Rachael remembered them perfectly. But she could not revert to the days when she was Clarence's wife without a pang, and so let the allusion go.
"Why he took them I don't know," Billy resumed, "ten flats, and all empty. They say it would cost us ten thousand dollars to get them into shape. They're mortgaged, anyway."
"But Billy, wouldn't that bring you in a fair income, in itself, if it was once filled?"
"My dear, perhaps it would. But do you think you could get Joe Pickering to do it? As long as the money in the bank lasts—I forget what it is, several thousand, more than twenty, I think— we'll go along as we are. Joe has a half-interest in a patent, anyway, some sort of curtain-pole; it's always going to make us a fortune!"
"But, Billy, if you and the boy took a little place somewhere, and you had one good maid—up there on the pony farm, for instance— surely it would be saner, surely it would be wiser, than trying to think of the stage now with him on your hands!"
"Except that I would simply die!" Billy said. "I love the city, and the excitement of not knowing what will turn up. And if Joe would behave himself, and if I should make a hit, why, we'll be all right."
A queer, hectic, unsatisfying life it must be, Rachael thought, saying good-bye to her guest a day or two later. Dressing, rouging, lacing, pinning on her outrageously expensive hats, jerking on her extravagant white gloves, drinking, rushing, screaming with laughter, screaming with anger, Billy was one of that large class of women that the big city breeds, and that cannot live elsewhere than in the big city. She would ride in a thousand taxicabs, worrying as she watched the metre; she would drink a thousand glasses of champagne, wondering anxiously if Joe were to pay for it; she would gossip of a dozen successful actresses without the self-control to work for one-tenth of their success, and she would move through all the life of the theatres and hotels without ever having her place among them, and her share of their little glory. And almost as reckless in action as she was in speech, she would cling to the brink of the conventions, never quite a good woman, never quite anything else, a fond and loyal if a foolish and selfish mother, some day noisily informing her admirers that she actually had a boy in college, and enjoying their flattering disbelief. And so would disappear the last of the handsome fortune that poor Clarence's father had bequeathed to him, and Clarence's grandson must fight his way with no better start than his grandfather had had financially, and with an infinitely less useful brain and less reliable pair of hands. Billy might be widowed or freed in some less unexceptionable way, and then Billy would marry again, and it would be a queer marriage; Rachael could read her fate in her character.
She wondered, walking slowly the short mile that lay between her house and the station, when Billy was gone, just how a discerning eye might read her own fate in her own character. Just what did the confused mixture of good motives and bad motives, erratic unselfishnesses and even more erratic weaknesses that was Rachael, deserve of Fate? She had bought some knowledge, but it had been dearly bought; she had bought some goodness, but at what a cost of pain!
"I don't believe that Warren ever did one-tenth the silly things we suspected him of!" Alice exclaimed one day. "I believe he was just an utter fool, and Magsie took advantage of it!"
Rachael did not answer, but there was no brightening of her sombre look. Her eyes, grave and sad, held for Alice no hope that she had come, as George and Alice had come, to a softer view of Warren's offence.
"I see him always as he was that last horrible morning," she said to Alice. "And I pray that I will never look upon his face again!" And when presently Alice hinted that George was receiving an occasional letter from Warren, Rachael turned pale.
"Don't quote it to me, Alice," she said gently; "don't ask me to hear it. It's all over. I haven't a heart any more, just a void and a pain. You only hurt me—I can't ever be different. You and George love me, I know that. Don't drive me away. Don't ever feel that it will be different from what it is now. I—I wish him no ill, God knows, but—I can't. It wouldn't be happiness for me or for him. Please, PLEASE—!"
Alice, in tears, could only give her her way.
Upon the discontented musings of Miss Margaret Clay one hot September morning came Mrs. Joseph Pickering, very charming in coffee-colored madras, with an exquisite heron cockade upon her narrow tan hat. Magsie was up, but not dressed, and was not ill pleased to have company. Her private as well as professional affairs were causing her much dissatisfaction of late, and she was at the moment in the act of addressing a letter to Warren, now on the ocean, from whom she had only this morning had an extremely disquieting letter.
Warren had come to see her the day before sailing, and with a grave determination new to their intercourse, had repeated several unpalatable truths. Rachael, on second thoughts, he told her, had absolutely refused him a divorce.
"But she can't do that! She wrote me herself—" Magsie had begun in anger. His distressed voice interrupted her.
"She's acting for the boys, Magsie. And she's right."
"Right!" The little actress turned pale as the full significance of his words and tone dawned upon her. "But—but what do you mean! What about ME?"
To this Warren had only answered with an exquisitely uncomfortable look and the simple phrase, "Magsie, I'm sorry."
"You mean that you're not going to MAKE her keep her word?"
And again she had put an imperative little hand upon his arm, sure of her power to win him ultimately. Days afterward the angry blood came into her face when she remembered his kind, his almost fatherly, smile, as he dislodged the hand.
"Magsie, I'm sorry. You can't despise me as I despise myself, dear. I'm ashamed. Some day, perhaps, there'll be something I can do for you, and then you'll see by the way I do it that I want with all my heart to make it up to you. But I'm going away now, Magsie, and we mustn't see each other any more."
Magsie, repulsed, had flung herself the length of the little room.
"You DARE tell me that, Greg?"
"I'm sorry, Magsie!"
"Sorry!" Her tone was vitriol. "Why, but I've got your letters. I've got your own words! Everyone knows-the whole world knows! Can you deny that you gave me this?—and this? Can you deny—"
"No, I'm not denying anything, Magsie. Except—that I never meant to hurt you. And I hope there was some happiness in it for you as there was for me."
Magsie had dropped into a chair with her back to him.
"I've made you cross," she said penitently, "and you're punishing me! Was it my seeing Richie, Greg? You know I never cared—-"
"Don't take that tone," he said.
Her color flamed again, and she set her little teeth. He saw her breast rise and fall.
"Don't think you can do this, Greg," she said with icy viciousness. "Don't delude yourself! I can punish you, and I will. Alice and George Valentine can fix it all up to suit themselves, but they don't know me! You've said your say now, and I've listened. Very well!"
"Magsie," he said almost pleadingly, interrupting the hard little voice, "can't you see what a mistake it's all been?"
She looked at him with eyes suddenly flooded with tears.
"M-m-mistake to s-s-say we loved each other, Greg?"
The man did not answer. Presently Magsie began to speak in a sad, low tone.
"You can go now if you want to, Greg. I'm not going to try to hold you. But I know you'll come back to me to-morrow, and tell me it was all just the trouble other people tried to make between us—it wasn't really you, the man I love!"
"I'll write you," he said after a silence. And from the doorway he added, "Good-bye." Magsie did not turn or speak; she could not believe her ears when she heard the door softly close.
Next day brought her only a letter from the steamer, a letter reiterating his good-byes, and asking her again to forgive him. Magsie read it in stupefaction. He was gone, and she had lost him!
The first panic of surprise gave way to more reasonable thinking. There were ways of bringing him back; there were arguments that might persuade Rachael to adhere to her original resolution. It could not be dropped so easily. Magsie began to wonder what a lawyer might advise. Billy came in upon her irresolute musing.
"Hello, dearie! But I'm interrupting—-" said Billy.
"Oh, hello, darling! No, indeed you're not," Magsie said, tearing up an envelope lazily. "I was trying to write a letter, but I have to think it over before it goes."
"I should think you could write a letter to your beau with your eyes shut," Billy said. "You've had practice enough! I know you're busy, but I won't interrupt you long. Upon my word, I had a hard enough time getting to you. There was no boy at the lift, and only a dear old Irish girl mopping up the floors. We had a long heart- to-heart talk, and I gave her a dollar."
"A dollar! I'll have to move-you're raising the price of living!" said Magsie. "She's the janitor's wife, and they're rich already. What possessed you?"
"Well, she unpinned her skirts and went after the boy," Billy said idly, "and it was the only thing I had." She was trying quietly to see the name on the envelope Magsie had destroyed, but being unsuccessful, she went on more briskly, "How is the beau, by the way?"
"I wish I had never seen the man!" Magsie said, glad to talk of him. "His wife is raising the roof now—-"
"I thought she would!" Billy said wisely. "I didn't see any woman, especially if she's not young, giving all that up without a fight! You know I said so."
"I know you did," said Magsie ruefully. "But I don't see what she can do!"
"Well, she can refuse to give him his divorce, can't she?" Billy said sensibly.
"But CAN she?" Magsie was obviously not sure.
"Of course she can!"
"But she doesn't want him. I went to see her—"
"Went to see her? For heaven's sake, what did you do that for?"
"Because I cared for him," Magsie said, coloring.
"For heaven's sake! You had your nerve! And what sort of a person is she?"
"Oh, beautiful! I knew her before. And she said that she would not interfere. She was as willing as he was; then—-"
"But now she's changed her mind?"
