In the front parlor of the Cresslers' house a little company was gathered--Laura Dearborn and Page, Mrs. Wessels, Mrs. Cressler, and young Miss Gretry, an awkward, plain-faced girl of about nineteen, dressed extravagantly in a decollete gown of blue silk. Curtis Jadwin and Cressler himself stood by the open fireplace smoking. Landry Court fidgeted on the sofa, pretending to listen to the Gretry girl, who told an interminable story of a visit to some wealthy relative who had a country seat in Wisconsin and who raised fancy poultry. She possessed, it appeared, three thousand hens, Brahma, Faverolles, Houdans, Dorkings, even peacocks and tame quails.
Sheldon Corthell, in a dinner coat, an unlighted cigarette between his fingers, discussed the spring exhibit of water-colors with Laura and Mrs. Cressler, Page listening with languid interest. Aunt Wess' turned the leaves of a family album, counting the number of photographs of Mrs. Cressler which it contained.
Black coffee had just been served. It was the occasion of the third rehearsal for the play which was to be given for the benefit of the hospital ward for Jadwin's mission children, and Mrs. Cressler had invited the members of the company for dinner. Just now everyone awaited the arrival of the "coach," Monsieur Gerardy, who was always late.
"To my notion," observed Corthell, "the water-color that pretends to be anything more than a sketch over-steps its intended limits. The elaborated water-color, I contend, must be judged by the same standards as an oil painting. And if that is so, why not have the oil painting at once?"
"And with all that, if you please, not an egg on the place for breakfast," declared the Gretry girl in her thin voice. She was constrained, embarrassed. Of all those present she was the only one to mistake the character of the gathering and appear in formal costume. But one forgave Isabel Gretry such lapses as these. Invariably she did the wrong thing; invariably she was out of place in the matter of inadvertent speech, an awkward accident, the wrong toilet. For all her nineteen years, she yet remained the hoyden, young, undeveloped, and clumsy.
"Never an egg, and three thousand hens in the runs," she continued. "Think of that! The Plymouth Rocks had the pip. And the others, my lands! I don't know. They just didn't lay."
"Ought to tickle the soles of their feet," declared Landry with profound gravity.
"Tickle their feet!"
"Best thing in the world for hens that don't lay. It sort of stirs them up. Oh, every one knows that."
"Fancy now! I'll write to Aunt Alice to-morrow."
Cressler clipped the tip of a fresh cigar, and, turning to Curtis Jadwin, remarked:
"I understand that Leaycraft alone lost nearly fifteen thousand."
He referred to Jadwin's deal in May wheat, the consummation of which had been effected the previous week. Squarely in the midst of the morning session, on the day following the "short" sale of Jadwin's million of bushels, had exploded the news of the intended action of the French chamber. Amid a tremendous clamour the price fell. The Bulls were panicstricken. Leaycraft the redoubtable was overwhelmed at the very start. The Porteous trio heroically attempted to shoulder the wheat, but the load was too much. They as well gave ground, and, bereft of their support, May wheat, which had opened at ninety-three and five-eighths to ninety-two and a half, broke with the very first attack to ninety-two, hung there a moment, then dropped again to ninety-one and a half, then to ninety-one. Then, in a prolonged shudder of weakness, sank steadily down by quarters to ninety, to eighty-nine, and at last--a final collapse--touched eighty-eight cents. At that figure Jadwin began to cover. There was danger that the buying of so large a lot might bring about a rally in the price. But Gretry, a consummate master of Pit tactics, kept his orders scattered and bought gradually, taking some two or three days to accumulate the grain. Jadwin's luck--the never-failing guardian of the golden wings--seemed to have the affair under immediate supervision, and reports of timely rains in the wheat belt kept the price inert while the trade was being closed. In the end the "deal" was brilliantly successful, and Gretry was still chuckling over the set-back to the Porteous gang. Exactly the amount of his friend's profits Jadwin did not know. As for himself, he had received from Gretry a check for fifty thousand dollars, every cent of which was net profit.
"I'm not going to congratulate you," continued Cressler. "As far as that's concerned, I would rather you had lost than won--if it would have kept you out of the Pit for good. You're cocky now. I know--good Lord, don't I know. I had my share of it. I know how a man gets drawn into this speculating game"
"Charlie, this wasn't speculating," interrupted Jadwin. "It was a certainty. It was found money. If I had known a certain piece of real estate was going to appreciate in value I would have bought it, wouldn't I?"
"All the worse, if it made it seem easy and sure to you. Do you know," he added suddenly. "Do you know that Leaycraft has gone to keep books for a manufacturing concern out in Dubuque?"
Jadwin pulled his mustache. He was looking at Laura Dearborn over the heads of Landry and the Gretry girl.
"I didn't suppose he'd be getting measured for a private yacht," he murmured. Then he continued, pulling his mustache vigorously:
"Charlie, upon my word, what a beautiful--what beautiful hair that girl has!"
Laura was wearing it very high that evening, the shining black coils transfixed by a strange hand-cut ivory comb that had been her grandmother's. She was dressed in black taffeta, with a single great cabbage-rose pinned to her shoulder. She sat very straight in her chair, one hand upon her slender hip, her head a little to one side, listening attentively to Corthell.
By this time the household of the former rectory was running smoothly; everything was in place, the Dearborns were "settled," and a routine had begun. Her first month in her new surroundings had been to Laura an unbroken series of little delights. For formal social distractions she had but little taste. She left those to Page, who, as soon as Lent was over, promptly became involved in a bewildering round of teas, "dancing clubs," dinners, and theatre parties. Mrs. Wessels was her chaperone, and the little middle-aged lady found the satisfaction of a belated youth in conveying her pretty niece to the various functions that occupied her time. Each Friday night saw her in the gallery of a certain smart dancing school of the south side, where she watched Page dance her way from the "first waltz" to the last figure of the german. She counted the couples carefully, and on the way home was always able to say how the attendance of that particular evening compared with that of the former occasion, and also to inform Laura how many times Page had danced with the same young man.
Laura herself was more serious. She had begun a course of reading; no novels, but solemn works full of allusions to "Man" and "Destiny," which she underlined and annotated. Twice a week--on Mondays and Thursdays--she took a French lesson. Corthell managed to enlist the good services of Mrs. Wessels and escorted her to numerous piano and 'cello recitals, to lectures, to concerts. He even succeeded in achieving the consecration of a specified afternoon once a week, spent in his studio in the Fine Arts' Building on the Lake Front, where he read to them "Saint Agnes Eve," "Sordello," "The Light of Asia"--poems which, with their inversions, obscurities, and astonishing arabesques of rhetoric, left Aunt Wess' bewildered, breathless, all but stupefied.
