The Breath of Scandal/Chapter 17

CHAPTER XVII

SHE came in upon him seated in the brown oak Morris chair which had been "father's chair" as long as Marjorie could remember and which went back, even before the seven-room house on the fifty-foot lot in Irving Park. It went back, Marjorie had been told, to the epoch before her birth; for her mother and father had bought it together for their first living room in the cheap, tiny flat they had taken their first year; and no matter what discord it caused with other furnishings, always it must be in the room which was particularly father's. So it was here in this half study, half dressing room opening off his bedroom. How could he keep it near him now, Marjorie wondered. Why did he want to?

He wore his brown, business suit of tweed, of color becoming to his brown hair and brown eyes, and particularly so now that blood was again in his cheeks; he looked not only well this morning but almost vigorous in this suit which had been freshly pressed for him; his linen was fresh, of course; and this morning he had on shoes instead of slippers. Only a slight bulge under his waistcoat, not noticeable if you did not look for it, betrayed where he was still bandaged. The odor in the air told that he recently had been smoking one of the two cigarettes of his present daily allowance, but he had finished it and had been glancing through the newspaper which he dropped beside him as Marjorie came in.

"It's good to hear somebody," he said with cheerful greeting, smiling at her; then, as she closed the door carefully, "What've you to tell me, Margy?"

She had entered with her opening words prepared but, facing him, she forsook them and only said, "Father, why aren't you out on a day like this?"

"Oh, I've been out on the porch—like an inmate of an old soldier's home. But I draw the line on wheel chairs in public."

"Doesn't Doctor Grantham want you to drive yet?"

He shook his head, his eyes widening slightly as he watched her. "What is it, Margy?" he asked again.

"Did he see you to-day?" she replied.

"Grantham? No; he's promoted me to calls every other morning."

"Oh. Have you," she started and stopped, going hot and fiery red, and then she blurted, "have you had a full talk with him, father?"

"About?" he questioned, steadily, his eyes narrowing.

"Clearedge Street."

It was no bombshell at all; plainly this was what he had been expecting, and it brought him not the slightest visible agitation. On the contrary, it seemed to give him relief, and Marjorie was not prepared for that; she had keyed herself up to assuming the rôle of accuser of him—even beyond that of accuser to that of a disposer of his destiny. But instantly it was clear that he had no idea of permitting any such heroic reversal of position.

"Of course, Grantham told me you were at Clearedge Street," he replied, almost impatiently.

"Yes, father; I know everything."

"No, you don't!" he denied quickly. "You know nothing or next to nothing."

"About you and Mrs. Russell?"

"Exactly."

That checked her; she angered at him but she did not know what to say. He started forward with an impulse to rise, but remembered his hurt and did not. "Sit down, Marjorie," he directed shortly.

"Father, no!"

"All right," he accepted, looking up at her all a-tremble before him. "It's been bad on you, Margy, hasn't it?" he said, with the first tone of guilt which had got into his voice. "I wouldn't have had that, you know." Now it was not guilt, only pity for her.

Marjorie tossed her head. "I would." She would not let him be sorry for her.

He gazed steadily at her. "How can he feel so little?" she thought. "You've shown good sense so far, Marjorie," he said evenly. "I'm not supposing anything, but you will continue to show the same sense, though I will make the carry from now on as easy for you as possible. Before I was hurt, you know your mother and you were going to Europe; I had your reservation on the Aquitania for the sailing which is now a week from this Saturday. Your mother"—— at second mention of her, he shifted his gaze from Marjorie and looked steadily out the window—"expected to give up that reservation or abandon the trip altogether. Of course, the latter did not prove necessary; nor has the former. I convinced your mother of that morning. There is no reason, out of regard for my health, why you should not carry out your previous plan; there are, of course, many reasons why you should. The one which was sufficient to convince her was that it is extremely likely that Mr. Dorsett is to have a successor this week or next. Whether or not I am to become president of our company, now depends——" he glanced from the window to Marjorie when he said "now," and when, immediately, he repeated it; and she wondered if he knew of her encounter with Stanway. If he did, he betrayed it by no other sign than iterating—"now depends on the directors' confidence in my state of health. Nothing can show our certainty of it better than your mother and you adhering to your known plan when I return to my office next week. I have bought the cabin for you for a week from Saturday."