"Apparently." Magsie scowled into space.
"Well, what does HE say?" Billy asked after a pause.
"Why, he can't—or he seems to think he can't—force her."
"Well, I don't know that he can—here. There are states—"
"Yes, I know, but we're here in New York," Magsie said briefly. A second later she sat up, suddenly energetic and definite in voice and manner. "But there ARE ways of forcing her, as she will soon see," said Magsie in a venomous voice. "I have his letters. I could put the whole thing into a lawyer's hands. There's such a thing as-as a breach of promise suit—"
"Not with a married man," Billy interrupted. Magsie halted, a little dashed.
"How do you know?" she demanded.
"You'd have to show you had been injured—and you've known all along he was married," Billy said.
"Well"—Magsie was scarlet with anger—"I could make him sorry, don't worry about that!" she said childishly.
"Of course, if his wife DID consent, and then changed her mind, and you sent his letters to her," Billy said after cogitation. "It might—he may have glossed it all over, to her, you know."
"Exactly!" Magsie said triumphantly. "I knew there was a way! She's a sensitive woman, too. You know you can't go as far as you like with a girl, Billy," she went on argumentatively, "without paying for it somehow!"
"Make him pay!" said the practical Billy.
"I don't want—just money," Magsie said discontentedly. "I want—I don't want to be interfered with. I believe I shall do just that," she went on with a brightening eye. "I'll write him—-"
"Tell him. Ever so much more effective than writing!" Billy suggested.
"Tell him then," Magsie did not mean to betray his identity if she could help it, "that I really will send these things on to his wife—that's just what I'll do!"
"Are there children?" asked Billy.
"Two—girls," Magsie said with barely perceptible hesitation.
"Grown?" pursued the visitor.
"Ye-es, I believe so." Magsie was too clever to multiply unnecessary untruths. She began to dress.
"What are you doing this afternoon?" asked Billy. "I have the Butlers' car for the day. Joe brought it into town to be fixed, and can't drive it out until tomorrow. We might do something. It's a gorgeous car."
"I'm not doing one thing in the world. Where's Joe?"
"Joe Pickering?" asked Billy. "Oh, he's gone off with some men for some golf and poker. We might find someone, and go on a party. Where could we go—Long Beach? It's going to be stifling hot."
"Stay and have lunch with me," said Magsie.
"I can't to-day. I'm lunching with a theatrical man at Sherry's. I tell you I'm in deadly earnest. I'm going to break in! Suppose I come here for you at just three. Meanwhile, you think up someone. How about Bryan Masters?"
Magsie made a face.
"Well," said Billy, departing, "you think of someone, and I will. Perhaps the Royces would go—a nice little early party. The worst of it is, no one's in town!"
She ran downstairs and jumped into the beautiful car.
"Sherry's, please, Hungerford," said Billy easily. "And then you might get your lunch, and come for me sharp at half-past two."
The man touched his hat. Billy leaned back against the rich leather upholstery luxuriously; she was absolutely content. Joe was quiet and away, dear little old Breck was in seventh heaven down on the cool seashore, and there was a prospect of a party to- night. As they rolled smoothly downtown the passing throng might well have envied the complacent little figure in coffee-colored madras with the big heron feather in her hat.
When Billy was gone, Magsie, with a thoughtful face and compressed lips, took two packages of letters from her desk and wrapped them for posting. She fell into deep musing for a few minutes before she wrote Rachael's name on the wrapper, but after that she dressed with her usual care, and carried the package to the elevator boy for mailing. As she came back to her rooms a caller was announced and followed her name into Magsie's apartment almost immediately. Magsie, with a pang of consternation, found herself facing Richie Gardiner's mother.
Anna would never have permitted this, was Magsie's first resentful thought, but Anna was on a vacation, and the elevator boy could not be expected to discriminate.
"Good morning, Mrs. Gardiner," said Magsie; "you'll excuse my dressing all over the place, but I have no maid this week. How's Richie?"
Mrs. Gardiner was oblivious of anything amiss. She sat down, first removing a filmy scarf of Magsie's from a chair, and smiled, the little muscle-twitching smile of a person in pain, as if she hardly heard Magsie's easy talk.
"He doesn't seem to get better, Miss Clay," said she, almost snorting in her violent effort to breathe quietly. "Doctor doesn't say he gets worse, but of course he don't fool me—I know my boy's pretty sick."
The agony of helpless motherhood was not all lost upon Magsie, even though it was displayed by a large, plain woman in preposterous clothes, strangely introduced into her pretty rooms, and a most incongruous figure there.
"What a SHAME!" she said warmly.
"It's a shame to anyone that knew Rich as I did a few years ago," his mother said. "There wasn't a brighter nor a hardier child. It wasn't until we came to this city that he begun to give way—and what wonder? It'd kill a horse to live in this place. I wish to God that I had got him out of it when he had that first spell. I may be—I don't know, but I may be too late now." Tears came to her eyes, the hard tears of a proud and suffering woman. She took out a folded handkerchief and pressed it unashamedly to her eyes. "But he wouldn't go," she resumed, clearing her throat. "He was going to stay here, live or die. And Miss Clay, YOU know why!" She stopped short, a terrible look upon Magsie.
"I?" faltered Magsie, coloring, and feeling as if she would cry herself.
"You kept him," said his mother. "He hung round you like a bee round a rose—poor, sick boy that he was! He's losing sleep now because he can't get you out of his thoughts."
She stopped again, and Magsie hung her head.
"I'm sorry," she said slowly. And with the childish words came childish tears. "I'm awfully sorry, Mrs. Gardiner," stammered Magsie. "I know—I've known all along—how Richie feels to me. I suppose I could have stopped him, got him to go away, perhaps, in time. But—but I've been unhappy myself, Mrs. Gardiner. A person— I love has been cruel to me. I don't know what I'm going to do. I worry and worry!" Magsie was frankly crying now. "I wish there was something I could do for Richie, but I can't tell him I care!" she sobbed.
Both women sat in miserable silence for a moment, then Richard Gardiner's mother said: "It wouldn't do you any harm to just—if you would—to just see him, would it? Don't say anything about this other man. Could you do that? Couldn't you let him think that maybe if he went away and came back all well you'd—you might— there might be some chance for him? Doctor says he's got to go away AT ONCE if he's going to get well."
The anguish in her voice and manner reached Magsie at last. There was nothing cruel about the little actress, however sordid her ambitions and however selfish her plans.
"Could you get him away, now?" she said almost timidly. "Is he strong enough to go?"
"That's what Doctor says; he ought to go away TO-DAY, but—but he won't lissen to me," his mother answered with trembling lips. "He's all I have. I just live for Rich. I loved his father, and when Dick was killed I had only him."
"I'll go see him," said Magsie in sudden generous impulse. "I'll tell him to take care of himself. It's simply wicked of him to throw his life away like this."
"Miss Clay," said Mrs. Gardiner with a break in her strong, deep voice, "if you do that—may the Lord send you the happiness you give my boy!" She began to cry again.
"Why, Mrs. Gardiner," said Magsie in a hurt, childish voice, "I LIKE Richie!"
"Well, he likes you all right," said his mother on a long, quivering breath. With big, coarse, tender fingers she helped Magsie with the last hooks and bands of her toilette. "If you ain't as pretty and dainty as a little wax doll!" she observed admiringly. Magsie merely sighed in answer. Wax dolls had their troubles!
But she liked the doglike devotion of Richie's big mother, and the beautiful car—Richie's car. Perhaps the hurt to her heart and her pride had altered Magsie's sense of values. At all events, she did not even shrink from Richie to-day.
She sat down beside the white bed, beside the bony form that the counterpane revealed in outline, and smiled at Richie's dark, thin eager face and sunken, adoring eyes. She laid her warm, plump little hand between his long, thin fingers. After a while the nurse timidly suggested the detested milk; Richie drank it dutifully for Magsie.
They were left together in the cool, airy, orderly room, and in low, confidential tones they talked. Magsie was well aware that the big doctors themselves would not interrupt this talk, that the nurses and the mother were keeping guard outside the door. Richie was conscious of nothing but Magsie.
In this hour the girl thought of the stormy years that were past and the stormy future. She had played her last card in the game for Warren Gregory's love. The letters, without an additional word, were gone to Rachael. If Rachael chose to use them against Warren, then the road for Magsie, if long, was unobstructed. But suppose Rachael, with that baffling superiority of hers, decided not to use them?
Magsie had seriously considered and seriously abandoned the idea of holding out several letters from the packages, but the letters, as legal documents, had no value to anyone but Rachael. If Rachael chose to forgive and ignore the writing of them, they were so much waste paper, and Magsie had no more hold over Warren than any other young woman of his acquaintance.
