A Newport Aquarelle/Chapter 7

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The morning of the great Newport picnic dawned bright and clear, and the hearts of all the happy people who were privileged to join the exclusive and aristocratic affair were much lighter than they had been on the previous evening, when the weather looked very dubious. No heart so light, though, as that of Mr. Gray Grosvenor, the prime mover in the picnic,—the man in whose brain the idea had at first originated, broadened, and finally emerged in the complete and perfect plan.

Mr. Gray Grosvenor was a very prominent man in Newport society,—more prominent than Mr. Belhomme, though he was not nearly so rich. He was more courted even than Mrs. Fallow-Deer, though he "did not entertain," and her hospitable doors were opened every day in the week to some guest or guests.

Larkington, now well established in society by his month's stay in Newport, had quickly seen that Gray Grosvenor was a man to whom, for some reason, every one was extremely deferential and polite. He was evidently a man to be treated with great consideration; and the Englishman had taken the cue, though what claims this gentleman had to an over-punctilious politeness from society he had been at a loss to discover. He danced wonderfully well; that, of course, made him popular with the ladies; but then there were others who tripped as lightly the measures of Terpsichore, and had withal figures more suited to the graceful waltz than was the stout and roundabout body of Mr. Gray Grosvenor.

Larkington had asked Mrs. Craig confidentially to tell him all about this gentleman, by whom he had been considerably puzzled. At the Club he was not a favorite, and was not among those good fellows who always have a funny story to set the roomful laughing. He was very apt to be quoted as the authority for the last on dit, if it was an on dit at all detrimental to the person talked about. "Do tell me what Gray Grosvenor is distinguished for." (No one ever spoke of him as Grosvenor, or Gray; the two names were given him as scrupulously behind his back as before his face.)

Mrs. Craig answered promptly: "Oh, I'll tell you about him in two minutes. He is the Cerberus of Newport Society, and unless you can soothe his two heads, one of which is snobbery, the other vanity, you must give up all hopes of entering the inner circle of Hades,—for which read society. He is the man who can cut your name from the list of a subscription ball, can keep you out of any club he belongs to, if he happens not to fancy the cut of your dress-coat or the way you wear your moustache. He holds, beside this, another position,—that of a sort of gentleman caterer. It is a unique office, I think. He gets up all the assemblies, and arranges the menu of the supper, as well as the list of subscribers. He is willing to do this sort of work for society, and on the whole society is grateful to him, as no one else would give the time, pains, and trouble to it. Though he is in a sense the servant of society, inasmuch as he serves it, he is also its ruler, and he is courted from fear, if from nothing else, like the French king with the little leaden images in his hat. Gray Grosvenor's images are of gold, and not of lead."

"One sees that you do not like the gentleman, Mrs. Craig?" said Larkington.

"Like him? Why should I? Because I come from Baltimore, and he does n't happen to know anything about me, he leaves me out of his picnic. I not only dislike him, but I have been praying solemnly for the last week that it might rain on the day fixed for his fête, and spoil it all."

Count Clawski, who was in these days the devoted slave of the pretty Mrs. Craig, joined the two, who were sitting where we first saw them, in the long balcony of the Casino.

"You are speaking of the picnic, madam," said the diplomate, whose calm and punctilious manner was for the nonce upset. He looked angry and excited. "Parbleu, I will not go, if it rains or shines."

"I heard you had ordered a wonderful vol-au-vent at Hartman's for your contribution," said Mrs. Craig.

"He asks me, this man," continued the Count, notwithstanding Mrs. Craig's remarks, "to subscribe for his picnic, to bring a dish, and a bottle of wine; and when I say to him, 'Now, I will a lady with me bring,' he says, 'Excuse me, I must ask you to send her name in for the approval of the committee!' Committee indeed! I never heard of any but that of Mr. Gray Grosvenor himself; it is to me an insult. Should I bring any lady that he or his committee might not be proud to receive? "

Notwithstanding the prayers of Mrs. Craig, the day of the picnic, as has been said, dawned bright and clear.

Gladys Carleton, as she stood for a moment on the balcony outside of her room, looking down into the shrubberies, smiled with pleasure at the splendid mass of color which lay below her. The rose garden, in its full blush of summer loveliness, was splendid with a glory of new-bloomed roses, whose petals were fast unfolding to the ardent gaze of their great golden lover, the sun. It was very early for Gladys to be about, scarcely seven o clock, but she had not slept very well, and so, throwing a loose wrapper about her, she had stepped out upon her little balcony and stood looking out on the fresh beauty of the earth.

For once she was not thinking of herself or her own beauty, which was, perhaps for that very reason, the fairest thing in all the bright picture.

Over across the rose-beds where the flowers nodded a gay good-morning to her, stretched the green lawn, which ran sloping down to the cliffs, at whose foot the waves murmured with a kindly melody.

