In her pocket as she spoke her hand rested upon the little sack of tobacco, which responded accusingly to the touch of her restless fingers; and she found time to wonder why she was building up this fiction for Mr. Arthur Russell. His discovery of Walter's device for whiling away the dull evening had shamed and distressed her; but she would have suffered no less if almost any other had been the discoverer. In this gentleman, after hearing that he was Mildred's Mr. Arthur Russell, Alice felt not the slightest “personal interest”; and there was yet to develop in her life such a thing as an interest not personal. At twenty-two this state of affairs is not unique.
So far as Alice was concerned Russell might have worn a placard, “Engaged.” She looked upon him as diners entering a restaurant look upon tables marked “Reserved”: the glance, slightly discontented, passes on at once. Or so the eye of a prospector wanders querulously over staked and established claims on the mountainside, and seeks the virgin land beyond; unless, indeed, the prospector be dishonest. But Alice was no claim-jumper—so long as the notice of ownership was plainly posted.
Though she was indifferent now, habit ruled her: and, at the very time she wondered why she created fictitious cigars for her father, she was also regretting that she had not boldly carried her Malacca stick down-town with her. Her vivacity increased automatically.
“Perhaps the clerk thought you wanted the cigars for yourself,” Russell suggested. “He may have taken you for a Spanish countess.”
“I'm sure he did!” Alice agreed, gaily; and she hummed a bar or two of “LaPaloma,” snapping her fingers as castanets, and swaying her body a little, to suggest the accepted stencil of a “Spanish Dancer.” “Would you have taken me for one, Mr. Russell?” she asked, as she concluded the impersonation.
“I? Why, yes,” he said. “I'D take you for anything you wanted me to.”
“Why, what a speech!” she cried, and, laughing, gave him a quick glance in which there glimmered some real surprise. He was looking at her quizzically, but with the liveliest appreciation. Her surprise increased; and she was glad that he had joined her.
To be seen walking with such a companion added to her pleasure. She would have described him as “altogether quite stunning-looking”; and she liked his tall, dark thinness, his gray clothes, his soft hat, and his clean brown shoes; she liked his easy swing of the stick he carried.
“Shouldn't I have said it?” he asked. “Would you rather not be taken for a Spanish countess?”
“That isn't it,” she explained. “You said——”
“I said I'd take you for whatever you wanted me to. Isn't that all right?”
“It would all depend, wouldn't it?”
“Of course it would depend on what you wanted.”
“Oh, no!” she laughed. “It might depend on a lot of things.”
“Well——” She hesitated, having the mischievous impulse to say, “Such as Mildred!” But she decided to omit this reference, and became serious, remembering Russell's service to her at Mildred's house. “Speaking of what I want to be taken for,” she said;—“I've been wondering ever since the other night what you did take me for! You must have taken me for the sister of a professional gambler, I'm afraid!”
Russell's look of kindness was the truth about him, she was to discover; and he reassured her now by the promptness of his friendly chuckle. “Then your young brother told you where I found him, did he? I kept my face straight at the time, but I laughed afterward—to myself. It struck me as original, to say the least: his amusing himself with those darkies.”
“Walter IS original,” Alice said; and, having adopted this new view of her brother's eccentricities, she impulsively went on to make it more plausible. “He's a very odd boy, and I was afraid you'd misunderstand. He tells wonderful 'darky stories,' and he'll do anything to draw coloured people out and make them talk; and that's what he was doing at Mildred's when you found him for me—he says he wins their confidence by playing dice with them. In the family we think he'll probably write about them some day. He's rather literary.”
“Are you?” Russell asked, smiling.
“I? Oh——” She paused, lifting both hands in a charming gesture of helplessness. “Oh, I'm just—me!”
His glance followed the lightly waved hands with keen approval, then rose to the lively and colourful face, with its hazel eyes, its small and pretty nose, and the lip-caught smile which seemed the climax of her decorative transition. Never had he seen a creature so plastic or so wistful.
Here was a contrast to his cousin Mildred, who was not wistful, and controlled any impulses toward plasticity, if she had them. “By George!” he said. “But you ARE different!”
With that, there leaped in her such an impulse of roguish gallantry as she could never resist. She turned her head, and, laughing and bright-eyed, looked him full in the face.
“From whom?” she cried.
“From—everybody!” he said. “Are you a mind-reader?”
“How did you know I was thinking you were different from my cousin, Mildred Palmer?”
“What makes you think I DID know it?”
“Nonsense!” he said. “You knew what I was thinking and I knew you knew.”
“Yes,” she said with cool humour. “How intimate that seems to make us all at once!”
Russell left no doubt that he was delighted with these gaieties of hers. “By George!” he exclaimed again. “I thought you were this sort of girl the first moment I saw you!”
