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Title: The Beauty
Author: Wilson Woodrow, Mrs., 1870-1935
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.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Beauty" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



                               THE BEAUTY

                        _By_ MRS. WILSON WOODROW

                 _Author of_ The Silver Butterfly, etc.


    WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY
    WILL GREFÉ

    INDIANAPOLIS
    THE BOBBS-MERRILL COMPANY
    PUBLISHERS

    COPYRIGHT 1910
    THE BOBBS-MERRILL COMPANY


    PRESS OF
    BRAUNWORTH & CO.
    BOOKBINDERS AND PRINTERS
    BROOKLYN, N. Y.



[Illustration: Perdita]



CONTENTS


       I A BACHELOR'S BRIDE                               1

      II A FAR WORLD OF DREAMING                         14

     III PINK AND WHITE EXISTENCE                        35

      IV OUR LOVING FRIENDS                              55

       V PERDITA'S TALISMAN                              64

      VI SIROCCO                                         75

     VII THE GIFT OF FREEDOM                             84

    VIII FOOLS' LAUGHTER                                 98

      IX A TELEPHONE CALL                               114

       X OUT OF THE GILDED CAGE                         125

      XI A DOLL OR A BOX OF CANDY                       137

     XII FUSCHIA FLEMING                                150

    XIII SHOCKING THE HEWSTONS                          165

     XIV PUBLICITY                                      175

      XV A WIDOW'S SMILE                                192

     XVI FATHER AND DAUGHTER                            206

    XVII DO YOU LOVE ME?                                219

   XVIII PLAYING THE GAME                               231

     XIX HE CALLS ON HIS WIFE                           243

      XX THE MAGIC WORD                                 256

     XXI TWO ANNOUNCEMENTS                              268

    XXII HEPWORTH MISUNDERSTANDS                        278

   XXIII ITS ANCIENT CHARM                              289

    XXIV WAITING FOR PERDITA                            305

     XXV WITH MY HEART'S LOVE                           316



THE BEAUTY



CHAPTER I

A BACHELOR'S BRIDE


If the proper statistics of bachelorhood were accurately tabulated they
would show that at certain fixed and recurring periods, a confirmed old
bachelor, say one in every ten, casts his dearly-bought experience, his
hard-won knowledge of the world and women to the four winds of heaven,
and chooses for himself a wife; and, as his friends and relatives
invariably protest, a bungling job he makes of it. He may, before the
world, walk soberly, discreetly, advisedly and in the fear of God in
every other respect, but when it comes to selecting a companion for the
rest of his life, he follows, apparently, a predestined leading, some
errant and tricksy impulse, and from a world of desirable and waiting
helpmates, eminently suitable, he will, in nine cases out of ten, fix
his heart upon the one inevitable She who can keep the pot of trouble
ever boiling for him.

This, according to Mr. Cresswell Hepworth's old and intimate friends,
was exactly the course which he had followed; nor was even one voice
upraised in dissent from this opinion, as they frankly discussed the
matter over their champagne and truffled sweetbreads at the breakfast
following the wedding.

It was but natural that they who were rarely in complete agreement on
any subject which commended itself for discussion among them, should
hold a unanimous opinion on this matter which involved the happiness of
their lifelong friend. But although the opinion was unanimous, it was
not unprejudiced. Hepworth had had his distinct niche in their homes and
hearts for many years, and now as they gazed metaphorically at the empty
space, it struck a chill to their affections.

Nevertheless they did not, could not fail to join in the little gasp of
admiration which breathed through the church as the bride swept up the
aisle on the arm of Mr. Willoughby Hewston, the well-known banker and
intimate friend of the bride-groom. She had been stopping, it was
understood, with Mrs. Wilstead, another friend of Hepworth's, for
several weeks.

There were those in the large audience who saw a certain pathos in the
fact that she was given away by one of Hepworth's friends, thus exposing
the lack of either relatives or friends of her own, but there was
nothing in her bearing to indicate that she was conscious of her
isolated position as she advanced, leaning lightly on Mr. Hewston's arm.

The world, Hepworth's world, and it was a large one, was tingling with
curiosity. He was a great figure, looming immense upon the financial
horizon; but no one had ever heard of the bride. The invitations to the
wedding were the first intimation of his impending marriage, and the
bride's name, Perdita Carey, conveyed nothing to anybody. By dint of
careful collection of scraps of information, it gradually became known
that she was young, of southern birth and extremely pretty. Bare facts.
No more.

It was also considered rather an odd reading of the customary
conventions on Hepworth's part, this crowded church wedding exposing the
bride's poverty in relatives, the breakfast to follow, at his town
house, thus making equally plain her homeless state; but when this view
was set before him, sighingly, by Isabel Hewston, and vivaciously by
Alice Wilstead, he became obstinate in the insistence of his plans. He
seemed possessed of some masculine idea of getting things over, of
having all his friends meet his wife en masse, so to speak, and having
the matter settled.

And so it was, "Nice customs curtsy to great kings"--or millionaires.
The audience then of his friends--there was none of hers present, if
indeed she possessed any--sat with heads turned at an aching angle and
awaited, with concealed impatience, the choice of Cresswell Hepworth.

The weight of opinion leaned to a sunburst of a woman, darkly splendid,
opulently graceful, and instead, when the stately strains of the
wedding-march echoed through the church, the guests lifted their
astonished eyes to a brown and slender girl; but no matter what the
expectation had been, each realized that he gazed on a more poetic
loveliness than he had dreamed.

Another unhesitating mental admission. Obscure, unknown she might have
been, but she could never be considered ordinary. It had taken
generations of cultivation to give that pose of the head and shoulders,
that arch of the instep, that taper to her slender wrist. And what
intimation of individuality! Few women could have borne more regally the
weight of heavy and lusterless satin or a diadem of flashing jewels; but
this girlish bride of a millionaire had insisted on being married in the
white muslin her own scanty purse had furnished; and wore as if it were
a crown of diamonds the wreath of white jasmine flowers which held her
long tulle veil close about the cloudy masses of her hair.

For once the entire interest of any occasion which he happened to grace
was not centered on Hepworth, who, with his usual invincible composure,
awaited the bride at the altar, fortified by his best man, Wallace
Martin.

But the owner of millions--unctuous sound--is worth more than a mere
dismissing word. Let the bride continue to advance, he to await her,
while he is presented in a lightning sketch.

Cresswell Hepworth was far from old, not fifty. He had more than three
generations of cultivated ancestry behind him. In type he was American,
approaching the Indian; tall, slightly aquiline of feature, somewhat
granitic and imperturbable. His hair, which had been brown, was almost
white, his eyes were gray, trained to express nothing, but startlingly
penetrating when he chose to lift rather heavy lids with a peculiarly
long droop at the corners.

Emerson says somewhere that "a feeble man can see the farms that are
fenced and tilled, the houses that are built. The strong man sees the
possible houses and farms. His eye makes estates as fast as the sun
breeds clouds."

Hepworth was a strong man. He saw possible houses and farms,
externalized them and became the acquirer of vast and profitable
tracts of land--a fair map blackly dotted with mines and scrawled
with the angular lines of intersecting railroads. In this yellow
triangle, a great wheat farm. Here, in this square of living green,
irrigated and profitable ranches. He stood, this "Colossus of
Finance"--journalese--with his feet planted firmly on this solid
map-basis, and, with a golden rake, drew toward him from countless
clutching hands securities, stocks, bonds, curios, pictures (he was an
ardent collector), loot of every description, and, it was even whispered
through the church, his young and lovely bride.

But now he stepped forward to meet her with a smile that enlivened his
whole face, even his eyes. The service flowed on. With that air of sulky
geniality which represented his most urbane manner, Willoughby Hewston
gave away the bride. The responses were duly made, and Mr. and Mrs.
Cresswell Hepworth turned to walk through an aisle of smiling and
nodding friends.

At that moment the mellow October sunlight fell through the stained
windows enwrapping Perdita in a regal and impalpable vesture of scarlet
and gold; and again a murmur of admiration rippled and echoed at this
fresh revelation of her beauty. She had been pale as she walked up the
aisle, but now her color had risen and the crimson on her brown cheek
was the hue of a jacqueminot rose. Her hair, a deep chestnut at the
temples, flowed into copper, dark in the hollows, gold where it caught
the light. Her coloring was a harmony of all soft, warm, dusky shades,
and one looked to the eyes to focus these tints in light or darkly rich
topaz; but Perdita's eyes were gray, handed down perhaps from those
Irish kings to whom her father had laughingly traced his descent.

"Lucky girl!" murmured Alice Wilstead an hour later to the group of
Hepworth's intimate friends who sat together at one table during the
breakfast that followed the wedding. "Just think of it. He has no family
encumbrances. Never an 'in-law' will she have to cope with."

It never struck her that Hepworth's little circle of close friends had
gradually assumed about all of the intrusive and proprietary
prerogatives of the nearest and most affectionate relatives.

Alice Wilstead was a widow, dark, slender, piquant, versed in the
secrets of grace and the art of wearing her jewels so that they
accentuated her sparkling eyes and her one precious dimple without
eclipsing them. Warmly sympathetic and impulsive, she had been overcome
by the vision of Perdita's isolation as the girl walked up the aisle on
the grudging arm of Willoughby Hewston; and had pressed her
handkerchief lightly to her eyes, a moment of emotion viewed with
callous interest by a misinterpreting world which regarded it as a last
tear shed for a lost opportunity, a shattered hope.

"Well," said Hewston, finishing his sweetbreads and preparing to begin
on the next course, "it went off very well. I was all right, wasn't I?"

"You were perfect, dear," his wife hastened to assure him, "and it was a
beautiful wedding."

Mrs. Hewston was gray and pink and plump like her husband; and this
morning her grayness and pinkness and plumpness were underlined, thrown
into high relief by a violet gauze gown, heavily spangled in silver.
Isabel Hewston resembled nothing so much as a comfortable, placid,
fireside cat, purry and complacent. If she possessed claws, which is
doubtful, they were always well concealed.

"Yes, a beautiful wedding and a beautiful bride," she murmured, with a
little sighing inflection habitual to her, "so young, so--"

"Humph!" interrupted her husband, with as much of a snort as a mouthful
of game would permit, "I tell you it's a pretty tough thing for all of
us to see old Hepworth looking so happy." He thrust out his lower lip
and wrinkled up his eyes until he bore a grotesque likeness to a baby
about to cry. "Hepworth's my best friend, and to see that look of almost
boyish joy on his face was pretty hard. There are some things you can do
and some you can't; now one of these things that no man can afford to do
is to marry outside his own class. I could have told Cress so."

The other members of this intimate little coterie of friends, five in
all, looked at one another and burst into involuntary laughter.

Wallace Martin, an old young man, a magazine writer, who would fain be a
playwright, gave the single bark of mirth which served him for an
explosion of laughter. It sounded particularly derisive now.

"I would give my little all to have the new Mrs. Hepworth hear you say
that," he chuckled. "Dear old Hewston, she would not in a thousand years
consider any of us in her class. She belonged, let me inform you, to one
of the oldest of southern families. Her mother was a cotton princess of
the loveliest and haughtiest variety. One of the famous belles of her
day. Her father, too, was of the old South."

"Why, what are you talking about?" growled Hewston irascibly. "She
hadn't a dime--was a beautiful cloak model or something of that kind."

"She painted dinky things for a living, if you mean that," said Martin
carelessly, "lamp-shades and menu cards and such."

"If she only had some friends, even one relative," deplored Mrs.
Hewston, "it would look so much--er--nicer, you know. Relatives do add a
background." She shook her head regretfully.

"We'll have to be her relatives," said Maud Carmine, a niece of Mrs.
Hewston and a plain rather faded young woman of pale and indefinite
tints and many angles. Her claim to distinction rested on the fact that
she was a drawing-room musician of--strange anomaly--real musical
feeling. It was her misfortune always to be explained by those who found
her tact, good nature and practical common sense useful, and who drew
heavily on them, as, "not attractive looking, you know; but pure gold,
and one of the most dependable persons," and this damning tribute of
friendship served as an admirable check to further curiosity concerning
her. "Yes, we must be her background." Her glance lingered for a moment
on Wallace Martin, but he returned it briefly and indifferently.

"A young woman who has just married millions needs no family group,"
remarked Alice Wilstead lightly. "The most effective background is her
husband."

"Gad!" Mr. Hewston put down his knife and fork to glare at her. "The
idea of looking at Hepworth as a background. He who has always been in
the front of everything. A background! And for a snub-nosed chit of a
girl!"

"Oh, Willoughby, dear, not snub-nosed," expostulated his wife mildly.

"Snub-nosed, I said," insisted Willoughby. "Didn't I walk up the aisle
with her?"

"Hush, dear, hush," murmured his wife. "Here she comes now."

The bride was leaving. Passing through the handsome, stiff apartments
like a white cloud, to make ready for the journey before her, she
stopped a moment for a word or two with Maud Carmine as she paused at
that table.

Hewston rose reluctantly to his feet. "I once heard of a wedding," he
said confidentially and hopefully to Wallace Martin, "where the bride
went up to change her gown, and never showed up again."

"Where did she go?" asked Wallace with interest.

"Dunno," returned Willoughby. "Old lover. Fourth dimension.
Unexplainable, but fact, I assure you."



CHAPTER II

A FAR WORLD OF DREAMING


The bride had passed through the admiring groups with a smile here, a
word there and was already half up the stairway, above the voices, the
heavy flower scents, the sentimental melodies which stole from the
musicians' bower. On, a white, mystic figure, her veil floating behind
her; on, without undue haste, but most eagerly, as if she climbed some
mount which led from the world to a desired solitude.

On the first landing she paused, leaning for a moment, Juliet-like as
from a balcony, and looked down on the moving mosaic of color beneath,
the gay, light tones of the women's gowns thrown into relief by the dark
coats of the men. The gazers paid her the tribute of involuntary "Ohs,"
and barely restrained themselves from applause as if at the appearance
of their favorite actress. As usual Perdita had made a picture of
herself, an involuntary and unpremeditated picture; but in effect beyond
the calculations of the most vigilant stage manager.

She stood with one arm lightly upraised holding her bouquet of white
jasmine above her laughing face. Behind her, a stained glass window,
before her the marble balustrade. Then the bouquet, its white ribbons
waving and circling, whirled through the air, over the sea of upturned
faces and white clutching hands and straight into Alice Wilstead's arms.

With the laughter and clamor of voices ringing in her ears, Perdita,
hidden from sight now by a turn of the staircase, followed, with
unconcealed haste, the crimson velvet pathway which led to solitude.

At the top of the stairs she hesitated briefly, glancing right and left.
She had been in the house but twice before, both times under the
chaperonage of Mrs. Hewston, and she was not sure of the exact
geographical position of her own suite of apartments.

At this moment her maid, engaged from that morning, stepped forward and
threw open a door. Perdita smiled approval. It would have been
difficult to withhold it. Olga, a paragon of maids, if references and
experience count, showed no signs of the wear and tear of previous
mistresses. She was delightful in appearance, rosy-cheeked, amiable,
immaculate, with that air of trained capability which invites
confidence.

Perdita paused before entering. "Are all my traveling things out?" she
asked.

"Yes, madame."

"Very well, I shall not need you for a few moments. Remain here and when
I want you I will ring."

"Yes, madame."

Perdita drew a breath of relief as the door was closed gently behind
her. At last she was alone, away from eyes, eyes that were everywhere.
She had felt all morning as if she were encompassed by them, appraising
eyes, envious eyes, unfamiliar, inquisitive eyes.

She looked slowly about her. And these were her own apartments, these
beautiful, cold, unlived-in rooms, as empty of life or individuality as
a shell.

Yesterday she had walked through them with Isabel Hewston, pleased,
admiring, but a little overawed. She had not realized before what a
wizard's wand Cresswell wielded. He had but waved it and great
architects and decorators, their disciplined and cultivated imaginations
stimulated by the prospect of unlimited expenditure had devised for her,
penniless Perdita Carey, all this beauty and luxury. She had only
stipulated timidly that she might be environed in her favorite rose
color, a mere suggestion for those who had the matter in charge. It was
enough. Her bed chamber bloomed with the pale but vivid flush of pink
roses, La France, accentuated with cool, suave, silver notes, like the
delicate, contrasted phrasing of a musical theme. The result of color
and arrangement was youthful, joyous, spacious. Beyond a softly falling
curtain, she caught a glimpse of her sitting-room. American beauty, a
radiant spot with delicious water colors on the walls, bowls of roses,
the sunshine falling through the windows, and shelves of books, each
volume bound in creamy vellum.

In one of the long mirrors which reflected her graceful figure from
every angle she saw through an opposite door her dressing-room and
bath, with its elaborate appointments, more inviting and luxurious than
any of which the proudest Roman beauty could have dreamed. She looked
about her with a faint, strange smile. What a contrast were these cold
and splendid rooms, not yet animated by her personality, to that little
apartment with its two or three tiny chambers, high up under the roof,
where she had lived and worked!

Then she turned back to her reflection in the mirror. It was extremely
becoming to her, all this background of rose and silver. Perdita
realized that as she unfastened the white flowers from her hair and let
her long veil fall like a cloud about her. With a deft movement she
caught it and tossed it on a chair for Olga to fold later. She slipped
out of her wedding-gown next and laid it more carelessly still upon a
couch. Then she leaned forward, her elbow on the dressing-table, her
chin on her hand, and regarded herself steadily, that faint, strange
smile still on her lips.

Well, she had fulfilled her destiny, justified Eugene Gresham's
prophecy. She heard his words to her, spoken the last time she had seen
him, three months before, as plainly as if his voice still rang in her
ears.

"Perdita, your destiny is written on your face. It includes marrying a
millionaire and having your portrait painted by me."

Fateful words! She had just married the millionaire, but even here, upon
the threshold of this new life, she was constrained to halt a moment and
cast one backward glance, "just for the old love's sake."

It was the night before Eugene Gresham sailed for Europe to paint the
portraits of "Princessin, Contessin and high Altessin." Again she
awaited him. Again she heard his step on the stair without, a quick,
light step with an odd halt in it.

He was coming, and her heart beat. How it beat as she stood there
breathless beside the window!

"Perdita!" Eugene's voice. He was across the room in a flash, both her
hands in his. "Here, let me see you in the light." He drew her toward a
lamp. "Two years, two years since we have met, and me wasting time
painting in the desert places when I might have been with you. Time is
not in the Far East. Ah, my cousin!" (the relationship was remote) he
sighed. "Why, as I live," with a quick change of tone, "you've got
another dimple, and that makes you a new and lovelier Perdita."

She flushed adorably. "How nice and southern," she cried with an attempt
at lightness, "and how exactly like you, just like the old 'Gene."

"The old 'Gene," his eyes still holding hers, "has never changed."

"How--how--are the pictures going?" withdrawing her hands from his.

"Beautifully!" he said carelessly. "The glassy eyes of the millionaires
are all turning toward me, and I have more commissions to make beautiful
on canvas their pug-nosed, fat-faced wives than I care to accept. Those
ladies hail me as a great psychological artist. Their mirrors are so
cruel to them that when my brushes flatter them they say that I paint
their souls; strip away the husk of the flesh and reveal enduring
loveliness."

He struck a match to light a cigarette and then hastily shielded it with
his cupped hand from the breeze which blew through the open window. The
light flared into his down-bent face, bringing out its dissonances
almost grotesquely in that small, momentary flash. Pick Gresham to
pieces and he was incontrovertibly convicted of sheer ugliness, but the
fact bothered him not at all. He knew that few ever arrived at the cool,
dispassionate frame of mind regarding him where they were capable of
that exhaustive analysis known as picking to pieces. He was slender and
rather small of stature, not more than medium height. One shoulder was
noticeably higher than the other and he walked with a slight limp, the
result of an injury received in boyhood. Coarse, blue-black hair with a
sort of crinkle in it stood out from his head like a cloud. His skin was
swarthy, his features irregular, even his eyes, dark eyes, were only
occasionally brilliant. But he might have been appreciably uglier,
almost as hideous as the Yellow Dwarf or Beauty's Beast,--it would have
mattered no more than his present lack of beauty, and well he knew it.
His was the magic gift of glamour, and all the dissonances and
inharmonies of appearance as well as of character seemed but the
italics emphasizing his charm. His mind was supple and flexible, his
wits nimble, even subtle. He was as vivid, as veering, as fascinating as
flame.

His match, the third he had struck, blew out before it had lighted his
cigarette, and he threw it away with a petulant gesture. He did not
answer her, as he was again attempting to light his cigarette, this time
with success. Then he began to saunter about the room.

In spite of her penury Perdita had yet managed to invest her little
workshop with both daintiness and charm. The walls were hung with pink
and white chintz and here and there were bits of fragile china and rare
old silver on claw-legged mahogany tables, while from dim canvases in
tarnished silver frames smiled the sweet, dark eyes of haughty southern
beauties of a generation unused to life's struggles.

"You really saved some of the best things from that hideous auction,
didn't you?" picking up a bit of china to scrutinize it more carefully.
"I was horrified when I heard of it across the world, several months
after it was all over. If I'd only been there to buy the whole lot in.
Plucky little girl you were, Perdita, to come on here and manage to keep
the gaunt, gray wolf at bay."

"What else was there for me to do?" she asked without turning her head.
"Aunt died, the place had to go. As for the wolf, if you look sharp,
Eugene, you may see his paws thrusting under this door."

In the center of the room was a large table covered with paint brushes,
colors, a litter of candle shades, cotillion favors and cards in various
stages of completion. Eugene carefully cleared a space on that edge of
the table nearest Perdita's chair, and perched upon it, looking down at
her with a smile.

"My stars, Dita!" he cried with the truest conviction, "you are a
beauty! The moment I return, I mean to paint you again. And this time
I'll set the world afire. Do you remember how many portraits I have made
of you? Why, just to see you brings back my boyhood,--the hopes, the
struggles, the effort, the haunted days, the feverish nights. I used to
think, 'If I can just learn how to get this effect, I'll know the whole
secret.' I've got past that now. There's always a new and more
difficult riddle every day. But Dita, Dita, the dreams of my youth you
recall!"

The smile died from her face. Her eyes grew wistful. "The dreams of our
youth," she repeated. "I'm young yet; but they haunt me. They were
beautiful dreams down there on that gray, old river. Can't you shut your
eyes, Eugene, and see the terraces sloping down to the water, the
lovely, neglected garden with its tangle of roses and jasmine?"

"Do I remember?" His eyes looked deep into hers. "I swear I never smell
jasmine without thinking of the old place and you. Perdita, do you ever
think what life might have been for us if it hadn't been for our
accursed poverty? If we'd only had just a little between us. It's a
question of courage. If we'd only had the courage to face things hand in
hand we'd have got along somehow, I dare say. But we didn't have that
quality, did we? We didn't believe enough in our dreams. That's the
worst of life. She won't let you."

"Oh, the dreams!" she scoffed. Her color remained high, her eyes
glittered, but with irritation, not tears. She suffered from an old
laceration of the heart, the more wounding in that, for pride's sake,
she must ever deny it expression. Eugene always took the attitude as if
they together had renounced a mutual love, and often implied, without
rancor, but with a forgiving, almost understanding tenderness, that the
responsibility of their marred lives lay on her shoulders.

Perdita was of the twentieth century, but she was also a southern woman
of many traditions, and she could not say the words which rose to her
defensive lips: "Eugene, you have never asked me to face life hand in
hand with you." He would with a glance, she could see it, feel it,
convict her of blunted intuitions, of an inability to discern exquisite
shades of emotion; and then he would express his love for her in
glowing, passionate phrases, confusingly evasive, elusive beyond
definition, committing himself to nothing.

And if this shifting of responsibility on her, this ardent skirting of a
definite issue were premeditated or his unavoidable, temperamental way
of viewing the matter, she could not tell. Conjecture was idle. Her
knowledge of his character, her ready mental accusations and equally
ready excuses, these comprising the sole weight of evidence, merely held
the scales steady.

Eugene began to pick up, first one, then another, of the favors on the
table, a smile, tender yet humorous, about his lips.

"By Jove, these are not so bad! They are rather stunning. You always did
have a lot of feeling for form and color, Dita, but you wouldn't work.
You weren't willing to drudge and to starve if necessary. That was
because you lacked the clear vision. It wasn't always before you, a
pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night." None might doubt
his sincerity or conviction now. It was mounting as flame. "Artistic and
appreciative you are, Dita. All this trash shows it, but you lack the
creative impulse. You were never meant to be a barefooted, tattered
follower of the vision, a lodger in a new palace of dreams each night.
You should build your house on the rock of substantial things,
bread-and-butter facts.

"Oh, do not toss up your head in that wounded-stag manner. Good Lord!
Isn't it enough that you are beautiful? And how beautiful! I'm almost
tempted to cancel my passage and, instead of sailing to-morrow morning,
stop here and paint you again. Really, I am. But what would it profit
me? I'd just be sowing the seed for a new harvest of heartaches.
Perdita, your destiny is written on your face." It was as if he willed
to speak lightly. "It includes marrying a millionaire, and having your
portrait painted by me. You'll never have an international reputation as
a beauty until you do both." But in spite of his smile and his flippant
words there was bitterness in his eyes.

She did not see that, but the lightness of his words and tone pricked
her to an immediate decision, a decision which she had, unconsciously,
postponed until she had seen him. Her face paled, her lips folded in a
tight line.

"I am going to marry the millionaire," she said firmly enough, although
there was a slight tremor in her voice. "It depends on you whether or
not there is a portrait of Mrs. Cresswell Hepworth by Gresham." There
was triumph in her eyes and voice as thus she lifted her pride from the
dust.

"Cresswell Hepworth!" His astonishment was unbounded. "Perdita! I throw
my hat at your feet. Cresswell Hepworth! The pick of the bunch.
Wonderful! But," looking at her curiously, "how on earth did you meet
him?"

"He heard of my amulet through a man I met at old Mrs. Huff's, Mr.
Martin. He has a wonderful collection of amulets, and he wanted to buy
it of me."

"But you didn't sell it?" he said quickly. "No, of course not. H'm-m.
That old amulet. You laugh at my superstitions, Dita, but you must admit
that it's queer the way it's interwoven with the history of our family."

He began to roll cigarettes and lay them with neat and exquisite
regularity on the table beside him. His eyebrows were raised, his mouth
twisted in a sort of rueful yet whimsical grimace. When he had finished
rolling the sixth cigarette, he laid it in line with the others, an
exact line, his eye was so true. Then at last he looked at her, and his
cynical, earnest, mocking, enthusiastic face softened. His eyes
enveloped her with tenderness. There was a heart-break in his smile.

"Ah, star-eyed Perdita, how shall I give you up? The only woman!" He
mused a moment, and then repeated: "The only woman! If we had but had
the courage to take the bitter with the sweet, Perdita."

Unwitting goad! It struck too deep for her to conceal the wound.

"You do not say 'can,' I observe, Eugene," she said laughingly, but
there was an edge to her voice like that on finely tempered steel.

"No," he returned, his fingers busy with a rearrangement of the
cigarettes; "you see it involves you and me. Not John Jones and Jane
Smith, but you and me. Do you know what that means? Well, it means that
it involves the inheritance and training of a good many generations. Do
you think I do not know how you loathe all this?" He flicked with his
fingers the dainty trifles on the table. "I know well the craving of
your nature for splendor and beauty, how necessary they are to you, and
how dinkiness and makeshifts irritate and depress you, take the heart
out of you. That is one you, one Perdita. There is another. I saw her
when I came in to-night. God, I wish I hadn't!" His voice dropped on
this exclamation and she did not hear it. "She is young. Her beautiful,
dark eyes ask love and give it. Her heart dreams of it. It is in every
tone of her voice. These two are at war, the natural woman and the woman
with her inherited love of ease and luxury and cultivated, artificial
desires. Which is the stronger? Why, to-night"--he picked up one of the
cigarettes and prepared to light it; his hands trembled, his face was
white--"the woman who is ready to love. She would listen to
me--to-night. I would hold her. Oh, what's the use?" He twisted his
shoulders impatiently. Then he bent forward and tapped the table lightly
but emphatically, as if to add weight to his words. "You'd listen to me
to-night, I know that; but as sure as to-morrow's dawn I'd get a little
note from you saying that the morn had brought wisdom. But, oh, I am
glad I'm sailing to-morrow."

"So am I," she flashed out. "You think--you take too much for granted,
Eugene."

"I dare say." His voice sounded flat. "No one ever appreciates
renunciation. Well, it's out into the night in more senses than one." He
rose and looked at her as she sat with downcast eyes, and half stretched
out his arms toward her. Then as she too rose, he clasped his fingers
about the back of her head and drew her face toward him, although she
strove to avert it from him. "Good-by, sweetheart." Even she must
believe in the ardor and sincerity of his tones. "Good-by, Perdita of
the South." He kissed her lightly on one cheek and then the other.
"Good-by, my jasmine flower."

He hesitated a moment in leaving the room, as if to turn and clasp her
to him and bear her away; then he shut the door gently behind him and
she heard his halting, hurried step upon the stair. She sat listening
until its last echoes had died away, and then, casting her outstretched
arms on the table, sending the favors and menus and candle-shades in a
shower to the floor, she burst into a storm of tears.

There was a low, discreet, respectful knock, Olga's knock on the door
leading into Mrs. Cresswell Hepworth's splendid apartments. Perdita
started violently and came back to the present from her far world of
dreaming. She had not even begun to dress, but still was sitting, chin
on hand, gazing with apparent intentness at her image in the mirror.

"It is almost time for Madame to start," Olga smiled from the doorway,
"so I ventured to remind."

"Yes," Perdita spoke hurriedly, rising at the same time. "Get me into my
gown quickly, please, and tie my shoes."

Olga was deft and practised, and Perdita's dressing was the work of a
few minutes.

"My veil now," said the new Mrs. Hepworth, "and--oh, I almost forgot."
She turned to lift from her dressing-table an exceedingly quaint and
striking ornament, depending from a long, thin chain. It was a square of
crystal about an inch and a half in diameter, set curiously in strands
of silver and gold, twisted and beaten together, and, as must be
apparent to even the casual observer, was of ancient and unique
workmanship. This was Perdita's amulet, the old charm, which Eugene with
his superstitious fancies had always longed to possess, and which had
excited also the desire of the collector in Hepworth; but in spite of
many temptations to part with it, Dita had always retained possession of
it. It was her one link with the past, a personal link, but also a
traditional and hereditary one. She wound the chain several times about
her neck, and the crystal pendant gleamed dully against the dark blue
cloth of her gown.

"You also are ready, Olga?" she said as she passed through the door.

"Yes, Madame."

Hepworth was waiting for Perdita at the head of the stairs. He was in
his heavy motoring coat, his cap in hand.

He smiled as he saw her. "Just in time," he said. "I'm afraid we will
have to make haste, rather. Ah," as his eye caught the talisman, "you
are wearing the amulet, are you not? Blessed old thing. If it had not
been for that, I should never have met you."

"I believe you only married me to get it," she replied with an answering
smile, "you are such an insatiable collector."

"Do you believe that? Do you?" he asked. "Because if you do, you are as
stupid as you are pretty, and you have no idea what that implies."



CHAPTER III

PINK AND WHITE EXISTENCE


So Mr. and Mrs. Cresswell Hepworth whirled away in the big motor and for
the next few months wandered about the globe. Perdita, who had seen
nothing but an old southern plantation and New York, the latter from the
curb, as it were, must see everything; so in pursuit of this aim, the
Hepworths were constantly stepping from huge, magnificent boats to huge,
magnificent motors, thence to huge, magnificent hotels. And cities, the
open country, villages, mountain peaks, strange peoples, were as debris
strewing the pathway of Perdita's avid flight through new experiences.
It was tremendously stimulating, even heady, she found, to hold the
world between one's thumb and finger, and turn it this way and that to
catch the light. Headier still to discover that to wish is to realize,
but proportionately a shock to find that the life of infinite variety
may only be lived within circumscribed boundaries. What is more
disillusionizing than to learn that money has its limitations? It can
merely buy the very best of things, the superlatives of the commonplace,
but these, in the last analysis, remain food, lodgings, clothes,
conveyances, ornaments, no more. Money can not buy stars or dreams, or
love or happiness.

Perdita's soaring youth resented it. But she was adaptable, enormously
interested and the ground within the boundaries was new, affording daily
opportunities for fresh exploration. And she, quick to observe and
compare, had profited by her new experiences. Money became to her merely
the medium of exchange for any beautiful thing she might want. Speedily
she lost her first, fresh pleasure in making it flutter its little
golden wings and fly; but her love of art deepened and strengthened, and
at many famous shrines she offered her heart's homage. She took up the
study of designing, and worked at it systematically with an ardor and
intensity which at first amused and then puzzled her husband.

On their return from their travels Perdita occupied herself in
altering, refurnishing and redecorating one or two of Hepworth's country
places and his town house. She worked in consultation with a great firm,
and succeeded in changing the weary acquiescence of "our Mr. So and So"
to interest and an astonishment bordering on enthusiasm. She was not the
average rich woman who had gone in for being artistic, with a head full
of glaringly impossible ideas and a flow of helpful suggestions which
set the professional teeth on edge.

On the contrary, this girl, Mrs. Hepworth, really knew a few things and
was willing to learn more. She was a student. "The only woman," murmured
dazedly "our Mr. Smith-Jones," "the only woman I ever met who realizes
that decoration must conform to architecture, not defy it. You usually
have to fracture their skulls to make them understand that pompadour
prettinesses are not suitable in a Gothic chapel."

But when she had finished the houses, and designed more costumes than
she could wear, she looked about her for fresh worlds to conquer, and
discovered that she was up against the boundaries. Walls everywhere!
She could do anything she chose, travel, buy clothes, motors, an
aëroplane if she wanted it, only she did not. She next went through a
phase when she decided that the people with whom she was thrown were
intolerable, representing a frivolous and empty-headed society. Her
imagination dwelt on the class who "did things," "the dreamers," she
called them to herself, who adorned a brilliant, picturesque,
delightfully haphazard Bohemia, where, at feasts, principally of red
wine and bloomy, purple grapes, laughter pealed to the rafters, and the
conversation sparkled as if sprinkled with stardust. She strove to enter
this Olympian vagabondia, and found herself entangled in the nets of
many fowlers, sycophantic, impecunious, and, unsated of their many
banquets, physically hungry.

She began to have seasons of ennui and depression, increasing in
frequency. What was the matter with her world? Nothing, she would hasten
to assure herself, it was the best of all possible worlds, and she, a
darling of fortune--once, unforgetably, the waif of chance--was the most
contented of women. Only--what was the matter with this perversely
empty and uninteresting world?

