One bitter December day the thunderbolt fell. Rachael felt that she had always known it, that she had been sitting in this hideous hotel dining-room for years watching Warren—and Margaret Clay.
There was a bitter taste of salt water in her mouth, there was a hideous drumming at her heart. She felt sick and cold from her bewildered brain down to her very feet. When one felt like this— one fainted.
But Rachael did not faint, although it was by sheer power of will that she held her reeling senses. No scene—no, there mustn't be a scene—for Jimmy's sake, for Derry's sake, no scene. She was here, in the Waldorf Grill, of course. She had been—what had she been doing? She had been—she came downtown after breakfast—of course, shopping. Shopping for the children's Christmas. They were to have coasters—they were old enough for coasters—she must go on this quiet way, thinking of the children—five was old enough for coasters—and Jim always looked out for Derry.
She couldn't go out. They hadn't seen her; they wouldn't see her, here in this corner. But she dared not stand up and pass them again. Warren—and Magsie. Warren—and Magsie. Oh, God—God—God— what should she do—she was going to faint again.
Here was her shopping list, a little wet and crumpled because she had put her glove on the snowy handle of the motor-car door. Mary had said that it would be a white Christmas—how could Mary tell?- -this was only the eighteenth, only the eighteenth—ridiculous to be panting this way, like a runner. Nothing was going to hurt her- -
"Anything—anything!" she said to the waiter, with dry, bloodless lips, and a ghastly attempt at a smile. "Yes, that will do. Thank you, yes, I suppose so. Yes, if you will. Thank you. That will do nicely."
And now she must be quiet. That was the main thing now. They must not see her. She had been shopping, and now she was having her lunch in the Grill. If she could only breathe a little less violently—but she seemed to have no control over her heaving breast, she could not even close her mouth. Nobody suspected anything, and if she could but control herself, nobody would, she told herself desperately.
She never knew that the silent, gray-haired waiter recognized her, and recognized both the man and woman who sat only thirty feet away. She had not ordered coffee, but he brought her a smoking pot. It was not the first time he had encountered the situation. Rachael drank the vivifying fluid, and her nerves responded at once.
She sat up, set her lips firmly, forced herself to dispose of gloves and napkin in the usual way. Her breath was coming more evenly—so much was gained. As for this deadly cold and quivering sensation of nausea, that was no more than fatigue and the frightfully cold wind.
So it was Magsie. Rachael had not been seven years a wife to misread Warren's eyes as he looked at the girl. No woman could misread their attitude together, an attitude of wonderful, sweet familiarity with each other's likes and dislikes under all its thrilling newness. Rachael had seen him turn that very glance, that smiling-eyed yet serious look—
Oh, God! it could not be that he had come to care for Magsie! Her hard-won calm was shattered in a second, she was panting and quivering again. Her husband, her own big, tender, clever Warren— but he was hers, and the boys—he was HERS! Her husband—and this other woman was looking at him with all her soul in her eyes, this other woman cared—all the world might see how she cared for him— and was loved in return!
What had she been hearing, lately, of Magsie? Rachael began dizzily to recall what she could. Magsie had been "on the road," she had had a small part in an unsuccessful play early in the winter. Rachael had been for some reason unable to see it, but she had sent Magsie flowers, and—she remembered now—Warren had represented himself as having looked in on the play with some friends, one evening, and as having found it pretty poor stuff. So little had Magsie and Magsie's affairs seemed to matter, then, that Rachael could not even remember the name of the play, nor of hearing it discussed. The world in general had not seemed inclined to make much of the professional advent of Miss Margaret Clay, and presently the play closed, and Warren, in answer to a careless question from Rachael, had said that they would probably take it on the road until spring.
And then, some weeks ago, she had asked about Magsie again, and Warren had said: "I believe she's in town. Somebody told me the other day that she was to have a part in one of Bowman's things this winter."
"It's amazing to me that Magsie doesn't get ahead faster," Rachael had mused. No more was said.
And how pretty she was, how young she was, Rachael thought now, with a stabbing pain at her heart. How earnestly they were talking—no ordinary conversation. Presently tears were in the little actress's eyes; she had no handkerchief, but Warren had. He gave it to her, and she surreptitiously wiped her eyes, and smiled at him, like a pretty child, in her furs.
Rachael felt actually sick with shock. She felt as if some vital cord in her anatomy had been snapped, and as if she could never control these heavy languid limbs of hers again. Her head ached. A lassitude seemed to possess her. She felt cold, and old, and helpless in the face of so much youth and beauty.
Magsie—and Warren. She must accustom herself to the thought. They cared for each other. They cared—Rachael's heart seemed to shut with an icy spasm, she felt herself choking and shut her eyes.
Well, what could they do—at worst? Could Magsie go out now, and get into the Gregory motor car, and say, "Home, Martin!" to the man? Could Magsie run up the steps of the Washington Square house, gather the cream of the day's news from the butler in a breath, and, flinging off furs and wraps, catch the two glorious boys to her heart?
No! However the situation developed, Rachael was still the wife. Rachael held the advantage, and whatever poor Magsie's influence was, it could be but temporary, it must be unrecognized and unapproved by the world.
Slowly self-control came back, the dizziness subsided, the room sank and settled into its usual aspect. It was hideous, but it was a fact, she must face it—she must face it. There was an honorable way, and a dignified way, and that must be her way. No one must know.
Presently the table near her was empty, and she began to breathe more naturally. She pondered so deeply that for a long time the room was forgotten, and the moving crowd shifted about her unseen. Then abstractedly she rose, and went slowly out to the waiting car. She carried a heart of lead.
"I've kept you waiting, Martin?"
Martin merely touched his hat. It was four o'clock.
And so Rachael found herself facing an unbelievable situation. To love, and to know herself unloved, was a cold, dull misery that clung like a weight to her heart. Her thoughts stumbled in a close, hot fog; from sheer weariness she abandoned them again and again.
She had never been a reasonable woman, but she forced herself to be reasonable now. Logic and philosophy had never been her natural defences, but she brought logic and philosophy to bear upon this hideous circumstance. She did not waste time and tears upon a futile "Why?" It was too late now to question; the fact spoke for itself. Warren's senses were wrapped in the charms of another woman. His own devoted and still young and beautiful wife was not the first devoted and young and beautiful woman to have her claim displaced.
For days after the episode in the Waldorf lunch-room she moved like a conspirator, watching, thinking. Warren had never seemed more considerate of her happiness, more satisfied with life. He was full of agreeable chatter at breakfast, interested in her plans, amused at the boys. He did not come home for luncheon, but usually ran up the steps at five o'clock, and was reading or dressing when Rachael wandered into his room to greet him after the day. He never kissed her now, or touched her hand even by chance; she was reminded, in his general aspect, of those occasions when the delicious Derry wandered out from the nursery, evading the nap which was his duty, but full of the airy conversation and small endearments that only a child on sufferance knows.
Rachael tried in vain to understand the affair; what evil genius possessed Warren; what possessed Magsie? She tried to think kindly of Magsie; poor child, she had had no ugly intention, she was simply spoiled, simply an egotist undeveloped in brain and soul!
But—Warren! Well, Warren's soft, simple heart had been touched by all that endearing kittenish confidence, by Magsie's belief that he was the richest and cleverest and most powerful of men.
So they were meeting for lunch, for tea—where else? What did they talk about, what did they plan or hope or expect? Through all her hot impatience Rachael believed that she could trust them both, in the graver sense. Warren was as unlikely to take advantage of Magsie's youthful innocence as Magsie was to definitely commit herself to a reckless course.
But what then? Absurd, preposterous as it was, it was not all a joke. It had already shut the sun from all Rachael's sky. What was it doing to Warren—to Magsie? With Rachael in a cold and dangerous mood, Warren evasive, unresponsive, troubled, what was Magsie feeling and thinking?
Proudly, and with a bitter pain at her heart, Rachael went through her empty days. Her household affairs ran as if by magic; never was there a more successful conspiracy for one man's comfort than that organized by Rachael and her maids. For the first time since their marriage she and Warren were occupying separate rooms now, but Rachael made it a special charge to go in and out of his room constantly when he was there. She would come in with his mail and his newspaper at nine o'clock, full of cheerful solicitude, or follow him in for the half-hour just before dinner, chatting with apparent ease of heart while he dressed.
Only apparent ease of heart, however, for Warren's invariable courtesy and sweetness filled his wife with sick apprehension. Ah, for the old good hours when he scolded and argued, protested and laughed over the developments of the day. Sometimes, nowadays, he hardly heard her, despite his bright, interested smile. Once he had commented upon her gown the instant she came into the room; now he never seemed to see her at all; as a matter of fact, their eyes never met.
In February he told her suddenly that Margaret Clay was to open in another fortnight at the Lyric, in a new play by Gideon Barrett, called "The Bad Little Lady."
