Mrs. Bett had been having a “tantrim,” brought on by nothing definable. Abruptly as she and Ina were getting supper, Mrs. Bett had fallen silent, had in fact refused to reply when addressed. When all was ready and Dwight was entering, hair wetly brushed, she had withdrawn from the room and closed her bedroom door until it echoed.
“She’s got one again,” said Ina, grieving; “Dwight, you go.”
He went, showing no sign of annoyance, and stood outside his mother-in-law’s door and knocked.
“Mother, come and have some supper.”
“Looks to me like your muffins was just about the best ever.”
“Come on—I had something funny to tell you and Ina.”
He retreated, knowing nothing of the admirable control exercised by this woman for her own passionate satisfaction in sliding him away unsatisfied. He showed nothing but anxious concern, touched with regret, at his failure. Ina, too, returned from that door discomfited. Dwight made a gallant effort to retrieve the fallen fortunes of their evening meal, and turned upon Di, who had just entered, and with exceeding facetiousness inquired how Bobby was.
Di looked hunted. She could never tell whether her parents were going to tease her about Bobby, or rebuke her for being seen with him. It depended on mood, and this mood Di had not the experience to gauge. She now groped for some neutral fact, and mentioned that he was going to take her and Jenny for ice cream that night.
Ina’s irritation found just expression in office of motherhood.
“I won’t have you downtown in the evening,” she said.
“But you let me go last night.”
“All the better reason why you should not go to-night.”
“I tell you,” cried Dwight. “Why not all walk down? Why not all have ice cream….” He was all gentleness and propitiation, the reconciling element in his home.
“Me too?” Monona’s ardent hope, her terrible fear were in her eyebrows, her parted lips.
“You too, certainly.” Dwight could not do enough for every one.
Monona clapped her hands. “Goody! goody! Last time you wouldn’t let me go.”
“That’s why papa’s going to take you this time,” Ina said.
These ethical balances having been nicely struck, Ina proposed another:
“But,” she said, “but, you must eat more supper or you can not go.”
“I don’t want any more.” Monona’s look was honest and piteous.
“Makes no difference. You must eat or you’ll get sick.”
“Very well, then. No ice cream soda for such a little girl.”
Monona began to cry quietly. But she passed her plate. She ate, chewing high, and slowly.
“See? She can eat if she will eat,” Ina said to Dwight. “The only trouble is, she will not take the time.”
“She don’t put her mind on her meals,” Dwight Herbert diagnosed it. “Oh, bigger bites than that!” he encouraged his little daughter.
Di’s mind had been proceeding along its own paths.
“Are you going to take Jenny and Bobby too?” she inquired.
“Certainly. The whole party.”
“Bobby’ll want to pay for Jenny and I.”
“Me, darling,” said Ina patiently, punctiliously—and less punctiliously added: “Nonsense. This is going to be papa’s little party.”
“But we had the engagement with Bobby. It was an engagement.”
“Well,” said Ina, “I think we’ll just set that aside—that important engagement. I think we just will.”
“Papa! Bobby’ll want to be the one to pay for Jenny and I——”
“Di!” Ina’s voice dominated all. “Will you be more careful of your grammar or shall I speak to you again?”
“Well, I’d rather use bad grammar than—than—than——” she looked resentfully at her mother, her father. Their moral defection was evident to her, but it was indefinable. They told her that she ought to be ashamed when papa wanted to give them all a treat. She sat silent, frowning, put-upon.
“Look, mamma!” cried Monona, swallowing a third of an egg at one impulse. Ina saw only the empty plate.
“Mamma’s nice little girl!” cried she, shining upon her child.
The rules of the ordinary sports of the playground, scrupulously applied, would have clarified the ethical atmosphere of this little family. But there was no one to apply them.
When Di and Monona had been excused, Dwight asked:
“Nothing new from the bride and groom?”
“No. And, Dwight, it’s been a week since the last.”
“See—where were they then?”
He knew perfectly well that they were in Savannah, Georgia, but Ina played his game, told him, and retold bits that the letter had said.
“I don’t understand,” she added, “why they should go straight to Oregon without coming here first.”
Dwight hazarded that Nin probably had to get back, and shone pleasantly in the reflected importance of a brother filled with affairs.
“I don’t know what to make of Lulu’s letters,” Ina proceeded. “They’re so—so——”
“You haven’t had but two, have you?”
