Chapter XII: Nunc Aut Nunquam
Warm weather continued; no flight occurred. The men thrashed about with the dogs after grouse and a few native woodcock bred in the willows along the river, or rode, motored, and played cards. One or two had to give up, and return to the city.
Colonel Curmew was at his best on these gay occasions—gallant, jocose, busy, everybody's friend, including Jack Rivett's, who quietly began to hate him.
In the midst of the general tension and expectancy concerning the long-awaited flight, Christine one morning entered her father's study and found the author of her being conferring with Mr. Dineen.
"This won't do, Christine," he said. "I'm busy."
"No, it won't do," she admitted, looking so significantly at Mr. Dineen that the jolly, big Irishman laughed.
"You want me to go out!" he said, shaking an enormous forefinger at her.
"Please—for a few minutes."
"Sure," said Mr. Dineen with an amused glance at Rivett, who sat inspecting his offspring with a face entirely devoid of expression.
When the big Mr. Dineen had closed the door behind him, Christine, a trifle pale, walked resolutely to her father and laid her hand on his shoulder.
"I've practically asked Billy Inwood to marry me."
Her father's eyes bored through and through her.
"Who did the asking, Chrissy?"
"Both of us."
"What?" he barked.
"It wasn't asking, exactly. I have loved him for a year, and he has loved me. There has been a misunderstanding."
His daughter's eyes never flinched.
"About a point of honor, father," she said quietly.
She went on, still resting her hand on his shoulder.
"We were very unhappy; but the point of honor involved straightened itself out.... I happened to be in the rose arbor that evening. He came in by accident.... After we had talked a little, he told me that he was free to speak if I would listen to him.... Then, somehow, we merely looked at each other, and—and presently—presently we kissed each other.... I don't remember much else ... except that I said I would marry him—before he asked me——"
"Did you also set the date?" inquired her father sarcastically.
"No.... Mother and I are considering.... Are you happy over it, dad?"
"I don't know anything about him," he snapped.
"Yes, you know that I'm in love with him."
"Certainly; of course. Very worthy young man, no doubt."
"Also," continued his daughter calmly, "you know that Jim Edgerton is his closest friend."
"That," said Rivett, "counts some."
"And mother likes him," concluded the girl.
Her father sat staring at her in silence. Suddenly she put her arms around his neck, and the little man hid his spectacles on her breast for a second.
"Thank you, dad, darling," she whispered.
"Chrissy—Chrissy—so soon! I wanted you awhile yet." ... He jerked his head free, produced a handkerchief, and began busily to polish his eyeglasses.
"All right," he said brusquely, "I'll talk it over with your mother.... She knows.... She knows more than I do. They wouldn't believe that in Wall Street, but it's true."
"Couldn't we live with you and mother?"
"Sure. D'you think I'd let any young jackanapes take you entirely away? You tell him I'll scalp him if he talks that kind of thing to you." ... He laughed harshly. "But I'm a fool, Chrissy; you and I are talking foolish.... You won't come back to stay. You won't want to."
"No, dear; you don't know yet.... Your mother and I made our own home. It was a rough one, Chrissy, but it was ours. You'll do the same ultimately. It's part of the game.... Tell your young man to come here."
The girl slipped away; in a few moments Inwood knocked and entered. Mr. Rivett gave him a level and murderous look.
"How about that complication you got yourself into?" he asked harshly.
Inwood turned scarlet.
"I'm out of it."
"What was it?"
"You don't mean to ask me that?"
"Yes, I do! ... But I didn't expect an answer.... Can you support my little girl decently?"
"Not in the style to which I have accustomed her?"
"All right," he snapped.
After a silence the young fellow said:
"Do you disapprove of me?"
"How the devil can I? I don't know you. If you make my little girl a good husband, I'll love you like a son; if you don't, I'll—kill you. You look all right; but there's no use talking.... You show me what stuff you're made of, and I'll do my part."
"All right," said Inwood, smiling.
Something in his smile interested Rivett.
"Was your mother a Lawrence?" he demanded suddenly.
"She was born Elizabeth Lawrence."
"Betty Lawrence," he repeated, staring at the younger man.
"Did you know her?" asked Inwood.
