The Breath of Scandal/Chapter 2

CHAPTER II

THEY went out together in Gregg's car, which was a new one, not fully paid for, but a good deal better than Billy's. It was a roadster with space for three on the wide seat, and consequently Gregg, while he drove, had plenty of room to sprawl comfortably, especially as Billy, who never let himself be lazy, sat erect on the right. They did not talk much about anything and not at all of Marjorie Hale or of Gregg's offer from Hartford. The March night was clear and mild for Chicago at the end of the winter; a little snow had fallen the day before, and melted that noon, and after sunset had refrozen, forming a film of ice here and there on the roadway.

"You ought to have chains on," Billy advised.

"Oh, I like to slip a little—— How do you care for the pick-up of this engine? Michigan's playing Illinois basketball to-night."

"I saw; at Ann Arbor. How is our five, Gregg?"

Neither thought much about what he was saying; each lit a cigarette and absorbed himself in his own thoughts. As they proceeded from the promontory of the new, "made" land, they turned north beside the lake on the Drive, which follows the line of the shore where the perfectors of Chicago temporarily have remained so indulgent to nature that they have merely buttressed back the washing waters with a low, graceful, concrete escarpment and planted a strip of park between this stern beach and the Drive. Opposite, on the west side of the Drive and facing the lake, stand a row of stone and brick and terra-cotta mansions, each of obvious expense and, patently, so costly to own and inhabit that this stretch of the Lake Michigan shore is familiarly referred to as "the Gold Coast." These huge and pretentious homes, known by the names of many of the most wealthy and conspicuous families of the city, always represented to Billy Whittaker a certain end of ambition, spurring his determination to work faithfully so that on some day, perhaps fifteen or twenty years ahead, he might be able to purchase one of these houses and move his wife and family to the Drive. For long before he fell in love, Billy formed the habit of thinking of himself with a wife and children, whenever he imagined himself in middle age. Now he thought of bringing Marjorie, and her children and his, to live on this stretch of the lake front.

There was a large and particularly pleasant-looking house a little above the Bordens' (which was one of the few homes which Billy knew even by name) which he hoped would be the one on the market when he should be ready to buy; when he passed it, he dared, for a few bold heart-thumps, to picture himself at the door with Marjorie; then he came down to earth and earnestly devoted himself to his serious preparations to interest Marjorie that evening and to say the right thing to her father, to whom he found it rather difficult to talk. Billy never had any trouble with Mrs. Hale, who had strongly favored him from the first.

In so far as Gregg ever made mental preparations, he took thought for Marjorie's mother; for Mr. Hale and he always got on without effort. To-night, of course, was likely to prove a special case; but Gregg believed in letting future difficulties look out for themselves.

He observed that the great castle of the Potter Palmer home was still dark and closed; something seemed to be going on at the Reynolds'; and at Victor Lawson's house; and evidently there was a dinner at the Cranes'; probably for those official French people who were in the city, Gregg thought. The possessors of some of the homes on the Drive were more than mere names to him; for he had been a guest at an occasional semi-public entertainment in certain of the mansions he passed. But it never occurred to Gregg to dream of owning one of them; indeed, his hazardings of his future were altogether too vague to picture himself founding a family. Gregg meant to marry, but the thought of a girl never started such institutional ideas in his head as belonged in Billy's.

Gregg expected only that some day he was to discover that he no longer could be satisfied with mere friendship with a certain girl—with bantering, teasing talks, broken by sudden, serious interludes of confidences; no longer content with handclasps at greeting and with the intimate, and yet so meaningless, embrace of a dance; no longer satisfied by an hour of wandering beside the lake on an autumn day or by an evening at her side in a theater. Some day the reluctant, lingering good-by at midnight no longer would be tolerable; and she and he together would agree to explore that mystery of love which neither of them knew.

In these days, when Gregg fancied what sort the girl might be who would stand with him "in the presence of God and this company," to take the queer, old-fashioned oath of marriage, he imagined himself beside a girl very like Marjorie Hale; indeed, when he thought of her, he wanted her no different from Marjorie; and yet he would not let himself think of marrying Marjorie Hale; for, as Jim Cuncliffe had said, she was Bill's and the only girl whom Billy had ever loved. Gregg had cared about a lot of other girls; and he knew himself well enough to believe he was likely to care for many more.

