Chapter VII: Flos Veneris
Edgerton and Christine, ensconced in the corners of a window seat, and partly visible through the leaded panes, were too deeply absorbed in each other to be aware of the curious glances shot toward them from the tennis court outside, where Silvette, Colonel Curmew, Mrs. Lorrimore, and Jack Rivett were playing, while Diana, perched aloft with her knitting in the umpire's seat, resolutely ignored the spectacle in the window, which was plainer to her than to anybody else.
Perfectly oblivious to any extraneous interest they aroused, sitting almost nose to nose and knee to knee in the deep recess, Christine and Edgerton remained in close consultation, preoccupied, possibly indifferent, to view or comment. Christine bent forward, and drew a carnation through his buttonhole, saying:
"Anyway, you are a perfect dear, Jim Edgerton. Somehow or other, I haven't any blushes for what I've taken so many weeks to tell you. I never thought I could know anybody well enough to say such a thing to, but you are different; there's nobody like you, Jim. Do you wonder I adore you?"
"You sweet little thing, I've a mind to kiss you for that!"
"I may let you at the psychological moment. Do you think me absolutely shameless?—but I've asked you that before about a dozen times.... You don't think so, do you?"
"If other women displayed the common honesty and common sense that you display, there'd be a good deal less unhappiness in the world."
"But how can other women, when there is only one Jim Edgerton! Oh, I liked you so much—as soon as I saw you; and before I had known you a week, I was ready to tell you anything—and now I've done it!"
"It took several weeks before you came to the point," he said, laughing.
"I know, but, oh! it was such a terrible thing to do!—I don't even now understand how I ever came to tell you."
"You didn't; I extracted it, seeing that you were in pain."
"Yes, it was pain.... Not one of my own family suspected it. Father doesn't dream of such a thing; Jack doesn't, of course. As for dear little mother, you know what she thinks about you and me."
Edgerton smiled almost tenderly.
"She is very nice to me," he said. "I almost wish I could verify her charming theory."
"Certainly.... As it is, I believe I'm more than half in love with you, anyway, Christine."
She blushed again, looking at him with her pretty, frank, brown eyes; and they both laughed happily.
"It's the first time in all my life that I've been of any use in the world," he said.
"You did ask father?" she inquired, still charmingly flushed; "didn't you?"
"I certainly did. He said: 'Is young Inwood such a particular friend of yours?' I said: 'He is!' He said: 'All right; ask my wife.' So I asked your mother, and she said: 'Oh, please, Mr. Edgerton, invite anybody you wish to.' So I wrote Billy Inwood, and your bully little mother inclosed my letter in the sweetest note of her own; and now he has telegraphed——"
"I've just received the message."
He fished it out of his coat pocket, and handed it to her, and she read:
"On my way!
"Is that all?" she asked, half laughing, half excited.
"He telegraphed your mother the substance of a moderate-sized letter. She's probably in her room now, reading it. She showed it to me in amazement, but I didn't have time to follow all his polite and grateful meanderings."
"I wish to see it!" said the girl excitedly.
"Go ahead; your mother has it. I was anxious to let you know how matters had turned out, first."
"You're a dear!" she repeated, and her voice was not any too steady. "I am happy; I am happier than I've been for—" She checked herself, and bent her head for a moment; he pretended to reread the telegram.
"It will be all right now," he observed.
"I wish I knew," she said under her breath.
She lifted her honest eyes to his. "How can I know, Jim? I don't know how men are. It all happened over a year ago.... I was no wiser than a schoolgirl. What experience had I—with such episodes—such conditions—or with anything?"
"You did act like a schoolgirl—to send him about his business," said Edgerton with a shrug.
"I wouldn't have if I hadn't—hadn't——"
"Cared for him?"
"Loved him," she said steadily.
"You're a corker, Christine!" he said in genuine admiration.
"Am I? Thank you, Jim."
"Yes, you are; and so is Billy Inwood—the real Billy. Young men like to chase about with married women. They love to delude themselves into the pleasing belief that they are sad dogs——"
"There was more to it than that," said the girl; "he went to Keno to see her. That is what confounded me."
"While she was getting her divorce?"
