"Perhaps we had better," Rachael agreed. And as they went slowly along the wide brick walk she added in a softened tone: "I do appreciate your affectionate interest in—in us, Bishop. But—but it does exasperate me, when so many strange things are done in the name of Christianity, to have—well, Florence for instance—calmly decreeing that just these other certain things shall NOT be done!"
"Then, because we can't all be perfect, it would be better not to try to be good at all?" the bishop asked, restored to equanimity by what he chose to consider an unqualified apology, and resuming his favorite attitude of benignant adviser.
Rachael sighed wearily in the depth of her soul. She knew that kindly admonitory tone, that complacent misconception of her meaning. She said to herself that in a moment he would begin to ask himself questions, and answer them himself.
"We are not perfect ourselves," said the clergyman benevolently, "yet we expect perfection in others. Before we will even change our own lives we like to look around and see what other people are doing. Perfectly natural? Of course it's perfectly natural, but at the same time it's one of the things we must fight. I shall have to tell you a little story of our Rose, as I sometimes tell some of my boys at the College of Divinity," continued the good man. Rose, an exemplary unmarried woman of thirty, was the bishop's daughter. "Rose," resumed her father, "wanted to study the violin when she was about twelve, and her peculiar old pater decided that first she must learn to cook. Her mother quite agreed with me, and the young lady was accordingly taken out to the kitchen and introduced to some pots and pans. I also got her some book, I've forgotten its name—her mother would remember; 'Complete Manual of Cookery'—something of that sort. A day or two later I asked her mother how the cooking went. 'Oh,' she said, 'Rose has been reading that book, and she knows more than all the rest of us!'"
Rachael laughed generously. They had reached the house again now, and Florence, glancing eagerly toward them, was charmed to see both smiling. She felt that the bishop must have influenced Rachael, and indeed the clergyman himself was sure that her mood was softer, and found opportunity before he departed to say to his hostess in a low tone that he fancied that they would hear no more of the whole miserable business.
"Oh, Bishop, how wonderful of you!" said Florence thankfully.
Two weeks later the news of the Breckenridge divorce burst like a bomb in the social sky. Immediately pictures of the lovely wife, of Clarence, of the town house and the country house began to flood the evening papers, and even the morning journals found room for a column or two of the affair on inside pages. Clarence was tracked to his mountain retreat, and as much as possible was made of his refusal to be interviewed. Mrs. Breckenridge was nowhere to be found.
The cold wind of publicity could not indeed reach her in the quiet lanes and along the sandy shore of Quaker Bridge. Rachael, known to everyone but her kind old landlady as "Mrs. Prescott," could even glance interestedly at the papers now and then. Her identity, in three long and peaceful months, was not even so much as suspected. She did not mind the plain country table, the inconvenient old farmhouse; she loved her new solitude. Unquestioned, she dreamed through the idle days, reading, thinking, sleeping like a child. She spent long hours on the seashore watching the lazy, punctual flow and tumble of the waves that were never hurried, never delayed; her eyes followed the flashing wings of the gulls, the even, steady upward beat of strong pinions, the downward drifting through blue air that was of all motion the most perfect.
And sometimes in those hours it seemed to Rachael that she was no more in the great scheme of things than one of these myriad gulls, than one of the grains of sand through which she ran her white, unringed fingers. Clarence was a dream, Belvedere Bay was a dream; it was all a hazy, dim memory now: the cards and the cocktails, the dancing and tennis, the powder and lip-red in hot rooms and about glittering dinner tables. What a hurry and bustle and rush it all was—for nothing. The only actualities were the white sand and the cool green water, and the summer sun beating down warmly upon her bare head.
She awakened every morning in a large, bright, bare room whose three big windows looked into rustling maple boughs. The steady rushing of surf could be heard just beyond the maples. Sometimes a soft fog wrapped the trees and the lawn in its pale folds, and the bell down at the lighthouse ding-donged through the whole warm, silent morning, but more often there was sunshine, and Rachael took her book to the beach, got into her stiff, dry bathing suit, in a small, hot bathhouse furnished only by a plank bench and a few rusty nails, and plunged into the delicious breakers she loved so well. Busy babies, digging on the beach, befriended her, and she grew to love their sudden tears and more sudden laughter, their stammered confidences, and the touch of their warm, sandy little hands. She became an adept at pinning up their tiny bagging undergarments, and at disentangling hat elastics from the soft hair at the back of moist little necks. If a mother occasionally showed signs of friendliness, Rachael accepted the overture pleasantly, but managed to wander next day to some other part of the beach, and so evade the definite beginning of a friendship.
The warm sunshine, flavored by the salty sea, soaked into her very bones. Everything about Quaker Bridge was bare, and worn, and clean; nothing was crowded, or hurried, or false. Barren dunes, and white, bleaching sand, colorless little houses facing the elm- lined main street, colorless planks outlining the road to the water; the monotonous austerity, the pure severity of the little ocean village was full of satisfying charm for her. If she climbed a sandy rise beyond Mrs. Dimmick's cottage, and faced the north, she could see the white roadway, winding down to Clark's Bar, where the ocean fretted year after year to free the waters of the bay only twelve feet away. Beyond on the slope, was the village known as Clark's Hills, a smother of great trees with a weather- whipped spire and an occasional bit of roof or fence in evidence, to show the habitation of man.
In other directions, facing east or west or south, there was nothing but the sand, and the coarse straggling bushes that rooted in the sand, and the clear blue dome of the sky. Rachael, whose life had been too crowded, gloried in the honey-scented emptiness of the sand hills, the measureless, heaving surface of the ocean, the dizzying breadth and space in which, an infinitesimal speck, she moved.
She had sensibly taken her landlady, old Mrs. Dimmick, into her confidence, and pleased to be part of the little intrigue, and perhaps pleased as well to rent her two best rooms to this charming stranger, the old lady protected the secret gallantly. It was all much more simple than Rachael had feared it would be. Nobody questioned her, nobody indeed paid attention to her; she wandered about in a blissful isolation as good for her tired soul as was the primitive life she led for her tired body.
Yet every one of the idle days left its mark upon her spirit; gradually a great many things that had seemed worth while in the old life showed their true and petty and sordid natures now; gradually the purifying waters of solitude washed her soul clean. She began to plan for the future—a future so different from the crowded and hurried past!
Warren Gregory's letters came regularly, postmarked London, Paris, Rome. They were utterly and wholly satisfying to Rachael, and they went far to make these days the happiest in her life. Her heart would throb like a girl's when she saw, on the little drop-leaf table in the hallway, the big square envelope addressed in the doctor's fine hand; sometimes—again like a girl—she carried it down to the beach before breaking the seal, thrilled with a thousand hopes, unready to put them to the test. Yesterday's letter had said: "My dearest,"—had said: "Do you realize that I will see you in five weeks?" Could to-day's be half as sweet?
She was never disappointed. The strong tide of his devotion for her rose steadily through letter after letter; in August the glowing letters of July seemed cold by contrast, in September every envelope brought her a flaming brand to add to the fires that were beginning to blaze within her. In late September there was an interval; and Rachael told herself that now he was on the ocean—now he was on the ocean—
By this time the digging babies were gone, the beach was almost deserted. Little office clerks, men and women, coming down for the two weeks of rest that break the fifty of work, still arrived on the late train Saturday, and went away on the last train two weeks from the following Sunday, but there were no more dances at the one big hotel, and some of the smaller hotels were closed. The tall, plain, attractive woman—with the three children and the baby, who drove over from Clark's Hills every day, and, who, for all her graying hair and sun-bleached linens, seemed to be of Rachael's own world—still brought her shrieking and splashing trio to the beach, but she had confided to Mrs. Dimmick, who had known her for many summers, that even her long holiday was drawing to a close. Mrs. Dimmick brought extra blankets down from the attic, and began to talk of seeing her daughter in California. Rachael, drinking in the glory of the dying summer, found each day more exquisite than the last, and gratified her old hostess by expressing her desire to spend all the rest of her life in Quaker Bridge.
She had, indeed, come to like the villagers thoroughly; not the summer population, for the guests at all summer hotels are alike uninteresting, but for the quiet life that went on year in and year out in the little side streets: the women who washed clothes and swept porches, who gardened with tow-headed babies tumbling around them, who went on Sundays to the little bald-faced church at ten o'clock. Rachael got into talk with them, trying to realize what it must be to walk a hot mile for the small transaction of selling a dozen eggs for thirty cents, to spend a long morning carefully darning an old, clean Nottingham lace curtain that could be replaced for three dollars. She read their lives as if they had been an absorbing book laid open for her eyes. The coming of the Holladay baby, the decline and death of old Mrs. Bird, the narrow escape of Sammy Tew from drowning, and the thorough old-fashioned thrashing that Mary Trimble gave her oldest son for taking a little boy like Sammy out beyond the "heads,"—all these things sank deep into the consciousness of the new Rachael. She liked the whitewashed cottages with their blazing geraniums and climbing honeysuckle, and the back-door yards, with chickens fluffing in the dust, and old men, seated on upturned old boats, smoking and whittling as they watched the babies "while Lou gets her work caught up".
