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It must be admitted that Diane Eveleth found her entry into the Land of Promise rather disappointing. To outward things she paid comparatively little heed. The general aspect of New York was what she had seen in pictures and expected. That habits and customs should be strange to her she took as a matter of course; and she was too eager for a welcome to be critical. As a Frenchwoman, she was neither curious nor analytical regarding that which lay outside her immediate sphere of interest, and she instituted no comparisons between Broadway and the boulevards, or any of the tall buildings and Notre Dame. It may be confessed that her thoughts went scarcely beyond the human element, with its possible bearing on her fortunes.
In this respect she made the discovery that Mrs. Eveleth was not to be taken as an authority. She had given Diane to understand that the return of Naomi de Ruyter to New York would be a matter of civic interest, "especially among the old families," and that they would scarcely have landed before finding themselves amid people whom she knew. But forty years had made a difference, and Mrs. Eveleth recognized no familiar faces in the crowd congregated on the dock. When it became further evident that not only was Naomi de Ruyter forgotten in the city of her birth, but that the very landmarks she remembered had been swept away, there was a moment of disillusion, not free from tears.
To Diane the discovery meant only that, more than she had supposed, she would have to depend upon herself. This, to her, was the appalling fact that dwarfed all other considerations. To be alone, while the crowds surged hurriedly by her, was one thing; to be obliged to press in among them and make room for herself was another. As she walked aimlessly about the streets during the few days following her arrival she had the forlorn conviction that in these serried ranks there could be no place for one so insignificant as she. The knowledge that she must make such a place, or go without food and shelter, only served to paralyze her energies and reduce her to a state of nerveless inefficiency.
She had gone forth one day with the letters of introduction she hoped would help her, only to find that none of the persons to whom they were addressed had returned to town for the winter. Tired and discouraged, she was endeavoring on her return to cheer Mrs. Eveleth with such bits of forced humor as she could squeeze out of the commonplace happenings of the day, when cards were brought in, bearing the unknown name of Mrs. Wappinger.
That in this huge, overwhelming town any one could desire to make their acquaintance was in itself a surprise; but in the interview that followed Diane felt as though she had been caught up in a whirlwind and carried away. Mrs. Wappinger's autocratic breeziness was so novel in character that she had no more thought of resisting it than of resisting a summer storm. She could only let it blow over her and bear her whither it listed. In the end she felt like some wayfarer in the Arabian Nights, who has been wafted by kindly jinn across unknown miles of space, and set down again many leagues farther on in his career.
Never in her life did Diane receive in the same amount of time so much personal information as Mrs. Wappinger conveyed in the thirty minutes her visit lasted. She began by explaining that she was a friend of James van Tromp's--a very great friend. In fact, her husband had been at one time a partner in the Van Tromp banking-house; but it was an old business, and what they call conservative, while Mr. Wappinger was from the West. The West was a long way ahead of New York, though Mrs. Wappinger had "lived East" so long that she had dropped into walking pace like the rest. She traced her rise from a comparatively obscure position in Indiana to her present eminence, and gave details as to Mr. Wappinger's courtship and the number of children she had lost. Left now with one, she had spent a good deal of money on him, and was happy to say that he showed it. While she preferred not to name names, she made no secret of the fact that Carli was in love; though for her own part a feeling of wounded pride induced her to hope that he would never enter a family where he wasn't wanted. The transition of topic having thus become easy, the invitation to tea was given, and its acceptance taken as a matter of course.
"It'll only be a tay antime," she declared, in answer to Diane's faint protests, "so you needn't be afraid to come; and as I never do things by halves, I shall send one of my automobiles for the old lady and you at a little after four to-morrow." With these words and a hearty shake of the hand, she bustled away as suddenly as she had come, leaving Diane with a bewildering sense of having beheld an apparition.
* * * * *
It was not less surprising to Diane to find herself, on the following afternoon, face to face with Derek Pruyn. Though she had expected, in so far as she thought of him at all, that chance would one day throw them together, she had not supposed that the event would occur so soon. The lack of preparation, the change in her fortunes, and the necessity to explain, combined to bring about one of those rare moments in which she found herself at a loss.
On his side, Pruyn had come to the house with a very special purpose. In spite of the stoutness of his protest when young Wappinger's name was coupled with his child's, he was not without some inward misgivings, which he resolved to allay once and for all. He would dispel them by seeing with his own eyes that they had no force, while he would convict Miss Lucilla of groundless alarm by ocular demonstration. It would be enough, he was sure, to watch the young people together to prove beyond cavil that Dorothea was aware of the gulf between the son of Mrs. Wappinger, worthy woman though she might be, and a daughter of the Pruyns. He had, therefore, astonished every one not only by accepting the invitation himself, but by insisting that Miss Lucilla should do the same, forcing her thus to become a witness to the vindication of his wisdom.
