fleet glance that was
decisively critical, never expressed a desire to meet the individuals
thus designated. Something in their mien or attire always displeased
her. She dismissed them from her consciousness with the speed born of
total indifference.

And now a most unforeseen thing happened. Mr. Trask, of the yellow
eyebrows, had made repeated visits to Sophia, but Claire, because of the
novel change in her own life, had failed to observe what to Mrs.
Bergemann had become glaringly evident. One day, in the middle of
August, Claire entered the latter's room, and found Sophia weeping and
her mother briskly loquacious.

"I don't know what she's crying about, Claire," Mrs. Bergemann at once
proceeded to explain, with an aggrieved look toward her tearful
daughter. "She don't want to go with me home to Germany; I s'pose that's
it. And there's my own flesh and blood, Katrina Hoffmann, who's written
me a letter, and begged me in it to come and pay her a visit before she
dies. And because I want to go across in September--after you're
married, Claire, of course--Sophia behaves like a baby."

"Katrina Hoffmann!" now exclaimed Sophia, with plaintive contempt.
"She's Ma's second-cousin, Claire. And what does Ma care about Germany?
She was a child of ten when she left it. I don't want to go, and I won't
go, and there's all about it!"

But Sophia, for the first time in her life, had found a master in the
mother who had so incessantly yielded to her least whim. The letter from
Germany, as Claire soon discovered, was a mere pretext for flight. And
Trask, of the yellow eyebrows, had caused this fugitive impulse in Mrs.
Bergemann. She had learned about Trask; he was a clerk in an insurance
company, on seven hundred a year. Sophia was the heiress of three
millions. It would never do. All Mrs. Bergemann's rich fund of good
nature shrank into arid disapproval of so one-sided a match. She
developed a monstrous obstinacy. It was the old maternal instinct; she
was protecting her young. They went to Germany in spite of all Sophia's
lamentations. They went in the middle of September, and poor Trask was
left to mourn his lost opportunities. Certain threats or entreaties,
declaimed in private to Sophia by her affrighted parent, may have laid a
veto upon the maiden's possible elopement. Or it may have been Trask's
own timid fault that she did not fly with him. For she was very fond of
Trask, and might have lent a thrilled ear to any ardent proposition from
so beloved a source. But Trask had not a romantic soul; he accepted his
fate with prosaic resignation. Moreover, his tendency to be obliging, to
grant favors, to make himself of high value in an emergency, may have
come forth in heroic brilliancy at the private request of Mrs. Bergemann
herself.

Wherever the real truth of the matter may have lain, Mrs. Bergemann and
Sophia, as a plain fact, went to Europe in September, leaving the
bereaved Trask behind them. But both, before their departure, were
present at the marriage of Claire and Herbert Hollister.

It was a very quiet wedding. It occurred on an exceedingly hot day.
Sophia and her mother were to sail the day after. They both gave
effusive good-byes to Claire as she left the Fifth Avenue mansion in her
traveling-dress at Hollister's side.

"I feel as if I should never, never see you again!" Sophia said, in a
sort of pathetic gurgle, with both arms round Claire's neck.

It was indeed true that they never met again. Sophia afterward forgot
Trask, and married in Europe. Her husband, as a few ill-spelled letters
would from time to time inform Claire, was a Baron. Up to the period
when these letters ceased, Sophia had repeatedly declared herself to be
very happy. Claire occasionally wondered whether Mrs. Bergemann had
approved of the Baron. But Mrs. Bergemann did not come back to tell,
which, after all, seemed like a good omen.

On that sultry September day of their marriage, Claire and Hollister
started for Niagara, where they remained but a brief while. They then
returned to Manhattan Beach by mutual consent. The weather still
remained very hot. It was what we call a late season.

They found at the hotel a moderate number of guests, who were waiting
for the first sharp gust of autumn to make them scurry in droves from
the seaside.

Hollister resumed his business. He went and came every day in the train
or boat.

Claire did not feel at all like a bride. But she and her husband had
talked together about their future, and she had the sense of a great,
vital, prosperous change. She felt like a wife.



XIII.


A long chain of days followed, each in every way like the other. One
steady yet lazy wind pulsed from the south; the skies were clad with an
unaltering blue haze from dawn till dark, except that a rosy flush, like
a kind of languid aurora, would steal into the full round of the horizon
with each new sunset, and stay until evening had first empurpled it,
then darkened it completely. Afterward the stars would come forth,
golden, globular, and rayless, while the same unchanged southerly wind
would get a damp sharpness that made at least a light wrap needful if
one remained out of doors. The great piazza would be almost vacant an
hour or so after nightfall, and the whole shore quite lonely. As
regarded all after-dark visitors, the island had virtually closed its
season. But Claire and Hollister haunted the piazza a good deal when the
early autumnal darkness had emptied it of occupants. After they had
dined he would light his cigar, and then select a certain hundred yards
or so of the firm wooden flooring, over which they passed and repassed,
arm-in-arm, more times than perhaps both their healthful young frames
realized. The other guests of the hotel doubtless conjectured that they
were saying all sorts of tender trifles to each other, according to the
immemorial mode of those from whom the honeymoon has not yet withdrawn
her witching spells. But in reality there was very little between them
of what we term lover-like discourse. Claire discouraged it in her
husband, who obeyed the tacit mandate.

She was prosaic and practical on these occasions. It amused and charmed
Hollister to find her so. In any guise that it chose to wear, her
personality was an enchantment. Claire planned just how they were to
live on their return to town, and he thought her irresistible in this
rôle of domestic anticipation.

"We shall have to find apartments," she told him. "We cannot afford to
rent a house of our own. But apartments are very nice and respectable.
They are quite different from a boarding-house, you know. I should be
very sorry if we were compelled to board."

"So should I," declared Hollister. "Are you sure that we have not enough
to let us rent a small house?"

Claire's eyes glistened, as though the chance of their income being made
to stretch thus far suggested charming possibilities. But she soon gave
a sad shake of the head. "No," she decided. "We should only find
ourselves running into debt. We had better take no rash risks. Your
business is full of them, as it is, Herbert. Besides, a year or two may
make the change easy for us."

She amazed him by the speed with which she learned just how his affairs
stood. Her quick mastery of facts that with most women baffle both
memory and understanding, was no less rare than thorough. It had always
been thus with her. Whatever she wanted to comprehend became her mental
possession after slight and brief effort. It was not long before she
read the price-list of stocks in the morning papers with nearly as
lucid a perception of just what it meant as Hollister himself. She made
her husband explain as well as he could--and this was by no means
ill,--both the theory and practice of Wall Street speculation. She soon
began to know all his important investments, and talk of them with
facile glibness.

Her control over Hollister daily strengthened. She would have swayed a
man of much firmer will, and it is certain that he grew steadily more
deferent to her judgment, her counsel, or even her caprices. The desire
that she so plainly laid bare to him he had already estimated as a most
right and natural development. In his eyes it was touched with no shade
of selfishness; its egotism was to be readily enough condoned; one liked
self-assertion in those whom nature had wrought of finer stature, from
better clay. The queen pined for throne and sceptre; they were a debt
owed her by the world; she could not help being born royal.

It irritated him that those people in the hotel whom she had expressed a
wish to know, should not have sought her acquaintance and society. She
must have struck them as a creature of great beauty and grace. Why had
they not been won into paying her tribute? This was Hollister's fond way
of putting the matter to his own thoughts. A few of these same people
still remained. They formed a little clique among themselves; they, too,
were waiting for the drowsy and torpid weather to wake up and send them
townward. They saw Claire daily, almost hourly, and yet they never
showed a sign of caring to do more than see her. Hollister secretly
resented their indifference. His pride perhaps conspired with his love
in making him bring Claire a fresh supply of flowers every evening, that
she might wear them brilliantly knotted in the bosom of her dress. She
remonstrated with him on the extravagance of this little devoted act,
but for once he overruled her protest by a reference to the cheapness of
flowers at that especial season. She always wore the flowers. Jutting
forth in a rich mass from the delicate symmetry of her breast, they
became her to perfection, as their lovely contact becomes all save the
most ill-favored of women. She allowed Hollister to continue his
pleasant, flattering gift. The mirror in her dressing-room was of
generous proportions.

By day she liked to stroll the shore, or to sit with a book on one of
the many benches, and watch, when not reading, the pale blue sweep of
ocean, smooth as oil, and flecked with a few white-winged ships. Some of
the sails were so faint and far away to the eye that they made her think
of blossoms blown by a random breeze clear out into the misty offing.
But now and then a boat would move past, hugging the shore, and wearing
on its breadth of canvas huge black letters that advertised a soap, a
washing powder or perhaps a quack medicine. The tender poetry in sky or
sea gave these relentless merchantmen (if the term be not inapt) a most
glaring oddity. But Claire did not wholly dislike, after all, the busy
push of life and traffic which they so harshly indicated. If she had
been less capable of understanding just how vulgar a note they struck,
she might have disapproved of them more stoutly. As it was, she accepted
their intrusion with full recognition of its ugliness, yet with a latent
and peculiar sympathy. It reminded her of the vast mercantile city that
lay so near--the city where her young husband was seeking to augment
his gains, and by a process of slight essential difference.

But curiously in contrast with this feeling was Claire's mode of now and
then speaking to the shabby people who frequented the shore, and
repeatedly giving them alms when this or that woful story of want would
meet her ears. Past experiences made her singularly keen in detecting
all the sham tales of beggars. She had learned the real dialect of
poverty, and her sense was quick to perceive any suspicious flaw in its
melancholy syntax. More than once she would engage little dingy-clad
children in converse, and nearly always a coin would be slipped into
their hands at parting. But one day it happened that a child of smart
gear, a little girl about five years old, came up to her side and began
prattling on the subject of a sandy structure which the plump, tiny
hands had just erected, a few yards away. The child had a fat, stupid
face which was shaded by a big, costly-looking hat, along whose brim
coiled a fashionable white plume. Every other detail of her dress
implied wealthy parentage. Her little form exhaled a soft perfume, as of
violets. She looked up into Claire's face with dull, unintelligent eyes,
but with a droll assumption of intimacy, while chattering her fluent
nonsense regarding the product of her recent sportive toil. Claire was
not prepossessed, but at the same time she took the little creature's
hand very socially, and listened to her brisk confidences with amiable
heed.

But a French _bonne_, in a fluted cap, suddenly appeared upon the scene,
and cut short the child's further overtures of friendship by drawing her
away with swift force and a gust of voluble French reprimand. The child
broke into peevish screams, and was at once lifted by the strong arms of
the _bonne_, just as a lady abruptly joined them. The lady shook her
forefinger at the child, while she was being borne away with passionate
clamor.

"Tu as été très méchante," exclaimed the new-comer, remaining
stationary, but following with a turn of the head and unrelaxed finger
this tragic departure. "Nous avions peur que tu ne fusses tombée dans la
mer. Tais-toi, Louise, et sois bon enfant!"

Distance soon drowned the lamentations of little Louise, and the lady
now addressed herself to Claire.

"I hope my bad little girl hasn't been troubling you," she said. "It is
really the nurse's fault that she strayed away in this wild style. Aline
is horridly careless. I've already discharged her, and that makes her
more so. Last week at Newport the poor child nearly fell over the cliffs
because of that woman's outrageous neglect."

"Your little girl was in no danger here, I think," said Claire, smiling.

"Oh, no; of course not," returned the lady. She gave Claire a direct,
scanning look, and then dropped upon the bench beside her. "Coney Island
is very different from Newport. We had a cottage there all summer. Do
you know Newport?"

"No," said Claire. "It is a very delightful place, is it not?"

"Well, yes," returned the lady, with a covert dissent in her admission.
"It's nice, but it's awfully stiff."

"Do you mean ceremonious?" asked Claire.

"Yes. I got frightfully tired of it. I always do. My husband likes it,
and so I go on his account. I'd much rather go to Narragansett or Mount
Desert. They're more like real country, don't you know? You haven't got
to button your gloves all the time, and pose your parasol. You're not
bothered with thinking whom you shall know and whom you shan't. You can
let yourself loose. I love to let myself loose. But you can't do it in
Newport. Everybody there is on a kind of high horse. Now I like to come
down, once in a while, and ride a pony."

The lady gave a shrill, short laugh as she ended these words. Claire had
already noted all her personal details. She was tall of figure and
extremely slender. She had a sharp-cut face which would have gained by
not being of so chill a pallor. Her black eyes were full of restless
brilliancy; her lips were thin, and marked at their rims by a narrow
bluish line. She carried herself with an air of importance, but her
manner was very far from the least supercilious display. She promptly
impressed you as a woman whose general definition was a democratic one,
though aristocracy might also be among her minor meanings. She had no
claims to beauty; she was too meagre in point of flesh, too severe in
general contour, too acute in her angles. She lacked all the charm of
feminine curves; she was a living conspiracy of straight lines. You
could not closely observe her without remarking the saliency of her
joints; she seemed put together on a plan of cruel keenness. At the same
time, her motions were not awkward; she managed her rectilinear body
with a surprising ease and pliancy. Her health appeared excellent,
notwithstanding her slim frame and chalky color. The warmth, speed, and
geniality of her speech, evidently springing from high animal spirits,
no doubt enforced this inference.

Claire felt not a little puzzled by her, and had an immediate wish to
find out just who she was. On the afternoon of yesterday she had once or
twice joined the patrician group and had chatted with this or that
member of it, apparently on the most familiar terms. Claire already
knew, having thus observed her, that she was a recent arrival. But past
experiences made it seem quite probable that she was merely a tolerated
nobody. 'Would she join me like this and address me so affably,' Claire
asked herself, 'if she were some one of real note?'

At the same time, any trace of such self-depreciation was far enough
from showing itself in Claire's spoken answer.

"Everything is tiresome, I suppose," she said, "if there is
too great a supply of it. For my own part, I think that I like the
conventionalities, as they are called. I haven't seen enough of them in
my life to be wearied by them. I have known what poverty is in other
years, and now, when I contrast it with the little ceremonies and forms
that accompany prosperity, I find myself rather glad that these exist."

Her companion looked surprised for a moment. She put her thin face
rather close to Claire's. The candor of the latter was a novelty. Claire
had used it with a somewhat subtle intent. Her fleet tact had told her
that it was best frankly to count herself outside of the social pale
behind which she more than suspected that this garrulous matron
belonged.

"Oh, so you've been poor?" came the somewhat rattling response. "But of
course you're not so now, or you wouldn't speak of it. Poverty must be
so perfectly awful. I mean when one is born different from the people
who ... well, don't you know, the people who are in tenement-houses, and
all that." The speaker here paused, while arranging the long
_mousquetaire_ gloves that reached in tawny wrinkles far up either sharp
arm. "Well," she suddenly recommenced, "I dare say I ought to care more
for style and form and fashion. I was brought up right in the midst of
it. All my relations are perfectly devoted to it. They look on me as a
kind of black sheep, don't you know? They say I'm always going into the
highways and hedges to pick up my friends. But I don't mind them; I
laugh at them. They're here now in full force. There are two of the
Hackensacks, and two of the Van Corlears, and two of the Van
Kortlandts--all cousins of mine, more or less removed. I was a Van
Kortlandt before I married. I'm Mrs. Manhattan Diggs, now, and I have
been for five years. The best of the joke is that my husband, whom I
perfectly dote on, by the way, and who's the dearest in all Christendom,
disapproves of me as much as my relations do. The other day he called me
a Red Republican, because I said society in New York was all trash. So
it is trash. It's money, money, and nothing else. When he makes me
dreadfully mad I throw his name at him. _Diggs_, you know. Isn't it
frightful? His mother was a Manhattan--one of the real old stock, and
she married a man by that name--an Englishman with a fortune. If he
hadn't been rich I'd have pitied my poor husband. He'd never have made a
dollar. I tell him that all he can do is to sit in the club-window, and
drive, and bet, and play cards. But he's just as lovely to me as he can
be, so I don't mind. I worship him, and he worships me, so we get on
splendidly together, of course.... And now I've told you my name, you
must tell me yours. I hope it's prettier than mine. It ought to be,
you're so immensely pretty yourself."

"My name is Mrs. Hollister," said Claire. "Mrs. Herbert Hollister. I
have been married only a few weeks."

"A bride! Really? How delightful! Do you actually mean it? I dote on
brides. I'm sure we shall be friends."

They rapidly became so. Claire was by no means averse to the
arrangement. Mrs. Diggs was violent, explosive, precipitate, but she was
not vulgar. Besides, her roots, so to speak, were in the soil that
Claire liked. They lunched together that day at one of the little tables
in the vast, airy dining-room. While they were seated at the meal,
several of the elegant ladies passed on their way toward other tables.
Mrs. Diggs nodded to each of them familiarly, and her nods were
distinctly returned. Claire took special note of this latter point.

"Your relations will think you have deserted them," she said.

Mrs. Diggs laughed. "They think I'm always deserting them," she
exclaimed. "I don't believe my absence is a great affliction; they
manage to endure it.... Oh, by the way, here comes Cousin Cornelia Van
Horn. She must have arrived to-day. Excuse me for a moment. I'll have to
go and speak to her."

Mrs. Diggs hastily rose and went toward a lady who was herself in act of
crossing the room, but who paused on seeing her approach. The meeting
took place not far from where Claire was seated. She saw Mrs. Diggs
give her kinswoman a kiss on each cheek like the quick peck of a bird.
They were cheeks that time had faded a little, but the face to which
they belonged had a haughty loveliness all its own. At least
five-and-thirty years had rounded her figure into soft exuberance,
mellowing but scarcely marring its past harmonies. She was very blonde;
her eyebrows, each a perfect arch, and the plenteous hair worn in a dry,
crisp matwork low over her white forehead, were just saved from too pale
a flaxen by the least yellow tinge. Her features were cut like those of
a cameo, but they were too small and too near together for positive
beauty, while her eyelids had too deep a droop, and her nose, by nature
lifted too high at the extreme tip, lost nothing of the pride, even the
arrogance it bespoke, from the exquisite poise of her head above a long
throat and sloping shoulders. Claire decided that she had never seen a
woman so stately and yet so lightsome, or one who could so clearly
suggest the serenity and repose of great self-esteem without thrusting
its offensive scorn into harsh evidence.

Mrs. Diggs remained with her new companion several minutes. Her severe
back, in all its rather trying outlines, was presented to Claire during
this interval, though once she slightly turned, making a little gesture
with her bony hand that seemed to indicate either the table she had just
quitted or the figure still seated there. And soon afterward Claire saw
that the person whom she had heard named by Mrs. Diggs was looking
steadily at her with a pair of cold, light-blue eyes. While she returned
this look it struck her that a change of color touched the placid face
of her observer, though the flush from faint pink into pink only by a
shade less dim might easily have passed for a trick of deceptive fancy.

Mrs. Diggs presently came trotting back to the table, with her odd
combination of graceful movement and bodily sharpness.

"My dear Mrs. Hollister," she began, while seating herself, "do you know
that Cousin Cornelia knows all about you? I happened to mention your
name before you were married--Miss Twining, wasn't it?"

"Yes," replied Claire.

"Well, the name seemed to strike her, and she at once asked if you had
not stayed quite a long time with Mrs.... Mrs.... Oh, you mentioned her
when you spoke of being here several weeks before your marriage."

"Mrs. Bergemann," said Claire, and immediately added, in tones full of
quiet interest: "Well, Mrs. Diggs?"

"Why, that was what _placed_ you, don't you know, with Cousin Cornelia.
Yes, Mrs. Bergemann; that was the name."

"Did your cousin know Mrs. Bergemann?" inquired Claire.

"She didn't say so. But she appeared to know just who _you_ were. I
think she's going to make me present you. There seems to be some queer
mystery. She acted rather strangely. Are you sure you've never met
before?"

"Yes, I am perfectly sure," answered Claire. "Did you not say that the
lady's name was Van Horn?"

"Cousin Cornelia's? Why, yes; of course it is. She's my second cousin.
She's related on the Van Kortlandt side. She was a Miss Thurston."

"Thurston," repeated Claire, not interrogatively, but as though she had
caught the sound with recognition the instant it left the speaker's
lips. She broke into a smile, now. "That explains everything. She is a
sister of Mr. Beverley Thurston, is she not?"

"Cousin Beverley? Of course she is. Do you know _him_?"

"Oh, yes," said Claire. "I knew him very well."

"Why, you don't tell me so!" blithely exclaimed Mrs. Diggs. "I dote on
Beverley. I suppose he thinks me dreadful, but I dote on him, just the
same. He is so broad, don't you know? He's seen so much, and read so
much, and lived so much, generally. And with it all he's so
conventional. That is the way I like conventionality--when you find it
in some one who makes it a sort of fatigue-dress for liberal views, and
not the uniform of narrow ones."

"I approve your description of Mr. Thurston," said Claire, slowly. "It
tells me how well you know him."

Mrs. Diggs creased her forehead in puzzled style, and bent her face
closer toward Claire's. "What on earth do you suppose it was that made
him dart off so suddenly to Europe?" she asked.

Claire stooped, as though to discover some kind of objectionable speck
in the cup of chocolate that she was stirring, and then removed what she
had found, with much apparent care. "He did go quite unexpectedly, did
he not?" she said, lowering her head still more as she put the speck on
her saucer and examined it with an excellent counterfeit of the way we
regard such things when uncertain if their origin be animal or
vegetable. She wondered to herself, at the same time, whether Mrs. Diggs
would notice her increased color, or whether she herself had merely
imagined that her color had undergone any sort of change. "At some other
time," she went on, letting the words loiter in utterance, with a very
neat simulation of preoccupied attention ... "at some other time, Mrs.
Diggs, I should like to talk more with you about Mrs. Van Horn's
brother. But just now I want to ask you about Mrs. Van Horn herself."

Here Claire briskly raised her head. The problem of the aggressive speck
had seemingly been solved. "I have heard Mr. Thurston mention that he
had a sister of that name," she continued, now speaking with speed, "but
he told me almost nothing regarding her. She appears to be a very
important person."

Mrs. Diggs glanced toward a distant table at which she had already seen
her cousin seat herself. Then she turned to Claire again, as though
confident of how safely remote was the lady whom she at once proceeded
to discuss.

"Cornelia _is_ a very important person, Mrs. Hollister. As I told you,
she's my second cousin. I used to see a good deal of her before I was
married. She's at least ten years older than I am. She brought me out
into society. I was an orphan, don't you know, and there was nobody else
to bring me out. I _had_ to be brought out, for I was eighteen, and all
the rest of the family were either in mourning, or were too old, or else
had gone to Europe, or ... well, something of that sort. So Cornelia
gave me a great ball. It was splendidly civil of her. But I don't think
she did it from the least benevolence. No, not at all. She had ended her
term of widowhood, and wanted to _appear_ again, don't you know? The
ball was magnificent, and it gathered all her old _clientèle_ about her.
I remember it so well; it is only eight years ago. I stood at her side,
behind a towering burden of bouquets which it made my wrist ache to
hold. Cornelia was in white satin, with knots of violets all over her
dress. I shall never forget that dress. She wore amethysts round her
throat, and in her hair, and on her arms. It was a kind of jubilant
second-mourning, don't you know? She looked superb; she was eight years
younger than she is now. People gathered about her and paid their court.
She resumed old acquaintances; she received open or whispered
compliments; she was the event of the evening. _I_ was nearly ignored.
And yet it was _my_ ball; it had been given for me, to celebrate my
_début_ in society. But as the evening progressed I began to discover
that I had been made a mere pretext. Cornelia herself was the real
reason of the ball. She had simply used me as an excuse for reëmerging.
She reëmerged, by the way, with seventy thousand a year, and a
reputation for having been one of the reigning belles of New York before
she married Winthrop Van Horn. She was poor when she married Winthrop,
and he lived only a few years afterward. He left her every penny of his
money; there were no children. Cornelia was a devoted wife; at least, I
never heard it contradicted, and I've somehow always accepted it. I
think everybody has always accepted it, too. He died of consumption in
Bermuda, and it is usually taken for granted, don't you know, that he
died in Cornelia's arms. For my part, I can't imagine anybody dying in
Cornelia's arms.... But that's neither here nor there. She kept herself
as quiet as a mouse for five years. But mice are nomadic, and they gnaw
everything. And Cornelia, during those five years of bereaved woe, to my
certain knowledge, took a peep at every capital in Europe. After the
ball--the ball that she gave _me_, please understand--she became a great
leader. She's a great leader still. Didn't Beverley tell you _that_,
Mrs. Hollister?"

"No," stated Claire, keenly interested by this nimble monologue. "As I
said, Mr. Thurston scarcely did more than mention his sister's name."

Mrs. Diggs applied herself actively to a fragment of cold chicken, which
she had left neglected through all these elucidating items. Claire
watched her, thinking how clever she was and yet how uncircumspect. With
what slight incentive had been roused this actual whirlwind of family
confidences!

"She perfectly adores Beverley," Mrs. Diggs presently continued. "I have
an idea that she does so because he's a Thurston--or rather because
_she's_ one. She has contrived to make it appear very exceptional to be
a Thurston. The Thurstons have never been anything whatever. Her mother
married into the family, and cast a spell of aristocracy over them. But
Cornelia never alludes to the Van Kortlandt connection. She knows that
can take care of itself. I believe her grandfather, on the other side,
was a saddler. But she has managed to have it seriously disputed whether
he was a saddler or a landed Knickerbocker grandee. The panels of her
carriage bear a Thurston crest. It is a very pretty one; I am quite sure
she invented it. I once told Beverley so, and he laughed. _He_ has
never used it, though he has never denounced it as spurious. The joke is
that she ignores the Van Horn crest entirely, which is the only one she
has any right to air. Cornelia is a great leader, as I said. She has
Thursday evenings in the big old house on Washington Square which her
late husband left her. Lots of people have struggled to go to Cornelia's
Thursdays, and not gone, after all. It's absolutely funny to observe
what a vogue she has got. She could make anybody whom she chose to take
up a social somebody by merely lifting her finger. But she never lifts
her finger. That is why she is so run after. You can't get her to use
the power she possesses. It yearly grows more of a power, don't you
know, on this very account. It's like a big deposit in a bank, that gets
bigger through lying there untouched. She won't spend a penny; she lets
it grow. The women of New York are becoming a good deal less flippant,
some of them, than they used to be. Clubs and receptions have come into
fashion, where intellectual matters are seriously, even capably
discussed. Somebody will read a paper on something sensible and
literary, and a little debate will follow. At one of these
clubs--composed strictly of women--it is forbidden to mention the last
ball, though this may have occurred on the preceding night and everybody
may have seen everybody else there, talking the usual gay nonsense. The
whole thing is a kind of 'movement,' don't you know? It's very
picturesque and it's extremely in earnest. It makes one think a little
of the old historical French _salons_. It has laid bare some charming
and surprising discoveries. It has shown how many women have been
reading and thinking in secret, during those long intervals of leisure
that have occurred between their opportunities for being publicly silly,
inane, flirtatious, and hence of correct form. On the other hand it has
led certain women to cultivate their minds as they would a new style of
dressing their hair. All that we used to satirize in former
entertainments of this kind fails to exist in those I am describing.
Pipe-stem curls and blue spectacles are replaced by the most Parisian
felicities of costume. A delightful-looking creature in a Worth dress
that fits her like a glove will give us her 'views' on the Irish
land-question or the persecution of the Jews in Russia.... And now I
come to the real object of my digression, as the long-winded orators
say. Cornelia Van Horn frowns upon all this. She has gathered about her
a little faction, too, which frowns obediently in her defense. You must
not fancy for a moment that Cornelia could not shine in these assemblies
if she chose to favor them. She has brains enough to _out_shine nearly
all their supporters. But she condemns the intellectual tendency in
women when thus openly exhibited. If they want to read and think, they
should do it in the quiet of their closets, and in the same way that
they write their letters, or glance over their accounts, or distribute
their household orders. There is no objection to philosophy, science,
belles-lettres, so long as these are not made to interfere with the
general dignified commonplace of the higher social life. To be
individual, argumentative, reformatory, is to be professional. To be
professional is not to be 'good form.' The moment that a drawing-room is
made to resemble a lecture-room or a seminary it becomes odious from a
patrician stand-point. Only queens and duchesses can afford to paint
pictures or to write books, without loss of caste. A consistent
aristocracy never discovers new ideas; it accepts old ones. Agitators
are the enemies of repose, and repose is the soul of refinement."

Here Mrs. Diggs gave a gleeful trill of laughter that made Claire
compare it to her mind as well as her person; it was so clear and sharp.
"Oh, you can't imagine," she went on, "how radical Cornelia is in her
positively feudal conservatisms. I'm so liberal, don't you know, that I
can appreciate her narrowness. I relish it as one does a delicious joke.
But it's a very curious sort of bigotry. There's nothing in the least
spontaneous about it. I've a conviction that she sweeps her eye more
widely over this fine Nineteenth Century than any of the ladies I've
been telling you about. She has seen that she can only reign on one kind
of a throne, and she sticks there. And I assure you, there isn't the
least doubt that she reigns in good earnest.... I'm surprised that
Beverley Thurston didn't tell you about her. Beverley has got her
measure so exactly. He thinks me dreadful, as I said, but he's fond of
me. I'm sure we always amuse each other."

"No," said Claire, shaking her head slowly, "he was very reticent on
that subject. Perhaps he thought I might want to know her if he painted
her portrait as you have done. That would have been awkward for him,
provided his sister had declined my acquaintance. And I dare say she
would have declined it, as I was not in her exclusive circle."

Mrs. Diggs put her head a little on one side. She was looking at Claire
intently. A smile played like a faint flicker of light on her thin lips,
whose two bluish lines always kept the same tinge.

"Why are you so candid with me?" she asked.

"Candid?" repeated Claire.

"Yes. Why do you show me that you would like to know Cornelia Van Horn?"

"Why?" still repeated Claire. "Did I show you that?"

"Not openly--not in so many words, don't you know? But I imagine it."

"You are very quick at imagining," said Claire, with a little playful
toss of the head. "Well, if you choose, I _should_ like to know her. I
should like to know any one who ranks herself high, like that, and has a
recognized claim. I have a fellow-feeling for ambitious people. I'm
ambitious myself."

Mrs. Diggs seemed deeply amused. She lifted a forefinger, and shook it
at Claire.

"I'm afraid you're _very_ ambitious," she said.

"Well, I am," admitted Claire, not knowing how much rosy and dimpled
charm her face had got while she spoke the words. "I am quite willing to
concede that I have aims, projects, intentions."

Mrs. Diggs threw back her head, and laughed noisily. But she lowered her
voice to a key much graver than her laugh, as she said:--

"You're as clever as Cornelia, in your way. Yes, you are. I shouldn't be
surprised if you were a good deal cleverer, too. I suspect there's a
nice stock of discreet reserve under your candor."

Claire creased her brows in a slightly piqued manner. "That is not very
pleasant to hear," she said.

Mrs. Diggs stretched out her hand across the table so pointedly and
cordially that Claire felt forced to take it.

"I like you. You interest me. Forgive me if I've annoyed you."

"You haven't annoyed me," was Claire's reply.

"I want to see those aims, projects, intentions," Mrs. Diggs continued,
still holding her hand, and warmly pressing it besides. "Yes, I want to
see you _exploiter_ them--carry them out. You shall do it, if I can help
you. And you will _let_ me help you, I hope? You won't think me
disagreeably patronizing, will you? I only speak in this way because
I've taken a desperate fancy to you."

"Thanks," said Claire. Her eyes were sparkling; her heart was beating
quickly.



XIV.


When Hollister returned that evening, almost the first words that Claire
spoke to him were: "Congratulate me, Herbert. I have taken a fine
forward step at last."

"What do you mean, my dear?"

"I have got to know somebody of importance. I have launched my ship."

"Oho," laughed Hollister, understanding. "I hope the ship will prove
seaworthy, little captain. You must steer with a prudent eye, remember.
All sorts of squalls will lie in wait for your canvas, no matter how
well you trim it."

"That is just the kind of sailing I like," said Claire. "I've been
becalmed long enough."

He laughed at this, in his hearty way, as though it were quite a marvel
of wit. "Come and tell me," he proposed, "about the important somebody
who has been sensible enough to discover you."

They were alone together, in their wide, cheerful apartment, overlooking
the ocean. They were about to go down and dine, and Hollister had just
finished a few preparatory details of toilet. Lights had been lit, for
the rapid autumn dusk had already thickened into nightfall; but though
they could not see the starlit level of waters just beyond their
windows, they had a sense of its nearness in the moist, salty breeze,
whose tender rush made the drawn shades bulge, and set the loose lawn
curtains fluttering buoyantly.

Hollister sank into a chair as he spoke the last sentence, and at the
same time put an arm about his wife's waist, drawing her downward until
she rested upon his knee. The roses at her bosom brushed his face, and
he thrust his head forward with a sigh of comic infatuation, as though
rapturously inhaling their perfume. But his free hand soon wandered up
along the chestnut ripples of her hair, and he began to smooth them,
with a touch creditably dainty for his heavy masculine fingers.

Claire permitted his caresses. She always permitted, and never returned
them. He had slight sense that this was a coldly unreciprocal course; it
appeared to fit in neatly enough with the general plan of creation that
she should receive homage of any sort without further response than its
mute recognition. That was the way he had constantly known her to act,
or rather not to act; a change would have surprised, perhaps even
shocked him; she would have ceased to be his peculiar, accustomed
Claire; his revered statue would have lost her pedestal, and he had
grown to like the pedestal for no wiser reason than that he had always
seen it enthrone her.

"I will tell you all about my discoverer," Claire said, with
matter-of-fact directness; and she at once began a swift and succinct
little narration.

"Diggs," Hollister suddenly broke in, with one of his fresh laughs. "Oh,
look here, now; you've made some big mistake. She can't be one of your
adored swells, with such a name. It's--it's ... cacophonous,
positively!"

"Wait, if you please," said Claire, with demure toleration, as though a
bulwark of proof made this skeptic assault endurable. "Her husband's
name, in the first place, is not _simply_ Diggs; it's _Manhattan_
Diggs." She made this announcement with an air of tranquil triumph; but
Hollister at once gave another irreverent laugh.

"Oh, of course!" he cried. "I remember, now. I know him. That is, I nod
to him on the street, now and then. Is _he_ here? Why, he's nearly
always tipsy, you know."

"Tipsy!" repeated Claire, rising with an incredulous look. "Oh, Herbert,
you must be mistaken. She worships him. She says that he treats her
charmingly, and that they get on together with perfect accord."

"It would be rather strange to find two of that name even in such a
great place as New York," said Hollister, with a slight shrug of the
shoulders. "I don't believe I am mistaken a bit, Claire. He's a tall
man, with fat yellow side-whiskers and a face as red as your roses. He's
got a lot of money, I'm told. He goes down into the street, and dawdles
an hour or so a day at his broker's. But I've never seen him thoroughly
sober yet. Upon my word, I haven't."

Claire soon met the husband of Mrs. Diggs. It was after dinner, in one
of the spacious, modern-appointed sitting-rooms, now so often
half-vacant of occupants, or sometimes wholly vacant, through these
lengthened September evenings.

"I want to present my husband," said Mrs. Diggs, preceding a tall man
with fat yellow side-whiskers, whom Hollister had before this recognized
across the dining-room as his own particular, chronically tipsy Mr.
Diggs, beyond all possibility of mistake.

Claire had a little chat with Mr. Diggs, while Hollister, who had
claimed acquaintance and shaken hands with him, seated himself at the
side of his volatile spouse.

Claire soon became bored. Mr. Diggs was plainly tipsy; Herbert had been
right. But he was most uninterestingly tipsy. He had sense enough
remaining to conduct himself with a sort of haphazard propriety. He
incessantly stroked either one or the other whisker, and kept up a
perpetual covert struggle not to appear incoherent. He was at times
considerably incoherent; a few of his sentences made the nominative seem
as if it were swaggering toward its verb. But he was vastly polite. He
told Claire that his wife had fallen in love with her. A little later,
however, he spoke of his wife with a certain jolly disparagement.

"Kate is full of a lot of new things. I don't know what I'm going to do
with her--really, I don't. She'll be a regular free-thinker before I
know it. And I don't like free-thinkers; I think they're a sad lot. Now,
don't you?"

Claire gave short, evasive answers to these and a number of similar
appeals. Mr. Diggs distressed her; he was not at all the sort of person
whom she desired to meet. She soon made herself so intentionally
_distraite_ that he rose and told her he was going to smoke a cigar,
which he would bring into the sitting-room after he had obtained it,
provided she did not object. She professed herself wholly sympathetic
with this arrangement, and tried not to let her lip curl as she watched
the unsteady pace of its proposer across the long sitting-room.

But he had scarcely retired before Mrs. Diggs broke off her converse
with Hollister and exclaimed to Claire:--

"Where on earth has dear Manhattan gone? You don't mean that he has left
you? How shameful of him!"

"I believe he has gone to get a cigar," Claire said.

"Oh, a cigar," retorted Mrs. Diggs. "Yes, poor Manhattan is an
inveterate smoker." She now looked at Hollister and Claire equally, with
quick, alternate movements of the head. "I feel sure that tobacco is
beginning to injure him, though it is really a very small kind of vice,
don't you know? It saves a man from other worse ones. Manhattan, dear
boy, smokes a good deal, and I suppose I should be grateful it's only
that. I hear such dreadful tales from my friends about their husbands
_drinking_. I don't know what I should do if dear Manhattan _drank_. I'm
so glad he doesn't. If he did, I--well, I actually believe I should get
a divorce!"

Claire felt that her husband's eye, full of merry furtive twinkles, had
fixed itself upon her all through this unexpected speech. But she kept
her face from the least mirthful betrayal. Mr. Diggs did not come back
with his cigar.

