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"I am not a Catholic," returned Kimberlyamiably. "I am as far as possible, I suppose, from being one. The doors of the church arewide, but if we can believe even a small part ofwhat is printed of us they would have to bebroadened materially to take in American refiners."
"If you are not a Catholic, what are you?"persisted Lambert with heat.
"I have one serious religious conviction; that is, that there are just two perfectly managed humaninstitutions; one, the Standard Oil Company, theother the Catholic Church."
There was now a chance to drop the controversyand the women together tried to effect adiversion. But Lambert's lips parted over hiswhite teeth in a smile. "I have noticedsometimes that what we know least about we talk bestabout." Kimberly stirred languidly. "I was bornof Catholic parents," continued Lambert,"baptized in the Catholic Church, educated in it. Ishould know something about it, shouldn't I?You, Mr. Kimberly, must admit you know nothingabout it." Kimberly snorted a little. "All thesame, I take priests' fables for what they areworth," added Lambert; "such, for example, asthe Resurrection of Christ." Lambert laughedheartily. Fritzie looked uneasily at Alice as thewords fell. Her cheeks were crimsoned.
"Can a central fact of Christianity such as theResurrection fairly be called a priests' fable?"asked Kimberly.
"Why not?" demanded Lambert withcontemptuous brevity. "None but fossilizedCatholics believe such nonsense!"
"There are still some Protestants left,"suggested Kimberly mildly.
"No priest dictates to me," continued thechemist, aroused. "No superstition for me. I wantCatholics educated, enlightened, made free. Ishould know something about the church, shouldI not? You admit you know nothing-"
"No, I did not admit that," returned Kimberly."You admitted it for me. And you asked me amoment ago what I was. Lambert, what are you?"
"I am a Catholic-not a clerical!" Lambertemphasized the words by looking from one toanother in the circle. Kimberly spread one of hisstrong hands on the table. Fritzie watching himshrank back a little.
"You a Catholic?" Kimberly echoed slowly."Oh, no; this is a mistake." His hand closed."You say you were born a Catholic. And youridicule the very corner-stone of your faith. The lasttime I met you, you were talking the same sortof stuff. I wonder if you have any idea what ithas cost humanity to give you the faith you sneerat, Lambert? To give you Catholic parents, men nineteen hundred years ago allowedthemselves to be nailed to crosses and torn by dogs.Boys hardly seven years old withstood starvationand scourging and boys of fifteen were burned inpagan amphitheatres that you might be born aChristian; female slaves were thrown into boilingoil to give you the privilege of faith; delicatewomen died in shameful agonies and Romanmaidens suffered their bodies to be torn to pieceswith red-hot irons to give you a Christianmother-and you sit here to-night and ridiculethe Resurrection of Christ! Call yourself liberal,Lambert; call yourself enlightened; call yourselfModern; but for God's sake don't call yourself aCatholic."
"Stop a moment!" cried Lambert at white heat.
Lottie put out her arm."Don't let's be cross,"she said with deliberate but unmistakableauthority. "I hate a row." She turned her languideyes on MacBirney. "Walter, what are thesepeople drinking that makes them act in this way?Do give Mr. Kimberly something else; he began it."
Kimberly made no effort to soothe any one'sfeelings. And when Fritzie and Alice found anexcuse to leave the room he rose and walkedleisurely into the hall after them.
The three talked a few moments. A sound ofhilarity came from the music room. Alice lookeduneasily down the hall.
"I never knew your husband could sing," said Fritzie.
It dawned only gradually on Alice that herhusband was developing a surprising tendency.He walked into the life that went on at the Nelsonhome as if he had been born to it. From anexistence absorbed in the pursuit of business he gavehimself for the moment to one absorbed in pursuitof the frivolous. Alice wondered how he couldfind anything in Lottie Nelson and her followingto interest him; but her husband had offered twoor three unpleasant, even distressing, surpriseswithin as few years and she took this new one withless consternation than if it had been the first.
Yet it was impossible not to feel annoyance.Lottie Nelson, in what she would have termed aninnocent way, for she cared nothing forMacBirney, in effect appropriated him, and Alicebegan to imagine herself almost third in the situation.
Tact served to carry the humiliated wife oversome of the more flagrant breaches of mannersthat Mrs. Nelson did not hesitate at, if theyserved her caprice. MacBirney became "Walter"to her everywhere. She would call him from thecity in the morning or from his bed at night; nohour was too early to summon him and none toolate. The invitations to the Nelsons' eveningswere extended at first both to Alice and to him.Alice accepted them in the beginning with ahopeless sort of protest, knowing that her husbandwould go anyway and persuading herself thatit was better to go with him. If she went, shecould not enjoy herself. Drinking was anessential feature of these occasions and Alice'sefforts to avoid it made her the object of aridicule on Lottie's part that she took no pains toconceal.