Marjorie moved tensely nearer him, with muscles throughout her body pulling in an emotion new to her. She did not feel angry so much as she felt held cheaply and as a child; for a moment she was so stiff that her lips seemed unable to move and, trembling, she said, "I have not the slightest idea of going to Europe, father."

"Why not?"

"Why should I?"

"You had planned to, Marjorie," he repeated, very quietly. "You were going with your mother. She will expect you to go now."

"Yes; and you, father?"

He understood what she meant, but he would not show it. Instead, he said, "I expect you to go, dear. I want you to go." And the way he requested that almost disarmed her and suddenly, before she could be reprepared against him, he leaned forward and completed her discomfiture, "I ask you to go, Marjorie."

She fought to stop the quivering of her lips, but it overcame her and her hands began to shake and she burst out crying.

"Margy!" he appealed to her.

"Don't touch me now, father!"

He had half come up from his chair and that shot him back like a blow, dropping him. She saw it through the blur of her crying. "Oh, I didn't mean that, father!"

She was at his knees now on the floor before him; she clasped his knees, hugged them and cried and cried. But his hands did not touch her, and his knees, which she clasped, did not move. She controlled herself and stood up, avoiding his face.

"I'm not going away from Chicago," she said to him then, steadily and finally.

"Why?"

"You know why."

"Yes; I suppose you mean to watch me."

They were confronting each other fairly and, in that contest of eyes on eyes, it was Marjorie, not her father, who first broke.

"Oh, father, I'd go to Europe with mother so gladly, I'd go anywhere, I'd do anything at all if you just told me that when we were gone you'd never see that woman again."

Something about that cut into him; perhaps it was her trusting to his word when his honor, in the respect which filled their minds, had proved so completely gone. But he made no reply; he looked off and after a moment she turned her back to him and went to his window, where she leaned her arms on the crossbar of the window sash and stared out. She tried to think clearly but she could not; she could not be conscious even of feeling. It was not at all like the paralysis of emotion which had come to her in Mrs. Russell's flat when first she "knew"; this was the exhaustion, the complete draining of the feelings which then had filled her but since had been seeping away. Gazing out her father's window to the ell of the house where was her own room and down at the lawn about her home which she had loved as no other spot on earth, she realized that she was parting from it forever, and she not only failed to care but she was sure that, later, she would never care. She saw that her father did not yet suspect her plan of leaving his house and she was glad of that.

He was under sufficient excitement now, as he got to his feet, and with sudden alarm she cried, "Father, you must not stand!"

"I'm all right; keep still, Marjorie; stay where you are. You have done me certain services; you have put me in your debt in certain respects, so that you may feel I owe you some things. I do, but I do not include among them necessity to subscribe to your ideas of conduct nor to your judgments. If you prefer to stay at home, rather than accompany your mother, that is a matter of your own choice; I shall arrange for you here accordingly and for your mother to go with another companion."

