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Medora Phillips' social activities ran through several social strata and her entertainments varied to correspond. Sometimes she contented herself with mere boy-and-girl affairs, which were thrown together from material gathered within her own household and from the humbler walks of undergraduate life. Sometimes she entertained literary celebrities, and invited the head professors and their wives to meet them. And two or three times a season she gave real dinners to "society," summoning to Ashburn avenue, from homes even more architectural than her own, the banking and wholesale families whose incomes were derived from the city, but who pillared both the university and the many houses of worship in Churchton itself. And sometimes, when she passed over the older generation of these families in favor of the younger, her courses were more "liberal" than Churchton's earlier standards quite approved.
On such formal occasions her three young ladies were dispensed with. They were encouraged to go to some sorority gathering or to some fudge-party. On the occasion now meditated she had another young person in mind. This was the granddaughter of one of the banking families; the girl might come along with her father and mother. She was not very pretty, not very entertaining; however, Mrs. Phillips needed one girl, and if she were not very attractive, none the worse. The one girl was for the one young man. The one young man was to be Bertram Cope. Our fond lady meant to have him and to show him off, sure that her choicest circle could not but find him as charming as she herself did. Most of us, at one time or another, have thrust forward our preferences in the same confident way.
Cope made less of an impression than his patroness had hoped for. Somehow his lithe youthfulness, his fine hair and teeth and eyes, the rich resonance of his voice counted for little--except, perhaps, with the granddaughter. The middle-aged people about him were used to young college men and indifferent to them. Cope himself felt that he was in a new environment, and a loftier one. Several of these were important people, with names familiar through the town and beyond. He employed a caution that almost became inexpressiveness. He also found Mrs. Phillips a shade more formal and stately than her wont. She herself, in her furtive survey of the board, was disappointed to find that he was not telling. "Perhaps it's that girl," she thought; "she may be even duller than I supposed." But never mind; all would be made right later. Some music had been arranged and there would be an accompanist who would help him do himself full justice.
"They'll enjoy him," she thought confidently.
She had provided an immensity of flowers. There was an excess of light, both from electric bulbs and from candles. And there was wine.
"I think I can have just one kind, for once," she had said to herself. "I know several houses where they have two,--Churchton or not,--and at least one where they sometimes have three. If this simple town thinks I can put grape-juice and Apollinaris before such people as these...." Besides, the interesting Cope might interestingly refuse!
As the many courses moved on, Cope smelt the flowers, which were too many, and some of them too odoriferous; he blinked at the lights and breathed the heavy thickening air; and he took--interestingly--a few sips of burgundy,-- for he was now in Rome, and no longer a successful Protestant in some lesser town of the empire. He had had a hard, close day of it, busy indoors with themes and with general reading; and he recalled being glad that the dinner had begun with reasonable promptitude,--for he had bothered with no lunch beyond a glass of milk and a roll. To-night there had been everything,--even to an unnecessary entree. He laid down a spoon on his plate, glad that the frozen pudding--of whatever sort--was disposed of. Too much of everything after too little. The people opposite were far away; their murmuring had become a mumbling, and he wished it was all over. The granddaughter at his elbow was less rewarding than ever, less justificatory of the effortful small-talk which he had put forth with more and more labor, and which he could scarcely put forth now at all. What was it he was meaning to do later? To sing? Absurd! Impossible! His head ached; he felt faint and dizzy....
"We will leave you gentlemen to your cigars," he heard a distant voice saying; and he was conscious for an instant that his hostess was looking down the table at him with a face of startled concern....
"Don't try to lead him out," a deep voice said. "Lay him on the floor."
He felt himself lowered; some small rug was doubled and redoubled and placed under his head; a large, firm hand was laid to his wrist; and something--a napkin dipped in a glass of water and then folded?--was put to his forehead.
"His pulse will come up in a minute," he heard the same deep voice say. "If he had taken a step he would have fainted altogether."
"My poor, dear boy! Whatever in the world...!" Thus Medora Phillips.
"Better not be moved for a little," was the next pronouncement.
Cope lay there inert, but reasonably conscious of what was going on. His eyes gave him no aid, but his ears were open. He heard the alarmed voice of Medora Phillips directing the disconcerted maids, and the rustle and flutter of the garments of other daughters of Eve, who had found him interesting at last. They remarked appreciatively on his pallor; and one of them said, next day, before forgetting him altogether, that, with his handsome profile (she mentioned especially his nose and chin) and with his colorlessness, he looked for a moment like an ancient cameo.
He knew, now, that he was not going to faint, and that he was in better case than he seemed. In the circumstances he found nothing more original to say than: "I shall be all right in no time; just a touch of dizziness...." He was glad his dress-coat could stand inspection, and hoped nobody would notice that his shoes had been half-soled....
