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- What Can She Do? - 6/72 -
Zell's attendant threw himself in the attitude of a suppliant and said deprecatingly:
"Nay, but we are astronomers."
"That's a fib, and not a very white one either," she retorted. "I don't believe you ever look toward heaven for anything."
"What need of looking thither for heavenly bodies?" he replied in a low, meaning tone, regarding with undisguised admiration her glowing cheeks. "Moreover, I don't like telescopic distances," he continued, with a half-made motion to put his arm around her waist.
"Come," she said, pirouetting out of his reach, "remember I am no longer a child, I am seventeen to-day."
"Would that you might never be a day older in appearance and feelings!"
"Are you willing to leave me so far behind?" she asked with some maliciousness.
"No, but you would make me a boy again. If old Ponce de Leon had met a Miss Zell, he would soon have forsaken the swamps and alligators of Florida." "Oh, what a watery, scaly compliment! Preferred to swamps and alligators! Who would have believed it?"
"I am not blind to your pretty, wilful blindness. You know I likened you to something too divine and precious to be found on earth."
"Which is still true in the carrying out of your marvellously mixed metaphors. I must lend you my rhetoric book. But as your meaning dawns on me, I see that you are symbolized by old Ponce. I shall look in the history for the age of the ancient Spaniard to-morrow, and then I shall know how old you are, a thing I could never find out."
As with little jets of silvery laughter and with butterfly motion she hovered round him, the very embodiment of life and beautiful youth, she would have made, to an artist's eye, a very true realization of the far-famed mythical fountain.
And yet, as a moment later she confidingly took his arm and strolled toward the library, it was evident that all her flutter and hesitancy, her seeming freedom and mimic show of war, were like those of some bright tropical bird fascinated by a remorseless serpent whose intent eyes and deadly purpose are creating a spell that cannot be resisted.
Mr. Van Dam, upon whose arm she was leaning, was one of the worst products of artificial metropolitan life. He had inherited a name which ancestry had rendered honorable, but which he to the utmost dishonored, and yet so adroitly, so shrewdly respecting fashion's code, though shunning nothing wrong, that he did not lose the _entree_ of the gilded homes of those who called themselves "the best society."
True, it was whispered that he was rather fast, that he played heavily and a trifle too successfully, and that he lived the life of anything but a saint at his luxurious rooms. "But then," continued society, openly and complacently, "he is so fine-looking, so courtly and polished, so well connected, and what is still more to the point, my dear, he is reputed to be immensely wealthy, so we must not heed these rumors. After all, it is the way of these young men of the world."
Thus "the best society" that would have politely frozen out of its parlors the Chevalier Bayard, _sans peur et sans reproche_, had he not appeared in the latest style, with golden fame rather than golden spurs, welcomed Mr. Van Dam. Indeed, not a few forced exotic belles, who had prematurely developed in the hothouse atmosphere of wealth and extravagance, regarded him as a sort of social lion; and his reticence, with a certain mystery in which he shrouded his evil life, made him all the more fascinating. He was past the prime of life, though exceedingly well preserved, for he was one of those cool, deliberate votaries of pleasure that reduce amusement to a science, and carefully shun all injurious excess. While exceedingly deferential toward the sex in general, and bestowing compliments and attentions as adroitly as a financier would place his money, he at the same time permitted the impression to grow that he was extremely fastidious in his taste, and had never married because it had never been his fortune to meet the faultless being who could satisfy his exacting eyes. Any special and continued admiration on his part therefore made its recipient an object of distinction and envy to very many in the unreal world in which he glided serpent-like, rather than moved as a man. To morbid minds his rumored evil deeds became piquant eccentricities, and the whispers of the oriental orgies that were said to take place in his bachelor apartments made him an object of a curious interest, and many sighed for the opportunity of reforming so distinguished a sybarite.
On Edith's entrance into society he had been much impressed by her beauty, and had gradually grown quite attentive, equally attracted by her father's wealth. But she, though with no clear perception of his character, and with no higher moral standard than that of her set, instinctively shrank from the man. Indeed, in some respects, they were too much alike for that mysterious attraction that so often occurs between opposites. Not that she had his unnatural depravity, but like him she was shrewd, practical, resolute, and was controlled by her judgment rather than by her impulses. Her vanity, of which she had no little share, led her to accept his attentions to a certain point, but the keen man of the world soon saw that his "little game," as in his own vernacular he styled it, would not be successful, and he was the last one to sigh in vain or mope an hour in lovelorn melancholy. While ceasing to press his suit, he continued to be a frequent and familiar visitor at the house, and thus his attention was drawn to Zell, who, though young, had developed early in the stimulating atmosphere in which she lived. At first he petted and played with ner as a child, as she wilfully flitted in and out of the parlors, whether her sisters wanted her or not. He continually brought her _bon-bons_ and like fanciful trifles, till at last, in jest, the family called him Zell's "ancient beau."