"Then you can bet that there was nothing in it, you little goose.... Who was she, anyway?"
"A Mrs. Atherstane. Do you know her?"
"No," said Edgerton; "and you certainly did act like a schoolgirl."
"I know I did, and I was twenty.... I asked him to come, to Hot Springs; she requested him to go to Keno. He took his choice; he had a perfect right to.... And then I wrote him that letter, dismissing him."
"Ought never to have done it, sweetness," said Edgerton gravely. "There are no fetters to hold a man like absolute freedom. He was probably bound to her in various ways, innocently enough, of course; but she was probably lonely and in trouble—and—noblesse oblige. I tell you a young man has to pay for sympathizing with an unhappily married woman! And she usually sees that he does."
Christine sat back, nursing her knees, eyes downcast.
"He was right," she said. "She was his friend."
"Perhaps he was more right than you realize, Christine. When a man's man friend is battered and used up, the man still clings to him—anyway, until he borrows money; but when his woman friend becomes slightly the worse for wear, he is inclined to discard her as naïvely as he would a worn-out coat. That is the rule—romance to the contrary.... Inwood proved the exception, that's all."
"Yes," said the girl in a low voice.
"He proved the exception to me, too," said Edgerton, smiling.
"To you, Jim?"
"Certainly; wanted to lend me money when I arrived in town on my uppers."
The girl smiled.
"Oh, he's all right," said Edgerton; "I've known him since he was six and I twelve."
"He—is—all—right," repeated Christine slowly; "but—am I, Jim?"
"You know you are—kleine Fischerin!"
"But I wrote him that wretched letter. If it hurt him as it hurt me—" She ceased abruptly, and turned her face toward the window.
"You were years younger, then."
"One year," tremulously.
"Years, sweetness.... Do you think your father will ever stand for him?"
"He scarcely knows him. He did not understand why Mr. Inwood never came to Hot Springs, or why I never again saw him. Probably he supposes I lost interest."
"So your father believes that you are all over that affair, doesn't he?"
"Yes; but he probably remembers that Mr. Inwood was to have come to Hot Springs, and didn't. Fathers usually remember such things, and sometimes ask why."
"Well, Christine," he said, smiling, "you'll have to fix it with your father; and I think you can."
"Why do you think so?"
"Because there is much of your father in you—steel under the velvet skin of that pretty figure, or I miss my guess."
The girl said thoughtfully: "I am, perhaps, more like father than Jack is.... That is not really what concerns me.... Has Mr. Inwood changed—in appearance?"
"Within a year? No! Nor otherwise, I'll wager."
"I don't know; I don't know, little girl. Men are protean creatures; God knows what incarnation they'll assume next! ... But if a woman really cares for a man, and if he isn't in love with anybody else, it ought to be a cinch—even if he had as many incarnations as Albert Chevallier!"
"Well, I know my sex," he said; "the cleverest of them are boobs in the hands of yours——"
"Jim! You are becoming horrid!"
"That means I'm becoming truthful. Hooray! I see Bill's happy finish." He picked up her soft little hand and kissed it. "Velvet and steel," he said—"the hand that rocks the world! Yes? No? Good-by, you little wretch! I'm going canoeing with my cousin Diana."
"Did you say that mother has that telegram?" she asked naïvely, sliding from the window-sill to the floor.
"Yes; and it's a mile long—a bally serial, Christine—to be continued this evening, I expect."
They clasped hands at the threshold; then she ran upstairs, and he sauntered out to the tennis court, where Diana still sat on her high perch knitting the silken tie, although below her the game had ended and the players had gone to the terrace for iced tea.
"Well, of all pretty monuments!" he exclaimed. "You have the other one on the Madison Square tower beaten to a froth!"
"Beware of my arrows," she said, smiling, as the wind blew her scarf into a silvery arc from her shoulders.
"Arrows? No, I'm wrong; you look like the Angel of the Central Park Fountain."
"I feel like the dickens," she said, folding her knitting and descending the steps.
"No; I merely sat up too late, and I'm sleepy. It's perfectly horrid that you can't stop when you're winning.... What did you wish me to do, Jim—canoe with you?"
"I thought you wanted to."
