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- What Can She Do? - 5/72 -
want my deed on my birthday."
"All right," said Mr. Allen, laughing. "I will transfer it to you to- morrow, while I think of it. But don't try to trade it off to me before next month for a new dress."
Edith was half wild over her present. Many and varied were her questions, but her father only said:
"I don't know much about it. I did not listen to half the man said, but I remember he stated there was a good deal of fruit on the place, for it made me think of you at the time. Bless you, I could not stop for such small game. I am negotiating a large and promising operation which you understand about as well as farming. It will take some time to carry it through, but when finished we will start for the 'salons of Paris.'"
"I half believe," said Laura, with a covert sneer, "that Edith would rather go up to her farm of three acres."
"I am well satisfied as papa has arranged it," said the practical girl. "Everything in its place, and get all out of life you can, is my creed."
"That means, get all out of me you can, don't it, sly puss?" laughed the father, well pleased, though, with the worldly wisdom of the speech.
"Kisses, kisses, unlimited kisses, and consider yourself well repaid," was the arch rejoinder; and not a few, looking at her as she then appeared, would have coveted such bargains. So her father seemed to think as he gazed admiringly at her.
But something in Zell's pouting lips and vexed expression caught his eye, and he said good-naturedly:
"Heigho, youngster, what has brought a thunder-cloud across your saucy face?"
"In providing for birthdays to come, I guess you have forgotten your baby's birthday present."
"Come here, you envious elf," said her father, taking something from his pocket. Like light she flashed out from under the cloud and was at his side in an instant, dimpling, smiling, and twinkling with expectation, her black eyes as quick and restless as her father was deliberate and slow in undoing a dainty parcel.
"Oh, George, do be quick about it, or Zell will explode. You both make me nervous," said Mrs. Allen fretfully.
Suddenly pressing open a velvet casket, Mr. Allen hung a jewelled watch with a long gold chain about his favorite's neck, while she improvised a hornpipe around his chair.
"There," said he, "is something that is worth more than Edith's farm, tumble-down cottage, roses, and all. So remember that those lips were made to kiss, not to pout with."
Zell put her lips to proper uses to that extent that Mrs. Allen began to grow jealous, nervous, and out of sorts generally, and having finished her chocolate, rose feebly from the table. Her husband offered his arm and the family dinner party broke up.
And yet, take it altogether, each one was in higher spirits than usual, and Zell and Edith were in a state of positive delight. They had received costly gifts that specially gratified their peculiar tastes, and these, with the promise of a grand party and a trip to Europe, youthful buoyancy, and champagne, so dilated their little feminine souls that Mrs. Allen's fears of an explosion of some kind were scarcely groundless. They dragged their stately sister Laura, now unwontedly bland and affable, to the piano, and called for the quickest and most brilliant of waltzes, and a moment later their lithe figures flowed away in a rhythm of motion, that from their exuberance of feeling, was as fantastic as it was graceful.
Mr. Allen assisted his wife to her room and soon left her in an unusually contented frame of mind to develop strategy for the coming party. Mrs. Allen's nerves utterly incapacitated her for the care of her household, attendance upon church, and such humdrum matters, but in view of a great occasion like a "grand crush ball," where among the luminaries of fashion she could become the refulgent centre of a constellation which her fair daughters would make around her, her spirit rose to the emergency. When it came to dress and dressmakers and all the complications of the campaign now opening, notwithstanding her nerves, she could be quite Napoleonic.
Her husband retired to the library, lighted a choice Havana, skimmed his evening papers, and then as usual went to his club.
This, as a general thing, was the extent of the library's literary uses. The best authors in gold and Russia smiled down from the black walnut shelves, but the books were present rather as furniture than from any intrinsic value in themselves to the family. They were given prominence on the same principle that led Mrs. Allen to give a certain tone to her entertainments by inviting many literary and scientific men. She might be unable to appreciate the works of the _savants_, but as they appreciated the labors of her masterly French cook, many compromised the matter by eating the _petits soupers_ and shrugging their shoulders over the entertainers.
