The Breath of Scandal/Chapter 11

CHAPTER XI

IT proved to be on the second day, which was a mid-April Tuesday, rainy and cold, as it happened, with a raw wind from the north. Mr. Stanway's car appeared shortly after four-thirty, and Marjorie, upon recognizing it, stood at her window and watched it come up to the house. She had been waiting for it and she was dressed so as to be able immediately to meet Mr. Stanway but, as she observed his approach, she was seized by such a paralysis as one experiences occasionally in nightmares; she felt as if threatened with annihilation and knew she must move but she could not.

The approaching motor was a trim, dark maroon-enameled coupé of the town car pattern, which exposed the driver to the pouring rain without even a projection of the top to shelter him, while the single passenger, of course, sat in the perfect dryness and comfort of the upholstered seat behind the glass. The ostentatious use of such a car on such a day always angered Marjorie, particularly when she knew the owner possessed other cars; and it always had made her father indignant. He never let himself be guilty of such disregard of any one in his employ. When Leonard drove in bad weather, it was in a Berline, which protected him, too.

Marjorie suddenly found herself freed from her seizure of helplessness and she hastened into the hall in time to hear Mr. Stanway ask for Mrs. Hale in his crisp, affected voice.

He always spoke with an "English" inflection to which he added an air of aloofness in his manner of standing and gazing at one; and he strove for—and undoubtedly to some, he attained—distinction in his clothes. Marjorie had never seen him, even about the office, in a practical business suit such as her father wore in daytime; and now his tall, ascetic-looking figure appeared more disdainful than usual in a buttoned black cutaway coat of the severest English fashion with gray and black striped trousers without a visible wrinkle. He did not—when in Chicago, at least—go so far as to assume a single eyeglass, but he suggested the effect by wearing about his collar a narrow black ribbon which went to pince-nez, usually in his waistcoat pocket, but which he took in his hand and held up toward his thin, narrow nose when he wished to be impressive. Marjorie had never seen the glasses actually in place on his nose since he had begun carrying them about five years ago when his hair first showed gray.

He pulled them from his pocket now as she neared him and held them up in his usual manner as though, without them, he could not recognize her.

"Ah! How do you do?" he replied to her in one tone, after she had spoken his name. "How do you do? You are Miss Hale, undoubtedly; of course I know you, Miss Mary Hale; or is it Martha?"

"My name's Marjorie," she told him, and was furious at herself; he always at first was doubtful about her; always forgot her name; and, always, as now, he patronized her afterwards.

"Of course, I remember well when you were born; your father was working in my office, I recall. No one had appreciated him then but myself; I soon became sure he had a great future. That was nineteen years ago, was it? Or twenty?"

"I am twenty-two," Marjorie said; and again was furious.

"It doesn't seem that long ago. Where is your mother? She is in?"

Marjorie led him to the far end of the drawing-room where ordinary tones could not be overheard and where no one could approach them without being seen.

"Mother has gone out," she said. "But she may return soon. Do you want to talk to me while waiting for her, Mr. Stanway?"

She had embarked, with those words, upon her prepared plan, and they sounded rehearsed and forced to her; she sat down, without waiting for him to be seated, and she glanced up at him to see if he was sensitive to the falseness of her tone. It was true that her mother was away from the house, for Marjorie had maneuvered that; it was also true, in the sense that it was possible, that her mother might return; but Marjorie had no idea of permitting him to wait till the time of her probable return. He, however, seemed to suspect nothing. He had dropped his glasses into his pocket and was peering with apparent interest about the big, well-furnished room. He would like to find something showy or in bad taste in this home of his equal, who had been his clerk, Marjorie thought; and she glowed warmly with triumph that he could not so pronounce anything he saw; her mother's taste in furnishing had been restrained and good; and her father, too, liked the really graceful and beautiful more than the merely conspicuous.

"It is the first time I have had the pleasure of being in your home," Stanway said at last, sitting down and evidently abandoning his quest of bad furniture.

Marjorie ignored that remark, which only admitted his persistent refusal to recognize her father as his equal. "Equal?" she repeated to herself; this pretentious, supercilious incompetent, who was determined to obtain for himself the rewards and honor of work without doing the work himself—indeed, while disdaining to look and act as if he ever worked. He was no equal to her father.

