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If the secret spring worked by James van Tromp had been an active agency in bringing Diane and Derek Pruyn once more together, as well as in creating the intimacy that sprang up during the next two months between Miss Lucilla and the elder Mrs. Eveleth, it had certainly nothing to do with the South American complications in the business of Van Tromp & Co., which made Pruyn's departure for Rio de Janeiro a possibility of the near future. He had long foreseen that he would be obliged to make the journey sooner or later, but that he should have to do it just now was particularly inconvenient. There was but one aspect in which the expedition might prove a blessing in disguise--he might take Dorothea with him.
During the six or eight weeks following the afternoon at Mrs. Wappinger's he had bestowed upon Dorothea no small measure of attention, obtaining much the same result as a mastiff might gain from his investigation of the ways of a bird of paradise. He informed himself as to her diversions and her dancing-classes, making the discovery that what other girls' mothers did for them, Dorothea was doing for herself. As far as he could see, she was bringing herself up with the aid of a chosen band of eligible, well-conducted young men, varying in age from nineteen to twenty-two, whom she was training as a sort of body-guard against the day of her "coming out." On the occasions when he had opportunities for observation he noted the skill with which she managed them, as well as the chivalry with which they treated her; and yet there was in the situation an indefinable element that displeased him. It was something of a shock to learn that the flower he thought he was cultivating in secluded sweetness under glass had taken root of its own accord in the midst of young New York's great, gay parterre. Aware of the possibilities of this soil to produce over-stimulated growth, he could think of nothing better than to pluck it up and, temporarily at least, transplant it elsewhere. Having come to the decision overnight, he made the proposition when they met at breakfast in the morning.
A prettier object than Miss Dorothea Pruyn, at the head of her father's table, it would have been difficult to find in the whole range of "dainty rogues in porcelain." From the top of her bronze-colored hair to the tip of her bronze-colored shoes she was as complete as taste could make her. The flash of her eyes as she lifted them suddenly, and as suddenly dropped them, over her task among the coffee-cups was like that of summer waters; while the rapture of youth was in her smile, and a becoming school-girl shyness in her fleeting blushes. In the floral language of American society, she was "not a bud"; she was only that small, hard, green thing out of which the bud is to unfold itself, but which does not lack a beauty of promise specially its own. If any criticism could be passed upon her, it was that which her father made--that there was danger of the promise being anticipated by a rather premature fulfilment, and the flower that needed time forced into a hurried, hot-house bloom.
"What! And leave my friends!" she exclaimed, when Derek, with some hesitation, had asked her how she would like the journey.
"They would keep."
"That's just what they wouldn't do. When I came back I should find them in all sorts of new combinations, out of which I should be dropped. You've got to be on the spot to keep in your set, otherwise you're lost."
"Why should you be in a set? Why shouldn't you be independent?"
"That just shows how much you understand, father," she said, pityingly. "A girl who isn't in a set is as much an outsider as a Hindoo who isn't in a caste. I must know people; and I must know the right people; and I must know no one but the right people. It's perfectly simple."
"Oh, perfectly. I can't help wondering, though, how you recognize the right people when you see them."
"By instinct. You couldn't make a mistake about that, any more than one pigeon could make a mistake about another, or take it for a crow."
"And is young Wappinger one of the right people?"
It was with an effort that Derek made up his mind to broach this subject, but Dorothea's self-possession was not disturbed.
"Certainly," she replied, briefly, with perhaps a slight accentuation of her maiden dignity.
"I'm rather surprised at that."
"Yes; you should be," she conceded; "but I couldn't make you understand it, any more than you could make me understand banking."
"I'm not convinced of the impossibility of either," he objected, knocking the top off an egg. "Suppose you were to try."
Dorothea shook her head.
"It wouldn't be of any use. The fact is, I really don't understand it myself. What's more, I don't suppose anybody else does. Carli Wappinger belongs to the right people because the right people say he does; and there is no more to be said about it."
"I should think that Mrs. Wappinger might be a--drawback."
"Not if the right people don't think so; and they don't. They've taken her up, and they ask her everywhere; but they couldn't tell you why they do it, any more than birds could tell you why they migrate. As a matter of fact, they don't care. They just do it, and let it be."
"That sort of election and predestination may be very convenient for Mrs. Wappinger, but I should think you might have reasons for not caring to indorse it."
"I haven't. Why should I, more than anybody else."
"You've so much social perspicacity that I hoped you would see without my having to tell you. It's chiefly a question of antecedents."
Dorothea looked thoughtful, her head tipped to one side, as she buttered a bit of toast.
