The Buttered Side
AUDREY BALLARD looked thoughtfully about the narrow room, as if to imprint upon her memory—-for some good purpose of her own—-
the bed with its limp inadequate mattress, the cheap oak bureau with its eternally missing drawer knob, the torn chintz screen that concealed the wash-bowl. Last of all her eyes bade ironic farewell to the wallpaper, with its stiff faded sprig of wisteria forever missing the next stiff faded sprig of wisteria.
Here she had lived for three years. The room in Mrs. Macomber’s house had been less depressing than the other furnished rooms she had known, and her only safe refuge in those bad times when she’d had no job. Mrs. Macomber had been kind, with an easygoing attitude about the rent.
Audrey closed the door quietly, and went quickly down the creaking, thinly-carpeted flight of steps. The expressman had called for her trunk; it was to be delivered to “The Cedars” without delay. And now Audiey herself had only a half hour’s street-car ride to take her from one end of the world to the other.
Said she: "There’s certainly nothing wrong with plain, ordinary common sense." Said he: "No, and there’s nothing wrong with spinach."
/ I 'HERE WAS, certainly, the width of the world between
Mrs. Macomber’s furnished room and Mrs. Martin Ainsworth’s house on the hill. There were to be found, in an industrial town like Wentwood, the social distinctions which obtain in the great capitals. There were, in other words, people like the rowdy, good-humored Macombers, people like her father, who had taught history in a local high school, and people like the Ainsworths, who lived on the hill--their lives standing clear for all the town to see and envy.
Audrey Ballard, like everyone else in the humbler circles of Wentwood, was acquainted with the most astonishingly intimate details of life in the Ainsworth family. People like the Ainsworths were almost like royalty. Gossip flowed freely from maids and chauffeurs and manicurists. Townsfolk, of whom the Ainsworths had never heard, knew about Mrs. Ainsworth’s monogrammed linen sheets, and about Miss Constance Ainsworth’s satin and velvet lounging pyjamas. They knew, likewise, about the chicken that the Ainsworths’ cook would serve in wine, and about the hothouse grapes, incredibly big and purple and luscious, which would adorn the Ainsworth table.
Audrey Ballard, remote from these superior folk, had all the richly-colored fragments, scandalous and otherwise, to fit into a mosaiclike pattern, a fairly accurate concept of life in “The Cedars,” that ugly and fabulous house on the hill. It is difficult to say at just what moment Audiey first began to finger these varied fragments with a conscious personal interestat just what moment she first laid plans for her campaign against the Ainsworths.
That was what it was, really a camjiaign. Six months before she left that wisteria-flowered room in Mrs. Macomber’s ramshackle house, she had taken stock of herself very much as a canny general might take stock of his military equipment. The mirror over that oak bureau with the missing knob had reflected a pair of smoldering darkeyes set under straight beautiful brows, and a smoky cloud of dark hair. The little face had a camellialike whiteness and the mouth was vivid. Audrey Ballard scowled, and allowed her eyes to wander down a slim body that was as lithe as a fencer’s— adequately meeting the demands of a tightly-fitted pullover and a scant pleated skirt.
There was little vanity in this appraisal. There was, indeed, a certain contempt.
“You see,” she explained afterward to her good friend Martha Jorgensen, “all this time I’ve had assets like money in the bank—and what have I done about them? Nothing !”
Martha smiled tolerantly. Martha was a plain-featured and amiable girl engaged to an enterprising young automobile salesman in the town.
“It’s a joke,” she agreed, “that I’m the one who’s going to get married.”
Audrey whirled on her.
“That’s not what I mean!” she cried. “Oh, why do people make so much of getting married! What does marriage mean to people like us? Economies for two instead of economies for one. I tell you. Martha, I don’t believe in romance that outlasts j)overty and drudgery and for ever and ever worrying about money. Anyhow, it’s not the sort of romance I want. Oh, 1 know what 1 want, Martha -and I’m going after it!”
C HE WENT ON thoughtfully, making the thing clear ^ for herself as well as for Martha. The three years since her father’s death had convinced her that life—the good life was generally to the strong, to the swift and strong. She had what the mirror told her she had, together with a fair amount of intelligence. She scorned the apathy which had held her to the social and economic level of Mrs. Macomber’s furnished room. For a long time she had known that no brilliant career was going to open before her in any of the Wentwood offices where she had been fortunate enough or unfortunate enough to find a job. Nor had loneliness made her humble before the admiration of shy, clumsy-handed boys, of married men a shade too furtiveeyed and knowing. Yet she had been content, in a listless way, with discontent. She had wept in secret on her twenty-third birthday, with too little spirit to rebel against the bright indifferent years.
