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XXXVII


On the night Bassett and Harrison Miller were to return from
Chicago Lucy sat downstairs in her sitting-room waiting for news.

At ten o'clock, according to her custom, she went up to see that
David was comfortable for the night, and to read him that prayer
for the absent with which he always closed his day of waiting.
But before she went she stopped before the old mirror in the hall,
to see if she wore any visible sign of tension.

The door into Dick's office was open, and on his once neat desk
there lay a litter of papers and letters. She sighed and went
up the stairs.

David lay propped up in his walnut bed. An incredibly wasted and
old David; the hands on the log-cabin quilt which their mother had
made were old hands, and tired. Sometimes Lucy, with a frightened
gasp, would fear that David's waiting now was not all for Dick.
That he was waiting for peace.

There had been something new in David lately. She thought it was
fear. Always he had been so sure of himself; he had made his
experiment in a man's soul, and whatever the result he had been
ready to face his Creator with it. But he had lost courage. He
had tampered with the things that were to be and not he, but Dick,
was paying for that awful audacity.

Once, picking up his prayer-book to read evening prayer as was her
custom now, it had opened at a verse marked with an uneven line:

"I will arise and go to my Father, and will say unto Him, Father,
I have sinned against Heaven and before Thee, and am no more worthy
to be called Thy son."

That had frightened her

David's eyes followed her about the room.

"I've got an idea you're keeping something from me, Lucy."

"I? Why should I do that?"

"Then where's Harrison?" he demanded, querulously.

She told him one of the few white lies of her life when she said:
"He hasn't been well. He'll be over to-morrow." She sat down and
picked up the prayer-book, only to find him lifting himself in the
bed and listening.

"Somebody closed the hall door, Lucy. If it's Reynolds, I want to
see him."

She got up and went to the head of the stairs. The light was low
in the hall beneath, and she saw a man standing there. But she
still wore her reading glasses, and she saw at first hardly more
than a figure.

"Is that you, Doctor Reynolds?" she asked, in her high old voice.

Then she put her hand to her throat and stood rigid, staring down.
For the man had whipped off his cap and stood with his arms wide,
looking up.

Holding to the stair-rail, her knees trembling under her, Lucy went
down, and not until Dick's arms were around her was she sure that
it was Dick, and not his shabby, weary ghost. She clung to him,
tears streaming down her face, still in that cautious silence which
governed them both; she held him off and looked at him, and then
strained herself to him again, as though the sense of unreality
were too strong, and only the contact of his rough clothing made
him real to her.

It was not until they were in her sitting-room with the door closed
that either of them dared to speak. Or perhaps, could speak. Even
then she kept hold of him.

"Dick!" she said. "Dick!"

And that, over and over.

"How is he?" he was able to ask finally.

"He has been very ill. I began to think - Dick, I'm afraid to tell
him. I'm afraid he'll die of joy."

He winced at that. There could not be much joy in the farewell that
was coming. Winced, and almost staggered. He had walked all the
way from the city, and he had had no food that day.

"We'll have to break it to him very gently," he said. "And he
mustn't see me like this. If you can find some of my clothes and
Reynolds' razor, I'll - " He caught suddenly to the back of a
chair and held on to it. "I haven't taken time to eat much to-day,"
he said, smiling at her. "I guess I need food, Aunt Lucy."

For the first time then she saw his clothes, his shabbiness and
his pallor, and perhaps she guessed the truth. She got up, her
face twitching, and pushed him into a chair.

"You sit here," she said, "and leave the door closed. The nurse
is out for a walk, and she'll be in soon. I'll bring some milk and
cookies now, and start the fire. I've got some chops in the house."

When she came back almost immediately, with the familiar tray and
the familiar food, he was sitting where she had left him. He had
spent the entire time, had she known it, in impressing on his mind
the familiar details of the room, to carry away with him.

She stood beside him, a hand on his shoulder, to see that he drank
the milk slowly.

"I've got the fire going," she said. "And I'll run up now and get
your clothes. I - had put them away." Her voice broke a little.
"You see, we - You can change in your laboratory. Richard, can't
you? If you go upstairs he'll hear you."

