Old Jerome Warren lived in a hundred-thousand-dollar house at 35 East Fifty-Soforth Street. He was a downtown broker, so rich that he could afford to walk—for his health—a few blocks in the direction of his office every morning, and then call a cab.
He had an adopted son, the son of an old friend named Gilbert—Cyril Scott could play him nicely—who was becoming a successful painter as fast as he could squeeze the paint out of his tubes. Another member of the household was Barbara Ross, a step-niece. Man is born to trouble; so, as old Jerome had no family of his own, he took up the burdens of others.
Gilbert and Barbara got along swimmingly. There was a tacit and tactical understanding all round that the two would stand up under a floral bell some high noon, and promise the minister to keep old Jerome’s money in a state of high commotion. But at this point complications must be introduced.
Thirty years before, when old Jerome was young Jerome, there was a brother of his named Dick. Dick went West to seek his or somebody else’s fortune. Nothing was heard of him until one day old Jerome had a letter from his brother. It was badly written on ruled paper that smelled of salt bacon and coffee-grounds. The writing was asthmatic and the spelling St. Vitusy.
It appeared that instead of Dick having forced Fortune to stand and deliver, he had been held up himself, and made to give hostages to the enemy. That is, as his letter disclosed, he was on the point of pegging out with a complication of disorders that even whiskey had failed to check. All that his thirty years of prospecting had netted him was one daughter, nineteen years old, as per invoice, whom he was shipping East, charges prepaid, for Jerome to clothe, feed, educate, comfort, and cherish for the rest of her natural life or until matrimony should them part.
Old Jerome was a board-walk. Everybody knows that the world is supported by the shoulders of Atlas; and that Atlas stands on a rail-fence; and that the rail-fence is built on a turtle’s back. Now, the turtle has to stand on something; and that is a board-walk made of men like old Jerome.
I do not know whether immortality shall accrue to man; but if not so, I would like to know when men like old Jerome get what is due them?
They met Nevada Warren at the station. She was a little girl, deeply sunburned and wholesomely good-looking, with a manner that was frankly unsophisticated, yet one that not even a cigar-drummer would intrude upon without thinking twice. Looking at her, somehow you would expect to see her in a short skirt and leather leggings, shooting glass balls or taming mustangs. But in her plain white waist and black skirt she sent you guessing again. With an easy exhibition of strength she swung along a heavy valise, which the uniformed porters tried in vain to wrest from her.
“I am sure we shall be the best of friends,” said Barbara, pecking at the firm, sunburned cheek.
“I hope so,” said Nevada.
“Dear little niece,” said old Jerome, “you are as welcome to my home as if it were your father’s own.”
“Thanks,” said Nevada.
“And I am going to call you ‘cousin,'” said Gilbert, with his charming smile.
“Take the valise, please,” said Nevada. “It weighs a million pounds. It’s got samples from six of dad’s old mines in it,” she explained to Barbara. “I calculate they’d assay about nine cents to the thousand tons, but I promised him to bring them along.”
It is a common custom to refer to the usual complication between one man and two ladies, or one lady and two men, or a lady and a man and a nobleman, or—well, any of those problems—as the triangle. But they are never unqualified triangles. They are always isosceles—never equilateral. So, upon the coming of Nevada Warren, she and Gilbert and Barbara Ross lined up into such a figurative triangle; and of that triangle Barbara formed the hypotenuse.
One morning old Jerome was lingering long after breakfast over the dullest morning paper in the city before setting forth to his down-town fly-trap. He had become quite fond of Nevada, finding in her much of his dead brother’s quiet independence and unsuspicious frankness.
A maid brought in a note for Miss Nevada Warren.
“A messenger-boy delivered it at the door, please,” she said. “He’s waiting for an answer.”
Nevada, who was whistling a Spanish waltz between her teeth, and watching the carriages and autos roll by in the street, took the envelope. She knew it was from Gilbert, before she opened it, by the little gold palette in the upper left-hand corner.
After tearing it open she pored over the contents for a while, absorbedly. Then, with a serious face, she went and stood at her uncle’s elbow.
“Uncle Jerome, Gilbert is a nice boy, isn’t he?”
“Why, bless the child!” said old Jerome, crackling his paper loudly; “of course he is. I raised him myself.”
“He wouldn’t write anything to anybody that wasn’t exactly—I mean that everybody couldn’t know and read, would he?”
“I’d just like to see him try it,” said uncle, tearing a handful from his newspaper. “Why, what—”
“Read this note he just sent me, uncle, and see if you think it’s all right and proper. You see, I don’t know much about city people and their ways.”
Old Jerome threw his paper down and set both his feet upon it. He took Gilbert’s note and fiercely perused it twice, and then a third time.
