- CHAPTER XVI THE SEED ENA PLANTED
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THE SEED ENA PLANTED
ENA was glad when she saw Eileen wearing the orchid that Petro had bought for her in the gorgeous new department at the Hands. Rags had at the same time purchased some gardenias for Miss Rolls, she having mentioned that the gardenia was her favourite flower. Both girls tucked these trophies into the front of their coats and wore them home. Also, they wore them again for dinner, a far more conspicuous compliment to the givers. Ena meant it to be taken as such, and faintly hoped, in spite of the afternoon's failure, that the thing she prayed for might happen that night. Perhaps Lord Raygan needed a little more encouragement, for, after all, she was rich and he was poor, and men did hesitate about proposing to heiresses—in novels.
Nothing did happen; but there was still time, for the guests were staying on some days yet for a cotillion, and there was a meeting at which Lady Raygan had faithfully promised to speak. It was a shame, however, that the effect of the orchid as well as the gardenias should be wasted, and the morning after their visit to the Hands Ena made an opportunity of talking with Petro alone.
He was in his own "den," one of the smallest rooms in the house, meant for a dressing-room, and opening off his bedroom. He had fitted it up as a nondescript lair, and indulged in ribald mirth if Ena tried to dignify | | 168 it with the name of "study." All the pictures of the big animals he hadn't killed were there—beautiful wild things he felt he had the right to know socially, as he had never harmed them or their most distant relatives. In an old glass-fronted, secretary bookcase of mahogany, the first piece of "parlour furniture" his parents had ever bought, were the dear books of Petro's boyhood and early youth, and above, on the grey-papered wall, hung a portrait of Mother, which her son had had painted by an unfashionable artist as a "birthday present from his affectionate self" at the age of sixteen. An ancient easy chair and a queer old sofa still had the original slippery black horsehair off which Petro and Ena had slid as children. Petro had named the sofa "the whale," and the squat chair the "seal." Both shiny, slippery black things really did resemble sea monsters, and had never lost for Petro their mysterious personality.
There were some cushions and a fire-screen the bead-and-wool flowers of which Mother had worked in early married life, and on the floor, in front of the friendly wood fire which Petro loved, lay a rug which was also her handiwork. It was made of dresses her children had worn when they were very, very little, and some of her own, which Petro could even now remember. Nobody save Petro, at Sea Gull Manor, cared for a grate fire; or if Mother would have liked one, instead of a hand-wrought bronze radiator half hidden in the wall, she dared not say so. But she came and sat in Petro's den sometimes, crotcheting in the old easy chair, when he was self-indulgent enough to have a fire of ships' logs. The rose and gold and violet flames of the driftwood lit up for him the secret way to Dreamland and the country of Romance. What it did for Mother, she did not say; but as her fingers moved, regularly as the ticking of a clock, her eyes would wander over the old furniture she had loved and back to the fire, as | | 169 if she were trying to call up her own past and her son's future.
This morning Petro was not in a good mood, for he had been reading in the newspaper an interview with him which he hadn't given. It was all about the "Start in Life Fund," and sounded as if he were boasting not only of the idea, but of the way in which he meant to carry it out. Nobody likes to be made to appear a conceited bounder when his intentions are as modest as those of a hermit-crab and a hundred times more benevolent.
Therefore when Ena came, using as an excuse a dire need of note-paper, and stopped to dawdle, lighting one of his cigarettes, Petro felt an urgent desire to be cross. She had on some perfume which he hated, and a fashionable caricature of a skirt, and was altogether so inconvenient and uncongenial that disagreeable things to say sat on the end of his tongue. He bit them back, however, for he knew he should be sorry afterwards if he were a beast.
"You look as if you'd like to snap my head off," said Ena, fumbling among his cigarettes.
"So I would. But I won't," said he. "It isn't you I mind. It's only something that Raygan would call bally rot in the paper."
"Something about us?" Ena was alert in a moment.
"Only about me."
