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XXI


It was Jim Wheeler's turn to take up the shuttle. A girl met in
some casual fashion; his own youth and the urge of it, perhaps the
unconscious family indulgence of an only son - and Jim wove his
bit and passed on.

There had been mild contention in the Wheeler family during all the
spring. Looking out from his quiet windows Walter Wheeler saw the
young world going by a-wheel, and going fast. Much that legitimately
belonged to it, and much that did not in the laxness of the new code,
he laid to the automobile. And doggedly he refused to buy one.

"We can always get a taxicab," was his imperturbable answer to Jim.
"I pay pretty good-sized taxi bills without unpleasant discussion.
I know you pretty well too, Jim. Better than you know yourself.
And if you had a car, you'd try your best to break your neck in it."

Now and then Jim got a car, however. Sometimes he rented one,
sometimes he cajoled Nina into lending him hers.

"A fellow looks a fool without one," he would say to her. "Girls
expect to be taken out. It's part of the game."

And Nina, always reached by that argument of how things looked, now
and then reluctantly acquiesced. But a night or two after David
and Lucy had started for the seashore Nina came in like a whirlwind,
and routed the family peace immediately.

"Father," she said, "you just must speak to Jim. He's taken our
car twice at night without asking for it, and last night he broke
a spring. Les is simply crazy."

"Taken your car!" Mrs. Wheeler exclaimed.

"Yes. I hate telling on him, but I spoke to him after the first
time, and he did it anyhow."

Mrs. Wheeler glanced at her husband uneasily. She often felt he
was too severe with Jim.


"Don't worry," he said grimly. "He'll not do it again."

"If we only had a car of our own " Mrs. Wheeler protested.

"You know what I think about that, mother. I'm not going to have
him joy-riding over the country, breaking his neck and getting into
trouble. I've seen him driving Wallace Sayre's car, and he drives
like a fool or a madman."

It was an old dispute and a bitter one. Mr. Wheeler got up,
whistled for the dog, and went out. His wife turned on Nina.

"I wish you wouldn't bring these things to your father, Nina," she
said. "He's been very nervous lately, and he isn't always fair to
Jim."

"Well, it's time Jim was fair to Leslie," Nina said, with family
frankness. "I'll tell you something, mother. Jim has a girl
somewhere, in town probably. He takes her driving. I found a glove
in the car. And he must be crazy about her, or he'd never do what
he's done."

"Do you know who it is?"

"No. Somebody's he's ashamed of, probably, or he wouldn't be so
clandestine about it."

"Nina!"

"Well, it looks like it. Jim's a man, mother. He's not a little
boy. He'll go through his shady period, like the rest."

That night it was Mrs. Wheeler's turn to lie awake. Again and again
she went over Nina's words, and her troubled mind found a basis in
fact for them. Jim had been getting money from her, to supplement
his small salary; he had been going out a great deal at night, and
returning very late; once or twice, in the morning, he had looked
ill and his eyes had been bloodshot, as though he had been drinking.

Anxiety gripped her. There were so many temptations for young men,
so many who waited to waylay them. A girl. Not a good girl, perhaps.

She raised herself on her elbow and looked at her sleeping husband.
Men were like that; they begot children and then forgot them. They
never looked ahead or worried. They were taken up with business,
and always they forgot that once they too had been young and liable
to temptation.

She got up, some time later, and tiptoed to the door of Jim's room.
Inside she could hear his heavy, regular breathing. Her boy. Her
only son.

She went back and crawled carefully into the bed.

There was an acrimonious argument between Jim and his father the
next morning, and Jim slammed out of the house, leaving chaos
behind him. It was then that Elizabeth learned that her father was
going away. He said:

"Maybe I'm wrong, mother. I don't know. Perhaps, when I come back,
I'll look around for a car. I don't want him driven to doing
underhand things."

"Are you going away?" Elizabeth asked, surprised.