October came in on a storm, the most terrifying storm Rachael had ever seen. Late in the afternoon of September's last golden day a wind began to rise among the dunes, and Rachael, who, wrapped in a white wooly coat and deep in a book, had been lying for an hour or two on the beach, was suddenly roused by a shower of sand, and sat up to look at the sky. Clouds, low and gray, were moving rapidly overhead, and although the tide was only making, and high water would not be due for another hour, the waves, emerald green, swift, and capped with white, were already touching the landmost water-mark.
Quickly getting to her feet, she started briskly for home, following the broken line of kelp and weeds, grasses, driftwood, and cocoanut shells that fringed the tide-mark, and rather fascinated by the sudden ominous change in sea and sky. In the little village there was great clapping of shutters and straining of clotheslines, distracted, bareheaded women ran about their dooryards, doors banged, everywhere was rush and flutter.
"D'clare if don't think th' folks at Clark's Hills going to be shut of completely," said Mrs. Dimmick, bustling about with housewifely activity, and evidently, like all the village and like Rachael herself, a little exhilarated by the oncoming siege.
"What will they do?" Rachael demanded, unhooking a writhing hammock from the porch as the old woman briskly dragged the big cane rockers indoors.
"Oh, ther' wunt no hurt come t'um," Mrs. Dimmick said. "But—come an awful mean tide, Clark's Bar is under water. They'll jest have to wait until she goes down, that's all."
"Shell I bring up some candles from suller; we ain't got much karosene!" Florrie, the one maid, demanded excitedly. Chess, the hired man, who was Florrie's "steady," began to bring wood in by the armful, and fling it down by the airtight stove that had been set up only a few days before.
The wind began to howl about the roof; trees in the dooryard rocked and arched. Darkness fell at four o'clock, and the deafening roar of the ocean seemed an actual menace as the night came down. Chess and Florrie, after supper, frankly joined the family group in the sitting-room, a group composed only of Rachael and Mrs. Dimmick and two rather terrified young stenographers from the city.
These two did not go to bed, but Rachael went upstairs as usual at ten o'clock, and drifted to sleep in a world of creaking, banging, and roaring. A confusion and excited voices below stairs brought her down again rather pale, in her long wrapper, at three. The Barwicks, mother, father, and three babies, had left their beach cottage in the night and the storm to seek safer shelter and the welcome sound of other voices than their own.
After that there was little sleep for anyone. Still in the roaring darkness the clocks presently announced morning, and a neighbor's boy, breathless, dripping in tarpaulins, was blown against the door, and burst in to say with youthful relish that the porches of the Holcomb house were under water, and the boardwalk washed away, and folks said that the road was all gone betwixt here and the lighthouse. Rain was still falling in sheets, and the wind was still high. Rachael braved it, late in the afternoon, to go out and see with her own eyes that the surf was foaming and frothing over the deserted bandstand at the end of the main street, and got back to the shelter of the house wet and gasping, and with the first little twist of personal fear at her heart. Suppose that limitless raging green wall down there rose another ten—another twenty—feet, swept deep and roaring and resistless over little Quaker Bridge, plunged them all for a few struggling, hopeless moments into its emerald depths, and then washed the little loosely drifting bodies that had been men and women far out to sea again?
What could one do? No trains came into Quaker Bridge to-day; it was understood that there were washouts all along the line. Rachael sat in the dark, stuffy little sitting-room with the placid Barwick baby drowsing in her lap, and at last her face reflected the nervous uneasiness of the other women. Every time an especially heavy rush of rain or wind struck the unsubstantial little house, Mrs. Barwick said, "Oh, my!" in patient, hopeless terror, and the two young women looked at each other with a quick hissing breath of fear.
The night was long with horror. There were other refugees in Mrs. Dimmick's house now; there were in all fifteen people sitting around her little stove listening to the wind and the ocean. The old lady herself was the most cheerful of the group, although Rachael and one or two of the others managed an appearance at least of calm.
"Declare," said the hostess, more than once, "dunt see what we's all thinkin' of not to git over to Clark's Hills 'fore the bar was under water! They've got sixty-foot elevation there!"
"I'd just as soon try to get there now," said Miss Stokes of New York eagerly.
"There's waves eight feet high washin' over that bar," Ernest Barwick said, and something in the simple words made little Miss Stokes look sick for a moment.
"What's our elevation?" Rachael asked.
"'Bout—" Mr. Barwick paused. "But you can't tell nothing by that," he contented himself with remarking after a moment's thought.
"But I never heard—I never HEARD of the sea coming right over a whole village!" Rachael hated herself for the fear that dragged the words out, and the white lips that spoke them.
"Neither did I!" said half a dozen voices. There was silence while the old clock on the mantel wheezed out a lugubrious eight strokes. "LORD, how it rains!" muttered Emily Barwick.
Nine o'clock—ten o'clock. The young women, the old woman, the maid and man who would be married some day if they lived, the husband and wife who had been lovers like them only a few years ago, and who now had these three little lives to guard, all sat wrapped in their own thoughts. Rachael sat staring at the stove's red eye, thinking, thinking, thinking. She thought of Warren Gregory; his steamer must be in now, he must be with his mother in the old house, and planning to see her any day. To-morrow—if there was a to-morrow—might bring his telegram. What would his life be if he might never see her again? She could not even leave him a note, or a word; on this eve of their meeting, were they to be parted forever? Should she never tell him how dearly—how dearly—she loved him? Tears came to her eyes, her heart was wrung with exquisite sorrow.
She thought of Billy—poor little Billy—who had never had a mother, who needed a mother so sadly, and of her own mother, dead now, and of the old blue coat of thirteen years ago, and the rough blue hat. She thought of her great-grandmother in the little whitewashed California cottage under the shadow of the blue mountains, with the lilacs and marigolds in the yard. And colored by her new great love, and by the solemn fears of this endless night, Rachael found a tenderness in her heart for all those shadowy figures that had played a part in her life.
At midnight there came a thundering crash on the ocean side of the house.
"Oh, God, IT'S THE SEA!" screamed Emily Barwick. They all rushed to the door and flung it open, and in a second were out in the wild blackness of the night. Still the roaring and howling and shrieking of the elements, still the infuriated booming of the surf, but—thank God—no new sound. There was no break in the flying darkness above them; the street was a running sheet of water in the dark.
Yet strangely they all went back into the house vaguely quieted. Rachael presently said that no matter what was going to happen, she was too cold and tired to stay up any longer, and went upstairs to bed. Miss Stokes and Miss McKim settled themselves in their chairs; Emily Barwick went to sleep with her head against her husband's thin young shoulder. Somebody suggested coffee, and there was a general move toward the kitchen.
Rachael, a little bewildered, woke in heavenly sunlight in exactly the position she had taken when she crept into bed the night before. For a few minutes she lay staring at the bright old homely room, and at the clock ticking briskly toward nine.
"Dear Lord, what a thing sunshine is?" she said then slowly. No need to ask of the storm with this celestial reassurance flooding the room. But after a few moments she got up and went to the window. The trees, battered and torn, were ruffling such leaves as were left them gallantly in the wind, the paths still ran yellow water, the roadway was a muddy waste, eaves were still gurgling, and everywhere was the drip and splash of water. But the sky was clear and blue, and the air as soft as milk.
As eager as a child Rachael dressed and ran downstairs, and was out in the new world. The fresh wind whipped a glorious color into her face; the whole of sea and sky and earth seemed to be singing.
Trees were down, fences were down, autumn gardens were all a wreck; and the ocean, when she came to the shore, was still rolling wild and high. But it was blue now, and the pure sky above it was blue, and there was utter protection and peace in the sunny air. Landmarks all along the shore were washed away, and beyond the first line of dunes were pools left by the great tide, scummy and sinking fast into the sand, to leave only a fringe of bubbles behind. Minor wreckages of all sorts lay scattered all along the beach: poles and ropes, boxes and barrels.
Rachael walked on and on, breathing deep, swept out of herself by the fresh glory of the singing morning. Presently she would go back, and there would be Warren's letter, or his telegram, or perhaps himself, and then their golden days would begin—their happy time! But even Warren to-day could not intrude upon her mood of utter gratitude and joy in just living—just being young and alive in a world that could hold such a sea and such a sky.