"Is that why you asked me?"
"I wanted to, also. Why do you always put me in wrong, Diana?"
"Jim, do I put you in wrong, as you call it?"
"Well, it's horrid of me. Forgive me. I do try to be such good friends with you, and somehow I don't succeed."
"You—we are good friends," he said; "you know perfectly well how I feel about you."
They had walked as far as the river's edge, where several green-hulled canvas canoes lay on the grass.
"Suppose we walk," she said; "shall we? I'm too lazy to paddle. I'm sleepy, Jim. A walk ought to wake me up."
"I know a ledge where you can take a cat nap," he said. "Accept forty winks from me, and we'll paddle afterwards."
So they strolled along the river path, fragrant with mint and vine and blossom; and presently the cool green of the woods enveloped them, and their feet pressed the moist, springy leaves of a forest path that led over little brooks and up a slope of young growth, all checkered with sun spots, to a vast overhanging ledge of rocks.
"Just look at that moss!" exclaimed Diana. "I believe I'll sit down on it this minute. Jim, do sit down. It's like velvet, and there's miles of it; and here is the most enchanting silver birch tree for my back to rest on, and some wood lilies to look at.... Isn't this heavenly!"
"Out of sight," he said lazily, stretching himself at her feet and glancing up at her. "Go ahead with your cat nap. I'll time you half an hour."
After a moment he laughed, and her eyebrows went up in a silent question.
He said: "I never noticed it before. It's odd."
"How funny they are in outline—your eyes, I mean."
"Thank you, Jim."
"Oh, they're most engaging eyes, Diana."
"More thanks, thank you!"
"I mean that they tip up a trifle—just a trifle, Japonette."
"They do. Like a pretty Japanese girl's. Only yours are blue.... They're very blue—unusually—like the sky—that sort of blue."
"Young man," she said with mock seriousness, "don't you know what comes of speculating in ladies' eyes?"
"Bankruptcy of the heart," he nodded.
"Then choose some safer and preferred stock, please."
He lay smiling up at her, watching the shades of expression varying in her youthful face—watching the delicate shape of her mouth, which had always fascinated him with its unspoiled purity.
"Do you know," he said, partly to himself, "that when I first set eyes on you, Japonette, I knew I had never seen anything half as beautiful."
"You didn't think so long," she returned, laughing. "Christine is goddess of beauty just now."
"I have always thought so," he repeated.
"Then—why don't you ever say it to me?"
His smile changed a little.
"What would be the use of my telling you that you are beautiful?"
"What good would it do for me to become sentimental over your beauty?"
"Lots of good—to me, Jim. You can't tell a girl too often that she is pretty—when you really think so.... And I almost believe you do think so." She glanced at him sideways, laughed a little, then her blue eyes wandered and she leaned back, pensive, twisting a green oak leaf between idle fingers.
"Do you know," he said after a moment, "that, just now, you are like Japonette again. I haven't seen you so like the real Japonette for a long while."
"How can I be Japonette again? I lack the sandals and butterfly sash and the peonies over my ears, Jim. And—that was about all you saw in Japonette, wasn't it?"
"Almost all. Her face was only a shadowy flower against the sunshine, and its enchantment turned the world to fairyland."
"Alas! the spell was temporary. The victim of my spells fled to the roof, and told me stories about starlings and—and children.... But, somehow, I let him get away from me, and I don't know how to find him again."
Edgerton watched her. She had plaited a sash out of green oak leaves and fitted it around her slender waist; and now, absently, she was placing in her hair, above each little close-set ear, a scarlet wood lily.
Presently she caught his eye, and made him a pretty gesture.
"You see I am trying my best to return with you to yesterday.... It is a long path—back over the hours and minutes to yesterday, back to a land of dreamy suns and forgotten skies, and unremembered thoughts.... Shall I try to guide you?"
"Yes," he said, not smiling.
"We may lose our way among the phantoms," she warned him gayly; then became preternaturally solemn, resting her chin in one hand.
Her seriousness enchanted him—her youthful grace as she bent slightly above him, one warning finger uplifted as when a nurse speaks of mysteries to a child in the quiet of twilight.
