"I DON’T give a hoot for the usual notions, Marjorie. I
can’t feel that a wife has much of a claim upon a man simply because she’s borne him a lot of babies, or scrubbed many a dish pan, or let herself go to pieces in humdrum fealty to him. It’s a very different sort of thing that counts. . . Certain passages between them, certain times they’ve laughed or despaired together, tight places they’ve been through, high lights, high moments.”
He stopped short, aware that in all likelihood he was making an ass of himself. Mrs. Monteith was nodding her lovely head, like a little girl engrossed by a fairy tale. She curled further beneath the beach parasol, her fine white hand slipping within his clasp. He was conscious of a warm protective feeling that pleased and, here in the comparative . publicity of the bathing beach, embarrassed him as well. His glance swerved uneasily to the lagoon, to the spring-board at the farther end, with the little, lithe figure of his wife in distinct outline against a midday sky.
Tall, rangy, dark, with a lazy charm on his lean, freckled face, to chance passers-by he was merely a man who lounged in indolent pleasure beside a beautiful woman.
But Hugh Hardy felt as if the whole world must know the hazy, gnawing, twisted thoughts that preoccupied him. It was so inconceivable to consider even a trivial sort of treason toward Pam. There were ties that bound him and this wife of his, ties in no way akin to middleclass notions of respectability and the moral law.
All this he felt he must convey, and at once, to the lovely woman curled in the sand beside him. Somewhat bruskly he disengaged his hand.
“For five years, Marjorie, my wife and I have found marriage a gallant thing, a sort of defensive and offensive alliance with its jog-trot days and its carnival days, it black stretches and its holy moments as well.”
For answer, Mrs. Monteith only smiled the smile that was pre-eminently hers—sunny, heart-warming, a little vacant too, and with an odd, wan quirk about it that only enhanced its appeal.
Her hand slipped into his again.
And while again his fingers tightened over hers, he was aware only of a desperate desire to extricate himself from what had already assumed the proportions of an imminent entanglement.
That Marjorie offered neither resistance nor invitation seemed only the more insidiously to enmesh him.
She merely smiled and waited in cordial, wistful expectancy. And as she waited and smiled, more forcibly with each hour the amazing loveliness of her allured him—the pearly, petal radiancies in her skin, the laughter like faint glad music, the long white throat, the great brown eyes and the
done with the thing ... To discuss the topic seemed fruitless: none the less, stubbornly he proceeded.
“Inevitably, my dear, one encounters these tight places where it’s a case of falling down hard or coming through with flying colors. There are so many humdrum stretches, you see, with every so often a heroic moment, every—”
She murmured inaudibly. He bent his head to catch her whisper.
“Pinnacles amongthe plains, Hughie—I know.” He looked at her in surprise. But the flash of this unexpected rapport was capped an instant later by a gurgle of laughter charged with sheer childlike amiability and joy of life that initself summarized the Monteith appeal.
For a series of high, piping barks had sounded, and a jet-black Pomeranian, bored by good behavior, scampered from Marjorie’s knee. The barks were capped by a wild chattering and whistling as a diminutive monkey tethered to the beach parasol began frantically to dance about.
“Narcissus, behave! Yum-yum, be good! Oh, you little angels! Oh, you hairy devils!”
In huge enjoyment, Marjorie cooed and caroled over the chattering, squirming, snarling pair, while Hardy smiled foolishly and felt a hot wave of color mount to his forehead. It was this sort of thing, sen lacking in dignity, thatcaused the Boundary Bay colony to eye Marjorie askance.
TTARDY looked up to see the *■ Nearings passing by. There was coolness and mockery in Joan Nearing’s nod, while her husband looked back over his shoulders with a significant grin. And along the lake farther he saw the figure of Pam curled on the diving-board, her face turned away. .
Marjorie stood beaming in the noonday sunlight, her fair hair tumbled, eyes starry, cheeks aglow. On her shoulder the chattering monkey was perched. Tucked under her arm, Yum-yum yapped mournfully.
As always, the radiant amiability of the woman disarmed him. He was about to surrender completely to his pleasure in her presence when his glance strayed to the figure of his wife at the farther end of the lagoon. Somehow the very sight of her now seemed like a reprimand from the high gods.
And for all her lazy smile, Marjorie’s face, too, fell. Her voice was subdued when, after a little silence, she spoke:
“It’s very beautiful. Husbands and wives loving each other a lot—that sort of thing. I loved my husband, Hughie, loved him a lot. It was a bitter thing losing him. So courtly, and devoted and gentle. I tell you, I’ve been very lonely, Hughie, dear.” There was genuine sadness, too, in the beautiful baby face, a sadness that only enhanced her allure, as if even sorrow, about to strike her, had been moved to transform its blow into a caress.
But Hardy was aware not so much of a physical perfection potent to stir the pulses and feast the eye, as
masses of fair hair that flittered like some strange alloy of silver and gold.
Every attribute captivated, and counterweighed certain irritating aspects of the woman. Her tendency to baby talk, for instance. To his deep chagrin, Marjorie babytalked. She “coo-ed” and “ee-d” distressingly at times.
TV hen another woman wanted her husband, Pamela Hardy fought her with unusual weapons.
Chocolate creams were “awfu’ nice,” his occasional frown “awfu’ scarey.” It was her habit, too, to convert ing into ink. Life was “thrillink,” babies were “cunnink.”
Beyond question the woman was trivial, frivolous, shallow and perhaps a shade underbred as well. Beyond question he must put an end to his overtures and have
of a something intangible that contracted his throat and left him a trifle breathless; a something, a magic something tinged by the white shimmer and quivering of moonlight with unreality and remoteness. He felt the lure of an unattainable loveliness, of age-old illusions . . .Until the spell was broken by a peculiar darting glance she gave him, like a fugitive revelation of defiance and guilt.
