CAROLYN poured Paul’s after-dinner coffee and lighted his cigarette for him. Jessie announced Neil.
He said he would not remove his light overcoat, as he had dropped in just for a moment to say good-by. He was going out of town for a few days, leaving in the morning. Answering Paul’s casual question, “Where to, this time?” with an evasive “Just a flying trip; back Saturday, probably,” he enquired for the children.
“Oh, all right; miss their mother, of course, but Jessie’s a great old broody hen when she’s in full charge,” Paul told him, saying as an appreciation of Carolyn also, “Carol would like to help her look after them, but she’s as jealous as a wildcat over them, and by the time Mary gets back, she’ll think she owns them !”
“When’s Mary coming home?”
Carolyn gave a cheerful résumé of a letter she had written Mary that afternoon. “I told her she hasn’t a thing in the world to worry about, and goodness knows she’s earned a real rest! Devotion to a family gets to be an obsession with unselfish women like Mary. I told her so in my letter and I do hope she’ll listen to me! Have you heard from her?”
Paul turned to look at Neil when he replied; “Just a line to-day; the first I’ve had.” Neil felt that Paul’s gaze was unnecessarily prolonged, and was annoyed with himself when the scrutiny so embarrassed him that he felt the blood rising under his fair skin above his collar.
“Oh? May we hear the news?” Carolyn asked.
“Don’t you get a letter every day?” Neil parried. “Almost; but she probably spreads her bits of gossip,” Paul said, his steady gaze still on Neil. “What’s your word from her?”
“Just a brief message.” Embarrassed by the pursuance of the topic, Neil rose and removed his overcoat, throwing it over a chair back.
Carolyn immediately pounced upon it, saying cordially, “I’m so glad you’ve changed your mind and can chat with Paul a while; he gets bored with me, I know. People flocked in here at first to help him pass the time away, but they’ve got accustomed to him as an invalid, as people always do, and are rather falling off. Oh, please. Let me hang up your coat!” She disappeared with the coat over her arm and the two men were alone for half an hour. Neil left the house without seeing her again, and without further mention of Mary’s message.
Carolyn in the hall looked to the right, to the left. Nobody in sight. Neil’s coat over her arm, she hurried into the coat closet, closed the door and switched on the light. Then she thrust a quick hand into one pocket after another of Neil’s overcoat in search of Mary’s message.
In the inside pocket in a leather wallet was a telegram. Carolyn read it, breathed “Ah!”—and thrust it into the bosom of her dress. The envelope she put back in the wallet, the wallet she returned to his pocket.
She went swiftly up to her room, encountering nobody; then she locked her door, and read the telegram again.
Much grief arises out of differences in angle of vision. Mary’s innocent message in the hands of an unscrupulous rival was damning evidence.
Please come here Thursday. If not, will come home immediately. Must talk to you and decide future attitude regarding suspected complication. Wire.
“Suspected complication,” interpreted by Carolyn, meant sordid retribution only.
This was Wednesday evening.
Paul had to remonstrate with Carolyn after Neil had gone for the number of small services she offered him before she would leave him for the night. “You’ll be all in, as Mary was, if you slave so for me,” he protested.
She laid her hand on his hair. “I’ve never been so sorry for a man in all my life, dear,” she said simply; and left him to a sleepless night of wondering whether the doctor had declared his case hopeless and would not operate after all; for why else should Carol feel so particularly sorry for him to-night?
Paul’s visiting nurse found him irresponsive to her professional pleasantries next morning, and went through her duties in the silence he apparently desired. She followed Jessie into the kitchen to ask if anything special had upset her patient.
“It’s Her!” said Jessie, slamming the oven door.
“Mrs. March?” The nurse had heard that violent aspirate before. “She seems most amiable!”
“Butter wouldn’t melt in Her mouth. Look out for them kind!”
“Why blame her? He’s more depressed this morning than I’ve seen him yet. We have to keep him cheerful, you know!” Very brightly indeed, remembering her training in dealing with “Other Help in the Household.”
“We? Her! She sits by his bed and guards him when his office hours are over, as if the rest of us might bite him! Whatever Mrs. Beaton went away and left Her here for, I don’t know ! I thought she had better sense.”
“She was tired out. You’ve no idea how much she did for him.”
“Oh, haven’t I? Tired? H’m! If she could see the goings-on in this house behind her back, she’d be tired, all right!”
“I’m interested only in what concerns my patient’s state of mind. I can’t have him worried.” Her tone was conciliatory.
She was constantly consumed with curiosity as to Carolyn March. In her experience she had seen ousted wives rage, had seen them despair—but until now had seen no wife voluntarily walk off the battlefield, leaving the smiling enemy in command. The nurse was of a utilitarian mind. She believed nothing could induce a sane woman to relinquish one man except the certainty of capturing another man; and she longed to know who the other man in this case might be. She clung to her ideal of romance, her hope that most love affairs were three-cornered; she could not imagine any other thrill in love. To have been convinced that Mary had a satisfied lover concealed somewhere, would have given her a respect for Mary that no quality of single-track devotion on any woman’s part could have commanded from her.
“I think Mr. Beaton is most fortunate in having so devoted a wife and so kind a friend.” Hoping eagerly for contradiction.
“Friend?” Jessie’s snort of scorn was accompanied by a splash of water from the tap she turned on viciously. The nurse moved out of range, eyeing the spattered front of her fresh uniform.
“He is very depressed this morning. We can’t have that.”
“Well, don’t nag me about it! Mrs. Beaton ought to be sent for.”
“Oh, no, indeed, Jessie. That would admit incompetence on my part.”
