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"Talk. Talk. Talk.… Good lines and no action … said all … not even promising first act … eighth failure and season more than half over … rather be a playwright and fail than a critic compelled to listen to has-beens and would-bes trying to put over bad plays.… Oh, for just one more great first-night … if there's a spirit world why don't the ghosts of dead artists get together and inhibit bad playwrights from tormenting first-nighters?… Astral board of Immortals sitting in Unconscious tweaking strings until gobbets and sclerotics become gibbering idiots every time they put pen to paper?… Fewer first-nights but more joy … also joy of sending producers back to cigar stands.… Thank God, no longer a critic … don't need to come to first-nights unless I want … can't keep away … habit too strong … poor devil of a colyumist must forage … why did I become a columnist? More money. Money! And I once a rubescent socialist … best parlor type … Lord! I wish some one would die and leave me a million!"
Clavering opened his weary eyes and glanced over the darkened auditorium, visualizing a mass of bored resentful disks: a few hopeful, perhaps, the greater number too educated in the theatre not to have recognized the heavy note of incompetence that had boomed like a muffled fog-horn since the rise of the curtain.
It was a typical first-night audience, assembled to welcome a favorite actress in a new play. All the Sophisticates (as Clavering had named them, abandoning "Intellectuals" and "Intelligentsia" to the Parlor Socialists) were present: authors, playwrights, editors and young editors, columnists, dramatic critics, young publishers, the fashionable illustrators and cartoonists, a few actors, artists, sculptors, hostesses of the eminent, and a sprinkling of Greenwich Village to give a touch of old Bohemia to what was otherwise almost as brilliant and standardized as a Monday night at the opera. Twelve years ago, Clavering, impelled irresistibly from a dilapidated colonial mansion in Louisiana to the cerebrum of the Western World, had arrived in New York; and run the usual gamut of the high-powered man from reporter to special writer, although youth rose to eminence less rapidly then than now. Dramatic critic of his newspaper for three years (two years at the war), an envied, quoted and omniscient columnist since his return from France. Journalistically he could rise no higher, and none of the frequent distinguished parties given by the Sophisticates was complete without the long lounging body and saturnine countenance of Mr. Lee Clavering. As soon as he had set foot upon the ladder of prominence Mr. Clavering had realized the value of dramatizing himself, and although he was as active of body as of mind and of an amiable and genial disposition, as his friends sometimes angrily protested, his world, that world of increasing importance in New York, knew him as a cynical, morose, mysterious creature, who, at a party, transferred himself from one woman's side to another's by sheer effort of will spurred by boredom. The unmarried women had given him up as a confirmed bachelor, but a few still followed his dark face with longing eyes. (He sometimes wondered what rôle he would have adopted if he had been a blond.) As a matter of fact, he was intensely romantic, even after ten years of newspaper work in New York and two of war; and when his steel-blue half-closed eyes roved over a gathering at the moment of entrance it was with the evergreen hope of discovering the consummate woman.
There was no affectation in his idealistic fastidiousness. Nor, of late, in his general boredom. Not that he did not still like his work, or possibly pontificating every morning over his famous name to an admiring public, but he was tired of "the crowd," the same old faces, tired of the steady grind, of bad plays—he, who had such a passionate love of the drama—somewhat tired of himself. He would have liked to tramp the world for a year. But although he had money enough saved he dared not drop out of New York. One was forgotten overnight, and fashions, especially since the war, changed so quickly and yet so subtly that he might be another year readjusting himself on his return. Or find himself supplanted by some man younger than himself whose cursed audacity and dramatized youthfulness would have accustomed the facile public to some new brand of pap flavored with red pepper. The world was marching to the tune of youth, damn it (Mr. Clavering was beginning to feel elderly at thirty-four), but it was hard to shake out the entrenched. He had his public hypnotized. He could sell ten copies of a book where a reviewer could sell one. His word on a play was final—or almost. Personal mention of any of the Sophisticates added a cubit to reputation. Three mentions made them household words. Neglect caused agonies and visions of extinction. Disparagement was preferable. By publicity shall ye know them. Even public men with rhinocerene hides had been seen to shiver. Cause women courted him. Prize fighters on the dour morn after a triumphant night had howled between fury and tears as Mr. Lee Clavering (once crack reporter of the gentle art) wrote sadly of greater warriors. Lenin had mentioned him as an enemy of the new religion, who dealt not with the truth. Until he grew dull—no grinning skeleton as yet—his public, after hasty or solemn digestion of the news, would turn over to his column with a sigh of relief. But he must hang on, no doubt of that. Fatal to give the public even a hint that it might learn to do without him.
He sighed and closed his eyes again. It was not unpleasant to feel himself a slave, a slave who had forged his own gilded chains. But he sighed again for his lost simplicities, for his day-dreams under the magnolias when he had believed that if women of his class were not obliged to do their own housework they would all be young and beautiful and talk only of romance; when he had thought upon the intellectual woman and the woman who "did things" as an anomaly and a horror. Well, the reality was more companionable, he would say that for them.… Then he grinned as he recalled the days of his passionate socialism, when he had taken pains, like every socialist he had ever met, to let it be understood that he had been born in the best society. Well, so he had, and he was glad of it, even if the best society of his small southern town had little to live on but its vanished past. He never alluded to his distinguished ancestry now that he was eminent and comfortable, and he looked back with uneasy scorn upon his former breaches of taste, but he never quite forgot it. No Southerner ever does.
The play droned on to the end of the interminable first act. Talk. Talk. Talk. He'd go to sleep, but would be sure to get a crick in his neck. Then he remembered a woman who had come down the aisle just as the lights were lowering and passed his seat. He had not seen her face, but her graceful figure had attracted his attention, and the peculiar shade of her hair: the color of warm ashes. There was no woman of his acquaintance with that rare shade of blonde hair.
