When, on a warm evening a fortnight later, Lulu descended the stairs dressed for her incredible trip to the city, she wore the white waist which she had often thought they would "use" for her if she died. And really, the waist looked as if it had been planned for the purpose, and its wide, upstanding plaited lace at throat and wrist made her neck look thinner, her forearm sharp and veined. Her hair she had "crimped" and parted in the middle, puffed high—it was so that hair had been worn in Lulu's girlhood.
"Well!" said Ina, when she saw this coiffure, and frankly examined it, head well back, tongue meditatively teasing at her lower lip.
For travel Lulu was again wearing Ina's linen duster—the old one.
Ninian appeared, in a sack coat—and his diamond. His distinctly convex face, its thick, rosy flesh, thick mouth and cleft chin gave Lulu once more that bold sense of looking—not at him, for then she was shy and averted her eyes—but at his photograph at which she could gaze as much as she would. She looked up at him openly, fell in step beside him. Was he not taking her to the city? Ina and Dwight themselves were going because she, Lulu, had brought about this party.
"Act as good as you look, Lulie," Mrs. Bett called after them. She gave no instructions to Ina who was married and able to shine in her conduct, it seemed.
Dwight was cross. On the way to the station he might have been heard to take it up again, whatever it was, and his Ina unmistakably said: "Well, now don't keep it going all the way there"; and turned back to the others with some elaborate comment about the dust, thus cutting off her so-called lord from his legitimate retort. A mean advantage.
The city was two hours' distant, and they were to spend the night. On the train, in the double seat, Ninian beside her among the bags, Lulu sat in the simple consciousness that the people all knew that she too had been chosen. A man and a woman were opposite, with their little boy between them. Lulu felt this woman's superiority of experience over her own, and smiled at her from a world of fellowship. But the woman lifted her eyebrows and stared and turned away, with slow and insolent winking.
Ninian had a boyish pride in his knowledge of places to eat in many cities—as if he were leading certain of the tribe to a deer-run in a strange wood. Ninian took his party to a downtown café, then popular among business and newspaper men. The place was below the sidewalk, was reached by a dozen marble steps, and the odour of its griddle-cakes took the air of the street. Ninian made a great show of selecting a table, changed once, called the waiter "my man" and rubbed soft hands on "What do you say? Shall it be lobster?" He ordered the dinner, instructing the waiter with painstaking gruffness.
"Not that they can touch your cooking here, Miss Lulu," he said, settling himself to wait, and crumbling a crust.
Dwight, expanding a bit in the aura of the food, observed that Lulu was a regular chef, that was what Lulu was. He still would not look at his wife, who now remarked:
"Sheff, Dwightie. Not cheff."
This was a mean advantage, which he pretended not to hear—another mean advantage.
"Ina," said Lulu, "your hat's just a little mite—no, over the other way."
"Was there anything to prevent your speaking of that before?" Ina inquired acidly.
"I started to and then somebody always said something," said Lulu humbly.
Nothing could so much as cloud Lulu's hour. She was proof against any shadow.
"Say, but you look tremendous to-night," Dwight observed to her.
Understanding perfectly that this was said to tease his wife, Lulu yet flushed with pleasure. She saw two women watching, and she thought: "They're feeling sorry for Ina—nobody talking to her." She laughed at everything that the men said. She passionately wanted to talk herself. "How many folks keep going past," she said, many times.
At length, having noted the details of all the clothes in range, Ina's isolation palled upon her and she set herself to take Ninian's attention. She therefore talked with him about himself.
"Curious you've never married, Nin," she said.
"Don't say it like that," he begged. "I might yet."
Ina laughed enjoyably. "Yes, you might!" she met this.
"She wants everybody to get married, but she wishes I hadn't," Dwight threw in with exceeding rancour.
They developed this theme exhaustively, Dwight usually speaking in the third person and always with his shoulder turned a bit from his wife. It was inconceivable, the gusto with which they proceeded. Ina had assumed for the purpose an air distrait, casual, attentive to the scene about them. But gradually her cheeks began to burn.
"She'll cry," Lulu thought in alarm, and said at random: "Ina, that hat is so pretty—ever so much prettier than the old one." But Ina said frostily that she never saw anything the matter with the old one.
"Let us talk," said Ninian low, to Lulu. "Then they'll simmer down."
He went on, in an undertone, about nothing in particular. Lulu hardly heard what he said, it was so pleasant to have him talking to her in this confidential fashion; and she was pleasantly aware that his manner was open to misinterpretation.
In the nick of time, the lobster was served.
