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XI

MRS. HALKET

The social life of Avalon, with which Mrs. Halket had threatened him, engulfed Floyd, Unaccustomed to being sought after, he had for a time a pleased wonder over the universal desire for his company, and not even a winter of almost nightly dining out dulled the edge of expectation and excitement with which he set forth upon each small social adventure. But his unsuspicious gratification over his success and his equally unsophisticated conception of a universal, fundamental kindliness did not endure for very long. He had for a partner at the first cotillion of the winter a poisonous young woman who supplied him with information about others in the room.

"It's funny," she observed. "I did n't think Mr. Bergen would get on the list this year. But there he is. I always like to see him and Sally March at the same place; it's so interesting."

"Why?" aaked Floyd. "Why should n't Bergen have been on the list?"

"Well, you know he's not exactly one of us. Nobody knows much about his father and mother; why, people never even heard of them. They live in a little house off somewhere; they have n't any money. But because Mr. Bergen was such a football player at college some people ask him round. But I did n't suppose he'd get on this list."

"He's a good-looking fellow," said Floyd. "Is n't he a good fellow, as well?"

"I don't suppose he is, quite," replied the girl. "Anyway, he's not one of our crowd. And Sally March can't bear him. You see, she started out by being quite nice to him—for you know how he did distinguish himself at college, and that gave him a start here. Sally invited him to several things—I suppose as much as anything to see what he was like. Girls have to do that sometimes, you know. And then the first thing—he disgusted her by being in love with her. You can imagine how indignant she felt. Inviting a person to your house is one thing—but letting him care for you—when he's a certain kind of person—is another. Sally does n't speak to him now; it's always interesting to see them at the same place together."

"It must be," Floyd said grimly. "But he is n't one of us. Who are the people that make up 'us'? Would I be counted in? Don't be afraid of hurting my feelings."

She was not very intelligent, and she was so absorbed in her own point of view that she quite missed his irony.

"Oh dear, yes," she laughed gayly. "Of course you're in. Why, did n't you see the list of the Hundred and Fifty?"

"The what?"

"The Hundred and Fifty. Avalon is n't big enough, like New York, to have a Four Hundred; so last winter Tom Gary made out a list of the Hundred and Fifty, arranging them in order of precedence—and printed it in his Gazette; you know he owns the Avalon Social Gazette. He did it more as a joke than anything else, I guess; but it was a pretty fair list and it made some people awfully mad because their names were left off, and others because they came behind somebody else. Tom likes to get up a joke like that; he has the greatest amount of nerve."

"Nerve!" cried Floyd. "I call it impudence. And the fellow that did that is considered one of 'us'?" He stared across the room at Tom Gary, who was gracefully amusing an audience by decking himself with all the favors within reach.

"Oh, Tom can do anything, you know; he's so entertaining," the girl explained. "Besides," she laughed, "you ought n't to feel irritated; your grandfather's name headed the list."

"Indeed!" said Floyd. "They kept it from me. How did Mr. Gary classify himself?"

"Oh, he came in among the first ten. That was fair enough; he is so important socially—always getting up things, you know.—That little girl in pink there—she thinks Tom Gary is a perfect basilisk—is n't that what you call it? He left her out of the list—and she's silly enough to be afraid of him; she'd like more than any one else to be counted in. But of course she does n't belong. She's one of the nouveaux riches. I feel halfway sorry for her; she's trying so hard. She and I have the same sewing-school every Saturday morning down at the North Side Settlement, so I see a good deal of her; it's her mother that is trying to push her into everything."

"You teach a sewing-class?" Floyd asked, with some surprise that she should do anything so worthy.

"Yes, every Saturday morning. All the girls do something now; I hate it, but you don't like to drop out of things. Sally March has gone in for nursing; she told me she had to give an old beggar woman a bath the other day; I thought that was about the limit."

Floyd asked with some curiosity,—

"Who are a few of the Hundred and Fifty—besides 'us'?"

"Oh, most of the people in this room. It's easier to pick out those who are n't," she answered, and she enumerated some of the interlopers.

She thought it queer that after what she had just told him he should at the first opportunity dance with the little girl in pink.

