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XXXIX


Leslie Ward had found the autumn extremely tedious. His old
passion for Nina now and then flamed up in him, but her occasional
coquetries no longer deceived him. They had their source only in
her vanity. She exacted his embraces only as tribute to her own
charm, her youth, her fresh young body.

And Nina out of her setting of gaiety, of a thumping piano, of
chattering, giggling crowds, of dancing and bridge and theater
boxes, was a queen dethroned. She did not read or think. She
spent the leisure of her mourning period in long hours before her
mirror fussing with her hair, in trimming and retrimming hats, or
in the fastidious care of her hands and body.

He was ashamed sometimes of his pitilessly clear analysis of her.
She was not discontented, save at the enforced somberness of their
lives. She had found in marriage what she wanted; a good house,
daintily served; a man to respond to her attractions as a woman,
and to provide for her needs as a wife; dignity and an established
lace in the world; liberty and privilege.

But she was restless. She chafed at the quiet evenings they spent
at home, and resented the reading in which he took refuge from her
uneasy fidgeting.

"For Heaven's sake, Nina, sit down and read or sew, or do something.
You've been at that window a dozen times."

"I'm not bothering you. Go on and read."

When nobody dropped in she would go upstairs and spend the hour or
so before bedtime in the rites of cold cream, massage, and in
placing the little combs of what Leslie had learned was called a
water-wave.

But her judgment was as clear as his, and even more pitiless; the
difference between them lay in the fact that while he rebelled, she
accepted the situation. She was cleverer than he was; her mind
worked more quickly, and she had the adaptability he lacked. If
there were times when she wearied him, there were others when he
sickened her. Across from her at the table he ate slowly and
enormously. He splashed her dainty bathroom with his loud, gasping
cold baths. He flung his soiled clothing anywhere. He drank
whisky at night and crawled into the lavender-scented sheets
redolent of it, to drop into a heavy sleep and snore until she
wanted to scream. But she played the game to the limit of her
ability.

Then, seeing that they might go on the rocks, he made a valiant
effort, and since she recognized it as an effort, she tried to meet
him half way. They played two-handed card games. He read aloud to
her, poetry which she loathed, and she to him, short stories he
hated. He suggested country walks and she agreed, to limp back
after a half mile or so in her high-heeled pumps.

He concealed his boredom from her, but there were nights when he
lay awake long after she was asleep and looked ahead into a future
of unnumbered blank evenings. He had formerly taken an occasional
evening at his club, but on his suggesting it now Nina's eyes would
fill with suspicion, and he knew that although she never mentioned
Beverly Carlysle, she would neither forget nor entirely trust him
again. And in his inner secret soul he knew that she was right.

He had thought that he had buried that brief madness, but there
were times when he knew he lied to himself. One fiction, however,
he persisted in; he had not been infatuated with Beverly. It was
only that she gave him during those few days something he had not
found at home, companionship and quiet intelligent talk. She had
been restful. Nina was never restful.

He bought a New York paper daily, and read it in the train. "The
Valley" had opened to success in New York, and had settled for a
long run. The reviews of her work had been extraordinary, and
when now and then she gave an interview he studied the photographs
accompanying it. But he never carried the paper home.

He began, however, to play with the thought of going to New York.
He would not go to see her at her house, but he would like to see
her before a metropolitan audience, to add his mite to her triumph.
There were times when he fully determined to go, when he sat at his
desk with his hand on the telephone, prepared to lay the foundations
of the excursion by some manipulation of business interests. For
months, however, he never went further than the preliminary movement.

But by October he began to delude himself with a real excuse for
going, and this was the knowledge that by a strange chain of
circumstance this woman who so dominated his secret thoughts was
connected with Elizabeth's life through Judson Clark. The
discovery, communicated to him by Walter Wheeler, that Dick was
Clark had roused in him a totally different feeling from Nina's.
He saw no glamour of great wealth. On the contrary, he saw in
Clark the author of a great unhappiness to a woman who had not
deserved it. And Nina, judging him with deadly accuracy, surmised
even that.

