Chapter IV: In Loco Parentis
Shaved, bathed, and his person adorned with his most fashionable lounging suit for a summer afternoon, Edgerton sauntered out of his room and met the maid in the hallway. She had returned in time to answer the door; evidently also she had already been enlightened as to his identity, so he passed her with a nod and a smile, and entered the studio just as the door bell rang.
Neither Silvette nor Diana had yet appeared, nor had he been instructed what to say to those who might call in answer to the advertisement. He looked up doubtfully as the maid announced a Mr. Rivett and a Colonel Curmew, and he stepped forward as these two gentlemen were ushered in.
"How d'you do?" he said pleasantly. "My cousins will be in directly. I am James Edgerton 3d."
Colonel Curmew, a jaunty gentleman of less than middle height and age, looked at him out of a pair of eyes slightly inclined to pop. He appeared to be rather a good-looking man at first glance, with a perceptible military cut which, however, seemed to threaten something akin to a strut. He didn't exactly strut when he stepped, but he held himself very erect—the more so perhaps because he seemed to lack something else—perhaps height.
He knew Edgerton perfectly well by sight and reputation; and when he sat down he was still looking at him out of his full, pale eyes.
Mr. Rivett also seated himself—a little man with a walrus mustache who somehow looked as though, under his loosely cut clothes, his slight physique was steel framed.
He put on his glasses and looked at Edgerton out of two little unwinking eyes which reminded the young fellow of holes burned in a blanket.
"I came," he said cautiously, "in answer to a somewhat unusual advertisement."
"Yes," said Edgerton pleasantly, "we advertised."
"If I recollect," continued Mr. Rivett, "you did not figure in the advertisement."
"No," replied Edgerton, smiling; "my cousins possess the family talents; I'm supernumerary—merely thrown in. My services are not worth very much; I ride and shoot, of course, and all that, but I don't talk very well and my dancing is the limit."
Edgerton nodded serenely.
Colonel Curmew passed a carefully gloved hand over his trimly curled military mustache. Edgerton glanced at him and wondered just what was the matter with his face, which ought to have been good-looking. Perhaps the short, closely cropped side whiskers extending to the lobes of the ears slightly cheapened the mustache, and vulgarized the man a little.
Colonel Curmew said:
"I have never had the honor of knowing you, Mr. Edgerton, but your name and face are very familiar to me on Fifth Avenue."
"My people have lived on Fifth Avenue for—some time," replied the young fellow, smiling; and caught Mr. Rivett's burnt-brown gaze fixed steadily upon him.
"Everybody," said Colonel Curmew, sitting very erect, but not exactly swaggering, "everybody in town regretted to hear of your family's financial misfortune, Mr. Edgerton."
"It's very good of them to regret it. Naturally, also, that unexpected catastrophe explains my cousins' desire for employment as well as my own."
"I see," said Mr. Rivett, never taking his eyes off Edgerton.
There was a pause; Colonel Curmew stroked his mustache and stared around at the tapestries and pictures. He evidently realized what they might bring at auction.
"You are a lover of the antique, sir," he observed.
"Oh, I don't exactly love it. These things belonged to my uncle. The museum gets them ultimately."
"Ah! a case of the dead hand?"
"Mort main," nodded the young man indifferently.
"I see," said Mr. Rivett; and suddenly it occurred to Edgerton that this explanation was, perhaps, one of the unuttered questions with which Mr. Rivett's bony countenance seemed crowded. But the little man had not yet asked a single one; and it may have been in response to the steady, silent interrogation of those gimlet eyes that Edgerton was moved to further explanation.
"My cousins are Californians; I am a New Yorker, as you know. We have combined forces from economical and family motives. It is necessary that we find employment, so—" and he smiled at Mr. Rivett—"we have asked for it."
Mr. Rivett sat impassive behind his big, round spectacles. His walrus mustache prevented anybody from seeing his mouth; his eyes now resembled two little charred holes. It was utterly impossible to divine what he might be thinking about, or even whether he was doing anything at all except waiting. Somehow, it occurred to Edgerton that Mr. Rivett had done a great deal of waiting in his career.
