Alice kept her sprightly chatter going when they sat down, though the temperature of the room and the sight of hot soup might have discouraged a less determined gayety. Moreover, there were details as unpropitious as the heat: the expiring roses expressed not beauty but pathos, and what faint odour they exhaled was no rival to the lusty emanations of the Brussels sprouts; at the head of the table, Adams, sitting low in his chair, appeared to be unable to flatten the uprising wave of his starched bosom; and Gertrude's manner and expression were of a recognizable hostility during the long period of vain waiting for the cups of soup to be emptied. Only Mrs. Adams made any progress in this direction; the others merely feinting, now and then lifting their spoons as if they intended to do something with them.
Alice's talk was little more than cheerful sound, but, to fill a desolate interval, served its purpose; and her mother supported her with ever-faithful cooings of applausive laughter. “What a funny thing weather is!” the girl ran on. “Yesterday it was cool—angels had charge of it—and to-day they had an engagement somewhere else, so the devil saw his chance and started to move the equator to the North Pole; but by the time he got half-way, he thought of something else he wanted to do, and went off; and left the equator here, right on top of US! I wish he'd come back and get it!”
“Why, Alice dear!” her mother cried, fondly. “What an imagination! Not a very pious one, I'm afraid Mr. Russell might think, though!” Here she gave Gertrude a hidden signal to remove the soup; but, as there was no response, she had to make the signal more conspicuous. Gertrude was leaning against the wall, her chin moving like a slow pendulum, her streaked eyes fixed mutinously upon Russell. Mrs. Adams nodded several times, increasing the emphasis of her gesture, while Alice talked briskly; but the brooding waitress continued to brood. A faint snap of the fingers failed to disturb her; nor was a covert hissing whisper of avail, and Mrs. Adams was beginning to show signs of strain when her daughter relieved her.
“Imagine our trying to eat anything so hot as soup on a night like this!” Alice laughed. “What COULD have been in the cook's mind not to give us something iced and jellied instead? Of course it's because she's equatorial, herself, originally, and only feels at home when Mr. Satan moves it north.” She looked round at Gertrude, who stood behind her. “Do take this dreadful soup away!”
Thus directly addressed, Gertrude yielded her attention, though unwillingly, and as if she decided only by a hair's weight not to revolt, instead. However, she finally set herself in slow motion; but overlooked the supposed head of the table, seeming to be unaware of the sweltering little man who sat there. As she disappeared toward the kitchen with but three of the cups upon her tray he turned to look plaintively after her, and ventured an attempt to recall her.
“Here!” he said, in a low voice. “Here, you!”
“What is it, Virgil?” his wife asked.
“What's her name?”
Mrs. Adams gave him a glance of sudden panic, and, seeing that the guest of the evening was not looking at her, but down at the white cloth before him, she frowned hard, and shook her head.
Unfortunately Alice was not observing her mother, and asked, innocently: “What's whose name, papa?”
“Why, this young darky woman,” he explained. “She left mine.”
“Never mind,” Alice laughed. “There's hope for you, papa. She hasn't gone forever!”
“I don't know about that,” he said, not content with this impulsive assurance. “She LOOKED like she is.” And his remark, considered as a prediction, had begun to seem warranted before Gertrude's return with china preliminary to the next stage of the banquet.
Alice proved herself equal to the long gap, and rattled on through it with a spirit richly justifying her mother's praise of her as “always ready to smooth things over”; for here was more than long delay to be smoothed over. She smoothed over her father and mother for Russell; and she smoothed over him for them, though he did not know it, and remained unaware of what he owed her. With all this, throughout her prattlings, the girl's bright eyes kept seeking his with an eager gayety, which but little veiled both interrogation and entreaty—as if she asked: “Is it too much for you? Can't you bear it? Won't you PLEASE bear it? I would for you. Won't you give me a sign that it's all right?”
He looked at her but fleetingly, and seemed to suffer from the heat, in spite of every manly effort not to wipe his brow too often. His colour, after rising when he greeted Alice and her father, had departed, leaving him again moistly pallid; a condition arising from discomfort, no doubt, but, considered as a decoration, almost poetically becoming to him. Not less becoming was the faint, kindly smile, which showed his wish to express amusement and approval; and yet it was a smile rather strained and plaintive, as if he, like Adams, could only do the best he could.
