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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Butterfly House - Chapter 1
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The Butterfly House - Chapter 1 Post by :JPatrick Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :2651

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The Butterfly House - Chapter 1

Chapter I

Fairbridge, the little New Jersey village, or rather city (for it had won municipal government some years before, in spite of the protest of far-seeing citizens who descried in the distance bonded debts out of proportion to the tiny shoulders of the place), was a misnomer. Often a person, being in Fairbridge for the first time, and being driven by way of entertainment about the rural streets, would inquire, "Why Fairbridge?"

Bridges there were none, except those over which the trains thundered to and from New York, and the adjective, except to old inhabitants who had a curious fierce loyalty for the place, did not seemingly apply. Fairbridge could hardly, by an unbiassed person who did not dwell in the little village and view its features through the rosy glamour of home life, be called "fair." There were a few pretty streets, with well-kept sidewalks, and ambitious, although small houses, and there were many lovely bits of views to be obtained, especially in the green flush of spring, and the red glow of autumn over the softly swelling New Jersey landscape with its warm red soil to the distant rise of low blue hills; but it was not fair enough in a general way to justify its name. Yet Fairbridge it was, without bridge, or natural beauty, and no mortal knew why. The origin of the name was lost in the petty mist of a petty past.

Fairbridge was tragically petty, inasmuch as it saw itself great. In Fairbridge narrowness reigned, nay, tyrannised, and was not recognised as such. There was something fairly uncanny about Fairbridge's influence upon people after they had lived there even a few years. The influence held good, too, in the cases of men who daily went to business or professions in New York. Even Wall Street was no sinecure. Back they would come at night, and the terrible, narrow maelstrom of pettiness sucked them in. All outside interest was as naught. International affairs seemed insignificant when once one was really in Fairbridge.

Fairbridge, although rampant when local politics were concerned, had no regard whatever for those of the nation at large, except as they involved Fairbridge. Fairbridge, to its own understanding, was a nucleus, an ultimatum. It was an example of the triumph of the infinitesimal. It saw itself through a microscope and loomed up gigantic. Fairbridge was like an insect, born with the conviction that it was an elephant. There was at once something ludicrous, and magnificent, and terrible about it. It had the impressiveness of the abnormal and prehistoric. In one sense, it _was prehistoric. It was as a giant survivor of a degenerate species.

Withal, it was puzzling. People if pinned down could not say why, in Fairbridge, the little was so monstrous, whether it depended upon local conditions, upon the general population, or upon a few who had an undue estimation of themselves and all connected with them. Was Fairbridge great because of its inhabitants, or were the inhabitants great because of Fairbridge? Who could say? And why was Fairbridge so important that its very smallness overwhelmed that which, by the nature of things, seemed overwhelming? Nobody knew, or rather, so tremendous was the power of the small in the village, that nobody inquired.

It is entirely possible that had there been any delicate gauge of mentality, the actual swelling of the individual in his own estimation as he neared Fairbridge after a few hours' absence, might have been apparent. Take a broker on Wall Street, for instance, or a lawyer who had threaded his painful way to the dim light of understanding through the intricate mazes of the law all day, as his train neared his loved village. From an atom that went to make up the motive power of a great metropolis, he himself became an entirety. He was It with a capital letter. No wonder that under the circumstances Fairbridge had charms that allured, that people chose it for suburban residences, that the small, ornate, new houses with their perky little towers and aesthetic diamond-paned windows, multiplied.

Fairbridge was in reality very artistically planned as to the sites of its houses. Instead of the regulation Main Street of the country village, with its centre given up to shops and post-office, side streets wound here and there, and houses were placed with a view to effect.

The Main Street of Fairbridge was as naught from a social point of view. Nobody of any social importance lived there. Even the physicians had their residences and offices in a more aristocratic locality. Upon the Main Street proper, that which formed the centre of the village, there were only shops and a schoolhouse and one or two mean public buildings. For a village of the self-importance of Fairbridge, the public buildings were very few and very mean. There was no city hall worthy of the name of this little city which held its head so high. The City Hall, so designated by ornate gilt letters upon the glass panel of a very small door, occupied part of the building in which was the post-office. It was a tiny building, two stories high. On the second floor was the millinery shop of Mrs. Creevy, and behind it the two rooms in which she kept house with her daughter Jessy.