"At the Lyric!" Rachael said in a rush of something almost like joy that they could speak of Magsie at last, "and one of Barrett's! Well, Magsie is coming on! What part does she take?"
"The lead—the title part—Patricia Something-or-other, I believe."
"The LEAD! At the Lyric—why, isn't that an astonishing compliment to Magsie!"
Warren looked for his paper-cutter, cut a page, and shrugged his shoulders without glancing up from his book.
"Well, yes, I suppose it is. But of course she's gone steadily ahead."
"But I thought she wasn't so successful last winter, Warren?"
"I don't know," he said politely, wearily, uninterestedly.
"How did you hear this, Warren?" his wife asked, with a deceitful air of innocence.
"Met her," he answered briefly.
"Well, we must see the play," Rachael said briskly. For some reason her heart was lighter than it had been for weeks. This was something definite and in the open at last after all these days of blundering in the dark. "We could take a box, couldn't we, and ask George and Alice?" she added. Warren's expression was that of a boy whose way with his first sweetheart is too suddenly favored by parents and guardians, and Rachael could have laughed at his face.
"Well," he said without enthusiasm. A week later he told her that he had secured the box, but suggested that someone else than the Valentines be asked, Elinor and Peter, for instance.
"You and George aren't quite as good friends as you were, are you?" Rachael said, gravely.
"Quite," Warren said with his bright, deceptive smile and his usual averted glance. "Ask anyone you please—it was merely a suggestion!"
Rachael asked Peter and Elinor, and gave them a delicious dinner before the play. She looked her loveliest, a little fuller in figure than she had been seven years before, and with gray here and there in her rich hair, but still a beautiful and winning presence, and still with something of youth in her spontaneous, quick speech and ready laughter. Warren was, as always, the attentive host, but Rachael noticed that he was abstracted and nervous to-night, and wondered, with a chill at her heart, if Magsie's new venture meant so much to him as his manner implied.
It was an early dinner, and they reached the theatre before the curtain rose.
"It looks like a good house," said Rachael, settling herself comfortably.
"You can't tell anything by this," Warren said, quickly; "it's a first night and papered."
"Aren't you smart with your professional terms?" Elinor Pomeroy laughed, dropping the lorgnette through which she had been idly studying the house. "What I'D like to know," she added interestedly, "what I'D like to know is, who's doing this for Magsie Clay? Vera Villalonga says she knows, but I don't believe it. Magsie's a little nobody, she has no special talent, and here she is leading in a Barrett play—"
Peter Pomeroy's foot here pressed lightly against Rachael's; a hint, Rachael instantly suspected, that was intended for his wife.
"Now I think Magsie's as straight as a string," the unconscious Mrs. Pomeroy went on, "but she must have a rich beau up her sleeve, and the question is, who is he? I don't—"
But here, it was evident, Peter's second appeal to his wife's discretion was felt, and it suddenly arrested her flow of eloquence.
"—I don't doubt," floundered Elinor, "that—that is—and of course Magsie IS a talented creature, so that naturally— naturally—some girl makes a hit every year, and why shouldn't it be Magsie? Which is right, Peter, 'why shouldn't it be she' or 'why shouldn't it be her?' I never know," she finished somewhat incoherently.
"I should think any investment in Magsie would be perfectly safe," said Rachael's delightful voice. And boldly she added: "Do you know who is backing this, Warren?"
"To a certain extent—I am," Warren said, after an imperceptible pause. To Peter he added, in a lower voice, the voice in which men discuss business matters: "It was a question of the whole deal falling through—I think she'll make good—this fellow Barrett—"
Rachael began to chat with Elinor, but there was bitterness in her soul. She had leaped into the breach, she had saved the situation, at least before Elinor and Peter. But it was not fair—not fair for Warren to have been deep in this affair with Magsie, with never a word to his wife! She—Rachael—would have been all interest, all sympathy. There was no reason between civilized human beings why this eternal question of sex should debar men and women from common ambitions and common interests! Let Warren admire Magsie if he wanted to do so, let him buy her her play, and stand between her and financial responsibility, jet him admire her—yes, even love her, in his generous, big-brotherly way! But why shut out of this new interest the kindly cooperation of his devoted wife, who had never failed him, who had borne him sons, who had given him the whole of her passionate heart in the full glory of youth, and in health, and in sickness, when it came, had turned to him for all the happiness of her life!
The play began, and presently the house was applauding the entrance of Miss Margaret Clay. She came down a wide, light- flooded stairway, and in her childish white gown and flower- wreathed shepherdess hat looked about sixteen. "How young she is!" Rachael thought with a pang. Her voice was young, too, the fact being that Magsie was frightened, and that Nature was helping her play her first big ingenue part.
Rachael glanced in the darkness at Warren. He had not joined in the applause, nor did his handsome face express any pleasure. He was leaning forward, his hands locked and hanging between his knees, his eyes riveted on the little white figure that was moving and talking down there in the bright bath of light beyond the footlights.
Despite all reason, despite her desperate effort at self-control, Rachael felt an agony of pure jealousy seize her. In an absolute passion of envy she looked down at Magsie Clay. The young, flower- crowned head, the slender, slippered feet, the youthful and appealing voice—what weapons had she against these? And beyond these was the additional lure—as old as the theatre itself—of the fascinating profession: the work that is like play, the rouge and curls, the loves and rages so openly assumed yet so strangely and stirringly effective! Rachael had gowns a thousand times handsomer than these youthful muslins and embroideries; Rachael's own home was a setting far more beautiful than any that could be simulated within the limits of a stage; if Magsie was a successful ingenue, Rachael might have been called a natural queen of tragedy and of comedy! And yet—
And yet, it was because she, too, saw the charm and came under the spell, that Rachael suffered to-night. If she could have laughed it to scorn, could have admired the surface prettiness, and congratulated Magsie upon the almost perfect illusion, then she would have had the most effective of all medicines with which to cure Warren's midsummer madness.
But it seemed to Rachael, stunned with the terrible force of jealousy, that Magsie was the great star of the stage, that there never had been such a play and such a leading lady. It seemed to her that not only to-night's triumph, but a thousand other triumphs were before her, not only the admiration of these twelve or fifteen hundred persons, but that of thousands more! Magsie would be a rage! Magsie's young favors would be sought far and wide. Magsie's summer home, Magsie's winter apartments, Magsie's clothes and fads, these would belong to the adoring public of the most warmhearted and impressionable city in the world! Rachael saw it all coming with perhaps more certainty than did even the little actress behind the footlights.
"Cute play, but I don't think much of Magsie!" Elinor Pomeroy said frankly. Elinor Vanderwall would not have been so impolitic. But Rachael felt that she would have liked to kiss her guest.
"I think Magsie is rather good," she said deliberately.
"Nothing like praising the girl with faint damns!" Peter Pomeroy chuckled.
"Well, what do you think, Peter?" his hostess asked.
"I—oh, Lord! I don't see a play once a year," he said, with the manner, if not the actual presence, of a yawn. "I think it's rather good. I'll tell you what, Greg, I don't see you losing any money on it," he added, with interest; "it'll run; the matinee girls will come!"
"Magsie'd kill you for that," Elinor said.
"I don't suppose we could see Magsie, Warren, after this is over?" Rachael asked to make him speak.
"What did you say, dear?" He brought his gaze from a general study of the house to a point only a few inches out of range of her own. "No, I hardly think so," he answered when she had repeated her question. "She's probably excited and tired."
"You wouldn't mind my sending a line down by the boy?" Rachael persisted.
"Well, I don't think I'd do that—" He hesitated.
"Oh, I'm strong for it!" Elinor said vivaciously. "It'll cheer Magsie up. She's probably scared blue, and even I can see that this isn't making much of a hit!"
The note was accordingly scribbled and dispatched; Rachael's heart was singing because Warren had not denied Elinor's comment upon the success of the play. The leading man, a popular and prominent actor, was disturbingly good, and there was the part of an Irish maid, a comedy part, so well filled by some hitherto unknown young actress that it might really influence the run of the play; but still, there was a consoling indication already in the air that Margaret Clay's talent was somewhat too slight to sustain a leading woman.
At eleven it was over, and if Rachael had had to endure the comment that the second act was "the best yet," there was the panacea, immediately to follow, that the end of the play was "pretty flat."
Presently they all filed back to the dark, windy stage, and joined Magsie in her dressing-room. She was glowing, excited, eager for praise. Never was a young and lovely woman more confident of her charm than Magsie to-night. A flushed self-satisfaction was present on her face during every second of the ten minutes she gave them; her laughter was self-conscious, her smile full of artless gratification; she could not speak to any member of the little group unless the attention of everyone present was riveted upon her.
A callow youth, evidently her adorer, was awaiting her. She spoke slightingly of Bryan Masters, the leading man.
