"If you are implying anything against Magsie, you are merely making yourself ridiculous, Rachael," he said nervously. "Neither Magsie nor I have forgotten your claim for a single instant. If she came here and talked to you, she did so absolutely without my knowledge."
"She said so," Rachael admitted, heart and mind in a whirl.
"From a sense of protection—for her," Warren went on, "I did NOT tell you how much we have come to mean to each other. I am extremely—unwilling—to discuss it now. There is nothing to be said, as far as I am concerned. It is better not to discuss it; we shall not agree. That Magsie could come here and talk to you surprises me. I naturally don't know what she said, or what impression she gave you. I would only remind you that she is young—and unhappy." He glanced at the morning paper he carried in his hand with an air of casual interest, and added in a moderate undertone, "It's an unhappy business!"
Rachael stood as if she had been shot through the heart— motionless, dumb. She felt the inward physical convulsion that might have followed an actual shot. Her heart seemed to be struggling under a choking flood, and black circles moved before her eyes.
Watching her, Warren presently began to enlarge upon the subject. His tone was that of frank and unashamed, if regretful, narrative. Rachael perceived, with utter stupefaction, that although he was sorry, and even angry at being drawn into this talk, he was far from being confused or ashamed.
"I am sorry for this, Rachael," he began in the logical tone she knew so well. "I think, frankly, that Magsie made a mistake in coming to you. The situation isn't of my making. Magsie, being a woman, being impulsive and impatient, has taken the law into her own hands." He shrugged. "She may have been wise, or unwise, I can't tell!"
He paused, but Rachael did not speak or stir.
Warren had rolled up the paper, and now, in his pacing, reaching the end of the room, he turned, and, thrusting it into his armpit, came back with folded arms.
"Now that this thing has come up," he said in a practical tone, "it is a great satisfaction to me to realize how reasonable a woman you are. I want you to know just how this whole thing happened. Magsie has always been a most attractive girl to me. I remember her in Paris, years ago, young, and with a pretty little way of turning her head, and effective eyes."
"I know all this, Warren!" Rachael said wearily.
"I know you do. But let me recapitulate it," he said, resuming in a businesslike voice: "When I met her at Hoyt's wedding I knew right away that we had a personality to deal with—something rare! I remember thinking then that it would be interesting to see whom she cared for, what that volcanic little heart would be in love— Time went on; we saw more of her. I met her, now and then, we had the theatricals, and the California trip. One day, that fall, in the Park, I took her for a drive, innocently enough, nothing prearranged. And I remember asking if any lucky man had made an impression upon her."
Warren smiled, his eyes absent. Rachael's look of superb scorn was wasted.
"It came to me in a flash," he went on, "that Magsie had come to care for me. Poor little Magsie, she hadn't meant to, she hadn't seen it coming. I remember her looking up at me—she didn't have to say a word. 'I'm sorry, Magsie,' I said. That was all. The touching thing was that even in that trouble she turned to me. We talked it over, I took her back to her hotel, and very simply she said, 'Kiss me, once, Greg, and I'll be good!' After that I didn't see her for a long, long time.
"It seemed to me a sacred charge—you can see that. I couldn't doubt it, the evidence was right there before my eyes, and thinking it over, I couldn't be much surprised. We were in the fix, and of course there was nothing to be done. She went away and that was the end of it, then. But when I saw her again last winter the whole miserable business came up. The rest, of course, she told you. She is unhappy and rebellious, or she would never have dared to come to you! I can't understand her doing so, now, for Magsie is a good little sport, Rachael; she knows you have the right of way. The affair has always been with that understanding. However much I feel for Magsie, and regret the whole thing—why, I am not a cad!" He struck her to her heart with his friendly smile. "You brought the subject up; I don't care to discuss it," he said. "I don't question your actions, and all I ask is that you will not question mine!"
"Perhaps—the world—may some day question them, Warren!" Rachael tried to speak quietly, but she was beginning to be frightened at her own violence. She shook with actual chill, her mouth was dry and her cheeks blazing.
"The world?" He shrugged. "I can hardly see that it is the world's business that you go your way and I go mine!" he said reasonably. He glanced at his watch. "Perhaps you will be so good as to say no more about it?" he suggested. "I have no time, now, anyway. Marriage—"
"Warren!" Rachael interrupted hoarsely. She stopped.
"Marriage," he went on, "never stands still! A man and woman are growing nearer together hourly, or they are growing apart. There is no need, between reasonable beings, for recriminations and bitterness. A man is only a man, after all, and if I have been carried off my feet by Magsie—as I admit I have been—why, such things have happened before! When she and my wife—who might have protected my dignity—meet to discuss the question of their feelings, and their rights, then I confess that I am beyond my depth."
He took a deep chair and sat back, his knees crossed, his elbow on the chair arm, his chin resting on his hand, as one conscious of scoring a point.
"And what about the boys' feelings and rights?" Rachael said in a low, tense tone.
"There you are!" Warren exclaimed. "It's all absurd on the face of it—the whole tangle!"
His wife looked at him in grave, dispassionate scrutiny. Of what was he made, this handsome, well-groomed man of forty-eight? What fatal infection had poisoned heart and brain? She saw him this morning as a stranger, and as a most repellent stranger.
"But it is a tangle in which one still sees right and wrong, Warren," she said, desperately struggling for calm. "Human relationships can't be discussed as if they were the moves on a chess-board. I make no claim for myself—the time has gone by when I could do so—but there is honor and decency in the world, there is simple uprightness! Your attentions, as a married man, can only do Magsie harm, and your daring"—suddenly she began restlessly to pace the floor as he had done—"your daring in coming here to me, to tell me that any other woman has a claim on you," she said, beginning to breathe violently, "only shows me how blind, how drugged you are with—I don't know what to call it—with your own utter lawlessness! What right has Margaret Clay compared to MY right? Are my claims, and my sons' claims, to be swept aside because a little idle girl of Magsie's age chooses to flirt with my husband? What is marriage, anyway—what is parenthood? Are you mad, Warren, that you can come here to our home and talk of 'tangles'—and rights? Do you think I am going to argue it with you, going to belittle my own position by admitting, for one second, that it is open to question?"
She flashed him one blazing look, then resumed her walking and her angry rush of words.
"Why, if some four-year-old child came in here and began to contend for Derry's place," Rachael asked passionately, "how long would we seriously consider his right? If I must dispute the title of Magsie Clay this year, why not of Jennie Jones next year, of Polly Smith the year after that? If—"
"Now you are talking recklessly," Warren Gregory said quietly, "and you have entirely lost sight of the point at issue. Nobody is attempting a controversy with you."
The cool, analytical voice robbed Rachael of all her fire. She sat down, and was silent.
"What you say is quite true," pursued Warren, "and of course, if a woman chooses to stand on her RIGHTS—if it becomes a question of legal obligation—"
"Warren! When was our marriage that?"
"I don't say it was that! I am protesting because YOU talk of rights and titles. I only say that if the problem has come down to a mere question of what is LEGAL, why, that in itself is a confession of failure!"
"Failure!" she echoed with white lips.
"I am not speaking of ourselves, I tell you!" he said, annoyed. "But can any sane person in these days deny that when a man and woman no longer pull together in double harness, our world accepts an honorable change?"
Rachael was silent. These had been her words eight years ago.
"They may have reasons for not making that change," Warren went on logically; "they may prefer to go on, as thousands of people do, to present a perfectly smooth exterior to the world. But don't be so unfair as to assume that what hundreds of good and reputable men and women are doing every day is essentially wrong!"
"You know that you may say this—to me, Warren," she said with a leaden heart.
"Anybody may say it to anybody!" he answered irritably. "Tying a man and a woman together doesn't necessarily make them—"
She interrupted with a quick, breathless, "WARREN!"
"Well!" Again he shrugged his shoulders and again glanced at his watch. "It seems to me that you shouldn't have spoken of the matter if you were not prepared to discuss it!" he said.
Rachael felt the room whirling. She could neither see nor feel anything now but the fury that possessed her. Perhaps twice in her life before, never with him, had she so given way to anger.
"I shouldn't have spoken of it, Warren!" she echoed. "I should have borne it, and smiled, and said nothing! Perhaps I should! Perhaps some women would have done that—"
"Rachael!" he interrupted quickly. But she swept down his words in the wild tide of her own.
"Warren!" she said with deadly decision, "I'm not that sort of woman. You've had your fun—now it's my turn! Now it's my turn!" Rachael repeated in a voiceless undertone as she rapidly paced the room. "Now you can turn to the world, and SEE what the world thinks! Let them know how often you and Magsie have been together, let them know that she came here to ask me to set you free, and then see what the general verdict is! I'm not going to hush this up, to refrain from discussing it because you don't care to, because it hurts your feelings! It SHALL be discussed, and you shall be free! You shall be free, and if you choose to put Magsie Clay here in my place, you may do so!"
"Rachael!" he said angrily. And he caught her thin wrists in his hands.
"Don't touch me!" she said, wrenching herself free. "Don't touch me, you cruel and wicked and heartless—! Go to Magsie! Tell her that I sent you to her! Take your hands off me, Warren—"
Standing back, discomfited, he attempted reason.
