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XII


DURING all the long night Dick sat by David's bedside. Earlier in
the evening there had been a consultation; David had suffered a light
stroke, but there was no paralysis, and the prognosis was good.
For this time, at least, David had escaped, but there must be no
other time. He was to be kept quiet and free from worry, his diet
was to be carefully regulated, and with care he still had long years
before him.

David slept, his breathing heavy and slow. In the morning there
would be a nurse, but that night Dick, having sent Lucy to bed,
himself kept watch. On the walnut bed lay Doctor David's portly
figure, dimly outlined by the shaded lamp, and on a chair drawn
close sat Dick.

He was wide-awake and very anxious, but as time went on and no
untoward symptoms appeared, as David's sleep seemed to grow easier
and more natural, Dick's thoughts wandered. They went to Elizabeth
first, and then on and on from that starting point, through the
years ahead. He saw the old house with Elizabeth waiting in it for
his return; he saw both their lives united and flowing on together,
with children, with small cares, with the routine of daily living,
and behind it all the two of them, hand in hand.

Then his mind turned on himself. How often in the past ten years
it had done that! He had sat off, with a sort of professional
detachment, and studied his own case. With the entrance into his
world of the new science of psycho-analysis he had made now and
then small, not very sincere, attempts to penetrate the veil of his
own unconscious devising. Not very sincere, for with the increase
of his own knowledge of the mind he had learned that behind such
conditions as his lay generally, deeply hidden, the desire to
forget. And that behind that there lay, acknowledged or not, fear.

"But to forget what?" he used to say to David, when the first
text-books on the new science appeared, and he and David were
learning the new terminology, Dick eagerly and David with
contemptuous snorts of derision. "To forget what?"

"You had plenty to forget," David would say, stolidly. "I think
this man's a fool, but at that - you'd had your father's death, for
one thing. And you'd gone pretty close to the edge of eternity
yourself. You'd fought single-handed the worst storm of ten years,
you came out of it with double pneumonia, and you lay alone in that
cabin about fifty-six hours. Forget! You had plenty to forget."

It had never occurred to Dick to doubt David's story. It did not,
even now. He had accepted it unquestioningly from the first,
supplemented the shadowy childish memories that remained to him with
it, and gradually co-ordinating the two had built out of them his
house of the past.

Thus, the elderly man whom he dimly remembered was not only his
father; he was David's brother. And he had died. It was the shock
of that death, according to David, that had sent him into the
mountains, where David had followed and nursed him back to health.

It was quite simple, and even explicable by the new psychology.
Not that he had worried about the new psychology in those early days.
He had been profoundly lethargic, passive and incurious. It had
been too much trouble even to think.

True, he had brought over from those lost years certain instincts
and a few mental pictures. He had had a certain impatience at first
over the restrictions of comparative poverty; he had had to learn
the value of money. And the pictures he retained had had a certain
opulence which the facts appeared to contradict. Thus he remembered
a large ranch house, and innumerable horses, grazing in meadows or
milling in a corral. But David had warned him early that there was
no estate; that his future depended entirely on his own efforts.

Then the new life had caught and held him. For the first time he
had mothering and love. Lucy was his mother, and David the pattern
to which he meant to conform. He was happy and contented.

Now and then, in the early days, he had been conscious of a desire
to go back and try to reconstruct his past again. Later on he knew
that if he were ever to fill up the gap in his life, it would be
easier in that environment of once familiar things. But in the
first days he had been totally dependent on David, and money was
none too plentiful. Later on, as the new life took hold, as he
went to medical college and worked at odd clerical jobs in
vacations to help pay his way, there had been no chance. Then the
war came, and on his return there had been the practice, and his
knowledge that David's health was not what it should have been.

But as time went on he was more and more aware that there was in
him a peculiar shrinking from going back, an almost apprehension.
He knew more of the mind than he had before, and he knew that not
physical hardship, but mental stress, caused such lapses as his.
But what mental stress had been great enough for such a smash?
His father's death?

Strain and fear, said the new psychology. Fear? He had never found
himself lacking in courage. Certainly he would have fought a man
who called him a coward. But there was cowardice behind all such
conditions as his; a refusal of the mind to face reality. It was
weak. Weak. He hated himself for that past failure of his to face
reality.

But that night, sitting by David's bed, he faced reality with a
vengeance. He was in love, and he wanted the things that love
should bring to a normal man. He felt normal. He felt,
strengthened by love, that he could face whatever life had to bring,
so long as also it brought Elizabeth.

Painfully he went back over his talk with David the preceding
Sunday night.

"Don't be a fool," David had said. "Go ahead and take her, if
she'll have you. And don't be too long about it. I'm not as young
as I used to be."

"What I feel," he had replied, "is this: I don't know, of course,
if she cares." David had grunted. "I do know I'm going to try to
make her care, if it - if it's humanly possible. But I'd like to
go back to the ranch again, David, before things go any further."

