There shone a jovial sun overhead on the appointed "day after to-morrow"; a day not cool yet of a temperature friendly to walkers; and the air, powdered with sunshine, had so much life in it that it seemed to sparkle. To Arthur Russell this was a day like a gay companion who pleased him well; but the gay companion at his side pleased him even better. She looked her prettiest, chattered her wittiest, smiled her wistfulest, and delighted him with all together.
"You look so happy it's easy to see your father's taken a good turn," he told her.
"Yes; he has this afternoon, at least," she said. "I might have other reasons for looking cheerful, though."
"Exactly!" she said, giving him a sweet look just enough mocked by her laughter. "For instance!"
"Well, go on," he begged.
"Isn't it expected?" she asked.
"Of you, you mean?"
"No," she returned. "For you, I mean!"
In this style, which uses a word for any meaning that quick look and colourful gesture care to endow it with, she was an expert; and she carried it merrily on, leaving him at liberty (one of the great values of the style) to choose as he would how much or how little she meant. He was content to supply mere cues, for although he had little coquetry of his own, he had lately begun to find that the only interesting moments in his life were those during which Alice Adams coquetted with him. Happily, these obliging moments extended themselves to cover all the time he spent with her. However serious she might seem, whatever appeared to be her topic, all was thou-and-I.
He planned for more of it, seeing otherwise a dull evening ahead; and reverted, afterwhile, to a forbidden subject. "About that dance at Miss Lamb's--since your father's so much better----"
She flushed a little. "Now, now!" she chided him. "We agreed not to say any more about that."
"Yes, but since he IS better----"
Alice shook her head. "He won't be better to-morrow. He always has a bad day after a good one especially after such a good one as this is."
"But if this time it should be different," Russell persisted; "wouldn't you be willing to come if he's better by to-morrow evening? Why not wait and decide at the last minute?"
She waved her hands airily. "What a pother!" she cried. "What does it matter whether poor little Alice Adams goes to a dance or not?"
"Well, I thought I'd made it clear that it looks fairly bleak to me if you don't go."
"Oh, yes!" she jeered.
"It's the simple truth," he insisted. "I don't care a great deal about dances these days; and if you aren't going to be there----"
"You could stay away," she suggested. "You wouldn't!"
"Unfortunately, I can't. I'm afraid I'm supposed to be the excuse. Miss Lamb, in her capacity as a friend of my relatives----"
"Oh, she's giving it for YOU! I see! On Mildred's account you mean?"
At that his face showed an increase of colour. "I suppose just on account of my being a cousin of Mildred's and of----"
"Of course! You'll have a beautiful time, too. Henrietta'll see that you have somebody to dance with besides Miss Dowling, poor man!"
"But what I want somebody to see is that I dance with you! And perhaps your father----"
"Wait!" she said, frowning as if she debated whether or not to tell him something of import; then, seeming to decide affirmatively, she asked: "Would you really like to know the truth about it?"
"If it isn't too unflattering."
"It hasn't anything to do with you at all," she said. "Of course I'd like to go with you and to dance with you--though you don't seem to realize that you wouldn't be permitted much time with me."
"Oh, yes, I----"
"Never mind!" she laughed. "Of course you wouldn't. But even if papa should be better to-morrow, I doubt if I'd go. In fact, I know I wouldn't. There's another reason besides papa."
"Yes. The truth is, I don't get on with Henrietta Lamb. As a matter of fact, I dislike her, and of course that means she dislikes me. I should never think of asking her to anything I gave, and I really wonder she asks me to things SHE gives." This was a new inspiration; and Alice, beginning to see her way out of a perplexity, wished that she had thought of it earlier: she should have told him from the first that she and Henrietta had a feud, and consequently exchanged no invitations. Moreover, there was another thing to beset her with little anxieties: she might better not have told him from the first, as she had indeed told him by intimation, that she was the pampered daughter of an indulgent father, presumably able to indulge her; for now she must elaborately keep to the part. Veracity is usually simple; and its opposite, to be successful, should be as simple; but practitioners of the opposite are most often impulsive, like Alice; and, like her, they become enmeshed in elaborations.
"It wouldn't be very nice for me to go to her house," Alice went on, "when I wouldn't want her in mine. I've never admired her. I've always thought she was lacking in some things most people are supposed to be equipped with--for instance, a certain feeling about the death of a father who was always pretty decent to his daughter. Henrietta's father died just, eleven months and twenty-seven days before your cousin's dance, but she couldn't stick out those few last days and make it a year; she was there."