And this he did succeed in arranging during the following days, for his wife never had definitely counted upon Marjorie accompanying her; she could agree therefore that it was probably as well for Marjorie to remain with her father for a while and come over later; Corinna Hale, herself, had long before laid out a program for this trip, as she did for all her activities, engaging one week for a visit with an English friend, another for certain long-planned studies in London, and so on. Accordingly, upon the day exactly a week later, Charles Hale and his daughter went with his wife to see her off on the Twentieth Century Limited for New York. He was strong and apparently quite well then; she spoke about his good appearance several times and, after he had put her in her compartment and she had exacted his last promise to take good care of himself and they had kissed and parted, she proudly watched him out the window as he stood waving good-by. Looking back, she carried with her the image of him as he stood there waving at her; and when she imagined him otherwise, she renewed her image of him engrossed in business during the day and at recreation at his golf club or at the homes of their friends,—comforting images of a man in the years of his greatest vigor and success, content with such thoughts of her as she held of him, and neither seeking nor desiring close companionship. "I'll send him that new Ring Lardner book," she thought indulgently. And she imagined him at home in the evenings reading it and the newspapers into which he always delved amazingly; she imagined him having Marjorie play the piano for him or running off his favorite records. For Marjorie, in spite of that receipt for advanced rent from J. A. Cordeen, had remained at home that week; and her mother, of course, had not the slightest idea of her intention.

Nor had her father any suspicion of it even upon this afternoon when he parted from her at the station to go to his office. Since yesterday he had resumed his management of Tri-Lake Products affairs; and, rather as a result of his return, the directors were meeting to elect a new president in the place of Dorsett, who was personally to place his resignation before them.

E. H. Stanway, vice president and a director, was in the directors' room, and Charles Hale, general manager, was outside it, but he waited the outcome with little anxiety, for Dorsett already had conferred with him.

"Hale," said old Dorsett, "I'm obliged to give up soon; I might as well now while I can steer you into the place instead of Stanway. What's been the matter with you, man? Not a malignancy, as I've heard said."

"No," said Hale, as directly. "I was shot by a divorced husband in a flat up on the north side."

"Hmm!" Dorsett considered, his eyes narrowing with speculation; and Hale knew that he had heard that, too, and from what source. "What are the chances of it happening again?"

"It will not happen again," said Hale.

"You mean it will be impossible for it to happen again?"

"It will not happen again," Hale repeated; and Dorsett squinted his old eyes and let himself be satisfied with that.

So, about five o'clock, Charles Hale received invitation to the directors' room—where E. H. Stanway and one Stanway cousin, who had stood out against the rest, now were not; here old Dorsett seized his hand and introduced the new president of the corporation.

There was a touch of ceremony about it which surprisingly affected Charles Hale, and when at last he was alone and free to turn where he wished, he felt his new triumph more than he would have thought possible; it caused him to review his whole life,—to recall his boyhood in the little, plain, meager home in the Illinois town where his father had worked patiently and persistently for very little reward; to remember, particularly, his mother who had prayed for him and, more practically, had scrimped and spared to help him through "high school"; it caused him to compare his success, with frank satisfaction, with the progress of others who had been boys with him; it brought him to his winning of his first "raise" in Tri-Lake and bearing the trophy of it to Corinna Winfield in her Edgewater home,—to the beautiful, self-assured girl whose coolness and aloofness then so taunted and allured him. Each of his triumphs since that day up to this had been another trophy to bring to her; and this, too, was a trophy for her; for he telegraphed her on board the train that he had it.

That was a far better way for him, this time, than to tell her personally; to another woman he would, if he could, bear this his trophy in person; but prudence warned him that, on this night, he had better not; so he contented himself with speaking to her over a telephone. Then he turned to his home to bring his triumph to his daughter.

And, as he thought about her, he realized that he wished to impress her more than any one else with his vindication, for that was what he called it to himself. He had no need to justify himself before his wife who, though undoubtedly pleased at his winning higher position, only expected it of him as a matter of course; and he had no need for vindication of himself before Sybil Russell. So, while Leonard was driving him home, Charles Hale dwelt on his meeting with his daughter, which would be their first after they were left in the house alone; and, although he had told her he did not subscribe to her ideas of conduct or to her judgments, yet he was particularly glad to be bearing to her proof that other men did not. Until he actually possessed this endorsement, he had not confessed to himself how much he needed it; in fact, without it he did not now see how he could have got on in the same house with his daughter, alone.