"Rachael! Don't talk so! I don't know what to make of you! Why, I never saw you like this. I never heard you—"
The door of her room closed behind her. She was gone. A long silence fell in the troubled room where their voices had warred so lately.
Warren looked at his watch, looked at her door. Then he went out the other door, and downstairs, and out of the house. Rachael heard him go. She was still breathing fast, still blind to everything but her own fury. She would punish him, she would punish him. He should have his verdict from the world he trusted so serenely; he should have his Magsie.
The clocks struck eleven: first the slow clock in her sitting- room, then the quick silvery echo from downstairs. Rachael glanced about nervously. The Bank—the boys' lunches—the trunks—
She went downstairs. In the little breakfast-room off the big dining-room the array of Warren's breakfast waited. Old Mary, with the boys, had just come in the side door.
"Mary," Rachael said quickly, "I want you to help me. Pack some clothes for the boys and me, and give them some luncheon. We are going down to Clark's Hills on the two o'clock train—"
"My God! Mrs. Gregory, you look very bad, my dear!" said Mary.
The unconscious endearment, the shock and concern visible on Mary's homely, honest face were too much for Rachael. Her face changed to ivory, she put one hand to her throat, and her lips quivered.
"Help me—some coffee—Mary!" she whispered. "I think—I'm dying!"
Warren went to the hospital and performed his operation. It was a long, hard strain for all concerned, and the nurses told each other afterward that you could see Doctor Gregory's heart was in it, he looked as bad as the child's father and mother did. It was after one o'clock when the surgeons got out of their white gowns, and Warren was in the cold, watery sunlight of the street before he realized that he had had nothing to eat since his dinner in Albany last night.
He looked about vaguely; there were plenty of places all about where he could get a meal. He saw Magsie—
Magsie often drove about in hansom-cabs—they were one of her delights; and more than once of late she had come to meet Warren at some hospital, or even to pick him up at the club. But this was the first time that she had done so without prearrangement.
She leaned out of the cab, a picture of youth and beauty, and waved a white glove. How did she know he was in here? she echoed his question. He had written her from Albany that he would operate at Doctor Berry's hospital this morning she reminded him. And where was he going now?
"I'm awfully worried this morning, honey-girl," said Warren, "and I can't stop to play with nice little Magsies in new blue dresses! My head is blazing, and I believe I'll go home—"
"When did you get in, and where did you have breakfast?" she asked with pretty concern. "Greg, you've not had any? Oh, I believe he hasn't had any! And it's after one, and you've been operating! Get STRAIGHT in—"
"No, dear!" he smiled as she moved to one side of the seat, and packed her thin skirts neatly under her, "not to-day! I'll—"
"Warren Gregory!" said Magsie sternly, "you get right straight in here, and come and have your breakfast! Now, what's nearest? The Biltmore!" She poked the upper door with her slim umbrella. "To the Biltmore!" commanded Magsie.
At a quiet table Warren had coffee and eggs and toast, and more coffee, and finally his cigar. The color came back into his face, and he looked less tired.
Magsie was a rather simple little soul under her casing of Parisian veneer, and was often innocently surprised at the potency of her own charm. That men, big men and wise men, were inclined to take her artful artlessness at its surface value was a continual revelation to her. Like Rachael, she had gone to bed the night before in a profoundly thoughtful frame of mind, a little apprehensive as to Warren's view of her call, and uneasy as to the state in which she had left his wife. But, unlike Rachael, Magsie had not been wakeful long. The consideration of other people's attitudes never troubled her for more than a few consecutive minutes. She had been genuinely stirred by her talk that afternoon, and was honestly determined to become Mrs. Warren Gregory; but these feelings did not prevent her from looking back, with thrilled complacence, to the scene in Rachael's sitting-room, and from remembering that it was a dramatic and heroic thing for a slender, pretty girl in white to go to a man's wife and plead for her love. "No harm done, anyway!" Magsie had reflected drowsily, drifting off to sleep; and she had awakened conscious of no emotion stronger than a mild trepidation at the possibility of Warren's wrath.
Dainty and sweet, she came to meet him halfway, and now sat congratulating herself that he was soothed, fed, and placidly smoking before their conversation reached deep channels.
"Greg, dear, I've got a horrible confession to make!" began Magsie when this propitious moment arrived.
"You mean your call on Rachael?" he asked quickly, the shadow coming back to his eyes. "Why did you do it?"
Magsie was conscious of being frightened.
"Was she surprised, Greg?"
"I don't know that she was surprised. Of course she was angry."
"Well," Magsie said, widening her childish eyes, "didn't you EXPECT her to be angry?"
"I didn't expect her to take any attitude whatever," Warren said with a look half puzzled and half reproving.
"Greg!" Magsie was quite honestly astonished. "What did you expect her to do? Give you a divorce without any feeling whatever?"
There was no misunderstanding her. For a full minute Warren stared at her in silence. In that minute he remembered some of his recent talks with Magsie, some of his notes and presents, he remembered the plan that involved a desert island, sea-bathing, moonlight, and solitude.
"I think, if you had been listening to us," Magsie went on, as he did not answer, "you could not have objected to one word I said! And Rachael was lovely, Greg. She told me she would not contest it—"
"She told you THAT?"
"Well, she said several times that it must be as you decide." Magsie dimpled demurely. "And I was—nice, too!" she asserted youthfully. "I didn't tell her about this—and this!" and with one movement of her pretty hand Magsie indicated the big emerald on her ring finger and the heavy bracelet of mesh gold about her wrist. Suddenly her face brightened, and with an eager movement she leaned across the narrow table, and caught his hand in both her own. "Ah, Greg," she said tenderly, "does it seem true, that after all these months of talking, and hoping, you and I are going to belong to each other?"
"But I have no idea that Rachael is seriously considering a divorce," Warren said slowly. "Why should she? She has no cause!"
"She thinks she has!" Magsie said triumphantly.
"She isn't the sort of woman to think things without reason," Warren said.
"She doesn't have to think," Magsie assured him with the same air of satisfaction; "she knows! Everyone knows how much you and I have been together: everyone knows that you backed 'The Bad Little Lady'—"
"Everyone has no right to draw conclusions from that!" Warren said.
Magsie shrugged her shoulders.
"And what do we care, Greg? I don't care what the world thinks as long as I have you! Let them have the letters, let them buzz— we'll be miles away, and we won't care! And in a year or two, Greg, we'll come back, and they'll all flock about us—you'll see! That's the advantage of a name like the Gregory name! Why, who among them all dropped Clarence on Paula's account, or Rachael on Clarence's?"
"Your going to see her has certainly—complicated things," Warren said reflectively.
"On the contrary," Magsie said confidently, "it has cleared things up. It had to come, Greg; every time you and I talked about it we brought the inevitable nearer! Why, you weren't ever at home. Could that have gone on forever? You had no home, no wife, no freedom. I was simply getting sick of the whole thing! Now at least we're all open and aboveboard; all we've got to do is quietly set the wheels in motion!"
"Well, I'll tell you what must be the first step, Magsie," Warren said after thought; "I'm going home now to see Rachael. I'll talk the whole thing over with her. Then I'll come to see you."
"Positively?" asked Magsie.
"You won't just telephone that you're delayed, Greg, and leave me to wonder and worry?" the girl asked wistfully. "I'll wait until any hour!" He looked at her kindly, with a gentleness of aspect new in their relationship.
"No, dear. It's nearly three now. I'll come take you to tea at, say, half-past four. I am operating again to-night, at nine, and SOME TIME I've got to get in a bath and some sleep. But there'll be time for tea."
Magsie chattered gayly, but Warren was almost silent as they gathered together their belongings, and went out to the street. He called her another cab and beckoned to the man who was waiting with his own car.
"In a few months, perhaps," said Magsie at parting, "when he's all tired and cross, I'll make him coffee AT HOME, and see that he gets his rest and quiet whenever he needs it!"
She did not like his answer.
"Rachael's a wonder at that sort of thing," he said. Magsie had not heard him speak so of his wife for months. "In fact, she spoils me," he added.
"Spoils you by leaving you alone in this hot town for six months out of every year?" Magsie laughed lightly. "Good-bye, dear! At half-past four?"
But even while he nodded Warren Gregory was resolving, in his soul, that he must never see Magsie Clay again. His world was strange and alarming; was falling to pieces about him. He was thirsting for Rachael: her voice, her reproaches, her forgiveness. In seven minutes he would be at home talking to his wife—
Dennison reported, with an impassive face, that Mrs. Gregory had left two hours ago with the children. He believed that they were gone to the Long Island house, sir. Warren, stupefied, went slowly upstairs to have the news confirmed by Pauline. Mrs. Gregory had taken Mary and Millie, sir. And there was a note.
Of course there was a note. To emotion like Rachael's emotion silence was the only unthinkable thing. She had planned a dozen notes, written perhaps five. The one she left was brief:
MY DEAR WARREN: I am leaving with the children for Clark's Hills. You will know best what steps to take in the matter of the freedom you desire. I will cooperate in any way. I have written Magsie that I will not contest your divorce. If for any reason you come to Clark's Hills, I will of course be obliged to see you. I ask you not to come. Please spare me another such talk as ours this morning. I have plenty of money.
