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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Hollow Of Her Hand - Chapter 5. Discussing A Sister-In-Law
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The Hollow Of Her Hand - Chapter 5. Discussing A Sister-In-Law Post by :catalin Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :2670

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The Hollow Of Her Hand - Chapter 5. Discussing A Sister-In-Law

CHAPTER V. DISCUSSING A SISTER-IN-LAW

"You remember my sister-in-law, don't you, Brandy?" was the question that Leslie Wrandall put to a friend one afternoon, as they sat drearily in a window of one of the fashionable up-town clubs, a little more than a year after the events described in the foregoing chapters. Drearily, I have said, for the reason that it was Sunday, and raining at that.

"I met Mrs. Wrandall a few years ago in Rome," said his companion, renewing interest in a conversation that had died some time before of its own exhaustion. "She's most attractive. I saw her but once. I think it was at somebody's fete."

"She's returning to New York the end of the month," said Leslie. "Been abroad for over a year. She had a villa at Nice this winter."

"I remember her quite well. I was of an age then to be particularly sensitive to female loveliness. If I'd been staying on in Rome, I should have screwed up the courage, I'm sure, to have asked her to sit for me."

"Lord love you, man, she's posed for half the painters in the world, it seems to me. Like the duchesses that Romney and those old chaps used to paint. It occurs to me those grand old dames did nothing but sit for portraits, year in and year out, all their lives. I don't see where they found time to scratch up the love affairs they're reported to have had. There always must have been some painter or other hanging around. I remember reading that the Duchess of--I can't remember the name--posed a hundred and sixty-nine times, for nearly as many painters. Sara's not so bad as all that, of course, but I don't exaggerate when I say she's been painted a dozen times--and hung in twice as many exhibits."

"I know," said the other with a smile. "I've seen a few of them."

"The best of them all is hanging in her place up in the country, old man. It's the one my brother liked. A Belgian fellow did it a couple of years ago. Never been exhibited, so of course you haven't seen it. Challis wouldn't consent to its being revealed to the vulgar gaze, he loved it so much."

"I like that," resented Brandon Booth, with a mild glare.

"Lot of common, vulgar people do hang about picture galleries, you will have to admit that, Brandy. They visit 'em in the winter time to get in where it's warm, and in the summer time they go because it's nice and shady. That's the sort I mean."

"What do you know about art or the people who--"

"I know all there is to know about it, old chap. Haven't we got Gainsboroughs, and Turners, and Constables, and Corots hanging all over the place? And a lot of others, too. Reynolds, Romney and Raeburn,--the three R's. And didn't I tag along with mother to picture dealers' shops and auctions when every blessed one of 'em was bought? I know ALL about it, let me tell you. I can tell you what kind of an 'atmosphere' a painting's got, with my eyes closed; and as for 'quality' and 'luminosity' and 'broadness' and 'handling,' I know more this minute about such things than any auctioneer in the world. I am a past master at it, believe me. One can't go around buying paintings with his mother without getting a liberal education in art. She began taking me when I was ten years old. Challis wouldn't go, so she MADE me do it. Then I always had to go back with her when she wanted to exchange them for something else the dealer assured her she ought to have in our collection, and which invariably cost three times as much. No, my dear fellow, you are very much mistaken when you say that I don't know anything about art. I am a walking price-list of all the art this side of the Dresden gallery. You should not forget that we are a very old New York family. We've been collecting for over twenty years."

Both laughed. He liked Wrandall best when he affected mockery of this sort, although he was keenly alive to a certain breath of self-glorification in his raillery. Leslie felt a delicious sense of security in railing at family limitations: he knew that no one was likely to take him seriously.

"Nevertheless, your mother has some really fine paintings in the collection," proclaimed Booth amiably, also descending to snobbishness without really meaning to do so. He considered Velasquez to be the superior of all those mentioned by Wrandall, and there was the end to it, so far as he was concerned. It was ever a source of wonder to him that Mrs. Wrandall didn't "trade in" everything else she possessed for a single great Velasquez.

"Getting back to Sara,--my sister-in-law,--why don't you ask her to sit for you this summer? She's not going out, you know, and time will hang so heavily on her hands that she will even welcome another portrait agony."

"I can't ask her to--"

"I'll do the asking, if you say the word."

"Don't be an ass."

"I'm quite willing to be one, if it will help you out, old man," said Leslie cheerfully.

"And make one of me as well, I suppose. She'd think me a frightful cub after all those other fellows. After Sargent, ME! Ho, ho! She'd laugh in my face."

