The Story: 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.
Carolyn disturbs Paul by telling him that Neil is in love with Mary and then annoys Mary by telling her the same thing. Mary denies it, but Neil, to himself, admits that he is hopelessly infatuated with a married woman. Carolyn manages to get Paul to spend an evening in her apartment. Paul, when questioned later by Mary, refers to a mythical bridge partner. Mary suspects the deception. Paul is very much worried and warns Carolyn to be careful. She laughs; “You’re a hundred years behind your day and generation, and I love you for it.”
CAROLYN announced a change of plan. She would live at a quiet hotel for the summer instead of going away. “Not even housekeep—just loaf, putter around and rest.”
Mary, the children and Jessie established themselves for the summer months in their usual place, a small cottage beside a lake within motoring distance of the city. “Don’t worry about us, Paul, dear. I’ve opened the cottage the past three years without you. I quite expected somebody would detain you at the last. Come at the week-end if you can; if not, it’s all right, you know.”
Paul had not felt that it was quite all right when he learned that Neil had substituted for him at the opening of the cottage. Mary had welcomed his last-minute offer to help her with the supervision of the workmen repairing minor things about the house to make it once more habitable.
“After all, I needed a managing man about, to-day,” she said gratefully, lingering over a late tête-à-tête supper with Neil, the children having rushed to take part in the great summer evening sport of seeing the train come in. “Paul is busy, and he’s never been here the opening day to realize how much there is to attend to.”
“Ever tell him?” Neil asked lazily, watching her through smoke, as they dawdled over their coffee.
“Why should I? He’d be here if he could—”
“Perhaps he’d be here if he realized. I often wonder if men and women are quite fair to each other—” She began to argue this but he explained, “I mean, they’re not fair in the way they only half explain things—” “Married people are apt to mistake explaining for complaining,” Mary laughed. “I can manage alone, and I don’t want you to say a word to him about the mess I was in when you arrived! He simply has no time for this sort of hubbub; and I hate getting on his conscience. Let’s have a moonlight swim.”
“I have to get back to town to-night—”
“Oh, don’t!” she said, rising. “Stay over.”
“All right,” he said happily. “Stroll down to the hotel with me and I’ll see if there’s a room free.”
“You’ll breakfast here?” invited Mary.
“Thanks, all right,” Neil responded.
THE early morning sun next day beat in through the cheap hotel shades and wakened Neil. With the intention of swimming before breakfast he went at once to Mary’s cottage. He had hung his bathing-suit over an old canvas chair-back on the screened verandah to dry free from dew.
Not wishing to disturb the household so early, he tiptoed up the shallow steps and cautiously opened the light screen door without a sound. He entered the shelter of the verandah and looked about for the chair with his bathing-suit on it. Behind a screen in the corner he saw part of the striped chair upon which he had hung it. He tiptoed forward and looked around the screen.
On a narrow camp bed, which had not been there when he left the night before, lay Mary asleep.
He caught his breath and stood staring down at her. Her head was thrown slightly backward, revealing the sweeping curve of her throat from the unbuttoned neck of the blue pyjamas she wore, to the delicate point of her chin. He was entranced by the pretty disorder of her soft hair, fluffy in natural waves as it was after her swim the night before when she had recklessly drenched it. One round bare arm lay across her eyes to keep out the morning light.
Gazing down at her, his breathing less placid than hers, he was undecided whether or not to waken her. Perhaps she would be glad to swim with him; perhaps she would be annoyed by an early awakening after so strenuous a day as she had had. Should he decide to waken her—how would he go about it?
Simply to speak her name, and so startle her out of that lovely pose seemed clumsy.
Suddenly he was shaken by desire. To throw himself beside her, to thrust his arm between the curve of her warm neck and her pillow—to strain her close against him, his lips against her mouth—
She stirred, opened her eyes, cried out in fear—saw that it was only Neil, her trusted friend. She sat up laughing. “I thought you were the burglar I’ve been expecting all my life!” she said, and with a flip of a finger-tip cleared her eyes of a wave of shining hair that swept across her view of him.