"I know that's an important point," she admitted, "but it isn't everything. You've got to look at things all round, and not mistake your shadow for your bone."
"I'm glad you see there is a shadow."
"I see there is only a shadow."
"A shadow on--what?"
Pruyn meant this for a leading question, and as such Dorothea took it. She gazed at him for a minute with the clear eyes and straightforward expression that were so essential a part of her dainty, self-reliant personality. If she was bracing herself for an effort, there was no external sign of it.
"I may as well tell you, father," she said, "that Carli Wappinger has asked me to marry him."
For a long minute Derek sat with body seemingly stunned, but with mind busily searching for the wisest way in which to take this astounding bit of information. At the end of many seconds of silence he exploded in loud laughter, choosing this method of treating Dorothea's confidence in order to impress her with the ludicrous aspect of the affair, as it must appear to the grown-up mind.
"Funny, isn't it?" she remarked, dryly, when he thought it advisable to grow calmer.
"It's not only funny; it's the drollest thing I ever heard in my life."
"I thought it might strike you that way. That's why I told you."
"And what did you tell him, if I may ask?"
"I told him it was out of the question--for the present."
"For the present! That's good. But why the reservation?"
"I couldn't tell him it would be out of the question always, because I didn't know. As long as he didn't ask me for a definite answer, I didn't feel obliged to give him one."
"I think you might have committed yourself as far as that."
"I prefer not to commit myself at all. I'm very young and inexperienced--"
"I'm glad you see that."
"Though neither so inexperienced nor so young as mamma was when she married you. And you were only twenty-one yourself, father, while Carli is nearly twenty-three."
"I wouldn't compare the two instances if I were you."
"I don't. I merely state the facts. I want to make it plain that, though we're both very young, we're not so young as to make the case exceptional."
"But I understood you to say that there was no--case."
"There is to this extent: that while I'm free, Carli considers himself bound. That's the way we've left it."
"That is to say, he's engaged, but you aren't."
"That's what Carli thinks."
"Then I refuse to consent to it."
"But, father dear," Dorothea asked, arching her pretty eyebrows, "do you have to consent to what Carli thinks about himself? Can't he do that just as he likes?"
"He can't become a hanger-on of my family without my permission."
"He says he's not going to hang on, but to stand off. He's going to allow me full liberty of action and fair play."
"That's very kind of him."
"Only, when I choose to come back to him I shall find him waiting."
"I might suggest that you never go back to him at all, only that there's a better way of meeting the situation. That is to put a stop to the nonsense now; and I shall take steps to do it."
Dorothea preserved her self-control, but two tiny hectic spots began to burn in her cheeks, while she kept her eyes persistently lowered, as though to veil the spirit of determination glowing there.
"Hadn't you better leave that to me?" she asked, after a brief pause.
"I will, if you promise to put it through."
"You see," she answered, in a reasoning tone, "my whole object is not to promise anything--yet. I should think the advantage of that would strike you, if only from the point of view of business. It's like having the refusal of a picture or a piece of property. You may never want them; but it does no harm to know that nobody else can get them till you decide."
"Neither does it do any harm to let somebody else have a chance, when you know that you can't take them."
"Of course not; but I couldn't say that now. I quite realize that I'm too young to know my own mind; and it's only reasonable to consider things all round. Carli is rich and good-looking. He has a cultivated mind and a kind heart. There are lots of men, to whom you'd have no objection whatever, who wouldn't possess all those qualifications, or perhaps any of them."
"Nevertheless, I should imagine that the fact that I have objections would have its weight with you."
"Naturally; and yet you would neither force me into what I didn't like to do, nor refuse me what I wanted."
With this definition of his parental attitude Dorothea pushed back her chair and moved sedately from the room.
Physically, Derek was able to go on with his breakfast and finish it, but mentally he was like a man, accustomed to action, who suddenly finds himself paralyzed. To the best of his knowledge he had never before been put in a position in which he had no idea whatever as to what to do. He had been placed in some puzzling dilemmas in private life, and had passed through some serious crises in financial affairs, but he had always been able to take some course, even if it was a mistaken one. It had been reserved for Dorothea to checkmate him in such a way that he could not move at all.
* * * * *
That the feminine mind possessed resources which his own did not was a claim Derek had made it a principle to deny. The theory on which he had brought up Dorothea had been based on his belief in his own insight into his daughter's character. Though he was far from abjuring that confidence even yet, nevertheless, when the succeeding days brought no enlightenment of counsel, and the long journey to South America became more imminent, he was forced once more to turn his steps toward Gramercy Park, and seek inspiration from the great, eternal mother-spirit of mankind, as represented by his cousin.
