"You never met Selwyn, did you?"
"Never heard anything definite about his trouble?" insisted Gerard.
"Oh, yes, sir!" replied young Erroll, "I've heard a good deal about it. Everybody has, you know."
"Well, I don't know," retorted Austin Gerard irritably, "what 'everybody' has heard, but I suppose it's the usual garbled version made up of distorted fact and malicious gossip. That's why I sent for you. Sit down."
Gerald Erroll seated himself on the edge of the big, polished table in Austin's private office, one leg swinging, an unlighted cigarette between his lips.
Austin Gerard, his late guardian, big, florid, with that peculiar blue eye which seems to characterise hasty temper, stood by the window, tossing up and catching the glittering gold piece—souvenir of the directors' meeting which he had just left.
"What has happened," he said, "is this. Captain Selwyn is back in town—sent up his card to me, but they told him I was attending a directors' meeting. When the meeting was over I found his card and a message scribbled, saying he'd recently landed and was going uptown to call on Nina. She'll keep him there, of course, until I get home, so I shall see him this evening. Now, before you meet him, I want you to plainly understand the truth about this unfortunate affair; and that's why I telephoned your gimlet-eyed friend Neergard just now to let you come around here for half an hour."
The boy nodded and, drawing a gold matchbox from his waistcoat pocket, lighted his cigarette.
"Why the devil don't you smoke cigars?" growled Austin, more to himself than to Gerald; then, pocketing the gold piece, seated himself heavily in his big leather desk-chair.
"In the first place," he said, "Captain Selwyn is my brother-in-law—which wouldn't make an atom of difference to me in my judgment of what has happened if he had been at fault. But the facts of the case are these." He held up an impressive forefinger and laid it flat across the large, ruddy palm of the other hand. "First of all, he married a cat! C-a-t, cat. Is that clear, Gerald?"
"Good! What sort of a dance she led him out there in Manila, I've heard. Never mind that, now. What I want you to know is how he behaved—with what quiet dignity, steady patience, and sweet temper under constant provocation and mortification, he conducted himself. Then that fellow Ruthven turned up—and—Selwyn is above that sort of suspicion. Besides, his scouts took the field within a week."
He dropped a heavy, highly coloured fist on his desk with a bang.
"After that hike, Selwyn came back, to find that Alixe had sailed with Jack Ruthven. And what did he do; take legal measures to free himself, as you or I or anybody with an ounce of temper in 'em would have done? No; he didn't. That infernal Selwyn conscience began to get busy, making him believe that if a woman kicks over the traces it must be because of some occult shortcoming on his part. In some way or other that man persuaded himself of his responsibility for her misbehaviour. He knew what it meant if he didn't ask the law to aid him to get rid of her; he knew perfectly well that his silence meant acknowledgment of culpability; that he couldn't remain in the service under such suspicion.
"And now, Gerald," continued Austin, striking his broad palm with extended forefinger and leaning heavily forward, "I'll tell you what sort of a man Philip Selwyn is. He permitted Alixe to sue him for absolute divorce—and, to give her every chance to marry Ruthven, he refused to defend the suit. That sort of chivalry is very picturesque, no doubt, but it cost him his career—set him adrift at thirty-five, a man branded as having been divorced from his wife for cause, with no profession left him, no business, not much money—a man in the prime of life and hope and ambition, clean in thought and deed; an upright, just, generous, sensitive man, whose whole career has been blasted because he was too merciful, too generous to throw the blame where it belonged. And it belongs on the shoulders of that Mrs. Jack Ruthven—Alixe Ruthven—whose name you may see in the columns of any paper that truckles to the sort of society she figures in."
Austin stood up, thrust his big hands into his pockets, paced the room for a few moments, and halted before Gerald.
"If any woman ever played me a dirty trick," he said, "I'd see that the public made no mistake in placing the blame. I'm that sort"—he shrugged—"Phil Selwyn isn't; that's the difference—and it may be in his favour from an ethical and sentimental point of view. All right; let it go at that. But all I meant you to understand is that he is every inch a man; and when you have the honour to meet him, keep that fact in the back of your head, among the few brains with which Providence has equipped you."
"Thanks!" said Gerald, colouring up. He cast his cigarette into the empty fireplace, slid off the edge of the table, and picked up his hat. Austin eyed him without particular approval.
"You buy too many clothes," he observed. "That's a new suit, isn't it?"
"Certainly," said Gerald; "I needed it."
"Oh! if you can afford it, all right… . How's the nimble Mr. Neergard?"
"Neergard is flourishing. We put through that Rose Valley deal. I tell you what, Austin, I wish you could see your way clear to finance one or two—"
Austin's frown cut him short.
"Oh, all right! You know your own business, of course," said the boy, a little resentfully. "Only as Fane, Harmon & Co. have thought it worth while—"
"I don't care what Fane, Harmon think," growled Austin, touching a button over his desk. His stenographer entered; he nodded a curt dismissal to Gerald, adding, as the boy reached the door:
"Your sister expects you to be on hand to-night—and so do we."
"I'd clean forgotten," he began; "I made another—a rather important engagement—"
But Austin was not listening; in fact, he had already begun to dictate to his demure stenographer, and Gerald stood a moment, hesitating, then turned on his heel and went away down the resounding marble corridor.
"They never let me alone," he muttered; "they're always at me—following me up as though I were a schoolboy… . Austin's the worst—never satisfied… . What do I care for all these functions—sitting around with the younger set and keeping the cradle of conversation rocking? I won't go to that infernal baby-show!"
He entered the elevator and shot down to the great rotunda, still scowling over his grievance. For he had made arrangements to join a card-party at Julius Neergard's rooms that night, and he had no intention of foregoing that pleasure just because his sister's first grown-up dinner-party was fixed for the same date.
As for this man Selwyn, whom he had never met, he saw no reason why he should drop business and scuttle uptown in order to welcome him. No doubt he was a good fellow; no doubt he had behaved very decently in a matter which, until a few moments before, he had heard little about. He meant to be civil; he'd look up Selwyn when he had a chance, and ask him to dine at the club. But this afternoon he couldn't do it; and, as for the evening, he had made his arrangements, and he had no intention of disturbing them on Austin's account.
When he reached his office he picked up the telephone and called up Gerard's house; but neither his sister nor anybody else was there except the children and servants, and Captain Selwyn had not yet called. So he left no message, merely saying that he'd call up again. Which he forgot to do.
Meanwhile Captain Selwyn was sauntering along Fifth Avenue under the leafless trees, scanning the houses of the rich and great across the way; and these new houses of the rich and great stared back at him out of a thousand casements as polished and expressionless as the monocles of the mighty.
And, strolling at leisure in the pleasant winter weather, he came presently to a street, stretching eastward in all the cold impressiveness of very new limestone and plate-glass.
Could this be the street where his sister now lived?
