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She saw him at the end of the terrace, peering through the moonlight, down the driveway. She did not go forward to meet him, but waited until he turned in her direction. She knew that at a distance, and especially at night, her own figure might seem not unlike Dorothea's, and calculated on that effect. She divined his start of astonishment on catching sight of her by the abrupt jerk of his head and the way in which he half threw up his hands. When he began coming forward, it was with a slow, interrogative movement, as though he were asking how she had come there, in disregard of their preconcerted signals. Some exclamation was already on his lips, when, by the light streaming from the windows of the hotel, he saw his mistake, and paused.
"Good-evening, Mr. Wappinger. What an extraordinary meeting!"
Priding himself on his worldly wisdom, Carli Wappinger never allowed himself to be caught by any trick of feminine finesse. On the present occasion he stood stock-still and silent, eying Diane as a bird eyes a trap before hopping into it. Though he knew her as a friend to Dorothea and himself, he knew her as a subtle friend, hiding under her sympathy many of those kindly devices which experience keeps to foil the young. He did not complain of her for that, finding it legitimate that she should avail herself of what he called "the stock in trade of a chaperon"; while it had often amused him to outwit her. But now it was a matter of Greek meeting Greek, and she must be given to understand that he was the stronger. How she had discovered their plans he did not stop to think; but he must make it plain to her that he was not duped into ascribing her presence at Lakefield to an accident.
"Is it an extraordinary meeting, Mrs. Eveleth--for you?"
"No, not for me," Diane replied, readily. "I only thought it might be--for you."
"Then I'll admit that it is."
"But I hoped, too", she continued, moving a little nearer to him, "that my coming might be in the way of a--pleasant surprise."
"Oh yes; certainly; very pleasant--very pleasant indeed."
"I'm a good deal relieved to hear you say that, Mr. Wappinger," she said, "because there was a possibility that you mightn't like it."
"Whether I like it or not", he said, warily, "will depend upon your motive."
"I don't think you'll find any fault with that. I came because I thought I could help Dorothea. I hoped I might be able indirectly to help you, too."
"What makes you think we're in need of help?"
She came near enough for him to see her smile.
"Because, until after you're married, you'll both be in an embarrassing position."
"There are worse things in the world than that."
"Not many. I can hardly imagine two people like Dorothea and yourself more awkwardly placed than you'll be from the minute she arrives. Remember, you're not Strephon and Chloe in a pastoral; you're two most sophisticated members of a most sophisticated set, who scarcely know how to walk about excepting according to the rules of a code of etiquette. Neither of you was made for escapade, and I'm sure you don't like it any more than she will."
"And so you've come to relieve the situation?"
"And for anything else?"
"What else should I come for?"
"You might have come for--two or three things."
"One of which would be to interfere with your plans. Well, I haven't. If I had wanted to do that, I could have done it long ago. I'll tell you outright that Mr. Pruyn requested me more than once to put a stop to your acquaintance with Dorothea, and I refused. I refused at first because I didn't think it wise, and afterward because I liked you. I kept on refusing because I came to see in the end that you were born to marry Dorothea, and that no one else would ever suit her. I'm here this evening because I believe that still, and I want you to be happy."
"Did you think your coming would make us happier?"
"In the long run--yes. You may not see it to-night, but you will to-morrow. You can't imagine that I would run the risk of forcing myself upon you unless I was sure there was something I could do."
"Well, what is it?"
"It isn't much, and yet it's a great deal. When you and Dorothea are married I want to go with you. I want to be there. I don't want her to go friendless. When she goes back to town to-morrow, and everything has to be explained, I want her to be able to say that I was beside her. I know that mine is not a name to carry much authority, but I'm a woman--a woman who has head a position of responsibility, almost a mother's place, toward Dorothea herself--and there are moments in life when any kind of woman is better than none at all. You may not see it just now, but--"
"Oh yes, I do," he said, slowly; "only when you've gone in for an unconventional thing you might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb."