The next instant it merged into childish terror when a wavelet, hardier than its brothers, slid slyly up the beach to the tips of her white slippers. She gasped, blanched, clung to Hardy’s arm.
“Marjorie, you funny coward! Your lips are actually trembling!”
“Can’t help it, Hughie. It—the wave—it sneaked up from behind . . Ah! here comes Susan!” And at once
all the trouble in her voice died away into blithe laughter. “The darlink! She’s gotten me my Italian creams.”
Now across the sands a big gaunt creature with irongray hair and surly lips approached. The woman, Susan, half companion, half duenna, antagonized and puzzled Hardy. She seemed always so grimly to hover in the offing, so reluctantly to suffer his presence and with such an angry, whole-souled adoration to regard the lovely Monteith. Marjorie ran up to her now, cooing.
“Big, mushy chocolate creams. They’re the only candies we adore, Narcissus and Yum-yum and me. And oo—ah!”
A WHISTLE had interrupted her, piercing and sweetly shrill. Hardy turned quickly. Pam’s whistle. His wife, her firm, young figure sketched so clearly against the sky, stood tiptoe, hands outstretched at her sides, about to take the swan dive. Pamela often whistled for him to watch her at the diving-board. But this time the sound reached him as something of deeper significance than a mere signal or salute. It was as if, with it, she were proclaiming her glad faith in her man, as if, arms outstretched and chin up in a sort of high-hearted benediction, she were sending that something dauntless and glowing that seemed always to adorn her with its luster, to bid him return to her now.
A second later, though, her arms fell inertly, the gallant figure seemed to go slack, and turning, to creep forlornly away.
Hardy felt a premonitory chill at his spine. A grim, grinning, skulking element seemed to be threatening Pam, to be hovering, resistless, implacable, over her.
Mrs. Monteith stirred uneasily at his side. “Think I’d better leave you. Think I’d better run along, Hughie. Drop in at nine to-night if you like. Think—think I’d better go now.”
THE Nearings were dining with them that evening.
He saw Pamela alone for a little while before the dinner hour.
Corfiing into the room he was conscious of a glow of pride in this wife of his. She was so little and sturdy and slim, pride of race so apparent in the cameo cut of her small features, in each quick movement and crisp utterance. Distinctly personable, too, he reflected, standing there with the portraits of her forefathers, as a background and the Airedales stretched at her feet.
Pamela wore her twenty-nine years in a fashion that put to shame the clumsier younglings. Sun-browned and rosy-lipped, her eyes were of a vivid, primal blue, her teeth very white, her bobbed chestnut hair of a satin sheen.
“Hello, buddy,” she greeted him.
“Hello there, Pamkins, what happened to the swan dive?”
“Oh, I just all of a sudden felt seedy! I’m not so darned fit of late.”
“No, just seedy I suppose you’ll be bored by
the Nearings. I’m sure I shall.”
“Sorry, Pammie, but I’ll have to leave you to face the evening alone with them. I’ve an appointment at nine that will tie me up for an hour or two.”
Her brow wrinkled. “Be back by eleven, Hugh. I’ve a deal of things to talk over with you.”
Again he felt that premonitory chill at his spine. “I’ll be back, Pam.”
“And, my dear, you mustn’t look at me in that queer, guilty way.” She was pouring the cocktails now.
“I’ll be home at eleven.” Ill at ease, he turned away. “I suppose this will resolve itself into some sort of unpleasantness. But let’s not go into it now.”
“No, let’s not.” After a Little, her voice low, “She’s very beautiful, Hugh.”
“Yes, isn’t she?”
“But tongues are wagging unpleasantly and it’s a trifle difficult for me”
“Pammie, I’m sorry.” He slipped an arm about her, of a sudden all aversion to the very notion of another meeting with Mrs. Monteith.
11 is wife rested her head against his shoulders. “Very beautiful, and there’s something game about her for all her little surface sillinesses. But you should try to wean her, Hugh, from the surface sillinesses.”
“The} re really no concern of ours, are they, now?”
“We-e-ll,” she sighed, then smiled. “In a fashion, yes. That monkey and that miserable little Pom, and the nurse person or whoever she is with the mole on her nose, that glares so at everybody. As for the lady herself, she does truly make a display of it at times. You were in town yesterday. You didn’t see her take her swimming lesson. Can’t swim a stroke, of course, and she was really a trifle too girlish and playful splashing about with the college boys. One of them finally ducked her, and there was a dreadful to-do. It frightened her, or sickened her or something. She was all ashen pale with big tears streaming down her face. Ever so beautiful.”
After an uncomfortable little silence: “I suspect,” she went on, “that she hasn’t had such a merry time of it. Heard somewhere that she’d been married to a miserable little mucker, who bled her or beat her or—”
“There you’re wrong. Her marriage was a very happy one.”
“Yes? I must have gotten the story mixed, then. She hails from Winnipeg, I believe. Her father made a fortune manufacturing spittoons”—her smile gleamed—“or at any rate, it should have been spittoons. Crude stuff, it seems, and the tomcats and their tabbies here are making the most of it. Let’s make ’em shut up. Let’s have her at our next very swagger dinner party, shall we?”
“By all means, let’s, Pam.”
“Hope she’ll leave her pets home, though. I’d hate to see what would become of that monkey, once”—and she rubbed the Airedale’s neck with the toe of her shoe— “once one of these bimboes here got hold of him.”
“Here come the Nearings.”
He spoke sharply and turned from her without another glance.
FOR all his qualms and compunctions though, he stayed late that evening at Marjorie’s. Susan he found relegated to a cinema house, the dog and the monkey were not in evidence. And less reluctantly with each passing hour he let himself yield to a mood of drowsy, indolent pleasure.
