AT BREAKFAST next morning, Paul was not sure whether he imagined an atmosphere of strain. Carolyn was pensive, and said she was tired. Mary asked her to prolong her visit, but Carolyn, with a hand caressing Mary’s wrist beside the coffee-pot, said that she would drive in to the city with Neil. “My work is waiting for me, dear, you know.”
Neil seemed to Paul unusually talkative; but Paul was not sure that this impression was not also a figment of his own disturbed imagination.
Mary was lively, alert, and hospitable, her normal mood; but was she not a little too lively, a little too brisk, rather over-anxious that Carolyn lacked no attention as a guest? Did he imagine her smile was slightly forced this morning?
Neil had suggested a pre-breakfast swim. Carolyn was too tired; Mary was regretful, but she had promised to swim with the children later in the morning, and preferred to wait. Paul, following Mary about the house in an effort to fathom her mind before he should take himself off to the city for a week of doubt, declined. So Neil, particularly cheerful it seemed to Paul, played ball with the children on the sands until breakfast was ready.
There had been some talk of leaving the family car for Mary to use that week, as Paul could drive in with Carolyn and Neil; but Paul put his club-bag into his own car, and Carolyn’s and Neil’s bags into Neil’s car, with no comment. They were all on the porch steps watching him do so, and he wondered whether their wordless acquiescence had sinister significance. If Mary wanted the car, why the devil didn’t she say so, now, when she saw him preparing to take it? Or, if she didn’t want it, why couldn’t she say so? A man liked to know where he was at, on a point like that! How could he get any pleasure out of having the car in town all week if he felt she was grudging it to him? His reasoning mind whispered that this was not fair; Mary never grudged him anything. But his sense of injury and irritation with his wife persisted. Well—if she wanted the darn car, let her come right out and ask for it! He certainly wasn’t going to suggest leaving it!
Did it look queer, his not offering to take Carolyn into town in his car? Did it look as though he didn’t want her? If Mary had seen them last night, would she think he was afraid of her, afraid to do the natural thing and ask Carol if she would care to drive with him, especially as Neil had driven her out? Or—was that the natural thing to do? Hang it, what was wrong with him this morning? What was natural, and what was ridiculous? Had Mary seen? Neil had! But if Mary had not seen, it didn’t matter at all that Neil had. He supposed Neil had done his share of injudicious love-making. But, darn it, why should Mary jump to the conclusion that he and Carol were lovers, just because she saw one bit of circumstantial evidence? She must be a very suspicious woman by nature to attach grave importance to a little thing like that. His reason told him again, quite vigorously, that he was not being fair to Mary this time either; she had said not a word about last night. If she had seen, it was mighty sporting of her to let it pass without comment. But was she letting it pass because she was a good sport—or because she intended to keep an eye on him and Carol in future and was just too clever a woman to show her hand at the start?
Then, although he expected to get into the car at once, he slammed the door and looked at his wrist-watch. “Well—eight o’clock. Guess I’ll get started.”
Whereupon Carolyn began her languid, sweet farewells. “It’s been completely wonderful, dear.” She kissed Mary a second time, and Mary smiled at her.
“See you next Saturday, Carol,” said Mary, and gave both hands to Neil. “You, too, Neil dear,” she added; and Neil said: “Try and lose me!”
Paul opened the door of his car again, and stood with one foot on the running-board. He knew he must appear selfish driving off with the car like that, when he really didn’t need it in town half so much as Mary needed it in the country where she couldn’t call a taxi! It seemed absurd, too, driving in alone either in front of or behind Neil’s car with its back seat empty. Should he offer to leave it? But, no, darn it all! He was tired trying to be mind-reader around this house!
“Aren’t you going to kiss me good-by?” said Mary, looking through the glass. Did he imagine her smiling eyes showed a little hurt? He realized then that he had jumped into the car and slammed the door almost in her face held up to him for his kiss. Was he crazy this morning? he thought savagely; and opened the car door so that she might thrust her head in for his kiss.
“Thanks so much!” she said and laughed at him. Now, what the devil did she mean by that? Why send him into town—to slave for her—with a sarcastic laugh ringing in his ears? Or had he imagined the sarcasm? If she had not seen, last night, why should she feel sarcastic? Damn it, why had he selected this morning, of all mornings, to forget to kiss her good-by?
HE ALLOWED Neil and Carolyn to pass him on the dusty road, and fretted all the way to the city. Too late, he thought he might have asked Carolyn to find out how much Mary had seen. Women were smarter than men at those things. He had had only an instant’s tête-à-tête with Carolyn since the picnic. She had whispered in passing on the steps that morning, “Did she say anything?” and he had shaken his head.
Carolyn had managed to give his fingers a squeeze, no doubt intended to be reassuring. It had not that effect upon him; instead, he developed a fine sense of indignation toward Carolyn also. She had given him the impression that he and she shared a guilty, thrilling secret. He felt no sense of guilt at all, and the thought that Carolyn apparently did, stayed with him all day and caused him to be stilted and discouraging when she telephoned him that afternoon to ask: “Did you get in all right this morning? I just wondered, because you have not telephoned me.”
Did she expect him to telephone her every day now? Women became entirely too possessive, on the smallest provocation !
Next Saturday, and Mary, seemed an interminable distance away. He would try to run down to see her during the week. Business be damned—a man owed something of himself to his family!
DRIVING home with Neil, Carolyn had been pensive.
Neil glanced at her once or twice at the beginning of their drive. She was staring straight ahead as though lost in thought, and he made no effort to entertain her. The memory of her as he had seen her last night in Paul’s arms was too vivid. If she and Paul must make love to one another, it was none of his business, but he thought that to do so while Carolyn was Mary’s guest, was not even half-decent. Some things simply weren’t done.
He was very curious to know whether or not Mary had seen what he saw. So far as an observant onlooker could judge, the family atmosphere this morning showed no evidence of recent friction. Paul’s manner had seemed a little uneasy; but no doubt he would feel that way, no matter what Mary had said or done in the interim. Mary had seemed her happy self.
