MRS. BLAZER’S DINNER.
PORTER had not shown himself at the Casino dance, his calibre requiring entertainments of greater weight. But he sent his dog-cart to the hotel, next morning, to transfer Oliphant to the villa.
“ You look tired,” he observed solicitously, on his guest’s arrival.
“ I ‘m all right,” said Eugene. “ I was up rather late. But what a cosey place you’ve got here ! ”
“ Yes ; it does well enough for me. Not mine, you know; merely taken it for the season.” Porter was addicted to brevity of speech. “It belongs to a man named Craig. He lives here in winter, but during the summer he crawls off into a boarding-house and lets the cottage. Rent keeps him in funds for the rest of the year, you see. Guess he put most of his money into this shebang, for he seems hard up. His son has to play the organ in one of the churches here, to eke things out. Quite a genius by the way, that young fellow. Justin they call him. You fond of music ? ”
“ Well, I ’ll get him to come and play for you ; piano goes with house. I furnish a good many things, though, including turn-outs. Come, I’ll show you your room.”
The house was an attractive one, placed near the old Green End Road, which now — with the sham elegance of a parvenu taste — has been rechristened Buena Vista Street. It was supposed to be in the style of Queen Anne ; but had that virtuous matron made a progress in its direction, it may be doubted whether she would have recognized it as a leal subject of her reign in art. The deep brown of its exterior more naturally suggested the domestic inspiration of pumpkin pie. But the room to which Raish Porter conducted his guest was quite to Oliphant’s taste, and was provided with a sheltered ombra where, in the midst of flowering plants, one could inhale the fresh air and gaze upon the green water in front of Easton’s beach, and the gently mounded pastures farther off, which, as Oliphant knew of old, rolled away into the sheltered vale of Paradise. On those slopes rose a squat, comfortable-looking gray wind-mill, past which a delicate fog was beginning to float in from the ocean, spreading its ghostly influence over the land.
“ Now at last I feel that I’m in Newport ! ” Oliphant exclaimed, with satisfaction.
“ Well, my boy, make yourself at home. This afternoon, if you like, I’ll take you the long drive. Do as you please — independence compact, you know. I’ve put you down at both the clubs ; convenient. If you want anything, ring that bell. And oh, by the way,” he added, looking around the door, which he had already opened, to go out, “ there ’s a little wagon entirely for your own use. Any time you want it, just tell James.”
Without giving his friend time to thank him, he disappeared.
When Oliphant went down stairs, a few moments later, Porter was nowhere to be seen. He looked out of the window ; the fog, he saw, had increased. “ This is devilish queer,” he said to himself. “ Where can Porter be ? ” It seemed to him that his host must have vanished into the fog, and he allowed himself to fancy that perhaps he might not return.
He rang the bell. “ Do you know,” he asked of the servant, “ whether Mr. Porter is in ? ”
“No, sir, he’s not in,” said James. “ He went out a few moments ago.”
“ Do you expect him in presently ?”
“ Can’t say, sir.”
There came over Oliphant an uncomfortable sense of being a prisoner, and he said to the servant who still waited, “I think I shall go down to the club — the old club; not the Casino. If Mr. Porter comes in, will you tell him that I shall be back to lunch ? ”
He escaped, and was ridiculously glad to be in the free air once more. He was conscious that the old club, the Newport Reading-Room, was the conservative stronghold, and for this reason he took his way thither, instead of to the Casino. It occurred to him that he had been a trifle rash in accepting Porter’s hospitality without ascertaining more about his present status.
At the club, which was nearly untenanted, he tried to read the newspapers ; but the letter which he had discovered the night before kept coming into his mind. What was he to do with it ? That was the vexatious point, for apparently there was nothing to be done. One might say that, in an honorable sense, the document belonged to Mrs. Gifford as much as to himself ; that she ought to take it and dispose of it in her own way. Yet it would never do to give it to her. No ; that was decided : she must not know of it, on any account. He would burn it. Here again he was obliged to ask himself whether he had any right to do so ; and he could not be sure that he had. Throwing down the newspaper, he saw Roger Deering, who had just entered the room, standing in front of him.
They dropped into a slow dialogue, and Porter became the subject.
“Yes, I’m staying with him,” said Eugene. “ But this sudden prosperity of his rather bewilders me. The last time I knew of him he was merely traveling agent of the Magawisca Manufacturing Company, He tells me now that he’s launched out for himself ; and he appears to be opulent. It’s a great change, seems to me.”
“ So it is,” Roger assented. “ But I suppose he’s entitled to it. He developed a great head for business, and some people think he is a remarkable financier. He certainly has made some long-sighted operations, and is very successful so far.”
“ So far, eh ? Then you doubt his future ?”
Deering answered diplomatically : “ Why should I ? I know nothing about what he’s projecting. Only this, Eugene : as you ’re my cousin, I ’ll warn you that I ’ve sometimes suspected Raish”—he lowered his voice, — “of rather snide transactions; and setting that apart, I know that he is taking great risks.”
Eugene smiled. “ And, as a stockbroker, you consider that against him ? ”
“ I presume, Eugene,” was the reply, “ that your head is well settled on the horizontal plane ; in other words, level. You ’re not a lamb, and accordingly I can click the shears in your hearing with impunity. You had your stint of Wall Street some time ago, I take it. But Raish Porter is even more seductive than stock-quotations, and I advise you to keep clear of his schemes.”
“ Oh, I suppose I shall do that any way,” said Oliphant; “but I ’m obliged for the hint, all the same.” He had an inclination to talk to Roger about Atlee. Roger, with his ruddy face, his short hair, his busy, active manner, seemed so honest, that Oliphant’s dawning anxiety with regard to the attentions of Atlee became doubly painful. But he really had nothing to go upon, and Roger probably would not thank him for revealing it if he had; so he merely asked a few questions about the Anglicized young man. Except for his foreign nonsense, Roger thought him one of the best of fellows, and showed perfect confidence in him. Confidence, it struck Eugene, was the broker’s strongest trait; confidence in himself, in his wife, in Atlee, combined with a confidence that he knew the ways of the world, and did not trust anybody too much. Why would n’t it be a good idea to get his advice regarding the letter ? Accordingly, Eugene put the case to him as a supposititious one.
What would I do ? ” said Roger in reply, casting up the pros and cons with his chin in the air. “ Well, that depends on how much you are acquainted with the lady. However, I should say there is no doubt she ought to have, or at least see the letter, some time. It’s the square thing. When you know her better, say ; or perhaps Mary could help you.”
“Oh no ; no. Don’t say a word to Mary. Please keep the whole thing strictly to yourself. I ’ll wait and see.”
“ All right.”
Going back to the cottage, Eugene lunched alone, Raisk still not having returned ; and when at last the latter made his appearance, it was time for the drive. “ By the way,” said Raish, “ I met Mrs. Blazer, and she wants us both to dine with her on Friday.”
“ She’s very kind ; but I don’t know her yet, you remember.”
“ Oh, I ‘ll arrange that. I shall present you to-morrow. There will be some interesting people at the dinner ; Count Fitz-Stuart, and Lord Hawkstane, and Vivian Ware,” — Oliphant continued to look dubious, — “and that fascinating woman, Mrs. Gifford,” Raish concluded.
“ Ah, she is to be there ? I should like to see her again.”
“ And I don’t blame you,” said his companion, with an off-hand familiarity that somehow grated on Eugene. But they were now spinning along in the dog-cart; and the soft marine air, with the prospect of soon meeting Mrs. Gifford once more, speedily put him into good humor. Porter went on fluently, telling who lived in the various houses along the way, and striking out witticisms from whatever material offered itself. But when they had passed out on to the ocean road that follows the shore to Bateman’s Point and around again to the harbor, his tone changed.
