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During the half-hour before the arrival of Mrs. Eveleth and Diane, Miss Lucilla's tact allowed Derek to have the library to himself. He was thus enabled to co-ordinate his thoughts, and enact the laws which must henceforth regulate his domestic life. It was easy to silence the voice that for an instant accused him of taking this step in order to provide Diane Eveleth with a home; for Dorothea's need of a strong hand over her was imperative. He had reached the point where that circumstance could no longer be ignored. The avowal that the child had passed beyond his control would have had more bitterness in it, were it not for the fact that her naive self-sufficiency touched his sense of humor, while her dainty beauty wakened his paternal pride.
Nevertheless, it was patent that Dorothea had been too much her own mistress. Without admitting that he had been wrong in his methods hitherto, he confessed that the time had come when the duenna system must be introduced, as a matter not only of propriety, but of prudence. He assured himself of his regret that no American lady who could take the position chanced to be on the spot, but allayed his sorrow on the ground that any fairly well-mannered, virtuous woman could fulfil the functions of so mechanical a task, just as any decent, able-bodied man is good enough to be a policeman.
It was somewhat annoying that the lady in question should be young and pretty; for it was a sad proof of the crudity of human nature that the mere residence of a free man and a free woman under the same roof could not pass without comment among their friends. For himself it was a matter of no importance; and as for her, a woman who has her living to earn must often be placed in situations where she is exposed to remark.
To anticipate all possibility of mistake, it would be necessary that his attitude toward Mrs. Eveleth should be strictly that of the employer toward the employed. He must ignore the circumstance of their earlier acquaintance, with its touch of something memorable which neither of them had ever been able to explain, and confine himself as far as possible, both in her interests and his own, to such relations as he held with his stenographers and his clerks. What friendliness she required she must receive from other hands; and, doubtless, she would find sufficient.
Having intrenched himself behind his fortifications of reserve, he was able to maintain just the right shade of dignity, when, in the half-light of the midwinter afternoon, Diane glided into the big, book-lined apartment, in which the comfortable air induced through long occupancy by people of means did not banish a certain sombreness. She entered with the subdued manner of one who has been sent for peremptorily, but who acknowledges the right of summons. The perception of this called an impulse to apologize to Derek's lips; but on reflection he repressed it. It was best to assume that she would do his bidding from the first. Standing by the fireplace, with his arm on the mantelpiece, he bowed stiffly, without offering his hand. Diane bowed in return, keeping her own hands securely in her small black muff.
"Won't you sit down?"
Without changing his position he indicated the large leathern chair on the other side of the hearth. Diane sat down on the very edge--erect, silent, submissive. If he had feared the intrusion of the personal element into what must be strictly a business affair, it was plain that this pale, pinched little woman had forestalled him.
Yes; she was pale and pinched. Lucilla had been right about that. There was something in Diane's appearance that suggested privation. Derek had seen such a thing before among the disinherited of mankind, but never in his own rank in life. With her air of proud gentleness, of gallant acceptance of what fate had apportioned her, she made him think of some plucky little citadel holding out against hunger. If there was no way of showing the pity, the mingled pity and approbation, in his breast, it was at least some consolation to know that in his house she would be beyond the most terrible and elemental touch of want.
"I've troubled you to come and see me," he began, with an effort to keep the note of embarrassment out of his voice, "to ask if you would be willing to accept a position in my family."
Diane sat still and did not raise her eyes, but it seemed to him that he could detect, beneath her veil, a light of relief in her face, like a sudden gleam of sunshine.
"I'm looking for a position," was all she said, "and if I could be of service--"
"I'm very much in need of some one," he explained; "though the duties of the place would be peculiar, and, perhaps, not particularly grateful."
"It would be for me to do them, without questioning as to whether I liked them or not."
"I'm glad you say that, as it will make it easier for us to come to an understanding. You've already guessed, perhaps, that I am looking for a lady to be with my daughter."
"I thought it might be something of that kind."
The difficult part of the interview was now to begin, and Pruyn hesitated a minute, considering how best to present his case. Reflection decided him in favor of frankness, for it was only by frankness on his side that Diane would be able to carry out his wishes on hers. The responsibility imposed upon him by his wife's death, he said, was one he had never wished to shirk by leaving his child to the care of others. Moreover, he had had his own ideas as to the manner in which she should be brought up, and he had put them into practice. The results had been good in most respects, and if in others there was something still to be desired, it was not too late to make the necessary changes, whether in the way of supplement or correction. Indeed, in his opinion, the psychological moment for introducing a new line of conduct had only just arrived.
"It is often better not to force things," Diane murmured, vaguely, "especially with the very young."