Yet he had never felt for any girl as he was feeling for Marjorie Hale now; as he drew nearer and nearer to her, he found himself for the first time forgetful, during long stretches of his musings, of the fact that she was Billy's girl; he was thinking of her as the girl whom he must protect from a blighting danger threatening her of which Billy was not even aware.

When, with a start, Gregg came back to consciousness of Bill, it seemed unfair somehow not to let him know; then Gregg glanced at Bill's familiar, clean-cut, obstinate face. Good old Bill! How little he let himself know about the low in life; he simply did not think of the low as existing for him or for his; and now for Gregg to take him into this affair! Cuncliffe was right; Gregg could not hand Bill anything like that.

The car, having passed through Lincoln Park, was rushing on beside miles of apartments, shops and motion-picture theaters and soon approached a gay, brightly lighted district of resplendent, garish buildings where, a few years ago, had stretched the wide lawns and winding roads and patches of bush and "woods" about family homes of which Eugene Field had sung in his poems. Not far away to one side had lived Eugene Field and over there had been the "Waller Lot," where children had done those redoubtable things told in the ballad which Gregg used to beg to be read to him over and over when he was a little boy. Now in their neighborhood and northward had crowded in an amazing conglomeration of "new people," eager to live in new, compact ways; and thousands of pretentious apartments—three, six or sixty to a building—were sprung up to shelter them; cafeterias and confectioneries to feed them; movies and dance halls and "gardens" to amuse them. Respectable people, most of them, if extremely dressed in the most modern fashion and if, by older standards of the vicinity, overfond of their new, conspicuous surroundings or loud or gauche in manner. For most of these people were on their way up from obscure localities; some from the blistered, grimy tenements of such dreary, west side streets as Elston and Halsted and West Division, where in the Italian or Polish or Scandinavian settlements their immigrant parents had begun to prosper; some from similar sections of Milwaukee or Toledo and such cities; but the most of them were from towns and little cities of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Billy Whittaker's practical mind largely ignored this neighborhood which held small interest in itself for him, as it represented no strata through which he had to pass, since he had started in Chicago several layers above this. But Gregg failed to think practically of people by strata and it appeared to him that those about here were working out for themselves a new way of ordering their lives. He did not go far enough in his thinking to decide that the attractiveness of such localities as this was what chiefly was draining the towns and the country and so enormously swelling the city and therefore that, of all parts of the city, this was by far the most significant and portentous. All he thought was that here was a place of new and interesting manners; a lot of men, from everywhere, living alone; a lot of girls, from every place, taking the same elevated trains down-town with the men; working in the same offices; coming back to patronize the same delicatessens, cafeterias and picture shows; some of them continuing absolutely independent; some of them marrying and trying to carry into marriage as much as possible of their independence and going on just about the same as before; some of them attempting a home with children or one child, anyway. To look at them and to hear them talk you would never suspect them of sentimentalities; but they bought a great lot of "Wynken, Blynken and Nod" and of Volland cards and sentimental mottoes.

Gregg's undiscriminating acquaintance included several people about here; and, not far off, now, was the apartment where Cuncliffe's salesman, Nyman, lived with his wife and baby; and, in the flat building next them, lived Mrs. Russell. Other Mrs. Russells inhabited apartments in different sections above here, Gregg knew; he heard about definite ones in half-boastful, half-ashamed•stories told him by some of his friends. Gregg had accepted the fact of them as he accepted other obvious occurrences in life, without thinking about them one way or another. Women of that sort did not appeal to him; they did attract a lot of men, some younger than Gregg; some older; some single, some married; some worthless loafers; some hard workers and men of reputation and ability; some were men whom Gregg did not like; but others, who "lived" in the same way, he did like. The affair was confusing and offered all sorts of inconsistencies whenever you tried to think it out; so Gregg had bothered himself about the subject very little, even when he heard that Mr. Hale was one of those who had his own way of living. Gregg had wished, vaguely, that Marjorie's father were different; at least, Gregg would have preferred to have known nothing about it, but he had not considered it an alarming matter. For a man like Mr. Hale, of course, would be discreet. Yet, sometimes, even such a man lost control of the situation and the explosive outflare of the thing concealed swept a sensation over the country. Gregg bent forward a little, to better view the street he was passing; and suddenly he was sick with the fear which gripped him as he imagined Marjorie's father exposed in a public scandal, for all the world to peer into, and Marjorie learning—learning.

