FICTION

Life Lines

Edwin Dial Torgerson May 15 1933
FICTION

Life Lines

Edwin Dial Torgerson May 15 1933

Life Lines

FICTION

Edwin Dial Torgerson

PARENTS SHOULD NEVER quarrel within hearing of their children,” said—or thought, if he didn’t say it— Marcus Aurelius.

But Mr. and Mrs. Latham plainly were in moods too discordant for maxims this evening, and reckless of the fact that their daughter Janet was upstairs and perhaps could hear everything.

“Yes, my dear, I have heard that sort of talk constantly for three years,” Mrs. Latham was saying. “But this is something I have been planning for nineteen years—since Janet was bom.”

“I know that, and I am raising no objection whatsoever to the party.” declared Mr. Latham. "I think the child is entitled to it. But is it necessary to spend all this money, inviting six hundred people to the country club? Couldn’t we have a smaller affair here at home?”

“Here at home!” The scorn in Madeleine Latham’s voice withered the thought, root and branch. “How many people could we crowd into our living room? Fifty perhaps. What shall we serve—hamburgers for people to nibble on? We’ll give no party at all, James Latham, if that is the magnanimous scale on which you plan things. Janet shall have no début. She can go to work somewhere as a stenographer—or get her a job clerking in your store.” “Madeleine!” Mr. Latham’s tone was curt and sharp with rebuke. “Aren’t you going a bit too far?”

She responded passionately:

“But do you realize what it means to the child? Don’t you see that her whole social future may depend upon the manner in which she is presented? That her happiness, even her marriage to George ”

“Never mind that,” commanded Jim Latham in a lowered voice but sternly. “Do you want the child to hear you discussing your favorite plan to marry her off for money?”

“I have no such ‘favorite plan,’ ” said Mrs. Latham frigidly. “As far as Janet is concerned in that subject, she is honored by the friendship of George Medwick, and she is fond of him. And I do not think it becoming in you. James Latham, to give vent to your splenetic jealousy whenever I mention the name of the man I might have married.”

“I often dwell upon the thought,” said Mr. Latham darkly, “that it is a pity you didn’t.”

He dug into a clothes closet for his hat.

“And wffiere, may I ask, are you going?” enquired his wife.

“Out.”

When Janet, a slim, fair prototype of her mother, came down to dinner, she asked in some surprise:

“Where’s dad?”

“At the office again,” sighed Mrs. Latham.

“He’s working awfully hard, isn’t he, poor dear?”

“There are times,” said Mrs. Latham absently, “when he prefers to work at night. He says he can concentrate better.”

“Hm. Did Stew call this afternoon, mother?”

“Yes, he did. He said he would be here at eight. And

I do wish you would not call him ‘Stew.’ Isn t it a bit pleasanter to say Stewart?”

“Well, everybody calls him Stew. It is not a reflection, you know, upon his habits.”

“What is it this evening—the movies again?”

“If we feel like it. Perhaps we'll just drive around.”

Mrs. Latham sighed again after dinner, when Janet had been safely called for and collected by “Stew” Hudson. He was a pleasant, strapping young fellow whom Mrs. Latham liked and approved of, as a transient filler-in for Janet. Stewart was always so sensible about things; he knew perfectly well that he couldn’t marry Janet or any other girl for years. But meanwhile he was content to be one of Janet’s very nicest beaus, to take her to dances and parties and participate with her in all the minor gyrations of the younger set, purely for the abstract pleasure of her company.

GEORGE MEDWICK, of course, though he liked to have young people around him, was a more serious person, and did not have time for the constant frivolity that the giddy young things demanded. He, too, approved of Stewart, and Stewart held a position of junior responsibility in the parent industrial company from which Mr. Medwick directed all his interests. And Stewart, moreover, was Mr. Medwick’s contact man, so to express it, in many matters personal and social. For instance, in taking Janet places when Mr. Medwick was too busy or was disinclined.

So Mrs. Latham was always glad to have Janet shepherded by Stewart Hudson, and she felt amiable enough the rest of the evening, despite her quarrel with her husband. She was quite sure now that Janet had overheard nothing disconcerting.

