The Breath of Scandal/Chapter 15
MARJORIE!" Gregg called carefully and he stepped from the shadow.
She started back and, in the dim light, he saw that she was quivering,—she who had never known what it was to possess an unsteady nerve. She did not recognize him at once; she seemed slow even to put her mind to the process of recognition, so intent was she in her errand from the house. Then she said, with an audible expiration, "Oh, you're Gregg!"
This was something of relief; but he could not feel that she was glad to see him; he realized that at first she could not think about him personally at all but that she only debated whether he would interfere with her.
"Where're you going?" he asked, advancing.
"Not far; you've come to see me, Gregg?"
"I want to see you—after a while; I want awfully to see you. You've been away doing something for me, Billy said; he hasn't told me what. I've not seen him—just telephoned. We've had trouble, Gregg."
"I know," Gregg said; still he could not feel that she was really thinking about him; she seemed to be speaking to put him off so that she could proceed about her errand. He seemed to mean nothing to her at the moment when he longed to be everything to her and to put out of her mind everyone else and, most particularly, that man whom she was on her way to meet.
Here he had her again beside him. Marjorie! And, as always, she surprised in him a wilder impulse than he had expected to feel, wilder even than he had hoped he might feel. Hers, hers he was; whatever would help her, he would do. He had not known how she had been hurt; Bill, having seen the change come upon her day after day, could not have appreciated. "How they've hurt you!" Gregg agonized with himself. "My darling, how they've hurt you!" But his dry lips uttered only the words, "I know."
"Wait for me, please, Gregg," she asked him. "I'll be back in a few minutes; just wait outside, please; don't go into the house."
She had come out with a sleeved cape over her dress and without a hat; she looked littler than usual in that big, loose cape; she was littler, Gregg thought, the buoyancy gone from her and, in its place, fear! Not fear alone; she had taken on, too, a nobler quality which he could not describe, something he had never felt in her before and which was the surprise inflaming hotter his rills of blood.
"Rinderfeld was just here in his car; he stopped before the house," Gregg said. "You knew that?"
"You came out to see him?"
"Yes; I sent for him."
At last Gregg let himself touch her, grasping her arm under the clumsy cape.
"I'll go with you to him. I think he's around the corner."
She looked up at him, but not yet was she thinking about him but of how he could aid her purpose. "Come to the door with me first," she asked. "Speak to mother and tell her we're going out together."
He acceded and went with her into the house. "Mother!" Marjorie called.
Gregg stood just inside the door gazing at her under the hall light which showed him pitilessly the change in this Marjorie from her who, a little time ago, kissed her father fondly here when he started "to St. Louis" and who so gaily and lightly set out between Bill and himself for the Lovells' dance. Her face was thinner; no doubt of it; her skin paler; she needed now a lipstick but she had not used one. Not beautiful as that other Marjorie, this girl; yet Gregg, even if he could have had that other girl back, would not have exchanged her for this Marjorie with strange, constant tension at the corners of her mouth, with her blue eyes bigger and brighter with unceasing, nervous excitement.
Her mother came down, and how little was she changed; emerging from her husband's room, she was calm and composed as ever; over her dress she wore an apron,—a perfectly fitted, linen apron with a tiny red cross embroidered in silk, undoubtedly one of the aprons she wore when managing a room of women rolling bandages during the war. It was the chief sign by which she showed that something had happened; but on sight of Marjorie, she stirred to uneasiness about her daughter and she was almost demonstrative in her greeting of Gregg.
"I'm very glad you came to-night, especially since Billy is not here," she said, giving her cool, formal hand. "Mr. Hale is very much better; he really has been in no danger for several days; but I am beginning to be worried over Marjorie. I've never seen a child feel a parent's illness so; of course she adores her father and the sudden discovery of his serious condition was an unusual shock. But now she should realize his danger is over; and she must go out more among people."
When Gregg said he was taking her for a walk, Mrs. Hale urged him to do it.
Around the corner, they found Rinderfeld's car with hood lifted and with Rinderfeld on the curb and leaning over the motor, wrench in hand, as though making an adjustment. He glanced about when they approached but again addressed himself to the motor until they left the walk and crossed the grass strip to him; then he straightened and turned as though they might be strangers stopping curiously or to offer him advice.
"Mowbry?" he questioned in a low voice.
"Yes," said Gregg.
"What has happened?" Rinderfeld immediately questioned Marjorie.
Gregg drew back a step and it was Rinderfeld who detained him. "There's no need of Mowbry going, is there?" he quickly asked Marjorie.
"No," she said, but it was plain to Gregg that she was scarcely thinking about him.