Colonel Curmew had now risen, and was strolling about examining the antiquities when the folding doors slid back and Silvette and Diana came into the studio.
Edgerton rose and presented Mr. Rivett and the colonel; the young girls spoke to them with quiet self-possession, and presently everybody was again seated. Except for the colonel, the attitude of everybody suggested a business gathering of people pleasantly receptive to any business proposition, but that jaunty warrior's pale eyes popped and his smile was of the sort termed "killing"; and he curled his mustache continually with caressing fingers, and presently shot his cuffs.
Mr. Rivett broke the silence somewhat abruptly:
"As far as I am concerned, the matter is settled."
There was another silence; then Silvette ventured: "I beg your pardon. I don't think we understood."
"I say, as far as I am concerned, the matter is settled," repeated Mr. Rivett. "I ask no further information regarding these young ladies "—turning slightly toward Edgerton—"nor about you, sir. I am satisfied, and Mrs. Rivett will be."
Diana and Silvette seemed surprised; Edgerton wore a preoccupied expression, his eyes narrowing on the big eyeglasses of Mr. Rivett which reflected the studio window on their convex surface.
"About myself," continued Mr. Rivett with more abruptness, "I have a house in New York, which is closed, and one or two others; one in particular where my family is living—my wife, son, and daughter. It's called Adriutha Lodge; I don't know why—my wife named it. It's comfortable and big enough to entertain in."
He looked at Silvette without a particle of expression in his face.
"I would like you—both of you young ladies—and your cousin, Mr. Edgerton, to help us entertain. If we knew how to entertain successfully we wouldn't ask anybody to show us how. It is better to be plain about it. We are plain folk from a small town in the West. We know very few people; we mean to know more. I've come to this city to remain; I want to make as few mistakes as possible socially. What I wish you to do is to help me out. Will you?"
After a moment Diana asked: "Where is Adriutha Lodge?"
"In the Berkshires. Will you come?"
She glanced at the colonel, but he was staring so fixedly at her that she looked away.
"We might consider it," said Silvette, turning toward Edgerton.
"Couldn't you consider it at once?" asked Mr. Rivett. Evidently this little man with his glasses and his protuberant mustache had his own methods of accelerating business.
"You have mentioned no terms," said Edgerton.
"Oh! Am I to mention them? I expected you had your own ideas on that subject. Very well, then." And the offer he made left them silent and a little shy. It seemed too much.
Edgerton said laughingly to Diana:
"Suppose we consult in your room—if Mr. Rivett doesn't mind our withdrawing for a moment."
"Go ahead," nodded Rivett energetically; "that's exactly what I want—quick action. I like quick results."
So Silvette and Diana and Edgerton rose and entered the room in single file, closing behind them the folding doors.
"Well!" breathed Diana, sitting down on the edge of the bed, "did you ever before see a man of that kind?"
Silvette turned to Edgerton. "What do you think of him, cousin?"
"Why, I rather like that dried-up little chip," he said. "He's about the grade of citizen we expected."
"We?" repeated Diana meaningly; "do you expect to go with us?"
"Are you going to force me out of this perfectly good combination, Diana?"
The girl sat silent on the bed's edge regarding him, but not answering.
"There's one thing which ought to be settled now," observed Silvette; "if our cousin, Mr. Edgerton, is to remain in this firm, we've got to call him Jim, if only for appearance' sake. Otherwise people would chatter."
"Jim?" repeated Diana; "very well, it doesn't embarrass me to call him Jim—or Tom or Bill, for that matter," she added indifferently.
"It doesn't worry me, either," said Edgerton; "call me anything but early."
"Such a poor joke!" said Silvette; "if we ever call you, cousin, it will be a very late affair—and with nothing under a full house."
"Poker!—and you! What an incredible combination!" he said.
