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The toilets of the young ladies were nearly completed, but, without waiting to add another touch, all hastened to the place where they had left Dennis. One of the colorless young ladies appeared upon the scene with a shawl around her bare shoulders, and a great deal of color on one cheek, and none on the other as yet; but this slight discrepancy was unnoted in the dire calamity they feared.
Many were the exclamations and lamentations.
"Why, the people will be here in fifteen minutes," said Miss Winthrop, in a nervous tremor.
"Did he leave no word?" asked Miss Brown of the servants.
"No word, mum," was the dismal echo.
"What shall we do?" they said, looking at one another with blank faces; but none could answer.
"I do hate such proud, freakish people. There is no managing or depending on them," said Miss Brown, spitefully.
Miss Winthrop bit her lips to keep from saying to her hostess what would be more true than polite. There was a flash of anger in Christine's dark blue eyes, and she said, coldly: "I imagine that you have finished the business this time, Miss Brown. But I confess that I am greatly surprised, for he said I could depend upon him for to-night."
"So you can," said Dennis, coming in behind them. "I am sorry you have had this needless alarm. But the fact is, I am a plain, ordinary mortal, and live in a very material way."
"There was plenty of lunch in the dining-room," said Miss Brown, tartly. "You need not have gone out and made all this trouble."
"Pardon me for slighting your hospitality," said Dennis, with slight emphasis on the word.
Again significant glances were exchanged. Miss Brown darted a black look at Dennis, and left the room.
"I can assure you, ladies," added he, "that all is ready. I can lay my hand in a moment on whatever is needed. Therefore you need give yourselves no further anxiety."
There was a general stampede for the dressing-rooms, but Miss Winthrop lingered. When Dennis was alone she went up to him and frankly gave her hand, saying: "Mr. Fleet, I wish to thank you for your course to-day. Between Miss Ludolph's unwitting sermon and your brave and unexpected vindication of our faith, I hope to become more deserving of the name of Christian. You are a gentleman, sir, in the truest and best sense of the word, and as such it will ever be a pleasure to welcome you at my father's house;" and she gave him her card.
A flush of grateful surprise and pleasure mantled Dennis's face, but before he could speak she was gone.
The audience were soon thronging in. By half-past eight the performers were all in the back parlor, and there was a brilliant army of actors and actresses in varied and fanciful costume, many coming to the house dressed for their parts. There were gods and goddesses, shepherds and shepherdesses, angels, crusaders, who would take leave of languishing ladies, living statuary, and tableaux of all sorts. Dennis was much shocked at the manner in which ladies exposed themselves in the name of art and for the sake of effect. Christine seemed perfectly Greek and pagan in this respect, yet there was that in her manner that forbade a wanton glance. But, as he observed the carriage of the men around him, he was more than satisfied that no plea of art could justify the "style," and felt assured that every pure-minded woman would take the same view if she realized the truth. Under the name of fashion and art much is done in society that would be simply monstrous on ordinary occasions.
The music, as far as possible, was in character with the scenes. The entertainment went forward with great applause. Every one was radiant; and the subtile, exhilarating spirit of assured success glowed in every eye, and gave a richer tone and coloring to everything.
Christine appeared in several and varied characters, and Dennis had eyes only for her. The others he glanced over critically as the artist in charge, and then dismissed them from his thoughts; but on Christine his eyes rested in a spell-bound admiration that both amused and pleased her. She loved power of every kind, and when she read approval in the trained and critical eye of Dennis Fleet she knew that all the audience were applauding.
But Dennis had little time for musing, so great was the strain upon him to prevent confusion. His voice excited great surprise and applause, many inquiring vainly who he was. When he and Christine sung together the audience were perfectly carried away, and stormed and applauded without stint. Indeed, it seemed that they could not be satisfied. The call was so urgent that several asked Christine to sing again, and she did so alone. For ten minutes she held the audience perfectly entranced, and no one more so than Dennis. Usually she was too cold in all that she did, but now in her excitement she far surpassed herself, and he acknowledged that he had never heard such music before.
The very soul of song seemed breathed into her, and every nook and corner of the house appeared to vibrate with melody. Even the servants in distant rooms said that it seemed that an angel was singing. After she ceased, the audience sat spellbound for a moment, and then followed prolonged thunders of applause, the portly brewer, Mr. Brown himself, leading off again and again.
"Now let the tenor sing alone," he said, for, though a coarse man, he was hearty and good-natured.
The audience emphatically echoed his wish, but Dennis as decidedly shook his head.
Then came a cry, "Miss Ludolph and the tenor again"; and the audience took it up with a clamor that would not be denied.