"Stay, please," Rinderfeld requested. "She telephoned me less than an hour ago; obviously I would not have chosen these circumstances for a conference; but she said it was necessary now. What is it that has happened?" he asked Marjorie again, turning to her.
"Father's home!" she uttered in a whisper.
"Yes; of course," Rinderfeld replied instantly and, it seemed even to Gregg, with deliberate chilliness. "I know that."
"Mr. Rinderfeld, I can't bear it! He's back in his room with mother reading beside him as though nothing had happened—nothing had happened——"
"Stop!" said Rinderfeld with amazing force in his scarcely audible voice. "That is all you sent for me for?"
"All?" Marjorie gasped.
"Whenever anything occurs which I may not know, please inform me at once; if necessary, send for me. When what is happening is merely in accordance with my direction," Rinderfeld continued in his cold tone, yet with a flourish, "do me the honor, please, to believe that I have taken into account the contingencies. He, as you say, is again home; but he is still a sick man; one or the other of my nurses is constantly in attendance and will remain until, a week from to-morrow, you and your mother leave Chicago for New York on your way to Europe."
He turned about, with a gesture of the dramatic, and lowered the hood of his car, flung his wrench into the tool box on the running board, and opened the door to his seat.
"I'm not going to Europe next week nor any other time, Mr. Rinderfeld!" Marjorie whispered in protest to him, grasping his sleeve as he started to get into his car.
"No?" he rejoined, freeing himself from her quietly. "You understand that, when I have to object to your suggestions, it is not for regard for my own convenience but your own protection. Good night," he said to her, starting his engine. Then, when he had the car going, "Good night, Mowbry."
Gregg returned the parting word, the first he had spoken—the first, indeed, which he had had opportunity to speak—since he acknowledged Rinderfeld's recognition of him. What would have passed between Marjorie and Rinderfeld, if he had not been present, Gregg wondered; what would have been said, if he had not surprised Rinderfeld in that off-guard moment before the Hales' home? "Smooth!" Gregg said to himself. "The smoothest proposition I ever saw. He has her coming to him; he's going to keep her coming to him! Europe! He knows she's not going to Europe; but she thinks he wants to send her away; thinks he doesn't want to see her, except when necessary on business. And he's all her affairs right in his hand—well, that was my big idea; I got him for her because I knew he was the smoothest proposition in Chicago."
He looked down at Marjorie who, thus deserted by Rinderfeld, seemed at a loss what to do.
"You want to go home?" Gregg asked her, expressionlessly.
"You really want to walk?"
He hesitated and then he clasped her arm as they started.
"You've no idea what a relief it is to have you come, Gregg," she said, as though just now able to appreciate his arrival. "Being with other people is like—well, suppose you and Billy and I had been to the war a few years ago and come back to people who hadn't heard of it and didn't even know anything had happened. That's what being with other people is like for me these days, Gregg. I can't talk to them about anything which seems real or get anything from them which means a snap of fingers to me."
Her voice wavered up and down in her difficulty of controlling it; and he noticed now how it had altered in quality, too; more of the woman's voice than Marjorie's ought to be; and the wretchedness in it struck him weak and ashamed of taking offense for having felt himself ignored by her.
"I'd have come long ago, Marjorie, if I'd had any idea you'd have any use for me."
"Perhaps you couldn't have helped, Gregg. Billy didn't. Oh, he's been perfectly fine to me! He's tried to help me in his best way; but he has the most prodigious principles. And having principles, Gregg, isn't much help in a fix like mine. I suppose, if you have them, you're bound to apply them, yet you can't—to more than one thing at a time. They simply won't work with each other."
"I'm glad I haven't any then," Gregg said, attempting to laugh.
She attempted it too; but failed and, as they walked on and he kept his clasp of her, he felt her shivering, though, under her cape, she could not be cold. It was barely cool that night; for since the evening that Billy and Gregg had driven from Chicago on a snow-covered road, spring had established itself; and with darkness, even the brisk, April breeze which during the day had blown from the lake, had given way to a warm, limpid wind from the west, smelling of the damp, fresh-ploughed loam of the farmlands and of green budding bush and tree. That damp odor in the air suddenly returned Gregg in feeling to the freight car in which he had fought Russell; then his thought jumped to Mrs. Russell, and he wondered how two women, dwelling not seven miles apart and not seven years separated in years, could take a fact of life as differently as this girl quivering beside him and she who so coolly and steadily had sat opposite him at lunch and asserted her "what I have, I hold."