But Magsie was more or less committed to a complete change. The break with Bowman could not be avoided without great awkwardness now. She despised herself for having so simply accepted a bank account from Warren, yet what else could she do? Magsie had wanted money all her life, and when that money was gone—-Richie was falling into a doze, his hand still tightly clasping hers. She slipped to her knees beside the bed, and as he lazily opened his eyes she gave him a smile that turned the room to Heaven for him. When a nurse peeped cautiously in, a warning nod from Magsie sent the surprised and delighted woman away again with the great news. Mr. Gardiner was asleep!
The clock struck twelve, struck one, still Magsie knelt by the bedside, watching the sleeping face. Outside the city was silent under the summer sun. In the great hospital feet cheeped along wide corridors, now and then a door was opened or closed. There was no other sound.
Magsie eyed her charge affectionately. When he had come to her dressing-room in former days trying to ignore his cough, trying to take her about and to order her suppers as the other men did, he had been vaguely irritating; but here in this plain little bed, so boyish, so dependent, so appreciative, he seemed more attractive than he ever had before. Whatever there was maternal in Magsie rose to meet his need. She could not but be impressed by the royal solicitude that surrounded the heir to the "Little Dick Mine." Mrs. Richard Gardiner would be something of a personage, thought Magsie dreamily. He might not live long!
Of course, that was calculating and despicable; she was not the woman to marry where she did not love! But then she really did love Richie in a way. And Richie loved her—no question of that! Loved her more than Warren did for all his letters and gifts, she decided resentfully.
When Richie wakened, bewildered, at one o'clock, Magsie was still there. She insisted that he drink more milk before a word was said. Then they talked again, Magsie in a new mood of reluctance and gentleness, Richie half wild with rising hope and joy.
"And you would want me to marry you, feeling this way?" Magsie faltered.
"Oh, Magsie!" he whispered.
A tear fell on the thin hand that Magsie was patting. Through dazzled eyes she saw the future: reckless buying of gowns—brief and few farewells—the private car, the adoring invalid, the great sunny West with its forests and beaches, the plain gold ring on her little hand. In the whole concerned group—doctor, nurse, valet, mother, maid—young Mrs. Gardiner would be supreme! She saw herself flitting about a California bungalow, lending her young strength to Richie's increasing strength in the sunwashed, health- giving air.
She put her arms about him, laid her rosy cheek against his pale one.
"And you really want me to go out," Magsie began, smiling through tears, "and get a nice special license and a nice little plain gold ring and come back here with a nice kind clergyman, and say 'I will'—-"
But at this her tears again interrupted her, and Richard, clinging desperately to her hand, could not speak either for tears. His mother who had silently entered the room on Magsie's last words suddenly put her fat arms about her and gave her the great motherly embrace for which, without knowing it, she had hungered for years, and they all fell to planning.
Richard could help only with an occasional assent. There was nothing to which he would not consent now. They would be married as soon as Magsie and his mother could get back with the necessities. And then would he drink his milk, good boy—and go straight to sleep, good boy. Then to-morrow he should be helped into the softest motor car procurable for money, and into the private car that his mother and Magsie meant to engage, by hook or crook, to-night. In six days they would be watching the blue Pacific, and in three weeks Richie should be sleeping out of doors and coming downstairs to meals. He had only to obey his mother; he had only to obey his wife. Magsie kissed him good-bye tenderly before leaving him for the hour's absence. Her heart was twisting little tendrils about him already. He was a sweet, patient dear, she told his mother, and he would simply have to get well!
"God above bless and reward you, Margaret!" was all Mrs. Gardiner could say, but Magsie never tired of hearing it.
When the two women went down the hospital steps they found Billy Pickering, in her large red car, eying them reproachfully from the curb.
"This is a nice way to act!" Billy began. "Your janitor's wife said you had come here. I've got two men—" Magsie's expression stopped her.
"This is Mr. Gardiner's mother, Billy," Magsie said solemnly. "The doctors agree that he must not stand this climate another day. He had another sinking spell yesterday, and he—he mustn't have another! I am going with them to California—"
"You ARE?" Billy ejaculated in amazement. Magsie bridled in becoming importance.
"It is all very sudden," she said with the weary, patient smile of the invalid's wife, "but he won't go without me." And then, as Mrs. Gardiner began to give directions to the driver of her own car, which was waiting, she went on inconsequentially, and in a low and troubled undertone, "I didn't know what to do. Do—do you think I'm a fool, Billy?"
"But what'll the other man say?" demanded Billy.
Magsie, leaning against the door of the car, rubbed the polished wood with a filmy handkerchief.
"He won't know," she said.
"Won't know? But what will you tell him?"
"Oh, he's not here. He won't be back for ever so long. And—and Richie can't live—they all say that. So if I come back before he does, what earthly difference can it make to him that I was married to Richie?"
"MARRIED!" For once in her life Billy was completely at a loss. "But are you going to MARRY him?"
Magsie gave her a solemn look, and nodded gravely. "He loves me," she said in a soft injured tone, "and I mean to take as good care of him as the best wife in the world could! I'm sick of the stage, and if anything happens with—the other, I shan't have to worry— about money, I mean. I'm not a fool, Billy. I can't let a chance like this slip. Of course I wouldn't do it if I didn't like him and like his mother, too. And I'll bet he will get well, and I'll never come back to New York! Of course this is all a secret. We're going right down to the City Hall for the license now, and the ring—-There are a lot of clothes I've got to buy immediately—"
"Why don't you let me run you about?" suggested Billy. "I don't have to meet the men until six—I'll have to round up another girl, too; but I'd love to. Let Mama go back to Mr. Gardiner!"
"Oh, I couldn't," Magsie said, quite the dutiful daughter. "She's a wonderful person; she's arranging for our own private car, and a cook, and I may take Anna if I can get her!"
"All righto!" agreed Billy.
A rather speculative look came into her face as the other car whirled away. She suddenly gave directions to the driver.
"Drive to Miss Clay's apartment, where you picked me up this morning, Hungerford!" she said quickly. "I—I think I left something there—gloves—"
"I wonder if you would let me into Miss Clay's apartment?" she said to the beaming janitor's wife fifteen minutes later. "Miss Clay isn't here, and I left my gloves in her rooms."
Something in Magsie's manner had made her feel that Magsie had good reason for keeping the name of her admirer hid. Billy had felt for weeks that she would know the name if Magsie ever divulged it. And this morning she had noticed the admission that the wronged wife was a beautiful woman—and the hesitation with which Magsie had answered "Two girls." Then Magsie had said that she would "write him," not at all the natural thing to do to a man one was sure to see, and Rachael had said that Warren was away! But most significant of all was her answer to Billy's question as to whether the children were grown. Magsie had admitted that she knew the wife, had "known her before," and yet she pretended not to know whether or not the children were grown. Billy had had just a fleeting idea of Warren Gregory before that, but this particular term confirmed the suspicion suddenly.
So while Magsie was getting her marriage license, Billy was in Magsie's apartment turning over the contents of her wastepaper basket in feverish haste. The envelope was ruined, it had been crushed while wet; a name had been barely started anyway. But here was the precious scrap of commencement, "My dearest Greg—"
Billy was almost terrified by the discovery. There it was, in irrefutable black and white. She stuffed it back into the basket, and left the house like a thief, panting for the open air. A suspicion only ten minutes before, now she felt as if no other fact on earth had ever so fully possessed her. For an hour she drove about in a daze. Then she went home, and sat down at her desk, and wrote the following letter:
"Mv DEAR RACHAEL: The letter with the darling little 'B' came yesterday. I think he is cute to learn to write his own letter so quickly. Tell him that mother is proud of him for picking so many blackberries, and will love the jam. It is as hot as fire here, and the park has that steamy smell that a hothouse has. I have been driving about in Joe Butler's car all afternoon. We are going to Long Beach to-night.
"Rachael—Magsie Clay and a man named Richard Gardiner were married this afternoon. He is an invalid or something; he is at St. Luke's Hospital, and she and his mother are going to take him to California at once. What do you know about that? Of course this is a secret, and for Heaven's sake, if you tell anybody this, don't say I gave it away.
"If Magsie Clay should send you a bunch of letters, she will just do it to be a devil, and I want to ask you to burn them up before you read them. You know how you talked to me about divorce, Rachael! What you don't know can't hurt you. Don't please Magsie Clay to the extent of doing exactly what she wants you to do. If anyone you love has been a fool, why, it is certainly hard to understand how they could, but you stand by what you said to me the other day, and forget it.
"I feel as if I was breaking into your own affairs. I hope you won't care, and that I'm not all in the dark about this—" "Affectionately, BILLY."
This letter, creased from constant reading, Rachael showed to George Valentine a week later. The doctor, who had spent the week- end with his family at Clark's Hills, was in his car and running past the gate of Home Dunes on his way back to town when Rachael stopped him. She looked her composed and dignified self in her striped blue linen and deep-brimmed hat, but the man's trained look found the circles about her wonderful eyes, and he detected signs of utter weariness in her voice.