To this he agreed, though he laid down the principle that not to take strong measures when there was need for them would be the part of weakness. Diane having no objection to offer to this bit of wisdom, it was possible for him to go on to explain the emergency she would be called on to meet. Briefly, it arose from his own error in allowing Dorothea too much liberty of judgment. While he was in favor of a reasonable freedom for all young people, it was evident that in this case the pendulum had been suffered to swing so far in one directionthat it would require no small amount of effort on his part and Diane's--chiefly on Diane's--to bring it back. In the interest of Dorothea's happiness it was essential that the proper balance should be established with all possible speed, even though they raised some rebellion on her part in doing it.
He explained Dorothea's methods in creating her body-guard of young men, as far as he understood them; he described the young people whose society she frequented, and admitted that he was puzzled as to the precise quality in them that shocked his views; coming to the affair with Carli Wappinger, he spoke of it as "a bit of preposterous nonsense, to which an immediate stop must be put." There were minor points in his exposition; and at each one, as he made it, Diane nodded her head gravely, to show that she followed him with understanding, and was in sympathy with his opinion that it was "high time that some step should be taken."
Encouraged by this intelligent comprehension, Derek went on to define the good offices he would expect from Diane. She should come to his house not only as Dorothea's inseparable companion, but as a sort of warder-in-chief, armed, by his authority, with all the powers of command. There was no use in doing things by halves; and if Dorothea needed discipline she had better get it thoroughly, and be done with it. It was not a thing which he, Derek, would want to see last forever; but while it did last it ought to be effective, and he would look to Diane to make it so. As it was not becoming that a daughter of his should need a bodyguard of youths, Diane would undertake the task of breaking up Dorothea's circle. Young men might still be permitted "to call," but under Diane's supervision, while Dorothea sat in the background, as a maiden should. Diane would make it a point to know the lads personally, so as to discriminate between them, and exclude those who for one reason or another might not be desirable friends. As for Mr. Carli Wappinger, the door was to be rigorously shut against him. Here the question was not one of gradual elimination, but of abrupt termination to the acquaintanceship. He must request Diane to see to it that, as far as possible, Dorothea neither met the young man, nor held communication with him, on any pretext whatever. He laid down no rule in the case of Mrs. Wappinger, but it would follow as a natural consequence that the mother should be dropped with the son. These might seem drastic measures to Dorothea, to begin with; but she was an eminently reasonable child, and would soon come to recognize their wisdom. After all, they were only the conditions to which, as he had been given to understand, other young girls were subjected, so that she would have nothing to complain of in her lot. The probability of his own departure for South America, with an absence lasting till the spring, would make it necessary for Diane to use to the full the powers with which he commissioned her. He trusted that he made himself clear.
For some minutes after he ceased speaking Diane sat looking meditatively at the fire. When she spoke her voice was low, but the ring of decision in it was not to be mistaken.
"I'm afraid I couldn't accept the position, Mr. Pruyn."
Derek's start of astonishment was that of a man who sees intentions he meant to be benevolent thrown back in his face.
"You couldn't--? But surely--?"
"I mean, I couldn't do that kind of work."
"But I thought you were looking for it--or something of the sort."
"Yes; something of the sort, but not precisely that."
"And it's precisely that that I wish to have done," he said, in a tone that betrayed some irritation; "so I suppose there is no more to be said."
"No; I suppose not. In any case," she added, rising, "I must thank you for being so good as to think of me; and if I feel obliged to decline your proposition, I must ask you to believe that my motives are not petty ones. Now I will say good-afternoon."
Keeping her hands rigidly within her muff, and with a slight, dignified inclination of the head, she turned from him.
She was half-way to the door before Derek recovered himself sufficiently to speak.
"May I ask," he inquired, "what your objections are?"
She turned where she stood, but did not come back toward him.
"I have only one. The position you suggest would be intolerable to your daughter and odious to me."
"But," he asked, with a perplexed contraction of the brows, "isn't it what companions to young ladies are generally engaged for?"
"I was never engaged as a companion before, so I'm not qualified to say. I only know--"
She stopped, as if weighing her words.
"Yes?" he insisted; "you only know--what?"
"That no girl with spirit--and Miss Pruyn is a girl with spirit--would submit to that kind of tyranny."
"It wouldn't be tyranny in this case; it would be authority."
"She would consider it tyranny--especially after the freedom you've allowed her."
"But you admit that it's freedom that ought to be curbed?"
"Quite so; but aren't there methods of restriction other than those of compulsion?"
"Such as special circumstances may suggest."
"And in these particular circumstances--?"
"I'm not prepared to say. I'm not sufficiently familiar with them."