“What sort of girl? Didn't Mildred tell you what sort of girl I am when she asked you to dance with me?”
“She didn't ask me to dance with you—I'd been looking at you. You were talking to some old ladies, and I asked Mildred who you were.”
“Oh, so Mildred DIDN'T——” Alice checked herself. “Who did she tell you I was?”
“She just said you were a Miss Adams, so I——”
“'A' Miss Adams?” Alice interrupted.
“Yes. Then I said I'd like to meet you.”
“I see. You thought you'd save me from the old ladies.”
“No. I thought I'd save myself from some of the girls Mildred was getting me to dance with. There was a Miss Dowling——”
“Poor man!” Alice said, gently, and her impulsive thought was that Mildred had taken few chances, and that as a matter of self-defense her carefulness might have been well founded. This Mr. Arthur Russell was a much more responsive person than one had supposed.
“So, Mr. Russell, you don't know anything about me except what you thought when you first saw me?”
“Yes, I know I was right when I thought it.”
“You haven't told me what you thought.”
“I thought you were like what you ARE like.”
“Not very definite, is it? I'm afraid you shed more light a minute or so ago, when you said how different from Mildred you thought I was. That WAS definite, unfortunately!”
“I didn't say it,” Russell explained. “I thought it, and you read my mind. That's the sort of girl I thought you were—one that could read a man's mind. Why do you say 'unfortunately' you're not like Mildred?”
Alice's smooth gesture seemed to sketch Mildred. “Because she's perfect—why, she's PERFECTLY perfect! She never makes a mistake, and everybody looks up to her—oh, yes, we all fairly adore her! She's like some big, noble, cold statue—'way above the rest of us—and she hardly ever does anything mean or treacherous. Of all the girls I know I believe she's played the fewest really petty tricks. She's——”
Russell interrupted; he looked perplexed. “You say she's perfectly perfect, but that she does play SOME——”
Alice laughed, as if at his sweet innocence. “Men are so funny!” she informed him. “Of course girls ALL do mean things sometimes. My own career's just one long brazen smirch of 'em! What I mean is, Mildred's perfectly perfect compared to the rest of us.”
“I see,” he said, and seemed to need a moment or two of thoughtfulness. Then he inquired, “What sort of treacherous things do YOU do?”
“I? Oh, the very worst kind! Most people bore me particularly the men in this town—and I show it.”
“But I shouldn't call that treacherous, exactly.”
“Well, THEY do,” Alice laughed. “It's made me a terribly unpopular character! I do a lot of things they hate. For instance, at a dance I'd a lot rather find some clever old woman and talk to her than dance with nine-tenths of these nonentities. I usually do it, too.”
“But you danced as if you liked it. You danced better than any other girl I——”
“This flattery of yours doesn't quite turn my head, Mr. Russell,” Alice interrupted. “Particularly since Mildred only gave you Ella Dowling to compare with me!”
“Oh, no,” he insisted. “There were others—and of course Mildred, herself.”
“Oh, of course, yes. I forgot that. Well——” She paused, then added, “I certainly OUGHT to dance well.”
“Why is it so much a duty?”
“When I think of the dancing-teachers and the expense to papa! All sorts of fancy instructors—I suppose that's what daughters have fathers for, though, isn't it? To throw money away on them?”
“You don't——” Russell began, and his look was one of alarm. “You haven't taken up——”
She understood his apprehension and responded merrily, “Oh, murder, no! You mean you're afraid I break out sometimes in a piece of cheesecloth and run around a fountain thirty times, and then, for an encore, show how much like snakes I can make my arms look.”
“I SAID you were a mind-reader!” he exclaimed. “That's exactly what I was pretending to be afraid you might do.”
“'Pretending?' That's nicer of you. No; it's not my mania.”
“Oh, nothing in particular that I know of just now. Of course I've had the usual one: the one that every girl goes through.”
“Good heavens, Mr. Russell, you can't expect me to believe you're really a man of the world if you don't know that every girl has a time in her life when she's positive she's divinely talented for the stage! It's the only universal rule about women that hasn't got an exception. I don't mean we all want to go on the stage, but we all think we'd be wonderful if we did. Even Mildred. Oh, she wouldn't confess it to you: you'd have to know her a great deal better than any man can ever know her to find out.”
“I see,” he said. “Girls are always telling us we can't know them. I wonder if you——”
She took up his thought before he expressed it, and again he was fascinated by her quickness, which indeed seemed to him almost telepathic. “Oh, but DON'T we know one another, though!” she cried.
“Such things we have to keep secret—things that go on right before YOUR eyes!”
“Why don't some of you tell us?” he asked.
“We can't tell you.”
“Too much honour?”
