In the first instalment Paul Beaton, a rising young lawyer in a mid-Western city had been married to his wife, Mary, two years—“two years filled to overflowing with the wonder of romance,”—when the twins “came roaring into Paradise.” Their advent and its consequent drain on the family exchequer resulted in Paul concentrating intensely on his practice. By the time the twins are eight years old, Mary is conscious of the fact that her husband’s business is monopolizing his life.
Three years before the twins’ eighth birthday, the Beatons had become friendly with Carolyn and Christopher March, the former a fascinating woman, and the latter, a self-effacing husband. Christopher dies, “as he had lived, with as little fuss as possible,” and on a sympathetic impulse Mary gives Carolyn a blanket invitation! “Don’t stay too much alone dear; you know our home is yours, come as often and stay as long as you like.” This invitation Mary soon regrets, for Carolyn is continually inviting herself to the Beaton home for week-ends. Mary thinks that Carolyn is attracted by Neil Meredith, a widower, who is interested in Mary, but to outside eyes it is obvious that Paul is the magnet that accounts for Carolyn’s interest in the Beaton family. Mary notices a growing intimacy between Paul and Carolyn and is beginning to worry about his lack of interest in herself and the children.
DINING with Paul and Mary, Neil Meredith said to Carolyn: “Funny how people urge marriage on us. Mary here, and Paul, won’t be content till they see me settled. What makes ’em do it?”
He was not anticipating seriousness, and Carolyn left the conversation somewhat in the air when she answered pensively: “They are so happy themselves they are sorry for us derelicts.”
“Find yourself a girl, Neil, and let me look after the wedding-breakfast. Let me be matron of honor.” Mary’s smile was wiped suddenly from her face when Carolyn said archly:
“Oh, my dear, tact, please! Not you, dear! I! The bride is always jealous of the groom’s—oh, dear, what was I going to say? The groom’s—”
“Friends,” said Mary.
“Well—” Carolyn’s little laugh was two-edged. It seemed to concede to convention, without yielding up any of its secret knowledge. After a quick glance round, Carolyn attempted belated casualness. “It takes the happily-married to want to draw everybody in.” She smiled at Paul, but his frown lingered. Neil was seemingly studying the name on his cigarette. Mary rose and asked Carolyn to play for them.
Carolyn beckoned Paul to her side, made room for him on the piano-bench. “Why so solemn?” she asked, under cover of the melody she was playing.
He did not sit beside her, but stood watching Neil and Mary who stood talking together at the other end of the room. “Am I solemn?” he asked absently.
“An owl, darling! Upset about something?”
“Not at all.”
“That was an idiotic thing for me to say just now.”
“Was it?” Interested now. “Then why say it?”
“Why have such an impulse?”
She played on a moment, her graceful head bent over the keys. When she finally looked up, he had left her side and walked to the window. Carolyn glanced over her shoulder and saw that Neil and Mary were not in the room.
“Where are the others?” she asked.
“In the garden. Wait. Mary is signaling.”
He unlatched the French window. Carolyn could hear Mary’s clear voice. “Leave the window open, Paul, the music’s lovely from out here!”
Carolyn’s hands wandered over the keys, seeking a melody which seemed elusive. She was talking, her head backward thrown, for Paul’s benefit. “Paul, dear —cross with me?”
He did not move or seem to hear her.
“I’m sorry, Paul. I should not have said that about Neil and Mary—”
He came close to her then. “So, you did begin some unfortunate remark associating Mary with Neil. You’ve done that before. Why do you do that?”
“Does it annoy you?”
“Come and sit here, won’t you? That’s better.” She moved slightly away to make room for him, then slightly back, so that their shoulders touched. “Don’t worry, Paul. It is quite one-sided, I’m sure.”
“Yes, one-sided. I’m quite sure Mary is no more in love with Neil than I am. She’s in love with you.”
And when he did not answer, she played more softly and leaned more closely against him. “It’s not Mary’s fault that Neil’s in love with her. If I were a man I’d be in love with her myself—”
“Do you think this is pleasant news to me?” he said.
“News? Why, dear, I noticed it long ago. Remember? The night he took her to Edith’s dance, don’t you remember I called your attention to the way he wrapped her cloak—”
“You did, and I thought you were joking.”
She turned her head so that her lips were near his ear. “You would!” she laughed, and suddenly her lips were for an instant against his neck behind his ear. “You would!” she repeated, and the piano rang with a lively fox-trot under her fingers.