“ I tell you, Oliphant,” he declared with vehemence, “ that life we’ve left behind us in the town is all a sham. It drops itself down in one of the loveliest regions Nature can show, and just devotes itself to a surfeit of amusement and artifice, to fal-lal and lah-de-dah. I despise it! ”
“ Why do you come here, then ? ”
“ Why do you, my dear fellow ? We must be ‘ of our time,’ you know.” And he continued to talk in a strain of capacious dissatisfaction ; satirizing the superficial republicanism of American institutions, and declaring with solid cheerfulness that the present state of things must eventually be swept away and a new civilization be built up above the ruins. But as they drew near the outer streets again, on the homeward stretch, he subsided into contented acceptance of the hollow present, and was careful to show Oliphant where Mrs. Gifford lived. It was a house with timbers let into the walls, and raised its high-piled gables showily above the trees on a hill to the west of the pologrounds, commanding the harbor and Narragansett Bay. “ They call it High Lawn,” Porter said.
The fog had continued to hang about the island, and it increased at nightfall ; so that when Oliphant repaired to his room to sleep, he was glad to see a cheerful fire on the modern-antique hearth. The winking flames reminded him of his first design of burning Gifford’s letter. Mustering his resolution, he took the paper out of its repository and went straight to the fire with it, intending to drop it upon the blazing wood ; but at the last moment his doubts returned, and he concluded to wait. There was a force in it, a something approaching personality, which he could not overcome; it began to make him nervous; he disliked to put it away again and leave it — as if it might take some action against him unawares, when his back should be turned — for it was no longer a passive thing. Prompted by this unreasoning impression, he put the letter into a safe pocket in his coat, determined thereafter to carry it about with him.
At the usual morning assemblage in the Casino, the next day, he was presented to Mrs. Blazer, who made herself agreeable, but wore a pained, abstracted look. He noticed, too, that she constantly, in moments of silence, compressed her upper lip so that it became suddenly creased with fine downward lines, like those of hidden steel springs.
“I’m glad you will come, Friday,” she said, relaxing this pressure and smiling at him ; but it was a weary smile, — that of a person absorbed in schemes, all of which were perhaps not going as she wished. Oliphant had a suspicion that this Social Usurper, like her congeners in the history of thrones, must always remain insecure.
“ It is very considerate in you to ask me,” he replied, “when you have so many to choose from here, and I am little more than a stranger.”
“ My dear Mr. Oliphant,” — her use of this address savored of imperial condescension, — “I am delighted to entertain an old friend of Mr. Porter’s. Besides, you are not so much a stranger.”
“ No ? How is that ? ”
“ Mr. Sweetser has been telling me that he knows all about you.”
“ He must be a magician, then.”
“ Oh no, he’s a very simple man ; a delightful man, too — Mr. Sweetser. He ’s like a glass of soda-water, always sparkling.”
Oliphant caught sight of him in the distance, at that moment, smirking to some ladies on the balcony. “ Yes,” he said; “he seems to enjoy life thoroughly. But you make me curious. I should like to hear my history from him, because he’d be sure to give it a new vivacity.”
“ Ah, that ’s very well said,” Mrs. Blazer declared, showing her large teeth in a heartier smile than before. “ But he only said he remembered seeing you, or knowing of you, some years ago in Springfield. Mr. Sweetser can remember a long time back — for a young man.”
“ I don’t think I remember him,” said Oliphant, reflecting.
“I dare say not; I believe he had known Mrs. Oliphant, when she was Miss Davenant. But I notice your cousin beckoning for you over there : she wants to see you.”
“ Where ? ” Oliphant turned, and discovering Mrs. Deering, went to join her.
“ I am dying to ask you one question,” said that alert little lady, when she had drawn him apart to a quieter spot. “ Is it Mrs. Gifford ? ”
“ It ? What ? And what about her ? ”
“ Why, I mean the letter. Is she the widow you meant, when you told Roger ? ”
Oliphant was thunderstruck. “ Is it possible he mentioned that to you ? ” he inquired, showing his vexation. “ I told him particularly” —
“ Oh, never mind that,” interrupted Mrs. Deering, good-humoredly. “ Of course he tried to keep it to himself, but he was so much interested, he could n’t. And do you know, I guessed right away that it was Mrs. Gifford. Was n’t that ’cute of me ? ” She gazed up at him with such a saucy triumph, that he was obliged to pocket his annoyance.
“ I don’t know that it makes any difference to me,” he said. “ But Mrs. Gifford certainly has some claim. I ’m sorry I spoke to Roger, even vaguely.”
“You might trust me a little,” said his cousin, in a tone of injury. “ Of course I sha’n’t allude to it to any one else, in the faintest way. But I want to know if you ’re really going to show her that letter.”
“ Of course not. How can I ? Would you do such a thing? ”
“ Decidedly not, unless I wanted to give her a shock and make her unhappy.”
“ You think, then, that it really would make her unhappy ? ”
“ I ’m sure of it.”
“ But possibly she knows of the original fact already, even if she never heard of the letter.”
Mrs. Deering shook her head. “ I doubt if she knows ; and even if she did, showing her this old letter would only bring it up in a painful, unnecessary way.”
“ So I think,” he returned. “ But as long as you had been told, I thought I ’d get your opinion.”
“Well, I’ve given it; but you must n’t consider me as advising,” said she, settling her chin with the placidness of sated curiosity.
Oliphant was exasperated at the semipublicity into which he had allowed his secret to be dragged ; but he consoled himself with the fact that husband and wife had flatly contradicted each other’s counsel.
The day for the dinner arrived, and at Mrs. Blazer’s everything appeared light, gay, brilliant; but the elegance of her big mirrors, teakwood furniture, and huge vases was tarnished by a suspicion that it could not be quite genuine.
“ We are just waiting for the Count,” said the hostess, while she welcomed Porter and his companion. She had on a dress of cream-colored silk, plaited and draped with the elaboration of a bastioned fortress ; and around the tightly drawn space at the bottom was spread, like a victorious ensign, a rich applied Turkish embroidery, full of red and yellow.
The servant announced Count FitzStuart, and Porter whispered to Oliphant, “ ‘ Positively the last’ of the Stuarts. They don’t last especially well, eh?”
In truth, the young Count made no very distinguished figure : slim, habile in form, face the color of an apricot ripened under artificial conditions; insignificant teeth, slightly injured ; a general expression of light-hearted readiness for whatever should turn up; all this glazed over with a thin magnificence of manner, somewhat run down from want of exercise.
Among the others present were Vivian Ware and her brother Stillman, Perry Thorburn and Miss Hobart, and the two Misses Blazer. Oliphant was keenly on the lookout for Mrs. Gifford, who greeted him with a smile that was flattering because it seemed to premise that, having seen him once, she was glad to meet him again in a more intimate circle. He crossed over to speak with her.
“ I did n’t see you at the Casino, today,” he said.
“ No, I go only now and then. And to-day I — I was particularly occupied.” She looked down for an instant, and then at him, with an almost girlish anticipation of the surprise she meant to give him. “ Where do you suppose I was ? The most romantic thing you can imagine! ”
“ If it’s romantic,” said Oliphant, “ I sha’n’t try to guess ; for only like knows like.”
“ I don’t know what makes me tell you,” Mrs. Gifford proceeded ; “ I’m sure I don’t. Well, I was down at old Trinity Church, listening to the organ — on a week-day, you know.”
He thought this a flat conclusion, but exclaimed with fervor, “ How singular!”
“Yes,” said his new friend; “but that’s nothing at all. The great point is the organist.”
“Ah? Who is he?”
“ A young musical magnificence. Justin Craig is his name.”
“Craig? Why, I’ve heard of him. I’m staying in his father’s house, with Mr. Porter. Is n’t it the same? ”
“Yes, yes,” cried Mrs. Gifford, alive with enthusiasm. “ Have you met Justin ? ”
The gaslight appeared to Oliphant to burn several degrees brighter, under the influence of this sudden interest.
“ No, I don’t know him,” he said, reluctantly. “ You have a high opinion of his talent, then ? ”
“ You shall see for yourself what it is, Mr. Oliphant. He is coming to play for us here, later in the evening.”
“ Then that is n’t he over there by the window, talking with Miss Hobart?” Oliphant had reference to a tall young man with a palish, elongated face, and vaguely high-bred air, who seemed to be uncomfortable in whatever position he took, and had just shaken himself into a fresh attitude before Josephine.
Mrs. Gifford returned an incredulous gaze. “ That! Why, that’s Lord Hawkstane; did n’t you know? Poor Justin would never be invited here to dine.”
