The Breaking Point
by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Heaven and earth,” sang the tenor, Mr. Henry Wallace, owner of the Wallace garage. His larynx, which gave him somewhat the effect of having swallowed a crab-apple and got it only part way down, protruded above his low collar.
“Heaven and earth,” sang the bass, Mr. Edwin Goodno, of the meat market and the Boy Scouts. “Heaven and earth, are full – ” His chin, large and fleshy, buried itself deep; his eyes were glued on the music sheet in his hand.
“Are full, are full, are full,” sang the soprano, Clare Rossiter, of the yellow colonial house on the Ridgely Road. She sang with her eyes turned up, and as she reached G flat she lifted herself on her toes. “Of the majesty, of Thy glory.”
“Ready,” barked the choir master. “Full now, and all together.”
The choir room in the parish house resounded to the twenty voices of the choir. The choir master at the piano kept time with his head. Earnest and intent, they filled the building with the Festival Te Deum of Dudley Buck, Opus 63, No.1.
Elizabeth Wheeler liked choir practice. She liked the way in which, after the different parts had been run through, the voices finally blended into harmony and beauty. She liked the small sense of achievement it gave her, and of being a part, on Sundays, of the service. She liked the feeling, when she put on the black cassock and white surplice and the small round velvet cap of having placed in her locker the things of this world, such as a rose-colored hat and a blue georgette frock, and of being stripped, as it were, for aspirations.
At such times she had vague dreams of renunciation. She saw herself cloistered in some quiet spot, withdrawn from the world; a place where there were long vistas of pillars and Gothic arches, after a photograph in the living room at home, and a great organ somewhere, playing.
She would go home from church, however, clad in the rose-colored hat and the blue georgette frock, and eat a healthy Sunday luncheon; and by two o’clock in the afternoon, when the family slept and Jim had gone to the country club, her dreams were quite likely to be entirely different. Generally speaking, they had to do with love. Romantic, unclouded young love dramatic only because it was love, and very happy.
Sometime, perhaps, some one would come and say he loved her. That was all. That was at once the beginning and the end. Her dreams led up to that and stopped. Not by so much as a hand clasp did they pass that wall.
So she sat in the choir room and awaited her turn.
“Altos a little stronger, please.”
“Of the majesty, of the majesty, of the majesty, of Thy gl-o-o-ry,” sang Elizabeth. And was at once a nun and a principal in a sentimental dream of two.
What appeared to the eye was a small and rather ethereal figure with sleek brown hair and wistful eyes; nice eyes, of no particular color. Pretty with the beauty of youth, sensitive and thoughtful, infinitely loyal and capable of suffering and not otherwise extraordinary was Elizabeth Wheeler in her plain wooden chair. A figure suggestive of no drama and certainly of no tragedy, its attitude expectant and waiting, with that alternate hope and fear which is youth at twenty, when all of life lies ahead and every to-morrow may hold some great adventure.
Clare Rossiter walked home that night with Elizabeth. She was a tall blonde girl, lithe and graceful, and with a calculated coquetry in her clothes.
“Do you mind going around the block?” she asked. “By Station Street?” There was something furtive and yet candid in her voice, and Elizabeth glanced at her.
“All right. But it’s out of your way, isn’t it?”
“Yes. I – You’re so funny, Elizabeth. It’s hard to talk to you. But I’ve got to talk to somebody. I go around by Station Street every chance I get.”
“By Station Street? Why?”
“I should think you could guess why.”
She saw that Clare desired to be questioned, and at the same time she felt a great distaste for the threatened confidence. She loathed arm-in-arm confidences, the indecency of dragging up and exposing, in whispers, things that should have been buried deep in reticence. She hesitated, and Clare slipped an arm through hers.
“You don’t know, then, do you? Sometimes I think every one must know. And I don’t care. I’ve reached that point.”
Her confession, naive and shameless, and yet somehow not without a certain dignity, flowed on. She was mad about Doctor Dick Livingstone. Goodness knew why, for he never looked at her. She might be the dirt under his feet for all he knew. She trembled when she met him in the street, and sometimes he looked past her and never saw her. She didn’t sleep well any more.
Elizabeth listened in great discomfort. She did not see in Clare’s hopeless passion the joy of the flagellant, or the self-dramatization of a neurotic girl. She saw herself unwillingly forced to peer into the sentimental windows of Clare’s soul, and there to see Doctor Dick Livingstone, an unconscious occupant. But she had a certain fugitive sense of guilt, also. Formless as her dreams had been, vague and shy, they had nevertheless centered about some one who should be tall, like Dick Livingstone, and alternately grave, which was his professional manner, and gay, which was his manner when it turned out to be only a cold, and he could take a few minutes to be himself. Generally speaking, they centered about some one who resembled Dick Livingstone, but who did not, as did Doctor Livingstone, assume at times an air of frightful maturity and pretend that in years gone by he had dandled her on his knee.
“Sometimes I think he positively avoids me,” Clare wailed. “There’s the house, Elizabeth. Do you mind stopping a moment? He must be in his office now. The light’s burning.”
“I wish you wouldn’t, Clare. He’d hate it if he knew.”
She moved on and Clare slowly followed her. The Rossiter girl’s flow of talk had suddenly stopped. She was thoughtful and impulsively suspicious.
“Look here, Elizabeth, I believe you care for him yourself.”
“I? What is the matter with you to-night, Clare?”
“I’m just thinking. Your voice was so queer.”
They walked on in silence. The flow of Clare’s confidences had ceased, and her eyes were calculating and a trifle hard.
“There’s a good bit of talk about him,” she jerked out finally. “I suppose you’ve heard it.”
“What sort of talk?”
“Oh, gossip. You’ll hear it. Everybody’s talking about it. It’s doing him a lot of harm.”
“I don’t believe it,” Elizabeth flared. “This town hasn’t anything else to do, and so it talks. It makes me sick.”
She did not attempt to analyze the twisted motives that made Clare belittle what she professed to love. And she did not ask what the gossip was. Half way up Palmer Lane she turned in at the cement path between borders of early perennials which led to the white Wheeler house. She was flushed and angry, hating Clare for her unsolicited confidence and her malice, hating even Haverly, that smiling, tree-shaded suburb which “talked.”
She opened the door quietly and went in. Micky, the Irish terrier, lay asleep at the foot of the stairs, and her father’s voice, reading aloud, came pleasantly from the living room. Suddenly her sense of resentment died. With the closing of the front door the peace of the house enveloped her. What did it matter if, beyond that door, there were unrequited love and petty gossip, and even tragedy? Not that she put all that into conscious thought; she had merely a sensation of sanctuary and peace. Here, within these four walls, were all that one should need, love and security and quiet happiness. Walter Wheeler, pausing to turn a page, heard her singing as she went up the stairs. In the moment of the turning he too had a flash of content. Twenty-five years of married life and all well; Nina married, Jim out of college, Elizabeth singing her way up the stairs, and here by the lamp his wife quietly knitting while he read to her. He was reading Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
He did a certain amount of serious reading every year.
On Sunday mornings, during the service, Elizabeth earnestly tried to banish all worldly thoughts. In spite of this resolve, however, she was always conscious of a certain regret that the choir seats necessitated turning her profile to the congregation. At the age of twelve she had decided that her nose was too short, and nothing had happened since to change her conviction. She seldom so much as glanced at the congregation. During her slow progress up and down the main aisle behind the Courtney boy, who was still a soprano and who carried the great gold cross, she always looked straight ahead. Or rather, although she was unconscious of this, slightly up. She always looked up when she sang, for she had commenced to take singing lessons when the piano music rack was high above her head.
So she still lifted her eyes as she went up the aisle, and was extremely serious over the whole thing. Because it is a solemn matter to take a number of people who have been up to that moment engrossed in thoughts of food or golf or servants or business, and in the twinkling of an eye, as the prayer book said about death, turn their minds to worship.
Nevertheless, although she never looked at the pews, she was always conscious of two of them. The one near the pulpit was the Sayres’ and it was the social calendar of the town. When Mrs. Sayre was in it, it was the social season. One never knew when Mrs. Sayre’s butler would call up and say:
“I am speaking for Mrs. Sayre. Mrs. Sayre would like to have the pleasure of Miss Wheeler’s company on Thursday to luncheon, at one-thirty.”
When the Sayre pew was empty, the town knew, if it happened to be winter, that the Florida or Santa Barbara season was on; or in summer the Maine coast.
The other pew was at the back of the church. Always it had one occupant; sometimes it had three. But the behavior of this pew was very erratic. Sometimes an elderly and portly gentleman with white hair and fierce eyebrows would come in when the sermon was almost over. Again, a hand would reach through the grill behind it, and a tall young man who had had his eyes fixed in the proper direction, but not always on the rector, would reach for his hat, get up and slip out. On these occasions, however, he would first identify the owner of the hand and then bend over the one permanent occupant of the pew, a little old lady. His speech was as Yea, yea, or Nay, nay, for he either said, “I’ll be back for dinner,” or “Don’t look for me until you see me.”