Always faithfully, R. G.
Warren read it, and stood in the middle of her bedroom with the sheet crushed in his hand. Pauline had put the empty room in order—in terrible and desolate order. Usually there were flowers in the jars and glass bowls, a doll's chair by the bed, and a woolly animal seated in the chair; a dainty litter of lace scattered on Rachael's sewing-table. Usually she was there when he came in tired, to look up beautiful and concerned: "Something to eat, dear, or are you going to lie down?"
Standing here with the note that ended it all in his hand, he wondered if he was the same man who had so often met that inquiry with an impatient: "Just please don't bother me, dear!" Who had met the succeeding question with, "I don't know whether I shall dine here or not!"
It was half-past three. In an hour he would see Magsie.
In that hour Magsie had received Rachael's note, and her heart sang. For the first time, in what she would have described as this "funny, mixed-up business," she began seriously to contemplate her elevation to the dignity of Warren Gregory's wife. Rachael's note was capable of only one interpretation: she would no longer stand in their way. She was taking the boys to the country, and had given Warren the definite assurance of her agreement to his divorce. If necessary, on condition that her claim to the children was granted, she would establish her residence in some Western city, and proceed with the legal steps from there.
Magsie was frightened, excited, and thrilled all at once. She felt as if she had set some enormous machinery in motion, and was not quite sure of how it might be controlled. But on the whole, complacency underlay all other emotions. She was going to be married to the richest and nicest and most important man of her acquaintance!
At heart, however, her manner belied her; Magsie had little self- confidence. She lived in a French girl's terror that youth would leave her before she had time to make a good match. If nobody knew better than Magsie that she was pretty, also nobody knew better that she was not clever. Men tired of her dimples and giggles and round eyes. Bryan Masters admired her, to be sure, but then Bryan Masters was also a divorced man, and an actor whose popularity was already on the wane. Richie Gardiner admired her in his pathetic, hopeless way, and Richie was young and rich. But Magsie shuddered away from Richie's coughing and fainting; his tonics and his diet had no place in her robust and joyous scheme of life. Besides, all Magsie's world would envy her capture of Greg; he belonged to New York. And Richie's father had been a miner, and his mother was "impossible!"
Magsie dressed exquisitely for the tea; it seemed to her that she had never been so pleasantly excited in her life. She felt a part of the humming, crowded city, the spring wind and the uncertain sky. Life was thrilling and surprising.
Half-past four o'clock came, and Warren came. They were in Magsie's little apartment now, and she could go into his arms. Warren was rather quiet as they went out to tea, but Magsie did not notice it.
As a matter of fact, the man was bewildered; he was tired and worried about his work; but that was the least of it. He could not believe that the day's dazing and flying memories were real—the Albany train, Rachael's room, the hospital, Magsie and the Biltmore breakfast-room, Rachael's room again, and now again Magsie.
Were the lawsuits about which one read in the papers based on no more than this? Apparently not. Magsie seemed perfectly confident of the outcome; Rachael had not shown any doubt. One woman had practically presented him to the other; the law was to be consulted.
The law? How would those letters of Magsie's read if the law got hold of them? His memory flew from note to note. These hastily scratched words would be flung to the wind of gossip, that wind that blew so merrily among the houses where he was known. He had called Magsie his "wonder-child" and his "good little bad girl!" He had given her rings and sashes and a gold purse and a hat and white fox furs—any one gift he had made her was innocent enough in itself! But taken with all the others—
Magsie was in high feather; some tiresome preliminaries, and the day was won! She had not planned so definite a campaign, but it was all coming about in a fashion that more than fulfilled her plans. So, said Magsie to herself, stirring her tea, that was to be her fate: Paris, America, the stage, and then a rich marriage? Well, so be it. She could not complain.
"Greg," she said a dozen times, "isn't it all like a dream?"
To Warren Gregory, as he walked down the street after leaving her at the theatre, it was indeed like a dream, a frightful dream. He could hardly credit his senses, hardly believe that all these horrible things were true, that Rachael knew all about Magsie, and that Magsie was quietly thinking of divorce and marriage! Rachael, in such a rage, rushing away with the boys—why, he had made no secret of his admiration for Magsie from Rachael, he had often talked to her enthusiastically of Magsie! And here she was furiously offering him his freedom.
Well, what had he done after all? What a preposterous fuss about nothing. His thoughts were checked and chilled by the memory of letters that Magsie had. Magsie could prove nothing by those letters—
But what a fool they would make him! Warren Gregory remembered the case of a dignified college professor whose private correspondence had recently been given to the press, and he felt a cool shudder run down his spine. Rachael, reading those letters! It was unthinkable! She and the world would think him a fool! It came to him suddenly that she and the world would be right. He was a fool, and it was a fool's paradise in which he had been wandering: to take his wife and home and sons for granted, and to spend all his leisure at the feet of a calculating little girl like Magsie!
"What did you expect her to do?" Magsie had asked. What would any sane man expect her to do? Smile with him at the new favorite's charms, and take up her life in loneliness and neglect?
And now, Rachael was gone, and he stood promised to Magsie. So much was clear. Rachael would fight for her divorce. Magsie would fight for her husband.
"Oh, my God, how did we ever get into this sickening, sickening mess?" Warren said out loud in his misery.
He had not dined, he did not think of dinner as he paced the windy, cool city streets hour after hour. Nine struck, and he hailed a cab, and went to the hospital, moving through his work like a man in a dream. The woman whose life he chanced to save throughout all her days would say she had had a lovely doctor. Warren hardly saw her. He thought only of Magsie, Magsie who had in her possession a number of compromising letters, every one sillier than the last—Magsie, who expected him to divorce his wife and marry her. He was in such a state of terror that he could not think. Every instant brought more disquiet to his thoughts; he felt as if, when he stepped out into the street again, the newsboys might be calling his divorce, as if honor and safety and happiness were gone forever.
He did not see Magsie again that night, but walked and walked, entering his house sick and haggard, and sleeping the hours restlessly away.
At nine o'clock the next morning he went to the telephone, and called the Valentine house. Doctor Valentine was not at home, he was informed. Was Mrs. Valentine there? Would she speak to Doctor Gregory?
A long pause. Then the maid's pleasant impersonal voice again. Mrs. Valentine begged Doctor Gregory to excuse her.
Warren felt as if he had been struck in the face. Under the eyes of irreproachable and voiceless servants he moved about his silent house. The hush of death seemed to him to lie heavy in the lovely rooms that had been Rachael's delight, and over the city that was just breaking into the green of spring. He dressed, and left directions with unusual sternness; he would be at the hospital, or the club, if he was wanted. He would come home to dinner at seven.
"Mrs. Gregory may be back in a day or so, Pauline," he said. "I wish you'd keep her rooms in order—flowers, and all that."
"Yes, sir," Pauline said respectfully. "Excuse me, Doctor—" she added.
"Well?" said Warren as she paused.
"Excuse me, Doctor, but I telephoned Mrs. Prince yesterday, as Mrs. Gregory suggested," Pauline went on timidly, "and she would be glad to have me come at any time, sir."
Warren's expression did not change.
"You mean that Mrs. Gregory dismissed you?" he suggested.
"Yes, sir!" said Pauline with a sniff. "She paid me for—"
"Then I should make an arrangement with Mrs. Prince, by all means!" Warren said evenly. But a deathlike terror convulsed his heart. Rachael had burned her bridges!
He sent Magsie a note and flowers. He was "troubled by unexpected developments," he said, and too busy to see her to-day, but he would see her to-morrow.
Magsie had awakened to a sense of pleasure impending. It was many months since she had felt so important and so sure of herself. Her self-esteem had received more than one blow of late. Bowman had attempted to persuade her to take "The Bad Little Lady" on the road; Magsie had indignantly declined. He had then offered her a poor part in a summer farce; about this Magsie had not yet made up her mind.
Now, she said to herself, reading Warren's note over her late breakfast tray, perhaps she might treat Mr. Bowman to the snubbing she had long been anxious to give him. Perhaps she might spend the summer quietly, inconspicuously, somewhere, placidly awaiting the hour when she would come out gloriously before the world as Warren Gregory's wife. Not at all a bad prospect for the daughter of old Mrs. Torrence's companion and housekeeper.
A caller was announced and was admitted, a thin, restless woman who looked thirty-five despite or perhaps because of the rouge on her sunken cheeks and the smart gown she wore. The years had not treated Carol Pickering kindly: she was an embittered, dissatisfied woman now, noisily interested in the stage as a possible escape from matrimony for herself, and hence interested in Magsie, with whom she had lately formed a sort of suspicious and resentful intimacy.
Joe Pickering had entirely justified in eight years the misgivings felt toward him by everyone who had Carol Breckenridge's interests at heart. His wife had come to him rich, and a few hours after their wedding her father's death had more than doubled the fortune left her by her grandmother. But it would be a sturdy legacy indeed that might hope to resist such inroads as the aimless and ill-matched young couple made upon it from their first day together.
