“I THINK I know the most beautiful woman in New York city,” remarked Dave Hartley to his three companions, who were sitting in the rear parlor of the Amsterdam Club before a bright, crackling coal fire. “She belongs to the Lillian Russell type; that is to say, she is a pronounced blonde. I wish you could see her, boys, just once. You would simply rave over her.”
“How old is she?” inquired Bob Ritchie, taking another pull at his Vichy and milk.
“About twenty, I should judge. But there is no use talking about Mabel Olcott — she’s engaged.”
“You are a nice one to get our interest roused concerning a young woman and then coolly tell us she’s engaged.”
Sydney Van Loan smiled. He knew Mabel Olcott. One of his very best friends, Jack 59 Church, was the lucky mortal to whom Mabel was betrothed.
“Blondes never interested me,” observed Charlie Townsley. “My affections have always been centred on brunettes. They have so much more intensity and force of character. But the handsomest one I ever knew died several years ago.”
“I’ll tell you, boys,” said Van Loan, in a drawling voice, “what we might do to break the monotony of life. Suppose we order a swell dinner at Viadello’s and each bring as pretty a woman as he can find. We will make a wager of $200 apiece and place the money in the hands of a stakeholder, say Percy Porter, whom we will invite to the banquet and who will also act as umpire. The fellow who brings the most beautiful woman, according to Percy’s judgment, pockets the money. What do you say?”
“Capital scheme,” put in Charlie Townsley, who once had been a suitor for the hand of Percy Porter’s beautiful wife.
“Each man shall stand one-fourth of the expense of the dinner,” suggested Dave Hartley, “in addition to the amount of the wager.”
“Exactly,” replied Van Loan.60
“There is one objection to this enterprise, and a grave one,” urged Bob Ritchie. “I am not so certain that Percy Porter is qualified to judge of feminine beauty any better than the rest of us. What would please his eye and taste perhaps would not appeal to me.”
“Oh, so far as that goes it will be as fair for one as for the other,” said Van Loan. “Besides, Percy has made a name for himself as a painter, particularly of women’s portraits, and we couldn’t secure a more competent and impartial judge.”
There was no further dissent to the rather novel proposition, and it was an easy matter to appoint a day for the dinner, the furnishing of which was left to Signor Viadello, with the request that it be in his best style. Percy Porter, enjoined to secrecy concerning the whole affair, gladly consented to act as stakeholder and umpire, and in his keeping was deposited eight hundred dollars.
November 10th was the date of the dinner, and the gentlemen concerned had a fortnight in which to scour the community for the most available types of feminine loveliness. Let us see in what manner each proceeded.
Sydney Van Loan, the proposer of the affair, was a rich young man about town, with 61 no regular pursuit but that of pleasure. He had already sown his wild oats, and was gradually settling down to the jog-trot pace which is so difficult for many young men to acquire. The day after the wager was made, Van Loan called at a rather unseasonable hour on Miss Olcott, but they were old friends and he felt confident that she would receive him. She came into the drawing-room, dressed in a bewitching tea-gown, and shook hands with him informally.
“I know you will pardon my coming so early, Mabel, when I tell you my errand.”
“You are always welcome here, Sydney, I am sure.”
“Well, you see, it’s like this: four of us fellows at the club yesterday afternoon made a bet, and I want you to help me out.”
“The man that escorts to a certain dinner, to be given November 10th, at Viadello’s, the finest looking woman, wins the bet; see?”
“How jolly! But who is to decide?”
“Oh, we have selected an umpire, and everything is arranged, except the most important thing of all — the ladies.”
“But how can I help you?”
“By going with me to the dinner.”62
Miss Olcott laughed amusedly, and then, becoming quite serious, remarked: “Sydney, I have never had any ambition to pose as a professional or prize beauty.”
“I know that,” answered Van Loan, “but it’s all in fun. We’ll have a good dinner and no end of sport. Come, now, Mabel, give me your promise to go with me, and I’ll never ask another favor of you.”
“Who are the other fellows?” inquired Miss Olcott, not quite sure that she liked the idea.
“Oh, Dave Hartley, Charlie Townsley, and Bob Ritchie — all clever, respectable chaps, I assure you.”
