The child that might have been the joy of a happy home, that might have grown to a dignified inheritance of the love and tenderness that had been between his father and mother. Robbed in his babyhood, taken away from the father he adored, and now—this! Sixty-one miles to go.
"Detour to New York." The sign, with all its hideous import, rose before her suddenly. No help for it; she must lose one or two, perhaps a dozen miles, she must give up the good road for a bad one. She must lose her way, too, perhaps. Had Kane gone over this road yesterday? It was much farther on that she had spoken to Kane. Perhaps he had, but she could not remember, doubt made every foot of the way terrible to Rachael. She could only plunge on, over rocks, over bumps, into mud-holes. She could only blindly take what seemed of two turnings the one most probably right.
"Oh—Mother!" The little wail came from Derry. Rachael, her heart turned to ice, slowed down—stopped and leaned into the half darkness in the back of the car. The child's lovely eyes were opened. Rachael could barely see his white face.
"My darling!" she said.
"Will you not—bump me so, Mother?" the little boy whispered.
"I will try not to, my heart!" Rachael, wild with terror, looked to Mary's face. Was he dying, now and here?
"Oh Moth—it hurts so!"
"Does it, my darling?"
He drowsed again. Rachael turned back to her wheel. They must go more slowly now, at any cost.
The road was terrible, in parts, after the hours of heavy rain, it seemed almost impassable. Rachael pushed on. Presently they were back in the main road again, and could make better time. Of the hundred miles only fifty remained. But that meant nothing now. How much time had she lost in that frightful bypath? Rachael's face was dripping with rain, rain had trickled under her clothing at neck and wrists. Through her raincoat the breast of her gown was soaking, and her feet ached with the strain of controlling the heavy car. Water came in long runnels through the wind-shield, and struck her knees; she had turned her dress back, her thin silk petticoat was soaked, and the muscles of knees and ankles were cold and sore. But she felt these things not at all. Her eyes burned ahead, into the darkness, she heard nothing but the occasional fluttering moan from Derry; she thought nothing but that she might be too late—too late—too late!
At the first town of any size she stopped, a telegram to George taking shape in her mind. But the wires here were down, as they had been farther down the Island. The rain was thinning, but the wind was rising every second, and as she rushed on she saw that in many places the lights on the road were out; all the Island lay battered and bruised under the storm.
Slowly as they seemed to creep, yet the miles were going by. Freeport—Lynbrook—Jamaica—like a woman in a dream she reached the bridge and a moment later looked down upon the long belt of lights winking in the rain that was New York.
And here, on the very apex of the bridge, came the most heart- rending moment of the run, for the little boy began to cough, and for two or three frightful minutes the women hung over him, speechless with terror, and knowing that at any second the exhausted little body might succumb to the strain. Blindly, as with a long, choked cry he sank back again, Rachael went back to her wheel. Third Avenue—Fifth Avenue—Forty-second Street tore by; they were running straight down toward Washington Arch as the clocks everywhere struck midnight. The wide street was deserted in the rain, it shone like a mirror, reflecting long pendants of light.
They were turning the corner; she was out of the car, and had glanced at the familiar old house. Wet, exhausted, fired by a passion that made her feel curiously light and sure, Rachael put her arms about her child, and carried him up the steps. Mary had preceded her, the door was opened; a dazed and frightened maid was looking at her.
Then she was crossing the familiar hall; lights were in the library, and Warren in the library, somebody with him, but Rachael only caught a glimpse of the old familiar attitude: he was sitting in a straight-backed chair, his legs crossed, and one firm hand grasping a silk-clad ankle as he intently listened to whatever was being said.
"Warren!" she said in a voice that those who heard it remembered all their lives. "It's Derry! He's hurt—he's dying, I think! Can you—can you save him?" And with a great burst of tears she gave up the child.
"My God—what is it!" said Warren Gregory on his feet, and with Derry in his arms, even as he spoke. For a second the tableau held: Rachael, agonized, her beautiful face colorless, and dripping with rain, her husband staring at her as if he could not credit his senses, the child's limp body in his arms, yet not quite freed from hers. In the background were the whitefaced servants and the gray-headed doctor upon whose conversation the newcomers had so abruptly broken.
"We've just brought him up from Clark's Hills!" Rachael said.
"From Clark's Hills—YOU!"
His look, the dear familiar look of solicitude and concern, tore her to the soul.
"There was nothing else to do!" she faltered.
