IT WAS not altogether without difficulty that the older of the brothers graduated. Harlan obtained a diploma inscribed with a special bit of classic praise, for he was an “Honour Man”; but Daniel trod the primrose way a little too gayly as a junior and as a senior. Anxiety had sometimes been felt at home, though knowledge of this was kept from old Mrs. Savage; and Mr. and Mrs. Oliphant were relieved of a strain when Dan was granted his degree at a most reluctant eleventh hour, and telegraphed them:
Last prof to hold out gave up after I talked to him all afternoon and said I could have diploma, if I would quit arguing.
Thus the two young bachelors of arts came forth together into a pleasant world, of which they already knew somewhat less than they supposed they did.
The world for them, in that day, which the newspapers were beginning to call fin de siècle, included rather sketchily London, Paris, Florence, and a part of the Alps, for they had spent two vacations abroad with their parents; but in the main the field of action to which they emerged from the campus consisted of their own city and New York. No sooner were they out of the university than they began the series of returns eastward that was part of the life of every affluent young midland graduate. They went back for the football games, for class dinners, for baseball and boat races, and commencement. New York was their playground as they went and came; and they remained there to play for months at a time.
It was a pleasanter playground in those days than it is now, when even the honeycombed ground under foot has its massacres, and the roaring surface congests with multitude on multitude till fires must burn and patients must die, since neither firemen nor doctors may pass. For the growth came upon New York as it came upon the midland cities, and it produced a glutted monster, able to roar and heave and mangle, but not to digest or even to swallow the swarms that came begging to be devoured. In the change there perished something romantic and charming, something that a true poet used to call Bagdad.
So far as it concerned Mr. Daniel Oliphant, aged twenty-six, New York was romantic Bagdad enough when the jingling harness began to glitter in the park and on the Avenue in the afternoon, and he would go out from the Holland House to see the pretty women, all beautifully dressed, he thought, and wearing clumps of violets, or orchids, as they reclined in their victorias drawn by high-stepping horses. Dan liked to watch, too, the handsome grooms and coachmen in their liveries, with cockaded silk hats, white breeches, top boots, and blue coats; for they were the best-dressed men in the town, he thought, and he often wished he knew whether they were really as haughty as the horses they drove or only affected to be so proud professionally.
In New York, this Daniel took some thought to his own tailoring and haberdashing; he would even add a camellia to the lapel of his frock coat when he strolled down to lounge in the doorway of the great Fifth Avenue Hotel and stare at the procession of lovely girls from everywhere in the country, their faces rosy in the wind, as they walked up Broadway after an autumn matinée. Then he would join the procession, a friend accoutred like himself being usually with him, and they would accompany the procession sedately in its swing up the Avenue; sometimes leaving it, however, at the magnificent new Waldorf, where the men’s café offered them refreshment among lively companions. In truth, this congenial resort had too great an attraction for the amiable Dan, and so did the room with the big mirror behind the office at the Holland House. Moreover, when he spoke of Daly’s, he did not always mean Mr. Augustin Daly’s theatre, though he preferred it to the other theatres; sometimes he meant a Daly’s where adventure was to be obtained by any one who cared to bet he could guess when a marble would stop rolling upon a painted disk.
Of course he made excursions into the Bowery, waltzed and two-stepped at the Haymarket after long dinners at clubs, fell asleep in hansom cabs at sunrise, and conducted himself in general about as did any other “rather wild young man,” native or alien, in the metropolis. There were droves of such young men, and, like most of the others, Dan frequently became respectable, and went to a dinner or a dance at the house of a classmate; he was even seen at church in the pew of a Madison Avenue family of known severity. However, no one was puzzled by this act of devotion, for Lena McMillan, the daughter of the severe house, was pretty enough to be the explanation for anything.
Her brother George, lacking the severity of other McMillans, and as unobtrusive as possible in advertising that lack, was one of Dan’s chance acquaintances during a Bagdadian night. At the conclusion of many festivities, the chance acquaintance murmured his address, but Dan comprehended the unwisdom of a sunrise return of so flaccid a young gentleman into a house as formidable as the McMillans’ appeared to be, when the night-hawk hansom stopped before it; and the driver was instructed to go on to the Holland House. Young McMillan woke at noon in Dan’s room there; shuddered to think that but for a Good Samaritan this waking might have taken place at home, and proved himself first grateful, then devoted. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship; and he took Dan to tea in Madison Avenue that afternoon.
