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In the autumn Susan went home for a week, for the Lancaster family was convulsed by the prospect of Alfie's marriage to a little nobody whose father kept a large bakery in the Mission, and Susan was needed to brace Alfred's mother for the blow. Mary Lou's old admirer and his little, invalid wife, were staying at the house now, and Susan found "Ferd" a sad blow to her old romantic vision of him: a stout, little, ruddy-cheeked man, too brilliantly dressed, with hair turning gray, and an offensive habit of attacking the idle rich for Susan's benefit, and dilating upon his own business successes. Georgie came over to spend a night in the old home while Susan was there, carrying the heavy, lumpy baby. Myra was teething now, cross and unmanageable, and Georgie was worried because a barley preparation did not seem to agree with her, and Joe disapproved of patent foods. Joe hoped that the new baby--Susan widened her eyes. Oh, yes, in May, Georgie announced simply, and with a tired sigh,-- Joe hoped the new baby would be a boy. She herself hoped for a little girl, wouldn't it be sweet to call it May? Georgie looked badly, and if she did not exactly break down and cry during her visit, Susan felt that tears were always close behind her eyes.
Billy, beside her somewhat lachrymose aunt and cousins, shone out, during this visit, as Susan had never known him to do before. He looked splendidly big and strong and well, well groomed and erect in carriage, and she liked the little compliment he paid her in postponing the German lesson that should have filled the evening, and dressing himself in his best to take her to the Orpheum. Susan returned it by wearing her prettiest gown and hat. They set out in great spirits, Susan chattering steadily, in the relief it was to speak her mind honestly, and Billy listening, and now and then shouting out in the laughter that never failed her spirited narratives.
He told her of the Carrolls,--all good news, for Anna had been offered a fine position as assistant matron in one of the best of the city's surgical hospitals; Betts had sold a story to the Argonaut for twelve dollars, and Philip was going steadily ahead; "you wouldn't believe he was the same fellow!" said Billy. Jimmy and Betts and their mother were to go up in a few days for a fortnight's holiday in the little shooting-box that some Eastern friends had built years ago in the Humboldt woods. The owners had left the key with Mrs. Carroll, and she might use the little cabin as much as she liked.
"And what about Jo?" Susan asked.
This was the best news of all. Jo was to go East for the winter with one of her mother's friends, whose daughter was Jo's own age. They were to visit Boston and Washington, New York for the Opera, Palm Beach in February, and New Orleans for the Mardi Gras. Mrs. Frothingham was a widow, and had a son at Yale, who would join them for some of the holidays. Susan was absolutely delighted at the news, and alluded to it over and over again.
"It's so different when people deserve a thing, and when it's all new to them," she said to Billy, "it makes it seem so much more glorious!"
They came out of the theater at eleven, cramped and blinking, and Susan, confused for a moment, was trying to get her bearings, when Billy touched her arm.
"The Earl of Somerset is trying to bow to you, Sue!"
She laughed, and followed the direction of his look. It was Stephen Bocqueraz who was smiling at her, a very distinguished figure under the lamp-post, with his fur-lined great-coat, his round tortoise- shell eye-glasses and his silk hat. He came up to them at once, and Susan, pleasantly conscious that a great many people recognized the great man, introduced him to Billy.
He had just gotten back from a long visit in the Southern part of the state, he said, and had been dining to-night with friends at the Bohemian Club, and was walking back to his hotel. Susan could not keep the pleasure the meeting gave her out of her eyes and voice, and Billy showed a sort of boyish and bashful admiration of the writer, too.
"But this--this is a very felicitous occasion," said Mr. Bocqueraz. "We must celebrate this in some fitting manner!"
So he took them to supper, dismissing their hesitation as unworthy of combat; Susan and Billy laughed helplessly and happily as they sat down at the little table, and heard the German waiter's rapture at the commands Stephen Bocqueraz so easily gave him in his mother tongue. Billy, reddening but determined, must at once try his German too, and the waiter and Bocqueraz laughed at him even while they answered him, and agreed that the young man as a linguist was ganz wunderbar. Billy evidently liked his company; he was at his best to- night, unaffected, youthful, earnest. Susan herself felt that she had never been so happy in her life.
Long afterward she tried to remember what they had talked about. She knew that the conversation had been to her as a draught of sparkling wine. All her little affections were in full play to-night, the little odds and ends of worldly knowledge she had gleaned from Ella and Ella's friends, the humor of Emily and Peter Coleman. And because she was an Irishman's daughter a thousand witticisms flashed in her speech, and her eyes shone like stars under the stimulus of another's wit and the admiration in another's eyes.
It became promptly evident that Bocqueraz liked them both. He began to call Billy "lad," in a friendly, older-brotherly manner, and his laughter at Susan was alternated with moments of the gravest, the most flattering attention.
"She's quite wonderful, isn't she?" he said to Billy under his breath, but Susan heard it, and later he added, quite impersonally, "She's absolutely extraordinary! We must have her in New York, you know; my wife must meet her!"
They talked of music and musicians, and Bocqueraz and Billy argued and disputed, and presently the author's card was sent to the leader of the orchestra, with a request for the special bit of music under discussion. They talked of authors and poets and painters and actors, and he knew many of them, and knew something of them all. He talked of clubs, New York clubs and London clubs, and of plays that were yet to be given, and music that the public would never hear.
Susan felt as if electricity was coursing through her veins. She felt no fatigue, no sleepiness, no hunger; her champagne bubbled untouched, but she emptied her glass of ice-water over and over again. Of the lights and the music and the crowd she was only vaguely conscious; she saw, as if in a dream, the hands of the big clock, at the end of the room, move past one, past two o'clock, but she never thought of the time.
It was after two o'clock; still they talked on. The musicians had gone home, lights were put out in the corners of the room, tables and chairs were being piled together.
Stephen Bocqueraz had turned his chair so that he sat sideways at the table; Billy, opposite him, leaned on his elbows; Susan, sitting between them, framing her face in her hands, moved her eyes from one face to the other.
"And now, children," said the writer, when at last they were in the empty, chilly darkness of the street, "where can I get you a carriage? The cars seem to have stopped."
"The cars stop at about one," said William, "but there's a place two blocks up where we can get a hack. Don't let us take you out of your way."
"Good-night, then, lad," said Bocqueraz, laying his hand affectionately on Billy's shoulder. "Good-night, you wonderful little girl. Tell my wife's good cousins in San Rafael that I am coming over very soon to pay my respects."
He turned briskly on his heel and left them, and Susan stood looking after him for a moment.
"Where's your livery stable?" asked the girl then, taking Billy's arm.
"There isn't any!" Billy told her shamelessly. "But I've got just a dollar and eighty cents, and I was afraid he would put us into a carriage!"
Susan, brought violently to earth, burst out laughing, gathered her skirts up philosophically, and took his arm for the long walk home. It was a cool bright night, the sky was spattered thickly with stars, the moon long ago set. Susan was very silent, mind and heart swept with glorious dreams. Billy, beyond the remark that Bocqueraz certainly was a king, also had little to say, but his frequent yawns indicated that it was rather because of fatigue than of visions.
The house was astir when they reached it, but the confusion there was too great to give anyone time to notice the hour of their return. Alfie had brought his bride to see his mother, earlier in the evening, and Ma had had hysterics the moment that they left the house. These were no sooner calmed than Mrs. Eastman had had a "stroke," the doctor had now come and gone, but Mary Lou and her husband still hovered over the sufferer, "and I declare I don't know what the world's coming to!" Mrs. Lancaster said despairingly.
"What is it-what is it?" Mary Lord was calling, when Susan reached the top flight. Susan went in to give her the news, Mary was restless to-night, and glad of company; the room seemed close and warm. Lydia, sleeping heavily on the couch, only turned and grunted occasionally at the sound of the girls' voices.
Susan lay awake until almost dawn, wrapped in warm and delicious emotion. She recalled the little separate phases of the evening's talk, brought them from her memory deliberately, one by one. When she remembered that Mr. Bocqueraz had asked if Billy was "the fiance," for some reason she could not define, she shut her eyes in the dark, and a wave of some new, enveloping delight swept her from feet to head. Certain remembered looks, inflections, words, shook the deeps of her being with a strange and poignantly sweet sense of weakness and power: a trembling joy.
The new thrill, whatever it was, was with her when she wakened, and when she ran downstairs, humming the Toreador's song, Mary Lou and her aunt told her that she was like a bit of sunshine in the house; the girl's eyes were soft and bright with dreams; her cheeks were glowing.
When the postman came she flew to meet him. There was no definite hope in her mind as she did so, but she came back more slowly, nevertheless. No letter for her.
