Mrs. Clara Woods was in the bank, standing in front of the paying-teller's little window, having one of her modest dividend checks cashed. She was folding the crisp notes carefully when she was startled by the voice of a man who stood next in the waiting line behind her.
“May I speak to you a moment when I leave the window?” queried the voice.
Mrs. Woods, turning, recognized the man as the notable fixture of humanity in Mrs. Noble's very select boarding-house where she herself lived. The gentleman was wealthy, aged, and privileged, since for countless seasons he had been a feature of Noble's. The fact that Mr. Allston boarded there was Noble's best asset.
“Certainly, Mr. Allston,” replied Mrs. Woods almost inaudibly, but emphasizing her agreement with a nod. She was a middle-aged woman, with nothing to distinguish her from a thousand other middle-aged women.
She stepped aside and stood by the high circular structure fitted out with paper, pens, and bank literature generally, and almost at once Mr. Allston joined her. At a slightly perceptible gesture—Mr. Allston, of course, never actually beckoned a lady to follow his lead—she went behind him toward the rotary door of the bank, where they were almost out of hearing. Mr. Allston, in his guarded voice, spoke at once.
“May I ask at what hour you left the house, Mrs. Woods?” said he.
Mrs. Woods, catching a vague alarm from his manner, replied that she had left quite early. She had been shopping, and was now about to return to the house for luncheon.
“I advise you not to do so,” cautioned the old gentleman. Mrs. Woods gazed at him. She was frankly alarmed.
“Why?” she began.
“Noble's was quarantined an hour ago,” said the old man. “One of the Sims children has scarlet-fever. They don't dare move it in this weather, so they have nurses, and the sign is up on the front door. Mrs. Noble is distressed, but she can't help it. You had better not return for luncheon, or you will be quarantined.”
“I have not seen the Sims children for days and days,” declared Mrs. Woods with an air of relief. “I have not even seen Mrs. Sims. Mrs. Noble told me yesterday that little Muriel was ailing and her mother was staying with her. It must have been the fever coming on.”
“Of course,” replied Allston. “I got out, luckily, just before the notice was put up. Then I met Dr. Vane, and he told me. He advised me not to go into the house, as it might mean being a prisoner there for some time. So I got away as fast as possible. I am going to a hotel. It is very inconvenient, but it would be more so being shut up at Noble's for days, perhaps weeks.”
“I think perhaps I had better not return,” said Mrs. Woods, hesitatingly. She was casting about in her mind exactly what she could do. Then Mr. Allston inquired if he could be of any service, and she thanked him and said no. He remarked that it would of course be very annoying and inconvenient for both of them, and went forth from the bank, while she went into the ladies' waiting-room. She sat down and remained quiet, but inwardly she was aware of precisely the sensations of a wandering, homeless cat.
It was, of course, rather obvious that she would either have to go to a hotel—a quiet hotel for those of her ilk—or return to Noble's and remain in quarantine. She was even inclined toward the latter course, as involving less trouble. She considered that probably the period of isolation would be limited, and that she would not seriously object to remaining housed in her own nest rather than settle even temporarily in a new one.
Then she suddenly reflected that little Muriel Sims was not the only child at Noble's. There were the two Dexter boys. She was almost sure that they had never had scarlet fever. There was the Willis baby. There was little Annabel Ames. Suppose all these came down with scarlet fever? Why, that might mean quarantine for months. Then, also, there was the noise of so many children confined to the house. Probably none of them had escaped quarantine. The little Dexter boys were very boisterous children. They would probably slide down the banisters all day. Mrs. Woods again vibrated mentally toward the hotel.
Then Miss Selma Windsor entered. She did not notice Mrs. Woods. That was Selma's way. She was not apt to notice people unless she almost collided with them.
Selma entered and seated herself at one of the little writing-tables, took some papers from her black-leather bag, and began to examine them with as complete an air of detachment as if she were entirely alone in the world.
Mrs. Woods made an involuntary movement. She half rose; then she settled back. She was still entirely unnoticed by the other woman, who continued to examine her papers. She was probably about Mrs. Woods's own age. Mrs. Woods reflected upon that. “We went to Miss Waters's school, but Selma was in a higher class,” she told herself. She wondered, quite impartially, whether that proved superior wits or superior age on the part of Selma.
She was not astute enough to realize that Selma had very few of her own ravages of time. Selma deceived people, though not intentionally. She had no desire to look older than she need. A woman who does that is almost monstrous. Selma simply considered that certain clothes were suitable for a woman of her age, and she wore them. She also considered that a certain invariable style of hair-dressing must be adopted. She adopted it. The result was that to most people she did look as old as she was.
