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Authors: Mary Roberts Rinehart

the breaking point

THE BREAKING POINT
* * *
MARY ROBERTS RINEHART
 
*
The Breaking Point
First published in 1922
ISBN 978-1-62011-997-6
Duke Classics
© 2012 Duke Classics and its licensors. All rights reserved.
While every effort has been used to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the information contained in this edition, Duke Classics does not assume liability or responsibility for any errors or omissions in this book. Duke Classics does not accept responsibility for loss suffered as a result of reliance upon the accuracy or currency of information contained in this book.
Contents
*
I
II
III
IV
V
VI
VII
VIII
IX
X
XI
XII
XIII
XIV
XV
XVI
XVII
XVIII
XIX
XX
XXI
XXII
XXIII
XXIV
XXV
XXVI
XXVII
XXVIII
XXIX
XXX
XXXI
XXXII
XXXIII
XXXIV
XXXV
XXXVI
XXXVII
XXXVIII
XXXIX
XL
XLI
XLII
XLIII
XLIV
XLV
XLVI
XLVII
XLVIII
I
*

"Heaven and earth," sang the tenor, Mr. Henry Wallace, owner of the
Wallace garage. His larynx, which gave him somewhat the effect of having
swallowed a crab-apple and got it only part way down, protruded above
his low collar.

"Heaven and earth," sang the bass, Mr. Edwin Goodno, of the meat market
and the Boy Scouts. "Heaven and earth, are full—" His chin, large and
fleshy, buried itself deep; his eyes were glued on the music sheet in
his hand.

"Are full, are full, are full," sang the soprano, Clare Rossiter, of the
yellow colonial house on the Ridgely Road. She sang with her eyes turned
up, and as she reached G flat she lifted herself on her toes. "Of the
majesty, of Thy glory."

"Ready," barked the choir master. "Full now, and all together."

The choir room in the parish house resounded to the twenty voices of the
choir. The choir master at the piano kept time with his head. Earnest
and intent, they filled the building with the Festival Te Deum of Dudley
Buck, Opus 63, No. 1.

Elizabeth Wheeler liked choir practice. She liked the way in which,
after the different parts had been run through, the voices finally
blended into harmony and beauty. She liked the small sense of
achievement it gave her, and of being a part, on Sundays, of the
service. She liked the feeling, when she put on the black cassock and
white surplice and the small round velvet cap of having placed in her
locker the things of this world, such as a rose-colored hat and a blue
georgette frock, and of being stripped, as it were, for aspirations.

At such times she had vague dreams of renunciation. She saw herself
cloistered in some quiet spot, withdrawn from the world; a place where
there were long vistas of pillars and Gothic arches, after a photograph
in the living room at home, and a great organ somewhere, playing.

She would go home from church, however, clad in the rose-colored hat and
the blue georgette frock, and eat a healthy Sunday luncheon; and by two
o'clock in the afternoon, when the family slept and Jim had gone to the
country club, her dreams were quite likely to be entirely different.
Generally speaking, they had to do with love. Romantic, unclouded young
love dramatic only because it was love, and very happy.

Sometime, perhaps, some one would come and say he loved her. That was
all. That was at once the beginning and the end. Her dreams led up to
that and stopped. Not by so much as a hand clasp did they pass that
wall.

So she sat in the choir room and awaited her turn.

"Altos a little stronger, please."

"Of the majesty, of the majesty, of the majesty, of Thy gl-o-o-ry," sang
Elizabeth. And was at once a nun and a principal in a sentimental dream
of two.

What appeared to the eye was a small and rather ethereal figure with
sleek brown hair and wistful eyes; nice eyes, of no particular color.
Pretty with the beauty of youth, sensitive and thoughtful, infinitely
loyal and capable of suffering and not otherwise extraordinary was
Elizabeth Wheeler in her plain wooden chair. A figure suggestive of no
drama and certainly of no tragedy, its attitude expectant and waiting,
with that alternate hope and fear which is youth at twenty, when all of
life lies ahead and every to-morrow may hold some great adventure.

Clare Rossiter walked home that night with Elizabeth. She was a tall
blonde girl, lithe and graceful, and with a calculated coquetry in her
clothes.

"Do you mind going around the block?" she asked. "By Station Street?"
There was something furtive and yet candid in her voice, and Elizabeth
glanced at her.