“I know of them. My brother Will is a great friend of Dave Hartley. Oh, dear, I don’t know what to say; I should dislike to disappoint you, Sydney, but there’s something about it that seems, well, sort of irregular, don’t you know?”
“Why, my dear woman, it’s only an innocent lark. Please say yes.”
“I am sure Jack would not give his consent.”
“Nonsense. Do you suppose my dearest friend will object to my showing his fiancée this little attention? But why tell Jack until 63 after the dinner? It will be delightful news to him, for I certainly shall win the bet if you are my guest.”
“Base flatterer!” exclaimed Miss Olcott, archly. Just then it occurred to her that only two days before, she and Jack had had a lovers’ row, in which heart wounds had been given that were still unhealed. It would do Jack good to see that she had some spirit, that he was not the only man in the world (though in the recesses of her soul this was her conviction). Sydney waited patiently for her answer, which finally came in this wise: “Sydney, you have always been a good friend of mine, and if you think it will not compromise me in any ever so little a way, I will go with you.”
Van Loan soon assured her that she would have no cause to regret her decision, and exultantly left the Olcott mansion, having received her word that she would not breathe a syllable to Jack Church until the dinner was a thing of the past.
Charlie Townsley, who possessed a pronounced fondness for the brunette type, was the junior member of a banking firm in Wall Street. He was a popular young man; every one spoke of and about him in terms of 64 commendation. He was well educated, but for professional work he had no aptitude. He had worked his way up in the bank from an obscure clerkship, and it was while he was serving in a subordinate capacity that he had paid court to Miss Christine Rockwell, now Mrs. Percy Porter. This lady had refused his offer of marriage, not that she loved him less, but that she loved Percy Porter more. Percy was romantic and brilliant, and these qualities appealed more powerfully to her than the equally deserving, but different attributes of Charlie Townsley. Later on Townsley had inherited a considerable fortune from his father, but he remained in the banking house and worked as hard as ever, day by day, convinced that “it is better to wear out than to rust out.” His hours, however, were easy, and he had as much leisure on his hands as he knew what to do with. Since his rejection he had never ceased to think of Christine with adoration. And what is rather singular, after her marriage he was a frequent guest at her house. Percy liked him and admired his sterling qualities. In view of these particulars, what could have been more natural than the temptation which came to Townsley to ask Mrs. Porter to accompany him to that dinner. 65 He weighed the pros and cons for two days before reaching a conclusion that was satisfactory, and then he called on Mrs. Porter. Barring the family servants, she was alone in the house.
“An unexpected pleasure,” was her greeting. “Take this chair, — I think you will find it comfortable, — and I will sit by the window. Now tell me something interesting.”
For a moment Townsley gazed at her in silence. Yes, she was the same beautiful woman to whom he had offered his name and love seven years before. There was scarcely any change in her, unless it was a slightly expanded figure. The luminous, speaking black eyes, with their long silken lashes and gracefully curving brows; the plentiful midnight hair coiffured in a becoming mode peculiarly her own; the proud, well-bred nose, with distended nostrils; the rosy, delicate, sensitive mouth; the creamy, olive skin; the ravishing dimple; the dainty, pink, shell-like ears — these had not changed; nor had her vivacity, which illumined her features and gave to her personality an irresistible charm. She had been perfectly happy in her married life; she had not grown narrow, as some wives do.66
“I want to tell you at once the object of my visit. Sydney Van Loan, Dave Hartley, Bob Ritchie, and myself, all of whom you know, I believe, are to give a dinner at Viadello’s on November 10th. Each of us has agreed to escort to this dinner the most beautiful woman he can secure for the occasion. A gentleman, who is none other than your esteemed husband, is to act as umpire, that is, he is to decide which of the four women present is the most beautiful, in his opinion. The winning lady’s escort is to receive the full amount of a wager — $800 — which has been made among us. Now, Mrs. Porter, would it seem amiss if I humbly asked for your company on that occasion?”