"I don't agree with you. Nothing more than the unconventional requires a nicely discriminating taste; and it's no use being more violent than you can help. You and Dorothea are making a match that sets the rules of your world at defiance, but you may as well avail yourselves of any little mitigation that comes to hand. Life is going to be hard enough for you as it is--"
"Oh, I don't know about that. They can't do anything to us--"
"Not to you, perhaps, because you're a man. But they can to Dorothea, and they will. This is just one of those queer situations in which you'll get the credit and she'll get the blame. You can always make a poem on Young Lochinvar, when it's less easy to approve of the damsel who springs to the pillion behind him. I don't pretend to account for this idiosyncrasy of human nature; I merely state it as a fact. Society will forget that you ran away with Dorothea, but it will never forget that she ran away with you."
"But I don't see that that need distress you. You wouldn't care; and as for Dorothea, she's got the pluck of a soldier. Depend upon it, she sees the whole situation already, and is prepared to face it. That's part of the difference between a woman and a man. You can go into a thing like this without looking ahead, because you know that, whatever the opposition, you can keep it down. A woman is too weak for that. She must count every danger beforehand. Dorothea has done that. This isn't going to be a leap in the dark for her; it wouldn't be for any girl of her intelligence and social instincts. She knows what she's doing, and she's doing it for you. She has made her sacrifice, and made it willingly, before she consented to take this step at all. She crossed her Rubicon without saying anything to you about it, and you needn't consider her any more."
"Well, I like that!" he said, in an injured tone, thrusting his hands into his overcoat pockets and beginning to move along the terrace.
"Yes; I thought you would," she agreed, walking by his side. "It shows what she's willing to give up for you. It shows even more than that. It shows how she loves you. Dorothea is not a girl who holds society lightly, and if she renounces it--"
"Oh, but, come now, Mrs. Eveleth! It isn't going to be as bad as that."
"It isn't going to be as bad as anything. Bad is not the word. When I speak of renouncing society, of course I only mean renouncing--the best. There will always be some people to--Well, you remember Dumas' comparison of the sixpenny and the six-shilling peaches. If you can't have the latter, you will be able to afford the former."
They walked on in silence to the end of the terrace, and it was not till after they had turned that the young man spoke again.
"I believe you're overdrawing it," he said, with some decision.
"Isn't it you who are overdrawing what I mean? I'm simply trying to say that while things won't be very pleasant for you, they won't be worse than you can easily bear--especially when Dorothea has steeled herself to them in advance. I repeat, too, that, poor as I am, my presence will be taken as safeguarding some of the proprieties people expect one to observe. I speak of my presence, but, after all, you may have provided yourself with some one better. I didn't think of that."
"No; there's no one."
"Then Dorothea is coming all alone?"
"Reggie Bradford is bringing her--if you want to know."
"By the ten-five train?"
"No; in his motor."
"How very convenient these motors are! And has she no companion but Mr. Bradford?"
"She hasn't any companion at all. She doesn't even know that the man driving the machine is Reggie. He thought that, going very slowly, as he promised to do, to avoid all chances of accident, they might arrive by eleven."
"And Dorothea was to be alone here with you two men?"
"Well, you see, we are to be married as soon as she arrives. We go straight from here to the clergyman's house; he's waiting for us; in ten minutes' time I shall be her husband; and then everything will be all right."
"How cleverly you've arranged it!"
"I had to make my arrangements pretty close," Carli explained, in a tone of pride. "There were a good many difficulties to overcome, but I did it. Dorothea has had no trouble at all, and will have none; that is", he added, with a sigh, at the recollection of what Diane had just said, "as far as getting down here is concerned. She went to tea at the Belfords', and on coming out she found a motor waiting for her at the door. She walked into it without asking questions and sat down; and that's all. She doesn't know whose motor it is, or where she's going, except that she is being taken toward me. I provided her with everything. She's got nothing to do but sit still till she gets here, when she will be married almost before she knows she has arrived."
"It's certainly most romantic; and if one has to do such things, they couldn't be done better."
"Well, one has to--sometimes."
"Yes; so I see."
"What do you suppose Derek Pruyn will say?" he asked, after a brief pause.
"I haven't the least idea what he'll say--in these circumstances. Of course, I always knew--But there's no use speaking about that now."
"Speaking about what now?" he asked, sharply.
"Oh, nothing! One must be with Mr. Pruyn constantly--live in his house--to understand him. You can always count on his being kinder than he seems at first, or on the surface. During the last months I was with Dorothea I could see plainly enough that in the end she would get her way."