A full mile from the village, along the ocean shore, a stream came down from under a cliff, a stream, as Rachael and investigating children had often proved to their own satisfaction, that rose in a small but eminently satisfactory cave. The storm had washed several great smooth logs of driftwood into the cave, and beyond them to-day there was such a gurgling and churning going on that Rachael, eager not to miss any effect of the storm, stepped cautiously inside.
The augmented little river was three times its usual size, and was further made unmanageable by the impeding logs swept in by the high tide. Straw and weeds and rubbish of every description choked its course, and little foaming currents and backwaters almost filled the cave with their bubbling and swirling.
Rachael, with a few casual pushes of a sturdy little shoe, accomplished such surprising results in freeing and directing the stream that she fell upon it in sudden serious earnest, grasping a long pole the better to push obstructing matters aside, and growing rosy and breathless over her self-imposed and senseless undertaking.
She had just loosened a whole tangle of wreckage, and had straightened herself up with a long, triumphant "Ah-h!" of relief, as the current rushed it away, when a shadow fell over the mouth of the cave. Looking about in quick, instinctive fear, she saw Warren Gregory smiling at her.
For only one second she hesitated, all girlhood's radiant shyness in her face. Then she was in his arms, and clinging to him, and for a few minutes they did not speak, eyes and lips together in the wild rapture of meeting.
"Oh, Greg—Greg—Greg!" Rachael laughed and cried and sang the words together. "When did you come, and how did you get here? Tell me—tell me all about it!" But before he could begin to answer her their eager joy carried them both far away from all the conversational landmarks, and again they had breath only for monosyllables, instinct only to cling to each other.
"My girl, my own girl!" Warren Gregory said. "Oh, how I've missed you—and you're more beautiful than ever—did you know it? More beautiful even than I remembered you to be, and that was beautiful enough!"
"Oh, hush!" she said, laughing, her fingers over the mouth that praised her, his arm still holding her tight.
"I'll never hush again, my darling! Never, never in all the years we spend together! I am going to tell you a hundred times a day that you are the most beautiful, and the dearest—Oh, Rachael, Rachael, shall I tell you something? It's October! Do you know what that means?"
"Yes, I suppose I do!" She laughed, and colored exquisitely, drawing herself back the length of their linked arms.
"Do you know what you're going to BE in about thirty-six hours?"
"Now—you embarrass me! Was—was anything settled?"
"Shall you like being Mrs. Gregory?"
"Greg—" Tears came to her eyes. "You don't know how much!" she said in a whisper.
They sat down on a great log, washed silver white with long years of riding unguided through the seas, and all the wonderful world of blue sky and white sand might have been made for them. Rachael's hand lay in her lover's, her glorious eyes rarely left his face. Browned by his summer of travel, she found him better than ever to look upon; hungry after these waiting months, every tone of his voice held for her a separate delight.
"Did you ever dream of happiness like this, Rachael?"
"Never—never in my wildest flights. Not even in the past few months!"
"What—didn't trust me?"
"No, not that. But I've been rebuilding, body and soul. I didn't think of the future or the past. It was all present."
"With me," he said, "it was all future. I've been counting the days. I've not done that since I was at school! Rachael, do you remember our talk the night after the Berry Stokes' dinner?"
"Do I remember it?"
"Ah, my dear, if anyone had said that night that in six months we would be sitting here, and that you would have promised yourself to me! You don't know what my wife is going to mean to me, my dearest. I can't believe it yet!"
"It is going to mean everything in life to me," she said seriously. "I mean to be the best wife a man ever had. If loving counts—"
"Do you mean that?" he said eagerly. "Say it—do you mean that you love me?"
"Love you?" She stood up, pressing both hands over her heart as if there were real pain there. For a few paces she walked away from him, and, as he followed her, she turned upon him the extraordinary beauty of her face transfigured with strong emotion.
"Greg," she said quietly, "I didn't know there was such love! I've heard it called fire and pain and restlessness, but this thing is ME! It is burning in me like flame, it is consuming me. To be with you"—she caught his wrist with one hand, and with her free hand pointed out across the smiling ocean—"to be with you and KNOW you were mine, I could walk straight out into that water, and end it all, and be glad—glad—glad of the chance! I loved you yesterday, but what is this to-day, when you have kissed me, and held me in your arms!" Her voice broke on something like a sob, but her eyes were smiling. "All my life I've been asleep," said Rachael. "I'm awake now—I'm awake now! I begin to realize how helpless one is— to realize what I should have done if you hadn't come—"
"My darling," Gregory said, his arms about her "what else—feeling as we feel—could I have done?"
Held in his embrace, she rested her hands upon his shoulders, and looked wistfully into his eyes.
"It is as WE feel, isn't it?" she said. "I mean, it isn't only me? You—you love me?"
Looking down at her dropped, velvety lashes, feeling the warm strong beat of her heart against his, holding close as he did all her glowing and fragrant beauty, Warren Gregory felt it the most exquisite moment of his life. Her youth, her history, her wonderful poise and sureness so intoxicatingly linked with all a girl's unexpected shyness and adorable uncertainties, all these combined to enthrall the man who had admired her for many years and loved her for more than one.
"Love you?" he asked, claiming again the lips she yielded with such a delicious widening of her eyes and quickening of breath.
"You see, Warren," she said presently, "I'm not a girl. I give myself to you with a knowledge and a joy no girl could possibly have. I don't want to coquette and delay. I want to be your wife, and to learn your faults, and have you learn mine, and settle down into harness—one year, five years—ten years married! Oh, you don't know how I LONG to be ten years married. I shan't mind a bit being nearly forty. Forty—doesn't it sound SETTLED, and sedate— and that's what I want. I—I shall love getting gray, and feeling that you and I don't care so much about going places, don't you know? We'll like better just being home together, won't we? We're older than most people now, aren't we?"
He laughed aloud at the bright face so enchantingly young in its restored beauty. He had expected to find her charming, but in this new phase of girlishness, of happiness, she was a thousand times more charming than he had dreamed. It was hard to believe that this eager girl in a striped blue and yellow and purple skirt, and rough white crash hat, was the bored, the remote, the much-feared Mrs. Clarence Breckenridge. Something free and sweet and virginal had come back to her, or been born in her. She was like no phase of the many phases in which he had known her; she was a Rachael who had never known the sordid, the disillusioning side of life. Even her seriousness had the confident, eager quality of youth, and her gayety was as pure as a child's. She had cast off the old sophistication, the old recklessness of speech; she was not even interested in the old associates. The world for her was all in him and their love for each other, and she walked back to Quaker Bridge, at his side, too wholly swept away from all self- consciousness to know or to care that they were at once the target for all eyes.
A wonderful day followed, many wonderful days. Doctor Gregory's great touring car and his livened man were at Mrs. Dimmick's door when they got back, an incongruous note in little Quaker Bridge, still gasping from the great storm.
"Your car?" Rachael said. "You drove down?"
"Yesterday. I put up at Valentine's—George Valentine's, you know, at Clark's Hills."
"Oh, that's my nice lady—gray haired, and with three children?" Rachael said eagerly. "Do you know her?"
"Know her? Valentine is my closest associate. They meet us in town to-morrow: he's to be best man. You'll have to have them to dinner once a month for the rest of your life!"
The picture brought her happy color, the shy look he loved.
"I'm glad, Greg. I like her immensely!"
They were at the car; she must flush again at the chauffeur's greeting, finding a certain grave significance, a certain acceptance, in his manner.
"Wife and baby well, Martin?"
"Very well, thank you, Mrs. Breckenridge."
"Still in Belvedere Hills?"
"Well, just at present, yes, Madam."
"You see, I am looking for suitable quarters for all hands," Doctor Gregory said, his laugh drowning hers, his eyes feasting on her delicious confusion. She was aware that feminine eyes from the house were watching her. Presently she had kissed Mrs. Dimmick good-bye. Warren had put his man in the tonneau; he would take the wheel himself for the three hours' run into town.
"Good-bye, my dear!" said the old lady, adding with an innocent vacuity of manner quite characteristic of Quaker Bridge. "Let me know when the weddin's goin' to be!"
"I'll let you know right now," said Doctor Gregory, who, gloved and coated, was bustling about the car, deep in the mysterious rites incidental to starting. "It's going to be to-morrow!"
"Good grief!" exclaimed Mrs. Dimmick delightedly. "Well," she added, "folks down here think you've got an awfully pretty bride!"
"I'm glad she's up to the standard down here," Warren Gregory observed. "Nobody seems to think much of her looks up in the city!"
Rachael laughed and leaned from her place beside the driver to kiss the old lady again and to wave a general good-bye to Florrie and Chess and the group on the porch. As smoothly as if she were launched in air the great car sprang into motion; the storm-blown cottages, the battered dooryards, the great shabby trees over the little post office all swept by. They passed the turning that led to Clark's Bar, and a weather-worn sign-post that read "Quaker Bridge, 1 mile." It was not a dream, it was all wonderfully true: this was Greg beside her, and they were going to be married!