Arrived on the spot, however, it vexed him to find that instead of being a mere spectator, permitted to take notes at his ease, he was passed from lady to lady--Mrs. Wappinger, Miss Lucilla, Mrs. Eveleth, in turn--only to find himself settled down at last with a strange young woman in widow's weeds, in a dim corner of the drawing-room. The meeting was the more abrupt owing to the circumstance that Diane, unaware of his arrival, had just emerged from the adjoining ball-room, which was decorated for a dance. Mrs. Wappinger, coming forward at that minute with a cup of tea for her, pronounced their names with hurried indistinctness, and left them together.
With her quick eye for small social indications, Diane saw that, owing to the dimness of the room and the nature of her dress, he did not know her, while he resented the necessity for talking to one person, when he was obviously looking about for another. With her tea-cup in her hand she slipped into a chair, so that he had no choice but to sit down beside her.
He was not what is called a lady's man, and in the most fluent of moods his supply of easy conversation was small. On the present occasion he felt the urgency of speech without inspiration to meet the need. With a furtive flutter of the eyelids, while she sipped her tea, she took in the salient changes the last five years had produced in him, noting in particular that though slightly older he had improved in looks, and that the dark-red carnation still held its place in his buttonhole.
"Very unseasonable weather for the time of year," he managed to stammer, at last.
"Is it? I hadn't noticed."
His manner took on a shade of dignity still more severe, as he wondered whether this reply was a snub or a mere ineptitude.
"You don't worry about such trifles as the weather," he struggled on.
"May I ask how you escape the necessity?"
"By having more pressing things to think about." With the finality of this reply the brief conversation dropped, though the perception on Derek's part that it was not from her inability to carry it on stirred him to an unusual feeling of pique. Most of the women he met were ready to entertain him without putting him to any exertion whatever. They even went so far as to manifest a disposition to be agreeable, before which he often found it necessary to retire. Without being fatuous on the point, he could not be unaware of the general conviction that a wealthy widower, who could still call himself young, must be in want of a wife; and as long as he was unconscious of the need himself, he judged it wise to be as little as possible in feminine society. On the rare occasions when he ventured therein he was not able to complain of a lack of welcome; nor could he remember an instance in which his hesitating, somewhat scornful, advances had not been cordially met, until to-day. The immediate effect was to cause him to look at Diane with a closer, if somewhat haughty, attention, their eyes meeting as he did so. Her voice, with its blending of French and Irish elements, had already made its appeal to his memory, so that the minute was one in which the presentiment of recognition came before the recognition itself. In his surprise he half arose from his chair, resuming his seat as he exclaimed:
"It's Mademoiselle de la Ferronaise!"
His astonished tone and awe-struck manner called to Diane's lips a little smile.
"It used to be," she said, trying to speak naturally; "it's Mrs. Eveleth now."
"Yes," he responded, with the absent air of a man getting his wits together; "I remember; that was the name."
"You knew, then, that I'd been married?"
"Yes; but I didn't know--"
His glance at her dress finished the sentence, and she hastened to reply.
"No; of course not. My husband died at the beginning of last summer--six months ago. I hoped some one would have told you before we met. But we have not many common acquaintances, have we?"
"I hope we may have more now--if you're making a visit to New York."
"I'm making more than a visit; I expect to stay."
"Oh! Do you think you'll like that?"
"It isn't a question of liking; it's a question of living. I may as well tell you at once that since my husband's death I have my own bread to earn."
To no Frenchwoman of her rank in life could this statement have been an easy one, but by making it with a certain quiet outspokenness she hoped to cover up her foolish sense of shame. The moment was not made less difficult for her by the astonishment, mingled with embarrassment, with which he took her remark.
"You!" he cried. "You!"
"It isn't anything very unusual, is it?" she smiled.
"I'm not the first person in the world to make the attempt."
"And may I ask if you're succeeding?"
"I haven't begun yet. I only arrived a few days ago.
"Oh, I see. You've come here--"
"In the hope of finding employment--just like the rest of the disinherited of the earth. I hope to give French lessons, and--"
"There's always an opening to any one who can," he interrupted, encouragingly. "I'm not without influence in one or two good schools that my daughter has attended--"
"Is that your daughter?" she asked, glad to escape from her subject, now that it was stated plainly--"the very pretty girl in red?"
The question gave Pruyn the excuse he wanted or looking about him.
"I believe she's in red--but I don't see her."
He searched the dimly lighted room, where Mrs. Wappinger sat, silent and satisfied, behind her tea-table, while Mrs. Eveleth was conversing with Lucilla on Knickerbocker genealogy; but neither of the young people was to be seen. His look of anxiety did not escape Diane, who responded to it with her usual straightforward promptness.
