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"Couldn't Peters," she asked, turning again toMacBirney, "drive me down half an hour earlier-beforeyou go? I can wait at the church till hecomes back after me?"
MacBirney was reading the stock-market reportsin the morning paper. "All right," he saidcurtly.
She was contained this time. There had beenoccasions when scenes such as this had broughthot tears, but five years of steady battering hadfairly subdued Alice.
At high mass, an hour later, villagers saw afine lady-a Second Lake lady, they shrewdlyfancied from the carriage that broughther-kneeling among them in a pew close to the altar, and quite oblivious of those about her, kneeling, too, at times when they stood or sat; kneelingoften with her face-which they thought pretty-hiddenin her hands as if it somehow had offended; kneeling from the credo until the stragglers in thevestibule and about the church door began to slipaway from the last gospel. There was an unusualstir about the church because it was a confirmationSunday and an archbishop, a white-hairedman who had once been in charge of the littleSunbury parish himself, was present.
Alice followed the last of the congregation outof the door and into the village sunshine. Shelooked up and down the country road for herhorses but none were in sight. Below the churchwhere the farmers' rigs stood, a big motor-carwatched by village boys was waiting. They knewthat the car, with its black and olive trimmings, was from The Towers because they were familiarwith the livery of the villa grooms.
Their curiosity was rewarded when they saw thefine lady come out of the church. The instantshe appeared a great gentleman stepped from theblack tonneau and, lifting his hat very high, hastened across the muddy road to greether-certainly she made a picture as she stood on thechurch steps in her tan pongee gown with herbrown hair curling under a rose-wreathed Leghorn hat.
Her heart gave a frightened jump when she sawwho was coming. But when the gentleman spoke, his voice was so quiet that even those loiteringnear could not hear his words. There was somediscussion between the two. His slight gesturesas they talked, seemed to indicate something ofexplanation and something of defence. Then asuggestion of urgency appeared in his manner.The fine lady resisted.
From under her pongee parasol she lookedlongingly up the road and down for her horses, but for a while no horses came. At last a carriagelooking like her own did come down the lakeroad and she hoped for a moment. Then as thecarriage drove rapidly past her face fell.
The great gentleman indicated his annoyanceat the insolent mud that spattered from thecarriage wheel by a look, but he kept quite near tothe fine lady and his eyes fell very kindly on herpink cheeks. Her carriage did not come evenafter they had gone to his car and seated themselvesin the tonneau to await it. He was too clever tohurry her. He allowed her to wait until she sawher case was quite hopeless, then she told him hemight drive her home.
"I came," he explained, answering an annoyednote in a second question that she asked, "becauseI understood you were going to church-"
"But I did not say I was."
"I must have dreamed it."
Brice, sitting at the wheel in front of them, smiled-but only within his heart-when thiscame to his ears; because it was Brice who hadbeen asked during the morning where Mrs.MacBirneywas and Brice who had reported. Hewas senior to Peters, senior to all the Second Lakecoachmen and chauffeurs, and usually found outwhatever he wanted to find out.
"At any rate," Kimberly laughed good-naturedly,"I have been waiting here half an hour for you."
Brice knew that this was true to the minute, forin that half-hour there had been many glances attwo good watches and a hamper of hot-housegrapes. Brice himself, since a certain missedtrain, involving language that lingered yet inhis ears, carried a good watch.
But to-day not even amiable profanity, whichBrice recalled as normal during extended waits, had accompanied the unusual detention. Nomessenger had been despatched to sound the youngvillage priest with a view of expediting the massand the fine lady had been in nowise interruptedduring her lengthened devotions. Kimberly, inthis instance, had truthfully been a model ofpatience.
"These are the grapes," Brice heard behindhim, as he let the machine out a bit and fanciedthe top of the hamper being raised. "Aren't theyexceptional? I found the vines in Algeria. Thereare lilies on this side."
An expression of involuntary admiration camefrom the tonneau. "Assumption lilies! For yoursister?"
"No, for you. They are to celebrate the feast."
"The feast? Why, of course!" Then came acategorical question, animated but delivered withkeenness: "How did you know that to-day is thefeast of the Assumption?"
A bland evasion followed. "I supposed thatevery one knew the fifteenth of August is the feastof the Assumption. Taste this grape."
"I am very sure you didn't know."
"But I did. Taste the grape."
"Who told you?"
"Whence have you the faculties of the Inquisition?Why do you rack me with questions?"
"I begin to suspect, Mr. Kimberly, that youbelong on the rack."
"No doubt. At least I have spent most of mylife there."
"Come, please! Who told you?"
"Francis, of course; now will you taste this grape?"