That he was jealous of Judson Clark, and of his part in the past,
he denied to himself absolutely. But his resentment took the form
of violent protest to the family, against even allowing Elizabeth
to have anything to do with Dick if he turned up.

"He'll buy his freedom, if he isn't dead," he said to Nina, and
he'll come snivelling back here, with that lost memory bunk, and
they're just fool enough to fall for it."

"I've fallen for it, and I'm at least as intelligent as you are."

Before her appraising eyes his own fell.

"Suppose I did something I shouldn't and turned up here with such
a story, would you believe it?"

"No. When you want to do something you shouldn't you don't appear
to need any excuse."

But, on the whole, they managed to live together comfortably enough.
They each had their reservations, but especially after Jim's death
they tacitly agreed to stop bickering and to make their mutual
concessions. What Nina never suspected was that he corresponded
with Beverly Carlysle. Not that the correspondence amounted to much.
He had sent her flowers the night of the New York opening, with the
name of his club on his card, and she wrote there in acknowledgment.
Then, later, twice he sent her books, one a biography, which was a
compromise with his conscience, and later a volume of exotic love
verse, which was not. As he replied to her notes of thanks a
desultory correspondence had sprung up, letters which the world
might have read, and yet which had to him the savor and interest
of the clandestine.

He did not know that that, and not infatuation, was behind his
desire to see Beverly again; never reasoned that he was
demonstrating to himself that his adventurous love life was not
necessarily ended; never acknowledged that the instinct of the
hunter was as alive in him as in the days before his marriage.
Partly, then, a desire for adventure, partly a hope that romance
was not over but might still be waiting around the next corner,
was behind his desire to see her again.

Probably Nina knew that, as she knew so many things; why he had
taken to reading poetry, for instance. Certain it is that when he
began, early in October, to throw out small tentative remarks about
the necessity of a business trip before long to New York, she
narrowed her eyes. She was determined to go with him, if he went
at all, and he was equally determined that she should not.

It became, in a way, a sort of watchful waiting on both sides.
Then there came a time when some slight excuse offered, and Leslie
took up the shuttle for forty-eight hours, and wove his bit in the
pattern. It happened to be on the same evening as Dick's return
to the old house.

He was a little too confident, a trifle too easy to Nina.

"Has the handle of my suitcase been repaired yet?" he asked. He
was lighting a cigarette at the time.

"Yes. Why?"

"I'll have to run over to New York to-morrow. I wanted Joe to go
alone, but he thinks he needs me." Joe was his partner. "Oh. So
Joe's going?"

"That's what I said."

She was silent. Joe's going was clever of him. It gave authenticity
to his business, and it kept her at home.

"How long shall you be gone?"

"Only a day or two." He could not entirely keep the relief out of
his voice. It had been easy, incredibly easy. He might have done
it a month ago. And he had told the truth; Joe was going.

"I'll pack to-night, and take my suitcase in with me in the morning."

"If you'll get your things out I'll pack them." She was still
thinking, but her tone was indifferent. "You won't want your dress
clothes, of course

"I'd better have a dinner suit."

She looked at him then, with a half contemptuous smile. "Yes," she
said slowly. "I suppose you will. You'll be going to the theater."

He glanced away.

"Possibly. But we'll be rushing to get through. There's a lot to
do. Amazing how business piles up when you find you're going
anywhere. There won't be much time to play."

She sat before the mirror in her small dressing-room that night,
ostensibly preparing for bed but actually taking stock of her
situation. She had done all she could, had been faithful and loyal,
had made his home attractive, had catered to his tastes and tried
to like his friends, had met his needs and responded to them. And
now, this. She was bewildered and frightened. How did women hold
their husbands?

She found him in bed and unmistakably asleep when she went into the
bedroom. Man-like, having got his way, he was not troubled by
doubts or introspection. It was done.

He was lying on his back, with his mouth open. She felt a sudden
and violent repugnance to getting into the bed beside him. Sometime
in the night he would turn over and throwing his arm about her, hold
her close in his sleep; and it would be purely automatic, the
mechanical result of habit.

