Incident to the Season
INCIDENT TO THE SEASON
By Margarita Spalding Gerry
"HOW does Washington compare with Madrid?" asked Sam Gordon-Bradley fatuously, as one who cannot doubt the answer.
"It is much more beautiful," replied Mendoza. He used the tone of saddened conviction with which he made a point of answering the inevitable query. "And yet I think one misses, a little, the dirt," he continued judicially. "Without it all this fairness lacks a certain depth of the tone artistic. Is it not so?" He looked down at his dapper companion and awaited his verdict with not too evidently exaggerated anxiety.
Sam Gordon-Bradley smiled with eager assent.
"Possibly the time will remedy a so regrettable defect." A smile lurked somewhere behind the delightful melancholy of the Spaniard's eyes. "It would appear that you of the United States care more to be clean than to present to the eye a varied color scheme. It is a lack." He sighed.
Both were in afternoon calling attire, but the big man's gray gloves were twisted into a string in his shapely brown hands, and Bradley longed to alter the inclination of his hat.
"And who inhabits that most melancholy and colorless of mansions?" asked the stranger as they passed a pretentious house on Dupont Circle.
Bradley involuntarily gave a nervous glance over his shoulder. It would be awkward for him to have his companion overheard.
"The family of Lady X," he replied, with dignity. The fact that his interlocutor was a second secretary of legation could not keep the disapproval out of his voice. But the swarthy gentleman went on buoyantly:
"I will hope—yes, I will even believe that that most lovely lady had nothing to do with the designing of the paternal dwelling. The genius of her gowning would lead one to think so much."
Bradley shuddered; he had once met at the Charity Ball a member of the exalted family, and irreverence hurt.
Mendoza looked about him with keen eyes. They were walking down the wide vista of Sixteenth street. The softening veil of the foliage had fallen long ago, leaving only the indestructible grace of overarching trees to recall summer beauty. But the far-reaching lines of comely homes brightened his mood with their suggestion of trim prosperity. He squared his shoulders and walked more briskly.
The streets were full of life and movement. The sunshine glanced off the trappings of the carriages—at this time in the afternoon an uninterrupted procession—in dazzling flashes, and accentuated the vivid touches of color in the costumes of the women. The Spaniard wondered that the never-ending stream, flooding the sidewalks, congesting the streets, eddying in and out of houses, was so exclusively of women. And the burden of their labor—as well as the badge of their high calling—was in card-cases, held cautiously that gloves might be immaculate. One and all, these ladies confronted their visiting-lists with determined industry and a sense of rigorous duty. Here and there a frock-coated, silk-hatted man appeared, almost overwhelmed by this torrent of the feminine, wherein the rustle of silk linings, the insistence of high-keyed voices, the dominance of color, the breath of violets, were subtly mingled to confound him.
Here and there before a door where an awning proclaimed a more formal reception than the universal "day," the stream hurried into opposing whirls, lashed into fury by the bellowing of the megaphone as it summoned the carriages of the departing.
Mendoza looked about him rather helplessly.
"But do all these have to do this, too, even as I?" he demanded.
Gordon-Bradley looked puzzled. "Have to do what?" he asked.
"March in this procession of the condemned to ennui——"
Gordon-Bradley stared at him blankly.
"It is assuredly not to be explained otherwise," went on the Spaniard. "No one could submit himself to it from a desire for happiness. It is yet early and one asks me why I have been in and out of thirteen strange houses this afternoon—thirteen houses where, in each, the same ladies—to my vision—ornamented with many metal disks, presented themselves in a phalanx to oppose my progress; thirteen houses wherein thirteen young ladies—visibly first cousins—have questioned me, 'Are you making the rounds?' and, 'Is not Mrs. A. B. C.'s tea-table beautiful?' I am asked why I am doing this thing which is not amusing, and I reply, 'Because my so deluded country which sent me here expects that I aid to cement the bondages of friendship with the Americans, and it seems in this way it is to be done.' 'But why,' I ask, 'does the everywhere-present phalanx of similar ladies and the thirteen cousinly young ladies constitute the government?'" He paused. "And where are the men with whom I should be cementing the so lately broken alliance?" he added whimsically.
