Chapter XI: Quod Erat Faciendum
With the daily advent of men arriving for the flight-shooting, now imminent, Lillian Wemyss seemed to grow prettier and slimmer every day until the perfectly visible metamorphosis had produced radiant and brand-new creature.
For the men who were now accumulating in billiard room and card room, who haunted stable and garage and kennel, were the sort of men who inspired the very breath of life in a woman of her sort—big, handsome, ruddy-faced, thick-necked men with large, indiscriminating tastes and an eternal readiness for anything from a half-broken horse to an unbroken woman, but heartily preferring them both bridlewise and registered.
They tramped all over the place, on the terrace, over the lawn, in to dinner; and the house echoed with large bantering voices, loud unfeigned laughter—and they rode hard and drank hard and played for heavy stakes, and were up and tramping all over the place by sunrise, sniffing for the frost which would bring the first night flight of woodcock from the north into the far-famed coverts of the Adriutha hills.
And the best-looking, most humorous, and most reckless among them was Scott Wallace, a young giant of infinite jest, who began by pleasing himself with Diana and, out of the sheer perversity of humorous animal spirits, pretended to her that he scarcely knew one end of a shotgun from the other, which gave him a pretext for dawdling over the country with her, and making love to her until such time as the flight might send him seriously afield.
So, as he cared nothing for the scattered pheasants and wilder and scarcer grouse, he amused himself and Diana by playing Winkle, now and then consoling himself with a difficult shot, which satisfied him and left the girl none the wiser.
But on Wallace Mrs. Wemyss had her blue eyes fixed with all the veiled alertness and objectless intensity of the sort of woman she was—a woman who would never be dunce enough to marry again.
In the meanwhile, already exceedingly popular with the shooting fraternity, she kept a mechanical hold on Inwood for no more reason than the matter-of-fact impulse which had prompted her to snap a leash on his collar the moment she set eyes on him after many months' separation.
To take him away from Christine had not been her object; she had no idea that he was interested in anybody except herself. She was perfectly confident that, given half a chance, men preferred her to any other woman; and there was really no particular malice in her desire to give Scott Wallace an opportunity to follow at her heels instead of Diana's.
For Mrs. Wemyss really needed nothing of men except admiration and uninterrupted attention. No deeper passion had ever moved her. She was ignorant of love, although apparently fashioned for it; immune to its lawlessness, although lid and ear and lip seemed to chorus the contrary. In the slightly veiled eyes there was really no promise, no significance in the full, sweet mouth—nothing to her except the superficial provocation which all men mistook, and the laughing and ready friendship offered so prettily that no man ever refused.
Inwood, searching the house and terrace over for Christine, discovering her at last in the moonlit rose garden, and, not daring to join her after all, so faint hearted he had become, walked moodily into the billiard room where a noisy lot of people were enjoying themselves.
Wallace, standing between Diana and Lillian Wemyss, his broad back against a billiard table, was evidently having a splendid time; and Inwood halted, irresolute, one hand in his pocket crushing Edgerton's letter into a wad.
Lillian Wemyss caught sight of him, smiled instinctively, but her blue eyes reverted to Wallace. There was something in her attitude, as she stood in the full splendor of her somewhat ample beauty, that subtly repelled Inwood; and he swung on his heel, somber young head bent, moving toward the door by which he had entered.
"Mr. Inwood!" called Diana across the hubbub, "will you play bottle pool with us?"
He turned, smiling to her.
"Thanks, I'm not up to it," and resumed his way out.
"Billy!" said Mrs. Wemyss, "I wish you to play!"
"No, thanks," he returned coolly, and continued toward the door.
It was his first exhibition of insubordination, and Lillian Wemyss, surprised, did not propose to stand it, particularly in the presence of these two people. Scott Wallace seemed to be almost ready for his leash; it was a bad example for him, this insubordination of young Inwood.
She looked anxiously at Diana.
"I'm afraid Billy Inwood is not well," she said. "I've thought so for several days. Those swamps where you men shoot must be full of malaria."
"Not a bit," said Wallace, laughing.
"How do you know?" asked Diana. "You never go into them, you lazy thing!"
Mrs. Wemyss hesitated, listening to the banter that passed between Diana and Scott Wallace, which slightly excluded her for the moment.
Then she made up her mind that her authority over Inwood must be asserted at once, and that she had time enough to eliminate Diana later.
She turned and saw Inwood passing the windows outside on the terrace. The next moment she was on the terrace, too, and he turned slowly to confront her.
"Billy," she said gently, "are you feeling perfectly well?"
"Then why didn't you remain at my request?"