"I fancy she's still in the ball-room with young Mr. Wappinger," she explained. "We were all there a few minutes ago, looking at the decorations for the dance Mrs. Wappinger is giving to-night. It was before you came."
The shadow that shot across his face was a thing to be noticed only by one accustomed to read the most trivial signs in the social sky. In an instant she took in the main points of the case as accurately as if Mrs. Wappinger had named those names over which she had shown such laudable reserve.
"Wouldn't you like to see them?--the decorations? They're very pretty. It's just in here."
She rose as she spoke, with a gesture of the hand toward the ball-room. He followed, because she led the way, but without seeing the meaning of the move until they were actually on the polished dancing-floor. Owing to the darkness of the December afternoon, the large empty room was lit up as brilliantly as at night. For a minute they stood on the threshold, looking absently at the palms grouped in the corners and the garlands festooning the walls. It was only then that Pruyn saw the motive of her coming; and for an instant he forgot his worry in the perception that this woman had divined his thought.
"There's no one here," he said, at last, in a tone of relief, which betrayed him once more.
"No," Diane replied, half turning round. "Perhaps we had better go back to the drawing-room. My mother-in-law will be getting tired."
"Wait," he said, imperiously. "Isn't that--?"
He was again conscious of having admitted her into a sort of confidence; but he had scarcely time to regret it before there was a flash of red between the tall potted shrubs that screened an alcove. Dorothea sauntered into view, with Carli Wappinger, bending slightly over her, walking by her side. They were too deep in conversation to know themselves observed; but the earnestness with which the young man spoke became evident when he put out his hand and laid it gently on the muff Dorothea held before her. In the act, from which Dorothea did not draw back, there was nothing beyond the admission of a certain degree of intimacy; but Diane felt, through all her highly trained subconscious sensibilities, the shock it produced in Derek's mind.
The situation belonged too entirely to the classic repertoire of life to present any difficulties to a woman who knew that catastrophe is often averted by keeping close to the commonplace.
"Isn't she pretty!" she exclaimed, in a tone of polite enthusiasm. "Mayn't I speak to her? I haven't met her yet."
Before she had finished the concluding words, or Wappinger had withdrawn his hand from Dorothea's muff, she had glided across the floor, and disturbed the young people from their absorption in each other.
"Mr. Wappinger," Derek heard her say, as he approached, "I want you to introduce me to Miss Pruyn. I'm Mrs. Eveleth, Miss Pruyn," she continued, without waiting for Carli's intermediary offices. "I couldn't go away without saying just a word to you."
If she supposed she was coming to Dorothea's rescue in a moment which might be one of embarrassment, she found herself mistaken. No experienced dowager could have been more amiable to a nice governess than Dorothea Pruyn to a lady in reduced circumstances. A facility in adapting herself to other people's manners enabled Diane to accept her cue; and presently all four were on their way back to the drawing-room, where farewells were spoken.
While Miss Lucilla was making Mrs. Eveleth renew her promise to come and see her, and "bring young Mrs. Eveleth with her," Pruyn found an opportunity for another word with Diane.
"You must understand," he said, in a tone which he tried to make one of explanation for her enlightenment rather than of apology for Dorothea--"you must understand that girls have a good deal of liberty in America."
"They have everywhere," she rejoined. "Even in France, where they've been kept so strictly, the old law of Purdah has been more or less relaxed."
"If you take up teaching as a work, you'll naturally be thrown among our young people; and you may see things to which it will be difficult to adjust your mind."
"I've had a good deal of practice in adjusting my mind. It often seems to me as movable as if it was on a pivot. I'm rather ashamed of it."
"You needn't be. On the contrary, you'll find it especially useful in this country, where foreigners are often eager to convert us to their customs, while we are tenacious of our own."
"Thank you," she said, in the spirit of meekness his didactic attitude seemed to require. "I'll try to remember that, and not fall into the mistake."
"And if I can do anything for you," he went on, awkwardly, "in the way of schools--or--or--recommendations--you know I promised long ago that if you ever needed any one--"
"Thank you once more," she said, hurriedly, before he had time to go on. "I know I can count on your help; and if I require a good word, I shall not hesitate to ask you for it."
As she slipped away, Pruyn was left with the uncomfortable sense of having appeared to a disadvantage. He had been stilted and patronizing, when he had meant to be cordial and kind. On the other hand, he resented the quickness with which she had read his thoughts, as well as her perception that he had ground for uneasiness regarding his child. That she should penetrate the inner shrine of reserve he kept closed against those who stood nearest to him in the world gave him a sense of injury; and he turned this feeling to account during the next few hours in trying to deaden the echo of the French voice with the Irish intonation that haunted his inner hearing, as well as to banish the memory of the plaintive smile in which, as he feared, meekness was blended with amusement at his expense.
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