“It would seem amiss if I didn’t go, Charlie, under your gallant protection,” laughed Mrs. Porter, as she handed him a spray of mignonette, taken from a little bunch placed in her corsage. “I shall be perfectly delighted to accompany you. Won’t it be merry? But, understand, Charlie, I am too old a woman to have any serious pride in the competition; and you say Percy will be there! Strange he hasn’t mentioned a word about it to me.”
“Of course,” said Townsley, his voice 67 trembling with inward elation over her acceptance of his invitation, “I shall speak to Percy, so that he will not ——”
“Please, do not say a word to Percy. My poor, honest, old Charlie boy, don’t you see it will spoil all my fun, if you do? I want to surprise Percy — he’s so blasé, you know.”
“All right. If you prefer me to say nothing to him, I’ll keep mum. Only, I would not offend him for the world.”
“Oh, Percy is anything but thin skinned. Don’t let that worry you. I shall have a new gown made especially for the dinner. Let me see. Oh, yes, lavender is your favorite color; it shall be a lavender silk, Marie Antoinette style, et cetera. I’ll try not to disgrace you, Charlie.”
And in a similar strain Mrs. Porter rattled on until Townsley, murmuring his thanks, departed in no little confusion.
Dave Hartley went to work to obtain his queen of beauty in quite a different way from the others. Though several years older than any of his confrères, he was more of a Bohemian than all of them put together. Well connected so far as family ties were concerned, he was essentially a man’s man and made no pretense of keeping in touch with the conventionalities 68 of society. Dave possessed sufficient tact and finesse for a carpet knight, if his tastes had led him in that direction; but roughing it in the West and aimless wandering in foreign lands had given him a cosmopolitan independence of character. He lived on a comfortable annuity left by a bachelor uncle who had been a partner in the wholesale mercantile house of Hartley, Hartley & Co., of which his father remained the head. He usually passed his winters in New York, and the rest of the year he traveled whither his fancy listed. As a consequence of this mode of life, Dave Hartley’s list of beautiful women friends and acquaintances in the metropolis was extremely limited. Soon after making the wager he became painfully aware of this fact. It is true that he had met Mabel Olcutt two or three times, and was an intimate friend of her brother Will. But it was simply out of the question to ask her — an engaged girl — to go with him to that dinner. Moreover, he doubted whether the personal quality of the women who would be there would harmonize very well with her refined nature — even supposing she were not engaged and would be willing to accompany him. But Dave was not discouraged by the fact that he knew no 69 beautiful woman who was available for his present purpose. His ready brain fell to thinking, and soon he conjured up a method. In a prominent Sunday newspaper he caused to be inserted in the personal column the following notice: —
Dave had hired that box, and two days after the notice was published he visited the post office for his mail. He found sixty-seven letters awaiting him, in every one of which except two photographs were inclosed, the others promising to send them in a few days. Mr. Hartley’s heart fluttered with hope as he stuffed the missives into his pockets and returned to his carriage. He did not open any of them until he had reached his own sleeping apartment, in his father’s house on Madison Avenue, and had locked the door. Then he tore them open, one by one, read the various communications they contained, and critically 70 scrutinized the counterfeits of the writers. Some of the letters were well worded and fascinating, but usually the photographs of the writers proved them to be anything but beautiful. On the other hand, there were several photographs of women who seemed beautiful, but whose letters were abominable in literary construction, orthography, and chirography.
For several days Dave found a mild diversion in riding down to the post office for his mail, but most of his letters and nearly all of the photographs were simply irritating. At length one morning, when his mail had begun to lessen materially in volume, he received a package done up in common straw-colored wrapping paper, tied with a pink string such as druggists use. In this package was a cabinet photograph, taken in Hartford. It not only riveted his attention, but challenged his admiration. It pictured a blonde girl not more than twenty, with features of classic symmetry and elegance.
“Voluptuous angel!” exclaimed Dave, as he opened the letter that was also inclosed. It was written in the broad English style affected by young ladies who have attended a boarding or finishing school, and read thus: —71
“I like the tone of that letter, Mistress Sylvia” (again surveying the photograph); “you will answer very well indeed. With you in evidence I shall have an easy victory.”