The nurse’s pointed cap seemed to ride a little higher. “Well! Are you insinuating I’m incompetent?”
“Oh, rot!” said Jessie, her tone placatory. No one was going to let her be accused of disturbing the household with her treatment of a trained nurse. She’d never had a fuss with one yet, and she never would. People with money seemed to think nobody but a snippet dressed up in white could do for them when they were sick. Other people could slave their hands and feet off for them when they were well; but let them take to their beds— and in pops one of those stuck-up pests, to eat with the family, and lay dirty dishes on the sink as if they were too grand to do anything but stand around sticking thermometers in people’s mouths. As if a person couldn’t tell a fever by the feel of the patient’s skin and the amount of water he’d drink !
“I don’t insinuate,” said Jessie. “I speak my mind. Sure, you know your job. If I thought you didn’t, I’d write Mrs. Beaton myself and tell her she got stung on the nurse. She left me in charge and I promised to write if anything went wrong.”
“You mustn’t worry her about Mr. Beaton’s depression! I’m talking to you in confidence to see what you and I together can do to cheer him up. I thought perhaps there’d been some fuss with the children—”
“Those lambs! They’ve got more sound sense in their little fingers than She has—”
“I’ll tell the doctor about it; it may be physical.”
“And it may be not. I bet She’s been feeling sorry out loud for him again ! Mrs. Beaton won’t let any of us pity him.”
“I’ll talk to Mrs. March.” The nurse pad-padded on rubber heels out of the kitchen with Paul’s breakfast tray, to which Jessie had contributed a small jade bowl filled with dewy nasturtiums, and a quite emotional omelet, fluffy and sizzling. “You’ve forgot his cream,” said Jessie happily. “Go on; I’ll bring it.”
She waited until the nurse had set the tray on Paul’s white bed-table over his useless legs, then came to his side. Her rugged features softened, her shrewd eyes were wells of passionate sympathy, but her voice was tart. “Ye’ll be that spoiled, Mr. Beaton, when ye’re up and around again, I guess ye’ll have to be getting a younger woman to wait on you ! My, but ye’re lookin’ well this morning! Or maybe it’s the slick shave this nurse gives you. Your skin looks like a baby’s.”
She had to clench her hard lean hands to keep them from stroking the smooth cheeks of this man she worshipped.
“I made you a parsley omelet.”
That snippet was not going to get credit for this hard-won success! It was the fourth attempt this morning on Jessie’s part, and she had wasted nine eggs achieving it. Privately, she thought omelets were affectation and foolishness. If people wanted eggs, let them eat plain eggs, not have them stuffed with hot air! The dejected flannel circles she had thrown out had put her in a temper; but by the time the nurse wanted the omelet, a golden glory fluffed up in the pan, and Jessie nonchalantly sprinkled chopped parsley on it, with an air of tossing off omelets as easily as one broke an eggshell.
Paul lifted the silver cover on the hot-water plate. “Wow, Jessie! Almost gives me an appetite!”
“An’ what’s the matter with your appetite?” crossly.
“Oh—I need exercise, I guess.”
“Take a good hearty laugh, why don’t you? There’s no better exercise if you laugh deep enough to shake your stomach good,” said Jessie, who had never been heard to laugh aloud.
Paul took the exercise then and there. “Why don’t you take your own medicine, Jessie?”
“Me? Say, if I ever started laughin’ at all the things in this fool world that I think ridikilus, I’d have hysterics!”
“So that’s why the Scotch don’t laugh?”
“They don’t have to roar out loud; but often they’re laughin’ inside of them at things that other people don’t see the humor in at all. But some folks’d laugh at anything.”
“Omelet’s red hot, darn you!” His mouth full, blowing.
Wrinkles of silent laughter broke up her grimness. “If there’s anything else you fancy—” she said, and went smiling back to her kitchen.
THE doctor dropped in that evening, ostensibly for a sociable pipe. “How’s everything? You’re looking fit. Nurse tells me you’re busy every minute.”
“Up to the eyes. Lots of new stuff coming my way. Pity, d’you suppose?” With a half-laugh, denying self-pity.
“Bunk! People don’t pay good money out of pity, not to a lawyer. Your bills are too high under ordinary conditions!”
Suddenly: “Are you kidding me about my chance for recovery?”
“I am not! Your condition is unusual, but it has been met before now. If it turns out to be what we suspect — meningeal adhesions—I’ve told you the operative chances— complete recovery—or— no worse than you are now. And after all, you’re in mighty good shape for a man on his back.”
“Oh, yes—for a man on his back! Well—when do we take the plunge?”
“Whenever you say. The sooner the better.”
“I’ve been thinking—suppose we get it over before my wife comes home? I hate to put her through any more worry.”
“Think that’s fair? She’s not a child, she has a right to know. And she needn’t worry. If it’s anaesthesia danger you’re thinking of—in skilled hands that’s very slight nowadays. I’d not want to operate without telling her. What’s the idea? She won’t fuss.”
“I’d like to do one thing for her to spare her trouble. Lying here like a lazy hulk—why, she and the kids are cramped upstairs, living like—oh, Lord, what’s the use? I’m not kicking on my own account—but there’s my wife—she’s young yet, and vigorous—what right have I to keep her tied to me? She’s so vital—” He stopped and lighted a cigarette.