"I taught her in school.... Betty Lawrence.... Only two people ever smiled like that—you and your mother.... You have good blood in you, Inwood.... I know your father—in Wall Street. We are on good terms.... Don't ever be a fool again, will you?"
They shook hands seriously. As Inwood left, Dineen came in.
Rivett looked at Dineen without speaking for a full minute, then he said slowly:
"My daughter is going to be married."
"God bless my soul!" ejaculated the big Irishman—"not that child!"
"Yes; I guess she means business, John."
"When?—in the name of the saints!"
"When she's ready, I presume.... She's a good girl.... They're good children. They've stayed as long as they could. Their time is nearly up.... But the smallest hut is a big barn when the children have taken wing.... I wish I could have seen more of my father and mother.... But I had to go out into a lean world and hunt a living."
"The best of us have passed that way," observed Dineen; and, after a moment: "Who's the lucky divil, Jacob?"
"Stuart Inwood's boy?"
"That's the one."
Dineen lit a cigar and, drawing it into vaporous action, ruminated with enormous thumbs joined.
"It's good stock," he said, finally; "none better betwixt the Bowling Green and Patroon Van Courtlandt's old shebang. There's money, too; and an opera box and a bit of a shack at Newport. What kind of a lad is it?"
"He can look me in the face," said Rivett. "Otherwise he looks like everybody else of his sort, and probably resembles them, too. Ah!"—he broke out angrily—"these sleek-headed, tailor-made, smooth-faced young pups from New York, with their pleasant manners when they want anything, and their ways and means and by-ways and ten-cent brains—God! Dineen, do they really ever turn into men? Answer me that! You've lived long enough to see a new-born snob grow to be thirty. Do they ever turn into anything except the harmless fools they're born?"
Dineen slowly revolved his thumbs and squinted at a sunbeam, while the smoke from the cigar in his cheek rose to the ceiling in a straight, thin column.
"Some of them become men," he said deliberately. "The most o' them is born spots and rots; or, if they're not, college addles 'em. But, God be praised! if it wasn't for them the good people of Reno, Palm Beach, and Paris, France, would starve entirely.... Jacob, they say there's a use even for the San José scale; and cursing would become a lost art barring the mosquito."
"What do you know about young Inwood?" asked Rivett.
"Nothing; he's a broker."
"Then we've nothing to learn, I guess," said Rivett dryly, "unless he gets into the papers.... Well, my wife likes him.... She's always right, John. I'll go and talk to her presently.... What were you saying about young Edgerton before my daughter came?"
"I said that he's the same as all the Edgertons. By jimmy! I started him on ink wells to see would he stand for it, and he was there every morning at seven; and he cleaned those ink wells and desks till nobody knew them—with his busted arm and all. Then I set him at the ledgers, and I let him stew for a week. A week was enough to see a good man wasting his fist and eyes at fifteen per.
"'G'wan into the designing room,' I said to him, using Doolan as meejum for my remarks; and I let him stew there with his compass and his tracing paper, doping out the work of worse than he.
"Then I gave Williamson the kitty-wink. 'Give us a pair of gates for a gentleman's estate,' said Williamson, very damn polite, knowing who was backin' the lad for a place.... They're using the sketch now."
"I told you so," said Rivett calmly.
"Ah, go on! I told you so! Let it go at that, Jacob. So I talked to Everly, and Everly sent him into the laboratory. When he isn't there he's nosing around the shops, or asking questions of Cost and McCorkle over in Jersey, or he's investigating the Holmes Construction plant."
"He's got his eye on the game."
"Sure; it's in him. There's iron in every Edgerton. They're all full of ore. He's taken longer to open his eyes than the usual litter, that's all.... Got playing the art game, you say—like a kitten with a paper ball.... There's art in him, too, I guess. Those gates were all right.... But—you mean to give him his chance?"
Rivett nodded. "I am Edgerton, Tennant & Co. I'd like to have Edgerton go back there some day.... They were square people.... I might have used them a little easier.... My wife likes Edgerton.... She wishes it."
"She wants him to have his chance," mused Dineen.
"What she wants, I want," said Rivett.... "And I might have been easier on Edgerton, Tennant & Co.... I would have been—if we hadn't needed the plant."
Dineen nodded gravely.
"Sure! A poor corporal of industry like you, Jake, needs what he can pick up out o' the ash can."
For a full minute neither spoke. A slight flush faded from Rivett's cheek bones.
