Charlotte's romantic encounter with the gentleman, however, made her happy for several hours, and colored her cheeks rosily.
"You're getting pretty, Carlotta!" said her Aunt Rachael, observing this. "Don't drink tea, that's a good child! You can stuff on cakes and chocolate of course, Isabelle," she added, "but Charlotte's complexion ought to be her FIRST THOUGHT for the next five years!"
"I don't really want any," asserted Charlotte, feeling wonderfully grown-up and superior to the claims of a nursery appetite. "But can't I help you, Aunt Rachael?"
"No, my dear, you can't! I'm through the worst of it, and being bored slowly but firmly to death! Gertrude, I'm just saying that your party bores me."
"So sorry about you, Rachael!" said the slim, laceclad hostess calmly. "Here's Judy Moran! Nearly six, Judy, and we dine at seven on Sundays. But never mind, eat and drink your fill, my child."
"Billy's flirtin' her head off out there!" wheezed stout Mrs. Moran, dropping into a chair. "Joe and Kent and young Gregory and half a dozen others are out there with her."
Mrs. Breckenridge, who had begun to frown, relaxed in her chair.
"Ah, well, there's safety in numbers!" she said, reassured. "You take cream, Judy, and two lumps? Give Mrs. Moran some of those little damp, brown sandwiches, Isabelle. A minute ago she had some of the most heavenly hot toast here, but she's taken it away again! I wish I could get some tea myself, but I've tried three times and I can't!"
She busied herself resignedly with tongs and teapot, and as Mrs. Moran bit into her first sandwiches, and the Haviland girls moved away at a word from their mother, Rachael raised her eyes and met Warren Gregory's look.
He was standing, ten feet away, in a doorway, his eyelids half dropped over amused eyes, his hands sunk in his coat pockets. Rachael knew that he had been there for some moments, and her heart struggled and fluttered like a bird in a snare, and with a thrill as girlish as Charlotte's own she felt the color rise in her cheeks.
"Come have some tea, Greg," she said, indicating the empty chair beside her.
"Thank you, dear," he answered, his head close to hers for a moment as he sat down. The little word set Rachael's heart to hammering again. She glanced quickly to see if Mrs. Moran had overheard, but that lady had at last caught sight of the maid with the hot toast, and her ample back was turned toward the teatable.
Indeed, in the noisy, disordered room, which was beginning to be deserted by straggling groups of guests, they were quite unobserved. To both it was a delicious moment, this little domestic interlude of tea and talk in the curved window of the dining-room, lighted by the last light of a spring day, and sweet with the scent of wilting spring flowers.
"You make my heart behave in a manner not to be described in words!" said Rachael, her fingers touching his as she handed him his tea.
"It must be mine you feel," suggested Warren Gregory; "you haven't one—by all accounts!"
"I thought I hadn't, Greg, but, upon my word—-" She puckered her lips and raised her eyebrows whimsically, and gave her head a little shake. Doctor Gregory gave her a shrewdly appraising look, sighed, and stirred his tea.
"If ever you discover yourself to be the possessor of such an organ, Rachael," said he dispassionately, "you won't joke about it over a tea-table! You'll wake up, my friend; we'll see something besides laughter in those eyes of yours, and hear something besides cool reason in your voice! I may not be the man to do it, but some man will, some day, and—when John Gilpin rides—"
The eyes to which he referred had been fixed in serene confidence upon his as he began to speak. But a second later Rachael dropped them, and they rested upon her own slender hand, lying idle upon the teatable, with its plain gold ring guarded by a dozen blazing stones. Had he really stirred her, Warren Gregory wondered, as he watched the thoughtful face under the bright, cherry-loaded hat.
"You know how often there is neither cool reason nor any cause for laughter in my life, Greg," she said, after a moment. "As for love—I don't think I know what love is! I am an absolutely calculating woman, and my first, last, and only view of anything is just how much it affects me and my comfort."
"I don't believe it!" said the doctor.
"It's true. And why shouldn't it be?" Rachael gave him a grave smile. "No one," said she seriously, "ever—ever—EVER suggested to me that there was anything amiss in that point of view! Why is there?"
"I don't understand you," said the doctor simply.
"One doesn't often talk this way, I suppose," she said slowly. "But there is a funny streak of—what shall I call it?— conscience, or soul, or whatever you like, in me. Whether I get it from my mother's Irish father or my father's clergyman grandfather, I don't know, but I'm eternally defending myself. I have long sessions with myself, when I'm judge and jury, and invariably I find 'Not Guilty!'"
"Not guilty of what?" the man asked, stirring his untasted cup.
"Not guilty of anything!" she answered, with a child's puzzled laugh. "I stick to my bond, I dress and talk and eat and go about- -" Her voice dropped; she stared absently at the table.
"But—" the doctor prompted.
"But—that's just it—but I'm so UNHAPPY all the time!" Rachael confessed. "We all seem like a lot of puppets, to me—like Bander- log! What are we all going round and round in circles for, and who gets any fun out of it? What's YOUR answer, Greg—what makes the wheels go round?"
"'Tis love—'tis love—that makes—etcetera, etcetera," supplied the doctor, his tone less flippant than his words.
"Oh—love!" Rachael's voice was full of delicate scorn. "I've seen a great deal of all sorts and kinds of love," she went on, "and I must say that I consider love a very much overrated article! You're laughing at me, you bold gossoon, but I mean it. Clarence loved Paula madly, kidnapped her from a boarding-school and all that, but I don't know how much THEIR seven years together helped the world go round. He never loved me, never once said he did, but I've made him a better wife than she did. He loves Bill, now, and it's the worst thing in the world for her!"
"THERE'S some love for you," said Doctor Gregory, glancing across the room to the figures of Miss Leila Buckney and Mr. Parker Hoyt, who were laughing over a cabinet full of ivories.
"I wonder just what would happen there if Parker lost his money to-morrow—if Aunt Frothy died and left it all to Magsie Clay?" Rachael suggested, smiling.
The doctor answered only with a shrug.
"More than that," pursued Rachael, "suppose that Parker woke up to-morrow morning and found his engagement was all a dream, found that he really hadn't asked Leila to marry him, and that he was as free as air. Do you suppose that the minute he'd had his breakfast he would go straight over to Leila's house and make his dream a heavenly reality? Or would he decide that there was no hurry about it, and that he might as well rather keep away from the Buckney house until he'd made up his mind?"
"I suppose he might convince himself that an hour or two's delay wouldn't matter!" said the doctor, laughing.
"If you talk to me of clothes, or of jewelry, or of what one ought to send a bride, and what to say in a letter of condolence, I know where I am," said Rachael, "but love, I freely confess, is something else again!"
"I suppose my mother has known great love," said the man, after a pause. "She spends her days in that quiet old house dreaming about my father, and my brothers, looking at their pictures, and reading their letters—"
"But, Greg, she's so unhappy!" Rachael objected briskly. "And love—surely the contention is that love ought to make one happy?"
"Well, I think her memories DO make her happy, in a way. Although my mother is really too conscientious a woman to be happy, she worries about events that are dead issues these twenty years. She wonders if my brother George might have been saved if she had noticed his cough before she did; there was a child who died at birth, and then there are all the memories of my father's death— the time he wanted ice water and the doctors forbade it, and he looked at her reproachfully. Poor Mother!"
"You're a joy to her anyway, Greg," Rachael said, as he paused.
"Charley is," he conceded thoughtfully, "and in a way I know I am! But not in every way, of course," Warren Gregory smiled a little ruefully.
"So the case for love is far from proved," Rachael summarized cheerfully. "There's no such thing!"
"On the contrary, there isn't anything else, REALLY, in the world," smiled the man. "I've seen it shining here and there; we get away from it here, somewhat, I'll admit"—his glance and gesture indicated the other occupants of the room—"and, like you, I don't quite know where we miss it, and what it's all about, but there have been cases in our wards, for instance: girls whose husbands have been brought in all smashed up—"
"Girls who saw themselves worried about rent and bread and butter!" suggested Rachael in delicate irony.
"No, I don't think so. And mothers—mothers hanging over sick children—"
The women nodded quickly.
"Yes, I know, Greg. There's something very appealing about a sick kiddie. Bill was ill once, just after we were married, such a little thing she looked, with her hair all cut! And that DID—now that I remember it—it really did bring Clarence and me tremendously close. We'd sit and wait for news, and slip out for little meals, and I'd make him coffee late at night. I remember thinking then that I never wanted a child, to make me suffer as we suffered then!"
"Mother love, then, we concede," Doctor Gregory said, smiling.
"Well, yes, I suppose so. Some mothers. I don't believe a mother like Florence ever was really made to suffer through loving. However, there IS mother love!"
"And married love."
"No, there I don't agree. While the novelty lasts, while the passion lasts—not more than a year or two. Then there's just civility—opening the city house, opening the country house, entertaining, going about, liking some things about each other, loathing others, keeping off the dangerous places until the crash comes, or, perhaps, for some lucky ones, doesn't come!"
"What a mushy little sentimentalist you are, Rachael!" Gregory said with a rather uncomfortable laugh. "You're too dear and sweet to talk that way! It's too bad—it's too bad to have you feel so! I wish that I could carry you away from all these people here— just for a while! I'd like to prescribe that sea beach you spoke about last night! Wouldn't we love our desert island! Would you help me build a thatched hut, and a mud oven, and string shells in your hair, and swim way out in the green breakers with me?"
"And what makes you think that there would be some saving element in our relationship?" Rachael asked in a low voice. "What makes you think that our love would survive the—the dry-rot of life? People would send us silver and rugs, and there would be a lot of engraving, and barrels of champagne, and newspaper men trying to cross-examine the maids, and caterers all over the place, but a few years later, wouldn't it be the same old story? You talk of a desert island, and swimming, and seaweed, Greg! But my ideas of a desert island isn't Palm Beach with commercial photographers snapping at whoever sits down in the sand! Look about us, Greg— who's happy? Who isn't watching the future for just this or just that to happen before she can really feel content? Young girls all want to be older and more experienced, older girls want to be young; this one is waiting for the new house to be ready, that one—like Florence—is worrying a little for fear the girls won't quite make a hit! Clarence worries about Billy, I worry about Clarence—"
"I worry about you!" said Doctor Gregory as she paused.
