As he thought of the quiet Quaker neighborhood from which he came, and contrasted these singular and powerfully defined personalities with the "men of weight" and the demure maidens of his acquaintance, Ben's blood tingled with a sense of the bigness and strangeness of the greater America. The West was no longer a nation; it was a world. To be in it at last was a delight as well as an education.
Bertha, on her part, felt no strangeness in her position. Her marriage was a logical outcome of her life and surroundings. The incomprehensible lay in the shining women about her. Their ideas of life, their comment, puzzled her. Their clothes were of a kind which her own money could buy, but their manners, their grace of speech, their gestures, came of something besides money. Mrs. Crego was especially formidable, and made her feel the inadequacy of the black gown which she had thought very fine when she selected it, ready made, in a Denver store. She did not know that Mrs. Crego had dressed "very simply," at the suggestion of her hostess; but she did feel a certain condescension of manner, even in Alice, and was glad the Captain absorbed so much of the table-talk.
Her time of trial came when the ladies rose and, at Mrs. Congdon's suggestion, returned to the porch, leaving the men to finish their cigars. Not one of Ben's little courtesies towards the women escaped her. His acquiescence, Congdon's tone of exaggerated respect, Crego's compliments, were all new to her, and in a certain sense she resented them. She doubted their sincerity a little, notwithstanding their grateful charm.
Alice took her to herself and this was a great relief; for she feared Mrs. Crego's sharp tongue, and was not entirely sure of her hostess.
Laying a slim hand on her arm, the Eastern girl began: "I am fascinated by you, Mrs. Haney. You have had such an interesting life, and you have such an opportunity for doing good."
Bertha looked at her in blank surprise. "What do you mean?"
"With your great wealth you can accomplish so much. Had you thought of that?"
"No, I hadn't." The answer was blunt. "I've been so busy getting settled and looking after the Captain, I haven't had time to think of anything else."
"Oh, of course; but by and by you'll begin to look about you for things to help—I mean hospitals and charities, and all that. The only time when I envy great wealth is when I see some wrong which money can right. Mr. Fordyce is a lawyer, but not a very famous one—he's only twenty-eight; and while we are likely to have all we really need, we can't begin to do what we'd like to do for others. I suppose Mrs. Congdon has told you of us?" "Where do you live?"
"We live in Chester, but Mr. Fordyce has an office in Philadelphia. We have been engaged a long time, but I couldn't think of marrying while I was so ill. I'm afraid I stayed so long that not even this climate can help me."
This was indeed Bertha's conviction, and her untact-ful silence said as much. Therefore, Alice hastened on to other more general topics. She was very sprightly, but Bertha maintained a determined silence through it all, quite unable to understand the girl's confidences.
When the men came out Alice took Haney to herself, and they seemed to enjoy each other's society very keenly; indeed, their mutual absorption became so complete that Ben remarked upon it to Bertha. "Miss Heath has been crazy to meet your husband, Mrs. Haney. His adventurous life appeals to her, as to me, very deeply. We don't mean to be offensive, but to us you seem typical of the West."
What he said at this time made less impression on her than the way in which he spoke. The light of an electric street-lamp fell upon his face, revealing its charming lines. On his fine hand a ring gleamed. Autumn insects were singing sleepily in the grass and from the trees. The laughter of girls came from the dusk of neighboring lawns, and over all descended the magical light of a harvest moon, flecking the surface of the little garden with shadows almost as definite as those cast by the flaming white globes of the street-lamps. It is on such nights that the heart of youth expands with longing and sadness.
Crego and Congdon fell into hot argument (their usual method of conversation), leaving the young people to themselves, and, Ben with intent to provoke the grave little wife to laughter, told a funny story which reflected on Congdon's improvidence.
Bertha was really grateful, for she felt herself at a great disadvantage among these fluent and interesting folk, who talked like the characters in novels. Their jests, their comment, meant little to her; but their gestures, their graceful attitudes, their courtesies to each other, meant much. They were something more than polite; they were considerate in a way which showed their thoughtfulness to be deeply grounded in habitual action. They used slang, but they used it as a garnish, not as a habit of speech. Expressions which she had read in books, but had never before heard spoken, flowed from their lips. Their sentences were built up for effect; in Crego's case this was more or less expected, but the phrases of Fordyce and Congdon were still more disconcerting. The art of their stories was a revelation of the neatness and precision of cultivated speech.
When Mrs. Congdon led the way back into the house Ben stepped to Alice's side, saying, in a low tone: "I hope you haven't taken a chill. I beg your pardon, dearest; I should have watched you more closely."
Once within-doors Mrs. Congdon insisted on Ben's singing, which he did with smiling readiness, expressing, however, a profound ignorance of music. "I never take my songs as seriously as my friends seem to do," he explained to Bertha. "Music with me is a gift rather than an acquirement."
His voice was indeed fresh and sweet, and he sang— as Bertha had never heard any one sing—certain love ballads, whose despairing cadences were made the more profoundly piercing, someway, by his happy boyish face and handsomely clothed and powerful figure. "'But I and my True Love Will Never Meet Again!'" seemed to be a fatalistic cry rather than a wail of sadness as it came from his lips, but its melody sank deep into the girl's heart. She sat in rigid absorption, her eyes fixed upon the splendid young singer as a child looks upon some new and complicated toy. The grace with which he pronounced his words, the spread of his splendid chest, his easy pose, his self-depreciating shrugs enthralled her. Surely this was one of the young princes of the earth. His voice came to her freighted with the passion of ideal manhood.