"He's charming, Rachael," said Magsie, smiling her bored young smile, with deliciously red lips, as she was buttoned into a long fur coat, "but—he wants to impose on the fact that—well, that I have arrived, if you know what I mean? As everyone knows, his day is pretty well over. Now you think I'm conceited, don't you, Greg. Oh, I like him, and he does do it rather well, don't you think? But Richie"—Richie was the escorting young man—"Richie and I tease him by breaking into French now and then, don't we?" laughed Magsie.
Sauntering out from the stage entrance with her friends, Miss Clay was the cynosure of all eyes, and knew it; part of the audience still waited for the tedious line of limousines to disperse. She could not move her bright glance to Warren's without encountering the admiring looks of men and women all about her; she could not but hear their whispers: "There, there she is—that's Miss Clay now!" Richie, introduced as Mr. Gardiner, muttered that his car was somewhere; it proved to be a handsome car with a chauffeur. Magsie raised her bright face pleadingly to Warren's as she took his hands for goodbye.
"Say you were proud of me, Warren?"
He laughed, his indulgent glance flashing to Elinor and to Rachael, as one who invited their admiration of an attractive child, before he looked down at her again.
"Proud of you! Why, I'm as happy as you are about it!"
"You know," Magsie said to Elinor naively, still holding Warren's hands, "he's helped me—tremendously. He's been just—an absolute angel to me!" And real and becoming tears came suddenly to her eyes; she dropped Warren's hands to find a filmy little handkerchief. A second later her smile flashed out again. "You don't mind his being kind to me, do you, Rachael?" she asked childishly.
Rachael's mouth was dry, she felt that her smile was hideous.
"Why should I, Magsie?" she asked a little huskily, "He's kind to everyone!"
A moment later the Gregorys and their guests were in the car whirling toward the Pomeroy home and supper. It was more than an hour later that Rachael and her husband were alone, and then she only said mildly:
"I wish you had let me know you were helping Magsie, so—so conspicuously, Warren. One hates to be taken unawares that way."
"She asked me to keep the thing confidential," he answered with his baffling simplicity. "She had this good chance, but she couldn't quite swing it. I had no idea that you would care, one way or the other."
"Well, she ought to be launched now," Rachael said. She hated to talk of Magsie, especially in his company, where she could do nothing but praise, but she could somehow find it difficult to speak of anything else tonight.
"Cunning little thing, there she was, holding on to my hands, as innocently as a child!" Warren said with a musing smile. "She's a funny girl—all fire and ice, as she says herself!"
Rachael smothered a scornful interjection. Let Magsie employ the arts of a schoolgirl if she would, but at least let the great Doctor Gregory perceive their absurdity!
"Young Mr. Richie Gardiner seemed louche" she observed after a silence which Warren seemed willing indefinitely to prolong.
"H'm!" Warren gave a short, contented laugh.
"He's crazy about her, but of course to her he's only a kid," he volunteered. "She's funny about that, too. She's emotional, of course, full of genius, and full of temperament. She says she needs a safety-valve, and Gardner is her safety-valve. She says she can sputter and rage and laugh, and he just listens and quiets her down. To-night she called him her 'bread-and-butter'—did you hear her?"
"I wonder what she considers you—her champagne?" Rachael asked with a poor assumption of amusement.
But Warren was too absorbed in his own thoughts to notice it.
"It's curious how I do inspire and encourage her," he admitted. "She needs that sort of thing. She's always up in the clouds or down in the dumps."
"Do you see her often, Warren?" Rachael asked with deadly calm.
"I've seen her pretty regularly since this thing began," he answered absently, still too much wrapped in the memories of the evening to suspect his wife's emotion. Rachael did not speak again.
Only Miss Margaret Clay perused the papers on the following morning with an avidity to equal that of Mrs. Warren Gregory. Magsie read hungrily for praise, Rachael was as eager to discover blame. The actress, lying in her soft bed, wrapped in embroidered silk, and sleepily conscious that she was wakening to fame and fortune, gave, it is probable, only an occasional fleeting thought to her benefactor's wife, but Rachael, crisp and trim over her breakfast, thought of nothing but Magsie while she read.
Praise—and praise—and praise. But there was blame, too; there was even sharply contemptuous criticism. On the whole, Rachael had almost as much satisfaction from her morning's reading as Magsie did. The three most influential papers did not comment upon Miss Clay's acting at all. In two more, little Miss Elsie Eaton and Bryan Masters shared the honors. The Sun remarked frankly that Miss Clay's amateurish acting, her baby lisp, her utter unacquaintance with whatever made for dramatic art, would undoubtedly insure the play a long run. Rachael knew that Warren would see all these papers, but she cut out all the pleasanter reviews and put them on his dresser.
"Did you see these?" she asked him at six o'clock.
"I glanced at some of them. You've not got The Sun here?"
"No—that was a mean one," Rachael said sweetly. "I thought it might distress you, as it probably did Magsie."
"I saw it," he said, evidently with no thought of her feeling in the matter. "Lord, no one minds what The Sun thinks!"
"She's really scored a success," said Rachael reluctantly. Warren did not answer.
For the next three evenings he did not come home to dinner, nor until late at night. Rachael bore it with dignity, but her heart was sick within her. She must simply play the waiting game, as many a better woman had before her, but she would punish Warren Gregory for this some day!
She dressed herself charmingly every evening, and dined alone, with a book. Sometimes the old butler saw her look off from the page, and saw her breast rise on a quick, rebellious breath; and old Mary could have told of the hours her mistress spent in the nursery, sitting silent in the darkness by the sleeping boys, but both these old servants were loyalty's self, and even Rachael never suspected their realization of the situation and their resentment. To Vera, to Elinor, even to Alice Valentine, she said never a word. She had discussed Clarence Breckenridge easily enough seven years before, but she could not criticise Warren Gregory to anyone.
On the fourth evening, when they were to dine with friends, Warren reached home in time to dress, and duly accompanied his wife to the affair. He complained of a headache after dinner, and they went home at about half-past ten. Rachael felt his constraint in the car, and for very shame could not make it hard for him when he suggested that he should go downtown again, to look in at the club.
"But is this right, is it fair?" she asked herself sombrely while she was slowly disrobing. "Could I treat him so? Of course I could not! Why, I have never even looked at a man since our very wedding day—never wanted to. And I will be reasonable now. I will be reasonable, but he tries me hard—he makes it hard!"
She put her face in her hands and began to cry. Warren was deluded and under a temporary spell, but still her dear and good and handsome husband, her dearest companion and confidant. And she missed him.
Oh, to have him back again, in the old way, so infinitely dear and interested, so quick with laughter, so vigorous with comment, so unsparing where he blamed! To have him come and kiss the white parting of her hair once more as she sat waiting for him at the breakfast table, turn to her in the car with his quick "Happy?" once more, hold her tight once more against his warm heart!
How unlike him it was, how contemptible it was, this playing with the glorious thing that had been their love! For the first time in her life Rachael could have played the virago, could have raged and stamped, could have made him absolutely afraid to misuse her so. He did not deserve such consideration, he should not be treated so gently.
While she sat alone, in the long evenings, she tried to follow him in her thoughts. He was somewhere in the big, warm, dark theatre, watching the little pool of brightness in which Magsie moved, listening to the crisp, raw freshness of Magsie's voice. Night after night he must sit there, drinking in her beauty and charm, torturing himself with the thought of her inaccessibility.
It seemed strange to Rachael that this world-old tragedy should come into her life with all the stinging novelty of a calamity. People and press talked about a murder, about an earthquake, about a fire. Yet what was death or ruin or flames beside the horror of knowing love to be outgrown, of living beside this empty mask and shell of a man whose mind and soul were in bondage elsewhere? Rachael came to know love as a power, and herself a victim of that power abused.
Slowly resentment began to find room in her heart. It was all so childish, so futile, so unnecessary! A prominent surgeon, the husband of a devoted wife, the father of two splendid sons, thus flinging pride and sanity to the wind, thus being caught in the lightly flung net of an ordinary, pretty little actress, the daughter of a domestic servant and a soldier in the ranks! And what was to be the outcome? Rachael mused sombrely. Was Warren to tire simply of his folly, Magsie to carelessly fill his place in the ranks of her admirers, Rachael to gracefully forgive and forget?
It was an unpalatable role, yet she saw no other open to her. What was to be gained by coldness, by anger, by controversy? Was a man capable of Warren's curious infatuation to be merely scolded and punished like a boy? She was helpless and she knew it. Until he actually transgressed against their love, she could make no move. Even when he did, or if he did, her only recourse was the hated one of a public scandal: accusations, recriminations.
