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XLI


Elizabeth had quite definitely put Dick out of her heart. On the
evening of the day she learned he had come back and had not seen
her, she deliberately killed her love and decently interred it.
She burned her notes and his one letter and put away her ring,
performing the rites not as rites but as a shameful business to be
done with quickly. She tore his photograph into bits and threw them
into her waste basket, and having thus housecleaned her room set to
work to houseclean her heart.

She found very little to do. She was numb and totally without
feeling. The little painful constriction in her chest which had so
often come lately with her thoughts of him was gone. She felt
extraordinarily empty, but not light, and her feet dragged about
the room.

She felt no sense of Dick's unworthiness, but simply that she was
up against something she could not fight, and no longer wanted to
fight. She was beaten, but the strange thing was that she did not
care. Only, she would not be pitied. As the days went on she
resented the pity that had kept her in ignorance for so long, and
had let her wear her heart on her sleeve; and she even wondered
sometimes whether the story of Dick's loss of memory had not been
false, evolved out of that pity and the desire to save her pain.

David sent for her, but she wrote him a little note, formal and
restrained. She would come in a day or two, but now she must get
her bearings. He was, to know that she was not angry, and felt it
all for the best, and she was very lovingly his, Elizabeth.

She knew now that she would eventually marry Wallie Sayre if only
to get away from pity. He would have to know the truth about her,
that she did not love any one; not even her father and her mother.
She pretended to care for fear of hurting them, but she was actually
frozen quite hard. She did not believe in love. It was a terrible
thing, to be avoided by any one who wanted to get along, and this
avoiding was really quite simple. One simply stopped feeling.

On the Sunday after she had come to this comfortable knowledge she
sat in the church as usual, in the choir stalls, and suddenly she
hated the church. She hated the way the larynx of Henry Wallace,
the tenor, stuck out like a crabapple over his low collar. She
hated the fat double chin of the bass. She hated the talk about
love and the certain rewards of virtue, and the faces of the
congregation, smug and sure of salvation.

She went to the choir master after the service to hand in her
resignation. And did not, because it had occurred to her that it
might look, to use Nina's word, as though she were crushed.
Crushed! That was funny.

Wallie Sayre was waiting for her outside, and she went up with him
to lunch, and afterwards they played golf. They had rather an
amusing game, and once she had to sit down on a bunker and laugh
until she was weak, while he fought his way out of a pit. Crushed,
indeed!

So the weaving went on, almost completed now. With Wallie Sayre
biding his time, but fairly sure of the result. With Jean Melis
happening on a two-days' old paper, and reading over and over a
notice addressed to him. With Leslie Ward, neither better nor
worse than his kind, seeking adventure in a bypath, which was East
56th Street. And with Dick wandering the streets of New York after
twilight, and standing once with his coat collar turned up against
the rain outside of the Metropolitan Club, where the great painting
of his father hung over a mantelpiece.

Now that he was near Beverly, Dick hesitated to see her. He felt
no resentment at her long silence, nor at his exile which had
resulted from it. He made excuses for her, recognized his own
contribution to the catastrophe, knew, too, that nothing was to be
gained by seeing her again. But he determined finally to see her
once more, and then to go away, leaving her to peace and to success.

She would know now that she had nothing to fear from him. All he
wanted was to satisfy the hunger that was in him by seeing her, and
then to go away.

Curiously, that hunger to see her had been in abeyance while Bassett
was with him. It was only when he was alone again that it came up;
and although he knew that, he was unconscious of another fact, that
every word, every picture of her on the great boardings which walled
in every empty lot, everything, indeed, which brought her into the
reality of the present, loosened by so much her hold on him out of
the past.

When he finally went to the 56th Street house it was on impulse.
He had meant to pass it, but he found himself stopping, and half
angrily made his determination. He would follow the cursed thing
through now and get it over. Perhaps he had discounted it too much
in advance, waited too long, hoped too much. Perhaps it was simply
that that last phase was already passing. But he felt no thrill,
no expectancy, as he rang the bell and was admitted to the familiar
hall.

It was peopled with ghosts, for him. Upstairs, in the drawing-room
that extended across the front of the house, she had told him of
her engagement to Howard Lucas. Later on, coming back from Europe,
he had gone back there to find Lucas installed in the house, his
cigars on the table, his photographs on the piano, his books
scattered about. And Lucas himself, smiling, handsome and
triumphant on the hearth rug, dressed for dinner except for a
brocaded dressing-gown, putting his hand familiarly on Beverly's
shoulder, and calling her "old girl."

He wandered into the small room to the right of the hall, where in
other days he had waited to be taken upstairs, and stood looking
out of the window. He heard some one, a caller, come down, get
into his overcoat in the hall and go out, but he was not interested.
He did not know that Leslie Ward had stood outside the door for a
minute, had seen and recognized him, and had then slammed out.

