Meanwhile the holidays had gone by and the season was beginning. Fifth Avenu_ad become a nightly torrent of carriages surging upward to the fashionabl_uarters about the Park, where illuminated windows and outspread awning_etokened the usual routine of hospitality. Other tributary currents crosse_he mainstream, bearing their freight to the theatres, restaurants or opera; and Mrs. Peniston, from the secluded watch-tower of her upper window, coul_ell to a nicety just when the chronic volume of sound was increased by th_udden influx setting toward a Van Osburgh ball, or when the multiplication o_heels meant merely that the opera was over, or that there was a big supper a_herry's.
Mrs. Peniston followed the rise and culmination of the season as keenly as th_ost active sharer in its gaieties; and, as a looker-on, she enjoye_pportunities of comparison and generalization such as those who take par_ust proverbially forego. No one could have kept a more accurate record o_ocial fluctuations, or have put a more unerring finger on the distinguishin_eatures of each season: its dulness, its extravagance, its lack of balls o_xcess of divorces. She had a special memory for the vicissitudes of the "ne_eople" who rose to the surface with each recurring tide, and were eithe_ubmerged beneath its rush or landed triumphantly beyond the reach of enviou_reakers; and she was apt to display a remarkable retrospective insight int_heir ultimate fate, so that, when they had fulfilled their destiny, she wa_lmost always able to say to Grace Stepney—the recipient of he_rophecies—that she had known exactly what would happen.
This particular season Mrs. Peniston would have characterized as that in whic_verybody "felt poor" except the Welly Brys and Mr. Simon Rosedale. It ha_een a bad autumn in Wall Street, where prices fell in accordance with tha_eculiar law which proves railway stocks and bales of cotton to be mor_ensitive to the allotment of executive power than many estimable citizen_rained to all the advantages of self-government. Even fortunes supposed to b_ndependent of the market either betrayed a secret dependence on it, o_uffered from a sympathetic affection: fashion sulked in its country houses, or came to town incognito, general entertainments were discountenanced, an_nformality and short dinners became the fashion.
But society, amused for a while at playing Cinderella, soon wearied of th_earthside role, and welcomed the Fairy Godmother in the shape of any magicia_owerful enough to turn the shrunken pumpkin back again into the golden coach.
The mere fact of growing richer at a time when most people's investments ar_hrinking, is calculated to attract envious attention; and according to Wal_treet rumours, Welly Bry and Rosedale had found the secret of performing thi_iracle.
Rosedale, in particular, was said to have doubled his fortune, and there wa_alk of his buying the newly-finished house of one of the victims of th_rash, who, in the space of twelve short months, had made the same number o_illions, built a house in Fifth Avenue, filled a picture-gallery with ol_asters, entertained all New York in it, and been smuggled out of the countr_etween a trained nurse and a doctor, while his creditors mounted guard ove_he old masters, and his guests explained to each other that they had dine_ith him only because they wanted to see the pictures. Mr. Rosedale meant t_ave a less meteoric career. He knew he should have to go slowly, and th_nstincts of his race fitted him to suffer rebuffs and put up with delays. Bu_e was prompt to perceive that the general dulness of the season afforded hi_n unusual opportunity to shine, and he set about with patient industry t_orm a background for his growing glory. Mrs. Fisher was of immense service t_im at this period. She had set off so many newcomers on the social stage tha_he was like one of those pieces of stock scenery which tell the experience_pectator exactly what is going to take place. But Mr. Rosedale wanted, in th_ong run, a more individual environment. He was sensitive to shades o_ifference which Miss Bart would never have credited him with perceiving, because he had no corresponding variations of manner; and it was becoming mor_nd more clear to him that Miss Bart herself possessed precisely th_omplementary qualities needed to round off his social personality.
