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- A Knight Of The Nineteenth Century - 6/79 -
"Mr. Haldane," said Mrs. Arnot, giving him her hand with graceful tact, "I shall form my opinion of you solely on the ground of your own action, and I wish you to think of me as a friend who takes a genuine interest in your success. Good-night."
He went to his room in quite a heroic and virtuous mood.
"She does not treat me a bit like a 'bad boy,' as I supposed she would," he thought; "but appears to take it for granted that I shall be a gentleman in this her house, and a sensible fellow in her husband's office. Blow me if I disappoint her!"
Nor did he for several weeks. Even Mr. Arnot was compelled to admit that it did "work rather better than he expected," and that he "supposed the young fellow did as well as he could."
As the novelty of Haldane's new relations wore off, however, and as his duties became so familiar as to be chiefly a matter of routine, the grave defects of his character and training began to show themselves. The restraint of the counting-room grew irksome. Associations were formed in the city which tended toward his old evil habits. As a piece of Mr. Arnot's machinery he did not move with the increasing precision that his employer required and expected on his becoming better acquainted with his duties.
Mrs. Arnot had expected this, and knew that her husband would tolerate carelessness and friction only up to a certain point. She had gained more influence over the young man than any one else had ever possessed, and by means of it kept him within bounds for some time; but she saw from her husband's manner that things were fast approaching a crisis.
One evening she kindly, but frankly, told him of the danger in which he stood of an abrupt, stern dismissal.
He was more angry than alarmed, and during the following day about concluded that he would save himself any such mortification by leaving of his own accord. He quite persuaded himself that he had a soul above plodding business, and that, after enjoying himself at home for a time, he could enter upon some other career, that promised more congeniality and renown.
In order that his employer might not anticipate him, he performed his duties very accurately that day, but left the office with the expectation of never returning.
He had very decided compunctions in thus requiting Mrs. Arnot's kindness, but muttered recklessly:
"I'm tired of this humdrum, treadmill life, and believe I'm destined to better things. If I could only get a good position in the army or navy, the world would hear from me. They say money opens every door, and mother must open some good wide door for me."
Regardless now of his employer's good or bad opinion, he came down late to supper; but, instead of observing with careless defiance the frown which he knew lowered toward him, his eyes were drawn to a fair young face on the opposite side of the table.
Mrs. Arnot, in her pleasant, cordial voice, which made the simplest thing she said seem real and hearty, rather than conventional, introduced him:
"Mr. Haldane, my niece, Miss Laura Romeyn. Laura, no doubt, can do far more than an old lady to make your evenings pass brightly."
After a second glance of scrutiny, Haldane was so ungratefully forgetful of all Mrs. Arnot's kindness as to be inclined to agree with her remark.
"Is she a young lady, or merely a school-girl?" was Haldane's query concerning the stranger sitting opposite to him; and he addressed to her a few commonplace but exploring remarks. Regarding himself as well acquainted with society in general, and young ladies in particular, he expected to solve the question at once, and was perplexed that he could not. He had flirted with several misses as immature as himself, and so thought that he was profoundly versed in the mysteries of the sex. "They naturally lean toward and look up to men, and one is a fool, or else lacking in personal appearance, who does not have his own way with them," was his opinion, substantially.
Modesty is a grace which fine-looking young men of large wealth are often taught by some severe experiences, if it is ever learned. Haldane, as yet, had not received such wholesome depletion. His self-approval and assurance, moreover, were quite natural, since his mother and sisters had seldom lost an opportunity of developing and confirming these traits. The yielding of women to his will and wishes had been one of the most uniform experiences of his life, and he had come to regard it as the natural order of things. Without formulating the thought in plain words, he nevertheless regarded Mrs. Arnot's kindness, by which she sought to gain a helpful influence over him, as largely due to some peculiar fascination of his own, which made him a favorite wherever he chose to be. Of course, the young stranger on the opposite side of the table would prove no exception to the rule, and all he had to do was to satisfy himself that she was sufficiently pretty and interesting to make it worth while to pay her a little attention.