Alice stopped, then laughed ruefully, exclaiming, "But this is dreadful of me!"
"Blackguarding her to you when she's giving a big party for you! Just the way Henrietta would blackguard me to you--heaven knows what she WOULDN'T say if she talked about me to you! It would be fair, of course, but--well, I'd rather she didn't!" And with that, Alice let her pretty hand, in its white glove, rest upon his arm for a moment; and he looked down at it, not unmoved to see it there. "I want to be unfair about just this," she said, letting a troubled laughter tremble through her appealing voice as she spoke. "I won't take advantage of her with anybody, except just--you! I'd a little rather you didn't hear anybody blackguard me, and, if you don't mind--could you promise not to give Henrietta the chance?"
It was charmingly done, with a humorous, faint pathos altogether genuine; and Russell found himself suddenly wanting to shout at her, "Oh, you DEAR!" Nothing else seemed adequate; but he controlled the impulse in favour of something more conservative.
"Imagine any one speaking unkindly of you--not praising you!"
"Who HAS praised me to you?" she asked, quickly.
"I haven't talked about you with any one; but if I did, I know they'd----"
"No, no!" she cried, and went on, again accompanying her words with little tremulous runs of laughter. "You don't understand this town yet. You'll be surprised when you do; we're different. We talk about one another fearfully! Haven't I just proved it, the way I've been going for Henrietta? Of course I didn't say anything really very terrible about her, but that's only because I don't follow that practice the way most of the others do. They don't stop with the worst of the truth they can find: they make UP things--yes, they really do! And, oh, I'd RATHER they didn't make up things about me--to you!"
"What difference would it make if they did?" he inquired, cheerfully. "I'd know they weren't true."
"Even if you did know that, they'd make a difference," she said. "Oh, yes, they would! It's too bad, but we don't like anything quite so well that's had specks on it, even if we've wiped the specks off;--it's just that much spoiled, and some things are all spoiled the instant they're the least bit spoiled. What a man thinks about a girl, for instance. Do you want to have what you think about me spoiled, Mr. Russell?"
"Oh, but that's already far beyond reach," he said, lightly.
"But it can't be!" she protested.
"Because it never can be. Men don't change their minds about one another often: they make it quite an event when they do, and talk about it as if something important had happened. But a girl only has to go down-town with a shoe-string unfastened, and every man who sees her will change his mind about her. Don't you know that's true?"
"Not of myself, I think."
"There!" she cried. "That's precisely what every man in the world would say!"
"So you wouldn't trust me?"
"Well--I'll be awfully worried if you give 'em a chance to tell you that I'm too lazy to tie my shoe-strings!"
He laughed delightedly. "Is that what they do say?" he asked.
"Just about! Whatever they hope will get results." She shook her head wisely. "Oh, yes; we do that here!"
"But I don't mind loose shoe-strings," he said. "Not if they're yours."
"They'll find out what you do mind."
"But suppose," he said, looking at her whimsically; "suppose I wouldn't mind anything--so long as it's yours?"
She curtsied. "Oh, pretty enough! But a girl who's talked about has a weakness that's often a fatal one."
"What is it?"
"It's this: when she's talked about she isn't THERE. That's how they kill her."
"I'm afraid I don't follow you."
"Don't you see? If Henrietta--or Mildred--or any of 'em--or some of their mothers--oh, we ALL do it! Well, if any of 'em told you I didn't tie my shoe-strings, and if I were there, so that you could see me, you'd know it wasn't true. Even if I were sitting so that you couldn't see my feet, and couldn't tell whether the strings were tied or not just then, still you could look at me, and see that I wasn't the sort of girl to neglect my shoe-strings. But that isn't the way it happens: they'll get at you when I'm nowhere around and can't remind you of the sort of girl I really am."
"But you don't do that," he complained. "You don't remind me you don't even tell me--the sort of girl you really are! I'd like to know."
"Let's be serious then," she said, and looked serious enough herself. "Would you honestly like to know?"
"Well, then, you must be careful."
"'Careful?'" The word amused him.
"I mean careful not to get me mixed up," she said. "Careful not to mix up the girl you might hear somebody talking about with the me I honestly try to make you see. If you do get those two mixed up--well, the whole show'll be spoiled!"
"What makes you think so?"
"Because it's----" She checked herself, having begun to speak too impulsively; and she was disturbed, realizing in what tricky stuff she dealt. What had been on her lips to say was, "Because it's happened before!" She changed to, "Because it's so easy to spoil anything--easiest of all to spoil anything that's pleasant."
