Chapter 8




A PARTNERSHIP


All the adjectives in the social register were exhausted by the daily papers in describing Mrs. Festus Willard's dance. Without following them into that verbal borderland wherein "recherché" vies with "exclusive," and "chic" disputes precedence with "distingué," it is sufficient for the purposes of this narrative to chronicle the fact that the pick of Worthington society was there, and not much else. Also, if I may borrow from the Society Editor's convenient phrase-book, "Among those present" was Mr. Harrington Surtaine.

For reasons connected with his new venture, Hal had come late. He was standing near the doorway wondering by what path to attain to an unidentified hostess, when Miss Esmé Elliot, at the moment engaged with that very hostess on some matter of feminine strategy with which we have no concern, spied him.

"Who is the young Greek godling, hopelessly lost in the impenetrable depths of your drawing-room?" she propounded suddenly.

"Who? What? Where?" queried Mrs. Willard, thus abruptly recalled to her duties.

"Yonder by the doorway, looking as if he didn't know a soul."

"It's some stranger," said the hostess, trying to peer around an intervening palm. "I must go and speak to him."

"Wait. Festus has got him."

For the host, a powerful, high-colored man in his early forties, with a slight limp, had noticed the newcomer and was now introducing himself. Miss Elliot watched the process with interest.

"Jinny," she announced presently, "I want that to play with."

The stranger turned a little, so that his full face was shown. "It's Hal Surtaine!" exclaimed Mrs. Willard.

"I don't care who it is. It looks nice. Please, mayn't I have it to play with?"

"Will you promise not to break it? It used to be a particular pet of mine."

"When?"

"Oh, years ago. When you were in your cradle."

"Where?"

"On the St. Lawrence. Several summers. He was my boy-knight, and chaperon, and protector. Such a dear, chivalrous boy!"

"Was he in love with you?" demanded Miss Elliot with lively interest.

"Of course he wasn't. He was a boy of fifteen, and I a mature young woman of twenty-one."

"He was in love with you," accused the girl, noting a brightness in her friend's color.

"There was a sort of knightly devotion," admitted the other demurely. "There always is, isn't there, in a boy of that age, for a woman years older?"

"And you didn't know him at first?"

"It's ten years since I've set eyes on him. He doesn't even know that I am the Mrs. Festus Willard who is giving this party."

"Festus is looking around for you. They'll be over here in a minute. No! Don't get up yet. I want you to do something for me."

"What is it, Norrie?"

"I'm not going to feel well, about supper-time."

"Why not?"

"Would you feel well if you'd been in to dinner three times in the last week with Will Douglas, and then had to go in to supper with him, too?"

"But I thought you and Will--"

"I'm tired of having people think," said Miss Elliot plaintively. "Too much Douglas! Yes; I shall be quite indisposed, about one dance before supper."

"I'll send you home."

"No, you won't, Jinny, dear. Because I shall suddenly recover, about two minutes before the oysters arrive."

"Norrie!"

"Truly I shall. Quite miraculously. And you're to see that the young Greek godling doesn't get any other partner for supper--"

"Esmé!!"

"--because I'm sure he'd rather have me," she concluded superbly.

"Eleanor Stanley Maxwell Elliot!"

"Oh, you may call me all my names. I'm accustomed to abuse from you. But you'll arrange it, dear Jinny, won't you!"

"Did you ever fail of anything when you put on that wheedling face and tone?"

"Never," said Miss Elliot with composure, but giving her friend a little hug. "Here they come. I fly. Bring him to me later."

Piloted by Festus Willard, Hal crossed the floor, and beheld, moving to meet him with outstretched hands, a little woman with an elfin face and the smile of a happy child.

"Have you forgotten me, Hal?"

"Lady Jeannette!" he cried, the old boyhood name springing to his lips. "What are you doing here?"

"Didn't Festus tell you?" She looked fondly up at her big husband. "I didn't know that the surprise would last up to the final moment."

"It's the very best surprise that has happened to me in Worthington," declared Hal emphatically.

"We're quite prepared to adopt you, Surtaine," said Willard pleasantly. "Jinny has never ceased to wonder why she heard nothing from you in reply to her note telling of our engagement."