"I didn't care to."
"But I asked you," she said, surprised.
"Yes, I know you did."
"Well?" she asked, astonished.
He had been looking away from her out over the misty moonlit river. Now he turned.
"Lillian," he said, "do you honestly care for me?"
"Billy, what a question!"
"Yes, it's one kind of question.... Do you?"
"You know I do. How can you ask such a——"
"Do you love me?
"Billy, what on earth is——"
"Wait, please. Let me ask you again, Lillian. Are you honestly in love with me?"
"I don't know what you mean by suddenly and abruptly questioning—demanding——"
"You have no right to doubt it. You know perfectly well what we have been to each other—even before——"
"What have we been?"
"I supposed we had been in love," she said with sad dignity. "I wrote you while I was abroad, and—I don't write many letters."
"Then you are in love with me.... We are in love. Is that true as you understand it?"
"You silly boy—of course!"
He stood stock still for a moment, tasting all the misery he had stored up for himself. Finally, he found his voice.
"If that is so," he said, "we ought to be engaged."
"Oh, Billy! Are you jealous?"
She laughed, radiant, delighted to feel the leash tighten in her soft little hand once more.
"No," he said, "I am not jealous; but, if we are to marry, it is time people understood it."
"Do you mean these people?"
"I mean everybody."
"You don't mean to announce our engagement this winter?" she asked uneasily.
"I mean to announce it now."
"I—I don't wish to," she faltered. "You are unreasonable."
"Is there any reason why people shouldn't know it?"
"My dear boy, one doesn't announce such important matters on the impulse of the moment."
"If I'm going to marry you, I want people to know it now!" he said.
"I've explained that I did not wish it."
"Why? There are a million perfectly good reasons."
"Give me one, Lillian."
She stood considering, her crook'd finger under her chin, blue eyes taking his measure from time to time. Evidently happiness too long deferred had made him unmanageable. She never thought of doubting her power. Probably he needed discipline. It was most annoying to be annoyed at such a time, with all these men here, and Scott Wallace already left too long alone with Diana at the billiard table. Discipline was certainly what Inwood needed.
"Billy," she said, "come in and play bottle pool."
"Am I to tell them that we are to be married?"
"No," she said petulantly.
"When may I tell them?"
"Not at all. Do you think a year of liberty is sufficient for a woman who has suffered what I have? I don't wish to marry you or anybody—yet. I haven't made up my mind to do it at all," she added with a tiny flash of rare anger, for her not very sensitive nerves were beginning to feel the pressure.
"Lillian, I want to know now. It is only square to me to——"
"Billy, if you continue to insist, you will end by seriously offending me. You have annoyed me enough already."
"By asking you to set a definite date for our impending marriage?"
"It is not impending!" she retorted, exasperated, as Diana and Wallace came out together and walked toward the farther end of the terrace.
"Do you refuse to marry me?"
"Yes, I do; I am sorry. I really cannot help how you feel about it. This year of liberty has been a year of happiness. I don't wish to marry. I don't know when I may wish to. I am perfectly contented; and that's the truth, Billy."
"So—you refuse me?"
"For the present—yes."
"No; you must answer me for all time, to-night."
She nodded. "Very well, then; I refuse definitely—and for all time.... And, Billy Inwood, you have brought this calamity upon yourself."
But Lillian's anger was always short-lived; she was already sorry for him. Besides, she was convinced that he would continue to dangle. It had been her experience with men that they were never reconciled to the unobtainable.
So with one of her swift, smiling changes of feeling she held out her hand to Inwood. He took it.
"Are you very angry?" she asked.
"Do we part—friends?"
"We do, indeed," he said so sincerely that the smile faded on her face, and into her limited mind flickered a momentary doubt. But, no, it was not possible; for Lillian had never really been able to doubt herself. Certain, once more, that this young man would appear at heel when whistled for, she returned his friendly pressure with an encouraging one, laughed, and turned lightly toward the house. He accompanied her to the door and bowed her in.
Then the strength seemed to ooze out of his back and legs; he dropped on to a marble bench, and sat there in the moonlight, his face buried in his hands.
How long he had been there he did not know, when a light touch and a soft voice close to his ear aroused him, and, looking up, he saw Diana inspecting him.
"As dejected as all that, Mr. Inwood?" she asked, as he rose to his feet.
"Not dejected, Miss Tennant."
"Why, then, these attitude? Wherefore those woe, young sir?"
"I don't know," he said listlessly.
But she did—or thought she did; so she took his arm in friendly fashion and strolled about with him in the moonlight until she pretended that the beauty of the night tempted her toward the garden.