"Precisely; but I am."
"You're familiar with them from a man's point of view," she smiled; "but it's one of those instances in which a man's point of view counts for very little."
"Admitting that, what would be your advice?"
"I have none to give."
She shook her head. Leaving his fortified position by the mantelpiece, he took a step or two toward her.
"And yet when I began to speak you seemed favorably inclined to the offer I was making you. You must have had ideas on the subject, then."
"Only vague ones. I made the mistake of supposing that yours would be equally so."
"And with your vague ideas, your intention was--?"
"To adapt myself to circumstances; I couldn't tell beforehand what they would be. I imagined that what you wanted for your daughter was the society of an experienced woman of the world; and I am that, whatever else I may not be."
"You're very young to make the claim."
"There are other ways of gaining experience than by years; and," she added, with the intention to divert the conversation from herself, "the small store I happen to possess I was willing to share with your daughter, in whatever way she might have need of it."
"But not in my way."
"Not in your way, perhaps, but for the furthering of your purposes."
"How could you further my purposes when you wouldn't do what I wanted?"
"By getting her to do it of her own accord."
"Could you promise me she would?"
"I couldn't promise you anything at all. I could only do my best, and see how she would respond to it."
"She's a very good little girl," he hastened to declare.
"I'm sure of that. Though I don't know her well, I've seen her often enough to understand that whatever mistakes she may make, they are those of youth and independence. She is only a motherless girl who has been allowed--who, in a certain way, has been obliged--to look after herself. I've noticed that underneath her self-reliant manner she's very much a child."
"But I should never treat her as a child, except--except in one way."
"Which would be--?"
"To give her plenty of affection."
"She's always had that."
"Yes, yours; she hasn't had her mother's. Don't think me cruel in saying it, but no girl can grow up nourished only by her father's love, and not miss something that the good God intended her to have. The reason women are so essential to babies and men is chiefly because of their faculty for understanding the inarticulate. With all your daughter has had, there is one great thing that she hasn't had; and if you had placed me near her, my idea, which I call vague, would have been--as far as any one could do it now--to supply her with some of that."
Derek retreated again to the fireside, alarmed by a language suspiciously like that he had heard on other occasions concerning the motherless condition of his child. Was it going to turn out that all women were alike? There had been minutes during the last half-hour when, as he looked into Diane's face, it seemed to him that here at last was one as honest as air and as straightforward as light. But no experienced woman of the world, as she declared herself to be, could forget that this was a ludicrously delicate topic with a widower. She must either avoid it altogether, or expose herself to misinterpretation in pursuing it. It took him a few minutes to perceive that Diane had chosen the latter course, and had done it with a fine disdain of anything he might choose to think. She was not of the order of women who hesitate for petty considerations, or who stoop to small manoeuvrings.
"I'm afraid I must go now," she said, when he had stood some time without speaking.
"Don't go yet. Sit down."
His tone was still one of command, but not of the same quality of command as that which he had used on her entry. He brought her a chair, and she seated herself again.
"You said just now," he began, resuming his former attitude, with his arm on the mantelpiece, "that you didn't expect me to be so definite. Suppose I had been indefinite; then what would you have done?"
"I should have been indefinite, too."
"That's all very well; but, you see, I have to look at things from the point of view of business."
"And is there never anything indefinite in business?"
"Not if we can help it."
"And what happens when you can't help it?"
"Then we have to look for some one to whose discretion we can trust."
"Exactly; and, if you'll allow me to say it, Miss Pruyn is at an age and in a position where she needs a friend armed with discretion rather than authority."
"Well, suppose we were agreed about everything--the discretion and all--what would you begin by doing?"
"I shouldn't begin by doing anything. I should try to win your daughter's confidence; and if I couldn't do that I should go away."
"So that in the end it might happen that nothing would be accomplished."
"It might happen so. I shouldn't expect it. Good hearts are generally sensitive to good influences; and beneath her shell of manner Miss Pruyn strikes me as neither more nor less than a dear little girl."
Again he was suspicious of a bid for favor; but again Diane's air of almost haughty honesty negatived the thought.
"I'm glad you see that," was the only comment he made. "But," he added, once more taking a step or two toward her, "when you had won her confidence, then you would do things that I suggested, wouldn't you?"
"I shouldn't have to. She would probably do them herself, and a great deal better than you or I."
"I don't see how you can be sure of that. If you don't make her--"
"When you've watered your plant and kept it in the sunshine you don't have to make it bloom. It will do that of itself."
"But all these young men?--and this young Wappinger--?"
"I should let them alone."
"Not young Wappinger!"