Thereupon Dave penned a courteous message to Miss Tilton, inclosing a ten-dollar bill 72 for her traveling expenses, and asking her to meet him at a popular up-town hotel the next day at 1 P. M. At the appointed hour Miss Tilton appeared in the public parlor of this hostelry, and a few minutes later Dave presented himself. He knew her at once by her faithful photograph, though her face was veiled. Advancing toward her with the easy grace of a gentleman, both hands grasping the rim of his hat, — held gently against his breast, — he bowed politely, saying, “Miss Tilton, I believe?” and receiving a timid, smiling “Yes” as a response, he led the way to a vacant corner, where their conversation began.
“To break the ice at once,” said Dave, “My name is David Hartley and not Mr. Eureka. You know the firm of Hartley, Hartley & Co., I dare say; I belong to that family.”
“Indeed,” quavered Miss Tilton as she removed her veil. “You must think it most extraordinary of me to have answered that personal in the paper. It is something I never did before.”
“I believe you,” said Dave, studying the fresh blooming face in which he could not discover the semblance of a flaw.
“The fact is,” she continued, “I regard this matter purely in the light of business. 73 Any other construction put upon my conduct I should resent at once. But before proceeding, I want to ask you, Mr. Hartley, if I suit you?”
“Entirely, perfectly,” promptly replied the infatuated Dave.
“And you are quite decided that you wish to escort me to that dinner?”
“Very well, then. I perceive the kind of gentleman you are. I believe I can trust you. But please do not think I am a flirt, or that I wish to dine with fine people for the sake of their society. It will be a painful sacrifice to me to appear there and be ogled and commented upon as a raw country girl. But I need a hundred dollars for a certain purpose.”
“Oh, believe me, Miss Tilton, I think everything good of you. But may I ask if you need the money now? You can just as well have it if you do.”
“You are very kind. The fact is that my poor mother has an internal trouble from which she may be relieved by a surgical operation, the local doctors say. But delay will prove fatal. That is why I am so anxious to get the funds as soon as possible to pay for the operation.”74
“Say no more, Miss Tilton, I will assist you.”
Excusing himself, Dave went into the hotel office, and drew his check for $200. The manager, who knew him, cashed it, and he returned to the parlor with the money neatly stowed away in an envelope. Miss Tilton’s eyes were suffused with tears as he handed her the little package.
“This will enable you,” he said, “to accomplish your present urgent desire, and perhaps you will find cash enough left to provide yourself with a new gown. I shall want you to look your best at that dinner, you know.”
Miss Tilton nearly broke down under the unexpected beneficence of this sturdy stranger. She thanked him over and over again, until he begged her to desist from her explosions of gratitude. Then he invited her to luncheon, but she declined, saying she must be starting for home. She also refused his offer of a hansom, and, bidding him good-bye, went to the station.
Two days later she wrote him a letter, in which she expressed her surprise at the amount he had given her, and declared that she could only accept the extra $100 as a temporary loan. She would certainly pay it 75 back soon, for she had accepted a certain position at a salary out of which she could save a few dollars a week, and thus reimburse him. Her mother, thanks to his kindness, had been sent that morning to a private hospital in Hartford. She concluded her letter with an assurance that she had begun personal preparations against the momentous tenth of November. It did Dave’s heart good to think that he had been able to render so valuable a service to so deserving a young woman.
As the date of the dinner came on apace, he felt a real anxiety concerning the probable impression Sylvia Tilton would make at Viadello’s. Would she be diffident and gawky and provincial? That certainly would weigh against her. He speculated on the subject night and day. It finally occurred to him that he should leave no stone unturned to show her off to the best advantage. So he went to a certain well-known firm of jewelers, selected several beautiful rings variously set with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds, a pair of large first-water earrings, a tiara, and a pearl necklace, which he hired for two weeks, giving adequate security for them. These precious trinkets were placed in a secure little lacquer box and sent in a registered package 76 to Sylvia Tilton, together with the latest book on table etiquette, in which she found a letter from Dave, explaining that the jewels were loaned for her adornment at the dinner, and that the book might serve to entertain her leisure hours. He never knew how much the mere title of the little volume stung Sylvia’s pride.