“Liver. Don’t talk rot. Tied to you ! She’s so proud of you, she’s a bore on the subject! What’s got into you, man? If you could see how your wife has fixed up the upstairs—it’s like a first-class apartment. They’re not suffering! As for your young wife’s vitality—let’s talk English. A woman of your wife’s strong mentality is quite capable of sublimating the physical aspect of sex into active service for the man she loves. That’s just what she’s doing! Taking it out in thinking up ways to make you happy and comfortable. You have to take off your hat to women on that stuff. They bear the babies, take all the normal suffering consequent on following that urge—and when the time comes to live without that form of love-making, they’re right there with the goods again. Don’t ever presume to pity a woman, Beaton; we’re not in the same class. Sex is our dissipation; they make a life-job of it, and keep the upper hand of it by turning it into sublime service.”
“I’d rather pity her than have her pity me.”
“Selfishness and vanity. Of course you would. Forget this pity bunk. You and your wife are two busy, competent, happy people. I wouldn’t waste a second’s pity on either of you. I admire you both too much.”
“When will you operate?”
“The sooner the better. If you’ve quite decided to let us—get your wife home and we’ll get it over with.”
“I’ll write her to-night. I suggested it in a recent letter, but she apparently didn’t realize I was in earnest; she made no comment.”
But he did not write to Mary that night, or the next. Instead, he lay awake both nights trying to grasp the significance of Carolyn’s discovery, and finding no answer to his tortured self-questionings except that fate had cast him altogether in the discard in the game of life.
For as soon as the doctor had gone that night, Carolyn came to him and seated herself on her favorite low stool, where she could lean against his couch and look into his eyes to watch the effect of all she said to him.
“Doctor think you’re going along all right?”
“Wants to operate at once. He may. I’m writing Mary to-night to come home.”
“Why not?” he said irritably. “There’s practically no danger. At the worst, I’ll be just as I am now. And . . . they may cure me!”
She rose and stood with her back to him, moving the ash-tray, the flower-vase with Jessie’s nasturtiums, fidgetting, obviously not wanting him to see her face.
“Well? Isn’t it sane? Is there any earthly sense in lying here any longer?”
“None. But—don’t send for Mary, Paul.” She seated herself by his side again and laid her hand over his. “I’ll see you through it, dear. Let Mary come home to find it’s all over.”
“I thought of that, to spare her; but Dr. McGinnis made me see that I was not justified in doing that; she’s not a child. She has a right to go through with it.”
“Don’t send for her, Paul. I have a reason for asking you—leave her where she is. She’s happy.”
“How do you know she is? I think that I can read between the lines of her spunky letters; I think she’s homesick.”
“I know she’s not,” said Carolyn, and laid her forehead against the back of his hand.
“Dear—she’s not.” Carolyn kissed his hand and laid her cheek against it.
“Oh, Paul, don’t ask me how I know. It had to come. I’ve seen it coming. I’m not blaming her. It’s natural— perhaps it’s only right. I’m not judging her. But, oh, my dear, it’s you I’m sorry for! You’ve been so marvelous--"
Paul jerked his hand away. “Please stop raving and tell me what you’re talking about!”
She shook her head and gravely met his eyes. “No,” she said. “I’ll never tell, because it came to me by the sheerest accident—the way such things always come out. But, dear, believe me — Mary’s not homesick — she’s happy—happier than you or I. That’s all I can tell you. But you needn’t send for her. I can see you through—and after—well, perhaps some day you’ll be glad I advised you to leave her alone. You’re so splendid, I know her happiness comes first with you. Don’t be hurt or disillusioned, dear. She’s young, and vigorous—”
“Come right out with it! What are you talking about?”
“I’ll never tell you. I’m Mary’s friend as well as yours—”
“What have her youth and her vigor to do with her staying away from me?” Angrily, fear in his voice.
“Paul, don’t be harsh with her. You’ve said to me, many times, that it was all wrong and cruelly unfair that a young woman like Mary—alive and strong and passionate— should be condemned to live the life of a nun—”
“Who is he?” Paul’s cheeks were blotchy, but his voice was even now. “Out with it, Carol. You can’t stop now. There’s only one thing you can mean. Who’s her lover?”
For answer, Carolyn drew from the bosom of her dress Mary’s impulsive wire to Neil. “I found this on the vestibule floor last night. I thought it was probably something your secretary had dropped. I read it. Paul, I’m so, so sorry—”
But he was not listening. He was reading Mary’s innocent message through Carolyn’s suspicious eyes.
Please come here Thursday. If not will come home immediately. Must talk to you and decide future attitude regarding suspected complication. M.
He clung to his faith. “M” might mean anybody. He said so, staring at the telegram.
“Notice the place of sending and the date. Neil said he intended leaving town this morning.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Well—of course—” she rose as though dismissing the impossible subject and walked to the window, where she stood fingering the edge of the curtain, her face averted from him.
“Mary’s not that kind.”
She said nothing.
“And Neil is my closest friend.”
Still she was silent.
“They couldn’t trick me like that.”
He read the message again. “What suspected ‘complication?’ What can that mean?”
“If you don’t think the thing is possible, why worry about a phrase?” She turned, and he saw that she was very pale.
