NEIL went home and packed his bag. Then he wrote a note to Paul, and sent it special delivery.
Dear Paul: There is some unwarranted reason for your refusal to see me. I intend to find out what it is, and will not rest until I have set myself back on my old happy footing with you. Friendships such as ours cannot end this way. To-night, I am leaving for Willow Falls. I am going to talk this over with your wife. I wanted you to know that I will be with her to-morrow.
As always, faithfully,
An hour later, the buzzer in his office called him to his telephone. Paul’s special nurse informed him that Paul himself wished to talk to him. “Make it brief, please, Mr. Meredith. I can’t locate his doctor, and I have no authority for letting him talk on the ’phone so soon. But he is very insistent.”
“You’re going to see my wife, you say?” With no preliminaries, curt, almost insolent.
“I am, yes, Paul. I must. There’s something rotten going on—”
“I’ll say there is! You keep away from my wife! What are you up to?”
“Up to nothing. Don’t be foolish, old man—”
“You’re not putting anything over on me, you know! I have her telegram to you, right here in my hand. Explain it, if you can!”
“I can’t,” Neil said; “not without her permission. Where did you get my telegram?”
“Never you mind, I have it! How often have you been to visit my wife at Willow Falls?”
“That one time.”
“How am I to know that’s true?”
“Steady there, Paul; I don’t take that from even you.”
“You’ll take a lot more than that—”
“May I come up to see you? This is grotesque—”
“You don’t come near me till I’m on my feet! I’ll get on my feet, now, believe me, if it’s only to—”
“Paul, see here—”
“You keep away from Willow Falls!”
“All right, Paul, if you insist. There's an explanation somewhere. Need we quarrel till we’ve looked into this mess?”
“You keep away from my wife!”
“All right-then tell her to come home and give us a chance!”
“I don’t want to see her, I tell you ! I don’t want to see either of you!”
“If we were as guilty as hell,” Neil said quietly, “you’d have to thrash the thing out. There’s a nigger in the woodpile somewhere, and I think I know where.”
“Ask Carolyn March just where and how she got hold of my telegram !”
“You stay away from my wife, and I’ll ask Carolyn that, and tell you her answer!”
“That’s a bargain,” Neil said, and rang off.
IT’S too hard,” said Peter, chewing the roughened end of his gay striped pen-holder. “I don’t know how to tell news without telling it all !”
“Read me again what you’ve written,” said Jessie, her arm around Peter’s slender shoulders. Paula stared gravely from Jessie’s worried face to Peter’s anxious one, while the boy read aloud in his clear, as yet unbroken treble:
When are you coming home? We want you to get a good rest and everybody’s getting alone fine, but it will be very nice to see you again. But don’t hurry on our account because we’re fine, only we’ll be glad to see you, that’s all.
Carlo got his leg run over, he was chasing cars again, you just can’t teach that dog that no matter how hard he runs, the car can get away.
It will be nice to have you home. I’m glad you are feeling better. I didn’t write every day lately. I’ll tell you why I didn’t when I see you. I hope that will be soon. Jessie and Paula send their love. Jessie says to tell you she’s trying to do everything just as she would do it if you were here, but she will be glad when you come home.
Hoping you will soon be home,
Your loving son, Peter.
P.S. I promised to tell you every little bit of news, but I will tell you all the rest when you come home. Do you think you will be home in a week?
“That’s all right,” said Jessie. “You can’t tell about your Dad, and we can’t do more than let her know we’re all right.”
“It’s mean, just the same. We’re fooling her,” said Peter.
“We’re pigs!” declared Paula, flipping a strand of hair out of her eyes. “We have no right to keep anything about Daddy from her. She trusts us to tell her everything !”
“But Daddy told us we mustn’t say a word about his operation.” Peter’s oval face was very serious.
“Mother told us first. You promised Daddy you wouldn’t tell her about him. He made you promise, he knows you do all the writing. I never promised !”
“But he meant you to. He gave the order—”
Paula perched on the table edge, swung one long leg a moment before she declared her personal code. “When an order is not fair, and puts a person in the position that they have to be sneaky to carry it out—I think a person can forget the order and go ahead and do their own stuff the best way they know how!”
“You can’t break a straight promise.”
“You promised mother you’d tell her everything. What about that, then?”
“I did,” Peter admitted, rubbing the top of his head.
“And on top of that, you promised Daddy you’d not tell about the operation. You should not have made two opposite promises! You were sort of sloppy about that!”
“I know,” said Peter humbly. “Well—do something about it, silly !”
“How can I?”
“Tell Dad the fix you’re in, and get him to let you off.”
“Suppose he won’t?”
