The Breath of Scandal/Chapter 14

CHAPTER XIV

IT was a cool, sunny April morning—one of those perfect spring days when a steady, pleasant breeze blows from the lake, clearing away smoke and dust and lifting even the city heaviness from the atmosphere; a day of lightness and lilt, characteristic of spring in Chicago; and, of those who were entering the big office building from the walk, no one seemed to feel fuller response to the invigoration of the day than the woman whom Gregg at once recognized as Sybil Russell.

She came in from the street a few minutes after twelve. Her energy and aliveness were the first noticeable qualities of her; as Gregg had commented to himself on that night, when suddenly she confronted him after he had broken into her apartment on Clearedge Street, she seemed consciously to avoid playing up her physical attractions. Her regular features were almost handsome; her brown hair pleasing; her figure was good; but it evidently was her preference in business hours, as it had seemed to have been her choice that night at Clearedge Street, not to obtrude her body. She was dressed smartly in a blue, rather new, tailored suit with a small, smart blue sailor; a trim, new gray glove covered her slender, capable looking hand which clasped a medium-sized brown leather portfolio. She drew men's eyes; every one passing glanced at her; but no one's eyes dwelt upon her as men's eyes lingered on far less handsome and well-proportioned girls going in and out the building. Almost all of them sought observation more than she. There was a dark-haired girl now contrasting with her; a stenographer, probably; in all likelihood, a "nice" girl and not nearly so good looking as Mrs. Russell but, in comparison with Sybil Russell, the other girl sought observation and, when she gained it, rewarded it without suggesting inward barriers to acquaintance. Even the man behind the cigar and candy counter opposite the elevators seemed able to imagine himself making progress with the dark-haired girl. But Sybil Russell was one whom the business men who passed her—lawyers, insurance agents and such—invariably noticed but as invariably put out of their minds because she showed, plainly, that she bore nothing for them.

She had not seen Gregg when she entered for it was evidently not the habit of her eyes to rove over men standing about, but during the moments while she waited for a descended car to empty, she half turned and suddenly recognized him. He saw her startle very slightly and then, when he believed she was not going to speak, she nodded to him.

He raised his hat and stepped forward. "How do you do, Mrs. Russell," he said, and instantly realized that she perceived he had come there to find her. She stepped back from the group entering the elevator.

"Do you want to talk with me?" she asked in a low, controlled voice.

"I'd like to," Gregg said.

"Where?"

He had expected no such directness as this and he admitted it. "I hadn't thought of that, Mrs. Russell."

"Do you want to come up to my office? We can talk in a private room."

"No, thanks."

He did not at all desire a talk of that sort; in a private room, secured for a private conversation, they must become stiff with each other—too self-conscious, at least; and self-consciousness breeds opposition. Gregg did not think this out but he felt it; and, having rejected her suggestion of her office, they had as alternative the hall or the sidewalk or a restaurant. That was the obvious resort for this hour, though it only now occurred to him, in spite of his having come here to look her up at noon. He had merely thought, "I'll probably find her at noon and have a chance to speak with her," without realizing, until he saw her, how many and difficult must be the words required.

"Couldn't we talk over a table?" he asked, in his pleasant way.

"Where do you mean?"

He discerned that she was testing him to see where he would take her, so he named the most thoroughly reputable hotel restaurant near-by.

"Yes, that's a good place," she agreed slowly, as though considering the restaurant; but of course he knew she was sizing him up as he was re-appraising her, checking his present impressions with those he had carried from that night on Clearedge Street,

Although it was more evident this noon that her years were few, if any, more than his, she held toward him the air of one older in experience or comprehension, at least. Partly that was defensive, he thought; but it was the only hint of the defensive in her manner. She was no nearer to accepting the status of a Magdalene than she had been that night; and she was as completely free now, as then, from that disgusting, slick assumption of superiority pretended to by the few individuals whom Gregg knew as boasted "free" lovers. Plainly she had a settled conviction that her code of conduct was her individual affair, which others had no right to question and which she had no impulse to preach to others.

