THE new arrangements were working out well. Clients brought other clients. Mary warned them all when she could waylay them, at first, and the word went around, “Just treat him as though he were perfectly well.”
Mary rose each morning early, and had Paul bathed and settled for his busy day before his secretary and stenographer arrived. Jessie tidied his rooms at night, happily dusting and polishing when her aching limbs cried out for rest. Mary suggested getting extra help in the house, but Jessie rebelled. “A strange woman might not know how to treat a sick man like he’s well; and we’re goin’ to keep up the heart of him, between ourselves, till he’s up and about again!”
Jessie talked of the time when he would be “up and about again” with as much assurance as though he had a mild case of measles and were being forcibly held in bed. The doctor suggested a visiting nurse. “You might as well have those two extra hours of morning sleep, Mrs. Beaton.” But Mary protested. “A nurse around the house keeps the thought of illness uppermost. He’s adjusting himself so beautifully, I almost forget that he is not normal.”
Watching with admiring eyes the unselfish adjustment of the entire personnel of the household to the new conditions, Neil endured torments of helpless sympathy for Mary. There was little that he could do to help her.
She would not leave Paul’s side during the evening hours when Neil was free. Neil often pleaded with her. “But he reads, and people drop in, and he wants you to get out of the house more! Come and drive with me for just an hour.”
At long intervals she would go with him, but fretted always to be back. She got plenty of outing in the daytime while Paul was busy, she insisted. Paul needed her much more than he realized. She liked to be within hail, because, with his repeated summonings, he felt he was imposing upon anyone else but her. He knew she loved to wait on him—so please, would Neil turn back at the next cross-roads? She wanted to go home, please.
“You’re inclined to be morbid in this service to him,” Neil told her, troubled by the dark circles of weariness under her eyes. “He’d be the last person in the world to impose on you; but he’s drifting into a habit of demanding—”
She was up in arms at once in Paul’s defence. “I’m so glad to do anything for him! Anything! Some one else, waiting on him, might look impatient, and make him believe he is a nuisance—”
“All very well, Mary. But this is not for a week or a month—what about a lifetime of this intensive devotion? It can’t be done indefinitely at the rate you’re doing it, you know. You have to save yourself a little. You have to last. If you don’t keep yourself bright and rested, he is going to notice you are worn—”
“Do I begin to look worn already?” That interested her because that would trouble Paul.
“You look tired to death to-day. Why, Mary! Are you so tired as that?” For she had pressed both hands against her hot cheeks and unshed tears of nervous exhaustion made her eyes glitter.
“I’m not tired at all ! I wish you wouldn’t tell me I’m getting old and worn-looking! Please take me back!” He turned toward the city, and looking down at her, relaxed as she was in the deep seat beside him, he saw that she was deeply troubled as well as tired. “Is anything especially wrong, Mary? May I help?”
“I have half a mind to tell you.”
“Neil, I wish I had strength enough to work this out alone, but I can’t keep it to myself any longer. After all, I don’t know why I should. You, too, saw Paul and Carolyn that night by the river.”
He had been curious for so long about whether or not she had seen them, that he had given up hope of ever finding out. She completely surprised him.
“You needn’t talk about it if you don’t want to; but I knew by the loud, sharp way in which you greeted them, that you had seen. Well—that’s one reason I’ll not leave him any more than I can help ! She telephones every dinner hour and talks to him; then asks for me, and offers to sit with him if I want to go out.”
“Well,” was Neil’s quiet comment.
“What am I going to do?”
“What is there to do?”
“There must be something!”
“Is there ever anything?”
“But it can’t go on?”
“Are you sure anything is going on?”
“Why, Neil, she’s obsessed!”
“Well—that’s her grief, not yours. Why do you worry?”
“When another woman’s in love with my husband? Haven’t I reason to worry?”
“If your husband were in love with another woman, I’d say yes; but as it is—what difference does it make?”
“Difference? He’s mine, isn't he?”
“I’ll say he is! He needs you at every turn. His whole existence depends on you!”
“Then why shouldn’t I worry when I see another woman trying to take him from me?”
Neil seemed to find that amusing. “Let her try. What do you care? Paul loves no woman but you, Mary.”
“I thought that, too, until that night I saw them.”
“That was six months ago, and a most sentimental moon was floating around, if I remember rightly! I was getting heady myself, and almost made love to you!”
“I can’t joke about it, Neil.”
“Oh, yes, you can, if you’ll just be yourself! They’re probably just good friends, as you and I are.”
“I wish I agreed with you.”
“I wish you weren’t so tired. I told you you were getting morbid. One little foolishness doesn’t make a love affair, you know.”
“Jessie blurted out that she found them making love again—the first time she called since he was hurt!”
Neil stopped the car and concentrated on convincing her. “Now I know you’re headed for a rest-cure! I can’t imagine you listening to poor old Jessie on the subject of Carolyn March! Why, Mary, I’m surprised at you, of all people! Jessie’s Scotch; she has to hate somebody, for fear she might be thought ‘soft’ for loving somebody else! She’s picked on poor old Carolyn, that’s all!”