Slowly her plan had formed in her mind, thrusting itself through that numbing despair. The seed of the plan was planted by Miss Agnes Needham, a certain careworn spinster whom she had never seen. Miss Needham was, in six months, leaving for Europe, by virtue of a small legacy from some forgotten uncle. Miss Needham, who for a third of a lifetime had been Mrs. Martin Ainsworth’s social secretary, was going to spend her remaining years, no longer harried, in some garden in Sussex. Audrey had the story from the youngest Macomber, bosom friend of the girl who “did” Mrs. Martin Ainsworth’s hair and Miss Constance Ainsworth’s hair. Poor Miss Needham—a mouselike creature caught for twenty-five years in a gilded trap ! Audrey, strangely interested in this unknown Miss Needham, dug frantically in the shallow Macomber memory.
“\\’e\\, I wasn’t specially interested, see?” said Fanny Macomber. “Gladys was just telling me what a heel the old lady was. Nobody but this unturned worm would ’a’ put up with it. That Mrs. Ainsworth made her kind of— you knowlike a slave or something. Not just her letters and like that. But ‘do this’ and ‘do that’ every living minute of the day -Gladys said she wouldn’t have a job like that for twice the money!”
Audrey reflected. Miss Agnes Needham, slave and mouse, had not made the most of her opportunities. But she, Audrey Ballard, once given the chance to be Mrs. Ainsworth’s secretary, would not be so stupid. Audrey became even more reflective. She was remembering the time that Charles Ainsworth had seen her in the lobby of the Central Hotel. His pale blue eyes had been insolent but admiring. “Do you know who that is?” the girl at the cigar counter had murmured. “That’s Charles Ainsworth ! They say he’s even smarter than the old man—they say he's going to get practically every nickel that the old man leaves.” At the time Audrey had not been impressed. But now . . .
She did not wait for Mrs. Ainsworth to advertise her need of a secretary. Taking thought, she had dressed herself as she imagined an efficient mouse should be dressed, and she had marched bravely to Mrs. Ainsworth’s door.
CHE HAD her own room, the room that for so many ^ years had been Miss Needham’s. The room somehow reflected her position. She was not a member of the household, and yet she was not quite a servant. She looked at herself in the mirror, alarmed to see how bright were her eyes, how flushed her cheeks, how resolute was the set of her jaw. She tried to relax. She drew a comb through her hair and powdered her nose lightly. Then, forcing herself to a semblance of meekness—to downcast eyes, to a timid gait she went downstairs to the sunroom.
Mrs. Ainsworth, a monstrously large woman and indolent, was lying on the chaise longue, a novel, a box of chocolates and a telephone at her hand. She had not offered, and she would not offer Audrey any of the chocolates, but Audrey was fascinated by that plump white hand which went greedily to the box . . .
“Miss Ballard, there are one or two things which I want clearly understood.”
“Certainly, Mrs. Ainsworth.”
“You told me and I’ve forgotten—what was your job and what was your salary before you came here?”
“I was a stenographer in Efauber and Pratt’s, Mrs. Ainsworth. I was making sixteen dollars a week.”
“Ah ! Well, you see. I’m paying twenty dollars a week— and you have your board. Perhaps I’m too generoussome of my friends tell me so. After all, we don’t need to mince matters -it’s not every stenographer who’s fortunate enough to find a position like this.”
“No, indeed, Airs. Ainsworth,” murmured Audrey.
Mrs. Ainsworth looked at her sharply; seemed to be satisfied with the girl’s attitude. She ate a chocolatecovered cherry and smacked her lips. Again Audrey cast down her eyes; there was something definitely repellent about Mrs. Ainsworth’s greed.
“You understand,” Mrs. Ainsworth went on, “that I
shall expect from you a certain devotion to my interests.” Audrey nodded. Had she not heard of Agnes Needham’s slavery? Audrey expected to be a slave; she also expected to marry Mrs. Ainsworth’s first-born son. She looked at Mrs. Ainsworth with a gleam of amusement.
“I appreciate the advantage of my position,” she murmured softly.
The plump hand hovered over a caramel.
“I m glad to hear that. Miss Ballard. Now, you understand, you are to dine with the family except, of course, when we entertain.”
“I understand,” said Audrey.
