"Well, we ARE a pair!" the poor lady's visitor broke out to her at the end of her explanation in a manner disconcerting enough. The poor lady was Miss Cutter, who lived in South Audley Street, where she had an "upper half" so concise that it had to pass boldly for convenient; and her visitor was her half-brother, whom she hadn't seen for three years. She was remarkable for a maturity of which every symptom might have been observed to be admirably controlled, had not a tendency to stoutness just affirmed its independence. Her present, no doubt, insisted too much on her past, but with the excuse, sufficiently valid, that she must certainly once have been prettier. She was clearly not contented with once--she wished to be prettier again. She neglected nothing that could produce that illusion, and, being both fair and fat, dressed almost wholly in black. When she added a little colour it was not, at any rate, to her drapery. Her small rooms had the peculiarity that everything they contained appeared to testify with vividness to her position in society, quite as if they had been furnished by the bounty of admiring friends. They were adorned indeed almost exclusively with objects that nobody buys, as had more than once been remarked by spectators of her own sex, for herself, and would have been luxurious if luxury consisted mainly in photographic portraits slashed across with signatures, in baskets of flowers beribboned with the cards of passing compatriots, and in a neat collection of red volumes, blue volumes, alphabetical volumes, aids to London lucidity, of every sort, devoted to addresses and engagements. To be in Miss Cutter's tiny drawing-room, in short, even with Miss Cutter alone--should you by any chance have found her so--was somehow to be in the world and in a crowd. It was like an agency-- it bristled with particulars.
This was what the tall lean loose gentleman lounging there before her might have appeared to read in the suggestive scene over which, while she talked to him, his eyes moved without haste and without rest. "Oh come, Mamie!" he occasionally threw off; and the words were evidently connected with the impression thus absorbed. His comparative youth spoke of waste even as her positive--her too positive--spoke of economy. There was only one thing, that is, to make up in him for everything he had lost, though it was distinct enough indeed that this thing might sometimes serve. It consisted in the perfection of an indifference, an indifference at the present moment directed to the plea--a plea of inability, of pure destitution--with which his sister had met him. Yet it had even now a wider embrace, took in quite sufficiently all consequences of queerness, confessed in advance to the false note that, in such a setting, he almost excruciatingly constituted. He cared as little that he looked at moments all his impudence as that he looked all his shabbiness, all his cleverness, all his history. These different things were written in him--in his premature baldness, his seamed strained face, the lapse from bravery of his long tawny moustache; above all in his easy friendly universally acquainted eye, so much too sociable for mere conversation. What possible relation with him could be natural enough to meet it? He wore a scant rough Inverness cape and a pair of black trousers, wanting in substance and marked with the sheen of time, that had presumably once served for evening use. He spoke with the slowness helplessly permitted to Americans--as something too slow to be stopped--and he repeated that he found himself associated with Miss Cutter in a harmony calling for wonder. She had been telling him not only that she couldn't possibly give him ten pounds, but that his unexpected arrival, should he insist on being much in view, might seriously interfere with arrangements necessary to her own maintenance; on which he had begun by replying that he of course knew she had long ago spent her money, but that he looked to her now exactly because she had, without the aid of that convenience, mastered the art of life.
"I'd really go away with a fiver, my dear, if you'd only tell me how you do it. It's no use saying only, as you've always said, that 'people are very kind to you.' What the devil are they kind to you FOR?"
"Well, one reason is precisely that no particular inconvenience has hitherto been supposed to attach to me. I'm just what I am," said Mamie Cutter; "nothing less and nothing more. It's awkward to have to explain to you, which moreover I really needn't in the least. I'm clever and amusing and charming." She was uneasy and even frightened, but she kept her temper and met him with a grace of her own. "I don't think you ought to ask me more questions than I ask you."
"Ah my dear," said the odd young man, "I'VE no mysteries. Why in the world, since it was what you came out for and have devoted so much of your time to, haven't you pulled it off? Why haven't you married?"
"Why haven't YOU?" she retorted. "Do you think that if I had it would have been better for you?--that my husband would for a moment have put up with you? Do you mind my asking you if you'll kindly go NOW?" she went on after a glance at the clock. "I'm expecting a friend, whom I must see alone, on a matter of great importance--"
"And my being seen with you may compromise your respectability or undermine your nerve?" He sprawled imperturbably in his place, crossing again, in another sense, his long black legs and showing, above his low shoes, an absurd reach of parti-coloured sock. "I take your point well enough, but mayn't you be after all quite wrong? If you can't do anything for me couldn't you at least do something with me? If it comes to that, I'm clever and amusing and charming too! I've been such an ass that you don't appreciate me. But people like me--I assure you they do. They usually don't know what an ass I've been; they only see the surface, which"--and he stretched himself afresh as she looked him up and down--"you CAN imagine them, can't you, rather taken with? I'M 'what I am' too; nothing less and nothing more. That's true of us as a family, you see. We ARE a crew!" He delivered himself serenely. His voice was soft and flat, his pleasant eyes, his simple tones tending to the solemn, achieved at moments that effect of quaintness which is, in certain connexions, socially so known and enjoyed. "English people have quite a weakness for me--more than any others. I get on with them beautifully. I've always been with them abroad. They think me," the young man explained, "diabolically American."