His car sped into a quieter section of homes of men recently successful and, on this north shore of the city, imitating the older dwellings of the Drive; then a few more miles of more modest houses and apartments brought them to the first of the suburban towns, almost as old as Chicago and, in spite of the great inflow of recent arrivals, still recognized as staid, intellectual and idealistic, a small, well-kept city of fine homes and prosperous churches, of schools and a university.

As the car passed large, good-looking houses, far back from the street and each set on a wide lawn and surrounded by trees, Billy Whittaker felt the sort of satisfaction with this beautiful suburb which he believed he ought to combat in himself; for to him Evanston, however pleasant, meant an abandonment of the road from East Pearson Street to the Drive. He thought of men living here as lacking the ambition or as conscious within themselves of want of ability to win their way into the front rank of city society. An agreeable position in Evanston satisfied many, of course; he thought of Marjorie's parents as thus satisfied; but he would not let it satisfy Marjorie and himself.

He hunched impatiently forward in his seat as Gregg turned at last into the avenue which led to the Hales'; Gregg swung the car between wide gate posts and, crunching through the newly frozen crust over a private driveway, he came to a stop at a porte-cochère beside a big, brightly lighted, warm-windowed house where a manservant opened the door at the top of a short row of steps. Billy pulled back the catch of the car door before he recollected himself and sat back.

"Get out, Bill," Gregg bade.

"You're running back to the garage?"

"No; just up on the lawn there. I'll not freeze up to-night. Get out."

Billy complied and ran up the steps; Gregg drove on a few yards, where he killed his engine and stepped down, stamping his feet while he gazed up at the big, white, wide-verandahed home of the Hales, always friendly looking and welcoming. Lights shone in warm, inviting colors, and a dancing glow on some of the window-panes told that wood fires were blazing in the drawing-room and in the hall. Gentle currents of the night air wafted down from the chimney the soft odor of wood smoke, and it brought to Gregg memories of an old, rambling, beloved home in Michigan; he thought of his father coming in, tired and mud-spattered from a long drive over winter roads, but smiling, as Gregg always remembered him, when Gregg or Gregg's mother met him at the door. Gregg recollected how he used to go for his father's slippers while his mother brought a tray of hot supper to the little table before the library fire, whereupon his father would draw her down to him and kiss her.

A great deal of love, always faithful and constant—Gregg liked to feel sure—had made his home. He had always thought of love making pleasant this big, gay home of the Hales; for though he recently had not thought of Mr. and Mrs. Hale loving as his own father and mother did, yet there always appeared to be harmony between them, and a good deal of affection; and they both loved their daughter as she loved them. Marjorie seemed to adore her father, particularly.

He stepped quickly toward the house, where a door was opened and a servant took his things.

"Good evening, Gregg," Mr. Hale's hearty voice welcomed him. "Mighty glad to see you. You came out in the new car to-night, Billy says. How does she act?"

"Why, fine; all right, I guess," said Gregg, giving his hand to the warm, steady clasp of Mr. Hale and feeling an agreeable stir within, as the older man looked at him. Mr. Hale's friendly brown eyes had, as often at a moment of meeting, an expression which seemed to say, "Well, I've not seen you for a day or two; anything happened to you, meanwhile? Apparently not." Gregg always liked that look, and he liked, naturally, the way Marjorie's father always seemed to mention first the subject interesting the other person.

He was almost as tall as Billy, but he had the knack, which Billy lacked, of never impressing his superiority in height over another. To-night, he seemed to be in something even better than his usual good physical trim which he vigorously maintained by golf during three seasons, and by squash or handball every second day in winter. He was the sort of man who surprised you when you saw him with a grown-up daughter and made one wonder how young he was when he married; as a matter of fact, he had been twenty-four then; so he was forty-seven now; but it was stale flattery to him to say that he did not look it. He had possessed the birthright of a sound, well-formed body and the physical advantage of having been brought up in a none-too-indulgent home in a town in northern Illinois; he had always had to work and, while working, had educated himself. Until he had earned it, he never had had more than enough of anything; and now, by habit, he still worked hard and, in all obvious matters, kept himself in restraint. So his brown eyes were clear and there was no dragged skin in the firm, agreeable lines of his capable face; his brown hair was thick and little gray; his body was free of excess weight. Gregg never quite liked his mouth, which had lips too thick; but his mustache improved them and his mouth was pleasant when he smiled. He had even, almost perfect teeth.