On the lower floor was the post-office on the right, filthy with the foot tracks of the Fairbridge children who crowded it in a noisy rabble twice a day, and perpetually red-stained with the shale of New Jersey, brought in upon the boots of New Jersey farmers, who always bore about with them a goodly portion of their native soil. On the left, was the City Hall. This was vacant except upon the first Monday of every month, when the janitor of the Dutch Reformed Church, who eked out a scanty salary with divers other tasks, got himself to work, and slopped pails of water over the floor, then swept, and built a fire, if in winter.

Upon the evenings of these first Mondays the Mayor and city officials met and made great talk over small matters, and with the labouring of a mountain, brought forth mice. The City Hall was closed upon other occasions, unless the village talent gave a play for some local benefit. Fairbridge was intensely dramatic, and it was popularly considered that great, natural, histrionic gifts were squandered upon the Fairbridge audiences, appreciative though they were. Outside talent was never in evidence in Fairbridge. No theatrical company had ever essayed to rent that City Hall. People in Fairbridge put that somewhat humiliating fact from their minds. Nothing would have induced a loyal citizen to admit that Fairbridge was too small game for such purposes. There was a tiny theatre in the neighbouring city of Axminister, which had really some claims to being called a city, from tradition and usage, aside from size. Axminister was an ancient Dutch city, horribly uncomfortable, but exceedingly picturesque. Fairbridge looked down upon it, and seldom patronised the shows (they never said "plays") staged in its miniature theatre. When they did not resort to their own City Hall for entertainment by local talent, they arrayed themselves in their best and patronised New York itself.

New York did not know that it was patronised, but Fairbridge knew. When Mr. and Mrs. George B. Slade boarded the seven o'clock train, Mrs. Slade, tall, and majestically handsome, arrayed most elegantly, and crowned with a white hat (Mrs. Slade always affected white hats with long drooping plumes upon such occasions), and George B., natty in his light top coat, standing well back upon the heels of his shiny shoes, with the air of the wealthy and well-assured, holding a belted cigar in the tips of his grey-gloved fingers, New York was most distinctly patronised, although without knowing it.

It was also patronised, and to a greater extent, by little Mrs. Wilbur Edes, very little indeed, so little as to be almost symbolic of Fairbridge itself, but elegant in every detail, so elegant as to arrest the eye of everybody as she entered the train, holding up the tail of her black lace gown. Mrs. Edes doted on black lace. Her small, fair face peered with a curious calm alertness from under the black plumes of her great picture hat, perched sidewise upon a carefully waved pale gold pompadour, which was perfection and would have done credit to the best hairdresser or the best French maid in New York, but which was achieved solely by Mrs. Wilbur Edes' own native wit and skilful fingers.

Mrs. Wilbur Edes, although small, was masterly in everything, from waving a pompadour to conducting theatricals. She herself was the star dramatic performer of Fairbridge. There was a strong feeling in Fairbridge that in reality she might, if she chose, rival Bernhardt. Mrs. Emerston Strong, who had been abroad and had seen Bernhardt on her native soil, had often said that Mrs. Edes reminded her of the great French actress, although she was much handsomer, and so moral! Mrs. Wilbur Edes was masterly in morals, as in everything else. She was much admired by the opposite sex, but she was a model wife and mother.