No man could fathom Carolyn, because she dramatized her own actions and was an accomplished actress. He did not believe her capable of straightforward, uncalculated conduct. He suspected that last night’s love scene was Carolyn’s fault. Perhaps she only needed a bit of loving from the man who was handiest; some women were like that, nobody took them seriously; or perhaps she really was making a determined effort to win Paul’s love. There was no way by which a man could judge how Carolyn’s actions had been motivated. But Neil knew that men of intelligence seldom took a chance on making truant love without definite encouragement, for no man wanted to court a blow to his vanity, no matter how intensely he might want to court a woman. Many a cautious man, priding himself upon the impeccability of his conduct with women, is only a vain man afraid of an affront to his self-esteem.
For several dusty miles Carolyn brooded beside him in his car, then she laid a hand on his knee to attract his attention. “Hadn’t we a perfect week-end ! Paul and Mary are such marvelous hosts.”
“Aren’t they!” With an air of finality.
She glanced up at him, then switched immediately to another tack.
“The children are fascinating, don’t you think?”
She was not to be discouraged in discussing Mary’s household. “That old Jessie is a character!”
“Oh, Jessie’s a riot!” warmly; on safe territory now. “I get a great kick out of the old girl. Ever heard her on modern women?”
“She hates us all !”
“She’d let the Beaton family walk on her, yet she mutters around as though she were the most abused person on earth.”
“She worships Mary, but who wouldn’t? Mary is the sweetest-natured woman I ever knew.”
The car shot forward. Through loose gravel they fled along until Carolyn decided to leave Mary out of the morning’s list of topics. Now she knew that Neil, if not Mary also, had seen that situation last night.
The car slowed down. “I imagine that even Mary’s disposition has its limitations,” Neil said deliberately. Carolyn cautiously chose her reply.
“I have never seen her very strenuously tested, of course. Paul is the most devoted husband in the world. She has every comfort and no anxieties. After all— she might well be placid.”
“ ‘Placid’ implies stagnation. Mary has plenty of fire.”
The car gained speed again before Carolyn said, with a significant little laugh: “I’ll take your word for it. Clever women don’t show their fire to other women.”
Presently she observed, “It might interest Paul to hear a man refer to Mary as ‘fiery’.”
Neither spoke again until they crossed the city limits. Then Neil asked: “Did I hear you say you were going back to the lake shore again next week-end?”
“They’ll be disappointed if I don’t; but my work is getting behind—”
“That’s too bad,” said Neil blandly, “but one’s duty comes first, of course. Then I’m not to call for you next Saturday.” That compelling air of finality again.
At her door. “Well, good-by, Neil, and thank you. I will probably not see you again until we meet at the Beatons’—perhaps the following Saturday.”
Her hand still on the car door. “My love to Mary when you see her next week. And thanks for the tip !”
“About Mary. You’ve no idea how much you’ve told me—though I’ve half guessed it!”
“I beg your pardon?” Slowly, his brows meeting.
She moved away, and waved to him. “By-by. Thanks so much, Neil, dear!”
ON WEDNESDAY morning Carolyn gave up hoping that Paul would make an opportunity to speak to her about the incident at the picnic; she telephoned him at his office. “Do you suppose we might have lunch together? There’s something I want to talk to you about.”
“I have a half-engagement. What’s on your mind?”
“Sunday night. Do you think she saw?”
A pause. Then: “You never can be sure a telephone line is not open. Are you going to be downtown?”
“I can be, if you say so.”
“Meet me at Perry’s at one, will you?”
“Right. One sharp.”
Seated opposite him at a small table by an open window, she came to the point at once. “If Mary saw us, why doesn’t she come out with it and let us explain?”
“Think she would naturally do that, if she saw?”
“Any woman would. Why hesitate? You’re her husband.”
“Think a woman couldn’t sit tight and wait?”
“Not a frank woman like Mary; some mean cats might.”
“Why ‘mean cats’? If she suspects anything, I’d think that would be a clever thing to do.”
“Sly, not clever.”
“Oh, come now, Carol!”
“Any woman who could sit pat, suspecting her husband and her closest friend, is too sly for my taste!”
“Here, here, Carol, we’re talking about Mary—”
“I’m not saying anything derogatory to Mary!” she parried quickly. “I’m saying Mary is not capable of such meanness! If Mary saw us, she would come out frankly and say so! She’d give us a chance to explain. She’d know there was an explanation—”
“Well—oh, I don’t know about that, exactly. To find another woman in your husband’s arms after they’d been missing from a foursome picnic for almost two hours, would take a bit of pretty lucid explanation—”
“Not if a wife were trusting—”
“She’d need to be pretty darn simple I’m thinking.”
“She knows you’re not that sort of a husband—”
“She may think she had to adjust her views—”
“Why doesn’t she jump on you, then, as any normal woman would? I know it looks pretty bad for us, but we know—”
“We know we must have looked about as guilty—”
He wrote out his order and got the waiter away from his elbow before he said, “I’ve been thinking what a damn fool I’ve been. I never should have left Mary without explaining. But I hesitated, afraid of stirring up something unnecessarily, if she hadn’t seen us. The uncertainty is tormenting me; but now it looks fishy if I do open the subject with her! She’ll think you and I have cooked up a story—”
“What a shame, Paul! You are insinuating that Mary is meanly suspicious!”
“Nothing like that. But she’s human, and we certainly do look as guilty as the devil.”
“Then if she did see us—she’ll give us a chance to explain. She’ll open the subject herself. And—if she didn’t see us—you are perfectly right—there’s no sense in us stirring it up at this late date. I see your point. She’d think only that we’d framed a fine story when we thought we were caught—”
“I’d certainly think so, if the situation were reversed!” She gave him the close scrutiny of her narrowed eyes. “Why, Paul, would you? Don’t you absolutely trust your wife?”
“What are you talking about, Carol? Trust Mary? Don’t be silly!”
“Then, why wouldn’t you believe anything she told you?”
“If I’d seen her as we were on Sunday—”
“But—my goodness, Paul, how could you ever think the worst of Mary?”
