Top of the Ladder
The story of a man who possessed everything—wealth, love, achievement—and yet was swept into a tragic predicament by his want of wanting
ELEANOR DE LAMATER
JACK TRENT leaned back in his deck chair. He was long and brown, and he wore a pair of bathing trunks and nothing else. Before him the lake stretched flat and black under the summer sun, with the hills rising darkly on its other shore. Behind him. at the top of the gentle slope, was the old, made-over farmhouse which they had rented for the summer. It was all very quiet, very isolated. Out across the water a single canoe floated aimlessly. The figure which had been erect in it, paddling, had lain down now and was invisible. There were a few cottages scattered farther along the shore, but they were not really neighbors. A queer place for him to be. Jack thought absently—him, Jackie Trent, the fellow who put the “play” in “playboy.” Well, that was why he was here, of course—a little too much play, a little too much spinning around like a top; not nearly enough direction. He’d gone a little haywire and been sick and been ordered away for a rest. That was why he was here. That—and Jill.
Jack looked at his wife, sitting on the grass beside his chair. She was very slight in a brief green bathing suit. Her head with the straight brown bob was bent forward like a grave child’s. The afternoon sun made her fair skin glow. Jill was sweet, he thought, a dandy little pal to have around. But sometimes, idly, he wondered about her. She had played, too. She had rushed around as fast as he had. back in town. For the three years since their marriage, their lives had been identical. But she hadn’t cracked
under it. She had taken it all in her stride and enjoyed it. Yet now, in this place which she had found and whisked him off to, she seemed perfectly content. She didn’t seem to miss the whirl, as he did, and wish for a distraction or an interest or—or something. Jill just lived along. He couldn’t figure her out.
But he smiled down at her now, and the sombre eyes in his young thin face lightened a little. She was bent over intently. She had an old-fashioned pair of white water wings in her hands and she was blowing into them.
“What you doing?” he teased.
Her face was pink with effort.
“What’s it look like?” she demanded between blows. The wings swelled out plumply and she looked up, adding primly: “I’m preparing for my swim.”
“You’re preparing to drown yourself, one of these days. Trusting to those things ! You know the bank goes off steep here, and you know you can swim exactly three strokes under your own power. One of these days your precious water wings’ll spring a leak. They’ll burst—plop—and you’ll go down—plunk ! I’m telling you.”
“And you’ll pull me out—swish ! So that's all right.” She stood up briskly and wrapped a striped bathrobe around her. “I’m not afraid. Good old wings!”
She bounced them against her knee and walked down to the water’s edge. Jack went with her. A tall rock loomed up there, a little to the left of the lawn. Beyond it. out of
sight unless you went around, was the deep pool where they always swam. Jack took his wife’s robe and drained it over the boulder. He watched her while she sat down, dabbled her feet and adjusted her absurd rubber contrivance. She looked so young, crouched there at his feet, that he asked suddenly, not knowing exactly why:
Her face turned up to him, the brown eyes exactly the same color as the brown hair.
“Of course I am! Why shouldn’t I be? I’ve got everything.”
"Yeah,” Jack muttered. “So’ve I.”
And he added, to himself, looking away.
“That’s the trouble.”
■pOR IT was the trouble. He knew it. He had known it, -L underneath, for a long time. He had everything. He had a home with the wife he wanted. He had fame, which his own career had made. And he had a great deal of money, which he himself had earned. There was nothing left to do, no goal left to aim at. That was why he was restless. That was why he had spent himself too freely and played too hard and drunk too much—just to fill the time, just to cover the emptiness of the years which stretched out ahead toward —what? Wealth, a career, romance? They were all behind him. And lie wasn’t twenty-five yet ! Jack scowled.
But Jill didn’t see the scowl. She had slid into the water and was paddling valiantly away.
“Look !” she cried. “See how I float? I couldn't sink if I tried.”
“Don’t try,” he advised. “There’s fifteen foot under you, and that’s a long sink.”
She bobbed along, the white balloons protruding ridiculously under her arms.
“I could swim the channel,” she proclaimed. “Watch! That canoe’s drifted in close. I’m going out to it and back.” “Nix,” he said quickly. “The guy in that canoe’s gone to sleep in the bottom of it. You wake him up and he might shoot you by mistake. You look just like a duck.”
He dodged the spray of water she splashed at him. Then he took a breath, flexed his knees and dived into the pool like a brown rocket. He could swim anyway.