"Is that all? You're so silly about having things in the paper! Almost any thing's better than nothing, I feel, so long as they don't go raking up father's and mother's past. Oh, I know you think their past's the est thing about them. Let's not argue. Does it say again that you're engaged to Eileen?"
"No, thank heaven. I don't want to punch heads in her defence."
His sister laughed, and tried to make herself comfortable by putting her feet up on the slippery whale. | | 170 The ridiculous green cloth skirt generously displayed a pink ankle clad in a tight-fitting film of green silk stocking. Ena gazed at it appreciatively and liked the look of her foot in a high-heeled green suède shoe with a gold buckle.
"My private opinion is that dear little Eileen was tickled to death by the mistake. The only thing she didn't like about it was—its being a mistake."
"If you talk like that, I'll wish the whale was Jonah's," said Petro.
"She does love you!" Ena got out hurriedly, fearing to be stopped or caught up in those surprisingly strong arms of Petro and gently set down on the wrong side of the door. "She does. She does! I've thought so a long time. Now I know it. I mustn't tell you how."
"You oughtn't to tell me how. It isn't true and it isn't kind—to either of us. I hate hearing such darned nonsense about a girl who likes me as a friend. And she'd be mad as the dickens if she could hear."
"Perhaps she'd be mad," Ena admitted, "because it is true. If it weren't she'd only laugh. You're a simple Simon not to see. Everybody else with eyes does see. And they'll all be sorry for her if you don't speak."
"Any one would think I was a dog and she was a bone," growled Petro. "Speak, indeed! I wish you'd mind your own business, Ena."
"I am minding it as hard as I can," said his sister, "and you ought to thank me for taking an interest in yours, too. Don't you like poor little Lady Eileen?"
"Very much; same way she likes me. We're good chums."
"If you don't believe what I say, Petro, there's a splendid way of finding out. Ask her."
"See here, my dear girl, haven't you got anything better to do this morning than to loll all over my sofa and talk drivel when I want to write a letter blowing up somebody? I felt a fool when you came in. Now | | 171 you've made me feel a double-dyed idiot. Kindly go away and dig a hole in the ground with yourself."
Ena went. But she felt that, despite discouragement, she had already dug a tiny, tiny hole in very hard ground, not for herself, but for a little seed which might perhaps send out its shoots later.
It did not do precisely that; but as the ground raked over was Petro's heart, the seed his sister had left made him uncomfortable. It burned and stung and felt alive, and something had to be done about it.
Of course Ena was wrong. He was the last fellow in the world a girl could care for. He had learned that to his sorrow. A girl couldn't even like him. There was something about him that bored her nearly to death, as soon as she began to know him fairly well, and made her want to bolt. He was as sure, he told himself, of the exact nature of nice little Lady Eileen's feeling for him as of his for her. Nevertheless, that night at a dance, when he and she (for the best of reasons; they didn't know how to dance it) were sitting out a Foxtrot, he found himself becoming confidential.
This was strange, for Petro had one of his father's characteristics if no other—he did not confide things in people. Peter senior kept his own secrets because it was wise to keep them. Peter junior kept his partly because he thought they would bore every one save himself. So, even where the two were alike, they were miles apart. For some vague reason, however—which, if he had stopped to define it, would have convinced him that he was disgustingly conceited—Petro was moved that night, in a new-fashioned conservatory resembling a jungle, to tell Lady Eileen one or two things about himself.
How it started he was not quite sure, but with a certain awkwardness he had tried to lead up to the subject, and suddenly Eileen had begun to help him out.| | 172
"I used to think a man would have to know a lot about a girl," he said, "before he could be sure she was the sort he could fall in love with. I thought love at first sight wouldn't be love at all, but only infatuation. Now I see that I didn't know what I was talking about. It isn't a question of whether you could love her. You've just got to. You can't do anything else. It's like seven devils or seven angels entering into and possessing you. There they are before you know what's happened. Afterward, when you find out what's struck you, maybe it's too late. Or maybe there'd never have been any hope, anyhow."
"While there's life, there's hope," quoted Eileen.
