eBooks Cube
 
XXXV


During August Dick had labored in the alfalfa fields of Central
Washington, a harvest hand or "working stiff" among other migratory
agricultural workers. Among them, but not entirely of them.
Recruited from the lowest levels as men grade, gathered in at a
slave market on the coast, herded in bunk houses alive with vermin,
fully but badly fed, overflowing with blasphemy and filled with
sullen hate for those above them in the social scale, the "stiffs"
regarded him with distrust from the start.

In the beginning he accepted their sneers with a degree of
philosophy. His physical condition was poor. At night he ached
intolerably, collapsing into his wooden bunk to sleep the
dreamless sleep of utter exhaustion. There were times when he
felt that it would be better to return at once to Norada and
surrender, for that he must do so eventually he never doubted.
It was as well perhaps that he had no time for brooding, but he
gained sleep at the cost of superhuman exertion all day.

A feeling of unreality began to obsess him, so that at times he
felt like a ghost walking among sweating men, like a resurrection
into life, but without life. And more than once he tried to sink
down to the level of the others, to unite himself again with the
crowd, to feel again the touch of elbows, the sensation of
fellowship. The primal instinct of the herd asserted itself, the
need of human companionship of any sort.

But he failed miserably, as Jud Clark could never have failed. He
could not drink with them. He could not sink to their level of
degradation. Their oaths and obscenity sickened and disgusted him,
and their talk of women drove him into the fresh air.

The fact that he could no longer drink himself into a stupor puzzled
him. Bad whiskey circulated freely among the hay stacks and bunk
houses where the harvest hands were quartered, and at ruinous
prices. The men clubbed together to buy it, and he put in his
share, only to find that it not only sickened him, but that he had
a mental inhibition against it.

They called him the "Dude," and put into it gradually all the class
hatred of their wretched sullen lives. He had to fight them, more
than once, and had they united against him he might have been killed.
But they never united. Their own personal animosities and angers
kept them apart, as their misery held them together. And as time
went on and his muscles hardened he was able to give a better
account of himself. The time came when they let him alone, and
when one day a big shocker fell off a stack and broke his leg and
Dick set it, he gained their respect. They asked no questions, for
their law was that the past was the past. They did not like him,
but in the queer twisted ethics of the camp they judged the secret
behind him by the height from which he had fallen, and began slowly
to accept him as of the brotherhood of derelicts.

With his improvement in his physical condition there came, toward
the end of the summer, a more rapid subsidence of the flood of the
long past. He had slept out one night in the fields, where the
uncut alfalfa was belled with purple flowers and yellow buttercups
rose and nodded above him. With the first touch of dawn on the
mountains he wakened to a clarity of mind like that of the morning.
He felt almost an exaltation. He stood up and threw out his arms.

It was all his again, never to lose, the old house, and David and
Lucy; the little laboratory; the church on Sunday mornings. Mike,
whistling in the stable. A wave of love warmed him, a great
surging tenderness. He would go back to them. They were his and
he was theirs. It was at first only a great emotion; a tingling
joyousness, a vast relief, as of one who sees, from a far distance,
the lights in the windows of home. Save for the gap between the
drunken revel at the ranch and his awakening to David's face
bending over him in the cabin, everything was clear. Still by an
effort, but successfully, he could unite now the two portions of
his life with only a scar between them.

Not that he formulated it. It was rather a mood, an impulse of
unreasoning happiness. The last cloud had gone, the last bit of
mist from the valley. He saw Haverly, and the children who played
in its shaded streets; Mike washing the o1d car, and the ice cream
freezer on Sundays, wrapped in sacking on the kitchen porch. Jim
Wheeler came back to him, the weight of his coffin dragging at his
right hand as he helped to carry it; he was kneeling beside
Elizabeth's bed, and putting his hand over her staring eyes so
she would go to sleep.

The glow died away, and he began to suffer intensely. They were
all lost to him, along with the life they represented. And already
he began to look back on his period of forgetfulness with regret.
At least then he had not known what he had lost.

