Doctor Sloane had permitted his patient to come down stairs for an increasing interval each day. Mr. Madison crept, rather than walked, leaning upon his wife and closely attended by Miss Peirce. He spoke with difficulty and not clearly; still, there was a perceptible improvement, and his family were falling into the habit of speaking of him as almost well. On that account, Mrs. Madison urged her daughters to accept an invitation from the mother of the once courtly Egerton Villard. It was at breakfast that the matter was discussed.
“Of course Cora must go,” Laura began, “but——”
“But nothing!” interrupted Cora. “How would it look if I went and you didn’t? Everybody knows papa’s almost well, and they’d think it silly for us to give up the first real dance since last spring on that account; yet they’re just spiteful enough, if I went and you stayed home, to call me a `girl of no heart.’ Besides,” she added sweetly, “we ought to go to show Mrs. Villard we aren’t hurt because Egerton takes so little notice of poor Hedrick.”
Hedrick’s lips moved silently, as in prayer.
“I’d rather not,” said Laura. “I doubt if I’d have a very good time.”
“You would, too,” returned her sister, decidedly. “The men like to dance with you; you dance every bit as well as I do, and that black lace is the most becoming dress you ever had. Nobody ever remembers a black dress, anyway, unless it’s cut very conspicuously, and yours isn’t. I can’t go without you; they love to say nasty things about me, and you’re too good a sister to give ’em this chance, you old dear.” She laughed and nodded affectionately across the table at Laura. “You’ve got to go!”
“Yes, it would be nicer,” said the mother. And so it was settled. It was simultaneously settled in Hedrick’s mind that the night of the dance should mark his discovery of the ledger. He would have some industrious hours alone with the mysterious mattress, safe from intrusion.
Meekly he lifted his eyes from his plate. “I’m glad you’re going, sister Laura,” he said in a gentle voice. “I think a change will do you good.”
“Isn’t it wonderful,” exclaimed Cora, appealing to the others to observe him, “what an improvement a disappointment in love can make in deportment?”
For once, Hedrick only smiled.
Laura had spent some thoughtful hours upon her black lace dress with results that astonished her family: it became a ball-gown—and a splendidly effective one. She arranged her dark hair in a more elaborate fashion than ever before, in a close coronal of faintly lustrous braids; she had no jewellery and obviously needed none. Her last action but one before she left her room was to dispose of the slender chain and key she always wore round her neck; then her final glance at the mirror—which fairly revealed a lovely woman—ended in a deprecatory little “face” she made at herself. It meant: “Yes, old lady, you fancy yourself very passable in here all by yourself, don’t you? Just wait: you’ll be standing beside Cora in a moment!”