"You damned Irishman," he said, wincing, "when are you going back?"
"To-night, I think.... There's an ash can I haven't raked over—the Carrol-Baker Company."
"You'd better fix that," said Rivett dryly; "there may be a lump of slag or two we can use for filling in ballast."
Dineen winked, rose, deposited the ashes from his cigar on the window ledge, and sauntered forth—to meet Jack walking swiftly and firmly toward his father's study.
"Hello, young man!" exclaimed Dineen, "is the house afire, or has the brown jug below run dry?"
"No fear," said the young man, smiling, but continuing on his way. Dineen looked after him with shrewd, blue eyes.
"I'm a monkey," he said to himself, "if that young man isn't on some such errand as took his sister to the same place an hour ago. If he is, God help him! for Jacob's still sore all over with the news from the front stoop."
Jack knocked, and his father, who had settled himself for five minutes' hard thinking, rapped out: "Who's there?"
"It's Jack. May I come in?"
"Come on," said his father grimly, "I am—" but catching sight of his son's face he stopped short.
"What?" snapped Rivett senior, instinctively squaring his shoulders.
"May I talk to you as two men ought to talk together, or must I assume the attitude of a child to its father?"
"Talk as you feel. I had a notion that you were still my son—maybe I'm mistaken. In that case you may try to bully me if you care to. Go on."
"I didn't mean that, dad."
"I know you didn't; but you've come in here with your mind already made up that I won't do what you want me to do. That's no good, Jack. Go into everything cocksure that you'll win out. It's the only way you stand any chance at all. Proceed."
The boy sat down and gazed absently out of the window; after a few moments he turned his head and looked at his father.
"Dad," he said, "I'm in love."
Rivett senior regarded him in angry amazement, for a second only; then the grim mask of a face resumed its weasel-eyed and expressionless immobility.
"Babies have to go through teething, too," he observed.
Jack said pleasantly: "Wouldn't you rather I came to you and told you about it?"
"Yes; a boy is all right who tells his parents. Who is the girl?"
An unaccustomed color dyed Mr. Rivett's pallid temples.
"Oh! Have you informed her?"
Rivett's teeth met under the walrus mustache, parted, met, and ground together; but his son saw only the jaw muscles move slightly in the lean face.
"Silvette is a—an interesting young girl," said Rivett with an effort; "but she is one of my employees, and not the sort of woman I wish my son to marry."
"So she says," observed Jack quietly.
"Who says what?"
"Silvette said exactly what you have just said—that she is your employee, and her sense of honor will not permit her to listen to me."
"Oh! ... She said that, did she? ... Oh! ... Did she tell you to tell me her answer?"
"No; she told me that if I uttered one word on the subject to you, she would leave your service in twenty-four hours."
His father's eyes fairly bored into him like augers.
"And yet you've done it?"
"I've taken the chance—yes."
"Because I love her."
"You'll have that kind of pip several times before you pick the right one, Jack."
"No; I'm like you."
"I say that I am like you, dad.... I don't believe there was ever anybody but mother. Was there?"
"How about that little Beaumont girl you met at Hot Springs?" asked his father.
"I taught her to shoot a pistol. I liked her, but that was all. Silvette is different."
Somehow, the memory of a girl he had once taught came into Mr. Rivett's mind—Betty Lawrence—who smiled as nobody else ever had smiled except her own son—years afterwards—years and years afterwards.
He raised his sunken head and looked hard at his son.
"I don't want you to marry her, Jack," he said.
"I had other plans for you. There are girls in New York who——"
"There are girls everywhere, but only one Silvette Tennant; and I am like you, father."
"You don't show it now," retorted Rivett sharply. "Do you think I'd spoil my chances—no, my certainty in New York, as you are trying to do?"
"You only got as far as Mills Corners, dad; and you had not even seen New York."
"I don't want you to marry her," repeated his father doggedly.
"Because—I don't know anything about her. She gambles, too!"
"Would you care whether the girl you meant to pick out for me plays cards for stakes?"
"I certainly—" He stopped abruptly, then: "She smokes and drinks like a man!"
"Get some woman to ask you to dine with her at the Convent Club some evening," said Jack, smiling.
"Who is Silvette Tennant, anyway?" demanded his father.