"All right. But it's out of your way, isn't it?"

"Yes. I—You're so funny, Elizabeth. It's hard to talk to you. But I've
got to talk to somebody. I go around by Station Street every chance I
get."

"By Station Street? Why?"

"I should think you could guess why."

She saw that Clare desired to be questioned, and at the same time
she felt a great distaste for the threatened confidence. She loathed
arm-in-arm confidences, the indecency of dragging up and exposing, in
whispers, things that should have been buried deep in reticence. She
hesitated, and Clare slipped an arm through hers.

"You don't know, then, do you? Sometimes I think every one must know.
And I don't care. I've reached that point."

Her confession, naive and shameless, and yet somehow not without a
certain dignity, flowed on. She was mad about Doctor Dick Livingstone.
Goodness knew why, for he never looked at her. She might be the dirt
under his feet for all he knew. She trembled when she met him in the
street, and sometimes he looked past her and never saw her. She didn't
sleep well any more.

Elizabeth listened in great discomfort. She did not see in Clare's
hopeless passion the joy of the flagellant, or the self-dramatization
of a neurotic girl. She saw herself unwillingly forced to peer into
the sentimental windows of Clare's soul, and there to see Doctor Dick
Livingstone, an unconscious occupant. But she had a certain fugitive
sense of guilt, also. Formless as her dreams had been, vague and shy,
they had nevertheless centered about some one who should be tall, like
Dick Livingstone, and alternately grave, which was his professional
manner, and gay, which was his manner when it turned out to be only a
cold, and he could take a few minutes to be himself. Generally speaking,
they centered about some one who resembled Dick Livingstone, but who
did not, as did Doctor Livingstone, assume at times an air of frightful
maturity and pretend that in years gone by he had dandled her on his
knee.

"Sometimes I think he positively avoids me," Clare wailed. "There's
the house, Elizabeth. Do you mind stopping a moment? He must be in his
office now. The light's burning."

"I wish you wouldn't, Clare. He'd hate it if he knew."

She moved on and Clare slowly followed her. The Rossiter girl's flow
of talk had suddenly stopped. She was thoughtful and impulsively
suspicious.

"Look here, Elizabeth, I believe you care for him yourself."

"I? What is the matter with you to-night, Clare?"

"I'm just thinking. Your voice was so queer."

They walked on in silence. The flow of Clare's confidences had ceased,
and her eyes were calculating and a trifle hard.

"There's a good bit of talk about him," she jerked out finally. "I
suppose you've heard it."

"What sort of talk?"

"Oh, gossip. You'll hear it. Everybody's talking about it. It's doing
him a lot of harm."

"I don't believe it," Elizabeth flared. "This town hasn't anything else
to do, and so it talks. It makes me sick."

She did not attempt to analyze the twisted motives that made Clare
belittle what she professed to love. And she did not ask what the gossip
was. Half way up Palmer Lane she turned in at the cement path between
borders of early perennials which led to the white Wheeler house. She
was flushed and angry, hating Clare for her unsolicited confidence and
her malice, hating even Haverly, that smiling, tree-shaded suburb which
"talked."

She opened the door quietly and went in. Micky, the Irish terrier, lay
asleep at the foot of the stairs, and her father's voice, reading aloud,
came pleasantly from the living room. Suddenly her sense of resentment
died. With the closing of the front door the peace of the house
enveloped her. What did it matter if, beyond that door, there were
unrequited love and petty gossip, and even tragedy? Not that she put all
that into conscious thought; she had merely a sensation of sanctuary
and peace. Here, within these four walls, were all that one should need,
love and security and quiet happiness. Walter Wheeler, pausing to turn a
page, heard her singing as she went up the stairs. In the moment of the
turning he too had a flash of content. Twenty-five years of married life
and all well; Nina married, Jim out of college, Elizabeth singing her
way up the stairs, and here by the lamp his wife quietly knitting while
he read to her. He was reading Paradise Lost: "The mind is its own
place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven."

He did a certain amount of serious reading every year.

On Sunday mornings, during the service, Elizabeth earnestly tried to
banish all worldly thoughts. In spite of this resolve, however, she was
always conscious of a certain regret that the choir seats necessitated
turning her profile to the congregation. At the age of twelve she had
decided that her nose was too short, and nothing had happened since
to change her conviction. She seldom so much as glanced at the
congregation. During her slow progress up and down the main aisle behind
the Courtney boy, who was still a soprano and who carried the great gold
cross, she always looked straight ahead. Or rather, although she was
unconscious of this, slightly up. She always looked up when she sang,
for she had commenced to take singing lessons when the piano music rack
was high above her head.