Diana interrupted coolly: "If you please, Mr. Edgerton, what is your valuable and masculine opinion concerning this munificent offer for the summer?" And she let her glance rest slowly and sideways on her sister.
"Take it," he said; "it's a good offer."
"Is that your vote?" inquired Silvette.
"Have I a vote?" he asked of Diana; but she merely said: "I say we try the Rivetts of Adriutha. That is my vote."
"Then—so do I say so," nodded Silvette. "Is it settled?"
Diana looked up at Edgerton.
"Are you really expecting to come with us?"
"If you will let me."
She remained a moment in thought, then sprang lightly to her feet.
"Who is going to be our spokesman?" she asked; "you, sister?"
"Jim," said Silvette, tranquilly leading the way. "It looks better, I think."
So Edgerton politely informed Mr. Rivett of their unanimous decision, and that little man got briskly to his feet.
"I'm satisfied," he said. "Come to Adriutha as soon as you are ready. Bring all the luggage you want to bring; there's plenty of room. Don't bring any servants; there are more than enough there now. My wife and I receive you as guests; my son and daughter are about your ages; nobody can prophesy what you'll think of them or they of you.... Colonel—if you are ready.... Good-by, ma'am," to Silvette, offering a dry little hand; and he took his leave of Diana and of Edgerton, and pulled the colonel unceremoniously out of a most elegant attitude, ruining a jaunty bow which he had not intended to finish so abruptly.
"Well," exclaimed Silvette with a sigh and a laugh as the door closed, "it's settled! Let's forget it.... What do you think of our gowns, cousin James?"
"Corking," he replied; "but my cousin Diana was very fetching in her Japanese dress this morning."
"That's like a man!" observed Diana. "I was a mess, Silvie—with two ragged peonies over my ears and those old straw sandals of yours——"
"You were a vision of Japanese fairyland," he insisted. "I may be weak-minded, but I simply cannot get that vision of you out of my head."
"Try some tea," as the maid brought it; "weak tea and feeble intellects agree."
"Oh, I'll try tea or anything else, but if you think I'm likely to forget the first moment I ever saw you—a slender, Japanese shadow shape against the sun!—ethereal, vaguely tinted, exquisite——"
"You are a poet, Jim," said Silvette admiringly. "I read one of your rhymes in Life once, and didn't think so."
"Diana made me a poet. If you'd seen her as she came stealing across the window, which was all glittering like a Japanese sunburst, you'd have become a poet, too!" He began to laugh. "I even created a name for you, Diana; it came to me—was already on my lips——"
"What name?" she asked, looking composedly at him.
"Japonette! ... I never before heard such a name. I don't believe there ever was such a name before it suddenly twitched at my lips for utterance! Japonette!"
"Why didn't you utter it if you were so enchanted with your discovery?"
"Because you seemed to be sufficiently scared as it was."
She shrugged, and handed him his tea. "Japonette," she repeated reflectively; "I don't know whether or not I care for it. It sounds frivolous."
"Which you are not!"
She lifted her blue eyes to his.
"You think I am," she said.
"No, I don't."
"You know I am," she said, and presented herself with a small tea cake. Into it she bit once; then raised her eyes, watching her sister manipulating the alcohol lamp.
"Do you suppose," she said, "that we'll ever have the slightest personal interest in these Rivett people?"
"Probably not," said her sister. "What of it? I wonder whether that colonel is likely to figure as a guest."
Diana shrugged again. "Figure! He seems to be all figure. I thought him rather odious."
"Did you? He seemed anxious to be agreeable. Who is he, cousin Jim?"
"I don't know.... Perhaps I may have heard of him—a militia colonel of some kind, I don't remember. He's probably a decent sort; I rather like him."
"I wonder," said Diana reflectively, "whether you are anything of a snob?"
Edgerton reddened, then sat still looking at her.
"I was going to resent that," he said after a moment, "but I can't; because what you just said set me thinking."
"Are you unaccustomed to thinking?" she asked too innocently; and he reddened again.
"Stop tormenting him," said Silvette, pouring herself more tea. "You're a tease, Diane."
