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Chapter 17

It rained throughout the evening, with a wailing of the wind in the gables, and a weeping and a sobbing of the water from the eaves that Mrs. Westangle's guests, securely housed from the storm, made the most of for weirdness. There had been a little dancing, which gave way to so much sitting-out that the volunteer music abruptly ceased as if in dudgeon, and there was nothing left but weirdness to bring young hearts together. Weirdness can do a good deal with girls lounging in low chairs, and young men on rugs round a glowing hearth at their feet; and every one told some strange thing that had happened at first hand, or second or third hand, either to himself or herself, or to their fathers or brothers or grandmothers or old servants. They were stimulated in eking out these experiences not only by the wildness of the rain without, but by the mystery of being shut off from the library into the drawing-room and hall while the preparations for the following night were beginning. But weirdness is not inexhaustible, even when shared on such propitious terms between a group of young people rapidly advanced in intimacy by a week's stay under the same roof, and at the first yawn a gay dispersion of the votaries ended it all.

The yawn came from Bushwick, who boldly owned, when his guilt was brought home to him, that he was sleepy, and then as he expected to be scared out of a year's growth the next night, and not be able to sleep for a week afterwards, he was now going to bed. He shook hands with Mrs. Westangle for good-night. The latest to follow him was Verrian, who, strangely alert, and as far from drowsiness as he had ever known himself, was yet more roused by realizing that Mrs. Westangle was not letting his hand go at once, but, unless it was mere absent-mindedness, was conveying through it the wish to keep him. She fluttered a little more closely up to him, and twittered out, "Miss Shirley wants me to let you know that she has told me about your coming together, and everything."

"Oh, I'm very glad," Verrian said, not sure that it was the right thing.

"I don't know why she feels so, but she has a right to do as she pleases about it. She's not a guest."

"No," Verrian assented.

"It happens very well, though, for the ghost-seeing that people don't know she's here. After that I shall tell them. In fact, she wants me to, for she must be on the lookout for other engagements. I am going to do everything I can for her, and if you hear of anything—"

Verrian bowed, with a sense of something offensive in her words which he could not logically feel, since it was a matter of business and was put squarely on a business basis. "I should be very glad," he said, noncommittally.

"She was sure from the first," Mrs. Westangle went on, as if there were some relation between the fact and her request, "that you were not the actor. She knew you were a writer."

"Oh, indeed!" Verrian said.

"I thought that if you were writing for the newspapers you might know how to help her-"

"I'm not a newspaper writer," Verrian answered, with a resentment which she seemed to feel, for she said, with a sort of apology in her tone:

"Oh! Well, I don't suppose it matters. She doesn't know I'm speaking to you about that; it just came into my head. I like to help in a worthy object, you know. I hope you'll have a good night's rest."

She turned and looked round with the air of distraction which she had after speaking to any one, and which Verrian fancied came as much from a paucity as from a multiplicity of suggestion in her brain, and so left him standing. But she came back to say, "Of course, it's all between ourselves till after to-morrow night, Mr. Verrian."

"Oh, certainly," he replied, and went vaguely off in the direction of the billiard-room. It was light and warm there, though the place was empty, and he decided upon a cigar as a proximate or immediate solution. He sat smoking before the fire till the tobacco's substance had half turned into a wraith of ash, and not really thinking of anything very definitely, except the question whether he should be able to sleep after he went to bed, when he heard a creeping step on the floor. He turned quickly, with a certain expectance in his nerves, and saw nothing more ghostly than Bushwick standing at the corner of the table and apparently hesitating how to speak to him.

He said, "Hello!" and at this Bushwick said:

"Look here!"

"Well?" Verrian asked, looking at him.

"How does it happen you're up so late, after everybody else is wrapped in slumber?"

"I might ask the same of you."

"Well, I found I wasn't making it a case of sleep, exactly, and so I got up."

"Well, I hadn't gone to bed for much the same reason. Why couldn't you sleep? A real-estate broker ought to have a clean conscience."

"So ought a publisher, for that matter. What do you think of this ghost-dance, anyway?"

"It might be amusing—if it fails." Verrian was tempted to add the condition by the opportunity for a cynicism which he did not feel. It is one of the privileges of youth to be cynical, whether or no.

Bushwick sat down before the fire and rubbed his shins with his two hands unrestfully, drawing in a long breath between his teeth. "These things get on to my nerves sometimes. I shouldn't want the ghost-dance to fail."

"On Mrs. Westangle's account?"

"I guess Mrs. Westangle could stand it. Look here!" It was rather a customary phrase of his, Verrian noted. As he now used it he looked alertly round at Verrian, with his hands still on his shins. "What's the use of our beating round the bush?"

Verrian delayed his answer long enough to decide against the aimless pun of asking, "What Bushwick?" and merely asked, "What bush?"