But at eleven o'clock a messenger boy appeared with a special delivery letter for Miss Susan Brown, she signed the little book with a sensation that was almost fear. This--this was beginning to frighten her---
Susan read it with a fast-beating heart. It was short, dignified. Mr. Bocqueraz wrote that he was sending her the book of which he had spoken; he had enjoyed nothing for a long time as much as their little supper last evening; he hoped to see her and that very fine lad, Billy, very soon again. His love to them both. He was her faithful friend, all ways and always, Stephen Graham Bocqueraz.
She slipped it inside her blouse, ignored it for a few moments, returned to it from other thoughts with a sense of infinite delight, and read it again. Susan could not quite analyze its charm, but in her whole being she was conscious of a warmth, a lightness, and a certain sweet and heady happiness throughout the entire day and the next day.
Her thoughts began to turn toward New York. All young Californians are conscious, sooner or later in their growth, of the call of the great city, and just now Susan was wrapped in a cloud of dreams that hung over Broadway. She saw herself one of the ebbing and flowing crowd, watching the world from her place at the breakfast table in a great hotel, sweeping through the perfumed warmth and brightness of a theater lobby to her carriage.
Stephen Bocqueraz had spoken of her coming to New York as a matter of course. "You belong there," he decided, gravely appraising her. "My wife will write to ask you to come, and we will find you just the niche you like among your own sort and kind, and your own work to do."
"Oh, it would be too wonderful!" Susan had gasped.
"New York is not wonderful," he told her, with smiling, kindly, disillusioned eyes, "but you are wonderful!"
Susan, when she went back to San Rafael, was seized by a mood of bitter dissatisfaction with herself. What did she know--what could she do? She was fitted neither for the stage nor for literature, she had no gift of music or of art. Lost opportunities rose up to haunt her. Ah, if she had only studied something, if she were only wiser, a linguist, a student of poetry or of history. Nearing twenty-five, she was as ignorant as she had been at fifteen! A remembered line from a carelessly read poem, a reference to some play by Ibsen or Maeterlinck or d'Annunzio, or the memory of some newspaper clipping that concerned the marriage of a famous singer or the power of a new anaesthetic,--this was all her learning!
Stephen Bocqueraz, on the Sunday following their second meeting, called upon his wife's mother's cousin. Mrs. Saunders was still at the hospital, and Emily was driven by the excitement of the occasion behind a very barrier of affectations, but Kenneth was gracious and hospitable, and took them all to the hotel for tea. Here they were the center of a changing, admiring, laughing group; everybody wanted to have at least a word with the great man, and Emily enjoyed a delightful feeling of popularity. Susan, quite eclipsed, was apparently pleasantly busy with her tea, and with the odds and ends of conversation that fell to her. But Susan knew that Stephen Bocqueraz did not move out of her hearing for one moment during the afternoon, nor miss a word that she said; nor say, she suspected, a word that she was not meant to hear. Just to exist, under these conditions, was enough. Susan, in quiet undertones, laughed and chatted and flirted and filled tea-cups, never once directly addressing the writer, and never really addressing anyone else.
Kenneth brought "Cousin Stephen" home for dinner, but Emily turned fractious, and announced that she was not going down.
"You'd rather be up here just quietly with me, wouldn't you, Sue?" coaxed Emily, sitting on the arm of Susan's chair, and putting an arm about her.
"Of course I would, old lady! We'll send down for something nice, and get into comfortable things," Susan said.
It hardly disappointed her; she was walking on air. She went demurely to the library door, to make her excuses; and Bocqueraz's look enveloped her like a shaft of sunlight. All the evening, upstairs, and stretched out in a long chair and in a loose silk wrapper, she was curiously conscious of his presence downstairs; whenever she thought of him, she must close her book, and fall to dreaming. His voice, his words, the things he had not said ... they spun a brilliant web about her. She loved to be young; she saw new beauty to-night in the thick rope of tawny hair that hung loosely across her shoulder, in the white breast, half-hidden by the fold of her robe, in the crossed, silk-clad ankles. All the world seemed beautiful tonight, and she beautiful with the rest.
Three days later she came downstairs, at five o'clock on a gloomy, dark afternoon, in search of firelight and tea. Emily and Kenneth, Peter Coleman and Mary Peacock, who were staying at the hotel for a week or two, were motoring. The original plan had included Susan, but at the last moment Emily had been discovered upstairs, staring undecidedly out of the window, humming abstractedly.
"Aren't you coming, Em?" Susan had asked, finding her.
"I--I don't believe I will," Emily said lightly, without turning. "Go on, don't wait for me! It's nothing," she had persisted, when Susan questioned her, "Nothing at all! At least," the truth came out at last, "at least, I think it looks odd. So now go on, without me," said Emily.
"What looks odd?"
"Nothing does, I tell you! Please go on."
"You mean, three girls and two men," Susan said slowly.
Emily assented by silence.
"Well, then, you go and I'll stay," Susan said, in annoyance, "but it's perfect rubbish!"
"No, you go," Emily said, pettishly.
Susan went, perhaps six feet; turned back.
"I wish you'd go," she said, in dissatisfaction.
"If I did," Emily said, in a low, quiet tone, still looking out of the window, "it would be simply because of the looks of things!"
"Well, go because of the looks of things then!" Susan agreed cheerfully.
"No, but you see," Emily said eagerly, turning around, "it does look odd--not to me, of course! But mean odd to other people if you go and I don't-don't you think so, Sue?"
"Ye-es," drawled Susan, with a sort of bored and fexasperated sigh. And she went to her own room to write letters, not disappointed, but irritated so thoroughly that she could hardly control her thoughts.
At five o'clock, dressed in a childish black velvet gown--her one pretty house gown--with the deep embroidered collar and cuffs that were so becoming to her, and with her hair freshly brushed and swept back simply from her face, she came downstairs for a cup of tea.
And in the library, sunk into a deep chair before the fire, she found Stephen Bocqueraz, his head resting against the back of the chair, his knees crossed and his finger-tips fitted together. Susan's heart began to race.
He got up and they shook hands, and stood for too long a moment looking at each other. The sense of floating--floating--losing her anchorage--began to make Susan's head spin. She sat down, opposite him, as he took his chair again, but her breath was coming too short to permit of speech.
"Upon my word I thought the woman said that you were all out!" said Bocqueraz, appreciative eyes upon her, "I hardly hoped for a piece of luck like this!"
"Well, they are, you know. I'm not, strictly speaking, a Saunders," smiled Susan.
"No; you're nobody but yourself," he agreed, following a serious look with his sudden, bright smile. "You're a very extraordinary woman, Mamselle Suzanne," he went on briskly, "and I've got a nice little plan all ready to talk to you about. One of these days Mrs. Bocqueraz--she's a wonderful woman for this sort of thing!--shall write to your aunt, or whoever is in loco parentis, and you shall come on to New York for a visit. And while you're there---" He broke off, raised his eyes from a study of the fire, and again sent her his sudden and sweet and most disturbing smile.
"Oh, don't talk about it!" said Susan. "It's too good to be true!"
"Nothing's too good to be true," he answered. "Once or twice before it's been my extraordinary good fortune to find a personality, and give it a push in the right direction. You'll find the world kind enough to you--Lillian will see to it that you meet a few of the right people, and you'll do the rest. And how you'll love it, and how they'll love you!" He jumped up. "However, I'm not going to spoil you," he said, smilingly.
He went to one of the bookcases and presently came back to read to her from Phillips' "Paolo and Francesca," and from "The Book and the Ring." And never in later life did Susan read either without hearing his exquisite voice through the immortal lines:
"A ring without a poesy, and that ring mine? O Lyric Love! ..." "O Lord of Rimini, with tears we leave her, as we leave a child, Be gentle with her, even as God has been...."
"Some day I'll read you Pompilia, little Suzanne," said Bocqueraz. "Do you know Pompilia? Do you know Alice Meynell and some of Patmore's stuff, and the 'Dread of Height'?"
"I don't know anything," said Susan, feeling it true. "Well," he said gaily, "we'll read them all!"
Susan presently poured his tea; her guest wheeling his great leather chair so that its arm touched the arm of her own.
"You make me feel all thumbs, watching me so!" she protested.
"I like to watch you," he answered undisturbed. "Here, we'll put this plate on the arm of my chair,--so. Then we can both use it. Your scones on that side, and mine on this, and my butter-knife between the two, like Prosper Le Gai's sword, eh?"
Susan's color heightened suddenly; she frowned. He was a man of the world, of course, and a married man, and much older than she, but somehow she didn't like it. She didn't like the laughter in his eyes. There had been just a hint of this--this freedom, in his speech a few nights ago, but somehow in Billy's presence it had seemed harmless---
"And why the blush?" he was askingly negligently, yet watching her closely, as if he rather enjoyed her confusion.