"You!" Such stupidity drew from her a sigh of compassion.
Her companion apparently quite understood it. "Are you homesick, Mamie?" he asked, with wondering irrelevance.
The manner of the question made her, for some reason, in spite of her preoccupations, break into a laugh. A shade of indulgence, a sense of other things, came back to her. "You are funny, Scott!"
"Well," remarked Scott, "that's just what I claim. But ARE you so homesick?" he spaciously inquired, not as to a practical end, but from an easy play of intelligence.
"I'm just dying of it!" said Mamie Cutter.
"Why so am I!" Her visitor had a sweetness of concurrence.
"We're the only decent people," Miss Cutter declared. "And I know. You don't--you can't; and I can't explain. Come in," she continued with a return of her impatience and an increase of her decision, "at seven sharp."
She had quitted her seat some time before, and now, to get him into motion, hovered before him while, still motionless, he looked up at her. Something intimate, in the silence, appeared to pass between them--a community of fatigue and failure and, after all, of intelligence. There was a final cynical humour in it. It determined him, in any case, at last, and he slowly rose, taking in again as he stood there the testimony of the room. He might have been counting the photographs, but he looked at the flowers with detachment. "Who's coming?"
"Then what are you doing for her?"
"I work for every one," she promptly returned.
"For every one who pays? So I suppose. Yet isn't it only we who do pay?"
There was a drollery, not lost on her, in the way his queer presence lent itself to his emphasised plural.
"Do you consider that YOU do?"
"At this, with his deliberation, he came back to his charming idea. "Only try me, and see if I can't be MADE to. Work me in." On her sharply presenting her back he stared a little at the clock. "If I come at seven may I stay to dinner?"
It brought her round again. "Impossible. I'm dining out."
She had to think. "With Lord Considine."
"Oh my eye!" Scott exclaimed.
She looked at him gloomily. "Is THAT sort of tone what makes you pay? I think you might understand," she went on, "that if you're to sponge on me successfully you mustn't ruin me. I must have SOME remote resemblance to a lady."
"Yes? But why must _I_?" Her exasperated silence was full of answers, of which however his inimitable manner took no account. "You don't understand my real strength; I doubt if you even understand your own. You're clever, Mamie, but you're not so clever as I supposed. However," he pursued, "it's out of Mrs. Medwin that you'll get it."
"Why the cheque that will enable you to assist me."
On this, for a moment, she met his eyes. "If you'll come back at seven sharp--not a minute before, and not a minute after, I'll give you two five-pound notes."
He thought it over. "Whom are you expecting a minute after?"
It sent her to the window with a groan almost of anguish, and she answered nothing till she had looked at the street. "If you injure me, you know, Scott, you'll be sorry."
"I wouldn't injure you for the world. What I want to do in fact is really to help you, and I promise you that I won't leave you--by which I mean won't leave London--till I've effected something really pleasant for you. I like you, Mamie, because I like pluck; I like you much more than you like me. I like you very, VERY much." He had at last with this reached the door and opened it, but he remained with his hand on the latch. "What does Mrs. Medwin want of you?" he thus brought out.
She had come round to see him disappear, and in the relief of this prospect she again just indulged him.
He waited another minute. "And you're going to do it?"
"I'm going to do it," said Mamie Cutter.
"Well then that ought to be a haul. Call it THREE fivers!" he laughed. "At seven sharp." And at last he left her alone.
Miss Cutter waited till she heard the house-door close; after which, in a sightless mechanical way, she moved about the room readjusting various objects he had not touched. It was as if his mere voice and accent had spoiled her form. But she was not left too long to reckon with these things, for Mrs. Medwin was promptly announced. This lady was not, more than her hostess, in the first flush of her youth; her appearance--the scattered remains of beauty manipulated by taste--resembled one of the light repasts in which the fragments of yesterday's dinner figure with a conscious ease that makes up for the want of presence. She was perhaps of an effect still too immediate to be called interesting, but she was candid, gentle and surprised--not fatiguingly surprised, only just in the right degree; and her white face--it was too white--with the fixed eyes, the somewhat touzled hair and the Louis Seize hat, might at the end of the very long neck have suggested the head of a princess carried on a pike in a revolution. She immediately took up the business that had brought her, with the air however of drawing from the omens then discernible less confidence than she had hoped. The complication lay in the fact that if it was Mamie's part to present the omens, that lady yet had so to colour them as to make her own service large. She perhaps over-coloured; for her friend gave way to momentary despair.