He munched chocolate creams, smoked countless cigarets, held Marjorie’s white hand, sipped excellent champagne cooled to an excellent temperature, listened to the phonograph which enswathed by a fifteenth century altar cloth to dull its shrillness, played as if from a great distance, faint, sad, sentimental things—the “Elegie” and “Souvenir” . . . “Awfu’ sad things only make you feel happier when you’re happy,” Marjorie lilted.
A new, shy quality in her laughter arrested him. He looked up into eyes that were starrier and cheeks that were rosier, into a face flooded with a new, childlike confusion and pleasure. Again he noted how each fleeting motion, and each tiny imperfection of feature, too, lent its own intrinsic loveliness to enhance the loveliness irradiated here. There was an infinitesimal scar, for instance, at the corner of her mouth. It gave a quaint, alluring quirk to her smile.
Timidly he touched the tiny blemish now. “Where did you—”
“That scar? Oh, it’s a long story, Hughie, and a thrillink, thrillink tale. You see, I was out all by myself riding on my husband’s estate in England, you know, and there was the fiercest fellow, and he looked like a gipsy—” She was rattling on in a hurried, furtive fashion. “He looked like a gipsy and he was a highway robber. He had a knife—kind of stiletto, and I couldn’t even scream, I was so scared. It would have been awfu’, only right at the last moment along came my husband, with a riding-whip —with a riding-whip—and so . . . awfu’ experience . . . Why, Hughie—”
The lovely voice trailed with a little sob into silence, and Hardy wondered why he should feel nothing but a great surge of pity and tenderness at the thought of her having lied so clumsily to him. For without a doubt this cinema thriller of a robbery tale was an outrageous and silly lie. Again he saw on her face that queer look of pain and defiance and guilt.
So, to cover her discomfiture, he drew her toward him. For just an instant a faint, poignant recollection of Pam, as of someone at a remote distance whom he had known at some remote time tugged at his heart. Then a tendril of pale, scented hair escaped from its coil and grazed his cheek. And Marjorie lifted her face for his first kiss.
Then that strain of distant music became the chiming of a clock Eleven . . . It must be eleven.
Pamela was waiting . . ,
The mood of exaltation dwindled into chagrin and remorse when he counted the twelfth stroke.
' I 'HE lower floor was in darkness when he returned.
Slowly he mounted the staircase, at doubt as to whether or not he should knock at her door, when her voice hailed him.
“I’d given you up. Come in, though, won’t you?”
There was by no means anything tragic or suggestive of the proverbial wronged wife in the winsome picture that greeted him when he opened the door. Through a dim, rose-tinted luster, against a background of highly polished mahogany and cretonne hangings of a periwinkle blue
scattered with a dainty conceit of marigolds, Pam looked up at him.
She was sitting on the floor, cross-legged, on a huge cushion of scarlet silk, running a buffer over her toe nails.
“Don’t darling me. This is to be a rough ten minutes of heavy thinking and the facing of queer, grave issues.”
“Pam, darling,” he repeated, more loudly, “let’s not thrash things out to-night. Let’s just meet certain things in silence for the time being and avoid certain topics. Then perhaps everything will be as it has been, and should be, again. For there’s something ugly and ominous, my dear, that’s trying to—”
“Yes, I know. Something slimy, Hugh, hanging over us, and creeping closer all the time. Mind you, it’s not you that are doing anything slimy, or me, or Mrs. Monteith. It’s just something we all can’t help, something the gods send when they feel bilious and bored.”
After a little silence, she proceeded:
“But I happen to feel, Hugh, that the topic’s not to be avoided. And out of respect to the slim platinum band on the third finger of my left hand, you’ll grant me that I mean to do the gabbling to-night. You’re to shut up, dear, and stay shut up. Conceded? Out of rèspect to the slim—”
“As you will, Pam.” Sighing heavily, he drew a chair toward her.
“That’s not necessary.” Before he was aware of her intention she was pulling the great armchair from its corner. “For all you will go sky larking with a lovely lady who looks as if she’s stepped out of a King Arthur romance, you haven’t any particular aversion to my sitting on your lap, have you now?" And after an instant, “Comfortable?”
And he noted how, through the next few minutes, she snuggled closer to him, how her head found its customary place against his waistcoat, rubbed itself against the rough tweed . . . exactly as she had snuggled so many times when they found their way through various hazards, as if this, too, were merely another difficulty, to be laughed at, overcome—above all to be faced together.
“She’s very beautiful. But then I’m not such a slouch for looks myself, am I now? So it’s not that . . .
“And when it comes to going on a mush spree, why, I can dart a mean eye and exhale a little charm all my own, too ... of course . . . But then, that sort of thing is so preposterous, unthinkable . . . And this whole affair seems preposterous. You feel that, too, don’t you?”
“Yes, Pam, and—”
“Shut up. You’re to keep quiet no matter if I put questions. Preposterous, that’s it. For we’re neither of us mush-hounds.”
It was now that the foot stretched out and the pink toes began to wriggle.
“Very: beautiful. Then, too, your Marjorie friend has spine. There’s a lot of backbone hidden somewhere behind the surface of sillinesses. At some time, somewhere, that woman’s been hit and hit pretty darn hard. Of course, though, I’d like to spit right in her eye in a high and mighty, queenly way. That’s only my warm human quality, Hugh. If I didn’t hate her I might just as well stick an Easter lily behind my ear, blow a tin trumpet to the glory of God, and be a high lady arch-angel right off the reel.”
SHE bent her head now until it rested against his heart.
And when again she spoke it was in a whisper, with a queer catch and thrill in it that brought a mist before his eyes.