For a while they revelled quietly in the dear water. He traced easy circles around her and she rocked on the surface contentedly, giving little subdued snorts. At last they came out and stood on the bank, dripping. Jill mopped at her hair with the rough bathrobe. Suddenly she said:
He followed her nod and felt himself stiffen with surprise. The canoe which had been floating out from shore all afternoon, had drifted silently in until it nearly touched the bank at the foot of their little lawn. He could see something blue in the bottom of it—a figure in a bathing suit.
"Fellow must be a sound sleeper,” he muttered. “I’ll go wake him up.”
And he strode away, hearing Jill murmur:
“You look a little like a crane. Maybe he’ll shoot you.” But he didn’t. In the first place, he really was asleep, stretched gracefully along the bottom planks. In the second place, he wasn’t a “he” at all. Jack stood still for a moment, gaping down. Then he gave the craft a gentle kick.
“Hey!” he urged. “Wake up.”
The recumbent figure stirred, blinked, then sat up abruptly with a gasp. It was a girl, young, very brown, in a wisp of a blue bathing suit. She had curly light hair and dark blue eyes, a little dazed now. With her tanned skin and her face so vivid and flushed, she was really beautiful. They stared at each other.
“Oh!” she breathed in a moment. “I went to sleep. I practised for five hours and 1 was exhausted. I must have drifted in here. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s all right.”
She certainly was lovely. And there was something about her, some quality that came from her, like electricity. He felt it instantly.
He grinned and said :
“Sorry to butt in.”
She had pulled herself on to the canoe’s stern seat. She looked at him out of those reviving blue eyes, protesting:
“I didn’t mean to trespass.
Honestly. But you’re Mr. Trent, aren’t you? We’ve all heard about your taking this place. I hope you like it. I’m Lucy Jerrold.” She moved stiffly on the seat and added, smiling faintly: “And I’m all tied up in knots.”
Jack started to answer, but at that moment Jill’s voice came to them from the rock where she was squeezing the air out of her water wings.
“What is it, Jack?” she called.
Fie chuckled suddenly. He felt a stir somewhere inside him, a feeling of faint excitement, very pleasant. He called back :
“It’s Miss Lucy Jerrold, whoever she may be. She practised five hours and went to sleep, and now she’s tied up in knots.”
Jill had started toward them.
“Fleavens!” she drawled. “Do something.”
She came to stand beside her husband, so small and dishevelled, yet so poised. He saw her quick, friendly smile.
“Why not come ashore for a bit?” she said to the figure in the boat. “Maybe we could straighten you out.”
The girl looked at her and her bright face grew brighter.
“Do you mean it?” she asked.
“I’d love to. I do feel rather like a pretzel.”
She walked easily forward in her flimsy craft and sprang on to the
bank. No hesitation, no pretense of basil fulness. She wanted to come, so she came. Jack liked that. He thought her figure, when she stood up, was like an inspired statue.
"Pretzels,” Jill exclaimed. “Beer. That’s it! Do the honors, Jack. I’ll go and see about it."
She smiled again, and turned away to walk toward the house. Her bathrobe flapped around her. Jack saw her take her deflated water wings, fold them neatly and tuck them into her jxccket as she went.
T-JE WAS alone with the stranger. They strolled up the lawn. He sat down on the grass. Miss Jerrold sank into one of the deck chairs. The sun was going down, but it was still warm.
“Cigarette?” Jack said, offering his case.
She shook her head.
“No thanks. I don’t smoke.”
“You don’t?” He lit one. “Well, 1 admire you.”
"Oh, it’s not virtue,” she explained. “It’s my voice. 1 ’m studying to be a singer.” .
“Gosh!” Fie threw away the match. "See that’s what you practised five hours at?”
“Yes. Usually longer. Everyday.”
She was looking at him intently, her clear beautiful face alight. Generally he hated to be looked at—he had had so much of it. But somehow he didn’t mind this.
"It’s wonderful to meet you,” she said. "You and Mrs. Trent. It’s—it’s inspiring.”
Jack leaned back on his elbows.
“Inspiring? Good Pete! Why?”
She didn’t blush. She didn’t look adoring nor gauche nor humble. But she said :
“Well—you are Jackie Trent.”
“I was.” he muttered.
It always cropped up. It was true. He was the Jackie Trent who had been the child sensation of the screen fifteen years ago. “Amazing talent” they had said of him.
"Mature perception”.....“deeply sensitive.” Jill had the
masses of clippings somewhere. But he didn’t want them. He wasn’t that child any more. He was a tall young man now, with a thin face and freckles and restless grey eyes. "I was.” he said again. “But that’s over.”