“Is it breakfast time? What are you doing in my boudoir?”
“Hello. I’m looking for my bathing-suit. I couldn’t sleep.” He had moved to the edge of the screen. His hand now on his bathing-suit, he had no excuse for lingering.
“I’ll swim with you; go down to the bathing-tent to get ready.” She looked at the watch on her wrist as he left her sheltered corner. Seven o’clock. “No, I won’t,” she called after him, softly, so as not to waken her household. “It’s too early, you’re a nuisance. Come back at nine for breakfast.” She rescued the slipping blankets and nestled down again for a nap.
She heard the distant splash of his dive off the springboard before falling into a doze again, and woke at nine, stretching and yawning, to be greeted by the children, on either side of her, glowing from their morning dip. “Breakfast, mother! Mr. Meredith’s here, and he’s hungry!”
“You’re a dear,” she said gratefully, later on, when he had helped her with various chores, and they sat back together to admire the charm of sunshine streaming through crisp muslin with yellow criss-cross bars.
“I’d do anything for you,” he said.
“I’ll remember that,” she said. “When I want you to creep out some dark night and murder that man next door who sings ‘At Dawning’ out of tune at midnight.”
“I’m not joking,” he said. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.”
“Well—” she said lightly—“Do this, then. Persuade Paul to take a vacation.”
“Here?” said Neil. “I can’t imagine it. He’s too restless.”
“He’s a nervous jumping-jack. He calls it 'pep'," she said soberly. “I don’t know what we’re going to do, Neil. We are learning to live almost separate lives, and that’s not marriage.”
“Isn’t it?” he asked. “I wonder I get perspective on this marriage thing, you know. All about me I see men and women with totally different pastimes and calling themselves ‘one’.”
“Oh, pastimes, that’s nothing. But Paul and I have so little time together, we scarcely know each other’s opinions.”
“Well—that’s all right, isn’t it?” said Neil. “You keep interested in each other. Better than being talked out—”
“Being together is supposed to be the object of marriage—partnership.”
“Business partners don’t bother about incessant intimacy to make a hundred per cent, success of their partnership.”
Mary thought that over in silence a moment. Then — “Marriage-partnership involves emotion.”
“Oh, not always,” Neil amended, “Facing facts— isn't it true that for all the generations previous to the last one or two—marriage was economically woman’s one and only good bet? So long as that was the case, there was naturally a lot of shrewd hard business sense masquerading under the name of romantic emotion — that is, I mean, on the part of women. Men are easily fooled in that respect; they are the romantic sex.”
"I see why you are still unattached; you think too much."
“There are two very wise and contradictory proverbs —‘Look before you leap’—and ‘He who hesitates is lost.’ I followed them both; so I’m out of the most interesting peck of trouble in life."
" Why on earth don’t you marry again?”
When he paused, staring out across the restless water, she asked gently, “Do you want to tell me?”
He rose abruptly and chose a cigarette from a stand near the wide verandah edge. Turning away from her, the match cupped in his two hands against the wind, “I think I won’t, if you don’t— mind,” he said, missing the light, and striking another match. He had trouble with that one, too, and she turned away, saying briskly that she must see Jessie about the orders. “Want to walk down to the stores with me?”
“Have to get back to town."
“Can’t stay the weekend?”
“I’ll come down with Paul next week.”
She did not urge him.
Another woman, she thought. He wants to see her, over Sunday. Could it be Carolyn? Carolyn also had declined her invitation for that week-end. Carolyn, probably.
A little lonely at the prospect of a week-end without an adult companion, she said, “Carol will be down next week-end too.”
“That’s good,” he said, and she saw that he was pleased.
FOR several reasons Paul found the absence of his family a temporary relief. He found it pleasant at first to plan his days, to crowd his hours to capacity with business matters without fear of interruption by his family.