He let go Marjorie's arm and felt for his cigarette case. He hesitated as he drew it from his pocket and then asked, gazing down at her, "Want one of these?"
"What?" she said, as though not understanding what he could be doing. "I?" She repeated, "I?"
He dropped the cigarette case back into his pocket, wondering if she positively had forgotten the Marjorie who, a couple of weeks ago, had amused herself by shocking Bill with her white shoulders and her cigarettes; but her mind, too, was on that girl.
"It's queer how you come to like things that happen to you, isn't it, Gregg?" she asked suddenly. "Last week it seemed I would give everything I had to be back where I was before the Lovells' dance. Now I wouldn't be back there, even if I could. I wouldn't be ignorant of what was; would you?"
"Not now," said Gregg, watching her face as they came into the light of a street lamp.
"But you tried your hardest to keep it from me."
"Probably I would again."
"That's not very consistent."
"Can you be consistent, Marjorie?"
"No, of course not. I never dreamed until I got into this that there could be an affair in which you simply couldn't figure out the right and wrong. But back there at home is my father, who's committed what people call the unforgivable sin; and there in his room near mine, Gregg—his room where I used to run in the mornings from my bed when I was a little girl and jump into bed with him—there's my father, the best and finest man I ever knew. And he is a fine man, generous, kind and considerate of everybody and honorable—in every possible respect but one. Oh, I loved him so! And mother cares for him and admires him so much now because he's been a great and useful man in the world and will keep on being so—if I don't disgrace him or let others ruin him."
What a distortion of this girl's wrestle with herself to say that she was not trying to do right, Gregg thought.
"Here we were, Gregg, just about ideally happy, any one would say," she went on. "Life seemed a perfectly plain, pleasant matter for us; we were all well and normal; father was doing wonderfully well in business; he was coming along awfully fast and making lots of friends; everybody was talking about him and saying he could do anything and go anywhere! Mother was accomplishing what she liked and was making friends and everybody said what a wonderful woman she was. Why, if I'd been a boy, I'd have been sure the way to make my life a success was to follow in father's footsteps; being a girl, I supposed my mother's ways were just about right. I hadn't meant to follow her particular tastes, of course; I had my own; but I had meant to become a woman—a wife—in much the way she had. Why she—he—we three seemed to have absolutely everything; and then came that telephone call—and it's gone, Gregg; it's all gone, just like that."
"All what?" demanded Gregg.
"Your confidence in the ideals you'd held before you and which you came to suppose were the biggest and most attractive in life; for another sort of attraction has beaten them. Of course, I'd heard about that. I'd read newspapers full of how men, who had everything, ruined themselves for it; but I always believed there was something held back in those stories and something not told about the men. Anyway, I never dreamed it could appeal to a man like my father. I simply couldn't imagine him setting that above everything else; and now that I've seen it with my own eyes, I understand it less than ever. It seems so actually impossible for my father to put that woman we found in that flat above honor and decency and mother—and me and every one else, Gregg. But he has!"
"No, he hasn't!" Gregg denied so suddenly that his voice was louder than he intended; and he looked about in alarm to see if he had been heard by people passing on the other side of the street. Marjorie looked too and, though they gave no sign, she asked in a whisper which was almost a gasp, "How hasn't he?"
Gregg gazed down at her and she, glancing up and seeing his face, cried in a whisper, "You look at me like Mr. Rinderfeld when he said I couldn't know about father because no man has ever told me so much as half the truth about—men!" And Gregg, in that flash, caught the power of Rinderfeld over her; he realized that, while Billy had been trying to lead her back through the break in the barrier about the tree of knowledge, Rinderfeld, finding her within it, had set himself to guide her in the way she was bound to go, with him or without. For return to innocence is, of course, impossible; no longer was she to be satisfied with pretty fictions and child's tales of what lay within the wall; she had seen something of it for herself; and if, when she demanded understanding, her friends merely told her to bind up her eyes and forget, why they simply played her into Rinderfeld's hand.
"The half of the truth about men which don't know, Marjorie," Gregg said, as they both halted, staring at each other, "isn't what men do; you know, every woman knows what men do; the half don't realize is how little we think of it. You've just shown this when you claimed that your father, in doing what he did, put Mrs. Russell above every one and everything else. You think that because a woman—most any woman—to do it, would have to take the point of view you've expressed. A man doesn't. Good God, Marjorie, I'm not going to be any use to you putting up a bluff about things. I've seriously considered going in for that sort of thing—whether I have or not. Every man I know either has gone in for it or at least has considered the pros and cons of it. You don't know a girl who ever has even thought about it the same way or who ever could; for it's an overwhelming matter to your sort of girl, make or break to her character; likely enough it's life or death for her. But it's not to a man if he goes in for it; it's not even the biggest thing in his life, if he's much of a man, as your father was! It's just something else in his life, along with all the other things in it. That's all Clearedge Street meant to him. And he never set Mrs. Russell in his mind above your mother and you."