'T'HE DINING ROOM of “The Cedars” had been A designed at the turn of the century, at a time when dining was a ritual demanding a cathedral-like calm. Audrey noted, in awe. the hideous mahogany sideboard which ran the width ol the room, the great limp pheasants in ornate gilt frames which adorned the remaining walls, and the massive dining-table itself which glittered with the traditional damask and silver.
Cosy little place, isn’t it?” said young Gene Ainsworth, in her ear.
Audrey started. She looked reproachfully at this unruly and irrepressible member of the household.
I was just thinking,” she rejoined in a tone loud enough to be overheard, “that this room was almost historic. I’ve read about all the famous people who’ve dined here it’s thrilling !”
Gene Ainsworth nodded solemnly.
“Right where you’re sitting.” he said, “the president of the B. M. & R. Railroad, the biggest stuffed shirt in all creation, sat and ate three plates of scrambled eggs and bacon. It’s enough to make ànybody stop and think, isn’t it?”
Martin Ainsworth scowled at his son, and turned in approbation to Audrey.
“You’re quite right. Miss Ballard,” he boomed. “If these old walls could talk ... !”
Charles Ainsworth was looking at Audrey thoughtfully. He was apparently trying to remember where he had seen her before. She permitted him to mark her lashes from an advantageous angle. Constance Ainsworth, after mumbling her acknowledgment of the secretary’s existence, had retired languidly into some world of her own. Mrs. Ainsworth was entirely absorbed in the chicken à la reine. Two members of the household were sufficiently aware of Audrey’s presence. Martin Ainsworth boasted of his intimacy with the president of the B.M.& R., which had been directly responsible for those branching tracks of steel brought to the warehouses of the Ainsworth Electrical Supplies. Inc. Charles was not too covertly taking inventory of Audrey’s charms—his eyes almost as cool and insolent as they had been in the lobby of the Central Hotel. But (jene Ainsworth continued to direct his sly mocking thrusts against the general self-complacency. This young man was easily the most attractive member of the family —and easily the least important. Audrey could not help noticing the thick fair hair brushed erratically back from a fine brow, the level blue eyes, the swift engaging smile.
CHE TOOK herself in hand. She was not going to let & herself fall in love with this young man—the ne’er-dowell, the family black sheep. Guided by thé cold admonishing voice of reason, it would be just as simple to fall in love with his older brother. She reminded herself sternly that charm was almost always a superficial thing in a man. hiding his true character for the bedevilment of women. She berated her own intelligence—well, it was annoying that she should be so painfully conscious of this boy’s nearness.
“You didn’t come near the plant today,” his father was saying irritably.
“No, dad. I thought it could totter along without me.” "What did you do?”
“Oh, I had a long chat with my friend Mr. Lewis .
Miss Ballard, you may as well learn the shameful secret of the Ainsworths, the skeleton rattling in the Ainsworth closet ”
“No,” said Audrey quickly, “I -”
“Oh, yes. You’d find out sooner or later. I may as well tell you myself. I collect stamps.”
“Yes.” said Charles, smiling, “my dear brother is a philatelist. We’re all so proud of him.”
“It’s no laughing matter!” Martin Ainsworth burst out furiously. “Gabbing about stamps with a senile old fool like John Lewis when you ought to be ”
"You know what you ought to be doing!” shouted his father. "You call yourself an architect, don’t you? Why aren’t you drawing those plans for the workmen’s houses?” “I’ve told you, sir,” said Gene Ainsworth quietly. “Any time you get dogs for those proposed dog kennels, I’ll be very glad to get to work. Until then—suppose we spare Miss Ballard the family arguments.” Audrey was embarrassed. But Mrs. Ainsworth was meditating on the flavor of a raspberry pudding. Constance Ainsworth was indifferent. Charles was watchful and amused. Only between Martin Ainsworth and his younger son was that current of anger, electric and dangerous. The younger Ainsworth’s cheeks were flushed; his blue eyes had darkened.
“So,” said his father heavily, “you still think my workmen should live in palaces, eh? They should have music rooms, I suppose—conservatories? Perhaps they
should have libraries for their rare first editions! I’ve told you, young man ” “Sorry, dad,” said his son, reddening. “But I wish you could see it my way. If you’d be content not to make a profit on that project Mr. Lewis and I were making an estimate only today—”
“Will you leave that old fool out of my affairs! What does he know about profit and loss?”
“Well, he’s made a fortune.”
“Luck ! He always was a fool for luck ! Don't talk to me about Lewis!”