He held the yellow paper toward her, shaking it at her. “You don’t believe this is from her, do you? You are not implying—”
She came back to him and stood looking down at him with grave sweet eyes, apparently full of compassion. “If you had not given me the thought yourself, my dear, I would never have believed it. I never thought of Mary as an emotional woman. You yourself were bewailing the one-sidedness of her present life—”
“But—Neil is my closest—”
She shook her head, very sadly. “Is that a new situation? The oldest in the world. Dear, don’t be too harsh with her—”
“Good God, Carol, don’t stand there preaching charity! Do you realize what’s happening? Do you realize what a hypocrite she is? Waiting on me, slaving for me, smiling over it all—and carrying on an affair with the one man I’ve ever really let into my home intimately. Why, he just opens the door now and walks in ! And the skunk—”
“Paul, listen, dear. You yourself said that you were sorry for Mary—‘tied to half a man for life’ were the very words you used. In theory, you saw her side of it; you said to me, right in this room, remember? you said: ‘If she were the sort of woman who would take a lover, I believe it would not hurt me so much.’ I thought that was splendid of you—noble! Most men are so beastly selfish—”
“A fine theory! It’s all very well to talk! No man on earth means such a statement as that ! It’s just because we think such things can’t happen to us, that we talk so grandly! The dirty rotter, with me lying helpless on my back! Steal the wife of a man who can’t get up and shoot him! If I’m ever on my feet again, I’ll—”
“Good morning!”—his secretary’s businesslike voice from the doorway. “It’s the most gorgeous morning. I envy you your first trip out when you are better, Mr. Beaton! I was ill for weeks myself, once; and the world looked newborn when I did get out to look at it again!” She advanced to the side of his couch and handed him two letters.
“Met the postman at the gate. Mrs. Beaton is the world’s most faithful correspondent, she never misses a day !” Briskly she looked over the papers she took from a desk drawer. “Brown and Tilden wrote a beautiful letter of appreciation with their cheque, didn’t they? And they call the business world ‘cold!’ ”
He folded the telegram and put it in the pocket of his dressing-gown. He took up Mary’s two letters, looked at the envelopes a moment, and laid them on the table unopened.
“We won’t start anything new, to-day, Mrs. Emery. I’m going to the hospital to-morrow.”
Showing no sign of surprise, “Then Mrs. Beaton will be home to-day?”
“I’m not telling her,” said Paul. “I’m not telling anyone.”
“I wish you luck. It will be fine to have you downtown again. What first, then, to-day?”
Presently she said, “I beg your pardon?”
“I didn’t speak,” said Paul.
“I beg your pardon.” But she was sure she had heard a word that sounded like “Sublimated!” However it didn’t matter. Most men she had worked for muttered at times, and one never told them about it. It made them feel foolish to realize it. And, above all things, they must never be made to feel foolish; they hated a woman who made them feel anything but strong and self-contained. Mrs. Emery was able to put a nice proportion of her salary into gilt-edged bonds from time to time. It helped, when one’s husband insisted he could stop drinking any time he liked—and did not.
I MUST soon come to some decision, but I don’t know what to do. You’re the only person to whom I can talk about it.”
Mary had led Neil to a secluded part of the hotel garden at Willow Falls. “There are times when I feel satisfied I am wise in leaving them there, together, to work out the fate of the three of us—”
“Perhaps,” he said. “The four of us,” he thought.
“At other times, I feel that what I have done—running off and encouraging them to develop a love-affair through propinquity—if it had not already developed—is the stupidest and most morbid move—”
“Perhaps,” he said again. “It may be only a trivial flirtation, such things are commonplace enough—”
“But neither of them goes in for that sort of thing. Especially Paul. You know how matter-of-fact and unemotional he is—or has been! At his age, one doesn’t start being flirtatious.”
“Think not? At forty? Some people say—well—it’s true enough that Paul does usually appear to ignore women who try to flirt with him.”
“Not Carolyn. He’s always been attracted by her, from the first; always has time for her. That’s what makes me wonder about this affair—”
“I wouldn’t call it an ‘affair’ on such circumstantial evidence, Mary. You know, I think you’d be wise to go home? You seem pretty solitary here, and brooding won’t do you any good.”
She was silent a few moments, then she said thoughtfully, “Brooding? Am I? I always hated that. But I do think I am in real danger of losing him to her—and I must have time and solitude to think.”
“Perhaps there’s danger. I don’t know. And, if she does mean mischief—she’s no fool, and she certainly does study his every mood and anticipate his wants.”
“I’m afraid she really is in love with him.”
“I don’t think Paul would realize that, unless it were pretty obvious. He doesn’t often put his mind on anything so—well, what he’d call ‘abstract’—as love between men and women. Won’t discuss it. He accepts his share, I notice—your devotion, I mean—to all appearances pretty much as he accepts his three very good meals a day. Doesn’t know he really has a well-developed appetite for the good things of life, because they are always right under his hand.”
“He’s earned them all !” she flashed in Paul’s defence. “Meals, and devotion, and everything!”
“I know, spitfire!” Neil smiled at her and patted her hand. “I love him, too, you know. What I’m trying to say is, that her devotion may not make any special impression on him; he’s likely to accept her as he accepts all the love that comes his way—with decent gratitude but no surprise or comment.”
“Discounting the charm that lies in novelty, rather, aren’t you?”
“Her attentions won’t be a novelty for long, since you’ve walked out and left her the field. She’ll be as much a part of his routine, as his bath, pretty soon ! Were you figuring on that when you left them together? Did you know you rob masculine romance of its kick by smoothing the way?”
“But that’s what I want to know? What is happening? Have you seen any convincing signs, one way or the other? There must be some signs!”
With pity in his brown eyes, he told her that several times a week he saw them at Paul’s home. That Paul accepted all Carolyn’s attentions apparently with no personal feeling at all. “He is as outwardly grateful to Jessie for the many things she does for him, as he is to Carolyn, as far as I can observe.” He reminded Mary that her standard of devotion was one which Carolyn would find it hard to equal. “You are unselfish, if not by nature, then by second nature, after years of subordinating your personal inclinations to your family’s. I suppose the mother-job must have somewhat that effect in time. But Carolyn’s a rampant egotist. I’d say Carolyn will have to overreach her natural talents in that line, to successfully understudy you !”