Something withholding about the McMillans reminded their guest of his brother Harlan; and probably Dan would have defined this as “an air of reserve”; but it was more than reserve, deeper than reserve, as in time he discovered. George McMillan alone seemed to have none of it; on the contrary, his air was habitually friendly and apologetic—possibly because of what he knew about himself and what his family didn’t. Mrs. McMillan and her daughters found it unnecessary either to smile or offer their hands when George presented the good-looking young Midlander, nor did they seem to believe themselves committed to any effort to make the stranger feel at home in their long, dark drawing-room.
They gave him a cup of tea and a bit of toast, and that appeared to be the end of their obligation to a stray guest, for they at once continued a conversation begun before his arrival, not addressing themselves to him or even looking at him. Mrs. McMillan’s cousin’s husband, named Oliver, he gathered, was about to be offered a position in the cabinet at Washington, and Mrs. McMillan hoped Oliver wouldn’t accept, because Milly and Anna and Charlotte, persons unknown to Dan, would have to give up so much if they went to live in Washington instead of Boston. If it were an ambassadorship the President wanted Oliver for, that would be better, especially on Charlotte’s account.
The guest began to have an uncomfortable feeling that he must be invisible;—no one seemed to know that he was present, not even the grateful George, who was feeble that afternoon and looked distrustfully at his tea, of which he partook with an air of foreboding. Dan could not help meditating upon what a difference there would have been if the position were reversed, with George as the guest and himself as the host. Dan thought of it: how heartily his mother and father would have shaken hands with the young Easterner, welcoming him, doing every reassuring thing they could to make him feel at home, talking cordial generalities until they could get better acquainted and find what interested him. But although Dan felt awkward and even a little resentful, it was not the first time he had been exposed to this type of hospitality, and he was able to accept it as the custom of the country. He made the best of it and was philosophic, thinking that the McMillans had given tea to a great many stray young men of whom they knew nothing, and saw once but usually never again. Also, it was a pleasure to look at Lena McMillan, even though she was so genuinely unaware of him.
Outwardly, at least, she was unlike her mother and older sister. Mrs. McMillan was a large woman, shapely, but rather stony—or so she appeared to Dan—and her hair rose above her broad pink forehead as a small dome of trim gray curls, not to be imagined as ever being disarranged or uncurled or otherwise than as they were. She and her older daughter, who resembled her, both wore black of an austere fashionableness; but the younger Miss McMillan had alleviated her own dark gown with touches of blue—not an impertinent blue, but a blue darkly effective; and, with what seemed almost levity in this heavy old drawing-room, she wore Italian earrings of gold and lapis lazuli. Her mother did not approve of these; no one except opera singers wore earrings, Mrs. McMillan had told her before the arrival of the two young men.
Lena was sometimes defined as a “petite brunette,” and sometimes as a “perfectly beautiful French doll”; for she had to perfection a doll’s complexion and eyelashes; but beyond this point the latter definition was unfair, since dolls are usually thought wanting in animation, a quality she indeed possessed. Dan Oliphant, watching her, thought he had never before met so sparkling a creature; and a glamour stole over him. He began to think she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen.
Possibly she became aware of the favour with which he was regarding her, for although her shoulder and profile were toward him, and for twenty minutes and more she seemed to be as unconscious of his presence as her mother and older sister really were, she finally gave him a glance and spoke to him. “George tells me you’re from the West,” she said.
“No. Not very,” he returned.
“Not very west?”
“I mean not from the Far West,” Dan explained. “Out there they’d call me an Easterner, of course.”
“Gracious!” she cried incredulously. “Would they, really?”
Already he thought her a wonderful being, but at this he showed some spirit. “I’m afraid so,” he said.
She laughed, not offended, and exclaimed: “Oh, so you don’t mind being a Westerner! I only meant you people are so funny about rubbing in the letter R and overdoing the short A that no one can ever make a mistake about which of the provinces you belong in. I’ve been in the West, myself—rather west, that is. I didn’t care for it much.”
“Where was it?”
“Rochester. I believe you’re from farther out, aren’t you? Perhaps you can tell me if it’s true, what we hear things are like beyond Rochester.”
