THE Mrs. Haney who came to Alice Heath's dinner at the Antlers was in outward seeming an entirely different person from the constrained young wife who stepped into Lee Congdon's home that night of her first dinner. She was gowned now in that severe good taste which betokens a high-priced "ladies' tailor" combined with very judicious criticism. Her critic she had found in Miss Franklin, a young lady from the university who had passed easily and naturally from teaching history and etiquette up to the higher function of advising as to the cut and color of gowns. Bertha's black velvet was this time a close-clasping sheath which revealed her slender figure, and delicately and modestly disclosed the growing grace of her bosom. She wore, too, some jewels of diamond and turquoise—not showy (her mentor had taken great pains to warn her of all that). And she was not merely irreproachable, she was radiant, as she slowly entered with the Captain, who, having submitted like a martyr to evening dress, was uneasy as a colt in harness, and more than usually uncertain of step.
Ben's eyes expanded with surprise and his heart warmed with pride as he greeted her. "You are beautiful!" he exclaimed to her, and the tone of his exclamation as well as the words exalted her. Her brain filled with a mist of gold. She hardly felt the floor beneath her feet. To be called beautiful—and by him—had been outside the circle of her most daring hope, and the repetition of this word in her mind was like the clash of musical bells—entrancing her. Mechanically she took her place at his right hand, silently, and with a far-away look, listening to the merry clamor of the table. She hardly knew what she ate or what any one said—except when Ben spoke to her. But she was aware of the Captain down at Alice's right, and wondered vaguely how he was getting on with his napkin and his fork.
The first words that really roused her and stopped the musing smile on her lips were spoken by Ben in a lower voice—half-laughing, but tender also. "You mustn't stay away too long. I'll feel as if I weren't earning my salary while you're gone."
"I wish you were going too," she said. She had thought this many times, but had not permitted herself to utter it. "Why can't you—and Alice—come with us?"
"I can't afford it, for one thing. The Captain spoke of it, but it's out of the question."
"He'll pay you wages just the same."
"I wouldn't want pay. No, it isn't that; but Alice isn't able to go, and I can't think of going without her."
This was a good reason, and Bertha, looking towards Alice, saw in her face the pain which masks itself in color and movement. The dinner-table was exquisite and the company gay, and Bertha felt herself a part of the great world of dignity and beauty, where eating is made to seem a graceful art, and wine is only a bit of color and not a lure. She vaguely comprehended that this little party was of a tone and quality of the best the world over—that it was of a part and interfused with the dining customs of London and Paris and New York. "It will be au fait" Miss Franklin had said, sententiously, "for Alice Heath knows."
Mrs. Crego, who sat nearly opposite, stared at the girl in stupefaction. "She makes me feel dowdy," she had confessed to Lee in the dressing-room. "Why didn't you warn me to come in my best ? Who has been coaching her? Alice Heath, I suppose." She now wondered as sharply over the girl's manner; for Bertha, carried out of herself by Ben's word of praise, felt no desire to drink or to eat, and her reticence and the delicacy of her appetite conferred a distinction which concealed her lack of small talk, and protected her from the criticism to which exuberance of manner ordinarily exposed her.
She was deeply impressed, too, with Ben's management of the waiters, and with the ease and skill with which he supported Alice in carrying forward the courses. It was a revelation of training which instructed her absurdly, for her mind was quick to link and compare. It leaped so swiftly and so subtilely along connecting lines of thought that a hint alone sufficed to set in motion a hundred latent memories and inherited aptitudes. Her father had been a man of native refinement, and she possessed unstirred deeps of character, as Alice now well understood. And from her end of the table she glanced often at the sweetly smiling girl-wife whose beauty abashed Haney. At last she said to him: "Your wife is very lovely to-night, Captain."
He hesitated a moment; then replied, slowly: "She is. She's as fine as anny queen!" Then after another pause, added: "And the more shame to me, being what I am! She's a good girl, miss, true as steel. Never a word of complaint or a frown. She bears with me like an angel."
"You're doing a great deal for her."
His face lightened. "So she says. I mean to do more. I mean to show her the world. That's the only comfort I have; my money is giving her nice clothes and a home as good as anny, and to-night I feel 'tis giving her friends."
"But she is worth while, even without the money."
"True," he quickly said. "But I take comfort in the consideration that had I not carried her away she'd be in Sibley Junction this night."
"Sibley Junction! Can this radiant young creature sitting there at the head of my table be the clerk of the Golden Eagle Hotel?" thought Alice. "Money is magical! No wonder we all work for it—and worship it!"
The dinner was both early and short, in order that Bertha and the Captain might take the train at ten o'clock. And as they were to have the drawing-room in the sleeping-car (Ben's suggestion), they went directly to the coach in their party clothes. And so it happened that this little woman, who had never occupied a berth in a Pullman, entered her compartment in the robes of a princess.
Alice had suggested a maid, but Bertha would not hear to that; but she was willing that their coachman should go along to help the Captain. Ben had interposed here, and said: "You need some one used to travelling. I know a colored fellow who is out of service just now, and would like to come to you. He's a good, reliable man, and a fine nurse." So she had engaged him. He was on the platform as they drove up—a slight, quiet man, of gentle speech and indeterminable age, who took charge of the Captain at once, as if he had been his servant for years.