"What you mean is then that it's simply impossible?"
"Oh no," said Mamie with a qualified emphasis. "It's POSSIBLE."
"But disgustingly difficult?"
"As difficult as you like."
"Then what can I do that I haven't done?"
"You can only wait a little longer."
"But that's just what I HAVE done. I've done nothing else. I'm always waiting a little longer!"
Miss Cutter retained, in spite of this pathos, her grasp of the subject. "THE thing, as I've told you, is for you first to be seen."
"But if people won't look at me?"
"They WILL?" Mrs. Medwin was eager.
"They shall," her hostess went on. "It's their only having heard-- without having seen."'
"But if they stare straight the other way?" Mrs. Medwin continued to object. "You can't simply go up to them and twist their heads about."
"It's just what I can," said Mamie Cutter.
But her charming visitor, heedless for the moment of this attenuation, had found the way to put it. "It's the old story. You can't go into the water till you swim, and you can't swim till you go into the water. I can't be spoken to till I'm seen, but I can't be seen till I'm spoken to."
She met this lucidity, Miss Cutter, with but an instant's lapse. "You say I can't twist their heads about. But I HAVE twisted them."
It had been quietly produced, but it gave her companion a jerk. "They say 'Yes'?"
She summed it up. "All but one. SHE says 'No.'"
Mrs. Medwin thought; then jumped. "Lady Wantridge?"
Miss Cutter, as more delicate, only bowed admission. "I shall see her either this afternoon or late to-morrow. But she has written."
Her visitor wondered again. "May I see her letter?"
"No." She spoke with decision. "But I shall square her."
"Well"--and Miss Cutter, as if looking upward for inspiration, fixed her eyes a while on the ceiling--"well, it will come to me."
Mrs. Medwin watched her--it was impressive. "And will they come to you--the others?" This question drew out the fact that they would- -so far at least as they consisted of Lady Edward, Lady Bellhouse and Mrs. Pouncer, who had engaged to muster, at the signal of tea, on the 14th--prepared, as it were, for the worst. There was of course always the chance that Lady Wantridge might take the field, in such force as to paralyse them, though that danger, at the same time, seemed inconsistent with her being squared. It didn't perhaps all quite ideally hang together; but what it sufficiently came to was that if she was the one who could do most FOR a person in Mrs. Medwin's position she was also the one who could do most against. It would therefore be distinctly what our friend familiarly spoke of as "collar-work." The effect of these mixed considerations was at any rate that Mamie eventually acquiesced in the idea, handsomely thrown out by her client, that she should have an "advance" to go on with. Miss Cutter confessed that it seemed at times as if one scarce COULD go on; but the advance was, in spite of this delicacy, still more delicately made--made in the form of a banknote, several sovereigns, some loose silver, and two coppers, the whole contents of her purse, neatly disposed by Mrs. Medwin on one of the tiny tables. It seemed to clear the air for deeper intimacies, the fruit of which was that Mamie, lonely after all in her crowd and always more helpful than helped, eventually brought out that the way Scott had been going on was what seemed momentarily to overshadow her own power to do so.
"I've had a descent from him." But she had to explain. "My half- brother--Scott Homer. A wretch."
"What kind of a wretch?"
"Every kind. I lose sight of him at times--he disappears abroad. But he always turns up again, worse than ever."
"No. Rather pleasant. Awfully clever--awfully travelled and easy."
"Then what's the matter with him?"
Mamie mused, hesitated--seemed to see a wide past. "I don't know."
"Something in the background?" Then as her friend was silent, "Something queer about cards?" Mrs. Medwin threw off.
"I don't know--and I don't want to!"
"Ah well, I'm sure _I_ don't," Mrs. Medwin returned with spirit. The note of sharpness was perhaps also a little in the observation she made as she gathered herself to go. "Do you mind my saying something?"
Mamie took her eyes quickly from the money on the little stand. "You may say what you like."
"I only mean that anything awkward you may have to keep out of the way does seem to make more wonderful, doesn't it, that you should have got just where you are? I allude, you know, to your position."
"I see." Miss Cutter somewhat coldly smiled. "To my power."
"So awfully remarkable in an American."
"Ah you like us so."
Mrs. Medwin candidly considered. "But we don't, dearest."
Her companion's smile brightened. "Then why do you come to me?"
