“Ah, but if that’s part of the price?”
They went along fallen from the gay spirit of their talk into a silence which he broke with a sigh. “Can that poor wretch and the radiant girl we left yonder really belong to the same system of things? How impossible each makes the other seem!”
Mrs. Horn believed in the world and in society and its unwritten constitution devoutly, and she tolerated her niece’s benevolent activities as she tolerated her aesthetic sympathies because these things, however oddly, were tolerated—even encouraged—by society; and they gave Margaret a charm. They made her originality interesting. Mrs. Horn did not intend that they should ever go so far as to make her troublesome; and it was with a sense of this abeyant authority of her aunt’s that the girl asked her approval of her proposed call upon the Dryfooses. She explained as well as she could the social destitution of these opulent people, and she had of course to name Beaton as the source of her knowledge concerning them.
“Did Mr. Beaton suggest your calling on them?”
“No; he rather discouraged it.”
“And why do you think you ought to go in this particular instance? New York is full of people who don’t know anybody.”
Margaret laughed. “I suppose it’s like any other charity: you reach the cases you know of. The others you say you can’t help, and you try to ignore them.”
“It’s very romantic,” said Mrs. Horn. “I hope you’ve counted the cost; all the possible consequences.”
Margaret knew that her aunt had in mind their common experience with the Leightons, whom, to give their common conscience peace, she had called upon with her aunt’s cards and excuses, and an invitation for her Thursdays, somewhat too late to make the visit seem a welcome to New York. She was so coldly received, not so much for herself as in her quality of envoy, that her aunt experienced all the comfort which vicarious penance brings. She did not perhaps consider sufficiently her niece’s guiltlessness in the expiation. Margaret was not with her at St. Barnaby in the fatal fortnight she passed there, and never saw the Leightons till she went to call upon them. She never complained: the strain of asceticism, which mysteriously exists in us all, and makes us put peas, boiled or unboiled, in our shoes, gave her patience with the snub which the Leightons presented her for her aunt. But now she said, with this in mind: “Nothing seems simpler than to get rid of people if you don’t want them. You merely have to let them alone.”
“It isn’t so pleasant, letting them alone,” said Mrs. Horn.
“Or having them let you alone,” said Margaret; for neither Mrs. Leighton nor Alma had ever come to enjoy the belated hospitality of Mrs. Horn’s Thursdays.
“Yes, or having them let you alone,” Mrs. Horn courageously consented. “And all that I ask you, Margaret, is to be sure that you really want to know these people.”