Janet had known for a long time that her parents quarrelled—or differed wordily, if you wanted to gloss it over a bit. She excused their failing in the knowledge that her father was a very good man, and that her mother was good, too, as well as beautiful. Her mother once had been a reigning belle, the "toast of the town,” said effusive women who came to tea and bridge at the Lathams. A local legend was Madeleine Latham. Still very beautiful, too, and charming in a crowd. But at home a hardness crept into the lines of her face, not purely the angular maturity of age; and a rancor annealed the soft edges of her tone when she differed with Jim Latham.

Not that they always argued disgracefully, or had the neighbors talking, or anything of that sort. Not that Madeleine Latham was a common scold, or nagged her husband repeatedly. She was too subtle for that, too aware of her appointed place in the social order, to be guilty of a “common” attribute. But Janet had been conscious always that her father, behind his mild eyes and his discreetly trimmed mustache, lived on the defensive; that he locked his true feelings away in a strong-box of self-control until those occasions, becoming much rarer now, when he clashed with Janet’s mother. They had both become aware, no doubt, that the child was growing older and would understand things more. As though Janet had not always, with a child's unerring instinct, sensed and comprehended.

Once she had heard them mention the name of George Medwick. And putting two and two together, and many, many other twos that could be garnered here, there and everywhere on the subject of George Medwick, in an intuitive flash she understood.

George Medwick was the man she was supposed, some day, to marry. He was the fairy godfather who had sent her, ever since she was a tot, candy for Christmas, trinkets of jewellery on her birthdays, flowers for Hallowe’en and St. Valentine’s Day and Easter. Mr. George Medwick— she could never quite get used to dropping the mister— was her patron and protector, her rich friend at court, the genial paterfamilias of the country club ballroom. He was old enough to be her father, but he was very, very young in spirit. Every year when he went to New York he took surreptitious lessons in dancing. Debutantes and sub-debs were his hobby. He liked young people around him— young, pretty people, if you know what he meant. That, he said, was what kept him young.

^He was tall, staunch, commanding, amiable but firm, with a strong resonant voice and deficient hair. He was polished to baldness on top, but a stubborn respectable greying fringe grew around the latitude of his ears, and his heavy black eyebrows showed what color it once had been. He was so full of vitality that he couldn’t keep his hands off people; he slapped men on the shoulder and squeezed the soft slim arms of debutantes. He was a man among men and among women he was a lion. He was a director in twelve corporations.

Every year the topic of current speculation was. whom was he going to marry? For a bachelor who was as fond of women as George Medwick was surely would settle down one of these days and marry some lucky girl who was not averse to a pot of gold. Post-maiden ladies who wrestled

with their slipping charms ogled and flattered him. and called him. whether they knew him well or distantly, George. And fresh young sweet things whom he had admired in their cribs and who now were just beginning to get the feel of the carpet, laughed at his jokes and went to his parties and thought he was a Grand Old Man. Something like Gladstone.

Janet's feelings concerning him were mixed, most of them preconceived. She had always known, in the first place, that her mother as a girl had been George Medwick’s sweetheart. To the great surprise of everybody, her mother had married somebody else. Perhaps the explanation, said her friends, was simple; she had just chosen a poorer man whom she considered more attractive. Girls do that.

Jim Latham was the diligent proprietor of a stationery store and had had plenty of business troubles. He had always earned a good living for his family, but nothing more than that. They had hung, as Madeleine Latham once thoughtlessly had said, just on the fringe of things. They were accepted as good people with a one-car garage, and Jim Latham managed, about every other year, to payup his dues at the country club and get in good standing again. But the Lathams had never been able to do things “smartly.”

And Janet’s mother planned a different future for Janet, as the wife of a millionaire. George Medwick had certainly-

shown his interest and affection through the years. He had been a constant friend of the Lathams. I le had even loaned Jim Latham money not at all to Jim's knowledge—by saying a word at the bank.

Quite recently that, and only the ledgers of the Latham business knew how sternly it was needed they and the less orderly accounts of the Latham household, where giant expenditures were in prospect now for Janet’s début.

Mr. Du ham did not begrudge Janet her party, but it was an irritating thought to him that his wife was planning it more to impress George Medwick than for any other purpose. It was to be a preliminary to the brilliant wedding —an event of the dubious future of Janet and George.