"You ought to know something about the Tennants, dad. You reorganized their firm."
"I never heard of her or her sister before I hired them," said his father, reddening.
"Dad, be square with me. Do you like her?"
"Do you like Silvette?"
"I like her sister."
"Yes, damn it, I do!"
"So do I," he said; "but she has refused me."
"She knew enough to do it; she is a girl of sense. Certainly, I like her. She knows well enough that she has no right to encourage you."
"She knows something else, too."
"She knows that she doesn't care for me anyway," said the boy with a quiet simplicity that, somehow, left a confused and restless resentment in Mr. Rivett's breast.
"Doesn't care for you?" repeated his father slowly. "She'd care for you fast enough if she dared."
"Dared!" Jack laughed. "If she had cared for me, she'd have told me—and sent me about my business all the same; don't worry about that. But she doesn't care about me.... I think, sweet and generous as she is, she does not consider our family as particularly desirable for an alliance."
"What! My employee!"
"Why, dad, our employing her puts us at her mercy. Didn't you realize that?"
The elder man sat silent, glaring at his son through his great convex spectacles.
"So that is why this girl wouldn't listen to you?" he said.
"Her reason was that she, being in your employment, occupied a position of trust, and that it would be dishonest in her to take advantage of it by encouraging your only son."
"Did she say that?"
"Almost word for word."
"Oh! So this has been going on a long while?"
"I've bothered her a long while; I've contrived to make her miserable. She does her best to keep away from me. I don't know what to do," said the boy miserably.
"Well, you've done it now, anyway; you've come to me, and told me against her orders. Now, she'll go—if I tell her."
"I shall tell her; I couldn't do this without being honest enough to tell her that I've done it."
"But—you say she'll go away."
"She certainly will, unless you ask her to remain."
"Yes; you, dad."
"Do you think I'm going to deliberately bite my own head off?"
Jack smiled forlornly. "If you don't ask her to stay, you'll be biting my head off; but I won't need a head if she goes, so bite away, dad, if you're going to."
Rivett stared at him in stony silence.
"Do you know what your sister has done?"
"Yes; Inwood is a corker. I'm terribly glad."
"Oh, are you!"
"Confound it! how do I know whether I'm glad or not to see the house emptying itself of all your mother and I care for—" He stopped with a dry catch in his throat, then resumed more cautiously:
"I thought Chrissy's tale of woe was sufficient for one morning, but here you come galloping in with one that beats hers to a batter! How do you suppose I like it? I expected to have my children with me for a while.... Yesterday you were in the cradle.... To-day you're up and off and out into the world with a girl I never saw before last June! Jack! Jack! what the devil's the matter with everything!"
"Isn't everything about as it was when you were my age, father?"
"No, it isn't. If anybody had predicted these times, he'd have been locked up for a lunatic! What with luxury, and fashions, and folderol, and high finance, and cards, and cocktails, and cigarettes——"
"I don't mean the details, dad; but isn't it all about the same—the birth, growth, courtship, parting? Isn't it?"
The older man was silent.
Jack rose and stood by the window watching the big clouds drifting across the sky.
"Jack," said his father, "why did you come here to tell me this?"
"Mother said I had better."
"Your mother!" he exclaimed, horrified.
"Yes; I told her first, of course—even before I spoke to Silvette."
"She never said—one—word to me," murmured Rivett vacantly.
"She promised not to before I would tell her."
"Do you mean to say that your mother approves?"
"She said she would if you did.... And all I ask of you is to invite Silvette to overlook what I've said and done, and request her to remain."
"If she doesn't care for you," said Mr. Rivett, "what do you want her to remain for?"
Jack's eye met his father's.
"So that I can have a chance to win her," he said doggedly, "with my parents' full approval."
Rivett rose, furious.
"You stay here until I've talked to your mother!" he barked, and went out slamming the door.
Jack sat down prepared to wait, but it was not five minutes before his father came in.
"I've seen your mother. Clear out of here! That young lady of yours is coming."
"Yes, here. If you don't go out, I'll drop you out of the window—old as I am."
"Dad! You're a brick!"
"Well, you'll get that brick in the neck if you don't hustle!"
Jack laughed and held out his hand; his father took it, tried to speak—only succeeded in swearing. The boy went out. When the girl entered, Mr. Rivett was standing by the window, wiping his glasses for the second time that morning.