So she still lifted her eyes as she went up the aisle, and was extremely
serious over the whole thing. Because it is a solemn matter to take a
number of people who have been up to that moment engrossed in thoughts
of food or golf or servants or business, and in the twinkling of an eye,
as the prayer book said about death, turn their minds to worship.

Nevertheless, although she never looked at the pews, she was always
conscious of two of them. The one near the pulpit was the Sayres' and it
was the social calendar of the town. When Mrs. Sayre was in it, it was
the social season. One never knew when Mrs. Sayre's butler would call up
and say:

"I am speaking for Mrs. Sayre. Mrs. Sayre would like to have the
pleasure of Miss Wheeler's company on Thursday to luncheon, at
one-thirty."

When the Sayre pew was empty, the town knew, if it happened to be
winter, that the Florida or Santa Barbara season was on; or in summer
the Maine coast.

The other pew was at the back of the church. Always it had one occupant;
sometimes it had three. But the behavior of this pew was very erratic.
Sometimes an elderly and portly gentleman with white hair and fierce
eyebrows would come in when the sermon was almost over. Again, a hand
would reach through the grill behind it, and a tall young man who
had had his eyes fixed in the proper direction, but not always on
the rector, would reach for his hat, get up and slip out. On these
occasions, however, he would first identify the owner of the hand and
then bend over the one permanent occupant of the pew, a little old lady.
His speech was as Yea, yea, or Nay, nay, for he either said, "I'll be
back for dinner," or "Don't look for me until you see me."

And Mrs. Crosby, without taking her eyes from the sermon, would nod.

Of late years, Doctor David Livingstone had been taking less and less
of the "Don't-look-for-me-until-you-see-me" cases, and Doctor Dick had
acquired a car, which would not freeze when left outside all night like
a forgotten dog, and a sense of philosophy about sleep. That is, that
eleven o'clock P.M. was bed-time to some people, but was just eleven
o'clock for him.

When he went to church he listened to the sermon, but rather often
he looked at Elizabeth Wheeler. When his eyes wandered, as the most
faithful eyes will now and then, they were apt to rest on the flag that
had hung, ever since the war, beside the altar. He had fought for his
country in a sea of mud, never nearer than two hundred miles to the
battle line, fought with a surgical kit instead of a gun, but he was
content. Not to all the high adventure.

Had he been asked, suddenly, the name of the tall blonde girl who sang
among the sopranos, he could not have told it.

The Sunday morning following Clare Rossiter's sentimental confession,
Elizabeth tried very hard to banish all worldly thoughts, as usual,
and to see the kneeling, rising and sitting congregation as there for
worship. But for the first time she wondered. Some of the faces were
blank, as though behind the steady gaze the mind had wandered far
afield, or slept. Some were intent, some even devout. But for the first
time she began to feel that people in the mass might be cruel, too.
How many of them, for instance, would sometime during the day pass on,
behind their hands, the gossip Clare had mentioned?

She changed her position, and glanced quickly over the church. The
Livingstone pew was fully occupied, and well up toward the front, Wallie
Sayre was steadfastly regarding her. She looked away quickly.

Came the end of the service. Came down the aisle the Courtney boy, clean
and shining and carrying high his glowing symbol. Came the choir, two by
two, the women first, sopranos, altos and Elizabeth. Came the men,
bass and tenor, neatly shaved for Sunday morning. Came the rector, Mr.
Oglethorpe, a trifle wistful, because always he fell so far below the
mark he had set. Came the benediction. Came the slow rising from its
knees of the congregation and its cheerful bustle of dispersal.

Doctor Dick Livingstone stood up and helped Doctor David into his
new spring overcoat. He was very content. It was May, and the sun was
shining. It was Sunday, and he would have an hour or two of leisure. And
he had made a resolution about a matter that had been in his mind for
some time. He was very content.

He looked around the church with what was almost a possessive eye. These
people were his friends. He knew them all, and they knew him. They had,
against his protest, put his name on the bronze tablet set in the wall
on the roll of honor. Small as it was, this was his world.