“Why, child,” said he, “you had me almost excited, although I was sure of that boy. He’s a duplicate of his father, and he was a gilt-edged diamond. He only asks if you and Barbara will be ready at four o’clock this afternoon for an automobile drive over to Long Island. I don’t see anything to criticise in it except the stationery. I always did hate that shade of blue.”
“Would it be all right to go?” asked Nevada, eagerly.
“Yes, yes, yes, child; of course. Why not? Still, it pleases me to see you so careful and candid. Go, by all means.”
“I didn’t know,” said Nevada, demurely. “I thought I’d ask you. Couldn’t you go with us, uncle?”
“I? No, no, no, no! I’ve ridden once in a car that boy was driving. Never again! But it’s entirely proper for you and Barbara to go. Yes, yes. But I will not. No, no, no, no!”
Nevada flew to the door, and said to the maid:
“You bet we’ll go. I’ll answer for Miss Barbara. Tell the boy to say to Mr. Warren, ‘You bet we’ll go.'”
“Nevada,” called old Jerome, “pardon me, my dear, but wouldn’t it be as well to send him a note in reply? Just a line would do.”
“No, I won’t bother about that,” said Nevada, gayly. “Gilbert will understand—he always does. I never rode in an automobile in my life; but I’ve paddled a canoe down Little Devil River through the Lost Horse Cañon, and if it’s any livelier than that I’d like to know!”
Two months are supposed to have elapsed.
Barbara sat in the study of the hundred-thousand-dollar house. It was a good place for her. Many places are provided in the world where men and women may repair for the purpose of extricating themselves from divers difficulties. There are cloisters, wailing-places, watering-places, confessionals, hermitages, lawyer’s offices, beauty parlors, air-ships, and studies; and the greatest of these are studies.
It usually takes a hypotenuse a long time to discover that it is the longest side of a triangle. But it’s a long line that has no turning.
Barbara was alone. Uncle Jerome and Nevada had gone to the theatre. Barbara had not cared to go. She wanted to stay at home and study in the study. If you, miss, were a stunning New York girl, and saw every day that a brown, ingenuous Western witch was getting hobbles and a lasso on the young man you wanted for yourself, you, too, would lose taste for the oxidized-silver setting of a musical comedy.
Barbara sat by the quartered-oak library table. Her right arm rested upon the table, and her dextral fingers nervously manipulated a sealed letter. The letter was addressed to Nevada Warren; and in the upper left-hand corner of the envelope was Gilbert’s little gold palette. It had been delivered at nine o’clock, after Nevada had left.
Barbara would have given her pearl necklace to know what the letter contained; but she could not open and read it by the aid of steam, or a pen-handle, or a hair-pin, or any of the generally approved methods, because her position in society forbade such an act. She had tried to read some of the lines of the letter by holding the envelope up to a strong light and pressing it hard against the paper, but Gilbert had too good a taste in stationery to make that possible.
At eleven-thirty the theatre-goers returned. It was a delicious winter night. Even so far as from the cab to the door they were powdered thickly with the big flakes downpouring diagonally from the east. Old Jerome growled good-naturedly about villainous cab service and blockaded streets. Nevada, colored like a rose, with sapphire eyes, babbled of the stormy nights in the mountains around dad’s cabin. During all these wintry apostrophes, Barbara, cold at heart, sawed wood—the only appropriate thing she could think of to do.
Old Jerome went immediately up-stairs to hot-water-bottles and quinine. Nevada fluttered into the study, the only cheerfully lighted room, subsided into an arm-chair, and, while at the interminable task of unbuttoning her elbow gloves, gave oral testimony as to the demerits of the “show.”
“Yes, I think Mr. Fields is really amusing—sometimes,” said Barbara. “Here is a letter for you, dear, that came by special delivery just after you had gone.”
“Who is it from?” asked Nevada, tugging at a button.
“Well, really,” said Barbara, with a smile, “I can only guess. The envelope has that queer little thing in one corner that Gilbert calls a palette, but which looks to me rather like a gilt heart on a school-girl’s valentine.”
“I wonder what he’s writing to me about” remarked Nevada, listlessly.
“We’re all alike,” said Barbara; “all women. We try to find out what is in a letter by studying the postmark. As a last resort we use scissors, and read it from the bottom upward. Here it is.”
She made a motion as if to toss the letter across the table to Nevada.
“Great catamounts!” exclaimed Nevada. “These centre-fire buttons are a nuisance. I’d rather wear buckskins. Oh, Barbara, please shuck the hide off that letter and read it. It’ll be midnight before I get these gloves off!”
“Why, dear, you don’t want me to open Gilbert’s letter to you? It’s for you, and you wouldn’t wish any one else to read it, of course!”
Nevada raised her steady, calm, sapphire eyes from her gloves.