“Well, I'm not -really. It was only about these houses, sir. They’d be a fine thing for the men and their families. If the rents could take care of the taxes ” Charles Ainsworth laughed suddenly. “Miss Ballard.” he said, “you’re nowhearing from the financier of the family. My brother’s a genius—in his way.”
But old Martin Ainsworth was not amused. He was staring at his younger son.
“I warn you,” he said, “if you go on with this pig-headed stupidity of yours”
He paused, and there was a rather alarming silence. Mrs. Ainsworth stepped placidly into the silence, to Audrey’s enormous relief.
“Miss Ballard,” she said, “did I tell you that Miss Needham left you a full list of instructions and so on? You’ll find them in the desk.”
“I’ll go over everything right away,” promised Audrey.
Again Charles Ainsworth’s eyes had been drawn to her. She glanced at him briefly. Even now, she felt, there was the beginning of some secret little understanding between them.
T'xURING THE weeks that followed she ^ found that Miss Needham’s explicit instructions aided her not a little. Without these instructions. Miss Needham’s successor could not have dreamed of her curious responsibilities.
Mrs. Ainsworth, of course, had an unquestioned position as reigning queen of Wentwood society, and as the town’s quasi-official hostess to various visiting dignitaries. But Mrs. Ainsworth herself liked ixnver without penalty—her secretary was expected to chart Mrs. Ainsworth’s social course strategically; to decide who was to be snubbed, condoned or encouraged by Mrs. Ainsworth; to compose letters to an exact degree cold,
benevolent or charming; to serve Mrs. Ainsworth, in other words, as hand and brain.
So far, by applying her own lively intelligence, Audrey could follow the incomparable Miss Needham’s instructions. But Miss Needham had left no helpful hints in regard to Mrs. Ainsworth’s monumental selfishness. Audrey’s employer, like most indolent people, loathed indolence in others. Mrs. Ainsworth liked other people to have crowded, interesting lives. Within an hour Audrey could be expected to massage Mrs. Ainsworth’s forehead, to take Puffy the dog to the veterinary, to answer seven letters, to order flowers, to telephone the hairdresser, and tactfully to handle a gentleman who wanted Mrs. Ainsworth to subscribe to a hospital fund. In the stress of all this excitement, Audrey, ordering the flowers, forgot Mrs. Ainsworth’s irrational dislike of carnations.
“I’m afraid you’re a little careless. Miss Ballard,” said Mrs. Ainsworth, sighing. “Of course I can never expect to replace Miss Needham —but when I’m so generous to my employees. I do expect just a little co-operation !”
Audrey’s face burned. Puffy had bitten her wrist, and she’d had a difficult interview with the gentleman from the hospital. Mrs. Ainsworth was trying on her new caracul coat; she was looking at herself approvingly in the mirror. Audrey resisted
a wild desire to bid Mrs. Ainsworth a loud and informal farewell.
She smiled faintly.
“I’m trying, Mrs. Ainsworth.”
“Well, I know I can’t expect much— these days. ’Phone Leonards’, Miss Ballard, and tell them I’m not satisfied with the lining of this coat. Tell them to send someone for it, and tell them I want it back by Thursday.”
“This is Wednesday, Mrs. Ainsworth.” “I’m perfectly aware of the day of the week, my dear Miss Ballard.”
“I’ll ask them to do their best,” said Audrey.
The trouble was that Mrs. Ainsworth expected more of people than their best. Nursing this thought with a certain grim humor, Audrey retired to her room for privacy and the chance to regain a proper perspective.
Actually, she was drawing nearer every day to her objective. She had been careful, and she had been very clever. Charles Ainsworth himself could not have suspected that she was delicately but very deliberately impressing a charming image of herself upon his consciousness. At the very outset she had made it clear that there was to be no question of a backstairs flirtation. Indeed she was far more unapproachable than were those friends of his sister who came into the house. If she listened breathlessly to any dictum that he cared to make on the world of affairs, this merely fed his vanity as a leader of men. If her hair brushed his cheek as she looked at some magazine over his shoulder, Continued from frage 32 this was merely evidence of her own ingenuous trust in him. But every day he looked at her more speculatively, as he turned over some thought in regard to her.
“By the end of the year,” she told herself, “I’ll be Mrs. Charles Ainsworth. I'll be somebody! I’ll have a lovely, quiet house—and expensive, beautiful clothes like Connie’s. I’ll change my shoes seven times a day. I’ll go to Paris, and Budapest, and the Isle of Capri ! I ’ll sit in the sun and I’ll have one of those cartwheel hats. I’ll never have to make out another budget, and I ’ll never have to worry about losing a job and in my bathroom I’ll have absolutely all the bath salts in the world !