Half smiling, he glanced about. He did not realize that behind their
bows and greetings there was something new that day, something not so
much unkind as questioning.

Outside in the street he tucked his aunt, Mrs. Crosby, against the
spring wind, and waited at the wheel of the car while David entered with
the deliberation of a man accustomed to the sagging of his old side-bar
buggy under his weight. Long ago Dick had dropped the titular "uncle,"
and as David he now addressed him.

"You're going to play some golf this afternoon, David," he said firmly.
"Mike had me out this morning to look at your buggy springs."

David chuckled. He still stuck to his old horse, and to the ancient
vehicle which had been the signal of distress before so many doors for
forty years. "I can trust old Nettie," he would say. "She doesn't freeze
her radiator on cold nights, she doesn't skid, and if I drop asleep
she'll take me home and into my own barn, which is more than any
automobile would do."

"I'm going to sleep," he said comfortably. "Get Wallie Sayre—I see he's
back from some place again—or ask a nice girl. Ask Elizabeth Wheeler. I
don't think Lucy here expects to be the only woman in your life."

Dick stared into the windshield.

"I've been wondering about that, David," he said, "just how much
right—"

"Balderdash!" David snorted. "Don't get any fool notion in your head."

Followed a short silence with Dick driving automatically and thinking.
Finally he drew a long breath.

"All right," he said, "how about that golf—you need exercise. You're
putting on weight, and you know it. And you smoke too much. It's either
less tobacco or more walking, and you ought to know it."

David grunted, but he turned to Lucy Crosby, in the rear seat:

"Lucy, d'you know where my clubs are?"

"You loaned them to Jim Wheeler last fall. If you get three of them back
you're lucky." Mrs. Crosby's voice was faintly tart. Long ago she
had learned that her brother's belongings were his only by right of
purchase, and were by way of being community property. When, early
in her widowhood and her return to his home, she had found that her
protests resulted only in a sort of clandestine giving or lending, she
had exacted a promise from him. "I ask only one thing, David," she
had said. "Tell me where the things go. There wasn't a blanket for the
guest-room bed at the time of the Diocesan Convention."

"I'll run around to the Wheelers' and get them," Dick observed, in a
carefully casual voice. "I'll see the Carter baby, too, David, and that
clears the afternoon. Any message?"

Lucy glanced at him, but David moved toward the house.

"Give Elizabeth a kiss for me," he called over his shoulder, and went
chuckling up the path.

II
*

Mrs. Crosby stood on the pavement, gazing after the car as it moved off.
She had not her brother's simplicity nor his optimism. Her married years
had taken her away from the environment which had enabled him to live
his busy, uncomplicated life; where, the only medical man in a growing
community, he had learned to form his own sturdy decisions and then to
abide by them.

Black and white, right and wrong, the proper course and the improper
course—he lived in a sort of two-dimensional ethical world. But to Lucy
Crosby, between black and white there was a gray no-man's land of doubt
and indecision; a half-way house of compromise, and sometimes David
frightened her. He was so sure.

She passed the open door into the waiting-room, where sat two or three
patient and silent figures, and went back to the kitchen. Minnie, the
elderly servant, sat by the table reading, amid the odor of roasting
chicken; outside the door on the kitchen porch was the freezer
containing the dinner ice-cream. An orderly Sunday peace was in the air,
a gesture of homely comfort, order and security.

Minnie got up.

"I'll unpin your veil for you," she offered, obligingly. "You've got
time to lie down about ten minutes. Mrs. Morgan said she's got to have
her ears treated."

"I hope she doesn't sit and talk for an hour."

"She'll talk, all right," Minnie observed, her mouth full of pins.
"She'd be talking to me yet if I'd stood there. She's got her nerve,
too, that woman."

"I don't like to hear you speak so of the patients who come to the
house, Minnie."

"Well, I don't like their asking me questions about the family either,"
said Minnie, truculently. "She wanted to know who was Doctor Dick's
mother. Said she had had a woman here from Wyoming, and she thought
she'd known his people."

Mrs. Crosby stood very still.

"I think she should bring her questions to the family," she said, after
a silence. "Thank you, Minnie."