Here was a man certain to understand the risks in anything dangerous which he undertook, Gregg thought; he could be counted upon to protect his family and himself. Yet, if he mistook some element, what a calamity for such a man to be commonly disgraced; and—Gregg thought—what an impossible man to approach on a personal affair.

"Well, Gregg Mowbry, I did manage to get you here!"

Gregg spun about; there was Marjorie. "Nobody like you!" he exulted, almost aloud. He forgot her father; forgot that he had been thinking of her in danger and himself protecting her. He felt only the little, delightful jump which she always startled in him, which he always expected and which, therefore, he should have been able to discount; but it still surprised him by its sudden lift in him. She spoke quickly yet softly; all alive, she kept herself; and she made you feel more alive, too, however fully alive you had thought yourself the minute before. You could never keep in your memory of her quite that quality of her voice, Gregg found; again it surprised him; and the sight of her surprised him, too.

She was, as always, prettier than he had expected. A silly word, pretty, to run in your mind to describe the cause of the pleasant sensation the sight of Marjorie gave you; for she was never one of those stupid girls whom people call pretty and beautiful. She possessed certain, perfectly definite beauties; like her hair; lovely, very fine hair and very abundant, dark brown in color. She had not bobbed it but, in a fashion which Gregg liked best since he observed it was hers, she wore it dressed low and close about her head; she had a broad, capable forehead, brown, definite brows and blue, pleasant eyes; her mouth was a trifle large, but her lips had none of the thickness of her father's. It was a wholly agreeable, good-tempered mouth suggestive of nothing more disturbing than a disposition to independence and recklessness. Her clear, white skin was one of her best features, and she had beautifully shaped hands, which were strong and well-developed for a girl who had never been obliged to work with them. Her arms were well-shaped and so was all her body. But Gregg seldom thought of her as having a beautiful form; he thought of her as able to do well all sorts of active, interesting things and, by nature, requiring something active, and preferably a bit dangerous, on which to spend some of her energy. How she liked to get on a clear, country road and, with nobody else in the car, set the motor humming!

She seemed to feel like that to-night and, not being able to drive, she seemed to be finding some excitement in shocking Bill, beside whom she looked smaller and even younger than her twenty-two years. For Billy, when with a girl, had a way of becoming mature, particularly when he was shocked.

It was not difficult for Marjorie to shock Bill, Gregg knew; undoubtedly her new dancing dress was enough to do it. Of course, it was cut low, with only two slim bands of blue silk over her white shoulders; blue and opalescent silk clung to the roundness of her small bosom, bound her slender, supple waist and fell into a skirt of simple, graceful loveliness. Her arms were all bare but for a bracelet of platinum and sapphires; a tiny, glinting chain of platinum with a glistening sapphire was about her smooth, white neck. As she approached, and Billy came with her, Gregg saw that her brows had been darkened a trifle and her lips touched, unnecessarily, with a rouge stick—extra items of usual and fashionable procedure but undoubtedly designed to tease over-proper old Bill, and her greeting to Gregg obviously was part of the same design.

"You managed to get him?" Billy repeated, challenging her.

"Certainly; but I had a terrible time. I wrote him a special note; and then telephoned him twice, besides begging you to bring him; didn't I, Mr. Mowbry?"

"Certainly," Gregg said seriously.

"What?" demanded Billy.

"Oh, Billy," she cried fondly, to let him know she was teasing him; and Gregg laughed a bit foolishly with Bill. Gone from Gregg was the stuffy feeling, which had taken him an hour ago, that possibly Marjorie Hale wanted him more than she did Billy. Gregg now honestly had no idea how much she wanted him or whether, to Marjorie, he was really no more important than a lip stick, summoned to stir a rouse out of Bill. Billy was appeased and left them together.