Laura found these readings charming. The studio was beautiful, lofty, the light dim; the sound of Corthell's voice returned from the thick hangings of velvet and tapestry in a subdued murmur. The air was full of the odor of pastilles.
Laura could not fail to be impressed with the artist's tact, his delicacy. In words he never referred to their conversation in the foyer of the Auditorium; only by some unexplained subtlety of attitude he managed to convey to her the distinct impression that he loved her always. That he was patient, waiting for some indefinite, unexpressed development.
Landry Court called upon her as often as she would allow. Once he had prevailed upon her and Page to accompany him to the matinee to see a comic opera. He had pronounced it "bully," unable to see that Laura evinced only a mild interest in the performance. On each propitious occasion he had made love to her extravagantly. He continually protested his profound respect with a volubility and earnestness that was quite uncalled for.
But, meanwhile, the situation had speedily become more complicated by the entrance upon the scene of an unexpected personage. This was Curtis Jadwin. It was impossible to deny the fact that "J." was in love with Mrs. Cressler's protegee. The business man had none of Corthell's talent for significant reticence, none of his tact, and older than she, a man-of-the-world, accustomed to deal with situations with unswerving directness, he, unlike Landry Court, was not in the least afraid of her. From the very first she found herself upon the defensive. Jadwin was aggressive, assertive, and his addresses had all the persistence and vehemence of veritable attack. Landry she could manage with the lifting of a finger, Corthell disturbed her only upon those rare occasions when he made love to her. But Jadwin gave her no time to so much as think of finesse. She was not even allowed to choose her own time and place for fencing, and to parry his invasion upon those intimate personal grounds which she pleased herself to keep secluded called upon her every feminine art of procrastination and strategy.
He contrived to meet her everywhere. He impressed Mrs. Cressler as auxiliary into his campaign, and a series of rencontres followed one another with astonishing rapidity. Now it was another opera party, now a box at McVicker's, now a dinner, or more often a drive through Lincoln Park behind Jadwin's trotters. He even had the Cresslers and Laura over to his mission Sunday-school for the Easter festival, an occasion of which Laura carried away a confused recollection of enormous canvas mottoes, that looked more like campaign banners than texts from the Scriptures, sheaves of calla lilies, imitation bells of tin-foil, revival hymns vociferated with deafening vehemence from seven hundred distended mouths, and through it all the disagreeable smell of poverty, the odor of uncleanliness that mingled strangely with the perfume of the lilies and the aromatic whiffs from the festoons of evergreen.
Thus the first month of her new life had passed Laura did not trouble herself to look very far into the future. She was too much amused with her emancipation from the narrow horizon of her New England environment. She did not concern herself about consequences. Things would go on for themselves, and consequences develop without effort on her part. She never asked herself whether or not she was in love with any of the three men who strove for her favor. She was quite sure she was not ready--yet--to be married. There was even something distasteful in the idea of marriage. She liked Landry Court immensely; she found the afternoons in Corthell's studio delightful; she loved the rides in the park behind Jadwin's horses. She had no desire that any one of these affairs should exclude the other two. She wished nothing to be consummated. As for love, she never let slip an occasion to shock Aunt Wess' by declaring:
"I love--nobody. I shall never marry."
Page, prim, with great parades of her ideas of "good form," declared between her pursed lips that her sister was a flirt. But this was not so. Laura never manoeuvered with her lovers, nor intrigued to keep from any one of them knowledge of her companionship with the other two. So upon such occasions as this, when all three found themselves face to face, she remained unperturbed.
At last, towards half-past eight, Monsieur Gerardy arrived. All through the winter amateur plays had been in great favor, and Gerardy had become, in a sense, a fad. He was in great demand. Consequently, he gave himself airs. His method was that of severity; he posed as a task-master, relentless, never pleased, hustling the amateur actors about without ceremony, scolding and brow-beating. He was a small, excitable man who wore a frock-coat much too small for him, a flowing purple cravatte drawn through a finger ring, and enormous cuffs set off with huge buttons of Mexican onyx. In his lapel was an inevitable carnation, dried, shrunken, and lamentable. He was redolent of perfume and spoke of himself as an artist. He caused it to be understood that in the intervals of "coaching society plays" he gave his attention to the painting of landscapes. Corthell feigned to ignore his very existence.
The play-book in his hand, Monsieur Gerardy clicked his heels in the middle of the floor and punctiliously saluted everyone present, bowing only from his shoulders, his head dropping forward as if propelled by successive dislocations of the vertebrae of his neck.
He explained the cause of his delay. His English was without accent, but at times suddenly entangled itself in curious Gallic constructions.
"Then I propose we begin at once," he announced. "The second act to-night, then, if we have time, the third act--from the book. And I expect the second act to be letter-perfect--let-ter-per-fect. There is nothing there but that." He held up his hand, as if to refuse to consider the least dissention. "There is nothing but that--no other thing."
All but Corthell listened attentively. The artist, however, turning his back, had continued to talk to Laura without lowering his tone, and all through Monsieur Gerardy's exhortation his voice had made itself heard. "Management of light and shade" ... "color scheme" ... "effects of composition."
Monsieur Gerardy's eye glinted in his direction. He struck his play-book sharply into the palm of his hand.
"Come, come!" he cried. "No more nonsense. Now we leave the girls alone and get to work. Here is the scene. Mademoiselle Gretry, if I derange you!" He cleared a space at the end of the parlor, pulling the chairs about. "Be attentive now. Here"--he placed a chair at his right with a flourish, as though planting a banner--"is the porch of Lord Glendale's country house."
"Ah," murmured Landry, winking solemnly at Page, "the chair is the porch of the house."
"And here," shouted Monsieur Gerardy, glaring at him and slamming down another chair, "is a rustic bench and practicable table set for breakfast."
Page began to giggle behind her play-book. Gerardy, his nostrils expanded, gave her his back. The older people, who were not to take part--Jadwin, the Cresslers, and Aunt Wess'--retired to a far corner, Mrs. Cressler declaring that they would constitute the audience.
"On stage," vociferated Monsieur Gerardy, perspiring from his exertions with the furniture. "'Marion enters, timid and hesitating, L. C.' Come, who's Marion? Mademoiselle Gretry, if you please, and for the love of God remember your crossings. Sh! sh!" he cried, waving his arms at the others. "A little silence if you please. Now, Marion."
Isabel Gretry, holding her play-book at her side, one finger marking the place, essayed an entrance with the words:
"'Ah, the old home once more. See the clambering roses have--'"
But Monsieur Gerardy, suddenly compressing his lips as if in a heroic effort to repress his emotion, flung himself into a chair, turning his back and crossing his legs violently. Miss Gretry stopped, very much disturbed, gazing perplexedly at the coach's heaving shoulders.
There was a strained silence, then:
"Isn't--isn't that right?"
As if with the words she had touched a spring, Monsieur Gerardy bounded to his feet.
