The Charm School/Chapter 5
THE first of his Monday-evening lectures was given by a popular young actor, caught between engagements. It was on the subject of voice-placing. He showed them how it was possible to make a whisper heard at a great distance.
"I wish grandfather were here to learn that," Elise whispered to Sally.
The second lecture was by Lady Peale, better known under her Fifth Avenue name of Lueline, who spoke on the History and Philosophy of Fashion in Dress. Austin hoped that as the girls giggled over pictures of crinolines and bustles they got the idea of how comic some of their own exaggerations would be to future generations.
And through all of his plans and arrangements during those first weeks the hope of Susie's ultimate presence moved like a beneficent ghost. He had not seen her, although he had been twice to the house. He was prepared, however, for Mrs. Rolles's arrangements to be too good to break down under a haphazard visit. He had written, and had no answer. He had telephoned, and found it impossible to get Susie to come to the telephone. Austin, who was one of those people who have the strange combination of sensitiveness and persistence which causes them to go on running their breasts against the lance of circumstance and to feel the resulting wound, was deeply wounded now, but not as deeply wounded as he would have been if he had not been so terribly busy.
But on the afternoon that the girls went away for the brief Easter vacation, he had the inspiration of calling up Mrs. Rolles herself. After all, she would be better than no one. He could at least talk to her about Susie, and find out if David were making more of a success than he had—David with that "very aristocratic kind of ugliness" that Austin envied so much.
Mrs. Rolles was all graciousness, and asked him, or rather permitted him, to come to tea that very afternoon. Nothing was said about Susie, but of course he knew she would be out, or he would not have been allowed to come.
As he entered, the ugliness of the brocaded drawing-room struck him for the first time.
"You've changed this room, haven't you?" he said, not at once appreciating where the change had really taken place.
"Changed?" said Mrs. Rolles, proudly. "No, not in twenty-five years. And so," she went on, presently, when tea had been brought in—"so you have become a school-master?"
"Yes, and a darned successful one, too," said Austin, surprised to note another change had come over his spirit. In old times he had pretended not to be afraid of Mrs. Rolles—now, incredible as it seemed, he actually wasn't. He found that he regarded her simply as a parent, and parents were now to him as seals to Hagenbeck.
Mrs. Rolles smiled. "And I suppose your idea is that you can get Susie to come and darn socks and be a mother to the pupils?"
"A model—not a mother," answered Austin. "I want to be able to point to her as an example of my method of education."
"But it was I educated Susie, not you, Mr. Bevans."
"Ah, but my system of education is founded on your ideas, though, as a matter of fact, on a show-down I believe it would be found that I had had a lot to do with educating Susie, too. That's what parents never can appreciate—the amount of influence young men have on the philosophy of young girls. That's part of my system, too."
"Indeed!" replied Mrs. Rolles, settling back in her chair. "And so you have a principle of education?"
"You bet I have," said Austin. "It's this—that because I'm young and a man I can put over ideas that they wouldn't listen to from any woman. And, as a matter of fact, I can. For instance, I'm like you, I'm opposed to my girls going to college. When I took the school seventy-five per cent. of the seniors were booked for college, and now only one girl even talks of going. You see, you can't take away one ideal without substituting another, and I substituted the ideal of their being charming, gracious, helpful women of the world. Well, that went very well with all but this one—she knows she's going to be charming, anyhow, and she thinks she might as well have a college education as well. What am I going to do with her, Mrs. Rolles?"
"Describe her to me."
Oh," said Austin, falling into the trap, "she's the prettiest little creature you ever saw—not so small, and yet you think of her as being hardly as big as a minute, because she has a little bit of a face, and ridiculous hands and feet, and eyes as big as all outdoors. She's one of those creatures who behave like a wounded bird and have the determination of an elephant. She trembles when you speak to her, cries if you raise your voice, and, by Heaven! inside she's absolutely unchanged by anything you may say. What do you think of that, Mrs. Rolles?"