Claire now wondered, as she watched her new friend, and entered into
conversation with her, whether this unconsciousness of her husband's
continual excesses could be real and not feigned. It was hard to suppose
that so much shrewd observation and so cunning a recognition of human
foibles and follies could by any chance consort with the obtuse lack of
perception which her late comments had implied. And yet Claire somehow
became conscious that Mrs. Diggs had really meant it all. The anomaly
was hard to credit; it was one of those absurd contradictions with which
human nature often loves to bewilder us; and yet its element of
preposterous self-delusion held at least the merit of being genuine.

Claire had reached a distinct conclusion to this effect, when Mrs. Van
Horn, entering the room, paused and looked all about her. There were
several other groups scattered here and there, but the lady presently
fixed her gaze upon that small one of which Mrs. Diggs was a unit. And
very soon afterward she began to move in the direction of her cousin.

Mrs. Diggs was so seated that she could plainly note the approach. She
half-turned toward Claire, and said in rapid undertone, seeming only to
speak with the extreme edges of her lips:--

"Can I actually trust my senses? Is it fact or hallucination? Cornelia
is coming this way. I told you she wanted to know you, but I didn't
dream that she would condescend to seek anybody, like this, short of a
queen, or, at the lowest, a duchess.... Yes, here she comes; there's no
mistake."

Mrs. Diggs quitted her chair, a little later. She took a few steps
toward her cousin, meeting her. Hollister also rose; Claire, naturally,
did not rise.

"I want to present Mrs. Hollister," said Mrs. Diggs, after a few seconds
of low-toned converse with the new-comer. "My cousin, Mrs. Van Horn,"
she at once added, completing the introduction. It was then Claire's
turn to rise also, which she did.

"I think you know my brother," said Mrs. Van Horn to Claire, when all
were again seated. "I mean Mr. Beverley Thurston."

"Oh, yes," said Claire.

Her monosyllables were quite intentional. She had not liked the lady's
manner. There had been a remote, superb chill about it. She was
distinctly conscious of being descended to, as though from an invisible
stair. The nearer view that she had gained of Beverley Thurston's sister
made her sensible of a new and original personality. Mrs. Van Horn was
so blonde, so superfine, so rarely and choicely feminine. Her warmth was
so faint and her coolness so moderated. She was like a rose that had in
some way blent itself with an icicle, the shape of the flower remaining,
and its flush taking a hue that had the tint of life yet the pallor of
frost.

Claire determined not to speak again unless Mrs. Van Horn addressed her.
This event soon occurred. Hollister and Mrs. Diggs had fallen into
conversation. Mrs. Van Horn surveyed them, with her nose a little in the
air, and her eyelids a little drooped. She seemed on the point of
interrupting their talk, and of ignoring Claire, who had leaned back
with a nice semblance of entire unconcern. In a few moments, however,
this mode of treatment underwent change.

"I have heard my brother speak of you," she said, fixing her light-blue
eyes full on Claire's face. "It was before you were married, I think."

"Yes," replied Claire. "We were very good friends. I missed him after he
had gone."

"He went suddenly," said Mrs. Van Horn.

"Very suddenly," responded Claire, with a smile as complaisant as it was
inscrutable.

Mrs. Van Horn looked downward; she appeared to be examining one or two
of her rings; they were not numerous, though each of them had an odd
individuality of prettiness. "There seemed to be no good reason why he
should go," she soon said, lifting her eyes again. "He has been there so
often."

"I should think it would be hard to go too often," said Claire.

"You have been, then?"

"No. But I wish to go very much.... Not yet, however."

"Not yet?" repeated the lady. Claire could not accuse her of staring, in
any downright way, but she had an impression that every least detail of
her own dress or person was receiving the most critical regard. "I
suppose your husband's affairs detain him here, for the present."

"Yes," returned Claire, but at the same time she shook her head
negatively. "It isn't that, however. I mean it would not be only that.
There is something for me to see, to know, to do, here. I haven't
finished with my own country yet," she proceeded, giving a bright smile.
"I am not yet ready for Europe."

Mrs. Van Horn laughed. But it was not a laugh with any amusement in it,
neither was it one that contained any irony. "My brother thought you
very clever," she said. "He told me so repeatedly."

"That was kind of him," Claire answered. She did not decide that Mrs.
Van Horn was patronizing her; she decided, on the contrary, that the
sister of Thurston was trying to make her disinclination to patronize
most plainly apparent. "It is pleasant to hear that he thinks well of
me," Claire went on. "He is a man whose good opinion I shall always
highly value."

Mrs. Van Horn leaned forward. She was smiling, now, but it struck Claire
that her smile was at best a chilly artifice. "You did not show much
regard for his good opinion in one instance," she said, lowering her
voice so that Claire just caught it, and no more. "I mean when he asked
you to marry him. You see, I know all about that. He told me. It sent
him to Europe."

This was, of course, a bombshell to Claire. But even while the color was
getting up into her cheeks with no weak flood, she realized that it had
been meant for a bombshell, and made swift resolve that its explosion
should not deal death to her self-command.

"I am sorry that he told you," she rather promptly managed to say. "I
have kept it a secret from everybody. I thought he would do the same."

"Oh, he has no secrets from me," returned Mrs. Van Horn, with what
seemed to Claire an extraordinary brightness of tone. The speaker
immediately drew out a little jeweled watch and looked at the hour. "It
is later than I thought," she now said. "I have two letters to write; I
must be going upstairs. Pray come and see me, Mrs. Hollister, when you
are back in town," she continued, while putting her watch away again,
and calling Claire by her name for the first time since they had met.
"Mrs. Diggs will tell you my address. Promise me that you will not
forget to come. I leave rather early to-morrow, and may not have a
chance of repeating my request." Here she rose and put out her hand.
Claire took it, but said nothing. She had lost her self-command, after
all; she was almost too embarrassed to utter a word. Mrs. Van Horn had
nearly gained one of the doors of the great room before Claire realized
what had taken place. A certain splendor of courtesy enveloped the whole
departure. It was admirably conducted, notwithstanding its abruptness.
It was one of the things that Mrs. Van Horn always did surprisingly
well; she could enter or retire from a room with an effect quite her own
in its supple graciousness and dignity. But Claire soon felt that both
the graciousness and dignity had something mystic about them. It was
somehow as if an oracle had pronounced something very oracular indeed.
The civility of the invitation had been so totally unforeseen, and it
had followed with so keen a suddenness the recent bewildering
revelation, that Claire did not know how to explain the whole
proceeding, to construe it, to read between its lines.

Hollister, who had received a brief, polite bow of adieu, and risen as
he returned it, broke the ensuing silence.

"Didn't she go away quite in a hurry?" he asked. "I hope you haven't
offended her," he added, jocosely, to his wife.

"Cornelia didn't look a bit offended," said Mrs. Diggs, regarding
Claire, or rather her continued blush. "But that means nothing. You
didn't quarrel, now, did you, Mrs. Hollister?"

"Oh, no," said Claire, still dazed and demoralized. "She asked me to
visit her in town; she was very urgent that I should do so."

"You don't really tell me such a thing!" exclaimed Mrs. Diggs. "You've
no idea how prodigious an honor she was conferring. It's like decorating
you with the order of St. Something--actually it is."

"I'm afraid I failed to value it in that way," replied Claire, who was
recovering herself.

"Of course you did. You haven't yet taken in the full enormity of
Cornelia's importance. You can't do it until you see her surrounded by
her own proper atmosphere--with her foot on her native heath, so to
speak. Then you'll understand the massive condescension of to-night."

"I think I would just as lief not understand it," laughed Hollister,
with his characteristic play of gentle humor. "It doesn't repay you to
climb these _very_ big mountains. Everybody says that there's very
little to see after you've got to the tops of them."

Mrs. Diggs echoed his laugh. She was looking at Claire, however, with
her bright, black, restless eyes. "I think your wife may want to climb,"
she said. "I'll be her guide, if she'll let me. There's a very good view
from the summit of cousin Cornelia. You can look down on a lot of
smaller peaks."

Claire shook her head. She had got her natural color again, but not her
natural manner; she spoke in a tone of preoccupied seriousness that did
not harmonize with her light words.

"I shouldn't like to fall down one of her glaciers and be lost," she
said.

"Oh, there's no fear of that," cried Mrs. Diggs. "You're too
sure-footed."

Somewhat later that evening, when they were alone together, Hollister
asked his wife:

"Did that Mrs. Van Horn say anything that hurt you, Claire?"

"Oh, no. What made you think so, Herbert?"

"I.... Well, perhaps I only fancied it.... You had known her brother,
hadn't you?"

"Yes. He was a good deal at the Bergemanns' last Spring. He went to
Europe afterward. I suppose that was why she wanted to know me better."

Claire said this with a fine composure. She was standing before her
dressing-table, disengaging the roses from her breast. Hollister stole
up behind her and clasped her in his arms, setting his face close beside
hers, and looking with a full smile at their twin reflection, which the
mirror now gave to both.

"So you've got among the great people at last, little struggler," he
said; "you've begun to be a great person yourself." He kissed her on the
temple, still keeping his arms about her. "I suppose you'll make quick
work of it now. I'm glad, for your sake--you know I am! You're bound to
succeed. I shall be awfully proud of you."

This seemed quite in the proper order of things to Claire. Her husband's
approval was a matter-of-course; it was like the roses he gave her every
day--like the kiss, the embrace, the loving devotion that had each grown
accepted synonyms of Herbert himself. She forgot the words and the
caress with careless promptitude. But she did not forget what Mrs. Van
Horn had said to her, downstairs in the great sitting-room. Her sleep
that night was perturbed by the memory of it. "Does that woman like me,
or does she hate me?" repeatedly passed through her mind, in the
intervals between sleeping and waking. "Does she feel that she owes me a
grudge, and long to pay it? Is she angry that I refused her brother? How
strange it would be if I should find myself face to face with some hard,
bitter enmity just at the threshold of the new life I want to live."

But the bright morning dissipated these brooding fears. It was a very
bright morning, and an unexpectedly cold one. The sea sparkled with the
vivid brilliance of real autumn as Claire looked at it from her window
on rising, and every trace of its former lazy mist had left the silvery
crystal blue of the over-arching sky. A sharp barometric change had
occurred during the night. Claire and Hollister effected their toilets
with numb fingers and not a few audible shivers. The flimsy architecture
of the huge hotel, reared to court coolness rather than to resist cold,
had suddenly become an abode of aguish discomfort.

Its occupants fled, that day, in startled scores. Mrs. Diggs was among
the earlier departures. She bade farewell to Claire, wrapped in a
formidably wintry mantle. Her leave-taking was warm enough, though her
teeth almost seemed to chatter while she gave it. Her husband was at her
side, looking as though the altered weather had incited him to even a
more bacchanal disregard of his complexion than usual. The
chubby-cheeked little girl, her French _bonne_, and the maid of Mrs.
Diggs, were also near at hand. They were all five on the piazza, where
Hollister and Claire had also gone, both careless, in their youthful
health and vigor, of the rushing ocean wind that blew out into straight
lines every shred of raiment that it could seize. Little Louise was
whimpering and contumacious; she wanted to break away from Aline, and
pulled against the latter's tense clasp of her hand as if the wind and
she were in some hoydenish, fly-away plot together. An admonitory stroke
of bells had just sounded from the near dépôt; the train would soon
glide off from the big wooden platform beyond. Mrs. Diggs was in a
flurry, like the weather; her great wrap could not warm her; she looked
more chalky of hue than ever, and the bluish line at her lips had grown
purplish. But a defective circulation had not chilled her spirits; she
was alive with her wonted vivacity.

She had caught Claire's hand, while turning at very brief intervals
toward Aline and the child. Her sentences had become spasmodic,
polyglot, and parenthetical; they were half addressed to Claire and half
to the recalcitrant Louise.

"Now you _won't_ forget just where you're to find me, will you, my dear
Mrs. Hollister?... _Sois bonne fille, Louise; nous allons à New York
tout de suite_.... I want so much to see you as soon as you can manage
to come. Did you ever know anything like this dreadful gale? I'm so cold
that I believe it will take a good month to warm me.... _Tais-toi,
chérie, tu vas à New York, où il ne fait pas froid du tout_.... You're
going this afternoon, you say? I don't see how you can wait. There's
cousin Jane Van Corlear just going inside--I promised to go along with
her. Say good-by, Manhattan; the cold weather has made you as red as a
turkey-cock, hasn't it, dear boy?... _Aline, prenez garde! Elle est bien
méchante, elle veut être absolument perdue...._ Well, good-by, both of
you. I do hope you won't freeze before you get off!"

When the Diggs family had disappeared, Claire and her husband went and
finished their packing. That afternoon they left the deserted hotel,
reaching New York at about dusk. They had themselves driven to the
Everett House; Hollister had occasionally lodged there in bachelor days,
and proposed it as a temporary place of sojourn.

It proved less temporary than they had expected. Apartments were easy
and yet hard to procure. A good many sumptuous suites, in haughty and
handsome buildings, were offered them at depressing prices. They found
other suites, in buildings far less grand, which pleased them less and
suited their purse better, but still left a certain margin as regarded
proposed rental expenditure. Five or six days were consumed in these
monotonous modes of search. They could obtain lodgment that was too
dear, and lodgment that was too cheap; but they could not hit the golden
mean of adaptability which would combine delectable quarters with
moderate rates.

"It is tiresome work," Claire at length said, "and it is keeping you
from your business, Herbert, in a most shameful way. I really don't see
what we are to do."

"The apartments in West Thirty-Sixth Street, that we saw yesterday,"
ventured Hollister, genially, "were rather nice, though small, of
course."

"Quite too small," affirmed Claire. "Besides, the house itself had a
dingy air. It looked so--so economical, Herbert. We don't want to look
economical; we want only to _be_ it."

Hollister made a blithe grimace. "I am afraid that to be it and to look
it are inseparable," he said. "The grain of the rind tells the quality
of the fruit." He put his head a little sideways and glanced at his wife
with a quizzical eye. "Now, in the way of downright bargains, Claire,"
he went on, "there is that nice basement house which is for rent entire
in Twenty-Eighth Street. The one we drifted into by mistake during our
wanderings of yesterday, you remember."

"I'd rather not think of it," said Claire, with a sort of musing
demureness. "I liked it very much. I don't believe there is a furnished
house to rent in the whole city that could be had for the same terms.
But you know very well that we could not afford to take it, with the
need of at least three servants, apart from other expenses."

"True," said Hollister. "That is, unless I get along better--make a hit
on the street, you know."

"Oh, well," said Claire, "there is no use in depending upon chance. Of
course," she added, slowly, with a grave, affirmative motion of the
head, "I should like very much to have the house. You know I should."

"Then, we'll rent it," Hollister struck in, swiftly and with fervor. "It
won't be much of a risk, but we'll take what risk there is. The first
quarter's rent would be absolutely sure, Claire. Are you agreed?"

He spoke entirely from his loving perception of how much she would like
to reign as the ruler of her own establishment. It thrilled him to think
of her in this proper, sovereign sort of character.

"It will not be right, Herbert," Claire said. "We made up our minds to
spend just so much and no more." ...

But her tones lacked all imperative disapproval. Perhaps she was
thinking how pleasant it would be for Mrs. Diggs to find her handsomely
installed as the mistress of her own private dwelling.

On the following day Hollister rented the little basement house in
Twenty-Eighth Street. Claire accompanied him while he did so. She was
frightened when the terms asked were finally accepted. She was still
more frightened when she thought of the steady, draining expenses which
must follow. But, after all, her alarm only acted as a sort of
undercurrent. Above it was the large, delightful satisfaction of
foreseeing herself the reigning head of a distinct establishment. It was
an extremely pretty house, no less outside than inside. The occupation
by its new tenants had been arranged as immediate, and this notable
event soon occurred. Claire went herself to hire the three servants. She
found a great supply at a certain dépôt for this sort of demand. She
engaged three whom she liked the most, or rather disliked the least. And
very soon she and her husband quitted their hotel for good. They became
the co-proprietors of the basement house in Twenty-Eighth Street.

Certain new tasks occupied Claire. She quickly performed them. Her
administrative faculty now showed itself in clear and striking relief.
Her penurious past had taught her unforgotten lessons; she went into her
new place with none of a neophyte's unskilled rawness; her fund of
domestic, of managerial experience was like an unused yet efficient
well; she had only to give a turn of the hand and up came the buckets,
moistly and practically laden. True, she worked under the most altered
conditions; she was no longer a drudge but a supervisor; and yet the
very grimness of that early apprenticeship had held in it a radical
value of instruction. She who had known of the prices paid for inferior
household goods, could use her knowledge now to fine profit in the
purchase of better ones. Having swept with her own toil floors that were
clad coarsely, she could in readier way discern uncleanly neglect on the
part of underlings who swept floors clad with velvet.

Her responsibility was borne with great lightness. "I think I am a sort
of natural housekeeper," she soon told her husband. "It all comes very
easy. I find that my daily leisure is increasing at a rapid rate." She
directed with so much system, discipline, and keen-sightedness, that
speed was a natural result. Her detection of negligence and fraud was
prompt and thorough. She discouraged the least familiarity in her
servants. On this point she was severely sensitive; she maintained her
dignity in all intercourse with them, and sometimes it was a dignity so
positive and accentuated that it blent with her personal beauty in
giving the effect of a picturesque sternness. The secret of its exercise
lay wholly in her former life. She had once been socially low enough for
these very employees to have treated her as an equal. All that was dead
and in its grave. She wanted to keep it there forever. Instinctively she
stamped down the sods, and even held a vigilant foot upon them.

She was soon prepared to seek out Mrs. Diggs and pay her a long,
intimate visit. She found her new friend in a small but charming home.
The drawing-room into which she was shown displayed a great deal of good
taste, and yet it had not a touch of needless grandeur. Its least
detail, from the cushion of a sofa to the panel of a screen, suggested
permanent and sensible usage. It was a room that shocked you with no
inelegance, while it invited you by a sort of generally sympathetic
upholstery and appointment.

Mrs. Diggs was delighted to hear of the new Twenty-Eighth Street
residence. She took Claire's gloved hand in both of her slim, bony ones,
and proffered the most effusive congratulations.

"It's so much nicer, don't you know, to be a real _châtelaine_, like
that--to have your own four domiciliary walls, and not live in a
honeycomb fashion, like a bee in its cell, with Heaven knows how many
other bees buzzing all about you. I'm inexpressibly glad you've done it.
Now you are _lancée_, don't you know? You can entertain people. And I'm
sure, my dear, that you do want to entertain people."

Claire gave a pretty little trill of a laugh. "I have no people to
entertain, yet," she said.

Mrs. Diggs was still holding her hand. "Oh, you sly mouse!" she
exclaimed. "You've got great ideas in your head for the coming winter.
Don't tell me you haven't. Remember our talks at Coney Island. And
you're going straight for the big game. You're not of the sort that will
be content with a small, low place. Not you! You want a large and a high
one. It's going to be a great fight. Now, don't say it isn't. I know all
about you. I dote on you, and I know all about you. You intend to try
and be a leader. You've got it in you to be one, too. I believe you'll
succeed--I do, honestly! I'll put my money on you, as that dear
Manhattan of mine would say of a horse.... You're not annoyed at me?"

"Not at all," smiled Claire. "But everything must have a beginning, you
know. And I have no beginning, as yet. I have only met yourself and" ...
She paused, then, looking a little serious.

Here Mrs. Diggs dropped Claire's hand, and burst into a loud, hilarious
laugh. Her mirth quite convulsed her for several seconds.

"Cornelia Van Horn!" she presently shouted in a riotously gleeful way.
"Myself and Cornelia Van Horn! That is what you mean. Isn't it, now?
_Isn't_ it?"

She was looking at Claire with both hands in her lap and her angular
body bent oddly forward. She gave the idea of a humorous human
interrogation-mark.

"Well, yes," said Claire, soberly, and a little offendedly; "I do mean
that. Pray what is there so funny about it?"

Mrs. Diggs again became convulsed with laughter: "Funny!" she at length
managed to say. "Why, it's magnificent! It's delicious! You're going to
tilt against Cornelia! Of course you are! You don't know a soul yet;
you're quite obscure; but you have a sublime self-confidence. That is
always the armor-bearer of genius; it carries the spear and shield of
the conqueror. My dear, I always wanted to have somebody beard Cornelia
in her den, don't you know, like the Douglas! I'm with you--don't forget
that! I'll help you all I can. And when you've shaken the pillars of New
York society to their foundations, please be grateful and recollect that
I set you up to it."

She threw back her head and laughed again, in her boisterous, vehement,
but never ill-bred way.

Claire sat and watched her. She was not even smiling now; she was biting
her lip. She had concluded, some time ago, that she understood Mrs.
Diggs perfectly. But she did not know, at present, in what spirit to
take this noisy paroxysm. Was it sincere, amicable amusement, or was it
pitiless and impudent mockery?



XV.


But Claire's doubts were soon settled. If that visit did not precisely
end them, a few succeeding days forever laid the ghost of her spleen.
Mrs. Diggs had been jocundly candid, and that was all. No baleful
sarcasms had pulsed beneath her vivacious prophecies. She soon convinced
Claire that she was a stanch and loyal confederate.

She often dropped into the Twenty-Eighth Street house, and praised its
appointments warmly. "Your little reception-room is perfect," she told
Claire, "with those dark crimson walls and that furniture so covered
with big pink roses. I like it immensely, don't you know? I wouldn't
have liked it two or three years ago; I would have thought crimson and
pink a weird discord; but fashion gives certain things their stamp; it
makes us wake up, some morning, and find our hates turned to loves."
About the dining-room, on the same floor, and the drawing-room, on the
floor above, she was genially critical. This or that detail she
discovered to be "not just quite right, don't you know?" and Claire in
nearly all such cases changed dissent into agreement after a little
serious reflection. Some of the resultant alterations involved decided
expense. This Claire regretted while she would let her husband incur it.
Hollister always did so readily enough. Wall Street had rather smiled
upon him, of late. A few of his ventures had become bolder, but
flattering successes had persistently followed them.

"The theatre is all lit," he said to her one evening, "but the curtain
doesn't rise. How is that, Claire?"

She knew perfectly well what he meant, but chose to feign that she did
not know. They had been surveying together a few decorative
improvements, recently wrought, in mantel, dado, or even table-cover.

"I don't think I follow your metaphor," said Claire. There was the tiny
outbreak of a smile at each corner of her mouth. It struck Hollister,
who was standing quite near her, that she looked delightfully prim. He
kissed her before he answered, and then, while he did so, let his lips
almost graze her ear, saying in an absurd guttural semitone, as of
melo-dramatic confidence:--

"I mean that it's time for Act First. Time for the lords and ladies to
enter, with a grand flourish of trumpets. Of course, when they do come,
they'll all kiss the hand of their charming hostess, just like this."

But she would not let him kiss her hand, though he caught it and made
the attempt.

"There are no lords and ladies in New York," she said, laughing and
receding from him at the same time. "And if they _should_ come, they
would never behave in such an old-fashioned style as that."

But though she treated them lightly, his words fed the fuel of her deep,
keen longing. She had made up her mind that Mrs. Diggs had been right.
She would never be content to take a low place. Nothing save the highest
of all would ever satisfy her.

At the same time she clearly understood that great sums of money were
needed to accomplish any such end. She spent several days of brooding
trouble. She had not great sums of money--or rather, Hollister had not.
And there seemed slight chance of her husband ever securing them.

"The season is dreadfully young yet," said Mrs. Diggs to her, the next
day, while they sat together. "There is simply nothing going on. There
are no teas, no receptions, and, of course, no balls. But we'll go and
take our drive in the Park. Do hurry and dress."

Claire dressed, but not very quickly. She kept Mrs. Diggs waiting at
least fifteen minutes. Mrs. Diggs's carriage was also waiting. It was
not at all like its owner, this carriage. It was burly and somewhat
cumbrous. The silver-harnessed horses that drew it had clipped tails and
huge auburn bodies. But the wheels of the vehicle were touched here and
there with a tasteful dash of scarlet, as if in pretty chromatic tribute
to the violent complexion of "dear Manhattan." When they were being
rolled side by side together in this easy-cushioned carriage, Mrs. Diggs
said to Claire:--

"You kept me waiting a little eternity. I hate to wait. I suppose it's
because I'm so nervous. I've been to three or four different doctors
about my nervousness. They nearly all say it's a kind of dyspepsia. But
that seems to me so ridiculous. Dyspepsia means indigestion, and I can
digest a pair of tongs--no matter at what hour I should eat it. My dear
Claire" (she had got to use this familiar address, of late), "I don't
see how you can get on without a maid. That is why you're so slow with
your bonnet and wraps; be sure it is. Oh, a maid is a wonderful
comfort."

"So is a carriage like this," said Claire, smiling.

"Yes, a carriage is indispensable, too. At least I find it so. You will
also, my dear, when you come to pay visits among a large circle of
friends."

"I'm afraid that both the maid and the carriage will be out of my reach
for a very long time yet," said Claire. "Our taking the house, you know,
was a great act of extravagance."

"Oh, your husband is doing finely in Wall Street. I have heard from
Manhattan about his brilliant strokes. Manhattan thinks him intensely
clever. His success is creating a good deal of talk, I assure you."

This was true. Hollister would now often laugh and say: "The luck seems
to be all on my side, Claire. And I don't take any very fearful risks,
either, somehow. The money isn't coming in by hundreds, at present; it
is coming in by thousands. I'm getting to be a rather important fellow;
upon my word, I am. My own dawning prominence amuses me considerably.
But it isn't turning my head the least in the world. A lot of the big
men down there are taking me up. A month ago they scarcely knew if I
existed."

Then he and Claire would talk together of the real speculative reasons
for his success; he would find that she had forgotten hardly an item of
past information; her judgments and decisions were sometimes so shrewd
that they startled him, considering how purely they were based upon
theory and hearsay. Once or twice he permitted her counsels to sway him,
though not with her secured sanction. The result turned out notably
well. He told her what he had done, and why he had done it, after the
triumph had been achieved. She was by no means flattered on discovering
the faith he had reposed in her. She even went so far as to markedly
chide him for having reposed it.

"Remember, Herbert," she said, "that I am of necessity ignorant
regarding these matters, in every practical sense. All my opinions are
quite without the value of experience. Please never take me for your
guide again. Never sell nor buy a single share because I venture the
expression of an idea on sales or purchases. I am proud and glad to
think myself the cause of your having made a lucky operation; that, of
course, I need not tell you. But I should not forgive myself for ever
leading you into disaster."

She reflected, secretly: 'How weak Herbert is! He is no doubt clear and
quick of mind, and he is of just the light-hearted, easy temperament
that has what he himself calls "nerve on the Street." But how weak he is
in his trust of _me_! Does not that show him weak in other ways? Would a
man of strong nature let his fondness ever so betray his prudence? I
must be guarded hereafter in my talks with him. I really know nothing; I
only use his knowledge to build upon. What he is doing is three quarters
mere hazard, and the rest cleverness. I see plainly that he has begun a
very precarious career. He may win in it; others have won. He may win
enormously; I am just beginning to accept his chances of doing so. But
there must be no balking and thwarting on my part. He would ruin
himself, most probably, if I proposed it. He is so weak where I am
concerned! Yes, in all such ways he is so weak!'

She could not dwell upon the fact of this weakness with any tender
feeling. She had grown to accept his love as something so natural and
ordinary that she could coldly survey as a flaw any point in its
devotion which verged upon indiscreet excess. Just at this period in her
life it sometimes struck her that she was very cold toward her husband.
But no pang of conscience accompanied the realization. She had disguised
nothing from Herbert. He knew precisely what she wished to do. He even
sympathized with her aim, and desired to abet it. She could not help
being cold. Besides, he had never offered the faintest objection to her
coldness. He evidently wanted her to be just as she was. And moreover,
she was no different at this hour, when the possibility of a great
social victory assumed definite outlines--when she was his wife and the
mistress of his household--when she was sure of sharing his fortunes
until death should end further companionship--than she had been at the
hour when he had first asked her to marry him. She had a great sense of
duty toward him. She meant to leave no obligation of wifely fealty
unfulfilled. And this determination, flinchlessly kept, must stand for
him in place of passion. She had no passion to give him. She had given
all that to her dear dead father. If he were alive, now, and dwelling
with her, what joy she would have in putting her arms about his neck,
her lips to his cheek, and telling him how the hopes whose seed he had
sown long ago might soon ripen into splendid fruit!

"You tell me that you have new adherents, new friends," she soon said to
her husband. "If any of them are people of prominence--of the sort I
would wish to know--why do you not ask them here, to our house?"

"True enough," said Hollister. "That is an idea." And then, with beaming
hesitation, he added: "But I thought you would not want them without
their wives."

Claire seemed to meditate, for a slight time. "I should not want them
without their wives," she presently said, "unless I felt sure that their
wives were the kind of women whom I would be very willing to have among
my acquaintances."

A few days later Hollister announced to Claire that he had arranged a
dinner at which some four gentlemen besides himself were to be present.
He had placed the whole affair in the hands of a noted _restaurateur_,
who assured him that it should be conducted on the most admirable plan.

"It was intended as a little surprise for you," he said. "The men are
all of the kind that I am nearly sure you will approve. I mean they are
what is called "in society." You see, I am getting quite wise with
regard to these matters. A few weeks have made a world of difference
with me. I am waking up to a sense of who is who. Before, it was all
stupid treadmill sort of work. I cared very little about associates,
connections, influence. I wanted to make both ends meet, and found the
process a rather dull one. Now I am in a wholly different frame of mind.
I am beginning to amuse myself as much by the study of men as by the
study of stocks. I have several distinct adherents, several more
distinct supporters, and one or two would-be patrons. I don't think I
was ever unpopular on the Street; I was simply unimportant. But now that
I'm important I have got to be quite popular.... I dare say the whole
thing is attributable to yourself, Claire. You've pricked me into life.
I was torpid till I met and knew you."

She was considerably alarmed about the plan of the dinner-party. She was
not at all sure if it would be in good style for Hollister to give it
with herself as the only lady present. As soon as circumstances
permitted, she hastened to consult with Mrs. Diggs.

"Oh, it's all right," decided the oracle. "You are always certain of
being correct form if you do anything like that in company with your
husband. But, my dear Claire, it is too bad that you couldn't find three
more ladies besides yourself and me. You see, I invite myself
provisionally, so to speak. Isn't it dreadful of me? But then I take
such an interest in you that I want to be present, don't you know, at
the laying of your corner-stone. Manhattan ought to be asked, too, dear
fellow; it's etiquette, don't you know? But then you need not mind, this
once."

"I wish that I knew three more ladies," said Claire, thoughtfully.

"Yes ... that would make a dinner of just ten. A dinner of ten is so
charming. Mr. Hollister wouldn't object, would he?"

Claire quickly shook her head. "Oh," she said, "Herbert never objects."

It was so seriously spoken that Mrs. Diggs broke into one of her most
mutinous laughs. "How delicious!" she exclaimed. "What a superb conjugal
truth you condense in one demure little epigram!... Well, if 'Herbert,'
as you say, 'never objects,' there is ... let me see ... there is
Cornelia Van Horn."

"Would she come if I asked her?" said Claire.

"You haven't asked her, so of course you don't know. Nobody can ever
predicate anything about Cornelia. But considering how grand was her
amiability at Coney Island, I should say that.... Well, yes, I should
say that Cornelia _would_ come." Here Mrs. Diggs raised one thin finger,
and shook it in smiling admonition. "That is," she added, "if you call
on her, as she requested."

Claire looked grave. "I will call on her," she at length said. "I have
not felt sure whether I would or no. I did not like her way of asking
me, or her manner beforehand.... But I will call on her, provided there
are two other ladies." Here she paused a moment, and then proceeded with
decision. "But of course there are no other two ladies. At least, not
yet."

Mrs. Diggs's eyes were sparkling most humorously. "I don't know why it
is," she exclaimed, "that you always entertain me so when you talk of
Cousin Cornelia. There's a latent pugnaciousness in the very way that
you mention her name. It seems to be fated that you and she shall become
dire foes. She's so big and mighty that I'm always reminded, when you
discuss her, of dauntless little David, with his sling and stone,
marching against the doughty old giant.... As for our _one_ other lady,
Claire, how about Mrs. Arcularius?"

"Mrs. Arcularius? Why, we have quarreled."

"Nonsense. You snubbed her mildly. I don't doubt that she will come.
Women at her time of life have survived nearly every sentiment except
that of appetite. Ten to one that she will scent the odor of a good
dinner, and come, as your dear former instructress, and all that, don't
you know?"

"Very well," said Claire, with gravity; "I might ask her. But then there
would be the fifth lady. I am afraid that she is not to be found."

Mrs. Diggs put one slim hand to one pale temple, and drooped her bright
eyes. "I have it!" she presently exclaimed. "There is my other cousin,
Jane Van Corlear. We won't ask Jane until we are sure of the others.
Then we shall be certain of getting her to fill the vacant place. You
remember her at Coney Island, don't you? No? Well, in a certain sense
nobody ever remembers poor Jane, and nobody ever forgets her. She has
been a widow for years, like Cornelia. But she never asserts herself.
She is tallowy, obese, complaisant. She rarely goes anywhere, and yet
she leaves a sort of aristocratic trail wherever she has been. She will
accept if I tell her to; she always gives in to me, though in her
sluggish way I know she thinks me objectionable. Poor Jane is a perfect
goose, and yet I dote on her. She is such a dear, consistent,
inoffensive, companionable goose, don't you know? Claire, your
dinner-party is entirely arranged."

"I am afraid not," said Claire, dubiously.

The next day she and Mrs. Diggs concocted the invitations together. On
the day following, the two ladies whom they had asked each sent a
courteous, conventional refusal.

Mrs. Van Horn gave no reason for her refusal. Mrs. Arcularius mentioned
a previous engagement as the reason of her non-acceptance.

"You see," said Claire, to her fallacious counselor, "our ladies are not
obtainable, after all."

She was secretly chagrined; but Mrs. Diggs showed herself openly so. "It
is too bad!" declared the latter. "I've a lurking belief in the
authenticity of Mrs. Arcularius's 'previous engagement.' As for
Cornelia, I suspect pique at your not having been to visit her. But we
shall see what we shall see, regarding Mrs. Van Horn. Of course our
little dinner is ruined. You must preside as the only woman, Claire, and
I don't doubt you will do it charmingly. But I shall drop in upon
Cornelia to-morrow, and try to sound the unfathomable."

Mrs. Diggs did so, and on the afternoon of the same day she sought out
Claire, filled with her recent exploring skirmish.

"She received me, my dear Claire, with a great deal of high-nosed
graciousness. I hadn't been three minutes in her presence before I felt
that her cold, serene eyes were reading me through and through. She
mentioned you herself; she made it a point to do so. She spoke of you as
that pretty young woman whom Beverley used to know. Then she recollected
that you had asked her to dinner. 'But of course I could not accept,'
she said, with her best sort of ducal look. 'I do not really _know_ your
friend. I have met her only once, and then for a few minutes.' She
wanted to change the conversation, after that; she has vast tact in the
way of changing conversations; great leaders like herself always have.
But I wouldn't put up with that at all. I am usually a good deal awed by
Cornelia. But I made up my mind not to be awed to-day at any hazard. I
reminded her that she had sought to know you and asked you to visit her.
I showed her that I wouldn't stand her delicate rapier-thrusts. I swung
a bludgeon, and I flatter myself that I swung it rather well. I told her
that she had given you a perfect right to invite her. I told her that
you had treated her with unusual courtesy, and that instead of leaving a
slip of meaningless pasteboard with her footman, you had resolved on the
more honest and significant civility of asking her to dinner. Moreover,
I added, the fact of her brother having been your most intimate friend
had rendered, to my thinking, the civility a still more kindly and
genuine one."

"You must have made her very angry," said Claire, with a peculiar
fleeting smile.

"Angry? She was in a white heat. She could never be in a red one, don't
you know, she is so constitutionally placid and chill. She replied that
you had actually attempted to offer her patronage, and that your effort
had amused her not a little."

"Did she say that?" questioned Claire, with a certain quick eagerness.
"Then I was right at first. She had some unpleasant purpose in wanting
me to visit her."

"Good gracious!" exclaimed Mrs. Diggs; "you never suggested such a thing
before!"

Claire had grown very grave and calm again. "Did I not?" she said.
"Well, I had supposed it. It was a sort of fancy."

Mrs. Diggs took one of Claire's hands and held it, at the same time
giving her an intent look.

"You're keeping something from me," she said. "Yes, Claire, I know you
are.... Did Beverley Thurston ever ask you to marry him?"

Claire colored to the roots of her rich-tinted tresses. She tried to
draw her hand away, but Mrs. Diggs still retained it.

"He did!" exclaimed her friend. "Your complexion tells me so! Everything
is explained now. You refused Beverley. Yes, my dear, you refused him.
And she somehow got wind of it. Perhaps Beverley told, or perhaps his
complexion, like yours, divulged secrets, don't you know?... And yet, on
second thought, Beverley's complexion could do nothing so expressive; it
is too battered and world-worn; its capability for blushing is entirely
null.... No, _he_ told her. And she has not forgiven you, and never
will. Her monstrous pride would not permit her to do so. I understand
everything, now. You remember what I told you about her clannish
feeling--how she loves to quietly exalt her family name?... Ah, my dear
Claire, you have committed, in her eyes, the great unpardonable sin. I
was right; I felt it to be in the air that you and she would prove
enemies. I begin to think myself a sort of haphazard sibyl; I divined
what would happen, and it has happened. You have presumed to refuse her
brother, and Cornelia knows it. Prepare to be crushed."

Claire lightly tossed her graceful head, and her lip curled a little as
she did so.

"I am not at all prepared to be crushed," she said. "Mrs. Van Horn has
spoiled our prospective dinner-party, as regards ladies, but she has not
spoiled _me_."

"Delightful!" declared Mrs. Diggs, softly clapping her hands. "That's
the spirit I like to see. The fight has begun; it's going to be serious.
But remember that I am always your devoted auxiliary!" ...