"Grand God! Is that left-centre where you have made the entrance? In fine, I ask you a little--is that left-centre? You have come in by the rustic bench and practicable table set for breakfast. A fine sight on the night of the performance that. Marion climbs over the rustic breakfast and practicable--over the rustic bench and practicable table, ha, ha, to make the entrance." Still holding the play-book, he clapped hands with elaborate sarcasm. "Ah, yes, good business that. That will bring down the house."
Meanwhile the Gretry girl turned again from left-centre.
"'Ah, the old home again. See--'"
"Stop!" thundered Monsieur Gerardy. "Is that what you call timid and hesitating? Once more, those lines.... No, no. It is not it at all. More of slowness, more of--Here, watch me."
He made the entrance with laborious exaggeration of effect, dragging one foot after another, clutching at the palings of an imaginary fence, while pitching his voice at a feeble falsetto, he quavered:
"'Ah! The old home--ah ... once more. See--' like that," he cried, straightening up. "Now then. We try that entrance again. Don't come on too quick after the curtain. Attention. I clap my hands for the curtain, and count three." He backed away and, tucking the play-book under his arm, struck his palms together. "Now, one--two--three."
But this time Isabel Gretry, in remembering her "business," confused her stage directions once more
"'Ah, the old home--'"
"Left-centre," interrupted the coach, in a tone of long-suffering patience.
She paused bewildered, and believing that she had spoken her lines too abruptly, began again:
"'See, the clambering--'"
"'Ah, the old home--'"
Monsieur Gerardy settled himself deliberately in his chair and resting his head upon one hand closed his eyes. His manner was that of Galileo under torture declaring "still it moves."
"Oh--oh, yes. I forgot."
Monsieur Gerardy apostrophized the chandelier with mirthless humour.
"Oh, ha, ha! She forgot."
Still another time Marion tried the entrance, and, as she came on, Monsieur Gerardy made vigorous signals to Page, exclaiming in a hoarse whisper:
"Lady Mary, ready. In a minute you come on. Remember the cue."
Meanwhile Marion had continued:
"'See the clambering vines--'"
"'The clambering rose vines--'"
"Roses, pure and simple."
"'See! The clambering roses, pure and--'"
"Mademoiselle Gretry, will you do me the extreme obligation to bound yourself by the lines of the book?"
"I thought you said--"
"Go on, go on, go on! Is it God-possible to be thus stupid? Lady Mary, ready."
"'See, the clambering roses have wrapped the old stones in a loving embrace. The birds build in the same old nests--'"
"Well, well, Lady Mary, where are you? You enter from the porch."
"I'm waiting for my cue," protested Page. "My cue is: 'Are there none that will remember me.'"
"Say," whispered Landry, coming up behind Page, "it would look bully if you could come out leading a greyhound."
"Ah, so, Mademoiselle Gretry," cried Monsieur Gerardy, "you left out the cue." He became painfully polite. "Give the speech once more, if you please."
"A dog would look bully on the stage," whispered Landry. "And I know where I could get one."
"A friend of mine. He's got a beauty, blue grey--"
They become suddenly aware of a portentous silence The coach, his arms folded, was gazing at Page with tightened lips.
"'None who will remember me,'" he burst out at last. "Three times she gave it."
Page hurried upon the scene with the words:
"'Ah, another glorious morning. The vines are drenched in dew.'" Then, raising her voice and turning toward the "house," "'Arthur.'"
"'Arthur,'" warned the coach. "That's you. Mr. Corthell. Ready. Well then, Mademoiselle Gretry, you have something to say there."
"I can't say it," murmured the Gretry girl, her handkerchief to her face.
"What now? Continue. Your lines are 'I must not be seen here. It would betray all,' then conceal yourself in the arbor. Continue. Speak the line. It is the cue of Arthur."
"I can't," mumbled the girl behind her handkerchief.
"Can't? Why, then?"
"I--I have the nose-bleed."
Upon the instant Monsieur Gerardy quite lost his temper. He turned away, one hand to his head, rolling his eyes as if in mute appeal to heaven, then, whirling about, shook his play-book at the unfortunate Marion, crying out furiously:
"Ah, it lacked but that. You ought to understand at last, that when one rehearses for a play one does not have the nose-bleed. It is not decent."
Miss Gretry retired precipitately, and Laura came forward to say that she would read Marion's lines.
"No, no!" cried Monsieur Gerardy. "You--ah, if they were all like you! You are obliging, but it does not suffice. I am insulted."
The others, astonished, gathered about the "coach." They laboured to explain. Miss Gretry had intended no slight. In fact she was often taken that way; she was excited, nervous. But Monsieur Gerardy was not to be placated. Ah, no! He knew what was due a gentleman. He closed his eyes and raised his eyebrows to his very hair, murmuring superbly that he was offended. He had but one phrase in answer to all their explanations:
"One does not permit one's self to bleed at the nose during rehearsal."
Laura began to feel a certain resentment. The unfortunate Gretry girl had gone away in tears. What with the embarrassment of the wrong gown, the brow-beating, and the nose-bleed, she was not far from hysterics. She had retired to the dining-room with Mrs. Cressler and from time to time the sounds of her distress made themselves heard. Laura believed it quite time to interfere. After all, who was this Gerardy person, to give himself such airs? Poor Miss Gretry was to blame for nothing. She fixed the little Frenchman with a direct glance, and Page, who caught a glimpse of her face, recognised "the grand manner," and whispered to Landry:
"He'd better look out; he's gone just about as far as Laura will allow."
"It is not convenient," vociferated the "coach." "It is not permissible. I am offended."
"Monsieur Gerardy," said Laura, "we will say nothing more about it, if you please."
There was a silence. Monsieur Gerardy had pretended not to hear. He breathed loud through his nose, and Page hastened to observe that anyhow Marion was not on in the next scenes. Then abruptly, and resuming his normal expression, Monsieur Gerardy said:
"Let us proceed. It advances nothing to lose time. Come. Lady Mary and Arthur, ready."
The rehearsal continued. Laura, who did not come on during the act, went back to her chair in the corner of the room.
But the original group had been broken up. Mrs. Cressler was in the dining-room with the Gretry girl, while Jadwin, Aunt Wess', and Cressler himself were deep in a discussion of mind-reading and spiritualism.
As Laura came up, Jadwin detached himself from the others and met her.
"Poor Miss Gretry!" he observed. "Always the square peg in the round hole. I've sent out for some smelling salts."
It seemed to Laura that the capitalist was especially well-looking on this particular evening. He never dressed with the "smartness" of Sheldon Corthell or Landry Court, but in some way she did not expect that he should. His clothes were not what she was aware were called "stylish," but she had had enough experience with her own tailor-made gowns to know that the material was the very best that money could buy. The apparent absence of any padding in the broad shoulders of the frock coat he wore, to her mind, more than compensated for the "ready-made" scarf, and if the white waistcoat was not fashionably cut, she knew that she had never been able to afford a pique skirt of just that particular grade.