Miss Lucilla van Tromp passed among her friends as a sort of diffident Minerva. Though deficient in outward charms, she was considered to possess intellectual ability; and, having once been told that her profile resembled George Eliot's, she made the pursuit of learning, music, and Knickerbocker genealogy her special aims. Derek had, all his life, felt for her a special tenderness; and having neither mother, wife, nor sister, he was in the habit of coming to her with his cares.
"You're a woman," he declared, now, in summing up his case. "You're a woman. If you'd been married, you would probably have had children. You ought to be able to tell me exactly what to do."
Flushes of shy rapture illumined and softened her ill-assorted features on being cited as the type of maternity and sex, so that when she replied it was with an air of authority.
"I can tell you what to do, Derek; but I've done it already, and you wouldn't listen. You should send her to a good school--"
"It's too late for that. She wouldn't go."
"Then you should have some woman to live in your house who would be wise enough to manage her."
He jerked out the monosyllable, and began, according to his custom when puzzled or annoyed, to stride up and down the library.
"That is," Miss Lucilla went on, "you wouldn't like it. It would bore you to see a stranger in the house."
"And so you would sacrifice Dorothea to your personal convenience."
"I wouldn't, if there was a woman competent to take the place; but there isn't."
"There is. There's Diane Eveleth."
The dark flush that swept into his face made it clear to Lucilla that his question was not put for purposes of information. She had remarked in Derek during the past few weeks a manner of fighting shy of Diane at variance with his usual method with women. Safety in flight was the course he commonly adopted; but since Diane appeared on the scene, Lucilla had noticed that it was flight with a curious tendency to looking backward.
"I said Diane Eveleth," she replied, in tactful answer to his superfluous question; "and I assure you she's fully equal to the duties you would require of her. I suppose you've never noticed her especially--?"
"I used to know her a little," he said, in an offhand manner. "I've seen her here. That's all."
"If a woman could have been made on purpose for what you want, it's she."
"Dear me! You don't say so!"
"It's no use trying to be sarcastic about it, Derek. She's not the one to suffer by it; it's Dorothea. Though, when it comes to suffering, she has her share, poor thing."
"I suppose no decent woman who has just lost her husband is expected to be absolutely hilarious over the event."
"She hasn't just lost him; it's getting on toward a year. And, besides, it isn't only that. As a matter of fact, I don't believe she ever loved him as she could love the man to whom she gave her heart. If grief was her only trouble, I am sure the poor thing could bear it."
"And can't she bear it as it is?"
"The fact that she does bear it shows that she can; but it must be hard for a woman, who has lived as she has, to be brought to want."
"Want? Isn't that a strong word? One isn't in want unless one is without food and shelter."
"She has the shelter for the time being; I'm not sure that she always has the food."
"What? You don't know what you're saying."
"I know exactly what I'm saying; and I mean exactly what I say. There have been days when I've suspected that she's pinching in the essentials of meat and drink."
"But she has pupils."
"She has two; but they must pay her very little. It's dreadful for people who have as much as we to have to look on at the tragedy of others going hungry--"
"Good Lord! Don't pile it on."
Striding to a window, he stood with his back to her, staring out.
"I'm not piling it on, Derek. I wish I were."
"Well, can't we do something? If it's as you say, they mustn't be left like that."
"It's a very delicate matter. The mother-in-law has money of her own; but Diane has nothing. It's difficult to see what to do, except to find her a situation."
"Then find her one."
"I have; but you won't take her."
"In any case," he said, in the aggressive tone of a man putting forward a weak final argument, "you couldn't leave the mother-in-law all alone."
"I'd take her," Lucilla said, promptly. "You have no idea how much I want her, in this big, empty house. It's getting to be more than I can do to take care of Aunt Regina all alone."
Minutes went by in silence; but when Derek turned from the window and spoke, Lucilla shrank with constitutional fear from the responsibility she had assumed.
"Go and ring them up, and tell young Mrs. Eveleth I'm waiting to see her here."
"But, Derek, are you sure--?"
"I'm quite sure. Please go and ring them up."
"But, Derek, you're so startling. Have you reflected?"
"It's quite decided. Please do as I say, and call them up."
"But if anything were to go wrong in the future you'd think it was my--"
"I shall think nothing of the kind. Don't say any more about it, but please go and tell Diane I'm waiting."
The use of this name being more convincing to Lucilla than pledges of assurance, she sped away to do his bidding; but it was not till after she had gone that Derek recognized the fact that the word had passed his lips.
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