“Don’t!” he said,and stopped her by laying his hand over hers.
“What should I do about it, if it’s true, then? I don’t intend to put up with it!”
Grave-eyed, she looked at him. “There’s never anything to do,” she told him. “You can’t stop people by telling them to stop. I’d say there’s nothing to do but let it run its course.”
“Let a man be in love with my wife, and I do nothing?”
“You don’t ‘let’ people fall in love; they just do, or they don’t.
What has Neil ever done that you could make a scene about?
And you would be very stupid to say anything to Mary. If she is unconscious that he loves her, leave her that way! We all know that there’s nothing draws us to people like the knowledge that they love us. Don’t help Neil by telling Mary for him!
I don’t believe he’ll let her know—if he can help it. He’s not a philanderer—”
“And suppose he can’t help it? Am I to stand by until in some way he lets her know it? Am I to let her feel that ‘draw’ you speak of, and do nothing?”
“What can you do, dear, that won’t stir up trouble? Let it run. Such one-sided love would die of starvation I should imagine.”
“It’s hardly ‘starvation’ to motor with her, dance with her, sit beside her for hours at the theatre—pretty steady food to grow on, I’d say!”
“Hush!” she said, and began to play again as Neil and Mary entered the room.
Carolyn accepted Mary’s usual invitation to stay all night and Neil left early. Half an hour after he had gone, Carolyn clasped her hands together and exclaimed: “What an idiot! I forgot about a dentist’s appointment at half-past eight to-morrow morning. Call a taxi, will you Paul? How stupid of me! Neil might have driven me!”
“I’ll get you downtown by half-past eight.”
Her two hands swept over her white evening gown. “In this dress? I couldn’t. I must go home to-night!”
“I’ll drive you; the car’s still out in front. Come on, Mary. We’ll take Carol home.”
Mary shook her head and yawned. “I’m sleepy. You don’t mind?”
DON’T let us talk,” Carol murmured, close to his shoulder. Through the quiet streets they ran; and out in the suburb on the other side of the city where Carolyn lived—-
“Tired?” she asked; and when he said no, she suggested a drive out into the country. “Will it matter, do you think? It’s such a night!”
“All right. Mary won’t sit up for me.”
Faster and faster. “Scared?” he asked, and “Not with you,” she answered happily.
After a silent half hour—“Mary and I used to love to drive like this,” he said; and she sat up straight beside him.
“Oh, somehow, we never have time for this sort of thing any more—or inclination—or something, I don’t know. Life’s so darned hectic—”
“Isn’t it?” she murmured.
“It’s hard not to grow apart—”
Silence for another ten miles. “A man’s a fool to neglect his wife.”
“Well—something like it. I don’t know. Life’s a funny mess.”
“Why worry about it? Take it as it comes.”
“That principle suits me. I do. But it seems I’m— oh well, pshaw, what’s the use of worrying? I’m doing my damnedest!”
“Poor Paul,” she murmured, and nestled near his arm again.
“We’d better turn, I guess.”
“It isn’t late,” she demurred.
“I was thinking of Mary. If she’s awake—”
“Perhaps we’d better,” regretfully.
And presently—“Could we come again—some time— like this, do you think?”
“Pretty hard,” he said. “Mary might be hurt; or do you mean, bring Mary, too?”
And hastily she said, “Of course, Mary too, naturally!”
NEIL MEREDITH lived so much alone that an opportunity to express himself was to him a dissipation. He found in Mary a sympathetic and attentive listener, and sincerely believed her to be just the opposite—a brilliant conversationalist. She drew him out, he told her; and, adoring her for it, he had no intention of letting her know that he adored her.
He thought of her as completely inaccessible, and believed that her frank friendliness would be shocked to an untimely death if he were to tell her of his love for her. So he kept strict guard over himself, and while feeding his desire on crumbs, got a considerable measure of cold comfort and satisfaction out of his conscious self-control. While this self-esteem lasted, it flavored the crumbs. For the first time in his decent life, he was conscious and proud of his own decency. In the early stages of his infatuation he enjoyed in a melancholy way the novelty of being hopelessly in love. Believing he was wholly unhappy he was at the same time excited and stimulated.