"I think you're in love with her," said Mrs. Rolles, calmly, and yet, such strange mixed beings are mothers, she felt a distinct pang that her Susie should be so quickly supplanted.
"You of all people," he answered, reproachfully, "ought to know that that isn't true. My interest is purely paternal—or whatever you call it. But of course I am interested. You don't know how much I want to do the right thing by these girls. I know I'm right about the others—not letting them go, but this one is such a sweet little thing, perhaps it wouldn't hurt her to know a little something. What do you think?"
"I think it ruins every girl to go to college."
"Have you known many college women?"
"None," said Mrs. Rolles, drawing herself up.
"Then it's just a theory with you?"
"My dear Mr. Bevans, it isn't a theory that there are certain experiences that rub off the bloom."
Austin simply couldn't bear the thought of Elise losing any of her bloom. And yet, on the other hand, there was that terrible commonplace boy lurking for her if she returned to her grandfather's. It really was a dreadful problem, and he found it a comfort to talk it over with an expert like Mrs. Rolles—such a comfort that he almost missed his train. He had an appointment with Miss Curtis to go over and sign the reports for the term.
As he stepped on the moving train he realized with a start that he had made practically no effort to see Susie at all. But, he consoled himself by reflecting, it wouldn't have done any good if he had.
On his desk he found a fresh gardenia and a last letter from the little princess. He had told himself that he hadn't expected it, yet his eyes had sought it in the accustomed place as soon as he entered the room.
Dear Mr. Bevans,—We are all going home. I asked Miss Hayes what made a home, and she laughed and said it was where you had your washing, done. It seems to me it is wherever you can find the one person who makes life beautiful and interesting to you. We have to learn a piece of poetry for the English class during the vacation. Do you know one that begins, "What shall I do with all the days and hours that must elapse before I see thy face'? I am thinking of learning that.
Good-by, dear Mr. Bevans. I hope you will be well and happy through these long, long holidays.
The long, long holidays were four days. Austin put the little piece of paper in his pocket, without any penciled criticism, although he was aware of the defective paragraphing of the letter. He thought it odd how a line of verse, particularly not very good verse, would get ringing in your head. "What shall I do with all the days and hours—" They ought to teach the girls better stuff than that. He'd speak to Miss Curtis about it when she came over with the reports.
But as a matter of fact he never did speak to her about it.
About half past nine he heard hurried footsteps on his porch, Miss Curtis's voice demanding entrance, and his aunt's Mary replying that she had no intention of keeping her out. The next moment Miss Curtis entered and, sinking into a chair, burst into tears, while Miss Hayes, retaining her habitual calm, smiled at Austin over her colleague's head and said, simply:
"It's not quite as bad as that."
"It is, it is," sobbed Moss Curtis. "The little princess—"
"Has anything happened to Elise?"
"No," said Miss Hayes.
"Yes," said Miss Curtis.
Austin looked from one to the other, and Miss Hayes, seeing that Miss Curtis was quite beyond explanation, said, dryly:
"It appears, Mr. Bevans, that charm is like rain and falls upon the just and the unjust. Elise has been charming the new bookkeeper."
"The bookkeeper?" exclaimed Austin, and a sort of physical nausea swept over him.
"They've been carrying on a correspondence through the accounts," said Miss Hayes.
"Such letters!" wailed Miss Curtis. "The cleaning-woman found them in her desk. She asked me if they were any good, and I was about to say no, for they seemed to be just the accounts in the senior course, when my eye happened to fall— Oh, Mr. Bevans, every one of them has a message on it. Elise—of all people! Do you want to see them?"
"I can't say I'm particularly keen to," replied Austin, holding out his hand for them, but it is doubtful if any one who attempted to take them from him would have left the room alive.
Strictly speaking, they were not letters, but scribbled sentences on the bottom of the accounts she turned in each week. "Why wouldn't you look at me this morning? Why was your tone so cold?" "You treat me like a dog, and yet I love you so."
For the first time in his life Austin had some idea of what Mrs. Rolles meant when she said things were vulgar. The idea of a red-faced accountant making love to the little princess seemed to him the vulgarest thing that had ever happened since the world was made.