“That’s all—well, of course it’s only been a month. But both letters have been so——”
Ina was never really articulate. Whatever corner of her brain had the blood in it at the moment seemed to be operative, and she let the matter go at that.
“I don’t think it’s fair to mamma—going off that way. Leaving her own mother. Why, she may never see mamma again—” Ina’s breath caught. Into her face came something of the lovely tenderness with which she sometimes looked at Monona and Di. She sprang up. She had forgotten to put some supper to warm for mamma. The lovely light was still in her face as she bustled about against the time of mamma’s recovery from her tantrim. Dwight’s face was like this when he spoke of his foster-mother. In both these beings there was something which functioned as pure love.
Mamma had recovered and was eating cold scrambled eggs on the corner of the kitchen table when the ice cream soda party was ready to set out. Dwight threw her a casual “Better come, too, Mother Bett,” but she shook her head. She wished to go, wished it with violence, but she contrived to give to her arbitrary refusal a quality of contempt. When Jenny arrived with Bobby, she had brought a sheaf of gladioli for Mrs. Bett, and took them to her in the kitchen, and as she laid the flowers beside her, the young girl stopped and kissed her. “You little darling!” cried Mrs. Bett, and clung to her, her lifted eyes lit by something intense and living. But when the ice cream party had set off at last, Mrs. Bett left her supper, gathered up the flowers, and crossed the lawn to the old cripple, Grandma Gates.
“Inie sha’n’t have ’em,” the old woman thought.
And then it was quite beautiful to watch her with Grandma Gates, whom she tended and petted, to whose complainings she listened, and to whom she tried to tell the small events of her day. When her neighbour had gone, Grandma Gates said that it was as good as a dose of medicine to have her come in.
Mrs. Bett sat on the porch restored and pleasant when the family returned. Di and Bobby had walked home with Jenny.
“Look here,” said Dwight Herbert, “who is it sits home and has ice cream put in her lap, like a queen?”
“Vanilly or chocolate?” Mrs. Bett demanded.
“Chocolate, mammal” Ina cried, with the breeze in her voice.
“Vanilly sets better,” Mrs. Bett said.
They sat with her on the porch while she ate. Ina rocked on a creaking board. Dwight swung a leg over the railing. Monona sat pulling her skirt over her feet, and humming all on one note. There was no moon, but the warm dusk had a quality of transparency as if it were lit in all its particles.
The gate opened, and some one came up the walk. They looked, and it was Lulu.
“Well, if it ain’t Miss Lulu Bett!” Dwight cried involuntarily, and Ina cried out something.
“How did you know?” Lulu asked.
“Know! Know what?”
“That it ain’t Lulu Deacon. Hello, mamma.”
She passed the others, and kissed her mother.
“Say,” said Mrs. Bett placidly. “And I just ate up the last spoonful o’ cream.”
“Ain’t Lulu Deacon!” Ina’s voice rose and swelled richly. “What you talking?”
“Didn’t he write to you?” Lulu asked.
“Not a word.” Dwight answered this. “All we’ve had we had from you—the last from Savannah, Georgia.”
“Savannah, Georgia,” said Lulu, and laughed.
They could see that she was dressed well, in dark red cloth, with a little tilting hat and a drooping veil. She did not seem in any wise upset, nor, save for that nervous laughter, did she show her excitement.
“Well, but he’s here with you, isn’t he?” Dwight demanded. “Isn’t he here? Where is he?”
“Must be ‘most to Oregon by this time,” Lulu said.
“You see,” said Lulu, “he had another wife.”
“Why, he had not!” exclaimed Dwight absurdly.
“Yes. He hasn’t seen her for fifteen years and he thinks she’s dead. But he isn’t sure.”
“Nonsense,” said Dwight. “Why, of course she’s dead if he thinks so.”
“I had to be sure,” said Lulu.
At first dumb before this, Ina now cried out: “Monona! Go upstairs to bed at once.”
“It’s only quarter to,” said Monona, with assurance.
“Do as mamma tells you.”
She went, kissing them all good-night and taking her time about it. Everything was suspended while she kissed them and departed, walking slowly backward.
“Married?” said Mrs. Bett with tardy apprehension. “Lulie, was your husband married?”
“Yes,” Lulu said, “my husband was married, mother.”
