Chapter IX: Non Sequitur
Silvette dropped into an armchair, crossed her knees, and sat swinging her foot and gazing through the open window in silence until Diana's head, lifted from time to time in smiling interrogation, could be no longer ignored.
"Jack Rivett has asked me to marry him," she said in an expressionless voice.
Diana laughed in frank surprise:
"What an absurdity!"
Her sister said nothing.
"How did it come—out of a clear sky?"
"Yes.... I knew he liked me. I had no idea he wanted to marry me."
"You're not going to, are you?"
"I should think not. It would be sheer cradle snatching."
"He's a year older than I am."
"In years, yes; but, intellectually, he ought to be playing marbles. Moreover, that sort of a boy never grows up."
"I don't think he will.... God bestows that gift sometimes."
"The gift of eternal youth.... I haven't it.... But I believe it can be shared." She gazed thoughtfully at the distant hills. "Years and years slip from me when that boy and I talk nonsense together."
"Better talk sense with him, and wake up, sweetness, or you'll relapse into your second childhood."
"I have just been talking sense to him.... I'm awake," she said dreamily.
"Do you mean to admit that the interview has seriously affected you?"
"Oh, I don't know yet."
"Better investigate," said Diana. "You know what his parents expect of their children. And if we are to remain here, I think, dear, that you had better see a little less of Jack Rivett than you have been seeing. Don't you?"
"I am sure of it."
"Otherwise," continued Diana calmly, "it would be playing the game fairer for you and me to seek another business engagement. These people have been very honorable toward us. We can scarcely permit them to outdo us."
Silvette looked up calmly, her cheek resting on her hand.
"How dishonorable would it be?" she asked.
"To—let him fall in love with me?"
"Ask yourself. You know their social ambitions."
"I know; but, after all, you and I started out to make of life a successful business proposition. I thought a desirable marriage was to be part of the programme."
"Do you consider Jack Rivett desirable? He could take you nowhere. With all his wealth, where could you take him? And anyway, it's not playing the game, Silvie. It's kidnaping." She laughed. "Take a man of your size—and of the world, little sister; and if he isn't of the world, and is poor, defy him to take you!—give him battle—put up a good fight with foot, horse, and artillery. The best one of you will always win, and the other get what's coming."
Silvette went to the desk, supplied herself with pen and paper, and prepared to resume her interrupted correspondence. Presently she looked around, pen poised.
"Did the best man win between you and Jim Edgerton?" she asked.
Diana bent lower over her sewing.
"I'm afraid so, Silvie."
"Then you won."
"I think so.... I have fought it over every day since—alone."
"You poor little thing," said Silvette softly.
Diana looked up with a slight smile. "Perhaps you misunderstood me, dear. I told you I was winning.... Which means, I think, that Jim Edgerton isn't going to remain very long at Adriutha."
"Where is he going?"
"I don't know that he is going at all; he doesn't know it, either.... But, somehow, I dare believe that he is going."
"Into a man's world to engage in a man's business."
"It isn't in him, Diana.... You are taking a great responsibility on your shoulders. Do you realize that you are?"
"And that a man with no more force of character and real ability than he has may starve? That the world will probably break his heart, anyway."
"Let it, then.... Only a real man's heart breaks. I'll know he's one if it does; and so will he. And that's worth all the rest."
"That's a stern creed, little sister, considering the pleasure-loving lips that utter it."
"Out of the mouth of fools, wisdom. It doesn't matter what I am. The thing that is important is what he shall become."
"If he become what you desire, he may have little further interest in you."
"He will have none, if he becomes what he could become," said the girl steadily. "Did you suppose my—ambition for him was selfish?"
"Little breaker of images, are you going to shatter your own under his very eyes?"
"He will be the iconoclast some day.... Probably I'll be married before that—as soon, anyway, as it's best for him.... I've plenty of time." ... She smiled without a trace of mirth in her eyes. "Mr. Snaith has already indicated his noiseless entry into the lists. He and Colonel Curmew are at lance points. Materially speaking, a girl ought to consider both of them."
"But, child, we have many another business engagement before us yet, I trust.... You wouldn't think of taking the first—the first——"
"Million offered?" asked Diana, laughing. "No, of course not, silly. I'm merely observing the manners and customs of the creature man."
