"Oh, she may take it out of HIM by being perfectly charming — to some one else."
Mrs. Trenor shook her head dolefully. "She knows he wouldn't mind. And who else is there? Alice Wetherall won't let Lucius out of her sight. Ned Silverton can't take his eyes off Carry Fisher — poor boy! Gus is bored by Bertha, Jack Stepney knows her too well — and — well, to be sure, there's Percy Gryce!"
She sat up smiling at the thought.
Miss Bart's countenance did not reflect the smile.
"Oh, she and Mr. Gryce would not be likely to hit it off."
"You mean that she'd shock him and he'd bore her? Well, that's not such a bad beginning, you know. But I hope she won't take it into her head to be nice to him, for I asked him here on purpose for you."
Lily laughed. "MERCI DU COMPLIMENT! I should certainly have no show against Bertha."
"Do you think I am uncomplimentary? I'm not really, you know. Every one knows you're a thousand times handsomer and cleverer than Bertha; but then you're not nasty. And for always getting what she wants in the long run, commend me to a nasty woman."
Miss Bart stared in affected reproval. "I thought you were so fond of Bertha."
"Oh, I am — it's much safer to be fond of dangerous people. But she IS dangerous — and if I ever saw her up to mischief it's now. I can tell by poor George's manner. That man is a perfect barometer — he always knows when Bertha is going to — — "
"To fall?" Miss Bart suggested.
"Don't be shocking! You know he believes in her still. And of course I don't say there's any real harm in Bertha. Only she delights in making people miserable, and especially poor George."
"Well, he seems cut out for the part — I don't wonder she likes more cheerful companionship."
"Oh, George is not as dismal as you think. If Bertha did worry him he would be quite different. Or if she'd leave him alone, and let him arrange his life as he pleases. But she doesn't dare lose her hold of him on account of the money, and so when HE isn't jealous she pretends to be."
Miss Bart went on writing in silence, and her hostess sat following her train of thought with frowning intensity.
"Do you know," she exclaimed after a long pause, "I believe I'll call up Lawrence on the telephone and tell him he simply MUST come?"
"Oh, don't," said Lily, with a quick suffusion of colour. The blush surprised her almost as much as it did her hostess, who, though not commonly observant of facial changes, sat staring at her with puzzled eyes.
"Good gracious, Lily, how handsome you are! Why? Do you dislike him so much?"
"Not at all; I like him. But if you are actuated by the benevolent intention of protecting me from Bertha — I don't think I need your protection."
Mrs. Trenor sat up with an exclamation. "Lily! — — PERCY? Do you mean to say you've actually done it?"
Miss Bart smiled. "I only mean to say that Mr. Gryce and I are getting to be very good friends."
"H'm — I see." Mrs. Trenor fixed a rapt eye upon her. "You know they say he has eight hundred thousand a year — and spends nothing, except on some rubbishy old books. And his mother has heart-disease and will leave him a lot more. OH, LILY, DO GO SLOWLY," her friend adjured her.
Miss Bart continued to smile without annoyance. "I shouldn't, for instance," she remarked, "be in any haste to tell him that he had a lot of rubbishy old books."
"No, of course not; I know you're wonderful about getting up people's subjects. But he's horribly shy, and easily shocked, and — and — — "
"Why don't you say it, Judy? I have the reputation of being on the hunt for a rich husband?"
"Oh, I don't mean that; he wouldn't believe it of you — at first," said Mrs. Trenor, with candid shrewdness. "But you know things are rather lively here at times — I must give Jack and Gus a hint — and if he thought you were what his mother would call fast — oh, well, you know what I mean. Don't wear your scarlet CREPE-DE-CHINE for dinner, and don't smoke if you can help it, Lily dear!"
Lily pushed aside her finished work with a dry smile. "You're very kind, Judy: I'll lock up my cigarettes and wear that last year's dress you sent me this morning. And if you are really interested in my career, perhaps you'll be kind enough not to ask me to play bridge again this evening."
"Bridge? Does he mind bridge, too? Oh, Lily, what an awful life you'll lead! But of course I won't — why didn't you give me a hint last night? There's nothing I wouldn't do, you poor duck, to see you happy!"
