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XVII


The Sayre house stood on the hill behind the town, a long, rather
low white house on Italian lines. In summer, until the family
exodus to the Maine Coast, the brilliant canopy which extended out
over the terrace indicated, as Harrison Miller put it, that the
family was "in residence." Originally designed as a summer home,
Mrs. Sayre now used it the year round. There was nothing there,
as there was in the town house, to remind her of the bitter days
before her widowhood.

She was a short, heavy woman, of fine taste in her house and of no
taste whatever in her clothing.

"I never know," said Harrison Miller, "when I look up at the Sayre
place, whether I'm seeing Ann Sayre or an awning."

She was not a shrewd woman, nor a clever one, but she was kindly in
the main, tolerant and maternal. She liked young people, gave gay
little parties to which she wore her outlandish clothes of all
colors and all cuts, lavished gifts on the girls she liked, and
was anxious to see Wallie married to a good steady girl and settled
down. Between her son and herself was a quiet but undemonstrative
affection. She viewed him through eyes that had lost their illusion
about all men years ago, and she had no delusions about him. She
had no idea that she knew all that he did with his time, and no
desire to penetrate the veil of his private life.

"He spends a great deal of money," she said one day to her lawyer.
"I suppose in the usual ways. But he is not quite like his father.
He has real affections, which his father hadn't. If he marries the
right girl she can make him almost anything."

She had her first inkling that he was interested in Elizabeth
Wheeler one day when the head gardener reported that Mr. Wallace
had ordered certain roses cut and sent to the Wheeler house. She
was angry at first, for the roses were being saved for a dinner
party. Then she considered.

"Very well, Phelps," she said. "Do it. And I'll select a plant
also, to go to Mrs. Wheeler."

After all, why not the Wheeler girl? She had been carefully reared,
if the Wheeler house was rather awful in spots, and she was a gentle
little thing; very attractive, too, especially in church. And
certainly Wallie had been seeing a great deal of her.

She went to the greenhouses, and from there upstairs and into the
rooms that she had planned for Wallie and his bride, when the time
came. She was more content than she had been for a long time. She
was a lonely woman, isolated by her very grandeur from the
neighborliness she craved; when she wanted society she had to ask
for it, by invitation. Standing inside the door of the boudoir,
her thoughts already at work on draperies and furniture, she had a
vague dream of new young life stirring in the big house, of no more
lonely evenings, of the bustle and activity of a family again.

She wanted Wallie to settle down. She was tired of paying his
bills at his clubs and at various hotels, tired and weary of the
days he lay in bed all morning while his valet concocted various
things to enable him to pull himself together. He had been four
years sowing his wild oats, and now at twenty-five she felt he
should be through with them.

The south room could be the nursery.

On Decoration Day, as usual, she did her dutiful best by the
community, sent flowers to the cemetery and even stood through a
chilly hour there while services were read and taps sounded over
the graves of those who had died in three wars. She felt very
grateful that Wallie had come back safely, and that if only now he
would marry and settle down all would be well.

The service left her emotionally untouched. She was one of those
women who saw in war, politics, even religion, only their reaction
on herself and her affairs. She had taken the German deluge as a
personal affliction. And she stood only stoically enduring while
the village soprano sang "The Star Spangled Banner." By the end
of the service she had decided that Elizabeth Wheeler was the answer
to her problem.

Rather under pressure, Wallie lunched with her at the country club,
but she found him evasive and not particularly happy.

"You're twenty-five, you know," she said, toward the end of a
discussion. "By thirty you'll be too set in your habits, too hard
to please."

"I'm not going to marry for the sake of getting married, mother."

"Of course not. But you have a good bit of money. You'll have
much more when I'm gone. And money carries responsibility with it."

He glanced at her, looked away, rapped a fork on the table cloth.

"It takes two to make a marriage, mother."

He closed up after that, but she had learned what she wanted.

At three o'clock that afternoon the Sayre limousine stopped in front
of Nina's house, and Mrs. Sayre, in brilliant pink and a purple hat,
got out. Leslie, lounging in a window, made the announcement.

"Here's the Queen of Sheba," he said. "I'll go upstairs and have a
headache, if you don't mind."

He kissed Nina and departed hastily. He was feeling extremely
gentle toward Nina those days and rather smugly virtuous. He
considered that his conscience had brought him back and not a very
bad fright, which was the fact, and he fairly exuded righteousness.

It was the great lady's first call, and Nina was considerably
uplifted. It was for such moments as this one trained servants
and put Irish lace on their aprons, and had decorators who stood
off with their heads a little awry and devised backgrounds for
one's personality.

"What a delightful room !" said Mrs. Sayre. "And how do you keep
a maid as trim as that?"

"I must have service," Nina replied. "The butler's marching in a
parade or something. How nice of you to come and see our little
place. It's a band-box, of course."

Mrs. Sayre sat down, a gross disharmony in the room, but a solid
and not unkindly woman for all that.

"My dear," she said, "I am not paying a call. Or not only that. I
came to talk to you about something. About Wallace and your sister."

Nina was gratified and not a little triumphant.

"I see," she said. "Do you mean that they are fond of one another?"

"Wallace is. Of course, this talk is between ourselves, but - I'm
going to be frank, Nina. I want Wallie to marry, and I want him to
marry soon. You and I know that the life of an unattached man about
town is full of temptations. I want him to settle down. I'm lonely,
too, but that's not so important."

Nina hesitated.

"I don't know about Elizabeth. She's fond of Wallie, as who isn't?
But lately - "

"Yes?"

"Well, for the last few days I have been wondering. She doesn't
talk, you know. But she has been seeing something of Dick
Livingstone."

"Doctor Livingstone! She'd be throwing herself away!"

"Yes, but she's like that. I mean, she isn't ambitious. We've
always expected her to throw herself away; at least I have."

A half hour later Leslie, upstairs, leaned over the railing to see
if there were any indications of departure. The door was open, and
Mrs. Sayre evidently about to take her leave. She was saying:

"It's very close to my heart, Nina dear, and I know you will be
tactful. I haven't stressed the material advantages, but you might
point them out to her."

A few moments later Leslie came downstairs. Nina was sitting alone,
thinking, with a not entire1y pleasant look of calculation on her face.

"Well?" he said. "What were you two plotting?"

"Plotting? Nothing, of course."

He looked down at her. "Now see here, old girl," he said, "you
keep your hands off Elizabeth's affairs. If I know anything she's
making a damn good choice, and don't you forget it."





The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Category:
General Fiction

Mystery and detective stories
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