Bonnet in hand, she moved toward the stairs, climbed them and went into
her room. Recently life had been growing increasingly calm and less
beset with doubts. For the first time, with Dick's coming to live with
them ten years before, a boy of twenty-two, she had found a vicarious
maternity and gloried in it. Recently she had been very happy. The war
was over and he was safely back; again she could sew on his buttons and
darn his socks, and turn down his bed at night. He filled the old house
with cheer and with vitality. And, as David gave up more and more of
the work, he took it on his broad shoulders, efficient, tireless, and
increasingly popular.

She put her bonnet away in its box, and suddenly there rose in her frail
old body a fierce and unexpected resentment against David. He had chosen
a course and abided by it. He had even now no doubt or falterings. Just
as in the first anxious days there had been no doubt in him as to the
essential rightness of what he was doing. And now—This was what came of
taking a life and moulding it in accordance with a predetermined plan.
That was for God to do, not man.

She sat down near her window and rocked slowly, to calm herself. Outside
the Sunday movement of the little suburban town went by: the older
Wheeler girl, Nina, who had recently married Leslie Ward, in her smart
little car; Harrison Miller, the cynical bachelor who lived next door,
on his way to the station news stand for the New York papers; young
couples taking small babies for the air in a perambulator; younger
couples, their eyes on each other and on the future.

That, too, she reflected bitterly! Dick was in love. She had not watched
him for that very thing for so long without being fairly sure now. She
had caught, as simple David with his celibate heart could never have
caught, the tone in Dick's voice when he mentioned the Wheelers. She had
watched him for the past few months in church on Sunday mornings, and
she knew that as she watched him, so he looked at Elizabeth.

And David was so sure! So sure.

The office door closed and Mrs. Morgan went out, a knitted scarf
wrapping her ears against the wind, and following her exit came the slow
ascent of David as he climbed the stairs to wash for dinner.

She stopped rocking.

"David!" she called sharply.

He opened the door and came in, a bulky figure, still faintly aromatic
of drugs, cheerful and serene.

"D'you call me?" he inquired.

"Yes. Shut the door and come in. I want to talk to you." He closed the
door and went to the hearth-rug. There was a photograph of Dick on the
mantel, taken in his uniform, and he looked at it for a moment. Then he
turned. "All right, my dear. Let's have it."

"Did Mrs. Morgan have anything to say?" He stared at her.

"She usually has," he said. "I never knew you considered it worth
repeating. No. Nothing in particular."

The very fact that Mrs. Morgan had limited her inquiry to Minnie
confirmed her suspicions. But somehow, face to face with David, she
could not see his contentment turned to anxiety.

"I want to talk to you about Dick."

"Yes?"

"I think he's in love, David."

David's heavy body straightened, but his face remained serene.

"We had to expect that, Lucy. Is it Elizabeth Wheeler, do you think?"

"Yes."

For a moment there was silence. The canary in its cage hopped about, a
beady inquisitive eye now on one, now on the other of them.

"She's a good girl, Lucy."

"That's not the point, is it?"

"Do you think she cares for him?"

"I don't know. There's some talk of Wallie Sayre. He's there a good
bit."

"Wallie Sayre!" snorted David. "He's never done a day's work in his
life and never will." He reflected on that with growing indignation. "He
doesn't hold a candle to Dick. Of course, if the girl's a fool—"

Hands thrust deep into his pockets David took a turn about the room.
Lucy watched him. At last:

"You're evading the real issue, David, aren't you?"

"Perhaps I am," he admitted. "I'd better talk to him. I think he's got
an idea he shouldn't marry. That's nonsense."

"I don't mean that, exactly," Lucy persisted. "I mean, won't he want a
good many things cleared up before he marries? Isn't he likely to want
to go back to Norada?"

Some of the ruddy color left David's face. He stood still, staring at
her and silent.

"You know he meant to go three years ago, but the war came, and—"

Her voice trailed off. She could not even now easily recall those days
when Dick was drilling on the golf links, and that later period of
separation.

"If he does go back—"

"Donaldson is dead," David broke in, almost roughly.

"Maggie Donaldson is still living."

"What if she is? She's loyal to the core, in the first place. In the
second, she's criminally liable. As liable as I am."

"There is one thing, David, I ought to know. What has become of the
Carlysle girl?"

"She left the stage. There was a sort of general conviction she was
implicated and—I don't know, Lucy. Sometimes I think she was." He
sighed. "I read something about her coming back, some months ago, in
'The Valley.' That was the thing she was playing the spring before
it happened." He turned on her. "Don't get that in your head with the
rest."