She began to understand his nature as she had not understood it in all these years. Bits of his mother's brief comment upon him came back to her; uncomprehensible when she first heard them, they were curiously illuminating now. He had been a naturally good boy, awkward, silent, conscientious; turning toward integrity as normally as many of his companions turned toward vice. Despite his natural shyness, his diffidence of manner, he had been strong himself and had scorned weakness in anyone; upright, he needed little guiding. The praise of servants and of his mother's friends had been quite frankly his; even his severe mother and father had been able to find little fault in the boy. But they had early learned that when a minor correction was demanded by their first- born's character, it was almost impossible to effect it. His standard of behavior was high, fortunately, for it was also unalterable. There was no hope of their grafting upon his conscience any new roots. James knew right from wrong with infallible instinct; he was not often wrong, but when he was, no outside criticism affected him. As a baby, he would defend his rare misdeeds, as a boy, he was never thrashed, because there was always some good reason for what he did. He had been misinformed, he certainly understood the other fellows to say this; he certainly never heard the teacher forbid that; handsome, reasonable, self-respecting, he won approval on all sides, and because of this mysterious predisposition toward what was right and just, came safely to the years when he was his own master and could live unchallenged by the high moral standard he set himself.
Some of this Rachael began to perceive. It was a key to his conduct now. He respected Magsie, he admired her; there was no reason why he should not indulge his admiration. No unspoken criticism from his wife could affect him, because he had seen the whole situation clearly and had decided what was seemly and safe in the matter. Criticism only brought a resentful, dull red color to Warren Gregory's face, and confirmed him more stubbornly in the course he was pursuing. He could even enjoy a certain martyr-like satisfaction under undeserved censure, all censure being equally incomprehensible and undeserved. Rachael had once seen in this quality a certain godlike supremacy, a bigness, and splendidness of vision that rose above the ordinary standards of ordinary men; now it filled her with uneasiness.
"Well," she thought, with a certain desperate philosophy, "in a certain number of months or years this will all be over, and I must simply endure it until that time comes. Life is full of trouble, anyway!"
Life was full of trouble; she saw it on all sides. But what trivial matters they were, after all, that troubled Elinor and Vera and Judy Moran! Vera was eternally rushing into fresh, furious hospitalities, welcoming hordes of men and women she scarcely knew into her house; chattering, laughing, drinking; flattering the debutantes, screaming at the telephone, standing patient hours under the dressmaker's hands; never rested, never satisfied, never stopping to think. Judy Moran's trouble was that she was too fat; nothing else really penetrated the shell of her indolent good nature. Kenneth might be politely dropped from the family firm, her husband might die and be laid away, her brother- in-law commence an ugly suit for the reclamation of certain jewels and silver tableware, but all these things meant far less to Mrs. Moran than the unflattering truths her bedroom scales told her every morning. She had reached the age of fifty without ever acquiring sufficient self-control to rid herself of the surplus forty pounds, yet she never buttered a muffin at breakfast time, or crushed a French pastry with her fork at noon, without an inward protest. She spent large sums of money for corsets and gowns that would disguise her immense weight rather than deny herself one cup of creamed-and-sugared tea or one box of chocolates. And she suffered whenever a casual photograph, or an unexpected glimpse of herself in a mirror, brought to her notice afresh the dreadful two hundred and twenty pounds.
And Elinor had her absurd and unnecessary troubles, rich man's wife as she was now, and firmly established in the social group upon whose outskirts she had lingered so long. The single state of her four sisters was a constant annoyance to her, especially as Peter was not fond of the girls, and liked to allude to them as "spinsters" and "old maids," and to ask more entertaining and younger women to the house. Elinor had never wanted a child, but in the third or fourth year of her marriage she had begun to perceive that it might be wise to give her worldly old husband an heir, much better that, at any cost, than to encourage his fondness for Barbara Oliphant's boy, his namesake nephew, who was an officious, self-satisfied little lad of twelve. But Nature refused to cooperate in Elinor's maternal plans and Peter Junior did not make his appearance at the big house on the Avenue. Elinor grew yearly noisier, more reckless, more shallow; she rushed about excitedly from place to place, sometimes with Peter, sometimes with one of her sisters; not happy in either case, but much given to quarrelsome questioning of life. It was not that she could not get what she wanted so much as that she did not know her own mind and heart. Whatever was momentarily tiresome or distasteful must be pushed out of her path, and as almost every friend and every human experience came sooner or later into this category, Elinor found herself stranded in the very centre of life.
Alice had her troubles, too, but when her thoughts came to Alice, Rachael found a certain envy in her heart. Ah, those were the troubles she could have welcomed; she could have cried with sheer joy at the thought that her life might some day slip into the same groove as Alice's life. Rachael loved the atmosphere of the big, shabby house now; it was the only place to which she really cared to go. There was in Alice Valentine's character something simple, direct, and high-principled that communicated itself to everybody and everything in her household. A small girl in her nursery might show symptoms of diphtheria, a broken tile on the roof might deluge the bedroom ceilings, an old cook leave suddenly, or a heavy rain fall upon a Sunday predestined for picknicking, but Alice Valentine, plain, slow of speech, and slow of thought, went her serene way, nursing, consoling, repairing, readjusting.
She had her cares about George, but they were not like Rachael's cares for Warren. Alice knew him to be none too strong, easily tired, often discouraged. His professional successes were many, but there were times when the collapse of a tiny child in a free hospital could blot from George's simple, big, tender heart the memory of a dozen achievements. The wife, deep in the claims of her four growing children, sometimes longed to put her arms about him, to run away with him to some quiet land of sunshine and palms, some lazy curve of white beach where he could rest and sleep, and drift back to his old splendid energy and strength. She longed to cook for him the old dishes he had loved in the early days of their marriage, to read to him, to let the world forget them while they forgot the world.
Instead, a hundred claims kept them here in the current of affairs. Mary was a tall, sweet, gracious girl of sixteen now, like her father, a pretty edition of his red hair and long- featured clever face. Mary must go on with her music, must be put through the lessoning and grooming of a gentlewoman, and take her place in the dancing class that would be the Junior Cotillion in a year or two. Alice Valentine was not a worldly woman, but she knew it would be sheer cruelty to let her daughter grow up a stranger in her own world, different in speech and dress and manner from all the other girls and boys. So Mary went to little dances at the Royces' and the Bowditches', and walked home from her riding lesson with little Billy Parmalee or Frank Whittaker, or with Florence Haviland and Bobby Oliphant. And Alice watched her gowns, and her hair, and her pretty young teeth only a little less carefully than she listened to her confidences, questioned her about persons and things, and looked for inaccuracies in her speech.
George Junior was a care, too, in these days at the non-committal, unenthusiastic age of fourteen, when all the vices in the world, finger on lip, form a bright escort for waking or sleeping hours, and the tenderest and most tactful of maternal questions slips from the shell of boyish silence and gruffness unanswered. Full of apprehension and eagerness, Alice watched her only son; she could not give him every hour of her busy days; she would have given him every instant if she could. He was a good boy, but he was human. Dressed for dinner and the theatre, his mother would look into the children's sitting-room to find Mary reading, George reading, Martha, very conscious of being there on sufferance, also reading virtuously and attentively.
"Good-night, my darlings! You're going to bed promptly at nine, aren't you, Mary—and Gogo, too? You know we were all late last night," Alice would say, coming in.
"I am!" Mary would give her mother her sunny smile. "Leslie Perry is going to be here to-morrow night, anyway, and we're going to Thomas Prince's skating party in the afternoon, aren't we, Mother?"
"Thomas Prince, the big boob!" Gogo might comment without bitterness.
"He's not a big boob, either, is he, Mother?" Mary was swift in defence. "He's not nearly such a boob as Tubby Butler or Sam Moulton!"
"Gosh, that's right—knock Tubby!" Gogo would mumble.
"Oh, my darling boy, and my darling girl!" Alice, full of affection and distress, would look from one to the other. Gogo, standing near his mother, usually had a request.
"They're all over at Sam's to-night. Gosh! they're going to have fun!"
"Father said 'NOT again this week,'" Mary might chant.
"Mary!" Alice's reproachful look would silence her daughter; she would put an arm about her son.
"What is it to-night, dear?"
"Oh, nothing much!" Gogo would fling up his dark head impatiently.
"Just Tubby and Sam?"
"I guess so," gruffly.
"But Daddy feels—" Alice would stop short in perplexity. Why shouldn't he go? She had known Mrs. Moulton from the days when they both were brides, the Moultons' house was near, and it was dull for Gogo here, under the sitting-room lamp. If he had only been as contented as Mary, who, with a good time to remember from yesterday, and another to look forward to to-morrow, was perfectly happy to-night. But boys were different. Sam was a trustworthy little fellow, but Alice did not so much like Tubby Butler. And George did not like to have Gogo away from the house at night. She would smile into the boy's gloomy eyes.
"Couldn't you just read to-night, my son, or perhaps Mary would play rum with you? Wouldn't that be better, and a long night's sleep, than going over to Sam's EVERY night?"
But she would leave a disappointed and sullen boy behind her; his disgusted face would haunt her throughout the entire evening.