Bradley, whose tenderly nursed visiting-list occupied most of his waking hours, endeavored to assume a sympathetic air of masculine superiority.
"It is a duty one owes to society," he explained. "Our hostesses need to know who are to be considered in society each season. They know then where to turn for dancing men—otherwise they forget."
"Oh, they forget, do they, my friend?" Mendoza regarded the little man for a moment with a suppressed smile. "Well, well, it is a tribute to the greatness of this country that it does not yet know all its desired ones."
Gordon-Bradley bowed. "But so far as men are concerned," he said significantly, "you will find enough of them at Mrs. Delano's. All the men in society—or out of it—go to her Thursdays."
"Then, am I to suppose that the Senator Delano is to be cherished, or is it that the lady has charms-not always possessed by the ladies of the great American reception phalanx?" Mendoza queried lightly.
Bradley looked wise. "You may suppose both things. But—men also go because of the young ladies who assist her."
"Bueno! Then I may hope for a novel salutation or another style of coiffure."
"No doubt of that." The dapper little man halted before a broad flight of stone steps. "But"—he paused meaningly—"you need not take quite as much pains in cultivating them. They're usually awfully pretty, and clever—too clever, sometimes, you know; but—well—Mrs. Delano rather makes a point of taking up girls who wouldn't otherwise have any footing in society—clerks' daughters, and that. They're attractive, but not quite comme il faut in the strictest sense. I thought I really ought to tell you of this; it may prevent complications, you know."
Mendoza was puzzled. The young ladies not comme il faut, and receiving with a lady in official life? And why were "clerks' daughters" beyond the pale in the United States? Was everything here not democratic? And were clerks not officers of the Administration? He had a dozen questions ready when the door opened and the opportunity to ask them had gone. He entered, still wondering how much the little man meant by saying that the young ladies of the reception in this house were not comme il faut.
Five minutes afterward, having charmed—to enthusiasm—the ladies of "the great American reception phalanx," he was murmuring to himself: "But what then? Am I some weeks here and yet look for the novel at these receptions? There is the young lady who endures to be entertained—they call her the 'Gibson girl'—in every room there is one; and there is the little young lady with small beauty—she will talk much and make many movements, and she will always be childlike. And those gentlemen with her are from the States; in no other way could there be so much originalness in the planning of their coats. Those—how that young lady knows how to laugh!"
She was sitting at the tea-table in an adjoining room, and she was laughing at the parting diatribe against her whist-playing fired by the Chinese Minister, who shook his fat finger at her by way of emphasis. Her white hands hovered over the china and silver, restoring order, with a pretty suggestion of domestic intimacy. Her pose, the lines of her delicate gray gown, the russet lights in her hair brought out by the shaded light at her side, held Mendoza's errant fancy.
"Some of these United States customs have value," he reflected, as she raised smoke-gray eyes to his in response to his request for a cup of tea.
"Do you really want tea?" she queried, as skeptically as a hospitable maiden could.
"It is my favorite; more, with the pure water it is my only beverage."
"But consider the danger!" she pleaded.
"Danger is sometimes stimulative, also tea—sometimes."
"It is too much for you to be both brave and a philosopher. One trembles before you. Will you have this tea with cream or lemon?"
"With cream," sighed Mendoza.
"And how much sugar?"
"I leave that with you." His gesture placed his happiness, his destiny, in her hands.
She responded by dropping five pieces into his cup with swift prodigality.
"A vuestra salud," as he raised the cup to his lips. "It would perhaps be wise," he said after the first taste, "that you echo the wish."
"Is it not right?" she asked anxiously.
He drank the nauseous stuff with every evidence of enjoyment.
"I thrive upon the sweets of life, señorita! 'Sweetness and light'—is that not the word of your poet?—that describes my existence."
The girl looked up at the tall figure with its assurance of strength, and laughed appreciatively. The attaché found the promise of her smile more than fulfilled. He liked women who could laugh; he liked the curve of her upper lip, delicate and yet rich. He liked the poise of her head with its suggestion of the brave days of powder and patches. He appropriated a chair, happily left unclaimed, and settled himself by the tea-table with a serene assurance of enjoyment.