And Mrs. Crosby, without taking her eyes from the sermon, would nod.
Of late years, Doctor David Livingstone had been taking less and less of the “Don’t-look-for-me-until-you-see-me” cases, and Doctor Dick had acquired a car, which would not freeze when left outside all night like a forgotten dog, and a sense of philosophy about sleep. That is, that eleven o’clock P.M. was bed-time to some people, but was just eleven o’clock for him.
When he went to church he listened to the sermon, but rather often he looked at Elizabeth Wheeler. When his eyes wandered, as the most faithful eyes will now and then, they were apt to rest on the flag that had hung, ever since the war, beside the altar. He had fought for his country in a sea of mud, never nearer than two hundred miles to the battle line, fought with a surgical kit instead of a gun, but he was content. Not to all the high adventure.
Had he been asked, suddenly, the name of the tall blonde girl who sang among the sopranos, he could not have told it.
The Sunday morning following Clare Rossiter’s sentimental confession, Elizabeth tried very hard to banish all worldly thoughts, as usual, and to see the kneeling, rising and sitting congregation as there for worship. But for the first time she wondered. Some of the faces were blank, as though behind the steady gaze the mind had wandered far afield, or slept. Some were intent, some even devout. But for the first time she began to feel that people in the mass might be cruel, too. How many of them, for instance, would sometime during the day pass on, behind their hands, the gossip Clare had mentioned?
She changed her position, and glanced quickly over the church. The Livingstone pew was fully occupied, and well up toward the front, Wallie Sayre was steadfastly regarding her. She looked away quickly.
Came the end of the service. Came down the aisle the Courtney boy, clean and shining and carrying high his glowing symbol. Game the choir, two by two, the women first, sopranos, altos and Elizabeth. Came the men, bass and tenor, neatly shaved for Sunday morning. Came the rector, Mr. Oglethorpe, a trifle wistful, because always he fell so far below the mark he had set. Came the benediction. Came the slow rising from its knees of the congregation and its cheerful bustle of dispersal.
Doctor Dick Livingstone stood up and helped Doctor David into his new spring overcoat. He was very content. It was May, and the sun was shining. It was Sunday, and he would have an hour or two of leisure. And he bad made a resolution about a matter that had been in his mind for some time. He was very content.
He looked around the church with what was almost a possessive eye. These people were his friends. He knew them all, and they knew him. They had, against his protest, put his name on the bronze tablet set in the wall on the roll of honor. Small as it was, this was his world.
Half smiling, he glanced about. He did not realize that behind their bows and greetings there was something new that day, something not so much unkind as questioning.
Outside in the street he tucked his aunt, Mrs. Crosby, against the spring wind, and waited at the wheel of the car while David entered with the deliberation of a man accustomed to the sagging of his old side-bar buggy under his weight. Long ago Dick had dropped the titular “uncle,” and as David he now addressed him.
“You’re going to play some golf this afternoon, David,” he said firmly. “Mike had me out this morning to look at your buggy springs.”
David chuckled. He still stuck to his old horse, and to the ancient vehicle which had been the signal of distress before so many doors for forty years. “I can trust old Nettie,” he would say. “She doesn’t freeze her radiator on cold nights, she doesn’t skid, and if I drop asleep she’ll take me home and into my own barn, which is more than any automobile would do.”
“I’m going to sleep,” he said comfortably. “Get Wallie Sayre – I see he’s back from some place again – or ask a nice girl. Ask Elizabeth Wheeler. I don’t think Lucy here expects to be the only woman in your life.”
Dick stared into the windshield.
“I’ve been wondering about that, David,” he said, “just how much right – “
“Balderdash !” David snorted. “Don’t get any fool notion in your head.”
Followed a short silence with Dick driving automatically and thinking. Finally he drew a long breath.
“All right,” he said, “how about that golf – you need exercise. You’re putting on weight, and you know it. And you smoke too much. It’s either less tobacco or more walking, and you ought to know it.”
David grunted, but he turned to Lucy Crosby, in the rear seat:
“Lucy, d’you know where my clubs are?”
“You loaned them to Jim Wheeler last fall. If you get three of them back you’re lucky.” Mrs. Crosby’s voice was faintly tart. Long ago she had learned that her brother’s belongings were his only by right of purchase, and were by way of being community property. When, early in her widowhood and her return to his home, she had found that her protests resulted only in a sort of clandestine giving or lending, she had exacted a promise from him. “I ask only one thing, David,” she had said. “Tell me where the things go. There wasn’t a blanket for the guest-room bed at the time of the Diocesan Convention.”
“I’ll run around to the Wheelers’ and get them,” Dick observed, in a carefully casual voice. “I’ll see the Carter baby, too, David, and that clears the afternoon. Any message?”
Lucy glanced at him, but David moved toward the house.
“Give Elizabeth a kiss for me,” he called over his shoulder, and went chuckling up the path.
Mrs. Crosby stood on the pavement, gazing after the car as it moved off. She had not her brother’s simplicity nor his optimism. Her married years had taken her away from the environment which had enabled him to live his busy, uncomplicated life; where, the only medical man in a growing community, he had learned to form his own sturdy decisions and then to abide by them.
Black and white, right and wrong, the proper course and the improper course – he lived in a sort of two-dimensional ethical world. But to Lucy Crosby, between black and white there was a gray no-man’s land of doubt and indecision; a half-way house of compromise, and sometimes David frightened her. He was so sure.
She passed the open door into the waiting-room, where sat two or three patient and silent figures, and went back to the kitchen. Minnie, the elderly servant, sat by the table reading, amid the odor of roasting chicken; outside the door on the kitchen porch was the freezer containing the dinner ice-cream. An orderly Sunday peace was in the air, a gesture of homely comfort, order and security.
Minnie got up.
“I’ll unpin your veil for you,” she offered, obligingly. “You’ve got time to lie down about ten minutes. Mrs. Morgan said she’s got to have her ears treated.”
“I hope she doesn’t sit and talk for an hour.”
“She’ll talk, all right,” Minnie observed, her mouth full of pins. “She’d be talking to me yet if I’d stood there. She’s got her nerve, too, that woman.”
“I don’t like to hear you speak so of the patients who come to the house, Minnie.”
“Well, I don’t like their asking me questions about the family either,” said Minnie, truculently. “She wanted to know who was Doctor Dick’s mother. Said she had had a woman here from Wyoming, and she thought she’d known his people.”
Mrs. Crosby stood very still.
“I think she should bring her questions to the family,” she said, after a silence. “Thank you, Minnie.”
Bonnet in hand, she moved toward the stairs, climbed them and went into her room. Recently life had been growing increasingly calm and less beset with doubts. For the first time, with Dick’s coming to live with them ten years before, a boy of twenty-two, she had found a vicarious maternity and gloried in it. Recently she had been very happy. The war was over and he was safely back; again she could sew on his buttons and darn his socks, and turn down his bed at night. He filled the old house with cheer and with vitality. And, as David gave up more and more of the work, he took it on his broad shoulders, efficient, tireless, and increasingly popular.
She put her bonnet away in its box, and suddenly there rose in her frail old body a fierce and unexpected resentment against David. He had chosen a course and abided by it. He had even now no doubt or falterings. Just as in the first anxious days there had been no doubt in him as to the essential rightness of what he was doing. And now – This was what came of taking a life and moulding it in accordance with a predetermined plan. That was for God to do, not man.
She sat down near her window and rocked slowly, to calm herself. Outside the Sunday movement of the little suburban town went by: the older Wheeler girl, Nina, who had recently married Leslie Ward, in her smart little car; Harrison Miller, the cynical bachelor who lived next door, on his way to the station news stand for the New York papers; young couples taking small babies for the air in a perambulator; younger couples, their eyes on each other and on the future.
That, too, she reflected bitterly! Dick was in love. She had not watched him for that very thing for so long without being fairly sure now. She had caught, as simple David with his celibate heart could never have caught, the tone in Dick’s voice when he mentioned the Wheelers. She had watched him for the past few months in church on Sunday mornings, and she knew that as she watched him, so he looked at Elizabeth.
And David was so sure! So sure.
The office door closed and Mrs. Morgan went out, a knitted scarf wrapping her ears against the wind, and following her exit came the slow ascent of David as he climbed the stairs to wash for dinner.
She stopped rocking.
“David!” she called sharply.
He opened the door and came in, a bulky figure, still faintly aromatic of drugs, cheerful and serene.
“D’you call me?” he inquired.
“Yes. Shut the door and come in. I want to talk to you.” He closed the door and went to the hearth-rug. There was a photograph of Dick on the mantel, taken in his uniform, and he looked at it for a moment. Then he turned. “All right, my dear. Let’s have it.”
“Did Mrs. Morgan have anything to say?” He stared at her.