“I had no business to pay attention to servant gossip, I know—”
“Oh, pshaw, you’re human, aren’t you, and you did see them that moonstruck Sunday! Forget it, Mary!”
“Jessie came in unexpectedly and found her down on the floor beside him with her head on his arm—”
“Well, good Lord, don’t blame Paul for that! He has an honest-to-goodness alibi now, if ever a poor devil of a husband had! No one could convince you, jealous and all as you are, that poor Paul jumped out of bed and dragged her down beside him; could they? You know Carolyn—”
“I’m not so sure I do—”
“Oh, don’t be silly, Mary! She’d have to be dramatic. She’d have to do a flop to show how sad she felt—”
“She wrote him daily when he first was ill; and he tore the notes in tiny pieces. He didn’t want me to see them !”
“In the light of your present mood I’d say he showed his good sense.”
“He was almost angry with me last night when I told her I wasn’t going out, but that she could come along and see him anyway.”
“Did she come?”
“No! She said she’d wait until ‘she could be some use,’ which means, till she has him to herself.”
“How do you know he was angry?”
“He said : ‘For heaven’s sake, let somebody do something, to help you ! There’s a limit to your martyrdom.’ ”
But Neil had his soothing explanation for that irritable answer. Paul was pathetically sensitive about being a nuisance. Paul felt the natural distress of a helpless man tied to a vigorous young woman. The braver the woman was, the more keenly such a man would feel it. “You’re magnificent, Mary!
You laugh and carry on as though — well—” Neil found he couldn’t pursue that side of Mary’s problem without a lump in his throat. “So—if he were a hundred times more irritable than he is —who’d blame him? Who’d pay any attention to him? He feels that you’re in a terrible plight—a young woman like you—”
“He’s not irritable !” she flashed.
“He knows your life is martyrdom—”
“Oh, no, it’s not! If it weren’t for Carolyn I’d be the happiest woman in the world ! To a woman in love there’s only one thing that matters — just to know you’re needed above every other woman —no matter in what way—just to be needed most! And he tells me he can well spare me! He’ll let her wait on him!”
Neil drove for some time in silence, thinking it over. He had watched Carolyn’s efforts for a long time, and wondered how long Mary could keep silent.
The solution he now was going to suggest had come to his mind weeks before; Jessie had reported —with insistence that he listen— the episode of Carolyn entering the house unannounced, and “sprawlin’ ” herself across his breast like a sick cat, and cryin’ all over his new dressin’ gown that Mrs. Beaton had made for him herself! Neil had tried to make light of it, to explain that Mrs. March was probably sincerely upset—
“Sincerely ...” Jessie snorted. “A proper cat, and I’ve seen Her like before! As if there wasn’t trouble enough in this house without Her throwin’ sheep’s eyes at a man that’s lyin’ on his poor sick back—”
NEIL offered now his tentative solution to Mary. “You know, and I know, that Paul’s happiness depends solely on you. It’s just possible that you’ve spoiled him so that he doesn’t realize just how much he needs you. Would it be a good idea to make him realize it? It couldn’t do any harm—”
“That, of course,” said Mary, promptly, “is absurd! He demands me at every turn.”
“He doesn’t realize it. But he might be taught to! Get a nurse in for a few weeks—”
“No, indeed ! He’d be sure he was worse.”
“Not if you showed willingness to leave him."
“Carolyn would haunt the place!”
“Let her! The comparison with your kind of devotion would be all to the good !”
“He likes her immensely.”
“He needs you, Mary.”
“Then why send me away?”
“To make sure that he realizes what you mean to him.”
“I can’t, Neil ! I’m afraid!”
“All right,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry you won’t.”
“I haven’t the courage to challenge fate that way—”
“There’s no such thing as ‘fate’ to the challenging kind, dear. ‘Fate’ is the apology offered by the spineless.” For the rest of the drive home she digested that. At the gate, she turned to him and said: “I’ll go, Neil. I’m losing my nerve, as things are.”
“Good for you !” he said. “You’ll be back in no time, laughing at the whole business!”
“You keep an eye on her!”
“Give her rope,” Neil laughed, “and watch her hang herself!”
“If I lose, I lose.”
“If you lose, I’ll never bet on another woman!”
When they entered the house they saw that Paul’s dim night light was the only illumination in his room. Mary tiptoed in to look at him.
From a low stool by his pillow Carolyn rose and held up a warning finger. “Sh! I’ve been stroking his head for an hour. He said it helped his headache, poor dear !”
BETWEEN them, Mary and Paul decided upon a quiet country place with a good hotel, for her brief “vacation.” He at first suggested her mother’s, but Mary promptly vetoed that. “Somewhere all by myself, where nobody knows my private affairs, nobody cares whether or not I’m tired—somewhere neutral ! Just to be a nonentity for a while is my idea of rest.”
“Just to be yourself,” Neil expressed it, when, later, she told him of her decision.
“Perhaps that’s it. I know I am very tired of emotion. A period of stupid enjoyment—food, sleep, blessed dullness. How’s that for ambition?”
A NURSE was engaged to come each morning and night. Paul was indifferent as to her personality. “Tidy me up and get out, any nurse can do that.”