Martha was not so much a problem, and little Katharine was still baby enough to be a joy to the whole house. But between the children's meals, their shoes and hats and lessons, Alice was a busy woman, and she realized that her responsibilities must increase rather than lessen in the next few years. When Mary was married, and Gogo finishing college, and Martha ready to be entertained and chaperoned by her big sister, then she and George might take Kittiwake and run away; but not now.
Rachael formed the habit of calling at the Valentine house through the wet winds of March and April, coming in upon Alice at all hours, sometimes with the boys, sometimes alone. Alice, in her quiet way, was ready to open her heart completely to her brilliant friend. Rachael spoke of all topics except one to Alice. They discussed houses and maids, the children, books and plays and plans for the summer, birth and death, the approaching responsibility of the vote, philosophies and religions, saints and sages. And the day came when Rachael spoke of Warren and of Margaret Clay.
It was a quiet, wet spring afternoon, a day when the coming of green leaves could be actually felt in the softened air. The two women were upstairs in Alice's white and blue sitting-room enjoying a wood fire. Jim and Derry were in the playroom with Kittiwake; the house was silent, so silent that they could hear the drumming of rain on the leads, and the lazy purr of the fire.
Alice was first incredulous, and then stunned at the story.
Rachael told all she knew, the change in her husband, the opening night of "The Bad Little Lady," her lonely dinners and evenings, and Magsie's complacent attitude of possession.
"Well," said Alice, who had been an absorbed and astounded listener, when she finished, "I confess I don't understand it! If Warren Gregory is making a fool of himself over Margaret Clay, no one is going to be as much ashamed as he is when he is over it. I think with you," Alice added, much in earnest, "that as far as any actual infidelity goes, neither one would be CAPABLE of it! Magsie's a selfish little featherhead, but she has her own advantage too close at heart, and Warren, no matter what preposterous theory he has to explain his interest in Magsie, isn't going to actually do anything that would put him in the wrong!" She paused, but Rachael did not speak, and something in her aspect, as she sat steadily watching the fire, smote Alice to the heart. "I have never been so shocked and so disappointed in my life!" Alice went on, "I can't YET believe it! The only thing you can do is keep quiet and dignified, and wait for the whole thing to wear itself out. This explains the change between George and Warren. I knew George suspected something from the way he tried to shut me up when I saw Warren the other night at the theatre."
"Now that I've talked about it," Rachael smiled, "I believe I feel better!" And presently she dried her eyes, and even laughed at herself a little as she and Alice fell to talking of other things. When Rachael, a boy in each hand, said good-bye, and went out into the pale, late afternoon sunshine that followed the rain, Alice accompanied her to the door, and stood for a moment with her at the top of the street steps.
"You're so lovely, Rachael," said her friend affectionately. "It doesn't seem right to have anything ever trouble anyone so pretty!"
Rachael only smiled doubtfully in answer, but Derry and Jim talked all the way home, their mother listening in silence. She found their conversation infinitely more amusing when uninfluenced by her. Both were naturally observant, Jim logical and reasonable, Derry always misled by his fancy and his dreams. When Tim was a lion, he was a lion who lived in the Gregory nursery, sat in the chairs that belonged to the Gregory children, and preyed upon their toys, as toys. But Derry was a beast of another calibre. The polished nursery floor was the still water of jungle pools, and the cribs were trees which a hideous and ferocious beast, radically differing in every way from little Gerald Gregory, climbed at will. Jim was a lion who liked to be interrupted by grown-ups, who was laughing at his make-believe all the time, but Derry was so frightfully in earnest as to often terrify himself, and almost always impress his brother, with his roarings and ravaging.
To-day their conversation ran along pleasantly; they were companionable little brothers, and only unmanageable when separated.
"All the men walking home will get their feet horrid an' wet," said Jim, "and then the ladies will scold 'em!"
"This would be a great, big ocean for a fairy," Derry commented, flicking a wide puddle with a well-protected little foot. "Jim," he added in an anxious undertone, "could a fairy drown?"
"Not if he had his swimming belt on," Jim said hardily.
"All the fairies have to take little white rose leaves, and make themselves swimming belts," Derry said dreamily, "'r else their mothers won't let them go swimming, will they, Mother?"
They did not wait for her answer, and Rachael was free to return to her own thoughts. But the interruption roused her, and she watched the little pair with pleasure as they trotted before her on the drying sidewalks. Derry was blond and Jim dark, yet they looked alike, both with Rachael's dark, expressive eyes, and with their father's handsome mouth and sudden, appealing smile. But Rachael fancied that her oldest son was most like his father in type, and found it hard to be as stern with Jim as she was with the impulsive reckless, eager Derry, whose faults were more apt to be her own.
To-night she went with them to the nursery, where their little table was already set for supper and their small white beds already neatly turned down.
"Mother's going to give us our baths!" shouted Jim. Both boys looked at her eagerly; Rachael smiled doubtfully.
"Mother's afraid that she will have to dress, to meet Daddy downtown," she began regretfully, when old Mary interposed respectfully:
"Excuse me, Mrs. Gregory. But Dennison took a message from Doctor this afternoon. I happen to know it because Louise asked me if I didn't think she had better order dinner for you. Doctor has been called to Albany on a case, and was to let you know when to expect him."
"Goody—goody—good-good!" shouted Jim, and Derry joined in with a triumphant shriek, and clasped his arms tightly about his mother's knees. Rachael had turned a little pale, but she kissed both boys, and only left them long enough to change her gown to something loose and comfortable.
Then she came back to the nursery, and there were baths, and games, and suppers, and then stories and prayers before the fire, Mary and Rachael laughing over the fluffy heads, revelling in the beauty of the little bodies.
When they were in bed she went down to a solitary dinner, and, as she ate it, her thoughts went back to other solitary dinners years ago. Utter discouragement and something like a great, all- enveloping fear possessed her. She was afraid of life. She had dented her armor, broken her steel, she had been flung back and worsted in the fight.
What was the secret, then, Rachael asked the fire, if youth and beauty and high hopes and great love failed like so many straws? Why was Alice contented, and she, Rachael, torn by a thousand conflicting hopes and fears? Why was it, that with all her cleverness, and all her beauty, the woman who had been Rachael Fairfax, and Rachael Breckenridge, and Rachael Gregory, had never yet felt sure of joy, had never dared lay hands upon it boldly, and know it to be her own, had trembled, and apprehended, and distrusted where women of infinitely lesser gifts had been able to enter into the kingdom with such utter certainty and serenity?
Sitting through the long evening by the fire, in the drowsy silence of the big drawing-room, Rachael felt her eyes grow heavy. Who was unhappy, who was happy—what was all life about anyway—
Dennison and old Mary came in at eleven, and looked at her for a long five minutes. Their eyes said a great many things, although neither spoke aloud. The fire had burned low, the light of a shaded lamp fell softly on the sleeping woman's face. There was a little frown between the beautiful brows, and once she sighed lightly, like a child.
The man stepped softly back into the hall, and Mary touched her mistress.
"Mrs. Gregory, you've dropped off to sleep!"
Rachael roused, looked up, smiling bewilderedly. Her look seemed to search the shadows beyond the old woman's form. Slowly the new look of strain and sorrow came back into her eyes.
"Why, so I did!" she said, getting to her feet. "I think I'll go upstairs. Any message from Doctor Gregory?"
"No message, Mrs. Gregory."
"Thank you, Mary, good-night!" Rachael went slowly out through the dimly lighted arch of the hall doorway, and slowly upstairs. She deliberately passed the nursery door. Her heart was too full to risk a visit to the boys to-night. She lighted her room and sank dazedly into a chair.
"I dreamed that we were just married, and in the old studio," she said, half aloud. "I dreamed I had the old-feeling again, of being so sure, and so beloved! I thought Warren had come home early and had brought me violets!"
A day later Dennison brought up the card of Miss Margaret Clay. Rachael turned it slowly in her hands, pondering, with a quickened heartbeat and a fluctuating color. Magsie had been often a guest in Rachael's house a year ago, but she had not been to see Rachael for a long time now. They were to meet, they were to talk alone together—what about? There was nothing about which Rachael Gregory cared to talk to Margaret Clay.
A certain chilliness and trembling smote Rachael, and she sat down. She wished she had been out. It would be simple enough to send down a message to that effect, of course, but that was not the same thing. That would be evading the issue, whereas, had she been out, she could not have held herself responsible for missing Magsie.
Well, the girl was in the neighborhood, of course, and had simply come in to say now do you do? But it would mean evasions, and affectations, and insincerities to talk with Magsie; it would mean lying, unless there must be an open breach. Rachael found herself in a state of actual dread of the encounter, and to end it, impatient at anything so absurd, she asked Dennison to bring the young lady at once to her own sitting-room.