“He’s a sport,” declared Paula. “Put it to him straight, and he’ll see it.”
“Shall I? I wonder if he’d see it the right way?”
“You have to. You’re being mean to Mother!”
As Jessie listened, her face grew increasingly crimson. “Mean . . . aye, we’ll all be as mean as misers if that ... A fine thing when a woman’s not to know when her man ...”
She checked herself abruptly, although with difficulty. “Do as your sister says, man, Peter. Tell your feyther all about ... all about . . . the mess you’re in. Everything. You’re a guid lad, Peter. A guid lad.”
THAT evening Peter sat beside his father’s bed, eating his father’s grapes, and trying to deliver his little set speech. All the way up in the street car he had rehearsed it. He had planned a nice little opening: “I wonder when mother’ll be back, Daddy?” and to that his father was supposed to answer he didn’t know, but he hoped very soon. And then Peter would say: “Let’s tell her now about the operation. There’s nothing about it to worry her now, you’re doing so well,” and then his father would probably say: “Well, perhaps they might do that, because mother had had a good rest.” And then Peter would say: “Please, Daddy, let me tell her? I feel so mean every time I write, keeping it from her, after I promised to tell her.” And his father would say, of course, quite surprised, that he never realized he’d made Peter break a promise, and Peter must certainly tell her, right away. This little interchange was going to be very smooth-sailing; and Peter could hardly wait for the car to turn the corner and let him get it started.
But now that the time had come, everything was going wrong. He had opened as rehearsed. “I wonder when mother’ll be back, Daddy?” but Daddy had not caught his cue properly. He had said, “I don’t know!” quite crossly, and had added to the shock of his amazing crossness by saying: “I hope a great boy like you is not fussing for his mother!”
Peter ate five grapes without glancing at his father. The fourth grape seemed a little dry. The fifth stuck on a great lump in his throat. In a panic lest he strangle and disturb his father when he had been told to be very quiet, he choked horribly and rushed out into the corridor.
When he came back, he had lost his cue and sat staring, trying to remember it. When his father asked him if there was anything troubling him; was anything wrong at home, Peter said: “No,” and when his father said: “Then what are you so gloomy about?” Peter answered quite abruptly, because there was another huge lump rising in his throat and he was ashamed of it, “I choked on a grape!” Then his father looked reproachful, and said: “Pete, son, tell me the truth. Something’s on your mind. I insist on you telling me what’s troubling you !” And Peter’s disgusting chin would keep wobbling when he denied there was anything wrong. He couldn’t begin all over again about his mother coming back; that, for some strange reason, had made his father snap at him. He would not for the world upset his father, lying there so pale and weak. He must be sensible. So gallantly he lied. “I got a licking at school to-day, and it’ll be on my report.”
He held his head up proudly when his father said: “Not so good, Pete ! What for?”
“Breaking a promise,” said Pete; and his father told him that was bad news indeed; for no gentleman did that. Pete went home with a headache.
Mortified, he reported to Jessie in detail the result of his visit to his father, and finished unhappily: “I lied; and I didn’t ask him anything important at all!”
“No wonder your mother worships you!” was Jessie’s incomprehensible answer. “Don’t you care, lad; your Jessie’ll fix it! Enough’s enough!”
With native caution, Jessie waited a few days before taking the law into her hands. It was safer to wait until she could sufficiently command her indignation over the whole situation to write the sort of letter she intended to write. A week after Peter’s attempt to discuss matters as man to man with his father —twelve days after Paul’s operation—she wrote to Mary.
Mrs. Paul Beaton, Willow Falls,
In the garden at Willow Falls, Mary slit open the cheap envelope addressed in the angular scrawl made familiar by years of Jessie’s grocery lists. She smiled at the respectful salutation, remembering all the domestic storms she and Jessie had weathered together.
Dear Jessie! Mary smiled tenderly. What had inspired her to this most difficult performance? “I’d rather take a dose of rat-poison than write a letter!” was a familiar phrase to be heard from Jessie on the one night each week when she wrote faithfully to her octogenarian mother in Scotland the stilted account of her monotonous doings.....
I take up my pen to tell you we are all well and hope this finds you the same. The children are well, and Mr. Beaton he is doing fine, too, and we’ve had fine weather, some days not so good, and some days better. The new laundress must either steal the soap or eat it, but she is as good as any of them, she scorched one of the new sheets, but I didn’t call her down in case she stole something to get even with me, and I thought I’d better keep things pleasant against your coming home, and then I’ll tell her what I think of her, the careless piece, and if she leaves, good riddance.