“Hugh, I may as well tell you, I’m cut up about this. I don’t feel like going to pieces, but—well, just a little sort of sick at my stomach—you know? Sort of gone feeling. And look!” She outstretched an arm. “Gooseflesh! It’s all resolving itself into an uncanny chill, into the creeps.” The little fist was pounding away fiercely against the arm of the chair now. “These five years have been worth anything awful that’s ahead. I want you to know that.” Abruptly she sat up, looked at him—looked into a white, shamed face with misty eyes and gray, twisted lips. And at once all the trouble in his face reflected itself on hers, deepened into a warm, pitying tenderness as tears welled and mouth trembled.
“My dear, oh, my very, very dear, don’t mind so much! You’re cut up too, aren’t you? Hugh, remember, I understand. It’s something you can’t fight, can’t help. And you won’t run amuck, will you? For I won’t, dear, no matter what—you know that. That’s why I asked you to come here to-night, to make you get rid of that guilty, shamed look. I can’t quite bear that. Look the world in the eye, buddy, and hold your head high through this extra-legal romancing of yours. And keep it cool, Hugh, and level. Nothing—irrevocable—has been decided upon yet, has it?”
He shook his head.
“Well, then, be very wary until you’re absolutely sure. Cross your fingers when you begin to feel very Tristanand-Isolde, or Paolo-and-Francesca, or Launcelot-and-
Guinevere—know what I mean? Wait Until you’re very sure. Do this for me. And now—good night!”
She leaped lightly from his lap, stood before him with outstretched hand, resolved, he could see, upon an abrupt, well-mannered and amiable termination of her discourse. But a little fugitive flow suffused her cheeks when their hands met.
“Maybe something will just happen along and straighten things out. For under all the bitterness I’ve a positive jaunty little feeling that all’s well. Kiss me good night and get along with you, Hughie.”
“Good night, Pammie.”
He kissed her lightly, made a sorry attempt at a smile. For the least that he could in decency do, he reflected, was to display no discomfiture at the thought that tonight there would be no Pam snuggling within the span of his arm, nor would he hear the long, happy sigh that trailed into silence and slumbering.
THE next evening, an hour earlier than was his custom, he stood at the door of Marjorie’s vine-trellised cottage, to-night, too, all qualms and compunctions, but not at the thought of high treason to Pamela. To-night it was Marjorie whom he must hurt.
For after long hours given to a sort of turmoil of recollections and regrets, of conjectures and hankerings, he had resolved once and for all to have done with this entanglement. His allegiance to Pamela was too firmly founded and in itself, as well, too rare and exquisite a thing, to be shaken now by no matter how potent a lure.
There was a bad hour before him, of course. Inevitably, it seemed, he was cast for the role of a mucker. For it was not pleasant to think of that tender, abashed look on Marjorie’s face fading into bewilderment and pain.
He was conscious of a chill of presagement when no laughing “ohé” greeted him from the tiny drawing-room. No golden-tinted lamp glow, either. There was something ominous in the stillness and gloom.
Not nearly so ominous, though, as the sound which after a full minute reached him—a grim, guttural whisper from somewhere among the dim shadows at the farther end of the room.
“You come here, my man. There are some things I have to say to you.”
And now, his eyes accustoming themselves to the murkiness, he could see the woman Susan, in her nurse’s white uniform, seated at an open window, her harsh, crag-like profile in silhouette against an early evening sky. A huge mole at the tip of her nose performed odd little dancing contortions while she talked.
She took a deep breath and without giving him an opportunity to put in a word, went on in harsh, hurried undertones:
“It seems the poor chit’s in love with you. And she’s not to be hurt, do you understand? She’s been hurt enough. I think I wouldn’t hesitate to kill you if you did anything to hurt her now. Look here—”
SHE turned a little toward him. And he saw how the big, long fingers were intertwisting on her knees and pulling at one another until the joints cracked.
“I was a trained nurse, you know. Wrapped up in my work, too. Specialized, you see. Obstetrics. I’d planned to head a new hospital in China when I took this case— Marjorie’s. She’d been having a little trouble some months before the baby came. And I stayed on. Career, hospital, I let it all go.”
There was sound of footsteps overhead. Immediately she swung fully around, facing him, and in a big onrush, her whisper sibilant now through the darkness, hurried on : “You’ve heard her tell her proud little stories about her husband, haven’t you? Do you know what her husband was? As low a rat as ever tore the heart out of a girl.
“I’ve seen”—she was waggling a big finger in Hardy’s face now—“I’ve seen that man sneak up behind her and twist her arm, just for the pleasure her terror gave him. I’ve seen her make out the checks that were to pay for his week-ends with shady women. I’ve seen him fill his pockets with her jewelry while she stood by smiling and not saying a word—only sometimes she’d stand in my way or get me out of the room on some pretext because she didn’t want me to know . . . And I saw—she saw it, too—at the races one afternoon, I saw the engagement ring her father’s money had paid for on the finger of some greasy, painted dancer he had in tow . . . All this, remember, was a few months before the baby came ...” Now heavily the woman rose, faced him, stood very close to him, her head wagging fiercely with each phrase:
“She went through it, mind you, without saying a word, without letting her father know, just laughing in that soft, light-hearted way of hers. And it wasn’t love for the rotter that kept her chin up. It was pride. It was spirit. It was something that made that soft, sweet, silly creature see the thing through, no matter what! But at last I managed to get it into her head that all this wasn’t good for the baby. So she decided to quit him on the first anniversary of their wedding day.”
Again there came the sound of pattering footsteps from overhead. The woman spoke more rapidly. “She didn’t mope or hide herself away. She took me to dinner that night at a smart London restaurant. It was crowded. And she was bowing and smiling on all sides when he came in . . .”