The dinner took place. There were no ladies present except Claire
herself. It was an extremely elegant dinner. Claire rose when coffee was
being served, and left the gentlemen together. She performed, so to
speak, her unaided office of hostess with singular charm and dignity.
And during the progress of the dinner she made a friend.

This was Mr. Stuart Goldwin. Everybody in Wall Street knew Stuart
Goldwin. He had drifted into that stormy region of risk about four years
ago. He had so drifted from a remote New England town, and his
speculative successes had been phenomenal. He was reputed to be worth,
at present, a good many millions of dollars. He had acquired an enormous
influence among his constituents; he was the reigning Wall Street King.
But he had none of the vulgarity which had marked a few of his immediate
predecessors; he had always shown a full appreciation of his royalty and
the duties resultant from it. He had been admitted, with singular
promptness, into the social holy of holies; he was hand in glove with
what are termed the best people; he belonged to three or four of the
most select clubs; his circle of acquaintances had rapidly become huge.
Women liked him as much as men. He was personally the type of man whom
women like. His frame was tall and imposing; he wore a large tawny
mustache, which drooped with silky abundance below a delicately-cut
nostril. His eyes were large, and of a soft, glistening hazel. His
manners were full of a fascinating frankness. His age was about forty
years, but he might have passed for considerably younger. Books had not
fed his rapid and distinctive intelligence, for he had no time to read
them; and yet he had caught the reverberation, as it were, of the best
and newest ideas announced by the best and newest writers.

Claire thought him delightful. He, in turn, thought her even more than
this. She was a discovery to him. He had never married, and he was fond
of saying, in his blithe, epigrammatic way, that half womankind was so
enchanting to him as to have made, in his own case, anything except the
most Oriental polygamy quite out of the question. He had wit in no small
store, but when he liked a woman greatly it was his most deft of arts to
keep this in very judicious reserve, and employ it only as a means of
subtly wooing forth the mental sparkle of her to whom he paid court.

Claire found herself vain, in a covert way, of her own conversational
gifts, before she had talked with Goldwin more than twenty minutes. She
would have liked to talk with him exclusively during the dinner, but her
two other guests were persons of importance who ought not to receive her
impolitic neglect. She managed matters with tact and skill. Everybody
thought her charming when she glided from the dining-room, in decorous
retreat before that little anti-feminine bayonet, the after-dinner
cigar. She had made a distinct success. She felt it as she sat in the
drawing-room, waiting for the gentlemen to ascend and join her.

Goldwin had not deceived her. She read him with lucid insight. She saw
him to be imposingly superficial; she perceived him to be a man whose
polished filigrees would ring hollow at so much as one sincere tap of
the finger-nail. He was agreeable to her, but not admirable; he
captivated, but he did not dazzle her. She compared him with Beverley
Thurston (never thinking to compare him with her husband), and noted all
the more clearly his lack of genuine and manly magnitude. He came and
joined her before any of the other gentlemen. His face was a little
flushed from the wine he had taken, but with no unbecoming suggestion of
excess.

"I couldn't stay away from you," he said, sinking into a happy,
half-lounging posture on the sofa at her side. He was faultlessly
dressed, in garments that seemed to accept every bend of his fine
moulded figure without a wrinkle of their dark, flexible surface. "Your
husband smokes the nicest sort of cigar, but he has another possession
that seems to me vastly superior." Then he broke into a mellow laugh,
and waved one hand hither and thither, with an air of mock explanation.
"I allude to this beautiful little drawing-room," he continued.

His mirthful sidelong look made Claire echo his laugh. "I will tell
Herbert how much you like it," she said; "he will be so pleased to
know."

"Pray do nothing of the sort!" he expostulated, with a good deal of
comic seriousness. "I should never forgive you if you did. Husbands are
such oddly jealous fellows. There is no telling what innocent little
outburst of esteem may sometimes offend them."

Claire thought the time had come for a decisive parry, in the parlance
of fencers. "Oh, Herbert is not at all jealous," she said, measuring the
words just enough not to make them seem out of accord with her bright
smile. "He has never had the least occasion to be, I assure you."

He fixed his eyes with soft intentness on her sweet, blooming face.
"Never?" he questioned, quite low of tone.

"Never," she answered, gently laconic.

"But he might take some stupid pretext ... who knows?"

"Oh, if he did I would soon show him the stupidity of it. We understand
each other excellently."

They talked on for at least a half hour. The other gentlemen remained
below. Goldwin made no more daring complimentary hazards. He listened
quite as much as he talked. Their converse turned upon social
matters--upon what sort of a season it would be--upon the coming
opera--upon the nature of New York entertainments--upon the men and
women who were to give them. Claire made it very plain to him that she
wanted to enter the gay lists. She at length said:--

"Do you know Mrs. Van Horn?"

Goldwin laughed. "Why don't you ask me if I know the City Hall," he
said, "or the Stock Exchange? Of course I know her."

"Do you like her?"

"Nobody ever likes her. Who likes statues?"

"People sometimes worship them."

"Oh, she is a good deal worshiped, if you mean that."

Hollister and his two remaining guests now appeared. Claire re-welcomed
both the latter gentlemen with beaming suavity. They were both important
personages, as it has been recorded. They both had important wives, to
whom they repaired, a little later, and to whom they loudly sang praises
of Claire's loveliness. The remarks of each took substantially the same
form, and the following might be given as their connubial and somewhat
florid average:--

"That fellow Hollister's wife, you know. The man I dined with to-night.
Didn't know he had a wife? Well, you'd have known it if you'd been
there. She's a splendid young creature. Handsome as a picture, and good
style, too. By the way, Stuart Goldwin was there; you know how hard it
is to get _him_. I shouldn't wonder if these Hollisters were going to
make a dash for society, soon. Now, don't repeat it, my dear, but the
fact is, this Hollister can be of considerable service to me in a
business way. There's no use of going into particulars, for women never
understand business. But ... if anything _should_ occur--any card be
left, I mean, you may be sure what my wishes are.... Oh, of course; look
sour, and refuse point blank. Bless my soul, when did you ever do
anything to help along _my_ interests? You'll spend the money fast
enough, but you won't turn a hand to help me make it. All right; do as
you please. Hollister is to-day the most rising young man on the Street.
There's a regular boom on him. He's got Goldwin for a friend. You must
know what _that_ means."

Both ladies did know what it meant. Both ladies had looked sour, but
both in due time entertained their afterthoughts. They were ladies of
high fashion, each prominent within an exclusive clique. They were not
powerful enough to indorse any new struggler for position; their own
right of tenure was not unassailable. They dreaded this Mrs. Hollister,
as it were, but they secretly resolved that it would be folly to ignore
her. Meanwhile a certain interview, held by Stuart Goldwin with a
certain lady of his acquaintance, was of quite different character.
Goldwin did not reach the house of Mrs. Ridgeway Lee until some time
after ten o'clock. It was an exceedingly pretty house. Its drawing-room,
though as small as Claire's, must by comparison have put the latter
completely into the shade. It was an exquisite artistic commingling of
all that was rare and fine in upholstery and general embellishment. Mrs.
Ridgeway Lee, too, was in a manner rare and fine. She rose from a deep
cachemire lounge to receive Goldwin. She was dressed in crimson, with a
great cluster of white and crimson roses at her breast. She pretended to
be annoyed that he should have presumed to come so late. She had the
last French novel in her hand, pressed against her heart, as though she
loved its allurements and disliked being thus drawn from them. Goldwin
knew perfectly well that she had expected him, that she was very glad he
had come. He often wondered to himself why he did not ask her to be his
wife. She was passionately in love with him; she had been a widow almost
since girlhood. She had a great deal of money, for which he cared
nothing, and a great deal of beauty, for which he could not help but
care. She had almost seriously compromised herself by permitting him to
show her attentions whose intimacy, in the judgment of the world, should
long ago either have ceased entirely or else have assumed matrimonial
permanence.

Yet she was a woman who could, to a certain degree, compromise herself
with impunity. Her connections were all people of high place. She was
distantly related to Mrs. Diggs and nearly related to Mrs. Van Horn, who
felt toward her that fondness which may exist between a queen and a
lady-in-waiting. Apart from this, she was a social dignitary. Her
artificiality was more plainly manifest than that of Goldwin, and it had
become a commonplace among her friends to say that she was affected.
But she had made her affectation a kind of fashion; other women had so
liked the peculiar flutter of her lids, the drawl of her voice, the
erratic movements and extraordinary poses of her body, that they had
imitated these with disastrous fidelity. She said clever, daring,
insolent, or amiable things all in the same slow, measured way, and
generally managed to leave an impression that a fund of unuttered
experience or observation lay behind them. She was prodigiously pious
for one of her pleasure-loving nature. Her charity was liberal and
incessant. She trailed her Parisian robes through the wards of
hospitals, or lifted them in the ill-smelling haunts of dying paupers.
Her religion and her charity went hand in hand. For some people they
were both shams; for others they were ostentation, half founded upon
sincerity; for others they implied a feverish craving to drown the
remorse born of persistent indiscretions; and still for others they were
an intoxication, indulged in by one who did nothing half-way, and
resorted to as some women drug themselves with opium, chloral, or
alcohol. She denounced the new intellectual tendency among social equals
of her own sex, as something wholly terrible; she frowned upon it no
less darkly than her kinswoman, Mrs. Van Horn, but for a different
reason. Its occasional lapses into rationalistic and unorthodox thought
roused her dismay and ire.

"Science," she would say, in her grave, loitering manner, "is perfectly
splendid. I adore it. I read books about it all the time." (There were
those who roundly asserted that she did not know protoplasm from
evolution.) "But this confusing it with religion is simply blasphemous
and awful. I have the profoundest pity for all who do not believe
devoutly. I wish I could build asylums for them, and visit them, as I do
my sick and my poor!"

Goldwin always listened to these melancholy outbursts with a twinkling
eye. She had long since ceased to try and convert him to her High Church
ritualisms. He would never go to church with her and witness, in the
edifice which she attended, the Episcopal ceremonial imitate, as he
said, the Roman Catholic ceremonial just as far as it dared and no
further. But he would never have gone to any church with her, and she
knew it, and mourned him as ungodly. That was the way, some of her foes
asserted, in which she made love to him: she mourned him as ungodly.

But she showed no signs of making love to him to-night. She received
him, as was already stated, with a shocked air.

"It is dreadfully late," she said, giving him her hand. "You ought not
to do it. You know that you ought not to do it."

He kept her hand until she had again seated herself on the cachemire
lounge. Then he sat down beside her.

Her type of beauty had been called that of a serpent. It was true that
her present posture on the lounge oddly resembled a sort of coil. Her
face wore at nearly all times a warm paleness; its color, or rather its
lack of color, had little variation. Her hair was black as night; her
eyes luminous, large, and very dark; her head small, her figure lissome
and extremely slender, her shoulders narrow and falling. She could not
be ungraceful, and her grace was always what in another woman would have
been called unique awkwardness. She appeared, now, to be gazing at
Goldwin across one shoulder. Her crimson dress was in a tight whorl
about her feet. She had a twisted look, which in any one else would have
suggested an imperiled anatomy. But you somehow accepted her at first
sight as capable of a picturesque elasticity denied to commoner
_physiques_.

"I dropped in only for a minute," said Goldwin. "I wanted to tell you
about the dinner."

"Well? Was it nice?"

"Immensely. There was only one woman, but a marvelous woman. She is
Hollister's wife. I feel as if I'd been hearing a new opera by Gounod.
Don't ask me to describe her."

Mrs. Lee was watching the speaker's face with great intentness. It was a
face that she knew very well; she had given it several years of close
study.

"She is handsome, then?"

"She's exquisite. She is going to take things by storm this winter. She
wants to do it, too. And I mean to help her."

"Who was she?"

"I don't know. And I don't care. I'm her devoted friend. I hope you will
be. I want you to call on her."

"Are you crazy?" said Mrs. Lee. She said it so quietly and slowly, as
was her wont to say all things, that she might have been making the most
ordinary of queries.

"Yes," laughed Goldwin, "quite out of my head."

"Do you think I will go and see a woman I don't know, merely because you
ask me to do it?"

He let his eyes dwell steadily upon her pale, small, piquant face,
lifted above the long, rounded throat, on which sparkled a slim gorget
of rubies, to match her dress.

"You've done things that I wanted you to do before now," he said softly.
"You'll do this, I am sure."

She put one hand on his arm. The hand was so tiny and white that it
seemed to rest there as lightly as a drifted blossom. "Will you tell me
all about her?" she said, in her measured way.

"I told you that I couldn't describe her. She's like flowers that I've
seen; she's like music that I've heard; she is like perfumes that I have
smelt. There's poetry for you. You're fond of poetry, you say."

She still kept her hand on his arm. He had very rarely praised a woman
in her hearing. He had never before praised one in this fashion.

"Will you tell me one thing more?" she said. "Have you fallen in love
with her?"

Goldwin threw back his head and laughed. "Good heavens!" he exclaimed,
"she is a married woman, and her husband worships her."

"Will you answer my question?" persisted Mrs. Lee.

"Yes," said Goldwin, suddenly jumping up from the lounge. "She is
tremendously fond of her husband. There ... your question is answered."



XVI.


Rather early the next morning, Mrs. Diggs dropped in upon Claire, "to
hear all about it," as she said, alluding to the dinner-party.

She dismissed two of the gentlemen with two little contemptuous nods.
"They are both well enough in point of respectability," she affirmed.
"So are their wives. All four are so swathed in dull convention that you
even forget to criticise them; they're like animals which resemble the
haunts they inhabit to such a degree that you can tell them from the
surrounding foliage or furrows only when they move or show life. Whom
else did you have?"

"There was Mr. Stuart Goldwin," said Claire.

"Goldwin? Yon don't mean it, really? _Did_ you have Goldwin?" Here Mrs.
Diggs looked hard at Claire, and slowly shook her head. "My dear," she
went on, "it must indeed be true that your husband is achieving great
financial distinction. Pardon my saying it, Claire, but Goldwin wouldn't
have put his limbs under your mahogany if this had not been true. He's
an enormous personage. Other Wall Street grandees have been very small
pygmies in the social estimate. But Goldwin carries everything before
him. You needn't tell me that you like him. It would be something
abnormal if you didn't. He is really the most charming of men. You can't
trust him, don't you know, further than you can see him; he bristles
with all sorts of humbug. And yet you accept him, because it is such
well-bred, engaging humbug. He has hosts of adherents, and he deserves
them. He gives the most enchanting entertainments. They are never
vulgar, and yet they cost vast sums. For example, he will give a
Delmonico dinner, at which every lady finds a diamond-studded locket hid
modestly in the heart of her bouquet. I need not add that in a
matrimonial way he is simply groveled to. But beware of him, my dear
Claire; he is dangerous."

"Dangerous?" repeated Claire.

"Well, not so much in himself. Goldwin, in himself, is a shallow yet
clever man, a forcible yet weak man, a man whose pluck has aided him a
good deal, and whose luck has aided him still more. He has caught the
trick of looking like a prince, and hence of giving his princely
amassment of money a superb glamour. He will fade, some day, and leave
not a rack behind. Of course he will. They all do. I don't know that he
would if he married. And now I come to my previous point. He doesn't
marry; therefore, he is dangerous."

"I don't follow you," Claire said.

"He doesn't marry Mrs. Ridgeway Lee. That is what I mean. As it is, she
guards his approaches. She is a woman of high position, considerable
queer, uncanny beauty, monstrous affectation, and a fondness for _him_
that amounts to idolatry. She's the most intense of pietists; she riots
in all sorts of religious charities. She has other idolatries besides
Goldwin, but he is her foremost. I have never been just able to make her
out. She is a sort of cousin of mine. She's wonderfully handsome, but
it's the lean, cold beauty of a snake. As I said, she guards Goldwin's
approaches. She's a widow, and a rich one, and she wants Goldwin to ask
her to marry him. He doesn't, however, and hence she coils herself, so
to speak, at the threshold of his acquaintance. If any other woman draws
near--I mean, too near--she hisses and bites.... Oh, don't look
incredulous. I've known her to positively do both. She'll do it to you,
if Goldwin is too attentive. That is why I warn you; that is why I call
that nice, brilliant, headlong, gentlemanly Goldwin a dangerous man."

In a few more days Hollister, of his own accord, proposed to Claire that
she should engage a maid. He also told her that he had made purchase of
two carriages, a span of horses, and an extra horse for single harness
besides.

"You will be able to drive out, either in your coupé or your larger
carriage, my dear," he said, "by Wednesday next." Then he broke into one
of his most genial laughs, and added: "I hope that is not too long to
wait."

Claire took this prophecy of coming splendor with serious quietude. She
had talked with her husband regarding his recent plethoric influx of
thousands.

"I've an idea, Herbert," she said, using a slow, wise-seeming
deliberation. "It is this: why do you not buy our house? We both like
it; it is comfortable and agreeable; it fills all our wants. And it is
for sale, you know."

Hollister looked grave, then smiled, then affirmatively nodded.

"I'll do it, Claire," he answered. "I'll do it to-morrow, if you wish."

"I do wish, Herbert. And when you have bought the house, I want you to
put it in my name. I want you to give it to _me_."

He started, and stared at her. A gleam of distrust appeared to slip
coldly into his frank eyes. Claire saw this, but answered his look with
firm calm. "Why do you say that?" he murmured.

She went nearer to him, and laid one hand on his shoulder. "Why do I say
it?" she softly iterated. "Because I know something of the risks and
perils you are daily forced to meet."

He watched her intently and soberly, for a few seconds, after she had
thus spoken. Then his characteristic smile broke forth like a burst of
sun. He kissed her on the lips. "It shall be just as you say!" he
exclaimed, drawing her nearer to him, with a look which they of bids and
sales and stock-traffic had never seen on his manly yet winsome face.
"You are right. You are always right, Claire. There's a lot of money
drifting in; it seems as if the money would never stop drifting in."

"I hope it never will," said Claire, showing her pure teeth in a laugh,
as he again kissed her. At the same time she drew back from him while
his encircling arm still retained her, in a way to which he had grown
wholly familiar, and which, in an unwedded woman, would have readily
seemed like the reserve of absolute maidenhood.

A slight further lapse of days brought grand results for Claire. She was
legally the owner of the charming little house in which she dwelt; she
had her maid, obsequiously attendant on her least wants; she possessed
her coupé, drawn by a large, silver-trapped horse; she possessed, also,
a glossy, dark-appointed carriage, drawn by two horses of equally smart
gear, and supervised by coachman and footman in approved and modish
livery.

Mrs. Diggs was in ecstasies at the prosperous change. "Now you're indeed
_lancée_, don't you know?" she said. "By the way, has Cornelia Van Horn
left a card on you, my dear?"

"No," said Claire.

"Can she really mean open warfare?"

"Let her wage it," Claire answered. "That is better than to have it
concealed."

The opera-season began the next evening. Hollister had engaged a box,
permanently. It was a season that opened with much auspicious
brilliancy. Claire appeared in her first really notable toilette. One of
the reigning _modistes_ had made it, and for the first time in her life
she was called upon to stand the test of surpassingly beautiful
dressing. It is a test that some very fair women stand ill. They show to
best advantage, in garments which have no atmosphere of festival; it
becomes them to be clad with domesticity or at least moderation. This
was by no means true, however, of Claire. The diamond necklace which
Hollister had spread on her dressing-table but a few minutes before the
hour of departure glittered round her smooth, slender neck with telling
saliency. Her gown was of a pale, pink brocaded stuff, and she carried
its full-flowing train with a light-stepping and perfect repose. Before
she had unclasped her cloak and seated herself in the box at Hollister's
side, numerous lorgnettes were leveled upon the lovely, dignified
picture that she made. When she had seated herself, the spell continued.
The large pink roses in her bosom were not deep or sweet enough of tint
to do more than heighten the fresh, chaste flush in either cheek. She
bore herself with a fine and delicate majesty. Her dark-blue eyes told
of the quicker pulse that stirred her veins only by a more humid and
dreamy sparkle. She was inwardly glad to be where she sat, and to be
robed as she was robed, but her pleasure softly exulted in its own
outward repression; she was wonderfully self-poised and tranquil,
considering her strong secret excitement. Nearly everybody who looked
upon her pronounced her to be very beautiful, and a good many people,
before an hour had passed, had looked at her with the closest kind of
scrutiny.

The opera was a favorite one; a famed and favorite prima-donna sang in
it. Below, where the real lovers of music mostly thronged, Claire's
presence produced neither comment nor criticism. But up in the region
sacred to fashion, inattention, gossip, and flirtation, she rapidly
became an event which even the most melodious cavatina was powerless to
supersede.

It was not all done by her beauty and novel charm. Hollister, sitting at
her side, nonchalant, handsome, of excellent conventional style in garb
and posture, materially helped to increase the notability which
surrounded her. His success had publicly transpired; a few of those
newspapers which are little save glaring personal placards had of late
proclaimed with graphic zeal his speculative triumphs. He had leapt into
notoriety in a day, almost in an hour. There was but one man in the
house besides her husband whom Claire knew. This man was Stuart Goldwin,
and he soon dropped into her box, remaining there through the two final
acts. Hollister, meanwhile, chose to be absent. He had found some
friends who were solicitous of presenting him to certain ladies. He
spent nearly the whole of these two acts in chatting with these same
ladies. They were all gracious; one or two of them had strong claims to
beauty. It was no less an important evening with himself than with
Claire. Perhaps with him it was even more so, since he obtained his
social acceptance, as it were, by great dames whom he pleased with his
handsome face, happy manners, and growing repute as a potential
millionaire.

His wife, on the other hand, had gained a different victory. She was
pronounced to be charming and remarkable; she had acquired the prestige
of Goldwin's open attentions. But she was a woman, and she had not yet
received the endorsement of her own sex. It might possibly soon arrive,
or it might be withheld: there was still no actual certainty.

Claire loved the music, but she would have heard its cadences in
discontent if fate had decreed that she should sit, this evening, with
no attendant devotee. She knew well that Goldwin's company distinguished
her. Mrs. Diggs had given her points, as the phrase goes. She was quite
aware that the horse-shoe of boxes in our metropolitan opera-house, and
the other more commodious proscenium boxes which flank its stage, are at
nearly all times occupied by just the kind of people among whom she
wished to win her coveted lofty place. She understood that they would
note, comment, gauge, admire, or condemn; and while her manner bespoke a
sweet and placid unconsciousness of their observation, she was alive to
the exact amount of observation which she attracted.

"I am so glad that you came," Goldwin told her. "For very selfish
reasons, I mean. You appear, and you corroborate my statements. Now
people can at last see and judge for themselves. The verdict is sure."

He said many more things in this vein, all uttered low, and all
accompanied by his smile, that seemed either to mean volumes or to leave
his true meaning adroitly ambiguous.

Mrs. Ridgeway Lee was in a somewhat near box. When Goldwin returned to
her side, just as the curtain was falling on the last act, she accepted
his escort to her carriage with a fine composure. He met Mrs. Van Horn,
a little later, in the crush that always occurs along the Fourteenth
Street lobby of our Academy when a full house disgorges its throng.

The two ladies talked together. Not far away from them stood Mrs. Diggs
and Claire, each waiting for an absent husband to secure her carriage.

"What a contrast there is between them," Claire murmured to her
companion. "One is so blonde and peaceful, the other so dark and
restless."

"Yes, my dear Claire. Have you caught Cornelia's eye?"

"No. She does not appear to see me."

"She sees you perfectly. She has not yet made up her mind just how to
act."

"I think that she means to cut me," said Claire, under her breath.

"Never," came the emphatic answer, so bass and gruff because of its
vocal suppression that it produced odd contrast with Mrs. Diggs's bodily
thinness. "To cut you would be to burn her ships. She has an object in
knowing you. I'm afraid it's a dark one. But be sure that she is only
making up her mind just _how_ to know you. She will soon decide; she
has already delayed too long, and she feels it. Be ready for a prompt
change."

If the behavior of Mrs. Van Horn was really to be explained on the
theory of her prophetic cousin, then she made up her mind very soon
after the delivery of these oracular sentences. A chance turn of the
neck seemed to render her conscious of Claire's neighboring presence.
She bowed with soft decision the instant that their eyes met; and Claire
returned the bow.

The next instant she laid one gloved hand on the arm of Mrs. Ridgeway
Lee, and then both ladies moved in Claire's direction. Their progress
was of necessity made between the forms of several assembled ladies, who
nodded and smiled as the great personage and her companion pushed
courteously past them. They were mostly the loyal adherents of Mrs. Van
Horn, in the sense that they held it high honor to have the right of
occasionally darkening her Washington Square doorway. Two or three of
them were perhaps co-regents with her as regarded caste and power.

They all saw and intently watched the little astonishing action that now
followed. Mrs. Van Horn glided up to Claire and extended her hand.

"I was so very sorry to have missed your dinner, Mrs. Hollister," said
the great lady, with her best affability, "but another engagement forced
me to be absent." She again put her hand on the arm of Mrs. Ridgeway
Lee; she had thus far wholly ignored Mrs. Diggs; her nose was well in
the air, as usual, but her smile was bland, conciliatory, impressive;
she glowed with an august amiability.

"I want you to let me present my cousin, Mrs. Lee," she proceeded. "We
have both heard so much about you, of late, from Mr. Goldwin. You can't
think how devoted a friend you have suddenly made."

Before Claire could answer, Mrs. Lee spoke. She had got herself into her
usual extraordinary twist. Her visage, her hands, and her lower limbs,
regarded according to their relative disposements, would have made a
very sinuous line. Like Mrs. Van Horn, she was wrapped in an opera
cloak. But her dark little head rose from the large circlet of swansdown
about her slight throat with an effect not unlike the slim crest of a
turtle stealing from its shell. She constantly suggested a creature of
this lean and chill type, though rarely with any of its repulsive
traits.

"Indeed, yes!" she softly exclaimed to Claire. "Mr. Goldwin is a great
friend of mine, and he has told me hundreds of charming things about
you."

"Our acquaintance has been a very short one," said Claire, looking at
Mrs. Diggs. In a certain way, she sought to gain a kind of tacit cue
from the latter's face. She failed to perceive just how matters were
drifting. Was this patronage on the part of both ladies? Or was it meant
for irreproachable courtesy?

Mrs. Diggs gave a laugh. "Goldwin can say a hundred charming things very
easily on a brief acquaintance," she declared. "Can't you?" were her
next words, delivered to Goldwin himself, who had just then slipped up
to the group.

"Oh, no, I can't," he at once replied, "unless I mean every one of
them."

"Dear me!" said Mrs. Diggs, "how quickly you grasp the situation! So
you heard what we were talking about, did you? You've found out that we
were discussing your last enthusiasm?"

"Ah," said Goldwin, "I have very few of them. Don't cheapen me, please,
in the regard of Mrs. Hollister."

"You seem to count upon her regard with singular confidence," said Mrs.
Van Horn.

"That's entirely our affair," laughed Goldwin. He looked at Claire, but
while he did so Mrs. Van Horn placed her hand within his arm. She took
it for granted that her carriage had been properly summoned by the
financier, and she was going to permit him to accompany her thither, as
she had permitted him to find it; she nearly always put herself in the
attitude of permitting favors and not soliciting them, by some deft,
secure art, quite her own. The bow of farewell which she gave Claire was
handsomely suave. Mrs. Lee moved away at her other side. Mrs. Lee had
been her guest, that evening, and they were to ride home together.

"So, Claire, it's settled," presently said Mrs. Diggs. "Cornelia is to
know you. So is Sylvia Lee. Be careful of them both. I can't feel
certain, yet, of exactly what it all means.... Here's that dear
Manhattan of mine. He has got our carriage. Shall I remain with you till
your husband reappears?... Very well; I will. But this is no place in
which to talk over the whole odd, interesting thing. I'll try and drop
in upon you soon; possibly to-morrow, if I can manage it.... Does
Manhattan see us? Just observe how stupidly he stares everywhere but
here. He's been a little strange and absent-minded all the evening. I
really think he's forgotten where he left me. He smokes too many of
those strong, horrid cigars, don't you know? I truly believe that they
cloud his brain half the time ... but then it's better he should smoke
too much than drink too much. I don't know what I _should_ do if the
dear fellow drank too much!" ...

Mrs. Diggs did present herself at Claire's house on the following day.
But Claire was not at home. She had driven out in company with her
husband.

It was a momentous drive. They had left home together at about one
o'clock. Claire had no idea whither they were going, at first. Hollister
had chosen to assume an air of profound mysticism. "I have a great
surprise for you," he said.

There was no characteristic twinkle in his eye as he made this
statement. Claire felt that he was far from saddened, and yet his
gravity looked an undoubted fact.

"I will accompany you blindly," she said, just before they entered the
carriage. "I suppose, however, there are some more jewels at Tiffany's
which you want me to see and choose from."

"No," said Hollister, shaking his head. "I shouldn't spend nearly a
whole day away from Wall Street for anything of that sort."

The carriage had soon passed Tiffany's by a considerable distance, in
what we call the downward direction. As its progress increased, Claire's
curiosity heightened, but for some time she gave no proof of this. Her
talk was of their new attainments, of their growing pastimes, pleasures,
and luxuries. She spoke often with a slightly unfamiliar speed; it was a
little habit that of late had come upon her; it betrayed gentle
excitement in place of previous composure. To Hollister, when he
observed it at all, the effect was filled with charm; he no more
disliked it than he would have disliked to see a very tender breeze
lightly agitate some beautiful bloom. But now his gravity by no means
lessened under the spell of Claire's rather voluble advances. She had
plainly seen the change; on a sudden she herself became serious as he;
then, after an interval of almost complete silence, she placed her hand
in his. The carriage was now very near to one of the Brooklyn ferries.
No doubt the first real suspicion of the truth had flashed through
Claire's mind when she abruptly said:--

"Where _are_ we going, Herbert? You really _must_ tell me."

He met her intent look; she had rarely seen his blithe eyes more solemn
than now.

"Haven't you guessed by this time?" he said.

"Perhaps I have," she answered. Her tone was a low murmur; she had
averted her eyes from his, and would have withdrawn from him her hand,
had not the clasp of his own softly rebelled against this act. Her
cheeks had flushed almost crimson. "Go on," she persisted. "Tell me if I
am right."

"I think you are, Claire; I think you have guessed it, at last." The
carriage had just entered the big gateway of the ferry; wheels and hoofs
took a new sound as they struck the planks of the wharf. "Don't you
remember that night at the Island, a little while after our engagement,
when you told me that it would give you such joy to regain your father's
body and to have it decently buried, in a Christian way?"

"Yes, Herbert ... I remember." She spoke the words so faintly that he
scarcely heard them.

"Well, Claire, I made you a promise, then, and I recollected the
promise."

"But _I_ forgot it!" she cried, throwing both arms about his neck, for
an instant, and kissing his cheek. Immediately afterward she burst into
tears. "Oh, Herbert, you remembered and I forgot! How wicked of me! I
let other things--things that were trifles and vanities--drive it from
my mind! Poor, dear, dead Father! He would never have done that to me!
He loved me too well--far too well!"

The tears were rushing down her face, and her frame was in a miserable
tremor. Already he had caught both her hands, and was firmly pressing
them while he bent toward her, and while she leaned in a relaxed posture
against the back of the carriage. He thought her repentance as exquisite
as it was needless; he held it as only a fresh proof of her sweet,
refined spirit. It brought the mist into his sight, and made his voice
throb very unwontedly, to see her weep and tremble thus.

"My darling," his next words hurried, "you're not in the least to blame.
You would have thought about it a little later, I'm certain. But so much
has happened since our marriage, you know. Besides, what you call
trifles and vanities are just what he wanted you to think about. He must
be glad (if the dead are ever glad or sorry in any way) to see you climb
higher, and get the notice and influence you deserve. You never slighted
his memory at all. Don't fancy you did, Claire. He was in your mind all
the while, only you postponed speaking of him a little longer than you
intended. You had told me what to do, don't you see, and you felt a
certain security as regarded my doing it. That was all. Now do cheer
up. We've quite a ride to Greenwood after we leave the ferry. Everything
has been done, quietly, dear, without your knowing. I thought it would
pain you too much to stand beside any open grave of his. The body was
not hard to find. You recollected its ... its number, you know. I'm sure
you will like the stone I've had put over him. It is just a plain
granite one, with the name, and date of death. The date of birth shall
be put there afterward; I didn't want to ask it of you yet; that would
have spoiled my surprise."

She grew perfectly calm again, some time before they reached the
cemetery. The cessation of her tears deeply relieved Hollister. He had
never seen her weep before, and the betrayal of such emotion, feminine
though it was, had harshly disturbed him. Once more composed, she
returned to him in her proper strength. She became Claire again. It was
not that he did not like her to show weakness, but rather that in
showing weakness she appeared new and odd to him, and hence not just his
own strong, serene, familiar Claire. Any jar, as it were, in the
steadfast vibrations of his fealty sent to the heart of this most
unswerving loyalist a strange, acute dismay.

The autumn darkness had almost fallen upon the multitudinous tombs of
Greenwood before Claire was willing to leave that of her father. His
name, cut in the modest gray of the stone, seemed for hours afterward
cut into her conscience as well. The grand repose of the place, too,
left its haunting thrill in her soul. A great sombre note had been
struck through all her being, at a time when brain and nerves had begun
to feel the full intoxication of worldly longing. While she was living
intensely, death had come to her in the shape of keen, reproachful
reminder. The vast cemetery had now no vernal or summer charm. Above,
the sky was soft as a clouded turquoise, but underfoot, and on tree and
shrub, the lovely melancholy of waning autumn met the bitter melancholy
of a far more woful decay. It was all like one mighty threnody put to
mighty yet very tender music. With a certain sinister and piercing
eloquence, moreover, this huge, mute city of death addressed Claire.
Many noted family names had of late passed into her memory, as those of
people whom it would be safe, wise, politic to know; and not a few of
these she now saw, lettered on slabs or shafts, and graven over the
portals of vaults. Each one, as her gaze read it, wore a frightful
sarcasm. More than once she closed her eyes and shuddered, as the
carriage made both exit and entrance here in this sad domain. The
perfect culture of the place rendered its doleful pathos even more
poignant. The dead were not neglected, here; others, now alive and of
the bright world she had yearned to triumph in, must soon lie down
beside them. The narrow beds were kept well tended, perhaps, for just
this dreary and hideous reason.

That night she spent almost without sleep. She heard her mother's
vindictive voice ring through the stillness; she had waking visions of
her father's face, clad with an angelic rebuke; she seemed to listen
once more while Beverley Thurston spoke those words of remonstrance and
chiding which were the last he had uttered in her presence: "I warn you
against yourself ... there is an actual curse hanging over you ... it
will surely fall, unless by the act of your own will you change it into
a blessing."

Yes, her aim had been false and worthless. She knew it well, at last.
Her father's grave had told her so. She was born for better things than
to fling down a dainty gauntlet of social warfare at Mrs. Van Horn. The
big world had big work for such a woman as herself to front and do. She
realized it now; she had realized it all along. Herbert thought she had
been right merely because he loved her. To-morrow she would make Herbert
see clearly the folly of his own acquiescence. Now that the money had
come, there were great charities possible. She would go back, too, among
her books; these should teach her more than they had ever yet taught. It
was true enough that in one way she was cold; she could not feel passion
like other women. The infatuation of a Mrs. Ridgeway Lee was an enigma
to her. But she could love a loftier ideal of life--love it and try to
climb thither by the steeper and harsher path. This, surely, was what
her father had meant, long ago.

Such were her new reflections and her new resolves. It took just one
day, and no more, to dissipate them completely. Mrs. Diggs sent her a
note on the following afternoon, saying that a hundred little
obstructive matters had prevented her purposed visit that morning, but
begging to have the pleasure of her own and her husband's company at
dinner on the same evening. Would not Claire drop in very early--say
about four o'clock? "It is my visiting day," wrote her correspondent.
"Perhaps there will be four or five feminine callers, perhaps none. If
there are none, we can have a good three hours' chat, don't you know?
I've some new things from Paris that I want to show you. It strikes me
that Worth's taste grows more depraved every year, and I want you to
give me your advice as to whether I shall throw all these hideous
importations over to my maid or no. You can leave a little note at home
for that delightful husband of yours, telling him that the Diggses dine
at seven. Or you can show him this note, unless you have jealous
feelings with regard to my florid adjective."

Claire quitted the house at about four that afternoon, leaving behind
her a few lines for Hollister. She chose to go on foot, the day being
fair and pleasant. But she had scarcely got twenty yards away from her
own stoop, when a carriage rattled past her, stopping suddenly. It was
an equipage of great elegance. Claire soon perceived that it had stopped
before the door from which she had just made exit. A footman sprang from
the box, and immediately afterward what appeared to be more than a
single card was handed him by an unseen occupant of the carriage. He
then ascended the stoop of the Hollister abode, and sharply rang its
bell. When his summons was answered the man held brief converse with
Claire's new butler, and then presented, with a little bow, the card or
cards intrusted to him. In a trice he was down the stoop again, and
again at the carriage door. He did not seem to deliver any spoken
message, but merely touched with one raised finger the rim of his
cockaded hat. The carriage then started briskly off, without its
high-throned driver paying the slightest heed to the fact that his
liveried associate must scramble up to his side while the vehicle was in
full motion. But this feat was accomplished with great ease; a mannerism
of fashion demanded that the footman should so perform it; the approved
effect of complete unconcern on the one hand and up-leaping agility on
the other was never produced with more complete success.

Claire had soon reëntered the house. She found two cards there, awaiting
her inspection. One bore the name of Mrs. Van Horn, and one that of Mrs.
Ridgeway Lee.

"Delightful!" exclaimed Mrs. Diggs, on learning this occurrence from
Claire herself, about a half hour later. "That visit, from those two
women, has an enormous meaning. How sorry I am you were not at home. It
would have been two against one, but I'm inclined to pay you the very
marked compliment of saying that both your antagonists, deep and clever
as they are, would have been no match for you. Well, hostilities are
postponed. It's an armistice, not a truce. I insist, you see, on using
the terms of warfare. How the battle will be fought is still a mystery,
of course; but two potent truths simply _can't_ be overlooked. You
refused Cornelia Van Horn's brother. That is one of them."