Casual observers did not recognize the fact that there were no lines in her face; that her skin was smooth, with the ready change of color of youth; that her facial contours remained very nearly intact; that her hair had not lost its youthful thickness and warm color. Selma was regarded by most people, as she was regarded by Mrs. Woods that morning, as a woman over the middle-age line of life.
She generally wore black, and her clothes had always a slightly hesitant note as to the last mode. She wore small black hats, and her fair hair was brushed very smoothly away from her temples. None of it could be seen under the prim brim of her hat. She had removed her gloves. Mrs. Woods did not notice that the hands were as smooth as a girl's, and displayed no prominent veins. She did notice the flash of a great white diamond on one finger, as Selma handled the papers in a tidy, delicate fashion.
She reflected that Selma was a rich woman, and how very fortunate that was, since she had never married. She remembered that Selma lived in the suburbs, in a very wealthy town. She had never visited her there. She had seen but little of her—and that little had been through chance meetings—for years. They always exchanged cards at Christmas. They were on an even level of friendship which both acknowledged, but there was no intimacy.
Mrs. Woods did not feel at liberty to interrupt the other woman in her scrutiny of her papers. Selma scrutinized very leisurely. Evidently something was perplexing her a little, but she did not frown at all. She simply examined and considered, with a serenity which was imperturbable. At last she seemed contented. She refolded the papers, slipped the elastic band around them, put them in her leather bag, fastened it, and began to put on her gloves.
Then, for the first time, she glanced about her as if she were capable of sensing anything or anybody outside her own individuality. She saw Mrs. Woods. Evidently not expecting to see her in that particular place, she did not at once recognize her. However, she was aware that here was a woman whom she knew. She calmly regarded the other's large, rather good-looking, obvious face. Then she rose. She extended her right hand, upon which the glove was now smoothed and buttoned. “How do you do, Clara?” she said, composedly, addressing Mrs. Woods by her Christian name.
Then the two women sat down together on the little leather-covered divan and exchanged confidences—or rather, Clara Woods volunteered them. There was scarcely an exchange, except for the trifling inevitabilities of health and weather. Clara Woods told Selma Windsor about the scarlet fever at Noble's, and how she was as one ship-wrecked without the necessities of life, or compelled to return to indefinite isolation of quarantine.
Selma disposed of the situation pleasantly and gracefully, and finally. “You will, of course, return with me to Laurelville this afternoon,” she said. “I can supply you with everything you need. I shall be glad to have you with me until the quarantine is raised.”
Clara Woods made only a faint demur. The proposition seemed to her fairly providential. She had not known how to afford that quiet, exclusive hotel. Her income was very limited. Then, too, there had been the apparently insurmountable problem of her belongings quarantined at Noble's.
Clara Woods was a pious woman, and humbly inclined to a conviction of the personal charge of the Deity over her. Visions of shorn lambs, and sparrows fluttering in search of suitable sites for nests, floated through her mind, which was really that of an innocent, simple child in spite of her ponderousness of middle-age. There was something rather lovely in her expression as she looked up into Selma's face. Clara's eyes were shining with vistas of gratitude. Selma, who was imaginative, realized it. She smiled charmingly.
“I am so glad I happened to come in here to-day,” she said.
“It seems like a special providence,” returned Clara, ardently; and Selma heard herself practically called a special providence, and rose above her own sense of humor because she understood what was passing in her friend's mentality.
The two lunched together; then Selma had some shopping to do in one of the big stores before they took the four-thirty train to Laurelville. It was probably that little shopping expedition which started queer after-events. At least, Clara Woods always considered them queer, although sometimes she was divided between the queerness of the events and the possible queerness of herself for so estimating them.
Whenever she met Selma, after what happened, she looked at her with a question in her eyes which, if Selma understood, she did not attempt to answer. Whenever Clara Woods endeavored dizzily to understand, she always got back to the ready-made frocks displayed in that great store on the day of her meeting Selma in the bank.
Clara Woods, when she stood with her friend in one of the departments, had something of the sensations which one might have had in the company of royalty—if royalty ever went shopping for ready-made clothes! There was something about Selma Windsor—It was difficult—in fact, impossible—to say what that something was. She was well and expensively clad, though with that slight flatting of the fashion key; but there were hundreds of women as well clad. She had a perfect poise of manner; so had other women by the score. Clara decided that it was impossible to say what it was that awoke to alert life and attention the groups of saleswomen. Selma had no need to stand for a second hesitating, as Clara always did in such places, feeling herself in the role of an uninvited guest at some stately function.