"Join hands with me in spirit, and I'll try to lead you," she said.... "Now, follow me, while we make our way through the throng of strange faces, treading a path silently, discreetly, avoiding this pretty girl with her bright brown eyes."
"Christine," he thought, and started to speak.
"Hush!" she cautioned him; "for we mustn't speak yet—not until we're in the land of yesterday.... And we are passing over the minutes and hours and days and weeks—and it's like treading on formless mist; so hold tightly to my hand, and follow me—through a golden ballroom, around a great gilded piano, then out into the June rain, Jim.... Have you let go my hand?"
"Then we are very near the land of yesterday.... I thought I heard a starling whistle. Surely! and there is the sunset over the river—and now we are in the house, Jim. And it is not sunset, after all; it is sunrise—the sunburst of Japan! And there, against it——"
"You!" he said in a voice not very firm.
"Hush! Those two figures we see are only phantoms. Let us stand here by the door and listen to what they might have said."
"They did say things!"
"Ah! but it is to what they might have said that we must try to listen. Be very silent, now. Look at that girl in her silk and sandals and the flowers in her hair! Look at that young fellow, rooted to the floor, amazed at the apparition! Can you hear what he might have said to her in his astonishment?"
"He might have said: 'Your loveliness confounds me. You are the most beautiful vision I have ever dreamed.' ... What does she say, Japonette?"
"She says: 'For a moment I was afraid you'd filled your suit cases with our silver; but you are so obviously nice that I am not alarmed any more. I'm merely ashamed to be caught here in this theatrical dress.' What might he have said to that, Jim?"
"He might have said: 'Is it a heavenly possibility that you are real, and not a vision? Allah is merciful to the believer in dreams. Your name is Youth and Beauty; I will call you Japonette, but the high white gods have named you Diana.' ... And what does she say, Japonette?"
"She might have answered: 'O youth with the engaging smile, out of my breast you have charmed the winged heart, and it is fluttering there above you, restless, uncertain—just beyond your reach.' ... And what does—might he have answered, Jim?"
"He might have said: 'I love you, but my outward self does not know it yet—will not know it, even on the roof garden—even when the sun hangs low and the starlings pipe, and all the west is a glory of gold and rose; and I shall never know it until you lead me back from to-morrow, through the magic path of days and hours, to the true world of yesterday.' ... What answer does she make Diana?"
His voice had grown very unsteady; he lay there looking at her, the smile stamped on his lips. And her faint smile had become fixed, too.
"She made no answer," said Diana.
"She might have.... Remember, all this is what they might have said."
"And did not.... I don't know what she might have said." ... Suddenly she flung the green sash of leaves from her body, tore the scarlet wood lilies from her hair, and flung them away with a gay, little laugh.
"What an idle, silly pair we are," she said. "I've had my nap. I'm awake, now."
"Was all that a dream?"
"You know it was.... It began with a fable—which sent me off to sleep."
"It ended in truth—and an awakening—for one of us."
"Jim, you're not pretending to be serious, are you? Goodness!" she added impatiently; "can't I pretend with you, and not be misunderstood?"
He sat up, sprang to his feet, and began to pace the moss.
She, resting against the silver birch, watched him, already a little frightened, her heart beginning to beat high and fast.
Suddenly he came back and, resting on one knee, bent over beside her.
"Did you mean nothing of that? Nothing?"
"Nothing; why should you be silly enough to suppose——"
"I did suppose for a moment."
"Jim, you are not pretending to court me, are you?"
"Not pretending.... No, I'm not doing it.... How can a beggar think of such a thing as courtship?"
"Beggars court most ardently—sometimes," she said, laughing tremulously. "But it's not hearts they usually court."
He knelt there, thinking a moment, head bent. Then he looked up at her.
"I have no reason to believe that you care for me," he said—"more than for any other man, I mean."
"You have no reason to believe so," she repeated, now thoroughly alarmed at what she'd done; and yet it was what she had deliberately set out to do. Her breath came unevenly. She strove to retain her composure, to recover the ground he seemed to have gained.
"Jim," she said, "you are too easily affected by your surroundings. A few trees, a summer sky, and a girl are destruction to you."