"That might depend."
"No; it's so. And if you care at all about--about knowing a girl who'd like someone to know her----"
"Just 'someone?' That's disappointing."
"Well--you," she said.
"Tell me how 'careful' you want me to be, then!"
"Well, don't you think it would be nice if you didn't give anybody the chance to talk about me the way--the way I've just been talking about Henrietta Lamb?"
With that they laughed together, and he said, "You may be cutting me off from a great deal of information, you know."
"Yes," Alice admitted. "Somebody might begin to praise me to you, too; so it's dangerous to ask you to change the subject if I ever happen to be mentioned. But after all----" She paused.
"'After all' isn't the end of a thought, is it?"
"Sometimes it is of a girl's thought; I suppose men are neater about their thoughts, and always finish 'em. It isn't the end of the thought I had then, though."
"What is the end of it?"
She looked at him impulsively. "Oh, it's foolish," she said, and she laughed as laughs one who proposes something probably impossible. "But, WOULDN'T it be pleasant if two people could ever just keep themselves TO themselves, so far as they two were concerned? I mean, if they could just manage to be friends without people talking about it, or talking to THEM about it?"
"I suppose that might be rather difficult," he said, more amused than impressed by her idea.
"I don't know: it might be done," she returned, hopefully. "Especially in a town of this size; it's grown so it's quite a huge place these days. People can keep themselves to themselves in a big place better, you know. For instance, nobody knows that you and I are taking a walk together today."
"How absurd, when here we are on exhibition!"
"No; we aren't."
"Not a bit of it!" she laughed. "We were the other day, when you walked home with me, but anybody could tell that had just happened by chance, on account of your overtaking me; people can always see things like that. But we're not on exhibition now. Look where I've led you!"
Amused and a little bewildered, he looked up and down the street, which was one of gaunt-faced apartment-houses, old, sooty, frame boarding-houses, small groceries and drug-stores, laundries and one-room plumbers' shops, with the sign of a clairvoyant here and there.
"You see?" she said. "I've been leading you without your knowing it. Of course that's because you're new to the town, and you give yourself up to the guidance of an old citizen."
"I'm not so sure, Miss Adams. It might mean that I don't care where I follow so long as I follow you."
"Very well," she said. "I'd like you to keep on following me at least long enough for me to show you that there's something nicer ahead of us than this dingy street."
"Is that figurative?" he asked.
"Might be!" she returned, gaily. "There's a pretty little park at the end, but it's very proletarian, and nobody you and I know will be more likely to see us there than on this street."
"What an imagination you have!" he exclaimed. "You turn our proper little walk into a Parisian adventure."
She looked at him in what seemed to be a momentary grave puzzlement. "Perhaps you feel that a Parisian adventure mightn't please your--your relatives?"
"Why, no," he returned. "You seem to think of them oftener than I do."
This appeared to amuse Alice, or at least to please her, for she laughed. "Then I can afford to quit thinking of them, I suppose. It's only that I used to be quite a friend of Mildred's--but there! we needn't to go into that. I've never been a friend of Henrietta Lamb's, though, and I almost wish she weren't taking such pains to be a friend of yours."
"Oh, but she's not. It's all on account of----"
"On Mildred's account," Alice finished this for him, coolly. "Yes, of course."
"It's on account of the two families," he was at pains to explain, a little awkwardly. "It's because I'm a relative of the Palmers, and the Palmers and the Lambs seem to be old family friends."
"Something the Adamses certainly are not," Alice said. "Not with either of 'em; particularly not with the Lambs!" And here, scarce aware of what impelled her, she returned to her former elaborations and colourings. "You see, the differences between Henrietta and me aren't entirely personal: I couldn't go to her house even if I liked her. The Lambs and Adamses don't get on with each other, and we've just about come to the breaking-point as it happens."
"I hope it's nothing to bother you."
"Why? A lot of things bother me."
"I'm sorry they do," he said, and seemed simply to mean it.
She nodded gratefully. "That's nice of you, Mr. Russell. It helps. The break between the Adamses and the Lambs is a pretty bothersome thing. It's been coming on a long time." She sighed deeply, and the sigh was half genuine; this half being for her father, but the other half probably belonged to her instinctive rendering of Juliet Capulet, daughter to a warring house. "I hate it all so!" she added.
"Of course you must."
"I suppose most quarrels between families are on account of business," she said. "That's why they're so sordid. Certainly the Lambs seem a sordid lot to me, though of course I'm biased." And with that she began to sketch a history of the commercial antagonism that had risen between the Adamses and the Lambs.