“How did we drift into a discussion about Mary?” he said angrily. “We started talking about us. I think all we can do, now, is to wait. If Mary saw—I don’t believe she can keep silent for long. If she saw nothing —well, the less we talk, even to each other, about it, the better. If we keep it in our minds, we’ll find it hard to behave naturally before her. If we behave unnaturally—”
Carolyn laughed. “Really, I believe we are being tragic over nothing. No woman could have seen, and not raised a row on the spot.”
“I’ll know by her manner, to-night. I’m motoring to the lake again.”
“Take me along!” she said eagerly. “That will either precipitate the scene, or clear our minds. If she saw— and we arrive unexpectedly, together—no woman could bear that! It will force her hand, if she loves you—”
“She does,” he said soberly. “That is why I am sick at the thought that I have hurt her—”
“Then she’ll make a scene and we’ll know the worst! Then we’ll convince her that it wasn’t your fault, and it will blow over. Take me with you, Paul; it’s the simple solution.”
“Perhaps it is—”
“Oh, I’m positive! If she loves you, she’ll tell us at once that she won’t stand for it—”
“There’s no ‘if’ about that, Carol. Mary loves me and I love her—”
“Yes, yes, dear, I know, I know! We’ll go, then?” Uncertain, he agreed.
They planned to start early in the afternoon. They would be wise not to telephone, Carolyn suggested. If surprised, Mary would probably show her real feeling about them. “If she saw, she will be so jealous about us arriving together she will give herself away,” said Carolyn again.
She protested earnestly that she could not imagine Mary being “Sly.” “It’s just because I have such faith in her straightforwardness that I am inclined to believe she saw nothing. Only a sly woman could keep quiet under such circumstances!”
“I don’t admit that, Carol ; the most outspoken woman might conceivably be quiet till she got her bearings, after a shock like that, and if she thinks we’re deceiving her, she’s perfectly justified in nailing us if she can do so by merely keeping quiet. You can depend upon Mary to tell no one else.”
Carolyn laid her hand on his arm. "The thing I like best about you, Paul, dear, is your quixotic chivalry.” Before he could dissect that remark, she rose briskly and gathered up gloves and purse.
He opened the car door for her, and went around to the other side. They were well into the noon traffic before he spoke again. “I have thought of Mary constantly since I left her Monday morning. I have not had her in my mind like that for years!”
Carolyn’s long eyes narrowed. On a quieter side street she moved closer to him.
“I wouldn’t have hurt her for the world—”
Carolyn threw back her head in a trill of pretty laughter. "I expect she’s thought a lot about you since Monday, too, if she did see us!”
He was not amused. “It’s your funeral as well as mine, remember.”
She laughed again. “Who wouldn’t want to make love on a moonlight night like that?”
His grim mouth relaxed at that. “Perhaps I am making a mountain out of a mole-hill—”
“Besides, who knows how that magic moon affected the rest of the party—and, as a matter of fact now that we’re on the subject—I thought Neil and Mary seemed rather self-consciously gay themselves—”
The car slowed down. “What’s that?” said Paul.
Carolyn bubbled with laughter. “There now, you’re taking that seriously, you funny old owl ! Although Neil is—well, my goodness, he’s your best friend and your constant guest!”
“Nobody could ever make me believe that Neil would make love to Mary—”
The car crept, as he turned toward her. “Has anyone tried to make you believe such a thing?”
“They’d better not try! No matter how much in love Neil is with Mary—”
“Where did you get that notion?”
“Why, Paul, you needn’t be so savage! You gave me the idea yourself!”
“I did?” . .
“If ever I saw jealousy in a man’s face, I saw it in yours, a minute ago! Paul, dear, I know Neil would rather die than let Mary see—”
“What are we talking about? How did we get started on this rotten topic?”
She moved away from him. “Paul, if anyone has been poisoning your mind about Neil and Mary,I think it is simply devilish! Mary is the most loyal --"
“For God’s sake, do you think I’m going to discuss Mary’s loyalty with you or anyone else?”
“You hurt me a little, Paul. I just want to tell you that, no matter what interpretation Mary puts on Sunday’s episode—I trust her above any woman in the world. No one can convince me she’s having an affair—”
He stepped on the gas and rushed Carolyn to her door. “For all time, Carol, that topic is closed. I know you mean to be kind. I’ll be back for you at three.”
AND hard-boiled eggs and salmon sandwiches, and mocha cake, and that will be enough, won’t it, Jessie?” Paula laid fresh paper napkins in the picnic-basket.
“It’s all you’re going to get, anyway, ’cause this is ironing-day, and I have no time to fuss with no picnics. It’s trying to get caught up after company week-ends that makes me sore on this dirty lake—”
Mary in gray sports-clothes entered the neat kitchen. “I’ll pack the basket, Jessie, don’t worry. We expect no guests this week-end, so you’ll get all caught up, with no trouble at all. We’ll plan cold meals—”
“A week-end, and Her not coming?” Arms akimbo, Jessie looked grim incredulity.
Mary was deaf. She wrapped sandwiches in oiled paper, gave the six hard-boiled eggs to Paula to dispose of safely in the deep recesses of the basket, and poured chilled lemonade into two tall thermos bottles. “We’re going across the lake and we’ll fish, so we may be out till after dark.”
“That’s good, I’ll get my chores caught up,” said Jessie, who loved a driven feeling. “With no dinner to get I’ll just take a snack myself, and perhaps get them dishtowels hemmed and my floor scrubbed—”
“Don’t kill yourself, the summer’s young yet, Jessie,” Mary smiled; and Jessie wiped her high purple cheekbones with her apron and reluctantly smiled back. “Get along with ye all and have a good time!” she admonished them, and herded the three of them, Mary, Paula and Peter, out of the kitchen. “Take your raincoats!” her voice rough with affection, she called after them. When the front door closed, she ran out after them, around the house, out through the little vegetable garden to the vine-covered gate, and found them on the road behind the cottage. “Think you ought to go with that cloud-bank coming up?”