Such details did not fall within the range of Mrs. Peniston's vision. Lik_any minds of panoramic sweep, hers was apt to overlook the MINUTIAE of th_oreground, and she was much more likely to know where Carry Fisher had foun_he Welly Brys' CHEF for them, than what was happening to her own niece. Sh_as not, however, without purveyors of information ready to supplement he_eficiencies. Grace Stepney's mind was like a kind of moral fly-paper, t_hich the buzzing items of gossip were drawn by a fatal attraction, and wher_hey hung fast in the toils of an inexorable memory. Lily would have bee_urprised to know how many trivial facts concerning herself were lodged i_iss Stepney's head. She was quite aware that she was of interest to ding_eople, but she assumed that there is only one form of dinginess, and tha_dmiration for brilliancy is the natural expression of its inferior state. Sh_new that Gerty Farish admired her blindly, and therefore supposed that sh_nspired the same sentiments in Grace Stepney, whom she classified as a Gert_arish without the saving traits of youth and enthusiasm.
In reality, the two differed from each other as much as they differed from th_bject of their mutual contemplation. Miss Farish's heart was a fountain o_ender illusions, Miss Stepney's a precise register of facts as manifested i_heir relation to herself. She had sensibilities which, to Lily, would hav_eemed comic in a person with a freckled nose and red eyelids, who lived in _oarding-house and admired Mrs. Peniston's drawing-room; but poor Grace'_imitations gave them a more concentrated inner life, as poor soil starve_ertain plants into intenser efflorescence. She had in truth no abstrac_ropensity to malice: she did not dislike Lily because the latter wa_rilliant and predominant, but because she thought that Lily disliked her. I_s less mortifying to believe one's self unpopular than insignificant, an_anity prefers to assume that indifference is a latent form of unfriendliness.
Even such scant civilities as Lily accorded to Mr. Rosedale would have mad_iss Stepney her friend for life; but how could she foresee that such a frien_as worth cultivating? How, moreover, can a young woman who has never bee_gnored measure the pang which this injury inflicts? And, lastly, how coul_ily, accustomed to choose between a pressure of engagements, guess that sh_ad mortally offended Miss Stepney by causing her to be excluded from one o_rs. Peniston's infrequent dinner-parties?
Mrs. Peniston disliked giving dinners, but she had a high sense of famil_bligation, and on the Jack Stepneys' return from their honeymoon she felt i_ncumbent upon her to light the drawing-room lamps and extract her best silve_rom the Safe Deposit vaults. Mrs. Peniston's rare entertainments wer_receded by days of heart-rending vacillation as to every detail of the feast, from the seating of the guests to the pattern of the table-cloth, and in th_ourse of one of these preliminary discussions she had imprudently suggeste_o her cousin Grace that, as the dinner was a family affair, she might b_ncluded in it. For a week the prospect had lighted up Miss Stepney'_olourless existence; then she had been given to understand that it would b_ore convenient to have her another day. Miss Stepney knew exactly what ha_appened. Lily, to whom family reunions were occasions of unalloyed dulness, had persuaded her aunt that a dinner of "smart" people would be much more t_he taste of the young couple, and Mrs. Peniston, who leaned helplessly on he_iece in social matters, had been prevailed upon to pronounce Grace's exile.
After all, Grace could come any other day; why should she mind being put off?
It was precisely because Miss Stepney could come any other day—and because sh_new her relations were in the secret of her unoccupied evenings—that thi_ncident loomed gigantically on her horizon. She was aware that she had Lil_o thank for it; and dull resentment was turned to active animosity.
Mrs. Peniston, on whom she had looked in a day or two after the dinner, lai_own her crochet-work and turned abruptly from her oblique survey of Fift_venue.
"Gus Trenor?—Lily and Gus Trenor?" she said, growing so suddenly pale that he_isitor was almost alarmed.
"Oh, cousin Julia … of course I don't mean … "
"I don't know what you DO mean," said Mrs. Peniston, with a frightened quive_n her small fretful voice. "Such things were never heard of in my day. And m_wn niece! I'm not sure I understand you. Do people say he's in love wit_er?"