"Are you generous, that you laugh at me?" he demanded.
"You can't expect generosity from women, you know. Weakness is always cruel," she said, rearranging the tea-cups.
"Ah, but not in that way should women be weak," said Mendoza caressingly, "and not in that way should they be cruel."
She laughed again. "I shall certainly have to mind my phrases. There is Mr. Gordon-Bradley looking for somebody."
"It is my graceless self—I escape him." Then, quickly, "Do you know this Mr. Bradley?"
"Oh, yes, very few esca—do not."
"But you have met him—that is the important thing." He arose and tapped the youth on the shoulder.
"You await me?"
"Yes," said Gordon-Bradley, turning quickly. "We must hurry if we would make Mrs. Page's tea before six."
"I talk with this young lady," said Mendoza, indicating her—they had drawn a little aside—and his gesture was a tribute in itself. "I know not her name. I have not been presented——"
"Miss Talbot?" said Gordon-Bradley, who was not sensitive to suggestion. "She is rather handsome, isn't she?
Are you ready now?"
"Will you not present me?" demanded the attaché with formality.
"Oh, there isn't time."
"Will you not present me?" repeated Mendoza blandly.
"Certainly, certainly." Bradley turned hurriedly to the lady. "I am glad to see you again, Miss Talbot. No, thank you, no tea; we are due at Mrs. Page's. May I present my friend, Señor Mendoza?—of the Spanish legation, you know. Now shall we go?"
"My friend, I beg that you will go without me. Is a man to have no rest? I am fatigued beyond endurance. Will you not present my compliments to Mrs. Page? And tell her I was—detained?" with the faintest flicker of a glance toward Miss Talbot.
Bradley stared at him incredulously. "But it's the affair of the day!"
"Truly, my absence is unavoidable. You will say for me, will you not, that it is with much grief that I do not come? And Mr. Gordon-Bradley, will?"
But Bradley could not afford time to remonstrate; he was already at the door.
Mendoza laughed a little, then he settled himself luxuriously.
"Ah—but I find it repose to bow no more my back, and say that I find the United States charming."
"You haven't escaped. I shall ask you presently what you think of—all this," with a comprehensive wave.
"May I not be saving of my English speech and explain simply that 'all this' is United States?"
"Oh, no, it isn't! It is as new to me as to you. You see, I'm from Virginia." Evidently Miss Talbot thought that her position required no further explanation. "I met Mrs. Delano last summer at the White Sulphur, and when she knew I was coming to Washington to visit Aunt Carter she asked me to assist her on her 'days,' and I was so glad to do it. I never would have had a chance to see things in any other way. Aunt Carter hasn't been in society since Washington became so extravagant. She says it is such bad taste—you see, we're all poor in Virginia."
"And you find this agreeable?"
"Agreeable! It's fascinating. When all your life you have known everybody in the county for eight generations—everybody you could be expected to know, I mean—every minute of this is exhilarating. Everyone that you know comes here. One of Mrs. Delano's afternoons may bring together Ammon Bey and the latest escaped missionary from Armenia, the Russian Ambassador and the Japanese Minister. And then we have to try to make them all talk!"
"I envy you your fortune," said the Spaniard gaily. "You have the game of diplomacy to play, with none of the penalties. Compare with your lot my responsibility that is over-weighty for my years, and my ennui, which is a thing difficult to support."
"Ennui! You should have come here from Virginia," said Miss Talbot solemnly.
"It is surely Virginia that I have lacked. Be pitiful to me, Miss Talbot, talk to me. Until now there has met me no young American girl of whom—while yet in Madrid—I have dreamed. In place of witticisms always the banal——"
"If you mean the girls you meet everywhere, they're too rich to be original." Miss Talbot lifted her pretty chin scornfully. "You should know some of the girls I know. There's Edith Barton; she has already had seventeen things returned from every one of the magazines. And Helen Beverly is studying medicine—that's pretty extreme, though——"
"And you?" asked Mendoza, with quite enough seriousness.
"No, I'm not a bit clever. Isn't all this interesting, the light, the color? Look at that group over there!"