Carolyn offered to “supervise the house” during Mary’s absence. Mary asked time to consider this offer. She consulted Paul’s wishes; and when he looked pleased and grateful, she went to her room and fought it out with herself.
She would not leave her home to Carolyn! Of that she was very certain when she closed her door and sat down in the window seat to think it over. But her habit of carefully weighing matters connected with her family’s welfare functioned automatically, and she battled with her personal inclination as against the ultimate good. It seemed, at first thought, a foolhardy action, to walk away and leave a rival in possession of a helpless husband, two children, her home, and her servant.
But the vision of Jessie “possessed” by Carolyn, stirred Mary’s grimmest humor. It refreshed her, against her will. Jessie would have no illusions about Carolyn’s act of mercy. Jessie, unquelled by Mary’s tactful control, would be a handful of bitter loyalty that Carolyn might well consider before following up her impulse to ingratiate herself with Paul. The more Mary thought about that aspect of it, the less hurt she felt over Paul’s enthusiastic response to Carolyn’s offer.
But nagging at the back of her mind was ever the torturing fear —perhaps it was of grave importance. Perhaps Carolyn had already succeeded in winning Paul away from her. Perhaps it was love for Carolyn that caused his frequent absent-mindedness, his occasional irritability. Perhaps she had been a simple fool, to find always an excuse for him.
Jealousy? Mary’s active intelligence made her aware of the destroying emotion, without in the least diminishing it. Too wholesome to descend to acid reactions, her very impulse to be decent and fair about a mere suspicion crossed swords with the repression of her primitive instinct to spy, to confirm suspicion, and to revenge herself. Her nerves responded normally and her sunny disposition suffered.
Again and again she had determined to challenge him about the scene on the river bank. Again and again she hesitated to put Paul and Carolyn on their guard.
Always her intelligence checked her, told her that the effect might be worse than her present condition of uncertainty. He could do one of two things—treat the incident lightly, laugh at her, admit a moment’s folly, and dismiss the episode forever—or—confess. She didn’t want to be positive that she had lost him; yet she could not bear the doubt.
If he no longer loved her, she did not want to be dependent upon him; but admitting that, she saw the folly of it, for there were the children, she had neither inclination nor training to be self-supporting; and she had every right to be supported.
Paula’s unmistakable tattoo on her door brought her back to her surroundings. “Come in, dear,” she called, and rose from the window seat.
Paula offered her an enormous chocolate cream.
“Is Mr. Meredith downstairs?” Mary recognized the brand of candy he loved to bring to Paula.
“With Mrs. March. He brought her.”
Paula walked close up to the pier-glass and gazed into her reflected eyes. “What’s a ‘come hither’, mother?”
“Where did you hear about it?”
“Mrs. March. She just said, ‘Well, Paula, how’s my little girl with the “come hither” in her eye?" and Mr. Meredith said: ‘Paula’s got something more charming than that. She has the ideal combination— a “come hither” in one eye and a “go to!” in the other.’ ”
Mary laughed, and lifted her arms over her head with an air of vast relief, then, as though just roused from sleep, lowered both hands to rumple her short thick hair. She felt as though a fresh breeze had blown strongly through her room. “Keep them both, darling, or neither!”
She went down to her guests with a momentary sensation of having wakened from a dreadful nightmare to find a safe, sane world of commonplace about her. Neil and Carolyn were standing by Paul’s bed, talking with animation of Mary’s prospective trip. It seemed to Mary suddenly that to go away and rest was the most natural thing in the world.
“I’ll see about your ticket and reservation, Mary. I’m so glad you’re going,” Neil said. And Paul echoed:
“So am I. I’ve been more of a chore than she’ll ever admit. We’ll get along here first rate.”
“Indeed, we’ll have a wonderful time, dear, so don’t worry or hurry back! I can stay just as long as you want me to, so go with an easy mind!” Carolyn’s tone was luscious with desire to serve.
And Mary was instantly flung back into a depression so deep she scarcely could command the gay chatter she knew was expected of her.
She had asked for time to consider Carolyn’s offer to move into her house as substitute for her; that was only this morning. Now, in late afternoon, with no further discussion with her of the offer, everything was apparently settled!
“I called Paul on the telephone just now, and he seemed so pleased with our plan, I just had to come right over—I got Neil to pick me up—he said you’d asked him to dinner, so, as I’m to be one of the family so soon, I just invited myself to come along.”
Mary made one more effort, and failed. “Our plan, Carol? Nothing was decided.”
Paul said happily. “I thought you left it to me, dear, so I called Carol and told her I’d be tickled pink to have her stepmother the family while you’re gone. Neil, you can be watchdog, or what have you?”
“Caretaker and family friend,” said Neil; and held Mary’s grave eyes with his a moment, giving her his silent promise to guard her happiness as well as in him lay.
IF SHE comes in, I go out!” Jessie, fists on her hips, declared war.
Mary walked around the kitchen table and laid two tender hands on the old Scotch woman's thick shoulders. “If I ask you to carry on as usual, for his sake, you will, Jessie, won’t you?”
“To take orders from Her is more than flesh and blood can bear! No! If She’s comin’, I’m goin’!”
“Very well,” said Mary quietly. “But I’m terribly disappointed.”
