- part: [I.] A DEAD MAN'S STEP.
- CHAPTER XII. ORA AND VALENTINE.
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ORA AND VALENTINE.
THERE had been no intimacy between Valentine Rodney and Ora Wardell at any time during their acquaintance. The two girls had been educated at different schools, and when Miss Wardell made her appearance in society two years in advance of Valentine, the latter was still a school-girl. Then had come Valentine's emancipation and homecoming, and this was followed soon by Ora Wardell's second European journey, accompanied by a chaperon in the person of an aunt from Boston, with the learned and loftily tolerant Boston manners, and altogether au fait.
Gossip had named them rivals, but Valentine had passed her first year of social freedom as gaily as the gayest bird, though with none of the bird's spring longings for a mate, and had enjoyed each month of the twelve as only a healthy and heart-free maiden can, when she has beauty, friends, and fortune, and is seventeen.
During the first six months of the twelve, Val Rodney and Ora Wardell were often thrown together as belles of the same little circle must be. And if Ora, the stately, had felt a single jealous pang or any bitterness of spirit towards the bright débutante—who certainly had monopolised many of the moments which, before her coming, handsome Brook Deering had devoted to her regal self—she made no sign, and if, in those days, she had never sought Val's society, neither had she shunned it, meeting and greeting her always with well-bred courtesy, with smiles and light exchange of social greetings, always adding, when Valentine's charms were lauded in her presence, her own ready word of praise, gracefully given; and certain it was that, if Miss Wardell had retired from the field as one foreseeing defeat and unwilling to face it—and this is what the gossips said she had done—she made a graceful retreat: paying a farewell call at Beechwood, and making her adieus in a frank, friendly, cordial manner, which should have disarmed criticism, had the critics been there to see. At Beechwood there had been no criticisms.
It was not so surprising, then, that Ora Wardell, having learned by accident that Valentine was returning to a home not yet ready to receive her with due ceremony, should at once offer the hospitalities of Wardell Place.
Still, it was a surprise to Val—she could hardly have told why, and she had declined the invitation, not because of that supposed antagonism, but because she preferred, for reasons of her own, solitude and her own thoughts, just at that time.
To Brenda she had explained her refusal in these words:
"I don't want society, Brenda, dear. Pomfret will have but one | | 77 topic now,—poor Matchin's murder and Bruce's trouble. I don't want to talk about these things, nor to hear them talked about."
But when the failure of the Deering carriage fairly forced her into acceptance of Miss Wardell's invitation, she had yielded with pleasant grace, and found her visit less difficult and more agreeable than she had imagined possible.
Of course the dreaded topic must be touched upon, and Ora Wardell opened the subject promptly. But she did not linger over it. She told her little story of what she termed "that long to be remembered night," spoke feelingly of the hapless victim, uttered a few indignant words in condemnation of the accusers of Bruce Deering, declared her belief in him and her faith in his ultimate triumph over misfortune; and then she drew away from the subject, not abruptly, but with evident intention. It would seem that she had no more desire to discuss the affairs of Bruce Deering, at least with Valentine, than had Valentine.
This little which was said was gotten over at luncheon, soon after the arrival; and the remainder of the day had been passed in quiet. Valentine, who was really fatigued, gladly accepting the suggestion of her hostess that she rest a part of the afternoon at least.
"You look weary," Ora had said kindly; "I can imagine how you have all been aroused out of your usual quiet and content by the late happenings; and then this hurried journey. Don't think that I want to weary you with my society. You know I always occupy myself; I have learned that it is the only way, if I am to live in comfort and content in this big house, with only Mrs. Ferries and the servants.
"Thank you," Valentine responded, "I am tired; I will take you at your word." And then, as she observed a book in Ora's hand, "You read as much as ever?"
"More if anything. But this is a music book—church music. Since they put in that fine new organ at St. Mark's, I have taken much pleasure in playing for them. I think, if you really care to sleep, I will go to the church and practise for an hour."
When Valentine had gone to her repose, Ora stood for some moments with the book in her hand, and her brow wrinkled with the intensity of her thoughts, just when she had wished her guest "sweet rest and a cheerful awakening," outside the door of her room. Then she went down the hall and entered her own "den," where she took from a desk some paper, which she slipped between the leaves of her book, and a fountain pen which she put in her pocket."
"I hate it! I hate it horribly!" she muttered to herself as she left her room.
Ten minutes later the grand organ of St. Mark's was wailing out low, prolonged notes—notes that sounded like a dirge.
That evening, after dinner, the two young women sat in the library and carried on a languid conversation. After a while the talk turned upon foreign lands, and then, naturally, to foreign travel. This led Miss Wardell to relate two or three amusing little experiences of her own.
"I was in Rome then," she said at the conclusion of one of these, "and—oh! by the way, I met Brook Deering in Rome. Did he tell you of our meeting?" | | 78 Valentine smiled faintly.
"Brook and I have not corresponded," she said; "we have exchanged a few notes at long intervals, but it has been a long time since he has favoured me with even a note. He writes to uncle very regularly, and occasionally to Brenda. And you saw him in Rome?"
"Yes." Ora drooped her eyelids and rocked slowly to and fro. "We met several times. He called, in fact, and we went upon two or three excursions together." She put out her slim, white hand and took up a fan. "Brook was not looking well, I thought."
Valentine looked up quickly. "Oh, I am sorry to hear that," she said. "I have sometimes thought that Brook ought to know more about his father's state of health. That he ought to come home, in fact.
"Why!" Ora lifted her eyelids wide open now in surprise. "I supposed you were expecting him! He talked of coming home when I saw him last, in Rome, months ago! He talked of surprising you. But I did not suppose he really meant that, although—" she paused as if embarrassed, and Valentine laughed and finished her sentence.
"Although it would be quite like Brook, to pop in upon Beechwood unawares, you think? I'm sure I agree with you."
As early as eight o'clock of the next morning Mr. Baird's "new man" was waiting at the gate with his hand upon Lady Jane's bridle, when Val Rodney came tripping swiftly toward him from the direction of Wardell Place, which was less than. half-a-dozen blocks away.
Seeing Lady Jane, she halted before the new man, and asked: "Is Mr. Baird going out?" and then stopped, seeing Mr. Baird himself emerge from the shrubbery on the other side of the gate and come toward her.
"Why, Miss Val," he said cordially, "you are an early visitor!""I am not a visitor, Mr. Baird. I have come to ask if you can tolerate another tramp, at least until after luncheon. Miss Wardell is called away, by the 10.20 train to Churchill, to see a friend who is ill. And so I am come back to you."
"Oh, then you have not quarrelled with Miss Wardell?" he said jestingly.
"No, indeed! Nor am I likely to do so; don't hope it. I am not half so dangerous as I used to be, I assure you. And Miss Wardell urged me very hard to remain at Wardell Place, but of course I couldn't do that. How is uncle?"
"Come in and see for yourself." He drew her hand through his arm, and turned back toward the house, saying over his shoulder, "Tie her Ross. I'll not be long."
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