"You both seem a little in that way," he suggested; "you jeer at me and then look pained, and tell each other to stop."
"We're too intelligent," said Silvette calmly; "that's the trouble with us; and when, by degrees, we add a little more experience to our intelligence we'll be either exceedingly unpopular or—successfully married."
"Why those terrible alternatives?" he asked, laughing.
"Because the man who is able to endure us will probably be worth the bother of marrying—when we've finished dissecting him. We don't know just how to dissect men yet, but we're rapidly learning. It's only a matter of practice and experience."
He laughed again, and so did Silvette, but Diana scarcely smiled, lying back in her velvet armchair and watching Edgerton and her sister alternately with grave, incurious eyes.
"How old are you, anyway?" he said, looking straight at her.
"Twenty-seven," she answered calmly. "Don't jump, please."
"What!" he exclaimed incredulously.
"I look about nineteen, don't I?"
"Certainly you do—about eighteen!"
"Well, I am twenty-seven; Silvette is twenty-five. Don't bother with compliments."
"Good Lord! Are you the elder?"
"Tread lightly there," cautioned Silvette, amused, "or you'll presently involve yourself with two indignant spinsters. You've behaved very cleverly. Let well enough alone."
"If you hadn't told me," he began, astonished, "I'd have taken Silvette for nineteen and you for eighteen. I—well, I simply can't realize it."
"How old may you be, cousin?" inquired Silvette with a malicious sweetness impossible to describe.
"I'm thirty-two," he said.
"We thought you less," remarked Diana; then she ventured to glance at him, and the enchanting smile broke suddenly from her lips and eyes.
"Don't you know we do like you, cousin James, or we wouldn't torment you?" said Silvette, laughing.
"A woman at twenty-seven is centuries older than a man at thirty," added Diana, "except, of course, in some things. Theoretically, Silvie and I are highly instructed; practically, the man of thirty is more specifically intelligent, which is no compliment to the man of thirty."
Edgerton, still astonished, sat back in his chair, considering.
"Do you know," he said, "I never suspected I had two such relatives in the world, who wear the appearance of débutantes with an assurance that convinces until their wit and wisdom convict them. Where were you educated, anyway?"
"In a southern boarding school and in a western university. After that, Silvette studied law and was admitted to the bar. I am entitled to practice medicine," she added demurely. "Does that scare you?"
"Do you think it has spoiled us?" asked Silvette so naïvely that he made no attempt to control his laughter.
"Why on earth don't you do those two things?" he managed to ask at last. "If you're entitled to exercise professions, why don't you?"
"We only studied out of curiosity," explained Diana. "We never intended to follow it up. Of course, we expected to remain always in pleasant financial circumstances."
"Anyway," added Silvette, "it's too late now to sit in an office and wait for clients and patients. Besides, it's a stuffy life. We dance better, and we decorate a drawing-room to more advantage than an office building."
"You have thoroughly scared me," he said, looking at them admiringly.
Diana glanced up, then flushed.
"I was afraid for a moment that you meant it," she said.
"I do. What was it you asked me a few moments ago—whether or not I was something of a snob? And I was about to resent it—politely, of course—when it occurred to me that there was, after all, no more finished snob than the man who is so convinced of his own position that he can afford to like everybody; and I told you I liked that militia gentleman. I really didn't; I thought him the limit.... Diana, you seem to be a sort of truth compeller."
"I'm a liar, occasionally—to speak with accuracy instead of elegance," said Diana frankly. "I've managed to convey to you an idea that I am indifferent to your joining the firm of Tennant and Tennant. As a matter of fact, I'm flattered and happy. It's my conscience that protests."
"Conscience. Never mind—you won't understand, and I won't tell you.... After all, you are thirty-two, even if you happen to be an Edgerton."
"Are you jeering at me?"
"No, I am not. I'm flattered because you wear a distinguished name; I'm happy because I'm entirely inclined to like you. In fact, I'm a kind of a happy, little snob myself. There! we're all tarred with the same snobbish brush, cousin. Shall we take off our masks for a while and cool our faces?"
