For some reason the day had been most wearing, and to dress for dinner was an effort. But she made herself as lovely as she could for Ben's sake—and for the sake of the Congdons with whom they were to dine. "We are to be alone," Lee had 'phoned, "for I want to talk with you like a Dutch aunt."
Alice knew as well as if Lee had spoken it what was coming. They were going to protest against Ben's intimacy with the Haneys. And as soon as they were in their carriage she warned Ben. "You want to be on your guard to-night. The Congdons are going to advise you against accepting this retainer from Captain Haney."
He was too happy to do more than jokingly reply: "Too late! Bribe is in hand, and money mostly spent. What I want to ask you is more important. When are we to start our ' love in a cottage' idyl ? It really looks possible now. Isn't it beautiful to think we can really keep house out here and pay our way?"
"Oh, Ben!"—there was a wail in her voice—"I don't seem to gain as I should! I'm completely tired out to-night."
He was all concern instantly, and putting his arm about her, tenderly exclaimed: "Dear heart, it was my fault. You shouldn't have gone down at all."
"But don't you see how revealing it is? If I can't go down to your office to superintend the arrangement of a few rugs and chairs, how can I keep a house—your house—in order? No, dear boy, we mustn't think of it—not now; perhaps by spring, but certainly not now."
He was both saddened and perplexed, and yet his disappointment was not so keen as it had been when she had put off their wedding-day the first time, and when she turned a white, despairing face up to him, saying wildly: "Oh, Benny, why don't you give me up and marry some nice young girl?" He only took her in his arms and shut her lips with a kiss.
"No more such talk," he said; "you're tired and a little morbid. Lee's lecture will do you good. I hope she gets after you for letting yourself down into these detestable moods."
Signs of their troubled ride were on their faces as they entered the Congdon sitting-room (which also served as hall), and Lee put her arm about her guest with compassion uppermost in her heart. "You don't look a bit well to-night. What have you been doing?"
"Nothing. That's the worst of it. If I'd been scrubbing floors or cleaning silver I'd feel that I had a right to be tired, but I've only been down to Ben's new office overseeing the laying of three rugs. I didn't lift a hand, and now look at me!"
When they were in the privacy of Lee's dressing-room the hostess studied her guest critically. "You've something on your mind," she announced.
"I always have something on my mind."
"I know you do, and if you're ever going to get well you must get it off your mind. Do I know what it is?"
"If you don't, you ought to. Since this retainer from Captain Haney, Ben is urging an immediate marriage."
Lee Congdon was an unconquerable realist and truth-teller, and she could not at the moment utter any other than a divergent word. " We got you here to-night to talk over that Haney business. We don't entirely like it; at least, I don't. Frank has no responsibility, never had. Haney is not a bad man, and she isn't a bit low or common; but folks think she is. And it's going to hurt you both, I'm afraid, to have anything to do socially with them."
"Oh, socially!" Alice cried, in disgust. "I thought we were coming to the big and boundless West, where such things don't count."
"You have, and you haven't. The Springs is a little of the West, a little of England, and a good deal of the East. It's a foolish town in some ways, and I warn you lots of nice people will find it inconvenient to call on you for fear of meeting Mrs. Haney." "Oh, rats!"
"Absurd, isn't it? I'm glad you put on that dress. You don't look tired now; your cheeks are blazing." "With wrath—not health." "At me?"
"Oh no. At these people who assume to dictate whom we shall know."
"They don't do that, dear; they only think you're paying too much for Ben's new office. But come down to dinner; we'll fight this out later."
Congdon was outspoken in his admiration. "By the Lord, the climate is getting in its work! Why, Alice, you're radiant. You're ten years younger to-night!"
"That's because I'm angry."
"Your townspeople. Lee has made me feel as if I were the club-bar topic to-night."
Congdon became solemn—grim as a brazen image. "Mrs. Congdon, you've been making some of your tactful remarks."
"I have not. I've been talking straight from the shoulder, as I advise you to do."
He capitulated. " After the turkey. Come on, Ben, we're in for a lecture by the Professor-Doctor Lee Congdon."
Under the influence of his humor they took seats about the pretty, candle-lit table as gay a group as the city held—apparently; for Alice was of that temperament which responds quickly and buoyantly to humor, and Frank Congdon never took anything quite seriously —except his portrait-painting. He could do a cake-walk with any one, but he would not discuss art with the unsympathetic. He always had a new story to tell of his amazing experience. Something was always happening to him. Other men come and go up and down the whole earth without an adventure, but no sooner does Frank Congdon slip out of the door than the fates — generally the humorous ones — pounce upon him. Drunken women claim him for a son. Sheriffs arrest him in the mountains and transport him long distances, only to find him the wrong man. Confused Swedish mothers give him babies to hold in the cars, and rush out just in time to get left. And these tales lose nothing in his recount of them.
In the present instance he took up half the dinner-hour with a description of his latest mishap. A neighbor's cook had suddenly gone mad, and had charged him with putting a spell over her. "Somebody calls me up on the 'phone this morning: 'Is this Frank Congdon?' . . . 'Yes.' . . . 'Hello, Frank, this is Henry. What you been doing to my cook?' . . . 'What does she say I have?' . . . 'Says you've hypnotized her—put a spell over her.' ... 'I pass.' . . . 'Fact; she's crazy as a bed-bug, and we can't do a thing with her—and she was such sl good girl. How could you, Frank?' ... 'I never saw the creature in my life.' . . . 'Well, you'll see her now. You're to come right over and remove this spell, or we won't have any breakfast.'" Here Congdon - looked solemnly round at his guests. "Now wouldn't that convulse a body ? I didn't know her name; on my word, I couldn't remember how she looked. But my curiosity was roused, and over I toddled. It was all true. Karen was in the kitchen, armed with the jigsaw bread-knife and calling for me. Henry was all for my appearing suddenly at the door a la Svengali, and with a majestic wave of the hand lift the cloud from her brain. 'Not on your tintype,' says I; 'I guess this is a case for the police. If I put this spell on that hell-cat it must have been by "absent treatment" during sleep, and it's me to my studio again.' . . . 'No you don't,' said Henry. 'You stay till this incubus is cleared away. It ain't reasonable to suppose that an ignorant maid like this is going to charge a complete stranger with a crime of this kind unless—'