Read CHAPTER VIII of The Common Law, free online book, by Robert W. Chambers, on ReadCentral.com.

Valerie was busy ­exceedingly busy arranging matters, in view of the great change impending.

She began by balancing her check book, comparing stubs with cancelled checks, adding and verifying sums total, filing away paid bills and paying the remainder ­a financial operation which did not require much time, but to which she applied herself with all the seriousness of a wealthy man hunting through a check book which will not balance, for a few pennies that ought to be his.

For since she had any accounts at all to keep, she had kept them with method and determination.  Her genius for order was inherent:  even when she possessed nothing except the clothes she wore, she had always kept them in perfect condition.  And now that her popularity in business gave her a bank balance and permitted some of the intimate little luxuries that make for a woman’s self-respect, a perfect passion for order and method possessed her.

The tiny bedroom which she inhabited, and the adjoining bathroom, were always immaculate.  Every week she made an inventory of her few but pretty garments, added or subtracted from her memorandum, went over her laundry list, noted and laid aside whatever clothing needed repairs.

Once a week, too, she inspected her hats, foot-wear, furs; dusted the three rows of books, emptied and cleaned the globe in which a solitary goldfish swam, goggling his eyes in the sunshine, and scrubbed the porcelain perching pole on which her parrot sat all day in the bathroom window making limited observations in French, Spanish, and English, and splitting red peppers and dried watermelon seeds with his heavy curved beak.  He was a gorgeous bird, with crimson and turquoise blue on him, and a capacity for deviltry restrained only by a silver anklet and chain, gifts from Querida, as was also the parrot.

So Valerie, in view of the great change impending, began to put her earthly house in order ­without any particular reason, however, because the great change would not affect her quarters or her living in them.  Nor could she afford to permit it to interfere with her business career for which perfect independence was necessary.

She had had it out with Neville one stormy afternoon in January, stopping in for tea after posing for John Burleson’s Psyche fountain ordered by Penrhyn Cardemon.  She had demanded from Neville acquiescence in her perfect freedom of action, absolute independence; had modestly requested non-interference in her business affairs and the liberty to support herself.

“There is no other way, Louis,” she explained very sweetly.  “I do not think I am going to lose any self-respect in giving myself to you ­but there would not be one shred of it left to cover me if I were not as free as you are to make the world pay me fairly for what I give it.”

And, another time, she had said to him:  “It is better not to tell me all about your personal, private, and financial affairs ­better that I do not tell you about mine.  Is it necessary to burst into financial and trivial confidences when one is in love?

“I have an idea that that is what spoils most marriages.  To me there is a certain respectability in reticence when a girl is very much in love.  I would no more open my personal and private archives in all their petty disorder to your inspection than I would let you see me dress ­even if we had been married for hundreds of years.”

And still, on another occasion, when he had fought her for hours in an obstinate determination to make her say she would marry him ­and when, beaten, chagrined, baffled, he had lost his temper, she won him back with her child-like candour and self-control.

“Your logic,” he said, “is unbaked, unmature, unfledged.  It’s squab-logic, I tell you, Valerie; and it is not very easy for me to listen to it.”

“I’m afraid that I am not destined to be entirely easy for you, dear, even with love as the only tie with which to bind you.  The arbitrary laws of a false civilisation are going to impose on you what you think are duties and obligations to me and to yourself ­until I explain them away.  You must come to me in your perplexity, Louis, and give me a chance to remind you of the basic and proven proposition that a girl is born into this world as free as any man, and as responsible to herself and to others; and that her title to her own individuality and independence ­her liberty of mind, her freedom to give and accept, her capability of taking care of herself, her divine right of considering, re-considering, of meeting the world unafraid ­is what really ought to make her lovable.”

He had answered:  “What rotten books have you been reading?” And it annoyed her, particularly when he had asked her whether she expected to overturn, with the squab-logic of twenty years, the formalisms of a civilisation several thousand years old.  He had added: 

“The runways of wild animals became Indian paths; the Indian paths became settlers’ roads, and the roads, in time, city streets.  But it was the instinct of wild creatures that surveyed and laid out the present highways of our reasoning civilisation.  And I tell you, Valerie, that the old ways are the best, for on them is founded every straight highway of modern thought and custom.”