"But—you drove up to-night?"
He looked at her, and Rachael felt the look sink into her soul like rain into parched land.
"And you came straight to me!" His voice sank. "Rachael," he said, "I will save him for you if I can!"
And instantly there began such activities in the old house as perhaps even its dignified century of living had never known. Rachael, hungry through these terrible hours of suspense for just the wild rush and hurry, watched her husband as if she had never seen him before. Presently lights blazed from cellar to attic, maids flew in every direction, fires were lighted, the moving of heavy furniture shook the floors. Derry, the little unconscious cause of it all, lay quiet, with Mary watching him.
New York had been asleep; it was awakened now. Motor cars wheeled into the Gregorys' street; Mrs. Gregory herself answered the door. Here was the nurse, efficient, yet sympathetic, too, with her paraphernalia and her assistants. Yes, she had been able to get it, Doctor Gregory. Yes, Doctor, she had that. Here was the man from the drug store—that was all right, Doctor, that was what he expected, being waked up in the night; thank you, Doctor. And here was George Valentine, too much absorbed in the business in hand to say more than an affectionate "Hello" to Rachael. But with George was Alice, white-faced but smiling, and little sleepy Jimmy, who was to be smuggled immediately into bed.
"I thought you'd rather have him here," said Alice.
Rachael knew why. Rachael knew what doctors said to each other, when they gathered, and used those quick, low monosyllables. She knew why Miss Redding was speeding the arrangements for the improvised operating-room with such desperate hurry. She knew why one of these assisting doctors was delegated to do nothing but sit beside Derry, watching the little hurt breast rise and fall, watching the bubble of blood form and break on the swollen mouth.
Warren had told her to get into dry clothing, and then to take a stimulant, and have something to eat. And eager to save him what she could, she was warm and dry now. She sat in Derry's room, and presently, when they came to stand beside him, Warren and George, they found her agonized eyes, bright with questions, facing them. But she knew better than to speak.
Neither man spoke for a few dreadful moments. Warren looked at the child without a flicker of change in his impassive look; George bit his lip, and almost imperceptibly shook his head. And in their faces Rachael read the death of her last faint hope.
"We don't dare anesthetize him until we know just the lie of those broken ribs," said Warren gravely to his wife, "and yet the little chap is so exhausted that the strain of trying to touch it may— may be too much for him. There's no time for an X-ray. Some of these fellows think it is too great a risk. I believe it may be done. If there are internal injuries, we can't hope to—" He paused. "But otherwise, I believe—"
Again his voice dropped. He stood looking at the little boy with eyes that were not a surgeon's now; all a father's.
"Good little chap," he said softly. "Do you remember how he used to watch Jim, through the bars of his crib, when he was about eight months old, and laugh as if Jim was the funniest thing in the world?"
Rachael looked up and nodded with brimming eyes. She could not speak.
They carried Derry away, and Rachael followed them up to the head of the stairway outside of the operating-room, and sat there, her hands locked in her lap, her head resting against the wall. Alice dared not join her, she kept her seat by the library fire, and with one hand pressed tight against her eyes, tried to pray.
Rachael did not pray. She was unable even to think clearly. Visions drifted through her tired brain, the panorama of the long day and night swept by unceasingly. She was in Eighth Avenue again, she was in the hot train, with the rain beating against the windows, and tears running down her hot cheeks. She was entering the house—"Where's my boy?" And then she was driving the car through that cruel world of water and wind. She would have saved him if she could! She had done her share. Instantly, unflinchingly, she had torn through blackness and storm; a battered ship beating somehow toward the familiar harbor. Now he must be saved. Rachael knew that madness would come upon her if these hideous hours were only working toward the moment when she would know that she had been too late. For the rest of her life she would only review them: the Bar, the wet roads, the detour, and the frightful seconds on the bridge. There had been something expiatory, something symbolic in this mad adventure, this flight through the night. The fires that had been burning in her heart for the past terrible hours were purged, she must be changed forevermore after to-night. But for the new birth, Derry must not be the price! The strain had been too great, the delicate machinery of her brain would give, she could not take up life again, having lost him—and lost him in this way—
They were torturing him; the child's cry of utter agony reached her where she sat. It came to her, in a flash, that Warren had said there might be no merciful chloroform. Cold water broke out on her forehead, she covered her ears with her hands, her breath coming wild and deep. Derry!
