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I've a fancy she is establishing legal residence of some sort - I'm sure her husband is n't dead, and there seems so little rhyme or reason in settling here so detachedly and unattached. She seems a homeless little mystery, and a very clever woman, Veddie, with a mania for belles-lettres. Come over to dinner to-morrow night and meet her informally, you and Mrs. Suddeth."
Suddeth accepted the afterthought of his wife with a philosophic calm that his reply explained. "Mrs. Suddeth is going out to the Country Club for a day or two, but if you'll let me come, Margot, I'll be delighted."
"Then do I 'll arrange it with Mrs. Hale. Entre nous, she was thrilled with your talk this afternoon-oddly affected. I wonder if she happens to know the woman of the 'Letters'!
What a find for you, Veddie, if she does! Everything is stupid just now; until the new French consul comes-and perhaps afterward, she is the most interesting thing in town.”
"I recall her face," Suddeth mused with the slight heaviness that was his at times. "There was more in it than could have been aroused by my poor words of praise. If you chance on anything illuminating, tell me. I am growing interested, by bounds! I shall be with you surely tomorrow night."
THAT Mrs. Hale herself was the author of the "Letters" came as a revelation not entirely unsuspected. Suddeth said in fact, on that memorable night when he introduced her openly, yet under seal of inviolable secrecy, to Athens's inner circle within the Suddeth salon, that from the moment that his eye first rested on her, as she sat beside Mrs. Coyne in the fourth row of the club auditorium, there was a "something" about her which, confirmed later by many clues, and finally by her forced admission, made him trace the first seed of his suspicion to that illuminating moment of first sight of her.
Two months had elapsed between that moment and the first presenting of her to the salon, but for six weeks of that two months Suddeth had known that of her which he persisted in urging her to reveal, under his auspices, to Athens. There had been that first dinner with the Coynes and
Mrs. Hale at the Walton, during which they had played about the subject of identities. She had fenced cleverly-and had · asked Suddeth to tea the next afternoon to look over a poem or two and a bit of prose. He had been frank with her about the poetry, which means that he had told her it was very bad; but he had waxed enthusiastic over her prose, which, he declared, reminded him of something rare, elusive— and wonderful. Three evenings later, when a slip of her tongue-that clever tongue!-revealed all, he knew that the prose bit held the elusive charm of the "Letters" themselves.
"How did you write them!-To whom could they have been written? - What of life have you lived, oh wonderful woman, to know life so well!"-These and other incoherencies were poured upon her in Suddeth's frenzy of admiration. She had sworn him to silence, but the secret was too big for him, and made his days and nights miserable. Finally she had consented, after hesitation that seemed to him absurd, to be presented before the smallest number of select spirits that his list could hold, as the woman who wrote the "Letters" -on the strict condition that these would keep the secret inviolate until the ban of silence was lifted.
It was the most dramatic moment in Athens's entire literary life to date, when Suddeth, having solemnly sworn the little group about him to sacred secrecy, stepped from his place within the curve of Mrs. Suddeth's grand piano, and held out his hand to Florence Woolson Hale.
"This is she, dear friends," he said exultantly-"the still publicly unacknowledged author of the 'Letters'; the most wonderful creator of the most wonderful book since Héloïse!" And he bent his fine head and kissed her, in the spirit of Bohemia, where she stood.
Athens was conventional, but the salon was not. Suddeth had trained his players well, and they all acknowledged that the kiss was well within the spirit of the play. Yet not one of the comrades gathered there but stole his or her own swift glance at Suddeth's wife. Such pull-backs of an imperfectly drugged conventional sense are common enough in self-made and therefore self-conscious Bohemias, and are the joy of outside scoffers. But no scoffer sat beneath the roof that night, unless it were Mrs.
Suddeth. Athens was always doubtful about Mrs. Suddeth.
She sat through that moment, quite as much the victim of her own amazement as any salonist present. With the others she leaned forward in her chair, gazing at the man and woman. And Velma, her young daughter, just home from her last year at Wellesley, stared too, with a gasp of delighted surprise at the announcement that was choked in a gasp of shocked surprise at the kiss. She too took her swift glance at her mother's quickly masked face, but hers differed from the other furtive glances in that it was quite direct and honest. Velma had been away from home much in these six years of her father's waxing fame, and this was her first direct initiation into Platonic rites. But her Puritanic shock faded under her mother's indifference, and it was she, ardent and glowing, who first reached Mrs. Hale's side, and impressed her own young lips upon the other cheek.
"Why, all of the girls are wild about you!" she cried. "We 've done nothing all spring but read the 'Letters,' and wonder about the woman who wrote them. And to find you, here!"
The author of the "Letters" kissed her in return, impulsively.
"How I shall love to meet all your 'girls,' and talk to them!" And through all the maze of congratulations and voiced astonishment she kept close hold of the girl's hand.