She considered: 

“Then there is only one way left ­to see you no more.”

He had thought so, too, infuriated at the idea; and they had passed a very miserable and very stormy afternoon together, which resulted in her crying silently on the way home; and in a sleepless night for two; and in prolonged telephone conversation at daybreak.  But it all ended with a ring at his door-bell, a girl in furs all flecked with snow, springing swiftly into his studio; a moment’s hesitation ­then the girl and her furs in his arms, her cold pink cheeks against his face ­a brief moment of utter happiness ­for she was on her way to business ­a swift, silent caress, then eyes searching eyes in silent promise ­in reluctant farewell for an hour or two.

But it left him to face the problems of the day with a new sense of helplessness ­the first confused sensation that hers was the stronger nature, the dominant personality ­although he did not definitely understand this.

Because, how could he understand it of a young girl so soft, so yielding, so sweet, so shy and silent in the imminence of passion when her consenting lips trembled and grew fragrant in half-awakened response to his.

How could he believe it ­conscious of what he had made of himself through sheer will and persistent?  How could he credit it ­remembering what he already stood for in the world, where he stood, how he had arrived by the rigid road of self-denial; how he had mounted, steadily, undismayed, unperturbed, undeterred by the clamour of envy, of hostility, unseduced by the honey of flattery?

Upright, calm, self-confident, he had forged on straight ahead, following nobody ­battled steadily along the upward path until ­out of the void, suddenly he had come up against a blank wall.

That wall which had halted, perplexed, troubled, dismayed, terrified him because he was beginning to believe it to be the boundary which marked his own limitations, suddenly had become a transparent barrier through which he could see.  And what he saw on the other side was an endless vista leading into infinity.  But the path was guarded; Love stood sentinel there.  And that was what he saw ahead of him now, and he knew that he might pass on if Love willed it ­and that he would never care to pass on alone.  But that he could not go forward, ignoring Love, neither occurred to him nor would he have believed it if it had.  Yet, at times, an indefinable unease possessed him as though some occult struggle was impending for which he was unprepared.

That struggle had already begun, but he did not know it.

On the contrary all his latent strength and brilliancy had revived, exquisitely virile; and the new canvas on which he began now to work blossomed swiftly into magnificent florescence.

A superb riot of colour bewitched the entire composition; never had his brushes swept with such sun-tipped fluency, never had the fresh splendour of his hues and tones approached so closely to convincing himself in the hours of fatigue and coldly sober reaction from the auto-intoxication of his own facility.

That auto-intoxication had always left his mind and his eye steady and watchful, although drugged ­like the calm judgment of the intoxicated opportunist at the steering wheel of a racing motor.  And a race once run and ended, a deliberate consideration of results usually justified the pleasure of the pace.

Yet that mysterious something which some said he lacked, had not yet appeared.  That something, according to many, was an elusive quality born of a sympathy for human suffering ­an indefinable and delicate bond between the artist and his world ­between a master who has suffered, and all humanity who understands.

The world seemed to recognise this subtle bond between themselves and Querida’s pictures.  Yet in the pictures there was never any sadness.  Had Querida ever suffered?  Was it in that olive-skinned, soft-voiced young man to suffer? ­a man apparently all grace and unruffled surface and gentle charm ­a man whose placid brow remained smooth and untroubled by any line of perplexity or of sorrow.

And as Neville studied his own canvas coolly, logically, with an impersonal scrutiny that almost amounted to hostility, he wondered what it was in Querida’s work that still remained absent in his.  He felt its absence but he could not define what it was that was absent, could not discover the nature of it.  He really began to feel the lack of it in his work, but he searched his canvas and his own heart in vain for any vacuum unfilled.

Then, too, had he himself not suffered?  What had that restless, miserable winter meant, if it had not meant sorrow?  He had suffered ­blindly it is true until the truth of his love for Valerie had suddenly confronted him.  Yet that restless pain ­and the intense emotion of their awakening ­all the doubts, all the anxieties ­the wonder and happiness and sadness in the imminence of that strange future impending for them both ­had altered nothing in his work ­brought into it no new quality ­unless, as he thought, it had intensified to a dazzling brilliancy the same qualities which already had made his work famous.

