Chapter III: Sub Judice
"Isn't this a mess!" said Silvette in a clear, unembarrassed voice, giving him her hand. "Imagine my excitement up on the roof, Mr. Edgerton, when Diana appeared and told me what a perfectly delightful man had come to evict us!"
"I didn't say it that way," observed Diana, her ears as pink as the powder-puff peonies above them. "My sister," she explained, "is one of those girls whose apparent frankness is usually nonsense. I'm merely warning you, Mr. Edgerton."
Silvette—a tall, free-limbed, healthy, and plumper edition of her sister—laughed. "In the first place," she said, "suppose we have luncheon. There is a fruit salad which I prepared after breakfast. Our maid is out, but we know how to do such things, having been made to when schoolgirls."
"You'll stay, won't you?" asked Diana.
"Poor Mr. Edgerton—where else is he to go?" said Silvette calmly. "Diana, if you'll set places for three at that very beautiful and expensive antique table, I'll bring some agreeable things from the refrigerator."
"Could I be of any use?" inquired Edgerton, smiling.
"Indeed, you can be. Talk to Diana and explain to her how respectable we are and you are, and how everything is certain to be properly arranged to everybody's satisfaction. Diana has a very wonderful idea, and she's come to one of her celebrated snap-shot conclusions—a conclusion, Mr. Edgerton, most flattering to you. Ask her." And she went away toward the kitchenette not at all embarrassed by her pretty morning attire nor by the thick braid of golden hair which hung to her girdle.
Diana cast a swift glance at Edgerton, and, seeing him smile, smiled, too, and set about laying places for three with snowy linen, crystal, silver, and the lovely old Spode porcelain which had not its match in all the city.
"It's like a play or a novel," she said; "the hazard of our coming here the way we did, and of you coming back to America; but, of course, the same cause operated in both cases, so perhaps it isn't so remarkable after all! And"—she repressed a laugh—"to think that I should mistake you for a malefactor! Did it seem to you that I behaved in a silly manner?"
"On the contrary, you exhibited great dignity and courage and self-restraint."
"Do you really mean it? I was nearly scared blue, and I was perfectly certain you'd stuffed your suit cases full of our toilet silver. Wasn't it funny, Mr. Edgerton! And what did you think when you looked into your studio and saw a woman?"
"I was—somewhat prepared."
"Of course—after a glimpse into our bedroom! But that must have astonished you, didn't it?"
"Slightly. The first thing I saw was a white cat staring at me from the top of a trunk."
She laughed, arranging the covers with deft touch.
"And what next did you see?"
"Garments," he explained briefly.
"Oh! Yes, of course."
"Also a silk-flowered slipper with a very high heel on the threshold."
"Mine," she said. "You see, in the days of our affluence, I used to have a maid. I forget, and throw things about sometimes."
"You've a maid now, haven't you?"
"Oh, just a combination cook and waitress until we can find employment. She's horridly expensive, too, but it can't be helped, because it would create an unfavorable impression if Silvie or I answered the door bell."
"You're quite right," he said; "people have a curious aversion to employing those who really need it. Prosperity never lacks employment. It's odd, isn't it?"
"It's rather cruel," she said under her breath.
Silvette came in bringing a chilled fruit salad, bread and butter, cold chicken, and tea. "We'll have to put it all on at once. You don't mind, do you, Mr. Edgerton?"
He said smilingly but distinctly: "One's own family can do no wrong. That is my creed."
Diana looked up at him.
"I wondered whether you knew we were relations," she said, flushing deliriously.
"You see," added Silvette, "it was not for us to remind you."
"Of our kinship? Why not?"
"Because you might have considered it an added obligation toward us," said Diana, blushing.
"I do—a delightful one; and it is very gracious of you to acknowledge it."
"But we don't mean to presume on it," interrupted Silvette hastily. "Some day we really do mean to regulate our financial obligations toward you."
"There are no such obligations. Please remember what roof covers you——"
"And whose salt——"
"It's our salt, anyway," said Diana; "I bought it myself!"
They seated themselves, laughing; then suddenly Edgerton remembered, and he went away with a hasty excuse, only to return again with a brace of decanters.
"My uncle's port and sherry," he said.
Silvette jumped up and found half-a-dozen old-time glasses; and the luncheon continued.