Mr. Latham did not believe, in the first place, that the wedding would ever happen. It was a chimerical hope, an ambitious figment of Madeleine Latham’s brain. It was true that George Medwick always had been nice to Janet. But. unless all signs and portents could be scrapped, George Medwick was not a marrying man. He had, as Mr. Latham told himself sometimes with a bitter humor, too much sense.

Janet and Stewart Hudson just drove around, for the autumn night was too gorgeous to be forsaken. There would not be many more nights like this, thought he. because autumn would be gone.

Continued on page 36

Continued from page 17

Thought Janet, there would not lie many more because Janet would be gone. As good as gone, anyhow.

They drove to the brow of a mountain ridge which overlooked the city, forty miles of be jewelling lights in the dim valley, and over it hung the full moon, dusky yellow.

There was a parking place, much frequented in summer, but on this cool night they had it all to themselves. There was also an excuse to sit very close together and for Stewart’s arm to encircle her shoulders, purely for the sake of warmth. She did not object to that, she seemed to accept it passively and pensively. But she did object when he kissed her.

"Please, Stew,” she said reproachfully. “You know I asked you—”

“That one just slipped—I’m sorry. I won’t do it again till the next time. Let’s talk of something serious now, like what do you think of the foreign debt situation?”

“I don’t want to talk. 1 just want to sit here.”

“And think?”

“1 wish 1 could stop thinking, too.”

"Of me, you mean?”

“No. Mostly of me. I am a very selfish person. Stew.”

“Well, now I suppose you would call it that,” agreed Stewart whimsically. “It is very selfish of you not to let me kiss you. You said you would be a sister to me. and big brothers have to kiss their little sisters sometimes, don’t they? Why. I haven’t kissed you real hard in a couple of months; not since that day at the beach, as a matter of fact, when Mr. Medwick saved our lives.” “He did. didn’t he?” she said unemotionally. “He must have saved us for something.”

“Maybe he saved us for a rainy day.” “Idiot.”

"Good old George Medwick always on hand with his yacht to do a gcxxl deed and save people’s lives. I didn’t know it was so far to the island that we couldn’t swim there without a chaperon.”

“And if ‘gcx)d old George Medwick’ hadn’t been following us in his boat we wouldn’t be here to talk about it now. Is that why you call him ‘good old George?’ ” “Oh, no, everybody calls him that. He likes it. But let’s don’t talk so much about Mr. George Medwick. Let’s talk about us. If you won’t kiss me, Janet will you marry me?"

"Please lx* sensible.” said Janet. “1 don’t feel like a lot of wit and humor tonight.”

“I am sensible. I’m deadly serious about it. But whenever I ask you to marry me 1 have to cross my fingers and grin, so when you say no I can pretend 1 was only fooling. But one of these days you’ll say yes. and I'll uncross my fingers.”

Janet with dismaying unexpectedness began to cry.

"Aw. now, now,” exclaimed Stewart remorsefully. “I didn’t mean to say anything to hurt your feelings—honest, I didn't.”

I íe took her in both of his arms and she soblxxl :

“You didn’t—hurt my feelings. I'm sorry to lx; s-such a fool. It’s just the— the situation.”

“What situation?” he asked her tenderly. “Who’s had the nerve to work up any old situation that’ll make my darling cry?” “Oh, Stew, you mustn’t ever come to see me again. 1 haven’t any right to let you. It’s wicked of me not to have told you s-sooner.”

“What’s the matter, honey—you got athlete’s foot?"

She pushed him away, pummelled him futilely on the chest.

“That's always the way,” she cried in tearful anger. "You never take anything seriously. Everything’s a joke to you, even my happiness.”

He sobered instantly.

“Aw, sweetheart, I was just trying to take you out of it, to make you laugh. I

know what’s on your mind. I know what you were going to tell me.”

“What” still petulantly—“if you know so much?”

“That you’re going to marry George Medwick. Isn’t that it?”

She stared out over the quivering lights of the valley and said dully:

“Yes.”

“Well,” said Stewart pleasantly, “you see I am anticipating all disagreeable contingencies, as we say in business, and discounting them. I’ll have to ask you for a little credit information, though. Do you— love him and everything?”

Janet answered, still dully and a little defiantly:

“Yes.”