"Oh I like YOU!" Mrs. Medwin made out.
"Then that's it. There are no 'Americans.' It's always 'you.'"
"Me?" Mrs. Medwin looked lovely, but a little muddled.
"ME!" Mamie Cutter laughed. "But if you like me, you dear thing, you can judge if I like YOU." She gave her a kiss to dismiss her. "I'll see you again when I've seen her."
"Lady Wantridge? I hope so, indeed. I'll turn up late to-morrow, if you don't catch me first. Has it come to you yet?" the visitor, now at the door, went on.
"No; but it will. There's time."
"Oh a little less every day!"
Miss Cutter had approached the table and glanced again at the gold and silver and the note, not indeed absolutely overlooking the two coppers. "The balance," she put it, "the day after?"
"That very night if you like."
"Then count on me."
"Oh if I didn't--!" But the door closed on the dark idea. Yearningly then, and only when it had done so, Miss Cutter took up the money.
She went out with it ten minutes later, and, the calls on her time being many, remained out so long that at half-past six she hadn't come back. At that hour, on the other hand, Scott Homer knocked at her door, where her maid, who opened it with a weak pretence of holding it firm, ventured to announce to him, as a lesson well learnt, that he hadn't been expected till seven. No lesson, none the less, could prevail against his native art. He pleaded fatigue, her, the maid's, dreadful depressing London, and the need to curl up somewhere. If she'd just leave him quiet half an hour that old sofa upstairs would do for it; of which he took quickly such effectual possession that when five minutes later she peeped, nervous for her broken vow, into the drawing-room, the faithless young woman found him extended at his length and peacefully asleep.
The situation before Miss Cutter's return developed in other directions still, and when that event took place, at a few minutes past seven, these circumstances were, by the foot of the stair, between mistress and maid, the subject of some interrogative gasps and scared admissions. Lady Wantridge had arrived shortly after the interloper, and wishing, as she said, to wait, had gone straight up in spite of being told he was lying down.
"She distinctly understood he was there?"
"Oh yes ma'am; I thought it right to mention."
"And what did you call him?"
"Well, ma'am, I thought it unfair to YOU to call him anything but a gentleman."
Mamie took it all in, though there might well be more of it than one could quickly embrace. "But if she has had time," she flashed, "to find out he isn't one?"
"Oh ma'am, she had a quarter of an hour."
"Then she isn't with him still?"
"No ma'am; she came down again at last. She rang, and I saw her here, and she said she wouldn't wait longer."
Miss Cutter darkly mused. "Yet had already waited--?"
"Quite a quarter."
"Mercy on us!" She began to mount. Before reaching the top however she had reflected that quite a quarter was long if Lady Wantridge had only been shocked. On the other hand it was short if she had only been pleased. But how COULD she have been pleased? The very essence of their actual crisis was just that there was no pleasing her. Mamie had but to open the drawing-room door indeed to perceive that this was not true at least of Scott Homer, who was horribly cheerful.
Miss Cutter expressed to her brother without reserve her sense of the constitutional, the brutal selfishness that had determined his mistimed return. It had taken place, in violation of their agreement, exactly at the moment when it was most cruel to her that he should be there, and if she must now completely wash her hands of him he had only himself to thank. She had come in flushed with resentment and for a moment had been voluble, but it would have been striking that, though the way he received her might have seemed but to aggravate, it presently justified him by causing their relation really to take a stride. He had the art of confounding those who would quarrel with him by reducing them to the humiliation of a stirred curiosity.
"What COULD she have made of you?" Mamie demanded.
"My dear girl, she's not a woman who's eager to make too much of anything--anything, I mean, that will prevent her from doing as she likes, what she takes into her head. Of course," he continued to explain, "if it's something she doesn't want to do, she'll make as much as Moses."
Mamie wondered if that was the way he talked to her visitor, but felt obliged to own to his acuteness. It was an exact description of Lady Wantridge, and she was conscious of tucking it away for future use in a corner of her miscellaneous little mind. She withheld however all present acknowledgment, only addressing him another question. "Did you really get on with her?"
"Have you still to learn, darling--I can't help again putting it to you--that I get on with everybody? That's just what I don't seem able to drive into you. Only see how I get on with YOU."
She almost stood corrected. "What I mean is of course whether--"
"Whether she made love to me? Shyly, yet--or because--shamefully? She would certainly have liked awfully to stay."
"Then why didn't she?"
"Because, on account of some other matter--and I could see it was true--she hadn't time. Twenty minutes--she was here less--were all she came to give you. So don't be afraid I've frightened her away. She'll come back."
Mamie thought it over. "Yet you didn't go with her to the door?"