Selma was approached at once. There was, apparently, even some rivalry between the trim saleswomen. Clara wondered if Selma was known to any of these. She afterward learned that it was the first time in her life that Selma had entered that department of the store.
“Anything I can show you to-day, madam?” inquired a voice, and the other women fell back.
Selma expressed her wishes. She and Clara were deferentially shown to seats among the grove of dummies, clad in the latest modes, and resembling a perfectly inanimate afternoon-tea style. Clara felt a reflected glory, as one thing after another was displayed to her friend, not with obsequiousness, but with really fine deference to that mysterious something. Finally the purchase was made, and then Selma and Clara were in a taxicab on their way to the station.
They reached the suburban town where Selma lived about five o'clock. Selma had a limousine waiting for her. Clara experienced an almost childish sense of delight when she sank into the depths of its luxurious padding. Again the innocent, if perhaps absurd, conviction of the special providence which had her in charge that day illumined her whole soul.
“Well, I must say I never dreamed this morning that to-night I would be here,” she remarked, happily.
Selma laughed softly. “We are both encountering the very delightfully unexpected,” she replied.
“But when I think of coming entirely without baggage!”
“My clothes will fit you perfectly,” said Selma. “I have a new black chiffon which I have never worn, which you can wear at dinner to-night.”
“You dress for dinner?” asked Clara with an accession of childish pleasure.
“Sometimes. When I am entirely alone I make no change,” said Selma, “but to-night I am entertaining—a very unusual thing for me—two guests, my lawyer and his cousin. We have some business to discuss, and I thought we might combine a little festive occasion with it. Mr. Wheeler is a charming gentleman. His cousin I have never met. This cousin is a Southerner, visiting him, and I included him in the invitation. I wished at the time I had another lady, and here she is, provided most providentially.”
“Are they young men?”
“Mr. Wheeler is not. He is of our age. He has an invalid wife. I suppose his cousin is also middle-aged. I did not inquire.”
By some law of sequence not evident on the surface, Selma immediately began to talk about the costumes which they had seen that afternoon. “It is very strange how the fashions have turned to antebellum days,” said she. “How much at home the few survivors of the Civil War would have felt in that crowd of dummies dressed in flounces and fichus and full petticoats!”
“Yes; they even wore plaids,” agreed Clara. Then she added that she supposed there must be many wardrobes in which hung duplicates of those very gowns which they had seen that afternoon. “I remember my aunt Clara showing me one exactly like that flounced plaid taffeta, except hers was a purple-and-green plaid, and the one in the store was blue and brown,” said she.
Clara noticed a queer expression on the other woman's face, which in the light of after-events she remembered. Selma nodded.
“Yes,” she replied. “I dare say you are right.”
Her blue eyes were fixed upon the leafless trees against the sky. They had such a curiously childish expression that the other woman laughed softly. Selma looked at her inquiringly.
“You had a look in your eyes which carried me back to our school-days, then,” said Clara.
“A look in my eyes?”
“Yes; there was a sparkle in them.”
Selma herself laughed. “I wonder sometimes if the sparkle of life is really all over for me,” she said. “I cannot accustom myself to being old.”
Then the limousine drew up in front of Selma's rather splendid house, set back from the road in a lawn full of straw-clad rose-trees. Clara looked about her with enthusiastic interest.
“What a beautiful place! And you still like roses as much as when you were a girl,” she exclaimed.
“Yes, I think the place pretty good. I did not hesitate much about buying it. I had always planned some day to have a country place for the sake of the roses.”
When Clara entered the house her delight was increased. Had it not been sinful, she could have blessed the Lord for the disease of scarlet fever which had been the cause of her coming. Clara had, although she was commonplace, a love for the beautiful amenities of life, whose lack had irritated her. She was not a woman to say much concerning her emotions. Fairly hugging herself while gazing about at the soft richness and loveliness, she thought, “After Noble's!”
Selma gave her a beautiful room at the front of the house. Its great windows commanded a view of the drive and the road behind the rose-trees. Clara thought afterward that Selma could have had nothing planned at that time, or she would not have given her that room, from whose windows she could see—well, what she did see.
Clara Woods took a bath, with a secret awe before such luxury. The bath-room belonged to her room, and was all pink and white and silver. Clara had for years been obliged to watch her chance to sneak into the one repulsively shabby, although clean, bath-room at Noble's, and she had always an uneasy impression of publicity in using it. Here it was perfect. Everything was perfect. Her room was done in dark blue with pink roses. She had a long mirror in which she could survey herself when arrayed in Selma's black chiffon.