Silvette laughed, too. "How are you getting on with Billy Inwood?" she asked demurely—"speaking of more agreeable matters."
"Perfectly; after the initial shock at encountering me here, he behaved most reasonably. I have an idea that he came here on Christine's account, and he seemed to be rather nervous as to his obligations to me, but I set that right at the first opportunity. I said: 'Billy, if I don't tell you, somebody else will, that Silvette and I are here practicing our profession, which is—to be amiable to the guests and help entertain them. So I'm going to be just as amiable to you as I know how, but it need not frighten you because I have no designs on you.'"
They both laughed. Diana, mending her stocking, continued:
"I think he was very much relieved, though he pretended not to be. I wonder if he did come here to see Christine? The girl is cool enough with him, and he is inclined to follow her about in an aimless sort of way, as though he had something on his mind."
"He seems to be equally attentive to Christine and Mrs. Wemyss," observed Silvette. "It appears that he and that ample beauty are old friends."
"Who is Mrs. Wemyss, anyway?"
Silvette smiled. "I asked Mrs. Rivett, saying that there was something familiar about Mrs. Wemyss, and that I had an idea I had seen her somewhere; but Mrs. Rivett didn't know who she was. She had met her last winter at the Plaza, which is the kind of thing one might have expected—even of Mrs. Rivett, who is as dear a little woman as ever wore sapphires at breakfast.... What a horrid, cynical thing I'm turning into! ... And now I'm going to turn into an imitation of a young girl dressing for luncheon. Heigho! I wish other people were what they ought to be and I were what I'd like to be. The world would wag very well, then."
Luncheon was the usual animated, gossipy, and amusing function that Silvette and Diana and Jack Rivett always made it, and at which Colonel Curmew assiduously assisted according to his notions of jollity.
Edgerton for the last week or so had remained rather silent among the others, amiable and nice always and perfectly receptive when spoken to, but not volunteering very much, and not, according to Colonel Curmew's idea, earning his salary. However, as the colonel didn't like him, that fact may have colored his judgment when he spoke to Mr. Rivett about it after luncheon in the privacy of that silent man's study.
"He's turned into what I knew he was—a damned snob!" said the colonel, sitting with widened legs, a rich cigar tucked in under his military mustache, and furtively loosening the rear buckle of his white waistcoat.
"He doesn't pay for his keep," he went on. "What use to you is a man who sits around looking unapproachable?"
"I have no difficulty in approaching him," observed Mr. Rivett.
"You pay him. To look at him, one would think he paid you."
"He pays me his services."
"Ah, but he doesn't! He's off with that little Diana girl half the time."
"That's their affair."
"By gad! Is it? They're both here on a salary if it comes to that, Jake.... Say, did it ever strike you as funny—this cousin business he puts up?"
Mr. Rivett's burned-brown eyes fixed themselves on the jaunty colonel.
"Oh, nothing.... They're rather distant relatives, that's all.... Not but what she seems to be straight—as far as I know."
"What does anybody else know about her?"
"Oh, nothing—nothing," said the colonel, waving his cigar and heavy seal ring. "But it's curious.... You can't really say a word against an Edgerton, rich or poor; but, as far as I can see the girl is only a little adventuress looking for trouble.... She'll probably get it some day," he added with a tenor laugh peculiarly ungrateful to the auditory mechanism of Mr. Rivett.
The colonel puffed his cigar in smiling silence for a while; then, expelling another laugh and a large volume of blue smoke, slapped his knee, straightened his tie and waistcoat and shot his cuffs.
"She'll be all right to take about town, eh, Jake?" he said.
Mr. Rivett said nothing.
"Now, there's old Parke Ellingford," continued the colonel; "he's never had as good looking a girl, and, b'gad! I've seen 'em all—known most of 'em," he added with a leer. "And take any of the men you and I know—Wallowby, Dankland, and that hatchet-faced Van Wyne! They've never had any better-looking girl than that little Diana."
Mr. Rivett said nothing.
"B'gad!" said the colonel, with a laugh that approached the falsetto, "if she doesn't cut a dash in town' this winter, I miss my guess."
"Oh—are you to be in town?" inquired Mr. Rivett.