Mr. Wilbur Edes was an admired accessory of his wife. He was so very tall and slender as to suggest forcible elongation. He carried his head with a deprecatory, sidewise air as if in accordance with his wife's picture hat, and yet Mr. Wilbur Edes, out of Fairbridge and in his law office on Broadway, was a man among men. He was an exception to the personal esteem which usually expanded a male citizen of Fairbridge, but he was the one and only husband of Mrs. Wilbur Edes, and there was not room at such an apex as she occupied for more than one. Tall as Wilbur Edes was, he was overshadowed by that immaculate blond pompadour and that plumed picture hat. He was a prime favourite in Fairbridge society; he was liked and admired, but his radiance was reflected, and he was satisfied that it should be so. He adored his wife. The shadow of her black picture hat was his place of perfect content. He watched the admiring glances of other men at his wonderful possession with a triumph and pride which made him really rather a noble sort. He was also so fond and proud of his little twin daughters, Maida and Adelaide, that the fondness and pride fairly illuminated his inner self. Wilbur Edes was a clever lawyer, but love made him something bigger. It caused him to immolate self, which is spiritually enlarging self.

In one respect Wilbur Edes was the biggest man in Fairbridge; in another, Doctor Sturtevant was. Doctor Sturtevant depended upon no other person for his glory. He shone as a fixed star, with his own lustre. He was esteemed a very great physician indeed, and it was considered that Mrs. Sturtevant, who was good, and honest, and portly with a tight, middle-aged portliness, hardly lived up to her husband. It was admitted that she tried, poor soul, but her limitations were held to be impossible, even by her faithful straining following of love.

When the splendid, florid Doctor, with his majestically curving expanse of waistcoat and his inscrutable face, whirred through the streets of Fairbridge in his motor car, with that meek bulk of womanhood beside him, many said quite openly how unfortunate it was that Doctor Sturtevant had married, when so young, a woman so manifestly his inferior. They never failed to confer that faint praise, which is worse than none at all, upon the poor soul.

"She is a good woman," they said. "She means well, and she is a good housekeeper, but she is no companion for a man like that."

Poor Mrs. Sturtevant was aware of her status in Fairbridge, and she was not without a steady, plodding ambition of her own. That utterly commonplace, middle-aged face had some lines of strength. Mrs. Sturtevant was a member of the women's club of Fairbridge, which was poetically and cleverly called the Zenith Club.

She wrote, whenever it was her turn to do so, papers upon every imaginable subject. She balked at nothing whatever. She ranged from household discussions to the Orient. Then she stood up in the midst of the women, sunk her double chin in her lace collar, and read her paper in a voice like the whisper of a blade of grass. Doctor Sturtevant had a very low voice. His wife had naturally a strident one, but she essayed to follow him in the matter of voice, as in all other things. The poor hen bird tried to voice her thoughts like her mate, and the result was a strange and weird note. However, Mrs. Sturtevant herself was not aware of the result. When she sat down after finishing her papers her face was always becomingly flushed with pleasure.

Nothing, not even pleasure, was becoming to Mrs. Sturtevant. Life itself was unbecoming to her, and the worst of it was nobody knew it, and everybody said it was due to Mrs. Sturtevant's lack of taste, and then they pitied the great doctor anew. It was very fortunate that it never occurred to Mrs. Sturtevant to pity the doctor on her account, for she was so fond of him, poor soul, that it might have led to a tragedy.

The Zenith Club of Fairbridge always met on Friday afternoons. It was a cherished aim of the Club to uproot foolish superstitions, hence Friday. It did not seem in the least risky to the ordinary person for a woman to attend a meeting of the Zenith Club on a Friday, in preference to any other day in the week; but many a member had a covert feeling that she was somewhat heroic, especially if the meeting was held at the home of some distant member on an icy day in winter, and she was obliged to make use of a livery carriage.

There were in Fairbridge three keepers of livery stables, and curiously enough, no rivalry between them. All three were natives of the soil, and somewhat sluggish in nature, like its sticky red shale. They did not move with much enthusiasm, neither were they to be easily removed. When the New York trains came in, they, with their equally indifferent drivers, sat comfortably ensconced in their carriages, and never waylaid the possible passengers alighting from the train. Sometimes they did not even open the carriage doors, but they, however, saw to it that they were closed when once the passenger was within, and that was something. All three drove indifferent horses, somewhat uncertain as to footing. When a woman sat behind these weak-kneed, badly shod steeds and realised that Stumps, or Fitzgerald, or Witless was driving with an utter indifference to the tightening of lines at dangerous places, and also realised that it was Friday, some strength of character was doubtless required.

