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XIV


JUST how Leslie Ward had drifted into his innocuous affair with the
star of "The Valley" he was not certain himself. Innocuous it
certainly was. Afterwards, looking back, he was to wonder sometimes
if it had not been precisely for the purpose it served. But that
was long months after. Not until the pattern was completed and he
was able to recognize his own work in it.

The truth was that he was not too happy at home. Nina's smart
little house on the Ridgely Road had at first kept her busy. She
had spent unlimited time with decorators, had studied and rejected
innumerable water-color sketches of interiors, had haunted auction
rooms and bid recklessly on things she felt at the moment she could
not do without, later on to have to wheedle Leslie into
straightening her bank balance. Thought, too, and considerable
energy had gone into training and outfitting her servants, and still
more into inducing them to wear the expensive uniforms and livery
she provided.

But what she made, so successfully, was a house rather than a home.
There were times, indeed, when Leslie began to feel that it was not
even a house, but a small hotel. They almost never dined alone,
and when they did Nina would explain that everybody was tied up.
Then, after dinner, restlessness would seize her, and she would want
to run in to the theater, or to make a call. If he refused, she
nursed a grievance all evening.

And he did not like her friends. Things came to a point where, when
he knew one of the gay evenings was on, he would stay in town,
playing billiards at his club, or occasionally wandering into a
theater, where he stood or sat at the back of the house and watched
the play with cynical, discontented eyes.

The casual meeting with Gregory and the introduction to his sister
brought a new interest. Perhaps the very novelty was what first
attracted him, the oddity of feeling that he was on terms of
friendship, for it amounted to that with surprising quickness,
with a famous woman, whose face smiled out at him from his morning
paper or, huge and shockingly colored, from the sheets on the bill
boards.

He formed the habit of calling on her in the afternoons at her hotel,
and he saw that she liked it. It was often lonely, she explained.
He sent her flowers and cigarettes, and he found her poised and
restful, and sometimes, when she was off guard, with the lines of
old suffering in her face.

She sat still. She didn't fidget, as Nina did. She listened, too.
She was not as beautiful as she appeared on the stage, but she was
attractive, and he stilled his conscience with the knowledge that
she placed no undue emphasis on his visits. In her world men came
and went, brought or sent small tribute, and she was pleased and
grateful. No more. The next week, or the week after, and other
men in other places would be doing the same things.

But he wondered about her, sometimes. Did she ever think of Judson
Clark, and the wreck he had made of her life? What of resentment
and sorrow lay behind her quiet face, or the voice with its careful
intonations which was so unlike Nina's?

Now and then he saw her brother. He neither liked nor disliked
Gregory, but he suspected him of rather bullying Beverly. On the
rare occasions when be saw them together there was a sort of nervous
tension in the air, and although Leslie was not subtle he sensed
some hidden difference between them. A small incident one day
almost brought this concealed dissension to a head. He said to
Gregory:

"By the way, I saw you in Haverly yesterday afternoon."

"Must have seen somebody else. Haverly? Where's Haverly?"

Leslie Ward had been rather annoyed. There had been no mistake
about the recognition. But he passed it off with that curious sense
of sex loyalty that will actuate a man even toward his enemies.

"Funny," he said. "Chap looked like you. Maybe a little heavier."

Nevertheless he had a conviction that he had said something better
left unsaid, and that Beverly Carlysle's glance at her brother was
almost hostile. He had that instantaneous picture of the two of
them, the man defiant and somehow frightened, and the woman's eyes
anxious and yet slightly contemptuous. Then, in a flash, it was
gone.

He had meant to go home that evening, would have, probably, for he
was not ignorant of where he was drifting. But when he went back
to the office Nina was on the wire, with the news that they were
to go with a party to a country inn.

"For chicken and waffles, Les," she said. "It will be oceans of
fun. And I've promised the cocktails."

"I'm tired," he replied, sulkily. "And why don't you let some of
the other fellows come over with the drinks? It seems to me I'm
always the goat."

"Oh, if that's the way you feel!" Nina said, and hung up the
receiver.

He did not go home. He went to the theater and stood at the back,
with his sense of guilt deadened by the knowledge that Nina was
having what she would call a heavenly time. After all, it would
soon be over. He counted the days. "The Valley" had only four
more before it moved on.