"I wonder, sometimes."

"I know it."

Outside the slamming of an automobile door announced Dick's return, and
almost immediately Minnie rang the old fashioned gong which hung in the
lower hall. Mrs. Crosby got up and placed a leaf of lettuce between the
bars of the bird cage.

"Dinner time, Caruso," she said absently. Caruso was the name Dick had
given the bird. And to David: "She must be in her thirties now."

"Probably." Then his anger and anxiety burst out. "What difference can
it make about her? About Donaldson's wife? About any hang-over from that
rotten time? They're gone, all of them. He's here. He's safe and happy.
He's strong and fine. That's gone."

In the lower hall Dick was taking off his overcoat.

"Smell's like chicken, Minnie," he said, into the dining room.

"Chicken and biscuits, Mr. Dick."

"Hi, up there!" he called lustily. "Come and feed a starving man. I'm
going to muffle the door-bell!"

He stood smiling up at them, very tidy in his Sunday suit, very boyish,
for all his thirty-two years. His face, smilingly tender as he watched
them, was strong rather than handsome, quietly dependable and faintly
humorous.

"In the language of our great ally," he said, "Madame et Monsieur, le
diner est servi."

In his eyes there was not only tenderness but a somewhat emphasized
affection, as though he meant to demonstrate, not only to them but to
himself, that this new thing that had come to him did not touch their
old relationship. For the new thing had come. He was still slightly
dazed with the knowledge of it, and considerably anxious. Because he had
just taken a glance at himself in the mirror of the walnut hat-rack, and
had seen nothing there particularly to inspire—well, to inspire what he
wanted to inspire.

At the foot of the stairs he drew Lucy's arm through his, and held her
hand. She seemed very small and frail beside him.

"Some day," he said, "a strong wind will come along and carry off Mrs.
Lucy Crosby, and the Doctors Livingstone will be obliged hurriedly to
rent aeroplanes, and to search for her at various elevations!"

David sat down and picked up the old fashioned carving knife.

"Get the clubs?" he inquired.

Dick looked almost stricken.

"I forgot them, David," he said guiltily. "Jim Wheeler went out to look
them up, and I—I'll go back after dinner."

It was sometime later in the meal that Dick looked up from his plate and
said:

"I'd like to cut office hours on Wednesday night, David. I've asked
Elizabeth Wheeler to go into town to the theater."

"What about the baby at the Homer place?"

"Not due until Sunday. I'll leave my seat number at the box office,
anyhow."

"What are you going to see, Dick?" Mrs. Crosby asked. "Will you have
some dumplings?"

"I will, but David shouldn't. Too much starch. Why, it's 'The Valley,' I
think. An actress named Carlysle, Beverly Carlysle, is starring in it."

He ate on, his mind not on his food, but back in the white house on
Palmer Lane, and a girl. Lucy Crosby, fork in air, stared at him, and
then glanced at David.

But David did not look up from his plate.

III
*

The Wheeler house was good, modern and commonplace. Walter Wheeler and
his wife were like the house. Just as here and there among the furniture
there was a fine thing, an antique highboy, a Sheraton sideboard or
some old cut glass, so they had, with a certain mediocrity their own
outstanding virtues. They liked music, believed in the home as the unit
of the nation, put happiness before undue ambition, and had devoted
their lives to their children.

For many years their lives had centered about the children. For years
they had held anxious conclave about whooping cough, about small early
disobediences, later about Sunday tennis. They stood united to protect
the children against disease, trouble and eternity.

Now that the children were no longer children, they were sometimes
lonely and still apprehensive. They feared motor car accidents, and
Walter Wheeler had withstood the appeals of Jim for a half dozen years.
They feared trains for them, and journeys, and unhappy marriages, and
hid their fears from each other. Their nightly prayers were "to keep
them safe and happy."

But they saw life reaching out and taking them, one by one. They saw
them still as children, but as children determined to bear their own
burdens. Jim stayed out late sometimes, and considered his manhood in
question if interrogated. Nina was married and out of the home, but
there loomed before them the possibility of maternity and its dangers
for her. There remained only Elizabeth, and on her they lavished the
care formerly divided among the three.

It was their intention and determination that she should never know
trouble. She was tenderer than the others, more docile and gentle. They
saw her, not as a healthy, normal girl, but as something fragile and
very precious.