"It is, then, the painting!" with the triumphant air of the discoverer. "Yes, it is a good bit of genre. A little too much the expected, to be sure—the Eastern background for the Oriental young lady ——"
"If I could only paint the things I see, and as I feel them!" the girl burst out. "Now, that's stupid of me—but somehow I always do talk about it. I can't help it. I do wish I could study. I would give my life to it."
"But surely no, it would not be permitted. So much beauty, so much grace, it should be held to make exquisite the home of some man who could understand. Never would I—never would the men of my country—suffer so lovely a flower to give out its perfume to the unthanking, base many——"
"You will have to be here a long time," said Miss Talbot, laughing, "before you become a bit American."
"For the women with harsh voices"—Mendoza's pet detestation—"I say, yes, with rejoicing, but not for one like you. You should be cherished, surrounded with the beautiful, an adorer's fortune laid at your feet." Even as he enjoyed the aroma of his own sentiment he reflected on the proportion of debts in the fortune he, the champion of Spanish chivalry, could lay at any woman's feet, and smiled in inward appreciation of himself. His voice was none the less sweet.
"Oh, Miss Talbot!" cried Mrs. Delano, sweeping in, "won't you leave your post for a moment? Here's the whole Montana delegation coming in, and I have forgotten the names of every one of them. I'm sorry to interrupt, but—" She hurried back, the frills of her gown following her in long undulations.
"Will not the señorita be very weary?" asked Mendoza. as Miss Talbot prepared to follow her hostess. "No? Until we meet again, then—and that we shall do."
The season was a month older. There had been receptions for the general, dinners for the elect, and dances for the younger set. It was the last Thursday before Lent. In another week the social spasm would be over. Anything so ephemeral, however, left no trace on the staid old quarter of the city where the Carters lived.
Early in the afternoon Mrs. Carter's delicately lined face appeared at the door of Miss Talbot's room. She looked on with eyes of wistful affection as her niece's deft fingers twisted up her mass of burnished hair, pulled, patted the soft coils until they accentuated the distinction of her head and made a frame of light and shade for the fresh beauty of her face. The older woman moved near to her as Grace put on her gown, and made pretense of assistance that she might pass her hands lovingly over the firm shoulders and rounded arms. Then Mrs. Carter hesitated a moment with a suggestion of something unsaid.
"Am I quite right. Aunt Carter?" Grace asked, as she turned from a final survey in the glass. There was a faint rose in her cheeks, and her eyes were bright with expectancy.
"I can find no fault," Mrs. Carter said fondly. There was an uneasy pause while Miss Talbot put on her hat. Then the girl laughed aloud.
"Out with it, Aunt Carter! You might as well."
"I wish you wouldn't go so much to Mrs. Delano's, dear."
"Why, I didn't dream you objected! It's so interesting to me—and—anyway, this is the last day."
The lady heaved a gentle sigh of relief. Then, "And Mr. Mendoza?" she said.
Her niece flushed. "Who has been gossiping about him?"
"Nobody has been gossiping, dear," Mrs. Carter hastened to explain. "Some man at the club told your cousin he haunted you, wherever he met you. I—don't see why he doesn't come here. No gentleman in my day ever thought of making a young lady conspicuous abroad without presenting himself for the approval of her family."
Grace smiled a little constrainedly.
"Men had to humble themselves to aspire to the favor of this little lady, didn't they? But you know, dear, that isn't the European custom. If he did that it would be equivalent, in his own eyes, to a demand for an alliance. And—of course, there is no thought of anything—like that." She smiled again. "And I would never ask him to call, you know," she said proudly.
"And—Bob?" queried the little lady delicately.
Grace flushed, angrily this time.
"Bob has no right to object," she said quickly.
Mrs. Carter stood irresolutely a moment; then she went up to her niece and kissed her.
"Very well, my dear," she said, with quiet confidence.