Floyd asked his grandmother the next day if she knew a man named Tom Gary.

"Oh, yes," she answered. "Everybody knows him."

"Would you invite him to your house?"

"I have done so."

"And you know what he is?"

"I don't think Tom Gary has very much character to conceal," replied Mrs. Halket. "Yes, I know all about him. But you must remember, Floyd, that his mother is an old friend of mine, and that we've always been very intimate; and if I slighted Tom, it would make trouble between us, and not only between us, but with the Tracys and the Shaws; all the Gary connection are so clannish. I invite him only to the big things, where it would be rude to leave anybody out."

"I don't see," said Floyd in his most downright manner, "how you can have him in the house."

"One must make compromises," Mrs. Halket defended herself. "Besides, in society, it is gratuitous to look beyond manners and into morals."

"It's his manners I object to most. Well, I hope you're not going to give anything 'big.' What snobs girls are, are n't they!"

"It is very hard for a girl to escape being a snob," admitted Mrs. Halket. "But why that observation?"

Floyd repeated to her some of the comments of his partner of the night before. "I won't tell you who she is," he said, "but I guess a good many girls are like that."

"Yes, I'm afraid that at a certain age most of them are snobs," his grandmother replied. "But also most of them outgrow it. Don't judge them as harshly as they judge others. That's part of being young and having been brought up in ignorance of everything except a few paltry external details. In spite of all that, when you come to know them, you will find that some of them, anyway, are pretty nice girls."

"But this one was vulgar as well as snobbish," Floyd insisted.

"Then I think merely that you were unusually unfortunate," declared his grandmother, with spirit. "The girls of this town are as nice as those of any other. It is true that there is a greater variety; society here is changing very fast, the place is growing, and new people are appearing with sudden large fortunes which they have n't been trained to use. But my experience is that most people can acquire some cultivation—enough to be tolerable—in a remarkably short time. And you must n't take a hypercritical attitude about everybody; it won't do; it won't do."

"No," said Floyd stoutly; "it's just the hypercritical attitude in others that I'm protesting against. I went and danced with the little girl in pink who I had been told was nouveau riche; and she was a very attractive, nice little girl—much nicer than the one who had told me about her. I think I have a mission in society—to be the wallflowers' friend."

He said it laughingly, but his grandmother seized his wrists in distress.

"Floyd, don't do it, don't," she cried. "If there is anything dangerous and deplorable it is for a man to start out on a career of conscious chivalry."

"I will do it," declared Floyd, smiting his hands together with gleeful emphasis. Then, throwing himself into melodramatic posture, he exclaimed, "I, leader of the Junior Hundred and Fifty, do pledge myself to be the wallflowers' friend."

"If you really are—and won't have anything to do with the nice attractive girls like Marion Clark and Helen Foster and May Pennington," said Mrs. Halket, "I shall be seriously displeased. But I'm not much afraid. You're too human and normal a boy."

Her sense of security was reasonable enough, but she knew nothing of Floyd's feeling for Lydia, which materially altered his outlook upon the world of girls. With a standard in his own heart to which he was silently loyal, the prettiest and most popular left him as cold as the homely and dull; not one of them awakened in him the ardor of pursuit. And if kindness of heart alone would not have prompted the attentions he showed to the forgotten, a certain cynical amusement and pride aided this devotion; he saw that where he turned, others followed, and that if at a party he singled out the plainest girl for his conspicuous attention, within an hour men would be nagging her for dances. The popular girls were piqued and hurt by his neglect of them, but he caused the heart of many a desponding mother to beat high with hope. From the gay months of this winter he derived a compassionate friendliness for those whom he had rescued from neglect and disappointment, a contemptuous friendliness for the young men of society who had shown an eagerness to follow his lead. His grandmother was disturbed and puzzled by the obvious sincerity of his indifference. She knew him to be an emotional boy, a boy who had seen little of girls, a boy who in this first year ought to be even perilously susceptible to feminine charm.

She invited to dinner the eight girls whom she considered the most attractive in Avalon; she placed Floyd between Marion Clark and May Pennington. He called them Marion and May, they called him Floyd, because they had played children's games together twelve years before. In reality Floyd knew them hardly more than if he had just been introduced. Marion made a remark to this effect: "You certainly don't know me," she said, "and I don't believe you know Mrs. Evans."