Now convulsively she gripped Hardy’s arm. “He’d found out she’d left him and he was looking for her. He came up to the table and hit her full in the face . . .”
Susan paused for an instant, drew a deep breath, went on: “Have you heard her tell pretty fairy-tales about the little scar at the corner of her mouth? That’s how it got there. Well, some young blood at the next table jumped in, of course, gave it to her husband good, stretched him on the floor. And in a second Marjorie was kneeling beside him, with his head propped up, and wiping his face.
“She helped him up. She pushed me away. And she walked out of that restaurant with her chin up and her arm around him . . . ”
The woman paused again, heaved a deep breath, went on, her voice very low:
“Remember, it was no thoroughbred trained to do the sportsmanlike thing that did that. It was the petted, pampered, light-headed daughter of a nouveau-riche. And there’s not much more to that part of the story. She stuck to him to the dirty finish . . . The war, you know ... It was hushed up because of his family, but the rat met a rat’s death, that much I know . . Went yellow, you see . .
Now, faintly from overhead, came the sound of Marjorie’s singing. And at once the woman clutched fiercely at his arm again.
Continued on page 1+5
T r i a n g 1 e
Continued from page 11
“There’s nothing much more to tell. And she’ll be down in a second. In spite of everything, there seemed to be a kindly Providence watching over her. The baby died ...
“But all this has left her pretty shaky. She’s been on the brink of a collapse several times. Things frighten her. She can’t bear the dark or strange noises or things that come up to her quietly from behind.
Continued on page 1>6
She depends on me a lot . . . And it seems she’s in love with you.”
Scowling, she raised her head and peered blinking into his face.
“Now look here, my man, have a care! Don’t hurt her. You’re married. That’s your look-out. You can’t wriggle out of it now. You’re in deep, and you’re not to hurt her. For when a certain type of woman, and it’s a pretty high type of woman, my man, sees, well, something beautiful ahead of her, she’ll go right after it, she’ll fight and die and sin for it, but she won’t be troubled by moral scruples ... So you’ll have me to answer to if—”
“Ohé!” All laughter and perfume and a swirl of pink chiffon, Marjorie was fluttering down the staircase.
“Awfu’ late, Hughie? Susan, how cunnink of you to entertain him! In the gloaming, too, sly pair! Hughie, I don’t want to sit around to-night. I want to go out in a cunnink little canoe with a sail on it. ’Cause it’s all lovely and foggy and still on the bay. Take me out in a cunnink little canoe with a sail on it, will you, Hughie, dear?”
STRANGE, he reflected, that hard upon this revelation of the real Marjorie who wore her little surface sillinesses like a gay and glittering motley, these surface sillinesses should become a very part of the woman’s charm. His throat contracted with his recollection of the tender breaks in her voice when she romanced about her husband. Even her baby-talk seemed to soothe now, and lull. “Oo,” she purled as she tore a fold of her frock while clambering down into the canoe, “I did that, Hughie, with my little stumble.”
She was given to silences, too. And facing him in the canoe that bobbed perkily over a gray and surly sea, she sat without a word, smiling merely, and regarding him with big, glad, tender eyes.
A bell-buoy sounded in the distance, a fog-whistle piped mournfully. Less honestly with each passing moment Hardy struggled to retain a grip upon himself, to quiet that queer pounding at his temples and banish the illusion that he was another person in another world, in an existence that stamped out all obligations, all responsibilities and memories, tore asunder every tie and left Marjorie and him alone, together.
Closer and closer the mists enfolded them—appeared to woo and caress and urge, while in silence the minutes passed. Now he saw only the white glistening of firm, fair flesh when her arm was outstretched to him, and the brooding, hungry look in her great eyes.
“Fond of me a little, Marjorie?” He strove to make his voice light. It sounded at once high-pitched and harsh, like the voice of a stranger.
“My goodness, yes, Hughie!”
Her carillon laughter faded into a sigh, happy and troubled as well. And the mists continued to loll about them, as if they were intensely interested here, and to acquiesce, and to impel—toward something, something they seemed to be approaching, something that seemed to become tangible, definite—that of a sudden materialized, loomed before them —something like a big, black, beckoning hand.
Hardy started nervously. Through a rift in the fog, a black splotch, a jagged rock became visible, etched inkily against the evening sky in outlines that resembled a big, beckoning hand.
Immediately he steered for the point. His nerves, he mused, must be nicely on edge to trick him into a startled gesture at the sudden vision. For he knew this islet well. A mere strip of sandy beach and rough, broken rocks, it submerged itself completely at high tide. The tide was coming in now. But there was still time for a half-hour here.
With never a word he moored the canoe, stepped out, she following without question, upon the tiny strip of sand
THEN he turned to her, gripped her hands, twisted them fiercely until she gave a little cry. And then he held her very close for a long moment and kissed her.
After a little they made their way slowly to a rocky ledge on the farther side of the islet. Always in silence he drew her close until her head sank to his shoulder, and the night breeze tossed pale strands of scented hair across his face. It blurred his vision, enhanced his sense of unreality.
“Marjorie,” he asked, at last, “do you
feel it, too? The other-worldliness here?”
Slowly she nodded her head in reply.
“It’s as if,” he went on, “a benign Somebody who’s in good humor to-night had swept away the world and arranged a whole little life for us in these moments we have. Do you feel it, too?”
“Don’t know, Hughie. You’re beginning to talk over my head. Anyway, does it matter much? What matters much is that you love me lots, don’t you, Hughie?”
She brought her face close to read his response, while her eyes lighted and became moist, and her cheeks were suffused with rose tints, and a faint note of laughter sounded.
Silence then, inarticulate murmurings. A queer pounding, a blur of things . . . Dewy lips, scented hair ... A whole existence centered into a moment . . .