Mrs. Delano's last reception was the most brilliant of the year. Her old black butler bowed in and out the never-ending stream of callers with constantly increasing empressement. Miss Talbot had not one moment for thought. In all that crowd she could hardly be expected to observe the absence of one individual. She had become accustomed to the social business of an official afternoon. Mrs. Delano couldn't do without her. There was the usual horde of women, feverishly bent on getting through their calling-list before Lent—these merely require to have their entrances and exits expedited. The legislative people had to be sorted out, each one disposed of according to his own social stratum. The diplomats must be entertained. Miss Talbot had to use her French to amuse a South American youth who "was a little weary of too much English names and idioms," as he confessed to her; she was expected to put a certain naval officer—whose disgust with things mundane had become chronic—into a good humor; there was the usual delegation of constituents to be managed into a social possibility and sent home conscious of having shone. No, there was no time for thought—and yet Grace did sometimes glance involuntarily toward the door when an unusually tall man appeared above the crowd. And as the afternoon wore on and Mendoza did not appear, a dreary undercurrent of feeling spoiled her bright enjoyment of it all. For a time the quick give-and-take, the stimulating necessity of tact, held her interest; but when the rooms began to thin, the tension relaxed and she admitted to herself that it was all very stupid.
Here and there a late caller had settled himself for the intimate parting chat with one of the many pretty girls assisting, a talk which always gathers point from the knowledge that it would have been impossible a few minutes earlier. On other Thursdays Mendoza had been the last to go. Grace felt suddenly dull and deserted. There was evidently no need of her. She found it impossible to stay. Without waiting for the general breaking up she slipped upstairs, hurried on her wraps, and in a moment was standing at the head of the carpeted flight of steps, gazing a trifle helplessly up and down the street.
Her cab had been ordered quite half an hour later. The snow, which had been falling earlier in the afternoon, giving ironical promise of sleighing, had turned, in Washington's own irritating fashion, into a melancholy drizzle, changing the crisp snow into a yellow slush and making the streets almost impassable. Miss Talbot felt quite pathetically uncared for. She was just debating whether she would re-enter the house and telephone for a cab or have one of the footmen who were waiting, huddled under the awning, call one, when a tall, broad-shouldered figure alighted from a brougham which had just driven up at full speed. It was Mendoza, looking warm and rich-hued, tiny mist-drops powdering his thick black hair and Vandyke beard. Grace felt a sudden joyous glow, a swifter marching of the blood at the sight of him. The afternoon assumed the interest it had lost. Mendoza quickened his step as he saw her and bowed his shapely head over her hand.
"But you surely are not going? I have been detained by a wearisome happening, but I cannot support to live without my vision of you," he said.
"You are just in time to call a cab for me," smiled Miss Talbot.
Mendoza looked surprised for an unguarded fraction of a moment. A daring possibility occurred to him. He hesitated. In his own country it would be an unheard-of thing; and here, too, where, secure in unimpeachable chaperonage, there lay in wait for him that fateful, inevitable young lady with a large portion. But Miss Talbot—she was different. She was here—alone. He wanted to rescue her from this atrociously disagreeable weather and surround her with comfort of his own providing. His carriage lamps glowed warmly through the early darkness. Would it be more unpardonable to ask or to fail to do so? These Americans, with their clashing social systems, made life very difficult for a foreigner lacking inspiration. A sudden recklessness seized him.
"May I not have the honor of conducting you myself?" he asked ceremoniously.
"Why, yes, thank you; then I won't have to wait." Miss Talbot spoke with entire unconcern.
Mendoza winced at her ready acquiescence. As he helped her into the carriage with the care that one accords to a helpless invalid, in spite of himself Bradley's slighting remark came to his mind—not comme il faut. How much did Gordon-Bradley mean—or how little? Was this camaraderie quite—? Then his chivalry rebelled and took up arms for the girl beside him; his knowledge of human nature, too, passed judgment on the pure profile, the proud uplift of head. He was angry with himself for the passing doubt. Grace felt the increased deference of his attitude.
Outside it was inexpressibly dreary. The girl shivered as she glanced through the clouded window and nestled deeper into her corner. Mendoza folded the robes around her with concern. He did it so deftly, so beautifully, she told herself with a sigh—Bob always fumbled. Grace was quiet, conscious of being taken care of.