Idly acquiring, idly losing, being cheated and robbed on all sides, they drifted through an unhappy and exciting year or two, finally investing much of their money in bonds, and a handsome residue in that favorite dream of such young wasters: the breeding of horses for the polo market. "What if we lose it all—which we won't—we've still got the bonds!" Joe Pickering, leaden pockets under his eyes, his weak lips hanging loose, had said with his unsteady laugh. What inevitably followed, and what he had not foreseen, was that he should lose more than half the bonds, too. They were seriously crippled now, and began to quarrel, to hate each other for a greater part of the time; and their little son's handsome dark eyes fell on some sad scenes. But now, in the child's sixth year, they were still together, still appearing in public, and still, in that mysterious way known only to their type, rushing about on motor parties, buying champagne, and entertaining after a fashion in their cramped but pretentious apartment.
Of late Billy had been seriously considering the stage. She was but twenty-six, after all, and she still had a girl's thirst for admiration and for excitement. She had called on Magsie, entertained the young actress, and the two had discovered a certain affinity. Magsie was delighted to see her now. They greeted each other affectionately, and Magsie, sending out her tray, settled herself comfortably in her pillows, and took the interested Carol entirely into her confidence, with the single reservation of Warren Gregory's name.
"Handsome, and rich as Croesus, and his wife would divorce him, and belongs to one of the best families," summarized Billy. "Why, I think you would be a fool to do anything else!"
"S'pose I would," dimpled Magsie in interesting embarrassment.
"Have a heart, and tell me who it is," teased Carol, slipping her foot from her low shoe to study a hole in the heel of her silk stocking.
"Oh, I couldn't!" Magsie protested.
"Well, I shall guess, if I can," the other woman warned her. And presently she added: "I'll tell you what, if you do give it up, I'm going straight to Bowman, and ask for your place in your new show! There's nothing about it that I couldn't do, and I believe he might give me a chance! I'll tell you what: you wait until the last moment before you tell him, and then he can't be prepared in advance. And I'll risk having Jacqueline make me a couple of gowns, and be all ready to jump in. I'll learn the part, too," said Billy kindling; "you'll coach me in it, won't you?"
"Of course I will!" Magsie agreed, but she did not say it heartily. The conversation was not extremely pleasing to Magsie at the moment. She loved Warren, of course, but it was certainly a good deal to resign, even to marry a Gregory of New York! Why, here was Billy, who had been a rich man's daughter, and had married the man of her choice, and had a nice child, mad to step into her shoes!
And it was a painful reflection that probably Billy could do it. Billy was smart, she had a dash and finish about her that might well catch a manager's eye, and more than that, it was a rather poor part. It was no such part as Magsie had had in "The Bad Little Lady." There was a comedian in this cast, and a matinee idol for a leading man, and Magsie must content herself with a part and a salary much smaller than was given to either of these.
She thought of Warren, and also fleetingly of Bryan Masters, and even of Richie Gardiner, and decided that it was a bitter and empty world, and she wished she had never been born. Bowman would be smart enough to see that he need pay Billy almost no salary, that she might be a discovery—the discovery for which all managers are always so pathetically on the alert, and that in case the play failed—Magsie was sure, this morning, that it would be the flattest failure ever seen on Broadway—he would have no irate leading lady to pacify; Billy would be only too grateful for the opportunity to try and fail.
"Farce is the most difficult thing in the world to play," she said, now clinging desperately to her little distinction.
"Oh, I know that!" Billy answered absently. She would have a smart apartment on the Drive, and dear little old Breck should drive with her in the Park, and go to the smartest boys' school in the country—
"And of course, I may not marry!" said Magsie.
Carol hardly heard her. She was looking about the comfortable hotel apartment, all in a pretty disorder now, with Magsie's various possessions scattered about. There were pictures of actors on the mantel, heavily autographed, and flowers thrust carelessly into vases. There was a great sheaf of Killarney roses; the envelope that had held a card still dangled from their stems. Carol would have given a great deal to know whose card had been torn from it, and whose name was ringing just now in Magsie's brain. She even cared enough to tentatively interrogate Anna, Magsie's faithful Swedish woman.
"Well, perhaps we shall have a change here, Anna?" Billy said brightly but cautiously, when she was in the hall. She wondered whether the woman would let her slip a bill into her hand.
"Maybe," said Anna impassively.
"How shall you like keeping house for a man and wife?" Billy pursued.
"Aye do that bayfore," remarked Anna, responsive to this kindly interest; "aye ban hahr savan yahre, now, en des country."
"And do you like Miss Clay's young man?" Billy said boldly. But at this shift of topic the light faded from Anna's infantile blue eyes, and a wary look replaced it.
"She got more as one feller," she remarked discouragingly. Billy, outfaced, departed, feeling rather contemptible as she walked down the street. Joe was at home; she had left him in bed when she left the house at ten o'clock, and little Breck had been rather listlessly chatting with the colored boy in the elevator, and had begged his mother to take him downtown. Billy was really sorry for the little boy, but she did not know what to do about it; she wondered what other women did with little lonely boys of six. If she went home, it would not materially better the situation; the cook was cross to-day anyway, and would be crosser if Joe shouted for his breakfast in his usual ungracious manner. She could not go to Jacqueline and talk dresses unless she was willing to pay something on the last bill.
Billy thought of the bank, as she always did think of the bank, when her reflections reached this point. There were the bonds, not as many as they had been, but still fine, salable bonds. She could pay the cook, pay the dressmaker, take Breck home a game, look at hats, spend the day in exactly the manner that pleased her best. She had promised Joe that they would discuss the sale of the next one together when they had sold the last bond, a month ago, and avoid it if possible. But what difference did one make?—a paltry fifty dollars a year! Perhaps it would be possible not to tell Joe—
Billy looked in her purse. She had a dollar bill and fifty cents, more than enough to take her to the bank in appropriate style. She signalled a taxicab.
Magsie did not see Warren the next day, but they had tea and a talk on the day following. She told him gayly that he needed cheering, and presently took him into Tiffany's, where Warren found himself buying her a coveted emerald. Somehow during the afternoon he found himself talking and planning as if they really loved each other, and really were to be married. But it was an unsatisfactory hour. Magsie was excited and nervous, and was rather relieved than otherwise that her interviews with her admirer were necessarily short. As a matter of fact, the undisciplined little creature was overtired and unreasonable. She would have given her whole future for a quiet week in bed, with frivolous novels to read, and Anna to spoil her, no captious manager to please, no exhausting performances to madden her with a sense of her own and other people's imperfections, and no Warren to worry her with his long face.
Added to Magsie's trials, in this dreadful week, was an interview with the imposing mother of young Richie Gardiner, a handsome, florid lady, who had inherited a large fortune from the miner husband whose fortunes she had gallantly shared through some extraordinary adventures in Nome. Mrs. Gardiner idolized her son; she was not inclined to be generous to the little flippant actress who had broken his heart. Richie would not go to the healing desert, he would not go to any place out of sound of Miss Clay's voice, out of the light of Miss Clay's eyes. Mrs. Gardiner had no objection to Magsie's person, nor to her profession, the fact being that her own origin had been even more humble than that of Miss Clay, but she wanted the treasure of her boy's love to be appreciated; she had been envying, since the hour of his birth, the woman who should win Richie's love.
Stout, overdressed, deep-voiced, she came to see the actress, and they both cried; Magsie said that she was sorry—she was so bitterly sorry—but, yes, there was someone else. Mrs. Gardiner shrugged philosophically, wiped her eyes, drew a deep breath. No help for it! Presently she heavily departed; her solid weight, her tinkling spangles, and her rainbow plumes vanished into the limousine, and she was whirled away.
Magsie sighed; these complications were romantic. What could one do?
Silent, abstracted, unsmiling, Rachael got through the days. She ate what Mary put before her, slept fairly well, answered the puzzled boys the second time they addressed her. She buckled sandals, read fairy tales, brushed the unruly heads, and listened to the wavering prayers day after day. Her eyes were strained, her usually quick, definite motions curiously uncertain; otherwise there was little change.
Alice, in spite of her husband's half protest, went down to Clark's Hills, deciding in the first hour that the worst of the matter was all over and Rachael quite herself, gradually becoming doubtful, and returning home in despair. Her tearful account took George down to the country house a week later.
Rachael met them; they dined with her. She was interested about the Valentine children, interested in their summer plans. She laughed as she quoted Derry's latest ventures with words. She walked to her gate to wave them good-bye on Monday morning, and told Alice that she was counting the days until the big family came down. But George and Alice were heavy hearted as they drove away.
"What IS it?" asked Alice, anxious eyes upon her husband's kind, homely face. "She's like a person recovering from a blow. She's not sick; but, George, she isn't well!"
"No, she's not well," George agreed soberly. "Bad glitter in her eyes, and I don't like that calm for fiery Rachael! Well, you'll be down here in a week or two—"
"Last week," Alice said not for the first time, "she only spoke of—of the trouble, you know—once. We were just going out to dinner, and she turned to me, and said: 'I didn't like my bargain eight years ago, Alice, and I tore my contract to pieces! Now I'll pay for it.'"