“Mercy,” said Ina. “Think of anything like that in our family.”
“Well, go on—go on!” Dwight cried. “Tell us about it.”
Lulu spoke in a monotone, with her old manner of hesitation:
“We were going to Oregon. First down to New Orleans and then out to California and up the coast.” On this she paused and sighed. “Well, then at Savannah, Georgia, he said he thought I better know, first. So he told me.”
“Yes—well, what did he say?” Dwight demanded irritably.
“Cora Waters,” said Lulu. “Cora Waters. She married him down in San Diego, eighteen years ago. She went to South America with him.”
“Well, he never let us know of it, if she did,” said Dwight.
“No. She married him just before he went. Then in South America, after two years, she ran away again. That’s all he knows.”
“That’s a pretty story,” said Dwight contemptuously.
“He says if she’d been alive, she’d been after him for a divorce. And she never has been, so he thinks she must be dead. The trouble is,” Lulu said again, “he wasn’t sure. And I had to be sure.”
“Well, but mercy,” said Ina, “couldn’t he find out now?”
“It might take a long time,” said Lulu simply, “and I didn’t want to stay and not know.”
“Well, then, why didn’t he say so here?” Ina’s indignation mounted.
“He would have. But you know how sudden everything was. He said he thought about telling us right there in the restaurant, but of course that’d been hard—wouldn’t it? And then he felt so sure she was dead.”
“Why did he tell you at all, then?” demanded Ina, whose processes were simple.
“Yes. Well! Why indeed?” Dwight Herbert brought out these words with a curious emphasis.
“I thought that, just at first,” Lulu said, “but only just at first. Of course that wouldn’t have been right. And then, you see, he gave me my choice.”
“Gave you your choice?” Dwight echoed.
“Yes. About going on and taking the chances. He gave me my choice when he told me, there in Savannah, Georgia.”
“What made him conclude, by then, that you ought to be told?” Dwight asked.
“Why, he’d got to thinking about it,” she answered.
A silence fell. Lulu sat looking out toward the street.
“The only thing,” she said, “as long as it happened, I kind of wish he hadn’t told me till we got to Oregon.”
“Lulu!” said Ina. Ina began to cry. “You poor thing!” she said.
Her tears were a signal to Mrs. Bett, who had been striving to understand all. Now she too wept, tossing up her hands and rocking her body. Her saucer and spoon clattered on her knee.
“He felt bad too,” Lulu said.
“He!” said Dwight. “He must have.”
“It’s you,” Ina sobbed. “It’s you. My sister!”
“Well,” said Lulu, “but I never thought of it making you both feel bad, or I wouldn’t have come home. I knew,” she added, “it’d make Dwight feel bad. I mean, it was his brother——”
“Thank goodness,” Ina broke in, “nobody need know about it.”
Lulu regarded her, without change.
“Oh, yes,” she said in her monotone. “People will have to know.”
“I do not see the necessity.” Dwight’s voice was an edge. Then too he said “do not,” always with Dwight betokening the finalities.
“Why, what would they think?” Lulu asked, troubled.
“What difference does it make what they think?”.
“Why,” said Lulu slowly, “I shouldn’t like—you see they might—why, Dwight, I think we’ll have to tell them.”
“You do! You think the disgrace of bigamy in this family is something the whole town will have to know about?”
Lulu looked at him with parted lips.
“Say,” she said, “I never thought about it being that.”
Dwight laughed. “What did you think it was? And whose disgrace is it, pray?”
“Ninian’s,” said Lulu.
“Ninian’s! Well, he’s gone. But you’re here. And I’m here. Folks’ll feel sorry for you. But the disgrace—that’d reflect on me. See?”
“But if we don’t tell, what’ll they think then?”
Said Dwight: “They’ll think what they always think when a wife leaves her husband. They’ll think you couldn’t get along. That’s all.”
“I should hate that,” said Lulu.
“Well, I should hate the other, let me tell you.”
“Dwight, Dwight,” said Ina. “Let’s go in the house. I’m afraid they’ll hear——”
As they rose, Mrs. Bett plucked at her returned daughter’s sleeve.
“Lulie,” she said, “was his other wife—was she there?”
“No, no, mother. She wasn’t there.”
Mrs. Bett’s lips moved, repeating the words. “Then that ain’t so bad,” she said. “I was afraid maybe she turned you out.”