"Mrs. Who?" asked Floyd.

"Mrs. Evans,—sitting next to you."

May Pennington, hearing the words, turned her head.

"Why, if there is n't my old friend Mrs. Morse!" she exclaimed; and at that both girls giggled a moment to Floyd's bewilderment.

"What's the joke?" he said to Marion.

"Oh, something foolish," she answered. "I suppose it's mean to tell—but I will. Do you know Jim Morse and Lawrence Evans? Well, May thinks Mr. Evans is the biggest stick of all the men in Avalon, and I know that Mr. Morse is the biggest, and several times we've tried to convince each other. A few days ago somebody called me up on the telephone and said, 'Is that you, Mrs. Morse?' and I answered and said, 'Why, it's Mrs. Evans, is n't it?' And then we stood there giggling. And we've been calling each other those names ever since. And when we're alone together, we try to act out the parts. But you mustn't tell anybody this."

"Not even Morse, or Evans?" Floyd asked seriously. "What is it that makes a man a stick?"

"Well," replied Marion, "if instead of saying 'Not even Morse, or Evans' you had said, 'No, indeed, I won't tell a soul,' you would have been a stick."

"Heavens!" exclaimed Floyd. "What a narrow escape! How absolute the girl is!"

"It's the only safe thing for a girl to be," replied Marion calmly. " What do you think of girls? I always like to hear what a man who knows nothing about us thinks of us."

"Why do you ask me?" inquired Floyd.

"Dear me! I never saw a man yet who would n't pretend that he knew girls like a book. You are the vainest creatures. Now you know what I think of you; make a fair exchange."

"All right," said Floyd. "I think that girls are terribly hypercritical and prejudiced and sarcastic. And that means, of course, that they are rather shallow and ignorant. At the same time, they are so bright and clever and self-possessed that a man is usually much more afraid of them than he has any right to be, and very much influenced by what he thinks they will think. They are nearly all snobs—until they grow older—and the men who play round with them most are the worst snobs among the men. According to novels and poetry, girls ought to be very tender-hearted, but I believe they take more pleasure in being cruel than boys. I guess they improve as they grow older. A girl of thirty-two is likely to be quite nice."

"I don't wonder you've avoided us," said Marion.

"I was just generalizing," answered Floyd. "Nothing personal."

"Generalizing from my remarks about Mr. Evans and Mr. Morse?"

"Oh, nothing personal."

"But that is the kind of thing in girls that you criticise?" She pressed him honestly for an answer.

"Well, yes. One kind of thing."

"But we only do it in fun."

"You asked me what I thought of girls," said Floyd. "But you can't draw me into an argument. I was n't accusing anybody."

"You say that just as if you meant, 'If the cap fits, put it on.'"

"But anyway," Floyd reminded her, "my opinion was that of one who knew nothing about the subject."

"Oh, yes—but I have to admit that what you say is more or less true. Only, we don't mean to be unkind, or hurt people's feelings; if we're funny at their expense, we try to arrange it so that it's behind their backs. That does n't make it any better, does it? And I suppose it does n't really help much if we have quite a lot of kind feeling that we keep to ourselves?" She spoke a little wistfully—in a manner quite out of keeping with her usual positive tone. "All girls are n't the way you think them. The very best of us is n't here this winter."

"Who is she?" asked Floyd.

"Lydia Dunbar—I mean, Lydia Lee; I can't think of her as married. You'd never find her making fun of a man because he was a stick."

"I know her; she is a nice girl," said Floyd. Then he looked into Marion Clark's face and laughed. "But after all, she is n't the only nice girl,* Marion."

She was a self-possessed young person, not to be upset by an unexpected compliment, however much it might please her. "Oh, is that meant for me?" she laughed. "Some time, maybe, I'll have a trade for you."