"If you could paint that smile of hers, Brandy, you'd make Romney look like an amateur. Most wonderful smile. It's a splendid idea. Let her laugh in your face, as you say; then paint like the devil while she's doing it, and your reputation is made for--"

"Will you have another drink?"

"No, thanks. I can change the subject without it. What time is it?"

Both looked at their watches, and put them back again without remark to resume the interrupted contemplation of Fifth Avenue in the waning light of a drab, drizzly day. A man in a shiny "slicker" was pushing a sweep and shovel in the centre of the thoroughfare. They wondered how long it would be before a motor struck him.

Brandon Booth was of an old Philadelphia family: an old and wealthy family. Both views considered, he was qualified to walk hand in glove with the fastidious Wrandalls. Leslie's mother was charmed with him because she was also the mother of Vivian. The fact that he went in for portrait painting and seemed averse to subsisting on the generosity of his father, preferring to live by his talent, in no way operated against him, so far as Mrs. Wrandall was concerned. That was HIS lookout, not hers; if he elected to that sort of thing, all well and good. He could afford to be eccentric; there remained, in the perspective he scorned, the bulk of a huge fortune to offset whatever idiosyncrasies he might choose to cultivate. Some day, in spite of himself, she contended serenely, he would be very, very rich. What could be more desirable than fame, family and fortune all heaped together and thrust upon one exceedingly interesting and handsome young man? For he would be famous, she was sure of it. Every one said that of him, even the critics, although she didn't have much use for critics, retaining opinions of her own that seldom agreed with theirs. It was enough for her that he was a Booth, and knew how to behave in a drawing-room, because he belonged there and was not lugged in by the scruff of an ill-fitting dress-suit to pose as a Bohemian celebrity. Moreover, he was a level-headed, well-balanced fellow in spite of his calling; which was saying a great deal, proclaimed the mother of Vivian in opposition to her own argument that painters never made satisfactory or even satisfying husbands: the artistic temperament and all that sort of thing getting in the way of compatibility.

He had been the pupil of celebrated draughtsmen and painters in Europe, and had exhibited a sincerity of purpose that was surprising, all things considered. The mere fact that he was not obliged to paint in order to obtain a living, was sufficient cause for wonder among the artists he met and studied with or under. At first they regarded him as a youth with a fancy that soon would pass, leaving him high and dry and safe on something steadier than Art. They couldn't understand a rich man's son really having aspirations, although they granted him temperament and ability. But he went about it so earnestly, so systematically, that they were compelled to alter the time-honoured tune and to sing praises instead of whistling their insulting "I-told-you-sos." To the disgust of many, he had a real purpose supported by talent, and that was what they couldn't understand in a rich man's son. They hated to see their traditions spoiled. The only way in which they could account for it all was that he was an American, and Americans are always doing the things one doesn't expect them to do, especially along grooves that ought to be kept closed by tradition.

When he said good-bye to his European friends and masters, and set his face toward home, they took off their hats to him, so to speak, and agreed that he had a brilliant future, without a thought of the legacy that one day would be his.

His studio in New York was not a fashionable resting place. It was a work-shop. You could have tea there, of course, and you were sure to meet people you knew and liked, but it was quite as much of a work-shop as any you could mention. He was not a dabbler in art, not a mere dauber of pigments: he was an ARTIST. People argued that because he was a thoroughbred and doomed to be rich, his conscious egotism would show itself at once in the demand for ridiculously high prices. In that they happily were fooled, not to say disappointed. He began by painting the portrait of a well-known society woman of great wealth, who sat to him because she wanted to "take him up," and who was absolutely disconsolate when he announced, at the end of the sittings, that his price was five hundred dollars. She would not believe her ears.

"Why, my dear Brandon, you will be ruined--utterly ruined--if it becomes known that you ask less than five thousand," she had cried, almost in tears. "No one will come to you."

He had smiled. "A master's price is for a master, not for a tyro. If they want to pay five thousand dollars for a portrait, I can recommend a dozen or more gentlemen whose work is worth it. Mine isn't. Some day I hope to be able to say five thousand with a great deal more assurance than I now say five hundred, Mrs. Wheeler, but it won't be until I have courage, not nerve."

"But NOBODY will sit for a five hundred dollar portrait," she expostulated. "Really, Brandon, I prefer to pay five thousand. I can't--I simply cannot tell people that I paid only five--"

"Will you give six hundred?" he asked, his smile broadening.

"Absurd!"

"Seven hundred?"

"Why, it sounds as if you were jewing me up, not I trying to jew you down," she cried, dismayed.

