"Penny," said Grief, looking across the table at his friend, "if a man thinks a heap of two violets, how much would he think of a thousand violets?"
"Two into a thousand goes five hundred times, you fool!" said Pennoyer. "I would answer your question if it were not upon a forbidden subject."
In the distance Wrinkles and Florinda were making Welsh rarebits.
"Hold your tongues!" said Hawker. "Barbarians!"
"Grief," said Pennoyer, "if a man loves a woman better than the whole universe, how much does he love the whole universe?"
"Gawd knows," said Grief piously. "Although it ill befits me to answer your question."
Wrinkles and Florinda came with the Welsh rarebits, very triumphant. "There," said Florinda, "soon as these are finished I must go home. It is after eleven o'clock.--Pour the ale, Grief."
At a later time, Purple Sanderson entered from the world. He hung up his hat and cast a look of proper financial dissatisfaction at the remnants of the feast. "Who has been----"
"Before you breathe, Purple, you graceless scum, let me tell you that we will stand no reference to the two violets here," said Pennoyer.
"Oh, that's all right, Purple," said Grief, "but you were going to say something about the two violets, right then. Weren't you, now, you old bat?"
Sanderson grinned expectantly. "What's the row?" said he.
"No row at all," they told him. "Just an agreement to keep you from chattering obstinately about the two violets."
"What two violets?"
"Have a rarebit, Purple," advised Wrinkles, "and never mind those maniacs."
"Well, what is this business about two violets?"
"Oh, it's just some dream. They gibber at anything."
"I think I know," said Florinda, nodding. "It is something that concerns Billie Hawker."
Grief and Pennoyer scoffed, and Wrinkles said: "You know nothing about it, Splutter. It doesn't concern Billie Hawker at all."
"Well, then, what is he looking sideways for?" cried Florinda.
Wrinkles reached for his guitar, and played a serenade, "The silver moon is shining----"
"Dry up!" said Pennoyer.
Then Florinda cried again, "What does he look sideways for?"
Pennoyer and Grief giggled at the imperturbable Hawker, who destroyed rarebit in silence.
"It's you, is it, Billie?" said Sanderson. "You are in this two-violet business?"
"I don't know what they're talking about," replied Hawker.
"Don't you, honestly?" asked Florinda.
"Well, only a little."
"There!" said Florinda, nodding again. "I knew he was in it."
"He isn't in it at all," said Pennoyer and Grief.
Later, when the cigarettes had become exhausted, Hawker volunteered to go after a further supply, and as he arose, a question seemed to come to the edge of Florinda's lips and pend there. The moment that the door was closed upon him she demanded, "What is that about the two violets?"
"Nothing at all," answered Pennoyer, apparently much aggrieved. He sat back with an air of being a fortress of reticence.
"Oh, go on--tell me! Penny, I think you are very mean.--Grief, you tell me!"
"The silver moon is shining; Oh, come, my love, to me! My heart----"
"Be still, Wrinkles, will you?--What was it, Grief? Oh, go ahead and tell me!"
"What do you want to know for?" cried Grief, vastly exasperated. "You've got more blamed curiosity---- It isn't anything at all, I keep saying to you."
"Well, I know it is," said Florinda sullenly, "or you would tell me."
When Hawker brought the cigarettes, Florinda smoked one, and then announced, "Well, I must go now."
"Who is going to take you home, Splutter?"
"Oh, anyone," replied Florinda.
"I tell you what," said Grief, "we'll throw some poker hands, and the one who wins will have the distinguished honour of conveying Miss Splutter to her home and mother."
Pennoyer and Wrinkles speedily routed the dishes to one end of the table. Grief's fingers spun the halves of a pack of cards together with the pleased eagerness of a good player. The faces grew solemn with the gambling solemnity. "Now, you Indians," said Grief, dealing, "a draw, you understand, and then a show-down."
Florinda leaned forward in her chair until it was poised on two legs. The cards of Purple Sanderson and of Hawker were faced toward her. Sanderson was gravely regarding two pair--aces and queens. Hawker scanned a little pair of sevens. "They draw, don't they?" she said to Grief.
"Certainly," said Grief. "How many, Wrink?"
"Four," replied Wrinkles, plaintively.
"Gimme three," said Pennoyer.
"Gimme one," said Sanderson.
"Gimme three," said Hawker. When he picked up his hand again Florinda's chair was tilted perilously. She saw another seven added to the little pair. Sanderson's draw had not assisted him.
"Same to the dealer," said Grief. "What you got, Wrink?"
"Nothing," said Wrinkles, exhibiting it face upward on the table. "Good-bye, Florinda."
"Well, I've got two small pair," ventured Pennoyer hopefully. "Beat 'em?"
"No good," said Sanderson. "Two pair--aces up."
"No good," said Hawker. "Three sevens."
"Beats me," said Grief. "Billie, you are the fortunate man. Heaven guide you in Third Avenue!"
Florinda had gone to the window. "Who won?" she asked, wheeling about carelessly.
"What! Did he?" she said in surprise.
"Never mind, Splutter. I'll win sometime," said Pennoyer. "Me too," cried Grief. "Good night, old girl!" said Wrinkles. They crowded in the doorway. "Hold on to Billie. Remember the two steps going up," Pennoyer called intelligently into the Stygian blackness. "Can you see all right?"
* * * * * * *
Florinda lived in a flat with fire-escapes written all over the front of it. The street in front was being repaired. It had been said by imbecile residents of the vicinity that the paving was never allowed to remain down for a sufficient time to be invalided by the tramping millions, but that it was kept perpetually stacked in little mountains through the unceasing vigilance of a virtuous and heroic city government, which insisted that everything should be repaired. The alderman for the district had sometimes asked indignantly of his fellow-members why this street had not been repaired, and they, aroused, had at once ordered it to be repaired. Moreover, shopkeepers, whose stables were adjacent, placed trucks and other vehicles strategically in the darkness. Into this tangled midnight Hawker conducted Florinda. The great avenue behind them was no more than a level stream of yellow light, and the distant merry bells might have been boats floating down it. Grim loneliness hung over the uncouth shapes in the street which was being repaired.
"Billie," said the girl suddenly, "what makes you so mean to me?"
A peaceful citizen emerged from behind a pile of débris, but he might not have been a peaceful citizen, so the girl clung to Hawker.
"Why, I'm not mean to you, am I?"
"Yes," she answered. As they stood on the steps of the flat of innumerable fire-escapes she slowly turned and looked up at him. Her face was of a strange pallour in this darkness, and her eyes were as when the moon shines in a lake of the hills.
He returned her glance. "Florinda!" he cried, as if enlightened, and gulping suddenly at something in his throat. The girl studied the steps and moved from side to side, as do the guilty ones in country schoolhouses. Then she went slowly into the flat.
There was a little red lamp hanging on a pile of stones to warn people that the street was being repaired.
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