When MacBirney reached home with thevictoria Alice had not yet taken off her hat, and a maid was bringing vases for the lilies. Hehad been driving toward Sea Ridge and taken thewrong road and was sorry for his delay in gettingto the church. Alice accepted his excuses ingood part. He tried to explain hismisunderstanding about the engagement with Kimberly.She relieved his endeavors by making everythingeasy, telling him finally how Kimberly had broughther home and had left the grapes and lilies. Whenthe two sat down at luncheon, MacBirney noticedAlice's preoccupation; she admitted she had aslight headache. She was glad, however, to havehim ask her to go for a long motor drive in theafternoon, thinking the air would do her good, and they spent three hours together.
When they got home it was dusk. The dinnerserved on the porch was satisfying and the daywhich had opened with so little of promise seemedto do better at the close. Indeed, Alice all dayhad sought quiet because she had something tosay which she was resolved to say this day. Afterdinner she remained with her husband in themoonlight. He was talking, over his cigar, of anidea for adding a strip of woodland to the lowerend of their new estate, when she interrupted him.
"Should you be greatly shocked, Walter, if Isaid I wish we could go away from here?" Shewas leaning toward him on the arm of her chairwhen she spoke and her hands were clasped.
His astonishment was genuine. "What do you mean?"
"I don't know. Yet I feel as if we ought to go,Walter."
She was looking earnestly at him, but in theshadow he could not see, though he felt, her eyes.
"It is hard to explain." She paused a moment."These people are delightful; you know I likethem as much as you do."
MacBirney took his cigar from his mouth toexpress his surprise. "I thought you were crazyabout the place and the people and everythingelse," he exclaimed. "I thought this was justwhat you were looking for! You've said so muchabout refined luxury and lovely manners-"
"I am thinking of all that." There was enoughin her tone of an intention to be heard to cause himto forget his favorite expedient of drowning thesubject in a flood of words. "But with all this,or to enjoy it all, one needs peace of mind, andmy peace of mind is becoming disturbed."
Quite misunderstanding her, MacBirney thoughtshe referred to the question of church-going, andthat subject offered so much delicate ground thatAlice continued without molestation.
"It is very hard to say what I meant to say, without saying too little or too much. You know,Walter, you were worried at one time about howMr. Robert Kimberly would look at yourproposals, and you told me you wanted me to beagreeable to him. And without treating him differentlyfrom any one else here, I have tried to pay particularregard to what he had to say and everythingof that kind. It is awfully hard to specify," shehesitated in perplexity. "I am sure I haven'tdiscriminated him in any way from his brother,or Mr. De Castro, for instance. But I havealways shown an interest in things he had to pointout, and he seemed to enjoy-perhaps more thanthe others-pointing things out. And-"
"It seems to me now as if he has begun to takean interest in everything I do-"
Her husband became jocular. "Oh, has he?"
Alice's words came at last bluntly. "And itcompletely upsets me, Walter."
MacBirney laughed again. "Why so?"
She took refuge in a shade of annoyance."Because I don't like to think about it."
"Think about what?"
"About any man's-if I must say it-payingattention to me, except my husband."
"Now you are hitting me, aren't you, Alice?You are pretty clever, after all," declaredMacBirney still laughing.
She threw herself back in her chair. "Oh,Walter, you don't understand at all! Nothingcould be further from what I am thinking. Iought not to say he has been attentive enoughto speak of. It is not that I dislike Mr. Kimberly.But he does somehow make me uncomfortable.Perhaps I don't understand their way here."
"Why, that is all there is to it, Alice. It'smerely their way. Give it no thought. He issimply being agreeable. Don't imagine that everyman that sends you flowers is interested in you.Is that all, Allie?"
"Yes." Her acuteness divined about what hewould reply. "And," she added, "I think, however foolish it may sound, it is enough."
"Don't worry about bridges you will never haveto cross. That's the motto I've followed."
"Yes, I know, but-"
"Just a moment. All you have to do is totreat everybody alike."
"You would have to do that anywhere-shouldn'tyou? Of course. Suppose we shouldgo somewhere else and find a man that threatenedto become an admirer-"
"Don't use such a word!"
"Call it what you please-we can't keep movingaway from that kind of a possibility, can we?"
"Still, Walter, I feel as if we might get awayfrom here. I have merely told you exactly whatI thought."
"We can't get away. This is where everythingis done in the sugar business. This is the littleworld where the big moves are decided upon. Ifyou are not here, you are not in it. We are in theswim now; it took long enough to get in it, Godknows. Now let us stay. You can take care ofyourself, can't you?"
"How can you ask me!"
He pursued her with a touch of harshness."How can I ask you? Aren't you talking aboutrunning away from a situation? I don't runaway from situations. I call the man or womanthat runs away from a situation, a coward. Faceit down, work it out-don't dodge it."
MacBirney finished without interruption.