"Is it? You’re not going back?”
"Lord, no! I’m no actor. I outgrew it. I was just a good manageable kid and my aunt who brought me up got me into pictures. I simply did what she said, and then I did what the directors said. 1 did it up brown, you know, the way a kid does. But I got scrawny and my voice changed
and I went away to school and college. Then my aunt died and the whole thing faded out, whatever it was. I’m just an ordinary guy now.”
“Maybe. But you’re in an extraordinary spot. It’s thrilling. You’ve made a fortune. You've made a name for yourself that’s known all over the world. Think of it !”
As if he hadn’t. As if he didn’t think of it most of the time, blankly. He didn’t answer.
“And romance," Lucy Jerrold added softly. “You’ve married the girl who’s always been ‘your girl’—since you were ten. the stories say. You’ve done that too.”
It might have been impertinent, but her voice wasn’t impertinent. Jack nodded. Yes, of course Jill liad always been his girl. Of course he’d married her, when he was twenty-one and she twenty. Of course he loved her. Only
only— His mind stumbled. He said rather loudly:
"Jill. Yes, Jill’s a darling.”
He turned then, because he heard tinkling glass behind him, and saw Jill coming down the slope toward them. A maid followed her, with bottles and ice and glasses on a little wagon. Jill had dressed. She had on something blue and soft, with ruffles. Her thick hair was brush smoothed.
“Refreshments," she called.
She was a darling.
'T'HE MAID left her burden and went away. Jack got to his feet and began to open bottles. Jill sat down in the other deck chair. She looked gently at their guest.
"Knots smoothed out?” she asked. "1 guess you've done a lot of lying in the sun, judging by your tan, Miss— Jerrold, is it?”
"Yes.” the girl said. She took the tall glass Jack handed her and added : “I live in one of the cottages down the lake, my father and l. It’s a wonderful place to practise. You see, 1 teach school in the winter, but for five summers I’ve been coming here to drill my voice. I’m going to be a singer.”
“Really? Hard work, isn’t it?”
“Oh. no. 1 love it.”
She sipped at her foamy drink and quite directly, with a warm faith that they would be interested, she told them a little about herself. Jill watched her, now and then murmuring a question. But Jack sat still on the grass, pulling wisps of it up by the roots. He listened to the girl’s vibrant voice, telling her story. It was a simple story of scrimping and effort and a single clear purpose: cf a great desire and an absolute, exultant confidence in the future. Hearing it. Jack felt a lift in himself. This girl had some.
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thing. It wasn’t only her beauty, though that was bright enough. It was a quality in her voice, in the poise of her head, in her straight body. She was sharpened to a fine point. She was strung like a bow. A tense, aspiring strength came out of her. He felt it. He felt his own spirit rise to meet it—like flying.
Presently she broke off, saying:
“There. And I’m afraid I’ve bored you. I’m always getting excited about myself and boring people.”
“But you haven’t,” Jill protested. “We were excited, too. Weren’t we, Jack?” “Yes,” he said inadequately.
They sat a little longer in the fading sunlight, sipping and chatting. Then Lucy stirred in the canvas chair,
"I must go. I’ve loved it—talking with you.” She looked shyly at Jill. “I was telling Mr. Trent, before, how meeting him was—w'as an event for me. He’s done so much.”
Jill glanced at her husband, smiling. “Yes,” she said contentedly. “Jack’s a legend, isn’t he? He’s made good.”
“Top of the ladder,” the girl agreed. “Both of you.”
But Jack stared away from them, and the old nagging started in him again. “Top of the ladder.” He hated it. It gave him an empty feeling, a feeling of being stuck off somewhere with nothing all around him but space. It was all wrong. He was twenty-four years old. He ought to be just starting out. feeling hope and courage and confidence; maybe fear and discouragement, too, sometimes. Like this girl. But how could he? How could he start out, when there was no place left to head for? He couldn’t head for wealth. He had it. He had earned it himself, without actually knowing that he was working. He couldn’t head for fame. He had that, too. There wasn’t any talent in him, to drive him; no urge for self-expression. Why, he couldn’t even jump in and have a good tough fight to win the girl he loved. She was his already, without any fight.
But again, as it had done before, his mind stumbléd over the thought of Jill. Jill was a darling. He stood up, making himself grin.
“Top of the ladder, eh?” he echoed. “Well, there’s a swell view. Come up and see me some time.”
“I’m on the way,” the girl said.
