The day wasted away in Beaton's hands; at half-past four o'clock he went out to tea at the house of a lady who was At Home that afternoon from four till seven. By this time Beaton was in possession of one of those other selves of which we each have several about us, and was again the laconic, staccato, rather worldlified young artist whose moments of a controlled utterance and a certain distinction of manner had commended him to Mrs. Horn's fancy in the summer at St. Barnaby.
Mrs. Horn's rooms were large, and they never seemed very full, though this perhaps was because people were always so quiet. The ladies, who outnumbered the men ten to one, as they always do at a New York tea, were dressed in sympathy with the low tone every one spoke in, and with the subdued light which gave a crepuscular uncertainty to the few objects, the dim pictures, the unexcited upholstery, of the rooms. One breathed free of bric-a-brac there, and the new-comer breathed softly as one does on going into church after service has begun. This might be a suggestion from the voiceless behavior of the man-servant who let you in, but it was also because Mrs. Horn's At Home was a ceremony, a decorum, and not festival. At far greater houses there was more gayety, at richer houses there was more freedom; the suppression at Mrs. Horn's was a personal, not a social, effect; it was an efflux of her character, demure, silentious, vague, but very correct.
Beaton easily found his way to her around the grouped skirts and among the detached figures, and received a pressure of welcome from the hand which she momentarily relaxed from the tea-pot. She sat behind a table put crosswise of a remote corner, and offered tea to people whom a niece of hers received provisionally or sped finally in the outer room. They did not usually take tea, and when they did they did not usually drink it; but Beaton was, feverishly glad of his cup; he took rum and lemon in it, and stood talking at Mrs. Horn's side till the next arrival should displace him: he talked in his French manner.
"I have been hoping to see you," she said. "I wanted to ask you about the
Leightons. Did they really come?"
"I believe so. They are in town—yes. I haven't seen them."
"Then you don't know how they're getting on—that pretty creature, with her cleverness, and poor Mrs. Leighton? I was afraid they were venturing on a rash experiment. Do you know where they are?"
"In West Eleventh Street somewhere. Miss Leighton is in Mr. Wetmore's class."
"I must look them up. Do you know their number?"
"Not at the moment. I can find out."
"Do," said Mrs. Horn. "What courage they must have, to plunge into New York as they've done! I really didn't think they would. I wonder if they've succeeded in getting anybody into their house yet?"
"I don't know," said Beaton.
"I discouraged their coming all I could," she sighed, "and I suppose you did, too. But it's quite useless trying to make people in a place like St. Barnaby understand how it is in town."
"Yes," said Beaton. He stirred his tea, while inwardly he tried to believe that he had really discouraged the Leightons from coming to New York. Perhaps the vexation of his failure made him call Mrs. Horn in his heart a fraud.
"Yes," she went on, "it is very, very hard. And when they won't understand, and rush on their doom, you feel that they are going to hold you respons—"
Mrs. Horn's eyes wandered from Beaton; her voice faltered in the faded interest of her remark, and then rose with renewed vigor in greeting a lady who came up and stretched her glove across the tea-cups.
Beaton got himself away and out of the house with a much briefer adieu to the niece than he had meant to make. The patronizing compassion of Mrs. Horn for the Leightons filled him with indignation toward her, toward himself. There was no reason why he should not have ignored them as he had done; but there was a feeling. It was his nature to be careless, and he had been spoiled into recklessness; he neglected everybody, and only remembered them when it suited his whim or his convenience; but he fiercely resented the inattentions of others toward himself. He had no scruple about breaking an engagement or failing to keep an appointment; he made promises without thinking of their fulfilment, and not because he was a faithless person, but because he was imaginative, and expected at the time to do what he said, but was fickle, and so did not. As most of his shortcomings were of a society sort, no great harm was done to anybody else. He had contracted somewhat the circle of his acquaintance by what some people called his rudeness, but most people treated it as his oddity, and were patient with it. One lady said she valued his coming when he said he would come because it had the charm of the unexpected. "Only it shows that it isn't always the unexpected that happens," she explained.
It did not occur to him that his behavior was immoral; he did not realize that it was creating a reputation if not a character for him. While we are still young we do not realize that our actions have this effect. It seems to us that people will judge us from what we think and feel. Later we find out that this is impossible; perhaps we find it out too late; some of us never find it out at all.
In spite of his shame about the Leightons, Beaton had no present intention of looking them up or sending Mrs. Horn their address. As a matter of fact, he never did send it; but he happened to meet Mr. Wetmore and his wife at the restaurant where he dined, and he got it of the painter for himself. He did not ask him how Miss Leighton was getting on; but Wetmore launched out, with Alma for a tacit text, on the futility of women generally going in for art. "Even when they have talent they've got too much against them. Where a girl doesn't seem very strong, like Miss Leighton, no amount of chic is going to help."
His wife disputed him on behalf of her sex, as women always do.
"No, Dolly," he persisted; "she'd better be home milking the cows and leading the horse to water."
"Do you think she'd better be up till two in the morning at balls and going all day to receptions and luncheons?"
"Oh, guess it isn't a question of that, even if she weren't drawing. You knew them at home," he said to Beaton.
"I remember. Her mother said you suggested me. Well, the girl has some notion of it; there's no doubt about that. But—she's a woman. The trouble with these talented girls is that they're all woman. If they weren't, there wouldn't be much chance for the men, Beaton. But we've got Providence on our own side from the start. I'm able to watch all their inspirations with perfect composure. I know just how soon it's going to end in nervous breakdown. Somebody ought to marry them all and put them out of their misery."
"And what will you do with your students who are married already?" his wife said. She felt that she had let him go on long enough.
"Oh, they ought to get divorced."
"You ought to be ashamed to take their money if that's what you think of them."
"My dear, I have a wife to support."
Beaton intervened with a question. "Do you mean that Miss Leighton isn't standing it very well?"
"How do I know? She isn't the kind that bends; she's the kind that breaks."
After a little silence Mrs. Wetmore asked, "Won't you come home with us,
"Thank you; no. I have an engagement."
"I don't see why that should prevent you," said Wetmore. "But you always were a punctilious cuss. Well!"
Beaton lingered over his cigar; but no one else whom he knew came in, and he yielded to the threefold impulse of conscience, of curiosity, of inclination, in going to call at the Leightons'. He asked for the ladies, and the maid showed him into the parlor, where he found Mrs. Leighton and Miss Woodburn.
The widow met him with a welcome neatly marked by resentment; she meant him to feel that his not coming sooner had been noticed. Miss Woodburn bubbled and gurgled on, and did what she could to mitigate his punishment, but she did not feel authorized to stay it, till Mrs. Leighton, by studied avoidance of her daughter's name, obliged Beaton to ask for her. Then Miss Woodburn caught up her work, and said, "Ah'll go and tell her, Mrs. Leighton." At the top of the stairs she found Alma, and Alma tried to make it seem as if she had not been standing there. "Mah goodness, chald! there's the handsomest young man asking for you down there you evah saw. Alh told you' mothah Ah would come up fo' you."
"What—who is it?"
"Don't you know? But bo' could you? He's got the most beautiful eyes, and he wea's his hai' in a bang, and he talks English like it was something else, and his name's Mr. Beaton."
"Did he-ask for me?" said Alma, with a dreamy tone. She put her hand on the stairs rail, and a little shiver ran over her.
"Didn't I tell you? Of coase he did! And you ought to go raght down if you want to save the poo' fellah's lahfe; you' mothah's just freezin' him to death."
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