The nice young man did more than find my missing trunks; he found a custom-house officer, and, after asking me privately which trunks contained my most valuable possessions and how much I had thought of declaring, he succeeded in having them passed through on my own valuation without any undue exposure of their contents.
By this time Dad had grown very respectful. To see his little Elizabeth treated like a queen, while on all sides angry women were having their best gowns pawed over and mussed; was a most wholesome lesson. He paid the thousand and odd dollars duty like a little man.
We’d been saved a lot of bother, and nobody hates a lot of bother more than Dad. So when the trunks were locked and strapped and ready to be sent to our hotel, Dad went up to the nice young man and said: “I’m Tom Middleton, from California, and this is my daughter Elizabeth. We’re both very grateful to you, and if you should ever happen to come to California, I hope you’ll look us up.”
That’s Dad all over!
I never saw anybody look so pleased as the young man: “My name’s Porter,” he said, “Blakely Porter. If my mother were in New York I would ask if she might call on Miss Middleton, but, as it happens, she’s in California, where I intend to join her, so I shall look forward to seeing you there.”
Then Dad did just the right thing. “What’s the use of waiting till we get to California?” he said. “Why not dine with us to-night!”
There are people, merely conventional people, who could never appreciate the fine directness and simplicity, of Dad’s nature—not if they lived to be a thousand years old. But Mr. Blakely Porter understood perfectly; I know he did, for he told me so afterwards. “It was the greatest compliment I ever had paid me in my life,” he said. “Your father knew nothing about me, absolutely nothing, yet he invited me to dine with him—and you. It was splendid, splendid!”
The dear boy didn’t know, perhaps, that honesty shone in his eyes, that one could not look at him and deny he was a gentleman. And, of course, I didn’t enlighten him, for it is well for men, particularly, young men, to feel grateful, and the least bit humble; it keeps them from being spoiled.
But to return to the dinner invitation: Mr. Porter accepted it eagerly. “It is more than kind of you,” he said. “My mother is away, and her house is closed. It is my first home-coming in four years, and I should have been lonely to-night.”
And poor Dad, who has been lonely—oh, so lonely!—ever since Ninette died, shook hands with him, and said: “If my daughter and I can keep you from feeling lonely, we shall be so. glad. We are stopping at The Plaza, and we dine at half past seven.”
Then Mr. Porter found us a taxi-cab, and away we went.
It was good to be in America again. I made Dad stop the car, and have the top put back, even though it was freezing cold, for I had never been in New York before (when I’d gone to France, I had sailed from New Orleans) and I wanted to see everything. The tall buildings, the elevated, even the bad paving till we got to Fifth Avenue, interested me immensely, as they would any one to whom. Paris had been home, and New York a foreign city. Not that I had ever thought of Paris as my real home; home was, where my heart was- -with Dad. I tried to make him understand how, happy I was to be with him, how I had missed him, and California.
“So you missed your old father; did you, girlie?”
“And you’ll be glad to go to California?”
“Oh, so glad!”
“Then,” said Dad, “we’ll start tomorrow.”
Our rooms at the hotel were perfect; there was a bed room and bath for me a bed room and bath for Dad, with a sitting room between, all facing the Park. And there were roses everywhere; huge American Beauties, dear, wee, pink roses, roses of flaming red. I turned to Dad, who was standing in the middle of the sitting room, beaming at me. “You delightful old spendthrift!” I cried. “What do you mean by buying millions of roses? And in the middle of January too! You deserve to be disciplined, and you shall be.”
“Discipline is an excellent thing; even if it does disturb the set of one’s tie,” Dad remarked thoughtfully, a moment later.
“I couldn’t help hugging you, Daddy.”
“My dear, that hug of yours was the sweetest thing that has happened to your dad in many a long year.”
And then, of course, I had to hug him again.
After luncheon (we had it in our sitting room) Dad asked if I would enjoy a drive through the Park.
“I should enjoy it immensely,” I said, “but I can’t possibly go.”
You see, there was a trunk to unpack, the one holding my prettiest dinner gown. Of course Valentine was quite capable of attending to the unpacking. Still, one likes to inspect everything one is to wear, especially when one is expecting a guest to dinner. “Then,” said Dad, “I think I’ll order dinner, and go for a walk., shall we have dinner here?”
“Oh, by all means! This is so much more homelike than a public dining room.”
“I’ll not be gone more than an hour or two. . . Hullo! Come in.”
A small boy entered, carrying a box quite as big as himself. “For Miss Middleton,” he said.
“Another present from you, Dad?”
“Open it, my dear.”
“I thought so,” he remarked, as the removal of the cover displayed more American Beauties. (There were five dozen;) I counted them after Dad had gone. Another million roses and in the middle of January! “Who’s the spendthrift this time, Elizabeth?”
“His name,” I said, slipping a card: from the envelope that lay on a huge bow of red ribbon, “is Mr. Blakely Porter.”
Although I know, now, there are many things more beautiful, I believed, then, that nothing more beautiful had ever happened; for it was the first time a man had ever sent me roses. Nineteen years old, and my first roses! They made me so happy. Paris seemed very far away; the convent was a mythical place I had seen in a dream; nothing was real but Dad, and America, and the roses somebody, had sent. Somebody!