"You know why," Susan said, meeting his eyes with a little difficulty.
"I know why. But that's nothing to blush at. Analyze it. What is there in that to embarrass you?"
"I don't know," Susan said, awkwardly, feeling very young.
"Life is a very beautiful thing, my child," he said, almost as if he were rebuking her, "and the closer we come to the big heart of life the more wonderful things we find. No--no--don't let the people about you make you afraid of life." He finished his cup of tea, and she poured him another. "I think it's time to transplant you," he said then, pleasantly, "and since last night I've been thinking of a very delightful and practical way to do it. Lillian--Mrs. Bocqueraz has a very old friend in New York in Mrs. Gifford Curtis--no, you don't know the name perhaps, but she's a very remarkable woman--an invalid. All the world goes to her teas and dinners, all the world has been going there since Booth fell in love with her, and Patti-- when she was in her prime!--spent whole Sunday afternoons singing to her! You'll meet everyone who's at all worth while there now, playwrights, and painters, and writers, and musicians. Her daughters are all married to prominent men; one lives in Paris, one in London, two near her; friends keep coming and going. It's a wonderful family. Well, there's a Miss Concannon who's been with her as a sort of companion for twenty years, but Miss Concannon isn't young, and she confided to me a few months ago that she needed an assistant,-- someone to pour tea and write notes and play accompaniments---"
"A sort of Julie le Breton?" said Susan, with sparkling eyes. She resolved to begin piano practice for two hours a day to-morrow.
"I beg pardon? Yes--yes, exactly, so I'm going to write Lillian at once, and she'll put the wheels in motion!"
"I don't know what good angel ever made you think of me," said Susan.
"Don't you?" the man asked, in a low tone. There was a pause. Both stared at the fire. Suddenly Bocqueraz cleared his throat.
"Well!" he said, jumping up, "if this clock is right it's after half-past six. Where are these good people?"
"Here they are--there's the car coming in the gate now!" Susan said in relief. She ran out to the steps to meet them.
A day or two later, as she was passing Ella's half-open doorway, Ella's voice floated out into the hall.
"That you, Susan? Come in. Will you do your fat friend a favor?" Ella, home again, had at once resumed her despotic control of the household. She was lying on a couch at this moment, lazily waving a scribbled half sheet of paper over her head.
"Take this to Mrs. Pullet, Sue," said she, "and ask her to tell the cook, in some confidential moment, that there are several things written down here that he seems to have forgotten the existence of. I want to see them on the table, from time to time. While I was with the Crewes I was positively mortified at the memory of our meals! And from now on, while Mr. Bocqueraz's here, we'll be giving two dinners a week."
"While--?" Susan felt a delicious, a terrifying weakness run like a wave from head to feet.
"He's going to be here for a month or two!" Ella announced complacently. "It was all arranged last night. I almost fell off my feet when he proposed it. He says he's got some work to finish up, and he thinks the atmosphere here agrees with him. Kate Stanlaws turned a lovely pea-green, for they were trying to get him to go with them to Alaska. He'll have the room next to Mamma's, with the round porch, and the big room off the library for a study. I had them clear everything out of it, and Ken's going to send over a desk, and chair, and so on. And do try to do everything you can to make him comfortable, Sue. Mamma's terribly pleased that he wants to come," finished Ella, making a long arm for her novel, "But of course he and I made an instant hit with each other!"
"Oh, of course I will!" Susan promised. She went away with her list, pleasure and excitement and a sort of terror struggling together in her heart.
Pleasure prevailed, however, when Stephen Bocqueraz was really established at "High Gardens," and the first nervous meeting was safely over. Everybody in the house was the happier and brighter for his coming, and Susan felt it no sin to enjoy him with the rest. Meal times became very merry; the tea-hour, when he would come across the hall from his workroom, tired, relaxed, hungry, was often the time of prolonged and delightful talks, and on such evenings as Ella left her cousin free of dinner engagements, even Emily had to admit that his reading, under the drawing-room lamp, was a rare delight.
Sometimes he gave himself a half-holiday, and joined Emily and Susan in their driving or motoring. On almost every evening that he did not dine at home he was downstairs in time for a little chat with Susan over the library fire. They were never alone very long, but they had a dozen brief encounters every day, exchanged a dozen quick, significant glances across the breakfast table, or over the book that he was reading aloud.
Susan lived in a dazed, wide-eyed state of reasonless excitement and perilous delight. It was all so meaningless, she assured her pretty vision in the mirror, as she arranged her bright hair,--the man was married, and most happily married; he was older than she; he was a man of honor! And she, Susan Brown, was only playing this fascinating game exceptionally well. She had never flirted before and had been rather proud of it. Well, she was flirting now, and proud of that, too! She was quite the last girl in the world to fall seriously in love, with her eyes wide open, in so extremely undesirable a direction! This was not falling in love at all. Stephen Bocqueraz spoke of his wife half a dozen times a day. Susan, on her part, found plenty of things about him to dislike! But he was clever, and--yes, and fascinating, and he admired her immensely, and there was no harm done so far, and none to be done. Why try to define the affair by cut-and-dried rules; it was quite different from anything that had ever happened before, it stood in a class quite by itself.
The intangible bond between them strengthened every day. Susan, watching him when Ella's friends gathered about him, watching the honest modesty with which he evaded their empty praises, their attempts at lionizing, could not but thrill to know that her praise stirred him, that the deprecatory, indifferent air was dropped quickly enough for her! It was intoxicating to know, as she did know, that he was thinking, as she was, of what they would say when they next had a moment together; that, whatever she wore, he found her worth watching; that, whatever her mood, she never failed to amuse and delight him! Her rather evasive beauty grew more definite under his eyes; she bubbled with fun and nonsense. "You little fool!" Ella would laugh, with an approving glance toward Susan at the tea-table, and "Honestly, Sue, you were killing tonight!" Emily, who loved to be amused, said more than once.
One day Miss Brown was delegated to carry a message to Mr. Bocqueraz in his study. Mrs. Saunders was sorry to interrupt his writing, but a very dear old friend was coming to dinner that evening, and would Cousin Stephen come into the drawing-room for a moment, before he and Ella went out?
Susan tripped demurely to the study door and rapped.
"Come in!" a voice shouted. Susan turned the knob, and put her head into the room. Mr. Bocqueraz, writing at a large table by the window, and facing the door across its shining top, flung down his pen, and stretched back luxuriously in his chair.
"Well, well!" said he, smiling and blinking. "Come in, Susanna!"
"Mrs. Saunders wanted me to ask you---"
"But come in! I've reached a tight corner; couldn't get any further anyway!" He pushed away his papers. "There are days, you know, when you're not even on bowing acquaintance with your characters."
He looked so genial, so almost fatherly, so contentedly lazy, leaning back in his big chair, the winter sunshine streaming in the window behind him, and a dozen jars of fragrant winter flowers making the whole room sweet, that Susan came in, unhesitatingly. It was the mood of all his moods that she liked best; interested, interesting, impersonal.
"But I oughtn't--you're writing," said Susan, taking a chair across the table from him, and laying bold hands on his manuscript, nevertheless. "What a darling hand you write!" she observed, "and what enormous margins. Oh, I see, you write notes in the margins-- corrections?"
"Exactly!" He was watching her between half-closed lids, with lazy pleasure.
"'The only,' in a loop," said Susan, "that's not much of a note! I could have written that myself," she added, eying him sideways through a film of drifting hair.
"Very well, write anything you like!" he offered amusedly.
"Oh, honestly?" asked Susan with dancing eyes. And, at his nod, she dipped a pen in the ink, and began to read the story with a serious scowl.
"Here!" she said suddenly, "this isn't at all sensible!" And she read aloud:
"So crystal clear was the gaze with which he met her own, that she was aware of an immediate sense, a vaguely alarming sense, that her confidence must be made with concessions not only to what he had told her--and told her so exquisitely as to indicate his knowledge of other facts from which those he chose to reveal were deliberately selected--but also to what he had not--surely the most significant detail of the whole significant episode--so chosen to reveal!"
"Oh, I see what it means, when I read it aloud," said Susan, cheerfully honest. "But at first it didn't seem to make sense!"
"Go ahead. Fix it anyway you like."
"Well---" Susan dimpled. "Then I'll--let's see--I'll put 'surely' after 'also,'" she announced, "and end it up, 'to what he had not so chosen to reveal!' Don't you think that's better?"
"Clearer, certainly.--On that margin, Baby."
"And will you really let it stay that way?" asked the baby, eying the altered page with great satisfaction.
