It was on the day following Hosmer’s visit, that Mrs. Lorenzo Worthington, familiarly known to her friends as Belle Worthington, was occupied in constructing a careful and extremely elaborate street toilet before her dressing bureau which stood near the front window of one of the “flats” opposite Mrs. Larimore’s. The Nottingham curtain screened her effectually from the view of passers-by without hindering her frequent observance of what transpired in the street.
The lower portion of this lady’s figure was draped, or better, seemingly supported, by an abundance of stiffly starched white petticoats that rustled audibly at her slightest movement. Her neck was bare, as were the well shaped arms that for the past five minutes had been poised in mid-air, in the arrangement of a front of exquisitely soft blonde curls, which she had taken from her “top drawer” and was adjusting, with the aid of a multitude of tiny invisible hair-pins, to her own very smoothly brushed hair. Yellow hair it was, with a suspicious darkness about the roots, and a streakiness about the back, that to an observant eye would have more than hinted that art had assisted nature in coloring Mrs. Worthington’s locks.
Dressed, and evidently waiting with forced patience for the termination of these overhead maneuvers of her friend, sat Lou,—Mrs. Jack Dawson,—a woman whom most people called handsome. If she were handsome, no one could have told why, for her beauty was a thing which could not be defined. She was tall and thin, with hair, eyes, and complexion of a brownish neutral tint, and bore in face and figure, a stamp of defiance which probably accounted for a certain eccentricity in eschewing hair dyes and cosmetics. Her face was full of little irregularities; a hardly perceptible cast in one eye; the nose drawn a bit to one side, and the mouth twitched decidedly to the other when she talked or laughed. It was this misproportion which gave a piquancy to her expression and which in charming people, no doubt made them believe her handsome.
Mrs. Worthington’s coiffure being completed, she regaled herself with a deliberate and comprehensive glance into the street, and the outcome of her observation was the sudden exclamation.
“Well I’ll be switched! come here quick Lou. If there ain’t Fanny Larimore getting on the car with Dave Hosmer!”
Mrs. Dawson approached the window, but without haste; and in no wise sharing her friend’s excitement, gave utterance to her calm opinion.
“They’ve made it up, I’ll bet you what you want.”
Surprise seemed for the moment to have deprived Mrs. Worthington of further ability to proceed with her toilet, for she had fallen into a chair as limply as her starched condition would permit, her face full of speculation.
“See here, Belle Worthington, if we’ve got to be at the ’Lympic at two o’clock, you’d better be getting a move on yourself.”
“Yes, I know; but I declare, you might knock me down with a feather.”
A highly overwrought figure of speech on the part of Mrs. Worthington, seeing that the feather which would have prostrated her must have met a resistance of some one hundred and seventy-five pounds of solid avoirdupois.
“After all she said about him, too!” seeking to draw her friend into some participation in her own dumbfoundedness.
“Well, you ought to know Fanny Larimore’s a fool, don’t you?”
“Well, but I just can’t get over it; that’s all there is about it.” And Mrs. Worthington went about completing the adornment of her person in a state of voiceless stupefaction.
In full garb, she presented the figure of a splendid woman; trim and tight in a black silk gown of expensive quality, heavy with jets which hung and shone, and jangled from every available point of her person. Not a thread of her yellow hair was misplaced. She shone with cleanliness, and her broad expressionless face and meaningless blue eyes were set to a good-humored readiness for laughter, which would be wholesome if not musical. She exhaled a fragrance of patchouly or jockey-club, or something odorous and “strong” that clung to every article of her apparel, even to the yellow kid gloves which she would now be forced to put on during her ride in the car. Mrs. Dawson, attired with equal richness and style, showed more of individuality in her toilet.
As they quitted the house she observed to her friend:
“I wish you’d let up on that smell; it’s enough to sicken a body.”
“I know you don’t like it, Lou,” was Mrs. Worthington’s apologetic and half disconcerted reply, “and I was careful as could be. Give you my word, I didn’t think you could notice it.”
“Notice it? Gee!” responded Mrs. Dawson.
These were two ladies of elegant leisure, the conditions of whose lives, and the amiability of whose husbands, had enabled them to develop into finished and professional time-killers.
Their intimacy with each other, as also their close acquaintance with Fanny Larimore, dated from a couple of years after that lady’s marriage, when they had met as occupants of the same big up-town boarding house. The intercourse had never since been permitted to die out. Once, when the two former ladies were on a visit to Mrs. Larimore, seeing the flats in course of construction, they were at once assailed with the desire to abandon their hitherto nomadic life, and settle to the responsibilities of housekeeping; a scheme which they carried into effect as soon as the houses became habitable.
There was a Mr. Lorenzo Worthington; a gentleman employed for many years past in the custom house. Whether he had been overlooked, which his small unobtrusive, narrow-chested person made possible—or whether his many-sided usefulness had rendered him in a manner indispensable to his employers, does not appear; but he had remained at his post during the various changes of administration that had gone by since his first appointment.