He felt a refreshing sense of freedom in his personal routine. He liked very early rising in the summertime. Alone in his house he could turn on the bath water in a noisy rush, without listening at a crack in the door to hear whether he had disturbed the sleeping family. He could take as long as he liked to shave in the one-family bathroom without having somebody glance in, and say, “It doesn’t matter,” patiently, and make him conscious of his bathroom selfishness. He enjoyed breakfast at his sedate club, where waiters moved on noiseless feet, and nobody interrupted him in the reading of his morning paper to ask for the “funnies.” He had no morbid longings for family solidarity, those warm July mornings.
In the midst of his complacency came shock. While watering the lawn one evening and gossiping over the hedge with another summer widower, he heard his telephone ringing and, answering it, was startled by Jessie’s agitated shriek. She had a quality of telephone voice that scorned wires and challenged space. “Come quick and bring the best doctor you can find, Mrs. Beaton says. Paula’s fell on her head off a horse, and she’s lying like dead.”
The pit of his stomach hollowed while he asked rapid questions. Was the lakeside doctor with them? “Yes; but Mrs. Beaton says hurry with another.”
“What does he say?”
“Concussion. Please hurry, Mr. Beaton?” Jessie’s excited shouting became a blank wall of silence.
With decisive action and a whirling mind, Paul made ready to start. The doctor. Several attempts to find him. Success. Whose car? The doctor’s. Paul’s was laid up for minor repairs. But Neil’s big car might travel faster. On Neil’s trail; only a few likely places to call. Success. Neil was dining at his golf club. Yes, at once, Neil would rush in for Paul and drive him to little Paula.
Running up the stair to change his wet shoes, Paul saw on a hall chair Paula’s shabby little green felt hat where she had flung it the last day she had been at home. Paul had passed it every day for a week without knowing it was there. Now it struck his eyes like a blow. The house took on an emptiness that echoed in his heart. “Lying like dead.” He could see her in his mind’s eye, lying there quiet in the cottage by the lake; like that; his dancing, noisy Paula.
Where were those other shoes? Paula had wanted him to drive them to the cottage.
Oh, why hadn’t he let that meeting stand over till next week? What did it matter, a few prospective dollars? Paula! Lying like dead.
Neil, presently, at the curb. Paul had been waiting twenty minutes only, but he cursed as he flung himself into the seat beside Neil. “What kept you?” Paul asked in a fury; and Neil, not answering, laid a hand for a second on Paul’s knee, and said, “Concussion is not always serious, you know, old man.”
The doctor came out, swift and calm, to Paul’s honking. Cool questions, uncertain answers. What had the lake doctor said? Paul didn’t know. What time had it happened? Paul didn’t know. How old was Paula? Thirteen—no, by Jove—fourteen.
Faster. Faster. If Neil was afraid to drive faster than this damn crawl, Paul would drive the car himself! The schoolhouse. The railway crossing. Hell! If Neil had stepped on it a little they could have made it before this freight train held them up. Watch in hand, Paul cursed the train of flat-cars bumping over his sick nerves. Four minutes wasted. A plunge forward, almost on the rear of the caboose. Humming through the gathering gloom, eyes staring at the patch of road before the headlights, Paul flung questions over his shoulder at the doctor. How dangerous was concussion? Oh, well, of course, nobody could tell for certain, he supposed. Could they locate fracture without an X-Ray. What did they do, then, before X-Rays? Would it be dangerous to drive her into the city to-night?
“It s impossible to be definite until I examine her,” the doctor said, patient under the frantic fire, “And it may not be possible then. So much depends—”
“You’re a hopeless profession!” stormed Paul. “You’re always vague—”
“We realize that better than anybody,” the doctor said. “If we dared be positive, our job would be easy.”
“For God’s sake—” Paul groaned when the racing car swayed violently before Neil could bring it to a stop. “Flat tire!”
All three men jumped out and Neil said, “Lucky we aren’t in the ditch.”
“I’ve been telling you all summer that tire was done!” Paul fumed, helping savagely.
“All set!” After six minutes, racing again through the night.
