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Donald Brown stood at the end of his hearth, his elbow resting on the chimney-piece, his eyes, narrowed a little between the lashes, intently regarding these latest guests of his. He was in the shadow, they were in the strong light of the fire. A great lump of cannel coal, recently laid upon the red-hot embers and half-burned logs of the afternoon fire, had just broken apart with a great hissing and crackling of the pitchy richness of its inner formation, and the resultant glow of rosy light which enveloped the figures before the hearth, against the duller background of the room, otherwise unillumined, made them stand out like figures in a cleverly lighted tableau.
They were much more interesting to Brown, however, than anything he had ever seen in the set and artificial radiance of the calcium light. He knew well every face there, and yet, after his year's exile and in contrast to the faces at which he had been lately looking, they formed a more engrossing study than any he had known for many months.
In the centre of the circle, in Brown's old red-cushioned rocker and most comfortable chair, sat Mrs. Brainard, the exquisitely sophisticated wife of the distinguished specialist close by. Her graceful head, with its slight and becoming touches of gray at the temples, rested like a fine cameo against the warm hue of the cushion. Her brilliant eyes reflected the dancing firelight; her shapely hands, jewelled like Mrs. Breckenridge's, but after an even more rare and perfectly chosen fashion, lay in her silken lap. As his glance fell upon these hands some whimsical thought brought to Brown's mind Mrs. Kelcey's red, work-roughened ones. He wondered if by any chance the two hands would ever meet, and whether Mrs. Brainard's would shrink from the contact, or meet it as that of a sister, "under the skin."
Near her his sister Sue's dainty elegance of person showed like a flower against the big figure of Doctor Brainard, who sat at her elbow. Brainard himself, with his splendid head and erect carriage, was always an imposing personage; he had never seemed more so than now, with the face of Patrick Kelcey, Andrew Murdison, and James Benson, the little watchmaker, in the background of Brown's mind with which to contrast it. Beyond Mrs. Brainard lounged Hugh Breckenridge--as nearly as one could be said to lounge--in a plain, cane-seated chair without arms.
At one side of the group was Webb Atchison, the rich bachelor of the party where all were possessed of wealth in plenty. Next Atchison sat Miss Helena Forrest, the one member of the company who had not known where she was going until well upon her way there. Upon her the glance of the man standing by the chimney-piece fell least often, yet there was no person present of whom he was so unremittingly conscious. It may be said that from the moment that he had lifted her veil in his puzzled search for her identity, he had been conscious of little else.
There was not a single movement of Miss Forrest's hands--and she had certain little delightful, highly characteristic ways of helping out her speech with slight yet significant motions--but had its place in Brown's memory. She was not a frequent talker, she did not speak one word to Sue Breckenridge's fifty; but when she did speak, in her voice of slow music, people listened. And yet one never thought of her, Brown remembered, as a silent person; the effect of her presence in any circle was that of a personality of the active, not the passive, sort. The eyes of one speaking must, involuntarily, be drawn to her because she was listening, if I may coin a phrase, vividly. As for her looks--she possessed that indescribable charm which is not wholly a matter of beautiful features, but lies rather in such details as the lift of the eyebrow, the curve of the lip, the droop of the hair upon the brow. She was dressed much more simply than either of the older women present, yet with the simplicity, it must be admitted, of the artist. She seemed somehow to make their goodly showing fade before her own, as a crimson flower draws from the colour of one of delicate blue.
Well, take them separately or as a group, they were an absorbing study to the man who had seen so little of their kind for so long past, yet knew that kind by the wontedness of his lifetime. He seemed to himself somehow to be viewing them all, for the first time, from a vantage point he had never before occupied. Every word they said in their pleasantly modulated, well-bred voices, with the familiar accent of the educated environment from which they came, and from which he came--it was his accent, too, but somehow it sounded a bit foreign to him tonight--struck upon his ear with a new meaning. Each gesture they made, personal and familiar to him as they were, struck Brown now with its special individuality.
"It's not fair, Don," said Sue Breckenridge suddenly, "for you to stand over there in the shadow and watch us, without our being able to see your face at all."
"You don't realize," declared Brown, in answer to this assertion and the general assenting, laugh which followed it, backed by Atchison's. "Hear, hear!" "that the group you all make in the light of my fire is a picture far ahead of anything in Atchison's collection. I should be an unappreciative host indeed if I didn't make the most of it."
