A Marriage Below Zero/Chapter V
I firmly believe that if I had told mamma that the Grand Mogul was coming to dinner, and that the Mikado of Japan intended dropping in during the evening in a friendly way, she would simply have remarked, "I am pleased to hear it; we must entertain them." Arthur Ravener's frequent appearance at our house caused not the least surprise, and interested her but slightly. "He is a nice young fellow, Elsie," she said on one occasion. "He is very attentive to you, of course, but there is something about him I don't quite understand. He is cold and undemonstrative, and yet I can tell that he likes you. He seems to have something on his mind."
"Well, that is better than not possessing a mind to have anything on," I retorted in my unpleasantly pert way, "as is the case with the usual nonentities of society."
"Elsie," said my mother, "I dislike to hear a young girl like yourself belittle the people you are accustomed to meet. You may be far superior to them, but—excuse me—I doubt it."
I was snubbed and subsided.
One afternoon as I was walking down Oxford Street, I saw Arthur Ravener and Captain Dillington approaching. Only the latter noticed me at first. He nudged Arthur and, with an indescribably ugly smile on his face, said something to him. I longed to know what it was, womanlike, because I instinctively felt it was not for my ears. Arthur reddened in a most uncomfortable way, and Captain Dillington laughed. I felt annoyed. I resolved that they should stop and speak to me, though I am sure they had no intention of so doing. Accordingly when they raised their hats, by a dainty little feminine manœuvre, I contrived to make them stop. Captain Dillington greeted me boldly. Arthur Ravener seemed tongue-tied.
"Why do you never come to see us, Captain Dillington?" I asked in my airy way, as they turned and walked back with me.
"Would you care to have us both, Miss Bouverie?"
"I don't see why not. There is plenty of room for you."
"I wonder if you will always be as accommodating, Miss Bouverie?" There was something so insolent in his tone, that I became scarlet in the face. I cannot explain what there was offensive in his speech. You who read it will say that I made a mountain out of a molehill. It impressed Arthur Ravener as it impressed me.
"Take care, Dillington," I heard him say in a low voice, as I turned towards a shop window to cool down.
"If you care to come, Captain Dillington," I said haughtily, "we shall be pleased. If you do not care to come—" I shrugged my shoulders; that is very expressive.
The Captain looked alarmed. "I assure you, Miss Bouverie," he said, "you misunderstood me. I should be delighted to call. I am not at all bashful. I feel convinced that we shall meet a great deal"—he made a marked pause—"later."
I cannot describe the look on Arthur Ravener's face. I feel that novelists would call it "the look of the hunted antelope brought to bay." I have no doubt their simile is a good one, though I have never seen an antelope hunted or otherwise.
"Captain Dillington pays very few visits," said Arthur Ravener, lamely. "He sees very little society, indeed."
"Except yours," remarked the Captain.
"Except mine," echoed Arthur, slowly. "But, Captain," appealingly, "I should like you to call one day this week upon Mrs. Bouverie; I think you could manage it if you tried, couldn't you?"
Captain Dillington nodded, and I, not at all anxious to prolong the scene, skipped into a shop with a hasty "good afternoon."
I confess I was puzzled. What Arthur Ravener could see to admire in Captain Dillington it was utterly impossible for me to divine. That the tie which held them together was strong and binding, I could not for a moment doubt. I have always heard that dissimilar spirits form friendships of long duration, but I could not realize that this would hold good in the case of Arthur Ravener and Captain Dillington, one an apparently frank young man who could only just have "begun to live," the other a repulsive being, with no particularly redeeming feature.
I had already seen them often together, and I knew Arthur Ravener was a different man when removed from his friend. It was not true that Captain Dillington saw but little society. He accompanied Arthur on all occasions. In fact, I had never met the one without the other, except at home. Captain Dillington was the chaperon, or at least I looked upon him in that light. However, excuses will never stand analysis.
"What are you doing in here, Elsie?"
I turned round, and beheld Letty Bishop laden with parcels.
"I came in here to look at some—" I began to stammer hopelessly. I never could fib successfully when taken by surprise, which shows that I was an amateur in the art.
Miss Bishop opened the door and looked down the street. Of course she saw the retreating forms of Damon and Pythias, as she called them.
"No, dear," she said calmly, "you came in here to look at nothing at all. You wanted to avoid a certain couple I see fading in the distance. Are you going home, Elsie?"
Yes, I was going home. I admitted the fact. We stepped out into the noise of Oxford Street.
"Elsie," said Letty, suddenly, "I want to talk to you seriously on a subject upon which—pardon me, my dear—I am afraid your mother will have but little to say. You and I have always been great friends, have we not, dear?"
I hate any one to be affecting, especially in the street. I had an awful idea that there was pathos in Miss Bishop's voice, but I made a vow that nothing should induce me to weep and redden my nose, no matter how harrowing she became.
"Yes," I said, "we've been great friends, Letty, and as neither of us intend shuffling off just yet, I vote that we go on being friends, and say nothing about it."
"You can be as flippant as you like," said Miss Bishop severely, " but I am going to talk to you just the same. You remember, Elsie, at the beginning of the season, how miserable you were at all the festivities, and how you dreaded the silly men, as you called them, whom you were obliged to meet. I told you of Damon and Pythias. I introduced you to Arthur Ravener."
"I never imagined that the introduction would lead to anything."
"No?" I was really boiling over with rage, but I tried to conceal that fact.
"No. But it has. People are coupling your name with that of Arthur Ravener. No, don't interrupt me. If I did not care for you, I should say nothing. Look here, Elsie. I am quite certain that you will never be happy, if you do anything rashly. Arthur Ravener is very unpopular. The men won't look at him. I was speaking to my cousin Ned about him the other day, since I have noticed how you encouraged him."
"—and Ned told me to warn any friend of mine against him. Why? I asked. He would give me no reason, but, my dear, Ned is a conservative old fellow, and you so rarely hear him say a bad word against anybody, that if he does make an attack it carries weight with it. Personally, I like Ravener; but, my dear, I cannot help listening to what people say. Why I heard the remark the other day that the only reason Ravener and Dillington went into society at all, was to borrow its cloak of respectability."
"Perhaps you think they are highway robbers in disguise, or forgers, or playful assassins?"
"I think nothing, my dear. I only tell you what people say. i do that merely because it was I who introduced you. I had no more idea that you and Arthur Ravener would ever care for one another—"
"Did I say I cared for Arthur Ravener?"
"No, but you do, and my prophetic soul tells me that you will throw yourself away upon him."
"Don't listen to what people say, my child," I remarked loftily, "and you will be a great deal happier. Since you have been talking I have come to the conclusion that I like Arthur Ravener immensely. When I marry it will not be for the sake of my lovely society friends—but for my own. You have done your duty, my dear. You have warned me against a young man of whom you know positively nothing. Thanks. If I can return the compliment at any time, command me."
Then, thinking I could not improve upon this cutting rejoinder, I tripped away.