"Well, what DID you make of her, my dear?" Mrs. March demanded the instant she was beyond their hearing. "I must say, you didn't spare yourself in the cause; you did bravely. What is she like?"
"Really, I don't know," I answered, after a moment's reflection. "I should say she was almost purely potential. She's not so much this or that kind of girl; she's merely a radiant image of girlhood."
"Now, your chicquing it, you're faking it," said Mrs. March, borrowing the verbs severally from the art editor and the publisher of Every Other Week. "You have got to tell me just how much and how little there really is of her before I go any further with them. Is she stupid?"
"No—no; I shouldn't say stupid exactly. She is—what shall I say?- -extremely plain-minded. I suppose the goddesses were plain-minded. I'm a little puzzled by her attitude toward her own beauty. She doesn't live her beauty any more than a poet lives his poetry or a painter his painting; though I've no doubt she knows her gift is hers just as they do."
"I think I understand. You mean she isn't conscious."
"No. Conscious isn't quite the word," I said fastidiously. "Isn't there some word that says less, or more, in the same direction?"
"No, there isn't; and I shall think you don't mean anything at all if you keep on. Now, tell me how she really impressed you. Does she know anything? Has she read anything? Has she any ideas?"
"Really, I can't say whether they were ideas or not. She knew what Every Other Week was; she had read the stories in it; but I'm not sure she valued it at its true worth. She is very plain-minded."
"Don't keep repeating that! What do you mean by plain-minded?"
"Well, honest, single, common-sense, coherent, arithmetical."
"Horrors! Do you mean that she is MANNISH?"
"No, not mannish. And yet she gave me the notion that, when it came to companionship, she would be just as well satisfied with a lot of girls as young men."
Mrs. March pulled her hand out of my arm, and stopped short under one of those tall Saratoga shade-trees to dramatise her inference. "Then she is the slyest of all possible pusses! Did she give you the notion that she would be just as well satisfied with you as with a young man!"
"She couldn't deceive me so far as THAT, my dear."
"Very well; I shall take her in hand myself to-morrow, and find out what she really is."
Mrs. March went shopping the next forenoon with what was left of the Deering party; Deering had taken the early train north, and she seemed to have found the ladies livelier without him. She formed the impression from their more joyous behaviour that he kept his wife from spending as much money as she would naturally have done, and that, while he was not perhaps exactly selfish, he was forgetful of her youth, of the difference in years between them, and of her capacity for pleasures which he could not care for. She said that Mrs. Deering and Miss Gage now acted like two girls together, and, if anything, Miss Gage seemed the elder of the two.
"And what did you decide about her?" I inquired.
"Well, I helped her buy a hat and a jacket at one of those nice shops just below the hotel where they're stopping, and we've started an evening dress for her. She can't wear that white duck morning, noon, and night."
"But her character—her nature?"
"Oh! Well, she is rather plain-minded, as you call it. I think she shows out her real feelings too much for a woman."
"Why do you prefer dissimulation in your sex, my dear?"
"I don't call it dissimulation. But of course a girl ought to hide her feelings. Don't you think it would have been better for her not to have looked so obviously out of humour when you first saw her the other night?"
"She wouldn't have interested me so much, then, and she probably wouldn't have had your acquaintance now."
"Oh, I don't mean to say that even that kind of girl won't get on, if she gives her mind to it; but I think I should prefer a little less plain-mindedness, as you call it, if I were a man."
I did not know exactly what to say to this, and I let Mrs. March go on.
"It's so in the smallest thing. If you're choosing a thing for her, and she likes another, she lets you feel it at once. I don't mean that she's rude about it, but she seems to set herself so square across the way, and you come up with a kind of bump against her. I don't think that's very feminine. That's what I mean by mannish. You always know where to find her."
I don't know why this criticism should have amused me so much, but I began to laugh quite uncontrollably, and I laughed on and on. Mrs. March kept her temper with me admirably. When I was quiet again, she said -
"Mrs. Deering is a person that wins your heart at once; she has that appealing quality. You can see that she's cowed by her husband, though he means to be kind to her; and yet you may be sure she gets round him, and has her own way all the time. I know it was her idea to have him go home and leave them here, and of course she made him think it was his. She saw that as long as he was here, and anxious to get back to his 'stock,' there was no hope of giving Miss Gage the sort of chance she came for, and so she determined to manage it. At the same time, you can see that she is true as steel, and would abhor anything like deceit worse than the pest."
"I see; and that is why you dislike Miss Gage?"
"Dislike her? No, I don't dislike her; but she is disappointing. If she were a plain girl her plain-mindedness would be all right; it would be amusing; she would turn it to account and make it seem humorous. But it doesn't seem to go with her beauty; it takes away from that—I don't know how to express it exactly."
"You mean that she has no charm."
"No; I don't mean that at all. She has a great deal of charm of a certain kind, but it's a very peculiar kind. After all, the truth is the truth, Basil, isn't it?"
"It is sometimes, my dear," I assented.
"And the truth has its charm, even when it's too blunt."
"Ah, I'm not so sure of that."
"Yes—yes, it has. You mustn't say so, Basil, or I shall lose all my faith in you. If I couldn't trust you, I don't know what I should do."
"What are you after now, Isabel?"
"I am not after anything. I want you to go round to all the hotels and see if there is not some young man you know at one of them. There surely must be."
"Would one young man be enough?"
"If he were attentive enough, he would be. One young man is as good as a thousand if the girl is the right kind."
"But you have just been implying that Miss Gage is cold and selfish and greedy. Shall I go round exploring hotel registers for a victim to such a divinity as that?"
"No; you needn't go till I have had a talk with her. I am not sure she is worth it; I am not sure that I want to do a single thing for her."