Her voice rang. She stood up, too, and went to clamber into her canoe, moored by the bank. Jack gave its bow a gentle shove. “Good-by,” she called. “Thank you.” “Good-by,” he answered.
Jill came to slip her arm through his, adding:
“Come again. Do, really. Come often.” Lucy Jerrold waved her paddle. She whipped the boat’s head about skilfully and shot off, moving fast.
“She’s nice,” Jill murmured. “But what a hard life. Thank goodness we don’t have to strain like that.”
He didnlt answer. He lollowed her toward the house. But secretly he was protesting. It wasn’t strain, in that girl. It was strength. Eagerness. Ambition. That was what he lacked, what they both lacked, Jill might thank goodness for it, but a man needed ambition. Perhaps you could learn it. Perhaps you could catch it, like an inspiring disease. He hoped Lucy Jerrold would come again.
She did. A week or so later her canoe nosed their bank once more, propelled this time, not drifting. She wasn’t shy. She was quite simply and unquestioningly friendly. Again they sat and talked. On another day Jill, driving the small roadster, met her walking along the road and brought her home for lunch. After that the three of them were together often.
Jack accepted it. After the first day he stopped analyzing the queer dynamic effect Lucy had on him. He was content
to be with her and watch her vivid beauty and feel this new zest. Jill was content, too. If she noticed that he laughed more and drank less, she was glad of it.
HPHEY WERE beside the lake as they so often were. The afternoon was cool, breezy, with clouds dimming the sun at intervals. Lucy wore a plain linen dress and Jack had on slacks and a sweater. Only Jill, who never missed a day at it, was dressed for swimming.
“Phew!” Lucy murmured. “I’m exhausted.”
Jill glanced at her.
“Practising again? Well, I suppose you want to work like that.”
“Of course 1 do. And it’s just the beginning of wanting.”
“That’s cryptic. What does it mean?” “Why it means l want so much. Everything. I want a career and fame and plenty of money. And love. I’m eaten up with wanting things. Aren’t you, sometimes?” j “Never,” Jill chuckled. And she said, as ! she had said once before: “I’ve got everything.”
“Yes. You have, haven't you?” Lucy seemed to think it over. "It must be wonderful.”
Jack sat up straight.
"It’s not!” he blurted.
They both turned toward him.
“Not?” Lucy asked. “Why not?”
He had never said it out loud before. But this time, because he was looking at a j vivid, intent face, he did say it.
“Jill has everything. She doesn’t want anything. So’ve I. But there’s one thing I’d give my hat to have. I want to want something!”
Lucy blinked at the involved sentence. “Yes,” she murmured in a minute. “I see. You’ve got where l want to be and—”
“Too soon!” Jack cried. “I’m there too soon. Don’t you see? A man’s got to aim at something; he’s got to try for something. Life’s just about over, if there’s nothing left to want.”
It was out. It expressed exactly what he i felt at last. But for a second he wished he ! hadn’t said it, for Jill’s face turned to him with such a blank look.
“Life’s over?’’she repeated. “You feel - ? Why I never thought of that.”
Her eyes were very wide open. There was a moment when he couldn’t think how to answer the look in them. Lucy broke ! the silence.
“I guess no one’s ever satisfied. Look at me. This morning something dropped in j my lap that I thought I was desperate to j have. A chance to sing on the radio. And ; now I’m not sure I want to get sidetracked in radio. I’m not sure I wouldn’t rather stay here.”
“Radio?” Jack asked sharply. “Where? When?”
“In the city.” she told him. “Right away. I’d have to leave in three days.”
He forgot everything her future, Jill’s white face. He heard only that threat.
"Don’t go.” he begged. “You mustn’t! Stay here.”
Her eyes met his swiftly, not blue now but black. For the instant of that look he was alone with her.
He wanted to say, “Because I need you. Because 1 live through you.” But the tension snapped and reason came back and he muttered:
“Because you’d break up our threesome.”
The anticlimax saved them. Lucy laughed.
“Oh, no. Not so easily.”
And Jill got briskly, composedly, to her feet.
“Well, anyway,” she remarked, “we’ll have to celebrate the offer, whichever way
you decide. Come to dinner tomorrow night. Lucy. Will you?"
“I’d adore it.”
“Good. We’ll have a party . . . And now I'm going swimming. You two sissies can sit here and watch me." j They did watch her as she strolled down I the bank. They did see her iish her water ! wings from her pocket and begin painstakI ingly to blow them up. Then Jack's eyes I came back to the girl beside him. Under I his breath he repeated :
I “Don’t go away, Lucy.”