Rachael settled back against the deep, soft cushions in utter content. To be flying through the soft Indian summer sunshine, alone with Greg, to actually touch his big shoulder with her own, to command his interest, his laughter, his tenderness, at will— after these lonely months it was a memorable and an enchanting experience. Their talk drifted about uncontrolled, as talk after long silence must: now it was a waiter on the ocean liner of whom Gregory spoke, or perhaps the story of a small child's rescue from the waves, from Rachael. They spoke of the roads, splendidly hard and clean after the rain, and of the villages through which they rushed.
But over their late luncheon, in a roadside inn, the talk fell into deeper grooves, their letters, their loneliness, and their new plans, and when the car at last reached the traffic of the big bridge, and Rachael caught her first glimpse of the city under its thousand smoking chimneys, there had entered into their relationship a new sacred element, something infinitely tender and almost sad, a dependence upon each other, a oneness in which Rachael could get a foretaste of the exquisite communion so soon to be.
They were spinning up the avenue, through a city humming with the first reviving breath of winter. They were at the great hotel, and Rachael was laughing in Elinor Vanderwall's embrace. The linen shop, the milliner, a dinner absurdly happy, and one of the new plays—a sunshiny morning when she and Elinor breakfasted in their rooms, and opened box after box of gowns and hats—the hours fled by like a dream.
"Nervous, Rachael?" asked Miss Vanderwall of the vision that looked out from Rachael's mirror.
"Not a bit!" the wife-to-be answered, feeling as she said it that her hands, busy with long gloves, were shaking, and her knees almost unready to support her.
"It must be wonderful to marry a man like Greg," said the bridesmaid thoughtfully. "He simply IS everything and HAS everything—"
"Ah, Elinor, it's wonderful to marry the man you love!" Rachael turned from the mirror, her blue eyes misted with tears under the brim of her wedding hat.
"YOU!" Elinor smiled. "That I should live to see it! You—in love!"
"And unashamed, and proud of it!" Rachael said with a tremulous laugh. "Are you all ready? Shall we go down?" She turned at the door and put one arm about her friend. "Kiss me, Elinor, and wish me joy," said she.
"I don't have to!" asserted Miss Vanderwall, with a hearty kiss nevertheless, "for it will be your own fault entirely if there's ever the littlest, teeniest cloud in the sky!"
END OF BOOK I
Yet, even then, as Rachael Gregory admitted to herself months later, there had been a cloud in the sky—a cloud so tiny and so vague that for many days she had been able to banish it in the flooding sunshine all about her whenever it crossed her vision.
But it was there, and after a while other tiny clouds came to bear it company, and to make a formidable shadow that all her philosophy could not drive away. Philosophy is not the bride's natural right; the honeymoon is a time of unreason; a crumpled rose-leaf in those first uncertain weeks may loom larger than all the far more serious storms of the years to come.
Rachael, loving at last, was overwhelmed, intoxicated, carried beyond all sanity by the passion that possessed her.
When Warren Gregory came to find her at Quaker Bridge on that unforgettable morning after the storm, a chance allusion to Mrs. Valentine, the charming unknown lady with the gray hair, had distracted Rachael's thoughts from the point at issue. But later on, during the long drive, she had remembered it again.
"But Greg, dear, did you tell me that you and Doctor Valentine drove down yesterday in all that frightful storm?"
"No, no, of course not, my child; we came down late the night before—why, yesterday we couldn't get as far as the gate! Mrs. Valentine's brother was there, and we played thirty-two rubbers of bridge! Sweet situation, you two miles away, and me held up after three months of waiting!"
She said to herself, with a little pain at her heart, that she didn't understand it. It was all right, of course, whatever Greg did was all right, but she did not understand it. To be so near, to have that hideous war of wind and water raging over the world, and not to come somehow—to swim or row or ride to her, to bring her delicious companionship and reassurance out of the storm! Why, had she known that Greg was so near no elements that ever raged could have held her—
But of course, she was reminding herself presently, Greg had never been to Quaker Bridge, he had no reason to suppose her in actual danger; indeed, perhaps the danger had always been more imagined than real. If his hosts had been merely bored by the weather, merely driven to cards, how should he be alarmed?
"Did the Valentines know what a tide we were having in Quaker Bridge?" she asked, after a while.
"Never dreamed it; didn't know we'd been cut off until it was all over!" That was reassuring, at least. "And, you see, I couldn't say much about our plans. Alice Valentine's all wool, of course, but she's anything but a yard wide! She wouldn't have understood— not that it matters, but it was easier not! She was sweet to you at the wedding, and she'll ask us to dinner, and you two will get along splendidly. But she's not as—big as George."
"You mean, she doesn't like the—divorce part of it?"
"Or words to that effect," the doctor answered comfortably. "Of course, she'd never have said a word. But they are sort of simple and old-fashioned. George understands—that's all I care about. Do you see?"
"I see," she answered slowly. But when he spoke again the sunshine came back to her heart; he had planned this, he had planned that, he had wired Elinor, the power boat was ready. She was a woman, after all, and young, and the bright hours of shopping, of being admired and envied, and, above all, of being so newly loved and protected, were opening before her. What woman in the world had more than she, what woman indeed, she asked herself, as he turned toward her his keen, smiling look of solicitude and devotion, had one-tenth as much?
Later on, in that same day, there was another tiny shadow. Rachael, however, had foreseen this moment, and met it bravely.
"How's your mother, Greg?" she asked suddenly.
"Fine," he answered, and with a swift smile for her he added, "and furious!"
"No—is she really furious?" Rachael asked, paling.
"Now, my dearest heart," Warren Gregory said with an air of authority that she found strangely thrilling and sweet, "from this moment on make up your mind that what my good mother does and says is absolutely unimportant to you and me! She has lived her life, she is old, and sick, and unreasonable, and whatever we did wouldn't please her, and whatever anyone does, doesn't satisfy her anyway! In forty years—in less than that, as far as I'm concerned—you and I'll be just as bad. My mother acted like a martyr on the steamer; she was about as gay with her old friends in London as you or I'd be at a funeral; she had an air of lofty endurance and forbearance all the way, and, as I said to Margaret Clay in Paris, the only time I really thought she was enjoying herself was when she had to be hustled into a hospital, and for a day or two there we really thought she was going to have pneumonia!"
Rachael's delightful laugh rang out spontaneously from utter relief of heart.
"Oh, Greg, you're delicious! Tell me about old Lady Frothingham, is she difficult, too? And how's pretty Magsie Clay?"
"Now, if we're married to-morrow," the doctor Went on, too much absorbed in his topic to be lightly distracted. "But do you hear me, Ma'am? How does it sound?"
"It sounds delicious! Go on!"
"If we're married to-morrow, I say—it could be to-day just as well, but I suppose you girls have to buy clothes, and have your hands manicured, and so on—"
"You know we do, to say nothing of lying awake all night talking about our beaux!"
"Well"—he conceded it somewhat reluctantly—"then, to-morrow, some time before I go with Valentine to call for you, I'll go down to see my mother. She'll kiss me, and sigh, and feel martyred. In a month or two she'll call on me at the office. 'Why don't you and your wife come to see me, James?' 'Would you like us to, Mother? We fancied you were angry at us.' 'I am sorry, my son, of course, but I have never been angry. Will you come to-morrow night?' And when we go, my dear, you'd never dream that there was anything amiss, I assure you!"
"I'll make her love me!" said Rachael, smiling tenderly.
"Perhaps some day you'll have a very powerful argument," he said with a significant glance that brought the quick blood to her face. "Mother couldn't resist that!"
She did not answer. It was a part of this new freshness and purity of aspect that she could not answer.
"You asked about Margaret Clay," the doctor remembered presently. "She was the same old sixpence, only growing up now; she owns to nineteen—isn't she more than that? She always did romance and yarn so much about herself that you can't believe anything."
"She's about twenty-one, perhaps no more than twenty," Rachael said, after some thought. "Did they say anything about Parker and Leila?"
"No, but the old lady can't do much harm there. She'll not last another six months. She may leave Margaret a slice, but it won't be much of a slice, for Parker could fight if it was. Leila's pretty safe. We'll have to go to that wedding, by the way!"
"Oh, Greg, the fun of going places together!" She was her happiest self again. His mother and Alice Valentine and everything else but their great joy was forgotten as they lingered over their luncheon and planned for their wedding day.
If they could only have been alone together, always, thought the new-made wife, when two perfect weeks on the powerful motor boat were over, and all the society editors were busily announcing that Doctor and Mrs. James Warren Gregory were furnishing their luxurious apartment in the Rotterdam, where they would spend the winter. They were so happy together; there was never enough time to talk and to be silent, never enough of their little luncheons all by themselves, their theatre trips, their afternoon drives through the sweet, clear early winter sunshine on the Park.