“No matter, we’re going by ’bus,” Mary consoled her.
Jessie went back to her ironing. She made frequent trips to the front of the house, to gaze nervously up at the mass of cloud forming in the northwest, and was comforted by the knowledge that Mary and the children fished always from the shore of a stream, and would not be on the water, in case of stormy weather.
At half-past four she brewed a cup of tea, and spreading her tired flat feet far apart, sat down on the back porch to enjoy it. With sips of noisy appreciation she drew the scalding fluid between her thin lips. Her tea finished, she lay back in her comfortable old rocking-chair and stared with blank eyes, through the vines at the pale sky. The afternoon was sultry, there was not a sound but the buzz of heavy flies to disturb the gradual slipping of Jessie’s drowsy mind into unconsciousness.
She woke with a start, feeling she had slept for hours. Ten minutes only had elapsed, and during that time Paul and Carolyn had arrived. Jessie heard them calling from the front of the house. “Where’s everybody?” Paul’s resonant call, followed by a sweet, “Yoo-hoo, people! Here’s a surprise party for you!”
Jessie scrambled to her feet, thrust on broad shoes she had discarded, smoothed her gray hair with her palms, and met Paul in the dining room. She explained her solitude and glared at Carolyn.
“Mrs. March’s room ready?” Paul asked cheerfully, amused by the glare.
“It’s not, because it was only Monday she left, and I washed her blue spread Tuesday and it’s not ironed yet.”
“I’ll be quite as happy with a green spread, or a pink spread, or no spread at all, Jessie! But I’m dying for a cup of tea.”
Jessie prepared tea for them, and grudgingly she set it before them on the verandah overlooking the lake. “I don’t know what to do about dinner for you, Mr. Beaton. They took a picnic tea with them. The village stores are closed Wednesday afternoon, and there’s not a bite of meat in the house—”
Carolyn suggested that she and Paul take one of the canoes and follow the family to the picnic spot. “We’re certain to find them by their pet crooked tree. Let’s go, Paul, dear—” She flicked cigarette ashes carelessly, so that some fell on the grass rug. Jessie ostentatiously fetched her brush and dustpan and swept them up.
They changed to cool easy clothes, and set out for the two-mile paddle across the shallow lake in spite of Jessie’s warning. “That dirty storm’s been growling around all afternoon, and them canoes are fool things.” She thrust a package into Paul’s hand. “More sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs, so you won’t be skimping the children.”
ON THE other side of the lake, Mary and Paula fished while Peter tried his new water-colors. With a keen eye for form, he was entranced by a bend in the stream with a great tree on either side like sentinels in the foreground. Paula could catch fish when nobody else could, having enquired far and wide of successful fishermen acquaintances as to the ways and moods of fish, and she was rejoicing now in the two specimens she had landed downstream before her mother had a nibble.
“Dandy gray sky, there’s no reflection of the rod on the water.” She looked up at the sky. Storm coming, darn it, and my luck’s so good !”
Peter put away his paints. “We’d better scoot, we re going to get wet.”
They ran through the thick woods to the shelter of a small abandoned cottage they had adopted as their own for picnic shelter in emergency such as this. It overlooked the lake, and Paula pointed, “Look! A canoe!"
Swept toward the shore by the wind, a red canoe in which two figures strained and bent to the paddles, held their grave attention. Peter, to spare his mother's anxiety, said confidently: “They’ll make it all right; they’re holding it steady,” and stood beside her watching the struggle, his lower lip caught between his teeth.
A hundred yards down the shore the canoe lifted on a wave-crest and landed to safety. The rain was coming down in sheets. “I’ll run down barefoot in my slicker and bring them here,” Peter exclaimed, tugging at his shoes, and Paula said: “They’re coming themselves,” as the two figures, clutching each other, heads bent to the deluge, ran toward them.
Paula opened the screen door wide to admit her father and Carolyn.
Carolyn sat wrapped in Mary’s raincoat while her dress and stockings dried by the fire that Peter and Paula built in the old disused fireplace. “You see, Paul and I were lunching together when we got this bright idea of coming down to surprise you—”
“I was coming anyway—” Paul began, but Mary interrupted him to say cheerfully.
“I’m delighted! I had no hope of seeing you this week, Carol, you said your work was crowding you.”
“The temptation was too much for me, dear. So here we are; and to think we nearly got drowned ! Just suppose we had upset and been drowned, and you, thinking we were both in town, would hear from Jessie that we’d arrived and it must be us at the bottom of the lake! Wouldn’t that have been a horrible romance?”
Mary’s grave eyes glanced from Paul’s face to Carolyn’s and back to Paul’s. “Romance?” she asked quietly.
Paul laughed uneasily and left the up-ended log which he had been using as a stool. He walked about the tiny room, hands in his trouser pockets.
His sweater was drying over another up-ended log by the fire. “Some romance!” he scoffed. “Hunting a family party and getting sopping wet as a result !”
Mary had not taken her eyes off him as he walked about.
“In all the summers we’ve been coming here, you’ve never before come in the middle of the week, Paul. It’s a lovely surprise. How did it happen?”
She felt his shirt sleeve. “Still damp. I hope you won’t take cold.”
He seized on that remark to avoid answering her question. He never caught cold from exposure, he said. He was sure he wouldn’t catch cold now. He said he believed that people caught all their colds in crowded places. He quite surprised himself by the number of positive ideas that came to his tongue in emergency on the subject of colds. He treated his family and his damp guest to quite a little health lecture.
When he had exhausted his theories on the subject, Mary repeated her question: “How did it happen that you came down in the middle of the week, dear?”
“I wanted to see you, of course! Isn’t that reasonable?” Instantly he regretted the stupidity of appearing on the defensive! He felt annoyed with Mary for asking such a question. Anything abnormal in a man wanting to see his wife, he asked irritably.
“I just wondered,” she said, and turned her attention to Carolyn.
Peter and Paula suggested supper, and Mary produced it. They sat around the fire, the children on the floor, the elders on their log-stools. The storm swept past before they had finished. Peter wanted to know who was going to paddle the canoe home, and suggested himself and Paula.