I wish you were soon coming, Mrs. Beaton. Not but what everything’s going on fine, and everybody well and all,but it’s Petie. He don’t say much, he’s got too much sand in him to whine, but he’s that lonesome for you it would make you sorry for the dear lad—
Homesick tears blotted out the rest. “Petie,” Mary whispered, she blinked and blew her nose, and read on:
He’s fretting for you, the child, never saying a word, but not eating a good breakfast and his eyes look big in his face. He’s finding it hard to write you every day, have you noticed it’s hard going lately for him?
Then it had not been solely her homesick imagination that put into Peter’s letters a note of strain?
Paula now is different. If anything’s fretting Paula, she takes to slamming around, dumps out her dresser drawers and tidies them, or some such busy things as that to take it out on; but Petie can’t get rid of it like that, everybody’s made different so there’s no use saying to Petie, go and do like Paula does and forget it. For what helps one person is no good for another, so I never give advice. But I sure will be glad when you come home, for it’s not right to make a boy like Petie suffer so long unless there’s some need for it, and I think you must surely to goodness be rested by now and sick and tired of being alone.
Mary crushed Jessie’s letter into her hand-bag, dried her eyes, and went upstairs to pack her trunk.
SHE did not tell her family she was coming but arrived when the children were at noon dinner in the breakfast room, with Jessie waiting on them. Afraid of startling Paul, she entered by the back door. The kitchen was empty. She came in quietly and looked about. How dear, how familiar, how homey; soft high lights on the row of saucepans under the blue-edged shelf; the kettle steaming on the spotless stove; the appetizing smell of fresh-baked cookies; Paula’s scarlet beret on the blue and white chair.
Voices. Paula, giggling with her mouth full. Jessie, “Spinach sure is ugly stuff, and I hate it, too, but it’s good for you, Petie.”
“Yoo-hoo!” called Mary; and again, clearly, another silver call of laughter and of yearning; and calling back to her, “Mother! Mother, Mother!” they rushed into her wide-spread arms.
“Might as well kill us as scare us to death!” Jessie scolded, pumping Mary’s hand up and down. “If you aren’t a sight for sore eyes! And us just talkin’ about you, of all things! Talk of the devil!”
“Hush!” said Mary, loosening her clasp of her children. “Don’t startle Daddy !”
The children stood away from her, and looked at Jessie.
“We’d better break it to Daddy that I’m here; you, Jessie!” Mary said, her eyes alight with happiness.
“Will you sit down, please, do, and I’ll break all the news there is at once.”
Mary leaned against the table-edge, and laughed low and contentedly. “Sit down? I’m too thrilled, darlings! Is Daddy all right?”
The children gazed at Jessie, wondering how she would tell.
“He’s right as rain. Listen, Mrs. Beaton. A surprise! He’s gone out!”
The children turned to their mother, clutching her.
“Out? Out?” Mary repeated.
“Out!” said Jessie stoutly. “His first day out was— let me see—it would be about a fortnight now since he first went out!”
“Out? But how? Can he sit up?”
“Sit up? Wait till you hear—”
“For heaven’s sake, Mary Beaton, where did you come from?” Carolyn stood in the doorway between kitchen and pantry. “I heard your voice and I couldn’t believe my ears! Well, for goodness sake! Why didn’t you let us know, so we could meet you?” She tap-tapped on high heels across the kitchen floor and kissed Mary effusively. “Of all things! Oh, my dear, have you heard?”
“Yes,” said Mary; and to Jessie it seemed she grew a little taller, confronting Carolyn. “Why wasn’t I told? He’s mine. I should have been here to see; I should have been the one to see him go!”
Mary moved away, out of reach, when Carolyn laid an arm around her shoulder. “Nobody had the right to keep such news from me,” Mary said, and swept them all with the reproach in her eyes.
The children moved close to Jessie, looking up into her troubled face, distresssed with her.
“He wouldn’t let us tell you,” Carolyn said; and Peter turned his face away.
“This is not right,” said Mary quietly. “You all promised me—if there was any change in him at all—”
“It was only to spare you, dear. It was terrible, waiting to hear, that day ! I went all to pieces—” Carolyn began.
“Mother!” Peter said again, this time at her side. “Mother, don’t be frightened, don’t look like that, it’s all right, Daddy’s all right, please don’t be scared, mother?”
Mary turned her blanched face to Jessie. “The truth, Jessie! Quickly! What has happened?”
“I thought they’d told you—” Carolyn stammered.
“Jessie, the truth! Quickly!” Mary repeated.
“You have to know,” said Jessie. “Woman dear, he’s gettin’ well! He’s had his operation—and he’s gettin’ well—well, I’m tellin’ you, don’t look like that—”
“He’s had it—and he might have died!” The words came, jerkily.
“Mother!” The children were close to her, reaching tender arms around her, but she paid no heed to them.