"Read this, George," said she, resting against the door of his car, and opening the letter before him. "This came from Billy— Mrs. Pickering, you know—several days ago."
George read the document through twice, then raised questioning eyes to hers, and made the mouth of a whistler.
"What do you think?" Rachael questioned in her turn.
"Lord! I don't know what to think," said George. "Do you suppose this can be true?"
Rachael sighed wearily, staring down the road under the warming leaves of the maples into a far vista of bare dunes in thinning September sunshine.
"It might be, I suppose. You can see that Billy believes it," she said.
"Sure, she believes it," George agreed. "At least, we can find out. But I don't understand it!"
"Understand it?" she echoed in rich scorn. "Who understands anything of the whole miserable business? Do I? Does Warren, do you suppose?"
"No, of course nobody does," George said hastily in distress. He regarded the paper almost balefully. "This is the deuce of a thing!" he said. "If she didn't care for him any more than that, what's all the fuss about? I don't believe the threat about sending his letters, anyway!" he added hardily.
"Oh, that was true enough," Rachael said lifelessly. "They came."
George gave her an alarmed glance, but did not speak.
"A great package of them came," Rachael added dully. "I didn't open it. I had a fire that morning, and I simply set it on the fire." Her voice sank, her eyes, brooding and sombre, were far away. "But I watched it burning, George," she said in a low, absent tone, "and I saw his handwriting—how well I know it— Warren's writing, on dozens and dozens of letters—there must have been a hundred! To think of it—to think of it!"
Her voice was like some living thing writhing in anguish. George could think of nothing to say. He looked about helplessly, buttoned a glove button briskly, folded the letter, and made some work of putting it away in an inside pocket.
"Well," Rachael said, straightening up suddenly, and with resolute courage returning to her manner and voice, "you'll have, somebody look it up, will you, George?"
"You may depend upon it-immediately," George said huskily. "It—of course it will make an immense difference," he added, in his anxiety to be reassuring saying exactly the wrong thing.
Rachael was pale.
"I don't know how anything can make a great difference now, George," she answered slowly. "The thing remains—a fact. Of course this ends, in one way, the sordid side, the fear of publicity, of notoriety. But that wasn't the phase of it that ever counted with me. This will probably hurt Warren—"
"Oh, Rachael, dear old girl, don't talk that way!" George protested. "You can't believe that Warren will feel anything but a—a most unbelievable relief! We all know that. He's not the first man who let a pretty face drive him crazy when he was working himself to death." George was studying her as he spoke, with all his honest heart in his look, but Rachael merely shook her head forlornly.
"Perhaps I don't understand men," she said with a mildness that George found infinitely more disturbing than any fury would have been.
"Well, I'll look up records at the City Hall," he said after a pause. "That's the first thing to do. And then I'll let you know. Boys well this morning?"
"Lovely," Rachael smiled. "My trio goes fishing to-day, packing its lunch itself, and asking no feminine assistance. The lunch will be eaten by ten o'clock, and the boys home at half-past ten, thinking it is almost sundown. They only go as far as the cove, where the men are working, and we can see the tops of their heads from the upstairs' porch, so Mary and I won't feel entirely unprotected. I'm to lunch with Alice, so my day is nicely planned!"
The bright look did not deceive him, nor the reassuring tone. But George Valentine's friendship was more easily displayed by deeds than words, and now, with an affectionate pat for her hand, he touched his starter, and the car leaped upon its way. Just four hours later he telephoned Alice that the wedding license of Margaret Rose Clay and Richard Gardiner had indeed been issued a week before, and that Magsie was not to be found at her apartment, which was to be sublet at the janitor's discretion; that Bowman's secretary reported the absence of Miss Clay from the city, and the uncertainty of her appearing in any of Mr. Bowman's productions that winter, and that at the hospital a confident inquiry for "Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner" had resulted in the discreet reply that "the parties" had left for California. George, with what was for him a rare flash of imagination, had casually inquired as to the name of the clergyman who had performed the ceremony, being answered dispassionately that the person at the other end of the telephone "didn't know."
"George, you are an absolute WONDER!" said Alice's proud voice, faintly echoed from Clark's Hills. "Now, shall you cable—anybody- -you know who I mean?"
"I have," answered the efficient George, "already."
"Oh, George! And what will he do?"
"Well, eventually, he'll come back."
"Do you THINK so? I don't!"
"Well, anyway, we'll see."
"And you're an angel," said Mrs. Valentine, finishing the conversation.
Ten days later Warren Gregory walked into George Valentine's office, and the two men gripped hands without speaking. That Warren had left for America the day George's cable reached him there was no need to say. That he was a man almost sick with empty days and brooding nights there was no need to say. George was shocked in the first instant of meeting, and found himself, as they talked together, increasingly shocked at the other's aspect.
Warren was thin, his hair actually showed more gray, there were deep lines about his mouth. But it was not only that; his eyes had a tired and haunted look that George found sad to see, his voice had lost its old confident ring, and he seemed weary and shaken. He asked for Alice and the children, and for Rachael and the boys.
"Rachael's well," George said. "She looks—well, she shows what she's been through; but she's very handsome. And the boys are fine. We had the whole crowd down as far as Shark Light for a picnic last Sunday. Rachael has little Breck Pickering down there now; he's a nice little chap, younger than our Katrina—Jim's age. The youngster is in paradise, sure enough, and putting on weight at a great rate."
"I didn't know he was there," Warren said slowly. "Like her—to take him in. I wish I had been there—Sunday. I wish to the Lord that it was all a horrible dream!"
He stopped and sat silent, looking gloomily at the floor, his whole figure, George thought, indicating a broken and shamed spirit.
"Well, Magsie's settled, at least," said George after a silence.
"Yes. That wasn't what counted, though," Warren said, as Rachael had said. "She is settled without my moving; there's no way in which I can ever make Rachael feel that I would have moved." Again his voice sank into silence, but presently he roused himself. "I've come back to work, George," he said with a quiet decision of manner that George found new and admirable. "That's all I can do now. If she ever forgives me—but she's not the kind that forgives. She's not weak—Rachael. But anyway, I can work. I'll go to the old house, for the present, and get things in order. And you drop a hint to Alice, when she talks to Rachael, that I've not got anything to say. I'll not annoy her."
George's heart ached for him as Warren suddenly covered his face with his hands. Warren had always been the adored younger brother to him, Warren's wonderful fingers over the surgical table, a miracle that gave their owner the right to claim whatever human weaknesses and failings he might, as a balance. George had never thought him perfect, as so much of the world thought him; to George, Warren had always been a little more than perfect, a machine of inspired surgery, underbalanced in many ways that in this one supreme way he might be more than human. George had to struggle for what he achieved; Warren achieved by divine right. The women were in the right of it now, George conceded, they had the argument. But of course they didn't understand—a thing like that had nothing to do with Warren's wife; Rachael wasn't brought into the question at all. And Lord! when all was said and done Warren was Warren, and professionally the biggest figure in George's world.
"I don't suppose you feel like taking Hudson's work?" said George now. "He's crazy to get away, and he was telling me yesterday that he didn't see himself breaking out of it. Mrs. Hudson wants to go to her own people, in Montreal, and I suppose Jack would be glad to go, too."
"Take it in a minute!" Warren said, his whole expression changing. "Of course I'll take it. I'm going to spend this afternoon getting things into shape at the house, and I think I'll drop round at the hospital about five. But I can start right in to-morrow."
"It isn't too much?" George asked affectionately.
"Too much? It's the only thing that will save my reason, I think," Warren answered, and after that George said no more.
The two men lunched together, and dined together, five times a week, with a curious change from old times: it was Warren who listened, and George who did the talking now. They talked of cases chiefly, for Warren was working day and night, and thought of little else than his work; but once or twice, as September waned, and October moved toward its close, there burst from him an occasional inquiry as to his wife.
"Will she ever forgive me, George?" Warren asked one cool autumn dawning when the two men were walking away from the hospital under the fading stars. Warren had commenced an operation just before midnight, it was only concluded now, and George, who had remained beside him for sheer admiration of his daring and his skill, had suggested that they walk for a while, and shake off the atmosphere of ether and of pain.
"It's a time like this I miss her," Warren said. "I took it all for granted, then. But after such a night as this, when I would go home in those first years, and creep into bed, she was never too sleepy to rouse and ask me how the case went, she never failed to see that the house was quiet the next morning, and she'd bring in my tray herself—Lord, a woman like that, waiting on me!"
George shook his head but did not speak. They walked an echoing block or two in silence.
