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- Peggy Stewart: Navy Girl at Home - 30/34 -
Griswold that evening.
She must have something to divert her thoughts from the horror of that precious child's disaster and miraculous rescue from death, she urged, that same child, as a matter of fact, being as gay and chipper as though a header from the stern of a crowded launch into a more crowded river was a mere daily incident in her life.
So there sat Madam, gorgeous in white satin and silver, plying her fan and her tongue with equal energy.
Presently Peggy danced by with Durand, not a few eyes following the beautiful young girl and handsome boy, and to an individual those who saw them decided that they were brother and sister. This was Mrs. Stewart's opportunity and she made the most of it: Turning to a lady beside her she gurgled:
"Oh, that darling child. She is my only niece though I have never met her until this very afternoon. Isn't she a beauty? THINK what a sensation she will be sure to create a year or two hence when she comes out. Don't you envy me? for, of course, there is no one else to introduce her to society. Her mother died years ago."
"And the young man with her?" questioned the lady, wondering why the darling niece had not figured more prominently in the aunt's life hitherto. "Is he her brother?"
"No. He is the hero of the day. The young naval cadet [save the mark!] who so nobly sprang overboard after sweet little Clare and saved her under such harrowing circumstances. Isn't he simply stunning! Have you ever seen a more magnificent figure? I think he is the handsomest thing I've ever laid my eyes upon. And so devoted to dear Peggy. And they say he has a fortune in his own right. But, that is a minor consideration; the dear child is an heiress herself. Magnificent old home in Maryland and, and, oh, all that, don't you know."
Madam's information concerning her niece's affairs seemed to have grown amazingly since that chance encounter during the afternoon.
At that moment the dance came to an end and by evil chance Peggy and Durand were not ten feet from Mrs. Stewart. She beckoned to them and, of course, there was nothing to do but respond. They at once walked over to her.
"Oh, Mrs. Latimer, let me present my dear niece Miss Stewart to you, and Peggy darling, I MUST know this young hero. You dear, dear boy, weren't you simply petrified when you saw that darling child plunge overboard? You are a wonder. A perfect wonder of heroism. Of course the girls are just raving over you. How could they help it? Uniforms, brass buttons, the gallant rescuer and--now turn your head the other way because you are not supposed to hear this--all the gifts and graces of the gods. Ah, Peggy, I suspect you have rare discrimination even at YOUR age, and well--Mr. Leroux--YOU have not made any mistake, I can assure you."
Perhaps two individuals who have suddenly stepped into a hornet's nest may have some conception of Peggy's and Durand's sensations. Peggy looked absolutely, hopelessly blank at this volley. Durand's face was first a thunder-cloud and then became crimson, but not on his own account: Durand was no fool to the ways of foolish women; his mortification was for Peggy's sake; he loathed the very thought of having her brought in touch with such shallowness, exposed to such vulgarity, and the charm of their rarely frank intercourse invaded by suggestions of silly sentimentality. Thus far there had never been a hint, nor the faintest suggestion of it; only the most loyal good fellowship; and his own attitude toward Peggy Stewart was one of the highest esteem for a fine, well-bred girl and the tenderest sense of protection for her lonely, almost orphaned position. He looked at Mrs. Peyton Stewart with eyes which fairly blazed contempt and she had the grace to color tinder his gaze, boy of barely nineteen that he was.
"And you are going to let me know you better, aren't you, dear?" persisted Mrs. Stewart. "I am coming to see you. Do ask father to come and talk with me. There are a thousand questions I must ask him, and innumerable incidents of old times to discuss."
"Captain Stewart is just across the room. I will tell him you are anxious to see him, Mrs. Stewart, and then I must take you to Mrs. Harold, Peggy, or the other fellows will never find you in this jam," and away fled Durand, quick to find a loophole of escape. Whether Neil Stewart appreciated his zeal in serving the family cause is open to speculations, but it served the turn for the moment. Neil Stewart was obliged to cross the room and talk to his sister-in-law, said sister-in- law taking the initiative to rise at his approach, place her hand upon his arm, and say:
"Dear Neil, what a delight after all these years. But pray take me outside. It is insufferably oppressive in here and I have so much I wish to say to you."