Mrs. Suddeth was one of the last to come forward to remark upon her guest's achievement, and she did it with her slow grace and indolent voice that, coupled with her general aloofness, made her the resented enigma she was to Athens.
"You have done what few women of the world have had the courage to do, Mrs. Hale," she said sweetly. Doubtless she would have added more, but just then her husband spoke to the assembled roomful.
"I had occasion to write to The Sunrise Publishing Company," he remarked, "about my own unassuming little book of verse which is to appear next fall, the first book of mine, by the way, to bear the 'Sunrise' imprint. And I could not resist the temptation," with a little bow to Mrs. Hale, who turned suddenly from her hostess and stood at gaze, "to put it gently to
him that his treasured secret might be perhaps a secret no longer, at least to me. I was answered by Mr. Whitmore himself, to whom, of all the firm, the secret of the identity of the writer of their greatest triumph would most probably be known."
As he unfolded a letter Mrs. Hale stepped forward, her lips parted.
And he said-" she breathed.
"What proves," said Suddeth, with another devoted bow, "that the world is small, and that the social affairs of Athens are not unknown in the East. He says, at the end, in a most guarded manner: 'It is not impossible that the most carefully kept secrets may escape into the open, a fact that does not lift the ban of silence from our lips. It is not improbable however that you are in the secret, since your possible part in it was a largely determining factor in our acceptance of your poems; one case, my dear sir, where personal influence overbalanced the undeniable fact that poems are a drug on the market. However we hope for unusual results in the end from your forthcoming book.'
"All of which," Suddeth added, “makes me eager to admit the inspiration of the first poem, which, though written last, less than six weeks ago, is to be the title poem of the book: 'Egeria!' And when you read To Egeria' on the dedication page, you of this little group will know the inspiration is honored in the most fitting way."
Mrs. Suddeth, standing beside her daughter and her honored guest during this little scene, turned again to Mrs. Hale.
"It is a wonderful thing to have so farreaching an influence, my dear Mrs. Hale," she said cordially. "Persuade Vedder to read us his 'Egeria' on the chance that it may be as new to all of us as it is to me."
"And to me!" broke in Velma sturdily, a little of her mental shock surging back upon her, as she gazed honestly at her mother. But Mrs. Suddeth's face wore the bored expression habitual to her in public, and it did not change during Suddeth's reading of a poem which was one flame of delicate allusion to the "Letters," and to the enduring power of mental sympathy over all other human bonds. It was not a great poem-Suddeth could not write great poems-but it was a great attempt, and its
technical composition was almost flawless. Suddeth had trained his salon to a firsthand knowledge of iambics and trochees until they were all but as quick as he to detect technical flaws, which was his first rule of criticism. Technical flawlessness was the first great law, and "Egeria" met it. The little salon that had begun by honoring Mrs. Hale ended with the shoulder-raising of Suddeth. It was often thus.
"MOTHER!" said Velma the next morning, coming unheralded into the music room where Mrs. Suddeth sat, running through a new score of sorts. "I want to talk to you, very frankly."
Mrs. Suddeth looked up with a little smile. It was the new generation, assured of itself, addressing the elder on debatable ground, with the unanswerable argument all but uttered. Her thought was in her words as she answered her young daugh
"Well, the solution, my dear!"
But Velma did not find it so easy to begin, and fussed through stacks of music quite as if she were searching for a definite title instead of a definite word. Finally her convictions conquered her uncertainty, and she blurted out her question:
"I want to know-if you know-and if you know, how can you seem not to- that Father-I know that Mrs. Hale is perfectly charming and good and all that—"
She came to a piteous halt. Her mother ran lightly through the rest of the melody, then let her hands drop idly in her lap. There was a little silence before she spoke.
"My dear," she said at last, "you must not do your father any real injustice. I understand him-thoroughly. He needs
the spur of a new face, a new mind, an adoring swinger of the chalice, every so often. This taking of fancies is no new thing you happen merely to have come on one of them at its full. Try to think no more of it, except as inconsequent."
"But Mother," Velma protested indignantly, "that poem last night-'Egeria!' -it was-I was ashamed-it was so plain -it was written for nobody but for the woman who wrote the 'Letters.' I think it's a queer crowd that has grown up out here in these years-and I'm not a prude either! I know a great many things-but I am angry!"
Mrs. Suddeth rose to her feet, and slipped her arm about her daughter with one of her rare caressings. "My dear little daughter! We shall have our summer here as we have planned it. Then, in the fall, Paris, for the two of us, you and me! In that year abroad a good many things may be solved for all of us that have been waiting to be solved until you might have your share in them. Let it all go, nowwait."