“It’s not that I won’t be a good and faithful wife,” she went on, addressing the small persistent voice of conscience. “Oh, I’ll play fair! And why isn’t the whole thing fair? I'll be as good a wife as any of their friends— better, maybe. I’ll never let the family down in any possible way. I’ll put myself out for all his business associates—-and their wives. By the time I marry him I’ll know all the ropes!”
“Yeah,” said the irritating little voice of conscience. “I suppose it doesn’t matter that you don’t like the man. You don’t admit it—but you don’t, you know! You don’t like his eyes—you don’t like the way he looks at you -you don’t like that hard, cruel conceit of his. You’ll lose more than you make by the bargain, and you darned well know it —”
“I know which side my bread is buttered on,” she thought wrathfully. “That’s what it. comes to. If I haven’t learned anything else in my life, I should have learned that !”
BEFORE SHE returned to Mrs. Ainsworth, she encountered Gene Ainsworth in the living room off the stairs. He was at the piano. He looked up and smiled. She hesitated a moment. She told herself that, if she were to be one of the family, she really shouldn’t antagonize Gene.
“I didn’t know you could play,” she said, faltering.
“Oh. yes!” he told her. “But I have any number of fairly useless accomplishments. You’ve only heard about the stamp collecting because that’s the most annoying. Smoke?”
“No, thanks,” she said.
But she came to stand by the piano, and watched his fingers as they wandered idly over the keys.
“You’re not just a stamp collector.” she reminded him after a pause. “You’re really an architect.”
“So I am. But my architectural career isn’t going ahead with any leaps and bounds—as you may have noticed.”
“Well, I’ve heard your father saying that he had work for you.”
He lifted one eyebrow and looked at her quizzically.
“It's a long story, Audrey. My father has a scheme for turning some waste land over to houses for his factory hands. He wants me to draw up the plans for these houses.”
“Well? And why not?” she demanded. “Because to put it mildlymy father’s idea of a house for a factory hand isn’t my idea of a house for a factory hand. I’m I dumb enough to think that these workingmen and their wives are human beings, not I robots; that they need homes, not two-by| four shacks.” He grinned suddenly. “I’m I even insisting on a shower in every bathroom. my dear!”
He began to play Rachmaninov’s I “Prelude-.”
“I don’t expect any sympathy from ! you,” he said, breaking off again. “So I i don’t know why I'm telling you all this.” Audrey reddened.
“You don't like me very much, do you,
“It wouldn’t be difficult to like you,” he said evasively. “You’re so beautiful, you know.”
“But you don’t like me!”
“It’s not that, Audrey. We’re different, ! that’s all. I’m an idealist—a fool if you ! like. And you’re something of a realist,
aren’t you? Like my brother. That’s all right, of course -but you and I would never get along.”
SHE KNEW then that in his gentle and almost indifferent way, he had seen through her from the beginning. He knew why she was in this house, suffering his mother’s rudeness, treading circumspectly through the complexities of the family life. He knew—he had known from the very beginning—that she meant to marry his brother. But she was equally well aware that he would not betray her in any way— there was no logical reason for the passionate desire to justify herself which took possession of her now.
“You’ve always had everything,” she said bitterly. “You don’t know what it means to be a nobody—having nothing— going nowhere! You don’t know what it means to be alone and frightened—oh. I’m not asking you to feel sorry for me! I’m only trying to make you see that it’s sometimes necessary to be a ‘realist.’ It’s a ‘real’ world you know,” she added defiantly. “There’s ‘real’ poverty in the world, too— oh, you have no reason to despise me!”
He shook his head.
“I don’t despise you. And as for this real world you’re talking about—I’m going to have a chance to take a whack at it.”
Her heart seemed, for a second, to stop beating. This, she told herself, was merely sympathy for a headstrong young man.
“What do you mean?” she demanded. “Do you mean you’re going away?”
“Well, I'm going to have a showdown with my father tonight,” he said. “That is—he’s going to have a showdown with me. If you hear any explosion around here, that will be the showdown.”
“If you don’t build the houses the way your father wants you to build them, he —you—”
“That’s it,” he said, nodding. “I’ll be out on my ear.”
