"That incident is easily explained. Winchell knew her in Sibley, and though he has undoubtedly followed her over here for love of her, he seems a decent fellow, and I don't believe intends any harm. I will admit her stopping outside his door to talk with him was unconventional, but I can't believe that she was aware of any impropriety in the act. Nevertheless, that did settle the matter with Helen. 'You can dine with them any day if you wish,' she says,'but—' And there the argument rests."
"Of course, you and I can put the matter on a basis of trade courtesy," said Congdon; "but I confess they interest me enormously, and I would like to do them some little favor for their own sakes. Poor Haney will never be more of a man than he is to-day, and that little girl is going to earn all the money she gets before she is done with him."
And so they parted, and Congdon went home to renew the discussion with his wife. "You must call. It's only the decent thing to do, now that the portrait is nearly done," he said.
"I don't mind the calling, Frank," she briskly replied, "and I don't much mind giving a little dinner, but I don't want to get the girl on my mind. She has so much to learn, and I haven't the time nor energy to teach her."
Congdon waved his finger. "Don't you grow pale over that," said he. "That girl's no fool—she's capable of development. She will amaze you yet."
"Well, consider it settled. I'll call this afternoon and ask her to dinner; but don't expect me to advise her and follow her up. Now, who'll we ask to meet her —the Cregos?"
"Yes, I'd thought of them."
"Oh, I know all about it. You needn't stammer. You and Allen are getting a good deal out of the Haneys, and want to be decent in return. Well, I think well of you for it, and I'll do my mite. I'll have young Fordyce in, and Alice; being Quakers and 'plain people,' they won't mind. Ben is crazy to see the rough side of Western life, anyway. Now run away, little boy, and leave the whole business to me."
As Crego had said, the Congdons were privileged characters in the Springs. They were at once haughty with the pride of esthetic cleverness, and humble with the sense of their unworthiness in the wide old-world of art. Lee was contemptuous of wealth when they had a pot of beans in the house, and Frank was imperiously truculent when borrowing ten dollars from a friend or demanding an advance of cash from a prospective patron. They both came of long lines of native American ancestry, and not only felt themselves as good as anybody, but a little better than most. They gave wit for champagne, art instruction for automobile rides, and never-failing good humor for house-room and the blazing fires of roomy hearths.
Mrs. Congdon, of direct Virginian ancestry, was named Lee by a state's-rights mother, who sent her abroad to "study art." She ended by pretending to be a sculptor—and she still did occasionally model a figurine of her friends or her friends' babies; mainly, she was the aider and abettor of her husband, a really clever portrait-painter, whose ill health had driven him from New York to Colorado, and who was making a precarious living in the Springs—precarious for the reason that on bright days he would rather play golf than handle a brush, and on dark days he couldn't see to paint (so he said). In truth, he was not well, and his slender store of strength did not permit him to do as he would. To cover the real seriousness of his case he loudly admitted his laziness and incompetency.
Lee was a devoted wife, and when she realized that his interest in the Haneys was deep and genuine her slight opposition gave way. It meant a couple of thousand dollars to Frank, but money was the least of their troubles—credit seemed to come along when they needed it most, and each of them had become "trustful to the point of idiocy," Mrs. Crego was accustomed to say. Mrs. Crego really took charge of their affairs, and when they needed food helped them to it.
Starting for the Haneys on the street-car that very afternoon, Lee reached the gate just as Bertie was helping Mart into his carriage. There was something so genuine and so touching in this picture of the slender young wife supporting her big and crippled husband that Mrs. Congdon's nerves thrilled and her face softened. Plainly this consideration on the part of Mrs. Haney was habitual and ungrudging.
Bertie, as she faced her caller, saw only a pale little woman with flashing eyes and smiling mouth, whose dress was as neat as a man's and almost as plain (Lee prided herself on not being "artistic" in dress), and so waited for further information.
"How do you do, Mrs. Haney?" Lee began. "I'm Mrs. Congdon."
Bertha threw the rug over Mart's knees before turning to offer her hand. "I'm glad to meet you," she responded, with gravity. "I've seen you on the street."
Lee couldn't quite make out whether this remark was intended for reproach or not, but she went on, quickly: "I was just about to call. Indeed, I came to ask you and Mr. Haney to dine with us on Thursday." She nodded and smiled at Mart, who sat with impassive countenance listening with attention—his piercing eyes making her rather uncomfortable. "We dine at seven. I hope you can come."
Bertha looked up at her husband. "What do you say, Captain?"
"I don't see any objection," he answered, without warmth.
Bertha turned, with still passive countenance. "All right," she said, "we'll be there. Won't you jump in and take a ride with us?"
Lee, burning with mingled flames of resentment and humor, replied: "Thank you, I have another call to make—Thursday, then, at seven o'clock."
"We'll connect. Much obliged," replied Bertha, and sprang into the carriage. "Go ahead, Dan. Good-day, Mrs. Congdon."
Lee stood for an instant in amazement at this easy, not to say indifferent, acceptance of her tremendous offering. "Well, if that isn't cool!" she gasped, and walked on thoughtfully.
Humor dominated her at last, and when she entered Mrs. Crego's house she was flushed with laughter, and recounted the words of the interview with so many subtle interpretations of her own that Mrs. Crego was delighted.
Mrs. Congdon did not spare herself. "Helen, she made me feel like a bill-collector! 'All right,' said she, 'I'll be there,' and left me standing in the middle of the street. You've got to come now, Helen, to preserve my dignity."
"I'm wild to come, really. I want to see what she'll do to us 'professional people.' Maybe she will patronize us too."
When Lee told Frank about it at night he failed to laugh as heartily as she had expected. "That's all very funny, the way you tell it, but as a matter of fact the girl did all she knew. She accepted your invitation and civilly asked you to take a ride. What more could mortal woman proffer?"
"She might have invited me into the house."
"Not at the moment. It was Mart's hour for a drive, and you were interfering with one of her duties. I think she treated you very well."
"Anyhow, she's coming, and so is Helen. It tickled Helen nearly into fits, of course, and she's coming— just to see me 'put to it to manage these wet valley bronchos.'"
"The girl may look like a bronk, but she's got good blood in her. She'll hold her own anywhere " replied Congdon, with conviction.