As usual when perplexed he slowly raised his hand to his moustache; and his pleasant gray eyes, still slightly blood-shot from the glare of the tropics, narrowed as he inspected this unfamiliar house.
The house was a big elaborate limestone affair, evidently new. Winter sunshine sparkled on lace-hung casement, on glass marquise, and the burnished bronze foliations of grille and door.
It was flood-tide along Fifth Avenue; motor, brougham, and victoria swept by on the glittering current; pretty women glanced out from limousine and tonneau; young men of his own type, silk-hatted, frock-coated, the crooks of their walking sticks tucked up under their left arms, passed on the Park side.
But the nods of recognition, lifted hats, the mellow warnings of motor horns, clattering hoofs, the sun flashing on carriage wheels and polished panels, on liveries, harness, on the satin coats of horses—a gem like a spark of fire smothered by the sables at a woman's throat, and the bright indifference of her beauty—all this had long since lost any meaning for him. For him the pageant passed as the west wind passes in Samar over the glimmering valley grasses; and he saw it through sun-dazzled eyes—all this, and the leafless trees beyond against the sky, and the trees mirrored in a little wintry lake as brown as the brown of the eyes which were closed to him now forever.
As he stood there, again he seemed to hear the whistle signal, clear, distant, rippling across the wind-blown grasses where the brown constabulary lay firing in the sunshine; but the rifle shots were the crack of whips, and it was only a fat policeman of the traffic squad whistling to clear the swarming jungle trails of the great metropolis.
Again Selwyn turned to the house, hesitating, unreconciled. Every sun-lit window stared back at him.
He had not been prepared for so much limestone and marquise magnificence where there was more renaissance than architecture and more bay-window than both; but the number was the number of his sister's house; and, as the street and the avenue corroborated the numbered information, he mounted the doorstep, rang, and leisurely examined four stiff box-trees flanking the ornate portal—meagre vegetation compared to what he had been accustomed to for so many years.
Nobody came; once or twice he fancied he heard sounds proceeding from inside the house. He rang again and fumbled for his card case. Somebody was coming.
The moment that the door opened he was aware of a distant and curious uproar—far away echoes of cheering, and the faint barking of dogs. These seemed to cease as the man in waiting admitted him; but before he could make an inquiry or produce a card, bedlam itself apparently broke loose somewhere in the immediate upper landing—noise in its crudest elemental definition—through which the mortified man at the door strove to make himself heard: "Beg pardon, sir, it's the children broke loose an' runnin' wild-like—"
"Only the children, sir—fox-huntin' the cat, sir—"
His voice was lost in the yelling dissonance descending crescendo from floor to floor. Then an avalanche of children and dogs poured down the hall-stairs in pursuit of a rumpled and bored cat, tumbling with yelps and cheers and thuds among the thick rugs on the floor.
Here the cat turned and soundly cuffed a pair of fat beagle puppies, who shrieked and fled, burrowing for safety into the yelling heap of children and dogs on the floor. Above this heap legs, arms, and the tails of dogs waved wildly for a moment, then a small boy, blond hair in disorder, staggered to his knees, and, setting hollowed hand to cheek, shouted: "Hi! for'rard! Harkaway for'rard! Take him, Rags! Now, Tatters! After him, Owney! Get on, there, Schnitzel! Worry him, Stinger! Tally-ho-o!"
At which encouraging invitation the two fat beagle pups, a waddling dachshund, a cocker, and an Irish terrier flew at Selwyn's nicely creased trousers; and the small boy, rising to his feet, became aware of that astonished gentleman for the first time.
"Steady, there!" exclaimed Selwyn, bringing his walking stick to a brisk bayonet defence; "steady, men! Prepare to receive infantry—and doggery, too!" he added, backing away. "No quarter! Remember the Alamo!"
The man at the door had been too horrified to speak, but he found his voice now.
"Oh, you hush up, Dawson!" said the boy; and to Selwyn he added tentatively, "Hello!"
"Hello yourself," replied Selwyn, keeping off the circling pups with the point of his stick. "What is this, anyway—a Walpurgis hunt?—or Eliza and the bloodhounds?"
Several children, disentangling themselves from the heap, rose to confront the visitor; the shocked man, Dawson, attempted to speak again, but Selwyn's raised hand quieted him.
The small boy with the blond hair stepped forward and dragged several dogs from the vicinity of Selwyn's shins.
"This is the Shallowbrook hunt," he explained; "I am Master of Hounds; my sister Drina, there, is one of the whips. Part of the game is to all fall down together and pretend we've come croppers. You see, don't you?"
"I see," nodded Selwyn; "it's a pretty stiff hunting country, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is. There's wire, you know," volunteered the girl, Drina, rubbing the bruises on her plump shins.
"Exactly," agreed Selwyn; "bad thing, wire. Your whips should warn you."
The big black cat, horribly bored by the proceedings, had settled down on a hall seat, keeping one disdainful yellow eye on the dogs.
"All the same, we had a pretty good run," said Drina, taking the cat into her arms and seating herself on the cushions; "didn't we, Kit-Ki?" And, turning to Selwyn, "Kit-Ki makes a pretty good fox—only she isn't enough afraid of us to run away very fast. Won't you sit down? Our mother is not at home, but we are."
"Would you really like to have me stay?" asked Selwyn.
"Well," admitted Drina frankly, "of course we can't tell yet how interesting you are because we don't know you. We are trying to be polite—" and, in a fierce whisper, turning on the smaller of the boys—"Winthrop! take your finger out of your mouth and stop staring at guests! Billy, you make him behave himself."
The blond-haired M.F.H. reached for his younger brother; the infant culprit avoided him and sullenly withdrew the sucked finger but not his fascinated gaze.
"I want to know who he ith," he lisped in a loud aside.
"So do I," admitted a tiny maid in stickout skirts.
Drina dropped the cat, swept the curly hair from her eyes, and stood up very straight in her kilts and bare knees.
"They don't really mean to be rude," she explained; "they're only children." Then, detecting the glimmering smile in Selwyn's eyes, "But perhaps you wouldn't mind telling us who you are because we all would like to know, but we are not going to be ill-bred enough to ask."
Their direct expectant gaze slightly embarrassed him; he laughed a little, but there was no response from them.
"Well," he said, "as a matter of fact and record, I am a sort of relative of yours—a species of avuncular relation."
"What is that?" asked Drina coldly.
"That," said Selwyn, "means that I'm more or less of an uncle to you. Hope you don't mind. You don't have to entertain me, you know."
"An uncle!" repeated Drina.
"Our uncle?" echoed Billy. "You are not our soldier uncle, are you? You are not our Uncle Philip, are you?"
"It amounts to that," admitted Selwyn. "Is it all right?"
There was a dead silence, broken abruptly by Billy; "Where is your sword, then?"
"At the hotel. Would you like to see it, Billy?"
The five children drew a step nearer, inspecting him with merciless candour.
"Is it all right?" asked Selwyn again, smilingly uneasy under the concentrated scrutiny. "How about it, Drina? Shall we shake hands?"