After dinner, when the men withdrew to the smoking-room and the Madeira had been passed round with the cigars, Floyd received a lesson from his grandfather in the art of hospitality. He knew beforehand just how the conversation would go; at all the dinners for young people given by Mrs. Halket, the Colonel pursued the same tactics; he had even tutored Floyd in the art. "It's always an awkward moment when the men are left alone; the host must then embrace all the guests in his conversation—turn quickly from one to another—bringing them all in—and so get things started briskly. It's his duty to show an interest in each individual—to be mindful of them all." So now he began, shooting out his questions with a brisk, masterful, rising inflection—"Well, Mr. Bradford, and what is the largest single fee on record in the legal profession in Avalon?" "They say that in the Lovell case Mr. Scrooby got one hundred and fifty thousand dollars," replied Bradford. "A hundred and fifty thousand! Dr. Torrence, what has the medical profession to say to that? Not much, eh? No use in curing people only to ruin 'em. Ha, ha! that's a good humanitarian view. Mr. Carr, painters haven't got to asking a hundred and fifty thousand dollars yet for a portrait, have they? But the architects nowadays seem pretty prosperous, Mr. Gryson. Mr. Harlan, I guess you and I will both agree that the iron and steel business, though it has n't such brilliant moments as the law, is a tolerably satisfactory sort of grind."

Thus the old gentleman passed rapidly from one to another of the company, turning his head with each sentence toward some new face. Floyd was drearily aware that this methodical display of geniality was rather overpowering and that the young men sat, as it were, blasted in its path. He had observed the same effects and had heard the same form if not actually the same substance of address at other dinners that winter; it was therefore embarrassing when the Colonel plumed himself on his social aplomb—he used the word—and bade Floyd take notice of the way in which a host could put his guests at their ease.

Late that evening when all the guests had gone, Mrs. Halket called Floyd into her sitting-room.

"Floyd," she said, looking at him, as he thought, queerly, "tell me about Mabel Dinsmore."

"Tell you about her?" he asked, puzzled. "What is there to tell? Why?"

"You have been seeing her a good deal this winter?"

"Yes, at dances and so on."

"She was one of the girls that you devoted yourself to out of chivalry?"

Floyd laughed. "If you want to call it that. She never had many partners, and some of the girls even did n't seem friendly to her;—do you remember my telling you of how afraid she was of Tom Gary, because he had n't put her into the Hundred and Fifty? She's a timid, nice little thing. Why?"

"And because she has had so few partners, you've been filling in the gaps—devoting yourself to her more than to any other girl?"

"For a while I did. But it's a funny thing. When you devote yourself to a girl that way, by and by other fellows begin to think there must be something in her and come up to investigate; and so gradually Miss Dinsmore's got quite popular and has n't needed my special care for some time."

"So you've given it to some other unfortunate?"

"Yes," said Floyd, with an uncomfortable laugh. "What's the trouble?"

"Oh, a tiresome woman," said Mrs. Halket. "I don't know that it's worth while to bother you with it—but to show you the peril of deliberate chivalry, I can't resist. Mrs. Dinsmore is stupid and not very well bred. This afternoon she called on me, and after working round to the subject of you and what a standard you would have to live up to, she expressed a fear that you were—were rather inconstant in your friendships. Her daughter had been led to think—your interest seemed to be such—that—that—well, that you cared somewhat for her, and the thought had made her quite happy; and then suddenly you ceased to show an interest—she could not imagine in what way she had been to blame; and she has felt hurt and grieved ever since."

"Oh Lord!" cried Floyd, exasperated and distressed. "What did you say?"

"I was n't able to spare her feelings as much as I should have liked; one can't with a person of that kind. I said that I was sure you had no idea of being in love with any one,—you were hardly more than a boy anyway,—and if you had been attentive to her daughter, it had very likely been because of your kindness of heart; and if you had discontinued your attentions, it had probably been because some one else appeared who needed them even more. Of course I did not put it as brutally as that, but I conveyed to her what was, I am glad to know, the truth."

"What ought I to do?" exclaimed Hoyd, sincerely wretched. "It seems as if I ought to go to the girl—"

"Oh dear, no!" cried his grandmother. "Let it drop, and free yourself gently but firmly from any other entanglements that you may have got into through compassion. It was only because it was you, Floyd, that this happened. Your friend, Mr. Bergen, who was here to-night, might have acted toward Miss Dinsmore exactly as you have done, and she would not have felt grieved and hurt; the dream of love would not have been awakened in her young heart, and her mother would not have gone to Mrs. Bergen with a complaint. Mr. Bergen has neither money nor position: you have both; it makes some difference with the girls themselves, and a great deal with their mothers."