Mary in search of romance wondered whether perhaps Neil were in love with Carolyn. He seemed decidedly interested in talking of love and marriage in the abstract. He accepted all her invitations to her house with an alacrity which she thought might signify eagerness to meet Carolyn there. She presumed that often he and Carolyn met elsewhere than at her house.
The facts were that the only occasions on which Neil sought Carolyn were after barren periods longer than usual when he had not seen or heard of Mary. These periods became more rare since Mary imagined he was in love with Carolyn. Her friendly affection for Neil prompted her to encourage a love affair for him.
Carolyn benefited by Mary’s romanticism. Invitations to Mary’s home increased in number and in interest. Tête-à-têtes with Paul seemed harder to manoeuvre. Theatre seats and so on seemed to group themselves so that she saw more of Neil than she did of Paul. Such arrangements had the appearance of being accidental, or coincidental; but Carolyn, shrewdly watching, discerned Mary’s intention to throw Neil with her.
“Jealous,” Carolyn surmised, and redoubled her own efforts toward opportunities to talk intimately with Paul.
As such feminine manoeuvrings are apt to do, the cross-purpose efforts were lost upon the two men, to whom it seemed that the merest accidents created endless amorous opportunities.
With Mary as hostess, Carolyn found difficulty in carrying out her “accidents” in grouping. She became more hospitable than before. “You dear people are so good to me, I am getting mortified. This must be my party to-morrow, I insist!” When it was her party, Neil and Mary were thrown together for longer periods than when Mary was responsible for the arrangements. All unsuspecting that there was a polite contest going on around them, the two men fell in line and were shifted about like pawns. Neil preferred Carolyn’s parties to Mary’s and took to sharing hospitality with her. “My party, Carol’s arranging it,” he would say; and he would anticipate with excitement.
Only once did Mary mention to Paul her impression that Neil was in love with Carolyn. “He’s such a dear, and he’s lonely. I hope she cares for him.”
“You women! If there is anything developing there, don’t crash in, for heaven’s sake! If there’s anything a man loathes it’s to be helped in his love affairs!”
“Think it would be a good match? Think they’d be happy?”
“Good Lord, you might as well bet on the way a toad hops! How should I know? And why should they need help? They’re free, white and twenty-one! There’s nothing to stop them getting married to-morrow if they want to!”
“Would you be glad if they did?”
“I don’t give a darn one way or another. What difference would it make to us?”
“Oh, I think it’s kind to help it along, that’s all.”
“First thing you know,” Paul said in a burst of philosophy, “you’ll make it so easy for him that you’ll take the kick out of it! Let him do his own courting— if he’s in love with her! I have my doubts. He’s a darn calm lover, that’s all I’ve got to say!”
CHRISTMAS; then Christmas again. Only a negligible hiatus between, Mary reflected, making out lists, crossing off names, adding other names, helping the children stretch their pocket-money to incredible lengths.
Paul declined to be dragged into the maelstrom. “Go ahead, send me the bills, make ’em as light as you decently can, they’re always twice what we plan. I’m busy.”
“But—Peter’s things—I can’t decide. I wish you could give me just one afternoon—just an hour, then— to shop for him.”
“What help would I be? You have his list. It covers enough territory, Lord knows!”
“Impossible, of course, and he knows it. That’s just a guide—we’re supposed to pick from that what we can get.”
“Well—you don’t need me for that.”
She worried. “Paula—that’s different, I can project my mind backward and put myself in her place at her age. I know how to please her. But that’s my difficulty about Pete. If you’d try to remember how you felt about things at Pete’s age—”
“Might as well ask me to remember how I felt when I was born! I’d be no use at all, dear, and I just can’t be bothered. Get what you think best. I’m busy!”
So Mary once more went about her Christmas shopping for her children, alone. The human comedy was always drama to her, she enjoyed the Christmas rush. In the basement of the big department store, a bewildering collection of toys drew buyers of all classes. Mary loved to watch the couples who obviously had much less money than interest to invest. She would often move close to them to catch their eager conversation.
“Wouldn’t Tommy take a cat-fit over that big red motor-car? Let’s bring him down to see it.”
“Aw, the poor kid, he’d want it. Leave him be. What you don’t know don’t hurt you!”
She followed one such couple and saw them laugh over the antics of a stuffed monkey in a red coat, which climbed a string and ran down again. “Tommy’d bust himself laughin’ over that!” The woman foraged in a shabby brown purse for the necessary quarter with which to ensure the ecstatic “busting” of their Tommy.