He opened his eyes. She was sitting two seats ahead of him and the lights of the stage gave a faint halo to a small well-shaped head defined by the low coil of hair. She had a long throat apparently, but although she had dropped her wrap over the back of the seat he had no more than a glimpse of a white neck and a suggestion of sloping shoulders. Rather rare those, nowadays. They reminded him, together with the haughty poise of the head, of the family portraits in the old gallery at home. Being dark himself, he admired fair women, although since they had taken to bobbing their hair they looked as much alike as magazine covers. This woman wore her hair in no particular fashion. It was soft and abundant, brushed back from her face, and drawn merely over the tips of the ears. At least so he inferred. He had not seen even her profile as she passed. Profiles were out of date, but in an old-fashioned corner of his soul he admired them, and he was idly convinced that a woman with so perfectly shaped a head, long and narrow, but not too narrow, must have a profile. Probably her full face would not be so attractive. Women with cendré hair generally had light brows and lashes, and her eyes might be a washed-out blue. Or prominent. Or her mouth too small. He would bet on the profile, however, and instead of rushing out when that blessed curtain went down he would wait and look for it.
Then he closed his eyes again and forgot her until he was roused by the clapping of many hands. First-nighters always applaud, no matter how perfunctorily. Noblesse oblige. But the difference between the applause of the bored but loyal and that of the enchanted and quickened is as the difference between a rising breeze and a hurricane.
The actors bowed en masse, in threes, in twos, singly. The curtain descended, the lights rose, the audience heaved. Men hurried up the aisle and climbed over patient women. People began to visit. And then the woman two seats ahead of Clavering did a singular thing.
She rose slowly to her feet, turned her back to the stage, raised her opera glasses and leisurely surveyed the audience.
"I knew it!" Clavering's tongue clicked. "European. No American woman ever did that—unless, to be sure, she has lived too long abroad to remember our customs."
He gazed at her eagerly, and felt a slight sensation of annoyance that the entire house was following his example. The opera glasses concealed her eyes, but they rested upon the bridge of an indubitably straight nose. Her forehead was perhaps too high, but it was full, and the thick hair was brushed back from a sharp point. Her eyebrows, thank Heaven, were many shades darker than her hair. They were also narrow and glossy. Decidedly they received attention. Possibly they were plucked and darkened—life had made him skeptical of "points." However, Clavering was no lover of unamended nature, holding nature, except in rare moments of inspiration, a bungler of the first water.
In spite of its smooth white skin and rounded contours above an undamaged throat, it was, subtly, not a young face. The mouth, rather large, although fresh and red (possibly they had lip sticks in Europe that approximated nature) had none of the girl's soft flexibility. It was full in the center and the red of the underlip was more than a visible line, but it was straight at the corners, ending in an almost abrupt sternness. Once she smiled, but it was little more than an amused flicker; the mouth did not relax. The shape of the face bore out the promise of the head, but deflected from its oval at the chin, which was almost square, and indented. The figure was very slight, but as subtly mature as the face, possibly because she held it uncompromisingly erect; apparently she had made no concession to the democratic absence of "carriage," the indifferent almost apologetic mien that had succeeded the limp curves of a few years ago.
She wore a dress of white jet made with the long lines of the present fashion—in dress she was evidently a stickler. The neck was cut in a low square, showing the rise of the bust. Her own lines were long, the arms and hands very slender in the long white gloves. Probably she was the only woman in the house who wore gloves. Life was freer since the war. She wore a triple string of pearls.
He waited eagerly until she should drop her glasses.… He heard two girls gasping and muttering behind him.… There was a titter across the house.
She lowered the opera glasses and glanced over the rows of upturned faces immediately before her, scrutinizing them casually, as if they were fish in an aquarium. She had dropped her lids slightly before her eyes came to rest on Clavering. He was leaning forward, his eyes hard and focal, doing his best to compel her notice. Her glance did linger on his for a moment before it moved on indifferently, but in that brief interval he experienced a curious ripple along his nerves … almost a note of warning.… They were very dark gray eyes, Greek in the curve of the lid, and inconceivably wise, cold, disillusioned. She did not look a day over twenty-eight. There were no marks of dissipation on her face. But for its cold regularity she would have looked younger—with her eyes closed. The eyes seemed to gaze down out of an infinitely remote past.
Suddenly she seemed to sense the concentrated attention of the audience. She swept it with a hasty glance, evidently appreciated the fact that she alone was standing and facing it, colored slightly and sat down. But her repose was absolute. She made no little embarrassed gestures as another woman would have done. She did not even affect to read her program.
Clavering left his chair and wandered up the aisle. He felt none of his usual impatience for the beneficent cigarette. Was he hit? Hardly. Inquisitive, certainly. But he had seen so many provocative shells. Vile trick of nature, that—poverty-stricken unoriginal creature that she was.
He glanced over the rows of people as he passed. It was not the play that was animating them. The woman was a godsend.
His gaze paused abruptly on the face of Mr. Charles Dinwiddie. Clavering's grand-aunt had married Mr. Dinwiddie's father and the two men, so far apart in years, were more or less intimate; the older man's inexhaustible gossip of New York Society amused Clavering, who in turn had initiated Mr. Dinwiddie into new and strange pleasures, including literary parties and first nights—ignored by the world of fashion.
All New York men of the old régime, no matter what their individuality may have been twenty years earlier, look so much alike as they approach sixty, and more particularly after they have passed it, that they might be brothers in blood as in caste. Their moustaches and what little hair they have left turns the same shade of well-bred white. Their fine old Nordic faces are generally lean and flat of cheek, their expression calm, assured, not always smug. They are impeccably groomed and erect. Stout they may be, but seldom fat, and if not always handsome, they are polished, distinguished, aloof. They no longer wear side-whiskers and look younger than their fathers did at the same age.
Mr. Dinwiddie's countenance as a rule was as formal and politely expressionless as became his dignified status, but tonight it was not. It was pallid. The rather prominent eyes were staring, the mouth was relaxed. He was seated next the aisle and Clavering hastened toward him in alarm.
"Ill, old chap?" he asked. "Better come out."
Mr. Dinwiddie focussed his eyes, then stumbled to his feet and caught Clavering by the arm. "Yes," he muttered. "Get me out of this and take me where I can get a drink. Seen a ghost."
Clavering guided him up the aisle, then out of a side exit into an alley and produced a flask from his hip-pocket. Mr. Dinwiddie without ceremony raised it to his lips and swallowed twice, gasping a little. He had reached the age of the mild whiskey and soda. Then he stood erect and passed his hand over the shining curve of his head.
"Ever seen a ghost, Lee?" he asked. "That woman was there, wasn't she?"