"Of course, I wanted you awfully to come, Mr. Mowbry. You see, to-night is a sort of marker for mother in Evanston," Marjorie explained. "Ten years ago this winter father moved us from our Irving Park house of seven rooms on a fifty-foot lot; we had one general housework girl, most of the time; father used to take care of the furnace and carry out the ashes and cut the lawn. This morning, about eleven, mother casually called up Mrs. Severne Thomas Sedgwick and mentioned that she thought she'd have a little informal dinner for the young people and would Clara and Elsie come? Mrs. Sedgwick immediately said, "Certainly." Ten minutes later she got Ethel and George Chaden and Fred Vane. I don't think Fred had to ask his mother to let him come; but if he did, it's safe to say that she told him to come along. Now, the point is this isn't a big, formal affair, where anybody'd look in only from curiosity and without committing themselves to friendship with us. It's just that. Mother's been rather high up about it all day."

"Where've you been?" Gregg asked.

"Oh, miles above all altitude records! Shouldn't I be—when neighbors come in like that, though their fathers inherited most of their stocks and bonds and my father's just earning his for himself? Oh, it seems to me silly for them to have to approve of him; he's worth three of any other men about here; and the sensible ones know it. He's the real energy and brains in Tri-Lake to-day; he's the reason it's twice as big as it ever was before and increasing when every other business, just about, is dropping down toward the dogs, and there's never a whisper about profiteering and bribe-paying or anything else rotten in Tri-Lake these days. Oh, I'm so proud of him! After mother telephoned him about our party, and who was coming, he brought home this for me." Marjorie touched the sapphire on the chain about her neck.

"It's beautiful," Gregg said, "on you."

"Wait until you see what he brought mother! She got me this dress, which has simply scandalized Billy. Do you think it's so awful?"

Gregg started because she had caught him thinking about it. On another evening, he believed he would not have wondered particularly over it; but to-night the bareness of her slender arms and shoulders and the partial, studied exposure of her rounded, youthful breasts in this new dress which her mother had bought for her gave him a queer feeling. And the queerer because Marjorie was so plainly almost wholly unconscious of the final effect for which such a dress was designed. Whenever Gregg thought about how much a girl like Marjorie "knew," he realized very well that girls to-day "know" almost everything; but he had never thought before how little mere knowledge of itself has to do with nocence or with innocence. Suddenly it struck him that, whatever she might "know," he was standing before the most innocent girl in the world and for her very sophistication far more innocent than girls of the generations before who had been kept wholly ignorant. For they had known that there was a vague, undescribed something to fear; but this girl of the new innocence, thinking she knew all, feared nothing, suspected nothing, least of all, suspected what she had yet to learn.

"You are beautiful in that dress," Gregg said, too seriously, and swept by a surprisingly overwhelming impulse to seize her as he gazed down at her. "Only a girl like you should wear that."

"You mean I shouldn't, either?"

"I didn't say that."

"No." Suddenly she was fiery red, the hotness spreading from her face down her white throat.

"I like you in it," Gregg protested quickly. "Bill did, too. What he didn't like was to have——"

"What, please?"

"Me, and other men, liking you in it."

Marjorie stooped and, picking up a silk scarf from a chair, she threw it about her shoulders. "I'm having it changed to-morrow. I didn't like it myself; but when my own mother arranged it for me, I thought——" she stopped. "When I got downstairs with it on, and after the fun of Billy's first sight of me, I just had to explain to you that I didn't choose it. You see?"

"Of course," said Gregg.

"It gave father a jog. What I was going to say: I'm awfully glad Billy and you could come; it's helpful to have one or two others about who can remember a father that took care of the furnace, if we're having the Chadens drop in informally for dinner before we all go to the dance."

"Then your father's going to the Lovells' with us?" Gregg asked quickly; ever since entering the house he had been seeking, sub-consciously, some excuse for escape from the task Cuncliffe had forced on him.

"No; it's too bad. He has to go to St. Louis to-night."

"Right after dinner?" Gregg asked, as casually as he could.

"He's starting down town right after dinner. He has to see some one in Chicago before taking the train."

"Oh!" Gregg said slowly. "I see." Then there were sounds at the door and other guests arrived.