Her father really worked and he was proud of it; he looked like a worker and he wanted to; and she swore with herself that, whatever else happened, this man should not seize for himself what her father had created and earned; not he who dared not himself openly throw the stone of scandal at her father; not he who had first endeavored through Russell—so Felix Rinderfeld at least believed—to ruin her father so that he could put himself in her father's place; not he who was here now to set her mother to his task for him.

"It is impossible for me, I suppose, to step upstairs, while I am waiting, to see your father?" he said, with a slight, dubious rise of his voice.

"Impossible," Marjorie replied quietly, closing her lips firmly and bracing herself with her hands on the sides of her chair. "Did you come here expecting to be able to see him, Mr. Stanway?"

"I have heard, of course, that he is much improved; but I have heard also that his condition was originally much more serious than at first given out."

"It was; what else have you heard, Mr. Stanway?"

He gazed at her, blinked and fingered for his glasses.

"What else, Mr. Stanway, have you come to let us hear?"

"Let you hear?" said Stanway.

Marjorie stood up. She felt little; and she wished for height. She had not felt small in the chair; but now she longed for tallness and strength, not perhaps to put her hands on him and show him out, but at least to stand, more dignified, before him and not so much shorter, as he too got to his feet.

"We know what you have come to tell us, Mr. Stanway," she said, resorting again to a phrase she had prepared. "We knew even that you were coming this afternoon to tell us, That is why my mother is not seeing you; I have undertaken to meet you in her place. But to save you trouble, please believe me that I know everything you do. I am quite sure."

She looked up at him directly and with steady eyes and tight-shut lips and with burning face. For an instant, as he gazed down at her, a wave of fright swept her. Suppose Rinderfeld were wrong; suppose this man did not know, or, at least, had not known, what had she told him? What had she put into his hands? But she continued to look into his small, crafty eyes and her terror passed. Finish his story for him—and finish him, Rinderfeld had said; and so she went through with it.

"I mean, particularly, about George Russell and about the Mrs. Russell who used to be his wife, Mr. Stanway," she said in a low voice but distinctly, "and the particular number on Clearedge Street which you have in mind. We do not know all we would like about your own connection with Russell; if you want to tell us about that, we will be very glad to hear you. Otherwise, you will excuse me, I am sure; and will continue to excuse mother."

It was not quite what she had prepared; it was formed from parts of a longer declaration with phrases picked out here and there. She had prepared nothing to say after it; for she had not thought of anything she could say; he must go at once, she thought. When he did not, but merely stood gazing down at her, his glasses on his nose at last, she went white and weak under his scorn as his thin, contemptuous lips parted slightly and he smiled; then she flamed red and furious,—so furious that, if she had been a man, she would have run him out of the house but, being a girl and small, she herself fled upstairs to her room, where she flung herself on her bed and cried and cried.

Below, doors opened and closed, and from outside came the hum of a starting motor. Mr. Stanway had gone; but the fact that she had succeeded in sending him off did not lessen her despair at her own self-degradation. She had never before sunk to such dishonor; she had not even imagined herself one of those capable of resorting to such baseness; and so, perhaps because of this, she had actually prepared her meeting with Mr. Stanway along lines which Rinderfeld had suggested, without realizing how she was involving herself. For not till after she had actually said her words to him and found him gazing down at her in a way he never could have before did she feel how she had degraded herself and demeaned her mother.

Mr. Stanway had said not an audible word to her when she had finished; but the curl of his thin, supercilious lip and the contempt in his little, gray eyes would live with her—she was sure—forever. For she, not her father, had brought contempt upon her family; she had seen contempt come to Mr. Stanway; he had not had it before; though he had arrived, undoubtedly, with full knowledge of her father's sin, still he had arrived with fear of her father.

So, in another respect, the astounding statements of Rinderfeld—which rang through her head—were proving correct. It appeared that a man could do as her father had done and his associates become aware of it without that fact's destroying him; without, indeed, its earning him even their contempt. But for his women to condone it, ah, that was a different matter! And after that downstairs door was closed, and that motor of the town car started, Marjorie would have thrust herself up from her bed, if it would have done any good, and cried out that she had lied; she had falsified and dishonored her mother. It was only herself who knew and who made no move; she would proclaim that her mother—if she knew—would act openly, relentlessly and with utter disregard of all other consequences.

If her mother had returned home just then, almost certainly she would have learned from Marjorie; but she did not come until after six o'clock and before that hour, arrived Billy.