Carolyn at once demurred. She looked a sight, she said, what with the wave all out of her hair, and her dress all puckered. She’d prefer the canoe to a public ’bus.
Paul said he and Peter would take the canoe. They could make better time, he believed.
Mary said nothing, but gathered up the tea-things and packed them in the hamper. Paul went out. Carolyn put on her dress and stockings and followed him. She stood beside him in the wet grass, her shoulders huddled. “Ugh, I’m damp!” she said. “I’d be much better paddling home than sitting shivering in the ’bus for nearly an hour!”
He laid his hand on her thin sleeve. “Wait till your clothes are thoroughly dry. There’s a ’bus every hour.”
She leaned close to him. “Don’t you think you are acting queerly in insisting that I don’t paddle back with you when it is the only natural thing to do?”
“Perhaps,” he said slowly. “Damn, such a silly situation over nothing!”
“If Mary would only come right out with it—she’s behaving very strangely, if she saw us!”
“If I’d had the horse-sense to ask her that very night how much she had seen—”
“No use thinking of that now; it’s too late. You can’t open up the subject after three days—”
Mary came out of the house. They jumped apart; and again he cursed his fate that she should find them so close again.
“I’m so damp, we’ve decided I’d better paddle home with Paul after all,” said Carolyn.
After a month, the incident had passed into the shadows of his busy life. He had all but forgotten it, and Carolyn made no reference to it after she discovered that the subject bored him once he had got over his first alarm. Apparently Mary knew nothing about it.
NEIL was deeply interested in the progress of a unique bungalow he was building for himself. He had made his own tentative design and late one afternoon laid it on Mary’s dining room table for her comment before he consulted his architect.
“See? I’ve sketched in where the furniture in the living-room will go. Big chairs here—and there—and here, with oodles of properly adjusted reading-lamps. I’ve lived in rented places all my life, and nobody seemed to think of eye-comfort. These little box things are small book-tables beside each chair. I like half a dozen books on the go at once, for different moods—history, biography, romance—won’t it be a joy to come in at night and find my books exactly where I want them?”
“An acre of bathroom! What are you going to have in it? A tennis court?”
“Everything but. Exercisers, and a huge shower, and a heated rack for towels—all the things I’ve wanted for years. I have no money to spare, so I’m having just the few rooms I can actually use, with every darn thing in them that I crave.”
“Not! My friends may stay till dawn if they like— but I want my place to myself when I wake up. The person who thrilled me at four a.m. I might want to choke at breakfast!”
“But surely, a dining room?”
“Not, again. My breakfast I’ll get myself in my dinky little kitchen. Other meals at the club as usual. Oh, I’m going to have the time of my life ! All my own, not a superfluous room, and everything I want!”
“Your clothes closets are a scream; a shelf or drawer for every sock!”
“An orgy. One of those repressions we hear about, where, if the lid ever does come off, the repressed one goes fluey!”
He pointed to one of the crooked drawings of a low deep chair. “This is called ‘Mary’s Shrine.’ Nobody else is ever going to sit there. It is to be placed where I can see your eyes from any chair I may be in, when you come to visit me.”
The deepening of the dimples at the corners of her lips showed him her pleasure. “Where’s Paul’s chair?”
“I’m considering making a small promenade deck for Paul around the room. I never saw him in a chair long enough to visualize one for him. You two carry out the theory that happy marriages are made by opposites—one supplies all the qualities the other hasn’t got. You get more restful, while Paul gets more strenuous every day.”
That worried her. She hadn’t been sure—she’d wondered lately—did Neil think Paul didn’t look well?
A hundred per cent, well, Neil assured her. Nervousness was not illness with Paul; it was his form of energy. “That everlasting drive of ambition in him, is the man himself! He’s forging ahead. He’s geared so high he can’t go slowly. He doesn’t know he’s nervous.”
“I sometimes think he’s overdoing It.”
“Let him alone, Mary. He’ll never tire so long as he’s succeeding. He’d crumple if he were defeated. Paul’s type can’t live with failure.”
She studied his plans, came back to “Mary’s Shrine.”
“I’m going to love that chair. Would it be very bad taste to put a sign on it, ‘Keep Out’? ”
“I’ll put that sign on my whole house, any time you say so, Mary.”
A little laugh from the doorway startled them. Carolyn stood there. Over her shoulder she called to Paul, “Are you a good sign-reader, Paul?” Neil went out to the hall to greet Paul, while Mary greeted Carolyn, whom she had not expected.
Carolyn said vivaciously: “Am I a nuisance? I was passing Paul’s office and I took a notion to invite myself to dinner. So I ran in and asked him to bring me along home with him. All right?”
“Of course,” said Mary, taking her wrap.
Carolyn clutched her arm, and whispered, “I’m sorry I overheard, dear, and it was stupid of me to call Paul’s attention like that. I’ll say no more about it.”
“What I overheard—Neil’s promise, the sign on his house—oh, it’s safe with me, dear. I never talk!”
Mary looked intently at her a moment; then went to Paul. “Neil’s house-plans are a riot! He has a special chair for me with a ‘Keep Out’ sign on it, if you please! And he says I can have the whole place to myself any time ! I hope he won’t have a telephone. Think what a haven it would be for me, after this house, with Jessie too deaf to answer ’phone calls any more!”
“Fine!” said Paul. “Take him up on that.”
TWO months later, Paul, inspecting with Neil the half-finished house, tripped on a loose plank, fell through an opening into the basement, and injured his spine so badly that he was carried home helpless and only partially conscious.
Followed weeks of adjustment to a new life. Horror, at first.
“Paralyzed ! Oh, God, let me die !” Paul would whisper into the dark when they thought him resting nicely. After the first few weeks he felt no pain. His mind was clear. Morning after morning he woke thinking, before his faculties were alert, that his misfortune was a dream, that he had only to put his feet to the ground to forget the nightmare. Morning after morning, realization scourged him anew. “Let me die!” his prayer beat in his brain, while he talked cheerfully to Mary and his nurse about how pleasant it would be, presently, to get out in a wheeled-chair.