"Oh, really. You will see it so in the book."
His quiet certainty that these scattered pages would surely be a book some day thrilled Susan, as power always thrilled her. Just as she had admired Thorny's old scribbled prices, years before, so she admired this quiet mastery now. She asked Stephen Bocqueraz questions, and he told her of his boyhood dreams, of the early struggles in the big city, of the first success.
"One hundred dollars for a story, Susan. It looked a little fortune!"
"And were you married then?"
"Married?" He smiled. "My dear child, Mrs. Bocqueraz is worth almost a million dollars in her own right. No--we have never faced poverty together!" There was almost a wistful look in his eyes.
"And to whom is this book going to be dedicated?" asked Susan.
"Well, I don't know. Lillian has two, and Julie has one or two, and various men, here and in London. Perhaps I'll dedicate this one to a bold baggage of an Irish girl. Would you like that?"
"Oh, you couldn't!" Susan said, frightened.
"Why couldn't I?"
"Because,--I'd rather you wouldn't! I--and it would look odd!" stammered Susan.
"Would you care, if it did?" he asked, with that treacherous sudden drop in his voice that always stirred her heart so painfully.
"No-o---" Susan answered, scarcely above a whisper.
"What are you afraid of, little girl?" he asked, putting his hand over hers on the desk.
Susan moved her hand away.
"Because, your wife---" she began awkwardly, turning a fiery red.
Bocqueraz abruptly left his seat, and walked to a window.
"Susan," he said, coming back, after a moment, "have I ever done anything to warrant--to make you distrust me?"
"No,--never!" said Susan heartily, ashamed of herself.
"Friends?" he asked, gravely. And with his sudden smile he put his two hands out, across the desk.
It was like playing with fire; she knew it. But Susan felt herself quite equal to anyone at playing with fire.
"Friends!" she laughed, gripping his hands with hers. "And now," she stood up, "really I mustn't interrupt you any longer!"
"But wait a moment," he said. "Come see what a pretty vista I get-- right across the Japanese garden to the woods!"
"The same as we do upstairs," Susan said. But she went to stand beside him at the window.
"No," said Stephen Bocqueraz presently, quietly taking up the thread of the interrupted conversation, "I won't dedicate my book to you, Susan, but some day I'll write you a book of your own! I have been wishing," he added soberly, his eyes on the little curved bridge and the dwarfed shrubs, the pond and the stepping-stones across the garden, "I have been wishing that I never had met you, my dear. I knew, years ago, in those hard, early days of which I've been telling you, that you were somewhere, but--but I didn't wait for you, Susan, and now I can do no more than wish you God-speed, and perhaps give you a helping hand upon your way! That's all I wanted to say."
"I'm--I'm not going to answer you," said Susan, steadily, composedly.
Side by side they looked out of the window, for another moment or two, then Bocqueraz turned suddenly and catching her hands in his, asked almost gaily:
"Well, this is something, at least, isn't it--to be good friends, and to have had this much of each other?"
"Surely! A lot!" Susan answered, in smiling relief. And a moment later she had delivered her message, and was gone, and he had seated himself at his work again.
How much was pretense and how much serious earnest, on his part, she wondered. How much was real on her own? Not one bit of it, said Susan, fresh from her bath, in the bracing cool winter morning, and walking briskly into town for the mail. Not--not much of it, anyway, she decided when tea-time brought warmth and relaxation, the leaping of fire-light against the library walls, the sound of the clear and cultivated voice.
But what was the verdict later, when Susan, bare-armed and bare- shouldered, with softened light striking brassy gleams from her hair, and the perfumed dimness and silence of the great house impressing every sense, paused for a message from Stephen Bocqueraz at the foot of the stairs, or warmed her shining little slipper at the fire, while he watched her from the chair not four feet away?
When she said "I--I'm not going to answer you," in the clear, bright morning light, Susan was enjoyably aware of the dramatic value of the moment; when she evaded Bocqueraz's eye throughout an entire luncheon she did it deliberately; it was a part of the cheerful, delightful game it pleased them both to be playing.
But not all was posing, not all was pretense. Nature, now and then, treacherously slipped in a real thrill, where only play-acting was expected. Susan, laughing at the memory of some sentimental fencing, was sometimes caught unaware by a little pang of regret; how blank and dull life would be when this casual game was over! After all, he was the great writer; before the eyes of all the world, even this pretense at an intimate friendship was a feather in her cap!
And he did not attempt to keep their rapidly developing friendship a secret; Susan was alternately gratified and terrified by the reality of his allusions to her before outsiders. No playing here! Everybody knew, in their little circle, that, in the nicest and most elder- brotherly way possible, Stephen Bocqueraz thought Susan Brown the greatest fun in the world, and quoted her, and presented her with his autographed books. This side of the affair, being real, had a tendency to make it all seem real, and sometimes confused, and sometimes a little frightened Susan.
"That a woman of Emily's mental caliber can hire a woman of yours, for a matter of dollars and cents," he said to Susan whimsically, "is proof that something is radically wrong somewhere! Well, some day we'll put you where values are a little different. Anybody can be rich. Mighty few can be Susan!"
She did not believe everything he said, of course, or take all his chivalrous speeches quite seriously. But obviously, some of it was said in all honesty, she thought, or why should he take the trouble to say it? And the nearness of his bracing personality blew across the artificial atmosphere in which she lived like the cool breath of great moors or of virgin forests. Genius and work and success became the real things of life; money but a mere accident. A horrible sense of the unreality of everything that surrounded her began to oppress Susan. She saw the poisoned undercurrent of this glittering and exquisite existence, the selfishness, the cruelties, the narrowness. She saw its fundamental insincerity. In a world where wrongs were to be righted, and ignorance enlightened, and childhood sheltered and trained, she began to think it strange that strong, and young, and wealthy men and women should be content to waste enormous sums of money upon food to which they scarcely ever brought a normal appetite, upon bridge-prizes for guests whose interest in them scarcely survived the moment of unwrapping the dainty beribboned boxes in which they came, upon costly toys for children whose nurseries were already crowded with toys. She wondered that they should think it worth while to spend hours and days in harassing dressmakers and milliners, to make a brief appearance in the gowns they were so quickly ready to discard, that they should gratify every passing whim so instantly that all wishes died together, like little plants torn up too soon.
The whole seemed wonderful and beautiful still. But the parts of this life, seriously analyzed, seemed to turn to dust and ashes. Of course, a hundred little shop-girls might ache with envy at reading that Mrs. Harvey Brock was to give her debutante daughter a fancy- dress ball, costing ten thousand dollars, and might hang wistfully over the pictures of Miss Peggy Brock in her Dresden gown with her ribbon-tied crook; but Susan knew that Peggy cried and scolded the whole afternoon, before the dance, because Teddy Russell was not coming, that young Martin Brock drank too much on that evening and embarrassed his entire family before he could be gotten upstairs, and that Mrs. Brock considered the whole event a failure because some favors, for which she had cabled to Paris, did not come, and the effect of the german was lost. Somehow, the "lovely and gifted heiress" of the newspapers never seemed to Susan at all reconcilable with Dolly Ripley, vapid, overdressed, with diamonds sparkling about her sallow throat, and the "jolly impromptu" trip of the St. Johns to New York lost its point when one knew it was planned because the name of young Florence St. John had been pointedly omitted from Ella Saunders dance list.
Boasting, lying, pretending--how weary Susan got of it all! She was too well schooled to smile when Ella, meeting the Honorable Mary Saunders and Sir Charles Saunders, of London, said magnificently, "We bear the same arms, Sir Charles, but of course ours is the colonial branch of the family!" and she nodded admiringly at Dolly Ripley's boyish and blunt fashion of saying occasionally "We Ripleys,--oh, we drink and gamble and do other things, I admit; we're not saints! But we can't lie, you know!"
"I hate to take the kiddies to New York, Mike," perhaps some young matron would say simply. "Percy's family is one of the old, old families there, you know, shamelessly rich, and terribly exclusive! And one doesn't want the children to take themselves seriously yet awhile!"
"Bluffers!" the smiling and interested Miss Brown would say to herself, as she listened. She listened a great deal; everyone was willing to talk, and she was often amused at the very slight knowledge that could carry a society girl through a conversation. In Hunter, Baxter & Hunter's offices there would be instant challenges, even at auntie's table affectation met its just punishment, and inaccuracy was promptly detected. But there was no such censorship here.
"Looks like a decent little cob!" some girl would say, staring at rider passing the hotel window, at teatime.
"Yes," another voice would agree, "good points. Looks thoroughbred."
"Yes, he does! Looks like a Kentucky mount."
"Louisa! Not with that neck!"
