BY ALICE DUER MILLER
COMING from opposite sides of Fifth Avenue, they were caught between the two lines of traffic. It was a showery April afternoon, and both of them suddenly moving their umbrellas, they found themselves gazing into each other's eyes. They were total strangers—that is, they had been an instant before, but sometimes a glance is really a meeting, and in that rather prolonged instant their eyes had been avenues to their spirits.
It was, perhaps, this obvious quality of a sort of inevitable, basic intimacy that led Miss Littel to say to herself that she must have met the man somewhere before. In her arrogant judgment it was impossible that any man should look at her with so frank and friendly a glance unless he had been properly introduced. Wasn't he, she wondered, that Philadelphia friend of her brother's?
Then the mounted policeman held up his hand, the carriages and motors stopped with clattering hoofs and squeaking brakes, and these two people pursued their ways to opposite sides of the avenue. Arrived at the curb, both turned; Miss Littel, of course, only to hail an omnibus, but he, no less obviously, only to observe Miss Littel. Again their eyes met; she saw him plunge forward into the maelstrom, and as he did so she realized that never in all her life had she set eyes on him before.
The 'bus drew up before her. "Up Riverside!" shouted the conductor. She neither spoke nor moved. "Up Riverside!" he said again. Still she was silent. The conductor rang the bell, and the 'bus moved on.
Turning now in a sort of panic, Miss Littel hurried down the side street—Thirty-sixth Street, to be exact—but she had not gone far when she heard a pleasantly modulated voice beside her saying:
"If no one has ever spoken to you before without being introduced, you may be sure it was because they did not know how, and not because they did not want to. It is immensely difficult, isn't it, to give in that first moment the impression that I recognize all your standards—and that that is why I speak to you, just as I should speak if we met in somebody's drawing-room."
"You seem to forget," said Miss Littel, "that in such a case we should at least have been properly introduced."
"But what," he returned, "is an introduction? One's hostess often knows nothing but one's name, and sometimes not even that. It's no guarantee whatsoever, whereas it seems to me the fact that I have the courage, the perception, and the adroitness to speak to you like this ought in a way to count in my favor."
"My parents would not think so," said Miss Littel, grimly.
Now that the first moment was over, she was not in the least terrified. She was accustomed to find that most social situations were within her own control, and she had no fear that this was an exception. She intended immediately to dismiss him, but she could not help being entertained at his plausibility and ease.
"Oh, parents," he returned. "How can any one tell what they think? They have to pretend to think so many things they really don't, which must be a bore for them, and certainly is to us. Nothing is really entertaining in this world except honesty—realism, some people call it. Only it is so difficult to practise. I have made some progress in it. You, very little."
"Then," said Miss Littel, "let me initiate my education in that direction by telling you quite honestly that I wish you would leave me."
"Very well," he answered, "I will if you will answer me one question. Do you want me to go because I am, as a person, disagreeable to you, or because you regard our meeting as too irregular?"
Miss Littel was silent, inwardly a little amused at the dilemma he had put her in. Of course he was not disagreeable to her—quite the reverse. It was wholly the irregularity, not so much of his conduct as of her own, which was troubling her. Feeling that her instant of silence was weakening her position, she decided on a change of plan. As a girl she had been brought up in the country with a group of cousins. She had been an adept at all those outdoor games where strategy, speed, and quick decision are necessary. She now turned suddenly up the steps of a large, solemn, and, to her, utterly unknown house.
"I am going in here," she said.
"I am rather chary of offering advice," said the young man, "and yet I feel I must tell you that you had better not."
"I see," he returned, "that you are ignorant that this house is the up-town branch of the Liquor Dealers' Fraternal Association—an organization which, however laudable in intention, is not the place for young and unprotected women."
Again Miss Littel found herself hesitating, and again she realized that every second of delay weakened her position. Nevertheless she withdrew the hand which she had stretched to ring the bell, and came down the steps.
"I don't know whether you are speaking the truth or not," she said, thoughtfully.
"Ah," he answered, "that is one of your greatest weaknesses. You evidently have not taught yourself to recognize truth. Yet you should be able to tell it just as you tell salt or sugar—by the taste. I, you see, who have devoted some time and attention to the matter, was able to tell that you had no connection whatsoever with that house—of which, by the way, I know nothing at all. And as for the Liquor Dealers' Fraternity, I invented it on the spur of the moment."
"I see," said Miss Littel. "Now it seems to me that you have had a very pleasant fifteen minutes at my expense. You have shown yourself infinitely the cleverer of the two, and I think that ought to content you for the present. You will oblige me very much by leaving me at the next corner."
"What we really need," he is a mutual acquaintance," he replied, "Suppose a respectable old uncle of yours should suddenly come round this corner and turn out to have known me since I was a boy? Wouldn't that be delightful?"
Miss Littel could not help smiling. "Perhaps," she said; "but it seems so unlikely to happen that I must—"
"But why unlikely? Have you no respectable uncles? How about this gentleman approaching now? It is true his gloves are a thought too tight, but otherwise he strikes me as a perfectly possible uncle. I would adopt him myself on very little urging," and he waved his hand at the gentleman, who with a rather dazed look took off his hat as he passed.