Nina was different. They had always worried a little about Nina,
although they had never put their anxiety to each other. Nina had always
overrun her dress allowance, although she had never failed to be sweetly
penitent about it, and Nina had always placed an undue emphasis on
things. Her bedroom before her marriage was cluttered with odds and
ends, cotillion favors and photographs, college pennants and small
unwise purchases—trophies of the gayety and conquest which were her
life.

And Nina had "come out." It had cost a great deal, and it was not so
much to introduce her to society as to put a family recognition on a
fact already accomplished, for Nina had brought herself out unofficially
at sixteen. There had been the club ballroom, and a great many flowers
which withered before they could be got to the hospital; and new
clothing for all the family, and a caterer and orchestra. After that,
for a cold and tumultuous winter Mrs. Wheeler had sat up with the
dowagers night after night until all hours, and the next morning had
let Nina sleep, while she went about her household duties. She had aged,
rather, and her determined smile had grown a little fixed.

She was a good woman, and she wanted her children's happiness more than
anything in the world, but she had a faint and sternly repressed
feeling of relief when Nina announced her engagement. Nina did it with
characteristic sangfroid, at dinner one night.

"Don't ring for Annie for a minute, mother," she said. "I want to tell
you all something. I'm going to marry Leslie Ward."

There had been a momentary pause. Then her father said:

"Just a minute. Is that Will Ward's boy?"

"Yes. He's not a boy."

"Well, he'll come around to see me before there's any engagement. Has
that occurred to either of you?"

"Oh, he'll be around. He'd have come to-night, but Howard Moore is
having his bachelor dinner. I hope he doesn't look shot to pieces
to-morrow. These bachelor things—! We'd better have a dinner or
something, mother, and announce it."

There had been the dinner, with a silver loving cup bought for the
occasion, and thereafter to sit out its useless days on the Sheraton
sideboard. And there had been a trousseau and a wedding so expensive
that a small frown of anxiety had developed between Walter Wheeler's
eyebrows and stayed there.

For Nina's passion for things was inherent, persisting after her
marriage. She discounted her birthday and Christmases in advance, coming
around to his office a couple of months before the winter holidays and
needing something badly.

"It's like this, daddy," she would say. "You're going to give me a check
for Christmas anyhow, aren't you? And it would do me more good now. I
simply can't go to another ball."

"Where's your trousseau?"

"It's worn out-danced to rags. And out of date, too."

"I don't understand it, Nina. You and Leslie have a good income. Your
mother and I—"

"You didn't have any social demands. And wedding presents! If one more
friend of mine is married—"

He would get out his checkbook and write a check slowly and
thoughtfully. And tearing it off would say:

"Now remember, Nina, this is for Christmas. Don't feel aggrieved when
the time comes and you have no gift from us."

But he knew that when the time came Margaret, his wife, would hold out
almost to the end, and then slip into a jeweler's and buy Nina something
she simply couldn't do without.

It wasn't quite fair, he felt. It wasn't fair to Jim or to Elizabeth.
Particularly to Elizabeth.

Sometimes he looked at Elizabeth with a little prayer in his heart,
never articulate, that life would be good to her; that she might keep
her illusions and her dreams; that the soundness and wholesomeness of
her might keep her from unhappiness. Sometimes, as she sat reading or
sewing, with the light behind her shining through her soft hair, he saw
in her a purity that was almost radiant.

He was in arms at once a night or two before Dick had invited Elizabeth
to go to the theater when Margaret Wheeler said:

"The house was gayer when Nina was at home."

"Yes. And you were pretty sick of it. Full of roistering young idiots.
Piano and phonograph going at once, pairs of gigglers in the pantry
at the refrigerator, pairs on the stairs and on the verandah,
cigar-ashes—my cigars—and cigarettes over everything, and more
infernal spooning going on than I've ever seen in my life."

He had resumed his newspaper, to put it down almost at once.

"What's that Sayre boy hanging around for?"

"I think he's in love with her, Walter."

"Love? Any of the Sayre tribe? Jim Sayre drank himself to death, and
this boy is like him. And Jim Sayre wasn't faithful to his wife. This
boy is—well, he's an heir. That's why he was begotten."

Margaret Wheeler stared at him.

"Why, Walter!" she said. "He's a nice boy, and he's a gentleman."