"Oh, I don't know. My grandfather raised fancy stock, you know. Just for his own pleasure, of course, So I do know a good horse!"
"Well, but he steps more like a racer," somebody else would contribute.
"That's what I thought! Loose-built for a racer, though."
"And what a fool riding him--the man has no seat!"
"Oh, absolutely not! Probably a groom, but it's a shame to allow it!"
"Groom, of course. But you'll never see a groom riding a horse of mine that way!"
And, an ordinary rider, on a stable hack, having by this time passed from view, the subject, would be changed.
Or perhaps some social offense would absorb everybody's attention for the better part of half-an-hour.
"Look, Emily," their hostess would say, during a call, "isn't this rich! The Bridges have had their crest put on their mourning- stationery! Don't you love it! Mamma says that the girls must have done it; the old lady must know better! Execrable bad taste, I call it."
"Oh, isn't that awful!" Emily would inspect the submitted letter with deep amusement.
"Oh, Mary, let's see it--I don't believe it!" somebody else would exclaim.
"Poor things, and they try so hard to do everything right!" Kindly pity would soften the tones of a fourth speaker.
"But you know Mary, they do do that in England," somebody might protest.
"Oh, Peggy, rot! Of course they don't!"
"Why, certainly they do!" A little feeling would be rising. "When Helen and I were in London we had some friends--"
"Nonsense, Peggy, it's terribly vulgar! I know because Mamma's cousin--"
"Oh honestly, Peggy, it's never done!"
"I never heard of such a thing!"
"You might use your crest in black, Peg, but in color--!"
"Just ask any engraver, Peg. I know when Frances was sending to England for our correct quarterings,--they'd been changed--"
"But I tell you I know," Miss Peggy would say angrily. "Do you mean to tell me that you'd take the word of a stationer--"
"A herald. You can't call that a stationer--"
"Well, then a herald! What do they know?"
"Why, of course they know!" shocked voices would protest. "It's their business!"
"Well," the defender of the Bridges would continue loftily, "all I can say is that Alice and I saw it--"
"I know that when we were in London," some pleasant, interested voice would interpose, modestly, "our friends--Lord and Lady Merridew, they were, you know, and Sir Henry Phillpots--they were in mourning, and they didn't. But of course I don't know what other people, not nobility, that is, might do!"
And of course this crushing conclusion admitted of no answer. But Miss Peggy might say to Susan later, with a bright, pitying smile:
"Alice will roar when I tell her about this! Lord and Lady Merridew,--that's simply delicious! I love it!"
"Bandar-log," Bocqueraz called them, and Susan often thought of the term in these days. From complete disenchantment she was saved, however, by her deepening affection for Isabel Wallace, and, whenever they were together, Susan had to admit that a more lovely personality had never been developed by any environment or in any class. Isabel, fresh, unspoiled, eager to have everyone with whom she came in contact as enchanted with life as she was herself, developed a real devotion for Susan, and showed it in a hundred ways. If Emily was away for a night, Isabel was sure to come and carry Susan off for as many hours as possible to the lovely Wallace home. They had long, serious talks together; Susan did not know whether to admire or envy most Isabel's serene happiness in her engagement, the most brilliant engagement of the winter, and Isabel's deeper interest in her charities, her tender consideration of her invalid mother, her flowers, her plan for the small brothers.
"John is wonderful, of course," Isabel would agree in a smiling aside to Susan when, furred and glowing, she had brought her handsome big lover into the Saunders' drawing-room for a cup of tea, "but I've been spoiled all my life, Susan, and I'm afraid he's going right on with it! And--" Isabel's lovely eyes would be lighted with an ardent glow, "and I want to do something with my life, Sue, something big, in return for it all!"
Again, Susan found herself watching with curious wistfulness the girl who had really had an offer of marriage, who was engaged, openly adored and desired. What had he said to her--and she to him-- what emotions crossed their hearts when they went to watch the building of the beautiful home that was to be theirs?
A man and a woman--a man and a woman--loving and marrying--what a miracle the familiar aspects of approaching marriage began to seem! In these days Susan read old poems with a thrill, read "Trilby" again, and found herself trembling, read "Adam Bede," and shut the book with a thundering heart. She went, with the others, to "Faust," and turned to Stephen Bocqueraz a pale, tense face, and eyes brimming with tears.
The writer's study, beyond the big library, had a fascination for her. At least once a day she looked in upon him there, sometimes with Emily, sometimes with Ella, never, after that first day, alone.
"You can see that he's perfectly devoted to that dolly-faced wife of his!" Ella said, half-contemptuously. "I think we all bore him," Emily said. "Stephen is a good and noble man," said his wife's old cousin. Susan never permitted herself to speak of him. "Don't you like him?" asked Isabel. "He seems crazy about you! I think you're terribly fine to be so indifferent about it, Susan!"
On a certain December evening Emily decided that she was very unwell, and must have a trained nurse. Susan, who had stopped, without Emily, at the Wallaces' for tea, understood perfectly that the youngest Miss Saunders was delicately intimating that she expected a little more attention from her companion. A few months ago she would have risen to the occasion with the sort of cheerful flattery that never failed in its effect on Emily, but to-night a sort of stubborn irritation kept her lips sealed, and in the end she telephoned for the nurse Emily fancied, a Miss Watts, who had been taking care of one of Emily's friends.
Miss Watts, effusive and solicitous, arrived, and Susan could see that Emily was repenting of her bargain long before she, Susan, had dressed for dinner. But she ran downstairs with a singing heart, nevertheless. Ella was to bring two friends in for cards, immediately after dinner; Kenneth had not been home for three days; Miss Baker was in close attendance upon Mrs. Saunders, who had retired to her room before dinner; so Susan and Stephen were free to dine alone. Susan had hesitated, in the midst of her dressing, over the consideration of a gown, and had finally compromised with her conscience by deciding upon quite the oldest, plainest, shabbiest black silk in the little collection.
"Most becoming thing you ever put on!" said Emily, trying to reestablish quite cordial relations.
"I know," Susan agreed guiltily.
When she and Stephen Bocqueraz came back into one of the smaller drawing-rooms after dinner Susan walked to the fire and stood, for a few moments, staring down at the coals. The conversation during the softly lighted, intimate little dinner had brought them both to a dangerous mood. Susan was excited beyond the power of reasonable thought. It was all nonsense, they were simply playing; he was a married man, and she a woman who never could by any possibility be anything but "good," she would have agreed impatiently and gaily with her own conscience if she had heard it at all--but just now she felt like enjoying this particular bit of foolery to the utmost, and, since there was really no harm in it, she was going to enjoy it! She had not touched wine at dinner, but some subtler intoxication had seized her, she felt conscious of her own beauty, her white throat, her shining hair, her slender figure in its clinging black, she felt conscious of Stephen's eyes, conscious of the effective background for them both that the room afforded; the dull hangings, subdued lights and softly shining surfaces.
Her companion stood near her, watching her. Susan, still excitedly confident that she controlled the situation, began to feel her breath come deep and swift, began to wish that she could think of just the right thing to say, to relieve the tension a little-began to wish that Ella would come in--
She raised her eyes, a little frightened, a little embarrassed, to his, and in the next second he had put his arms about her and crushed her to him and kissed her on the mouth.
"Susan," he said, very quietly, "you are my girl--you are my girl, will you let me take care of you? I can't help it--I love you."
This was not play-acting, at last. A grim, an almost terrible earnestness was in his voice; his face was very pale; his eyes dark with passion. Susan, almost faint with the shock, pushed away his arms, walked a few staggering steps and stood, her back turned to him, one hand over her heart, the other clinging to the back of a chair, her breath coming so violently that her whole body shook.
"Oh, don't--don't--don't!" she said, in a horrified and frightened whisper.
"Susan"--he began eagerly, coming toward her. She turned to face him, and breathing as if she had been running, and in simple entreaty, she said:
"Please--please--if you touch me again--if you touch me again--I cannot--the maids will hear--Bostwick will hear--"
"No, no, no! Don't be frightened, dear," he said quickly and soothingly. "I won't. I won't do anything you don't want me to!"
Susan pressed her hand over her eyes; her knees felt so weak that she was afraid to move. Her breathing slowly grew more even.
"My dear--if you'll forgive me!" the man said repentantly. She gave him a weary smile, as she went to drop into her low chair before the fire.
"No, no, Mr. Bocqueraz, I'm to blame," she said quietly. And suddenly she put her elbows on her knees, and buried her face in her hands.
"Listen, Susan--" he began again. But again she silenced him.
"Just--one--moment--" she said pleadingly. For two or three moments there was silence.
