Chapter VIII: Mille Modi Veneris
A number of matters had been slightly disturbing Colonel Curmew's intellect and digestion. One thing, he had lost money at cards—a thing he hated as heartily as Judge Wicklow hated it. Another matter—Jack Rivett had fairly driven him out of Silvette's vicinity. True, an easily transferred devotion to her sister already consoled him; the one was as ornamental as the other, but he liked young Rivett no better.
He desired to ingratiate himself with Jack because the boy had never liked him, and he neither understood why nor became reconciled to it; and he was always making advances and assuming, under the jocular familiarity of an older man, that there existed between himself and Jack a delightful and cordial understanding, which Jack coolly ignored; and the colonel disliked him the more.
Then, there was another matter which occupied him—had occupied him, now, for several years. He meant to marry Christine Rivett some day. For the present he was satisfied to treat her with the same jovial familiarity with which he treated her brother; and now it seemed to him that Christine, whom he feared might become too much interested in Edgerton, was veering toward this young Inwood fellow who had just arrived.
Colonel Curmew was not actually alarmed; he was merely bored, and now and then a trifle uneasy, because he had to take this and other matters into his calculations in being attentive to Diana Tennant.
No, he was not worried. He Lad become cheerfully convinced that both these matters could be properly attended to. Let Christine have her fling and grow up. Her fortune kept pace with her, anyway.
But about Diana Tennant he had not yet entirely made up his mind—and yet he had made it up, too, after a fashion.
There were, including Diana's youth and beauty, several things about her which were likely to attract the attention of such a man as Follis Curmew. First of all, she was poor. Also, she was self-supporting and alone in the world except for a similarly situated sister who didn't count, and a very distant relative who didn't really count, either.
She was beautiful and clever; men appreciate such women. Such women, he also believed, deeply appreciated the kind of things they could not afford.... And, furthermore, he did not hesitate to believe that such women were perfectly capable of appreciating middle-aged military gentlemen of discretion, fortune, and liberality in reason.
So he contrived to get as close to Diana as he could on all occasions; and very often, to her surprise, she found him at her heels or seated unnaturally near her, pale eyes slightly protruding, his curling mustache and little side whiskers faintly redolent of brilliantine.
Amused, and not yet uneasy, she mentioned his assiduity to her sister, and thought nothing further of it; nor did Silvette, preoccupied with an episode of her own which threatened to become something approaching a problem.
Instinct told her that Jack Rivett preferred her to anybody at Adriutha; and she liked him well enough to find his attention agreeable. But little by little it became more marked—to her, if not to others—and she experienced a slight uneasiness concerning this very rich and idle only son, the ambition of whose father had now become plain to her.
So Silvette at first very pleasantly discouraged him, and kept out of tête-à-têtes as much as possible, in which maneuvers she was not very successful. For the girl found in this lazy, witty, good-humored, self-indulgent young fellow a cool and confident adversary—resistless because of his charming manner toward her and his unvarying cheerfulness under rebuffs which were becoming more frequent and more severe—and, alas, more useless.
About a week after Inwood's arrival, while writing a letter in the rose-garden pavilion, a shadow checkered the lattice work and fell across her note paper; and, glancing up, she beheld Jack Rivett, hands in his coat pockets, the breeze ruffling his blond hair.
"I'm writing," she said, annoyed.
"I'll sit down on the sundial," he rejoined with a bow and a smile as though accepting a delightful invitation.
"But I'll be writing about two hours," she observed coldly.
"Writing about two hours?" he repeated. "But why write about hours at all, dear lady. An hour is an arbitrary division of time, interesting only to the unhappy."
"Very witty," she said. "Go and scratch it on the sundial."
And she resumed her letter, trying not to be aware of the blond young man seated just outside the summer house, where the sun gilded his hair and the wind mussed it into a most becoming mop.
Several times she bit the pearl tip of her penholder, frowning; but he always seemed to catch her eye at such moments, and her deepening frown only produced on his face an expression which was so very humble that it became almost mischievous.
He hurriedly rose, and looked all around him among the roses as though eagerly searching for the person who had called him.
"Jack!" she repeated emphatically.
He pretended to discover her for the first time, and hurried joyously to the lattice door.
"Jack—you perfect idiot! I want to write, and I simply can't, with you sitting around in that martyred manner."
"How far away shall I retire?" he inquired, so sad and crestfallen, that between amusement and annoyance she did not reply, but merely sat tapping with her pen and inspecting her letter.
As she did not speak again, very cautiously—and holding up one hand as an unwelcome dog holds up one beseeching paw to ward off calamity—he ventured to seat himself on a bench outside the summer house.