Jessie’s scowl deepened.
“I’ve always thought you didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘quitter.’ ”
“ ‘Quitter’, did you say?”
“Oh, I'm not blaming you, Jessie, I know that for some reason you don’t understand Mrs. March — ”
“It’s because I do understand the dirty cat! Well!
Say, Mrs. Beaton, nobody’s ever called a Kirk a quitter yet! I’ll stick, this time. But I’ll take my orders from him !”
“Oh, of course. That goes without saying!”
“Oh, she’ll try it on—”
“Well, I think this is splendid, Jessie! I knew you’d not fail me, and I couldn’t possibly go if you weren’t here—in charge.”
Jessie wiped her damp brow on her apron. “Would you mind sayin’ that some time before you go, in front of her, like? That last. “In charge?”
“You are housekeeper while I’m gone.”
“And what’s Her job?”
Mary walked away.
“I’ll learn Her!” said Jessie, to the kitchen stove.
WHEN it came to the point of leaving, Mary could not retain the high mood which had moved her to go. Beside Paul’s bed the nurse stood white and cool, and impersonally dependable. “He’ll be splendid, I know, Mrs. Beaton, and I’ll not forget to wire twice a week.”
The children were charmed to be put upon their honor. “You know your usual amount of freedom. I’m trusting you to think for yourselves.” When the clasp of their mother’s club bag snapped shut, they felt quite old and responsible.
Jessie brought in the last pile of freshly-ironed handkerchiefs, and reopened the bag. “Enjoy your holiday, Mrs. Beaton; don’t worry your head about nothing. I’m in charge!”
Carolyn was already installed. She had arrived immediately after breakfast, and had roused Jessie to fury by offering to make one of her “special” omelettes for luncheon.
“I’ve been makin’ omelettes for this house for years, and I’ve heard no complaints!” argued Jessie; and Carolyn had sweetly explained: “It’s just a little different, my omelette; and poor Mr. Beaton has such a monotonous life that any little variety—”
“When he’s tired of my cookin’, he’ll holler!”
To Mary as she checked over the contents of her pocket-book—railway ticket, sleeper ticket, trunk check, trunk key— it seemed a morbid and fantastic idea that she should be leaving an invalid husband, a household and family, because she needed to be sure her husband still loved her. At the thought of abandoning him to a rival’s care, she felt she did not care in what state his affections might be; he was hers, and she was a fool to walk away like this!
On the way to the station, she said as much to Neil who came to drive her down. “This is not rational.” She was flushed and nervous. “Now that I’m committed to this nonsense, I can’t believe that leaving home is going to help the situation at all ! If he is already in love with her—I have nothing to lose; and if he isn’t, by the time I get back he may have had so much of dangerous propinquity, I may find that by running away I have brought on the very condition I’m afraid of!”
“Don’t back down now,” Neil advised her, driving very slowly that they might talk more easily. “You’re not just imagining her attentions to Paul, you know. You, stick. I can’t believe that a man who has lived with you would ever be carried very far away by any other woman. Infatuations crop up all the time; but they die natural deaths if they are not opposed. You see it every day. Give her full swing. She’ll hang herself with so much easy rope—that’s my guess!”
“She is not the kind to love serving a helpless invalid—”
“You’re usually the first to affirm that he is not helpless, and he isn’t, he’s a brilliant man with his mind keener than ever, and his interest in life picking up every day. He’s still a fine provider. Remember, Carolyn is skimped and loves comfort. I believe she’s sufficiently sentimental to confuse Cupid with cupidity. She can’t see clear issues, we know that. She probably has some theory in her mind about the superhuman greatness of her pursuit of Paul—”
“You seem terribly positive she is pursuing him.”
“Nobody could argue that! But—whether Paul reciprocates, or whether he’s just flattered to have a pretty woman fuss about him—Well, I’m convinced that you’ve done the sensible thing in trying to bring matters to a head. My guess is, you’ll be so needed in a few days by Paul that you’ll never get home fast enough!”
“So don’t turn back on your resolution, Mary. I think you’d be happier even if you were certain he’s in love with her, than you can ever be in this uncertainty—-”
“I couldn’t bear it, Neil!”
“Your sort,” Neil said, “bear what they can’t beat!”
“If Paul loves Carolyn, I’m beaten. Losing your man to another woman—that’s ultimate failure.”
“Ultimate failure is to have no fight left in you. If she gets him—there are still the children; there’s everything there ever was in your life but that. You’ll carry on, dear; you’ll get by. You’re that breed.”
“I wonder!” she said again.
After a long silence. “If they are in love, really in love —what should I do about divorce?”
Neil stepped on the accelerator, and laughed comfortably. “That little stile is so far off, don’t let’s jump it to-day!”
“I’ll be no patient martyr, thinking only of his happiness! After all, why should a wife make poaching easy for another woman? We’ve lived together for nearly nineteen years in contentment; we’re happier than most couples. I don’t believe I’ll go to-day, Neil ! I’m a fool to go!”
“Back to the house, then?” He stopped the car by the curb to wait her decision.