But for some reason she did not seem greatly impressed by his commonplace and rather patronizing remarks. Was it pride or dignity on her part, or was it mere girlish shyness? It must be the latter, for there was no occasion for pride and dignity in her manner toward him.
Then came the thought that possibly Mrs. Arnot had not told her who he was, and that she looked upon him as a mere clerk of low degree. To remove from her mind any such error, his tones and manner became still more self-asserting and patronizing.
"If she has any sense at all," he thought, "she shall see that I have peculiar claims to her respect."
As he proceeded in these tactics, there was a growing expression of surprise and a trace of indignation upon the young girl's face. Mrs. Arnot watched the by-play with an amused expression. There was not much cynicism in her nature. She believed that experience would soon prick the bubble of his vanity, and it was her disposition to smile rather than to sneer at absurdity in others. Besides, she was just. She never applied to a young man of twenty the standard by which she would measure those of her own age, and she remembered Haldane's antecedents. But Mr. Arnot went to his library muttering:
"The ridiculous fool!"
When Miss Romeyn rose from the table, Haldane saw that she was certainly tall enough to be a young lady, for she was slightly above medium height. He still believed that she was very young, however, for her figure was slight and girlish, and while her bearing was graceful it had not that assured and pronounced character to which he had been accustomed.
"She evidently has not seen much of society. Well, since she is not gawky, I like her better than if she were blase. Anything but your blase girls," he observed to himself, with a consciousness that he was an experienced man of the world.
The piano stood open in the drawing-room, and this suggested music. Haldane had at his tongue's end the names of half a dozen musicians whose professional titles had been prominent in the newspapers for a few months previous, and whose merits had formed a part of the current chit-chat of the day. Some he had heard, and others he had not, but he could talk volubly of all, and he asked Miss Romeyn for her opinion of one and another in a manner which implied that of course she knew about them, and that ignorance in regard to such persons was not to be expected.
Her face colored with annoyance, but she said quietly and a trifle coldly that she had not heard them.
Mrs. Arnot again smiled as she watched the young people, but she now came to her niece's rescue, thinking also it would be well to disturb Haldane's sense of superiority somewhat. So she said:
"Laura, since we cannot hear this evening the celebrated artists that Mr. Haldane has mentioned, we must content ourselves with simple home music. Won't you play for us that last selection of which you wrote to me?"
"I hardly dare, auntie, since Mr. Haldane is such a critical judge, and has heard so much music from those who make it a business to be perfect. He must have listened to the selection you name a hundred times, for it is familiar to most lovers of good music."
Haldane had sudden misgivings. Suppose he had not heard it? This would be awkward, after his assumed acquaintance with such matters.
"Even if Mr. Haldane is familiar with it," Mrs. Arnot replied, "Steibelt's Storm Rondo will bear repetition. Besides, his criticism may be helpful, since he can tell you wherein you come short of the skilled professionals."
Laura caught the twinkle in her aunt's eye, and went to the piano.
The young man saw at once that he had been caught in his own trap, for the music was utterly unfamiliar. The rondo was no wonderful piece of intricacy, such as a professional might choose. On the contrary, it was simple, and quite within the capabilities of a young and well-taught girl. But it was full of rich melody which even he, in his ignorance, could understand and appreciate, and yet, for aught that he knew it was difficult in the extreme.
At first he had a decided sense of humiliation, and a consciousness that it was deserved. He had been talking largely and confidently of an art concerning which he knew little, and in which he began to think that his listener was quite well versed.
But as the thought of the composer grew in power and beauty he forgot himself and his dilemma in his enjoyment. Two senses were finding abundant gratification at the same time, for it was a delight to listen, and it was even a greater pleasure to look at the performer.
She gave him a quick, shy glance of observation, fearing somewhat that she might see severe judgment or else cool indifference in the expression of his face, and she was naturally pleased and encouraged when she saw, instead, undisguised admiration. His previous manner had
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