Ludlow caught a cab in the street, and drove furiously to his lodging, where he dressed in ten minutes, so that he was not more than fifteen minutes late at the dinner he had risked missing for Cornelia's sake.
"I'm afraid I'm very late," he said, from his place at the left of his hostess; he pulled his napkin across his lap, and began to attack his oysters at once.
"Oh, not at all," said the lady, but he knew that she would have said much the same if he had come as they were rising from table.
A clear, gay voice rose from the corner of the board diagonally opposite: "The candles haven't begun to burn their shades yet; so you are still early, Mr. Ludlow."
The others laughed with the joy people feel in having a familiar fact noted for the first time. They had all seen candle-shades weakly topple down on the flames and take fire at dinner.
The gay voice went on, rendered, perhaps, a little over-bold by success: "If you see the men rising to put them out, you may be sure that they've been seated exactly an hour."
Ludlow looked across the bed of roses which filled two-thirds of the table, across the glitter of glass, and the waver of light and shadow, and said, "Oh, you're there!"
The wit that had inspired the voice before gave out; the owner tried to make a pout do duty for it. "Of course I'm there," she said; then pending another inspiration she was silent. Everybody waited for her to rise again to the level of her reputation for clever things, and the general expectation expressed itself in a subdued creaking of stiff linen above the board, and the low murmur of silken skirts under the table.
Finally one of the men said, "Well, it's bad enough to come late, but it's a good deal worse to come too early. I'd rather come late, any time."
"Mr. Wetmore wants you to ask him why, Mrs. Westley," said Ludlow.
Mrs. Westley entreated, "Oh, why, Mr. Wetmore?" and every one laughed.
"All right, Ludlow," said the gentleman in friendly menace. Then he answered Mrs. Westley: "Well, one thing, your hostess respects you more. If you come too early you bring reproach and you meet contempt; reproach that she shouldn't have been ready to receive you, and contempt that you should have supposed her capable of dining at the hour fixed."
It was a Mrs. Rangeley who had launched the first shaft at Ludlow; she now fitted another little arrow to her string, under cover of the laugh that followed Mr. Wetmore's reasons. "I shouldn't object to any one's coming late, unless I were giving the dinner; but what I can't bear is wondering what it was kept them."
Again she had given a touch that reminded the company of their common humanity and their unity of emotion, and the laugh that responded was without any of that reservation or uncertainty which a subtle observer may often detect in the enjoyment of brilliant things said at dinner. But the great charm of the Westley dinners was that people generally did understand each other there. If you made a joke, as Wetmore said, you were not often required to spell it. He celebrated the Westleys as ideal hosts: Mrs. Westley had the youth and beauty befitting a second wife; her social ambition had as yet not developed into the passion for millionaires; she was simply content with painters, like himself and Ludlow, literary men, lawyers, doctors and their several wives.
General Westley was in what Wetmore called the bloom of age. He might be depended upon for the unexpected, like fate. He occasionally did it, he occasionally said it, from the passive hospitality that characterized him.
"I believe I share that impatience of yours, Mrs. Rangeley," he now remarked; "though in the present case I think we ought to leave everything to Mr. Ludlow's conscience."
"Oh, do you think that would be quite safe?" she asked with burlesque seriousness. "Well! If we must!"
Ludlow said, "Why, I think Mrs. Rangeley is right. I would much rather yield to compulsion. I don't mind telling what kept me, if I'm obliged to."
"Oh, I almost hate to have you, now!" Mrs. Rangeley bubbled back. "Your willingness, somehow, makes it awful. You may be going to boast of it!"
"No, no!" Wetmore interposed. "I don't believe it's anything to boast of."
"Now, you see, you must speak," said Mrs. Westley.
Ludlow fell back in his chair, and dreamily crumbled his bread. "I don't see how I can, exactly."
Wetmore leaned forward and looked at Ludlow round the snowy shoulder of a tall lady next him.
"Is there any particular form of words in which you like to be prompted, when you get to this point?"
"Dr. Brayton might hypnotize him," suggested the lady whose shoulder Wetmore was looking round.
The doctor answered across the table, "In these cases of the inverted or prostrated will, there is often not volition enough to coöperate with the hypnotizer. I don't believe I could do anything with Mr. Ludlow."
"How much," sighed Mrs. Rangeley, "I should like to be the centre of universal interest like that!"
"It's a good pose," said Wetmore; "but really I think Ludlow is working it too hard. I don't approve of mob violence, as the papers say when they're going to; but if he keeps this up much longer I won't be answerable for the consequences. I feel that we are getting beyond the control of our leaders."
Ludlow was tempted to exploit the little incident with Cornelia, for he felt sure that it would win the dinner-table success which we all like to achieve. Her coming to study art in New York, and her arriving in that way, was a pretty romance; prettier than it would have been if she were plainer, and he knew that he could give the whole situation so that she should appear charming, and should appeal to everybody's sympathy. If he could show her stiff and blunt, as she was, so much the better. He would go back to their first meeting, and bring in a sketch of Pymantoning County Fair, and of the village itself and its social conditions, with studies of Burton and his wife. Every point would tell, for though his commensals were now all well-to-do New Yorkers, he knew that the time had been with them when they lived closer to the ground, in simple country towns, as most prosperous and eminent Americans have done.
"Well," said Wetmore, "how long are you going to make us wait?"
"Oh, you mustn't wait for me," said Ludlow. "Once is enough to-night. I'm not going to say what kept me."
This also was a success in its way. It drew cries of protest and reproach from the ladies, and laughter from the men. Wetmore made himself heard above the rest. "Mrs. Westley, I know this man, and I can't let you be made the victim of one of his shameless fakes. There was really nothing kept him. He either forgot the time, or, what is more probable, he deliberately put off coming so as to give himself a little momentary importance by arriving late. I don't wish to be hard upon him, but that is the truth."
"No, no," said the hostess in the applause which recognized Wetmore's mischievous intent. "I'll not believe anything of the kind." From her this had the effect of repartee, and when she asked with the single-heartedness which Wetmore had praised among her friends as her strongest point, and advised her keeping up as long as she possibly could, "It isn't so, is it, Mr. Ludlow?" the finest wit could not have done more for her. The general beamed upon her over the length of the table. Mrs. Rangeley said at his elbow, "She's always more charming than any one else, simply because she is," and he made no effort to turn the compliment upon her as she thought he might very well have done.
Under cover of what the others now began saying about different matters, Ludlow murmured to Mrs. Westley, "I don't mind telling you. You know that young girl you said you would go with me to meet when I should ask you?"
"The little school-mistress?"
"Yes." Ludlow smiled. "She isn't so very little, any more. It was she who kept me. I found a dispatch at my place when I got home to-day, telling me she was coming, and would arrive at six, and there was no time to trouble you; it was half-past when I got it."
"She's actually come then?" asked Mrs. Westlay. "Nothing you could say would stop her?"
"No," said Ludlow with a shrug. He added, after a moment, "But I don't know that I blame her. Nothing would have stopped me."
"And is there anything else I can do? Has she a pleasant place to stay?"
"Good enough, I fancy. It's a boarding-house where several people I know have been. She must be left to her own devices, now. That's the best thing for her. It's the only thing."
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