Bob Ritchie, a member of the bar, with a growing practice, was by far the msot intelligent young man in this quartet. He possessed two extremes of temperament — a lively sense of the ridiculous, and tremendous seriousness. His friends were never certain which of these manifestations would be called forth by any given circumstance or situation, so that Bob was always something of an enigma, and many people on this account stood in respectful awe of him. He was an accomplished athlete, his particular prowess having been gained in boxing, football, and those more rigorous recreations in which muscle and mettle are absolutely indispensable. In his cogitations over the wager, and the possibilities the dinner offered for a practical joke, he hit upon an idea which so thoroughly amused him — being in one of his humorous moods during the progress of these 77 reflections — that he determined to carry it out. To this end, on a certain afternoon, he rang the bell of the Hartley residence on Madison Avenue. Now, it may as well be explained here that the present Mrs. Hartley was Mr. Hartley’s second wife, and Dave’s stepmother. She was just one year younger than Dave, and Dave was — but that would not be fair to Mrs. Hartley. She had been, and was still, a remarkably beautiful woman of the brunette type. Carping critics might have called her too plump and florid, but they surely could not have found fault with her prematurely gray hair, which heightened her look of distinction. She was every inch a lady, and so gracious and sympathetic and sociable that she was always in favor with every one. Dave was wont to declare that he adored her as a woman, but hated her as a mother.
Mrs. Hartley was entertaining a lady, when Bob reached the house, but the caller soon went away.
“Now, Bob, don’t tell me that you have come to take me to some cricket or football match. I have been up three nights and am just fagged out.”
“Please don’t alarm yourself. I have something 78 on hand for November 10th. What does your engagement book say?”
“I am quite positive something is jotted down for that day. Let me think. No, the Boltons give their ball on the 11th. Is this an important function?”
“Bob, you are mischievous to-day. You must have won a big lawsuit. Come, sit down and tell me about it.”
“Well, it’s a state secret, but it will be such fun that I wanted you in it. You see, four of us Amsterdam men have made a bet. Each man is to bring to Viadello’s for dinner the rarest specimen of feminine beauty he can get hold of. Percy Porter is to act as judge. The fellow who brings the handsomest woman rakes in the stakes, $800.”
“Very clever,” commented Mrs. Hartley, seeing through the whole affair as clearly as though Bob had taken half an hour to explain it. “And you want me to accompany you and display myself in all my dotage.”
“Bob, my dear fellow. I should be terribly de trop in that company and where would the fun be for me?”79
“I will guarantee that you will laugh your sides sore. Now, will you go?”
“Bob, you are a gigantic humbug. Why don’t you ask some stunning young girl like Florence Watts or Edna Sharot? And there’s Mariam Lawson, of Baltimore, who is visiting the Hymans. She is what you fellows call a peach. Why, the town is crowded with beautiful young women.”
“But none of them has your charm, which surpasses mere beauty.”
“Very fine of you, Bob. It’s hard to refuse you after that. However, I fear it will be impossible —”
“I have another strong reason for wanting you to be there.”
“Dave will be present. He is in the wager.”
This piece of information threw Mrs. Hartley into convulsions of laughter. She swayed backward and forward, her face fairly writhing in merriment. She only stopped to take in a breath now and then. All the rest of the time her risibles were in full action. After a while she calmed down long enough to ask: “Whom does Dave intend to take?” Of course Bob could throw no light on that point, 80 and Mrs. Hartley broke out afresh, but she kept herself under better control this time. She said she had never heard anything so ridiculous in all her life. Bob kept up a low series of chuckles, amused at her amusement. Finally, wiping the dews of laughter from her eyes with her handkerchief, she simply said: “Bob, you may count on me to accompany you. But not a word to Dave that I’m to be present.”
“Trust me for that. Mrs. Hartley, you’re a trump if there ever was one. I’ll remember you in my will.”
THE best dining-room in Viadello’s establishment was brilliantly illuminated. The dinner was to begin at seven o’clock; it was now half-past six. At his hour Dave Hartley met Sylvia Tilton by appointment in the lady’s reception room of the Holland House. As they were shaking hands he complimented her on her personal appearance. He had feared somehow that she would come in dowdy attire. On the contrary, her dress and hat were up to date and elegant in their simplicity.