He was quite steady as the butler preceded him up the stairs. He
even noticed certain changes in the house, the door at the landing
converted into an arch, leaded glass in the dining-room windows
beyond it. But he caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror, and
saw himself a shabby contrast to the former days.

He faced her, still with that unexpected composure, and he saw her
very little changed. Even the movement with which she came toward
him with both hands out was familiar.

"Jud!" she said. "Oh, my dear!"

He saw that she was profoundly moved, and suddenly he was sorry for
her. Sorry for the years behind them both, for the burden she had
carried, for the tears in her eyes.

"Dear old Bev!" he said.

She put her head against his shoulder, and cried unrestrainedly;
and he held her there, saying small, gentle, soothing things,
smoothing her hair. But all the time he knew that life had been
playing him another trick; he felt a great tenderness for her and
profound pity, but he did not love her, or want her. He saw that
after all the suffering and waiting, the death and exile, he was
left at the end with nothing. Nothing at all.

When she was restored to a sort of tense composure he found to his
discomfort that woman-like she intended to abase herself thoroughly
and completely. She implored his forgiveness for his long exile,
gazing at him humbly, and when he said in a matter-of-fact tone
that he had been happy, giving him a look which showed that she
thought he was lying to save her unhappiness.

"You are trying to make it easier for me. But I know, Jud."

"I'm telling you the truth," he said, patiently. "There's one
point I didn't think necessary to tell your brother. For a good
while I didn't remember anything about it. If it hadn't been for
that-well, I don't know. Anyhow, don't look at me as though I
willfully saved you. I didn't."

She sat still, pondering that, and twisting a ring on her finger.

"What do you mean to do?" she asked, after a pause.

"I don't know. I'll find something."

"You won't go back to your work?"

"I don't see how I can. I'm in hiding, in a sort of casual fashion."

To his intense discomfiture she began to cry again. She couldn't
go through with it. She would go back to Norada and tell the whole
thing. She had let Fred influence her, but she saw now she couldn't
do it. But for the first time he felt that in this one thing she
was not sincere. Her grief and abasement had been real enough, but
now he felt she was acting.

"Suppose we don't go into that now," he said gently. "You've had
about all you can stand." He got up awkwardly. "I suppose you are
playing to-night?"

She nodded, looking up at him dumbly.

"Better lie down, then, and-forget me." He smiled down at her.

"I've never forgotten you, Jud. And now, seeing you again - I - "

Her face worked. She continued to look up at him, piteously. The
appalling truth came to him then, and that part of him which had
remained detached and aloof, watching, almost smiled at the irony.
She cared for him. Out of her memories she had built up something
to care for, something no more himself than she was the woman of
his dreams; but with this difference, that she was clinging,
woman-fashion, to the thing she had built, and he had watched it
crumble before his eyes.

"Will you promise to go and rest?"

"Yes. If you say so."

She was acquiescent and humble. Her eyes were soft, faithful,
childlike.

"I've suffered so, Jud."

"I know."

"You don't hate me, do you?"

"Why should I? Just remember this: while you were carrying this
burden, I was happier than I'd ever been. I'll tell you about it
some time."

She got up, and he perceived that she expected him again to take
her in his arms. He felt ridiculous and resentful, and rather as
though he was expected to kiss the hand that had beaten him, but
when she came close to him he put an arm around her shoulders.

"Poor Bev!' he said. "We've made pretty much a mess of it, haven't
we?"

He patted her and let her go, and her eyes followed him as he left
the room. The elder brotherliness of that embrace had told her the
truth as he could never have hurt her in words. She went back to
the chair where he had sat, and leaned her cheek against it.

After a time she went slowly upstairs and into her room. When her
maid came in she found her before the mirror of her dressing-table,
staring at her reflection with hard, appraising eyes

Leslie's partner, wandering into the hotel at six o'clock, found
from the disordered condition of the room that Leslie had been back,
had apparently bathed, shaved and made a careful toilet, and gone
out again. Joe found himself unexpectedly at a loose end. Filled,
with suppressed indignation he commenced to dress, getting out a
shirt, hunting his evening studs, and lining up what he meant to
say to Leslie over his defection.

Then, at a quarter to seven, Leslie came in, top-hatted and
morning-coated, with a yellowing gardenia in his buttonhole and his
shoes covered with dust.

"Hello, Les," Joe said, glancing up from a laborious struggle with
a stud. "Been to a wedding?"

"Why?"

"You look like it."

"I made a call, and since then I've been walking."

"Some walk, I'd say," Joe observed, looking at him shrewdly.
"What's wrong, Les? Fair one turn you down?"