“Gene—you don’t realize what you’re up against. You don’t realize what it’s like! Can’t you compromise? Can’t you meet your father halfway?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Well, you’ll find out it’s a luxury!” “What’s a luxury, Audrey?”
“Oh—it’s hard to explain. This captainof-your-soul businessthat’s a luxury. When you’re living in some furnished room somewhere, you can’t afford showdowns with people. You’ll have to listen to what they say, and smile, and pretend you love it !”
“I’ll never do that—if I don’t love it.” “No,” she said slowly, “I don’t suppose you will.”
“You’re probably right about thi thing, of course. My brother would see eye to eye with you. I’m sure of that.”
“I have great respect for your brother.” “Of course.”
They seemed to have come to a deadlock. Audrey was struggling with a senseless impulse the impulse to tell Gene Ainsworth that she respected him a million times more than she respected his brother. That couldn’t possibly be true, she told herself, in terror. Yet, when she was with him, there was always this dangerous question in her mind; this question of her own wisdom, acquired so painfully during the last three years. It would be a shame, she thought furiously, if this careless youth should destroy the only protection she had in the world.
“There’s certainly nothing wrong,” she said doggedly, “with good, plain, ordinary common sense.”
“No,” he said. “And there’s nothing wrong with spinach. I’ve never been very crazy about it. But then-everybody’s got a right to choose his own dish.”
“And a good thing.” she said miserably. “Oh, a very good thing.”
Then she left him. Here, after all, was another deadlock. By this time, moreover, Mrs. Ainsworth would be turning.
MRS. AINSWORTH continued to fume. Life in “The Cedars” was going none too smoothly. The abrupt departure of Gene Ainsworth was overshadowed by Miss Constance Ainsworth’s recent outbursts of temper.
‘T wonder what you make of us.” said Charles.
He had come home early one April afternoon and found Audrey in the sunroom, jabbing receipted bills on a pointed brass spindle.
“Make of you?” she queried absently. “Let me see— caterer, florist. and Buckley for riding boots I’m sorry, Charles,
but I’m in rather a turmoil. A man called up to say your sister hadn’t paid him for some work on her car. She says she did. so -”
‘She probably didn’t. Connie is an addlepated little fool, with no consideration for anybody but herself. That’s what I was talking about. This family! You know why young Constance is kicking up a row about the party next week, don’t you?”
Audrey looked at him solemnly.
“I don’t know. But Mrs. Ainsworth has had a splitting headache all morning.” Charles sank into a fan-back chair and lit a cigarette. The afternoon sunlight slanted across his cheek, calling unkind attention to a flabby jowl.
‘She’s nothing but a spoiled brat,” he said irritably. “Connie. I mean. This party she’s having, for instance—she insists on asking young Frank Gilbert, a cheap little fortune hunter my father kicked out of the house last winter. He’s oack in town and Connie’s been seeing him—making a fool of herself. And then ffiere’s this business about Gene.”
“Oh! Do you know where he is?”
“Yes. He’s taken some cheap room downtown—the idiot! The whole thing’s ridiculous. He’ll never give in, and my father will never give in. Gene will go around like a beggar, and won’t that give the family a nice black eye!”
“Do you mean he’s been—well— disinherited?”
“That’s a high-sounding word for it, but I suppose it’s the general idea. You certainly can’t blame the old man—he’s put up with a lot. Besides, the kid has his own kind of stiffnecked pride. He walked out of the house without as much as an extra shirt. That was a dramatic gesture, I suppose. And this made me laugh—you remember that precious stamp collection?” “Yes,” said Audrey.
“Well, he even left that behind. It’s right on his desk I saw it. And you know nothing on earth would make him ask for it, or come back for it.”
“Can’t we mail it to him?”
“I should say not! That chap deserves no more consideration from any of us. Now how about having a little drink, Audrey?”
“Mrs. Ainsworth —”
“Oh, as for that ! You can eat a clove.”
She didn’t have one, however. But Charles did. When he had put down his glass, he found her looking at him thoughtfully. He was, she discovered, older than she had thought him at first. His hair was thinning at the temples, and even now there were lines in faint parenthesis about his mouth. He had none of Gene Ainsworth’s charm—but there was something to admire, she thought, in this man’s quiet assurance, in his cool control of the Ainsworth affairs. It was no secret that Charles Ainsworth, and not his father, had saved the factory during those years when rival factories were closed and left to a slow and mournful ruin. Charles Ainsworth had handled the market as adeptly as he was now handling a cocktail glass. He had an extraordinary financial sense; talking of money, he would draw in his nostrils as if there were the actual scent of metal in the wind.