Oliphant was now taken away for presentation to Miss Blazer, the elder, Ruth by name, with whom he was to go in to dinner. Mrs. Blazer led with Lord Hawkstane, and Count Fitz-Stuart escorted Vivian Ware. The diningroom was a rotunda, and the table was circular, too ; so that although Oliphant was placed between Vivian Ware and Ruth Blazer, with Lord Hawkstane and Tilly Blazer opposite, he had a good view of the whole company. There were burning candles in slim brass holders set on small circular mirrors; red and yellow flowers, repeating the tints of Mrs. Blazer’s embroidery, abounded ; and trails of fern led from the central mass to each plate, softening the glitter of the lights, the brass, the glass, and the flame-colored blossoms.
As the turbot à la béchamel followed the Little Neck clams, the Count was heard remarking to Vivian : “But this I do not see, why they call him Little Neck, for this feeshes has not any necks of all.”
“ Next to none,” Oliphant hazarded ; whereupon Vivian gave him a merry glance that put value into the wretched pun.
Just then Lord Hawkstane monopolized attention by what he was saying to Miss Tilly Blazer ; a young woman, by the way, sagacious and picturesque after her manner, with a cultivated air of silliness, and sleepy-looking eyes and nose. She listened with absorption to his account of the fox-hunt. “ Yes, I got the mask,” he said. “ But all this sort of thing,” he continued, in his highpitched, boyish voice, “ is very different to England, you know. Beastly stone walls and all that, don’t you know; but then it was awfully jolly w’en we came in at the death. How’ver, on the way, we got to one of those windmills, don’t you know, — ha, ha ! ” — he burst into a watery little laugh — “ and the fox ran in there. Yes he did, ’pon my word.”
“ How mean of him! ” sighed Miss Tilly.
“Yes,” agreed his lordship, after gulping a glass of Sauterne. “Awfully. It was what you call here ‘ cussed,’ don’t you know ? ‘ Pure cussedness.’ ” And he laughed again, with gratification at having proved himself a wit. “ He was a nahsty little fox. Well, we had to call the hunt together, you know, and begin again. They beat him out, and then I got in front and had an awfully tight pull with Thorburn, and came in ahead; so I got the mask, you und’stand.”
“How perfectly lovely!” Tilly exclaimed. “And the mask is the head, is n’t it? ”
“ It sounds so awfully mysterious, don’t you know ? ” she went on, bringing her manner softly into accord with his. “ The mask, and, the brush, and pads ! How I wish I’d been there.”
“ Why did n’t you come ? ” Lord Hawkstane asked. “ Miss Hobart took the run with us, you know : she was almost in.”
“ I was afraid of those dreadful leaps,” said Tilly. “ But I should so like to see a mask ! Do you have it to keep, all for your own ? ”
“ Oh yes,” said the youthful nobleman, dallying with the enjoyment of some unexpressed joke. “I’m not sure, how’ver, that I shall keep it.” (Tilly blushed, and exhibited a readiness to be overwhelmed by his kindness). “ Rather a baw, you know : what can one do with those sort of things ? ”
“ Oh, I should think it would be so very interesting to have,” Tilly replied, with expectant timidity.
“ If you really care for it so much,” he began, showing the energy of sudden munificence, “ I can let you see it, I dassay.”
Mrs. Blazer observed that he here stole a look at Miss Hobart; who was at some distance from him ; and the hidden springs in Mrs. Blazer’s upper lip began to move nervously, in consequence.
Oliphant made good progress with Vivian Ware, during those intervals when Mrs. Blazer engaged the Count. Miss Ware was unlike most of the young Boston women he had known, in that she quite threw aside the prim reserve usually assigned to them as a characteristic. She had been much about the world, and there was a gay freedom in her manner which even subjected her at times to the charge of being “ fast; ” yet there lurked in her tone, in her refined features and soft complexion crowned with golden hair — briefly, in her entire presence—an unspoiled sweetness that belonged to the flowering-time of life.
“ One of the chief things,” he said to her, “ when I was last in Newport, was to go to the Fort, on Thursdays. Were you there yesterday ? ”
“Bless you, no! ” exclaimed Miss Ware. “It’s all out of date, now. Last week I believe just one carriage went. It must have felt like a fossil.”
“ So do I,” he responded. “ I see I shall have to remodel myself. How would you advise beginning? Buy a white hat ? ”
“ If you do that,” said Vivian, “ you are lost. Black is de rigeur, this summer. And then, you must wear little pointed shoes with cloth down the front.”
“ Because you must. It’s supposed to be the latest English wrinkle.”
“ How is it with our friend the lord, opposite ? Does he get himself up that way ? ”
“ Oh, no ; he can wear anything he likes. He’s real, you see, and our young men are only imitation. They have to take great pains to pass for even that much: the danger is, they may turn out to be nothing, — not even imitation.”
“ I’m glad I’m not one of the young men,” Oliphant observed, “ if that ’s the way you talk about them.”
“ And well you may be,” said Vivian with sprightly ease. “ You’d much better stay as you are.”
Meanwhile he had opportunities enough to glance across the flower-strewn board at Mrs. Gifford, and the more he contemplated her the greater was the charm. He retraced the lines of her delicate face; the thin lips, the small mouth and decisive eyebrows. Her brown hair was of the palest that it could be without merging into blonde, but she had chosen to invest it with a slight ornamentation of black lace, which though not sombre gave a hint of widowhood. Her dress was black and white, with a skillful introduction of violet. Quite to the slender throat it came ; and the face above, having no strong color, acquired by contrast the remote beauty of warm-toned ivory. To see her smile, toss back her head, drink, look, was to feel a wondrousness about it all, as if an exquisite work of art had suddenly been endowed with life.
As soon as the dinner had worn its way through numerous courses to the cloyment of sweets and coffee, and a respite of smoke had been allowed, Oliphant hastened to rejoin her.
“I begin to think,” he commenced, “ that you have held out false hopes as to your youthful prodigy, Craig, He does n’t seem to have come.”
“ No,” said Mrs. Gifford, plainly disappointed. “ Mrs. Blazer received a note after we left the dining-room, and it seems he won’t be here.”
There occurred, instead, a duet by the Misses Blazer; after which he renewed the conversation. But the knowledge of the letter he had discovered hampered him at every step; he was haunted by suspicions that she might know all about that old courtship, and by an uncomfortable fancy that perhaps she knew nothing, in which case he had her at a disadvantage. The temptation to approach the topic indirectly became irresistible.
“We were speaking of Springfield, the other evening,” he finally remarked, as if by an accident of thought. “It’s strange that I never met Mr. Gifford there. You never heard him speak of me, I suppose ? ”
“ No, I don’t remember to have heard him,” said Octavia. “ What makes you think of that ? ”
“ Well, your name struck me as one that I knew, when I heard it here, on meeting you. Possibly it had come to me in some other way. Perhaps my wife — you see, Mr. Gifford may have been known to her ; that is, of course, before we were married.”
The reconaissance was as clumsy as it could well be ; but Octavia gave no sign of apprehending his motive. “ Your wife?” she repeated, in a hushed tone. “ As I told you, I never was in Springfield. What was her name, Mr. Oliphant, before your marriage? ”
His voice came lingeringly, as he replied : “ Alice Davenant.”
“ What a beautiful one ! ” Octavia exclaimed, sincerely, in subdued tones. “ It has the ring of poetry in it. Alice Davenant! I’m quite sure, though, that Mr. Gifford did not know her : if he had, I should have remembered his mentioning it,”
Oliphant’s doubts were thus set at rest. He changed the topic quickly, and availed himself of the first opportunity to ask if he might call upon her.
“ Why not?” she replied. “ I shall be glad to see you. Are you to remain some time in Newport ? ”
“ Probably through the season,” he answered.
“ A wise resolve,” said she, “ in any one who comes here. You won’t regret it.”
I shall not deny that Oliphant attributed to these words a superstitious force which they were not fitted to bear. “ That’s a good prophecy,” he said with vigor, after an instant’s revery. “And, since you make it, I think it must be a true one.”