“She usually has,” he said. “I never knew you considered it worth repeating. No. Nothing in particular.”
The very fact that Mrs. Morgan had limited her inquiry to Minnie confirmed her suspicions. But somehow, face to face with David, she could not see his contentment turned to anxiety.
“I want to talk to you about Dick.”
“I think he’s in love, David.”
David’s heavy body straightened, but his face remained serene.
“We had to expect that, Lucy. Is it Elizabeth Wheeler, do you think?”
For a moment there was silence. The canary in its cage hopped about, a beady inquisitive eye now on one, now on the other of them.
“She’s a good girl, Lucy.”
“That’s not the point, is it?”
“Do you think she cares for him?”
“I don’t know. There’s some talk of Wallie Sayre. He’s there a good bit.”
“Wallie Sayre!” snorted David. “He’s never done a day’s work in his life and never will.” He reflected on that with growing indignation. “He doesn’t hold a candle to Dick. Of course, if the girl’s a fool – “
Hands thrust deep into his pockets David took a turn about the room. Lucy watched him. At last:
“You’re evading the real issue, David, aren’t you?” “Perhaps I am,” he admitted. “I’d better talk to him. I think he’s got an idea he shouldn’t marry. That’s nonsense.”
“I don’t mean that, exactly,” Lucy persisted. “I mean, won’t he want a good many things cleared up before he marries? Isn’t he likely to want to go back to Norada?”
Some of the ruddy color left David’s face. He stood still, staring at her and silent.
“You know he meant to go three years ago, but the war came, and – “
Her voice trailed off. She could not even now easily recall those days when Dick was drilling on the golf links, and that later period of separation.
“If he does go back – “
“Donaldson is dead,” David broke in, almost roughly.
“Maggie Donaldson is still living.”
“What if she is? She’s loyal to the core, in the first place. In the second, she’s criminally liable. As liable as I am.”
“There is one thing, David, I ought to know. What has become of the Carlysle girl?”
“She left the stage. There was a sort of general conviction she was implicated and – I don’t know, Lucy. Sometimes I think she was.” He sighed. “I read something about her coming back, some months ago, in ‘The Valley.’ That was the thing she was playing the spring before it happened.” He turned on her. “Don’t get that in your head with the rest.”
“I wonder, sometimes.”
“I know it.”
Outside the slamming of an automobile door announced Dick’s return, and almost immediately Minnie rang the old fashioned gong which hung in the lower hall. Mrs. Crosby got up and placed a leaf of lettuce between the bars of the bird cage.
“Dinner time, Caruso,” she said absently. Caruso was the name Dick had given the bird. And to David: “She must be in her thirties now.”
“Probably.” Then his anger and anxiety burst out. “What difference can it make about her? About Donaldson’s wife? About any hang-over from that rotten time? They’re gone, all of them. He’s here. He’s safe and happy. He’s strong and fine. That’s gone.”
In the lower hall Dick was taking off his overcoat.
“Smell’s like chicken, Minnie,” he said, into the dining room.
“Chicken and biscuits, Mr. Dick.”
“Hi, up there!” ho called lustily. “Come and feed a starving man. I’m going to muffle the door-bell !”
He stood smiling up at them, very tidy in his Sunday suit, very boyish, for all his thirty-two years. His face, smilingly tender as he watched them, was strong rather than handsome, quietly dependable and faintly humorous.
“In the language of our great ally,” he said, “Madame et Monsieur, le diner est servi.”
In his eyes there was not only tenderness but a somewhat emphasized affection, as though he meant to demonstrate, not only to them but to himself, that this new thing that had come to him did not touch their old relationship. For the new thing had come. He was still slightly dazed with the knowledge of it, and considerably anxious. Because he had just taken a glance at himself in the mirror of the walnut hat-rack, and had seen nothing there particularly to inspire – well, to inspire what he wanted to inspire.
At the foot of the stairs he drew Lucy’s arm through his, and held her hand. She seemed very small and frail beside him.
“Some day,” he said, “a strong wind will come along and carry off Mrs. Lucy Crosby, and the Doctors Livingstone will be obliged hurriedly to rent aeroplanes, and to search for her at various elevations!”
David sat down and picked up the old fashioned carving knife.
“Get the clubs?” he inquired.
Dick looked almost stricken.
“I forgot them, David,” he said guiltily. “Jim Wheeler went out to look them up, and I – I’ll go back after dinner.”
It was sometime later in the meal that Dick looked up from his plate and said:
“I’d like to cut office hours on Wednesday night, David. I’ve asked Elizabeth Wheeler to go into town to the theater.”
“What about the baby at the Homer place?”
“Not due until Sunday. I’ll leave my seat number at the box office, anyhow.”
“What are you going to see, Dick?” Mrs. Crosby asked. “Will you have some dumplings?”
“I will, but David shouldn’t. Too much starch. Why, it’s ‘The Valley,’ I think. An actress named Carlysle, Beverly Carlysle, is starring in it.”
He ate on, his mind not on his food, but back in the white house on Palmer Lane, and a girl. Lucy Crosby, fork in air, stared at him, and then glanced at David.
But David did not look up from his plate.
The Wheeler house was good, modern and commonplace. Walter Wheeler and his wife were like the house. Just as here and there among the furniture there was a fine thing, an antique highboy, a Sheraton sideboard or some old cut glass, so they had, with a certain mediocrity their own outstanding virtues. They liked music, believed in the home as the unit of the nation, put happiness before undue ambition, and had devoted their lives to their children.
For many years their lives had centered about the children. For years they had held anxious conclave about whooping cough, about small early disobediences, later about Sunday tennis. They stood united to protect the children against disease, trouble and eternity.
Now that the children were no longer children, they were sometimes lonely and still apprehensive. They feared motor car accidents, and Walter Wheeler had withstood the appeals of Jim for a half dozen years. They feared trains for them, and journeys, and unhappy marriages, and hid their fears from each other. Their nightly prayers were “to keep them safe and happy.”
But they saw life reaching out and taking them, one by one. They saw them still as children, but as children determined to bear their own burdens. Jim stayed out late sometimes, and considered his manhood in question if interrogated. Nina was married and out of the home, but there loomed before them the possibility of maternity and its dangers for her. There remained only Elizabeth, and on her they lavished the care formerly divided among the three.
It was their intention and determination that she should never know trouble. She was tenderer than the others, more docile and gentle. They saw her, not as a healthy, normal girl, but as something fragile and very precious.
Nina was different. They had always worried a little about Nina, although they had never put their anxiety to each other. Nina had always overrun her dress allowance, although she had never failed to be sweetly penitent about it, and Nina had always placed an undue emphasis on things. Her bedroom before her marriage was cluttered with odds and ends, cotillion favors and photographs, college pennants and small unwise purchases – trophies of the gayety and conquest which were her life.
And Nina had “come out.” It had cost a great deal, and it was not so much to introduce her to society as to put a family recognition on a fact already accomplished, for Nina had brought herself out unofficially at sixteen. There had been the club ballroom, and a great many flowers which withered before they could be got to the hospital; and new clothing for all the family, and a caterer and orchestra. After that, for a cold and tumultuous winter Mrs. Wheeler had sat up with the dowagers night after night until all hours, and the next morning had let Nina sleep, while she went about her household duties. She had aged, rather, and her determined smile had grown a little fixed.
She was a good woman, and she wanted her children’s happiness more than anything in the world, but she had a faint and sternly repressed feeling of relief when Nina announced her engagement. Nina did it with characteristic sangfroid, at dinner one night.
“Don’t ring for Annie for a minute, mother,” she said. “I want to tell you all something. I’m going to marry Leslie Ward.”
There had been a momentary pause. Then her father said:
“Just a minute. Is that Will Ward’s boy?”
“Yes. He’s not a boy.”
“Well, he’ll come around to see me before there’s any engagement. Has that occurred to either of you?”
“Oh, he’ll be around. He’d have come to-night, but Howard Moore is having his bachelor dinner. I hope he doesn’t look shot to pieces to-morrow. These bachelor things – ! We’d better have a dinner or something, mother, and announce it.”
There had been the dinner, with a silver loving cup bought for the occasion, and thereafter to sit out its useless days on the Sheraton sideboard. And there had been a trousseau and a wedding so expensive that a small frown of anxiety had developed between Walter Wheeler’s eyebrows and stayed there.
For Nina’s passion for things was inherent, persisting after her marriage. She discounted her birthday and Christmases in advance, coming around to his office a couple of months before the winter holidays and needing something badly.
“It’s like this, daddy,” she would say. “You’re going to give me a check for Christmas anyhow, aren’t you? And it would do me more good now. I simply can’t go to another ball.”
“Where’s your trousseau?”
“It’s worn out-danced to rags. And out of date, too.”