"She was there, all right." Clavering's face was no longer cynical and mysterious; it was alive with curiosity. "D'you know who she is?"
"Thirty-odd years ago any one of us old chaps would have told you she was Mary Ogden, and like as not raised his hat. She was the beauty and the belle of her day. But she married a Hungarian diplomat, Count Zattiany, when she was twenty-four, and deserted us. Never been in the country since. I never wanted to see her again. Too hard hit. But I caught a glimpse of her at the opera in Paris about ten years ago—faded! Always striking of course with that style, but withered, changed, skinny where she had been slim, her throat concealed by a dog collar a yard long—her expression sad and apathetic—the dethroned idol of men. God! Mary Ogden! I left the house."
"It is her daughter, of course——"
"Never had a child—positive of it. Zattiany title went to a nephew who was killed in the war.… No … it must be … must be …" His eyes began to glitter. Clavering knew the symptom. His relative was about to impart interesting gossip.
"Well?" he asked impatiently.
"There were many stories about Mary Ogden—Mary Zattiany—always a notable figure in the capitals of Europe. Her husband was in the diplomatic service until he died—some years before I saw her in Paris. She was far too clever—damnably clever, Mary Ogden, and had a reputation for it in European Society as well as for beauty—to get herself compromised. But there were stories—that must be it! She had a daughter and stowed her away somewhere. No two women could be as alike as that except mother and daughter—don't see it too often at that. Why, the very way she carries her head—her style … wonder where she kept her? That girl has been educated and has all the air of the best society. Must have got friends to adopt her. Gad! What a secret chapter. But why on earth does she let the girl run round loose?"
"I shouldn't say she was a day under twenty-eight. No doubt she looked younger from where you were sitting."
"Twenty-eight! Mary must have begun sooner than we heard. But—well, we never felt that we knew Mary—that was one of her charms. She kept us guessing, as you young fellows say, and she had the devil's own light in her eyes sometimes." His own orb lit up again. "Wonder if Mary is here? No doubt she's come over to get her property back—she never transferred her investments and of course it was alienated during the war. But not a soul has heard from her. I am sure of that. We were discussing her the other night at dinner and wondering if her fortune had been turned over. It was at Jane Oglethorpe's. Jane and a good many of the other women have seen her from time to time abroad—stayed at her castle in Hungary during the first years of her marriage; but they drifted apart as friends do.… She must be a wreck, poor thing. She ran a hospital during the war and was in Buda Pesth for some time after the revolution broke out. I hope she had the girl well hidden away."
"Perhaps she sent the girl over to look after her affairs."
"That's it. Beyond a doubt. And I'll find out. Trent is Mary's attorney and trustee. I'll make him open up."
"And you'll call on her?"
"Won't I? That is, I'll make Trent take me. I never want to look at poor Mary again, but I'd feel young—— Hello! I believe you're hit!" Mr. Dinwiddie, having solved his problems, was quite himself again and alert for one of the little dramas that savored his rather tasteless days. "I'd like that. I'll introduce you and give you my blessing. Wrong side of the blanket, though."
"Don't care a hang."
"That's right. Who cares about anything these days? And you can only be young once." He sighed. "And if she's like her mother—only halfway like her inside—she'll be worth it."
"Is that a promise?"
"We'll shake on it. I'll see Trent in the morning. Dine with me at the club at eight?"
The critics left after the second act to damn the play at leisure. Clavering remained in his seat. Forty minutes later, while the performers were responding to faint calls and amiable friends were demanding the author of the doomed play, the lady of mystery (who, Clavering reflected cynically, was doubtless merely an unusual looking person with a commonplace history—most explanations after wild guesses were common-place) left her seat and passed up the aisle. Irresistibly, Clavering followed her. As she stood for a moment under the glare of the electric lights at the entrance he observed her critically. She survived the test. A small car drew up to the curb. She entered it, and he stood in the softly falling snow feeling somewhat of a fool. As he walked slowly to his rooms in Madison Square he came definitely to the conclusion that it was merely his old reporter's instinct that burned so fiercely, even when he had prodded Dinwiddie and shaken hands in a glow of anticipation. Certainly there was no fire in his blood. His imagination had not toyed for a moment with the hope that here at last … He did not feel in the least romantic. But what man, especially after Dinwiddie's revelations, wouldn't feel a bit curious, a bit excited? Thank Heaven he was young enough for that. He must know who she was. Certainly, he would like to talk to her. She knew the world, no doubt of it—with those eyes! European women, given the opportunity, could cram more of life into ten years than an American woman into forty. She had had her experiences in spite of that madonna face; he'd bet on it. Well, he wasn't falling in love with a woman who had too heavily underscored in the book of life. But he enjoyed talking to European women of the world. New York had been overrun of late with Russian princesses and other ladies of title come over in the hope of milking the good old American cow, and when he could divert them from their grievances he found them clever, subtle and interesting. It was unlikely that this woman had a grievance of that sort or was looking for a chance to get at the generous but elusive udder. Her pearls might not be real, but her gown was superlatively expensive, her evening wrap of mauve velvet lined with ermine, and her little car perfectly turned out. He'd look like a fortune-hunter with his salary of fifteen thousand a year and a few thousands in bonds … not if he knew it! But find out who she was, know her, talk to her, learn what he felt was an interesting history—quite another matter.
The next evening when he arrived at the club he found Mr. Dinwiddie fuming.
"What do you think!" he exclaimed as he led his guest to his favorite table in the corner. "That old rascal bluffed me! Bluffed me. Said there was no relative of Countess Zattiany in the country that he knew of. Looked blank as a post when I told him of the extraordinary resemblance of that girl to Mary Ogden. Said he never heard of her. Laughed at the idea of a sub-rosa daughter. Pretended to be angry at such an aspersion on Mary's fair fame—was in love with her himself like the rest of us. But he was lying and he knew that I knew he was lying. What'll you have?"
"Anything. Go ahead. I know by the glitter of your eye that you haven't finished."
"You're right, I haven't." He gave his order and leaned forward. "I've done a little prospecting on my own account. Mary inherited the old Ogden house over on Murray Hill. I happen to know that the lease ran out last year and that it hasn't been rented since. Well, I walked past there today, and some one is living in it. Boarding off. Windows open. Fresh curtains. A servant receiving a parcel at the area door. She's there, mark my words."