“No. Not even too much honour among thieves, Mr. Russell. We don't tell you about our tricks against one another because we know it wouldn't make any impression on you. The tricks aren't played against you, and you have a soft side for cats with lovely manners!”
“What about your tricks against us?”
“Oh, those!” Alice laughed. “We think they're rather cute!”
“Bravo!” he cried, and hammered the ferrule of his stick upon the pavement.
“What's the applause for?”
“For you. What you said was like running up the black flag to the masthead.”
“Oh, no. It was just a modest little sign in a pretty flower-bed: 'Gentlemen, beware!'”
“I see I must,” he said, gallantly.
“Thanks! But I mean, beware of the whole bloomin' garden!” Then, picking up a thread that had almost disappeared: “You needn't think you'll ever find out whether I'm right about Mildred's not being an exception by asking her,” she said. “She won't tell you: she's not the sort that ever makes a confession.”
But Russell had not followed her shift to the former topic. “'Mildred's not being an exception?'” he said, vaguely. “I don't——”
“An exception about thinking she could be a wonderful thing on the stage if she only cared to. If you asked her I'm pretty sure she'd say, 'What nonsense!' Mildred's the dearest, finest thing anywhere, but you won't find out many things about her by asking her.”
Russell's expression became more serious, as it did whenever his cousin was made their topic. “You think not?” he said. “You think she's——”
“No. But it's not because she isn't sincere exactly. It's only because she has such a lot to live up to. She has to live up to being a girl on the grand style to herself, I mean, of course.” And without pausing Alice rippled on, “You ought to have seen ME when I had the stage-fever! I used to play 'Juliet' all alone in my room.' She lifted her arms in graceful entreaty, pleading musically,
“O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon, That monthly changes in her circled orb, Lest thy love prove——” She broke off abruptly with a little flourish, snapping thumb and finger of each outstretched hand, then laughed and said, “Papa used to make such fun of me! Thank heaven, I was only fifteen; I was all over it by the next year.”
“No wonder you had the fever,” Russell observed. “You do it beautifully. Why didn't you finish the line?”
“Which one? 'Lest thy love prove likewise variable'? Juliet was saying it to a MAN, you know. She seems to have been ready to worry about his constancy pretty early in their affair!”
Her companion was again thoughtful. “Yes,” he said, seeming to be rather irksomely impressed with Alice's suggestion. “Yes; it does appear so.”
Alice glanced at his serious face, and yielded to an audacious temptation. “You mustn't take it so hard,” she said, flippantly.
“It isn't about you: it's only about Romeo and Juliet.”
“See here!” he exclaimed. “You aren't at your mind-reading again, are you? There are times when it won't do, you know!”
She leaned toward him a little, as if companionably: they were walking slowly, and this geniality of hers brought her shoulder in light contact with his for a moment. “Do you dislike my mind-reading?” she asked, and, across their two just touching shoulders, gave him her sudden look of smiling wistfulness. “Do you hate it?”
He shook his head. “No, I don't,” he said, gravely. “It's quite pleasant. But I think it says, 'Gentlemen, beware!'”
She instantly moved away from him, with the lawless and frank laugh of one who is delighted to be caught in a piece of hypocrisy. “How lovely!” she cried. Then she pointed ahead. “Our walk is nearly over. We're coming to the foolish little house where I live. It's a queer little place, but my father's so attached to it the family have about given up hope of getting him to build a real house farther out. He doesn't mind our being extravagant about anything else, but he won't let us alter one single thing about his precious little old house. Well!” She halted, and gave him her hand. “Adieu!”
“I couldn't,” he began; hesitated, then asked: “I couldn't come in with you for a little while?”
“Not now,” she said, quickly. “You can come——” She paused.
“Almost any time.” She turned and walked slowly up the path, but he waited. “You can come in the evening if you like,” she called back to him over her shoulder.
“As soon as you like!” She waved her hand; then ran indoors and watched him from a window as he went up the street. He walked rapidly, a fine, easy figure, swinging his stick in a way that suggested exhilaration. Alice, staring after him through the irregular apertures of a lace curtain, showed no similar buoyancy. Upon the instant she closed the door all sparkle left her: she had become at once the simple and sometimes troubled girl her family knew.
“What is going on out there?” her mother asked, approaching from the dining-room.
“Oh, nothing,” Alice said, indifferently, as she turned away. “That Mr. Russell met me downtown and walked up with me.”
“Mr. Russell? Oh, the one that's engaged to Mildred?”
“Well—I don't know for certain. He didn't seem so much like an engaged man to me.” And she added, in the tone of thoughtful preoccupation: “Anyhow—not so terribly!”
Then she ran upstairs, gave her father his tobacco, filled his pipe for him, and petted him as he lighted it.