eBooks Cube
 
XIII


The week that followed was an anxious one. David's physical
condition slowly improved. The slight thickness was gone from his
speech, and he sipped resignedly at the broths Lucy or the nurse
brought at regular intervals. Over the entire house there hung all
day the odor of stewing chicken or of beef tea in the making, and
above the doorbell was a white card which said: "Don't ring.
Walk in."

As it happened, no one in the old house had seen Maggie Donaldson's
confession in the newspaper. Lucy was saved that anxiety, at least.
Appearing, as it did, the morning after David's stroke, it came in
with the morning milk, lay about unnoticed, and passed out again,
to start a fire or line a pantry shelf. Harrison Miller, next door,
read it over his coffee. Walter Wheeler in the eight-thirty train
glanced at it and glanced away. Nina Ward read it in bed. And
that was all.

There came to the house a steady procession of inquirers and bearers
of small tribute, flowers and jellies mostly, but other things also.
A table in David's room held a steadily growing number of bedroom
slippers, and Mrs. Morgan had been seen buying soles for still
others. David, propped up in his bed, would cheer a little at these
votive offerings, and then relapse again into the heavy troubled
silence that worried Dick and frightened Lucy Crosby. Something had
happened, she was sure. Something connected with Dick. She watched
David when Dick was in the room, and she saw that his eyes followed
the younger man with something very like terror.

And for the first time since he had walked into the house that night
so long ago, followed by the tall young man for whose coming a
letter had prepared her, she felt that David had withdrawn himself
from her. She went about her daily tasks a little hurt, and waited
for him to choose his own time. But, as the days went on, she saw
that whatever this new thing might be, he meant to fight it out
alone, and that the fighting it out alone was bad for him. He
improved very slowly.

She wondered, sometimes, if it was after all because of Dick's
growing interest in Elizabeth Wheeler. She knew that he was seeing
her daily, although he was too busy now for more than a hasty call.
She felt that she could even tell when he had seen her; be would
come in, glowing and almost exalted, and, as if to make up for the
moments stolen from David, would leap up the stairs two at a time
and burst into the invalid's room like a cheerful cyclone. Wasn't
it possible that David had begun to feel as she did, that the girl
was entitled to a clean slate before she pledged herself to Dick?
And the slate - poor Dick! - could never be cleaned.

Then, one day, David astonished them both. He was propped up in
his bed, and he had demanded a cigar, and been very gently but
firmly refused. He had been rather sulky about it, and Dick had
been attempting to rally him into better humor when he said suddenly:

"I've had time to think things over, Dick. I haven't been fair to
you. You're thrown away here. Besides - " he hesitated. Then:
"We might as well face it. The day of the general practitioner
has gone."

"I don't believe it," Dick said stoutly. "Maybe we are only
signposts to point the way to the other fellows, but the world will
always need signposts."

"What I've been thinking of," David pursued his own train of thought,
"is this: I want you to go to Johns Hopkins and take up the special
work you've been wanting to do. I'll be up soon and - "

"Call the nurse, Aunt Lucy," said Dick. "He's raving."

"Not at all," David retorted testily. "I've told you. This whole
town only comes here now to be told what specialist to go to, and
you know it."

"I don't know anything of the sort."

"If you don't, it's because you won't face the facts." Dick
chuckled, and threw an arm over David's shoulder, "You old
hypocrite!" he said. "You're trying to get rid of me, for some
reason. Don't tell me you're going to get married !"

But David did not smile. Lucy, watching him from her post by the
window, saw his face and felt a spasm of fear. At the most, she
had feared a mental conflict in David. Now she saw that it might
be something infinitely worse, something impending and immediate.
She could hardly reply when Dick appealed to her.

"Are you going to let him get rid of me like this, Aunt Lucy?" he
demanded. "Sentenced to Johns Hopkins, like Napoleon to St. Helena!
Are you with me, or forninst me?"

"I don't know, Dick," she said, with her eyes on David. "If it's
for your good - "

She went out after a time, leaving them at it hammer and tongs.
David was vanquished in the end, but Dick, going down to the office
later on, was puzzled. Somehow it was borne in on him that behind
David's insistence was a reason, unspoken but urgent, and the only
reason that occurred to him as possible was that David did not,
after all, want him to marry Elizabeth Wheeler. He put the matter
to the test that night, wandering in in dressing-gown and slippers,
as was his custom before going to bed, for a brief chat. The nurse
was downstairs, and Dick moved about the room restlessly. Then he
stopped and stood by the bed, looking down.

"A few nights ago, David, I asked you if you thought it would be
right for me to marry; if my situation justified it, and if to your
knowledge there was any other reason why I could not or should not.
You said there was not."