“I’m trying to be half decent about it,” he said to Neil, and cried like a baby, when Neil said “Trying? You’re a prince about it all !”
The children’s sympathy was his greatest trial. Paula would sit beside him and lower her voice, smile at him, and suddenly turn away to hide her swimming eyes. She never stayed beside him long. She would bear the immobility of his thin legs under the steamer-rug as long as she could. She could not keep her eyes off them. When her grief became unbearable, she would jump up abruptly, kiss him so hard and swiftly as to hurt his mouth, and run away from the painful sight of him.
Peter’s pity was even harder to endure. He never showed a sign of breaking down; but he would willingly sit through all his leisure hours, reading aloud, chatting of this and that, telling Paul more of himself in those first weeks than could have been told in years of normal father-and-son life.
Paul writhed under the child’s cheerful sacrifice. “No ball game to-day?” Paul would ask; and Peter would answer, “I don’t feel like baseball to-day, dad,” and stretch his active legs that craved exercise. He would turn another and yet another page of some book that interested neither him nor Paul. Through hours of reading aloud, each pretended for the other’s sake that he was reveling in fictitious heroisms that were but pale adventure compared to the heroism of this unwhimpering man laid low, and of the sensitive lad who would not show his grief.
Mary found relief from thought in constant action. All day long she hurried from the kitchen to Paul’s bedside, from Paul to the incessant summons of the telephone. After the first few weeks there had been little actual need for a nurse, and expenses were alarming. Mary was glad to take over the care of Paul herself, for then her days were so full that she had no time to think. “I dare not stop,” she told Neil when he urged her to rest while he visited with Paul. “If I lie down before I am just ready to drop, it all comes over me—I’m all right, just don’t make me stop, that’s all.”
She struggled to understand the problem of a continued income for Paul. He was as yet too stunned to decide upon any positive course of action; but it was soon obvious that to hold him back from occasional business conferences was only cruelty. She had to conceal her fear for the future of them all, lest he should see her anxiety and add it to his own.
“His mind is clear as a bell, and he has years of work in him yet,” their doctor told her. “He’ll have to work from his bed, that’s all. We’ll fix that, later. Don’t talk to him about it now.”
But there seemed nothing else Paul wanted to talk about; and before long, his chaotic ideas took definite shape. He would establish a law office in his house.
“This whole main floor, if necessary!” Mary said to Paul’s senior partner, who came to confer with her.
“It means no normal home life for you, Mrs. Beaton: better consider—”
“I know it will cramp the children’s social life to some extent. We can’t consider that now. I’ll manage. We’ll get along. The library will be his bedroom, the living-room his office. He can have his secretary and his stenographer there—”
“Where will you see your friends?”
She treated that problem very lightly. “As I’ll have so little time for them, will that detail matter? The children and I will manage upstairs. Like a duplex. The guest-room could be our living-room. If he needs the dining-room as well, we can have meals in the kitchen.”
“If he could have the dining room for a bedroom, and keep his library as his recreation room—you say it is his favorite haunt—he’ll have a wheel-chair, probably—”
“Oh, yes,” she agreed, her mind racing with the problem of how to keep her two active children happy in cramped quarters upstairs, when they had been accustomed to so much space. “We’ll manage, it’s splendid we have such big sunny rooms on this floor! It’s wonderful that he can go on with his work. The rest of us are all so strong and well—” Her chin shook, but she kept on recounting her good fortune. Her cheerful voice caught in her throat when she heard Paul call to her— “Mary? Where are you, dear?”
“I must go; he needs me.” All day long that patient call followed her about the house. All day long she answered it so promptly, he did not realize how many times he called. “Then it is settled that I rearrange this lower floor for him. Good-by, until to-morrow. I am glad we can manage!” She was already halfway up the stair.
OT’S not going to be easy for you, Jessie. You’re not young. So, if you want to leave us, please go before we get our new routine started. You have to think of yourself, and we’ll understand.”
Jessie planted firm fists deep in thick hips and, scowling, told her one romance in her own way. “If you want to let some other woman in to wait on him—now that there’s something I really can do for him —say, Mrs. Beaton, you gotta throw me out, that’s all ! An’ if you ever speak of it again—” She fled into her kitchen before another woman could see that Jessie Kirk was “soft” enough to weep over the bare suggestion that she might cease to serve the man she worshipped.
FOR several weeks after Paul’s disaster, Carolyn did not come to see him. Daily some token arrived from her; delicate foods in exquisite china; flowers; books; more tempting foods; with each a brief compelling little word of affection and of poignant sympathy.
“To-day, I had made up my mind at last to come and see you; but, Paul, dear, once more I lost my courage. You have always been so strong—so vigorous and well—I can’t bear, yet a while, to see you lying still—I know you’ll understand. Can you think of anything you’d like me to make for your lunch to-morrow? Anything you fancy, I will be so happy to prepare. To do just anything for you is a relief.”
Her gifts of food were gall and wormwood to Jessie. Each chicken in aspic was a personal insult. Washing one of Carolyn’s fragile custard cups, Jessie deliberately hit it on the edge of the kitchen tap and shattered it. Mary knew just what had happened to the cup when the hopeless remains were brought to her in Jessie’s big red palm. “And serves Her right for carrying Her slops around in Her best dishes just to show off! Aluminium (Jessie corrected anyone who pronounced ‘aluminum’ otherwise) would show better sense, and we’ve lots of fancy dishes to put his food on after it’s brought in !”
“Oh, Jessie, this is too bad! That is one of Mrs. March’s lovely crystal set!”
“She’ll not show off next time, maybe!”
I CAN’T bear their pity!” Paul told Neil, and showed him Carolyn’s note saying she had not courage to see him. “Don’t let anybody come, who cares a hoot about me!”
Neil told the doctor about Carolyn’s devastating note. “What do you do with women like that? How dare she offer pity?”
“Endure them; the law is strict about even justifiable homicide! Here we do our utmost to keep up a man’s morale—”
Neil swore under his breath.