"Go to hell," Leslie said irritably.

He flung off his coat and jerked at his tie. Then, with it hanging
loose, he turned to Joe.

"I'm going to tell you something. I know it's safe with you, and
I need some advice. I called on a woman this afternoon. You know
who she is. Beverly Carlysle."

Joe whistled softly.

"That's not the point," Leslie declaimed, in a truculent voice.
"I'm not defending myself. She's a friend; I've got a right to
call there if I want to."

"Sure you have," soothed Joe.

"Well, you know the situation at home, and who Livingstone actually
is. The point is that, while that poor kid at home is sitting
around killing herself with grief, Clark's gone back to her. To
Beverly Carlysle."

"How do you know?"

"Know? I saw him this afternoon, at her house."

He sat still, moodily reviewing the situation. His thoughts were
a chaotic and unpleasant mixture of jealousy, fear of Nina, anxiety
over Elizabeth, and the sense of a lost romantic adventure. After
a while he got up.

"She's a nice kid," he said. "I'm fond of her. And I don't know
what to do."

Suddenly Joe grinned.

"I see," he said. "And you can't tell her, or the family, where
you saw him !"

"Not without raising the deuce of a row."

He began, automatically, to dress for dinner. Joe moved around
the room, rang for a waiter, ordered orange juice and ice, and
produced a bottle of gin from his bag. Leslie did not hear him, nor
the later preparation of the cocktails. He was reflecting bitterly
on the fact that a man who married built himself a wall against
romance, a wall, compounded of his own new sense of responsibility,
of family ties, and fear.

Joe brought him a cocktail.

"Drink it, old dear," he said. "And when it's down I'll tell you
a few little things about playing around with ladies who have a
past. Here's to forgetting 'em."

Leslie took the glass.

"Right-o," he said.

He went home the following day, leaving Joe to finish the business
in New York. His going rather resembled a flight. Tossing
sleepless the night before, he had found what many a man had
discovered before him, that his love of clandestine adventure was
not as strong as his caution. He had had a shock. True, his affair
with Beverly had been a formless thing, a matter of imagination and
a desire to assure himself that romance, for him, was not yet dead.
True, too, that he had nothing to fear from Dick Livingstone. But
the encounter had brought home to him the danger of this old-new
game he was playing. He was running like a frightened child.

He thought of various plans. One of them was to tell Nina the
truth, take his medicine of tears and coldness, and then go to Mr.
Wheeler. One was to go to Mr. Wheeler, without Nina, and make his
humiliating admission. But Walter Wheeler had his own rigid ideas,
was uncompromising in rectitude, and would understand as only a
man could that while so far he had been only mentally unfaithful,
he had been actuated by at least subconscious desire.

His own awareness of that fact made him more cautious than he need
have been, perhaps more self-conscious. And he genuinely cared for
Elizabeth. It was, on the whole, a generous and kindly impulse that
lay behind his ultimate resolution to tell her that her desertion
was both wilful and cruel.

Yet, when the time came, he found it hard to tell her. He took her
for a drive one evening soon after his return, forcibly driving off
Wallie Sayre to do so, and eying surreptitiously now and then her
pale, rather set face. He found a quiet lane and stopped the car
there, and then turned and faced her.

"How've you been, little sister, while I've been wandering the gay
white way?" he asked.

"I've been all right, Leslie."

Not quite all right, I think. Have you ever thought, Elizabeth,
that no man on earth is worth what you've been going through?"

"I'm all right, I tell you," she said impatiently. "I'm not
grieving any more. That's the truth, Les. I know now that he
doesn't intend to come back, and I don't care. I never even think
about him, now."

"I see," he said. "Well, that's that."

But he had not counted on her intuition, and was startled to hear
her say:

"Well? Go on."

"What do you mean, go on?"

"You brought me out here to tell me something."

"Not at all. I simply - "

"Where is he? You've seen him."

He tried to meet her eyes, failed, cursed himself for a fool. "He's
alive and well, Elizabeth. I saw him in New York." It was a full
minute before she spoke again, and then her lips were stiff and her
voice strained.

"Has he gone back to her? To the actress he used to care for?"

He hesitated, but he knew he would have to go on.

"I'm going to tell you something, Elizabeth. It's not very
creditable to me, but I'll have to trust you. I don't want to see
you wasting your life. You've got plenty of courage and a lot of
spirit. And you've got to forget him."

He told her, and then he took her home. He was a little frightened,
for there was something not like her in the way she had taken it, a
sort of immobility that might, he thought, cover heartbreak. But
she smiled when she thanked him, and went very calmly into the house.

That night she accepted Wallie Sayre.





The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Category:
General Fiction

Mystery and detective stories
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