"I? No; Palm Beach," said the colonel hastily, watching the other out of his pale and protruding eyes. "And then—I don't go in for such capers," he explained with a pained expression. "What a man jokes about, he never bothers with."
"I've joked many a man out of half a million," observed Rivett grimly.
"That's different.... I'm a settled citizen." He looked cautiously at Rivett, hesitated, then said carelessly: "I mean to marry, some day."
"I do, certainly.... And I flatter myself that the woman I marry will receive her equivalent, sir."
"Her moral equivalent?"
"Certainly. Perhaps not her—ah—financial equivalent." He looked up at Rivett to see how he took it. Rivett neither took it nor rejected it, apparently, and the colonel probed further.
"I expect to wait a year or two——"
"Aren't you getting on, Follis?"
"No, sir, I am not getting on!" said the colonel shortly. "I am forty-five. No man is fit to marry before he's forty-seven, in my opinion. At that age he's able to treat his wife intelligently. Intelligence is what a young girl most deeply appreciates in a man."
"I prefer a youthful wife. Youth is susceptible of being moulded. I propose to make a perfect specimen of womanhood out of whatever charming and adolescent material fortune bestows upon me." The colonel slightly lifted his eyes until they protruded toward the ceiling. "I shall consider my wife as a sacred trust, a soul for which I am responsible."
"Very good idea," said Rivett without the slightest trace of expression on his face. "Why not marry the little Diana—and mould her into the ideal?"
"Marry her!" blurted out Curmew. "What! Marry a hired—a paid—employee!"
His countenance became crimson and congested, and his eyes popped and popped.
Rivett rose. "My wife worked in her uncle's kitchen when I married her," he said indifferently, and walked out.
On the stairway he joined Diana, also descending.
"Well," he said, looking at her through his round glasses, "you look happy enough."
"I am, thank you," said the girl, smiling.
"Don't thank me for it," he said dryly.
"You're to be thanked, too," she laughed—"or ought to be. But you don't like it, I know, so I tell your wife how very pleasant you are making Adriutha for my sister and myself."
"Do you find it pleasant?"
"Yes, I do."
"Like the people?"
They had halted on the stairs.
She looked up at him.
"Some of them I like," she said frankly.
"That is bad manners! ... But I like you and your wife and Christine and Jack."
"All of us?"
"Unreservedly—except in your case."
"What's the matter with me?" he asked grimly.
"Why, I don't know you very well," she said, "so how can——"
"Come and talk it over," he said.
They resumed the descent of the stairway together, and, side by side, walked out to a seat on the terrace overlooking the river.
"Sit down, ma'am," he said, dusting the marble bench with his drab-colored soft hat. She seated herself with decorum, inwardly amused. He dusted a place for himself, and sat down beside her.
"Now," he said, "what's the matter with me, Miss Tennant?"
She laughed deliciously. "Nothing that I have ever discovered."
"You're not much of an explorer, are you?"
"A rather good one, Mr. Rivett. But—you know there are still certain peaks in the world that defy approach," she added audaciously.
"I'm a peak, am I?"
He came so near to smiling that the girl watched him with increasing interest.
"You know," she said, "that you are not exactly talkative, Mr. Rivett. How is a girl to form any definite idea of a—a—sphinx?"
"That's two names you've called me already"—he looked at his watch—"in the last four minutes—a peak and a sphinx."
She was laughing so unrestrainedly now that the corners of his eyes began to wrinkle a trifle.
He said: "What do you think of a self-made man who was once schoolmaster, day laborer, donkey-engine tender, foreman—all kinds of things, and whose wife was washing out a wood shed when he first met her?"
"Is that you?"
"It is. What do you think of such a man's chances in New York?"
"I don't know New York."
"You're highly connected there?"
"It is a very distant connection.... Mr. Edgerton chooses to acknowledge it."
"He's a snob, isn't he?"
"Not in the slightest," she said pleasantly; but the blood mounted to her cheeks and betrayed her.
"You like him?"
"Kinship has little to do with my liking him."
"He's rather easy-going, isn't he?"
She flushed up again, and turned her clear eyes on his little brown ones.
"Don't you like him?" she asked.
"Isn't he easy-going?"
"He has not yet found himself. He is an intelligent, warm-hearted, high-minded man, capable of taking an honorable position in the world.... And I do not doubt that he will one day take and keep it."