There always seemed to be so many more poor parents than rich parents shopping together. Women in costly furs wandered around alone, having expensive mechanical toys tested, deciding between resplendent dolls.
One afternoon she saw a beautifully-groomed woman standing alone, purchasing a superb sail-boat, a model of a world-famous yacht. “Charge it,” and the obsequious clerk held the beautiful toy high for its purchaser to admire it once again. A shabby couple stood near by, watching the transaction. Mary saw the wren-like woman nudge her stocky mate.
Mary followed this couple in their slow progress along the boat-counter. Down, down, down, the boats ever less alluring, ever more cheaply priced. They purchased a roughly-made little plebeian in the world of toy-boats. Mary moved close and made a note of the address they gave. “There’s a few other things goin’ too, or we’d carry this,” the man apologized.
Mary moved back to the centre of the long counter and chose a pretty model of a motor-boat. She had it sent to the address she had just noted. On a blank card she wrote: “From the mother of a boy like yours, with best wishes,” and left the card to be enclosed.
Christmas day. Morning thrills, noonday relatives, evening heaviness. “A whole year till Christmas comes again!” the children mourned; and the eyes of parents, meeting over childish heads, said in effect, “Thank God for that!”
“The Man of Galilee all mixed up in childish minds with a fat little man in red, stuck in a chimney,” said Mary.
“I should have died of loneliness had it not been for you dear people,” Carolyn said. “Wasn’t Neil happy to-day? And wasn’t he sweet to your old Aunt Jeanie!”
“Lovely copy of Rupert Brooke he gave you. And a Millay the same for me!”
“‘Caution’ is that lad’s middle name!” Carolyn smiled. “I congratulate you on his discretion.”
“Who else, darling?” Carolyn, laughing, crossed the room to get for herself one of Paul’s cigarettes from his private stock, hidden behind the clock. Inhaling with appreciation, she blew a smoke ring mockingly at Mary. “Why not admit the old lamb is in love with you? I’m a woman myself, you know, I recognize the symptoms!”
“I hope you’ve not said that to anyone else,” Mary flushed with annoyance. “You know how a joking remark like that about a married woman is likely to be taken seriously.”
“My dear! What sort of a friend do you think I am? I’m as discreet as you are!”
“Of course I know you’re not in earnest. You’re not the kind that sees a love-affair in every friendship a married woman enjoys with a man.”
“Oh, pooh, Mary, why any camouflage with me? Belief in platonic friendships dies in our teens if we have any observation at all. I didn’t mean to annoy you; but, really, darling! I’m not a child!”
“Oh, very well, I’ll not speak of it again. Sorry you’re upset about it.”
“It irritates me, that’s all. It’s so unfounded. As a matter of fact—I think the shoe's on the other foot. It’s you he’s pursuing.”
Carolyn lay back in the couch-corner by the fire and laughed aloud. “All right, dear, I’ll be the alibi! You two are smart as well as discreet!”
“Please get that notion out of your head as soon as possible! If Paul—you may say something—I’m really very annoyed, Carol. Neil is here so much—”
“Oh, goodness, don’t labor the thing, dear! I’ve agreed to be the goat! Those things don’t need to be talked about; it’s all right. I quite understand. You can depend on me— absolutely!”
Mary thrust herself impatiently out of her deep chair. “Come on and find the men!”
“No bridge, for heaven’s sake, after all that food to-day. Send Neil home early, like a darling. I’m simply dead!”
“Go to bed if you like, now,” said Mary abruptly, and left her. Carolyn found another cigarette and stretched herself on the couch.
AH—HUM,” yawned Paul, in their room at bedtime soon after. “That’s that! Such a chore! But I guess it’s all right. You women and the kids enjoy it.”
“Why segregate the male of the species? The kids are half yours. Didn’t you get a kick out of their fun?” Mary was already in bed, and sleepy, but roused herself to resent mildly her classification with children.
“Oh, well, they’d be lost if you weren’t there to gush with them; they’d have been as thrilled if I’d been in Timbuctoo!”
“That’s your own doing, dear, you come out of your shell just long enough to register ‘among those present;’ then in you go again!”
“Bad as that?” He was amused.
“Bad as that. Quite polite, rather superior, completely bored. A kindly cocoon. Couldn’t you be really excited about us on Christmas day, and the birthdays? We’d love it!”