"How frightful!" Marjorie breathed. "How much, much more awful!" And she started to walk again, more rapidly and nervously than before. He accompanied her, of course, and, not consciously choosing direction but merely following the street, they came to the lake near the campus of Northwestern University and proceeded along the path in the campus and by the edge of the bluff above the water and the little strip of sandy shore. It was darker there, away from the street lamps and, though now and then a couple from the University passed them, mostly they were alone with the big, black trees and looming buildings of Northwestern on their left and on their right the lake, limitless and black too, except for the glint of reflected stars and the yellow and red reflections of far-away masthead and side lanterns.
"The three of us are separated forever, I know—papa and mamma and I," Marjorie suddenly ended the long silence in which she had walked beside Gregg almost as in a dream. "My family, we've come to the end of that. There's no use for any one to figure how we can keep together; the best any one can do is help us to go apart and each of us keep something—something of what we used to think of each other and feel back there in that house on—on birthdays, Christmases—most every day, Gregg! It seemed so perfect and so happy! It was happy, Gregg! Father was happy! He couldn't have made me so happy without being happy himself! And he didn't lack anything! He couldn't have wanted anything else!"
Gregg clutched her arm and held it tight as he felt her convulse in her effort for self-control. He did not try to answer her; reply would be surplusage when her father so certainly had wanted and gone out to gain something else. She had stopped and he stood with her in the dark of the path and patted her gently as she felt in her cape pocket for a handkerchief and wiped her eyes.
"I'm sorry, Gregg," she apologized.
"Don't say a word of that to me!" he forbade her with queer gruffness in his voice. "You've been wonderful, Marjorie. No one like you ever in the world. Oh, my God, I wish I could do something."
"No one can, Gregg. What a humpty-dumpty thing honor is; and love and—what holds a family together! It's up there on the wall and you think it solid and safe as the wall; then something tips it; and all the king's horses and all the king's men can't do a thing for you."
She turned and as she gazed to the south down the long, dark stretch of the lake toward Chicago, she was caught by the mighty, yellow night aurora spread across the southern sky over the city; it always is there, of course, but upon certain nights it glows brighter and seems so tremendous that you think it can not be the mere irradiation of millions of man-kindled lights; it appears too fundamental, too spontaneous and uncompelled. This was such a night, and the sight of it struck Marjorie almost with awe for the city which cast this aura.
"One family isn't very much, is it?" she said slowly, "when you see that. But we can't help being awfully important to ourselves."
"You're important to everybody," Gregg assented quickly.
"Yes, maybe. Our trouble means another broken family; and the family, they say, is the unit of civilization. Break up families and where would any one be? Where would that be?" She stared at the glow. Gregg hesitated and then decided to object.
"That's mostly smashed families, Marjorie; at least, families that aren't what they used to be. There I go; and whenever anybody else carries on like that, I mention the remark they say Lincoln made; or maybe it was George Washington—or George Cohan. Anyway, it was in answer to the lamentation that "I'm afraid Bill Brown ain't the man he used to be!" "No," said George, "and I'm afraid he never was." I guess that if families aren't now what they used to be, the chief trouble is that they never were. We're all working out something there, Marjorie, I guess."
"Right?" said Gregg, almost impatiently. "What in the devil is right?" He did not reply to himself for a moment; he had turned away from the glow of the city; glancing toward the university buildings, he found that they had come opposite the dormitories where lighted windows proclaimed the rooms where boys were studying or gathered in groups, talking. "There's where they're bickering about what constitutes right—between friendly little arguments on the prize fight and baseball schedule," Gregg said. "Anyway, that's the way we used to do in the Phi Kap house of the U. of M. Only it's a little early in the evening now; about midnight, when you're lying about in some other fellow's room, is when you really get worked up about philosophy and such. There's usually a theoretical Buddhist in the bunch and, before the war, you could count upon at least one German rationalist; then of course there was Bill with good sound ideas—we'd have a pretty competent discussion winding up, usually, with a rather general feeling that there wasn't much right—absolute right, I believe the professor's word was—but that what was the greatest good for the greatest number was right; and if that wasn't right, there wasn't any use bucking it; for it was going to happen. So cities are all right, Marjorie; they have to be; they're happening everywhere. And the way we're beginning to live in them must be right, for we're most of us coming to live that way. But I know a little how you feel; I felt some of it myself that night down at Clearedge Street.