When they had all gone, Mrs. Blazer — left alone with her swan-like nieces, — drew a crumpled note from her pocket. “ There ! ” she cried, to Ruth. “ Read that. Read it aloud.”
Miss Blazer obeyed. The note was from Justin Craig, declining to be present and returning the check she had sent him. “ Allow me to add,” it ended, “ that I will not debase my art to the amusement of people who, considering me unfit to associate with on equal terms, would have me sit in the same room and exhibit the beauty of something they are unable to appreciate. If you are content with your position, so am I with mine.”
“ Did you ever hear such an insult ! ” stormed Mrs. Farley Blazer, walking swiftly about and fanning herself ferociously. “ After Octavia Gifford had been at me to send for him, and I had done it out of pure charity, too ! Well, it’s just the same, high and low : there’s a constant fight with people, even now when I ‘ve made them acknowledge me ; and it’s hardly worth while to do anything. And you there, Tilly, why did n’t you go to the meet ? Do you know what I’ve found out? It’s another piece of Gifford work, getting Josephine Hobart over here; and I heard Hawkstane saying, just before he left, that he was going to send her a memento of the fox-hunt. Of course it’s the mask, which you ’d have got for yourself, if you had any vim ! ”
Saving which, the matron broke into a violence of epithet that, if I were to repeat it, would at once be pronounced unnatural and incredible : therefore we will leave it to be washed away by the tears to which she gave free vent in the midst of her tirade.
But Oliphant, wending back to the supposed Queen Anne cottage, was soothed by his delightful impressions of Octavia Gifford, which like a refreshing autumn rain had begun to lay the dust of his arid past; nor, if he had known of Mrs. Blazer’s explosion, could he have guessed how it would affect his own fate.
SOME IMPORTANT TRIFLES.
“ Here ’s a pretty go with young Craig,” said Raish to his visitor, the next afternoon ; and he related the manner of Justin’s refusal, which Mrs. Blazer had been confiding to him. “ But the funny part of it,” he added, “ is the rage she’s in. She’s formed such a habit, in her long social war, of feeling slighted that she can’t be comfortable now without an injury. The case between Craig and her reminds me of the eagle who refused to carry off a fine plump ewe, on the ground that the muttonish creature would n’t appreciate the honor; and then the ewe went around complaining that the eagle had insulted her.”
“ Did you tell Mrs. Blazer that?” Oliphant inquired.
“’Gad, no!” Raish exclaimed. “I told Craig, though, when I saw him, a little while ago : thought it would pacify him.”
“ Well, what does he say ? ”
“ Oh, he ’s in a sumptuous and haughty frame of mind. It’s a pity he behaved so, because this would really have been a good opening for him. But I think I calmed him down a little ; and I succeeded, according to promise, in making him consent to come up here and play for you — this evening.”
“ I ’m glad of that,” said Oliphant. “ This quixotic proceeding of his makes me more anxious than ever to see him.”
“The real inside reason why he would n’t accept Mrs. Blazer’s offer,” Porter volunteered, “was probably that he has a desperate attachment for Miss Ware, and did n’t wish to appear before her in the light of an inferior.”
“Good!” rejoined Oliphant. “The interest increases. And the attachment is hopeless, you think?”
“ Oh, I don’t know that it is. On the face of it, you’d think so: fact, it’s ridiculous. Of course I’m with him in sympathy: smash up the cliques, I say — except when you ‘re in ’em yourself. ‘ Down with exclusiveness,’ and so forth. Let the genius in humble circumstances marry the swell girl, and all that. As I said to you recently, we must do away with all this old humbug which is reasserting itself in a country that was made for better things, and start a new order. But for the present the obstacles in Craig’s way appear insurmountable ; enough so, any way, to make the hopelessness profitable. To him as a musician, you see, despair is just so much stock in trade.”
“ For heaven’s sake,” remonstrated the other, “don’t put it that way — as if he were carrying on a business in emotions! You make my blood run cold.”
Porter laughed indulgently. “ It’s true, all the same,” he said. “ Everything is business, nowadays. The poets and painters and musicians are all traders, but they catch the public by pretending not to be. A mere financial genius like me can succeed only by casting up the value of those things that are assumed not to be business at all, and making them count at the right time. I don’t suppose Craig has come as yet to the point of seeing these things clearly; but he instinctively seizes on ecstasy and despair as being in his line.”
They were smoking their cigars in the cosey bachelor drawing-room, that evening, with black coffee in small Satsuma cups awaiting them on a tray, when Justin Craig made his appearance. Eugene had expected something eccentric ; he thought the young man would be tall, gloomy, and in all likelihood long-haired. He was surprised, therefore, to find him so gentle, so inconspicuous, and yet so uncommonly attractive as he proved to be.
“ Did you bring any music with you ?” he asked.
“ Yes,” answered Justin, nodding, but with a reserve of humor in his eyes ; “ I’ve brought some.”
Then, taking his place at the piano, he looked quietly at the keys for a moment, and, before it could well be noticed that he had actually begun, was tracing his way through the first bars of a prelude by Chopin. As the delicate, gradual tones succeeded each other, Oliphant was strangely affected. Something there was so pure and refined in the player’s touch, his beginning with this perfectly simple theme showed so true a sensibility, that the world-worn man who listened was carried back to his boyhood, and then far away out of himself into an unknown, sunny-misted region of fancy, where pleasant visions floated round him. All the while, there recurred in the melody, which had about it a great though heartbroken peacefulness, some fine and slow descending notes that brought into his mind imperceptibly the idea of light rain falling.
“ Is life so dreary as I have thought? ” mused Oliphant, under this spell. “ Surely, if it has room for this young fellow, with his heart and head responding to such sweet fantasies, it may yet hold a possibility of genuine happiness for me.”
The piece stopped as quietly as it had begun, and he asked what it was. “It ’s usually called The Raindrop,” said Justin. “ One of the best of Chopin’s things, too. Now I ‘ll give you some of Raff,” he continued, plunging at once into a brilliant impromptu.
Porter, after a congenial remark or two, took his leave, on the plea of a business engagement. Thus left alone, the young musician and his new friend enjoyed an hour of rare delight, both in discussing various composers and listening to their productions, as Justin gave them wing upon the keyboard. Justin had a long face; rather a long nose; an expression of natural pride, which yet had nothing domineering about it, and was tempered with natural sweetness. His lips were slightly drawn back at the corners, without being strained ; and there was a small hollow just above the chin, caused by the firm jut of the lower lip, so decided that, as the light streamed over him from above, a spot of shadow rested there. His own shadow was thrown behind him upon the dimpapered wall, wavering somewhat with his firm, unexaggerated motion as his hands changed position and grasped from the keys the secret of their harmonies. Altogether, that keen, unusual face, so steady and concentrated in the midst of shifting lights and shadows, with wave on wave of intelligent sound rising up and floating around it, became singularly impressive.
“ I ’m sorry,” said Oliphant at length, when Craig had stopped to rest, and was lounging in a deep chair with a cigarette in his mouth, — “I ’m sorry we could n’t have heard you last night, at Mrs. Blazer’s.”
Justin jumped up, letting an angry whiff of smoke escape. “ I could n’t have played there, Mr. Oliphant, — I could n’t! ” he exclaimed. “ Why, my fingers would have rebelled, even if I had consented. Don’t you see how it is? You would n’t ask me to do such a thing, I should hope. You have too much of the artist in you, for that, even if you have been a business man.”
“ I’m glad you think so well of me, at any rate,” smiled Eugene. “ Certainly I appreciate your feeling, but” —
“ Oh, ‘ but,’ ‘ but! ’ ” interrupted the younger man. “ There is no ‘ but ’ about it. Pardon me ; I did n’t mean to be rough,” he added. “ But if you only knew how the snobbishness of this whole place jars on me, and how that incident of last night brings it all back! Oh, it’s insufferable, it’s miserable ! Sham, sham, sham, all around : we ’re on an island of sham, with the big ocean of reality on every side, which they’re all afraid of being drowned in if they once venture off!” He curved his arms out, downward, and swept them round him, to describe this ocean, and went on railing more and more. “ Of course,” he wound up at last, “ I know there are lovely people here, amiable and cultivated, and so forth; but even they are affected. I see a little of some of them who stay during the winter ; but somehow, except with the poor ones, I am made to feel my inferiority. And here is this house — our home — that we have to abandon during the season. Why should I feel humiliated by that fact, if we can’t help it ? But I am ; I ’m humiliated. There’s no sense in it, and it only shows how you can’t help breathing in this poison of the plutocracy, that fills the air. I hate everything and everybody in the place! ”
“Including Mrs. Gifford ? ” inquired Oliphant mildly.