"Suppose we go into the reception-room," he observed abruptly. "Charlie bought a new clock last week that's a marvel. You ought to see it."
"No," she answered. "I am quite comfortable here, and I want to see how Page does in this act."
"I am afraid, Miss Dearborn," he continued, as they found their places, "that you did not have a very good time Sunday afternoon."
He referred to the Easter festival at his mission school. Laura had left rather early, alleging neuralgia and a dinner engagement.
"Why, yes I did," she replied. "Only, to tell the truth, my head ached a little." She was ashamed that she did not altogether delight in her remembrance of Jadwin on that afternoon. He had "addressed" the school, with earnestness it was true, but in a strain decidedly conventional. And the picture he made leading the singing, beating time with the hymn-book, and between the verses declaring that "he wanted to hear everyone's voice in the next verse," did not appeal very forcibly to her imagination. She fancied Sheldon Corthell doing these things, and could not forbear to smile. She had to admit, despite the protests of conscience, that she did prefer the studio to the Sunday-school.
"Oh," remarked Jadwin, "I'm sorry to hear you had a headache. I suppose my little micks" (he invariably spoke of his mission children thus)" do make more noise than music."
"I found them very interesting."
"No, excuse me, but I'm afraid you didn't. My little micks are not interesting--to look at nor to listen to. But I, kind of--well, I don't know," he began pulling his mustache. "It seems to suit me to get down there and get hold of these people. You know Moody put me up to it. He was here about five years ago, and I went to one of his big meetings, and then to all of them. And I met the fellow, too, and I tell you, Miss Dearborn, he stirred me all up. I didn't "get religion." No, nothing like that. But I got a notion it was time to be up and doing, and I figured it out that business principles were as good in religion as they are--well, in La Salle Street, and that if the church people--the men I mean--put as much energy, and shrewdness, and competitive spirit into the saving of souls as they did into the saving of dollars that we might get somewhere. And so I took hold of a half dozen broken-down, bankrupt Sunday-school concerns over here on Archer Avenue that were fighting each other all the time, and amalgamated them all--a regular trust, just as if they were iron foundries--and turned the incompetents out and put my subordinates in, and put the thing on a business basis, and by now, I'll venture to say, there's not a better organised Sunday-school in all Chicago, and I'll bet if D. L. Moody were here to-day he'd say, 'Jadwin, well done, thou good and faithful servant.'"
"I haven't a doubt of it, Mr. Jadwin," Laura hastened to exclaim. "And you must not think that I don't believe you are doing a splendid work."
"Well, it suits me," he repeated. "I like my little micks, and now and then I have a chance to get hold of the kind that it pays to push along. About four months ago I came across a boy in the Bible class; I guess he's about sixteen; name is Bradley--Billy Bradley, father a confirmed drunk, mother takes in washing, sister--we won't speak about; and he seemed to be bright and willing to work, and I gave him a job in my agent's office, just directing envelopes. Well, Miss Dearborn, that boy has a desk of his own now, and the agent tells me he's one of the very best men he's got. He does his work so well that I've been able to discharge two other fellows who sat around and watched the clock for lunch hour, and Bradley does their work now better and quicker than they did, and saves me twenty dollars a week; that's a thousand a year. So much for a business like Sunday-school; so much for taking a good aim when you cast your bread upon the waters. The last time I saw Moody I said, 'Moody, my motto is "not slothful in business, fervent in spirit, praising the Lord."' I remember we were out driving at the time, I took him out behind Lizella--she's almost straight Wilkes' blood and can trot in two-ten, but you can believe he didn't know that--and, as I say, I told him what my motto was, and he said, 'J., good for you; you keep to that. There's no better motto in the world for the American man of business.' He shook my hand when he said it, and I haven't ever forgotten it."
Not a little embarrassed, Laura was at a loss just what to say, and in the end remarked lamely enough:
"I am sure it is the right spirit--the best motto."
"Miss Dearborn," Jadwin began again suddenly, "why don't you take a class down there. The little micks aren't so dreadful when you get to know them."
"I!" exclaimed Laura, rather blankly. She shook her head. "Oh, no, Mr. Jadwin. I should be only an encumbrance. Don't misunderstand me. I approve of the work with all my heart, but I am not fitted--I feel no call. I should be so inapt that I know I should do no good. My training has been so different, you know," she said, smiling. "I am an Episcopalian--'of the straightest sect of the Pharisees.' I should be teaching your little micks all about the meaning of candles, and 'Eastings,' and the absolution and remission of sins."
"I wouldn't care if you did," he answered. "It's the indirect influence I'm thinking of--the indirect influence that a beautiful, pure-hearted, noble-minded woman spreads around her wherever she goes. I know what it has done for me. And I know that not only my little micks, but every teacher and every superintendent in that school would be inspired, and stimulated, and born again so soon as ever you set foot in the building. Men need good women, Miss Dearborn. Men who are doing the work of the world. I believe in women as I believe in Christ. But I don't believe they were made--any more than Christ was--to cultivate--beyond a certain point--their own souls, and refine their own minds, and live in a sort of warmed-over, dilettante, stained-glass world of seclusion and exclusion. No, sir, that won't do for the United States and the men who are making them the greatest nation of the world. The men have got all the get-up-and-get they want, but they need the women to point them straight, and to show them how to lead that other kind of life that isn't all grind. Since I've known you, Miss Dearborn, I've just begun to wake up to the fact that there is that other kind, but I can't lead that life without you. There's no kind of life that's worth anything to me now that don't include you. I don't need to tell you that I want you to marry me. You know that by now, I guess, without any words from me. I love you, and I love you as a man, not as a boy, seriously and earnestly. I can give you no idea how seriously, how earnestly. I want you to be my wife. Laura, my dear girl, I know I could make you happy."
"It isn't," answered Laura slowly, perceiving as he paused that he expected her to say something," much a question of that."
"What is it, then? I won't make a scene. Don't you love me? Don't you think, my girl, you could ever love me?"
Laura hesitated a long moment. She had taken the rose from her shoulder, and plucking the petals one by one, put them delicately between her teeth. From the other end of the room came the clamorous exhortations of Monsieur Gerardy. Mrs. Cressler and the Gretry girl watched the progress of the rehearsal attentively from the doorway of the dining-room. Aunt Wess' and Mr. Cressler were discussing psychic research and seances, on the sofa on the other side of the room. After a while Laura spoke.
"It isn't that either," she said, choosing her words carefully.
"What is it, then?"
"I don't know--exactly. For one thing, I don't think I want to be married, Mr. Jadwin--to anybody."
"I would wait for you."