"What an artful speech!" laughed Mrs. Brainard, lifting fine eyes in an attempt to make out the shadowy face above her. "It's well calculated to distract our attention from the fact that you are not changing your position by so much as the moving of an arm. We came to see you, man, not to show ourselves to you."
"We came to cheer his loneliness," put in Hugh Breckenridge with a peculiar, cynical-sounding little laugh for which he was famous. "And we find him up to his neck in boys. Jove! How do you stand their dirty hands, Don? That's what would get me, no matter how good my intentions were."
"Those hands were every pair scrubbed to a finish, to-day, in honour of Thanksgiving. Do you think we have no manners here?" retorted Brown.
"That wasn't the dinner party you wrote me of when you refused to come to mine, was it, Don?" questioned his sister.
"No. This was an after-dinner party, partaking of the 'lavin's,'" Brown explained. "The real one was over an hour before."
"Do tell us about it. Did you enjoy it? Won't you describe your guests?" Mrs. Brainard spoke eagerly.
"With pleasure. The Kelceys are my next-door neighbours on the left. Mrs. Kelcey is pure gold--in the rough. Her husband is not quite her equal, but he knows it and strives to be worthy of her. The Murdisons, on the other side, are--Scotch granite--splendid building material. Old Mr. Benson, the watchmaker, is--well, he's full-jewelled. The others I perhaps can't characterize quite so easily, but among them I find several uncut gems of the semi-precious varieties. Of course there's considerable commonplace material--if you can ever call the stuff of which human beings are made commonplace, which I doubt. There's more or less copper and brass, with a good bit of clay--as there is in all of us. And a deal of a more spiritual element which can't be measured or described, but which makes them all worth knowing."
He had spoken in a thoughtful tone, as if he took Mrs. Brainard's question seriously and meant to answer it in the same way. A moment's silence followed. Then Doctor Brainard said slowly:
"I suppose you don't find those priceless elements among the people of your abandoned parish. Down there we're all copper and clay, eh?"
"If you had been clay I might have done more with you," was the quick retort.
"And you can do things with these people, can you? Dig out the rough gold, polish the uncut diamonds, build temples of the granite--and perhaps mold even the clay into works of art?"
The answer to the ironic question was grave enough, and it came with a quietness which spoke more eloquently than fervid tones would have done of the feeling behind it.
"No, Doctor, I can't hope to do those things. I'm not wise enough. But the things these people are going to do to me, if I'll let them, are worth coming for."
"They've done some of them already," murmured Mrs. Brainard. But nobody heard her except Sue Breckenridge, who cried out:
"And you're not a bit homesick, Don, while you're living like this?"
"If you people won't come up here very often and make me remember what being with you is like, I shall get on pretty well," said Brown's voice from the shadow.
"Then we'll come as often as we can," cried Sue triumphantly.
"No, you won't--not if you want to help me. My reputation as an indigent bachelor out of a job won't stand many onslaughts of company dressed as you are. If you want to come to see me you must come disguised. I'm afraid I'm under suspicion already."
"Explain to them that we're the clay, they the uncut diamonds. That will let you out," advised Doctor Brainard grimly.
"Ah, but you don't look the part," said Brown, laughing. "You look like what you are, a big jewel of a fellow, as my friend Mrs. Kelcey would say. To tell the truth, you all seem like jewels to me to-night--and such polished ones you dazzle my eyes. Hugh, I'd forgotten what a well-cut coat looked like. I remember now."
"You seem pretty well dressed yourself," remarked Atchison, peering up into the shadow. "According to Mrs. Breckenridge, you go about dressed in monk's cloth, and a shabby variety at that. This doesn't look like it."
"He was wearing a dreadful, old shiny serge suit when I saw him a fortnight ago," said Sue. "And such a scarf-pin! Don, are you wearing that same scarf-pin to-night? Do show it to them."
"Does choosing to live by himself make a man a fair target for all the quips and arrows of his friends?" Brown queried, at the same time withdrawing obediently the little silver pin from his cravat and giving it into Atchison's outstretched hand. "Be just to that pin, Webb. It was given me by a special friend of mine."
"How will you exchange?" Atchison inquired gravely, touching his own neckwear as he examined the pin. A rare and costly example of the jeweller's art reposed there, as might have been expected.