"George, I need my wife," Warren said then. "There isn't an hour of my life that some phase of our life together doesn't come back to me and wring my heart. I don't want anything else—our sons, our fireside, our interests together. I've heard her voice ever since. And I'm changed, George, not in what I always believed, because I know right from wrong, and always have, but I don't believe in myself any more. I want my kids to be taught laws—not their own laws. I want to go on my knees to my girl—-"
His voice thickened suddenly, and they walked on with no attempt on either side to end the silence for a long time. The city streets were wet from a rain, but day was breaking in hopeful pearl and rose.
"I can say this," said George at last: "I believe that she needs you as much as you do her. But Rachael's proud—"
"Ah, yes, she's that!" Warren said eagerly as he paused.
"And Warren, she has been dragged through the muck during the last few years," George resumed in a mildly expostulatory tone.
"Oh, I know it!" Warren answered, stricken.
"She hates coarseness," pursued George, "she hates weakness. I believe that if ever a divorce was justified in this world, hers was. But to have you come back at her, to have Magsie Clay break in on her, and begin to yap breezily about divorce, and how prevalent it is, and what a solution it is, why, of course it was enough to break her heart!"
"Don't!" Warren said thickly, quickening his pace, as if to walk away from his own insufferable thoughts.
For many days they did not speak of Rachael again; indeed George felt that there was nothing further to say. He feared in his own heart that nothing would ever bring about a change in her feeling, or rather, that the change that had been taking place in her for so many weeks was one that would be lasting, that Rachael was an altered woman.
Alice believed this, too, and Rachael believed it most of all. Indeed, over Rachael's torn and shaken spirit there had fallen of late a peace and a sense of security that she had never before known in her life. She tried not to think of Warren any more, or at least to think of him as he had been in the happy days when they had been all in all to each other. If other thoughts would creep in, and her heart grow hot and bitter within her at the memory of her wrongs, she resolutely fought for composure; no matter now what he had been or done, that life was dead. She had her boys, the sunsets and sunrises, the mellowing beauty of the year. She had her books, and above all her memories. And in these memories she found much to blame in herself, but much to pity, too. A rudderless little bark, she had been set adrift in so inviting, so welcoming a sea twenty years ago! She had known that she was beautiful, and that she must marry—what else? What more serious thought ever flitted through the brain of little Rachael Fairfax than that it was a delicious adventure to face life in a rough blue coat and feathered hat, and steer her wild little sails straight into the heart of the great waters?
She would have broken Stephen's heart; but Stephen was dead. She had seized upon Clarence with never a thought of what she was to give him, with never a prayer as to her fitness to be his wife, nor his fitness to be the father of her children. She had laughed at self-sacrifice, laughed at endurance, laughed at married love— these things were only words to her. And when she had tugged with all her might at the problem before her, and tried, with her pitiable, untrained strength to force what she wished from Fate, then she had flung the whole thing aside, and rushed on to new experiments—and to new failures.
Always on the surface, always thinking of the impression she made on the watching men and women about her, what a life it had been! She had never known who made Clarence's money, what his own father had been like, what the forces were that had formed him, and had made him what he was. He did not please her, that began and ended the story. He had presently flung himself into eternity with as little heed as she had cast herself into her new life.
Ah, but there had been a difference there! She had loved there, and been awakened by great love. Her child's crumpled, rosy foot had come to mean more to her than all the world had meant before. The smile, or the frown, in her husband's eyes had been her sunshine or her storm. Through love she had come to know the brimming life of the world, the pathos, the comedy that is ready to spill itself over every humble window-sill, the joy that some woman's heart feels whenever the piping cry of the new-born sounds in a darkened room, the sorrow held by every shabby white hearse that winds its way through a hot and unnoticing street. She had clung to husband and sons with the tigerish tenacity that is the rightful dower of wife and mother; she had thought the world well lost in holding them.
And then the sordid, selfish past rose like an ugly mist before her, and she found at her lips the bitter cup she had filled herself. She was not so safe now, behind her barrier of love, but that the terrible machinery she had set in motion might bring its grinding wheels to bear upon the lives she guarded. She had flung her solemn promise aside, once; what defence could she make for a second solemn promise now? The world, divorce mad, spun blindly on, and the echo of her own complacent "one in twelve" came faintly, sickly back to her after the happy years.
"Divorce has actually no place in our laws, it isn't either wrong or right," Rachael said one autumn day when they were walking slowly to the beach. Over their heads the trees were turning scarlet; the days were still soft and warm, but twilight fell earlier now, and in the air at morning and evening was the intoxicating sharpness, the thin blue and clear steel color that mark the dying summer. Alice's three younger children were in school, and the family came to Clark's Hills only for the week- ends, but Rachael and her boys stayed on and on, enjoying the rare warmth and beauty of the Indian Summer, and comfortable in the old house that had weathered fifty autumns and would weather fifty more.
"In some states it is absolutely illegal," Rachael continued, "in others, it's permissible. In some it is a real source of revenue. Now fancy treating any other offence that way! Imagine states in which stealing was only a regrettable incident, or where murder was tolerated! In South Carolina you cannot get a divorce on any grounds! In Washington the courts can give it to you for any cause they consider sufficient. There was a case: a man and his wife obtained a divorce and both remarried. Now they find they are both bigamists, because it was shown that the wife went West, with her husband's knowledge and consent, to establish her residence there for the explicit purpose of getting a divorce. It was well- established law that if a husband or wife seek the jurisdiction of another state for the sole object of obtaining a divorce, without any real intent of living there, making their home there, goes, in other words, just for divorce purposes, then the decree having been fraudulently obtained will not be recognized anywhere!"
"But thousands do it, Rachael."
"But thousands don't seem to realize—I never did before—that that is illegal. You can't deliberately move to Reno or Seattle or San Francisco for such a purpose. All marriages following a divorce procured under these conditions are illegal. Besides this, the divorce laws as they exist in Washington, California, or Nevada are not recognized by other states, and so because a couple are separated upon the grounds of cruelty or incompatibility in some Western state, they are still legally man and wife in New York or Massachusetts. All sorts of hideous complications are going on: blackmail and perjury!
"I wonder why divorce laws are so little understood?" Alice mused.
"Because divorce is an abnormal thing. You can't make it right, and of course we are a long way from making it wrong. But that is what it is coming to, I believe. Divorce will be against the law some day! No divorce on ANY GROUNDS! It cannot be reconciled to law; it defies law. Right on the face of it, it is breaking a contract. Are any other contracts to be broken with public approval? We will see the return of the old, simple law, then we will wonder at ourselves! I am not a woman who takes naturally to public work—I wish I were. But perhaps some day I can strike the system a blow. It is women like me who understand, and who will help to end it."
"It is only the worth-while women who do understand," said Alice. "You are the marble worth cutting. Life is a series of phases; we are none of us the same from year to year. You are not the same girl that you were when you married Clarence Breckenridge—"
"What a different woman!" Rachael said under her breath.
"Well," said Alice then a little frightened, "why won't you think that perhaps Warren might have changed, too; that whatever Warren has done, it was done more like—like the little boy who has never had his fling, who gets dizzy with his own freedom, and does something foolish without analyzing just what he is doing?"
"But Warren, after all, isn't a child!" Rachael said sadly.
"But Warren is in some ways; that's just it," Alice said eagerly. "He has always been singularly—well, unbalanced, in some ways. Don't you know there was always a sort of simplicity, a sort of bright innocence about Warren? He believed whatever anybody said until you laughed at him; he took every one of his friends on his own valuation. It's only where his work is concerned that you ever see Warren positive, and dictatorial, and keen—"
Rachael's eyes had filled with tears.
"But he isn't the man I loved, and married," she said slowly. "I thought he was a sort of god—he could do no wrong for me!"
"Yes, but that isn't the way to feel toward anybody," persisted Alice. "No man is a god, no man is perfect. You're not perfect yourself; I'm not. Can't you just say to yourself that human beings are faulty—it may be your form of it to get dignified and sulk, and Warren's to wander off dreamily into curious paths—but that's life, Rachael, that's 'better or worse,' isn't it?"
"It isn't a question of my holding out for a mere theory, Alice," Rachael said after a while; "I'm not saying that I'm all in the right, and that I will never see Warren again until he admits it, and everyone admits it—that isn't what I want. But it's just that I'm dead, so far as that old feeling is concerned. It is as if a child saw his mother suddenly turn into a fiend, and do some hideously cruel act; no amount of cool reason could ever convince that child again that his mother was sweet and good."
"But as you get older," Alice smiled, "you differentiate between good and good, and you see grades in evil, too. Everything isn't all good or all bad, like the heroes and the villains of the old plays. If Warren had done a 'hideously cruel' thing deliberately, that would be one thing; what he has done is quite another. The God who made us put sex into the world, Warren didn't; and Warren only committed, in his—what is it?—forty-eighth year one of the follies that most boys dispose of in their teens. Be generous, Rachael, and forgive him. Give him another trial!"