"That's the point," he said, with mock gravity. "If my price isn't what it ought to be in your opinion, it is only fair that I should make concessions. My picture is worth five hundred dollars, but I am willing to do a little better than that by you. I will make it seven-fifty to you, but not a cent more."

"Can't I jew you up any higher, dear boy?"

"No," with a smile; "but if you will consent to sit to me ten years from now, I promise faithfully to ask five thousand of you without a blush."

"Ah, but ten years from now I should blush to even think of having my portrait painted."

"Ten years will make no change in you," said he gallantly, "but I expect them to make quite another artist of me."

And so his price was established for the time being. He offset the chilling effect of the low figure by deliberately declining commissions to paint women who fell below a rather severe standard of personal attractiveness. Gross women were not allowed to crowd his canvases; ugly ones who succeeded in tempting him were surprised to find how ugly they really were when the portrait was finished. He made it a point never to lie about a woman, not even on canvas. It made him very unpopular with certain ladies who wanted to be lied about--on canvas.

As the result of his rather independent attitude, he had more commissions than he could fill. When it got about that he cared to paint only attractive women, his studio was besieged by ladies of a curious turn of mind. If they discovered that he was willing to paint them, they blissfully dropped the matter and went happily on their way. If they found that his time was so fully occupied that he could not paint them they urged him to reconsider--even offering to quadruple his price if he would only "do" them. One exceedingly plain woman, who couldn't be reconciled to Nature, offered him twenty thousand dollars if he would paint her for the Metropolitan Museum. Another asked him if he was a pupil of Gainsborough. Finding that he was not, she asked WHY not, with all the money he had at his command.

He had been in New York for the better part of two years at the time he is introduced into this narrative. Years of his life had been spent abroad, yet he was not a stranger in a strange land when he took up his residence in Gotham. Society opened its arms to him. It was like a home-coming. Had he been a bridge player, his coronation might have been complete.

Booth was thirty,--perhaps a year or two older; tall, dark and good-looking. The air of the thoroughbred marked him. He did not affect loose flowing cravats and baggy trousers, nor was he careless about his finger-nails. He was simply the ordinary, everyday sort of chap you would meet in Fifth Avenue during parade hours, and you would take a second look at him because of his face and manner but not on account of his dress. Some of his ancestors came over ahead of the Mayflower, but he did not gloat.

Leslie Wrandall was his closest friend and harshest critic. It didn't really matter to Booth what Leslie said of his paintings: he quite understood that he didn't know anything about them.

"When does Mrs. Wrandall return?" asked the painter, after a long period of silence spent in contemplation of the gleaming pavement beyond the club's window.

"That's queer," said Leslie, looking up. "I was thinking of Sara myself. She sails next week. I've had a letter asking me to open her house in the country. Her place is about two miles from father's. It hasn't been opened in two years. Her father built it fifteen or twenty years ago, and left it to her when he died. She and Challis spent several summers there."

"Vivian took me through it one afternoon last summer."

"It must have been quite as much of a novelty to her as it was to you, old chap," said Leslie gloomily.

"What do you mean?"

"Vivian's a bit of a snob. She never liked the place because old man Gooch built it out of worsteds. She never went there."

"But the old man's been dead for years."

"That doesn't matter. The fact is, Vivian didn't quite take to Sara until after--well, until after Challis died. We're dreadful snobs, Brandy, the whole lot of us. Sara was quite good enough for a much better man than my brother. She really couldn't help the worsteds, you know. I'm very fond of her, and always have been. We're pals. 'Gad, it was a fearful slap at the home folks when Challis justified Sara by getting snuffed out the way he did."

Booth made an attempt to change the subject, but Wrandall got back to it.

"Since then we've all been exceedingly sweet on Sara. Not because we want to be, mind you, but because we're afraid she'll marry some chap who wouldn't be acceptable to us."

"I should consider that a very neat way out of it," said Booth coldly.

"Not at all. You see, Challis was fond of Sara, in spite of everything. He left a will and under it she came in for all he had. As that includes a third interest in our extremely refined and irreproachable business, it would be a deuce of a trick on us if she married one of the common people and set him up amongst us, willy-nilly. We don't want strange bed-fellows. We're too snug--and, I might say, too smug. Down in her heart, mother is saying to herself it would be just like Sara to get even with us by doing just that sort of a trick. Of course, Sara is rich enough without accepting a sou under the will, but she's a canny person. She hasn't handed it back to us on a silver platter, with thanks; still, on the other hand, she refuses to meddle. She makes us feel pretty small. She won't sell out to us. She just sits tight. That's what gets under the skin with mother."

"I wouldn't say that, Les, if I were in your place."

"It is a rather priggish thing to say, isn't it?"