“Well, then,” summed up Stewart matterof-factly, “it seems I don’t get the order. I’m a new concern, of course, just starting out in business; and it’s hard to compete with an old established firm—”

“Don’t, Stew,” she begged him. gripping his hand. “Don’t make me any more miserable. Don’t say things like that.” “Why, I wasn’t going to say a thing,” he protested, “except that, if the deal doesn’t go through, if there’s any slip-up—you know how these things are; you might change your mind at the last minute—”

“I won’t, Stew. I can’t.”

“But if you do, I just want you to know that I'm waiting. Just say the word and I’ll uncross my fingers and ask you again.” “You’re sweet, Stew—and I’m going to kiss you - and you can come to see me again, can’t you?”

Many times on the way home she had it on the tip of her tongue to tell him more— that she was going to marry George Medwick because it would break her mother’s heart if she didn’t; that it was her mother’s life’s ambition to see her the wife of the man whom her mother had disappointed years before; that George Medwick had been kind to all of them, and she was genuinely fond of him; that it would solve and settle so many things for all of them if she went on and married him; that he hadn’t asked her yet but that she was certain he was going to do so, and when he did her answer must be yes; that it was all heart-sickening and wrong.

But she did not tell Stew any of these things. Janet could take it on the chin.

GEORGE MEDWICK gave a nice little dinner party for her at the club, to which he generously invited Stewart. Janet liked him for that. If anybody could be regarded as his rival where Janet was concerned, Stewart came nearest to filling that description. But George Medwick was not the least bit jealous of anybody; there was nothing petty about him.

She danced with him and he asked her about the plans for her début party.

“Imagine you ‘coming out,’ ” he chuckled. “Why, I was your beau when you were just coming out of swaddling clothes. Where's the big blow-out to be here at the club?” “Yes. that seems to be the plan.” “Thousands invited, hundreds trampled in the crush, eh?”

“Something of the sort; though if it were left to me I wouldn't spend any money on a party at all. I’d just get out a lot of engraved announcements: ‘Mr. and Mrs. James Fenlow Latham have the Honor to

Announce that their Daughter Janet is Now Definitely Out.’ ”

“And that’s just where you’d beout,” laughed Medwick. “You can’t get by without a modicum of ballyhoo nowadays, Janet. Your mother is right. You must have a party with all the trimmings. You must let ’em know that you're in the swim socially and you don’t give the right-ofway even to whales. And then it won’t be long before all these desirable young swains come storming after you with proffers of marriage.”

“And when they do,” bantered Janet, “what on earth shall I tell them?”

“Why, tell ’em your mother saved you for me, of course.”

Somebody at that instant cut in and took her away from him. That was always the way it was; he never got closer to it than a pleasant raillery.

He beamed after her—suave, polished, amiable, courtly, sophisticated, clever George Medwick.

There was comfort in the thought that a thousand women more or less would gladly give years of their lives to be able to take him away from her; to have him give select little dinner parties at the club for them, show them all the little and big attentions he had shown her, ever since she was a child.

It was quite open gossip that George Medwick had been “bringing her up” just to suit himself, that he would permit her to have one giddy social season as a debutante, and that then their engagement would be announced. In fact, George Medwick, according to the most knowing and catty of the observers, was going to pay for her brilliant "coming out” party. What money did Janet’s father have for a dinner and ball to which everybody in town—everybody that was anybody—was to be invited?

These debilitating rumors did not reach Janet’s ears, but she was worried about her father. He spent more time at the office at night, and wore a haggard look, and Janet saw him making surreptitious figures on stray envelopes from his pocket when he was supposed to be reading at home for rest and relaxation.

Once she spoke to him about it, when her mother was busy elsewhere in the house. She sat on the arm of his chair, and took the pencil out of his hand and put it back in his vest pocket.

“Dad,” she said, “can’t you ever get your mind off business?”

He grinned at her unconvincingly.

“Well, hardly ever. You see, Í like it better than most subjects. What’s on your mind, young sprout?”

"But something has been worrying you more than usual. What is it, dad—that old party?”

He stiffened indignantly.

“Now, here, you run along and look to your knitting, and keep your pretty young nose out of my business. I haven’t given your party two and a half thoughts—except to wonder how I’m going to climb into that evening dress suit of mine. Bet I can’t get in it with a shoehorn.”

“But, dad, isn’t it going to cost a terrible lot of money?”