"And you said?"
"I said, 'Oh, nonsense, Rachael. Don't be morbid! There's no parallel between the cases!'"
"H'm!" The doctor was silent for a long time. "I don't know what Greg's doing," he added after thought.
"The question is, what is Magsie doing?" said Alice.
"In my opinion, Rachael's simply blown up," George submitted.
"Magsie told her they had talked of marriage!" Alice countered. George gave an incredulous snort.
"Well, then, Magsie lied," he said firmly.
"She really isn't the lying type, George. And there's no question that Greg and she did see each other every day, and that he wrote her letters and gave her presents!" Alice finished rather timidly, for her husband's face was a thunder-cloud. The old car flew along at thirty-five miles an hour.
"Damn FOOL!" George presently muttered. Alice glanced at him in sympathetic concern.
"George, why don't you see him?"
George preserved a stern silence for perhaps two flying minutes, then he sighed.
"Oh, he'll come to me fast enough when he needs me! Lord, I've pulled old Greg out of trouble before." His whole face grew tender as he added: "You know Greg is a genius, Alice; he's not like other men!"
"I should hope he wasn't!" said Alice with spirit.
"We—ll!" She was sorry for her vehemence when George merely shook his head and ended the conversation on the monosyllable. After a while she attempted to reopen the subject.
"If geniuses can act that way, I'd rather have our girls marry grocers!"
The girls' father smiled absently.
"Oh, well, of course!" he conceded.
"Greg is no more a genius than you are, George," argued Alice.
"Oh, Alice, Alice!" he protested, really distressed, "don't ever let anyone hear you say that! Why, that only shows that you don't know what Greg is. Lord, the man seems to have an absolute instinct for bones; he'll take a chance when not one of the rest will! No, you mark my words, Alice, Greg has let Magsie Clay make a fool of him; he's been overtired and nervous—we've all seen that—but he's as innocent of any actual harm in this thing as our Gogo!"
"Innocent!" sniffed Alice. "He'll break Rachael's heart with his innocence, and then he'll marry Magsie Clay—you'll see!"
"He'll come to me to get him out of it within the month—you'll see!" George retorted.
"He'll keep out of your way!" Alice predicted confidently. "I know Greg. He has to be perfect or nothing."
But it was only ten days later that Warren Gregory walked up the steps of the Valentine house at about ten o'clock on a silent, hazy morning. George had not yet left the house for the day. The drawing-room furniture was swathed in linen covers, and a collection of golf irons, fishing rods, canoe paddles, and tennis rackets crowded the hallway. The young Valentines were departing for the country to-morrow, and their excited voices echoed from above stairs.
Warren had supposed them already gone. Rachael was alone, then, he reflected, alone in that desolate little country village! He nodded to the maid, and asked in a guarded tone for Doctor Valentine. A moment later George Valentine came into the drawing- room, and the two men exchanged a look strange to their twenty years of affectionate intercourse. Warren attempted mere cold dignity; he was on the defensive, and he knew it. George's look verged on contempt, thinly veiled by a polite interest in his visitor's errand.
"George," said Warren suddenly, when he had asked for Alice and the children, and an awkward silence had made itself felt; "George, I'm in trouble. I—I wonder if you can help me out?"
He could hardly have made a more fortunate beginning; halting as the words were, and miserable as was the look that accompanied them, both rang true to the older man, and went straight to his heart.
"I'm sorry to hear it," George said.
Warren folded his arms, and regarded his friend steadily across them.
"You know Rachael has left me, George?" he began.
"I—well, yes, Alice went down there first, and then I went down," George said. "We only came back ten days ago." There was another brief silence.
"She—she hasn't any cause for this, you know, George," Warren said, ending it, after watching the other man hopefully for further suggestion.
"Hasn't, huh?" George asked thoughtfully, hopefully.
"No, she hasn't!" Warren reiterated, gaining confidence. "I've been a fool, I admit that, but Rachael has no cause to go off at half-cock, this way!"
"What d'you mean by that?" George asked flatly. "What do you mean- -you've been a fool?"
"I've been a fool about Magsie Clay," Warren admitted, "and Rachael learned about it, that's all. My Lord! there never was an instant in my life when I took it seriously, I give you my word, George!"
"Well, if Rachael takes it seriously, and Magsie takes it seriously, you may find yourself beginning to take it seriously, too," George said with a dull man's simple evasion of confusing elements.
"Rachael may get her divorce," Warren said desperately. "I can't help that, I suppose. I've got a letter from her here—she left it. I don't know what she thinks! But I'll never marry Margaret Clay—that much is settled. I'll leave town—my work's ended, I might as well be dead. God knows I wish I were!"
"Just how far have you gone with Magsie?" George interrupted quietly.
"Why, nothing at all!" Warren said. "Flowers, handbags, things like that! I've kissed her, but I swear Rachael never gave me any reason to think she'd mind that."
"How often have you seen her?" George asked in a somewhat relieved tone. "Have you seen her once a week?"
"Oh, yes! I say frankly that this was a—a flirtation, George. I've seen her pretty nearly every day—-"
"But she hasn't got any letters—nothing like that?"
Warren's confident expression changed.
"Well, yes, she has some letters. I—damn it! I am a fool, George! I swear I wrote them just as I might to anybody. I—I knew it mattered to her, you know, and that she looked for them. I don't know how they'd read!"
George was silent, scowling, and Warren said, "Damn it!" again nervously, before the other man said:
"What do you think she will do?"
"I don't know, George," Warren said honestly.
"Could you—buy her off?" George presently asked after thought.
"Magsie? Never! She's not that type. She's one of ourselves as to that, George. It was that that made me like Magsie—she's a lady, you know. She thinks she's in love; she wants to be married. And if Rachael divorces me, what else can I do?"
"Rachael wants the divorce for the boys," George said. "She told Alice so. She said that except for that, nothing on earth would have made her consider it. But she doesn't want you and Magsie Clay to have any hold over her sons—and can you blame her? She's been dragged through all this once. You might have thought of that!"
"Oh, my God!" Warren said, stopping by the mantel, and putting his face in his hands.
"Well, what did you think would happen?" George asked as Magsie had asked.
Then for perhaps two long minutes there was absolute silence, while Warren remained motionless, and George, in great distress, rubbed his upstanding hair.
"George, what shall I do?" Warren burst out at length.
"Why, now I'll tell you," the older man said in a tone that carried exquisite balm to his listener. "Alice and I have talked this over, of course, and this seems to me to be the only way out: we know you, old man—that's what hurts. Alice and I know exactly what has got you into this thing. You're too easy, Warren. You think because you mean honorably by Magsie Clay, and amuse yourself by being generous to her, that Magsie means honorably by you. You've got a high standard of morals, Greg, but where they differ from the common standards you fail. If the world is going to put a certain construction upon your attentions to an actress, it doesn't matter what private construction you happen to put upon them! Wake up, and realize what a fool you are to try to buck the conventions! What you need is to study other people's morals, not to be eternally justifying and analyzing your own. I don't know how you'll come out of this thing. Upon my word, it's the worst mess we ever got into since you misquoted Professor Diggs and he sued you. Remember that?"
"Oh, George—my God—how you stood by me then," Warren said. "Get me out of this, and I'll believe that there never was a friend like you in the world! I don't know what I ever did to have you and Alice stand by me—"
"Alice isn't standing by you to any conspicuous extent," George Valentine said smilingly, "although, last night, when she was putting the girls to bed, she put her arms about Martha, and said, 'George, she wouldn't be here to-day if Greg hadn't taken the chance and cut that thing out of her throat!' At which, of course," Doctor Valentine added with his boyish smile, "Martha's dad had to wipe his eyes, and Martha's mother began to cry!"
And again he frankly wiped his eyes.
"However, the thing is this," he presently resumed, "if you could buy off Magsie—simply tell her frankly that you've been a fool, that you don't want to go on with it—no, eh?" A little discouraged by Warren's dubious shake of the head, he went on to the next suggestion. "Well, then, if you can't—tell her that there cannot be any talk at present of a legal separation, and that you are going away. Would you have the nerve to do that? Tell her that you'll be back in eight months or a year. But of course the best thing would be to buy her off, or call it off in some way, and then write Rachael fully, frankly—tell her the whole thing, ask her to wait at least one year, and then let you see her—"
Warren could see himself writing this letter, could even see himself walking into the dear old sitting-room at Home Dunes.
"I might see Magsie," he said after thought, "and ask her what she would take in place of what she wants. It's just possible, but I don't believe she would—-"
"Well, what could she do if you simply called the whole thing off?" George asked. "Hang it! it's a beastly thing to do, but if she wants money, you've got it, and you've done her no harm, though nobody'll believe that."
"She'll take the heartbroken attitude," Warren said slowly. "She'll say that she trusted me, that she can't believe me, and so on."
"Well, you can stand that. Just set your jaw, and think of Rachael, and go through with it once and for all."
"Yes, but then if she should turn to Rachael again?"