"It seemed to me for a while that everything about there was rotten—married people and all, Marjorie; it seemed to me they were all rotters and quitters and dodgers, any amount lower and less worth while than—well people who lived in Evanston or Muskegon and the old-fashioned parts we know. Then I came to."
"To what, Gregg?"
"That they're working out things down there—especially in relations between men and women—on a little better and sounder basis, after all, than in most other places. Don't bother about the bright lights down there, Marjorie; they're all right in general."
"You mean the people down there are right?"
"You don't mean Mrs. Russell's right, I hope."
"In more ways than she's wrong. Now wait a minute, Marjorie. You've seen that your father has other qualities besides the one he's weak in. Mrs. Russell's got other qualities, too. She——"
"I want to know nothing about her!"
"You have to know about her," Gregg said quietly. "For you're not through with Mrs. Russell; she's only begun to do things to you which she'll keep on doing to you until you understand her. You said you used to believe the best thing you could do was to become a wife in the way your mother had; that meant, you thought your mother was right. Do you think so now?"
Marjorie gasped. "Why, what wrong's she done, Gregg?"
"I didn't say she'd done wrong; but without doing wrong, you can be wrong, Marjorie; and it certainly looks as if she's been wrong in at least some of the things in which Mrs. Russell's been right."
"Well, for one, Mrs. Russell works. That flat down there, you ought to know, wasn't entirely paid for by your father. Mrs. Russell supports herself."
"Do you mean my mother ought to have worked? Why, it would have been so absurd, it was so unnecessary."
"To buy bread for the family, yes; but not for other reasons. You simply can't ignore Mrs. Russell, Marjorie; for she not only took away your father but she has no idea of giving him up; she's going to use everything she has to hold him."
"How do you know?"
"She told me so to-day in plain English."
"What? You talked with her, about father, to-day?"
"Yes; we had lunch together."
Gregg repeated it; but Marjorie seemed yet unable to believe. "You and she!"
"Yes," said Gregg.
For an instant she stood stark, staring up at him in the dark; then, without a word, she turned from him and started down the path they had walked together. For a few moments, he watched after and then he followed, slowly overtaking her but never coming quite beside her until they reached the walk at the end of the path; then side by side but without a word, they continued to her home.
How he had bungled it, Gregg accused himself in his dismay, as he realized he had spent his chance with her and had failed her—failed, in his way, as abjectly as Billy had failed in his, and by what he had done and said shut himself off from power further to influence her as finally as Billy had.
Reaching the house, Gregg followed Marjorie upon the porch where, at the door, she turned and spoke to him, at last. "Good night, Gregg," she said quietly, without offering her hand.
He was shaking now and his lips trembled so that he had to make an effort to speak. "I'm going in with you," he said and himself turned the knob and opened the door.
When she preceded him into the hall, he witnessed a spasmodic tightening of tension in her which caught him up with more piteous yearning to serve her. She scarcely seemed conscious of what she was doing. It had become so much of a habit for her, immediately upon entering her home, to strain every sense in apprehension of what might have happened during her absence.
Very gently Gregg took her cape from her; he dropped his own overcoat. "Come in here." He led her into the drawing-room, which was empty but lighted, and at the farther end of which a fire was burning on the hearth. There was a lounge before the fire and Marjorie, taken to it, sat down; but Gregg remained standing.
"You said to Rinderfeld you're not going to Europe with your mother; what do you mean to do?"
She refused him answer; so he demanded, "You'll stay here with your father?"
She looked up at that. "No."
"I was here with father when he found—Clearedge Street." And she turned from him and from the fire also and stared off.
"Where are you going?" he asked and, still, refused answer, repeated it twice. Then he said:
"You can keep from telling me but you can't keep whatever you do from affecting my life more than anything else that could happen. Of course, you know you own Bill, too. There's a lot of girls that are pleasant and good-looking who can do whatever they want without stirring other people much; but you're not one of them. You're a girl that a man, whoever's had a chance to know you, can never forget. Who will know where you are? Bill?"
"Who? You can't drop entirely out, you know; that is, I don't think you want to be out of reach if——"
"No," she said again, and this time interrupting him.
"Who will have your address?"
"Mr. Rinderfeld's office."
That shot a start through Gregg, although, in a certain sense, he should have expected it; yet it confused him so that he almost aggravated his bungling of a few minutes ago by speaking of Rinderfeld; but he saved himself from that.
"Thank you," he said; then, "Good night." And he departed.