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CHAPTER EIGHT


Since thinness of skin seems to stand an immediate though unhappy corollary to blueness of blood, Theodora Lydia Lorillard Hayden, being an aristocrat, even if one under protest, found herself without that indurated armor which protects her humbler fellow-beings from the buffets and shocks of fate. So her spirit still winced at the thought of what she had passed through. Her body still alternately flushed with indignation and chilled with a tangle of fears. Something, she knew, was about to happen, was bound to happen. Yet what this was she had neither the power nor the inclination to fathom. She merely waited, sure only of the recurring waves of desolation which beat upon her soul. She even struggled to escape from this denuding loneliness, the next morning, by trying to lose herself in her work. But so small and trivial did that work now stand to her that it seemed like trying to bury her bruised and burning body in a bird-bath.

Yet by both temperament and habit she was averse to passivity. She hated the thought of sitting back in vague but enveloping apprehension of the unknown. She reached a point, in fact, where she would have been willing to see the blue deliver its bolt, where she would have welcomed, for the sheer relief of action, the end of that deluding interregnum of silence.

She started nervously, none the less, when her telephone bell broke the silence, an hour later, for that shrill of sound suddenly translated itself into something as ominous as the starting-gong of undefined combat. She even hesitated, for a moment, as to whether or not she would answer that call. But besides being tired of silence and indecision she was a person of habitual promptitude in movement. So temperament in the end asserted itself. With a deep breath, she took the receiver from its hook and answered the call.

"This is William Shotwell, the senior member of the firm of Shotwell, Attridge and Bannister, speaking," a suave and dignified voice announced over the wire, once she had acknowledged her identity. "And I've been wondering, Miss Hayden, if it would be convenient for you to drop down to my office some time this afternoon for a short conference?"

"And what would the nature and object of that conference be?" inquired Teddie, as coolly as she was able.

"That, I'm afraid, is a matter it would be inexpedient to discuss over the telephone," was the none too tranquillizing response. "But I might mention that the client whose interests I am compelled to look after in this case is Mr. Raoul Uhlan, the well-known portrait-painter."

A cold chill crept slowly up through Teddie 's body.

"I really don't think it would be possible for me to come down to your office," she said in an exceptionally controlled voice. She was going to add "Either this afternoon or any other afternoon," but instinct told her to suppress the impulse.

"In that case," continued the persistently suave voice, "perhaps it would be advisable for me to run up to see you, so that there may be no undue loss of time."

Teddie wavered, for all too recent events had been combining to test the metal of her emancipation. Yet disturbed as she may have been, she was not without still undrained reservoirs of courage.

"Yes, that might be better," she finally admitted.

"I shall be up within an hour," was the crisp ultimatum with which the brief colloquy was concluded.

And Teddie, reverting to her pretense of working, felt more than ever alone in the world. Life seemed emptier than on the day she had learned her curate had married the Chautauqua singer, emptier even than that black day when the butler, acting under orders from above-stairs, had drowned her mongrel pup for merely eating the tapestry off a library Chesterfield. And her new environment, as she stared about the high-ceilinged studio, seemed to stand as bald as that denuded Chesterfield had stood, as destitute of padded graces and relieving softnesses, an empty and ugly skeleton, a thing of obtruding bones quite barren of comfort.

It accordingly relieved Teddie not a little, when Mr. William Shotwell arrived, to find him quite urbane and fatherly, although he did seem to survey her somewhat bald-looking studio with a momentary frown of perplexity. Then, removing his pince-nez, he was at pains to remind her that he had met that estimable lady, her mother, during his activities as an officer of the Cooperative Social Settlement Society, and had dined with her equally estimable father three years before at the annual banquet of the Astronomical Club, and stood in no way ignorant of the position and prestige which her family might claim both in the Tuxedo colony and the City itself. He appeared so reluctant to come to the point, in fact, that the none-too-patient Teddie was compelled to prod him on a bit. And even then he seemed to hesitate so long that Teddie, with a sinking heart, began to wonder if Raoul Uhlan had passed away from his injuries and she was about to be indicted as a murderess.