"But what if life's parted you from her?"
"I wouldn't let it, if I were a man. I wouldn't allow the girl to go out of my life. It doesn't sound a strong thing to do."
"It might be, though, in some circumstances. For instance, if a girl showed you very plainly she couldn't be bothered with you, it would be weak to run after her, wouldn't it?"
"I wonder," said Eileen, "if a man's a good judge of why a girl does things that she does? Of course, I don't know much. But I feel he mightn't be. It's so difficult for girls and men to understand each other, really. Now there's my brother Rags and our cousin Pobbles—I mean Kathleen. Pobbles is her nickname. You know we're great on the most endlessly quaint nicknames in our family. She's quite a distant cousin of ours, otherwise she wouldn't have such lots of money as she has. We're church mice. We'd be church worms if there were any! But Rags was in love with Pobbles for years and she wouldn't believe it. She thought, because she's not exactly pretty, it must be her money he wanted. They never understood each other a bit. You mustn't say anything about this, and I won't say | | 173 anything about what you tell me. You will tell me about the girl, won't you? Maybe I can help. You see, though I don't know so very much about men yet—except Rags—I know a whole lot about girls."
"There isn't much to tell," said Petro. "I met a girl in rather a queer way—sort of romantic, it seemed to me. And the minute I saw her she stood out quite different from anyone else I'd ever seen, like a red rose in a garden of pale-pink ones. I couldn't get her face out of my mind or her voice out of my ears. She was like my idea of a dryad. It seemed she might turn into a tall slim tree if a man looked at her too long. But I didn't know I was in love. I thought she just appealed to me, fascinated me somehow or other. And I wanted to do things for her all the time. I was always thinking of some excuse to be where she was. I was looking forward to doing a lot more things—I suppose it was only selfishness, because I wanted to make her like me, but I didn't realize that till after she was gone."
"Gone?" Eileen encouraged him.
"Yes. She didn't wish me to do those things I'd been planning for her. She wouldn't have what I could do, or me, at any price."
"Did you—had you—told her you cared?"
"Great Scott! no. I hadn't got nearly as far as that. I told her I hoped to see her again, that if there was something I could do to help, I—but she wasn't taking any. She seemed friendly and kind before that, which made it worse when she turned me down so hard. I suppose she hadn't minded much at first, but the more she saw of me the more she couldn't stand for the shape of my nose, or the way I talked maybe. She just got to feel that the sight of me hanging around would poison New York for her, and she intimated that her health would be better if I kept at the other end of the city. | | 174 You wouldn't have had me continue to butt in, would you?"
"I don't know. What happened, then?"
"Oh, she went away."
"You let her go?"
"What else could I do?"
"You could have found out where she went in case she changed her mind. But perhaps you did find out?"
"No. For she didn't seem like the kind of girl who would change her mind about a kind of fellow like me. Besides, I was sort of stunned by the difference in her manner just at the moment. When I came to myself—I mean, about wondering if I could have done anything better, and realizing what a terrible lot I cared, she was gone. Then I hoped Ena would hear from her. I think she promised to write. But it appears that she never did so."
"Is she in New York still?"
"I wish to Heaven I knew!"
"Couldn't you find out?"
"I might, if I wanted to be a cad."
"Why—what do you mean?"
"I dare say a private detective would undertake the job. Sometimes I've been tempted—yet no, I don't believe I ever did come near to playing the game as low down as that."
"But it might be for her good——"
"That's the way I argued with myself. I almost got myself convinced sometimes. But I knew in my heart it was only sophistry. You see, it isn't as if she would let me do anything for her, even if she wanted anything done, which I've no particular reason to suppose she does. She's English, and a stranger over here, but she told me—when we were friends—that she had letters of introduction to good people and that she'd plenty of money till they found her a job. I can't bear to think | | 175 of her needing a 'job' when I—but I'm helpless! No doubt she's all right and getting along like a house on fire. She was the sort of girl who would. Or maybe she's engaged by this time to some chap worth ten of me. But I can't forget. I think of her by day and I dream of her by night."
