At the top of the stairs she paused. The emotions of divers on springboards, leading ladies on opening nights, and lumpy, bestriped young men on the day of the Big Game crowded through her. She felt as if she should have descended to a burst of drums or to a discordant blend of gems from “Thaïs” and “Carmen.” She had never been so worried about her appearance, she had never been so satisfied with it. She had been sixteen years old for two months.
“Isabelle!” called Elaine from her doorway.
“I’m ready.” She caught a slight lump of nervousness in her throat.
“I’ve got on the wrong slippers and stockings—you’ll have to wait a minute.”
Isabelle started toward Elaine’s door for a last peek at a mirror, but something decided her to stand there and gaze down the stairs. They curved tantalizingly and she could just catch a glimpse of two pairs of masculine feet in the hall below. Pump-shod in uniform black they gave no hint of identity, but eagerly she wondered if one pair were attached to Kenneth Powers. This young man, as yet unmet, had taken up a considerable part of her day—the first day of her arrival. Going up in the machine from the station Elaine had volunteered, amid a rain of questions and comment, revelation and exaggeration—
“Kenneth Powers is simply mad to meet you. He’s stayed over a day from college and he’s coming tonight. He’s heard so much about you—”
It had pleased her to know this. It put them on more equal terms, although she was accustomed to stage her own romances with or without a send-off. But following her delighted tremble of anticipation came a sinking sensation which made her ask:
“How do you mean he’s heard about me? What sort of things?”
Elaine smiled—she felt more or less in the capacity of a showman with her more exotic guest.
“He knows you’re good-looking and all that.” She paused—“I guess he knows you’ve been kissed.”
Isabelle had shuddered a bit under the fur robe. She was accustomed to being followed by this, but it never failed to arouse in her the same feeling of resentment; yet—in a strange town it was an advantage. She was a speed, was she? Well? Let them find out. She wasn’t quite old enough to be sorry nor nearly old enough to be glad.
“Anne (this was another schoolmate) told him, I didn’t—I knew you wouldn’t like it,” Elaine had gone on naively. “She’s coming over tonight to the dinner.”
Out the window Isabelle watched the high-piled snow glide by in the frosty morning. It was ever so much colder here than in Pittsburg: the glass of the side door was iced and the windows were shirred with snow in the corners. Her mind played still with the one subject. Did he dress like that boy there who walked calmly down what was evidently a bustling business street in moccasins and winter-carnival costume? How very western ! Of course he wasn’t that way: he went to college, was a freshman or something. Really she had no distinct idea of him. A two-year-back picture had not impressed her except by the big eyes, which he had probably grown up to by now. However in the last two weeks at school, when her Christmas visit to Elaine had been decided on, he had assumed the proportions of a worthy adversary. Children, the most astute of matchmakers, plot and plan quickly; and Elaine had cleverly played a word sonata to Isabelle’s excitable temperament. Isabelle was and had been for some time capable of very strong, if very transient emotions.
They drew up at a spreading red stone building, set back from the snowy street. Mrs. Terrell greeted her rather impersonally and Elaine’s various younger brothers were produced from the corners where they skulked politely. Isabelle shook hands most tactfully. At her best she allied all with whom she came in contact, except older girls and some women. All the impressions that she made were conscious. The half dozen girls she met that morning were all rather impressed—and as much by her direct personality as by her reputation. Kenneth Powers seemed an unembarrassing subject of conversation. Evidently he was a bit light of love. He was neither popular nor unpopular. Every girl there seemed to have had an affair with him at some time or other, but no one volunteered any really useful information. He was going to fall for her. Elaine had issued that statement to her young set and they were retailing it back to Elaine as fast as they set eyes on Isabelle. Isabelle resolved mentally that if necessary she would force herself to like him—she owed it to Elaine. What if she were terribly disappointed? Elaine had painted him in such glowing colors—he was good-looking, had a “line” and was properly inconstant. In fact he summed up all the romance that her age and environment led her to desire. Were those his dancing shoes that fox-trotted tentatively around the soft rug below?
All impressions and in fact all ideas were terribly kaleidoscopic to Isabelle. She had that curious mixture of the social and artistic temperaments, found often in two classes—society women and actors. Her education, or rather her sophistication, had been absorbed from the boys who had dangled upon her favor; her tact was instinctive, and her capacity for love affairs was limited only by the number of boys she met. Flirt smiled from her large, black-brown eyes and figured in her intense physical magnetism.
So she waited at the head of the stairs that evening while slippers and stockings were changed. Just as she was getting impatient Elaine came out beaming with her accustomed good nature and high spirits. Together they descended the broad stairs while the nervous searchlight of Isabelle’s mind flashed on two ideas. She was glad she had high color tonight and she wondered if he danced well.
Downstairs the girls she had met in the afternoon surrounded her for a moment, looking unbelievably changed by the soft yellow light; then she heard Elaine’s voice repeating a cycle of names, and she found herself bowing to a sextet of black and white and terribly stiff figures. The name Powers figured somewhere, but she did not place him at first. A confused and very juvenile moment of awkward backings and bumpings, and everyone found themselves arranged talking to the very persons they least desired to. Isabelle maneuvered herself and Peter Carroll, a sixth-former from Hotchkiss whom she had met that afternoon, to a seat at the piano. A reference, supposedly humorous, to the afternoon was all she needed. What Isabelle could do socially with one idea was remarkable. First she repeated it rapturously in an enthusiastic contralto; then she held it off at a distance and smiled at it—her wonderful smile; then she delivered it in variations and played a sort of mental catch with it, all this in the nominal form of dialogue. Peter was fascinated and totally unconscious that this was being done not for him but for the black eyes that glistened under the shining, carefully watered hair a little to her left. As an actor even in the fullest flush of his own conscious magnetism gets a lasting impression of most of the people in the front row, so Isabelle sized up Kenneth Powers. First, he was of middle height, and from her feeling of disappointment she knew that she had expected him to be tall and of Vernon Castle-ish slenderness. His hair and eyes were his most noticeable possessions—they were black and they fairly glittered. For the rest, he had rather dark skin with a faint flush and a straight romantic profile, the effect set off by a close-fitting dress suit and a silk ruffled shirt of the kind that women still delight in on men, but men were just beginning to get tired of.
Kenneth was just quietly smiling.
“Don’t you think so?” she said suddenly, turning to him innocent-eyed.
There was a stir near the door and Elaine led the way to dinner. Kenneth struggled to her side and whispered:
“You’re my dinner partner—Isabelle.”
Isabelle gasped—this was rather quick work. Of course it made it more interesting, but really she felt as if a good line had been taken from the star and given to a minor character. She musn’t lose the leadership a bit. The dinner table glittered with laughter at the confusion of getting places, and then curious eyes were turned on her, sitting near the head. She was enjoying this immensely, and Peter Carroll was so engrossed with the added sparkle of her rising color that he forgot to pull out Elaine’s chair and fell into a dim confusion. Kenneth was on the other side, full of confidence and vanity, looking at her most consciously. He started directly and so did Peter.
“I’ve heard a lot about you—”
“Wasn’t it funny this afternoon—”
Both stopped. Isabelle turned to Kenneth shyly. Her face was always enough answer for anyone, but she decided to speak.
“From everybody—for years.” She blushed appropriately. On her right Peter was hors-de-combat already, although he hadn’t quite realized it.
“I’ll tell you what I thought about you when I first saw you,” Kenneth continued. She leaned slightly toward him and looked modestly at the celery before her. Peter sighed—he knew Kenneth and the situations that Kenneth was born to handle. He turned to Elaine and asked her when she was going back to school.