“Nobody writes me anything that everybody mightn’t read,” she said. “Go on, Barbara. Maybe Gilbert wants us to go out in his car again to-morrow.”
Curiosity can do more things than kill a cat; and if emotions, well recognized as feminine, are inimical to feline life, then jealousy would soon leave the whole world catless. Barbara opened the letter, with an indulgent, slightly bored air.
“Well, dear,” said she, “I’ll read it if you want me to.”
She slit the envelope, and read the missive with swift-travelling eyes; read it again, and cast a quick, shrewd glance at Nevada, who, for the time, seemed to consider gloves as the world of her interest, and letters from rising artists as no more than messages from Mars.
For a quarter of a minute Barbara looked at Nevada with a strange steadfastness; and then a smile so small that it widened her mouth only the sixteenth part of an inch, and narrowed her eyes no more than a twentieth, flashed like an inspired thought across her face.
Since the beginning no woman has been a mystery to another woman. Swift as light travels, each penetrates the heart and mind of another, sifts her sister’s words of their cunningest disguises, reads her most hidden desires, and plucks the sophistry from her wiliest talk like hairs from a comb, twiddling them sardonically between her thumb and fingers before letting them float away on the breezes of fundamental doubt. Long ago Eve’s son rang the door-bell of the family residence in Paradise Park, bearing a strange lady on his arm, whom he introduced. Eve took her daughter-in-law aside and lifted a classic eyebrow.
“The Land of Nod,” said the bride, languidly flirting the leaf of a palm. “I suppose you’ve been there, of course?”
“Not lately,” said Eve, absolutely unstaggered. “Don’t you think the apple-sauce they serve over there is execrable? I rather like that mulberry-leaf tunic effect, dear; but, of course, the real fig goods are not to be had over there. Come over behind this lilac-bush while the gentlemen split a celery tonic. I think the caterpillar-holes have made your dress open a little in the back.”
So, then and there—according to the records—was the alliance formed by the only two who’s-who ladies in the world. Then it was agreed that woman should forever remain as clear as a pane of glass—though glass was yet to be discovered—to other women, and that she should palm herself off on man as a mystery.
Barbara seemed to hesitate.
“Really, Nevada,” she said, with a little show of embarrassment, “you shouldn’t have insisted on my opening this. I—I’m sure it wasn’t meant for any one else to know.”
Nevada forgot her gloves for a moment.
“Then read it aloud,” she said. “Since you’ve already read it, what’s the difference? If Mr. Warren has written to me something that any one else oughtn’t to know, that is all the more reason why everybody should know it.”
“Well,” said Barbara, “this is what it says: ‘Dearest Nevada—Come to my studio at twelve o’clock to-night. Do not fail.'” Barbara rose and dropped the note in Nevada’s lap. “I’m awfully sorry,” she said, “that I knew. It isn’t like Gilbert. There must be some mistake. Just consider that I am ignorant of it, will you, dear? I must go up-stairs now, I have such a headache. I’m sure I don’t understand the note. Perhaps Gilbert has been dining too well, and will explain. Good night!”
Nevada tiptoed to the hall, and heard Barbara’s door close upstairs. The bronze clock in the study told the hour of twelve was fifteen minutes away. She ran swiftly to the front door, and let herself out into the snow-storm. Gilbert Warren’s studio was six squares away.
By aerial ferry the white, silent forces of the storm attacked the city from beyond the sullen East River. Already the snow lay a foot deep on the pavements, the drifts heaping themselves like scaling-ladders against the walls of the besieged town. The Avenue was as quiet as a street in Pompeii. Cabs now and then skimmed past like white-winged gulls over a moonlit ocean; and less frequent motor-cars—sustaining the comparison—hissed through the foaming waves like submarine boats on their jocund, perilous journeys.
Nevada plunged like a wind-driven storm-petrel on her way. She looked up at the ragged sierras of cloud-capped buildings that rose above the streets, shaded by the night lights and the congealed vapors to gray, drab, ashen, lavender, dun, and cerulean tints. They were so like the wintry mountains of her Western home that she felt a satisfaction such as the hundred-thousand-dollar house had seldom brought her.
A policeman caused her to waver on a corner, just by his eye and weight.
“Hello, Mabel!” said he. “Kind of late for you to be out, ain’t it?”
“I—I am just going to the drug store,” said Nevada, hurrying past him.
The excuse serves as a passport for the most sophisticated. Does it prove that woman never progresses, or that she sprang from Adam’s rib, full-fledged in intellect and wiles?
Turning eastward, the direct blast cut down Nevada’s speed one-half. She made zigzag tracks in the snow; but she was as tough as a piñon sapling, and bowed to it as gracefully. Suddenly the studio-building loomed before her, a familiar landmark, like a cliff above some well-remembered cañon. The haunt of business and its hostile neighbor, art, was darkened and silent. The elevator stopped at ten.