"He was in iron, was he not—Edgerton, Tennant & Co.?"
Mr. Rivett thought for a while. "By the way," he said, "I neglected to answer your question. I'll answer it now. I like Mr. Edgerton."
"Thank you," said Diana, not perfectly aware of what she said.
Mr. Rivett sat buried in meditation for fully five minutes; at the end of that period he turned his glasses on her.
"I want to gossip with you," he said abruptly.
She began to laugh again.
"How did you discover that I am such a dreadful gossip? Begin at once, please. I adore picking to pieces my absent acquaintances."
"Yes—tearing 'em to tatters, the way you demolished Mr. Edgerton just now," he said grimly. "Well, I'll begin the scandal bee. Where did you know Mr. Inwood?"
"In Keno, Nevada," she said coolly, wondering what was impending.
"Know him long?"
"Oh! So you're going to tear him to tatters, too?"
"Just as I demolished Mr. Edgerton. They're the two nicest men I ever knew. It's odd, isn't it, that I didn't know they were such intimate friends before Mr. Inwood came here?"
"I understand so."
"And you didn't know it?"
"How should I? I never saw Mr. Inwood except that winter in Keno; and I don't know my cousin intimately."
"How well do you know your cousin?"
The girl sat thinking for a moment, then looked up frankly.
"Perhaps you can judge," she said, and told him the history of her friendship with Edgerton from their meeting in his studio to their arrival at Adriutha. And Mr. Rivett listened without a shade of expression on his face, but his little dark eyes seemed to bore her through and through.
"That," she said, "is the situation." She hesitated, then meeting his gaze candidly, but with a slight increase of color in her cheeks:
"I told you this because I wanted to be fair to Mr. Edgerton—in case—in the event of you—your family—people here not considering us of much importance. Mr. Edgerton is not responsible for us.... I think he came from some boyish impulse—some chivalrous notion that my sister and I, being alone, might receive perhaps more consideration if a man of our family accompanied us."
"I wanted you to see. I'm glad I've had an opportunity to make the matter plain that Mr. Edgerton is in no way responsible for any shortcomings on our part."
"Nobody complains of you."
"Oh, no; everybody is nice to us. But—we—do things—which—women of his family—perhaps would not do."
"Yes. Cocktails, too. Also we gamble, dreadfully."
"Wouldn't his people?"
"I don't know," said the girl. "I don't know New York. One reads about these rather harmless vices being universal there. But Silvette and I are really provincial. Provincials usually go too far in either direction. It was only that I did not wish people to judge Mr. Edgerton from us."
Mr. Rivett scraped the gravel with his cane for a moment, then:
"So you like Inwood?"
"Wasn't he mixed up in some mess or other?"
"I never heard so," she said, surprised.
"Oh! What was he doing in Keno?"
She laughed. "Visiting, as we were, I suppose. You know we weren't being divorced."
"Glad to hear it."
"You didn't think so!" she exclaimed.
His eyes twinkled.
"No," he said, "I didn't. But you can't throw a stone into a crowd and give odds on its not hitting a divorced person."
"Does divorce shock you?"
"Not in the least; I'm past shocks, young lady. Who is Mrs. Wemyss?"
"Your own guest?"
He winced. "I'm asking you. We made her acquaintance at the Plaza last winter.... It seems that she and young Inwood knew each other in Keno."
"That is where I've seen her!" said Diana with innocent conviction. "I knew I'd seen her somewhere.... But she was very much slighter—oh, very much—and extremely pretty."
"Isn't she a widow?"
"I guess so.... No matter." ... He stood up briskly; she rose, too, understanding that the interview was ended—feeling slightly uncomfortable because she had permitted herself to be so thoroughly pumped. Yet there seemed to be nothing significant in the operation or results.
"I'm going for a ride with my wife"—he meant drive—"just a buggy and an old plug. She and I enjoy it, Miss Tennant."
To her surprise he took her hand between his own dry little palms and pressed it.
"You're a good girl," he said; "you and your sister—and Edgerton—he's all right—you're good children—and all off the same tree, little lady—all off the same old block in the beginning—that's plain as preaching.... Do you really like my Christine?"
"Yes, I do."
"That's right; they like you, too. They ought to. They're good children, and so are you. Good-by."