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THERE are gentlemen and gentlemen, and yet again are there gentlemen. Somewhere in this rather incoherent category Percy Hilborn held a footing. Like many another, he possessed a certain veneer of good manners and conventional conduct, which passed for the real thing among those who knew him best. Now those who knew him best knew him least—a paradox, but none the less a truth. This veneer was as impenetrable as ten-inch armour-plate to such friends, whom, because of shekels or position, he wished to retain. But to those who knew him not, whether from caprice or definite purpose, he was not at all adverse to showing another side of his nature, which, to say the least, was the ungentlemanly side.
The reason for this might have been found in the fact that acquired characteristics do not receive the stamp of heredity in one generation—his father was a self-made man, and had taught himself rigidly to conventionalise; and it might have been found in the fact that his mother had impressed upon his youthful mind the code of polite procedure in a way which made it appear an unpleasant duty—a mask, highly distasteful, but which must perforce be donned under certain conditions. Be this as it may, Percy Hilborn was a cad, a plain, unadulterated cad—but nobody knew it.
He was accounted of good family, made an excellent appearance, and was considered one of the most delightful of the younger set. Moreover, he was engaged, engaged to a very nice young girl, whose refinement was something more than skin-deep. Maud Brammane was sweetly womanly and all that, but there was also about her a certain broad wholesomeness, a thorough normality, which added to the not slight charms nature had invested her with. She had learned not to carp unmercifully at a pecadillo on the one hand, and forgive a great wrong on the other; and she had also learned to discriminate between petty infractions and gross enormities. She also held ideals. "A gentleman," she once said to him, "is above all a man; and he is cast in such a mold that he never, no matter where he finds himself or what may arise, forgets his manhood." Upon this there had really been a perceptible straightening of his back and thrusting forward of his breast-bone, as he took it upon himself as a choice exponent of this particular breed of men.
At another time she had said, "I cannot understand, nor can I have any regard for a person that would wittingly wound or hurt the sensibilities of another whose only offense is their inoffensiveness." And he echoed the sentiment so nobly that she thought him a very superior young man indeed. There was her brother Hallam, she went on. He was more a gentleman of the old school, of which one hears so much and sees so little. Why, she remembered on the visit she had made during the previous winter, the uniform courtesy he extended, from the guest at his board down to his humblest working man. Yes, he was a brother well to be proud of. He was coming north soon, she said, and she was sure they would get along well together. There was so much alike in them, so much they would find in common. Percy Hilborn exhibited the proper show of interest in his future brother-in-law, and was equally sure they would get along splendidly.
"I tell you, Hay, I sometimes think she's altogether too good for me," he said one night to the friend of his bosom, as they entered one of the choicest cafes in town. That last cocktail had given to his tongue the necessary lucidity, and for the nonce his elementary frankness asserted itself. The various contradictory segments of his nature were in just the mood to vindicate their existence.
Because it was one of those enticing summer nights, when to remain indoors was to experience a foretaste of the tomb, the cafe was crowded. Half the city seemed to have come abroad, and thereby gained an uncompromisable appetite. The lynx-eyed ushers were hard put to discover accommodation for the throng, and theatres were not out yet.
"Yes," Percy Hilborn added complacently, "I do think I'm a lucky dog. And she's not one of those foolishly good kind, either—sensible, practical, everyday sort of girl."
Hay smiled with some cheery cynicism. He could well afford to look quizzically down from his freedom upon the pre-benedictal condition of his friend. "Aw, go on!" he said. "They all get that way, they do. Just a little soft something, a wisp of hair, a pair of eyes, and a bunch of millinery, and away they go, clean daft. Can't understand it myself. Why, look at me! Don't catch me in any such nonsense. A year from now you'll be coming around telling me what a fool you were, and how much you envy me. Maybe you think I don't know—sort of spring sickness, that's what it is."
And thereupon Percy Hilborn proceeded to descant fluently upon the preeminent advisability of a young man taking such a step, upon the sanity of his conduct, and last, but not least, the felicity of his choice and the infinite virtues of Maud Brammane.
And in the midst of this descantation, an usher seated another gentleman and lady—strangers—at their table. Hay heaved a sigh of relief at the interruption. But Percy Hilborn glowered blackly at the offending usher. The question of the right or wrong of it never entered his head. It simply did not suit him to have his conversation thus broken in upon. Such intrusion was not to be tolerated. As has been noted before, his elementary frankness, natural self, was at the surface, and he at once made up his mind to get rid of these people who had been innocently quartered upon his privacy.
The usher had gone away, so he transferred his scowl to them. But they took little heed, being busy with their own affairs; in fact, it might be said they did not even notice him, much less his black looks. But his boorishness was not to be conquered so easily as that. He could not very well ask them to get up and go away; but he could talk, and within him there was a devil to act as prompter.
He chose an objectionable subject, and proceeded to embellish it with the necessary slang and rough expressions. Oh, no! he did not swear or do anything of that sort. He simply exceeded the bounds of good taste. But he raised his voice pointedly to advertise his intention, though he refrained from looking in their direction.
At first his victims were unheeding, but in the end they could not fail to comprehend. Nor did he mince words, now that his caddishness had come to the top. Though the lady was greatly perturbed she gave no hint of it, preferring rather to raise her voice a little and talk with greater vivacity to her escort. And that gentleman followed her cue, not being particularly desirous for a brawl in a public place. Their order had come, and they hurried through it. The theatre crowd was arriving by then, and they could not move to another table. So they talked fast, and asked for their check before they were half through.
Percy Hilborn glanced exultantly at Hay. His victims were preparing to leave. Yet apparently there was no unseemly haste in their manner of departure, no pained surprise in their eyes nor indignant flush to their cheeks. A look of placid contentment shone in their faces, as if their experience at the table had been of the pleasantest. They simply ignored the boorishness of the young man who was actually driving them away. They were victorious in their defeat.
But at this moment, just as they had risen to go, and just as triumph was perching upon Percy Hilborn's helm, in came another theatre party. Miss Brammane, and her sister and mother, and several mutual friends, went to make up the group which approached their table. Greetings began to pass all around. Percy Hilborn felt a sudden sinking sickness come upon him. Miss Brammane was speaking. What was she saying? No! Impossible!
But this is what Miss Brammane was saying: "Hallman, this is Mr. Hilborn—Percy, you know, and—"
And therein was the mingling of all the materials for a very pretty tableau.
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