"No, it's my fault," Susan said then, more composedly, pushing her hair back from her forehead with both hands, and raising her wretched eyes. "Oh, how could I--how could I!" And again she hid her face.
Stephen Bocqueraz did not speak, and presently Susan added, with a sort of passion:
"It was wicked, and it was common, and no decent woman--"
"No, you shan't take that tone!" said Bocqueraz, suddenly looking up from a somber study of the fire. "It is true, Susan, and--and I can't be sorry it is. It's the truest thing in the world!"
"Oh, let's not--let's not talk that way!" All that was good and honest in her came to Susan's rescue now, all her clean and honorable heritage. "We've only been fooling, haven't we?" she urged eagerly. "You know we have! Why, you--you--"
"No," said Bocqueraz, "it's too big now to be laughed away, Susan!" He came and knelt beside her chair and put his arm about her, his face so close that Susan could lay an arresting hand upon his shoulder. Her heart beat madly, her senses swam.
"You mustn't!" said Susan, trying to force her voice above a hoarse whisper, and failing.
"Do you think you can deceive me about it?" he asked. "Not any more than I could deceive you! Do you think I'M glad--haven't you seen how I've been fighting it--ignoring it--"
Susan's eyes were fixed upon his with frightened fascination; she could not have spoken if life had depended upon it.
"No," he said, "whatever comes of it, or however we suffer for it, I love you, and you love me, don't you, Susan?"
She had forgotten herself now, forgotten that this was only a sort of play--forgotten her part as a leading lady, bare-armed and bright-haired, whose role it was to charm this handsome man, in the soft lamplight. She suddenly knew that she could not deny what he asked, and with the knowledge that she did care for him, that this splendid thing had come into her life for her to reject or to keep, every rational thought deserted her. It only seemed important that he should know that she was not going to answer "No."
"Do you care a little, Susan?" he asked again. Susan did not answer or move. Her eyes never left his face.
She was still staring at him, a moment later, ashen-faced and helpless, when they heard Bostwick crossing the hall to admit Ella and her chattering friends. Somehow she stood up, somehow walked to the door.
"After nine!" said Ella, briskly introducing, "but I know you didn't miss us! Get a card-table, Bostwick, please. And, Sue, will you wait, like a love, and see that we get something to eat at twelve-- at one? Take these things, Lizzie. Now. What is it, Stephen? A four- spot? You get it. How's the kid, Sue?"
"I'm going right up to see!" Susan said dizzily, glad to escape. She went up to Emily's room, and was made welcome by the bored invalid, and gladly restored to her place as chief attendant. When Emily was sleepy Susan went downstairs to superintend the arrangements for supper; presently she presided over the chafing-dish. She did not speak to Bocqueraz or meet his look once during the evening. But in every fiber of her being she was conscious of his nearness, and of his eyes.
The long night brought misgivings, and Susan went down to breakfast cold with a sudden revulsion of feeling. Ella kept her guest busy all day, and all through the following day. Susan, half-sick at first with the variety and violence of her emotions, had convinced herself, before forty-eight hours were over, that the whole affair had been no more than a moment of madness, as much regretted by him as by herself.
It was humiliating to remember with what a lack of self-control and reserve she had borne herself, she reflected. "But one more word of this sort," Susan resolved, "and I will simply go back to Auntie within the hour!"
On the third afternoon, a Sunday, Peter Coleman came to suggest an idle stroll with Emily and Susan, and was promptly seized by the gratified Emily for a motor-trip.
"We'll stop for Isabel and John," said Emily, elated. "Unless," her voice became a trifle flat, "unless you'd like to go, Sue," she amended, "and in that case, if Isabel can go, we can--"
"Oh, heavens, no!" Susan said, laughing, pleased at the disgusted face Peter Coleman showed beyond Emily's head. "Ella wants me to go over to the hotel, anyway, to talk about borrowing chairs for the concert, and I'll go this afternoon," she added, lowering her voice so that it should not penetrate the library, where Ella and Bocqueraz and some luncheon guests were talking together.
But when she walked down the drive half an hour later, with the collies leaping about her, the writer quietly fell into step at her side. Susan stopped short, the color rushing into her face. But her companion paid no heed to her confusion.
"I want to talk to you, Susan," said he unsmilingly, and with a tired sigh. "Where shall we walk? Up behind the convent here?"
"You look headachy," Susan said sympathetically, distracted from larger issues by the sight of his drawn, rather colorless face.
"Bad night," he explained briefly. And with no further objection she took the convent road, and they walked through the pale flood of winter sunshine together. There had been heavy rains; to-day the air was fresh-washed and clear, but they could hear the steady droning of the fog-horn on the distant bay.
The convent, washed with clear sunlight, loomed high above its bare, well-kept gardens. The usual Sunday visitors were mounting and descending the great flight of steps to the doorway; a white-robed portress stood talking to one little group at the top, her folded arms lost in her wide sleeves. A three-year-old, in a caped white coat, made every one laugh by her independent investigations of arches and doorway.
"Dear Lord, to be that size again!" thought Susan, heavy-hearted.
"I've been thinking a good deal since Tuesday night, Susan," began Bocqueraz quietly, when they had reached the shelved road that runs past the carriage gates and lodges of beautiful private estates, and circles across the hills, above the town. "And, of course, I've been blaming myself bitterly; but I'm not going to speak of that now. Until Tuesday I hoped that what pain there was to bear, because of my caring for you, would be borne by me alone. If I blame myself, Sue, it's only because I felt that I would rather bear it, any amount of it, than go away from you a moment before I must. But when I realize that you, too--"
He paused, and Susan did not speak, could not speak, even though she knew that her silence was a definite statement.
"No--" he said presently, "we must face the thing honestly. And perhaps it's better so. I want to speak to you about my marriage. I was twenty-five, and Lillian eighteen. I had come to the city, a seventeen-year-old boy, to make my fortune, and it was after the first small success that we met. She was an heiress--a sweet, pretty, spoiled little girl; she is just a little girl now in many ways. It was a very extraordinary marriage for her to wish to make; her mother disapproved; her guardians disapproved. I promised the mother to go away, and I did, but Lillian had an illness a month or two later and they sent for me, and we were married. Her mother has always regarded me as of secondary importance in her daughter's life; she took charge of our house, and of the baby when Julie came, and went right on with her spoiling and watching and exulting in Lillian. They took trips abroad; they decided whether or not to open the town house; they paid all the bills. Lillian has her suite of rooms, and I mine. Julie is very prettily fond of me; they like to give a big tea, two or three times a winter, and have me in evidence, or Lillian likes to have me plan theatricals, or manage amateur grand-opera for her. When Julie was about ten I had my own ideas as to her upbringing, but there was a painful scene, in which the child herself was consulted, and stood with her mother and grandmother--
"So, for several years, Susan, it has been only the decent outer shell of a marriage. We sometimes live in different cities for months at a time, or live in the same house, and see no more of each other than guests in the same hotel. Lillian makes no secret of it; she would be glad to be free. We have never had a day, never an hour, of real companionship! My dear Sue--" his voice, which had been cold and bitter, softened suddenly, and he turned to her the sudden winning smile that she remembered noticing the first evening they had known each other. "My dear Sue," he said, "when I think what I have missed in life I could go mad! When I think what it would be to have beside me a comrade who liked what I like, who would throw a few things into a suit case, and put her hand in mine, and wander over the world with me, laughing and singing through Italy, watching a sudden storm from the doorway of an English inn--"
"Ah, don't!" Susan said wistfully.
"You have never seen the Canadian forests, Sue, on some of the tropical beaches, or the color in a japanese street, or the moon rising over the Irish lakes!" he went on, "and how you would love it all!",
"We oughtn't--oughtn't to talk this way--", Susan said unsteadily.
They were crossing a field, above the town, and came now to a little stile. Susan sat down on the little weather-burned step, and stared down on the town below. Bocqueraz leaned on the rail, and looked at her.
"Always--always--always," he pursued seriously. "I have known that you were somewhere in the world. Just you, a bold and gay and witty and beautiful woman, who would tear my heart out by the roots when I met you, and shake me out of my comfortable indifference to the world and everything in it. And you have come! But, Susan, I never knew, I never dreamed what it would mean to me to go away from you, to leave you in peace, never guessing--"
"No, it's too late for that!" said Susan, clearing her throat. "I'd rather know."
If she had been acting it would have been the correct thing to say. The terrifying thought was that she was not acting; she was in deadly, desperate earnest now, and yet she could not seem to stop short; every instant involved her the deeper.