"She wouldn't let me, and I know when to do what I'm told--quite as much as what I'm not told. She wanted to find out about me. I mean from your little creature; a pearl of fidelity, by the way."
"But what on earth did she come up for?" Mamie again found herself appealing, and just by that fact showing her need of help.
"Because she always goes up." Then as, in the presence of this rapid generalisation, to say nothing of that of such a relative altogether, Miss Cutter could only show as comparatively blank: "I mean she knows when to go up and when to come down. She has instincts; she didn't know whom you might have up here. It's a kind of compliment to you anyway. Why Mamie," Scott pursued, "you don't know the curiosity we any of us inspire. You wouldn't believe what I've seen. The bigger bugs they are the more they're on the lookout."
Mamie still followed, but at a distance. "The lookout for what?"
"Why for anything that will help them to live. You've been here all this time without making out then, about them, what I've had to pick out as I can? They're dead, don't you see? And WE'RE alive."
"You? Oh!"--Mamie almost laughed about it.
"Well, they're a worn-out old lot anyhow; they've used up their resources. They do look out and I'll do them the justice to say they're not afraid--not even of me!" he continued as his sister again showed something of the same irony. "Lady Wantridge at any rate wasn't; that's what I mean by her having made love to me. She does what she likes. Mind it, you know." He was by this time fairly teaching her to read one of her best friends, and when, after it, he had come back to the great point of his lesson--that of her failure, through feminine inferiority, practically to grasp the truth that their being just as they were, he and she, was the real card for them to play--when he had renewed that reminder he left her absolutely in a state of dependence. Her impulse to press him on the subject of Lady Wantridge dropped; it was as if she had felt that, whatever had taken place, something would somehow come of it. She was to be in a manner disappointed, but the impression helped to keep her over to the next morning, when, as Scott had foretold, his new acquaintance did reappear, explaining to Miss Cutter that she had acted the day before to gain time and that she even now sought to gain it by not waiting longer. What, she promptly intimated she had asked herself, could that friend be thinking of? She must show where she stood before things had gone too far. If she had brought her answer without more delay she wished make it sharp. Mrs. Medwin? Never! "No, my dear--not I. THERE I stop."
Mamie had known it would be "collar-work," but somehow now, at the beginning she felt her heart sink. It was not that she had expected to carry the position with a rush, but that, as always after an interval, her visitor's defences really loomed--and quite, as it were, to the material vision--too large. She was always planted with them, voluminous, in the very centre of the passage; was like a person accommodated with a chair in some unlawful place at the theatre. She wouldn't move and you couldn't get round. Mamie's calculation indeed had not been on getting round; she was obliged to recognise that, too foolishly and fondly, she had dreamed of inducing a surrender. Her dream had been the fruit of her need; but, conscious that she was even yet unequipped for pressure, she felt, almost for the first time in her life, superficial and crude. She was to be paid--but with what was she, to that end, to pay? She had engaged to find an answer to this question, but the answer had not, according to her promise, "come." And Lady Wantridge meanwhile massed herself, and there was no view of her that didn't show her as verily, by some process too obscure to be traced, the hard depository of the social law. She was no younger, no fresher, no stronger, really, than any of them; she was only, with a kind of haggard fineness, a sharpened taste for life, and, with all sorts of things behind and beneath her, more abysmal and more immoral, more secure and more impertinent. The points she made were two in number. One was that she absolutely declined; the other was that she quite doubted if Mamie herself had measured the job. The thing couldn't be done. But say it COULD be; was Mamie quite the person to do it? To this Miss Cutter, with a sweet smile, replied that she quite understood how little she might seem so. "I'm only one of the persons to whom it has appeared that YOU are."
"Then who are the others?"
"Well, to begin with, Lady Edward, Lady Bellhouse and Mrs. Pouncer."
"Do you mean that they'll come to meet her?"
"I've seen them, and they've promised."
"To come, of course," Lady Wantridge said, "if _I_ come."
Her hostess cast about. "Oh of course you could prevent them. But I should take it as awfully kind of you not to. WON'T you do this for me?" Mamie pleaded.
Her friend looked over the room very much as Scott had done. "Do they really understand what it's FOR?"
"Perfectly. So that she may call."
"And what good will that do her?"
Miss Cutter faltered, but she presently brought it out. "Naturally what one hopes is that, you'll ask her."
"Ask her to call?"
"Ask her to dine. Ask her, if you'd be so truly sweet, for a Sunday; or something of that sort, and even if only in one of your MOST mixed parties, to Catchmore."
Miss Cutter felt the less hopeful after this effort in that her companion only showed a strange good nature. And it wasn't a satiric amiability, though it WAS amusement. "Take Mrs. Medwin into my family?"