I This time she stared at him for a long moment. Her face was very grave and her eyes looked perplexed.
"It matters to you?”
“Me too. 1 don’t know why. But I’ll have to think. 1 won’t decide till tomorrow night.” Her look wavered, left his, went back to the water and to Jill, bobbing up and down there like a small, precarious cork. "Darling Jill,” she murmured. “So placid,”
“Those darn water wings!” Jack muttered absently.
That was all. Neither of them faced what lay behind it. Neither of them knew.
But inside Jack was repeating that word. Placid. A soft word, a word without any spur in it. Did it fit? Was Jill placid?-You couldn’t lind any springboard in placidity. You couldn’t sharpen your will on it and hitch your wagon to it. It smothered you. Had he been smothered? They were new, half-formed, unwilling notions.
HE THOUGHT them for the rest of that day, even long after Lucy had left—going by land this time, insisting that she needed the walk. He thought them during most of a sleepless night. And in the morning, at breakfast, they came right up to the top of his mind, for Jill herself plucked at them.
“ ’Morning,” she said.
“ ’Morning,” he answered, and made himself add: “Fancy meeting you here.” Her eyes stayed on his face, very serious. He gulped his orange juice and let the maid take the glass. In a minute Jill said: “Something’s the matter. What is it, Jackie?”
“Matter? Why should anything be the matter?”
“Are you happy, Jack?”
Just like that. It was so direct and so ; sudden that it floored him. He tried to think of a jovial evasion, but she didn’t wait.
“Is it what you said yesterday? You’ve nothing left to want and you feel your life’s over? Funny, I never thought of it before. But 1 have, since.” j “Bosh !” he protested, getting his breath again. “Bosh, J illy ! You know me. You ! know how 1 talk. Maybe it’s the dregs of : an actor left in me. Maybe it’s . .
But his voice was too loud. He was blustering and he saw that he wasn’t fooling her.
“What about you?” he shot at her. “Are j you happy?”
“Not if you're not. You’re my happi-
She said it so levelly, so entirely without I emphasis that he scarcely took it in.
“That’s why I asked you.” she went on reasonably. “Because if you’re not, we : ought, to do something about it. We could I arrange. There must be something we ; could find for you to aim at and to to ! want. Lucy
I "Jill!” he cried desperately, terrified by j the sharp throb he felt. "Quit that !”
I She looked at him. Then she nodded. “All right. But we can do something about it —if you like. Don’t forget.”
And she drank her coffee. He stared at lier, speechless, and saw how quiet her face was. how the brown hand which held her cup was as steady as a rock. Very faintly. I something like resentment stirred in him. I She could talk like this, with a flat frank| ness that horrified him. but she couldn’t possibly understand how lie felt. It didn’t go deep with her. She really was placid.
That was a restless, endless day. Jack wandered about. He felt strung-up, not impatient but waiting for a half-phrased question in him to be answered. He knew it had been gathering for days, that question. He knew Jill had almost precipitated it this morning. What about Lucy? the question was. What about this sudden bright force between them? What was it leading to, and what would happen when she came tonight?
The day was very hot. They swam in the afternoon. Jill splashed in the pool as usual, and Jack found a cave under the bank beyond the rock which he investigated idly. Toward dusk Jill said:
“Time to dress. I’ve got favors for the table. We want to make this a kind of party for Lucy. Please wear your mess jacket, Jackie.”
At seven-thirty Lucy came. She came in a rattletrap car, borrowed from a neighbor, which she had used on other occasions. They heard her roar up to the door. Then she came into the panelled living room where they were. She had on a white dress, long and very sheer. It made lier tanned skin glow, and her bright hair looked burnished. She was like a flame walking into the room.
“Hello, darlings,” she said. “Jiliy, you might be a daffodil in that yellow dress. Hello, lack.”
And, looking at her, he straightened. There was no more waiting in him. She was here. He felt the shock of her living, striving presence, and tried to range himself beside it as he always did. Never mind questions. Everything else—if there was anything else—could wait.
“Cocktails,” he announced. “It’s a party. Don’t tell us whether you’re a radio star. We don’t want to know. We’re going to make whoopee. This is going to be an evening to remember.”
It was an evening to remember, though not in the way he meant.
THEY WERE very gay at dinner. They pulled snappers and read the absurd fortunes in them and put on the paper caps. There was champagne. Jill drank more of it than she usually did. Her husband noticed it.