It was at these gatherings that Alice began tolook with a degree of hope for a presence shewould otherwise rather have avoided. Kimberlywhen he came, which was not often, brought toher a sense of relief because experience had shownthat he would seek to shield her from embarrassmentrather than to expose her to it.
Lottie liked on every occasion to assume tomanage Kimberly together with the other menof her acquaintance. But from being, at first, complaisant, or at least not unruly, Kimberlydeveloped mulish tendencies. He would not, infact, be managed. When Lottie attempted toforce him there were outbreaks. One came aboutover Alice, she being a subject on which bothwere sensitive.
Alice, seeking once at the De Castros' to escapeboth the burden of excusing herself and ofdrinking with the company, appealed directly toKimberly. "Mix me something mild, will you, please,Mr. Kimberly?"
Kimberly made ready. Lottie flushed withirritation. "Oh, Robert!" She leaned backward inher chair and spoke softly over her fan. "Mixme something mild, too, won't you?"
He ignored Lottie's first request but she wasfoolish enough to repeat it. Kimberly checkedthe seltzer he was pouring long enough to replyto her: "What do you mean, Lottie? 'Mixyou something mild!' You were drinking rawwhiskey at dinner to-night. Can you neverunderstand that all women haven't the palates ofostriches?" He pushed a glass toward Alice. "Idon't know how it will taste."
Lottie turned angrily away.
"Now I have made trouble," said Alice.
"No," answered Kimberly imperturbably, "Mrs. Nelsonmade trouble for herself. I'm sorry to berude, but she seems lately to enjoy baiting me."
Kimberly appeared less and less at the Nelsons'and the coolness between him and Lottieincreased.
She was too keen not to notice that he nevercame to her house unless Alice came and thatserved to increase her pique. Such revenge asshe could take in making a follower of MacBirneyshe took.
Alice chafed under the situation and made everyeffort to ignore it. When matters got to a pointwhere they became intolerable she uttered aprotest and what she dreaded followed-anunpleasant scene with her husband. While she fearedthat succeeding quarrels of this kind would endin something terrible, they ended, in matter offact, very much alike. People quarrel, as theyrejoice or grieve, temperamentally, and a wife placedas Alice was placed must needs in the end submitor do worse. MacBirney ridiculed a little, bullieda little, consoled a little, promised a little, andurged his wife to give up silly, old-fashioned ideasand "broaden out."
He told her she must look at manners andcustoms as other people looked at them. WhenAlice protested against Lottie Nelson's callinghim early and late on the telephone and receivinghim in her room in the morning-MacBirney hadonce indiscreetly admitted that she sometimes didthis-he declared these were no incidents forgrievance. If any one were to complain, Nelson, surely, should be the one. Alice maintained thatit was indecent. Her husband retorted that it wasmerely her way, that Lottie often received RobertKimberly in this way-though this, so far as Robertwas concerned, was a fiction-and that nobodylooked at the custom as Alice did. However, hepromised to amend-anything, he pleaded, butan everlasting row.
Alice had already begun to hate herself in thesefutile scenes; to hate the emotion they cost; tohate her heartaches and helplessness. She learnedto endure more and more before engaging in them,to care less and less for what her husband said inthem, less for what he did after them, less fortrying to come to any sort of an understandingwith him.
In spite of all, however, she was not minded tosurrender her husband willingly to another woman.She even convinced herself that as his wife she wasnot lively enough and resolved if he wanted gayetyhe should have it at home. The moment sheconceived the notion she threw the gage at Lottie'saggressive head. Dolly De Castro, who saw andunderstood, warmly approved. "Considerationand peaceable methods are wasted on that kind ofa woman. Humiliate her, my dear, and she willfawn at your feet," said Dolly unreservedly.
Alice was no novice in the art of entertaining;it remained only for her to turn her capabilities toaccount. She made herself mistress now of thetelephone appointment, of the motoring lunch, ofthe dining-room gayety. Nelson himselfcomplimented her on the success with which she hadstocked her liquor cabinets.
She conceived an ambition for a wine cellarreally worth while and abandoned it only whenRobert Kimberly intimated that in this somethingmore essential than ample means and the desireto achieve were necessary. But while gentlydiscouraging her own idea as being impractical, hebegged her at the same time to make use of TheTowers' cellars, which he complained had fallenwholly into disuse; and was deterred only withthe utmost difficulty from sending over with hisbaskets of flowers from the gardens of The Towers, baskets of wines that Nelson and Doane with theirtrained palates would have stared at if served byAlice. But MacBirney without these aids wasput at the very front of dinner hosts and his tablewas given a presage that surprised him more thanany one else. As a consequence, Cedar Lodgeinvitations were not declined, unless perhaps attimes by Robert Kimberly.