"Not a doubt of it. Why didn't you walk boldly up and send in your card?"
"Hadn't the courage. Besides, that girl never heard of me. I hadn't the ghost of an excuse."
"Why not put Mrs. Oglethorpe on the scent? She could call. Women are always fertile in excuses."
"I can't see what pretext she could trump up. She'd be keen enough, all right, but she hardly could tell this haughty creature with the unmistakable stamp of the great world on her that she knows she must be the left-handed daughter of Mary Ogden. Even Jane hasn't assurance enough for that."
"She might assume that this young woman is a member of the Countess Zattiany's family—daughter of a cousin or something—those extraordinary resemblances do recur in families.… That indeed may be the explanation."
"Not a bit of it. That girl is Mary's daughter."
"I'm inclined to agree with you. But it is understood that you can't hurl it at her. Mrs. Oglethorpe, however, could invent a pretty pretence—saw her at the theatre—struck by her likeness to her old friend—discovered she was living in the family mansion—felt that she must seek her out——"
"Um. That's not quite the sort of thing the New York woman does, and you know it. True, the war has upset them as it has every one else. They are still restless. I have met two opera singers, two actresses, three of these juvenile editors and columnists at dinners and musical evenings during the last month alone. I believe they'd lionize Charley Chaplin if he'd let them, but I understand he's more exclusive than we are. God! What is New York Society coming to?"
"You like straying outside the sacred preserves yourself occasionally."
"I do. But I'm a man. We always did stray a bit. But when I think of the exclusiveness of only a few years ago! Why, New York Society was a Club. The most exclusive club in the world. London Society was Bohemia compared to it. It's the democratic flu, that's what! Aristocracy's done for."
"I'm not so sure. The reaction may be devastating. But it's a sign of grace that they've at last discovered sufficient intelligence to be bored with their somewhat monotonous selves. And Mrs. Oglethorpe always does exactly as she pleases. Better drop her a hint."
"Well, I'll try it. But while Jane may be high-handed, she has certain rigid ideas when it comes to Society and who shall enter its gates. So far she's made no concessions. She and a few others still keep a tight rein. Their daughters though! And granddaughters! Jane's girls are replicas of herself with every atom of her personality left out—but Jim's daughter, Janet, is her grandmother over again plus modern bad manners, bad habits, and a defiance of every known convention. Wretched little flapper. Gad! What are we coming to!"
"Never mind Janet——"
"Why don't you suggest it to Jane? She thinks more of you than of any one else. I doubt if you could ask her anything——"
"Not much. She'd twig at once. I've had several hints lately that she has her eye on somebody she wants me to marry. You must do it yourself—and you must!"
"Well! If she won't, Mrs. Jim might. The younger women would know this girl like a shot if they thought there was any fun in it—then drop her if she didn't measure up. I don't know that I care to place her in such a position."
"I've an idea the fair unknown can take care of herself. I don't see her picked up and dropped. Probably it would be the deuce and all to meet her. I think my plan is best. You can rouse any woman's curiosity, and no one has more than Mrs. Oglethorpe. That would be the wedge. You'd meet her and then you could give her a dinner and invite me."
"All right. I'll try it. Something must happen soon. My arteries won't stand the strain."
"Madam is not at home, ma'am."
"Is she not? Then I'll wait for her."
Mrs. Oglethorpe swept by the butler and he had the sensation of chaff scattering before a strong wind. In truth Mrs. Oglethorpe was an impressive figure and quite two inches taller than himself. He could only stare at her in helpless awe, the more so as he had recognized her at once. Leadership might be extinct, but Mrs. Oglethorpe was still a power in New York Society, with her terrible outspokenness, her uncompromising standards, her sardonic humor, her great wealth, and her eagle eye for subterfuge. How could a mere servant hope to oppose that formidable will when his betters trembled at her nod?
Mrs. Oglethorpe had made her usual careful toilet. Her full long dress of heavy-pile black velvet, almost covered with a sable cape, swept the floor; changing skirts meant nothing to her. Like all women of the old régime in New York, she wore her hair dressed very high and it was surmounted by a small black hat covered with feathers, ruthlessly exposing her large square face with its small snapping black eyes and prominent nose. A high-boned collar of net supported what was left of her throat. She wore no jewels, as she clung to the rigorous law of her youth which had tabued the vulgar display of anything but pearls in the daytime. As she was too old and yellow for pearls she compromised on jet earrings and necklace. She carried a cane.
Mr. Dinwiddie to his surprise had found no difficulty in persuading her to investigate the mysteries of the Ogden mansion, for she had leapt at once to the conclusion that the friend of her youth was in some way menaced by this presumptuous stranger of the fantastic resemblance. There had been a time when, while indignantly repudiating the stories so prevalent for many years after Mary Ogden's marriage to Count Zattiany, she had secretly believed and condoned them; not only because she had loved her devotedly and known something of her heavy disillusionment, but because the wild secret life the exalted Countess Zattiany was believed to be leading fed her own suppressed longings for romance and adventure. With the passage of years, which had taken their toll of Mary's beauty and fascination, and brought complete disillusionment to herself, she had almost forgotten that old phase; moreover, it was many years since she had visited Europe and correspondence between the two friends, once so intimate, had almost ceased before the war. During that long interval she had heard nothing of her except that she was running a hospital in Buda Pesth, but shortly after the close of the war she had been distressed to learn from a member of one of the various commissions to Vienna that Countess Zattiany was ill in a sanitarium. She had written at once, but received no reply. Now she feared that some adventuress had taken advantage of a superficial resemblance—she dismissed Mr. Dinwiddie's protestations of the exactness of that resemblance as the maunderings of a weakened memory playing about among the ghosts of its youth—to scheme for the Ogden fortune. When told that Judge Trent was evidently shielding the woman her suspicions were redoubled. She had consistently hated Judge Trent for fifty years.
If, on the other hand, the creature were really Mary's daughter—and could prove it—well, she would make up her mind what course to take when she met her.
"I'll wait in the library," she announced, and moved majestically down the hall. Then at a sound she paused and glanced toward the stair which rose on the left, opposite the library. A woman was descending, a woman only an inch or two shorter than herself and no less stately, with ashen blonde hair coiled low on her graceful neck and wearing a loose gown of pale green crepe with a silver girdle.