He pleased Adams, who thought him a fine young man, and decidedly the quietest that Alice had ever shown to her family. In her father's opinion this was no small merit; and it was to Russell's credit, too, that he showed embarrassment upon this first intimate presentation; here was an applicant with both reserve and modesty. “So far, he seems to be first rate a mighty fine young man,” Adams thought; and, prompted by no wish to part from Alice but by reminiscences of apparent candidates less pleasing, he added, “At last!”
Alice's liveliness never flagged. Her smoothing over of things was an almost continuous performance, and had to be. Yet, while she chattered through the hot and heavy courses, the questions she asked herself were as continuous as the performance, and as poignant as what her eyes seemed to be asking Russell. Why had she not prevailed over her mother's fear of being “skimpy?” Had she been, indeed, as her mother said she looked, “in a trance?” But above all: What was the matter with HIM? What had happened? For she told herself with painful humour that something even worse than this dinner must be “the matter with him.”
The small room, suffocated with the odour of boiled sprouts, grew hotter and hotter as more and more food appeared, slowly borne in, between deathly long waits, by the resentful, loud-breathing Gertrude. And while Alice still sought Russell's glance, and read the look upon his face a dozen different ways, fearing all of them; and while the straggling little flowers died upon the stained cloth, she felt her heart grow as heavy as the food, and wondered that it did not die like the roses.
With the arrival of coffee, the host bestirred himself to make known a hospitable regret, “By George!” he said. “I meant to buy some cigars.” He addressed himself apologetically to the guest. “I don't know what I was thinking about, to forget to bring some home with me. I don't use 'em myself—unless somebody hands me one, you might say. I've always been a pipe-smoker, pure and simple, but I ought to remembered for kind of an occasion like this.”
“Not at all,” Russell said. “I'm not smoking at all lately; but when I do, I'm like you, and smoke a pipe.”
Alice started, remembering what she had told him when he overtook her on her way from the tobacconist's; but, after a moment, looking at him, she decided that he must have forgotten it. If he had remembered, she thought, he could not have helped glancing at her. On the contrary, he seemed more at ease, just then, than he had since they sat down, for he was favouring her father with a thoughtful attention as Adams responded to the introduction of a man's topic into the conversation at last. “Well, Mr. Russell, I guess you're right, at that. I don't say but what cigars may be all right for a man that can afford 'em, if he likes 'em better than a pipe, but you take a good old pipe now——”
He continued, and was getting well into the eulogium customarily provoked by this theme, when there came an interruption: the door-bell rang, and he paused inquiringly, rather surprised.
Mrs. Adams spoke to Gertrude in an undertone:
“Just say, 'Not at home.'”
“If it's callers, just say we're not at home.”
Gertrude spoke out freely: “You mean you astin' me to 'tend you' front do' fer you?”
She seemed both incredulous and affronted, but Mrs. Adams persisted, though somewhat apprehensively. “Yes. Hurry—uh—please. Just say we're not at home if you please.”
Again Gertrude obviously hesitated between compliance and revolt, and again the meeker course fortunately prevailed with her. She gave Mrs. Adams a stare, grimly derisive, then departed. When she came back she said:
“He say he wait.”
“But I told you to tell anybody we were not at home,” Mrs Adams returned. “Who is it?”
“Say he name Mr. Law.”
“We don't know any Mr. Law.”
“Yes'm; he know you. Say he anxious to speak Mr. Adams. Say he wait.”
“Tell him Mr. Adams is engaged.”
“Hold on a minute,” Adams intervened. “Law? No. I don't know any Mr. Law. You sure you got the name right?”
“Say he name Law,” Gertrude replied, looking at the ceiling to express her fatigue. “Law. 'S all he tell me; 's all I know.”
Adams frowned. “Law,” he said. “Wasn't it maybe 'Lohr?'”
“Law,” Gertrude repeated. “'S all he tell me; 's all I know.”
“What's he look like?”
“He ain't much,” she said. “'Bout you' age; got brustly white moustache, nice eye-glasses.”
“It's Charley Lohr!” Adams exclaimed. “I'll go see what he wants.”
“But, Virgil,” his wife remonstrated, “do finish your coffee; he might stay all evening. Maybe he's come to call.”
Adams laughed. “He isn't much of a caller, I expect. Don't worry: I'll take him up to my room.” And turning toward Russell, “Ah—if you'll just excuse me,” he said; and went out to his visitor.
When he had gone, Mrs. Adams finished her coffee, and, having glanced intelligently from her guest to her daughter, she rose. “I think perhaps I ought to go and shake hands with Mr. Lohr, myself,” she said, adding in explanation to Russell, as she reached the door, “He's an old friend of my husband's and it's a very long time since he's been here.”