But during the past year it had dawned on him that the child he petted on account of her beauty and sprightliness, was rapidly becoming a brilliant woman, who would make a wife far more to his taste than her equally beautiful but matter-of-fact sister. Therefore he warily, so as not to alarm the jealous father, but with all the subtle skill of which he was master, sought to win her affections, knowing that she would have her own way when she knew what way she wanted.
For Zell this unscrupulous man had a peculiar fascination. He petted and flattered her to her heart's content, and thus made her the envy of her young acquaintances, which was incense indeed to her vain little soul. He never lectured or preached to her on account of her follies and nonsense, as her elderly friends usually did, but gave to her wild, impulsive moods free rein. Where a true friend would have cautioned and curbed, he applauded and incited, causing Zell to mistake extravagance in language and boldness in manner for spirit and brilliancy. Laura and Edith often remonstrated with her, but she did not heed them. Indeed, she feared no one save her father, and Mr. Van Dam was propriety itself when he was present, which was but seldom. What with his business, and club, and Mrs. Allen's nerves, the girls were left mainly to themselves.
What wonder that there are so many shipwrecks, when young, heedless, inexperienced hands must steer, unguided, through the most perilous and treacherous of seas?
Mr. Allen's elegant, costly home was literally an unguarded fold, many a laborer, living in a tenement house, doing more to shield his daughters from the evil of the world.
To Mr. Van Dam, Zell was a perfect prize. Though he had sipped at the cup of pleasure so leisurely and systematically, he was getting down to the dregs. His taste was becoming palled, and satiety was burdening him with its leaden weight. But as the child he petted developed daily toward womanhood, he became interested, then fascinated by the process. Her beauty was so brilliant, her excessive sprightliness so contagious, that he felt his sluggish pulses stir and tingle with excitement the moment he came into her presence. Her wild, varying moods kept him constantly on the _qui vive_, and he would say in confidence to one of his intimate cronies:
"The point is, Hal, she is such a spicy, piquant contrast to the insipid society girls, who have no more individuality than fashion blocks in Broadway windows."
He liked the kittenish young creature all the more because her repartee was often a little cutting. If she had always struck him with a velvet paw, the thing would have grown monotonous, but he occasionally got a scratch that made him wince, cool and brazen as he was. But, after all, he daily saw that he was gaining power over her, and the manner in which the frank-hearted girl took his arm and leaned upon it spoke volumes to the experienced man. While he habitually wore a mask, Zell could conceal nothing, and across her April face flitted her innermost thoughts.
If she had had a _mother_, she might, even in the wilderness of earth, have become a blossom fit for heavenly gardens, but as it was, her wayward nature, so full of dangerous beauty, was left to run wild.
Edith was beginning to be troubled at Zell's intimacy with Mr. Van Dam, and to conceive a growing dislike for him mingled with suspicion. As for Laura, the eldest, she was like her mother, too much wrapped up in herself to have many thoughts for any one else, and they all regarded Zell as a mere child still. Mr. Allen, who would have been very anxious had Zell been receiving the attentions of some penniless young clerk or artist, laughed at her "flirtation with old Van Dam" as an eminently safe proceeding.
But on the present evening her sisters were too much occupied with their own friends to give Zell or her dangerous admirer much attention. As yet no formal engagement had bound any of them, but an intimacy and mutual liking, tending to such a result, was rapidly growing.
In Edith's case the attraction of contrasts was again shown. Augustus Elliot, the youth who had approached her with such confidence and grace, was quite as stylish a personage as herself, and that was saying a great deal. But every line of his full handsome face, as well as the expression of his light blue eyes, showed that he had less decision in the whole of his luxurious nature than she in her little finger. Self-indulgence and good-natured vanity were unmistakably his characteristics. To yield, not for the good of others, but because not strong enough to stand sturdily alone, was the law of his being. If he could ever have been kept under the influence of good and stronger natures, who would have developed his naturally kind heart and good impulses into something like principle, he might have had a safe and creditable career. But he was the idol of a foolish, fashionable mother, and the pet of two or three sisters who were empty-brained enough to think their handsome brother the perfection of mankind; and by eye, manner, and often the plainest words, they told him as much, and he had at last come to believe them. Why should they not? He was
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