“I don’t understand it, Nina. You and Leslie have a goad income. Your mother and I – “
“You didn’t have any social demands. And wedding presents! If one more friend of mine is married – “
He would get out his checkbook and write a check slowly and thoughtfully. And tearing it off would say:
“Now remember, Nina, this is for Christmas. Don’t feel aggrieved when the time comes and you have no gift from us.”
But he knew that when the time came Margaret, his wife, would hold out almost to the end, and then slip into a jeweler’s and buy Nina something she simply couldn’t do without.
It wasn’t quite fair, he felt. It wasn’t fair to Jim or to Elizabeth. Particularly to Elizabeth.
Sometimes he looked at Elizabeth with a little prayer in his heart, never articulate, that life would be good to her; that she might keep her illusions and her dreams; that the soundness and wholesomeness of her might keep her from unhappiness. Sometimes, as she sat reading or sewing, with the light behind her shining through her soft hair, he saw in her a purity that was almost radiant.
He was in arms at once a night or two before Dick had invited Elizabeth to go to the theater when Margaret Wheeler said:
“The house was gayer when Nina was at home.”
“Yes. And you were pretty sick of it. Full of roistering young idiots. Piano and phonograph going at once, pairs of gigglers in the pantry at the refrigerator, pairs on the stairs and on the verandah, cigar-ashes – my cigars – and cigarettes over everything, and more infernal spooning going on than I’ve ever seen in my life.”
He had resumed his newspaper, to put it down almost at once.
“What’s that Sayre boy hanging around for?”
“I think he’s in love with her, Walter.”
“Love? Any of the Sayre tribe? Jim Sayre drank himself to death, and this boy is like him. And Jim Sayre wasn’t faithful to his wife. This boy is – well, he’s an heir. That’s why he was begotten.”
Margaret Wheeler stared at him.
“Why, Walter!” she said. “He’s a nice boy, and he’s a gentleman.”
“Why? Because he gets up when you come into the room? Why in heaven’s name don’t you encourage real men to come here? There’s Dick Livingstone. He’s a man.”
“Walter, have you ever thought there was anything queer about Dick Livingstone’s coming here?”
“Darned good for the town that he did come.”
“But – nobody ever dreamed that David and Lucy had a nephew. Then he turns up, and they send him to medical college, and all that.”
“I’ve got some relations I haven’t notified the town I possess,” he said grimly.
“Well, there’s something odd. I don’t believe Henry Livingstone, the Wyoming brother, ever had a son.”
“What possible foundation have you for a statement like that?”
“Mrs. Cook Morgan’s sister-in-law has been visiting her lately. She says she knew Henry Livingstone well years ago in the West, and she never heard he was married. She says positively he was not married.”
“And trust the Morgan woman to spread the good news,” he said with angry sarcasm. “Well, suppose that’s true? Suppose Dick is an illegitimate child? That’s the worst that’s implied, I daresay. That’s nothing against Dick himself. I’ll tell the world there’s good blood on the Livingstone side, anyhow.”
“You were very particular about Wallie Sayre’s heredity, Walter.”
“That’s different,” he retorted, and retired into gloomy silence behind his newspaper. Drat these women anyhow. It was like some fool female to come there and rake up some old and defunct scandal. He’d stand up for Dick, if it ever came to a show-down. He liked Dick. What the devil did his mother matter, anyhow? If this town hadn’t had enough evidence of Dick Livingstone’s quality the last few years he’d better go elsewhere. He – “
He got up and whistled for the dog.
“I’m going to take a walk,” he said briefly, and went out. He always took a walk when things disturbed him. On the Sunday afternoon after Dick had gone Elizabeth was alone in her room upstairs. On the bed lay the sort of gown Nina would have called a dinner dress, and to which Elizabeth referred as her dark blue. Seen thus, in the room which was her own expression, there was a certain nobility about her very simplicity, a steadiness about her eyes that was almost disconcerting.
“She’s the saintly-looking sort that would go on the rocks for some man,” Nina had said once, rather flippantly, “and never know she was shipwrecked. No man in the world could do that to me.”
But just then Elizabeth looked totally unlike shipwreck. Nothing seemed more like a safe harbor than the Wheeler house that afternoon, or all the afternoons. Life went on, the comfortable life of an upper middle-class household. Candles and flowers on the table and a neat waitress to serve; little carefully planned shopping expeditions; fine hand-sewing on dainty undergarments for rainy days; small tributes of books and candy; invitations and consultations as to what to wear; choir practice, a class in the Sunday school, a little work among the poor; the volcano which had been Nina overflowing elsewhere in a smart little house with a butler out on the Ridgely Road.
She looked what she was, faithful and quietly loyal, steady – and serene; not asking greatly but hoping much; full of small unvisualized dreams and little inarticulate prayers; waiting, without knowing that she was waiting.
Sometimes she worried. She thought she ought to “do something.” A good many of the girls she knew wanted to do something, but they were vague as to what. She felt at those times that she was not being very useful, and she had gone so far as to lay the matter before her father a couple of years before, when she was just eighteen.
“Just what do you think of doing?” he had inquired.
“That’s it,” she had said despondently. “I don’t know. I haven’t any particular talent, you know. But I don’t think I ought to go on having you support me in idleness all my life.”
“Well, I don’t think it likely that I’ll have to,” he had observed, dryly. “But here’s the point, and I think it’s important. I don’t intend to work without some compensation, and my family is my compensation. You just hang around and make me happy, as you do, and you’re fulfilling your economic place in the nation. Don’t you forget it, either.”
That had comforted her. She had determined then never to marry but to hang around, as he suggested, for the rest of her life. She was quite earnest about it, and resolved.
She picked up the blue dress and standing before her mirror, held it up before her. It looked rather shabby, she thought, but the theater was not like a dance, and anyhow it would look better at night. She had been thinking about next Wednesday evening ever since Dick Livingstone had gone. It seemed, better somehow, frightfully important. It was frightfully important. For the first time she acknowledged to herself that she had been fond of him, as she put it, for a long time. She had an odd sense, too, of being young and immature, and as though he had stooped to her from some height: such as thirty-two years and being in the war, and having to decide about life and death, and so on.
She hoped he did not think she was only a child.
She heard Nina coming up the stairs. At the click of her high heels on the hard wood she placed the dress on the bed again, and went to the window. Her father was on the path below, clearly headed for a walk. She knew then that Nina had been asking for something.
Nina came in and closed the door. She was smaller than Elizabeth and very pretty. Her eyebrows had been drawn to a tidy line, and from the top of her shining head to her brown suede pumps she was exquisite with the hours of careful tending and careful dressing she gave her young body. Exquisitely pretty, too.
She sat down on Elizabeth’s bed with a sigh.
“I really don’t know what to do with father,” she said. “He flies off at a tangent over the smallest things. Elizabeth dear, can you lend me twenty dollars? I’ll get my allowance on Tuesday.”
“I can give you ten.”
“Well, ask mother for the rest, won’t you? You needn’t say it’s for me. I’ll give it to you Tuesday.”
“I’m not going to mother, Nina. She has had a lot of expenses this month.”
“Then I’ll borrow it from Wallie Sayre,” Nina said, accepting her defeat cheerfully. “If it was an ordinary bill it could wait, but I lost it at bridge last night and it’s got to be paid.”
“You oughtn’t to play bridge for money,” Elizabeth said, a bit primly. “And if Leslie knew you borrowed from Wallace Sayre – “
“I forgot! Wallie’s downstairs, Elizabeth. Really, if he wasn’t so funny, he’d be tragic.”
“Why tragic? He has everything in the world.”
“If you use a little bit of sense, you can have it too.”
“I don’t want
“Pooh! That’s what you think now. Wallie’s a nice person. Lots of girls are mad about him. And he has about all the money there is.” Getting no response from Elizabeth, she went on: “I was thinking it over last night. You’ll have to marry sometime, and it isn’t as though Wallie was dissipated, or anything like that. I suppose he knows his way about, but then they all do.”
She got up.
“Be nice to him, anyhow,” she said. “He’s crazy about you, and when I think of you in that house! It’s a wonderful house, Elizabeth. She’s got a suite waiting for Wallie to be married before she furnishes it.”
Elizabeth looked around her virginal little room, with its painted dressing table, its chintz, and its white bed with the blue dress on it.
“I’m very well satisfied as I am,” she said.
While she smoothed her hair before the mirror Nina surveyed the room and her eyes lighted on the frock.
“Are you still wearing that shabby old thing?” she demanded. “I do wish you’d get some proper clothes. Are you going somewhere?”
“I’m going to the theater on Wednesday night.”
“Who with?” Nina in her family was highly colloquial.
“With Doctor Livingstone.”
“Are you joking?” Nina demanded.
“Joking? Of course not.”
Nina sat down again on the bed, her eyes on her sister, curious and not a little apprehensive.
“It’s the first time it’s ever happened, to my knowledge,” she declared. “I know he’s avoided me like poison. I thought he hated women. You know Clare Rossiter is – “
Elizabeth turned suddenly.