One Friday in January, two young women, one married, one single, one very pretty, and both well-dressed (most of the women who belonged to the Fairbridge social set dressed well) were being driven by Jim Fitzgerald a distance of a mile or more, up a long hill. The slope was gentle and languid, like nearly every slope in that part of the state, but that day it was menacing with ice. It was one smooth glaze over the macadam. Jim Fitzgerald, a descendant of a fine old family whose type had degenerated, sat hunched upon the driver's seat, his loose jaw hanging, his eyes absent, his mouth open, chewing with slow enjoyment his beloved quid, while the reins lay slackly on the rusty black robe tucked over his knees. Even a corner of that dragged dangerously near the right wheels of the coupe. Jim had not sufficient energy to tuck it in firmly, although the wind was sharp from the northwest.

Alice Mendon paid no attention to it, but her companion, Daisy Shaw, otherwise Mrs. Sumner Shaw, who was of the tense, nervous type, had remarked it uneasily when they first started. She had rapped vigorously upon the front window, and a misty, rather beautiful blue eye had rolled interrogatively over Jim's shoulder.

"Your robe is dragging," shrieked in shrill staccato Daisy Shaw; and there had been a dull nod of the head, a feeble pull at the dragging robe, then it had dragged again.

"Oh, don't mind, dear," said Alice Mendon. "It is his own lookout if he loses the robe."

"It isn't that," responded Daisy querulously. "It isn't that. I don't care, since he is so careless, if he does lose it, but I must say that I don't think it is safe. Suppose it got caught in the wheel, and I know this horse stumbles."

"Don't worry, dear," said Alice Mendon. "Fitzgerald's robe always drags, and nothing ever happens."

Alice Mendon was a young woman, not a young girl (she had left young girlhood behind several years since) and she was distinctly beautiful after a fashion that is not easily affected by the passing years. She had had rather an eventful life, but not an event, pleasant or otherwise, had left its mark upon the smooth oval of her face. There was not a side nor retrospective glance to disturb the serenity of her large blue eyes. Although her eyes were blue, her hair was almost chestnut black, except in certain lights, when it gave out gleams as of dark gold. Her features were full, her figure large, but not too large. She wore a dark red tailored gown; and sumptuous sable furs shaded with dusky softness and shot, in the sun, with prismatic gleams, set off her handsome, not exactly smiling, but serenely beaming face. Two great black ostrich plumes and one red one curled down toward the soft spikes of the fur. Between, the two great blue eyes, the soft oval of the cheeks, and the pleasant red fullness of the lips appeared.

Poor Daisy Shaw, who was poor in two senses, strength of nerve and money, looked blue and cold in her little black suit, and her pale blue liberty scarf was horribly inadequate and unbecoming. Daisy was really painful to see as she gazed out apprehensively at the dragging robe, and the glistening slant over which they were moving. Alice regarded her not so much with pity as with a calm, sheltering sense of superiority and strength. She pulled the inner robe of the coupe up and tucked it firmly around Daisy's thin knees.

"You look half frozen," said Alice.

"I don't mind being frozen, but I do mind being scared," replied Daisy sharply. She removed the robe with a twitch.

"If that old horse stumbles and goes down and kicks, I want to be able to get out without being all tangled up in a robe and dragged," said she.

"While the horse is kicking and down I don't see how he can drag you very far," said Alice with a slight laugh. Then the horse stumbled. Daisy Shaw knocked quickly on the front window with her little, nervous hand in its tight, white kid glove.

"Do please hold your reins tighter," she called. Again the misty blue eyes rolled about, the head nodded, the rotary jaws were seen, the robe dragged, the reins lay loosely.

"That wasn't a stumble worth mentioning," said Alice Mendon.