"Oh, no—Daddy! Oh, no, Daddy! Oh, Mother—Mother—!"
"Oh, my God! this is not right," Rachael said half aloud. "Oh, take him, take him, but don't let him suffer so!"
She was writhing as if the suffering were her own. For perhaps five horrible moments the house rang, then there was sudden silence.
"Now he is dead," Rachael said in the same quiet, half-audible tone. "I am glad. He will never know what pain is again. Five perfect little years, with never one instant that was not sweet and good. Gerald Fairfax Gregory—five years old. One sees it in the papers almost every day. But who thinks what it means? Just the mother, who remembers the first cry, and the little crumpled flannel wrappers, and the little hand crawling up her breast. He walked so much sooner than Jim did, but of course he was lighter. And how he would throw things out of windows—the camera that hit the postman! Oh, my God!"
For the anguished screaming had recommenced, and the child wanted his mother.
Rachael bore it for endless, agonizing minutes. Presently Alice, white-faced, was kneeling on the step below her, and their wet hands were clasped.
"Dearest, why do you sit here!"
"Oh, Alice, could I get Warren, do you think? They mustn't—it's too cruel! He's only a baby, he doesn't understand! Better a thousand times to let him go—tell them so! Get George—tell him I say so!"
"Rachael, it's terrible," said Alice, who was crying hard, "b-b- but they must think there is a chance, dear. We couldn't interrupt them now. He would see you—there, he's quiet again. That may be all!"
But it was not the end for many hours. The women on the stairs, and the sobbing maids in the diningroom, hoped and despaired, and grew faint and sick themselves as the merciless work went on. Once George came out of the room for a few minutes, with a face flaked with white, and his surgeon's gown crumpled, wet with water and stained here and there a terrible red. He did not speak to either woman, and in answer to Alice's breath of interrogation merely shook his head.
At four o'clock Warren himself came to the door. Rachael sprang to her feet, was close to him in a second. The sight of him, his gown, his hands, his dreadful face, turned Alice faint, but Rachael's voice was steady.
"What is it?"
"We are nearly done. Nearly done," Warren said. "I can't tell yet- -nobody can. But I must finish it. Do you think you could—he keeps asking for you. I am sorry to ask you—"
"Hold him?" Rachael's voice of agony said. "Yes, I could do that. I—I have been wanting to!"
"No—there is no necessity for that. He is on the table. But if he could see you. It is the very end of our work," he answered. "It may be that he can't—you must be ready for that."
"I am ready," she said.
A second later she was in the room with the child. She saw nothing but Derry, his little body beneath the sheet rigidly strapped to the table. The group gave place, and Rachael stood beside him. His beautiful baby eyes, wild with terror and agony, found her; she bent over him, and laid her fingers on his wet little forehead. He wanted his mother to take him away, he had been calling her— hadn't she heard him? Please, please, not to let anyone touch him again!
Rachael summoned a desperate courage. She spoke to him, she could even smile. Did he remember the swing—yes, but he didn't remember Mother bringing him all the way up, so that Daddy and Uncle George—
His brave eyes were fixed on hers. He was trying to remember, trying to answer her smile, trying to think of other things than the recommencing pain.
No use. The hoarse, terrible little screams began again. His little hand writhed in hers.
"Mother—PLEASE—will you make them stop?"
Rachael was breathing deep, her own forehead was wet. She knew the child's strength was gone.
"Just a little more, dearest," she said, white lipped; eyes full of agonized appeal turned to George.
"Doctor—" One of the nurses, her hand on his pulse, said softly. George Valentine looked up.
Rachael's apprehensive glance questioned them both. But Warren Gregory did not falter, did not even glance away from his own hands.
Then it was over. The tension in the room broke suddenly, the atmosphere changed, although there was not an audible breath. The nurses moved swiftly and surely, needing no instructions. George lifted Derry's little hand from Rachael's, and put one arm about her. Warren put down his instrument, and bent, his face a mask of anxiety, over the child. Derry was breathing—no more. But on the bloodless face that Warren raised there was the light of hope.
"I believe he will make it, George," he said. "I think we have saved him for you, Rachael! No—no—leave him where he is, Miss Moore. Get a flat pillow under his head if you can. Cover him up. I'm going to stay here."
"Wouldn't he be more comfortable in his bed?" Rachael's shaken voice asked in a low tone. She was conscious only that she must not faint now.