He became less and less frequently a guest atAlice's entertainments, and not to be able to counton him as one in her new activities came after a timeas a realization not altogether welcome. Hisdeclining, which at first relieved her fears of seeinghim too often, became more of a vexation than sheliked to admit.
Steadily refusing herself, whenever possible, togo to the Nelsons' she could hear only through herhusband of those who frequented Lottie's suppers, and of the names MacBirney mentioned nonecame oftener than that of Robert Kimberly.Every time she heard it she resented his preferringanother woman's hospitalities, especially those ofa woman he professed not to like.
Mortifying some of her own pride she evenconsented to go at times to the Nelsons' with herhusband to meet Kimberly there and rebuke him.Then, too, she resolved to humiliate herself enoughto the hateful woman who so vexed her to observejust how she made things attractive for her guests; reasoning that Kimberly found some entertainmentat Lottie's which he missed at Cedar Lodge.
Being in the fight, one must win and Alice meantto make Lottie Nelson weary of her warfare.But somehow she could not meet Robert Kimberlyat the Nelsons'. When she went he was neverthere. Moreover, at those infrequent intervalsin which he came to her own house he seemed illentertained. At times she caught his eye whenshe was in high humor herself-telling a storyor following her guests in their own livelyvein-regarding her in a curious or critical way; andwhen in this fashion things were going at their best,Kimberly seemed never quite to enter into themirth.
His indifference annoyed her so that as a guestshe would have given him up. Yet this wouldinvolve a social loss not pleasant to face. Herinvitations continued, and his regrets were frequent.Alice concluded she had in some way displeased him.
One morning she called up The Towers toask Kimberly for a dinner. He answeredthe telephone himself and wanted to know if hemight not be excused from the dinner and comeover, if it were possible, in the evening.
Alice had almost expected the refusal. "I wishyou would tell me," she said, laughing low andpleasantly, "what I have done."
He paused. "What you have done?"
"What I have done that you avoid coming toCedar Lodge any more?"
"I don't, do I?" He waited for an answer butAlice remained silent. His tone was amiable andhis words simple, yet her heart was beating likea hammer. "You know I haven't gone aboutmuch lately," he went on, "but whenever youreally want me for a dinner you have need onlyto say so."
"I never ask a guest for dinner without wanting him."
It was his turn to laugh. "Do you reallymanage that, Mrs. MacBirney? I can't; and yet Ithink myself fairly independent."
"Oh, of course, we are all tied more or less, Isuppose, but-you know what I mean."
"Then you do want me to appear?"
Alice suddenly found her tongue. "We shouldnever ask any one to whom Mr. MacBirney and Iare under so many obligations as we are toMr. Kimberly without 'wanting him,' as you expressit. And we really want you very much to-morrow night."
He laughed, this time with amusement. "Youare rather strong now on third persons and plurals.But I think I understand that you really do wantme to come."
"Haven't I just said so?" she asked withgood-humored vexation.
"Not quite, but I shall arrive just the same."
Alice put up the receiver, agreeably stirred by thelittle tilt. It was a lift out of the ruck ofuncomfortable thought that went to make up her dailyportion, and the elation remained with her all day.
She decided that some vague and unwillinglydefined apprehensions concerning Kimberly'sfeeling toward her were after all foolish. Why makeherself miserable with scruples when she wasbeset with actual perplexities at home? Walterhimself was now more of what she wanted himto be. He perceived his wife's success in heractive hospitality and applauded it, and Alicebegan to feel she could, after all, be safe in a neareracquaintance with Kimberly and thus lessen alittle Lottie Nelson's pretensions.
It is pleasant to a woman to dress with theassurance that anticipates success. Alice went toher toilet the following afternoon with ananimation that she had not felt for weeks. Every stepin it pleased her and Annie's approbation as sheprogressed was very gratifying to her mistress.
The trifles in finishing were given twice theirtime, and when Alice walked into her husband'sroom he kissed her and held her out at arm's lengthin admiration. She hastened away to look at thetable and the stairs rose to meet her feet as shetripped down the padded treads.
Passing the drawing-room the rustle of her stepscaused a man within it to turn from a picture hewas studying, and Alice to her surprise sawKimberly standing before a sanguine of herself. Shegave a little exclamation.
"I asked not to be announced," he explained."I am early and did not want to hurry you." Heextended his hand. "How are you?"
"I couldn't imagine who it was, when I lookedin," exclaimed Alice cordially. "I am glad tosee you."