“She’ll be along to offer her condolences one of these days. See that somebody warns her—NO PITY ! These dominating men feel abnormal humiliation.”
Neil went that night to call on Carolyn. She registered outraged incredulity when he told her he had seen her note to Paul. “You don’t mean—private correspondence?”
“If you honestly want to do something for Paul—”
She rose and stood before him, gazing solemnly into his skeptical eyes. “Neil Meredith, can you doubt it?”
“Sometimes we’re apt to think we’re being very kind when we are really grinding our own axe. There’s only one constructive thing anybody can do for Paul —anybody who had not the actual daily, bodily, active service to do, as Mary has —and that is to kid him along into thinking he’s as good a man as he ever was. He is as good, mentally. And perhaps better. I understand that the mind often acquires abnormal strength when the body is at rest, as Paul’s is now.”
“That’s a new viewpoint! I hadn’t thought of Paul’s fine body as ‘resting’ — only as useless!”
“Please forget that ‘useless’ thing ! He can carry on splendidly so long as he keeps up his morale—if he can keep in good spirits, his battle’s won ! He’ll soon adjust himself to new conditions; the doctor says it’s amazing the way people do—and it’s astonishing how happy he is since he is assured that he can go on working and looking after his family. He’s so proud of that, it’s pathetic. One realizes what a thrill it has always given him to provide well for his family. His pride won’t suffer now—”
“Isn’t it the saddest thing?”
“No!” said Neil angrily. “The saddest thing that can happen a man is a vital injury to his nerve—and Paul’s courage is gorgeous! That’s all that matters! So for heaven’s sake, Carol, don’t pity the man!”
Pensively she drooped her head and fingered a geranium leaf. “A woman cannot close her heart!” she said sadly.
Neil snapped the lid of his cigarette case like a pistol-shot. “She can close her lips, perhaps! I don’t want to be rude, Carol, but if you talk sympathy to Paul at this stage, you’re taking the most cruel chance in the world of breaking him.”
“I might pretend to be very gay and unfeeling, but Paul knows how much I care—”
“Mary cares more! That old snorter, Jessie, cares more—they aren’t weakening him! Those two women jolly him along from morning till night. Mary even has the magnificent nerve to laugh at his clumsiness in handling a boat-hook on a stick that young Pete rigged up for him to reach with! I’ve seen her laughing like a child at him when he’s awkward with it, and applauding like a lunatic when he made a difficult swipe at something he wanted and landed it with his “spare reach” as she calls it. And one day, two minutes after the house had rung with her hilarity—I found her with the doors closed and her head down on the kitchen table, crying as if her heart would break! That’s the kind of sporting treatment he needs!”
“Mary may see something amusing in the feeble efforts of a helpless man; I could not pretend to think that funny. I can never pretend! I must, always, be just myself!”
“Then for God’s sake, if you feel that way about it, don’t go near Paul! I’m warning you !”
Suddenly she stamped her foot and said angrily, “Mary and Jessie sent you here! Mary saw us that night at the picnic, and she is getting even with me! And that horrible old Scotch woman hates me! I know women! Whether you deny it or not, I know Mary sent you to keep me away from Paul !”
“What’s this crazy notion, Carol?”
But she was beside herself. “Don’t you dare try to keep me from Paul ! I know he wants me, and I’ll go to see him as soon as I want to go !”
“You’ll be reasonable, Carolyn? Or you mustn’t see him !”
“On whose authority are you forbidding me?”
“My own !”
“Mary’s! She’s jealous, and he’s helpless, and she would keep us apart if she could! I wish you’d go! How dare you try to keep me out of Mary’s house? Is your standing any better than mine? It may be—I don’t know, of course—”
On his way to the door he turned. “With a soul the size of yours, how dare you pity anyone?” he said, and left her.
THE following day, unannounced, she visited Paul.
She passed Paula, on her bicycle, in the gateway. “Daddy alone, darling?” and Paula called back over her shoulder. “Yes, Mrs. March. Mother’s at the dentist’s, and Jessie’s up in her room dressing, so go right in. If you need anything, ring Daddy’s bell, and Jessie’ll come.”
The door latch clicked as she softly closed it. Paul called cheerfully from his room at the end of the big hall, “Who comes? You, Pete?”
“It’s Carol, Paul!” she answered, hurrying. In his doorway she paused, a hand on either side of the frame, and gave a little moan of pain at seeing him.
“Well! Carol! Hello!” he said, and she ran across the room to fall on her knees beside his bed, bury her face against the sleeve of his dressing-gown, and burst into choking tears.
“Why, Carol, dear!” he said, and laid his free hand on her head. She clung to his arm and could not speak for sobbing. He stroked her head once, then patted it briskly, with a shaky note in his quiet laughter. “Goose, get up ! I’m not dead, just numb in spots !”
“I can’t bear it !” She burrowed against his shoulder, closer.
“Oh, come, Carol, not so bad as that! Sit up and let’s have a look at you. Haven’t seen you for an age. How’s that?” She had raised her wet face and he had wiped it with a handkerchief he drew from under his pillow. “Sit in that blue chair; and put on some fresh makeup, old dear; you don’t look natural!” She smiled a watery smile at that, but said she would stay where she was on the floor at his side. “I’m getting shortsighted, I’ll stay here where I can see you.”
“Better sit in the chair,” he said, uneasy lest someone walk in as silently as she had done, and find her so close to him. “You look terribly affectionate sitting here!”
“That’s the way I feel; and, oh, Paul, so sorry !”
“Oh, yes, I know, I know!” Hastily. “Jump up, please, I want to ring the bell for tea; and old Jessie’d drop dead if she saw you sitting there!”
She did not move. “I don’t want tea.”
“I do, though. After all these years of being a he-man, I’m a post-graduate teahound now. Isn’t it mortifying?”
“It’s heart-breaking.” She stroked his sleeve and gazed at him with mournful eyes.