“But where are the jewels — your earrings, 81 the sunburst?” he asked, having observed that she was not wearing them.
“Here,” she responded, handing him the lacquer box. “Mr. Hartley, I have never been accustomed to wearing such costly ornaments, and I should only feel awkward with them on. Please do not insist on my wearing them. Really, I cannot do it. I must go on my own merits or not at all.”
“Bless me! What a sensitive plant you are. Ah, well, beauty unadorned is adorned the most, they say. You will at least wear one or two of the rings — the marquise for instance.”
“No,” said Sylvia, with decision. “It is quite impossible.”
Dave tried to conceal his annoyance, as he placed the box in the right-hand pocket of his topcoat, but it was several moments before he became reconciled to her not wearing the jewels. Then he ordered a carriage, in which they were conveyed rapidly to Viadello’s. As they ascended the steps under the striped awning, Dave saw in the vestibule Miss Olcott and Sydney Van Loan, who has just arrived. A moment later he greeted them and introduced Miss Tilton. The ladies were escorted to the reception room, after which the young 82 men excused themselves and returned to the vestibule arm in arm.
“In the name of heaven, where did you get it?” whispered Van Loan. “She’s a daisy.”
“That’s the reason she’s here. Oh, you haven’t such a dead cinch as you thought you had.”
“Who is she? where is she from?”
“Now, don’t get inquisitive, old chap.”
Just then Mrs. Porter and Charlie Townsley entered.
“Look, Dave!” exclaimed Van Loan. “See whom Charlie Townsley has brought.”
“Hello, fellows,” saluted Townsley.
“Good evening, Mr. Van Loan,” said Mrs. Porter, extending her hand.
“Mr. Hartley — Mrs. Porter,” introduced Van Loan.
“Most charmed,” said Mrs. Porter, bowing with graceful dignity.
“Most honored, Mrs. Porter,” returned Dave, gallantly. “I have the pleasure of your husband’s acquaintance,” he added.
“Yes, I have often heard him speak of you, Mr. Hartley. You are a great traveler, I believe.”
“Well, I am not a chronic stay-at-home.”83
“Let us go into the reception room,” suggested Van Loan. Then, sotto voce to Townsley, he added: “If we all get into a devilish scrape, it will be your fault. What possessed you to bring Mrs. Porter? But you must see the girl Dave has brought.”
“Who is she?”
“That is to be learned hereafter.”
They proceeded to the reception room, where necessary introductions followed. Mrs. Porter evinced an interest at once in Sylvia Tilton, who did not seem in the least embarrassed. Charlie Townsley meanwhile made himself agreeable to Mabel Olcott, whom he had met occasionally in society. Dave Hartley and Van Loan stood near the door, consulting their watches and furtively glancing at the three women present, as though eager to determine which of them stood the best chance of carrying off the honors.
“I say, Van,” remarked Dave, in an undertone, “it is not going to be a fair contest with Mrs. Porter here. Of course, Percy wouldn’t have the heart, to say nothing of the nerve, to decide against his wife. I must say, she’s a little daisy.”
“Makes a fine contrast to the other two, eh?” commented Van Loan.84
Presently Mrs. Henry Hartley rustled into the room, followed by Bob Ritchie. Their appearance created a genuine sensation. Sylvia Tilton wondered who the gray-haired woman might be. As for Dave, he stood aghast for a moment, at the sight of his step-mother, then reeled against the wall, and hid his face in his hands as though to ward off an attacking bogy. In the meantime, with admirable presence of mind, Van Loan presented Mrs. Hartley to Miss Tilton, and those whom she had not met before. Bob stood with folded arms between Miss Olcott and Charlie Townsley, a mischievous smile hidden behind his luxurious black moustache. By this time, Dave had pulled himself together and when Mrs. Hartley advanced to greet him, he met her half-way, threw his arms around her shoulder, and gave a resounding smack full on the lips, with the remark: “So glad you came, dear mamma.”
“Please don’t flatten out my sleeves,” urged Mrs. Hartley. “Dave, you are so rough.”