She rose with a gay little laugh and a bewitching gesture as though sweeping from her face an invisible vizard.
"Behold me as I am, cousin! Just what you have already divined me, with your eyes too humorous and too wise for a man of thirty—frivolous, feminine, not insensible to flattery, wise only in theory, a novice in practice——"
She hesitated, looking at him, the bright color in her cheeks.
"What silenced and incensed me was that you divined it. I would have liked to have played a part with you vis-à-vis——"
"You're playing it now," observed Silvette. "Jim doesn't know what you are now; even I have doubts."
Diana laughed deliciously.
"Do I puzzle you, cousin?"
"Are you trying to?"
"Well, you've succeeded. You're perfectly right, Silvette; I don't know anything about her now. Are there any more roles you can assume, Japonette?"
"Many, monsieur. One of them is Japonette, if I choose."
"Play it," he said, "if you ever want to tie me to your Obi."
"You behave," observed Silvette tranquilly, "like two rather ordinary young persons flirting."
"We are," nodded Diana, "but it won't last, Silvie. It's only my kimono and his thirty-odd years and the unconventionality that attracts him." She strolled about airily waving her fan. "Not that I mind being picked up——"
"Di! You'll give him a perfectly horrid impression of yourself!"
"Why, he knows I didn't mind it. It's past helping now."
"How can a man 'pick up,' as you so disgustingly put it, his own cousin?"
"That was a triumph, wasn't it, Jim?" she asked innocently. "It remained for an Edgerton to accomplish the weird and impossible; but an Edgerton can do anything in New York—n'est ce pas? Bien, sure! Sure, Mike!"
"Dearest, I feel slangy; and cousin James is so thoroughly a man of the world that he doesn't care. He wouldn't care what I did. I could perform a pas seul or a flip-flap or a cart wheel, and hewouldn't care. It's done in the best circles here, isn't it, cousin?"
"Frequently," he said gravely, "varied occasionally by voloplaning down the banisters."
She looked about her wistfully.
"There are no banisters here. Perhaps there are at the Rivetts'. Do you think it would entertain his guests? You know we are employed for that purpose."
"You and I ought to practice some acrobatic turns," he suggested. "Do you think you could learn to throw a double somersault standing on my shoulders?"
"I can try——"
"Di! what on earth are you talking about!" said Silvette, turning from the piano to encounter their unrestrained laughter.
"Oh, dear," said Diana, "I didn't know I could ever be silly again. I thought that losing all our money a year ago had frightened it out of me; but it's there, cousin Jim—the same frivolity which youinstantly discovered in me, and which the Rivetts will probably and properly quench.... Silvie, this studio floor is delightfully waxed.... Cousin, do you dance?"
"Never mind.... Silvie, dear—one little waltz, please? Please? Thank you. Pull away that rug, cousin. Are you ready?"
She laid her arm on his, her hand in his; Silvette, playing, turned her head to watch them.
"He is a rotten dancer," she said critically.
"I can't help that," said Diana; "it was the time and the hour. I needed it! ... Jim, don't step on my toe, please, and don't think of stopping. You do well enough, really, you do.... No man who counts dances like a Turveydrop.... We use dancing men for dancing purposes only.... Of course you are flattered; I meant to flatter you, so you wouldn't be horrid enough to stop.... Please finish glaring at me; you are really giving me a great deal of pleasure."
"I begin to wonder whether I was not created for that, Japonette."
"To amuse me? Unintentionally? perhaps."
"So that you notice me at all, it doesn't matter," he said under his breath.
"Goodness! what meekness! Only that you're a typical man and don't mean it, I'd hate you for it.... A meek man—from him, good Lord, deliver us! ... No, cousin, there is that in your eye which—and in your general make-up——"
"Oh, I don't know—thirty-odd masculine years—very masculine!—or I'd not be dancing with you, or I'd not be in this house at this moment; or, rather, you wouldn't. Stop mincing along in a horrid sort of self-satisfied prance! ... And don't hop, either! Are you tiring?"