"Of course you do, bless your heart!" Rachael laughed. "So here we are, the rich and fashionable and fortunate people of the world, having a cloudless good time!"
"You know, it's a shame to eat this way—ruin our dinners!" said Mrs. Moran, suddenly entering the conversation. "Stop flirting with Greg, Rachael, and give me some more tea. One lump, and only about half a cup, dear. Tell me a good way to get thin, Greg! Agnes Chase says her doctor has a diet—you eat all you want, and you get thin. Agnes says Lou has a friend who has taken off forty- eight pounds. Do you believe it, Greg? I'm too fat, you know—"
"You carry it well, Judy," said Rachael, still a little shaken by the abruptly closed conversation, as the doctor, with a conscious thrill, perceived.
"Thank you, my dear, that's what they all say. But I'd just as soon somebody else should carry it for awhile!"
"Listen, Rachael," said their hostess, coming up suddenly, and speaking quickly and lightly, "Clarence is here. Where in the name of everything sensible is Billy?"
"Clarence!" said Rachael, uncomfortable premonition clutching at her heart.
"Yes; you come and talk to him, Rachael," Mrs. Whittaker said, in the same quick undertone. "He's all right, of course, but he's just a little fussy—"
"Oh, if he wouldn't DO these things!" Rachael said apprehensively as she rose. "I left him all comfortable—Joe Butler was coming in to see him! It does EXASPERATE me so! However!"
"Of course it does, but we all know Clarence!" Mrs. Whittaker said soothingly. "He seems to have got it into his head that Billy—You go talk to him, Rachael, and I'll send her in."
"Billy's doing no harm! What did he say?" Rachael asked impatiently.
"Oh, nothing definite, of course. But as soon as I said that Billy was here—he'd asked if she was—he said, 'Then I suppose Mr. Pickering is here, too!'"
"He's the one person in the world afraid of talk about Billy, yet if he starts it, he can blame no one but himself!" Rachael said, as she turned toward the adjoining room. An unexpected ordeal like this always annoyed her. She was equal to it, of course; she could smooth Clarence's ruffled feelings, keep a serene front to the world, and get her family safely home before the storm; she had done it many times before. But it was so unnecessary! It was so unnecessary to exhibit the Breckenridge weaknesses before the observant Emorys, before that unconscionable old gossip Peter Pomeroy, and to the cool, pitying gaze of all her world!
She found Clarence the centre of a small group in the long drawing-room. He and Frank Whittaker were drinking cocktails; the others—Jeanette Vanderwall, Vera Villalonga, a flushed, excitable woman older than Rachael, and Jimmy and Estelle Hoyt—had refused the drink, but were adding much noise and laughter to the newcomer's welcome.
"Hello, Clarence" Rachael said, appraising the situation rapidly as she came up. "I would have waited for you if I had thought you would come!"
"I just—just thought I would—look in," Clarence said slowly but steadily. "Didn't want to miss anything. You all seem to be having—having a pretty good time!"
"It's been a lovely tea," Rachael assured him enthusiastically. "But I'm just going. Billy's out here on the porch with a bunch of youngsters; I was just going after her. Don't let Frank give you any more of that stuff, Clancy. Stop it, Frank! It always gives him a splitting headache!"
The tone was irreproachably casual and cheerful, but Clarence scowled at his wife significantly. His dignity, as he answered, was tremendous.
"I can judge pretty well of what hurts me and what doesn't, thank you, Rachael," he said coldly, with a look ominous with warning.
"That's just what you can't, dear," Mrs. Whittaker, who had joined the group, said pleasantly. "Take that stuff away, Frank, and don't be so silly! If Frank," she added to the group, "hadn't been at it all afternoon himself he wouldn't be such an idiot."
"Greg says he'll take us home, Clarence," Rachael said, in a matter-of-fact tone. "It's a shame to carry you off when you've just got here, but I'm going."
"Where's Billy?" Clarence asked stubbornly.
"Right here!" his wife answered reassuringly. And to her great relief Billy substantiated the statement by coming up to them, a little uneasy, as her stepmother was, over her father's appearance, yet confident that there was no real cause for a scene. To get him home as fast as possible, and let the trouble, whatever it might be, break there, was the thought in both their minds.
"Had enough tea, Monkey?" said Rachael pleasantly, aware of her husband's sulphurous gaze, but carefully ignoring it. "Then say day-day to Aunt Gertrude!"
"If Greg takes you home, send Alfred back with the runabout for me," Billy suggested.
"So that you can stay a little longer, eh?" said Clarence, in so ugly a tone and with so leering a look for his daughter that Rachael's heart for a moment failed her. "That's a very nice little plan, my dear, but, as it happens, I came over in the runabout! I'm a fool, you know," said Clarence sullenly. "I can be hoodwinked and deceived and made a fool of—oh, sure! But there's a limit! There's a limit," he said in stupid anger to his wife. "And if I say that I don't like certain friendships for my daughter, it means that I DON'T LIKE CERTAIN FRIENDSHIPS FOR MY DAUGHTER, do you get me? That's clear enough, isn't it, Gertrude?"
"It's perfectly clear that you're acting like an idiot, Clancy," Mrs. Whittaker said briskly. "Nobody's trying to hoodwink you; it isn't being done this year! You've got an awful katzenjammer from the Stokes' dinner, and all you men ought to be horsewhipped for letting yourselves in for such a party. Now if you and Rachael want to go home in the runabout, I'll send Billy straight after you with Kenneth or Kent—"
"I'll take Billy home," Clarence said heavily.
By this time Rachael was so exquisitely conscious of watching eyes and listening ears, so agonized over the realization that the fuss Clarence Breckenridge made at the Whittakers' over Joe Pickering would be handed down, a precious tradition, over every tea and dinner table for weeks to come, so miserably aware that a dozen persons, at least, among the audience were finding in this scene welcome confirmation of all the odds and ends of gossip that were floating about concerning Billy, that she would have consented blindly to any arrangement that might terminate the episode.
It was not the first time that Clarence had made himself ridiculous and his family conspicuous when not quite himself. At almost every tea party and at every dance and dinner at least one of the guests similarly distinguished himself. Rachael knew that there would be no blame in her friends' minds, but she hated their laughter.
"Do that, then," she agreed quickly. "Greg, will bring me!"
"By George," said Clarence darkly to his hostess, "I'd be a long time doing that to you, Gertrude! If you had a daughter—"
"My dear Clarence, your daughter is old enough to know her own mind!" Mrs. Whittaker said impatiently.
"And you're only making me conspicuous for something that's ENTIRELY in your own brain!" blazed Billy. As usual, her influence over her father was instantaneous.
"Because I love you, you know that," he said meekly. "I—I may be TOO careful, Billy. But—"
"Nonsense!" said Billy in a nervous undertone close to tears. "If you loved me you'd have some consideration for me!"
"When I say a thing, don't you say it's nonsense," Clarence said with heavy fatherly dignity. "I'll tell you why—because I won't stand for it!"
"Oh, aren't they hopeless!" Mrs. Whittaker asked with an indulgent laugh and a glance for Rachael.
"Well, I won't be taken home like a bad child!" flamed Billy.
"I'd like to bump both your silly heads together," Rachael exclaimed, steering them toward the porch. "Yes, you bring the car around, Kent," she added to one of the onlookers in an urgent aside. "Come on, Bill? get in. Get in, Clarence! Don't be an utter fool—"
In another moment it was settled. Billy, looking fretty and sulky, said: "Good-bye, Aunt Gertrude! I'm sorry for this, but it's not my fault!" Frank Whittaker almost bodily lifted his somewhat befuddled guest into the car, the door of the runabout went home with a bang. Billy snatched the wheel, and Clarence, with an attempt at a martyred expression, sank back in his seat. The car rocked out of sight, and was gone.
Rachael, in silent dignity, turned about on the wide brick steps to reenter the house. Where there had been a dozen interested faces a moment ago there was no one now except Gertrude Whittaker, whose expression betrayed her as tactfully divided between unconcern and sympathy, and Frank Whittaker, who was looking thoughtfully at the cloudless spring sky as one anticipating a change of weather.
Rachael caught Mrs. Whittaker's eye and shrugged her shoulders wearily. She began slowly to mount the steps.
"It was nothing at all!" said the hostess cheerfully, adding immediately, "You poor thing!"
"All in the day's work!" Rachael said, on a long sigh. And turning to the man who stood silently in the doorway she asked, with all the confidence of a weary child, "Will you take me home, Greg?"
Her glance and the doctor's met. In the last soft, brilliant light of the afternoon long shadows fell from the great trees nearby. Rachael's green and white gown was dappled with blots of golden light, her troubled, glowing eyes were of an almost unearthly beauty, and her slender figure, against the background of colonial white paint and red brick, had all the tremulous, reedy grace of a young girl's figure. In the long look the two exchanged there was some new element born of this wonderful hour of spring, and of the woman's need, and the man's nearness. Both knew it, although Rachael did not speak again, and, also in silence, the doctor nodded, and went past her down the steps for his car.
"Too bad!" Mrs. Whittaker said, coming back from a brief disappearance beyond the doorway. "But such things will happen! It's too bad, Rachael, but what can one do? Are you going to be warm enough? Sure? Don't give it another thought, dear, nobody noticed it, anyway. And listen—any chance of a game tonight? I could send over for you. Marian's with me, you know, and we could get Peter or Greg for a fourth."
"No chance at all," Rachael said bitterly. She had always loved to play bridge with Greg; under the circumstances it would be a delicious experience. She layed brilliantly, and Greg, when he was matched by partner and opponents, became absorbed in the game with absolutely fanatic fervor. Rachael had a vision of her own white hand spreading out the cards, of the nod and glance that said clearly: "Great bidding, Rachael; we're as safe as a church!"