The sketching was spontaneous and dramatic. Mathematics had no part in it; nor was there accurate definition of Mr. Adams's relation to the institution of Lamb and Company. The point was clouded, in fact; though that might easily be set down to the general haziness of young ladies confronted with the mysteries of trade or commerce. Mr. Adams either had been a vague sort of junior member of the firm, it appeared, or else he should have been made some such thing; at all events, he was an old mainstay of the business; and he, as much as any Lamb, had helped to build up the prosperity of the company. But at last, tired of providing so much intelligence and energy for which other people took profit greater than his own, he had decided to leave the company and found a business entirely for himself. The Lambs were going to be enraged when they learned what was afoot.
Such was the impression, a little misted, wrought by Alice's quick narrative. But there was dolorous fact behind it: Adams had succumbed.
His wife, grave and nervous, rather than triumphant, in success, had told their daughter that the great J. A. would be furious and possibly vindictive. Adams was afraid of him, she said.
"But what for, mama?" Alice asked, since this seemed a turn of affairs out of reason. "What in the world has Mr. Lamb to do with papa's leaving the company to set up for himself? What right has he to be angry about it? If he's such a friend as he claims to be, I should think he'd be glad--that is, if the glue factory turns out well. What will he be angry for?"
Mrs. Adams gave Alice an uneasy glance, hesitated, and then explained that a resignation from Lamb's had always been looked upon, especially by "that old man," as treachery. You were supposed to die in the service, she said bitterly, and her daughter, a little mystified, accepted this explanation. Adams had not spoken to her of his surrender; he seemed not inclined to speak to her at all, or to any one.
Alice was not serious too long, and she began to laugh as she came to the end of her decorative sketch. "After all, the whole thing is perfectly ridiculous," she said. "In fact, it's FUNNY! That's on account of what papa's going to throw over the Lamb business FOR! To save your life you couldn't imagine what he's going to do!"
"I won't try, then," Russell assented.
"It takes all the romance out of ME," she laughed. "You'll never go for a Parisian walk with me again, after I tell you what I'll be heiress to." They had come to the entrance of the little park; and, as Alice had said, it was a pretty place, especially on a day so radiant. Trees of the oldest forest stood there, hale and serene over the trim, bright grass; and the proletarians had not come from their factories at this hour; only a few mothers and their babies were to be seen, here and there, in the shade. "I think I'll postpone telling you about it till we get nearly home again," Alice said, as they began to saunter down one of the gravelled paths. "There's a bench beside a spring farther on; we can sit there and talk about a lot of things--things not so sticky as my dowry's going to be."
"'Sticky?'" he echoed. "What in the world----" She laughed despairingly.
"A glue factory!"
Then he laughed, too, as much from friendliness as from amusement; and she remembered to tell him that the project of a glue factory was still "an Adams secret." It would be known soon, however, she added; and the whole Lamb connection would probably begin saying all sorts of things, heaven knew what!
Thus Alice built her walls of flimsy, working always gaily, or with at least the air of gaiety; and even as she rattled on, there was somewhere in her mind a constant little wonder. Everything she said seemed to be necessary to support something else she had said. How had it happened? She found herself telling him that since her father had decided on making so great a change in his ways, she and her mother hoped at last to persuade him to give up that "foolish little house" he had been so obstinate about; and she checked herself abruptly on this declivity just as she was about to slide into a remark concerning her own preference for a "country place." Discretion caught her in time; and something else, in company with discretion, caught her, for she stopped short in her talk and blushed.
They had taken possession of the bench beside the spring, by this time; and Russell, his elbow on the back of the bench and his chin on his hand, the better to look at her, had no guess at the cause of the blush, but was content to find it lovely. At his first sight of Alice she had seemed pretty in the particular way of being pretty that he happened to like best; and, with every moment he spent with her, this prettiness appeared to increase. He felt that he could not look at her enough: his gaze followed the fluttering of the graceful hands in almost continual gesture as she talked; then lifted happily to the vivacious face again. She charmed him.
After her abrupt pause, she sighed, then looked at him with her eyebrows lifted in a comedy appeal. "You haven't said you wouldn't give Henrietta the chance," she said, in the softest voice that can still have a little laugh running in it.
He was puzzled. "Give Henrietta the chance?"
"YOU know! You'll let me keep on being unfair, won't you? Not give the other girls a chance to get even?"
He promised, heartily.