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XXV


To Elizabeth the first days of Dick's absence were unbelievably
dreary. She seemed to live only from one visit of the postman to
the next. She felt sometimes that only part of her was at home
in the Wheeler house, slept at night in her white bed, donned its
black frocks and took them off, and made those sad daily
pilgrimages to the cemetery above the town, where her mother tidied
with tender hands the long narrow mound, so fearfully remindful of
Jim's tall slim body.

That part of her grieved sorely, and spent itself in small
comforting actions and little caressing touches on bowed heads and
grief-stooped shoulders. It put away Jim's clothing, and kept
immaculate the room where now her mother spent most of her waking
hours. It sent her on her knees at night to pray for Jim's
happiness in some young-man heaven which would please him. But the
other part of her was not there at all. It was off with Dick in some
mysterious place of mountains and vast distance called Wyoming.

And because of this division in herself, because she felt that her
loyalty to her people had wavered, because she knew that already
she had forsaken her father and her mother and would follow her
love through the rest of her life, she was touchingly anxious to
comfort and to please them.

"She's taking Dick's absence very hard," Mrs. Wheeler said one
night, when she had kissed them and gone upstairs to bed. "She
worries me sometimes."

Mr. Wheeler sighed. Why was it that a man could not tell his
children what he had learned, - that nothing was so great as one
expected; that love was worth living for, but not dying for. The
impatience of youth for life! It had killed Jim. It was hurting
Nina. It would all come, all come, in God's good time. The young
did not live to-day, but always to-morrow. There seemed no time
to live to-day, for any one. First one looked ahead and said, "I
will be so happy." And before one knew it one was looking back and
saying: "I was so happy."

"She'll be all right," he said aloud.

He got up and whistled for the dog.

"I'll take him around the block before I lock up," he said heavily.
He bent over and kissed his wife. She was a sad figure to him in
her black dress. He did not say to her what he thought sometimes;
that Jim had been saved a great deal. That to live on, and to lose
the things one loved, one by one, was harder than to go quickly,
from a joyous youth.

He had not told her what he knew about Jim's companion that night.
She would never have understood. In her simple and child-like
faith she knew that her boy sat that day among the blessed company
of heaven. He himself believed that Jim had gone forgiven into
whatever lay behind the veil we call death, had gone shriven and
clean before the Judge who knew the urge of youth and life. He
did not fear for Jim. He only missed him.

He walked around the block that night, a stooped commonplace figure,
the dog at his heels. Now and then he spoke to him, for
companionship. At the corner he stopped and looked along the side
street toward the Livingstone house. And as he looked he sighed.
Jim and Nina, and now Elizabeth. Jim and Nina were beyond his care
now. He could do no more. But what could he do for Elizabeth?
That, too, wasn't that beyond him? He stood still, facing the
tragedy of his helplessness, beset by vague apprehensions. Then
he went on doggedly, his hands clasped behind him, his head sunk
on his breast.

He lay awake for a long time that night, wondering whether he and
Dick had been quite fair to Elizabeth. She should, he thought,
have been told. Then, if Dick's apprehensions were justified, she
would have had some preparation. As it was - Suppose something
turned up out there, something that would break her heart?

He had thought Margaret was sleeping, but after a time she moved
and slipped her hand into his. It comforted him. That, too, was
life. Very soon now they would be alone together again, as in the
early days before the children came. All the years and the
struggle, and then back where they started. But still, thank God,
hand in hand.

Ever since the night of Jim's death Mrs. Sayre had been a constant
visitor to the house. She came in, solid, practical, and with an
everyday manner neither forcedly cheerful nor too decorously
mournful, which made her very welcome. After the three first days,
when she had practically lived at the house, there was no necessity
for small pretensions with her. She knew the china closet and the
pantry, and the kitchen. She had even penetrated to Mr. Wheeler's
shabby old den on the second floor, and had slept a part of the
first night there on the leather couch with broken springs which
he kept because it fitted his body.

She was a kindly woman, and she had ached with pity. And, because
of her usual detachment from the town and its affairs, the feeling
that she was being of service gave her a little glow of content.
She liked the family, too, and particularly she liked Elizabeth.
But after she had seen Dick and Elizabeth together once or twice
she felt that no plan she might make for Wallace could possibly
succeed. Lying on the old leather couch that first night, between
her frequent excursions among the waking family, she had thought
that out and abandoned it.

But, during the days that followed the funeral, she was increasingly
anxious about Wallace. She knew that rumors of the engagement had
reached him, for he was restless and irritable. He did not care to
go out, but wandered about the house or until late at night sat
smoking alone on the terrace, looking down at the town with sunken,
unhappy eyes. Once or twice in the evening he had taken his car
and started out, and lying awake in her French bed she would hear
him coming hours later. In the mornings his eyes were suffused and
his color bad, and she knew that he was drinking in order to get
to sleep.

On the third day after Dick's departure for the West she got up
when she heard him coming in, and putting on her dressing gown and
slippers, knocked at his door.

"Come in," he called ungraciously.

She found him with his coat off, standing half defiantly with a
glass of whisky and soda in his hand. She went up to him and
took it from him.

"We've had enough of that in the family, Wallie," she said. "And
it's a pretty poor resource in time of trouble."