Drina spoke at last: "Ye-es," she said slowly, "I think it is all right to shake hands." She took a step forward, stretching out her hand.
Selwyn stooped; she laid her right hand across his, hesitated, looked up fearlessly, and then, raising herself on tiptoe, placed both arms upon his shoulders, offering her lips.
One by one the other children came forward to greet this promising new uncle whom the younger among them had never before seen, and whom Drina, the oldest, had forgotten except as that fabled warrior of legendary exploits whose name and fame had become cherished classics of their nursery.
And now children and dogs clustered amicably around him; under foot tails wagged, noses sniffed; playful puppy teeth tweaked at his coat-skirts; and in front and at either hand eager flushed little faces were upturned to his, shy hands sought his and nestled confidently into the hollow of his palms or took firm proprietary hold of sleeve and coat.
"I infer," observed Selwyn blandly, "that your father and mother are not at home. Perhaps I'd better stop in later."
"But you are going to stay here, aren't you?" exclaimed Drina in dismay. "Don't you expect to tell us stories? Don't you expect to stay here and live with us and put on your uniform for us and show us your swords and pistols? Don't you?"
"We have waited such a very long time for you to do this," added Billy.
"If you'll come up to the nursery we'll have a drag-hunt for you," pleaded Drina. "Everybody is out of the house and we can make as much noise as we please! Will you?"
"Haven't you any governesses or nurses or something?" asked Selwyn, finding himself already on the stairway, and still being dragged upward.
"Our governess is away," said Billy triumphantly, "and our nurses can do nothing with us."
"I don't doubt it," murmured Selwyn; "but where are they?"
"Somebody must have locked them in the schoolroom," observed Billy carelessly. "Come on, Uncle Philip; we'll have a first-class drag-hunt before we unlock the schoolroom and let them out."
"Anyway, they can brew tea there if they are lonely," added Drina, ushering Selwyn into the big sunny nursery, where he stood, irresolute, looking about him, aware that he was conniving at open mutiny. From somewhere on the floor above persistent hammering and muffled appeals satisfied him as to the location and indignation of the schoolroom prisoners.
"You ought to let them out," he said. "You'll surely be punished."
"We will let them out after we've made noise enough," said Billy calmly. "We'll probably be punished anyway, so we may as well make a noise."
"Yes," added Drina, "we are going to make all the noise we can while we have the opportunity. Billy, is everything ready?"
And before Selwyn understood precisely what was happening, he found himself the centre of a circle of madly racing children and dogs. Round and round him they tore. Billy yelled for the hurdles and Josephine knocked over some chairs and dragged them across the course of the route; and over them leaped and scrambled children and puppies, splitting the air with that same quality of din which had greeted him upon his entrance to his sister's house.
When there was no more breath left in the children, and when the dogs lay about, grinning and lolling, Drina approached him, bland and dishevelled.
"That circus," she explained, "was for your entertainment. Now will you please do something for ours?"
"Certainly," said Selwyn, looking about him vaguely; "shall we—er—build blocks, or shall I read to you—er—out of that big picture-book—"
"Picture-book!" repeated Billy with scorn; "that's good enough for nurses to read. You're a soldier, you know. Soldiers have real stories to tell."
"I see," he said meekly. "What am I to tell you about—our missionaries in Sulu?"
"In the first place," began Drina, "you are to lie down flat on the floor and creep about and show us how the Moros wriggle through the grass to bolo our sentinels."
"Why, it's—it's this way," began Selwyn, leaning back in his rocking-chair and comfortably crossing one knee over the other; "for instance, suppose—"
"Oh, but you must show us!" interrupted Billy. "Get down on the floor please, uncle."
"I can tell it better!" protested Selwyn; "I can show you just the—"
"Please lie down and show us how they wriggle?" begged Drina.
"I don't want to get down on the floor," he said feebly; "is it necessary?"
But they had already discovered that he could be bullied, and they had it their own way; and presently Selwyn lay prone upon the nursery floor, impersonating a ladrone while pleasant shivers chased themselves over Drina, whom he was stalking.
And it was while all were passionately intent upon the pleasing and snake-like progress of their uncle that a young girl in furs, ascending the stairs two at a time, peeped perfunctorily into the nursery as she passed the hallway—and halted amazed.
Selwyn, sitting up rumpled and cross-legged on the floor, after having boloed Drina to everybody's exquisite satisfaction, looked around at the sudden rustle of skirts to catch a glimpse of a vanishing figure—a glimmer of ruddy hair and the white curve of a youthful face, half-buried in a muff.
Mortified, he got to his feet, glanced out into the hallway, and began adjusting his attire.
"No, you don't!" he said mildly, "I decline to perform again. If you want any more wriggling you must accomplish it yourselves. Drina, has your governess—by any unfortunate chance—er—red hair?"
"No," said the child; "and won't you please crawl across the floor and bolo me—just once more?"
"Bolo me!" insisted Billy. "I haven't been mangled yet!"
"Let Billy assassinate somebody himself. And, by the way, Drina, are there any maids or nurses or servants in this remarkable house who occasionally wear copper-tinted hair and black fox furs?"
"No. Eileen does. Won't you please wriggle—"
"Who is Eileen?"
"Eileen? Why—don't you know who Eileen is?"
"No, I don't," began Captain Selwyn, when a delighted shout from the children swung him toward the door again. His sister, Mrs. Gerard, stood there in carriage gown and sables, radiant with surprise.
"Phil! You! Exactly like you, Philip, to come strolling in from the antipodes—dear fellow!" recovering from the fraternal embrace and holding both lapels of his coat in her gloved hands. "Six years!" she said again and again, tenderly reproachful; "Alexandrine was a baby of six—Drina, child, do you remember my brother—do you remember your Uncle Philip? She doesn't remember; you can't expect her to recollect; she is only twelve, Phil—"
"I remember one thing," observed Drina serenely.
Brother and sister turned toward her in pride and delight; and the child went on: "My Aunt Alixe; I remember her. She was so pretty," concluded Drina, nodding thoughtfully in the effort to remember more; "Uncle Philip, where is she now?"
But her uncle seemed to have lost his voice as well as his colour, and Mrs. Gerard's gloved fingers tightened on the lapels of his coat.
"Drina—child—" she faltered; but Drina, immersed in reflection, smiled dreamily; "So pretty," she murmured; "I remember my Aunt Alixe—"
"Drina!" repeated her mother sharply, "go and find Bridget this minute!"
Selwyn's hesitating hand sought his moustache; he lifted his eyes—the steady gray eyes, slightly bloodshot—to his sister's distressed face.
"I never dreamed—" she began—"the child has never spoken of—of her from that time to this! I never dreamed she could remember—"
"I don't understand what you are talking about, mother," said Drina; but her pretty mother caught her by the shoulders, striving to speak lightly; "Where in the world is Bridget, child? Where is Katie? And what is all this I hear from Dawson? It can't be possible that you have been fox-hunting all over the house again! Your nurses know perfectly well that you are not to hunt anywhere except in your own nursery."