Clarence did not play bridge, he did not care for music, for books, for pictures. He played poker, and sometimes tennis, and often golf; a selfish, solitary game of golf, in which he cared only for his own play and his own score, and paid no attention to anyone else.
Gregory's great car came round the drive. "Good-bye, Gertrude," said Rachael with an unsmiling nod of farewell, and Mrs. Whittaker thought, as Elinor Vanderwall had thought the night before, that she had never seen Rachael look so serious before, and that things in the Breckenridge family must be coming rapidly to a crisis.
Doctor Gregory, as the lovely Mrs. Breckenridge packed her striped green and white ruffles trimly beside him, turned upon her a quick and affectionate smile. It asked no confidence, it expressed no sympathy, it was simply the satisfied glance of a man pleased with the moment and with the company in which he found himself. To Rachael, overwrought, nervous, and ashamed, no mood could have been more delicately tuned. She sank back against the deep upholstery luxuriously, and drew a long breath, inhaling the delicious air of early summer twilight. What a sweet, clean, solid sort of friend Greg was, thought Rachael, noticing the clever, well-groomed hands on the wheel, the kindly earnestness of the handsome, sun-browned face, the little wrinkle between the dark eyes that meant that Doctor Gregory was thinking.
"Straight home?" said he, giving her a smiling glance.
"If you please, Greg," Rachael answered, a sudden vision of the probable state of affairs at home causing her to end the words with a quick sigh.
Silence. They were running smoothly along the lovely country roads that were bowered so generously in fresh green that great feathery boughs of maple and locust brushed against the car. The birds were still now, and the sunlight gone, although all the world was still flooded with a soft golden light. The first dew had fallen, bringing forth from the dust a sweet and pungent odor.
"Thinking about what I said to you last night?" asked the doctor suddenly.
"I am afraid I am—a little," Rachael answered, meeting his quick side glance with another as fleet.
"And what do you think about it?" he asked. For answer Rachael only sighed wearily, and for a while they went on in silence. But when they had almost reached the Breckenridge gateway Doctor Gregory spoke again.
"Do you often have a scene like that one just now to get through?"
The color rushed into Rachael's face at his friendly, not too sympathetic, tone. She was still shaken from the encounter with Clarence, and still thrilling to the memory of her talk with Warren Gregory last night, and it was with some new quality of hesitation, almost of bewilderment, that she said:
"That—that wasn't anything unusual, Greg."
Doctor Gregory stopped the car at the foot of her own steps, the noise of the engine suddenly ceased, and they faced each other, their heads close together.
"But since last night," Rachael added, smiling after a moment's thought, "I know I have a friend. I believe now, when the crash comes, and the whole world begins to talk, that one person will not misjudge me, and one person will not misunderstand."
"Only that?" he asked. She raised her glorious eyes quickly, trying to smile, and it brought his heart to a quick stop to see that they were brimming with tears.
"Only that?" she echoed. "My dear Greg, after seven such years as I have had as Clarence's wife, that is not a small thing!"
Their hands were together now, and he felt hers cling suddenly as she said:
"Don't—don't let me drag you into this, Greg!"
"This is what I want you to believe," Warren Gregory told her, "that you are not his wife, you are nothing to him any more. And some day, some day, you're going to be happy again!"
A wonderful color flooded her face; she gave him a look half- frightened, half-won. Then with an almost inaudible "Good-night," she was gone.
Warren Gregory stood watching the slender figure mount the steps. She did not turn to nod him a fare-well, but vanished like a shadow into the soft shadows of the doorway. Yet he was enough a lover to find consolation in that. Rachael Breckenridge was not flirting now, forces far greater than any she had ever known were threatening the shallow waters of her life, and she might well be troubled and afraid.
"She is not his wife any more," Warren Gregory said, half aloud, as he turned back to his car. "From now on she belongs to me! She SHALL be mine!"
From that day on a bright undercurrent made bearable the trying monotony of her life. Rachael did not at once recognize the rapid change that began to take place in her own feelings, but she did realize that Warren Gregory's attitude had altered everything in her world. He was flirting, of course, he was only half in earnest; but it was such delicious flirting, it was a half- earnestness so wonderfully satisfying and sweet.
She did not see him every day, sometimes she did not see him for two or three days, but no twenty-four hours went by without a message from him. A day or two after the troubled Sunday on which he had driven her home she stood silent a moment, in the lower hall, one hand resting on the little box of damp, delicious Freesia lilies, the fingers of the other twisting his card. The little message scribbled on the card meant nothing to other eyes, just the two words "Good morning!" but in some subtle way they signified to her a morning in a wider sense, a dawning of love and joy and peace in her life. The next day they met—and how wonderful these casual meetings among a hundred gay, unseeing folk, had suddenly become!—and on the following day he came to tea with her, a little hour whose dramatic and emotional beauty was enhanced rather than spoiled for them both when Clarence and Billy and some friends came in to end it.
On Thursday the doctor's man delivered into Mrs. Breckenridge's hand a package which proved to be a little book on Browning of which he had spoken to her. On the fly leaf was written in the donor's small, fine handwriting, "R. from G. The way WAS Caponsacchi." Rachael put the book on her bedside table, and wore June colors all day for the giver's sake. Greg, she thought with a fluttering heart, was certainly taking things with rather a high hand. Could it be possible, could it be POSSIBLE, that he cared for a woman at last, and was she, Rachael Breckenridge, a neglected wife, a penniless dependent upon an unloving husband, that woman?
Half-forgotten emotions of girlhood began to stir within her; she flushed, smiled, sighed at her own thoughts, she dreamed, and came bewildered out of her dreams, like a child. What Clarence did, what Carol did, mattered no longer; she, Rachael, again had the centre of the stage.
Weeks flew by. The question of summer plans arose: the Villalongas wanted all the Breckenridges in their Canadian camp for as much as possible of July and August. Clarence regarded the project with the embittered eye of utter boredom, Billy was far from enthusiastic, Rachael made no comment. She stood, like a diver, ready for the chilling plunge from which she might never rise, yet, after which, there was one glorious chance: she might find herself swimming strongly to freedom. The sunny, safe meadows and the warm, blue sky were there in sight, there was only that dark and menacing stretch of waters to breast, that black, smothering descent to endure.
Now was the time. The pretence that was her married life must end, she must be free. In her thought she went no farther. Rachael outwardly was no better than the other women of her world; inwardly there was in her nature an instinctive niceness, a hatred for what was coarse or base. For years the bond between her and Clarence Breckenridge had been only an empty word. But it was there, none the less, and before she could put any new plan into definite form, even in her own heart, it must be broken.
Many of the women she knew would not have been so fine. For more than one of them no tie was sacred. and no principle as strong as their own desire for pleasure. But she was different, as all the world should see. No carefully chaperoned girl could be more carefully guarded than Rachael would be guarded by herself until that time—the thought of it put her senses to utter rout—until such time as she might put her hand boldly in Gregory's, and take her place honorably by his side.
The taste of freedom already began to intoxicate her even while she still went about Clarence's house, bore his moods in silence, and imparted to Billy that half-scornful, half-humorous advice that alone seemed to penetrate the younger woman's shell of utter perversity. Mrs. Breckenridge, as usual followed by admiring and envious and curious eyes, walked in a world of her own, entirely oblivious of the persons and events about her, wrapped in a breathless dream too exquisitely bright to be real.
It was a dream still so simple and vague that she was not conscious of wishing for Warren Gregory's presence, or of being much happier when they were together than when she was deliciously alone with her thoughts of him.
About a month after the Whittaker tea Rachael found herself seated in the tile-floored tea-room at the country club with Florence. There had been others in the group, theoretically for tea, but these were scattered now, and among the various bottles and glasses on the table there was no sign of a teacup.
"So glad to see you alone a moment, Rachael—one never does," said Florence. "Tell me, do you go to the Villalongas'?"
"Clarence and Billy will, I suppose," the other woman said with an enigmatic smile.
"But not you?"
"Perhaps; I don't know, Florence." Rachael's serene eyes roved the summer landscape contentedly. Mrs. Haviland looked a little puzzled.
"Things are better, aren't they, dear?" she asked delicately.
"Between you and Clarence, I mean."
"Oh! Yes, perhaps they are. Changed, perhaps."
"How do you mean changed?" Florence was instantly in arms.
"Well, it couldn't go on that way forever, Florence," Rachael said pleasantly.
Rendered profoundly uneasy by her tone, the other woman was silent for a moment.
"Perhaps it is just as well to make different plans for the summer," she said presently. "We all get on each other's nerves sometimes, and change or separation does us a world of good."
"Doctor Gregory! Doctor Gregory! At the telephone!" chanted a club attendant, passing through the tea-room.
"On the tennis courts," Mrs. Breckenridge said, without turning her head. "You had better make it a message: explain that he's playing!"
"I didn't see him go down," remarked Florence, diverted.
"His car came in about half an hour ago; he and Joe Butler went down to the courts without coming into the club at all," Rachael said.
"I wonder what he's doing this summer?" mused the older lady.
"I believe he's going to take his mother abroad with him," said the well-informed Rachael. "She'll visit some friends in England and Ireland, and then join him. He's to do the Alps with someone, and meet her in Rome."
"She tell you?" asked Mrs. Haviland, interested.
"He did," the other said briefly.
"I didn't know she had any friends," was Florence's next comment. "I don't see her visiting, somehow!"
"Oh, my dear. Old Catholic families with chapels in their houses, and nuns, and Mother Superiors!" Rachael's tone was light, but as she spoke a cold premonition seized her heart. She fell silent.
A moment later Charlotte, who had been hovering uncertainly in the doorway of the room, came out to join her mother with a brightly spontaneous air.
"Oh, here you are, M'ma!" said Charlotte. "Are you ready to go?"
"Been having a nice time, dear?" her mother asked fondly.
"Very," Charlotte said. "I've been looking over old magazines in the library—SO interesting!"
