It was the first time that Verrian had come down late, and it was his novel experience to find himself in charge of Mrs. Stager at breakfast, instead of the butler and the butler's man, who had hitherto served him at the earlier hour. There were others, somewhat remote from him, at table, who were ending when he was beginning, and when they had joked themselves out of the room and away from Mrs. Stager's ministrations he was left alone to her. He had instantly appreciated a quality of motherliness in her attitude towards him, and now he was sensible of a kindly intimacy to which he rather helplessly addressed himself.
"Well, Mrs. Stager, did you see a ghost on your way to bed?"
"I don't know as I really expected to," she said. "Won't you have a few more of the buckwheats?"
"Do you think I'd better? I believe I won't. They're very tempting. Miss Shirley makes a very good ghost," he suggested.
Mrs. Stager would not at first commit herself further than to say in bringing him the butter, "She's just up from a long fit of sickness." She impulsively added, "She ain't hardly strong enough to be doing what she is, I tell her."
"I understood she had been ill," Verrian said. "We drove over from the station together, the other day."
"Yes," Mrs. Stager admitted. "Kind of a nervous breakdown, I believe. But she's got an awful spirit. Mrs. Westangle don't want her to do all she is doing."
Verrian looked at her in surprise. He had not expected that of the India-rubber nature he had attributed to Mrs. Westangle. In view of Mrs. Stager's privity to the unimagined kindliness of his hostess, he relaxed himself in a further interest in Miss Shirley, as if it would now be safe. "She's done splendidly, so far," he said, meaning the girl. "I'm glad Mrs. Westangle appreciates her work."
"I guess," Mrs. Stager said, "that if it hadn't been for you at the snow-fight—She got back from getting ready for it, that morning, almost down sick, she was afraid so it was going to fail."
"I didn't do anything," Verrian said, putting the praise from him.
Mrs. Stager lowered her voice in an octave of deeper confidentiability. "You got the note? I put it under, and I didn't know."
"Oh yes, I got it," Verrian said, sensible of a relief, which he would not assign to any definite reason, in knowing that Miss Shirley had not herself put it under his door. But he now had to take up another burden in the question whether Miss Shirley were of an origin so much above that of her confidant that she could have a patrician fearlessness in making use of her, or were so near Mrs. Stager's level of life that she would naturally turn to her for counsel and help. Miss Shirley had the accent, the manners, and the frank courage of a lady; but those things could be learned; they were got up for the stage every day.
Verrian was roused from the muse he found he had fallen into by hearing Mrs. Stager ask, "Won't you have some more coffee?"
"No, thank you," he said. And now he rose from the table, on which he dreamily dropped his napkin, and got his hat and coat and went out for a walk. He had not studied the art of fiction so long, in the many private failures that had preceded his one public success, without being made to observe that life sometimes dealt in the accidents and coincidences which his criticism condemned as too habitually the resource of the novelist. Hitherto he had disdained them for this reason; but since his serial story was off his hands, and he was beginning to look about him for fresh material, he had doubted more than once whether his severity was not the effect of an unjustifiable prejudice.
It struck him now, in turning the corner of the woodlot above the meadow where the snow-battle had taken place, and suddenly finding himself face to face with Miss Shirley, that nature was in one of her uninventive moods and was helping herself out from the old stock-in-trade of fiction. All the same, he felt a glow of pleasure, which was also a glow of pity; for while Miss Shirley looked, as always, interesting, she look tired, too, with a sort of desperate air which did not otherwise account for itself. She had given, at sight of him, a little start, and a little "Oh!" dropped from her lips, as if it had been jostled from them. She made haste to go on, with something like the voluntary hardiness of the courage that plucks itself from the primary emotion of fear, "You are going down to try the skating?"
"Do I look it, without skates?"
"You may be going to try the sliding," she returned. "I'm afraid there won't be much of either for long. This soft air is going to make havoc of my plans for to-morrow."
"That's too bad of it. Why not hope for a hard freeze to-night? You might as well. The weather has been known to change its mind. You might even change your plans."
"No, I can't do that. I can't think of anything else. It's to bridge over the day that's left before Seeing Ghosts. If it does freeze, you'll come to Mrs. Westangle's afternoon tea on the pond?"
"I certainly shall. How is it to be worked?"
"She's to have her table on a platform, with runners, in a bower of evergreen boughs, and be pushed about, and the people are to skate up for the tea. There are to be tea and chocolate, and two girls to pour, just as in real life. It isn't a very dazzling idea, but I thought it might do; and Mrs. Westangle is so good-natured. Now, if the thermometer will do its part!"
"I am sure it will," Verrian said, but a glance at the gray sky did not confirm him in his prophetic venture. The snow was sodden under foot; a breath from the south stirred the pines to an Aeolian response and moved the stiff, dry leaves of the scrub-oaks. A sapsucker was marking an accurate circle of dots round the throat of a tall young maple, and enjoying his work in a low, guttural soliloquy, seemingly, yet, dismayingly, suggestive of spring.
"It's lovely, anyway," she said, following his glance with an upward turn of her face.
"Yes, it's beautiful. I think this sort of winter day is about the best the whole year can do. But I will sacrifice the chance of another like it to your skating-tea, Miss Shirley."
He did not know why he should have made this speech to her, but apparently she did, and she said, "You're always coming to my help, Mr. Verrian."