"Let's go there, then," Gregg said. "I've been in a sort of smash-up, you see; but I hope it's not too noticeable."

"I think they'll let you in," she said. "Remember, I always pay my own check."

"All right," Gregg agreed, remembering that to pay for herself was one of her fetishes.

She went up to her office and while Gregg waited, he diverted himself with imagining the explosion if Bill dropped in and learned that he was going out to lunch with Mrs. Russell. To eat with any one implied with Bill a definite approval of that person; Bill liked to think almost ceremoniously, it seemed; phrases like the traditional "breaking of bread together" and the significance of "sharing salt" naturally occurred to Bill; never to Gregg. He had mixed with many sorts of people too much. Of course to go to lunch with Mrs. Russell vaguely meant to Gregg more than merely to talk with her in her office; but he was not now bothering about exactly what it did mean; for he was going to do it as the most effective means of serving Marjorie. When Mrs. Russell had asked him where he meant to go, he had named the thoroughly reputable LaSalle, where he naturally would take any of his friends, and where his acquaintance, of the best sort, might see him.

But Gregg gave the opinions of onlookers hardly a thought as, with Mrs. Russell, he entered the big, handsome hotel; he had no reason to, for no one could challenge, on her appearance or manner, the character of the young woman who sat at the table opposite him. In her office, she had done the dozen little things, no one of which a man can discern but which all together freshen a woman and make her younger; and perhaps part of her transformation was that, when she sat down, she ceased the assumption that she was older than Gregg; but she did not depart a jot from her principle of independence.

"We will have two checks," she said to the waiter, as she took one of the menus and, without consulting Gregg, ordered chicken, cocoa and a salad. He ordered a chop and coffee, started to ask her, "That's all you really want?" but remembered in time and laid down the menu and smiled.

"How's business?" he asked her, as the waiter vanished.

"You have to go get it," she said. "But I'm ahead of last year, even on new business. How's yours?"

"Rotten, recently," Gregg admitted heartily. "I guess I'm not a go-getter."

"Your business is different from mine; when people feel insecure, they can be sold more insurance; but ice-machines require investment outlays that people are putting off just now."

Mr. Hale told her about me, Gregg thought; and the image of Marjorie's father having discussed with her Marjorie's friends—discussed Marjorie, likely, and his wife—gave Gregg an unwelcome reaction. Mrs. Russell observed it and immediately and with entire coolness informed him that she comprehended it.

"You will not have to tell me much about the persons concerned, Mr. Mowbry," she said, bringing him directly to the matter for which, she knew, he had sought her. "Nor about how they have been affected. What your friend Rinderfeld has not mentioned to me, I may imagine from what I knew before of the family. Besides knowing something in general of Mrs. Hale, I saw her once in Field's with her husband; of course I saw their daughter that night at my apartment. I fully understand that Mrs. Hale does not share the disillusionment which has come to her daughter."

No mention of Marjorie by name; twice, indeed, deliberate avoidance of it; Gregg appreciated the tact of that though he said nothing, because she left him, at this moment, nothing to say. She had gazed directly at him while she had been speaking, but now she looked down in attention to drawing off her gloves; as she pulled them out smooth after she had them off and still pulled at them, Gregg watched, not her face, but her hands; for, though she herself was gazing at her hands, she was unconscious of them and of the sensation they betrayed. Long, well-shaped hands, she had, not soft-looking; hands of a determined character, faultlessly clean and well-kept without being over-manicured; hands capable of expressing restraint but just now off guard and warm and pink and pulsating. She could put passion in them and equally in the warmth of her grasp of another's hand or in the almost untouching softness of her caress; for now she ceased to pull at her gloves and, as she laid them on the cloth, she drew her hand away with her finger tips lingering on the soft suede.

Gregg looked up at her suddenly and much better understood her and much more fully comprehended what had happened. He found himself comparing her with the woman she had just mentioned, with the other woman who, at one time, had greatly attracted Charles Hale; and Gregg appreciated what this woman and Mrs. Hale had in common,—self-constraint and reserve. Hale, himself, wanted these qualities; he was a man constantly expressing himself, enjoying feelings and liking to stir others to feelings; so a girl, such as his wife had been, must have come to him as a sort of challenge. She had been beautiful and constrained and reserved; and he had set himself to make her show feeling.