She did not find this so cheering as he had hoped she would. She said that many a devoted wife had been grievously astonished to find that lifelong devotion counted for precious little when a more attractive woman came along. “Wifely devotion sometimes seems rather a drug on the market,” she said, with a rueful little smile at Neil.
“I’m getting more and more convinced you should go home, dear. I think it might be as well to have the whole thing right out on the carpet with Paul. Have a showdown. Ask him straight, what does he want? His freedom? Or you.”
“All very fine in theory. But I don’t believe he’d tell me the truth if he did want her. He’d hate to hurt me so. Perhaps I’d better go on living in a fool’s paradise—”
He slowly shook his head. “That’s too foolish for you, dear. Try offering him his freedom. If he wants it and says so—you’ll have lost nothing by asking, and you’ll at least be free of this miserable uncertainty. If you have to reconstruct your life you’ll have a starting-point. Anything’s better for your type than marking time.”
“You’re the positive kind that must get busy and do something about a trouble. Either fix it or forget it. That’s why this sitting around here, doing nothing but think, is so bad for you. Crash in on this thing, Mary, clean it up. They know what they want by now, Paul and Carolyn; they’ve had plenty of time together; they’re not children.”
“If I do,” she said, and a little white line appeared and spread around her mouth, “and if he tells me he wants her and not me—I think I’ll die. I daren’t know, and I can’t die. There are the children. I can’t afford even to suffer, with them about, watching me.”
TWO days after his arrival home, Neil telephoned Paul’s house.
Jessie answered the call. “It’s Mr. Meredith, Jessie. Mrs. March there?” Of late, Carolyn had appointed herself Paul’s social secretary, smilingly supplanting his business secretary in that capacity by the simple medium of telling her that she was already overworked and need no longer bother to take personal messages for Mr. Beaton.
“Her! No; she’s to the hospital!”
“Hospital? What’s the matter with her?”
“She’s a proper devil, that’s what’s the matter with her! And the quicker you get over to this house, Mr. Meredith, the quicker you’ll hear about the meanest, dirtiest, low-downest—”
“Wait a minute, Jessie, wait a minute! What are you talking about?”
“Her!” snapped Jessie. “Who else is such a—”
“Switch the telephone to Mr. Beaton’s table, please.”
“Hello, hello! Hello, Jessie, are you there?”
“You bet your bottom dollar I’m here, and the likes of Her can’t get me out either, and of all the—”
“Get me Mr. Beaton, or Mrs. Emery.” Silence.
“What on earth—Jessie, are you there?’
“Will you come right over, Mr. Meredith? I promised I’d not tell a soul about the hospital; but She put him up to it, or I’d have wired Mrs. Beaton that had the right! And of all the dirty, low-down tricks to play on a woman that never done a thing but look after her own like a livin’ saint on earth, and to sneak him out maybe to his death, and me sittin’ here all the morning, near crazy—”
“What are you talking about?”
“Her ! That snake in the grass—”
“Jessie, get me Mr. Beaton or Mrs. Emery at once, or I’ll come right up and find out what you’re raving about!”
“Do! Come on! And see for yourself! I promised I wouldn’t tell, but if you come here and see for yourself, that won’t be telling and God knows it’s high time a thing or two was told and Her slitherin’ and slatherin’ like a sick ape over another woman’s husband!”
He hung up the receiver and went out to his car.
Twenty minutes later Jessie admitted him. With a wide swooping gesture she indicated Paul’s empty room. “See for yourself! I’m not tellin’ anything because I promised I’d not; but if he dies this day under that knife, and him never saying good-by to that poor woman that’s near killed herself doing for him—”
“Knife. This day! I promised I’d not tell—but if you want to know any more about that—well, you know where “knife” means something, and if you care anything at all about that poor woman that’s bein’ purred out of her own house by the worst sneakin’—”
“Where’s Mrs. March?”
“Where would She be? Trailin’ him, where else? And acting like She was braver than the rest of us, and me sniffin’ and bawlin’ like a darned old fool when I seen him off. She sticks her nose in the air and calls me down for makin’ a fuss! ‘Cawm yourself, Jessie, do cawm yourself! You’re makin’ it very hard for Mr. Beaton and upsetting the children! I thought the Scotch were famous for their self-control !’ she says, and starts purrin’ again when she sees his poor eyes on Her. ‘Self-control,’ she says! And if She knew how many times my hands have twitched and itched to grab her by Her white neck, and wring it, and fling Her scrabblin’ and squawkin’ out into the dirt where She belongs—self-control! She don’t know Her luck, talkin’ about the Scotch and their self-control!”
“For heaven’s sake, Jessie, calm yourself, and tell me plainly what’s happened !”
“He’s under the knife this minute ! And nobody told Mrs. Beaton ! Because he’s bewitched, and don’t know gold from trash !”
Neil picked up his hat from the hall table. “Which hospital?”
AT THE hospital Neil learned that Carolyn had left immediately after Paul had been taken back to his ward. “We urged her to go home, she’s very excitable, there was no use in her waiting,” the nurse at the desk said.
Neil waited for Dr. McGinnis to come up to the ward, and when he appeared, asked if he might talk to him later when time allowed. After the doctor had visited his patients he said to Neil, “Mr. Beaton’s condition is good, quite normal. Come along downstairs and I’ll tell you about this—it’s one of the most dramatic things I’ve met in surgery.”
In the big room on the main floor where doctors sat around chaffing one another, taking a brief respite of recuperative frivolity to set them up in their battle with realities, Neil heard the story of the surgeon’s thrill.