"No," he said bravely.
"I'll let you go in a moment, before you swoon and I have to drag you to a chair.... You dance well enough. I like it, really ... and—thank you very much indeed!"
They parted, breathless. She stood a moment waving her fan against her bright cheeks and touching her hair with cleft fingers. He extracted a handkerchief from his sleeve and used it frankly.
"It's hot in here," he said; "show me your roof garden."
"Silvette," she called over her shoulder, "will you come up to the roof?"
Silvette nodded and continued playing an air from "Armide"; and they waited for her a moment, then went out into the hallway and up to the roof.
"The garden of a thousand delights!" she said with a sweep of her hand and a curtsey. "The Japanese fairy, Japonette, welcomes the true prophet of her frivolity."
He looked around at the flowers in pots—geraniums, verbenas, fuchsias, heliotrope—homely, old-fashioned blossoms.
"I bought them from a peddler; I stopped his wagon in the street and made him carry them up here. They only cost two dollars; and I was economical at the market," she explained.
He glanced up at the awning gay with yellow and white stripes.
"Macy's," she admitted guiltily; "I'll starve you at dinner to-night to pay for it."
He looked at her rather queerly, she thought.
"There are things I'd starve for—and people."
"And awnings, cousin?"
"That's very nice and gallant and obvious," she said in such a tormenting tone that he broke out almost impatiently:
"Japonette, can't you ever take me seriously?"
"I hope not, cousin."
For an instant the smile remained stamped on their lips; then the slight strain became perceptible, a moment only, for she turned lightly away and seated herself on the edge of a big hanging seat.
"More Macy," she nodded ruefully. "We'll all have to fast to-morrow.... You may sit here, too, if you wish.'"
A family of starlings were nesting in the cornices of the roof across the way, and the two young people watched the old birds for a while flying to the park and returning with food for their invisible young.
"Horrid, isn't it?" observed Diana. "But that's the way of things. No sooner are you married and happy than—zip! the scene changes, and you turn into a wretched purveyor of nourishment for the next generation. Carpe diem!"
"Cede Deo! It's probably good fun," commented Edgerton.
"What? Slaving for others just when you are all ready for real happiness?"
"That's happiness, or nobody would do it—not even those birds."
"Maybe with birds. Instincts are all right for birds, but we humans are usually arrested when we follow our instincts."
She laughed. "That is true; it's neither instinct nor happiness that makes us slaves to babies:—it's duty."
"If that were all it is," he said, "the state would be nourishing the majority of infants. No; it's probably fun, Diana. That's the only possible explanation."
She shrugged her dainty shoulders and looked at the westering sun above Staten Island; and in the gesture she seemed, in pantomime, to discard all feminine duties, cares, and responsibilities forever. Then as she rested there, cheek on hand, her blue eyes grew vaguer.
"I am glad you came into our lives," she said; "I mean it this time."
"I am glad, too," he said seriously.
"You are now; I can see that.... How soon will you be sorry?"
She turned toward him.
"How soon will the novelty tire you?"
"I have not considered you as a novelty."
"But I am; I'm a mechanical toy. My paint soon comes off, cousin."
"You're my own kin. There's no novelty, as you call it, in kinship, nothing evanescent."
She said: "Do you really and deliberately desire to stand by that extremely tenuous and attenuated tie? An attitude of that sort entails duties. You may have much to overlook in us—even much to forgive. Are you aware of your responsibilities?"
"I assumed them when I asked to be admitted to your partnership."
"Why did you ask to join?"
"The real reason?"
She hesitated, looking at him.
"Yes, the real one."
"What exactly do you mean by that answer?"
"I don't know, myself, Japonette," he said laughingly; "I've tried to analyze it, too. The instinct of relationship may have counted."
"I hope it did," said she.
"I hope so. God knows, and men are selfish.... And that counted, too."
"I don't believe there is very much in you."
