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Chapter 14

To have got that sillily superfluous note to Verrian without any one's knowing besides, Miss Shirley must have stolen to his door herself and slipped it under. In order to do this unsuspected and unseen, she must have found out in some sort that would not give her away which his room was, and then watched her chance. It all argued a pervasiveness in her, after such a brief sojourn in the house, and a mastery of finesse that he did not like, though, he reflected, he was not authorized to like or dislike anything about her. He was thirty-seven years old, and he had not lived through that time, with his mother at his elbow to suggest inferences from facts, without being versed in wiles which, even when they were honest, were always wiles, and in lures which, when they were of the most gossamer tenuity, were yet of texture close enough to make the man who blundered through them aware that they had been thrown across his path. He understood, of course, that they were sometimes helplessly thrown across it, and were mere expressions of abstract woman with relation to abstract man, but that did not change their nature. He did not abhor them, but he believed he knew them, and he believed now that he detected one of them in Miss Shirley's note. Of course, one could take another view of it. One could say to one's self that she was really so fervently grateful that she could not trust some accident to bring them together in a place where she was merely a part of the catering, as she said, and he was a guest, and that she was excusable, or at least mercifully explicable, in her wish to have him know that she appreciated his goodness. Verrian had been very good, he knew that; he had saved the day for the poor thing when it was in danger of the dreariest kind of slump. She was a poor thing, as any woman was who had to make her own way, and she had been sick and was charming. Besides, she had found out his name and had probably recognized a quality of celebrity in it, unknown to the other young people with whom he found himself so strangely assorted under Mrs. Westangle's roof.

In the end, and upon the whole, Verrian would rather have liked, if the thing could have been made to happen, meeting Miss Shirley long enough to disclaim meriting her thanks, and to ascribe to the intrinsic value of her scheme the brilliant success it had achieved. This would not have been true, but it would have been encouraging to her; and in the revery which followed upon his conditional desire he had a long imaginary conversation with her, and discussed all her other plans for the revels of the week. These had not the trouble of defining themselves very distinctly in the conversation in order to win his applause, and their consideration did not carry him with Miss Shirley beyond the strictly professional ground on which they met.

She had apparently invented nothing for that evening, and the house party was left to its own resources in dancing and sitting out dances, which apparently fully sufficed it. They were all tired, and broke up early. The women took their candles and went off to bed, and the men went to the billiard-room to smoke. On the way down from his room, where he had gone to put on his smoking-jacket, Verrian met Miss Macroyd coming up, candle in hand, and received from her a tacit intimation that he might stop her for a joking good-night.

"I hope you'll sleep well on your laurels as umpire," he said.

"Oh, thank you," she returned, "and I hope your laurels won't keep you awake. It must seem to you as if it was blowing a perfect gale in them."

"What do you mean? I did nothing."

"Oh, I don't mean your promotion of the snow battle. But haven't you heard?" He stared. "You've been found out!"

"Found out?" Verrian's soul was filled with the joy of literary fame.

"Yes. You can't conceal yourself now. You're Verrian the actor."

"The actor?" Verrian frowned blackly in his disgust, so blackly that Miss Macroyd laughed aloud.

"Yes, the coming matinee idol. One of the girls recognized you as soon as you came into the house, and the name settled it, though, of course, you're supposed to be here incognito."

The mention of that name which he enjoyed in common with the actor made Verrian furious, for when the actor first appeared with it in New York Verrian had been at the pains to find out that it was not his real name, and that he had merely taken it because of the weak quality of romance in it, which Verrian himself had always disliked. But, of course, he could not vent his fury on Miss Macroyd. All he could do was to ask, "Then they have got my photograph on their dressing-tables, with candles burning before it?"

"No, I don't believe I can give you that comfort. The fact is, your acting is not much admired among the girls here, but they think you are unexpectedly nice as a private person."

"That's something. And does Mrs. Westangle think I'm the actor, too?"

"How should Mrs. Westangle know what she thinks? And if she doesn't, how should I?"

"That's true. And are you going to give me away?"

"I haven't done it yet. But isn't it best to be honest?"

"It mightn't be a success."

"The honesty?"

"My literary celebrity."

"There's that," Miss Macroyd rejoiced. "Well, so far I've merely said I was sure you were not Verrian the actor. I'll think the other part over." She went on up-stairs, with the sound of her laugh following her, and Verrian went gloomily back to the billiard-room, where he found most of the smokers conspicuously yawning. He lighted a fresh cigar, and while he smoked they dropped away one by one till only Bushwick was left.

"Some of the fellows are going Thursday," he said. "Are you going to stick it out to the bitter end?"

Till then it had not occurred to Verrian that he was not going to stay through the week, but now he said, "I don't know but I may go Thursday. Shall you?"

"I might as well stay on. I don't find much doing in real estate at Christmas. Do you?"

This was fishing, but it was better than openly taking him for that actor, and Verrian answered, unresentfully, "I don't know. I'm not in that line exactly."

"Oh, I beg your pardon," Bushwick said. "I thought I had seen your name with that of a West Side concern."

"No, I have a sort of outside connection with the publishing business."

"Oh," Bushwick returned, politely, and it would have been reassuringly if Verrian had wished not to be known as an author. The secret in which he lived in that regard was apparently safe from that young, amiable, good-looking real-estate broker. He inferred, from the absence of any allusion to the superstition of the women as to his profession, that it had not spread to Bushwick at least, and this inclined him the more to like him. They sat up talking pleasantly together about impersonal affairs till Bushwick finished his cigar. Then he started for bed, saying, "Well, good-night. I hope Mrs. Westangle won't have anything so active on the tapis for tomorrow."

"Try and sleep it off. Good-night."

William Dean Howells

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