"And the second?" asked Claire, a little absently, because she felt what
answer would come.

"The second? You've roused pointed admiration in the man whom Sylvia Lee
worships."

Claire looked at the speaker, and slowly shook her head. There was
doubt, trouble, irresolution in her face; and now, when she spoke, her
voice had a weary, almost plaintive note.

"I--I feel like not engaging in the fight, if you really think there is
to be one," she said, hesitantly. "I don't mean because I am afraid,"
were her next words, delivered with much greater swiftness. "Oh, no, not
that. There are other reasons. I can't explain, just now." Here she
paused, and her face softly brightened, while she gave a little shrug
of the shoulders. "Well," she abruptly went on, "perhaps I shall never
explain."

She never did explain. This was her last feeble protest against the
slow, sure force of that subtle fascination which was once more steadily
reclaiming her. The gloomy remorse and the vital energy of yesterday's
mood had, neither of them, quite left her. But they both soon withdrew
their last remnant of sway.

Hollister came a little late to Mrs. Diggs's dinner. It had been a great
day with him. He had risked a very important sum by retaining a large
number of shares in a certain precarious stock. He had his reasons for
doing so, and they were clever reasons, judged by the general conditions
of the market. He had made a memorable stroke, and all Wall Street knew
of it before the usual hour for brokers to seek other than their daily
haunts of hazard. He was radiant, if this could be said of one whose
spirits were always bright, as his temper was sweet. There were only
four at dinner. Mr. Diggs overflowed with congratulations to Hollister.
He was quite as tipsy as usual, and to Claire's thinking, quite as
tiresome.

But the dinner was not tiresome. Mrs. Diggs was at her loquacious best.
The recent brilliant manoeuvre of her husband had roused in Claire all
the old exultant feeling. Yesterday was now indeed yesterday. She was
already plunging an eager look straight onward through a long rosy vista
of to-morrows.

"I'm so glad, Herbert!" she said, as they were being driven home
together. "Perhaps I didn't show that I was, there at dinner. That
dreadful Mr. Diggs is made of such explosive material that I was afraid
he would want to drink your health standing, or something of that absurd
sort, if I ventured to tell you how glad I really was that you've made
another hit, luckier than any you ever made before."

Hollister put his lips to her cheek. "I know just how glad you are," he
said, while kissing her. "You needn't tell me another word about it."

Claire had spoken with that little half-excited trip of the tongue,
which has been recorded as a late change in her demeanor.

She was silent, not having returned her husband's caress. This was quite
like the accustomed Claire. Yesterday, in the carriage which had borne
them to Greenwood, she had flung her arms about his neck and kissed him,
as any ordinary wife might do.

Hollister was quietly re-accepting her, so to speak, as the
extraordinary wife--or, in other terser phrase, as Claire.

He went on speaking before she had a chance to answer him. He was still
holding her hand while he spoke. "Oh, by the way, Claire, Goldwin had a
good deal to do with my luck. He gave me points, as they say down there.
But don't breathe it to a living soul. Goldwin's an awfully good friend
of mine, I find, though we haven't always pulled together in a business
way."

"Yes?" Claire answered.

She had somehow got her hand away from his. She was using it to arrange
her wrap about the throat.



XVII.


The gay season had soon set in with full force. It promised to be a
season of especial brilliancy. Claire rapidly found people gathering
about her. She began to have a little list of her own. The wives of the
two gentlemen who had dined with herself and husband in Goldwin's
company, each asked herself and husband to dine at their own house. The
dinners were both of sumptuous quality, and attended by numerous other
guests. Claire made a deep impression at both places. Her toilettes were
rich and of unique taste; she was by far the most beautiful woman at
either assemblage. The sudden financial glory of Hollister, whose actual
wealth was tripled if not quadrupled by rumor, cast about her
exceptional grace, beauty, and wit an added halo of distinction. She was
the kind of woman whom women like. In not a few of her own sex she
quickly roused an enthusiastic partisanship.

"You are bound to lead, or nothing," Mrs. Diggs soon said to her. "I see
this very clearly, Claire,--though, for that matter, I have seen it all
along."

"I mean to lead, or nothing," answered Claire, with her superb candor.
"Thus far I have not found it difficult."

Mrs. Diggs put up her thin forefinger.

"Tut, tut," she remonstrated. "Don't be too confident. Ambition _may_
overleap itself. Remember that you are still on the threshold."

"I've crossed it," said Claire, laughing. "I've got into the
drawing-room."

"No, you haven't, my dear. You have yet achieved nothing secure,
absolute, decisive. Now, I'm not a bit of a snob, myself, as you know.
But I understand how to reason like one; I can measure the mettle of the
foe you've got to fight with. Let us talk plainly together, as we always
do. None of the very heavy swells have as yet admitted you. There's no
use of denying this. You're being a great deal talked about. You've
broken bread already, and you've received invitations to break more
bread, with some very nice, exclusive women. But they are not of the
first rank; they're not of the great, proud, select clique. True,
Cornelia has called on you, and Sylvia Lee has called. You've returned
their visits, and have seen neither; neither was at home. But then
neither _is_ at home except on her visiting-day, and that is customarily
written with much legibility on both their cards. But on both the cards
which you received, _no day at all was written_. I've never mentioned
this before, have I? Well, it never occurred to me until last night. I
was nervous, and couldn't sleep; that dear Manhattan was out at the
club, smoking those horrid cigars, which flush his face so and hurt his
poor, dear brain, I'm sure. Perhaps it was that which kept me awake and
made my mind wander toward you, and reflect upon this peculiarly
interesting stage of your career. The little circumstance I have
mentioned may mean nothing, but I'm inclined to think otherwise;
everything, no matter how trivial, about Cornelia, is sure to mean
something. But, however this may be, affairs have now reached a peculiar
pass with you. You must make a _coup_, my dear--a grand _coup_."

"Which you have arranged entirely," said Claire, smiling, "I haven't a
doubt. And now you await my sanction of it?"

Mrs. Diggs creased her pale forehead, in a reflective frown. "No, not
precisely that, my dear; I haven't yet quite decided what it is to be.
But I have almost decided. Suppose that you do not make it at all--that
is, not in your own person. Suppose that I make it for you."

"You?" inquired Claire.

"Yes. Suppose that I send out cards for a huge reception, and place your
card within the same envelope. Then you would receive at my side, don't
you know, and everybody who came must henceforth be on your list as well
as on mine. I would launch you boldly forth, in other words. I would put
you under my wing. I would give you my _cachet_."

A marked intimacy now existed between Claire and Goldwin. He would often
drop in of an evening--sometimes of an afternoon. Hollister was not by
any means at home every evening, when he and Claire had no mutual
engagement. He was getting to have a good many solitary engagements.
"Stag" dinners claimed him; there would be nocturnal trysts with certain
fellow-financiers on the subject of the morrow's chances. Then, too, he
had been made a member of the Metropolitan Club, an institution oddly
hard, and in a way oddly easy, to enter; it was the one great reigning
club of the continent; none other precisely resembled it; the social
leaders who did not belong to it were few, and to cross its doorstep at
will was the unfulfilled dream of many a social struggler.

Claire cordially liked Goldwin. If he had been obscure she would still
have liked him, though his importance was so knit in with his
personality, he exhaled such an atmosphere of pecuniary and patrician
celebrity, that one could ill think of him as ever being or ever having
been obscure. She was boldly frank with him regarding her ambitious
aims. He would throw back his handsome head and laugh most heartily at
her ingenuous confidences. He would tell her that she was the most
exquisite joke in the world, and yet that he was somehow forced to
accept her as quite the opposite of one. "Ah, yes, intensely opposite,"
he would add, with a fluttered pull at his silken mustache that she felt
to be studied in its emotional suggestiveness, with a large sigh that
she suspected of being less studied, and with a look in his charming
hazel eyes that would nearly always make her avert her own. His homage
had become a very substantial fact, and she knew just how much of it the
popular standard of wifely discretion would permit her to receive--just
how much of it would be her advantage and not her detriment. He was too
keen not to have perceived that she had drawn this judicious line of
calculation. Now and then he made little semi-jocose attempts to
overleap it, but at the worst a word could curb him where a glance
failed. She found him, all in all, saltatory but never vicious; a stout
pull of the rein always brought him to terms.

After her converse with Mrs. Diggs, just recorded, she told him of the
latter's proposed _coup_. He looked at her sharply for a moment, and
then made a very wry grimace.

"Good Heavens!" he exclaimed. "That woman endorse you! It would be
complete ruin."

"Mrs. Diggs is my friend, and as such I must insist upon your always
speaking with respect of her in my presence," reprimanded Claire,
stoutly.

"Respect? Why, of course I respect her. Not physically; she's
constructed on too painful a plan of zigzags. But in all other ways I
consider her delightful. She's got a big, warm heart in that angular
body of hers. She's as liberal as the air. But she isn't good form--she
isn't a swell, and no earthly power could make her so. Of course she
doesn't think she has really lost caste. She may tell you that she does,
but privately she has an immense belief in her ability to play the fine
lady at a moment's notice. I don't know any woman more flatly
disapproved of by her own original set. Shall I tell you what this idea
of hers would result in if practically carried out? A distinct injury to
yourself. She has a crowd of queer friends whom she wouldn't slight for
the world; she's too consistently good-hearted. She'd invite them all,
and they would all come. Her notable relations--the Van Horns and Van
Corlears and Amsterdams and Hackensacks, and Heaven knows who
else--would yawn and perhaps shudder when they got the tickets for her
entertainment. They would mostly come, too, and all their grand friends
would no doubt follow them. But they would come with a feeling of deadly
rancor toward yourself; they would never forgive you for setting her up
to it, and nothing could induce them to believe that you had _not_ set
her up to it." Here Goldwin crossed his legs with an impatient violence,
and stared down at one of his shoes with enough intensity for it to
have been concerned in the last caprice of the stock-market. "Oh, no,"
he went on, "that would never do. Never in the world. It wouldn't be a
_coup_ at all; it would be a monstrous _fiasco_. Take my advice, now,
and politely but firmly nip any such proceeding in the bud."

Claire did. On his own side, Goldwin was secretly determined that she
whom he thought the most fascinating, novel, and beautiful woman he had
ever met, should achieve the full extent of her desires. These desires
affected him much as they affected Hollister; they were part of Claire's
charm for him; they were like the golden craft of scrollwork that framed
the picture; they set it off, and made it more precious; there was a
lovely imperiousness about them that would have bored him in another
woman, like a kind of ugly greed, but that in her were a delight.

He had made up his mind to serve her, brilliantly, conspicuously, and he
soon did so. He issued invitations for a dinner at Delmonico's, and gave
it on a scale of splendor that eclipsed all his previous hospitalities.
Rare music stole to the guests while they feasted; the board was
literally pavilioned in flowers; the wines and the viands were marvels
of rarity and cost; beside the plate of each lady lay a fan studded with
her monogram in precious stones; during dessert a little cake was served
to everybody present, which, when broken, contained a ring with the word
_bienvenu_ embossed in silver along its golden circlet. The host had
very carefully chosen his guests from among the autocrats and arbiters
of fashion. Claire and Hollister were the only persons who did not
represent aristocracy at its sovereign height. But on Claire fell the
chief honors. It was she whom Goldwin conducted into the dining room;
it was she to whom he directed the major share of his attentions,
contriving with slight apparent effort that she should know every one
else, and making it evident that the affair was held in large luxurious
compliment to herself alone, though not thrusting this fact into more
than partial prominence.

Goldwin, for certain marked reasons of his own, had been from the first
resolved upon the attendance of Mrs. Ridgeway Lee. He sent no invitation
to Mrs. Van Horn. He knew that Claire suspected the latter of adverse
feelings, and he knew no more than this. But Mrs. Van Horn was not a
necessity to the success of his festival; she could easily be replaced
by some other leader, and it would be much better not to invite her at
all than to invite her without avail. But Mrs. Lee must appear.

He had been prepared for refusal, and it promptly came. On the evening
of the day it reached him, he presented himself at Mrs. Lee's residence.
He found her alone. She had denied herself to four or five other
gentlemen during the previous hour. She had expected Goldwin, though she
tried to look decorously surprised when he entered her elegant little
drawing-room.

She had chosen to clothe herself in black satin, the shimmer of whose
tense-drawn fabric about bust and waist, and of its trailing draperies
about the lower portion of her lithe person, gave to her strange beauty
an almost startling oddity. An irreverent critic who had recently seen
her in this robe had declared that she made him think of a wet eel.
Allowing the comparison to have been apt, if ungallant, there is no
doubt that she could have suggested only an eel very much humanized,
with a face of quite as extraordinary feminine beauty as that possessed
by the deadly lady whom Keats so weirdly celebrated.

Her dark eyes seemed to-night lit with the smouldering fires of fever.
The moment Goldwin looked well at her he made up his mind that he was to
have a hard time of it. She had undoubtedly guessed the purport of his
dinner, and she meant to tell him so. He strongly suspected that she
meant to tell him so, as well, with considerable verbal embellishment.

He pretended, in a playful way, to be dazzled by her fantastic apparel.
He put both hands up to his eyes and rubbed them in a comic imitation of
bewilderment.

"I'm not prepared to tell you whether I like it or not," he said, while
he sank into one of the big, yielding chairs. "But I consider it
splendidly effective. It makes you appear so beautifully slippery. You
look as if you could slide into an indiscretion, and then squirm right
out again without being observed by anybody."

Mrs. Lee bit her lip. She had often let him say more saucy things than
this to her, and not resented them. But to-night her mood held no such
tolerance.

"You once promised me," she said, "that you would never speak rudely
about my personal appearance." She seemed to shape with some difficulty
this and the sentences that followed it. "I did not make myself. Perhaps
if I had been granted that privilege I might have hit on a type more
suited to your taste."

Goldwin shrugged his shoulders. "Oh, come," he said, "you've let me
chaff you a hundred times before, and treated it as a joke."

He was still seated, while she stood. He forgot to think this a
discourtesy toward her; he would have remembered it as such with almost
any other woman; his outward manners were usually blameless; but perhaps
he was no more at fault than she herself for the present negligence.

As it was, it did not strike her. She was thinking of other weightier
things. A delicate table stood near her, and she half turned toward it,
breaking from a massive basket of crimson roses one whose rich petals
were heavy-folded and perfect, and fixing it in the bosom of her
night-dark dress. Goldwin was watching her covertly but keenly all the
while. She seemed to him like an incarnate tempest--he knew her so well.
His furtive but sharp gaze saw the tremor in her slim, pale fingers as
she dealt with the discompanioned rose.

Finding that she did not answer, he went on: "You're out of sorts
to-night. Has anything gone wrong during the day?"

She tossed her head for an instant, and her lip curled so high that it
showed the white edge of her teeth. But promptly she seemed to decide
upon a mild and not a harsh retort. "I have been at the hospital most of
the afternoon," she said. "I prayed for an hour beside a poor old woman
who was dying with cancer." She gave a quick, nervous shudder. "It was
horrible." She closed her eyes, then slowly unclosed them. "Horrible,"
she repeated, in her most measured way.

"It must have been simply ghastly," observed Goldwin, with dryness. "For
Heaven's sake, why don't you swear off these debauches of charity for at
least a month or two? They're completely breaking you up. It's they
that put you in these frightful humors."

She came several steps toward him, and sank into a chair quite close at
his side. She twisted herself so inordinately, in taking this new
posture, that her detractors would have decided the whole performance
one of her most aggravating affectations. "What frightful humors?" she
asked. This question had the same loitering, somnolent intonation that
always belonged to her speech, and contrasted so quaintly with her
nervous, volatile turns and poses.

Goldwin saw that the time had come. "Oh, you know what I mean," he said.
"You went and refused my dinner. Of course you didn't mean it."

"I did mean it," said Mrs. Lee, very low indeed.

"Nonsense. I'm like an enterprising salesman. I won't take 'no' for an
answer."

"I shall give you no other."

He leaned nearer to her. "What on earth is the matter?" he inquired. "I
am going to make it a very nice affair. I don't think I've ever done
anything quite as pretty as this will be. You used to tell me that no
one did these things just as well as I. You used to say that if I ever
left you out of one of my state feasts you'd cut my acquaintance."

She had drooped her small, dark head while he spoke, but now, as he
finished, she raised it. Her tones were still low, but unwonted speed
was in her words.

"I don't doubt you will make it a very nice affair. But you give it
because you want to give distinction to a woman who has bewitched you.
Don't deny that Mrs. Hollister will be there. I know it--I am certain of
it."

"I don't deny it," said Goldwin, crossing his legs quietly, "now that
you afford me a chance of stating it."

He saw her control an inward shiver from displaying more overt signs.

"Oh, well," she said, "do not let us discuss the question any more. I
sent you my regret to-day. I have another engagement, as I told you."

"Another engagement is easily broken."

"It is a dinner engagement."

"I don't believe you."

"You are grossly rude."

"I know I am. It's perfectly awful. It's the first time I ever insulted
a woman. I shall be in the depths of repentance all day to-morrow. I
don't know if I shall ever really pardon myself. But ... I don't believe
you, all the same."

He said this with a mournful deliberation that would at any other time
have roused her most enjoying laughter; for he had in him the rich fund
of true comedy, as many of his friends were wont loudly to attest, and
at will he could draw flattering plaudits of mirth from even the
gloomiest hearer.

But Mrs. Lee did not show the glimpse of a smile.

"There is no use," she said. "I have given you my answer. I shall not
go. I shall not permit you to make of my name and position a mere idle
convenience. I shall not lend you either one or the other, that it may
serve your purpose in presenting to society any adventuress who may have
pleased your fancy."

Goldwin was very angry at this speech. She had no idea how angry it had
made him, as he quietly rose and faced her.

"What right have you to call her an adventuress?" he asked.

Her eyes flashed as she looked up at him. "Of course she is one. Her
husband, too, is an adventurer. They're both trying to push themselves
in among the best people. And you are helping them. You are helping him
because of her; and you are helping her ... well, you are helping her
because of herself."

Goldwin gave a smile at this. She perceived, then, how very angry he
was. She knew his smile so well that when it came, different from any
other she had ever seen on the same lips, it struck her by its cold
novelty.

"You called upon this adventuress," he said; "you were willing to do
that."

"Yes--to please you."

"Allow that as your reason. You called on her in private to please me.
You will not meet her in public to please me. Is not that just how the
case stands?"

She fixed her eyes on his face. Her feverish look had grown humid. He
could plainly note that her lips trembled. She was so alive, now, to a
sense of his being very indignant, that this realization frightened her,
and she let him see, with pitiable candor, just how much it frightened
her.

"You are in love with Mrs. Hollister," she murmured. "And--she is in
love with you."

She showed him the full scope of his power by those few words. He walked
toward the door, pausing on its threshold.

"I won't remain to hear you insult a woman whom I respect," he said;
"you called her an adventuress, which is untrue; you now say something
even worse."

"Will you deny it?" she asked, rising.

Her question had a plaintive, querulous ring, which the circumstances
made something more than pathetic.

"Will you reconsider your refusal?" he said, making the interrogation a
reply.

She sank back into her seat again.

"No, never!" she exclaimed.

"Good night," he returned. He went immediately out into the hall, put on
his coat and hat, and left the house.

"She will yield," he told himself. "I am sure of it. She showed me that
she would if I were only hard enough. I mean to be hard. I can make it
up in kindness by and by."

He waited three days. No word came to him from Mrs. Lee. But on the
fourth word came to him.

"I knew it," he thought, as he read her note.

Mrs. Lee went to the dinner in a truly marvelous gown. It was some
curious blending of crimson and black silks, that made her look sombrely
clad in one attitude and luridly clad in the next. Her only jewelry was
a thin snake of rubies about her slender throat, and the head of the
snake, set directly beneath her chin, was a big gold one, having two
large garnets for eyes. All the women pronounced her costume
ridiculously overdone. All the men professed to like it. She never
appeared in gayer spirits. Next to Claire she was the most notable
feminine guest.

But Claire ruled absolute. She had never been more beautiful, perhaps
because she had never felt more secretly and victoriously exultant. The
delicious music, the piercing yet tender odor of the lavish flowers, the
insidious potency of the wines, which she sipped sparingly and felt
dangerously tingle through her veins--all these influences wrought upon
her a species of stimulating enthrallment which made the whole splendid
banquet seem, on the following day, like some enchanted dream. On one
side sat Goldwin, the genius who had created this lovely witchery,
urbane, devoted, allegiant; on the other side sat a man of deserved
eminence, a wit, a scholar, a statesman. She talked with both
companions, and it could not be said that she then charmed both, for one
was already her loyal devotee. As for the other, though advanced in
years and freighted with pungent experiences, he soon tacitly admitted
that he had at last found, at the most discriminating period of his
career, a woman whose graces of intelligence and beauty met in faultless
unison. As all the ladies rose, leaving the gentlemen to their coffee
and cigars, he leaned toward Goldwin, even before Claire's draperies had
swept the threshold of the dining-room, and significantly murmured:--

"You were right. She is an event."

That dinner was the stepping-stone by which Claire mounted into
immediate triumph. All through the next year she was the reigning
favorite in just that realm where she had aimed to reign. Her father had
died a pauper and been buried as one. She, the mistress of many
thousands, having fixedly remembered what a feeble, disappointed,
obscure, broken-down man had said to her in early childhood, now stood
as the living, actual result of his past counsel. Years ago the seed had
been sown in that dingy little basement of One-Hundred-and-Twelfth
Street. To-day the flower bloomed, rare and beautiful. The little girl
had climbed the hill to its top, after all. She had not grown tired and
gone home before the top was reached. She had done her father's bidding.
She was sure he would be glad if he knew.

'And yet am I quite sure?' she would sometimes ask herself. 'Was this
what he really meant when he spoke those words?'

She knew perfectly the folly of the course that she now pursued. Her
occasional self-questionings were a hypocrisy that she realized while
she indulged it. But they were very occasional. She had slight time for
introspection, for analysis of her own acts.

Flattery and devotion literally poured in upon her, like the new wealth
that continued to pour in upon her husband. The house in Twenty-Eighth
Street was soon exchanged for a spacious mansion on Fifth Avenue. Claire
ceased to know even the number of her servants. She had a housekeeper,
who superintended their engagements and discharges. She dwelt in an
atmosphere of excessive luxury, and found herself loving it more and
more as she yielded to the spell of its subtle enervation.

Her second winter was the confirmation of her sovereignty. As the phrase
goes, she was asked everywhere. Her bright or caustic sayings were ever
on the lips of loyal quoters. Her toilettes were described with
journalistic realism in more than a single newspaper. Cards for her
entertainments were eagerly sought, and often vainly. Foreigners of
distinction drifted into her drawing-rooms as if by a natural process of
attraction. She had scarcely a moment of time to herself; when she was
not entertaining she was being entertained. Her admirers, women and men,
vied in efforts to secure her presence. She had acquired, as if by some
magic instinct, the last needed personal touch; she had got the grand
air to perfection. Diplomatists who had met and known the most noted
beauties of European courts had nothing but praise to pay her serene
elegance of deportment, the undulating grace of her step, the nice
melody of her voice, the fine wizardry of her smile. She had never seen
Europe, yet she might have spent all the years of her youth on its soil
with no lovelier results than those which now marked her captivating
manner. She was American, past question, to transatlantic eyes; yet
these found in her only the original buoyancy and freshness of that
nationality, without a gleam of its so-termed coarseness.

Foes, of course, rose up against her. There can be no sun without
shadow. She had made herself so distinct a rarity that cheapening
comment could not fail to begin its assault. It did so, in hot earnest.
Two women had denied their sanction to her sudden popularity. These were
Mrs. Van Horn and Mrs. Ridgeway Lee. They were not open enemies;
neither, to all appearances, were they covert ones. They were on
speaking terms with her. They met her constantly, yet they offered her
no deference. Deference was what she now required, and with a
widely-admitted right.

The invidious statements that stole into circulation regarding her could
not be traced either to the vengeance of Beverley Thurston's sister or
the jealousy of Stuart Goldwin's abandoned worshiper. It is possible
that the most leal of Claire's defenders never thought of so tracing
them. But the statements were made, and took wing. She had been a vulgar
girl of the people. Her parentage was of the most plebeian sort. A lucky
marriage had given her the chance, now accepted and enlarged. Her
maiden name had been this, that, and the other. She was absolutely
nobody.

Claire heard none of these scorching comments. She reigned too haughtily
for that. Mrs. Diggs heard them, but Mrs. Diggs betrayed no sign of
their existence. Goldwin was now devotedly at Claire's side; they were
repeatedly seen in public together; the world in which she ruled
considered it a splendid subjugation; she had brought the great Wall
Street King obsequiously to her feet.

But no breath of slander tainted the relation between them. Claire had
been very clever; she had blunted the first arrow, so to speak. She had
done so by means of her complete innocence. Goldwin was in love with
her; no one doubted this. It was something notable to have said of one.
But she was so safely not in love with Goldwin that she could
continually, by strokes of frank tact, show the world her own calm
recipiency and his entire subservience. A swift yet sure chasm widened
between herself and Hollister. The latter had become a man of incessant
and imperative engagements. Claire never dreamed of feeling a jealous
pang, and yet she knew that her husband, no less than herself, had
become a star of fashion. Hollister was assiduously courted. He and
Claire would now meet once a day, and sometimes not so often. They had
separate apartments; it was so much more convenient for both. The same
dinner-engagement frequently claimed them; but on these occasions she
would appear in the lower hall to meet him, rustling beneath some new
miracle of dressmaking, and they would get into the carriage together
and be driven to the appointed place. At the dinner they would be
widely separated. He would sit beside some woman glad to have secured
him; she would be the companion of some man happy because of her
nearness. The dinner would break up; the hour would be somewhat late;
they would get into their carriage; Hollister would have an appointment,
at the club, or somewhere. He would let Claire into the great new house
with his latch-key. "Good night," he would say, and hurry off into the
carriage that had waited for him. Claire would ascend and be disrobed by
a sleepy maid. To-morrow there would perhaps be another dinner, of the
same sort. Or it might be an affair to which she went alone, and from
which Goldwin accompanied her home. Goldwin was always prepared to
accompany her. He obeyed her nod.

But Hollister was still her devout subject. It was merely that the
sundering stress of circumstances divided them. He did not forget
Claire; he postponed her. Everything was in a whirl with him, now; he
was shooting rapids, so to speak, and by and by he would be in still
water again. For the present, he had only time to tell himself that
Claire was getting on magnificently well. It was like driving four or
six restive horses abreast, with his wife seated at his side. He must
attend to the skittish brutes, as it were; her safety, no less than his
own, depended on his good driving. But she was there at his side; he
felt comfortably sure of this fact, though he could not turn and look at
her half often enough.

The January of this second winter had been prolific in heavy
snow-storms, and the sleighing had filled town with its jocund tinkles.
One afternoon Claire, leaning back in a commodious sleigh, and muffled
to the throat in furry robes, stopped at Mrs. Diggs's house, and the two
ladies were driven together into the Park. It was a perfect afternoon of
its kind. There was no wind; the cold was keen but still; not a hint of
thaw showed itself in the banks of powdery snow skirting either edge of
the streets, or in those pure, unroughened lapses which clad the
spacious Park, beneath the black asperity of winter trees, traced
against a sky of steely blueness.

Claire was in high spirits; her laugh had a ring as clear as the
weather. Mrs. Diggs shivered under the protective wraps of the sleigh.
"My circulation was never meant for this sort of thing," she said, at
length. "We've gone far enough, haven't we, Claire? It's nearly dark,
too."

This was a most glaring fallacy, coined by the desperation of poor Mrs.
Diggs's discomfort. But the chilly light was growing a blue gloom above
the massed housetops when the two ladies found themselves at Claire's
door.

It had been arranged that they should dine quietly together that
evening. Hollister would not be at home, and Claire, for a wonder,
would. Mrs. Diggs had been complaining, of late, that she never had a
moment of privacy with her friend. Claire had agreed, three days ago, to
disappoint for one night all who were seeking her society. "We shall
have a cosey dinner," she had said, "of just you and me. We will chat of
everything--past, present, and future."

Mrs. Diggs recalled that word 'cosey' as she entered Claire's proud
dining-room, with its lofty arched ceiling, where little stars of gold
gleamed from dark interspaces between massive rafters of walnut. She
crouched on a soft rug beside the deep, large fire-place, in which great
logs were blazing. And while she basked in the pleasant glow, her eye
wandered about the grave grandeurs of the noble room, scanning its dusky
traits of wainscot, tapestry, tropic plants, or costly pictures: for all
was in sombre shadow except the reddened hearth and the small central
table, on whose white cloth two great clusters of wax-lights had been
set, stealing their colors from a group of flowers, and its clean
sparkle from the glass and silver. The whole table was like a spot of
light amid the stately dimness.

"Really, very splendid indeed, Claire," said Mrs. Diggs, in a sort of
ruminative ellipsis, letting her eye presently rest on the tips of her
own upheld fingers, which the firelight had turned into that milky pink
that we often see float through opals. "But I really think I liked the
little basement house better, take it all in all."

"Did you?" murmured Claire, who was standing near her, enjoying the
warmth, but not bathing in it like her half-frozen friend. "I didn't."

A very impressive butler soon glided into the room, and told Madame in
French that she was served. Mrs. Diggs scrambled to her feet; the
majesty of the butler had something to do with her speed in performing
this act, though hunger was perhaps concerned in it.

"That dreadful sleigh-ride has left me my appetite," she said, while
seating herself opposite Claire, "so I see it hasn't quite killed me."

"I think you will survive it," said Claire, with one of her little
musical laughs.

There was not much talk between the two friends while dinner lasted, and
what there was took a desultory and aimless turn. The butler waited
faultlessly; there were eight courses; Claire had said that it would be
a very plain dinner, and Mrs. Diggs secretly smiled as she remembered
the words. The cooking was perfect; it had all of what the _gourmets_
would call Parisian sentiment, though no undue richness. Claire ate
sparingly, yet with apparent relish. She drank a little champagne, which
she had poured into a goblet and mixed with water. There were other
wines, but she touched none of them. Mrs. Diggs did, however, sipping
three or four, until she lost her chalky wanness of tint and almost got
a touch of actual color.

"I never take but one wine, as a rule," she said, "and that's claret.
But the sleigh-ride chilled me to the bone. I begin to feel quite warm
and comfortable, now. Do you always take champagne, Claire?"

"Always. But only a little. It's companionable to touch your lips to,
now and then, when you sit through those very long dinners. I suppose
the dullness of certain society originally drove me to it. But I am very
careful."

'What an air she said that with!' thought Mrs. Diggs. 'And one year ago,
at Coney Island, she was unknown, unnoticed.'

The whole repast was exquisite. While it lasted, Claire never once spoke
to the butler. He needed no orders; everything was done as well and as
silently as it could be done. In his way he was an irreproachable
artist, like the invisible _chef_ below stairs, who had evoked this
blameless dinner from the chaos of the uncooked.

Just at the end of dessert, Claire said to her guest: "Shall you take
coffee?"

"Oh, dear, no," replied Mrs. Diggs; "I don't even dare. I'm nervous
enough as it is."

But Claire had coffee, black as ink, and served to her in a tiny cup as
thin as a rose-leaf. Presently the two friends became aware that they
were alone. The butler had gone without seeming to go. Like a mysterious
_au revoir_ he had left behind him two crystal finger-bowls, with a slim
slice of lemon floating in each. Claire had finished her coffee. She
rose and leaned toward the flowers in the centre of the table. As her
fingers played among them they seemed to break, almost of their own
accord, into two separate bunches. She went round to Mrs. Diggs and gave
her one of these, retaining the other. Presently each had made for
herself an impromptu _corsage_. Mrs. Diggs had not spoken for several
minutes; she had indeed been abnormally quiet ever since the butler's
departure. The calm, graceful splendor of it all had awed her. It had
such a finish, such a choiceness, such gentle dignity of execution.

"Shall we sit near the fire?" asked Claire, as together they moved from
the table. "Or would you prefer one of the drawing-rooms?"

"The fire is so lovely," said Mrs. Diggs. "Let's sit here." She dropped
into a chair as she spoke. Claire also seated herself, not far from the
fire, though a little distance away from her friend.

Suddenly the flood-gates of Mrs. Diggs's enthusiasm burst open. She had
considerable silence to make up for. "Oh, Claire," she exclaimed, "it's
just _perfect!_ I don't see how you do it! I don't see where on earth
you got the experience from! If I had seven times your money _I_
couldn't begin to have my household machinery move in this delightful,
well-oiled way. My servants would steal; my _chef_ would get drunk; my
magnificence would all go awry; I'm sure it would!"

Claire laughed. "I'm very composed about it all," she said. "I keep
quite cool. I like it, too. There is a great deal in that. I don't mean
management so much as the superintendence of others' management. I'm a
sort of born overseer."

"You're a born leader." Mrs. Diggs was looking at her very attentively
now. "And how capably you _are_ leading! How you've carried your point,
Claire! I observe you, and absolutely marvel! I can't realize that you
are really and truly _my_ Coney Island Claire, don't you know? You've
shot up so. You're so mighty. It's like a dream."

"It's a very pleasant dream."

She said this archly and mirthfully. But Mrs. Diggs on a sudden became
solemn.

"Claire," she went on, "you remember what I told you in our little
confab, the other day, at the Lauderdales' reception? It's true, my
dear. You're like a person at a gambling-table, who begins to play for
pastime and ends by playing for greed. You know I dote on you, and you
know I never choose my words when I'm in downright earnest. Your love
for pomp and luxury, my dear, is becoming a vice. Yes, an actual vice.
You don't take your triumphs moderately, as you do your
champagne-and-water. You drink deep of them, and let them fly to your
head. Oh, I can see it well enough. And I tremble for you, I tremble,
Claire, because" ...

"Well? Because?" ...

She put these questions with a smile, as Mrs. Diggs paused. But it was a
smile of the lips only.

"Oh, because affairs might change in a day, almost an hour. You know
just what vast risks your husband constantly runs. You know what _might_
happen."

Claire rose at this. Her repose was gone; her piquant excitability had
seemed abruptly to return. She did not appear in the least angry. Mrs.
Diggs would have liked it better if she had shown a wrathful sign or
two.

"Don't let us talk of those grim matters, please," she said. She came
very close to her companion, and then, taking both the latter's hands,
sank down on her knees. Her face was lit with a charming yet restless
cheerfulness. "Dear friend, you spoke a minute ago of my triumphs. Do
you know, I've never secured just what I wanted until to-day? You
thought I had, but you were wrong. Shall I tell you why?" Mrs. Diggs was
inwardly thinking, as one ill-favored but generous woman will sometimes
think of another, how purely enchanting was her manner, and how richly
she deserved to win the social distinction she had attained.

"I suppose you mean, Claire, that Hollister to-day completed the last
thousand of his fourth or fifth million, eh?"

"Oh, not at all. I don't mean anything of the sort. I don't know
anything about Herbert's affairs, nowadays. He keeps them all to
himself."

"Well, then, what is it?"

"You'll laugh when you hear. You recollect the great ladies' luncheon
that I am to give next Friday?"

"Of course I do. I'm going to honor it."

"And so are two others. Mrs. Van Horn and Mrs. Ridgeway Lee. They have
never honored anything of mine until now. Poor Mrs. Arcularius yielded,
and bowed before me, long ago. My old school-enemy, Ada Gerrard, more
freckled, more arrogant, more stupid than ever, is one of my most
willing allies. I had conquered them all, but I could not conquer those
two women. They stood aloof, and their standing aloof was a perpetual
distress."

"Claire, Claire," exclaimed Mrs. Diggs, "you make me wonder at you! What
was the hostility of these two women, whether open or repressed? You had
all the others to pay you court. Why should you have cared? They saw
your success. They are powerful, but their power could not keep you from
asserting and maintaining yours. I repeat, why should you care?"

"I did care. But it is all over now." She rose to her feet, with a full
laugh, as she said these words. "They are coming to my luncheon. They
have both accepted. They have acknowledged me. I have forced them to do
so."

She uttered that last sentence with a mock fierceness that ended in
laughter. But she could not hide from her friend the intense seriousness
from which these expressions had sprung.

Before Mrs. Diggs could answer, a servant entered the room by one of the
draped doorways leading into the _salons_ beyond. He was not the butler,
who had so admirably served them at dinner, but a footman, charged with
other special offices. He handed Claire a card, which she read and
tossed aside. The next moment she dismissed him by a slight motion of
the hand.

"Let me see that card," said Mrs. Diggs. "Has anybody called whom I
know?"

Claire was looking straight into the tumbled, lurid logs of the hearth.

"Yes, you know him, of course," she said. "It was only Stuart Goldwin. I
am not at home to-night. Not to any one except you, I mean. I gave
orders."

A silence ensued. Mrs. Diggs presently made one of her plunges. "Claire,
they say that Goldwin is madly in love with you."

She gave a sharp turn of the neck, fixing her eyes on her friend's face.
"That is _all_ they say, I hope. They can't say--well, you understand
what they can _not_ say."

"That you care for him? Well, no.... You have been very discreet. You
have arranged wonderfully. Very few women could have done it with the
same nicety."

Claire threw back her head, with a haughty, fleeting smile. "Any woman
could have done it who felt safe--perfectly safe, as I feel."

"You mean that this grand Goldwin, who sways the stock-market, can't
quicken your pulse by one degree."

She looked steadily at Mrs. Diggs. "I did not say that I meant that. But
I do, if you choose to ask me point blank. We're very good friends. He
amuses me. I fancy that I amuse him. If I do more he doesn't tell me so.
He understands what would happen if he did."

She was staring at the fire again. Its lustres played upon the silken
folds of her dress, and made the gold glimmers start and fade in her
chestnut hair.