This literary enthusiasm struck no answering spark from the matron.
"In the library!" said Florence quickly. "Why, I thought you were with Charley!"
"Oh, no, M'ma," answered Charlotte, with her little air that was not quite prim and not quite mincing, and that yet suggested both. "Charley left me just after you did; he had an engagement with Straker." She reached for a macaroon, and ate it with a brightly disengaged air, her eyes, behind their not unbecoming glasses, studying the golf links with absorbed interest.
"Anyone else in the library?" Florence asked in a dissatisfied tone.
"No. I had it all to myself!" the girl answered pleasantly.
"Why didn't you go down to the courts, dear? I think Papa is playing!"
"I didn't think of it, M'ma," said Charlotte lucidly.
"What a dreadful age it is," mused Rachael. "I wonder which phase is hardest to deal with: Billy or poor little Carlotta?" Aloud, from the fulness of her own happiness, she said: "Suppose you walk down to the courts with me, Infant, and we will see what's going on?"
"If M'ma doesn't object," said the dutiful daughter.
"No, go along," Florence said with vague discontent. "I've got to do some telephoning, anyway."
Charlotte, being eighteen, could think of nothing but herself, and Rachael, wrapped in her own romance, was amused, as they walked along, to see how different her display of youthful egotism was from Billy's, and yet how typical of all adolescence.
"Isn't it a wonderful afternoon, Aunt Rachael?" Charlotte said, as one in duty bound to be entertaining. "I do think they've picked out such a charming site for the club!" And then, as Rachael did not answer, being indeed content to drink in the last of the long summer day in silence, Charlotte went on, with an air blended of comprehension and amusement: "Poor M'ma, she would so like me to be a little, fluffy, empty-headed butterfly of a girl, and I know I disappoint her! It isn't that I don't like boys," pursued Charlotte, the smooth and even stream of her words beginning to remind Rachael of Florence, "or that they don't like me; they're always coming to me with their confidences and asking my advice, but it's just that I can't take them seriously. If a boy wants to kiss me, why, I say to him in perfect good faith, 'Why shouldn't you kiss me, John? When I'm fond of a person I always like to kiss him, and I'm sure I'm fond of you!'" Charlotte stopped for a short laugh full of relish. "Of course that takes the wind out of their sails completely," she went on, "and we have a good laugh over it, and are all the better friends! That is," said Charlotte, thoroughly enjoying herself, "I treat my men friends exactly as I do my girl friends. Do you think that's so extraordinary, Aunt Rachael? Because I can't do anything different, you know—really I can't!"
"Just be natural—that's the best way," said Rachael from the depths of an icy boredom.
"Of course, some day I shall marry," the girl added in brisk decision, "because I love a home, and I love children, and I think I would be a good mother to children. But meanwhile, my books and my friends mean a thousand times more to me than all these stupid boys! Why is it other girls are so crazy about boys, Aunt Rachael?" asked Charlotte, brightly sensible. "Of course I like them, and all that, but I can't see the sense of all these notes and telephones and flirtations. I told Vivvie Sartoris that I was afraid I knew all these boys too well; of course Jack and Kent and Charley are just like brothers! It all"—Charlotte smiled, signed, shook her disillusioned young head—"it all seems so awfully SILLY to me!" she said, and before Rachael could speak she had caught breath again and added laughingly: "Of course I know Billy doesn't agree with me, and Billy has plenty of admiration of a sort, and I suppose that satisfies her! But, in short," finished Charlotte, giving Rachael's arm a squeeze as they came out upon the tennis courts, "in short, you have an exacting little niece, Auntie dear, and I'm afraid the man who is going to make her happy must be out of the ordinary!"
Rachael sighed a long deep sigh, but no other answer was demanded, for the knot of onlookers welcomed them eagerly to the benches beside the courts, and even the players—Gardner Haviland, Louis Chase, a fat young man in an irreproachable tennis costume; Warren Gregory and Joe Butler found time for a shouted "Hello!"
"How do you do, Kent?" said Charlotte to a young man who was sprawling on the sloping grass between the benches and the court. The young man blinked, sat up, and snatched off his hat.
"Oh, how do you do, Charlotte? I didn't know you were here," he said enthusiastically. "Some game—what?"
"It SEEMS to be," said Charlotte with smiling, deep significance. Both young persons laughed heartily at this spirited exchange. A silence fell. Then Mr. Parmalee turned back to watch the players, and Charlotte, who had seated herself, leaned back in her seat and gave a devoted attention to the game.
Gregory came to Rachael the instant the game was over; she had known, since the first triumphant instant when his eyes fell upon her, that he would. She had seen the color rush under his brown skin, and, alone among all the onlookers, had known why Greg put three balls into the net, and why he laughed so inexplicably as he did so. And Rachael thought, for the first time, how sweet it would be to be his wife, to sit here lovely in lavender stripes and loose white coat: Warren Gregory's wife.
"You mustn't do that," he said, sitting down on the bench beside her, and wiping his hot face.
"Mustn't do what?" she asked.
"Mustn't turn up suddenly when I don't expect you. It makes me dizzy. Look here—what are you doing? I'm going up to the pool. I've got to get back into town to-night. When can I see you?"
"Why"—Rachael rose slowly, and slowly unfurled her parasol—"why, suppose we walk up together?"
They strolled away from the courts deliberately, openly. Several persons remembered weeks later that they went slowly, stopped now and then. No one thought much of it at the time, for only a week later Doctor Gregory took his mother to England, and during that week it was ascertained that he and Mrs. Breckenridge saw each other only once, and then were in the presence of his mother and of Carol Breckenridge and young Charles Gregory as well. There was no tiniest peg for gossip to hang scandal upon, for where old Mrs. James Gregory was, decorum of an absolutely puritanic order prevailed.
Yet that stroll across the grass of the golf links was a milestone in Rachael Breckenridge's life, and every word that passed between Gregory and herself was graven upon her heart for all time. The aspect of laughter, of flirtation, was utterly absent to-day. His tone was crisp and serious, he spoke almost before they were out of the hearing of the group on the courts.
"I've been wanting to talk to you, Rachael; in fact"—he laughed briefly—"in fact, I am talking to you all day long, these days," he said, "arguing and consulting and advising and planning. But before we can talk, there's Clarence. What about Clarence?"
Something in the gravity of his expression as their eyes met impressed Rachael as she had rarely been impressed in her life before. He was in deadly earnest, he had planned his campaign, and he must take the first step by clearing the way. How sure he was, how wonderfully, quietly certain of his course.
"We are facing a miserable situation, but it's a commonplace one, after all," said Warren Gregory, as she did not speak. "I—you can see the position I'm in. I have to ask you to be free before I can move. I can't go to Breckenridge's wife—-"
The color burned in both their faces as they looked at each other.
"It IS a miserable position, Greg," Rachael said, after a moment's silence. "And although, as you say, it's commonplace enough, somehow I never thought before just what this sort of thing involves! However, the future must take care of itself. For the present there's only this. I'm going to leave Clarence."
Warren Gregory drew a long breath.
"He won't fight it?"
"I don't think he will." Rachael frowned. "I think he'll be willing to furnish—the evidence. Especially if he has no reason to suspect that I have any other plans," she added thoughtfully.
"Then he mustn't suspect," the doctor said instantly.
"Nor anyone," she finished, with a look of alarm.
"Nor anyone, of course," he repeated.
"I don't know that I HAVE any other plans," Rachael said sadly. "I won't think beyond that one thing. Our marriage has been an utter and absolute failure, we are both wretched. It must end. I hate the fuss, of course—"
He was watching her closely, too keenly tuned to her mood to disquiet her with any hint of the lover's attitude now.
"And just how will you go about it?" he asked.
"I shall slip off to some quiet place, I think. I'll tell him before he goes away. My attorneys will handle the matter for me— it's a sickening business!" Rachael's beautiful face expressed distaste.
"It's done every day," Warren Gregory said.
"Of course divorce is not a new idea to me" Rachael presently pursued. "But it is only in the last two or three days—for a week, perhaps—that it has seemed to have that inevitable quality- -that the-sooner-over-the-better sort of urgency. I wonder why I didn't do it years ago. I shall"—she laughed sadly—"I shall hate myself as a divorced woman," she said. "It's a survival of some old instinct, I suppose, but it doesn't seem RIGHT."
"It's done all the time," was the doctor's simple defence. "And oh, my dear," he added, "you will know—and I will know—we can't keep knowing—"
She stopped short, her lovely face serious in the shade of her parasol, her dark-blue eyes burning with a sort of noble shame.
"Greg!" she said quickly and breathlessly. "Please—-Let's not— let's not say it. Let me feel, all this summer, that it wasn't said. Let me feel that while I was living under one man's roof, and spending his money, that I didn't even THINK of another man. It's done all the time, you say, that's true. But I HATE it. Whether I leave Clarence, and make my own life under new conditions, and never remarry, or whether, in a year or two—but I won't think of that!" And to his surprise and concern, as she stopped short on the grassy path, the eyes that Rachael turned toward him were brimming with tears. "You s-see what a baby I am becoming, Greg," she said unsteadily. "It's all your doing, I'm afraid! I haven't cried for years—loneliness and injustice and unhappiness don't make me cry! But just lately I've known what it was to dream of—of joy, Greg. And if that joy is ever really coming to us, I want to be worthy of it. I want to start RIGHT this time. I want to spend the summer quietly somewhere, thinking and reading. I'm going to give up cards and even cocktails. You smile, Greg, but I truly am! Just for this time, I mean. And it's come to me, just lately, that I wouldn't leave Clarence if he really needed me, or if it would make him unhappy. I'm going to be different—everything SEEMS different already—"
"Don't you know why?" he said with his grave smile, as she paused. It was enchanting to him to see the color flood her face, to see her shy eyes suddenly averted. She did not answer, and they walked slowly toward the clubhouse steps.
"There's only one thing more to say," Warren Gregory said, arresting her for one more moment. "It's this: as soon as you're free, I'm coming for you. You may not have made up your mind by that time, Rachael. My mind will never change."