"Some day when you're taking forty others."
"Ah but what I don't see is what it does for YOU. You're already so welcome among us that you can scarcely improve your position even by forming for us the most delightful relation."
"Well, I know how dear you are," Mamie Cutter replied; "but one has after all more than one side and more than one sympathy. I like her, you know." And even at this Lady Wantridge wasn't shocked; she showed that ease and blandness which were her way, unfortunately, of being most impossible. She remarked that SHE might listen to such things, because she was clever enough for them not to matter; only Mamie should take care how she went about saying them at large. When she became definite however, in a minute, on the subject of the public facts, Miss Cutter soon found herself ready to make her own concession. Of course she didn't dispute THEM: there they were; they were unfortunately on record, and, nothing was to be done about them but to--Mamie found it in truth at this point a little difficult.
"Well, what? Pretend already to have forgotten them?"
"Why not, when you've done it in so many other cases?"
"There ARE no other cases so bad. One meets them at any rate as they come. Some you can manage, others you can't. It's no use, you must give them up. They're past patching; there's nothing to be done with them. There's nothing accordingly to be done with Mrs. Medwin but to put her off." And Lady Wantridge rose to her height.
"Well, you know, I DO do things," Mamie quavered with a smile so strained that it partook of exaltation.
"You help people? Oh yes, I've known you to do wonders. But stick," said Lady Wantridge with strong and cheerful emphasis, "to your Americans!"
Miss Cutter, gazing, got up. "You don't do justice, Lady Wantridge, to your own compatriots. Some of them are really charming. Besides," said Mamie, "working for mine often strikes me, so far as the interest--the inspiration and excitement, don't you know?--go, as rather too easy. You all, as I constantly have occasion to say, like us so!"
Her companion frankly weighed it. "Yes; it takes that to account for your position. I've always thought of you nevertheless as keeping for their benefit a regular working agency. They come to you, and you place them. There remains, I confess," her ladyship went on in the same free spirit, "the great wonder--"
"Of how I first placed my poor little self? Yes," Mamie bravely conceded, "when _I_ began there was no agency. I just worked my passage. I didn't even come to YOU, did I? You never noticed me till, as Mrs. Short Stokes says, 'I was 'way, 'way up!' Mrs. Medwin," she threw in, "can't get over it." Then, as her friend looked vague: "Over my social situation."
"Well, it's no great flattery to you to say," Lady Wantridge good- humouredly returned, "that she certainly can't hope for one resembling it." Yet it really seemed to spread there before them. "You simply MADE Mrs. Short Stokes."
"In spite of her name!" Mamie smiled.
"Oh your 'names'--! In spite of everything."
"Ah I'm something of an artist." With which, and a relapse marked by her wistful eyes into the gravity of the matter, she supremely fixed her friend. She felt how little she minded betraying at last the extremity of her need, and it was out of this extremity that her appeal proceeded. "Have I really had your last word? It means so much to me."
Lady Wantridge came straight to the point. "You mean you depend on it?"
"Is it all you have?"
"But Mrs. Short Stokes and the others--'rolling,' aren't they? Don't they pay up?"
"Ah," sighed Mamie, "if it wasn't for THEM--!"
Lady Wantridge perceived. "You've had so much?"
"I couldn't have gone on."
"Then what do you do with it all?"
"Oh most of it goes back to them. There are all sorts, and it's all help. Some of them have nothing."
"Oh if you feed the hungry," Lady Wantridge laughed, "you're indeed in a great way of business. Is Mrs. Medwin"--her transition was immediate--"really rich?"
"Really. He left her everything."
"So that if I do say 'yes'--"
"It will quite set me up."
"I see--and how much more responsible it makes one! But I'd rather myself give you the money."
"Oh!" Mamie coldly murmured.
"You mean I mayn't suspect your prices? Well, I daresay I don't! But I'd rather give you ten pounds."
"Oh!" Mamie repeated in a tone that sufficiently covered her prices. The question was in every way larger. "Do you never forgive?" she reproachfully inquired. The door opened however at the moment she spoke and Scott Homer presented himself.
Scott Homer wore exactly, to his sister's eyes, the aspect he had worn the day before, and it also formed to her sense the great feature of his impartial greeting.
"How d'ye do, Mamie? How d'ye do, Lady Wantridge?"
"How d'ye do again?" Lady Wantridge replied with an equanimity striking to her hostess. It was as if Scott's own had been contagious; it was almost indeed as if she had seen him before. Had she ever so seen him--before the previous day? While Miss Cutter put to herself this question her visitor at all events met the one she had previously uttered. "Ever 'forgive'?" this personage echoed in a tone that made as little account as possible of the interruption. "Dear yes! The people I HAVE forgiven!" She laughed--perhaps a little nervously; and she was now looking at Scott. The way she looked at him was precisely what had already had its effect for his sister. "The people I can!"