It came as a distinct shock when of a sudden she winced in his arms, blanched, quivered from head to toe. Lifting her face in his hand he saw all the delight submerged by an ashy pallor.
“It crawled. Sneaked up. The water. Look, my foot’s wet to the ankle. Sorry, Hughie. It—it sneaked up from behind.”
And looking down he saw a tiny lapping wave come, creep slyly, mischievously toward the rock.
On the instant, aghast, he pulled her unceremoniously from the ledge, ran across the island to the beach where the canoe was moored.
But save for a thin, straggling semicircle of sand and shells there was no longer any beach. And the mists seemed to dance about merrily as if at some huge joke they had contrived.
For somewhere in their gray, shifting depths, the canoe too had disappeared.
No time left to reflect upon the rank folly which had led to this juncture. Although there was little else left to do. Not even the forlornest of expedients presented itself.
With the inrushing tide to help him he had the barest chance of making the mainland. There was the barest chance, too, that swimming against it he might reach the nearest shore. For the islet was situated midway between two promontories at the inlet to the bay. The barest chance . . . but not with a helpless dead-weight Marjorie in tow.
“My dear”—he spoke again as in a foreign voice, harsh and shrill. Through the mists and blur he could just distinguish her standing a little above him, a mere silver-white shaft in the gloom. “I’ve let you in for it. For, my dear, the benign Somebody who provided a whole little life for us here happens to be in a generous mood this evening. Out of the kindness of his heart he’s thrown in a shabby little death as well.”
FOR a space she made no answer. Then as if from a vast distance he heard a voice that was unlike her voice. “Thrillink! How awfu’ thrillink!”
And it continued—that crisp, precise utterance so at odds with the baby-like vernacular.
“Strip, Hughie, awfu’ quick! You can make it. And come back in a boat for me. Lots of time still before this place is under water, and then I’ll manage very nicely to keep afloat. Thrillink! I’ll do it, Hughie, don’t you fret. I’ll do it with my little breast stroke.”
Laughter, pitched a shade too shrilly, capped her words. But he never heard it. For from some hidden penetralia of his subconsciousness a tiny echo of another voice spoke to him now—spoke faintly, but as if it were reading from an italicized script: “She can't swim a stroke, of
course, your Mrs. Monteith. And she teas really quite too playful splashing about with the college boys.”
And now all at once the maddening blur of things was rent asunder. Hr saw her very clearly, felt a vast serenity and awe surge through him.
She was standing straight and triumphant, a few feet above him, leaning a little against the crag that was like a big beckoning hand. And on her face there was a gladness and tenderness he had thought never to see upon the face of a woman This Marjorie who couldn’t swim, who had carried on, chin up though tremulous, under the weight of a host of murky memories, stood ready, all a laughing unconcern to meet an ugly eerie extermination.
He made a stumbling, groping step toward her, and a shade of childlike petulance sounded in her voice.
“Hurry, Hughie, hurry! I’ve no mind to sink among the seaweed. And besides,
they’d miss me, Narcissus and Susan and Yum-yum, you know.”
She gave a little tug at his sleeve. He saw trouble come into her face and deepen into dismay.
“Marjorie, we’re in for this together.” “Nonsense, Hughie!”
“And whatever happens—”
“Whatever happens will happen to us together. Does that make any difference?”
“But I tell you, I can keep afloat. So for my sake ... I can—with—with my little breast stroke—”
“No more of this nonsense.”
“Hugh, dear—to save me—”
A sob shook her, for she knew now that he knew she was lying. A rapturous surprise began to steal into her eyes.
“How wonderful, Hughie! You want to stay, don’t you? Not just because it’s the sporting thing to do. How wonderful, Hughie! I’m happy, Hughie!”
The mists were lifting now, but only as if in ironic glee to display more clearly the treacherous black expanse crowding more closely from all sides. While he drew Marjorie’s head to his shoulder Hardy sent a shout over the waters, in the forlorn hope that some stray craft would be within earshot.
Gaily the little waves tittered an answering echo out of the blackness. Marjorie laid a finger over his lips.
“Don’t, Hugh, it just gives all that”— she waved a hand to indicate the something like a hostile, leering entity hemming them in, waiting slying to swallow them—“gives it a chance to get the laugh on you. Let me do the shouting because it can’t feaze me . . . Ohé! Ohé!”
Clear and blithe her laughing call rang out.
Then his heart seemed to miss a beat, for piercing and shrill, like an antiphonal salute there came a whistle in response . .. Pam’s whistle.
If OR one little moment then these two looked at one another with a strange aghastness on their faces. Through one little moment it seemed to Hardy that, with the tension snapped, the glow dispelled, and a voice from an outer world to the rescue, Marjorie was telling him goodby and wishing him godspeed.
Abruptly then she turned her face away. He heard a distant chug becoming louder every second, saw the outlines of the motor-boat appear, grow larger. At last the figure of his wife materialized at the wheel. There was a shooting, swirling, a churning and boiling of water, a sudden stillness. And the little boat drifted nonchalantly toward them.
“Good Heavens, you two! You were just about in for a nasty time of it.” Exclamations, explanations, apologies and excitement. A queer, strained atmosphere. Cool, polite phrases passing between the women. The pounding began at his temples again. He felt nauseated and chilly.
“The nurse—your companion. She came to me. It seems the fogs had her worried. So I went nosing around the bay. Happened to run across the canoe, and then I’d a notion you’d be here. Hugh, dear, what fool lack of foresight on your part.”
“Give me the wheel, Pam.”
Anything to' bar out the sight of these two cool, courteous women who smiled at each other. Anything to take his mind from that sense of loss and dejection, as of something divine that had just eluded his grasp, to dwindle into the humdrum and turn him into a ridiculous figure. Death, romance, adventure! A heroic glow over things! Little snatches of conversation reached him at the wheel.