"Never got it," said Hal promptly. "And I've wondered why she dropped me so unaccountably. It's rather luck for me, you know," he added, smiling, "to find friends ready-made in a strange town."

"Oh, you'll make friends enough," declared Mrs. Willard. "The present matter is to make acquaintances. Come and dance this dance out with me and then I'll take you about and introduce you. Are you as good a dancer as you used to be?"

Hal was, and something more. And in his hostess he had one of the best partners in Worthington. Cleverly she had judged that the "Boston" with her, if he were proficient, would be the strongest recommendation to the buds of the place. And, indeed, before they had gone twice about the floor, many curious and interested eyes were turned upon them. Not the least interested were those of Miss Elliot, who privately decided, over a full and overflowing programme, that she would advance her recovery to one dance before the supper announcement.

"You're going to be a social success, Hal," whispered his partner. "I feel it. And where did you learn that delightful swing after the dip?"

"Picked it up on shipboard. But I shan't have much time for gayeties. You see, I've become a workingman."

"Tell me about it to-morrow. You're to dine with us; quite en famille. You must like Festus, Hal."

"I should think that would be easy."

"It is. He is just the finest, cleanest, straightest human being in the world," she said soberly. "Now, come away and meet a million people."

So late was it that most of the girls had no vacancies on their programmes. But Jeannette Willard was both a diplomat and a bit of a despot, socially, and several of the young eligibles relinquished, with surprisingly good grace, so Hal felt, their partners, in favor of the newcomer. He did not then know the tradition of Worthington's best set, that hospitality to a stranger well vouched for should be the common concern of all. Very pleasant and warming he found this atmosphere, after his years abroad, with its happy, well-bred frankness, its open comradeship, and obvious, "first-name" intimacies. But though every one he met seemed ready to extend to him, as a friend of the Willards, a ready welcome, he could not but feel himself an outsider, and at the conclusion of a dance he drew back into a side passage, to watch for a time.

Borne on a draught of air from some invisibly opening door behind him there came to his nostrils the fairy-spice of the arbutus-scent. He turned quickly, and saw her almost at his shoulder, the girl of the lustrous face. Behind her was Festus Willard.

"Ah, there you are, Surtaine," he said. "I've been looking for you to present you to Miss Elliot. Esmé, this is Mr. Harrington Surtaine."

She neither bowed nor moved in acknowledgment of Hal's greeting, but looked at him with still, questioning eyes. The springtide hue of the wild flower at her breast was matched in her cheek. Her head was held high, bringing out the pure and lovely line of chin and throat. To Hal it seemed that he had never seen anything so beautiful and desirable.

"Is it a bet?" Festus Willard's quiet voice was full of amusement. "Have you laid a wager as to which will keep silent longest?"

At this, Hal recovered himself, though stumblingly.

"'Fain would I speak,'" he paraphrased, "'but that I fear to--to--to--'"

"Stutter," suggested Willard, with solicitous helpfulness. The girl broke into a little trill of mirth, too liquid for laughter; being rather the sound of a brooklet chuckling musically over its private delectations.

"If I could have a dance with you," suggested Hal, "I'm sure it would help my aphasia."

"I'm afraid," she began dubiously, "that--No; here's one just before supper. If you haven't that--"

"No: I haven't," said Hal hastily. "It's awfully good of you--and lucky for me."

"I'll be with Mrs. Willard," said the girl, nodding him a cheerful farewell.

Just what or who his partners for the next few dances were, Hal could not by any effort recall the next day. He was conscious, on the floor, only of an occasional glimpse of her, a fugitive savor of the wildwood fragrance, and then she had disappeared.

Later, as he returned from a talk with Festus Willard outside, he became aware of the challenge of deep-hued, velvety eyes, regarding him with a somewhat petulant expression, and recognized his acquaintance of the motor car and the railroad terminal.

"You'd forgotten me," accused Miss Kathleen Pierce, pouting, as he came to greet her.