“ Ah, Mrs. Gifford ! No ; I believe she is a good friend. Such a woman as she is! Perfect in herself — standing way off from a fellow, yet so sympathetic. No ; I ought n’t to have said everybody; for there ’s another — one other ” — Justin stopped short, relighted his cigarette, which had gone out, and subsided into his chair.
As he sat there, a distant look came into his face ; the storminess of his recent mood died away in an expression of great gentleness. Oliphant knew he must be thinking of Vivian Ware.
It was after this that, returning to the piano, Justin played something which startled his auditor by its crisp, clear, bounding individuality. Coming after so many German pieces, it was like the scent of aromatic New England woods and the sound of native speech, on the return from Europe. Oliphant recognized in the music something native and original; and it turned out to be, in fact, Justin’s own composition. He no longer hesitated to regard the young man as a promising genius; and he foresaw that to take him in charge and aid him in his professional education might furnish just the sort of motive in life which he himself would like.
Raish did not return until late, when Craig had been gone some time. He appeared in more than good spirits : he was excited, which with him was rarely the case. His eyes glowed as if from the reflected glare of some crucible seething with combinations that were to yield marvelous results. “ You’ve lost a great pleasure,” said his guest. “ I would n’t have missed it, for a good share in the profits I suppose you’ve been figuring up.”
“ Do you really mean that? ” queried Raish, blandly rubbing his hands.
The shining look passed away from the other man’s eyes, which rapidly cooled down under pressure of the will. “ My dear fellow,” said he, carelessly, seating himself, “ a tenth in one of my operations — say my new Orbicular Machinery Company, whose patents you know are going to make it an enormous success — would give, with what you have, a really handsome fortune. But, bah!” he ended impatiently. “ I resolved when you came that we should n’t talk money ; and we won’t. Don’t let me forget again. Have some beer, before bed ? ”
His hand was on the bell ; but Oliphant declined the refreshment. Arrived at his room, he suspected that Porter really wanted to discuss business, and he was glad he had escaped. Assuredly there was something about this man which made it hard to trust him fully ; and it was odd that both he and Justin, of whose sincerity Oliphant had n’t a doubt, should have taken the same tone in criticising the Newport spirit. If two men so opposite could agree, there must be something in it, Oliphant thought. This, however, was not what he thought about chiefly, as he sat in his ombra indulging a brief meditation, and watching the pale stars that shot forth their gleams in a silent rhythm. He was brooding over Justin’s enamored subjection to Vivian Ware. Wonderful must be the refined passion which drew the young minstrel towards her. Wonderful, too, in a world so full of disappointments, to find a youthful heart — so like millions of other youthful hearts — fired with lofty enthusiasm, lavish in scorn and unreasonableness, and devoutly believing in love! . . . At last, Oliphant’s revery settled upon Octavia Gifford, and he even harbored a wish that he also could be young, like Justin.
Two or three days later, Dana Sweetser, bestarched, perfumed, roseate of countenance, and resplendent as to neckscarf, was making a morning call at Mrs. Blazer’s. Something occurred in the conversation which led Mrs. Blazer to tax him with being forgetful. This was touching him in a tender spot, and he became determined to show her that his mind was still young and active. “ My dear madam,” he exclaimed, “you could n’t make a greater mistake ! Accuse me of other faults, if you like,— ah, too great a fondness for the fair sex — he, he ! — but don’t accuse my memory. Why, it’s the easiest thing to give you proofs of its strength.” Dana was really on the verge of being incensed: his little thimbleful of soul was tossing with puny indignation. It occurred to him that he might tell her how well he remembered the time when her father was a butcher, — not a very good one, either, — and how her husband had begun in life as the proprietor of a junk-shop. But it did not lie in Dana’s composition to do anything so harsh as that; so he punished her merely by recalling a quantity of dry details about long past trivial events. Mrs. Blazer was beginning to wince under the infliction, when he suddenly struck a new vein. “ Oh, and Mr. Oliphant, you know ! ” said he. “ I was telling you I knew about him. But I did n’t get a chance to mention the oddest thing. What do you suppose ? ”
“ Can’t imagine, Mr. Sweetser. What?”
“ Why,” — Dana laughed, seemingly inclined to prolong the pleasure of imparting, — “ his wife, you know, the girl he married ” —
“ Whom did he marry ? ” Mrs. Blazer asked, growing curious.
“ Alice Davenant, — Miss Davenant, of Springfield. But the joke is this: she had previously jilted Gifford, the husband of Mrs. Gifford the lovely, here. Is n’t that singular ? ”
Mrs. Blazer’s eyes glowed. “ As a coincidence, yes; very singular. And Octavia had n’t known this Mr. Oliphant, do you suppose, till they met, the other day ? ”
“ No,” said Dana; “I believe they were strangers.”
“ Well, well, upon my life ! ” Mrs. Blazer exclaimed, smiling with peculiar relish for the situation. “ Of course they must have known the facts, though,” she added, contracting her glance to an evil watchfulness.
“ That I can’t say,” Dana rejoined, thoroughly mellowed, and as much exhilarated as if he had taken a glass of wine. “ I should think Oliphant must have known; but it would n’t be so certain that Mrs. Gifford did, you know : would it?” And he cocked his appreciative eye at her, like one competent to get the full value out of such matters, by discussing all the minute possibilities of doubt.
The lady of the smoky white complexion humored him and suited herself, by carrying out this process. “ First tell me all the particulars you know,” she said, “ and then I can form a judgment.”
So Dana bubbled on, joyously chattering out the shallowness of his information, with utmost generosity: it was all he had to give, and he gave it. He had vindicated his memory ; he had interested Mrs. Blazer.
From what she had gathered, Mrs. Farley Blazer came to the conclusion that Octavia probably knew nothing of that old history ; but, for purposes of her own, she assumed just the contrary when she next saw the widow. She could not forgive Octavia for having drawn down a mortification upon her, by urging her to invite Craig to play for hire, and so putting her into a position to be snubbed by the youngster. Still less could she overlook the offense of bringing Josephine Hobart back to Newport, to distract Lord Hawkstane’s attention from Tilly. Accordingly, when Octavia came, to pay her dinner call, Tilly’s aunt found an apt moment for remarking casually, “Oh, my dear, what a queer thing it is that you two should have met here,—you and the man whose wife was an old flame of your husband’s ! ”
Mrs. Gifford showed an amused surprise. “It would be queer,” she said, calmly, “ if there were any such man ; but there is n’t. What put it into your head ? Whom do you mean ? ”
Mrs. Blazer unfolded her meaning ; but, to her chagrin, it produced no shock. Octavia persisted in her laughing incredulity, and ridiculed Dana Sweetser’s evidence. “ You may be sure,” she said, “ that he has been mixing us up with some other people.” And before Mrs. Blazer saw clearly how it was done, Octavia brought in another topic, and then took her leave, completely uncrushed.
These things had happened before Eugene, on his way to see Mrs. Gifford, stopped in at his cousin’s.
“ Have you heard the news ? ” she immediately asked him.
“ Yes ; Major Bottick told me at the club,” he answered.
Mary Deering’s face became blank with astonishment. “ Major Bottick ! ” she exclaimed.
“ Certainly; he’s up in all these war matters. Of course you mean about the English and the Suez Canal ? ”
“ What have I said about a canal ? ” inquired Mrs. Deering, aggrieved.
“ Oh, then you ’re thinking of the President’s expected visit here ? ”
“ No, indeed,” said his cousin, still more reproachfully. “ How dull of you ! Do you call those things news ? What I ’m talking about is Lord Hawkstane’s engagement.”
“ Hullo ! Is n’t he rather ’ previous ’ ? Whom is he engaged to ? ”
“ Josephine Hobart.”