"Isn't it ridiculous!" observed the young fellow, glancing around the studio; "here am I surrounded by a fortune in idiotic antiquities, lunching from a table that the Metropolitan Museum inherits after my death, sipping a sherry which came from the cellars of a British monarch—with two dollars and several cents in my pockets, and not the slightest idea where to get more. Isn't it funny!"
Silvette forced a smile, then glanced significantly at her sister. Diana said, gravely:
"We have several hundred dollars. Would you be kind enough to let us offer you what you require for immediate use until——"
"Why, you blessed child!" he said, laughing, "that isn't what worries me now!"
"Then—what is it?" inquired Silvette.
"You and your sister."
"What do you mean, Mr. Edgerton?"
"I mean that I'm worried over your prospects!"
"Why, they are perfectly bright!" exclaimed Diana; "In a few days somebody will employ us to help entertain a number of stupid and wealthy people. We'll make a great deal of money, I expect; don't you, Silvie?"
"Certainly; but I'm wondering what Mr. Edgerton is going to do with two dollars in his pocket and us in his apartment."
"So am I," said Diana.
"It's perfectly charming of you to care."
"What an odd thing to say to us! Is it not very natural to care? Besides your being related, you have also been so considerate and so nice to us that we'd care anyway, I think. Don't you, Silvie?"
Silvette nodded her golden-crowned head.
"The thing to do for the present," she said, "is for you to take that farther room. It was Diane's idea, and I entirely agree with her—after seeing you."
"That was the sudden conclusion of which I spoke to you," explained Diana. "Such things come to me instinctively. I thought to myself, 'If he mentions the kinship between us, then we'll ask him to remain.' And you did. And we do ask you; don't we, Silvie?"
"Certainly. If two old maids wish to entertain their masculine cousin for a week or two, whose affair is it? Let Mrs. Grundy shriek; I don't care. Do you, Diane?"
"No, I don't. Besides," she added naïvely, "she's out of town."
They all laughed. The germ of a delightful understanding was beginning to take shape; it had already become nascent and was developing in every frank smile, every candid glance, every unembarrassed question and reply.
"We have no parents," said Diana gravely. "You have none, have you?"
"No," he said.
"Then it seems natural to me, our being here together; but"—and Diana glanced sideways at him—"in the East, I believe, people consider relationship of little or no importance."
He sipped his sherry, reflecting.
"As a rule," he said; "but"—and he laughed—"if any Easterner even suspected he had two such California cousins, he'd start for the Pacific coast without his breakfast!"
"Did you ever hear anything half as amiable?" asked Silvette, laughing.
"I never did," replied Diana; "especially as we're probably his twenty-second cousins."
"That distance may lend an enchantment to the obligations of kinship!" he said gayly.
Diana looked up, grave as a youthful Japanese goddess.
"You don't mean that, do you?"
"No, I don't," he said, reddening. "If I did, the janitor ought to throw me out."
Silvette nodded seriously.
"We know you said it in joke; but the only straw to float Diane's idea is our kinship, Mr. Edgerton. And we grasped at it—for your sake."
"Please cling to it for your own sakes," too, he said, also very serious now; "it may become a plank to float us all.... I realize the point you are straining out of kindness to me. If I accept shelter here for a day or two, I shall know very well what it costs you to offer it."
"It doesn't cost us anything," interrupted Diana hastily. "Silvette meant only that you should understand why our consciences and common sense sanction your remaining if we remain."
"You must remain anyway!" he said.
"So must you, cousin," said Silvette, laughing. "Anyway, you've probably sent your trunks here—haven't you?"
"By jinks! I forgot that!" he exclaimed. "I believe that racket on the stairs means that my trunks are arriving!"
It did mean exactly that. And when Edgerton went out to the landing he encountered two expressmen staggering under the luggage, and, behind them, the terrified janitor who had returned, and who, on the advent of the baggage, had hurried upstairs to summarily evict the illegal lodgers before Edgerton's arrival.
Now, at sight of Edgerton himself, the Irishman turned white with horror and clung to the banisters for support; but Edgerton only said pleasantly: "Hello, Mike! I hope you've made my cousins comfortable. I'll be here for a day or two. Bring up any mail there may be for me, and see that the landing is properly dusted after this."
He came back to the studio intensely amused.
"I thought that guilty Irishman would faint on the stairs when he saw me," he said. "I merely said that I hoped he'd looked out for my cousins' comfort.... You know," he added laughingly, "I'm anything except angry at him."