"How CAN I forgive him?" Rachael said, badly shaken, and through tears. "No, no, no, I couldn't! I never can."
They had reached the beach now, and could see the children, in their blue field coats, following the curving reaches of the incoming waves. The fresh roar of the breakers filled a silence, gulls piped their wistful little cry as they circled high in the blue air. Old Captain Semple, in his rickety one-seated buggy, drove up the beach, the water rising in the wheel-tracks. The children gathered about him; it was one of their excitements to see the Captain wash his carriage, and the old mare splash in the shallow water. Alice seated herself on a great log, worn silver from the sea, and half buried in the white sand, but Rachael remained standing, the sweet October wind whipping against her strong and splendid figure, her beautiful eyes looking far out to sea.
"You two have no quarrel," the older woman added mildly. "You and Warren were rarely companionable. I used to say to George that you were almost TOO congenial, too sensitive to each other's moods. Warren knew that you idolized him, Rachael, and consequently, when criticism came, when he felt that you of all persons were misjudging him, why, he simply flung up his head like a horse, and bolted!"
"Misjudging?" Rachael said quickly, half turning her head, and bringing her eyes from the far horizon to rest upon Alice's face. The children had seen them now, and were running toward them, and Alice did not attempt to answer. She sighed, and shrugged her shoulders.
A dead horseshoe crab on the sands deflected the course of the racing children, except Derry, who pursued his panting way, and as Rachael sat down on the log, cast himself, radiant and breathless, into her arms. She caught the child to her heart passionately. He had always been closer to her than even the splendid first-born because of the giddy little head that was always getting him into troubles, and the reckless little feet that never chose a sensible course. Derry was always being rescued from deep water, always leaping blindly from high places and saved by the narrowest possible chance, always getting his soft mop of hair inextricably tangled in the steering-gear of Rachael's car, or his foot hopelessly twisted in the innocent-looking bars of his own bed, always eating mysterious berries, or tasting dangerous medicines, always ready to laugh deeply and deliciously at his own crimes. Jim assumed a protective attitude toward him, chuckling at his predicaments, advising him, and even gallantly assuming the blame for his worst misdeeds. Rachael imagined them in boarding-school some day; in college; Jim the student, dragged from his books and window-seat to go to the rescue of the unfortunate but fascinating junior. Jim said he was going to write books; Derry was going—her heart contracted whenever he said it—was going to be a doctor, and Dad would show him what to do!
Ah, how proud Warren might have been of them, she thought, walking home to-day, a sandy hand in each of hers, Derry hopping on one foot, twisting, and leaping; Jim leaning affectionately against her, and holding forth as to the proper method of washing wagons! What man would not have been proud of this pair, enchanting in faded galatea now, soon to be introduced to linen knickerbockers, busy with their first toiling capitals now, some day to be growling Latin verbs. They would be interested in the Zoo this winter, and then in skating, and then in football—Warren loved football. He had thrown it all away!
Widowed in spirit, still Rachael was continually reminded that she was not actually widowed, and in the hurt that came to her, even in these first months, she found a chilling premonition of the years to come. Warm-hearted Vera Villalonga wrote impulsively from the large establishment at Lakewood that she had acquired for the early winter. She had heard that Rachael and Greg weren't exactly hitting it off—hoped to the Lord it wasn't true—anyway, Rachael had been perfectly horrible about seeing her old friends; couldn't she come at once to Vera, lots of the old crowd were there, and spend a month? Mrs. Barker Emery, meeting Rachael on one of the rare occasions when Rachael went into the city, asked pleasantly for the boys, and pleasantly did not ask for Warren. Belvedere Bay was gayer than ever this year, Mrs. Emory said; did Rachael know that the Duchess of Exton was visiting Mary Moulton—such a dear! Georgiana Vanderwall, visiting the Thomases at Easthampton, motored over one day to spend a sympathetic half morning with Rachael, pressing that lady's unresponsive hand with her own large, capable one, and murmuring that of course—one heard—that the Bishop of course felt dreadfully—they only hoped—both such dear sweet people—
Rachael felt as if she would like to take a bath after this well- meant visitation. A day or two later she had a letter from Florence, who said that "someone" had told her that the Gregorys might not be planning to keep their wonderful cook this winter. If that was true, would Rachael be so awfully good as to ask her to go see Mrs. Haviland?
"The pack," Rachael said to Alice, "is ready to run again!"
November turned chilly, and in its second week there was even a flutter of snow at Clark's Hills. Rachael did not dislike it, and it was a huge adventure to the boys. Nevertheless, she began to feel that a longer stay down on the bleak coast might be unwise. The old house, for all its purring furnace and double windows, was draughty enough to admit icy little fingers of the outside air, here and there, and the village, getting under storm shutters and closing up this wing or that room for the winter, was so businesslike in its preparations as to fill Rachael's heart with mild misgivings.
Alice still brought her brood down for the week-ends, and it was on one of these that Rachael suddenly decided to move. The two women discussed it, Rachael finally agreeing to go to the Valentines' for a week before going on to Boston—or it might be Washington or Philadelphia—any other city than the one in which she might encounter the boys' father. Alice had never won her to promise a visit before, and although Rachael's confidence in her— for Rachael neither extracted a promise from Alice as to any possible encounter with Warren, nor reminded her friend that she placed herself entirely at Alice's mercy—rather disconcerted Alice, she had a simple woman's strong faith in coincidence, and she felt, she told George, that the Lord would not let this opportunity for a reconciliation go by. Mrs. Valentine had seen Warren Gregory now, more than once, and far more potent than any argument that he might have made was his silence, his most unexpected and unnatural silence. There was no explanation; indeed Warren had little to say on any subject in these days. He liked to come now and then, in the evening, to the Valentine house, but he would not dine there, and confined his remarks almost entirely to answers to George. Physically, Alice thought him shockingly changed.
"He is simply broken," she said to George, in something like fright. "I didn't know human beings could change that way. Warren- -who used to be so positive! Why, he's almost timid!"
She did not tell Rachael this, and George insisted that, while Rachael and the boys were at the house, Warren must be warned to keep away; so that Alice had frail enough material with which to build her dreams. Nevertheless, she dreamed.
It was finally arranged that Rachael and little Jim should go up to town on a certain Monday with Alice; that Rachael should make various engagements then, as to storage, packing, and such matters as the care of the piano and the car, for the winter. Then Jim, for the first time in his life, would stay away from his mother overnight with Aunt Alice, Rachael returning to Clark's Hills to bring Mary and Derry up the next day in the car. Jim was to go to the dentist, and to get shoes; there were several excellent reasons why it seemed wise to have him await his mother and brother in town rather than make the long trip twice in one day. Mary smuggled Derry out of sight when the Monday morning came, and Rachael and her oldest son went away with the Valentines in the car.
It was a fresh, sweet morning in the early winter, and both women, furred to the eyes, enjoyed the trip. The children, snuggled in between them, chattered of their own affairs, and Rachael interrupted her inexhaustible talk with Alice only to ask a question of the driver now and then.
"I shall have to bring my own car over this road to-morrow, Kane," she explained. "I have never been at the wheel myself before in all the times I have done it."
"Mar-r-tin does be knowin' every step of the way," suggested Kane.
"But Martin hasn't been with me this summer," the lady smiled.
"I thought I saw him runnin' the docther's car yesterda' week," mused Kane who was a privileged character. "Well,'tis not hard, Mrs. Gregory. The whole place is plasthered wid posts. But the thing of it is, ma'am," he added, after a moment, turning back toward her without taking his eyes from the road, "there does be a big storm blowin' up. Look there, far over there, how black it is."
"But that won't break to-day?" Rachael said uneasily, thinking of Derry.
"Well, it may not—that's thrue. But these roads will be in a grand mess if we have anny more rain—that's a fact for ye," Kane persisted.
"Then don't come until Wednesday," suggested Alice.
"Oh, Alice, but I'll be so frantic to see my boy!"
"Twenty-four hours more, you goose!" Alice laughed. Rachael laughed, too, and took several surreptitious kisses from the back of Jimmy's neck as a fortification against the coming separation.
Indeed, she found it unbelievably hard to leave him, trotting happily upstairs with his beloved Katharine, and to go about her day's business anticipating the long trip back to Home Dunes without him. However, there were not many hours to spare, and Rachael had much to do. She set herself systematically to work.
By one o'clock everything was done, with an hour to spare for train time. But she had foolishly omitted luncheon, and felt tired and dizzy. She turned toward a downtown lunchroom, and was held at the crossing of Fifth Avenue and one of the thirties idly watching the crowd of cars that delayed her when she saw Warren in his car.