“It’s all talk,” he said to himself ­“it’s sentimental jargon, precious twaddle ­all this mysterious babble about occult quality and humanity and sympathy.  If Jose Querida has the capacity of a chipmunk for mental agony, I’ve lost my bet that he hasn’t.”

And all the time he was conscious that there was something about Querida’s work which made that work great; and that it was not in his own work, and that his own work was not great, and never had been great.

“But it will be,” he said rather grimly to himself one day, turning with a shrug from his amazing canvas and pulling the unfinished portrait of Valerie into the cold north light.

For a long while he stood before it, searching in it for any hint of that elusive and mysterious something, and found none.

Moreover there was in the painting of this picture a certain candour amounting to stupidity ­an uncertainty ­a naïve, groping sort of brush work.  It seemed to be technically, almost deliberately, muddled.

There was a tentative timidity about it that surprised his own technical assurance ­almost moved him to contempt.

What had he been trying to do?  For what had he been searching in those slow, laborious, almost painful brush strokes ­in that clumsy groping for values, in the painstaking reticence, the joyless and mathematical establishment of a sombre and uninspiring key, in the patient plotting of simpler planes where space and quiet reigned unaccented?

“Lord!” he said, biting his lip.  “I’ve been stung by the microbe of the precious!  I’ll be talking Art next with both thumbs and a Vandyke beard.”

Still, through his self-disgust, a sensation of respect for the canvas at which he was scowling, persisted.  Nor could he account for the perfectly unwelcome and involuntary idea that there was, about the half-finished portrait, something almost dignified in the very candour of its painting.

John Burleson came striding in while he was still examining it.  He usually came about tea time, and the door was left open after five o’clock.

“O-ho!” he said in his big, unhumorous voice, “what in hell and the name of Jimmy Whistler have we here?”

“Mud,” said Neville, shortly ­“like Mr. Whistler’s.”

“He was muddy ­sometimes,” said John, seriously, “but you never were until this.”

“Oh, I know it, Johnny.  Something infected me.  I merely tried to do what isn’t in me.  And this is the result.  When a man decides he has a mission, you can never tell what fool thing he’ll be guilty of.”

“It’s Valerie West, isn’t it?” demanded John, bluntly.

“She won’t admire you for finding any resemblance,” said Neville, laughing.

The big sculptor rubbed his big nose reflectively.

“After all,” he said, “what is so bad about it, Kelly?”

“Oh, everything.”

“No, it isn’t.  There’s something about it that’s ­different ­and interesting ­”

“Oh, shut up, John, and fix yourself a drink ­”

“Kelly, I’m telling you that it isn’t bad ­that there’s something terribly solid and sincere about this beginning ­”

He looked around with a bovine grunt as Sam Ogilvy and Harry Annan came mincing in:  “I say, you would-be funny fellows! ­come over and tell Kelly Neville that he’s got a pretty good thing here if he only has the brains to develop it!”

Neville lighted a cigarette and looked on cynically as Ogilvy and Annan joined Burleson on tiptoe, affecting exaggerated curiosity.

“I think it’s rotten,” said Annan, after a moment’s scrutiny; “don’t you, Sam?”

Ogilvy, fists thrust deep into the pockets of his painting jacket, eyed the canvas in silence.

Don’t you?” repeated Annan.  “Or is it a masterpiece beyond my vulgar ken?”

“Well ­no.  Kelly was evidently trying to get at something new ­work out some serious idea.  No, I don’t think it’s rotten at all.  I rather like it.”

“It looks too much like her; that’s why it’s rotten,” said Annan.  “Thank God I’ve a gift for making pretty women out of my feminine clients, otherwise I’d starve.  Kelly, you haven’t made Valerie pretty enough.  That’s the trouble.  Besides, it’s muddy in spots.  Her gown needs dry-cleaning.  But my chief criticism is the terrible resemblance to the original.”

“Ah-h, what are you talking about!” growled Burleson; “did you ever see a prettier girl than Valerie West?”