This was the transformed apartment that had been old Mrs. Gregory's, running straight across the bedroom floor, and commanding from four wide windows a glimpse of the old square, now brave in new feathery green. Rachael had replaced its dull red rep with modern tapestries, had had it papered in peacock and gray, had covered the old, dark woodwork with cream-colored enamel and replaced the black marble mantel with a simply carved one of white stone. The chairs here were all comfortable now; Rachael's book lay on a magazine-littered table, a dozen tiny, leather-cased animals, cows, horses, and sheep, were stabled on the hearth, and the spring sunlight poured in through fragile curtains of crisp net. Over the fireplace the great oil portrait of Warren Gregory smiled down, a younger Warren, but hardly more handsome than he was to-day. A pastel of the boys' lovely heads hung opposite it, between two windows, and photographs of Jim and Derry and their father were everywhere: on the desk, on the little grand piano, under the table lamp. This was Rachael's own domain, and in asking Magsie to come here she consciously chose the environment in which she would feel most at ease.
Upstairs came the light, tripping feet. "In here?" said the fresh, confident voice. Magsie came in.
Rachael met her at the door, and the two women shook hands. Magsie hardly glanced at her hostess, her dancing scrutiny swept the room and settled on Warren's portrait.
She looked her prettiest, Rachael decided miserably. She was all in white: white shoes, white stockings, the smartest of little white suits, a white hat half hiding her heavy masses of trimly banded golden hair. If her hard winter had tired Magsie—"The Bad Little Lady" was approaching the end of its run—she did not show it. But there was some new quality in her face, some quality almost wistful, almost anxious, that made its appeal even to Warren Gregory's wife.
"This is nice of you, Magsie," Rachael said, watching her closely, and conscious still of that absurd flutter at her heart. Both women had seated themselves, now Rachael reached for the silk- lined basket where she kept a little pretence of needlework, and began to sew. There were several squares of dark rich silks in the basket, and their touch seemed to give her confidence.
"What are you making?" said Magsie with a rather touching pretence at interest. Rachael began to perceive that Magsie was ill at ease, too. She knew the girl well enough to know that nothing but her own affairs interested her; it was not like Magsie to ask seriously about another woman's sewing.
"Warren likes silk handkerchiefs," explained Rachael, all the capable wife, "and those I make are much prettier than those he can find in the shops. So I pick up pieces of silk, from time to time, and keep him supplied."
"He always has beautiful handkerchiefs," said Magsie rather faintly. "I remember, years ago, when I was with Mrs. Torrence, thinking that Greg always looked so—so carefully groomed."
"A doctor has to be," Rachael answered sensibly. There were no girlish vapors or uncertainties about her manner; she had been the man's wife for nearly seven years; she was in his house; she need not fear Magsie Clay.
"I suppose so," Magsie said vaguely.
"What are your plans, Magsie?" Rachael asked kindly, as she threaded a needle.
"We close on the eighteenth," Magsie announced.
"Yes, so I noticed." Rachael had looked for this news every week since the run of the play began. "Well, that was a successful engagement, wasn't it?" she asked. It began to be rather a satisfaction to Rachael to find herself at such close quarters at last. What a harmless little thing this dreaded opponent was, after all!
"Yes, they were delighted," Magsie responded still in such a lackadaisical, toneless, and dreary manner that Rachael glanced at her in surprise. Magsie's eyes were full of tears.
"Why, what's the matter, my dear child?" she asked, feeling more sure of herself every instant.
Her guest took a little handkerchief from her pretty white leather purse, and touched her bright brown eyes with it lightly.
"I'll tell you, Rachael," said she, with an evident effort at brightness and naturalness, "I came here to see you about something to-day, but I—I don't quite know how to begin. Only, whatever you think about it, I want you to remember that your opinion is what counts; you're the one person who—who can really advise me, and—and perhaps help me and other people out of a difficulty."
Rachael looked at her with a twinge of inward distaste. This rather dramatic start did not promise well; she was to be treated to some youthful heroics. Instantly the hope came to her that Magsie had some new admirer, someone she would really consider as a husband, and wanted to make of Rachael an advocate with Warren, who, in his present absurd state of infatuation, might not find such a situation to his taste.
"I want to put to you the case of a friend of mine," Magsie said presently, "a girl who, like myself, is on the stage." Rachael wondered if the girl really hoped to say anything convincing under so thin a disguise, but said nothing herself, and Magsie went on: "She's pretty, and young—" Her tone wavered. "We've had a nice company all winter," she remarked lamely.
This was beginning to be rather absurd. Rachael, quite at ease, raised mildly interrogatory eyes to Magsie.
"You'll go on with your work, now that you've begun so well, won't you?" she asked casually.
"W—w—well, I suppose so," Magsie answered dubiously, flushing a sudden red. "I—don't know what I shall do!"
"But surely you've had an unusually encouraging beginning?" pursued Rachael comfortably.
"Oh, yes, there's no doubt about that, at least!" Magsie said. About what was there doubt, then? Rachael wondered.
She deliberately allowed a little silence to follow this remark, smiling, as if at her own thoughts, as she sewed. The younger woman's gaze roved restlessly about the room, she leaned from her chair to take a framed photograph of the boys from a low bookcase, and studied it with evidently forced attention.
"They're stunning!" she said in an undertone as she laid it aside.
"They're good little boys," their mother said contentedly. "I know that the queerest persons in the world, about eating and drinking, are actresses, Magsie," she added, smiling, "so I don't know whether to offer you tea, or hot soup, or an egg beaten up in milk, or what! We had a pianist here about a year ago, and—"
"Oh, nothing, nothing, thank you, Rachael!" Magsie said eagerly and nervously. "I couldn't—"
"The boys may be in soon," Rachael remarked, choosing to ignore her guest's rather unexpected emotion.
This seemed to spur Magsie suddenly into speech. She glanced at the tall old moonfaced clock that was slowly ticking near the door, as if to estimate the time left her, and sat suddenly erect on the edge of her chair.
"I mustn't stay,"' she said breathlessly. "I—I have to be back at the theatre at seven, and I ought to go home first for a few minutes. My girl—she's just a Swedish woman that I picked up by chance—worries about me as if she were my mother, unless I come in and rest, and take an eggnog, or something." She rallied her forces with a quite visible effort. "It was just this, Rachael," said Magsie, looking at the fire, and twisting her white gloves in desperate embarrassment, "I know you've always liked me, you've always been so kind to me, and I can only hope that you'll forgive me if what I say sounds strange to you. I thought I could come here and say it, but—I've always been a little bit afraid of you, Rachael—and I"—Magsie laughed nervously—"and I'm scared to death now!" she said simply.
Something natural, unaffected, and direct in her usually self- conscious and artificial manner struck Rachael with a vague sense of uneasiness. Magsie certainly did not seem to be acting now; there were real tears in her pretty eyes, and a genuine break in her young voice.
"I'm going straight ahead," she said rapidly, "because I've been getting up my courage this whole week to come and see you, and now, while Greg is in Albany, I can't put it off any longer. He doesn't know it, of course, and, although I know I'm putting myself entirely at your mercy, Rachael, I believe you'll never tell him if I ask you not to!"
"I don't understand," Rachael said slowly.
"I've been thinking it all out," Magsie went on, "and this is the conclusion—at least, this is what I've thought! You have always had everything, Rachael. You've always been so beautiful, and so much admired. You loved Clarence, and married him—oh, don't think I'm rude, Rachael," the girl pleaded eagerly, as Rachael voiced an inarticulate protest, "because I'm so desperately in earnest, and s-s-so desperately unhappy!" Her voice broke on a rush of tears, but she commanded it, and hurried on. "You've always been fortunate, not like other women, who had to be second best, but ALWAYS the cleverest, and ALWAYS the handsomest! I remember, when I heard you were to marry Greg, I was just sick with misery for two or three days! I had seen him a few weeks before in Paris, but he said nothing of it, didn't even mention you. Don't think I was jealous, Rachael—it wasn't that. But it seemed to me that you had everything! First the position of marrying a Breckenridge, then to step straight into Greg's life. You'll never know how I—how I singled you out to watch—"
"Just as I have singled you out this horrible winter," Rachael said to herself, in strange pain and bewilderment at heart. Magsie watched her hopefully, but Rachael did not speak, and the girl went on:
"When I came to America I thought of you, and I listened to what everyone said of you. You had a splendid boy, named for Greg, and then another boy; you were richer and happier and more admired than ever! And Rachael—I know you'll forgive me—you were so much FINER than ever—when I met you I saw that. I couldn't dislike you, I couldn't do anything but admire, with all the others. I remember at Leila's wedding, when you wore dark blue and furs, and you looked so lovely! And then I met Greg again. And truly, truly, Rachael, I never dreamed of this then!"
"Dreamed of what?" Rachael said with dry lips. The girl's voice, the darkening room, the dull, fluttering flames of the dying fire, seemed all like some oppressive dream.