He wondered again what they knew. What did they think? If they
believed him dead, was that not kinder than the truth? Outside of
David and Lucy, and of course Bassett, the sole foundation on which
any search for him had rested had been the semi-hysterical
recognition of Hattie Thorwald. But he wondered how far that
search had gone.

Had it extended far enough to involve David? Had the hue and cry
died away, or were the police still searching for him? Could he
even write to David, without involving him in his own trouble? For
David, fine, wonderful old David - David had deliberately obstructed
the course of justice, and was an accessory after the fact.

Up to that time he had drifted, unable to set a course in the fog,
but now he could see the way, and it led him back to Norada. He
would not communicate with David. He would go out of the lives at
the old house as he had gone in, under a lie. When he surrendered
it would be as Judson Clark, with his lips shut tight on the years
since his escape. Let them think, if they would, that the curtain
that had closed down over his memory had not lifted, and that he
had picked up life again where he had laid it down. The police
would get nothing from him to incriminate David.

But he had a moment, too, when surrender seemed to him not strength
but weakness; where its sheer supineness, its easy solution to his
problem revolted him, where he clenched his fist and looked at it,
and longed for the right to fight his way out.

When smoke began to issue from the cook-house chimney he stirred,
rose and went back. He ate no breakfast, and the men, seeing his
squared jaw and set face, let him alone. e worked with the strength
of three men that day, but that night, when the foreman offered him
a job as pacer, with double wages, he refused it.

"Give it to somebody else, Joe," he said. "I'm quitting."

"The hell you are! When?"

"I'd like to check out to-night."

His going was without comment. They had never fully accepted him,
and comings and goings without notice in the camp were common. He
rolled up his bedding, his change of under-garments inside it, and
took the road that night.

The railroad was ten miles away, and he made the distance easily.
He walked between wire fences, behind which horses moved restlessly
as he passed and cattle slept around a water hole, and as he walked
he faced a situation which all day he had labored like three men
to evade.

He was going out of life. It did not much matter whether it was
to be behind bars or to pay the ultimate price. The shadow that
lay over him was that he was leaving forever David and all that he
stood for, and a woman. And the woman was not Elizabeth.

He cursed himself in the dark for a fool and a madman; he cursed
the infatuation which rose like a demoniac possession from his
early life. When that failed he tried to kill it by remembering
the passage of time, the loathing she must have nursed all these
years. He summoned the image of Elizabeth to his aid, to find it
eclipsed by something infinitely more real and vital. Beverly in
her dressing-room, grotesque and yet lovely in her make-up; Beverly
on the mountain-trail, in her boyish riding clothes. Beverly.

Probably at that stage of his recovery his mind had reacted more
quickly than his emotions. And by that strange faculty by which
an idea often becomes stronger in memory than in its original
production he found himself in the grip of a passion infinitely
more terrible than his earlier one for her. It wiped out the
memory, even the thought, of Elizabeth, and left him a victim of
its associated emotions. Bitter jealousy racked him, remorse and
profound grief. The ten miles of road to the railroad became ten
miles of torture, of increasing domination of the impulse to go to
her, and of final surrender.

In Spokane he outfitted himself, for his clothes were ragged, and
with the remainder of his money bought a ticket to Chicago. Beyond
Chicago he had no thought save one. Some way, somehow, he must get
to New York. Yet all the time he was fighting. He tried again and
again to break away from the emotional associations from which his
memory of her was erected; when that failed he struggled to face
reality; the lapse of time, the certainty of his disappointment, at
the best the inevitable parting when he went back to Norada. But
always in the end he found his face turned toward the East, and her.

He had no fear of starving. If he had learned the cost of a dollar
in blood and muscle, he had the blood and the muscle. There was a
time, in Chicago, when the necessity of thinking about money
irritated him, for the memory of his old opulent days was very
clear. Times when his temper was uncertain, and he turned surly.
Times when his helplessness brought to his lips the old familiar
blasphemies of his youth, which sounded strange and revolting to
his ears.

