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XVI


Dick's decision to cut himself off from Elizabeth was born of his
certainty that he could not see her and keep his head. He was
resolutely determined to keep his head, until he knew what he had
to offer her. But he was very unhappy. He worked sturdily all
day and slept at night out of sheer fatigue, only to rouse in the
early morning to a conviction of something wrong before he was
fully awake. Then would come the uncertainty and pain of full
consciousness, and he would lie with his arms under his head, gazing
unblinkingly at the ceiling and preparing to face another day.

There was no prospect of early relief, although David had not again
referred to his going away. David was very feeble. The look of him
sometimes sent an almost physical pain through Dick's heart. But
there were times when he roused to something like his old spirit,
shouted for tobacco, frowned over his diet tray, and fought Harrison
Miller when he came in to play cribbage in much his old tumultuous
manner.

Then, one afternoon late in May, when for four days Dick had not
seen Elizabeth, suddenly he found the decision as to their relation
taken out of his hands, and by Elizabeth herself.

He opened the door one afternoon to find her sitting alone in the
waiting-room, clearly very frightened and almost inarticulate. He
could not speak at all at first, and when he did his voice, to his
dismay, was distinctly husky.

"Is anything wrong?" he asked, in a tone which was fairly sepulchral.

"That's what I want to know, Dick."

Suddenly he found himself violently angry. Not at her, of course.
At everything.

"Wrong?" he said, savagely. "Yes. Everything is wrong!"

Then he was angry! She went rather pale.

"What have I done, Dick?"

As suddenly as he had been fierce he was abject and ashamed.
Startled, too.

"You?" he said. "What have you done? You're the only thing that's
right in a wrong world. You - "

He checked himself, put down his bag - he had just come in - and
closed the door into the hall. Then he stood at a safe distance
from her, and folded his arms in order to be able to keep his head
- which shows how strange the English language is.

"Elizabeth," he said gravely. "I've been a self-centered fool. I
stayed away because I've been in trouble. I'm still in trouble,
for that matter. But it hasn't anything to do with you. Not
directly, anyhow."

"Don't you think it's possible that I know what it is?"

"You do know."

He was too absorbed to notice the new maturity in her face, the
brooding maternity born of a profound passion. To Elizabeth just
then he was not a man, her man, daily deciding matters of life and
death, but a worried boy, magnifying a trifle into importance.

"There is always gossip," she said, "and the only thing one can do
is to forget it at once. You ought to be too big for that sort of
thing."

"But - suppose it is true?"

"What difference would it make?"

He made a quick movement toward her.

"There may be more than that. I don't know, Elizabeth," he said,
his eyes on hers. "I have always thought - I can't go to David
now."

He was moved to go on. To tell her of his lost youth, of that
strange trick by which his mind had shut off those hidden years.
But he could not. He had a perfectly human fear of being abnormal
in her eyes, precisely but greatly magnified the same instinct
which had made him inspect his new tie in daylight for fear it was
too brilliant. But greater than that was his new fear that
something neither happy nor right lay behind him under lock and key
in his memory.

"I want you to know this, Dick," she said. "That nothing, no gossip
or anything, can make any difference to me. And I've been terribly
hurt. We've been such friends. You - I've been lying awake at
night, worrying."

That went to his heart first, and then to his head. This might be
all, all he was ever to have. This hour, and this precious and
tender child, so brave in her declaration, so simple and direct;
all his world in that imitation mahogany chair.

"You're all I've got," he said. "The one real thing in a world
that's going to smash. I think I love you more than God."

The same mood, of accepting what he had without question and of
refusing to look ahead, actuated him for the next few days. He was
incredibly happy.

He went about his work with his customary care and thoroughness,
for long practice had made it possible for him to go on as though
nothing had happened, to listen to querulous complaints and long
lists of symptoms, and to write without error those scrawled
prescriptions which were, so hopefully, to cure. Not that Dick
himself believed greatly in those empirical doses, but he considered
that the expectation of relief was half the battle. But that was
the mind of him, which went about clothed in flesh, of course, and
did its daily and nightly work, and put up a very fair imitation
of Doctor Richard Livingstone. But hidden away was a heart that
behaved in a highly unprofessional manner, and sang and dreamed,
and jumped at the sight of a certain small figure on the street,
and generally played hob with systole and diastole, and the vagus
and accelerator nerves. Which are all any doctor really knows about
the heart, until he falls in love.