Mrs. Diggs was not reclining in her chair; she was leaning sideways,
with both black eyes riveted on Claire's half-averted face.

"Claire," she said, "I'm so awfully glad to hear you say that. It makes
me like you better, if such a thing were possible. Upon my word, to be
frank, in the most friendly way, I _did_ think there was a little
danger, don't you know, of.... Well, you've settled all doubts, of
course. But then, my dear, you never were enormously fond of Hollister.
You let him adore _you_, don't you know? Oh, I've seen it all. There's
no use in getting angry."

"I'm not angry," said Claire. She was again looking full at her friend.
She had put one dainty-booted foot on the low gilt trellis which rose
between the rug and the hearthstone. "We seem to drift upon very
unpleasant subjects this evening," she continued. "I am afraid our
little intimate reunion is not going to be a success."

"You _are_ angry!" exclaimed Mrs. Diggs, reproachfully. "You've changed,
Claire. You're not the same to me as you were before you became a great
lady. Now, don't deny it. You feel your oats, as my dear Manhattan would
say. You keep me at a distance. You"--

Here Mrs. Diggs paused, for the same footman who had before appeared now
made a second entrance. This time he handed Claire a note. "There is no
answer, Madame," he said in French, and at once softly vanished.

"Pardon me," said Claire, as she tore open the envelope. Mrs. Diggs
watched her while she read the contents of the note. Her perusal took
some time. She read the three written pages once, twice, thrice. Her
face had grown very grave in the meanwhile.

Suddenly she crumpled the note in one hand, and flung it into the fire.
Her eyes flashed and her lip quivered as she did so.

"For Heaven's sake, Claire," appealed her friend, "what _is_ the matter?
I suppose Cornelia or Sylvia Lee sends a regret for luncheon. You are so
foolish to mind what they do! You recollect what I used to tell you
about Cornelia. But why should you mind her airs and caprices now? You
are utterly above her--or rather, you have shown her that two can reign
in the same kingdom. You could cut her dead with perfect impunity.
That's a good deal to say, don't you know, but you positively could!"

"No, no," said Claire, with a clouded face and a little wave of the
hand, "it has nothing to do with either of those women. It is" ... here
she paused, and her breath came quick. "It is from Beverley Thurston."

"Beverley!" exclaimed Mrs. Diggs. "Why, he's in Europe."

"He got back yesterday. He has learned about me. I suppose his sister
has told him. And he writes to me in a tone of impertinence. Yes, it's
nothing else. He writes to me as if I were some sinful creature. He
presumes to be sorry for me. He says that he will pay me a visit if I
can spare him an hour from the giddy life I am leading.... I don't
remember the exact words he uses; it is not so much what he writes as
what he seems to write. The whole note breathes of patronage and
commiseration. To _me!_--think of it! What right has he? What right did
I ever give him?"

Mrs. Diggs started up from her chair. "Why, my dear Claire," she said,
"you are greatly excited!"

"I am miserable!" cried Claire. She almost staggered toward
Mrs. Diggs, and flung both arms about her friend's neck. "I am
miserable--miserable!" she went on, with a sudden paroxysm of tears. She
leaned her proud young head on Mrs. Diggs's bony shoulder, beginning to
sob quite wildly. "Do I deserve reproaches? Have I been so wrong? What
evil have I done? Let my conscience trouble me if it will, but _he_ is
not my conscience. How dare _he_ reproach me?"

A violent seizure of sobs made Claire incapable of further speech. Mrs.
Diggs let the clinging arms clasp her. She did not know what to answer;
she scarcely knew what to think. She only felt, at that unexpected
moment, that she loved Claire very much, and would always stay her
stanch friend, no matter what bitter ill might overtake her.



XVIII.


As Claire was descending into the lower hall, at about four o'clock the
next afternoon, she saw her husband enter the house with his latch-key.
She quickened her step a little, and met him at the landing of the
stairs. They had not seen each other for twenty-four hours; she had
breakfasted in her room, that morning, as was of late almost habitual
with her, and by the time that she left it he had been driven away in
his brougham. On the previous night he had reached home long after she
had retired to bed. All this was no new thing. Its first and second
occurrence had shocked them both, as an unforeseen result of their
altered existence. But repetition had set it securely among the
commonplaces. They accepted it, now, with a matter-of-course placidity.

"I was going to the Vanvelsors' reception," Claire said. "Did you think
of dropping in?"

"No," answered Hollister. He had taken her hand, and was holding it
while he spoke. The next moment he kissed her cheek, and soon let his
eye wander over the complex tastefulness of her attire. He then drew her
arm within his own, and led her toward the near drawing-room, whose
threshold they crossed. Except his recorded monosyllable, he had said
nothing for an appreciable time, and Claire, regarding his face with a
sidelong glance, had already detected there marked signs of worriment.

"No," he presently continued, taking a seat on one of the rich-clad
sofas, and gently forcing her to sit beside him. "I had no idea of going
there. I don't feel like anything gay, Claire. Things are doing horribly
on the Street. There's a dreadful squall. I hope it will be only a
squall, and soon blow over." He then named a certain stock in which he
had very comprehensive interests. "It has dropped in the most furious
fashion," he proceeded. "Claire, I've lost seventy thousand dollars
to-day, if I've lost a penny."

He talked more technically of his ill-luck after that, and told her what
he believed to be the reason of the adverse change. She listened with
great attention. She knew so much of Wall Street matters that she
scarcely missed a point in all that he explained.

"So Goldwin is on the other side," she said, when he had finished.

"Yes, Goldwin is safe. But you can't tell what to-morrow will bring. No
one is really safe. Prices are flying about. It's a shocking state of
affairs."

"There is nothing for you to do just now, is there?" Claire asked, after
a little pause.

"Oh, no; I may get a few telegrams later. But nothing serious will
happen till to-morrow."

She laid her hand on his arm. She was more alarmed and perplexed than
she chose to show. "Then come with me to the reception," she said; "you
might as well, Herbert. It is better than to brood over the state of
matters down there."

He shook his head negatively. "I should make a very bad guest," he
replied. "Go yourself, Claire. But remember one thing." He was looking
at her very fixedly; his frank blue eyes were full of a soft yet
assertive pain. "Our life may alter suddenly for the worse. We may have
to give up all this." He waved one hand here and there, as though
generalizing the whole luxurious encompassment. "There is no telling
what _may_ happen. I never felt the insecurity of my career as I feel it
now. Do you know, Claire, that a few more such days as this may ruin
me?"

"Ruin you?" she repeated.

She was pale as those words left her lips. Hollister had proposed to her
a terrible possibility.

"Yes, Claire, I mean it. Of course I am looking at the worst that might
happen. But I want to prepare you."

She rose, keeping her eyes on his. "I don't know what I should do," she
said, "if I lost what I have now. I have grown used to it, Herbert. I
won't let myself think that it might pass away--that I should be left
without all these good and precious things."

As she spoke the last words he rose also, and caught both her hands,
looking eagerly into her face.

"Claire," he exclaimed, "you _must_ think of losing it all! You _must_
try to reconcile yourself with the idea! If you don't, the ordeal will
be all the harder when it comes."

"When it comes?" she again repeated.

"Yes--you see just how I stand. You have grasped the whole wretched
situation. Of course there's a chance that I may right myself, but" ...

"I'll take that chance," she broke in, quite forcibly withdrawing her
hands. "So will you, Herbert. I prefer to look at it this way. We will
both take the chance."

Hollister's face was full of reproach.

"Claire!" he exclaimed. "I see that you love this new life with a
positive passion!"

"I love it very much," she answered. "I love it so much that I should
suffer fearfully if I were turned adrift from it.... Come, we will both
go to the Vanvelsors' reception."

"No," replied Hollister. He walked away from her. By her lack of
sympathy she had dealt him a cruel sting.

"Very well," responded Claire, as she watched his receding figure, "_I_
am going."

His back was turned to her, but he suddenly veered round, facing her,
and saying, with a bitter sharpness: "Go, if you please! Go, and leave
me to my misery! If you cared for me in the right manner, you would not
want to go. You would want to stay with me, and forget, for a while at
least, the gay crowds that admire and court you!"

These words were utterly unexpected. He had never before alluded to her
lack of fondness. She was embarrassed, ashamed. For a moment she could
not speak. Then she simulated an affronted demeanor; it seemed her sole
refuge. "I--I care for you as much as I have always cared," she said.
"No more and no less."

She moved toward the door at once, after thus speaking. She wondered if
he would seek to detain her. He did not.... She entered her coupé very
soon afterward. During the drive to Mrs. Vanvelsor's reception she had a
keen remembrance of just how Hollister had looked when her final gaze
had dwelt upon him. She knew that she had stung at last into life the
perception of how much he had been giving and how little he had
received. Her conscience sternly smote her; she was more than once on
the verge of ordering that the vehicle should be driven home again. But
in her then mood any attempt at amendment seemed wildly futile. What
could she say to her husband? That she deplored his possible ruin? Yes;
but not that such regret sprang from the sweet sources of a wifely,
unselfish love. She could not regard the possibility of being flung
downward from her present high place with any unselfish feeling. Mrs.
Diggs had touched the living and sensitive truth last night: her thirst
for luxury had grown a vice. Soft raiment, obsequious attendance, a
place of supreme social distinction, all these had become vitally,
imperiously needful to her happiness.

It was not the sort of happiness which she believed high or fine. She
could most clearly conceive of another, less fervid, less material, less
intoxicating, fraught with a spiritual incentive and an intellectual
meaning. But it was too late to dream of that now. She had taken the
bent; she must have power or nothing. She regarded the idea of being
obscure and with straitened funds as a calamity simply horrible.
Hollister must think her cruel as death; that was inevitable. She did
not blame him for blaming her. She blamed herself for having married him
with loveless apathy. His reproachful words haunted her--but what could
she do? He wanted genuine tenderness, sympathy, fortifying cheer. But he
wanted these from an impulse of which her heart had always been
incapable. Fate was avenging itself upon her. She had tampered with holy
things. Her marriage oath had been a mockery. Could she go back and tell
him this? Could she go back and lie to him, feign before him? No; best
that she should not go back at all.

The reception was a great crush. But they seemed to make way for her
with a sort of obeisance. No one jostled against her; they all appeared
to give her a little elbow-room in the throng, while they either bowed
or stared. She was secretly agonized. She smiled and spoke as
effectively as usual; she held her court among them all, as of late she
had invariably held it. But her heart was sick; she was besieged by a
portentous dread, and she was pierced with that self-contempt whose
length of thrust is measured by a consciousness of how far the being we
might have become surpasses the being that we are. While she stood the
centre of a small, courtly group, a gentleman softly pushed his way into
her notice and held out his hand. She took the hand, and looked well
into the face of him who had extended it. The new-comer was Beverley
Thurston. As Claire looked she swiftly noted that his familiar face wore
marked signs of change. He had distinctly aged. The gray at his temples
had grown grayer; the crows'-feet under his hazel eyes were a little
more apparent; perhaps, too, his gravity of manner was more clearly
suggested by a first glance. At the same time she felt herself regarding
him in a new light and by the aid of amplified experience. She silently
and fleetly made him stand a test, so to speak, and at once decided that
he stood it well. She had met no man since they had parted who bespoke
high-breeding and gentility with more immediate directness.

"I thought I should find you here," he said, as their hands dropped
apart.

"Did you come on that account?" she asked.

"Not entirely, because I had great fears of not being able to do more
than watch you from a distance."

"Ah," she said, with a pretty graciousness, and loud enough for all the
others to hear, "you have an excellent claim upon me--that of old
acquaintance."

Her surrounders felt that there was either dismissal or desertion
waiting for them. She managed to make it promptly plain that her
favoring heed had been wholly transferred to Thurston; she showed it to
them with a cool boldness which they would have resented with resolves
of future neglect if indulged in by many another woman present; for they
were all men who put a solid worth upon their courtesies, and had a
fastidious reluctance ever to be charged with sowing them broadcast.

But Claire had long ago learned that the security of her reign depended
upon an occasional open proof of how she herself trusted its power. She
had guessed the peril of continuing monotonously clement. To talk with
Thurston now interested her more than any other conversational project.
It was not long before she had slipped her hand into his arm, and was
saying, as they moved through the crowd:--

"If you care to go into the conservatory, we shall find it much
pleasanter there, I think."

The house was one of those new and majestic structures near the Park. It
occupied a corner, sweeping far backward from Fifth Avenue into an
adjacent street. It had an almost imperial amplitude, and was a building
in which no lordly or pleasurable detail seemed to have been overlooked.
The conservatory, whose spacious interior wooed through breadths of
glass its kindest warmth from the churlish winter sunshine, was of
refreshing temperature after the heated rooms beyond, while its masses
of leafing or blooming plants loaded the air with delightful odors.

A few people were strolling about the cool courts, as Claire and
Thurston now entered them. The entertainment of to-day was a kind of
house-warming; the Vanvelsors, in current metropolitan phrase, were old
people, but their present mansion was new in a decisive sense; they had
migrated hither from a residence in Bond Street, where they had dwelt
for forty years or more. The push of the younger generation, left with
inherited millions, had thus architecturally asserted itself. Few of
their guests knew the ways of their changed and palatial home. But
Claire knew them; she had dined in this imposing abode not less than a
fortnight ago. There were many bearers of precious Dutch names who had
known the Vanvelsors for many decades; but Claire had been preferred to
hosts of these nice-lineaged legitimists. She was the fashion; other
people were paying homage to her; the younger Vanvelsors liked
everything that was the fashion; they had paid homage, too.

"We can find a seat," Claire said to her companion; "the place is not
full, as you see; we might sit yonder, in those two vacant chairs--that
is, if you care to sit; I do; I am tired."

It was not until they were both seated, with glossy tropical leaves
touching their heads, that Thurston answered:--

"You say you are tired. That might mean a little or a great deal. Which
does it mean?"

Claire responded with a question, looking at him fixedly.

"Why did you write me that letter?" she said.

"Did it offend you?" he asked.

"No and yes. You might not have reproached me until you knew more of the
real truth."

Thurston stroked his gray mustache. "I think I knew all the truth," he
said. "I know it now, at least."

"Your sister has told you," Claire retorted, with speed.

"Yes and no," he responded, not mocking her own recent words, yet
leaving a distinct impression that he had half repeated them. "You
forget that I have seen you reigning on your new throne."

"Let us be candid," said Claire. "Your note was almost a sneer."

He slowly shook his head. "It was a regret."

"You think I might have done greater things."

"I think you might have done better things."

"You admit that I have achieved success?"

"A marvelous success. It shows your extraordinary gifts. The town, in a
certain way, is ringing with your name. If an ordinary woman had gained
your place she would have found in it a splendid gratification. She
would have been amply, perfectly satisfied."

"You mean that I am not satisfied. Pray allow it. Your tones and your
look both show it me."

Thurston smiled, transiently and sadly. "I mean that you are miserable,"
he said.

Claire bit her lip, and slightly drooped her head. "You have no cause to
tell me that."

He leaned closer to her. "I do tell you. It is true. I saw it in your
face when I first looked at you. There is a change. I can't define it,
but it exists. You are more beautiful than when I saw you last. You have
an air of ease, dignity, command. But you express a kind of superb
weariness, and yet occasional flashes of excitement are in your talk and
demeanor. You see, I have watched you from a distance; I have my
opinions."

"Yes, you have your opinions," said Claire, lifting her head and
directly regarding him. "That is very plain."

"It all makes an exquisite picture," Thurston continued. "I have seen
the world, as you know. I have seen many beautiful women. Your
personality, as I now encounter it, is an absolute astonishment to me. I
don't know where, in these few months, you acquired your repose, your
serenity, your magnificence, your air. Do you remember what I told you
of the restless American type that you represent? I knew you would
strive to rise; it was in you; you pushed to the front, as I was sure
you would do. But I had no prescience of this mighty accomplishment."

"You are sneering at me, as your note sneered," said Claire, looking at
him steadily. "Acknowledge it. I perceive it with great accuracy. I
somehow cannot answer you as I would answer another. You warned me
months ago. You knew what I desired, and told me of the danger that lay
in my path. I recollect all that you wanted me to try and be. Perhaps I
_would_ have tried, under differing conditions."

She paused, and Thurston instantly said, "As my wife you would have
tried--and succeeded."

"Perhaps," she answered, very low of tone, not meeting his look. "But
all that is past. Don't pull corpses out of graves."

"My love for you is living," he said to her. There was no touch of
passion in his voice; there was only a mournful respect. "I don't think
I am wrong to speak of it now. There's a sanctity and chastity about the
feeling I bear for you which the fact of your being a wife does not
affect. I want to know the man whom you have married; I am curious to
meet him and know him well. He has a large publicity, as you are aware.
They have heard of him in Europe."

"I understand the question you wish to put yet do not," Claire said, at
this point. "You lead up to it very adroitly; I might play the rôle of
ignorant innocence, if I chose. But I do not choose. You want to ask me
whether I loved the man I married."

Thurston again stroked his mustache, for a moment. "Yes," he presently
said, "I should like to know that."

A silence now ensued between them. Claire broke it. "He loved me," she
said.

"Which means that you did not care for him?"

"Oh, yes. I cared very much. It was no worldly sale of myself. He was
not even rich when I married him. He attracted me--in a manner charmed
me. I felt that I should never meet another man who would attract and
charm me more. Do you understand?"

"Thoroughly.... Since then you have met Stuart Goldwin. I know him well.
He is a man of exceptional fascination. They tell me that he is your
slave."

"Do they?" said Claire, coloring under this rapid attack of candor.
"Well, if he is my slave--which I, of course, deny--then I am not his.
They did not tell you that, I am sure. They did not even hint it."

"No. You have escaped the least breath of scandal."

"Be sure that I have. And I shall continue to escape it. I recollect
that you once declared I was cold, and that my coldness would prove a
safeguard. 'It is very protective to a woman,' you said."

"Quote me in full or not at all," he corrected, with a grim pleasantry.
"I said that it is very protective to a woman--while it lasts."

"True," returned Claire. "And it _has_ lasted. I prophesied that it
would last, and I was right.... By the way, from whom have you learned
all these important items? Perhaps from your sister. She is not my
friend."

Thurston started a little. "She is not your enemy?" he said, putting the
words as a distinct question.

"I hope not. But I am by no means sure. Thus far she has held herself
aloof from me. She has not openly opposed me, but she has behaved with
telling reserve. Everybody else has paid me tribute, so to speak. No, I
am wrong. There is one other woman--her cousin, Mrs. Lee."

"Of course you know why poor Sylvia would be your foe. She is madly in
love with Goldwin; she has been for years. You must have cost her dire
pangs."

Claire chose to ignore this last statement. "I think your sister
dislikes me from pride," she said. "I mean pride of family." Here she
paused for a moment, and seemed almost bashfully reluctant to proceed.
But her hesitation had in it a gentle, unassuming modesty; it sprang
wholly from unwillingness to touch on a subject which she knew that only
the most delicate tact should deal with, if to deal with it at all were
not folly and rashness. "Your sister found out," she softly continued,
"that you had liked me enough to ask me to be your wife. Heaven knows,
Beverley Thurston, that _I_ did not tell her!"

Thurston looked very grave. "I told her," he said. "Or rather, she drew
it from me. I was foolish to let her. Cornelia is so clever.... Well,"
he suddenly went on, with an unusual show of animation, "do you mean
that she accused you of having rejected me?"

"She did not put it in the form of an accusation. She stated it. Wait; I
will tell you more; I will tell when, where, and how it all happened."

Claire did so. He listened with deep attention. She narrated the whole
episode of her well-remembered conversation with his sister in the
dining-room at the Coney Island hotel.

"Ah, what a woman that sister of mine is!" he exclaimed, in his subdued
way, as Claire finished. "I must talk with her. I dine there to-night. I
will find out if this knowledge has been at the root of her late
behavior."

Claire laid her gloved hand lightly on his sleeve. "I think it best to
say nothing. I feel that you are my friend--always my friend. As such
you will more discreetly let matters rest where they are."

"Let matters rest where they are?" he repeated.

"Yes." Her face broke into a smile as she spoke the next words. "Mrs.
Van Horn--the great Mrs. Van Horn--has withdrawn her disapprobation. The
day after to-morrow she and Mrs. Lee lunch with me. It is a ladies'
lunch. You have no idea how monstrously important an event her
attendance is to be. It is my crowning glory. After that I shall have no
more worlds to conquer. She is actually coming; I have it in her own
graceful handwriting. Frankly, I am quite serious. If you had followed
affairs, if you hadn't been off in Europe for months, you would
understand the momentous nature of your sister's acceptance."

Claire rose as she ended her last sentence. The conservatory was quite
empty of guests; the waning winter sunlight told of the hour for
departure. "It is time to go," she now continued. "Remember, whenever
you come to me you will be welcome. I shall be at the opera to-night.
Drop into my box if you get away from your sister's dinner before ten,
and feel like hearing some music."

Thurston replied that he would certainly do so. But, as it happened, he
partially failed to keep his promise. Mrs. Van Horn's dinner was
attended by several guests. He wanted to talk with his sister, and it
was somewhat late before he found the desired opportunity.

"Did you enjoy it, Beverley?" said his hostess, referring to the dinner.
They were in the front drawing-room together. Thurston had seated
himself near the fire-place, in a big chair of gilded basket-work with
soft plush cushions. He was playing with a small locket at his
waistcoat, and his look did not lift itself from the bauble as Mrs. Van
Horn spoke. She came near his chair and stood at his side for a moment.
She had been giving her servants a few orders relative to the morrow.
She looked very well that evening. The color of her gown was a sort of
tea-rose pink, and she wore a collar of large pearls about her throat,
and ornaments of pearls in her blonde hair. While her brother was
answering, she dropped in a chair quite near his own.

"I thought it about as successful as your dinners always are," he said.
"Everything went off to perfection, of course.... No, I forget; there
was one drawback. A serious one."

"What was it?"

"Sylvia Lee."

"You never could endure Sylvia," said Mrs. Van Horn, in her grand, cool,
suave way.

"I think her abominable," replied Thurston. "Her affectations irritate
and depress me. They appear to grow with age, too. She behaved more like
a contortionist than ever, to-night. But it is not only the wretched,
sensational bad taste of her poses and costumes. It is a conviction that
she is as treacherous as the serpent she resembles. And then her
religious attitudinizing ... has she got over that yet? I suppose not."

Mrs. Van Horn, who would sharply have resented these biting comments if
any lips but her brother's had delivered them, now answered with only a
faint touch of petulance. "You will never believe any good of Sylvia, so
it is useless to tell you how unjust I consider your opinions. But she
is more passionately absorbed in charities and religious devotion than
ever before. If you could see some of the people whom she goes among,
and whom she has constantly visiting her in her own house, you would be
forced to grant that the shallow hypocrisy with which you charge her is
a most sincere and active almsgiving."

"Say notorious, too. She's a Pharisee to the tips of her fingers. I
should like to know of one good deed that she has ever performed in
secret. She parades her piety and her benevolence just as she does her
newest fantasies in dressmaking. She thinks them picturesque. She would
rather die than not be picturesque, and I believe that when she does die
she will make some _ante-mortem_ arrangements about an abnormal coffin.
It's a marvel to me that Stuart Goldwin should have put up with her
nonsense as long as he did.... By the way, how does she stand his
desertion?"

"Has he deserted her?"

"Oh, come, now, Cornelia, you know quite well that he has." Thurston was
looking directly at his sister for the first time since their interview
had begun.

Mrs. Van Horn gave a light, soft laugh.

"You mean for Mrs. Hollister, Beverley?"

"Of course I do."

"I see that you have picked up some precious bits of gossip since you
got back." He was watching her very closely, and perceived, knowing her
as scarcely any one else knew her, that a severe annoyance dwelt beneath
those last words. She slightly tossed her delicate head. "You are so
relentless with poor Sylvia that I naturally don't want to feed the fuel
of your disapprobation. Well, then, let me admit that Goldwin _is_
devoted to your former friend."

"Say my present friend, if you please, Cornelia."

He saw a little gleam, like that of lit steel, creep into her pale-blue
eyes. "Oh, then you still call her that?"

"Most certainly. Should I withdraw my friendship because she refused to
marry me when I was old enough to be her father? On the contrary, I am
liberal enough to applaud her good sense."

"Beverley," exclaimed his sister, in tones of harsh disgust, "how can
you show so little self-respect?"

He saw that she had grown pale with anger. He set his eyes upon her face
with a fresh intentness of gaze. He had a distinct object in view, and
he was determined, if possible, to reach it. He leaned much closer
toward her while he said, in slow, deliberative tones:--

"My self-respect, or lack of it, is quite my own affair. Pray understand
that. You never forgave Claire Twining for refusing me, Cornelia. You
need not attempt to deceive me there. I repeat, you never forgave her.
Your pride would not allow you."

Her voice shook as she answered him. She was bitterly distressed and
agitated. He had touched an old wound, but one which had not healed. She
loved him as she had never loved any other man. He was part of herself;
his blood was hers; he belonged to the egotism which was her ruling
quality. Her speech now betrayed neither wrath nor disgust; it was full
of mournful dismay. The times in her life had been rare when her glacial
composure had shown such excessive disturbance.

"I concede, Beverley, that it hurt me very deeply to realize your
humiliation. It seemed to me then, as it seems to me now, that a girl of
her class should have been glad to marry a man of your place and name.
What was she? And what were and are _you_?"

"Pshaw! I was and am an elderly, faded old fellow."

Mrs. Van Horn rose from her chair. She was visibly trembling. "You could
have given that adventuress a position far more stable than she holds
now, as the wife of a lucky stock-gambler!"

Thurston remained seated. "You call her an adventuress," he said, "and
yet you visit her--you put her on a social equality with yourself."

During the vigilant scrutiny with which he accompanied these words, Mrs.
Van Horn's brother decided that in all his experience of her he had
never seen her show such perturbation as now.

"People acknowledge her," she said, a little hoarsely. "I have never
been to her entertainments. I have never accepted her, so to speak. If
you inquire, you will find this to be true. It is current talk, my
reserve, my disapproval."

He shot his answer with quiet speed, meaning that it should hit and
tell. "You are going to the lunch that she gives on Friday. I happen to
be certain of this--unless you have had the wanton rudeness to write her
that you would go, while meaning to remain away." He rose as he spoke
the last word. Brother and sister faced each other. There was a tranquil
challenge in Thurston's full and steady gaze.

She recoiled a little. "I--well, yes--I did intend to go," she replied,
below her breath, and actually stammering.

"What is your reason for going," he questioned, "if you despise and
dislike her so?"

She threw back her head; her self-possession had returned, and with it a
stately indignation.

"You are insolent," she said.

Thurston broke into a hard laugh.

"Yes," he exclaimed, "I am insolent to the great lady because I detect
her on the verge of some petty revenge! Oh, I know you too well, my dear
sister," he went on, with stern irony. "You can't rebuff me in that way.
There is something behind this fine condescension. Sylvia Lee and you
have been putting your heads together. Your revenge and her jealousy
will make a rather dangerous alliance. You are both going to the lunch.
You are both employing a new line of tactics. What does it mean? I
demand to know. I have a right to know."

He was very impressive, yet his voice was hardly raised above that of
ordinary speech. She had always admired his gravity and calm; he had
been for years her ideal and model gentleman; she hated excitement of
any sort, and to see it in him gave her a positive feeling of awe.

"Beverley," she murmured, half brokenly, "remember that if I had any
thought of punishment toward the woman who trifled with you and humbled
you, it has been because I am your sister--because I was fond of
you--because" ...

He interrupted her with a quick, waving gesture of the hand. "You talk
insanely," he said. "She neither trifled with me nor humbled me. I was a
fool even to tell you how sensibly she acted. What you call your
fondness is nothing but your miserable pride. I see clearly that you
have some detestable plan. Do you refuse to tell me what it is?--me, who
have the right to learn it!"

Every trace of color had left her cheeks, and she was biting her lips.
There was very little of the great lady remaining in her mien or visage,
now.

"You have twice spoken of your right," she faltered. "On what is such a
right based? How can you possibly possess it? You are nothing to her.
You are neither her husband nor"--

"I am her lover," he broke in. "I am her lover, reverent, devout, loyal,
and shall be while we both live! She is the most charming woman I have
ever met. I met her too late, or she would be my wife now. It was not
her fault that she refused me. She is not a bit to blame. Good Heavens!
have I the monstrous arrogance to assume that she should have married an
old fossil like myself because I was of a little importance in the
world? No, Cornelia, that preposterous assumption belongs to you. It is
just like you. And you call it love--sisterly love. I call it the very
apex of intolerable pride. But admit for the moment that it is I and not
yourself whom you care for. Will you tell me, on that account, what it
is you mean or meant to do?"

Before he had finished, Mrs. Van Horn had sunk into a chair and covered
her face with both hands. Her sobs presently sounded, violent and rapid.
In these brief seconds she was shedding more tears than had left her
cold eyes for many years past.

"I mean to do nothing--nothing!" she answered, with a gasp almost like
that which leaves us when in straits for breath.

"Do you give me your sacred promise," he said, "that this is true?"

The words appeared to horrify her. She looked at him with streaming
eyes, while a positive shudder shook her frame.

"Oh, Beverley, what degradation this seems to me! Degradation of
_yourself_! You may call me as proud as you choose. It is no insult. It
is a compliment, even. I am proud of _being_ proud. I had never given up
hope that you would marry some woman of good birth, good antecedents,
your equal and mine--young enough, too, to bear you children. I am
childless, myself--how I would have loved your children! Their own
mother would not have loved them more. Every penny of my large fortune
should have gone to them. This has been my dream for years past, and now
you shatter it by telling me that an upstart, a parvenu, a nobody from
nowhere, holds you ensnared beyond escape!"

Thurston was not at all touched. This outburst, so uncharacteristic and
so unexpected, did not bear for him a grain of pathos. He saw behind it
nothing save an implacable selfishness that chose to misname itself
affection. The ambition of Claire saddened him to contemplate; it had so
rich a potentiality for its background. He was forever seeing the true
and wise woman that she might have been. Even the nettles in her soil
flourished with a certain beauty of their own, proving its fertile
resources if more wholesome growths had taken root there. But in
Cornelia Van Horn's nature all was barren and arid. The very genuineness
of her present grief was its condemnation. Her tears were as chilly to
him as the light of her bravest diamonds; they had something of the same
hard sparkle; she wept them only from her brain, as it were; her heart
did not know that she was shedding them.

"The bitter epithets which you apply to my _ensnarer_," he said, with a
momentary curve of the lips too austere to be termed a smile, "make me
the more suspicious that you harbor against her designs of practical
spite. I want your promise that you will refrain from the least active
injury--that you will never use the great social power you possess,
either by speech or deed, to her disadvantage. Do you give me this
promise, or do you refuse it? If the latter, everything is at an end
between us. The monetary trusts you have consigned to me shall be at
once transferred to whatever lawyer you may appoint as their recipient,
and from to-night henceforward we meet as total strangers."

"A quarrel between you and me, Beverley!" said his sister, trying to
choke back her sobs, and rising with a cobweb handkerchief pressed in
fluttered alternation to either humid eye. "A family quarrel! And I have
been so guarded--so careful that the world should hold us and our name
in perfect esteem!--Oh, it is horrible!"

"I did not infer that it would be pleasant," he answered. "You yourself
have power to avert or bring it about. All remains with yourself."

"I--I must make you a promise," she retorted, in what would have been,
if louder, a peevish wail, "just as though I had really intended
some--some gross, revengeful act! You--you are ungentlemanly to impose
such a condition! You--you are out of your senses! That creature has
bewitched you!"

He saw her eye, tearful though it was, quail before his own narrowed and
penetrating look. He felt his suspicion strengthen within him.

"I do impose the condition," he said, perhaps more determinedly than he
had yet spoken. "I do exact the promise. Now decide, Cornelia. There is
no hard threat on my part, remember. You don't like the idea of an open
rupture with me, you don't think it would be respectable; it would make
a little mark on your ermine--a _défaut de la cuirasse_, so to speak.
But your beloved world would possibly side with you and against me; you
would not lose a supporter; you would still remain quite the grand
personage you are. Only, I should never darken your doors again; that is
all. Come, now, be good enough to decide."

She sank into her seat once more; her eyes had drooped themselves; the
tears were standing on her pale cheeks. "I did not know you had it in
you to be so cruel," she said, uttering the words with apparent
difficulty.

"I am afraid I always knew that you had it in you," he returned. "Come,
if you please.... Your answer."

"You--you mean my promise?"

"Yes. Your faithful and solemn promise. We need not go over its
substance again. If you break it after giving it I shall not reproach
you; I shall simply act. You understand how; I have told you."

She was silent for some time. She had got her handkerchief so twisted
between her fingers that they threatened to tear its frail fabric.

Without raising her eyes, and in a voice that was very sombre but had
lost all trace of tremor, she at length murmured:--

"Well, I promise faithfully. I will do nothing--say nothing. My conduct
shall be absolutely neutral--null. Are you satisfied?"

"Entirely," he said.

He at once left her. He reached the opera just as it was ending. Claire,
in the company of two ladies and two gentlemen, and attended by
Goldwin, was leaving her box when he contrived to find her. Hollister
had purchased one of the larger proscenium boxes some time ago; he had
given a great price for it to an owner who could not resist the princely
terms offered.

"You are very late," Claire said, giving him her hand, while Goldwin,
standing behind her, dropped a great fur-lined cloak over her shoulders,
and hid the regal costliness of her dress, with its laces, flowers, and
jewels. "Have you been dining with your sister all this time, or were
you here for the last act, but talking with older friends elsewhere?"

"No," replied Thurston, who had already exchanged a nod of greeting with
Goldwin. He lowered his voice so that Claire alone could hear it. "I
arrived but a few minutes ago. I have been talking seriously with my
sister. You were quite right. She has withdrawn her disapprobation. You
have conquered her, as you conquer everybody."

He saw the faint yet meaning flash that left her dark-blue eyes, and he
read clearly, too, the significance of her bright smile, as she said:--

"Ah, you reassure me. For I had my doubts; I confess it, now."

"So had I," he returned. "But they are at rest forever, as I want yours
to be." ...

At an early hour, the next morning, Mrs. Van Horn surprised her friend
and kinswoman, Mrs. Ridgeway Lee, in the latter's pretty and quaint
_boudoir_, that was Japanese enough, as regarded hangings and
adornments, to have been the sacred retreat of some almond-eyed Yeddo
belle.

Mrs. Lee had had her coffee, and was deep in one of Zola's novels when
her friend was announced. Her coupé would appear at twelve, and take her
to a certain small religious hospital of which she was one of the most
assiduous patrons; but she always read Zola, or some author of a similar
Gallic intensity, while she digested her coffee.

She had concealed the novel, however, by the time that Mrs. Van Horn had
swept her draperies between the Oriental jars and screens.

"I have come to talk with you about that affair--that plan, Sylvia,"
said her visitor, dropping into a chair.

"You mean ... to-morrow, Cornelia?"

"Yes.... By the way, have you seen the morning papers?"

"I glanced over one of them--the 'Herald,' I think. It said, in the
society column, that I wore magenta at the Charity Ball last night. As
if I would disgrace myself with that hideous color! These monsters of
the newspapers ought to be suppressed in some way."

"You didn't think so when they described your flame-colored plush gown
so accurately last Tuesday. However, you deserve to be ridiculed for
going to those vulgar public balls."

"But this was for charity, and"--

"Yes, I know. Don't let us talk of it. If you had read the paper more
closely you would have seen the statement, given with a great air of
truth, that Herbert Hollister's millions are flowing away from him at a
terrible rate, and that to-night may see him almost ruined."

"How dreadful!" said Mrs. Lee, in her slow way, but noticeably changing
color.

Mrs. Van Horn gave a high, hard laugh. "Of course you are sorry."

"Sorry!" softly echoed Mrs. Lee, uncoiling herself from one peculiar
pose on the yellow-and-black lounge where she was seated, and gently
writhing into another. "Of course I am sorry, Cornelia. Although you
must grant that _she_ merits it. To desert her poor, ignorant, miserable
mother! To run away and leave her own flesh and blood in starvation!"
Here Mrs. Lee heaved an immense sigh. "Ah, Providence finds us all out,
sooner or later! If that wicked woman's sin is punished by her husband's
ruin, who shall say that she has not richly deserved it? But in spite of
this, Cornelia dear, _our_ stroke of punishment will not be too severe.
With regard to my own share in our coming work, I feel that I am to be
merely the instrument--the humble instrument--of Heavenly justice
itself!"

"No doubt," replied Mrs. Van Horn, with frigid dryness. "But you must do
it all alone to-morrow, Sylvia. I have come to tell you so. I can have
no part whatever in the proceeding. However it is carried out--whether
you bring Mrs. Hollister face to face with her plebeian parent or no, I
shall be absent. It is true, I accepted for the lunch. But I shall be
ill at the last moment. I withdraw from the whole ingenious plot. I
shan't see the little _coup de théâtre_ at all. I wish that I could. You
know I have never forgiven the refusal of Beverley any more than you
have forgiven ... well, something else, my dear Sylvia. But I must
remain aloof; it is settled; there is no help for it."

Mrs. Lee opened her big black eyes very wide indeed. "Have you lost your
senses, Cornelia?" she queried, with her grotesque, unfailing drawl.
"What! After my wonderful meeting with Mrs. Twining at the hospital!
After your exultant conclusion that we had far better fix the stigma of
ingratitude and desertion upon her shameless daughter with as much
publicity as possible! After our talks, our arrangements, our
anticipations! After all this, you are _not going to-morrow_! I don't
understand. I am sure that I must be dreaming!"

"Let me explain, then," said Mrs. Van Horn, with a quiver in her usually
serene tones that was a residue of last evening's dramatic defeat and
surrender. "For once in my life, Sylvia, I--I have found my match, I
have failed to hold my own, I have been ignominiously beaten. And the
victor is my own brother, Beverley."

She went on speaking for some time longer, with no actual interruption
on the part of her companion, though with very decided signs of
consternation and disapproval.