Thought Gregg, probably he—having so much feeling of his own—never imagined that a person could exist without as much; probably he was sure, when he married, he could kindle that cool, self-assured, reserved girl who, by her very constraint, allured him. But at last, thought Gregg, he found he could not. Gregg recollected the stiffness of Mrs. Hale's hand when in his own and he realized—as subconsciously he had understood before—that she had not been making her handclasp meaningless for him; it always was a meaningless formality with her—a rite of tactual sensation which she did not desire and which, probably, actually offended her.

Gregg could not imagine Sybil Russell making her handclasp meaningless, if she tried; she might express dislike of a person by it, as surely she could convey much feeling; but she could not keep sensation out of the contact; for she compressed passions below her exterior of reserve.

He pictured her standing in one aisle at Field's while, in another, or a little away in the same aisle, Mrs. Hale made her thoughtful, deliberate purchases with her husband at her side; and Gregg wondered whether Charles Hale saw Sybil Russell and, if he did, whether the two spoke.

"Of course it is the daughter," Mrs. Russell commented quietly, gazing up at Gregg, "who is in the hard position. I've been thinking about her a good deal. I would have liked to go and talk to her, if that were possible. Of course it has not been. So that was why I was glad to see some one—besides your friend Rinderfeld—who has access to her."

"What has Rinderfeld told you about her?" Gregg asked too quickly.

Mrs. Russell made no betrayal motion of surprise but the intensity of her gaze at Gregg seemed suddenly to deepen.

"Nothing to me," she replied, quietly, "except that we must always remember that, although the daughter knows, she is as much to be protected from consequences as her mother—more to be protected, in fact; more."

The repetition and emphasis of that evidently was quotation from Rinderfeld; and the hearing of it sent hot blood through Gregg's veins. But he offered no comment.

"I presume that you, too, are more interested in protection of the daughter than of the mother," Mrs. Russell went on calmly. "For her, you came to see me."

"I am," Gregg admitted and gazed from her down at the table in silence for a moment. "Too," the word kept bothering him. Then he shook off this obsession about Rinderfeld and said:

"She's trying to salvage something from her home—that girl up in Evanston whom we're both thinking of—without a chance in the world to save much. Her home's gone; she surely realizes that; she wouldn't have it go on as before; she knows her father and mother must separate. But a man can't tell her to give up the hold she has on what's left until he can show her something in its place. Whittaker, whom you've seen a little of"—Mrs. Russell flushed slightly—"seems to have been offering her a home of her own with him; but she hasn't been able to really consider that yet; otherwise, he hasn't suggested much beyond the smashing of what she has left and scandal and divorce and disgrace. Rinderfeld has been advising—I don't know exactly what yet, but in effect he's trying to preserve the status quo, at least temporarily. Of course, as a permanent proposition, that's impossible; and he knows it. I—I'm going up to see her to-night, Mrs. Russell; and I've got to bring her something besides flowers. You said you were glad to see me because I can go to her; what word did you want to send to her?"

"What did you come to me to ask me?"

"About her father," Gregg answered directly.

"What about him?"

"What happens to him—next?"

"You mean, will he be in danger again from George Russell?"

"You know what I mean."

"Yes; will he come back to me? Why don't you ask him that? Or, if she wants to know, let her ask him; her mother and she are taking him home now." Mrs. Russell glanced down quickly at the small, octagonal watch she wore on her wrist, "Yes; this is about the time; they probably have him home again with them now."

"I didn't know that," Gregg said quietly, not endeavoring to counteract her sudden bitterness. "But of course it makes no difference; his daughter can't ask him that. He's not the one to ask; you are, when the question's put a bit differently. Are you going to take him back? Of course, he'll go to you. That night, I tried to stop him from going down to you. You see, I'd heard, and so I told him that probably he'd be shot, if he went. So I reckon he went to you a little more directly than if I hadn't spoken."