“Hope you haven’t taken cold.”
“Poor Susan must be worried sick.” “Your frock’s drenched. Callot, too, isn’t it? What a shame!”
“Can you spare a hairpin, Mrs. Hardy?”
. Romance, adventure, death! . . It was
the Mrs. Monteith whom the Boundary Bay colony eyed askance that laughed sweetly, vacantly now.
And yet, turning to them as they approached the landing, he was struck by something odd and impalpable in their level scrutiny of one another. Big blue eyes were sparkling into glowing brown ones, in combat, true, but as if they recognized a bond, an essential code, perhaps, which both embraced.
Death, romance, adventure! ... He turned heavily away.
PAM joined a group that was waiting at the landing, dismissed him with a light nod over her shoulder. Summarily, too, the woman Susan took charge of Marjorie. And feeling himself an utter páriah, for two hours he trudged through the open country, trudged aimlessly, unhappily.
When at last he returned, he saw the light go out in Pam’s room as he approached the house. Courtesy seemed co demand some sort of an explanation. He knocked at her door. Knocked again, tried the knob. It was bolted.
He knew that there would be no sleep for him that night, slumped into an armchair, faintly nauseated, and without energy enough to pull off his wet shoes.
It all seemed so damnably unfair. These two women, each of them a gallant, fine-fibred creature, with a sorry snarl ahead for both, and inevitable heartache . . . And he, against his own volition, helpless under the sway of urges and impulses beyond his control, to be cast ruthlessly by an ungracious destiny for so shabby a role.
He moved restlessly in the armchair, stumbled to his feet. Brilliant morning sunshine was streaming into the room.
There followed coffee that left a bitter taste in his mouth, a bath that failed to refresh. He felt torpid and lifeless, his hands dry and feverish, as if he had been drinking hard the night before.
Pam’s whistle, clarion clear through the house, arrested him. Again it sounded, and again. He slumped back into the chair. She had ignored his knocking a few hours before. Let her confine such summonings to the Airedales. He was not to be whistled for at her pleasure, like a well trained dog.
But again and again it sounded, with a light note of promise somewhere in it, and invitation, and appeal. At last he rose, slouched heavily through the room and down the stairs,
CURTAINS were still drawn in the hall. He approached her through a gloom in sharp contrast to the great shafts of yellow sunlight that streamed through the room in which she awaited him.
He saw her perched high on a ladder unconcernedly dusting the portraits of her forefathers. It was the one housewifely duty she had assumed and tenaciously clung to.
At the doorway he stopped short. In a revelatory flash it came to him that here and now, with no further indecisions and flounderings, this Pamela of his was about to cut a path through the maze straight to the core of things. And he stood stock-still, taken aback by the verve and jubilance of her, by the unwonted breathlessness and excitement of the tiny, tremulous creature all suffused by the sunlight with tints of rose and gold.
The next instant the floor seemed to tilt and sway solemnly. For he heard the loud ring of her voice repeating in what seemed an incessant gay chant: “I’m going to have a baby! I’m going to have a baby! Everybody will be o.k.! For I’m going to have a baby!”
And for all her slangy phrases, he saw her face alight, transfigured into the very look of abandon and joy that he had seen on Marjorie’s face only a few hours before.
“Why the hangdog look? Worrying about moral duties? We’ve too much respect for each other to let moral duties creep in. If you want a divorce, o.k., I say! If we’re to trip it pas seul from now on, or with other partners, o.k.!” She waved him back when he made an unsteady step toward her.
“See here, Hugh, don’t start looking holy and sentimental. I’m not trying to sell you with the paterfamilias idea. If you want to leave me, that won’t make any difference My fault that things went flooey. Muffed my job, but I mean to make a go of it now! . . . And if you go, you’re still my man, do you see? Somehow you’ll always be, somehow the world will always be just you and me, and the rest of the bunch!”
Breathless, feverish, in a very frenzy of joy she seemed to tower there above him. He wanted to fetch her down from that unsteady ladder, in his arms to cool the flushed face and still the shaking little hands and bring her back to her customary serenity and poise. This excitement, he suspected, was not the very best thing for her now. But a little imperious wave of the hand held him back.
Í¡ “I’m going to have a baby!”
j “Pammie, dear--”
And he saw her stagger, her hands fefore her face as if to free herself from 3methingN that dizzied and blinded, fiumsily she sought to retain her balance, eeled, lurched and fell to the floor as if he were a puppet moved by strings that ad suddenly been snapped—dropped nth a dull thud at his feet, as he reached he ladder.
! "pHEN that ghastly silence while he £ 1 carried her from the room—like a lent breath it seemed, breaking sharply nto the buzz of servants’ tongues, teleihone bells, scurrying, exclamations, the arrival of the doctor.
Science, cool efficiency, the smell of Ï iuuiseptics, the sight of gauze and steel.
I jáis vast relief at the first flickering of
Iier eyelashes. His curt dismissal from ;he room.
At last, after an interminable waiting, ;he terrible thing that sent a chill to his leels. That first cry. A cry that writhed —in its very sound a living, sweating, tortured thing. A cry vast and huge and hollow, and with something impersonal about it, as if in its reverberations it voiced the bitterness and protest of all ■bruised and beaten creatures. It dwindled ; to that whistling sound of amazement, mounted again.
The doctor appeared at the door. A little fussy man, behind his professional composure genuine anxiety gleamed. Hardy bent his head, through the tumult i of sound to catch the quick whisper.