Selma's maid assisted her to don the gown, and, although she was stouter than her hostess, it fitted her well, because Selma's gowns were always very loose. Clara Woods fairly peacocked before the mirror. The maid surveyed her approvingly. She appreciated the guest's attitude. She had not entirely approved of the loan of the elegant black chiffon which her mistress had never worn; but, once the deed was done, she gloried in it.
Selma's maid had been with her for years, and fairly worshiped her. She gazed at the commonplace guest's reflection in the mirror, made for the time uncommonplace by the elegant costume and a little touch which she, the maid, had given her hair, and beamed with admiration at the effect of her mistress's kindness.
After Clara had gone down-stairs she hung up the visitor's street gown, and considered within herself how Miss Selma was too good to live, almost. How many women in the world would despoil themselves of their fine feathers to deck another poor feminine fowl who lacked them? However, Jane triumphed in the knowledge that not all the fine feathers could make another such lady-bird as her own mistress.
That evening Selma in black and silver was adorable. She had failed to make as little of her natural advantages as she had innocently attempted. What if her fair hair were brushed so severely back? Her delicate temples were worth revealing. The high collar concealed her long, graceful throat, but did not deform it. Selma, in a high collar of silver, with a silver band around her head, was really lovely.
The two gentlemen evidently admired their hostess. The cousin, Ross Wheeler, from Kentucky, did not meet the expectations of either Selma or Clara. He was much the junior of his cousin, William B. Wheeler, who had charge of Selma's affairs. However, he had been recently made a partner in business by William B., and in spite of his almost boyish look and manner he was supposed to be taken quite seriously.
The dinner, which was perfect, passed off triumphantly. Even poor old Clara Woods, in her elegant black chiffon, shone in her own estimation. Years ago dinners like that had not been infrequent for her. She felt as if she were taking a blissful little trip back to her own youth.
When it was all over, and the gentlemen had gone, and Selma was bidding her good night in her own room, Clara waxed fairly ecstatic.
“Oh, my dear,” she exclaimed, fervently, “if you knew what this means to me after my years in a boarding-house since my little fortune was lost and my poor husband passed away!”
Selma regarded her with self-reproach. She reflected how easy it would have been for her to give the poor soul the little change and pleasure before. It was true, though, that she had not lived long in Laurelville—only since her mother had died, some three years before.
“I am glad, Clara,” Selma replied. “Now that you have found the way, there is no reason why you should not come often.”
“Oh, thank you,” responded Clara. “I am enjoying myself as I never thought to enjoy myself this side of heaven.” She sighed romantically and reminiscently. “What a very charming gentleman Mr. Wheeler—the elder Mr. Wheeler—is!” said she.
“Yes, I like him,” agreed Selma. “I have never regretted employing him. He forgot some papers to-night, though, and we could not settle a little matter of business for which he really came out. The dinner was hardly more than incidental, although he did wish to introduce his cousin.”
“His cousin is a beautiful young man,” declared Clara.
“Yes; and he must be clever in spite of his youth, or Mr. Wheeler would not have taken him into partnership,” replied Selma.
Suddenly a change came over her face. Clara started.
“What is the matter?” asked Selma. The change had vanished.
“Nothing, only you—looked suddenly—not like yourself.”
“Did I?” responded Selma, absently. She said good night, hoped Clara would sleep well, and trailed her sparkling black and silver draperies out of the room.
Clara Woods stood still a moment after the door was closed, thinking. “She looked exactly as she did when she was a girl, for a minute,” said Clara Woods to herself.
Clara was almost asleep when she heard the ring of the telephone, the up-stairs one, in Selma's room. She heard Selma's voice, but could not distinguish a word. She did not try to. Clara Woods had a scorn for curiosity. She felt herself above it, and her high position was about to be sorely attacked.
At breakfast the next morning Selma announced that she was very sorry, but she would be obliged to go to New York on business on the noon train. Mr. Wheeler had telephoned, she said.
“I heard the telephone ring,” returned Clara.
Selma started. “I fear the talk kept you awake,” she said. “I held the wire quite a time.”
“Oh no,” said Clara; “I could only distinguish a soft murmur of voices. It did not disturb me at all. I fell asleep while you were talking.”
Selma appeared strangely relieved. Clara noticed with wonder that the look at which she had started the night before was again upon Selma's face. Selma, in her pale-blue house dress, was rather amazing that morning. It was not so much that she looked young in color and contour, but the very essence of youth was in her carriage and her glance. She looked alive, as only living things which have been a short time upon the earth look alive. Her blue eyes were full of challenge; her chin had the lift of a conqueror; her very hair sprang from its restraining pins with the lustiness of childhood.