His whole vital being seemed very near. The richness of his coloring, the glow of his eyes charmed her. To the Spaniard, too, this intimate seclusion appealed with unforeseen strength. Grace was very tired; she lay back among the cushions, comfortably inert. The child in this woman, who had always seemed to him so brilliant and self-reliant, stirred him. The lashes made soft shadows under her eyes, her lips were sweet in a half-smile of content. He felt it necessary to remind himself that she was not the one who could restore the fortune of the Mendozas—and also that she was an American young lady, to be respected. Her beauty aroused something in him ignored since the romance of his first youth; he felt joyous, thrilled.
Grace was conscious of a change in his attitude. She gave herself a little shake and began to make conversation.
"Did you see the work of the Japanese artists at the Corcoran? You know I told you not to miss it."
"Yes, but it was not until yesterday," he said absently.
I am sorry; the best things had been sold."
"Yes, truly, they say the little Japs went away carrying with them much wealth. That is because they were made the—'fad' is the word, is it not?"
"Oh, Mr. Mendoza!" Grace sat up straight and indignant. "You know that isn't the reason. Their work is wonderful."
"I was much mistaken. It is quite as you say," said the Spaniard, idly watching the color rise in her face. "It is the atmosphere of the Orient they catch; here you see all in a too clear light—it is hard. Could you but see the flower country of Japan!"
"Oh, if I could!" The girl pressed her hands together and her cheeks were crimson. "I might paint if I knew something of the world. If I were only a man!" she cried passionately. "But women are so helpless."
"But if you were a man," said Mendoza lightly, "the men of your acquaintance would not be so helpful."
"Men?—what could men do?" she said half scornfully. "In such things women must work for themselves."
"Women have been—helped." Mendoza was struggling with a desire to laugh.
"Oh, how—tell me how. I know there are ways; I'd do anything, anything!"
Mendoza started, scrutinizing her keenly. Then he shrugged his shoulders. How difficult it was to understand American women—even this one.
"I wish I could tell you, but I can only tell you what you should see. It is the color of it all, the Southern warmth that forces the art spirit everywhere. If you could see, too, the vivid blues and whites and violet shadows of Tangier as I have seen them, and the rich, subdued half-tones of old Spain, hear the music, see the flowers everywhere, feel the glorious thrill of careless life that is in the air! I am glad when I think that I shall know it again this summer——"
"You are going—and I can't! Don't talk about it! It's the dream of my life, and it's hopeless."
The Spaniard's face flushed. Back in his consciousness was the sting of Bradley's phrase. He didn't want to believe it—there was even regret in the eyes that rested on the unconscious girl—for a moment. Then he bent forward very deliberately and watched her intently as he spoke.
"That is where you should be, not in this gray America; you should live where warmth and fragrance are in the air, where love is swift and free and passionate." He paused. Grace's eyes were fixed on him in a painful fascination. She sighed wistfully, and he was carried out of himself. Prudence? In front of him was a girl's face with crimson cheeks and eyes brilliant with feeling. He leaned forward.
"Come with me; let us go into the heart of the beauty—together!" His hand fell heavily on hers, lying helpless on the carriage rug.
With a sigh Grace awakened. She looked at the man as curiously as if she saw him for the first time. The face spoke a new language to her which she did not understand. And she was sick with physical repugnance. The flame went out of her face. Suddenly she spoke.
"Stop the carriage, please!"
There was a moment of silence. At last Mendoza saw. The Mendozas had always been gentlemen, even when not of a scrupulous morality. He must save her from a knowledge of his meaning—for once he did not count the cost. Insensibly all that was evil in his face merged into an expression of respectful adoration.
"Let the old stock of the Mendozas welcome a beautiful American bride," he pleaded—and the touch of extravagance was not unbecoming. Without giving her time to think he hurried on: "I love you, I thought not to tell you now, but it seems tonight that I must speak. Give your love to me—my beautiful Northern lily touched with flame! Then would there be for you my life's devotion, and for me—so much more. For me, your eyes to wonder at, your lips to love, yourself to cherish, close, close in the core of my heart!"