“Hey, Mrs. Trent,” he protested. “What’s this bottoms-up act? You turning into a toper?”
She was very pink under the tall silly cap. Her eyes burned.
“This is Lucy’s night,” she said earnestly . “I’m toasting her.’’
“To a turn,” Lucy laughed. “Don’t punish yourself, darling.”
“Oh.no. I want to.”
“That’s what they all say,” Jack drawled. “The punishment comes later.” Then, without meaning to, catching the look in Lucy’s blue eyes, he thought: Later? What else later? The question again. This time it would not go away.
After dinner they went outdoors, to sit on the terrace, under the tall elm tree which grew close to the door. There was an iron table there and chairs with weatherproof cushions. They had their coffee and liqueurs brought out and grew more sedate, feeling the sky’s vastness. The night was very still, very warm for that countryside, where dusk usually brought a chill. There was no moon, but the stars blazed. Jill and Lucy chatted, but Jack said very little. He listened to his wife’s voice and to Lucy’s, with that vibrant note in it like a plucked string.
After a while their talk dwindled. “This is all wrong,” Jill said, sitting upright. “We mustn’t go dreamy on ;i party night. Let’s do something.”
"All right,” Lucy agreed. “What?”
“I tell you —let’s have a swim. It’s really hot.”
“There speaks the champagne,” Jack chuckled.
“No, no. I mean it. We can take flashlights and it’ll be fun. The water’s marvellous at night. Let’s! Why not?”
Well, why not? It certainly was warm.
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and there was something exciting in the thought of black water. He sat up, too. “it’s an idea. I’m game.”
Lucy said nothing, but Jill didn’t notice. She jumped to her feet.
"Good. I’ll go hunt up some dry suits and deal them out.”
She vanished into the house, half running. They heard her high heels in the hall, pattering up the stairs. Then it. was quiet. There was only the dark and two tense people and a sudden compulsion. Lucy’s hand hung over the arm of her chair. Jack reached out, uncontrollably, and seized it.
"Are you going away?” he demanded. Her hand moved in his. He could feel how strong her fingers were.
"Oh, Jack ! 1 don’t know. What is this? What’s the matter?”
He did not answer and she stood up suddenly, breaking their grip. Her body in the white dress was slender and straight and charged like a wire. He could feel himself pulled forward, pulled to his feet. She went on. whispering:
“I don’t know myself. I’ve always been so sure, beforewhere Î was heading, what I expected. But now We’re decent people! What's happened to us?”
Then he knew. The question was answered. His restless surfeit and her radiant lack were molds which had run together. She had given him an impulse, so that he had longed for something to want. Now he liad it. He wanted her. In the end it came to that. He went close to her.
“This has happened,” he said.
And kissed her.
SITE DID not move. She was electric against him. In a moment she put up lier hands and gripped the lapels of his white jacket.
“Because you’re strong!” he said huskily. "Because you’re alive and trying and reaching up. and you make me reach up. too. You—you have wings !”
Yes, that was it. Wings, sinewy and beating. Her mouth close to his, said: “You have, too. We could go a long way, us two.”
“We will ! We’ve got to !”
He felt her relax a little, and sigh.
“If we only could! Some day—” “Not some day.” Her nearness made him forget everything. “Soon! We’ll do something. We’ll workit out. Why, if it wasn’t for Jill ”
He stopped. The name, so short, so diminutive, dropped between them like a small stone. Lucy’s hands let go his coat. She stood back from him a pace.
“We must think,” she said confusedly. “We must think.”
And next moment, while they stayed there, arrested, Jill came out of the house. She carried a straggly bundle over her arm and she wore her bathing suit and bathrobe. Her feet were bare. Jack felt a moment’s panic. Had she seen? Had she heard? He didn’t want that. It was too soon, too sudden. But her brisk voice reassured him.
“Here you are! Trunks for you, Jackie. And a snappy little number of mine for Lucy, Hurry up now.”
But Lucy, leaning pale and quiet against the table, said gently:
“Darling, d’you mind awfully if I don’t? It’s not quite as warm as it was and I’ve got the drive home, and I do have to be careful of the old vocal cords, you know.” “Oh !” Jill cried. “That’s right. No. of course you mustn’t take a chance. Maybe it wasn’t such an inspiration, after all.”
So pleasant. So ready to agree, though she did sound dashed. Jack’s heart moved queerlv. Dear little Jill, thinking up amusements while the world around her shook. He said gruffly:
“Let’s have my togs, honey. I’m no singer. Í want my swim.”