"My God!" exclaimed Mrs. Oglethorpe in a loud imperious voice, as if commanding the Almighty to leap from his throne and fly to her assistance. Then she leaned heavily on her cane.
The lady came quickly down the stairs and made a peremptory signal to the butler. As he disappeared she walked forward more slowly and paused within a few feet of her agitated guest. Her eyebrows were slightly raised, her face impassive. Not even those sharp old eyes staring at her guessed that she had been completely taken by surprise and was inwardly quaking.
Mrs. Oglethorpe could not speak for a moment. The years had dropped from her. She was once more a young woman come to spend the day with her favorite friend … or to attend a reception in the stately formal house on Murray Hill … high rooms filled with women wearing tight basques, bustles, full sweeping skirts, small hats or bonnets perched on puffs and braids.… Mary, the most radiant and beautiful and enchanting girl in the world, coming forward with hands outstretched, while her more formal mother frowned a little at her enthusiasm … or were they both risen to haunt the old house?
But confusion could reign for only a few seconds in Mrs. Oglethorpe's indomitable soul. She drew herself up to her imposing height, and her voice was harsher than usual as she addressed the vision that had confounded her.
"Pardon me. Your likeness to my old friend, Countess Zattiany, startled me. Who are you, may I ask?"
"Does it really matter?" And once more Mrs. Oglethorpe started, although the accent was foreign.
"Yes, it does matter," she said grimly. "That is what I have come to find out."
"Oh!" Again there was a slight lift of the eyebrows. "I had always heard that Americans were unconventional, but hardly that they carried their independence of the conventions so far as to invade the house of a stranger."
"I'll not be put off. Are you Mary Zattiany's daughter?"
For a second there was an expression of broad amusement on the beautiful cold face opposite, but it passed with a slight shrug of the shoulders. "No," she said evenly.
"Then who are you?"
"I do not choose to say—at present." Her tone was as arrogant as her interlocutor's and Mrs. Oglethorpe bristled.
"What does Trent mean by lying about your presence in this house?"
"Judge Trent respects my wishes."
"Your wishes! You've made a fool of him. But I am Countess Zattiany's oldest friend, and if she has been imposed upon, if she has come to any harm, if you are after her fortune by pretending on the strength of your singular likeness to be her heir, I shall know how to put a stop to it in spite of Judge Trent. I suppose you have never heard of me. My name is Oglethorpe."
"I have heard of Mrs. Oglethorpe—from Countess Zattiany. But she failed to prepare me for your excessively bad manners."
"Manners be damned. I use what manners I choose and I've never done anything else. I repeat to you that Countess Zattiany was the most intimate friend of my youth and for many years after. If she has no one to protect her interests in this country, I shall protect them myself. Don't you suppose I am well aware that if you were in her confidence she would have sent you direct to me? It is the first thing she would have thought of. If you are not an impostor and an adventuress present your credentials and I will ask your pardon."
"Judge Trent has my credentials. Now, if you will excuse me——"
"I will not excuse you. I will get to the depth of all this mystery. I abominate mystery. It is vulgar and stupid. You will tell me who you are, or I will set the newspapers on your track. They'll soon ferret it out. I've only to say the word."
"Ah!" The lady seemed to falter for a moment. She looked speculatively at the indignant old face opposite, then made a vague little gesture toward her hair, and dropped her eyes. "No," she said softly. "Don't—please." She raised her eyes once more and looked straight into Mrs. Oglethorpe's. The two women stood staring at each other for several seconds. Mrs. Oglethorpe's eyes blinked, her jaw fell. Then she drew herself up in her most impressive manner.
"Good day," she said. "Your pardon for the intrusion," and although her voice had trembled, she swept majestically down the hall. The unwilling hostess touched a bell and a footman opened the door.
Three weeks passed. There were almost twice as many first-nights. "Mary Ogden," as Clavering called her for want of the truth, was at each. She never rose in her seat again, and, indeed, seemed to seek inconspicuousness, but she was always in the second or third row of the orchestra, and she wore a different gown on each occasion. As she entered after the curtain rose and stole out before it went down for the last time, few but those in the adjacent seats and boxes were edified by any details of those charming creations, although it was noticeable that the visiting of both sexes was most active in her neighborhood.
For by this time she was "the talk of the town," or of that important and excessively active-minded section of Greater New York represented at first-nights. The columnists had commented on her. One had indited ten lines of free verse in her honor, another had soared on the wings of seventeenth century English into a panegyric on her beauty and her halo of mystery. A poet-editor-wit had cleped her "The Silent Drama." Had it been wartime she would inevitably have been set down as a spy, and as it was there were dark inferences that she was a Bolshevik agent who had smuggled vast sums of money into the country and passed it on to the Reds. There were those who opined she was some rich man's mistress, recently imported, snatched from some victim of revolution who could no longer afford her. Blonde madonnas were always under suspicion unless you knew all about them. Others, more practical, scoffed at these fancy theories and asserted roundly that she was either a Russian refugee who had sound American or English investments, or some American woman, educated abroad, who knew no one in New York and amused herself at the theatre. Indeed? Why then should an obviously wealthy young woman of as obviously good birth and breeding bring no letters? Something crooked, not a doubt of it. A European girl or young widow of position would never come to America without a chaperon; nor an American brought up abroad. A woman with that "air" knows what's what. She's simply put herself beyond the pale and doesn't care. Some impoverished woman of the noblesse who has taken up with a rich man.
The men would have liked to put a detective on the track of every millionaire in town.
Clavering had confided in no one, and Mr. Dinwiddie, although he had attended a party given by one of the most hospitable of the Sophisticates where the unknown was discussed from cocktail to cocktail, and where, forgetting his arteries, he had befuddled himself at the generous fount, had guarded his tongue. To Clavering he had been unable to extend either hope or information. Mrs. Oglethorpe had turned a bleak and rigid countenance upon the friend of her youth when he had called with an eager ear, and forbidden him tartly ever to mention the subject to her again.
"Interview must have been devilish unpleasant to curdle poor old Jane like that," he had commented. "No doubt the girl showed her the door. Gad! Jane! But Mary's daughter could do it. None better."