He had no fear, then, but a great impatience, as though, having
lost so much time, he must advance with every minute. And
Chicago drove him frantic. There came a time there when he made a
deliberate attempt to sink to the very depths, to seek forgetfulness
by burying one wretchedness under another. He attempted to find
work and failed, and he tried to let go and sink. The total result
of the experiment was that he wakened one morning in his
lodging-house ill and with his money gone, save for some small
silver. He thought ironically, lying on his untidy bed, that even
the resources of the depths were closed to him.

He never tried that experiment again. He hated himself for it.

For days he haunted the West Madison Street employment agencies.
But the agencies and sidewalks were filled with men who wandered
aimlessly with the objectless shuffle of the unemployed. Beds had
gone up in the lodging-houses to thirty-five cents a night, and the
food in the cheap restaurants was almost uneatable. There came a
day when the free morning coffee at a Bible Rescue Home, and its
soup and potatoes and carrots at night was all he ate.

For the first time his courage began to fail him. He went to the
lakeside that night and stood looking at the water. He meant to
fight that impulse of cowardice at the source.

Up to that time he had given no thought whatever to his estate,
beyond the fact that he had been undoubtedly adjudged legally dead
and his property divided. But that day as he turned away from the
lake front, he began to wonder about it. After all, since he meant
to surrender himself before long, why not telegraph collect to the
old offices of the estate in New York and have them wire him money?
But even granting that they were still in existence, he knew with
what lengthy caution, following stunned surprise, they would go
about investigating the message. And there were leaks in the
telegraph. He would have a pack of newspaper hounds at his heels
within a few hours. The police, too. No, it wouldn't do.

The next day he got a job as a taxicab driver, and that night and
every night thereafter he went back to West Madison Street and
picked up one or more of the derelicts there and bought them food.
He developed quite a system about it. He waited until he saw a
man stop outside an eating-house look in and then pass on. But
one night he got rather a shock. For the young fellow he accosted
looked at him first with suspicion, which was not unusual, and
later with amazement.

"Captain Livingstone!" he said, and checked his hand as it was
about to rise to the salute. His face broke into a smile, and he
whipped off his cap. "You've forgotten me, sir," he said. "But
I've got your visiting card on the top of my head all right. Can
you see it?"

He bent his head and waited, but on no immediate reply being
forthcoming, for Dick was hastily determining on a course of action,
he looked up. It was then that he saw Dick's cheap and shabby
clothes, and his grin faded.

"I say," he said. "You are Livingstone, aren't you? I'd have
known - "

"I think you've made a mistake, old man," Dick said, feeling for
his words carefully. "That's not my name, anyhow. I thought, when
I saw you staring in at that window - How about it?"

The boy looked at him again, and then glanced away.

"I was looking, all right," he said. "I've been having a run of
hard luck."

It had been Dick's custom to eat with his finds, and thus remove
from the meal the quality of detached charity. Men who would not
take money would join him in a meal. But he could not face the
lights with this keen-eyed youngster. He offered him money instead.

"Just a lift," he said, awkwardly, when the boy hesitated. "I've
been there myself, lately."

But when at last he had prevailed and turned away he Was conscious
that the doughboy was staring after him, puzzled and unconvinced.

He had a bad night after that. The encounter had brought back his
hard-working, care-free days in the army. It had brought back,
too, the things he had put behind him, his profession and his joy
in it, the struggles and the aspirations that constitute a man's
life. With them there came, too, a more real Elizabeth, and a
wave of tenderness for her, and of regret. He turned on his
sagging bed, and deliberately put her away from him. Even if this
other ghost were laid, he had no right to her

Then, one day, he met Mrs. Sayre, and saw that she knew him.





The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Category:
General Fiction

Mystery and detective stories
Nabou.com: the big site