Shaken beyond all control by his tone, Rachael did not even raise her eyes. Her flush died away, leaving her face pale. He saw her breast rise on a quick breath.
"Will you write me?" he asked, after a moment.
"Oh, yes, Greg!" she answered quickly, in a voice hardly above a whisper. "When do you go?"
"On Wednesday—a week from to-day, in fact. And that reminds me, Billy says you are coming into town early next week?"
"Monday, probably." Rachael was coming back to the normal. "She needs things for camp, and I've got a little shopping to do."
"Then could you lunch with Mother? Little Charley'll be there: no one else. Bring Billy. Mother'd love it. You're a great favorite there, you know."
"I may not always be a favorite there," Rachael said with a rueful smile.
"Don't worry about Mother," Warren Gregory said with a confidence that in this moment of excitement and exhilaration he almost felt was justified. "Mother's a dear!"
That was all their conversation. When they entered the clubhouse Doctor Gregory turned toward the swimming pool and Rachael was instantly drawn into a game of bridge. She played like a woman in a dream, was joined by Billy, went home in a dream, and presently found herself and her husband fellow guests at a dreamlike dinner- party.
Why not?—why not?—why not? The question drummed in head and heart day and night. Why not end bondage, and taste freedom? Why not end unhappiness, and try joy? She had done her best to make her first marriage a success, and she had failed. Why not, with all kindness, with all generous good wishes, end the long experiment? Who, in all her wide range of acquaintances, would think the less of her for the obviously sensible step? The world recognized divorce as an indispensable institution: one marriage in every twelve was dissolved.
And remarriage, a brilliant second marriage, was universally approved. Even such a stern old judge as Warren's mother counted among her acquaintances the divorced and remarried. To reappear, triumphant, beloved, beautiful, before one's old world—
But no—of this Rachael would not permit herself to think. Time alone could tell what her next step must be. The only consideration now must be that, even if Warren Gregory had never existed, even if there were no other man than Clarence Breckenridge in the world, she must take the step. Better poverty, and work, and obscurity, if need be, with freedom, than all Clarence could offer her in this absurd and empty bondage.
Once firmly decided, she began to chafe against the delays that made an immediate announcement of her intentions unwise. If a thing was to be done, as well do it quickly, thought Rachael, as she listened patiently to the vacillating decisions of Carol and her father in regard to the Villalonga camping plan. At one time Clarence completely abandoned the idea, throwing the watchful and silent Rachael into utter consternation. Carol was alternately bored by the plan and wearily interested in it. Their characteristic absorption in their own comfort was a great advantage to Rachael at this particular juncture; she had been included in Mrs. Villalonga's invitation as a matter of course, but such was the life of the big, luxurious establishment known as the "camp" that all three of the Breckenridges, and three more of them had there been so many, might easily have spent six weeks therein without crossing each other's paths more than once or twice a week. It never occurred to either Carol or her father to question Rachael closely as to her pleasure in the matter. They took it for granted that she would be there if no pleasanter invitation interfered exactly as they themselves would.
An enormous income enabled the sprightly Mrs. Villalonga to conduct her midsummer residence in the Canadian forests upon a scale that may only be compared to a hotel. She usually asked about one hundred friends to visit her for an indefinite time, and of this number perhaps half availed themselves of the privilege, drifting in upon her at any time, remaining only while the spirit moved, and departing unceremoniously, perhaps, if the hostess chanced to be away at the moment, with no farewells at all, when any pleasanter prospect offered.
Mrs. Villalonga was a large, coarse-voiced woman, with a heart of gold, and the facial characteristics that in certain unfortunate persons suggest nothing so much as a horse. She sent a troop of servants up to the woods every year, following them in a week or two with her first detachment of guests. She paid her chef six thousand dollars a year, and would have paid more for a better chef, if there had been one. She expected three formal meals every day, including in their scope every delicacy that could be procured at any city hotel, and also an indefinite number of lesser meals, to be served in tennis pavilion, or after cards at night, or whenever a guest arrived.
By the time she reached the camp everything must be complete for another summer, awnings flapping gently outside the striped canvas "tents" that were really roomy cabins provided with shower baths and wide piazzas. The great cement-walled swimming pool must be cleaned, the courts rolled, the cars all in order, the boats and bath-houses in readiness. A miniature grocery and drug store must be established in the building especially designed for this use; the little laundry concealed far up in the woods must be operating briskly.
Then, from the middle of June to the first of September, the camp was in full swing. There were dances and campfires and theatricals and fancy-dress affairs innumerable. Ice and champagne and California peaches and avocados from Hawaii poured from the housekeeping department in an unending stream; there were new toothbrushes and new pajamas for the unexpected guest, there were new bathing suits in boxes for the girls who had driven over from Taramac House and who wanted a swim, there were new packs of cards and new boxes of cigars, and there were maids—maids—maids to run for these things when they were wanted, and carry them away when their brief use was over.
Then it would be September, and everything would end as suddenly as it began. The Villalongas would go to Europe, or to Newport, Vera loudly, joyously, insistently urging everyone to visit them there if it were the latter. In November they would be in their town house with new paintings and new rugs to show their guests: a portrait of Vera, a rug stolen from a Sultan's palace.
Everybody said that Vera Villalonga did this sort of thing extremely well; indeed she had no rival in her own particular field. The weekly society journals depended upon her to supply them with spectacular pictures of a Chinese ball every November and a Micareme dance every spring; they sent photographers all the way up to her camp that their readers might not miss a yearly glimpse of the way Mrs. Villalonga entertained.
But Rachael, who had spent a portion of six summers with the Villalongas, found herself, in her newly analytical mood, wondering just who got any particular pleasure out of it all. Vera herself, perhaps. Certainly her husband, who would spend all his time playing poker and tennis, would have been as happy elsewhere. Her two sons, tall, dark young men, in connection with whose characters the world in general contented itself merely with the word "wild," would be there only for a week or two at most. Billy would wait for Joe Pickering's letters, Clarence would drink, and watch Billy. Little Mina Villalonga, who had a minor nervous ailment, would wander about after Billy. The Parmalees would come up for a visit, and the Morans would come. Jack Torrence, spoiled out of all reason, would promise a week and come for two days; Porter Pinckard would compromise upon a mere hour or two, charging into the camp in his racing car, introducing hilarious friends, accepting a sandwich and a bottle of beer, and then tearing off again. Straker Thomas, silent, mysterious, ill, would drift about for a week or two; Peter Pomeroy would go up late in July, and be adored by everyone, and take charge of the theatricals.
"The maids probably get any amount of fun out of it," mused Rachael. Vera was notably generous to her servants: a certain pool was reserved for them, and their numbers formed a most congenial society every summer. "I don't believe I'll go to Vera's this year," Mrs. Breckenridge said aloud to her husband and stepdaughter.
"I'm not crazy about it," Billy agreed fretfully.
"Might as well," was the man's enthusiastic contribution.
"Oh, I'm GOING!" Billy said discontentedly. "But I don't see why you and Rachael have to go."
"Don't you?" her father said significantly.
"Joe Pickering's going to be in Texas this whole summer, if that's what you mean!" flamed Billy.
"I'm glad to hear it," Clarence commented.
"Anyway, you might depend upon Vera to take absolute good care of Bill," Rachael said soothingly. "It's time you both got away to some cooler place, if you are going to fight so about nothing! Why do you do it? Billy can't marry anyone for eleven months, and if she wants to marry the man in the moon then you can't stop her. So there you are!"
"And I'm capable of running my own affairs," finished Billy with a look far from filial.
"You only waste your breath arguing with Clarence when he's got one of his headaches," Rachael said to her stepdaughter an hour or two later when they were spinning smoothly into the city for the planned shopping. "Of course he'll go to Vera's, and of course you'll go, too! Just don't tease him when he's all upset."
"Well, what does he drink and smoke so much, and get this way for?" Billy demanded sullenly.
"What does anybody do it for?" Rachael countered. And a second later her singing heart was with Gregory again. He did not do it!
She entered into Billy's purchasing perplexities with great sympathy; a successful hat was found, several deliciously extravagant and fragile dresses for camping.
"You're awfully decent about all this, Rachael." Billy said once; "it must be a sweet life we lead you sometimes!"
Something in the girl's young glance touched Rachael strangely. They were in the car again now, going toward Mrs. Gregory's handsome, old-fashioned house on Washington Square. Rachael was inspired to seize the propitious second.
"Listen, Bill," she said, and paused. Billy eyed her curiously. Obtuse as she was, a certain change in Rachael had not entirely escaped the younger woman.
"Well?" she asked, on guard.
"Well—" Rachael faltered. Motherly advice was not much in her line. "It's just this, Bill," she resumed slowly, "when you think of marriage, don't think of just a few weeks or a few months; think of all the time. Think of other things than just—that sort of—love. Children, you know, and—and books, don't you know? Things that count. Be—I don't say be guided entirely by what your father and lots of other persons think, but be influenced by it! Realize that we have no motive but—but affection, in advising you to be sure."
The stumbling, uncertain words were unlike Mrs. Breckenridge's usual certain flow of reasoning. But in spite of this, or because of it, Billy was somewhat impressed.
"I had an aunt in California," Rachael continued, "who cried, and got whipped and locked up, and all the rest of it, and she carried her point. But she was unhappy. ..."
"You mean because Joe is divorced?" Billy asked in a somewhat troubled voice.
The scarlet rushed to Rachael's face.
"N—not entirely," she answered in some confusion.
"That is, you don't think divorced people ought to remarry, even if the divorce is fair enough?" Billy pursued, determined to be clear.
"Well, I suppose every case is different, Bill."
"That's what you've always SAID!" Billy accused her vivaciously. "You said, time and time again, that if people can't live together in peace they OUGHT to separate, but that it was another thing if they married again!"
"Did I?" Rachael asked weakly, adding a moment later, with obvious relief in her tone: "Here we are! It's only this, Bill," she finished, as they mounted the brownstone steps, "be sure. You can do anything, I suppose. Only be sure!"