"Rather."

"You see, I'm the only one who really took sides with Sara. I forget myself sometimes. She was such a brick, all those years."

Booth was silent for a moment, noting the reflective look in his companion's eyes.

"I suppose the police haven't given up the hope that sooner or later the--er--the woman will do something to give herself away," said he.

"They don't take any stock in my theory that she made way with herself the same night. I was talking with the chief yesterday. He says that any one who had wit to cover up her tracks as she did, is not the kind to make way with herself. Perhaps he's right. It sounds reasonable. 'Gad, I felt sorry for the poor girl they had up last spring. She went through the third degree, if ever any one did, but, by Jove, she came out of it all right. The Ashtley girl, you remember. I've dreamed about that girl, Brandy, and what they put her through. It's a sort of nightmare to me, even when I'm awake. Oh, they've questioned others as well, but she was the only one to have the screws twisted in just that way."

"Where is she now?"

"She's comfortable enough now. When I wrote to Sara about what she'd been through, she settled a neat bit of money on her, and she'll never want for anything. She's out West somewhere, with her mother and sisters. I tell you, Sara's a wonder. She's got a heart of gold."

"I look forward to meeting her, old man."

"I was with her for a few weeks this winter. In Nice, you know. Vivian stayed on for a week, but mother had to get to the baths. 'Gad, I believe she hated to go. Sara's got a most adorable girl staying with her. A daughter of Colonel Castleton, and she's connected in some way with the Murgatroyds--old Lord Murgatroyd, you know. I think her mother was a niece of the old boy. Anyhow, mother and Vivian have taken a great fancy to her. That's proof of the pudding."

"I think Vivian mentioned a companion of some sort."

"You wouldn't exactly call her a companion," said Leslie. "She's got money to burn, I take it. Quite keeps up with Sara in making it fly, and that's saying a good deal for her resources. I think it's a pose on her part, this calling herself a companion. An English joke, eh? As a matter of fact, she's an old friend of Sara's and my brother's too. Knew them in England. Most delightful girl. Oh, I say, old man, she's the one for you to paint." Leslie waxed enthusiastic. "A type, a positive type. Never saw such eyes in all my life. Dammit, they haunt you. You dream about 'em."

"You seem to be hard hit," said Booth indifferently. He was watching the man in the "slicker" through moody eyes.

"Oh, nothing like that," disclaimed Leslie, with unnecessary promptness. "But if I were given to that sort of thing, I'd be bowled over in a minute. Positively adorable face. If I thought you had it in you to paint a thing as it really is, I'd commission you myself to do a miniature for me, just to have it around where I could pick it up when I liked and hold it between my hands, just as I've often wanted to hold the real thing."

"Come, come! You're dotty about her."

"Get Vivian to tell you about her," said Leslie sweepingly. "Come down and have dinner with me to-night. She'll bear out--"

"I'll take your word for it. Thanks for the bid, but I can't come. Dining at the Ritz with Joey and Linda. I think I'll be off."

He stretched himself, took the final, reluctant look of the artist at the "slicker" man, and moved away. Leslie called after him:

"Wait till you see her."

"All right. I'll wait."

Sara Wrandall returned to New York at the end of the month, and Leslie met her at the dock, as he did on an occasion fourteen months earlier. Then she came in on a fierce gale from the wintry Atlantic; this time the air was soft and balmy and sweet with the kindness of spring. It was May and the sea was blue, the land was green.

Again she went to the small, exclusive hotel near the Park. Her apartment was closed, the butler and his wife and all of their hastily recruited company being in the country, awaiting her arrival from town. Leslie attended to everything. He lent his resourceful man-servant and his motor to his lovely sister-in-law, and saw to it that his mother and Vivian sent flowers to the ship. Redmond Wrandall called at the hotel immediately after banking hours, kissed his daughter-in-law, and delivered an ultimatum second-hand from the power at home: she was to come to dinner and bring Miss Castleton. A little quiet family dinner, you know, because they were all in mourning, he said in conclusion, vaguely realising all the while that it really wasn't necessary to supply the information, but, for the life of him, unable to think of anything else to say under the circumstances. Somehow it seemed to him that while Sara was in black she was not in mourning in the same sense that the rest of them were. It seemed only right to acquaint her with the conditions in his household. And he knew that he deserved the scowl that Leslie bestowed upon him.

Sara accepted, much to his surprise and gratification. He had been rather dubious about it. It would not have surprised him in the least if she had declined the invitation, feeling, as he did, that he had in a way come to her with a white flag or an olive branch or whatever it is that a combative force utilises when it wants to surrender in the cause of humanity.