Mr. Porter arrived on time to the minute, looking perfectly splendid in a wonderful furlined coat. And if his eyes were anxious, and his manner a bit constrained at first, it didn’t last long; Dad’s greeting was too cordial, not to make him feel at home. Indeed, he talked delightfully all through dinner, and with the coffee, half laughingly, half apologizingly told us the story of his life. “For,” said he, “although I feel as if I’d known you always,” (he looked at Dad, but I was sure he meant me, too) “you may not feel the same in regard to me—and I want you to.”
It was sweet to see Dad grow almost boyish in his insistence that he felt as Mr. Porter did. “Nonsense!” he said. “It seems the most natural thing in the world to have you here. Doesn’t it Elizabeth!”
It was rather embarrassing to be asked such a question in Mr. Porter’s presence, but I managed to murmur a weak “Yes, indeed!” Inside, though, I felt just as Dad did, and I was fearfully interested in Mr. Porter’s account of himself. I could see, too, that he belittled the real things, and magnified the unimportant. According to his narrative, the unimportant things were that he was a civil engineer, that he had been in Peru building a railroad for an English; syndicate, and that the railroad was now practically completed; he seemed, however, to attach great importance to the cable that had called him to London to appear before a board of directors, for that had been the indirect means of his taking passage on the same ship with me. Then there was the wonderful fact that he was to see us in California. He had been in harness now for four years, he said, and he felt as if he’d earned a vacation. At all events, he meant to take one.
As neither he nor Dad would hear of my leaving them to their cigars, I sat by and listened, and loved it all, every minute of it. I didn’t know, then (I don’t know to this day) whether I liked Mr. Porter best for being so boyish, or so manly. But manly men who retain all the enthusiasms of youth have a certain charm one likes instinctively, I think.
There is no doubt that Mr. Porter quite captivated Dad. “You make me feel like a boy,” he said, after listening to a delightfully whimsical account of conditions in Peru. “By George, that’s a country for you! And Ecuador, I’ve always thought that must be an interesting place. Have you ever been there?”
Yes, Mr. Porter had been to Ecuador. And there was a certain rail- road in India he had helped put through. India! Now that WAS a place! Had Dad ever been to India?
No, Dad had never been to India, but . . . “Good Lord, boy, how old are you, anyway?”
“Well, I never would have guessed it. Would you, Elizabeth?”
This, too, was rather embarrassing, but I managed to say I thought Mr. Porter didn’t look a day over twenty-eight.
“It’s the life he leads,” Dad declared with an air of proprietorship—”out of doors all day long. It must be great!”
“It IS interesting. But I think I like it best for what it has done for one; you see, I was supposed to have lungs once, long ago. Now I’m as sound as a dollar.”
“He looks it, doesn’t he, Elizabeth!”
If Dad hadn’t been such a dear, I should have been annoyed by his constant requests for my opinion where it was so obviously unnecessary. But Dad is such a dear. To make it worse, Mr. Porter seemed to consider that whether he was, or was not, as sound as a dollar, depended entirely on my answer.
“One would think I was a sort of supreme court from the way Dad refers all questions to me. But I warn you, Mr. Porter; my ’yes’ or ’no’ makes little difference in his opinions.”
“You are my supreme court, and they do,” declared Dad.
“I’m sure they do,” said Mr. Porter,
“When the novelty of having me with you has worn off, you’ll be your same old domineering self, Daddy dear.”
“Domineering! Hear the minx! I’m a regular lamb, Porter. That reminds me: When are you going to California!”
“I hadn’t thought. That is, I had thought . . . That is, I’ve wished . . . I mean I’ve wondered . . . I hope you won’t think me presumptuous, Mr. Middleton, but I’ve wondered if you’d allow me to go on the same train with you and Miss Middleton.”
“Why, my dear boy, we’d be delighted. Wouldn’t we, Elizabeth!”
Mr. Porter turned to me. “You see, Miss Middleton, you are the supreme court, after all,” his lips said. But his eyes told me why he wanted to go on the same train with Dad and me, told me plainer than words. Perhaps I should have remembered I had never spoken to him till that morning, but . . .
“The supreme court congratulates the inferior court on the wisdom of its decision,” I said, with an elaborate bow to Dad to hide my confusion.
“It’s settled!” cried Dad. “This is quite the nicest thing that ever happened,” said Mr. Porter. “If only you knew how grateful I am. I feel like—like giving three cheers, and tossing my hat in the air.”
“The inferior court rules against hat-tossing as irrelevant, immaterial, and incompetent.”
“Ruling sustained,” I said.
“And they call this a free country!”
“The newspapers don’t. Read the newspapers my boy.”
“At any rate, I now belong to the privileged class. When do we leave, Mr. Middleton?”
“Elizabeth says to-morrow. We go by rather a slow train.”
“But why?” I began.
“Because, my dear, an all-wise Providence has decreed that express trains shall not haul private cars.”
“Oh, I say!” exclaimed Mr. Porter. “That makes all the difference in the world.”
“Only a day’s difference.”
“I mean . . .”
“You’re going as our guest, you know.”
“But really, Mr. Middleton, I never . . .”
“Don’t be absurd, my boy.”
“No,” said Mr. Blakely Porter, “I won’t be absurd. I shall be more than glad to go as your guest.”
“That’s the way it should be. Isn’t it, Elizabeth!”
“I didn’t know you owned a private car, Dad.”
“Pshaw!” said Dad. “What’s a private car?”
I smiled at what I was pleased to term “Dad’s magnificence,” little thinking I was soon to look on private cars as one of the most delectable of modern inventions.