The intimacy thus established between the Haneys and the Congdon circle furnished the gossip of the " upper ten " with vital material for discussion. Mrs. Crego most decidedly disapproved of their calling, and advised Alice Heath against any further connection with the gambler's wife.
"What good can it possibly lead to? It's only curiosity on your part, and it isn't right to disturb the girl's ideals—if she has any."
To this Alice made no reply, but Ben stoutly defended the young wife. "She would have been as good as any of us with the same education. The poor little thing has had to work since her childhood, and that has cut off all training. As for Haney, he isn't a bad man. I suppose he argues that as some one must keep a gambling-house, it is best to have a good man do it."
The sense of being to a degree freed from the ordinary restraints of social life made Alice very tolerant. But, as it chanced, they did not go out the next day; indeed, it was several days before they again rode up to the Haney gate. They found Bertha dressed and ready for them (as she had been each morning), and when she came out to them her heart was glowing and her face alight.
"We've come to see the new horse!" called Ben.
Haney was at the gate with a smile of satisfaction on his face when the horse was brought round. "There is a steed worth the riding!" he boasted. "I told Bertie to get the best. I would not have her riding a ' skate' like that one the other morning. She'll keep ye company this day."
Ben exclaimed, with admiration: "I see you know horse-kind, Captain!"
"I do," responded Haney. "And now be off, and remember you take dinner with us to-day."
As they moved away he took his customary seat on the porch to wait for their return—patient in outward seeming, but lonely and a little resentful within.
Bertha suggested a ride up the Bear Canon, but Ben was quick to say: "That is too far, I fear, for Alice."
Bertha's glance at Alice revealed again, but in clearer lines, the sickness and weariness and the hopelessness of the elder woman's face, and Ben's consideration and watchful care of her took something out of the ride. The rapture, the careless gayety, of their first gallop was gone.
An impatience rose in the girl's soul. With the cruelty of youth she unconsciously accused the other, resenting the interference with her own plans and pleasures. She felt cheated because Ben permitted himself no racing, no circuits with her—and yet outwardly and in reality she was deeply sympathetic. She pitied while she accused and resented.
Their ride was short and unsatisfying. But as her guests remained for luncheon—Bertha was learning to call it that—the outing ended in a rare delight; for while "the two invalids" sat on the piazza, Bertha showed Ben her garden and stables, and the greenhouses she was building, and this hour was one of almost perfect peace.
Ben, once outside Alice's depressing presence, grew gay and single-minded in his enjoyment of his hostess and her surroundings.
"It must seem like Aladdin and his wonderful lamp to you," he said, as they stood watching the workmen putting in the glass to the greenhouses. "All you have to do is rub it, and miracles happen."
"That's just what it does," she answered, with gravity. "I give myself a knock in the head every time I write out a check, just to see if I am awake; but I can see I'll get used to it in time. That's the funny thing: a feller can get used to anything. The trouble with me is I don't know what to do nor how to do it. I ought to be learning things: I ought to go to school, but I can't. You see, I had to buckle down to work before I finished the high-school, and I don't know a thing except running a hotel. I wish you'd give me a few pointers."
"I'll do what I can, but I am afraid my advice wouldn't be very pertinent. What can I help you on?"
"Well, I don't know. Alice"—she spoke the word with a little hesitation—"said something to me the other day about charity, and all that. Well, now, I'm helping mother's church—a little—and I'm helping up at Sibley, but I don't know what else to do. I suppose I ought to do some good with the money that's rolling in on us. I've got my house pretty well stocked and fitted up, and I'm about stumped. I can't sit down, and just eat and sleep, ride and drive, can I?"
"There are women who do that and nothing else."
"Well, I can't. I've always had something to do. I like to play as well as the next one, but I don't believe I could spend my time here just sitting around."
"It's no small matter to run such a house as this."
"Well, there's something in that; but the point is, what's it all for? We're alone in it most of the time, and it don't seem right. Another thing, most of our old friends fight shy of us now. I invite 'em in, and they come, but they don't stay—they don't seem comfortable. They are all wall-eyed to see the place once, but they don't say 'hello' as they used to. And the people next door here—well, they don't neighbor at all. You and the Congdons are the only people, except a few of mother's church folks, who even call. Now, what's the matter?"
He was now quite as serious as she. " I suppose your own folks feel that your wealth is a barrier."
"Why should they? I treat 'em just the same as ever. I'm not the kind to go back on my friends because I'm Marshall Haney's wife. If I'd earned this money I might put on airs; but I haven't—I've just married into it."
"How did you come to do it?" he asked, quickly— almost accusingly.
Her tone again faltered, and her eyes fell. "Well, it was like this: Mother was sick and getting old, and I was kind o' tired and discouraged, and the Captain was mighty nice and kind to us; and then I— And so when the word came that he was hurt—and wanted me—I went." Here she looked up at him. "And I did right, don't you think so?"
He was twisting a twig in his fingers. "Oh yes, certainly. You've been a great comfort to him. You saved his life probably, and he really is a fine man in spite of—" He broke off.