FOR all her impassivity, Bertha was really elated by this invitation, for she liked Congdon, and had a very high opinion of his powers. She experienced no special dread of the dinner, for it appeared to her at the moment to be a simple sitting down to eat with some friendly people. She was not in awe of Mrs. Congdon, however much she might admire her husband's skill, and she knew their home. It was a small house on a side street, and did not compare for a moment with her own establishment, in which she had begun to take a settled pride.
As they rode away she was mentally casting up in her mind a choice of clothes, when Haney remarked: "Bertie, I don't believe I'll go to that dinner."
"Well, I'm not as handy with a cold deck as I used to be, and I don't think I ought to put me lame foot into another man's lap."
"You're all right, Captain, and, besides, I'll be close by to help out in case you run up against a hard knock in the steak. Course you'll go—I want you to get out and see the people. Why, you haven't taken a meal out of the house since we moved, except that one at the Casino. You need more doin'."
Haney was in a dejected mood. "So do you. I'm a heavy handicap to you, Bertie, sure I am. As I see ye settin' there bloomin' as a rose and feel me own age a-creepin' on me, I know I should be takin' me conge out of self-respect—just to give you open road."
"Stop that!" she warningly cried. "Hello, there's Ed! He seems in a rush. Wonder what's eating him?"
Winchell, dressed in a new suit of clothes, darted from the sidewalk to the carriage, his face shining. "Say, folks, I'm called East. Old man died yesterday, and I've got to go home." He was breathing hard with excitement.
"Get in and tell us about it," commanded Bertha.
He climbed up beside the driver, and turned on his seat to continue. "Yes, I've got to go; and, say, the old man was well off. I don't do no more barberin', I tell you that. I'm goin' to study law. I'm comin' back here just as soon as things are settled up. I've been talking with a fellow here—Lawyer Hansall; he says he'll take me in and give me a chance. No more barberin' for me, you hear me!"
" 'Tis a poor business, but a necessary," remarked Haney.
Bertha was sympathetic. "I'm glad you're goin' to get a raise. Of course, I'm sorry about your father."
"I understand—so am I. But he's gone, and it's up to me to think of myself. I know you always despised my trade."
"No, I didn't. Men have to be shaved and clipped. It's like dish-washin', somebody has to do it. We can't all sit in the parlor."
Winchell acknowledged the force of this. "Well, I always felt sneakin' about it, I'll admit, but that was because I was raised a farmer, and barbers were always cheap skates with us. We didn't use 'em much, in fact. Well, it's all up now, and when I come back I want you to forget I ever cut hair. A third of the old farm is mine, and that will pay my board while I study."
Neither Haney nor his young wife was surprised by this movement on his part any more than he was surprised at their rise to wealth and luxury; both were in accordance with the American tradition. But as they rode down the street certain scornful Fpsterners (schooled in European conventions) smiled to see the wife of an Irish millionaire gambler in earnest conversation with a barber.
Mrs. Crego, driving down-town with Mrs. Congdon, stared in astonishment, then turned to Lee. "And you ask me to meet such a woman at dinner!" she exclaimed, and her tone expressed a kind of bewilderment.
Lee laughed. " You can't fail me now. Don't be hasty. Trust in Frank."
"I'd hate to have my dinner partners selected by Frank Congdon. I draw the line at barbers."
"You're a snob, Helen. If you were really as narrow as you sound I'd cut you dead! Furthermore, the barber isn't invited."
"I can't understand such people."
"I can. She don't know any better. You impute a low motive where there is nothing worse than ignorance. As Frank says, the girl is a perfectly natural outgrowth of a little town. I hope our dinner won't spoil her."
Mrs. Congdon had put the dinner-hour early, and when the Haneys drove up in their glittering new carriage, drawn by two splendid black horses, she too had a moment of bewilderment, but her sense of humor prevailed. "Frank," she said, "you can't patronize a turnout like that—not in my presence."
"To-night art's name is mud," he replied, with conviction, and hastened down the steps to help Haney up.
The gambler waved his proffered arm aside. "I'm not so bad as all that," said he. "I let me little Corporal help me—sometimes for love of it, not because I nade it."
He was still gaunt and pale, but his eyes were of unconquerable fire, and the lift of his head from the shoulders was still leopard-like. He was dressed in a black frock-coat, with a cream-colored vest and gray trousers, and looked very well indeed — quite irreproachable.
Bertha was clad in black also—a close-fitting, high-necked gown which made her fair skin shine like fire-flushed ivory, and her big serious eyes and vivid lips completed the charm of her singular beauty. Her bosom had lost some of its girlish flatness, but the lines of her hips and thighs still resembled those of a boy, and the pose of her head was like that of an athlete.
"Won't you come in and take off your hat?" asked Mrs. Congdon. And she followed without reply, leaving the two men on the porch.
Without appearing to do so she saw everything in the house, which was hardly more than an artistic camp, so far as the first floor was concerned. Navajo rugs were on the floor, Moqui plaques starred the walls, and Acoma ollas perched upon book-shelves of thick plank. The chairs were rude, rough, and bolted at the joints. The room made a pleasant impression on Bertha, though she could not have told why. The ceiling was dark, the walls green, the woodwork stained pine, and yet it had charm.