CHE DID admire him. Audrey assured ^ herself. She had always found something admirable in power.
“Do you know,” he said suddenly, “I don’t know much about you!”
“I haven’t told you much about me.”
“True. Why haven’t you, Audrey?”
“There’s not much to tell.”
He took her hand and turned it over caressingly.
“I might find it in the lines of your palm.”
“I m afraid you'll only find carbon smudges.”
“H’mm. My mother works you like a dog. doesn’t she?”
“Oh. no! I'm really a pretty efficient secretary, you know.”
He made this remark an excuse to look her over, from head to foot.
“Yes,” he said. “The neat little dress— the starched linen cuffs—all complete. Only you don’t fool me, Audrey !”
“No. \ ou'd be a lot happier in ermine and velvet.”
“Yes.” she said, laughing. “And great ropes of pearls. But wouldn’t any girl be happier?”
“Not any girl could be so lovely.”
She smiled warily. She was very sure of him now. She felt not like a girl the hour before betrothal, but rather like a general on the eve of victory.
“My mother could get another secretary, Audrey.”
“Oh! Do you think my work isn’t pleasing her?”
“It isn’t pleasing me. A girl like you shouldn’t have to work.”
“I agree with you,” said Audrey.
He was very sure of her, she thought. But then, Charles Ainsworth was always very sure of everything. He had what he wanted. Certainly this arrogance of his was not a characteristic to despise—and she would be Mrs. Charles Ainsworth, entitled to a measure of arrogance on her own account. Audrey shut her eyes— against the tears of happiness which she expected any minute now.
But she was not given time for tears. Charles turned away from her sharply, and strode to the door. He flung it open, and the acrid odor of smoke was at once apparent.
“It’s fire, Audrey!”
She stood looking at him stupidly. Fire in a frame house like this, she thought, would destroy everything. She thought of Gene Ainsworth’s book of stamps, guarded so carefully over the years.
“Yes—it’s fire!” cried Charles.
Audrey ran after him into the hall. The smoke ran under the dining-room door and curled into small frightening clouds in the narrow passage. Mrs. Ainsworth, squealing in terror, was scuttling past them to the great front door.
“Connie’s not home,” cried Audrey. “But the servants—”
She ran to the back stairs. Sophie. Elsa and Maggie were tumbling down the steps.
“Audrey!” shouted Charles.
She heard his voice, faint over the panicstricken screams of the servants. But she did not run to the terrace. Gene Ainsworth’s room was at the top of the stairs, still free of that menacing smoke. She had plenty of time to rescue the precious stamp collection —plenty of time.
She was running up the stairs, even as the foolhardy resolution took shape in her mind. She flung open Gene’s door—and a great black angry pillar of smoke rose before her eyes. She seized the book on the desk and ran. A narrow thread of flame crackled and flared from the floor. She ran down the stairs, stumbling-blinded by the smoke which was dense and black, by this time, in the passage below. She pulled at the door and fell headlong into Charles Ainsworth’s arms.
“You little fool!” he was shouting furiously. “You little fool! Why did you go back?”
She breathed deeply. The air was cool and fresh and heavenly. And Elsa, the maid, was dabbing her face with a handkerchief wrung out in cold water. She smiled at Charles reassuringly—not answering his question, not really able to answer his question. It seemed absurd to have risked her life for a book of stamps. She couldn’t have known, she told herself, that the fire was going to spread in two different directions. Nevertheless, she hid the rescued stamps from Charles Ainsworth’s eyes.
TESS THAN an hour later Audrey had found her way to Gene Ainsworth’s rooming house, on a street which was little more than an alley. She waited for him in a gloomy reception room adorned with enlarged photographs of the landlady’s dead and forgotten kin. It was worse, she thought, than Mrs. Macomber’s reception room.
She had not remembered how charming he was. That thought lingered disturbingly in her mind while she told him about the fire. “The Cedars” had burned to the ground.
“Your mother is having hysterics.” she continued, in her brief and accurate report. “The servants are screaming their heads off. Charles is bawling out the fire department. And in the middle of it a telegram came from your sister Constance. She’s eloped with a man named Gilbert. I thought you’d like to know.”
“Yes,” he said. “It was good of you to come and tell me.”
“Well!” she said. “It seems to me you’re pretty calm about it.”
“Why not?” he demanded, in some surprise. “Nobody was hurt — and, speaking as an architect, that house was nothing but a bad dream.”