"That is where your heart is still a child's heart, Japonette."
"Oh, I'm no altruist, but there's selfishness and selfishness.... What were we talking about? Oh! why you desired to join——"
"No, we got past that."
"Oh, yes; well, then, you say it was because of me. Why?"
"I told you I didn't know exactly why; but the root of it all was you.... And when you told me about some people who had come here—that fellow who spoke about a housekeeper——"
"I believe—but you can't be as nice as that! You simply can't!"
"Oh, I'm not nice," he protested, reddening; but she interrupted:
"You are! I certainly believe you thought that Silvie and I required somebody masculine in our vicinity—to throw the housekeeping man downstairs, for example. Did you?"
"No. I only——"
"Of course not."
"Do you know," she said seriously, "you're a perfect dear in one way, and I don't know what you are in others. Now be flattered, for that makes you interesting. And you know it's all up with a woman who finds a man interesting."
She was laughing at him now, and he scarcely knew how to take what she said except to take it with a grin.
"You're a terrible torment, Diana," he said. "My value in my own estimation, since I've known you, has fluctuated between a dollar and a half and thirty cents."
"You said you had two dollars! I believe you're one of these wealthy men who are always singing poor!"
"How many other kinds of things do you think I am?" he asked resignedly.
"I don't know. I think I'll amuse myself by finding out."
"Meanwhile," he said, smiling, "remember I am always what I was when I first set eyes on you—no!—the next second after I had seen you."
"A lightning change, cousin?"
"Like lightning, Diana."
"The lightning of the gods?"
"Diana's own shaft.... 'The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night,' but I stand betwixt the rising sun of Japan and—you, Diana. Somebody's shot me, that's all."
"You are perfectly delightful, but do you realize that I'm dissecting you all the while?"
"You once said——"
"Never mind that," she interrupted hastily; and blushed until it infuriated her to calmness. And to heal the sting with the cause of it she said:
"You're perfectly right, cousin; any man who can endure our scalpel will be worth seizing and dragging to the parson. But—you are perfectly safe for a while. It takes a lifetime to properly dissect a man of your sort. I'll be eighty before I make up my mind about you."
"Eighty years is not beyond the statute of limitations."
"You'd marry me at eighty! Do you know you're beginning to trouble me? I told you I was thoroughly feminine, and susceptible to flattery. I am; it's too bad I'm so intelligent that I've really got to satisfy that intelligence by spending years and years in dissecting you. Otherwise, I'd run away with you now."
"In your Japanese silks and little straw sandals?"
"Oh, yes, if you were sentimental enough to insist."
She shrugged. "I knew you were a dreamer—captivated by a vision. Suppose you had to see me pinning on store curls?"
"I'd help pin 'em."
"Well, there are plenty of other things to disillusion you. I adore onions."
"So do I," he said.
They laughed together.
She was near enough for him to be aware of the faint scent of her breath, or it may have been a fragrance from her gown which stirred slightly in the evening breeze, or the delicate fresh perfume of her hair and skin—something indefinable, some exquisite emanation of youth which had stolen subtly into his senses—something of her, and as distinctly and inviolably hers as the occult atmosphere of a virgin planet.
"Cousin," she said, "I thought we were to remove our masks in the family circle. They seem to be on as closely as ever."
He looked at her a moment.
"We never will remove them," he said.
"Because, for example, in my case I want you to believe me everything I'd like to be. I know what I am. All people know what they are.... Does anybody ever really unmask? ... Could they if they wished to? There would be only another mask beneath.... We can't ever get rid of masks.... I don't care how hard we try, how honestly we try, how intimate two people become, how deeply they may love—there's always a mask, and it grows there; and our own eyes are the slits. Even a mother with her first born in her arms looks down into its eyes in vain—those blue and transparent veils of a secret soul which sits behind them, impenetrable, inviolable."
After a silence she said:
"Silvette was right; you are a poet, Jim.... How dusky it is growing over the river. Silvette is probably superintending dinner preparations. Shall we go down?"