Always in the later years Rachael could feel the joy of these days again when she caught the scent of fresh violets. Never a day passed that Warren did not send her or bring her a fragrant boxful. They quivered on the breast of her gown, and on her dressing-table they made her bedroom sweet. Now and then when she and Warren were to be alone she braided her dark hair and wound it about her head, tucking a few violets against the rich plaits, conscious that the classic simplicity of the arrangement enhanced her beauty, and was pleased in his pleasure.
It suited her whim to carry out the little affectation in her soaps and toilet waters; he could not pick up her handkerchief or hold her wrap for her without freeing the delicate faint odor of her favorite flower. When they met downtown for dinner there was always the little ceremony of finding the florist, and all the operas this winter were mingled for Rachael with the most exquisite fragrance in the world.
These days were perfect. It was only when the outside world entered their paradise that anything less than perfect happiness entered, too. Rachael's old friends—Judy Moran, Elinor, and the Villalongas—said, and said with truth, that she had changed. She had not tried to change, but it was hard for her to get the old point of view now, to laugh at the old jokes, to listen to the old gossip. She had been cold and wretched only a year before, but she had had the confident self-sufficiency of a gypsy who walks bareheaded and irresponsible through a world whose treasure will never come her way. Now Rachael, tremulous and afraid, was the guardian of the great treasure, she knew now what love meant, and she could no longer face even the thought of a life without love.
Tirelessly, and with increasing satisfaction, she studied her husband's character, finding, like all new wives, that almost all her preconceived ideas of him had been wrong. Like all the world, she had always fancied Greg something of an autocrat, positive almost to stubbornness in his views.
Now it was amusing to discover that he was really a rather mild person, except where his work was concerned, rarely taking the initiative in either praising or blaming anybody or anything, deeply influenced by the views of other persons, and content to be rather a listener and onlooker than an active participant in what did not immediately concern him. Rachael found this, for some subtle reasons of her own, highly pleasing. It made her less afraid of her husband's criticism, and spared her many of those tremors common to the first months of married life. Also, it gave her an occasional chance to influence him, even to protect him from his own indifference to this issue or that.
She laughed at him, accusing him of being an impostor. Why, everyone thought Dr. Warren Gregory, with his big scowl and his firm-set jaw, was an absolute Tartar, she exulted, when as a matter of fact he was only a little boy afraid of his wife! He hated, she learned, to be uncertain as to just the degree of dressing expected of him on different occasions, he hated to enter hotels by the wrong doors, to hear her dispraise an opera generally approved, or find good in a book branded by the critics as worthless. With all his pride in her beauty, he could not bear to have her conspicuous; if her laughter or her unusual voice attracted any attention in a public place, she could see that it made him uncomfortable. These things Rachael might have considered flaws in another man. In Warren they were only deliciously amusing, and his reliance upon her, where she had expected only absolute self-possession from him, seemed to make him more her own.
Rachael, daughter of wandering adventurers, had a thousand times more assurance than he. In her secret heart she had no regard for any social law; society was a tool to be used, not a weight under which one struggled helplessly. She dictated where he followed precedent; she laughed where he was filled with apprehension. Seriously, she set her wits and her love to the task of accustoming him to joy, and day by day he flung off the old, half- defined reluctances that still bound him, and entered more fully into the delights of the care-free, radiant hours that lay before them.
His wife saw the change in him, and rejoiced. But what she did not see, as the months went on, was the no less marked change in herself. As Warren's nature expanded, and as he began to reach quite naturally for the various pleasures all about him, Rachael's soul experienced an alteration almost directly opposed.
She became thoughtful, almost reserved, she began to show a certain respect for convention—not for the social conventions at which she had always laughed, and still laughed, but for the fundamental laws of truth, simplicity, and cleanness, upon which the ideal of civilization, at least, is based. She noticed that she was beginning to like "good" persons, even homely, dowdy, good persons, like Alice and George Valentine. She lost her old appetite for scandal, for ugly stories, for reckless speech.
Warren, freed once and for all from his old prejudice, found nothing troublesome now in the thought that she had been another man's wife; it was a common situation, it was generally approved. As in other things, he had had stupidly conventional ideas about it once—that was all. But Rachael winced at the sound of the word "divorce," not because of her own divorce, but at the thought that some other man and woman had promised in their first love what later they could not fulfil, and hated each other now where they had loved each other once, at the thought that perhaps—perhaps one of them loved the other still!
"Divorce is—monstrous," she said soberly to her husband in one of their hours of perfect confidence.
"How can we say it, of all persons, my darling? Don't be hidebound!"
"No," she smiled reluctantly, "I suppose we can't. But—but I never feel like a divorced woman, Warren, I feel like a different woman, but not as if that term fitted me. It sounds so—coarse. Don't you think it does?"
"No, I never thought of it quite that way. Everyone makes mistakes," he answered cheerfully.
"Don't you care—that it's true of me?" she asked.
"Are you trying to make me jealous, you gypsy!" he laughed. But there was no answering laughter in her face.
"Yes, perhaps I am," she admitted, as if she were a little surprised that it was so. And in her next slowly worded sentence she discovered for herself another truth. "I mind it, Warren!" she said. "I wish, with all my heart, that it wasn't so!"
"That isn't very consistent, sweet. Your life made you what you were, the one woman in the world I could ever have loved. Why quarrel with the process?"
"I wish you cared!" she said wistfully.
"Yes—suffered over it—objected. Then I could keep proving to you that I never in my life loved anyone, man, woman, or child, until now!"
"But I believe that, my darling!"
She smiled at his wide, innocent look, a mother's amused yet hopeless smile, and as they rose from their late luncheon he put his arm about her and tipped her beautiful face up toward his own.
"Don't you realize, my darling, that just as you are, you are perfect to me—not nearly perfect, or ninety-nine per cent. perfect, but pressed down and running over, a thousand per cent., a million per cent.?" he asked.
Her dark beauty glowed; she was more lovely than ever in her exquisite content.
"Oh, Warren, if you'd only say that to me over and over!" she begged.
"Dear Heaven, hear the woman! What else DO I do?"
"Oh, I don't mean now. I mean always, all through our lives. It's ALL I want to hear!"
"Do you realize that you are an absolute—little—tyrant?" he asked, laughing. Radiantly she laughed back.
"I only realize one thing in these days," she answered; "I only live for one thing!"
It was true. The world for her now was all in her husband, his smile was her light, and she lived almost perpetually in the sunshine. When they were parted—and they were never long parted— the memory of this glance or that tone, this eager phrase or that sudden laugh, was enough to keep her happy. When they met again, whether she came to meet him in his own hallway, or rose, lovely in her furs, and walked toward him in some restaurant or hotel, joy lent her a new and almost fearful beauty. To dress for him, to make him laugh, to hold his interest, this was all that interested her, and for the world outside of their own house she cared not at all. They had their own vocabulary, their own phrases for moments of mirth or tenderness; among her gowns he had his favorites. among the many expressions of his sensitive face there were some that it was her whimsical pleasure always to commend. Their conversation, as is the way with lovers, was all of themselves, and all of praise.
Long before they were ready for the world it began to make its demands. Rachael loved her own home—they had chosen a large duplex apartment on Riverside Drive—loved the memorable little meals they had before the fire, the lazy, enchanting hours of reading or of music in the big studio that united the two large floors, the scent of her husband's cigar, the rustle of her own gown, the snow slipping and lisping against the window, and it was with great reluctance that she surrendered even one evening. But there was hospitable Vera Villalonga and her dreadful New Year's dance, and there were the Bowditch dinner and the Hoyt dinner and the Parmalee's dance for Katrina. Unwillingly the beautiful Mrs. Gregory yielded to the swift current, and presently they were caught in the rush of the season, and could not have withdrawn themselves except for serious cause.
Rachael smiled a little wryly one morning over Mrs. George Valentine's cordially worded invitation to an informal dinner, but she accepted it as a matter of course, and wore her most beautiful gown. She deliberately set out to capture her hostess' friendship, and simple, sweet Mrs. Valentine could not long resist her guest's beauty and charm—such a young, fresh creature as she was, not a bit one's idea of an adventuress, so genuinely interested in the children, so obviously devoted to Warren.
Rachael, on her side, contemplated the Valentines with deep interest. She found them a rather puzzling study, unlike any married couple that she had ever chanced to know. Alice was one of those good, homely, unfashionable women who seem utterly devoid of the instinct for dressing properly. Her masses of dull brown hair she wore strained from her high forehead and wound round her head in a fashion hopelessly obsolete. Her evening gown, of handsome gray silk, was ruined by those little fussy touches of lace and ruffling that brand a garment instantly as "homemade."