He was alarmed for an instant, and hung back, scanning the rose garden with anxious eyes; but he could see nothing of Christine, and presently succumbed to Diana's whim.
To and fro among the late roses they paced, the girl light-heartedly rallying him on his soberness and lack of animation, until he laughed a little and squared his shoulders, and drew in a full deep breath of the soft air.
"I thought every man flirted if offered an opportunity," said Diana, "but I've flung myself at your head in vain, young man. Evidently there's some caterpillar at work on that damask cheek, or I'd be more generously appreciated."
He laughed again, and tried to tell her how deeply he was appreciating her, but she shook her head and finally dropped his arm.
"I'm going to the house," she said. "There's an arbor across the garden. If you'll wait for me there, perhaps I'll return. Will you?"
"Certainly," he said.
So she turned and sped away among the roses, and he stood and watched her until she crossed the terrace and vanished into the house.
For a few minutes he remained where he was standing; then, with a sigh, he swung on his heel and started toward the arbor, fumbling for his cigarette case as he walked.
At the entrance he paused to strike a light—and remained motionless until the match burned close to his fingers. Then it fell on the gravel; he dropped the cigarette beside it.
As he entered the arbor, a white figure, lying full length on a swinging seat, lifted its head from its arms, then sat up hastily.
"Is that you, Miss Rivett?"
"Yes." ... She rose to her feet, holding to one of the swinging chains. Moonlight fell across her white, confused face.
"May I remain?" he asked unsteadily. "Would you rather have me go?"
"No.... I am going.... My gown is damp.... I will go immediately."
"Were you asleep?"
She hesitated; but there was in her only honesty.
"No," she said.
"Then you must have heard my step on the gravel?"
She shook her head.
"Then what were you doing out here all alone with your head buried in your arms?"
"Thinking," she said.... "Would you care to walk to the house with me, Mr. Inwood?"
"Would you mind remaining here a little while?"
"My gown is damp with dew."
"Then perhaps we had better go?"
"I think so."
"It is so warm and beautiful to-night," he said, "that I can't imagine anybody taking cold out here."
"It is a bad outlook for the flight shooters."
"Yes, indeed. There is no frost in this wind."
"It may shift overnight," she said. "If to-morrow is a magnificent and cloudless day, with just a hint of silver in the horizon blue, then it means a frost and a flight to-morrow night."
"And that," he said, "would mean an end to—the roses."
"An end to anybody sitting out here again this year."
"So it seems a pity," he went on, "not to enjoy it while we may, Miss Rivett."
"I have enjoyed it—for an hour."
"You are not very generous."
"Why? You may remain another hour if you wish?" she said, smiling.
"I was alone during my hour."
"I have been alone for an entire year," he said under his breath.
She had heard him, but her abrupt question seemed to have been beaten out sharply from her startled heart.
He made no reply; she stood, one hand clasping the chain, not looking at him, conscious of the clamor of her heart.
"Miss Rivett," he said, "am I too much of a fool—too hopeless a thing for you to listen to?"
"What do you mean?" she said faintly.
"I mean that—this night, now, for the first time since I knew you—I can use, decently, honorably, whatever liberty of speech you permit me."
Presently her white hand relaxed, the chain slipped through her fingers; she sank down on the swinging seat.
After a moment he stepped toward her. She raised her head in the moonlight, and he saw the tears in her eyes.
"Christine," he said under his breath.
"Are we free to speak to each other?" she faltered.
"Thank God, yes!"
"Thank God," she whispered.
But for a long, long while they did not use the inestimable privilege of free, articulate speech. There seemed to be no need of it further than apparently irrelevant fragments such as, "My darling!" and, "Oh, Billy, if you only knew!"
Far away beyond them Diana came out on the terrace with young Wallace, and gazed very earnestly down at the rose garden.
"Shall we walk there?" he said persuasively.
Suddenly Diana's face sparkled. "Oh, dear," she said, "there's somebody down there already—two of them! And—and it looks to me as though they were spooning. What a world this is, Mr. Wallace! I think I'd better go in and play bottle pool."
That night she wrote to Edgerton:
"You have not answered my letter—but men were made to pardon.
"Somehow—and I don't quite know how—that wretched and melancholy Inwood man, fortified by a gentle push from me, contrived to get up sufficient momentum to carry my little Christine by assault. The darling has just been in here to whisper her happiness to me. We wept together, which is our feminine fashion of uttering three cheers.
"There is, of course, papa to inform. I don't envy Christine. Papa has a will of his own, but so has his infant daughter.
