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III


The Wheeler house was good, modern and commonplace. Walter Wheeler
and his wife were like the house. Just as here and there among the
furniture there was a fine thing, an antique highboy, a Sheraton
sideboard or some old cut glass, so they had, with a certain
mediocrity their own outstanding virtues. They liked music, believed
in the home as the unit of the nation, put happiness before undue
ambition, and had devoted their lives to their children.

For many years their lives had centered about the children. For
years they had held anxious conclave about whooping cough, about
small early disobediences, later about Sunday tennis. They stood
united to protect the children against disease, trouble and eternity.

Now that the children were no longer children, they were sometimes
lonely and still apprehensive. They feared motor car accidents,
and Walter Wheeler had withstood the appeals of Jim for a half dozen
years. They feared trains for them, and journeys, and unhappy
marriages, and hid their fears from each other. Their nightly
prayers were "to keep them safe and happy."

But they saw life reaching out and taking them, one by one. They
saw them still as children, but as children determined to bear their
own burdens. Jim stayed out late sometimes, and considered his
manhood in question if interrogated. Nina was married and out of
the home, but there loomed before them the possibility of maternity
and its dangers for her. There remained only Elizabeth, and on her
they lavished the care formerly divided among the three.

It was their intention and determination that she should never know
trouble. She was tenderer than the others, more docile and gentle.
They saw her, not as a healthy, normal girl, but as something fragile
and very precious.

Nina was different. They had always worried a little about Nina,
although they had never put their anxiety to each other. Nina had
always overrun her dress allowance, although she had never failed
to be sweetly penitent about it, and Nina had always placed an undue
emphasis on things. Her bedroom before her marriage was cluttered
with odds and ends, cotillion favors and photographs, college
pennants and small unwise purchases - trophies of the gayety and
conquest which were her life.

And Nina had "come out." It had cost a great deal, and it was not
so much to introduce her to society as to put a family recognition
on a fact already accomplished, for Nina had brought herself out
unofficially at sixteen. There had been the club ballroom, and a
great many flowers which withered before they could be got to the
hospital; and new clothing for all the family, and a caterer and
orchestra. After that, for a cold and tumultuous winter Mrs. Wheeler
had sat up with the dowagers night after night until all hours, and
the next morning had let Nina sleep, while she went about her
household duties. She had aged, rather, and her determined smile
had grown a little fixed.

She was a good woman, and she wanted her children's happiness more
than anything in the world, but she had a faint and sternly repressed
feeling of relief when Nina announced her engagement. Nina did it
with characteristic sangfroid, at dinner one night.

"Don't ring for Annie for a minute, mother," she said. "I want to
tell you all something. I'm going to marry Leslie Ward."

There had been a momentary pause. Then her father said:

"Just a minute. Is that Will Ward's boy?"

"Yes. He's not a boy."

"Well, he'll come around to see me before there's any engagement.
Has that occurred to either of you?"

"Oh, he'll be around. He'd have come to-night, but Howard Moore
is having his bachelor dinner. I hope he doesn't look shot to
pieces to-morrow. These bachelor things - ! We'd better have a
dinner or something, mother, and announce it."

There had been the dinner, with a silver loving cup bought for the
occasion, and thereafter to sit out its useless days on the Sheraton
sideboard. And there had been a trousseau and a wedding so expensive
that a small frown of anxiety had developed between Walter Wheeler's
eyebrows and stayed there.

For Nina's passion for things was inherent, persisting after her
marriage. She discounted her birthday and Christmases in advance,
coming around to his office a couple of months before the winter
holidays and needing something badly.

"It's like this, daddy," she would say. "You're going to give me a
check for Christmas anyhow, aren't you? And it would do me more
good now. I simply can't go to another ball."

"Where's your trousseau?"

"It's worn out-danced to rags. And out of date, too."

"I don't understand it, Nina. You and Leslie have a goad income.
Your mother and I - "

"You didn't have any social demands. And wedding presents! If one
more friend of mine is married - "

He would get out his checkbook and write a check slowly and
thoughtfully. And tearing it off would say:

"Now remember, Nina, this is for Christmas. Don't feel aggrieved
when the time comes and you have no gift from us."

But he knew that when the time came Margaret, his wife, would hold
out almost to the end, and then slip into a jeweler's and buy Nina
something she simply couldn't do without.

It wasn't quite fair, he felt. It wasn't fair to Jim or to
Elizabeth. Particularly to Elizabeth.

Sometimes he looked at Elizabeth with a little prayer in his heart,
never articulate, that life would be good to her; that she might
keep her illusions and her dreams; that the soundness and
wholesomeness of her might keep her from unhappiness. Sometimes,
as she sat reading or sewing, with the light behind her shining
through her soft hair, he saw in her a purity that was almost
radiant.

