ONE stormy February fternoon, some two months later, the wet snow smothered the air and lay, sodden and gray, on the steaming streets. Early twilight lurked in the sky, and the street-lamps, giving out a dim, yellow haze, made the half-lights more confusing.
In Mrs. Durham's rooms the lamps were not yet lighted. In the dusk the four occupants of easy chairs luxuriated in comfortable companionship. Three cigarette-lights punctuated the mysterious penumbra—Morton's, Victoria's, and Sonia Palintzka, Countess Krempelkin's. Mrs. Durham did not indulge; instead she chewed her cork-tipped penholder.
"Must you go to Washington on Wednesday, Sonia?" inquired Victoria, beseechingly. "You've only been here a week."
"I'm afraid so," the countess answered, smiling. "You see, since my older sister married, there's no one to do the honors, and that sort of thing. If it weren't for that, I should still be in Paris, or next door to your studio. But there is not a female soul at the embassy, and my father is becoming restive."
"Oh, dear!" said Victoria.
"Now suppose," Sonia continued, "you and Mrs. Durham pack your boxes and come with me for a month or two, or three—what do you say, old lady?"
The old lady ceased chewing the penholder. "Well, if Victoria will pull out for a week or so, I will—but I haven't any clothes to speak of—"
"Don't speak of them, then."
"You're doing me out of my pet lounging-place," Morton growled. "What am I to do for my woman's club?"
"You might come, too. Aren't you jealous? Aren't you afraid to let Victoria be seen among all our good-looking, uniformed Russians?" demanded Sonia, as one with a grievance.
"No," broke in Mrs. Durham, with annoyance in her tone; "he isn't—he isn't jealous at all. Did you ever see two people so beautifully suited, who simply don't want to get married? They won't fall in love—it's disgusting!"
"I rather like it myself," said Victoria; "it saves such lots of bother. Now, it will all arrange itself quite simply. Mort, there, will marry some fool or other who will hate me, and forbid him to drop in except on 'Thursdays from four till six,' and he'll dote on her and accept the situation. Then, I'll probably marry somebody who will beat me, and I shall like it, and it will make Morty so mad he won't be able to come around any more. Then we'll each think how nice the other one was all our lives."
"I can't marry a boy," Morton protested. "And if any one tried to beat Victoria, it wouldn't be Victoria who would go to the hospital. The fact of the matter is, the only thing for her is a nice, slender, yellow, fuzzy-haired pet from Madame Despard's kennels. She could ruffle it and love it, and go right on her rejoiceful way without worrying it or herself or any one else."
"Oh, don't!" exclaimed Sonia. "I can fairly see myself kicking the thing out of the way whenever I should come into the room."
"Why worry about the inevitable," murmured Victoria, as she lit another cigarette and flung the finished one dexterously on the hearth. "I never cared sentimentally, that is, but once. He was a nice fellow, and rather clever; but he didn't think I liked him and was too proud to inquire, and I—well, I was too proud to inform him—so—well—that's all—"
"Who was it?" demanded Mrs. Durham, bristling with curiosity. "And you, Victoria! I should have expected you to come right out and speak your mind."
"So should I," said Victoria; "but somehow I wouldn't work that way—there, must have been something wrong with the machinery."
"I think he was an idiot!" exclaimed Sonia.
"I think so too," said Victoria.
"Here is one of the incongruities of life," Morton observed, regretfully. "Three stunning women gathered together, and not a romance among them."
"But I've just finished one," Mrs. Durham murmured, modestly.
"Oh," said Victoria, "it's finished, is it? You've been working like a beaver on that book. What is the title to be?"
Mrs. Durham bit her pen, and an expression only to be classed as "grin" came over her face—the grin of a bad, small child—but the expression was lost in the dusk.
"It's to be called 'Whitewash,'" she drawled.
"You're not!" exclaimed Victoria.
"Yes, I am," said Mrs. Durham, "and you're all in it—every one."
"I call that a mean advantage to take of one's friends. And who, pray, is the heroine?"
"I shall leave that to the discriminating public. But I can assure you the portraiture is faithful, and I've written the story verbatim. I haven't added a thing—in fact, I've left out some."