He was on the cross street, and so also stopped, but he did not see her. Martin was at the wheel, Warren buttoned to the neck in a gray coat, his hat well down over his eyes, alone in the back seat. He was staring steadily, yet with unseeing eyes, before him, and Rachael felt a sense of almost sickening shock at the sight of his altered face. Warren, looking tired and depressed, looking discouraged, and with some new look of diffidence and hurt, besides all these, in his face! Warren old! Warren OLD!
Rachael felt as if she should faint. She was rooted where she stood. Fifth Avenue pushed gayly and busily by her under the leaden sky. Furred old ladies, furred little girls, messenger boys and club men, jostling, gossiping, planning. Only she stood still. And after a while she looked again where Warren had been. He was gone. But had he seen her? her heart asked itself with wild clamor. Had he seen her?
She began to walk rapidly and blindly, conscious of taking a general direction toward the Terminal Station, but so vague as to her course that she presently looked bewilderedly about to find that she was in Eighth Avenue and that, standing absolutely still again, and held by thought, she was being curiously regarded by a policeman. She gave the man a dazed and sickly smile.
"I am afraid I am a little out of my way," she stammered. "I am going to the station."
He pointed out the direction, and she thanked him, and blindly went on her way. But her heart was tearing like a living thing in her breast, and she walked like a wounded creature that leaves a trail of life blood.
Oh, she was his wife—his wife—his wife! She belonged there, in that empty seat beside him, with her shoulder against that gray overcoat! What was she doing in this desolate street of little shops, faint and heartsick and alone! Oh, for the security of that familiar car again! How often she had sat beside him, arrested by the traffic, content to placidly watch the shifting crowd, to wait for the shrill little whistle that gave them the right of way! If she were there now, where might they be going? Perhaps to a concert, perhaps to look at a picture in some gallery, but first of all certainly to lunch. His first question would be: "Had your lunch?" and his answer only a satisfied nod. But he would direct Martin to the first place that suggested itself to him as being suitable for Rachael's meal. And he would order it, no trouble was too much for her; nothing too good for his wife.
She was not beside him. She was still drifting along this hideous street, battling with faintness and headache, and never, perhaps, to see her husband again. One of her sons was in the city, another miles away, To her horror she felt herself beginning to cry. She quickened her pace, and reckless of the waiter's concern, entered the station restaurant and ordered herself a lunch. But when it came she could not eat it, and she was presently in the train, without a book or magazine, still fasting except for a hurried half cup of tea, and every instant less and less able to resist the corning flood of her tears.
All the long trip home she wept, quietly and steadily, one arm on the window sill, a hand pressed against her face. There were few other passengers in the train, which was too hot. The winter twilight shut down early, and at last the storm broke; not violently, but with a stern and steady persistence. The windows ran rain, and were blurred with steam, the darkening landscape swept by under a deluge. When the train stopped at a station, a rush of wet air, mingled with the odors of mackintoshes and the wet leather of motor cars, came in. Rachael would look out to see meetings, lanterns and raincoats, umbrellas dripping over eager, rosy faces.
She would be glad to get home, she said to herself, to her snuggly little comforting Derry. They would not attempt to make the move to-morrow—that was absurd. It had been far too much of a trip to- day, and Alice had advised her against it. But it had not sounded so formidable. To start at seven, be in town at ten, after the brisk run, and take the afternoon train home—this was no such strain, as they had planned it. But it had proved to be a frightful strain. Leaving Jim, and then catching that heart- rending glimpse of the changed Warren—Warren looking like a hurt child who must bear a punishment without understanding it.
"Oh, what are we thinking about, to act in this crazy manner!" Rachael asked herself desperately. "He loves me, and I—I've always loved him. Other people may misjudge him, but I know! He's horrified and shamed and sorry. He's suffering as much as I am. What fools—what utter FOOLS we are!"
And suddenly—it was nearly six o'clock now, and they were within a few minutes of Clark's Hills—she stopped crying, and began to plan a letter that should end the whole terrible episode.
"Your stop Quaker Bridge?" asked the conductor, coming in, and beginning to shift the seats briskly on their iron pivots, as one who expected a large crowd to accompany him on the run back.
"Clark's Hills," Rachael said, noticing that she was alone in the train.
"Don't know as we can get over the Bar," the man said cheerily.
"Looks as if we were going to try it!" Rachael answered with equal aplomb as the train ran through Quaker Bridge without stopping, and went on with only slightly decreased speed. And a moment later she began to gather her possessions together, and the conductor remarked amiably: "Here we are! But she surely is raining," he added. "Well, we've only got to run back as far as the car barn— that's Seawall—to-night. My folks live there."
Rachael did not mind the rain. She would be at home in five minutes. She climbed into a closed surrey, smelling strongly of leather and horses, and asked the driver pleasantly how early the rain had commenced. He evidently did not hear her, at all events made no answer, and she did not speak again.
"Where's my Derry?" Rachael's voice rang strong and happy through the house. "Mary—Mary!" she added, stopping, rather puzzled, in the hall. "Where is he?"
How did it come to her, by what degrees? How does such news tell itself, from the first little chill, that is not quite fear, to the full thundering avalanche of utter horror? Rachael never remembered afterward, never tried to remember. The moment remained the blackest of all her life. It was not the subtly changed atmosphere of the house, not Mary's tear-swollen face, as she appeared, silent, at the top of the stairs; not Millie, who came ashen-faced and panting from the kitchen; not the sudden, weary little moan that floated softly through the hallway—no one of all these things.
Yet Rachael knew—Derry was dying. She needed not to know how or why. Her furs fell where she stood, her hat was gone, she had flown upstairs as swiftly as light. She knew the door, she knew what she would see. She went down on her knees beside him.
Her little gallant, reckless, shouting Derry! Her warm, beautiful boy, changed in these few hours to this crushed and moaning little being, this cruelly crumpled and tortured little wreck of all that had been gay and sound and confident babyhood!
In that first moment at his side it had seemed to Rachael that she must die, too, of sheer agony of spirit. She put her beautiful head down against the brown little limp hand upon which a rusty stain was drying, and she could have wailed aloud in the bitter rebellion of her soul. Not Derry, not Derry, so small and innocent and confiding—her own child, her own flesh and blood, the fibre of her being! Trusting them, obeying them, and betrayed—brought to this!
At her first look she had thought the child dead; now, as she drew back from him, and caught her self-control with a quivering breath, and wrung her hands together in desperate effort to hold back a scream, she found it in her heart to wish he were. His little face was black from a great bruise that spread from temple to chin, his mouth cut and swollen, his eyes half shut. His body was doubled where it lay, a great bubble of blood moved with his breath. He breathed lightly and faintly, with an occasional deep gasp that invariably brought the long, heart-sickening moan. They had taken off part of his clothes, his shoes and stockings, but he still wore his Holland suit, and the dark-blue woolen coat had only been partly removed.
Rachael, ashen-faced, rose from her knees, and faced Mary and Millie. With bitter tears the story was told. He had been playing, as usual, in the barn, and Mary had been swinging him. Not high, nothing like as high as Jimmie went. And Millie came out to say that their dinner was ready, and all of a sudden he called out that he could swing without holding on, and put both his hands up in the air. And then Mary saw him fall, the board of the swing falling, too, and striking him as he fell, and his face dashing against the old mill-wheel that stood by the door. And he had not spoken since.
His arm had hung down loose-like, as Mary carried him in, and Millie had run for the doctor. But Doctor Peet wouldn't be back until seven, and the girls had dared do no more than wash off his face a little and try to make him comfortable. "I wish the Lord had called me before the day came," said Mary, "me, that would have died for him—for any of you!"
"I know that, Mary," Rachael said. "It would have happened as easily with me. We all know what you have been to the boys, Mary. But you mustn't cry so hard. I need you. I am going to drive him into town."
"Oh, my God, in this storm?" exclaimed Millie.
"There's nothing else to do," Rachael said. "He may die on the way, but his mother will do what she can. I couldn't have Doctor Peet, kind as he is. Doctor Gregory—his father—will know. It's nearly seven now. We must start as fast as we can. You'll have to pin something all about the back seat, Mary, and line it with comforters. We'll put his mattress on the seat—you'll make it snug, won't you?—and you'll sit on the floor there, and steady him all you can, for I'll have to drive. We ought to be there by midnight, even in the storm."
"I'll fix it," Mary said, with one great sob, and immediately, to Rachael's great relief, she was her practical self.
"And I want some coffee, Millie," she said, "strong; I'm not hungry, but if you have something ready, I'll eat what I can. Did Ruddy come up and get the car to-day, for oil and gas, and so on?"
"He did," said Millie, eager to be helpful.
"That's a blessing." Rachael turned to look at the little figure on the bed. Her heart contracted with a freezing spasm of terror whenever her eyes even moved in that direction.