It was not always so. It was once invested with wonderful things, and
such simple things, too. She remembered how she used to stand at the
window of her little work-room watching the day fade, marveling at the
miracle of the twilight. While the sun was high, she had seen only
commonplace, dusty streets, crowded with people, and had heard only a
crazy, creaking old piano-organ grinding away on the pavement beneath,
but in the soft indefiniteness of twilight these solid houses and
buildings would become unsubstantial, mere shadowy arabesques on the
spangled gloom of night. There were purple vistas, glittering lights and
fairy towers. She would hold her breath, almost expecting to hear a
nightingale. It was all mystery and magic, life and romance, that
eternal romance her starved youth asked. How she used to dream of the
unexpected, the dazzling unexpected!

And then Cresswell had come, and, as she thought, offered it to her. To
do Perdita justice, she had not married Hepworth merely because of his
great wealth. She was incapable of such sordid and callous calculation.
But Cophetua had met this beggar maid at her most disheartened and
despairing moment, and without difficulty had succeeded in first winning
her interest and then enchaining her imagination.

In her two years of struggle to earn her livelihood Eugene had become
more or less a memory, and, in spite of the fascination and interest he
had always had for her, she did not blind herself to certain erratic
tendencies of his. He might appear at any moment, so she judged him,
with vows of eternal love, and straightway, if the mood seized him,
begin a new picture and forget her. And so she married Hepworth largely
that life might become a successive series of introductions to an ever
varying unexpected. Instead, although her quest was feverish, she
encountered only the commonplace. She was like a mouse which has
discovered the inadequacy of cheese to quench its soul-yearnings. What
remained?

The truth of the matter was that Perdita's world, which seemed so
hopelessly askew to her, had an architectural defect. It lacked that
sure antidote to ennui--a Bluebeard's closet.

Now Perdita was young and healthy. She had great curiosity, and a
certain insatiable mental quality which would have successfully riveted
her interest to life, but for one fact, her heart was as ardent and
insatiable as her intelligence--and her husband bored her. There is no
record of Bluebeard boring any of his wives.

She became more and more conscious of a continual little plaint running
always through her consciousness, like the sad, monotonous murmur of an
ever-flowing stream, a little unceasing plaint against life in the
abstract and life in its personal application.

"There must be as many worlds as there are points of view," so ran the
stream, "but my life's like a wedding-cake, all white and sparkling and
overdecorated, and absolutely insipid. Candy! That's what it is ... my
rooms are all pink and white, and I'm crusted over with pink sugar."
Perdita always thought in color. "I'm tired of all this pink and white
and baby-blue existence. I'd welcome a little scarlet and black sin for
a change. Oh, it's just your corsets over again. You're put in them when
you're about fifteen and you never get out of them again. We women think
in corsets, breathe in them. We live in them mentally, and accept all
their constrictions and restrictions as a matter of course. We take in
drafts of air, and expand our lungs and say we're emancipated, but we
only expand as much as the corsets allow. We've put our world in
corsets, to confine us still more ... mine used to be mended, frequently
washed, with some of the bones broken; now I have many pairs, brocade,
satin--cloth of gold, if I want them--but they are the same thing,
corsets, corsets on our bodies and brains and lives.

"Look at Cresswell. He doesn't wear corsets. He has an interesting,
absorbing, unfettered life. He's using the muscles of his
brain--strengthening them on some resisting substance. He's in the thick
of it.... What fun! Planning, visioning things in his mind, and seeing
them take form in the external. He's a builder. He wears an
imperturbable mask. That's for defense; but behind it I sometimes see
keen, powerful, calculating gleams in his eyes, and I want to know about
them, but I can't.... I can't talk to him about any but surface things.
I can't show him what is in my heart.... The corsets are between us.
He's one of the great powers, and he's mine, a possession like the
Kohinoor, but I do not fancy that the Kohinoor constitutes the queen's
happiness.

"What are Cresswell and I to each other, anyway? Why, he's my Kohinoor,
a possession of great price which endows me with distinction, and runs
my credit up into the millions. He's as brilliant and cold and secretive
as his prototype. And I--I'm his doll, a very jewel of a doll. One of
the prettiest in the world, wonderfully dressed, exquisitely marceled,
faultlessly manicured. I can smile enchantingly, and open and shut my
mouth to ask for what I want and what I don't want, particularly the
latter, and lisp 'thank you' when he drops a diamond necklace or a ruby
tiara into my lap.

"I hate a man that puts me on a pedestal. Any woman does. He thinks I'm
sugar and salt and will melt and break. I wish he'd come to me, just
once, with some enthusiasm and hug me breathless. I'm tired of his
everlasting chivalry and deference.... When he begins to treat me with
reverence and guards my youth and all that, I'd like to swear at him
like the disreputable parrot of a drunken sailor.... Wouldn't I surprise
him? I wonder what he would do if I'd cut loose? Oh, dear, I wish he'd
come home drunk some night and smash up some of this junk and--what is
that phrase of Wallace Martin's--swipe me one; and then be penitent and
remorseful and ashamed and human--instead of always being like a darned
old statue of the American statesman with one hand thrust in the bosom
of his frock-coat.

"I wonder--I wonder--what kind of a husband Eugene would have made. Not
one of the amiable, benign, deferential ones, anyway. What were those
lines 'Gene used to say?

    "'Each life's unfulfilled, you see,
        And both hang patchy and scrappy.
      We have not sighed deep, laughed free,
        Starved, feasted, despaired, been happy!'

"That's it--that's it--that's life. To sigh deep--to laugh free; to
make your bed in hell, and then soar on the wings of the morning.... I'm
young, beautiful. I have everything but experience. I mean to have
it.... No wonder Eve took the apple the serpent offered, if she was as
bored in the Garden of Eden as I am. I'd have bitten more than one,
though. What is the use of living if you don't live?"

And while Perdita raged in inward rebellion, the world, viewing things
from the outside, took an entirely different view of her matter.

Popular opinion inclined to the belief that the good fairies had too
heavily dowered this young woman at her cradle, and consequently a
readjustment was inevitable, probably by the gracious means of ennobling
tribulation. The dramatic event was rather eagerly anticipated. Not that
envy had any part in it or that any of Perdita's friends or
acquaintances wished to see a fellow being punished for the liberality
of Providence. On the contrary. It was merely a sane desire to mark the
balances of the universe in faultless equilibrium and to have the
comforting assurance that the mills of the gods still ground with the
proverbial exactness.

Youth, health, wealth, beauty, happiness, all unlimited! An exasperating
spectacle! How could all be right with the world as long as Hebe
continued to pour most of the nectar into one glass, while so many
thirsty, deserving souls were denied even a sip?

And Perdita went her way and smiled alike on those who caviled and those
who applauded. She had accepted her husband's friends as her own with a
sort of careless, indifferent good nature and the relations existing
between herself and the closely cemented little group were sufficiently
harmonious under the circumstances. Maud Carmine and she had struck
"leagues of friendship" at once, and Maud's prediction that Hepworth's
friends would have to serve as Perdita's relatives would seem to have
been verified.

And Maud, through constant association, appeared to have reflected some
of Dita's beauty, for there was evidenced the most remarkable change in
the plain Miss Carmine, her name no longer prefaced by that deplorable
adjective, however. Alice Wilstead explained it by frankly giving the
credit to Perdita. It was she, Alice asserted, who had had the faith and
the courage to take Maud vigorously in hand and make of her a new
creature as far as the outward presentment was concerned. The results
had been so mutually satisfactory as to rivet the friendship between the
two; for Dita had proved by her works her belief that there was not the
faintest necessity for any such creature as an unattractive woman; and
Maud, having lost all faith in the willingness of nature to better her
original handiwork, had turned hopefully to art, with the result that
she was now one of the most talked-of women in town. By men, because she
had recently grown attractive enough for them to discover that she was
also extremely agreeable and sympathetic. By women, because they ached
to discover her secret. They remembered as easily as the men forgot that
for twenty-eight years of her life Maud had been as a weed by the wall,
a lank and sallow weed, oppressed by the sparseness of her leaves and
the entire absence of either flowers or fruit, and suddenly she had
acquired an art, an air, the trick of dress so subtle that it imparted
distinction even to her worst points.

But when Perdita proceeded to verify, a little tardily, it is true, the
hope of Mrs. Willoughby Hewston, sighingly expressed at the wedding
breakfast, and furnished herself with a relative, the coterie gasped. It
was not perhaps just the selection Mrs. Hewston would have made for her,
but, nevertheless, Perdita had produced a relative, although, it must be
confessed, of a rather dubious and indefinite nearness.

If Mrs. Hewston had been questioned on the subject she might have
confessed that the relative she had in mind, as presenting an admirable
background for a young and lovely girl, was either a silver-haired
mother with a white lace cap, and a hair brooch fastening the snowy lawn
collar of her black gown; or, in lieu of her, a maiden aunt. Indeed, had
Mrs. Hewston been given free choice, she would have inclined toward the
latter. Unquestionably, a maiden aunt is the best possible promoter of
that nice sense of the proprieties, those right feelings and carefully
graduated moral sentiments which are indispensable to a homeless,
penniless young woman scrambling for a living. But Perdita, in
presenting her relative, had almost flippantly disregarded these
considerations involving a sense of universal fitness. It was a far cry,
really an almost revolutionary distance, one felt, from the
silver-haired mother or rather acid maiden aunt to Eugene Gresham.
Eugene Gresham! Fancy!

For Eugene had returned to his native land with the recognition of Paris
and London, even their acclaim--golden bay leaves and purple cloaks.
Therefore was he thrice welcomed of New York. Therefore, the next
presumption followed as naturally as the first. It was out of the
question that Mrs. Hepworth, whose beauty was a matter of international
comment, should lack a Gresham portrait, a distinction now unattainable
save to those upon the mountain peaks of noble birth, enormous wealth,
great achievement, remarkable beauty or superlative notoriety.

As Alice Wilstead pointed out, no one could cavil at any relative Mrs.
Hepworth chose to set up, however regretable might be Perdita Carey's
claim of kinship with this particular person, and she had certainly, as
far as one knew, been discreet enough not to flaunt him during her
scrambles. Now, as Mrs. Hepworth's cousin (how many times removed,
dear?) he was one more jewel in her crown.

Mrs. Hewston sighingly acquiesced. "Yes, really. As Mrs. Hepworth's
relative, yes. But hardly as the guide, philosopher and friend of youth,
feminine youth, anyway." Only the happily married might safely claim
him, for Gresham, with his fame as a painter of beautiful women and his
almost equal reputation as a fascinating person, would not have been
commended by any maiden aunt for either right feelings, nice moral
sentiments or a discriminating taste for the proprieties.

As for Cresswell Hepworth, he looked after his vast and varied
interests, kept up his collections, especially his collection of
amulets, in which he was greatly interested, and occupied his leisure in
seeing that his wife was sufficiently entertained and amused to gratify
the requirements even of her eager youth.

Did she hint a longing for the Roc's egg? It was cabled for within the
hour. Did she breathe a desire for the moon? Orders were given that an
aëronautic expedition capable of securing it be manned at once.

And yet in spite of all this obvious contentment and happiness, Mr.
Willoughby Hewston in the rôle of raven had never ceased to flap his
wings and croak. He was particularly in this favorite vein of his one
afternoon when he shuffled into his wife's sitting-room, where she and
Alice Wilstead sat over their tea-cups. They heard him sighing heavily
as he came.

"No, I don't want any tea," he said, letting himself down slowly into an
easy chair, "you know I never touch it.

"Poor old Cress!" He shook his head gloomily at a spot in the carpet.
"Well, it's just as I predicted. That wife of his is the talk of the
town!"

"Oh, my dear!" exclaimed his wife. She, loyal soul, never failed him as
audience. A quick glance passed between Mrs. Wilstead and herself, as if
he had mentioned the subject uppermost in their minds, and, no doubt, in
their conversation.

"Oh, come now, Willoughby," said Alice, instinctively choosing the best
method of drawing him out, "you know it's nothing like so bad as that."

Hewston scowled heavily and laid one hand gingerly upon his rheumatic
knee, which gave him an especially sharp twinge at the moment. "It's
probably worse," he replied with even more than his customary acerbity,
"worse than we, any of us, know. Didn't I see them walking up Fifth
Avenue together this afternoon, and didn't a fellow speak of it to me?
And Cress out of town!"

"Well, let me tell something, dear," said his wife soothingly. "Cress
will very soon be in town again, for here are invitations to a dinner
the Hepworths are having next week. Quite an informal affair. Perdita
writes me, 'Just the little group of Cresswell's best friends, which I
hope I may also claim as mine,'" reading from the note she had picked up
from the table. "Very sweet of her."

"A dinner, eh," growled Hewston, "with all of us, and I suppose that
painter fellow. Well, I only hope it will not fall to me to open poor
Cresswell's eyes."

"Oh, Willoughby!"

"I'll not shirk my duty if it does. You can understand that. What
evening is this dinner? Next Thursday! Humph! Who is that?" as the
curtain before the door was pushed aside and some one entered.

"I!" said Wallace Martin, "only poor little me. They told me to come up.
What's happening next Thursday?"

"The Hepworths' dinner. There is probably an invitation awaiting you at
home."

"No, there is not," he said. "It's in my pocket now. I picked it up as I
was leaving. From what Maud Carmine has just told me, I imagine it's a
touching family group composed of ourselves and Eugene Gresham."

"Dear me," deplored Mrs. Hewston, "I do wish she would consider
Willoughby more. She must know that he can not endure the sight of Mr.
Gresham."

"It is not her fault," said Martin quickly, "as far as I can make out
from what Maud told me. Cress became imbued with the idea that he
wanted his dear old friends clustering about the board, and made out
the list himself."

"How like a man!" remarked Alice Wilstead gloomily. "But why, just now?"

"Oh, he's been adding to that pet collection of amulets of his, and he
wanted to show us his new acquisitions. That's the root of it, I fancy.
I don't imagine the lovely Perdita pined for us. She has been a creature
of moods lately. Very hotty-like with me."

"She was actually almost impertinent to Willoughby the other day." Mrs.
Hewston spoke with a hushed mournfulness. "I'm afraid all this luxury
and adulation has turned her head, and Willoughby spoke so gently to
her, too, did you not, dear?"

"Ugh! Humph!" quoth Willoughby.



CHAPTER IV

OUR LOVING FRIENDS


AS it chanced the Hepworths were not particularly fortunate in their
choice of an evening for the dinner so gloomily anticipated by their
guests. The weather was unpropitious. All day rain had threatened, and
the air had been almost sultry, a parting word flung over her shoulder
to autumn by a mischievous July who should long ago have vanished. As
the evening wore on clouds banked more densely upon the horizon,
occasionally muttering thunder, and this electric hint of storm in the
air had in some way communicated itself to the mental atmosphere. A
sense of foreboding, a consciousness of discord, seemed to swell
ominously now and again beneath the smooth and colorful surface of the
dinner. Even the dullest of the guests felt that, and to the intuitive,
the stately progress of the meal was nerve-racking.

When the hostess rose, every individual sigh of relief involuntarily
exhaled became a chorus, shocking in volume.

They winced nervously, but in spite of it, each guest stood by his guns.
They had, apparently with one mind, and certainly with one voice,
decided against bridge. The ordeal of dinner bravely borne, licensed
them, they felt, even bestowed the accolade of privilege on them, to
escape the prevalent atmosphere of unrest as quickly as possible.

In the brief time they had allotted themselves to remain, barely
skirting the limits of conventional decency, Alice Wilstead, Isabel and
Willoughby Hewston and Wallace Martin had elected to take their coffee
and cigarettes on a small balcony opening from the drawing-room by long
French windows and giving upon a garden, quite half of a city block,
with thick, close-cropped lawn, and black masses of dense shrubbery
permeating the damp and sultry air with the mingled fragrance of earth
and leaves and some late-blooming flowers. Maud Carmine, good-natured as
usual, had seated herself at the piano, across the length of the room
from the balcony, to play a ballad of Chaminade's at her host's
request.

Hepworth, who alone appeared to be oblivious of the sinister atmospheric
influences, leaned his elbows on the piano and listened, occasionally
unhesitatingly breaking the flow of the music with conversation.

With their friend and host thus comfortably within sight, yet out of
earshot, the group on the balcony felt at liberty to speak with freedom;
no danger of sudden appearances, consequent jumps and hot wonder at what
might have been overheard.

"Gad!" said Mr. Hewston, more gray and pink, puffy and heavily financial
than ever, "when will people learn to eat and drink without flowers on
the table?"

"No flowers!" repeated Alice Wilstead. "It would look dull, would it
not?" From her tone it was evident that she had paid little heed to his
words.

"What difference does that make?" he argued irritably. "You don't go to
dinner to look at the table decorations. But if they must have 'em, why
can't they have the artificial kind or those paper things. Anything but
the beastly, smelly, live ones."

"Don't you really care for them?" she asked, laughing. "I thought every
one loved flowers. To tell the truth, they were about all that made that
unending dinner bearable to me. They were so exquisitely arranged."

"Oh, that," in grudging admission, "goes without saying in this house,
but," fretfully, "they were all the loud smelling kind."

"She always arranges them herself," said Mrs. Wilstead, "she has
wonderful taste, wonderful. Her house, her clothes, even down to the
smallest detail of the table. Marvelous!"

"Humph! she doesn't show the same taste in men," grunted Hewston. "No
brains at all."

Mrs. Wilstead leaned forward to tap his arm with her fan.

"Do not make any mistake on that score," her voice was emphatic, "she
has plenty of brains."

"Humph!" more scornfully than before. "Then I wish they'd keep her from
making the fool of herself that she is doing now."

"Hs-s-sh," Alice looked as if she would like to thrust a handkerchief
into his mouth. "Ah!" glancing up with relief as Isabel and Wallace
Martin turned from their contemplation of the garden over the balcony
railing. "Sit down here," she motioned to two chairs beside her.

"Dear me, Alice," said Martin, "isn't your face tired with the effort of
keeping the corners of your mouth turned up and the sparkle in your
eyes? The only person who seems calm and serene this evening is dear old
Hepworth. What do you think it is on his part, the quintessence of pose
or simple, uncomprehending, fatuous ignorance?"

"My God!" growled Hewston explosively. His wife started nervously.

"Oh Willoughby dear, not so loud! Wallace," in what was as near a tone
of reproof as she could achieve, "I do wish you wouldn't say those
reckless things before Willoughby. You know how emotional he is."

Alice also shook her head impatiently. "Don't you think we are a lot of
old gossips magnifying matters enormously? You may expect so beautiful a
young woman as Dita Hepworth to be more or less talked about; but there
is probably a perfect understanding between herself and Cress. Lord
help her if there isn't," she added almost under her breath, "I've known
him many a year."

"'When an old bachelor marries a young wife, what is he to expect?'"
quoted Martin impressively. As a would-be playwright he had the
dramatists at his finger-tips.

"Wallace, you are too bad," expostulated Mrs. Wilstead. "No wonder you
quote from _The School for Scandal_. Here we are a lot of old wreckers
doing our best to shatter a reputation. Why Dita Hepworth and Eugene
Gresham have known each other ever since they were children. Naturally,
she shows her pleasure in his society."

"Oh pish!" scoffed Wallace Martin, "those unconcealed glances she
bestowed on him at dinner spoke not of sisterly affection, and how we
all squirmed under them and wondered miserably if Hepworth was seeing
them too."

"He always did see everything without appearing to," murmured Mrs.
Wilstead gloomily.

"Now merely as a sporting chance, which would you bet on," said Martin,
drawing his chair a bit nearer, "the rich, middle-aged husband, or the
fascinating artist, the painter of beautiful women, in the zenith of his
fame? It is the same old plot you know, and the oft-told tale may have
just two endings. First, she goes off with the artist, lives a squalid
and miserable life abroad, falls ill, and dies, holding the hand and
imploring the forgiveness of her husband, who conveniently and
miraculously appears. In the second ending, she makes all preparations
to flee and then something occurs which causes her to see the
sculpturesque nobility of her husband's character and the curtain
descends to slow sweet music while they stand heart to heart in the
calcium light of a grand reconciliation scene."

"Oh, Wallace, do forget for once that you are trying to be a playwright.
Forget the shop." Mrs. Wilstead was irritable. "I do wish she would join
us," looking about her nervously, "I want to go home. Is she utterly
careless?"

"Only absorbed," returned Martin calmly. "Didn't you hear her ask him
before they left the room, to come and look at the picture gallery where
he is to paint her portrait? She wanted him to judge of the lighting--a
night like this. I thought I saw the flutter of her white gown in the
garden yonder a bit ago."

"Oh do, for goodness sake, change the subject," said Alice Wilstead
hurriedly. "I am sure Cresswell must think it queer the way we are all
sitting out here with our heads together, in the teeth of that
approaching storm."

"Not at all," Martin reassured her. "Don't you see that Maud is doing
her duty heroically? Maud isn't the wife's confidante and dearest friend
for nothing."

"Isn't it perfectly wonderful about Maud?" commented Mrs. Hewston. "You
all know what a plain, angular creature she was, nothing really to
recommend her but her music and she always spoiled that by playing with
her shoulder blades."

"She's an extremely stunning woman," said Wallace Martin shortly.

"And all due to Dita Hepworth," announced Mrs. Wilstead. "Wonderful! I
never saw a woman with such a genius for dress and decoration. If her
beauty wasn't such an obvious quality, I should think it was due to her
almost uncanny knowledge of what is becoming and--Ah, thank Heaven, here
she is!"



CHAPTER V

PERDITA'S TALISMAN


Perdita Hepworth had entered the room, with Eugene Gresham just a step
or two behind her, and, after a glance in the direction of Maud Carmine
and her husband, had moved toward the little group on the balcony.
Gresham was used to any amount of attention and admiration, but the
adulatory interest which he may have merited and had, in fact, grown to
regard as his due, was always conspicuously lacking when he appeared
with Perdita.

"The picture gallery is the chosen spot," she announced as if bearing
some intelligence for which they had long been waiting, "and the
sittings are to be begun at once. I remember when I first knew Maud
Carmine, she said to me, 'Fancy what it must be like to have your
portrait painted by Eugene Gresham!'" Her low laughter rang with a sort
of triumphant amusement. "'Dear child,' I answered, 'I have had my
portrait painted by him so many times that there would be no novelty
whatever in the experience.' You know," to Mrs. Hewston, who looked
faintly puzzled, "'Gene and I have always known each other." She looked
over at Gresham who was seated on the arm of a chair talking to Maud
Carmine and Hepworth. "Has Maud been playing for Cresswell?" she asked
suddenly. "He is so fond of her music."

"Yes, she has been playing delightfully," answered Mrs. Wilstead, "and
she looks charming to-night. Maud who was always regarded as an ugly
duckling has suddenly become a swan."

"Ah, why not?" said Perdita carelessly. "Maud hadn't the faintest idea
how to make the most of herself. She gave the effect of hard lines and
angles, and hair and eyes and skin all cut from the same piece, a dingy
dust color. Like every other woman of that type she has a perfect
passion for mustard colors and hard grays. Ugh!" she shivered. "The only
thing to do with Maud was to make her realize that she must look odd and
mysterious, you know. That was all. Oh, she is beckoning to me. They
want something."

She crossed the room with that grace of bearing which nature had
bestowed upon her and with the added poise and assurance gained within
the last two years. She still gave the effect of extreme simplicity in
dress but it was retained as by a miracle, for although she wore no
jewels her white gown was of the most exquisite and costly lace. But her
head was undeniably carried a trifle higher than usual, and a very close
observer might have read boredom in her eyes, defiance in her chin,
rebellion in her shoulders. As she turned from the little group on the
balcony, she bit her lip irritably, before she again composed her
features to the conventional smile of hostess-like cordiality.

Alice Wilstead followed her with puzzled eyes.

"It is very difficult to understand a beauty," she said plaintively to
Martin.

"Put it more correctly," as he blew a cloud of smoke. "Say, it's
difficult to understand a woman."

"But I do not find it so," she smiled. "I'm one myself. I'm on to all
our various vagaries, but Dita Hepworth puzzles me. Look at this house.
There are effects here in decoration, so beautiful and unusual that
every one says Eugene Gresham directed them. I know he did not. Look at
Maud Carmine, and yet Dita herself usually wears the plainest of gowns."

"I must confess," said Martin, "that I do not follow you."

"Perhaps not," she mused, then with more animation. "Come, Wallace, tell
me exactly how she impresses you."

"That is easy," he replied. "She is one of the prettiest women I ever
saw in my life."

"Ah, of course," in annoyance, "but I didn't mean that. That is no
impression of character."

"Mm," he pondered. "It isn't much of one, no."

Alice leaned back in her chair. "I seem to discern depths in her that
the rest of you refuse to see. You stop at her beauty and are content
with never a peep beneath the surface."

Martin tossed his cigarette over the railing into the garden. "Frankly,
I think that you are searching for something that isn't there," he said
abruptly. "The gods never bestow all their gifts on one person. Since
you profess to know your own self so well you should realize that women
so very pretty as Mrs. Hepworth are rarely clever. Why should they be?
It is enough of an excuse for existence that they are beautiful."

"It is indeed," growled Hewston, who had been absorbed in sulky
meditation for some time. "I'd be contented if I thought she had enough
head on her shoulders to keep straight and not involve good old Hepworth
in God knows what."

Wallace laughed. "I'll lay you a wager, Mrs. Wilstead," he whispered,
tapping her fan with his finger-tips, "that the way things are going now
there will be a split in the Hepworth household within three months."

"Do not say it," she cried quickly. "I can not bear to think of such a
thing."

"I'll give you heavy odds, too," he went on cynically, leaning forward
to regard the group at the piano. "I'll make it a bracelet against a box
of cigars, provided I'm allowed to choose the brand of cigars."

"You might as well put in another provision then," she retorted,
"provided I am allowed to choose the bracelet. My taste in ornaments,
dear Wallace, is both unique and expensive. I like only odd jewelry."

"Odd jewelry! That is an old fad of yours, Alice," said Hepworth's voice
behind her.

She started slightly, she had not noticed his approach. "And your own,"
she smiled up at him. "Have you secured any new amulets lately,
Cresswell?"

"Yes, one. It is a beauty, a scarab. I must show it to you; also
another, a carved bloodstone set in very curiously wrought iron. I got
that from a Gipsy woman. It is an old Romany talisman."

"Do let us see them," pleaded Mrs. Hewston.

"Certainly, I shall be delighted to. Excuse me a few moments. I will get
the box myself. Naturally I would not trust it to the servants." He
smiled at his weakness.

"Naturally," said Hewston. "Come, let us all get into the drawing-room
to look at them. It is beginning to rain anyway."

It was only a few moments before Hepworth returned bearing a large,
black leather box. He placed it on a table just under the light and then
choosing a key from a ring, fitted it into the lock.

"I hold one key," he said to the group pressing about him as he lifted
the lid, "and Perdita the other. That is in case she may want to wear
any of these trinkets."

Alice Wilstead had been looking at Mrs. Hepworth at the moment her
husband entered the room and she alone had noticed that Dita started
violently when her eyes had fallen on the box and that all the rich
color had fled her cheek, leaving her, for a second or two, white as a
ghost.

The box held a series of trays, each padded and velvet lined and upon
these were fastened Cresswell Hepworth's noted collection of amulets.
Most of these talismans were very ancient, many of them revealed the
most beautiful workmanship. All of them were distinctive. Each one,
almost without exception, had a history, strange, romantic or sinister,
and these were all duly catalogued, but it was never necessary for
Hepworth to refer to this written history. He had not only the symbolic
significance of his favorite toys, but also the vicissitudes through
which they had passed, at his finger ends.

The top trays held scarabs, one of the most remarkable collections of
them extant, commemorating certain mighty and fallen dynasties; or this
reign or that of remote Egyptian rulers long crumbled to dust, and
Hepworth lifted them lovingly from their trays and turning them deftly
in his fingers explained their histories and expatiated on their beauty.

Beneath the scarabs lay the jade talismans exquisitely carved and handed
down from distant centuries. The hearts that had once beat beneath them
had long been dust, but the talismans, with no stain of time upon them
to dim their luster, would still serve as emblems of good luck to future
generations. Then there were quaint amber charms preserving the warmth
and flooding radiance of the sunlight that sparkles on sea foam in their
depths, and opals delicately clouded with mystery, their "hearts of fire
bedreamed in haze," carbuncles, jasper and hyacinth, all in their time
the almost priceless possessions of their owners because of the mystic
significance attaching to them. And then there were trays containing a
somewhat heterogeneous collection of old pieces of beaten silver and
iron with odd characters on them, representing periods of even greater
antiquity than scarab or jade.

These amulets were in many instances the memorials of bitter feuds and
hot duels, fought on the moment, at the gleam of a talisman which both
contestants claimed. More than one had been hastily rifled from the
dead, and more than one had been bestowed by a great lady on an untitled
lover of empty purse to aid him in winning fame and fortune.

"By the way, Alice," said Hepworth suddenly, "you have seen Dita's
amulet, have you not? It is almost, if not quite the gem of the
collection."

"No, I have never seen it," Mrs. Wilstead's whole piquant face was alive
with interest. "But I have heard of it. It was through it that you met,
was it not?"

Dita nodded. The color had come back to her face. "It was that old
talisman he was really interested in," she said. "I always tell him he
married me to get it."

Hepworth laughed. "It is well worth any one's interest. It has been in
her family for generations, and there are all sorts of legends and
traditions connected with it. It is said to give his heart's desire to
whomever possesses it, isn't it, Dita?"

"More than that," she replied, a little strangely, or at least so it
seemed to Alice Wilstead. "He to whom it is given--and it can not be
bought or bartered, it must always be bestowed--must sooner or later
reveal himself in his true character, either his baseness or his
nobility."

"Fascinating!" cried the women in chorus. "What is it like?"

"It is a square of crystal set in silver and gold. About the silver is
twined one of those old Celtic chains which can only be seen with a
microscope, where the links are so tiny that we have no instruments
delicate enough to fasten them together and which were believed to have
been made by the fairies. And now for a sight of it."

He was about to lift the next tray, when Dita laid a detaining hand on
his arm. "It isn't there, Cresswell," she said in a quick, low voice.

As if he had not heard her or had not taken in the full import of her
words, he laid the tray carefully upon the table, disclosing the one
beneath. Like the others, it too was full of curious amulets, but one
space was empty. Perdita's talisman was indeed missing.

"Why, Dita!" he exclaimed. "You did not mention to me--"

She shot a quick, unmistakable glance at Gresham. "Didn't I?" she
interrupted before he could go further. "It's being mended."

"Ah, those antique bits, they are always coming to pieces, at least I
know mine are," said Mrs. Wilstead with hasty fluency. "But, Cresswell,
there is still another tray, and I must see its contents before I go
home."

"Make it a month," said Martin in her ear. "I said three, didn't I?"



CHAPTER VI

SIROCCO


"Good night, Hewston, good night, Alice. Don't go yet, Gresham."
Hepworth laid a detaining hand on the artist's arm. "Sit down and smoke.
We haven't had a moment to discuss this portrait matter yet."

"I think," said Dita, moving toward the door, "that I shall leave you
two to discuss it and go to bed."

"Oh, my dear," her husband detained her with the same light touch with
which he had held Gresham. He pushed an easy chair forward so that she
should be seated between Eugene and himself. "We are going to get all
the details of the portrait settled to-night. A portrait of you and
painted by Gresham is sure to bloom and be admired for a century or two
at any rate."

Dita looked at him quickly as if suspecting him of some intention
beyond the discussion of the contemplated portrait, but meeting the
smiling blankness of his expression, turned away, not in the least
reassured, but more puzzled than ever, and sinking listlessly into the
chair sat staring moodily before her with veiled eyes and compressed
lips.

Eugene glanced at her uneasily, a frown between his brows. He knew her
like a book. She had always, always from childhood, been a creature of
moods. He was perfectly familiar with the various stages of the sirocco,
as he had long ago named her outbursts. She would become restless,
abstracted, absent, and then she would sit and brood as she was doing
now, until finally the sullen and threatening atmosphere would be
cleared by a burst of storm, a swift cyclone of anger.

Gresham gave the faintest of sighs and an almost imperceptible shrug of
the shoulders. This was a situation which he foresaw would require all
his tact and ingenuity.

"Is the picture gallery all right? Did you find it satisfactory?" asked
Hepworth.

"Excellent!" Eugene's brow cleared. He spoke with enthusiasm. "Yes, I
told Perdita that the lighting there will be perfect. I've about decided
to paint her in white. Yes," scrutinizing the indifferent object of the
discussion narrowly and yet remotely, as if he were visualizing his
finished portrait of her, "white velvet, I think, and rather a blare of
jewels. You see I want to bring out the dominating quality of her
beauty, harp on it, you know, so I want to present her eclipsing and
reducing to their proper places all the splendid accessories with which
we can surround her."

Her husband nodded approvingly. "What do you think, Dita?"

"Oh, by all means," she roused herself to answer, but making no effort
to conceal the irony of her tones. "Let Eugene give me all the
distinction and grace he is noted for bestowing on, you observe I do not
say perceiving in, his clients, or patients, or patrons, whatever he may
call them. Make the stones of my tiara and necklace even bigger and
whiter and more sparkling than they are, Eugene. Or better still, I'll
wear my diamond collar and my string of rubies and my rope of sapphires,
all shouting hurrah at once, three cheers for the red, white and blue!
Make me all glittery, Eugene, throw my sables over my shoulders."

"By Jove!" cried Gresham, interrupting her, a white flash of enthusiasm
across his face, "you may not dream it, Dita, but that's it exactly.
You've hit it."

"Yes," she went on satirically, "and present me in the middle of all
this splendor, overcome by the 'burden of an honor into which I was not
born.'"

"But you were born to it," interposed her husband quickly, "no one more
so."

"Perhaps," she sighed a little, her eyes and voice grew softer, "but at
a time when the outward manifestation had vanished."

The glow had lingered, even become intensified in Gresham's face. "By
Jove!" he cried again, "you were trying to be sarcastic and all that,
Dita, but it was a great idea of yours just the same. I will paint your
portrait and it shall be hung side by side with my working girl. They
shall be companions of contrast. You see," explaining his idea to
Hepworth, "I am going to paint my working girl in the city streets just
at twilight on a winter evening, hastening home after the day's long
toil. The lights and colors of the shop windows dance and glitter about
her, blurred by the falling snow. Everything, lights, buildings,
passers-by, are all in that blurred, indistinct atmosphere, and she,
herself, is a part of the blur, looking through it, with her young, worn
face and wistful eyes, craving the beauty and the joy of life."