“No,” Lulu said, “it wasn’t that bad, mother.”
Mrs. Bett brightened. In little matters, she quarrelled and resented, but the large issues left her blank.
Through some indeterminate sense of the importance due this crisis, the Deacons entered their parlour. Dwight lighted that high, central burner and faced about, saying:
“In fact, I simply will not have it, Lulu! You expect, I take it, to make your home with us in the future, on the old terms.”
“I mean, did Ninian give you any money?”
“No. He didn’t give me any money—only enough to get home on. And I kept my suit—why!” she flung her head back, “I wouldn’t have taken any money!”
“That means,” said Dwight, “that you will have to continue to live here—on the old terms, and of course I’m quite willing that you should. Let me tell you, however, that this is on condition—on condition that this disgraceful business is kept to ourselves.”
She made no attempt to combat him now. She looked back at him, quivering, and in a great surprise, but she said nothing.
“Truly, Lulu,” said Ina, “wouldn’t that be best? They’ll talk anyway. But this way they’ll only talk about you, and the other way it’d be about all of us.”
Lulu said only: “But the other way would be the truth.”
Dwight’s eyes narrowed: “My dear Lulu,” he said, “are you sure of that?”
“Yes. Did he give you any proofs?”
“Letters—documents of any sort? Any sort of assurance that he was speaking the truth?”
“Why, no,” said Lulu. “Proofs—no. He told me.”
“He told you!”
“Why, that was hard enough to have to do. It was terrible for him to have to do. What proofs——” She stopped, puzzled.
“Didn’t it occur to you,” said Dwight, “that he might have told you that because he didn’t want to have to go on with it?”
As she met his look, some power seemed to go from Lulu. She sat down, looked weakly at them, and within her closed lips her jaw was slightly fallen. She said nothing. And seeing on her skirt a spot of dust she began to rub at that.
“Why, Dwight!” Ina cried, and moved to her sister’s side.
“I may as well tell you,” he said, “that I myself have no idea that Ninian told you the truth. He was always imagining things—you saw that. I know him pretty well—have been more or less in touch with him the whole time. In short, I haven’t the least idea he was ever married before.”
Lulu continued to rub at her skirt.
“I never thought of that,” she said.
“Look here,” Dwight went on persuasively, “hadn’t you and he had some little tiff when he told you?”
“No—no! Why, not once. Why, we weren’t a bit like you and Ina.”
She spoke simply and from her heart and without guile.
“Evidently not,” Dwight said drily.
Lulu went on: “He was very good to me. This dress—and my shoes—and my hat. And another dress, too.” She found the pins and took off her hat. “He liked the red wing,” she said. “I wanted black—oh, Dwight! He did tell me the truth!” It was as if the red wing had abruptly borne mute witness.
Dwight’s tone now mounted. His manner, it mounted too.
“Even if it is true,” said he, “I desire that you should keep silent and protect my family from this scandal. I merely mention my doubts to you for your own profit.”
“My own profit!”
She said no more, but rose and moved to the door.
“Lulu—you see! With Di and all!” Ina begged. “We just couldn’t have this known—even if it was so.”
“You have it in your hands,” said Dwight, “to repay me, Lulu, for anything that you feel I may have done for you in the past. You also have it in your hands to decide whether your home here continues. That is not a pleasant position for me to find myself in. It is distinctly unpleasant, I may say. But you see for yourself.”
Lulu went on, into the passage.
“Wasn’t she married when she thought she was?” Mrs. Bett cried shrilly.
“Mamma,” said Ina. “Do, please, remember Monona. Yes—Dwight thinks she’s married all right now—and that it’s all right, all the time.”
“Well, I hope so, for pity sakes,” said Mrs. Bett, and left the room with her daughter.
Hearing the stir, Monona upstairs lifted her voice:
“Mamma! Come on and hear my prayers, why don’t you?”
When they came downstairs next morning, Lulu had breakfast ready.
“Well!” cried Ina in her curving tone, “if this isn’t like old times.”
Lulu said yes, that it was like old times, and brought the bacon to the table.
“Lulu’s the only one in this house can cook the bacon so’s it’ll chew,” Mrs. Bett volunteered. She was wholly affable, and held contentedly to Ina’s last word that Dwight thought now it was all right.