"We--we must stop this," she said, jumping up, and walking briskly toward the village. "I am so sorry--I am so ashamed! It all seemed-- seemed so foolish up to--well, to Tuesday. We must have been mad that night! I never dreamed that things would go so far. I don't blame you, I blame myself. I assure you I haven't slept since, I can't seem to eat or think or do anything naturally any more! Sometimes I think I'm going crazy!"
"My poor little girl!" They were in a sheltered bit of road now, and Bocqueraz put his two hands lightly on her shoulders, and stopped her short. Susan rested her two hands upon his arms, her eyes, raised to his, suddenly brimmed with tears. "My poor little girl!" he said again tenderly, "we'll find a way out! It's come on you too suddenly, Sue--it came upon me like a thunderbolt. But there's just one thing," and Susan remembered long afterward the look in his eyes as he spoke of it, "just one thing you mustn't forget, Susan. You belong to me now, and I'll move heaven and earth--but I'll have you. It's come all wrong, sweetheart, and we can't see our way now. But, my dearest, the wonderful thing is that it has come---
"Think of the lives," he went on, as Susan did not answer, "think of the women, toiling away in dull, dreary lives, to whom a vision like this has never come!"
"Oh, I know!" said Susan, in sudden passionate assent.
"But don't misunderstand me, dear, you're not to be hurried or troubled in this thing. We'll think, and talk things over, and plan. My world is a broader and saner world than yours is, Susan, and when I take you there you will be as honored and as readily accepted as any woman among them all. My wife will set me free---" he fell into a muse, as they walked along the quiet country road, and Susan, her brain a mad whirl of thoughts, did not interrupt him. "I believe she will set me free," he said, "as soon as she knows that my happiness, and all my life, depend upon it. It can be done; it can be arranged, surely. You know that our eastern divorce laws are different from yours here, Susan---"
"I think I must be mad to let you talk so!" burst out Susan, "You must not! Divorce---! Why, my aunt---!"
"We'll not mention it again," he assured her quickly, but although for the rest of their walk they said very little, the girl escaped upstairs to her room before dinner with a baffled sense that the dreadful word, if unpronounced, had been none the less thundering in her brain and his all the way.
She made herself comfortable in wrapper and slippers, rather to the satisfaction of Emily, who had brought Peter back to dinner, barely touched the tray that the sympathetic Lizzie brought upstairs, and lay trying to read a book that she flung aside again and again for the thoughts that would have their way.
She must think this whole thing out, she told herself desperately; view it dispassionately and calmly; decide upon the best and quickest step toward reinstating the old order, toward blotting out this last fortnight of weakness and madness. But, if Susan was fighting for the laws of men, a force far stronger was taking arms against her, the great law of nature held her in its grip. The voice of Stephen Bocqueraz rang across her sanest resolution; the touch of Stephen Bocqueraz's hand burned her like a fire.
Well, it had been sent to her, she thought resentfully, lying back spent and exhausted; she had not invited it. Suppose she accepted it; suppose she sanctioned his efforts to obtain a divorce, suppose she were married to him--And at the thought her resolutions melted away in the sudden delicious and enervating wave of emotion that swept over her. To belong to him!
"Oh, my God, I do not know what to do!" Susan whispered. She slipped to her knees, and buried her face in her hands. If her mind would but be still for a moment, would stop its mad hurry, she might pray.
A knock at the door brought her to her feet; it was Miss Baker, who was sitting with Kenneth to-night, and who wanted company. Susan was glad to go noiselessly up to the little sitting-room next to Kenneth's room, and sit chatting under the lamp. Now and then low groaning and muttering came from the sick man, and the women paused for a pitiful second. Susan presently went in to help Miss Baker persuade him to drink some cooling preparation.
The big room was luxurious enough for a Sultan, yet with hints of Kenneth's earlier athletic interests in evidence too. A wonderful lamp at the bedside diffused a soft light. The sufferer, in embroidered and monogrammed silk night-wear, was under a trimly drawn sheet, with a fluffy satin quilt folded across his feet. He muttered and shook his head, as the drink was presented, and, his bloodshot eyes discovering Susan, he whispered her name, immediately shouting it aloud, hot eyes on her face:
"Feeling better?" Susan smiled encouragingly, maternally, down upon him.
But his gaze had wandered again. He drained the glass, and immediately seemed quieter.
"He'll sleep now," said Miss Baker, when they were back in the adjoining room. "Doesn't it seem a shame?"
"Couldn't he be cured, Miss Baker?"
"Well," the nurse pursed her lips, shook her head thoughtfully. "No, I don't believe he could now. Doctor thinks the south of France will do wonders, and he says that if Mr. Saunders stayed on a strict diet for, say a year, and then took some German cure--but I don't know! Nobody could make him do it anyway. Why, we can't keep him on a diet for twenty-four hours! Of course he can't keep this up. A few more attacks like this will finish him. He's going to have a nurse in the morning, and Doctor says that in about a month he ought to get away. It's my opinion he'll end in a mad-house," Miss Baker ended, with quiet satisfaction.
"Oh, don't!" Susan cried in horror.
"Well, a lot of them do, my dear! He'll never get entirely well, that's positive. And now the problem is," the nurse, who was knitting a delicate rainbow afghan for a baby, smiled placidly over her faint pinks and blues, "now the question is, who's going abroad with him? He can't go alone. Ella declines the honor," Miss Baker's lips curled; she detested Ella "Emily--you know what Emily is! And the poor mother, who would really make the effort, he says gets on his nerves. Anyway, she's not fit. If he had a man friend---! But the only one he'd go with, Mr. Russell, is married."
"A nurse?" suggested Susan.
"Oh, my dear!" Miss Baker gave her a significant look. "There are two classes of nurses," she said, "one sort wouldn't dare take a man who has the delirium tremens anywhere, much less to a strange country, and the other---! They tried that once, before my day it was, but I guess that was enough for them. Of course the best thing that he could do," pursued the nurse lightly, "is get married."
"Well," Susan felt the topic a rather delicate one. "Ought he marry?" she ventured.
"Don't think I'd marry him!" Miss Baker assured her hastily, "but he's no worse than the Gregory boy, married last week. He's really no worse than lots of others!"
"Well, it's a lovely, lovely world!" brooded Susan bitterly. "I wish to God," she added passionately, "that there was some way of telling right from wrong! If you want to have a good time and have money enough, you can steal and lie and marry people like Kenneth Saunders; there's no law that you can't break--pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth! That is society! And yet, if you want to be decent, you can slave away a thousand years, mending and patching and teaching and keeping books, and nothing beautiful or easy ever comes your way!"
"I don't agree with you at all," said Miss Baker, in disapproval. "I hope I'm not bad," she went on brightly, "but I have a lovely time! Everyone here is lovely to me, and once a month I go home to my sister. We're the greatest chums ever, and her baby, Marguerite, is named for me, and she's a perfect darling! And Beek--that's her husband--is the most comical thing I ever saw; he'll go up and get Mrs. Tully--my sister rents one of her rooms,--and we have a little supper, and more cutting-up! Or else Beek'll sit with the baby, and we girls go to the theater!"
"Yes, that's lovely," Susan said, but Miss Baker accepted the words and not the tone, and went on to innocent narratives of Lily, Beek and the little Marguerite.
"And now, I wonder what a really good, conscientious woman would do," thought Susan in the still watches of the night. Go home to Auntie, of course. He might follow her there, but, even if he did, she would have made the first right step, and could then plan the second. Susan imagined Bocqueraz in Auntie's sitting-room and winced in the dark. Perhaps the most definite stand she took in all these bewildering days was when she decided, with a little impatient resentment, that she was quite equal to meeting the situation with dignity here.
But there must be no hesitation, no compromise. Susan fell asleep resolving upon heroic extremes.
Just before dinner, on the evening following, she was at the grand piano in the big drawing-room, her fingers lazily following the score of "Babes in Toyland," which Ella had left open upon the rack. Susan felt tired and subdued, wearily determined to do her duty, wearily sure that life, for the years to come, would be as gray and sad as to-day seemed. She had been crying earlier in the day and felt the better for the storm. Susan had determined upon one more talk with Bocqueraz,--the last.
And presently he was leaning on the piano, facing her in the dim light. Susan's hands began to tremble, to grow cold. Her heart beat high with nervousness; some primitive terror assailed her even here, in the familiar room, within the hearing of a dozen maids.
"What's the matter?" he asked, as she did not smile.
Susan still watched him seriously. She did not answer.
"My fault?" he asked.
"No-o." Susan's lip trembled. "Or perhaps it is, in a way," she said slowly and softly, still striking almost inaudible chords. "I can't- -I can't seem to see things straight, whichever way I look!" she confessed as simply as a troubled child.
"Will you come across the hall into the little library with me and talk about it for two minutes?" he asked.
"No." Susan shook her head.