“Clare is ridiculous,” she said. “She hasn’t any reserve, or dignity, or anything else. And I don’t see what my going to the theater with Dick Livingstone has to do with her anyhow.”
Nina raised her carefully plucked eyebrows.
“Really !” she said. “You needn’t jump down my throat, you know.” She considered, her eyes on her sister. “Don’t go and throw yourself away on Dick Livingstone, Sis. You’re too good-looking, and he hasn’t a cent. A suburban practice, out all night, that tumble-down old house and two old people hung around your necks, for Doctor David is letting go pretty fast. It just won’t do. Besides, there’s a story going the rounds about him, that – “
“I don’t want to hear it, if you don’t mind.”
She went to the door and opened it.
“I’ve hardly spoken a dozen words to him in my life. But just remember this. When I do find the man I want to marry, I shall make up my own mind. As you did,” she added as a parting shot.
She was rather sorry as she went down the stairs. She had begun to suspect what the family had never guessed, that Nina was not very happy. More and more she saw in Nina’s passion for clothes and gaiety, for small possessions, an attempt to substitute them for real things. She even suspected that sometimes Nina was a little lonely.
Wallie Sayre rose from a deep chair as she entered the living-room.
“Hello,” he said, “I was on the point of asking Central to give me this number so I could get you on the upstairs telephone.”
“Nina and I were talking. I’m sorry.”
Wallie, in spite of Walter Wheeler’s opinion of him, was an engaging youth with a wide smile, an air of careless well-being, and an obstinate jaw. What he wanted he went after and generally secured, and Elizabeth, enlightened by Nina, began to have a small anxious feeling that afternoon that what he wanted just now happened to be herself.
“Nina coming down?” he asked.
“I suppose so. Why?”
“You couldn’t pass the word along that you are going to be engaged for the next half hour?”
“I might, but I certainly don’t intend to.”
“You are as hard to isolate as a – as a germ,” he complained. “I gave up a perfectly good golf game to see you, and as your father generally calls the dog the moment I appear and goes for a walk, I thought I might see you alone.”
“You’re seeing me alone now, you know.”
Suddenly he leaned over and catching up her hand, kissed it.
“You’re so cool and sweet,” he said. “I – I wish you liked me a little.” He smiled up at her, rather wistfully. “I never knew any one quite like you.”
She drew her hand away. Something Nina had said, that he knew his way about, came into her mind, and made her uncomfortable. Back of him, suddenly, was that strange and mysterious region where men of his sort lived their furtive man-life, where they knew their way about. She had no curiosity and no interest, but the mere fact of its existence as revealed by Nina repelled her.
“There are plenty like me,” she said. “Don’t be silly, Wallie. I hate having my hand kissed.”
“I wonder,” he observed shrewdly, “whether that’s really true, or whether you just hate having me do it?”
When Nina came in he was drawing a rough sketch of his new power boat, being built in Florida.
Nina’s delay was explained by the appearance, a few minutes later, of a rather sullen Annie with a tea tray. Afternoon tea was not a Wheeler institution, but was notoriously a Sayre one. And Nina believed in putting one’s best foot foremost, even when that resulted in a state of unstable domestic equilibrium.
“Put in a word for me, Nina,” Wallie begged. “I intend to ask Elizabeth to go to the theater this week, and I think she is going to refuse.”
“What’s the play?” Nina inquired negligently. She was privately determining that her mother needed a tea cart and a new tea service. There were some in old Georgian silver –
“‘The Valley.’ Not that the play matters. It’s Beverly Carlysle.”
“I thought she was dead, or something.”
“Or something is right. She retired years ago, at the top of her success. She was a howling beauty, I’m told. I never saw her. There was some queer story. I’ve forgotten it. I was a kid then. How about it, Elizabeth?”
“I’m sorry. I’m going Wednesday night.”
He looked downcast over that, and he was curious, too. But he made no comment save:
“Well, better luck next time.”
“Just imagine,” said Nina. “She’s going with Dick Livingstone. Can you imagine it?”
But Wallace Sayre could and did. He had rather a stricken moment, too. Of course, there might be nothing to it; but on the other hand, there very well might. And Livingstone was the sort to attract the feminine woman; he had gravity and responsibility. He was older too, and that flattered a girl.
“He’s not a bit attractive,” Nina was saying. “Quiet, and – well, I don’t suppose he knows what he’s got on.”
Wallie was watching Elizabeth.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, with masculine fairness. “He’s a good sort, and he’s pretty much of a man.”
He was quite sure that the look Elizabeth gave him was grateful.
He went soon after that, keeping up an appearance of gaiety to the end, and very careful to hope that Elizabeth would enjoy the play.
“She’s a wonder, they say,” he said from the doorway. “Take two hankies along, for it’s got more tears than ‘East Lynne’ and ‘The Old Homestead’ put together.”
He went out, holding himself very erect and looking very cheerful until he reached the corner. There however he slumped, and it was a rather despondent young man who stood sometime later, on the center of the deserted bridge over the small river, and surveyed the water with moody eyes.
In the dusky living-room Nina was speaking her mind.
“You treat him like a dog,” she said. “Oh, I know you’re civil to him, but if any man looked at me the way Wallie looks at you – I don’t know, though,” she added, thoughtfully. “It may be that that is why he is so keen. It may be good tactics. Most girls fall for him with a crash.”
But when she glanced at Elizabeth she saw that she had not heard. Her eyes were fixed on something on the street beyond the window. Nina looked out. With a considerable rattle of loose joints and four extraordinarily worn tires the Livingstone car was going by.
David did not sleep well that night. He had not had his golf after all, for the Homer baby had sent out his advance notice early in the afternoon, and had himself arrived on Sunday evening, at the hour when Minnie was winding her clock and preparing to retire early for the Monday washing, and the Sayre butler was announcing dinner. Dick had come in at ten o’clock weary and triumphant, to announce that Richard Livingstone Homer, sex male, color white, weight nine pounds, had been safely delivered into this vale of tears.
David lay in the great walnut bed which had been his mother’s, and read his prayer book by the light of his evening lamp. He read the Evening Prayer and the Litany, and then at last he resorted to the thirty-nine articles, which usually had a soporific effect on him. But it was no good.
He got up and took to pacing his room, a portly, solid old figure in striped pajamas and the pair of knitted bedroom slippers which were always Mrs. Morgan’s Christmas offering. “To Doctor David, with love and a merry Xmas, from Angeline Morgan.”
At last he got his keys from his trousers pocket and padded softly down the stairs and into his office, where he drew the shade and turned on the lights. Around him was the accumulated professional impedimenta of many years; the old-fashioned surgical chair; the corner closet which had been designed for china, and which held his instruments; the bookcase; his framed diplomas on the wall, their signatures faded, their seals a little dingy; his desk, from which Dick had removed the old ledger which had held those erratic records from which, when he needed money, he had been wont – and reluctant – to make out his bills.
Through an open door was Dick’s office, a neat place of shining linoleum and small glass stands, highly modern and business-like. Beyond the office and opening from it was his laboratory, which had been the fruit closet once, and into which Dick on occasion retired to fuss with slides and tubes and stains and a microscope.
Sometimes he called David in, and talked at length and with enthusiasm about such human interest things as the Staphylococcus pyogenes aureus, and the Friedlander bacillus. The older man would listen, but his eyes were oftener on Dick than on the microscope or the slide.
David went to the bookcase and got down a large book, much worn, and carried it to his desk
An hour or so later he heard footsteps in the hall and closed the book hastily. It was Lucy, a wadded dressing gown over her nightdress and a glass of hot milk in her hand.
“You drink this and come to bed, David,” she said peremptorily. “I’ve been lying upstairs waiting for you to come up, and I need some sleep.”
He had no sort of hope that she would not notice the book.
“I just got to thinking things over, Lucy,” he explained, his tone apologetic. “There’s no use pretending I’m not worried. I am.”
“Well, it’s in God’s hands,” she said, quite simply. “Take this up and drink it slowly. If you gulp it down it makes a lump in your stomach.”
She stood by while he replaced the book in the bookcase and put out the lights. Then in the darkness she preceded him up the stairs.
“You’d better take the milk yourself, Lucy,” he said. “You’re not sleeping either.”
“I’ve had some. Good-night.”
He went in and sitting on the side of his bed sipped at his milk. Lucy was right. It was not in their hands. He had the feeling all at once of having relinquished a great burden. He crawled into bed and was almost instantly asleep.
So sometime after midnight found David sleeping, and Lucy on her knees. It found Elizabeth dreamlessly unconscious in her white bed, and Dick Livingstone asleep also, but in his clothing, and in a chair by the window. In the light from a street lamp his face showed lines of fatigue and nervous stress, lines only revealed when during sleep a man casts off the mask with which he protects his soul against even friendly eyes.
