"I don't expect to be consistent," Sally retorted. "I'm only an ill-assorted snarl of threads ravelled out from my different ancestors."
"That's dodging the responsibility, Miss Van Osdel."
Bobby lifted an oyster and held it up to view.
"I never did approve of shunting off our sins on the shoulders of our ancestors," he observed. "They sin; we get the come-uppance. You might as well say that the grandfather of this oyster is directly responsible for his being eaten alive."
"No man's sin is wholly his own doing," Lorimer said half bitterly.
There was a sudden pause, as they all came to a realizing sense that Sally's idle words had sent them sliding out upon thin ice. Bobby was the first to rally.
"True for you, Lorimer!" he assented cheerily. "That is one of the doctrines I have spent my life trying to impress on the governor. I wish he felt it more borne in upon him. But, as you were saying, Sally, you're not expecting to become consistent. I'm glad, for you won't be disappointed. The brightest jewel in your crown will have to be of another color."
"What color is consistency, Bobby?" his cousin asked.
"Green, of course, reflected from the jealous eyes of the ninety and nine sinners who haven't the virtue."
"I'm not at all certain that I wish to be consistent," Sally asserted.
"So glad for your sake!" Bobby returned quickly.
Thayer looked up inquiringly.
"Because consistent people are such bores, Miss Van Osdel?"
"So you are a heretic, too? And then they are so smug."
"But there's consistency and consistency," Bobby argued. "There's mashed potato and frappé, for instance, equally hard, equally homogeneous, yet totally different. To my mind, there is a distinct choice between them, and I prefer--"
"Cherries in your frappé." Sally capped his sentence for him. "In other words, we all like a consistent person with lumps of inconsistency. That's myself, and one of my lumps is a dislike of having Mrs. Lloyd Avalons on our tenement committee."
"But, if you are slumming--"
"That is ignoble of you, Beatrix. The committee doesn't slum within its own confines."
"Oh, I didn't mean that at all," Beatrix protested hastily. "Really, though. I can't see why you and Mrs. Lloyd Avalons can't unite in working for somebody quite outside either of your worlds."
Sally raised her brows in saucy imitation of Mrs. Lloyd Avalons's pet expression. Then she pushed Beatrix's words aside with daintily outstretched fingers.
"Can't you?" she said coolly, as she ended her little pantomime. "Well, I can. To adopt Bobby's choice illustration, it would be like mixing potato and frappé. The potato would melt the frappé, and then the frappé would--well, would render the potato unpalatable. In other words, if we work together, I shall pulverize Mrs. Lloyd Avalons, and then the dust of her individuality will get in among my nerves and clog them."
"If you can't be consistent, Miss Van Osdel, please do try to be concrete," Thayer urged. "I confess that I find it a little difficult to follow you."
"Not at all," Bobby interposed. "She isn't going anywhere. Sally's mental processes always remind me of the way we used to play cars in a row of easy chairs. We were extremely energetic, and we pretended that we were going somewhere; but in reality we didn't budge an inch. Sally, what is the reason you don't like Mrs. Lloyd Avalons?"
"Because she is utterly preposterous," Sally replied concisely.
"And yet, she is bound to arrive, some day," Lorimer said thoughtfully.
"Then I hope it may not be until after I have left," Sally retorted. "I don't care to have her making connections with me."
"Sally, you are uncharitable," Beatrix said rebukingly; but Bobby interrupted,--
"That's more than you can say of Mrs. Lloyd Avalons. She is on half the charity committees in town."
"How did she get there?" Thayer asked, with unfeigned curiosity.
"By toiling upward, day and night. That's where she scores ahead of the great men. According to the poet, they only belonged to the night shift. Mrs. Lloyd Avalons sleeps with the Blue Book under her pillow and dreams social combinations."
"She probably has a chess board always at her elbow," Sally suggested. "I can fancy the game, the white queen and her pawn against the whole black force, each man neatly tagged with his name and social status."
"She is marching straight into the king-row, though," Bobby added.
Beatrix called them to order.
"Does it strike you that this is perilously near to being gossip?" she inquired.
But Sally had the last word.
"It's not gossip to talk over the possibilities of the lower classes," she remarked imperturbably. "It is social science."
Lorimer went back to the original question which had started the discussion.
"As I said before, there is a certain inconsistency in the idea of a given number of women setting themselves to work to better the condition of the masses, and then coming to wreck and ruin because one of their number is of a slightly different set."
