The fun of it all was that Mrs. March was not deceived for an instant. "Oh, nonsense!" she said, when she glanced at our pretty deception, which we presented with perhaps too perfect seriousness. "Then you danced only the first dance?"
"No, no!" Miss Gage protested. "I danced every dance as long as I stayed." She laughed with her handkerchief to her mouth and her eyes shining above.
"Yes; I can testify to that, Mrs. March," said Kendricks, and he laughed wildly, too. I must say their laughter throughout was far beyond the mirthfulness of the facts. They both protested that they had had the best time in the world, and the gayest time; that I had been a mirror of chaperons, and followed them round with my eyes wherever they went like a family portrait; and that they were the most exemplary young couple at the hop in their behaviour. Mrs. March asked them all about it, and she joined in their fun with a hilarity which I knew from long experience boded me no good.
When Kendricks had gone away, and Miss Gage had left us for the night with an embrace, whose fondness I wondered at, from Mrs. March, an awful silence fell upon us in the deserted parlour where she had waited up.
I knew that when she broke the silence she would begin with, "Well, my dear!" and this was what she did. She added, "I hope you're convinced NOW!"
I did not even pretend not to understand. "You mean that they are in love? I suppose that their we-ing and us-ing so much would indicate something of the kind."
"It isn't that alone; everything indicates it. She would hardly let go of him with her eyes. I wish," sighed Mrs. March, and she let her head droop upon her hand a moment, "I could be as sure of him as I am of her."
''Wouldn't that double the difficulty?" I ventured to suggest, though till she spoke I had not doubted that it was the case.
"I should make you speak to him if I were sure of him; but as it is
I shall speak to her, and the sooner the better."
"To-night?" I quaked.
"No; I shall let the poor thing have her sleep to-night. But the first thing in the morning I shall speak, and I want you to send her up to me as soon as she's had her breakfast. Tell her I'm not well, and shall not be down; I shall not close my eyes the whole night. And now," she added, "I want you to tell me everything that happened this evening. Don't omit a word, or a look, or a motion. I wish to proceed intelligently."
I hope I was accurate in the history of the hop which I gave Mrs. March; I am sure I was full. I think my account may be justly described as having a creative truthfulness, if no other merit. I had really no wish to conceal anything except the fact that I had not, in my utter helplessness, even tried to get Miss Gage any other partners. But in the larger interest of the present situation, Mrs. March seemed to have lost the sense of my dereliction in this respect. She merely asked, "And it was after you went back to the parlour, just before you came home, that you wrote those names on her card?"
"Kendricks wrote half of them," I said.
"I dare say. Well, it was very amusing, and if the circumstances were different, I could have entered into the spirit of it too. But you see yourself, Basil, that we can't let this affair go any further without dealing frankly with her. YOU can't speak to her, and I MUST. Don't you see?"
I said that I saw, but I had suddenly a wild wish that it were practicable for me to speak to Miss Gage. I should have liked to have a peep into a girl's heart at just such a moment, when it must be quivering with the unconfessed sense of love, and the confident hope of being loved, but while as yet nothing was assured, nothing was ascertained. If it would not have been shocking, if it would not have been sacrilegious, it would have been infinitely interesting, and from an aesthetic point of view infinitely important. I thought that I should have been willing to undergo all the embarrassment of such an inquiry for the sake of its precious results, if it had been at all possible; but I acquiesced that it would not be possible. I felt that I was getting off pretty lightly not to have it brought home to me again that I was the cause of all this trouble, and that if it had not been for me there would have been, as far as Mrs. March was concerned, no Miss Gage, and no love- affair of hers to deal with. I debated in my mind a moment whether I had better urge her to let me speak to Kendricks after all; but I forbore, and in the morning I waited about in much perturbation, after I had sent Miss Gage to her, until I could know the result of their interview. When I saw the girl come away from her room, which she did rather trippingly, I went to her, and found her by no means the wreck I had expected the ordeal to leave her.
"Did you meet Miss Gage?" she asked.
"Yes," I returned, with tremulous expectation.
"Well, don't you think she looks perfectly divine in that gown? It's one of Mme. Cody's, and we got it for thirty dollars. It would have been fifty in New York, and it was, here, earlier in the season. I shall always come here for some of my things; as soon as the season's a little past they simply FLING them away. Well, my dear!"
"I didn't speak to her after all."
"You didn't! Don't you think she's in love with him, then?"
"Well, I couldn't somehow seem to approach the subject as I had expected to. She was so happy, and so good, and so perfectly obedient, that I couldn't get anything to take hold of. You see, I didn't know but she might be a little rebellious, or resentful of my interference; but in the little gingerly attempts I did make she was so submissive, don't you understand? And she was very modest about Mr. Kendricks' attentions, and so self-depreciatory that, well—"
"Look here, Isabel," I broke in, "this is pretty shameless of you. You pretend to be in the greatest kind of fidge about this girl; and you make me lie awake all night thinking what you're going to say to her; and now you as much as tell me you were so fascinated with the modest way she was in love that you couldn't say anything to her against being in love on our hands in any sort of way. Do you call this business?"
"Well, I don't care if I DID encourage her—"
"Oh, you even encouraged her!"
"I DIDN'T encourage her. I merely praised Mr. Kendricks, and said how much you thought of him as a writer."
"Oh! then you gave the subject a literary cast. I see! Do you think Miss Gage was able to follow you?"
"That doesn't matter."
"And what do you propose to do now?"
"I propose to do nothing. I think that I have done all my duty requires, and that now I can leave the whole affair to you. It was your affair in the beginning. I don't see why I should worry myself about it."
"It seems to me that this is a very strange position for a lady to take who was not going to close an eye last night in view of a situation which has not changed in the least, except for the worse. Don't you think you are rather culpably light-hearted all of a sudden?"
"I am light-hearted, but if there is any culpability it is yours,
I reflected, but I failed to find any novelty in the fact. "Very well, then; what do you propose that I should do?"
"I leave that entirely to your own conscience."
"And if my conscience has no suggestion to make?"
"That's your affair."
I reflected again, and then I said, more than anything to make her uncomfortable, I'm afraid: "I feel perfectly easy in my conscience, personally, but I have a social duty in the matter, and I hope I shall perform it with more fidelity and courage than you have shown. I shall speak to Kendricks."
She said: "That is just what you ought to do. I'm quite surprised." After this touch of irony she added earnestly, "And I do hope, my dear, you will use judgment in speaking to him, and tact. You mustn't go at it bluntly. Remember that Mr. Kendricks is not at all to blame. He began to show her attention to oblige us, and if she has fallen in love with him it is our fault."
"I shall handle him without gloves," I said. "I shall tell him he had better go away."
I was joking, but she said seriously, "Yes; he must go away. And I don't envy you having to tell him. I suppose you will bungle it, of course."
"Well, then, you must advise me," I said; and we really began to consider the question. We could hardly exaggerate the difficulty and delicacy of the duty before me. We recognised that before I made any explicit demand of him I must first ascertain the nature of the whole ground and then be governed by the facts. It would be simple enough if I had merely to say that we thought the girl's affections were becoming engaged, and then appeal to his eager generosity, his delicate magnanimity; but there were possible complications on his side which must be regarded. I was to ascertain, we concluded, the exact nature of the situation before I ventured to say anything openly. I was to make my approaches by a series of ambushes before I unmasked my purpose, and perhaps I must not unmask it at all. As I set off on my mission, which must begin with finding Kendricks at his hotel, Mrs. March said she pitied me. She called me back to ask whether I thought I had really better do anything. Then, as I showed signs of weakening, she drove me from her with, "Yes, yes! You must! You must!"