"No; that's the remarkable thing. She's reading history and biography. Isn't it too bad she couldn't have had Bryn Mawr or Vassar? I've advised her to have in some one of the university people to coach her. I've suggested Miss Franklin. I wish you'd uphold me in it."
He had never told Alice of the talk in the garden that day, nor of the look in Bertha's eyes which decided him to assume the position of mentor as well as legal adviser, and he did not now intimate more than a casual supervision of her reading. As a matter of fact, he was directing her daily life as absolutely as a husband— more absolutely, in fact; for she obeyed his slightest wish or most minute suggestion. He withheld these facts from Alice, not from any perceived disloyalty to her, but from his feeling that his advice to Bertha was paid for and professional, and therefore not to be spread wide before any one. He did not conceal anything; he merely outlined without filling in the bare suggestion.
He not merely gave his fair client lists of books, he talked with her upon them, and so far as he was able spoke seriously and conscientiously about them. She seized upon his suggestion, and got Miss Franklin, one of the teachers of the schools, to come in now and again of an evening to-help her, and, being fond of music, she bought a piano and began to take lessons. All of which (Lee Congdon would have said) threatened to render her commonplace and uninteresting; but Alice Heath felt quite differently about that.
"No; the more that girl gets, the more she'll have, Lee. As Ben says, she's the kind that if she were a boy would turn out a big self-made man. That's a little twisted as to grammar, but you see what I mean. Sex is one of the ultimate mysteries, isn't it ? Now, why didn't I inherit my father's ability?"
"You did, only you never use it. But this girl hasn't your father to draw from."
"No; but her father was an educated man—a civil engineer, she tells me, who came out here for one of the big railroads. He was something of an inventor, too. that's the reason he died poor—they nearly all do."
"But the mother?"
"Well, she's weak and tiresome now, but she's by no means common. She's broken by hard work, but she's naturally refined. No, the girl isn't so bad; it's the frightful girlhood she endured in that little hotel. I think it's wonderful that she could associate with the people she did—barbers and railway hands, and all that —and be what she is to-day. If she had married a man like young Bennett, for example, she would have gone far."
"She can't go far with Haney chained to her wrist," said the blunt Mrs. Congdon.
"But think what will happen when she is his widow!"
"And his legatee!"
"She'll cut a wide swath. She's going to be handsome."
They had reached a danger-point, for Lee was on the verge of saying something about Ben's infatuation; but she didn't, and Alice knew why she didn't, for she asked, rather abruptly: "Won't you come over Thursday night? I'm going to take the Haneys to dinner at the hotel." She flushed under Lee's gaze. "It's really Bennie's party, and I'm going to make it as pretty as I can."
" Alice, I don't understand you. Why do you do this ?"
"Because I must. She and the Captain are going East on a visit, and Ben wants to give them a 'jolly send-off,' as he calls it. Besides, I like the girl."
Lee mused in silence for a few moments. "I guess you're right. Of course I'll come. Who else will?"
"Several of Ben's new friends and the Cregos—"
"Not the missus?"
"Yes; she comes because she's consumed with curiosity. Oh, it really promises to be smart!" "
Congdon came in just in time to hear these words. "Who promises to be smart—Mrs. Haney?"
The women laughed. "Another person going about with a mind full of Mrs. Haney."
"Well, why not? I just passed her on the street in her new dog-cart, and she was ripping good to look at. Say, that girl is too swift for this town. You people better keep close to her if you want to know what's doing in gowns and cloaks. Did you ever see such development in your life? Say, girls, I always believed in clothes. But, my eyes! I didn't think cotton and wool and leather could make such a change. Who is putting her on?"
"The cart is a new development," said Alice. "I hope it wasn't yellow?"
"Well, it was."
"The Captain was in it?"
"Not on your life. The Captain was at home in the easy-chair by the fire."
The women looked at each other. Then Lee said: "The beginning of the end. Poor old Captain."
Congdon was loyalty itself. "Now don't you jump at conclusions. Yes, she pulled up, and I went out to see her. She gave me her hand in the old way, and said; 'Isn't this a joke. The Captain ordered it from Chicago. He saw a picture in one of my magazines of a girl driving one of these things, and here I am. You don't think they'll charge me a special license, do you?' Oh, she's all right. Don't you worry about her. Then she said: 'What I don't like about it is the Captain can't ride in it. I'm not going to keep it,' she said."
"That was for effect," remarked Lee.
"Don't be nasty, Mrs. Congdon. You can't look into her big serious eyes and say such things."
Lee looked at Alice. "Oh, well, if it comes down to 'big serious eyes,' then all criticism is valueless. Aren't men curious? Character is nothing, intellect is nothing—it's all a question of whether we're good-lookin' or not. Sometimes I'm discouraged. An artist husband is so hard to please."
"I didn't use to be, dovey," he replied, with a mischievous gleam.
" He means when he took me. I'm used to his slurs, just think, Alice, I accepted this man fresh from Paris, with all his sins of omission and commission upon him, and now he reviles me to my teeth." She patted the hand he slipped round her neck. "Tell us more about Mrs. Haney. How was she dressed?"
"In perfect good taste—almost too good. She looked like one of Joe Meyer's early posters. Gee! but she was snappy in drawing. She carries that sort of thing well—-she's so clean and nifty in line. If she could have a year in Paris—wow!—well, us to Fifth Avenue, sure thing!"
"All depends on what is at the bottom of that girl's soul," retorted Lee, sententiously. "A light woman with money is a flighty combination. I don't pretend to say what your little Mrs. Haney is at bottom. Thus far I like her. I talk about her freely, but I defend her in public. But, at the same time, fifty thousand dollars a year is a corrupting power."
Congdon gravely assented to this. "You're perfectly right; that's the reason I keep our income down to fifteen hundred. I'd hate to see you look like a ready-made cloak advertisement."
Alice rose rather wearily. "Thursday night, you said?"
"Yes; and I guess, following the latest bulletin concerning Mr. Haney, we better put on our swellest ginghams."
Alice, on her way home, continued to think of Mrs. Haney; indeed, she was seldom out of her mind. And she had a feeling of having known her for a long time— since girlhood; and yet less than a year had passed since that dinner at Lee Congdon's. Spring was coming; the hint of it was in the sweet air, and in the clear piping of a prairie lark in a vacant lot. Spring! And how long it had been since Ben had referred to their marriage! Perhaps he took it for granted. "Perhaps he sees in me only failing health, and dares not speak."
She was not gaining; that she knew, and so did Lee. She had stayed too long in the raw climate of her native city. "He must not marry me!" she despairingly cried. "I must not let him ruin his life in that way!" And she sank back in the corner of her carriage with wrinkled, pallid face, and quivering lips; for Bertha was passing up the avenue, driving a smart-stepping cob, in her cart, and in the seat beside her, as radiant as herself, sat Ben Fordyce.