He turned, nodded, placed a chair for Silvette, but remained standing.
"I don't suppose you've any notion why I've asked you to come in here. Have you?"
"Not the slightest," she said, smiling.
"I suppose you think it's on business?"
"Because," said Silvette, laughing, "our relations are on a business basis."
"Do you consider them entirely so?"
"I—am obliged to, am I not?"
"Don't you like us?" he asked bluntly.
"What an odd question! Of course, I do. I'm in love with your wife."
"Not with me?"
She laughed gayly. "You've evidently discovered that Diana and I like you immensely."
"Do you? Really?"
"Of course; you've been very charming to us. As for Christine, we care a great deal for her—very sincerely and deeply, Mr. Rivett."
"What about Jack?" asked Mr. Rivett casually.
A slight tinge of color rose and spread in the girl's pretty cheeks.
"Everybody likes Jack," she said briefly.
"That's what I wanted to find out. That's why I asked you to come here."
The girl looked at him, startled, incredulous of her own hearing.
"I don't understand," she said.
"Then I'll be plainer. Jack has told me that he wishes to marry you."
The crimson stained her from throat to temple, but she rose with perfect self-possession.
"I think," she said quietly, "that this severs our business relations."
"Not unless you wish it."
"I do wish it."
"Because I warned Jack that one word of this matter to you would mean my leaving Adriutha."
"Because I am employed here by you, and Jack is your son," she said coldly.
"Do you mean to leave us?"
"You need not."
"You are very kind, but my service is of no further value."
"I ask you to remain," he said slowly. "You have already rendered me service I could never pay for. I ask you to remain with us—as our guest, if you must; as Jack's betrothed, if you will."
She flushed again, brightly, astonished.
"But—but I don't—I am not in love—with Jack!" she stammered. "He knows it. I have told him so.... I like him immensely.... he is a dear boy—generous, clever, charming, considerate.... I never liked any man better.... But I don't love him, Mr. Rivett."
"That's up to him, isn't it?" asked Rivett dryly. "I can't make you love my boy; neither can his mother. Mothers can do most things. Probably Jack is young enough to think she can make you love him; but I can't help that, Miss Tennant. All I can do is to ask you to remain.... And to say—that if you ever come to care for Jack, my only boy, his mother will welcome you as our daughter—and so will I."
Then Silvette did a curious thing. She sat down at Mr. Rivett's desk and bent her head over the blotter, and sat so, with her small handkerchief against her eyes.
There was not a sound from her nor from Mr. Rivett.
For a long while she sat there, finally burying her face in her handkerchief and both hands.
Mr. Rivett bent over her presently.
She merely nodded in sign that she had heard him.
He said quietly: "You are in love with Jack."
She sat motionless.
"Your loyalty to honor deceived a very gentle heart," he said; "you loved him all the time."
She made no sign, no movement.
"We could ask no better woman for our daughter," he said. "I was very blind. Jack knew, but his mother knew best of all. My wife is very wise, Silvette—far wiser than I.... And I have—I am in debt—to the name you bear. I thought by giving you my boy I was canceling it.... You put me under obligations I am unable to meet—unless you can accept my—affection—as collateral. Can you, child?"
Her hand moved slightly—moved farther across the polished surface of the desk. His hand fell over it.
"Thank you," he said.
They remained silent for a few moments; then he gently relinquished her hand and went out, leaving the door just ajar.
When Silvette lifted her head from the desk, she knew that Jack had entered.
Tall and quiet, he stood looking at her; tall and pale, she rose, looked at him steadily, came toward him as he moved toward her, and laid both hands fearlessly in his.
"I didn't know," she said. "I wouldn't let myself even think of you.... Do you want me, Jack?"
Then down he went on one knee, and kissed hers, and her hands, and her gown; and, confused, she drew away, then waited as he rose waited, looking at him as his arm encircled her.
Very gravely they exchanged their first kiss.
That seemed to break the divine spell, for they found their tongues very quickly now, and, sitting perched on his father's desk, side by side, feet hanging, and hand in hand, they succumbed to the rapture of garrulity, asking Love's same old questions with all the ardor of neophytes, and answering as Love has answered for many a century, and will answer for many more—tritely, passionately, and with that incurable redundance of which lovers alone are masters.