It appeared that he was. More than that, that he was going West
with Dick. It was all arranged and nobody had told her anything
about it.

She was hurt and a trifle offended, and she cried a little about it.
Yet, as Dick explained to her later that day, it was simple enough.
Her father needed a rest, and besides, it was right that he should
know all about Dick's life before he came to Haverly.

"He's going to make me a present of something highly valuable,
you know."

"But it looks as though he didn't trust you!"

"He's being very polite about it; but, of course, in his eyes I'm
a common thief, stealing - "

She would not let him go on.

A certain immaturity, the blind confidence of youth in those it
loves, explains Elizabeth's docility at that time. But underneath
her submission that day was a growing uneasiness, fiercely
suppressed. Buried deep, the battle between absolute trust and
fear was beginning, a battle which was so rapidly to mature her.

Nina, shrewd and suspicious, sensed something of nervous strain
in her when she came in, later that day, to borrow a hat.

"Look here, Elizabeth," she began, "I want to talk to you. Are
you going to live in this - this hole all your life?"

"Hole nothing," Elizabeth said, hotly. "Really, Nina, I do think
you might be more careful of what you say."

"Oh, it's a dear old hole," Nina said negligently. "But hole it
is, nevertheless. Why in the world mother don't manage her servants
- but no matter about that now. Elizabeth, there's a lot of talk
about you and Dick Livingstone, and it makes me furious. When I
think that you can have Wallie Sayre by lifting your finger - "

"And that I don't intend to lift my finger," Elizabeth interrupted.

"Then you're a fool. And it is Dick Livingstone !"

"It is, Nina."

Nina's ambitious soul was harrowed.

"That stodgy old house," she said, "and two old people! A general
house-work girl, and you cooking on her Thursdays out! I wish you
joy of it."

"I wonder," Elizabeth said calmly, "whether it ever occurs to you
that I may put love above houses and servants? Or that my life is
my own, to live exactly as I please? Because that is what I intend
to do."

Nina rose angrily.

"Thanks," she said. "I wish you joy of it." And went out,
slamming the door behind her.

Then, with only a day or so remaining before Dick's departure, and
Jim's hand already reaching for the shuttle, Elizabeth found
herself the object of certain unmistakable advances from Mrs. Sayre
herself, and that at a rose luncheon at the house on the hill.

The talk about Dick and Elizabeth had been slow in reaching the
house on the hill. When it came, via a little group on the terrace
after the luncheon, Mrs. Sayre was upset and angry and inclined to
blame Wallie. Everything that he wanted had come to him, all his
life, and he did not know how to go after things. He had sat by,
and let this shabby-genteel doctor, years older than the girl, walk
away with her.

Not that she gave up entirely. She knew the town, and its tendency
toward over-statement. And so she made a desperate attempt, that
afternoon, to tempt Elizabeth. She took her through the greenhouses,
and then through the upper floors of the house. She showed her
pictures of their boat at Miami, and of the house at Marblehead.
Elizabeth was politely interested and completely unresponsive.

"When you think," Mrs. Sayre said at last, "that Wallie will have
to assume a great many burdens one of these days, you can understand
how anxious I am to have him marry the right sort of girl."

She thought Elizabeth flushed slightly.

"I am sure he will, Mrs. Sayre."

Mrs. Sayre tried a new direction.

"He will have all I have, my dear, and it is a great responsibility.
Used properly, money can be an agent of great good. Wallie's wife
can be a power, if she so chooses. She can look after the poor. I
have a long list of pensioners, but I am too old to add personal
service."

"That would be wonderful," Elizabeth said gravely. For a moment
she wished Dick were rich. There was so much to be done with money,
and how well he would know how to do it. She was thoughtful on the
way downstairs, and Mrs. Sayre felt some small satisfaction. Now if
Wallie would only do his part -

It was that night that Jim brought the tragedy on the Wheeler house
that was to lie heavy on it for many a day.