He even began to wonder if he had read into the situation something
that was not there, and in this his consciousness of David's
essential rectitude helped him. David could not do a wrong thing,
or an unworthy one. He wished he were more like David.

The new humility extended to his love for Elizabeth. Sometimes, in
his room or shaving before the bathroom mirror, he wondered what
she could see in him to care about. He shaved twice a day now, and
his face was so sore that he had to put cream on it at night, to
his secret humiliation. When he was dressed in the morning he found
himself once or twice taking a final survey of the ensemble, and at
those times he wished very earnestly that he had some outstanding
quality of appearance that she might admire.

He refused to think. He was content for a time simply to feel, to
be supremely happy, to live each day as it came and not to look
ahead. And the old house seemed to brighten with him. Never had
Lucy's window boxes been so bright, or Minnie's bread so light; the
sun poured into David's sick room and turned the nurse so dazzling
white in her uniform that David declared he was suffering from
snow-blindness.

And David himself was improving rapidly. With the passage of each
day he felt more secure. The reporter from the Times-Republican
-if he were really on the trail of Dick he would have come to see
him, would have told him the story. No. That bridge was safely
crossed. And Dick was happy. David, lying in his bed, would listen
and smile faintly when Dick came whistling into the house or leaped
up the stairs two at a time; when he sang in his shower, or
tormented the nurse with high-spirited nonsense. The boy was very
happy. He would marry Elizabeth Wheeler, and things would be as
they should be; there would be the fullness of life, young voices
in the house, toys on the lawn. He himself would pass on, in the
fullness of time, but Dick -

On Decoration Day they got him out of bed, making a great ceremony
of it, and when he was settled by the window in his big chair with
a blanket over his knees, Dick came in with a great box. Unwrapping
it he disclosed a mass of paper and a small box, and within that
still another.

"What fol-de-rol is all this?" David demanded fiercely, with a
childish look of expectation in his eyes. "Give me that box.
Some more slippers, probably!"

He worked eagerly, and at last he came to the small core of the
mass. It was a cigar!

It was somewhat later, when the peace of good tobacco had relaxed
him into a sort of benignant drowsiness, and when Dick had started
for his late afternoon calls, that Lucy came into the room.

"Elizabeth Wheeler's downstairs," she said. "I told her you wanted
to see her. She's brought some chicken jelly, too."

She gathered up the tissue paper that surrounded him, and gave the
room a critical survey. She often felt that the nurse was not as
tidy as she might be. Then she went over to him and put a hand on
his shoulder.

"I don't want to worry you, David. Not now. But if he's going to
marry her - "

"Well, why shouldn't he?" he demanded truculently. "A good woman
would be one more anchor to windward."

She found that she could not go on. David was always
incomprehensible to her when it came to Dick. Had been
incomprehensible from the first. But she could not proceed without
telling him that the village knew something, and what that
something was; that already she felt a change in the local attitude
toward Dick. He was, for one thing, not quite so busy as he had been.

She went out of the room, and sent Elizabeth to David.

In her love for Dick, Elizabeth now included everything that
pertained to him, his shabby coats, his rattling car, and his people.
She had an inarticulate desire for their endorsement, to be liked
by them and wanted by them. Not that there could be any words,
because both she and Dick were content just then with love, and
were holding it very secret between them.

"Well, well!" said David. "And here we are reversed and I'm the
patient and you're the doctor! And good medicine you are, my dear."

He looked her over with approval, and with speculation, too. She
was a small and fragile vessel on which to embark all the hopes
that, out of his own celibate and unfulfilled life, he had dreamed
for Dick. She was even more than that. If Lucy was right, from
now on she was a part of that experiment in a human soul which he
had begun with only a professional interest, but which had ended
by becoming a vital part of his own life.