He reached up and caught her hand. That touch, too, of the nearest
to a mother's hand that he had known, he meant to carry away with
him. He could not speak.

She bustled away, into her bright kitchen first, and then with
happy stealth to the store-room. Her very heart was singing within
her. She neither thought nor reasoned. Dick was back, and all
would be well. If she had any subconscious anxieties they were
quieted, also subconsciously, by confidence in the men who were
fighting his battle for him, by Walter Wheeler and Bassett and
Harrison Miller. That Dick himself would present any difficulty
lay beyond her worst fears.

She had been out of the room only twenty minutes when she returned
to David and prepared to break her great news. At first she thought
he was asleep. He was lying back with his eyes closed and his hands
crossed on the prayer-book. But he looked up at her, and was
instantly roused to full attention by her face.

"You've had some news," he said.

"Yes, David. There's a little news. Don't count too much on it.
Don't sit up. David, I have heard something that makes me think he
is alive. Alive and well."

He made a desperate effort and controlled himself.

"Where is he?"

She sat down beside him and took his hand between hers.

"David," she said slowly, "God has been very good to us. I want to
tell you something, and I want you to prepare yourself. We have
heard from Dick. He is all right. He loves us, as he always did.
And - he is downstairs, David."

He lay very still and without speaking. She was frightened at
first, afraid to go on with her further news. But suddenly David
sat up in bed and in a full, firm voice began the Te Deum Laudamus.
"We praise thee, 0 God: we acknowledge thee to he the Lord. All
the earth doth worship thee, the Father everlasting."

He repeated it in its entirety. At the end, however, his voice broke.

"0 Lord, in thee have I trusted - I doubted Him, Lucy," he said.

Dick, waiting at the foot of the stairs, heard that triumphant paean
of thanksgiving and praise and closed his eyes.

It was a few minutes later that Lucy came down the stairs again.

"You heard him?" she asked. "Oh, Dick, he had frightened me. It
was more than a question of himself and you. He was making it one
of himself and God."

She let him go up alone and waited below, straining her ears, but
she heard nothing beyond David's first hoarse cry, and after a
little she went into her sitting-room and shut the door.

Whatever lay underneath, there was no surface drama in the meeting.
The determination to ignore any tragedy in the situation was strong
in them both, and if David's eyes were blurred and his hands
trembling, if Dick's first words were rather choked, they hid their
emotion carefully.

"Well, here I am, like a bad penny!" said Dick huskily from the
doorway.

"And a long time you've been about it," grumbled David. "You young
rascal !"

He held out his hand, and Dick crushed it between both of his. He
was startled at the change in David. For a moment he could only
stand there, holding his hand, and trying to keep his apprehension
out of his face.

"Sit down," David said awkwardly, and blew his nose with a terrific
blast. "I've been laid up for a while, but I'm all right now. I'll
fool them all yet," he boasted, out of his happiness and content.
"Business has been going to the dogs, Dick. Reynolds is a fool."

"Of course you'll fool them." There was still a band around Dick's
throat. It hurt him to look at David, so thin and feeble, so sunken
from his former portliness. And David saw his eyes, and knew.

"I've dropped a little flesh, eh, Dick?" he inquired. "Old bulge
is gone, you see. The nurse makes up the bed when I'm in it, flat
as when I'm out."

Suddenly his composure broke. He was a feeble and apprehensive old
man, shaken with the tearless sobbing of weakness and age. Dick put
an arm across his shoulders, and they sat without speech until
David was quiet again.

"I'm a crying old woman, Dick," David said at last. "That's what
comes of never feeling a pair of pants on your legs and being
coddled like a baby." He sat up and stared around him ferociously.
"They sprinkle violet water on my pillows, Dick! Can you beat that?"

Warned by Lucy, the nurse went to her room and did not disturb them.
But she sat for a time in her rocking-chair, before she changed
into the nightgown and kimono in which she slept on the couch in
David's room. She knew the story, and her kindly heart ached
within her. What good would it do after all, this home-coming?
Dick could not stay. It was even dangerous. Reynolds had confided
to her that he suspected a watch on the house by the police, and
that the mail was being opened. What good was it?