"See," cried Miss Littel's companion, "he evidently feels drawn to us. He would serve very well," and he turned and gazed after him wistfully.
All this time they had been walking north, and were now crossing Forty-second Street. Their progress was held up by a south-bound Madison Avenue car, and as they passed, Miss Littel had an inspiration. The conductor had already rung the bells and the car had started, when she stepped, without warning, aboard it, and the motorman suddenly putting on full speed, she was out of her pursuer's grasp before he had time to realize it. For the second time their eyes met squarely, and this time she allowed herself to smile.
She hardly heard the conductor, who was lecturing her on the danger of boarding moving cars; she paid her nickel, saw with pleasure that no one was waiting to get on at Forty-second Street and Park Avenue, and sat down with a sigh of triumph. But just as the car disappeared into the tunnel a disturbing sight flashed upon her vision. The young man was just stepping into a taxicab in front of the hotel, and she gathered from the quick gesture of the chauffeur that he had been urged to run fast.
On emerging from the tunnel she found her fears justified. The taxi-cab was alongside, and as she looked out, he, too, leaned forward and raised his hat.
Two courses were open to her—to stay in or to get out. If she got out, he would of course immediately join her, but if she stayed in she would soon find herself in a district of town of which she was totally ignorant. She decided quickly. At Thirtieth Street she stopped the car and got out. They presently found themselves in Madison Avenue, very nearly where they had started.
"As I was saying," he began, as if nothing had intervened, "what we need is an acquaintance. Now what do you think of this old lady with the lapdog? I will engage to make her remember me in petticoats if you will promise not to run away while I am doing it. I should say: 'Why, grandmother was speaking of you only this morning at breakfast, my dear Mrs.—"
"Listen to me," said Miss Littel. "Do you really intend to refuse to leave me, when I tell you that I prefer that you should?"
"A little while ago you could have done anything with me by using that tone," he answered. "But since then you have attempted very high-handed measures. You have made me run down Forty-second Street and risk my life in a taxi, simply in order to finish my sentence."
Her only answer was to turn abruptly in at the door of an apartment-house which they were passing. She had remembered that a friend of hers lived on the eighth floor. She walked without a word to the elevator, and was relieved to see he did not follow. She had made up her mind that she would explain the situation to her friend and ask to be let out by the servants' entrance, which was on the side street.
But hardly was she within the door of her friend's apartment, and informed that her friend was out, when the elevator-man came panting up to say that her taxicab was waiting. Now Miss Littel had no taxicab, and even the young man had dismissed his many blocks away, but she had no doubt whence this message had come. If now she asked to be let out the side door, it would certainly look as if she were trying to avoid paying her man. This would have required a sort of courage she did not possess. She felt herself coloring with vexation.
She came down thoroughly angry, and would not answer him at all as they again walked north, although he was obviously amusing himself by running on about friendship as modified by metropolitan life. This condition must have lasted for at least ten minutes, when in front of an old-fashioned brownstone house she stopped and faced him.
"In this house," she said, "lives a lady—a friend of my mother's. I do not know her very well, but I admire and respect her, and I am going in to tell her what has happened and to ask her advice as to what I ought to do."
"Let us go in by all means," was his answer.
Miss Littel had not been prepared for this, and the best reply she could think of was: "I should not do that if I were you. The house is full of men-servants."
"No house can be well run without," he replied.
Miss Littel rang the bell and asked if Mrs. Austin was at home. She was expected in at any moment, the butler said; and so Miss Littel, who had made up her mind to wait, entered the drawing-room, followed by the young man.
"Ah," he observed, looking about him. "A Monet, I see, in his earlier and, to my mind, his less interesting manner—"
"You understand, don't you," said Miss Littel, "that I don't intend to speak to you again?"
"In that case," said he, "suppose I read aloud?" and, drawing out a volume apparently at random, he opened it and began to read.
Having announced her intention to remain silent, Miss Littel made no protest. He read simply and well, and she listened for some time as if in a rather perturbed dream.
"I never thought before my death to see
Youth's vision thus made perfect—"
Miss Littel came to with a start. This really wouldn't do at all.
"Don't read me Shelley," she said, crossly. He was nothing if not amenable to suggestion. His next selection showed a complete change, at least of manner.
She listened as if in a perturbed Dream
" Except that heaven had come so near,
So seemed to choose my door,
The distance would not haunt me so:
I had not hoped before.
"But just to hear that grace depart
I never thought to see,
Afflicts me with a double loss;
'Tis lost and lost to me."
He raised his eyes and looked at her seriously over the volume, and at this moment Mrs. Austin entered. She was a woman about fifty, very slim, very vigorous, retaining everything of her great beauty except its bloom.
"My dear Cecilia," she said, "how nice to see you! I didn't know who it was. You did not give Partridge your name. And who is this? My dear child," she added, as an obvious idea occurred to her, "what news have you come to tell me?"