"Why?"

"I'd like to fill the gap. Attempt it anyhow."

What he was thinking about, as he sat by David's bedside, was
David's attitude toward that threatened return of his. For David
had opposed it, offering a dozen trivial, almost puerile reasons.
Had shown indeed, a dogged obstinacy and an irritability that were
somehow oddly like fear. David afraid! David, whose life and
heart were open books! David, whose eyes never wavered, nor his
courage!

"You let well enough alone, Dick," he had finished. "You've got
everything you want. And a medical man can't afford to go gadding
about. When people want him they want him."

But he had noticed that David had been different, since. He had
taken to following him with his faded old eyes, had even spoken
once of retiring and turning all the work over to him. Was it
possible that David did not want him to go back to Norada?

He bent over and felt the sick man's pulse. It was stronger, not
so rapid. The mechanical act took him back to his first memory of
David.

He had been lying in a rough bunk in the mountain cabin, and David,
beside him on a wooden box, had been bending forward and feeling
his pulse. He had felt weak and utterly inert, and he knew now
that he had been very ill. The cabin had been a small and lonely
one, with snow-peaks not far above it, and it had been very cold.
During the day a woman kept up the fire. Her name was Maggie, and
she moved about the cabin like a thin ghost. At night she slept
in a lean-to shed and David kept the fire going. A man who seemed
to know him well - John Donaldson, he learned, was his name - was
Maggie's husband, and every so often he came, about dawn, and
brought food and supplies.

After a long time, as he grew stronger, Maggie had gone away, and
David had fried the bacon and heated the canned tomatoes or the
beans. Before she left she had written out a recipe for biscuits,
and David would study over it painstakingly, and then produce a
panfull of burned and blackened lumps, over which he would groan
and agonize.

He himself had been totally incurious. He had lived a sort of
animal life of food and sleep, and later on of small tentative
excursions around the room on legs that shook when he walked. The
snows came and almost covered the cabin, and David had read a great
deal, and talked at intervals. David had tried to fill up the gap
in his mind. That was how he learned that David was his father's
brother, and that his father had recently died.

Going over it all now, it had certain elements that were not clear.
They had, for instance, never gone hack to the ranch at all. With
the first clearing of the snow in the spring John Donaldson had
appeared again, leading two saddled horses and driving a pack animal,
and they had started off, leaving him standing in the clearing and
gazing after them. But they had not followed Donaldson's trail.
They had started West, over the mountains, and David did not know
the country. Once they were lost for three days.

He looked at the figure on the bed. Only ten years, and yet at
that time David had been vigorous, seemed almost young. He had
aged in that ten years. On the bed he was an old man, a tired old
man at that. On that long ride he had been tireless. He had taken
the burden of the nightly camps, and had hacked a trail with his
hatchet across snow fields while Dick, still weak but furiously
protesting, had been compelled to stand and watch.

Now, with the perspective of time behind him, and with the clearly
defined issue of David's protest against his return to the West, he
went again over the details of that winter and spring. Why had they
not taken Donaldson's trail? Or gone back to the ranch? Why, since
Donaldson could make it, had not other visitors come? Another
doctor, the night he almost died, and David sat under the lamp
behind the close-screened windows, and read the very pocket
prayer-book that now lay on the stand beside the bed? Why had they
burned his clothes, and Donaldson brought a new outfit? Why did
Donaldson, for all his requests, never bring a razor, so that when
they struck the railroad, miles from anywhere, they were both full
bearded?

He brought himself up sharply. He had allowed his imagination to
run away with him. He had been depicting a flight and no one who
knew David could imagine him in flight.

Nevertheless he was conscious of a new uneasiness and anxiety.
When David recovered sufficiently he would go to Norada, as he had
told Elizabeth, and there he would find the Donaldsons, and clear
up the things that bothered him. After that -

He thought of Elizabeth, of her sweetness and sanity. He remembered
her at the theater the evening before, lost in its fictitious
emotions, its counterfeit drama. He had felt moved to comfort her,
when he found her on the verge of tears.

"Just remember, they're only acting," he had said.

"Yes. But life does do things like that to people."

"Not often. The theater deals in the dramatic exceptions to life.
You and I, plain bread and butter people, come to see these things
because we get a sort of vicarious thrill out of them."

"Doesn't anything ever happen to the plain bread and butter people?"

"A little jam, sometimes. Or perhaps they drop it, butter side
down, on the carpet."

"But that is tragedy, isn't it?"

He had had to acknowledge that it might be. But he had been quite
emphatic over the fact that most people didn't drop it.

After a long time he slept in his chair. The spring wind came in
through the opened window, and fluttered the leaves of the old
prayer-book on the stand.





The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Category:
General Fiction

Mystery and detective stories
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