"Oh, Cornelia, it is too bad!" exclaimed Mrs. Lee, when the recital was
finished. "He couldn't have meant that he would cut his own sister! What
_is_ to be done? Well, I suppose it must all be given up. And it would
have been such a triumph! And she deserves it so--running away from her
own mother whom she had always hated and disobeyed! We have that poor,
horrid, common, but pitiable Mrs. Twining's own word for it, you know.
And she would have been such a magnificent spectre at the banquet! She
would have risen up like Banquo, ill-dressed, haggard, rheumatic,
pathetic. Everybody would have denounced this unnatural daughter when
they saw the meeting. I can't realize that you, _you_ could let it all
be nipped in the bud!"

"It isn't all nipped in the bud, Sylvia," said Mrs. Van Horn, sharply.

"But it _is_! Why isn't it? You certainly don't expect me to carry it
out alone?"

Mrs. Van Horn decisively nodded. "Yes, Sylvia," she answered, "that is
just the point. I do expect you to carry it out alone. You are clever
enough, quite clever enough, and" ... Here the speaker paused for a
moment, and then crisply, emphatically added: "And after all is said,
remember one thing. It is this: You have a much larger debt to pay her
than I have."

A malign look stole into Mrs. Lee's black eyes. She was thinking of
Stuart Goldwin. She was thinking of the man whom she had passionately
loved--whom she passionately loved still.

"I believe you are right, Cornelia," she at length replied, in her usual
protracted and lingering style. She had got herself, as she spoke, into
one of her most involved and tortuous attitudes; she had never looked
more serpentine than now.



XIX.


Claire felt, on this same day, like casting about in her mind for some
pretext by which she might postpone her grand luncheon on the morrow.
She had passed a sleepless night, having gone to bed without seeing
Hollister. In the morning she had avoided meeting him. She had no
comfort to administer, no reparation to offer. The mask had been
stripped from her face; the comedy had been played to its end. She had a
sense of worthlessness, depravity, sin. At the same time she recklessly
told herself that no atonement was in her power. A woful weakness, which
took the form of a woful strength, over-mastered her as the hours grew
older. Her thirst for new excitements deepened with her misery and
anxiety. But she sat in her dressing-room or paced the floor till past
three in the afternoon. There were numberless people whom she might have
visited; there were several receptions that afternoon at which her
presence would have been held important by their respective givers. Even
the known jeopardy of her husband's position would have heightened the
value of her appearance, adding to her popularity the spice of curiosity
as well.

More than once she said to herself: 'I will go to one of these places. I
will show them how quietly I bear the strain. If by to-morrow no crash
has come, they will admire my nerve and courage. For if I once went,
they should never discover a trace of worriment or suspense. I think the
fact of my being closely watched would even make me talk better and
smile brighter. The wear and tear of the whole thing might make me
forget a little, too. And I want so to forget, if I can!'

But she did not go. The morning papers lay on a near table. She had read
every word that they had to tell her of the fierce financial turmoil.
Some of the stern figures they quoted made her heart flutter with
affright; some of their ominous and snarling editorials wrought an added
discomfort.

If Hollister weathered the storm, she decided, all would remain as it
had been before. Or, if not precisely that, the general outward effect
would continue quite the same. She would shine among her courtiers; she
would dazzle and rule. He would feel his wound, now that he knew the
pitiless truth of her indifference, but he would make the engrossing
ventures of his business-life drown its pain until this had perhaps
ceased forever. They would drift further apart than they had ever done
in recent months, but to the eye of the world there would be no
severance. It was possible that he would vex her with no more
reproaches. It was probable that as time passed he would forget that he
had ever had any reproaches to offer.

While Claire's reflections, nervous and fitful, took by degrees some
such shape as this, she found a desperate, yearning pleasure in the hope
that she might still drink the _vin capiteux_ of worldly success. She
almost felt like flinging herself on her knees and praying that the
delicious cup might not forever be dashed from her lips. To this stage
had her triumphs brought her. She was the same woman who had made those
resolves of abstinence and reformation which her biographer has already
duly chronicled. She was the same woman whose conscience had smitten her
with a sense of higher and purer things when the farewell of Thurston
warned her by such appalling remonstrance, and when she found herself
confronting her father's placid tomb amid the solemnities of Greenwood.
And yet how abysmal was the difference between then and now! The chance
of radical change in heart, aim, and ideal had then been given her; but
now all thought of such change woke only a willful, imperious dissent.
Her vision turned upon her own soul to-day, and showed her its mighty
lapse from grace, its supine and incapable droop. The debasing spell had
been woven; what counterspell was potent enough to break it? Occasional
flashes of regret and aspiration might well assail her spirit, or of
recognition that she had lost a high contentment in gaining a low one.
This was natural enough. It has been aptly put into metaphor that the
saddest place in Purgatory is that from which the walls of Paradise are
visible.

By four o'clock Hollister had not returned. But Mrs. Diggs had made her
appearance instead, and Claire welcomed it as a happy relief from the
torment of her own thoughts. "My dear," said this lady, "there has been
nothing so dreadful in Wall Street since the crisis of the famed Black
Friday. My poor Manhattan came home at about three o'clock, utterly
jaded out. I made him go to bed. He could scarcely speak to me. I asked
him about your husband's affairs, but he gave me only mumbling answers;
excitement had put him into a kind of stupor, don't you know?"

"Yes," assented Claire, understanding the nature of the collapse
perfectly. "So he told you nothing of Herbert's affairs? Nothing
whatever?"

"Nothing that I could really make out. I should be in a wild state, and
have a feeling about the soles of my feet as if I were already going
barefoot, don't you know, if I hadn't long ago insisted upon Manhattan's
putting a very large and comfortable sum safely away in my name."

Claire thought of the house that had been assigned to her, of her
jewels, of her costly apparel. But to remember these merely aggravated
her distress. What a meagre wreck they would leave from the largess of
her past prosperity!

"I wouldn't be awfully worried, if I were you," continued Mrs. Diggs.
"If the worst _should_ come, your husband will be sure to save something
handsome. These great speculators always do. Some odd thousands always
turn up after the storm has blown over. Perhaps he will begin again, and
do grander things than ever before."

"That is cold consolation," said Claire, with a bitter smile.

"I know it is for _you_, Claire, dear, who have been tossing away
hundreds to my dimes. I might say horrid things, but I won't. I might
talk of retribution for your extravagances, and all that. But I so
detest the _je vous l'avais bien dit_ style of rebuke. And I don't want
to rebuke you a bit. You have your faults, of course. But you're always
my sweet, beautiful Claire. My heart will ache for you if anything
frightful _should_ happen. I say it to your face, dear, as I would say
it behind your back, that you are the one woman of all others whom money
perfectly adorns. You spent it like a queen, and you looked like a queen
while you spent it. You remember how I used to gush over Cornelia Van
Horn's grand manner? It could never hold a candle to yours. I'm afraid I
abused you like a regular pickpocket the other night. Oh, yes, I pitched
into you just as hard as I could. But at the same time I was thinking
how well you carried your worldliness--what a kind of a _beau rôle_ you
made of it, don't you know? And whatever _should_ come, Claire, always
recollect that I'll stick to you, my dear, through thick and thin!"

The vernacular turn taken by Mrs. Diggs during this eager outburst gave
it a spontaneity and naturalness that more than once brought the mist to
Claire's eyes. She felt the true ring of friendly sympathy in every word
that was spoken; the touches of slang pleased her; they were like the
angularities of the lady's physical shape, severe and yet not
ungraceful. She was sorry when her visitor rose to go, and had a sense
of dreary loneliness after she had departed.

It would soon be the hour for dinner. But she could not dine. She knew
that the decorous butler who waited on her would perceive her efforts to
choke down the proffered food. Perhaps he would tingle with secret dread
regarding his next wages. He read the newspapers, of course; everybody
read them nowadays; and her husband's impending ruin had been their
chief and hideous topic.

As the chill winter light in the room turned blue before it wholly died,
she sat and thought of how many people would be glad to hear the very
worst. They seemed to her a pitiless legion. Then, as she thought of
how many would be sorry, three names rose uppermost in her mind: Mrs.
Diggs, Thurston, and Stuart Goldwin. Yes, Goldwin surely would have no
exultant feeling. He was full of arts and falsities, but he could not
fail to regret any calamity that brought with it her own sharp
discomfiture.

'He has lately been Herbert's rival in finance,' she told her own
thoughts. 'Circumstance has in a manner pitted them against each other.
Herbert rose so quickly. They have not been enemies, but they have stood
on opposite sides in not a few matters of speculation. Still, I am sure
he will lament the downfall, if it really comes. He will do so for my
sake, if for no other reason. I should have questioned him more closely
last night at the opera. I am sure he wanted me to speak with more
freedom of the threatening disaster. I should have asked him'--

And then Claire's distressed ruminations were cut short by the quiet
entrance of her husband. The door of the chamber had been ajar.
Hollister simply pushed it a little further open, and crossed the
threshold.

The dusk had begun, but it was still far from making his face in any way
obscure to her. As she looked at it, while slowly rising from her chair,
she saw that it had never, to her knowledge, been so wan and worn as
now. He paused before her, and at once spoke.

"Have you heard?" he said.

She felt herself grow cold. "What?" she asked.

"I'm cleaned out. Everything has gone. I thought you might have seen the
evening papers. They are full of it. Of course they don't know the real
truth. Some of them say that I have five millions hidden away." He
laughed here, and the laugh was bleak though low. "But I tell you the
plain truth, Claire--there's nothing left. The truth is best; don't you
think so?"

He was steadily watching her, as he thus spoke, and the detected irony
of his words pierced her like a knife. A wistful distress was in the
frank blue of his eyes; they seemed to reflect from her own spirit the
wrong that she had done him.

"Yes, Herbert," she answered, still keeping her seat, "I think that the
truth is always best."

A great sigh left his lips. He put both hands behind him, and began
slowly pacing the floor, with lowered head. While thus engaged, he went
on speaking.

"I can't think how I ever shot up as I did. I never was a very bright
fellow at Dartmouth. I always had pluck enough, but I never showed any
great nerve. Wall Street brought out a new set of faculties, somehow.
And then everybody liked me; I was popular; that had a great deal to do
with it, I suppose--that and a wonderful run of luck at the start. And
then there was one thing more--one very important thing, too. I see now
what a tremendous incentive it really was. I mean your wish to rise and
rule people. If it hadn't been for that, I'd have let many a big chance
slip."

He paused now, standing close beside his wife's chair. "I was always
weak where you were concerned," he said, regarding her very intently,
and with a cloud on his usually clear brow that bespoke suffering rather
than sternness. "You know that, Claire. I yielded always; I let you wind
me round your finger--I was so fond of the finger. If you had said,
'Herbert, do this or that folly,' I'd have done it, and it wouldn't have
seemed half so much a folly because of your loved command. Is not this
true?"

He came still closer to her after he had uttered the last sentence. He
was so close that his person grazed her dress.

Claire was very pale, and her eyes were shining. "It is perfectly true,"
she answered him.

Hollister's tones instantly changed. They were broken, hoarse, and of
fervid melancholy. "Perfectly true. Yes, you admit it. You know that I
am right. I gave you everything--love, interest, energy, respect,
obedience. And what did you give me? Your marriage-vows, Claire!--were
those falsehoods? Speak and tell me! I never thought so till yesterday.
Good God, woman! I never thought about it at all. You were my wife; you
were my Claire. You were stronger in nature than I, and I loved your
strength. I loved to have you lead, and to follow where you led. But
your love--oh, I counted on that as securely as we count on the sun in
heaven! And yesterday the truth burst on me! It wasn't I that you had
cared for. It was the high place I could put you in, the dresses and
diamonds I could buy for you, the"--

He suddenly broke off. A great excitement was now in his visage, his
voice, his whole manner. Whether from pain or wrath, it seemed to her
that his eyes had taken a much darker tint, and that an unwonted spark,
chill and keen, lit them.

"If it all _is_ true," he went on, speaking much more slowly, and like a
man who breathes hard without openly showing it, "then I thank God that
no child has been born of you and me!"

She sat quite still. She was utterly conscience-stricken. From all the
facile vocabulary of feminine self-excuse her bewildered and shamed soul
could shape no sentence either of propitiation or denial. At such a time
she felt the infamy, even the farce of lying to him. And how could she
respond with any sufficiency, any gleam of comforting assurance, unless
she did lie?

"You say that I led you into this disaster, Herbert," she presently
responded, with an effort, and more than a successful one, to steady her
voice. "I don't deny it, but at the same time remember that my
forethought provided for us both in a case of just the present sort. I
have the other house, you know. Its sale will bring us something. And
then there are all my jewels--and"--

His eyes flashed and his lip curled. "You talk in that business-like
style," he cried, "when I am asking you if you ever really loved me! Is
your evasion an answer, Claire? _Were_ your marriage-vows falsehoods?"

His hand grasped her wrist, though not with violence. She rose,
unsteadily, and shook the grasp off.

"Oh, Herbert," she said, "I never saw you like this before! Let us think
of what we can do in case all _is_ really lost."

He withdrew from her, breaking into a hollow laugh. He stared at her
with dilated, accusing eyes.

"You don't dare tell me. But I read it, as I read it yesterday.... What
can we do? Ah! you're not the woman to live on a thousand or two a year.
You want fine things to wear and to eat. You want your jewels,
too--don't sell them, for you couldn't get along without them, now." He
kept silence for a moment, and then hurried with swift steps toward the
door, again pausing. A kind of madness, that was born of an agony,
possessed him and visibly showed its sway. "Get some one else to put you
back into luxury," he went on, lifting one hand toward his throat, as
though to make the words less husky that were leaping from his lips.
"Get Goldwin to do it. Yes, Goldwin. You've only to nod and he'll kneel
to you--as I knelt. Perhaps he's got from you what I never could get.
You know what I mean--I've told you."

He passed at once from the room, flinging the door shut behind him. The
room was in dimness by this time. Claire almost staggered to a lounge,
and sank within it. His wild insult had dizzied her.

He had not meant a word of it. He was tortured by the thought that she
had never cared for him. He had used the first fierce reproach that his
sorrow and exasperation could hit upon. He went to his own apartments,
dressed, and then left the house. He forgot that he had not dined, but
remembered only that there might be some sort of forlorn financial hope
discovered by a certain assemblage of men less deeply involved than
himself, yet all sufferers in a similar way, which would take place
privately that same evening at a popular hotel not far distant. All
recollection of having suggested an infidelity to Claire quite escaped
from his perturbed and over-wrought brain. The piercing realization that
she had never loved him still continued its torment. But he failed to
recall that the desperate sarcasm of his mood had ever hurled at her the
name of Goldwin.

A knock at the door of the darkened room waked Claire from a kind of
stupor. The knock came from her maid, and it acted with decisive
arousing force. Lights were soon lit, and dinner, that evening, was
ordered to become a canceled ceremony.

"You may bring me some _bouillon_, Marie," Claire directed. "That, and
nothing else."

She drank the beverage when it was brought, and changed her dress. The
glass showed her a pale but tranquil face.

'I would have clung to him if he would have let me,' incessantly passed
through her thoughts. 'But now he tells me that another can give me the
luxury that I have lost. He is right. Goldwin will come this evening; I
am sure of it.'

Goldwin did come, and she received him with a mien of ice. Underneath
her coldness there was fire enough, but she kept its heat well hidden.

"I came to talk intimately with you," he at length said, "and you treat
me as if we had once met, somewhere, for about ten minutes."

The smouldering force of Claire's inward excitement started into flame
at these words. "I know with what _intimate_ feelings you came," she
replied, meeting his soft glance with one of cold opposition. "You want
to tell me that you can set Herbert right with his creditors."

"Yes," he answered, slowly, averting his eyes, "I did have that desire.
Is there anything wrong about it?"

"Yes. You should not have come to me. You should have gone to him."

"Why?" he asked.

"Why?" repeated Claire, breaking into a sharp laugh. A moment later she
tossed her head with a careless disdain. "I'm not going to tell you why.
You know well enough. See Herbert. Ask him if he will let you help him."

"You are very much excited."

"I have good reason to be."

"You mean this dreadful change in your husband's affairs?"

"Yes, I mean that, and I mean more. You mustn't question me."

"Very well, I won't."

But he soon did, breaking the silence that ensued between them with
gently harmonious voice, and fixing on Claire's half-averted face a look
that seemed to brim with sympathy.

"Would Hollister take my help if I offered it? Does he not dislike me? I
believe so--I am nearly sure so. You tap the floor with your foot. You
are miserable, and I understand your misery. So am I miserable--on your
account. I know all the ins and outs of your distress ... ah, do not
fancy that I fail to do so. He has said hard things--undeserved things.
He has perhaps mixed my name with his ... what shall I call them? ...
reproaches, impertinences? You have had a quarrel--a quarrel that has
been wholly on his side. He has accused you of not caring enough for
him. It may be that he has accused you of not caring at all. Of course
he has dilated on your love for the pomp and glitter of things. As if he
himself did not love them! As if he himself has not given all of us
proof that he loved them very much! Well; let that pass. You are to
renounce everything. You are to dine on humble fare, dress in plain
clothes, sink into obscurity. This is what he demands. Or, if it is not
demanded, it is implied. And for what reason? Because he still sees you
are beautiful, attractive, one woman in ten thousand, and that having
gambled away every other pleasure in life he can still retain you."

Claire rose from the sofa on which they were both seated. She did not
look at Goldwin while she answered him. Her voice was so low that he
just caught her words and no more.

"To what does all this tend? Tell me. Tell me at once."

Goldwin in turn slowly rose while he responded: "I will tell you, if you
will tell me whether you love your husband well enough to share poverty
with him after he has insulted you."

"I did not say that he had insulted me."

"I infer it. Am I right or wrong?"

Still not looking at him, she made an impatient gesture with both hands.

"Allowing you are right. What then?"

He did not reply for several minutes. He was stroking his amber mustache
with one white, well-shaped hand; his eyes were now turned from hers,
hers from him.

"I shall go abroad in a short time. I shall go in less than a
fortnight," he said.

It was a most audacious thing to say, and he knew it thoroughly. It was
the bold stroke that must either annul his hopes completely, or feed
them with a fresh life.

Claire seemed to answer him only with the edges of her lips.

"How does that concern me?"

"In no way. I did not say it did. But you might choose to sail a week or
two later. Alone, of course. It would be Paris, with me. You have told
me that you wanted very much to see Paris."

She turned and faced him, then, more agitated than angry.

"You speak of my husband having insulted me. What are you doing now?"

"I am trying to save you."

"Good Heavens! from what?"

"From him. Listen. I did not mean for you to go directly to Paris. You
would travel. But at a certain date I could meet you there. I could meet
you with--well, with a document of importance."

"Explain. I don't understand you at all."

"Suppose I put the case in certain legal hands here. Suppose they worked
it up with skill and shrewdness. Suppose they gained it. Suppose they
secured a divorce between you and him on--grounds" ...

"Well? What grounds?"

"Of infidelity. You know the life he has lived. Or rather, you don't
know. He has been so gay, so prominent, of late, that almost any
well-feed lawyer could"--

Claire interrupted him, there. "Leave me at once," she said, pointing
toward the door. "Leave me. I order you to do it!"

He obeyed her, but stopped when he had nearly reached the threshold.

"As my wife," he said, "you would reign more proudly than you have ever
reigned yet. The moment you were free I would be so glad to make you
mine--you, the loveliest woman I ever knew, and the most finely,
strictly pure!"

"Leave me," she repeated; but he had quitted the room before her words
were spoken.

She glanced in the direction whence his voice had come to her, and then,
seeing that he was gone, she dropped back upon the sofa, and sat there,
staring straight ahead at nothing, with tight-locked hands and
colorless, alarmed face.



XX.


She heard Hollister reënter the house that night at a very late hour,
and pass to his own apartments. It was only after dawn that she obtained
a little restless and broken sleep. By nine o'clock she rang for her
coffee, and then, after forcing herself to swallow it, began to dress,
with her maid's assistance. Marie was a perfect servant. As she
performed with capable exactitude one after another careful duty, the
ease and charm of being thus waited upon appealed to Claire with an
ironical emphasis. The very softness and tasteful make of her garments
took a new and dreary meaning. She had forgotten for weeks the dainty
details of her late life, its elegance of tone, smoothness of movement,
nicety of balance. These features had grown customary and inconspicuous,
as cambric will in time grow familiar to the skin that has brushed
against coarser textures. But now the light, so to speak, had altered;
it was cloudy and stormful; it brought out in vivid relief what before
had been clad with the pleasant haze of habit. The very carpet beneath
Claire's tread took a reminding softness; the numberless attractions and
comforts of her chamber thrust forward special claims to her heed; even
the elaborate or simple utensils of her dressing-table had each its
distinct note of souvenir. She must so soon lose so much of it all!

As if by some automatic and involuntary process, memory slipped images
and pictures before her mental vision; she had noted them in the still,
dark hours of the previous night, and they remained unbanished now by
the glow of the wintry morning. She saw herself a child, cowed and
satirized by her coarse and domineering mother; she witnessed the
episode of her gentle father's firm and protective revolt; she lived
again through the prosperous rise of the family fortunes; she watched
herself brave and quell the insolence of Ada Gerrard, and slowly but
surely gain rank and recognition among those adverse and disdainful
schoolfellows; she endured anew the chagrin of subsequent decadence--the
commonness and the disrelish of her public school career, the
disappointment and monotony of her Jersey City experience, and then,
lastly, the laborious and deathly tedium of Greenpoint.... Here the
strange panorama would cease; the magic-lantern of reminiscence had no
more lenses in its shadowy repository; the actual took the place of
dream, and startled her by an aspect more unreal than though wrought
merely of recollection.

Had these recent weeks all been true? Had she climbed so high in fact
and not in fancy? Was the throne from which fate now gave harsh threat
of pushing her a throne not built of air, but material, tangible, solid?
The strangeness of her own history affected her in a purely objective
way. She seemed to stand apart from it and regard it as though it were
some lapse of singular country for which she had gained the sight-seer's
best vantage-point. Its acclivities were so sheer, its valleys were so
abrupt, it took such headlong plunges and made such unexpected ascents.

The discreet and sedulous Marie divined little of what engrossed her
mistress's mind, and withdrew in her wonted humility of courtesy when
Claire, no longer needing her service, at last dismissed her.

But before doing so, Claire took pains to learn that Hollister had not
yet descended for his breakfast, which of late he had usually eaten
alone in the great dining-room. She soon passed into her adjacent
boudoir, where fresh treasures and mementos addressed her through a
silent prophecy of coming loss.

Here was a writing-table, well supplied with various kinds of
note-paper, all bearing her initials in differing intertwisted devices.
Not long ago she had questioned her husband on the subject of the
Hollister crest; she would have been glad enough to receive from him
some clew that might lead to its discovery; but he had expressed frank
and entire ignorance regarding any such heraldic symbol.

Claire took a sheet of note paper, and in a hand that was just unsteady
enough to show her how strong an inward excitement was making stealthy
attack upon her nervous power, began a brief note to Stuart Goldwin.
When finished, the note (which bore no ceremonious prefix whatever, and
was unmarked by any date) ran as follows:--

     "The words which you chose to address to me last night have
     permanently ended our acquaintance. As a gentleman to a
     gentlewoman, you were impolite. As a man to a woman, you were
     far worse. I desire that you will not answer these few lines,
     and that when we meet again, if such a meeting should ever
     occur, you will expect from me no more sign of recognition than
     that which I would accord any one who had given me an
     unpardonable insult.

       C. H."

Claire sealed and directed this note. She did not send it, however.
After its completion she went downstairs into the dining-room.

Hollister was seated there, being served with breakfast. He had already
found it impossible to eat; he was sipping a second or third cup of
strong tea.

When his wife appeared, he slightly started. Claire went to the fire and
stood before it, letting its warmth and glow hold her in thrall for
quite a while. Her back was now turned to him; she was waiting for the
butler to depart. He presently did so, closing a door behind his exit
with just enough accentuation to make the sound convey decisive and
final import.

Claire then slowly turned, removing one foot from one of the polished
rods that bordered the flame-lit hearthstone. She looked straight at her
husband; she did not need to see how pale he was; her first look had
told her that. She had chosen to ignore all that he had said last night.
It did not cost her much effort to do this; she had too keen a sense of
her own wrong toward him not to condone the reckless way in which he had
coupled her name with Goldwin's. Besides, had not Goldwin's own words to
her, a little later, made that assault seem almost justified? She felt
nothing toward him save a great pity. Her pity sprang, too, from
remorse. She lacked all tenderness; this, joined with pity, would have
meant love. 'And I cannot love him!' she had already reflected. 'If I
only could, it would be so different. But I cannot.'

When she spoke, her words were very calm and firm. "I thought you might
have something more to tell me," she said. "I came down to see you
before you went away, for that reason. You said last night that
everything had gone. There will be a day or two left us, I suppose; I
mean a day or two of--possession."

He was stirring the tea with his spoon. His eyes were bent on the table
as he did so. He spoke without lifting them. "Oh, yes," he answered.
"Perhaps four or five days. They will seize the house, after that," he
went on, "and all the furniture and valuables. Of course they can't
touch what is really yours. I mean your diamonds, your dresses, _et
cetera_."

A pause followed. "To-day I have a luncheon-party," said Claire.

"Yes ... you told me. I remember."

"I hope nothing of ... of _that sort_ will happen to-day."

"No." He had taken his spoon from the cup, and was staring down at it,
as though he wanted to make sure of some flaw in its metal. His face was
not merely pale; it had the worn look of severe anxiety. "You can have
your luncheon-party with impunity. By the way, our own _chef_ gets it
up, doesn't he? You didn't have Delmonico or any one else in, did you?"

"No," she answered. "Pierre was to do it all. He had his full orders
several days ago."

A fleet, bitter smile crossed Hollister's lips. He put his spoon back
into the cup, but did not raise his eyes. "Oh, everything is safe enough
for to-day," he said.

Claire moved slowly toward him. "Herbert," she said, and put forward one
hand ... "I don't see why we should not be friends at a time like this.
You were angry last night, and said things that I am sure you didn't
mean--things that I've almost forgotten, and want entirely to forget.
Let us both forget them. Let us be friends again, and talk matters over
sensibly--as we ought to do."

She herself was not aware of the loveless chill that touched every word
she had just spoken. There was something absolutely matter-of-fact in
her tones; they rang with a kind of commercial loudness. It was almost
as though she were proposing a mercantile truce between man and man.

Hollister visibly winced, and slowly rose from the table. Every sentence
that she had uttered had bitten into his very soul. His pride was alive,
and keenly so. But he was not at all angry; he felt too miserably
saddened for that.

"Claire," he said, "we had best not talk of being _friends_. If I spoke
to you harshly last night, I'm sorry. I don't quite recollect just what
I did say. Of course we must have a serious talk about how we are to
live in future. But not now, if you please--not now. Your luncheon will
go off all properly enough. Things are not so bad as _that_. I shall be
away until evening. Perhaps when I come home again we can have our
talk."

Claire looked at him with hard, bright eyes. She assured herself that he
had causelessly repulsed her. Even allowing the wrong that she had done
him of marrying him without love, why should he now repel, by this
self-contained austerity, an advance which, in her egotistic misery, she
believed a sincere and spontaneous one? She was wholly unaware of her
own unfortunate demeanor; it seemed to her that she had done her best;
she had tried to conciliate, to appease, to mollify. Was not her note to
Goldwin now in the pocket of her gown? Was not that note a defense of
Herbert's own honor as of hers? She made the distinctly feminine error,
while she rapidly surveyed the present contingency, of taking for
granted that her husband possessed some obscure and mesmeric intuition
regarding this same unseen piece of writing.

"Oh, very well," she replied, with an actually wounded manner; "you may
do just as you please. I might have resented the unjust and horrible
thing you said to me last evening, but I did not. I did not, because, as
I told you, I thought it best for us to be friends once again."

"Friends." He repeated the word with a harsh fragment of laughter. His
changed face took another speedy change; it grew sombre and forbidding.
"You and I, Claire, can never be friends. While we live together
hereafter I'm afraid it must only be as strangers."

"Strangers!" she repeated, haughtily and offendedly.

"Yes! You know why." He walked toward the tapestried door of the
dining-room, and flung one of its curtains aside, holding it thus while
he stood on the threshold and looked back at her. "You yourself make the
reason. I'll do all I can. I don't know of any unjust or horrible thing
that I said last evening. I only know that you are and have been my wife
in name alone."

He had forgotten his speech regarding Goldwin. He had never had any
suspicion, however remote, that she had transgressed her wifely vows. He
simply felt that she had never loved him, and that she had married him
for place and promotion in a worldly sense; that, and no more.

The draperies of the door at once shrouded his departing figure. Claire
stood quite still, watching the agitated folds settle themselves into
rest. 'He meant that Goldwin is my lover,' she told herself. 'What else
could he possibly have meant?'

She had some half-formed intent of hurrying after him and venting her
indignation in no weak terms. Best if she had done so; for he might then
have explained away, with surprise and perhaps contrition, the fatal
blunder that she had made. But pride soon came, with its vetoing
interference. She did not stir until she heard the outer door close
after him. Then, knowing that he was gone, she let pride lay its gall on
her hurt, and dull her mind to the sense of what wrong she had inflicted
on him by the permitted mockery of their marriage.

'He had no reason to judge so vilely of me,' sped her thoughts. 'His
approval of that intimacy was clearly implied, however tacit. What must
our lives together now become? He has brought a shameful charge against
me; if I loved him I could doubtless pardon him; love will pardon so
much. But as it is, there must always remain a breach between us. A
continuance of our present brilliant affluence might bridge it over. The
distractions and pleasures of wealth, fashion, supremacy, would make it
less and less apparent to both; but poverty, and perhaps even hardship
as well,--how should these fail to mercilessly widen it?'

Everything looked black, threatening, and miserable to Claire as she
began to attire herself for the great lunch. Her maid had just finished
dressing her hair, when a note was handed her.

It was from Mrs. Van Horn. Very brief and entirely courteous, it
expressed regret that a sudden sick headache would prevent her from
numbering herself among Claire's favored guests that morning. 'The first
token of my altered fortunes,' she thought, with a pang that was like a
stab. 'This woman was the last to come under my ensign; she is the first
to desert it.'

She recalled Thurston's words to her at the opera on the previous night.
Surely there was some grave discrepancy between these and the acts of
his sister. As for the headache, that was of course transparent sham. If
this lofty lady had wanted to deceive, she might have done so more
plausibly. But perhaps she did not care whether or no her excuse looked
genuine. Rats leave a falling house. That was all the letter meant.
Claire could have thrown it down upon the floor and stamped on it. In
reality, she tossed it with seeming unconcern into the fire, and gave a
quiet order to Marie which she wished taken directly to the butler,
regarding the reduced number of her coming guests.

When Marie reëntered the apartment, she bore a card. It was the card of
Thurston. On it were written in pencil these words: "I beg that you will
see me for a few moments, if you can possibly manage."

She at once went down and received him. He looked fixedly into her face
for a slight while, after they had seated themselves. He knew all that
had happened, and he understood just how savage and calamitous must seem
to her the blows from which she was now suffering. He read excitement
and even despair in every line of her features, though he clearly
perceived that both were held under a determined repression.

'She means not to let herself go one inch,' he decided. 'If she did, she
would break down altogether. She has wound herself up to a certain
pitch. She will keep just this way for hours yet. She will keep so--if
nothing strange and unforeseen should happen.'

A deep and vital pity pierced him while he watched her. He loved her,
and his love made him unreasonably lenient. A sacred sadness invested
her, for his eyes, in this the hour of her misfortune and overthrow. He
forgot how blameworthy she had been, and could remember only that
destiny would soon hurl in the dust the crown that she had worn with so
much grace and grandeur.

"Did you come to speak of my--of our trouble?" she said, her lip
quivering for an instant and no more.

"No," he replied. "But since _you_ speak of it, is all chance of
recovery gone? May not matters right themselves somehow?"

She shook her head in quick negative. "I think not. He has lost
everything--or nearly that." She broke into a smile, which had for her
companion only the brightness one might see in tears. "I suppose it
seems to you like a punishment--a retribution." Her gaze dwelt on him
with a mournful kind of pleasantry. It was like the spirit of Comedy
slipping her gay mask a little down and showing beneath it a glimpse of
pallor and fatigue.

"But do not let us talk of that. You wanted to talk of something else.
What was it? your sister's refusal, at the eleventh hour, to come to my
lunch?"

"Has she refused?"

"She has a sick headache," returned Claire, with a bit of joyless
laughter--the saddest he had ever heard leave her lips. "I don't doubt
our disreputable downfall has given it to her. Don't make excuses for
her; she is quite right to have her headache. It's a fastidious
prerogative, you know. I shan't require a physician's certificate. I
only hope that all the others will be cruel in just as civil a manner."

The tragic bitterness of these words, though they were quietly enough
uttered, stung Thurston to the quick. When a man loves as he loved,
compassion waits the ready vassal of tenderness. He had a momentary
feeling of hostility against an elusive, disembodied foe--against
circumstance itself, so to speak, for having wrought discord in a life
that was meant to hold nothing but melody.

He swiftly decided not to tell the real truth regarding his sister. "I
would not concern myself with Cornelia's absence," he said. "Another
matter, of much more import, must be brought to your notice. It is then
settled that Cornelia remains away. I did not know that she would do so.
She made no mention of it during our interview last night."

"Her headache had not arrived. Neither had the morning papers, which
said such hard things of my husband."

"As you will. Let all that pass. I wish to speak of a lady who will
almost certainly be present at your entertainment to-day. I mean Sylvia
Lee. Don't ask me why I warn you against her, for I can't give you any
lucid reasons. She intends some mischief. I suspected it last night from
something my sister let fall, and I visited Mrs. Lee this morning with a
most detective purpose. I gained no clew, and yet my suspicions were by
no means lulled. I have never liked Sylvia; we are related, but she has
always struck me as an abhorrent kind of creature, bristling with
artifice, destitute of nearly all _morale_, capable of the worst
cunning, equipped with the most subtle resources of treachery. Be on
your guard against her to-day. This sounds mysterious--melodramatic, if
you will; but she has some snare laid for you, some petty but perhaps
ugly revenge. You know why I use that last word. She has wanted to marry
Goldwin for years. She isn't a bit above the grossest, most unscrupulous
hatred. She told me that she didn't believe in your husband's ruin, and
that a few more days would see him on his feet again. This makes me all
the more convinced that she will not put her little sharpened dagger
back into its sheath. She has hatched some sort of horrid plot. Thwart
it if you can. I wish I could be here to help you."

Claire had grown very pale, but her eyes sparkled vividly. "I am your
debtor for these tidings," she said. She drew a deep breath, and he
surmised that under the soft curve of her joined lips she had for a
brief moment set her teeth closely together. "I thought the lunch would
be a hard ordeal, even as matters stood," she went on, "and that I would
need my best nerve and courage to get through it all right, with proper
coolness and dignity. But now the task looks far less easy. Still, I
shan't flinch. I wish you _were_ to be here; but that is not possible."

Just then a clock on the opposite mantel gave one little silver note
that told it was half-past twelve. Claire rose as she heard the sound.
"I must leave you now," she pursued. "I have only an hour left for my
toilette, and I shall need it all." She threw back her head, and a
dreary smile gleamed and fled along her lips. "I mean to meet all these
grand ladies without one sign of defeat. I shan't wear my heart on my
sleeve. This lunch was to have been my crowning triumph. It proves a
funeral-feast, in its way, but they shan't find me playing
chief-mourner. I intend to die game, as the phrase is." She gave a
slight shudder, drooping her eyes. "It will be as though I stood in a
house whose walls might crumble all about me at any moment--as if I
could hear the crack of plaster and the creak of beams. But I shan't run
away; I shall stand my ground very firmly, depend on it, until the
bitter end. When the crash comes nobody will be buried in the ruins but
myself--that is certain, is it not?"

Here her joyless laugh again sounded, and Thurston, swayed by an
irresistible mood, caught one of her hands, pressing it hard within his
own.

"You shall not be buried in the ruins!" he exclaimed. "Take my word for
it, you shall not! It will all only be the beginning of a new and better
life. You shall have learned a hard yet salutary lesson--that, and
nothing more."

She shook her head, meeting his earnest eyes. "You are my good genius,"
she said. "It is too bad you have not had more power over me."

"Who is your evil genius?" he asked, with slower tones, while she drew
her hand from his.

"Myself," she answered. "I am quite willing to concede it." ... She
appeared to muse for a little while. "I shall have one true friend here
to-day," she soon continued. "I mean Mrs. Diggs. She is very loyal to
me; she would do almost anything I should ask. You don't like her, or so
she tells me, but I hope you will like her better than your other
cousin, Mrs. Lee."

"I respect her far more. I have never doubted her goodness. But she
gives me nerves, as the French say. She is at such a perpetual gallop;
if she would only break into a trot, sometimes, it would be like anybody
else's walk.... You think you can trust her as an ally to-day?"

"Implicitly. She has promised to come early, too--before the others, you
know." ... Claire locked the fingers of both hands together, and held
them so that the palms were bent downward. The weary smile again touched
her lips and vanished. "What a day it is to be! And what a day it
_might_ have been!" She held out her hand to him, after that. "Good-by.
With all my heart I thank you! You have done all that you could do."

He did not promptly reply. He was thinking whether he had really done
all that he could do.... And this thought followed him hauntingly as he
left Claire to meet whatever catastrophe fate had in store for her.

