The countenances of the ladies fell instantly when he was gone.
"Mrs. March," said Mrs. Deering, with a nervous tremor, "did Mr.
March get us those rooms at the Grand Union?"
"No—no," my wife began, and she made a little pause, as if to gather plausibility. "The Grand Union was very full, and he thought that at the States—"
"Because," said Mrs. Deering, "I don't know as we shall trouble him, after all. Mr. Deering isn't very well, and I guess we have got to go home—"
"GO HOME!" Mrs. March echoed, and her voice was a tone-scene of a toppling hope and a widespread desolation. "Why, you mustn't!"
"We must, I guess. It had begun to be very pleasant, and—I guess I have got to go. I can't feel easy about him."
"Why, of course," Mrs. March now assented, and she waved her fan thoughtfully before her face. I knew what she was thinking of, and I looked at Miss Gage, who had involuntarily taken the pose and expression of the moment when I first saw her at the kiosk in Congress Park. "And Miss Gage?"
"Oh yes; I must go too," said the girl wistfully, forlornly. She had tears in her voice, tears of despair and vexation, I should have said.
"That's too bad," said Mrs. March, and, as she did not offer any solution of the matter, I thought it rather heartless of her to go on and rub it in. "And we were just planning some things we could do together."
"It can't be helped now," returned the girl.
"But we shall see you again before you go?" Mrs. March asked of both.
"Well, I don't know," said the girl, with a look at Mrs. Deering, who now said -
"I guess so. We'll let you know when we're going." And they got away rather stiffly.
"Why in the world, my dear," I asked, "if you weren't going to promote their stay, need you prolong the agony of their acquaintance?"
"Did you feel that about it too? Well, I wanted to ask you first if you thought it would do."
"You know; get her a room here. Because if we do we shall have her literally on our hands as long as we are here. We shall have to have the whole care and responsibility of her, and I wanted you to feel just what you were going in for. You know very well I can't do things by halves, and that if I undertake to chaperon this girl I shall chaperon her—"
"To the bitter end. Yes; I understand the conditions of your uncompromising conscience. But I don't believe it will be any such killing matter. There are other semi-detached girls in the house; she could go round with them."
We talked on, and, as sometimes happens, we convinced each other so thoroughly that she came to my ground and I went to hers. Then it was easier for us to come together, and after making me go to the clerk and find out that he had a vacant room, Mrs. March agreed with me that it would not do at all to have Miss Gage stay with us; the fact that there was a vacant room seemed to settle the question.
We were still congratulating ourselves on our escape when Mrs. Deering suddenly reappeared round our corner of the verandah. She was alone, and she looked excited.
"Oh, it isn't anything," she said in answer to the alarm that showed itself in Mrs. March's face at sight of her. "I hope you won't think it's too presuming, Mrs. March, and I want you to believe that it's something I have thought of by myself, and that Julia wouldn't have let me come if she had dreamed of such a thing. I do hate so to take her back with me, now that she's begun to have a good time, and I was wondering—wondering whether it would be asking too much if I tried to get her a room here. I shouldn't exactly like to leave her in the hotel alone, though I suppose it would be perfectly proper; but Mr. Deering found out when he was trying to get rooms before that there were some young ladies staying by themselves here, and I didn't want to ask the clerk for a room unless you felt just right about it."
"Why, of course, Mrs. Deering. It's a public house, like any other, and you have as much right—"
"But I didn't want you to think that I would do it without asking you, and if it is going to be the least bit of trouble to you." The poor thing while she talked stood leaning anxiously over toward Mrs. March, who had risen, and pressing the points of her fingers nervously together.
"It won't, Mrs. Deering. It will be nothing but pleasure. Why, certainly. I shall be delighted to have Miss Gage here, and anything that Mr. March and I can do—Why, we had just been talking of it, and Mr. March has this minute got back from seeing the clerk, and she can have a very nice room. We had been intending to speak to you about it as soon as we saw you."
I do not know whether this was quite true or not, but I was glad Mrs. March said it, from the effect it had upon Mrs. Deering. Tears of relief came into her eyes, and she said: "Then I can go home in the morning. I was going to stay on a day or two longer, on Julia's account, but I didn't feel just right about Mr. Deering, and now I won't have to."
There followed a flutter of polite offers and refusals, acknowledgments and disavowals, and an understanding that I would arrange it all, and that we would come to Mrs. Deering's hotel after supper and see Miss Gage about the when and the how of her coming to us."
"Well, Isabel," I said, after it was all over, and Mrs. Deering had vanished in a mist of happy tears, "I suppose this is what you call perfectly providential. Do you really believe that Miss Gage didn't send her back?"
"I know she didn't. But I know that she HAD to do it just the same as if Miss Gage had driven her at the point of the bayonet."
I laughed at this tragical image. "Can she be such a terror?"
"She is an ideal. And Mrs. Deering is as afraid as death of her. Of course she has to live up to her. It's probably been the struggle of her life, and I can quite imagine her letting her husband die before she would take Miss Gage back, unless she went back satisfied."
"I don't believe I can imagine so much as that exactly, but I can imagine her being afraid of Miss Gage's taking it out of her somehow. Now she will take it out of us. I hope you realise that you've done it now, my dear. To be sure, you will have all your life to repent of your rashness."