But in miserable doubt, she said she would go on. And he took her to her train, settled her in her compartment, waited until the last possible moment—then surprised her by kissing her good-by. “Don’t weaken, dear; I think you’re doing a wise thing, and I know it’s tough!”
The next evening found him at Paul's house. The nurse had paid her evening visit and gone, and Carolyn was playing German whist with Paul, who reported a good day. “Got the McMullin job, I’m glad to say; and you saw that we won the Elderson appeal? Get my girl away all right last night?”
“She balked a little, got homesick at the last minute, but she’ll be all right once she’s on her way.”
“She’s been such a marvel!” Carolyn shook her head, as though the sufferings of Mary had been beyond words. “No woman ever won a harder earned vacation!”
Paul moved his head restlessly on his pillow. “She’s so darned cheerful, I’ve never noticed she was so tired. Carol believes Mary’s on the verge of a breakdown.”
“These wonderful women who never complain—” Carolyn murmured; but Neil said abruptly.
“Oh, nonsense, Paul, Mary’s as husky as ever she was, and tickled to death that you are so well. You’re all set now, with this office running like clockwork—”
“You men!” Carolyn laughed gently; “A woman has to lie down and die, almost, before you notice she is all in ! Mary has lost pounds and pounds—”
“She’s mentioned that, on the way to the train. She’s not kicking, she was getting too fat!”
“I’m afraid this everlasting nursing has worn her out and you’re all keeping it from me.” He suspected, he told them, that Mary had taken a vacation under doctor’s orders. He didn’t think she ever would have left him from mere inclination. He’d not noticed she was thinner—“But she never whines about anything. I’m afraid I’ve imposed on her horribly—”
“It’s not your fault, Paul! A woman should say when she’s tired. How is a man to know, if a woman keeps on stubbornly smiling? It’s heroic; but—I’ve been wondering—isn’t it just a little bit unfair?” Her gentle voice deprecated the criticism of Mary that lay in her words.
Paul threw the cards from his hand in a scattered heap on the table. “I’ll say it is!” Impatiently. “How the devil was I to know she could hardly drag herself upstairs some days—”
“Oh, nonsense! She always ran up.”
“She did that for effect,” Carolyn told Neil in patient explanation. “I’ve seen her run up so far—while she knew you could see her from your couch—and drag up the rest of the way—”
Neil rose from Paul’s bedside and crossed the room, to where the phonograph records were kept in their cabinet. “Mary told me to be sure to hear one of the new records she bought the other day. If I saw it, I’d recall the name—”
Carolyn went to help him. He bent low, apparently seeking the record, and said under his breath: “For God’s sake, let Mary get by with her bluff! She’d be wretched if she thought he realized she’s tired out!”
“It’s mean to deceive him,” Carolyn whispered back. “He wouldn’t wear her out for anything—”
“Looking after him is her happiness—”
“She might share it! It’s my happiness, too—”
“Play fair, Carolyn!”
“Don’t talk nonsense!”
“She’s too good a sport—let her get away with her bluff. Don’t tell him she’s tired!”
He took a record at random, turned it on, and went back to Paul’s side. They chatted of various things. Paul asked about the day’s aviation meet. “To think I’ve never been up, and in a few years it will be as commonplace as motoring. I’ll never be up now, of course—”
“Who said so? Don’t take that viewpoint; you know there’s the odd chance, later, if they operate—”
“You may think me a fool, but even lying here a pesky old crock, I love life as much as I ever did. At first, I thought I’d as soon die as lie on a couch all my life. But now, there are days when I’m so darn interested in my work and the kids and all, I almost forget I’m a nuisance, wearing my wife out.”
Carolyn did not speak alone to Neil again that night, but saying goodnight, slipped a note into his hand. In his car he read it, and swore. In pencil she had removed all his scruples about interfering in Mary’s behalf.
“Aren’t you and I in the same boat? Of course we are! Then we can help each other. Think it over.”
HE TOOK Carolyn out in his car the next afternoon. She asked what he thought of her note. “Rotten !” he said.
She laughed. “All right. Play a lone hand, then. But don’t think you are putting anything over on me.” He painted for her an ugly picture of her ambition, hoping that it would stir her pride. “Letting down a woman who’s been so good to you.” But she laughed at him again.
“Is it a crime to love another woman’s husband?”
“You can’t help loving him, I suppose. You can help stealing him.”
“All’s fair in love—”
“Bunk! Love him if you like; that’s your business. But be a sport! Don’t undermine his wife. That’s a crook’s game.”
“Thanks. What’s your game?”
He ignored that, in silence.
“I’ve known for a long time that you’re in love with Mary.”
The unexpected admission in his quiet answer nonplussed her for a moment. She had anticipated an angry denial. He repeated: “Well, what of it?”
“Then, how dare you lecture me?”
“Is it a parallel situation?”
“Well! Isn’t it?”
“It isn’t. I’m not—listen to me, Carolyn. Those two are as happy as any married couple you and I ever met—”
“On the surface—”
“The surface is all that’s our business. I’m positive it goes deeper than that—but anyway, it’s a case of ‘hands off’ for us—”
“How quixotic—and ridiculous!”
“All right,” he said, little white spots showing by his mouth. “It’s war, then, between you and me.”