“Ho!” said Dwight. “The happy family, once more about the festive toaster.” He gauged the moment to call for good cheer. Ina, too, became breezy, blithe. Monona caught their spirit and laughed, head thrown well back and gently shaken.
Di came in. She had been told that Auntie Lulu was at home, and that she, Di, wasn’t to say anything to her about anything, nor anything to anybody else about Auntie Lulu being back. Under these prohibitions, which loosed a thousand speculations, Di was very nearly paralysed. She stared at her Aunt Lulu incessantly.
Not one of them had even a talent for the casual, save Lulu herself. Lulu was amazingly herself. She took her old place, assumed her old offices. When Monona declared against bacon, it was Lulu who suggested milk toast and went to make it.
“Mamma,” Di whispered then, like escaping steam, “isn’t Uncle Ninian coming too?”
“Hush. No. Now don’t ask any more questions.”
“Well, can’t I tell Bobby and Jenny she’s here?”
“No. Don’t say anything at all about her.”
“But, mamma. What has she done?”
“Di! Do as mamma tells you. Don’t you think mamma knows best?”
Di of course did not think so, had not thought so for a long time. But now Dwight said:
“Daughter! Are you a little girl or are you our grown-up young lady?”
“I don’t know,” said Di reasonably, “but I think you’re treating me like a little girl now.”
“Shame, Di,” said Ina, unabashed by the accident of reason being on the side of Di.
“I’m eighteen,” Di reminded them forlornly, “and through high school.”
“Then act so,” boomed her father.
Baffled, thwarted, bewildered, Di went over to Jenny Plow’s and there imparted understanding by the simple process of letting Jenny guess, to questions skilfully shaped.
When Dwight said, “Look at my beautiful handkerchief,” displayed a hole, sent his Ina for a better, Lulu, with a manner of haste, addressed him:
“Dwight. It’s a funny thing, but I haven’t Ninian’s Oregon address.”
“Well, I wish you’d give it to me.”
Dwight tightened and lifted his lips. “It would seem,” he said, “that you have no real use for that particular address, Lulu.”
“Yes, I have. I want it. You have it, haven’t you, Dwight?”
“Certainly I have it.”
“Won’t you please write it down for me?” She had ready a bit of paper and a pencil stump.
“My dear Lulu, now why revive anything? Why not he sensible and leave this alone? No good can come by——”
“But why shouldn’t I have his address?”
“If everything is over between you, why should you?”
“But you say he’s still my husband.”
Dwight flushed. “If my brother has shown his inclination as plainly as I judge that he has, it is certainly not my place to put you in touch with him again.”
“You won’t give it to me?”
“My dear Lulu, in all kindness—no.”
His Ina came running back, bearing handkerchiefs with different coloured borders for him to choose from. He chose the initial that she had embroidered, and had not the good taste not to kiss her.
They were all on the porch that evening, when Lulu came downstairs.
“Where are you going?” Ina demanded, sisterly. And on hearing that Lulu had an errand, added still more sisterly; “Well, but mercy, what you so dressed up for?”
Lulu was in a thin black and white gown which they had never seen, and wore the tilting hat with the red wing.
“Ninian bought me this,” said Lulu only.
“But, Lulu, don’t you think it might be better to keep, well—out of sight for a few days?” Ina’s lifted look besought her.
“Why?” Lulu asked.
“Why set people wondering till we have to?”
“They don’t have to wonder, far as I’m concerned,” said Lulu, and went down the walk.
Ina looked at Dwight. “She never spoke to me like that in her life before,” she said.
She watched her sister’s black and white figure going erectly down the street.
“That gives me the funniest feeling,” said Ina, “as if Lulu had on clothes bought for her by some one that wasn’t—that was——”
“By her husband who has left her,” said Dwight sadly.
“Is that what it is, papa?” Di asked alertly. For a wonder, she was there; had been there the greater part of the day—most of the time staring, fascinated, at her Aunt Lulu.
“That’s what it is, my little girl,” said Dwight, and shook his head.
“Well, I think it’s a shame,” said Di stoutly. “And I think Uncle Ninian is a slunge.”
“I do. And I’d be ashamed to think anything else. I’d like to tell everybody.”
“There is,” said Dwight, “no need for secrecy—now.”
“Dwight!” said Ina—Ina’s eyes always remained expressionless, but it must have been her lashes that looked so startled.