He had already played his small part in the drama that involved
Dick Livingstone, but he was unaware of it. He went home that
night, to find Nina settled in bed and very sulky, and he retired
himself in no pleasant frame of mind. But he took a firmer hold
of himself that night before he slept. He didn't want a smash,
and yet they might be headed that way. He wouldn't see Beverly
Carlysle again.

He lived up to his resolve the next day, bought his flowers as
usual, but this time for Nina and took them with him. And went
home with the orchids which were really an offering to his own
conscience.

But Nina was not at home. The butler reported that she was dining
at the Wheelers', and he thought the man eyed him with restrained
commiseration.

"Did she say I am expected there?" he asked.

"She ordered dinner for you here, sir."

Even for Nina that sounded odd. He took his coat and went out
again to the car; after a moment's hesitation he went back and
got the orchids.

Dick Livingstone's machine was at the curb before the Wheeler house,
and in the living-room he found Walter Wheeler, pacing the floor.
Mr. Wheeler glanced at him and looked away.

"Anybody sick?" Leslie asked, his feeling of apprehension growing.

"Nina is having hysterics upstairs," Mr. Wheeler said, and continued
his pacing.

"Nina! Hysterics?"

"That's what I said," replied Mr. Wheeler, suddenly savage.
"You've made a nice mess of things, haven't you?"

Leslie placed the box of orchids on the table and drew off his
gloves. His mind was running over many possibilities.

"You'd better tell me about it, hadn't you?"

"Oh, I will. Don't worry. I've seen this coming for months. I'm
not taking her part. God knows I know her, and she has as much
idea of making a home as - as" - he looked about - "as that poker
has. But that's the worst you can say of her. As to you - "

"Well?"

Mr. Wheeler's anxiety was greater than his anger. He lowered his
voice.

"She got a bill to-day for two or three boxes of flowers, sent to
some actress." And when Leslie said nothing, "I'm not condoning it,
mind you. You'd no business to do it. But," he added fretfully,
"why the devil, if you've got to act the fool, don't you have your
bills sent to your office?"

"I suppose I don't need to tell you that's all there was to it?
Flowers, I mean."

"I'm taking that for granted. But she says she won't go back."

Leslie was aghast and frightened. Not at the threat; she would go
back, of course. But she would always hold it against him. She
cherished small grudges faithfully. And he knew she would never
understand, never see her own contribution to his mild defection,
nor comprehend the actual innocence of those afternoons of tea
and talk.

There was no sound from upstairs. Mr. Wheeler got his hat and went
out, calling to the dog. Jim came in whistling, looked in and said:
"Hello, Les," and disappeared. He sat in the growing twilight and
cursed himself for a fool. After all, where had he been heading?
A man couldn't eat his cake and have it. But he was resentful, too;
he stressed rather hard his own innocence, and chose to ignore the
less innocent impulse that lay behind it.

After a half hour or so he heard some one descending and Dick
Livingstone appeared in the hall. He called to him, and Dick entered
the room. Before he sat down he lighted a cigarette and in the
flare of the match Leslie got an impression of fatigue and of
something new, of trouble. But his own anxieties obsessed him.

"She's told you about it, I suppose?"

"I was a fool, of course. But it was only a matter of a few
flowers and some afternoon calls. She's a fine woman, Livingstone,
and she is lonely. The women have given her a pretty cold deal
since the Clark story. They copy her clothes and her walk, but
they don't ask her into their homes."

"Isn't the trouble more fundamental than that, Ward? I was
thinking about it upstairs. Nina was pretty frank. She says you've
had your good time and want to settle down, and that she is young
and now is her only chance. Later on there may be children, you
know. She blames herself, too, but she has a fairly clear idea of
how it happened."

"Do you think she'll go back home?"

"She promised she would."

They sat smoking in silence. In the dining-room Annie was laying
the table for dinner, and a most untragic odor of new garden peas
began to steal along the hall. Dick suddenly stirred and threw away
his cigarette.

"I was going to talk to you about something else," he said, "but
this is hardly the time. I'll get on home." He rose. "She'll be
all right. Only I'd advise very tactful handling and - the
fullest explanation you can make."

"What is it? I'd be glad to have something to keep my mind
occupied. It's eating itself up just now."

"It's a personal matter."

Ward glanced up at him quickly.

"Yes?"

"Have you happened to hear a story that I believe is going round?
One that concerns me?"

"Well, I have," Leslie admitted. "I didn't pay much attention.
Nobody is taking it very seriously."