Ogilvy said slowly:  “She’s pretty ­to look at in real life.  But, somehow, Kelly has managed here to paint her more exactly than we have really ever noticed her.  That’s Valerie’s face and figure all right; and it’s more ­it reflects what is going on inside her head ­all the unbaked, unassimilated ideas of immaturity whirring in a sequence which resembles logic to the young, but isn’t.”

“What do you mean by such bally stuff?” demanded Burleson, bluntly.

Annan laughed, but Ogilvy said seriously: 

“I mean that Kelly has painted something interesting.  It’s a fascinating head ­all soft hair and delicious curves, and the charming indecision of immature contours which ought some day to fall into a nobler firmness....  It’s as interesting as a satire, I tell you.  Look at that perfectly good mouth and its delicate sensitive decision with a hint of puritanical primness in the upper lip ­and the full, sensuous under lip mocking the upper and giving the lie to the child’s eyes which are still wide with the wonder of men and things.  And there’s something of an adolescent’s mystery in the eyes, too ­a hint of languor where the bloom of the cheek touches the lower lid ­and those smooth, cool, little hands, scarcely seen in the shadow ­did you ever see more purity and innocence ­more character and the lack of it ­painted into a pair of hands since Van Dyck and Whistler died?”

Neville, astonished, stood looking incredulously at the canvas around which the others had gathered.

Burleson said:  “There’s something honest and solid about it, anyway; hanged if there isn’t.”

“Like a hen,” suggested Ogilvy, absently.

“Like a hen?” repeated Burleson.  “What in hell has a hen got to do with the subject?”

“Like you, then, John,” said Annan, “honest, solid, but totally unacquainted with the finer phases of contemporary humour ­”

“I’m as humorous as anybody!” roared Burleson.

“Sure you are, John ­just as humorously contemporaneous as anybody of our anachronistic era,” said Ogilvy, soothingly.  “You’re right; there’s nothing funny about a hen.”

“And here’s a highball for you, John,” said Neville, concocting a huge one on the sideboard.

“And here are two charming ladies for you, John,” added Sam, as Valerie and Rita Tevis entered the open door and mockingly curtsied to the company.

“We’ve dissected your character,” observed Annan to Valerie, pointing to her portrait.  “We know all about you now; Sam was the professor who lectured on you, but you can blame Kelly for turning on the searchlight.”

“What search-light?” she asked, pivotting from Neville’s greeting, letting her gloved hand linger in his for just a second longer than convention required.

“Harry means that portrait of you I started last year,” said Neville, vexed.  “He pretends to find it full of psychological subtleties.”

“Do you?” inquired Valerie.  “Have you discovered anything horrid in my character?”

“I haven’t finished looking for the character yet,” said Sam with an impudent grin.  “When I find it I’ll investigate it.”

“Sam!  Come here!”

He came carefully, wincing when she took him by the generous lobes of both ears.

“Now what did you say?”

“Help!” he murmured, contritely; “will no kind wayfarer aid me?”

“Answer me!”

“I only said you were beautifully decorative but intellectually impulsive ­”

“No, answer me, Sam!”

“Ouch! I said you had a pair of baby eyes and an obstinate mouth and an immature mind that came to, conclusions before facts were properly assimilated.  In other words I intimated that you were afflicted with incurable femininity and extreme youth,” he added with satisfaction, “and if you tweak my ears again I’ll kiss you!”

She let him go with a last disdainful tweak, gracefully escaping his charge and taking refuge behind Neville who was mixing another highball for Annan.

“This is a dignified episode,” observed Neville, threatening Ogilvy with the siphon.

“Help me make tea, Sam,” coaxed Valerie.  “Bring out the table; that’s an exceedingly nice boy.  Rita, you’ll have tea, too, won’t you, dear?”

Unconsciously she had come to assume the rôle of hostess in Neville’s studio, even among those who had been familiar there long before Neville ever heard of her.

Perfectly unaware herself of her instinctive attitude, other people noticed it.  For the world is sharp-eyed, and its attitude is always alert, ears pricked forward even when its tail wags good-naturedly.

Ogilvy watched her curiously as she took her seat at the tea table.  Then he glanced at Neville; but could not make up his mind.

It would be funny if there was anything between Valerie and Neville ­anything more than there ever had been between the girl and dozens of her men friends.  For Ogilvy never allowed himself to make any mistake concerning the informality and freedom of Valerie West in her intimacies with men of his kind.  She was a born flirt, a coquette, daring, even indiscreet; but that ended it; and he knew it; and so did every man with whom she came in contact.