"There is no reason, of course. If she'll have you."

"I don't know that. I know that whether she will or not is a pretty
vital matter to me, David."

David nodded, silently.

"But now you want me to go away. To leave her. You're rather
urgent about it. And I feel-well I begin to think you have a reason
for it."

David clenched his hands under the bed-clothing, but he returned
Dick's gaze steadily.

"She's a good girl," he said. "But she's entitled to more than
you can give her, the way things are."

"That is presupposing that she cares for me. I haven't an idea
that she does. That she may, in time - Then, that's the reason
for this Johns Hopkins thing, is it?"

"That's the reason," David said stoutly. "She would wait for you.
She's that sort. I've known her all her life. She's as steady
as a rock. But she's been brought up to have a lot of things.
Walter Wheeler is well off. You do as I want you to; pack your
things and go to Baltimore. Bring Reynolds down here to look
after the work until I'm around again."

But Dick evaded the direct issue thus opened and followed another
line of thought.

"Of course you understand," he observed, after a renewal of his
restless pacing, "that I've got to tell her my situation first. I
don't need to tell you that I funk doing it, but it's got to be done."

"Don't be a fool," David said querulously. "You'll set a lot of
women cackling, and what they don't know they'll invent. I know
'em."

"Only herself and her family."

"Why?"

"Because they have a right to know it."

But when he saw David formulating a further protest he dropped the
subject.

"I'll not do it until we've gone into it together," he promised.
"There's plenty of time. You settle down now and get ready for
sleep."

When the nurse came in at eleven o'clock she found Dick gone and
David, very still, with his face to the wall.

It was the end of May before David began to move about his upper
room. The trees along the shaded streets had burst into full leaf
by that time, and Mike was enjoying that gardener's interval of
paradise when flowers grow faster than the weeds among them.
Harrison Miller, having rolled his lawn through all of April, was
heard abroad in the early mornings with the lawn mower or hoe in
hand was to be seen behind his house in his vegetable patch.

Cars rolled through the streets, the rear seats laden with blossoming
loot from the country lanes, and the Wheeler dog was again burying
bones in the soft warm ground under the hedge.

Elizabeth Wheeler was very happy. Her look of expectant waiting,
once vague, had crystallized now into definite form. She was
waiting, timidly and shyly but with infinite content. In time,
everything would come. And in the meantime there was to-day, and
some time to-day a shabby car would stop at the door, and there
would be five minutes, or ten. And then Dick would have to hurry
to work, or back to David. After that, of course, to-day was over,
but there would always be to-morrow.

Now and then, at choir practice or at service, she saw Clare
Rossiter. But Clare was very cool to her, and never on any account
sought her, or spoke to her alone. She was rather unhappy about
Clare, when she remembered her. Because it must be so terrible to
care for a man who only said, when one spoke of Clare, "Oh, the tall
blonde girl?

Once or twice, too, she had found Clare's eyes on her, and they
were hostile eyes. It was almost as though they said:
"I hate you because you know. But don't dare to pity me."

Yet, somehow, Elizabeth found herself not entirely believing that
Clare's passion was real. Because the real thing you hid with all
your might, at least until you were sure it was wanted. After that,
of course, you could be so proud of it that you might become utterly
shameless. She was afraid sometimes that she was the sort to be
utterly shameless. Yet, for all her halcyon hours, there were
little things that worried her. Wallie Sayre, for instance, always
having to be kept from saying things she didn't want to hear. And
Nina. She wasn't sure that Nina was entirely happy. And, of
course, there was Jim.

Jim was difficult. Sometimes he was a man, and then again he was
a boy, and one never knew just which he was going to be. He was
too old for discipline and too young to manage himself. He was
spending almost all his evenings away from home now, and her mother
always drew an inaudible sigh when he was spoken of.

Elizabeth had waited up for him one night, only a short time before,
and beckoning him into her room, had talked to him severely.

"You ought to be ashamed, Jim," she said. "You're simply worrying
mother sick."

"Well, why?" he demanded defiantly. "I'm old enough to take care
of myself."

"You ought to be taking care of her, too."

He had looked rather crestfallen at that, and before he went out
he offered a half-sheepish explanation.

"I'd tell them where I go," he said, "but you'd think a pool room
was on the direct road to hell. Take to-night, now. I can't tell
them about it, but it was all right. I met Wallie Sayre and Leslie
at the club before dinner, and we got a fourth and played bridge.
Only half a cent a point. I swear we were going on playing, but
somebody brought in a chap named Gregory for a cocktail. He turned
out to be a brother of Beverly Carlysle, the actress, and he took
us around to the theater and gave us a box. Not a thing wrong with
it, was there?"