No other sound was in the land, and in the sea no motion save for the white arms of a youth who was swimming by leisurely, and who slackened his strokes and looked up at the balcony, which showed him a woman who was young and graceful, the distance not allowing him to guess more.

Gladys looked at the swimmer, and thought how graceful were his motions, and how much the boyish head of gold hair and the white, supple, strong limbs, shining through the green waters, added to the scene. It brought human life into what had been be fore but an empty background; it made her feel that of all the grand things in the world, man may be the grandest. Why did the face of Charles Farwell seem to look at her from the green waves? If it had been Farwell she could not have seen him, and she knew him to be a thousand miles away. And yet, when the youth out there, lying in the cool water, raised one arm and waved a greeting to her, she answered it involuntarily, and then, remembering for the first moment herself, standing out in the broad daylight in her wrapper, her hair streaming about her shoulders, her little rosy feet bare, she gave a startled cry and sprang back into her room, blushing hotly though no one was there to see.

Her maid came to her in half an hour, bringing the morning mail. She was surprised to see that one of the letters bore the handwriting of her cousin, Amelia Carleton, who was still at Lenox. The first part of the letter she glanced through carelessly, but the last paragraph fixed her attention; she read it slowly, and afterwards sat looking at it abstractedly.

"I hear that your last conquest is the good-looking Englishman we met driving that day. I have asked Lady Carew, who is staying here, all about him. He is the son of Lord Lucre, she tells me; she knows his family well. It is, as you know, an excellent one in point of position; and this young man is better off than most younger sons, for he has his mother's whole fortune, which is something very handsome. The elder brother has epilepsy, will never marry, and your friend is sure sooner or later to succeed to the title and estates. Lady Carew says it will probably be sooner, for his brother is not expected to live long. Now, if things have gone as far as I suppose they have, my solemn advice to you, Gladys, is to marry Mr. Larkington. He is the sort of man best calculated to make you happy, as he brings all the things you need most,—money, an assured position, and in time a title. My dear, take the advice of a lonely woman, an old maid, and do not hesitate. You have grown, as I did before you, too difficile. It is the curse of American girls with beauty or money, that they have so many chances to marry. They discard this one for one fault, that one because he lacks some certain virtue; in fine, they end by expecting to find a paragon, which shall unite all the virtues and be without any of the faults of manhood. Of course they don't find him, and they remain unmarried and unhappy. I am opening my heart to you, child, though it hurts me more than you can guess, because I would warn you from the mistake which has made my life cold and empty, my nature hard and the world says selfish. You know I always am ready to keep my promise of giving you the trousseau and the wedding. I should so like to give a house-warming and wedding at once. The house will be ready in a fortnight, when I shall take possession of it."

This letter seemed to change the face of nature to Gladys. She saw no beauty now in sea or sky, the sunshine even seemed to have grown cold, and she began to dress slowly and absently.

She sat down at her toilette glass,, placed where the most searching light fell upon it, and, leaning her head upon her hand, proceeded to study with great care the image which the faithful mirror showed her. She looked older, ten years older, than she had done when she stood on the balcony with a smile on her lips. The thought which drew hard lines about her mouth, and marked her forehead with two strait dints, had come only with her cousin s letter. She took her silver comb (she would have liked a golden one) and parted the thick soft hair on her left temple. Yes, there they were, those first terrible finger-marks of time. White hairs—a few, half a dozen, perhaps—just in this spot flecked the dusky mass of hair. No one knew of their existence but Gladys and her maid. The Abigail assured her that they were the result of some knock she must have given her head, for only in this spot was there one to be found; but Gladys refused to console herself with this hypothesis, and accepted the warning which they gave her of the instability of beauty and the flight of time.

For a quarter of an hour she sat motionless, her eyes fixed upon her own shadow, and in that space she reviewed all her past, looked her present in the face, and weighed the possibilities of the future, quietly, coolly, and methodically. She put aside the rose-colored illusions in which women wrap their thoughts of themselves to their very selves, and looked, for once in her life, at the hard plain facts of her existence.

She had passed her first youth, girlhood was behind her, and at twenty-five she was a woman. Her beauty was still at its height, but it must wane, and the waning must begin before long. She had not so many chances open to her of changing her name as she had had last year, and every twelve months the chances would grow less and less. She had that very week walked as a bridesmaid before a bride whose bridegroom, a year previous, had declared himself desolate and broken-hearted at her refusal of his suit. He had consoled himself in so short a time with a pretty chit of eighteen, with pale, pleading blue eyes, and no figure at all! The constancy of man! But there was Cid. Did he still love her? She doubted it. He had never told her so since her return from Europe, though he had had many chances to do so. Then his abrupt departure from Newport without one word of farewell, beyond the Au revoir written on the card which came with a bunch of red roses. Did not that imply that he did not wish to see anything more of her? Perhaps he had seen how things would go between herself and Larkington, and wished to prove that he did not consider himself as a prétendant for her hand, so left the ground clear for the new suitor. It seemed more than likely. It was rather unkind of Cid, though; but did she deserve anything better from him? She grew quite red as she asked herself the question. And on seeing the flush mount to her forehead in the mirror, she sprang to her feet, angry and defiant, at war with herself, and with a bitter cry against the cruelty of fate, in her heart.