“Good-night, idiot!” he said, and kissed her chin.
NEIL MEREDITH carefully took stock of himself. All winter he had postponed the day when he must face his intensifying emotional situation. Seeing Mary more and more frequently, he had been restlessly happy and miserable. “Letting well enough” alone was inconclusive. Worse than unsatisfying. Taunting. Each time he saw Mary, he found something more in her to love. And each time he saw her he knew it was increasingly foolish to see her again.
He hoped he only imagined a slight coolness in Mary’s manner since Christmas. Her invitations were less frequent, but that was natural; couldn’t keep on forever at the rate at which they had associated in the early winter. Paul and Mary had other friends, of course. Was she tired of him? Was he hypersensitive, perhaps, because he loved her?
At luncheon one day in his favorite quiet restaurant, Carolyn, lunching alone, beckoned him to join her. “Not seeing much of you lately,” she said.
“No; I rather miss our weekly bridge.”
“Stir it up again, why don’t you?”
“Afraid of boring Paul and Mary; we haunted their house there for a while.”
“Why think they’re bored if we’re not?”
“A healthy viewpoint, but they’re so darned interesting—”
“You’re too modest! Shall I stir them up, then?”
“Do! I’d like to see them.”
“Let’s call them on the way out after lunch and arrange something.”
“Right, suits me.”
Carolyn, in the telephone-booth later, reopened the door and said to Neil waiting outside, “Think I’ll call Paul, instead of Mary. She always does what he wants to do in the evening. Save two calls.”
She closed the door again. Neil watched the animation of her face while she talked to Paul. She had a great deal to say, and Neil imagined Paul in his office, probably with a client or a stenographer at his elbow, trying to be polite and adjust his concentrated thought to persiflage at midday. If women who “visited” on the telephone for amusement could see the busy person, interrupted at the other end of the line, Neil thought, telephones would not be so attractive!
“He says to come to their house to-night. Pick me up, will you?”
“Not going to call Mary?”
“Oh, she’s always agreeable to Paul’s plans.”
He said no more, but called Mary himself from his office. He explained how it had come about that they had called Paul. “Carol said you would do what Paul wanted to do—but I’m afraid we may be a nuisance. Please say so if we are.”
Mary hesitated. Carolyn believed that Neil was in love with her; Carolyn had no faith in “platonic” friendship. Carolyn thought it possible that Paul was being deceived by his wife and his best friend. Here was a ready-made opportunity to persuade Carolyn that she was indifferent to evenings with Neil. Carolyn must not be allowed to put Paul in the category of the ridiculous husband, secretly smiled at by his guests. She would have enjoyed seeing Neil under different circumstances, but, since Carolyn’s assumption at Christmas time that here was an illicit love-affair to be accepted with proper sophistication, Mary had not enjoyed their familiar evening “foursome” as she had before Carolyn’s acquiescent comment.
“I wonder if you’d mind—” she said. “Some other night? We’ve had several late nights in succession— I’d planned to go to bed early to-night—”
The ancient excuse was more than sufficient for Neil. One always banished thoughts of early to bed, if the temptation to stay up late just one more night was strong enough.
“Any other night will do as well, if you just let me know? Children well?”
He sounded as stilted as he felt, and Mary at once regretted her concession to Carolyn’s opinion of her and Neil. Why hurt Neil because Carolyn had no faith in them? Why let suspicion influence her? But a belated enthusiasm was impossible. She would call Neil to-morrow and undo this stupidity.
“The children are splendid, thanks, Neil. See you soon.”
She was dissatisfied with the little contretemps but soon dismissed it from her mind as trivial.
Neil carried it around with him all day. He had suspected he was boring her; now he knew.
He called Carolyn and told her that their visit was not convenient for Mary and was surprised by the vehemence of her retort.
“Why couldn’t you have left it the way it was? Paul had called her; he has just rung off, after telling me it was all right!”
“Does it matter? It was only a little visit.”
“It may not matter to you—” she said; then laughed apologetically. “Of course it doesn’t matter,” she said. “Perhaps you and I might do something. Want to come over here?”
Having told her he was free, he felt committed, and told her he would come.
She immediately telephoned Paul again. “Mary says she’s tired, Paul, and wants to be excused; so we’ll play bridge over here. Neil’s coming. I’ll get a fourth. Good-by. Come early.” Not giving him a chance to demur, she hung up the receiver.