Alice nodded and smiled to her brightly, but upon the closing of the door, the smile vanished; all her liveliness disappeared; and with this change of expression her complexion itself appeared to change, so that her rouge became obvious, for she was pale beneath it. However, Russell did not see the alteration, for he did not look at her; and it was but a momentary lapse the vacation of a tired girl, who for ten seconds lets herself look as she feels. Then she shot her vivacity back into place as by some powerful spring.
“Penny for your thoughts!” she cried, and tossed one of the wilted roses at him, across the table. “I'll bid more than a penny; I'll bid tuppence—no, a poor little dead rose a rose for your thoughts, Mr. Arthur Russell! What are they?”
He shook his head. “I'm afraid I haven't any.”
“No, of course not,” she said. “Who could have thoughts in weather like this? Will you EVER forgive us?”
“Making you eat such a heavy dinner—I mean LOOK at such a heavy dinner, because you certainly didn't do more than look at it—on such a night! But the crime draws to a close, and you can begin to cheer up!” She laughed gaily, and, rising, moved to the door. “Let's go in the other room; your fearful duty is almost done, and you can run home as soon as you want to. That's what you're dying to do.”
“Not at all,” he said in a voice so feeble that she laughed aloud.
“Good gracious!” she cried. “I hadn't realized it was THAT bad!”
For this, though he contrived to laugh, he seemed to have no verbal retort whatever; but followed her into the “living-room,” where she stopped and turned, facing him.
“Has it really been so frightful?” she asked.
“Why, of course not. Not at all.”
“Of course yes, though, you mean!”
“Not at all. It's been most kind of your mother and father and you.”
“Do you know,” she said, “you've never once looked at me for more than a second at a time the whole evening? And it seemed to me I looked rather nice to-night, too!”
“You always do,” he murmured.
“I don't see how you know,” she returned; and then stepping closer to him, spoke with gentle solicitude: “Tell me: you're really feeling wretchedly, aren't you? I know you've got a fearful headache, or something. Tell me!”
“Not at all.”
“You are ill—I'm sure of it.”
“Not at all.”
“On your word?”
“I'm really quite all right.”
“But if you are——” she began; and then, looking at him with a desperate sweetness, as if this were her last resource to rouse him, “What's the matter, little boy?” she said with lisping tenderness. “Tell auntie!”
It was a mistake, for he seemed to flinch, and to lean backward, however, slightly. She turned away instantly, with a flippant lift and drop of both hands. “Oh, my dear!” she laughed. “I won't eat you!”
And as the discomfited young man watched her, seeming able to lift his eyes, now that her back was turned, she went to the front door and pushed open the screen. “Let's go out on the porch,” she said. “Where we belong!”
Then, when he had followed her out, and they were seated, “Isn't this better?” she asked. “Don't you feel more like yourself out here?”
He began a murmur: “Not at——”
But she cut him off sharply: “Please don't say 'Not at all' again!”
“You do seem sorry about something,” she said. “What is it? Isn't it time you were telling me what's the matter?”
“Nothing. Indeed nothing's the matter. Of course one IS rather affected by such weather as this. It may make one a little quieter than usual, of course.”
She sighed, and let the tired muscles of her face rest. Under the hard lights, indoors, they had served her until they ached, and it was a luxury to feel that in the darkness no grimacings need call upon them.
“Of course, if you won't tell me——” she said.
“I can only assure you there's nothing to tell.”
“I know what an ugly little house it is,” she said. “Maybe it was the furniture—or mama's vases that upset you. Or was it mama herself—or papa?”
“Nothing 'upset' me.”
At that she uttered a monosyllable of doubting laughter. “I wonder why you say that.”
“Because it's so.”
“No. It's because you're too kind, or too conscientious, or too embarrassed—anyhow too something—to tell me.” She leaned forward, elbows on knees and chin in hands, in the reflective attitude she knew how to make graceful. “I have a feeling that you're not going to tell me,” she said, slowly. “Yes—even that you're never going to tell me. I wonder—I wonder——”
“Yes? What do you wonder?”
“I was just thinking—I wonder if they haven't done it, after all.”
“I don't understand.”
“I wonder,” she went on, still slowly, and in a voice of reflection, “I wonder who HAS been talking about me to you, after all? Isn't that it?”
