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Yet another harassing experience awaited Mr. Twist before the end of that week.
It had been from the first his anxious concern that nothing should occur at the Cosmopolitan to get his party under a cloud; yet it did get under a cloud, and on the very last afternoon, too, before Mrs. Bilton's arrival. Only twenty-four hours more and her snowy-haired respectability would have spread over the twins like a white whig. They would have been safe. His party would have been unassailable. But no; those Twinklers, in spite of his exhortation whenever he had a minute left to exhort in, couldn't, it seemed, refrain from twinkling,--the word in Mr. Twist's mind covered the whole of their easy friendliness, their flow of language, their affable desire to explain.
He had kept them with him as much as he could, and luckily the excited interest they took in the progress of the inn made them happy to hang about it most of the time of the delicate and dangerous week before Mrs. Bilton came; but they too had things to do,--shopping in Acapulco choosing the sea-blue linen frocks and muslin caps and aprons in which they were to wait at tea, and buying the cushions and flower-pots and canary that came under the general heading, in Anna-Rose's speech, of feminine touches. So they sometimes left him; and he never saw them go without a qualm.
"Mind and not say anything to anybody about this, won't you," he would say hastily, making a comprehensive gesture towards the cottage as they went.
"Of course we won't."
"I meant, nobody is to know what it's really going to be. They're to think it's just a pied-à-terre. It would most ruin my advertisement scheme if they--"
"But of course we won't. Have we ever?" the twins would answer, looking very smug and sure of themselves.
"No. Not yet. But--"
And the hustled man would plunge again into technicalities with whichever expert was at that moment with him, leaving the twins, as he needs must, to God and their own discretion.
Discretion, he already amply knew, was not a Twinkler characteristic. But the week passed, Mrs. Bilton's arrival grew near, and nothing had happened. It was plain to the watchful Mr. Twist, from the pleasant looks of the other guests when the twins went in and out of the restaurant to meals, that nothing had happened. His heart grew lighter. On the last afternoon, when Mrs. Bilton was actually due next day, his heart was quite light, and he saw them leave him to go back and rest at the hotel, because they were tired by the accumulated standing about of the week, altogether unconcernedly.
The attitude of the Cosmopolitan guests towards the twins was, indeed, one of complete benevolence. They didn't even mind the canary. Who would not be indulgent towards two such sweet little girls and their pet bird, even if it did sing all day and most of the night without stopping? The Twinkler girls were like two little bits of snapped-off sunlight, or bits of white blossom blowing in and out of the hotel in their shining youth and it was impossible not to regard them indulgently. But if the guests were indulgent, they were also inquisitive. Everybody knew who Mr. Twist was; who, however, were the Twinklers? Were they relations of his? Protégées? Charges?
The social column of the Acapulco daily paper, from which information as to new arrivals was usually got, had, as we know, in its embarrassment at being ignorant to take refuge in French, because French may so easily be supposed to mean something. The paper had little knowledge of, but much confidence in, French. Entourage had seemed to it as good a word as any other, as indeed did clientèle. It had hesitated between the two, but finally chose entourage because there happened to be no accent in its stock of type. The Cosmopolitan guests were amused at the word, and though inquisitive were altogether amiable; and, until the last afternoon, only the manager didn't like the Twinklers. He didn't like them because of the canary. His sympathies had been alienated from the Miss Twinklers the moment he heard through the chambermaid that they had tied the heavy canary cage on to the hanging electric light in their bedroom. He said nothing, of course. One doesn't say anything if one is an hotel manager, until the unique and final moment when one says everything.
On the last afternoon before Mrs. Bilton's advent the twins, tired of standing about for days at the cottage and in shops, appeared in the hall of the hotel and sat down to rest. They didn't go to their room to rest because they didn't feel inclined for the canary, and they sat down very happily in the comfortable rocking-chairs with which the big hall abounded, and, propping their dusty feet on the lower bar of a small table, with friendly and interested eyes they observed the other guests.