He paused abruptly in his walk and confronted her.
"Then, for Heaven's sake," he demanded, "why didn't you tell me that before?"
"You never asked me. I couldn't go around shouting it out for nothing. Besides, it was only my opinion, in which, after all, I am quite likely to be wrong."
"But quite likely to be right."
"I suppose so. Naturally, I should have told you," she went on, humbly, "if I had thought that you wanted to hear; but how was I to know that? One doesn't talk about other people's private affairs unless one is invited. In any case, it doesn't matter now. A man who can cut the Gordian knot as you can doesn't care to hear that there's a way by which it might have been unravelled."
"I'm not so sure about that. There are cases in which the longest way round is the shortest way home, and if--"
"But I didn't suppose you would consider so cautious a route as that."
"I shouldn't for myself; but, you see, I have to think of Dorothea."
"But I've already told you that there's no occasion for that. If Dorothea has made her choice with her eyes open--"
"Good Lord!" he cried, impatiently, "you talk as if all I wanted was to get her into a noose."
"Well, isn't it? Perhaps I'm stupid, but I thought the whole reason for bringing her down here was because--"
"Because we thought there was no other way," he finished, in a tone of exasperation. "But if there is another way--"
"I'm not at all sure that there is," she retorted, with a touch of asperity, to keep pace with his rising emotion. "Don't begin to think that because I said Mr. Pruyn was coming round to it he's obliged to do it."
"No; but if there was a chance--"
"Of course there's always that. But what then?"
"Well, then--there'd be no particular reason for rushing the thing to-night. But I don't know, though," he continued, with a sudden change of tone; "we're here, and perhaps we might as well go through with it. All I want is her happiness; and since she can't be happy in her own home--"
Diane laughed softly, and he stopped once more in his walk to look down at her.
"There's one thing you ought to understand about Dorothea," she said, with a little air of amusement. "You know how fond I am of her, and that I wouldn't criticise her for the world. Now, don't be offended, and don't glower at me like that, for I must say it. Dorothea isn't unhappy because she hasn't a good home, or because she has a stern father, or because she can't marry you. She's unhappy because she isn't getting her own way, and for no other reason whatever. She's the dearest, sweetest, most loving little girl on earth, but she has a will like steel. Whatever she sets her mind on, great or small, that she is determined to do, and when it's done she doesn't care any more about it. When I was with her, I never crossed her in anything. I let her do what she was bent on doing, right up to the point where she saw, herself, that she didn't want to. If her father would only treat her like that, she--"
"She wouldn't be coming down here to-night. That's what you mean, isn't it?"
"Oh no! How can you say so?"
"I can say so, because I think there's a good deal of truth in it. I'm not without some glimmering of insight into her character myself; and to be quite frank, it was seeing her set her pretty white teeth and clinch her fist and stamp her foot, to get her way over nothing at all, that first made me fall in love with her."
"Then I will say no more. I see you know her as well as I do."
"Yes, I know her," he said, confidently, marching on again. "I don't think there are many corners of her character into which I haven't seen."
Several remarks arose to Diane's lips, but she repressed them, and they continued their walk in silence. During the three or four turns they took, side by side, up and down the terrace, she divined the course his thought was taking, and her speech was with his inner rather than his outer man. Suddenly he stopped, with one of his jerky pauses, and when he spoke his voice took on a boyish quality that made it appealing.
"Mrs. Eveleth, do you know what I think? I think that you and I have come down here on what looks like a fool's business. If it wasn't for leaving Dorothea here with Reggie Bradford, I'd put you in the motor and we'd travel back to New York as fast as tires could take us."
"Upon my word," she confessed, "you make me almost wish we could do it. But, of course, it isn't possible. There must be some one here to meet Dorothea--and explain. I could do that if you liked."
"Oh no!" he exclaimed, with a new change of mind; "I should look as if I were showing the white feather."
"On the contrary, you'd look as if you knew what it was to be a man."
"And Derek Pruyn might hold out against me in the end."
"It would be time enough, even then, to do--what you meant to do to-night; and I'd help you."
He hesitated still, till another thought occurred to him.
"Oh, what's the good? It's too late to rectify anything now. They must know at her house by this time that she has gone to meet me."