"But people looked last night!" the girl insisted angrily. "They looked, I tell you. And I won't have them looking at you, pitying you; perhaps scorning you—"
"I think that no one either pities or scorns me," returned Mrs. Suddeth with a sudden cool calm. "Let it all go, now, Velma. We shall talk it over at a better time, I promise you.”
She kissed her daughter again, and turned back to the piano. Velma stood uncertainly for a moment; then she turned disappointedly and left the room.
She was crossing the wide hall when a maid, a new one, intercepted her with a card. Velma had already seen the shadow in the doorway, and when she read the engraved name, "Mr. Henry Whitmore, The Sunrise Publishing Company," she gave the caller one fluttering glance and then went forward eagerly.
"Mr. Whitmore? I am so glad to see you. I am Miss Suddeth-last night my father read a part of your letter to himhere when he presented the author of the 'Letters' to us all. Oh, it was charming to be allowed to know at last who wrote them. You came to see my father?"
"Not your father, Miss Suddeth." Mr. Whitmore smiled. "I sent my card to your mother."
"You know the author of the 'Letters,'" she persisted eagerly. “Do you know her?"
"I have never seen her."
"Then," cried Velma, with the enthusiasm of twenty for great moments, "I want to be the one to introduce you-oh, Mother, here is Mr. Whitmore! You'll wait for a bit, until I telephone-"
She looked excitedly at Whitmore, as he went quickly toward the door of the music room where Mrs. Suddeth stood waiting, and then, stopped midway in her quick little rush for the telephone at sight of the little tableau, stared crassly. Whit
more was holding her mother's hands with an ardent reverence.
"At last!" he said. "But when is the world to know?"
Mrs. Suddeth raised her hand in involuntary warning to him, and looked over his shoulder at Velma. For a few seconds the eyes of mother and daughter were locked; then the girl's eyes wavered, and she swayed a little as her world rocked beneath her feet. Then she turned away and went out to the veranda, and, with a whirling brain, sank into a chair.
Where was the mistake! Did Mr. Whitmore think he knew, and was he mistaken? or was her father mistaken? or had her mother known all along and held her peace? Details of the night before flashed through her mind with the swiftness of a dream, and above every incident rang her mother's words, so cordial then, so significant now: "You have done what few women have had the courage to do!" Was it possible-her mother the author of the "Letters"! Mrs. Hale an unscrupulous adventuress! And her father the befooled! Velma said it plainly, and as she uttered the words, again with the swiftness of a dream, certain seemingly unexplainable things in their home life straightened out with astounding clarity. She seemed to know without further words just what the problems were that had been. waiting for their solution until she could share in the solving of them. "Egeria!" Her young lips curled with intolerant scorn.
She sat there for a long time, the murmur of voices drifting out to her every now and then from the room where Whitmore and her mother were still talking earnestly. Then, suddenly, looking up, she saw her father and Mrs. Hale coming up the walk together. Mrs. Hale, as usual, was in blue, that matched her eyes, and made blacker her black hair and brows and lashes, and redder her clear red cheeks and lips. Velma watched them with level. eyes as they approached.
"Where is your mother, my dear?" Suddeth cried. "Mrs. Hale and I are arranging a little dinner for to-night, and I want her to call up the guests- -a little aftermath of last night." He smiled at his friend, who smiled back almost tenderly.
"She is in the music room," the girl told him, and then, just as he and Mrs. Hale were crossing the threshold her in
nate honesty, crude and raw, conquered her desire to be dangerous and subtle, and she added fairly, "Mr. Whitmore, of the Sunrise Company, is there with her."
Mrs. Hale stopped short in the doorway, with a sudden clutching of her skirts, and a face that, on the instant, save for two bright red spots, went absolutely pallid. Suddeth, his eyes gleaming, brought his hands together with a soft clap.
"And I have kept him waiting," he said. "How odd that he did not telegraph me he would be here. And you here at this moment! My dear Whitmore-my dear fellow-"
His voice came back to them as the girl and the woman stared at each other. Mrs. Hale's face did not regain its color, but after one futile betraying step toward the walk, her figure regained its poise, and her shoulders straightened to meet the moment. Already the invasion was upon them, for Suddeth with beautiful informality was dragging his guest through the hall, and after them, her lips set and her eyes gleaming, came his wife.
"My dear fellow!" he was saying. "So fortuitous! So good of you to let wife amuse you until my return! Here is the surprise-I know you have never metMrs. Hale! The wonderful creator of the 'Letters.' The 'Egeria' of the poems, who-"
Even Suddeth stopped here, minus his period. Mrs. Hale was standing, tall and ready for the spring, her eyes narrowed, her lips drawn away from her white teeth until she looked common, and a reversion to the uncultured, uncontrolled primitive type. Whitmore, after a glance at Mrs. Suddeth, bowed formally to the lady, and, stepping back, without offering his hand, glanced at Mrs. Suddeth again. She shook her head, and his lips, already parted, closed firmly.