In the living room the telephone bell rang. Hewent in to answer it and his wife heard him amoment in conversation. Then on the garagewire he called up the chauffeur and ordered a car.Coming out again on the porch he explained: "Lottie wants us to come over."
"Lottie?" There was a shade of resentment, almost of contempt, in Alice's echo and inquiry.
"Don't call her Lottie, Walter."
"She calls me Walter."
"She has no business to. What did you tellher? Don't let us go out to-night."
"It is a little celebration of some kind and Itold her we would come."
"My head has ached all day."
"It will do your head good. Come on. I toldher we were coming."
They found a lively party at the Nelsons'.Guyot was there, with Lambert, thick-lippedand voluble. Dora Morgan with Doaneand Cready Hamilton had come, worn andbedraggled, from a New England motoring trip.Dora, still quite hoarse, was singing a music-hallsong when the MacBirneys entered the room.
She stopped. "My ears are crazy to-night-Ican't sing," she complained, responding toAlice's greeting. "I feel as if there were a motorin my head. Tired? Oh, no, not a bit. But thedust!" Her smile died and her brows rose tillher pretty eyes shone full. She threw herexpiring energy into two husky words: "Somethingfierce!"
Dolly and her husband with Imogene andCharles had responded to Lottie's invitation, andRobert Kimberly came later with Fritzie Venable.Dolly greeted Alice with apologies. "I am here,"she admitted with untroubled contempt, "but notpresent. I wanted to see what Lambert lookslike. We hear so much about his discoveries.Robert doesn't think much of them."
Mrs. Nelson, languidly composed, ledMacBirney to the men who were in an alcove off themusic room. Near them sat Robert Kimberlytalking to Imogene. Dora could not be coaxed tosing again. But the hostess meant to force thefighting for a good time. Dora joined the menand Guyot, under Nelson's wing, came over tomeet Alice, who had taken refuge with Dolly. Ata time when the groups were changing, Nelsonbrought Lambert over. But neither Alice norDolly made objection when his host took himaway again.
Kimberly came after a while with Fritzie toAlice's divan and, standing behind it, tried byconversation and such attraction of manner as hecould offer, to interest Alice. He failed to wakenany response. She quite understood a woman'srefuge from what she wishes to avoid andpersevered in being indifferent to every effort.
Kimberly, not slow to perceive, left presentlyfor the party in the dining-room. But even as hewalked away, Alice's attitude toward him calledto her mind a saying of Fritzie's, that it is notpleasant to be unpleasant to pleasant people, even if it is unpleasant to be pleasant tounpleasant people.
"Were you tired after yesterday's ride?" askedDolly of Alice.
"Not too tired."
"Robert told you about Tennie Morgan's death."
Alice looked at her inquiringly. "How didyou know?"
"You were in the Morgan chapel together.And you looked upset when you came back. Ihad promised to tell you the story sometimemyself. I know how easy it is to get a falseimpression concerning family skeletons. So I askedRobert about it the minute you left the car, and Iwas annoyed beyond everything when he said hehad told you the whole story."
"But dear Mrs. De Castro! Why should yoube annoyed?"
Dolly answered with decision: "Robert has nobusiness ever to speak of the affair." Alice couldnot dispute her and Dolly went on: "I knowjust how he would talk about it. Not that Iknow what he said to you. But it would be likehim to take very much more of the blame onhimself than belongs to him. Men, my dear, look atthese things differently from women, and usuallymake less of them than women do. In this caseit is exactly the reverse. Robert has always hadan exaggerated idea of his responsibility in thetragedy-that is why it annoys me ever to havehim speak about it. I know my brother better, Ithink, than anybody alive knows him, and I amperfectly familiar with all the circumstances. Iknow what I am talking about."
Very much in earnest Dolly settled back. "Tobegin with, Tennie was an abnormal boy. Hewas as delicate in his mental texture as cobweblace. His sensitiveness was something incredibleand twenty things might have happened to upsethis mental balance. No one, my dear, likes totalk state secrets."
"Pray do not, then. It really is not necessary,"pleaded Alice.
"Oh, it is," said Dolly decidedly, "I want youto understand. Suicide has been a spectre to theKimberlys for ages. Two generations agoSchuyler Kimberly committed suicide at sixty-six-thinkof it! Oh! I could tell you stories. Therehas been no suicide in this generation. But theshadow," Dolly's tones were calm but inflectedwith a burden of what cannot be helped may aswell be admitted, "seems only to have passed itto fall upon the next in poor Tennie. Two yearsafterward they found his mother dead onemorning in bed. I don't know what the troublewas-it was in Florence. Nobody knows-there wasjust a little white froth on her lips. The doctorssaid heart disease. She was a strange woman,Bertha, strong-willed and self-indulgent-like allthe rest of us."