She was a little shy with him, he saw; rather fluttered and nervous,
yet radiantly happy. The combination of these mixed emotions, plus
her best sick-room manner, made her slightly prim at first. But
soon she was telling him the small news of the village, although
David rather suspected her of listening for Dick's car all the while.
When she got up to go and held out her hand he kept it, between
both of his.

"I haven't been studying symptoms for all these years for nothing,
my dear," he said. "And it seems to me somebody is very happy."

"I am, Doctor David."

He patted her hand.

"Mind you," he said, "I don't know anything and I'm not asking any
questions. But if the Board of Trade, or the Chief of Police, had
come to me and said, 'Who is the best wife for - well, for a young
man who is an important part of this community?' I'd have said in
reply, 'Gentlemen, there is a Miss Elizabeth Wheeler who - '"

Suddenly she bent down and kissed him.

"Oh, do you think so?" she asked, breathlessly. "I love him so
much, Doctor David. And I feel so unworthy."

"So you are," he said. "So's he. So are all of us, when it comes
to a great love, child. That is, we are never quite what the other
fellow thinks we are. It's when we don't allow for what the
scientist folk call a margin of error that we come our croppers.
I wonder" - he watched her closely - "if you young people ever
allow for a margin of error?'

"I only know this," she said steadily. "I can't imagine ever
caring any less. I've never thought about myself very much, but I
do know that. You see, I think I've cared for a long time."

When she had gone he sat in his chair staring ahead of him and
thinking. Yes. She would stick. She had loyalty, loyalty and
patience and a rare humility. It was up to Dick then. And again
he faced the possibility of an opening door into the past, of
crowding memories, of confusion and despair and even actual danger.
And out of that, what?

Habit. That was all he had to depend on. The brain was a thing
of habits, like the body; right could be a habit, and so could
evil. As a man thought, so he was. For all of his childhood, and
for the last ten years, Dick's mental habits had been right; his
environment had been love, his teaching responsibility. Even if
the door opened, then, there was only the evil thinking of two or
three reckless years to combat, and the door might never open.
Happiness, Lauler had said, would keep it closed, and Dick was happy.

When at five o'clock the nurse came in with a thermometer he was
asleep in his chair, his mouth slightly open, and snoring valiantly.
Hearing Dick in the lower hall, she went to the head of the stairs,
her finger to her lips.

Dick nodded and went into the office. The afternoon mail was lying
there, and he began mechanically to open it. His thoughts were
elsewhere.

Now that he had taken the step he had so firmly determined not to
take, certain things, such as Clare Rossiter's story, David's
uneasiness, his own doubts, no longer involved himself alone, nor
even Elizabeth and himself. They had become of vital importance
to her family.

There was no evading the issue. What had once been only his own
misfortune, mischance, whatever it was, had now become of vital
importance to an entire group of hitherto disinterested people. He
would have to put his situation clearly before them and let them
judge. And he would have to clarify that situation for them and
for himself.

He had had a weak moment or two. He knew that some men, many men,
went to marriage with certain reticences, meaning to wipe the
slate clean and begin again. He had a man's understanding of
such concealments. But he did not for a moment compare his
situation with theirs, even when the temptation to seize his
happiness was strongest. No mere misconduct, but something hidden
and perhaps terrible lay behind David's strange new attitude.
Lay, too, behind the break in his memory which he tried to analyze
with professional detachment. The mind in such cases set up its
defensive machinery of forgetfulness, not against the trivial but
against the unbearable.

For the last day or two he had faced the fact that, not only must
he use every endeavor to revive his past, but that such revival
threatened with cruelty and finality to separate him from the
present.

With an open and unread letter in his hand he stared about the
office. This place was his; he had fought for it, worked for it.
He had an almost physical sense of unseen hands reaching out to
drag him away from it; from David and Lucy, and from Elizabeth.
And of himself holding desperately to them all, and to the
believed commonplaceness of his surroundings.

He shook himself and began to read the letter.

"Dear Doctor: I have tried to see you, but understand you are
laid up. Burn this as soon as you've read it. Louis Bassett has
started for Norada, and I advise your getting the person we
discussed out of town as soon as possible. Bassett is up to
mischief. I'm not signing this fully, for obvious reasons. G."





The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Category:
General Fiction

Mystery and detective stories
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