"I know it," said Drina, "but Kit-Ki got out and ran downstairs. We had to follow her, you know, until she went to earth."
Selwyn quietly bent over toward Billy: "'Ware wire, my friend," he said under his breath; "you'd better cut upstairs and unlock that schoolroom."
And while Mrs. Gerard turned her attention to the cluster of clamouring younger children, the boy vanished only to reappear a moment later, retreating before the vengeful exclamations of the lately imprisoned nurses who pursued him, caps and aprons flying, bewailing aloud their ignominious incarceration.
"Billy!" exclaimed his mother, "did you do that? Bridget, Master William is to take supper by himself in the schoolroom—and no marmalade!—No, Billy, not one drop!"
"We all saw him lock the door," said Drina honestly.
"And you let him? Oh, Drina!—And Ellen! Katie! No marmalade for Miss Drina—none for any of the children. Josie, mother feels dreadfully because you all have been so naughty. Winthrop!—your finger! Instantly! Clemence, baby, where on earth did you acquire all that grime on your face and fists?" And to her brother: "Such a household, Phil! Everybody incompetent—including me; everything topsy-turvy; and all five dogs perfectly possessed to lie on that pink rug in the music room.—Have they been there to-day, Drina?—while you were practising?"
"Yes, and there are some new spots, mother. I'm very sorry."
"Take the children away!" said Mrs. Gerard. But she bent over, kissing each culprit as the file passed out, convoyed by the amply revenged nurses. "No marmalade, remember; and mother has a great mind not to come up at bedtime and lean over you. Mother has no desire to lean over her babies to-night."
To "lean over" the children was always expected of this mother; the direst punishment on the rather brief list was to omit this intimate evening ceremony.
"M-mother," stammered the Master of Fox Hounds, "you will lean over us, won't you?"
"Mother hasn't decided—"
"Oh, muvver!" wailed Josie; and a howl of grief and dismay rose from Winthrop, modified to a gurgle by the forbidden finger.
"You will, won't you?" begged Drina. "We've been pretty bad, but not bad enough for that!"
"I—Oh, yes, I will. Stop that noise, Winthrop! Josie, I'm going to lean over you—and you, too, Clemence, baby. Katie, take those dogs away immediately; and remember about the marmalade."
Reassured, smiling through tears, the children trooped off, it being the bathing hour; and Mrs. Gerard threw her fur stole over one shoulder and linked her slender arm in her brother's.
"You see, I'm not much of a mother," she said; "if I was I'd stay here all day and every day, week in and year out, and try to make these poor infants happy. I have no business to leave them for one second!"
"Wouldn't they get too much of you?" suggested Selwyn.
"Thanks. I suppose that even a mother had better practise an artistic absence occasionally. Are they not sweet? What do you think of them? You never before saw the three youngest; you saw Drina when you went east—and Billy was a few months old—what do you think of them? Honestly, Phil?"
"All to the good, Ninette; very ornamental. Drina—and that Josephine kid are real beauties. I—er—take to Billy tremendously. He told me that he'd locked up his nurses. I ought to have interfered. It was really my fault, you see."
"And you didn't make him let them out? You are not going to be very good morally for my young. Tell me, Phil, have you seen Austin?"
"I went to the Trust Company, but he was attending a directors' confab. How is he? He's prosperous anyhow, I observe," with a humorous glance around the elaborate hallway which they were traversing.
"Don't dare laugh at us!" smiled his sister. "I wish we were back in Tenth Street. But so many children came—Billy, Josephine, Winthrop, and Tina—and the Tenth Street house wasn't half big enough; and a dreadful speculative builder built this house and persuaded Austin to buy it. Oh, dear, and here we are among the rich and great; and the steel kings and copper kings and oil kings and their heirs and dauphins. Do you like the house?"
"It's—ah—roomy," he said cheerfully.
"Oh! It isn't so bad from the outside. And we have just had it redecorated inside. Mizner did it. Look, dear, isn't that a cunning bedroom?" drawing him toward a partly open door. "Don't be so horridly critical. Austin is becoming used to it now, so don't stir him up and make fun of things. Anyway you're going to stay here."
"No, I'm at the Holland."
"Of course you're to live with us. You've resigned from the service, haven't you?"
He looked at her sharply, but did not reply.
A curious flash of telepathy passed between them; she hesitated, then:
"You once promised Austin and me that you would stay with us."
"No, no, no! Wait," pressing an electric button; "Watson, Captain Selwyn's luggage is to be brought here immediately from the Holland! Immediately!" And to Selwyn: "Austin will not be at home before half-past six. Come up with me now and see your quarters—a perfectly charming place for you, with your own smoking-room and dressing-closet and bath. Wait, we'll take the elevator—as long as we have one."
Smilingly protesting, yet touched by the undisguised sincerity of his welcome, he suffered himself to be led into the elevator—a dainty white and rose rococo affair. His sister adjusted a tiny lever; the car moved smoothly upward and, presently stopped; and they emerged upon a wide landing.
"Here," said Nina, throwing open a door. "Isn't this comfortable? Is there anything you don't fancy about it? If there is, tell me frankly."
"Little sister," he said, imprisoning both her hands, "it is a paradise—but I don't intend to come here and squat on my relatives, and I won't!"
"Philip! You are common!"
"Oh, I know you and Austin think you want me."
"All right, dear. I'll—it's awfully generous of you—so I'll pay you a visit—for a little while."
"You'll live here, that's what you'll do—though I suppose you are dreaming and scheming to have all sorts of secret caves and queer places to yourself—horrid, grimy, smoky bachelor quarters where you can behave sans-façon."
"I've had enough of sans-façon" he said grimly. "After shacks and bungalows and gun-boats and troopships, do you suppose this doesn't look rather heavenly?"
"Dear fellow!" she said, looking tenderly at him; and then under her breath: "What a ghastly life you have led!"
But he knew she did not refer to the military portion of his life.
He threw back his coat, dug both hands into his pockets, and began to wander about the rooms, halting sometimes to examine nondescript articles of ornament or bits of furniture as though politely interested. But she knew his thoughts were steadily elsewhere.
[Illustration: "'There is no reason,' she said, 'why you should not call this house home.'"]
Sauntering about, aware at moments that her troubled eyes were following him, he came back, presently, to where she sat perched upon his bed.
"It all looks most inviting, Nina," he said cheerfully, seating himself beside her. "I—well, you can scarcely be expected to understand how this idea of a home takes hold of a man who has none."
"Yes, I do," she said.
"All this—" he paused, leisurely, to select his words—"all this—you—the children—that jolly nursery—" he stopped again, looking out of the window; and his sister looked at him through eyes grown misty.
"There is no reason," she said, "why you should not call this house home."
"N-no reason. Thank you. I will—for a few days."