She lay on the edge of the bed and thought things over.

He had his good qualities. He was kind and affectionate to her
family. He had been wonderful when Jim died, and he loved Elizabeth
dearly. He was generous and open-handed. He was handsome, too, in
a big, heavy way.

She began to find excuses for him. Men were always a child-like
prey to some women. They were vain, and especially they were
sex-vain; good looking men were a target for every sort of advance.
She transferred her loathing of him to the woman she suspected of
luring him away from her, and lay for hours hating her.

She saw Leslie off in the morning with a perfunctory good-bye while
cold anger and suspicion seethed in her. And later she put on her
hat and went home to lay the situation before her mother. Mrs.
Wheeler was out, however, and she found only Elizabeth sewing by
her window.

Nina threw her hat on the bed and sat down dispiritedly.

"I suppose there's no news?" she asked.

Nina watched her. She was out of patience with Elizabeth,
exasperated with the world.

"Are you going to go on like this all your life?" she demanded.
"Sitting by a window, waiting? For a man who ran away from you?"

"That's not true, and you know it."

"They're all alike," Nina declared recklessly. "They go along well
enough, and they are all for virtue and for the home and fireside
stuff, until some woman comes their way. I ought to know."

Elizabeth looked up quickly.

"Why, Nina!" she said. "You don't mean - "

"He went to New York this morning. He pretended to be going on
business, but he's actually gone to see that actress. He's been
mad about her for months."

"I don't believe it."

"Oh, wake up," Nina said impatiently. "The world isn't made up of
good, kind, virtuous people. It's rotten. And men are all alike.
Dick Livingstone and Les and all the rest - tarred with the same
stick. As long as there are women like this Carlysle creature
they'll fall for them. And you and I can sit at home and chew our
nails and plan to keep them by us. And we can't do it."

In spite of herself a little question of doubt crept that day into
Elizabeth's mind. She had always known that they had not told her
all the truth; that the benevolent conspiracy to protect Dick
extended even to her. But she had never thought that it might
include a woman. Once there, the very humility of her love for Dick
was an element in favor of the idea. She had never been good enough,
or wise or clever enough, for him. She was too small and unimportant
to be really vital.

Dismissing the thought did no good. It came back. But because she
was a healthy-minded and practical person she took the one course
she could think of, and put the question that night to her father,
when he came back from seeing David.

David had sent for him early in the evening. All day he had thought
over the situation between Dick and Elizabeth, with growing pain and
uneasiness. He had not spoken of it to Lucy, or to Harrison Miller;
he knew that they would not understand, and that Lucy would suffer.
She was bewildered enough by Dick's departure.

At noon he had insisted on getting up and being helped into his
trousers. So clad he felt more of a man and better able to cope
with things, although his satisfaction in them was somewhat modified
by the knowledge of two safety-pins at the sides, to take up their
superfluous girth at the waistband.

But even the sense of being clothed as a man again did not make it
easier to say to Walter Wheeler what must be said.

Walter took the news of Dick's return with a visible brightening.
It was as though, out of the wreckage of his midd1e years, he saw
that there was now some salvage, but he was grave and inarticulate
over it, wrung David's hand and only said:

"Thank God for it, David." And after a pause: "Was he all right?
He remembered everything?"

But something strange in the situation began to obtrude itself into
his mind. Dick had come back twenty-four hours ago. Last night.
And all this time-

"Where is he now?"

"He's not here, Walter."

"He has gone away again, without seeing Elizabeth?"

David cleared his throat.

"He is still a fugitive. He doesn't himself know he isn't guilty.
I think he feels that he ought not to see her until - "

"Come, come," Walter Wheeler said impatiently. "Don't try to find
excuses for him. Let's have the truth, David. I guess I can
stand it."

Poor David, divided between his love for Dick and his native honesty,
threw out his hands.

"I don't understand it, Wheeler," he said. "You and I wouldn't, I
suppose. We are not the sort to lose the world for a woman. The
plain truth is that there is not a trace of Judson Clark in him
to-day, save one. That's the woman."