"He would be, of course. But it may be just by that fraction of energy that he is hanging on. Brave little chap, he has been helping us just as if he knew—"
But this Rachael could not endure. Her whole body shook, the room rocked before her eyes. She had strength to reach the hall, saw Alice standing white and tense, at the top of the stairs—then it was all darkness.
It seemed hours later, though it was only minutes, that Rachael came dreamily to consciousness in her own old room, on her own bed. Her idly moving eyes found the shaded lamp, found Alice sitting beside her. Alice's hand lay over her own. For a long time they did not speak.
A perfect circle of shadow was flung on the high ceiling from the lamp. Outside of the shadow were the familiar window draperies, the white mantel with its old candlesticks, the exquisite crayon portrait of Jim at three, and Derry a delicious eighteen-months- old. There was the white bowl that had always been filled with violets, empty now. And there were the low bookcases where a few special favorites were kept, and the quaint old mahogany sewing- table that had been old Mrs. Gregory's as a bride.
Rachael was exhausted in every fibre of body and soul, consecutive thought was impossible now; her aching head defied the effort, but lying here, in this dim light, there came to her a vision of the years that might be. If she were ever rested again, if little Derry were again his sunny, resolute self, if Warren and she were reunited, then what an ideal of fine and simple and unselfish living would be hers! How she would cling to honor and truth and goodness, how she would fortify herself against the pitfalls dug by her own impulsiveness. She and Warren had everything in life worth while, it was not for them to throw their gifts away. Their home should be the source of help to other homes, their sons should some day go out into the world equipped with wisdom, disciplined and self-controlled, ready to meet life far more bravely than ever their mother had.
There was a low voice at her door. Alice was gone, and Warren was kneeling beside her. And as she laid one tired arm about his neck, in the dear familiar fashion of the past, and as their eyes met, Rachael felt that all her life had been a preparation for this exquisite minute.
"I thought you would like to know that he is sleeping, and we have moved him," Warren said. "In three days you will have him roaring to get up."
Tears brimmed Rachael's eyes.
"You saved him," she whispered.
"YOU saved him; George says so, too. If that fellow down there had given him chloroform, there would have been no chance. Our only hope was to relieve that pressure on his heart, and take the risk of it being too much for him. He's as strong as a bull. But it was a fight! And no one but a woman would have rushed him up here in the rain."
Rachael's eyes were streaming. She could not speak. She clung to her husband's hand for a moment or two of silence.
"And now, I want to speak to you," Warren said, ending it. "I have nothing to say in excuse. I know—I shall know all my life, what I have done. It is like a bad dream."
His uncertain voice stopped. Husband and wife looked full at each other, both breathing quickly, both faces drawn and tense.
"But, Rachael," Warren went on, "I think, if you knew how I have suffered, that you would—that some day, you would forgive me. I was never happy. Never anything but troubled and excited and confused. But for the last few months, in this empty house, seeing other men with their wives, and thinking what a wife you were—It has been like finding my sight—like coming out of a fever—" He paused. Rachael did not speak.
"I know what I deserve at your hands," Warren said. "Nobody— nobody—not old George, not anyone—can think of me with the contempt and the detestation with which I think of myself! It has changed me. I will never—I can never, hold up my head again. But, Rachael, you loved me once, and I made you happy—you've not forgotten that! Give me another chance. Let me show you how I love you, how bitterly sorry I am that I ever caused you one moment of pain! Don't leave me alone. Don't let me feel that between you and me, as the years go by, there is going to be a widening gulf. You don't know what the loneliness means to me! You don't know how I miss my wife every time I sit down to dinner, every time I climb into the car. I think of the years to come—of what they might have been, of what they will be without you! And I can't bear it. Why, to go down with you and the boys to Clark's Hills, to tell you about my work, to take you to dinner again—my God! it seems to me like Heaven now, and I look back a few years, when it was all mine, and wonder if I have been sane, wonder if too much work, and all the other responsibilities, of the boys, and Mother's death, and the estate, and poor little Charlie, whether I really wasn't a little twisted mentally!"
Rachael tightened her arms about his neck, pressed her wet face to his.
"Sweetheart," said her wonderful voice, a mere tired essence of a voice now, "if there is anything to forgive, I am so glad to forgive it! You are mine, and I am yours. Please God we will never be parted again!"