Yet ­and he looked again at her and then at Neville ­there seemed to him to be, lately, something a little different in the attitudes of these two toward each other ­nothing that he could name ­but it preoccupied him sometimes.

There was a little good-natured malice in Ogilvy; some masculine curiosity, too.  Looking from Valerie to Neville, he said very innocently: 

“Kelly, you know that peachy dream with whom you cut up so shamefully on New-year’s night?  Well, she asked me for your telephone number ­”

“What are you talking about?” demanded Neville, annoyed.

“Why, I’m talking about Mazie,” said Sam, pleasantly.  “You remember Mazie Gray?  And how crazy you and she became about each other?”

Valerie, who was pouring tea, remained amiably unconcerned; and Ogilvy obtained no satisfaction from her; but Neville’s scowl was so hearty and unfeigned that a glimpse of his visage sent Annan into fits of laughter.  To relieve which he ran across the floor, like a huge spider.  Then Valerie leisurely lifted her tranquil eyes and her eyebrows, too, a trifle.

“Why such unseemly contortions, Harry?” she inquired.

“Sam tormenting Kelly to stir you up!  He’s got a theory that you and Kelly are mutually infatuated.”

“What a delightful theory, Sam,” said Valerie, smiling so sincerely at Ogilvy that he made up his mind there wasn’t anything in it.  But the next moment, catching sight of Neville’s furious face, his opinion wavered.

Valerie said laughingly to Rita:  “They’ll never grow up, these two ­” nodding her head toward Ogilvy and Annan.  And to Neville carelessly ­too carelessly:  “Will you have a little more tea, Kelly dear?”

Her attitude was amiable and composed; her voice clear and unembarrassed.  There may have been a trifle more colour in her cheeks; but what preoccupied Rita was in her eyes ­a fleeting glimpse of something that suddenly concentrated all of Rita’s attention upon the girl across the table.

For a full minute she sat looking at Valerie who seemed pleasantly unconscious of her inspection; then almost stealthily she shifted her gaze to Neville.

Gladys and her kitten came purring around in quest of cream; Rita gathered them into her arms and caressed them and fed them bits of cassava and crumbs of cake.  She was unusually silent that afternoon.  John Burleson tried to interest her with heavy information of various kinds, but she only smiled absently at that worthy man.  Sam Ogilvy and Harry Annan attempted to goad her into one of those lively exchanges of banter in which Rita was entirely capable of taking care of herself.  But her smile was spiritless and non-combative; and finally they let her alone and concentrated their torment upon Valerie, who endured it with equanimity and dangerously sparkling eyes, and an occasional lightening retort which kept those young men busy, especially when the epigram was in Latin ­which hurt their feelings.

She had just furnished them with a sample of this classical food for thought when the door-bell rang and Neville looked up in astonishment to see Jose Querida come in.

“Hello,” he said, springing up with friendly hand outstretched ­“this is exceedingly good of you, Querida.  You have not been here in a very long while.”

Querida’s smile showed his teeth; he bowed to Valerie and to Rita, bowed to the men in turn, and smiled on Neville.

“In excuse I must plead work, my dear fellow ­a poor plea and poorer excuse for the pleasure lost in seeing you ­” he nodded to the others ­“and in missing many agreeable little gatherings ­similar to this, I fancy?”

There was a rising inflection to his voice which made the end of his little speech terminate as a question; and he looked to Valerie for his answer.

“Yes,” she said, “we usually have tea in Kelly’s studio.  And you may have some now, if you wish, Jose.”

He nodded his thanks and placed his chair beside hers.

The conversation had become general; Rita woke up, dumped the cats out of her lap, and made a few viciously verbal passes at Ogilvy.  Burleson, earnest and most worthy, engaged Querida’s attention for a while; but that intellectually lithe young man evaded the ponderously impending dispute with suave skill, and his gentle smile lingered longer on Valerie than on anybody else.  Several times, with an adroit carelessness that seemed to be purposeless, he contrived to draw Valerie out of the general level of conversation by merely lowering his voice; but she seemed to understand the invitation; and, answering him as carelessly as he spoke, keyed her replies in harmony with the chatter going on around them.