“Oh, maybe a couple hundred dollars. How am I to know till the bills come in?”

“You're silly, dad. The invitations will cost that much.”

“All right—shoo, now. Don’t bother me

with petty details when I’m trying to figure out how’ to sell a man a million dollars worth of stationery.”

Janet did not press the matter further, but she was not reassured. She knew a number of girls, rich girls some of them, who were not going to have débuts at all this lean year. And Janet knew her father was far from rich.

She was not to learn the true inwardness of the situation until the afternoon she returned home after playing bridge at the Fosters’, and heard as she entered the hall the heated voices of her father and mother. They were discoursing so earnestly that they did not hear her come in. Janet hurried up the stairs. She liked to get as far away as possible from these unpleasantnesses. She would not have paused at the head of the stairs at all if she had not heard her name mentioned—and the name of George Medwick.

“But what about the wedding, my dear?” her father was saying querulously. “What if George Medwick does ask her to marry him, as you so fondly hope will be the case? If we spend everything there is to be spent dh a début party, what will be left for the state wedding you insist she must have? What of the child’s trousseau? All that will cost as much again as this idiotically extravagant ‘coming out’ party.”

“I suppose,” said Madeleine Latham coldly, “that George Medwick will have to pay for those things, too, as he has already paid for Janet’s party.”

“What do you mean by that?” half shouted Jim Latham.

“Why, I simply mean that George knew you needed the money, and that you were trying to get another loan approved by the Commercial Trust, and that he, being on the board of directors, was permitted to guarantee—”

“How do you know these things?” broke in Mr. Latham savagely.

She said disdainfully: “Everybody knows them, apparently.”

There was a silence, which Janet interpreted as meaning that her father was fairly staggered by this thrust. Janet, too, was abashed. She moved slowly toward her room, shamed by her attitude as unseen listener, but she was powerless to keep from pausing to hear more. The things they were saying appalled her.

“Did George Medwick tell you he did that?” demanded her father hoarsely. “And for such a reason?”

“I am not authorized to repeat anything that George said on the subject. But it seems to me that even a person of your restricted subtlety would be able to reason it out for himself. He has always wanted to help you, and you wouldn’t let him. He has been magnificent to all of us. Of course, he wants Janet to have a decent presentation to society. Her social position in future means a great deal to him if she is to be his wife.”

“ ‘If,’ ” repeated Jim Latham acidly. “I do not now believe, and I have never believed, that George Medwick has the remotest intention of asking Janet to marry him.”

“If he does not, you may be sure that the reason is your own stupidity.”

“Just as, no doubt,” retorted Mr. Latham mockingly, “it was my own stupidity which saved him, twenty-five years ago, from marrying you?”

“It was I,” she confessed frigidly, “who was the fool in that instance. And it is the subject of a lifelong regret which you need not deepen by unnecessary coarseness now.”

“Now that’s a bit fancy. I’ll have to write that down and reply by letter, in order to be sufficiently subtle for your superior tastes.”

“You were always slow, my dear Mr. Latham, in digesting simple truths.”

Janet shivered. Her mother had not called him “Mr. Latham” in twelve years.

Continued on page 38

Continued ƒ rom page 36 It meant there was genuine anger in the brewing. This was no ordinary (uss.

MR. LATHAM’S tone was calm and cutting now. incisive and penetrating. “My dear Mrs. Latham," he said with ceremonious clarity, "it is a source of deep ! humiliation that I am not privileged to ' address you as somebody else’s dear Mrs. Medwick. I have heard for twenty-five years about your lifelong sorrow, your hairbreadth escape from becoming the wife of a millionaire. 1 have heard it by implication, by insinuation, and right out in meeting.

1 have heard it with grapefruit and I hâve heard it once in a while with anchovies and caviar. I have had it just prior to the morning coffee and just subsequent to the evening toothpaste. And I am going to tell you something now, by heaven, that I have 1 kept from telling you during all this period ¡of your ruined career.”

“Perhaps," suggested Madeleine Latham ; meanly, “it took you twenty-five years to I think it up.”

This checked for a moment the surprising S lucidity of Mr. Latham. It caused him to drop his rapier and grab up his hammer and i tongs.

I “Do you want me to tel! you,” he shouted,

! “why you didn’t marry George Medwick?” “We have discussed the theory of stuj pidity in natural selection. Some animal I once took a monkey for a mate. Let it go j at that.”