"Why? Because he gets up when you come into the room? Why in
heaven's name don't you encourage real men to come here? There's Dick
Livingstone. He's a man."

Margaret hesitated.

"Walter, have you ever thought there was anything queer about Dick
Livingstone's coming here?"

"Darned good for the town that he did come."

"But—nobody ever dreamed that David and Lucy had a nephew. Then he
turns up, and they send him to medical college, and all that."

"I've got some relations I haven't notified the town I possess," he said
grimly.

"Well, there's something odd. I don't believe Henry Livingstone, the
Wyoming brother, ever had a son."

"What possible foundation have you for a statement like that?"

"Mrs. Cook Morgan's sister-in-law has been visiting her lately. She says
she knew Henry Livingstone well years ago in the West, and she never
heard he was married. She says positively he was not married."

"And trust the Morgan woman to spread the good news," he said with angry
sarcasm. "Well, suppose that's true? Suppose Dick is an illegitimate
child? That's the worst that's implied, I daresay. That's nothing
against Dick himself. I'll tell the world there's good blood on the
Livingstone side, anyhow."

"You were very particular about Wallie Sayre's heredity, Walter."

"That's different," he retorted, and retired into gloomy silence behind
his newspaper. Drat these women anyhow. It was like some fool female to
come there and rake up some old and defunct scandal. He'd stand up for
Dick, if it ever came to a show-down. He liked Dick. What the devil did
his mother matter, anyhow? If this town hadn't had enough evidence of
Dick Livingstone's quality the last few years he'd better go elsewhere.
He—

He got up and whistled for the dog.

"I'm going to take a walk," he said briefly, and went out. He always
took a walk when things disturbed him.

On the Sunday afternoon after Dick had gone Elizabeth was alone in her
room upstairs. On the bed lay the sort of gown Nina would have called
a dinner dress, and to which Elizabeth referred as her dark blue. Seen
thus, in the room which was her own expression, there was a certain
nobility about her very simplicity, a steadiness about her eyes that was
almost disconcerting.

"She's the saintly-looking sort that would go on the rocks for some
man," Nina had said once, rather flippantly, "and never know she was
shipwrecked. No man in the world could do that to me."

But just then Elizabeth looked totally unlike shipwreck. Nothing seemed
more like a safe harbor than the Wheeler house that afternoon, or
all the afternoons. Life went on, the comfortable life of an upper
middle-class household. Candles and flowers on the table and a neat
waitress to serve; little carefully planned shopping expeditions; fine
hand-sewing on dainty undergarments for rainy days; small tributes of
books and candy; invitations and consultations as to what to wear; choir
practice, a class in the Sunday school, a little work among the poor;
the volcano which had been Nina overflowing elsewhere in a smart little
house with a butler out on the Ridgely Road.

She looked what she was, faithful and quietly loyal, steady—and serene;
not asking greatly but hoping much; full of small unvisualized dreams
and little inarticulate prayers; waiting, without knowing that she was
waiting.

Sometimes she worried. She thought she ought to "do something." A good
many of the girls she knew wanted to do something, but they were vague
as to what. She felt at those times that she was not being very useful,
and she had gone so far as to lay the matter before her father a couple
of years before, when she was just eighteen.

"Just what do you think of doing?" he had inquired.

"That's it," she had said despondently. "I don't know. I haven't any
particular talent, you know. But I don't think I ought to go on having
you support me in idleness all my life."

"Well, I don't think it likely that I'll have to," he had observed,
dryly. "But here's the point, and I think it's important. I don't intend
to work without some compensation, and my family is my compensation.
You just hang around and make me happy, as you do, and you're fulfilling
your economic place in the nation. Don't you forget it, either."

That had comforted her. She had determined then never to marry but to
hang around, as he suggested, for the rest of her life. She was quite
earnest about it, and resolved.

She picked up the blue dress and standing before her mirror, held it up
before her. It looked rather shabby, she thought, but the theater was
not like a dance, and anyhow it would look better at night. She had been
thinking about next Wednesday evening ever since Dick Livingstone
had gone. It seemed, better somehow, frightfully important. It was
frightfully important. For the first time she acknowledged to herself
that she had been fond of him, as she put it, for a long time. She had
an odd sense, too, of being young and immature, and as though he had
stooped to her from some height: such as thirty-two years and being in
the war, and having to decide about life and death, and so on.