"Even yet I can't understand why this Inwood boy has lost all this time dingling and dangling around Mrs. Wemyss. Evidently he wasn't doing it because he was having a good time. I was inclined to suppose him either blighted or a mooner.
"But you should see the change in your intimate friend now! Why, Jim, he fairly pranced up to me as I was saying good night, and he wrung my hand and said, 'Thanks, awf'lly, Miss Tennant!' And all I had done was to give him a rendezvous with me in an arbor, and then go off to walk with Scott Wallace.
"Scott's a nice boy. You'd like him; he's a terrible tease. It seems that he's really a dead wing shot, and has just been jollying me all this time. I really enjoy him, which is more than I can say for the remainder of the sporting fraternity now investing this place. They're a hard young lot, without, perhaps, being really very hard; but they are a loud, careless, irresponsible bunch of wealthy young men who, as far as I can learn, spend their entire time in shooting at something or other, including clay birds.
"They seem to be Wall Street men when occupied at all, and all betray a very healthy respect for Mr. Rivett. People say he is a factor to be reckoned with in New York; but I don't care. He's nice to me, and his wife is adorable. As for Christine, I dearly love her, Jim. No girl is more fitted for happiness, and I'm glad she's got her Inwood boy at last.
"And now, Jim, dear, there are two matters which very sorely perplex me; and, somehow, I turn to you to help me solve them.... No, only one of them, because I shall not bother about the other matter yet.
"But about the matter which is really nearer my heart, Jim—we must leave this place; and the reason is this: Jack Rivett is making himself miserable over Silvette.
"Silvette doesn't love him; at least, I don't think she does. She couldn't do it honorably, anyway. She told me so, and I quite see it, because she and I are employed here under the Rivetts' roof, practically in a position of trust, and dedicated to their service.
"It is not a loyal thing to permit the son of the house to lose his head, and Silvette tries so hard not to let him. But he's doing it, and she can't keep him from being nice to her; and she and I know perfectly well what his father's plans for him are, and that they include a fashionable marriage.
"Of course, that argues well for Christine. The Inwoods are fashionable people, are they not? But poor Silvie! Alas! her connection with your race isn't near enough to impress Jack's father; besides, Silvette doesn't love him, and the boy is in a bad way all around.
"Now, what ought we to do? If we offer to sever social and business relations with Mr. Rivett, he will ask why we do it.
"Shall we tell him? Is that square to poor Jack? Or shall we lie? Or shall we simply remain and let Jack suffer and make Silvie miserable?
"Oh, wise young sir, inform a suppliant at your knee!
"There is nothing more to tell you about, except that your progress makes me very happy. You are doing only what you would ultimately have done without any impudent advice from me. You have found yourself, Jim; you are climbing the rungs very quickly.
"Jim, I am not yet very old—but I might easily be younger.... I was thinking the other day—and to-night—that sometime I shall be too old and unattractive to practice this not very dignified profession; and I'm disinclined to do anything more strenuous. I don't want to struggle and grub and starve along respectably as a feminine physician. It's too late for that, anyway.
"So I don't know what to do, ultimately, unless I accomplish what I started out to do—marry a wealthy man. I mean the first agreeable one I encounter.
"Well, I won't bother with that problem to-night; my head aches a little.
"Good night, Jim.
Diana finished her letter, sealed and stamped it, and kissed the superscription. She always did when she wrote his name.
Then she laid her aching temples on her arms and, leaning limply on the desk, thought about him.
Hers was a strange, sweet pride in him—a fierce jealousy lest he should not take the place in the world to which he was entitled, and prove himself every inch a man.
Nor did she pretend to hide from herself what his return among his own friends must ultimately mean. If the love he had offered her had not been totally extinguished by her light mockery and smiling insolence, then this return to his own set would do it ultimately. The standards that measured women there would be fatal to her; nor could he choose but apply them, sooner or later.
She knew this when she sent him back among his own sort. She realized perfectly that if any love for her survived her irony and flippancy—her airy but trenchant scorn—it could not survive very long when he came to his cool-headed and reasoning self, and looked around him at the women, and at the families and relatives of the women among whom he had always lived.
Already he had spoken of little Aliss Ellis—a mere child, of course—yet—yet it was a straw prophesying a change in the wind to her.
She knew; she had accomplished what she had desired. She had done this thing to herself, to her whole life, for his sake. What more could she wish for?
Sick at heart, she lifted her throbbing head and kissed his name once more where she had written it on the envelope. Then she placed it on the desk, and lay down on the bed to wait for Silvette before ringing for the maid who attended them; and after a little while she fell asleep.