Mrs. Peniston's horror was genuine. Though she boasted an unequalle_amiliarity with the secret chronicles of society, she had the innocence o_he school-girl who regards wickedness as a part of "history," and to whom i_ever occurs that the scandals she reads of in lesson-hours may be repeatin_hemselves in the next street. Mrs. Peniston had kept her imaginatio_hrouded, like the drawing-room furniture. She knew, of course, that societ_as "very much changed," and that many women her mother would have thought
"peculiar" were now in a position to be critical about their visiting-lists; she had discussed the perils of divorce with her rector, and had felt thankfu_t times that Lily was still unmarried; but the idea that any scandal coul_ttach to a young girl's name, above all that it could be lightly coupled wit_hat of a married man, was so new to her that she was as much aghast as if sh_ad been accused of leaving her carpets down all summer, or of violating an_f the other cardinal laws of housekeeping.
Miss Stepney, when her first fright had subsided, began to feel th_uperiority that greater breadth of mind confers. It was really pitiable to b_s ignorant of the world as Mrs. Peniston! She smiled at the latter'_uestion. "People always say unpleasant things—and certainly they're a grea_eal together. A friend of mine met them the other afternoon in the Park-quit_ate, after the lamps were lit. It's a pity Lily makes herself s_onspicuous."
"CONSPICUOUS!" gasped Mrs. Peniston. She bent forward, lowering her voice t_itigate the horror. "What sort of things do they say? That he means to get _ivorce and marry her?"
Grace Stepney laughed outright. "Dear me, no! He would hardly do that. It—it'_ flirtation—nothing more."
"A flirtation? Between my niece and a married man? Do you mean to tell m_hat, with Lily's looks and advantages, she could find no better use for he_ime than to waste it on a fat stupid man almost old enough to be her father?"
This argument had such a convincing ring that it gave Mrs. Peniston sufficien_eassurance to pick up her work, while she waited for Grace Stepney to rall_er scattered forces.
But Miss Stepney was on the spot in an instant. "That's the worst of it—peopl_ay she isn't wasting her time! Every one knows, as you say, that Lily is to_andsome and-and charming—to devote herself to a man like Gus Trenor unless—"
"Unless?" echoed Mrs. Peniston. Her visitor drew breath nervously. It wa_greeable to shock Mrs. Peniston, but not to shock her to the verge of anger.
Miss Stepney was not sufficiently familiar with the classic drama to hav_ecalled in advance how bearers of bad tidings are proverbially received, bu_he now had a rapid vision of forfeited dinners and a reduced wardrobe as th_ossible consequence of her disinterestedness. To the honour of her sex, however, hatred of Lily prevailed over more personal considerations. Mrs.
Peniston had chosen the wrong moment to boast of her niece's charms.
"Unless," said Grace, leaning forward to speak with low-toned emphasis,
"unless there are material advantages to be gained by making herself agreeabl_o him."
She felt that the moment was tremendous, and remembered suddenly that Mrs.
Peniston's black brocade, with the cut jet fringe, would have been hers at th_nd of the season.
Mrs. Peniston put down her work again. Another aspect of the same idea ha_resented itself to her, and she felt that it was beneath her dignity to hav_er nerves racked by a dependent relative who wore her old clothes.
"If you take pleasure in annoying me by mysterious insinuations," she sai_oldly, "you might at least have chosen a more suitable time than just as I a_ecovering from the strain of giving a large dinner."
The mention of the dinner dispelled Miss Stepney's last scruples. "I don'_now why I should be accused of taking pleasure in telling you about Lily. _as sure I shouldn't get any thanks for it," she returned with a flare o_emper. "But I have some family feeling left, and as you are the only perso_ho has any authority over Lily, I thought you ought to know what is bein_aid of her."
"Well," said Mrs. Peniston, "what I complain of is that you haven't told m_et what IS being said."
"I didn't suppose I should have to put it so plainly. People say that Gu_renor pays her bills."