But midnight found others awake. It found Nina, for instance, in her draped French bed, consulting her jeweled watch and listening for Leslie’s return from the country club. An angry and rather heart-sick Nina. And it found the night editor of one of the morning papers drinking a cup of coffee that a boy had brought in, and running through a mass of copy on his desk. He picked up several sheets of paper, with a photograph clamped to them, and ran through them quickly. A man in a soft hat, sitting on the desk, watched him idly.
“Beverly Carlysle,” commented the night editor. “Back with bells on!” He took up the photograph. “Doesn’t look much older, does she? It’s a queer world.”
Louis Bassett, star reporter and feature writer of the Times- Republican, smiled reminiscently.
“She was a wonder,” he said. “I interviewed her once, and I was crazy about her. She had the stage set for me, all right. The papers had been full of the incident of Jud Clark and the night he lined up fifteen Johnnies in the lobby, each with a bouquet as big as a tub, all of them in top hats and Inverness coats, and standing in a row. So she played up the heavy domestic for me; knitting or sewing, I forget.”
“Fell for her, did you?”
“Did I? That was ten years ago, and I’m not sure I’m over it yet.”
“Probably that’s the reason,” said the city editor, drily. “Go and see her, and get over it. Get her views on the flapper and bobbed hair, for next Sunday. Smith would be crazy about it.”
He finished his coffee.
“You might ask, too, what she thinks has become of Judson Clark,” he added. “I have an idea she knows, if any one does.” Bassett stared at him.
“You’re joking, aren’t you?”
“Yes. But it would make a darned good story.”
When he finished medical college Dick Livingstone had found, like other men, that the two paths of ambition and duty were parallel and did not meet. Along one lay his desire to focus all his energy in one direction, to follow disease into the laboratory instead of the sick room, and there to fight its unsung battles. And win. He felt that he would win.
Along the other lay David.
It was not until he had completed his course and had come home that he had realized that David was growing old. Even then he might have felt that, by the time David was compelled to relinquish his hold on his practice, he himself would be sufficiently established in his specialty to take over the support of the household. But here there was interposed a new element, one he had not counted on. David was fiercely jealous of his practice; the thought that it might pass into new and alien hands was bitter to him. To hand it down to his adopted son was one thing; to pass it over to “some young whipper-snapper” was another.
Nor were David’s motives selfish or unworthy. His patients were his friends. He had a sense of responsibility to them, and very little faith in the new modern methods. He thought there was a great deal of tomfoolery about them, and he viewed the gradual loss of faith in drugs with alarm. When Dick wore rubber gloves during their first obstetric case together he snorted.
“I’ve delivered about half the population of this town,” he said, “and slapped ’em to make ’em breathe with my own bare hands. And I’m still here and so are they.”
For by that time Dick had made his decision. He could not abandon David. For him then and hereafter the routine of a general practice in a suburban town, the long hours, the varied responsibilities, the feeling he had sometimes that by doing many things passably he was doing none of them well. But for compensation he had old David’s content and greater leisure, and Lucy Crosby’s gratitude and love.
Now and then he chafed a little when he read some article in a medical journal by one of his fellow enthusiasts, or when, in France, he saw men younger than himself obtaining an experience in their several specialties that would enable them to reach wide fields at home. But mostly he was content, or at least resigned. He was building up the Livingstone practice, and his one anxiety was lest the time should come when more patients asked for Doctor Dick than for Doctor David. He did not want David hurt.
After ten years the strangeness of his situation had ceased to be strange. Always he meant some time to go back to Norada, and there to clear up certain things, but it was a long journey, and he had very little time. And, as the years went on, the past seemed unimportant compared with the present. He gave little thought to the future.
Then, suddenly, his entire attention became focused an the future.
Just when he had fallen in love with Elizabeth Wheeler he did not know. He had gone away to the war, leaving her a little girl, apparently, and he had come back to find her, a woman. He did not even know he was in love, at first. It was when, one day, he found himself driving past the Wheeler house without occasion that he began to grow uneasy.
The future at once became extraordinarily important and so also, but somewhat less vitally, the past. Had he the right to marry, if he could make her care for him?
He sat in’ his chair by the window the night after the Homer baby’s arrival, and faced his situation. Marriage meant many things. It meant love and companionship, but it also meant, should mean, children. Had he the right to go ahead and live his life fully and happily? Was there any chance that, out of the years behind him, there would come some forgotten thing, some taint or incident, to spoil the carefully woven fabric of his life?
Not his life. Hers.
On the Monday night after he had asked Elizabeth to go to the theater he went into David’s office and closed the door. Lucy, alive to every movement in the old house, heard him go in and, rocking in her chair overhead, her hands idle in her lap, waited in tense anxiety for the interview to end. She thought she knew what Dick would ask, and what David would answer. And, in a way, David would be right. Dick, fine, lovable, upstanding Dick, had a right to the things other men had, to love and a home of his own, to children, to his own full life.
But suppose Dick insisted on clearing everything up before he married? For to Lucy it was unthinkable that any girl in her senses would refuse him. Suppose he went back to Norada? He had not changed greatly in ten years. He had been well known there, a conspicuous figure.
Her mind began to turn on the possibility of keeping him away from Norada.
Some time later she heard the office door open and then close with Dick’s characteristic slam. He came up the stairs, two at a time as was his custom, and knocked at her door. When he came in she saw what David’s answer had been, and she closed her eyes for an instant.
“Put on your things,” he said gayly, “and we’ll take a ride on the hill-tops. I’ve arranged for a moon.”
And when she hesitated:
“It makes you sleep, you know. I’m going, if I have to ride alone and talk to an imaginary lady beside me.”
She rather imagined that that had been his first idea, modified by his thought of her. She went over and put a wrinkled hand on his arm.
“You look happy, Dick,” she said wistfully.
“I am happy, Aunt Lucy,” he replied, and bending over, kissed her.
On Wednesday he was in a state of alternating high spirits and periods of silence. Even Minnie noticed it.
“Mr. Dick’s that queer I hardly know how to take him.” she said to Lucy. “He came back and asked for noodle soup, and he put about all the hardware in the kitchen on him and said he was a knight in armor. And when I took the soup in he didn’t eat it.”
It was when he was ready to go out that Lucy’s fears were realized. He came in, as always when anything unusual was afoot, to let her look him over. He knew that she waited for him, to give his He a final pat, to inspect the laundering of his shirt bosom, to pick imaginary threads off his dinner coat.
“Well?” he said, standing before her, “how’s this? Art can do no more, Mrs. Crosby.”
“I’ll brush your back,” she said, and brought the brush. He stooped to her, according to the little ceremony she had established, and she made little dabs at his speckless back. “There, that’s better.”
“How do you think Uncle David is?” he asked, unexpectedly.
“Better than he has been in years. Why?”
“Because I’m thinking of taking a little trip. Only ten days,” he added, seeing her face. “You could house-clean my office while I’m away. You know you’ve been wanting to.”
She dropped the brush, and he stooped to pick it up. That gave her a moment.
“‘Where?” she managed.
“To Dry River, by way of Norada.”
“Why should you go back there?” she asked, in a carefully suppressed voice. “Why don’t you go East? You’ve wanted to go back to Johns Hopkins for months?”
“On the other hand, why shouldn’t I go hack to Norada?” he asked, with an affectation of lightness. Then he put his hand on her shoulders. “Why shouldn’t I go back and clear things up in my own mind? Why shouldn’t I find out, for instance, that I am a free man?”
“You are free.”
“I’ve got to know,” he said, almost doggedly. “I can’t take a chance. I believe I am. I believe David, of course. But anyhow I’d like to see the ranch. I want to see Maggie Donaldson.”
“She’s not at the ranch. Her husband died, you know.”
“I have an idea I can find her,” he said. “I’ll make a good try, anyhow.”
When he had gone she got her salts bottle and lay down on her bed. Her heart was hammering wildly.
Elizabeth was waiting for him in the living-room, in the midst of her family. She looked absurdly young and very pretty, and he had a momentary misgiving that he was old to her, and that – Heaven save the mark! – that she looked up to him. He considered the blue dress the height of fashion and the mold of form, and having taken off his overcoat in the hall, tried to put on Mr. Wheeler’s instead in his excitement. Also, becoming very dignified after the overcoat incident, and making an exit which should conceal his wild exultation and show only polite pleasure, he stumbled over Micky, so that they finally departed to a series of staccato yelps.
He felt very hot and slightly ridiculous as he tucked Elizabeth into the little car, being very particular about her feet, and starting with extreme care, so as not to jar her. He had the feeling of being entrusted temporarily with something infinitely precious, and very, very dear. Something that must never suffer or be hurt.
On Wednesday morning David was in an office in the city. He sat forward on the edge of his chair, and from time to time he took out his handkerchief and wiped his face or polished his glasses, quite unconscious of either action. He was in his best suit, with the tie Lucy had given him for Christmas.