"Or to be engaged."
"But the day must come, sooner or later, when you must be both engaged and married. You must ask yourself some time if you love the man who wishes to be your husband. Why not ask yourself now?"
"I do," she answered. "I do ask myself. I have asked myself."
"Well, what do you decide?"
"That I don't know."
"Don't you think you would love me in time? Laura, I am sure you would. I would make you."
"I don't know. I suppose that is a stupid answer. But it is, if I am to be honest, and I am trying very hard to be honest--with you and with myself--the only one I have. I am happy just as I am. I like you and Mr. Cressler and Mr. Corthell--everybody. But, Mr. Jadwin"--she looked him full in the face, her dark eyes full of gravity--"with a woman it is so serious--to be married. More so than any man ever understood. And, oh, one must be so sure, so sure. And I am not sure now. I am not sure now. Even if I were sure of you, I could not say I was sure of myself. Now and then I tell myself, and even poor, dear Aunt Wess', that I shall never love anybody, that I shall never marry. But I should be bitterly sorry if I thought that was true. It is one of the greatest happinesses to which I look forward, that some day I shall love some one with all my heart and soul, and shall be a true wife, and find my husband's love for me the sweetest thing in my life. But I am sure that that day has not come yet."
"And when it does come," he urged, "may I be the first to know?"
She smiled a little gravely.
"Ah," she answered, "I would not know myself that that day had come until I woke to the fact that I loved the man who had asked me to be his wife, and then it might be too late--for you."
"But now, at least," he persisted, "you love no one."
"Now," she repeated, "I love--no one."
"And I may take such encouragement in that as I can?"
And then, suddenly, capriciously even, Laura, an inexplicable spirit of inconsistency besetting her, was a very different woman from the one who an instant before had spoken so gravely of the seriousness of marriage. She hesitated a moment before answering Jadwin, her head on one side, looking at the rose leaf between her fingers. In a low voice she said at last:
"If you like."
But before Jadwin could reply, Cressler and Aunt Wess' who had been telling each other of their "experiences," of their "premonitions," of the unaccountable things that had happened to them, at length included the others in their conversation.
"J.," remarked Cressler, "did anything funny ever happen to you--warnings, presentiments, that sort of thing? Mrs. Wessels and I have been talking spiritualism. Laura, have you ever had any 'experiences'?"
She shook her head.
"No, no. I am too material, I am afraid."
"How about you, 'J.'?"
"Nothing much, except that I believe in 'luck'--a little. The other day I flipped a coin in Gretry's office. If it fell heads I was to sell wheat short, and somehow I knew all the time that the coin would fall heads--and so it did."
"And you made a great deal of money," said Laura. "I know. Mr. Court was telling me. That was splendid."
"That was deplorable, Laura," said Cressler, gravely. "I hope some day," he continued, "we can all of us get hold of this man and make him solemnly promise never to gamble in wheat again."
Laura stared. To her mind the word "gambling" had always been suspect. It had a bad sound; it seemed to be associated with depravity of the baser sort.
"Gambling!" she murmured.
"They call it buying and selling," he went on, "down there in La Salle Street. But it is simply betting. Betting on the condition of the market weeks, even months, in advance. You bet wheat goes up. I bet it goes down. Those fellows in the Pit don't own the wheat; never even see it. Wou'dn't know what to do with it if they had it. They don't care in the least about the grain. But there are thousands upon thousands of farmers out here in Iowa and Kansas or Dakota who do, and hundreds of thousand of poor devils in Europe who care even more than the farmer. I mean the fellows who raise the grain, and the other fellows who eat it. It's life or death for either of them. And right between these two comes the Chicago speculator, who raises or lowers the price out of all reason, for the benefit of his pocket. You see Laura, here is what I mean." Cressler had suddenly become very earnest. Absorbed, interested, Laura listened intently. "Here is what I mean," pursued Cressler. "It's like this: If we send the price of wheat down too far, the farmer suffers, the fellow who raises it if we send it up too far, the poor man in Europe suffers, the fellow who eats it. And food to the peasant on the continent is bread--not meat or potatoes, as it is with us. The only way to do so that neither the American farmer nor the European peasant suffers, is to keep wheat at an average, legitimate value. The moment you inflate or depress that, somebody suffers right away. And that is just what these gamblers are doing all the time, booming it up or booming it down. Think of it, the food of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people just at the mercy of a few men down there on the Board of Trade. They make the price. They say just how much the peasant shall pay for his loaf of bread. If he can't pay the price he simply starves. And as for the farmer, why it's ludicrous. If I build a house and offer it for sale, I put my own price on it, and if the price offered don't suit me I don't sell. But if I go out here in Iowa and raise a crop of wheat, I've got to sell it, whether I want to or not at the figure named by some fellows in Chicago. And to make themselves rich, they may make me sell it at a price that bankrupts me."
Laura nodded. She was intensely interested. A whole new order of things was being disclosed, and for the first time in her life she looked into the workings of political economy.
"Oh, that's only one side of it," Cressler went on, heedless of Jadwin's good-humoured protests. "Yes, I know I am a crank on speculating. I'm going to preach a little if you'll let me. I've been a speculator myself, and a ruined one at that, and I know what I am talking about. Here is what I was going to say. These fellows themselves, the gamblers--well, call them speculators, if you like. Oh, the fine, promising manly young men I've seen wrecked--absolutely and hopelessly wrecked and ruined by speculation! It's as easy to get into as going across the street. They make three hundred, five hundred, yes, even a thousand dollars sometimes in a couple of hours, without so much as raising a finger. Think what that means to a boy of twenty-five who's doing clerk work at seventy-five a month. Why, it would take him maybe ten years to save a thousand, and here he's made it in a single morning. Think you can keep him out of speculation then? First thing you know he's thrown up his honest, humdrum position--oh, I've seen it hundreds of times--and takes to hanging round the customers' rooms down there on La Salle Street, and he makes a little, and makes a little more, and finally he is so far in that he can't pull out, and then some billionaire fellow, who has the market in the palm of his hand, tightens one finger, and our young man is ruined, body and mind. He's lost the taste, the very capacity for legitimate business, and he stays on hanging round the Board till he gets to be--all of a sudden--an old man. And then some day some one says, 'Why, where's So-and-so?' and you wake up to the fact that the young fellow has simply disappeared--lost. I tell you the fascination of this Pit gambling is something no one who hasn't experienced it can have the faintest conception of. I believe it's worse than liquor, worse than morphine. Once you get into it, it grips you and draws you and draws you, and the nearer you get to the end the easier it seems to win, till all of a sudden, ah! there's the whirlpool.... 'J.,' keep away from it, my boy."
Jadwin laughed, and leaning over, put his fingers upon Cressler's breast, as though turning off a switch.