"Can you forgive me?" asked Scott Homer.
She took it so easily. "But--what?"
Mamie interposed; she turned directly to her brother. "Don't try her. Leave it so." She had had an inspiration, it was the most extraordinary thing in the world. "Don't try HIM"--she had turned to their companion. She looked grave, sad, strange. "Leave it so." Yes, it was a distinct inspiration, which she couldn't have explained, but which had come, prompted by something she had caught--the extent of the recognition expressed--in Lady Wantridge's face. It had come absolutely of a sudden, straight out of the opposition of the two figures before her--quite as if a concussion had struck a light. The light was helped by her quickened sense that her friend's silence on the incident of the day before showed some sort of consciousness. She looked surprised. "Do you know my brother?"
"DO I know you?" Lady Wantridge asked of him.
"No, Lady Wantridge," Scott pleasantly confessed, "not one little mite!"
"Well then if you MUST go--" and Mamie offered her a hand. "But I'll go down with you. NOT YOU!" she launched at her brother, who immediately effaced himself. His way of doing so--and he had already done so, as for Lady Wantridge, in respect to their previous encounter--struck her even at the moment as an instinctive if slightly blind tribute to her possession of an idea; and as such, in its celerity, made her so admire him, and their common wit, that she on the spot more than forgave him his queerness. He was right. He could be as queer as he liked! The queerer the better! It was at the foot of the stairs, when she had got her guest down, that what she had assured Mrs. Medwin would come did indeed come. "DID you meet him here yesterday?"
"Dear yes. Isn't he too funny?"
"Yes," said Mamie gloomily. "He IS funny. But had you ever met him before?"
"Oh!"--and Mamie's tone might have meant many things.
Lady Wantridge however, after all, easily overlooked it. "I only knew he was one of your odd Americans. That's why, when I heard yesterday here that he was up there awaiting your return, I didn't let that prevent me. I thought he might be. He certainly," her ladyship laughed, "IS."
"Yes, he's very American," Mamie went on in the same way.
"As you say, we ARE fond of you! Good-bye," said Lady Wantridge.
But Mamie had not half done with her. She felt more and more--or she hoped at least--that she looked strange. She WAS, no doubt, if it came to that, strange. "Lady Wantridge," she almost convulsively broke out, "I don't know whether you'll understand me, but I seem to feel that I must act with you--I don't know what to call it!--responsibly. He IS my brother."
"Surely--and why not?" Lady Wantridge stared. "He's the image of you!"
"Thank you!"--and Mamie was stranger than ever.
"Oh he's good-looking. He's handsome, my dear. Oddly--but distinctly!" Her ladyship was for treating it much as a joke.
But Mamie, all sombre, would have none of this. She boldly gave him up. "I think he's awful."
"He is indeed--delightfully. And where DO you get your ways of saying things? It isn't anything--and the things aren't anything. But it's so droll."
"Don't let yourself, all the same," Mamie consistently pursued, "be carried away by it. The thing can't be done--simply."
Lady Wantridge wondered. "'Done simply'?"
"Done at all."
"But what can't be?"
"Why, what you might think--from his pleasantness. What he spoke of your doing for him."
Lady Wantridge recalled. "Forgiving him?"
"He asked you if you couldn't. But you can't. It's too dreadful for me, as so near a relation, to have, loyally--loyally to YOU--to say it. But he's impossible."
It was so portentously produced that her ladyship had somehow to meet it. "What's the matter with him?"
"I don't know."
"Then what's the matter with YOU?" Lady Wantridge inquired.
"It's because I WON'T know," Mamie--not without dignity--explained.
"Then _I_ won't either."
"Precisely. Don't. It's something," Mamie pursued, with some inconsequence, "that--somewhere or other, at some time or other--he appears to have done. Something that has made a difference in his life."
"'Something'?" Lady Wantridge echoed again. "What kind of thing?"
Mamie looked up at the light above the door, through which the London sky was doubly dim. "I haven't the least idea."
"Then what kind of difference?"
Mamie's gaze was still at the light. "The difference you see."
Lady Wantridge, rather obligingly, seemed to ask herself what she saw. "But I don't see any! It seems, at least," she added, "such an amusing one! And he has such nice eyes."
"Oh DEAR eyes!" Mamie conceded; but with too much sadness, for the moment, about the connexions of the subject, to say more.
It almost forced her companion after an instant to proceed. "Do you mean he can't go home?"
She weighed her responsibility. "I only make out--more's the pity!--that he doesn't."