"No reason, dear," she insisted. "We are your own people; we are all you have, Phil!—the children adore you already; Austin—you know what he thinks of you; and—and I—"
"You are very kind, Ninette." He sat partly turned from her, staring at the sunny window. Presently he slid his hand back along the bed-covers until it touched and tightened over hers. And in silence she raised it to her lips.
They remained so for a while, he still partly turned from her, his perplexed and narrowing gaze fixed on the window, she pressing his clenched hand to her lips, thoughtful and silent.
"Before Austin comes," he said at length, "let's get the thing over—and buried—as long as it will stay buried."
"Well, then—then—" but his throat closed tight with the effort.
"Alixe is here," she said gently; "did you know it?"
"You know, of course, that she's married Jack Ruthven?"
He nodded again.
"Are you on leave, Phil, or have you really resigned?"
"I knew it," she sighed.
He said: "As I did not defend the suit I couldn't remain in the service. There's too much said about us, anyway—about us who are appointed from civil life. And then—to have that happen!"
"Will you answer me one thing?"
"Yes, I guess so."
"Do you still care for—her?"
"I am sorry for her."
After a painful silence his sister said: "Could you tell me how it began, Phil?"
"How it began? I don't know that, either. When Bannard's command took the field I went with the scouts. Alixe remained in Manila. Ruthven was there for Fane, Harmon & Co. That's how it began, I suppose; and it's a rotten climate for morals; and that's how it began."
"We had had differences. It's been one misunderstanding after another. If you mean was I mixed up with another woman—no! She knew that."
"She was very young, Phil."
He nodded: "I don't blame her."
"Couldn't anything have been done?"
"If it could, neither she nor I did it—or knew how to do it, I suppose. It went wrong from the beginning; it was founded on froth—she had been engaged to Harmon, and she threw him over for 'Boots' Lansing. Then I came along—Boots behaved like a thoroughbred—that is all there is to it—inexperience, romance, trouble—a quick beginning, a quick parting, and two more fools to give the lie to civilization, and justify the West Pointers in their opinions of civil appointees."
"Try not to be so bitter, Phil; did you know she was going before she left Manila?"
"I hadn't the remotest idea of the affair. I thought that we were trying to learn something about life and about each other… . Then that climax came."
He turned and stared out of the window, dropping his sister's hand. "She couldn't stand me, she couldn't stand the life, the climate, the inconveniences, the absence of what she was accustomed to. She was dead tired of it all. I can understand that. And I—I didn't know what to do about it… . So we drifted; and the catastrophe came very quickly. Let me tell you something; a West Pointer, an Annapolis man, knows what sort of life he's going into and what he is to expect when he marries. Usually, too, he marries into the Army or Navy set; and the girl knows, too, what kind of a married life that means.
"But I didn't. Neither did Alixe. And we went under; that's all—fighting each other heart and soul to the end… . Is she happy with Ruthven? I never knew him—and never cared to. I suppose they go about in town among the yellow set. Do they?"
"Yes. I've met Alixe once or twice. She was perfectly composed—formal but unembarrassed. She has shifted her milieu somewhat—it began with the influx of Ruthven's friends from the 'yellow' section of the younger married set—the Orchils, Fanes, Minsters, and Delmour-Carnes. Which is all right if she'd stay there. But in town you're likely to encounter anybody where the somebodies of one set merge into the somebodies of another. And we're always looking over our fences, you know… . By the way," she added cheerfully, "I'm dipping into the younger set myself to-night—on Eileen's account. I brought her out Thursday and I'm giving a dinner for her to-night."
"Who's Eileen?" he asked.
"Eileen? Why, don't you—why, of course, you don't know yet that I've taken Eileen for my own. I didn't want to write you; I wanted first to see how it would turn out; and when I saw that it was turning out perfectly, I thought it better to wait until you could return and hear all about it from me, because one can't write that sort of thing—"
"What, dear?" she said, startled.
"Who the dickens is Eileen?"
"Philip! You are precisely like Austin; you grow impatient of preliminary details when I'm doing my very best attempting to explain just as clearly as I can. Now I will go on and say that Eileen is Molly Erroll's daughter, and the courts appointed Austin and me guardians for her and for her brother Gerald."
"Now is it clear to you?"
"Yes," he said, thinking of the tragedy which had left the child so utterly alone in the world, save for her brother and a distant kinship by marriage with the Gerards.
For a while he sat brooding, arms loosely folded, immersed once more in his own troubles.
"It seems a shame," he said, "that a family like ours, whose name has always spelled decency, should find themselves entangled in the very things their race has always hated and managed to avoid. And through me, too."
"It was not your fault, Phil."
"No, not the divorce part. Do you suppose I wouldn't have taken any kind of medicine before resorting to that! But what's the use; for you can try as you may to keep your name clean, and then you can fold your arms and wait to see what a hopeless fool fate makes of you."
"But no disgrace touches you, dear," she said tremulously.
"I've been all over that, too," he said with quiet bitterness. "You are partly right; nobody cares in this town. Even though I did not defend the suit, nobody cares. And there's no disgrace, I suppose, if nobody cares enough even to condone. Divorce is no longer noticed; it is a matter of ordinary occurrence—a matter of routine in some sets. Who cares?—except decent folk? And they only think it's a pity—and wouldn't do it themselves. The horrified clamour comes from outside the social registers and blue books; we know they're right, but it doesn't affect us. What does affect us is that we were the decent folk who permitted ourselves the luxury of being sorry for others who resorted to divorce as a remedy but wouldn't do it ourselves! … Now we've done it and—"
"Phil! I will not have you feel that way."
"The way you feel. We are older than we were—everybody is older—the world is, too. What we were brought up to consider impossible—"
"What we were brought up to consider impossible was what kept me up to the mark out there, Nina." He made a gesture toward the East. "Now, I come back here and learn that we've all outgrown those ideas—"
"Phil! I never meant that."
He said: "If Alixe found that she cared for Ruthven, I don't blame her. Laws and statutes can't govern such matters. If she found she no longer cared for me, I could not blame her. But two people, mismated, have only one chance in this world—to live their tragedy through with dignity. That is absolutely all life holds for them. Beyond that, outside of that dead line—treachery to self and race and civilisation! That is my conclusion after a year's experience in hell." He rose and began to pace the floor, fingers worrying his moustache. "Law? Can a law, which I do not accept, let me loose to risk it all again with another woman?"
She said slowly, her hands folded in her lap: "It is well you've come to me at last. You've been turning round and round in that wheeled cage until you think you've made enormous progress; and you haven't. Dear, listen to me; what you honestly believe to be unselfish and high-minded adherence to principle, is nothing but the circling reasoning of a hurt mind—an intelligence still numbed from shock, a mental and physical life forced by sheer courage into mechanical routine… . Wait a moment; there is nobody else to say this to you; and if I did not love you I would not interfere with this great mistake you are so honestly making of your life, and which, perhaps, is the only comfort left you. I say, 'perhaps,' for I do not believe that life holds nothing happier for you than the sullen content of martyrdom."