"Don't say that of yourself. You are notself-indulgent, you are generous."
"I am both, dear. But I know the Kimberlys, men and women, first and last, and that is why Ido not want you to get wrong impressions of them.My brother Robert isn't a saint, neither is Charles.But compare them with the average men of theirown family; compare them with the average menin their own situation in life; compare them withthe Nelsons and the Doanes; compare them withthat old man that Robert is so patient with!Compare them, my dear, to the men everywherein the world they move in-I don't think theKimberly men of this generation need apologizeparticularly.
"Robert was so completely stunned by Tennie'sdeath that for years I did not know what wouldhappen. Then a great industrial crisis came inour affairs, though afterward it seemed, in a way, providential. Poor old Uncle John got it intohis head he could make sugar out of corn andended by nearly ruining us all. If things hadgone on we should all have been living inapartments within another year. When we were sodeep in the thing that the end was in sight wewent to Robert on our knees, and begged him totake hold of the business and save the family-oh,it had come quite to that. He had been doingabsolutely nothing for a year and I feared allsorts of things about him. But he listened anddid take hold and made the business so big-well, dear heart, you have some idea what it isnow when they can take over a lot of factories, such as those of your husband and his associates,on one year's profits. I suppose, of course, theseare state secrets-you mustn't repeat them-"
"And for years they have been the largestlenders of ready money in the Street. So you can'twonder that we think a great deal of Robert. Andhe likes you-I can see that. He has been morenatural since you came here than for years."
"Surely your brothers never can say they havenot a devoted sister."
"I can't account for it," persisted Dolly, continuing. "It is just that your influence is a goodone on him; no one can explain those things. Ithought for years he would never be influencedby any woman again. You've seen how thisone," Dolly tossed her head in disgust as sheindicated Lottie Nelson, then passing, "throwsherself at him." With the last words Dolly rose tosay she was going home. Imogene was ready tojoin her, and Lottie's protests were of no avail.Charles was upstairs conferring with Nelson andImogene went up to get him.
Alice walked to the dining-room. Herhusband, in an uncommonly good-humor, was drinkingwith their hostess. In the centre of the room,Hamilton, Guyot, Lambert, and Dora Morgansat at the large table. Guyot offered Alice a chair.She sat down and found him entertaining. Hetook her after a time into the reception room whereLottie had hung a Degas that Guyot had broughtover for her. Alice admired the fascinatingswiftness and sureness of touch but did not agree withGuyot that the charm was due to the merit ofcolor over line. When the two returned to thedining-room, Kimberly stood at a cellaret withFritzie.
Lottie and MacBirney sat with the group at thebig table. "Oh, Robert," Lottie called toKimberly as Alice appeared in the doorway, "mix mea cocktail."
Turning, Kimberly saw Alice: "I am out ofpractice, Lottie," he said.
"Give me some plain whiskey then."
Kimberly's shortness of manner indicated hisannoyance. "You have that at your hand," hesaid sitting down.
"How rude, Robert," retorted Lottie, withassumed impatience. She glanced loftily around."Walter," she exclaimed, looking across the tableat Alice's husband and taking Alice's breath awaywith the appeal, "give me some whiskey."
"Certainly, Mrs. Nelson."
"No, stop; mix me a cocktail."
"Is your husband an expert, Mrs. MacBirney?"asked Guyot as MacBirney rose.
"Not to my knowledge," answered Alice frankly."I hope," she added, with a touch of asperity asher husband stepped to a sideboard, "thatMrs. Nelson is not fastidious."
"It is disgusting the way my friends arebehaving," complained Lottie turning to Lambert."This is my birthday-"
"That is why you are all here. And whoeverrefuses now to drink my health I cast off forever."
"Is this a regular birthday or are you springingan extra on us?" demanded Fritzie.
"Go on, MacBirney, with your mixture,"exclaimed Lambert, "I'll serve at the table. Youare going to join us, of course, Mrs. MacBirney?"
Alice answered in trepidation: "It must besomething very light for me."
"Try whiskey, Mrs. MacBirney," suggestedDora Morgan benevolently, "it is really the easiestof all."
Alice grew nervous. Kimberly, without speaking, pushed a half-filled glass toward her. Shelooked at him in distress. "That will not hurtyou," he said curtly.
The men were talking Belgian politics. Lambertwas explaining the antiquated customs ofthe reactionaries and the battle of the liberals forthe laicizing of education. He dwelt on thestubbornness of the clericals and the difficulties metwith in modernizing their following.
Kimberly either through natural dislike forLambert or mere stubbornness objected to thespecific instances of medi?valism adduced andsoon had the energetic chemist nettled. "Whatdo you know about the subject?" demandedLambert at length. "Are you a Catholic?"
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