“You didn’t marry him, by heaven, because you couldn’t get him. He wouldn’t have you. That’s why you didn’t marry him!”

“There are but two persons,’’ said Madeleine coolly, “from whom you could get this diverting information. You did not get it from me, so it must have come in the form of a pleasant confidence from George Medwick himself.”

“All right; you asked for it and now you’ll get it. It did come from George Medwick himself. Publicly.”

“What do you mean?” cried Madeleine Latham sharply.

"1 mean you don’t have to take my word for it. I mean there were four witnesses to it. and they are all my friends. Bob Foster is one of them. And they have all told me

about it separately. They thought it was funny, and I guess it was. They played poker with George Medwick at the club the night he heard that our engagement had been announced. And his comment when he heard the news, my dear Mrs. Latham, was historic. It has been a byword and a gag around the club for the past twentyfive years, and I have never had sense enough to shut you up with it. He didn’t say much, but he said enough. He said: ‘Life saved again ! I thought she had me hooked!’ That’s how you broke his heart.” There was the frightful silence of desolation after this bombshell. Janet clutched the banister hard, and tears started in her eyes. She heard her mother sobbing. It wasn’t right of dad to say these tormenting things, whether they were true or not. Janet turned to go downstairs and put a stop to it. But then she thought of her father’s side of it, too. For twenty-five years he had endured this myth of George Medwick’s lost love; had listened in silence to its constant verbal rehashings because he was too good a sport to take a mean advantage.

Janet turned resolutely the other way. There was a telephone upstairs. She could do something about this. That miserable début party had been the cause of it all.

She heard her father now placating a weeping wife with sorrowful words:

“There, there, now; don’t take on like that about it. I’m sorry, Madeleine;

dreadfully sorry I said that. It wasn’t fair of me. It wasn’t true, anyhow,” he added with naive inspiration, “I made it all up.” “You didn’t—make it up,’’ sobbed Madeleine. “You couldn’t have m-made it up. It’s true. And I thought George

Medwick was a gentleman—the beast! To bandy my name about like that among men at a poker table!”

It sounded to Janet as though Jim Latham had her in his arms now, for his words were muffled, hardly audible:

"He didn’t mean just you in particular anyway, honey. He just meant all women in general. And he didn’t say, ‘I thought she had me hooked.’ Really he didn’t. He just said, ‘Life saved again!’ ”

Janet stole to the upstairs telephone and called a number softly. She wouldn’t need any début now. She could get along without

an expensive wedding, too. And as for a social career . . .

“Stew!” she said when she had reached a desired listener. "You’ve got a date with me tonight, haven’t you?”

“Sure. What are you whispering about?” “Well, listen carefully. Have you got your fingers crossed?”

A slow chuckle came over the wire.

“Why, goodness me. there’s three inches distance between them. And it’s just that far to the border line, where they don’t ask a lot of questions."

"I’ll be ready at eight. I’ll make dad and mother go off to a picture show.”

MR. GEORGE MEDWICK kept half a dozen visitors waiting in his reception room while he sat in his private office, fingering a yellow memorandum from his credit department.

It conveyed the information that Mr. Stewart Hudson had telephoned in from somewhere requesting that Mr. Medwick be informed that Mr. Hudson would be absent without leave for a couple of weeks on account of his honeymoon, and he sincerely hoped his job would stand hitched for that long. And that he and Janet both send their love.

Mr. Medwick mused.

A deep frown furrowed his brow, and his eyes narrowed. Then slowly the scowl vanished and an expression of genial calm took its place; an expression sometimes detectable on the faces of bachelors when they observe their married friends. Mr. Medwick laughed.

Then he barked into his inter-office telephone box, demanding the manager of his credit department.

“That young fellow Hudson,” he said; “are you going to miss him?”

"Miss him !” snorted the manager. “Why, the ornery scamp—going off like that without a word—he’s left us in a terrible hole.”

“Well, that’s a good sign. He’s useful. Tack a thousand dollars a year on to his salary, will you? . . . What’s that? . . . Yes, that is exactly what I said. Thanks.” Mr. Medwick then cocked his feet on the desk before him and lit a cigar complacently. He chuckled aloud:

"Life saved again!”