"What harm is he doing? I admit that the present situation has its foolish aspects from your point of view and mine; but I can think of things a great deal worse. At least you know there is nothing clandestine going on; and young people who have the virtue of being open have the very first quality of all. If you let them alone--or leave them to sympathetic management--you will probably find that they will outgrow the whole thing, as children outgrow an inordinate love of sweets."
There was a brief pause, during which he stood looking down at her, a smile something like that of amusement hovering about his lips.
"So that, in your judgment," he began again, "the whole thing resolves itself into a matter of discretion. But now--if you'll pardon me for asking anything so blunt--how am I to know that you would be discreet?"
For an instant she lifted her eyes to his, as if begging to be spared the reply.
"If it's not a fair question--" he began.
"It is a fair question," she admitted; "only it's one I find difficult to answer. If it wasn't important--urgently important--that I should obtain work, I should prefer not to answer it at all. I must tell you that I haven't always been discreet. I've had to learn discretion--by bitter lessons."
"I'm not asking about the past," he broke in, hastily, "but about the future."
"About the future one cannot say; one can only try."
"Then suppose we try it?"
His own words took him by surprise, for he had meant to be more cautious; but now that they were uttered he was ready to stand by them. Once more, as it seemed to him, he could detect the light of relief steal into her expression, but she made no response.
"Suppose we try it?" he said again.
"It's for you to decide," she answered, quietly. "My position places me entirely at the disposal of any one who is willing to employ me."
"So that this is better than nothing," he said, in some disappointment at her lack of enthusiasm.
"I shouldn't put it in that way," she smiled; "but then I shouldn't put it in any way, until I saw whether or not I gave you satisfaction. You must remember you're engaging an untried person; and, as I've told you, I have nothing in the way of recommendations."
"We will assume that you don't need them."
"It's a good deal to assume; but since you're good enough to do it, I can't help being grateful. Is there any particular time when you would like me to begin?"
"Perhaps," he suggested, drawing up a small chair and seating himself nearer her, "it would be best to settle the business part of our arrangement first. You must tell me frankly if there is anything in what I propose that you don't find satisfactory."
"I'm sure there won't be," Diane murmured, faintly, with a feeling akin to shame that any one should be offering to pay for such feeble services as hers. She was thankful that the winter dusk, creeping into the room, hid the surging of the hot color in her face, as Derek talked of sums of money and dates of payment. She did her best to pretend to give him her attention, but she gathered nothing from what he said. If she had any coherent thought at all, it was of the greatness, the force, the authority, of one who could control her future, and dictate her acts, and prescribe her duties, with something like the power of a god. In times past she would have tried to weave her spell around this strong man, in sheer wantonness of conquest, as Vivian threw her enchantments over Merlin; now she was conscious only of a strange willingness to submit to him, to take his yoke, and bow down under it, serving him as master.
She was glad when he ended, leaving her free to rise and say his arrangements suited her exactly. She had promised to join Miss Lucilla van Tromp and Mrs. Eveleth at tea, and perhaps he would come with her.
"No, I'll run away now," he said, accompanying her to the door, "if you'll be good enough to make my excuses to Lucilla. But one word more! You asked me when you had better begin. I should say as soon as you can. As I may leave for Rio de Janeiro at any time, it would be well for things to be in working order before I go."
So it was settled, and as she departed he opened the door for her and held out his hand. But once more the little black muff came into play, and Diane walked out as she had come in, with no other salutation than a dignified inclination of the head.
Derek closed the door behind her and stood with his hand on the knob. He took the gentle rebuke like a man.
"I'm a cad," he said to himself. "I'm a cad."
Returning to his former place on the hearth, he remained long, gazing into the dying embers, and rehearsing the points of the interview in his mind. The gloaming closed around him, and he took pleasure in the fancy that she was still sitting there--silent, patient, erect, with that pinched look of privation so gallantly borne.
"By Jove! she's a brave one!" he murmured, under his breath. "She's a brick. She's a soldier. She's a lady. She's the one woman in the world to whom I could intrust my child."
Then, as his head sank in meditation, he shook himself as though to wake up from sleep into actual day.
"I've been dreaming," he said--"I've been dreaming. I must get away. I must go back to the office. I must get to work."
But instead of going he threw himself into one of the deep arm-chairs. Dropping off into a reverie, he conjured up the scene which had long been the fairest in his memory.
It was the summer. It was the country. It was a garden. In the long bed the carnations of many colors were bending their beauty-drunken heads, while over them a girl was stooping. She picked one here, one there, in search of that which would suit him best. When she had found it--deep red, with shades in the inner petals nearly black--she turned to offer it. But when she looked at him, he saw it was--Diane.
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