A mighty sense of relief swept over her—a relief from some terror only vaguely apprehended. She was conscious of nothing but relief. The mellow voice went on. The torrent of his words at last aroused her, and she turned to look at him. She realized the distinction of his presence. He sought her eyes, pale with anxiety; she told herself he had the perfection and delicacy of line of a fine etching. All was admirable—the figure so finely proportioned that only the grace was evident, the noble poise of the head, the clear line of the heavy eyebrows with their sharp, sensitive turn just above the bridge of the nose. Bob would seem uncouth beside him. But Bob was different—oh, yes, dear Bob was very different. And at the thought of him another feeling stole over her, warm, comfortable. When she raised her eyes to Mendoza again they were very cold.
"May I have some hope of your love?" he was saying.
"Oh, no, Mr. Mendoza, it is impossible!" She was vaguely surprised at herself. This was not what she had imagined herself replying to him when he—spoke.
"Can you not think that there may be some hope for me?" he asked humbly. "Believe me, I could make you happy. I would know how to do it better perhaps than a man of more worth. And I would be not altogether ill to live with," he added, with a faint smile.
Grace's tender heart began to reprove her.
"Oh, Mr. Mendoza," she said, "please don't—you make me feel like a criminal. Indeed, I realize the honor you have done me."
Mendoza flinched. "No, no," he broke in in a low tone, "you must not say that!"
"I can't tell you how sorry I am!" She was almost in tears.
"The regret must be only for me," he said tenderly. He watched her a moment with painful anxiety. Finally he said, with deliberation:
"If I had said this to you yesterday, would you then have answered as you have done?"
The girl blushed furiously and looked away from him, but she answered softly:
"No; it would have been different then."
He was silent a long time before he asked, with an effort:
"Can you tell me why you have so changed?"
Grace looked at him with her candid eyes.
"I'm ashamed to say it—it seems so childish. Somehow this evening you were—different. I don't understand myself."
The man gave a great sigh. And then a shadow fell over his face.
"Ah," he said, "then I have indeed lost much!"
It was the girl who broke the silence. She had been staring through the rain-spattered window with dun eyes. At last she touched his arm timidly.
"This is my home," she said.
Mendoza gave the signal. The horse was pulled up with a sudden jar that threw her against him. He steadied her with distant courtesy and helped her to the ground in silence. A man was opening the gate of the little garden just in front of them. In the wet, luminous darkness Mendoza could see that he was square, burly, and—young, oh, yes, undeniably young.
"Bob!" cried Miss Talbot. "Oh, Bob!" And her voice broke a little on the name.
"There is, then, another man!" said Mendoza to himself. And at the same moment he was filled with regret because of the awkward contretemps. The man turned and saw them. But the suspicion, the jealous rage, that the Spaniard expected to see were not there. In the gesture with which he held out both his hands to draw the girl to him, Mendoza had a vision of what he had lost—and what the other man had gained.
Mendoza, bareheaded in the chilling rain, watched them climb the steps slowly and vanish into the glow of the open door. Then he stepped into his brougham. For a long time he sat staring blankly in front of him. Still staring, he groped mechanically in his pockets for his cigarette-papers and tobacco-pouch, produced them and rolled a cigarette with infinite pains. Only when the first few puffs had filled the carriage with the fragrance he loved did his face relax. Then he said bitterly to something within himself:
"She would have loved me!"
He smiled very gently at the dream which seemed to stretch before his half-closed eyes.
"It would have been something to work for," he nodded to the fancy.
A tapping of many fingers on the window-panes aroused him, and he looked out. The rain had changed to sleet, which whipped the air in long, slanting lines made luminous by the street lights. A queer smile tugged at the corners of Mendoza's mouth.
"How beautiful is this pure sentiment in me of many debts! I kneel in contrition before the spirits of the Mendozas." He smoked a few moments in silence. "I surprised myself much more than the lady," he thought. "American young ladies, they say, receive many offers of marriage"—a gleam of humor shot across his face—"but this one had more reason to be surprised than she knew."
His mood darkened again, and he sat frowning at the point of his cigarette with somber eyes. The carriage drew up to the curb in front of his hotel. As he got out he tossed the half-burned cigarette away.
"Where, I demand of myself, would have been found the means to support the existence I so generously laid at her incomparable feet? Mendoza, thou wert protected by the genius of gamblers! And I fear—yes, it is true—I am late for that dinner with the aunt of Miss Dearborn. Alas, that it is to-night that I must meet the rich Miss Dearborn!"