Hal's disclaimer had sufficient diplomatic warmth to banish her displeasure. She introduced to him as Dr. Merritt a striking-looking, gray-haired young man, who had come up at the same time with an anticipatory expression. This promptly vanished when she said offhandedly to him:

"You've had three dances with me already, Hugh. I'm going to give this one to Mr. Surtaine if he wants it."

"Of course I want it," said Hal.

"Not that you deserve it," she went on. "You should have come around earlier. I'm not in the habit of giving dances this late in the evening."

"How could I break through the solid phalanx of supplicating admirers?"

"At least, you might have tried. I want to try that new step I saw you doing with Mrs. Willard. And I always get what I want."

"Unfortunate young lady!"

"Why unfortunate?"

"To have nothing seem unattainable. Life must pall on you terribly."

"Indeed, it doesn't. I like being a spoiled child, don't you? Don't you think it's fun having everything you want to buy, and having a leading citizen for a father?"

"Is your father a leading citizen?" asked Hal, amused.

"Of course. So's yours. Neither of them quite knows which is the most leading. Dr. Surtaine is the most popular, but I suppose Pop is the most influential. Between the two of them they pretty much run this little old burg. Of course," she added with careless insolence, "Pop has got it all over Dr. Surtaine socially.

"I humbly feel that I am addressing local royalty," said Hal, smiling sardonically.

"Who? Me? Oh, I'm only the irresponsible child of wealth and power. Dr. Merritt called me that once--before I got him tamed." Turning to look at the gray young man who stood not far off, and noting the quiet force and competence of the face, Hal hazarded a guess to himself that the very frank young barbarian with whom he was talking was none too modest in her estimate of her own capacities. "Mrs. Willard is our local queen," she continued. "And Esmé Elliot is the princess. Have you met Esmé yet?"

"Yes."

"Then, of course, nobody else has a chance--so long as you're the newest toy. Still, you might find a spare hour between-times to come and call on us. Come on; let's dance."

"Pert" was the mildest term to which Hal reduced his characterization of Miss Pierce, by the time the one-step ended. Nevertheless, he admitted to himself that he had been amused. His one chief concern now, however, was the engagement with Miss Elliot.

When finally his number came around, he found her calmly explaining to a well-favored young fellow with a pained expression that he must have made a mistake about the number, while Mrs. Willard regarded her with mingled amusement and disfavor.

"Don't expect me to dance," she said as Hal approached. "I've twisted my foot."

"I'm sorry," said he blankly.

"Let's find a quiet place where we can sit. And then you may get me some supper."

His face lighted up. Esmé Elliot remarked to herself that she had seldom seen a more pleasing specimen of the youth of the species.

"This is rather like a fairy-gift," he began eagerly, as they made their way to a nook under the stairway, specially adapted to two people of hermit tastes. "I shouldn't have dared to expect such good fortune."

"You'll find me quite a fairy-godmother if you're good. Besides," she added with calm audacity, "I wanted you to myself."

"Why?" he asked, amused and intrigued.

"Curiosity. My besetting sin. You're a phenomenon."

"An ambiguous term. It may mean merely a freak."

"A new young man in Worthington," she informed him, "is a phenomenon, a social phenomenon. Of course he may be a freak, also," she added judicially.

"Newness is a charm that soon wears off."

"Then you're going to settle down here?"

"Yes. I've joined the laboring classes."

"What kind of labor?"

"Journalism. I've just started in, to-day."

"Really! Which paper?"

"The 'Clarion.'"

Her expressive face changed. "Oh," she said, a little blankly.

"You don't like the 'Clarion'?"

"I almost never see it. So I don't know. And you're going to begin at the bottom? That's quite brave of you."

"No; I'm going to begin at the top. That's braver. Anyway, it's more reckless. I've bought the paper."

"Have you! I hadn't heard of it."

"Nobody's heard of it yet. No outsider. You're the first."

"How delightful!" She leaned closer and looked into his face with shining eyes. "Tell me more. What are you going to do with it?"

"Learn something about it, first."

"It's rather yellow, isn't it?"

"Putting it mildly, yes. That's one of the things I want to change."

"Oh, I wish I owned a newspaper!"

"Do you? Why?"