"I wish he would stop chewing and drive," said poor Daisy Shaw vehemently. "I wish we had a liveryman as good as that Dougherty in Axminister. I was making calls there the other day, and it was as slippery as it is now, and he held the reins up tight every minute. I felt safe with him."

"I don't think anything will happen."

"It does seem to me if he doesn't stop chewing, and drive, I shall fly!" said Daisy.

Alice regarded her with a little wonder. Such anxiety concerning personal safety rather puzzled her. "My horses ran away the other day, and Dick went down flat and barked his knees; that's why I have Fitzgerald to-day," said she. "I was not hurt. Nobody was hurt except the horse. I was very sorry about the horse."

"I wish I had an automobile," said Daisy. "You never know what a horse will do next."

Alice laughed again slightly. "There is a little doubt sometimes as to what an automobile will do next," she remarked.

"Well, it is your own brain that controls it, if you can run it yourself, as you do."

"I am not so sure. Sometimes I wonder if the automobile hasn't an uncanny sort of brain itself. Sometimes I wonder how far men can go with the invention of machinery without putting more of themselves into it than they bargain for," said Alice. Her smooth face did not contract in the least, but was brooding with speculation and thought.

Then the horse stumbled again, and Daisy screamed, and again tapped the window.

"He won't go way down," said Alice. "I think he is too stiff. Don't worry."

"There is no stumbling to worry about with an automobile," said Daisy.

"You couldn't use one on this hill without more risk than you take with a stumbling horse," replied Alice. Just then a carriage drawn by two fine bays passed them, and there was an interchange of nods.

"There is Mrs. Sturtevant," said Alice. "She isn't using the automobile to-day."

"Doctor Sturtevant has had that coachman thirty years, and he doesn't chew, he drives," said Daisy.

Then they drew up before the house which was their destination, Mrs. George B. Slade's. The house was very small, but perkily pretentious, and they drove under the porte-cochere to alight.

"I heard Mr. Slade had been making a great deal of money in cotton lately," Daisy whispered, as the carriage stopped behind Mrs. Sturtevant's. "Mr. and Mrs. Slade went to the opera last week. I heard they had taken a box for the season, and Mrs. Slade had a new black velvet gown and a pearl necklace. I think she is almost too old to wear low neck."

"She is not so very old," replied Alice. "It is only her white hair that makes her seem so." Then she extended a rather large but well gloved hand and opened the coupe door, while Jim Fitzgerald sat and chewed and waited, and the two young women got out. Daisy had some trouble in holding up her long skirts. She tugged at them with nervous energy, and told Alice of the twenty-five cents which Fitzgerald would ask for the return trip. She had wished to arrive at the club in fine feather, but had counted on walking home in the dusk, with her best skirts high-kilted, and saving an honest penny.

"Nonsense; of course you will go with me," said Alice in the calmly imperious way she had, and the two mounted the steps. They had scarcely reached the door before Mrs. Slade's maid, Lottie, appeared in her immaculate width of apron, with carefully-pulled-out bows and little white lace top-knot. "Upstairs, front room," she murmured, and the two went up the polished stairs. There was a landing halfway, with a diamond paned window and one rubber plant and two palms, all very glossy, and all three in nice green jardinieres which exactly matched the paper on the walls of the hall. Mrs. George B. Slade had a mania for exactly matching things. Some of her friends said among themselves that she carried it almost too far.

The front room, the guest room, into which Alice Mendon and Daisy Shaw passed, was done in yellow and white, and one felt almost sinful in disturbing the harmony by any other tint. The walls were yellow, with a frieze of garlands of yellow roses; the ceiling was tinted yellow, the tiles on the shining little hearth were yellow, every ornament upon the mantel-shelf was yellow, down to a china shepherdess who wore a yellow china gown and carried a basket filled with yellow flowers, and bore a yellow crook. The bedstead was brass, and there was a counterpane of white lace over yellow, the muslin curtains were tied back with great bows of yellow ribbon. Even the pictures represented yellow flowers or maidens dressed in yellow. The rugs were yellow, the furniture upholstered in yellow, and all of exactly the same shade.