And lie went indoors to change. It only took a minute. Then he came out again and the three of them walked slowly down to the lake, following the beam of the electric flash which Jill had brought.
It was quiet down there and it seemed darker. The water shone glassily, motionless, not even lapping the shore. Lucy paused beside the deck chairs on the slope.
“¡Ti stay here. You two athletes go ahead.”
But Jack objected. He felt gay suddenly.
“Nix. Come down to the edge. I found a cave this afternoon, and I want to show you.” He flashed the torch after his wife, who had already reached the big rock and was draping her bathrobe upon it. “You all right, J illy ? Can you see?”
“1 don’t need to,” she answered. “I swim by ear.”
He laughed. He guided Lucy down toward the bank, stepped into the warm, knee-deep water and ran the light along the overhang, looking for his cave. Ah, there it. was, a black mouth as big as a barrel.
“Here,” he said. “How’s that, all lit up? Quite theatrical. Can you look in without standing on your head? Here, lean over.”
“Sure enough. But what of it? You can’t use it for a hideout. You’d never fit in it.”
“I might have stored liquor in it, in the old days.” Tier head was dose to his and he added softly: “We’ll talk some more. I’ll talk to Jill. Don’t do anything, dear. Wait.”
“Yes,” she said. “Perhaps it’s worth waiting, to—”
Suddenly she was erect on the bank. He saw her head go up and her voice came out sharply.
It echoed. No answer. None of the contented splashing and puffing which Jill made when she swam. Silence, beyond the rock.
~p()R ONE second Jack froze. Something -L happened in him; something so terrible that it had no face. Then he was out of the water. He was scrambling up the muddy bank. He was racing toward the rock; around it. The electric beam played whitely, desperately on the swimming pool. It was empty, no brown head bobbing above its surface. But spreading toward the shore and receding into the opposite darkness was a widening circle.
“Oh, God !” Jack said.
He gauged the circle’s centre, dropped his light, and dived.
It wasn’t very hard, even in the blacknight. The pool was deep, but it was small. And not. much time had elapsed. Jack shot to the bottom. He could feel it under his hands, oozy, rock strewn, with sodden branches jutting out of it. He groped forward, holding to them, keeping his eyes open though he could not see a thing. He found her quite quickly, just before the need for air grew unbearable. It was her hair which his hand touched. Then he had lier by a limp arm, gripped her. and surged frantically to the surface. It was easy to tow her to the bank, she was so small. He came out of the water, holding her in his arms and staggering a little. Lucy helped him.
“Not here,” she said sharply when he would have laid his burden down. “Take her to the house. We can’t do anything in the dark.”
She was right.
“Bring the light.” he ordered, and strode up the slope.
She came with him, holding the torch steady before his steps.
They went into the living room, not speaking. Jack laid his wife’s dripping
figure on tire couch. For a second he stood there, panting, dripping himself, seeing how young she looked, how little, like a baby bird. The terrible thing in him stirred again. Lucy pushed him.
“Light the fire,” she said. “Get some brandy.”
Then she bent over Jill.
Neither of them knew how long they worked. Five minutes—ten at the most. But it seemed an eternity before the drenched head moved faintly, the dark lashes fluttered. Jill stirred under the mountain of hot blankets. She sighed. She opened her eyes. In a moment—
“Jack,” she whispered.
He bent over her.
“You’re all right, honey.”
Her eyes struggled. He saw memory come back into them. Something else came into them which he could not read: something like anxiety, apprehension.
“Those water wings,” she murmured. “They burst. You always said they would.”
Jack tried to grin.
“See? Pappy knew best,”
“Yes. You did. You said they'd burst plop—-and that’s just what they did.”
“I know. But never mind, baby. You’re fine now. Better rest. ”
He stood up stiffly, suddenly conscious that he was shaking all over. Lucy stood up, too. She looked at his brown, only half-clad body.
“Your teeth are chattering,” she told him. “Go get dressed. I'll stay here. She'll be all right."
HE NODDED gratefully and went out rather unsteadily, to put on his clothes. Doing it, he had a chance to think a little, for the first time. He couldn’t be very lucid yet, couldn’t analyze deeply, but he knew one thing. He knew what the formless horror had been that had sprung up in him when he heard Jill’s name called into the dark, awakening only echoes. It had been fear. Stark, staring terror at the thought of losing her. He couldn’t lose Jill. She was part of him.