Halfway. Three quarters there. The lake in view. “There’s the house!” he said.
Mary met them at the gate. “She’s conscious now.”
PAULA recovered with the healthy rebound of happy childhood, leaving her parents to recover, as quickly as they might, from the shock she had given them. For two days Paul sat by her bedside, thrilling to her return to activity. He read to her on the second day, and discovered that her ambitions were wide, her curiosity unbounded.
“I want to be something,” Paula told him, her firm brown hand on his. “I can’t make up my mind, there’s such a lot of interesting things—”
“You’ll probably try something for a while, then marry and bring up a family, as most normal women do, dear.”
“Well—yes, I suppose so. But I mean I want to be something—I, myself.”
“Be a wife and a mother,” he repeated. “You’ll not need to earn your living, dear.”
“It’s not that I’m thinking about,” the child said, her thoughtful frown a duplicate of Paul’s. “I mean—you know, dad—perhaps I’m good for some special thing— I want to find out pretty soon what that is, and go after it.”
“Career, eh?” Paul said, much interested to find this strange young woman in his house, where he had imagined a heedless little girl. “Anything special in your mind? Music? Writing? Feel the pangs of interior decorating coming on?”
Paula grinned, and slapped his hand, a vigorous caress. “Imagine me!” she said. “No, I’d like to be an aviator, or an explorer, or something exciting like that.”
“A little aeroplane instead of a cradle in your home? Want to be checked up by radio while you explore the frozen North? Don’t you think your mother’s life is interesting?” he teased her.
“Mother? She hasn’t one. She—why, heavens, dad, she just sticks around fitting in to your life and mine and Peter’s—even Jessie’s. She’s just considering somebody all the time!”
Paul removed his hand from under his daughter’s hard little paw, and lectured her on the beauty of motherhood. “Your mother’s life is lovely, she’s completely unselfish. Unselfishness is her life! She spent years devoting herself to you and Peter—”
“Oh, well! Babies. That’s different. Women have to take care of them. They’re helpless. But we’re big now--"
“Don’t feel too independent, young lady! You need your mother at every turn, and she’s always on the job !”
“She is, but I don’t need her at every turn. I like doing things for myself. Oh, you needn’t look so solemn, dad. I know Mum’s perfectly darling, but I don’t want a tame life like hers; that’s all. I mean, I don’t want just to stick around pleasing people.”
“Wait till you grow up and fall in love, and have children; then you’ll see the value of your mother’s life! Paul was severe, trying to conceal his sense of shock. This baby daughter of his a clear-headed cynic! Appalling, Paul worried, in a child of fourteen. He hoped she wasn’t going to be unfeminine!
"You grew up and fell in love and had children; but you go on about your business, we don’t stop you! I’d like a business to go on about, too. Something of my own, not just the family’s. Not just babies and house.”
“You unappreciative monkey!”
Paula tried to explain herself. She adored her mother, she said. “She’s sweet, and good, and funny, and pretty and everything; but all I’m saying is, that I think she leads an uninteresting life!”
“She’s perfectly content, because she’s lived a domestic, good woman’s life,” Paul said positively.
“Then I hope I’m not going to be just a domestic, good woman!” Paula said, and clutched his hand again. “Because I’ll never be content messing around a family all my life, and making all my plans just to fit in with what they want! The only way I can see to be anything, is to make my family fit in with my plans!”
“I hope you’ll change your views, young lady, or God help your husband and your children!” Paul laughed.
The child nestled against him. “Maybe I won’t amount to anything. Maybe I’ll just marry and be sweet to my family. But I’d just as soon be a nice kind cow!”
“I think,” said Paul, soberly now, “that you’d better do your adventuring early, and get it over with. I don’t want you to be a restless woman, dear.”
“Mother’s not restless, is she, Daddy? But—I think some of her must have dried out, she’s so unselfish,” Paula said. For a long while she lay against her father’s arm, staring out across the starlit lake. Presently her deep rhythmic breathing told him she was asleep. He drew a rug over her and stooped to kiss her cheek softly; sleeping, she looked so very young, so in need of protection. His heart contracted. His baby girl already looking warily at life, she who had not yet really begun to live!