Christine looked inquiringly at Dennis, and he replied in a low tone, "You command me this evening."
Again she thanked him with her eyes, and from a music stand near chose a magnificent duet from Mendelssohn, in which he must sing several difficult solos.
"Act your pleasure. I am familiar with it," he said, smiling at the way she had circumvented him in his refusal to sing alone.
Christine sat down and played her own accompaniment, while Dennis stood at her side. He determined to do his best and prove that though he swept a store he could also do something else. Many of the strains were plaintive, and his deep and unconscious feeling for his fair companion in song gave to his voice a depth, and at times a pathos, that both thrilled and touched the heart, and there were not a few wet eyes in the audience. Unconsciously to himself and all around, he was singing his love; and even Christine, though much preoccupied with her part, wondered at the effect upon herself, and recognized the deep impression made upon the audience.
As the last notes died away the sliding-doors were closed.
Dennis had achieved a greater success than Christine, because, singing from the heart, he had touched the heart. His applause could be read in moist eyes and expressive faces rather than in noisy hands. She saw and understood the result. A sad, disappointed look came into her face, and she said in a low, plaintive tone, as if it were wrung from her: "There must be something wrong about me. I fear I shall never reach true art. I can only win admiration, never touch the heart."
Dennis was about to speak eagerly, when they were overwhelmed by the rush and confusion attendant on the breaking up of the entertainment. Part of the older guests at once left for their homes, and the rest stayed for supper. The parlors were to be cleared as soon as possible for dancing. Christine was joined by her father, who had sat in the audience, scarcely believing his eyes, much less his ears. Was that the young man who was blacking old Schwartz's boots the other day?
His daughter was overwhelmed with compliments, but she took them very coolly and quietly, for her heart was full of bitterness. That which her ambitious spirit most desired she could not reach, and to the degree that she loved art was her disappointment keen. She almost envied poor Dennis, but she knew not the secret of his success; nor did he, either, in truth. His old manner returned, and he busied himself in rapidly packing up everything that he had brought. Mr. Ludolph, who had received a brief explanation from Christine, came and said, kindly, "Why, Fleet, you have blossomed out strongly to-day."
"Indeed, sir, I think I have never had a more rigorous pruning," was the reply.
When the story had been told Mr. Ludolph in full, he understood the remark. Christine was waiting for the crowd to disperse somewhat, in order to speak to Dennis also, for her sense of justice and her genuine admiration impelled her to warm and sincere acknowledgment. But at that moment Mr. Mellen came in, exclaiming, "Miss Ludolph, they are all waiting for you to lead the dance, for to you is given this honor by acclamation, and I plead your promise to be my partner"; and he carried her off, she meaning to return as soon as possible, and supposing Dennis would remain.
A moment after, light, airy music was heard in the front parlor, followed by the rhythmical cadence of light feet and the rustle of silks like a breeze through a forest.
For some reason as she went away Dennis's heart sank within him. Reaction followed the strong excitements of the day, and a strange sense of weariness and despondency crept over him. The gay music in the other room seemed plaintive and far away, and the tripping feet sounded like the patter of rain on autumn leaves. The very lights appeared to burn dimmer, and the color to fade out of his life. Mechanically he packed up the few remaining articles, to be called for in the morning, and then leaned heavily against a pillar, intending to rest a moment before going out into the night alone.
Some one pushed back the sliding-door a little and passed into the room. Through the opening he caught a glimpse of the gay scene within. Suddenly Christine appeared floating lightly through the waltz in her gauzy drapery, as if in a white, misty cloud. Through the narrow opening she seemed a radiant, living portrait. But her partner whirled her out of the line of vision. Thus in the mazes of the dance she kept appearing and disappearing, flashing in sight one moment, leaving a blank in the crowded room the next.
"So it will ever be, I suppose," he said to himself, bitterly; "chance and stolen glimpses my only privilege."
Again she appeared, smiling archly on the man whose arm clasped her waist.
A frown black as night gathered on Dennis's brow; then a sudden pallor overspread his face to his very lips. The revelation had come! Then for the first time he knew--knew it as if written in letters of fire before him--that he loved Christine Ludolph.
At first the knowledge stunned and bewildered him, and his mind was a confused blur; then as she appeared again, smiling upon and in the embrace of another man, a sharp sword seemed to pierce his heart.
Dennis was no faint shadow of a man who had frittered away in numberless flirtations what little heart he originally had. He belonged to the male species, with something of the pristine vigor of the first man, who said of the one woman of all the world, "This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh"; and one whom he had first seen but a few short months since now seemed to belong to him by the highest and divinest right. But could he ever claim his own?