"That's not the point," Dick persisted. "I don't mind idle gossip.
I don't give a damn about it. It's the statement itself."

"I should say that you are the only person who knows anything
about it."

Dick made a restless, impatient gesture.

"I want to know one thing more," he said. "Nina told you, I suppose.
Does - I suppose Elizabeth knows it, too?"

"I rather think she does."

Dick turned abruptly and went out of the room, and a moment later
Leslie heard the front door slam. Elizabeth, standing at the head
of the stairs, heard it also, and turned away, with a new droop to
her usually valiant shoulders. Her world, too, had gone awry, that
safe world of protection and cheer and kindliness. First had come
Nina, white-lipped and shaken, and Elizabeth had had to face the
fact that there were such things as treachery and the queer hidden
things that men did, and that came to light and brought horrible
suffering.

And that afternoon she had had to acknowledge that there was
something wrong with Dick. No. Between Dick and herself. There
was a formality in his speech to her, an aloofness that seemed to
ignore utterly their new intimacy. He was there, but he was miles
away from her. She tried hard to feel indignant, but she was only
hurt.

Peace seemed definitely to have abandoned the Wheeler house. Then
late in the evening a measure of it was restored when Nina and Leslie
effected a reconciliation. It followed several bad hours when Nina
had locked her door against them all, but at ten o'clock she sent for
Leslie and faced him with desperate calmness.

To Elizabeth, putting cold cloths on her mother's head as she lay
on the bed, there came a growing conviction that the relation
between men and women was a complicated and baffling thing, and
that love and hate were sometimes close together.

Love, and habit perhaps, triumphed in Nina's case, however, for at
eleven o'clock they heard Leslie going down the stairs and later
on moving about the kitchen and pantry while whistling softly. The
servants had gone, and the air was filled with the odor of burning
bread. Some time later Mrs. Wheeler, waiting uneasily in the upper
hall, beheld her son-in-law coming up and carrying proudly a tray
on which was toast of an incredible blackness, and a pot which
smelled feebly of tea.

"The next time you're out of a cook just send for me," he said
cheerfully.

Mrs. Wheeler, full and overflowing with indignation and the piece
of her mind she had meant to deliver, retired vanquished to her
bedroom.

Late that night when Nina had finally forgiven him and had settled
down for sleep, Leslie went downstairs for a cigar, to find Elizabeth
sitting there alone, a book on her knee, face down, and her eyes
wistful and with a question in them.

"Sitting and thinking, or just sitting?" he inquired.

"I was thinking."

"Air-castles, eh? Well, be sure you put the right man into them!"
He felt more or less a fool for having said that, for it was
extremely likely that Nina's family was feeling some doubt about
Nina's choice.

"What I mean is," he added hastily, "don't be a fool and take Wallie
Sayre. Take a man, while you're about it."

"I would, if I could do the taking."

"That's piffle, Elizabeth." He sat down on the arm of a chair and
looked at her. "Look here, what about this story the Rossiter
girl and a few others are handing around about Dick Livingstone?
You're not worrying about it, are you?"

"I don't believe it's true, and it wouldn't matter to me, anyhow."

"Good for you," he said heartily, and got up. "You'd better go to
bed, young lady. It's almost midnight."

But although she rose she made no further move to go.

"What I am worrying about is this, Leslie. He may hear it."

"He has heard it, honey."

He had expected her to look alarmed, but instead she showed relief.

"I'll tell you the truth, Les," she said. "I was worrying. I'm
terribly fond of him. It just came all at once, and I couldn't help
it. And I thought he liked me, too, that way." She stopped and
looked up at him to see if he understood, and he nodded gravely.
"Then to-day, when he came to see Nina, he avoided me. He - I was
waiting in the hall upstairs, and he just said a word or two and
went on down."

"Poor devil!" Leslie said. "You see, he's in an unpleasant
position, to say the least. But here's a thought to go to sleep
on. If you ask me, he's keeping out of your way, not because he
cares too little, but because he cares too much."

Long after a repentant and chastened Leslie had gone to sleep, his
arm over Nina's unconscious shoulder, Elizabeth stood wide-eyed on
the tiny balcony outside her room. From it in daylight she could
see the Livingstone house. Now it was invisible, but an upper
window was outlined in the light. Very shyly she kissed her finger
tips to it.

"Good-night, dear," she whispered.





The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Category:
General Fiction

Mystery and detective stories
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