"Where did you go from there?" she persisted inexorably. "It's
half past one."

"Went around and met her. She's wonderful, Elizabeth. But do you
know what would happen if I told them? They'd have a fit."

She felt rather helpless, because she knew he was right from his
own standpoint.

"I know. I'm surprised at Les, Jim."

"Oh, Les ! He just trailed along. He's all right."

She kissed him and he went out, leaving her to lie awake for a long
time. She would have had all her world happy those days, and all
her world good. She didn't want anybody's bread and butter spilled
on the carpet.

So the days went on, and the web slowly wove itself into its
complicated pattern: Bassett speeding West, and David in his quiet
room; Jim and Leslie Ward seeking amusement, and finding it in the
littered dressing-room of a woman star at a local theater; Clare
Rossiter brooding, and the little question being whispered behind
hands, figuratively, of course - the village was entirely well-bred;
Gregory calling round to see Bassett, and turning away with the
information that he had gone away for an indefinite time; and Maggie
Donaldson, lying in the cemetery at the foot of the mountains
outside Norada, having shriven her soul to the limit of her strength
so that she might face her Maker.

Out of all of them it was Clare Rossiter who made the first conscious
move of the shuttle; Clare, affronted and not a little malicious, but
perhaps still dramatizing herself, this time as the friend who feels
forced to carry bad tidings. Behind even that, however, was an
unconscious desire to see Dick again, and this time so to impress
herself on him that never again could he pass her in the street
unnoticed.

On the day, then, that David first sat up in bed Clare went to the
house and took her place in the waiting-room. She was dressed with
extreme care, and she carried a parasol. With it, while she waited,
she drilled small nervous indentations in the old office carpet,
and formulated her line of action.

Nevertheless she found it hard to begin.

"I don't want to keep you, if you're busy," she said, avoiding his
eyes. "If you are in a hurry - "

"This is my business," he said patiently. And waited.

"I wonder if you are going to understand me, when I do begin?"

"You sound alarmingly ominous." He smiled at her, and she had a
moment of panic. "You don't look like a young lady with anything
eating at her damask cheek, or however it goes."

"Doctor Livingstone," she said suddenly, "people are saying something
about you that you ought to know."

He stared at her, amazed and incredulous.

"About me? What can they say? That's absurd."

"I felt you ought to know. Of course I don't believe it. Not for
a moment. But you know what this town is."

"I know it's a very good town," he said steadily. "However, let's
have it. I daresay it is not very serious."

She was uneasy enough by that time, and rather frightened when she
had finished. For he sat, quiet and rather pale, not looking at
her at all, but gazing fixedly at an old daguerreotype of David
that stood on his desk. One that Lucy had shown him one day and
which he had preempted; David at the age of eight, in a small black
velvet suit and with very thin legs.

"I thought you ought to know," she justified herself, nervously.

Dick got up.

"Yes," he said. "I ought to know, of course. Thank you."

When she had gone he went back and stood before the picture again.
>From Clare's first words he had had a stricken conviction that the
thing was true; that, as Mrs. Cook Morgan's visitor from Wyoming
had insisted, Henry Livingstone had never married, never had a son.
He stood and gazed at the picture. His world had collapsed about
him, but he was steady and very erect.

"David, David!" he thought. "Why did you do it? And what am I?
And who?"

Characteristically his first thought after that was of David himself.
Whatever David had done, his motive had been right. He would have
to start with that. If David had built for him a false identity it
was because there was a necessity for it. Something shameful,
something he was to be taken away from. Wasn't it probable that
David had heard the gossip, and had then collapsed? Wasn't the fear
that he himself would hear it behind David's insistence that he go
to Baltimore?

His thoughts flew to Elizabeth. Everything was changed now, as to
Elizabeth. He would have to be very certain of that past of his
before he could tell her that he loved her, and he had a sense of
immediate helplessness. He could not go to David, as things were.
To Lucy?

Probably he would have gone to Lucy at once, but the telephone rang.
He answered it, got his hat and bag and went out to the car. Years
with David had made automatic the subordination of self to the
demands of the practice.

At half past six Lucy heard him come in and go into his office.
When he did not immediately reappear and take his flying run up
the stairs to David's room, she stood outside the office door and
listened. She had a premonition of something wrong, something of
the truth, perhaps. Anyhow, she tapped at the door and opened it,
to find him sitting very quietly at his desk with his head in his
hands.

"Dick!" she exclaimed. "Is anything wrong?"

"I have a headache," he said. He looked at his watch and got up.
"I'll take a look at David, and then we'll have dinner. I didn't
know it was so late."