"Ah, well, she mustn't do that. Let her think that, after the year, you'll come to a fresh understanding rather than let her fight. And meanwhile, if I were you, I would write Rachael a long letter and make a clean breast. Alice and the girls go down to- morrow; they'll keep me in touch. How about coming in here for a bachelor dinner Friday? Then we can talk developments."
"George, you certainly are a generous loyal friend!" Warren Gregory said, a dry huskiness in his voice as he wrung the other's hand in good-bye.
George went upstairs to tell the interested and excited and encouraged Alice about their talk, and Alice laughed and cried with-pleasure, confident that everything would come out well now, and grateful beyond words that Greg was showing so humbled and penitent a spirit.
"Leave Rachael to me!" Alice said exultingly. "How we'll all laugh at this nonsense some day!"
Even Warren Gregory, walking down the street, was conscious of new hope and confidence. He was not thinking of Magsie to-day, but of Rachael, the most superb and splendid figure of womanhood that had ever come into his life. How she had raged at him in that last memorable talk; how vital, how vigorous she was, uncompromising, direct, courageous! And as a swimmer, who miles away from shore in the cruel shifting green water, might think with aching longing of the quiet home garden, the kitchen with its glowing fire and gleaming pottery, the pleasant homely routine of uneventful days, and wonder that he had ever found safety and comfort anything less than a miracle, Warren thought of the wife he had sacrificed, the children and home that had been his, unchallenged and undisputed, only a few months before. He knew just where he had failed his wife. He felt to-day that to comfort her again, to take her to dinner again, violets on her breast, and to see her loosen her veil, and lay aside her gloves with those little gestures so familiar and so infinitely dear would be heaven, no less! What comradeship they had had, they two, what theatre trips, what summer days in the car, what communion over the first baby's downy head, what conferences over the new papers and cretonnes for Home Dunes!
Girded by these and a hundred other sacred memories he went to Magsie, who was busy, the maid told him, with her hairdresser. But she presently came out to him, wrapped snugly in a magnificent embroidered kimono, and with her masses of bright hair, almost dry, hanging about her lovely little face. She had never in all their intercourse shown him quite this touch of intimacy before, and he felt with a little wince of his heart that it was a sign of her approaching possession.
"Greg, dear," said Magsie seating herself on the arm of his chair, and resting her soft little person against him, "I've been thinking about you, and about the wonderful, WONDERFUL way that all our troubles have come out! If anyone had told us, two months ago, that Rachael would set you free, and that all this would have happened, we wouldn't have believed it, would we? I watched you walking down the street yesterday afternoon, and, oh, Greg, I hope I'm going to be a good wife to you; I hope I'm going to make up to you for all the misery you've had to bear!"
This was not the opening sentence Warren was expecting. Magsie had been petulant the day before, and had pettishly declared that she would not wait a year for any man in the world. Warren had at once seized the opening to say that he would not hold her to anything against her will, to be answered by a burst of tears, and an entreaty not to be "so mean." Then Magsie had to be soothed, and they had gone to tea as a part of that familiar process. But to- day her mood was different; she was full of youthful enthusiasm for the future.
"You know I love Rachael, Greg, and of course she is a most exceptional woman," bubbled Magsie happily, "but she doesn't appreciate the fact that you're a genius—you're not a little everyday husband, to be held to her ideas of what's done and what isn't done! Big men are a law unto themselves. If Rachael wants to hang over babies' cribs, and scare you to death every time Jim sneezes—"
Warren listened no further. His mind went astray on a memory of the night Jim was feverish, a memory of Rachael in her trailing dull-blue robe, with her thick braids hanging over her shoulders. He remembered that Jim was promised the circus if he would take his medicine; and how Rachael, with smiling lips and anxious eyes, had described the big lions and the elephants for the little restless potentate—-
"—because I've had enough of Bowman, and enough of this city, and all I ask is to run away with you, and never think of rehearsals and routes and all the rest of it in my life again!" Magsie was saying. Presently she seemed to notice his silence, for she asked abruptly: "Where's Rachael?"
Warren roused himself from deep thought.
"At the Long Island house; at Clark's Hills."
"Oh!" Magsie, who was now seated opposite him, clasped her hands girlishly about her knees. "What is the plan, Greg?" she asked vivaciously.
"Her plan?" Warren said clearing his throat.
"Our plan!" Magsie amended contentedly. And she summarized the case briskly: "Rachael consents to a divorce, we know that. I am not going on with Bowman, I've decided that. Now what?" She eyed his brooding face curiously. "What shall I do, Greg? I suppose we oughtn't to see each other as we did last summer? If Rachael goes West—and I suppose she will—shall I go up to the Villalongas'? They're terribly nice to me; and I think Vera suspects—-"
"What makes you think she does?" Warren asked, feeling as if a hot, dry wind suddenly smote his skin.
"Because she's so nice to me!" Magsie answered triumphantly. "Rachael's been just a little snippy to Vera," she confided further, "or Vera thinks she has. She's not been up there for ages! I could tell Vera—-"
Warren's power of reasoning was dissipated in an absolute panic. But George had primed him for this talk. He assumed an air of business.
"There are several things to think of, Magsie," he said briskly, "before we can go farther. In the first place, you must spend the summer comfortably. I've arranged for that—"
He handed her a small yellow bank-book. Magsie glanced at it; glanced at him.
"Oh, Greg, dear, you're too generous!"
"I'm not generous at all," he answered with an honest flush. "I know what I am now, Magsie, I'm a cad."
"Who says you're a cad?" Magsie demanded indignantly.
"I say so!" he answered. "Any man is a cad who gets two women into a mess like this!"
"Greg, dear, you shan't say so!" Her slender arms were about his neck.
"Well—" He disengaged the arms, and went on with his planning. "George Valentine is going to see Rachael," he proceeded.
"About the divorce?" said Magsie with a nod.
"About the whole thing. And George thinks I had better go away."
"Where?" demanded Magsie.
"Oh, travelling somewhere."
"Rio?" dimpled Magsie. "You know you have always had a sneaking desire to see Rio."
Warren smiled mechanically. It had been Rachael's favorite dream "when the boys are big enough!" His sons—were they bathing this minute, or eagerly emptying their blue porridge bowls?
"Magsie, dear," he said slowly, "it's a miserable business—this. I'm as sorry as I can be about it. But the truth is that George wants me to get away only until he and Alice can get Rachael into a mood where she'll forgive me. They see this whole crazy thing as it really is, dear. I'm not a young man, Magsie, I'm nearly fifty. I have no business to think of anything but my own wife and my work and my children—Don't look so, Magsie," he broke off to say; "I only blame myself! I have loved you—I do love you—but it's only a man's love for a sweet little amusing friend. Can't we— can't we stop it right here? You do what you please; draw on me for twice that, for ten times that; have a long, restful summer, and then come back in the fall as if this was all a dream—-"
Magsie had been watching him steadily during this speech, a long speech for him. At first she had been obviously puzzled, then astonished, now she was angry. She had grown pale, her pretty childish mouth was a little open, her breath coming fast. For a full minute, as his voice halted, there was silence.
"Then—then you didn't mean all you said?" Magsie demanded stormily, after the pause. "You didn't mean that you—cared? You didn't mean the letters, and the presents, and the talks we've had? You knew I was in earnest, but you were just fooling!" Sheer excitement and fury kept her panting for a moment, then she went on: "But I think I know who's done this, Greg!" she said viciously; "it's Mrs. Valentine. She and her husband have been talking to you; they've done it. She's persuaded you that you never were in earnest with me!" Magsie ran across the room, flung open the little desk that stood there, and tore the rubber band from a package of letters. "You take her one of these!" she said, half sobbing. "Ask her if that means anything! Greg, dear!" she interrupted herself to say in a child's reproachful tone, "didn't you mean it?" And with her soft hair floating, and her figure youthful under the simple lines of her Oriental robe, she came to stand close beside him, her mood suddenly changed. "Don't you love me any more, Greg?" said she.
"Love you!" he countered with a rueful laugh, "that's the trouble."
She linked her soft little hands in his, raised reproachful eyes.
"But you don't love me enough to stand by me, now that Rachael is so cross?" she asked artlessly. "Oh, Greg, I will wait years and years for you!"
Warren's expression was of wretchedness; he managed a smile.
"It's only that I hate to let you in for it all, dear. And let her in for it. I feel as if we hadn't thought it out—quite enough," he said.
"What does it let Rachael in for?" she asked quickly. "Here's her letter, Greg—I'll read it to you! Rachael doesn't mind."
"Well—it will be horrible for you," he submitted in a troubled tone. "Horrible for us both."
"You mean your work can't spare you?" she asked with a shrewd look.
"No!" He shrugged wearily. "No. The truth is, I want to get away," he said in an undertone.
"Ah, well!" Magsie understood that. "Of course you want to get away from the fuss and the talk, Greg," she said eagerly. "I think we all ought to get away: Rachael to Long Island, I to Vera, you anywhere! We can't possibly be married for months—-" Suddenly her voice sank, she dropped his hands, and locked her smooth little arms about his neck. "But I'll be waiting for you, and you for me, Greg," she whispered. "Isn't it all settled now, isn't it only a question of all the bother, lawyers and arrangements, before you and I belong to each other as we've always dreamed we might?"