Mrs. Gregory would be down in a few minutes, old Dennison said. Rachael murmured something amiable, and the two went into the dark, handsome parlors; the house was full of parlors; on both sides of the hall stately, crowded rooms could be glimpsed through open doors.
"Isn't it fierce?" Billy said with a helpless shrug. Rachael smiled and shook her head slowly in puzzled consent. "Don't you suppose they ever AIR it?" pursued the younger woman in a low tone. The air had a peculiarly close, dry smell.
"It wouldn't seem so," Rachael said, looking at the life-size statues of Moorish and Neopolitan girls, the mantel clock representing a Dutch windmill, the mantel itself, of black marble, gilded and columned, with a mirror in a carved walnut frame stretching ten feet above it, the beaded fire screen, the voluminous window curtains of tasselled rep, and the ornate walnut table across whose marble top a strip of lace had been laid. Everything was ugly and expensive and almost everything was old- fashioned, all the level surfaces of tables, mantel, and piano top were filled with small articles, bits of ivory carving from China, leather boxes, majolica jars, photographs in heavy frames, enormous illustrated books, candlesticks, and odd teacups and trays.
Smiling down—how Rachael knew that smile, half-quizzical and half-tender—from a corner of the room was a beautiful oil portrait of Warren Gregory, the one really fine thing in the room. By some chance the painter had caught on his face the very look with which he might, in the flesh, have studied this dreadful room. Rachael felt a thrill go to her heels as she looked back at the canvas, and far down in the deeps of her being the thought stirred that some day her hand might be the one to change all this—to make the woodwork colonial white, and the paper rich with color, to have the black marble changed to creamy tiles, and the rep curtains torn away. Then how charming the place would be when visitors came in from the hot street!
"A million apologies—all my fault!" said Doctor Gregory in the doorway. His mother, in rustling black silk, was on his arm. She had given up her cane to-day to use the living support, and no lover could have wished to appear more charming in his lady's eyes than did Warren Gregory appear to Rachael as he lowered the frail old figure to a chair and neglected his guests while he made his mother comfortable.
"He would have you think, now, that I was the cause of the delay," said the old lady in a sweet voice that betrayed curiously the weakness of the flesh and the strength of the spirit. "But I assure you my beauty is no longer a matter of great importance to me!"
"So it was Greg who was curling his hair?" Rachael asked, with one swift and eloquent glance for him before she drew a much-fringed hassock to his mother's knee and seated herself there with the confidence of a captivating child. "I always thought he was rather vain! But let's not talk about him, we only make him worse. Tell me about yourself?"
Mrs. Gregory was a rather spirited old lady, and liked to fancy, with the pathetic complacency of the passing generation, that her sense of humor quite kept up with the times. Rachael knew her well, and knew all her stories, but this only made her the pleasanter companion. She quickly carried the conversation into the past, and was content to be a listener; indeed, with a hostess far removed in type from herself it was the only safe role to play. The conversation was full of pitfalls for this charming and dutiful worldling, and Rachael was too clever to risk a fall.
She was afraid of the crippled little gentlewoman in the big chair, and Warren Gregory was afraid, too. Some mysterious element in her regard for them made luncheon an ordeal for them both, although Billy's healthy young eyes saw only an old woman, impotent and alone; the maids were respectful and pitying, and young Charles Gregory, who joined them at luncheon, Was obviously unimpressed by his grandmother's power, but was smitten red and inarticulate at the first glimpse of Billy.
This youth, after silently disposing of several courses, finally asked in a husky voice for Miss Charlotte Haviland, and relapsed into silence again. Billy flirted youthfully with her host, Rachael devoted herself to the old lady.
She had always been happy here, a marked favorite with old Mrs. Gregory to whom her audacious nonsense had always seemed a great delight before. But to-day she was conscious of a change, she could not control the conversation with her usual sure touch, she floundered and contradicted herself like a schoolgirl. One of her brilliant stories fell rather flat because its humor was largely supplied by an intoxicated man—"of course it was dreadful, but then it was funny, too!" Rachael finished lamely. Another flashing account won from the old hostess the single words "On Sunday?"
"Well, yes. It was on Sunday. I am afraid we are absolute pagans; we don't always remember to go to church, by any means!" Rachael began to feel that a cloud of midges were buzzing about her face. Every topic led her deeper into the quicksand. There was a definite touch of resentment under the gracious manner in which she presently said her good-bye, and they were no sooner in the motor car than she exclaimed to Billy:
"Didn't Mrs. Gregory seem horribly cross to you to-day? She made me feel as if I'd broken all the Commandments and was dancing on the pieces!"
"What do you know about Charles asking for Charlotte?" was Billy's only answer. "Isn't he just the sort of mutt who would ask for Charlotte!"
"Isn't she quite lovely?" said Mrs. Gregory from over the fleecy yarn she was knitting, when the guests had gone.
"Carol?" the doctor countered.
"Yes, Carol, too. But I was thinking of Mrs. Breckenridge. Do you see her very often, James?"
"Quite a bit. Do you mind my smoking?"
"I often wonder," pursued the old lady innocently, "what such a sweet, gay, lovely girl could see in a fellow like poor Clarence Breckenridge!"
"Great marvel she doesn't throw him over!" Warren said casually.
"It distresses me to hear you talk so recklessly, my son," Mrs. Gregory said after a brief pause,
"Lord, Mother," her son presently observed impatiently, "is it reasonable to expect that because a girl like that makes a mistake when she is twenty or twenty-one, that she shall pay for it for the rest of her life?"
"Unfortunately, we are not left in any doubt about it," the old lady said dryly. And as Warren was silent she went on with quavering vigor: "It is not for us to judge her husband's infirmities. She is his wife."
"Oh, well, there's no use arguing it," the man said pleasantly after a sulphurous interval. "Fortunately for her, most people don't feel as you do."
"You surely don't think that I originated this theory?" his mother asked quietly after a silence, during which her long needles moved a little more swiftly than was natural.
"I don't think anything about it. I KNOW that you're much, much narrower about such things than your religion or any religion gives you any right to be," Warren asserted hotly. "It is nothing to me, but I hate this smug parcelling out of other people's affairs," he went on. "Mrs. Breckenridge is a very wonderful and a most unfortunate woman; her husband isn't fit to lace her shoes—"
"All that may be true," his mother interrupted with some agitation.
"All that may be true, you say! And yet if Rachael left him, and tried to find happiness somewhere else—"
"The law is not of MY making, James," the old lady intervened mildly, noting his use of the discussed woman's name with a pang.
"But it IS of your making—you people who sit around and say what's respectable and what's not respectable! Who are you to judge?"
"I try not to judge," Mrs. Gregory said so simply that the man's anger cooled in spite of himself. "And perhaps I am foolish, James, all mothers are. But you are the last of my four sons, and I am a widow in my old age, and I tremble for you. When a woman with beauty as great as that confides in you, my child, when she turns to you, your soul is in danger, and your mother sees it. I cannot—I cannot be silent—"
Rachael herself, an hour ago, had not used her youth and beauty with more definite design than was this other woman using her age and infirmity now. Warren Gregory was almost as readily affected.
"My dear Mother," he said sensibly and charmingly, "don't think for one instant that I do not appreciate your devotion to me. What has suddenly put into your head this concern about Mrs. Breckenridge, I can't imagine. I know that if she were ever in any trouble or need you would be the first to defend her. She is in a peculiarly difficult position, and in a professional way I am somewhat in her confidence, that's all!"
"I should think she could do something with Clarence," the old lady said, somewhat mollified. "Interest him in something new; lead him away from bad influences."
"Clarence is rather a hopeless problem," Warren Gregory said. The talk drifted away to other persons and affairs, but when they presently parted, with great amiability on both sides, Warren Gregory knew that his mother's suspicions had in some mysterious way been aroused, and old Mrs. Gregory, sitting alone in the heat of the afternoon, writhed in the grip of a definite apprehension. Absurd—absurd—to interpret that married woman's brightly innocent glances into a declaration of love, absurd to find passion concealed in Warren's cheerfully hospitable manner. But she could not shake off the terrified conviction that it was so.
"Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Moulton of England have rented for the season the house of Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Breckenridge, at Belvedere Bay," stated the social columns authoritatively. "Mr. Breckenridge and Miss Carol Breckenridge will leave at once for the summer camp of Mrs. Booth Villalonga, at Elks Leap, where Mrs. Breckenridge will join them after spending a few weeks with friends."
Rachael saw the notice on the morning of the last day that she and Clarence were together. In the afternoon Billy and Clarence were to leave for the north, and Rachael was to go to Florence for a day or two. She had been unusually indefinite about her plans for the summer, but in the general confusion of all plans this had not been noticed. She had superintended the packing and assorting and storing of silver and linen, as a matter of course, and it was easy to see that certain things indisputably her own went into certain crates. Nobody questioned her authority, and Clarence and Billy paid no attention whatever to the stupid proceeding of getting the house in order for tenants.
On this last morning she sat at the breakfast table studying these two who had been her companions for seven years, and who suspected so little that this companionship was not to last for another seven years, for an indefinite time. Billy was in a bad temper because her father was not taking Alfred and the car with them to the camp, as he had done for the two previous years. Clarence, sullen as always under Billy's disapproval, was pretending to read his paper. He had a severe headache this morning, his face looked flushed and swollen. He was dreading the twenty-four hours in a hot train, even though the Bowditches, going up in their own car to their own camp, had offered the Breckenridges its comparative comfort and coolness for the entire trip.
"Makes me so sick," grumbled Billy, who looked extremely pretty in a Chinese coat of blue and purple embroideries; "every time I want to move I'll have to ask Aunt Vera if I may have a car! No fun at all!"
