A Marriage Below Zero/Chapter II

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Miss Bishop lived in that terribly respectable quarter of London known as Colville Gardens, where the rows of houses look as though they are pining to be allowed a little architectural license, or an escape of some kind from the exhausting restrictions of the prudery in which they have been designed.

Letty was a strange girl, a curious combination of extreme frivolity, shrewd common sense and warm-heartedness. I liked her, because she was the first girl who had ever shown me any kindness. She would listen to my ideas of things with the utmost good temper, point out where she thought I was mistaken, and allow me the luxury of differing from her; which you will admit is a favor usually hard to obtain from friends. Letty Bishop's father was by no means rich. He had been left a widower many years before, and to Letty was assigned the duty of tending his latter years. This she did with a devotion which I admired. I might have emulated her example, but my mother would have shuddered at, and repudiated, the idea of "latter years."

After my miserable failure as a "blushing debutante," I was not long in seeking Letty's society. Early the next morning I was in Colville Gardens. I found Letty in the breakfast-room, reading a parliamentary debate in one of the morning papers, so that she could discuss it with her father when he returned from his office. She was attired in the wrapper which women affect nowadays. She threw down her paper when she saw me, and advancing toward me, gave me an effusive kiss on each cheek.

"So glad to see you, dear," she said, "I expected you would be round this morning. Elsie, let me congratulate you on your great success. I'm really proud of you."

I looked what I felt—surprised. That I had been successful, was something I had never contemplated. "I don't know what you mean, Letty," I murmured. "I never spent such a mournfully wretched evening in my life. But," I added, "put on your things and let us go for a nice walk, and I will tell you all about it."

"Now you know, dear," said Letty, sinking into her comfortable chair, "that if there is one thing on the face of this earth which I cordially detest, it is a 'nice walk.' It makes one look so dreadfully healthy, and I abhor dairymaid beauty. No, dear, if you have anything to tell me, say it here, in this cosy room. I'm all ears."

This was not strictly true; Miss Bishop's ears were of the style which our imaginative novelists liken to "dainty pink shells." But I knew what she meant, and was not in a particularly humorous mood, so I took off my things and sat down. "Letty," I said, quietly, "tell me why I was a success."

I felt and looked rather dejected, but she did not appear to notice this.

"Why you were a success," she replied energetically, "because you had more partners than you wanted; because you looked lovely in that dear little white silk dress; because all the men noticed you and asked numerous questions about you, and because—well, my dear, I can't give any more reasons; they are obvious. You must know them as well as I do."

I was disappointed. "Tell me, Letty," I asked, "was this a representative party? Was it an average affair?"

"Far above the average, my dear," was Letty's prompt response. "There was at least a man to every two girls, which is unusual, there being generally about seventeen times as many women as men. Then the men were really very nice. Mrs. Bouverie deserves great credit for her selection. The wallflowers were composed of those who deserved to be wallflowers, which is worth noting. The supper was excellent, the floor good, the music admirable, and the arrangements perfect."

Miss Bishop folded her hands after these dogmatic utterances, and half closing her eyes looked at me through her heavy eyelashes. I fidgetted and was uncomfortable.

"If the selection of men were really good," I said thoughtfully and grammatically, "I never want to see a bad selection. Letty, every one of my partners made fun of me. What I have done I don't know, but a man must think very little of a girl to be constantly telling her that her cheeks are like roses, her eyes like stars, her lips—Ah; I sicken when I think of it. Do you mean to say that men talk like that to girls whom they really like and respect?" I was half crying.

Letty rose and kissed me. "You are an innocent little thing," she said, with plaintive condescension, "and my dear,"—quite cheerfully—"I am afraid you are going to have plenty of trouble. Why, I assure you, that a man who doesn't say pretty things to girls is looked upon as a man who can't say them—that is, a boor. Men who talk sense—and there are very, very few of them,—are considered egotistical nuisances. Once I had a partner who had traveled considerably, and he would insist upon describing his travels. He used to carry me off to the Red Sea, lead me gently to the desert of Sahara, or row me tenderly over the lakes of Switzerland. He was very wearisome. I hated him. Yes, Elsie, dear," she went on, seeming positively to enjoy my look of disgust, "I would sooner any day hear something about my pretty eyes and my peach-like cheeks, than a graphic description of the Saharan desert, in a ball-room."

My best friend was leaving me alone and a feeling of desolation came over me. "Can't men talk with girls as they would with men?" I asked. "It seems to me that they must take us for very inferior beings. Men surely don't pay each other idiotic compliments, do they?"

Letty grew serious, and a faint blush deepened the "peach-like" color to which she had already referred. "What men say to one another," she remarked, "I am afraid our ears would hardly tolerate. When my brother Ralph was at home—before he went to China—we always used to have the house full of young fellows. I used frequently to come upon them, when they were laughing heartily, and evidently enjoying themselves. I wanted to laugh as well, but they invariably stopped when they saw me, as though I were a wet blanket. Once or twice I asked them to tell me what was amusing them. The youngest of the party blushed, while the oldest adroitly changed the subject. I presume," said Letty, with charming resignation, "that they were afraid of shocking me. I didn't think so then, but I do now. Men like their little jokes, but—I am afraid we shouldn't."

"I wish mamma would let society alone," I pouted sullenly, feeling thoroughly ill-tempered. "I know I shall be forced to flutter about drawing-rooms until one of these men wants my star-like eyes and my satin complexion for his own. I don't look forward to much happiness. I'd sooner be a governess, or a shorthand writer, or—or—anything." I ended in a burst of indignation.

Miss Bishop laughed, and then became thoughtful. "Elsie," she said presently, "have you ever met Arthur Ravener and Captain Jack Dillington?"

"No," I said shortly, "and I'm not particularly anxious to do so."

"Arthur Ravener and Captain Jack Dillington," pursued Letty, disdaining to notice my petulance, "are known in society as Damon and Pythias. They are inseparable. Such a case of friendship I have never seen. I half expected they would be at your mother's party, but I presume they were not invited. I have never met one without the other. They always enter a ball-room together and leave together. Of course they can't dance with each other, but I'm sure they regret that fact. They are together between the dances, conversing with as much zest as though they had not met for a month. Girls don't like them because they talk downright, painful sense. Men seem to despise them. You might appreciate them, however," with a smile.

"I'm sure I should," I said, enthusiastically. "Men who are capable of feeling deep friendship cannot be fools. I should like to know them, Letty. As long as I have to be a society butterfly, I may as well make myself as comfortable as I can under the circumstances."

"You're a strange girl," remarked Letty, with a sigh, "but," reflectively, "I suppose you can't help it. The next opportunity I have I will introduce you to Arthur Ravener. I can promise you he will pay you no compliments. He'll talk books or politics or—anything unseasonable."

"Or Captain Jack Dillington?" I suggested.

"They rarely speak of one another," said Miss Bishop. "Why, I don't know. Some people call them mysteries, because they can't understand them; but—you shall judge for yourself."

"Thank you, Letty," I said, gratefully, and I brought my visit to a close.

Perhaps as I walked home slowly, I may have indulged in a little complacent recognition of my own superiority. I had a soul above social shallowness, I told myself, and it was hardly likely that I should ever be happy in my home surroundings. I know now that it is one of the laws of nature that a budding woman should rejoice in the admiration of the other sex, should court its favor, and should be plunged into dire misery if she find it not. I must have been a peculiar girl, I suppose. Peculiarities do not always bring undiluted happiness to their owners. I paid dearly for mine, and the debt is not yet liquidated.