In his morbid, wearied state, there seemed a "great gulf fixed" between them. For a moment he fairly felt faint and sick, as if he had received a wound. He was startled by hearing Miss Winthrop say at his side: "Mr. Fleet, you will not leave yet. I have many friends wishing an introduction to you. What is the matter? You look as if you were ill."
At her voice he flushed painfully. He was so vividly conscious of his love himself that he felt that every one else must be able to see it, and darkness and solitude now seemed a refuge. Recovering himself by a great effort he said, "Pardon me, I do--I am not well--nothing is the matter--a little rest and I shall be myself again."
"No wonder. You have been taxed every way beyond mortal endurance, and I think that it is a shame the way you have been treated. Pray do not judge Chicago society altogether by what you have seen here. Let me get you some refreshment, and then I will acquaint you with some people who can recognize a gentleman when they meet him."
"No, Miss Winthrop," said Dennis, courteously but firmly; "you are not in your own home, and by staying I should not be accepting your hospitality. I appreciate your kindness deeply, and thank your friends who have expressed a willingness to make my acquaintance. It would not be right to stay longer in this house than is necessary. I do not feel resentful. I have no room in my memory for Miss Brown and her actions, but at the same time self-respect requires that I go at once;" and he took his hat.
"I am not surprised that you feel as you do. But give me the pleasure of welcoming you at my own home as soon as possible," she said, and gave her hand to him in parting.
Dennis took it respectfully and bowed low, saying, "I shall not willingly deny myself so great a pleasure." and was gone.
Christine came in a few moments later, and found only servants clearing the room for dancing.
"Where is Mr. Fleet?" she asked.
"Yes," said Miss Winthrop, coming in at the same time; "he has gone now in very truth; and I don't think the power exists that could lead him to darken these doors again. I doubt if I ever come myself. I never saw a clearer instance of--of--well--shoddy."
"It seems to me that you Christians are as proud as any of us."
"Isn't there a difference between pride and self-respect? I am satisfied that if Miss Brown were in trouble, or poor, Mr. Fleet would be the first to help her. Oh, Christine, we have treated him shamefully!"
"You seem to take a wonderful interest in this unknown knight in rusty armor." (Dennis's dress was decidedly threadbare.)
"I do," said the impulsive girl, frankly, "because he is wonderfully interesting. What man of all the large audience present to-night could have acted the part he did? I am satisfied that that man is by birth and education a gentleman. Are you ready, with your aristocratic notions, to recognize chiefly Miss Brown's title to position? What could her coat-of-arms be but the dollar symbol and the beer-barrel?"
"Come, remember she is our hostess."
"You are right; I should not speak so here; but my indignation gets the better of me."
"Would you invite him to your house?"
"Certainly. I have asked him; and what is more, he has promised to come. Supposing that he is poor, are not many of your noblemen as poor as poverty? My parlors shall be haunted only by men of ability and character."
"You are not going to shut out this little heathen," said Christine, putting her arm about her friend.
"Never!" said Miss Winthrop, returning the embrace with double warmth. Then she added, sadly: "You are not an unbeliever from conviction and knowledge, Christine, but from training and association. While I admire and honor your father as a splendid and gifted man, I regret his and your scepticism more deeply than you can ever know."
"Well, Susie," said Christine, with a smile, "if they shut out such as you from your Paradise, I do not wish to go there."
"If, with my clear knowledge of the conditions of entrance, I shut myself out, I shall have no right to complain," said Miss Winthrop, sadly.
But the absence of two such belles could not long remain unnoted; and, having been discovered, they were pounced upon by half a dozen young gentlemen, clamorous for the honor of their hands in the "German."
In spite of herself, Christine was vexed and annoyed. Dennis had seemed, in his obscurity, a nice little bit of personal property, that she could use and order about as she pleased. He had been so subservient and eager to do her will, that she had never thought of him otherwise than as her "humble servant." But now her own hand had suddenly given him the role of a fine gentleman. Christine was too logical to think of continuing to order about a man who could sing Mendelssohn's music as Dennis had done.
She congratulated herself that the arrangement of the store was nearly completed, and that only one show-room was unfinished.
"I suppose he will be very dignified when we meet again," she thought to herself. "I should not be at all surprised if my impulsive little friend Susie loses her heart to him. Well, I suppose she can to any one she chooses. As for me, rich or poor, stupid or gifted, the men of this land are all alike;" and with a half-sigh she plunged resolutely into the gayeties of the evening, as if to escape from herself.
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