Leslie was a very observing person. It might have been said of him that he was always on the lookout for the things that most people were unlikely to notice: the trivial things that really were important. He not only took in his father's amiable blunder, but caught the curious expression in Hetty's dark blue eyes, and the sharp almost inaudible catch of her breath. The gleam was gone in an instant, but it made an impression on him. He found himself wondering if the girl was a snob as well as the rest of them. The look in her eyes betrayed unmistakable surprise and--yes, he was quite sure of it--dismay when Sara accepted the invitation to dine. Was it possible that the lovely Miss Castleton considered herself--but no! Of course it couldn't be that. The Wrandalls were good enough for dukes and duchesses. Still he could not get beyond the fact that he HAD seen the look of disapproval. 'Gad, thought he, it was almost a look of appeal. He made up his mind, as he stood there chatting with her, that he would find out from Vivian what his mother had done to create an unpleasant estimate of the family in the eyes of this gentle, refined cousin of old Lord Murgatroyd.

He was quite as quick to detect the satirical smile in Sara's frank, amused eyes as she graciously accepted the invitation to the home whose doors had only been half-open to her in the past. It scratched his pride a bit to think of the opinion she must have of the family, and he was inexpressibly glad that she could not consistently class him with the others. He found himself feeling a bit sorry for the old gentleman, and hoped that he missed the touch of irony in Sara's voice.

Old Mr. Wrandall floundered from one invitation to another.

"Of course, Sara, my dear, you will want to go out to the cemetery to-morrow, I shall be only too ready to accompany you. We have erected a splendid--"

"No, thank you, Mr. Wrandall," she interrupted gently. "I shall not go to the cemetery."

Leslie intervened. "You understand, don't you, father?" he said, rather out of patience.

The old gentleman lowered his head. "Yes, yes," he hastened to say. "Quite so, quite so. Then we may expect you at eight, Sara, and you, Miss Castleton. Mrs, Wrandall is looking forward to seeing you again. It isn't often she takes a liking to--ahem! I beg your pardon, Leslie?"

"I was just going to suggest that we move along, dad. I fancy you want to get at your trunks, Sara. Smuggled a few things through, eh? Women never miss a chance to get a couple of dozen dresses through, as you'll discover if you become a real American, Miss Castleton. It's in the blood."

Mr. Wrandall fell into another trap. "Now please remember that we are to dine very informally," he hastened to say, his mind on the smuggled gowns. It was his experience that gowns that escaped duty invariably were "creations."

Leslie got him away.

As soon as they were alone, Hetty turned to her friend.

"Oh, Sara, can't you go without me? Tell them that I am ill--suddenly ill. I--I don't think it right or honourable of me to accept--"

Sara shook her head, and the words died on the girl's lips.

"You must play the game, Hetty."

"It's--very hard," murmured the other, her face very white and bleak.

"I know, my dear," said Sara gently.

"If they should ever find out," gasped the girl, suddenly giving way to the dread that had been lying dormant all these months.

"They will never know the truth unless you choose to enlighten them," said Sara, putting her arm about the girl's shoulders and drawing her close.

"You never cease to be wonderful, Sara,--so very wonderful," cried the girl, with a look of worship in her eyes.

Sara regarded her in silence for a moment, reflecting. Then, with a swift rush of tears to her eyes, she cried fiercely:

"You must never, never tell me all that happened, Hetty! You must not speak it with your own lips."

Hetty's eyes grew dark with pain and wonder.

"That is the thing I can't understand in you, Sara," she said slowly.

"We must not speak of it!"

Hetty's bosom heaved. "Speak of it!" she cried, absolute agony in her voice. "Have I not kept it locked in my heart since that awful day--"

"Hush!"

"I shall go mad if I cannot talk with you about--"

"No, no! It is the forbidden subject! I know all that I should know--all that I care to know. We have not said so much as this in months--in ages, it seems. Let sleeping dogs lie. We are better off, my dear. I could not touch your lips again."

"I--I can't bear the thought of that!"

"Kiss me now, Hetty."

"I could die for you, Sara," cried Hetty, as she impulsively obeyed the command.

"I mean that you shall live for me," said Sara, smiling through her tears. "How silly of me to cry. It must be the room we are in. These are the same rooms, dear, that you came to on the night we met. Ah, how old I feel!"

"Old? You say that to me? I am ages and ages older than you," cried Hetty, the colour coming back to her soft cheeks.

"You are twenty-three."

"And you are twenty-eight."

Sara had a far away look in her eyes. "About your size and figure," said she, and Hetty did not comprehend.

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