There were a number of ladies in this yellow room, prinking themselves before going downstairs. They all lived in Fairbridge; they all knew each other; but they greeted one another with the most elegant formality. Alice assisted Daisy Shaw to remove her coat and liberty scarf, then she shook herself free of her own wraps, rather than removed them. She did not even glance at herself in the glass. Her reason for so doing was partly confidence in her own appearance, partly distrust of the glass. She had viewed herself carefully in her own looking-glass before she left home. She believed in what she had seen there, but she did not care to disturb that belief, and she saw that Mrs. Slade's mirror over her white and yellow draped dressing table stood in a cross-light. While all admitted Alice Mendon's beauty, nobody had ever suspected her of vanity; yet vanity she had, in a degree.

The other women in the room looked at her. It was always a matter of interest of Fairbridge what she would wear, and this was rather curious, as, after all, she had not many gowns. There was a certain impressiveness about her mode of wearing the same gown which seemed to create an illusion. To-day in her dark red gown embroidered with poppies of still another shade, she created a distinctly new impression, although she had worn the same costume often before at the club meetings. She went downstairs in advance of the other women who had arrived before, and were yet anxiously peering at themselves in the cross-lighted mirror, and being adjusted as to refractory neckwear by one another.

When Alice entered Mrs. Slade's elegant little reception-room, which was done in a dull rose colour, its accessories very exactly matching, even to Mrs. Slade's own costume, which was rose silk under black lace, she was led at once to a lady richly attired in black, with gleams of jet, who was seated in a large chair in the place of honour, not quite in the bay window but exactly in the centre of the opening. The lady quite filled the chair. She was very stout. Her face, under an ornate black hat, was like a great rose full of overlapping curves of florid flesh. The wide mouth was perpetually curved into a bow of mirth, the small black eyes twinkled. She was Mrs. Sarah Joy Snyder, who had come from New York to deliver her famous lecture upon the subject: "Where does a woman shine with more lustre, at home or abroad?"

The programme was to be varied, as usual upon such occasions, by local talent. Leila MacDonald, who sang contralto in the church choir, and Mrs. Arthur Wells, who sang soprano, and Mrs. Jack Evarts, who played the piano very well, and Miss Sally Anderson, who had taken lessons in elocution, all had their parts, besides the president of the club, Mrs. Wilbur Edes, who had a brief address in readiness, and the secretary, who had to give the club report for the year. Mrs. Snyder was to give her lecture as a grand climax, then there were to be light refreshments and a reception following the usual custom of the club.

Alice bowed before Mrs. Snyder and retreated to a window at the other side of the room. She sat beside the window and looked out. Just then one of the other liverymen drove up with a carriage full of ladies, and they emerged in a flutter of veils and silk skirts. Mrs. Slade, who was really superb in her rose silk and black lace, with an artful frill of white lace at her throat to match her great puff of white hair, remained beside Mrs. Snyder, whose bow of mirth widened.

"Who is that magnificent creature?" whispered Mrs. Snyder with a gush of enthusiasm, indicating Alice beside the window.

"She lives here," replied Mrs. Slade rather stupidly. She did not quite know how to define Alice.

"Lives here in this little place? Not all the year?" rejoined Mrs. Snyder.

"Fairbridge is a very good place to live in all the year," replied Mrs. Slade rather stiffly. "It is near New York. We have all the advantages of a great metropolis without the drawbacks. Fairbridge is a most charming city, and very progressive, yes, very progressive."

Mrs. Slade took it rather hardly that Mrs. Snyder should intimate anything prejudicial to Fairbridge and especially that it was not good enough for Alice Mendon, who had been born there, and lived there all her life except the year she had been in college. If anything, she, Mrs. Slade, wondered if Alice Mendon were good enough for Fairbridge. What had she ever done, except to wear handsome costumes and look handsome and self-possessed? Although she belonged to the Zenith Club, no power on earth could induce her to discharge the duties connected herewith, except to pay her part of the expenses, and open her house for a meeting. She simply would not write a paper upon any interesting and instructive topic and read it before the club, and she was not considered gifted. She could not sing like Leila MacDonald and Mrs. Arthur Wells. She could not play like Mrs. Jack Evarts. She could not recite like Sally Anderson.