"No, no!" cried Dita suddenly. Rising, she moved rapidly up and down the
room, her head bent, her finger at her lip. "No!" she cried again, her
voice deeply vibrating. "I reckon you've just missed it, Eugene, it's
too--too conventional. I can imagine something truer than that. My
working girl, if I were painting her, should not be born to toil, not
always have regarded it as the great fact of existence, an inevitable
portion of her days and years from which she has never dreamed of
escape. No, I would picture her delicate, highly nurtured, with
traditions of race and breeding behind her; but poor, oh, very poor. And
she shouldn't look out on life with resigned, wistful eyes, but with
passionate, demanding ones, rebelling that her youth, her wonderful,
beautiful, dreaming youth was passing in a tomb of tradition, a green
and flowery tomb perhaps, maybe an old southern garden, but nevertheless
a place of dead lives, dead memories, dead customs. And she, this girl,
hates it, the dust and must of it. She hears always in her ears the
surges of that mighty ocean of life. And she can't resist it. She can't.
Then because her heart is set on it, she comes to a great city like
this, comes with all her high hopes and her untarnished confidence in
herself; and all this magnificent swirling tide of life, with its
mingled and mingling streams, seems to bear her onward to the highest
crest of the highest wave. Then she begins to hear, at first faintly and
then ever louder and more menacing, the voice of New York, with its
ceaseless reiteration of one theme, 'pay, pay, pay.' She turns
desperately to her little accomplishments, those little, untrained,
unskilful things that she can do, straws on that ocean; and expects them
to save her.

"Ah!" she drew her hand across her brow, her face contracting a moment.
"Then comes the grind between the millstones, the continual
disappointments, the terror by day and night, the rent, that rolls like
a snowball, the dreary evenings which she must spend alone in the dreary
little room, while all the time she hears the mocking invitation of the
great, glittering city to partake of her many feasts.

"And she," again Dita sighed deeply, "she begins to believe herself
doomed to dash her youth and beauty against the walls of a tomb. And she
has to learn so many things, among them the hideous accomplishment of
making both ends meet. What does she know of the use and value of money?
Oh, of course all kinds of cheap, left-handed pleasures are offered her,
because people consider her pretty, but it is an impossibility for her
to accept them. She has been born in the traditions of real lace and
real jewels. And the panic-fear! Ah!--" she broke off abruptly.

"Dear me, Dita. You should have been an orator." For the past five
minutes Eugene had been scarcely able to conceal his irritation,
frowning, biting his lips, twisting in his chair and casting furtive
glances at Hepworth. "I remember you used to be given to those bursts of
eloquence now and then."

"And what finally becomes of her?" asked Hepworth of his wife, ignoring
Eugene's interruption. His voice was low, expressing nothing more than a
polite interest.

"I don't know," said Dita wearily. "A number of things. She may
comfortably die, or marry, poor thing, any one who will have her."

"Very dramatic," said Gresham dryly. "You always did have histrionic
talent, Dita. I've often wondered that you did not attempt the stage."

Perdita opened and closed her eyes once or twice as if she had just
returned from a far country.

"I certainly wasn't much of a success at painting lamp-shades and menus,
was I, Eugene, in spite of your early training?"

He shrugged his shoulders without answering, made a slight, disclaiming
gesture with one hand and rose to his feet. "What!" listening intently
as a clock chimed somewhere. "I had no idea it was so late." His face
cleared. He was evidently relieved at his chance of escape. He shook
hands with Hepworth and then turned to Dita. "Remember that the first
sitting will be at twelve o'clock Wednesday morning, and please don't
keep me waiting. That is a fact that I have to impress on these charming
women," he turned laughingly to Hepworth, "that I am neither their
manicure nor hair-dresser. I am accustomed to keep them waiting if I
choose."

"I'll be ready," she said indifferently, but Eugene noticed with
apprehension, even alarm, that those deep vibrations which spoke of
barely controlled emotion were still existent in her tones. "I'll be
ready, velvet, diamonds, hurrah of jewels, if you wish, sables and all."

Again a gust of wind swept through the room and Hepworth went over to
close a window.

Eugene took quick advantage of the occasion. "For Heaven's sake," he
whispered, "pull yourself together."

His words were too late. Too late by half an hour. The sirocco had done
its work.



CHAPTER VII

THE GIFT OF FREEDOM


With the departure of a third person the situation immediately changed
complexion. It became more intimate and therefore more embarrassing.
With Eugene had departed the audience and the stimulus of playing to it.
The star and the stage manager were left alone. Untrammeled emotional
expression no longer seemed an heroic necessity. Under the calm,
unreadable, steady regard of her husband's eyes it held its elements of
banality and of sensationalism, of pseudo-emotion. Dita became sullen.
"I think I shall go to bed," she said abruptly and for the second time
and then turned to the door.

"Wait a moment." His voice was courteous, pleasant, but it would have
been a dull ear which could not have discerned the tone of command
beneath its even modulations.

It was new to Dita and arresting, and she paused, wavered a moment and
came back to the chair she had left and folding her arms upon its high
cushioned back, stood with still, sullen mouth and downcast eyes,
exhaling reluctance. She was feeling the reaction from her late mood of
exaltation, of dramatic visioning of poignant past experiences.

He waited a second or so, and then said, "Your working girl was a far
more dramatic conception than Gresham's. It might not lend itself so
much to pictorial representation. It might be more literary." He
appeared to give this question some consideration. "However," he
dismissed it with a wave of the hand, "that is neither here nor there.
What counts is this, were you the girl whose life you described so
feelingly and dramatically?"

There was silence between them for a moment. Dita's first impulse was to
maintain it indefinitely; ignore this question with barely suggested
contempt; with a faint gesture of dissent, signify that she considered
it a crudity, almost a vulgarity, and lightly, languidly, indifferently
dismiss the whole subject and leave the room. She knew how,
intuitively. Behind her were generations who understood how to flick an
unpleasant situation from the tips of their fingers, who would ignore
and dismiss with amused disdain an invitation to exculpate themselves or
explain, when to explain meant practically to retract. But false as she
felt, with waves of shame, she had been to her traditions and upbringing
in revealing her emotion, she was no coward. She lifted her head and met
his eyes. Gray eyes faced gray eyes--but with a difference. Hers were
the passionate, emotional Irish gray--with black beneath them, and the
long curling black lashes, but his were like mountain lakes, reflecting
a gray and steely sky. Hers revealed all the secrets she might wish to
hide; his concealed all his secrets admirably--discreet windows,
revealing nothing but what their owner desired they should reveal.

"Yes," she said with defiant brevity.

He appeared again to give this reply due consideration. He had risen now
and was walking up and down the floor. "What an impression it must have
made on you!" he said at last, very gently.

She plaited the lace of her sleeve. "You knew about me before we were
married," she said. "Why--?"

"Quite true, but sometimes something is said, it may be only a word, and
one's eyes become, as it were, unsealed. One sees a perfectly familiar
object or situation in an entirely new light. Your attitude now," he
turned to her rather sharply, "is that I am about to blame you, to take
you to task. Far from it. Why should I blame you for what has been
beyond your power? Your words to-night have made me realize that it has
been quite impossible for you to care for me, and that I have not been
able to make you happy. Ah," lifting his hand as she was about to speak,
"do not disclaim it. I know. You see, that very fact sends the whole
house of cards tumbling. The bitterness with which you have spoken
to-night would not have been in your mind, rankling, rankling all this
time, if you had been a happy woman. It was bound to burst into flame
sooner or later."

"Oh!" she broke out. "You have always won. You do not know what it is
like to lose; but I--I missed every mark I aimed at. I came up from the
South, so dead sure that I was a very gifted and accomplished person,
and that all I had to do was to hold out my apron and all the beautiful
and delightful things would tumble into it. But this great city surely
taught me a lesson, and she's no very gentle teacher, either. And I used
to sit up there in that tiresome little apartment among those
candle-shades and cotillion favors and think how--how pretty I was," she
flushed under his smile, "and rage, and get sick with disgust when I
thought how I would look after about twenty years of that kind of life.
I knew exactly how I'd look. I'd be one of those peaked, wistful-eyed
old maids, with rusty black clothes turning green and brown, and a
general air of apology for living. I could just see myself ironing out
the ribbons of my winter bonnet with which to trim my summer hat, and
then laundering my handkerchiefs and pasting them on the window-panes to
dry. And life, life was like a great, wonderful river, flowing by and
leaving me stranded on the shore. And then you came."

Hepworth laughed. "I don't wonder that you took the alternative. I'm
conceited enough to think it better than those ugly pictures your young
eyes were gazing at."

"Yes, they were ugly," she agreed. "Life just seemed like a dark,
dreary, cobwebby passageway, but I always felt as if I might come to a
door any minute and step through it into a beautiful garden. You seemed
the door." She spoke the last words a little shyly.

He glanced at her again, inscrutable, unfathomable things in that gaze.
"Ah, youth, youth and the waste of it!" There were tones in his voice
that brought the tears to her eyes, but he did not see them. He was
musing on the accident of her life, this flower of the dust, which he
had taken from the dingy environment she loathed. He had lavished all
the beauty and experience within his power upon her, and taken away
perhaps the one thing that had redeemed her life. He had seen only the
limitations and the makeshifts and how they had oppressed her dainty and
fastidious spirit; but it had never struck him before that in lifting
her away from them, above them, he had taken from her the one thing that
might have glorified her life, that the sordidness and the scrimpiness
were for her for ever haunted by the unexpected. That because she was
young and beautiful and free, the dreariness must have been irradiated
always by the rainbow tints of romance; and he had given her all the
beauty and glitter his money could buy in exchange for the joy of a
dream, and fancied that he had actually done something for her.

"Dita, forgive me," he murmured, a curiously bitter smile about his
mouth.

"Forgive you!" she looked at him a little cautiously. She didn't
understand the workings of his mind. He never gave her a hint either in
eyes or expression that would seem as a clue for her to follow.

"Yes. You should." Again he smiled at her. "You didn't get a fair
exchange. I see that very plainly now."

"You must not speak like that," she said quickly. "Believe me, it was a
great deal more than a fair exchange and I have always regarded it so.
Why do you think I have not been happy?"

"Because you have never really loved me."

"But I--I have always liked you," she cried quickly. "But," forlornly,
"you knew the truth at the time. Even if I had not, I should have had to
marry you anyway. I was so deep in debt I couldn't help it. I could not
manage any more than I can speak Sanscrit. So you see that there is
nothing to forgive. Believe me, I am always grateful, for before I
married you, I thought and thought, but I could see no other way."

He laughed again. He couldn't help it. He had a sense of humor and he
seemed to see, in a flashlight of vision, shocked Romance gather up her
skirts and shake the dust of Dita's threshold from her winged shoes.

"You are so really fearless and honest, Dita, that I venture to ask the
question." He put it with a rather diffident gentleness. "You have found
it quite impossible to care for me?"

"Oh, no," impulsively. "I have always liked you. I am really very fond
of you. But I am always tongue-tied before you. I never can think of
anything to say to you and I always say foolish things." She regarded
him with a wistful timidity.

He laughed ruefully. It was sorry mirth. "That is a proof of my
stupidity, my child, not yours."

He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. Up and down the room
he walked twice, three times, engrossed. Then having arrived at a
decision, he put it into words. "Dita," he stopped before her and looked
at her earnestly, "perhaps I am utterly rash and foolish, but will you
answer me one question? But first get all melodramatic ideas of the
state of my feelings out of your head." His smile was faintly cynical,
obscurely so. "And believe me, that what really concerns me is your
happiness. Are you in love with Eugene Gresham?"

She started, cast one quick glance at him, and then stared frowningly
before her, but he noticed that her hand trembled on the back of the
chair. "Why do you ask me that? I--I am married to you--I--" her voice
faltered, broke.

"Oh, no conventional utterances, please," he cried quickly. "That is not
worthy of you, not like you. There should be, there must be absolute
sincerity between us now. Tell me, Perdita, are you in love with Eugene
Gresham?"

"Ah, that I do not know." She looked beyond him and, still gazing, shook
her head. "I do not know. I never have known, never been sure. We were
boy and girl together, he a few years older. He is associated in my mind
with the life of green old gardens and the smell of jasmine flowers. He
lives in a wonderful world, a world of color that something in me always
yearns toward. It seems to me sometimes as if I would rise to it, and my
heart would blossom in purple and red. I seem doomed to talk foolishly
to you," she exclaimed rather piteously, "but most people's hidden
thoughts would sound foolish to others, would they not?"

"Go on, my dear." Then his controlled utterance gave way. "For heaven's
sake, why should you not feel that you can say anything to me? What kind
of an idea have I given you of myself? But tell me," quickly subduing
his emotion, "what is it you feel?"

"As if--as if my heart were a flower which had never really bloomed--a
cold, tightly folded bud, that yet held within the colorless outer
leaves wonderful red and purple petals. All there, awaiting a sesame,
and I sometimes dream that only Eugene can give me that sesame. But,"
the glow left her eyes, her head drooped, "I don't know, I don't know. I
thought I was sure once that I loved him. I do not know now."

"Where was Gresham during the time you were struggling here?" he asked
presently. And it struck her irrelevantly.

"In the East somewhere, I think. Doing his desert pictures. I used to
hear from him once in a great while."

He said nothing. Then he came nearer and took both her hands in his.

"Dita, my clear, I'm going to be egotistical and talk about myself for a
minute. Let me see if I can explain." Again that worn and flashing
smile, with a deeper touch of cynicism, flitted over his arrogant face.

    "'King Canute was weary-hearted,
        He had reigned for years a score,
      Pushing, struggling, battling, fighting,
        Killing much and robbing more.'

"Let us hope that it is not quite so bad as the last line infers; but
it gives the idea, the picture. Well, Dita, I saw you, a beautiful
flower, purple and red, if you will, although I do not think the
combination of colors appropriate. And you were blooming in a tin can in
a tenement window. It was insupportable, so I dreamed of transplanting
the flower into its fitting surroundings, a marble court. That was what
I crudely thought would mean your happiness. But I never secured the
flower to adorn the marble court. Believe that. Above all, I wanted and
I want its happiness. Dita, I'm weary-hearted, but I long--I long above
all things--to make you happy. Take the poor surroundings that I can
give you; but let your beauty have its meed, let your heart flower as it
will. Feel free to meet, with outstretched hands, the romance your youth
has dreamed of, for, Dita, I, who have only fettered you with jewels, am
going to give you something really worth while, thanking God very humbly
that it is in my power to do so, and the gift is freedom. You are free
from now on."

She started back, looking at him in frowning bewilderment and yet he saw
deep within her eyes a wild gleam of hope, of joy. "Free!" she repeated
uncertainly, "Free! How can I be free when I am married to you?"

[Illustration: "Free! How can I be free?"]

He laughed once more, and the dreariness of that laughter rang suddenly
hours afterward in her ears. "Those things can always be arranged," he
said. "But I am going to ask you a favor." Although he said "favor" her
quick ear caught the ring of authority in his tone. "Since you are not
sure that you love Gresham, I am going to ask that you wait a year
before securing your legal freedom. You shall have it, whether you
decide on him or not. Oh, believe that. Ah, one more request. Let me
urge you not to have your portrait painted just now. In view of possible
future events, it is much wiser, much safer to let that go for the
present. I think you will have to trust my judgment here. There is no
danger of your beauty waning." Again his worn and flashing smile. "And
now, it is very late and I think you had better get some sleep. Good
night." He smiled again, but she noticed how dreadfully tired he looked.
She winced a bit in soul.

"I am sorry that it has been such a fizzle," she turned to him with a
sort of shy, girlish friendliness and impulsiveness.

He smiled again and lightly touched her cheek with his finger. "Give no
more thought to that." He turned abruptly away.

"Ah, Dita," his voice arrested her from the threshold, "one more request
I am going to make and that is that you get your amulet to-morrow. If
not I shall have to see about it myself and I am really too busy to
bother with it at present." Again that iron ring of authority was in his
voice, but authority masked in velvet. "Will you very kindly attend to
this, my dear?"

She nodded mutely from the doorway, but did not lift her down-bent head,
nor raise her eyes to his.



CHAPTER VIII

FOOLS' LAUGHTER


When Dita wakened the next morning, it was very late, almost noon. She
came slowly to waking consciousness over wastes of apprehension,
oppressed by some heavy sense of disaster. What had happened? Ah, she
remembered it, it was last night. She squirmed uncomfortably and then
lay gazing with somber and introspective eyes about the beautiful room.
Slowly, the chaotic and uncomfortable thoughts which thronged
confusingly in her mind resolved themselves into two or three distinct
facts as scorching to her sensitiveness as if written in letters of
fire. First, she had let herself go unwarrantably. An electric storm
always exerted a sinister effect upon her, inducing a wildness, a
recklessness at first, eventually followed by melancholy and culminating
either in tears or temper. And she had yielded weakly to every phase of
this storm-induced mood.

Why did events have to take the bits in their teeth and gallop madly
along the road to ruin at the most placid and unexpected moments? Why
should an electric storm have blotted the sky and flashed its jagged
lightning over her nerves that especial evening? Why had she not
mastered the sirocco, driven it off in its first stealthy approaches?
But she melted to self-pity; Cresswell should not have taken her so
seriously. He might have realized that the storm, and that tiresome
dinner, and those tiresome people had goaded her unendurably. Grant them
every virtue, every grace, admit that there might have been an
attraction between herself and them in ordinary circumstances, but the
fact that they were old friends of her husband changed the whole
chemical situation. Attraction became repulsion, attempt to conceal the
fact as she would. But self-pity ultimately merged into self-accusation.
No matter what the causes, she had made a melodramatic scene. She had
told a lot of bare truths, which, like all bare truths, were only half
truths; about Eugene, for instance, practically admitting that she loved
him.

Well, did she? She sat up suddenly in bed and pushed the hair back from
her brow with both hands. She pondered intensely a moment. She didn't
know. She really didn't know. Was it love, this feeling she had for him,
had had for him ever since she had been a girl of fifteen? It was a
powerful attraction anyway--a sympathy, an understanding.

And Cresswell had offered her freedom, freedom! What did it mean? Her
heart began to beat quickly, excitedly. It meant the great adventure ...
if one had the courage ... one need "mourn no joy untasted, envy no
bliss gone by." She would throw off this ennui, this apathy which
afflicted her. She was free, free to seek and meet the unexpected. The
great adventure, a thousand adventures were before her. At last, she
would live. Suddenly she remembered her amulet. She must get it. She
gave this a moment's consideration, and then, before summoning her maid,
she went quickly to the telephone in her sitting-room, and rang up
Eugene Gresham's studio.

To her relief, he was there and answered the ring almost immediately.

"Are you there, 'Gene. I want to see you to-day, as soon as possible,
within an hour or so. Will it be convenient for you?"

"Oh, perfectly. But," there was anxiety in his voice, "nothing is wrong,
I hope."

"Oh, nothing much," she replied evasively, "only I want to talk to
you--but not here."

"Why not take luncheon with me," he replied, "at half-past one and
where?"

"Oh, not in any crowded restaurant," she answered a little impatiently.
"At some quiet place. A tea-room--the Wistaria?"

"Very well. Then within an hour and a half."

"And, oh, Eugene," her voice detaining him, "I want the talisman. Do not
fail to bring it. Do you understand?"

If Dita wore as a protecting disguise the simple and conventional dark
gown which has been prescribed by certain unalterable rules of fiction
as the proper costume for a lady hastening to a rendezvous, it failed of
its effect, but served instead to accentuate her beauty; nor detracted
in the least from her as an object of interest and comment.

And Eugene, with his fame, and his air, and his eyes, his lifted
shoulder and his limp, the pointed laurel leaves seeming to gleam
through his cloud of hair, handed her from her motor-car with the manner
of courts, his hat in hand, to the admiration of the passers-by. The
whisper ran: "Eugene Gresham and the beautiful Mrs. Hepworth." They
passed through a gaping aisle. They entered the tea-room to the craning
of necks. Poor souls! This was their measure of seclusion. Beauty and
genius! Fame and wealth! It is a combination New York loves. She serves
them up to her multitudes on a salver.

They were successful, however, in finding a remote table beneath swaying
purple clusters of artificial wistaria and a dimly mellow light. And
while Eugene ordered the luncheon, Dita glanced about her with a
sensation of relief; new surroundings always seem to hold out the
alluring if frequently vain promise of new thoughts and this was the
beginning of adventure, of that new life of infinite variety she meant
to live at last.

Eugene turned from the waiter, and leaning across the table narrowly
observed her.

"A trifle pale," he remarked. "Mad Dita!" reproachfully and yet
tenderly. "I hope all that atmospheric unpleasantness--mental, I mean,
did not come boiling and seething to the surface after I left last
night. I hoped the sirocco had spent itself before I left. But doubtless
Hepworth understands how you are affected by a storm."

"I'm afraid I did make rather a scene," she admitted, her lashes on her
cheek. "However, that is neither here nor there."

He drew a breath of relief.

"Then it is all over, the atmosphere cleared and we are to begin our
sittings to-morrow." He smiled in anticipation and laughingly drew her
picture upon the air.

"No," she shook her head, and spoke more reluctantly than before,
"Cresswell has requested me not to have my portrait painted just now. He
is kind enough," her smile was shadowy, "to think that there is no
particular danger of an immediate waning of my beauty and he desires me
to wait a few months."

"But that is impossible! Incredible!" he scowled with irritation and
threw himself back in the chair. "Oh, what a sirocco, what a sirocco it
must have been!" He shook his head back and forth and then dropped it in
his hands, studying the pattern of the table-cloth as though it were the
map of the situation. "To pass over my disappointment"--he lifted his
head and mechanically pushed about some of the dishes the waiter placed
before him on the table--"ignore it, let it go. I'm not going to press
that now; but there are other things to be considered. It is known that
I am to do your portrait. It was openly discussed last night. All this
must be taken into account. That is for appearances as far as you are
concerned. Then regarding me. I am not a paper-hanger or house painter
to be engaged and then dismissed at the whim of a millionaire. I can not
accept a commission from Hepworth and permit him to cancel it by a
negligent message, sent through a third person. Absurd!" He frowningly
bit a finger. "My plans and arrangements must be concluded for months
ahead. They can not be thrown askew like this. Oh, Dita, what did you
do, what did you say that brought this about? I worked like a Trojan
last night to avert anything of the kind."

She did not answer, but sipped her tea with downcast eyes and he saw
that the lashes on her cheeks were wet.

"Ah, Dita," his voice fell to a charming note of tenderness, a note to
stir any woman's heart, with the purple and white of the wistaria
clusters swaying above their heads and the mellow light reflected in his
eyes, his eager eyes which pierced life's stained and sordid curtain and
saw the wonder and miracle of beauty; and it was this power to discern
the eternal vision which illuminated his ugly, irregular, fascinating
face upon which work and dreams and experience had stamped their
impress. "You can not fancy what it means to me to paint your portrait
now. I've painted it before, crudely, in boyhood, and experienced then a
casual delight in the effort to portray a beautiful thing, and wrest a
few new secrets of art from the portrayal. That was all. But now," his
voice without being raised, yet lifted exultantly, "but now--my heart is
swept with insurgent seas at the thought of what it means. I am lover
and artist, fused in a fire of white enthusiasm. The lover sees, divines
what the artist can only guess at, and the artist offers to the lover a
perfected technique. I feel the stirring of this power to catch your
loveliness, Dita, and fix it on canvas imperishably. It would be the
great achievement. That is in the background of every artist's thoughts.
It is his pillar of cloud by day and his pillar of fire by night. The
great achievement!" He dreamed over it a moment. "I would paint the
South in you, Dita, 'warm and sweet and fickle is the South.' Ah! I
thought I loved you then. I thought I loved you the evening we parted,
but I know now that I have never really loved you before or I could not
have given you up."

They were almost alone, nearly every one had left the room. A long trail
of wistaria blew before her eyes. The light glowed through the silken,
yellow shades. The South! She smelled roses and jasmine. It seemed to
her for one bewildering moment as if her heart had indeed blossomed in
purple and red. She smiled lingeringly, sweetly into his eyes.

"The portrait's only postponed, Eugene, look at it in that way." The
words recalled her to herself with a start. This was paper wistaria and
electric light. She was no longer a girl in a flower-scented, green old
garden about to pose for a boyish and impatient artist. Here she was, in
spite of all her vows to the contrary, yielding to Eugene's spell
without a struggle. She was quite sure of his charm and magnetism, but
what she doubted now was her own heart.

"'Ah, the little more and how much it is. And the little less, and what
worlds away,'" she murmured beneath her breath, wondering unhappily if
she were born to doubt everything.

"But I can't and I won't submit to a postponement." He was now both
impatient and impassioned.

"It is not final," she explained. "Do take it as a postponement, nothing
more. He has his reasons--oh, they are not what you suspect. He is not
jealous. He is too big for that. It is something I can not go into now."
Her sentences were disjointed. She seemed almost incoherent to him. "Let
it be so for the present. I implore, no, I insist, that there be no
explanations. But I must go, it is getting late," she started as if to
rise; then sank back in her chair and held out her hand. "Oh, the
amulet, Eugene."

"I haven't got it," he threw out both empty hands and looked up at her
from under his brows with the expression of a naughty child. "Now
listen, Dita, before you get angry, although you're so wonderful when
you're angry that any one might be forgiven for tempting you into that
state; but after you called me up, the Nasmyths, those English people
you know, mother and daughter, were at the studio, and I was so intent
on getting them away in time to meet you, the mother is the most
interminable talker, that I finally bundled them out of the door and
came with them, with never a thought of the amulet."

"'Gene, how like you!" Her face was full of dismay. "Cresswell
especially asked me to get it to-day, and I don't think he believed for
one moment that clumsy fib I told about having it mended."

"I'll go at once and get it, and bring it to the house," he said
contritely. "You can make any explanation--"

"No, no more explanations," she said decisively. "They are perfect
spider-webs, the most involving things any poor fly can tangle himself
up in. They are, to mix metaphors, the quicksands of any situation.
They make of the simplest matter a problem of complexities."

"What does that go for?" Gresham tilted his head on one side and studied
her. "Does it mean that you and Hepworth quarreled about me, last
night?"

She looked back at him in inscrutable pondering, as if considering the
point, wondering, in fact, whether she and her husband really had
quarreled about him.

"No explanations, Eugene, that's fixed."

"As you will," in careless assent. "But, Dita," again that ardent note
of tenderness, warming his voice, and stirring her heart with all those
intimations of romance which she had never known. "We might as well
accept the inevitable, accept it with joy, face the light quite
fearlessly. We might as well see clearly at last, what for years we
should have known and believed and welcomed with all our hearts--that we
belong to each other."

Her quickly lowered eyelids veiled the sudden glow of her eyes.
"Perhaps," she whispered, "only I want time to think it out, to be sure
of myself. I--I've grown cautious."

He looked at her with the smile that could say so many things and to her
said but one. "Take time then, Dita, but permit me to pray that it will
not be long. And I--I shall await with what patience I may that dazzling
morning when you will open your beautiful, dreaming eyes, and know at
once and for ever that you are at last awake. When you will say, 'This
is my day of love, this is my hour and Eugene's! The world may go.' Take
your days or months, Dita. I give them to you, for I know that every
hour that passes will bring you nearer to me."

Famous artist, famous lover! Men saw his irregular, swarthy face, his
lifted shoulder, his limp, and wondered. But women saw the experiences
and aspirations and dreams that that face held, they saw the smiles
which said so many things exquisitely, they felt the subtle, intuitive
comprehension of every word, an understanding which held no
condemnation, but was as warming and stimulating as sunshine. His
love-making was as delightful and perfect as his art.

But again she threw off the sweet, poignantly sweet influence and strove
to think clearly.

"You had your chance, Eugene, before I was married. I would have
listened to you then, the night before you sailed for Europe, but you
didn't believe in me, you showed it plainly." Angry tears glittered in
her eyes at the remembrance.

"Ah, how could I?" His smile was at once cynical and tender. "I knew
your temperament, that craving, artistic temperament. It is much like my
own. We spring from the same stock, remember. You had all the inherited
love of luxury and beauty as I told you then and you were starved,
starved, Dita, and in a state of revolt. Your imagination was aflame
with what Hepworth offered. And I--" he threw out his hands with a
disclaiming gesture, "Where was I? My feet on shifting sands, I hadn't
touched bedrock then. Ah, well, what's the use? The past is past. It's
the future we face. My heaven, Perdita, what a future!"

His eyes held her, drew her. Involuntarily, she swayed toward him. Then,
impatiently, as if resenting her own attitude, she rose to her feet.

Dita drove home, with the faint smile still lingering about her lips,
still dreaming in her eyes. She drove through the park, green still in
spite of frost. A mist palely irradiated by the sunshine it obscured
enveloped the landscape in a sort of opaline enchantment and
unsubstantiality.

It was with a sigh of regret that she entered her own house. She felt as
if she had wilfully shut the door on the wooing and pensive autumn
without and gone into the bleak and wintry atmosphere of regret and
puzzle and doubt.

But as she moved listlessly across the hall a servant handed her a note
from her husband.

She tore it open and read it. Then she read it again. It seemed to her
that the rustle of the paper was like the crackle of thorns, and the
fool's laughter associated with it. She had meant to manage this
situation in her own way, to keep her hand well on the lever, and behold
it was all arranged for her.

Very briefly the letter informed her that Hepworth's western interests
would require his personal supervision for several months. That he hoped
she would endeavor to make herself as comfortable and happy as possible
and arrange her time in any way that best suited her. That was all. But
as she walked to her own apartments it seemed to her that the air echoed
and rang with the arid and mirthless laughter of fools.



CHAPTER IX

A TELEPHONE CALL


Maud Carmine was slowly pulling off her gloves before the fire in the
old-fashioned drawing-room of the old-fashioned down-town house where
she and her mother lived alone. It was not five o'clock, but the
evenings were so short now that she hesitated whether or not to turn on
the lights, but the firelight was brilliant and so much more attractive
than electricity, no matter how softly shaded that might be.

Yes, the firelight was so bright that in its radiance she could see her
figure reflected in the long mirror between the windows with its ornate
and early Victorian frame. She walked forward and standing before it
gazed at herself with a little smile. She was not a pretty woman, but
she was certainly a striking and attractive one and quite beautifully
gowned. That was the most noticeable thing about her, the _dernier cri_
worn with style and distinction. Her heart went out in gratitude to
Perdita.

While she stood there still surveying herself Wallace Martin was
announced.

"And no tea here for you," said Maud. "I've been out all afternoon.
Mother is gadding somewhere at this unconscionable hour, so I suppose
they thought I didn't want any. I'll send for some and it will be here
in a jiffy."

"I do want some, and some solid substantial bread and butter," confessed
Martin. "I'm hungry. I'm dining out to-night, but the dinner is set for
some unholy late hour, and I've been at a rehearsal all afternoon."

"A rehearsal of your own play?"

He nodded. "My very own," he said. "One of the million or two I've
written has actually been accepted."

"Oh, Wallace!" She held out her hands, her interest and pleasure showing
plainly in her voice. "I am more than delighted. It seems too good to be
true."

"Don't be too enthusiastic yet," he strove to speak dryly. "It may be
accepted by the managers, it is still a question whether it will be
accepted by the public. It's run one gantlet, but whether it will run
two remains to be seen."

"Oh, Wallace," she cried again. "How can you be so pessimistic and calm
and calculating and all that? Why, I should be off my head with joy."

"I am," he said tersely. "Maud, don't tell any one, but I feel like a
Wright aëroplane."

"I won't breathe it," she promised gaily, "but please don't add to the
fame I'm sure you're going to get from that play, by flying over the
housetops to rehearsals. Oh, here is tea, muffins, bread and butter,
cake. Anything else you'll have?"

He sank back contentedly. "Nothing but to insist that you tell that 1820
butler of yours that you're not at home to any one else. It's too
deliciously cosy to be spoiled by women simpering and rustling and men
lounging and clattering in. Just the firelight--it's a little early for
fire, but this evening is quite chilly--and the tea-kettle singing in
that nice homey way, and even a big Persian cat on the hearthrug. It's
'ome and 'eaven. And what a contrast to last night! Better a dinner of
herbs like this, where love is, than the stalled ox of yestere'en."

A faint blush seemed to tinge Maud's cheek, but it may have been, after
all, but the flickering firelight.

"Last night wasn't awfully pleasant, was it?" she said with a little
sigh.

"Pleasant! It was deadly. Poor Maud!" helping himself to more bread and
butter. "How hard you worked!"

"How silly you are!" she cried indignantly. "Perfectly absurd the way
you all acted. Horrid-minded creatures, bored and trying to make a
situation out of nothing. Eugene Gresham and Dita have known each other
for years. There is even some kind of a southern relationship between
them, quite near, I believe."

"La, la!" said Wallace, again helping himself generously this time to
cake, "your loyalty is beautiful, but don't let it drive you to take a
stand you may have to abandon."

"Wallace!" she turned from him indignantly and the firelight showed that
her eyes were full of tears.

"I mean it just the same." He placed his tea-cup on the table and bent
toward her. "Look here, Maud, your friend, Mrs. Hepworth, is a very
pretty woman, but she isn't a very bright one."

"That is just where you are mistaken," she returned. "She is extremely
clever but you don't seem to understand how much training and
environment have to do with those things. Take a woman as pretty as
Dita, a woman who has been beautiful and admired from her babyhood--she
has always been the center of attraction, she has never had to observe
people closely, to study their moods and characteristics, never has had
to try to please." There was a depth of mournful experience in Maud's
tone. "Therefore she seems to carry things with a high hand, seems to
lack subtlety and finesse and deference to the opinions of others.
Therefore, you, seeing this, immediately put it down to lack of brains.
It is a stupidity unworthy of you, at least it is a snap-shot judgment,
a lack of that careful, sympathetic study and analysis of character
which I should fancy would be necessary to you as a playwright."

He sat for a moment or two, with hands loosely clasped between his
knees, gazing into the bed of glowing coals. This attitude and silence
on his part continued for some minutes. "There!" he turned around so
suddenly that she jumped, "I've given due and careful consideration to
all you have to say and I will repeat my original statement. Mrs.
Hepworth is a very pretty woman, but she isn't a very bright one, not
bright enough to be ordinarily discreet."

Her shoulders twitched petulantly. "Wallace! The blot on your character
is that you are a bit of a gossip, yes you are, and you mingle with a
lot of idle people who have nothing better to do than to spend time that
might be put to valuable uses in making mountains out of mole hills.
Truly, it's an idiotic mental employment that is not worthy of you."

"Maud, you rouse me to argument; you do, really. I am not talking about
Mrs. Hepworth's very manifestly displayed interest in Gresham last
night. That might be attributed to half a dozen different causes. She
might have had a row with her husband or dressmaker, or have been so
bored by the happy family group gathered about her that she was ready
for anything. Any one could see that she was rather out-of-sorts,
excited and reckless and all that. I am not even thinking of last night,
and I will immediately withdraw any aspersions I may seem to have cast
on Mrs. Hepworth's brain power, if you will tell me why she gave Eugene
Gresham that old trinket, amulet, talisman or whatever it is?"

Maud began to laugh, quite naturally at first, and then she stopped
suddenly. She remembered the scene of the night before, the empty space
in the tray. She remembered Cresswell Hepworth's surprise, and Dita's
sullenness.

"But you heard Dita last night say that it was broken and that it was
being mended," she protested, but some way her protestations sounded
flat and unconvincing in her own ears.

"Yes, and you remember that she glanced quickly at Eugene Gresham before
she answered. You also remember that Hepworth, in the innocence of his
heart, explained that the old legend or tradition which had been
connected with the charm for centuries had been that it could neither be
bought nor sold, but that it could only be given away, given away with
the heart's love of the possessor, and in that case it would prove a
blessing to both him who gave and him who took."