“This diagnosis was difficult. The sensory dissociation suggested that the condition might be disseminated sclerosis. Two days ago we did a lumbar puncture. Apparently there was no fluid, it seemed to be a bona-fide dry tap. That inclined us away from the disseminated sclerosis theory—that, combined with the case history of transient restoration of power some time ago—remember, when he was so elated, sure he was recovering? The combination of this and the dry tap indicated meningeal adhesions. We talked it over with him, advising immediate operation. He was all for it. What’s been the matter with Beaton’s morale anyway? His depression recently is abnormal—he was in a desperate sort of mood—said he would take a kill-or-cure chance any day! It wasn’t so bad as all that. The chances were for complete recovery—or no worse than he had been. Anaesthesia danger now, of course, in skilled hands is negligible.
“Well—the outlook wasn’t brilliant, but it was good betting; so we went ahead, pretty hopeful about our diagnosis. The technicalities, I suppose, are Greek to you, but I’ll tell you the best way I can. It was most interesting—”
Four young doctors sitting on the table edge nearby turned toward them and stopped their banter.
“You fellows want to hear this?” the surgeon invited them; and three more doctors joined the group, leaning forward to hear.
“We opened the spinal canal over the lowest dorsal and uppermost lumbar protion. Then we looked at the dura—” he turned to Neil and explained to his uninitiated ear: “That is the firm fibrous outermost sheath around the delicate nervous tissue of the spinal cord—and it appeared to be quite normal. Then we incised it from above downwards and held the edges aside. Now we were looking at the delicate inner coverings of the cord, nearest our eyes was the arachnoid. Below that we knew there was the fluid-filled space separating these coverings from the nerve-tissue of the cord, with its investment of piamater. The dura itself appeared to be normal and was not adherent to the arachnoid.”
An old doctor laid down his magazine and drew his chair closer to Neil’s.
“The picture then presented was exceedingly interesting—”
Neil, at sea in a flood of technical terms, looked about him, and caught the infection of stimulated intellects; he concentrated, and the story became more intelligible to him.
“Fluid was seen in the sub-arachnoid space down to a level corresponding to the upper part of the twelfth thoracic body. This fluid pulsated—”
A young surgeon slid along the table edge, closer, not missing a word.
“At this level, there was a beautiful white ring sharply defined, apparently passing right around the cord, where pia-arachnoid was bound down to the substance of the cord, and below this was a very small amount of fluid, not enough to show pulsation.
“Then the arachnoid was opened. The adhesion was dissected off the back of the cord, and was found to extend around it as far as could be reached.”
A murmur of satisfaction swelled through the intent listening group. Every man stirred in his place, but no one interrupted.
“No attempt was made to follow possible adhesions along the nerve-roots. We contented ourselves with removing the obstruction so that the cerebro-spinal fluid could bathe the nerve-tissues at a lower level. This left a small rough area which showed tiny bleeding points. The dura was allowed to fall back into position, but was not sutured. The soft parts were sutured in the usual way.”
“By Jove, I wish I’d seen that!” breathed the youngest surgeon; and the old doctor leaned back and sighed.
“It was one of the prettiest things I’ve ever seen! I sent out for some of you fellows to come and see it, but you were all busy.” Doctor McGinnis turned to Neil. “Did you follow anything of that explanation, Mr. Meredith? We were lucky enough to open up over the exact spot where the trouble lay. And after finding the trouble, we think we have been able to remove the cause.
“After a good many years of work, we don’t often meet with the case that gives us a thrill; but this is one of those!”
“It’s a thrill of another kind to me, too,” Neil said. “For Paul Beaton is my closest friend.”
BUT three days later, the surgeon wondered what a “close” friendship signified, when he tried to bring the two friends together and found all Paul’s pathological reflexes had disappeared. “Fine progress!” he told Neil. “Even though sensation as yet remains unchanged, this is most promising ! You may see him for a few minutes.”
He went into Paul’s ward to prepare him for his visitor. After a moment he came out again. “I’m sorry, Mr. Meredith —I hate to tell you this—but Mr. Beaton declines to see you !”
“Flatly declines! I was astonished.”
“In what words? You must have misunderstood! Sure he’s quite himself?”
“Keen as you or I! He said—want it straight?”
“Shoot,” said Neil, his face scarlet.
“He said: ‘I won’t see Neil Meredith; tell him he knows why!’—just like that; and turned his face to the wall. I waited a minute. He lay with his eyes closed. I asked if I had heard him rightly—had he said he refused to see you? He opened his eyes and—they weren’t encouraging. And he said: ‘I’ll not see him till I’m strong enough to hit him!’ So—there was nothing to do but come out and tell you.”
Neil went purple. “Your darned operation has affected his brain !”
“Impossible,” very quietly.
“A message like that from him to me is impossible, too!”
“Impasse, nothing! His brain’s affected!”
The surgeon said nothing.
“I tell you, he’s not normal, the thing’s grotesque!”
And after a moment: “We parted the best of friends less than a week ago! Nothing has happened between us since!”
“Nothing? Think hard. I’ve seen some strange things in my day—there’s usually some explanation.”
“He’s crazy, I tell you!”
“No; that’s not the answer this time. He’s as sane as you or I.”
“But, good —”
“Anybody who might poison his mind against you, do you think?”
And after a pause in which the blankness of his expression gave way to a look of shocked intelligence, “Good God!” Neil exclaimed. “You’ve hit it! But what could she say? She has nothing—there isn’t anything that could spoil our friendship !”
“With a person who, maybe, has an axe to grind—a lot can be said by insinuation. Do you happen to know when Mrs. Beaton is returning?”