Up eight flights of Stygian stairs Nevada climbed, and rapped firmly at the door numbered “89.” She had been there many times before, with Barbara and Uncle Jerome.
Gilbert opened the door. He had a crayon pencil in one hand, a green shade over his eyes, and a pipe in his mouth. The pipe dropped to the floor.
“Am I late?” asked Nevada. “I came as quick as I could. Uncle and me were at the theatre this evening. Here I am, Gilbert!”
Gilbert did a Pygmalion-and-Galatea act. He changed from a statue of stupefaction to a young man with a problem to tackle. He admitted Nevada, got a whisk-broom, and began to brush the snow from her clothes. A great lamp, with a green shade, hung over an easel, where the artist had been sketching in crayon.
“You wanted me,” said Nevada simply, “and I came. You said so in your letter. What did you send for me for?”
“You read my letter?” inquired Gilbert, sparring for wind.
“Barbara read it to me. I saw it afterward. It said: ‘Come to my studio at twelve to-night, and do not fail.’ I thought you were sick, of course, but you don’t seem to be.”
“Aha!” said Gilbert irrelevantly. “I’ll tell you why I asked you to come, Nevada. I want you to marry me immediately—to-night. What’s a little snow-storm? Will you do it?”
“You might have noticed that I would, long ago,” said Nevada. “And I’m rather stuck on the snow-storm idea, myself. I surely would hate one of these flowery church noon-weddings. Gilbert, I didn’t know you had grit enough to propose it this way. Let’s shock ’em—it’s our funeral, ain’t it?”
“You bet!” said Gilbert. “Where did I hear that expression?” he added to himself. “Wait a minute, Nevada; I want to do a little ‘phoning.”
He shut himself in a little dressing-room, and called upon the lightnings of the heavens—condensed into unromantic numbers and districts.
“That you, Jack? You confounded sleepyhead! Yes, wake up; this is me—or I—oh, bother the difference in grammar! I’m going to be married right away. Yes! Wake up your sister—don’t answer me back; bring her along, too—you must! Remind Agnes of the time I saved her from drowning in Lake Ronkonkoma—I know it’s caddish to refer to it, but she must come with you. Yes. Nevada is here, waiting. We’ve been engaged quite a while. Some opposition among the relatives, you know, and we have to pull it off this way. We’re waiting here for you. Don’t let Agnes out-talk you—bring her! You will? Good old boy! I’ll order a carriage to call for you, double-quick time. Confound you, Jack, you’re all right!”
Gilbert returned to the room where Nevada waited.
“My old friend, Jack Peyton, and his sister were to have been here at a quarter to twelve,” he explained; “but Jack is so confoundedly slow. I’ve just ‘phoned them to hurry. They’ll be here in a few minutes. I’m the happiest man in the world, Nevada! What did you do with the letter I sent you to-day?”
“I’ve got it cinched here,” said Nevada, pulling it out from beneath her opera-cloak.
Gilbert drew the letter from the envelope and looked it over carefully. Then he looked at Nevada thoughtfully.
“Didn’t you think it rather queer that I should ask you to come to my studio at midnight?” he asked.
“Why, no,” said Nevada, rounding her eyes. “Not if you needed me. Out West, when a pal sends you a hurry call—ain’t that what you say here?—we get there first and talk about it after the row is over. And it’s usually snowing there, too, when things happen. So I didn’t mind.”
Gilbert rushed into another room, and came back burdened with overcoats warranted to turn wind, rain, or snow.
“Put this raincoat on,” he said, holding it for her. “We have a quarter of a mile to go. Old Jack and his sister will be here in a few minutes.” He began to struggle into a heavy coat. “Oh, Nevada,” he said, “just look at the headlines on the front page of that evening paper on the table, will you? It’s about your section of the West, and I know it will interest you.”
He waited a full minute, pretending to find trouble in the getting on of his overcoat, and then turned. Nevada had not moved. She was looking at him with strange and pensive directness. Her cheeks had a flush on them beyond the color that had been contributed by the wind and snow; but her eyes were steady.
“I was going to tell you,” she said, “anyhow, before you—before we—before—well, before anything. Dad never gave me a day of schooling. I never learned to read or write a darned word. Now if—”
Pounding their uncertain way up-stairs, the feet of Jack, the somnolent, and Agnes, the grateful, were heard.
When Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert Warren were spinning softly homeward in a closed carriage, after the ceremony, Gilbert said:
“Nevada, would you really like to know what I wrote you in the letter that you received to-night?”
“Fire away!” said his bride.
“Word for word,” said Gilbert, “it was this: ‘My dear Miss Warren—You were right about the flower. It was a hydrangea, and not a lilac.'”
“All right,” said Nevada. “But let’s forget it. The joke’s on Barbara, anyway!”