Selma and Clara sat together lingeringly over their breakfast, then Selma excused herself, and Clara settled herself happily in the library with newspapers and magazines. She was conscious, half fearfully, of being in a state of jubilation that she distrusted. She was of New England parentage, and involuntarily stiffened her spiritual back to bear reverses when in the midst of unusual delights. It did not seem to Clara Woods that this could last long. It seemed to her entirely too good to be true.
It was not a great while before her perturbation of soul began. It was, in fact, that very noon. Selma had told her that she was going to New York on the noon train, and had apologized for the necessity of leaving her guest to lunch alone. Clara was in her room about fifteen minutes before train-time, when she heard the whir of Selma's car in the drive. She saw a figure step lightly into the car, and she gave a little gasp.
That was surely not Selma Windsor! That was a lightly stepping girl, with a toss of fair hair under a blue hat, over which floated a blue chiffon veil. The girl was clad in ultra style. She was a companion, as far as clothes went, of that notable company of dummies in the New York store where they had been yesterday. Wide blue skirts floated around that slender figure. A loose coat of black velvet, of the antebellum fashion, was worn over the blue gown.
The girl seated herself. Clara could not distinguish anything of her face under the loose wave of her veil, except a vague fairness of color and grace of outline. The car whirred, and Adam, smart in his chauffeur's costume, drove rapidly around the curve of the drive. In a second Clara saw the car in the road. Then it was out of sight. She wondered who that girl was. She looked at her watch and wondered how Selma could make her train, since she was so delayed by a visitor. Clara never doubted that the girl was a visitor whom Selma had sent home in her car. Selma must know some people in Laurelville, although she had heard her remark that she had made few acquaintances, and no friends, there. This girl must be one of the acquaintances.
Clara watched very idly beside her window for the return of the car and Selma's departure for her train. Presently the car returned. Adam drove directly past the curve of the drive to the garage. Clara looked at her watch. There were now only three minutes before the train was due.
When Clara heard the broken, hollow music of the Japanese bells which announced luncheon, she went down-stairs, expecting, of course, to find Selma in the dining-room, and hear her announce the change of programme which had kept her at home. There was one plate laid in Clara's place on the table, and Jane stood there ready to wait. She had, somehow, the air of a sentinel on duty when Clara entered.
Clara Woods was in one respect rather a remarkable woman. In spite of what she had seen, she said nothing. She ate her dainty luncheon, with not as much appetite as she had eaten her breakfast. She asked nothing. She said nothing, except to make the usual remarks due from guest to servant. Then she returned to her room. Therein she sat down and looked rather pale.
“Who,” demanded Mrs. Clara Woods of her own stuttering intelligence, “was that girl?”
For some cause Clara Woods avoided her front windows that afternoon. She remained in her own room for some time, writing letters at the inlaid desk between the other windows which did not command the road. Then she heard the telephone-bell in Selma's room, and Jane tapped at the door and informed her that Miss Selma wished to speak to her on the long-distance from New York.
Selma's room was beautiful, but rather strangely furnished for a woman of Selma's apparent character. It was something between a young girl's room and a bachelor apartment. One surveying it—knowing nothing of its occupant—might easily have conceived that either a young girl had married a bachelor settled in his habits, and brought him home to live with her people, or that the old bachelor had yielded to a young wife's girlish preferences. Certainly, white-silk curtains strewn with violets, looped back with that particular shade of blue which suits the flowers, white walls with a frieze of violets tied with blue ribbons, and a marvel of a dressing-table decked with silver and crystal were fairly absurd combined with a great lion-skin in front of the fireplace, a polar-bear skin in the center of the great room, and heavy, leather-covered divan and easy chairs.
“What a queer room!” thought Clara. The telephone was on a little table beside Selma's bed. The bed had a leopard skin flung over the foot, and the counterpane and pillows were of heavy yellow satin.
Selma's voice came clearly over the wire. “I am so sorry, Clara,” said Selma, “but I find I am detained. I cannot be home in time for dinner. I probably cannot be home until the ten-thirty train. Jane will take care of you. I am sorry, but you will not mind.”
Clara replied that of course she would not mind, assured her that she was being very well cared for, bade her good-by, and hung up the receiver. She kept on her own dress, which was a good one, for her solitary dinner. Jane waited on her, as at luncheon, and she made no attempt at satisfying any wonder or curiosity which she might have felt. Jane at times cast an apprehensive glance at her. Clara felt the glance, but never met it.