“Not at——” he began, but checked himself and substituted another form of denial. “Nothing is 'it.'”
“Are you sure?”
“How curious!” she said.
“Because all evening you've been so utterly different.”
“But in this weather——”
“No. That wouldn't make you afraid to look at me all evening!”
“But I did look at you. Often.”
“No. Not really a LOOK.”
“But I'm looking at you now.”
“Yes—in the dark!” she said. “No—the weather might make you even quieter than usual, but it wouldn't strike you so nearly dumb. No—and it wouldn't make you seem to be under such a strain—as if you thought only of escape!”
“But I haven't——”
“You shouldn't,” she interrupted, gently. “There's nothing you have to escape from, you know. You aren't committed to—to this friendship.”
“I'm sorry you think——” he began, but did not complete the fragment.
She took it up. “You're sorry I think you're so different, you mean to say, don't you? Never mind: that's what you did mean to say, but you couldn't finish it because you're not good at deceiving.”
“Oh, no,” he protested, feebly. “I'm not deceiving. I'm——”
“Never mind,” she said again. “You're sorry I think you're so different—and all in one day—since last night. Yes, your voice SOUNDS sorry, too. It sounds sorrier than it would just because of my thinking something you could change my mind about in a minute so it means you're sorry you ARE different.”
But disregarding the faint denial, “Never mind,” she said. “Do you remember one night when you told me that nothing anybody else could do would ever keep you from coming here? That if you—if you left me it would be because I drove you away myself?”
“Yes,” he said, huskily. “It was true.”
“Are you sure?”
“Indeed I am,” he answered in a low voice, but with conviction.
“Then——” She paused. “Well—but I haven't driven you away.”
“And yet you've gone,” she said, quietly.
“Do I seem so stupid as all that?”
“You know what I mean.” She leaned back in her chair again, and her hands, inactive for once, lay motionless in her lap. When she spoke it was in a rueful whisper:
“I wonder if I HAVE driven you away?”
“You've done nothing—nothing at all,” he said.
“I wonder——” she said once more, but she stopped. In her mind she was going back over their time together since the first meeting—fragments of talk, moments of silence, little things of no importance, little things that might be important; moonshine, sunshine, starlight; and her thoughts zigzagged among the jumbling memories; but, as if she made for herself a picture of all these fragments, throwing them upon the canvas haphazard, she saw them all just touched with the one tainting quality that gave them coherence, the faint, false haze she had put over this friendship by her own pretendings. And, if this terrible dinner, or anything, or everything, had shown that saffron tint in its true colour to the man at her side, last night almost a lover, then she had indeed of herself driven him away, and might well feel that she was lost.
“Do you know?” she said, suddenly, in a clear, loud voice. “I have the strangest feeling. I feel as if I were going to be with you only about five minutes more in all the rest of my life!”
“Why, no,” he said. “Of course I'm coming to see you—often. I——”
“No,” she interrupted. “I've never had a feeling like this before. It's—it's just SO; that's all! You're GOING—why, you're never coming here again!” She stood up, abruptly, beginning to tremble all over. “Why, it's FINISHED, isn't it?” she said, and her trembling was manifest now in her voice. “Why, it's all OVER, isn't it? Why, yes!”
He had risen as she did. “I'm afraid you're awfully tired and nervous,” he said. “I really ought to be going.”
“Yes, of COURSE you ought,” she cried, despairingly. “There's nothing else for you to do. When anything's spoiled, people CAN'T do anything but run away from it. So good-bye!”
“At least,” he returned, huskily, “we'll only—only say good-night.”
Then, as moving to go, he stumbled upon the veranda steps, “Your HAT!” she cried. “I'd like to keep it for a souvenir, but I'm afraid you need it!”
She ran into the hall and brought his straw hat from the chair where he had left it. “You poor thing!” she said, with quavering laughter. “Don't you know you can't go without your hat?”
Then, as they faced each other for the short moment which both of them knew would be the last of all their veranda moments, Alice's broken laughter grew louder. “What a thing to say!” she cried. “What a romantic parting—talking about HATS!”
Her laughter continued as he turned away, but other sounds came from within the house, clearly audible with the opening of a door upstairs—a long and wailing cry of lamentation in the voice of Mrs. Adams. Russell paused at the steps, uncertain, but Alice waved to him to go on.
“Oh, don't bother,” she said. “We have lots of that in this funny little old house! Good-bye!”
And as he went down the steps, she ran back into the house and closed the door heavily behind her.