“Things beyond Rochester?” he asked, mystified. “What sort of things do you mean?”
“All sorts,” she answered. “I’ve always heard that when you get west of Rochester every house has a room you people call a ‘sitting-room’, and you always keep a sewing-machine in it and apples on a centre table, and all the men keep tobacco in their cheeks and say, ‘Wa’al, no, ma’am,’ and ‘Why, certainly, ma’am,’ and ‘Yes, ma’am!’ Isn’t that what it’s like?”
“Who told you so?”
“Oh, I had a cousin who used to visit people out there. She said it was funny but dreadful. Isn’t it?”
“I wish you’d come and see,” he said earnestly. “I wish you and your brother’d come and let me show you.”
“Good heavens,” she cried;—“but you’re hospitable! Do you always ask everybody to visit you after they’ve said two words to you?”
“No, not everybody,” he returned, and on the impulse continued: “I’d ask you, though, after you’d said one word to me.” And because he meant it, he instantly became red.
“Good heavens!” she cried again, and stared at him thoughtfully, perceiving without difficulty his heightened colour. “Is that the way they talk in the West, Mr.—uh——”
“Oliphant,” he said.
“My name’s Oliphant,” he informed her apologetically. “You called me Mister Uh.”
“I see,” she said, and as her attention was caught just then by something her sister was saying about Milly and Anna and Charlotte and Oliver, she turned from him to say something more, herself, about Milly and Anna and Charlotte and Oliver. Then, having turned away from him, she turned not back again, but seemed to have forgotten him.
The son of the house presently took him away, the mother and her older daughter murmuring carelessly as the two young men rose to go, while Lena said more distinctly, “Good afternoon, Mister Uh.” But the unfortunate Daniel carried with him a picture that remained tauntingly before his mind’s eye; and he decided to stay in New York a little longer, though he had written his father that he would leave for home the next day. He had been stricken at first sight.
He could not flatter himself that she had bestowed a thought upon him. On the contrary, he told himself that his impetuosity had made headway backwards; and he was as greatly astonished as he was delighted when George McMillan came to see him two afternoons later, at the Holland House, and brought him a card for a charity ball at the Metropolitan. “We had some extra ones,” George said. “Lena thought you might like to come.”
“She did? Why, I—I——” Dan was breathless at once.
“Why, I didn’t think she noticed I was on earth. This is perfectly beautiful of her!”
“Why, no,” George assured him; “it’s nothing at all. We had four or five cards we really didn’t know what to do with. There’ll be an awful crowd there, all kinds of people.”
“Yes, I know; but it was just beautiful of her to think of me.” And Dan added solemnly: “That sister of yours reminds me of a flower.”
“She does?” George said, visibly surprised. “You mean Lena?”
“Yes, I do. She’s like the most perfect flower that ever blossomed.”
“That’s strange news to me,” said George. “Then maybe you’d be willing to come to the house to dinner and go to this show with the family. Heaven knows I’d like to have you; it might help me to sneak out after we get ’em there. You sure you could stand it?”
“I should consider it the greatest privilege of my life,” said Dan.
“Heavens, but you’re solemn!” his caller exclaimed. “You make me feel at home—I mean, as if I were at home with my solemn family. Wait till you meet some of the others—and my father. He’s the solemnest. In fact, they’re all solemn except Lena. There’s only one trouble with Lena.”
“What is it?”
“The poor thing hasn’t got any sense,” Lena’s brother said lightly. “Never did. Never will have. Otherwise she’s charming—when she’s in a mood to be!”
Evidently Lena was in a mood to be charming that night; she sat next to Dan at the solemn dinner and chattered to him gayly, though in a lowered voice, for George had not exaggerated when he spoke of his father. If she was a French doll, she was at least a radiant one in her ball gown of heavy ivory silk, and it was a thrilled young Midlander indeed who took her lightly in his arms for a two-step when they came out upon the dancing floor that had been laid over the chairs at the opera house. “It was nice of you to send me these flowers,” she said, as he dexterously moved her through the crowd of other two-steppers. “They’d tell anybody you’re Western, if nothing else would. Western men always send orchids. But then, of course, nobody’d need to be told you’re from out there. You tell them yourself.”
“You mean I always mention it?”
“No,” she laughed;—“your dialect does. The way you pronounce R and A, and slide your words together.”