"I am right!" she said, almost fiercely; "I've been married thirteen years and I've lost that fear of men's portentous judgments which all girls outgrow one day. And do you think I am going to acquiesce in this attitude of yours toward life? Do you think I can't distinguish between a tragical mistake and a mistaken tragedy? I tell you your life is not finished; it is not yet begun!"
He looked at her, incensed; but she sprang to the floor, her face bright with colour, her eyes clear, determined: "I thought, when you took the oath of military service, you swore to obey the laws of the land? And the very first law that interferes with your preconceived notions—crack!—you say it's not for you! Look at me—you great, big, wise brother of mine—who knows enough to march a hundred and three men into battle, but not enough to know where pride begins and conscience ends. You're badly hurt; you are deeply humiliated over your resignation; you believe that ambition for a career, for happiness, for marriage, and for children is ended for you. You need fresh air—and I'm going to see you have it. You need new duties, new faces, new scenes, new problems. You shall have them. Dear, believe me, few men as young as you—as attractive, as human, as lovable, as affectionate as you, wilfully ruin their lives because of a hurt pride which they mistake for conscience. You will understand that when you become convalescent. Now kiss me and tell me you're much obliged—for I hear Austin's voice on the stairs."
He held her at arms' length, gazing at her, half amused, half indignant; then, unbidden, a second flash of the old telepathy passed between them—a pale glimmer lighted his own dark heart in sympathy; and for a moment he seemed to have a brief glimpse of the truth; and the truth was not as he had imagined it. But it was a glimpse only—a fleeting suspicion of his own fallibility; then it vanished into the old, dull, aching, obstinate humiliation. For truth would not be truth if it were so easily discovered.
"Well, we've buried it now," breathed Selwyn. "You're all right, Nina—from your own standpoint—and I'm not going to make a stalking nuisance of myself; no fear, little sister. Hello!"—turning swiftly—"here's that preposterous husband of yours."
They exchanged a firm hand clasp; Austin Gerard, big, smooth shaven, humorously inclined toward the ruddy heaviness of successful middle age; Selwyn, lean, bronzed, erect, and direct in all the powerful symmetry and perfect health of a man within sight of maturity.
"Hail to the chief—et cetera," said Austin, in his large, bantering voice. "Glad to see you home, my bolo-punctured soldier boy. Welcome to our city! I suppose you've both pockets stuffed with loot, now haven't you?—pearls and sarongs and dattos—yes? Have you inspected the kids? What's your opinion of the Gerard batallion? Pretty fit? Nina's commanding, so it's up to her if we don't pass dress parade. By the way, your enormous luggage is here—consisting of one dinky trunk and a sword done up in chamois skin."
"Nina's good enough to want me for a few days—" began Selwyn, but his big brother-in-law laughed scornfully:
"A few days! We've got you now!" And to his wife: "Nina, I suppose I'm due to lean over those infernal kids before I can have a minute with your brother. Are they in bed yet? All right, Phil; we'll be down in a minute; there's tea and things in the library. Make Eileen give you some."
He turned, unaffectedly taking his pretty wife's hand in his large florid paw, and Selwyn, intensely amused, saw them making for the nursery absorbed in conjugal confab. He lingered to watch them go their way, until they disappeared; and he stood a moment longer alone there in the hallway; then the humour faded from his sun-burnt face; he swung wearily on his heel, and descended the stairway, his hand heavy on the velvet rail.
The library was large and comfortable, full of agreeably wadded corners and fat, helpless chairs—a big, inviting place, solidly satisfying in dull reds and mahogany. The porcelain of tea paraphernalia caught the glow of the fire; a reading lamp burned on a centre table, shedding subdued lustre over ceiling, walls, books, and over the floor where lay a few ancient rugs of Beloochistan, themselves full of mysterious, sombre fire.
Hands clasped behind his back, he stood in the centre of the room, considering his environment with the grave, absent air habitual to him when brooding. And, as he stood there, a sound at the door aroused him, and he turned to confront a young girl in hat, veil, and furs, who was leisurely advancing toward him, stripping the gloves from a pair of very white hands.
"How do you do, Captain Selwyn," she said. "I am Eileen Erroll and I am commissioned to give you some tea. Nina and Austin are in the nursery telling bedtime stories and hearing assorted prayers. The children seem to be quite crazy about you—" She unfastened her veil, threw back stole and coat, and, rolling up her gloves on her wrists, seated herself by the table. "—Quite crazy about you," she continued, "and you're to be included in bedtime prayers, I believe—No sugar? Lemon?—Drina's mad about you and threatens to give you her new maltese puppy. I congratulate you on your popularity."
"Did you see me in the nursery on all fours?" inquired Selwyn, recognising her bronze-red hair.
Unfeigned laughter was his answer. He laughed, too, not very heartily.
"My first glimpse of our legendary nursery warrior was certainly astonishing," she said, looking around at him with frank malice. Then, quickly: "But you don't mind, do you? It's all in the family, of course."
"Of course," he agreed with good grace; "no use to pretend dignity here; you all see through me in a few moments."
She had given him his tea. Now she sat upright in her chair, smiling, distraite, her hat casting a luminous shadow across her eyes; the fluffy furs, fallen from throat and shoulder, settled loosely around her waist.
Glancing up from her short reverie she encountered his curious gaze.
"To-night is to be my first dinner dance, you know," she said. Faint tints of excitement stained her white skin; the vivid scarlet contrast of her mouth was almost startling. "On Thursday I was introduced—" she explained, "and now I'm to have the gayest winter I ever dreamed of… . And I'm going to leave you in a moment if Nina doesn't hurry and come. Do you mind?"
"Of course I mind," he protested amiably, "but I suppose you wish to devote several hours to dressing."
She nodded. "Such a dream of a gown! Nina's present! You'll see it. I hope Gerald will be here to see it. He promised. You'll say you like it if you do like it, won't you?"
"I'll say it, anyway."
"Oh, well—if you are contented to be commonplace like other men—"
"I've no ambition to be different at my age."
"Your age?" she repeated, looking up quickly. "You are as young as Nina, aren't you? Half the men in the younger set are no younger than you—and you know it," she concluded—"you are only trying to make me say so—and you've succeeded. I'm not very experienced yet. Does tea bring wisdom, Captain Selwyn?" pouring herself a cup. "I'd better arm myself immediately." She sank back into the depths of the chair, looking gaily at him over her lifted cup. "To my rapid education in worldly wisdom!" She nodded, and sipped the tea almost pensively.
He certainly did seem young there in the firelight, his narrow, thoroughbred head turned toward the fire. Youth, too, sat lightly on his shoulders; and it was scarcely a noticeably mature hand that touched the short sun-burnt moustache at intervals. From head to waist, from his loosely coupled, well-made limbs to his strong, slim foot, strength seemed to be the keynote to a physical harmony most agreeable to look at.