“Well, that has the approved stamp of news ; it ’s so incredible. Have they announced it ? ”
“ Not yet ; but a few of us know it. He sent her the mask that he won at the hunt; had it set in a collar of gold and surrounded with the most magnificent flowers: just think of it! Then he went up yesterday to call, and, as we suppose, offered himself. He ’s been so puffed-up and vainglorious ever since, that hardly any one can approach him, even to offer a congratulation. So you see there’s no doubt of it at all : they ’re engaged. And it will be an awful blow to Mrs. Farley Blazer ! ”
“I can hardly believe it yet,” said Eugene. " I can’t see why Miss Hobart should take him. Have you asked Mrs. Gifford about it ? ”
“ No ; I ’ve had no chance. But I intend to.”
Oliphant told her that he was about to call upon the widow.
“ Oh, do,” urged his cousin, " and then tell me what you find out about the engagement. But mind you, don’t let her know of that letter.”
“ No danger,” said he. “I have decided that point.” Before long he broke out, " By the way, speaking of its being a blow, how about young Thorburn ? If you were right in thinking he was in love with Miss Hobart, this will be a bitter thing for him.”
“ Ah, Eugene,” said Mrs. Deering, laying her hand on his arm, " save your compassion. I was mistaken about that: it’s Mrs. Gifford that he’s after.”
“ Oh,” said Oliphant, amazed at the ease with which she changed her view. " Being a woman, I suppose you must know. But don’t you remember how at the first I thought Mrs. Gifford was his object ? ”
“ Yes, Eugene. It must be that you have a sort of feminine instinct.”
“ Possibly,” he answered, with some dryness, and became silent. " I am thinking.” he then said slowly, “that his courtship of the widow will leave him as badly off as if he had been trying to marry Miss Hobart; provided you are right as to Mrs. Gifford’s being so unapproachable. You recall what you said, I suppose.”
“ It does n’t seem to me, though, that because she was so happy, before, is any reason against her attempting matrimony again. I should say her former experience would work as an argument directly in favor of renewing her happiness with some other worthy person, if she should by accident find one.”
“ I know,” was Mrs. Deering’s reply. “ That’s the way men would look at it. But then — Eugene,” she recommenced, with unwonted earnestness, " have you noticed those clear, bright diamonds she always wears in her ears? ”
“I think I have, the few times I have seen her.”
“ Well, they ’re a kind of symbol,” said Mrs. Deering, impressively. “ I think they are like petrified tears! They don’t attract attention, but they ’re always in sight, as silent emblems of her loss. Yes, yes,” she went on — and it was remarkable to Oliphant how his lively and conventional little cousin was aroused and thrilled by her own fantasy, — " they are talismans! And until a man had got them away, or persuaded her to stop wearing them, it would be no use to attempt winning her.” In reaching this climax, nevertheless, Mary Deering, apparently overcome by the absurdity of the notion, burst into a laugh.
“ That will do very well as a superstition,” said Oliphant, smiling, although her remark had produced no little effect upon him.
She sat there unheeding : one would have supposed she had not heard what he said. She picked away with her needle at some rosy thread which she was stitching into a pattern, and the light from it threw a soft reflection on her face. Can it have been that she had deliberately tried to incite Oliphant to make some advance towards the widow ?
I only know that he grew restless. He began to think it was of the highest importance to see Mrs. Gifford immediately, as if something of great moment was to be settled by doing so.
“I must go along,” he said, rising. And in half an hour he was at Octavia’s door.
A WOMAN’S AGONY.
At High Lawn, Oliphant was ushered into an apartment so prettily devised that it was like a fair and open countenance.
He was conscious of having made a real advance in his acquaintance with Octavia, merely by stepping into this dwelling-place of hers. The room was finished in holly-wood, with a dead surface, smooth like ivory, but pleasanter, because it still had somewhat of the freshness of a limber growth that had once swayed in the breeze. Panels along the walls were filled in with winecolored silk, upon which silver thread and varicolored floss were embroidered in slender lines. There were low seats scattered about, covered with pale tints of this wine hue and with clear seagreen ; and the whole place looked above all cosey and inhabited, as if its usual occupant were not afraid of its richness and refinement, or at all subordinated by it, but made herself at home there as in her native element On a small side-table lay some new worsted-work and a large book, open at the page she had last been reading. The plan of the room was slightly irregular, including near one end a spacious embayed window, the panes of which were set in delicate wood-tracery, where the sunlight was treasured up and some plants grew brightly. Oliphant moved thither, and while he was looking at the gossamer threads of the embroidery on the wall, he heard a light movement, turned, and discovered Mrs. Gifford, who had come into the window-space through an unnoticed doorway. So for a moment she stood there against a vista of lawn slope and trees that led down to the level, shining reaches of the bay ; a figure full of brilliancy and gladness, that seemed to concentrate in itself all the charm of the surroundings.
“ You see I have come soon,” he said, shaking hands. “ And is Miss Hobart still with you ? ”
She had motioned him to a chair, and had taken a place for herself on a sort of huge pale-green cushion which did duty as a seat.
“Yes, Miss Hobart is still here, but she has to excuse herself to-day.”
Oliphant wondered whether Josephine’s invisibility were due to a rapturous privacy consequent, upon her engagement. Just then his eye fell upon the fox’s head, of which he had heard so much: encircled by a mass of flowers, it lifted its furry nose from a table near by.
“ A little trophy,” said Octavia, smiling. “ Lord Hawkstane sent it to Josephine. How does it strike you ? ”
“I think I should like the flowers alone better.”
“ I’m glad to have you say so,” she declared. “ It’s dreadfully cruel.”
“The sport? Yes, it is cruel; and it ’s empty, — emptier than that poor creature’s head.”
“ Of course you mean the fox’s head,” observed Octavia, a twinkle of sarcasm in her eyes.
“ Of course,” he answered, laughing.
“ As to the sport,” said Octavia, “ Josephine followed the hounds, and that part of it does n’t seem so cruel, you know. But having the poor head served up in flowers does strike me as rather savage, Hawkstane got the idea from one of his American friends. He never would have thought of anything so barbarous himself; but it was suggested to him as the proper way to do things here.”
“ Possibly,” Oliphant contended, “his friend was right. Is n’t it the spirit of the place to be idly busy and fill up the time with expensive nonsense ? ”
“ Do you really think so ? ” she asked.
“ I’m not sure that I do,” he returned. “ I really enjoy this Newport existence. Still, I suspect it of being what I just called the sport — empty. What does it all come to ? There’s an immense amount of occupation: dressing, dining, driving, show. But it becomes a routine, and there does n’t seem to be any good reason for the thing. In fact, I have a radical friend who declares that Newport is wholly un-American, and ought not to exist.”
“ Ah, that’s the trouble with us,” Octavia remarked. “ There are so many American things that are un-American.”
“What’s your own opinion ?” Oliphant asked.
“ Mine ? Oh, I glory in Newport! I ’m devoted to it. I don’t pretend to account for myself, in that; but when you love a place or a person — really love, I mean — you like the faults as well as the virtues, don’t you know ? ”
“ And on that basis, if there are no faults, it’s just so much deprivation, I suppose,” said he, enlarging on her theory. “ But I ’m afraid I made a mistake in speaking so scornfully of Newport. You will condemn me.”
“ Not at all. I like candor, though of course it need n’t always be put as Justin Craig put his to Mrs. Blazer. What an unfortunate affair, by the way!”
“ Yes, conventionally speaking. But don’t you find it refreshing sometimes to have people come out with exactly what they feel, even if they are a little crude about it ? ”
“ Indeed, yes.” Octavia spoke quickly, and as quickly added, “ It depends on who the people are. I like Justin very much: he’s so true to himself. But I remember your cousin saying — and how sharp she is! — that it’s the same with people as with some of the things we eat. When fish tastes too much like fish, we don’t like it, simply because we say it’s ‘ too fishy.’ And so it won’t do for people to be too much themselves in society : if they are, they ’re not acceptable — though a slight flavor of individuality is much esteemed. Is n’t that clever ? ”
“ Rather so. A certain amount of deceit is necessary.”
Octavia sighed, placidly. “ At our age, Mr. Oliphant, one comes to recognize that principle.”