Suddenly, her voice was tense and loud. “This is your doing, Carolyn! What right had you to see him through instead of me !”
“He’s doing splendidly—” Carolyn began hurriedly, but Mary swept that aside.
“He might have died, with me away—”
“There was little actual danger, they said—”
“I should have been with him, not you ! You took my place!”
“Oh, mother!” A distressed duet; and she remembered her children.
“Come to my room, Carolyn, and tell me !” A command, not a request; Carolyn obeyed and followed her from the kitchen.
BUT why did he not send for me? He must have known how cruel it was to leave me there in ignorance? What did he say about leaving me there?”
“He said he wanted to spare you, dear—”
“Nonsense !” harshly. “When has he ever bothered to ‘spare’ me in that sense? I’ve always pulled my share of his load. I’m not a child, or an idiot!”
“Mary, what could any of us do but obey him, when he said that you were on no account to be told?”
“But what led up to such an order It’s unnatural, it’s unkind, it’s not even sporting! I had a right to know !”
“It was out of consideration for you, dear, I’m sure—” Mary snatched her close little black hat from her head and flung it on to her narrow bed. “Oh, consideration, rubbish! I’m his wife, I tell you, not his doll-baby !
There’s something back of all this ! I know perfectly well he didn’t say out of a clear sky, ‘Mary must be spared the anxiety of knowing I’m to be operated on!’ That’s absurd. I know him better than that. He’d never say it, never in the world! And he knows me better, too! He knows I’d resent being treated like a weak fool who can’t stand things. He knows it’s my right to share his anxieties!”
“I’m sorry you’re so upset, dear. You just don’t understand—”
“No, I certainly don’t understand, yet—but I intend to understand! I’ve earned more respect than that, I’ve earned his confidence—Why did he leave me in the dark, Carolyn? I have to know!”
Carolyn’s long eyes narrowed like a sleepy cat’s. Mary caught a glimpse of her expression in the mirror and turned suddenly to face her where she lay back in a deep chair. “Someone influenced him to make him decide he didn’t want me home. Left to himself, he would have needed me. He doesn’t realize how much he leans on me. He would never have come to such a decision without consulting me, unless something—or someone—has changed his whole attitude toward me!”
“You don’t give him credit for wanting to spare you, then—”
“If he ever had spared me from responsibility—but all along he has let me carry my share—yes, and sometimes more—because he has such confidence in me. When the babies were little and helpless—do you think I wasn’t to be depended on? Do you think anyone ‘spared’ me? He hated to be bothered with details about them—he had the job of supporting them; he left all the rest, my full share, to me, didn’t even notice anything wrong, often—do you think I’ve earned being left out now? I’ve always carried on—”
“Why give me the benefit of this tirade? I had to obey him! You’d think there was something I should have done to prevent—”
“You’re a woman, you’ve had a husband, you must know how this hurts, don’t you? Men are stupid about women, you know that. You might have pointed out to him—if he really was so dense—that I would be hurt—”
“Oh, I might have, I suppose. But as you say, men are stupid—and it really was not my affair, now was it?”
“Oh, it would have been only kind, to point it out to him! I can’t think he would willingly hurt me, perhaps he has been just very stupid in thinking I could appreciate being ‘spared’ the sharing of anything so vital. What did you say, when he gave his order that I was not to be told? There was so much you could have said!”
“I would not presume to interfere with even a suggestion. I was surprised, of course—”
“Then you admit it was unnatural?”
“Well—it was unexpected, of course—but—oh, well, dear, it’s over, and he’s doing well. That’s the main thing, isn’t it? The rest is unimportant—”
Mary rose then, and stood over Carolyn, who seemed to press heavily into the chair to look up at her. “No, the rest isn’t unimportant! I’m tired of thinking that my personal hurts are unimportant! They’re as important as anyone else’s, and it’s time I realized it! I’ve been weak. I’ve thought always of Paul’s happiness only, and now I’ve killed my own! That’s not common sense, it’s weak and stupid ! I see now that women who stand by and always let their own interests go to the wall, who willingly sacrifice themselves that their husbands may be selfishly happy—women like that haven’t decent self-respect—”
Carolyn smiled up at her. “I always said the worm would turn! You’ve been a slave to your children—”
“I’m not talking about my children! Standing by for their sakes is my job; I wished life on them, I’ve got to make that up to them, the best I can. I’m talking of my husband! I’m tired of putting myself aside—if I’d been more assertive, he’d not have done this to me!”