After dinner she sat in the library and read the evening paper. Then she found a book which interested her, although she felt nervous and uneasy, and from time to time thought of her own humble nest at Noble's. The hours passed. She heard the automobile go out of the yard, and at the same time Jane entered the room. She asked Mrs. Woods if she could do anything for her, and looked so disturbed that Clara understood. “She wishes me to go up-stairs,” she told herself. With a stiff subservience to all wishes of that kind, she rose and went. She realized that it was not judged by Jane as advisable that she should be down-stairs when that motor-car returned from the station.
She heard it as she sat in the dressing-gown which Selma had provided, continuing her letter-writing (Clara had a large circle of feminine correspondents). She expected to hear voices. She heard none. She wondered if Selma had not returned on the ten-thirty train, then dismissed the wonder as unworthy. It was none of her business.
She waited a long time before she returned to the library for the book which she had been reading. She considered that there had been time enough for all mysteries with which she had no concern to settle themselves, when she stole down-stairs and got the book. Some of the lights had been turned off, but many were on. It was quite evident that Selma had not returned. Jane looked in at the library door and asked if she could do anything. Clara replied, in an almost apologetic voice, that she had come down for a book. Then she heard a car speeding up the drive.
Jane's face became almost agonized. Clara sped out of the library. It was years since her middle-aged feet had moved as swiftly as they did along the hall and up the stairs. She gained her own room, opened the door, turned to close it, and saw the face of the girl coming up-stairs. Clara could not help that one glimpse, but it was so fleeting that nobody on the stairs—Jane came after the blue-clad figure—saw anything but the flirt of the closing door.
Clara sat down helplessly. Always before her eyes was the face she had seen, the face of the blue-clad girl ascending the stairs. The face was fair and sweet, so sweet of expression that it compelled admiration for that alone. It was smiling radiantly. Soft, fair hair tossed over the forehead, as innocently and boldly round at the temples as a baby's.
Clara Woods remembered Selma Windsor when she looked like that, exactly like that. The likeness was uncanny. Clara had little imagination or she would then have gone far in imaginative fields. She did tell herself that the girl looked enough like Selma to be her own daughter. She went no further.
Clara went to bed. She could not sleep. She rose early, and after dressing sat in her room waiting for sounds in the house to denote that other people were astir. At the breakfast-hour she went down-stairs. She was aware of a queer unsteadiness. She could not analyze her perturbation, but felt helpless before it.
When Clara entered the breakfast-room Selma greeted her from a little conservatory beyond. She had been tending a few blooming plants which she kept there. Selma said, “Good morning,” and there was nothing unusual in her manner. There was nothing unusual in Clara's, although she looked pale. Breakfast was served, and she and Selma partook of it, and the mysterious girl did not appear, and was not mentioned.
Selma said nothing about her trip to New York, except to express regrets that Clara had been left to dine alone. Selma, eating breakfast, did not look in the least tired. On the contrary, Clara thought she looked, in some strange, intangible fashion, younger and fresher. Her voice rang silvery. She laughed easily and delightfully.
“You seem just as you did when we were girls together at school,” Clara exclaimed, involuntarily. Then Selma gave a quick start, but recovered herself directly.
“Those were the happiest days of my youth, those days at school,” she said, and there was a sad note in her voice.
Clara did not reply. She had known very little about Selma, except through those days at school. Selma began to talk more freely than she had ever done. She told how her home life had been saddened, even embittered, by an older sister who was an invalid; one of those kickers against the pricks who drag all who love them into their own abyss of misery. Selma and her father and mother had been as beaten slaves under that sore tyranny, which had endured until the sister died, long after Selma's youth had passed.
“I never,” she said, “could have company of my own age. I never could go like other young girls.” She flushed slightly. “I could not have a lover on account of poor Esther,” she said. Then she added, with a curious naïveté, “I have always wondered what it would be like.”
Jane brought in hot waffles, and the personal conversation ceased. After breakfast the two women went up-stairs. It was a windy morning. Selma's door was blown open as they reached it, and a sudden puff of wind caused a skirt to flash out with a sudden surprise of blue, like a bird of spring, from an open closet door. Selma did not act as if she saw it. Clara again felt shaken, and proceeded to her own room, telling Selma she had some letters to write.
In her room she sat down and pondered. She might not own to curiosity—other people's affairs might be sacred in her estimation—but she could not ignore, in the privacy of her own consciousness, the blue flirt of that skirt. After a while, however, she gained command over herself, with her usual incontrovertible argument that it was none of her business. She went down-stairs, and Selma provided her with some fancy-work, and the two visited serenely all the forenoon.