“Very soon—almost immediately.”
“Oh? I thought nobody had heard when she was coming—well—I must get along. Good-morning.”
NEIL went out into the sunshine. The hospital door closed on ghostly springs behind him, and his feet found their way down the broad stone steps to the street. He walked two blocks before he realized where he had parked his car. He looked at his watch, from habit, and an instant later looked at it again, not seeing the hands, or caring. His plans for the day all vanished in the confusion which had taken the place of sustained thought.
He tried to focus his thoughts. Nothing was clear, except the memory of what Paul had said, in refusing to see him. For what reason? For what possible reason? He must see Carolyn.
He drove back to Paul’s house.
Jessie admitted him, and when he asked for Carolyn she scowled. “She’s in, I’ll fetch her.”
Immediately Jessie was back, asking if she might take a message to Mrs. March. “She says she’s lying down.”
“Is she ill? If not, tell her I’m in no hurry. I’ll wait.”
While waiting, he tried to formulate his method of attack. He weighed one method, discarded it, considered another —and Carolyn appeared. She stood in the doorway, “Well?” she said.
Her attitude was faintly challenging, her right hand slightly forward on her hip, her left hand with its knuckles resting on her left thigh. “She has something on her mind; she’s afraid,” he thought, and advanced to greet her.
She extended her right hand, and her lips smiled, while her eyes were guarded. “Just come back to town?”
He looked directly into her cautious eyes. “I’ve been to the hospital. For some strange reason Paul refused to see me!”
“How odd! Really?” She advanced to the centre of the room, and stood with her shoulder turned toward him, not meeting his eyes. “And he gave no reason?”
“No reason; a peculiar message. He said he’d see me when he was strong enough to hit me!”
“Hit you! You shock me! Why should he say such a thing? And why hurry up here to tell me about it?” She faced him now, looking boldly into his eyes.
“Why not? You are their most intimate friend—”
“With one exception; yourself. Yes.”
“Then why shouldn’t I tell you? You may be able to suggest some explanation.” “If he had anything against you, why do you suppose he’d talk to me about it?” He walked about the big square room, hands in his pockets. Suddenly he stopped opposite her. “Let’s get down to brass tacks, Carolyn. I haven’t forgotten a conversation you and I had a while ago. I said I’d block your game at every chance. It seems I’ve overlooked something. What have you said to him to poison him against me?”
With an angry fling she turned away from him, and pressed her thumb on the wall-bell. Jessie appeared. “Call a taxi for me, please; for a quarter to eleven,” and when Jessie flounced out, “Please go,” she said. “I have nothing to say to you. You are too insolent !”
He seated himself on the broad arm of a chesterfield and laughed without mirth. “Go ahead and be dramatic,” he said. “It has no effect on me. I’ve watched your little show too long.”
“I have no time to talk to you. I have an appointment.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “All right.” he said. “I’ll be back after lunch.”
“I’m lunching out.”
“I have a bridge.”
“After dinner, then.”
“I’m going to the theatre.”
“You can’t travel about all night. I’ll pick you up after the theatre.”
“Don’t be stupid; I’ll be with friends.”
“Then I’ll be here when you get home.”
“Are you going to persecute me?”
“Are you going to talk this over with me?”
“No! How dare you so insult me?”
“Don’t be absurd, Carolyn,” he said quietly. “If you have nothing on your mind, why not talk it over? Why hedge?”
“You insinuate I have been slandering you behind your back!”
“Insinuate? I openly accuse you! There’s no one else who would have any object in upsetting my friendship with Paul and Mary—”
She laughed. “Friendship! Do you think I don’t know you were with Mary at Willow Falls last Thursday? It’s a small world, Neil!”
He reddened with anger at her accusation. “I was at Mary’s hotel last Thursday from nine in the morning till ten at night. What of it?”
“It was natural for you to say, when you told Paul and me you were ‘going away’—it was surely the natural thing to say that you would be seeing Mary!”
“How do you know I was there?”
“It’s a small world,” she repeated. “I happen to know positively that you were with Mary. Now you admit it!”
“Why should I lie about it? There’s nothing in the fact!”
She smiled. “Nothing at all—except that it would have been natural to be more frank about it. Why make a secret of it?”
“You told Paul I was seen with Mary, I suppose?”
“On my oath, Neil, I didn’t!”
“Somebody told him! That explains the whole thing !”
“So far as I know, nobody told him that you and Mary had been seen together.”
“Did you tell him someone had reported us to you?”
“I did not!” she said angrily. “What do you think I am? Mary is my friend. Why should I shake Paul’s faith in her?”
“You are in love with Paul,” he said. “You’ve as good as told me so.”
“And you are in love with Mary! You’ve definitely told me so!”
“Yes,” he said. “The rest doesn’t follow.”
“Do you think I don’t know my world? Oh, I’ll not tell him ! He has grief enough, poor man, without that! But I should think you’d be ashamed to face him—”
“I’ll tell you why I went to see her,” he said, and the dead level of his voice should have warned her. “I went to ask her to come home. I was afraid for her happiness. I saw your game. I went to warn her—”
“You went to see her because she sent for you ! There was some complication she spoke of. She had to see you—”
“Oh, yes, now you may well be afraid! I know every detail of that telegram—”
His hand flew to his breast-pocket. “Telegram?”
“Yes! Telegram! Jessie picked it up in the vestibule the night you went away—”
“The taxi,” said Jessie in the doorway. Carolyn started for the door, but Neil, his hand groping in his breast-pocket said “Stop !” and she stopped.