The idea entered her head that he might appear to advantage on horseback.
"We must ride together," she said, returning her teacup to the tray; "if you don't mind riding with me? Do you? Gerald never has time, so I go with a groom. But if you would care to go—" she laughed. "Oh, you see I am already beginning a selfish family claim on you. I foresee that you'll be very busy with us all persistently tugging at your coat-sleeves; and what with being civil to me and a martyr to Drina, you'll have very little time to yourself. And—I hope you'll like my brother Gerald when you meet him. Now I must go."
Then, rising and partly turning to collect her furs:
"It's quite exciting to have you here. We will be good friends, won't we? … and I think I had better stop my chatter and go, because my cunning little Alsatian maid is not very clever yet… . Good-bye."
She stretched out one of her amazingly white hands across the table, giving him a friendly leave-taking and welcome all in one frank handshake; and left him standing there, the fresh contact still cool in his palm.
Nina came in presently to find him seated before the fire, one hand shading his eyes; and, as he prepared to rise, she rested both arms on his shoulders, forcing him into his chair again.
"So you've bewitched Eileen, too, have you?" she said tenderly. "Isn't she the sweetest little thing?"
"She's—ah—as tall as I am," he said, blinking at the fire.
"She's only nineteen; pathetically unspoiled—a perfect dear. Men are going to rave over her and—not spoil her. Did you ever see such hair?—that thick, ruddy, lustrous, copper tint?—and sometimes it's like gold afire. And a skin like snow and peaches!—she's sound to the core. I've had her exercised and groomed and hardened and trained from the very beginning—every inch of her minutely cared for exactly like my own babies. I've done my best," she concluded with a satisfied sigh, and dropped into a chair beside her brother.
"Thoroughbred," commented Selwyn, "to be turned out to-night. Is she bridle-wise and intelligent?"
"More than sufficiently. That's one trouble—she's had, at times, a depressing, sponge-like desire for absorbing all sorts of irrelevant things that no girl ought to concern herself with. I—to tell the truth—if I had not rigorously drilled her—she might have become a trifle tiresome; I don't mean precisely frumpy—but one of those earnest young things whose intellectual conversation becomes a visitation—one of the wants-to-know-for-the-sake-of-knowledge sort—a dreadful human blotter! Oh, dear; show me a girl with her mind soaking up 'isms' and I'll show you a social failure with a wisp of hair on her cheek, who looks the dowdier the more expensively she's gowned."
"So you believe you've got that wisp of copper-tinted hair tucked up snugly?" asked Selwyn, amused.
"I—it's still a worry to me; at intervals she's inclined to let it slop. Thank Heaven, I've made her spine permanently straight and her head is screwed properly to her neck. There's not a slump to her from crown to heel—I know, you know. She's had specialists to forestall every blemish. I made up my mind to do it; I'm doing it for my own babies. That's what a mother is for—to turn out her offspring to the world as flawless and wholesome as when they came into it!—physically and mentally sound—or a woman betrays her stewardship. They must be as healthy of body and limb as they are innocent and wholesome minded. The happiest of all creatures are drilled thoroughbreds. Show me a young girl, unspoiled mentally and spiritually untroubled, with a superb physique, and I'll show you a girl equipped for the happiness of this world. And that is what Eileen is."
"I should say," observed Selwyn, "that she's equipped for the slaughter of man."
"Yes, but I am selecting the victim," replied his sister demurely.
"Oh! Have you? Already?"
"Sudbury Gray, I think—with Scott Innis for an understudy—perhaps the Draymore man as alternate—I don't know; there's time."
"Plenty," he said vaguely, staring into the fire where a log had collapsed into incandescent ashes.
She continued to talk about Eileen until she noticed that his mind was on other matters—his preoccupied stare enlightened her. She said nothing for a while.
But he woke up when Austin came in and settled his big body in a chair.
"Drina, the little minx, called me back on some flimsy pretext," he said, relighting his cigar; "I forgot that time was going—and she was wily enough to keep me talking until Miss Paisely caught me at it and showed me out. I tell you," turning on Selwyn—"children are what make life worth wh—" He ceased abruptly at a gentle tap from his wife's foot, and Selwyn looked up.
Whether or not he divined the interference he said very quietly: "I'd rather have had children than anything in the world. They're about the best there is in life; I agree with you, Austin."
His sister, watching him askance, was relieved to see his troubled face become serene, though she divined the effort.
"Kids are the best," he repeated, smiling at her. "Failing them, for second choice, I've taken to the laboratory. Some day I'll invent something and astonish you, Nina."
"We'll fit you up a corking laboratory," began Austin cordially; "there is—"
"You're very good; perhaps you'll all be civil enough to move out of the house if I need more room for bottles and retorts—"
"Of course, Phil must have his laboratory," insisted Nina. "There's loads of unused room in this big barn—only you don't mind being at the top of the house, do you, Phil?"
"Yes, I do; I want to be in the drawing-room—or somewhere so that you all may enjoy the odours and get the benefit of premature explosions. Oh, come now, Austin, if you think I'm going to plant myself here on you—"
"Don't notice him, Austin," said Nina, "he only wishes to be implored. And, by the same token, you'd both better let me implore you to dress!" She rose and bent forward in the firelight to peer at the clock. "Goodness! Do you creatures think I'm going to give Eileen half an hour's start with her maid?—and I carrying my twelve years' handicap, too. No, indeed! I'm decrepit but I'm going to die fighting. Austin, get up! You're horribly slow, anyhow. Phil, Austin's man—such as he is—will be at your disposal, and your luggage is unpacked."
"Am I really expected to grace this festival of babes?" inquired Selwyn. "Can't you send me a tray of toast or a bowl of gruel and let me hide my old bones in a dressing-gown somewhere?"
"Oh, come on," said Austin, smothering the yawn in his voice and casting his cigar into the ashes. "You're about ripe for the younger set—one of them, anyhow. If you can't stand the intellectual strain we'll side-step the show later and play a little—what do you call it in the army?—pontoons?"
They strolled toward the door, Nina's arms linked in theirs, her slim fingers interlocked on her breast.
"We are certainly going to be happy—we three—in this innocent ménage a trois," she said. "I don't know what more you two men could ask for—or I, either—or the children or Eileen. Only one thing; I think it is perfectly horrid of Gerald not to be here."
Traversing the hall she said: "It always frightens me to be perfectly happy—and remember all the ghastly things that could happen… . I'm going to take a glance at the children before I dress… . Austin, did you remember your tonic?"
She looked up surprised when her husband laughed.
"I've taken my tonic and nobody's kidnapped the kids," he said. She hesitated, then picking up her skirts she ran upstairs for one more look at her slumbering progeny.
The two men glanced at one another; their silence was the tolerant, amused silence of the wiser sex, posing as such for each other's benefit; but deep under the surface stirred the tremors of the same instinctive solicitude that had sent Nina to the nursery.