Gregg stopped; Hale hadn't told her that, he discerned, as he watched the tightening of her lips and the quick, half-clenching of her hands.

"When he was shot," Gregg went on, "that was another effort to prevent him doing what he wished; he will recover from that effort, and wish as before. What are you going to do?"

Sybil Russell kept her eyes steadily on Gregg's, and he had the extraordinary sensation that, by her eyes, she was trying to hold his from examining her; from witnessing the working of her lips, the prolonged holding and then the sudden inspiration of her breath lifting her bosom quickly and the pulse which visibly rat-tatted in her neck. A flush flowed over her face, vanished and resurged hot and red, and for the moment Gregg could not think of any one but of her who had given herself in marriage four years ago to one big, powerful, vital man, Russell, when he had been a soldier, finding—well, not what she had undoubtedly deluded herself to expect. But now, with another man, she had found it, and some one was asking if she would give it up.

"The word I wanted to send to his daughter, if it were possible for it to mean anything to her," Mrs. Russell said deliberately and with almost perfect control, "was that her father came to me because he loves me; I keep him for that and for no other reason."

She said "keep" without a loudening or describable change in her voice, but Gregg thought he had never heard a word uttered with equal determination; she put in one breath "neither life nor angels nor principalities nor powers nor things present nor things to come nor height nor depth nor any other creature" should balk her; and it left Gregg nothing more to ask or to say. They talked when the waiter brought their luncheon and they ate, but neither returned to mention of the Hales; for Gregg had his answer and she had said what she had wished.

Arriving alone in his car at the Hales' that evening, Gregg did not go up the driveway as he had on the night of the dance; instead, he stopped at the curb a short way from the house and got out to walk up and down a minute before going in. He had flowers in a box under his arm and that, after all, seemed to him to form about the total of what he was bringing Marjorie; and he rebelled at going to her with no more upon an evening which, in some ways, must be the hardest in all her life.

Up there in her father's room was a light and beside it undoubtedly was her father in his bed, with her mother watching beside him, fond and solicitous and wholly unsuspicious. How strange, Gregg thought, that the house could appear identical to-night as upon other nights, that it could seem to any casual passerby a secure home, when in reality it was rent from top to bottom; and not even the mistress of it knew.

Gregg stopped beside one of the big trees in the parkway between the walk and the avenue and was standing in the shadow from the nearest street lamp when a car approached and slowed and finally halted almost opposite the tree. It was a new, shining roadster with only the driver on the seat, and he turned to the Hales' and leaned forward to have a better look at the lighted windows.

He had not noticed Gregg, who at first failed to make out the man's features; Gregg caught only his posture and said to himself, "Here's some one who knows something." Then Gregg's reactions ran on, "He knows that home's broken; he's come to see what he's to have out of the smash; he's not trying to take it now; he's willing to wait because he knows—by God, he's Rinderfeld!"

Gregg almost called that aloud; he was not sure he did not; he did move and betray his presence, for Rinderfeld's aquiline outline was gone; gears sounded, the motor moved off. And Gregg stood staring after him, the box of flowers on the grass.

"Rinderfeld!" he repeated in fright with himself and felt the return of that stark terror by which, in his dream, he had been helpless to move to save Marjorie from sinking in the mire. "Rinderfeld's waiting outside for her, to get her when we've fallen down at doing anything for her and her home's gone. Rinderfeld wants her!"

More than that, indeed, Gregg had caught in that flash of recognition of Rinderfeld's features in the rays of the arc light, but he could not say the whole of it even to himself; it was, "Rinderfeld knows how he will get her."

Gregg was watching the tail light of Rinderfeld's car which turned the corner next and did not seem to pick up speed after completing the turn. Gregg received the idea that Rinderfeld was stopping around the corner and he was about to follow to ascertain the truth when he heard the front door of the Hale house open. A girl appeared in the oblong of light—Marjorie! What a jump she gave Gregg suddenly showing herself like that! She was coming out alone and, evidently, secretly; he saw her look quickly behind her, as if to make sure she was not observed; then quietly she closed the door and hurried down to the walk.