It was the first time she had succeeded in getting Paul to her house without Mary. Now to eliminate Neil!
Late in the afternoon she telephoned Neil again. “Such a bother!” she said. “I can’t find anyone to make up a game. Shall we just let it go, for to-night?”
Neil concealed his delight and expressed his deep regret.
Paul, arriving at nine o’clock, was embarrassed to find himself the only guest.
“Neil had got himself tied up for the evening before I could get him on the telephone,” Carolyn explained. “I hoped to get the Elslies, but they’ve not come in yet. Can you bear an evening alone with me?”
“No hardship in that; but—it seems sort of—”
“Those ideas went out with bustles,” she told him gaily. “If you say so, I’ll try the Hubbards? They’re always available.”
Paul well knew why the Hubbards were always available. Most married couples who wrangle over bridge, are. “Good lord, no!” he said fervently. “I’ll stay a while. Play for me. I’m tired.” She mixed for him his favorite drink; she set a box of his favorite cigarettes at his elbow; she put a small cushion under his shoulders; she dimmed the lights. Having relaxed him to near-drowsiness, she bent over him a fleeting instant and lightly kissed his forehead. “Now I’ll play for you,” she said.
At eleven o’clock he set his latchkey in his door, but the door opened before the key turned and Mary stood before him. She held up her mouth for his kiss and he wondered if that gesture was instinctive with all women. Some did it so easily. Carolyn had done the same thing, just as naturally, when he left her a few minutes ago. But Carolyn’s kiss had been less brief. Funny things, women.
“Thought you were tired. Thought you were going to bed early.”
“Changed my mind. I had a good book. Had a good game?”
"Not bad,” he said, and, mildly untruthful, felt uncomfortable. But she might not like his spending an evening alone with Carolyn—
“Whom did she get for Neil’s partner?” A natural enough question, he knew; but, having committed himself, he had to go on. “A Mrs.—something—or—other, from—oh—I forget where she said; Regina, I think.” What a damned fool he was to go into detail! Now he’d have to stay with that, if she asked any more questions!
But Mary hadn’t cared who was the fourth. She had just wanted to show a decent interest in his evening.
He supposed he’d have to warn Carolyn, now, to tell the same story. But, no, he’d be damned if he would! That sort of conspiracy was frowsy. Let it ride. Probably never come up again. Didn’t matter, anyway. Fussing over those things was out of date. Went out with bustles.
Paul was going away on an extended business trip. Might be several weeks, he said, and suggested that Mary have Carolyn stay with her during his absence. “You’re likely to be alone; and I rather thought, from something Carol said—I got the impression she’s lonely, and would like to stay with you.
“I know. She said we’d be two lone women now, and must keep each other company. But I’m never lonely, I have the children.”
“Please, no, Paul, I like my house to myself.”
No need to tell Paul that she could not bear the thought of Carolyn in her home watching her and Neil. No need to explain that since Carolyn had expressed that casual acceptance of what she believed to be Paul’s humiliating position with regard to Neil, Mary grudged her every hospitality provided for by Paul. Carolyn made such a fuss over Paul, and yet she smiled over anyone making a fool of him. If she were so fond of him, why didn’t she despise Mary for what she believed Mary was doing?
“It’s a little awkward—” Paul said. “I didn’t think that you might not want her—I’ve practically invited her.”
“You shouldn’t do that, Paul; it’s rather arbitrary.”
“I can make some excuse to her—”
“Do, please. I really don’t want her for so long.”
PAUL’S methods were direct. “I told Mary I’d suggested to you that you stay with her. She—it’s a little awkward—”
“Oh?” sweetly, suspecting his predicament, stubbornly determined to let him find his own way out.
“It’s not quite convenient for her to have you. I’m sorry I said anything— it’s awkward—”
“Poor Paul!” she laughed softly. “Between the devil and the deep sea, aren’t you?”
“How do you mean?”
“What men don’t understand about women! You’re pathetic, you nice straightforward men! If two men don’t like each other, they make no bones about it! Everybody knows it, they just keep out of each other’s way. But women—!”
“Surely—do you mean you and Mary don’t like each other?”
He had dropped in at her apartment to tell her that he must recall his tentative invitation to her to stay with Mary. He was in a hurry, he said; no time to sit down, just ran in on the spur of the moment, thought it might save her embarrassment.