“No need whatever for secrecy,” he repeated with firmness. “The truth is, Lulu’s husband has tired of her and sent her home. We must face it.”
“But, Dwight—how awful for Lulu….”
“Lulu,” said Dwight, “has us to stand by her.”
Lulu, walking down the main street, thought:
“Now Mis’ Chambers is seeing me. Now Mis’ Curtis. There’s somebody behind the vines at Mis’ Martin’s. Here comes Mis’ Grove and I’ve got to speak to her….”
One and another and another met her, and every one cried out at her some version of:
“Lulu Bett!” Or, “W-well, it isn’t Lulu Bett any more, is it? Well, what are you doing here? I thought….”
“I’m back to stay,” she said.
“The idea! Well, where you hiding that handsome husband of yours? Say, but we were surprised! You’re the sly one——”
“My—Mr. Deacon isn’t here.”
“No. He’s West.”
“Oh, I see.”
Having no arts, she must needs let the conversation die like this, could invent nothing concealing or gracious on which to move away.
She went to the post-office. It was early, there were few at the post-office—with only one or two there had she to go through her examination. Then she went to the general delivery window, tense for a new ordeal.
To her relief, the face which was shown there was one strange to her, a slim youth, reading a letter of his own, and smiling.
“Excuse me,” said Lulu faintly.
The youth looked up, with eyes warmed by the words on the pink paper which he held.
“Could you give me the address of Mr. Ninian Deacon?”
“Let’s see—you mean Dwight Deacon, I guess?”
“No. It’s his brother. He’s been here. From Oregon. I thought he might have given you his address——” she dwindled away.
“Wait a minute,” said the youth. “Nope. No address here. Say, why don’t you send it to his brother? He’d know. Dwight Deacon, the dentist.”
“I’ll do that,” Lulu said absurdly, and turned away.
She went back up the street, walking fast now to get away from them all. Once or twice she pretended not to see a familiar face. But when she passed the mirror in an insurance office window, she saw her reflection and at its appearance she felt surprise and pleasure.
“Well!” she thought, almost in Ina’s own manner.
Abruptly her confidence rose.
Something of this confidence was still upon her when she returned. They were in the dining-room now, all save Di, who was on the porch with Bobby, and Monona, who was in bed and might be heard extravagantly singing.
Lulu sat down with her hat on. When Dwight inquired playfully, “Don’t we look like company?” she did not reply. He looked at her speculatively. Where had she gone, with whom had she talked, what had she told? Ina looked at her rather fearfully. But Mrs. Bett rocked contentedly and ate cardamom seeds.
“Whom did you see?” Ina asked.
Lulu named them.
“See them to talk to?” from Dwight.
Oh, yes. They had all stopped.
“What did they say?” Ina burst out.
They had inquired for Ninian, Lulu said; and said no more.
Dwight mulled this. Lulu might have told every one of these women that cock-and-bull story with which she had come home. It might be all over town. Of course, in that case he could turn Lulu out—should do so, in fact. Still the story would be all over town.
“Dwight,” said Lulu, “I want Ninian’s address.”
“Going to write to him!” Ina cried incredulously.
“I want to ask him for the proofs that Dwight wanted.”
“My dear Lulu,” Dwight said impatiently, “you are not the one to write. Have you no delicacy?”
Lulu smiled—a strange smile, originating and dying in one corner of her mouth.
“Yes,” she said. “So much delicacy that I want to be sure whether I’m married or not.”
Dwight cleared his throat with a movement which seemed to use his shoulders for the purpose.
“I myself will take this up with my brother,” he said. “I will write to him about it.”
Lulu sprang to her feet. “Write to him now!” she cried.
“Really,” said Dwight, lifting his brows.
“Now—now!” Lulu said. She moved about, collecting writing materials from their casual lodgments on shelf and table. She set all before him and stood by him. “Write to him now,” she said again.
“My dear Lulu, don’t be absurd.”
She said: “Ina. Help me. If it was Dwight—and they didn’t know whether he had another wife, or not, and you wanted to ask him—oh, don’t you see? Help me.”
Ina was not yet the woman to cry for justice for its own sake, nor even to stand by another woman. She was primitive, and her instinct was to look to her own male merely.
“Well,” she said, “of course. But why not let Dwight do it in his own way? Wouldn’t that be better?”
She put it to her sister fairly: Now, no matter what Dwight’s way was, wouldn’t that be better?