He fidgetted with embarrassment, running his finger around inside the collarband of his pyjamas, moving his head impatiently on his low pillow. “Oh, pshaw, no, it’s not half bad now. I have practically no pain, and, thank the Lord, my head’s as clear as it ever was—clearer, I do believe ! Did you know I’m to have the living-room fixed up as an office, and be moved in there every day? I’m having two ’phones installed, one at my elbow, one for Miss Scrimes. Miss Murray will bring her desk and typewriter up here, and then we’re away ! I wouldn’t be surprised if I could do better work here than downtown—not so many interruptions—” He paused from habit, waiting for the quick word of encouragement. Mary would have said at this juncture—“Isn’t it splendid, dear?”—but instead, Carolyn hid her face against his arm again “Don’t,” she whispered. “Your courage breaks my heart.”
His face fell, and enthusiasm faded in his tired eyes. “I’ve been tickled to death planning it all. Don’t you think it will work out?”
She raised her head, and gripped his two hands. “It must! We’re just going to try and think that everything will be all right—we must try to be brave—”
“But, darn it, everything is all right! I’m mighty lucky to be so capable; lots of people with spine injuries—”
“Your courage is beyond belief!” She gazed at him in admiration. “To see you lying here, helpless, making the best of a cruel bargain—”
“Do you want tea?” A bitter voice from the doorway startled them. Carolyn scrambled to her feet.
Jessie repeated her question a little louder, and more acidly. “I said, do you want tea, Mr. Beaton?”
“I was just going to ring for it, Jessie.” When Jessie appeared with the teatray, Carolyn busied herself clearing the small table by Paul’s bedside.
“I’m sorry I didn’t hear the front-door bell, Mrs. March. I was upstairs.”
“It didn’t matter, Jessie, I let myself in.”
“But I’m sorry, because Mrs. Beaton said to listen for the bell and ask Mr. Beaton first if he wanted visitors.”
“Lemon, for Mrs. March, Jessie.”
“I can always hear the bell from my room; funny I didn’t hear it to-day.”
“It doesn’t matter, Jessie; the lemon, please.”
“Either the bell’s gettin’ weak, or I’m gettin’ deaf.”
“Never mind about the bell.”
“Well, it’s just that I’m supposed to be on guard when Mrs. Beaton’s out, and she’s not out much, and here I wasn’t on guard !”
“Well, nothing alarming happened to me. Lemon, please, at once.”
“She’ll not want to leave me in charge again—”
Jessie felt that possibly she had driven home her point, and went for the lemon.
“Really!” Carolyn’s eyebrows were high.
“Poor old Jessie’s getting out of bounds a bit; but we’d never get such devotion anywhere again.”
“That’s an obsession people often get about an old servant.”
“Since I’ve been lying here, I realize that Jessie is not merely a servant; she is a loyal, loving woman serving not for her wages but because her heart is so full of service she cannot do enough.”
“Try not paying her for a month or two, and see how much service you get! That class is all the same.”
“Love knows no class; and Jessie would die for any of us.”
“Paul, dear, you’re a hopeless idealist!”
“I know love when I see it,” Paul said. She expressed her surprise at this comment from him ; she said she had never heard him speak of anything so—well, so abstract as love. And now that he had at last spoken of it—might she ask what he considered infallible signs of love?
Jessie reappeared, with thin slices of lemon. “Don’t you remember, Jessie, Mrs. March doesn’t like her lemon sliced?
She likes just a dash of it, and wants it cut in thick triangles?”
“I’m sorry,” Jessie said, and stalked out. They waited for her to return with the thick triangles, but their tea was chilling in their cups before Carolyn sighed: “Don’t call her back, the slices will do.”
“She’s getting stupid, I’m afraid.”
“That’s not stupidity! You say you know love when you see it; why don’t you recognize hate, as well? Jessie detests me.”
Vigorously Paul denied that. Why should Jessie hate her? She mustn’t take Jessie’s vagaries so seriously.
“Women sense such animosities.”
He finished his tea and asked for more before he answered that. “Oh, well—an ignorant woman like Jessie is apt to take unreasoning prejudices. You are always pleasant to her. Perhaps you may be oversensitive to atmosphere—”
She seized on this. “I never need to be told! I can feel it! When I enter a room I can sense disapproval—”
He laughed and folded a thin slice of buttered bread. “You talk like a naughty child with a guilty conscience!”
It was her turn for thoughtful silence. When she did speak, she changed the subject. She talked of Neil. “He is your greatest admirer, Paul. He says the way you have taken this catastrophe is magnificent.”
Paul moved his head restlessly on his pillow. “But I’m not going to think of it as a catastrophe! It’s a cussed nuisance, I'll admit, but I brought it on myself by carelessness, and I’ve got to put up with it, that’s all. You may not believe me, but honestly, Carol, I can’t credit the difference between the desperation of my feelings when it first happened and my feelings now. I was afraid I was going to live on and on, a burden to Mary and the children. I’m not that. I’m a bit of an extra chore, of course; but if Mary doesn’t mind that, I’m a fool to fret about it. I’m beginning to think that Mary and Jessie, not to mention the kids, are getting a real kick out of seeing just how much they can do for me! They’re getting clairvoyant in anticipating my wants!”
She rose and brought him a fresh ashtray, then stood beside him, stroking the corner of his pillow. He patted her hand. “Don’t look so down in the mouth. You’re taking this harder than I am !”
“Is it for always, Paul?”
He moved his head impatiently. “There’s a glimmer—I daren’t look forward to it—I’m just living along from day to day. That’s all anybody can do, sick or well, just a day at a time.”
Talking rapidly, spots of high color in his cheeks, he called her attention to the new hangings in the room, the fresh cushions. Mary and Jessie had made them all, he told her. It was Jessie’s idea. Several sets; they kept changing them; cheap but dainty; and varied. That was the thing! They weren’t going to let him get bored if they could help it!
Jessie came for the tea things. Paul praised her generously for the muffins she had made. “Some chef, Jessie!” and, purple with pleasure, she snatched the tray and stalked away to break into broad smiles in the kitchen where no prying rival could suspect her of susceptibility to flattery.
To be Continued