"It's sickening then," declared Floyd. "Do you mean that they're all mercenary? Why, take Tom Bergen and me. He's a fellow with a lot to him, a gentleman, who's making his own way, and who has a good future ahead of him at the law; good-looking too. But they cut him out right off; and it's everything for me—because I've got the Steel Works behind me, and never mind what else I may be!"

"It is reprehensible but human," replied Mrs. Halket. "After all, if you philosophize a little about such a view, you feel more indulgent toward the person who acts on it. Mrs. Dinsmore has experienced 'love in a cottage,' and probably has no very idyllic recollections; she knows what it is to rub along with one servant, or even none, and keep up appearances and worry about the next month's rent. What has she progressed for if her daughter is simply to drop back and retrace the same old tedious ground? The Dinsmores are not so extravagantly rich; it's a matter of some importance to them whom Mabel marries.

"I will drop the whole thing," Floyd said with decision,—"society I mean,—if I have to feel that I am so different from other fellows, and must inspire such different feelings. I don't like it; it's undignified and humiliating, and it makes me ashamed of people."

"Oh," answered his grandmother, "you need not feel so about society, if you only go into it as other young men do, and not as the chevalier of plain ladies in distress."

"Besides," continued Floyd virtuously, "it's a great waste of time. I've got as much good out of it already as I'm likely to get, and I must learn to omit the unessential. It's time I was thinking about getting things accomplished; this sort of play does n't help at all."

"To choose the right woman for wife may help a good deal," observed Mrs. Halket; "and going into society should enable you to do that."

Floyd was silent. His grandmother looked at him with her friendly gray eyes and a little smile, but he did not respond, as she hoped he might do, with some shy confidence. She drew near him, and putting one arm about his neck, stood leaning on his shoulder, with her forehead against his cheek.

"I hope you don't think me hard and worldly for the way I've been talking, Floyd," she said. "I don't by any means believe that the women we know are simply on the lookout for advantageous bargains in husbands. Because several women would perhaps like to marry their daughters to my Floyd is no reason for me to attribute purely sordid motives to them. Indeed I should n't be sorry to hear that you had a special interest in some one of the girls you know—"

Floyd shook his head. "No, Grandmother, there's nobody," he answered.

"Well," said Mrs. Halket, "it's a very good thing for a young man who can afford it to marry young. Marriage is like life insurance; the longer a man puts it off, the higher premium he has to pay. He can't help feeling in the end that he is a loser for delaying. For one thing, his children don't grow up with him, and when he's sixty and his boy John is twenty, he'll think wistfully, 'Now that John's coming of age, if I were only forty-five! I could be playing tennis with him, and swimming races with him, and going shooting with him, instead of sitting, gouty and rheumatic, and just looking on.' Besides, the man and the woman ought to marry while they're still in the adaptable age; otherwise there will be unhappy friction in the necessary readjustments of life. And finally—well, the only real happiness in the world, to my way of thinking, is married happiness. We're here for a short time at best, and while we're here, don't let us economize on whatever real happiness lies within our reach."

"You want to lose me in a home of my own!" said Floyd reproachfully.

"I don't think of losing you," Mrs. Halket replied. "In what I say—though it's all true—I'm partly urged on by selfishness. You will hardly understand it, Floyd; but when a woman gets to be as old as I am, she does n't want any loose ends in the affairs of those she cares for. She's like the child who says at the end of the story, 'But you forgot to tell what happened to the bad man after he was arrested and put into prison.' It seems so unsatisfactory to die without an idea of what sort of a life the person you most love is going to have—or who is the person that he will most love. I consider it almost bad art."

"But when you talk about dying—" Floyd protested.