"I'll have that back, if you don't mind."

"Nonsense," she said briskly, and flung it, glass and all, out of
the window. She was rather impressive when she turned.

"I've been a fairly indulgent mother," she said. "I've let you
alone, because it's a Sayre trait to run away when they feel a
pull on the bit. But there's a limit to my patience, and it is
reached when my son drinks to forget a girl."

He flushed and glowered at her in somber silence, but she moved
about the room calmly, giving it a housekeeper's critical
inspection, and apparently unconscious of his anger.

"I don't believe you ever cared for any one in all your life," he
said roughly. "If you had, you would know."

She was straightening a picture over the mantel, and she completed
her work before she turned.

"I care for you."

"That's different."

"Very well, then. I cared for your father. I cared terribly. And
he killed my love."

She padded out of the room, her heavy square body in its blazing
kimono a trifle rigid, but her face still and calm. He remained
staring at the door when she had closed it, and for some time after.
He knew what message for him had lain behind that emotionless
speech of hers, not only understanding, but a warning. She had
cared terribly, and his father had killed that love. He had drunk
and played through his gay young life, and then he had died, and
no one had greatly mourned him.

She had left the decanter on its stand, and he made a movement
toward it. Then, with a half smile, he picked it up and walked to
the window with it. He was still smiling, half boyishly, as he put
out his light and got into bed. It had occurred to him that the
milkman's flivver, driving in at the break of dawn, would encounter
considerable glass.

By morning, after a bad night, he had made a sort of double-headed
resolution, that he was through with booze, as he termed it, and
that he would find out how he stood with Elizabeth. But for a day
or two no opportunity presented itself. When he called there was
always present some grave-faced sympathizing visitor, dark clad
and low of voice, and over the drawing-room would hang the
indescribable hush of a house in mourning. It seemed to touch
Elizabeth, too, making her remote and beyond earthly things. He
would go in, burning with impatience, hungry for the mere sight of
her, fairly overcharged with emotion, only to face that strange new
spirituality that made him ashamed of the fleshly urge in him.

Once he found Clare Rossiter there, and was aware of something
electric in the air. After a time he identified it. Behind the
Rossiter girl's soft voice and sympathetic words, there was a
veiled hostility. She was watching Elizabeth, was overconscious
of her. And she was, for some reason, playing up to himself. He
thought he saw a faint look of relief on Elizabeth's face when
Clare at last rose to go.

"I'm on my way to see the man Dick Livingstone left in his place,"
Clare said, adjusting her veil at the mirror. "I've got a cold.
Isn't it queer, the way the whole Livingstone connection is
broken up?"

"Hardly queer. And it's only temporary."

"Possibly. But if you ask me, I don't believe Dick will come back.
Mind, I don't defend the town, but it doesn't like to be fooled.
And he's fooled it for years. I know a lot of people who'd quit
going to him." She turned to Wallie.

"He isn't David's nephew, you know. The question is, who is he?
Of course I don't say it, but a good many are saying that when a
man takes a false identity he has something to hide."

She gave them no chance to reply, but sauntered out with her
sex-conscious, half-sensuous walk. Outside the door her smile
faded, and her face was hard and bitter. She might forget Dick
Livingstone, but never would she forgive herself for her confession
to Elizabeth, nor Elizabeth for having heard it.

Wallie turned to Elizabeth when she had gone, slightly bewildered.

"What's got into her?" he inquired. And then, seeing Elizabeth's
white face, rather shrewdly: "That was one for him and two for
you, was it?"

"I don't know. Probably."

"I wonder if you would look like that if any one attacked me!"

"No one attacks you, Wallie."

"That's not an answer. You wouldn't, would you? It's different,
isn't it?"

"Yes. A little."

He straightened, and looked past her, unseeing, at the wall. "I
guess I've known it for quite a while," he said at last. "I didn't
want to believe it, so I wouldn't. Are you engaged to him?"

"Yes. It's not to be known just yet, Wallie."

"He's a good fellow," he said, after rather a long silence. "Not
that that makes it easier," he added with a twisted smile. Then,
boyishly and unexpectedly he said, "Oh, my God!"

He sat down, and when the dog came and placed a head on his knee
he patted it absently. He wanted to go, but he had a queer feeling
that when he went he went for good.

"I've cared for you for years," he said. "I've been a poor lot,
but I'd have been a good bit worse, except for you."

And again:

"Only last night I made up my mind that if you'd have me, I'd make
something out of myself. I suppose a man's pretty weak when he
puts a responsibility like that on a girl."

She yearned over him, rather. She made little tentative overtures
of friendship and affection. But he scarcely seemed to hear them,
wrapped as he was in the selfish absorption of his disappointment.
When she heard the postman outside and went to the door for the
mail, she thought he had not noticed her going. But when she
returned he was watching her with jealous, almost tragic eyes.

"I suppose you hear from him by every mail."

"There has been nothing to-day."

Something in her voice or her face made him look at her closely.

"Has he written at all?"

"The first day he got there. Not since."

He went away soon, and not after all with the feeling of going for
good. In his sceptical young mind, fed by Clare's malice, was
growing a comforting doubt of Dick's good faith.





The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Category:
General Fiction

Mystery and detective stories
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