“Of course, dear, you’re tired of it all. That’s why you went away, we all know that. That’s why I offered to take care of your home. I saw that you were just gritting your teeth and hanging on—”
“I was not gritting my teeth and hanging on! I loved looking after him! I was thrilled at being able to manage. I got a tremendous thrill out of re-arranging this little upstairs into a place that was livable for the children. Do you suppose I minded giving up my big front bedroom and taking this little crack-in-the-wall for mine? Do you think I was doing any gritting of teeth when I saw Paul come out of that awful depression following his temporary improvement and his later relapse? You know I was the happiest woman in the world when I saw him interested and busy and getting hold of the clientele he now has. Who ever heard me complain? I had no complaint, I was intensely happy—”
“Then would you mind telling me why you are so bitter now? If you have been so happy—”
“I’m bitterly hurt because it was you who stood by him at this crisis and not I! I’m hurt because he didn’t want me here, and because you didn’t try to make him want me—”
Carolyn drew herself to an erect position in the deep chair. “Am I to blame because he didn’t want you?”
“Yes, I think you are.” Mary’s voice was low and deliberate now. “I do think just that. I think you are trying to take Paul away from me.”
Carolyn rose and faced her. “If you dare repeat that accusation, I have something to say, too!”
“I repeat—I think you are trying to take my husband away from me!”
Carolyn laughed. “I give you credit, you’re smart! You are smart enough to do unto others, as you expect they will do unto you—and do it first! You are almost smart enough to have a lover and a trusting husband, too. But generally in a case of that kind, some little slip upsets the apple-cart. You are putting up a clever bluff, darling— but you’re a few days late with it. You see, Paul knows all about your ‘quiet’ holiday. He knows it had its high moments!”
“Oh, yes, ‘what’, indeed! You thought nobody would know that Neil Meredith visited you there. Oh, don’t be dramatic and violent—” for Mary had taken a step toward her, her eyes alive with fury and hate — “You and I understand each other, I’m not blaming you for taking on a lover, you’re no dried-up saint—”
“Are you crazy?”
Carolyn laughed again. “Oh, not at all, dear! I’m not even criticizing you. I’ve seen for a long time that you were— oh, well—you don’t like living without a man any better than the rest of us do— some of us have to— you don’t—”
“Will you please tell me what you are talking about?”
“Just this. Paul knows that Neil Meredith visited you at Willow Falls—”
“The whole world may know it! It’s never been a secret!”
“No?” Smiling still. “Not? Then why was Neil so careful to conceal where he was going, when he was in here the night before he went to Willow Falls? I heard him say only that he was ‘going away next day.’ If he expected to see you, wasn’t it most natural to say so—if, as you say, it was no secret and the whole world may know?”
“I invited him to come. Don’t dare blame Neil!”
“As always, sacrificing yourself! Well —unfortunately for you, dear, Paul knows about it!”
“Who told him?”
“Does it matter? He knows—that’s the point. And I know. Doesn’t that appeal to you as a reason for a little caution in your accusations toward me?”
“Not at all. Whoever saw me with Neil at Willow Falls, saw nothing they couldn’t shout from the housetops!”
“Well—naturally. Even so frank a woman as you, dear, doesn’t make love in the open street!”
“A river-bank on a moonlight night is a safer setting; sometimes!”
After a second’s pause, Carolyn said coolly: “Oh! Then, you did see that?”
“I did. And so did Neil.”
“You’ve been a long time mentioning it.”
“I’ve been watching you. I believe you’re trying to take Paul from me. I don’t know how far you have succeeded. I’ve been standing by like a fool, thinking of his happiness. I thought if perhaps he loved you, and not me—”
Carolyn opened her eyes very wide and chuckled softly. “Mary, you’re brilliant, I give you credit! I see the role you’re wishing on me! I’m to be the aggressor, wrecking your happy home! I’m to be the culprit, stealing your husband’s love! My dear, you’re clever, but not quite clever enough. I don’t intend to be named as any co-respondent, believe me! I’m not going to fit into your schemes so that you can marry your lover later on, with no discredit attached to your name! But be careful, I warn you ! You have not one bit of evidence on me excepting a bit of petting that you and Neil saw at a moonlight picnic—and, by the way, you weren’t in much hurry to look for your husband and me, that night, were you? No jury nowadays would give you much sympathy on that evidence, you know ! Especially as your second witness is your lover! Don’t be childish, Mary, face the facts. Stop and think, before you start anything. What is the evidence on you? How’s this picture going to look?
“An attractive young married woman with a crippled husband slips away to a godforsaken little country hotel; and presently, who follows along, with no explanation to the husband—stupid of Neil to have called that night before he left, he might have spared himself that inexplicable bit of camouflage!—who turns up at the secluded hotel but the unattached man who has been openly attentive to the wife for at least one season? No one knows just when he did come home, it’s no distance. Now, be sensible, Mary, that’s not so good, is it?”