There had been a little dinner, one of those small informal affairs
where Mrs. Wheeler, having found in the market the first of the
broiling chickens and some fine green peas, bought them first and
then sat down to the telephone to invite her friends. Mr. Oglethorpe,
the clergyman, and his wife accepted cheerfully; Harrison Miller,
resignedly. Then Mrs. Wheeler drew a long, resolute breath and
invited Mrs. Sayre. When that lady accepted with alacrity Mrs.
Wheeler hastily revised her menu, telephoned the florist for flowers,
and spent a long half-hour with Annie over plates and finger bowls.

Jim was not coming home, and Elizabeth was dining with Nina. Mrs.
Wheeler bustled about the house contentedly. Everything was going
well, after all. Before long there would be a car, and Jim would
spend more time at home. Nina and Leslie were happy again. And
Elizabeth - not a good match, perhaps, but a marriage for love, if
ever there was one.

She sat at the foot of her table that night, rather too watchful
of Annie, but supremely content. She had herself scoured the
loving cup to the last degree of brightness and it stood, full of
flowers, in the center of the cloth.

At Nina's was a smaller but similar group. All over the village
at that time in the evening were similar groups, gathered around
flowers and candles; neatly served, cheerful and undramatic groups,
with the house doors closed and dogs waiting patiently outside in
the long spring twilight.

Elizabeth was watching Nina. Just so, she was deciding, would she
some day preside at her own board. Perhaps before so very long,
too. A little separation, letters to watch for and answer, and
then -

The telephone rang, and Leslie answered it. He did not come back;
instead they heard the house door close, and soon after the rumble
of the car as it left the garage. It stopped at the door, and
Leslie came in.

"I'm sorry," he said, "but I guess Elizabeth will have to go home.
You'd better come along, Nina."

"What is it? Is somebody sick " Elizabeth gasped.

"Jim's been in an automobile accident. Steady now, Elizabeth! He's
hurt, but he's going to be all right."

The Wheeler house, when they got there, was brightly lighted.
Annie was crying in the hall, and in the living-room Mrs. Sayre
stood alone, a strange figure in a gaudy dress, but with her face
strong and calm.

"They've gone to the hospital in my car," she said. "They'll be
there now any minute, and Mr. Oglethorpe will telephone at once.
You are to wait before starting in."

They all knew what that meant. It might be too late to start in.
Nina was crying hysterically, but Elizabeth could not cry. She
stood dry-eyed by the telephone, listening to Mrs. Sayre and
Leslie, but hardly hearing them. They had got Dick Livingstone
and he had gone on in. Mrs. Sayre was afraid it had been one of
Wallie's cars. She had begged Wallie to tell Jim to be careful in
it. It had too much speed.

The telephone rang and Leslie took the receiver and pushed Elizabeth
gently aside. He listened for a moment.

"Very well," he said. Then he hung up and stood still before he
turned around:

"It isn't very good news," he said. "I wish I could - Elizabeth!"

Elizabeth had crumpled up in a small heap on the floor.

All through the long night that followed, with the movement of feet
through the halls, with her mother's door closing and the ghastly
silence that followed it, with the dawn that came through the
windows, the dawn that to Jim meant not a new day, but a new life
beyond their living touch, all through the night Elizabeth was aware
of two figures that came and went. One was Dick, quiet, tender and
watchful. And one was of a heavy woman in a gaudy dress, her face
old and weary in the morning light, who tended her with gentle hands.

She fell asleep as the light was brightening in the East, with Dick
holding her hands and kneeling on the floor beside her bed.

It was not until the next day that they knew that Jim had not been
alone. A girl who was with him had been pinned under the car and
had died instantly.

Jim had woven his bit in the pattern and passed on. The girl was
negligible; she was, she had been. That was all. But Jim's death
added the last element to the impending catastrophe. It sent Dick
West alone.





The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Category:
General Fiction

Mystery and detective stories
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