"What do you see her doing in your dreams?" Eileen asked in a new tone of voice. Not a more interested tone, for she had shown deep interest before, but with a quaver of excited eagerness.
"Dreams go by contraries, luckily," said Peter, "otherwise I should worry. I always see her in some kind of trouble. If it isn't one darned thing it's another. And I look for her by day when I'm up in town. I think, what if I should see her face framed in some car window? This afternoon I even looked for her in our store. Though feeling to me the way she did, it would be the last place where she'd go to spend a cent, if she associated the name of Rolls with mine. I bet she'd rather go without a cloak on a cold day than buy it there!"
"Our dance, Lady Eileen," said another man, who had tracked a missing partner through the tropical jungle.
Eileen rose reluctantly, but graciously, throwing Petro a good-bye look. There was a sympathetic, understanding smile on her pleasant, freckled face which seemed to say, "Don't give up. You may find her yet. And girls do change their minds about men. Anyhow, I'm glad we've had this talk."
She was glad, though she was sad, too—just a little sad. It would pass, she knew, for she had not let herself go far. In spite of all that Ena had said, it had never felt true that Peter cared for her. She could have loved him, and been happy with him, and have made him happy, she thought, but since he didn't want her, she must set herself to work hard not to want him. She | | 176 must take her mind off the little deep-down, bruised hurt in her heart by thinking of a way in which she could make him happy—a way in which, by and by, he might recognize her handiwork and send her his thanks across the sea.
"I should like him to know I did it," she said to herself. "And then through all his life he would have to remember me because of his happiness, which without me he might have missed."
Of course Petro had mentioned no name, and Eileen had asked no questions. If it had not been for Raygan's revelation she might not have guessed; but now she did guess, and was almost sure. It seemed to her that a girl who could have Petro's friendship and then drop it like a hot chestnut didn't deserve him for a friend, much less a lover. But there must have been some reason. It wouldn't have been human nature, to put things on their lowest level, for a girl in Miss Child's position to "turn down" a young man in Peter Rolls's for a mere whim.
Could Ena have done something to put them apart? Eileen wondered. It would—she had to admit—be like Ena. And if Ena had been treacherous or hateful, then it would be a sort of poetical justice if she lost Raygan through making her brother lose his dryad. Even now Eileen did not know what Rags would do. Since their day at the Hands he had seemed somehow "off" the affair with Ena. But whatever happened in the end—which one way or the other must come soon—between Ena and Raygan, Peter mustn't lose the Lady in the Moon because of a stupid promise exacted and made to get his sister out of some scrape.
Eileen wouldn't break the promise, because a promise was one of the few valuable things she and her brother Rags had never broken. Raygan wouldn't release her, even if she begged him to do so, but there might be | | 177 another way—a way which would lead Petro straight to the Lady in the Moon, if he were really in earnest about finding her. That was the clever part of the inspiration which suddenly came to Eileen that same night, after starting up from a dream which was "endlessly quaint."
"I'll do it when I say good-bye to Mrs. Rolls," she told herself. And the idea seemed to her so original, so filled with possibilities of romance, that it was as soothing to the bruise in her heart as an application of Peter Rolls's Balm of Gilead.
She guessed that he had laid aside his reserve and told her about the "dryad girl" because Ena had put him up to think that she—Eileen—had "begun to care." The mortifying part was that it had been—almost true. But Eileen wasn't going to mind. She was going to say to herself, if ever the pain came back: "If I can do this for him, surely when he knows, he'll be glad he told me and glad that I cared enough to help."
It was only next morning, when the world showed its practical side, that she realized how seldom in real life romances can be worked out to a happy ending—or, at all events, the kind of happy ending the people concerned are striving after.
"I'll do my best, though," she reiterated, "for Petro's sake and for mine."
For her the lost dryad was but a shadowy figure in the background, necessary to the picture, perhaps, yet not of poignant, personal interest. It was only of Petro she thought.
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