Mrs. Snyder glanced across at Alice, who looked very graceful and handsome, although also, to a discerning eye, a little sulky, and bored with a curious, abstracted boredom.

"She is superb," whispered Mrs. Snyder, "yes, simply superb. Why does she live here, pray?"

"Why, she was born here," replied Mrs. Slade, again stupidly. It was as if Alice had no more motive power than a flowering bush.

Mrs. Snyder's bow of mirth widened into a laugh. "Well, can't she get away, even if she was born here?" said she.

However, Mrs. George B. Slade's mind travelled in such a circle that she was difficult to corner. "Why should she want to move?" said she.

Mrs. Snyder laughed again. "But, granting she should want to move, is there anything to hinder?" she asked. She wasn't a very clever woman, and was deciding privately to mimic Mrs. George B. Slade at some future occasion, and so eke out her scanty remuneration. She did not think ten dollars and expenses quite enough for such a lecture as hers.

Mrs. Slade looked at her perplexedly. "Why, yes, she could I suppose," said she, "but why?"

"What has hindered her before now?"

"Oh, her mother was a helpless invalid, and Alice was the only child, and she had been in college just a year when her father died, then she came home and lived with her mother, but her mother has been dead two years now, and Alice has plenty of money. Her father left a good deal, and her cousin and aunt live with her. Oh, yes, she could, but why should she want to leave Fairbridge, and--"

Then some new arrivals approached, and the discussion concerning Alice Mendon ceased. The ladies came rapidly now. Soon Mrs. Slade's hall, reception-room, and dining-room, in which a gaily-decked table was set, were thronged with women whose very skirts seemed full of important anticipatory stirs and rustles. Mrs. Snyder's curved smile became set, her eyes absent. She was revolving her lecture in her mind, making sure that she could repeat it without the assistance of the notes in her petticoat pocket.

Then a woman rang a little silver bell, and a woman who sat short but rose to unexpected heights stood up. The phenomenon was amazing, but all the Fairbridge ladies had seen Miss Bessy Dicky, the secretary of the Zenith Club, rise before, and no one observed anything remarkable about it. Only Mrs. Snyder's mouth twitched a little, but she instantly recovered herself and fixed her absent eyes upon Miss Bessy Dicky's long, pale face as she began to read the report of the club for the past year.

She had been reading several minutes, her glasses fixed firmly (one of her eyes had a cast) and her lean, veinous hands trembling with excitement, when the door bell rang with a sharp peremptory peal. There was a little flutter among the ladies. Such a thing had never happened before. Fairbridge ladies were renowned for punctuality, especially at a meeting like this, and in any case, had one been late, she would never have rung the bell. She would have tapped gently on the door, the white-capped maid would have admitted her, and she, knowing she was late and hearing the hollow recitative of Miss Bessy Dicky's voice, would have tiptoed upstairs, then slipped delicately down again and into a place near the door.

But now it was different. Lottie opened the door, and a masculine voice was heard. Mrs. Slade had a storm-porch, so no one could look directly into the hall.

"Is Mrs. Slade at home?" inquired the voice distinctly. The ladies looked at one another, and Miss Bessy Dicky's reading was unheard. They all knew who spoke. Lottie appeared with a crimson face, bearing a little ostentatious silver plate with a card. Mrs. Slade adjusted her lorgnette, looked at the card, and appeared to hesitate for a second. Then a look of calm determination overspread her face. She whispered to Lottie, and presently appeared a young man in clerical costume, moving between the seated groups of ladies with an air not so much of embarrassment as of weary patience, as if he had expected something like this to happen, and it had happened.

Mrs. Slade motioned to a chair near her, which Lottie had placed, and the young man sat down.

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