"Ah, I'm an old woman, quite an old woman," his grandmother reminded him with some pride. "Seventy-one my next birthday, Floyd,—seventy-one. Can't you imagine how comfortable it would make such an old person feel to see you settled and happy? Nothing to trouble one then with disturbing speculations and questionings—just let one go off peacefully dozing. Well,—to keep interest in life awake to the end—we want that of course—there might perhaps be a little great-grandchild. Floyd," she said, and it surprised him, looking up, to see that there were tears in her eyes,—"yes, it would really please me very much to have a little great-grandchild."

Her appeal, that he had at first been disposed to regard lightly, he found suddenly touching.

"Grandmother," he said, "I'll have to tell you. I would n't have any prejudice against getting married. But the girl I cared about—she married another fellow. It was Lydia Dunbar. I—I can't see any other girl."

"Oh!" There was pain in the gentle exclamation. "Forgive me, Floyd. I did n't know—why did you never tell me? I might have helped."

"No. It's not the sort of thing a man likes to talk about—better to keep it to himself. But you see that's why—I can't at once oblige you." He tried to cheer himself and her with a flippancy.

"Not at once, Floyd." He felt her embrace tightening with a fresh tenderness. "But it does no good to keep an old wound open. One disappointment must not wither a life. If a man can't have the first woman of his choice, it's better that he should take the second, and if he misses her, the third. Nine times out of ten, he'll be congratulating himself over his luck in marrying as he did. Turn your mind away from Lydia; stop thinking about what you've lost and begin thinking about what's left. She is a nice girl, I know—but are n't there any others that you like especially well?"

"Not in that way. But I suppose there are three or four that strike me as more interesting than the average," Floyd admitted.

"That's it!" cried his grandmother with enthusiasm. "Three or four! Now you pick on one of them—any one—and say to yourself—'Now suppose I actually were thinking of that girl for a wife! How would she do?' Ask yourself that every time you see her. Take the most attractive girl you know—and just bear that in mind with regard to her. Love does n't always spring up full-grown in the human breast. It depends on all kinds of things—suggestion and care and nourishment. You might take any of the girls who were here to-night—May Pennington or Marion Clark, for instance; Marion's pretty and lovable and attractive—and I have an idea you'd find her responsive; I was watching her at dinner. Well, I would recommend this just as an experiment."

For answer, Floyd laughed and shook his head. "Ah no. Grandmother, I can't do it that way; I know how it once came to me, and if I'm ever to have it again it's got to come the same way. I can't force it and manufacture it; maybe some people can, but they could n't if they'd ever once been taken with it spontaneously. And if you don't mind, I think I'd better draw out of the social racket. I've seen enough; this Dinsmore affair is a little too much; and I can make more of my time spending it with men than with girls.—I'm afraid I'm disappointing you, Grandmother."

"No, Floyd," she answered. "You may sometimes puzzle me—and surprise me—but I don't fear that you will ever disappoint me."

"That is very handsome of you," he said, and he kissed her.

"But, Floyd," she continued, "let me urge one thing. I'm sorry—you will believe how sorry—for the way you must feel—over Lydia. But—don't get too sorry for yourself. Don't get to the point where you take a melancholy pleasure in your disappointment and your faithfulness. Don't keep thinking of your one true love. If some spring day you should suddenly find a shy tiny green sprout in some corner of you, don't pounce on it and yell, 'Why, what a miserable little sprout you are compared to that lovely palm-garden that I had to transplant awhile ago! How did you sneak in! Away with you!' No, don't treat it like that, Floyd. Be hospitable to the faintest little inclination toward love—if it's just the vaguest, that comes from hearing the birds sing and being outdoors in spring. It's good for the spirit, Floyd—and if something in a girl's voice or eyes comes to you and asks for admittance to the place of pleasant feelings, let it in; don't try to hold the door against it. And some time, perhaps, you'll find some girl whose voice you've let in—and then, first thing you know, you'll have to let in that look she has in her eyes—and next her laugh—and then, it's funny, but you had n't noticed before what pretty hands she has, and of course there must be a place set aside for them—and when you've admitted eyes and voice and laugh and hands to the place of pleasant feelings, you've just about taken in the girl."

"Grandmother!" cried Floyd, holding her off at arms' length. "You're not a man; how do you know so much about it?"

"I've lived a long, long time," she answered. "I'm a very old woman. Seventy-one, Floyd—seventy-one!"