That was as far as he thought. It meant something, he supposed. But he was too shaken to figure it out. He pulled on a sweater and went downstairs again.
Lucy met him in the hallway. Looking at her, he realized she was tired, too.
"I’m going now,” she told him. “Jill’s dozing, but you ought to get her to bed right away. I’m so glad it’s turned out all right. ’Night, Jackie.”
“You’ll come over tomorrow?”
She opened the car door. Then she turned to him.
“No. I’m going to the city tomorrow. This is good-by, I guess.”
He didn’t know what he felt. They needed time, he thought. Both of them.
“You mustn’t!” he. protested. “We’ve got to talk. You mustn’t run away just because of an accident. We don’t know that this changes anything.”
“Yes, we do!” she said. “We thought we were superior, Jack; you and I with our clutching and our wanting. We were just blind. I’ve been dreaming, I think, but I’m awake now—just in time.”
She held out her hand, pressed his and left something in it.
“I found this,” she said. “Good-by.” She turned, climbed into the car. Its motor spluttered and the headlights flashed on. Then it shot forward, clattered through the white gate and went away down the road. Jack said blankly, feeling wooden:
He wasn’t looking at the car. He was staring at the thing in his hand which Lucy had left there. It was a small object, flat, neatly folded. It was Jill’s water wings. They were perfectly dry.
She had done it on purpose. She had swum her own three valiant strokes and sunk, deliberately.
He stood there in the dark, feeling it around him and feeling a kind of inevitable
pattern form in his head. He knew why. He remembered their talk at breakfast and her calm suggestions which liad shocked him so. Tonight probably, in lier bare feet, she had come upon him kissing Lucy. She had heard him say. ‘.‘If it. wasn’t for Jill ...” And this was her answer. From anyone else it might have seemed a bid for attention, a grandstand play, and a brutally inconsiderate one at that. But not from Jill. He knew her. She had meant to remove herself, with no thought of coming back. It was direct and simple— and exactlv like her.
Jack had a feeling in himself like eyes opening. He’d thought he had everything, that there was nothing left for him to want. Well, he was wrong. For the first time he began to see dimly how much how appallingly much he didn’t have. It was Jill who had it.
“You’re my happiness,” she had said.
And he saw that it was literally true. Tonight showed him. It didn’t matter what lier motive had been—whether she had sunk in that black water because she preferred not to live without him. or because she wanted to clear his path so that he could have what he wanted. That made no difference. What did matter was that she loved him more than she loved herself. That was her secret. It was as simple as that.
Jack stirred. Lucy’s face came up before him. and her beautiful active body. Lucy was fine. She did have wings, as he had told her, and they would take her far. But Jill had them, too. They were here in his
hands.....-Jill's wings, limp now, futile and
rather absurd. That was because her breath wasn’t in them. It was her own exhaled breath which gave them strength. She put herself into them and they held her up. He thought how he couldn’t do that. He didn’t give, he grabbed. Not every breath in his body would fill this mute contrivance as Jill could fill it. It was a way of breathing—a way of living -which he simply didn’t know.
Then his head went up. But he could learn ! Why not? He was only twenty-four and already he’d earned every single material asset which most men spent their lives earning. That left forty—maybe fifty-—years to try for this new objective.
HE STUFFED the water wings into his pocket and went indoors to his wife. She was still lying on the couch before the lire, still buried under blankets with her face very small and white above them. She wasn’t asleep. She was staring at the flames with an expression he couldn’t read.
“Bed!” he announced, coming into the room. “You’ve done enough acrobatics for one day, Mrs. Trent. Tired?”
“Some,” she sighed. “Where’s Lucy?” “Lucy’s gone. She left ‘good night’ for you. She’s off tomorrow, to lick the world and come out on top.”
Jill looked at him intently, as he stood above her. He could feel the passionate question in her eyes and he met them squarely.
"To find fame and fortune,” she murmured. “All the things she wants.” “And romance,” he said.
He kept his clear look on her until her own fell away, satisfied. Then he stooped and picked her up, blankets and all.
“Sure you’re all right, Jilly?”
“Oh. yes.” Again her eyes met his, anxiously, almost guiltily. “Those darn wings.” she mourned. “I never thought they’d let me down.”
She was lying. She would, of course. He helped her do it. He stooped and kissed her gently, holding her in his arms like a prize.
“Maybe you filled ’em too full,” he drawled. “You gave ’em everything you had, and forgot to worry. Me, I’m not that trusting.”
But for the rest of his life, he knew, it would be something to try for—something to want.