After luncheon they separated. Clara had a habit of lying down for an hour. This afternoon she fell asleep—the effect of her wakeful night. She started up about four o'clock. She had heard a motor in the drive. Against her own will she slipped down from the divan and peered out of a window. There was a great touring-car and a magnificent chauffeur, and Mr. William B. Wheeler's handsome young cousin was assisting into the tonneau the girl—the girl—clad this time in fawn-color, ruffling to her waist, with a quaint velvet mantle to match, fitch furs, and a fawn-colored poke bonnet with a long feather curling to her shoulder.
The car sped away. Clara really felt faint. She lay down again on the divan. It crossed her mind that she might go in search of Selma and see if she were in the house; then she dismissed the thought as unworthy. A very soul of small honor had Clara Woods. She immolated herself upon that little shrine, which most women would not have considered a shrine at all.
Clara finally dressed herself and then hurried down-stairs to the library, whose windows did not command the drive. There she read conscientiously. Finally Selma came in smiling. Clara noticed guiltily that her cheeks were flushed as if by coming in contact with cold, outdoor air. It was curious that Clara was the one who felt guilty before all this. Selma seemed entirely unruffled until Clara inquired if they were to dress for dinner that night, if guests were expected. Suddenly Selma flushed. She looked for one second like a young girl trapped with some love-secret, then she answered composedly that she expected nobody, and it was not necessary to dress.
There was a tap on the door, and Adam entered. He wished to see his mistress with regard to preparing a new garden-patch. Selma excused herself. When she returned she was smiling happily.
“I shall have a lovely new garden this year,” she said. “I have bought half an acre at the left of the house, and I am to have a flower-garden—a flower-garden with a stone wall around it, a wonderful flower-garden!”
“What kind of flowers?” inquired Clara, and was surprised at the intensity and readiness of her friend's reply.
“Perennials,” she exclaimed with force. “Always perennials. Always the flowers which return every year of their own accord. I like no other flowers. Always the returning flowers—roses and lilies and hyacinths and narcissi and hollyhocks. There are plenty of them. No need for us to trouble ourselves with flowers which demand taking up and gathering and replanting. It is always a perennial flower for me! I love a rose which has returned to its own garden-home year after year. There is faithfulness and true love and unconquerable youth about a flower like that!”
Clara stared at her. “I suppose so,” she assented rather vaguely. Selma puzzled her in more ways than one. However, a perfectly pleasant little conversation ensued. Selma asked about some old school friends of whom Clara had kept track through the years.
The solitary dinner passed off happily. The two separated rather early. Selma owned to having a slight headache. Clara read awhile, then went to bed. She was just beginning to feel drowsy when she heard a motor in the drive, and simultaneously she noticed a thin line of light across her floor. She had not quite closed her door. Somebody had turned on all the hall lights, and they shone through the crack. It was too much for Clara Woods. Curiosity raged and would not be subdued.
She slid noiselessly out of bed and stood behind the door. She peered through that slight opening and saw—the girl, all clad in rose-color, a full skirt blossoming around her, ribbons and laces fluttering. She beheld the girl fairly dancing on slim, pointed feet along the hall toward the stairs. At the same time the fragrance of roses came to her, and she remembered how fond Selma used to be of that perfume, and how the other girls used to make fun of her for using it in such quantities. All the hall was now scented with roses. There might have been a garden of them.
Clara closed her door noiselessly and went back to bed. That night she was so tired that she slept. The next morning she wondered if the girl would appear at the breakfast-table, but there was only Selma in a lavender morning gown, sweet and dignified and serene as ever.
Whatever there was to conceal, Selma was careless, for again when Clara went up-stairs—Selma had gone out with her gardener to give directions for her garden of perennials—Selma's door was open, and over a chair lay a fluff of rose-pink and lace and ribbons.
Clara shook her head. She went into her own room, and she thought of Noble's. She had lived there over ten years, and nothing in the least mysterious had happened. She wished herself safely back, but again she stifled her curiosity. She stifled it, and in fact never quite knew if it had been gratified—if she ever found out the truth of the case. Clara had always a mild wonder if a cleverer woman than she might not have known exactly what had happened, what did happen. For the climax of the happening came very soon. And it came in an absurd sort of fashion.
Selma had been busy in her own room all the afternoon. Clara had not seen her since luncheon. Finally she dressed in one of the costumes which had been placed at her disposal—a pretty black net trimmed with jet—and went down-stairs to the library. After trying a book which did not especially interest her, she settled herself comfortably in a long lounging-chair beside a window. Although the day was far spent, it was not dark.
Clara lay back, gazed out of the window at the grounds, and reflected. Where she sat she could see, mirrored in a picture facing the large drawing-room into which the library opened, the two actors in the little drama of mystery. She could not help seeing them unless she moved, which was quite out of the question.