"I shall never repent," Mrs. March retorted hardily. "It was the right thing, the only thing. We couldn't have let that poor creature stay on, when she was so anxious to get back to her husband."
"And I confess, Basil, that I feel a little pity for that poor girl, too. It would have been cruel, it would have been fairly wicked, to let her go home so soon, and especially now."
"Oh! And I suppose that by ESPECIALLY NOW, you mean Kendricks," I said, and I laughed mockingly, as the novelists say. "How sick I am of this stale old love-business between young people! We ought to know better—we're old enough; at least YOU are."
She seemed not to feel the gibe. "Why, Basil," she asked dreamily, "haven't you any romance left in you?"
"Romance? Bah! It's the most ridiculous unreality in the world. If you had so much sympathy for that stupid girl, in that poor woman in her anxiety about her disappointment, why hadn't you a little for her sick husband? But a husband is nothing—when you have got him."
"I did sympathise with her."
"You didn't say so."
"Well, she is only his second wife, and I don't suppose it's anything serious. Didn't I really say anything to her?"
"Not a word. It is curious," I went on, "how we let this idiotic love-passion absorb us to the very last. It is wholly unimportant who marries who, or whether anybody marries at all. And yet we no sooner have the making of a love-affair within reach than we revert to the folly of our own youth, and abandon ourselves to it as if it were one of the great interests of life."
"Who is talking about love? It isn't a question of that. It's a question of making a girl have a pleasant time for a few days; and what is the harm of it? Girls have a dull enough time at the very best. My heart aches for them, and I shall never let a chance slip to help them, I don't care what you say."
"Now, Isabel," I returned, "don't you be a humbug. This is a perfectly plain case, and you are going in for a very risky affair with your eyes open. You shall not pretend you're not."
"Very well, then, if I am going into it with my eyes open, I shall look out that nothing happens."
"And you think prevision will avail! I wish," I said, "that instead of coming home that night and telling you about this girl, I had confined my sentimentalising to that young French-Canadian mother, and her dirty little boy who ate the pea-nut shells. I've no doubt it was really a more tragical case. They looked dreadfully poor and squalid. Why couldn't I have amused my idle fancy with their fortunes—the sort of husband and father they had, their shabby home, the struggle of their life? That is the appeal that a genuine person listens to. Nothing does more to stamp me a poseur than the fact that I preferred to bemoan myself for a sulky girl who seemed not to be having a good time."
There was truth in my joking, but the truth did not save me; it lost me rather. "Yes," said my wife; "it was your fault. I should never have seen anything in her if it had not been for you. It was your coming back and working me up about her that began the whole thing, and now if anything goes wrong you will have yourself to thank for it."
She seized the opportunity of my having jestingly taken up this load to buckle it on me tight and fast, clasping it here, tying it there, and giving a final pull to the knots that left me scarcely the power to draw my breath, much less the breath to protest. I was forced to hear her say again that all her concern from the beginning was for Mrs. Deering, and that now, if she had offered to do something for Miss Gage, it was not because she cared anything for her, but because she cared everything for Mrs. Deering, who could never lift up her head again at De Witt Point if she went back so completely defeated in all the purposes she had in asking Miss Gage to come with her to Saratoga.
I did not observe that this wave of compassion carried Mrs. March so far as to leave her stranded with Mrs. Deering that evening when we called with Kendricks, and asked her and Miss Gage to go with us to the Congress Park concert. Mrs. Deering said that she had to pack, that she did not feel just exactly like going; and my tender heart ached with a knowledge of her distress. Miss Gage made a faint, false pretence of refusing to come with us, too; but Mrs. Deering urged her to go, and put on the new dress, which had just come home, so that Mrs. March could see it. The girl came back looking radiant, divine, and—"Will it do?" she palpitated under my wife's critical glance.
"Do? It will OUTdo! I never saw anything like it!" The connoisseur patted it a little this way and a little that. "It is a dream! Did the hat come too?"
It appeared that the hat had come too. Miss Gage rematerialised with it on, after a moment's evanescence, and looked at my wife with the expression of being something impersonal with a hat on.
"Simply, there is nothing to say!" cried Mrs. March. The girl put up her hands to it. "Good gracious! You mustn't take it off! Your costume is perfect for the concert."
"Is it, really?" asked the girl joyfully; and she seemed to find this the first fitting moment to say, for sole recognition of our self-sacrifice, "I'm much obliged to you, Mr. March, for getting me that room."
I begged her not to speak of it, and turned an ironical eye upon my wife; but she was lost in admiration of the hat.
"Yes," she sighed; "it's much better than the one I wanted you to get at first." And she afterward explained that the girl seemed to have a perfect instinct for what went with her style.
Kendricks kept himself discreetly in the background, and, with his unfailing right feeling, was talking to Mrs. Deering, in spite of her not paying much attention to him. I must own that I too was absorbed in the spectacle of Miss Gage.
She went off with us, and did not say another word to Mrs. Deering about helping her to pack. Perhaps this was best, though it seemed heartless; it may not have been so heartless as it seemed. I dare say it would have been more suffering to the woman if the girl had missed this chance.