George was one of the plainest of men, shy, awkward, insignificant looking, with a long-featured, pleasant face, and red hair. Warren had told his wife at various times that George was "a prince," and physically, at least, Rachael found him disappointing, especially beside her own handsome husband. She knew he was clever, with a large practice besides his work as head surgeon at one of the big hospitals, but Warren had added to this the information that George was a poor business man, and ill qualified to protect his own interests.
Yet, in his own home—a handsome and yet shabby brownstone house in the West Fifties—he appeared to better advantage. There was a brightness in his plain face when he looked at his wife, and an adoring response in her glance that after twelve years of married life seemed admirable to Rachael. "Alice" was a word continually on his lips; what Alice said and thought and did was evidently perfection. Before the Gregorys had been ten minutes in the house on their first visit he had gone downstairs to inspect the furnace, wound and set a stopped clock, answered the telephone twice, and fondly carried upstairs a refractory four-year-old girl, who came boldly down in her nightgown, with reproaches and requests. On his return from this trip he brought down the one- year-old baby, another girl, delicious in the placid hour between supper and bed, and he and his wife and Warren Gregory exchanged admiring glances as the beautiful Mrs. Gregory took the child delightedly in her arms, contrasting her own dark and glowing loveliness with the tiny Katharine's gold and roses.
It was a quiet evening, but Rachael liked it. She liked their simple, affectionate talk, their reminiscences, the serenity of the large, plainly furnished rooms, the glowing of coal fires in the old-fashioned steel-barred grates. She liked Alice Valentine's placidity, the sureness of herself that marked this woman as more highly civilized than so many of the other women Rachael knew. There was none of Judy's and Gertrude's and Vera's excitability and restlessness here. Alice was concerned neither with her own appearance nor her own wants; she was free to comment with amusement or wonder or admiration upon larger affairs. Rachael wondered, as beautiful women have wondered since time began, what held this man so tightly to this mild, plain woman, and by what special gift of the gods Alice Valentine might know herself secure beyond all question in a world of beauty and charm and youth.
"Well, what d'you think of her, Alice?" Doctor Gregory had asked proudly when his wife was on his arm and leave-taking was in order.
"Think you're lucky, Greg," Mrs. Valentine answered earnestly. "You've got a dear, good, lovely wife!"
"And you are going to let me come and make friends with the boy and the girls some afternoon?" Rachael asked.
"If you WILL," their mother said, and she and Rachael kissed each other. Gregory chuckled, in high feather, all the way home.
"You're a wonder, Ladybird! I have NEVER seen you sweeter nor prettier than you were to-night!"
Rachael leaned back in the car with a long, contented sigh.
"One can see that she was all ready to hate me, Greg; a woman who had been married, and who snapped up her favorite bachelor—"
He laughed triumphantly. "She doesn't hate you now!"
"No, and I'll see to it that she never does. She's my sort of woman, and the children are absolute loves! I like that sort of old-fashioned prejudice—honestly I do—that honor-thy-father-and- thy-mother-and-keep holy-the-sabbath-day sort of person. Don't you, Greg?"
"We—ll, I don't like narrowness, sweet."
"No." Rachael pondered in the dark. "Yet if you're not narrow you seem to be—really the only word for it is—loose," she submitted. "Somehow lately, a great many persons—the girls I know—do seem to be a little bit that way."
"You don't find THEM judging you!" her husband said. Rachael answered only by a rather faint negative; she would not elucidate further. This was one of the things she could never tell Warren, a thing indeed that she would hardly admit to her own soul.
But she said to herself that she knew now the worst evil of divorce. She knew that it coarsened whomever it touched, that it irresistibly degraded, that it lowered all the human standard of goodness and endurance, and self-sacrifice. However justified, it was an evil; however properly consummated, it soiled the little group it affected. The disinclination of a good woman like Alice Valentine to enter into a close friendship with a younger and richer and more beautiful woman whose history was the history of Rachael Gregory was no mere prejudice. It was the feeling of a restrained and disciplined nature for an unchecked and ill- regulated one; it was the feeling of a woman who, at any cost, had kept her solemn marriage vow toward a woman who had broken her word.
Rachael was beginning to find it more comprehensible, even more acceptable, than the attitude of her own old world. Fresh from the Eden that was her life with Warren, she had turned back to the friends whose viewpoint had been hers a few months ago.
Were they changed, or was she? Both were changed, she decided. She had been a cold queen among them once, flattered by their praise and laughter, reckless in speech, and almost as reckless in action. But now her only kingdom was in Warren Gregory's heart. She had no largesse for these outsiders; she could not answer them with her old quick wit now; indeed she hardly heard them. And on their side, where once there had been that certain deference due to the woman who, however wretched and neglected, was still Clarence Breckenridge's wife, now she noticed, with quick shame, a familiarity, a carelessness, that indicated plainly exactly the fine claim to delicacy that she had forfeited. Her position in every way was better now than it had been then. But in some subtle personal sense she had lost caste. A story was ventured when she chanced to be alone with Frank Whittaker and George Pomeroy that her presence would have forbidden in the old days, and Allen Parmalee gave her a sensation of absolute sickness by merrily introducing her to his sister from Kentucky with the words: "Don't stare at her so hard, Bess! Of course you remember her: she was Mrs. Breckenridge last year, but now she's making a much better record as Mrs. Gregory!"
The women were even more frank; Clarence's name was often mentioned in her presence; she was quite simply congratulated and envied.
"My dear," said Mrs. Cowles, at a women's luncheon, "you were extraordinarily clever, of course, but don't forget that you were extremely lucky, too. Clarence making no fuss, taking all the trouble to provide the evidence, and Greg being only too anxious to step into his shoes, made it easy for you!"
"I'm no prude," Rachael smiled, over a raging heart. "But I couldn't see this coming, nobody did. All I could do was to break free before my self-respect was absolutely gone!"
"Go tell that to the White Wings, darling," laughed Mrs. Villalonga, lazily blowing smoke into rings and spirals.
"Seriously, Vera, I mean it!"
"Seriously, Rachael, do you mean to tell me that you hadn't the SLIGHTEST idea—" Mrs. Villalonga roused herself, to smilingly study the other woman's face as she asked the question. "Not a word—not a HINT?"
"Ah, well—" Rachael's face was flaming. She would have put her hand in the fire to be able to say "No." The others laughed cheerfully.
"Nobody misunderstands you, dear: you were in a rotten fix and you got out of it nicely," said fat Mrs. Moran, and Mrs. Villalonga added consolingly: "Why, my heavens, Rachael, I'd leave Booth to- morrow for anyone half as handsome as Warren Gregory!"
In March the Gregorys sent out cards for their first really large entertainment, a Mardi-Gras ball. Rachael and Warren spent many happy hours planning it: the studio was to be cleared, two other big rooms turned into one for the supper, music for dancing, musical numbers for the entertainment; it would be perfect in every detail, one of the notable affairs of the winter. Rachael hailed it as the end of the season. They were to make a flying trip to the Bermudas in April, and after that Rachael happily planned a month or two in the almost deserted city before Warren would be free to get away to the mountains or the boat. It was with a delightful sense of freedom that she realized that her first winter in her new role was nearly over. Next winter her divorce and remarriage would be an old story, there would be other gossip more fascinating and more new, she would be taken quite for granted. Again, she might more easily evade the social demand next winter without exposing herself to the charge of being fickle or changed. This year her brave and dignified facing of the world had been a part of the price she paid for her new happiness. Now it was paid.
And for another reason, half-defined, Rachael was glad to see the months go by. She had been Warren Gregory's wife for nearly six months now, and the rapture of being together was still as great for them both as it had been in the first radiant days of their marriage. For herself, indeed, she knew that the joy was constantly deepening, and even the wild hunger and passion of her heart could find no flaw in his devotion. Her surrender to him was with a glorious and unashamed completeness, the tones of her extraordinary voice deepened when she spoke to him, and in her eyes all who looked might read the story of insatiable and yet satisfied love.
Plans for the big dance presently began to move briskly, and there was much talk of the affair. As hostess, Rachael would not mask, nor would Warren, but they were already amusing themselves with the details of elaborate costumes. Warren's rather stern and classic beauty was to be enhanced by the blue and buff of an officer of the Revolution, fine ruffles falling at wrist and throat, wide silver buckles on square-toed shoes, and satin ribbon tying his white wig. Rachael, separately tempted by the thought of Dutch wooden shoes and of the always delightful hoop skirts, eventually abandoned both because it was not possible historically to connect either costume with the one upon which Warren had decided. She eventually determined to be the most picturesque of Indian maidens, with brown silk stockings disappearing into moccasins, exquisite beadwork upon her fringed and slashed skirt, feathers in her loosened hair, and a small but matchless tiger skin, strapped closely across her back, to lend a touch of distinction to the costume.