Clavering was deeply disappointed. He turned a scowling back on the gossips rending The Topic to tatters. New York must have a new Topic every season. This girl had arrived in a season of dearth. And, unless she were discovered to be living in absolute flagrancy, they would throw down the carpet. Some went even further. After all, what about …
But there seemed to be not the remotest prospect of meeting her, nor even of solving the mystery. She had been seen striding round the reservoir in a short skirt and high laced boots of soft pale leather. One triumphant woman had stood next to her at a glove counter and overheard her observe to the clerk in a sweet and rather deep voice with an ineluctably refined—and foreign—accent that gloves were cheaper in New York than in Paris. She had been passed several times in her smart little car, and once she had been seen going into the Public Library. Evidently she was no hermit. Several of the Sophisticates had friends in Society and questioned them eagerly, but were rewarded only by questions as eager in return.
On the sixth of these first-nights, when the unknown slipped quietly from her seat at the end of the last act, she saw the aisle in front of her almost blocked. One after another the rows of seats were hurriedly deserted. Clavering, as usual, was directly behind her, but Mr. Dinwiddie, forced from his chair many aisles back, was swept out with the crowd.
When she reached the foyer she found herself surrounded by men and women whose frank interest was of the same well-bred but artless essence as that afforded a famous actress or prima donna exhibiting herself before the footlights. It was evident that she had a sense of humor, for as she made her way slowly toward the entrance a smile twitched her mouth more than once. Clavering thought that she was on the point of laughing outright. But he fumed. "Damn them! They'll scare her off. She'll never come again."
One or two women had vowed they'd speak to her. After all a first-night was a club of sorts. But their courage failed them. The crowd made way for her and she crossed the pavement to wait for her car. Clavering, always hoping that some drunken brute would give him the opportunity to succor her, followed and stood as close as he dared. Her car drove up and she entered. As it started she turned her head and looked straight at him. And then Clavering was sure that she laughed outright.
He started recklessly after the car, plunging between automobiles going in four different directions, and jumping on the running board of a taxi, told the man to drive like hell toward Park Avenue. There was amused recognition in that glance! She had, must have, noticed him before tonight!
And then he had his chance. To the brave belong the fair.
He dismissed the taxi at the corner of her street and walked rapidly toward the house. He had no definite object, but with the blood of romantic ancestors who had serenaded beneath magnolia trees pounding in his veins, he thought it likely he would take up his stand under the opposite lamp-post and remain there all night. The reportorial news-sense died painlessly.
Suddenly, to his amazement, he saw her run down the steps of her house and disappear into the area. She was once more at the gate when he hurried up to her.
"May I—am I——" he stammered. "Is anything the matter?"
For a moment she had shrunk back in alarm, but the narrow silent street between its ramparts of brown stone was bright with moonlight and she recognized him.
"Oh, it is you," she said with a faint smile. "I forgot my key and I cannot make any one hear the bell. The servants sleep on the top floor, and of course like logs. Yes, you can do something. Are you willing to break a window, crawl in, and find your way up to the front door?"
"Watch me!" Clavering forgot that he was saturnine and remote and turning thirty-four. He took the area steps at a bound. Iron gates guarded the basement doors, but the old bars on the windows were easily wrenched out. He lifted his foot, kicked out a pane, found the catch, opened the window and ran up the narrow dark stairs. There was a light in the spacious hall and in another moment he had opened the door. He expected to be dismissed with a word of lofty thanks, but she said in a tone of casual hospitality:
"There are sandwiches in the library and I can give you a whiskey and soda."
She walked with a light swift step down the hall, the narrow tail of her black velvet gown wriggling after her. Clavering followed in a daze, but his trained eye took note of the fine old rugs and carved Italian furniture, two splendid tapestries, and great vases of flowers that filled the air with a drowsy perfume. He had heard of the Ogden house, built and furnished some fifty years ago. The couple that had leased it had been childless and it showed little wear. The stairs curving on the left had evidently been recarpeted, but in a very dull red that harmonized with the mellow tints of the old house.
She opened a door at the end of the hall on the right and he found himself in a large library whose walls were covered with books to the ceiling. Dinwiddie had told him that the Ogdens were bookish people and that "Mary's" grandfather had been an eminent jurist. The room was as dark in tone as the hall, but the worn chairs and sofas looked very comfortable. A log was burning on the hearth.
She took a key from a drawer and handed it to him.
"You will find whiskey and a syphon in that cabinet, Mr. Clavering. I keep them for Judge Trent."
"Mr. Cla——" He came out of his daze. "You know who I am then?"
"But certainly. I am not as reckless as all that."
Her accent was slight but indubious, yet impossible to place. It might be that of a European who spoke many languages, or of an American with a susceptible ear who had lived the greater part of her life abroad. "I was driving one day with Judge Trent and saw you walking with Mr. Dinwiddie."
He had his first full look into those wise unfathomable eyes. Standing close to her, she seemed somewhat older than he had guessed her to be, although her face was unlined. Probably it was her remarkable poise, her air of power and security—and those eyes! What had not they looked upon? She smiled and poured broth from a thermos bottle.
"You are forgetting your whiskey and soda," she reminded him.
He filled his glass, took a sandwich and sank into the depths of a leather chair. She had seated herself on an upright throne-like chair opposite. Her black velvet gown was like a vase supporting a subtly moulded flower of dazzling fairness. She wore the three rows of pearls that had excited almost as much speculation as her mysterious self. As she drank her mild beverage she looked at him over the brim of her cup and once more appeared to be on the verge of laughter.
"Will you tell me who you are?" asked Clavering bluntly. "This is hardly fair, you know."
"Mr. Dinwiddie really managed to coax nothing from Judge Trent? He called three times, I understand."
"Not a word."
"He had my orders," she said coolly. "I am obliged to pass some time in New York and I have my reasons for remaining obscure."
"Then you should have avoided first-nights."
"But I understood that Society did not attend first-nights. So Judge Trent informed me. I love the play. Judge Trent told me that first-nights were very amusing and that I would be sure to be seen by no one I had ever met in European Society."