"Thank heavens!" sighed Morton. "What have you cut out?"
"Well, Madame Château-Lamion's final performance. It was so spectacular that the modern novel couldn't stand for it unless I set the whole story back a few hundred years."
"But," objected Sonia, "from our Russian standpoint there's nothing so remarkable in that. It was a well-executed vengeance. The lady goes to the prison to identify the former maid—which she does, and promptly shoots the woman. Then foolish doctors declare the lady insane, and lock her up. I think she showed determination and good sense. She knew that the court, at best, would only condemn the creature as an accessory. The countess wanted blood for blood, and, besides, she believed she was fulfilling a Christian obligation—which she probably was. That whole episode appears to me far more plausible than the usual run of facts."
"It's picturesque enough, of course," said Victoria, "but you know it's melodrama, pure and simple, and the Muse doesn't want to be classed by the unthinking as rantish. What would Madame Despard's souls say to such goriness and undue display of the untender passion?"
"How do you end it, then?" asked Sonia.
"If you will light a lamp, or turn on a light, I'll read you the last few pages, provided, Morty, that you go away. I haven't the face to speak out before you. I can't help feeling I've taken an unfair advantage—particularly of your affairs. I feel guilty—but, with Victoria, I will just brazen it out."
Mrs. Durham arose, fumbled in her escritoire, and returned with several closely written sheets. She settled herself cosily beside her lamp, and waved a good-by to Morton, who departed reluctantly and under strong compulsion.
"This is the first half of the last chapter," she began:
"The babel of voices had reached a climax, the flower and palm-embowered rooms were jammed to suffocation with monkeys, parrots, and peacocks—your pardon, I mean well-dressed men, charming débutantes, and glittering matrons.—Tea, consisting of every variety of drinkable liquid, was being served by despairing waiters, struggling to fray a passage between velvet trains and lace flounces.
"A lady in black and sables, standing near the mantelpiece, looked on with interest. Beside her lounged an elderly gentleman in immaculate frock coat and waistcoat, regarding the crowd through a pince-nez that gave him an aristocratic hauteur of expression, for it refused to stay on if he lowered the angle of his head. The lady was no other than the Marchioness of Kilgare, formerly Fanny Colcourt of New York, returned now for the first time in many years.
"'That girl by the punch-bowl,' explained Mr. Belgrave Gerome (the former fiancé and present Virgil of the coroneted Fanny), that girl is Bella Claxmore, Belle Carter's daughter,—you remember her, don't you? The tall woman in chinchilla and gray is Mortmeer Dent's second wife.'
"'Really,' exclaimed Lady Kilgare, as she elevated her lorgnette with a well-bred insolence. 'How could Mortmeer marry such a frump after suffering the loss of that sweet bit of Dresden—Molly!'
"'A million or so,' said Gerome.
"'Ah, I see—trade, of course. Forgive me, I was in London for the moment. What was it? Cutlery, cookstoves, or calico?'
"'Patent medicine, I believe. She was a Bently, of "Bently's Best Bilious Bitters."'
"'Ah, I see. Poor Mortmeer!'
"'That lean young man is Toppy Van Deuxer, 2d. Toppy, 1st, married Clara Taguerra—you must recall her. She was that immensely rich Cuban planter's daughter that the Holders chaperoned and married off. I heard that they received a very nice per cent. on the "dot."'
"'I remember her,' the marchioness nodded. 'She was a charmingly pretty thing. Who is the personage in green? I seem to recognize her.'
"'That's Mrs. Trevy-Portman.'
"'Good heavens! I must dissemble. I knew her ever so slightly as Patty Winston, and now she is chasing me every day—title, I suppose—leaves cards and flowers. I hope she won't see me,—now my back is toward her. Dear me, what a pretty girl!' This last remark was caused by the entrance of Philippa, ravishingly gowned and more charming than ever; with her loomed Mrs. Ford, gorgeous in cadet blue and astrachan.
"'That,' said the guide, as he acknowledged Philippa's bow, 'is Miss Ford and her aunt. The old lady is a pusher and a scrouger, but the girl is really a very delightful young person, a refreshing change from the average. She is not over vain, she's good-hearted, she's well-read, and has excellent taste, also can talk intelligently—quite a rara avis.'