But there was plenty to do. She got herself into dry, warm clothes. She leaned over her little charge, straightening and adjusting as best she could, shifting the little body as gently as was possible to the smaller mattress, covering it warmly but lightly. As she did so she wondered which one of those long, moaning breaths would be the last; when would little Derry straighten himself—and lie still?
No time to think of that. She tied on her hat and veil, and went out to look at the car. The rear seat was lined with pillows, the curtain drawn. She had matches, her electric flashlight, her road maps, a flask of brandy—what else?
Millie had run for neighbors, and the chains were finally adjusted. The car had been made ready for the run, and was in good shape.
The big shadowy barn that was the garage was full of dancing shapes in the lantern-light. The rain splashed and spattered incessantly outside; a black sky seemed to have closed down just over their heads. She was in a fever to get away.
Slowly the dazzling headlights moved in the pitchy blackness, the wheels grated but held their own. The car came to the side door, and the little mattress came out, and the muffled shape that was Mary got in beside it. Then there was buttoning of storm curtains by willing hands, and many a whispered good wish to Rachael as she slipped in under the wheel. Millie was beside her, at the last moment, begging to be of some use if she might.
"There's just this, Mrs. Gregory," said Ruddy Simms nervously, when the engine was humming, and, Rachael's gloved hand racing the accelerator, "they say the tide's making fast in all this rain! I don't know how you'll do at the Bar. She's ugly a night, like this; what with the bay eating one side, and the sea breaking over the other!"
"Thank you," Rachael said, not hearing him. "God bless you! Good- bye!"
She released the clutch. The big car leaped forward, into the darkness. The clock before her eyes said thirty-five minutes past seven. Rain beat against the heavy cloth of the curtains, water swished and splashed under the wheels, and above the purring of the engine they could hear the clinking fall of the chains. There was no other sound except when Derry caught a moaning breath.
Clark's Hills passed in blackness, the road dropped down toward the Bar. Rachael could feel that Mary, in the back seat, was praying, and that Millie was praying beside her. Her own heart rose on a wild and desperate prayer. If they could cross this narrow strip between the bay and the ocean, then whatever the fortune of the road, she could meet it. Telephones, at least, were on the other side, resources of all sorts. But to be stopped here!
The look of the Bar, when they reached it, struck chill even to Rachael's heart. In the clear tunnels of light flung from the car lamps it seemed all a moving level of restless water smitten under sheets of rain. Anything more desperate than an effort to find the little belt of safety in this trackless spread of merciless seas it would be hard to imagine. At an ordinary high tide the Bar was but a few inches above the sea; now, with a wind blowing, a heavy rain falling, and the tide almost at the full, no road whatever was visible. It was there, the friendly road that Rachael and the hot and sandy boys had tramped a hundred times, but even she could not believe it, now, so utterly impassable did the shifting surface appear.
But she gallantly put the car straight into the heart of it, moving as slowly as the engine permitted, and sending quick, apprehensive glances into the darkness as she went.
"At the worst, we can back out of this, Millie," said she.
"Of course we can," Millie said, suppressing frightened tears with some courage.
The water was washing roughly against the running boards; to an onlooker the car would have had the appearance of being afloat, hub-deep, at sea.
Slowly, slowly, slowly they were still moving. The car stopped short. The engine was dead. Rachael touched her starter, touched it again and again. No use. The car had stopped. The rain struck in noisy sheets against the curtains. The sea gurgled and rushed about them. Derry moaned softly.
And now the full madness of the attempted expedition struck her for the first time. She had never thought that, at worst, she could not go back. What now? Should they stand here on the shifting sand of the Bar until the tide fell—it was not yet full. Rachael felt her heart beating quick with terror. It began to seem like a feverish dream.
Neither maid spoke, perhaps neither one realized the full extent of the calamity. With the confidence of those who do not understand the workings of a car, they waited to have it start again.
But both girls screamed when suddenly a new voice was heard. Rachael, starting nervously as a man's figure came about the car out of the black night, in the next second saw, with a great rush of relief, that it was Ruddy Simms. He was a mighty fellow, devoted to the Gregorys. He proceeded rather awkwardly to explain that he hadn't liked to think of their trying to cross the Bar, and so had come with them on the running board.
"Oh, Ruddy, how grateful I am to you!" Rachael said. "Perhaps you can go back and get us a tow? What can we do?"
"Stuck?" asked Ruddy, wading as unconcernedly about the car as if the sun were shining on the scene.
"No, I don't think so, not yet. But I can feel the road under us giving already. And I've killed my engine!"
"Won't start, eh?"
"She simply WON'T!"
"Ain't got a crank, have ye?"
"Why, yes, we have, under my seat here. But is there a chance that she might start on cranking?" she said eagerly.
"Dun't know," Ruddy said non-committally.
Rachael was instantly on her feet, and after some groping and adjusting, the cranking was attempted. Failure. Ruddy went bravely at it again. Failure. Again Rachael touched the starter.
"No use!" she said with a sinking heart.
But Ruddy was bred of sea-folk who do not expect quick results. He tugged away again vigorously, and again after that. And suddenly— the most delicious sound that Rachael's ears had ever heard—there was the sucking and plunging that meant success. The car panted like a giant revived, and Ruddy stood back in the merciless green light and sent Rachael a smile. His homely face, running rain, looked at her as bright as an angel's.
"Dun't know as I'd stand there, s'deep in my tracks!" shouted Ruddy.
Gingerly, timidly, she pushed the car on some ten feet. "What I's thinking," suggested Ruddy then, coming to put his face in close to hers, and shouting over the noise of wind and water, "is this: if I was to walk ahead of ye, kinder feeling for the road with my feet, then you could come after, d'ye see?"
"Oh, Ruddy, do you think we can make it, then?" Rachael's face was wet with tears.
"Dun't know," he said. He took off his immense boots and gray socks, and rolled up his wet trousers, the better to feel every inch of rise or fall in the ground beneath his feet, and Millie held these for him as if it were a sacred charge.
And then, with the full light of the lamps illumining his big figure, and with the water rushing and gurgling about them, and the rain pouring down as if it were an actual deluge, they made the crossing at Clark's Bar. The shifting water almost blinded Rachael sometimes, and sometimes it seemed as if any way but the way that Ruddy's waving arms indicated was the right one; as if to follow him were utter madness. The water spouted up through the clutch, and once again the engine stopped, and long moments went by before it would respond to the crank again. But Rachael pushed slowly on. She was not thinking now, she was conscious of no feeling but that there was an opposite shore, and she must reach it.
And presently it rose before them. The road ran gradually upward, a shallow sheet of running water covering it, but firm, hard roadway discernible nevertheless. Rachael stopped the car, and Ruddy came again and put his face close to hers, through the curtains.
"Now ye've got straight road, Mrs. Gregory, and I hope to the good Lord you'll have a good run. Thank ye, Millie—much obliged!"
"Ruddy!" said Rachael passionately, her wet gloves holding his big, hairy hands tight. "I'll never forget this! If he has a chance to live at all, this is his chance, and you've given it to him! God bless you, a thousand times!"
"That's all right," said Ruddy, terribly embarrassed. "You've always been awful good to my folks. I'm glad we done it! Good- night!" Then Ruddy had turned back for the walk home in the streaming blackness, and Rachael, drawing a deep breath, was on her way again. She stopped only for a quick question to Mary.
"Just the same."
The wet miles flew by; rain beat untiringly against the curtains, slished in two great feathers of water from under the rushing wheels. Rachael watched her speedometer; twenty-five—twenty- eight—thirty—they could not do better than that in this weather. And they had a hundred miles to go.
But that hundred was only eighty-six now, only eighty. Villages flew by, and men came out and stood on the dripping porches of crossroad stores to marvel as the long scream of Rachael's horn cut through the night air. Twenty minutes past eight o'clock— eight minutes of nine o'clock. The little villages began to grow dark.
There was nothing to pass on the road; so much was gain. Except in the villages, and once or twice where a slow, rattling wagon was plodding along on the wet mirror-like asphalt, Rachael might make her own speed. The road lay straight, and was an exceptionally good road, even in this weather. She need hardly pause for signboards. The rain still fell in sheets. Seventy-two miles to go.
"How is he, Mary?"
"The same, Mrs. Gregory. Except that he gives a little groan now and then—when it shakes him!"
"My boy! But not sleeping?" "Oh, no, Mrs. Gregory. He just lies quiet like."
"God bless him!" Rachael said under her breath. Aloud she said: "Millie, couldn't you lean over, and watch him a few minutes, and see what you think?"
Then they were flying on again. Rachael began to wonder just how long the run was. They always carelessly called it "a hundred miles." But was it really a hundred and two, or ninety-eight? What a difference two or three miles would make to-night! She fell into a nervous shiver; suppose they reached the bridge, and then Mary should touch her arm. "He doesn't look right, Mrs. Gregory!" Suppose that for the little boy that they finally carried into New York there was no longer any hope. Her little Derry—