"Loads of horses and cars up there, my dear," Rachael said pacifically. She was quivering from head to foot with nervous excitement; the next few hours were all-important to her. And, under the pressure of her own great emotions, Billy seemed only rather pitiful and young to-day, and even Clarence less a conscious tyrant, and more a blundering boy, than he had seemed. She bore them no ill will after these seven hard years; indeed a great peace and kindliness pervaded her spirit and softened her manner toward them both. Her marriage had been a great disappointment, composed of a thousand small disappointments, but she was surprised to find that some intangible and elementary emotion was about to make this parting strangely hard.
"Yes, but it's not the same thing," Billy raged. Rachael began a low-voiced reassurance to which the younger woman listened reluctantly, scowling over her omelette, and interposing an occasional protest.
"Oh, yap—yap—yap! My God, I do get tired of hearing you two go on and on and on!" Clarence presently burst out angrily. "If you don't want to go, Billy, say so. I'm sick of the whole thing, anyway!"
"You know very well I never wanted to go," Billy answered. And because, being now committed to the Villalonga visit, she perversely dreaded it, she pursued aggrievedly, "I'd EVER so much rather have gone to California, Dad!"
How sure the youngster was of her power, Rachael thought, watching him instantly soften under his daughter's skilful touch.
"For five cents," he said eagerly, "I'd wire Vera, and you and I'd beat it to Santa Barbara! What do you say?"
"And if Rachael promised to be awfully good, she could come, too!" Billy laughed. But the girl's gay patronage was never again to be extended to Rachael Breckenridge.
"You couldn't disappoint Vera now," she protested.
"Oh, Lord! make some objections!" Clarence growled.
"My dear boy, it's nothing to me, whatever you do," Rachael said quickly. "But Vera Villalonga is a very important friend for Bill. There's no sense in antagonizing her—"
"No, I suppose there isn't," Billy said slowly. "But I wish she'd not ask us every summer. I suppose we shall be doing this for the rest of our lives!"
She trailed slowly from the room, and Clarence took one or two fretful glances at his paper.
"Gosh, how you do love to spoil things!" he said bitterly to his wife in a sudden burst.
Rachael did not answer. She rose after a few moments, and carried her letters into the adjoining room. When Clarence presently passed the door she called him in.
"Now or never—now or never!" said Rachael's fast-beating heart. She was pale and breathing quickly as he came in. But Clarence, sick and headachy, did not notice these signs of strong emotion.
"Clarence, I need some money," Rachael said simply.
"What for?" he asked unencouragingly.
The color came into his wife's face. She did not ask often for money, although he was rich, and she had been his wife for seven years. It was a continual humiliation to Rachael that she must ask him at all for the little actual money she spent, and tell him what she did with it when she got it. Clarence might lose more money at poker in a single night than Rachael touched in a month; it had come to him without effort, and of the two, she was the one who made a real effort to hold the home together. Yet she was a pensioner on his bounty, obliged to wait for the propitious mood and moment. Under her hand at this moment was Mary Moulton's check for one thousand dollars, more than she had ever had at one time in her life. She could not touch it, but Clarence would turn it into bills, and stuff them carelessly into his pocket, to be scattered in the next week or two wherever his idle fancy saw fit.
"Why, for living, and travelling expenses," she answered, with what dignity she could muster.
"Thought you had some money," he grumbled in evident distaste.
"Come in here a moment," Rachael said in a voice that rather to his surprise he obeyed. "Sit down there," she went on, and Clarence, staring at her a little stupidly, duly seated himself. His wife twisted about in her desk chair so that she could rest an arm upon the back of it, and faced him seriously across that arm.
"Clarence," said she, conscious of a certain dryness in her mouth, and a sick quivering and weakness through-out her whole body, "I want to end this."
"What?" asked Clarence, puzzled and dull, as she paused.
"I want to be free," Rachael said, stumbling awkwardly over the phrase that sounded so artificial and dramatic. They looked at each other, Clarence's bewildered look slowly changing to one of comprehension under his wife's significant expression. There was a silence.
"Well?" Clarence said, ending it with an indifferent shrug.
"Our marriage has been a farce for years—almost from the beginning," Rachael asserted eagerly. "You know it, and I know it- -everyone does. You're not happy, and I'm wretched. I'm sick of excuses, and pretending, and prevaricating. There isn't a thing in the world we feel alike about; our life has become an absolute sham. It isn't as if I could have any real influence over you—you go your way, and do as you please, and I take the consequences. I realize now that every word I say jars on you. Why, sometimes when you come into a room and find me there I can tell by the expression on your face that you're angry just at that! I've too much self-respect, I've too much pride, to go on this way. You know how I hate divorce—no woman in the world hates it more—but tell me, honestly, what do we gain by keeping up a life like this? I used to be happy and confident and full of energy a few years ago; now I'm bored all the time. What's the use, what's the use— that's the way I feel about everything—"
"You're not any more tired of it than I am!" Clarence interrupted sullenly.
"Then why keep it up?" she asked urgently. "You've Billy, and your clubs, and your car, to fill your time. There'll be a fuss, of course, and I hate that, but we'll both be away. We've given it a fair trial, but we simply aren't meant for each other. Good heavens! it isn't as if we were the first man and woman who—"
"Don't talk as if I were opposing you," Clarence said with a weary frown.
Rachael, snubbed, instantly fell silent.
"I've got my side in all this dissatisfied business, too," the man presently said with unsteady dignity. "You never cared a damn for me, or what became of me! I've had you ding-donging your troubles at me day and night; it never occurs to you what I'm up against." He looked at his watch. "You want some money?" he asked.
"If you please," Rachael answered, scarlet-cheeked.
"Well, I can write a check—" he began.
"Here's this check of Mary Moulton's for July," Rachael said, nervously adding: "She wants to pay month by month, because I think she hopes you'll rent after August. I believe she'd keep the place indefinitely, on account of being near her mother, and for the boys."
Clarence took the check, and, hardly glancing at it, scrawled his slovenly "C. L. Breckenridge" across the back with a gold-mounted fountain pen. Rachael, whose face was burning, received it back from his hand with a husky "Thank you. You'll have to furnish the grounds, I presume—there will be a referee—nothing need get out beyond the fact that I am the complainant. You—won't contest? You—won't oppose anything?" She hated herself for the question, but it had to be asked.
"Nope," the man said impatiently.
"And"—Rachael hesitated—"and you won't say anything, Clarence," she suggested, "because the papers will get hold of it fast enough!"
"You can't tell me anything about that," he said sullenly. Then there came a silence. Rachael, looking at him, wished that she could hate him a little more, wished that his neglects and faults had made a little deeper impression. For a minute or two neither spoke. Then Clarence got up and left the room, and Rachael sat still, the little slip held lightly between her fingers. The color ebbed slowly from her face, her heart resumed its normal beat, moments went by, the little clock on her desk ticked on and on. It was all over; she was free. She felt strangely shaken and cold, and desolately lonely.
He loved her as little as she loved him. They had never needed each other, yet there was in this severance of the bond between them a strange and unexpected pain. It was as if Rachael's heart yearned over the wasted years, the love and happiness that might have been. Not even the thought of Warren Gregory seemed warm or real to-day; a great void surrounded her spirit; she felt a chilled weariness with the world, with all men—she was sick of life.
On the following day she gave Florence a hint of the situation. It was only fair to warn the important, bustling matron a trifle in advance of the rest of the world. Rachael had had a long night's sleep; she already began to feel deliciously young and free. She was to spend a few nights at the Havilands', and the next week supposedly go to the Princes' at Bar Harbor; really she planned to disappear for a time from her world. She must go up to town for a consultation with her lawyer, and then, when the storm broke, she would slip away to little Quaker Bridge, the tiny village far down on Long Island upon which, quite by chance, she had stumbled two years before. No one would recognize her there, no one of her old world could find her, and there for a month or two she could walk and bathe and dream in wonderful solitude. Then—then Greg would be home again.
"I want to tell you something, Florence," Rachael said to her sister-in-law when she was stretched upon the wide couch in Florence's room, watching with the placidity of a good baby that lady's process of dressing for an afternoon of bridge, or rather the operations with cold cream, rubber face brush, hair tonic, eyebrow stick, powder, rouge, and lip paste that preceded the process of dressing. Mrs. Haviland, even with this assistance, would never be beautiful; in justice it must be admitted that she never thought herself beautiful. But she thought rouge and powder and paste improved her appearance, and if through fatigue or haste she was ever led to omit any or all of these embellishments, she presented herself to the eyes of her family and friends with a genuine sensation of guilt. Perhaps three hours out of all her days were spent in some such occupation; between bathing, manicuring, hair-dressing, and intervals with her dressmaker and her corset woman it is improbable that the subject of her appearance was long out of the lady's mind. Yet she was not vain, nor was she particularly well satisfied with herself when it was done. That about one-fifth of her waking time—something more than two months out of the year—was spent in an unprofitable effort to make herself, not beautiful nor attractive, but something only a little nearer than was natural to a vague standard of beauty and attractiveness, never occurred, and never would occur, to Florence Haviland.
"What is it?" she asked now sharply, pausing with one eyebrow beautifully pencilled and the other less definite than ever by contrast.
"I don't suppose it will surprise you to hear that Clarence and I have decided to try a change," Rachael said slowly.
"How do you mean a change?" the other woman said, instantly alert and suspicious.
"The usual thing," Rachael smiled.
"What madness has got hold of that boy now?" his sister exclaimed aghast.
"It's not entirely Clarence," Rachael explained with a touch of pride.
"Well, then, YOU'RE mad!" the older woman said shortly.
"Not necessarily, my dear," Rachael answered, resolutely serene.
"Go talk to someone who's been through it," Florence warned her. "You don't know what it is! It's bad enough for him, but it's simple suicide for you!"
"Well, I wanted you to hear it from me," Rachael submitted mildly.
"Do you mean to say you've decided, seriously, to do it?"
"Very seriously, I assure you!"
"How do you propose to do it?" Florence asked after a pause, during which she stared with growing discomfort at her sister-in- law.
"The way other people do it," Rachael said with assumed lightness. "Clarence agrees. There will be evidence."
Mrs. Haviland flushed.
