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- The Fashionable Adventures of Joshua Craig - 20/47 -
engaged to marry."
"What!" shouted Grant. "It was TRUE?"
"Go out into the garden and try to calm yourself, Grant," said the girl haughtily. "And if you can't, why--take yourself off home. And don't come back until you are ready to apologize."
"Rita, why didn't you give me a hint? I'd have married you myself. I'm willing to do it....Rita, will you marry me?"
Margaret leaned back upon the sofa and laughed until his blood began to run alternately hot and cold.
"I beg your pardon," he stammered. "I did not realize how it sounded. Only--you know how things are with our sort of people. And, as men go, I can't help knowing I'm what's called a catch, and that you're looking for a suitable husband....As it's apparently a question of him or me, and as you've admitted you got him by practically proposing--... Damn it all, Rita, I want you, and I'm not going to let such a man as he is have you. I never dreamed you'd bother with him seriously or I'd not have been so slow."
Margaret was leaning back, looking up at him. "I've sunk even lower than I thought," she said, bringing to an end the painful silence which followed this speech.
"What do you mean, Rita?"
She laughed cynically, shrugged her shoulders. First, Craig's impudent assumption that she loved him, and his rude violation of her lips; now, this frank insolence of insult, the more savage that it was unconscious--and from the oldest and closest of her men friends. If one did not die under such outrages, but continued to live and let live, one could save the situation only by laughing. So, Margaret laughed--and Arkwright shivered.
"For God's sake, Rita!" he cried. "I'd not have believed that lips so young and fresh as yours could utter such a cynical sound."
She looked at him with disdainful, derisive eyes. "It's fortunate for me that I have a sense of humor," said she. "And for you," she added.
"But I am in earnest, I mean it--every word I said."
"That's just it," replied she. "You meant it--every word."
"You will marry me?"
"I will not."
"For several reasons. For instance, I happen to be engaged to another man."
"That is--nothing." He snapped his fingers.
She elevated her brows. "Nothing?"
"He'd not keep his promise to you if--In fact, he was debating with me whether or not he'd back down."
"Either what you say is false," said she evenly, "or you are betraying the confidence of a friend who trusted in your honor."
"Oh, he said it, all right. You know how he is about confidences."
Margaret rose slowly, a gradual lifting of her long, supple figure. Grant watching, wondered why he had never before realized that the sensuous charm of her beauty was irresistible. "Where were my eyes?" he asked himself. "She's beyond any of the women I've wasted so much time on."
She was saying with quiet deliberateness: "A few days ago, Grant, I'd have jumped at your offer--to be perfectly frank. Why shouldn't I be frank! I'm sick of cowardly pretenses and lies. I purpose henceforth to be myself--almost." A look within and a slightly derisive smile. "Almost. I shall hesitate and trifle no longer. I shall marry your friend Craig."
"You'll do nothing of the kind," raged Arkwright. "If you make it necessary I'll tell him why you're marrying him."
"You may do as you like about that," replied she. "He'll probably understand why you are trying to break off our engagement."
"You're very confident of your power over him," taunted he.
She saw again Craig's face as he was kissing her. "Very," replied she.
"You'll see. It's a mere physical attraction."
She smiled tantalizingly, her long body displayed against the window-casing, her long, round arms bare below the elbows, her hazel eyes and sensuous lips alluring. "You, yourself, never thought of proposing to me until I had made myself physically attractive to you," said she. "Now--have I power over you, or not?"
She laughed as his color mounted, and the look she had seen in Craig's eyes blazed out in his.
"How little physical charm you have for me," she went on. "Beside Craig you're like an electric fan in competition with a storm- wind. Now, Craig--" She closed her eyes and drew a long breath.
Arkwright gnawed his lip. "What a--a DEVIL you ARE!" he exclaimed.
"I wonder why it is a woman never becomes desirable to some men until they find she's desired elsewhere," she went on reflectively. "What a lack of initiative. What timidity. What an absence of originality. If I had nothing else against you, Grant, I'd never forgive you for having been so long blind to my charms-- you and these other men of our set who'll doubtless be clamorous now."
"If you'd been less anxious to please," suggested he bitterly, "and more courageous about being your own real self, you'd not have got yourself into this mess."
"Ah--but that wasn't my fault," replied she absently. "It was the fault of my training. Ever since I can remember I've been taught to be on my guard, lest the men shouldn't like me." In her new freedom she looked back tranquilly upon the struggle she was at last emancipated from, and philosophized about it. "What a mistake mothers make in putting worry about getting a husband into their daughters' heads. Believe me, Grant, that dread makes wretched what ought to be the happiest time of a girl's life."
"Rita," he pleaded, "stop this nonsense, and say you'll marry me."
"No, thanks," said she. "I've chosen. And I'm well content."
She gave him a last tantalizing look and went out on the veranda, to go along it to the outdoor stairway. Arkwright gazed after her through a fierce conflict of emotions. Was she really in earnest? Could it be possible that Josh Craig had somehow got a hold over her? "Or, is it that she doesn't trust me, thinks I'd back down if she were to throw him over and rely on me?" No, there was something positively for Craig in her tone and expression. She was really intending to marry him. Grant shuddered. "If she only realized what marrying a man of that sort means!" he exclaimed, half aloud. "But she doesn't. Only a woman who has been married can appreciate what sort of a hell for sensitive nerves and refined tastes marriage can be made."
At this interruption in a woman's voice--the voice he disliked and dreaded above all others--he startled and turned to face old Madam Bowker in rustling black silk, with haughty casque of gray-white hair and ebon staff carried firmly, well forward. Grant bowed. "How d'ye do, Mrs. Bowker?" said he with respectful deference. What he would have thought was the impossible had come to pass. He was glad to see her. "She'll put an end to this nonsense--this nightmare," said he to himself.
Madam Bowker had Williams, the butler, and a maid-servant in her train. She halted, gazed round the room; she pointed with the staff to the floor a few feet from the window and a little back. "Place my chair there," commanded she.
The butler and the maid hastened to move a large carved and gilded chair to the indicated spot. Madam Bowker seated herself with much ceremony.
"Now!" said she. "We will rearrange the room. Bring that sofa from the far corner to the other side of this window, and put the tea- table in front of it. Put two chairs where the sofa was; arrange the other chairs--" And she indicated the places with her staff.
While the room was still in confusion Mrs. Severence entered. "What is it, Mamma?" she asked.
"Simply trying to make this frightful room a little less frightful."
"Don't you think the pictures should be rehung to suit the new arrangement, ma'am?" suggested Arkwright.
Madam Bowker, suspicious of jest, looked sharply at him. He seemed serious. "You are right," said she.
"But people will be coming in a few minutes," pleaded Roxana.
"Then to-morrow," said Madam Bowker reluctantly. "That will do, Williams--that will do, Betty. And, Betty, you must go at once and make yourself neat. You've had on that cap two days."
"No, indeed, ma'am!" protested Betty.
"Then it was badly done up. Roxana, how can you bear to live in such a slovenly way?"
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