"I'll not exchange, thank you."
"Neither will I," declared Atchison, leaning back with a laugh and passing the pin on down the line.
Hugh Breckenridge gave the obviously cheap and commonplace little article one careless glance, and handed it to Miss Forrest. She examined it soberly, as if seeking to find its peculiar value in its owner's eyes. Then she looked at Brown.
"This has a story, I am sure, or you wouldn't care so much for it," she said. "Are we worthy to hear it, Mr. Brown?"
His eyes met hers, though as he stood she could barely make out that fact.
"I should like you to hear it."
"Come out of the darkness, Don, please!" begged his sister again.
The others echoed the wish, and Brown, yielding against his will--somehow he had never wanted more to remain in the shadow--took a chair at one end of the hearth, where he was in full view of them all. "It was given me," said Brown, speaking in a tone which instantly arrested even Hugh Breckenridge's careless attention, though why it did so he could not have said, "by a man whose son was wearing it when he stood on a plank between two windows, ten stories up in the air, and passed fifteen girls over it to safety. Then--the plank burned through at one end. He had known it would."
There fell a hush upon the little group. Mrs. Brainard put out her hand and touched Brown's shoulder caressingly.
"No wonder you wouldn't exchange it, Don," she said, very gently.
"Was the father at your dinner, Don?" Doctor Brainard asked, after a minute.
"So you wore it to please him," commented Sue.
"He wore it," said Helena Forrest, "as a man might wear the Victoria Cross."
"Ah, but I didn't earn it," denied Brown, without looking up.
"I'm not so sure of that," Mrs. Brainard declared. "You must have done something to make the father feel you worthy to wear a thing he valued so much."
"He fancied," said Brown--"he and the mother--that there was a slight resemblance between my looks and those of the son. And they have a finer memorial of him than anything he wore; they have one end of the burned plank. The father has cut the date on it, with his son's name, and it hangs over the chimney-piece."
"What a tragic thing!" cried Sue, shuddering. "I don't see how they can keep it. Do tell us something else, Don. Doesn't anything amusing ever happen here? Oh--what became of the baby?"
Brown rose suddenly to his feet. "I'm forgetting my hospitality," said he. "I'm going to make you all some coffee. The baby, Sue, is at Mrs. Kelcey's, next door. Having only six of her own, she could easily make room for the seventh."
"Tell us about the baby," demanded Webb Atchison. "Has Don gone into the nursery business, with all the rest?"
Sue began to tell the story, describing the night on which she made her first visit to her brother. Brown disappeared into the kitchen and soon returned, bringing with him, as was his entertaining custom, the materials for brewing his coffee upon the hob.
"You remember," he said, as he came, "the way this room was cleared for your reception?"
"By an avalanche of boys, who swept everything, hurly-burly, into outer darkness," supplied Breckenridge.
"You can guess, perhaps, what the kitchen must be looking like, can't you?"
"Indescribable," murmured Sue. "You're not going to invite us to put it in order for you, are you, Don?--and wash all those dreadful, gaudy plates and cups?"
"Just take a look out there, will you?"
Sue shook her head, but Mrs. Brainard went to the door, followed by Atchison and Miss Forrest. They looked out upon a low-ceiled, lamp-lighted room, in absolute order, in which was not a trace of the late festival-making except the piles of clean dishes upon the table, under which lay Bim, nose on paws, alert eyes on the strangers.
"Magic?" queried Mrs. Brainard. "Surely those noisy boys couldn't accomplish such a miracle?"
"Never. Though I suspect they were put to work by a good general, for the borrowed chairs are gone and so are several other bulky articles. There's no difficulty in guessing who did the deed," said Brown, busy with his coffee-making.
He served his guests presently with a beverage which made Atchison exclaim: "The old chap certainly knows how to make the best stuff I ever drank. When I tasted this brew first I invited myself to come out and stay a week with him, but he wouldn't have me."
"You're too polished an article for his hand; he wants his work-stuff raw," Doctor Brainard said again. Evidently this point rankled. Brown looked up.
"I'll challenge you to stay and have it out with me, Doctor," said he.
"Thank you, I came for no other purpose," retorted the doctor coolly. "These people brought me up to have a look at you, and I'm not going back till morning."
"That's great!" Brown's face showed his pleasure.
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