"Now, Miss Dearborn," he announced, "we've shut him off. Charlie means all right, but now and then some one brushes against him and opens that switch."
Cressler, good-humouredly laughed with the others, but Laura's smile was perfunctory and her eyes were grave. But there was a diversion. While the others had been talking the rehearsal had proceeded, and now Page beckoned to Laura from the far end of the parlor, calling out:
"Laura--'Beatrice,' it's the third act. You are wanted."
"Oh, I must run," exclaimed Laura, catching up her play-book. "Poor Monsieur Gerardy--we must be a trial to him."
She hurried across the room, where the coach was disposing the furniture for the scene, consulting the stage directions in his book:
"Here the kitchen table, here the old-fashioned writing-desk, here the armoire with practicable doors, here the window. Soh! Who is on? Ah, the young lady of the sick nose, 'Marion.' She is discovered--knitting. And then the duchess--later. That's you Mademoiselle Dearborn. You interrupt--you remember. But then you, ah, you always are right. If they were all like you. Very well, we begin."
Creditably enough the Gretry girl read her part, Monsieur Gerardy interrupting to indicate the crossings and business. Then at her cue, Laura, who was to play the role of the duchess, entered with the words:
"I beg your pardon, but the door stood open. May I come in?"
Monsieur Gerardy murmured:
"Elle est vraiment superbe."
Laura to the very life, to every little trick of carriage and manner was the high-born gentlewoman visiting the home of a dependent. Nothing could have been more dignified, more gracious, more gracefully condescending than her poise. She dramatised not only her role, but the whole of her surroundings. The interior of the little cottage seemed to define itself with almost visible distinctness the moment she set foot upon the scene.
Gerardy tiptoed from group to group, whispering:
"Eh? Very fine, our duchess. She would do well professionally."
But Mrs. Wessels was not altogether convinced. Her eyes following her niece, she said to Corthell:
"It's Laura's 'grand manner.' My word, I know her in that part. That's the way she is when she comes down to the parlor of an evening, and Page introduces her to one of her young men."
"I nearly die," protested Page, beginning to laugh. "Of course it's very natural I should want my friends to like my sister. And Laura comes in as though she were walking on eggs, and gets their names wrong, as though it didn't much matter, and calls them Pinky when their name is Pinckney, and don't listen to what they say, till I want to sink right through the floor with mortification."
In haphazard fashion the rehearsal wore to a close. Monsieur Gerardy stormed and fretted and insisted upon repeating certain scenes over and over again. By ten o'clock the actors were quite worn out. A little supper was served, and very soon afterward Laura made a move toward departing. She was wondering who would see her home, Landry, Jadwin, or Sheldon Corthell.
The day had been sunshiny, warm even, but since nine o'clock the weather had changed for the worse, and by now a heavy rain was falling. Mrs. Cressler begged the two sisters and Mrs. Wessels to stay at her house over night, but Laura refused. Jadwin was suggesting to Cressler the appropriateness of having the coupe brought around to take the sisters home, when Corthell came up to Laura.
"I sent for a couple of hansoms long since," he said. "They are waiting outside now." And that seemed to settle the question.
For all Jadwin's perseverance, the artist seemed--for this time at least--to have the better of the situation.
As the good-bys were being said at the front door Page remarked to Landry:
"You had better go with us as far as the house, so that you can take one of our umbrellas. You can get in with Aunt Wess' and me. There's plenty of room. You can't go home in this storm without an umbrella."
Landry at first refused, haughtily. He might be too poor to parade a lot of hansom cabs around, but he was too proud, to say the least, to ride in 'em when some one else paid.
Page scolded him roundly. What next? The idea. He was not to be so completely silly. She didn't propose to have the responsibility of his catching pneumonia just for the sake of a quibble.
"Some people," she declared, "never seemed to be able to find out that they are grown up."
"Very well," he announced, "I'll go if I can tip the driver a dollar."
Page compressed her lips.
"The man that can afford dollar tips," she said, "can afford to hire the cab in the first place."
"Seventy-five cents, then," he declared resolutely. "Not a cent less. I should feel humiliated with any less."
"Will you please take me down to the cab, Landry Court?" she cried. And without further comment Landry obeyed.
"Now, Miss Dearborn, if you are ready," exclaimed Corthell, as he came up. He held the umbrella over her head, allowing his shoulders to get the drippings.
They cried good-by again all around, and the artist guided her down the slippery steps. He handed her carefully into the hansom, and following, drew down the glasses.
Laura settled herself comfortably far back in her corner, adjusting her skirts and murmuring:
"Such a wet night. Who would have thought it was going to rain? I was afraid you were not coming at first," she added. "At dinner Mrs. Cressler said you had an important committee meeting--something to do with the Art Institute, the award of prizes; was that it?"
"Oh, yes," he answered, indifferently, "something of the sort was on. I suppose it was important--for the Institute. But for me there is only one thing of importance nowadays," he spoke with a studied carelessness, as though announcing a fact that Laura must know already, "and that is, to be near you. It is astonishing. You have no idea of it, how I have ordered my whole life according to that idea."
"As though you expected me to believe that," she answered.
In her other lovers she knew her words would have provoked vehement protestation. But for her it was part of the charm of Corthell's attitude that he never did or said the expected, the ordinary. Just now he seemed more interested in the effect of his love for Laura upon himself than in the manner of her reception of it.
"It is curious," he continued. "I am no longer a boy. I have no enthusiasms. I have known many women, and I have seen enough of what the crowd calls love to know how futile it is, how empty, a vanity of vanities. I had imagined that the poets were wrong, were idealists, seeing the things that should be rather than the things that were. And then," suddenly he drew a deep breath: "this happiness; and to me. And the miracle, the wonderful is there--all at once--in my heart, in my very hand, like a mysterious, beautiful exotic. The poets are wrong," he added. "They have not been idealists enough. I wish--ah, well, never mind."
"What is it that you wish?" she asked, as he broke off suddenly. Laura knew even before she spoke that it would have been better not to have prompted him to continue. Intuitively she had something more than a suspicion that he had led her on to say these very words. And in admitting that she cared to have the conversation proceed upon this footing, she realised that she was sheering towards unequivocal coquetry. She saw the false move now, knew that she had lowered her guard. On all accounts it would have been more dignified to have shown only a mild interest in what Corthell wished. She realised that once more she had acted upon impulse, and she even found time to wonder again how it was that when with this man her impulses, and not her reason prevailed so often. With Landry or with Curtis Jadwin she was always calm, tranquilly self-possessed. But Corthell seemed able to reach all that was impetuous, all that was unreasoned in her nature. To Landry she was more than anything else, an older sister, indulgent, kind-hearted. With Jadwin she found that all the serious, all the sincere, earnest side of her character was apt to come to the front. But Corthell stirred troublous, unknown deeps in her, certain undefined trends of recklessness; and for so long as he held her within his influence, she could not forget her sex a single instant.
