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VII


Louis Bassett was standing at the back of the theater, talking to
the publicity man of The Valley company, Fred Gregory. Bassett was
calm and only slightly interested. By the end of the first act he
had realized that the star was giving a fine performance, that she
had even grown in power, and that his sentimental memory of her was
considerably dearer than the reality.

"Going like a house afire," he said, as the curtain fell.

Beside his robust physique, Gregory, the publicity man, sank into
insignificance. Even his pale spats, at which Bassett had shot a
contemptuous glance, his highly expensive tailoring, failed to make
him appear more than he was, a little, dapper man, with a pale cold
eye and a rather too frequent smile. "She's the best there is," was
his comment. He hesitated, then added: "She's my sister, you know.
Naturally, for business reasons, I don't publish the relationship."

Bassett glanced at him.

"That so? Well, I'm glad she decided to come back. She's too good
to bury."

But if he expected Gregory to follow the lead he was disappointed.
His eyes, blank and expressionless, were wandering over the house
as the lights flashed up.

"This whole tour has been a triumph. She's the best there is,"
Gregory repeated, "and they know it."

"Does she know it?" Bassett inquired.

"She doesn't throw any temperament, if that's what you mean. She - "

He checked himself suddenly, and stood, clutching the railing, bent
forward and staring into the audience. Bassett watched him,
considerably surprised. It took a great deal to startle a theatrical
publicity man, yet here was one who looked as though he had seen a
ghost.

After a time Gregory straightened and moistened his dry lips.

"There's a man sitting down there - see here, the sixth row, next
the aisle; there's a girl in a blue dress beside him. See him? Do
you know who he is?"

"Never saw him before."

For perhaps two minutes Gregory continued to stare. Then he moved
over to the side of the house and braced against the wall continued
his close and anxious inspection. After a time he turned away and,
passing behind the boxes, made his way into the wings. Bassett's
curiosity was aroused, especially when, shortly after, Gregory
reappeared, bringing with him a small man in an untidy suit who was
probably, Bassett surmised, the stage manager.

He saw the small man stare, nod, stand watching, and finally
disappear, and Gregory resume his former position and attitude
against the side wall. Throughout the last act Gregory did not
once look at the stage. He continued his steady, unwavering study
of the man in the sixth row seat next the aisle, and Bassett
continued his study of the little man.

His long training made him quick to scent a story. He was not sure,
of course, but the situation appeared to him at least suggestive.
With the end of the play he wandered out with the crowd, edging his
way close to the man and girl who had focused Gregory's attention,
and following them into the street. He saw only a tall man with a
certain quiet distinction of bearing, and a young and pretty girl,
still flushed and excited, who went up the street a short distance
and got into a small and shabby car. Bassett noted, carefully, the
license number of the car.

Then, still curious and extremely interested, he walked briskly
around to the stage entrance, nodded to the doorkeeper, and went in.

Gregory was not in sight, but the stage manager was there, directing
the striking of the last set.

"I'm waiting for Gregory," Bassett said. "Hasn't fainted, has he?"

"What d'you mean, fainted?" inquired the stage manager, with a touch
of hostility.

"I was with him when he thought he recognized somebody. You know
who. You can tell him I got his automobile number."

The stage manager's hostility faded, and he fell into the trap.
"You know about it, then?"

"I was with him when he saw him. Unfortunately I couldn't help him
out."

"It's just possible it's a chance resemblance. I'm darned if I
know. Look at the facts! He's supposed to be dead. Ten years
dead. His money's been split up a dozen ways from the ace. Then
- I knew him, you know - I don't think even he would have the
courage to come here and sit through a performance. Although,"
he added reflectively, "Jud Clark had the nerve for anything."

Bassett gave him a cigar and went out into the alley way that led
to the street. Once there, he stood still and softly whistled.
Jud Clark! If that was Judson Clark, he had the story of a lifetime.