NEIL motored to the cottage for the week-end, bringing Carolyn with him. Paul had remained with Mary since Paula’s accident. Idleness from Wednesday to Saturday fatigued him more than many days of strenuous activity could do. By Saturday he was restless.
Paula was about again, on parole of promised caution. When the guests arrived, Paula received them with a shout from her perch in tree-branches by the road.
Neil who had left Paula only semi-conscious on Thursday, shouted back to her, “Come out of there, you silly imp! You’ll break your neck!” He stopped his car beyond her.
Like a monkey the child swung down, all rangy legs and arms, from her lookout, and raced along the dusty road. Perched on the running-board, “Hop along!” she sang, and thrust her shoulders in to kiss Neil, and extended a polite hand to Carolyn.
“Found the invalid a mile up a tree, Mary,” Carolyn said, her hand lingering in Paul’s while Mary welcomed Neil.
“I’m as well as ever,” Paula said, with the suggestion of defiance Carolyn aroused in her.
Carolyn was always ready to argue with her. “Well, my dear! For a girl who frightened her family and friends to death two days ago—”
Paula’s square chin tensed.
“But I’m all right—”
“Don’t argue!’’ Paul said, sharply.
Mary slipped her arm around the child, who immediately relaxed against her. “Better be careful for a few days, dear, don’t you think?”
“I’m all right, mother!”
Paula glanced resentfully toward Carolyn.
“Why in the world you don’t just put your foot down—” Carolyn laughed her gentle ripple. “But, of course—she’s not my child!”
“Thank goodness!” Paula’s whisper to her mother was not too hushed.
Mary rose abruptly and with an arm around Paula led the child into the house. Presently Paula danced out, across the verandah, and down the steps.
“Well!” breathed Carolyn.
Mary stood in the doorway. “The child is reasonable,” she said. “I explained to her why she must go slowly for a time.”
“Explanation in place of commands. Latest version of parental control?” Carolyn yawned delicately against tapping finger-tips.
“Teaches them self-control.” Paul’s spontaneous defence of her methods drew from Mary a look of surprised gratitude that touched him. “My old-fashioned impulse is always toward exacting unquestioning obedience,” he told Carolyn.
“And why not, indeed?” she murmured, patting his knee as though he were needing sympathy.
“But my reason tells me—if I give it a chance before I break out in heavy-father stuff—that the children will soon be out of my control; and what’s the use of my authoritative power then? But I admit I’d like to be able to say to my enlightened family, just once in a while—‘Do this or that just because I say so!’ ”
“As a humble person who has never been a parent— may I ask what sort of citizens we are training, if children don’t recognize authority?” Carolyn asked, smiling first at one parent, then the other, her affectionate gaze lingering on Paul.
Mary curled up on a low stool and leaned against Paul’s knee. “Isn’t it important that people recognize the reason for laws? Laws are necessary because of the mass of unintelligent and un-self-controlled. But it’s not the blindly obedient who lead the world; it’s the independent thinkers.”
“Bringing up a family! Of all the tasks! It was a merciful Providence that denied me children!” exclaimed Carolyn.
“Rather!” agreed Mary; and Paul wondered if he imagined a dryness in her tone.
Neil had joined in the discussion, but now contributed his reaction to it. “I never thought, until now, of the kick a man could get out of his kids—if he’d had the sense to pick ’em a mother like Mary.”
“Luck!” Paul laughed. "I picked her for myself!”
EARLY next morning Jessie snapped a small full ashtray from the arm of Carolyn’s favorite armchair on the verandah overlooking the lake, and muttered as she stooped to pick up Carolyn’s forgotten handkerchief.
Humble in the service of Paul to the point of self-annihilation, toward Carolyn she was bitterly arrogant. Clairvoyant in her ability to anticipate his most fleeting fancy, she was dense to the point of idiocy in her enforced service to Carolyn.