Martin stooped and lifted the Persian cat upon his knees. "Well, my dear
Maud, the end of that story is that Gresham has the amulet."

"If that is true," she flashed back, "he took it to be mended for her."

"The circumstances do not seem to point that way," he said mildly.
"Really, Maud, it's the deuce of a mix-up, and I'm simply trying to
prepare you for the worst. You know those English people, the Nasmyths,
in draggled tweeds and velveteens; the mother wears an India shawl, and
the daughter a hat which looks as if it were made of carpet. Well, they
were at the Hewstons' to luncheon to-day and they had just come from
Eugene Gresham's studio where they had been pottering about the best
part of the morning, although Alice Wilstead said their boots and their
faces looked as if they had been chasing over plowed fields. Well, they
were yelping about Gresham like all other women, and raving about the
beautiful things he had, and Mrs. Nasmyth told how she got to poking
about on a table and found your friend's amulet; and she, of course,
made an awful scream about it, and Gresham, who, she naïvely remarked,
didn't seem any too pleased at her discovery, explained that it was a
good-luck charm, of very ancient workmanship, which had been given to
him by a dear friend, and then he gently and firmly locked it up before
her eyes in a little cabinet."

"Horrid creature!" murmured Maud.

"Who?" said Wallace eagerly. "You can't possibly mean Gresham, do you,
Maud? What!" his tones expressed a wondering delight as she mutely but
emphatically nodded her head. "To hear a woman speak thus of that hero
of romance! Never has such a grateful sound saluted my ears. Never!
Maud, I am really afraid I am going to hug you."

"You are going to do nothing of the kind." She could not help laughing,
although she was seriously worried.

"Well, we'll waive it for the present," he conceded, again sinking
languidly back in his chair, "but that isn't the worst. I told you that
it was the deuce of a mix-up, and so it is. To continue now on page
eight hundred and ninety-nine, the Nasmyths babbled all this out at
luncheon, and old Hewston got perfectly apoplectic. He swelled up and
became purple and emitted the most dreadful snorts and whiffles, and
grunts and groans, until finally just as his wife and Alice Wilstead
thought he was going to fall down in a fit, he got up and puffed away
from the table, and Alice and Mrs. Hewston rushed after him, leaving the
poor Nasmyths to take care of themselves. And not one thing could those
two women do with him. You know what an obstinate, pig-headed,
meddlesome old thing he is--and his head was set on jumping into his car
and off to tell Hepworth as quickly as possible and, my dear Maud, that
is what he did. Alice Wilstead said that she and Mrs. Hewston hung on to
his coat-tails up to the very moment he entered the car, begging,
praying, beseeching, imploring. She said he dragged them all the way
across the sidewalk and literally kicked himself free from them." Martin
threw back his head in a great burst of laughter in which Maud very
feebly joined.

"I wish I'd been there," she said regretfully. "He'd only have got in
that motor over my dead body; but, Wallace, when did you hear all this?"

"I met Alice Wilstead limping up the avenue, on her way home, and she
told me about it."

"I wish--" began Maud, but she was interrupted by a summons to the
telephone. When she returned to the room a few moments later, her face
was graver than ever.

"I'll have to leave you, Wallace," she said. "You can stay here with the
cat and the fire and the tea-kettle if you want to. Perhaps mother will
come in, but Dita wishes me to come to her at once."



CHAPTER X

OUT OF THE GILDED CAGE


Prompt as Maud was in responding to Dita's plea for her immediate
presence, Dita was equally prompt in hurling herself upon her friend's
sympathetic bosom.

Maud had been shown at once to the sitting-room of Mrs. Hepworth's
personal suite of apartments, and there Dita sat in the dim and
depressing gloaming of the unlighted chamber, a figure of dejection.

She had not even removed her hat, but sat brooding in the twilight until
Maud's entrance roused her and she flung herself across the room and
into the latter's arms with the impetuous rush of a cyclone.

Dita was temperamentally far more given to anger than to tears, but the
strain of the last two days had culminated now in a burst of wild
weeping, and Maud found it necessary to soothe and calm her before she
could venture to inquire into the immediate cause of her friend's very
poignant and unfeigned distress; so she applied herself to the task of
consolation with only vague conjectures as to the cause for grief.

She was able, however, from Dita's almost incoherent statements, to
patch together a fairly accurate idea of what had occurred.

"Just read this letter," Dita thrust the sheets into Maud's hand. "Oh,
you can not, not in this light. Wait a moment," she touched a button and
the room was flooded with a rose-colored radiance. Maud stepped nearer
one of the lamps and gave her most earnest attention to the words
Cresswell Hepworth had written. His utterance through the medium of the
pen, was brief, self-controlled, restrained and to the point. And as
Maud read his well-considered words, something like a feeling of despair
swept over her.

"He has gone, actually gone," cried Dita, as Maud handed the letter back
to her without comment. "Gone," she repeated the words as if the fact in
itself were quite unbelievable. She crushed the letter in her hand and
threw it on the floor. "He will be gone months, looking after his mines
and railroads and I'm to stay here. He never even said good-by to me,
and this," she touched the crumpled ball of paper contemptuously with
her foot, "gives me very plainly to understand that it is a virtual
separation. Oh," she jerked the pins out of her hat and sent that plumey
velvet head-covering spinning across the room, then turned to her calm
and sympathetic friend with a real fear and a real appeal in her eyes.
"What am I going to do? For a few months it will be all right, and then
people will begin to talk like everything. And you know how it will
appear. Every one will say that Cresswell discovered that I was having
an affair with some one, Eugene, of course, and that he, Cresswell, and
I had a row and that he refused to live with me longer, but that he
nevertheless was so chivalrous that he turned over this house and the
country places to me. Oh, dear, why did I have to have a sirocco?"

"Heaven knows," said Maud. "Let it be a lesson to you. Never have
another one. There, there, dear, I didn't mean any reproaches or I
told-you-sos. So stop howling or you'll mar your beauty permanently.
Oh, now, don't lift your head and glare at me indignantly and say you
hope you will, that it's never been anything but a curse to you. I've
been too plain all my life to listen with patience to anything of the
kind. Now, let me think." She sat with finger on lip deeply considering,
while Dita still punctured the silence with loud occasional sobs.

"You will have to travel," she said decisively. "Yup will have to travel
until people begin to talk and then you will have to keep on traveling
until they stop talking. But oh, Dita, can't you try and patch it up?"

Her words gave fresh impetus to Perdita's gradually decreasing sobs.
"You do not know him," she wept, "and to tell the truth, neither do I;
but I have enough of an understanding of him to know that he always
considers a step very thoroughly before he takes it, looks well into the
chasm before he leaps, and it's no use trying to get him to change his
mind when he has decided what course he means to pursue. Anyway, I do
not wish it. I want to be free, but not this way. Oh, was ever a woman
placed in such a position as I? I believe Cresswell would forgive
anything but the sin of not knowing one's own mind and I had to confess
to him last night that I wasn't sure of mine or of my heart either. He
has a contempt for me, of course, and," rising restlessly and moving
about, "I can't and won't accept his contempt, and I can't and won't
continue to live on his money and potter about his old houses. I feel as
if I would rather die."

"But, dearest," cried Maud bewildered. "What else is there for you to
do? What else can you do?"

"Nothing apparently," she said. Her dark gown fell about her in the long
lines of perfect grace. As she stood there, beautiful as the tragic
muse, her great eyes transfixed Maud with her scorn, but the scorn was
not for her friend, but for herself. "What can I do? I am about the most
useless creature on all this green earth. I sit and cry at a situation
which tortures my pride, instead of coming to a decision. I made a
beggardly pittance trying to earn my own living, and I won't go back to
that kind of life, a disgusting, sordid, scrimpy life, which stifled
every generous impulse or spontaneous action. I will not go back, I will
not give up all the things I love and have become accustomed to. I was
born to this. I love it, and will have it, but not on these terms.

"I haven't been utterly futile here, as I was in those other
circumstances. I have made Cresswell Hepworth's upholstery, stiff
houses, 'decorated and furnished by the most expensive and artistic
firms,' look really livable and lovely. Truly, haven't I? Great artists
have raved over them. Oh, I'm not afraid of velvets and tapestries and
embroideries. I have no burgeois reverence for them. Color was always
like clay to me. I always long to take it and mold it into new
combinations. Why, I couldn't keep my hands off a rainbow if I got a
chance at it, even the angels couldn't shoo me away." She was in one of
her swift, mercurial changes of mood, her mouth dimpling, her eyes
sparkling. "I'm not afraid of all the splendor of color or of all the
gorgeously rich materials that God or man ever devised. I ache to take
them and combine them and melt them together and contrast them. I'll
dare any combination to get an effect I want, an effect that haunts me,
and is like music in my consciousness. Isn't it strange that I can do
anything I like with great heavy draperies? I wave my hand at them and
they fall into just the lines I want. I can get all kinds of effects in
a room, but give me a little palette with little gobs of paint on it,
and little, little brushes and I can't do even a decent lamp mat. That
is one reason Eugene and I have always understood each other so well.
He, too, knows the call of color. Oh, stop looking that way, as if I
were going straight to shipwreck just because I mention Eugene. The
important thing to consider now is what I am going to do."

"I've told you once," said Maud, with settled conviction; "travel."

"On Cresswell's money?" bitterly. "Well, I suppose you think it's either
that or huddling into some black hole and attempting to earn my living
again--a phrase that's the synonym for me of a cheap and nasty
experience, but there must be some way out. No, I am utterly wasted,
futile, ineffective. I do not believe, I solemnly do not believe, that I
have one single, solitary gift in this world except being pretty."

"Look at me!" said Maud with a rather whimsical, cynical little smile.
"I think that I'm the living proof of one of your especial gifts. Why,
Dita, my dear, I'm a creation of yours. I'm considered one of the most
stunning women in town and about the best dressed and," Maud's really
soft and attractive smile transfixed her face, "I've won, I am really
beginning to dare to believe it, the interest and I hope the affection
of the only man I ever cared for and who never gave me a glance when I
was just 'that plain Maud Carmine, who is musical, you know.' Oh, I mean
Wallace, of course," blushing. "I haven't got over the wonder of it yet,
I assure you. I'm still mentally pinching myself and saying, 'If this be
I.' Think of it, Dita! I know the treasures of the socially humble, if
any one does. I always had position, but that amounts to very little in
these days, unless one has other things to back it up. It has been
gradually losing importance, pushed to the wall by money, the ability to
entertain, personal charm and good clothes, an air, a flare, a wit;
until now the poor, solemn, superannuated thing, so long unduly revered,
is really trotted back into the corner. Yes, I had position, but not
recognition. The back seats for me, so I rubbed along on my music and
conversation as best I could, poor fool! And then you came, and waved
your magic wand over me, took me in hand, and the world began to
appraise me at your valuation."

"That was nothing," said Dita carelessly. "I just have the knack of
seeing people as they ought to be. I could do what I did for you with
anybody, if they would only let me. You were nice and plastic and put
yourself entirely in my hands."

"Plastic!" echoed Maud. "You mean hopeless! But turn about is fair play.
Take the advice I offer you, and travel. If you say the word we'll start
for Japan to-morrow. And you needn't touch a penny of your husband's
money either, my child. I have enough for both of us."

"Maud, you're a darling." Dita smiled in warm appreciation. "But--"

"But, Dita," Maud's voice held both fear and appeal, "if you do stay
here, you will not, you must not see Eugene Gresham."

Dita smiled at her again, inscrutably. "An idea has come to me," she
said, quite irrelevantly, "a dazzling idea. I really believe that it is
the solution of the whole matter."

She considered this dazzling idea, her eyes growing brighter every
moment.

"Oh, Maud, Maud!" she cried, clasping her hands, "what an inspiration!
I'm going on my own again. Yes, I am. Don't look so horrified. I know
I've grouched and fussed a lot over my past efforts in that direction,
but you see I tried to do things in a small way, cotillion favors and
such, and it didn't suit me. It wasn't my _métier_, not my way. I loathe
detail. I can do things on a big scale or not at all. You know that. And
my present idea means the big scale. When I first came to New York I
regarded it as the great adventure, but then I didn't know how to go
about anything. I was as ignorant as a baby of everything--everything.
The tremendous professional skill required, my own ineptitude, the utter
inadequacy of my poor, amateur accomplishments, my entire ignorance of
business methods, all frightened, dazed, stupefied me, but now, now, I
just believe I'll have another try."

"Oh, what _have_ you got in your head now?" cried Maud in frightened
resignation.

"You see it's like this," Dita ignored the question and continued to
follow her own train of thought. "New York demands one of two things of
the stranger who comes knocking at her gates, either training or a new
idea. She can take care of any trained person, but if she has to conduct
the educational process, she does it with a club. Now I'm going back to
her with my new idea. Oh, I was crushed a bit ago, but now I am really
enjoying myself as I have not done since the first dazzle of marrying
Cresswell and seeing his money turn itself so easily into the beautiful
things I had longed for all my life. But I've been getting tireder and
tireder of being the twittering canary in the gilded cage. Cresswell
opened the door last night and now I'm going to fly put, but in a
totally different direction from the one he expects me to take." She
laughed delightedly. "Oh, do you think New York will listen to my new
idea?"

"She'll listen to Mrs. Cresswell Hepworth," said Maud dryly. "It won't
make much difference about the idea, whether it's new or old." She
thought of a conversation Hepworth's friends had held at the wedding
breakfast and sighed reminiscently. "I'm afraid you're making Cress
rather a background."

"Why not?" said Dita cheerfully and defiantly. "Serves him right, going
away in the fashion he did and putting me in such a position. 'Moses an'
Aaron,' as my old mammy used to say, you needn't try to dissuade me.
You'll be as crazy about the idea as I am when I unfold it to you. The
twittering canary is going to hop out of the gilded cage, and build her
own nest. It's the great adventure. It is to live. Won't Cresswell open
those sleepy eyes of his when he sees this move of mine on the
chessboard? I'm done with failure, this venture of ours is a success
before it's begun."



CHAPTER XI

A DOLL OR A BOX OF CANDY


Perdita, being one of those ardent, mercurial creatures who run with
winged feet to meet every event in life, whether it be joyous or
disastrous, had encountered her bad quarter of an hour the morning after
the dinner party.

Hepworth's, however, was postponed for a later and more lingering
occasion. We euphemistically limit these seasons of judgment to quarters
of an hour in speaking of them, but they are quite independent of time,
and may continue through days.

Perdita had a temperamental advantage. Hers were those swift changes of
mood so disconcerting to the devils of ennui and depression; but her
husband's period of reaction lasted, with but little mitigation, all the
way across the continent.

A most lusty and persistent demon of doubt and self-accusation boarded
his car within a few hours after the train left the station, invaded his
luxurious solitude and, indifferent to a chilling reception, there
remained. To Hepworth, the demon's most searing insinuation was that,
instead of a masterly retreat in good order, this departure of his for
the other side of the continent was a virtual renunciation of all that
he cared most to win and to hold. Fool and coward, the demon whispered,
to quit the game just at the moment when his presence was an imperative
necessity. But, although the demon was eloquent--it is an attribute of
demons--and his suggestions were like red-hot pincers, it never entered
Hepworth's head to turn back. On the contrary, it was characteristic
that having decided on a certain course, he was not to be swayed by the
demon's most subtle and ingenious arguments. He was merely rendered
supremely uncomfortable by them.

He had offered Perdita her freedom and he meant it without any
reservations. She should decide on her own course, follow her own
leadings according to the limits of her own folly or discretion, but
free she should be, and free even from any shadowy influence that his
mere presence might exert. Quixotic, scrupulously so: but then that was
Hepworth's way.

The demon laughed at this obstinately maintained, unalterable decision.
What chance, it sardonically suggested, had any mere average man against
a rival like Eugene Gresham? Women love glamour. Perdita especially
adored it blindly. Most women, certainly Perdita, would rather follow
the alluring, brilliant gleam of the will-o'-the-wisp, any time, than
the smoky but dependable light of the useful household lantern.

These gloomy reflections served to goad and stab like so many tormenting
banderillos, but Hepworth's resolution to absent himself for a time, and
thus insure Perdita a free hand, remained unalterable, in fact it
hardened, became like iron.

The journey over, his spirits improved; the demon was far less
persistent and only occasionally showed himself. There were a number of
business matters of varying importance requiring his attention, and
these very fully occupied his mind. He had made his headquarters for a
time at Santa Barbara.

Then, suddenly, his busy, if rather monotonous and routine existence
became diversified by a series of peculiar events which, in his most
wildly imaginative moments, he would never have conjectured.

One afternoon, as he sat before an open window in the villa he had
taken, looking out over a wonderful garden, all fragrance and color, at
the blue channel, the mountains, the distant islands gleaming fairy-like
through their golden haze, the name of Mr. James Fleming was brought to
him and served very effectually to rouse him from his spiritless
daydreaming, on whose confines hovered the demon.

Hepworth sat up, care vanished from his brow, the depressed droop of his
mouth changed to a smile. "Fleming! Jim Fleming!" he exclaimed. "Show
him in at once," to the waiting servant.

Mr. Fleming wasted no time in appearing and Hepworth pushed back his
chair and rose, meeting him with a hearty hand-clasp and one of his most
brilliant smiles.

This was the effect the arrival of Fleming invariably produced. One
might have thought from the way men greeted him that he was some great
public benefactor. Quite the opposite. Hepworth, and no doubt many
others, had, through him, lost thousands of dollars, but this did not in
the least affect their pleasure in his society nor tarnish their
confidence in his good intentions.

Fleming was about Hepworth's age, rather tall and rather stout. He had a
broad, clean-shaven face, and the mouth of an orator, large, mobile,
stretching across his face in a straight line and turning up sharply at
the corners. His eyes, which were blue-gray, had a most ingratiating and
irresistible expression of camaraderie.

During the course of his life many unkind names had been applied to
Fleming, but by women, mark you, never by men. There were quantities of
good wives and mothers who regarded him very much as the devil is
supposed to regard holy water. Had they not reason? At the very mention
of his name they had seen a certain wild, primitive gleam light the eyes
of even their most staid and house-broken men, and at the sound of his
voice the most tractable and responsible husbands would seem to hear
again the pipes of Pan, and forgetful of duty, daily bread and family
obligations would follow eagerly whither those wild notes led.

Beyond question Fleming possessed that magnetic quality which opens all
doors. He was at home in any society and where he was laughter flowed as
wine. He had neither profession nor settled business, but always
referred to himself as a "prospector--a prospector of the old school."

The first gay greetings over, Mr. Fleming established himself in a
comfortable chair, and said without preamble, but with his usual
devil-may-care nonchalance, "I've come to ask a favor of you, Cress, a
mighty big favor."

Hepworth mechanically stretched his hand out toward his check book.

"Oh, it's not money I want this time," said Fleming easily. "It's no
favor to me to lend me money. That's always spent on others. Anyway,
I've got more than I can handle for once. You see, it's this way. I've
got to go over to Idaho. I've just got wind of a big thing there, a big
thing. Two boys I know want me to go over and look at it and I'm off
to-day. Biggest thing that's been struck in years, they tell me. Both
of them stone broke. Didn't have enough money to pay railway fare. Stole
rides, practically no food for a week. If there's anything in it, I may
be good enough to allow you to finance it."

"Let me see," said Hepworth reflectively, "according to the invariable
law of ratio, I'm about due to win on some of these ventures of yours
I've so obligingly financed."

Mr. Fleming solemnly and sadly shook his head. "Set a beggar on
horseback and sooner or later he'll show his rags. The born millionaire!
You show all the degenerate earmarks." He pointed the finger of scorn at
Hepworth. "Even if I hadn't come along you would still have been a
millionaire, climbed to it on some one else's shoulders. Entirely
forgotten the old days, haven't you? Why who," explosively, "laid the
foundation of your soul-deadening fortune? Me. Myself. Well, that's what
a man has to expect in this world. But seriously, Cress, I do want you
to do something for me."

"Don't frighten me in this way then," said Hepworth. "If it isn't money,
I'm getting apprehensive. You're in some scrape and I've got to take
off my coat and work like a nigger to get you out."

"Honest to God, no," said Mr. Fleming fervently. "It's just this. You
see my little girl is here to spend her vacation with me--jumped across
three states and got here day before yesterday, and under the
circumstances it's kind of rough on her for me to go skating off this
way leaving her all alone in a barracks of a hotel and in this place
where she don't know a soul. Sure's I'm sitting here, Cress, I did my
best not to listen to the boys," Fleming spoke earnestly. He always had
the virtue of believing profoundly in himself. "It didn't seem fair to
her, you know. But, oh Lord! What's the use? You know how it is when a
new property swims into my ken. I get the fever so's I can't eat and I
can't sleep, and it's 'my heart in the Highlands' so's I'm like to die
unless I'm up and away to that little old new mine that's just been
found, seeing what's to her, anyway. And you may believe it or not," in
solemn asseveration, "but all the time I'm holding back and trying not
to go. I've got the cramp in my feet so that I can't hobble, but the
moment I yield, and take to the path again, it's gone. That's a fact.
Now," the musical note of persuasion was strong in Mr. Fleming's voice,
"now all I'm asking of you, Cress, is to look in on my little girl now
and then and see that she has everything she wants. She's got a sort of
vinegar-faced Sue with her that she calls her maid, so she's not
entirely alone; but I want to be easy in my mind about her, to know that
she's got some one to fall back on if anything unpleasant comes up.

"She's pretty cute, you know. About on to everything that's going. Can
take the best kind of care of herself. Has had to, poor kid. Her mother
died, and you know, Cress, she might just as well have had a grasshopper
for a father as me. Although I've tried, she'd tell you herself, I've
tried, that is, as far as the limitations of my artistic temperament
would permit. But when I feel the _wanderlust_ and the _weltschmerz_ and
all that in my blood and hear the siren voices of new properties
calling, why, the fireside fetters have got to fall, the white, clinging
arms have got to unloosen their grip. That's all there is to it. You
know in books how the father of a motherless daughter is always father
and mother and brothers and sisters and grandmother, uncles and aunts to
her? Well, I haven't been all those to Fuschia. I wouldn't have known
how and she wouldn't have stood for it. She's got no particular use for
fireside fetters, herself. Oh," optimistically, "I guess she'll be all
right here. I'm leaving her all the money she can spend. But I just want
you to keep an eye on her. Kind of see that the wheels are running all
right and that she's amused and don't mope. You'll like her, you know.
It's a funny thing, but everybody's just crazy and always has been about
that kid."

Hepworth was not proof against the appeal in his old friend's eyes,
neither was he capable of shattering Fleming's simple faith that he,
Hepworth, a jaded and middle-aged person, would find Fleming's daughter
a delightful and interesting charge.

Fleming's mind still ran on his child. "She's about the only thing in
petticoats that has any real confidence in me," he said, with pride.
"It's only been once or twice in my career that I've seen a look of real
friendship in a woman's eyes. The first sight of me brings that wary,
on-guard gleam way back in their blue or brown windows of the soul. You
can't fool a woman. They've got those intuitions, you know, and they
know instinctively that I'm a born missionary to the henpecked, that
it's my mission in life to bring a little cheer into the lives of those
poor shut-ins, the married men; scatter a little sunshine on their path.

"By the way," as if struck by a sudden thought, "you've married since I
last saw you. Some slip of a girl, I'll be bound. That's what the
middle-aged millionaire's sure to do. Well, hold on to your money,
Cress. Don't trust to your own fascinations. And you keep an eye on my
little Fuschia, won't you?"

Manfully concealing his apprehensions, Hepworth promised to do all that
lay in his power to be a father to Fleming's daughter and had the
consolation of seeing his old friend depart most jauntily and evidently
with a weight off his mind.

But when the door had finally closed on him Hepworth let his
perfunctorily smiling face relax. But it did not remain merely grave and
preoccupied, for as he continued to gaze fixedly, but unseeingly, at a
large paper weight before him, his eyes narrowed and his brow contracted
in a frown.

He had neither the heart, time nor inclination to spend his leisure
moments amusing such an utterly spoiled, untrained, undisciplined child
as he was sure Fleming's daughter must be. Allowed to choose her own
path from babyhood, wilful, headstrong--oh, well, what was the use of
anticipating? He'd promised to look after her, and disagreeable duty as
it was sure to be, he had to see it through, and that was all there was
about it.

He decided to look her up the next afternoon. Take her a doll or a box
of candy. Perhaps, though, she was too old for a doll. How old was she,
anyway? He had forgotten to ask Jim. Probably about twelve or fifteen
years. Yes, certainly, the box of candy was safer. That was always
acceptable and agreeable to any of the seven ages of women.

He sighed again, and then, as if seeking distraction, he picked up the
New York newspaper he was about to open when Fleming's card had been
brought to him. He surveyed it languidly, his eye roving with
indifference up and down the columns. Suddenly his attention was vividly
arrested.

His whole gaze, even further, his whole heart hung on a paragraph
stating that Eugene Gresham had just sailed on the _Mauritania_. It was
known among Mr. Gresham's friends that he had recently received a
commission to paint the portrait of a princess of the royal house of
Austria and that upon completing this he would go to England to finish a
portrait, already begun, on a previous occasion, of the beautiful Lady
Heppelwynd. Mr. Gresham, when seen on board ship a moment before
sailing, would neither confirm nor deny these rumors.

The frown disappeared from Hepworth's face. What commendable discretion!
Whether the credit were due Dita or Gresham mattered little. It was the
admirable restraint, this delicate and unexpected regard for
appearances, which Hepworth applauded. To do him justice, that was his
first thought, the sober second one was profound relief that the
fascinating will-o'-the-wisp was as far away from the impulsive and
curious Dita as was the smoky lantern. He put the paper down and rose to
his feet. Fleming's little girl should have a box of candy that was a
box of candy.



CHAPTER XII

FUSCHIA FLEMING


Procrastination was a thief that had never succeeded in wresting much
time from Hepworth. He was one of those rare and exemplary natures who
never put off until to-morrow what they can do to-day. Never did he
stand shivering on the edge of his cold bath, but plunged in immediately
without pause for consideration. Obnoxious virtues these--prejudicial to
any popularity among his fellow-beings, therefore it speaks volumes for
him that he was able to overlive them.

This all goes to show that although the duty of keeping an eye on
Fleming's daughter became more repugnant to him the longer it remained
in contemplation, he yet lost no time in looking her up, as he expressed
it to himself. Neither did he waver in his promise to himself fitly to
celebrate Eugene Gresham's departure for other shores, but kept his vow
by selecting the most gaudily decorated and wastefully beribboned box of
sweets he could secure, and armed with it, as a hostage to impertinent
childhood, took himself to the big hotel where Miss Fuschia Fleming was
stopping.

He sent up his name to her and was very shortly informed that Miss
Fleming was in the garden and would be delighted to have him join her
there.

Hepworth curled his lip. What grown-up airs! Naturally, she had lost no
time in turning up her hair and having her gowns lengthened since her
father's departure, and he, Hepworth, would have to play up to this
phase of missishness.

He was dazzled for the moment by the bright sunshine, the brilliant
flowers, and mechanically followed the page, threading his way through
various groups of people. Before a table among the roses sat a young
woman reading. The page stopped; Hepworth stopped; the young woman cast
aside her book and rose.

[Illustration: Before a table sat a young woman reading.]

"How do you do, Mr. Hepworth?" She stretched out her hand with a boyish
gesture, smiling into his eyes, and the sunshine grew dim. "Won't you
sit down? I've just ordered some tea. If you don't drink it, won't you
tell the man to bring you something else when he comes? Father said--"

"But father is surely not Fleming, Jim Fleming," he said, firmly
determined to get this absurd mistake straightened out at once.

"But father just is," she asserted as firmly. "And since you asked for
Miss Fleming, I am she, Fuschia Fleming. That is my ridiculous name."

But Hepworth had so far lost his mental equilibrium that he could not
immediately recover himself.

"Fuschia Fleming is a little girl," he insisted, although this time not
half so positively, "and great Heavens," with one of his quick smiles,
"I've brought you a box of candy and just barely escaped buying you a
doll."

"I wish you had," she said. "I love dolls, especially the kind that you
would bring me." There was undeniably something heady about Fuschia
Fleming's glance. "And as for sweets, they're grateful and comforting to
any age. You'd better give me that box at once, and I'll give you a
practical demonstration of my appreciation."

Fuschia had the curliest mouth. There is no other way to describe it. It
was all in ripples, not small, but looking smaller than it really was
because it turned up quite sharply at the corners, like her father's.
And the lashes that lay on her pale, smooth cheeks were the curliest and
longest Hepworth had ever seen. Her eyes were blue, blue as the sea, and
very cool and gay and inclusive. Without being sharp or speculative or
inquisitive, they yet took in all the details of whatever they rested
upon.

But Hepworth was a keen observer, and he noticed at once that although
her pale face was for the most part alive with laughter, there was yet a
certain worn look about it, as if she had been recently over-taxed and
fatigued. There were faint but undeniable lines about the mouth and eyes
that time had never etched there; and that blythe assured bearing, her
detached, yet ready manner, were not suggestive of the ease of confident
youth. They bespoke training.

Hepworth's eyes, their droop rather more pronounced than usual, were
fastened on an adjacent palm, as if he demanded from it the answer to
this riddle. Getting no response there, he turned his speculating eye
on a tree of magnificent crimson roses as if hoping for some
enlightenment from that quarter.

"Why do you not tell me all about it?" urged Fuschia gently. "What's the
use of trying to puzzle me out unaided? Father has evidently told you a
lot of conflicting things. I really can throw more light on the subject
than any one else."

Her voice was beautiful, soft and full and creamy, with all exquisite
modulations and inflections, and its music cleared Hepworth's befogged
brain. He released the palm and the rose tree from the third degree to
which he had been subjecting them, and leaned back in his chair as if he
relaxed his mind as well as his body, smiling back at her, as confident
now, and as assured as herself.

"I don't have to," he said. "I know. It's just come to me. You see your
father didn't happen to mention that you are studying for the stage."

"Studying for the stage!" she cried, as if to refute him, considered,
and then nodded emphatically. "Of course I am, and expect to be until I
die; but hardly in the sense you mean. My field of study at the present
time includes a good deal of practical experience. I've been on the
stage now for three years, ever since I left school."

"On the stage!" he exclaimed. "But my dear child, under what name?"

"My own," she answered. "Oh, do not look so puzzled. It is the most
unlikely thing in the world that you should ever have heard of me. I'm
far from a star, just one of the humble members of first this and then
that western stock company. You see, my idea was to get my training and
experience before I burst upon New York. But New York is beginning to
seem too iridescent a dream ever to be realized."

There was a fall in her voice, a touch of wistfulness, which Hepworth
found rather touching because its pathos was both uncalculated and
unconscious.

"Why?" he asked in surprise. This note of resignation in her tones, of
acceptance of a disappointing, inevitable circumstance, struck him as
singularly out of character and aroused his curiosity.

"It's been the same thing several times in succession now," said
Fuschia, a touch of superstitious gravity in her expression. "Just as
father is preparing to stake me, and I'm getting a company together to
take New York by storm as Rosalind, why, father loses his last dime on a
dead-sure thing. There's a law about it. The biggest winning proposition
in years, always comes along just as I am ready to cross the Alps and
storm Italy. Uncanny, isn't it?"

"What nonsense!" Hepworth clipped off the end of a cigar as if it were
Fleming's head. "Do not let yourself be affected by such an absurdity.
The only law, and I admit it's a strong and binding one, is Jim's
selfishness and irresponsibility. Now my dear child," Hepworth was
beginning to fancy himself enormously in the rôle of paternal adviser,
"you make him give you as much as possible."

"I do," she interrupted softly.

"And you lay it all aside, very securely, never touching a penny of
it--"

"What about my clothes?" another interruption.

"Never touching a penny of it," went on Hepworth firmly, ignoring these
asides on her part, "until you have saved enough to finance yourself.
Isn't that reasonable?"

"Ye-s," admitted Fuschia. "It is a very reasonable and sensible
suggestion, Mr. Hepworth, that is," thoughtfully, "if you leave out
father and me. But just get it into your head that at the moment I'd
save a nice little heap, father would be hit with an overwhelming
impulse to back the wrong horse, and, here's something awfully queer
psychologically, Mr. Hepworth, I'd know as sure as I'm Fuschia Fleming
that it was the wrong horse, and yet, I'd get inoculated with the mental
virus before I'd know it, and beg him to let me in on it. And you know
that father is incapable of staking half or even two thirds of his
little all against any proposition he believes in. The only thing that
can satisfy him and make his blood tingle is to stake the whole. No
limit but the blue canopy of heaven. Limits do fret father."

Mr. Hepworth slightly lifted his shoulders. Then he dropped another lump
of sugar into a cup of hot tea she had given him.

"I wish to seem neither irrelevant nor impertinent," he said at last,
"but can you act?"

Miss Fuschia Fleming threw up her white chin and laughter bubbled
unquenchable from her throat, not vain-glorious mirth, as if the fact of
her superlative achievement mocked his crude question, but the
unrestrained laughter of genuine amusement.

"The idea of asking an actress such a question," she said at last,
touching each eye lightly and deftly with a delicate handkerchief. "You
may thank your lucky stars that I don't nearly drown you with
picturesque and highly colored tales of my triumphs and then hurl the
full scrap-book at you. My, but you are a rash man! To ask a
professional if she can act!" Again her full-throated laughter rang out
delightfully and so heartily that it shook the petals from the cluster
of pale golden roses she wore on her breast.

"But look here, seriously now," her laughter died quickly away, her face
assumed a gravity he had not dreamed her mobile features could express,
her gaze fastened upon him with a sort of hungry, passionate eagerness.

"That was a horrible question of yours," she shivered, as if the breeze
blowing over the gardens from the Elysian sea chilled her. "One should
know intuitively, instinctively whether an actress can act or not. Good
Lord!" she brought her hand down on the table. "If you don't feel it,
know it, beyond all argument, why it isn't there, that's all.

"Unless I set you dreaming, unless I suggest in this or that varying
pose or expression, the whole world of women, I'm not a born actress.
Training, study can make a good mechanical nightingale of me, a clever
imitation of the real thing. That's all. But unless I have the chameleon
quality of reflecting my part, the unerring understanding of any type of
woman I may be called upon to represent, how can I be an actress? What
does it profit me to give the public a carefully studied, intellectual
representation of Portia or Nora, or Juliet or Candida, wide apart as
the poles as they may be? I must not only apprehend them, I must be them
in every fibre of my being, in every cell of my brain, in every beat of
my heart, or I'm nothing. Unless I can convince you that Camille and I
are one in emotion and view of life, and then obliterate that
impression when I speak to you as Rosalind, why I'm not an actress, not
the kind I care to be, anyway."

"By Jove, my dear," cried Hepworth, "you need have no doubts on that
score." He had not felt the thrill of such genuine enthusiasm for many a
long day.