And yet the Allens were anything but vulgar upstarts. Both husband and wife were descended from old and wealthy New York families. They had all the polish which life-long association with the fashionable world bestows. What was more, they were highly intelligent, and, in their own sphere, gifted people. Mr. Allen was a leader in business in one of the chief commercial centres, and to lead in legitimate business in our day requires as much ability, indeed we may say genius, as to lead in any order department of life. He would have shown no more ignorance in the study, studio, and laboratory, than their occupants would have shown in the counting-room. That to which he devoted his energies he had become a master in. It is true he had narrowed down his life to little else than business. He had never acquired a taste for art and literature, nor had he given himself time for broad culture. But we meet narrow artists, narrow clergymen, narrow scientists just as truly. If you do not get on their hobby and ride with them, they seem disposed to ride over you. Indeed, in our brief life with its fierce competitions, few other than what are known as "one idea" men have time to succeed. Even genius must drive with tremendous and concentrated energy, to distance competitors. Mr. Allen was quite as great in his department as any of the lions that his wife lured into her parlors were in theirs.
Mrs. Allen was also a leader in her own chosen sphere, or rather in the one to which she had been educated. Given _carte-blanche_ in the way of expense, she would produce a brilliant entertainment which few could surpass. The coloring and decorations of her rooms would not be more rich, varied, or in better taste, than the diversity, and yet harmony of the people she would bring together by her adroit selections. She had studied society, and for it she lived, not to make it better, not to elevate its character, and tone down its extravagances, but simply to shine in it, to be talked about and envied.
Both husband and wife had achieved no small success, and to succeed in such a city as New York in their chosen departments required a certain amount of genius. The _savants_ had a general admiration for Mrs. Allen's style and taste, but found that she had nothing to offer on the social exchange of her parlors but fashion's smallest chit-chat. They had a certain respect for Mr. Allen's wealth and business power, but, having discussed the news of the day, they would pass on, and the people during the intervals of dancing drifted into congenial schools and shoals, like fish in a lake. Mr. and Mrs. Allen had a vague admiration for the learning of the scholars and the culture of the artists, but would infinitely prefer marrying their daughters to downtown merchant princes.
Take the world over, perhaps all classes of people are despising others quite as much as they are despised themselves.
But when the French cook appeared upon the scene, then was produced your true democracy. Then was shown a phase of life into which all entered with a zest that proved the common tie of humanity.
While Mrs. Allen was planning the social pyrotechnics that should dazzle the fashionable world, Edith and Zell were working off their exuberant spirits in the manner described in the last chapter, which was as natural to their city-bred feet as a wild romp is to a country girl.
The brilliant notes of the piano and the rustle of their silks had rendered them oblivious to the fact that the door-bell had rung twice, and that three gentlemen were peering curiously through the half-open door. They were evidently frequent and favored visitors, and had motioned the old colored waiter not to announce them, and he reluctantly obeyed.
For a moment they feasted their eyes on the scene, as the two girls, with twining arms and many innovations on the regular step, whirled through the rooms, and then Zell's quick eye detected them.
Pouncing upon the eldest gentleman of the party, she dragged him from his ambush, while the others also entered. The youngest approached the blushing, panting Edith with an almost boyish confidence of manner, as if assured of a welcome, while the remaining gentleman, who was verging toward middle age, quietly glided to the piano and gave his hand to Laura, who greeted him with a cordiality scarcely to be expected from so stately a young lady.
The laws of affinity and selection were evidently in force here, and as the reader must surmise, long acquaintance had led to the present easy and intimate relations.
"What do you mean," cried Zell, dragging under the gaslight her cavalier, who assumed much penitence and fear, "by thus rudely and abruptly breaking in upon the retirement of three secluded young ladies?"
"At their devotions," added the cynical voice of the gentleman at the piano, who was no other than Mr. Goulden, Laura's admirer.
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