He looked down gravely, almost sadly, and yet with tenderness, upon the eager face. He had always found her lovable, endearing, and sweet; even out of this hideous smoke and flame she emerged all charming and all desirable. He tightened his arms about the thinly wrapped little figure.
"Yes. I think it's all settled now, Magsie!" he said.
"Well, then!" She sealed it with one of her quick little kisses. "Now sit down and read a magazine, Greg," she said happily, "and in ten minutes you'll see me in my new hat, all ready to go to lunch!"
The blue tides rose and fell at Clark's Hills, the summer sun shone healingly down upon Rachael's sick heart and soul. Day after day she took her bare-headed, sandalled boys to the white beach, and lay in the warm sands, with the tonic Atlantic breezes blowing over her. Space and warmth and silence were all about; the incoming breakers moved steadily in, and shrank back in a tumble of foam and blue water; gulls dipped and wheeled in the spray. As far as her dreaming eyes could reach, up the beach and down, there was the same bath of warm color, blue sea melting into blue sky, white sand mingling with yellow dunes, until all colors, in the distance, swam in a haze of dull gold.
Now and then, when even the shore was hot, the boys elected to spend their afternoon by the bay on the other side of the village. Here there was much small traffic in dingies and dories and lobster-pots; the slower tides rocked the little craft at the moorings, and sent bright swinging light against the weather-worn planks under the pier. Rachael smiled when she saw Derry's little dark head confidently resting against the flowing, milky beard of old Cap'n Jessup, or heard the bronzed lean younger men shout to her older son, as to an equal, "Pitch us that painter, will ye, Jim!"
She spoke infrequently but quietly of Warren to Alice. The older woman discovered, with a pang of dismay, that Rachael's attitude was fixed beyond appeal. There was such a thing as divorce, established and approved; she, Rachael, had availed herself of its advantages; now it was Warren's turn.
Rachael would live for her sons. They must of course be her own. She would take them away to some other atmosphere: "England, I think," she told Alice. "That's my mother country, you know, and children lead a sane, balanced life there."
"I will be everything to them until they are—say, ten and twelve," she added on another day, "and then they will begin to turn toward their father. Of course I can't blame him to them, Alice. And some day they will come to believe that it is all their mother's fault—that's the way with children! And so I'll pay again."
"Dearest girl, you're morbid!" Alice said, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.
"No, I mean it, I truly mean that! It is disillusioning for young boys to learn that their father and mother were not self- controlled, normal persons, able to bear the little pricks of life, but that our history has been public gossip for years, that two separate divorces are in their immediate history!"
"Rachael, don't talk so recklessly!"
Rachael smiled sadly.
"Well, perhaps I can be a good mother to them, even if they don't idealize me!" she mused.
"I have come to this conclusion," she told
Alice one day, about a fortnight later, "while civilization is as it is, divorce is wrong. No matter what the circumstances are, no matter where the right and wrong lie, divorce is wrong."
"I suppose there are cases of drink or infidelity—" Alice submitted mildly.
"Then it's the drink, or the infidelity that should be changed!" Rachael answered inflexibly. "It's the one vow we take with God as witness; and no blessing ever follows a broken vow!"
"I think myself that there are not many marriages that couldn't be successes!" Alice said thoughtfully.
"Separation, if you like!" Rachael conceded with something of her old bright energy. "Change and absence, for weeks and months, but not divorce. Paula Verlaine should never have divorced Clarence; she made a worse match, if that was possible, and involved three other small lives in the general discomfort. And I never should have married Clarence, because I didn't love him. I didn't want children then; I never felt that the arrangement was permanent; but having married him, I should have stayed by him. I know the mood in which Clarence took his own life; he never loved me as he did Bill, but he wouldn't have done it if I had been there!"
"I cannot consider Clarence Breckenridge a loss to society," Alice said.
"I might have made Clarence a man who would have been a loss to society," Rachael mused. "He was proud; loved to be praised. And he loved children; one or two babies in the nursery would have put Billy in second place. But he bored me, and I simply wouldn't go on being bored. So that if I had had a little more courage, or a little more prudence in the first place, Billy, Clarence, perhaps Charlotte and Charlie, Greg, Deny, Jim, Joe Pickering, and Billy might all have been happier, to say nothing of the general example to society."
"I hear that Billy is unhappy enough now," Alice said, pleased at Rachael's unusual vivacity. "Isabella Haviland told my Mary that Cousin Billy was talking about divorce."
"From Joe?—is that so?" Rachael looked up interestedly. "I hadn't heard it, and somehow I don't believe it! They have a curious affinity through all their adventures. Poor little Bill, it hasn't been much of a life!"
"They say she is going on the stage," Alice pursued, "which seems a pity, especially for the child's sake. He's an attractive boy; we saw him with her at Atlantic City last winter—one of those wonderfully dressed, patient, pathetic children, always with the grown-ups! The little chap must have a rather queer life of it drifting about from hotel to hotel. They're hard up, and I believe most of the shops and hotels have actually black-listed them. He would seem to be the sort of man who cannot hold on to anything, and, of course, there's the drinking! She's not the girl to save him. She drinks rather recklessly herself; it's a part of her pose."
"I wonder if she would let the youngster come down here and scramble about with my boys?" Rachael said unexpectedly. She had not seriously thought of it; the suggestion came idly. But instantly it took definite hold. "I wonder if she would?" she added with more animation than she had shown for some time. "I would love to have him, and of course the boys would go wild with joy! I would be so glad to do poor old Billy a good turn. She and I were always friends, and had some queer times together. And more than that"—Rachael's eyes darkened—"I believe that if I had had the right influence over her she never would have married Joe. I regarded the whole thing too lightly; I could have tried, in a different way, to prevent it, at least. I am certainly going to write her, and ask for little Breckenridge. It would be something to do for Clarence, too," Rachael added in a low tone, and as if half to herself, "and for many long years I have felt that I would be glad to do something for him! To have his grandson here— doesn't it seem odd?-and perhaps to lend Billy a hand; it seems almost like an answer to prayer! He can sleep on the porch, between the boys, and if he has some old clothes, and a bathing suit—"
"MY DEAR BILLY," she wrote that night, "I have heard one or two hints of late that you have a good many things in your life just now that make for worry, and am writing to know if my boys and I may borrow your small son for a few weeks or a month, so that one small complication of a summer in the city will be spared you. We are down here on Long Island on a strip of high land that runs between the beautiful bay and the very ocean, and when Jim and Derry are not in the one they are apt to be in the other. It will be a great joy to them to have a guest, and a delight to me to take good care of your boy. I think he will enjoy it, and it will certainly do him good.
"I often think of you with great affection, and hope that life is treating you kindly. Sometimes I fancy that my old influence might have been better for you than it was, but life is mistakes, after all, and paying for them, and doing better next time.
"Always affectionately yours, RACHAEL."
Three days elapsed after this letter was dispatched, and Rachael had time to wonder with a little chill if she had been too cordial to Billy, and if Billy were laughing her cool little laugh at her one-time step-mother's hospitality and moralizing.
But as a matter of fact, the invitation could not have been more happily timed for young Mrs. Pickering. Billy, without any further notice to Magsie, had been to see Magsie's manager, coolly betraying her friend's marriage plans, pledging the angry and bewildered Bowman to secrecy, and applying for the position on her own account in the course of one brief visit.
Bowman would not commit himself to engaging Billy, but he was infinitely obliged to her for the news of Magsie, and told her so frankly.
It was when she returned home from this call, and hot and weary, was trying to break an absolute promise to the boy, involving the Zoo and ice-cream, that Rachael's letter arrived.
Billy read it through, sat thinking hard, and presently read it again. The softest expression her rather hard young face ever knew came over it as she sat there. This was terribly decent of Rachael, thought Billy. She must be the busiest and happiest woman in the world, and yet her heart had gone out to little Breck. The last line, however, meant more than all the rest, just now, to Billy Pickering. She was impressionable, and not given to finding out the truths of life for herself. Rachael's opinions she had always respected. And now Rachael admitted that life was all mistakes, and added that heartening line about paying for them, and doing better.
"'Cause I am so hot—and I never had any lunch—and you said you would!" fretted the little boy, flinging himself against her, and sending a wave of heat through her clothing as he did so.
"Listen, Breck," she said suddenly, catching him lightly in her arm, and smiling down at him, "would you like to go down and stay with the Gregory boys?"
"I don't know 'em," said Breck doubtfully.
"Down on the ocean shore," Billy went on, "where you could go in bathing every day, and roll in the surf, and picnic, and sleep out of doors!"
"Did they ask me?" he demanded excitedly.