He forgot the delicate and uncertain state of his marital affairs,
forgot the censorious world, his ennui and doubt and regret.

"I have a conviction," he said, "that Jim is going to win a lot on this
new proposition of his. If he doesn't, it's all the same anyway. Why
should you waste your youth and your genius in twentieth rate stock
companies?"

In spite of these cheering words, her head continued to droop. Her face
had grown paler, and sad were the eyes she lifted to his.

"But you asked me if I could act. You weren't sure. You didn't see me as
Camille or Rosalind. You just saw Fuschia Fleming all the time."

"Of course I did." His smile was most comfortingly reassuring. "But I
saw Fuschia Fleming as Juliet and Portia and all the others. I merely
asked you if you could act to see what you would say. No, no, my dear,
your future is written so plainly that he who runs may read. No more
one-night stands in dreary little towns, Miss Fuschia Fleming, but long
engagements, crowded houses, enormous box-office receipts, wildly
enthusiastic audiences. Can't you hear and see them? New York, London,
Paris for you!"

"Oh-h!" Fuschia was herself again. She exhaled rapture in an ecstatic
sigh. She rose. It is impossible to sit in moments of such high
exultation. She positively seemed to soar, to tread on clouds. It was
growing late and chill. Almost every one had left the garden, only a few
absorbed groups remained. Fuschia was an actress. Self-expression was a
necessity to her. She rested her hand, a snowflake, gratefully on his
arm, she floated against him, a thistledown, and before he knew it had
lightly, enthusiastically, unconcernedly kissed him on the cheek.

"You dear," she cried, "I'll repay you by showing you what I can do. To
tread the forest of Arden in New York! Oh-h! But you are not going. No,
no, no!"

That was what Hepworth, rather overcome by the unconventional and
unexpected expression of her thanks, was preparing to do. He thought it
best, but his decision was not adamantine, far from it. He always prided
himself upon the open mind, and an ability to see all sides of a
question, so when Fuschia suggested that he return later and dine with
her, it struck him as a possible, even admirable solution of his daily
puzzle how to put in the evening and he accepted without more debate,
with an alacrity, in fact, bordering on gratitude.

He was therefore on time to the minute and Miss Fleming was equally
punctual.

As they sat through a dinner, not elaborate, but as prolonged as if it
were composed of all the courses on the menu, Hepworth was struck by the
positive quality of Fuschia's beauty. It was not always so, evidently.
She was as changeful as the chameleon she had spoken of. In the garden
that afternoon, in her white serge frock, she had at first impressed him
as a pale, rather attractive looking young woman whose charm was
greater than her prettiness; but viewed in the rose-colored lights, and
across the pink blossoms on their small table, she was a very wonderful
creature. She was, in truth, wild with joy and her expression of it was
delightful. Her eyes were blue as the sea when the sun is one vast
sparkle over it, her mouth, made for laughter, grew curlier every
moment. Her white evening gown was a dream.

In addition to her admirable outward appearance, Miss Fuschia Fleming
was a comédienne of unsurpassed gifts. She was also witty, well-read and
sweet-natured, and when she chose to exert herself she could make sixty
minutes seem sixty seconds by any one's watch, even that of the grimmest
old curmudgeon, and Hepworth certainly was not the grimmest old
curmudgeon. He was only a very lonely and sad-hearted man whose days had
been hanging heavily on his hands.

"Good old Jim," he soliloquized as he took his way homeward that
evening. "He believed sufficiently in my friendship to come right to me
when he was in a hole. Made no bones about it. Asked me to keep an eye
on his daughter, sure enough of my affection for him to know I'd do it.
I shouldn't wonder if this Idaho proposition is a good thing if it's
properly financed. Jim's judgment is pretty sound. Well, we'll see,
we'll see."



CHAPTER XIII

SHOCKING THE HEWSTONS


As the winter wore on the weather in New York offered daily a more
violent and odious comparison to the blue seas and balmy airs of
California. The cold, sullen skies, dull, damp days and piercing winds
set more than one dreaming of sunshine and summer, and among the many
was Alice Wilstead.

She was pondering thus, looking about her with surprise, one especially
snowy, dreary winter afternoon as she took her way to Mrs. Hewston's. It
was one of those thoroughly depressing days when nothing could really
raise one's spirits but the inspiring glow of firelight. Mrs. Wilstead
certainly looked as if she needed that and all positively cheering if
not inebriating things as she entered Mrs. Hewston's drawing-room. Her
piquant dark face was meant for smiles and gaiety, all of her features
apparently designed to that end, for the corners of her mouth, the tip
of her nose, the slant of her eyes, all inclined upward. It is a tragedy
when a person of such countenance is in an introspective or melancholy
mood. Sober meditations have an aging and blighting effect on the
features of those born to look out upon the world with an arch and
piquant interest.

Isabel Hewston roused herself a little reluctantly. She was sitting
alone most comfortably in a delightfully easy chair, she had on a
becoming and loose Paris tea-gown. She had resolutely put behind her the
haunting specter of increasing flesh, had taken an afternoon off from
the persistent and continued battle she had been forced to wage with it,
and now lay, a box of sweets on the table beside her, a new novel in her
hand, enjoying to the full her temporary respite. It is to her credit
that she put aside her book at the most nerve-tingling paragraph without
a sigh.

"Dear Alice," she exclaimed, lifting herself on one elbow, "you have a
bad-news look all over you, the very rustle of your skirt proclaims it.
What can be the matter?"

"Give me some tea," said Mrs. Wilstead gloomily, "and let me sit down
and rest." She slowly removed her furs. "My dear Isabel, do you mean to
say you do not know?"

"Know what?" asked Mrs. Hewston in bewilderment, ringing and
mechanically ordering tea. "How could I possibly know anything after
just getting off the steamer this morning? What has happened? You
haven't been speculating, Alice, and losing all your money?"

Mrs. Wilstead hastily disclaimed any such unforgivable crime and
inconsolable grief as losing money. "Then really you have not heard,"
she exclaimed. "Isabel, I am more worried than I can say. Lemon, please.
It is stupid of you, Isabel, never to get into your head the fact that I
couldn't be guilty of taking cream. To think of such a thing occurring!
I had hoped that with Eugene Gresham out of the way, having the decency
to go to England and France, and the papers full of his spectacular
stunts, that all talk would cease and that when Cresswell Hepworth came
back from that western trip that everything would be all right."

"What are you talking about?" asked Isabel Hewston with the calmness of
despair. "If it isn't too much trouble, would you mind making a few
explanations? Just one might suffice."

"It is that absurd, undisciplined Perdita Hepworth. She has had her head
completely turned by the success of Maud Carmine and now she and Maud
have gone into business together."

"Into business?" Mrs. Hewston made a tremendous clatter among the
tea-cups. "Business! What can you mean? Cresswell has not failed?"

"Good heavens, no! But that is the reason he has been so long in the
West. At least that is what every one says. Dita and Maud informed him
of this scheme, and he, of course, expressed his opinion of the whole
matter, refused to countenance it; but he couldn't do anything with such
a headstrong creature as Dita, and so he simply cleared out; went West
and has stayed there, while those two girls have gone stubbornly on and
carried out their plans."

"Business!" Isabel still rolled her eyes in dazed speculation. "But what
kind of business? What could they possibly do? Lamp-shades, menu-cards?
I'm sure I've always heard that Perdita didn't make such a brilliant
success when she tried that sort of thing before!"

"Menu-cards! Lamp-shades!" Alice laughed scornfully. "That's mere paper
dolls to this venture. This is a business of their own invention,
although Dita does take orders for house decoration also; but the main
purpose is dressing the wealthy, telling the plain little daughters of
the rich what to wear."

"For pity's sake!" gasped Isabel. "What sort of place is it, beauty
parlors or dressmaking?"

"Oh, dear me, neither! Nothing so commonplace. They have taken a house
just on the Avenue (they say it is a dream within), and you have to
write for an appointment, and then if they will consider you at all they
write back and set a time, and you go exactly as if you were calling,
you know, and you are received by either Maud or Dita or both. Then you
come again whenever they tell you, and all the time Dita is studying you
just as a portrait painter would. Finally, when she feels that she has
you thoroughly in mind, and is quite decided about the way you shall be
clothed, she has designs made for you of hats and gowns, little water
colors, you know, and sends you to her dressmaker. She also has your
maid come and dress your hair before her, according to her directions.
And it costs you!" Alice Wilstead pursed her mouth and lifted her brows,
"It costs you! Oh, like the dickens!"

"Who is that?" said Mrs. Hewston turning.

"Only me," Wallace Martin replied modestly and ungrammatically,
entering, as usual, unannounced, a privileged friend of the family, and
greeting the two women with his usual barking cheerfulness.

"I just walked up home with that pretty little Lolita Withers, and, as
you were only a block or two farther, I came on here."

The two women gazed at each other with a long, wondering stare. "Lolita
Withers!" they exclaimed simultaneously. "Pretty!" Nothing could have
been more eloquent than their tones.

"My dear Wallace," said Mrs. Hewston, finding her voice, "is this some
new joke? Are you quite sane?"

"He means it for a joke," said Mrs. Wilstead, who had been peering at
him curiously. "He is going in for eccentricity, or else the success of
his play has gone to his head."

"Not a bit of it," replied Martin with unmoved smiles. "Lolita Withers
is at present an obviously pretty girl. Any one would so consider her."

"Obviously pretty." Mrs. Wilstead had found her tongue by this time, and
acrid and scoffing it proved. "That skinny, ineffective little Lolita
Withers! Dull-eyed, anæmic, with stooping shoulders and wispy light
hair."

"She looks like a dream of spring," said Wallace, helping himself
lavishly to tea and cakes. "A sort of an evanescent beauty. Truly, yes,"
he affirmed, "she's been to Maud Carmine and Perdita Hepworth." He gave
a great burst of laughter.

"If they can make any one believe that Lolita Withers is pretty," said
Mrs. Hewston dazedly, "they are indeed benefactors of the race."

"Perdita Hepworth is a genius, a wizard. I always said so." Alice
announced this with a sort of triumphant conviction. "She could make
Aaron's rod blossom like the rose."

"But where did they get the money?" Mrs. Hewston's mind turned always to
practical things. "If Dita really quarreled with Cress, would he--?"

"Maud's money." Martin spoke with the assurance of one possessing
authoritative knowledge. "Cresswell Hepworth! Oh, no, he went off in a
terrible huff because the girls laid their plans before him and told him
what they were going to do. At least," he amended, "that is the idea I
got from the little that Maud has occasionally told me. Yes, it's Maud's
money; but they'll lose nothing, plucky girls! Double and treble it,
more likely. They've already had an overwhelming success."

"I'm going to them," cried Isabel Hewston excitedly. "If they are so
wonderful they ought to be able to make me look slender without my
having to go to all the bother of being really slender."

"You'll have to stand in line then; that old Mrs. Peter Huff is jumping
for joy and calling down blessings on their heads because they've
literally transformed her three ugly daughters. Maud said they were
splendid material, and Dita did wonders with them. The old lady hopes to
get them married off now."

"Alice! When can we go to them?" Mrs. Hewston's voice was trembling with
excitement.

"I can't go now." There was a distinct fall of disappointment in Alice
Wilstead's voice. "The truth is, I'm going to California with the
Warrens the first of next week. Why, what is that?"

There was a sound of some one wheezing, puffing, muttering without the
door, and then the curtain was violently jerked aside and Mr. Hewston
entered. His hair stood up white and ruffled about his head, his face
was of a much livelier crimson than usual, and he was puffing out his
lips as if blowing fire and smoke from his mouth. In one hand he was
tightly clasping a newspaper.

"Willoughby! My dear!" his wife rose in consternation. "What is it, what
has happened?"

For answer Mr. Hewston spread open the paper and struck it with his
hand. "Read that," he cried tragically, "read that! My poor friend,
driven from his home by the vagaries of a mad, irresponsible girl, his
life ruined by the foolish, frivolous creature he married! Turned from
his home, he was driven to this."

Wallace had seized the paper, and the two women hung over his shoulder
to scan the sheet before them.

What met their eyes were huge, black head-lines above and below the
pictures of Cresswell Hepworth and a very pretty woman.

The head-lines announced that the two had been in an accident in Mr.
Hepworth's motor-car at Santa Barbara. Both were thrown out, but neither
sustained any serious injuries. The article went on to say that Mr.
Hepworth had, during his stay in the West, evinced great interest in the
career of this beautiful and gifted young woman, an actress of
reputation in her part of the world, but unknown in the East. It was
understood, however, that she was to play a New York engagement during
the coming spring, making her first bow to a metropolitan audience as
Rosalind in a superb stage presentation of _As You Like It_. There was
no question of the beauty of the mounting of this famous comedy, nor the
strength of the company with which the young star would be surrounded,
as the capital behind her was practically unlimited.



CHAPTER XIV

PUBLICITY


When the beautiful, young wife of a multi-millionaire takes advantage of
her husband's absence on a prolonged and unavoidable business trip to
embark upon a rather bizarre and eccentric venture of her own, it is to
be expected the situation will be hugely discussed, especially in its
three-fold phases--the lady first, the exact relations existing between
husband and wife next, and third, the business itself.

Perhaps in this case the business should be put first, above the lady,
and above any sentimental interest in marital misunderstandings, for
Perdita's skill in "bedecking and bedraping" was well known among her
sisters, whose ideals in bedecking were those of Paris, and who had no
Greek longings to be "noble and nude and antique." And had they not for
the past two years enviously regarded Maud Carmine--who had been as a
walking _mannequin_ among them, the living, breathing advertisement of
Perdita's abilities.

Therefore from the very first business bade fair to engulf the new firm
and sweep the two partners off their feet, and if the list of those who
daily assembled in "Hepworth and Carmine's" reception-rooms were to be
published, it would look like a social registry or a page from _Who's
Who_; that is, a page with all of the masculine names carefully culled.

There were elderly ladies and young girls, and ladies in all the waning
stages between the two. The elderly and waning ones all hoped before
Mrs. Hepworth got through with them to look like the young girls, and
the young girls, with all the enthusiasm of youth, hoped to look like
Perdita Hepworth.

There arrived then, one morning, at this palace of hope, Mrs. Willoughby
Hewston, who, as she stepped from her motor, glanced nervously right and
left and ascended the steps of the house Perdita and Maud had taken
just off the Avenue with an agility of which her best friends would not
have considered her capable. This nervousness, this hurry was due to the
fact that only the day before she had mentioned her intention to her
husband, with the result that she was thunderously ordered not to go
near the place, under penalty of his worse than censure. He gave her to
understand that this would be something too terrible for her imagination
even to apprehend. Consequently, Mrs. Hewston wasted no time in getting
to Hepworth and Carmine's as early as possible the next morning. She
would have been less than woman had she not done so.

The reception-room was spacious, sunny and restful, depending for its
effect upon beautiful woods and long, unbroken lines; for color, there
was the hint of ivory and tea-green, ineffably serene, and there Mrs.
Hewston awaited Dita, her agitation subsiding somewhat under the calm
influence of the place.

But when Dita appeared it returned in full force. "Oh, my dear," she
exclaimed, "what a charming spot this is! How original! How daring of
you and Maud! Oh, my dear, if Willoughby knew I was here!" She raised
her hands with a gesture full of meaning. "You know that he is in such a
state anyway over those newspaper articles."

"What newspaper articles?" asked Perdita. "Do you mean those that have
appeared about all this?" she waved her hand comprehensively about her.

"Haven't you seen them?" Mrs. Hewston looked frightened. "Oh, my dear
child, how very stupid of me. Why, why did I mention them? I supposed,
of course, that you knew. But if you do not, please do not ask me
anything more, for I never, never will be the bearer of bad news."

Dita stared at her in puzzled amazement for a moment and then she took
her firmly by the shoulders. "Look here, Mrs. Hewston, you are
frightening me dreadfully. I haven't an idea what you are talking about.
Now you must tell me, indeed you must. Do you not see the state of mind
in which you leave me unless you do?"

"Oh, my dear," Mrs. Hewston shook her handkerchief out of her bag,
evidently preparing for its possible use. "I didn't mean to frighten
you, and you shouldn't allow yourself to be so easily upset. Now,
understand, no one was hurt, but those dreadful papers yesterday were
full of a motor accident which occurred in California."

"Cresswell's car?" interrupted Dita quickly. "Was he--" She was about to
say "injured," but Mrs. Hewston took the word from her mouth, or rather,
substituted another for it.

"Alone? No, dear," shaking her head a little as at the regrettable, but
to be expected frailties of men. "He was not alone. He was driving the
car, it seems, with a beautiful young actress by his side. She must be a
very--er--persuasive person, too, because the papers said that she is to
appear here this spring in some superb production or other, and they
strongly insinuated that Cress' money is behind the whole thing. But you
see, that, as I said, there's nothing in it all, nothing really to worry
over."

"I see," said Dita, but slowly and without enthusiasm.

"And now, my dear," Mrs. Hewston had suddenly grown quite brisk, "let's
forget all this and talk of something that is more interesting to you,
because it's in your line. Perdita," in her most wheedling and cooing
tones, "I want you to make me lovely."

"You are lovely, Mrs. Hewston."

"Oh, in a middle-aged, broad, pink kind of way, but I want you to make
me look slender and lissome and girlish without all this awful dieting
and exercise and these dreadfully tight corsets that make one feel as if
one were nothing more nor less than blanc-mange in a tin mold. And you
know you do come out of them with your flesh all fluted, just like the
blanc-mange when it's set."

"You shall be quite lissome, I promise you that," said Dita consolingly,
if rather absently. "Come to me again early next week and I shall have
some designs for you to consider, beautiful, long folds and all that.
But I can't perform miracles, you know, and you'll have to diet a little
and exercise; yes, and wear the boned corset; you don't want to look
like a--"

"Do not say it!" cried Mrs. Hewston nervously. "I am sure you are going
to say either 'whale' or 'tub,' and I can't stand it. That's what those
awful corsettières always say when I protest the least bit against
their tortures.

"And Perdita, one thing more--my chin. I always say the chin is the
greatest give-away a woman's got. She can get around anything else, but,
no matter what she does, that chin sticks out like a cliff and reveals
every year she's lived. Of course, you may try to draw off attention
with a diamond dog collar or jeweled black velvets, but at the best
they're only poor, miserable makeshifts; and one must wear evening dress
no matter whether one has rolls of flesh or a gridiron of bones. If you
don't, people either think you come from the woods or have something
worse than bones or superfluous flesh to conceal. Just look at
Willoughby!" Mrs. Hewston's emotions overcame her here and she dabbed
her eyes carefully with her handkerchief. "He is fat as a pig. He
shuffles and hobbles about with the gout. He eats anything he pleases,
and never thinks of cultivating a pleasant expression. Yet if I should
die, he could marry again without difficulty. Oh, it's a hard world for
us women! But really, I must go, dear. Just look out and see if you see
Willoughby by chance, either up or down the street."

As soon as she was assured of safety and had departed, Perdita, who,
fortunately for herself and her customers, had no other appointments for
the morning, sent for the papers of the day before and carefully
considered the incident of Mr. Hepworth, Miss Fuschia Fleming and the
motor-car as set forth in the various journals.

"And so," said Perdita to herself with glooming eyes, when she had
finished an exhausting perusal, "he is going to back this deserving
young adventuress, who has, no doubt, played upon his sympathies, in a
great spectacular presentation this spring, and in New York. Well, there
will be something else spectacular. I will make this venture of ours a
stupendous success now or I will know the reason why. Where on earth is
Maud? She is never about when I really need her."

She frowned a moment over Maud's delinquency and then happened to
remember that Miss Carmine had expressed an intention of being present
at a rehearsal of one of Wallace Martin's plays. Dita then decided on
the moment to drive to the theater and consult with her partner at once
on the new and spectacular policy of their house which she was mentally
outlining.

But first, before starting, she thoughtfully selected some of a number
of photographs of herself and also of Maud. "I suppose I shall have a
dreadful time persuading her," she reflected as she drove through the
streets. "She has bred in the bone those old-fashioned ideals of New
York when it lived in Bleecker and Houston Streets."

But curiously enough, while events of one character had led Perdita
strongly to consider the adoption of a certain line of action,
circumstances of a widely differing nature had impelled Maud practically
to the same conclusion. Which only goes to show how clever a weaver is
Fate and how wonderfully she contrasts and combines all her various
threads.

For two or three hours Maud had been sitting in a dimly-lighted, empty
playhouse, watching the rather dreary and disillusionizing progress of
Martin's latest play.

It was an odd thing, she mournfully reflected, that Wallace never got
himself, his own, bubbling, merry, joyous self, full of quirks and
quips, into his plays. They would seem to have been written by a
secondary personality, for they were all, without exception, intensely
serious and depressing, dealing with problems of the most complex and
dun-colored character.

Maud was extremely practical. She never dreamed of buoying up her
spirits with any ambrosial reflections that this latest offering was "a
distinct contribution to the more serious drama." Neither did she
attempt to convince herself that there were enough high-browed folk in
the town to keep the play on for, peradventure, three nights. No, she
simply, and with her usual common sense, reserved judgment until the
third act, and then after a moment of wonder that Wallace had found a
firm of managers willing to undertake the production, with all the
expense entailed, when they had just one chance in a million to win (in
her opinion, at least), she turned to more practical issues.

"Dita and I," she remarked mentally, "have got to make a stupendous
success if I want to marry Wallace, which I do, and he is going to
continue to write plays, which he is. But I'll have a frightful time
persuading Dita to run her business along the lines of twentieth century
advertising. She has all sorts of ante-bellum ideas about stately
procedure and measured methods, derived, of course, from those
generations of lazy southern aristocrats."

While she mused, amid the terrific racket of moving things about the
stage in preparation for the fourth act, she felt a light touch upon her
shoulder, and looked up to see Perdita, pale but determined, standing
beside her.

"I'll just slip into this seat beside you," said Mrs. Hepworth, suiting
the action to the word. "I want to talk to you a few minutes. Now,
Maudie, I know that you will not like it, but we've been doing
awfully well lately, and I think it would be a good idea to put what
we've made in advertisement. Of course, there's a lot we can get without
paying for it. The Sunday newspapers will print pages about us,
especially--especially if we let them have some of our most stunning
pictures and allow those interviews where the artists sit and make
sketches of you."

Maud looked at her business partner as one who, bidden to rub a magic
ring on his finger and wish, sees his wish come true. Here was Perdita
approaching her tactfully, and timidly entreating her to do the very
thing that was in her mind to accomplish. She could not grasp it, but
sat staring at her companion in an amazement so profound that it bereft
her of speech.

Perdita misinterpreted the silence. "I've got to make a red-and-yellow
success," she exclaimed with emotion. "I've--I've just got to be in the
newspapers. Don't take it in this cold, reproving way."

"My dear Perdita," Maud spoke with crisp distinctness. "I'm not! It's
your attitude of mind, not your sentiments, that surprises me. The
latter are my own. You," she continued virtuously, "are probably
actuated by your vanity; I, by my heart. Look at that!" she waved one
hand toward the stage, "or rather don't look at it. Now let us come to
an understanding. You know that I have always loved Wallace. You know
that he has lately loved me. You also know what it costs me a year to
be one of the best-dressed women in New York and maintain my newly
acquired reputation for good looks; consequently the business has to
make handsome returns. We live in the twentieth century under artificial
conditions, and it's no use pretending it's Arcadia and the simple life.
It's not. We're hothouse blossoms, Perdita, products of this great
forcing bed, New York, and we might just as well adapt ourselves to
conservatory conditions. Wallace wouldn't look at me if I were a hardy
annual. He didn't when I was what God and nature made me. But Wallace
suits me, child though he is, in many ways, and I can do a great deal
with him. I may even," but Maud's tone had lost its high confidence and
was a trifle dubious now, "I may even make a playwright of him."

"Why, here he is now with--with Eugene Gresham," interrupted Perdita.
This was but the second time Perdita had seen Eugene since his return a
few days before.

Out from the wings stepped the two men and then clambered over the
footlights and the orchestra space, and hastened down the aisle to join
Mrs. Hepworth and Miss Carmine, who had now a number of large
photographs spread over their knees, intently studying them.

"Good morning," Wallace shook hands exuberantly with both women. "Went
splendidly, didn't it? We're going to have the first act over again."

"Very impressive, very," said Gresham, who looked in the best of health
and spirits.

Maud cast one withering look at him, but it glanced lightly off, turned
aside by his smile. He saw it, however, and as quickly as possible got
into a seat on the other side of Perdita.

"Have you seen the papers?" he asked happily. "Blessings on Miss Fuschia
Fleming. I shall do my humble best to keep the ball rolling. As soon as
she appears in New York, I'm going to put in a request to do her
portrait. Something bizarre, weird and splotchily thrilling, you know.
Quite violent. That will keep a crowd around it from dawn to dark as
soon as it's exhibited. It doesn't make the least difference whether she
has any ability or not. She may be, and probably is, the most awkward,
scrawny and nasal of western actresses; what of it? With Hepworth for
her angel and Gresham for her painter, her vogue is secure. And Perdita,
Rosita, your freedom is that much nearer."

"Eugene," Perdita's eyes flashed, "I think it extremely bad taste, even
vulgar, of you to talk in that vein."

And Eugene hastened to retrieve his blunder, and soon Perdita, who was
never long impervious to his spell, was smiling once more.

Miss Carmine, however, was of sterner stuff. She did not wince, although
she saw that there was no remedy for Wallace's malady but the knife, and
he, unwittingly, wasted no time in precipitating his destiny.

"What are you doing with all those photographs of yourself and Mrs.
Hepworth?" he asked.

"We are going to give them to some reporters, who are getting up stories
for the Sunday papers."

"Maud!" Martin spoke in the deep, pained tones of his leading man.
"Maud, I have said nothing. In fact I admired and approved when you and
Mrs. Hepworth went into this business venture. But such methods for you,
for her! Do you not feel that you owe something to yourselves, and that
she at least owes something to Hepworth? Oh, of what are you thinking?"

"Money," said Maud succinctly. "Something you evidently are not thinking
of." She glanced toward the stage.

"I hope not," he answered stiffly. "Art--"

"Art, art! Don't prate about art." Maud did not intend to spare the
knife. "Art must be an individual expression and your play is simply
hash seasoned with reminiscences. Oh, dear, dear Wallace, you can write
a good play. I know you can, when you will write as Wallace Martin, and
not after Sudermann, Ibsen, Hauptmann, Shaw. Look at this act. Wallace,
tell me, is there no other way of picturing the gay, irresponsible life
than by a costume ball in an artist's studio? Must the _vie de Bohème_
always be thus presented? Then why does the lover in a problem play
usually have to be a Russian prince in Moujik costume? And the heroine's
midnight visit to his apartments! Couldn't you, wouldn't they allow you,
to write just one play without it? And need the lady, after her past has
been discovered and fully discussed, always go out into the tempest in
search of her better self, and slam the door behind her?"

"Maud! Maud! You--you are pulling down the pillars of the temple,"
gasped Martin. "It's blasphemous! Every one says the play is good. You
can not judge from a rehearsal. Let us change the subject," with
dignity. "Since you have not hesitated to criticize me, I feel that I am
justified in again urging you not to go into these gaudy advertising
methods. Willoughby Hewston seems to feel that Cresswell was terribly
chagrined at his wife's going into business. And truly, you should urge
her to show some consideration for him."

"A fig for Willoughby Hewston." Maud fumbled in her bag and drew forth
an envelope. "Here is a letter I got from Cresswell yesterday. He
congratulates me on the enterprise we have shown, and says that he is
delighted that Dita's interests have found so congenial and healthful a
channel in which to flow."



CHAPTER XV

A WIDOW'S SMILE


One morning, a California morning, all sea-breezes and flower-scents and
golden sunshine, Mr. Hepworth read, as he ate his breakfast, a letter
from Willoughby Hewston. The letter, in itself, was a long one, and it
also contained a bulky enclosure. This enclosure was the full page of a
sensational New York newspaper. This exhibited enormous, black
head-lines, screaming innuendo of the most blasting character. In the
center of the page were pictures of Hepworth and a dark, heavy-browed
young woman, with large eyes and strongly-marked Hebraic features. The
page was further embellished by pen sketches surrounding these
photographic reproductions, sketches of a startling and romantic nature,
a wrecked automobile, a picturesque young woman in very high heels and a
very long coat, fainting into the arms of a tall, rather elderly man,
presumably Hepworth.

Hepworth had scowled and reddened at the first sight of this dreadful
page, and his expression did not improve as he continued his perusal of
it. Finally, however, his face cleared. He folded it neatly together and
placed it carefully in his pocket-book. Not a pleasant incident, but
closed. No use in crying over spilled milk. This newspaper account of an
adventure had occurred nearly nine days ago and therefore any wonder it
may have excited was practically over. He turned again to Hewston's
letter and re-read it with mixed expressions in which amusement
predominated.

When Hewston set out to be profoundly serious, Hepworth always found him
intensely funny. Finishing his friend's admonitory epistle, Hepworth
next picked up one addressed to him in a smart feminine hand, Alice
Wilstead's. He ran his eye over several pages, and then paused at a
paragraph which he read over two or three times, his rather worried look
changing the while to one of profound dismay, for Mrs. Wilstead not only
stated that she was carrying out a long-cherished intention of visiting
California with her friends, the Warrens, but, what was more, she was
staying not upon the order of her coming, but coming at once.

She digressed at this point to express her pleasure at the thought of
seeing him so soon again. He bestowed upon these protestations of
friendship one bare, ungrateful glance and rustled over the various
sheets of her letter, hoping to gain, if possible, some more definite
information; and there it was before his incredulous and resentful eyes.

She was, she explained, writing this "hasty note" (it was eight pages)
within an hour of leaving. She expected to arrive in Santa Barbara on
the Thursday afternoon train. Why, Great Heavens! He clattered his
coffee-cup impatiently in the saucer. This was Thursday morning and he
had made all arrangements to spend a rather diversified day, including
golf and a luncheon at Monticito with Fuschia and her father, a little
fête in honor of Jim's triumphant return, with "the earth, by George,
the earth and nothing less in my vest pocket."

"And Alice," Hepworth clattered his cup again, he knew her of old. She
was quite as inquisitive as her delicately-pointed tip-tilted nose
indicated, and if he wasn't on hand to greet her, she would make life a
burden to him until she discovered why.

Hepworth, however, was used to coping with difficult situations. He took
what odds fortune offered him and coldly, nonchalantly played to win. He
sat for a few moments in deep thought. He had no intention whatever of
giving up his day's pleasuring. The only problem which occupied him was
what to do with Alice. Inspiration followed thought. He rang the bell
and despatched a hasty request that Mr. Hayward Preston come to him at
once.

Mr. Preston was a favorite with all mothers, especially those with
daughters. They spoke of him in an almost lyric strain. Naturally, one
might expect to find him an egregious ass, and avoided of all men. The
wonder is that he was not. He had an agreeable appearance, admirable
manners, excellent business abilities. His virtues were all a little
obvious and robust, and if one insisted on a flaw, it might be said that
he lacked subtlety. So much the better. Subtlety destroys a healthy
interest in the commonplace and makes of the straight and narrow way a
tame and monotonous pathway too rocky for speed.

"Preston," said Hepworth with his usual courteous charm when this
younger associate in certain business enterprises appeared, "I wish to
ask you a favor, or, to put it more correctly, I am going to do you a
favor. I have just received a letter from an old friend of mine, Mrs.
Wilstead, saying that she will arrive this afternoon on the three-thirty
train. Unfortunately I have another engagement and can not meet her at
the station, as, under other circumstances, I should very much wish to
do; so," with another cordial smile, "I am hoping that you will be free
to act as my proxy."

Mr. Preston was not free. He had something else on hand, but this fact
he did not hint by so much as a flicker of an eyelash, relegated it to
the background of his thoughts to be settled later. He was not letting
any opportunities to do "the chief" a favor slip lightly by him.

"I shall be very glad to meet Mrs. Wilstead, if you can assure me that
she will accept me as your proxy," he said with a frank smile. "Let me
see. The afternoon train. And how shall I know the lady?"

"I will send my chauffeur with you. He knows her. You are sure,
Preston," solicitously, "that this does not interfere with any of your
plans?"

"Quite sure," returned Preston with convincing sincerity.

"Thank you," said Mr. Hepworth devoutly; he made a mental vow to the
effect that Preston should never rue this day.

Thus, it happened that Alice Wilstead, on stepping from the train at the
conclusion of her trip across the continent, found, instead of her old
friend, a good-looking young man awaiting her, a young man after her own
heart, with that gravity and stability of mien, and the dependable
smile, which, being in strong contrast to her own volatile self, always
impressed her pleasantly.

Hayward Preston, on his part, gazed at the most attractive woman he had
ever seen, of the type he particularly admired. Tall, graceful, her
vivacious irregular face lighted by the gleam of white teeth and the
sparkle of dark eyes, the air of the great world clinging about her as
lightly as a perfume.

To her joy, this delightful, wholesome-looking, grave man stopped before
her. "Mrs. Wilstead?" he asked.

She looked at him and smiled. It was the most effective smile in her
whole arsenal reserved only for very special occasions.

"Mr. Hepworth was at the last moment detained by certain business
matters which are holding him a prisoner at his office and he asked me
to act as his proxy. This ought to identify me, ought it not?" with a
smile, and he gave her the card upon which Hepworth had written a few
lines.

She barely glanced at it and then smiled again, the same smile, only a
little diluted. She had seen at once that it was strong wine for
Preston.

"You must meet Mr. and Mrs. Warren," she turned to the two who were
fussing over their luggage. Warren was a tall, good-looking man and his
wife an amiable, attractive little person.

Preston left the question open to them whether they wished to go to
their hotel at once or would prefer to drive about, and see something
of this new world, into which they had just stepped, and they decided in
favor of the latter suggestion.

Through the town they drove, exclaiming over the roses, along the
palm-lined boulevard by the shore and then in a rash moment at Alice's
request, they turned toward the mountains. A rash suggestion and one
that Preston had cause to rue, for presently they passed a carriage
being rapidly driven in another direction and all apparently in the
highest spirits. It was a party of three, two men and a girl, a slender,
tanned, laughing girl, who caught Alice's eye at once. The next glance
revealed the man who sat beside her, and who was leaning toward her
explaining something, to be Cresswell Hepworth. As Alice bent forward,
doubting the evidence of her senses, this girl lifted a bonbon from a
box on her knees and held it out toward Hepworth with a pair of tiny
gilt tongs. He snatched it deftly in one bite, to the accompaniment of
immoderate laughter from his friends, in which he joined.

Oh, dignity! Oh, austere grief! What crimes are committed in thy name!
In these days one might well paraphrase the famous lines from _The
School for Scandal_ and render them: "When a young girl marries a
middle-aged man, what is she to expect?" The situation was graver than
even Willoughby Hewston could have predicted. In the first surprise
Alice had exclaimed, "Why, that's Cress!" And then to relieve Preston of
embarrassment before the Warrens, an embarrassment which was manifesting
itself in the deep flush which overspread his face, "He probably got
through sooner than he expected," she said in a matter-of-fact tone and
dropped the subject.