"I used to think," said Gerard, "that the more kids you had the less anxiety per kid. The contrary is true; you're more nervous over half a dozen than you are over one, and your wife is always going to the nursery to see that the cat hasn't got in or the place isn't afire or spots haven't come out all over the children."
They laughed tolerantly, lingering on the sill of Selwyn's bedroom.
"Come in and smoke a cigarette," suggested the latter. "I have nothing to do except to write some letters and dress."
But Gerard said: "There seems to be a draught through this hallway; I'll just step upstairs to be sure that the nursery windows are not too wide open. See you later, Phil. If there's anything you need just dingle that bell."
And he went away upstairs, only to return in a few minutes, laughing under his breath: "I say, Phil, don't you want to see the kids asleep? Billy's flat on his back with a white 'Teddy bear' in either arm; and Drina and Josephine are rolled up like two kittens in pajamas; and you should see Winthrop's legs—"
"Certainly," said Selwyn gravely, "I'll be with you in a second."
And turning to his dresser he laid away the letters and the small photograph which he had been examining under the drop-light, locking them securely in the worn despatch box until he should have time to decide whether to burn them all or only the picture. Then he slipped on his smoking jacket.
"—Ah, about Winthrop's legs—" he repeated vaguely, "certainly; I should be very glad to examine them, Austin."
"I don't want you to examine them," retorted Gerard resentfully, "I want you to see them. There's nothing the matter with them, you understand."
"Exactly," nodded Selwyn, following his big brother-in-law into the hall, where, from beside a lamp-lit sewing table a trim maid rose smiling:
"Miss Erroll desires to know whether Captain Selwyn would care to see her gown when she is ready to go down?"
"By all means," said Selwyn, "I should like to see that, too. Will you let me know when Miss Erroll is ready? Thank you."
Austin said as they reached the nursery door: "Funny thing, feminine vanity—almost pathetic, isn't it? … Don't make too much noise! … What do you think of that pair of legs, Phil?—and he's not yet five… . And I want you to speak frankly; did you ever see anything to beat that bunch of infants? Not because they're ours and we happen to be your own people—" he checked himself and the smile faded as he laid his big ruddy hand on Selwyn's shoulder;—"your own people, Phil. Do you understand? … And if I have not ventured to say anything about—what has happened—you understand that, too, don't you? You know I'm just as loyal to you as Nina is—as it is natural and fitting that your own people should be. Only a man finds it difficult to convey his—his—"
"Don't say 'sympathies'!" cut in Selwyn nervously.
"I wasn't going to, confound you! I was going to say 'sentiments.' I'm sorry I said anything. Go to the deuce!"
Selwyn did not even deign to glance around at him. "You big red-pepper box," he muttered affectionately, "you'll wake up Drina. Look at her in her cunning pajamas! Oh, but she is a darling, Austin. And look at that boy with his two white bears! He's a corker! He's a wonder—honestly, Austin. As for that Josephine kid she can have me on demand; I'll answer to voice, whistle, or hand… . I say, ought we to go away and leave Winthrop's thumb in his mouth?"
"I guess I can get it out without waking him," whispered Gerard. A moment later he accomplished the office, leaned down and drew the bed-covers closer to Tina's dimpled chin, then grasped Selwyn above the elbow in sudden alarm: "If that trained terror, Miss Paisely, finds us in here when she comes from dinner, we'll both catch it! Come on; I'll turn off the light. Anyway, we ought to have been dressed long ago; but you insisted on butting in here."
In the hallway below they encountered a radiant and bewildering vision awaiting them: Eileen, in all her glory.
"Wonderful!" said Gerard, patting the vision's rounded bare arm as he hurried past—"fine gown! fine girl!—but I've got to dress and so has Philip—" He meant well.
"Do you like it, Captain Selwyn?" asked the girl, turning to confront him, where he had halted. "Gerald isn't coming and—I thought perhaps you'd be interested—"
The formal, half-patronising compliment on his tongue's tip remained there, unsaid. He stood silent, touched by the faint under-ringing wistfulness in the laughing voice that challenged his opinion; and something within him responded in time:
"Your gown is a beauty; such wonderful lace. Of course, anybody would know it came straight from Paris or from some other celestial region—"
"But it didn't!" cried the girl, delighted. "It looks it, doesn't it? But it was made by Letellier! Is there anything you don't like about it, Captain Selwyn? Anything?"
"Nothing," he said solemnly; "it is as adorable as the girl inside it, who makes it look like a Parisian importation from Paradise!"
She colored enchantingly, and with pretty, frank impulse held out both her hands to him:
"You are a dear, Captain Selwyn! It is my first real dinner gown and I'm quite mad about it; and—somehow I wanted the family to share my madness with me. Nina will—she gave it to me, the darling. Austin admires it, too, of course, but he doesn't notice such things very closely; and Gerald isn't here… . Thank you for letting me show it to you before I go down."
She gave both his hands a friendly little shake and, glancing down at her skirt in blissful consciousness of its perfection, stepped backward into her own room.
Later, while he stood at his dresser constructing an immaculate knot in his white tie, Nina knocked.
"Hurry, Phil! Oh, may I come in? … You ought to be downstairs with us, you know… . And it was very sweet of you to be so nice to Eileen. The child had tears in her eyes when I went in. Oh, just a single diamond drop in each eye; your sympathy and interest did it… . I think the child misses her father on an occasion such as this—the beginning of life—the first step out into the world. Men do not understand what it means to us; Gerald doesn't, I'm sure. I've been watching her, and I know the shadow of that dreadful tragedy falls on her more often than Austin and I are aware of… . Shall I fix that tie for you, dear? … Certainly I can; Austin won't let a man touch him… . There, Phil… . Wait! … Now if you are decently grateful you'll tell me I look well. Do I? Really? Nonsense, I don't look twenty; but—say it, Phil. Ah, that clever maid of mine knows some secrets—never mind!—but Drina thinks I'm a beauty… . Come, dear; and thank you for being kind to Eileen. One's own kin counts so much in this world. And when a girl has none, except a useless brother, little things like that mean a lot to her." She turned, her hand falling on his sleeve. "You are among your own people, anyhow!"
His own people! The impatient tenderness of his sister's words had been sounding in his ears all through the evening. They rang out clear and insistent amid the gay tumult of the dinner; he heard them in the laughing confusion of youthful voices; they stole into the delicate undertones of the music to mock him; the rustling of silk and lace repeated them; the high heels of satin slippers echoed them in irony.
His own people!
The scent of overheated flowers, the sudden warm breeze eddying from a capricious fan, the mourning thrill of the violins emphasised the emphasis of the words.
And they sounded sadder and more meaningless now to him, here in his own room, until the monotony of their recurrent mockery began to unnerve him.
He turned on the electricity, shrank from it, extinguished it. And for a long time he sat there in the darkness of early morning, his unfilled pipe clutched in his nerveless hand.