Across the hall she could hear Lucy moving briskly about in Dick's
room, changing the bedding, throwing up the windows, opening and
closing bureau drawers. After a time Lucy tapped at her door and
she opened it.

"I put a cake of scented soap among your handkerchiefs," she said,
rather breathlessly. "Will you let me have it for Doctor Dick's
room?"

She got the soap and gave it to her.

"He is going to stay, then?"

"Certainly he is going to stay," Lucy said, surprised. "This is
his home. Where else should he go?"

But David knew. He lay, listening with avid interest to Dick's
story, asking a question now and then, nodding over Dick's halting
attempt to reconstruct the period of his confusion, but all the
time one part of him, a keen and relentless inner voice, was saying:
"Look at him well. Hold him close. Listen to his voice. Because
this hour is yours, and perhaps only this hour."

"Then the Sayre woman doesn't know about your coming?" he asked,
when Dick had finished.

"Still, she mustn't talk about having seen you. I'll send Reynolds
up in the morning."

He was eager to hear of what had occurred in the long interval
between them, and good, bad and indifferent Dick told him. But he
limited himself to events, and did not touch on his mental battles,
and David saw and noted it. The real story, he knew, lay there,
but it was not time for it. After a while he raised himself in
his bed.

"Call Lucy, Dick."

When she had come, a strangely younger Lucy, her withered cheeks
flushed with exercise and excitement, he said:

"Bring me the copy of the statement I made to Harrison Miller, Lucy."

She brought it, patted Dick's shoulder, and went away. David held
out the paper.

"Read it slowly, boy," he said. "It is my justification, and God
willing, it may help you. The letter is from my brother, Henry.
Read that, too."

Lucy, having got Dick's room in readiness, sat down in it to await
his coming. Downstairs, in the warming oven, was his supper. His
bed, with the best blankets, was turned down and ready. His
dressing-gown and slippers were in their old accustomed place. She
drew a long breath.

Below, Doctor Reynolds came in quietly and stood listening. The
house was very still, and he decided that his news, which was after
all no news, could wait. He went into the office and got out a
sheet of note-paper, with his name at the top, and began his nightly
letter to Clare Rossiter.

"My darling," it commenced.

Above, David lay in his bed and Dick read the papers in his hand.
And as he read them David watched him. Not once, since Dick's
entrance, had he mentioned Elizabeth. David lay still and pondered
that. There was something wrong about it. This was Dick, their
own Dick; no shadowy ghost of the past, but Dick himself. True, an
older Dick, strangely haggard and with gray running in the brown of
his hair, but still Dick; the Dick whose eyes had lighted at the
sight of a girl, who had shamelessly persisted in holding her hand
at that last dinner, who had almost idolatrously loved her.

And he had not mentioned her name.

When he had finished the reading Dick sat for a moment with the
papers in his hand, thinking.

"I see," he said finally. "Of course, it's possible. Good God, if
I could only think it."

"It's the answer," David said stubbornly. "He was prowling around,
and fired through the window. Donaldson made the statement at the
inquest that some one had been seen on the place, and that he
notified you that night after dinner. He'd put guards around the
place."

"It gives me a fighting chance, anyhow." Dick got up and threw
back his shoulders. "That's all I want. A chance to fight. I
know this. I hated Lucas - he was a poor thing and you know what
he did to me. But I never thought of killing him. That wouldn't
have helped matters. It was too late."

"What about - that?" David asked, not looking at him. When Dick
did not immediately reply David glanced at him, to find his face
set and pained.

"Perhaps we'd better not go into that now," David said hastily.
"It's natural that the readjustments will take time."

"We'll have to go into it. It's the hardest thing I have to face."

"It's not dead, then?"

"No," Dick said slowly. "It's not dead, David. And I'd better
bring it into the open. I've fought it to the limit by myself.
It's the one thing that seems to have survived the shipwreck. I
can't argue it down or think it down."

"Maybe, if you see Elizabeth - "

"I'd break her heart, that's all."

He tried to make David understand. He told in its sordid details
his failure to kill it, his attempts to sink memory and conscience
in Chicago and their failure, the continued remoteness of Elizabeth
and what seemed to him the flesh and blood reality of the other
woman. That she was yesterday, and Elizabeth was long ago.

