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Chapter 9

IX.

"Ah! hello! hello!" Fulkerson said, in recognition of the Marches. "Regular gathering of the clans. How are you, Mrs. Dryfoos? How do you do, Mrs. Mandel, Miss Christine, Mela, Aunt Hitty, and all the folks? How you wuz?" He shook hands gayly all round, and took a chair next the old lady, whose hand he kept in his own, and left Conrad to introduce Beaton. But he would not let the shadow of Beaton's solemnity fall upon the company. He began to joke with Mrs. Dryfoos, and to match rheumatisms with her, and he included all the ladies in the range of appropriate pleasantries. "I've brought Mr. Beaton along to-night, and I want you to make him feel at home, like you do me, Mrs. Dryfoos. He hasn't got any rheumatism to speak of; but his parents live in Syracuse, and he's a kind of an orphan, and we've just adopted him down at the office. When you going to bring the young ladies down there, Mrs. Mandel, for a champagne lunch? I will have some hydro-Mela, and Christine it, heigh? How's that for a little starter? We dropped in at your place a moment, Mrs. March, and gave the young folks a few pointers about their studies. My goodness! it does me good to see a boy like that of yours; business, from the word go; and your girl just scoops my youthful affections. She's a beauty, and I guess she's good, too. Well, well, what a world it is! Miss Christine, won't you show Mr. Beaton that seal ring of yours? He knows about such things, and I brought him here to see it as much as anything. It's an intaglio I brought from the other side," he explained to Mrs. March, "and I guess you'll like to look at it. Tried to give it to the Dryfoos family, and when I couldn't, I sold it to 'em. Bound to see it on Miss Christine's hand somehow! Hold on! Let him see it where it belongs, first!"

He arrested the girl in the motion she made to take off the ring, and let her have the pleasure of showing her hand to the company with the ring on it. Then he left her to hear the painter's words about it, which he continued to deliver dissyllabically as he stood with her under a gas-jet, twisting his elastic figure and bending his head over the ring.

"Well, Mely, child," Fulkerson went on, with an open travesty of her mother's habitual address, "and how are you getting along? Mrs. Mandel hold you up to the proprieties pretty strictly? Well, that's right. You know you'd be roaming all over the pasture if she didn't."

The girl gurgled out her pleasure in his funning, and everybody took him. on his own ground of privileged character. He brought them all together in their friendliness for himself, and before the evening was over he had inspired Mrs. Mandel to have them served with coffee, and had made both the girls feel that they had figured brilliantly in society, and that two young men had been devoted to them.

"Oh, I think he's just as lovely as he can live!" said Mela, as she stood a moment with her sister on the scene of her triumph, where the others had left them after the departure of their guests.

"Who?" asked Christine, deeply. As she glanced down at her ring, her eyes burned with a softened fire.

She had allowed Beaton to change it himself from the finger where she had worn it to the finger on which he said she ought to wear it. She did not know whether it was right to let him, but she was glad she had done it.

"Who? Mr. Fulkerson, goosie-poosie! Not that old stuckup Mr. Beaton of yours!"

"He is proud," assented Christine, with a throb of exultation.

Beaton and Fulkerson went to the Elevated station with the Marches; but the painter said he was going to walk home, and Fulkerson let him go alone.

"One way is enough for me," he explained. "When I walk up, I don't walk down. Bye-bye, my son!" He began talking about Beaton to the Marches as they climbed the station stairs together. "That fellow puzzles me. I don't know anybody that I have such a desire to kick, and at the same time that I want to flatter up so much. Affect you that way?" he asked of March.

"Well, as far as the kicking goes, yes."

"And how is it with you, Mrs. March?"

"Oh, I want to flatter him up."

"No; really? Why? Hold on! I've got the change."

Fulkerson pushed March away from the ticket-office window; and made them his guests, with the inexorable American hospitality, for the ride down-town. "Three!" he said to the ticket-seller; and, when he had walked them before him out on the platform and dropped his tickets into the urn, he persisted in his inquiry, "Why?"

"Why, because you always want to flatter conceited people, don't you?"

Mrs. March answered, with a laugh.

"Do you? Yes, I guess you do. You think Beaton is conceited?"

"Well, slightly, Mr. Fulkerson."

"I guess you're partly right," said Fulkerson, with a sigh, so unaccountable in its connection that they all laughed.