After a little while he was led away to a couch in the library. The deep- voiced doctor was on one side of him and Medora Phillips on the other. Soon he was left alone to recuperate in the dark,--alone, save for one or two brief, fluttery appearances by Mrs. Phillips herself, who allowed the coffee to be passed without any supervision on her own part.
On the second of these visitations he found voice to say:
"I'm so sorry for this--and so ashamed. I can't think how it could have happened."
He was ashamed, of course. He had broken up an entertainment pretty completely! Servants running about for him when they had enough to do for the company at large! All the smooth conventions of dinner-giving violently brushed the wrong way! He had fallen by the roadside, a young fellow who had rather prided himself on his health and vigor. Pitiful! He was glad to lie in the dark with his eyes shut tight, tight.
If he had been fifteen or twenty years older he might have taken it all rather more lightly. Basil Randolph, now----But Randolph had not been invited, though his sister and her husband were of the company. Yet had it been Randolph, he would have smiled a wan smile and tried for a mild joke, conscious that he had made an original and picturesque contribution to the affair,--had broken the bland banality of routined dinner-giving and had provided woman with a mighty fine chance to "minister" and fuss: a thing she rather enjoyed doing, especially if a hapless, helpless man had been delivered into her hands as a subject.
But there was no such consolation for poor abashed Cope. He had disclosed himself, for some reason or other, a weakling; and he had weakened at a conspicuously wrong time and in a conspicuously mistaken place. He had hoped, over the cigars and coffee, to lay the foundation of an acquaintance with the brother-in-law who was a trustee,--to set up an identity in this influential person's mind as a possible help to the future of Arthur Lemoyne. But the man now in the dining-room, or the drawing-room, or wherever, might as well be in the next state.
There came a slight patter of rain on the bay-window near his head. He began to wonder how he was to get home.
Meanwhile, in the drawing-room, among the ladies, Mrs. Phillips was anxiously asking: "Was the room too warm? Could the wine have been too much for him?" And out in the dining-room itself, one man said, "Heaven knows just how they live;" and another, "Or what they eat, or don't eat;" and a third, "Or just how hard these young beginners are driven."
"Ought he to go out to-night, Doctor?" asked Mrs. Phillips in a whisper, appearing in the dining-room door.
"He might better stay if he can," replied the authority, who happened to be at the nearer end of the table.
"Of course he can," she returned. Of course there was a room for him.
When the party finally reassembled in the drawing-room Cope had disappeared. Mrs. Phillips could now enlarge on his attractiveness as a singer, and could safely assure them--what she herself believed--that they had lost a really charming experience. "If you could only have heard him that Sunday!" she concluded.
Cope had said, of course, "I can get home perfectly well," and, "It's a shame for me to be putting you out this way," and so on and on,--the things you yourself would have said in the circumstances; but he said them with no particular spirit, and was glad, as he walked uncertainly up stairs, that he had not far to go.
Mrs. Phillips indeed "had a room for him." She had rooms a-plenty. There was the chintz chamber on the third floor, where the Irish poet (who seemed not to expect very much for himself) had been put; and there was the larger, handsomer chamber on the second floor, where the Hindoo philosopher (who had loomed up big and important through a vague Oriental atmosphere) had been installed in state. It was a Louis Quinze room, and the bed had a kind of silken canopy and a great deal too much in the way of bolsters and lace coverings. It was thought that the Hindoo, judging from the report of the maid next morning, had been moved by some ascetic impulse to sleep not in the bed but on the floor beside it. This was the room now destined for Cope; surely one flight of stairs was enough. But there must be no further practice of asceticism,--least of all by a man who was really ill; so Mrs. Phillips, snatching a moment from her guests, herself saw the maid remove the lace pillow-shams and coverlet, and turn down the sheets, and set the thermos-bottle on the stand beside the reading lamp....
"Don't get up a moment earlier than you feel like doing," she said, at the door. "Breakfast----"
"To-morrow is one of my busy days," replied Cope wanly. "Goldsmith, Sheridan...."
"Well, we have other wage-workers in the house, you know. At seven-thirty, then, if you must."
"Seven-thirty, if you please. Thank you."
By the time Mrs. Phillips had returned to her guests, the first of the limousines was standing before the house; its wet top shone under an electric globe. Her own car, meanwhile, obdurately reposed in its garage. Presently a second limousine joined the first, and a third the second; and in another quarter of an hour her guests were well on their way to dispersal. She bade them all goodnight in the best of good humor.
"You've never before had quite such an evening as this, I'm sure!" she said, with great gaiety.
"Isn't it wonderful how she took it all!" said one lady to another, on the back seat of her car. "Anything like that would have thrown me off completely."
The other lady laughed amusedly. She often found our Medora "great fun."