She laughed again. “I see your game—and I give you credit—it’s clever! You’ll let me be the aggressor. I’ll be the rotter who wants to break up a happy home; you’ll sit back and pick up your prize-package when the smoke clears away ! All right. I flatter myself my line is more courageous than yours. I go right out after mine. But I admit yours shows more caution. Well—let’s see you stop me. Our talk’s confidential—it had better be, for I know as much as you do, remember. It would be nice news for a man flat on his back that his best friend is making love to his wife—”
“Don’t make me despise you any more,” he said. “Then leave me alone! I have my innings now. All’s fair in love and war!”
“If you think so, go ahead. But I’m out to block your game at every chance!”
AFTER Mary had been away for two weeks she found two letters awaiting her in the same mail. One was from Peter—her Peter—fourteen years old, curious compound of nascent artist, boy, and protective manhood. As she read it—headlong, clumsy and revealing—she felt her throat tighten, the tears welling up in her eyes. It started bravely:
“Don’t worry about us, Mum, dear, we’re all well and busy. Dad’s fine. We like the nurse, she plays rummy with us sometimes ...”
A few lines more and it was evident that he was disturbed. Mrs. March hadn’t liked banana whip for dessert; Paula had. Jessie had said that everything else in the house was done to Mrs. March’s liking and that she guessed Paula could eat what she liked. Then Mrs. March had decided to take her coffee from the dinner wagon beside Paul—sometimes her dinner, too. One day Paula had sat beside Paul at dinner. Things had been crowded and some soup had been spilt. Mrs. March had told Paula that she made Paul nervous and Paula had felt badly. Why, asked Peter, didn’t Mum take her dinner beside Dad?
“I wish Paula had gone away with you. She’s all right, of course, but she and Mrs. March. Oh, well, you can’t expect a person to understand a person like their mother can. I wish you’d write to Paula and tell her not to tell Jessie everything Mrs. March says to her. You see, Mum, I guess Mrs. March is a terribly kind lady because the other day I heard her tell Mr. Meredith that no man could realize what torture it was to her to see Dad lying there. I guess she must feel pretty bad all right.
“Oh, I wish you could come home, Mum, but don’t worry about us; we’re all fine.”
How easy it was for Mary to reconstruct from Peter’s painfully tactful sentences a picture of things as they were happening at home. Poor, plucky Peter!
She opened Paul’s letter. She was a little dismayed to notice that her fingers were shaking.
“I’ve had a lot of interesting work and am thankful to be able to attend to it. Things are coming my way. I hope it is not pity that brings me clients. I’m trying to deliver the goods. Not much satisfaction in being an object of sympathy. I don’t think the quality of my work has fallen off; but sometimes I’m oppressed with the fear that I’m not as keen-minded as I was. Cooped up, my contacts are so limited. It is not noticeable to myself—I feel keen and interested—but sometimes recently, I’ve wondered if I’m kidding myself. I’m haunted lately with the idea, that I’m a terrible strain on you, dear. You’re such a little brick you make a joke of it all—but lately—I wonder! To-day, I’ve not had much to do—just the odd Sunday left-overs—and I’ve been thinking a lot. I wish I’d had the operation at the start. Weighing it at the start—we were foolishly afraid, remember? You said you’d rather have half a loaf than no bread at all, and I felt sure you would. But to-day—it came over me like a smothering wave—that a vital woman like you should not have to tolerate a half-loaf of a man. The whole of life and love is not enough to repay you for your sweetness and charm. I might have told you that long ago—when I was not a half-loaf, dear. I took life pretty much as I found it, before I became a half-loaf. I wish I’d loved you more. I wish we’d had more leisure together. I think, to-night, I am so depressed, that I wish for your sake you were free— not tied, at thirty-eight—nine—I don’t know how old you are, dear—it doesn’t matter—you are young and vital and with the best years ahead of you—and tied to a man with only his brain alive! I want McGinnis to operate—if our luck is good—you’ll have a whole man; if not, you’ll have a hulk that must be bathed and dressed, and massaged, and babied till you—or he, is through with life! The things we used to plan to do when our ship came in! Travel, take the kids abroad for a year or two—get the worth of our strenuous years when we scarcely have had time to speak to one another for days at a time. Perhaps we’ll never have those dreams come true now. I’m here—and perhaps here I stay! And you’ll stay, too, chained to me, loyal and brave—but half-dead with me, like an Indian widow on a funeral pyre! It’s not good enough Mary.
Take a good rest. I know I’ve worn you out. Is that to be my life-long privilege? I’m a poor pup to get so blue, and worse to tell you how I feel. But there’s the chance of being cured by operation; if it fails—at least, I’ll be no worse than I am now. To-morrow, I may feel like a fool for this mood I’m in—but I’ve had a long talk with Carol—and, all unconsciously, she has given me a picture of the sacrifice you are making for me. Even though I do support you well— I am condemning you to a half-death—it doesn’t seem good enough, to-night, that’s all. If you were the sort of woman who would take a lover and feel justified—but that, I cannot imagine. I know you love me. That is what makes it hell. And if you didn’t—that hell of wondering always who he was, would drive me insane. So, I’m between the devil and the deep sea—for I adore you, and, hulk that I am, would go mad with jealousy if you claimed your right to love a whole man.