But when she had gone out he did not immediately move. He had been
going over again, painfully and carefully, the things that puzzled
him, that he had accepted before without dispute. David and Lucy's
reluctance to discuss his father; the long days in the cabin, with
David helping him to reconstruct his past; the spring, and that slow
progress which now he felt, somehow, had been an escape.

He ate very little dinner, and Lucy's sense of dread increased.
When, after the meal, she took refuge in her sitting-room on the
lower floor and picked up her knitting, it was with a conviction
that it was only a temporary reprieve. She did not know from what.

She heard him, some time later, coming down from David's room. But
he did not turn into his office. Instead, he came on to her door,
stood for a moment like a man undecided, then came in. She did not
look up, even when very gently he took her knitting from her and
laid it on the table.

"Aunt Lucy "

"Yes, Dick."

"Don't you think we'd better have a talk?"

"What about?" she asked, with her heart hammering.

"About me." He stood above her, and looked down, still with the
tenderness with which he always regarded her, but with resolution
in his very attitude. "First of all, I'll tell you something.
Then I'll ask you to tell me all you can."

She yearned over him as he told her, for all her terror. His voice,
for all its steadiness, was strained.

"I have felt for some time," he finished, "that you and David were
keeping something from me. I think, now, that this is what it was.
Of course, you realize that I shall have to know."

"Dick! Dick!" was all she could say.

"I was about," he went on, with his almost terrible steadiness, "to
ask a girl to take my name. I want to know if I have a name to
offer her. I have, you see, only two alternatives to believe about
myself. Either I am Henry Livingstone's illegitimate son, and in
that case I have no right to my name, or to offer it to any one, or
I am - "

He made a despairing gesture.

" - or I am some one else, some one who was smuggled out of the
mountains and given an identity that makes him a living lie."

Always she had known that this might come some time, but always
too she had seen David bearing the brunt of it. He should bear it.
It was not of her doing or of her approving. For years the danger
of discovery had hung over her like a cloud.

"Do you know which?" he persisted.

"Yes, Dick."

"Would you have the unbelievable cruelty not to tell me?"

She got up, a taut little figure with a dignity born of her fear
and of her love for him.

"I shall not betray David's confidence," she said. "Long ago I
warned him that this time would come. I was never in favor of
keeping you in ignorance. But it is David's problem, and I cannot
take the responsibility of telling you."

He knew her determination and her obstinate loyalty. But he was
fairly desperate.

"You know that if you don't tell me, I shall go to David?"

"If you go now you will kill him."

"It's as bad as that, is it?" he asked grimly. "Then there is
something shameful behind it, is there?"

"No, no, Dick. Not that. And I want you, always, to remember this.
What David did was out of love for you. He has made many sacrifices
for you. First he saved your life, and then he made you what you
are. And he has had a great pride in it. Don't destroy his work
of years."

Her voice broke and she turned to go out, her chin quivering, but
half way to the door he called to her.

"Aunt Lucy " he said gently.

She heard him behind her, felt his strong arms as he turned her
about. He drew her to him and stooping, kissed her cheek.

"You're right," he said. "Always right. I'll not worry him with it.
My word of honor. When the time comes he'll tell me, and until it
comes, I'll wait. And I love you both. Don't ever forget that."

He kissed her again and let her go.

But long after David had put down his prayer-book that night, and
after the nurse had rustled down the stairs to the night supper on
the dining-room table, Lucy lay awake and listened to Dick's slow
pacing of his bedroom floor.

He was very gentle with David from that time on, and tried to return
to his old light-hearted ways. On the day David was to have his
first broiled sweetbread he caught the nurse outside, borrowed her
cap and apron and carried in the tray himself.

"I hope your food is to your taste, Doctor David," he said, in a
high falsetto which set the nurse giggling in the hall. "I may not
be much of a nurse, but I can cook."

Even Lucy was deceived at times. He went his customary round, sent
out the monthly bills, opened and answered David's mail, bore the
double burden of David's work and his own ungrudgingly, but off
guard he was grave and abstracted. He began to look very thin, too,
and Lucy often heard him pacing the floor at night. She thought
that he seldom or never went to the Wheeler's.

And so passed the tenth day of David's illness, with the smile on
Elizabeth's face growing a trifle fixed as three days went by
without the shabby car rattling to the door; with "The Valley"
playing its second and final week before going into New York; and
with Leslie Ward unconsciously taking up the shuttle Clare had
dropped, and carrying the pattern one degree further toward
completion.





The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Category:
General Fiction

Mystery and detective stories
Nabou.com: the big site