The other guests also observed them.
It was the first time the entourage had appeared without its companion, and the other guests were dying to know details about it. It hadn't been sitting in the hall five minutes before a genial old gentleman caught Anna-Felicitas's friendly eye and instantly drew up his chair.
"Uncle gone off by himself to-day?" he asked; for he was of the party in the hotel which inclined, in spite of the marked difference in profiles, to the relationship theory, and he made a shot at the relationship being that of uncle.
"We haven't got an uncle nearer than England," said Anna-Felicitas affably.
"And we only got him by accident," said Anna-Rose, equally affably.
"It was an unfortunate accident," said Anna-Felicitas, considering her memories.
"Indeed," said the old gentleman. "Indeed. How was that?"
"By the usual method, if an uncle isn't a blood uncle," said Anna-Rose. "We happened to have a marriageable aunt, and he married her. So we have to have him."
"It was sheer bad luck," said Anna-Felicitas, again brooding on that distant image.
"Yes," said Anna-Rose. "Just bad luck. He might so easily have married some one else's aunt. But no. His roving glance must needs go and fall on ours."
"Indeed," said the old gentleman. "Indeed." And he ruminated on this, with an affectionate eye--he was affectionate--resting in turn on each Anna.
"Then Mr. Twist," he went on presently--"we all know him of course--a public benefactor--"
"Yes, isn't he," said Anna-Rose radiantly.
"A boon to the breakfast-table--"
"Yes, isn't he," said Anna-Rose again, all asparkle. "He is so pleasant at breakfast."
"Then he--Mr. Twist--Teapot Twist we call him where I live--"
"Teapot Twist?" said Anna-Rose. "I think that's irreverent."
"Not at all. It's a pet name. A sign of our affection and gratitude. Then he isn't your uncle?"
"We haven't got a real uncle nearer than heaven," said Anna-Felicitas, her cheek on her hand, dreamily reconstructing the image of Onkel Col.
"Indeed," said the old gentleman. "Indeed." And he ruminated, on this too, his thirsty heart--he had a thirsty heart, and found difficulty in slaking it because of his wife--very indulgent toward the twins.
Then he said: "That's a long way off."
"What is?" asked Anna-Rose.
"The place your uncle's in."
"Not too far really," said Anna-Felicitas softly. "He's safe there. He was very old, and was difficult to look after. Why, he got there at last through his own carelessness."
"Indeed," said the old gentleman.
"Sheer carelessness," said Anna-Rose.
"Indeed," said the old gentleman. "How was that?"
"Well, you see where we lived they didn't have electric light," began Anna-Rose, "and one night--the the night he went to heaven--he put the petroleum lamp--"
And she was about to relate that dreadful story of Onkle Col's end which has already been described in these pages as unfit for anywhere but an appendix for time had blunted her feelings, when Anna-Felicitas put out a beseeching hand and stopped her. Even after all these years Anna-Felicitas couldn't bear to remember Onkle Col's end. It had haunted her childhood. It had licked about her dreams in leaping tongues of flame. And it wasn't only tongues of flame. There were circumstances connected with it.... Only quite recently, since the war had damped down lesser horrors, had she got rid of it. She could at least now talk of him calmly, and also speculate with pleasure on the probable aspect of Onkle Col in glory, but she still couldn't bear to hear the details of his end.
At this point an elderly lady of the spare and active type, very upright and much wrinkled, that America seems so freely to produce, came down the stairs; and seeing the twins talking to the old gentleman, crossed straight over and sat down briskly next to them smiling benevolently.
"Well, if Mr. Ridding can talk to you I guess so can I," she said, pulling her knitting out of a brocaded bag and nodding and smiling at the group.
She was knitting socks for the Allied armies in France the next winter, but it being warm just then in California they were cotton socks because wool made her hands too hot.
The twins were all polite, reciprocal smiles.