But she thanked fortune that both Mr. and Mrs. Warren were talkative
people given volubly to voice their enthusiasm over the beauty about
them, and thus her rather stunned preoccupation passed unnoticed.

She had upon her journey, and even before she started, pictured herself
as a sort of missionary, with the not altogether unpleasant task before
her of cheering up poor Cresswell. She knew the strength of his few
affections, his devotion to Perdita and therefore she had some idea of
how deeply this breach between them had affected him. But like most
women, even the experienced ones, she had never realized that the
masculine and feminine attitude toward grief is as wide apart as the
poles. They may both wear rue, but with a difference. Woman seeks a
cloister that she may brood over her sorrow, commune with it, hug it to
her heart in solitude, but man does his best to shake that black,
haunting shape, tries to lose it in a crowd, and willingly sips any kind
of a nepenthes which seems to offer him forgetfulness.

Alice Wilstead had not expected that Hepworth would make any unmanly
exhibition of his woes, weep on her shoulder or be excitingly dramatic;
she knew him too well. But she had expected to see him a little older,
perhaps; a little grayer, sadder, more quiet, with a hint of melancholy
in his eyes. He might--occasionally she pictured the scene--open his
heart to her now and then in a grave and reticent way and disclose a
strong man's grief; but instead she had seen him sitting up in a very
smartly appointed carriage beside a correspondingly smart young woman
in a white serge gown, who was in the very act of popping an enormous
_marron glacé_ between his willing teeth.

"Men," said Mrs. Wilstead to herself, with cynical humor, "are all
alike." A nugget of wisdom, by the way, which frequently falls from the
lips of a sex prone to generalize from a personal experience.

On arriving at the hotel, Mrs. Warren professed herself a bit weary and
retired to her rooms, followed by her dutiful husband, but Alice
Wilstead, afire with repressed curiosity, suggested, with another of
those smiles, full strength now, that Mr. Preston take a cup of tea with
her. She was more tired than she had thought.

For a few moments, Mrs. Wilstead spent herself in enthusiasm for the
beauty and charm of the place. Such air! Such scenery! Such flowers!
Then she was solicitous about Preston's tea; two lumps of sugar and two
slices of lemon? What mathematical exactness! She took a sip of her own.
Just the right strength and of excellent flavor. What interesting
looking people at the table over there; she believed, no, she was quite
sure that she had seen them, perhaps met them before. Yes, she
remembered the daughter distinctly. It was in Switzerland, a year ago.
She was completely absorbed in the scene before her. "Look at that
absurd man yonder, Mr. Preston." Preston eagerly fell in with her mood,
lulled to a false sense of security. Then without a minute's warning she
opened fire.

"A charming young woman," she began, "is a much more plausible, less
hackneyed and convincing excuse than a 'pressing business engagement.'
I'm surprised Cresswell did not think of it. But that would be telling
the truth, and you men avoid that as much as possible in dealing with
women, do you not?"

"You have taught us that you prefer the other thing," he returned with
some spirit, although his soul quaked within him.

"Who is she?" asked Mrs. Wilstead, without preamble.

"I don't know," said Mr. Preston miserably. He knew perfectly well that
Mrs. Wilstead was too experienced to believe him, and would scorn his
clumsy subterfuge. This confused him frightfully, but he hadn't the
faintest idea what else to say, so he stumbled on with what he felt was
yokel-like stupidity. "Really, I do not know."

"No, of course you would not know under the circumstances." Mrs.
Wilstead's tone was sweet and sincere, but beneath the sugar-coating of
innocence he discerned the bitter pill of her complete understanding.
His ears burned and felt the size of an elephant's. He was very unhappy.
He stirred his tea round and round, as if his spoon were an egg-beater.

"Now that you are here," he said awkwardly, "she will be heard of no
more."

Although he never knew it, that speech advanced him leagues in Alice
Wilstead's favor. The genuine sincerity of his tone would have warmed
the heart of any woman standing with reluctant feet where the brook of
_passé_ joins the river of middle-age.

Alice regarded the opals on her fingers (she was born in October) with a
pleased yet humorous smile.

"Accepting your inference, what chance has an elderly widow against a
young and lovely actress?"

Preston started. She had played trumps when he was least expecting
them. "Then you know--" he said.

"That Miss Fuschia Fleming is a star that will shoot madly from her
sphere to brighten the firmament of New York this spring."

"I supposed, of course, that was her game," he said soberly. But he was
thinking not so much of Fuschia Fleming as of that after revelation
which this delightful woman had made. A widow of charm, of sparkle, of
money. One felt the latter. She unconsciously exhaled it. And best asset
of all, the old and valued friend of Cresswell Hepworth. Preston was no
cold-blooded schemer, neither was he an ardent, impetuous Hotspur. He
merely calculated chances, not only by virtue of temperament but
training, and when this jewel of a chance flashed its dazzling rays, he
instinctively estimated its weight, the accuracy of the cutting and
possible value.

Therefore Mr. Hayward Preston made such hay in the next few minutes,
that when he left, or rather when Mrs. Wilstead dismissed him, he
received another of that particular brand of smiles and walked home with
his head among the stars.



CHAPTER XVI

FATHER AND DAUGHTER


One morning, shortly before she left for New York, Miss Fuschia Fleming
and her father sat in the sitting-room of their suite in the hotel at
Santa Barbara. The sunshine without lay broad and white and dazzling.
Within it seemed to be reflected, although through many tonal shadings
in subdued, but still golden points of emphasis. There were bowls of
yellow roses, there were baskets of oranges and lemons, there was
Fuschia herself in a morning gown as pale as the gold of her hair which
looked paler than ever in contrast to a great tawny, orange-colored
flower, which she had leaned from her window and plucked a short while
before and thrust carelessly above one ear.

Her chair was completely surrounded by newspapers, colored supplements,
Sunday magazine sections. They billowed about her like waves. Whoever
would reach her must cross a crackling sea. On the opposite side of the
room, her father reclined comfortably in a large easy chair, smoking an
excellent cigar and poring intently over a page of "past performances,"
with pencil in hand poised above it.

"Goodness!" said Fuschia suddenly, "she's a dream!"

"Who?" asked her father, looking up.

"Mrs. Hepworth." Fuschia was gazing at a page which presented many
pictures of the same lady. "Put down that dope sheet, papa; it's time
wasted studying it. All your money is needed to back just one favorite,
and copper just one bet, and that's me."

"In common with my brothers, men, the workers and the shirkers, I am
always ready with advice," obediently laying aside his paper.

"Save it for the weak brother then. I want to talk to you, to clear out
my own thoughts. Now Mrs. Hepworth--"

"Cress' wife?" her father interrupted with a show of interest. "What's
the matter there, Fuschia? Why isn't she here?"

"She's got a mission in life, just like you and me," Fuschia showed her
beautiful even teeth in one of her widest, curliest smiles. "Yours, with
the great motto inscribed upon your banner, 'Home-keeping youths have
ever homely wits,' is to rescue your brother from the deadly thraldom of
the home; mine is to reform the stage; Mrs. Hepworth's is to redeem
women's clothes. She has all kinds of theories about color and design
and she wanted to put them in practice. That nice Mrs. Wilstead says
that she's an odd, capricious, undisciplined creature, but a genius in
her line. Oh, I've learned a lot about her from what Mrs. Wilstead and
all these newspapers have told me, and what Mr. Hepworth hasn't told me.
Papa, dear, I never admired any one in my life as I do that man. I've
tried every way but using a drag-net to get him to tell me the whole
story, but he's stood every test. He'll talk freely on any other
subject."

"Didn't happen to give you any inside talk about those Arizona
properties, did he?"

"He did not. You see he married the poor but beautiful girl, and then
she got playing too gaily with Eugene Gresham, the great artist. You've
heard of him surely. It was the triangle, you see. Same old dramatic
motive. Then suddenly, just as every one was standing on their tiptoes
to enjoy the view, why the triangle flew to pieces. The Cresswell
Hepworth part landed out here, the Eugene Gresham part went to Europe,
the Mrs. Hepworth part went into business with a Miss Carmine, and
opened a big establishment in New York, and every one came down on their
heels with a thud, and are still staring at each other wondering what's
doing."

"If Cress really wants her," remarked Fleming, flicking the ashes from
his cigar, "he surely wouldn't be such a fool as to leave the field.
He'd stay and fight for her."

"That's man-talk," said Fuschia lightly contemptuous. "A crazy idea you
all have, that you can make women love you. Don't you know how the
leading man always walks about the stage clenching and unclenching his
hands, and muttering, 'By heaven, I'll make her love me; I'll win her
against all the wir-r-rld.' Poor souls, they think they can dazzle us
into loving them; and many feel that if they only talk enough about
themselves, and their great achievements, what they've done and what
they're going to do, that they can't fail to fascinate us; and it often
suits us to let them think so. Awfully funny, isn't it?"

"I never succeeded in fascinating 'em, no matter what line I took," said
her father with feeling.

"Women don't care much for you, do they? Well, cheer up, Daddy, dear.
They've never loved me. Once in a while, they're very nice to me, and we
purr and purr and rub noses, but all the time we are watching each other
out of our green eyes, and then one day there's the swift stroke of the
velvet paw and the deep mark of claws."

"Mighty little purr and velvet for me," Fleming's petticoat
reminiscences were invariably gloomy, "mostly claws."

Fuschia's unfeeling smile curved nearly up to her eyes. "How is that
Idaho property anyway?" she asked with apparent irrelevance.

"Fine, my dear, fine. I think Cress may really make something on it
himself, but in any event, he'll have no difficulty in unloading it."

"I'll need a pile of money for my campaign." She took an orange from
the basket and began tossing it from one hand to the other. "I've
brought a good deal of study to bear on the arrangement of this
checker-board. I always like to get on to the game just as much as
possible. Why have I been traveling about with those miserable little
stock companies putting up with all kinds of hardships? Just to get
experience. Now I'm ready for New York!" She mused a moment, and then
took up the subject with fresh enthusiasm. "It's helped me a lot, all
this newspaper notoriety about myself and Mr. Hepworth. Puts me before
the public as nothing else could. Just look at these pictures!" She
plunged her hand down into the rustling sea, and held out a Sunday
supplement to him. "There's a lovely picture of the auto tumbling over a
cliff and me landing in a tree. Simply great! Now just as soon as I get
to New York, Mrs. Hepworth's got to be a sister to me."

"How do you know she'll cotton to you?" asked Fleming.

"What's that got to do with it?" His daughter opened her eyes in
surprise. "I need her, for through her, I mean to have my portrait
painted by Gresham. And his prices! La, la! Sure, you can put your hands
on real money and plenty of it?"

"Fuschia, my child," her father laid aside his "dope sheet" and bent
impressively toward her, "this new proposition has more in it than even
you can spend, and you know what that means. It's one of those
spectacular properties that make a poet of a man. You can talk it
beautifully, splash on the color, you know, and it writes as well as it
talks. Shows up superbly in a prospectus, photographs like an artist's
dream. Just the thing to capture the eastern imagination. You see, it
matters very little whether the property is intrinsically all right or
not. That is always problematical, and to be left in the hands of
Providence. The great thing is to know what is going to capture the
eastern imagination. That's what you're really dealing with, not the
proposition itself, by Jingo, but the eastern imagination."

"That's just what I tried to tell that unborn babe of a press agent this
morning," cried Fuschia, nodding her head in emphatic agreement. "I got
him because he was a Mayflower Yankee, just out of Harvard, and yet
he's got no more idea of how to deal with his own people than a new-laid
kitten. He came bounding to me an hour or two ago with a lot of stuff
he'd been working over nights with wet towels around his head and a pot
of black coffee at his elbow.

"'I think I've struck it,' said he. 'It is both true and new!' Pop, it
was like this. 'Miss Fuschia Fleming can really do things, therefore she
does not waste time talking about them. One of the most competent of
stage managers, she never loses her temper. Admirable self-control a
striking characteristic. Thoroughly systematic and methodical.'

"Lord, Papa! I felt sorry for the kid. It like to killed me, you know.
Well, I waited a bit till the daze wore off and then I said, 'I'm sorry,
honey, but it won't do. If I'd made good in New York and had 'em all
rooting for me, it would be different, but they're effete Easterners,
boy, used to ruts and routine, and you can't change their breakfast food
on 'em like that. They won't stand for it. Give 'em the same good old
press notices that mother used to make back in 1860. Don't talk about
my "trim neatness." You won't believe it, Daddy, but the poor kid
actually did that! I said, 'Say that my favorite house costume is a
Mexican riding-suit hung with silver dollars, and that, in cold weather,
I always wear a Navajo blanket over my shoulders. Have a sketch of me
rolling a cigarette between the thumb and second finger of one hand and
throwing the lariat with the other. Describe me, when only fifteen,
playing Rosalind in the redwoods of the Yosemite before a wildly
enthusiastic audience of miners and cowboys. Then say that once before,
when appearing before the most brilliant audience ever assembled in a
San Francisco theater, I became so overwrought that I began to shoot
holes through the drop curtain.' Do you think that was all right, Papa?"

Her father gazed at her with an almost awed admiration. "Honest to God,
Fuschia," he said at last, "I don't know what to think of you. Here I've
spent my life handling those Easterners, singly and in bunches, and here
are you, without either experience or training, on to the game
intuitively. Fuschia, this is a proud day for me. I've never told you,
little girl, but sometimes I've had my doubts about your bringing up. I
tell you after your mother ran away with my best friend and then
divorced me for desertion and shortly died, leaving you, a two-year-old
girl baby to me as a last bequest, it was a black hour. Like one of
those Bible boys--Peter, wasn't it?--I went out and crew bitterly. 'If
she was only a boy!' I said. 'What can Jim Fleming do with a she thing
like this?' Then I took another look at you, in your white dress and
blue shoes, smiling at me with your mouth all over your face, and, true
as I stand here, Fuschia, you were the first thing in skirts that didn't
seem to be looking at me across a great gulf.

"And then I talked to myself a while. You see, if your mother had come
to me as man to man and said, 'Jim, I'm tired of you and I want to marry
Henry,' I'd have said, hard as it might have hit me, you know that,
Fuschia, 'Kate, I don't blame you, and I'll do what I can to help you.'
But she preferred the feminine route, a note on the pincushion and she
gone with all her jewels and ten thousand I'd given her to buy a
diamond necklace. But as I say, I looked at you in your white dress and
blue shoes and that friendly grin on your little mug, and I said, 'God
knows how it'll work, but this girl thing here ain't going to grow up
thinking that there's fences built all around her and that she's got to
coax and sneak and pretend to get her way. Poor Kate! With great price
she obtained her freedom, but my little Fuschia, here, she's born
free.'"

"Good old Poppy-doppy!" Fuschia's tone was fondly approving and
something like a tear glimmered in the depths of her turquoise eyes.
"I'm glad you never tried the snaffle bit of parental training and home
influences on me, because I'd sure have kicked myself free, and it
mightn't have been pleasant. But to come back to the present, Mr.
Hepworth is so splendid, that unless his wife is really in love with
this boy-Raphael or whatever he is, I'm going to get into the game and
make home happy for the Hepworths."

"Cautiously, cautiously, daughter," admonished Fleming, looking a trifle
alarmed. "That's all right on the stage; but in real life when an
outsider tries to join the parted hands of husband and wife, he's
likely to get a cuff on the ear."

"Oh, men are crude," sighed Fuschia. "You didn't suppose I was going to
do the child at Christmas act, did you? No, what I mean to do, that is,
if it's just her imagination and not really her heart that's captured,
is to take her boy-Raphael away from her."

Fleming gasped, and, lowering his head slightly, looked at his daughter
from under his eyebrows. "Fuschia," he said, "there are few things that
can feaze me. 'No limitations and no limits' has always been my motto,
but you do, child, you really do take my breath away sometimes. Why, if
report is true, Cress' wife is one of the most beautiful women in the
world."

"Um-huh," Fuschia yawned indifferently. "What has that got to do with
it? I've usually," she continued thoughtfully, "succeeded in getting
anything I wanted; that is, men. The wildest of them will trot right up
to me, and eat out of my hand."

"You're your father's own little girl, Fuschia," said Jim with emotion.

"Yes, and it's a good thing I inherited father's constitution as well as
his spell-binding abilities, considering that I have to be practically
my own press agent, stage manager and all the rest of it; the management
of Fuschia Fleming and Fuschia Fleming herself and then take up the task
of reuniting families besides. But Mr. Hepworth is a good, good man,
Papa, and we're going to make him happy, even if we have to do it on his
money."



CHAPTER XVII

DO YOU LOVE ME?


The Warrens and Mrs. Wilstead had remained in Santa Barbara a week, time
enough for Alice to discover that Hepworth was in no apparent need of
the consolatory offices of his old friends, that Fuschia Fleming was a
most entertaining young woman, and that Hayward Preston's attentions
were persistent and his intentions manifest and purposeful.

During the next month, no matter in what part of the state they were and
in what hotel Alice and her friends registered, Preston was sure to turn
up before the day was over; and to begin at the earliest possible moment
his unending argument. Along palm-shaded boulevards, under avenues of
pepper trees, in orange groves, on lonely mountain trails, in the shadow
of old missions, on surf-pounded beaches, in secluded nooks of great
hotels, everywhere and at all times he told his plain, unvarnished
tale. He had now asked Mrs. Wilstead to marry him in every resort in
California; and had not yet succeeded in winning her consent, and the
day of her departure was drawing near. Within two days she would be
leaving for New York. It was at Pasadena that Mr. Preston made his last
desperate stand.

He and Alice were strolling about the gardens of the hotel; she had not
wished to get too far away from the sheltering Warrens, and there
Preston was making what he assured her was his last appeal.

She, however, preferred to view his condition of mind and heart in a
psychological rather than a sentimental way.

"It is a habit, an obsession," she asseverated, tilting her rose-lined
parasol toward the sun so that charming pink reflections fell upon her
face. "You have lost sight of the object in the zest of pursuit. It is
the game which absorbs you, believe me. The winning would disconcert
you. Yes, it's the game. I am convinced that you have lost sight of the
goal and all that it entails."

Mr. Preston merely looked at her. "It entails you," he replied simply.

"It entails a great deal more," her speech was as quick as his was slow.
"You are, you tell me, exactly thirty-three years old. I, Alice
Wilstead," she shut her lips and breathed hard a moment and then
gallantly took the fence, "am just thirty-eight."

Not by even the flicker of an eyelash did he show either surprise or
dismay. Alice's heart went out to him. She really adored his
impassivity; it was so unlike anything she was capable of.

"What has that got to do with my loving you and your loving me?" asked
Preston stolidly.

"Everything," she answered deeply, regarding with drooping eyes and
wistful mouth a great, fragrant rose which she held between her fingers.
"If we could but hold this moment, if neither of us would know further
change, why--"

"Then you admit that you could care for me, that you do care for me," he
exclaimed with brightening eyes.

"Let it remain at 'could' and 'might,'" with one of her swift smiles.
"But under any circumstances, I do not wish to marry any one. Look at
my admirable position, rich, free, supposedly attractive, young--a
widow, you know, is always a good five or six years younger than either
a married or an unmarried woman. One is regarded as a young widow until
one is quite an elderly person. Now, really, why should I marry?"

"There isn't any possible reason," agreed Mr. Preston unhappily, "unless
you love me, and then there is every reason. But are you not tired
walking up and down, up and down these paths? Shall we not sit down on
this seat a few minutes?"

She acquiesced. It was a glorious morning and the spot was enchanting
with all this fragrant, almost tropical plant life blooming and blowing
about them, and Alice, impelled by the softness and sweetness of the air
and scene, forgot her adamantine resolutions and lifted her eyes to his
in one long and too-revealing glance.

"Alice, Alice"--there were all manner of tender inflections in his
usually colorless and unemotional tones--"you can not now deny--"

"Yes, I can," she cried quickly; "I can and I do. Hayward, believe me,
it will never, never do. You are looking at the matter from the man's
viewpoint, I, from the woman's, and, in cases of this kind, the woman's
is the surer, the more safely intuitive."

"Bosh!" Preston's exclamation was calm, but pregnant.

"But consider, consider," she besought him. "Look at us, you are the
robust, ruddy, phlegmatic type that will not change in twenty years, and
I am exactly your opposite in every respect and that's the reason you
like me and therein lies the whole tragedy. I'm nervous, mercurial,
emotional, and nothing, nothing brings wrinkles so quickly as vivacity
and expression."

"But you haven't any wrinkles."

"Not yet. Care, massage, a good maid and a light heart have kept them at
bay. And, oh! gray hair!"

"But you haven't any gray hair," he said, with the same patient
obstinacy.

"Not yet, but when they do begin to come, they come all at once.
Hayward, I do not deny that I could care for you if I would let myself,
but when I realize that for a woman to marry a man younger than herself
makes life one long, hideous effort to keep the same age as her husband;
oh, it is too frightening! Just think! No matter how much one may long
for repose to have to be always up and exercising to keep one's figure;
to have to hold on to one's complexion by always sleeping in stifling
masks and slippery cold cream; to be always watching the roots of one's
hair to see if it doesn't need retouching, and, worst of all, to have to
be gay and vivacious and conceal, heaven knows, what twinges of
rheumatism under a smiling face."

"You're just talking," said Preston calmly. "Keep on if it amuses you.
It doesn't mean anything at all to me. Not at all." His success in life
was largely due to the fact that he always kept the main object in view
and never permitted himself to be diverted by side issues. "Your
personal appearance ten years from now has nothing to do with the
matter. We may both be dead ten years from now. There is only one
question to be discussed and that is, 'Do you love me?'"

The petals fell from the red, red rose as Alice twisted it nervously in
her fingers.

"I think I have given you ample proof of my liking for you," she said at
last, "but the _loving_ is obscured in doubts."

"Forget them, for my sake," he murmured. "Can't you, won't you, Alice?"

"If I could only get away from those mental pictures," she confessed.
"They stand between us like a barrier. Just think of arriving at the
point where you want to doze after dinner and dream over some nice,
slow, old book, with your head comfortably nodding now and then. And the
fire flickering and the cat purring on the rug. Lovely, isn't it? And
instead, think of realizing wearily that you've got to spend the evening
at the opera or playing bridge. And that, of course, means turning
yourself at an early hour into the hands of your maid for repairs and
decoration. And then you've got to sit upright the whole evening because
your stays, which are guaranteed to give you the lithe and willowy
figure of youth, will not let you lean back. And you do not dare to
smile, because you will crack the kalsomining on your face; neither may
you move your head, you are so afraid that the curls and puffs and
braids may not be pinned on tight. Oh, it's a dog's life!" she sighed
heavily.

"And it's not for you," Preston spoke firmly. "There is nothing coltish
about me." Alice laughed, it was so true. "Business is all that very
deeply interests me, and amusements bore me very much. I like the
after-dinner doze and the fire and cat already. You will probably have
more of that kind of thing than you like, if you marry me. Alice, will
you not consider?"

"Mrs. Wilstead, Mrs. Wilstead," a page's voice rang through the
shrubbery and came nearer and nearer and Alice took from him a thick
letter addressed to her in Isabel Hewston's hand and adorned with a
special delivery stamp.

"From a dear friend," Alice exclaimed. "Will you excuse me while I look
at it? There may be some matter of importance, you know."

In Preston's manner there was no hint of his annoyance. He behaved as
well as a man could when interrupted in the most fervent declarations of
affection which the limitations of his nature permitted him. He even
suggested that he withdraw, and rose, hat in hand. Could complaisance,
consideration go further? There were only two days before him, and she
had never been so near yielding before.

"Oh, no, no," almost possessively, she stretched forth a hand to detain
him. "You have nothing to do but wait, and I shall run through this,"
touching the letter, "in a moment."

Preston sat down beside her again and lighting a cigarette, smoked and
looked out over the brilliant garden before him while she read.

It was evident, Alice discovered this before she had finished the first
page, that Isabel Hewston was actuated by no deeper motive than pure,
erratic impulse when she placed that special stamp upon the letter. At
least so Alice and Preston probably would have agreed and Isabel
reluctantly would have admitted it. But the Fates who sit in the
background and transmit wireless messages to mortals would have smiled
inscrutably and shaken their heads. If Isabel hadn't stuck that stamp on
for no reason whatever, and if the page hadn't sought Alice through the
breeze-caressed, rose-scented garden and given her the missive at the
exact moment he did--but, as Eugene Gresham would say, "What's the use?
Why conjecture?" What really occurred was this:

"Dearest Alice," wrote Mrs. Hewston, "how I envy you in that southern
paradise while here the weather merely changes from sleet and snow to
rain and then back again."

There was a page or two of this and of Willoughby's various ailments and
symptoms, and then a long and glowing account of her visit to Perdita
Hepworth, and a great deal of minute, enthusiastic description of the
gowns that Dita was designing for her.

This Alice read with interest, but greater interest still did she bestow
upon the statement that there appeared to be a coldness between Wallace
Martin and Maud Carmine, owing, it was said, to the fact that she had
ruthlessly criticized his last play, and prophesied accurately its
speedy failure.

"It does seem too bad, dear," Isabel wrote next, "that you, away off in
California, should have to come in for your share of the gossip which
seems so sadly rife this season."

Here Alice clutched the pages and, bending over, bestowed upon them an
almost breathless attention. What could Isabel mean?

"It is perfectly stupid, of course," the letter ran, "and I would not
think of mentioning it to you except that we have always been frank
about such things, and, anyway, you ought to know. There is a rumor
about that you went to California hoping to catch Cresswell's heart in
the rebound. People now believe that he and Perdita have definitely
separated and that you knew this, and, as some one put it to me, so
vulgarly too, dear, camped down on his trail. They say now that the
incident of the actress was merely to make things easier for Perdita in
gaining her freedom, but that soon after that is granted her, Willoughby
says that, as those coarse men express it, you will lead Cress to the
altar."

"Darn Willoughby!" Alice breathed hard as she muttered the words between
her clenched teeth, the vivid scarlet of hot anger suffusing her face.
Preston turned quickly to her, throwing away his cigarette, and ceasing
to regard the brilliant garden through meditative, half-closed eyes.
"What is it?" he asked. "Something has worried you."

"No," she smiled, with an effort, and shrugged the matter lightly off
her shoulders, "some mistake about a very trifling matter. It annoyed me
for a second, that is all."

For a moment or two neither spoke. Alice was watching the flight of a
butterfly that soared in the air until almost out of sight and then came
back to drift about a group of tall, white yuccas.

"Hayward, do you still love me as much as you did ten minutes ago?" She
smiled charmingly at him, that very, very especial smile of hers, and
he, with his rather slow perceptions quickened by love, read
capitulation and a real affection in her softened eyes.

[Illustration: "Hayward, do you love me?"]

"Alice!" And the depth and fervor of his love will be appreciated when
it is recorded that he, Hayward Preston, the most conventional of men,
deliberately tilted her rose-lined parasol and in the face of the world
and before the very eyes of an advancing couple, kissed her.



CHAPTER XVIII

PLAYING THE GAME


It was only a day or two after her arrival in New York that Fuschia
Fleming, who had been rehearsing the greater part of the night, opened
her sleepy eyes in the hotel chamber to find her maid bending above her
with a visiting card in one hand and a perplexed expression upon her
face.

"I hated to waken you, Miss Fuschia," she said, "but when I saw the
name--"

"What is the name?" Fuschia's voice was drowsily indifferent.

"Mrs. Cresswell Hepworth."

"_Mrs._ Cresswell Hepworth!" Both indifference and sleepiness were
things of the past. Miss Fleming sat up in bed with a spring. "She's in
the parlor, isn't she? Here, Martha Mary, hustle about. Get me out my
gold-colored kimono with the silver wistaria on it, and some yellow
stockings and slippers. Tell her I regret having to keep her waiting,
late at rehearsal last night. You know the proper thing. Now, go ahead
and do your prettiest and then dance back here and help me get into
things."

"Certainly no time wasted," reflected the actress standing before her
mirror, winding her long ash blonde hair round and round her head. "I
dare say it's a case of 'Gur-rl, what have you done with me husband?'
There is only one reply to that. I shall draw myself up haughtily and
say, 'Pardon, Madame, it was you who first carelessly mislaid him, not
I.' Where the deuce are my hair-pins? She'd never come to my apartments
with a cat-o'-nine-tails under her golf cape, or a bottle of acid in her
shopping bag. Sure-ly not. They always choose the foyer of the theater
for such stunts. Oh, Martha Mary," as that person whom Jim Fleming had
once designated as a "vinegar-faced-Sue" returned to the bedchamber. "I
can find nothing. Everything has crawled under the bed or the bureau.
How is the lady dressed for the part? Handsome, dark garments, rich,
dark furs, black veil over face, handkerchief handy?"

"The lady is wearing rose-colored cloth and chinchilla," replied Martha
Mary literally.

"Rose color and chinchilla. That is a note out, positively frivolous.
Oh, dear me! I am only half put together. You get more worthless every
day, Martha Mary. Put on all my moonstone rings, for luck. They may save
my life."

When Fuschia entered her temporary drawing-room, Perdita Hepworth was
standing with her back to her, gazing from the window out upon the bleak
wind-swept streets. March was departing with lion-like roars and buffets
and striving bravely but vainly to obscure his ugly countenance in
clouds of dust. Hearing a slight sound, she turned and saw advancing
down the pleasantly warmed, flower-scented room, a young woman whom she
instantly likened to a pale but radiant ray of spring sunshine.

This sunshine, yellow kimono, pale yellow hair, a cheek like the heart
of a tea-rose, gold-colored silk stockings and slippers, paused between
a jar of white lilacs and a basket of hyacinths. The lion-like roars
without seemed suddenly all hollow pretense. Spring had come to New
York and involuntarily Perdita smiled in greeting.

"Miss Fleming, please forgive this unseemly early call; but you see it
is important, this matter I wish to see you about." Perdita thus opened
the conversation.

"She can chew up the scenery about me husband all she wishes," said
Fuschia to herself, "if she just lets me look at her. Her pictures give
no idea of her. She's red roses and music and emotion. She's poetry and
romance. My Lord!"

In spite of Perdita's brave attempt, conversation languished. She
appeared to be weighing some matter which lay on her mind. At last she
looked up with a slightly ironical smile. "You will think I have come on
some affair of state, Miss Fleming, the way I am hesitating--"

Fuschia here made a violent mental protest. "Now don't you begin by
telling me that I broke up your home, because I didn't. You broke it
yourself."

Mrs. Hepworth made an impatient gesture as if at her own unusual lack of
adequate expression.

"Do you play cards at all?" she asked, "bridge or--"

Fuschia could not suppress one stare of surprise. "Play bridge!" she
murmured, wondering what that had to do with the matter. "No, I have no
card sense. Strange, too, for papa has a lot."

"The reason I asked was this," in rather diffident explanation; "I was
wondering if you could appreciate what it means to make an unexpected
play which takes several tricks--to play trumps in such a way as to make
the other players gasp with surprise, to--"

"Oh, I know what you mean," said Fuschia comprehendingly, a light
dawning in her puzzled eyes. "You are talking about playing the game.
Why, of course, I understand. That's all there is; that's what I'm on
this dizzy old planet for."

But although a basis of mutual agreement and understanding was thus
established, Dita seemed still to struggle with an unwonted
embarrassment.

It was not, however, within Fuschia to prolong a situation of this kind.
She bent forward, her elbows on her knees, her fingers covered with
moonstone rings clasped lightly in front of her, her eyes full of a
thousand twinkles and the upturned corners of her mouth curving almost
to her eyes.

"Let's get down to cases, Mrs. Hepworth, man to man. Is it a go?"

Perdita drew a breath of relief and smiled back. She certainly was not
one of the few, the very few, who could resist the twinkles in Fuschia's
eyes.

"It's a go," she answered; "then man to man, it is this way. You have
made it easy, you see, for me to say the things I wanted to, although I
did not know in what feminine phrases I might have to clothe them. But
you and I are, at present, very much in the public eye. Now every one is
waiting to see what our attitude toward each other will be. It is
assumed openly by the newspapers, as you probably know, that there is a
sort of woman's war on between us. Now, Miss Fleming, I want--"

"Your husband," supplemented Fuschia mentally. "Well, I haven't got him;
never did have him; don't want him."

"--to design your stage costumes and to have it so announced," concluded
Perdita.

Then she saw a remarkable change come over the dainty, thistledown Miss
Fleming. Her mouth became an almost straight line, the gleam in her eyes
was almost uncannily shrewd. She gave Perdita's words a concentrated
consideration for a few moments and then nodded two or three times,
brief, quick, clean-cut little nods.

"Great!" she said succinctly. Then her mouth curled again, the twinkles,
like splintered diamonds, came back to her eyes. She flew across the
room and threw her arms about Perdita, enveloping her in a momentary and
rose-scented embrace. Her enthusiasm was unrestrained. "The
advertisement is above rubies," she cried. "No wonder you are such a
success."

"Oh, that is no credit to me," replied Dita carelessly. "I have a sort
of sixth sense about clothes, you know. It is my one gift. I know the
moment I put eyes on any one exactly how she, it is always she, of
course, ought to look. I see colors when I look at people. Women often
say to me, 'Oh, I can not wear this or that color,' when it is just the
one thing they should wear, it is their mental correspondence."

"And how are you going to dress me?" asked Fuschia with intense
interest.

"Principally in gold and silver," Dita answered without hesitation. "You
have on the right thing now. Most designers would put you in black,
because you are so very fair. They would try to make you striking by
force of contrast, but not I. You see very few women of your coloring
could stand the dazzle of gold and silver. It would completely eclipse
them; but you are mentally dazzling. Your personality is strong enough
to reduce anything you wear to its proper place. One must take all those
things into account in designing, you know. Now you are quicksilver,
sunlight, glimmer of day on speeding waters, and we must accentuate that
fact; not ignore it and slur it over."

"It sounds fascinating," said Fuschia. "How sweet of you to do this for
me."

"For myself, you mean." Perdita rose. "You'll do, my dear. You're new,
you're different. New York will be yours whether you can act or not."

A flame went over Fuschia's face and seemed to pass as swiftly as it had
come; but instead, it remained, focused in her eyes.

"I can act," she said briefly, "and, look here, New York may accept me
on the magnificent advertising I've had and will continue to have; or
New York may accept me on the strength of my wonderful gowns designed by
Perdita Hepworth. That's all right, that's as it should be. But I'm
going to make New York forget my press notices, and your gowns and
Fuschia Fleming, and I'm going to make it sit tight and still in its
boxes and orchestra chairs and balcony seats and laugh and cry with the
heroine on the stage who shall be the realest thing on earth to them for
the time. That's the game for me, Mrs. Hepworth. That's all the game I
care a hang about."

       *       *       *       *       *

"Maudie," said Perdita to Miss Carmine, an hour or two later, "I have
just secured a new commission, a big one."

"What?" asked Maud with interest.