Everybody wanted to laugh outright, except Dave. His face was as red as a boiled lobster. He endeavored to speak, but words failed him. Mrs. Hartley turned away with the 85 injunction, spoken so that all could hear: “Now see how well you can behave this evening,” and began conversing in a most animated fashion with Mrs. Porter, whom she knew very well. Charlie Townsley walked over to the sofa where Sylvia sat and engaged her in an effervescent conversation; somehow the presence of Dave’s stepmother had given her a qualm of humiliation. Mrs. Hartley had greeted her in such a patronizing way. But it all seemed so ridiculous to her, that she saw it would be foolish to take offense at anything. Dave had informally disappeared in quest of a bracing cocktail.
“What a jolly party it is,” said Bob to Miss Olcott. “Don’t you think informal occasions like this are the most enjoyable?”
“I think, Mr. Ritchie, you are a hopeless tease,” returned Miss Olcott, who realized that it was a queer assemblage. She feared a contretemps. And poor Jack — would he not be furious because of the deception she had practiced on him? He had invited her to the theatre for this very evening, and she had put him off with some lame excuse. Dear, faithful Jack — she could never forgive herself. Mrs. Porter had the art of dissimulation down fine, to use a bit of harmless slang, but 86 she began to think that perhaps she had been indiscreet in coming. Percy might feel aggrieved over it.
The two people who thoroughly enjoyed themselves were Mrs. Hartley and her escort. They covertly made signs to each other that they relished the growing discomfiture of certain people present. Dave reappeared, partially composed by the potent stimulant he had imbibed, but his manner was not altogether free from nervousness.
At ten minutes past seven, the head waiter appeared, saying that Signor Viadello, who was personally superintending the dinner, was anxious to have them take their places at the table, as the viands were ready to serve and would spoil if kept long in the kitchen.
“But Percy hasn’t come,” said Van Loan.
“He will probably be here soon,” said Charlie Townsley. “Viadello’s reputation is at stake, you know.”
“Let’s not wait for Percy,” suggested Mrs. Porter. “I am sure he will show up before the first course is finished.”
“All right,” put in Van Loan, who volunteered to act as master of ceremonies. “Let’s besiege the festive board at once.”
Thereupon he offered his arm to Mabel 87 Olcott and led the way to the dining-room, followed by the others, paired off as they had come.
Vidello had composed a menu that was choice, if not elaborate. He knew the young men who had ordered the dinner, — they had been there before, — and he had the caterer’s pride in pleasing his patrons. The table was a bower of flowers and ferns, among which were placed several silver candelabrums with mauve, yellow, pink, white, and green shades. A Hungarian orchestra began to discourse a weird rhapsody from the balcony above as the guests seated themselves. Promptly the oysters came on and were leisurely dispatched, and the potage à la Reine Julienne was being served when Percy Porter walked in. His entrance made eating a secondary consideration for the time being. He was greeted with wild shouts of welcome, in which Mrs. Porter joined with almost superfluous enthusiasm. Percy looked at his wife with an expression so mixed in character as to be wholly beyond interpretation for a moment. It indicated surprise, doubt, partial indignation, amusement, anxiety — and then his countenance cleared and he burst into a hearty laugh. It was rather awkward for him to be introduced to 88 Miss Tilton and two or three others and to adopt the spirit of the occasion on the spur of the moment. Van Loan conducted him to the vacant chair at the head of the table which had been reserved for him. With what grace and wit he could summon he answered some of Charlie Townsley’s chaff, but he was manifestly disconcerted and perplexed by the presence of his wife. To make matters a little more uncomfortable for him, the irrepressible Mrs. Porter accused him of woolgathering, and rallied him on his lack of interest in the Beauty Show, as she termed it. With the best of intentions, Dave proposed Percy’s health in a glass of Sauterne, to which everybody but Sylvia responded.
“Don’t you like your wine?” Dave asked her, in a muffled voice.
“I never drink it,” was her answer, which seemed to depress Dave immeasurably.
“How perfectly sweet Dave’s companion is,” observed Mrs. Hartley to her escort, while the terrapin was being served. “Quite a Madonna, so delightfully unsophisticated, you know. I wonder where she is from.”