"I'm just crazy to hear about you," said the brisk lady, knitting with incredible energy, while her smiles flicked over everybody. "You're fresh from Europe, aren't you? What say? Quite fresh? My, aren't you cute little things. Thinking of making a long stay in the States? What say? For the rest of your lives? Why now, I call that just splendid. Parents coming out West soon too? What say? Prevented? Well, I guess they won't let themselves be prevented long. Mr. Twist looking after you meanwhile? What say? There isn't any meanwhile? Well, I don't quite--Mr. Twist your uncle, or cousin? What say? No relation at all? H'm, h'm. No relation at all, is he. Well, I guess he's an old friend of your parents, then. What say? They didn't know him? H'm, h'm. They didn't know him, didn't they. Well, I don't quite--What say? But you know him? Yes, yes, so I see. H'm, h'm. I don't quite--" Her needles flew in and out, and her ball of cotton rolled on to the floor in her surprise.
Anna-Rose got up and fetched it for her before the old gentleman, who was gazing with thirsty appreciation at Anna-Felicitas, could struggle out of his chair.
"You see," explained Anna-Felicitas, taking advantage of the silence that had fallen on the lady, "Mr. Twist, regarded as a man, is old, but regarded as a friend he is new."
"Brand new," said Anna-Rose.
"H'm, h'm," said the lady, knitting faster than ever, and looking first at one twin and then at the other. "H'm, h'm, h'm. Brand new, is he. Well, I don't quite--" Her smiles had now to struggle with the uncertainty and doubt, and were weakening visibly.
"Say now, where did you meet Teapot Twist?" asked the old gentleman, who was surprised too, but remained quite benevolent owing to his affectionate heart and his not being a lady.
"We met Mr. Twist," said Anna-Rose, who objected to this way of alluding to him, "on the steamer."
"Not before? You didn't meet Mr. Twist before the steamer?" exclaimed the lady, the last of her smiles flickering out. "Not before the steamer, didn't you. Just a steamship acquaintance. Parents never seen him. H'm, h'm, h'm."
"We would have met him before if we could," said Anna-Felicitas earnestly.
"I should think so," said Anna-Rose. "It has been the great retrospective loss of our lives meeting him so late in them."
"Why now," said the old gentleman smiling, "I shouldn't call it so particularly late in them."
But the knitting lady didn't smile at all, and sat up very straight and said "H'm, h'm, h'm" to her flashing needles as they flew in and out; for not only was she in doubt now about the cute little things, but she also regretted, on behalf of the old gentleman's wife who was a friend of hers, the alert interest of his manner. He sat there so very much awake. With his wife he never seemed awake at all. Up to now she had not seen him except with his wife.
"You mustn't run away with the idea that we're younger than we really are," Anna-Rose said to the old gentleman.
"Why no, I won't," he answered with a liveliness that deepened the knitting lady's regret on behalf of his wife. "When I run away you bet it won't be with an idea."
And he chuckled. He was quite rosy in the face, and chuckled; he whom she knew only as a quiet man with no chuckle in him. And wasn't what he had just said very like what the French call a double entendre? She hadn't a husband herself, but if she had she would wish him to be at least as quiet when away from her as when with her, and at least as free from double entendres. At least. Really more. "H'm, h'm, h'm," she said, clicking her needles and looking first at the twins and then at the old gentleman.
"Do you mean to say you crossed the Atlantic quite alone, you two?" she asked, in order to prevent his continuing on these remarkable and unusual lines of badinage.
"Quite," said Anna-Felicitas.
"That is to say, we had Mr. Twist of course," said Anna-Rose.
"Once we had got him," amended Anna-Felicitas.
"Yes, yes," said the knitting lady, "so you say. H'm, h'm, h'm. Once you had got him. I don't quite--"
"Well, I call you a pair of fine high-spirited girls," said the old gentleman heartily, interrupting in his turn, "and all I can say is I wish I had been on that boat."
