The Breath of Scandal/Chapter 12

CHAPTER XII

IT was earlier than usual for him on a week-day evening, but her mother had telephoned him from the hospital, inviting him out to dinner.

He had received a telegram from Gregg from Freeport, Illinois, blandly informing that Gregg would be home that night. Of course it relieved Billy, as he supposed Gregg meant he was all right, but Gregg had no right to go off like that without a word to him. Billy was in reproachful mood and he continued it with Marjorie. "You do nothing but mope about the house, your mother says," Billy reproved her fondly, as he held her before him after kissing her. "You must be out more and doing things."

"What things?" said Marjorie; and Billy did not particularize. His big, tender heart was feeling for her all it could, these days; and his conscience seemed crammed with a cargo as heavy and sinking as lead.

"Of course I understand," he said, gazing down at her beside him as she led him, somewhat as she had Mr. Stanway, away to the far, quiet corner of the drawing-room. He longed to lift her small, soft body and hold her against him and cradle her in his big, strong arms; but she did not like such physical contact, he knew. Sometimes he wondered if she would ever like it; or if she would have, if that paralyzing disclosure of her father's sin had not come to her on the night they became betrothed. He believed she would; for naturally she had strong, physical feelings and she used to express them. Yearning for her as she had been, and as she might now be with him, he put more emphasis in, "You can't feel like yourself, and I can't feel like myself, Marjorie—I'm not even doing my work right at the office—as long as we're hiding from other people and from ourselves, dear. Sweetheart, we're just putting off, from weakness, what we know we have to face and we're making it harder for ourselves and every one else, when we have to do it in the end."

"Do what?" said Marjorie miserably, wanting no answer for of course she knew. So, for answer, he took one of her hands and held it, soft and yielding, in his own. They were sitting together on a lounge.

"Concealment, dear, is about the most dangerous thing in the world, besides putting those who help conceal almost in the position of—of the one who did the thing concealed, Marjorie," he went on. "It is concealed, suppressed acts or even only suppressed ideas and fears which bring about all sorts of abnormal states of morals and mind and even of health, the psychologists are finding out now. You can't live a lie, even if you think you're doing it successfully, without something about it getting you. And, Marjorie, you can't live with concealed—sin."

He clasped her hand firmer at that, but she let hers lie as limp and relaxed as before. She heard what he was saying but she was not thinking about it; she was thinking about him, and flashes of feeling for him, alternating with queer, dull periods of almost antagonism, surprised her. How big and healthy he was, and all clean. She was not religious; as a child she had attended Sunday school, as a matter of habit, where she had learned the ten commandments and the catechism and, of course, heard a good deal of the old testament and most of the new; but it had been a matter of rote or formalism. When she was about sixteen, and undergoing the spiritual emotions common to that age, she had been sufficiently gratified by the forms of the Episcopal Church so that she had become "confirmed"; but soon afterwards she had ceased attending oftener than at some occasional service. Religion—that was, the belief in a just and judging God, a dispenser of rewards and of retribution—had not become a part of her; it is the modern fashion to dismiss superior "judgments" and fear of retribution as superstition. And Marjorie was modern. When Billy expressed a belief of that sort, she could not help feeling superior to him at the same time that, also, she envied him. He was religious; every Sunday morning he was to be found in one of the pews of the big Presbyterian church on the Drive near East Pearson Street. In an indulgent sort of way, she liked that in Billy; it was a reassuring fact about him—to have his religion sincere—but she never quite saw what benefit it gave him. Now she did; for he had something, which she had not, to cling to. You couldn't cling to what she had—a perfect verbal memory of the ten commandments and articles of faith which you didn't believe. Yet she did not agree that Billy was right. People did live with concealed sin; it was only a child's tale that they could not. Rinderfeld's prosperity was an open denial of such superstition; for his business was, after all, the successful concealing of sin and the prevention of punishment.

"Can you live better with scandal, Billy?" she said, trying to keep her voice from being hard but not wholly succeeding.

"Much better, Marjorie, in the end. Oh, sweetheart, I feel the awfulness of it, too; but we've got to go through it or——"

"Or what?"

"We can never be happy, you and I; your father can never be happy; or your mother."

"Mother's happy now—now that she feels father will be well again. She's planning again to go to Europe, just as she used to, only on the second May sailing of the Aquitania instead of the April."

"That's false happiness, as you perfectly well know," Billy said with a difficult effort to keep patience.

"How much happiness is, Billy? I have been moping about a lot, recently; but moping means thinking some. My home is dishonorable; but it required at least four accidents, all to happen together, before even I could suspect it. First, there was the accident—for it was no more than that—that Mrs. Russell had been married and so Russell was in a position to cause trouble; second, the accident that he was of the disposition to threaten; third, that father was in the position to make it worth his while; fourth, Doctor Grantham happened to have a new assistant who bungled the address and knew no better than to call me. If any of these first chances had fallen the other way, I'd be happy as ever; and if they all fell as they did, and Doctor Grantham hadn't a green girl in his office, to-night I'd be worrying only about father's health."

"But it would have been false happiness, Marjorie."

"Are you sure we can spare false happiness, Billy? Is there enough of the other to go all around?"

His hold on her limp hand had been relaxing; now he let go entirely. "Marjorie!" he whispered in horror.

"Four or five thousand men working for Tri-Lake Products and their wives and children can stand a little more false happiness this year, I'll believe, if ask them."

"What are you talking about?"