For some time he walked the deserted streets of the city, thinking
and puzzling over the possibility of Gregory's being right.
Sometime after midnight he went back to the office and to the
filing room. There, for two hours, he sat reading closely old
files of the paper, going through them methodically and making
occasional brief notes in a memorandum. Then, at two o'clock he
put away the files, and sitting back, lighted a cigar.

It was all there; the enormous Clark fortune inherited by a boy who
had gone mad about this same Beverly Carlysle; her marriage to her
leading man, Howard Lucas; the subsequent killing of Lucas by Clark
at his Wyoming ranch, and Clark's escape into the mountains. The
sensational details of Clark's infatuation, the drama of a crime
and Clark's subsequent escape, and the later certainty of his death
in a mountain storm had filled the newspapers of the time for weeks.
Judson Clark had been famous, notorious, infamous and dead, all in
less than two years. A shameful and somehow a pitiful story.

But if Judson Clark had died, the story still lived. Every so often
it came up again. Three years before he had been declared legally
dead, and his vast estates, as provided by the will of old Elihu
Clark, had gone to universities and hospitals. But now and then
came a rumor. Jud Clark was living in India; he had a cattle ranch
in Venezuela; he had been seen on the streets of New Orleans.

Bassett ran over the situation in his mind.

First then, grant that Clark was still living and had been in the
theater that night. It became necessary to grant other things.
To grant, for instance, that Clark was capable of sitting, with a
girl beside him, through a performance by the woman for whom he had
wrecked his life, of a play he had once known from the opening line
to the tag. To grant that he could laugh and applaud, and at the
drop of the curtain go calmly away, with such memories behind him
as must be his. To grant, too, that he had survived miraculously
his sensational disappearance, found a new identity and a new place
for himself; even, witness the girl, possible new ties.

At half past two Bassett closed his memorandum book, stuffed it
into his pocket, and started for home. As he passed the Ardmore
Hotel he looked up at its windows. Gregory would have told her,
probably. He wondered, half amused, whether the stage manager had
told him of his inquiries, and whether in that case they might not
fear him more than Clark himself. After all, they had nothing to
fear from Clark, if this were Clark.

No. What they might see and dread, knowing he had had a hint of a
possible situation, was the revival of the old story she had tried
so hard to live down. She was ambitious, and a new and rigid
morality was sweeping the country. What once might have been an
asset stood now to be a bitter liability.

He slowed down, absorbed in deep thought. It was a queer story.
It might be even more queer than it seemed. Gregory had been
frightened rather than startled. The man had even gone pale.

Motive, motive, that was the word. What motive lay behind action.
Conscious and unconscious, every volitional act was the result of
motive.

He wondered what she had done when Gregory had told her.

As a matter of fact, Beverly Carlysle had shown less anxiety than
her brother. Still pale and shocked, he had gone directly to her
dressing-room when the curtain was rung down, had tapped and gone
in. She was sitting wearily in a chair, a cigarette between her
fingers. Around was the usual litter of a stage dressing-room after
the play, the long shelf beneath the mirror crowded with powders,
rouge and pencils, a bunch of roses in the corner washstand basin,
a wardrobe trunk, and a maid covering with cheese-cloth bags the
evening's costumes.

"It went all right, I think, Fred."

"Yes," he said absently. "Go on out, Alice. I'll let you come back
in a few minutes."

He waited until the door closed.

"What's the matter?" she asked rather indifferently. "If it's more
quarreling in the company I don't want to hear it. I'm tired."
Then she took a full look at him, and sat up.

"Fred! What is it?"

He gave her the truth, brutally and at once.

"I think Judson Clark was in the house to-night."

"I don't believe it."

"Neither would I, if somebody told me," he agreed sullenly. "I saw
him. Don't you suppose I know him? And if you don't believe me,
call Saunders. I got him out front. He knows."

"You called Saunders !"

"Why not? I tell you, Bev, I was nearly crazy. I'm nearly crazy
now."

"What did Saunders say?"