"Here's Mrs. Ridding," said the knitting lady quickly, relief in her voice; whereupon he suddenly grew quiet. "My, Mrs. Ridding," she added when the lady drew within speaking distance, "you do look as though you needed a rest."
Mrs. Ridding, the wife of the old gentleman, Mr. Ridding, had been approaching slowly for some time from behind. She had been out on the verandah since lunch, trying to recover from it. That was the one drawback to meals, she considered, that they required so much recovering from; and the nicer they were the longer it took. The meals at the Cosmopolitan were particularly nice, and really all one's time was taken up getting over them.
She was a lady whose figure seemed to be all meals. The old gentleman had married her in her youth, when she hadn't had time to have had so many. He and she were then the same age, and unfortunately hadn't gone on being the same age since. It had wrecked his life this inability of his wife to stay as young and new as himself. He wanted a young wife, and the older he got in years--his heart very awkwardly retained its early freshness--the younger he wanted her; and, instead, the older he got the older his wife got too. Also the less new. The old gentleman felt the whole thing was a dreadful mistake. Why should he have to be married to this old lady? Never in his life had he wanted to marry old ladies; and he thought it very hard that at an age when he most appreciated bright youth he should be forced to spend his precious years, his crowning years when his mind had attained wisdom while his heart retained freshness, stranded with an old lady of costly habits and inordinate bulk just because years ago he had fallen in love with a chance pretty girl.
He struggled politely out of his chair on seeing her. The twins, impressed by such venerable abundance, got up too.
"Albert, if you try to move too quick you'll crick your back again," said Mrs. Ridding in a monotonous voice, letting herself down carefully and a little breathlessly on to the edge of a chair that didn't rock, and fanning herself with a small fan she carried on the end of a massive gold chain. Her fatigued eyes explored the twins while she spoke.
"I can't get Mr. Ridding to remember that we're neither of us as young as we were," she went on, addressing the knitting lady but with her eyes continuing to explore the twins.
They naturally thought she was speaking to them, and Anna-Felicitas said politely, "Really?" and Anna-Rose, feeling she too ought to make some comment, said, "Isn't that very unusual?"
Aunt Alice always said, "Isn't that very unusual?" when she didn't know what else to say, and it worked beautifully, because then the other person launched into affirmations or denials with the reasons for them, and was quite happy.
But Mrs. Ridding only stared at the twins heavily and in silence.
"Because," explained Anna-Rose, who thought the old lady didn't quite follow, "nobody ever is. So that it must be difficult not to remember it."
Mr. Ridding too was silent, but that was because of his wife. It was quite untrue to say that he forgot, seeing that she was constantly reminding him. "Old stranger," he thought resentfully, as he carefully arranged a cushion behind her back. He didn't like her back. Why should he have to pay bills for putting expensive clothes on it? He didn't want to. It was all a dreadful mistake.
"You're the Twinkler girls," said the old lady abruptly.
They made polite gestures of agreement.
The knitting lady knitted vigorously, sitting up very straight and saying nothing, with a look on her face of disclaiming every responsibility.
"Where does your family come from?" was the next question.
This was unexpected. The twins had no desire to talk of Pomerania. They hadn't wanted to talk about Pomerania once since the war began; and they felt very distinctly in their bones that America, though she was a neutral, didn't like Germany any more than the belligerents did. It had been their intention to arrange together the line they would take if asked questions of this sort, but life had been so full and so exciting since their arrival that they had forgotten to.
Anna-Rose found herself unable to say anything at all. Anna-Felicitas, therefore, observing that Christopher was unnerved, plunged in.
"Our family," she said gently, "can hardly be said to come so much as to have been."
The old lady thought this over, her lustreless eyes on Anna-Felicitas's face.
The knitting lady clicked away very fast, content to leave the management of the Twinklers in more competent hands.
"How's that?" asked the old lady, finally deciding that she hadn't understood.
"It's extinct," said Anna-Felicitas. "Except us. That is, in the direct line."