She was perfectly aware of the inimitable pantomime, and a violent desire to laugh seized her, but she only bit her lip and resolutely dipped her pen into the ink once more.
She wrote obstinately, knowing all the while that she'd have to rewrite it. His excessive stillness began to get on her nerves; and, after a quarter of an hour's preternatural silence, she could endure it no longer.
"Dear lady?" he replied patiently.
"Why don't you say something?"
"I was forbidden the exquisite consolation of noise."
"It's horribly hot and still out here. Why don't the birds sing?"
"They're moulting, dear lady. All their little pin feathers have become unfastened, and their bills are probably full of pins while they make themselves tidy again."
"So that is why they don't sing in July?" she said.
"That is why," he explained seriously.
"Well, then, why don't you sing? You are not untidy."
"Nothing could suit my pensive and melancholy mood better," he said sadly.
A moment later, sitting outside her door, he began with deep emotion to sing one of Kirk's melting melodies:
"With head bowed low a dentist stood
Before his office chair;
A handsome lady customer
Into his eyes did stare.
He tried to fake a careless smile
And hide his drooping jaw,
But all in vain because his guilt
Was plainly to be saw.
His voice was choked with shame and fear,
He said, 'Forgive me, miss!'
But when he begged her pardon there
The lady then did hiss:
"'Take back them teeth you made me! I
Won't wear them in my face!
Go hang them in your parlor as
A badge of your disgrace.
You swore them crowns was solid gold!
You're false—like teeth and men!
Take back them teeth, you lobster!
Never speak to me again!
Take back—take ba-ack—take ba-a-a——'"
"Jack!" she exclaimed, "that is the most—most degraded thing I ever heard you utter!"
"I'm accustoming you, by degrees, to my repertoire. With infinite precautions you will, in time, be able to endure much worse than this," he explained kindly. "Now, what shall we try next, dear lady? I have a little song called: 'Only a pint of shoe strings!'"
"Don't you dare attempt it! ... Jack, please go away. Won't you, when I ask it?"
"She mutters the unthinkable," he said, shaking his head. "My music has unseated her reason. By and by she will begin to moan and revive."
"It's perfectly outrageous," she said, tearing up what she had written, and moving aside a little so that sufficient space remained for—her sister, perhaps. So he entered the summer house and waited for an invitation, bland, cheerful, irresistible.
"I had no idea I was so pitiably weak-minded," she said.
He accepted the avowal as his invitation, and seated himself.
"Silvette," he said genially, "what are we going to do to-day?"
"Why, you and I. Who cares what the others do in this mad world, dear lady?"
"I don't know about the world," she said, "but there's one girl in it who is mad; and she's going to her room to write letters."
"Indeed, I shall!"
"Shall, or will?" he inquired, guilelessly, "People mix up those two auxiliaries so persistently that there's no telling what anybody really means in these days."
She considered a moment, then turned and looked at him.
"Jack," she said sweetly, "don't follow me about?"
"I? Follow you! That's more madness, dear lady. Who on earth ever whispered to you that I could ever do such a——"
"Won't you be serious, please?"
Her pretty, dark eyes were serious enough, even appealing. He became solemn at once.
"You have forced me to say this," she ventured. "I didn't wish to; I thought you'd understand, but you don't seem to. So I am compelled to say to you that—it is—better taste for you to—not to——"
She hesitated, glanced up at him, colored brightly.
"You know perfectly well what I mean! And there you sit, letting me try to tell you as nicely as I can——"
"About what, dear lady?"
"About you and me!" she said, incensed. "You know perfectly well that I've been obliged to avoid being alone with you."
"Because," she said, intensely annoyed, "I am employed by your parents, and you are an only son of Mr. Jacob Rivett.... Is that unmistakable?"
He said nothing.
She went on: "You know I like you, Jack. You seem to like me. If you do, you'll understand that this—this continually seeking me out, separating me from the others, isn't fair to me.... I'm trying not to talk nonsense about it. I know you mean nothing but kindness; but it isn't wise, and it is not agreeable, either. So let us enjoy our very delightful friendship as freely among others as we do when alone together—" She stopped abruptly, blushed to her hair, furious at herself, astonished that her tongue could have blundered so. The next instant she understood that he was too decent to notice her blunder. Indeed, to look at him, she almost persuaded herself that he had not even heard her speak, so coolly remote were his eyes, so preoccupied his air as he sat facing the far hills, blue in the July haze.
Presently he looked up at her.
"What was it you were lecturing me about?" he asked cheerfully.
"About our twosing, Jack."
"Did you say you did prefer it, or otherwise?"
"Otherwise—you monkey!" she said, laughing, free of the restraint and of the bright color that had made even her neck hot.