"For the power of it. To say what you please and make thousands listen." The pink in her cheeks deepened. "There's nothing in the world like the thrill of that sense of power. It's the one reason why I'd be almost willing to be a man."

"Perhaps you wouldn't need to be. Couldn't you exert the power without actually owning the newspaper?"

"How?"

"By exercising your potent influence upon the obliging proprietor," he suggested smiling.

There came a dancing light in her eyes. "Do you think I'd make a good Goddess-Outside-the-Machine, to the 'Daily Clarion'?"

"Charming! For a two-cent stamp--no, for a spray of your arbutus, I'll sell you an editorial sphere of influence."

"Generous!" she cried. "What would my duties be?"

"To advise the editor and proprietor on all possible points," he laughed.

"And my privileges?"

"The right of a queen over a slave."

"We move fast," she said. Her fingers went to the cluster of delicate-hued bells in her bodice. But it was a false gesture. Esmé Elliot was far too practiced in her chosen game to compromise herself to comment by allowing a man whom she had just met to display her favor in his coat.

"Am I to have my price?" His voice was eager now. She looked very lovely and childlike, with her head drooping, consideringly, above the flowers.

"Give me a little time," she said. "To undertake a partnership on five minutes' notice--that isn't business, is it?"

"Nor is this--wholly," he said, quite low.

Esmé straightened up. "I'm starved," she said lightly. "Are you not going to get me any supper?"

After his return she held the talk to more impersonal topics, advising him, with an adorable assumption of protectiveness, whom he was to meet and dance with, and what men were best worth his while. At parting, she gave him her hand.

"I will let you know," she said, "about the--the sphere of influence."

Hal danced several more numbers, with more politeness than enjoyment, then sought out his hostess to say good-night.

"I'll see you to-morrow, then," she said: "and you shall tell me all your news."

"You're awfully good to me, Lady Jeannette," said he gratefully. "Without you I'd be a lost soul in this town."

"Most people are good to you, I fancy, Hal," said she, looking him over with approval. "As for being a lost soul, you don't look it. In fact you look like a very well-found soul, indeed."

"It is rather a cheerful world to live in," said Hal with apparent irrelevance.

"I hope they haven't spoiled you," she said anxiously. "Are you vain, Hal? No: you don't look it."

"What on earth should I be vain about? I've never done anything in the world."

"No? Yet you've improved. You've solidified. What have you been doing to yourself? Not falling in love?"

"Not that, certainly," he replied, smiling. "Nothing much but traveling."

"How did you like Esmé Elliot?" she asked abruptly.

"Quite attractive," said Hal in a flat tone.

"Quite attractive, indeed!" repeated his friend indignantly. "In all your travelings, I don't believe you've ever seen any one else half as lovely and lovable."

"Local pride carries you far, Lady Jeannette," laughed Hal.

"And I had intended to have her here to dine to-morrow; but as you're so indifferent--"

"Oh, don't leave her out on my account," said Hal magnanimously.

"I believe you're more than half in love with her already."

"Well, you ought to be a good judge unless you've wholly forgotten the old days," retorted Hal audaciously.

Jeannette Willard laughed up at him. "Don't try to flirt with a middle-aged lady who is most old-fashionedly in love with her husband," she advised. "Keep your bravo speeches for Esmé! She's used to them."

"Rather goes in for that sort of thing, doesn't she?"

"You mean flirtation? Someone's been talking to you about her," said Mrs. Willard quickly. "What did they say?"

"Nothing in particular. I just gathered the impression."

"Don't jump to any conclusions about Esmé," advised his friend. "Most men think her a desperate flirt. She does like attention and admiration. What woman doesn't? And Esmé is very much a woman."

"Evidently!"

"If she seems heartless, it's because she doesn't understand. She enjoys her own power without comprehending it. Esmé has never been really interested in any man. If she had ever been hurt, herself, she would be more careful about hurting others. Yet the very men who have been hardest hit remain her loyal friends."

"A tribute to her strategy."

"A finer quality than that. It is her own loyalty, I think, that makes others loyal to her. But the men here aren't up to her standard. She is complex, and she is ambitious, without knowing it. Fine and clean as our Worthington boys are, there isn't one of them who could appeal to the imagination and idealism of a girl like Esmé Elliot. For Esmé, under all that lightness, is an idealist; the idealist who hasn't found her ideal."