The old lady was a little impressed by this, direct lines not being so numerous or so clear in America as in some other countries.
"You mean you two are the only Twinklers left?" she asked.
"The only ones left that matter," said Anna-Felicitas. "There are branches of Twinklers still existing, I believe, but they're so unimportant that we don't know them."
"Mere twigs," said Anna-Rose, recovering her nerves on seeing Anna-Felicitas handle the situation so skilfully; and her nose unconsciously gave a slight Junker lift.
"Haven't you got any parents?" asked the old lady.
"We used to have," said Anna-Felicitas flushing, afraid that her darling mother was going to be asked about.
The old gentleman gave a sudden chuckle. "Why yes," he said, forgetting his wife's presence for an instant, "I guess you had them once, or I don't see how--"
"Albert," said his wife.
"We are the sole surviving examples of the direct line of Twinklers," said Anna-Rose, now quite herself and ready to give Columbus a hand. "There's just us. And we--" she paused a moment, and then plunged--"we come from England."
"Do you?" said the old lady. "Now I shouldn't have said that. I can't say just why, but I shouldn't. Should you, Miss Heap?"
"I shouldn't say a good many things, Mrs. Ridding," said Miss Heap enigmatically, her needles flying.
"It's because we've been abroad a great deal with our parents, I expect," said Anna-Rose rather quickly. "I daresay it has left its mark on us."
"Everything leaves its mark on one," observed Anna-Felicitas pleasantly.
"Ah," said the old lady. "I know what it is now. It's the foreign r. You've picked it up. Haven't they, Miss Heap."
"I shouldn't like to say what they haven't picked up, Mrs. Ridding," said Miss Heap, again enigmatically.
"I'm afraid we have," said Anna-Rose, turning red. "We've been told that before. It seems to stick, once one has picked it up."
And the old gentleman muttered that everything stuck once one had picked it up, and looked resentfully at his wife.
She moved her slow eyes round, and let them rest on him a moment.
"Albert, if you talk so much you won't be able to sleep to-night," she said. "I can't get Mr. Ridding to remember we've got to be careful at our age," she added to the knitting lady.
"You seem to be bothered by your memory," said Anna-Rose politely, addressing the old gentleman "Have you ever tried making notes on little bits of paper of the things you have to remember? I think you would probably be all right then. Uncle Arthur used to do that. Or rather he made Aunt Alice do it for him, and put them where he would see them."
"Uncle Arthur," explained Anna-Felicitas to the old lady, "is an uncle of ours. The one," she said turning to the old gentleman, "we were just telling you about, who so unfortunately insisted on marrying our aunt. Uncle, that is, by courtesy," she added, turning to the old lady, "not by blood."
The old lady's eyes moved from one twin to the other as each one spoke, but she said nothing.
"But Aunt Alice," said Anna-Rose, "is our genuine aunt. Well, I was going to tell you," she continued briskly, addressing the old gentleman. "There used to be things Uncle Arthur had to do every day and every week, but still he had to be reminded of them each time, and Aunt Alice had a whole set of the regular ones written out on bits of cardboard, and brought them out in turn. The Monday morning one was: Wind the Clock, and the Sunday morning one was: Take your Hot Bath, and the Saturday evening one was: Remember your Pill. And there was one brought in regularly every morning with his shaving water and stuck in his looking-glass: Put on your Abdominable Belt."
The knitting needles paused an instant.
"Yes," Anna-Felicitas joined in, interested by these recollections, her long limbs sunk in her chair in a position of great ease and comfort, "and it seemed to us so funny for him to have to be reminded to put on what was really a part of his clothes every day, that once we wrote a slip of our own for him and left it on his dressing-table: Don't forget your Trousers."
The knitting needles paused again.
"But the results of that were dreadful," added Anna-Felicitas, her face sobering at the thought of them.
"Yes," said Anna-Rose. "You see, he supposed Aunt Alice had done it, in a fit of high spirits, though she never had high spirits--"
"And wouldn't have been allowed to if she had," explained Anna-Felicitas.