"Dreamed—" Magsie's voice sank. Her eyes closed, she put one hand over her heart, and pressed it there. "Then came my plan to go on the stage," she said, taking up her story, "and one day, when I was especially blue, I met Greg. We had tea together. I've never forgotten one instant of that day! He tried to telephone you, but couldn't get you; we just talked like any friends. But he promised to help me, he was so interested, and I was homesick for Paris, and ready to die in this awful city! After that you gave me a dinner, and then we had theatricals, and then Bowman placed me, and I had to go on the road. But I saw Greg two or three times, and one day—one day last winter"—again her voice faltered, as if she found the memories too poignant for speech—"we drove in the Park," she said dreamily; "and then Greg saw how it was."
Rachael sat silent, stunned.
"Oh, Rachael," the girl said passionately. "Don't think I didn't fight it! I thought of you, I tried to think for us all. I said we would never see each other again, and I went away—you know that! For months after that day in the Park we hardly saw each other. And then, last summer, we met again. And he talked to me so wonderfully, Rachael, about making the best of it, about being good friends anyway—and I've lived on that! But I can't live on that forever, Rachael."
"You've been seeing each other?" Rachael asked stupidly.
"Oh, every day! At tea, you know, or sometimes especially before you came back, at dinner. And, Rachael, nobody will ever know what it's done for me! Greg's managed all my business, and whenever I was utterly discouraged and tired he had the kindest way of saying: 'Never mind, Magsie, I'm tired and discouraged, too!'" Magsie's face glowed happily at the memory of it. "I know I'm not worthy of Greg's friendship," she said eagerly. "And all the time I've thought of you, Rachael, as having the first right, as being far, far above me in everything! But—I'm telling you everything, you see—" Magsie interrupted herself to explain.
"Go on!" Rachael urged, clearing her throat.
"Well, it's not much. But a week or two ago Greg was talking to me about your being eager to get the boys into the country early this year. He looked awfully tired that afternoon, and he said that he thought he would close this house, and live at the club this summer, and he said 'That means you have a dinner date every night, Magsie!' And suddenly, Rachael—I don't know what came over me, but I burst out crying"—Magsie's eyes filled now as she thought of it—"and I said, 'Oh, Greg, we need each other! Why can't we belong to each other! You love me and I love you; why can't we give up our work and the city and everything else, and just be happy!'"
"And what did—Warren say?" Rachael asked in a whisper.
"Oh, Rachael! That's what I've been remembering ever since!" Magsie said. "That's what made me want to come to you; I KNEW you would understand! You're so good; you want people to be happy," said Magsie, fighting tears again and trying to smile. "You have everything: your sons, your position, your beauty—everything! I'm—I'm different from some women, Rachael. I can't just run away with him. There is an honorable and a right way to do it, and I want to ask you if you'll let us take that way!"
"An honorable way?" Rachael echoed in an unnatural voice.
"Well—" Magsie widened innocent eyes. "Nobody has ever blamed YOU for taking it, Rachael!" she said simply. "And nobody ever blamed Clarence, with Paula!"
Rachael, looking fixedly at her, sat as if turned to stone.
"You are brave, Magsie, to come and tell me this," she said at last quietly.
"You are kind to listen to me," Magsie answered with disarming sincerity. "I know it is a strange thing to do." She laughed nervously. "Of course, I know THAT!" she added. "But it came to me that I would the other day. Greg and I were talking about dreams, you know—things we wanted to do. And we talked about going away to some beach, and swimming, and moonlight, and just rest—and quiet—"
"I see," Rachael said.
"Greg said, 'This is only a dream, Magsie, and we mustn't let ourselves dream!'" Magsie went on. "But—but sometimes dreams come true, don't they?"
She stopped. There was an unearthly silence in the room.
"I've tried to fight it, and I cannot," Magsie presently said in a small, tired voice; "it comes between me and everything I do. I'm not a great actress—I know that. I don't even want to be any more. I want to go away where no one will ever see me or hear of me again. I've heard of this—feeling"—she sent Rachael a brave if rather uncertain smile—"but I never believed in it before! I never believed that when—when you care"—Rachael was grateful to be spared the great word—"you can't live or breathe or think anything"—again there was an evasion—"but the one thing!"
And with a long, tired sigh, again she relapsed into silence. Rachael could find nothing to say.
"Honestly, HONESTLY," the younger woman presently added, "you mustn't think that either one of us saw this coming! We were simply carried away. It was only this year, only a few months ago, that I began to think that perhaps—perhaps if you understood, you would set—Greg free. You want to live just for the boys, you love the country, and books, and a few friends. Your life would go on, Rachael, just as it has, only he would be happy, and I would be happy. Oh, my God," said Magsie, with quivering lips and brimming eyes, "how happy I would be!"
Rachael looked at her in impassive silence.
"At all events," the visitor said more composedly, "I have been planning for a week to come to you, Rachael, and have this talk. I may have done more harm than good—I don't know; but from the instant I thought of it I have simply been drawn, as if I were under a spell. I haven't said what I meant to, I know that. I haven't said"—her smile was wistful and young and sweet, as, rising from her chair, she stood looking down at Rachael—"how badly I feel that it—it happens so," said Magsie. "But you know how deeply I've always admired you! It must seem strange to you that I would come to you about it. But Ruskin, wasn't it, and Wagner—didn't they do something like this? I knew, even if things were changed between you and Greg, that you would be big enough and good enough to help us all to find the—the solution, if there is one!"
Rachael stood up, too, so near her guest that she could put one hand on Magsie's shoulder. The girl looked up at her with the faith of a distressed child.
"I'm glad you did come, Magsie," said Rachael painfully, "although I never dreamed, until this afternoon, that—this—could possibly have been in Warren's thoughts. You speak of—divorce, quite naturally, as of course anyone may, to me. But I never had thought of it. It's a sad tangle, whatever comes of it, and perhaps you're right in feeling that we had better face it, and try to find the solution, if, as you say, there is one."
And Rachael, breathing a little hard, stood looking down at Magsie with something so benign, so tragic, and so heroic in her beautiful face that the younger woman was a little awed, even a little puzzled, where she had been so sure. She would have liked to put her arms about her hostess's neck, and to seal their extraordinary treaty with a kiss, but she knew better. As well attempt to kiss the vision of a ministering angel. Rachael, one arm on Magsie's shoulder, her whole figure and her face expressing painful indecision, had never seemed so remote, so goddesslike.
"And—and you won't tell him of this?" faltered Magsie.
"Ah—you must leave that to me," Rachael said with a sad smile.
For a few seconds longer they looked at each other. Then Rachael dropped her arm, and Magsie moved a little. The visitor knew that another sentence must be in farewell, but she felt strangely awkward, curiously young and crude. Rachael, except for the falling of her arm, was motionless. Her eyes were far away, she seemed utterly unconscious of herself and her surroundings. Magsie wanted to think of one more thing to say, one clinching sentence, but everything seemed to be said. Something of the other woman's weariness and coldness of spirit seemed to communicate itself to her; she felt tired and desolate. It seemed a small and insignificant matter that she had had her momentous talk with Rachael, and had succeeded in her venture. Love was failing her, life was failing.
"I hope—I haven't distressed you—too awfully, Rachael," Magsie faltered. She had not thought of herself, a few hours ago, as distressing Rachael at all. She had thought that Rachael might be scornful, might be cold, might overwhelm her with her magnificence of manner, and shame her for her daring. She had come in on a sudden impulse, and had had no time for any thought but that her revelation would be exciting and dramatic and astonishing. She was sincerely anxious to have Warren freed, but not so swept away by emotion that she could not appreciate this lovely setting and her own picturesque position in the eyes of her beautiful rival.
"Oh, no!" Rachael answered, perfunctorily polite, and with her eyes still fixed darkly on space. And as if half to herself, she added, in a breathless, level undertone:
"It all rests with Warren!"
Presently Magsie breathed a faint "Good-bye," following it with an almost inaudible murmur that Dennison would let her out. Then the white figure was gone from the gloom of the room, and Rachael was alone.
For a time she was so dazed, so emotionally exhausted by the event of the last hour, that she stood on, fixed, unseeing, one hand pressed against her side as if she stopped with it the mouth of a wound. Occasionally she drew a long, sharp breath as the dying sometimes breathe.
"It all rests with Warren," she said presently, half-aloud, and in a toneless, passive voice. And slowly she turned and slowly went to the window.
The room was dark, but twilight lingered in the old square, and home-going men and women were filing across it. The babies and their nurses were gone now, there were only lounging men on the benches. Lumbering green omnibuses rocked their way through the great stone arch, and toward the south, over the crowded foreign quarter, the pink of street lamps was beginning to battle with the warm purple and blue that still hung in the evening sky. The season had been long delayed, but now there was a rustle of green against the network of boughs; a few warm days would bring the tulips and the fruit blossoms.