He drank his tea smilingly; listened to the others; bore his part modestly; and at intervals his handsome eyes wandered about the studio, reverting frequently to the great canvas overhead.

“You know,” he said to Neville, showing the eternal edge of teeth under his crisp black beard ­“that composition of yours is simply superb.  I am all for it, Neville.”

“I’m glad you are,” nodded Neville, pleasantly, “but it hasn’t yet developed into what I hoped it might.”  His eyes swerved toward Valerie; their glances encountered casually and passed on.  Only Rita saw the girl’s breath quicken for an instant ­saw the scarcely perceptible quiver of Neville’s mouth where the smile twitched at his lip for its liberty to tell the whole world that he was in love.  But their faces were placid, their expressions well schooled; Querida’s half-veiled eyes appeared to notice nothing and for a while he remained smilingly silent.

Later, by accident, he caught sight of Valerie’s portrait; he turned sharply in his chair and looked full at the canvas.

Nobody spoke for a moment; Neville, who was passing Valerie, felt the slightest contact as the velvet of her fingers brushed across his.

Then Querida rose and walked over to the portrait and stood before it in silence, biting at his vivid under lip and at the crisp hairs of his beard that framed it.

Without knowing why, Neville began to feel that Querida was finding in that half-finished work something that disturbed him; and that he was not going to acknowledge what it was that he saw there, whether of good or of the contrary.

Nobody spoke and Querida said nothing.

A mild hope entered Neville’s mind that the something, which had never been in any work of his, might perhaps lie latent in that canvas ­that Querida was discovering it ­without a pleasure ­but with a sensitive clairvoyance which was already warning him of a new banner in the distance, a new trumpet-call from the barriers, another lance in the lists where he, Querida, had ridden so long unchallenged and supreme.

Within him he felt a sudden and secret excitement that he never before had known ­a conviction that the unexpressed hostility of Querida’s silence was the truest tribute ever paid him ­the tribute that at last was arousing hope from its apathy, and setting spurs to his courage.

Rita, watching Querida, yawned and concealed the indiscretion with her hand and a taunting word directed at Ogilvy, who retorted in kind.  And general conversation began again.

Querida turned toward Neville, caught his eye, and shrugged: 

“That portrait is scarcely in your happiest manner, is it?” he asked with a grimace.  “For me ­” he touched his breast with long pale fingers ­“I adore your gayer vein ­your colour, clarity ­the glamour of splendour that you alone can cast over such works as that ­” He waved his hand upward toward the high canvas looming above.  And he smiled at Neville and seated himself beside Valerie.

A portfolio of new mezzotints attracted Annan; others gathered around to examine Neville’s treasures; the tea table was deserted for a while except by Querida and Valerie.  Then he deliberately dropped his voice: 

“Will you give me another cup of tea, Valerie?  And let me talk to you?”

“With pleasure.”  She set about preparing it.

“I have not seen you for some time,” he said in the same caressing undertone.

“You haven’t required me, Jose.”

“Must it be entirely a matter of business between us?”

“Why, of course,” she said in cool surprise.  “You know perfectly well how busy I am ­and must be.”

“You are sometimes busy ­pouring tea, here.”

“But it is after hours.”

“Yet, after hours, you no longer drop in to chat with me.”

“Why, yes, I do ­”

“Pardon.  Not since ­the new year began....  Will you permit me a word?”

She inclined her head with undisturbed composure; he went on: 

“I have asked you to many theatres, invited you to dine with me, to go with me to many, many places.  And, it appeared, that you had always other engagements....  Have I offended you?”

“Of course not.  You know I like you immensely ­”

“Immensely,” he repeated with a smile.  “Once there was more of sentiment in your response, Valerie.  There is little sentiment in immensity.”

She flushed:  “I was spoons on you,” she said, candidly.  “I was silly with you ­and very indiscreet....  But I’d rather not recall that ­”

I can not choose but recall it!”

“Nice men forget such things,” she said, hastily.

“How can you speak that way about it?”

“Because I think that way, Jose,” she said, looking up at him; but she saw no answering smile in his face, and little colour in it; and she remained unquietly conscious of his gaze.