"An ideal 'busted'?" March suggested.

"No, not that, exactly," said Fulkerson. "But I had a notion maybe Beaton wasn't conceited all the time."

"Oh!" Mrs. March exulted, "nobody could be so conceited all the time as Mr. Beaton is most of the time. He must have moments of the direst modesty, when he'd be quite flattery-proof."

"Yes, that's what I mean. I guess that's what makes me want to kick him.

He's left compliments on my hands that no decent man would."

"Oh! that's tragical," said March.

"Mr. Fulkerson," Mrs. March began, with change of subject in her voice, "who is Mrs. Mandel?"

"Who? What do you think of her?" he rejoined. "I'll tell you about her when we get in the cars. Look at that thing! Ain't it beautiful?"

They leaned over the track and looked up at the next station, where the train, just starting, throbbed out the flame-shot steam into the white moonlight.

"The most beautiful thing in New York—the one always and certainly beautiful thing here," said March; and his wife sighed, "Yes, yes." She clung to him, and remained rapt by the sight till the train drew near, and then pulled him back in a panic.

"Well, there ain't really much to tell about her," Fulkerson resumed when they were seated in the car. "She's an invention of mine."

"Of yours?" cried Mrs. March.

"Of course!" exclaimed her husband.

"Yes—at least in her present capacity. She sent me a story for the syndicate, back in July some time, along about the time I first met old Dryfoos here. It was a little too long for my purpose, and I thought I could explain better how I wanted it cut in a call than I could in a letter. She gave a Brooklyn address, and I went to see her. I found her," said Fulkerson, with a vague defiance, "a perfect lady. She was living with an aunt over there; and she had seen better days, when she was a girl, and worse ones afterward. I don't mean to say her husband was a bad fellow; I guess he was pretty good; he was her music-teacher; she met him in Germany, and they got married there, and got through her property before they came over here. Well, she didn't strike me like a person that could make much headway in literature. Her story was well enough, but it hadn't much sand in it; kind of-well, academic, you know. I told her so, and she understood, and cried a little; but she did the best she could with the thing, and I took it and syndicated it. She kind of stuck in my mind, and the first time I went to see the Dryfooses they were stopping at a sort of family hotel then till they could find a house—" Fulkerson broke off altogether, and said, "I don't know as I know just how the Dryfooses struck you, Mrs. March?"

"Can't you imagine?" she answered, with a kindly, smile.

"Yes; but I don't believe I could guess how they would have struck you last summer when I first saw them. My! oh my! there was the native earth for you. Mely is a pretty wild colt now, but you ought to have seen her before she was broken to harness.

"And Christine? Ever see that black leopard they got up there in the Central Park? That was Christine. Well, I saw what they wanted. They all saw it—nobody is a fool in all directions, and the Dryfooses are in their right senses a good deal of the time. Well, to cut a long story short, I got Mrs. Mandel to take 'em in hand—the old lady as well as the girls. She was a born lady, and always lived like one till she saw Mandel; and that something academic that killed her for a writer was just the very thing for them. She knows the world well enough to know just how much polish they can take on, and she don't try to put on a bit more. See?"

"Yes, I can see," said Mrs. March.

"Well, she took hold at once, as ready as a hospital-trained nurse; and there ain't anything readier on this planet. She runs the whole concern, socially and economically, takes all the care of housekeeping off the old lady's hands, and goes round with the girls. By-the-bye, I'm going to take my meals at your widow's, March, and Conrad's going to have his lunch there. I'm sick of browsing about."

"Mr. March's widow?" said his wife, looking at him with provisional severity.

"I have no widow, Isabel," he said, "and never expect to have, till I leave you in the enjoyment of my life-insurance. I suppose Fulkerson means the lady with the daughter who wanted to take us to board."

"Oh yes. How are they getting on, I do wonder?" Mrs. March asked of

Fulkerson.

"Well, they've got one family to board; but it's a small one. I guess they'll pull through. They didn't want to take any day boarders at first, the widow said; I guess they have had to come to it."

"Poor things!" sighed Mrs. March. "I hope they'll go back to the country."

"Well, I don't know. When you've once tasted New York—You wouldn't go back to Boston, would you?"

"Instantly."

Fulkerson laughed out a tolerant incredulity.

William Dean Howells