He held out his hand and waited till she gave himhers. "You look simply stunning," he answeredquietly. "There is something," he added withoutgiving her a chance to speak and turning fromthe eyes of the portrait back again to her own,"in your eyes very like and yet unlike this. I findnow something in them more movingly beautiful; perhaps twenty-five years against eighteen-I don'tknow-perhaps a trace of tears."
"Oh, Mr. Kimberly, spare your extravagances.I hear you have been away."
"At least, I have never seen you quite sobeautiful as you are this moment."
"I am not beautiful at all, and I am quite awareof it, Mr. Kimberly."
"I would not wish you to think anything else.There the beauty of your character begins."
Her repugnance was evident but she bore hiseyes without flinching. "You humiliate meexceedingly," was all she attempted to say.
"The truth should not humiliate you. I-"
"Must I run away?"
"Not, I hope, because I tell you you are beautiful, for I shall continue to tell you so every time Isee you."
"Surely you will not take advantage of yourhostess, Mr. Kimberly?"
"In what way?" he asked.
"By saying things most unpleasant for her to hear."
"I say things awkwardly, perhaps unpleasantly, but always sincerely."
Alice looked down at her fan, but spoke witheven more firmness. "If we are to be good friends, you must excuse me even from sincerity on topicsof this kind."
"Don't cut me from your friendship. We mustbe the best of friends. I cannot conceive of youas being other than kind, even patient with me."
"Then do not say things I cannot listen to."
"I will never say anything you may not listento. But concede me the privilege-for it isone-of paying honest tribute to your loveliness whenI can't help it."
Without raising her eyes she spoke with decision."I positively will not listen." With the wordshe caught up her gown and started away. Hewalked with her. "I am afraid," he saidregretfully, "you are sorry you sent for me."
She turned with burning eyes. "You shouldbe the last to make me so, Mr. Kimberly."
"I wish to be the last. Yet I hate to sacrificesincerity."
"There is something I put far above sincerity."
He looked mildly surprised. "What can it be?"
"Consideration for the feelings ofanother-particularly if she be somewhat helpless."
"Just a moment." They were entering thehall and he stopped her. "In what way are youhelpless?"
"Through consideration on my part for myguest to-night, for my husband's friend, for afriend to whom we both owe much-"
"You owe that friend nothing. If you reallythink so, disabuse your mind. And I have neverprofessed the slightest friendship for Mr. MacBirney.Whatever we do, let us keep the factsclear. If we speak of consideration, what aboutmy feelings? And about helplessness-I am upagainst a stone wall all the time in trying to sayanything."
"You have no right to say anything!" exclaimedAlice energetically and starting on as she spoke.
"Perhaps that is true. One that can't saythings better than I do shouldn't attempt them.If one of us must be humiliated let it be me.Where are you taking me?"
She stopped. "Nowhere at all, Mr. Kimberly.Won't you-"
"Where are you going?"
"To look at my table. Mr. MacBirney willbe right down. Won't you wait for him in thelibrary?"
"I should be most grateful."
"I want to see the table myself."
Alice tossed her head. "This way then."
At the threshold of the dining-room, Kimberlypaused. The table was dressed in yellow withthe lowest tones in the fruits of the centrepiece.The pears were russet, the grapes purple, andpomegranates, apples, and golden plumssupplied the tints of autumn. The handles of theold silver basket were tied with knots of broad, yellow ribbon. Alice, touching the covers hereand there, passed behind the chairs.
"You get your effects very simply," observedKimberly. "Only people with a sure touch cando that."
"I thought there were to be no more compliments."
He looked at the sconces. "Just one for thelighting. Even Dolly and Imogene sin in thatway. They overdo it or underdo it, andMrs. Nelson is impossible. Where have you put me?"
She pointed with her fan. "Next to Mrs. Nelson."
"Next to Mrs. Nelson?" he echoed in surprise.
"Did you say humiliation? Do I deserve so much?"
"At dinner one tries, of course, to groupcongenial people," suggested Alice coldly.
"But we are not congenial."
"I supposed you were Mrs. Nelson's mostfrequent guest."
"I have not been at Mrs. Nelson's since theevening Guyot and Lambert were there," saidKimberly. "You, yourself, were there that night."
Alice betrayed no confusion but she was shockeda little to realize that she believed him instantly.Kimberly, at least as to truthfulness, had won herconfidence. Her own husband had forfeited it.The difficulty now, she felt, would be ever tobelieve him at all.
"I remember," she assented with returningcordiality. "I was very proud to listen that night."
Kimberly stood with his hand on the back of achair. "Lambert is a brilliant fellow."
"Possibly; my sympathies were not with his views.
"So I sit here?" continued Kimberly patiently."Who sits next to you?"
Kimberly spoke with resignation. "Charlesalways had the luck of the family."
A door opened and a butler entered the room.On seeing Kimberly he attempted to withdraw.
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