"Pays her bills—her bills?" Mrs. Peniston broke into a laugh. "I can't imagin_here you can have picked up such rubbish. Lily has her own income—and _rovide for her very handsomely—"
"Oh, we all know that," interposed Miss Stepney drily. "But Lily wears a grea_any smart gowns—"
"I like her to be well-dressed—it's only suitable!"
"Certainly; but then there are her gambling debts besides."
Miss Stepney, in the beginning, had not meant to bring up this point; but Mrs.
Peniston had only her own incredulity to blame. She was like the stiff-necke_nbelievers of Scripture, who must be annihilated to be convinced.
"Gambling debts? Lily?" Mrs. Peniston's voice shook with anger an_ewilderment. She wondered whether Grace Stepney had gone out of her mind.
"What do you mean by her gambling debts?"
"Simply that if one plays bridge for money in Lily's set one is liable to los_ great deal—and I don't suppose Lily always wins."
"Who told you that my niece played cards for money?"
"Mercy, cousin Julia, don't look at me as if I were trying to turn you agains_ily! Everybody knows she is crazy about bridge. Mrs. Gryce told me hersel_hat it was her gambling that frightened Percy Gryce—it seems he was reall_aken with her at first. But, of course, among Lily's friends it's quite th_ustom for girls to play for money. In fact, people are inclined to excuse he_n that account—"
"To excuse her for what?"
"For being hard up—and accepting attentions from men like Gus Trenor—an_eorge Dorset—"
Mrs. Peniston gave another cry. "George Dorset? Is there any one else? _hould like to know the worst, if you please."
"Don't put it in that way, cousin Julia. Lately Lily has been a good deal wit_he Dorsets, and he seems to admire her—but of course that's only natural. An_'m sure there is no truth in the horrid things people say; but she HAS bee_pending a great deal of money this winter. Evie Van Osburgh was at Celeste'_rdering her trousseau the other day—yes, the marriage takes place nex_onth—and she told me that Celeste showed her the most exquisite things sh_as just sending home to Lily. And people say that Judy Trenor has quarrelle_ith her on account of Gus; but I'm sure I'm sorry I spoke, though I onl_eant it as a kindness."
Mrs. Peniston's genuine incredulity enabled her to dismiss Miss Stepney with _isdain which boded ill for that lady's prospect of succeeding to the blac_rocade; but minds impenetrable to reason have generally some crack throug_hich suspicion filters, and her visitor's insinuations did not glide off a_asily as she had expected. Mrs. Peniston disliked scenes, and he_etermination to avoid them had always led her to hold herself aloof from th_etails of Lily's life. In her youth, girls had not been supposed to requir_lose supervision. They were generally assumed to be taken up with th_egitimate business of courtship and marriage, and interference in suc_ffairs on the part of their natural guardians was considered as unwarrantabl_s a spectator's suddenly joining in a game. There had of course been "fast"
girls even in Mrs. Peniston's early experience; but their fastness, at worst, was understood to be a mere excess of animal spirits, against which ther_ould be no graver charge than that of being "unladylike." The modern fastnes_ppeared synonymous with immorality, and the mere idea of immorality was a_ffensive to Mrs. Peniston as a smell of cooking in the drawing-room: it wa_ne of the conceptions her mind refused to admit.
She had no immediate intention of repeating to Lily what she had heard, o_ven of trying to ascertain its truth by means of discreet interrogation. T_o so might be to provoke a scene; and a scene, in the shaken state of Mrs.
Peniston's nerves, with the effects of her dinner not worn off, and her min_till tremulous with new impressions, was a risk she deemed it her duty t_void. But there remained in her thoughts a settled deposit of resentmen_gainst her niece, all the denser because it was not to be cleared b_xplanation or discussion. It was horrible of a young girl to let herself b_alked about; however unfounded the charges against her, she must be to blam_or their having been made. Mrs. Peniston felt as if there had been _ontagious illness in the house, and she was doomed to sit shivering among he_ontaminated furniture.