Meanwhile, Cope, up stairs, was sinking deeper and deeper into his big, wide, overupholstered bed. And as his body sank, his spirit sank with it. He felt poor, unimportant, ill at ease. In especial, he felt greatly subordinated; he wished that he might have capitulated to a man. Then the mystery of handsome houses and of handsome furnishings came to harass him. Such things were everywhere: how were they got, how were they kept? Should he himself ever----? But no; nothing ahead for years, even in the most favorable of circumstances, save an assistant professorship, with its inconceivably modest emoluments....
And Medora Phillips, in the stir of getting her guests out of the house, had her first vision of him as sinking off to sleep. Somehow or other his fine, straight yellow hair retained its backward sweep with no impairment by reason of turnings and tossings; his clear profile continued to keep itself disengaged from any depression in the pillows; his slender hands were laid in quiet symmetry over the wide edge of the down-turned coverlet. A decorous, unperturbed young old-master ... Van Eyck ... Carpaccio....
Cope came down to breakfast a little pale, a little shamefaced; but he felt pretty well revived and he made up in excess of speech and action what he essentially lacked in spirit. Mrs. Phillips descended as early as the three girls,--earlier, in fact, than Hortense, who entered informally through the butler's pantry and apparently in full possession of last night's facts. Carolyn inquired civilly after his condition; Amy Leffingwell, with her blue eyes intent upon him, expressed concern and sympathy; Hortense, with her lips closely shut in a satirical smile, said nothing at all: a possible exhibition of self-control which gave her aunt some measure of solicitude. It was not always well when she talked, and it was not always well when she kept silent. Mrs. Phillips pressed the toast upon him and recommended the grape-fruit. He took both with satisfaction, and a second cup of coffee. With that he felt he could easily walk to his class-room; and the walk itself, in the fresh morning air, would brace him further for his hours of routine with his students.
"What a regular nuisance I've made of myself!" he said, on leaving the house.
"Oh, haven't you, just!" exclaimed Mrs. Phillips joyously.
"Your name as an entertainer will be all over town! I'm sure you gave some of those poky people a real touch of novelty!"
Amy Leffingwell was in the front hall at the same time, with her music- roll. They were going the same way, to substantially the same place, to meet about the same hour in the day's schedule. They went along the street together.
The morning air was brisk and cool after last night's shower. Like the trees under which they passed, it gave the first decided intimation of autumn. They set off at a lively pace toward the college towers and the lake.
Cope was soon sailing along with his head high, his trim square shoulders much in action, and his feet throwing themselves spiritedly here and there. Amy, who was not very tall, kept up as well as she could.
"This isn't too fast for you...?" she asked presently.
"No; but it may be a little too fast for you. Excuse me; I've never learned to keep pace with a woman. But as for myself, I never felt better in my life. Every yard toward the good old lake"--the wind was coming down from the north in a great sweep--"makes me feel finer."
He slowed up appreciably.
"Oh, not for me!" she said in deprecation. "I like a brisk morning walk as well as anybody. Did you sing at all?" she asked.
"Not a note. They put the soft pedal on me. They 'muted' me," he amended, in deference to her own branch of the profession.
"We came in by the side door about half past nine. It was a dull meeting. I listened for you. Somebody was playing."
Cope gave a sly smile.
"It must have been the poor disappointed woman who was to have accompanied me. She had had a list of three or four of my things--to run them over in her own album, I suppose. Think just how disappointed she must have been to find that she had the whole field to herself!"
"Oh, musicians--even we poor, despised professionals--are not all like that. If it had been arranged for me to accompany you with an obbligato, I shouldn't have been pleased if opportunity had failed me."
"Your contribution would have been more important than hers. And your substitution for my failure would have given added interest."
The talk, having reached the zone of arid compliment, tended to languish. They had now reached Learning's side of the trolley-tracks, and rills in the great morning flood of the scholastic life were beginning to gather about them and to unite in a rolling stream which flowed toward the campus.
Two or three streets on, the pair separated, she to her work, he to his. For him the walk had been a nothing in particular--he would a little have preferred taking it alone. For her it had been--despite the low level of expressiveness reached on either side--a privilege which had been curtailed much too soon.
Meanwhile, back in the house, Hortense was detailing the events of the previous evening to Joe Foster; the general access of activity on the morning after had made it desirable that she help with his breakfast.
She went at it with a will.
"Why," she said, as Foster sat at his coffee, boiled egg and toast, "he keeled over like a baby."
"Hum!" said Foster darkly. It was as if a shaping ideal had dissipated. Or as if a trace of weakness in one seemingly so young and strong was not altogether unacceptable as a source of consolation.
However, Cope, at half past four that afternoon, was on the faculty tennis- courts, with a racquet in his hand. But one set was enough. "I seem to be a day ahead of my schedule," he said, pulling out and strolling along homeward.
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