“Go on,” said Mary contemptuously. “Finish.”
“Rather clever of you to have left the woman you plan to name in your divorce suit, right in the house with your husband ! What a pity you overlooked the obvious ! Divorce is allowed on one ground only in this country—and in this case—well—isn’t that a bit grotesque under the circumstances? Haven’t you rather wasted your brilliance in this particular household, leaving us here together?”
“What else have you to say?”
“Just a little sane advice, dear! Keep your head! Of course, I admit a flirtation with your husband. But you can’t get a divorce for that!”
“Now you listen to me! You’ve been trying for months to take my husband’s love away from me. This visit of Neil’s to Willow Falls is an excuse to turn the tables. You’re planning to use Neil against me — you’ve calculated on divorce !”
“Keep your head, Mary. Listen. Paul has seen the telegram you sent to Neil, inviting him.”
“I don’t believe it !”
“Ask him! We saw it—together!”
“How did you get hold of it?”
“Neil dropped it that night he called—the night he was so secretive about his movements—after all his caution, he dropped your message— and it was picked up and handed to me.”
“Then you showed it to Paul!”
“Yes! I did! Oh, with your ‘complication’ and all—you’re in a hopeless position now, Mary, and I advise you to face it. Let Paul sue you for divorce at once while you have a chance to get away with your ‘complication.’ Get the divorce over quickly and quietly—”
“You showed my telegram to Paul!”
“Yes I did! In self-defense! Oh, I’ve seen your game, long ago, yours and Neil’s! You thought I’d be the one blamed—”
“Long before he was hurt, you’ve been trying to take him from me! Even before that scene by the river—”
“I was fairly certain you did see that; and when you said nothing, did nothing about it, went on living with him, condoned it—I knew you didn’t love him, I knew you didn’t care—”
“What made you sure I saw you two by the river?”
“Because before you came upon us—I mean, before I saw you—I heard your laughter—”
“You heard my laughter? And yet you stayed in his arms?” Mary rubbed her hand across her brow. “You knew I would surely see you presently—and yet—you stayed there, in his arms? Did you want me to see you? Are you crazy?”
Carolyn, very pale, rose from her deep chair, and faced Mary eye to eye, her bravado obvious. She felt confused at the unexpected turn Mary’s cross-examination had taken. “I didn’t care whether you saw or not. I was reckless, that night. But I’ve had time to think since then. I’ve thought and thought! And you can’t use that against me now you know, you’re too late, you’ve condoned—”
“You are crafty beyond belief,” Mary said, and her eyes were cold with revulsion. “I see it all now. You were so crazy about him that for once you forgot to save your precious self, your precious reputation! You thought that for that one incident I would rush into divorce and let you have him ! Do you think that’s all he means to me? Do you think that’s all my marriage and all the things that he and I have lived through together, mean to me? Now, you’re in your right mind, and afraid of scandal—but you still want him—so you think up this accusation of Neil and me—you show Paul my telegram!”
“It was because of that telegram that he didn’t want to have you around for his operation! Do you think any man’s love could survive a message like that?”
Mary opened the door, and pointed to the hall. “As soon as you can gather your things together, leave my house and don’t come back. It is because Paul and I have let life drift us so far apart, that there is room between us for a woman like you to creep in and poison us against one another! Please go!”
“Paul will have something to say to this!” flared Carolyn in the hallway. Mary closed her bedroom door and shut her out.
IN HIS hospital room at that moment Paul waited the hour of three o’clock. At ten minutes past two, he looked at his watch, held it to his ear, tried the stem, only to find it properly wound.
At three o’clock he was to be tested to discover whether or not his feeble limbs could support his weight; whether they had motive power—whether he could walk.
It was now fourteen days since his operation. Progress had been, so Doctor McGinnis reported, “highly satisfactory.” But the doctor made no promises. “We can only wait,” he said.
And now the day for the experiment had come. Paul had been able, for two days now, to flex his knees slightly; for two days before that, he had cautiously moved them from side to side, sliding them across his smooth sheet. To-day would tell if more progress were to be anticipated.
At five minutes before three, the doctor, who had seen many a weary man and woman hold a lagging watch against an incredulous ear, arrived a little ahead of his appointment. “I’m not promising a thing, you know, Mr. Beaton, even if you find you can walk a step or two. But I will say this much—I’ll be encouraged.”
With the nurse on one side of him, the doctor on the other, Paul sat on the edge of his high bed. He looked from one kindly face to the other. “Suppose I can’t?”
“Let’s try,” the doctor parried, and Paul allowed his weight to burden his unaccustomed feet.