"Probably not," he said drily and feeling decidedly nettled at her calm assumption that nothing but the society of fashion counted. "But the people who do attend them are a long sight more distinguished in the only way that counts these days, and the women are often as well dressed as any in the sacrosanct preserves."
"Oh, I noticed that," she said quickly. "Charming intelligent faces, a great variety of types, and many—but many—quite admirable gowns. But who are they, may I ask? I thought there was nothing between New York Society and the poor but—well, the bourgeoisie."
He informed her.
"Ah! You see—well, I always heard that your people of the artistic and intellectual class were rather eccentric—rather cultivated a pose."
"Once, maybe. They all make too much money these days. But there are freaks, if you care to look for them. Some of the suddenly prosperous authors and dramatists have rather dizzy-looking wives; and I suppose you saw those two girls from Greenwich Village that sat across the aisle from you tonight?"
She shuddered. "One merely looked like a Hottentot, but the other!—with that thin upper layer of her short black hair dyed a greenish white, and her haggard degenerate green face. What do they do in Greenwich Village? Is it an isolation camp for defectives?"
"It was once a colony of real artists, but the big fish left and the minnows swim slimily about, giving off nothing but their own sickly phosphorescence."
"How interesting. A sort of Latin Quarter, although I never saw anything in Paris quite like those dreadful girls."
"Probably not. As a race we are prone to exaggerations. But are you not going to tell me your name?"
She had finished her supper and was leaning against the high back of her chair, her long slender but oddly powerful looking hands folded lightly on the black velvet of her lap. Once more he was struck by her absolute repose.
"But certainly. I am the Countess Zattiany."
"The Countess Zattiany!"
"The Countess Josef Zattiany, to be exact. I went to Europe when I was a child, and when I finished school visited my cousin, Mary Zattiany—I belong to the Virginian branch of her mother's family—at her palace in Vienna and married her cousin's nephew."
"Ah! That accounts for the resemblance!" exclaimed Clavering. And then, quite abruptly, he did not believe a word of it.
"Yes, poor old Dinwiddie was completely bowled over when you stood up and surveyed the house that night. Thought he had seen the ghost of his old flame. I had to take him out in the alley and give him a drink."
She met his eyes calmly. "That was the cause of his interest? Cousin Mary always said that the likeness to herself as a young woman was rather remarkable, that we might be mother and daughter instead of only third cousins."
"Ah—yes—exactly. Is—is she with you?"
"No, alas! She is in a sanitarium in Vienna and likely to remain there for a long time. When Judge Trent wrote that it would be well for her interests if she came to New York she asked me to come instead and gave me her power of attorney. As my husband was killed in the first year of the war and I had no other ties, I can assure you I was glad to come." She shivered slightly. "Oh, yes! Vienna! To see so much misery and to be able to give so little help! But now that Mary's and my own fortune are restored I can assure you it gives me the greatest satisfaction of my life to send a large share of our incomes to our agent in Vienna."
This time there was an unmistakable ring of truth in her deep tones. And she was human. Clavering had begun to doubt it, notwithstanding her powerful disturbing magnetism. But was he falling in love with her? He was attracted, dazzled, and he still felt romantic. But love! In spite of his suspicions she seemed to move on a plane infinitely remote.
"Shall you stay here?"
"Oh, for a time, yes. I cannot see Cousin Mary, and even Paris is spoiled. Besides, Judge Trent wishes me to learn something of business. He is growing old and says that women nowadays take an interest in their investments. I certainly find it highly diverting."
"No doubt. But surely you will not continue to shut yourself up? You could know any one you choose. Judge Trent has only to give you a dinner. Unfortunately most of his respectable friends are a great many years older than yourself——"
"I have no desire to know them. In Paris, off and on, I met many of those elderly New York ladies of position. They all have that built-up look, with hats too small and high for their bony old faces, which they do not even soften with powder or the charming accessories of the toilet known to every European woman of fashion. And feathers! Why are they so fond of feathers—not charming drooping feathers, but a sort of clipped hedge, all of a size, like a garden plot; sometimes oblong, sometimes round? And why do they never look à la mode, in spite of their expensive furs and materials?"
"That is the sign manual of their intense respectability. The old régime would not compromise with fashion in all its extravagant changes for the world. Moreover, it is their serene belief that they may dress exactly as they choose, and they choose to keep an old tradition alive. Are not English duchesses much the same?"
"So. Well, I do not bore myself."
"But the younger women. They are the smartest in the world. There is not the least necessity you should bore yourself with the elders. Surely you must long for the society of women of your age."
She moved restlessly for the first time. "They were always in Europe before the war. I met many of them. They did not interest me. I hardly knew what they were talking about."
"But men. Surely a woman as young—and beautiful——"
"Oh, men!" Clavering had never heard as profound disillusion in any woman's tones. And then a curious expression of fear flitted through her eyes and she seemed to draw herself together.
"What has some brute of a man done to her?" thought Clavering with furious indignation, and feeling more romantic than ever. Could it have been her husband? For a moment he regretted that Count Josef Zattiany had gone beyond human vengeance.
"You are too young to hate men," he stammered. And then he went on with complete banality, "You have never met the right man."
"I am older than you perhaps think," she said drily. "And I have known a great many men—and of a variety! But," she added graciously, "I shall be glad if you will come and see me sometimes. I enjoy your column, and I am sure we shall find a great deal to talk about."
Clavering glowed with a pride that almost convinced him he was not as blasé as he had hoped. He rose, however.
"I'll come as often as you will let me. Make no mistake about that. But I should not have stayed so long. It is very late, and you are—well, rather unprotected, you know. I think you should have a chaperon."
"I certainly shall not. And if I find you interesting enough to talk with until two in the morning, I shall do so. Dine with me tomorrow night if you have nothing better to do. And——" She hesitated a moment, then added with a curious smile, "Bring Mr. Dinwiddie. It is always charitable to lay a ghost. At half after eight?"
She walked with him to the front door, and when he held out his hand she lifted hers absently. He was a quick-witted young man and he understood. He raised it lightly to his lips, then let himself out. As he was walking rapidly toward Park Avenue, wondering if he should tramp for hours—he had never felt less like sleeping—he remembered the broken window. The "crime wave" was terrorizing New York. There was no policeman in sight. To leave her unprotected was unthinkable. He walked back slowly until he reached the lamp-post opposite her house; finally, grinning, he folded his arms and leaned against it. There he stood until a policeman came strolling along, some two hours later. He stated the case and told the officer that if anything happened to the house he would hold him responsible. The man was inclined to be intensely suspicious until Clavering mentioned his newspaper and followed the threat with a bill. Then he promised to watch the house like a hawk, and Clavering, tired, stiff, and very cold, went home to bed.