“I will not talk to you if you begin to look at me like that,” she began under her breath; “I don’t care for it ­”

“Can I help it ­remembering ­”

“You have nothing to remember except my pardon,” she interrupted hotly.

“Your pardon ­for showing that I cared for you?”

“My pardon for your losing your head.”

“We were absolutely frank with one another ­”

“I do not understand that you are the sort of man a girl can not be frank with.  We imprudently exchanged a few views on life.  You ­”

“Many,” he said ­“and particularly views on marriage.”

She said, steadily:  “I told you that I cared at heart nothing at all for ceremony and form.  You said the same.  But you misunderstood me.  What was there in that silly conversation significant to you or to me other than an impersonal interest in hearing ideas expressed?”

“You knew I was in love with you.”

“I did not!” she said, sharply.

“You let me touch your hands ­kiss you, once ­”

“And you behaved like a madman ­and frightened me nearly to death!  Had you better recall that night, Jose?  I was generous about it; I was even a little sorry for you.  And I forgave you.”

“Forgave me my loving you?”

“You don’t know what love is,” she said, reddening.

“Do you, Valerie?”

She sat flushed and silent, looking fixedly at the cups and saucers before her.

Do you?” he repeated in a curious voice.  And there seemed to be something of terror in it, for she looked up, startled, to meet his long, handsome eyes looking at her out of a colourless visage.

“Jose,” she said, “what in the world possesses you to speak to me this way?  Have you any right to assume this attitude ­merely because I flirted with you as harmlessly ­or meant it harmlessly ­”

She glanced involuntarily across the studio where the others had gathered over the new collection of mezzotints, and at her glance Neville raised his head and smiled at her, and encountered Querida’s expressionless gaze.

For a moment Querida turned his head away, and Valerie saw that his face was pale and sinister.

“Jose,” she said, “are you insane to take our innocent affair so seriously?  What in the world has come over you?  We have been such excellent friends.  You have been just as nice as you could be, so gay and inconsequential, so witty, so jolly, such good company! ­and now, suddenly, out of a perfectly clear sky your wrath strikes me like lightning!”

“My anger is like that.”

“Jose!” she exclaimed, incredulously.

He showed the edge of perfect teeth again, but she was not sure that he was smiling.  Then he laughed gently.

“Oh,” she said in relief ­“you really startled me.”

“I won’t do it again, Valerie.”  She looked at him, still uncertain, fascinated by her uncertainty.

The colour ­as much as he ever had ­returned to his face; he reached over for a cigarette, lighted it, smiled at her charmingly.

“I was just lonely without you,” he said.  “Like an unreasonable child I brooded over it and ­” he shrugged, “it suddenly went to my head.  Will you forgive my bad temper?”

“Yes ­I will.  Only I never knew you had a temper.  It ­astonishes me.”

He said nothing, smilingly.

“Of course,” she went on, still flushed, “I knew you were impulsive ­hot-headed ­but I know you like me ­”

“I was crazily in love with you,” he said, lightly; “and when you let me touch you ­”

“Oh, I won’t ever again, Jose!” she exclaimed, half-fearfully; “I supposed you understood that sentiment could be a perfectly meaningless and harmless thing ­merely a silly moment ­a foolish interlude in a sober friendship....  And I liked you, Jose ­”

“Can you still like me?”

“Y-yes.  Why, of course ­if you’ll let me.”

“Shall we be the same excellent friends, Valerie?  And all this ill temper of mine will be forgotten?”

“I’ll try....  Yes, why not?  I do like you, and I admire you tremendously.”

His eyes rested on her a moment; he inhaled a deep breath from his cigarette, expelled it, nodded.

“I’ll try to win back all your friendship for me,” he said, pleasantly.

“That will be easy.  I want you to like me.  I want to be able to like you....  I shall have need of friends,” she said half to herself, and looked across at Neville with a face tranquil, almost expressionless save for the sensitive beauty of the mouth.

After a moment Querida, too, lifted his head and gazed deliberately at Neville.  Then very quietly: 

“Are you dining alone this evening?”

“No.”

“Oh.  Perhaps to-morrow evening, then ­”

“I’m afraid not, Jose.”