"'Really? She seems very popular; people are fairly falling over one another to speak with her.'
"'She is just home from Paris, you see; been away three months—it's quite a story; do you want to hear it?'
"'Yes,—that's a nice frock.'
"'Well, some little time ago, a foreigner came here, named Valdeck. He had managed somehow to obtain letters from the New Orleans Pointues—'
"'The Château-Lamion affair—oh, yes,—is that the Miss Ford? Heavens! yes, it was a nine days wonder even in London,—quite sensational. Dear me—'
"'Well, you know poor Philippa was taken in by the charitable side of her nature. Incidentally Valdeck told I don't know what ridiculous scandal about Victoria Claudel, who, you know, happened to recognize him for what he was—a burglar. He wanted to gain time, and in this ingenious way made a most excellent spy of the innocent Philippa. Of course you know the extraordinary dénouement—Valdeck's suicide, the murder of the maid and Madame Lamion's final incarceration "à Charenton."
"When Philippa found out the real state of affairs, she was wild that she should have helped to hurt her friend's character, for, girl-like, she had talked, and the whole set was quite agog over it. She made the fullest possible reparation; insisted on seeing the people to whom she had repeated the slander, and was most contrite and humble. But Victoria Claudel never would forgive her, and Morton Conway, whom we all thought engaged to Philippa, has quite dropped away. People say Victoria took him deliberately—they are inseparable now.
"'So that's the Miss Ford,' said the marchioness again. 'I don't wonder that they make such a buzz over her. It seems odd what you tell me of Miss Claudel. I never knew her to bear malice. And as to Mr. Conway, they have always been friends. She used to show me his letters when we were in Paris.
"'You know her, then?'
"'Naturally. She is the Countess Palintzka's most intimate friend.'
"'Ah!' said Gerome, with a slightly deferential tone.
"His companion looked up amused. 'And why not, pray? She's the best born American I know. She could use her arms by real right if she chose, and show quarterings enough to make her a chanoinesse; but she doesn't think of anything but her work.'
"'Dear me, yes. You've heard of Camille Descartes, haven't you? Of course. Well, you don't mean to tell me that you didn't know that was her nom de plume! She writes in French, you know. But this Miss Ford—I can't imagine her anything but a beautiful injured angel. Look at those violet eyes of hers! But then, of course, Victoria must have been exasperated.'
"'I can assure you Victoria is very generally blamed,' said Gerome. 'Miss Ford was very ill immediately after the affair, and every one says it was brain fever, brought on by Miss Claudel's refusal to see her. She left for Europe quite broken in health, and this is her first appearance since her return. Town Topics had it last week that her engagement was rumored to young Lord Pelham—'
"'Dopey Pelham!' exclaimed Lady Kilgare, 'impossible! He is a little, bald-headed, dried-up rat of a man, with a stutter, you know, and the worst manners. To be sure he has the title and a sweetly pretty country house with no end of gee-gees, and the old place in Devonshire, but he's—dear me—quite the simpleton!
"'Has that Trevey-Portman woman gone? Am I safe if I turn my face toward the table? Yes? Ah, that's better. Why, there's Celia van Cordlier—I must speak with her!' and with that she dismissed Miss Ford and her affairs from her aristocratic mind."
A silence as Mrs. Durham ceased reading.
"You don't approve?" she asked, with raised eyebrows.
"No," said Victoria, "I don't! The whole thing is horridly personal."
"But I've changed all the names," pleaded the authoress. "I read them to you with the real ones just for a lark."
"As if everybody couldn't place the thing!"
"But I've made you very nice, Victoria."
"And how have you treated me?" demanded Sonia.
"Excellently,—I've only been truthful."
"Thank goodness for that," Victoria groaned. "You have saved us and punished yourself. Your reputation as a realist will be ruined, and we shall escape. I breathe again—and so would Philippa, if she knew. Her beautiful coat of immaculate whitewash will remain 'unspotted'—by the world."
"I disapprove of slang and puns, but in this instance we'll let it pass," said Mrs. Durham.