"Hepworth and Carmine are to design the costumes that Miss Fuschia
Fleming will wear in the repertoire of society dramas in which she will
appear after two weeks of Shakespearean rôles. Paula Tangueray, Mrs.
Dane, you know the lot of them."

"Perdita! The cheek of her. To make such a request under the
circumstances."

"Maudie! The cheek of _me_," mocked Dita softly.

"You!" astonishment was beyond all bounds now. "You!"

"Yes. Did you fancy--" there were those deep vibrations in Dita's voice
which always bespoke some strong emotion, "that I was going to endure
the spectacle of Miss Fleming triumphant 'in our midst,' and every one
watching to see how I would take it, and predicting that only one course
remained open for me and that was with dignity to ignore the incident?
Not so. The world will see, and this, amusingly enough, happens to be a
fact, that Miss Fleming and Mrs. Hepworth are excellent friends, that
Mrs. Hepworth is one of Miss Fleming's warmest admirers, and that she,
still speaking of myself, has assisted in Miss Fleming's unparalleled
success in New York by designing for her some of the most wonderful
costumes ever seen on the stage."

"Unparalleled success!" scoffed Maud. "It is rather early to predict
that. New York is like a cat. You never know which way it will jump."

"It will jump Fuschia Fleming's way," replied Dita confidently. "You
haven't met her."

"Is she so beautiful then? As beautiful as you?"

"Oh, no," Perdita was smoothing out her gloves on her knee. She shook
her head decidedly. "Nothing like. She isn't beautiful at all. She's
just a slender creature with rather colorless _blonde cendre_ hair and
blue eyes."

"Oh," Maud was plainly puzzled. "Then what do you mean?"

But Perdita only smiled. "Have you and Wallace made up yet?" she asked
with what appeared to the other woman striking irrelevance.
"Impertinent, I know; but there's a reason?"

"No-o-o," said Maud reluctantly and evidently wondering if Dita had
suddenly lost her mind.

"Then do so at once," advised her business associate. "Do so before he
meets Fuschia Fleming."

"From what you say." Miss Carmine's chin was high and haughty. "I see no
cause for alarm."

"No?" Perdita tapped the table with her finger-tips, still inscrutably
smiling.

Maud rarely permitted herself to become angry, but she did so now. She
had never imagined that Perdita could be so aggravating. "Just because
Cresswell lost his head about her, you think--" she flashed out.

"He didn't," cried Perdita not with bravado, but with a confidence which
Maud realized with surprise was genuine. "I hadn't been with her three
minutes before I knew that. But take my advice," again her voice fell to
that teasing note. "If you really love Wallace make up your differences
with him to-day, to-day, before he, a playwright, meets the actress.
Then get a new steel chain, one that he can't chew through, and fasten
it securely to his collar."



CHAPTER XIX

HE CALLS ON HIS WIFE


Early in April Hepworth returned to New York. It was a gentle, smiling
April, inclining more to laughter than to tears and striving to
obliterate the memories of March. He arrived one evening and wasted no
time in communicating with Perdita. The next day in fact was marked by
the passage of notes between them, severely businesslike, and yet models
of courtesy.

The result of these diplomatic negotiations was that Mr. Cresswell
Hepworth, at a suitable hour the following morning, wended his way to
his wife's business establishment.

It was a deliciously balmy morning, the rare sort of a day that slips in
now and then between April showers and sets one dreaming of the glory of
the spring in the silent woody places. The great, roaring canyons of
brick and stone floated in a silvery, sparkling mist, and in that
atmospheric alembic dreary perspectives assumed an unsubstantial and
fairy-like beauty. The little leaves on the trees fluttered in the soft
breeze and were so young, so green, so gay that they lifted the heart
like tiny wings of joy.

In spite of himself there was the hint of a smile about the corners of
Hepworth's mouth and this deepened and deepened until as he rang the
bell of his wife's door, he suddenly became conscious of it, and
carefully suppressed it.

The sphinx, past mistress of inscrutability of expression, would have
paid him the tribute of a flicker of admiration as he entered the
reception-room. It was without a suggestion of curiosity or even
interest in his eyes that he glanced absently about him; perhaps the
long droop of the lids at the corners, which appeared to accentuate his
rather weary and listless gaze, was more marked than usual, but this was
always so when he was making mental notes and registering his
observations with the rapidity and accuracy of a ticker.

He awaited Perdita in her reception-room, that charming apartment, and
here, in view of certain events which occurred later, it would be well
to give the plan of the first floor.

This room opened from the hall and ran the length of the house with
windows at the front looking out upon the street while those in the rear
opened upon a strip of garden. There was another door at the lower end
of the room, which, with the long room, formed an ell, and terminated
the hall.

Dita kept Hepworth waiting a bare moment. Her approach was unkindly
noiseless, but nevertheless he heard her, and was on his feet, his eyes
meeting hers full as she appeared in the doorway. The conventional
banalities of greeting were gone through with ease on his part, grace on
hers.

Merciful banalities! They gave him time to consider the change in her, a
change which was to him sufficiently striking almost to have trapped him
into an expressed surprise, and this change was so subtle that he
wondered that it should yet be so apparent. It was not a matter of
outward appearance, that remained the same in effect. It was a mental
change so animating and vital that Cresswell felt all former estimates
of her crumble. Had she always been so, and had he never really seen her
until now? Had time and absence in some way cleared his obscured vision?
He felt a momentary sense of confusion, a brief mental giddiness, and
then he pulled himself together. The first impression was the correct
one. She had changed, and thereby had gained, gained tremendously in
poise.

But there was no time now in which to analyze impressions.

"So this is the magic parlor where all the ugly women are transformed
into beauties." He looked about him as if he had not thought to glance
at her surroundings before. "The presence of mere man here seems rather
profane, do you not think so? Ah, well, my stay is brief. You have
proved, haven't you, that it is not an impossibility after all, to paint
the lily and gild refined gold?"

"So few women have any taste," she said carelessly. "And oh, their
houses! You should see them when I go over their hideous houses like a
devouring flame and ruthlessly order out all their dreadful junk. And
the most awful objects are always the most precious in their eyes. I
feel so sorry for them. I have always a guilty sense of being a naughty
boy robbing a bird's nest, and the poor mother birds stand around and
flap their wings and hop and shriek. It's very mournful, but they
needn't have me if they don't want me."

He laughed. "And Maud? Is she, too, well and happy?"

Dita lifted her hands and eyes. "That is a very tame way of describing
her. Her gowns are dreams this spring, she is considered almost a
beauty; people, you see, are gradually forgetting that she was ever
'that plain Maud Carmine who plays nicely,' and Wallace Martin and
herself are engaged to be married." A faint, amused smile crept around
her mouth at this announcement.

Hepworth looked up with sudden interest. "Indeed! Well, that might have
been expected, I dare say, but will it not rather seriously interfere
with the business?"

"No," she shook her head. "No, I think not, Maud has no intention of
quitting. Wallace's plays are more or less problematical and Maud has
invested a good deal of her money in this. It is really paying
remarkably well, you know."

"Dita," his voice was low, and he could not conceal the chagrin, the
touch of pain in it. "Why have you never touched a cent of your own
money, since my departure? I only learned a few days ago that you had
not. I can not begin to tell you how it made me feel. It not only
distressed but deeply wounded me."

She twisted a little in her chair. "It--it has never been necessary,"
she said. "We began to make money at once. Really, Cresswell, Maud and I
have prospered beyond our wildest dreams."

"But suppose you had not. Is your prosperity the only reason you have
not touched it? Would you have done so under any circumstances? That is
what I have been asking myself for the past week, and am now asking
you."

She flushed uncertainly. "Ah," she said. "I can not answer you that. I
can not tell. One never knows what one will do when the pinch comes."

He smiled faintly. "I'll not put any more embarrassing questions to you,
but confine myself to perfectly safe topics. You are looking very
well."

"I am well."

"And happy? But there, that is hardly a safe topic, is it?"

A sudden light came into her eyes, making them warm and softly bright.
She smiled at him with a fresh, almost childlike enthusiasm. "Yes, I'm
happy," she said, "happier than I've ever been in all my life. Why,
Cresswell, it's been fun, fun. There's been lots of work, and lots of
planning, but nevertheless, I've never enjoyed anything so much in my
life. Often I go to bed at night tired out, but it's always with a
comforting sense of satisfaction. It's all so varied and interesting,
you know, but it isn't that that makes me happy." She clasped her hands
and looked up at him with an unconscious appeal for sympathy and
understanding in her eyes. "It's better than that, better than anything
else. It's meant success, think of it, success. Not a horrid, little
picayune one either, but a nice, big one."

He leaned forward and looked at her curiously as if he really saw her
for the first time.

"Why, Dita," he exclaimed, "has it meant so much to you as that?"

"Indeed, yes." There was ardor, fervor in her answering exclamation. "I
can not tell you how much. I believe I was really morbid on the subject.
I believed in failure as a real atmosphere always encompassing me. I had
all manner of superstitions, beliefs about it. I believed that with all
my strength and youth and energy, I was yet doomed by fate to a tomb of
inaction. I seemed so futile, so ineffective. With a restless, active
brain I accomplished nothing. You see that was such a dreadful
experience, my attempt to earn my living before I married you, and I was
so ignorant and inexperienced of every condition of life in which I
found myself, that it prevented me from striking out boldly, from
believing in myself. So I made the fatal mistake of beginning small, and
began to paint all those wretched little articles, and it wasn't my
_métier_ at all, Cresswell, really it wasn't, so, naturally, I failed.
And," as if it had suddenly occurred to her, "I have found it so
interesting to dress Miss Fleming. Designing her costumes has been
fascinating."

"That was a very wonderful and a very clever thing of you to do,
Perdita." There was a tone in his voice she did not understand. She
began to praise Fuschia and he leaned back in his chair listening. She
could see the mere gleam of his eyes between his almost closed lids. She
wondered if he had really heard one word she had said. In reality he was
bestowing upon her such attention and study as he had never dreamed of
giving her before. She felt, however, in spite of his apparent
indifference, that he was so far in sympathy with her, that she was
impelled in spite of herself to continue her confidences.

"Do you know, Cresswell, it's a horrible thing to be considered a
beauty. Oh, you may laugh," he could not help his mirth. "I know beauty
is supposed to be the heart's desire of every woman; but there are many
drawbacks. Every one, without exception, takes it for granted that you
are a fool. Your sense is always considered in reverse ratio to your
good looks, and then, it's such an uncertain thing. Just when you need
it most to console you for the disappointments and disillusions of life,
it departs, and horrid things, wrinkles and gray hairs, take its place."

"Perdita! What an absurd creature you are!"

"Ah, Cresswell," her tone was pensive. "You have always been successful.
You can not imagine what failure feels like, that deadening, hopeless
sensation." She was vehement enough now.

"Can I not?" At last he lifted his drooping lids and looked straight at
her. "My dear Dita, I can give you cards and spades on every emotion of
failure you have ever felt. I recall one case in particular, where I
failed so conspicuously and brilliantly, that I am overcome with
surprise at my own stupidity every time I think of it. But as you have
been talking that case has reverted again and again to my mind, and it
has struck me that there is still a chance that I pursued the wrong
tactics."

She drew back wounded. He had then, as she had once or twice suspected,
not been listening to a word she said, and how his cold face had glowed
at the mere thought of retrieving a business blunder.

Hepworth got up and began walking about the room. "And Gresham, what of
him?" he asked presently, breaking the silence which had fallen between
them.

"He is quite well, I believe," she was furious at the conscious note
which crept into her voice, at the scarlet which flew to her cheek, but
one thing she had never been able to endure and that was any evidence of
cowardice in herself. She lifted her eyes bravely to his and held them
there. "He has been in town since January," she said. "I have seen him
very often."

"Ah, painting as brilliantly as ever, I dare say? A genius, Eugene!
Unquestionably."

Again silence fell between them, and lasted until she broke it with the
constrained question: "Are you--are you going to be here for some time
now?"

"No, I shall have to be in London more or less during the summer, but I
have some matters which must be attended to first. By the way," as if
struck by a sudden thought, "what are your plans for the summer?"

"I have made none. I have not even thought of such things yet. I dare
say I shall go somewhere for a bit of a change, but," with a smile,
"business is so very brisk."

He laughed and took one or two more turns up and down the room.

"Dita, do you remember that I told you once that you were a remarkably
clever woman? Well, I merely wish to call that fact to your attention,
and reiterate my statement. Oh, I must tell you, I have a new amulet, a
wonder. I will tell you the history of it when you have more time. You
have the case in your keeping have you not? And the tray with the one
empty space?"

The blood rushed to her face. "I have the case," she said coldly. "It is
locked in my safe here. Do you wish it now?"

"No," he shook his head. "Wait until I bring the amulet. May I bring it
late Wednesday afternoon? And why not dine with me then? Say you will,
Dita. Give the world something to talk of, something to puzzle over."
She had never seen him so eager.

She hesitated a bare second. "I will. Yes, I will be very glad to," but
lifting her eyes to his: "Are you so sure that one of those amulet trays
has an empty space?"

"It had when I last saw it." His voice was unreadable.

"But that is months ago; perhaps you will think differently when you see
it Wednesday evening."

There was a flash over his face, which vanished as quickly as it had
appeared. He drew nearer to her as if about to speak, then apparently
reconsidered the intention. "I really must not keep you longer," he
picked up his hat. "Of course, there are a number of matters to be
discussed, but they can wait. We will reserve them for Wednesday
evening. Good-by." He held out his hand. She placed hers in it.

"Good-by," she returned.



CHAPTER XX

THE MAGIC WORD


"Maud," said Dita, walking in upon that young woman, a package of
letters in her hand, "a lot of things are happening. Here is a letter,
among other things, from Mrs. Wilstead. She says that she is just back
from California, and that she needs stacks and stacks of new clothes,
and wants our designs. It will be fun dressing her. She is so extremely
good looking."

Maud stirred restlessly, frowned, bit her lip, but did not speak.

"Just back from California," went on Dita. "I wonder--I wonder, Maud, if
she could possibly have come on with Cresswell?"

"Very probably," said Maud. "In fact, I think nothing could be more
likely."

"Why, what do you mean by speaking so mysteriously?" Dita widened her
eyes. "Suppose they had? Nothing, after all, could be more natural."

"Nothing, I suppose." Maud was trying hard to be non-committal. "But let
her go to some one else. If we take any more people, we shan't get away
this summer. We have more on our hands now than we can manage. Yes, let
her go to some one else."

"But, Maud," Dita hesitated, "I really think we should refuse some one
else and take her. She is an old friend."

"Old fiddlesticks!" cried Maud impatiently.

"Maud! What is the matter with you? A touch of spring fever? Really, I
think we must consider her."

"But if I ask you not, Dita"--there were almost tears in Maud's voice.

"But why should you ask me not? This is too bewildering."

"Ah, well," Maud spoke now with the calmness of despair, "since you
force me to tell you, I ask you not because Mrs. Wilstead has been
constantly with Mr. Hepworth in the West this winter, and the current
gossip is that he is only waiting for a divorce to be arranged between
you and himself, to marry her."

There was silence for a moment on Dita's part. Her eyes were downcast,
mechanically she sorted the letters in her hand. "Then what of the talk
about Fuschia Fleming and himself?"

"Oh, they say that she took a back seat when Alice Wilstead appeared on
the scene. But really, Dita, this move on Alice's part makes me furious.
The idea of her being guilty of such wretchedly bad taste. I have always
liked her, been really fond of her, in fact, but this crass exhibition
of bad breeding disgusts me. I dare say that she doesn't care so long as
she gets results; that is, the benefit of your taste and skill to
enhance her waning beauty; but look at the position it is going to place
you in, Dita. For number one to design the trousseau for number two is
really too absurd. It simply goes beyond all belief. Dita, you must,
indeed you must, write her the curtest, coldest of polite notes and tell
her that we are entirely too busy to consider her."

"Very well. I'll humor you so far," returned Perdita. "What is it?"
turning to a maid who entered with a visiting card. "Ah, Eugene! I asked
him to come this morning. I particularly wanted to see him and I don't
want you present. There, don't get that stony look of despair on your
face, Maudie; think how good I have been all winter, only seeing Eugene
once in a blue moon, and then in your company."

"But I want you to keep on being good," pleaded Maud; "especially now."

"I am gooder than you can possibly imagine," laughed Perdita, "but, all
the same, I do not wish you tagging about this morning." She smiled
teasingly at her puzzled business partner as she left the room.

She went down to meet Eugene in the same room at the same hour she had
talked with her husband the day before.

But Eugene was not one to endure for one moment a situation dominated by
the shadowy third person. No woman should gaze at him with the
remembrance of yesterday in her eyes, the smile of wistful reminiscence
on her lips. An hour with him must be a dazzling and kaleidoscopic
episode. He would hold it in his hand, and at the bidding of his will,
the moments, like bits of colored glass, should revolve and melt and
mingle--rainbow arabesques on the background of Time.

"Your meditations, remembrances and regrets for your oratories, my
dear," his challenging eyes seemed to say, "but with me you live, you
laugh, you thrill responsive to the harp of life; the yesterdays
forgotten, the to-morrows unborn."

"Dita!" he caught her hands in his as she entered. His eyes were
shining, his head thrown back. He was more vivid than the spring
sunshine which fell through the open windows.

"Eugene! You look as if you had just received some wonderful new
commission."

"So I have, a commission to love you. That is right, blush. Dita, why do
you not always wear rose color? But no, don't listen to me. If it were
blue or green, I would be making the same request. Dearest, my eyes
drink in, drink up your loveliness. You never, never were so beautiful
as you are this morning."

"Eugene, you are mad; too foolish for anything. What is the matter with
you?"

"Mad doesn't half express it. May I smoke?" He took her consent for
granted, for he was already rolling cigarettes in his deft, supple
fingers. "Yes? No? I am delirious with joy. Hepworth is back as, of
course, you know. That can only mean one thing; every one says that just
as soon as a divorce can be decently arranged, he and Alice Wilstead
will be married. The verdict of the world is that he was so angry at
your going into business that he flung off to the West. It was the most
spectacular of your many caprices and it proved the last straw for him.
Blessed last straw!" lifting his eyes devoutly. "And then Alice Wilstead
cleverly appeared on the scene and the consoling offices of friendship
did the trick."

"Three months ago it was Fuschia Fleming, according to gossip." Her eyes
were downcast, her tone expressionless.

"Oh, that," he blew rings of smoke lightly through the air and followed
them with gay eyes; "that is a part of the game. That was making
evidence for you. It is all arranged that I am to paint her portrait,
you know. I have not met her yet, either." He threw his cigarette
through the window. "Dita, Dita, how can you sit there so cool and
still? When I think that you are actually on the very eve of freedom, I
become delirious with joy."

"So sure of the winning, Eugene?"

"Dita!" His face clouded, there was a world of reproach in his voice.
"That is a terrible trait in your character, that teasing desire of
yours always to fling a little dash of cold water on one's mounting
enthusiasms."

"There is another dash coming," she laughed. "I want my amulet, and I
want it at once, to-day. I know," anticipating his protestations, "that
you returned it to me the afternoon Hepworth left for the West, and I
would not see you to receive it in person. Then, my mind was so
perturbed and occupied that I didn't think of it again before you
sailed, and since your return," a little smile creeping about her mouth,
"I haven't thought about it either; but now that the matter has come up
between us, please see that I have it to-day, Eugene."

He had looked slightly annoyed while she was speaking, but now he bent
toward her with his most charming manner, his most winning smile. "You
know my greatest weakness, Dita? I try to overcome it, really I do," in
laughing excuse, "but in spite of will or reason those superstitions of
mine persist. Alas! They do." He admitted it as a naughty little boy
might admit a passion for stealing jam. "And I have tremendous faith in
that old charm of yours." He picked up another cigarette from his
skilfully rolled little heap, placed as orderly on the table beside him
as if they were his paint brushes.

"Ever since I have had it," he went on, "the luck of the high gods has
been mine. Princessin, Contessin and high Altessin still clamoring to
have their portraits painted. The critics amiable and almost
intelligent, money pouring into my coffers and pouring out faster than
it comes in--I wish there were such a thing as a money-tight purse--and
best of all, ah, best of all, the love of my heart so near, so near."
His eyes held the warm glow which changed, irradiated them. "The star of
my life comes slipping, wavering through the spaces of the sky and down
the purple pathways of heaven to my arms." He leaned forward quickly
and almost enfolded her.

"Eugene!" She stood haughty and tall before him. "You assume entirely
too much. You have from the beginning. More, much more, than I have ever
given you any reason to assume. According to the tradition the amulet
can only bring one luck when it is given with the heart's love; and I
never gave it to you, Eugene, never. You laughingly filched it one day
when I took it off the chain about my neck, that you might look at it
more closely. And you are so sure, so sure of me, when I am anything but
sure of myself. I have never deceived you as to the state of my
feelings. How would that have been possible when I am still so doubtful
myself? Ah, those doubts!"

"They are nothing, dearest, nothing. I shall brush them away as I brush
cobwebs." He put his hands upon her shoulders and stood gazing deeply
into her eyes.

"Ah," she shook her head, and, at the same time, stepped away from him,
"I am no more sure that I love you than I was six months ago."

"Never any more sure?" His voice deep and rich as a low-toned bell.

Her black eyelashes lay long on her cheek, where the crimson, the hue of
a jacqueminot rose petal, was spreading. "There are moments," she
admitted, "times when I am with you that I believe that the magic word
has been spoken and that my heart has blossomed in purple and red, that
I truly love you, but," she shook her head sighingly, "the moment I am
away from you, I know that that is not so; that you haven't said the
magic word yet, 'Gene."

"But I know it, that magic word," he whispered, "and I shall awake you,
just as the Prince did the Sleeping Beauty. Not with a word at all,
dear, but with a kiss." He bent forward, but she had slipped away from
him, and before he knew it had put almost the length of the room between
them.

"You--you must not talk so to me now, 'Gene," the words were barely
breathed, "and," with a desperate clutch at a safe topic, "my amulet. I
must have it by to-morrow morning."

There was a flash like fire in Gresham's eyes. A quick scowling change
darkened his whole face. He picked up the five or six beautifully
rolled cigarettes which yet remained of his neat heap and tossed them
out of the window.

"I see it," he cried harshly. "You probably have Hepworth's box of
amulets in your keeping. You wish to return it to him, and show him when
you do so that your old charm is safe in its place. Oh, I can see the
whole scene. He will courteously hand it to you and say, 'Your property,
I believe, my dear Perdita.' I can hear his frigid, formal utterance.
And you will accept it with that grand, ancestral manner of yours,
murmuring, 'Thank you, yes, I regret that I can not ask you to accept it
as a small contribution to your collection, but that being out of the
question on account of certain traditions which adhere to it, I feel
that I must continue to hold it in my possession.' Why not be honest,
Dita, and tell him that you have given it to me?"

"Eugene, you are impossible. You go entirely too far." There was no
mistaking the displeasure in her voice, and his immediate recognition
that it was cold, not hot anger, brought him to himself at once.

"Flower of magnolia!" his voice fell to all those exquisite and
heart-touching modulations of which he was master. "I was only teasing.
Forgive me. You shall have your bit of glass early to-morrow morning.
And until I see you again I shall dream only of the wonderful, beautiful
years we shall have together. We shall wander about the world, here,
there and everywhere, and I shall paint the glory and color of the
universe and you, always you, Perdita, the focus, the center, the heart
of all beauty."



CHAPTER XXI

TWO ANNOUNCEMENTS


Dita had barely finished her breakfast the next morning when the message
was brought to her that a lady who refused to give her name but insisted
on seeing her at once upon important business awaited her in the
reception-room.

Dita hesitated a moment, debating whether or not to rebuke the maid, who
must have yielded to the lure of gold so readily to forget her orders,
and send back a peremptory request for the lady's name and her business,
or whether to yield to her natural and feminine curiosity and grant an
interview to this visitor who appeared so desirous of maintaining an
incognito.

This brief hesitation proved a loss, however, to the waiting lady, whose
method of being announced showed that she hoped to take Perdita by
surprise, for Maud Carmine entered at the moment and with some show of
indignation in both voice and expression informed Dita that Mrs.
Wilstead was the person guilty of strategic entrance.

"Such impertinence!" breathed Maud. "Scrawl a note in pencil, Dita, to
the effect that it will be impossible for Mrs. Hepworth to see Mrs.
Wilstead. That will show her that her ruse and her bribes have been
quite unsuccessful."

In her ardor for Mrs. Wilstead's demolition Maud had forgotten that the
last thing Dita could endure was dictation. Now, no sooner had the words
of admonition left her lips than, to her chagrin, she saw Dita's chin
lifted, Dita's nostrils quiver, Dita's shoulders flung back ever so
slightly.

"I think I shall see her." Mrs. Hepworth was on her feet, her voice
cool, firm, pleasant, with just that little warning vibration which
always meant danger. "You may tell Mrs. Wilstead that I will see her
immediately." Her eyes scorched the maid, who hastened to obey, with the
impression of an X-ray having been turned on her immaculate white waist,
and exposing with startling vividness the crisp, green bill hastily
thrust within.

"Come, Maudie," Perdita touched her on the shoulder in passing. "Do not
look so downcast. Why do you wish to deprive me of a little legitimate
amusement?"

Maud, strong now in tardy wisdom, said nothing, and Perdita's light,
quick step might be heard a moment later descending the stairs.

Alice Wilstead turned hastily from her contemplation of the small green
yard without the window.

"My dear Perdita!" She came forward with Dita's note of the day before
in her hand. "I just received this in the morning's mail, and I lost no
time in getting here, I assure you, and making the attempt to see you by
hook or crook. I know it's outrageous of me, but I don't understand, and
I want to understand. Why is it, my dear, that you have refused to take
me? Surely I'm not a hopeless case." She smiled ingratiatingly, and Dita
was bound to admit that never had she appeared more attractive. Her
piquant face was radiant with happiness, the whole effect of her was of
a sort of buoyant joyousness.

Dita's chin was just half an inch higher than when she had left Maud,
her smile was sweet and cold and faint, as remote as if it had been
bestowed upon a passing acquaintance in Mars, and she remained standing.

Mrs. Wilstead's mental recoil was but momentary. Her cause was good, her
motives pure, her courage high. Above everything, she desired the
benefits of Perdita Hepworth's genius. They were on sale, to the high
bidders, and she did not purpose to be excluded merely because it was to
be supposed that she would espouse the cause of her old friend,
Cresswell Hepworth, in the event of open differences between himself and
his wife.

"I regret, Mrs. Wilstead," Dita's voice matched her smile, "that it will
be quite impossible for us to take any one else now. The summer is
almost upon us, you see."

Mrs. Wilstead should not be blamed for not seeing. April, as wind and
sky portended, was about to burst, not into tears, but into a snowstorm.
Alice shivered in her furs.

"Oh, but, my dear child," she begged, "do have some mercy on me. Here am
I getting my trousseau. Oh, no wonder you start. I've always said that
I never, never either would or could do anything so idiotic as to get
married again, and yet here I am not only considering it, but actually
committed to a wedding-day. And that is to be so appallingly soon. I
tried and tried to put it off a little longer, but he is so impatient."

Dita's mouth had frozen, and the haughty and incredulous gaze which she
cast for a brief, indignant moment on Alice would have turned one less
bubblingly gay into a pillar of salt. This interview seemed incredible.
She had always regarded Alice Wilstead as an especially well-bred woman,
but this greed to attain an object at the sacrifice of her self-respect,
even decency of feeling, and regardless of the position in which she
would place the woman with whom she pleaded, was, to Dita, shocking,
insulting, unforgivable. While she waited the fraction of a second to
command her voice, Alice spoke again.

"But you seem angry." She was obviously both hurt and bewildered. "What
have I done? Surely, you will not fail me now at this most crucial
moment of my life. Why, consider, I am going to marry a man five years
younger than myself."

Dita caught at a chair, and sat down, the room seemed to whirl about
her, she pressed her hand to her brow.

"Alice Wilstead," she said, "what on earth do _you_ mean?"

"I mean what I say," returned Alice with a touch of acerbity. "I am
going to be married. What do you mean?"

"But to whom, to whom?" Dita was all impatience.

"To whom? Why, to Hayward Preston, of course. One of your husband's
business associates in the West. Surely you knew that?"

"I wish I had Maud by the throat," muttered Dita irrelevantly.

It was twenty minutes later when Maud put her shocked and disgusted head
within the door.

"Dita," coldly surveying the two enthusiasts before her, who sat
together in jocund amity, "Mrs. Hewston is out here in a state of great
perturbation. Do you wish--"

But she got no further, for Mrs. Hewston, in the superiority of her
greater bulk, pushed Maud into the room before her and now stood, the
picture of pink and white and plump tragedy, on the threshold.

"Oh, Alice, I am glad to find you here," she wailed, advancing further
into the room, while Maud discreetly closed the door, not upon herself,
oh, no, but behind both of them. "You are always such a support." She
sank into the chair Dita pushed toward her. "It's Willoughby, of
course." She drew her handkerchief from her bag and mopped her eyes.

"Perdita Hepworth," she abandoned her spineless attitude and sat
upright, speaking with vehemence. "I am more ashamed of being here than
I can ever make you understand. But Willoughby!" There was resignation
in her uplifted eyes, acidity in the purse of her mouth. "He is the
dearest, most lovable fellow in the world," she looked at her listeners
suspiciously, but meeting no correction, permitted her irritation a
natural outlet, "but he is the most obstinate, stupid mule the Lord ever
made."

"What is it now, dear?" asked Alice sympathetically.

"This, and it's quite enough," returned Mrs. Hewston bitterly.
"Cresswell Hepworth, your husband," accusingly to Dita, "and may Heaven
forgive him, for I never can! dined with us last night and just before
he left, Willoughby got to asking him about his plans and Cresswell was
telling him that he was due in London before long. 'But how much longer
will you be in New York?' asked Willoughby, and Cresswell said, with a
queer little smile, 'I can't quite say. There are a number of things to
be looked after, among others a duel I may have to fight.'"

The women looked at each other in pale horror. Dita herself ghastly,
half rose from her chair.

"I told Willoughby," sobbed Mrs. Hewston, "that it was just one of
Cresswell's jokes. You know that odd, dry humor he sometimes shows,
but," despairingly, "you also know Willoughby. He tore and snorted and
raved and routed all night long. I would rather have had a hippopotamus
in my room. And he excoriated you, Perdita. Called her the most dreadful
names, really," this to Alice and Maud, confidentially and quite as if
Dita were not present. "He said that Cresswell's life was ruined
because of the caprices of an ungodly, wanton girl. Yes, Dita, I don't
blame you for being angry, but it was worse than that, too. You see,
he's got the idea firmly into his head that Cresswell is going to fight
a duel with Eugene Gresham and--"

"For goodness sake, let us keep our common sense," said Mrs. Wilstead,
laying a detaining hand on Dita's shoulder, noting that Mrs. Hepworth's
eyes were turned longingly toward the telephone. "You know perfectly
well, Isabel, you know, Maud, and you, also, Dita, that Cresswell
Hepworth does not for one moment contemplate anything so crazy. Nothing
could induce him to put either himself or you, Dita, into such a
position. Such a thing would be entirely against his nature. He would
regard it as farcical melodrama, turn from it even in thought with
infinite contempt and scorn. The idea of Willoughby thinking such a
thing. Just like him. Meddlesome idiot. Ah, I don't care, Isabel, you
know he is one. I wish I had him here now."

"He's out there in the motor," wept his wife. "He was afraid I wouldn't
come and tell Perdita unless he came with me. But, Alice, you shan't
speak of him so, he's the best--"

"He's still there," interrupted Maud, who had gone to peer from the
window at Mrs. Hewston's announcement that this watch-dog of Dita's
morals waited without, "with his head out of the window looking up at
the house. And, oh, Heavens!" falling back against the lintel, "here is
Eugene Gresham coming up the steps, and Mr. Hewston is glaring at him
until his eyes are standing out of his head. He is purple in the face.
Now he is speaking to the chauffeur. Why, they are off, gone like the
wind."

Mrs. Hewston fell back limply in her chair. She seemed incapable of
speech for a moment. "Alice," she said at last, in awe-stricken tones,
"he has gone to tell Cress that Eugene Gresham is here."

"Well, what of it?" snapped Mrs. Wilstead. "Cresswell will only laugh at
him and smooth him down. You know that."

"I hope so," breathed Mrs. Hewston. "He seems to amuse Cresswell. Fancy.
But then," more understandingly, "he doesn't have to live with him."



CHAPTER XXII

HEPWORTH MISUNDERSTANDS


Dita's fears calmed by Mrs. Wilstead's essentially common-sense point of
view, her confidence was further restored by Eugene's evident ignorance
of any plots and plans on Mr. Cresswell Hepworth's part of bringing this
triangular situation, involving himself, his wife and the other man, to
a fiction-hallowed and moss-grown conclusion.

It was therefore without particular apprehension, at any rate
apprehensions of the kind nourished by Mr. Hewston, that she dressed for
the dinner _en tête-à-tête_ with her husband. It was rather with a sense
of mounting interest, even excitement.

She wavered in her choice of a gown, scanning with hypercritical eye a
dozen or more. White savored of a school-girl simplicity and disarmed
her if she chose to be subtle. Blue was unbecoming; sufficient taboo.
"Green's forsaken and yellow's forsworn," she murmured ruefully. Black
remained, thin, soft-falling gauze, distinguished, distinctive,
exquisite in design and effect; above its shadow rose her neck of cream,
her hair was the dusk shadow of copper, her eyes were darkly brilliant.

She hesitated at jewels. He had given her so many. Which would go best
with her gown? Then she turned away from even the mental contemplation
of them with a feeling of distaste. She could not, even to please him,
wear his jewels when he and she were almost strangers, when but the
details of their final parting remained to be settled. And yet would it
not look a bit odd to appear without any ornaments whatever?

She considered the matter a moment, and then smiling a little, she
opened the box which Gresham had given into her hands that morning, and
which lay upon her dressing-table.

She turned over this old trinket in her hand, and gazed at it, forgetful
of the passing time. How impressive Eugene had been when he had returned
it to her!

[Illustration: She gazed at the old trinket.]

"I am only lending it to you, remember that, for you will give it to me
with your heart's love, Dita, and soon."

She was roused from her reverie by the sound of a motor stopping
without. Her maid waited to place a black and gold wrap about her
shoulders. "One moment," said Dita. Quickly she slipped the amulet on a
thin, old-fashioned gold chain and fastened it about her throat. Then
she went downstairs to greet her husband.

Commonplaces of the most conventional and banal order they talked.
Nothing else on the drive to the restaurant, nothing else on first
taking their seats at the table on one side of the great garish room.
There were many curious eyes on them, necks craned, the incredulous
whisper ran:

"Mr. and Mrs. Cresswell Hepworth actually together! What does it mean!"