Mrs. Diggs kept her promise, and was shown into Claire's dressing room a
good quarter of an hour before the other guests were due. The lady
started on seeing her friend, whose toilette was now completed, and
whose robe, worn for the first time, was of a regal and unique beauty.
It was chiefly of white velvet, whose trailing heaviness blent with
purple lengths of the same lustreless and sculpturesque fabric. The
white prevailed, but the purple was richly manifest. In her hair she
wore aigrettes of sapphires and amethysts shaped to resemble pansies,
and while the sleeves were cut short enough to show either arm from
wrist almost to elbow, and permit of bracelets that were two circles of
jewels wrought in semblance of the same flower and with the same blue
and lilac gems, her bust and throat were clad in one cloud of rare,
filmy laces, from which her delicate head rose with a stately yet aerial
grace. Excitement had put rosy tints in either cheek; the jewels that
she wore had no sweeter splendor than her eyes, and yet both by color
and glow in a certain way aptly matched them. A gear of velvet is
dangerous to women in whom exuberance of figure has the least assertive
rule. Velvet is the sworn enemy of _embonpoint_. But Claire's figure was
of such supple and flexile slenderness that the weight and volume of
this apparel made her light step and airy contour win a new charm and a
new vivacity.

"It is all perfect--quite perfect," said Mrs. Diggs, after taking a
rapid survey of Claire's attire. "But, my dear, are you perfectly sure
that" ...

"Sure of what?" Claire asked, as her friend hesitated.

"Well ... that it is just in good taste, don't you know? I mean, under
the circumstances."

"What circumstances?" she exclaimed, putting the question as though she
did not wish it answered, and moving a few paces away with an air of
great pride. "I intend to fall gloriously. The end has come, the fight
is lost; but I shan't make a tame surrender--not I! They shall see me at
my best to-day, in looks, in speech, in manner. I'm glad you like my
dress; I want it to be something memorable."

"You say that with a kind of bravado, Claire. There's a bitter ring to
your mirth. Oh, I'm so sorry for you! That lovely dress hides an aching
heart. You will suffer, poor child. This lunch will be a positive
torture to you."

A moment after these words were spoken, Claire was close at Mrs. Diggs's
side, holding one of her hands with firm pressure.

"You don't know how much of a torture it must be," she said, "and for
what reason." She immediately repeated all that Thurston had told her.
When she had finished, Mrs. Diggs was in a high state of perturbation.

"I haven't a doubt that Beverley is right!" she exclaimed. "If there
_was_ any plot, Cornelia Van Horn was in it, too, and her brother has
made her throw away her weapons. But Sylvia Lee intends to deal the blow
alone.... What can it be? I'm at my wit's end to guess. There's but one
thing to do--keep a continual watch upon her. Claire, can you be, by any
chance, in that woman's power?"

"Her power?" faltered Claire.... "I hope not," she added.... "I _know_
not," she then said, as the full sense of Mrs. Diggs's question struck
her, and using a tone that was one of surprised affront.

"Now, don't be offended, my dear. I merely meant that Sylvia isn't a bit
too good to magnify some slight imprudence, or twist and turn it until
she has got it dangerously like an actual crime.... But _nous verrons_.
After all, Beverley's fears may be groundless. With all my heart I hope
they are!"

Not long afterward Claire was receiving her guests. All the great ladies
came, except, of course, Mrs. Van Horn. The last arrival was that of
Mrs. Lee. She contrived to make her entrance a very conspicuous one. She
was dressed with even more fantastic oddity than usual, and she spoke in
so shrill and peculiar a voice that she had not been in the
drawing-room more than five minutes before marked and universal
attention was directed upon her.

"Sylvia is in a very singular state of excitement," Mrs. Diggs murmured
to Claire. "I know her well. That slow drawl of hers has entirely gone.
She acts to me as if she were on the verge of hysteria. I don't know
whether you felt her hand tremble as it shook yours, but I thought that
I plainly _saw_ it tremble. Just watch her, now, while she talks with
Mrs. Vanvelsor. She has a little crimson dot in each of her cheeks, and
she is usually quite pale, you know. There's something in the
wind--Beverley was right."

"Her place at the table is rather distant from mine," said Claire, with
a scornful, transitory curl of the lip. "So there is no danger of her
putting a pinch of arsenic into my wine-glass."

"You're not nervous, then? I am. I don't know just why, but I am."

"Nervous?" Claire softly echoed. "No, not at all, now. I've other more
important things to think of. What _could_ she do, after all? Let her
attempt any folly; it would only recoil on herself.... Ah, my friend, I
am afraid I'm past being injured. This is my _finale_. I want it to
prove a grand one."

"It will, Claire. They have all come, as you see. They have met you with
perfect cordiality, and you have received them with every bit of your
accustomed grace. I dare say that some of them are stunned with
amazement; they no doubt expected to find you shivering and colorless."

The repast was magnificent. There were more than thirty ladies present,
and these, all brilliantly attired and some of striking personal beauty,
made the prodigal array of flowers, the admirable service of many
delicious viands, and the soft music pealing from the near hall just
loudly enough not to drown conversation while it filled pauses, produce
an effect where the most unrestrained hospitality was mingled with a
faultless refinement.

Claire's spirits seemed to rise as the decorous yet lavish banquet
proceeded. Her laugh now and then rang out clear and sweet, while she
addressed this or that lady, at various distances from where she herself
sat. Mrs. Diggs, whose place was next her own, observed it all with
secret wonder. She alone knew the bleeding pride, the balked aspiration,
the thwarted yearning, which this pathetic and fictitious buoyancy hid.
It was a defiance, and yet how skilled and radiant a one! Could you
blame the woman who knew how to bloom and sparkle like this, for loving
the world where such dainty eminence was envied and prized? Was there
not a touch of genius in her pitiable yet dauntless masquerade? Who else
could have played the same part with the same deft security, and in the
very teeth of failure and dethronement?

Claire's gayety and self-possession made more than one of her guests
lose faith in the tale of her husband's ruin. They were all women of the
world, and they all had the tact and breeding to perceive that their
hostess, now if ever, merited their best courtesy. They could all have
staid away at the last moment; Mrs. Van Horn held no exclusive claim to
the possession of her headache; its right of appropriation belonged
elsewhere. But they had not availed themselves of it; they had chosen to
sit at Claire's board, to break her delicate bread. Hence they owed her
their allegiance to-day, even if to-morrow they should find expediency
in its harshest opposite. But it now appeared to them as if she were
refuting the widespread rumor of her husband's misfortunes; her own
equipoise and scintillance bespoke this no less than the irreproachable
_chic_ of the entertainment to which she had bidden them.

Mrs. Lee was not very far away from Claire, and yet the latter never
addressed or seemed to notice her. But Mrs. Diggs noticed her; she
indeed maintained a vigilant, though repressed, watchfulness.

"You have quieted her," she found a chance to murmur in Claire's ear,
sure that the indefinite nature of the pronoun would not be
misunderstood. "She is still looking excited and queer, but she has
almost relapsed into silence. Perhaps she really wanted to poison you,
and feels hurt at the lost opportunity." Mrs. Diggs had had several sips
of good wine, and felt her anxiety lessened; her jocose ebullition was
the result of steadied nerves. "I never saw you so _spirituelle_,
Claire," she went on. "You have said at least eight delicious things. I
have them all mentally booked, my dear. When we are next alone together
I will remind you of them."

"Pray don't," Claire answered, putting the words into a still lower
aside than her friend's. "I shall have hard enough work to forget, then.
I shall want _only_ to forget, too."

She had just finished this faint-spoken sentence when one of the
servants handed her a note. As she glanced at its superscription the
thought passed through her mind that it might be some dire and alarming
message from her husband. But the next instant a flash of recollection
assailed her. She remembered the handwriting--or, at least, in this
festive and distracting environment, she more than half believed that
she did so.

Her hands, while she swiftly tore open the envelope, were dropped upon
her lap. She read several lines of a note, and then crushed it, quickly
and covertly. As her eyes met those of Mrs. Diggs she had a sense that
she was becoming ghastly pale.

"What is it?" whispered her friend.

"Oh, nothing," she afterward remembered saying. The servant was still
close at her elbow. She turned her head toward him.

"Let her wait," she said. "Tell her that I will see her quite soon."

The whole affair had been very rapid of occurrence. No one present had
given a sign of having observed it.

'If I had only not grown so pale,' she thought.

The paper was still clutched in her left hand, and she had thrust this
half-way beneath the table-cover. With her right hand she began to make
a play of eating something from the plate before her, as she addressed
the lady on her other side. What she said must have been something very
gracious and pleasant, for the lady smiled and answered affably, while
the servants glided, the music sounded, the delightful feast progressed.
Everything had grown dim and whirling to Claire. And yet she had already
realized perfectly that Mrs. Lee was striking her blow. It had come,
sudden, cruel, direct. Her blurred mind, her weakened and chilling body,
did not leave that one fact any the less clear. She understood just what
it was, why it was, and whence it was.

The note had been from her mother. It was half illiterate invective,
half threatening rebuke. Its writer waited outside and demanded to see
her. "If you don't come," the ill-shaped writing ran, "I will come to
you." Claire knew that this thing had been Mrs. Lee's work as well as if
a thousand witnesses had averred it. The missive contained no mention of
Mrs. Lee, but she nevertheless had her certainty.

'I must go,' she told herself. 'I must go and meet her. _Can_ I go? Can
I walk, feeling as I do? Should I not fall if I tried?'

She always afterward remembered the food that her fork now touched and
trifled with. It was a sweetbread croquette, with little black specks of
chopped truffle in its creamy yielding oval, and the air that they were
playing out in the hall was from a light, valueless opera, then much in
vogue. She always afterward remembered that, too. So do slight events
often press themselves in upon the dazed and dilated vision of a great
distress.

'Can I rise and walk?' she kept thinking. 'Should I not fall if I
tried?'



XXI.


It is doubtful if any guest save Mrs. Diggs and one other had seen
Claire either receive, open, or read her note. The constant movements of
servants hither and thither, and the little conversational cliques
formed among the ladies at this central stage of the entertainment,
would have made such an escape from general notice both natural and
probable. But Mrs. Diggs, who had thus far kept a furtive though
incessant watch upon Mrs. Lee, soon felt certain that her cousin had not
merely seen what had passed; she was visibly affected by it as well; she
could not help regarding Claire across the considerable space which
intervened between them. Her expression was a most imprudent betrayal;
it clearly told, by its acerbity and exultance, that she held the
present occasion to be one of prodigious and triumphant import. No one
except Mrs. Diggs was watching her, and she was unaware of even that
sidelong but intent gaze. The natural mobility of her odd face, which
repelled some and attracted others, needed at all times a certain check;
but chagrins or satisfactions were both readily imprinted there. It
corresponded to the pliability of her body; it would have been a face in
which some clever actress might have found a fortune. She usually
restrained it with discretion, but just now the force of a malign joy
swept aside prudent control. Before Mrs. Diggs's exploring search of it
ended, her last doubt had fled.

'I never saw her look more like the snake that she is,' Claire's friend
had thought. 'The mischief--the deviltry, it may be--lies in that
letter. Claire has grown as white as its paper; but nobody notices,
thank Heaven! She won't faint--she isn't of the fainting sort.'

"Claire," she now said aloud, yet in tones which the most adroit of
eavesdroppers could not have more than just vaguely overheard, "did you
get any bad news a minute ago?"

Claire was no longer addressing the lady at her side. "Why do you ask?"
she responded. "Do I look pale?"

"Not at all; not the least in the world; I've never seen you more
composed," returned Mrs. Diggs, with enormous mendacity, hoping that her
charitable lie would bear reassuring and tranquilizing results.

It did, as soon became apparent. Claire's condition was that in which we
grasp at straws. Perhaps she grew several shades less pale on hearing
that she was not so.

"I must leave the room," she said, pronouncing the words with the edges
of her lips. "I must leave immediately."

"Are you unwell?"

"No--yes--it isn't that. I must go. Could I do it without--without--?"
She paused here; she had not enough clearness of thought, just then, to
finish her sentence coherently.

"Without causing remark?" gently broke in Mrs. Diggs. "Why, of course
you could, my dear. Are you not hostess? A hundred things might call
you away for a little while. No one would dream of thinking it in the
least strange. Why on earth should one?"

There was a light nonchalance about this answer that Mrs. Diggs by no
means felt. She knew that something had gone terribly wrong. Her
rejoinder had been a stroke of impromptu tact, just as her recent glib
falsehood had been.

Its effect upon Claire was immediate. Her friend was doing her thinking
for her, so to speak, and was doing it with a rapid, unhesitating
_aplomb_.

"You don't know what has happened, do you?" she now said.

Mrs. Diggs at once felt the helpless disability of mind and nerves which
this last faltered question implied.

"Give me your note," she said. "Slip it under the table. You will not be
seen."

Claire obeyed. Mrs. Diggs had long ago learned how and why her friend
had left home, before that episode began of her residence with the
Bergemanns. She read the note like lightning, and digested its contents
with an almost equal speed. The sprawl of its writing was uncouth
enough, but not illegible.

For a slight space horrified sympathy kept her silent. Then she said,
with a coolness and placidity that did her fine credit, considering the
cause in which she employed them:--

"I would go at once. You can keep everything quiet. Of course you can. I
will follow you shortly. I will make a perfect excuse for you. You are
feeling a little unwell--that is all. No one has noticed; take my word
for that; I am simply _certain_ of it. When you return--which I promise
you that you shall do quite soon--scarcely a comment will have been made
on your absence. Go, by all means. Go at once, as I said."

'Some of her color has come back,' at the same time passed through poor
Mrs. Diggs's anxious and agitated thoughts. 'I knew she wouldn't faint;
it isn't _in_ her. She will see that I'm right, in a minute. Her wits
will begin to work. She will go.'

Claire did go. She had no after-recollection of how she left the great
dining-room. But she had indeed moved from it in so silent and yet so
swift a way that her chair had been vacant several seconds, and her
skirts were sweeping one of the thresholds of exit, before the fact of
her departure became even half perceived among the guests.

Once in the large, empty drawing-room immediately beyond that which she
had quitted, she felt her leaping heart grow quiet, and her bewildered
brain clear. It took only seconds, now, to restore in a great measure
her self-possession and her courage.

She passed into the further drawing-room. Both were as void of human
occupant as they were rich and stately in their countless beauties of
adornment. Her visitor was evidently not here. Then she remembered the
smaller reception-room which opened off from the main hall. She directed
her steps thither. They were firm steps; she had grown sensible of this,
and of her newly acquired composure as well.

Two breadths of Turkish tapestry hung down over the doorway of the
reception-room, thus obscuring its interior. As Claire softly parted
them and entered, she saw her mother.

Mrs. Twining stood near a white-and-gilt table that was loaded with
choice ornaments. The chamber was one of great elegance and charm. It
was all white and gilt and pink; there were cherubs on its ceiling
throwing roses at each other; its hangings were of rose-color, and its
two or three mirrors were framed in porcelain of rare design. A
_connoisseur_ who was among Claire's admirers had once assured her that
this little room was exquisite enough to stir the dust of Pompadour.

Mrs. Twining did not at all look as though she might have been any such
famous ghost. Not that she did not present a ghostly appearance. Her
black eyes seemed to be of twice their former size, so lean and haggard
was her altered face. Its cheek-bones stood out with a sharp prominence.
You saw at once that some serious illness had wrought this wan havoc.
Her garments were dark and decent; she did not seem to be a beggar; no
rusty and shabby poverty was manifest on her person. She had refused
stoutly to wait in the hall, and the servant who had admitted her, being
hurried with other matters, had yielded to her insistence, yet deputed
an underling to keep watch on the reception-room after showing her
thither. Claire had not seen the sentinel, who was stationed at a little
distance up the hall, and who joined his fellows when sure that the lady
of the house had condescended to meet this troublesome intruder.

Mrs. Twining looked boldly and severely at her daughter. The drapery had
fallen behind Claire's advancing figure. The two faced each other in
silence for a lapse of time that both no doubt thought longer than it
really was. Each, in her different way, had an acute change to
confront. Claire scarcely recognized her mother at first. Mrs. Twining,
on her own side, had good reasons to be prepared for a difference, and
the superb house had in a way told her, too, what she might expect. But
still, for all that, this was Claire! This was her Claire, whom she had
last seen not far removed from slums and gutters--who had gone forth
from the little Greenpoint home, not two years since, to follow her
father's charity-buried corpse! And here she stood, clad in her
white-and-purple vestments, a shape of more lovely and high-bred
elegance than any she had ever looked upon. The face was the same--there
could be no doubt of that. But everything else--the figure, the attire,
the jewels, the velvets, the laces, the movement, the posture, the mien
... it was all like some fabulous, incredible enchantment.

Forewarned and forearmed as she had been, Mrs. Twining stood
wonder-stricken and confused. The soft strains of the near music seemed
to speak to her instead of Claire's own voice, and with a disdain in
their melody. She saw no disdain on Claire's face, however, as her eyes
scanned it. But it was quite inflexible, though very pale.

Claire broke the silence--if that could be called mere silence which was
for both so electric and pregnant an interval.

"You have come at a strange time. And your note shows me that you chose
it purposely."

Mrs. Twining gave a sombre laugh. What associations the sound woke in
its hearer!

"I was all ready for just this kind of a welcome," she said, knitting
her brows. She began to stare about the room. "It's very fine. It's
mighty splendid. But I wonder the walls of this house don't fall and
crush you, Claire Twining! I wonder I ain't got the power, myself, to
strike you dead with a look!" Her voice now became a growl of menace;
there was something very genuine in her wrath, which she had persuaded
herself to believe an outgrowth of hideous ingratitude. "But I didn't
come to show you your own badness," she went on. "You know all about
that a ready. What I've come for is quite another kind of a thing--oh,
yes, quite." Here she laughed again, with her mouth curving downward
grimly at each corner.

"What have you come for?" inquired Claire.

"To get my rights!--_that's_ what I've come for! To let people see who I
am, and how you've cast me off--me, your mother. I d'clare I don't
believe there ever was so horrible a case before. Perhaps some o' the
folks in yonder can tell me if they ever knew one."

Claire kept silent for a moment. Her face was white to the lips, but
there was no sign of flinching in it.

"I did not cast you off," she said. "I left you because you outraged and
insulted the dead body of my father. I have never regretted the step I
took, nor do I regret it now. You say you've come here to get your
rights. What rights? Shelter and food? You shall receive these if you
want them. I will ring and give orders at once that you shall be taken
to a comfortable room and be treated with every care that it is in my
power to bestow. In spite of what I said to you on the day when you
shocked and tortured me into saying it, I would still have sought you
out and rendered you my best aid, if I had known that you were ill. For
I see that you have been ill--your appearance makes that very plain. But
I had no knowledge of any such fact. You were stronger than I when we
parted--stronger, indeed, and better able to work. This is all that I am
willing to say at present. In an hour or two I will join you, and hear
anything you may choose to tell me."

While Claire was in the midst of this rather prolonged reply, Mrs. Diggs
quietly entered the room. The speaker saw her, and did not pause for an
instant, but put forth her hand, which Mrs. Diggs took, while she
steadily watched the large, gaunt, hollow-cheeked woman whom her friend
addressed.

If anything could have intensified the vast sense of accumulated wrong
in Mrs. Twining's breast, it was this placid appearance of one who so
promptly indicated that she stood toward Claire in a supporting and
accessory attitude.

"So, you'll make terms, will you?" said the parent of Claire. "You'll
browbeat me--_me_, your mother--with your fine clothes and fine house
and fine servants? And where's my satisfaction, if you please, Miss?
Hey? Oh, I ain't any saint--you know that, by this time. I ain't going
to forget how I laid eight months in Bellevue Hospital, crippled and
nearly dying. First it was the typhoid fever, 'n then it was the
pneumonia, 'n then it was the inflammatory rheumatism. And where was
_you_, all that time? Spending your thousands as fast as the Wall Street
stock-gambler you'd married could scrape 'em together. Who's this friend
that steps in and looks as if she was going to protect you? Hey? You're
both afraid I'll go in among those grand folks you've got eating and
drinking somewheres, and speak my mind. You'll send me up to a
comf'table room, will you? You'll give orders to your servants about me,
will you? And s'pose I object to being treated like a troublesome tenth
or 'leventh cousin? S'pose I go straight into where they all are, and
just tell 'em the square, plain truth?" The scowl on her wasted face was
very black, now. She had made several quick steps nearer to Claire and
Mrs. Diggs. Once or twice during this acrid tirade she had waved one
hand in front of her, and made its finger and thumb give a contemptuous
audible click. But her voice had not noticeably lowered.

Claire had been watching her with great keenness. She had been reading
her mood. By the light of the past--the retrospective light flung from
weary years lived out at this mother's side, did this daughter now
swiftly see and as swiftly understand.

"Claire," said Mrs. Diggs, spurred by an impulse of heroic interference
no less than an alarmed one, "let me speak a few words; let me"--

"No," interrupted Claire. Her simple veto seemed to cut the air of the
room. She turned and met Mrs. Diggs's gaze for a moment, while dropping
her hand. "I thank you, Kate; but please leave all to me."

Then she faced her mother's irate glare. She was still decidedly pale,
but in her clear voice there was no hint of tremor.

"Very well," she said, "suppose you _do_ go in and find my friends.
Suppose you _do_ tell them everything. I do not merely invite you to go;
I challenge you to go. I will even show you the way myself."

"Claire!" faltered Mrs. Diggs, below her breath.

Claire walked toward the curtained doorway and slightly parted its
draperies. She was looking at her mother across one shoulder.

"Will you come?" she asked. "I am quite ready."

The enraged look began to die from Mrs. Twining's face. She receded a
little. "I can go myself when I choose," she muttered. "I can find the
way myself, when I'm ready. I ain't ready yet."

Claire let the draperies fall. She resumed her former position. "You
will never be ready," she said, with a melancholy scorn, "and you know
it as well as I. You thought to come here and make me cringe with terror
before you, while you threatened and stormed. But you had no intention
of bringing matters to any crisis. You think me very prosperous, very
powerful, and very rich. You are secretly glad that I am. You would not
on any account harm me as a person of importance; but you wanted to keep
me, as one, in a state of rule, a state of subjection. By that means you
could climb up to a place something like my own ... so you have argued.
You would share what I have secured. You were always a very ambitious
woman. Your sickness (which Heaven knows I am sorry enough to hear
about) hasn't changed you a particle. I thought at first that it might
have turned or clouded your brain--have made you reckless of
consequences. But it has done nothing of the sort. You are precisely the
same as ever."

Here Claire paused. Her mother had sunk into a chair. In her working
lips and the uneasy roll of her eyes a great, abrupt dismay was evident.

"I think I can guess just what has occurred to send you here," Claire
soon proceeded. "You became sick; you got into the hospital. While you
were there a certain lady now and then visited your bedside. You told
this lady who you were. Perhaps she asked you questions, and drew out
all your history--perhaps you gave her all of it voluntarily. The lady
was an enemy of mine. She put this and that together. She began by
suspecting; she finished by being certain. We will say that you
described me to her with great accuracy; or we will say that she knew I
had once lived with the Bergemann family, and that you easily recalled
the fact of Sophia Bergemann having been my friend long ago at Mrs.
Arcularius's school. It is of no consequence how the real truth
transpired; it _did_ transpire. As you grew better, the lady formed a
little plot. I think you perceived this; it is like you to have
perceived it. You saw that the lady wanted to make you her tool, her
cat's-paw."

Here Mrs. Twining rose, and put out both hands. "She didn't do it,
though," was her flurried exclamation. "She thought she'd have me come
here and get up a scene. I was 'cute enough to see that. I was reading
her just like a book, all the time."

"I have no doubt of it," said Claire, with the same melancholy scorn.
"But you chose _this time_ at which to come. You were willing to be her
accomplice _that far_."

"She wouldn't tell me where you lived nor what was your name," protested
Mrs. Twining. "She kept putting me off whenever I asked her. She fixed
things at the hospital so's I only left it to-day; she made 'em keep me
there, though I was well enough to quit more 'n a week ago."

"She told you to-day, then, of this entertainment? She told you that if
you came to-day, at a certain hour, you would find me surrounded by
friends?"

Mrs. Twining set her eyes on the floor. She had begun to tremble a
little. "Well, yes, she said something of that sort. And I knew what she
was up to, just as clear as if she'd told me she had a grudge against
you and was crazy to pay it. I was going to stay away till the party was
all over--but I ... well, I" ...

Here the speaker raised her eyes and flashed them confusedly at her
daughter. That glance was like the expiring glow of her conquered,
treacherous wrath.

"Look here, Claire, I'm weak, and I can't stand this kind of thing much
longer. Let me go up to that room and lay down. I'll wait till you come
up. We can talk more when all your big friends have gone."

"I will send a woman to you," said Claire. "You can give her what orders
you please." ...

"Do you feel strong enough to go back at once?" asked Mrs. Diggs, when
she and Claire stood, presently, in the front drawing-room.

"Oh, yes, perfectly," was Claire's answer.

Mrs. Diggs kissed her. "Claire," she said, "the more I see of you, the
more you astonish me. I thought everything was lost, and how splendidly
you turned the tables! Ah, my dear, you were born for great things. You
ought to have been on a throne. I hate thrones. I'm a Red Republican, as
I told you the first time we met. But I'd change my politics in a minute
if you represented an absolute monarchy."

Claire smiled. The color was coming back to her cheeks. "I am on a kind
of throne now," she said. "Only it is going to pieces. Kate, you have
seen that woman. She is my mother. I wish you had seen and known my
father. Whatever strength there is in me comes from _her_. But what
little good there is in me comes from _him_."

They went back into the dining-room immediately afterward, and Claire
spoke with lightness to a few of the ladies about having felt a
temporary indisposition which had now entirely ceased. She at once
changed the subject, and throughout the remainder of the repast betrayed
not a sign by which the most alert watcher could have detected the least
mental disturbance.

A watcher of this sort was Mrs. Lee, and both Claire and Mrs. Diggs were
certain of it. "She hasn't tasted a morsel for three courses," soon
whispered the latter. "Upon my word, I don't think I could be restrained
from throwing a glass or a plate at her, if I were sure it wouldn't hit
somebody else. I was always a wretched shot."

But Mrs. Diggs delivered another kind of missile after the banquet had
broken up and the ladies had all passed once again into the
drawing-rooms.

"I want to speak with you, Sylvia, if you don't object," she said dryly
to Mrs. Lee. The latter had opportunely strayed away from her
companions; she was pretending to scrutinize a certain painting in the
front apartment. This gave Mrs. Diggs precisely her desired chance.

"You know I've never liked you, Sylvia, and I don't think you've ever
liked me," her cousin began. She showed no anger; her voice was so
ordinary in tone that she might have been discussing the most
commonplace of matters.

Mrs. Lee started, and twisted herself, as usual, into a fresh pose. "I
really don't see the occasion, Kate," she murmured, "for this vast
amount of candor." She had got back her old drawl. She was concerned
with a knot of roses at her bosom, which had or had not become partially
unfastened; her gaze was drooped toward the roses, and thus avoided that
of her kinswoman.

"You don't see the occasion for candor, Sylvia? I do. You know just what
you have tried to do this morning. There is no use of denying."

"Tried to do?" she repeated, raising her eyes.

"Yes," sped Mrs. Diggs, with a kind of snap in every word. "We've never
liked each other, as I said, and I preluded my remarks with this
statement because I want to show you why, from to-day henceforward, we
are open foes. You would have had Claire Hollister's mother rush like a
mad woman into that dining-room. You wanted it. You planned, you plotted
it. There's no use of asserting that you didn't."

Mrs. Lee quietly threw back her head. "Oh, very well, since the poor
woman," she began, "has really betrayed me, I"--

"Betrayed you?" broke in Mrs. Diggs. "She has done nothing of the sort.
If you exacted any promise from her, I know nothing of that--nor does
Claire. We both understood that you were behind the whole affair, and
when Mrs. Twining was taxed with your complicity she did not presume to
disavow it."

Mrs. Lee looked at her roses again, and touched some of their petals
with a caressing hand.

"If you think me culpable to have told a poor wretch in a hospital the
address of the daughter who had deserted her," she said, "I am only
sorry that your code of morals should so materially differ from mine."

"Morals?" replied Mrs. Diggs, with a quick laugh that seemed to crackle.
"It's amusing, truly, to hear such a word as that from you to me,
Sylvia!"

Mrs. Lee again lifted her eyes. She was smiling, and her small, dark
head, garnished with a tiny crimson bonnet, was set very much sideways.
"My dear Kate," she said, "did it ever occur to you how enormously
vulgar you can be at a pinch?"

"I'd answer that question if I didn't see through the trick of it. We're
not talking of manners, if you please; we're talking of morals. Do you
consider that there is anything moral in a mean, underhand revenge? That
is exactly what you resorted to. To serve a spiteful hatred, you would
have had Mrs. Twining dart like a Fury into yonder dining-room."

"If it were not unladylike, I should tell you that you are uttering a
falsehood."

"Bah! You can tell me so a thousand times, if you want. Why did you
never let Claire's mother know her marriage-name or her address until
to-day? Why did you keep her in the hospital until to-day? Why, unless
you wanted to unloose her, like a raging lioness?"

"Really, Kate, you have passed the bounds of impertinence. You are now
simply diverting."

Mrs. Diggs laughed a second time. "I intend to divert you still further,
Sylvia, before I have done with you."

Mrs. Lee took a step or two in an oblique direction. The lids of her
dark eyes had begun to move rapidly. "I have the option of declining to
be bored," she answered, in a muffled voice, "unless you intend personal
violence. In that case, you know, there are always the footmen."

"Answer me one question, please, if you have a spark of honesty left.
What right had you to believe that Claire Hollister ever wronged her
mother?"

"You haven't yet become violent. You are still diverting. So I will
answer. She left her alone in poverty, neglect, and misery."

"She left her after a life of tyranny and persecution. She left her a
strong, hale, able woman. She left her with ten, twenty times as much
money in her pocket as Claire herself had--for Claire had scarcely
anything, and this persecuted heroine of a mother had enough money to
give her dead husband decent Christian burial, yet refused it. Did she
tell you that, Sylvia, when you found her sick in the hospital? Did she
tell you how her daughter cried out in grief, beside the very body of a
dead and beloved father, that if only he were not laid in Potter's
Field--if only he might receive holy rites of interment, she would work,
even slave, for her mother's support? Did she tell you--this model and
deeply wronged parent--that her child got from her nothing but a surly
refusal? Did she tell you that Claire then, and only then, resolved to
leave her forever? Did she tell you how Claire, faithful till the last,
followed her father, on foot or by street-car, to his pauper grave, and
saw the clods heaped over him as if he had been a dead dog, while she,
his lawful wife, stayed shamelessly at home? No, Sylvia; I will warrant
that she made another plausible story, nearly all false, with just a
grain of truth. And you readily accepted it, because it suited your
malicious ends to do so!"

By this time Mrs. Lee had produced an exquisite fan of dark satin,
painted with charming figures of birds and flowers. While she used the
fan, slowly and gracefully, she answered: "And is it possible that you
credit this theatrical improbability, Kate?"

Mrs. Diggs looked stern. "I don't merely believe it--I know it," she
said. "I have seen the woman. To see her--to hear her speak, was enough.
You, too, have had both experiences."

Mrs. Lee still slowly fanned herself. "That is quite true. I have. The
charity-burial story is the purest nonsense, the most preposterous
invention, on your dear friend's part. That is my confident belief; I
assure you it is. Do you want me any more, Kate? Or are you going to
keep me here with your wild tales an hour or two longer?"

Mrs. Diggs never in her life, with all her personal deficiencies, looked
so simply and calmly dignified as when she responded:--

"I shall keep you only a very little while longer, Sylvia. You may or
may not have wanted Claire's mother to enter that dining-room. But you
had your hour for her coming neatly timed, and any mortification, any
distress that you could have inflicted would have been a pleasure to
you. But I think that in all this wily and clever performance you quite
failed to remember me. I'm very staunch, very loyal to Claire. And I
give you my word that your share in the event of to-day shall not go
unpunished."

Mrs. Lee stopped fanning herself. "Unpunished?" she repeated, haughtily
enough.

"Oh, yes. Are you surprised at the word? Let me explain it. I merely
mean that in as short a time as I can possibly command Stuart Goldwin
shall know every detail of your recent behavior. And pray don't have the
least fear that he will disbelieve me. He knows how devoted _I_ am to
Claire Hollister. You know just how devoted to her _he_ is. I wonder in
what kind of estimation he will hold you after I have narrated my little
story, not missing a single particular ... not one, Sylvia--rest certain
of that!"

Mrs. Lee began to fan herself again, and at the same time moved away.
Mrs. Diggs's eyes followed the slim, retreating figure. She had already
seen that her cousin's face wore an expression of pained affright.
Claire's guests had begun to make their farewells. Mrs. Lee did not join
them in this civility. She slipped from the drawing-room, instead,
unnoticed by any one, except her late antagonist, and perhaps Claire
herself.

'She will try to meet Goldwin before I do,' thought Mrs. Diggs. 'But she
will not succeed. I, too, will leave without saying good-by to Claire,
who might not approve my scheme of chastisement if she learned it. But
it is no affair of hers. I am doing it entirely on my own account. I
propose to make Sylvia Lee remember this day as long as she lives.'

Among the carriages of the departing guests, that of Mrs. Lee was the
first one to roll away. The carriage of Mrs. Diggs soon followed it.
Both were driven at a rapid rate, and for a certain time in the same
direction. But ultimately the courses of the two vehicles diverged.

Each lady sent a telegram to the same destination, less than ten
minutes afterward. And each lady, after so doing, employed the same
formula of reflection: 'He will come as soon as he receives it.'

But Mrs. Diggs's summons was the more potent; it contained the name of
Claire.



XXII.


Goldwin was the recipient of the two telegrams. He went first (being
driven rapidly in a cab from his Wall Street place of business) to the
house of Mrs. Diggs.

He remained with her for at least two hours. It was now somewhat late in
the afternoon. He dined at his club, and by eight o'clock in the evening
was ringing the bell of Mrs. Lee's residence.

She was alone, and received him with a freezing manner. "At last you are
here," she said.

"At last," he replied, with careless ambiguity, throwing himself into an
arm-chair, and looking straight at a very comfortable wood-fire that
blazed not far off.

"Did you receive my telegram?"

"I did."

"In time to come to me when it entreated you to come?"

"I received it this afternoon. I have been prevented from making my
appearance until now."

His voice was quite as cold and distant as her own. She went up to his
chair and laid her hand upon its arm.

"Your manner is very abrupt and strange," she said, in greatly softened
tones. "Has anything occurred?"

He turned and met her look. He nodded significantly once or twice
before answering. "Yes, something has occurred, most decidedly. Can't
you guess what it is? If so, you will save me the distress of
explaining."

For several moments she was silent. "I suppose you mean that you have
seen Kate Diggs," she then hazarded.

He nodded again. "I have," he replied.

"Ah!" said Mrs. Lee, with an airy satire. "Then she must have made a
very strong case against me, as the lawyers phrase it."

"Undoubtedly she has," he answered, rising. "I have heard the
prosecution; do you want me to hear the defense?"

"Of course I demand that you shall do so," she exclaimed, "although I
don't at all like the word you describe it by! I have no need whatever
of defending myself."

Goldwin gave one of his rich, mellow laughs. The twinkle had come back
to his eye; all his wonted geniality seemed to reclothe him. And yet his
companion rather felt than saw that it was worn as an ironical disguise.

"Upon my word, I think you have been very hardly treated," he declared.
The sting of the real sarcasm pierced her, then, and she sensibly
recoiled. "You ought to have been allowed the privilege of witnessing
your little scandalous comedy, after you had planned it so cleverly. How
you must have suffered when it all went off in so tame and quiet a way!"

Mrs. Lee, pale and with kindling eyes, slightly stamped one small foot.
The sound wrought by this action was faint, though quite audible.

"You believe all that Kate Diggs has told you!" she exclaimed. "You
think I wanted a public scene. It is not true. I wanted her to be
humiliated by her own conscience at a time when she thought herself most
enviable, most lofty. I had no other motive. It was not revenge. It
never was anything like revenge."

Goldwin's face had sobered, but he made a little shrug of the shoulders,
which was like him at his brisk, mercurial best. He had plainly seen her
falsehood. "Why on earth do you use the word?" he asked.

She recoiled once more. "Use the word?" she half stammered, as if thrown
off her guard by this unexpected thrust. A moment afterward she went on,
with renewed vehemence, all her native drawl flurriedly quickened by
excitement. "I used it because Kate Diggs used it--because she presumed
to say that I brought that poor, suffering, deserted, outraged mother
face to face with her daughter for this reason. I don't doubt that Kate
has invented the same nonsense for you that she tried to foist upon me.
She is very loyal to her friend. She has most probably told you that
Mrs. Twining was always a monster to her daughter, and that she insisted
on having her dead husband buried by charity, in spite of prayers,
supplications, adjurations from the bereaved offspring. For my own part,
I choose utterly to discredit this trumped-up tale. I never heard
anything that resembled it from the feeble lips of the wretched woman
who had lain for weeks in the hospital. I only heard"--

Goldwin here broke in with a voice more hard and stern than any which
Mrs. Lee had known to leave his lips.

"If you will pardon me for saying so, I do not wish to continue as your
listener. If you think my interruption outrageously rude, then let me
admit with frankness that I can not--yes, literally _can_ not--endure
what you now choose to state."

She gave her small, dark head a passionate toss. "You can't endure it,"
she cried, "because you think that woman perfection! You can hear
nothing that is not in her praise. You used to tell me that you thought
Kate Diggs ridiculous; you used to laugh at her as a wild, eccentric
creature. And now you are willing to credit her fictions."

"They are not fictions," said Goldwin. "All she told me to-day was pure
truth. Don't try any longer to shake my credence of it. Your efforts
will not avail, I assure you."

Mrs. Lee shivered. She put both hands up to her face, pressing them
there for a moment, and then suddenly removed them. She set her dark
eyes on Goldwin's face; they were glittering moistly.

"You think I edged that woman on, to serve purposes of revenge," she
faltered. "Well, Stuart, if I did so, what was my real reason?"