With tender leverage they helped him to stand. “So far, so good,” Paul said, and was furious to feel his eyes moist with nervous tears. One weak foot moved forward. His weight shifted. “Good,” the doctor said without inflection. “Now -—another?” Another was achieved.
“Again?” And Paul took his third trembling step parallel with his bed. “Fine!” said nurse and doctor together; and Paul relaxed on to the edge of his bed once more.
“Well!” said Paul with a fine air of nonchalance.
There was a gentle tapping at the door.
“Well!” said Doctor McGinnis; and he stood aside to let Mary come to Paul.
“Mary!” Paul said. “Why, Mary, dear!”
SHE sat beside him, her elbows on his bed, her face close to his, tears chasing one another down her cheeks unheeded, running into the corners of her quivering mouth. And when she sobbed: “Oh, my dear, my dear,” and hid her face in both her hands, he laid one thin hand on her head.
“Don’t,” he said, then took his hand away.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I think you know why,” he said. “But —never mind. Don’t cry like that.”
“It was so cruel, why didn’t you tell me?”
“How did you hear?”
“I didn’t know until I came home this morning. They told me then.”
“Mary—did Neil not tell you?”
“Oh, Mary, don’t,” he said. “I know. I’ve been lying here—I’ve been thinking. I’ve been trying—I’m over the first of it, now—the worst of it—”
“Oh, my dear, how could you let me stay away?”
“Don’t keep on saying that, Mary. You know why.”
“Yes,” she said, sitting up, groping in her bosom for her handkerchief. “I think I know. I think I do.”
“I’ve been lying here, thinking. I’m trying to see your side of it. I’m beginning to see—but it would have been so much kinder to be square with me! Why didn’t you both come right out and tell me? It’s the deceit!”
“You think Neil is my lover,” she said steadily. “Carolyn told me. He is not. I sent for him to come to Willow Falls—”
“I know,” Paul said, and reaching over to the bedside table, found her telegram and laid it open in her hand.
She read it slowly, seeing it with his eyes. “And after all the years—” she said, “this—means only—that—to you? Have we got so far apart as that?”
“What else? You made a secret of his visit to you—you both did.”
“Yes,” she said, and still gazed at the telegram. “I see how it must have looked to you—”
“It would have been so natural for him to say to me that night: “I’ll see Mary to-morrow.” Some little thing like that. He told me he was leaving town—and said not a word about seeing you !”
“Carolyn showed you this telegram?”
“Do you know why, Paul?”
“I don’t know,” he said, and frowned. “I’ve been thinking, lying here—I suppose she thought it was a cruel kindness— I don’t know. I suppose she thought that I should know—”
Mary laid her hand on his, but he drew his hand away. “Even the kindest women are queer,” he said. “I could never have showed a thing like that to any man—”
“Queer?” cried Mary, and he turned at the bitterness of her cry to look into her eyes. “Queer, you think? A person who could do a thing like that—not queer, but vile, and cruel and selfish, thinking only of herself and her own desires! Watching her chance, seeing us drift—”
“No,” he said, and shook his head. “No, Mary. Carolyn is not like that. She did that with a decent motive—”
“She did that because she wants to make trouble between you and me! She wants you to think evil of me ! She thinks you will divorce me on the strength of that telegram. She has just admitted to me that was her motive—”
“What? She has admitted that?”
But Mary rushed on: “Perhaps you do want to let me go—I don’t know, oh, I don’t know! Perhaps you do love her, not me at all. That’s why I went away, didn’t you know—couldn’t you see? That’s why I left her with you, so you could be very sure—oh, Paul, if you do love her, if you want her, not me—”
Paul lay looking at her, making no move.
She calmed herself presently, and leaned over him. He turned his face to the wall, avoiding the agony in her eyes. “Oh, Paul, be square with me, won’t you, please, don’t keep me just hanging on and on—if you don’t want me any more, please tell me? Let me go. If she and you—she admitted she hoped you’d divorce me because of that telegram—”
“That telegram,” he said, and turned his head on his pillow so as to meet her eyes.
“Yes. What does it mean? A ‘complication.’ What complication? Mary, let’s get at the truth. Where do we stand with one another? What is Neil to you?”