At this suggestion the young man frankly laughed; but Cecilia, who was much too tense to be amused, said:
"Oh, Mrs. Austin, I don't know who he is! That's the trouble. I am dreadfully ashamed, but you must help me. He followed me this morning in Fifth Avenue. At least we met—our eyes met. I could not help that. But where I did make an unforgivable mistake was in not taking the omnibus. I stopped it, and did not get in. Then he joined me. He has not been rude, except that he would not go away. Twice I tried to get away and failed. And so I have come to you."
Mrs. Austin turned toward the young man, and she looked at him very slowly, from the top of his head down to his boots, which happened to be good. She studied his boots for some time from several points of view, moving her head slightly from side to side. And then she looked up at his face again, and said politely:
"And what have you to say for yourself?"
The effect of that glance had been sobering. The young man had probably never felt anything exactly like it before, and he answered with a gravity which had hitherto been lacking in his tone.
"Madam," he said, "the true connoisseur in anything—pictures or precious stones—knows the perfect example at first sight. I was, unfortunately, born with this same sense in regard to people. I know my own infallibility and at the first glance."
"I see," said Mrs. Austin; "and how many times, pray, has this happened to you within the last few months?"
"Once only," said the young man, "and then it was the old Scotch gardener of a friend of mine. He had this same quality of reality—of speaking to the essential part of one's nature. We still correspond, on the subject of predestination, in which, I am sorry to say, he believes. The same thing happened this morning when my eyes met the eyes of this young lady. I knew that great possibilities of some sort opened before us. It was, therefore, intolerably annoying to me to see that she kept allowing the poorer, timider, more conventional side of her nature to triumph—that she could get no further than behaving as if I were a beast of prey. For I need not point out to you, Mrs. Austin, that for the average American the beast-of-prey theory is entirely exploded. Most of us ask merely a little companionship from women, and not very much of that."
"Companionship," answered Mrs. Austin, "is a very general term."
"You, at least," said the young man, "are willing to discuss it. This young lady was not. She attempted, rather clumsily, to run away from me. I might have been willing to withdraw, but I was not willing to be eluded. Who with an atom of spirit would be, if a girl jumped on a car leaving you in the midst of a sentence and made a face at you from the back platform?"
"Oh, I did not make a face," cried Miss Littel.
"She taunted me with a smile, Mrs. Austin, a most provocative smile."
Mrs. Austin, leaning her cheek on her long, thin hand, studied him less hostilely. "You can have no objection to telling me your name," she said.
Miss Littel's eyes brightened with curiosity, but his answer was a surprise.
"I beg your pardon, I have every objection. Are we not able to judge of each other without a ticket? I did not demand this young lady's name before I recognized her value; why must you know mine? Suppose names had never been invented, would not you and I be just the same individuals? No; you must take or leave me as you judge of me. I won't tell you my name."
There was a silence. He and Mrs. Austin exchanged the longest look of all.
"Well," she said, at last, "it's a pity, but I'm afraid you will have to go."
He bowed, took up his hat and umbrella, and left the room. The next instant the front door shut behind him.
Miss Littel ran to the window and watched him walk down the steps and finally disappear round the corner without one backward glance. She had hardly expected such prompt and decisive action. Dropping the curtain with slow hand, she turned to her hostess.
"I am very grateful to you, my dear Mrs. Austin," she said. "But, after all, was it necessary to turn him out of the house?"
"My dear child," answered the elder woman, "you have behaved as the American woman is so apt to behave in a situation of this nature; you had neither prudence enough to avoid it nor courage enough to see it through. You had the spirit to bring on the crisis, and none left to deal with it. Undoubtedly you ought to have taken your omnibus—any well-brought-up young woman would have done so; but having failed in this, you should then have had the insight to treat that young man as a human being—to have taken him home and introduced him to your parents, perhaps. But see what you actually did. You showed him, on the one hand, that you had the profoundest respect for the conventions; and, on the other, that you were willing to break through them for his sake—the most dangerous thing in the world to show to any man. Taking it all together, I think he behaved pretty well. You know, one can't run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. As it is, my dear, you have deprived us both of a pleasant acquaintance."
These words sank into Miss Littel's consciousness. "If I had to do it again—" she began.
"But you haven't," said her friend. "Unhappily such incidents happen but once in a lifetime."
Miss Littel moved again to the window, and after looking carefully up and down the empty street, she observed, "Of course, if he had seriously meant what he said, he would have been willing to tell us his name."
Mrs. Austin smiled. "He would have spoiled a very pretty exit," she said.
Miss Littel now definitely turned from the window. "You will think me very ungrateful," she remarked, with a sort of exasperation of candor, "but I really do wish that in sending him away you had not been quite so—"
"My dear Cecilia," returned the other, "you have submitted your case to arbitration, and must abide by the result. You will find, however, it is usually more satisfactory to settle such matters for yourself. Now come up-stairs with me while I put on my veil, and I will take you home in the motor. This incident is closed."
But as they passed through the hall a small piece of white cardboard on the table attracted their attention.
It was a visiting-card.