"You think that's fair to Clarence?" she asked presently.
"I think that in any question of fairness between Clarence and me the balance is decidedly in my favor!" Rachael said crisply. "Personally, I shall have nothing to do with it, and Clarence very little. Charlie Sturgis will represent me. I suppose Coates and Crandall will take care of Clarence—I don't know. That's all there is to it!"
Her placid gaze roved about the ceiling. Mrs. Haviland gazed at her in silence.
"Rachael," she said desperately, "will you TALK to someone—will you talk to Gardner?"
"Why should I?" Rachael sat up on the couch, the loosened mass of her beautiful hair falling about her shoulders. "What has Gardner or anyone else to do with it? It's Clarence's business, and my business, and it concerns nobody else!" she said warmly. "You look on from the outside. I've borne it for seven years! I'm young, I'm only twenty-eight, and what is my life? Keeping house for a man who insults me, and ignores me, who puts me second to his daughter, and has put me second since our wedding day—making excuses for him to his friends, giving up what I want to do, never knowing from day to day what his mood will be, never having one cent of money to call my own! I tell you there are days and days when I'm too sick at heart to read, too sick at heart to think! Last summer, for instance, when we were down at Easthampton with the Parmalees, when everyone was so wild over bathing, and tennis, and dancing, Clarence wasn't sober ONE MOMENT of the time, not one! One night, when we were dancing—but I won't go into it!"
"I know," Florence said hastily, rather frightened at this magnificent fury. "I know, dear, it's too bad—it's dreadful—it's a great shame. But men are like that! Now Gardner—"
"All men aren't like that! Gardner does that sort of thing now and then, I know," Rachael rushed on, "but Gardner is always sorry. Gardner takes his place as a man of dignity in the world. I am nothing to Clarence; I have never been to him one-tenth of what Billy is! I have borne it, and borne it, and now I just can't— bear it—any longer!"
And Rachael, to her own surprise and disgust, burst into bitter crying, and, stammering some incoherency about an aching head, she went to her own room and flung herself across the bed. The suppressed excitement of the last few days found relief in a long fit of sobbing; Florence did not dare go near her. The older woman tried to persuade herself that the resentment and bitterness of this unusual mood would be washed away, and that Rachael, after a nap and a bath, would feel more like herself, but nevertheless she went off to her game in a rather worried frame of mind, and gave but an imperfect attention to the question of hearts or lilies.
Rachael, heartily ashamed of what she would have termed her schoolgirlish display of emotion, came slowly to herself, dozed over a magazine, plunged into a cold bath, and at four o'clock dressed herself exquisitely for Mrs. Whittaker's informal dinner. Glowing like a rose in her artfully simple gown of pink and white checks, she went downstairs.
Florence had come in late, bearing a beautiful bit of pottery, the first prize, and was again in the throes of dressing, but Gardner was downstairs restlessly wandering about the dimly lighted rooms and halls. He was fond of Rachael, and as they walked up and down the lawn together he tried, in a blunt and clumsy way, to show her his sympathy.
"Floss tells me you're about at the end of your rope—what?" said Gardner. "Clarence is the limit, of course, but don't be too much in a hurry, old girl. We'd be—we'd be awfully sorry to have you come to a smash, don't you know—now!"
Thus Gardner. Rachael gave him a glimmering smile in the early dusk.
"Not much fun for me, Gardner," she said gravely.
"Sure it's not," Gardner answered, clearing his throat tremendously. Neither spoke again until Florence came down, but later, in all honesty, he told his wife that he had pitched into Rachael no end, and she had agreed to go slow.
Florence, however, was not satisfied with so brief a campaign. She and Rachael did not speak of the topic again until the last afternoon of Rachael's stay. Then the visitor, coming innocently downstairs at tea time, was a little confused to see that besides Mrs. Bowditch and her oldest daughter, and old Mrs. Torrence, the Bishop and Mrs. Thomas were calling. Instantly she suspected a trap.
"Rachael, dear," Florence said sweetly, when the greetings were over, "will you take the bishop down to look at the sundial? I've been boasting about it."
"You sound like a play, Florence," her sister-in-law said with a little nervous laugh. "'Exit Rachael and Bishop, L.' Surely you've seen the sundial, Bishop?"
"I had such a brief glimpse of it on the day of the tea," Bishop Thomas said pleasantly, "that I feel as if I must have another look at that inscription!" Smiling and benign, rather impressive in his clerical black, the clergyman got to his feet, and turned an inviting smile to Rachael.
"Shall I take you down, Bishop?" Charlotte asked, her eagerness to be socially useful fading into sick apprehension at her mother's look.
"No, I'll go!" Rachael ended the little scene by catching up her wide hat. "Come on, Bishop," she said courageously, adding, as soon as they were out of hearing, "and if you're going to be dreadful, begin this moment!"
"And why, pray, should I be dreadful?" the bishop asked, smiling reproachfully. "Am I usually so dreadful? I don't believe it would be possible, among these lovely roses"—he drew in a great breath of the sweet afternoon air—"and with such a wonderful sunset telling us to lift up our hearts." And sauntering contentedly along, the bishop gave her an encouraging smile, but as Rachael continued to walk beside him without raising her eyes, presently he added, whimsically: "Would it be dreadful, Mrs. Breckenridge, if one saw a heedless little child—oh, a sweet and dear, but a heedless little child—going too near the cliffs—would it be dreadful to say: 'Look out, little child! There's a terrible fall there, and the water's cold and dark. Be careful!'" The bishop sat down on the carved stone bench that had been set in the circle of shrubs that surrounded the sundial, and Rachael sat down, too.
"Well, what about the child?" he persisted, when there had been a silence.
Rachael raised sombre eyes, her breast rose on a long sigh.
"I am not a child," she said slowly.
"Aren't we all children?" asked the bishop, mildly triumphant.
Rachael, sitting there in Florence's garden, looking down at the white roofs of the village and the smooth sheet of blue that was Belvedere Bay, felt a burning resentment enter her heart. How calm and smug and sure of themselves they were, these bishops and Florences and old lady Gregorys! How easy for them to advise and admonish, to bottle her up with their little laws and platitudes, these good people married to other good people, and wrapped in the warmth of mutual approval and admiration! The bishop was talking—
"Children, yes, the best and wisest of us is no more than that," he was saying dreamily, "and we must bear and forbear with each other. Not easy? Of course it's not easy! But no cross no crown, you know. I have known Clarence a great many years—"
"I am sorry to hurt Florence—God knows I'm sorry for the whole thing!" Rachael said, "but you must admit that I am the best judge of this matter. I've borne it long enough. My mind is made up. You and I have always been good friends, Bishop Thomas"—she laid a beautiful hand impulsively on his arm—"and you know that what you say has weight with me. But believe me, I'm not jumping hastily into this: it's come after long, serious thought. Clarence wants to be free as well—"
"Clarence does?" the clergyman asked, with a disapproving shake of his head.
"He has said so," Rachael answered briefly.
"And what will your life be after this, my child?"
To this she responded merely with a shrug. Perhaps the bishop suspected that such a calm confidence in the future indicated more or less definite plans, for he gave her a shrewd and searching look, but there was nothing to be said. The lovely lady continued to stare at the soft turf with unsmiling eyes, and the clergyman could only watch her in puzzled silence.
"After all," Rachael said presently, giving him a rueful glance, "what are the statistics? One marriage in twelve fails—fails openly, I mean—for of course there are hundreds that don't get that far. Sixty thousand last year!"
"If those ARE the statistics," said the bishop warmly, "it is a disgrace to a Christian country!"
"But you don't call this a Christian country?" Rachael said perversely.
"It is SUPPOSEDLY so," the clergyman asserted.
"Supposedly Christian," she mused, "and yet one marriage out of every twelve ends in divorce, and you Christians—well, you don't CUT us! We may not keep holy the Sabbath day, we may not honor our fathers and mothers, we may envy our neighbor's goods, yes, and his wife, if we like, but still—you don't refuse to come to our houses!"
"I don't know you in this mood," said Bishop Thomas coldly.
"Call it Neroism, or Commonsensism, or Modernism, or anything you like," Rachael said with sudden fire, "but while you go on calling what you profess Christianity, Bishop, you simply subscribe to an untruth. You know what our lives are, myself and Florence and Gardner and Clarence; is there a Commandment we don't break all day long and every day? Do we give our coats away, do we possess neither silver nor gold in our purses, do we love our neighbors? Why don't you denounce us? Why don't you shun the women in your parish who won't have children as murderers? Why don't you brand some of the men who come to your church—men whose business methods you know, and I know, and all the world knows—as thieves!"
"And what would my branding them as murderers and thieves avail?" asked the bishop, actually a little pale now, and rising to face her as she rose. "Are we to judge our fellowmen?"
"I'm not," Rachael said, suddenly weary, "but I should think you might. It would be at least refreshing to have you, or someone, demonstrate what Christianity is. It would be good for our souls. Instead," she added bitterly, "instead, you select one little thing here, and one little thing there, and putter, and tinker, and temporize, and gloss over, and build big churches, with mortgages and taxes and insurance to pay, in the name of Christianity! If I were little Annie Smith, down in the village here, I could get a divorce for twenty-five dollars, and you would never hear of it. But Clarence Breckenridge is a millionaire, and the Breckenridges have gone to your church for a hundred years, and so it's a scandal that must be averted if possible!"
"The church frowns on divorce," said the bishop sternly. "At the very present moment the House of Bishops, to which I have the distinguished honor to belong, is considering taking a decided stand in the matter. Divorce is a sin—a sin against one of God's institutions. But when I find a lady in this mood," he continued, with a sort of magnificent forbearance, "I never attempt to combat her views, no matter how extraordinarily jumbled and—and childish they are. As a clergyman, and as an old friend, I am grieved when I see a hasty and an undisciplined nature about to do that which will wreck its own happiness, but I can only give a friendly warning, and pass on. I do not propose to defend the institution to which I have dedicated my life before you or before anyone. Shall we go back to the house?"