"If he didn't know Clark was dead, he'd say it was Clark."

She was worried by that time, but far more collected than he was.
She sat, absently tapping the shelf with a nail file, and reflecting.

"All right," she said. "Suppose he was? What then? He has been
in hiding for ten years. Why shouldn't he continue to hide? What
would bring him out now? Unless he needed money. Was he shabby?"

"No," he said sulkily. "He was with a girl. He was dressed all
right."

"You didn't say anything, except to Saunders?"

"No I'm not crazy."

"I'd better see Joe," she reflected. "Go and get him, Fred. And
tell Alice she needn't wait."

She got up and moved about the room, putting things away and finding
relief in movement, a still beautiful woman, with rather accentuated
features and an easy carriage. Without her make-up the stage
illusion of her youth was gone, and she showed past suffering and
present strain. Just then she was uneasy and resentful, startled
but not particularly alarmed. Her reason told her that Judson Clark,
even if he still lived and had been there that night, meant to leave
the dead past to care for itself, and wished no more than she to
revive it. She was surprised to find, as she moved about, that she
was trembling.

Her brother came back, and she turned to meet him. To her surprise
he was standing inside the door, white to the lips and staring at
her with wild eyes.

"Saunders !" he said chokingly, "Saunders, the damned fool! He's
given it away."

He staggered to a chair, and ran a handkerchief across his shaking
lips.

"He told Bassett, of the Times-Republican," he managed to say.
"Do you - do you know what that means? And Bassett got Clark's
automobile number. He said so."

He looked up at her, his face twitching. "They're hound dogs on a
scent, Bev. They'll get the story, and blow it wide open."

"You know I'm prepared for that. I have been for ten years."

"I know." He was suddenly emotional. He reached out and took her
hand. "Poor old Bev!" he said. "After the way you've come back,
too. It's a damned shame."

She was calmer than he was, less convinced for one thing, and better
balanced always. She let him stroke her hand, standing near him
with her eyes absent and a little hard.

"I'd better make sure that was Jud first," he offered, after a time,
"and then warn him."

"Why?"

"Bassett will be after him."

"No!" she commanded sharply. "No, Fred. You let the thing alone.
You've built up an imaginary situation, and you're not thinking
straight. Plenty of things might happen. What probably has happened
is that this Bassett is at home and in bed."

She sent him out for a taxi soon after, and they went back to the
hotel. But, alone later on in her suite in the Ardmore she did not
immediately go to bed. She put on a dressing gown and stood for a
long time by her window, looking out. Instead of the city lights,
however, she saw a range of snow-capped mountains, and sheltered at
their foot the Clark ranch house, built by the old millionaire as
a place of occasional refuge from the pressure of his life. There
he had raised his fine horses, and trained them for the track.
There, when late in life he married, he had taken his wife for their
honeymoon and two years later, for the birth of their son. And
there, when she died, he had returned with the child, himself broken
and prematurely aged, to be killed by one of his own stallions when
the boy was fifteen.

Six years his own master, Judson had been twenty-one to her twenty,
when she first met him. Going the usual pace, too, and throwing
money right and left. He had financed her as a star, ransacking
Europe for her stage properties, and then he fell in love with her.
She shivered as she remembered it. It had been desperate and
terrible, because she had cared for some one else.

Standing by the window, she wondered as she had done over and over
again for ten years, what would have happened if, instead of marrying
Howard, she had married Judson Clark? Would he have settled down?
She had felt sometimes that in his wildest moments he was only
playing a game that amused him; that the hard-headed part of him
inherited from his father sometimes stood off and watched, with a
sort of interested detachment, the follies of the other. That he
played his wild game with his tongue in his cheek.

She left the window, turned out the lights and got into her bed.
She was depressed and lonely, and she cried a little. After a time
she remembered that she had not put any cream on her face. She
crawled out again and went through the familiar motions in the dark.





The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Category:
General Fiction

Mystery and detective stories
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