Across from him, barricaded behind a great mahogany desk, sat a small man with keen eyes and a neat brown beard. On the desk were a spotless blotter, an inkstand of silver and a pen. Nothing else. The terrible order of the place had at first rather oppressed David.
The small man was answering a question.
“Rather on the contrary, I should say. The stronger the character the greater the smash.”
David pondered this.
“I’ve read all you’ve written on the subject,” he said finally. “Especially since the war.”
The psycho-analyst put his finger tips together, judicially. “Yes. The war bore me out,” he observed with a certain complacence. It added a great deal to our literature, too, although some of the positions are not well taken. Van Alston, for instance – “
“You have said, I think, that every man has a breaking point.”
“Absolutely. All of us. We can go just so far. Where the mind is strong and very sound we can go further than when it is not. Some men, for instance, lead lives that would break you or me. Was there – was there such a history in this case?”
“Yes.” Doctor David’s voice was reluctant.
“The mind is a strange thing,” went on the little man, musingly. “It has its censors, that go off duty during sleep. Our sternest and often unconscious repressions pass them then, and emerge in the form of dreams. But of course you know all that. Dream symbolism. Does the person in this case dream? That would be interesting, perhaps important.”
“I don’t know,” David said unhappily.
“The walling off, you say, followed a shock?”
“Shock and serious illness.”
“Was there fear with the shock?”
David hesitated. “Yes,” he said finally. “Very great fear, I believe.”
Doctor Lauler glanced quickly at David and then looked away.
“I see,” he nodded. “Of course the walling off of a part of the past – you said a part -?”
“Practically all of it. I’ll tell you about that later. What about the walling off?”
“It is generally the result of what we call the protective mechanism of fear. Back of most of these cases lies fear. Not cowardice, but perhaps we might say the limit of endurance. Fear is a complex, of course. Dislike, in a small way, has the same reaction. We are apt to forget the names of persons we dislike. But if you have been reading on the subject – “
“I’ve been studying it for ten years.”
“Ten years! Do you mean that this condition has persisted for ten years?”
David moistened his dry lips. “Yes,” he admitted. “It might not have done so, but the – the person who made this experiment used suggestion. The patient was very ill, and weak. It was desirable that he should not identify himself with his past. The loss of memory of the period immediately preceding was complete, but of course, gradually, the cloud began to lift over the earlier periods. It was there that suggestion was used, so that such memories as came back were, – well, the patient adapted them to fit what he was told.”
Again Doctor Lauler shot a swift glance at David, and looked away.
“An interesting experiment,” he commented. “It must have taken courage.”
“A justifiable experiment,” David affirmed stoutly. “And it took courage. Yes.”
David got up and reached for his hat. Then he braced himself for the real purpose of his visit.
“What I have been wondering about,” he said, very carefully, “is this: this mechanism of fear, this wall – how strong is it?”
“It’s like a dam, I take it. It holds back certain memories, like a floodgate. Is anything likely to break it down?”
“Possibly something intimately connected with the forgotten period might do it. I don’t know, Livingstone. We’ve only commenced to dig into the mind, and we have many theories and a few established facts. For instance, the primal instincts – “
He talked on, with David nodding now and then in apparent understanding, but with his thoughts far away. He knew the theories; a good many of them he considered poppycock. Dreams might come from the subconscious mind, but a good many of them came from the stomach. They might be safety valves for the mind, but also they might be rarebit. He didn’t want dreams; what he wanted was facts. Facts and hope.
The office attendant came in. She was as tidy as the desk, as obsessed by order, as wooden. She placed a pad before the small man and withdrew. He rose.
“Let me know if I can be of any further assistance, Doctor,” he said. “And I’ll be glad to see your patient at any time. I’d like the record for my files.”
“Thank you,” David said. He stood fingering his hat.
“I suppose there’s nothing to do? The dam will either break, or it won’t.”
“That’s about it. Of course since the conditions that produced the setting up of the defensive machinery were unhappy, I’d say that happiness will play a large part in the situation. That happiness and a normal occupation will do a great deal to maintain the status quo. Of course I would advise no return to the unhappy environment, and no shocks. Nothing, in other words, to break down the wall.”
Outside, in the corridor, David remembered to put on his hat. Happiness and a normal occupation, yes. But no shock.
Nevertheless, he felt vaguely comforted, and as though it had helped to bring the situation out into the open and discuss it. He had carried his burden alone for ten years, or with only the additional weight of Lucy’s apprehensions. He wandered out into the city streets, and found himself, some time later, at the railway station, without remembering how he got there.
Across from the station was a large billboard, and on it the name of Beverly Carlysle and her play, “The Valley.” He stood for some time and looked at it, before he went in to buy his ticket. Not until he was in the train did he realize that he had forgotten to get his lunch.
He attended to his work that evening as usual, but he felt very tired, and Lucy, going in at nine o’clock, found him dozing in his chair, his collar half choking him and his face deeply suffused. She wakened him and then, sitting down across from him, joined him in the vigil that was to last until they heard the car outside.
She had brought in her sewing, and David pretended to read. Now and then he looked at his watch.
At midnight they heard the car go in, and the slamming of the stable door, followed by Dick’s footsteps on the walk outside. Lucy was very pale, and the hands that held her sewing twitched nervously. Suddenly she stood up and put a hand on David’s shoulder.
Dick was whistling on the kitchen porch.
Louis Bassett was standing at the back of the theater, talking to the publicity man of The Valley company, Fred Gregory. Bassett was calm and only slightly interested. By the end of the first act he had realized that the star was giving a fine performance, that she had even grown in power, and that his sentimental memory of her was considerably dearer than the reality.
“Going like a house afire,” he said, as the curtain fell.
Beside his robust physique, Gregory, the publicity man, sank into insignificance. Even his pale spats, at which Bassett had shot a contemptuous glance, his highly expensive tailoring, failed to make him appear more than he was, a little, dapper man, with a pale cold eye and a rather too frequent smile. “She’s the best there is,” was his comment. He hesitated, then added: “She’s my sister, you know. Naturally, for business reasons, I don’t publish the relationship.”
Bassett glanced at him.
“That so? Well, I’m glad she decided to come back. She’s too good to bury.”
But if he expected Gregory to follow the lead he was disappointed. His eyes, blank and expressionless, were wandering over the house as the lights flashed up.
“This whole tour has been a triumph. She’s the best there is,” Gregory repeated, “and they know it.”
“Does she know it?” Bassett inquired.
“She doesn’t throw any temperament, if that’s what you mean. She – ”
He checked himself suddenly, and stood, clutching the railing, bent forward and staring into the audience. Bassett watched him, considerably surprised. It took a great deal to startle a theatrical publicity man, yet here was one who looked as though he had seen a ghost.
After a time Gregory straightened and moistened his dry lips.
“There’s a man sitting down there – see here, the sixth row, next the aisle; there’s a girl in a blue dress beside him. See him? Do you know who he is?”
“Never saw him before.”
For perhaps two minutes Gregory continued to stare. Then he moved over to the side of the house and braced against the wall continued his close and anxious inspection. After a time he turned away and, passing behind the boxes, made his way into the wings. Bassett’s curiosity was aroused, especially when, shortly after, Gregory reappeared, bringing with him a small man in an untidy suit who was probably, Bassett surmised, the stage manager.
He saw the small man stare, nod, stand watching, and finally disappear, and Gregory resume his former position and attitude against the side wall. Throughout the last act Gregory did not once look at the stage. He continued his steady, unwavering study of the man in the sixth row seat next the aisle, and Bassett continued his study of the little man.
His long training made him quick to scent a story. He was not sure, of course, but the situation appeared to him at least suggestive. With the end of the play he wandered out with the crowd, edging his way close to the man and girl who had focused Gregory’s attention, and following them into the street. He saw only a tall man with a certain quiet distinction of bearing, and a young and pretty girl, still flushed and excited, who went up the street a short distance and got into a small and shabby car. Bassett noted, carefully, the license number of the car.
Then, still curious and extremely interested, he walked briskly around to the stage entrance, nodded to the doorkeeper, and went in.
Gregory was not in sight, but the stage manager was there, directing the striking of the last set.
“I’m waiting for Gregory,” Bassett said. “Hasn’t fainted, has he?”
“What d’you mean, fainted?” inquired the stage manager, with a touch of hostility.
“I was with him when he thought he recognized somebody. You know who. You can tell him I got his automobile number.”
The stage manager’s hostility faded, and he fell into the trap. “You know about it, then?”
“I was with him when he saw him. Unfortunately I couldn’t help him out.”
“It’s just possible it’s a chance resemblance. I’m darned if I know. Look at the facts! He’s supposed to be dead. Ten years dead. His money’s been split up a dozen ways from the ace. Then – I knew him, you know – I don’t think even he would have the courage to come here and sit through a performance. Although,” he added reflectively, “Jud Clark had the nerve for anything.”
Bassett gave him a cigar and went out into the alley way that led to the street. Once there, he stood still and softly whistled. Jud Clark! If that was Judson Clark, he had the story of a lifetime.