Dinner and the play—the show, as Ninian called it. This show was "Peter Pan," chosen by Ninian because the seats cost the most of those at any theatre. It was almost indecent to see how Dwight Herbert, the immortal soul, had warmed and melted at these contacts. By the time that all was over, and they were at the hotel for supper, such was his pleasurable excitation that he was once more playful, teasing, once more the irrepressible. But now his Ina was to be won back, made it evident that she was not one lightly to overlook, and a fine firmness sat upon the little doubling chin.
They discussed the play. Not one of them had understood the story. The dog-kennel part—wasn't that the queerest thing? Nothing to do with the rest of the play.
"I was for the pirates. The one with the hook—he was my style," said Dwight.
"Well, there it is again," Ina cried. "They didn't belong to the real play, either."
"Oh, well," Ninian said, "they have to put in parts, I suppose, to catch everybody. Instead of a song and dance, they do that."
"And I didn't understand," said Ina, "why they all clapped when the principal character ran down front and said something to the audience that time. But they all did."
Ninian thought this might have been out of compliment. Ina wished that Monona might have seen, confessed that the last part was so pretty that she herself would not look; and into Ina's eyes came their loveliest light.
Lulu sat there, hearing the talk about the play. "Why couldn't I have said that?" she thought as the others spoke. All that they said seemed to her apropos, but she could think of nothing to add. The evening had been to her a light from heaven—how could she find anything to say? She sat in a daze of happiness, her mind hardly operative, her look moving from one to another. At last Ninian looked at her.
"Sure you liked it, Miss Lulu?"
"Oh, yes! I think they all took their parts real well."
It was not enough. She looked at them appealingly, knowing that she had not said enough.
"You could hear everything they said," she added. "It was——" she dwindled to silence.
Dwight Herbert savoured his rarebit with a great show of long wrinkled dimples.
"Excellent sauces they make here—excellent," he said, with the frown of an epicure. "A tiny wee bit more Athabasca," he added, and they all laughed and told him that Athabasca was a lake, of course. Of course he meant tobasco, Ina said. Their entertainment and their talk was of this sort, for an hour.
"Well, now," said Dwight Herbert when it was finished, "somebody dance on the table."
"Got to amuse ourselves somehow. Come, liven up. They'll begin to read the funeral service over us."
"Why not say the wedding service?" asked Ninian.
In the mention of wedlock there was always something stimulating to Dwight, something of overwhelming humour. He shouted a derisive endorsement of this proposal.
"I shouldn't object," said Ninian. "Should you, Miss Lulu?"
Lulu now burned the slow red of her torture. They were all looking at her. She made an anguished effort to defend herself.
"I don't know it," she said, "so I can't say it."
Ninian leaned toward her.
"I, Ninian, take thee, Lulu, to be my wedded wife," he pronounced. "That's the way it goes!"
"Lulu daren't say it!" cried Dwight. He laughed so loudly that those at the near tables turned. And, from the fastness of her wifehood and motherhood, Ina laughed. Really, it was ridiculous to think of Lulu that way....
Ninian laughed too. "Course she don't dare say it," he challenged.
From within Lulu, that strange Lulu, that other Lulu who sometimes fought her battles, suddenly spoke out:
"I, Lulu, take thee, Ninian, to be my wedded husband."
"You will?" Ninian cried.
"I will," she said, laughing tremulously, to prove that she too could join in, could be as merry as the rest.
"And I will. There, by Jove, now have we entertained you, or haven't we?" Ninian laughed and pounded his soft fist on the table.
"Oh, say, honestly!" Ina was shocked. "I don't think you ought to—holy things——what's the matter, Dwightie?"
Dwight Herbert Deacon's eyes were staring and his face was scarlet.
"Say, by George," he said, "a civil wedding is binding in this state."
"A civil wedding? Oh, well——" Ninian dismissed it.
"But I," said Dwight, "happen to be a magistrate."
They looked at one another foolishly. Dwight sprang up with the indeterminate idea of inquiring something of some one, circled about and returned. Ina had taken his chair and sat clasping Lulu's hand. Ninian continued to laugh.
"I never saw one done so offhand," said Dwight. "But what you've said is all you have to say according to law. And there don't have to be witnesses ... say!" he said, and sat down again.
Above that shroud-like plaited lace, the veins of Lulu's throat showed dark as she Swallowed, cleared her throat, swallowed again.
"Don't you let Dwight scare you," she besought Ninian.
"Scare me!" cried Ninian. "Why, I think it's a good job done, if you ask me."