And Mrs. Trenor, glowing with her sex's eagerness to smooth the course of true love, enveloped Lily in a long embrace.
"You're quite sure," she added solicitously, as the latter extricated herself, "that you wouldn't like me to telephone for Lawrence Selden?"
"Quite sure," said Lily.
The next three days demonstrated to her own complete satisfaction Miss Bart's ability to manage her affairs without extraneous aid.
As she sat, on the Saturday afternoon, on the terrace at Bellomont, she smiled at Mrs. Trenor's fear that she might go too fast. If such a warning had ever been needful, the years had taught her a salutary lesson, and she flattered herself that she now knew how to adapt her pace to the object of pursuit. In the case of Mr. Gryce she had found it well to flutter ahead, losing herself elusively and luring him on from depth to depth of unconscious intimacy. The surrounding atmosphere was propitious to this scheme of courtship. Mrs. Trenor, true to her word, had shown no signs of expecting Lily at the bridge-table, and had even hinted to the other card-players that they were to betray no surprise at her unwonted defection. In consequence of this hint, Lily found herself the centre of that feminine solicitude which envelops a young woman in the mating season. A solitude was tacitly created for her in the crowded existence of Bellomont, and her friends could not have shown a greater readiness for self-effacement had her wooing been adorned with all the attributes of romance. In Lily's set this conduct implied a sympathetic comprehension of her motives, and Mr. Gryce rose in her esteem as she saw the consideration he inspired.
The terrace at Bellomont on a September afternoon was a spot propitious to sentimental musings, and as Miss Bart stood leaning against the balustrade above the sunken garden, at a little distance from the animated group about the tea-table, she might have been lost in the mazes of an inarticulate happiness. In reality, her thoughts were finding definite utterance in the tranquil recapitulation of the blessings in store for her. From where she stood she could see them embodied in the form of Mr. Gryce, who, in a light overcoat and muffler, sat somewhat nervously on the edge of his chair, while Carry Fisher, with all the energy of eye and gesture with which nature and art had combined to endow her, pressed on him the duty of taking part in the task of municipal reform.
Mrs. Fisher's latest hobby was municipal reform. It had been preceded by an equal zeal for socialism, which had in turn replaced an energetic advocacy of Christian Science. Mrs. Fisher was small, fiery and dramatic; and her hands and eyes were admirable instruments in the service of whatever causes he happened to espouse. She had, however, the fault common to enthusiasts of ignoring any slackness of response on the part of her hearers, and Lily was amused by her unconsciousness of the resistance displayed in every angle of Mr. Gryce's attitude. Lily herself knew that his mind was divided between the dread of catching cold if he remained out of doors too long at that hour, and the fear that, if he retreated to the house, Mrs. Fisher might follow him up with a paper to be signed. Mr. Gryce had a constitutional dislike to what he called "committing himself," and tenderly as he cherished his health, he evidently concluded that it was safer to stay out of reach of pen and ink till chance released him from Mrs. Fisher's toils. Meanwhile he cast agonized glances in the direction of Miss Bart, whose only response was to sink into an attitude of more graceful abstraction. She had learned the value of contrast in throwing her charms into relief, and was fully aware of the extent to which Mrs. Fisher's volubility was enhancing her own repose.
She was roused from her musings by the approach of her cousin Jack Stepney who, at Gwen Van Osburgh's side, was returning across the garden from the tennis court.
The couple in question were engaged in the same kind of romance in which Lily figured, and the latter felt a certain annoyance in contemplating what seemed to her a caricature of her own situation. Miss Van Osburgh was a large girl with flat surfaces and no high lights: Jack Stepney had once said of her that she was as reliable as roast mutton. His own taste was in the line of less solid and more highly-seasoned diet; but hunger makes any fare palatable, and there had been times when Mr. Stepney had been reduced to a crust.
Lily considered with interest the expression of their faces: the girl's turned toward her companion's like an empty plate held up to be filled, while the man lounging at her side already betrayed the encroaching boredom which would presently crack the thin veneer of his smile.
"How impatient men are!" Lily reflected. "All Jack has to do to get everything he wants is to keep quiet and let that girl marry him; whereas I have to calculate and contrive, and retreat and advance, as if I were going through an intricate dance, where one misstep would throw me hopelessly out of time."