"And therefore hasn't found herself."

She flashed a glance of inquiry and appraisal at him. "That's rather subtle of you," she said. "I hope you don't know too much about women, Hal."

"Not I! Just a shot in the dark."

"I said there wasn't a man here up to her standard. That isn't quite true. There is one,--you met him to-night,--but he has troubles of his own, elsewhere," she added, smiling. "I had hoped--but there has always been a friendship too strong for the other kind of sentiment between him and Esmé."

"For a guess, that might be Dr. Merritt," said Hal.

"How did you know?" she cried.

"I didn't. Only, he seems, at a glance, different and of a broader gauge than the others."

"You're a judge of men, at least. As for Esmé, I suppose she'll marry some man much older than herself. Heaven grant he's the right one! For when she gives, she will give royally, and if the man does not meet her on her own plane--well, there will be tragedy enough for two!"

"Deep waters," said Hal. The talk had changed to a graver tone.

"Deep and dangerous. Shipwreck for the wrong adventurer. But El Dorado for the right. Such a golden El Dorado, Hal! The man I want for Esmé Elliot must have in him something of woman for understanding, and something of genius for guidance, and, I'm afraid, something of the angel for patience, and he must be, with all this, wholly a man."

"A pretty large order, Lady Jeannette. Well, I've had my warning. Good-night."

"Perhaps it wasn't so much warning as counsel," she returned, a little wistfully. "How poor Esmé's ears must be burning. There she goes now. What a picture! Come early to-morrow."

Hal's last impression of the ballroom, as he turned away, was summed up in one glance from Esmé Elliot's lustrous eyes, as they met his across her partner's shoulder, smiling him a farewell and a remembrance of their friendly pact.

"Honey-Jinny," said Mrs. Willard's husband, after the last guest had gone; "I don't understand about young Surtaine. Where did he get it?"

"Get what, dear? One might suppose he was a corrupt politician."

"One might suppose he might be anything crooked or wrong, knowing his old, black quack of a father. But he seems to be clean stuff all through. He looks it. He acts it. He carries himself like it. And he talks it. I had a little confab with him out in the smoking-room, and I tell you, Jinny-wife, I believe he's a real youngster."

"Well, he had a mother, you know."

"Did he? What about her?"

"She was an old friend of my mother's. Dr. Surtaine eloped with her out of her father's country place in Midvale. He was an itinerant peddler of some cure-all then. She was a gently born and bred girl, but a mere child, unworldly and very romantic, and she was carried away by the man's personal beauty and magnetism."

"I can't imagine it in a girl of any sort of family."

"Mother has told me that he had a personal force that was almost hypnotic. There must have been something else to him, too, for they say that Hal's mother died, as desperately in love as she had been when she ran away with him, and that he was almost crushed by her loss and never wholly got over it. He transferred his devotion to the child, who was only three years old when the mother died. When Hal was a mere child my mother saw him once taking in dollars at a country fair booth,--just think of it, dearest,--and she said he was the picture of his girl-mother then. Later, when Professor Certain, as he called himself then, got rich, he gave Hal the best of education. But he never let him have anything to do with the Ellersleys--that was Mrs. Surtaine's name. All the family are dead now."

"Well, there must be some good in the old boy," admitted Willard. "But I don't happen to like him. I do like the boy. Blood does tell, Jinny. But if he's really as much of an Ellersley as he looks, there's a bitter enlightenment before him when he comes to see Dr. Surtaine as he really is."

Meantime Hal, home at a reasonable hour, in the interest of his new profession, had taken with him the pleasantest impressions of the Willards' hospitality. He slept soundly and awoke in buoyant spirits for the dawning enterprise. On the breakfast table he found, in front of his plate, a bunchy envelope addressed in a small, strong, unfamiliar hand. Within was no written word; only a spray of the trailing arbutus, still unwithered of its fairy-pink, still eloquent, in its wayward, woodland fragrance, of her who had worn it the night before.




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