“How did I know she wanted her breakfast in bed?” demanded Jessie when Mary rebuked her for leaving the guest breakfastless.
“There’s no need for so militant a tone, Jessie.” Mary was mild as Jessie was hostile. “You and I agreed years ago that serving tray-breakfasts solved the problem of dawdling guests.”
“We said nothing about Her getting Hers.”
No amount of persuasion could make Jessie refer to Carolyn as anything but “Her,” with an explosion on the aspirate.
“Why make an exception of Mrs. March?”
Jessie muttered into the apron lifted to wipe her perspiring face. “I’d make mincemeat of Her, any day!”
Mary hesitated between the advisability of rebuking insolence in a servant, and the tactful refuge of being deaf to unpleasant words. “I didn’t catch what you said, Jessie, but it doesn’t matter. It is not pleasant for me when a guest is left hungry; I feel guilty and the fault is not mine.”
“Do Her good; she’s getting as fat as a pig. We should worry !”
This was too challenging. “That will do, Jessie! You are overstepping your privileges as an old servant.” That word “servant,” used only in extremity, never failed to settle this descendant of a long line of faithful Scotch retainers.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Beaton.” Jessie’s apology would have been more satisfying, had it not been followed by a muttered but quite audible, “The old hussy. She ought to starve!” addressed to the floor when Jessie thudded to her knees and savagely attacked the floor-washing, for which she refused a modern mop.
Mary left her to her mutterings and sought Paul on the sands. He was poking at a “castle” he had idly made, while his mind wandered to the broker’s office he regularly visited at the noon hour.
“Jessie is becoming intolerably impudent.” Mary seated herself on the other side of his “castle.”
“Oh, pshaw, she’s always cranky down here, she hates the country. Let her snort and fume. Who cares? She’s an institution; you’d never replace her.” “She has a tongue like a fishwife when she starts.”
“She’s a priceless servant. She knows all my ways—I never would dismiss her, if she scolded the house down!”
“All right,” soothingly, regretting having mentioned petty household difficulties.
Paul rolled over on to his increasing abdomen, and read Mary a good-natured little lecture on handling employees. “You get out of people just what you expect of them. Never harbor a mental suggestion that an employee can get out of control, and you never get insubordination.”
“In the case of Jessie—you expect her to say something awful—so she says it.”
“You’re right, dear.” Mary chuckled. “I enjoy the old rascal, or I’d have stopped her long ago.”
“Well—there you are! She knows she can get away with it! She doesn’t mean a word of it.”
“Here’s Carol,” was all the comment Mary made after his lecture in applied psychology, when Carolyn in soft apple green strolled out of the house and toward them, where they lingered with Paul’s castle built of sand between them.
And after a moment Neil joined them, and lay on the sands in quiet mood at Mary’s feet.
THEY planned a picnic supper for that night, the four of them. They would take the two canoes and paddle across the lake, a distance of about two miles, then portage into a winding stream beyond. There they would wander along until they found a spot which appealed, and have their meal. Then home by moonlight.
They found a sloping shore blue with wild Canterbury bells and cushioned with feathery moss. In shallow water from rotted stumps, turtles slid and plunged like stones to the bottom. Tall reeds whispered, “hush, hush” against the sides of the canoes, red and green, as the two men poled them in with lazy paddles.
“ ‘And only man is vile’,” quoted Neil, rattling a cocktail shaker chilled with ice from a thermos picnic-basket, while Mary and Carolyn unpacked lobster salad, watercress sandwiches, bar-le-duc and cheese.
Carolyn’s wide eyes were soulful. “Just to get away a little while like this from all the sordidness of life—”
“Heavens,” cried Neil. “Does a touch of Nature always affect you like that?”
Paul stood his glass up in the grass and pointed to it—“ ‘A primrose by a river’s brim, a yellow primrose was to him’.”
But Carolyn still looked pensive, even a little hurt. Apparently absent-minded, she held out her glass to be refilled, and drained it before she spoke again. “It seems sacrilege to eat in a heaven-spot like this.”