“Mother!” said Lulu. She looked irresolutely toward her mother. But Mrs. Bett was eating cardamom seeds with exceeding gusto, and Lulu looked away. Caught by the gesture, Mrs. Bett voiced her grievance.
“Lulie,” she said, “Set down. Take off your hat, why don’t you?”
Lulu turned upon Dwight a quiet face which he had never seen before.
“You write that letter to Ninian,” she said, “and you make him tell you so you’ll understand. I know he spoke the truth. But I want you to know.”
“M—m,” said Dwight. “And then I suppose you’re going to tell it all over town—as soon as you have the proofs.”
“I’m going to tell it all over town,” said Lulu, “just as it is—unless you write to him now.”
“Lulu!” cried Ina. “Oh, you wouldn’t.”
“I would,” said Lulu. “I will.”
Dwight was sobered. This unimagined Lulu looked capable of it. But then he sneered.
“And get turned out of this house, as you would be?”
“Dwight!” cried his Ina. “Oh, you wouldn’t!”
“I would,” said Dwight. “I will. Lulu knows it.”
“I shall tell what I know and then leave your house anyway,” said Lulu, “unless you get Ninian’s word. And I want you should write him now.”
“Leave your mother? And Ina?” he asked.
“Leave everything,” said Lulu.
“Oh, Dwight,” said Ina, “we can’t get along without Lulu.” She did not say in what particulars, but Dwight knew.
Dwight looked at Lulu, an upward, sidewise look, with a manner of peering out to see if she meant it. And he saw.
He shrugged, pursed his lips crookedly, rolled his head to signify the inexpressible. “Isn’t that like a woman?” he demanded. He rose. “Rather than let you in for a show of temper,” he said grandly, “I’d do anything.”
He wrote the letter, addressed it, his hand elaborately curved in secrecy about the envelope, pocketed it.
“Ina and I’ll walk down with you to mail it,” said Lulu.
Dwight hesitated, frowned. His Ina watched him with consulting brows.
“I was going,” said Dwight, “to propose a little stroll before bedtime.” He roved about the room. “Where’s my beautiful straw hat? There’s nothing like a brisk walk to induce sound, restful sleep,” he told them. He hummed a bar.
“You’ll be all right, mother?” Lulu asked.
Mrs. Bett did not look up. “These cardamon hev got a little mite too dry,” she said.
In their room, Ina and Dwight discussed the incredible actions of Lulu.
“I saw,” said Dwight, “I saw she wasn’t herself. I’d do anything to avoid having a scene—you know that.” His glance swept a little anxiously his Ina. “You know that, don’t you?” he sharply inquired.
“But I really think you ought to have written to Ninian about it,” she now dared to say. “It’s—it’s not a nice position for Lulu.”
“Nice? Well, but whom has she got to blame for it?”
“Why, Ninian,” said Ina.
Dwight threw out his hands. “Herself,” he said. “To tell you the truth, I was perfectly amazed at the way she snapped him up there in that restaurant.”
“Why, but, Dwight——”
“Brazen,” he said. “Oh, it was brazen.”
“It was just fun, in the first place.”
“But no really nice woman——” he shook his head.
“Dwight! Lulu is nice. The idea!”
He regarded her. “Would you have done that?” he would know.
Under his fond look, she softened, took his homage, accepted everything, was silent.
“Certainly not,” he said. “Lulu’s tastes are not fine like yours. I should never think of you as sisters.”
“She’s awfully good,” Ina said feebly. Fifteen years of married life behind her—but this was sweet and she could not resist.
“She has excellent qualities.” He admitted it. “But look at the position she’s in—married to a man who tells her he has another wife in order to get free. Now, no really nice woman——”
“No really nice man——” Ina did say that much.
“Ah,” said Dwight, “but you could never be in such a position. No, no. Lulu is sadly lacking somewhere.”
Ina sighed, threw back her head, caught her lower lip with her upper, as might be in a hem. “What if it was Di?” she supposed.
“Di!” Dwight’s look rebuked his wife. “Di,” he said, “was born with ladylike feelings.”
It was not yet ten o’clock. Bobby Larkin was permitted to stay until ten. From the veranda came the indistinguishable murmur of those young voices.
“Bobby,” Di was saying within that murmur, “Bobby, you don’t kiss me as if you really wanted to kiss me, to-night.”