"Slightly inferior," Sally corrected him.
Lorimer accepted the amendment.
"Inferior, then, if you choose. But we are talking of the theory in the abstract, not of any particular case. One hardly expects to find snobbishness in slumming."
"Then that's where one gets left," Bobby commented, by way of parenthesis.
"But if you are all stooping?"
"Yes; but the alignment is better, if we all stoop at the same angle," Sally protested.
"What I wish to know," Thayer said thoughtfully; "is where the deadline of propriety exists. Take the case of Mrs. Lloyd Avalons, for instance. Why does she take Patsey Keefe to her heart and home, and snub Arlt upon all occasions?"
"Because she wishes to maintain a proper perspective," Sally replied. "Everyone knows that Patsey and she are chums from choice; with Mr. Arlt, there might be a question. Legitimate slumming presupposes two willing parties, the slummer and the slummed."
"In other words," Bobby added; "it is socially possible to foregather with the slum in the next ward; it is death to speak to the undesirable neighbor in the back alley. The fact is ordained; but it will take several generations of social scientists to ferret out the cause."
Sally addressed the table at large.
"For my part, I like Mr. Arlt," she said flatly. "What's more, I am going with him to the Kneisel concert, to-morrow night; and, if any of you are there and choose to eye me askance, you are welcome."
Later, that evening, Thayer found himself with Beatrix and a little apart from the others. The dinner had been utterly informal, and it had been tacitly understood that the guests should linger afterwards. It was only ten days since the Lorimers had landed from their European honeymoon, and as yet they felt themselves privileged to hold themselves a little aloof from the social treadmill. Though the breakfast table, each morning, was littered with cards and notes of invitation, yet the season was in their favor. Lent had entered upon its last week, and even the largest functions clothed themselves in penitential and becoming shades of violet. Accordingly, it had been a source of little self-denial for Bobby and Sally to give up their other engagements for the evening. As for Thayer, he invariably went his own way, invited everywhere and appearing only in the places which suited his mood of the hour. It was the one professional luxury that he allowed himself.
To his keen eye, Beatrix looked as if she were carrying a heavy burden of care. She was as alert as ever; her social training was bound to ensure that. But between her conversational sallies, her face settled into certain fixed lines that were new to Thayer. Even during the past two months, her lips had grown firmer; but her lids drooped more often, as if to hide some secret which otherwise might be betrayed by her eyes. Up to this time, Thayer had never called her especially pretty. She was handsome, perhaps; but her face was too cold, too austere. Now, however, it seemed to him full of possibilities for beauty, softer, infinitely more loving. In the old days, the curve of her lips had been haughty; to-night, their firmer lines appeared to him like a mask worn to conceal the gentler womanhood within. She was thinner, too; but browned by her sea voyage, and she carried herself with the nameless dignity which comes to a woman upon her bridal day.
Lorimer appeared to be in the pink of condition. He was more handsome than ever, more graciously winning. His voice had all the old caressing intonations which Thayer recalled so well, together with many new ones that crept into his tone whenever he addressed his wife. By look and word and gesture, he referred and deferred to her constantly; and his eyes never failed to light, when they rested upon her own. No man could have been more frankly and openly in love with his own wife.
"Then I take it for granted that the trip has been a success," Thayer said, as he joined her.
"Indeed it has. Mr. Lorimer took me to all his old haunts and, in Berlin, to all of yours that he could find. We went to your old lodgings, and we heard a concert in the hall where you made your début and, the last day we were there, Sidney insisted upon hunting up your old master."
Thayer looked up suddenly.
"The dear old Maestro
; Did he remember me?" he asked, with a boyish enthusiasm which sat well upon him.
"Certainly he did, if remember
is the right word, for his knowledge of you was not all in the past tense. He has followed you closely, and he knows just what you have done. Mr. Thayer," she added abruptly; "why have you never sung in opera?"
"Why should I?"
"Because he said that there was your especial talent, only he called it by a stronger name. He jeers at the work you are doing."
"I am sorry. I thought it was good work."
"So it is, as far as it goes. But the other goes farther."
"Perhaps," he assented. "But do you think it is as--as--"
"Good form?" she queried, laughing. "Yes, if you choose to have it so. It depends something upon the individual. With your training and traditions, you would scarcely elect to sing comic opera in English."