“Ask Dave,” responded Bob, who added to himself, “Miss Tilton is afar and away the handsomest woman at the table.”89
The ladies and gentlemen tried to be entirely happy as the courses proceeded. Champagne always loosened Mrs. Porter’s tongue, if anything were needed beyond what nature had provided for that purpose. Indeed, this beverage had a similar effect upon Mrs. Hartley, who scarcely needed it for stimulating loquacity. Mabel Olcott sipped very guardedly of her portion, and Sylvia ignored her glass entirely. Through the courses of filet de boeuf à la Rothschild, pommes croquettes, suprême de volaille merigeux, with Montpensier, aspic de fois gras, with sorbet, canvasback ducks and cailles, and celery mayonnaise with Château la Rose, the company in the main became more en rapport, but there were two soreheads in the party, and one of them was Dave. This gentleman, just as the roast came on, excused himself, went to the office and sent word to Jack Church as follows: —
It so happened that Jack Church lived only three blocks away from Viadello’s, and that he received the message within five minutes after it was sent.90
The other sorehead referred to was Percy Porter. He was annoyed and all but disgusted because his wife was present, though he was broad enough to see Townsley’s intention in bringing her. He also saw in Miss Tilton the inspiration of an ideal study in oil, and wondered if she would consent to sit for him. But here was Mrs. Porter, and he was judge. Though not very religious, Percy invoked Providence to assist him.
The glacé, compote merveilleuse, gâteaux, bonbons, and café were served, and during one of the lulls Van Loan rose to his feet and in his quaint manner and drawling voice said: “Mr. Judge, Ladies, and Gentlemen — It becomes my urgent duty to announce that these exceptional festivities are drawing to a close; that having enjoyed a pleasant repast, we are now to receive from the mouth of an authority his verdict — which must concern everyone present — especially those who have put up $200 on the issue. May we, Mr. Judge, ask you to deliver your decision?”
“It will be necessary,” responded Percy Porter, rising from his chair at the head of the table, “for me to ask your indulgence for a little time, in order that I may reach what every honest judge wishes to render — an 91 impartial decision. To this end permit me to withdraw for a few moments.”
With these words, Percy Porter disappeared into a rear room, and he had scarcely gone, when Jack Church, in his business suit, and looking the picture of trouble, flashed into the dining-room, saying: “Sidney, where are you?”
”Here I am, old boy,” said Sydney. “You are just in time. Come here.”
but Jack Church stood quite still. He had seen Mabel, and his eyes swam and his brain reeled. Dave Hartley sprang from his seat, and went to the rescue.
”See here, Jack,” said Dave, “this looks queer to you, but it’s all right.”
Jack did not answer, for at this instant Mabel left the table and advanced toward him. He was being urged to join the party by those who knew him. He returned every one’s salutation civilly, but went with Mabel into the reception room, where it may be supposed she explained the whole situation to him satisfactorily. Something like a tumult was going on, when Percy, paler than any one had ever seen him before, returned and, standing in his place, said: “As umpire, I call this wager off, and as stakeholder, I have the money to 92 return to each individual who may rightfully claim it. Every woman here is so beautiful that it would be beyond human intelligence to decide which one definitely excels. Please accept my box at the opera house for the rest of the evening.”
The party went to the Metropolitan Opera House and enjoyed Calvé as Carmen.
Three weeks later Mabel and Jack were married, and all that were at the Viadello dinner were favored guests. Mrs. Porter sees a new wrinkle in Percy, and loves him more than ever. Sydney Van Loan, Charley Townsley, and Bob Ritchie are poor benighted bachelors, who may sometime see the error of their ways and marry.
Dave Hartley is the happy husband of Sylvia, who has long since congratulated herself that she answered his personal in the newspaper. For she is safe in Dave’s loyal love and in his assurance that if Mrs. Porter had not been at the dinner, Percy would have decided that she (Sylvia) could give the rest double discount in the game of beauty. And Sylvia, though now a mother, is inclined to look back upon that occasion with tolerance, for she knows, as well as everybody else, that she was in truth the Belle of the Dinner.