"Susan! Why not?"
"Because we must stop it all," the girl said steadily, "all, every bit of it, before we--before we are sorry! You are a married man, and I knew it, and it is all wrong--"
"No, it's not all wrong, I won't admit that," he said quickly. "There has been no wrong."
It was a great weight lifted from Susan's heart to think that this was true. Ended here, the friendship was merely an episode.
"If we stop here," she said almost pleadingly.
"If we stop here," he agreed, slowly. "If we end it all here. Well. And of course, Sue, chance might, might set me free, you know, and then--"
Again the serious look, followed by the sweet and irresistible smile. Susan suddenly felt the hot tears running down her cheeks.
"Chance won't," she said in agony. And she began to fumble blindly for a handkerchief.
In an instant he was beside her, and as she stood up he put both arms about her, and she dropped her head on his shoulder, and wept silently and bitterly. Every instant of this nearness stabbed her with new joy and new pain; when at last he gently tipped back her tear-drenched face, she was incapable of resisting the great flood of emotion that was sweeping them both off their feet.
"Sue, you do care! My dearest, you do care?"
Susan, panting, clung to him.
"Oh, yes--yes!" she whispered. And, at a sound from the hall, she crushed his handkerchief back into his hand, and walked to the deep archway of a distant window. When he joined her there, she was still breathing hard, and had her hand pressed against her heart, but she was no longer crying.
"I am mad I think!" smiled Susan, quite mistress of herself.
"Susan," he said eagerly, "I was only waiting for this! If you knew- -if you only knew what an agony I've been in yesterday and to-day--! And I'm not going to distress you now with plans, my dearest. But, Sue, if I were a divorced man now, would you let it be a barrier?"
"No," she said, after a moment's thought. "No, I wouldn't let anything that wasn't a legal barrier stand in the way. Even though divorce has always seemed terrible to me. But--but you're not free, Mr. Bocqueraz."
He was standing close behind her, as she stood staring out into the night, and now put his arm about her, and Susan, looking up over her shoulder, raised childlike blue eyes to his.
"How long are you going to call me that?" he asked.
"I don't know--Stephen," she said. And suddenly she wrenched herself free, and turned to face him.
"I can't seem to keep my senses when I'm within ten feet of you!" Susan declared, half-laughing and half-crying.
"But Sue, if my wife agrees to a divorce," he said, catching both her hands.
"Don't touch me, please," she said, loosening them.
"I will not, of course!" He took firm hold of a chair-back. "If Lillian--" he began again, very gravely.
Susan leaned toward him, her face not twelve inches away from his face, her hand laid lightly for a second on his arm.
"You know that I will go with you to the end of the world, Stephen!" she said, scarcely above a whisper, and was gone.
It became evident, in a day or two, that Kenneth Saunders' illness had taken a rather alarming turn. There was a consultation of doctors; there was a second nurse. Ella went to the extreme point of giving up an engagement to remain with her mother while the worst was feared; Emily and Susan worried and waited, in their rooms. Stephen Bocqueraz was a great deal in the sick-room; "a real big brother," as Mrs. Saunders said tearfully.
The crisis passed; Kenneth was better, was almost normal again. But the great specialist who had entered the house only for an hour or two had left behind him the little seed that was to vitally affect the lives of several of these people.
"Dr. Hudson says he's got to get away," said Ella to Susan, "I wish I could go with him. Kenneth's a lovely traveler."
"I wish I could," Emily supplemented, "but I'm no good."
"And doctor says that he'll come home quite a different person," added his mother. Susan wondered if she fancied that they all looked in a rather marked manner at her. She wondered, if it was not fancy, what the look meant.
They were all in the upstairs sitting-room in the bright morning light when this was said. They had drifted in there one by one, apparently by accident. Susan, made a little curious and uneasy by a subtle sense of something unsaid--something pending, began to wonder, too, if it had really been accident that assembled them there.
But she was still without definite suspicions when Ella, upon the entrance of Chow Yew with Mr. Kenneth's letters and the new magazines, jumped up gaily, and said:
"Here, Sue! Will you run up with these to Ken--and take these violets, too?"
She put the magazines in Susan's hands, and added a great bunch of dewy wet violets that had been lying on the table. Susan, really glad to escape from the over-charged atmosphere of the room, willingly went on her way.
Kenneth was sitting up to-day, very white, very haggard,--clean- shaven and hollow-eyed, and somehow very pitiful. He smiled at Susan, as she came in, and laid a thin hand on a chair by the bed. Susan sat down, and as she did so the watching nurse went out.
"Well, had you ordered a pillow of violets with shaky doves?" he asked, in a hoarse thin echo of his old voice. "No, but I guess you were pretty sick," the girl said soberly. "How goes it to-day?"
"Oh, fine!" he answered hardily, "as soon as I am over the ether I'll feel like a fighting cock! Hudson talked a good deal with his mouth," said Kenneth coughing. "But the rotten thing about me, Susan," he went on, "is that I can't booze,--I really can't do it! Consequently, when some old fellow like that gets a chance at me, he thinks he ought to scare me to death!" He sank back, tired from coughing. "But I'm all right!" he finished, comfortably, "I'll be alright again after a while."
"Well, but now, honestly, from now on---" Susan began, timidly but eagerly, "won't you truly try--"
"Oh, sure!" he said simply. "I promised. I'm going to cut it out, all of it. I'm done. I don't mean to say that I've ever been a patch on some of the others," said Kenneth. "Lord, you ought to see some of the men who really drink! At the same time, I've had enough. It's me to the simple joys of country life--I'm going to try farming. But first they want me to try France for awhile, and then take this German treatment, whatever it is. Hudson wants me to get off by the first of the year."
"Oh, really! France!" Susan's eyes sparkled. "Oh, aren't you wild!"
"I'm not so crazy about it. Not Paris, you know, but some dinky resort."
"Oh, but fancy the ocean trip--and meeting the village people--and New York!" Susan exclaimed. "I think every instant of traveling would be a joy!" And the vision of herself in all these places, with Stephen Bocqueraz as interpreter, wrung her heart with longing.
Kenneth was watching her closely. A dull red color had crept into his face.
"Well, why don't you come?" he laughed awkwardly.
Something in his tone made Susan color uncomfortably too.
"That did sound as if I were asking myself along!" she smiled.
"Oh, no, it didn't!" he reassured her. "But--but I mean it. Why don't you come?"
They were looking steadily at each other now. Susan tried to laugh.
"A scandal in high life!" she said, in an attempt to make the conversation farcical. "Elopement surprises society!"
"That's what I mean--that's what I mean!" he said eagerly, yet bashfully too. "What's the matter with our--our getting married, Susan? You and I'll get married, d'ye see?"
And as, astonished and frightened and curiously touched she stood up, he caught at her skirt. Susan put her hand over his with a reassuring and soothing gesture.
"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" he said, beginning to cough again. "You said you would. And I--I am terribly fond of you--you could do just as you like. For instance, if you wanted to take a little trip off anywhere, with friends, you know," said Kenneth with boyish, smiling generosity, "you could always do it! I wouldn't want to tie you down to me!" He lay back, after coughing, but his bony hand still clung to hers. "You're the only woman I ever asked to undertake such a bad job," he finished, in a whisper.
"Why--but honestly---" Susan began. She laughed out nervously and unsteadily. "This is so sudden," said she. Kenneth laughed too.
"But, you see, they're hustling me off," he complained. "This weather is so rotten! And El's keen for it," he urged, "and Mother too. If you'll be so awfully, awfully good--I know you aren't crazy about me--and you know some pretty rotten things about me--"
The very awkwardness of his phrasing won her as no other quality could. Susan felt suddenly tender toward him, felt old and sad and wise.
"Mr. Saunders," she said, gently, "you've taken my breath away. I don't know what to say to you. I can't pretend that I'm in love with you--"
"Of course you're not!" he said, very much embarrassed, "but if there's no one else, Sue--"
"There is someone else," said Susan, her eyes suddenly watering. "But--but that's not going--right, and it never can! If you'll give me a few days to think about it, Kenneth--"
"Sure! Take your time!" he agreed eagerly.
"It would be the very quietest and quickest and simplest wedding that ever was, wouldn't it?" she asked.
"Oh, absolutely!" Kenneth seemed immensely relieved. "No riot!"
"And you will let me think it over?" the girl asked, "because--I know other girls say this, but it's true!--I never dreamed--"
"Sure, you think it over. I'll consider you haven't given me the faintest idea of how you feel," said Kenneth. They clasped hands for good-by. Susan fancied that his smile might have been an invitation for a little more affectionate parting, but if it was she ignored it. She turned at the door to smile back at him before she went downstairs.
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