"Is it then something too terrible--?"
She thought again. "I don't know what--for men--IS too terrible."
"Well then as you don't know what 'is' for women either--good-bye!" her visitor laughed.
It practically wound up the interview; which, however, terminating thus on a considerable stir of the air, was to give Miss Cutter for several days the sense of being much blown about. The degree to which, to begin with, she had been drawn--or perhaps rather pushed- -closer to Scott was marked in the brief colloquy that she on her friend's departure had with him. He had immediately said it. "You'll see if she doesn't ask me down!"
"Oh I've known them at places--at Cannes, at Pau, at Shanghai--do it sooner still. I always know when they will. You CAN'T make out they don't love me!" He spoke almost plaintively, as if he wished she could.
"Then I don't see why it hasn't done you more good."
"Why Mamie," he patiently reasoned, "what more good COULD it? As I tell you," he explained, "it has just been my life."
"Then why do you come to me for money?"
"Oh they don't give me THAT!" Scott returned.
"So that it only means then, after all, that I, at the best, must keep you up?"
He fixed on her the nice eyes Lady Wantridge admired. "Do you mean to tell me that already--at this very moment--I'm not distinctly keeping you?"
She gave him back his look. "Wait till she HAS asked you, and then," Mamie added, "decline."
Scott, not too grossly, wondered. "As acting for YOU?"
Mamie's next injunction was answer enough. "But BEFORE--yes-- call."
He took it in. "Call--but decline. Good!"
"The rest," she said, "I leave to you." And she left it in fact with such confidence that for a couple of days she was not only conscious of no need to give Mrs. Medwin another turn of the screw, but positively evaded, in her fortitude, the reappearance of that lady. It was not till the fourth day that she waited upon her, finding her, as she had expected, tense.
"Lady Wantridge WILL--?"
"Yes, though she says she won't."
"She says she won't? O-oh!" Mrs. Medwin moaned.
"Sit tight all the same. I HAVE her!"
"Through Scott--whom she wants."
"Your bad brother!" Mrs. Medwin stared. "What does she want of him?"
"To amuse them at Catchmore. Anything for that. And he WOULD. But he shan't!" Mamie declared. "He shan't go unless she comes. She must meet you first--you're my condition."
"O-o-oh!" Mrs. Medwin's tone was a wonder of hope and fear. "But doesn't he want to go?"
"He wants what I want. She draws the line at YOU. I draw the line at HIM."
"But SHE--doesn't she mind that he's bad?"
It was so artless that Mamie laughed. "No--it doesn't touch her. Besides, perhaps he isn't. It isn't as for you--people seem not to know. He has settled everything, at all events, by going to see her. It's before her that he's the thing she'll have to have."
"For Sundays in the country. A feature--THE feature."
"So she has asked him?"
"Yes--and he has declined."
"For ME?" Mrs. Medwin panted.
"For me," said Mamie on the door-step. "But I don't leave him for long." Her hansom had waited. "She'll come."
Lady Wantridge did come. She met in South Audley Street, on the fourteenth, at tea, the ladies whom Mamie had named to her, together with three or four others, and it was rather a master- stroke for Miss Cutter that if Mrs. Medwin was modestly present Scott Homer was as markedly not. This occasion, however, is a medal that would take rare casting, as would also, for that matter, even the minor light and shade, the lower relief, of the pecuniary transaction that Mrs. Medwin's flushed gratitude scarce awaited the dispersal of the company munificently to complete. A new understanding indeed on the spot rebounded from it, the conception of which, in Mamie's mind, had promptly bloomed. "He shan't go now unless he takes you." Then, as her fancy always moved quicker for her client than her client's own--"Down with him to Catchmore! When he goes to amuse them YOU," she serenely developed, "shall amuse them too." Mrs. Medwin's response was again rather oddly divided, but she was sufficiently intelligible when it came to meeting the hint that this latter provision would represent success to the tune of a separate fee. "Say," Mamie had suggested, "the same."
"Very well; the same."
The knowledge that it was to be the same had perhaps something to do also with the obliging spirit in which Scott eventually went. It was all at the last rather hurried--a party rapidly got together for the Grand Duke, who was in England but for the hour, who had good-naturedly proposed himself, and who liked his parties small, intimate and funny. This one was of the smallest and was finally judged to conform neither too little nor too much to the other conditions--after a brief whirlwind of wires and counterwires, and an iterated waiting of hansoms at various doors--to include Mrs. Medwin. It was from Catchmore itself that, snatching, a moment--on the wondrous Sunday afternoon, this lady had the harmonious thought of sending the new cheque. She was in bliss enough, but her scribble none the less intimated that it was Scott who amused them most. He WAS the feature.