"You don't think that," he said quietly.
"I do, indeed. Witness my fate, and the plight of Christine."
He said, watching her: "Do you suppose that there is any sentimentality between Christine Rivett and me?"
"Oh, Jim! don't shuffle——"
"She is in love with another man," he said.
"Nonsense!" But a strange thrill shot through and through her, and, confused, she bent forward, looking him straight in the face.
"Diana! Diana!" he said under his breath, "did you care?"
"I?" she said, reddening. "Jim, I am not a baby.... I thought—as everybody thought—but it was of no consequence—except that she is a sweet girl, and you are my friend."
She recovered herself with a little laugh—or would have, had his hand not closed on hers. She gave it a friendly and vigorous pressure, and attempted to drop it; but he placed the other hand over it, inclosing her slender fingers, which frightened her into pretense of unconsciousness.
Now she stood on the threshold. Now she was on the eve of that daybreak from which she had prayed that the shadows might flee away; and she shrank from the coming light, afraid, while dawn threatened her with what, as yet, she had left undone. And even through the confused sense of expectancy and consternation ran a fierce flame of happiness.
Then, unable to endure it longer, she flung the mask from her, facing the tempest she had sown.
"Let me go, Jim," she said in a colorless voice.
But he held her hand closely imprisoned, and the next moment her body. The rapid racket of her heart seemed to stifle her; she tried to speak—lay inert, crushed against his shoulder, dumb, scarlet, under his kiss.
"I love you," he said; "I've always loved you.... I'm a blackguard to say it—penniless nobody that I am—without much chance to be anything else, apparently. But I say it for better or worse.... I love you. You like me, but you think lightly of me.... With sufficient reason, God knows.... And I have no right to touch you—no right in decency or law, Diana."
She forced herself away from him, but, somehow, held his hands clasped convulsively in hers.
"You—shouldn't have kissed me," she managed to say. "You mustn't do it again—ever."
He laid his face against their clasped hands; her own tightened.
"Nevertheless," he said, "I love you."
"You mustn't speak that way—" She dropped her flushed face; he lifted it, and kissed her again.
When he released her, she leaned back against the silver birch, head lowered, silent and did not move her hands from the moss as he bent and kissed them, too.
When at last she found her voice, she spoke so low that he bent his head closer to listen.
"That is the one imprudence I have never before committed—contact with any man. You must not do it to me again.... I don't know how to take it. I can't love you. You know that." She looked up at him. "Don't you know it?"
"Yes," he said stubbornly.
"You do know that I can't; don't you? And that you cannot really love me?"
"I suppose it ought to be that way; but it isn't."
And now the moment had come to make her desire a certainty—and finish what she had set herself to do—for this man's sake. She said:
"You can't care for me, Jim! What am I anyway? A shallow, pleasure-loving nobody, who sells her frivolous social gifts because it is pleasanter and easier to make a living that way than to exercise a decent profession. How can such a man as you really fall in love with such a woman?"
She rose to her feet and stood leaning against the tree; and he rose, too, releasing her fingers.
She touched her hair, passed her hands slowly over her eyes, let them fall idly by her side; then, after a moment, looked up at him, faintly smiling.
"Melodrama is no use, is it?" she said. "You are not impressed by it; I can't act it. Life is less serious than the stage. Shall we come back together along the road to yesterday, and find our old, safe footing? ... And—shall I forgive you what you've done this summer day?"
"I want you to marry me," he said between compressed lips. "I'll make good, yet."
"What!" she exclaimed in apparent amazement. "You!"
"Will you marry me?"
How she forced the light laughter she never understood; and she saw her gayety bring the blood to his face like a whip lash.
"Marry! No, I won't marry you," she laughed. "Mercy on the man! Does he suppose I wish to marry a professional entertainer?—a generally useful gentleman—a big, strong, healthy, well-built, intelligent fellow, too indolent to rouse himself and make a respectable living?—too self-indulgent to start in a manly career and fight the world—take it by the throat and shake a decent living out of its sinful old pockets?"
A deeper flush of astonishment and mortification swept his face, settling to the roots of his hair.
She did not seem to notice it or his silence.