"The bush where the milk in the cocoanut grows. You don't pretend that you believe Mrs. Westangle has been getting up all these fairy stunts?"

Verrian returned to his cigar, from which the ashen wraith dropped into his lap. "I guess you'll have to be a little clearer." But as Bushwick continued silently looking at him, the thing could not be left at this point, and he was obliged to ask of his own initiative, "How much do you know?"

Bushwick leaned back in his chair, with his eyes still on Verrian's profile. "As much as Miss Macroyd could tell me."

"Ah, I'm still in the dark," Verrian politely regretted, but not with a tacit wish to wring Miss Macroyd's neck, which he would not have known how to account for.

"Well, she says that Mrs. Westangle has a professional assistant who's doing the whole job for her, and that she came down on the same train with herself and you."

"Did she say that she grabbed the whole victoria for herself and maid at the station?" Verrian demanded, in a burst of rage, "and left us to get here the best way we could?"

Bushwick grinned. "She supposed there were other carriages, and when she found there weren't she hurried the victoria back for you."

"You think she believes all that? I'm glad she has the decency to be ashamed of her behavior."

"I'm not defending her. Miss Macroyd knows how to take care of herself."

The matter rather dropped for the moment, in which Bushwick filled a pipe he took from his pocket and lighted it. After the first few whiffs he took it from his mouth, and, with a droll look across at Verrian, said, "Who was your fair friend?"

If Verrian was going to talk of this thing, he was not going to do it with the burden of any sort of reserve or contrivance on his soul. "This afternoon?" Bushwick nodded; and Verrian added, "That was she." Then he went on, wrathfully: "She's a girl who has to make her living, and she's doing it in a new way that she's invented for herself. She has supposed that the stupid rich, or the lazy rich, who want to entertain people may be willing to pay for ideas, and she proposes to supply the ideas for a money consideration. She's not a guest in the house, and she won't take herself on a society basis at all. I don't know what her history is, and I don't care. She's a lady by training, and, if she had the accent, I should say she was from the South, for she has the enterprise of the South that comes North and tries to make its living. It's all inexpressibly none of my business, but I happen to be knowing to so much of the case, and if you're knowing to anything else, Mr. Bushwick, I want you to get it straight. That's why I'm talking of it, and not because I think you've any right to know anything about it."

"Thank you," Bushwick returned, unruffled. "It's about what Miss Macroyd told me. That's the reason I don't want the ghost-dance to fail."

Verrian did not notice him. He found it more important to say: "She's so loyal to Mrs. Westangle that she wouldn't have wished, in Mrs. Westangle's interest, to have her presence, or her agency in what is going on, known; but, of course, if Mrs. Westangle chooses to, tell it, that's her affair."

"She would have had to tell it, sooner or later, Mrs. Westangle would; and she only told it to Miss Macroyd this afternoon on compulsion, after Miss Macroyd and I had seen you in the wood-road, and Mrs. Westangle had to account for the young lady's presence there in your company. Then Miss Macroyd had to tell me; but I assure you, my dear fellow, the matter hasn't gone any further."

"Oh, it's quite indifferent to me," Verrian retorted. "I'm nothing but a dispassionate witness of the situation."

"Of course," Bushwick assented, and then he added, with a bonhomie really so amiable that a man with even an unreasonable grudge could hardly resist it, "If you call it dispassionate."

Verrian could not help laughing. "Well, passionate, then. I don't know why it should be so confoundedly vexatious. But somehow I would have chosen Miss Macroyd—Is she specially dear to you?"

"Not the least!"

"I would have chosen her as the last person to have the business, which is so inexpressibly none of my business—"

"Or mine, as I think you remarked," Bushwick interposed.

"Come out through," Verrian concluded, accepting his interposition with a bow.

"I see what you mean," Bushwick said, after a moment's thought. "But, really, I don't think it's likely to go further. If you want to know, I believe Miss Macroyd feels the distinction of being in the secret so much that she'll prefer to hint round till Mrs. Westangle gives the thing away. She had to tell me, because I was there with her when she saw you with the young lady, to keep me from going with my curiosity to you. Come, I do think she's honest about it."

"Don't you think they're rather more dangerous when they're honest?"

"Well, only when they're obliged to be. Cheer up! I don't believe Miss Macroyd is one to spoil sport."

"Oh, I think I shall live through it," Verrian said, rather stiffening again. But he relaxed, in rising from his chair, and said, "Well, good-night, old fellow. I believe I shall go to bed now."

"You won't wait for me till my pipe's out?"

"No, I think not. I seem to be just making it, and if I waited I might lose my grip." He offered Bushwick a friendly hand.

"Do you suppose it's been my soothing conversation? I'm like the actor that the doctor advised to go and see himself act. I can't talk myself sleepy."

"You might try it," Verrian said, going out.

William Dean Howells

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