It dismayed her to have this strange personality of hers, this other headstrong, impetuous self, discovered to her. She hardly recognised it. It made her a little afraid; and yet, wonder of wonders, she could not altogether dislike it. There was a certain fascination in resigning herself for little instants to the dominion of this daring stranger that was yet herself.
Meanwhile Corthell had answered her:
"I wish," he said, "I wish you could say something--I hardly know what--something to me. So little would be so much."
"But what can I say?" she protested. "I don't know--I--what can I say?"
"It must be yes or no for me," he broke out. "I can't go on this way."
"But why not? Why not?" exclaimed Laura. "Why must we--terminate anything? Why not let things go on just as they are? We are quite happy as we are. There's never been a time of my life when I've been happier than this last three or four months. I don't want to change anything. Ah, here we are."
The hansom drew up in front of the house. Aunt Wess' and Page were already inside. The maid stood in the vestibule in the light that streamed from the half-open front door, an umbrella in her hand. And as Laura alighted, she heard Page's voice calling from the front hall that the others had umbrellas, that the maid was not to wait.
The hansom splashed away, and Corthell and Laura mounted the steps of the house.
"Won't you come in?" she said. "There is a fire in the library."
But he said no, and for a few seconds they stood under the vestibule light, talking. Then Corthell, drawing off his right-hand glove, said:
"I suppose that I have my answer. You do not wish for a change. I understand. You wish to say by that, that you do not love me. If you did love me as I love you, you would wish for just that--a change. You would be as eager as I for that wonderful, wonderful change that makes a new heaven and a new earth."
This time Laura did not answer. There was a moment's silence. Then Corthell said:
"Do you know, I think I shall go away."
"Yes, to New York. Possibly to Paris. There is a new method of fusing glass that I've promised myself long ago I would look into. I don't know that it interests me much--now. But I think I had better go. At once, within the week. I've not much heart in it; but it seems--under the circumstances--to be appropriate." He held out his bared hand. Laura saw that he was smiling.
"Well, Miss Dearborn--good-by."
"But why should you go?" she cried, distressfully. "How perfectly--ah, don't go," she exclaimed, then in desperate haste added: "It would be absolutely foolish."
"Shall I stay?" he urged. "Do you tell me to stay?"
"Of course I do," she answered. "It would break up the play--your going. It would spoil my part. You play opposite me, you know. Please stay."
"Shall I stay," he asked, "for the sake of your part? There is no one else you would rather have?" He was smiling straight into her eyes, and she guessed what he meant.
She smiled back at him, and the spirit of daring never more awake in her, replied, as she caught his eye:
"There is no one else I would rather have."
Corthell caught her hand of a sudden.
"Laura," he cried, "let us end this fencing and quibbling once and for all. Dear, dear girl, I love you with all the strength of all the good in me. Let me be the best a man can be to the woman he loves."
Laura flashed a smile at him.
"If you can make me love you enough," she answered.
"And you think I can?" he exclaimed,
"You have my permission to try," she said.
She hoped fervently that now, without further words, he would leave her. It seemed to her that it would be the most delicate chivalry on his part--having won this much--to push his advantage no further. She waited anxiously for his next words. She began to fear that she had trusted too much upon her assurance of his tact.
Corthell held out his hand again.
"It is good-night, then, not good-by."
"It is good-night," said Laura.
With the words he was gone, and Laura, entering the house, shut the door behind her with a long breath of satisfaction.
Page and Landry were still in the library. Laura joined them, and for a few moments the three stood before the fireplace talking about the play. Page at length, at the first opportunity, excused herself and went to bed. She made a great show of leaving Landry and Laura alone, and managed to convey the impression that she understood they were anxious to be rid of her.
"Only remember," she remarked to Laura severely, "to lock up and turn out the hall gas. Annie has gone to bed long ago."
"I must dash along, too," declared Landry when Page was gone.
He buttoned his coat about his neck, and Laura followed him out into the hall and found an umbrella for him.
"You were beautiful to-night," he said, as he stood with his hand on the door knob. "Beautiful. I could not keep my eyes off of you, and I could not listen to anybody but you. And now," he declared, solemnly, "I will see your eyes and hear your voice all the rest of the night. I want to explain," he added, "about those hansoms--about coming home with Miss Page and Mrs. Wessels. Mr. Corthell--those were his hansoms, of course. But I wanted an umbrella, and I gave the driver seventy-five cents."
"Why of course, of course," said Laura, not quite divining what he was driving at.
"I don't want you to think that I would be willing to put myself under obligations to anybody."
"Of course, Landry; I understand."
He thrilled at once.
"Ah," he cried, "you don't know what it means to me to look into the eyes of a woman who really understands."
Laura stared, wondering just what she had said.
"Will you turn this hall light out for me, Landry?" she asked. "I never can reach."
He left the front door open and extinguished the jet in its dull red globe. Promptly they were involved in darkness.
"Good-night," she said. "Isn't it dark?"
He stretched out his hand to take hers, but instead his groping fingers touched her waist. Suddenly Laura felt his arm clasp her. Then all at once, before she had time to so much as think of resistance, he had put both arms about her and kissed her squarely on her cheek.
Then the front door closed, and she was left abruptly alone, breathless, stunned, staring wide-eyed into the darkness.
Her first sensation was one merely of amazement. She put her hand quickly to her cheek, first the palm and then the back, murmuring confusedly:
Then she whirled about and ran up the stairs, her silks clashing and fluttering about her as she fled, gained her own room, and swung the door violently shut behind her. She turned up the lowered gas and, without knowing why, faced her mirror at once, studying her reflection and watching her hand as it all but scoured the offended cheek.
Then, suddenly, with an upward, uplifting rush, her anger surged within her. She, Laura, Miss Dearborn, who loved no man, who never conceded, never capitulated, whose "grand manner" was a thing proverbial, in all her pitch of pride, in her own home, her own fortress, had been kissed, like a school-girl, like a chambermaid, in the dark, in a corner.
And by--great heavens!--Landry Court. The boy whom she fancied she held in such subjection, such profound respect. Landry Court had dared, had dared to kiss her, to offer her this wretchedly commonplace and petty affront, degrading her to the level of a pretty waitress, making her ridiculous.
She stood rigid, drawn to her full height, in the centre of her bedroom, her fists tense at her sides, her breath short, her eyes flashing, her face aflame. From time to time her words, half smothered, burst from her.
"What does he think I am? How dared he? How dared he?"