He had reserved mentioning his good news to Leonard till the man asked for orders after opening the door for him to get out; then he told it and took Leonard's hand. Martin, who had opened the house door, heard the news and he offered his congratulations, too, and Hale gave him a handshake; so the master of the house, and the president of Tri-Lake Products and Material Corporation entered his home aglow and ready for his daughter. It let him down a little, but did not trouble him, when he learned she had been home an hour ago but had gone out. Then, on the table in his room, he found an envelope upon which she had written "Father" and which contained:

I have been waiting only for mother to go before leaving. Do not expect me back and do not bother about me; I know exactly what I am to do and have made all my arrangements.

Marjorie.

It frightened him and, even after the first shock, he could not argue himself out of his dread; it was too ominous and premeditated, that note. It explained too well her compliance, a week ago, with all his demands except that she accompany her mother, and it suggested to him—more, it warned him—that anything might come.

He crumpled it in his hand and strode into her room to find that, in so far as he could reckon her wardrobe, Marjorie had gone off taking with her only the suit she had worn that day and that too low-cut dress her mother had given her for the Lovells' dance. Underwear, stockings, night-dresses and lingerie she might have taken, and probably had; he had no census of such garments. Some were left in her drawers but, he believed, not as many as she had. She had left her rings, pins and necklaces.

"What does she mean to do to herself?" he put his terror for her into coherent demand. Self-destruction, of course, suggested itself to him; for a moment he imagined her, clad in that low-cut dress in which last she had been innocently happy, casting herself into the lake. Then he denied that fright; she was doing something extreme, he was sure of that, but she was not stupid enough to satisfy herself with suicide. No; then what—what to punish him? More frightful images than of Marjorie white and still in the waters of the lake seized him.

Of course he telephoned to Billy, with the result only of terrifying Bill, who could not tell him anything useful. He telephoned also to Rinderfeld, not suspecting that Rinderfeld knew and therefore he only informed Rinderfeld of what had happened. Rinderfeld questioned him fully, noted the answers and never let him dream that in his address book, and transcribed in a code so that no one finding it could read, was the number on Clearedge Street where Marjorie was.

He drove up there later in the evening, Rinderfeld, with no premature intention of calling upon her, but only to look the ground over; and this was as well for him, since Marjorie, after delaying her arrival for a week, was wasting no time in getting started in the new society she had entered. Clara Seeley was going to a dance that night and she had not only invited Marjorie but had supplied her with one of her own friends for a partner. Clara had hooked up Marjorie's dress, admiringly, and helped her, expertly, with her hair.

"Some hair you have, dearie!" said Clara, with professional admiration. "And some skin!"

Marjorie threw over her shoulders an evening cape, which was one outer garment her father had not missed, and descended with Clara to the hall where her roommate made her known to a dark-haired and large-featured youth of twenty-five, "My friend, Mr. Saltro," and to a taller, partially bald and ascetic-faced man, five years older, "My friend, Mr. Troufrie." Both were in "dress suits."

Mr. Saltro was, by prearrangement, to be Marjorie's partner, but she had supposed that the four of them were to go to the dance hall together and remain a party of four through the occasion. Likely enough Mr. Saltro had expected this but, upon seeing the girl, he was a man able to change his mind. For, though the car which was waiting was perfectly capable of containing four persons, Mr. Saltro held back and detained his partner until Clara and Mr. Troufrie got in; then he closed the door and said to the driver, genially, "You can skip on now!"

Immediately he raised his hand to signal an empty car approaching. "Taxi! Taxi!"

With Clara's car gone, and the other standing, door open, before her, Marjorie made the choice between retreat and getting in.

"Four's all right when the crowd all knows each other," Mr. Saltro uttered approval, as he placed himself on the seat beside Marjorie and the car was in motion. "But for getting acquainted, nothing doing." And he began pulling at the fingers of the new brown glove on his right hand.