And then for a long time there was silence in the room, while husband and wife clung together, and the hurt of the long months was cured, and dissolved, and gone forever. What Warren felt, Rachael could only know from his tears, and his passionate kisses, and the grip of his arms. For herself, she felt that she might gladly die, being so held against his heart, feeling through her entire being the rising flood of satisfied love that is life and breath to such a nature as hers.
"I am changed," said Warren after long moments; "you will see it, for I see it myself. I can see now what my mother meant, years ago, when she talked to me about myself. And I am older, Rachael."
"I am not younger," Rachael said, smiling. "And I think I am changed, too. All the pressure, all the nervous worry of the last few years, seem to be gone. Washed away, perhaps, by tears—there have been tears enough! But somehow—somehow I am confident, Warren, as I never was before, that happiness is ahead. Somehow I feel sure that you and I have won to happiness, now, won to sureness. With each other, and the boys, and books and music, and Home Dunes, the years to come seem all bright. After all, we are young to have learned how to live!"
And again she drew his face down to hers.
Alice did not come back again, but Mary came in with a cup of smoking soup. Mrs. Valentine had taken the doctor home, but they would be back later on. It was after six, and Doctor Gregory said Mrs. Gregory was to drink this, and try to get some sleep. But first Mary and Rachael must talk over the terrible and wonderful night, and Rachael must creep down the hall, to smile at the nurse, who sat by the heavily sleeping Derry.
Then she slept, for hours and hours, while the winter sun smiled down on the bare trees in the square and women in furs and babies in woolens walked and chattered on the leaf-strewn paths.
Such a sleep and such a waking are memorable in a lifetime. Rachael woke, smiling and refreshed, in a radiant world. Afternoon sunshine was streaming in at her windows, she felt rested, deliciously ready for life again.
To bathe, to dress with the chatting Jimmy tying strings to her dressing-table, to have the maids quietly and cheerfully coming and going in the old way; this in itself was delight. But when she tiptoed into Derry's room, and found hope and confidence there, found the blue eyes wide open, under the bandage, and heard the enchanting little voice announce, "I had hot milk, Mother," Rachael felt that her cup of joy was brimming.
He had fallen out of the swing, Derry told her, and Dad had hurted him, and Jimmy added sensationally that Derry had broken his leg!
"But just the same, we wanted our Daddy the moment we woke up this morning," Miss Moore smiled, "and we managed to hold up one arm to welcome him, and it was Daddy that held the glass of milk, wasn't it, Gerald?"
"She calls me Gerald because she doesn't know me very well," said Derry in a tactful aside, and Rachael, not daring to laugh for fear of beginning to cry, could only kiss the brown hand, and devour, with tear-dazzled eyes, the eager face.
Then she and Jimmy went down to have a meal that was like breakfast and luncheon and tea in one, with Warren. And to Rachael, thinking of all their happy meals together, since honeymoon days, this seemed the best of all. The afternoon light in the breakfast-room, the maids so poorly concealing their delight in this turn of events, little Jim so pleased at finding a meal served at this unusual hour, and his parents seemingly disposed to let him eat anything and everything, and Warren, tired—so strangely gray—and yet utterly content and at peace; these made the hour memorably happy; a forerunner of other happy hours to come.
"It seems to me that there never was such a bright sunshine, and never such a nice little third person, and never such coffee, and such happiness!" said Rachael, her eyes reflecting something of the placid winter day; soul and body wrapped in peace. "Yesterday- -only yesterday, I was wretched beyond all believing! To-day I think I have had the best hours of my life!"
"It is always going to be this way for you, Rachael," her husband said, "my life is going to be one long effort to keep you absolutely happy. You will never grieve on my account again!"
"Say rather," she said seriously, "that we know each other, and ourselves, now. Say that I will never demand utter perfection of you, or you of me. But, Warren—Warren—as long as we love each other—"
He had come around the table to her side, and was kneeling with his arms about her, and Rachael locked her hands about his neck. He was tired, he had had no sleep after the difficult night, and he seemed to her strangely broken, strangely her own. Rachael felt that he had never been so infinitely dear, so much hers to protect and save. The wonder of marriage came to her, the miracle of love rooted too deep for disturbance, of love fed on faults as well as virtues; so light a tie in the beginning, so powerful a bond as the years go by.
"As long as we love each other!" she said, smiling through tears, her eyes piercing him to the very soul.
He did not speak, and so for a moment they remained motionless, looking at each other. But when she released him, with one of her quick, shy kisses, he knew that the heart of Rachael was satisfied.