When Wheeler said nothing, but sat twisting his hat in his hands,
David went on. It might be only a phase. As its impression on
Dick's youth had been deeper than others, so its effect was more
lasting. It might gradually disappear. He was confident, indeed,
that it would. He had been reading on the subject all day.

Walter Wheeler hardly heard him. He was facing the incredible fact,
and struggling with his own problem. After a time he got up, shook
hands with David and went home, the dog at his heels.

During the evening that followed he made his resolution, not to tell
her, never to let her suspect the truth. But he began to wonder if
she had heard something, for he found her eyes on him more than once,
and when Margaret had gone up to bed she came over and sat on the
arm of his chair. She said an odd thing then, and one that made it
impossible to lie to her later.

"I come to you, a good bit as I would go to God, if he were a
person," she said. "I have got to know something, and you can tell
me."

He put his arm around her and held her close.

"Go ahead, honey."

"Daddy, do you realize that I am a woman now?"

"I try to. But it seems about six months since I was feeding you
hot water for colic."

She sat still for a moment, stroking his hair and being very careful
not to spoil his neat parting.

"You have never told me all about Dick, daddy. You have always
kept something back. That's true, isn't it?"

"There were details," he said uncomfortably. "It wasn't necessary -"

"Here's what I want to know. If he has gone back to the time - you
know, wouldn't he go back to caring for the people he loved then?"
Then, suddenly, her childish appeal ceased, and she slid from the
chair and stood before him. "I must know, father. I can bear it.
The thing you have been keeping from me was another woman, wasn't it?"

"It was so long ago," he temporized. "Think of it, Elizabeth. A
boy of twenty-one or so."

"Then there was?"

"I believe so, at one time. But I know positively that he hadn't
seen or heard from her in ten years."

"What sort of woman?"

"I wouldn't think about it, honey. It's all so long ago."

"Did she live in Wyoming?"

"She was an actress," he said, hard driven by her persistence.

"Do you know her name?"

"Only her stage name, honey."

"But you know she was an actress!"

He sighed.

"All right, dear," he said. "I'll tell you all I know. She was
an actress, and she married another man. That's all there is to it.
She's not young now. She must be thirty now - if she's living," he
added, as an afterthought.

It was some time before she spoke again.

"I suppose she was beautiful," she said slowly.

"I don't know. Most of them aren't, off the stage. Anyhow, what
does it matter now?"

"Only that I know he has gone back to her. And you know it too."

He heard her going quietly out of the room.

Long after, he closed the house and went cautiously upstairs. She
was waiting for him in the doorway of her room, in her nightgown.

"I know it all now," she said steadily. "It was because of her he
shot the other man, wasn't it?"

She saw her answer in his startled face, and closed her door quickly.
He stood outside, and then he tapped lightly.

"Let me in, honey," he said. "I want to finish it. You've got a
wrong idea about it."

When she did not answer he tried the door, hut it was locked. He
turned and went downstairs again...

When he came home the next afternoon Margaret met him in the hall.

"She knows it, Walter."

"Knows what?"

"Knows he was back here and didn't see her. Annie blurted it out;
she'd got it from the Oglethorpe's laundress. Mr. Oglethorpe saw
him on the street."

It took him some time to drag a coherent story from her. Annie had
told Elizabeth in her room, and then had told Margaret. She had
gone to Elizabeth at once, to see what she could do, but Elizabeth
had been in her closet, digging among her clothes. She had got out
her best frock and put it on, while her mother sat on the bed not
even daring to broach the matter in her mind, and had gone out.
There was a sort of cold determination in her that frightened
Margaret. She had laughed a good bit, for one thing.

"She's terribly proud," she finished. "She'll do something reckless,
I'm sure. It wouldn't surprise me to see her come back engaged to
Wallie Sayre. I think that's where she went."

But apparently she had not, or if she had she said nothing about it.
>From that time on they saw a change in her; she was as loving as
ever, but she affected a sort of painful brightness that was a
little hard. As though she had clad herself in armor against
further suffering.





The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Category:
General Fiction

Mystery and detective stories
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