All that she could say, any condemnation she could formulate only made her position the more absurd, the more humiliating. It had all been said before by generations of shop-girls, school-girls, and servants, in whose company the affront had ranged her. Landry was to be told in effect that he was never to presume to seek her acquaintance again. Just as the enraged hussy of the street corners and Sunday picnics shouted that the offender should "never dare speak to her again as long as he lived." Never before had she been subjected to this kind of indignity. And simultaneously with the assurance she could hear the shrill voice of the drab of the public balls proclaiming that she had "never been kissed in all her life before."
Of all slights, of all insults, it was the one that robbed her of the very dignity she should assume to rebuke it. The more vehemently she resented it, the more laughable became the whole affair.
But she would resent it, she would resent it, and Landry Court should be driven to acknowledge that the sorriest day of his life was the one on which he had forgotten the respect in which he had pretended to hold her. He had deceived her, then, all along. Because she had--foolishly--relaxed a little towards him, permitted a certain intimacy, this was how he abused it. Ah, well, it would teach her a lesson. Men were like that. She might have known it would come to this. Wilfully they chose to misunderstand, to take advantage of her frankness, her good nature, her good comradeship.
She had been foolish all along, flirting--yes, that was the word for it flirting with Landry and Corthell and Jadwin. No doubt they all compared notes about her. Perhaps they had bet who first should kiss her. Or, at least, there was not one of them who would not kiss her if she gave him a chance.
But if she, in any way, had been to blame for what Landry had done, she would atone for it. She had made herself too cheap, she had found amusement in encouraging these men, in equivocating, in coquetting with them. Now it was time to end the whole business, to send each one of them to the right-about with an unequivocal definite word. She was a good girl, she told herself. She was, in her heart, sincere; she was above the inexpensive diversion of flirting. She had started wrong in her new life, and it was time, high time, to begin over again--with a clean page--to show these men that they dared not presume to take liberties with so much as the tip of her little finger.
So great was her agitation, so eager her desire to act upon her resolve, that she could not wait till morning. It was a physical impossibility for her to remain under what she chose to believe suspicion another hour. If there was any remotest chance that her three lovers had permitted themselves to misunderstand her, they were to be corrected at once, were to be shown their place, and that without mercy.
She called for the maid, Annie, whose husband was the janitor of the house, and who slept in the top story.
"If Henry hasn't gone to bed," said Laura, "tell him to wait up till I call him, or to sleep with his clothes on. There is something I want him to do for me--something important."
It was close upon midnight. Laura turned back into her room, removed her hat and veil, and tossed them, with her coat, upon the bed. She lit another burner of the chandelier, and drew a chair to her writing-desk between the windows.
Her first note was to Landry Court. She wrote it almost with a single spurt of the pen, and dated it carefully, so that he might know it had been written immediately after he had left. Thus it ran:
"Please do not try to see me again at any time or under any circumstances. I want you to understand, very clearly, that I do not wish to continue our acquaintance."
Her letter to Corthell was more difficult, and it was not until she had rewritten it two or three times that it read to her satisfaction.
"My dear Mr. Corthell," so it was worded, "you asked me to-night that our fencing and quibbling be brought to an end. I quite agree with you that it is desirable. I spoke as I did before you left upon an impulse that I shall never cease to regret. I do not wish you to misunderstand me, nor to misinterpret my attitude in any way. You asked me to be your wife, and, very foolishly and wrongly, I gave you--intentionally--an answer which might easily be construed into an encouragement. Understand now that I do not wish you to try to make me love you. I would find it extremely distasteful. And, believe me, it would be quite hopeless. I do not now, and never shall care for you as I should care if I were to be your wife. I beseech you that you will not, in any manner, refer again to this subject. It would only distress and pain me.
The letter to Curtis Jadwin was almost to the same effect. But she found the writing of it easier than the others. In addressing him she felt herself grow a little more serious, a little more dignified and calm. It ran as follows:
MY DEAR MR. JADWIN:
"When you asked me to become your wife this evening, you deserved a straightforward answer, and instead I replied in a spirit of capriciousness and disingenuousness, which I now earnestly regret, and which ask you to pardon and to ignore.
"I allowed myself to tell you that you might find encouragement in my foolishly spoken words. I am deeply sorry that I should have so forgotten what was due to my own self-respect and to your sincerity.
"If I have permitted myself to convey to you the impression that I would ever be willing to be your wife, let me hasten to correct it. Whatever I said to you this evening, I must answer now--as I should have answered then--truthfully and unhesitatingly, no.
"This, I insist, must be the last word between us upon this unfortunate subject, if we are to continue, as I hope, very good friends.
She sealed, stamped, and directed the three envelopes, and glanced at the little leather-cased travelling clock that stood on the top of her desk. It was nearly two.
"I could not sleep, I could not sleep," she murmured, "if I did not know they were on the way."
In answer to the bell Henry appeared, and Laura gave him the letters, with orders to mail them at once in the nearest box.
When it was all over she sat down again at her desk, and leaning an elbow upon it, covered her eyes with her hand for a long moment. She felt suddenly very tired, and when at last she lowered her hand, her fingers were wet. But in the end she grew calmer. She felt that, at all events, she had vindicated herself, that her life would begin again to-morrow with a clean page; and when at length she fell asleep, it was to the dreamless unconsciousness of an almost tranquil mind.
She slept late the next morning and breakfasted in bed between ten and eleven. Then, as the last vibrations of last night's commotion died away, a very natural curiosity began to assert itself. She wondered how each of the three men "would take it." In spite of herself she could not keep from wishing that she could be by when they read their dismissals.
Towards the early part of the afternoon, while Laura was in the library reading "Queen's Gardens," the special delivery brought Landry Court's reply. It was one roulade of incoherence, even in places blistered with tears. Landry protested, implored, debased himself to the very dust. His letter bristled with exclamation points, and ended with a prolonged wail of distress and despair.
Quietly, and with a certain merciless sense of pacification, Laura deliberately reduced the letter to strips, burned it upon the hearth, and went back to her Ruskin.
A little later, the afternoon being fine, she determined to ride out to Lincoln Park, not fifteen minutes from her home, to take a little walk there, and to see how many new buds were out.
As she was leaving, Annie gave into her hands a pasteboard box, just brought to the house by a messenger boy.
The box was full of Jacqueminot roses, to the stems of which a note from Corthell was tied. He wrote but a single line:
"So it should have been 'good-by' after all."
Laura had Annie put the roses in Page's room.
"Tell Page she can have them; I don't want them. She can wear them to her dance to-night," she said.
While to herself she added:
"The little buds in the park will be prettier."
She was gone from the house over two hours, for she had elected to walk all the way home. She came back flushed and buoyant from her exercise, her cheeks cool with the Lake breeze, a young maple leaf in one of the revers of her coat. Annie let her in, murmuring:
"A gentleman called just after you went out. I told him you were not at home, but he said he would wait. He is in the library now."
"Who is he? Did he give his name?" demanded Laura.
The maid handed her Curtis Jadwin's card.