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XVIII


Dick stood with the letter in his hand, staring at it. Who was
Bassett? Who was "G"? What had the departure of whoever Bassett
might be for Norada to do with David? And who was the person who
was to be got out of town?

He did not go upstairs. He took the letter into his private office,
closed the door, and sitting down at his desk turned his reading
lamp on it, as though that physical act might bring some mental light.

Reread, the cryptic sentences began to take on meaning. An unknown
named Bassett, whoever he might be, was going to Norada bent on
"mischief," and another unknown who signed himself "G" was warning
David of that fact. But the mischief was designed, not against
David, but against a third unknown, some one who was to be got out
of town.

David had been trying to get him out of town. - The warning referred
to himself.

His first impulse was to go to David, and months later he was to
wonder what would have happened had he done so. How far could
Bassett have gone? What would have been his own decision when he
learned the truth?

For a little while, then, the shuttle was in Dick's own hand. He
went up to David's room, and with his hand on the letter in his
pocket, carried on behind his casual talk the debate that was so
vital. But David had a headache and a slightly faster pulse, and
that portion of the pattern was never woven.

The association between anxiety and David's illness had always been
apparent in Dick's mind, but now he began to surmise a concrete
shock, a person, a telegram, or a telephone call. And after dinner
that night he went back to the kitchen.

"Minnie," he inquired, "do you remember the afternoon Doctor David
was taken sick?"

"I'll never forget it."

"Did he receive a telegram that day?"

"Not that I know of. He often answers the bell himself."

"Do you know whether he had a visitor, just before you heard him
fall?"

"He had a patient, yes. A man."

"Who was it?"

"I don't know. He was a stranger to me."

"Do you remember what he looked like?"

Minnie reflected.

"He was a smallish man, maybe thirty-five or so," she said. "I think
he had gaiters over his shoes, or maybe light tops. He was a nice
appearing person."

"How soon after that did you hear Doctor David fall?"

"Right away. First the door slammed, and then he dropped."

Poor old David! Dick had not the slightest doubt now that David had
received some unfortunate news, and that up there in his bedroom
ever since, alone and helpless, he had been struggling with some
secret dread he could not share with any one. Not even with Lucy,
probably.

Nevertheless, Dick made a try with Lucy that evening.

"Aunt Lucy," he said, "do you know of anything that could have
caused David's collapse?"

"What sort of thing?" she asked guardedly.

"A letter, we'll say, or a visitor?"

When he saw that she was only puzzled and thinking back, he knew
she could not help him.

"Never mind," he said. "I was feeling about for some cause.
That's all."

He was satisfied that Lucy knew no more than he did of David's
visitor, and that David had kept his own counsel ever since. But
the sense of impending disaster that had come with the letter did
not leave him. He went through his evening office hours almost
mechanically, with a part of his mind busy on the puzzle. How did
it affect the course of action he had marked out? Wasn't it even
more necessary than ever now to go to Walter Wheeler and tell him
how things stood? He hated mystery. He liked to walk in the
middle of the road in the sunlight. But even stronger than that
was a growing feeling that he needed a sane and normal judgment on
his situation; a fresh viewpoint and some unprejudiced advice.

He visited David before he left, and he was very gentle with him.
In view of this new development he saw David from a different angle,
facing and dreading something imminent, and it came to him with a
shock that he might have to clear things up to save David. The
burden, whatever it was, was breaking him.

He had telephoned, and Mr. Wheeler was waiting for him. Walter
Wheeler thought he knew what was coming, and he had well in mind
what he was going to say. He had thought it over, pacing the floor
alone, with the dog at his heels. He would say:

"I like and respect you, Livingstone. If you're worrying about what
these damned gossips say, let's call it a day and forget it. I
know a man when I see one, and if it's all right with Elizabeth
it's all right with me."

Things, however, did not turn out just that way. Dick came in,
grave and clearly preoccupied, and the first thing he said was:

"I have a story to tell you, Mr. Wheeler. After you've heard it,
and given me your opinion on it, I'll come to a matter that - well,
that I can't talk about now."

"If it's the silly talk that I daresay you've heard - "

"No. I don't give a damn for talk. But there is something else.
Something I haven't told Elizabeth, and that I'll have to tell you."

Walter Wheeler drew himself up rather stiffly. Leslie's defection
was still in his mind.

"Don't tell me you're tangled up with another woman."

"No. At least I think not. I don't know."

It is doubtful if Walter Wheeler grasped many of the technicalities
that followed. Dick talked and he listened, nodding now and then,
and endeavoring very hard to get the gist of the matter. It seemed
to him curious rather than serious. Certainly the mind was a
strange thing. He must read up on it. Now and then he stopped
Dick with a question, and Dick would break in on his narrative to
reply. Thus, once:

"You've said nothing to Elizabeth at all? About the walling off,
as you call it?"

"No. At first I was simply ashamed of it. I didn't want her to
get the idea that I wasn't normal."

"I see."

"Now, as I tell you, I begin to think - I've told you that this
walling off is an unconscious desire to forget something too
painful to remember. It's practically always that. I can't go to
her with just that, can I? I've got to know first what it is."

"I'd begun to think there was an understanding between you.

Dick faced him squarely.

"There is. I didn't intend it. In fact, I was trying to keep away
from her. I didn't mean to speak to her until I'd cleared things
up. But it happened anyhow; I suppose the way those things always
happen."

It was Walter Wheeler's own decision, finally, that he go to
Norada with Dick as soon as David could be safely left. It was the
letter which influenced him. Up to that he had viewed the
situation with a certain detachment; now he saw that it threatened
the peace of two households.

"It's a warning, all right."

"Yes. Undoubtedly."

"You don't recognize the name Bassett?"

"No. I've tried, of course."

The result of some indecision was finally that Elizabeth should not
be told anything until they were ready to tell it all. And in the
end a certain resentment that she had become involved in an unhappy
situation died in Walter Wheeler before Dick's white face and
sunken eyes.

At ten o'clock the house-door opened and closed, and Walter
Wheeler got up and went out into the hall.

"Go on upstairs, Margaret," he said to his wife. "I've got a
visitor." He did not look at Elizabeth. "You settle down and be
comfortable," he added, "and I'll be up before long. Where's Jim?"

"I don't know. He didn't go to Nina's."

"He started with you, didn't he "

"Yes. But he left us at the corner."

They exchanged glances. Jim had been worrying them lately. Strange
how a man could go along for years, his only worries those of
business, his track a single one through comfortable fields where
he reaped only what he sowed. And then his family grew up, and
involved him without warning in new perplexities and new troubles.
Nina first, then Jim, and now this strange story which so inevitably
involved Elizabeth.

He put his arm around his wife and held her to him.

"Don't worry about Jim, mother," he said. "He's all right
fundamentally. He's going through the bad time between being a boy
and being a man. He's a good boy."

He watched her moving up the stairs, his eyes tender and solicitous.
To him she was just "mother." He had never thought of another woman
in all their twenty-four years together.

Elizabeth waited near him, her eyes on his face.

"Is it Dick?" she asked in a low tone.

"Yes."

"You don't mind, daddy, do you?"

"I only want you to be happy," he said rather hoarsely. "You know
that, don't you?"

She nodded, and turned up her face to be kissed. He knew that she
had no doubt whatever that this interview was to seal her to Dick
Livingstone for ever and ever. She fairly radiated happiness and
confidence. He left her standing there going back to the
living-room closed the door.





The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Category:
General Fiction

Mystery and detective stories
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