He smiled:  “Not dining alone ever again?”

“Not ­for the present.”

“I see.”

“There is nothing to see,” she said calmly.  But his smile seemed now so genuine that it disarmed her; and she blushed when he said: 

“Am I to wish you happiness, Valerie?  Is that the trouble?”

“Certainly.  Please wish it for me always ­as I do for you ­and for everybody.”

But he continued to laugh, and the colour in her face persisted, annoying her intensely.

“Nevertheless,” he said, “I do not believe you can be hopelessly in love.”

“What ever put such an idea into that cynical head of yours?”

“Chance,” he said.  “But you are not irrevocably in love.  You are ignorant of what love can really mean.  Only he who understands it ­and who has suffered through it ­can ever teach you.  And you will never be satisfied until he does."’

“Are you very wise concerning love, Jose?” she asked, laughing.

“Perhaps.  You will desire to be, too, some day.  A good school, an accomplished scholar.”

“And the schoolmaster?  Oh!  Jose!”

They both were laughing now ­he with apparent pleasure in her coquetry and animation, she still a little confused and instinctively on her guard.

Rita came strolling over, a tiny cigarette balanced between her slender fingers: 

“Stop flirting, Jose,” she said; “it’s too near dinner time.  Valerie, child, I’m dining with the unspeakable John again.  It’s a horrid habit.  Can’t you prescribe for me?  Jose, what are you doing this evening?”

“Penance,” he said; “I’m dining with my family.”

“Penance,” she repeated with a singular look ­“well ­that’s one way of regarding the pleasure of having any family to dine with ­isn’t it, Valerie?”

“Jose didn’t mean it that way.”

Rita blew a ring from her cigarette’s glimmering end.

“Will you be at home this evening, Valerie?”

“Y-yes ... rather late.”

“Too late to see me?”

“No, you dear girl.  Come at eleven, anyway.  And if I’m a little late you’ll forgive me, won’t you?”

“No, I won’t,” said Rita, crossly.  “You and I are business women, anyway, and eleven is too late for week days.  I’ll wait until I can see you, sometime ­”

“Was it anything important, dear?”

“Not to me.”

Querida rose, took his leave of Valerie and Rita, went over and made his adieux to his host and the others.  When he had gone Rita, standing alone with Valerie beside the tea table, said in a low voice: 

“Don’t do it, Valerie!”

“Do ­what?” asked the girl in astonishment.

“Fall in love.”

Valerie laughed.

“Do you mean with Querida?”

“No.”

“Then ­what do you mean?”

“You’re on the edge of doing it, child.  It isn’t wise.  It won’t do for us....  I know ­I know, Valerie, more than you know about ­love.  Listen to me.  Don’t!  Go away ­go somewhere; drop everything and go, if you’ve any sense left.  I’ll go with you if you will let me....  I’ll do anything for you, dear.  Only listen to me before it’s too late; keep your self-control; keep your mind clear on this one thing, that love is of no use to us ­no good to us.  And if you think you suspect its presence in your neighbourhood, get away from it; pick up your skirts and run, Valerie....  You’ve plenty of time to come back and wonder what you ever could have seen in the man to make you believe you could fall in love with him.”

Ogilvy, strolling up, stood looking sentimentally at the two young girls.

“A ­perfect ­pair ­of precious ­priceless ­peaches,” he said; “I’d love to be a Turk with an Oriental smirk and an ornamental dirk, and a tendency to shirk when the others go to work; for the workers I can’t bear ’em and I’d rather run a harem ­”

“No doubt,” said Rita, coldly; “so you need not explain to me the rather lively young lady I met in the corridor looking for studio number ten ­”

“Rita!  Zuleika!  Star of my soul!  Jewel of my turban!  Do you entertain suspicions ­”

“Oh, you probably did the entertaining ­”

“I?  Heaven!  How I am misunderstood!  John Burleson!  Come over here and tell this very charming young lady all about that somewhat conspicuous vision from a local theatre who came floating into my studio by accident while in joyous quest of you!”

But Annan only laughed, and Rita shrugged her disdain.  But as she nodded adieu to Valerie, the latter saw a pinched look in her face, and did not understand it.