Silvette rose from the table and strolled over toward him.
"Are you really glad to know us?" she asked curiously. "We've heard that New Yorkers are not celebrated for their enthusiasm over poor relatives from the outer darkness."
"New Yorkers," he said, "are not different from any other creatures segregated in a self-imposed and comfortable captivity. People who have too much of anything are spoiled to that extent—ignorant to that degree—selfish and prejudiced according to the term of their imprisonment. All over the world it is the same; the placidity of self-approval and self-absorption is the result of local isolation. We're not stupid; we merely have so much to look at that we don't care what may take place outside our front gate. But if anybody opens our gate and comes in, he'll have no trouble, because he'll be as much of a New Yorker as anybody really is."
Silvette laid her head on one side and, drawing the heavy burnished braid of hair over her left shoulder, rebraided the end absently.
"Is it," she inquired, "because we are merely attractive that you mentioned the relationship?"
"I'm afraid it's—partly that," he admitted, reddening and glancing askance at Diana.
"Stop tormenting him!" said Diana. "He's candid, anyhow. It's very fortunate all around, anyway," she added naïvely; though exactly why she considered it fortunate to meet a man with two dollars in his pocket and the legal right to evict her, she did not explain to herself.
Silvette, caressing her braid with deft fingers, mused aloud: "It's very noble of him to claim relationship with two poverty-stricken old maids from the Pacific coast. Don't you think so, Diane?" And she glanced up with a bewitching smile that had in it a glint of malice.
"Stop tormenting him!" repeated Diana. "We're pretty and young, and he knows it and we know it. What's the use in speculating about what he might have done if we were not attractive? He's perfectly satisfied with his western cousins—aren't you?" glancing up.
"Perfectly," he said.
Diana nodded emphatically.
"Do you hear, Silvie? He says he is perfectly satisfied with us, and he is a typical New Yorker. Therefore, we need not be at all disturbed about our capacity for entertaining anybody, if somebody will only offer us employment."
Silvette looked around at him. "I'd like to have you see us in our afternoon gowns; I believe you'd really be rather proud of the relationship."
"Good Lord!" he exclaimed, half laughing, half annoyed; "I'm proud of it anyway. What on earth do you think a New Yorker is?"
"We've seen some," said Diana meaningly. "Several came here in answer to our advertisement. But we knew, of course, that your type existed, too."
"Have you been—annoyed?"
Silvette laughed. "One man, of very red complexion, inquired if Diana would act as his housekeeper. He had several country places, he said."
"There was a woman came; we didn't care for her," added Diana thoughtfully. Then, lifting her head, she looked at Edgerton with a gaze so pure and sweet, so exquisitely candid, that he felt his heart stop for a moment. Then the blood mounted to his face—to the roots of his hair.
"Take me into your partnership," he said impulsively; "will you?"
"Can you? Is it all right?"
"I don't know what you mean!" said Diana.
"Why couldn't I help entertain week-ends with you?"
The proposition seemed to astound them all, even the young fellow who had made it.
For a moment they all stood silent; then, pursuing his own impulsive idea toward a plausible conclusion, he said: "Why not, after all? It would make a better combination than two young girls alone. I've clothes—two trunks in there, two more at the customs—London made and duty paid! Why not? It's a good combination. The more I think of it the better I like it!"
He began to pace to and fro nervously.
"I know a lot of people—the right kind. I'm not ashamed to ask them to employ me. There is no reason why a Tennant or an Edgerton should not be in their houses——"
"But," said Silvette quietly, "the right sort of people, as you call them, have no need of asking anybody to aid them in entertaining. It is very generous of you, Mr. Edgerton, but don't you see that services of our kind will be accepted only by—by newcomers, newly wealthy people—those whose circle is small and not very select."
"Yes, that is so," he said so forlornly that Diana watched him curiously, and a delicate color came into her cheeks as he looked up again, eager, radiant.
"That's true," he repeated; "but if I can't do anything in that way for us among the right sort, at least the other kind will have a man to reckon with"—he glanced at Diana grimly now—"when they inquire about housekeepers, and when women whom you do not care for reply to your advertisements."
"That is rather a nice thing to say," observed Silvette, looking at him out of her dark eyes. "But we know—a number of things. We are not a bit afraid, and—you would not care to—endure the kind of people likely to employ us."
"I can endure what you can. I'd like to do it.... Would you rather not have me?"