Good-night, darling; I’m impossible.”
Mary read and re-read this letter until she could have repeated it by rote. She took it to bed with her and read it again. Then she lay awake till dawn, piecing together the probable genesis of Paul’s desperate mood.
She came to the conclusion that conversation with Carolyn had precipitated the writing of the letter.
Granting, for the sake of analysis of his depression, that Carolyn was responsible, Mary tried to imagine the conversation that had taken place.
Early in Paul’s helplessness she had taken cool and courageous stock of her own situation. Her love for Paul had been from their first meeting involved in a powerful physical attraction. Now for the first time forced to analyze the quality of her love, she recognized the immediate force of that attraction, remembering her infatuation at a stage when she knew nothing of his mind or of his life. Such instinctive magnetism she now believed must have been wholly physical. But life had taught her that such a force of attraction diminishes as its purpose is achieved. There were her children; there was her home; there they two were, as a unit of society, a married couple. It was largely physical attraction that swept men and women into marriage; responsibility and multiplicity of common interests diluted this emotion to a livable proportion. With congenial couples enough of it remained, fostered by tried affection and respect, to add a zest to the fundamental business of marriage, the business of maintaining and cherishing a home. To live with a person lastingly attractive added to the zest of living; but such attraction, while adding to human happiness, was not essential to success in family life.
Mary re-read one sentence—
“I have had a long talk with Carol —she has given me a picture of the sacrifice you are making for me.”
Mary searched between the lines for the meaning of that picture. Lying straight and tense upon her pillows, her arms stretched at her sides, she felt the import of that “long talk.”
Carolyn must have accentuated and exaggerated the importance of the physical element in the love of long-married couples. She must have driven home to Paul his present helplessness in “love” from the physical aspect. Mary, quivering with sympathy and overburdened with responsibility, found that that element of married love had faded almost entirely from her consciousness. Starved as it was, crowded out by work and worry, it had slowly diminished until to all practical possibility of making her unhappy, it had disappeared. That vanished element of their love had by mutual silent consent been eliminated almost entirely from their thoughts. Mary had no doubt that Carolyn—who loved to excite such emotions by talking of them, and lacked the raw healthy courage to live them—had dragged forth from the safe shadows of Paul’s mind, a poignancy of regret that his body had failed him while his affections survived and flourished.
“The cruelty, the sadistic horror of it,” Mary thought, sitting up in bed— revolted. Carefully piecing together her circumstantial evidence, it seemed indisputable that Carolyn had done them both this wrong.
Mary recognized the fact that upon a vigorous normal man such suggestion as it appeared Carolyn had contributed would have had no more lasting or important effect than to stir in him a temporary impulse which would be forgotten as easily as aroused, if discouraged by futility. But upon a sensitive man doomed to helpless invalidism the effect of accentuating his limitations by stirring his dormant hopeless impulses might well be morbidly disturbing.
“Why can’t she let him alone?” Mary raged, lying there alone in the dark, longing to lean over Paul and tell him that her life was full and sweet and satisfying; that she had had her fill of passion and desire, that such emotions in fulfilling their great purpose had left her placid, grateful and content. She wanted, more than she had ever wanted anything or anybody in her life, just to go home. Waves of homesickness engulfed her, and she could have cried out in her pain, had not the habit of control made crying out an impossible relief for her.
She wanted to kneel beside his couch and hold his head against her breast; she wanted, with a depth of feeling that physical passion had never plumbed, to comfort him. She wanted to stand at the bedsides of her children, to stoop and kiss them while they slept, to marvel as she had marveled a thousand times how young they looked in sleep; at the baby contour of Paula’s freckled cheek; at the wonder of a fourteen-year-old man-child, with a baby dimple left in his chin, to forever enslave her.
Then, deep as her passion to be home, surged hatred against Carolyn. Between the cautious lines of Peter’s transparent letter stood out the fact that Carolyn was being unkind to Paula. Crucifying her husband; tormenting her child. Why couldn’t she let helpless people alone?
But with that thought grim humor leavened Mary’s bitterness. Paula was anything but helpless. Paula and Jessie together could be depended upon to rout a sterner enemy of the household than Carolyn March. United, the shrewdness of their observation and the candor of their tongues might well warn an enemy to beware the folly of underestimating the intelligence of one’s opponent. Mary knew she need not fear continued injustice to her enterprising young daughter. Paula’s good-natured tolerance had its definite limitations. Stupid treatment she might understand and condone out of the generosity of her own fine intelligence. “People can’t help being nuts, but they can help being pigs.” Mary recalled this recent speech of Paula’s in reference to a spiteful schoolmate. She was not depressed for long by fear that Paula would be consistently abused.
“That child and Jessie, between them!” Mary mused in the dark; and her spirits revived at the thought of such allies. She debated whether or not she should abbreviate her holiday, or remain away as long as she had originally planned.
She had benefited by her holiday. She rose early. Swim, breakfast, walk, letters, luncheon, nap, tea with a chance acquaintance sometimes, sometimes alone. A walk to the village a mile away; dinner; a book or a rather dull bridge game for the minimum of stakes; and early to bed. She had not known how tired she was until the unbroken monotony of days like this renewed her vitality, and having done so, became a little irksome.