“Nothing!” she cried, her clenched fists beating on his bed in tortured rhythm with her words, “Nothing, nothing, nothing! You must believe me! I sent for him because he knew I was just sick with fear of Carolyn ! He knew I had lost all faith in my power to hold you. He was right beside me that night we saw you two beside the river—and you—”
“Oh, yes, I saw you, quite plainly, in the moonlight. I saw her face, I saw the look in her eyes—close under yours— looking up at you—and I saw her arms go up around your neck, I saw her kissing you. Oh, yes, I saw you —and I’ve kept it to myself—”
“You saw that! And you said nothing —you didn’t care enough—you just went on with me—”
“Care?” She seized his arm where it lay limp along the counterpane, and shook it. “I’ve been insane with it, I’m telling you, don’t you understand? I saw it in my dreams, it followed me about, I’ve had it in my eyes and in my heart and in my brain, driving me mad, for months and months and months. I’ve fought it and I’ve battled with it! But I had to know more. I had to let you be together and find out more, find out for myself. And I can’t bear it any longer, I’m telling you, it’s killing me—I can’t bear it, you were unfaithful—”
“No,” he said. “Not that.”
“Oh, Paul, I saw you there with her—I saw you, I tell you ! It was almost bright as day that night—”
“And you said nothing, all this time!”
“Because I didn’t want to spoil everything between us—I didn’t want to—put you aside. I’ve tried and tried to understand. I said to myself that she is sweet and soft, and that a man is easily stirred by women with that little way about them. I tried to remember that anyone might be suddenly swept off his feet by a gust of passion—I thought perhaps if I just waited and said nothing—it might not flare again, it might be just that once —and it might not really mean you loved her, it might not really matter at all—-”
“Don’t say such things,” he said.
“—But it hurt and it burnt and it seared me till I think I’ve been a little mad with pain. I couldn’t believe that jealousy could be so dreadful—but I thought I’d wait a while, I told myself, over and over, till the thought was just a jumble, had no sense—I said to myself over and over: ‘It’s nothing, passion is nothing, it doesn’t matter, passion and love are not the same, it’s me he loves. I’m his wife, he loves me,’—but it didn’t do any good. I had only to shut my eyes, to relax a minute—and I saw you two again by the river—”
“Mary, I have never been unfaithful to you.” The very quiet of his tone carried conviction. “I have loved you too much for that.”
“But, Paul, I saw you in each other’s arms! I saw you!”
“No,” he said. “Listen. This is what happened that night. Carolyn had been speaking of her loneliness. She cried, I remember. She told me—she said a lot of things about life—I never heard a woman talk like that before—she said some women, plenty of women, found life alone as difficult as a man found life alone. She said only the honest ones admitted it. I didn’t know what to say to her, she was excited, and clung to me, talking rather wildly, it seemed to me. But I was sorry for her. She spoke about you—said you had everything, love, and children. And then she said—perhaps women often talk that way, I don’t know, but I never heard one before—she said that at times she would give years of her life to have a lover—”
“To you—she talked like that!”
“Well—I know I was sorry for her, she was very unhappy. I put an arm around her, I didn’t know what to say to her—and then I heard your laugh! And just then she flung herself on the ground—her arms were still around me—she had been clinging to me and crying a little—and she dragged me over with her. It happened so suddenly—it was so unexpected—she put her arms around my neck and kissed me. And then Neil spoke—and there you both were, beside me almost. I thought you could not have helped seeing us. I don’t remember getting to my feet, I was so embarrassed. But when time went on and you said nothing, I thought I’d got out of it luckily—”
“Paul,” she said, “If you are not telling me the truth—”
“If I am lying to you, then, in the name of God, if there is a God, may the hope I’ve had to-day of walking again, be taken from me! I am telling you the truth.”
She did not speak but searched his eyes for her faith in him to be restored.
“I have told you the truth,” he said. “You must believe me. No woman has been to me more than a passing interest, ever, except you. Now I want the truth from you—is Neil anything to you? Is he your lover?”
“I see how that telegram looked to you. I know I seem guilty as I can be. But the reason I sent for him was this: He knew why I went away, he saw you with her every day. By ‘complication’ I meant the situation between you two. I thought he could tell me if there were any signs—I was so homesick I could not stay away any longer. So I asked him to come and tell me what he thought. I had to know whether I had better not come home at all. And still I do not know!”
“Oh, Mary, dear!” he said, and held out both his arms.
AND after two more weeks—
“Any minute now!” said Jessie for the twentieth time in half an hour.
And then from their perch on the top step by the front door the three of them saw Neil’s big green car turning the corner.
“Here they come!” shouted Paula; and Peter, quivering, gulped and smiled, and clenched his little hands.
Jessie’s tense arms went around both children and drew them close.
And so Paul saw them, when up the walk with Mary on one side and Neil on the other, he came, without support, carefully, dragging a little, nervous, slow. But walking. Alone.
“God, God,” said Jessie, under her breath, and trembling. “The dear man. God! Don’t let him fall!”
“It’s true!” shrieked Paula rushing down the steps.
“Dad !” said Peter of the tender eyes, and offered his slender shoulder at the three shallow steps.