Seeing that sharp look of distress in her eyes, the attorney for the plaintiff became more urbane than ever, and protested that from the first he had advocated adjustment of some sort, a quiet and respectable settlement out of court that would cast no reflection on a family as prominent as hers and would obviate, of course, a distressing and perhaps humiliating campaign of publicity.

"I'll be greatly obliged," cried Teddie, shouldered over the brink of patience, "if you'll tell me just what you're driving at."

"I'm driving at this," responded William Shotwell, with a slight evaporation of urbanity and a corresponding hardening of face-lines: "my client, Raoul Uhlan, is now under the care of a doctor, under the care of two doctors, I might add, as the result of an assault which he sustained in this studio some twenty-four hours ago."

"Oh!" said Teddie, with the quite familiar feeling of a miscreant being called up for reproof.

"That assault was condoned, and, I am given to understand, was personally instigated and abetted by you, Miss Hayden," continued the enemy. "Mr. Uhlan is not only a gentleman of high social and professional standing, but is to-day one of the best-paid portrait-painters in America. Through the injuries which he sustained in this assault, I find, he is unable to execute a commission for the portrait of one of Pittsburgh's most prominent millionaires, before the latter sails for Europe. And through that, I regret to inform you, he has sustained a direct loss of exactly twelve thousand dollars."

A tempered sigh of relief escaped Teddie. She had expected something much worse, something much more difficult of adjustment.

"Well, if that's all that's worrying him," she remarked, "I'll be quite willing to make his loss good to him."

The aged attorney, as he sat massaging his bony knuckles, saw that the picking was good. So he could afford to become fatherly again.

"I may as well be frank with you, Miss Hayden, and make it clear from the outset that involved with this claim is one for a corresponding amount based on the personal injuries which Mr. Uhlan has received, injuries which, so far as medical science seems able to determine, give every promise of proving permanent. And there is a further claim of one thousand dollars for costs and medical services, which establishes the total claims at a round figure of twenty-five thousand dollars."

Teddie, who had sat watching him with rather solemn eyes, somewhat startled the sedate William Shotwell by a brief but scornful laugh.

"So that was rather an expensive thump on the nose, wasn't it?" she observed, with the last of her meekness taking wing. For it began to dawn on her, ignorant as she was of the meaning of money, just what they were trying to do to her.

"I am not prepared to disagree with you," admitted her enemy, not without acerbity.

"And did he tell you just what he was doing when he got that thump on the nose?" demanded Teddie, with slowly rising indignation.

"He was doing nothing, apparently, which demanded his—his being maimed for life," the man of the law responded with dignity.

"He wasn't maimed for life," declared Teddie, with the last of her desolation gone, "but he got exactly what he deserved."

"That, of course, is a matter not for us but for the courts to decide," remarked William Shotwell, with a lugubrious shake of the head.

"Then what's the use of us talking about it now?" demanded Teddie, with a glance at her unfinished sketch of the Macauley Mission by Moonlight.

"It was merely to save you pain," remarked her benefactor as he rose from his chair.

"It seems rather an expensive anesthetic," observed Teddie, "at twenty-five thousand dollars a whiff!"

"Am I to understand, then, that you intend to contest this claim?" demanded the man of law, taking up his hat.

Teddie swung about on him, with a little flush of anger on her magnolia-white cheeks. Then, for once in her life, discretion put a hand on the sleeve of impulse. About her rebellious young body she felt the phantasmal jaws of her Uncle Charlton's waffle-iron coming closer and closer together.

"I must decline to enter into any discussion of the matter until I have seen my attorney," she said with dignity. It was what was usually said, she remembered, at all such junctures.

"Then might I inquire just who your attorney is?" inquired William Shotwell.

And Teddie's dignity, for a moment, betrayed serious evidences of collapsing. She had no attorney. She didn't even know of any attorney. But she couldn't afford to betray her isolation.

"You will hear from him in due time," she said with what was plainly a valedictory smile, as she preceded her persecutor to the door.

But her persecutor exhibited no signs of taking his departure. Instead, he stepped closer, seeming to suffer some mysterious inward deliquescence as he studied her with a sympathetic if slightly watery eye.