“ Still,” Oliphant observed, “ there must be exceptions. Now when I meet anybody in whom I’m likely to be interested, I go for clearing away all surface deceits at once : I try to get down to a simple and straightforward understanding as soon as possible.”
“ That’s the best way in those cases,” said Octavia. “The danger is, your frankness may be misapprehended.”
“ Very possibly it may,” he returned. But there’s an instinct that tells us when it will be taken amiss. I imagine, in fact I’m pretty confident, that you, for instance, would be careful not to misapprehend.”
She laughed, greatly at her ease: his admission that he was likely to be interested in her was so ingenuous. “ I should try to be careful,” she replied.
He recognized the position in which he had placed himself. “ There,” he said, “you see how, the moment we try to be sincere and direct, we become personal. That’s the reason people are so afraid of sincerity : they dread being personal. I had no intention about it, but now I find that I’ve been trying to get this very point settled between us.”
Again Octavia laughed, adding, “ It seems to have settled itself.” And so, in truth, it had: they were no longer mere acquaintances, but had made a beginning of friendship.
Oliphant now remembered his cousin’s injunction to find out something about the engagement. Mentioning it, he asked, “May I offer my congratulations, through you ? ”
“ I have n’t been empowered, Mr. Oliphant, to receive them.”
“ Then the rumor is n’t true, I infer.”
Octavia saw fit to be mysterious. “ If you want to know,” she counseled him, “ you must go to Josephine herself, or to Lord Hawkstane.”
“ I can’t very well do that,” he said.
Octavia’s face wore an amused look, but very soon this changed to one of deepening interest.
“It is queer how reports get into circulation,” she began. “ Something has just come into my mind ” — Then she hesitated.
“ Some other rumor ? ” Oliphant queried.
“ Yes : a ridiculous one. But it is n’t worth mentioning.”
He was wondering what it could be, when the maid entered with a letter on her salver. “ Beg your pardon, ma’am : the man said it was to be given you right away.”
Octavia apologized to her caller and broke the envelope, which bore a glowing gold monogram on one side and a dashing superscription on the other. It was a note from Perry Thorburn, asking her to drive with him that afternoon. “ There’s no answer at present: I will send one very soon,” she said to the maid, and laid the note in its cover on a bracket-shelf.
“ Don’t let me incommode you,” said Oliphant, rising.
“ Oh, no. Wait a little. I think you are interested in Justin, and I want to talk with you about him. Perhaps we can get him a chance for a concert which can be made fashionable, and you may be useful in persuading him to it.”
Oliphant resumed his place ; but she noticed, as she thought, a strange look in his eyes, which had not been there before the arrival of the note. The incident brought freshly up in his mind his secret concerning Gifford’s letter. He was imagining how it would be if that letter, instead of the one with the gilt monogram, had just come to her.
“ Of course,” he said, “ I shall be glad to do anything I can to assist Craig, especially if I please you by it.”
“ Ah, that is very nice,” said the young widow, with almost girlish enjoyment. Nevertheless, they were both thinking of something else than their words indicated. Octavia, for her part, had been growing restless over Mrs. Blazer’s assertion of a former attachment between Gifford and Miss Davenant, particularly since a second rumor had come to her ears, and was anxious to controvert it. This was what really occupied her mind while she spoke so glibly of Craig. “ It’s very nice,” she repeated, inertly, once more becoming aware of that look in Oliphant’s eyes. “ But you seem to speak in a different tone now. You ’re not enthusiastic. Are you concealing something unfavorable ? ”
He tried vainly to shake off the reserve which he knew was creeping over his manner. “ About Craig ? No ; nothing.”
“ At any rate,” said Octavia, with unconcern, “ I have no right to crossexamine you. We were just talking,” she went on, “about frankness. If you ’re not keeping anything back, I confess that I am, though it has nothing to do with Justin. That rumor I mentioned just now — that is what I’m holding in reserve ; but I think I must tell you about it. You will see that it’s not quite pleasant to speak of, perhaps; hut I am annoyed by it, and want your help.”
“ Well, then, there’s that much of good in it,” Oliphant answered, more at ease.
She paused an instant; then resumed, in a tone of wonderful gentleness :
“ You asked lately, Mr. Oliphant, if I had known your wife’s name.”
A chill passed through him. What was coming? What had she discovered ? He merely bent his head assentingly, and she continued : “ It was a coincidence that you should have asked me that question, because of something else that came up soon afterwards.”
“Indeed?” he said, his apprehensiveness increasing.
Octavia exhibited embarrassment. “Yes; it was hinted to me that Mr. Gifford had known Miss Davenant and had been an admirer of hers — a devoted admirer, in fact, before he and I had met.” Here she smiled, perhaps only from nervousness; but Oliphant remained gravely silent, waiting to hear more. “Of course,” she added, “as Mr. Gifford never had spoken to me of her, the notion seemed improbable ; but now there has been a second rumor, and this time it is said that you know all about the history. I hope you will pardon me for talking of it: you can guess that I never would do so unless I thought there was a duty involved. The gossips have no right to be inventing tales about those two who have gone. I thought you ought to know how your name is being used ; and really it is for both our interests to stop such idle talk, don’t you think ? ”
The gentleness in her voice had insensibly increased, until the words flowed like the notes of distant music : the tone was subdued, verging upon tremulousness. Both she who spoke and he who listened were thrilled by one chord of memories solemn and sweet, though to Oliphant it brought an after-tone of endless repining.
“ Who would have thought,” he mused aloud, not answering her questions at once, “ that we who did not know of one another’s existence, a few days ago, should so soon be speaking of things that lie nearest to us ? I think it shows that there ought to be confidence between us. And now in regard to your question, Mrs. Gifford, if you will only place such confidence in me — I quite agree that our interests coincide; we want to stop the chatterers. I suggest that the best way is to ignore them.”
“ That’s easily said,” Octavia objected ; “but I can’t do it unless you help me. You see, they are quoting you.”
She gazed at him with a certain innocent confidence, against which a vague inquiry contended. It was evident to Oliphant that she counted upon him to deny the rumor, and so assist her to a triumph ; and it gave him a poignant regret that he could not do this.
“ What have you heard as to my knowledge ? ” he inquired, still dallying.
“It’s hardly worth while to go into that,” she replied, “ unless you really know something. But tell me; there is no truth in the report, is there ? ”
Oliphant was in a pitiable dilemma. “ Are you not troubling yourself needlessly ?” he said, in perplexity. “ I am not responsible for all this. If you compel me, I suppose I must admit that there is ground for what has been said ; but it is wiser to let it rest.”
“ That is impossible,” declared Octavia, becoming imperious. “ I want to put the whole thing down ; and, in the form which it has taken, that can be done only by positive denial.”
“ I see that my doctrine of candor is being put to a terrible test,” he interposed, attempting to take a light tone, although really in consternation.
“ Mr. Oliphant,” said she, “ I must know whatever you have to tell me. Is it not my right ?”
“ Undoubtedly, if you choose to assert it. But, after all, I have little to tell.”
“ You have no disproof ” — she hesitated — “ or proof ? ”
“ I have a letter ; that’s all.”
Octavia did not respond. She withdrew into herself ; her eyes sank. Oliphant fancied that she shuddered.
“A letter from Mr. Gifford?” she then asked, looking straight at him.
“ Yes ; a letter to my wife, before she became my wife.” He met her eyes, and tried to appear as if he attached slight importance to his statement.
“ Ah,” she scarcely more than whispered, “ it was something of that sort that I heard.”
“ You heard of the letter, too ! " he cried, hotly. “ Then some one must have been guilty of treachery.”
“ What else could you expect, if you told any one ? ” the widow inquired, as icy as he was the opposite. But her eyes were not cold : their luminous depths were softened by a look of tender pleading.
“ I have not told. I beg you to believe ” —
“ I will believe nothing that you say I ought not,” she interrupted with dignity.
“ Very well. What has become known is due to an accident. I cannot even comprehend how you have been spoken to as you have.” Oliphant rose, and, moving a pace or two, drew his gloves impatiently through one hand, knitting his brows in bewilderment and vexation. “ It’s wrong, it ’s unfair,” he muttered, “ that this should be brought upon me.”
