Even in the time which was then coming and which now is, when successful authors are almost as many as millionaires, Verrian's book brought him a pretty celebrity; and this celebrity was in a way specific. It related to the quality of his work, which was quietly artistic and psychological, whatever liveliness of incident it uttered on the surface. He belonged to the good school which is of no fashion and of every time, far both from actuality and unreality; and his recognition came from people whose recognition was worth having. With this came the wider notice which was not worth having, like the notice of Mrs. Westangle, since so well known to society reporters as a society woman, which could not be called recognition of him, because it did not involve any knowledge of his book, not even its title. She did not read any sort of books, and she assimilated him by a sort of atmospheric sense. She was sure of nothing but the attention paid him in a certain very goodish house, by people whom she heard talking in unintelligible but unmistakable praise, when she said, casually, with a liquid glitter of her sweet, small eyes, "I wish you would come down to my place, Mr. Verrian. I'm asking a few young people for Christmas week. Will you?"
"Why, thank you—thank you very much," Verrian said, waiting to hear more in explanation of the hospitality launched at him. He had never seen Mrs. Westangle till then, or heard of her, and he had not the least notion where she lived. But she seemed to have social authority, though Verrian, in looking round at his hostess and her daughter, who stood near, letting people take leave, learned nothing from their common smile. Mrs. Westangle had glided close to him, in the way she had of getting very near without apparently having advanced by steps, and she stood gleaming and twittering up at him.
"I shall send you a little note; I won't let you forget," she said. Then she suddenly shook hands with the ladies of the house and was flashingly gone.
Verrian thought he might ask the daughter of the house, "And if I don't forget, am I engaged to spend Christmas week with her?"
The girl laughed. "If she doesn't forget, you are. But you'll have a good time. She'll know how to manage that." Other guests kept coming up to take leave, and Verrian, who did not want to go just yet, was retired to the background, where the girl's voice, thrown over her shoulder at him, reached him in the words, as gay as if they were the best of the joke, "It's on the Sound."
The inference was that Mrs. Westangle's place was on the Sound; and that was all Verrian knew about it till he got her little note. Mrs. Westangle knew how to write in a formless hand, but she did not know how to spell, and she had thought it best to have a secretary who could write well and spell correctly. Though, as far as literacy was concerned, she was such an almost incomparably ignorant woman, she had all the knowledge the best society wants, or, if she found herself out of any, she went and bought some; she was able to buy almost anything.
Verrian thanked the secretary for remembering him, in the belief that he was directly thanking Mrs. Westangle, whose widespread consciousness his happiness in accepting did not immediately reach; and in the very large house party, which he duly joined under her roof, he was aware of losing distinctiveness almost to the point of losing identity. This did not quite happen on the way to Belford, for, when he went to take his seat in the drawing-room car, a girl in the chair fronting him put out her hand with the laugh of Miss Macroyd.
"She did remember you!" she cried out. "How delightful! I don't see how she ever got onto you"—she made the slang her own—"in the first place, and she must have worked hard to be sure of you since."
Verrian hung up his coat and put his suit-case behind his chair, the porter having put it where he could not wheel himself vis-a-vis with the girl. "She took all the time there was," he answered. "I got my invitation only the day before yesterday, and if I had been in more demand, or had a worse conscience—"
"Oh, do say worse conscience! It's so much more interesting," the girl broke in.
"—I shouldn't have the pleasure of going to Seasands with you now," he concluded, and she gave her laugh. "Do I understand that simply my growing fame wouldn't have prevailed with her?"
Anything seemed to make Miss Macroyd laugh. "She couldn't have cared about that, and she wouldn't have known. You may be sure that it was a social question with her after the personal question was settled. She must have liked your looks!" Again Miss Macroyd laughed.
"On that side I'm invulnerable. It's only a literary vanity to be soothed or to be wounded that I have," Verrian said.
"Oh, there wouldn't be anything personal in her liking your looks. It would be merely deciding that personally you would do," Miss Macroyd laughed, as always, and Verrian put on a mock seriousness in asking:
"Then I needn't be serious if there should happen to be anything so Westangular as a Mr. Westangle?"
"Not the least in the world."
"But there is something?"
"Oh, I believe so. But not probably at Seasands."
"Is that her house?"
"Yes. Every other name had been used, and she couldn't say Soundsands."
"Then where would the Mr. Westangular part more probably be found?"
"Oh, in Montana or Mesopotamia, or any of those places. Don't you know about him? How ignorant literary people can be! Why, he was the Amalgamated Clothespin. You haven't heard of that?"
She went on to tell him, with gay digressions, about the invention which enabled Westangle to buy up the other clothes-pins and merge them in his own—to become a commercial octopus, clutching the throats of other clothespin inventors in the tentacles of the Westangle pin. "But he isn't in clothespins now. He's in mines, and banks, and steamboats, and railroads, and I don't know what all; and Mrs. Westangle, the second of her name, never was in clothespins."
Miss Macroyd laughed all through her talk, and she was in a final burst of laughing when the train slowed into Stamford. There a girl came into the car trailing her skirts with a sort of vivid debility and overturning some minor pieces of hand-baggage which her draperies swept out of their shelter beside the chairs. She had to take one of the seats which back against the wall of the state-room, where she must face the whole length of the car. She sat weakly fallen back in the chair and motionless, as if almost unconscious; but after the train had begun to stir she started up, and with a quick flinging of her veil aside turned to look out of the window. In the flying instant Verrian saw a colorless face with pinched and sunken eyes under a worn-looking forehead, and a withered mouth whose lips parted feebly.
On her part, Miss Macroyd had doubtless already noted that the girl was, with no show of expensiveness, authoritatively well gowned and personally hatted. She stared at her, and said, "What a very hunted and escaping effect."
"She does look rather-fugitive," Verrian agreed, staring too.
"One might almost fancy—an asylum."
"Yes, or a hospital."
They continued both to stare at her, helpless for what ever different reasons to take their eyes away, and they were still interested in her when they heard her asking the conductor, "Must I change and take another train before we get to Belford? My friends thought—"
"No, this train stops at Southfield," the conductor answered, absently biting several holes into her drawing-room ticket.
"Can she be one of us?" Miss Macroyd demanded, in a dramatic whisper.
"She might be anything," Verrian returned, trying instantly, with a whir of his inventive machinery, to phrase her. He made a sort of luxurious failure of it, and rested content with her face, which showed itself now in profile and now fronted him in full, and now was restless and now subsided in a look of delicate exhaustion. He would have said, if he would have said anything absolute, that she was a person who had something on her mind; at instants she had that hunted air, passing at other instants into that air of escape. He discussed these appearances with Miss Macroyd, but found her too frankly disputatious; and she laughed too much and too loud.