“I love Mary,” she said, looking up at him with eyes that seemed to him very wistful. “But—Paul, dear, I hate to disturb you, I know you’re fond of me and you think Mary is, too—but I’ve known for a long time that Mary doesn’t like me—”
“Oh, rubbish,” he said heartily. “Ridiculous! She thinks the world of you, Carol. That’s absurd!”
She shook her head mournfully. “Oh, no, dear. A woman knows—”
“Oh, Carol, that’s all nonsense! What has Mary ever done to give you a notion like that? Why, she’s as nice as can be to you, always! Don’t be silly.”
Again she shook her head, slowly, gazing up into his worried eyes as a grieved and patient child might gaze.
“You’re a darling blind bat,” she said, smilingly. “Run along, I mustn’t keep you. And don’t worry. Mary knows that I know why she doesn’t want me! It’s quite all right—and you’re a dear. Good-by.” And again that instinctive gesture. It was becoming a habit, this kissing Carol good-by. She apparently thought nothing of it—then why should he? Worry over such matters went out with bustles. The world was purer now. Simpler and more straightforward; fusty, evil minds no longer existed.
Peculiar way of kissing, Carol had; different; delightful. Impossible to hurry over it—her lips clung—
He hoped Mary had not hurt her feelings. Warm-hearted women like Carolyn were sensitive, they must be, they were so responsive and needed so much affection. Just like children, bless their hearts, those cuddly women!
He had not thought of her, till now, as cuddly. He supposed she must be. Her lips were very soft. And somehow, when you opened your eyes, you got the impression that hers had not been closed. Peculiar, that impression; he’d like to be sure about that. Gave you a queer feeling that perhaps you’d missed something—Next time—
GRANTED marital suspicion, evidence of a circumstantial kind springs up like weeds at every turn.
Briskly rubbing Paula’s sticky fingerprints from the keys of the piano, Mary, in blue smock and dainty slippers, vented fury and grief combined through the wet cheesecloth in her tense right hand.
Neil had dined with them the night before, and happened to mention his disappointment in having to cancel their proposed bridge game of the preceding week. “First you telephoned that the game was off; then Carolyn. Have to get together soon.”
“I thought you played at Carol’s that night?”
“No, she telephoned late in the afternoon that she could find no one to make up a game, so we’d just let it go for that night.”
She turned to Paul. “Telephone Carol to come over to-night,” she said; and he was conscious of the intensity with which she gazed at him. He wasn’t in the humor for bridge, he said; suppose they went, just the three of them as they now were, to a movie?
But Mary was more insistent than usual. “We’ll take Carol along. I’ll call her. Is her Regina friend still with her?”
“I don’t know,” said Paul, and felt his neck getting hot under her steady gaze. Damn, what a fool a man was to tell those silly little impulsive lies! Rotten little boomerangs!
“Did you meet Carol’s friend from Regina, Neil?”
Paul offered Neil a cigarette, explaining volubly that this brand was something he had just discovered, quite the best he’d found so far, an English brand originally, now being made up in the States under some arrangement with the English manufacturers—
“Did you meet Carol’s Regina friend, Neil?”
Now she suspected something, darn these women anyhow! They asked so many questions, they were bound to get a small lie told them once in a while.
“What was her name, dear? You met her last week, at Carol’s, you said. The night I was too tired to have Neil and Carol here, remember? Friday. You said you’d had a game.”
“Oh, Lord, I forget, it went in one ear and out the other! Something—I don’t know, it doesn’t matter, does it?”
“Not at all, dear. Only I thought you said Neil was there, too.”
Well, of all things, how they did probe a man! “I said nothing of the sort, I never mentioned Neil!”
“I certainly got the impression—but it doesn’t matter. Who was the other man, dear?”
“Good Lord, does it matter? If we’re going to that show we’d better not sit here talking all night!” He made a great business of looking at his watch, of jumping up, of exclaiming; “By Jove, it’s later than I thought, we’ll have to get a move on. I’ll bring the car around while you get your hat on—”
She was very amicable, she ran upstairs, and he waited outside in the car for several minutes after he drove around to the front of the house before she and Neil came out to him.
He opened the front door. “Both come in here,” he said.
But Mary climbed into the back seat, and Neil followed her. “I telephoned Carol that we were leaving,” said Mary.