On the Monday evening before the dance she tried on her regalia and appeared before her husband and three or four waiting dinner guests, so exquisite a vision of glowing and radiant beauty that their admiration was almost a little awed. Her cheeks were crimson between her loosened rich braids of hair; her eyes shone deeply blue, and the fantastic costume, with its fluttering strips of leather and richly colored wampum, gave an extraordinary quality of youth and almost of frailty to her whole aspect.
"The woman just sent this home. I couldn't resist showing you!" said Rachael, in a shower of compliments. "Isn't my tiger a darling? Warren went six hundred and seventy-two places to catch him. Of course there never was a stripey tiger like this in North America but what care I? I'm only a poor little redskin; a trifling inconsistency like that doesn't worry ME!"
"Me taky you my wikiup-HUH!" said Frank Whittaker invitingly. "You my squaw?"
"Come here, Hattie Fishboy," said her husband, catching her by the arm. His face showed no more than an amused indulgence to her caprice, but Rachael knew he was pleased. "Well, when you first planned this outfit I thought it was going to be an awful mess," said he, turning her slowly about. "But it isn't so bad!"
"Isn't so bad!" Mrs. Bowditch said scornfully; "it's the loveliest thing I ever saw. I'll tell you what, Rachael, if you come down to Easthampton this summer we'll have a play, and you can be an Indian—"
"I'd love it," Rachael said, and making a deep bow before her husband she added: "I'll be Squaw-Afraid-of-Her-Man!"
She heard them laughing as she ran upstairs to change to a more conventional dress.
"Etta," said she, consigning the Indian costume to her maid, "I'm too happy to live!"
Etta, one of those homely, conscientious women who extract in some mysterious way an actual pride and pleasure from the beauty of the women whom they serve, smiled faintly and dully.
"The weather's getting real nice now," she submitted, as one who will not discourage a worthy emotion.
Rachael laughed out joyously. The next instant she had flung up a window and leaned out in the spring darkness. Trees on the drive were rustling over pools of light, a lighted steamboat went slowly up the river, the brilliant eyes of motor cars curved swiftly through the blackness. A hurdy-gurdy, guarded by two shadowy forms, was pouring out a wild jangle of sound from the curb. When the window was shut, a moment later, the old Italian man and woman who owned the musical instrument decided that they must mark this apartment house for many a future visit, and, chattering hopefully, went upon their way. The belladonna in the spangled gown, who had looked down upon them for a brief interval, meanwhile ran down to her guests.
She was in wild spirits, inspired with her most enchanting mood; for an hour or two there was no resisting her. Mrs. Whittaker and Mrs. Bowditch fell as certainly under her spell as did the three men. "She really HAS changed since she married Greg," said Louise Bowditch to Mrs. Whittaker; "but it's all nonsense—this talk about her being no more fun! She's more fun than ever!"
"She's prettier than ever," Gertrude Whittaker said with a sigh.
The next afternoon, a dreary, wet afternoon, at about four o'clock, Warren Gregory stepped out of the elevator, and quietly admitted himself to his own hallway with a latchkey. It was an unusual hour for the doctor to come home, and in the butler's carefully commonplace tone as he answered a few questions Warren knew that he knew.
The awning had been stretched across the sidewalk, caterers' men were in possession, the lovely spacious rooms were full of flowers; the big studio had been emptied of furniture, there were great palms massed in the musicians' corner; maids were quietly busy everywhere; no eye met the glance of the man of the house as he went upstairs.
He found Mrs. Gregory alone in her own luxurious room. No one who had seen her in the excited beauty of the night before would have been likely to recognize her now. She was pale, tense, and visibly nervous, wrapped in a great woolly robe, as if she were cold, and with her hair bound carelessly and tightly back as a woman binds it for bathing.
"You've seen it?" she said instantly, as her husband came in.
"George called my attention to it; I came straight home. I knew"— he was kneeling beside her, one arm about her, all his tenderness and devotion in his face—"I knew you'd need me."
She laid an arm about his neck, sighed deeply, but continued to stare distractedly beyond him.
"Warren, what shall we do?" she said with a certain vagueness and brokenness in her manner that he found very disquieting.
"Do, sweetheart?" he echoed at a loss.
"With all those people coming to-night," she added, mildly impatient.
"Why, what CAN we do, dear?"
"You don't mean," Rachael said incredulously, "that we shall have to GO ON with it?"
"Think a minute, dearest. Why shouldn't we?"
"But"—her color, better since his entrance, was waning again— "with Clarence Breckenridge dying while we dance!" she shuddered.
"Could anything be more preposterous than your letting anything that concerns Clarence Breckenridge affect what you do now?" he asked with kindly patience.
"No, it's not that!" she answered feverishly. "But—but for any old friend one would—would make a difference, and surely—surely he was more than that!"
"He WAS more than that, of course, but he has been less than nothing to you for a long time!"
"Yes, legally—technically, of course," Rachael agreed nervously. She sat silent for a moment, frowning over some sombre thought. "But, Warren, they'll all know of it, they'll all be THINKING of it," she said presently. "I—really I don't think I can go through it!"
"It's too bad, of course," Warren Gregory said with his arm still about her. "I'd give ten thousand dollars to have had the poor fellow select some other time. But you've had nothing to do with it, and you simply must put it out of your mind!"
"It was Billy's marriage, of course!"
"Of course. She was married yesterday, you see, the day she came of age. Poor kid—it's rather a sad start for her, especially with no one but Joe Pickering to console her!"
"She was mad about her father," Rachael said in a preoccupied whisper. "Poor Billy—poor Billy! She never crossed him in anything but this. What did you see it in?"
"The World. How did you hear it?"
"Etta brought up the paper." She closed her eyes and leaned back in her chair. "It seemed to jump at me—his picture and the name. Is he living—where is he?"
"At St. Mark's. He won't live. Poor fellow!" Warren Gregory scowled thoughtfully as he gave a moment's thought to the other man's situation, and then smiled sunnily at his wife with a brisk change of topic. "Well," he said cheerfully, "is anyone in this place glad to see me, or not, or what?"
"It just seems to me that I CANNOT face all those people to- night!" Rachael said, giving him a quick, unthinking kiss before she gently put him away from her, and got to her feet. "It seems so wrong—so coarse—to be utterly and totally indifferent to the man who was my husband a year ago. I don't love him, he is nothing to me, but it's all wrong, this way. If it was Peter Pomeroy or Joe Butler, of COURSE we'd put off our dance—Warren," she turned to him with sudden hope in her eyes, "do you suppose anybody'll come?"
"My dear girl," he said, displeased, "why are you working yourself into a fever over this? It's most unfortunate, but as far as you're concerned, it's unavoidable, and you'll simply have to put a brave face on it, and get through it SOMEHOW! I am absolutely confident that when you've pulled yourself together you'll come through with flying colors. Of course everyone'll come; this is their chance to show you exactly how little they ever think of you as Breckenridge's wife! And this is your chance, too, to act as if you'd never heard of him. Dash it! it does spoil our little party, but it can't be helped!"
"Do you suppose Billy's with him?" Rachael asked, her absent, glittering eyes fixed upon her own person as she sat before her mirror.
"Oh, no—she and Pickering sailed yesterday for England—that's the dreadful thing for her. Clarence evidently spent the whole night at the club, sitting in the library, thinking. Berry Stokes went in for his mail after the theatre, and they had a little talk. He promised to dine there to-night. At about ten this morning Billings, the steward there, saw old Maynard going out— Maynard's one of the directors—and asked him if he wouldn't please go and speak to Mr. Breckenridge. Mayn went over to him, and Clarence said, 'Anything you say—'"
Rachael gave a gasp that was like a shriek, and put her two elbows on the dressing-table, and her face in her hands. It was Clarence's familiar phrase.
"Well, that was all there was to it," her husband said, watching her anxiously. "He had the thing in his pocket. He stood up— everybody heard it. Fellows came rushing in from everywhere. They got him to a hospital."
"Florence is with him, of course?"
"Florence is at Palm Beach."
"Then who IS with him, Greg?"
"My dear girl, how do I know? It's none of my affair!"
Rachael sat still for perhaps two minutes, while her husband, ostentatiously cheerful, moved about the room selecting a change of clothes.
"To-morrow you can take it as hard as you like, sweet," said he. "But to-night you'll have to face the music! Now get into something warm—it's a little cool out—and I'll take you for a spin, and we'll have dinner somewhere. Then we'll get back here about eight o'clock, and take our time dressing."