Goldwin was drawing something from an inner side-pocket of his
evening-coat. "Truly," he said, in dry, tepid tones, "I have no idea."
He fidgeted with the required something while he thus spoke. The next
moment he had produced it. It was a slim packet of letters.

"I want to give you these," he said, with a brief, formal bow.

He handed her the packet. She examined it for several minutes.

"My letters," she murmured.

"Your letters," he answered, with a slight repetition of his recent bow.

She thrust the packet into her bosom. "You ... you have _kept_ all
these?" she questioned, after hiding them.

"Yes," he said.

"And you give them back to me now," she pursued, "with a meaning? Well,
with what meaning?"

Goldwin walked quietly toward the doorway that led into the adjacent
hall. "Oh, if you want the meaning put brutally," he said, using a tone
and demeanor of much suavity, "I ... I--well, I am tired."

"Tired?" she repeated. Her next sentence was a sort of gasp. "You--you
hate me for what I have done!"

"I did not say that." His foot was almost on the threshold of the door
while he spoke.

"Stuart!" she exclaimed, hurrying toward him. The lithe symmetry of her
shape was very beautiful now; her worst detractor could not have said
otherwise. She felt that the man whom she loved was leaving her forever.
She put a hand on either of his shoulders. She tried to look into his
eyes while he averted his own.

"Will you leave me like this?" she went on. "You knew me long before you
knew _her_! Don't let us quarrel. I--I confess everything. I--I have
been very foolish. But you won't be too harsh with me--you will forgive,
will you not?"

He did not answer her. He removed her hands. Then he receded from her.

"Stuart!" she still appealed.

"I have given you back your letters," he responded, standing quite near
the threshold.

"Tell me one thing--do you love her? Is it because you love her that you
want to part from me? I--I have scarcely seen you for weeks. You once
said that a day wasn't a day unless you had seen me. Do you remember?
I've been stupid. But you won't mind so much when you've let me explain
more. Don't go quite yet. Stay a moment, and" ...

He had passed quietly from her sight. She waited until she heard the
clang of the outer hall door. Then she understood what a knell it meant.
The alienation must now be life-long. She had made him despise her, and
she could never win him back. Seated before the fire, that snapped and
flashed as if in jeering glee at her own misery, she wept tears that had
a real pathos in them--the pathos of a repulsed love. She had never
believed herself at fault in her conduct toward Claire. Jealousy had
speedily blackened the filial act of her rival, but in any case the
story, as Mrs. Twining told it, would have roused her conviction that
this desertion had been a most unnatural and cruel one. So esteeming it,
she had played the part of castigator. She was not sure that she would
have done very differently if Claire had not been at all an object of
her hatred. She had not found the least difficulty in persuading herself
that it was wholly a moral deed to use with vengeful intent knowledge
which she would have been justified in using with an intent merely
punitory.

But now she had wrecked all her own future by seeking to destroy
Claire's. Mrs. Twining had broken faith and betrayed her. The passion
which she felt for Goldwin was an irrecoverable one. Her detestation of
the woman who had caused their ceaseless parting grew as she wept over
the ruin of her hopes, and mingled its ferocious heat with the more
human tenderness of her tears. She passed a lurid hour, there in her
little picturesque parlor; she was in spiritual sympathy, so to speak,
with its Oriental equipments. She could have understood some of those
clandestine assassinations which the poisoned draught, the stealthy
bow-string, and the ambushed scimitar have bequeathed to history and
legend. Her past pietistic fervors had left her with no memento of
consolation. A stormy turbulence had taken hold of her mental being, and
shaken it as a blast will shake a bough. In her sorrow she was still a
woman; in her hate she was something grossly below it.

She at length remembered the letters that he had returned to her, and
drew them forth from her bosom. For a moment the anguish of loss gained
mastery in her soul, and she held the packet clasped between both hands,
her eyes blinded to any sight of them, and her frame convulsed with
racking, internal sobs. She knew that she must read them all over again,
and thus replunge into coverts of memory whose very charm and fragrance
would deepen her despair. To re-peruse each letter would be like prying
open the slab of a grave.

A sudden impulse assailed her as the violence of her grief subsided. She
rose, and raised the letters in one hand, meaning to hurl them into the
opposite blaze, and thus spare herself, while the destructive mood
lasted, fresh future pangs. But at this moment her glance lighted on the
packet itself. It was of moderate thickness, and tied together by a
strip of ordinary cord. Inside the cincture so made, and held there
insecurely by one sharp corner, a folded paper had caught, which seemed
foreign to the remaining contents. Mrs. Lee disengaged this paper,
opened it, and cast her tear-blurred eyes, carelessly enough at first,
over some written lines which she had immediate certainty were not her
own.

But presently a little cry left her lips. She turned the page with a
rapid jerk, searching for a signature. She did not find any, but found
merely two initials instead. She dropped into her seat again, and with a
fire in her dark eyes that seemed to have quickly dried their last trace
of moisture, she read, pausing over nearly every word, and pondering
every sentence, a letter which ran thus:--

       _Friday._

     DEAR MR. GOLDWIN,--I think that I meant all the harsh treatment
     I gave you last evening. When I recall what my feelings then
     were, I am certain that my indignation was quite sincere. But
     very much has happened since then to change me, and to change
     my surroundings as well. I suppose I am in a most reckless mood
     while I write these lines: my head is hot, and my hands are
     cold, and tremble so that the words I am shaping have a
     strange, unfamiliar look, as though I myself were not writing
     them at all. Well, for that matter, the same woman whom you
     lately parted from is not writing them. Another woman has taken
     her place. She is a wayward, desperate sort of creature; she is
     a coward, an ingrate, a worthless and feeble egotist.

     But this new identity of mine will last. I have made up my mind
     to take a bold step, and nothing can now deter me. I shall not
     be explicit; at some
     other time I will send for you and tell you everything. You
     shall hear my reasons for acting as I propose to act. I don't
     claim that they are strong or good reasons, and yet I feel that
     they contain a certain propulsion--they push me on. My marriage
     has been an irreparable mistake; I can't go back and live the
     last year over again; I can't repossess my yesterdays. Hence, I
     have become willful and headstrong about my to-morrows. If I
     had ever really loved Herbert, all would now be so different!
     But I have never loved anybody who is now living. There you
     have a frigid confession. You never roused in me anything but a
     decided liking; that other woman--the woman who called herself
     by my name a few hours ago--used to disapprove a good deal that
     there is about you. But my new self will doubtless pass over
     these faults very indulgently; she will have enough of her own
     to account for. Still, she can never do more than think you
     good company. I fancy that when I was a very young child nature
     locked up a certain cell of my heart, and then threw away the
     key where no one can ever find it.

     I mean to go abroad, very secretly, after the sale of certain
     property and chattels shall have put me in possession of the
     needed funds. It will be a flight--and a flight from more than
     you are yet aware of. If we meet abroad--say in Paris--I may
     even stoop to discuss with you that question of a divorce. It
     is horrible for me to write these words. It is sin, and I feel
     the stab of it. But surely Herbert deserves to be rid of me,
     and perhaps he will come in time to value his freedom. I should
     want him to have the right of marrying again. Would not that
     be a possible arrangement? I know almost nothing of the law on
     these points.

     It does not now seem conceivable that I should ever become your
     wife after I had ceased to be his. I have had enough of
     marriage without love. But if you should prevail with me, it
     would be only because of your great wealth, and the ease and
     distinction that are now slipping away from me. You see I am
     hideously candid; I don't mince matters ... where would be the
     use?

     Do not answer this, but destroy it immediately. In regard to
     the last request, I count with perfect confidence upon your
     honor. Were it not that I did so, I should never send you this
     imprudent, daring, perilous scrawl.

     Do not come to me until I send for you. I cannot tell how long
     that will be.

       C. H.

Before Mrs. Lee refolded the letter which contained these words, she had
read them through certainly five successive times.

Not until then had she made up her mind just what to do. She would put
the letter in an envelope, and direct this, very legibly, to Herbert
Hollister. Her determination was as fixed as fate....

When her guests had all departed, on the afternoon of this same day,
Claire slowly walked the spacious drawing-rooms for at least twenty
minutes, with her eyes bent upon the floor.

She felt literally hunted down. The end had come; the clock had struck
twelve, and her fineries were rags, her coach-and-four was a pumpkin and
mice. She had carried it off well until the very last; she was sure of
this, and the surety gave her, even now, a bitter pleasure. She had no
doubt that the coming of her mother, with imperative demands of support
and countenance, would mean a return of all the old taunts and gibes. If
Claire's wealthful life of to-day had been destined to continue, this
prospect would have opened a less dreary vista; as it was, she foresaw
only a dropping back into the former ruts and sloughs of maternal
acrimony and intolerance. The history of her past would in a manner
repeat itself. There would be poverty again, or something closely akin
to it; there would be the mother's unpardoning disapprobation of her
child's ill-favored lot. For one marked difference, Herbert would be
present, as a fresh, assertive force. And what a miserably adverse force
it must prove! To exist with him would be hard enough, now, under any
circumstances. But if he felt perpetually the shadow and weight of this
second gloomy and heavy personality, what new hostile traits might not
his depression, his impatience, his revolt develop?

Claire tried to take a very calm survey of the whole potential
consequence. In so doing she regarded the advent of her mother as one
factor that consorted with other untoward agencies; the central knot of
the tangle would be wrought of several tough and stubborn threads. There
could be no unraveling it. 'But the knot could be cut,' she thought,
silently continuing her metaphor, as she paced the stately rooms.

It sent a thrill of actual terror to her when she reflected _how_ the
knot could be cut. To the feet that have set their tread on slippery
ways, evil can do much downward work by a gentle push. Claire felt
herself lapsing, now....

What if she wrote to Stuart Goldwin a letter very different from the one
she had already written him, and which was then hid under the fleecy
laces that clad her bosom? What if she told him that she must fly from
it all?--the love that she had outraged by cold hypocrisy, the keen if
mute reproaches that would be punishment and torture alike, the thrusts
and innuendoes from a tongue whose venom had poisoned her childhood, the
tarnish in place of splendor, the dullness in place of brilliance, the
obscurity in place of prominence, the service in place of
mastery--perhaps even the toil in place of ease?

She tried, in a pitiable way, to rebuff temptation by taking the sole
means at hand of ending these desperate reflections. In reality she took
the most cogent means of rendering temptation more potent. She tightened
its black clutch on her soul; she went upstairs and talked with her
mother.

Mrs. Twining had been securely convalescent some time ago. She had
passed through a complicated and dangerous illness; she had given Death
odds, yet won with him. She was still subject to those attacks of
fatigue which are inevitable with one who has proved victor in so grim a
wrestle. But she had once more gained a very firm foothold on that
solidity which bounds one known side, at least, of the valley of the
shadow. She intended, in a physical sense, to live a good many years
longer; her freshening vitality was like that of a fire in a forest,
which has stretched an arm of flame across a bare space, at the risk of
not reaching it, but in the end has caught a mighty supply of woodland
fuel.

Claire found her stretched quite luxuriously on a lounge, with a little
table beside her, which held the remains of a hearty repast. She had
the traditional vast appetite of the recovering invalid. She had
devoured enough to have sunk a hearty person of average digestion into
abysses of dyspepsia. She had enjoyed her meal very much. It had
appeared to her as an earnest of many similar joys.

She promptly began a series of her old characteristic sarcasms and slurs
as soon as Claire appeared. Mingled with them was an atmosphere of
odious congratulation--a sort of verbal patting on the back--which her
daughter found even more baneful than her half-latent sneers. She was
thoroughly refreshed; her food (mixed with some admirable claret) had
gone straight to the making of bodily repairs. She had never had
anything so fine and wholesome in the hospital, though after the
patronage of Mrs. Lee she had been supplied with not a few agreeable
dainties. The temporary result was that she had become in a great
measure her real self.

Claire said very little. She did a large amount of listening. She had
never known her mother not to be without a grudge of some sort. It
brought back the past with a piercing vividness, now, while she sat and
heard. The vision of a pale, refined face, lit by soft, dark-blue eyes,
rose before her, and the memory of many a wanton assault, many a
surreptitious wound, appealed to her as well. Her father had stood it
all so bravely--he had been such a gentleman through it all! _She_ had
stood it only with a sturdy, rebellious disapproval through many of the
years that preceded his death.

She stood it, now, with a weary tranquillity. When she went away from
her mother, these were her parting words:--

"I do not think I shall tell my husband, for some few days, that you are
here. There are reasons why I should not. He has some very engrossing
matters to occupy him. But you will be perfectly comfortable in the
meanwhile. Order what you please. The servants will obey you in every
particular. If you should need me, I will come immediately. You have
only to send me word. I shall be at home for the rest of to-day, and all
through the evening."

Claire went into her own private sitting-room, after that. When she had
been there a little while, she had torn up her first letter to Goldwin.
When she had been there a little while longer, she had written the
second letter. Having finished the last, she promptly dispatched it, by
messenger, to Goldwin's private address.

Between the hours of ten and eleven that same evening, the following
note from Goldwin was brought to Claire:--

       _Friday Night._

     In some unaccountable way I have lost the letter which you sent
     me to-day. I feel in honor bound to tell you of this loss,
     after a protracted search through my apartments and numerous
     inquiries and directions at my club. I cannot sufficiently
     blame myself for not having at once burned it to a crisp. But I
     thrust it into my pocket after many readings, with the wish to
     learn each word by heart before it was finally destroyed. Do
     not feel needlessly worried. I shall do my best to recover it,
     and even if it should be read by other eyes than yours and
     mine, the fact of your mere initials being signed to it is an
     immense safeguard.

       S. G.

Claire had grown deathly pale as she finished the perusal of this note.
She had prepared herself for a night of wretched unrest, but here was a
dagger to murder sleep with even surer poignance.

It was past midnight when she heard Hollister go to his apartments. She
fancied that his step was a little unsteady. If this was true, no vinous
exhilaration made it so. An excitement of most opposite cause would have
explained the altered tread.

A saving hand had interposed between himself and ruin. The chance had
been given him of starting again--of meeting all the fiercest of his
creditors, and appeasing them. Instead of utter wreck, he had chiefly to
think of retrenchment. Perhaps what Claire believed unsteadiness in his
step was a brief pause near her own door. But even if an impulse to tell
her the good news may for a moment have risen uppermost, there must have
swept over him, promptly and sternly, the recollection of a dark and
sundering discovery.

Meanwhile Claire, wondering if the lost letter had, through any baleful
chance, drifted into his hands, lay pierced by that affrighted remorse
which a monition of detected guilt will bring the most hardened
criminal, and which of necessity strikes with acuter fang the soul of
one yet a neophyte in sin.



XXIII.


Hollister passed downstairs the next morning at a little after nine
o'clock. He had obtained some sleep, of which he stood in sad need. The
cheerful elasticity of his temperament would have placed him, by natural
rebound, well in the sunlight of awakened hope and invigorated energy,
and after hours of miserable disquiet he would now have felt relieved
and peaceful, but for one leaden and insuperable fact. This had no
relation whatever with financial turmoils and embarrassments; it
concerned Claire, and the desolate difference with which her image now
rose before his spirit.

He had told her that they must henceforth be as strangers, but already
the deeps of his unselfish love were stirred by a longing, no less
illogical than passionate, to make reality of what had once been
illusion, and to verify Claire's indifference through some unknown spell
of transformation into that warmth which had thus far proved only
lifeless counterfeit. Already Hollister found within him a spacious
capacity of pardon toward his wife. Already he had begun to exonerate,
to make allowances; and more than all, he had already told himself that
to live on without her love would be a hundredfold better than to part
with her companionship. Here cropped out the old vein of complaisance
and conciliation which had run through his earlier collegiate life, and
which later experiences amid all sorts of risk and rivalry had never
wholly obscured. It had been his power to concede, his amiable pliancy,
wed with a peculiar intellectual shrewdness, that had gone far toward
the accomplishment of his phenomenal successes. The man who makes the
best of things by instinct is very apt to have the best of things made
for him by fortune.

His inalienable love for Claire caused him to regard her long hypocrisy
with fondly lenient eyes. The wrong done himself rapidly took a
secondary place; it was nearly always thus with Hollister, except in
those grosser cases of wanton injury from his own sex; and now, when it
became a matter between his heart and the woman that heart devotedly
loved, he was ready to forego a most liberal share of the usual human
egotism.

He had a hard day before him. Exertion, diplomacy, astuteness,
concentration, all were needed. He was still to fall, but no longer with
a headlong plunge. He would now fall on his feet, as it were, but it
required a certain agile flexibility to make the descent a graceful one.
At any other time he would promptly have left the house after
breakfasting. As it was, he waited for Claire. She appeared sooner than
he had expected her. She had drank her coffee upstairs. He saw her
figure, clad in a morning robe of pale-tinted cachemire, enter the front
drawing-room. He had lighted a cigarette, and was standing beside the
hearth, where a riotous fire flung merry crimson challenge to the sharp
weather outside. He at once threw away his cigarette, and went forward
to meet her.

She perceived him when he had gained the centre of the second
drawing-room. She stood perfectly still, awaiting his approach. There
was more than a chill misgiving at her heart lest some inimical hand had
sent him her own fatal letter. She did not know how she would act in
case he immediately accused her. Hours of sleepless unrest had not
supplied her with a single defensive plea.

The new serenity on Hollister's face struck her at a glance. It gave her
a sudden relief; it was like a reprieve just before execution. When he
said "good morning" she answered him with the same words. She wondered
if he had already noticed her pallor, or that a dark line lay under
either eye. Her dressing-mirror had told her of these changes.... Might
he not guess at sight the guilty agony that she had been enduring?

Her altered looks were not lost upon him. They were a new intercession
in her behalf. "I have good news for you," he said, almost tenderly. He
went toward the richly-draped mantel just opposite where she stood, and
leaned one arm along its edge. He purposely let his eye wander a little,
so that she would suspect in him no intentness of scrutiny.

"Good news?" she repeated, softly.

"Yes. I thought it was all up with me, yesterday. But a friend of yours
has placed funds at my disposal which will enable me, with wise
management, to weather the worst of the storm. He dropped into my office
at a very critical moment. He used the nicest delicacy and tact. Before
I actually realized that he was offering me very substantial aid, he had
done so. And yet, with all his graceful method, he didn't beat about the
bush. He was frankly straightforward. He said just why he wished to see
my affairs righted--or at least creditably mended. That reason was his
deep respect and sincere admiration for you. He told me, with a winning
mixture of humor and seriousness, that you represented for him the one
great repentance of his bachelorhood. And when I looked at his
world-worn sort of face and his decidedly gray locks, and began to
wonder whether he meant his amazing proposition in any unpleasant sense,
he assured me that he had always seen in you, the daughter whom he had
possibly missed being the father of.... Of course you now recognize his
portrait; or have I not drawn it clearly enough?"

"Do you mean Beverley Thurston?" asked Claire.

"Yes. You see, now, how generous an act of friendship he performed."

"Yes, I see," Claire murmured.

"The funds he proffered--and which I accepted--are by no means all his
own. His influence is so great, his standing is so secure, that he has
actually been able to associate four well-known capitalists (one of
whom, by the way, chanced to be my personal friend) in carrying out this
wonderfully benevolent work." Here Hollister paused for a considerable
space. "Of course," he at length went on, "I shall not do more than just
escape a positive deadlock. The next few years must be full of cautious
living and thinking. I have accepted the burden of a huge debt; but I
believe firmly in my power to pay it off. And I have learned a lesson
that I shall always profit by. They shall never call me a Wall Street
king again. I have seen my last of big ventures. I shall want, if I can
manage hereafter when every penny of liabilities shall be settled, to
drift slowly but safely into a steady banking channel. I shall have
friends enough left on the Street; I shan't have lost caste; I shall
still hold my own. At least twenty good men have gone clean down in this
flurry, without a chance of ever picking themselves up again. But I am
going to pick myself up--that is, thanks to the helping hand of your
precious elderly friend; for I could never have done it alone."

Claire knew not what to answer. She was thinking of the sweet, deceitful
kindliness that Thurston had employed. She was thinking how little she
deserved his timely and inestimable support. She was asking herself
whether he would not have shrunk in sorrowful contempt from all such
splendid almsgiving if he had known the real truth concerning her recent
mad and sinister act.

While she was trying to shape some sort of adequate reply, the entrance
of a servant rendered this unnecessary. The man handed Hollister a
letter, bowed, and departed.

Claire's heart instantly began to beat hard and fast. A mist obscured
her gaze while she watched Hollister tear open the envelope and unfold
its contents. There was a sofa quite near; she sank into it; she felt
dizzy enough to close her eyes. But she did not. She looked straight at
her husband, and saw him begin a perusal of the unfolded sheet. Was it
her letter to Goldwin? Why should she even fancy this? Were there not
hundreds of other sources whence a letter might come to Herbert?

In a very little while she saw her husband grow exceedingly pale. He
left off reading; he looked at her, and said: "Did you write this?" He
held the paper out toward her as he spoke.

Claire rose, crossed the room, and cast her eyes over the extended page.

"Yes, it is mine," she answered him.

The voice did not seem his own in which he presently said: "I must read
it. I must read it with my full attention. If I leave you for a little
while, will you remain here until I return?"

"Yes," she said.

"You promise this?"

"I promise--yes."

Without another word to her, he walked back into the dining-room.
Perhaps twenty good minutes passed before he returned. Claire had
meanwhile nerved herself to meet something terrible. She had no idea
what her husband's wrath would be like, but she felt that there might
almost be death in it.

Hollister had hardly begun to address her before she perceived that he
did not reveal a single trace of wrath. His eyes were much brighter than
usual; he had not a vestige of color; his voice was low and of an
increased unfamiliarity, but it did not contain the slightest sign of
indignation.

She had seated herself on the sofa again, and he now came very close to
her, standing while he spoke. He held the letter in his hand, which
trembled a little.

"You wrote this to Goldwin, and it has been lost by him. Some one else
has found it, and sent it to me. The handwriting on the envelope is not
his."

Claire looked at him in blank amazement. It did not seem to her that he
could possibly be the man whom she had thus far known as Herbert
Hollister. He appeared radically and utterly changed. She could not
understand just where the change lay, or in what it consisted. She was
too bewildered to analyze it or in any way draw conclusions from it. She
was simply pierced with a pungent sense of its existence.

"He lost it," she said. "He wrote me that he had lost it. You are right
in thinking that some one else has sent it to you."

She wondered what he would now say. She forgot even to feel shame in his
presence. She was asking herself what had so completely altered him. Why
was he neither angry nor reproachful? The very expression of his
features looked strangely unusual. It was almost as if the spirit of
some new man had entered into his body.

"Whoever has sent this," he soon said, "is your enemy, and wishes you
great harm. But thank God I have it!" He crushed the paper in his hand,
immediately afterward, and thrust it within his pocket. Claire rose from
the sofa. Her hands hung at either side, in a helpless way. Her eyes
were still fastened upon his face.

"Are you acting a part?" she asked, with a sort of weary desperation. "I
realize that I have done a horrible thing. But tell me at once what
course you mean to take. If I am to leave your house, and never to be
noticed by you again, order me to go, and I will go. The letter shows
you that I care nothing for that man. I don't make excuses; I have none
to make. But I am not an adulteress even in thought. Remember what I
say. My sin, dark as it is, has not that one hideous element. I wanted
to desert you--to go abroad--you read the whole story in the letter. You
have only to speak the word, and you shall have looked on me for the
last time.... It is your silence that tortures me.... Why are you
silent? Here I stand before you, without a shadow of right to defend
myself, and yet you force from me a certain kind of miserable defense,
because you will not either rebuke or denounce me."

He had been looking at her very steadily. He now caught one of her hands
in both his own.

"Claire," he said, "I have only one wish--one thought: to save you."

"Save me?" she repeated.

He went on speaking with great speed. His eyes were fixed on her own,
and they were filled with a light that was rich and sweet. She had never
known him to be like this before; he was just as tender as of old, but
beneath his tenderness there was a strength, a decision, a virile
assertion, that gave him a new, startling personality.

"Yes," he said, "to save you. There is no great mischief done, as it is.
I think some woman sent me your letter. It is just what some envious or
spiteful woman would do. But I have it, and can destroy it. You ask me
what course I mean to take. You ask me whether I shall bid you to leave
my house. My only answer, Claire, is this: if you have no love for me,
then I have a very great love for you. I think you knew this long ago. I
am your friend, poor child--not only your husband, but your friend. You
shan't go wrong while I have the brain and the nerve to stand between
you and folly. Other men might take another course. I don't care. You
are pure, still; I am certain of it, and you shall remain pure. You are
my wife; I will protect you; it's my duty to protect you. You have never
loved me; you married me without a spark of love. But I gave you as
large a love as man ever gave to woman. It's in my heart still. It can
never die. If it were not so large and so true it would not seek to
guard and shield you now. But it does--it must.... Claire, Claire, you
have been terribly foolish! A little more, and I could have done nothing
to save you. A little more, and I must have cast you off. But as it is,
I can and will plant myself between you and disgrace!"

He had been holding her hand all through the utterance of these words.
But now he released it, and slightly withdrew from her.

She advanced toward him. There was a look of absolute awe on her face.
She recognized how much her own blindness had been hiding from her. His
very stature seemed to have risen. His tolerance appealed to her with
sublimity. It flashed through her mind: 'What other man would have acted
as he has done?'

In a few brief moments she knew him as the noble and high being he
really was. The tears besieged her eyes. The enormity of the wrong she
had done him horrified her. She stood quivering in his presence. The
impulse assailed her literally to kneel before him. She grasped his arm;
her dry, tearless eyes searched his pale face with a madness of
contrition in their look.

"Herbert," she faltered.... "Herbert, I--I never knew till now that you
could be so grand and strong! What kept me from loving you was your own
love for _me_. It seemed to make you weak; it seemed to put you below
me. You were always yielding to me--always paying me reverence. But _I_
should have bowed before _you_. You were worthy of it, and I did not
see ... I never saw till now!... Herbert, _I love you_!... Oh, these are
not idle words! They spring straight from my soul! If you want the
repentance of my future life, it is yours! Why did you not show me your
real self till so late? What shall I do to prove my love? You must not
pardon me so easily--no, I cannot endure that! It makes me sick with
shame to be treated so! Such a mercy would be cruelty. You must punish
me, somehow--I must undergo some penance, the harder the better. You
have no right to trust me again until I have passed through some sort of
cleansing fire--suffered, been mortified, humiliated, taught a stern and
fearful lesson! You gave me everything; there was nothing in the world I
did not owe to you; you lifted me from dependence into the most
brilliant prosperity. And I--Good Heavens! I was a viper of ingratitude!
I might call it madness; I might say that the lust for riches and power
made me conceive this treacherous and contemptible idea of deserting
you--made me decide that we could not live together when the wealth had
gone. But it was no madness--there was too clear a method in it for
that. It was merely base and mean--it can have no palliative....
Herbert, don't look at me with any love, any pity in your face. I can't
bear it--I--I want to creep away somewhere and die. I am not fit to have
you touch me--No, no! you _must_ not!" ...

She had receded from him; she meant to quit the room, though her limbs
felt weak and her head giddy, and she was not sure whether she could
reach the doorway without falling. But on a sudden his arms clasped her.
How strong they seemed! She had never till now had so keen a sense of
even his bodily strength. When his lips touched her own she burst into
tears. She was still struggling to free herself, but he held her too
firmly; she could not escape.

"Claire," she heard him say, with a tenderness of tone more exquisite
than any he had yet used, "I couldn't help forgiving you, dear, no
matter how hard I might try. Oh, darling, let us begin all over again!
You say that you do love me at last! Well, I believe you! _I want to
believe you, and I will!_ How could I ever punish you? You haven't been
so greatly to blame--don't torment yourself by thinking you have. People
were flattering and courting you; they made you a perfect queen; they
turned your head. Now all that is over. I think there is a great
happiness in store for us both, my love--a happiness that the money
never brought us while it lasted. Perhaps, after all, it is better that
I should find you weak. It makes you more human in my sight. I shan't
bow down before you any more, as you say that I did; I shall only love
you ... love you forever--love you till death, and beyond it, too, I
hope!"

He was kissing her cheek as he uttered these final words; but it had
already seemed to take a certain chill, and in another moment he was
forced to bear up her form, for it had no power whatever of
self-support. She had fainted in his arms....

She found him close beside her when she regained consciousness. She lay
upon the lounge in her own dressing-room upstairs. He was bathing her
forehead with cologne, and holding to her nostrils a handkerchief
drenched with it. He had begun to be alarmed at her continued swoon.
The first thing that her eyes reopened upon was his smile of glad
relief.

The light of that smile stayed with Claire through years. It bathed her
life in perpetual sunshine.

Everything altered in a few more weeks. They left the great house and
went to live in the smaller one, which Claire personally owned, and
which Hollister would not let her give back to him, though she pleaded
with him more than once on this subject.

"No," he would always say. "It is yours, and that means it is mine as
well. I meant, when the crash first came, that you should keep it, and I
was glad that the law made it yours. If I let you give it back to me,
this would look as if I had lost faith in you. And I have lost no faith;
I have gained a new faith--that is all."

'To think that I should ever have known this man and not have loved
him!' she would say to herself again and again.

Every successive day brought with it a dear surprise. She felt toward
her husband as though his nature were a region through which she had
journeyed heedlessly but was now revisiting with sharpened vision,
vitalized intelligence. Traits and qualities that she could not but
remember him to have possessed, now assumed a beauty, a harmony, a
proportion, an allurement that she had never before dreamed of
recognizing. A fresh light, so to speak, flooded the beloved landscape
of his character. Vale, grove, wayside, were all preciously different
from of old. Over them sang awakened birds, and still higher leaned a
shining sky, fond, fathomless, prophetic.

Very few of their former fashionable acquaintances showed the slightest
sign of deserting them. Hollister had been one of the many victims of
the dire panic, but it soon became generally understood that he was
going to make honorable settlement with his creditors--that he was on
the list of the seriously wounded, so to speak, and not on that of the
killed. In many instances there was even an increase of civility. Cards
were left at the door of the small house, just as they had been left at
the door of the more spacious one. Society made it a matter of _amour
propre_ not to drop them. It had taken them up; it could not afford to
discountenance them for the single fault of a reduced income. The
thorough-paced plutocrat is always very slow to admit his claims founded
on anything so vulgar as a purely mercenary basis; and the aristocrat,
on the other hand, will very often pay you a kind of proud loyalty when
he has once openly ranked you as his equal. Moreover, both Claire and
her husband had an ample personal popularity to fall back upon. They had
been graceful and charming young figures, felicitously harmonizing with
their festal background. Their absence left a sensible void.

But it was an absence, and as such it continued. Claire's love for the
superficial glitter and pomp of what she had always inwardly felt to be
sham and falsity was no longer even a dumb sensation. It had become the
merest memory, and by no means a pleasant one. She had changed for the
last time in her life. The change was securely permanent, now. If she
looked into the future and asked herself what unfulfilled desire lay
there, it was always to thrill with the hope that Herbert might one day
be rid of all financial worriment, and that their home, already lit and
warmed by a precious mutual love, might receive the blessing of a happy
tranquillity as well.

For a long time this hope looked very far from being realized. She was
untiringly devoted to his interests, and would hold long talks with him
regarding the complicated and distracting nature of his affairs. Her apt
mind, her ready and shrewd counsel, no longer surprised him; but he
recognized with an untold joy the different motives that now spurred and
animated her. In the end light began to break from darkness. Hollister
still kept steady the extraordinary nerve which had before enabled him
to set aflame and continue such astonishing pyrotechnics of speculation.
It slowly and surely became evident to him that he would soon have
steered clear of all disastrous reefs, and bring forth from the final
dying rage of the big tempest a ship not so wholly shattered that
careful repairs and cautious sailing hereafter might not keep it very
seaworthy for many years.

Claire had meanwhile exulted in her economies, and conducted them with
that same easy tact and skill which had marked her past supervision of a
large and splendid establishment. She still preserved a certain residuum
of friends. There was no ascetic renunciation of all worldly pleasures,
either on her own or Hollister's part. It amused her to observe just
whom she retained as her intimates and allies. The survival of the
fittest, in this respect, was something to note and value. It showed her
that the gay throng in which she had shone was not all made of
worthlessly flippant members. But those, both men and women, whom she
now liked to have about her had each stood some pleasant test, had each
presented to her some solid or sterling trait of mind or character,
which gave them a passport into the gentler, healthier, and wiser
conditions of her new life.

Beverley Thurston paid only rare visits to her home. She understood why
he did not come oftener; she never pressed him to come. She had thanked
him for his great service, with moist eyes and breaking voice. But she
had not told him of the sweet ascendancy that her husband had gained.
She had tried to let him see this change. Such revelation had been less
difficult than spoken words; for all words on a subject that had now
become so holy appeared to her impious.

During many days after imparting to her husband the knowledge that he
must henceforward receive her mother into his household, she had dreaded
the clash of their widely opposite natures, and foreseen trouble that
would only lend weight and severity to that which fate had already
inflicted. But by degrees she found herself laughing with Herbert at the
shadows of her own fears. He treated Mrs. Twining as a kind of grim
joke. With her invigorated health, she was prepared to hold him strictly
accountable for his altered circumstances. Her sarcasms were more
pitiless than Claire had ever remembered them. She took the attitude of
a person who has been shut out from a banquet until the viands are all
demolished, and then admitted to feed upon the unsatisfactory débris.
She had no intention whatever of forgiving Hollister his misfortunes. In
all her career of repulsive deportment she had never achieved a more
obnoxious triumph. And yet, by the sheer force of good-humored,
gallant, conciliatory kindness, Hollister at length succeeded in
conquering her. She found it simply impossible to annoy him. He insisted
upon not taking her seriously. His amiability was so impenetrable that
she finally receded before it, and began to profess toward him a sort of
gloomy, reluctant liking.

"I see," Claire said to him one day. "She is my punishment. But why
should you share it?"

"Nonsense," he answered. "I think she is immense fun." It seemed to
Claire that he was quite in earnest as he thus spoke.

"She really does like you," Claire said. "In all my life, Herbert, I
have never known her to like--actually _like_--any one till now."

"That makes it all the funnier," he returned, with a slight, blithe
laugh. She knew he was in earnest, then, and felt a deep sense of
comfort.

Once Claire had spoken to him of Goldwin.... It already seemed far back
in the past, now, although it was scarcely a year ago. Her words had
been very few; her cheeks had burned while she uttered them.

"Herbert," she had said, "I feel that I must ask you whether you
have--have met"--And here she paused. Then, while he saw the pain and
shame on her face, she went stammeringly on: "Oh, you know whom I
mean--I don't want even to speak his name again--but it is best that I
knew on ... on what terms you are, and all that."

He grew pale while he looked at her. His voice was very grave, but
perfectly kind.

"I see him nearly every day, Claire. That is inevitable, you know. I
have spoken to him only once since--that time. I didn't quite know
whether I was strong enough to keep my temper. But I did keep it. I told
him that I had learned everything. And then I told him, very quietly,
that if he ever dared to address me again I would find an excuse for
cowhiding him."

Claire sprang up from her seat. "Oh, Herbert! did you say that? And did
he ... stand it?"

"Yes, he stood it. I didn't think he would, for a moment or two. It was
imprudent of me, perhaps--on your account, I mean. But he walked away,
without a word.... And now, Claire, promise me that you will never, as
long as we both live, refer to this matter again."

She threw her arms about his neck. "Never!" she cried. "I didn't want to
speak of it, as it was. I promise you, with all my heart!"

They had been married several years when a child, a boy, was born to
them. Claire made the most adoring of mothers. Mrs. Diggs, who was
forever dropping in upon her friend, with even more than her former
intimacy, said, once, while she watched the baby laugh on its mother's
lap, after the bath that Claire had lovingly given it with her own
hands:--

"Upon my word, it does seem so odd, don't you know? I can't just quite
realize it, even yet, Claire, dear."

"Realize what?" said Claire, looking up from the rosy little treasure on
her lap with a smile and two touches of color, for which the joy of her
own motherhood was solely responsible.

"Why, that you are the same being I used to know. It's a perfectly
lovely change. You remember how I used to dote on you then. But I dote
on you even more, now. Still, where _have_ all your grand ambitions
flown to?"

Claire looked serious, for a moment. Then she gave a light, sweet laugh.
"Oh, I'm a very ambitious woman yet," she said.


THE END.



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       *       *       *       *       *


Transcriber's Notes:


Obvious punctuation errors repaired. Ellipses left as per original.

Changes made:

  Pg. 120 "chance of a a [deleted one "a"] visitor being brought thither"
  Pg. 130 "a mansion of imposing dismensions" changed to "dimensions"
  Pg. 153 "a simplicity of wordliness" changed to "worldliness"
  Pg. 183 "door-ways of high-priced restaurants." changed to "doorways"
  Pg. 207 "side-long glances at Claire." changed to "sidelong"
  Pg. 220 "Nous avions peur que tu ne fus [changed to "fusses"] tombée"
  Pg. 246 "Then you'll understand the massive condecension"
           changed to "condescension"
  Pg. 249 "elle veut d'être absollument" changed to "absolument"
  Pg. 249 "nous allons à New York toute de suite" changed to "tout"
  Pg. 249 "elle veut d'être absolument perdue" changed to "être"
  Pg. 307 "difficulty this and the sentences that fellowed"
           changed to "followed"
  Pg. 360 "don't you know, if I had'nt" changed to "hadn't"
  Pg. 415 "I do not wish to continue [as] your" added "as"
  Pg. 449 "The Luck of Roaring Camp, and Other Sketches. 6mo"
           changed to "16mo"


Multiple spellings not changed:

  ain't, aint
  'Tain't, 'T ain't
  cobble-stones, cobblestones
  melo-dramatic, melodramatic
  p'raps, p'r'aps
  schoolfellows, school-fellows
  undercurrent, under-current
  woodwork, wood-work
  staunch, stanch
  subtle, subtile
  loyal, leal


Also kept as it appears in the original:

  Pg. 125 "what her dead had been"





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