She dressed herself not the less with great care, and chose the dark blue gown in which Larkington had first seen her at the Casino, and which he preferred to any other of her dresses. She was going to the picnic, and had half promised to drive out with the Englishman. She knew, with the unfailing instinct of a woman, that if she drove with him to-day, she would be asked the most serious question which man can put to woman. For a week past he had tried to see her alone, he had sought for an opportunity to speak the words which she was not ready to hear, and she had with a hundred artifices, so skilful that he had not perceived them, put off the decisive moment.

She breakfasted, or made a pretence of so doing, with Mrs. Fallow-Deer in that good lady's boudoir,—a charming little room, hung in sea-green silk, and furnished in veritable antique carved wood.

As Mrs. Fallow-Deer sat in a high-backed chair, pouring tea from a classic urn, a fearful and wonderful pyramid of laces and ribbons placed on the summit of her poll, Gladys looked at her and sighed deeply. This, then, was the end of it all. The kind soul who sat opposite her had been a beauty, too, in her day, but what trace was left of her lost graces! She sighed again, at which unusual sound Mrs. Fallow-Deer put down her teacup and, looking searchingly at Gladys, said slowly and solemnly,—

"My dear, it is my private opinion that you are in love."

Gladys laughed. "I wish I were," she cried half bitterly, half in jest. "Like Patience, I am quite ignorant of the sensation of the tender passion. I have never been in love."

"That is nonsense, my dear; however, it is a nonsense that all girls talk, and I suppose I can't expect you to be wiser than your kind. But seriously, my child, are you not thinking a good deal about somebody?"

"Yes, but that somebody is myself."

"Of course it is always so with a girl who has no business to be a girl any longer. I have had something of your experience, Gladys, and my advice ought not to be valueless to you. I did not marry until I was a year or two older than you, and was heartily sick of myself, and of thinking about myself, and of all the shadowy joys and triumphs I was supposed to enjoy. Now, you have a heart, and were meant to love (as was I) something and somebody besides yourself. Suppose the man whom you marry is not your young ideal; what of that? All men are troublesome comforts, but it's a great thing to have a companion of your own time, whose interests are one with your own, and who will go with you through life. My dear, it is very dreary to sit over the embers alone. Husbands are at best a good deal of a trial, but then the compensation comes in one's children. I am a woman who has, as you know, experienced a great deal and enjoyed many things, but the comfort and pleasure I have had in my boys outweighs all the rest of the goods of my life beyond comparison. But I suppose you can't understand that."

Gladys had not sat patiently during this homily, but had moved uneasily about the room, looking first out of the window and then into the cream jug on the table, as if to find some help there. Everybody seemed to be against her and in league with Larkington, for she knew perfectly well to what all Mrs. Fallow-Deer had said pointed. Even Charlie,—his absence from Newport was in itself a sanction to her encouragement of Larkington.

A servant entered, bringing a great bunch of deep gold yellow roses for Miss Carleton, and a note in an already familiar hand. It was from Larkington, asking her if she would drive with him to the picnic. She stood still and silent for one awful moment, during which it seemed to her that the whole of her life hung in the balance. Should she go, or not? She sat down at the writing-desk, took up a quill, examined its point carefully, took out a sheet of paper, dated it, wrote, "Dear Mr. Larkington," and had not yet decided whether the next phrase should be one of refusal or acceptance.

The letter meant so much more than a mere invitation to drive; if she accepted it, she knew the results. Could she? The forbidding face of Amelia Carleton, once as handsome and attractive as her own, rose before her, hard, unyielding, frozen, and expressionless! "I will go with pleasure," were the words she wrote, and, signing herself as "Cordially yours," she despatched the note, and then, going to the glass, spent the next ten minutes in fastening the breast-knot of roses which Larkington had sent her, over her slow-beating heart.

The pin with which she fastened the roses she noticed was one of Herr Goldzchink's minor presents, which, when the others had been sent back to her discarded German lover, had been overlooked, and had only been discovered the week before in a drawer of her jewel-case.

On the hand which held the roses to her breast was one small old ring. It was of very little value, and had cost Charles Farwell the first score of dollars he had earned, all those years ago. She smiled a little sadly as she looked at the ring, and then kissed it and slipped it off from her finger.