"Don't mention it!"
"I won't, then," she said, with a smile that showed her thin face at its thinnest and left her lip caught on her teeth till she brought it down voluntarily. It was a small but full lip and pretty, and this trick of it had a fascination. She added, gravely, "I don't believe you will like my ice-tea."
"I haven't any active hostility to it. You can't always be striking twelve—twelve midnight—as you will be in Seeing Ghosts. But your ice-tea will do very well for striking five. I'm rather elaborate!"
"Not too elaborate to hide your real opinion. I wonder what you do think of my own elaboration—I mean of my scheme."
They had moved on, at his turning to walk with her, so as not to keep her standing in the snow, and now she said, looking over her shoulder at him, "I've decided that it won't do to let the ghost have all the glory. I don't think it will be fair to let the people merely be scared, even when they've been warned that they're to see a ghost and told it isn't real."
She seemed to refer the point to him, and he said, provisionally, "I don't know what more they can ask."
"They can ask questions. I'm going to let each person speak to the ghost, if not scared dumb, and ask it just what they please; and I'm going to answer their questions if I can."
"Won't it be something of an intellectual strain?"
"Yes, it will. But it will be fun, too, a little, and it will help the thing to go off. What do you think?"
"I think it's fine. Are you going to give it out, so that they can be studying up their questions?"
"No, their questions have got to be impromptu. Or, at least, the first one has. Of course, after the scheme has once been given away, the ghost-seers will be more or less prepared, and the ghost will have to stand it."
"I think it's great. Are you going to let me have a chance with a question?"
"Are you going to see a ghost?"
"To be sure I am. May I really ask it what I please?"
"If you're honest."
"Oh, I shall be honest—"
He stopped breathlessly, but she did not seem called upon to supply any meaning for his abruptness. "I'm awfully glad you like the idea," she said, "I have had to think the whole thing out for myself, and I haven't been quite certain that the question-asking wasn't rather silly, or, at least, sillier than the rest. Thank you so much, Mr. Verrian."
"I've thought of my question," he began again, as abruptly as he had stopped before. "May I ask it now?"
Cries of laughter came up from the meadow below, and the voices seemed coming nearer.
"Oh, I mustn't be seen!" Miss Shirley lamented. "Oh, dear! If I'm seen the whole thing is given away. What shall I do?" She whirled about and ran down the road towards a path that entered the wood.
He ran after her. "My question is, May I come to see you when you get back to town?"
"Yes, certainly. But don't come now! You mustn't be seen with me! I'm not supposed to be in the house at all."
If Verrian's present mood had been more analytic, it might have occurred to him that the element of mystery which Miss Shirley seemed to cherish in regard to herself personally was something that she could dramatically apply with peculiar advantage to the phantasmal part she was to take in her projected entertainment. But he was reduced from the exercise of his analytic powers to a passivity in which he was chiefly conscious of her pathetic fascination. This seemed to emanate from her frail prettiness no less than from the sort of fearful daring with which she was pushing her whole enterprise through; it came as much from her undecided blondness—from her dust-colored hair, for instance—as from the entreating look of her pinched eyes, only just lighting their convalescent fires, and from the weakness that showed, with the grace, in her run through the wintry woods, where he watched her till the underbrush thickened behind her and hid her from him. Altogether his impression was very complex, but he did not get so far even as the realization of this, in his mental turmoil, as he turned with a deep sigh and walked meditatively homeward through the incipient thaw.
It did not rain at night, as it seemed so likely to do, and by morning the cloudiness of the sky had so far thinned that the sun looked mildly through it without more than softening the frozen surface of the pond, so that Mrs. Westangle's ice-tea (as everybody called it, by a common inspiration, or by whatever circuitous adoption of Verrian's phrase) came off with great success. People from other houses were there, and they all said that they wondered how she came to have such a brilliant idea, and they kept her there till nearly dark. Then the retarded rain began, in a fine drizzle, and her house guests were forced homeward, but not too soon to get a good, long rest before dressing for dinner. She was praised for her understanding with the weather, and for her meteorological forecast as much as for her invention in imagining such a delightful and original thing as an ice-tea, which no one else had ever thought of. Some of the women appealed to Verrian to say if he had ever heard of anything like it; and they felt that Mrs. Westangle was certainly arriving, and by no beaten track.
None of the others put it in these terms, of course; it was merely a consensus of feeling with them, and what was more articulate was dropped among the ironies with which Miss Macroyd more confidentially celebrated the event. Out of hearing of the others, in slowly following them with Verrian, she recurred to their talk. "Yes, it's only a question of money enough for Newport, after this. She's chic now, and after a season there she will be smart. But oh, dear! How came she to be chic? Can you imagine?"
Verrian did not feel bound to a categorical answer, and in his private reflections he dealt with another question. This was how far Miss Shirley was culpable in the fraud she was letting Mrs. Westangle practise on her innocent guests. It was a distasteful question, and he did not find it much more agreeable when it subdivided itself into the question of necessity on her part, and of a not very clearly realized situation on Mrs. Westangle's. The girl had a right to sell her ideas, and perhaps the woman thought they were her own when she had paid for them. There could be that view of it all. The furtive nature of Miss Shirley's presence in the house might very well be a condition of that grand event she was preparing. It was all very mysterious.