Octavia changed her mood as instinctively as one might in improvising upon a sympathetic instrument. “Oh, well, we ought not to distress ourselves,” she said ; though Oliphant knew perfectly well that she was suffering keenly. “ Why should n’t Mr. Gifford have written to Miss Davenant, if he pleased ? I dare say it quite passed out of his mind afterwards ; and that is what makes it seem so odd that we should only now be discovering their acquaintance. The whole thing is simple enough.”
“Certainly; quite simple,” Oliphant rejoined, grasping at a chance of escape that promised so well. He was dumfounded by the rapid and conflicting turns through which he was being led, but made a manful effort to keep his balance. “ I ’m glad you don’t give it too much consequence,” he ended.
“ Only I shall want to see the letter, you know,” she suddenly reminded him, with a gracious smile, but looking very determined. Her head was bent a trifle sidewise, and she gave him a long, steady glance, which was like a sharpshooter’s in taking aim.
Then Oliphant recognized that it would be futile to hold out any longer. “It shall be as you like,” he said. “ Only let me say that no one else has read the letter.”
“ So much the better. Have you it here ? ”
“ In Newport ? Yes : I can send it to you.” He could not face the ordeal of handing it to her in person.
“Thanks. Very soon, too, I hope. Could you let me have it to-day ? You will understand my eagerness to see anything that my husband wrote.”
“ Oh, yes, I understand.” He pitied her from the bottom of his heart, as he stood there looking down at her. Did she see the compassion in his eyes, I wonder ? Why could she not comprehend his reluctance to give her pain ; and why could she not let him judge what was best for her peace of mind ?
What a beautiful picture of grace and contentment she made in that charming room, with its embroideries and sunlight and delicate colors ! What a picture of a smiling and unruffled life her face suggested, too! And here was Oliphant compelled to bring disturbance and disaster into the scene, through no fault of his own ; knowing well that when he next beheld her there would be a change — that things could not remain the same after she should have seen the letter. “ You shall have it in half an hour,” he said. Then, instead of going at once, he paused. “ I hope you will not misjudge me in this matter. I can explain more, perhaps, by and by. But would you mind letting me know who it was that brought you the reports ? ”
“ I’d rather not, now, Mr. Oliphant. Let us leave that till afterwards, too; but I will try to think that you are not to blame.”
And so, with the friendly smile she gave him in parting, he made a barren effort to solace himself as he drove away, heavy at heart. Wondering how Mary Deering could have been so reckless as to circulate the story of the letter — for he supposed that it must have come from her — he mechanically put his hand into the inner pocket where he had been carrying the vexatious little paper burden ; but it was no longer there! Where to begin the search for it he could not decide; but as he was near Mrs. Deering’s he ordered the coachman to stop at her house, resolving at least to investigate her conduct. He reappeared in the small parlor in a stormy mood ; questioning and accusing his cousin, and denouncing people in general. She persisted in asserting her innocence ; and he went his way again within five minutes, a dim hope that he might have left the letter in another coat lending haste to his movements. His anxiety increased every instant, until he reached the Queen Anne cottage, and, dashing up stairs, entered his room. There, surely enough, he found the momentous letter slumbering in a coat which he had not had on for two days. Not until he had inclosed it and sent it away by a paid messenger did the ugly surmise enter his mind that his occult and ubiquitous host, Raish, might have played the spy, coming upon this document during some one of his own absences from the room.
When Octavia received the long envelope, she was still in her pretty hollywood drawing-room. Not a word of comment accompanied the inclosure, and, tearing off the cover, she instantly scanned the contents.
Unnoticed, the yellow sheet fell to the floor, when she had read the last words. For whatever purpose circumstance and the power above circumstance had preserved it, it had done its work.
Octavia remained passive for some time in her chair, gazing blankly before her. When she finally stirred, it was as a somnambulist might have done: she moved from one part of the room to another, unconsciously, with hands knotted together and knuckles pressed backward against her smooth forehead. Heat at its utmost becomes white, like numb, chill snow: i was it by a similar transformation that the burning agony in her brain now seemed not to burn at all, but to be freezing her into insensibility ? A curious effect, this. She began to wonder at it; she had a wild inclination to laugh; but with that desire a clearer sense of her misery awoke. " What right had he to send me this?” she moaned. “ What have I done, to be so crushed ? — and he a mere acquaintance, a stranger! It’s unbearable; yes, it ’s a crime! And I shall never, never” — her voice sank to a whisper more ominous than even the dreary wail that had preceded — “ never forgive it.”
Ah, if she could have wept then! But the fountains of her life were choked; a parched desert seemed to spread itself all around her and within.
Turning away, she strayed slowly down the room again ; this time looking closely at one object after another: at the opaline glass of the chandelier, at a rotund porcelain Buddha contemplating with his fat face a Spanish navaja six times his own length ; and at the fox’s head, which she could almost believe returned a sardonic gleam of intelligence. Everything was strange, as if she had never been in the room before. Finally, she came to the table where her fancywork and the open book lay. The volume was a sumptuous one. suggesting leisure, elegance, peace; and her eye rested on these words : —
“ The Heart is a garden, and youth is its Spring, and Hope is its sunshine, and Love is a thorny path that springs up and bears one bright blossom that has nothing like it in all the world.”
“ Oh no, no, no ! " she said aloud, not with protest, but with scorn. “ That is n’t true. It is n’t a thorny plant, but only a weak and miserable weed, with a black, deadly blossom. The ’ heart is a garden,’you say — but what if there’s nothing but grave-dust in the garden ? Oh, why do they write so of love? Why should we be fooled with this sort of thing, and be brought up on it, when it’s all a lie! ”
Again her hands were locked ; she sank upon a couch ; she was shaken by her rage against fate, as the air is made to quiver with visible heat in the furnace of summer.
Everything on which she had built her happiest faiths was swept away at one blow. She had believed that her husband had never loved any one before ; but she could never again be sure that he had really loved her at all. Perhaps she had been to him only the solace of a concealed disappointment. Her own pride was wounded : she was angry at her husband, impalpable shade though he was, because he had hidden this thing, had left her to be humiliated and to question where his heart’s deepest fealty had been given. Yet at the same moment her pride on his behalf was stirred up against Oliphant, because he knew of Gifford’s rejection by another woman.
“ I shall go mad, if I think of it !" she groaned. A spasm of unearthly jealousy seized her: Gifford had passed away to another world, and Alice Oliphant had gone thither, also. “ He is mine ! ” Octavia muttered passionately, with a force as if she were calling to some one far away. “ We were to meet there ; because the fable is that love is everlasting. Have they met, instead ? ” And as the shadow of her love and wrath loomed up distorted on the mist that veils all life beyond us, she trembled for her sanity; the prospect grew so dark, she began to doubt of heaven itself.
In the midst of this horrible turmoil, she rose, crossed the floor, and mechanically picked up the fallen letter. That petty precaution brought her back to self-control.
She was hungry for action. Something definite must be done. She must find a relief, a compensation, for the strain she had undergone. Should it take the form of revenge? A plan flitted through her brain, and she adopted it instantly ; but, whatever it was, the first steps did not suggest anything like danger.
Ringing the bell for her maid, “Take away that fox’s head,” she commanded, “ and don’t let me see it again. And come back immediately : I shall have a note to send.”
Seated at her writing-table in the embayed window, she dashed off not one note, but two. The first was to Perry Thorburn, accepting his invitation to drive, two hours later. “Mr. Oliphant shall see, at any rate, that I am not crushed,” she declared aloud. The second note consisted of a few lines to Oliphant himself, thanking him for his promptness in gratifying her wish, and saying that, if he would call soon, she would like to speak with him further.
Thereupon she consulted the lozengeshaped mirror that hung in velvet on the wall; and the mirror gallantly sustained her: instead of the lines of distress which had so recently shown in her face, it revealed a triumphant energy. No; in all this there was nothing to alarm a possible observer. Yet any one who knew Octavia well might have thought her too determined to be safe ; and there was a hard glitter about those symbols of her widowhood, the diamonds at her ears.
George Parsons Lathrop.