“Oh. I’m glad to hear about that! Frank Gilbert’s a nice chap. I like him.”
“I've heard,” she informed him coldly, “that he’d never make anything of himself.”
“He’ll make a lot of himself,” Gene corrected her. “At least that’s my guess. Of course, he’ll never make a lot of money.”
“You’re still being stubborn,” she said angrily.
“Don’t you feel sorry for me,” he said. “I’m having the time of my life.”
She looked at him searchinglv.
“Just the same,” she said, “you haven’t been taking very good care of yourself.” That was true enough. There were smudges under his blue eyes, and his cheeks were hollowed. She noticed too— when he ran his hand through his thick unruly hair—that his white shirt cuff was badly frayed. There was something pitiful and endearing about, that shirt cuff ; something that she fought against blindly and passionately.
“I really came to bring you this thing,” she said hastily, handing him the stamp collection. “I saved it—it happened to come into my mind.”
He looked at the book in amazement. “Why—that was terribly nice of you, Audrey.”
“It was nothing,” she assured him gruffly.
He caressed the worn binding of the book.
“I only wonder,” he said, “how you came to think of it.”
Audrey stared at him, unable to say a word. Even as he spoke, gently caressing the book, she could have told him why she’d saved those stamps. There had been two reasons, really; they were dear to his heart, and saving them had given her an excuse for seeing him again. So here it was—the clear and unmistakable fact. She was in love with this shabby, charming. completely improvident ne’er-do-well !
IT SEEMED to her an extraordinary thing that she had not realized it before - that she had been so busy thinking of what Charles could do for her, and not thinking of what she could do for Gene. So many thoughts were flashing into her mind as Gene went on talking about his precious stamps. That shirt cuff ! She was remembering how clever she’d been about
turning shirt cuffs during those lean days after her father had left the high school to write a book. The little economies had never seemed so bad when her father was alive. It was only when she was alone that
they had become so mean and so thank-
less . . .
“Strange,” he was saying casually. “I was just talking to Mr. Lewis last night about this book—saying how much I’d like to have it again.”
“Mr. Lewis—he’s that old gentleman, isn’t he?”
“Yes. The best friend I have . . . Audrey ! Do you remember that model
village I was telling you about?” She nodded.
“Well. John Lewis is going to back the project. It’s going to be the biggest thing that ever happened in this town. I’ve been having a whale of a lot of fun working
day and night, and I probably look it.
But it’s going to be —oh, tremendous!”
“I’m glad. Gene terribly glad.”
He looked at her with a gleam of amuse-
“Incidentally,” he said, “it means that
the family black sheep is on his way to
financial success— I hope my brother doesn’t die of the shock.” “It’s wonderful,” she said slowly, “but it doesn’t really matter about the financial success.”
I íe laughed.
“You’re being polite. I know you don’t mean that.”
“Oh, I know how my brother will look at it—and you look at things the way he
She was so hurt and angry that she couldn’t argue with him. She felt a swift
painful tide of color flow over her cheeks, and her eyes were blind with tears as she
groped for the purse on the table.
“I’ve got to hurry back,” she said then, coldly. “Good-by, Gene.”
“Well thanks again,” he said. “Goodby, Audrey."
For a moment his hand closed over hers, She managed a steady, indifferent gaze.
But he was frowning suddenly.
“Why, what’s that?” he demanded, “What in the world has happened to your
“Eyebrows?” she repeated, faltering,
“Yes! They look scorched!”
There was a long pause.
“Listen,” he said then. “Listen,
Audrey, this is probably crazy, but by any chance—did they get scorched when you were—well, when you were rescuing those
“Well,” she admitted, “I didn’t rescue anything else.”
“But I hadn’t realized—”
“Oh,” cried Audrey, “what do I care
about eyebrows !”
She was in his arms then. For a long time they looked at each other marvel -
ling, incapable of speech. The landlady’s forgotten kin looked down innocently from
the gilded frames.
“I’ve been in love with you from that first night in the historic dining room,” he said then. “But, darling, I thought it
was hopeless I thought you had a heart
like a nice little keg of nails.”
“I thought so too!”
Gently he stroked one of the scorched
“You weren’t supposed to be an adventuress, darling.”
“You weren’t supposed to marry a struggling young architect.”
“You were supposed to be a little dope !”
“No! I ”
He interrupted her. He’d have the final
word on the subject. And again the landlady’s ancestors smiled down blandly from their gilded frames.