"Very well," he said briskly; "keep your distance! Don't start running after me the moment I come in sight across the landscape. Will you promise?"
"I promise," she said solemnly.
"Thank you. I shall have a little leisure now. I'll have so much I won't know what to do with it. Can you advise me?"
"Then I'll have to think for myself.... I'll have to do something, of course.... Suppose you and I take a canoe——"
"Canoes hold only two, Jack."
"By Jove! What am I thinking of! Thank you for saving me from incredible suffering.... So suppose we don't take a canoe, you and I, but we take the red runabout?"
"The red runabout holds two, only."
"I must be demented!" he said with a shudder.... "Silvette, I'll tell you what we'll do—we'll take a walk, you and I. There's room all around us for millions of other people. They can come if they like; if they don't, why, it's up to them!"
"Won't it do?"
"No. Why won't you be a little bit serious about a matter that, after all, concerns me very nearly."
"I am serious," he said. "It concerns me, too."
"No, it doesn't."
"Indeed, it does. Two people are not to go twosing any more; I'm one of those people. Therefore, it concerns me, doesn't it?"
She looked at him, confused, half smiling, half reluctant.
"Don't you know," she said, "that your attention to me is worrying your father and mother?"
He thought a moment, then slowly turned toward her a sober and youthful face, from which all humor had departed; and she looked back at him out of grave young eyes that met his very sweetly, but inexorably.
"Do you mean it, Silvette?"
"About your parents?"
"Yes, I do, Jack."
He said, partly to himself: "I had not noticed it."
"I have. It's a woman's business to notice such things. Otherwise, she'll find herself in trouble.... Inclination is a silly guide, Jack."
"For—us both.... I will be frank with you all the way through. I do like you. I enjoy our tête-à-têtes. They are perfectly honest and harmless, and without significance—the significance, alas, that others will surely attach to them.... It isn't that there's anything wrong with you and me, Jack.... It's the World that is wrong.... But—it's the World; and you and I must conform to its prejudices as long as we inhabit it—at least I must."
"I suppose you must," he said. Then, leaning a little nearer, he took her hand, held it lightly across his palm, looked at it a moment, then at her.
"Will you let me tell father and mother that I am in love with you, and wish to marry you?" he said.
"Jack!" she exclaimed in consternation.
"Will you let me?"
"No, I won't! ... Jack! Don't be foolish. I had no idea you had arrived as far as that. I had no reason to think so—to suppose for one moment—because it has always been the jolliest and most unsentimental—and—you never even touched me before."
Her color brightened, and her breath came irregularly. She tried to laugh, and failed.
"You know perfectly well that they have other ambitions for you."
"I know.... How is it with you, Silvette?"
"With me? What do you mean?"
"Could you care for me?"
"I—I haven't even thought about such a—I haven't really, Jack. You know that, don't you? You must try to look back on our very brief friendship—try to recollect how brief it has been—try to remember—remember how happy and amusing and confident that friendship has been—with no suspicion of sentiment to embarrass or vex——"
"I know.... Isn't there any hope for me?"
"Hope? No.... Don't put it that way, Jack.... I don't love you.... I oughtn't to, and, thank Heaven, I don't. And you don't really love me—you dear, sweet fellow! It's just part of your niceness—your generous attitude toward a girl——"
"I'm in love with you.... But that mustn't worry you. It had to be. You need feel no self-reproach. You didn't do anything—you were just yourself—and I"—he laughed a little—"started in to love you as soon as I saw you.... I'm glad you know it, anyway. We won't say anything more about it——"
"Jack, we will! Do you understand that you have distressed me dreadfully? Do you realize what a girl's responsibilities are when a nice man loves her? Do you think she can merely shrug her shoulders and go about her daily frivolities without another thought?"
She rose to her feet, looking at him earnestly.
"Oh, Jack! Jack!" she said, nervously clasping and unclasping her hands; "why did you do this? Why did you?"
He forced a laugh. "I won't do it again—ever," he said. "Promise you never to fall-in-love-again-hope-I-may-die'n-cross m'heart."
But there were no smiles left in her now.
"If you don't behave," he threatened, "I'll lock us both inside and sing songs to you!" ... But the smile died out on his face. "I was a gink to tell you. Don't feel unhappy about it," again the engaging humor glimmered in his eyes. "Cheer up, Silvette; you may fall in love with me yet!"
She looked up, the smile dawning, distressed, yet sweet.
"Don't let me, Jack.... Because I'm all right, so far.... And you know what your father wishes for you. I want to deal honorably by him."
"All right," he said quietly.
They walked slowly back to the house together, and the girl went directly to her room, where she found her sister mending stockings.