Clara stared at the reflecting surface of the picture facing the interior of the drawing-room, and she saw Mr. William B. Wheeler's cousin—that charming young man from the South—enter and seat himself. She saw in the picture that he was very pale and evidently ill at ease. Then Selma entered. To Clara she looked much older than usual. Her black-satin gown was very plain; her fair hair was strained back very severely from her temples. She also looked pale and worn.
Clara saw Selma and the young man shake hands; then, with no preamble—he was hardly more than a boy—he sank down on his knees before the woman, buried his face in her black-satin lap, and his great, boyish frame shook. Then Clara heard the boy say, chokingly: “Forgive me, Miss Windsor. I am—hard hit.”
Clara saw Selma's face bent over the bowed, fair head pityingly, like the face of a mother. The young man went on:
“You must know that I understand how very odd this may all seem to you. I have only seen her those few times. But from the very first minute she entered Cousin William's office that morning after we dined here—when he had telephoned you, and you had sent your niece to represent you because you were ill—from that very first minute it was all over with me. She was so sweet and kind. She stayed and went to that concert with me, although I know she feared lest you think she ought not. Everything happened so very quickly. She was not at fault. She never encouraged me, led me on, you know. You surely don't think I am such a cad as to imply that, Miss Windsor?”
Clara heard Selma's reply, “No, I certainly do not think you mean to imply that.”
The boy went on. “I know I was terribly headlong. I have always been headlong. It is in my blood; and I was so sure of myself. She was so wonderful. Then I wrote her that note. Did you see it? She showed it to you, didn't she? I expected of course she would.”
Clara saw Selma bow her head in assent.
“Then she sent that special-delivery note of refusal. You saw that?”
Selma again bowed her head.
“Do you think it was—final? Will there never be any hope?” cried the young fellow with a great gasp.
Clara heard Selma say “No,” in a strange voice.
“There is no use in my asking to see her?” pleaded the boy, pitifully.
“She has—gone,” replied Selma.
“And she is not coming back?”
“I doubt if she ever comes back.”
Clara saw the fair head of the young man on Selma's black-satin lap. She saw the broad young shoulders heave. She saw Selma Windsor put her hand lovingly on the fair hair and stroke it, and murmur something which she did not catch. But soon the young man stood up, and his white face was lit by a brave smile.
“Oh, of course, Miss Windsor,” he said, “it is all the fortune of life and love and war. Of course I have courage enough to take what comes. Of course I am not beaten. Of course I am young, and shall get over it. I am not a coward. I simply did love her so, and it is the first time I was ever so hard hit. It is all right. I am sorry that I have troubled you. It is all right, but—I am going back to Kentucky to-night. I am going into business with a fellow of my own age. I have told Cousin William. He was upset, and I did not tell him why I was backing out of the partnership so soon. He did not like it very well. I am sorry, for he is a mighty good sort. But I have to go. I have plenty of fight in me for everything, but a fellow has to choose his own battle-field sometimes. I am ashamed of myself, to tell you the truth, Miss Windsor. Your niece is wonderful, but I never thought any girl living could settle me as soon as this. She is wonderful, though.”
Clara saw in the picture the young man gazing intently at Selma Windsor. “You must have looked much like her when you were a girl,” he said.
“Yes, I think I did,” replied Selma.
Then Clara saw the two make what was apparently an involuntary movement, and Selma had kissed the young man, and he had held her for a second like a lover.
Then Clara did close her eyes. She remembered when it was all over except the fervent good-byes and kind wishes which the two exchanged. Clara heard the door close behind the boy. She heard Selma leave the drawing-room, and soon, in the now fast-fading light, she saw her talking with Adam over the flower-garden in which she was to have her perennial blooms when spring and summer came again.
Clara seized her opportunity. She made her retreat, all unseen, to her own room. When later she and Selma met at dinner everything was as usual. After dinner they had a pleasant evening. The two ladies played a game of Patience.
Nothing more which savored of the mysterious happened during Clara's visit. She remained until the quarantine at Noble's was lifted. She enjoyed herself thoroughly.
She visited Selma again rather often, spending week-ends. They were closer friends than they had ever been, and Clara never knew the explanation of what she had unwittingly seen and heard. It suited her obvious mind better to believe that a niece of Selma's had really been in the house and had a love-affair, and for some unexplainable reason had been concealed from her. She had not the imagination to conceive of the other possibility—that some characters, like some flowers, may have within themselves the power of perennial bloom, if only for an hour or a day, and may revisit, with such rapture of tenderness that it hardly belongs to earth, their own youth and spring-time, in the never-dying garden of love and sweet romance.