"Nonsense," she laughed; "a girl, with any humor, simply couldn't love such a man, even if she wanted to, Jim. Because, how can she respect him? ... You're a dear, generous fellow—nice to everybody, perfectly sweet to Silvette and to me, and I do like you—even love you, in a certain sense—and I didn't really mind being kissed any more than as though Silvette had done it. But I'm simply not fashioned to lose my head over a man who is hired by the month to be socially pleasant." She laughed again, and laid her hand carelessly on his arm; and under her touch she felt it was rigid and hard as iron.
"You see, don't you?" she said sweetly. "You're not grown up yet, Jim. It takes more than you yet are to satisfy me."
He managed to force his voice out of his quivering throat.
"You're right," he said. "I didn't know what I was talking about. You are worth trying for."
They turned away together; she slipped one hand confidently through his arm, leaning on him lightly as they walked.
"You're not hopelessly offended, are you, Jim?"
"No—good God, no."
"I'd love you if I could," she said soothingly, "but the instincts of mating with anything resembling servitude are wanting in me. Besides, two slaves are enough for one family—Silvette and I.... You are not hurt or angry at my very horrid frankness?"
"No.... What you said is all right." He lifted his eyes and looked his punishment squarely in the face; and her heart failed her, so that she turned her head swiftly, the tears stinging her throat.
They walked soberly on through the meadow up to the house. She gave him her hand at parting; then went leisurely to her room to dress for dinner.
And Silvette found her there alone on her knees beside the window, partly undressed, her head buried in her arms, the brown locks clustering against her pale and tear-stained face.
"Diana!" she exclaimed softly. "What is the matter, child?"
The girl got up wearily, keeping her face out of the flood of light from the electric brackets.
"Nothing much," she said; "I've only been very horrid to Jim."
"I thought you were going to be kinder," said Silvette, astonished.
"I have been; but he doesn't know it."
Her sister stood silent, looking at her with sorrowful eyes.
"Don't sympathize with me; I—I can't bear it, Silvie."
"No—if you don't wish it, dear.... Shall I fix your bath? ... And—who do you suppose is downstairs?"
Diana looked up inquiringly.
"The man you flirted with so outrageously at Keno!"
"Which?" asked Diana naïvely.
Diana brightened a little.
"At least," she said with sad satisfaction, "I can occupy my mind with him for a while. He got away before he was thoroughly disciplined. I believe there was another girl somewhere.... I think I'll obliterate her—unless I approve of her. There's the making of a man in that boy, Silvette."
But she decided otherwise a few moments before dinner was announced, when Inwood made his appearance in the drawing-room and greeted his hostess. Then, catching sight of her, he came hastily toward her with both hands outstretched.
"Diana!" he exclaimed; "isn't this jolly! I'm terribly glad to see you again... And Silvette! Oh, this is simply too delightful! I——"
Speech stopped, perhaps froze on his lips; then he turned fiery red as he stepped forward to greet Mrs. Wemyss. A year ago she had been a comparatively slim and pretty divorcée; to-day even the embarrassing opulence and prodigality of her charms had not altered the doll-like perfection of her features. He knew her instantly, and, in his brain, chaos menaced him.
"How do you do," he said; "this is most delightful and surprising. Lilly——"
"Charming," murmured Mrs. Wemyss; and, under her smile, she lowered her voice: "I'm Lilly Wemyss; I've taken my maiden name. Don't forget, and call me Mrs. Atherstane."
He nodded, the fixed smile imprinted on his features; and it remained there as they stood in conversation until dinner was announced.
He took in Christine. The girl's arm rested lightly as a feather on his sleeve. During dinner she talked to him pleasantly, but without animation; and, somehow, all seemed to go wrong with him, for he found scarcely anything to say to Christine—anything that was not trite and banal. And his haunted eyes reverted again and again to Mrs. Wemyss.
"Oh, Lord!" he thought, "what a horrible mess; and is Lilly going to expect me to—to——"
But his scared wits could speculate no farther, and he sat beside Christine, worried, unhappy, penitent, too miserable to enjoy the moment to which he had looked forward so impetuously all day long—a moment which, two days ago, he dared not believe would ever again come into his life.