"The damned beefy bounder!" he said. "I'd like to wring his neck."
"Oh no, no!" murmured Miss Curtis; "That would make such a scandal."
"I don't think you've read the worst one," said Miss Hayes, and he was grateful to her for retaining her habitual calm. "There's one there that seems to imply she's writing regularly to some one else."
Austin found it at once.
Dearest, can't you see that fellow is in love with you? What would I give if you would write me a note every day—how I would treasure them! And the thought that every day—every day of your life you write regularly to him drives me mad.
Miss Hayes regarded him thoughtfully. "Now who can that be?" she said. "It's very unlike Elise to be a good correspondent."
"Oh, what do we know about them, when they can deceive us so? Elise! I shall never get over it," wailed Miss Curtis.
"I am inclined to regard this other man as the more serious of the two," said Miss Hayes, her eyes still fixed on Austin.
"Two!" cried Miss Curtis. "Oh, it's disgusting—degrading. I feel as if I should have to give up my work. When you think what must have taken place already—what must have been said between them in order that he should dare to write her such letters—"
It was just along these lines that Austin did not want to think. He sprang to his feet. "I'll go straight to her grandfather," he said.
"Oh no, no!" shrieked Miss Curtis. "Oh, Mr. Bevans, it will ruin the school if any parent got a hint of such a thing. They'd think we had been careless."
"And so we have been," said Austin, "damned careless. And if we are ruined, we're ruined, but at least I'm going to have the satisfaction of saying what I think."
He jammed his hat on his head and made his way rapidly toward the garage.
"What's he going to do? If he'd only listen to reason," said Miss Curtis, feebly. "He'll ruin the school."
"But what can you expect of a jealous boy?" said Miss Hayes.
"Jealous?" said Miss Curtis. "I don't understand. Who do you think is jealous? What do you mean?"
"Nothing," answered Miss Hayes.
Miss Curtis was the kind of person who allowed herself to be put off with an answer like that. It interested her more to go on weeping.
As Austin drove the geranium-colored car south toward the wide pink glare in the southern sky—which indicated, not an immense conflagration, but simply that New York was going on as usual—a conflict was taking place within him. He intended to go straight to Mr. Johns—he was aware that this was his duty, and his idea was that during his drive to town he would think out terms in which he would expose the situation to the culprit's grandfather. But the deeper and stronger part of his nature intended something quite different, and he was continually discovering that the telling sentences he invented were all addressed to Elise.
As he drew up before Mr. Johns's door he saw that a party was going on. There was a striped awning, a red carpet, a policeman, and all the various signs of gaiety. But Austin was in no mood to be stopped by a mere party. He ran the car a few feet beyond the door, leaped out and was halfway up the steps when the policeman stopped him and said, with that reasonableness which of late years has become so much the fashion of the force:
"Look here, do you think you showed good judgment leaving that car next the hydrant?"
"Officer," said Austin, "if you knew all I had on my mind you'd be surprised that I have any judgment at all."
"I don't think you have," answered the officer. On which Austin moved his car and went into the house.
The appearance of a young man in morning-clothes at half past ten at night in the midst of a party would have been repellent to Mr, Johns's butler, who liked entertainments and liked them well done. He, however, was busy in the dining-room, and the footman, who let Austin in, not only remembered him from his former visit, but, like Portia, remembered him worthy of praise.
"I wonder," said Austin, who had the American distaste to giving a direct order, particularly to other people's servants, "I wonder if I could see Mr. Johns for a few minutes?"
Even the footman knew better than to bring him, attired as he was, directly into the ball-room. "I'll inquire, sir," he said, and ushered him into a little waiting-room near the stairs, shutting the door behind him.
The footman had little idea how much was accomplished by this simple action, for this little room, unknown to most of the guests, was at that time occupied by Elise and George. They were sitting on either side of a nice open fire, engaged in a conversation which came to an abrupt halt—as perhaps any conversation would—on the entrance of Austin.