“But,” I couldn’t help crying out, “I thought he was so poor!”
“The phosphates,” my hostess explained. “They had been discovered on his land. And none of her New York men had come forward. So John rushed back happy.” At this point a very singular look came over the face of my hostess, and she continued: “There have been many false reports (and false hopes in consequence) based upon the phosphate discoveries. It was I who had to break it to him—what further investigation had revealed. Poor John!”
“He has, then, nothing?” I inquired.
“His position in the Custom House, and a penny or two from his mother’s fortune.”
“But the cake?” I now once again reminded her.
My hostess lifted her delicate hand and let it fall. Her resentment at the would-be intruder by marriage still mounted. “Not even from that pair would I have believed such a thing possible!” she exclaimed; and she went into a long, low, contemplative laugh, looking not at me, but at the fire. Our silent companion continued to embroider. “That girl,” my hostess resumed, “and her discreditable father played on my nephew’s youth and chivalry to the tune of—well, you have heard the tune.”
“You mean—you mean—?” I couldn’t quite take it in.
“Yes. They rattled their poverty at him until he offered and they accepted.”
I must have stared grotesquely now. “That—that—the cake—and that sort of thing—at his expense?
“My dear sir, I shall be glad if you can find me anything that they have ever done at their own expense!”
I doubt if she would ever have permitted her speech such freedom had not the Rieppes been “from Georgia”; I am sure that it was anger—family anger, race anger—which had broken forth; and I think that her silent, severe sister scarcely approved of such breaking forth to me, a stranger. But indignation had worn her reticence thin, and I had happened to press upon the weak place. After my burst of exclamation I came back to it. “So you think Miss Rieppe will get out of it?”
“It is my nephew who will ‘get out of it,’ as you express it.”
I totally misunderstood her. “Oh!” I protested stupidly. “He doesn’t look like that. And it takes all meaning from the cake.”
“Do not say cake to me again!” said the lady, smiling at last. “And—will you allow me to tell you that I do not need to have my nephew, John Mayrant, explained to me by any one? I merely meant to say that he, and not she, is the person who will make the lucky escape. Of course, he is honorable—a great deal too much so for his own good. It is a misfortune, nowadays, to be born a gentleman in America. But, as I told you, I am not solicitous. What she is counting on—because she thinks she understands true Kings Port honor, and does not in the least—is his renouncing her on account of the phosphates—the bad news, I mean. They could live on what he has—not at all in her way, though—and besides, after once offering his genuine, ardent, foolish love—for it was genuine enough at the time—John would never—”