"She is?" cried Alma. "Tchk!" She flew downstairs, and flitted swiftly into the room, and fluttered up to Beaton, and gave him a crushing hand-shake.
"How very kind, of you to come and see us, Mr. Beaton! When did you come to New York? Don't you find it warm here? We've only just lighted the furnace, but with this mild weather it seems too early. Mamma does keep it so hot!" She rushed about opening doors and shutting registers, and then came back and sat facing him from the sofa with a mask of radiant cordiality. "How have you been since we saw you?"
"Very well," said Beaton. "I hope you're well, Miss Leighton?"
"Oh, perfectly! I think New York agrees with us both wonderfully. I never knew such air. And to think of our not having snow yet! I should think everybody would want to come here! Why don't you come, Mr. Beaton?"
Beaton lifted his eyes and looked at her. "I—I live in New York," he faltered.
"In New York City!" she exclaimed.
"Surely, Alma," said her mother, "you remember Mr. Beaton's telling us he lived in New York."
"But I thought you came from Rochester; or was it Syracuse? I always get those places mixed up."
"Probably I told you my father lived at Syracuse. I've been in New York ever since I came home from Paris," said Beaton, with the confusion of a man who feels himself played upon by a woman.
"From Paris!" Alma echoed, leaning forward, with her smiling mask tight on. "Wasn't it Munich where you studied?"
"I was at Munich, too. I met Wetmore there."
"Oh, do you know Mr. Wetmore?"
"Why, Alma," her mother interposed again, "it was Mr. Beaton who told you of Mr. Wetmore."
"Was it? Why, yes, to be sure. It was Mrs. Horn who suggested Mr. Ilcomb.
I remember now. I can't thank you enough for having sent me to Mr.
Wetmore, Mr. Beaton. Isn't he delightful? Oh yes, I'm a perfect
Wetmorian, I can assure you. The whole class is the same way."
"I just met him and Mrs. Wetmore at dinner," said Beaton, attempting the recovery of something that he had lost through the girl's shining ease and steely sprightliness. She seemed to him so smooth and hard, with a repellent elasticity from which he was flung off. "I hope you're not working too hard, Miss Leighton?"
"Oh no! I enjoy every minute of it, and grow stronger on it. Do I look very much wasted away?" She looked him full in the face, brilliantly smiling, and intentionally beautiful.
"No," he said, with a slow sadness; "I never saw you looking better."
"Poor Mr. Beaton!" she said, in recognition of his doleful tune. "It seems to be quite a blow."
"I remember all the good advice you used to give me about not working too hard, and probably it's that that's saved my life—that and the house-hunting. Has mamma told you of our adventures in getting settled?
"Some time we must. It was such fun! And didn't you think we were fortunate to get such a pretty house? You must see both our parlors." She jumped up, and her mother followed her with a bewildered look as she ran into the back parlor and flashed up the gas.
"Come in here, Mr. Beaton. I want to show you the great feature of the house." She opened the low windows that gave upon a glazed veranda stretching across the end of the room. "Just think of this in New York! You can't see it very well at night, but when the southern sun pours in here all the afternoon—"
"Yes, I can imagine it," he said. He glanced up at the bird-cage hanging from the roof. "I suppose Gypsy enjoys it."
"You remember Gypsy?" she said; and she made a cooing, kissing little noise up at the bird, who responded drowsily. "Poor old Gypsum! Well, he sha'n't be disturbed. Yes, it's Gyp's delight, and Colonel Woodburn likes to write here in the morning. Think of us having a real live author in the house! And Miss Woodburn: I'm so glad you've seen her! They're Southern people."
"Yes, that was obvious in her case."
"From her accent? Isn't it fascinating? I didn't believe I could ever endure Southerners, but we're like one family with the Woodburns. I should think you'd want to paint Miss Woodburn. Don't you think her coloring is delicious? And such a quaint kind of eighteenth-century type of beauty! But she's perfectly lovely every way, and everything she says is so funny. The Southerners seem to be such great talkers; better than we are, don't you think?"
"I don't know," said Beaton, in pensive discouragement. He was sensible of being manipulated, operated, but he was helpless to escape from the performer or to fathom her motives. His pensiveness passed into gloom, and was degenerating into sulky resentment when he went away, after several failures to get back to the old ground he had held in relation to Alma. He retrieved something of it with Mrs. Leighton; but Alma glittered upon him to the last with a keen impenetrable candor, a child-like singleness of glance, covering unfathomable reserve.
"Well, Alma," said her mother, when the door had closed upon him.
"Well, mother." Then, after a moment, she said, with a rush: "Did you think I was going to let him suppose we were piqued at his not coming? Did you suppose I was going to let him patronize us, or think that we were in the least dependent on his favor or friendship?"
Her mother did not attempt to answer her. She merely said, "I shouldn't think he would come any more."
"Well, we have got on so far without him; perhaps we can live through the rest of the winter."
"I couldn't help feeling sorry for him. He was quite stupefied. I could see that he didn't know what to make of you."
"He's not required to make anything of me," said Alma.
"Do you think he really believed you had forgotten all those things?"
"Impossible to say, mamma."
"Well, I don't think it was quite right, Alma."
"I'll leave him to you the next time. Miss Woodburn said you were freezing him to death when I came down."
"That was quite different. But, there won't be any next time, I'm afraid," sighed Mrs. Leighton.
Beaton went home feeling sure there would not. He tried to read when he got to his room; but Alma's looks, tones, gestures, whirred through and through the woof of the story like shuttles; he could not keep them out, and he fell asleep at last, not because he forgot them, but because he forgave them. He was able to say to himself that he had been justly cut off from kindness which he knew how to value in losing it. He did not expect ever to right himself in Alma's esteem, but he hoped some day to let her know that he had understood. It seemed to him that it would be a good thing if she should find it out after his death. He imagined her being touched by it under those circumstances.
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