"No; I've anticipated that. They understand that she's here, at the Bay Tree Inn--with me."
He moved away from her with a quick backward leap.
"With you? You've done that? You've seen them? You've told them? You're a wonderful woman, Mrs. Eveleth. I see now what you've been up to," he added, with a shrill, nervous laugh. "You've been turning me round your little finger, and I'm hanged if you haven't done it very cleverly. You've failed in this one point, however, that you haven't done it quite cleverly enough. I stay."
"Very well; but you won't refuse to let me stay too--for the reasons that I gave you at first."
"You're wily, I must say! If you can't get best, you're willing to take second best. Isn't that it?"
"That's it exactly. I did hope that no marriage would take place between Dorothea and you to-night. I hoped that, before you came to that, you'd realize to what a degree you're taking advantage of her wilfulness and her love for you--for it's a mixture of both--to put her in a false position, from which she'll never wholly free herself as long as she lives. I hoped you'd be man enough to go back and win her from her father by open means. Failing all that, I hoped you'd let me blunt the keenest edge of your folly by giving to your marriage the countenance which my presence at it could bestow. Was there any harm in that? Was there anything for you to resent, or for me to be ashamed of? Is a good thing less good because I wish it, or a wise thought less wise because I think it? You talk of turning you round my little finger, as though it was something at which you had to take offence. My dear boy, that only shows how young you are. Every good woman, if I may call myself one, turns the men she cares for round her little finger, and it's the men who are worth most in life who submit most readily to the process. When you're a little older, when, perhaps, you have children of your own, you'll understand better what I've done for you to-night; and you won't use toward my memory the tone of semi-jocular disdain that has entered into nearly every word you've addressed to me this evening. Now, if you'll excuse me," she added, wearily, "I think I'll go in. I'm very tired, and I'll rest till Dorothea comes. When she arrives you must bring her to me directly; and she must stay with me till I take her to--the wedding. My room is the first door on the left of the main entrance."
She was half-way across the terrace when he called out to her, the boyish tremor in his voice more accentuated than before.
"Wait a minute. There's lots of time." She came back a few paces toward him. "Shouldn't I look very grotesque if I hooked it?"
"Not half so grotesque as you'll look to-morrow morning when you have to go back to town and tell every one you meet that you and Dorothea Pruyn have run away and got married. That's when you'll look foolish and cut a pathetic figure. As things are it could be kept between two or three of us; but if you go on, you'll be in all the papers by to-morrow afternoon. Of course your mother knows?"
"I suppose so; I wired when I thought it was too late for her to spread the alarm. But I don't mind about her. She'll be only too glad to have me back at any price."
The light from the hotel was full on his face, and she could almost have kissed him for his doleful, crestfallen expression.
There was no heroism in the way in which he said the words, and the spring disappeared from his walk as he went back to the hotel to pay his bill and order out his "machine." Diane smiled to herself to see how his head drooped and his shoulders sagged, but her eyes blinked at the mist that rose before them. After all, he was little more than a schoolboy, and he and Dorothea were but two children at play.
She did not continue her own way into the hotel. Now that the first part of her purpose in coming had been accomplished, she was free to remember what the comedy with Carli had almost excluded from her mind--that within an hour or two Derek Pruyn and she might be face to face again. The thought made her heart leap as with sudden fright. Fortunately, Dorothea would have arrived by that time, and would stand between them, otherwise the mere possibility would have been overwhelming.
Yes; Dorothea ought to be coming soon. She looked at her watch, and found it was nearly eleven. On the stillness of the night there came a sound, a clatter, a whiz, a throb--the unmistakable noise of an automobile. She hurried to the end of the terrace; but it was not Dorothea coming; it was Carli going away. She breathed more freely, standing to see him pass, and knowing that he was really gone.
A minute later he went by in the moonlight, waving his hand to her as she stood silhouetted on the terrace above him. Then, to her annoyance, the motor stopped and he leaped out. For a moment her heart stood still in alarm, for if he was coming back the work might be to do all over again. He did come back, scrambling up the steps till he was at her feet. But it was only to seize her hand and kiss it hastily, after which, without a word, he was off again. Then once more the huge machine clattered and whizzed and throbbed, rattling its way down the drive and on into the dark, till all sound died away in the solemn winter silence.
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