"Their mother did, and she says that you can stay as long as you're a good boy, down there where it's nice and cool, digging in the sand, and going bare foot—"
"I'll be the best boy you ever saw!" Breck sputtered eagerly. "I'll work for her, and I'll make the other kids work for her— she'll tell you she never saw such a good boy! And I'll write you letters—"
"You won't have to work, old man!" Billy felt strangely stirred as she kissed him. She watched him as he rushed away to break the news of his departure to the stolid Swedish girl in the kitchen and the colored boy at the elevator. He jerked his little bureau open, and began to scramble among his clothes; he selected a toy for Jim and a toy for Derry, and his mother noticed that they were his dearest toys. She took him downtown and bought him a bathing suit, and sandals, and new pajamas, and his breathless delight, as he assured sympathetic clerks that he was going down to the shore, made her realize what a lonely, uncomfortable little fellow he had been all these months. He could hardly eat his supper that night, and had to be punished before he would even attempt to go to sleep, and the next morning he waked his mother at six, and fairly danced with impatience and anxiety as the last preparations were made.
Billy took him down to Clark's Hills herself. She had not notified Rachael, or answered her in any way, never questioning that Rachael would know her invitation to be accepted. But from the big terminal station she did send a wire, and Rachael and the boys met her after the hot trip.
"Billy, it was good of you to come," Rachael said, kissing her quite naturally as they met.
"I never thought of doing anything else," Billy said, breathing the fresh salt air with obvious pleasure. "I had no idea that it was such a trip. But he was an angel—look at them now, aren't they cute together?"
Rachael's boys had taken eager possession of their guest; the three were fast making friends as they trotted along together toward the old motor car that Rachael ran herself.
"It's a joy to them," their mother said. "Get in here next to me, Bill; I'm not going even to look at you until I get you home. Did you ever see the water look so delicious? We'll all go down for a dip pretty soon. I live so simply here that I'm entirely out of the way of entertaining a guest, but now that you're here, you must stay and have a little rest yourself!"
"Oh, thank you, but—" Billy began in perfunctory regret. Her tone changed: "I should love to!" she said honestly.
Rachael laughed. "So funny to hear your old voice, Bill, and your old expressions."
"I was just thinking that you've not changed much, Rachael."
"I? Oh, but I've gray hair! Getting old fast, Billum."
"And how's Greg?" Billy did not understand the sudden shadow that fell across Rachael's face, but she saw it, and wondered.
"Very well, my dear."
"Does he get down here often? It's a hard trip."
"He always comes in his car. They make it in—I don't know— something like two hours and ten minutes, I think. This is my house, with all its hydrangeas in full bloom. Yes, isn't it nice? And here's Mary for Breckenridge's bag."
Rachael had got out of the car, and now she gave Billy's boy her hand, and stood ready to help him down.
"Well, Breck," said she, "do you think you are going to like my house, and my little boys? Will you give Aunt Rachael a kiss?"
Billy said nothing as the child embraced his new-found relative heartily, nor when Rachael took her upstairs to show her the third hammock between the other two, and herself invested the visitor in blue overalls and a wide hat. But late that evening, after a silence, she said suddenly:
"You're more charming than ever, Rachael; you're one of the sweetest women I ever saw!"
"Thank you!" Rachael said with a little note of real pleasure under her laugh.
"You've grown so gentle, and good," said Billy a little awkwardly. "Perhaps it's just because you're so sweet to Breck, and because you have such a nice way with children, but I—I am ever and ever so grateful to you! I've often thought of you, all this time, and of the old days, and been glad that so much happiness of every sort has come to you. At first I felt dreadfully—at that time, you know—"
She stopped and faltered, but Rachael looked at her kindly. They were sitting on the wide porch, under the velvet-black arch of the starry sky, and watching the occasional twinkle of lights on the dark surface of the bay.
"You may say anything you like to me, Billy," Rachael said.
"Well, it was only—you know how I loved him—" Billy said quickly. "I've so often thought that perhaps you were the only person who knew what it all meant to me. I only thought he would be angry for a while. I thought then that Joe would surely win him. And afterward, I thought I would go crazy, thinking of him sitting there in the club. I had failed him, you know! I've never talked about it. I guess I'm all tired out from the trip down."
It was clumsily expressed; the words came as if every one were wrung from the jealous silence of the long years, but presently Billy was beside Rachael's chair, kneeling on the floor, and their arms were about each other.
"I killed him!" sobbed Billy. "He spoke of me the last of all. He said to Berry Stokes that he—he loved me. And he had a little old picture of me—you remember the one in the daisy frame?—over his heart. Oh, Daddy, Daddy!—always so good to me!"
"No, Bill, you mustn't say that you killed him," Rachael said, turning pale. "If you were to blame, I was, too, and your grandmother, and all of us who made him what he was. I didn't love him when I married him, and he was the sort of man who has to be loved; he knew he wasn't big, and admirable, and strong, but many a man like Clancy has been made so, been made worth while, by having a woman believe in him. I never believed in him for one second, and he knew it. I despised him, and where he sputtered and stammered and raged, I was cool and quiet, and smiling at him. It isn't right for human beings to feel that way, I see it now. I see now that love—love is the lubricant everywhere in the world, Bill. One needn't be a fool and be stepped upon; one has rights; but if loving enough goes into everything, why, it's bound to come out right."
"Oh, I do believe it!" said Billy fervently, kneeling on the floor at Rachael's feet, her wet, earnest eyes on Rachael's face, her arms crossed on the older woman's knees.
"I believe," Rachael said, "that in those seven years I might have won your father to something better if I had cared. He wasn't a hard man, just desperately weak. I've thought of it so often, of late, Bill. There might have been children. Clancy had a funny little pathetic fondness for babies. And he was a loving sort of person—-"
"Ah, wasn't he?" Billy's eyes brimmed again. "Always that to me. But not to you, Rachael, and little cat that I was—I knew it. But you see I had no particular reverence for marriage, either. How should I? Why, my own mother and my half-sisters—hideous girls, they are, too—were pointed out to me in Rome a year ago. I didn't know them! I could have made your life much easier, Rachael. I wish I had. I was thinking that this afternoon when Breck was letting you carry him out into deep water, clinging to you so cunningly. He is a cute little kid, isn't he? And he'll love you to death! He's a great kisser."
"He's a great darling," smiled Rachael, "and all small boys I adore. He'll begin to put on weight in no time. And—I was thinking, Bill—he would have reconciled Clancy to you and Joe, perhaps; one can't tell! If I had not left him, Clarence might have been living to-day, that I know. He only—did what he did in one of those desperate lonely times he used to dread so."
"Ah, but he was terrible to you, Rachael!" Billy said generously. "You deserved happiness if anyone ever did!" Again she did not understand Rachael's sharp sigh, nor the little silence that followed it. Their talk ran on quite naturally to other topics: they discussed all the men and women of that old world they both had known, the changes, the newcomers, and the empty places. Mrs. Barker Emory had been much taken up by Mary Moulton, and was a recognized leader at Belvedere Bay now; Straker Thomas was in a sanitarium; old Lady Torrence was dead; Marian Cowles had snatched George Pomeroy away from one of the Vanderwall girls at the last second; Thomas Prince was paralyzed; Agnes Chase had married a Denver man whom nobody knew; the Parker Hoyts had a delicate little baby at last; Vivian Sartoris had left her husband, nobody knew why. Billy was quite her old self as she retailed these items and many more for Rachael's benefit.
But Rachael saw that the years had made a sad change in her before the three days' visit was over. Poor little, impudent, audacious Billy was gone forever—Billy, who had always been so exquisite in dress, so prettily conspicuous on the floor of the ballroom, so superbly self-conscious in her yachting gear, her riding-clothes, her smart little tennis costumes! She was but a shadow of her old self now. The smart hats, the silk stockings, the severely trim frocks were still hers, but the old delicious youth, her roses, her limpid gaze, the velvety curve of throat and cheek, these were gone. Billy had been spirited, now she was noisy. She had been amusingly precocious, now she was assuming an innocence, a naivete, that were no longer hers, had never been natural to her at any time. She had always been coolly indifferent to the lives of other men and women. Now she was embittered as to her own destiny, and full of ugly and eager gossip concerning everyone she knew. She chanced upon the name of Magsie Clay, little dreaming how straight the blow went to Rachael's heart, but had excellent reasons of her own for not expressing the belief that Magsie would soon leave the stage, and so gave no hint of Magsie's rich and mysterious lover. She did tell Rachael that she herself meant to go on the stage, but imparted no details as to her hopes for doing so.
"Just how much money is left, Billy?" Rachael presently felt herself justified in asking.
"Oh, well"—Billy had always hated statistics—"we sold the Belvedere Bay place last year, you know, but it was a perfect wreck, and the Moultons said they had to put seventeen thousand dollars into repairs, but I don't believe it, and that money, and some other things, were put into the bank. Joe was just making a scene about it—we have to draw now and then—we sank I don't know what into those awful ponies, and we still have that place—it's a lovely house, but it doesn't rent. It's too far away. The kid adores it of course, but it's too far away, it gives me the creeps. It's just going to wreck, too. Joe says sometimes that he's going to raise chickens there. I see him!" Billy scowled, but as Rachael did not speak, she presently came back to the topic. "But just how much of my money is left, I don't know. There are two houses in East One Hundredth—way over by the river. Daddy took them for some sort of debt."