"Heaven forbid!" he said hastily. "But there are grades and grades, even of the other. Not many mortals reach the top round of the ladder."
"No; and, even if they did, they would be a good deal in your way, for the space up there is limited. It will be merely a question of your own will whether or not you occupy a part of it."
He was surprised at the turn the conversation had taken. No woman, not even Miss Gannion, had ever dared question to him the wisdom of his choice, or imply to him that there were laurels which he had not yet plucked. Strange to say, he rather enjoyed the frank fashion in which Beatrix was taking him to task. Nevertheless, he fenced a little.
"I have always preferred a moderate success to an immoderate failure," he answered her.
She shook her head.
"That sounds specious; but you know it is a quibble. I had never supposed that your ambition was so limited."
"But it is not the mark of limitation to know where my success lies."
"Perhaps not. For my part, though, I don't want to rest on any success. If I succeed in one thing, that is over and done with, and I want to try for something else."
"And if you fail?"
"Then, as soon as I am quite sure it is a failure and that no power of mine can beat it into a success, I try to turn my back upon it, and face another problem," she replied, with a quiet dignity which ignored the flush that rose in both their faces at the careless question.
Thayer, too, had seen the flush in her cheeks which had answered to his own rising color. For an instant, he questioned whether it were an unwitting acknowledgment that her power over Lorimer was more limited than she had supposed. Then he dismissed the suspicion. Her poise was too perfect to make such a supposition possible. It was only that he, knowing the truth, sought for confirmation upon all sides.
"You are a good fighter," he responded quietly. "What would be the concrete application of your theory to my practice?"
"That you should try to fulfil the ambition your old master has for you," she returned. "Why don't you try it? You can't gain any more glory in your present field; you stand at the head of concert and oratorio singers in America. You have nothing to lose; and, over there in Berlin, there is an old man who boasts that he made your voice, and says that he can never sing his Nunc Dimittis
until you have entered upon your right path."
Thayer's face softened.
"Did he say that?"
"Yes, and he extorted a promise from me that I would tell you his very words. That is the reason I have made bold to speak about the matter."
"What do you think about it, yourself, Mrs. Lorimer?"
"That he knows your possibilities much better than I," she answered evasively.
"But you have an opinion," he urged.
"Yes, I have," she replied frankly. "From what he told me, and from what I have heard of your singing, I know that you can do broader work than any you have attempted. Your voice will do for either thing, opera or oratorio; but on a few times--" she hesitated; then she went on without flinching; "on the night of the Fresh Air Fund concert, for instance, you showed a dramatic power that is wasted in your present work." Suddenly she laughed at her own earnestness. "What am I, that I should advise the star of the season? Do excuse my frankness, Mr. Thayer."
"I asked you."
"That's no reason I should bore you with all my theories upon a subject of which I know practically nothing. And, meanwhile, I am forgetting to tell you that we went to see Frau Arlt."
His face showed his pleasure and his approval, his pleasure that he had found something in Lorimer to which he could give his unreserved approval.
"I am glad you saw her. It was like Lorimer to hunt her up. Does Otto know about it?"
"He came to dinner, a day or two after we landed. Mr. Lorimer had written him a note to tell him we were at home, and you should have seen the boy's delight over the box of funny little odds and ends his mother had sent him. Sidney is always so thoughtful, and he suggested to the old lady that we had room in our trunks for a package. I really think that the boy was happier with his home-made gifts than I was with the things Mr. Lorimer gave me in Paris."
"It was so that Thayer liked best to think of her"
"He has been a very brave, but a very homesick little German," Thayer answered, while his eyes rested thoughtfully on her face. It brightened now, as she spoke of Lorimer, and a half-tender, half-amused smile was playing around her lips. All in all, Thayer was broad enough to like it better so.
Suddenly she rose, as if to end their conversation; but she turned back again to add,--
"Of all my wedding gifts, Mr. Thayer, the sweetest was the blessing of good old Frau Arlt. She will never forget Mr. Lorimer, and her story of his kindness in their darkest days, her good wishes to me, and her happiness in seeing us will always stand out as an unforgettable picture. You knew all about it, of course; but I had no idea how good to them Sidney had been, nor how full of tact."
The smile still lingered about her lips, and her cheeks were flushed a little, as she turned away in answer to her husband's call. For long months to come, it was so that Thayer liked best to think of her.