Lulu's eyes flew to his face. As he laughed, he was looking at her, and now he nodded and shut and opened his eyes several times very fast. Their points of light flickered. With a pang of wonder which pierced her and left her shaken, Lulu looked. His eyes continued to meet her own. It was exactly like looking at his photograph.
Dwight had recovered his authentic air.
"Oh, well," he said, "we can inquire at our leisure. If it is necessary, I should say we can have it set aside quietly up here in the city—no one'll be the wiser."
"Set aside nothing!" said Ninian. "I'd like to see it stand."
"Are you serious, Nin?"
"Sure I'm serious."
Ina jerked gently at her sister's arm.
"Lulu! You hear him? What you going to say to that?"
Lulu shook her head. "He isn't in earnest," she said.
"I am in earnest—hope to die," Ninian declared. He was on two legs of his chair and was slightly tilting, so that the effect of his earnestness was impaired. But he was obviously in earnest.
They were looking at Lulu again. And now she looked at Ninian, and there was something terrible in that look which tried to ask him, alone, about this thing.
Dwight exploded. "There was a fellow I know there in the theatre," he cried. "I'll get him on the line. He could tell me if there's any way——" and was off.
Ina inexplicably began touching away tears. "Oh," she said, "what will mamma say?"
Lulu hardly heard her. Mrs. Bett was incalculably distant.
"You sure?" Lulu said low to Ninian.
For the first time, something in her exceeding isolation really touched him.
"Say," he said, "you come on with me. We'll have it done over again somewhere, if you say so."
"Oh," said Lulu, "if I thought—"
He leaned and patted her hand.
"Good girl," he said.
They sat silent, Ninian padding on the cloth with the flat of his plump hands.
Dwight returned. "It's a go all right," he said. He sat down, laughed weakly, rubbed at his face. "You two are tied as tight as the church could tie you."
"Good enough," said Ninian. "Eh, Lulu?"
"It's—it's all right, I guess," Lulu said.
"Well, I'll be dished," said Dwight.
"Sister!" said Ina.
Ninian meditated, his lips set tight and high. It is impossible to trace the processes of this man. Perhaps they were all compact of the devil-may-care attitude engendered in any persistent traveller. Perhaps the incomparable cookery of Lulu played its part.
"I was going to make a trip south this month," he said, "on my way home from here. Suppose we get married again by somebody or other, and start right off. You'd like that, wouldn't you—going South?"
"Yes," said Lulu only.
"It's July," said Ina, with her sense of fitness, but no one heard.
It was arranged that their trunks should follow them—Ina would see to that, though she was scandalised that they were not first to return to Warbleton for the blessing of Mrs. Bett.
"Mamma won't mind," said Lulu. "Mamma can't stand a fuss any more."
They left the table. The men and women still sitting at the other tables saw nothing unusual about these four, indifferently dressed, indifferently conditioned. The hotel orchestra, playing ragtime in deafening concord, made Lulu's wedding march.
It was still early next day—a hot Sunday—when Ina and Dwight reached home. Mrs. Bett was standing on the porch.
"Where's Lulie?" asked Mrs. Bett.
Mrs. Bett took it in, a bit at a time. Her pale eyes searched their faces, she shook her head, heard it again, grasped it. Her first question was:
"Who's going to do your work?"
Ina had thought of that, and this was manifest.
"Oh," she said, "you and I'll have to manage."
Mrs. Bett meditated, frowning.
"I left the bacon for her to cook for your breakfasts," she said. "I can't cook bacon fit to eat. Neither can you."
"We've had our breakfasts," Ina escaped from this dilemma.
"Had it up in the city, on expense?"
"Well, we didn't have much."
In Mrs. Bett's eyes tears gathered, but they were not for Lulu.
"I should think," she said, "I should think Lulie might have had a little more gratitude to her than this."
On their way to church Ina and Dwight encountered Di, who had left the house some time earlier, stepping sedately to church in company with Bobby Larkin. Di was in white, and her face was the face of an angel, so young, so questioning, so utterly devoid of her sophistication.
"That child," said Ina, "must not see so much of that Larkin boy. She's just a little, little girl."
"Of course she mustn't," said Dwight sharply, "and if I was her mother——"
"Oh stop that!" said Ina, sotto voce, at the church steps.
To every one with whom they spoke in the aisle after church, Ina announced their news: Had they heard? Lulu married Dwight's brother Ninian in the city yesterday. Oh, sudden, yes! And romantic ... spoken with that upward inflection to which Ina was a prey.