He was in arms at once a night or two before Dick had invited
Elizabeth to go to the theater when Margaret Wheeler said:

"The house was gayer when Nina was at home."

"Yes. And you were pretty sick of it. Full of roistering young
idiots. Piano and phonograph going at once, pairs of gigglers in
the pantry at the refrigerator, pairs on the stairs and on the
verandah, cigar-ashes - my cigars - and cigarettes over everything,
and more infernal spooning going on than I've ever seen in my life."

He had resumed his newspaper, to put it down almost at once.

"What's that Sayre boy hanging around for?"

"I think he's in love with her, Walter."

"Love? Any of the Sayre tribe? Jim Sayre drank himself to death,
and this boy is like him. And Jim Sayre wasn't faithful to his wife.
This boy is - well, he's an heir. That's why he was begotten."

Margaret Wheeler stared at him.

"Why, Walter!" she said. "He's a nice boy, and he's a gentleman."

"Why? Because he gets up when you come into the room? Why in
heaven's name don't you encourage real men to come here? There's
Dick Livingstone. He's a man."

Margaret hesitated.

"Walter, have you ever thought there was anything queer about Dick
Livingstone's coming here?"

"Darned good for the town that he did come."

"But - nobody ever dreamed that David and Lucy had a nephew. Then
he turns up, and they send him to medical college, and all that."

"I've got some relations I haven't notified the town I possess,"
he said grimly.

"Well, there's something odd. I don't believe Henry Livingstone,
the Wyoming brother, ever had a son."

"What possible foundation have you for a statement like that?"

"Mrs. Cook Morgan's sister-in-law has been visiting her lately.
She says she knew Henry Livingstone well years ago in the West, and
she never heard he was married. She says positively he was not
married."

"And trust the Morgan woman to spread the good news," he said with
angry sarcasm. "Well, suppose that's true? Suppose Dick is an
illegitimate child? That's the worst that's implied, I daresay.
That's nothing against Dick himself. I'll tell the world there's
good blood on the Livingstone side, anyhow."

"You were very particular about Wallie Sayre's heredity, Walter."

"That's different," he retorted, and retired into gloomy silence
behind his newspaper. Drat these women anyhow. It was like some
fool female to come there and rake up some old and defunct scandal.
He'd stand up for Dick, if it ever came to a show-down. He liked
Dick. What the devil did his mother matter, anyhow? If this town
hadn't had enough evidence of Dick Livingstone's quality the last
few years he'd better go elsewhere. He - "

He got up and whistled for the dog.

"I'm going to take a walk," he said briefly, and went out. He
always took a walk when things disturbed him.
On the Sunday afternoon after Dick had gone Elizabeth was alone in
her room upstairs. On the bed lay the sort of gown Nina would have
called a dinner dress, and to which Elizabeth referred as her dark
blue. Seen thus, in the room which was her own expression, there
was a certain nobility about her very simplicity, a steadiness about
her eyes that was almost disconcerting.

"She's the saintly-looking sort that would go on the rocks for some
man," Nina had said once, rather flippantly, "and never know she
was shipwrecked. No man in the world could do that to me."

But just then Elizabeth looked totally unlike shipwreck. Nothing
seemed more like a safe harbor than the Wheeler house that afternoon,
or all the afternoons. Life went on, the comfortable life of an
upper middle-class household. Candles and flowers on the table and
a neat waitress to serve; little carefully planned shopping
expeditions; fine hand-sewing on dainty undergarments for rainy days;
small tributes of books and candy; invitations and consultations as
to what to wear; choir practice, a class in the Sunday school, a
little work among the poor; the volcano which had been Nina
overflowing elsewhere in a smart little house with a butler out on
the Ridgely Road.

She looked what she was, faithful and quietly loyal, steady - and
serene; not asking greatly but hoping much; full of small
unvisualized dreams and little inarticulate prayers; waiting, without
knowing that she was waiting.

Sometimes she worried. She thought she ought to "do something." A
good many of the girls she knew wanted to do something, but they were
vague as to what. She felt at those times that she was not being
very useful, and she had gone so far as to lay the matter before her
father a couple of years before, when she was just eighteen.

"Just what do you think of doing?" he had inquired.

"That's it," she had said despondently. "I don't know. I haven't
any particular talent, you know. But I don't think I ought to go on
having you support me in idleness all my life."

"Well, I don't think it likely that I'll have to," he had observed,
dryly. "But here's the point, and I think it's important. I don't
intend to work without some compensation, and my family is my
compensation. You just hang around and make me happy, as you do,
and you're fulfilling your economic place in the nation. Don't you
forget it, either."