"Yes, I'll do that," Rachael agreed automatically. A moment later she said urgently: "Warren, isn't there a chance that I'm right about this? Mightn't it be better simply to telephone everyone that the dance is postponed? Make it next week, or Mi-Careme— anything. If they talk—let them! I don't care what they say. They'll talk anyway. But every fibre of my being, every delicate or decent instinct I ever had, rebels against this. Say I'm not well, and let them buzz! I know what you are going to say—I know that it would SEEM less sensitive, less fine, to mourn for one man while I'm another man's wife, than to absolutely ignore what happens to him, but you know what's the truth! I never loved him, and I love every hair of your head—you know that. Only—"
She stopped short, baffled by the difficulty of expressing herself accurately.
"If you really love me, do what I ask you to-night," Warren Gregory said firmly.
His wife sat as if turned to stone for only a few seconds. When she spoke it was naturally and cheerfully.
"I'll be ready in no time, dear. Where are we to dine?" She glanced at her little crystal clock as she spoke, as if she were computing casually the length of the drive before dinner. But what she said in her heart was, "At this time to-morrow it will all have been over for many hours!"
A few days later the Gregorys sailed for Bermuda, Rachael with a sense of whipped and smarting shame that was all the more acute because she could not share it with this dearest comrade and confidant. Warren thought indeed that the miserable episode of the past week had been dismissed from her mind, and delighting like a boy in the little holiday, and proud of his beautiful wife, he found their hours at sea cloudless. With two men, whose acquaintance was made on the steamer, they played bridge, and Rachael's game drew other players from all sides to watch her leads and grin over her bidding. They walked up and down the deck for hours together, they lay side by side in deck chairs lazily watching the blue water creep up and down the painted white ropes of the rail; but they never spoke of Clarence Breckenridge.
The Mardi-Gras dance had been like a hideous dream to Rachael. She had known that it would be hard from the first sick moment in which the significance of Clarence's suicide had rushed upon her. She had known that her arriving guests would be gay and conversational, that the dance and the supper would go with a dash and swing which no other circumstance could more certainly have assured for them; and she knew that in every heart would be the knowledge that Clarence Breckenridge was dying by his own hand, and his daughter on the ocean, and that this woman in the Indian dress, with painted lips and a tiger skin outlining her beautiful figure, had been his wife.
This she had expected, and this was as she had expected. But there were other circumstances that made her feel even more acutely the turn of the screw. Joe Butler, always Clarence's closest friend, did not come to the dance, and at about twelve o'clock an innocent maid delivered to Warren a message that several persons besides Warren heard: "Mr. Butler to speak to you on the telephone, Doctor Gregory."
Everyone could surmise where Joe Butler was, but no one voiced the supposition. Warren, handsome in his skirted coat, knee breeches, and ruffles, disappeared from the room, and the dancing went on. The scene was unbelievably brilliant, the hot, bright air sweet with flowers and perfume, and the more subtle odors of silk and fine linen and powder on delicate skin. Warren was presently among them again, and there was a supper, the hostess' lovely face showing no more strain or concern than was natural to a woman eager to make comfortable nearly a hundred guests.
After supper there was more dancing, and an augmented gayety. There were no more telephone messages, nor was there any definite foundation for the rumor that was presently stealthily circulating. Women, powdering their noses as they waited for their wraps, murmured it in the dressing-rooms; a clown, smoking in the hall, confided it to a Mephistopheles; a pastry cook, after his effusive good-nights, confirmed it as he climbed into the motorcar that held the Pierrette who was his wife: "Dead, poor fellow!"
"Dead, poor Clarence!" said Mrs. Prince, magnificent as Queen Elizabeth, as she and Elinor Vanderwall went downstairs. She had once danced a fancy dance with him more than twenty years ago. "Awful!" said Elinor, shuddering.
After the last guest was gone Warren telephoned to the hospital, Rachael, a little tired and pale in the Indian costume, watching and listening tensely. She was sick at heart. Even into the library, where they stood, the Mardi-Gras disorder had penetrated: a blue silk mask was lying across Warren's blotter, a spatter of confetti lay on the polished floor, and on the reading table was a tray on which were two glasses through whose amber contents a lazy bubble still occasionally rose. The logs that had snapped in the fireplace were gone, only gray ashes remained, and to Rachael, at least, the room's desolation and disorder seemed to typify her own state of mind.
She could tell from Warren's look that he found the whole matter painful and distasteful to an almost unbearable degree; on his handsome serious face was an expression of grim endurance, of hurt yet dignified protest against events. He did not blame her, how could he blame her? But he was suffering in every fibre of his sensitive soul at this sordid notoriety, at this blatant voicing of a hundred ugly whispers in a matter so closely touching the woman he loved.
"Dead?" Rachael said quietly, when his brief conversation was over.
Warren Gregory, setting the telephone back upon the desk, nodded gravely.
Rachael made no comment. For a moment her eyes widened nervously, and a little shudder rippled through her. Then silently she gathered up the leather belt and chains of beads that she had been loosening as she listened, and slowly went toward the door.
They did not speak again of Clarence that night, although they chatted easily for the next hour on other topics, even laughing a little as the various episodes of the evening were passed in review.
But Rachael did not sleep, nor did she sleep during the long hours of the following night. On the third night she wakened her husband suddenly from his sleep.
"Greg—Greg! Won't you talk to me a little? I'm going mad, I think!"
"Rachael! What is it?" stammered the doctor, blinking in the dim light of Rachael's bedside lamp. His wife, haggard, with her rich hair falling in two long braids over her shoulders, was sitting on the side of his bed. "What is it, darling—hear something?" he asked, more naturally, putting his arm about her.
"I've been lying awake—and lying awake!" said Rachael, panting. "I haven't shut my eyes—it's nearly three. Greg, I keep seeing it—Clarence's face, you know, with that horrible scar! What shall I do?"
Shivering, gasping, wild-eyed, she clung to him, and for a long hour he soothed her as if she had been an hysterical child. He put her into a comfortable chair, mixed her a sedative, and knelt beside her, slowly winning her back to calm and sanity again. It was terrible, of course, but no one but Clarence himself was to blame, unless it was poor Billy—
"Yes, I must see Billy when she comes back!" Rachael said quickly, when the tranquillizing voice reached this point. If Warren Gregory's quiet mouth registered any opposition, she did not see it, and he did not express it. She was presently sound asleep, still catching a long childish breath as she slept. But she woke smiling, with all the horrid visions of the past few days apparently blotted out, and she and Warren went gayly downtown to get steamer tickets, and buy appropriate frocks and hats for the spring heat of Bermuda.
In midsummer came the inevitable invitation to visit old friends at Belvedere Bay. Rachael was pleased to accept Mrs. Moran's hospitality for a glorious July week. Warren, to her delight, took an eightdays' holiday, and while he looked to his racquet and golf irons she packed her prettiest gowns. Belvedere Bay welcomed them rapturously, and beautiful Mrs. Gregory was the idol of the hour. Mrs. Moulton, giving a tennis tea during this week, duly sent Mrs. Gregory a card. But when society wondering whether Rachael would really be a guest in her own old home, had duly gathered at the Breckenridge house, young Dicky Moran was so considerate as to be flung from his riding-horse. Neither the Gregorys nor the Morans consequently appeared at the tea, but Rachael, meeting all inquirers on the Moran terrace, late in the afternoon, with the news that Dicky was quite all right, no harm done, asked prettily for details of the affair they had missed.
She told herself that the past really made no difference in the radiant present, but she knew it was not so. In a thousand little ways she had lost caste, and she saw it, if Warren did not. A certain bloom was gone. Girls were not quite as deferentially adoring, women were a little less impressed. The old prestige was somehow lessened. She knew that newcomers at the club, struck by her beauty, were a little chilled by her history. She felt the difference in the very air.
In her musings she went over the old arguments hotly. Why was she merely the "divorced Mrs. Gregory?" Why were these casual inquirers not told of Clarence, of her long endurance of neglect and shame? More than once the thought came to her, that if other, events had been as they were, and only the facts of her divorce and remarriage lacking, she would have been Clarence's widow now.
"What's the difference? It all comes out the same!" commented Warren, to whom she confided this thought.
"Then you and I would have been only engaged now," said Rachael, smiling. "And I would like that!"
"You mean you regret your marriage?" he laughed, his arms about her.
"I'd like to live the first days over and over and over again, Greg!" she answered passionately.
"You are an insatiable creature!" he said. But her earnestness was beginning to puzzle him a little. She was too deeply wrapped in her love for her own happiness or his. There was something almost startling in her intensity. She was jealous of every minute that they were apart; she made no secret of her blind adoration.
Warren had at first found this touching; it had humbled him. Later, in the first months of their marriage, he had shared it, and their mutual passion had seemed to them both a source of inexhaustible delight. But now, even while he smiled at her, his keen sensitiveness where her dignity was concerned had shown him that there was in her attitude something a little pitiful, something even a little absurd.