“I’ve got a brother that doesn’t,” said Dan. “He talks the way you and your family do; he says ‘lahst’ and ‘fahst’ and calls father ‘fathuh’ and New York ‘New Yawk,’ and keeps all his words separated. He began it when he was about fifteen and he’s stuck to it ever since. Says he doesn’t do it to be English, but because it’s correct pronunciation. I expect you’d like him.”
At that she looked up at him suddenly, and he was shown an inscrutable depth of dark blue glance that shook his heart. “I like you!” she said.
“Do you?” he gasped. “You didn’t seem to, that day I met you.”
She laughed. “I didn’t decide I liked you till after you’d gone. You aren’t quite cut to the pattern of most of the men I know. There’s something hearty about your looks; and I like your broad shoulders and your not seeming to have put a sleek surface over you. At least it’s pleasant for a change.”
“Is that all?” he asked, a little disappointed. “Just for a change?”
“Never mind. Is there anybody else in your family besides your brother?”
“Heavens, yes! To begin with, I’ve got a grand old grandmother; she’s over ninety, but she’s the head of the family all right! Then there’s my father and mother——”
“What are they like?”
“My mother’s beautiful,” Dan said. “She’s just the loveliest, kindest person in the world, and so’s my father. He’s a lawyer.”
“What are you?”
“I’m nothin’ at all yet. So far, I’ve just been helpin’ my grandmother settle up my grandfather’s estate. Somebody had to, and my brother’s in my father’s office.”
“And do your grandmother and your mother have sitting-rooms with sewing-machines in them?”
“I wish you’d come and see.”
“Do you?” She had continued to look at him, and now her eyes almost deliberately became dreamy. “I might—if you keep on asking me,” she said gravely. “I’m sure I’d hate the West, though.”
“Yet, you might come?”
“Ask me again to-morrow.”
He was but too glad to be obedient, and asked her again the next day. This was over a table for two at a restaurant on Lafayette Place, where she met him as a surreptitious adventure, suggested by herself and undertaken without notifying her mother. It was a Lochinvar courtship, she said afterward, thus implying that her share in it was passive, though there were indeed days when the young man out of the West found her not merely passive, but dreamily indifferent. And once or twice she was more than that, puzzling and grieving him by an inexplicable coldness almost like anger, so that he consulted George McMillan to find out what could be the matter.
“Moods,” George told him. “She’s nothing but moods. Just has ’em; that’s all. It doesn’t matter how you are to her; sometimes she’ll treat you like an angel and sometimes like the dickens. It doesn’t depend on anything you do.”
Dan thought her all the more fascinating, and put off his return home another month, to the increasing mystification of his family, for this month included the Christmas holidays, and Mrs. Oliphant wrote that they all missed him, and that Mrs. Savage really needed him. The McMillans, on the other hand, were not mystified, and Lena appeared to be able to control them. The manner of her parents and her sister toward the suitor was one of endurance—an endurance that intended to be as thoroughbred as it could, but was nevertheless evident. It had no discouraging effect on the ardent young man, who took it as a privilege to be endured by beings so close to her. Besides, George McMillan was helpful with the exalted family, for he showed both tact and sympathy, though the latter sometimes appeared to consist of a compassionate amusement; and once he went so far as to ask Dan, laughingly, if he were quite sure he knew what he was doing.
“Am I sure?” Dan repeated incredulously. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“I mean about Lena.”
“To me,” Dan said, with the solemnity he had come to use in speaking of her, “your sister Lena is the finest flower of womanhood ever created!”
Upon that, his friend stared at him and saw that his eyes were bright with a welling moisture, so deep was his worship; and George was himself affected.
“Oh, all right, if you feel that way about it,” he said, “I guess it’ll be all right. I’m sure it will. You’re a mighty right chap, I think.”
“I?” Dan exclaimed. “I’m nothin’ at all! And when I think that your sister could stoop—could stoop to—to me—why, I——”
He was overcome and could not go on.
The end of it was that when he went home in February it was to acquaint his family with the fact of his engagement; and in spite of his happiness he was a little uneasy. He did not fear the interview with his father and mother; and though he disliked the prospect of talking about Lena with Harlan, who was sure to be critical and superior, he had learned to get along without Harlan’s approval. What made him uneasy was his anticipation of the invincible pessimism of that iron old lady, his grandmother.