The stereotyped babbling went on intermittently, until dinner had been
ordered and the earlier courses come and gone, and then Dita suddenly
awoke to the fact that her husband had taken the conversation into his
own hands and was actually talking to her. Oh, of course, he had often
talked to her before, arranged new amusements for her, discussed what
jewels she would like, what plays she would care to see, what people
interested her most, what journey she would enjoy.

But now, she almost caught her breath at the surprise of it, he was
talking to her as if she were a man, or at least an intelligent human
being and not just merely--a pretty woman.

He was talking straight ahead, discussing business matters, several
interesting problems which had come up in his affairs during his recent
western sojourn. He did not pause to explain anything to her, quite took
it for granted that she would understand. He did not apparently stop to
consider whether she was interested or amused, and that pleased her
enormously. She began to ask questions, and he answered them fully, even
pondering some of them carefully before replying. One he considered for
a moment or so and then said: "Do you know, I had not thought of that
before, that puts a new phase upon the whole situation." Her strand of
rubies had never given Dita such a glow of pride and pleasure.

"Ah, why have you never talked to me like this before?" she asked
naïvely. "Think of all the stupid dinners we've eaten together when you
treated me like a tiresome little girl who had to be continually amused,
and I was one, too; as tongue-tied and missish as anything, because you
took it for granted that I was."

"No one could accuse you of being either tongue-tied or missish
to-night. You are quite matronly in that black gown."

"Oh, I love to hear about the big things that go on," she said
enthusiastically, if irrelevantly, "but men will never talk to me about
them. All my life, whenever I'd try really to talk sense to a man, he'd
say, 'What wonderful eyes you have,' showing that he hadn't heard one
word I'd been saying. They always seem to think that I expect them to
tell me how lovely I am. It's the curse of the pretty woman."

"Oh, well, console yourself," he said carelessly. "There are prettier
women in the world than you, quantities of them!"

"I--I--suppose so." Dita had rarely been so taken aback. She looked at
him a moment like some insulted queen. His eyes, however, were
discreetly downcast. "Oh, of course," she said as quickly as she could
recover her breath, "of course," her laugh was forced and rang hollowly.

"Oh, yes, don't let your beauty get on your nerves. The world is full of
beautiful women. My new amulet--I told you that I had a new one, did I
not?--was given me by one of the most beautiful women I ever saw. I have
her picture somewhere. I must show it to you."

Mr. Cresswell Hepworth was entirely without design in his choice of
topics. He had spoken of some of his great western enterprises because
his mind had been more or less occupied with them during the day, and
had been so surprised and pleased that these subjects had gained his
wife's interests that he had continued the discussion of them. Again, in
his seeming disparagement of her beauty, he had merely thought to
console her for what she regarded as the constant belittling of her
mental endowment, evidently a sore spot in her consciousness.

Dita played with her fork a moment without answering his last remark.
She had no right to feel either resentment or irritation. Her sense of
justice assured her of that, but she suffered a twinge of both emotions,
nevertheless.

"Wallace Martin tells me that good old Hewston made an awful scene when
those distorted pictures of Fuschia Fleming and myself appeared in the
paper." Hepworth laughed more heartily than usual.

"Oh, do not mention that unspeakable old creature!" she cried
petulantly. "Tell me of more interesting things."

"Dita," he spoke to her more earnestly, more self-revealingly she felt
than he had ever done before, "I am going to tell you something. When I
went west last winter, it was not alone because I was called thither by
various business affairs, but because, after thinking the matter all
over, I definitely decided that the only thing for me to do was to
relieve you of my presence. I was convinced that, although you might not
be fully conscious of it, still in the depths of your heart you really
loved Gresham. I was also convinced that I loved you infinitely, and
that it was quite beyond my power to interest you. But since my return I
find myself at sea. The moment I saw you I saw the difference in you,
the change that made me revise my former crude, stupid estimates of you.
I realize that you are the sort of woman who must have an object, a
purpose in life, an expression; in fact, that you set little store by
the beauty others praise extravagantly, because it has always been
yours. You value it no more than one values the sun and wind. It is
achievement that fascinates you, isn't it?"

"Ah, yes, but I had failed, you know, and I was afraid to try again. I
knew that you were doing big things, but you never would talk of them to
me, and I thought that you considered me too stupid to understand them."

"Dita, how blindly we have misunderstood each other. Is it too late?" He
whispered the words as he put her wrap about her shoulders, his voice
ardent, impassioned as she had never heard it.

She cast one astonished, almost frightened glance upon him. Then, as in
a daze, a dream, walked down the room, never seeing the admiring eyes
that everywhere met her. She might have been in the desert, as far as
they were concerned.

As the door of the motor closed on them a panic of shyness seized her.
"You, you spoke of your new amulet," she said, snatching at a topic.
"Have you it with you?"

"Yes. But I do not know whether you can get a very good idea of it in
these shifting lights."

He took the case from his pocket and, lifting out the ornament, gave it
into her hands. It was fashioned of half a dozen uncut diamonds in a
setting of the most delicate and exquisite filigree.

"Old Spanish, you see," he said.

"Beautiful!" she exclaimed, turning it over and looking at it more
closely. But the attention she was bestowing upon it was a mere seeming.
She was thinking, or rather attempting to think, but her heart was
fluttering wildly, her whole impulsive nature seemed to impel her to the
action she was meditating.

"Cresswell," she lifted a face white as a snowdrop to his, "will you
make an exchange with me? Will you give me this amulet and take mine?"

"Perdita!" he cried, "you do not--" his voice broke.

"Yes, I do," she exclaimed, "it is not a wild whim, a caprice on my
part. I have been thinking about it all day, ever since this morning."

"This morning!" sharply; looking at her keenly, quickly. "Ah," with a
long breath, "it was this morning that Hewston drove poor Isabel to your
house to prevent the duel between Gresham and myself." He laughed, but
it was dreary mirth. "Hewston is a most imaginative fellow. I have a
railway deal on which I spoke of to him as a duel. And so, you were
going to sacrifice yourself in order to make quite sure that I would
spare Eugene. Oh, rest content, Perdita. He is quite safe from my
poignard or pistol. Never fear."

It seemed to her that the satire in his voice bit into her soul. With a
great gasp of relief she realized that the car had stopped before her
door. "Oh, take your amulet," she cried, "since you will not have mine."
She almost threw it at him.

He thought that she was angry and sullen as she walked up the steps and
into the house without a word to him, and with the barest inclination
of the head. In reality, she was striving hard to control her sobs.



CHAPTER XXIII

ITS ANCIENT CHARM


The hour which Dita had set for her appointment with Cresswell Hepworth
was twelve the next morning, consequently she was not only surprised but
perturbed when Eugene's name was brought to her a little after eleven.

He looked haggard, she thought, as if he had not slept, but his eyes
were brighter than usual.

"Good morning, Queen of the May," he cried, coming forward to take both
her hands in his as she came through the doorway. "Did you know, by the
way, that this is May day? Ah," his eyes fastening themselves on the
crystal amulet gleaming against her white gown, "you have it still. That
was what disturbed me and drove slumber from my eyelids during the long
night. He is a strong man, a very able and masterful man and he wants
that amulet and you, Dita, and I feared--oh, you know how things appear
in the dead of night, what monstrous and fantastic ideas come to one."

"You might have saved your fears and your fancies," she answered with a
delicately ironical smile. "He does not want me. He would, I think, like
the amulet. Nevertheless, he declined it."

"Then you offered it to him? Really!"

"Yes," the irony still in her voice. "You were a better prophet than you
dreamed, Eugene, you predicted exactly what happened. I offered it to
him and he declined." Her voice faltered.

"Naturally," laughing, "what else could he do under the circumstances?
Even he, with all a collector's greed, would hardly care for a gift
which is supposed to be invariably accompanied by the heart's love of
the donor. He knew, poor wretch, that all he was getting was the bit of
glass, while the heart's love was mine, for ever and ever mine."

His voice sank to those musical cadences which ever prove so enthralling
to the ear. And Dita, who loved music and beauty and romance, smiled
dreamily. But doubt, like a shadow, lay in her eyes and about her
mouth.

"No," she cried, "oh, I do not know, Eugene. When I am with you, you
throw a glamour over me. I believe that I am just on the eve of loving
you--that any minute you will say the word which will make me fully
realize that I do, but as soon as you leave me, Eugene, the moment
passes."

"It is because you are perplexed, worried about this other matter, that
is all, dearest. When that is settled and you are free, then I will
sweep away at once and for ever all these doubts in your mind, sweep
them away as if they were cobwebs."

"Will you? Perhaps," but she shook her head as if only half convinced.
"Hush! What is that! I think it was the bell of the outer door. You must
go at once, Eugene. Cresswell was to be here at twelve o'clock. It must
be quite that now."

"And I have no desire to meet him." He picked up his hat. "I will step
through the little back room into the hall, and thence out. I dare say
you and he have some final arrangements to make. Is that it, eh?"

She nodded, but without looking at him. Her face had grown very pale and
the hand which she placed on the tall back of a chair to steady herself
trembled a little.

Her ears had not deceived her, it was Hepworth's ring--and the echo of
Eugene's retreating footsteps had barely died away before a maid drew a
curtain and Hepworth crossed the threshold.

If he upon his arrival had at once noticed a subtle but marked change in
Perdita, she now was struck by an equally vital and informing alteration
in him. He had always seemed to her before as one who leaned back in an
automobile and merely dictated the directions the chauffeur was to take,
but now he was the man who was driving his car himself, at unlawful
speed, and keeping quite cool and collected during the performance.

He took the chair opposite the one in which she had seated herself, and
she noticed a flicker of a smile across his face as his eye caught the
amulet hung about her neck, a tender, humorous, sad little smile.

"Yes, I am still wearing it," she said, as if in answer to some question
of his, "and I have had the box containing the others brought down here.
It is there on that table in the corner." She spoke with a bravado
which only half concealed her embarrassment.

He glanced toward it indifferently. "Then we will fasten my new one in
the space left vacant by yours," his swift, delightful smile came and
went, transforming his face for the moment like a gleam of sunlight, but
although brilliant, it was sad, sad as all regret, and Dita, seeing it,
felt some wild, momentary impulse to beseech forgiveness, she could not
tell exactly for what.

The amulet, her old bit of crystal, was swinging at the end of a long
chain, and, a little embarrassed, she lifted it in her hand and gazed at
it mechanically, turning it this way and that to catch the different
reflections of light.

"Did you know that we are lawbreakers, you and I, Dita?" asked Hepworth
with another smile, "meeting to discuss the details of a properly
arranged divorce? Well, my dear, it will not rest particularly heavy on
my conscience if it makes things easier for you in the least degree.
Your lawyers will instruct you just what to do, but there is one matter
which I wish to discuss with you personally, and that is some
settlements.

"Why, Dita," breaking off sharply and starting to his feet, "what is the
matter? Are you ill?"

Indeed he was justified in thinking so. She had grown white as snow. The
color had left even her lips.

"No," she spoke with an effort, but she lifted her head, as if by main
strength of will. "No," and he was infinitely relieved to see a bit of
color creep back into her lips, but the eyes she courageously raised to
his were dark with an emotion which he could only translate as fear or
horror, he could not tell which.

"Have I offended you, then?" he murmured. "Believe me--"

"No, no," she insisted so definitely that he was forced to believe her.
"It was something quite different. Something, something I just
remembered."

She was manifestly so confused and disturbed that he did not press the
point. It would have seemed both unkind and unwise to do so, and then,
although her eyes still retained that curiously shocked, almost
horror-stricken expression, the color had returned to her cheek.

"You were saying?" she began, her voice steady enough now. "Oh, yes, I
remember, about the money." Those deep vibrations of emotion thrilled
her tones. "Well, I won't have it. Won't touch it. I will not hear of
settlements. I can make enough for my needs."

He lifted his eyes and looked at her quickly and then the eyelids almost
closed. Perdita was under very close observation.

"Naturally, I do not for a moment dispute that. It is a fact already
proven, but it is my wish to remove the necessity from you. Your
occupation will then continue to be a source of amusement, of interest
to you, but you will not feel that it is your sole dependence."

She shook her head with a sort of irrevocable gentleness with which he
could not fail to be struck.

"No," she said, "it is really quite useless to discuss the matter.
Truly, Cresswell, I will not even consider it."

"But, Dita," he began, then paused a moment as if to make a choice of
arguments, desirous of using at once the most potent and evidently
preparing to undermine and break down the barriers of her decision if it
took a month.

She forestalled him, however, with a quick flank movement. She rose to
her feet. "Cresswell," she said, "I promised you last night that I would
discuss this matter with you this morning, but now," there was the least
hesitation in her voice, "I am going to ask a favor. I dined with you
last night, now will you dine with me to-night? Will you? There will
only be Miss Fleming and her father, and she will just sit at the table
a few minutes, she never dines before playing; Wallace Martin and Maud,
and they are going somewhere, so you and I will have the leisure of a
long evening to discuss all the pros and cons of this question, your
side and mine. Will you come?"

She was looking at him so earnestly, there was something so strange in
the depths of her dark eyes, that he felt tempted on the moment to beg
an explanation of this postponement. Then, as quickly he relinquished
it.

"I shall be delighted to come," he said heartily. "And if to-night you
are in no mood to talk over dry details, we will put it off again until
a more convenient season."

"No." Her tone was positive. "I am quite sure that we will come to one
decision or another this evening. Good-by."

When the curtain at the door had fallen behind him, Dita sat down again.
She did not seem to be thinking or mentally engaged in any way whatever.
On the contrary, she seemed to be waiting, two or three minutes passed,
five. Still she waited. Ah, a bitter smile hovered for one moment around
her lips. Her whole tense figure relaxed a little as if the moment which
she had so confidently expected had come.

There was the sound of the shutting of the outer door in the small room
to the left, then a halting step across the bare and polished floor.
Eugene's step. He paused a moment in the doorway leading into the larger
room, but as Dita did not turn nor give any sign whatever of having
heard him, he came on.

"Back again, you see," he said. "I saw Hepworth leaving the house just
as I came about the corner up here, so I knew the coast was clear. May I
sit down?"

For the first time Dita looked at him. He was unmistakably not of the
same temper in which he had left her an hour before. The buoyancy and
spring of him had vanished. His eyes were clouded, his mouth depressed,
certain lines on his brow and about his mouth stood out more markedly
than usual. In fact, he seemed to have halted midway in some mood
between dismay and anger. And as Dita observed this, there again played
about her mouth for one instant that same, sad, bitter, secretive smile.

She had leaned back in her chair as if prepared to remain some time, but
she made no effort whatever to carry on a conversation or even to embark
on one.

The frown deepened on Eugene's brow. This attitude on her part was
evidently irritating to him.

"Everything settled, Dita, and satisfactorily?"

"What do you mean by satisfactorily?" she asked, letting a moment or
two lapse between his question and her answer.

"I mean everything arranged in your favor," he replied with a short
laugh. "He is rather sure to do that, you know. He likes to do things
with the grand air."

"Oh, no, Eugene, it is you who like to affect the grand air. With him it
is natural."

He looked up at her quickly. "It sounds, it sounds," he said, "as if you
might possibly be on the verge of a sirocco. Don't Dita, I implore you.
I am off the key myself."

"Why?" she asked.

He lifted his shoulders. "Ah, that I do not know."

"I refused any alimony, Eugene," she said abruptly.

"What! Oh, Dita, you must not! Why, it is the height of folly! My dear
child, it is quixotic to the verge of idiocy." All his moodiness had
vanished. He was arguing her case fervently enough now. "You have had
your head turned by the success you and Maud have enjoyed in this
venture this winter, but that is purely ephemeral. You were a fad, a
novelty. How long do such things last in New York? And here is Hepworth
willing and anxious to endow you with houses and lands. Dita," and never
had she heard him plead his love with such fervor, "Dita, you must not
ruin your whole life by a blind whim. You must listen to advice. You
must be guided by your friends in this matter.

"It is true, of course," he continued, "that I make a very large income,
but I lay nothing by. It is impossible. I must keep up an
appearance--the painter prince, and all that sort of thing. It is
expected of me. It is a part of my stock in trade."

"Then you consider, 'Gene," her voice was calmly, reassuringly
reasonable now, "you consider that fully to enjoy life we must both
possess more than an ordinarily large income?"

"Dearest Dita," he bent forward with his tenderest, most ingratiating
smile, "do not for one moment mistake me. I think, I know we could be
happy without a centime between us, but viewing life as it is lived and
considering your tastes and my tastes, the mode of existence to which we
have accustomed ourselves and all that, I think we, like most other
people, would do well to avoid the perilous experiment of comparative
poverty. Whether we wish to believe it or not, really to invest life
with romance and interest and charm requires more than mere imagination,
of which you and I possess an abundant store, Dita. It also requires
money."

"It would require a great deal more than that for me, Eugene," she rose
to her feet now and stood looking at him as if from mountain heights, so
remote and distant she seemed. "Remember the old legend of my
amulet,"--she lifted it and swung it to and fro as she talked,--"that
sooner or later it would force the one who possessed it to reveal
himself in his true character? Well, it has proved its ancient claim.
You apparently possessed it long enough for it to force you to reveal
your true self; or perhaps that was inevitable under any circumstances."

"What do you mean, Dita?" he, too, had sprung to his feet, and stood
facing her, both fear and chagrin in his eyes.

"This," she flung out her hand with the amulet in it; "while I sat here
talking to Cresswell, I was turning this square bit of crystal this way
and that, watching it catch the light. Suddenly, as I held it between my
thumb and forefinger, I saw you, it reflected you quite clearly. You
thrust your head a little forward from the door, down there," indicating
by a gesture the door at the lower end of the room, "anxious to hear the
better what Cresswell was saying and quite sure from the position of our
chairs that we could not see you. Then I sent him away and waited. I
knew, I knew instinctively, that you would do just as you did, Eugene,
and--so I waited. I knew that I should hear that outer door close, that
I should hear you walk across the floor, I knew it."

The moments pulsed like heartbeats between them.

"I shall not deny it," he said at last, "but Dita, Dita, I did it for
you. I felt that you would follow some quixotic course, which you would
regret for a lifetime. I know so well your mad, impulsive recklessness.
Oh, Dita," he stretched out his arms to her.

There was no responsive movement on her part. She stood mute, immovable,
eyes downcast, as if she could not bear to look upon his humiliation.

The long chain had slipped through her fingers, and the amulet swung at
the end of it, to and fro between herself and him, like the pendulum of
an inflexible fate.

"Dita," his voice was irresistibly appealing, "you will not thrust me
thus out of your heart, oh, not for this!"

"You never had a place in my heart, Eugene, I know that now."

She swept across the floor, but as she put up her hand to pull aside the
curtain before the door, she paused. "I--I'm sorry, Eugene," she
faltered and by an effort of will lifted her eyes to him at last.

But they fell neither on the shamed nor the conquered. His head was
thrown back, his eyes met hers. He was smiling, and his smile held
unfathomable things. It spoke of a spirit eternally young and yet which
had felt the weary weight of all dead and crumbling centuries. It was
sad, disillusioned, yet eagerly joyous. It had tasted all things and
found them vanity, yet pursued an unending quest with infinite zest.

"Dear Dita," he murmured, "never doubt that I loved you, love you still,
but as the artist loves, not the plodder. You or any woman can only be
to him the 'shadow of the idol of his thought,' the mere symbol of
beauty, but what he really loves, Dita, is beauty's self."

[Illustration: Before she knew it, his arms were about her.]

He spoke now with a sincerity almost stern. "You or all the world may
think me false," his head lifted lightly, "it is nothing to me. To the
one thing I know as truth I am eternally true. I really, fundamentally
do not care that," he snapped his fingers, "for the rest of the show. I
have always the dream and before me lies the great achievement. So out
of your house, out of your life, out of your heart I go." He came near
her as he spoke, his voice was like music. Before she knew it, his arms
were about her and he was kissing her hair, where the copper shadows
rippled into gold above her temple. "Beautiful and still loved Perdita!
Good-by."



CHAPTER XXIV

WAITING FOR PERDITA


Perdita committed an unpardonable social sin that evening. She, the
hostess, was late in her own house. In fact she had sent down word that
they were to begin dinner without her.

The three of them then, Maud, Wallace Martin and Hepworth were sitting
gazing at one another in a rather mournful and embarrassed fashion, when
Mr. and Miss Fleming were announced. Fuschia had stipulated that she was
only to remain with them until the appearance of the roast. That was the
signal for her departure, the definite limit of her stay. She was due at
the theater before eight and it was her custom never to eat anything
before the evening performance. This was the first time any of the group
had seen her since her tremendous success of a few evenings before.

"Hands up!" she called from the doorway, her gay, delicious voice
pealing through the room, "hands up, I say," making an imaginary pistol
of her thumb and forefinger and covering the three. "I don't want either
your money or your life, but I do insist upon seeing who has blisters on
his hands. I shall accept no other proof of friendship."

Hepworth and Martin promptly held up their hands. "I'm entitled to first
honors," said Hepworth, "I've sprained both wrists, can't write my
signature and have to have my food cut up for me."

"My hands," said Wallace Martin proudly, "are trained. They no longer
show wear and tear. You could drive a dagger against them and it would
splinter harmlessly. From long practice in trying to make my own plays
go by virtue of my own applause they have acquired the substance and
fiber of hickory."

"But dear Miss Fleming," cried Maud, "I deserve more credit than they,
for I recklessly sacrificed my most beautiful fan. When the curtain went
down for the last time and we climbed off our seats and stopped howling,
I held in my hand a limp shred of something and discovered that I had
beaten my poor, exquisite, fragile fan to bits."

Fuschia's eyes were full of starry twinkles, her smile was a revelation
of joyousness. She drew a long, ecstatic breath, "Boys and girls, it was
nice, wasn't it?"

"Nice!" exclaimed Hepworth pushing a chair forward for her, "Nice! Is
that the only word you can find to express your pleasure in the fact
that the curtain rose thirty times amid continuous cheers, and New York
simply took you to her heart and hugged you?"

"Good old New York! She knew her own little Fuschia by the strawberry
mark on her left arm, didn't she? I heard Caruso sing for the first time
the other afternoon, and when they asked me afterward how I liked it, I
said I only knew of one thing more heavenly and that was the sound of a
great audience clapping and shouting. There's no music like that."

Dinner was announced, and Maud, with a slightly worried expression,
began explaining to Fuschia that Perdita had been detained; but as they
moved toward the door, Hepworth noticed that Fleming had not stirred
from the remote corner he had sought upon entering the room.

"Jim, what is the matter?" said Hepworth with some concern; "you haven't
interrupted Fuschia once since she came in and you know it's always a
neck and neck race between you to see which can talk the faster?"

"He's been asleep," said Fuschia, taking her seat at the table. "Poor
papa! the gay life, you know!"

Fleming eyed her indignantly across the bank of primroses in the center
of the board. "The gay life! I've had no sleep since I struck New York,
that's true. I've had to keep going, and take these poor little
pick-me-ups of cat-naps whenever I can get them; but why? For a week
before this great first night, I had to sit up with Fuschia and hold her
hand and tell her what an unparalleled success she was going to have and
then that night, after all the excitement and anxiety I suffered as her
father, and the exhaustion incident upon being first _claqueur_, why she
drove me out into the cold, damp, rainy streets with one of your New
York blizzards just setting in, to buy her the first morning papers,
and since then I've had to celebrate her triumph. I'll tell you what it
is, friends, I'm a raveled sleeve of care and no kind sleep to knit me
up."

"Do you know what has really happened?" said Fuschia, in calm
explanation. "Dear papa can't help putting in those Dumas and Poe
touches, but come to me for the straight truth. It's really the funniest
thing about papa. His luck always comes right along with mine. Now what
do you think?"

"He's made a million since he came to New York," said Wallace Martin.

"Lost the other fellow's million, you mean," said Hepworth with feeling.

"Wrong. It's the most unexpected thing you ever dreamed of," Fuschia's
voice was triumphant, "papa's got a social success. Yes," nodding
impressively, "just look at him closely and you'll see that he's lost
his natural, unconscious man-look. He now has a drawing-room-pet
expression and he's wearing his hair differently, and throwing out his
chest. Oh, you needn't laugh, Mr. Hepworth, it's true. 'Hyperion curls,
the front of Jove himself.' When we were coming on I determined that I
would always be very kind to papa. I'd never neglect nor ignore him, no
matter how famous I became; but, of course, he'd just be Fuschia
Fleming's father. But what are the real facts of the case? Father sits
in the seats of the mighty, flattered by great ladies and avoids mention
of his humble actress daughter. King Cophetua and the chorus girl!"

"I had to come to New York to find out that the feminine boycott against
me wasn't complete," said Mr. Fleming with emotion. "I tell you, Hep,
it's a wonderful experience suddenly to realize that the entire crew of
petticoats the world over don't look at you as if they all had glass
eyes in their heads instead of real ones."

"How do you account for it, Jim?" asked Hepworth.

"From camp to court, my boy, has ever been but a step, although
sometimes it's a mighty long one," returned Fleming oratorically. "Now
this is the way I've explained it to myself. You see, I've got that
wild, free, above-timber-line flavor about me that simply locos the type
of woman that keeps husband hobbled to a stake under the big tree by
the back porch where she can keep an eye on him from the kitchen
windows. Now, personally, the catnip and parsley kind of woman never did
appeal to me; but these New York orchids are different. They know how to
appreciate the Rocky Mountain edelweiss, and seem grateful to me for
taking their husbands off their hands now and then. And they're so
interested, too, in the little every-day incidents of an old
prospector's life."

"You just ought to hear papa Othelloize those Ophelias," said Fuschia,
deftly seizing the first opportunity to get into the conversation.
"He'll tell them about being carried down a thousand feet in a mighty
snowslide and escaping unhurt, and of the fabulous properties he's
discovered, and of frequent encounters with enormous grizzlies, where
he'll tap them lightly on the jaw and advise them to hasten home and
then if they get too familiar, he gives them a twist of the wrist that
sends them howling back to the woods."

"Fuschia," said her father sternly, "you talk entirely too much, and
there's a day of reckoning coming for you. Just wait till you get to
London. There you'll be sneaking in at the back door and eating a cold
biscuit in the pantry while you're waiting to do a few recitations for
the ladies and gentlemen; while I'll be sailing in to dinner with a
belted earless on one arm and a tiaraed duchess on the other."

"I'm afraid I see your finish, Jim," sighed Hepworth. "You'll end as a
leader of cotillions. Your head is badly turned."

"There's no denying, Hep, that we are apt to set and undue value on what
we've never had, and these late-blooming feminine smiles are like a
bottle of champagne in the desert."

"Oh, dear, here is the roast," cried Fuschia disconsolately, "and
Cinderella must run away. Is there no hope of seeing Mrs. Hepworth this
evening?" turning to Maud.

Maud hesitated a moment, then, "I really do not know," she confessed
frankly, "she--she has not been particularly well all day." She simply
could not plead for Perdita the conventional bad headache while
Hepworth's steady eyes were fixed upon her.

Fuschia, who happened to be looking at him, saw a quick shade of
disappointment pass over his face, and her impulsive sympathy was roused
by the depth and poignancy of that immediately suppressed emotion. She
threw herself into the breach.

"Oh, I want dreadfully to see her to-night about the gown I am to wear
when I play the scheming adventuress next week. We were to have decided
it to-night. She is thinking of putting me in green instead of the usual
black with touches of scarlet, and the accustomed badge of the
adventuress, high-heeled scarlet slippers. And I am so anxious to know
if Mrs. Hepworth has decided upon green, a wonderful, wicked, dazzling
green, with strange blue lights in the shadows. Oh, may I send a message
and ask her to see me just a moment?"

But before Maud could answer, Perdita entered the room. She pleaded the
usual headache, which Maud had so carefully avoided, and that threadbare
social fiction was for once upheld and substantiated. Dita's appearance
fully bore it out. Her face was pale, her eyes heavy. She promised,
however, to give a full consideration to the question of Fuschia's green
gown the next morning, and the actress who had already overstayed the
limits of the time she had allotted herself prepared to take her
departure.

"Oh," she cried from the door, "I forgot to announce my two important
bits of good news. Mr. Martin is going to write me a comedy and Eugene
Gresham is going to paint my portrait."

A faint smile hovered for one moment about Perdita's lips. "When did
Eugene make his request?" she asked in her usual low tones, although her
head lifted suddenly.

"This afternoon," replied Fuschia, and Dita's smile deepened. "And he is
going to give me a fête in his studio."

"The usual ball in the artist's studio?" laughed Maud looking at Martin.

"Don't you dream it," Fuschia laughed irrepressibly, also; "not the
stage kind with its crowd of maskers. This is to be patterned after an
afternoon among the great artists in Japan. You wear Japanese things and
crawl through a little door into a room with nothing in it but just one
perfect flower in a perfect vase, and we will all sit on the floor and
drink tea."

"It sounds very much like him," said Maud, "but is it true Wallace that
you are really going to do a play for Miss Fleming?"

"It happily is," said Martin, "a comedy."

"Not a problem play?" The light of hope dawned in Miss Carmine's eyes.

"Oh, dear me, no," cried Fuschia; "and he's going to write it just as he
talks."

"I'd very much prefer to have you talk it as I write," said Martin, but
she had already vanished.

In a very few minutes the others followed her example, Fleming leaving
the house with Maud and Wallace.



CHAPTER XXV

WITH MY HEART'S LOVE


Scarcely had the hall door closed behind them when Hepworth turned to
Dita inquiringly. "Would you not very much prefer that I left you?" he
asked. "I can see that you are not well, and we can discuss anything
that remains to be talked over at any other time."

"No," she shook her head, "I am quite well. I have not even the headache
I claimed, and I must, indeed I must, talk to you to-night."

"But if our conversation this morning so upset and unnerved you," he
urged, "would it not be wise to defer this?"

"Our conversation didn't," she replied with emphasis. "It was another
conversation. Cresswell, will you answer me a question or two?"

"Anything you wish to know," he replied.

She got up, and, after a fashion she sometimes showed, perhaps
unconsciously copied from him, began to walk restlessly up and down,
occasionally stopping to pick up and examine some ornament quite as if
she had never happened to notice it before.

She had picked up a small jade vase from the mantelpiece and was now
bestowing upon it what appeared to be an exhaustive observation. In
reality she was hardly conscious that she held it in her hand.

"Cresswell, why did you marry me?"

He started ever so slightly and then answered unhesitatingly, "Because I
loved you, Dita."

A little spasm of some emotion he could not fathom passed over her face.
"It was not because you wished to see how the flower blooming in a tin
can in a tenement window would bloom in a wonderful lacquered vase in a
marble court? It was not from curiosity or pity, Cresswell?"

"It was love, Dita."

Again that wave of emotion over her face, and then she looked about her
with sad, tear-wet eyes and a trembling mouth.

"And my caprices, my stupidity, my inadequacy, soon destroyed that?"

"Never," he repeated. "Believe that. I was no gardener trying
experiments. It was the flower I loved, Dita; the flower whose happiness
I longed for, whose happiness I still long for. You do not need my love,
do not care for it, why should you? But give me the happiness of still
being able to assure for you the marble courts and the lacquered vases."

The little jade vase dropped from her fingers and fell unheeded to the
rug at her feet. The tears were pouring now, down her white face. She
made no effort either to conceal or to staunch them.

"Ah, blind and wasteful creature that I am!" she cried. "Why, why should
you have chosen to love me?"

She stepped toward him and with both hands unwound the slender
old-fashioned gold chain from her throat. She lifted her face,
quivering, broken with feeling, and still streaming with tears, to his.
She held out the amulet toward him. "Cresswell," poignantly, "will you
take this now, my old talisman, with my heart's love?"

He made one quick movement as if to take her in his arms and hold her
close, close to his heart for ever. His face was irradiated, his cold
eyes glowed with a warmth and fire that more mercurial and mutable
natures can never know.

Then the light went out of his eyes and face. It did not fade, it was as
if it were extinguished by some strong effort of will. His arms fell to
his sides.

"My dear, my dear," his voice trembled, "how like your sweet, generous,
prodigal nature! I see it all now, the reason for your pallor and heavy
eyes. You have spent the day, since I left you this morning, in accusing
and denouncing yourself until you have reached the frame of mind where
you can only appease your offended and tyrannical conscience by some act
of high sacrifice. And do you think I would accept it, poor, heroic,
overwrought Dita? All day," that swift, flashing, heart-breaking smile
of his gleamed a moment, "you have been convicting yourself of
ingratitude, merely because I was offering you some of my money with
the entirely selfish motive of securing my own happiness."

"You are wrong, wrong," she cried vehemently, passionately. "What can I
do to convince you? Oh, of course, you think that I am a creature of
moods; you have every reason to think so; but what can I do, what can I
say to convince you that I am not speaking from one of them now?"

"Say nothing, dearest," he murmured deeply, soothingly; "say no more. I
shall always remember the sweetness of this moment."

"But I will not have it so," she cried. "You must, you must listen to
me. You think that I love Eugene, that I have always loved Eugene. And I
did not know, I did not know what love was. Eugene is charming and
famous, and there was a sympathy between us, on one side of our natures.
We have the same love of color. It is a passion with us. It spells music
and poetry and all sorts of untranslatable things. It is something
instinctive with us, something we were born with and we see shades and
harmonies and values that other people do not. But this absolute
understanding between us was only on one side of our natures, and yet
sometimes it was so--so encompassing that I thought it embraced them
all. So I did not know my own mind. I was puzzled, confused, always in
doubt. And then, when I began really to--to flirt with Eugene, or so
people construed it, it was when I was beginning to be bored with my
marble court and my lacquered vase. I got so bored with being amused,
just amused all the time."

"Ah, that was where I made my great, my unforgivable mistake," he
interrupted.

"Yes, you made a mistake, in not letting me know you as you really are,"
she conceded, "but then, with all the boredom, I had that sense of
futility, of failure behind me. Failure behind and nothing to look
forward to but an endless succession of marble courts. No beautiful,
dazzling unexpected. Just the same thing over and over and over. And
then you went away and for a time I was frightened and forlorn, so Maud
and I started our venture. Ah!" she clasped her hands together, the
amulet dangling on its chain, "I have told you what work and success
meant to me. You understand that; but gradually, as I got used to it, I
began to see that it wasn't enough. No," she shook her head sadly, "it
wasn't enough--there must be love. But I had got the idea into my head
that it was Eugene who would speak the magic word, that magic word that
I believed in and waited for. Yet all, all the time, from the moment you
left me, you were in my thoughts. You see," with a faint smile, "I
understood Eugene, but you were the unsolvable problem. I was always
thinking about you, trying to understand you, and last night," her face
glowed with a lovely light, "when you talked to me of the big, wonderful
things, when you made me feel that I was an intelligent human being and
not merely a pretty woman, why, my whole heart went out to you and I
knew it was you, you alone that I loved. It is not the man who can
conquer a city, many cities, with his grace and charm and genius. Not he
who can win my poor heart, but the man who can conquer his own spirit.
Ah, Cresswell," she held out the amulet again to him, "will you not take
this now?" "Perdita!" he cried deeply and held her close.


THE END





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