Jessie stepped back into the hall, her eyes ablaze with curiosity. “You wait, too, Jessie,” Neil said; and opened a shabby leather folder. When he laid it flat on the table, Jessie saw a sheet of the heavy rough-edged note-paper her mistress always used, and noted the large monogram, “M.E.B.” in the left upper corner. She looked from Neil to Carolyn, and waited breathless for what was to come.
Under the sheet of paper was the envelope from a telegram, its yellow edge crumpled from being hastily put into the folder.
“Here’s the telegram!” Neil said; and found that the envelope was empty.
He stepped over to the door and closed it. “Sit down,” he told the two women, and, side by side, staring up at him, they sat down on the chesterfield.
“You picked up a telegram in the vestibule, last Wednesday night, Jessie, Mrs. March tells me. When you saw it was mine, why didn’t you give it to me?”
“I picked up no telegram,” said Jessie; and turned, so as to look at Carolyn directly. Carolyn also moved, so as to avert her face from the old woman’s penetrating stare. Jessie rose and took a chair opposite Carolyn. “Who says I picked up a telegram?”
“Nobody!” said Carolyn hastily. “Mr. Meredith misunderstood me! I said—”
“I heard you, from the hall door,” said Jessie. “You said ‘Jessie picked it up in the vestibule the night you went away.’ If it’s a telegram you’re talking about—I picked up no telegram !”
“Then it may have been one of the children. Does it matter who picked it up? I may be mistaken. It may have been Paula ! I believe now it was Paula—”
“Well—say it was Paula. What then?”
“She gave it to me—”
“Why to you?”
“I was here—don’t you remember—she gave it to me and I put it away for you.”
“After reading it, apparently. Get it for me, please, if you know where it is now.”
She rose and rummaged in a table drawer—“I thought I put it here—”
“Rather careless, weren’t you?”
“I didn’t think it was important—”
“Yet you remember its wording, and the day of the week, and everything—”
“It—well, it did seem important, in the face of—other things. You surely don’t want, to discuss this before a servant, do you, Neil?”
“I need a third person. Stay, Jessie, please. Did you put it away directly, or show it to anyone?”
“What a question ! What do you think I am? To whom would I show it?”
“You can’t remember where you put it? You attach a sinister importance to it. It is unnatural that you should have been casual about the disposal of it.”
“Paula—I remember, now, it was Paula —it was just after you left—about nine o’clock—I told Paula to hang up her coat —that’s how I know she was in the vestibule—she picked it up then—yes I remember every detail—”
“Last Wednesday?” said Jessie. “Last Wednesday I took the two kids to see ‘Silk Stockings.’ We went out at eight, and came back at eleven. Wednesday’s my movie night.”
“I remember,” exclaimed Neil, “I asked to see the children!”
Carolyn seized on that. “Perhaps it was later in the evening, after they came in. I may have confused the time. Yes, now I come to think of it, it probably was more like eleven. I know I was reading, and—I was in this very spot, I remember —I can even remember what I was reading, it is all so clear to me now—I was reading Fosdick’s ‘Twelve Tests of Character,’ and I heard the children and Jessie on the porch, and heard Jessie’s key in the front door—and Paula came walking in here, and said: ‘I found this—’ ”
“I have no key to the front door,” said Jessie.
“Well—well, that’s just a detail. Anyway, Paula went into the vestibule for something—I don’t know what—”
“To hang up her coat, at your request, you said,” Neil prompted.
“Well—she came back with the telegram—”
“I had your orders, Mrs. March, always to take the kids up the back-stair, so as not to disturb their father. And up the back-stair they went like lambs, with their hands full of cake. It was the only night I had them out this year; I remember it fine !”
“No nonsense at all, Mrs. March.” Glaring.
Paula appeared in the doorway. “The taxi man says, do you know he’s here, Mrs March?”
Neil handed Paula a bill, and told her to pay the driver and dismiss him.
“But my appointment!” Carolyn cried.
“I think if I were you, I’d let appointments go, I’d talk this over now,” Neil said firmly; and Carolyn sat down again.
“Thank you, Jessie,” he said; and Jessie went out, closing the door tightly after her.
“Carolyn, I want to tell you that when I received that telegram, I placed it where I have placed every little token I have ever had from her. She once wrote me a note cancelling a dinner-acceptance because one of the children was ill; it was the first thing she’d ever sent me, and I kept it—and the envelope it came in. Another time, long after that, she copied a little poem out for me—here it is—” He showed her the monogrammed sheet of paper Jessie had observed. “I placed it in the envelope with the note, and marked the date on the envelope—here it is. And then the telegram came. I placed it, in its envelope, inside this other envelope— and marked the date of that also—here it is. That’s all I ever hoped to have of her —so I don’t believe I dropped the telegram—I couldn’t afford to be careless with my few souvenirs!”
“Galahad!” she scoffed. “How romantic!”
He paid no attention to that. “That telegram is gone,” he said. “It could not possibly fall out of my pocket. I keep my souvenirs always in this leather case. Somebody took that telegram out of my pocket!”
“How dare you!”
“I’m accusing nobody; but I’ll get to the bottom of this before I’m through ! I’m going to see Mary to-morrow, and bring her home !”
Carolyn exclaimed, “Paul gave orders she was not to know about his operation—”
“I know,” he said. “I’ll not tell her. Now listen, Carolyn! I’m leaving town to-night with the one object of seeing Paul Beaton’s wife! Shout it from the housetops if you like. There are always a few who will get a vicarious thrill out of the evil they read into that!”
“Behind Paul’s back. Very nice! With Paul safely in the hospital!”
“That comment from you, is not entirely unexpected,” he said, and left her.
To be Concluded.