Mary leaned over and deftly transferred Carolyn’s salad to her own plate. “So glad you’re above eating! The salad’s skimpy, and I adore it!” Picking out a luscious red claw in her finger-tips, she waved it at Carolyn. “Go ahead and be ethereal, darling; I’m coarse, and starving.”
A cold glint in Carolyn’s eyes showed that she was in a mood to be taken seriously even if she spoiled the party. Registering faint disgust, she rose and walked away from the little group, saying over her shoulder, “I want to catch the last glimpse of the sun. No, don’t follow me—” holding up one dramatic hand. Nobody had stirred—“I want solitude to-night.”
They left her to her solitude until they had eaten everything they had brought, cleared away the debris, and smoked several cigarettes. Then Paul remarked, “Carol must be waiting for the moon,” and went in search of her.
“Anything special depressing her?” Neil asked when Paul had disappeared in the direction Carolyn had gone.
“I hope not. Perhaps I shouldn’t have teased her.”
“You did nothing.”
In the flare of a match he held for her he saw the troubled look in her eyes.
Had the troubled look in Mary’s eyes anything to do with Carolyn? She was too healthy-minded to regret the trivial teasing. What, in connection with Carolyn, could bring that look of anxiety to Mary’s eyes? He rose, and looked into the gathering darkness in the direction in which Paul had disappeared.
Mary rose and stood beside him. “Shall we look for the others or just wait here?”
“Whatever you say.”
“I want to find them—” she paused. “But perhaps—we’d better not—oh, well, let’s go—” She laughed uneasily. “As if it really matters whether we go or stay !”
They stayed, side by side in the silence and the soft summer dark, watching the moon appear over the treetops. They talked but little, and in quiet lazy tones. Once she said, “You’re a most restful person, Neil,” and he answered, “Only that?”
“Is there anything more satisfying a friend could be than that?” she asked, and he smiled at her and told her he supposed not.
“You’re not such a nuisance yourself, Mary.”
Another half hour went by. Mary had sat silent for some time. Neil lay on the ground beside her, his head on his arms, gazing up at the vaulted sky and listening to the ecstatic piping of a frogs’ chorus.
Mary said abruptly, “Where do you suppose they are?”
“In that stagnant pool. ‘Hallelujah to the moon!’ they’re singing.”
“I mean Paul and Carol.”
“I’m not missing them!”
“Shall we look for them?”
He looked at the luminous dial of his wrist-watch. “Time to start home, I guess.”
They walked Indian file along the narrow path, and at the end of it Neil suddenly stopped. In a loud voice, he said, “Here they are!”
They lay on the river-bank close together, Paul’s head bent over Carolyn, her arms were around him, her face close to his.
At Neil’s loud warning they jumped apart. Neil talked rapidly as they scrambled to their feet and Carolyn smoothed her hair. “We thought you two had been eaten by a bear or drowned or something. How about a start for home? Isn’t that moon a pippin? We’re in luck!”
“Hello,” said Mary gaily. “We thought you must be lost! Let’s go; you men go on back for the basket. We’ll come by the shore.”
“Better come along with us,” said Paul, trying to get a glimpse of his wife’s face. But she moved away from him, and breezily advised him to hurry, as it was late and getting chilly. Reluctantly he left the two women together.
He looked searchingly into Neil’s face but Neil avoided his eyes, and trudged on ahead of him as soon as he was justified by the narrowness of the path. Finally, Paul said quietly, “You saw, of course?”
“I don’t know.”
“Her voice sounded perfectly natural.”
“Any chance she didn’t see?”
“About one in a million. She might possibly have been looking at the ground.”
“It’s perfectly explainable.”
“It’s none of my business.”
Silence. They could hear Mary’s musical laugh behind them, with no echo from Carolyn.
“Damn!” said Paul. “I wish I knew if she saw.”
And after a moment, “It’s perfectly explainable—”
“Then explain to her.”