That had comforted her. She had determined then never to marry but
to hang around, as he suggested, for the rest of her life. She was
quite earnest about it, and resolved.

She picked up the blue dress and standing before her mirror, held
it up before her. It looked rather shabby, she thought, but the
theater was not like a dance, and anyhow it would look better at
night. She had been thinking about next Wednesday evening ever
since Dick Livingstone had gone. It seemed, better somehow,
frightfully important. It was frightfully important. For the first
time she acknowledged to herself that she had been fond of him, as
she put it, for a long time. She had an odd sense, too, of being
young and immature, and as though he had stooped to her from some
height: such as thirty-two years and being in the war, and having
to decide about life and death, and so on.

She hoped he did not think she was only a child.

She heard Nina coming up the stairs. At the click of her high heels
on the hard wood she placed the dress on the bed again, and went to
the window. Her father was on the path below, clearly headed for a
walk. She knew then that Nina had been asking for something.

Nina came in and closed the door. She was smaller than Elizabeth
and very pretty. Her eyebrows had been drawn to a tidy line, and
from the top of her shining head to her brown suede pumps she was
exquisite with the hours of careful tending and careful dressing
she gave her young body. Exquisitely pretty, too.

She sat down on Elizabeth's bed with a sigh.

"I really don't know what to do with father," she said. "He flies
off at a tangent over the smallest things. Elizabeth dear, can you
lend me twenty dollars? I'll get my allowance on Tuesday."

"I can give you ten."

"Well, ask mother for the rest, won't you? You needn't say it's
for me. I'll give it to you Tuesday."

"I'm not going to mother, Nina. She has had a lot of expenses this
month."

"Then I'll borrow it from Wallie Sayre," Nina said, accepting her
defeat cheerfully. "If it was an ordinary bill it could wait, but
I lost it at bridge last night and it's got to be paid."

"You oughtn't to play bridge for money," Elizabeth said, a bit
primly. "And if Leslie knew you borrowed from Wallace Sayre - "

"I forgot! Wallie's downstairs, Elizabeth. Really, if he wasn't
so funny, he'd be tragic."

"Why tragic? He has everything in the world."

"If you use a little bit of sense, you can have it too."

"I don't want

"Pooh! That's what you think now. Wallie's a nice person. Lots
of girls are mad about him. And he has about all the money there
is." Getting no response from Elizabeth, she went on: "I was
thinking it over last night. You'll have to marry sometime, and
it isn't as though Wallie was dissipated, or anything like that.
I suppose he knows his way about, but then they all do."

She got up.

"Be nice to him, anyhow," she said. "He's crazy about you, and
when I think of you in that house! It's a wonderful house,
Elizabeth. She's got a suite waiting for Wallie to be married
before she furnishes it."

Elizabeth looked around her virginal little room, with its painted
dressing table, its chintz, and its white bed with the blue dress
on it.

"I'm very well satisfied as I am," she said.

While she smoothed her hair before the mirror Nina surveyed the
room and her eyes lighted on the frock.

"Are you still wearing that shabby old thing?" she demanded. "I do
wish you'd get some proper clothes. Are you going somewhere?"

"I'm going to the theater on Wednesday night."

"Who with?" Nina in her family was highly colloquial.

"With Doctor Livingstone."

"Are you joking?" Nina demanded.

"Joking? Of course not."

Nina sat down again on the bed, her eyes on her sister, curious and
not a little apprehensive.

"It's the first time it's ever happened, to my knowledge," she
declared. "I know he's avoided me like poison. I thought he hated
women. You know Clare Rossiter is - "

Elizabeth turned suddenly.

"Clare is ridiculous," she said. "She hasn't any reserve, or dignity,
or anything else. And I don't see what my going to the theater with
Dick Livingstone has to do with her anyhow."

Nina raised her carefully plucked eyebrows.

"Really !" she said. "You needn't jump down my throat, you know."
She considered, her eyes on her sister. "Don't go and throw yourself
away on Dick Livingstone, Sis. You're too good-looking, and he
hasn't a cent. A suburban practice, out all night, that tumble-down
old house and two old people hung around your necks, for Doctor David
is letting go pretty fast. It just won't do. Besides, there's a
story going the rounds about him, that - "

"I don't want to hear it, if you don't mind."

She went to the door and opened it.

"I've hardly spoken a dozen words to him in my life. But just
remember this. When I do find the man I want to marry, I shall make
up my own mind. As you did," she added as a parting shot.