"Why, I—it would be delightful—charming—but we had not even dreamed of such a thing."
He turned to Diana. "Will you let me try?"
She said, confused: "I hadn't thought of such a thing.... Could it be done?"
"Why not?" asked Silvette, immensely interested. "When people come, we can say, 'We and our cousin, Mr. Edgerton, are associated as social entertainers.'"
"Oh, if you put it that way they'll think he does Punch and Judy and we dance queer dances!" exclaimed Diana in consternation.
Edgerton threw back his head and laughed, utterly unable to control his merriment, and Silvette caught the infection, and her clear, delicious laughter filled the sunny studio. She showed her white teeth when she laughed.
"Oh, it is perfectly horrid of me to think of such a thing, but I can't help thinking of three trained acrobats," said Silvette, breathless. "Does it seem funny for three of us to be associated in entertaining guests? Does it, Mr. Edgerton? Or am I only frivolous?"
After their laughter had ceased, and their breath had returned, he said: "Wherever we go—whoever employs us—the other guests will suppose us to be guests, too. Only the guilty millionaire from outer darkness with a new house on Fifth Avenue and a newer one in the country will know."
Silvette said: "Do you realize that it is perfectly dear of you to propose such a thing?"
Diana said nothing.
Silvette went on: "I know perfectly well and you know, too—that your name would be worth almost anything to the wealthy snob who employs us."
Diana said nothing.
"To have an Edgerton as a guest would elevate our prospective employer to the seventh heaven of snobbery," said Silvette. "Diane and I would shine serenely in the reflected relationship——"
"Don't make fun of me," he said.
"Why, I'm not. I really mean it. My instincts have been so warped and materialized and commercialized that here I am seriously proposing to make family capital out of the name of one branch of the family. I really do mean it, Mr. Edgerton."
"No," said Diana quietly.
He turned toward her.
"Do you vote against me?"
"Don't, please," he said, looking at her.
She met his eye calmly for a moment, then looked at her sister.
"Do you think it a decent thing to do?" she asked; "our making plans to live on Mr. Edgerton?"
"Good heavens!" he said impatiently, "my being part of a family combination isn't going to alter your success in any way."
"Your name makes it sure."
"Your youth and beauty and good breeding make it sure. My name has nothing to do with it."
"Then why do you propose it?"
He laughed. "Because I've got to make a living, too."
"There are less humiliating ways of making a living—for you," said Diana steadily.
He looked first at Silvette, then at her, deliberately, and his face altered.
"I want to look out for you," he said, "and that's the plain truth."
"That," observed Silvette, "is the nicest thing he's said yet, Diane." She walked up to him and stood serenely inspecting him.
"I vote for you. Diane, let's admit him. We're a poverty-stricken family, and we ought to combine. Besides, I like him to feel the way he does about us—not that it's necessary, of course—but it's—pleasant."
"I haven't any cash," said Edgerton, "but I've this apartment, which nobody can take away even if I starve; and I've some very fine clothes.... Won't you vote for me, Diana?" he added so naturally that neither seemed to notice his use of her first name.
Silvette waited a moment, watching her sister; then she said briskly: "Let's dress. We'll inspect your beautiful British clothing, cousin, and you shall see our prettiest afternoon gowns. Then we can tell better how such a combination would look. Shall we?"
Edgerton said to Diana: "Don't you want me?"
She replied slowly: "I—don't—know," looked up at him, straight at him, thoughtfully.
"People may come at any time after two o'clock," said Silvette. "If they find you in flowered silk and a butterfly sash and me in a pigtail, they will certainly expect dances from us and probably Punch and Judy from our cousin."
She laughed, and extended her hand to Edgerton.
"I like you, cousin; Diane does, too. When you're dressed in your best, come back to the studio and we'll arrive at some kind of a conclusion."
Diana nodded to him as she passed with her sister. The questioning gravity of her expression reminded him of a child who has not yet made up its mind to like you. She wore the bluest eyes he had ever seen, and the most enchanting mouth—the unspoiled mouth of childhood.
When they entered their room he went out by the hallway to his.
Standing there, fumbling with tie and collar, his absent gaze followed the checkered sun spots moving on the wall as the curtain moved; and, gradually, there in the half light, the blue eyes seemed to take winsome shape and hue, and he said aloud to himself:
"Anyway, somebody ought to look after her.... She can't go roaming about like this."