"And he thought she was laughing at him," said Anna-Rose, "though we have never seen her laugh--"
"And I don't believe he has either," said Anna-Felicitas.
"So there was trouble, because he couldn't bear the idea of her laughing at him, and we had to confess."
"But that didn't make it any better for Aunt Alice."
"No, because then he said it was her fault anyhow for not keeping us stricter."
"So," said Anna-Felicitas, "after the house had been steeped in a sulphurous gloom for over a week, and we all felt as though we were being slowly and steadily gassed, we tried to make it up by writing a final one--a nice one--and leaving it on his plate at breakfast: Kiss your Wife. But instead of kissing her he--" She broke off, and then finished a little vaguely: "Oh well, he didn't."
"Still," remarked Anna-Rose, "it must be pleasant not to be kissed by a husband. Aunt Alice always wanted him to, strange to say, which is why we reminded him of it. He used to forget that more regularly than almost anything. And the people who lived in the house nearest us were just the opposite--the husband was for ever trying to kiss the person who was his wife, and she was for ever dodging him."
"Yes," said Anna-Felicitas. "Like the people on Keats's Grecian Urn."
"Yes," said Anna-Rose. "And that sort of husband, must be even worse.
"Oh, much worse," agreed Anna-Felicitas.
She looked round amiably at the three quiet figures in the chairs. "I shall refrain altogether from husbands," she said placidly. "I shall take something that doesn't kiss."
And she fell into an abstraction, wondering, with her cheek resting on her hand, what he, or it, would look like.
There was a pause. Anna-Rose was wondering too what sort of a creature Columbus had in her mind, and how many, if any, legs it would have; and the other three were, as before, silent.
Then the old lady said, "Albert," and put out her hand to be helped on to her feet.
The old gentleman struggled out of his chair, and helped her up. His face had a congested look, as if he were with difficulty keeping back things he wanted to say.
Miss Heap got up too, stuffing her knitting as she did so into her brocaded bag.
"Go on ahead and ring the elevator bell, Albert," said the old lady. "It's time we went and had our nap."
"I ain't going to," said the old gentleman suddenly.
"What say? What ain't you going to, Albert?" said the old lady, turning her slow eyes round to him.
"Nap," said the old gentleman, his face very red.
It was intolerable to have to go and nap. He wished to stay where he was and talk to the twins. Why should he have to nap because somebody else wanted to? Why should he have to nap with an old lady, anyway? Never in his life had he wanted to nap with old ladies. It was all a dreadful mistake.
"Albert," said his wife looking at him.
He went on ahead and rang the lift-bell.
"You're quite right to see that he rests, Mrs. Ridding," said Miss Heap, walking away with her and slowing her steps to suit hers. "I should say it was essential that he should be kept quiet in the afternoons. You should see that Mr. Ridding rests more than he does. Much more," she added significantly.
"I can't get Mr. Ridding to remember that we're neither of us--"
This was the last the twins heard.
They too had politely got out of their chairs when the old lady began to heave into activity, and they stood watching the three departing figures. They were a little surprised. Surely they had all been in the middle of an interesting conversation?
"Perhaps it's American to go away in the middle," remarked Anna-Rose, following the group with her eyes as it moved toward the lift.
"Perhaps it is," said Anna-Felicitas, also gazing after it.
The old gentleman, in the brief moment during which the two ladies had their backs to him while preceding him into the lift, turned quickly round on his heels and waved his hand before he himself went in.
The twins laughed, and waved back; and they waved with such goodwill that the old gentleman couldn't resist giving one more wave. He was seen doing it by the two ladies as they faced round, and his wife, as she let herself down on to the edge of the seat, remarked that he mustn't exert himself like that or he would have to begin taking his drops again.
That was all she said in the lift; but in their room, when she had got her breath again, she said, "Albert, there's just one thing in the world I hate worse than a fool, and that's an old fool."
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