She was rather sorry as she went down the stairs. She had begun to
suspect what the family had never guessed, that Nina was not very
happy. More and more she saw in Nina's passion for clothes and
gaiety, for small possessions, an attempt to substitute them for
real things. She even suspected that sometimes Nina was a little
lonely.

Wallie Sayre rose from a deep chair as she entered the living-room.

"Hello," he said, "I was on the point of asking Central to give me
this number so I could get you on the upstairs telephone."

"Nina and I were talking. I'm sorry."

Wallie, in spite of Walter Wheeler's opinion of him, was an engaging
youth with a wide smile, an air of careless well-being, and an
obstinate jaw. What he wanted he went after and generally secured,
and Elizabeth, enlightened by Nina, began to have a small anxious
feeling that afternoon that what he wanted just now happened to be
herself.

"Nina coming down?" he asked.

"I suppose so. Why?"

"You couldn't pass the word along that you are going to be engaged
for the next half hour?"

"I might, but I certainly don't intend to."

"You are as hard to isolate as a - as a germ," he complained. "I
gave up a perfectly good golf game to see you, and as your father
generally calls the dog the moment I appear and goes for a walk, I
thought I might see you alone."

"You're seeing me alone now, you know."

Suddenly he leaned over and catching up her hand, kissed it.

"You're so cool and sweet," he said. "I - I wish you liked me a
little." He smiled up at her, rather wistfully. "I never knew any
one quite like you."

She drew her hand away. Something Nina had said, that he knew his
way about, came into her mind, and made her uncomfortable. Back of
him, suddenly, was that strange and mysterious region where men of
his sort lived their furtive man-life, where they knew their way
about. She had no curiosity and no interest, but the mere fact of
its existence as revealed by Nina repelled her.

"There are plenty like me," she said. "Don't be silly, Wallie. I
hate having my hand kissed."

"I wonder," he observed shrewdly, "whether that's really true, or
whether you just hate having me do it?"

When Nina came in he was drawing a rough sketch of his new power
boat, being built in Florida.

Nina's delay was explained by the appearance, a few minutes later,
of a rather sullen Annie with a tea tray. Afternoon tea was not a
Wheeler institution, but was notoriously a Sayre one. And Nina
believed in putting one's best foot foremost, even when that resulted
in a state of unstable domestic equilibrium.

"Put in a word for me, Nina," Wallie begged. "I intend to ask
Elizabeth to go to the theater this week, and I think she is going
to refuse."

"What's the play?" Nina inquired negligently. She was privately
determining that her mother needed a tea cart and a new tea service.
There were some in old Georgian silver -

"'The Valley.' Not that the play matters. It's Beverly Carlysle."

"I thought she was dead, or something."

"Or something is right. She retired years ago, at the top of her
success. She was a howling beauty, I'm told. I never saw her.
There was some queer story. I've forgotten it. I was a kid then.
How about it, Elizabeth?"

"I'm sorry. I'm going Wednesday night."

He looked downcast over that, and he was curious, too. But he made
no comment save:

"Well, better luck next time."

"Just imagine," said Nina. "She's going with Dick Livingstone. Can
you imagine it?"

But Wallace Sayre could and did. He had rather a stricken moment,
too. Of course, there might be nothing to it; but on the other hand,
there very well might. And Livingstone was the sort to attract the
feminine woman; he had gravity and responsibility. He was older too,
and that flattered a girl.

"He's not a bit attractive," Nina was saying. "Quiet, and - well, I
don't suppose he knows what he's got on."

Wallie was watching Elizabeth.

"Oh, I don't know," he said, with masculine fairness. "He's a good
sort, and he's pretty much of a man."

He was quite sure that the look Elizabeth gave him was grateful.

He went soon after that, keeping up an appearance of gaiety to the
end, and very careful to hope that Elizabeth would enjoy the play.

"She's a wonder, they say," he said from the doorway. "Take two
hankies along, for it's got more tears than 'East Lynne' and 'The
Old Homestead' put together."

He went out, holding himself very erect and looking very cheerful
until he reached the corner. There however he slumped, and it was
a rather despondent young man who stood sometime later, on the
center of the deserted bridge over the small river, and surveyed
the water with moody eyes.

In the dusky living-room Nina was speaking her mind.

"You treat him like a dog," she said. "Oh, I know you're civil to
him, but if any man looked at me the way Wallie looks at you - I
don't know, though," she added, thoughtfully. "It may be that that
is why he is so keen. It may be good tactics. Most girls fall for
him with a crash."

But when she glanced at Elizabeth she saw that she had not heard.
Her eyes were fixed on something on the street beyond the window.
Nina looked out. With a considerable rattle of loose joints and
four extraordinarily worn tires the Livingstone car was going by.





The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Category:
General Fiction

Mystery and detective stories
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