What a sweet, good, natural world it was in which to be happy! With its wheeling motor cars, its lovers seated in high security for the long omnibus ride, its laborers pleasantly ready for the home table and the day's domestic news! The chattering little Jewish girls from one of the uptown department stores were gay with shrilly voiced plans; the driver, riding lazily home on a pile of empty bags, had no quarrel with the world; the smooth- haired, unhatted Italian women from the Ghetto, with shawls wrapped over their full breasts, and serene black-eyed babies toddling beside them, were placidly content with the run of their days. It remained for the beautiful woman in the drawing-room to look with melancholy eyes upon the springtime, and tear out her heart in an agony no human power could cure.
"It all rests with Warren," Rachael said. Magsie was nothing, she was nothing; the world, the boys, were nothing. It was for Warren to hold their destinies in his hands and decide for them all. No use in raging, in reasoning, in arguing. No use in setting forth the facts, the palpable right and wrong. No use in bitterly asking the unanswering heavens if this were right and just, this system that could allow any young girl to feel any married man, any father, her natural prey. She had come to love Warren just as in a few years she might come to love someone else. That was all permissible; regrettable perhaps for Warren's wife, an unmistakable calamity for Warren's boys, but, from Magsie's standpoint, comprehensible and acceptable. If Warren were free, Magsie was well within her rights; if he were not, Rachael was the last woman in the world to dispute it.
After a while Rachael began to move mechanically about the room. She sat down at her desk and wrote a few checks; the boys little first dancing lessons must be paid for, the man who mended the clock, the woman who had put all her linen in order. She wrote briskly, reaching quickly for envelopes and stamps, and, when she had finished, closed the desk with her usual neatness. She telephoned the kitchen; had she told Louise that Doctor Gregory might come home at midnight? He might be at home for breakfast. Then she glanced about the quiet room, and went softly out, through the inner door, to her own bedroom adjoining. She walked on little usual errands between bureau and wardrobe, steadily proceeding with the changing of her gown. Once she stopped short, in the centre of the floor, and stood musing for a few silent minutes, then she said, aloud and lightly:
"Poor Magsie—it's all so absurd!"
If for a few seconds her thoughts wandered, they always came swiftly back. Magsie and Warren had fallen in love with each other—wanted to marry each other. Rachael tried to marshal her whirling thoughts; there must be simple reason somewhere in this chaotic matter. She had the desperate sensation of a mad-woman trying to prove herself sane. Were they all crazy, to have got themselves into this hideous fix? What was definite, what facts had they upon which to build their surmises?
Warren was her husband, that was one fact; Warren loved her, that was another. They had lived together for nearly eight years, planned together, they knew each other now, heart and soul. And there were two sons. These being facts for Rachael, what facts had Magsie? Rachael's heart rose on a wild rush of confidence. Magsie had no basis for her pretension. Magsie was young, and she had madly and blindly fallen in love. There was her single claim: she loved. Rachael could not doubt it after that hour in the sitting- room. But what pitiable folly! To love and to admit love for another woman's husband!
Thinking, thinking, thinking, Rachael lay awake all night. She composed herself a hundred times for sleep, and a hundred times sleep evaded her. Magsie—Warren—Rachael. Their names swept round and round in her tired brain. She was talking to Magsie, so eloquently and kindly; she was talking to Warren. Warren was shocked at the mere thought of her suspicions, had seen nothing, had suspected nothing, couldn't believe that Rachael could be so foolish! Warren's arms were about her, he was going to take her and the boys away. This was a bad atmosphere for wives, this diseased and abnormal city, Warren said. She was buying steamer coats for Derry and Jim—
Magsie! Again the girl's tense, excited face rose before Rachael's fevered memory. "You mustn't think either one of us saw this coming!"
Rachael rose on her elbow, shook her pillows, flashed a night- light on her watch. Quarter to three. It was a rather dismal hour, she thought, not near enough either midnight or morning. Tossing so long, she would be sleepless all night now.
Well, what was marriage anyway? Was there never a time of serenity, of surety? Was any pretty, irresponsible young woman free to set her heart upon another woman's husband, the father of another woman's children? Rachael suddenly thought of Clarence. How different the whole thing had seemed then! Clarence's pride, Clarence's child, had they been so hurt as her pride and her children were to be hurt now?
She must not allow herself to be so easily frightened. She had been thinking too many months of the one thing; she could not see it fairly. Why, Magsie had been infinitely more dangerous in the early days of her success; there was nothing to fear from the simple, apprehensive Magsie of this afternoon! The only sensible thing was to stop thinking of it, and to go to sleep. But Rachael felt sick and frightened, experienced sensations of faintness, sensations like hunger. Her eyes seemed painfully open, she could not shut them. Her breath came fitfully. She sighed, turned on her side. She would count one hundred, breathing deep and with closed eyes. "Sixteen, seventeen!" Rachael sat suddenly erect, and looked at her watch again. Twenty-two minutes past three.
Morning broke with wind and rain; the new leaves in the square were tossing wildly; sleet struck noisily against the windows. Rachael, waking exhausted, after not more than an hour's sleep, went through the process of dressing in a weary daze. The boys, as was usual, came in during the hour, full of fresh conversation and eager to discuss plans for the day. Jim tied strings from knob to knob of her bureau drawers, Derry amused himself by dashing a chain of glass beads against the foot of the bed until the links gave and the tiny balls rolled in every direction over the floor.
"Never mind," Rachael consoled the discomfited junior, "Pauline will come in and pick them all up. Mother doesn't care!"
Derry, however, howled on unconsoled, and Rachael, stopping, half- dressed, to take him in her arms, mused while she kissed him over the tiny sorrow that could so convulse him. Was she no more than a howling baby robbed of a toy? Nothing could be more real than Derry's sense of loss, no human being could weep more desolately or more unreasonably. Were her love and her life no more than a string of baubles, scattered and flung about by some irresponsible hand? Was nothing real except the great moving sea and the arch of stars above the spring nights? Life and death, and laughter and tears, how unimportant they were! Eight years ago she had felt herself to be unhappy; now she knew that in those days she had known neither sorrow nor joy. Since then, what an ecstasy of fulfilled desire had been hers! She had lived upon the heights, she had tasted the fullest and the sweetest of human emotions. What other woman—Cleopatra, Helen, all the great queens of countries and of art—had known more exquisite delight than hers had been in those first days when she had waited for Warren to come to her with violets?
The morning went on like an ugly dream. At nine o'clock Rachael sent down an untouched breakfast tray. Mary took the boys out into the struggling sunshine. The house was still.
Rachael lay on her wide couch, staring wretchedly into space. Her head ached. The moonfaced clock struck a slow ten, the hall clock downstairs following it with a brisk silver chime. Vendors in the square called their wares; the first carts of potted spring flowers were going their rounds.
Shortly after ten o'clock she heard Warren run upstairs and into his room. She could hear his voice at the telephone; he wanted the hospital—Doctor Gregory wished to speak to Miss Moore.
Miss Moore? Doctor Gregory would be there at eleven ... please have everything ready. Miss Moore, who was a veteran nurse and a privileged character, asked some question as to the Albany case; Warren wearily answered that the patient had not rallied; it was too bad—too bad.
Once it would have been Rachael's delight to soothe him, to give him the strong coffee he needed before eleven o'clock, to ask about the poor Albany man. Now she hardly heard him. Beginning to tremble, she sat up, her heart beating fast.
"Warren!" she called in a shaken voice.
He came to her door immediately, and they faced each other, his perfunctory greeting arrested by her look.
"Warren," said Rachael with a desperate effort at control, "I want you to tell me about—about you and Magsie Clay."
Instantly his face darkened. He gazed back at her steadily, narrowing his eyes.
"What about it?" he asked sharply.
Rachael knew that she was growing angry against her passionate resolution to keep the conversation in her own hands.
"Magsie came to see me yesterday," she said, panting.
Had she touched him? She could not tell. There was no wavering in his impassive face.
"What about it?" he asked again after a silence.
His wife pushed the rich, tumbled hair from her face with a wild gesture, as if she fought for air.
"What about it?" she echoed, in a constrained tone, still with that quickened shallow breath. "Do you think it is CUSTOMARY for a girl to come to a man's wife, and tell her that she cares for him? Do you think it is CUSTOMARY for a man to have tea every day with a young actress who admits she is in love with him—"
"I don't know what you're talking about!" Warren said, his face a dull red.
"Do you mean to tell me that you don't know that Margaret Clay cares for you," Rachael asked in rising anger, "and that you have never told her you care for her—that you and she have never talked about it, have never wished that you were free to belong to each other!"
"You will make yourself ill!" Warren said quietly, watching her.
His tone brought Rachael abruptly to her senses. Fury and accusation were not her best defence. With Warren calm and dignified she would only hurt her claim by this course. In a second she was herself again, her breath grew normal, she straightened her hair, and with a brief shrug walked slowly from the room into her own sitting-room adjoining. Following her, Warren found her looking down at the square from the window.