"Father; and concealed sin; and false happiness. Mr. Stanway has been here this afternoon, Billy, to call on mother, his first call at our home, so he could tell her about Clearedge Street and have her start the scandal for him which would force father out and put him in father's place. Mr. Rinderfeld told me he was coming so I sent mother out this afternoon, and I saw him and spiked his gun by telling him that I knew all about it." She gasped at her memory and then, "I told him—that is, I as well as told him—that mother knew, too. That was false; a direct, black, low lie, Billy. It slandered mother. I could have bitten my tongue out for it after I said it. If she'd come in, I'd have told her everything. But then I got thinking again of Mr. Stanway in father's place—after he put Russell up to making that trouble; that's what he did, Mr. Rinderfeld thinks. Did I tell you that the other day?"

"No," said Billy. "What difference does it make?"

"Whether he put Russell up to it? Billy!"

"I meant, what Rinderfeld thinks. That man's absolutely depraved. I wish you'd never refer to anything he said."

"I think of what he said any number of times a day."

"Why?"

"Because he's told me so much that's true that I never heard before. Because he looks on people as they are, I think, Billy. He's helped me more than any one else."

"Rinderfeld!" Billy breathed with redoubled loathing.

"Oh, Billy, you and I can't go together on this; for it hasn't done the same to you and to me. It really hasn't made any difference to you at all."

"What do you say?" Billy turned directly to her and with his strong fingers seized her small shoulders and held her facing him. "You've no right to say that; you must be mad, Marjorie. There's never happened anything in my life——"

"That has made you feel as much," Marjorie finished quickly. "Oh, that I know; but it hasn't started you thinking, Billy; it hasn't twisted everything around for you and forced you to find yourself all over again. You're—going on just as you used to. You're separating people, as the Sunday-school cards used to show pictures of God doing, into a flock of sheep and a flock of goats; you see a person, Billy, as good, or you see him as bad. That's an awfully easy and convenient way to class people—as long as you can let it satisfy you. I mean, as long as you can make it work. It tells you just how you ought to do; to know the good people, of course, and admire them and make them your friends and do business with them and to avoid the bad. Now you used to suppose that father was good; and when this happened and you found out you'd made a mistake, that was a big surprise to you and a frightful shock; but it didn't do any more than shock you, Billy. It didn't drive you out of yourself to make over all your ideas; for you simply had to slip father, in your mind, from the side where you keep your list of good men, whom you admire, to the side of the bad whom you don't want to have anything to do with. But that arrangement's too easy for this, Billy; it won't work with me."

Her breath gave out but not her will or her courage; he was holding her so rigidly that he hurt her, but she scarcely knew it. She kept her eyes straight on his and rushed on.

"Father's been false to mother and false to my ideal of him; but he's not been false to his business and the men—the thousands of men with their families—who have work this spring, when millions of men just like them are idle. They have that work because my father's a big, able, useful man. He has absolute honor in his commercial contract; he's a better leader, a better executive and he has more foresight and courage than any other man who would step into his place, if he were ruined. And the world never needed a man like him more than now, when most concerns are laying off men by the thousand or shutting down entirely, and Tri-Lake is taking men on. That's not nothing; that's a big, invaluable quality! It's easy enough to say he's bad; but, in all but one part of his life, who is better? Knock down father and who, besides Mr. Stanway, would thank you? Anyhow, I'll not see Mr. Stanway taking his place. But I was almost ready to wreck everything, for the sake of feeling right, when you came."

"Then why in the world aren't you now?"

"Because you're so sure it must be right; and right isn't always the best; it's only always the obvious thing to do."

"Rinderfeld," said Billy, "I suppose, taught you that."

"No; I just saw it for myself, after talking with him."

Billy became conscious of the rigor of his hands and he relaxed his grasp of her. "You've made me perfectly sure what I must do, Marjorie. I knew you'd been—deteriorating under this terrible strain. It had to damage you; no one could stop that; but I can stop the damage from keeping on. Therefore, when your mother comes in, I shall end this deceit and concealment."

"You mean——"

"I shall tell her."

Marjorie threw herself forward so quickly that she freed herself from his hands but only to seize the lapels of his coat with both her own. "No, you won't!" She fought him and tried, with her small strength, to shake him. "You won't; not now after I've lied to Mr. Stanway to-day and beaten him and got him off; and after I've seen Rinderfeld and—and after everything else I've done. You shan't tell her. Not now have not said, you can always say, Billy; but when you've said it, you can never take it back. So tell me you won't; tell me you won't; tell me——" Her voice suddenly was gone; her strength, which she had gathered all together in the attack of her hands on him, also was gone; her arms dropped; her head fell forward and she gasped and choked, deadly sick; so Billy grasped her, calling her name and crying for help in his alarm.

"No," she whispered. "No." She managed to motion to forbid him calling in a servant. "I'm all right."

"Marjorie!" he besought her, in his fright. "What have I done? What can I do for you? Tell me!"

"Go!" she whispered. "Go, Billy; just go! Leave me alone! Don't do anything but—go!"

She got upon her feet and led him to the door, and, obeying her in fright that, if he did not, she would be stricken again, he went.

She lay on the lounge for a while after he had departed but soon ascended to her room; she had bathed her face and arranged her hair and changed her dress before her mother entered the house and came to her.

"Where is Billy, dear?" she asked. "Martin tells me he has been here and has gone."

"Yes," said Marjorie. "We had a quarrel, I'm afraid."

Her mother kissed her. "People in love have little difficulties, dear. They'll smooth out, you'll find. I've good news to-night. Your father is so much stronger that he can come home to-morrow."

Marjorie started.

"Why, what's the matter, Marjorie."

"Nothing, mother. I was wondering if it was perfectly safe; that's all."