"Tommy rot. Don't believe a word of it. Mary's mother was one of the Thornhills. Don't believe there ever was a Virginia branch. But I'll soon find out. Also about this Josef Zattiany. That girl is Mary Ogden's daughter."
They were seated in a corner of Mr. Dinwiddie's favorite club, where they had met by appointment. Clavering shrugged his shoulders. He had no intention of communicating his own doubts.
"But you'll dine there tonight?"
"Won't I? And I'll keep my ears open."
Clavering privately thought that the Countess Josef Zattiany would be more than a match for him, but replied: "After all, what does it matter? She is a beautiful and charming woman and no doubt you'll have a very good dinner."
"That's all very well as far as it goes, but I've never been so interested in my life. Of course if she's Mary's daughter I'll do anything to befriend her—that is if she'll be honest enough to admit it. But I don't like all this lying and pretence——"
"I think your terms are too strong. There have been extraordinary resemblances before in the history of the world, 'doubles,' for instance, where there was no known relationship. Rather remarkable there are enough faces to go round. And she confesses to be of the same family. At all events you must admit that she has not made use of her alibi to force her way into society."
"Probably knows her alibi won't stand the strain. The women would soon ferret out the truth.… What I'm afraid of is that she's got this power of attorney out of Mary when the poor girl was too weak to resist, and is over here to corral the entire fortune."
"But surely Judge Trent——"
"Oh, Trent! He's a fool where women are concerned. Always was, and now he's got to the stage where he can't sit beside a girl without pawing her. They won't have him in the house. Of course this lovely creature's got him under her thumb. (I'll see him today and give him a piece of my mind for the lies he's told me.) And if this girl has inherited her mother's brains, she's equal to anything."
"I thought that your Mary was composite perfection."
"Never said anything of the sort. Didn't I tell you she always kept us guessing? I sometimes used to think that if it hadn't been for her breeding and the standards that involves, and her wealth and position, she'd have made a first-class adventuress."
"Was she a good liar?"
"She was insolently truthful, but I'm certain she wouldn't have hesitated at a whopping lie if it would have served her purpose. She was certainly rusée."
"Well, the dinner should be highly interesting with all these undercurrents. I'll call for you at a quarter past eight. I must run now and do my column."
Clavering, often satirical and ironic, was positively brutal that afternoon. The latest play, book, moving picture, the inefficiency of the New York police, his afflicting correspondents, were hacked to the bone. When he had finished, his jangling nerves were unaccountably soothed. Other nerves would shriek next morning. Let 'em. He'd been honest enough, and if he chose to use a battle-axe instead of Toledo steel that was his privilege.
He called down for a messenger boy and strolled to the window to soothe his nerves still further. Dusk had fallen. Every window of the high stone buildings surrounding Madison Square was an oblong of light. It was a symphony of gray and gold, of which he never tired. It invested business with romance and beauty. The men behind those radiant panels, thinking of nothing less, made their brief contribution to the beauty of the world, transported the rapt spectator to a realm of pure loveliness.
A light fall of snow lay on the grass and benches, the statues and trees of the Square. Motors were flashing and honking below and over on Fifth Avenue. The roar of the great city came up to him like a flood over a broken dam. Black masses were pouring toward the subways. Life! New York was the epitome of life. He enjoyed forcing his way through those moving masses, but it interested him even more to feel above, aloof, as he did this evening. Those tides swept on as unconscious of the watchers so high above them as of the soaring beauty of the Metropolitan Tower. Ground hogs, most of them, but part of the ever changing, ever fascinating, metropolitan pageant.
The arcade of Madison Square Garden was already packed with men and he knew that a triple line reached down Twenty-sixth Street to Fourth Avenue. There was to be a prize fight tonight and the men had stood there since noon, buying apples and peanuts from peddlers. This was Tuesday and there was no half-holiday. These men appeared to have unbounded leisure while the rest of the city toiled or demanded work. But they were always warmly dressed and indubitably well-fed. They belonged to what is vaguely known as the sporting fraternity, and were invariably in funds, although they must have existed with the minimum of work. The army of unemployed was hardly larger and certainly no bread line was ever half as long. Mounted police rode up and down to avert any anticipation of the night's battle. A loud barking murmur rose and mingled with the roar of the avenues.
The great clock of the Metropolitan Tower began to play those sad and sweetly ominous notes preliminary to booming out the hour. They always reminded him of the warning bell on a wild and rocky coast, with something of the Lorelei in its cadences: like a heartless woman's subtle allure, poignantly difficult to resist.
There was a knock on the door. Clavering gave his daily stint to the messenger boy. He was hunting for change, when he recaptured his column, sat down at his desk, and, running it over hastily, inserted the word "authentic." New York must have its Word, even as its topic. "Authentic," loosed upon the world by Arnold Bennett, was the rage at present. The little writers hardly dared use it. It was, as it were, the trademark of the Sophisticates.
The boy, superior, indifferent, and chewing gum, accepted his tip and departed. Clavering returned to the window. Gone was the symphony of gold and gray. The buildings surrounding the Square were a dark and formless mass in the heavy dusk. Only the street lights below shone like globular phosphorescence on a dark and turbulent sea.
Two hours later he left his hotel and walked up Madison Avenue. Twenty-sixth Street was deserted and as littered with papers, peanut shells, and various other debris as a picnic train. The mounted police had disappeared. From the great building came the first roar of the thousands assembled, whether in approval or the reverse it would be difficult to determine. They roared upon the slightest pretext and they would roar steadily until half-past ten or eleven, when they would burst out of every exit, rending the night with their yells, while a congested mass of motors and taxi-cabs shrieked and honked and squealed and coughed; and then abruptly the silence of death would fall upon what is now a business quarter where only an occasional hotel or little old brownstone house—sole reminder of a vanished past when Madison Square was the centre of fashion—lingered between the towering masses of concrete and steel.