All morning she hesitated about answering Paul’s letter. She had written him daily, short, chatty letters, conversational in their naturalness. To-day, there seemed nothing to say because there was so much. She read his letter twice, and on the second reading for that day, knew less than at the first what she would say in reply. The last mail collection was at three o’clock. At half past two she sat down at the desk in the hotel writing room, and wrote to Paul a humorous account of a local concert she had attended two days before his disturbing letter had arrived, a concert she had not thought sufficiently entertaining to report. Now, by an effort of will she pictured for him a nervous tenor and an over-confident soprano chasing each other through fugues unaccompanied. In a postscript she added: “On re-reading your last letter—I always read them twice, dear—I fancied you were not quite as cheerful as usual. You’ve probably forgotten what you wrote by now, so I’ll not worry about it— especially as the letter before was so much more like yourself—so gay and lively. You are an inspiration to live with; I find myself getting dull and heavy without you. I don’t think I’ll be able to stick out my ‘holiday’ as long as we planned. I never feel one hundred per cent well when I’m loafing. I’d much rather be busy and active as I am at home.”
She sealed it with a decisive thump of her fist on the moistened flap of the envelope, licked a stamp, and thumped it on. But when she had dropped her letter in the mail-box by the hotel desk, she wished she had it back. She should have talked to him about his letter in a straightforward way. She should have warned him against Carolyn’s influence. She should have told him that she saw through Carolyn’s methods, that she knew Carolyn was trying to take him from her, and that Carolyn was not capable of spiritual love unnourished by physical expression.
She walked away from the mail-box, went out to the prim garden and chose a seat farthest from acquaintances. She recalled passages of Paul’s last letter that revived her faith in the permanent quality of his love for her. “The whole of life and love is not enough to repay you for your sweetness and your charm.” “Loyal and brave.” “I adore you.” “I would go mad with jealousy.”
Doubt of her own good sense tormented her. When he could write her such glowing phrases—why was she here, away from him, fretting herself because another woman wanted to take him from her? “I would go mad with jealousy,” he said. Perhaps she herself was mad; perhaps this fear of Carolyn was nothing more to be catered to than a “madness.” She admitted she was jealous; perhaps she was ridiculous as well.
Then once more the vivid memory of Carolyn in Paul’s arms in the moonlight by the river-bank sickened her. To know a woman intimately; to entertain her; to be, apparently, on most friendly terms with her; and then to find her in the embrace of one’s husband! It was having befriended the woman that hurt unbearably. The humiliation of the double unfaithfulness would not give her peace. It had burned into her mind and left a scar.
She drew his letter from her handbag and re-read it. He had not written her so ardently in years; but then, she reflected, in their former separations it had always been Paul away from home; she had never before left him, even for a day. Her summers with the children had scarcely been separations, as he could come to her at any time in an hour or two. He was no doubt stirred by finding his house strange without her, no doubt was missing the many small attentions which no one but herself would think of giving him. She closed her eyes and frowned, picturing Carolyn reading to him, smoothing his pillows, fetching and carrying for him, dining intimately with him from the tea wagon—Why had she herself not thought of doing that? Well, the children depended upon her for meal-time sociability, and it had not occurred to her. She believed now that Carolyn was cleverer than she in finding subtle ways of pleasing him, and with the belief her hatred and jealousy increased.
She dallied with the impulse to write Neil and ask him for details of Carolyn’s campaign. She felt she must know the immediate results of her own deliberate plan to bring matters to a head. To wait longer in doubt seemed an impossible torture. Since she had received little Peter’s guarded letter, and Paul’s written evidence of the morbid state of mind into which he had fallen since her absence, she was desperately homesick.
But such a letter to Neil would be an indiscretion. Written words were always in danger of being misinterpreted.
To be there alone, away from husband and children because of a jealous suspicion seemed now to her a morbid and petty situation. Now that she had taken the decisive step, to have given a rival such an opportunity seemed grotesque. Paul was hers. Many times she repeated to herself that she was not really losing his affection. For her to have left him as she had done, because of one definite incident and a growing suspicion, seemed now stupid in the extreme.
She rose and walked briskly into the hotel, in the mood to go upstairs and pack. She would wire that she was coming home.
By the telegraph desk she stood in thought, composing her message. She imagined the household receiving it. The children would be delighted. Jessie would rejoice with them. Carolyn would he annoyed. And Paul—what of Paul?
Then the old indecision began again. How would Paul, perhaps infatuated with Carolyn, feel about her sudden return? Disappointed? Or glad? Perhaps his mood of melancholy as expressed in this latest letter was precipitated, not so much by the realization that he was only half a husband as by the mortification of being only half a lover! He had not thought to put into words, until he was left to Carolyn’s tenderness, his bitterness at being “half a loaf.” Perhaps his grief was not on his wife’s account! Realization might have come with new desire.
She tore up the telegraph blank with her husband’s address on it and wired a message to Neil instead. Then she went back to the garden and sought the liveliest group of her new acquaintances, inviting them to tea with her.
(To be continued)