During intervals of his work—intervals often occurring of afternoon hours, when he had been given night work—he was fond of sitting at the sunny kitchen window, with his long thin nose, and shortsighted eyes plunged between the pages of one of his precious books: a small hoard of which he had collected at some cost and more self-denial.
One of the grievances of his life was the necessity under which he found himself of protecting his treasure from the Philistine abuse and contempt of his wife. When they moved into the flat, Mrs. Worthington, during her husband’s absence, had ranged them all, systematically enough, on the top shelf of the kitchen closet to “get them out of the way.” But at this he had protested, and taken a positive stand, to which his wife had so far yielded as to permit that they be placed on the top shelf of the bedroom closet; averring that to have them laying around was a thing that she would not do, for they spoilt the looks of any room.
He had not foreseen the possibility of their usefulness being a temptation to his wife in so handy a receptacle.
Seeking once a volume of Ruskin’s Miscellanies, he discovered that it had been employed to support the dismantled leg of a dressing bureau. On another occasion, a volume of Schopenhauer, which he had been at much difficulty and expense to procure, Emerson’s Essays, and two other volumes much prized, he found had served that lady as weights to hold down a piece of dry goods which she had sponged and spread to dry on an available section of roof top.
He was glad enough to transport them all back to the safer refuge of the kitchen closet, and pay the hired girl a secret stipend to guard them.
Mr. Worthington regarded women as being of peculiar and unsuitable conformation to the various conditions of life amid which they are placed; with strong moral proclivities, for the most part subservient to a weak and inadequate mentality.
It was not his office to remodel them; his rôle was simply to endure with patience the vagaries of an order of human beings, who after all, offered an interesting study to a man of speculative habit, apart from their usefulness as propagators of the species.
As regards this last qualification, Mrs. Worthington had done less than her fair share, having but one child, a daughter of twelve, whose training and education had been assumed by an aunt of her father’s, a nun of some standing in the Sacred Heart Convent.
Quite a different type of man was Jack Dawson, Lou’s husband. Short, round, young, blonde, good looking and bald—as what St. Louis man past thirty is not? he rejoiced in the agreeable calling of a traveling salesman.
On the occasions when he was at home; once in two weeks—sometimes seldomer—never oftener—the small flat was turned inside out and upside down. He filled it with noise and merriment. If a theater party were not on hand, it was a spin out to Forest park behind a fast team, closing with a wine supper at a road-side restaurant. Or a card party would be hastily gathered to which such neighbors as were congenial were bid in hot haste; deficiencies being supplied from his large circle of acquaintances who happened not to be on the road, and who at the eleventh hour were rung up by telephone. On such occasions Jack’s voice would be heard loud in anecdote, introduced in some such wise as “When I was in Houston, Texas, the other day,” or “Tell you what it is, sir, those fellers over in Albuquerque are up to a thing or two.”
One of his standing witticisms was to inquire in a stage whisper of Belle or Lou—whether the little gal over the way had taken the pledge yet.
This gentleman and his wife were on the most amiable of terms together, barring the small grievance that he sometimes lost money at poker. But as losing was exceptional with him, and as he did not make it a matter of conscience to keep her at all times posted as to the fluctuations of his luck, this grievance had small occasion to show itself.
What he thought of his wife, might best be told in his own language: that Lou was up to the mark and game every time; feminine characteristics which he apparently held in high esteem.
The two ladies in question had almost reached the terminus of their ride, when Mrs. Worthington remarked incidentally to her friend, “It was nothing in the God’s world but pure sass brought those two fellers to see you last night, Lou.”
Mrs. Dawson bit her lip and the cast in her eye became more accentuated, as it was apt to do when she was ruffled.
“I notice you didn’t treat ’em any too cool yourself,” she retorted.
“Oh, they weren’t my company, or I’d a give ’em a piece of my mind pretty quick. You know they’re married, and they know you’re married, and they hadn’t a bit o’ business there.”
“They’re perfect gentlemen, and I don’t see what business ’tis of yours, anyway.”
“Oh that’s a horse of another color,” replied Mrs. Worthington, bridling and relapsing into injured silence for the period of ten seconds, when she resumed, “I hope they ain’t going to poke themselves at the matinée.”
“Likely they will ’s long as they gave us the tickets.”
One of the gentlemen was at the matinée: Mr. Bert Rodney, but he certainly had not “poked” himself there. He never did any thing vulgar or in bad taste. He had only “dropped in!” Exquisite in dress and manner, a swell of the upper circles, versed as was no one better in the code of gentlemanly etiquette—he was for the moment awaiting disconsolately the return of his wife and daughter from Narragansett.
He took a vacant seat behind the two ladies, and bending forward began to talk to them in his low and fascinating drawl.
Mrs. Worthington, who often failed to accomplish her fierce designs, was as gracious towards him as if she had harbored no desire to give him a piece of her mind; but she was resolute in her refusal to make one of a proposed supper party.
A quiet sideward look from Mrs. Dawson, told Mr. Rodney as plainly as words, that in the event of his partie-carrée failing him, he might count upon her for a tête-à-tête.