For some time he walked the deserted streets of the city, thinking and puzzling over the possibility of Gregory’s being right. Sometime after midnight he went back to the office and to the filing room. There, for two hours, he sat reading closely old files of the paper, going through them methodically and making occasional brief notes in a memorandum. Then, at two o’clock he put away the files, and sitting back, lighted a cigar.
It was all there; the enormous Clark fortune inherited by a boy who had gone mad about this same Beverly Carlysle; her marriage to her leading man, Howard Lucas; the subsequent killing of Lucas by Clark at his Wyoming ranch, and Clark’s escape into the mountains. The sensational details of Clark’s infatuation, the drama of a crime and Clark’s subsequent escape, and the later certainty of his death in a mountain storm had filled the newspapers of the time for weeks. Judson Clark had been famous, notorious, infamous and dead, all in less than two years. A shameful and somehow a pitiful story.
But if Judson Clark had died, the story still lived. Every so often it came up again. Three years before he had been declared legally dead, and his vast estates, as provided by the will of old Elihu Clark, had gone to universities and hospitals. But now and then came a rumor. Jud Clark was living in India; he had a cattle ranch in Venezuela; he had been seen on the streets of New Orleans.
Bassett ran over the situation in his mind.
First then, grant that Clark was still living and had been in the theater that night. It became necessary to grant other things. To grant, for instance, that Clark was capable of sitting, with a girl beside him, through a performance by the woman for whom he had wrecked his life, of a play he had once known from the opening line to the tag. To grant that he could laugh and applaud, and at the drop of the curtain go calmly away, with such memories behind him as must be his. To grant, too, that he had survived miraculously his sensational disappearance, found a new identity and a new place for himself; even, witness the girl, possible new ties.
At half past two Bassett closed his memorandum book, stuffed it into his pocket, and started for home. As he passed the Ardmore Hotel he looked up at its windows. Gregory would have told her, probably. He wondered, half amused, whether the stage manager had told him of his inquiries, and whether in that case they might not fear him more than Clark himself. After all, they had nothing to fear from Clark, if this were Clark.
No. What they might see and dread, knowing he had had a hint of a possible situation, was the revival of the old story she had tried so hard to live down. She was ambitious, and a new and rigid morality was sweeping the country. What once might have been an asset stood now to be a bitter liability.
He slowed down, absorbed in deep thought. It was a queer story. It might be even more queer than it seemed. Gregory had been frightened rather than startled. The man had even gone pale.
Motive, motive, that was the word. What motive lay behind action. Conscious and unconscious, every volitional act was the result of motive.
He wondered what she had done when Gregory had told her.
As a matter of fact, Beverly Carlysle had shown less anxiety than her brother. Still pale and shocked, he had gone directly to her dressing-room when the curtain was rung down, had tapped and gone in. She was sitting wearily in a chair, a cigarette between her fingers. Around was the usual litter of a stage dressing-room after the play, the long shelf beneath the mirror crowded with powders, rouge and pencils, a bunch of roses in the corner washstand basin, a wardrobe trunk, and a maid covering with cheese-cloth bags the evening’s costumes.
“It went all right, I think, Fred.”
“Yes,” he said absently. “Go on out, Alice. I’ll let you come back in a few minutes.”
He waited until the door closed.
“What’s the matter?” she asked rather indifferently. “If it’s more quarreling in the company I don’t want to hear it. I’m tired.” Then she took a full look at him, and sat up.
“Fred! What is it?”
He gave her the truth, brutally and at once.
“I think Judson Clark was in the house to-night.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Neither would I, if somebody told me,” he agreed sullenly. “I saw him. Don’t you suppose I know him? And if you don’t believe me, call Saunders. I got him out front. He knows.”
“You called Saunders !”
“Why not? I tell you, Bev, I was nearly crazy. I’m nearly crazy now.”
“What did Saunders say?”
“If he didn’t know Clark was dead, he’d say it was Clark.”
She was worried by that time, but far more collected than he was. She sat, absently tapping the shelf with a nail file, and reflecting.
“All right,” she said. “Suppose he was? What then? He has been in hiding for ten years. Why shouldn’t he continue to hide? What would bring him out now? Unless he needed money. Was he shabby?”
“No,” he said sulkily. “He was with a girl. He was dressed all right.”
“You didn’t say anything, except to Saunders?”
“No I’m not crazy.”
“I’d better see Joe,” she reflected. “Go and get him, Fred. And tell Alice she needn’t wait.”
She got up and moved about the room, putting things away and finding relief in movement, a still beautiful woman, with rather accentuated features and an easy carriage. Without her make-up the stage illusion of her youth was gone, and she showed past suffering and present strain. Just then she was uneasy and resentful, startled but not particularly alarmed. Her reason told her that Judson Clark, even if he still lived and had been there that night, meant to leave the dead past to care for itself, and wished no more than she to revive it. She was surprised to find, as she moved about, that she was trembling.
Her brother came back, and she turned to meet him. To her surprise he was standing inside the door, white to the lips and staring at her with wild eyes.
“Saunders !” he said chokingly, “Saunders, the damned fool! He’s given it away.”
He staggered to a chair, and ran a handkerchief across his shaking lips.
“He told Bassett, of the Times-Republican,” he managed to say. “Do you – do you know what that means? And Bassett got Clark’s automobile number. He said so.”
He looked up at her, his face twitching. “They’re hound dogs on a scent, Bev. They’ll get the story, and blow it wide open.”
“You know I’m prepared for that. I have been for ten years.”
“I know.” He was suddenly emotional. He reached out and took her hand. “Poor old Bev!” he said. “After the way you’ve come back, too. It’s a damned shame.”
She was calmer than he was, less convinced for one thing, and better balanced always. She let him stroke her hand, standing near him with her eyes absent and a little hard.
“I’d better make sure that was Jud first,” he offered, after a time, “and then warn him.”
“Bassett will be after him.”
“No!” she commanded sharply. “No, Fred. You let the thing alone. You’ve built up an imaginary situation, and you’re not thinking straight. Plenty of things might happen. What probably has happened is that this Bassett is at home and in bed.”
She sent him out for a taxi soon after, and they went back to the hotel. But, alone later on in her suite in the Ardmore she did not immediately go to bed. She put on a dressing gown and stood for a long time by her window, looking out. Instead of the city lights, however, she saw a range of snow-capped mountains, and sheltered at their foot the Clark ranch house, built by the old millionaire as a place of occasional refuge from the pressure of his life. There he had raised his fine horses, and trained them for the track. There, when late in life he married, he had taken his wife for their honeymoon and two years later, for the birth of their son. And there, when she died, he had returned with the child, himself broken and prematurely aged, to be killed by one of his own stallions when the boy was fifteen.
Six years his own master, Judson had been twenty-one to her twenty, when she first met him. Going the usual pace, too, and throwing money right and left. He had financed her as a star, ransacking Europe for her stage properties, and then he fell in love with her. She shivered as she remembered it. It had been desperate and terrible, because she had cared for some one else.
Standing by the window, she wondered as she had done over and over again for ten years, what would have happened if, instead of marrying Howard, she had married Judson Clark? Would he have settled down? She had felt sometimes that in his wildest moments he was only playing a game that amused him; that the hard-headed part of him inherited from his father sometimes stood off and watched, with a sort of interested detachment, the follies of the other. That he played his wild game with his tongue in his cheek.
She left the window, turned out the lights and got into her bed. She was depressed and lonely, and she cried a little. After a time she remembered that she had not put any cream on her face. She crawled out again and went through the familiar motions in the dark.
Dick rose the next morning with a sense of lightness and content that sent him singing into his shower. In the old stable which now housed both Nettie and the little car Mike was washing them both with indiscriminate wavings of the hose nozzle, his old pipe clutched in his teeth. From below there came up the odors of frying sausages and of strong hot coffee.
The world was a good place. A fine old place. It had work and play and love. It had office hours and visits and the golf links, and it had soft feminine eyes and small tender figures to be always cared for and looked after.
She liked him. She did not think he was old. She thought his profession was the finest in the world. She had wondered if he would have time to come and see her, some day. Time! He considered very seriously, as he shaved before the slightly distorted mirror in the bathroom, whether it would be too soon to run in that afternoon, just to see if she was tired, or had caught cold or anything? Perhaps to-morrow would look better. No, hang it all, to-day was to-day.
On his way from the bathroom to his bedroom he leaned over the staircase.
“Aunt Lucy!” he called.
“The top of the morning to you. D’you think Minnie would have time to press my blue trousers this morning?”
There was the sound of her chair being pushed back in the dining-room, of a colloquy in the kitchen, and Minnie herself appeared below him.
“Just throw them down, Doctor Dick,” she said. “I’ve got an iron hot now.”
“Some day, Minnie,” he announced, “you will wear a halo and with the angels sing.”