"I can't argue it down," he finished. "I've tried to, desperately.
It's a - I think it's a wicked thing, in a way. And God knows all
she ever got out of it was suffering. She must loathe the thought
of me."

David was compelled to let it rest there. He found that Dick was
doggedly determined to see Beverly Carlysle. After that, he didn't
know. No man wanted to surrender himself for trial, unless he was
sure himself of whether he was innocent or guilty. If there was a
reasonable doubt - but what did it matter one way or the other?
His place was gone, as he'd made it, gone if he was cleared, gone
if he was convicted.

"I can't come back, David. They wouldn't have me."

After a silence he asked:

"How much is known here? What does Elizabeth know?"

"The town knows nothing. She knows a part of it. She cares a great
deal, Dick. It's a tragedy for her."

"Shall you tell her I have been here?"

"Not unless you intend to see her."

But Dick shook his head.

"Even if other things were the same I haven't a right to see her,
until I've got a clean slate."

"That's sheer evasion," David said, almost with irritation.

"Yes," Dick acknowledged gravely. "It is sheer evasion."

"What about the police?" he inquired after a silence. "I was
registered at Norada. I suppose they traced me?"

"Yes. The house was watched for a while; I understand they've
given it up now."

In response to questions about his own condition David was almost
querulous. He was all right. He would get well if they'd let him,
and stop coddling him. He would get up now, in spite of them. He
was good for one more fight before he died, and he intended to make
it, in a court if necessary.

"They can't prove it, Dick," he said triumphantly. "I've been over
it every day for months. There is no case. There never was a case,
for that matter. They're a lot of pin-headed fools, and we'll show
them up, boy. We'll show them up."

But for all his excitement fatigue was telling on him. Lucy tapped
at the door and came in.

"You'd better have your supper before it spoils," she said. "And
David needs a rest. Doctor Reynolds is in the office. I haven't
told him yet."

The two men exchanged glances.

"Time for that later," David said. "I can't keep him out of my
office, but I can out of my family affairs for an hour or so."


So it happened that Dick followed Lucy down the back stairs and ate
his meal stealthily in the kitchen.

"I don't like you to eat here," she protested.

"I've eaten in worse places," he said, smiling at her. "And
sometimes not at all." He was immediately sorry for that, for
the tears came to her eyes.

He broke as gently as he could the news that he could not stay, but
it was a great blow to her. Her sagging chin quivered piteously,
and it took all the cheerfulness he could summon and all the
promises of return he could make to soften the shock.

"You haven't even seen Elizabeth," she said at last.

"That will have to wait until things are cleared up, Aunt Lucy."

"Won't you write her something then, Richard? She looks like a
ghost these days."

Her eyes were on him, puzzled and wistful. He met them gravely.

"I haven't the right to see her, or to write to her."

And the finality in his tone closed the discussion, that and
something very close to despair in his face.

For all his earlier hunger he ate very little, and soon after he
tiptoed up the stairs again to David's room. When he came down to
the kitchen later on he found her still there, at the table where
he had left her, her arms across it and her face buried in them.
On a chair was the suitcase she had hastily packed for him, and a
roll of bills lay on the table.

"You must take it," she insisted. "It breaks my heart to think
- Dick, I have the feeling that I am seeing you for the last time."
Then for fear she had hurt him she forced a determined smile. "Don't
pay any attention to me. David will tell you that I have said, over
and over, that I'd never see you again. And here you are!"

He was going. He had said good-bye to David and was going at once.
She accepted it with a stoicism born of many years of hail and
farewell, kissed him tenderly, let her hand linger for a moment on
the rough sleeve of his coat, and then let him out by the kitchen
door into the yard. But long after he had gone she stood in the
doorway, staring out...

In the office Doctor Reynolds was finishing a long and carefully
written letter.

"I am not good at putting myself on paper, as you know, dear heart.
But this I do know. I do not believe that real love dies. We may
bury it, so deep that it seems to be entirely dead, but some day it
sends up a shoot, and it either lives, or the business of killing
it has to be begun all over again. So when we quarrel, I always
know - "





The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Category:
General Fiction

Mystery and detective stories
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