“If she didn’t see, I’ll let well enough alone.”
“Sounds reasonable. But if she did?”
“Perhaps she’ll open the assault herself.”
“And perhaps not.”
Presently, “Damn!” again; and the subject closed forever between them.
THE situation between Paul and his wife worried him. Paul did not know what to expect. If Mary really had seen Carolyn in his arms, he had no idea how she might react. Doubtful of his ability to appear perfectly natural, he had no intention of precipitating trouble by asking questions. If she had seen them, he thought, the chances were that she would speak of it; he hoped she would soon begin, and get through with it. After all, it was perfectly explainable, and he would welcome a chance to explain ! Anything was better than uncertainty. And even if they had been as guilty as they must have looked—a bit of surreptitious love-making was nothing unique! People were tumbling in and out of such social hot water all the time, and surviving, surprisingly unscarred. But in their household such a convincing contretemps had never before disturbed him, and there was no telling how Mary would take it—if she really had seen them.
He knew her attitude toward other people’s peccadilloes of like nature. She usually made some such remark as “Oh, well, it’s none of our business. Nobody ever really knows about those things.”
Paul lay a longer time than usual in his hot bath, thinking. In the big bed on the other side of the wall his wife awaited him. It was one thing to have tolerant views about other people’s domestic problems—but he’d known plenty of cases in which tolerance flew out of the window and stark jealousy blew in like a whirlwind when it came to one’s own suspected mate! He had heard both men and women rant and rave when similar situations, over which they had expressed the broadest humanitarianism, struck suddenly home.
Turning on the hot tap once more, he felt an unreasoning irritation toward his wife. If she had anything on her mind, why couldn’t she come right out with it and be a sport? Even if he had been making love to that darn vamp, he hadn’t committed a crime! A man’s life was his own and he’d be darned if any woman was going to henpeck him! Was there a kinder or more indulgent husband anywhere, he’d ask the world? How many women as young as Mary had a generous provider such as he was to fall back on? He’d say she had little to complain of!
He wasn’t going to stand for any bedtime story from Mary over a little incident like that, when it was perfectly explainable if she would only listen and give a man a fighting chance! If she just knew the things he could tell her about some of these up-and-coming birds that did the real philandering—
There was a tap at the bathroom door and Mary’s gentle voice with a hint of laughter in it enquired, “You haven’t died, have you, darling?”
He said, “I’m all right, dear,” with a sense of shock, and realized that there had been no accusation whatever, that Mary had gone about her bedtime preparations quite as usual, and that he was still in miserable doubt as to whether or not she had anything on her mind that might mean grief for him. If she had, she certainly was a consummate actress! Perhaps he didn’t know her quite as well as he thought he did!
This doubt would never have occurred to him in their early intimacy. To-night, he felt remote from her mind.
Swathed in a great towel, he sat on the edge of the bath and endured the surge of sick irritation toward his unoffending wife which once more overwhelmed him.
When he flounced into bed beside her she turned toward him and laid her cheek against his shoulder just as usual. “You surely are a sweet clean boy to-night ! You’ve been soaking for an hour!”
“Any good reason why I shouldn’t?” He was petulant. Why the devil, if she was going to spring her stuff, did she take this oblique approach?
“None at all, darling. Sleep in the bath, if you want to!”
He had to know. “Enjoy the picnic?” He was a fool; why bring it up at all? Furious with himself, he marveled at her answer.
‘‘Adored it. But I think poor Carol was bored with our frivolity. She takes herself very seriously sometimes.”
Now what the devil did she mean by that? He lay very still beside her, analyzing that remark from every angle. He waited for more, but she was as silent as he. Presently he turned over on his side his back to her. Still she was silent and motionless. Was she asleep? He wished he knew.
He was sleepy himself, after all that exercise in the open air and his endless bath. He drowsed. He stirred, remembering he had not kissed his wife good night, a little ceremony he had never before forgotten. But he was afraid to disturb her.
Exasperated with all women, especially his wife, he fell asleep.
To be continued