“Come in. Buck her up if you can. She’s shaken up, and there’s a bad, wrench or two, by a freak of fortune, that’s all. Perhaps you can make her understand that nothing worse so far — though what with this hysterical outbreak to cope with—and I’m handicapped
without a nurse--Damn ticklish
business. Where’s the girl’s spirit gone?” Hardy could just descry the fuddled words that greeted him as he entered > the room:
“If God must have His laugh—so many others to pick on. Why couldn’t He lay off me?”
He looked down into the livid face all agleam with a cold sweat. He looked at blurred, crazed eyes that never met ! his. And suddenly he felt desolate, certain that this distraught creature was not Pam, that Pam was gone now. Valor, dauntless, gallantry, high faith—all swept into a turmoil of wild cries.
He caught her hand. At once, without meeting his eyes, she tore it from him.
“Go away! You go away! You haven’t any right here; I don’t belong to you any more. Go away from me! Go!”
“What’s happened btetween you?” The doctor was pushing him toward the door. “Better get out now—only make things worse. Deuce of it is I have no one to take a hand--”
He stopped short as the door creaked —creaked melodramatically, it struck Hardy—and swung open swiftly and with a certain obsequious gusto, as if it were ushering forth some agency exigent to a forthcoming denouement.
And into the room like a gaunt, grim goddess out of the machine, yet on the instant its dominant personality, the woman Susan stalked.
“Maybe I can give you a lift.”
Hardy saw the relief sürge over the physician’s face, with his first glance at her saw the sweep of her bony arms with which she took control of the situation, saw her raw-knuckled hands metamorphose before his eyes into lithe, live things—saw too a new rough splendor on her face, a light neither of service nor of sympathy, but of sheer, sharp joy in a loved job before her.
Unceremoniously she pushed him toward the hall. And an instant later the dosing door thrust him out as if he were a shameless intruder put summarily into his place. Muffled by the walls, the cries seemed to ring through an eternity, through a whole cycle of successive little eternities, tumbled pell-mell one hard upon the other, mounting, mounting— and dwindling then to that faint whistling sound.
HE!” As if from a vast distance V/ the light call reached him.
And immediately all his senses and faculties swirled into a sort of mad jigging . . . He found himself stumbling down the stairs. The outrage of this! The sacrilege! . . . Marjorie . . . That
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other one to intrude now and here . . . Thrust herself . . . He wanted to shake her into .senselessness and silence . . . Enraged, he strode through the lower rooms, through the halls . . .
On the porch he discovered her . . .
She was standing in a dim, vine-laden recess, poised, personable, smiling . . . But a stray sunbeam played over her face, turned it to a quivering thing, all sympathy and concern.
And once again he felt that breathlessness before the sheer loveliness of her, as before a radiant vision, an embodiment of unattainable hankerings, age-old illusions. At once he knew that there were matters he must let her put to him, that somehow, through a servant’s blubberings, perhaps, she was aware of what had happened here, and had come to him with an assuagement, an expedient . . . some sort of offering.
Head down, chin thrust out, he stood before her, peered, glared, frowned, strove to free himself from the certainty that even as she approached, she was leaving him ... a vision fading ... a dream eluding him.
“Harrowink noise!” came the dulcet tones.
Then, “Hughie, dear,” she murmured, “Susan and the rest of ’em—they won’t do any good—it’s all up to you. I know. . . . My poor dead husband, you see . , . beautiful memory ... I know that if you love someone very much, and you see they’re harder hit than you, you’ll come through somehow for them, no matter. Just you make her see you’re harder hit and everything will be all right, Hughie. . . .
“And, Hughie, dear”—her voice sank to a mere thread of a whisper, he saw tears welling up over her heavy lashes— “I’m ever so much obliged for what happened last night. Found something— beautiful. I’m not afraid of things any more. Never will be . . . Don’t need Susan ... I can make a go of it on my own now . . . Ever and ever so much obliged . . . Good-by, Hughie, dear.”
Her hands fluttered to him. Through the merest instant, the finger-tips sped over his face, fluttered back to her lips, rested there. Then she blew him a kiss, began slowly to back away like a vision fading—a fugitive dream, her chin very high . . .
NERVES torn to a quivering jumble, stumbling, staggering, sobbing, he mounted the stairs. He knew that he would never see Marjorie again. And he knew that all would be well with Pam. But those cries—to stop them ... In his power to stop them . . . Something he must do—do very quickly . . .
Roughly he thrust the door open, floundered into the room. A white-robed woman gave a little gasp as his elbow struck her. A table covered with medicine bottles swayed as he pushed it aside, tumbled its contents to the floor. He could hear the doctor’s grim “Damn!” He tried to wipe that ridiculous, alien moisture from his eyes, the little trickling drops that blinded and maddened . . .
Then he became aware of a great stillness in the room.
Then very tranquilly he found himself looking into his wife’s eyes ...
Slowly the film seemed to dissolve in her eyes, leaving them the old vivid blue. And consciousness crept back into them, then understanding and pity, finally a glint of tenderness.
“Hugh, dear,” she was saying, “don’t mind so much. You poor scared child, come on over here to your girl.”
Unable through the swirling of things at once to move, he swayed uncertainly, made groping motions with his hands.
“Come here, you—you imminent paterfamilias . . . ’Ray for the home fires,
And as he fell clumsily to his knees at her bedside, it was as if curtains were rent asunder, giving him vision of high and holy and obscure things. It was as if, when he saw that look with which he had of late become familiar, that look of tenderness and awe and of a white ecstasy come into her eyes, he saw too straight into the hearts of women.
Saw that “something beautiful,” indefinable only in the mere phrasing of it, a solid, dominant actuality ruthlessly to be attained, tenaciously, even as in Susan’s vicarious adherence, to be clung to, and infusing itself into high passions and humdrum events, into all homely and human and hallowed things.
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