"My dear girl," he softly intoned, with one hand stretched out in her direction, "as a friend of your family—and I trust I may regard myself as such—but more as a friend of your own, I am compelled to say that I think you are taking the wrong course in this. I know whereof I speak. You are too young, too innocent, too—er—too sweet, to be dragged without knowing what you have to face into the brutalities and humiliations of litigation like this. Indeed, my child, I think too much of you, of your——"

"Good afternoon," interrupted Teddie with that rising inflection which can make two innocent words so unmistakably dismissive. For Teddie was worried. For a moment or two, indeed, she felt terribly afraid that he was going to kiss her. And during the last day or so, she remembered, there had been altogether too much of that sort of thing. "Good afternoon," she repeated with frappéd finality, as she opened the door and swung it wide, with her back against the wall.

She stood there, even after he had bowed himself pompously out, with a frown of perplexity on her smooth young brow and a weight on her troubled young heart. She felt like a harried front-liner whose supports have failed to come up. She felt like a thirty-footer being pounded by a big and brutal Atlantic. She felt like a hothouse orchid that had been blown out of a coupelet window and was being trampled on by all the heels and run over by all the wheels of Fifth Avenue.

She was awakened from that little reverie of self-pity by the repeated shrill of her telephone bell. So she crossed wearily to her desk and took up the receiver.

"This is Ruby Reamer speakin'," said the voice over its thread of metal, "and I guess I've got considerable speakin' to do with you."

"About what?" somewhat indifferently inquired Teddie.

"About my Gunnie," was the prompt and shrill-noted reply. "I want 'o know just what call you've got to come between Gunboat and me after we've been going together for a year and a half! I want 'o know what right, just b'cause you 're rotten with money, you've got to turn a poor boy's head and have him say the things that Gunnie's just been sayin' to me! I want——"

"Ruby," interrupted Teddie, steadying herself, "you are saying things yourself that are utterly ridiculous. I haven't either the intention or the desire to come in any way whatever between you and the young gentleman you speak of as Gunnie. I——"

"Then just why were you usin' me, me of all people, to make a date with him not more than twenty-four hours ago!" demanded the irate voice over the wire. "And if there's nothin' to that, just why is he runnin' round in your car to-day?"

"In my car?" echoed Teddie.

"Yes, and bumpin' into a Fifth Avenue bus with it and havin' the ink sleuths from the canary-colored evenin' papers comin' and frightenin' his poor old mother into a nervous breakdown?"

It took a little time for Teddie to digest this.

"But, my dear girl," she finally explained, "your Gunnie has no more claim on that car of mine than he has on me."

"Well, he thinks he has. And he's so sure of it he's even been advertisin' that you know he has. And I've been goin' with Gunnie long enough to realize that that boy never told a lie in his life."

This declaration of faith in Gunboat Dorgan was followed by a moment or two of unbroken silence.

"Ruby," finally called out the bewildered girl at the telephone, "I want you to come here. I want to see you. I must see you at once."

"From the way things are breakin'," clearly and coldly announced the lady on the other end of the wire, "I don't think it's me you want to see. You'd better do your talkin' to my lawyer!"

"Ruby!" called the girl at the desk.

But the wire brought no answer to that repeated call, and Teddie hung up the receiver. She placed it slowly and carefully on its hook and sat staring at the cadmium tinted wall, with a look of helpless protest on her bewildered young face. And for the second time she found herself face to face with a forlorn and seemingly fruitless survey of her resources.

Once or twice, in her desperation, she was even tempted to pack up and scurry off to Hot Springs in the wake of her Uncle Chandler. But that, she remembered, would be more than cowardly. It would be foolish, for it would be nothing more than a momentary evasion of the inevitable. And besides being a sacrifice of dignity, it would stand as an advertisement of guilt.

Then out of a world that seemed as cold and empty as a glacial moraine came one faint glow of hope. On the gray sky-line of a Sahara of uncertainties appeared a tremulous palm-frond or two. For Teddie,in her misery, had suddenly taken thought of Gerald Rhindelander West. Gerry, she remembered with a gulp, was not only one of her own set, but also a corporation lawyer. It wouldn't be easy to explain things to Gerry. It would, in fact, involve sacrifices of pride which made her wince without knowing it. But she had talked about having an attorney. And it was her duty to find one.