Just what "dear Neil's" innermost thoughts were need not be conjectured. He escorted the lady from the big ballroom, and Durand whisked Peggy away to Mrs. Harold, though he said nothing to the girl--he was raging too fiercely inwardly, and felt sure if he said anything he would say too much. Nor was Peggy her usual self. She seemed obsessed by a forewarning of evil days ahead. Durand handed her over to the partner who was waiting for her, and saw her glide away with him, then slipping into a vacant chair behind Mrs. Harold, who for the moment happened to be alone, he said:
"Little Mother, have you ever been so rip-snorting mad that you have wanted to smash somebody and cut loose for fair, and felt as if you'd burst if you couldn't?"
The words were spoken in a half-laughing tone, but Mrs. Harold turned to look straight into the dark eyes so near her own.
"What has happened, son?" she asked in the quiet voice which always soothed his perturbed spirit. He repeated the conversation just heard, punctuating it with a few terse comments which revealed volumes to Mrs. Harold. Her face was troubled as she said:
"I don't like it. I don't like it even a little bit. I'm afraid trouble is ahead for that little girl. Oh, if her father could only be with her all the time. Outsiders can do so little because their authority is so limited and those who HAVE the authority are either too guileless or debarred by their stations. Dr. Llewellyn, Harrison and Mammy are the only ones who have the least right to say one word, and--"
Mrs. Harold ceased and shrugged her shoulders in a manner which might have been copied from Durand himself.
"Yes, I know who you mean. And Peggy is one out of a thousand. She and Polly too. Great Scott, there isn't an ounce of nonsense in their heads, and if that old fool--I beg your pardon," cried Durand, fussed at his break, but Mrs. Harold nodded and said:
"There are times when it is excusable to call a spade a spade."
"Well," continued Durand, "if that femme starts in to talk such rot to Peggy it's going to spoil everything. Why, you never heard such confounded foolishness in all your life."
"Come and walk on the terrace with me, laddie, and cool off both mentally and physically. I know just how you feel and I wish I could see the way to ward off the inevitable--at least that which intuition hints to be inevitable--
"And that is?" asked Durand anxiously.
"Child, you have been like a son to me for two years. Peggy has grown almost as dear to me as Polly. I long to see that rare little girl blossom into a fine woman and she will if wisely guided, but with such a person as her aunt--"
"You don't for a moment think she will go and camp down at Severndale?" demanded Durand, stopping stock-still in consternation at the picture the words conjured up.
"I don't KNOW a thing! Not one single thing, but I am gifted with an intuition which is positively painful at times," and Mrs. Harold resumed her walk with a petulant little stamp.
Nor was her intuition at fault in the present instance. In some respects Neil Stewart was as guileless and unsuspicious as a child, but Madam Stewart was far from guileless. She was clever and designing to a degree, and before that conversation upon the Griswold piazza, ended she had so cleverly maneuvered that she had been invited to spend the month of September at Severndale, and that was all she wanted: once her entering wedge was placed she was sure of her plans. At least she always HAD been, and she saw no reason to anticipate failure now.
But she did not know Peggy Stewart. She thought she had read at a glance the straightforward, modest little girl, but the real Peggy was not to be understood in the brief period of four hours.
Meanwhile, Peggy was blissfully unaware of her impending fate, and had almost dismissed Mrs. Stewart's very existence from her thoughts. She and Polly were dancing away the hours in all the joy of fifteen summers, and rumors of a wonderful plan were afloat for the following day. This was no more nor less than a cutter race between the midshipmen of the Olympia and the Chicago. For days the two crews had been practising and were only waiting for the big day to come and pass before holding their own contest.
The Chicago really had the picked men, most of them being the regular crew men, and while pulling in a cutter is a far cry from pulling in a shell, nevertheless, the work of trained men usually counts in the long run, and the boys and the Jackies had bet everything they owned, from their best shoes to a month's pay, upon the victory of the Chicago's crew.
But the Olympia boys "were lyin' low, an' playin' sly." They had but one crew man in their cutter, but he was "a jim dandy," being no less than Lowell, the stroke oar of the Navy crew, and a man who could "put more ginger into a boatload of fellows than any other in the outfit," so his chums averred.
Durand was on the Olympia's crew, and Durand's shoulders were worth considerable to any crew.
Nicholas was on the "Old Chi," Ralph on the Olympia, so the forces were about equally divided, and the girls were nearly distracted over the issue, for if they could have had the decision both would have been victorious.
The following morning dawned as sparkling and clear as the previous one. "Regular Harold weather," the boys pronounced it, owing to the fact that rarely had Mrs. Harold planned a frolic of any sort back yonder in Annapolis without the weather clerk smiling upon it.
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