And when Paul muttered, she asked: “What did you say, dear?” with a sweetness that made him wonder whether he was imagining that there was anything going on under the surface of her gentle chatter. Darn these women, they had such poker manners! Now he’d have to warn Carolyn, somehow he must find an opportunity, he must tell her to say nothing about his little harmless visit the other night—and he hated like the devil putting himself in that position with any woman, darn them. Saying, “Don’t tell my wife!” was poor stuff. He’d seen too many innocent husbands get in wrong doing that! Hell, what a pest, just an innocent two-hours’ visit, a pure accident, with his wife’s best friend; it was a funny thing if a married man couldn’t have that much of a change. God knows marriage doesn’t make Siamese twins of a man and a woman. They were at Carolyn’s door, and Mary was saying, in the most ordinary voice—he must be imagining all this cross-examination because he had a guilty conscience over that silly little lie—“Will you run in for Carol, Neil?” Mary was saying pleasantly.
But he must get that opportunity to warn Carol—and damn, how he hated that sort of stuff—so he bounced out of the car with great good-fellowship, saying, “Nonsense, don’t bother, old man, don’t disturb yourself. I’ll run in for Carol!”
Carol was not quite ready; Carol never was. “Just half a minute!” she called from upstairs, and presently she ran down to find him standing in the hall.
“So sorry to keep you waiting, dear,” she said; and with her lips held up to him so casually, so blessed friendly and unconscious, what could any sane man do but kiss her—quickly, remembering the glass door and the car outside.
“Just a minute,” he said; and she, standing so close that their shoulders leaned together, smiled. “Yes?”
“Ah—h’m—it might be as well not to mention that—I’m afraid I gave Mary the impression that we played bridge the other night—in fact, I was stupid, I rather went into details—”
She laughed, and rubbed her cheek against his shoulder. “Silly, suppose I’d tell her? You’d never get away again—and—”
“Well—” edging her toward the door— “no use annoying her. If I’d come right out with it in the first place, there was nothing to it—”
“Oh?” she said, and paused, with her hand on the door-handle. “Wasn’t there? I loved it.”
“So did I, of course; but—”
“Then come again?”
“Well, you know—
“I know you’re a hundred years behind your day and generation, and I love you for it, you funny old thing,” she laughed, and opened the door.
And so it happened that next morning Mary’s piano-keys got such a polishing as they had not experienced since they had left the factory.
PAUL was away for a month. During the fourth week of his absence, Carolyn rented her flat for the summer months with the avowed intention of taking a seaside vacation. She said she planned to leave a few days after giving up possession of her home, and asked Mary if she might visit her in the interim. “Just a day or two, dear? I don’t want to wear out my welcome. Just till Paul comes home. You are too sweet to me!” She moved her trunks in with her to save storage.
Jessie grumbled. “Will she be staying long?”
“Possibly.” Mary’s air of finality left Jessie hopelessly muttering to herself.
Paul, detained, and returning two weeks later, was met at the station by both Mary and Carolyn. Carolyn’s summer plans were hazy now; she had changed her mind about the desirability of her first choice of a pleasure-ground.
“I’m your steady boarder!” she told Paul, and moved over in the back seat to make room for him. Mary drove, with a suitcase teetering beside her for company.
“Had a good time together, you girls? Neil been looking after you?”
Carolyn moved closer to him. “Between you and me and your stunning new hat—I like the brim turned down — Neil has neglected us. Lunch, once; that’s all we’ve seen of him—all I’ve seen of him, I should say.”
“And I.” Mary did not turn her head. “Good trip, dear?” over her shoulder.
He leaned over her, one gloved hand on her shoulder, and told her that his trip had been satisfactory. “McKenzie’s tickled to death. He’s lost this case in two courts, you know.”
“You’re a wonder,” Mary patted the hand on her shoulder, driving with one hand on the wheel. “I’m proud of you.”
“Oh, pshaw!” With happy eyes, “Kids well?”
“Splendid; as usual Pete said every morning he was going to write you that night, and every night he was going to write you next morning!”
“Your children are adorable, I envy you and Mary.” Carolyn laid her hand on his free one. When it stayed there, he didn’t know what to do with it. He removed his other hand from Mary’s shoulder, and patted Carolyn’s hand, then in a manner returned it to her, and leaned back in his corner.
Mary’s eyes met his in the little mirror, and she smiled. Paul wondered if she were smiling at the hand-clasp.
To be continued